Road trip week two; city stop, hilltops and gardens, gardens, gardens.

Florence was never on my must do list. The way this trip gradually came together it made sense to take a few days and “do it”. Well there is the Boboli gardens to look at we thought. Driving through the city centre was ok until the sat nav tried to take us up a street that was blocked with road works. With the the “sat bitch” telling us to “make a u-turn” J did his best to navigate us out the other side and to our hotel which was on the outskirts of the city. The Hotel Mulino is on the river and it was nice to come back to after a day in the tourist packed city. Shuttle bused in, we walked towards the Ponte Vechio. “ooh it’s not that nice to look at is it?” we both thought. The glamour was to be found on the bridge not looking at it, as the bridge now houses jewellery shops. One after the other. J quickly walked me on with mutterings of “this is like the lanes in Brighton only worse”. We arrived at the Pitti Palace where the Boboli gardens are. Walking around we had a sense of disappointment, perhaps it was the rain dampening our mood? But we felt like we were somehow missing the good bit, maybe it’s round the next corner? It wasn’t. The highlight/central feature of the fountain on an ‘island’ surrounded by lemon trees in pots was even unsatisfying. There wasn’t any water flowing through the fountain! We walked on to see the Bardini gardens (included in the ticket price), which were small but gave more somehow. A beautiful rill of water flowing around the garden and 15th century steps with a stunning view down into Florence.IMG_0043

The pick up point for the shuttle bus was outside the sister hotel of where we were staying – they had a roof bar (and roof-top swimming pool!). So we decided to wait for the bus up there, with a glass of wine, of course!! Wow, what a view.

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For us two full days in Florence was enough. As we didn’t want to queue for any of the main attractions like the Duomo, it was enough time for us to walk our feet off and soak up the vibe.

IMG_0045The hills were calling. Off to Tuscany. 12 years ago we went with my parents, how can it be that long ago? It makes me feel soooo old. We wanted to do a quick trip down memory lane, revisiting the highlights. Montepulciano, Montalcino and Pienza. All up hill, down hill, except one. It sure got the glutes working! We managed to do a few new things as well, including a natural hot springs, Bagni San Filippo, with stunning calcium formations and the pungent smell of sulphur!!

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Sitting in the grey pools of warm water, I tried not to be too British as the soft yet oozy sensation of the mud beneath my bottom and hands made me feel slightly squeamish. It was pleasant and disgusting in equal measure. Hand washing our bathers in the hotel sink later was interesting! Eating dinner in Montalcino that evening we had the best meal/ pasta of the trip so far. It was a local pasta, pici, which is like a thick spaghetti, but hand rolled, served with a ragu sauce. The taste was immense and we are still talking about it almost a week later! Simple fresh ingredients, done well.

The weather was starting to turn and we were having to make sure we always had our umbrella with us. Leaving Tuscany heading further south beyond Rome we arrived in the region of Lazio. It rained constantly and heavily the whole day. Tired, over dinner at the agroturismo (B&B), we tried not to notice just how loud Italians can be when grouped together. Anything over 4 people and wow the volume goes up and up! When we went up to bed a group of children arrived for a party, it was gone 10pm! Earplugs is all I have to say.

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Ever since we saw a programme that Monty Don did on Italian gardens we have wanted to see the gardens of Ninfa. The gardens are built on the ruins of the medieval town of Ninfa. Billed as ‘the most romantic garden ever’ it had a lot to live up to. It was stunning. Even with the tour in Italian (we missed the one english tour that morning) it was gorgeous. You can only visit with a guided tour but they make sure that you saw each notable vista in your small group. So it can still feel semi-private and you can get a good photo without crowds in the background.

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Next on our list of gardens was Villa d’Este in Tivoli. However after re-reading Monty’s book we decided to visit Hadrian’s Villa first (Villa Adriana) as he comments ‘To understand any of the gardens of Italy made in the 16th century – you have to visit Hadrian’s Palace and the Canopus. This is where those gardens came from.

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It was a shock to see how vast the 2nd century AD UNESCO world heritage site was. Roman ruins and olive trees on a scale never seen before. We walked and we walked. Almost 2 hours later we were ready to see the high renaissance gardens of Villa d’Este. Again guided by Monty we rushed through the villa and out into the garden and tried to make our way to the bottom of the gardens without looking at too much. As the garden was originally designed to be seen from the old road from Rome and make your way back up the steep hill. With over fifty different fountains in the garden the water is the repeating theme.

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Some overwhelming in how loud it was, the Fountain of the Organ ,

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some peaceful like the 3 rectangular fish ponds and some that you will never see repeated in another garden,

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the 130 meters of the Hundred fountains. This is one garden that is definitely worth visiting if you can in your lifetime.

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Road trip week one; mountains, lakes, fast cars and vinegar

Starting anything at 2.30am has never seemed a good idea to me, however J likes to make an early getaway whenever we travel. This road trip was no exception see here for previous post about why road trips are a good idea! After the ease of the Eurotunnel, we sped along motorways into Belgium (50p for a pee in the service stations 👎) and Luxembourg (or Luckybourg as J nicknamed it), then back into France for our first overnighter in Nancy. We were well into our comfort zone being veteran Francofiles and soaked up the funky decor, delicious food and familiar sounds of church bells… night night.

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Refreshed we drove off to new adventures in Switzerland on lake Thun. Stunning was the word we kept coming back to. J insisted that he could ‘smell the fresh mountain air’ in the car! After dropping our bags at the hotel, we took a much needed stroll around the town and then out along the lake’s edge. Half an hour sitting on a park bench staring at the mountain and lake views was the best mindfullness either of us had done in a long time.

IMG_0018.JPGDinner was interesting, with the menu in Swiss, but with the help of some very friendly staff we ate a Gurk & Wurst starter (gherkins and cured sausage) and then a spicy sausage with spätzli (Swiss style dumplings) for J and goats cheese for me. Driving out of Switzerland the next morning, promising to visit again, we noticed how they stuck to the speed limits, this was not the case over the border in la bella Italy!

Modena was our first stop, staying at a balsamic producers for three nights. First we needed to see some fast cars at the Enzo Ferrari museum. The exhibition housed in a fairly small and sculptural building (shaped like a car bonnet roof, in yellow), was dedicated to women and their love and connection to these beautiful supercars.

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Across the courtyard was another exhibition, this time dedicated to the “prancing horse” engines. It took you through the years of each engines evolution. Brilliant for men and engineers, wasted on me if I’m honest! We were recommended by other guests at the B&B to visit Mantova, which has a museum of Chagall’s work, beautiful buildings and it was delightful. On the way back to the B&B we stopped off for more cars at a farm that produces parmesan cheese. Wow! A private collection of 40 cars mostly Maserati’s and classic motorbikes. We were blown away and we had the place to ourselves, €5 for a guided tour, or free if you just walk around on your own like we did, brilliant. Next day with no fixed plans we headed off to Parma, which turned out to be a bit too busy and a bit disappointing, it was a Saturday and market day, but Mantova was better (for us). A lazy afternoon by the B&B’s pool (a refreshing 18 degrees, no I didn’t go in) set us up for a traditional local style meal that evening. The restaurant served 16 different ‘types’ of meat boiled or roasted, we were told to go hungry. I was one of only 4 other women eating there that night, so it gives you a clear idea of their typical client! Great fun. On the last morning near Modena and before we headed off to Florence, one the owners of Il Borgo del Balsamico, Cristina, gave us a tour and tasting of their balsamic vinegars.

IMG_2145What an eyeopener, unlike other liquids aged in barrels, such as whiskey, sherry or rum, balsamic vinegar casks can last a lifetime, as apposed to 3 or 4 years for the former. Being taken through what started as a passionate hobby of her fathers 50 years ago, she and her sister Silvia now run a successful business. Patience is the keyword with balsamic vinegar as it takes at least 12 years before you can bottle anything to use or sell! We both felt privileged to have a better understanding of their craft, we will never be able to look at another bottle without checking the ingredients (any colourants and it is not a true aged balsamic, whatever the label says!). And that the heart of this road trip was going to be the people we would meet along the way.

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Road trips, a good idea? Hell yeah!

Running our own landscape garden maintenance business, like a lot of self employed people, this has meant making sacrifices. Long hours, phone calls from clients in the evenings, on the weekend… ALL the time. But this is what you do to keep a roof over your head, really yummy food on the table and be able to drink an occasional glass of wine, ok not occasional, perhaps it’s almost every night! After 30 years of doing this there comes a point when you think, WHY? After two close family bereavements, J & I started to question our work life balance. Something had to give.

 

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As you might have read in my previous post we have been doing some house sitting through Trusted Housesitters. This has been one small way to shake things up. But what we had really wanted was a gap year, but that damn mortgage and business kept getting in the way. As a compromise we began to plan a trip of a life time to Italy. For many years J has wanted to visit the Amalfi coast line. Positano, Priano, Sorrento. Lemons the size of your head. Windy coastal roads. Roman ruins, Pompeii. And being gardeners Monty Don had showed us wonders such as Ninfa Gardens and La Mortella on Ischia to visit, we were sold.

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Lots of talking, planning, dreaming and many years on we are finally doing our Italian Road Trip. 6 weeks driving our way down the west coast of Italy to Amalfi, into the heel – Puliga – and back home up the east coast into Le Marche. Now that’s what I call a good compromise!

I will be doing my best to chart our trip here, week by week. This is mainly so I can look back and remember what we did, I seem to have the memory of a goldfish.

I hope you enjoy taking this trip with us, ciao!