Alessandra-Acqui Terme-Albe

These first two days have turned out to be rather relentless in terms of cycling. Both were of a distance no more than 60km. A gentle Sunday perambulation for those that own a light weight carbon or even better, titanium framed contraption. We ride that most Sundays! One could be at the Cafe latte after tackling Norton Summit, 2 hours from a standing start! Snigger you may, but it took us on average 5hrs 30min day one and more than 6 and a half hours on the second. Not for want of trying. Day 1 we climbed up and down dale for 700m whilst on day 2 it was 1000m. A few panoramic shots will do more than words to demonstrate the endless rolling hills of vineyards, apple, plum and stone fruit orchards as well as acres and acres of hazelnut trees! Often we cycled along a saddle with picturesque valley on either side then more mountains!

The guide books supplied have in the main been excellent and becoming lost or mildly disorientated has occurred only a few times.

Acqui Terme is a hot springs town and the piazza has an ornate marble tower our of which the sulphurous greenish water gushes at a constant 75degrees centigrade.

The town of Alba is the capital of the truffle and the wonderful black variety is on display in glass cabinets on the street in front of the store with the price of a truffle I estimate at about 1 euro a gram or in other words 1000 euro a Kg!

At Alba after the exhaustion of our ride and with a well deserved air of achievement and smugness, we ate out at a nice restaurant and sampled the local food and wine, naturally with truffles and pasta in at least one dish.

IMG_1592.JPG

IMG_1590.JPG

IMG_1576.JPG

IMG_1581.JPG

Alessandra

The start of our week cycle adventure in Piedmonte. The group came together with the arrival of the jet lagged James-Martin couple. We met them at the station then walked to the hotel. Both were too tired to even contemplate adding grumpiness.

I and the DeBoo team had arrived by slow train from Florence the day before.

The town is steeped in military history having a large fort on the outskirts constructed during the time of Napolean and some rather wide avenues, which the locals explain were specifically engineered for large troop movements. I guess this is the napoleonic equivalent of the extremely wide highway in Singapore from the airport, which the local taxi drivers boast was again engineered for military purposes. Specifically it can, in the twinkling of an eye, be cleared of all those trees in large tubs , and become a runway for the Singapore Air Force! One can only wonder what long straight avenue in Canberra, would be so altered, should Tony Abbott learn of this.

This weekend is a the Italian equivalent of the Aussie long weekend. August is the big European summer holiday month but this weekend almost everything is closed.

The train from Florence to Alessandra went to Pisa then followed the coast to Genoa and the Cinque Terra – to which we shall return.

On our first night in Alessandra was an amazing sudden electrical storm – the type that totally brings hail and the temperature plummets. We were out promenading and were drenched. The weather contributed to one of my BEST travel pictures. See if you agree?

IMG_1568.JPG
This is the better of the two below!

IMG_1567.JPG

Lucca

This is another town worth a day trip from Florence. It’s foundations go back as far as the ancient Romans. By foundations I mean literally and figuratively. There are many claims to fame including a well preserved medieval wall and moat that circled the village and to this day remains largely intact although the moat is obviously dry! The parapets have been paved and tree lined so that one can meander or cycle the 2 or 3 kilometer circumference, gazing down on the town from a great height.

IMG_1549.JPG

IMG_1534.JPG
The town square is in fact the town ellipse! It was the site of the original roman amphitheatre, hence the shape. Lucca had the same feeling as Sienna in terms of its history and charm but on a smaller scale. The same white and green marbled church and Campanella and the paved narrow streets. I have a perception as well that the irritatingly all pervasive Fiats are the modern equivalent of the donkey of Ancient Rome.

Finally of interest to me at least is the fact that Puccini had a house in Lucca, so that there are frequent acknowledgements of this fact including an eponymous square with bust, an annual Puccini festival and museum.

IMG_1537.JPG
The Cathedral San Martino

IMG_1539.JPG
The Cathedral San Martino – interior

IMG_1542.JPG

IMG_1548.JPG

Siena

Yesterday on the spur of the moment and in the late morning, took a trip to Siena. Earlier had visited the Museo Galileo – one of the best designed and beautifully laid out scientific museums I have encountered. Uncluttered exhibits of scientific instruments from the 16th to 19th century with explanations in both Italian and English. For the mechanically minded male, it is heaven.

Siena was one of the main attractions in Tuscany that my mother was keen to visit in our trip together more than 12 years ago. The square is of course the iconic representation of Siena, if not Tuscany. It’s an ancient medieval walled city and on the day was seething with people! There appeared to be even more leather goods shops here than Florence, if possible. A horse racing festival was building up over the days leading up to Saturday. There was much drunken frivolity presumably by students – costumes, scarves and loud singing.
Pics of the square and the cathedral

IMG_1527.JPG

IMG_1528.JPG

IMG_1529.JPG

Michelangelo and David

IMG_1522.JPG
1,300,000 tourists annually visit the Museum dell Accademia to gaze in awe at the statue of David by Michelangelo. It is arguably the most beautifully, indeed perfectly, proportioned marble representation of the male form. Some erudite artists and anatomists, argue that the hands are slightly out or proportion, being too large. Whilst others, I suspect with a twinge of jealousy, state categorically that they would be prepared to testify in a court of law that the testicles are a touch too voluminous.

Having a partially expressed engineering/mechanical genetic trait – thanks to my father- combined with a not too flamboyant artistic flair, I pondered a potential catastrophe. What would happen if the great sculptor himself or one of his beautiful attractive young artisans delicately chipping then polishing the testicles, should say sneeze and hence mar the marble of David’s manhood? Perhaps this is the derivation of that universal exclamation of frustration?

Michelangelo may well have uttered

well that was a balls up, Ascanio “!

Poor Ascanio being Michelangelo’s apprentice and possibly the young man he lusted after.

Another 16 tonne lump of marble was ordered to be delivered within the week by elephant express and poor Ascanio assigned to mass producing Plaster of Paris fig-leaves for a very large number of nude Roman and Greek adolescent male youths, a lucrative back order from the Vatican.

IMG_1513.JPG

IMG_1520.JPG

The Florence Card – a tourist pass

These past two or three days have been spent hiking the sights of Florence in rather relentless summer heat. There are picture post card attractions familiar to all. I won’t bore you, honestly. My instinctive urge to move on, is bubbling up. A day in the countryside tomorrow!

A few comments. Buy a Florence Pass, especially if you intend to stay for 3 days or more. The concept is fabulous, although the implementation leaves a lot to be desired. Its plastic and the same size as a credit card with a unique barcode. It claims you “bypass the queues” – worth the 72 euro alone! Sadly it’s not straightforward. At each “attraction” there is a, mostly fairly obvious, marked separate queue for the Florence card holders. How simple – short queue and scan bar coded card and “prego”! Sadly, no. One is required to find the separate Ticket Office for many attractions, no mean feat in itself, and there you will be required to queue (granted its a less lengthy one for the Florence cardholders) and purchase a separate paper ticket. Clutching this separate piece of paper, you return to the second, shorter queue at the aforementioned attraction.

It became obvious to me that the 2 step process is frustrating for both tourist and the ticket collector at the gate. Many tourists assume that the activated Florence Card is simply scanned at the entrance, and for the Italian gatekeeper they have to spend sometimes several minutes, trying to explain in limited English (forget about trying limited Japanese!) that it’s not the system. Tempers flare and the queue grinds to a halt. The reluctant tourist eventually is forced around and back outside passed the thousands, to find the Ticket Office. This is of itself a significant challenge! At the Duomo, we circumnavigated the Baptistery four times looking for the ticket office, twice clockwise then twice counterclockwise, based on the directions of the Italian lass at the turnstiles from which we were dejectedly ejected! Thankfully at other sites, the process was more transparent and simple!

There is an inviolate “theory of access” at Italian museums, cathedrals and monasteries, which I choose to call The Rule of Thirds: On any given day, a third of attractions are closed on that day, a third are closed for renovation, hidden behind scaffolding, with a sign which states the site is scheduled to be opened 15 months from whatever should be the date on which you turn up, the final third are open!

IMG_1492.JPG

IMG_1509.JPG

IMG_1506.JPG

IMG_1508.JPG

Florence – tourists and an opera concert performance

It’s 7:30 am and I wander through a flock of pigeons then three flocks of Japanese tourists, there being more tourists than pigeons in Florence at any one time, irrespective of the season. I sit my music on a wrought iron lamp post on a cement balustrade along the River Arno and start to practice. Within a millisecond of my first note, there is a huge screech, much flapping and panic amongst the flocks, dust rises and there is a general sense of escaping from an approaching Tsunami – although the pigeons, are totally unruffled, remaining earth bound, pecking and courting each other skillfully avoiding the stampeding tourists.

We meander aimlessly at dusk and pass hundreds of what seems to be the stock commercial attraction of Florence: leather outlets alternating with “artisan” gelato caf├ęs. In a crowded piazza, adolescent boys ply their wares. One of which is a small parachute like affair with an LED light that the boys catapult into the air with an amazing degree of skill. They seem to attain the outer atmosphere. Rule number 1: avoid eye contact with them. Terry, foolish man, breaks that rule and we return to the apartment later that night with 12 of these contraptions. In the light of day Terry is still uncertain as to how this happened and more disconcertingly, how many Euros with which he parted company for the purchase.

Our apartment is within an old mansion and is quite convenient as it fronts the river and the main tourist route to the Duomo runs along one side. From about 8am a continuous stream of tourists hurry along in bunches of about 20 or more. In fact their relentless passing reminds me of aircraft banked up at a busy international airport all on final approach to the runway with a separation distance of 100 metres.

After a less than exciting evening meal – an ordinary seafood salad with limp iceberg lettuce and anaemic tomatoes, we went to a concert of famous operatic arias in an intimate performing space of what was a large church. The young soprano was big of voice and bosom. The baritone matched her in all aspects other than bust. The were accompanied by a slim, elegant female pianist in her early 50s. She was dressed in a cool black cotton dress and the highest high heels in all of Christendom. To my utter disbelieve she sat at the piano and I was mesmerized not so much by her hands, but by her black sequined high heels , the points of which appeared lethal. Consequently her pedal foot and shoe had the distinct appearance of a miniature cello with its tail spike firmly pinned into the wooden floor at a very acute angle. So shod, she pedaled with all the aplomb of a seasoned performer.

Below are a few predictable and familiar pictures of Florence.

IMG_1493.JPG

IMG_1487.JPG

IMG_1489.JPG

IMG_1490.JPG