After the boys left, we had four days before setting off on our travels again. We had an ERA meeting and did some related work. Then we were off – not abroad this time, but to visit family and friends in England. An invitation to a silver wedding party meant that we needed to hire a car, and then we started thinking about other people we could visit in roughly the same area. It ended up almost as a challenge – how many friends and relatives could we see in a week?
Friday 4 August
Ian collected the rental car and we headed west. We stopped in Moreton in Marsh for lunch and to look at the charity shops. Then on to Evesham, to visit our friends Brenda and Phil. The weather was good, and it was Phil’s birthday on Saturday, so we began with birthday cake in the garden. Later Phil showed us his elaborate railway set, and Brenda her set of bell plates – something we’d never even heard of before. Some of her friends came for a rehearsal, but we missed this as Phil took us out for a walk – along the river Avon and back via the pub!
From Evesham we drove down to Bussage (near Stroud) to visit Maggi and Phil. We’d planned to stay at Claire’s on Sunday, but Maggi and Phil were going to be away, so we did a detour to see them, and their new house, on Saturday. Claire and the boys arrived at the same time as us (their house is only five minutes’ walk away) and Maggi did a lovely lunch for seven.
In the afternoon we drove down to Purton (near West Swindon, where we lived thirty years ago) and checked into an apartment for the night. It was very comfortable – more like a small bungalow! After changing into our glad rags, we walked down to the church for Liz and Dave’s silver wedding celebration. This began with drink and nibbles in the churchyard: two gazebos had been set up, but fortunately there was no rain. About 7 we went into the church itself, which looked beautiful – a long table (for about 60 guests) already set with candles and food. There was music while we ate, and later a band played in a side chapel, with dancing in an adjacent space. It was a wonderful evening.
Back to Bussage for an overnight stay with Claire. In the afternoon we went to Coate Water, near Swindon, and walked round the lake. This was enjoyed by everyone, including the boys and Claire’s dog Peggy. For us it was a nostalgia trip, because we went there several times when we lived in Swindon, 30 years ago! It hadn’t changed at all. Ice creams and a bouncy castle completed the outing. Then it was back to Claire’s; by then Ant had arrived and he helped Claire cook a great roast dinner. Later that evening, we played cards, and introduced Ant to Oh, hell!, the Schagen family’s traditional game.
From Bussage we drove to Loughborough, along the Fosse Way (also nostalgic, as we used that route several times between Loughborough and Swindon). We stopped in Stow on the Wold, looked round the main square and had lunch in a traditional bakery/café. A few miles further on, we passed through Moreton in Marsh, thus completing the first loop of our travels, which we’d decided would form a (very rough figure) of eight. When we reached Loughborough, we were welcomed with tea and home-made ginger biscuits. We hadn’t seen Jacqui and Roger for over a year, so it was good to have an opportunity to chat and catch up on the latest news.
The weather forecast said rain all day – and it proved to be accurate. We needed to go somewhere indoors, and decided on a trip to Leicester. The big excitement in the city a few years ago was the rediscovery of Richard III’s bones and their subsequent re-interment in the cathedral. Jacqui is now a cathedral guide, so we had the full tour unofficially. In addition to Richard’s tomb, we found an eight-foot tall medieval knight and a Richard III puppet show, as well as some nice modern stained glass.
Opposite the cathedral is the King Richard III Visitor Centre, with information about his life (including the controversy about whether he was a good guy on an arch-villain) and the story of the finding of the bones. We also visited the Guildhall which is nearby, had coffee in a Buddhist café and managed to look in a few charity shops as well!
We said farewell to our friends, drove into the centre of Loughborough, and looked round the shops there (more nostalgia!). Then we drove south – through pouring rain – back to Wycombe. We arrived home in the afternoon, and had time to do some shopping before driving to Twickenham, where we had dinner and a very pleasant evening with Robin and Margaret.
We headed off in a different direction, to visit Andrew and his family in Faversham. Ellie was at work, but we were able to give Isobel her (belated) birthday presents and admire Hope’s new hairstyle; she has had her incredibly long hair cut off and given to a charity which provides wigs for children who have lost their hair as a result of chemotherapy. It is a dramatic change, but looks great, as well as contributing to a good cause.
In the afternoon Andrew drove us and the girls to Rochester, where we visited the castle, the cathedral and several shops, including one which is reputed to be the biggest second-hand bookshop in England. Back in Faversham, Ellie had arrived home. Andrew cooked dinner for us all, and we had a cake made by Isobel for dessert.
Our grand tour was over. Ian returned the hire car and Sandie had a dental appointment. Back down to earth! But we would like to say a big thank you to all our friends and family members who gave us hospitality and so many nice meals during the past week. We will have to start cooking for ourselves again now!
After arriving home from our travels, we had just enough time to unpack and get ourselves sorted out when Charlie and Oscar came to stay. They were with us for a week, while Claire did a work trip to Sydney. Unfortunately, it was a horrible week weather-wise. We had only one day with no rain at all, and it was generally quite chilly. Hard to believe it was late July – the height of the British summer!
Still, we found plenty of things to do. When confined to the flat we spent some happy hours reading, playing games or watching videos. We had ‘indoor’ excursions to the swimming pool and the cinema. When there were breaks in the clouds the boys often played outside (on the green just below our flat), and made some new friends. We also paid a nostalgic visit to the adventure playground at the Rye, which the boys used to visit frequently when they lived in Wycombe.
Before the boys arrived, we had a special request for a visit to Legoland, near Windsor. According to the weather forecast, Tuesday was going to be the best day, and luckily it was right for once. No rain at all! We enjoyed our day there, going on some familiar rides and trying out some new ones. The new Ninjago ride was especially popular, and the SQUID Surfer was great fun. We thought it was a shame that the park closed at 6, as by then the sun was shining, and it was definitely the best part of the day.
On Thursday it was cloudy but fine, and according to the forecast the rain would not start until the afternoon. So we decided that we would chance a morning excursion, and went to Virginia Water, a beauty spot we know well, although we hadn’t been there for several years. We didn’t realise that the boys had been there fairly recently, with Ian’s sister. They hadn’t remembered the name, but as soon as we arrived they remembered the place, and even a particular tree which they were keen to climb again.
After visiting the Totem Pole, we located the tree, one of several hidden away among the rhododendrons. We then walked round the lake (about four miles). But the weathermen got it wrong this time. After an unexpected brief period of sunshine, there was some heavy rain, and this pattern was repeated. Luckily we’d brought waterproofs, so it was not too bad.
We wanted to have a day in London, and kept checking the forecast in order to decide which day would be best. But the forecast kept changing. On Thursday it looked as if Saturday would be our best bet. However, when Ian got up on Friday, the latest forecast suggested that it would be the better day. So… everybody up, breakfast, and off by 9am.
We drove to Hillingdon, and took the tube to Green Park. We’d realised that Charlie and Oscar had never seen many of the main tourist sites, and decided to put that right. So we went first to Buckingham Palace – unfortunately, there was no changing of the guards that day, but we did see some mounted guards coming down Constitution Hill – in fact we had to wait for them to pass before we could cross the road.
We went through St James’s Park, and across to Horse Guards’ Parade, where we saw the sentries on horseback. On to Parliament Square (passing Downing Street on the way): there we saw Westminster Abbey, Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament.
Our next goal was the London Eye. We’d been on it three times previously, but the last time was several years ago, and the boys had not been on it at all. We saw the 4D presentation, and then queued for the Eye itself. Earlier we’d had some sun and it was quite warm, but by the time we reached the Eye there was light rain. So the views from the top were not very colourful! But when we came off, the rain had just about stopped, so we did not get wet.
We crossed the Hungerford Bridge, walked up to Trafalgar Square (past the new sculpture of the giant thumb), and into the National Gallery. Charlie had learned about Monet and Van Gogh at school, so he was able to see some of their paintings. It also got us out of the rain, which by then had started again.
Next we took the tube to Hammersmith, part of the way home. After an early pub dinner, we went to the Lyric Theatre to see a musical version of Roald Dahl’s Fantastic Mr Fox. It was an excellent production, with some really good acting and enthusiastic singing and dancing. We arrived home at 10.45, and two tired little boys went straight to bed.
Füssen is the end (or the beginning) of the so-called Romantic Road, Germany’s most popular tourist route. It links a number of well-preserved medieval walled towns. We did not have time to visit them all, so we selected four cities for the final leg of our European tour.
The old town of Regensburg has several roads, squares and alleyways with many picturesque buildings. The stone bridge across the river, dating from the 12th century, gives good views over towards the city. There is a cathedral (partially blocked by scaffolding while we were there) and several other churches. St Ulrich’s was holding a fund-raising event; we were attracted by music coming from their garden, and discovered that they were selling food and drinks as well.
A few miles outside Regensburg is Walhalla, a quasi-Greek temple build by King Ludwig I to honour Germany’s heroes. We went there by boat, and enjoyed a short cruise on the Danube, even though that stretch of the river is not particularly scenic. It is the best way to get a view of Walhalla, even though you have to climb over 400 steps from the boat landing to reach it. Inside there are more than 120 busts of musicians, philosophers and scientists as well as kings and politicians. We couldn’t help expecting them to burst into song – we’ve been to Disney’s Haunted Mansion too many times!
Nuremberg is a much bigger city, so it takes longer to walk around and see the highlights. You cannot visit without being reminded of World War II. We went outside the city to see where the Nuremberg rallies took place. In addition to the exhibition in the so-called ‘Document Center’, you can go for a 90-minute walk to see a number of historical sites, including the Zeppelin Fields (where Hitler addressed the troops) and other places which were planned for the National Socialist party but never completed. These sites are situated around a lake where people now hire colourful paddle-boats – a stark contrast with what went on there 80 years ago.
Nuremburg was heavily bombed in World War II, but has been carefully rebuilt – although there seemed to be a lot of building work still going on. We visited the castle, the cathedral and two other major churches, and wandered round the city centre. It is an attractive place, but somehow you cannot forget that the ‘old’ buildings are fake – not as old as they are meant to appear, but rebuilt in the 20th century. We found the church of St Sebold particularly moving. On display there is a cross of nails from Coventry Cathedral, with which it is now linked in the ‘Alliance of Worldwide Reconciliation’. There are photos illustrating the damage done by Allied bombs, when 1,800 people were killed and 100,000 made homeless. And one taken in 1992, when 100,000 people holding burning candles surrounded the city, declaring ‘never again must the seeds of violence germinate in our country’.
Rothenburg ob der Tauber is picture-postcard pretty (think Castle Combe if that means anything to you). Because of that, it attracts a great number of tourists. During our brief visit we went to St Jakob’s Church (on the pilgrims’ route to Santiago) and walked round the walls that circle the old town. We climbed one of the towers, and also the town hall tower, to get views over the red-tile roofs and the surrounding countryside. But most of all we enjoyed strolling around the old town, admiring the picturesque buildings in a variety of attractive colours.
We ventured just outside the town walls to the castle gardens, and to the ‘double bridge’ – not terribly exciting, but giving good views back to the city.
Würzburg is the end of the Romantic Road, and the final stop on our European journey. The weather forecast for our day there was not good, and indeed there was plenty of rain. The day did not work out exactly as planned, but we had a good time nevertheless.
Our guidebooks mentioned three highlights in the city, and a fourth a few miles outside. We were not sure we would be able to visit the Veitshöchheim Gardens, but discovered when we deposited our luggage that there were various ways of getting there, including by boat along the River Main. We liked the idea of another river trip, and were just in time for the 11am boat. We had our morning coffee on the way there, and a drink on the way back – all very pleasant and relaxing. We were however rather disappointed with ‘Germany’s most famous rococo garden’: the 200+ status were grimy and the whole place seemed sadly neglected.
When we were on our way back to Würzburg the threatened rain arrived, and the downpour continued for several hours. Fortunately some of the things we wanted to do were indoors. The cathedral was closed for a concert rehearsal, but we visited some other impressive churches. Then we went to the Residenz, or palace of the prince-bishops of Würzburg. It is said to be one of Germany’s grandest and most elaborate baroque palaces, and the reputation is well deserved. Sandie took a guided tour, and found the ‘mirror cabinet’ amazing; sadly we were not allowed to take photos.
When we emerged from the palace the rain had stopped, so we were able to visit the gardens and also look inside the incredible court chapel. After checking into our accommodation we walked up to the fortress that stands on a hill overlooking the city. It was quite a trek but worth it for the views. The climb took us through vineyards, for the area of Franconia is wine-producing country; we had already seen vineyards covering the hills while on our boat trip. (By contrast, when travelling by train through Germany, we’d seen many fields covered by solar panels – they take global warming seriously here.)
Ideally for us, there was a direct bus from Würzburg station (just opposite our accommodation) to Frankfurt airport. After our previous experience with Flixbus, we were concerned that it might not turn up – but it did, on time too. We had more problems getting home from Heathrow, but finally made it. And so ended our fascinating and enjoyable trek through three European countries (five if you include Austria and Switzerland). We’d stayed in 21 different places, undertaken train and bus journeys too many to count, and walked an average of 9.4 miles a day – meaning that we achieved our goal of walking 1000 miles when only just over half way through the year. More importantly perhaps, we managed to tick four places off our bucket list!
We travelled by Flixbus again when leaving Munich, but thankfully the bus arrived this time, although it was several minutes late. Our next destination was Garmisch-Partenkirchen, in the Bavarian Alps.
An interesting town, created by Hitler for the winter Olympics of 1936. (The IOC said that there were no towns with sufficient accommodation, so Hitler compelled two adjacent towns to become one). An interesting feature is the paintings on many of the houses: some religious, some illustrating the occupation of the owners, some just pictures of everyday life. We had an apartment for three nights, effectively the top (attic) floor of a private house.
G-P is now Germany’s top Alpine ski resort, but hiking is a major attraction in summer, and the purpose of our visit was to do some walking in the mountains. Our hiking boots came out of the case for the first time since Slovenia! We planned to go to the top of the Zugspitze, Germany’s highest mountain. But when we arrived, on Tuesday 11th July, our host advised us to wait until Thursday, since the weather forecast for Wednesday was not good. The lady at the tourist office agreed, and so did the forecast on the Internet. We adjusted our plans accordingly.
On Tuesday afternoon we walked through the Partnachklamm Gorge, a short way outside the town. It is only 700m long, but very narrow and quite spectacular. On our way back, there was a sudden downpour: we were equipped with rain capes, but the roads became flooded and our legs got soaked every time a car passed.
On Wednesday we chose an outing that we could complete in the morning, before the rain started (as forecast) at 1pm. We took the cable car up the Eckbauer, which was itself an interesting experience. The gondolas were the smallest we’ve ever ridden in: open-topped and seating only two passengers, they looked more like swinging boats at a funfair. From the top, we walked back down: we had a choice of routes, and decided to return via Wamberg, where there was a pleasant café.
We arrived back at our flat about 1pm, and had lunch, but there was no sign of the threatened rain. So we decided to go for another walk in the afternoon. Our accommodation was close to the ‘Philosopher’s Way’ path, so we followed that for a while. By chance we found ourselves at the station for the cable car up the Wank (yes, it really is called that) so we decided to explore another mountain top. The Wank is higher than the Eckbauer, but we did not have much time there. We walked round at the top, enjoying the wonderful views in all directions, and then took the cable car back down.
Thursday was supposed to be the best day for going up the Zugspitze, but when we got up it was so grey and murky we could not even see the mountains. We stayed in our flat, desperately hoping that it would improve. We thought at least it would give us an opportunity to catch up with things we needed to do on the laptop, but the wifi was not working properly. Finally we decided to make the journey anyway. They are building a new cable car, but that will not open until December. At present it is necessary to take the cog railway up to the Zugspitzplatt (finally going through a long tunnel), and then a short cable car to the summit. The cog railway trip takes 75 minutes, so we hoped the weather would improve while we were en route. But no such luck!
At the Zugspitzplatt it was very cold and grey. We had some thick potato soup for lunch, and ventured out to see the glacier and the chapel. Then we took the cable car up to the summit. This was like a construction site, with men working on the new cable car. Not very exciting! There is a gold cross on the very top of the mountain, the so-called ‘top of Germany’, but the way to get there is very precarious and we didn’t risk it. We enjoyed some glühwein, and then wandered around the shopping/restaurant complex. We suddenly noticed a sign saying ‘Tyrol’. Hang on, we thought, isn’t that in Austria? We hadn’t realised until then that the Zugspitze is right on the border, and you can ascend by cable car from either country. You just need to make sure you take the right one back down!
On our way down, we got off the cog railway at Eibsee, and had a short stroll along the lake before taking the next train back to G-P.
Next morning we had some time to spare before catching the bus to Füssen, so we walked up to the pilgrimage chapel of St Anthony, not far from our flat.
Like G-P, Füssen is close to the Austrian border, and the main road between the two goes through Austria. Not that you would notice – apart from the occasional road sign – that you are in a different country.
Füssen is an attractive town, and we enjoyed wandering around. We visited the parish church and the castle, and walked along the river to the Lech Falls. The waterfall is hardly spectacular, but the river at that point goes through a small gorge which is quite picturesque.
But the main reason for staying two nights in Füssen, was so that we could visit Neuschwanstein, the fairytale castle built by ‘mad king’ Ludwig II. This has long been on our bucket list – if you’ve seen photos, you’ll understand why. (If you haven’t, think Disney – the princess castles were modelled on Neuschwanstein.)
Neuschwanstein is now the most popular tourist attraction in Germany; you are advised to book tickets months ahead, to avoid ridiculously long queues on the day. There are actually two castles to visit: Hohenschwangau was built by Ludwig’s father, and Ludwig lived there in his childhood, and also while he was building Neuschwanstein. You have to take guided tours of both, and photography is not allowed. We found the interiors somewhat depressing: lots of painted walls, but rather dark and gloomy. It is the exterior of the castles, particularly Neuschwanstein, and their dramatic setting, which makes them a photographer’s dream.
Unfortunately, the weather was against us – it was grey and miserable all day, with rain on and off. Not the ideal background for the castles! So our photos do not match up to the pictures we’d seen, and hoped to replicate.
After visiting both castles, and the Museum of the Bavarian Kings (included in our package, but not very exciting) we went for a stroll along the Alpsee lake, and looked in some souvenir shops. We debated whether it was worth going up to Neuschwanstein again, in the hope that the weather might improve. And when we emerged from a shop, the sun was actually shining, so that settled it.
But… it takes some time to get up to the castle. We took one photo each (with telephoto lenses) of Neuschwanstein in the sun, and then hurried to the stop for buses going up to the viewpoint, from which you walk to the castle itself. But the first bus was full, and by the time the second arrived, the sun had disappeared. We took more photos, but they were not much better than those we’d taken in the morning. So in some ways our visit to Neuschwanstein was disappointing. The next morning, when we left Füssen, it was all blue skies and sunshine. Aargh!!!
On Friday 7th July we left Italy and headed for Bavaria. When we were planning the trip, we considered three ways of making the journey: plane, train or bus. Flying would obviously have been quickest, and was surprisingly cheap, but we would have missed out on the wonderful scenery coming over the Alps. The train journey was complicated, involving several changes. But there was a direct bus from Milan to Munich, so that was our choice.
Through the Alps
We booked well in advance for the 8.30 bus with a German-based company called Flixbus. We’d assumed that the bus would leave from the central bus station in Milan, adjacent to the train station and conveniently close to our hotel. But a couple of days before leaving, we discovered our mistake. The bus left from the Lampugnano bus station, on the far side of Milan. We didn’t relish the prospect of getting all our luggage on and off the Metro, but the hotel advised us against taking a taxi – they said it would cost too much, and we’d get stuck in rush-hour traffic. So the Metro it had to be. Because we set off really early, it was not too crowded, and the journey was easier than we expected. We were at Lampugnano at 7am, and felt relieved that our difficulties were over. Now we could relax.
But how wrong we were! Lampugnano was very skanky, but there was a bar of sorts where we were able to get breakfast. The departure board was not working, but we found the area where Flixbuses depart. Several left for destinations all over Europe, but no sign of the 076 to Munich. At 8.53 we received a text saying that our bus was running 30 minutes late, but by 9.30 there was still no sign. There were several other people waiting for it, and one was a young woman called Monica, who was Italian but spoke fluent German. She called Flixbus, but was told they did not know where our bus was – they would call the driver to find out!!!
Later Flixbus insisted that the bus had been, and we’d missed it! How eight people could have failed to see a lime green bus they did not explain. They said there was another bus at 11.30, but we could not use our 8.30 tickets – we would have to buy new ones and then get a refund. There was no alternative. We were told to call their main office (in Berlin!) and buy tickets by credit card, but the English-speaking operator was permanently engaged. Meanwhile, the 11.30 bus arrived. We tried unsuccessfully to persuade the driver to accept our 8.30 tickets, but he said we could buy new tickets from the Lampugnano office. With Monica’s help, Ian did so. Needless to say, we are still trying to claim our refund!
We were not sure which route the bus would take, but guessed that we would go through Austria. In fact, most of the journey was through Switzerland, and we certainly did get to see some beautiful mountain scenery. However, there was a delay. We’ve been accustomed to crossing European borders with no formalities whatsoever, but of course Switzerland is not in the EU. (Neither does it use the euro – when we stopped for dinks, we were given change in Swiss francs, not much use elsewhere!) At the Italian/Swiss border the customs officials boarded the bus to check passports, but that did not take long. But when we crossed from Switzerland into Austria, we were held up for over an hour. We had to get off the bus and collect all our belongings; a few people were taken away with their luggage, but returned later. We assume they were checking for illegal immigrants.
We finally reached our hotel in Munich at 9.15pm – hungry, thirsty and tired!
In and around Munich
Despite our delayed arrival, we had three full days in Munich. On Saturday we explored the old town, visiting a number of churches, and climbing up the tower of St Peter’s, the oldest church in the city. In the Marienplatz (main square) we saw the picturesque town hall, and watched the 11am performance of the elaborate glockenspiel.
In the evening, we went to the opera! We are really not opera buffs, but again, we had the opportunity of attending a performance at a famous opera house. Ian hoped to see Wagner, but despite getting up at 4am (in Florida) on the day tickets went on sale, he did not succeed.
However, after being placed 114 in the queue, he did manage to get his second choice, Mozart’s Die Zaubeflöte. We thought we were in the balcony again, but in fact we were in the stalls, at the end of a row, and had a good view of the stage. We were not as crammed as at La Scala, so it was definitely a more enjoyable experience. There were no concessions to non-German speakers – the English translation was not shown – so we had to guess what was going on, but that was usually not too difficult.
On Sunday morning we’d planned to visit the Englischer Garten, said to be one of the largest and most beautiful parks in Europe. But when we woke, it was grey, dismal and raining, so it did not seem a good idea! Instead, we visited the Residenz, and spent the morning wandering round the state apartments. We also saw the treasury, a dozen rooms packed with amazingly beautiful and obviously priceless objects. By the time we’d finished, the weather had improved, so we decided to go on up to the English garden, not too far away. While we were there, the sun appeared and the weather was beautiful for the rest of the afternoon.
In the English Garden we saw a ‘surf wave’ and watched people try it out. On to the Chinese pagoda, where there is a huge biergarten. We got drinks and a giant pretzel; there were crowds of people, and a jolly Bavarian band. This is obviously how the locals spend their Sundays. Further on, we reached the boating lake, and had a paddle boat for 30 minutes. Then we walked back to our hotel along the river. At the Maximilianeum (seat of the Bavarian parliament), they have a ‘Sunday café’ so we had a drink sitting on their terrace.
On Monday, we took a tram a short way outside the city to Schloss Nymphenburg. We walked round the extensive grounds, passing the Grand Cascade and visiting four ‘pavilions’ (each one as big as a house). Back at the palace, we saw the state rooms, which were impressive, though by this stage we were becoming rather blasé about such things! In a separate building, we found the coaches and sleighs fascinating, because so completely OTT.
That evening we went to the Hofbrauhaus, the most famous bierkeller in Munich and allegedly the most famous pub in the world. Ian of course does not like beer, but this is something we had to experience. Crowds of people, a band playing, waiters dashing around with armfuls of giant beer mugs (a litre is normal) and girls with trays of pretzels – that is Munich for you!
Compare and contrast
When crossing from Italy into Bavaria, we found a number of differences:
- Obviously the language changes from Italian to German – and there are fewer concessions to those who don’t speak it
- The weather is not so good north of the Alps
- There are more blond children around – made us think of our children and grandchildren, although their heritage is Dutch
- Some people wear the traditional costume – we saw a few in the streets, and many outfits in shop windows – we suspect some people keep them for special occasions
- Bavarian food focuses on sausages, potatoes, pretzels and cake – but there are plenty of Italian restaurants around. And most restaurants have a vegetarian section on their menus.
And of course the most common drink is beer, although Ian was glad to discover that Aperol spritz is still available! But we miss the crisps and the nibblies we were always given with drinks in Italy…
On Sunday 2nd July we moved on from Verona to Milan. This was to be our base for our final five nights in Italy – our longest stay anywhere on this trip. There were a lot of things to do there, and we planned to visit two other cities on day trips.
Milan is a big city, and the places of interest to us were quite far apart, so we got used to making our way around by Metro. We had pre-booked two things. One was the opera! Unlike Verona, this was not the main reason for our visit. But La Scala is famous, and it seemed foolish to miss the opportunity of going while in Milan. This time we saw La Bohème, an opera neither of us knew, but after visiting Puccini’s birthplace in Lucca, it seemed appropriate. The staging was impressive, and the performance good – even if the story is not exactly joyful! We understood that the seats we’d booked were in the first circle, but it transpired that they were in the first balcony, above no less than four tiers of boxes. This meant that our view was far from ideal (Sandie had to lean forward in order to see even part of the stage) and it was very hot and stuffy up there.
The other thing we’d booked to see was Leonardo da Vinci’s famous painting of the Last Supper, on the wall of a Dominican refectory. You have to book a time slot months in advance, and you are allowed only 15 minutes in the room. Perhaps we are not great judges of art, because we were not terribly impressed by the painting. Just opposite the refectory (and the linked church) we saw the small vineyard that was given to Leonardo by the duke of Milan, and in the Science Museum we saw models of his many inventions.
Our tickets for the Last Supper (sounds like we were present there!) also entitled us to visit the Brera art gallery, where we saw many famous examples of medieval and Renaissance art.
We spent some hours at the cathedral, Europe’s largest Gothic church. This included a walk on the terraces – giving great views over the city – and a visit to the cathedral museum. We do not normally find museums terribly interesting, but this was fascinating, as it enabled us to see close up some of the carvings we could otherwise only glimpse from a distance.
We visited the Castello Sforzesco, and the park beyond. In the castle we saw the unfinished Pieta which Michelangelo worked on until six days before his death. One evening we went to the canal area of the city, where there were crowds of people and a great atmosphere. We enjoyed the eating, drinking and people watching!
Genoa is 93 miles from Milan, but we read that you can do it easily as a day trip. This is true, but it means taking a high-speed train which is more expensive that the regional trains we’d been using for the past three weeks. We’d booked our long trips on the Net in advance, and bought tickets for short journeys from station machines. But this was a return journey, and we wanted to enquire about money-saving options, so for the first time we joined the queue to buy tickets from a human being. We found her quite difficult to understand, but gathered that you can buy return tickets only if you know exactly which train you are getting in both directions. Worse, she announced that the train we’d intended to get was full, and the next available one was not until 11.10 – too late to make a day trip worthwhile.
We were debating whether we could reorganise our plans and go on a different day, when the ticket seller announced that she could sell us tickets for the 9.10 – the train that was full – but we would have to pay a supplement when on the train. So we did, although it made our day trip expensive. We gave up any claim to understanding how the Italian railway system works!
But it was a good and enjoyable day. Genoa is quite different from the other Italian cities on our itinerary. For a start, it’s on the sea: it rivals Marseilles as the biggest port on the Mediterranean. In Genoa we didn’t just see the sea, we took a boat ride across the harbour to Pegli and back. The town is very picturesque when seen from the water. We also strolled around the old town, admiring the cathedral, other churches and especially the beautiful palazzi on the Via Garibaldi.
Genoa was the birthplace of Christopher Columbus: we saw the church where he was baptised (though it was closed) and the park where his three ships are pictured in flowers. In recent years the old port has been transformed, and is now home to several tourist attractions. We went up in the Bigo, a kind of revolving drum that is suspended from a spider-like structure, and lifts you up for great views over the harbour and the city.
Our other day trip was to Bergamo – closer to Milan, a shorter (and much cheaper) train journey. The old town sits on top of a hill, about two miles from the railway station. We went there by bus and funicular, but chose to walk back and take photos on the way.
We enjoyed strolling around the narrow streets of the old town. We visited the cathedral, which was less attractive than the nearby church of Santa Maria Maggiore. That was much more elaborate, and the painting of the Great Flood (recently restored) was especially interesting. The adjoining Cappella Colleoni had an even more elaborate façade, but you were not allowed to take photos of the interior.
We went up the clock tower, and had great views over the town. We ended up at La Rocca (a fortress, now a museum). We didn’t go in, but there were great views from the gardens.
Perugia and Assisi were a lot further south than any of the other cities on our itinerary. So from Assisi it was a long train journey back north to Florence, a quick change, and then west to our next destination.
Back in 2005 we had a family holiday in Tuscany; we saw several interesting cities, but Lucca was too far from our villa. So it was on the itinerary for 2017! At first sight we were disappointed: parts of the city (especially around the station) were scruffy, and ‘pedestrianised’ in the old town apparently meant that there were lots of bikes, but not too many cars. Cloudy weather – quite a shock after ten days of unbroken hot sun! – did not add to the attractiveness of the city. But when the weather improved, and we got to know Lucca better, our opinion became much more positive.
We visited the cathedral, and particularly liked the modern stained glass. Other churches included San Giovanni e Santa Reparata where you can see the remains of five different layers – an older church built on top of a yet older church built on top of a Roman temple built on top of Roman houses (fragments of mosaics remain). The Piazza Anfiteatro is fascinating because houses and restaurants have been built into the old amphitheatre.
We climbed to the top of the Tower Giunigi – unusual because there are trees growing on the flat roof – and enjoyed amazing views over the city. We also walked right round the city walls, from which you can get views of both the city and the beautiful countryside. You can also see a number of weird sculptures on the bastions.
Lucca is the city where Puccini was born, and there is a concert in his honour every night in one of the churches. The one we went to included a selection of music from Mozart as well as Puccini. It seemed the right thing to do while in Lucca, and also seemed an appropriate prelude to the operas we will see over the next couple of weeks.
From Lucca to Mantua was a long and complex train journey, involving three changes. Two were very quick (we almost missed one connection because the train was running late) but at least we had time for coffee in Bologna (a luxury not usually available on Italian trains).
Unfortunately the weather deteriorated while we were in Mantua: we had cloudy grey skies and some really violent thunderstorms. But we managed to be inside during the worst, and it didn’t stop us from seeing the sights. We also had the opportunity of getting our washing done – a real bonus!
Mantua is not on the top tourist trail, but there are two main places really worth visiting. The Palazzo Ducale, right in the centre, is huge, and there is one room after another with frescoed walls and elaborate ceilings. The most famous room is the Camera degli Sposi; visitor numbers are restricted, you have to pre-book and you are allowed five minutes max – although we saw no signs of these rules being enforced. By this stage of our trip we had seen hundreds of frescoes, but those in the palace were different in that they depicted not religious themes, but life among the aristocracy.
The other palace is the Palazzo Te, a mile or two outside the town, and built as the summer retreat for the current duke and his mistress. Again, there were lots of highly decorated rooms, with mainly classical and sometimes erotic themes. The outstanding one was the Sala dei Giganti, illustrating the victory of Jupiter over the Titans. It is hard to describe the spectacular effect, but it really does create the illusion that the rocks are tumbling down around you.
In addition to the palaces, we visited the cathedral and other churches. We were particularly impressed by the Bibiena Theatre, used originally for science talks, now also for cultural performances – a real gem of a place.
We’ve wanted to visit Verona for years – since even before we created our bucket list! In particular we wanted to see an opera in the Arena – the third biggest amphitheatre in the world, and the best preserved. Inside the original building there is a huge stage, and seating for over 20,000. The opera productions are spectacular, and we booked months ago to see Aida. So here we were in Verona, feeling quite excited when the time finally came. Several times during the day we looked anxiously at the sky – there were clouds around, and a threat of thunderstorms in the evening. Fortunately they did not materialise. The evening was fine, if a little windy. The opera started at 9pm, and we left the Arena at 1am.
Did the performance live up to expectations? In many ways, yes – the setting, the scale, the atmosphere all made for a magical experience. We were however slightly disappointed with the production, which was modernistic, minimalist and monochrome. The cast of thousands (well, hundreds anyway) and some of the effects were indeed spectacular. But there were no real elephants in the parade scene, as in the past: instead, there were mechanical animals, the main characters were seated on forklift trucks, and other members of the cast were zooming around on what looked like jetskis. Two men were constructing a kind of tower, abseiling up and down – we had no idea why. We’ve decided that, as far as opera is concerned, we are traditionalists at heart.
At the end of Aida, the lovers die in a tomb – which links neatly with Verona’s other claim to fame, a story in which star-crossed lovers meet a similar fate. People come from all over the world to visit Juliet’s house, gaze at Juliet’s balcony, stand in Juliet’s courtyard and touch Juliet’s statue. Never mind the fact that the balcony was added to the house in 1935, that it is far too high to climb, and that Romeo and Juliet never existed anyway. (You can also visit Juliet’s tomb – nothing much to see, but surprisingly it’s a popular spot for weddings!) We went to a promenade performance of excerpts from the play which was quite entertaining. It was (mainly) in Italian, but we guessed correctly that this would not be a problem, as we are familiar with the plot!
We stayed three nights in Verona, but had plenty to occupy our time. In addition to the above, we visited the cathedral and three other big churches full of artwork; the old castle which is now a museum; the impressively decorated Scaligeri tombs; and some lively piazzas. We crossed to the other side of the river to visit a palazzo with gardens, and the remains of the Roman theatre (not to be confused with the amphitheatre). We had great views of the town from there, and from a tower in the centre. All in all, we had a great time in Verona, and are glad that we made it there at last, even if the opera was slightly disappointing.