- Almost five months might seem like a long time, but it is no time at all. Three months in Italy whizzed by, and there were major parts of the country we avoided all together. Still, we know how lucky we are to have had this amount of time.
- With time to reflect, most of all I wax lyrical about Jordan, and Puglia. Jordan for its unknown treasures as well as the rightly famous Petra, and for its friendly people. Puglia for the light, the most picturesque of seaside villages, and the seafood.
- We found it is possible to travel both comfortably and relatively cheaply.
- Renting apartments and houses gave us stability, space to relax between sightseeing excursions, and gave us an insight into real Italian life.
- Travelling off the beaten track – whether it’s to Qatar, in the hills of Molise in Italy, inland from the Dead Sea in Jordan, or in the lake district of Poland – brings unexpected rewards and is always worthwhile.
- Even supermarkets give insights into local culture, and provide both amusement and horror.
- There are a lot of myths about places and people that shouldn’t be believed.
- There is too much waste and litter in this world.
- When life gives you lemons, make limoncello. It really is delicious.
- Travelling abroad for an extended period allows you to see with new eyes when you come home. Things, people, places we take for granted, appeared new and fresh on our return, and we were reminded how beautiful our own country is, and what gifts we have here. Maybe that’s the best gift of all?
Hidden gems: Jerash Roman ruins in Jordan, Poland’s lake district, and the hills of Molise, Italy
Hottest: Aqaba, Jordan, where the temperature soared to 47 degrees.
Coldest: Warsaw, Poland, where we woke to morning frosts.
Most beautiful: Lake Bled, Slovenia, and on a larger scale, Giau Pass (Cortina d’Ampezzo), Italy and Wadi Rum, Jordan
Most squalid: The dirty, littered Roman streets
Most surprising (good): Monopoli’s old town and harbour, Puglia, Italy
Most surprising (bad): Italian beaches
Most annoying cultural habit: Hogging the footpath (pavement) in Italy
Most pleasing custom: The friendliness of Jordanians, and being welcomed as “locals” at restaurants in Italy.
Most disappointing place: Rome in July. (Rome is fabulous, just not in July).
Worst meal: Poland sausage encased in potato dough with a weak, watery white sauce and a few slices of mushroom.
Never going back: Pesaro – Italian beaches. Ugh.
Favourite place: Vittorio Veneto for all round fabulousness. Great scenery, tree-lined streets, charming town (both new and old), good prosecco, good food, and pleasant accommodation.
Rolling green hills, cypress trees, winding roads, row after row of vines, sunflower fields, farmhouses, stone bridges, and over them all, churches and bell towers, with the occasional castle thrown in for good measure. That’s what we think of when we think of Italy.
That’s what we found back in August (yes, we’re slightly out of sequence, rewinding). We were in no hurry to get anywhere, our sole purpose was to get out of the apartment, and maybe find some lunch somewhere. We avoided the autostradas, and after a while we ignored our GPS too. We pottered our way through little villages, each one with a church and tall bell tower, each one with various bars and cafes and trattorias or osterias or pizzerias, and definitely a gelateria. And best of all? Tourists – other than us – virtually absent.
We found a castle with a café for a late lunch. The kitchen had closed, but some panini and beer and a macchiato were possible, from a friendly proprietor who was patient with my slow Italian. The views from the castle were wonderful, but even better were the views driving home.
A few days later we set out again, this time setting off further south, on the Prosecco route. Another castle beckoned for lunch, this one a much larger affair, now a hotel, with several restaurants and function rooms, a venue for major economic meetings. By the time we got there it was raining, so we took the funicular up to the castle, and immediately found the restaurant. For a while we were the only customers on this gloomy day at the end of summer, but we still received friendly service, delicious home-made bread (of which they were rightly proud), and enjoyed a Prosecco with our meal. The views, between the castellations, were of the small town at the bottom of the hill, and the farms and vineyards surrounding it. By the time we had finished lunch, the last spits of rain were abating, and the sun even deigned to make an appearance.
We headed south and west along this valley, towards Valdobbiadene, one of the famous names of Prosecco. The views were even better than the day before – rolling hills covered in vines, vines, vines everywhere. This was the heart of Prosecco country. The road was windy, but not busy, and we stopped frequently.
This was classic, picture perfect, fairytale Italy. And of course, there was a cute dog and a vespa.
There is often a moment, as I enter a new country, one where I don’t speak the language, when I feel completely unprepared, all at sea, and very vulnerable. I think this is even more disconcerting when driving across a border, because at least at international airports there is a degree of English spoken, signs to taxis, and (usually) a hotel booked. You’ve had the time in the air to adjust, and on arrival you settle into the new country and language more gradually. But physically crossing a border means that you instantly cross from one environment to the next, and for a moment, your perception shifts and everything is different. When we first came to Europe, we picked up a car in Paris, and drove to Switzerland. We were fine, my schoolgirl 6th Form French was adequate, and driving (without GPS) was easy. We drove from Geneva to Bern in the afternoon, and I remember the shock of entering Bern, discovering that we were now in the German-speaking part of Switzerland, and finding that German was not a language I was prepared for. The husband of course points out that he feels like this in most non-English-speaking countries, with the exception of Thailand, and doesn’t understand why it is a shock to me.
I had that same feeling of disorientation about two hours after leaving the apartment. We crossed the border – well prepared, having bought the requisite Vignette for driving on the highways at an Italian autostop on the highway earlier – and suddenly, we were aliens! But soon we could see that the highway wasn’t as busy as the Italian autostradas, and our destinations were well signposted. And the scenery opened up. Any feelings of disorientation were quickly replaced with delight, and self-congratulations on our decision to stay the night. (At first we thought we’d go just for a day. But we started looking at the maps, estimated how long it would take us, and would it give us enough time to see what we wanted to see, and importantly, to spend time with the friends we planned to meet. So the night before we left, we got onto the internet, and booked a hotel. It was the right decision.)
We left the highway just past the capital city, and found ourselves driving through lovely countryside, crops in the fields, hay racks, and small villages with elegant churches. There were mountains to the north, and vast swathes of forest, real forest, thick forest, Red Riding Hood forest that looks like the Big Bad Wolf is lurking nearby.
And soon we reached the small and beautiful town of Skofja Loka, about 20 kms out of Ljubljana. Yes, if you haven’t guessed we were in tiny Slovenia. It is a small country, but – like the friends we had gone to meet – it is very welcoming. We spent a wonderful day with them, learning about Slovenia, life under the communists when it was part of Yugoslavia, independence, and life now. We explored their home town, talked and talked, and they kindly provided lots of advice for our drive back to Italy the next day.
We left late in the afternoon, heading into Ljubljana, for an evening stroll around the elegant centre of the city. It was warm, crowds of locals and international tourists were out, buskers entertained, and the cafes, bars and restaurants along the river were packed with people enjoying the evening. An after dinner gelato was the perfect ending to a great day.
Slovenia is very much part of Europe, just south of Austria (once part of the Austro-Hungarian empire), and neighbouring Italy. The lack of border controls (since Croatia joined the EU in July this year, the country now has no land border work for a thousand customs/immigrations officers), and the use of the euro – unlike our detour earlier in the month to Switzerland – made it very easy for us to pop into the country for a day or two. The ease with which Europeans can visit different countries is very strange for island dwellers like us. But it is one of the charms of visiting Europe, crossing borders easily and finding different languages, geography, food, culture, politics and history.
Our second day in Slovenia involved driving north. We took our time, popping in to see a church near where our friends plan to build a house, and stopping to see the famous Lake Bled, with its lake, island in the middle, and castle on a cliff. In the summer, the water in the lake is a warm 23 degrees. It looked an idyllic place to swim. But I need say no more about stunning Lake Bled. After all, picture, thousand words, etc.
We took our time leaving Slovenia. We stayed off the autostradas, and enjoyed the very scenic Vrsic Pass, very close to the border with Austria. The Italian Front of the First World War moved across this whole area back to Vittorio Veneto (where we were staying), and the road across the pass was built by Russian prisoners of war in 1915. It would have been anything but easy labour, on the steep slopes and in the depths of winter. We passed through ski villages, and now, in the height of summer, the pass was filled with motorcyclists loving the thrill of the bends, cyclists (sources of admiration and disbelief) climbing to 1600 metres and cruising back down the other side, and tourists there to enjoy the scenery. There were few spots to stop to photograph the scenery, so you shall have to take our word for it that it is beautiful. We picnicked near the top of the pass – enjoying a famous Lake Bled Cream Cake which is (for my kiwi readers) essentially a perfect South Canterbury custard square, without the icing, but with the decadent addition of whipped cream between the custard and the pastry top – before we continued along the windy roads, envying the many tourists staying (as we wished we could) and walking the many trails in the mountains and through the valleys alongside fast-running rivers. Finally, another pass took us back into Italy, where we relented and rode the autostradas again. We only stayed a night in Slovenia, but wished we had stayed more. From travellers, that’s the highest compliment we can give.
1. Give yourself plenty of time. In other words, go for a week, or maybe two, take walking shoes and – if you’re European – walking sticks. But if you only have a day, leave early. That is, before 9 am. Because this will take a lot longer than Google maps might suggest. (Though if we had actually mapped our route on Google maps, we would have realised there was about six hours of driving involved.)
2. Driving from Vittorio Veneto, one of the locals recommended stopping in San Vito di Cadore for a coffee and pastry. I was ready for a coffee – it had been a couple of days since my last one, and I was feeling sleepy and a bit grumpy. Coffee (and a pastry) would perk me up nicely. What I wasn’t ready for was the view from the pasticceria.
3. Stop in Cortina, but please don’t end there. It is a charming but touristy town, worth a quick visit. But frankly, the best views are from around Cortina, or on the road out, looking back across the town.
4. Go off the beaten track. Thanks to our Slovenian friends, we went off the main scenic roads marked on the map, and followed the Giau Pass road. This has some of the most stunning scenery I think we’ve seen anywhere. Everywhere we looked, it was gorgeous. I’ve heard the phrase “drinking it all in” but I understand it now. Thirsty for that mountain scenery. Divine. (The Pordoi Pass was also beautiful, But after the Giau, the San Pellegrino pass had lost its fizz and fell rather flat).
5. Ensure your driver is either extremely polite, tolerant, or just as keen as you are to get good photographs, because you are going to …
6. Stop often for photographs. This is compulsory. The views are spectacular, and you want to stop and take advantage of shots when you see them, because around the next corner, the view will have changed, and there’ll be some new splendour.
7. Be unashamed about taking many photographs. Because the views are so beautiful, I was in a constant state of wonder. And that led to wondering if I had already got a decent shot, or whether I needed to take another. So I took another. Who cares if I have too many? All I need to do is delete them. I’m not going to force anyone to watch a slideshow.
8. Stop taking photographs. Take some time just to appreciate where you are. Photographs – unless you are an absolute whizz with the world’s best camera – are simply not going to convey the grandeur of the scenery, the 360 degrees of pure beauty.
9. Take time for a walk. Because the trails and tracks and forests and rivers and mountains all cry out to be appreciated in real time, real life, out in the sun, in the cold. We only wish we had longer than the half hour or so we spent. But time was ticking on (refer back to #1).
10. Eat local specialties – speck instead of prosciutto, hearty fennel seed flavoured bread, and apple strudel (you’re practically in Austria, after all).
and I can’t resist adding another …
11. Make a promise to yourself to come back, to walk all those trails, to ride on all the cable cars and chairlifts that were whisking others to spectacular views and interesting walks, and maybe even to visit in winter. A summer visit though, offers much.
We decided to split our time in northern Italy. Two weeks in the tower (nervous as we were – rightly it seemed – about August heat), and two weeks over in the north-east. This was an area we drove through 22 years ago. Essentially, we went to Italy for a picnic, trying to avoid changing currency (impossibly, as it turned out, when we had to cross into Austria on a toll-way), and drove from Innsbruck to Villach, via the northern part of Italy. We had been enchanted by the views then, so when we knew there was an apartment available in the region, we decided to take it for the rest of August.
Our new home is at the base of the Dolomite foothills, in Vittorio Veneto. Driving into the town, down long leafy green avenues, we were encouraged. It was promising to find a lovely, spacious and modern apartment, with an efficient and helpful apartment owner, and everything we needed within easy walking distance, including parking next door at the back of the owner’s parents’ pasticceria (bakery). At last we were in an apartment without narrow staircases, low ceilings, dodgy internet, and which had sufficient air-conditioning. The view from our balcony – across the roof of a large building next to us – was one of hills, small farmhouses, the occasional vine, and trees. Lots and lots of green trees. A small church at the edge of the view made us smile.
We smiled some more when we ventured out. A bar, set in gardens overlooking the town’s main piazza and municipal buildings, served delicious prosecco and antipasto, as we watched families meet in the gardens, elderly men eat gelato and chat with friends, children play, and lovers love. This was our kind of town.
Elegant shops and banks and restaurants and gelaterias (lots of gelaterias) line the leafy streets. A walk later discovered a walking and cycle path along the river, past houses and apartments, a restaurant on an island in the river, sadly derelict factories, the local swimming pool, playgrounds; a busy, sunny, happy path filled with people on bicycles with places to go, or those strolling, walking off the prosecco from lunch (us), or walking their dogs. This town was getting better and better.
But all this was only a precursor to falling in love. We walked along the tree-lined street as directed by Arianna. Venetian mansions lined the street – who needs to go to Venice? (Even though it is only an hour away by train). And then we saw the entrance to the old part of town. A narrow cobbled street, with ancient houses and an open-sided walkway or loggia underneath. We arrived at Piazza Flaminio. Beautiful medieval buildings, a road through an archway, a gelateria with the best gelato so far in Italy, a trattoria (with mouthwatering roast pork in milk and an entertaining chef), a river/canal, a church and bell tower, and a retreat on the hill behind.
It’s official. I’m in love.Note: Photos to come.