For what felt like the first time in a long time, J and I headed inland and away from the sight of the sea, all our stuff loaded into a hired 1.2litre Fiat Punto, a car that lacked many things (USB ports, Bluetooth, a working radio, anything that passed as an engine etc). Our mission: get to the historic town of Volterra and spend two days doing very little other than sit in a square, drink wine and organise the Tunis/Egypt/Jordan part of the trip whilst watching the world go by.
We were adamant that we wanted to do nothing but on the way up, stopped just outside Piombino at Baratti, an archeological site containing ruins of villages and burial sites dating back to pre Roman occupation. Once again we found ourselves marvelling at the way humans have developed and just what they were capable of, though they did seem to make life a little more difficult than it needs to be at times.
We have been seeing huge modern mausoleums on our travels and concluded they were a way of ensuring unloved off-spring had less money to enjoy as parents insisted huge amount of cash would be spent on these mini-houses. I think there was an equivalent act of revenge in ancient Baratti:
Dad “It won’t be long now son. I can feel myself slipping away”
Son “I’ll miss you Dad”.
Dad “Will you come and visit my grave, so I don’t get lonely?”
“Of course Dad. I will miss you Dad”
“Yes Dad, everyday. I promise”
“You promise? You won’t leave me all on my own”
“Grand. Thanks son. By the way, you’re to bury me up the hill”
“The hill? You mean the little hill out the back?”
“No son, the other hill”
“The other hill?”
“Yes son, the other hill”
“The big, steep, fuck-off hill that takes hours to get up”.
“Ay son. The view ‘ll be great”
“FFS Dad! Really?”
“Really. And I want you to chisel through the rock to make me a nice deep tomb”
“I did. Fuck”
Dad mutters under breath “Worthless little twat”
So J and I found ourselves marching up a bloody big hill to visit impressive tombs undoubtedly sited out of hatred and spite. It the relatives chuntered half as much as one of us did, the woods would have been alive with chuntering.
They were impressive though, and the view from the top was lovely. We then visited its sister site, 10 mins drive away but were rather less enthusiastic by then, and the visit of the two took about 4 hours.
We drove through the beautiful Tuscan countryside rather later than planned and arrived in the hilltop town of Volterra resigned to only one day sitting in squares drinking wine.
Volterra is lovely. The hill it is on is by far the biggest for miles and the views over the rolling countryside are exceptional. You can’t take cars inside the walls (though we missed that sign on day 1 and had to navigate some very narrow streets whilst trying not to squash tourists) and it is properly old. We arrived on a Sunday and were a bit overwhelmed by the busyness of the place, but it was much more laid back on Monday and we really liked it. There is great food to be had, in lovely settings and plentiful wine, Aperol spritz and Gelato. Perfect marathon prep.
From Volterra we drove to Bologna for our last few days in Italy. Bologna was chosen due to the fact we could get a train to Berlin from there. Rather wonderfully our friends Taniya and Clive were able to join us there, on their return from Monza and a cycling holiday (we realised that when we looked a weirdos who spent hours cycling up hills in hard to get to places, we were looking at people like Taniya and Clive).
I met Taniya on a course in the army in 1998. The course was to train officers to be staff officers, so it was brains rather than about ones ability to lug large amounts of kit over long distances on foot that differentiated good from bad. I was in an infantry regiment, so it really was all about the physical stuff…… and the ability to have ones webbing and beret looking good.
Taniya excelled in the brain stuff and was the catalyst in changing my view of women in the forces. At the most senior levels, it’s not about being macho, fit or looking good, it’s about achieving hard objectives in the most intelligent manner whilst keeping casualties to a minimum. At the time women could not get the most senior positions and we were dominated by stereotypes from combat arms. I realised we were missing a trick. So did Taniya and she left the Army. Shame.
Taniya and Clive also excel at a good night out, even more so after I introduced them to Negroni (2 weeks in Italy and no Negronis……l what a missed opportunity). J found a small restaurant down a street that you wouldn’t venture down unless google was pointing you to a good restaurant down it and we enjoyed some wonderful food in a wonderful little, local place. We drank far too much wine, laughed a lot, and woke the next morning with cotton wool for brains. I had to get up and run 8km (I think I may have still been drunk as I did it rather quickly) and T & C had to drive 750km……. in a camper van. My run was the easy option I think.
We had a couple of days to get to know Bologna and it was rather lovely. It doesn’t get any significant tourist attention but should. The centre is historic, lively and relaxing. It is very much a living city and has a big city feel whilst being small enough to get around very easily. There are huge churches, its own leaning tower, another, really tall, tower that you can walk up for great views, lots of squares with cafes and restaurants and a really comfortable atmosphere.
They also have barbers, so I decided to try to get over the trauma of my haircut by Denzil in Lisbon (6 weeks before) and get a new cut. After much deliberation, I chose a place where a guy spoke enough English to understand that “I don’t want to look like a twat again”. The barber took his job very seriously and got out a book of pictures of men’s hair for me to choose a style from. I don’t do style…. I just want a haircut. He consulted J. Not too much more productive than talking to me. He showed me a picture of Eminem……. Close enough……..
Getting up early exposed me to a lovely morning routine. Pretty much every corner has a small coffee shop / bar on it and everyone’s commute involves popping into the local one, having a coffee and a quick chat whilst standing at the counter, then continuing on their way. Not too far removed from the Aussie commute but without disposable cups & staring at smartphones plus much more human interaction. It seemed a great way to start the day.
The pasta is also, almost without fail, lovely. I ate lots of it (on the marathon training plan), washed down with good wine (not so much on the plan).
If you like history, cities, Italy, motorbikes (Ducatti made here and has a museum), pasta, wine, or walking up big towers, put Bologna on your places to go.
Next stop: Berlin.
After the battle of Leipzig, Napoleon was exiled to the Island of Elba, which became a Kingdom with him as King. He didn’t go alone - two of his closest Generals went too.
He had two homes on the Island, one in the main town of Portoferraio, and the other, a villa, in San Martino. Neither are huge and the villa is really rather modest. What I found odd was that he, the King of Elba and ex Emperor of France, had three small rooms on one side of the large entertaining room, and his two Generals had 2 on the other side. There was also one loo, that was essentially in a corridor.
Now, I know these guys were proper battle hardened men, used to living rough on military campaigns, but I found this set up all a bit odd. Do you think they all put on their best uniforms each morning, complete with medals and shoulder boards, then sat around the little breakfast table eating toast? Did they salute each other every-time they saw each other?
Did they sit on the sofa, shoulder boards bumping,, looking out the window, talking about the good old days and occasionally farting………. ‘I know you’re the emperor and all, but we’ve had a chat about your farts……. It’s a very small cottage’
‘But it is the fart of a great man. You should rejoice in having particles of my wonderful poo floating to your nostrils!’
As I said, all a bit odd. (Yes, you are -J).
Elba is a lovely Island: small, mountainous, beautiful beaches, loads of history and good food. We were staying in a small Airbnb between the main town and the lovely Porto Azzurro and close to a little beach (‘a fantastic location’…… if you like living on a main road with nothing around). We hired another little scooter to get around, which was mostly perfect, though a little slow up some of the steeper hills. It is less perfect when it pours down with rain. Then it’s just shit, and I was reminded that being on two wheels is always going to be a bit of luck away from a trip to A&E. However, we got to the villa mentioned above, stopped at one of the most spectacular beaches we have ever seen at Cavoli and saw some lovely countryside (a bit like a small Corsica).
The better beaches of Elba are properly packed and in the areas where you can hire sun beds, I think it would be difficult to move much without contact with a strangers sweaty body. It is an upside of living in a sparsely inhabited continent, ringed with beaches and a sea inhabited by sharks, jellyfish and deadly currents that often one can be all alone on a beautiful beach in Australia.
Despite the busy beaches, we decided that Elba would be the kind of place to spend a couple of weeks.
We got to and from Elba via the port town of Piombino on the Italian mainland. We had only considered it to be a stopover, a way to get to Elba so were very pleased to find it was a lovely town with a historic centre and a lovely coastline. There was also a free film and music festival in the old open air keep which we popped along to. The format was that film clips were played from a particular film whilst a small orchestra played one tune from that film. A great idea and obviously it’s all about picking the right film. The curator of this one was a little odd it seems and in the reasonably short time we were there we saw clips of the famous, soft porn, 9 ½ weeks, the best murder scenes from Once Upon a time in America and some of the sadder bits of Schindler list. The last one did it for us, especially as at the end we clapped…..were the only ones to clap…….. and got odd looks from others. We weren’t clapping millions of innocent people dying FFS, we were clapping the orchestra. But why were we the only ones…..
We picked up a car from Piombino and headed off to the small Tuscan town of Volterra to do sod all other than sit in squares, drinking wine and planning the Egypt element of our trip.
I mentioned before that when in I served in Bosnia in 1995 during the civil war, I asked an interpreter how the nation had sunk so far in terms of civilised behaviour. I have long accepted the answer ‘Don’t judge us until you have been tested by similar circumstances yourself’. This and other experiences has made me understand that civilisation is fragile.
To test this assumption in a very small way, we can observe human behaviour towards each other in situations where resources are finite and rules are not enforced, like the Moby Lines Olbia to Piombino Ferry.
The ferry will be familiar to anyone that has sailed on one of the longer routes from the UK to the European continent. On one leg, it is a night ferry and most people have cabins. On the other leg it is a day crossing and few people take cabins. There are a number of places to eat, there are a couple of bars, there is a bad shop, a video games area, an outdoor bit and a children’s play area. The price of everything is high and the quality low. You know the type.
We were on a day crossing, and this means that every passenger is visible as they don’t take cabins. They all need to find somewhere to sit and a place to call their own for the next 7 hours. We reserved two seats in a lounge for €4 and I’m so glad we did.
For the most part, this situation leads to fairly normal, if not slightly antisocial, behaviour: expendable small personal items left on seats to show they are taken and hard stares are given to people who venture too close. There is also the selfish behaviour of people who don’t care that there is a shortage of seats, they need at least two each because they want to spread out to sleep.
Then there is the behaviour that is normally kept in the bottle through rules. If, on a train or a plane, someone sits or lies in a corridor, a member of staff normally rather quickly asks them to move. Not on this ferry, so in every stairwell, and every corridor people are stretched out on mats, blow up mattresses, towels, and in one case a full blow up bed (see photo). It is less of a ship and more a shanty town. There are also dogs. Lots of dogs. I like dogs and on my first lap of the ship, mulled the question ‘where will they poo and pee’. I got the answer on my second lap. Wherever the fuck they want. Some owners pick up the poo. As poo picking up doesn’t seem to be enforced, others don’t.
There are people lying in bikinis on the deck. It may be so that they have fewer clothes to wash the dog piss out of when they get off.
So, we left Sardinia on our floating poo and pee shanty town after a pleasant week on the island.
After our driving tour of Corsica we decided to take a different approach to Sardinia and confine ourselves to seeing just a small part of the Island: 4 nights in the north eastern town of Santa Teresa Gallura, 3 in the north western town of Alghero, and an overnight in Olbia so we could get the early ferry. This meant we could relax a little more but also means our judgment of Sardinia is based on a very small part of it.
The beaches are incredible. Crystal clear blue water over white sand creates some beautiful colours that J says rival the Caribbean. The easily accessible beaches are very crowded at this time of year, the less accessible ones are reasonably crowded but with thinner, fitter people and the best ones are only accessible by boat. We did a bit of all three types and I loved jumping in the warm clear Med from anyone of them.
Our day on the less accessible ones was around Capo Testa, a small peninsula a few km from Santa Teresa Gallura. The beaches are reached by steep paths, climbing over sharp boulders and negotiating disintegrating steps. We dressed accordingly. Me in Birkenstocks with soles worn to a shine through 100s of km of walking, and J in ultra supportive Havianas. We did get to some beautiful beaches, almost entirely without sharp words, but I have to say, if I were to do it again I would choose alternative footwear. Too much blood, too many scratches and too many times that I thought my marathon campaign would end with a trip to A&E.
For the boat one, we took a small motor yacht from the nearby town of Palau. They take up to 10 but we were lucky enough to to have only 6 onboard. Besides us were a lovely young US/Iranian couple (who were not a fan of the tango tosser) and an older local couple. You can take either motor or sailing yachts to explore the Islands of the ………. If you haven’t done much sailing, this would be a lovely and peaceful way to do it as it seemed that most yachts actually used their sails (in many places, they seem to be decoration). The advantage of a motor yacht is that they have no need for a keel, so they can get more places and on a windy day with limited sheltered anchorages, this is great.
The two US/Iranians were millennials, and, true to their generational stereotype, were bright, thoughtful and abstinent. We enjoyed chatting to them, and very much enjoyed trying to get through a booze ration for 10 people largely between J & I.
The wind led to a lumpy sea so the sensible amongst the party (everyone one except us) did the transits between islands under cover. I thoroughly recommend putting on a rashy and swimmers and clinging on to the bow. It’s even more fun after a bottle and a half of wine.
Santa Teresa Gallura itself is a bit soulless and very much a holiday resort. Most of the town seems to be built post 1950 and there are few buildings of note. There are some good restaurants though and some great negronis to be had. Our favourite place was called …… and whilst not glamorous featured thin, tasty pizza that was mostly ordered ‘half and half’ (a wonderful option for a couple consisting of a veggie and meat eater) and outstanding service.
We had one day exploring the area on a scooter, which I would also recommend. We got to some places we wouldn’t have normally got too, found some mini donkeys (we miss Freddie and Mr P), felt safe and enjoyed the freedom. I still feel like I am in my twenties when I ride a scooter with J hugging me on the back.
Alghero, reached after a 2 hour comfortable bus trip, is nicer and has a lovely old town as well as some good beaches. We were staying on the fringes as usual and most of the time the 1.2km stroll into town along the seafront was pleasant. Our Airbnb was in an area that we wouldn’t have settled in but the place we had was perfect and the hosts hugely welcoming, and this makes up for so much.
The major highlight of Alghero was that Melinda and David joined us, flying from London for a mini-break. Again, it is lovely to catch up with old friends and it was great to have a couple of days eating, drinking, laughing and exploring with them. We did two trips:a day trip on a local bus to Bosa, described by some as the most beautiful village in Italy. It was pleasant but we concluded that the ‘some’ may not have traveled much!
We also went to visit the caves at……. This is a huge cavern with gigantic stalactites & stalagmites and indoor pools, most easily reached by boat. If you like caves, it is worth a visit, but at this time of year it is really a tourist sausage machine and made less pleasant for it. If you do go, do take a boat and not the bus. A boat involves a pleasant view of the coast, a chance to see dolphins (we didn’t), has a bar for a cold beer on the return journey and is timed to coincide with the tour start times. The bus involves a bus, 640 steps down to the entrance and of course back up again at the end of it, and a wait of perhaps 30 mins for the next tour.
From Alghero it was time to leave Sardinia. First we had to get to Olbia, via two trains. The first a modern, air conditioned narrow gauge to Sassari, then an old hot but on time normal train to Olbia. The most difficult bit was the 1km from the station, in the heat of the afternoon pulling bags over poorly maintained, narrow pavements. I had a very hot and irritated wife by the time we reached our bnb. Taxis are very expensive in Sardinia so I have been reluctant to take them (the trip would have cost about €10….. for 1km). J pointed out that this was the price of 2 negronis and we can always afford negronis. Perhaps we need to change our priorities…… She has a point.
Next stop is Piombino, a staging point for a trip to Elba.