Thursday, 9 August 2007

Arriving in Lausanne

A few days ago we arrived in Lausanne with three giant bags containing the bulk of our belongings (the remainder following us by mail from Florence). I had some concern I might be rejected at the border, due to the ambiguous status of my work permit, but we got through with minimal fuss. Nevertheless, we are keeping a relatively low profile (no point antagonising the situation).

We had managed to arrange a furnished apartment for sublet from a student at the university here who has gone away on holidays. The apartment is in Ecublens, a town on the outskirts of Lausanne, and we have glimpses of the mountains and the city, although we've had a fair bit of rain since we arrived so it has been quite hazy, limiting our views.

Here we will remain for two months, during which we are going to search for a 'real' apartment somewhere around Lausanne that has the right mix of transport, nightlife, and views to last us out our stay.

Actually the rain has been quite nice, since it has given us a chance to just settle inside, cook dinners, and watch DVDs. Hopefully it won't last, however, as there is a lot to see and I'm sure there will be more than enough opportunity to indulge in such 'homey' pleasures once winter comes around.

Cinque Terre

True to form I am only now getting around to posting this, more than a week after we actually returned from Cinque Terre. To be fair we have been rather busy over this week, having packed up our apartment in Florence and made a dash over the border to Switzerland.

You would have to have been living in a box to not know about the Cinque Terre, so I won't go into too much detail. You can read plenty of info at the official website.

We stayed at Manarola, which is the second town up the coast. Linda did an incredible job of finding us an apartment in this town, which I think is actually the nicest of the 5, on the cusp of the peak tourist season in August. Actually, when we arrived, we spent a few tense minutes wondering if they had made a horrible mistake and given us the wrong room, which was somehow bigger and had a better view than the one we had paid for. Fortunately this was not the case and we soon relaxed into our great room with views over the harbour.

I think it would miss the point to try and document where we went and what we saw while in Cinque Terre. We were there, after all, to have a holiday and relax before 'heading off to work'. Mainly we just ate seafood, swam in the Mediterranean, and walked and trained up and down the coast visiting the various towns. The seafood was a special treat, given the lack thereof in Florence - we had some delicious fresh anchovies and calamari.

Since we were staying in Manorola, it made sense to walk to Corniglia and Riomaggiore, which are the towns on either side of ours (the whole 5 mile length was too ambitious for a holiday). The path from Riomaggiore is called Via Dell'Amore (lovers walk). It was the path beyond Riomaggiore to torre guardiola that had the most spectacular scenery, however, looking back along the coast to all 5 towns.

I could say more about the beach at Corniglia (itself built on the cliff-top), which was a disaster on many counts. So much so it is probably deserving of a full blog post of its own.

We also took in the towns from the water, catching a ferry all the way from the west-most town (Monterosso) through to Portovenere (not actually one of the Cinque Terre but, from the boat at least, also a very pretty town).

It took us until the last day, however, to get to Vernazza, which is reputed to be the smallest and most picturesque of the 5 towns. It was indeed a very pretty town, but it was a little overrun with tourists (attracted to it because of its reputation). We spent a very relaxing few hours there taking in the sun, eating pizza-by-the-slice, and popping our heads into the shops (I got a Cinque Terre T-shirt).

Since it was our last day (and actually overcast when we left our room) we didn't have our swimmers with us, so we had to settle for wading in the lovely water in Vernazza. We did, however, manage one last swim at Manarola before getting changed into our travel clothes for the train ride home to Florence, feeling rested but knowing we had a lot of work ahead of us.

All the photos are here.

Thursday, 2 August 2007

Umbria: Part 2

We dragged ourselves out of bed for our second day of driving around Umbria with the goal of seeing only two towns, Assisi and Gubbio. After the previous day's effort of 4 towns this seemed to be a relatively relaxed schedule but Assisi is certainly no minor destination.

Naturally, Assisi is home of the Basilica di San Francesco d'Assisi which is a major pilgrimage site within Italy. Aside from this it is also a very pretty town. Before reaching the town itself, we stopped off at the Basilica di Santa Maria degli Angeli, which contains the 9th Century Porziuncola, where the Franciscan order originated, and nearby is where St. Francis died on the floor of his mud hut.

Saint Francis founded the Franciscan order, which was despised by the Papacy (because of its vows of poverty) but supported nonetheless due to its popularity with the people. As a result of this popularity, Saint Francis was canonised almost immediately following his death, and a Basilica built upon the hill where he was buried. The cathedral that was built, however, could hardly be further from the Franciscan ideals of poverty, comprising an upper and lower church and various chapels, all incredibly richly decorated throughout by the best artists of the times. In 1997 an earthquake severely damaged the Basilica requiring two years to piece together the 300,000 pieces that were dislodged.

You can't take pictures inside the Basilica, although our audio tour did strongly encourage us to visit the shop inside the church, which we dutifully did.

While in Assisi we spent a lot of time wandering around the streets and poking our heads into churches (of which there are many). We also wandered up to Rocca Maggiore, a fort built by the popes to intimidate the townspeople, but which also has excellent views over Assisi and the valley over which it is built.

After Assisi we headed north to the medieval town of Gubbio, where we arrived just in time to jump on the funicular to the Duomo above the town. From here you can catch spectacular views over the town, once you calm down from the hair-raising ride up the mountain in the dodgy little lift.

We also arrived in Gubbio at about the right time for a spectacular sunset, and the resulting streetscapes, had us taking many photos. It also meant we couldn't actually go into any of the sites so we contented ourselves with wandering around the town taking in the atmosphere and grabbing a very good couple of pizzas for dinner before heading home.

The trip back into Perugia was slightly less stressful than normal due to my new Italian driving skills; I didn't even flinch as I went the wrong way up a one-way street to perform a highly illegal three point turn around a median strip. Linda is recovering nicely.

Umbria: Part 1

While we stayed in Perugia for 4 days, we hired a car for two of those to drive around Umbria. Naturally it is a big ask to see a whole region of Italy in two days, and a few hours in a town is certainly not long enough to give it a thumbs up or down verdict, but you have to make do with the time available and I think we did a pretty good job within those constraints.

The first day we headed out to see four towns: Spello, Montefalco, Spoleto and Trevi.

Spello is a very pretty little town with some artifacts of its Roman heritage still visible around its streets. Apart from its photogenic nature, however, there isn't an awful lot to do in Spello. We wandered around a bit, poking our heads into churches, sampling the gelato, and taking photos of the narrow medieval streets before returning to our car. In between Spello and Montefalco we stopped in a field of girasole (sun flowers) where we snapped some photos and I romantically uprooted a flower to give to Linda.

We traveled to Montefalco mostly because it is in the middle of some spectacular scenery on the way to Spoleto. Initially we were just going to stop there for a picnic (and in fact we had already bought some panini from Spello for that purpose), but we stayed to have a bit more of a poke around before moving on. Linda insisted on trying out the local wine and we ended up being served some nibbles to go with it. I expected a huge bill at the end of our little tasting session (and sat tensely awaiting the bill) but we escaped with only light damage to our budget and happily moved on.

Spoleto gets a great write-up in our guidebooks, but when we arrived we saw half the town was under scaffolding. Regardless of this fact it was a very interesting town to visit, not least due to its Roman aqueduct-come-bridge just outside the town. Unfortunately we couldn't walk across it because it, too, was under some scaffolding, but was nonetheless spectacular to look at while having a little picnic of Nutella and bread pilfered from our hostel.

By this stage it was getting quite late so we drove on to Trevi for dinner, and found ourselves a trattoria in a very pleasant piazza with a jazz festival going on outside. Some delicious food later (more pecorino e miele) and it was time to go home. By the time we managed to navigate (wrong way down unmarked one-way street) our way back into Perugia for the night it was quite late and we were exhausted after a big day of sightseeing.