Friday, 27 July 2012

Luxembourg & kniddelen

The Grand Duchy of Luxembourg was the next substantial stop on the north bound run - Janine and I spent a day on the motorway, running between Chamonix and there, and although we enjoyed the countryside views, there just isn't that much you can say about the junk food that is the lot of the long distance driver.  It is an amazingly verdant area - there are very few towns or villages visible in the southern side so you approach through fields and countrysides. Luxembourg itself is a deceptive mix of old and modern, until you get near to the centre, and get a sudden glimpse of the river gorge that runs right through the centre of it. 

The heart of the old town is based around 'Lucinburhulic' the original fortress, started in 963. Over time  it was grown and morphed, eventually ending up as a Napoleonic style fortification built on and through the cliff face, albeit mostly dismantled as a result of the Treaty of London in 1867. The internal 'casements' are however still there, and have been pressed into service in numerous ways since then. In WWII the population of Luxembourg sheltered in them from the bombings, and the remains of the 'sand loos' are still visible, complete with reminder to take your sand with you into the loo. The stench of humanity in such a confined space must have been pretty unpleasant. Other parts of the casement have been made into telephony and electrical hub rooms, and still others are the gold vaults of the national bank of Luxembourg - sadly we were not allowed to tour that part of the casements! Some of the original guns have survived, and one is still standing guard in solitary splendour, whilst the others have been removed to the central museum for preservation, away from the damp mizzle that lines the tunnels.

Luxembourg is also home to the largest stone bridge in Europe - it's quite imposing, reaching as it is across the breadth of the valley. Our guide blithely informed us that as a part of the plans to modernise the city, the bridge is soon to be completely dismantled, strengthened, and since they've got it down and in pieces, widened, and replaced back up 'exactly' as it was before.

In the heart of the city, you find the Cathedral - an interesting architectural experience for a religious building of such prominence, as it is predominantly 1920s and 1930s built. There is also, for some unknown reason, just outside the Duke's palace, a large herd of blue plastic sheep. A somewhat sheepish attendant tried really hard to persuade me that it was bringing world  peace, goodwill and an end to just reminded me why I have little patience with a lot of modern art.

Lunch was an exploration of Luxembourg cuisine - I decided to go for Kniddelen with bacon and cream. Kniddelen are essentially dumplings, and whilst it was a very flavoursome dish and I'd recommend it for a winters day, it sat rather heavily during the rest of our trogging around town!

Val d'Aosta, Mont Blanc & Chamonix

Leaving Bologna, Janine and I headed north up though the Val d'Aosta and into France through the Mont Blanc tunnel. I have to admit to having felt some trepidation at the idea of the 'van going over the Alpes - I wasn't a 100% sure the engine was going to cope, after the fairly hairy journey through the Sierra Nevada in Spain. However,  the road through the Val d'Aosta is cunningly designed to trick you into believing that you are travelling on the perfect flat - and although the satnav showed the height above sea level gradually rising, for the most part you hardly noticed the fact you were going up and up.

Aosta itself is a pretty little Roman town, complete with triumphant arches, amphitheathre and other roman remains. In the summer it's fairly quiet, and seems to focus on the sale of 'porcini' or  Boletus Edulis/Penny Buns for the majority of it's income. It's a different story in winter of course when it becomes a major ski resort and the town nestles in a blanket of white. For us, we had the interesting experience of wandering though the streets in bright sunshine, and 34 degrees heat, whilst surrounded by snow capped mountains. Since we seemed to have stepped into a bizarre world, we decided to add to round it off, by enjoying Virgin Mojitos, and an apple flavoured sheesha, before heading off towards France.

It has been a long time since I've been through the Mont Blanc tunnel, and one of the legacies of the 1999 fire is the severe hike in price to get though. There are substantial safety improvements, with clear delineated driving distances, and escape areas - a good thing to see that the money is being spent on the tunnel management since it cost over £50 to take the van through one way. Once on the French side of Mont Blanc, we stopped to stretch our legs, but also to replan our route - we decided to drop Switzerland from the agenda and stop overnight in Chamonix instead.

 Chamonix in summer is full of fit young things in hiking and mountaineering clothing, striding energetically around. The deep verdant green is a real contrast to the white of the surrounding hills and glaciers, but the river is still the green white of glacial run-off - freezing cold and not suitable for a quick dip! We had dinner in one of my favourite restaurants, and as always, I heartily recommend trying the local cheese dishes - tartiflette is filling and simple, raclette is awesome and calorific!

San Gimigniano & Firenze

Place holder for completion when I get photos off my camera!


Placeholder for completion when I get my photos off my camera!!

Tuffa carved walkways and natural spas : Saturnia, Pittigliano, and Sorano

Placeholder to be completed when I manage to get my photos off my camera, which I've managed to forget in the UK!

More Etruscans

Day two on the trail of the Etruscan dead sees a visit to the Necropolis della Banditaccia, at Cerveteri. It's *another* world heritage listed site (clearly a theme here), and has acres of  tuff built tombs, in two different styles - in circular raised mounds or in long lines of square rooms cut into a mountain edge.  Only some are open for viewing, and less than a third of the actual necropolis is excavated as far as I know.

There is a certain Lara Croft feeling, as you scramble down into the tombs, and push aside plants whilst forging a path between half buried mounds. That said, I bet Lara Croft didn't have to resort to using her asthma inhaler in an attempt to counteract the musty mouldy air within the tombs. Unlike Tarquinia, only one or two have any paintings within them - the majority of the tombs are defined by the carved shapes and the sarcophagi which lie within them. The museum authorities have also set up an interesting 'sound and light' tour, which uses projection, mirrors and theatrical effects to give an idea of what the tomb would have been like 'in life'. It's quite enough to make you jump even when you arent in the tour, to climb down and find a ghostly figure appearing in the cool dimness of the grave!

From Cerveteri, it was a drive back up into Tuscany, passing through a number of hazelnut orchards on the way. It was easy to see why so many people fall in love with Tuscany - the long gentle drive over small country lanes was beautiful.

Fro The evening was spent camped on the edge of Lake Bolsena, with local food cooked at the campsite. Interestingly, it was the first campsite on the entire trip that I've found that required you to buy hot water tokens for the showers - thankfully the cautious approach of buying two tokens per shower was taken, as one certainly didn't last long enough to get shampoo out of long hair!

Tuesday, 17 July 2012

Tarquinia - Etruscans, Necropoli, and flagellation

After an early morning wake-up we finished the run down through the Apennines, Tuscany and into Lazio, arriving near Tarquinia at lunchtime. We decided to have 'lunch on the run' opting for take-away pizza slices and cold drinks. For those of you who know me, I'm not a huge fan of pizza, but this was awesome - two 'pizza biancas' (i.e. without tomato) - one with potato slices, cheese and rosemary , the other with garlic, salt and herbs. The entire lunch including large multi-flavoured icecreams came to less than five pounds per head!

By this time, we were starting to wilt in the heat, so what better to do that to visit some underground tombs? They will be cool, wont they? The Etruscan necropolises around Tarquinia are made up of  some 6,000 tombs, 200 of which include wall paintings. The main site is the Necropolis of Monterozzi, with a large number of tumulus tombs with chambers carved in the rock. The scenes painted include erotical and magic depictions, landscapes, dances and music - life and death in the Etruscan world. Because of the fragility of the paintings, maintenance of their unique microclimate is vital, and not all the tombs are open to visit - they rotate on a secret and unknown schedule, so what you see is what's around on the day.

In addition, when you finish stumbling down towards the tombs themselves you realise that they are closed off behind a thick double glazed iron door, with a push button light up system to allow peering visitors to see inside. The fact that this is both vital and sensible is brought home to you rapidly as you suddenly discover that far from being cool, it's hot, muggy and incredibly humid down at the end of the tunnel, there are drops of water forming on the moss around you, and any dry item of clothing you thought you were wearing can now be wrung out to water a small garden with.

A number of the paintings depict gods and demons of the Etruscan world, such as this colorful pair of Charontes who are guarding the portal into the tomb; or Vanth, a butch looking female, seen here escorting a mother and child into the Netherworld.

Others are less concerned with what happens after death, and more so about how to enjoy the life you have - feasting, dancing and general merriment is very common as a depiction. Sadly, Tomba Della Fustigazione was closed, so I've had to borrow a picture from wikipedia to demonstrate some of the more earthly pleasures depicted!

 Tarquinia itself is a walled city some distance from the sea with the normal maze of small cobbled streets, limited motor traffic and many many churches. As with every good Italian city, whilst on route to your next destination, you can fortify yourself with a quick cake shop visit.

The museum is housed in an old papal palace - the building itself is spectacular, although somewhat faded in it's grandeur. There is a superb collection of Etruscan sarcophagi, all with the image of the person reclining at a somewhat uncomfortable angle on top of it.
Grave goods from the Necropoli around also make up the vast majority of the displays, and there is a remarkable amount of greek pottery on display.

By this time it was heading on to 8pm, so we headed out to Lido di Tarquinia, and camped up at the beachside for the night. Word to the wise : Italian beachside campsites, particularly near Rome are not the most pleasant of areas to stop at. The site was incredibly crowded, with people squashed in cheek by jowl in huge numbers. Avoid!

Ravenna - City of Mosaics

Ravenna is the capital city of the Province of Ravenna in the Emilia-Romagna region of Italy, and is the target for today's high-octane team and I. It's known for its  early Christian monuments and mosaics, eight of which are inscribed on the World Heritage List. Much of the art is Byzantine in style Although I didn't manage to visit all the sites, I managed to visit the majority.

The day started with a visit to the Basilica of San Vitale (548) with its Byzantine architecture and mixture of mosaics, frescos and mouldings. The architecture is very similar to the Hagia Sophia in Constaninople, unsurprising as both sites were created under the reign and guidance of Justinian I and Theodora, his wife.  In addition to a glorious range of ecclesiastical mosaics, there are two striking groups either side of the apse portraying these two benefactors. Whilst Justinian is very much as you would expect a Roman Emperor to look (suave, debonair and slightly dissolute), Theodora is a sad disappointment and looks bad tempered and mean - not at all the legendary beauty who started life as a prostitute and trapped herself an emperor!

From there onto the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia (c. 430), a small very Greek Orthodox looking building in the courtyard of the Basilica. Once inside, the ceiling and walls are covered with the most incredibly vibrant and rich colored mosaics of incredible fineness. The site is controlled carefully to ensure that the microclimate is not too disrupted, but to be honest, I'm really not convinced the approach is particularly valid, as the door is wide open and people traipse in and out throughout the day.

Final stop of the morning was the city museum with a fine collection of orthodox christian artwork to view.

By this time, I was ravenous and also incredibly thirsty, as Ravenna was hot despite the sea breeze. It had become abundantly clear that any weight I had managed to lose earlier in the journey was going to be re-acquired with a vengeance, courtesy of the Italian staple diet of pizza and pasta, but hey, if you are going to have to pay later, you may as well enjoy the now to the hilt  - so lunch was saffron, clams and parmesan gnocchi with a side platter of grilled vegetables!

From lunch, time for a quick visit to Dante's tomb ( as in 'Dante's Inferno'). As the Ravennans did not find the ivy covered mound sufficiently elaborate for such a famous wordsmith, they have constructed a small marble temple just outside it before continuing on to the Basilica of Sant'Apollinare Nuovo (c. 500).

From the outside it is a unassuming and plain mediterranean church, but once inside in the cool shadows, once again you realise it's covered with spectacular mosaics. Interestingly, one wall is lined with male saints, each with a unique face, hairstyle and haircolor; the other is lined with female saints, all with the same face, and almost entirely blond. I know Italians are famous for their dark hair, but almost all medieval art seems to portray the women with blond or mousy hair!

The Arian Baptistry (c. 500) and  Neonian Baptistery (c. 430) are small chapels, adjacent to other churches or community centres.....more mosaics!!

The main Franciscan church is plain and sombre by comparison to the bright complexities of all these early churches, but it had its own little surprise in store for us - head on down under the main altar, into the crypt and voila.....ancient mosaic'd goldfish pond!! Complete with goldfish!

By now we were all starting to flag a little, and decided to head back to the 'van with a brief stop at the 'House of Stone Carpets' - a 14 roomed roman villa excavated over the last few decades and with superb mosaic floors. It's most spectacular center piece is known as the dance of the 4 seasons and depicts enthusiastic folk dancing to the tunes played by accompanying musicians.

After all the color and vibrancy the Mausoleum of Theodoric (520), was really a bit of a let down - it was a large marble building some way out of town with little to no remaining decoration. Despite all of Theodoric's power, it appears he was actually buried in a bathtub - albeit a very very large porphyry one! Do the dead sing in the bath?

Last stop of the day was the Basilica of Sant' Apollinare in Classe (549) before heading off on the long drive down towards Tarquinia.

My satnav is known to be a little dodgy so my passengers decided to opt for good old fashioned map based navigation, which ended up taking us across the Apennine Hills at the Muraglione Pass.  It's a gloriously twisty windy hairpin bendy road, with lots of steep ascents and descents, and probably had the most amazing views - but by the time I managed to baby the van up the hills, the dark had settled, and nothing was in sight! As we started to descend on the other side of the hills, I decided to call it quits for the night driving and we wildcamped next to a ghostly glowing TV set, discarded randomly in the middle of a nature reserve.....