A Travellerspoint blog

Siena and The Palio

16 August: Palio di Siena (from Lynda)

Siena was full of excitement on the morning of the Palio. The race was to be run at 7:00pm, but we wanted to catch all the pageantry and processions beforehand, and get into the Campo before it was closed.

Spent the early part of the day walking, visiting some of the main sights, and taking in the atmosphere.

In each of the Contrade, people were gathering at little bars and cafes, eating and drinking and talking animatedly – presumably about the chances for their horse and jockey and so on.

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The Duomo of Siena is an absolutely gorgeous building of striped marble, which can be seen rising above the stone and brick of the rest of the old town. Inside is just as impressive, with a very beautiful ceiling of a dark blue sky with golden stars, and an intricately carved thirteenth century pulpit. There is a Donatello bronze of John the Baptist and lots of other fantastic artwork. We spent along time in the Piccolomini library, which has dozens of huge choral music books, all on velum, with lovely calligraphy and tiny detailed paintings. But the real highlight are the huge panels on the walls, with the most gorgeous paintings by Pinturicchio, telling the story of Piccolomini's life.

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The crypt under the alter was also incredible – it was only discovered in 1999, when many tonnes of 13th century rubble was removed, to reveal walls covered in frescoes. They looked very early and simple compared with the Renaissance works upstairs, but amazing nonetheless.

Next we went to visit St Catherine, who is a major saint in Italy. She was born and lived right in the centre of Siena. She was a very dedicated activist, petitioning popes and political leaders for all sorts of causes. Her family home has been made into a sanctuary, and is right where the Noble Contrada of the Oca (Goose) has its headquarters. Strapping young men were pulling on their red and green costumes amid huge excitement – we could see them in a third story across the street from the Casa di Santa Caterina.

Catherine had worshipped at the nearby Domenican cathedral, which now has a chapel dedicated to her, and many paintings of her. Although she is buried in Rome, parts of her are here in Siena. Too much information.

We spent the next couple of hours watching the various Contradas in their processions around the streets. Each is led by a drummer, followed by various pages and knights in armour. There was often someone looking grand on horseback, although we noticed that none of these people could actually ride – probably they are the heads of the Contrada. Everyone is in beautifully made, highly colourful medieval costume. The stars in each case were the two flag bearers, who continuously performed the most spectacular display with a pair of huge banner-like flags, which they waved, twirled, swept and leaped over, then flung into the air in perfect unison. Huge roars and applause fro the crowd, and they walked on and started again. This went on for many hours, with rival Contradas inevitably passing in the narrow streets. By now the streets were totally packed and the trattorias, pizzerias and gelaterias were doing a roaring trade.

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It was also getting hot by three o'clock, but we were keen to get a good spot, so we battled through the crowds to get a spot near the railings in the Campo. We joined the locals who had been there since seven in the morning, and waited in the baking sun, while the Publico Assistienza di Siena (like St John's Ambulance) carted the wilting and fainting out on stretchers.

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At about five, the fabulous swords-drawn, battle charge of the thirteen police horses happened again. More exciting when you knew what was going to happen, the second time. Lynda videoed it and tried not to swear so much in astonishment this time.

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The Contrada entered the Campo in a continuous parade and progressed very slowly around the race track. The crowd cheered loudly every time a pair of flags went into the air. their were brass bands, mounted, costumed characters in huge numbers and awesome costumes. Four massive white Marrema oxen pulled a huge heavy cart, called the Carrocchio, carrying a host of trumpeters and the Pallium, the silk banner for which the Contrada are competing so fiercely.

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As the time for the race drew near, all the flag bearers gathered on the track in front of us for one last enormous, dignified show. Wonderful. Directly across from us, under the facade of the Palazzo Publicco were stands filled with all the people in medieval costumes from each contrada. Hundreds of them, all sitting to watch the race, after their long day of parading.

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Finally the time for the start of the race. The whole Campo became completely silent, as the starter announced the starting order. As each name was read out, there were huge gasps, or sighs, groans or hisses, depending on allegiances or the advantages or disadvantages of each position. Nine horses line up on the track behind a rope, with the tenth further back, on the outside. When the starter thinks each has an equal chance, he sends off the tenth with a run-up start and they all go.

We don't know if what followed is normal practice, but it was amazing. A big part of a rider's skill is displayed in the start, apparently. Our little book says, “Each rider uses all his skill to keep a good starting position for himself and to obstruct the others, seeking to guess the exact moment at which the field will be off.” In practice this means lots of jostling and whacking each other with whips.

It took ages for the horses to all get into position, and then lots of wheeling and turning, and no chance for the starter to send them off. It went on for ages, and then he sent them all away, and they circled on the track again. This happened several times, maybe to give the horses some relief from the stress? (doubt it) Then everyone got exasperated, the crowd began to shout at the starter. There were several false starts, where the whole field took off, only to be stopped by a deafening cannon blast, followed by roars of disappointment from the crowd. They cantered a lap anyway, and tried to line -up again. This happened three times, with riders coming off each time (remember they are bareback). The tension was incredible, with the silence of anticipation giving way to murmurs, then grumbles, then screams of frustration. A Sardinian bloke threatened to kill the arrogant young locals if they didn't get off the fence, and we all nearly joined him!

The sun went down, and the lights came on in the palzzos, an hour and half had gone by.

When the race finally began, the relief was immense. We all rushed to the rails to see the horses flash by, only a metre or two away. They had three laps of about 500 metres to run, and it was beyond exciting. The riders all stayed on, and had no time for thrashing each other, any more. They sat so well, as they flat-out galloped around the sloping, packed earth track, dodging ancient buildings and negotiating hair-raisingly tight corners. On the last lap, the Aquila rider tried to take the worst corner too tightly, and bumped something, lost balanced and was flung into the wall. The triumphant Contrada[/] of the [i]Civetta (the owl) went insane, as their rider cross the finish line and everyone jumped the fence to flood the track. As the madness swarmed and trumpets blew, banners waved, we climbed up into thee stands and watched, exhausted, for half an hour or so, before heading out to find some food.

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We got terribly and completely lost, wandered the territories of some very dejected communities, sitting on chairs in groups on the streets, talking about missed chances an the failings of the starter.

We also crossed paths with the Civetta mob, deliriously and probably dangerously happy, carrying their jockey on their shoulders, singing loudly and waving flags, to the beat of many not so well disciplined drummers. It was just like an ill-disciplined bunch of soldiers returning from war in a crazy state of mind.

We eventually found a place to eat and had a delicious lasagne with eggplant, then got more lost, and finally staggered home.

There are more photos from Siena in the photo gallery for Italy: http://www.travellerspoint.com/photos/gallery/users/hazelnutty/countries/Italy/

15 August: Siena (from Lynda)

We are in Siena for a couple of days, in between working at a sheep farm in Umbria, and a goat place at Greve in Chianti in Tuscany. Getting here was a long, hot adventure, because it was a national holiday yesterday, and no buses were operating. At first we were stuck in Valfabbrica for nearly two hours, then Maria-Antoinetta, Pasqale's sister, came and saved us, and drove us to Perugia. After all sorts of attempts to get to Siena, we finally got a train to Florence, and another here, which took four hours – the bus we had planned to catch was only one and a half hours. So, we got here at about 4 o'clock, to the amazing Camping Colleverde Siena. It's a very fancy camping ground, and we have a great little cabin, with a bathroom. The place is completely full, as is every other accommodation in town and for miles around, because this weekend is Il Palio - the Palio di Siena.

It's the 600 year-old traditional competition between the guilds of the ancient city of Siena. The main event is an insane horse race around the Campo, the big shell-shaped piazza in the centre of the town. We are very excited to be here, and if last night was anything to go by, today should be fantastic.

Palio is the name given in Italy to an annual athletic contest, very often of a historical character, pitting the neighbourhoods of a town or the hamlets of a commune against each other.

This horse race is nuts – you can read about it on Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Palio_di_Siena

The final practice race for the Palio

The city of Siena is a very well-preserved old hill-top town with endless curving narrow streets, with palazzos and other grand buildings them. it is very compact, within it's walls, which were used to defend the city in centuries of battles with Florence. The town itself is also strongly divided, into the guilds, or Contrada which are its 16 neighbourhoods.

Each Contrada is represented by a colour, a flag, an animal emblem, songs and all sorts of other traditions. They are fiercely competitive, as we saw when hundreds of people proudly marched through the laneways and took up their positions around the campo, singing loudly and with faces full of pride and at times, aggression towards other groups.

It was amazing to wander in and out of the boundaries of the different Contradas – beautiful banners marking each area. The guild symbols are fantastic, there is an elephant, an owl, a dolphin, a dragon, a turtle, a unicorn, the tower, the woodland, the shell, and even a caterpillar and a snail. The banners are very beautiful, and everyone wears a large silk scarf with its design tied loosely around their shoulders, to indicate their allegiance – a very brave thing to do, considering the punch-ups that happen every year. The build-up, even for the practice, was massive. The Campo, an enormous arena, which slopes down to the base of the tower, was completely packed. Must have been tens of thousands of people. Mostly locals, but also heaps of visitors from all over the world.

Stands of seating were in packed with locals and others who could afford a ticket – they start at 250 Euros. Hundreds of children in each Contrada formed very colourful, boisterous blocks – singing like crazy.

The police formed a line and walked around the sand track that runs around the perimeter, clearing people off it. They were followed by sweepers with big birch brooms. Thirteen police horses, with riders in gorgeous blue and red costumes rode into the campo, led by a single horse, then the twelve in formation behind. They trotted a very disciplined lap, then the riders drew swords, pointed them forwards, stood in their stirrups and galloped a full- blooded charge around the track. We could not believe it.

Next came the Palio horses, for their practice. They are beautiful thoroughbred types, and were mostly out of their trees. The jockeys ride bare back, in medieval costumes, and the horses wear matching bridles and decorations. Of course it took ages to get them to line up, and then within half a lap, two riders were off. The practice then became a sedate canter as the two loose horses lapped the field, creating havoc. It was all over in a couple of minutes, and a cannon blast prompted everyone to jump the fences and swamp their horse, burst into song, and eventually leave the campo. Crazy. Can't wait for the real thing. As Maria-Antoinetta said, “I can't go to the Palio – I think I will have a heart attack”. Now we now exactly what she means.

As we wandered back through town, crowds gathered to watch reruns on television in every bar and restaurant. We made slow progress, because every little piazza was closed, and gorgeously set for a huge dinner for one of the Contradas, with waiters ready to serve a banquet on long tables. They looked lovely, with their banners and colours against the stone of the old buildings, all glowing in the evening sunlight.

Posted by hazelnutty 05:01 Archived in Italy Comments (2)

Farm 1 - Sheep in Umbria - Week 2

Some Pictures from the farm

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There are more photos from the farm in the photo gallery for Italy: http://www.travellerspoint.com/photos/gallery/users/hazelnutty/countries/Italy/

Wednesday 12 August: ANOTHER Big Day Out (in a hire car) (from Hilary)

Arriving at the Gallerie e Kennedy in Perguia, we took the elevator up to Piazza Matteotti, to the Conti shop to find a long whisk for Coccorano's kitchen. Downstairs supplied everything you could ever want made of fabric, upstairs had every kitchen or party accessory you could need. There were 4 different kinds of whisks- we chose the big one. And some more pear juice and apples.

Pottering down the main street, we passed Sandri, the pasticceria shop that has been in operation since 1860 or so. It has paintings on the ceiling, beautiful old timber cabinets and an incredible display of Italian baking. In the window were the slices of chocolate cake that have toffee shaped into water splatting on top, with a cherry placed in the centre. The effect is the appearance of the cherry just hitting the surface of the toffee, creating a splash, on the to of the cake. Ingenious. Snake-shaped cookies are also the go in Perugia.

Further down, we passed a bikini shop where everything was 50% off. I found something I loved for $20..

Whisk, bikini and apples in my bag, we skipped along to Piazza Italia, where I confirmed with the bus-driver that he was going to the station, before buying two tickets at the ticket box. It's amazing how far you can get with an Italian vocabulary of about 10 words, most of which are completely useless in practical situations, such as formaggio and nocciola.

The sun was really blasting down by the time we got to the stazione. We found Avis Car Rental, and mum organised a small car for the day. Whacko. We got a tiny 2-doored red, shiny FIAT- very groovy. We are yet to learn how to open the windows on a FIAT 500. After a few tentative stalls, mum got the little beast rolling along, through the roundabout and away. I kept saying 'Are you on the wrong side of the road??' 'Go slower!' 'This way??' 'Aren't we meant to be going to Rome, not Florence? Aaargh!' 'Don't hit the barriers PLEASE!' I was a very comforting passenger.

First off, we headed to Todi, a small town claimed to have one of the most renowned squares in all of Italy, the Piazza del Popolo. Todi's history dates back several millennia, all enclosed within its Etruscan and Roman walls, along cobblestone paths meandering through narrow alleyways.

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Not realising just how tiny this hilltop town was, we accidentally drove our little FIAT right into Piazza del Popolo itself. Oops. We had a good view of what everyone was eating in the cafes as we crept past. After gazing at the breathtaking view of old houses and olive groves, that stretched out into Europe's ubiquitous haze, we explored some of the town's old alleyways. Stone arches reaching across to adjacent buildings, the entire city seemed to be connected, seven metres above ground level. Washing hung out of windows, music wafted through shutters and through the empty streets, bringing this ancient world of stone to life.

We visited a small shop kept by an old woman selling towels, tablecloths, table runners, hand towels... all seeming to be unique items, all beautifully made in colour schemes of orange, lime and beige, blues, emerald or crimson. She also sold everything from candle holders to serving dishes.

Up the street, the duomo came into view, a huge cathedral at the top of a grassy slope. A combination of Romanesque and Gothic styles, this cathedral had solid, round arches, but also elegant columns that stretched up to the tall Gothic windows above. There were very few paintings or frescoes decorating the walls, but the smooth, white walls and marble pillars created a stunning effect- absolute composure and clarity. Gazing up at the elegant arches and walls devoid of complications, every visitor must experience at least a moment of serenity.

We decided to climb up stairs that lined the huge, square bell-tower, for a view of Todi in its entirety. When I say climbing the bell tower, I mean that at the top, we really were standing beside 4 large bells, and even a pigeon's nest. Over the sea of tiled roofs, we could see more farmland and forest and tiny hamlets scattered across the rolling hills. Talk about idyllic settings! To the other side was a huge duomo on the outskirts of the city, Santa-Maria Consolzer, which is said to hold a perfectly geometric Greek Orthodox cross. The town walls created a sort of stretched-out triangular shape, and in the nearest corner was a hill covered in forest and patches of vineyard, olive groves and gardens. And it's probably been comparable to the present-day view for a thousand years or more.

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We were really pushing the time limit of our parking spot by this stage, so we trotted down the stairwell, though the elegant church and into the glaring sunlight to find our way through little alleys back to the car. The clutter of plates and hot, rich kitchen smells wafted from around every corner- it's beautiful to see such an ancient city still so incredibly alive after all this time, with plenty of the current occupants having ancestors who lived inside these walls for many generations prior.

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Back on the road, we rolled through steep hillsides and under open tunnels, flanking a thirsty river, to where it rested in a shallow lake. Following our noses, or fate, we headed up a steep hill to Chita-something de Lago, a much smaller town, free of tourists. Or anyone, for that matter. Well into siesta time, there was not a soul on the streets, only the sound of laughter and cutlery on plates from within the stone walls that had slowly been thinned by century upon century of wind and rain. The only signs of human life were the cars parked outside every door, washing hanging out of windows, and the grand displays of flowers lining the stairways of the particularly garden-proud residents. Oh, and the 6 year old boy selling his old magazines and toys at his doorstep.

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Slightly ravenous by this stage, as it was after 2pm, we pottered along to Orvieto. Mum told me that Narni was near here, the town that CS Lewis based the Chronicles of Narnia on, from photographs, as he never actually went there. And so, as we ascended the steep road up to the city, I began seeing Narnia-esque images everywhere; a garden with lamp-posts, a fortress fit for the 4 grown monarchs.

SEVERELY dehydrated and hungry, we staggered into a LP-recommended cafe for a quick bite (roasted vegetable and pesto panino for me, joy) before heading on to the duomo. The walls of the body of the cathedral was made of horizontally-striped black and white blocks of stone, which I think is beautiful, but is completely out of character with extraordinary facade that everybody sees first. Characterful stone creatures, such as lions, angels and COWS, leaned from the marble walls, that were coloured by stunning mosaics, with golden tiles that glinted in the afternoon sunlight. One could stand there for an hour and still notice new things.

Inside was equally dazzling. In the left chapel stood a fresco, the Last Judgement, which is said to have inspired Michelangelo to create the Sistine Chapel. The right wing held the piece of cloth for which the cathedral was created. During a ceremony, wine, seen as Jesus' blood was said to drip onto the cloth. The occurrence was promptly declared a miracle and the duomo made in its honour.

But history aside, this cathedral was one of the most impressive I have seen yet. Sitting in the aisle, I think I gawked at the back wall for about 30 minutes, only to find that there was even more detail that I had not yet noticed. Skilfully done-up frescoes surrounded the tall, tinted window in the centre. Below stood around thirty wooden throne-like seats that lined the 3 back walls, presumably used for priests during major events. Intricately carved wooden arches set into the walls, stunning little marble arches embroidering the huge walls whose size I am sure I did not really grasp, huge, historic paintings... this place showed what beauty the ingenious human mind is capable of conceiving and creating, powered by passion and dedication.

Just as I had no fear of thousands of graves at night in Japan, presumably because I have no prior association or understanding of their culture, I am yet to see a group of Asians behave entirely appropriately inside a cathedral. I have seen them literally skip down the aisle, chatter in groups, flirt and giggle, take loads of flask photographs... only upon seeing how they behave do I realise how much our behaviour in churches is influenced by our society's perception of them, and what our mothers ingrained into our heads and we were growing up. Equally, I hate to think how many ways I offended Japanese and Mongolians in their temples, purely due to a lack of understanding.

Once again, our parking ticket was nearly finished, so we headed back to Piazza del Popolo, though streets filled with shops selling all manner of stupid little trinkets for tourists. Madness. On the way we visited a cafe selling very cute slices and the biggest array of chocolate blocks I have ever seen, all in gorgeous Italian cardboard packaging.

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Squeezing through tiny cobblestone streets, mummy did a fantastic series of kangaroo-hops that made us feel like we were 4WDing in a city. We more or less jumped straight back on the freeway, where going at 120km was outrageously slow for most of the Italians passing us. Old farmhouses crumbled in paddocks, left to be consumed by blackberries, while other houses stood waist-deep in corn crops for the summer. The patches of forest make the landscape seem not so artificial and barren, as do the constant signs warning of deer crossing the roads.

We got off the freeway part-way home, to wind through more stunning hillsides for 40km or so back to Perugia. Oh, and of course, we had to have the little bit of added excitement of wanting to get the car back to the station within the hour. Sugoi. More olive trees, cypress trees, tobacco and maize crops, and stone buildings- the things that make this landscape Umbria.

Arriving at Avis Car Rental with 10 minutes to spare, we caught a bus back up to Piazza Italia, where we had only 40 minutes before our bus left for home. Not enough time for tea, so let's have a gelati! We visited the gorgeous 150-year old sweets shop, Sandri, where I got a nocciola (hazelnut) ice cream. Standing outside, we watched a beautiful orange streak of light shining down an alleyway and into the tables set up in the main street. Just one of those special moments. We didn't even know how to photograph it, so we just looked and licked.

Oh, then we got greedy. We remembered our favourite gelati shop from the other day in Perugia, and had anothery. The nice man let us have 3 flavours each. I don't really know what half of mine were- fig, a pink berry and a deep, delicious red berry. Maybe a currant. I don't know. But I could live on it.

Licking away as we stood on the 3 underground escalators to the bus terminal, I realised that we only have a few days left at Coccorano. Now that's scary. I feel like we've barely gotten started, yet that place is the closest thing I've had to home in months. But we are going to another farm with goats! What a bittersweet thought.

The sunset was glorious. Quite literally, glorious. That was certainly one to remember- pink, peach, orange, gold and that lime-ish colour that is neither a cool yellow nor sky-blue nor green at all, really.

There are lots more photos from Todi in the photo gallery for Italy: http://www.travellerspoint.com/photos/gallery/users/hazelnutty/countries/Italy/

11 August: Assisi (from Hilary)

While we were working on our suntans, late in the afternoon, Siobhhan came up and asked us if we would like to go to Assisi. They were practically leaving, so I ran to ask Marjatta, and jumped into the car. It was just Siobhhan, mum and I in the car. My god she's funny. She said she used to love travelling, but being pregnant and managing prams and kids all the time these days, it's not quite the same. 'You always find yourself pushing some stupid pram up steep cobbled streets in the blazing sun, all to see where some Saint or other died.' Something to that effect.

Being with Catholics, we were embarking on a bit of a mini-pilgrimage; first, to the Convent and Chapel of St Clare. The frescoes were damaged in a 21st-century earthquake, very sadly. Inside, I was content just sitting in the chapel and appreciating that this was where St Clare had lived, and where her body lay. But Margaret, an Irish nun, took us upstairs into the actual convent, where the public are not allowed. We saw the room where she mainly lived, and up some stairs, in the corner of a room, was the flower-marked corner where she had passed away. Anne reminded Grace of the story of St Clare, asking 'Do you remember that when St Clare was dying, she asked for the cherries?'. I didn't understand, but it must be amazing for them to see all their bible knowledge manifested in real places. A Brother beckoned us to leave as they were closing- mum took a happy snap of the courtyard from above as we were ushered out.

Outside, Grace and Bridgette lit candles at the altar, before running up the olive tree-lined staircase, and heading for the car. How Umbrian- a path through olive trees leading to an old stone convent, also flanked by the odd cypress.

From there we headed down towards the city of Assisi itself. On the way down the hill, however, we approached a nun and priest in full robes, walking along the side of the road. 'Are they looking to hitch hike?' A second later, they both stuck our their thumbs. 'Yep.' We stopped, dragged the baby seat out of the back seat, and let them in. They were a Columbian nun and Jamaican priest, booth headed for the train station to Rome. It was 6:36. 'So what time is your train?' 'Six forty.' Our calm and peaceful driver jammed her foot down on the accelerator, much to everyone's amusement. We got there with 2 minutes to spare, and our hitchhikers blessed us and gave us each a photo of Our Lady. Didn't see that little event coming!

Next was the Santa Maria Agneli, a massive church for St Francis- inside stands the little chapel where he used to pray every day. It still stands in there, although I suspect the stunning frescoes and artwork on it were not there in his time. Beside it was a sort of walled off area with a beautiful gate, marking the spot where St Francis had died, only metres from his little chapel, which was then surrounded by forest, not a huge marble cathedral.

The cathedral was huge, with quite elaborate decor, despite St Francis' choice of self-imposed poverty. He was not a decadent personality, but I guess the most revered saints have to have stunning cathedrals, irrespective of their stories. We visited the rose garden, where, to this day, thornless roses still grow because Francis cut all of their thorns off and they never grew back, Margaret explained to me.

The most bizarre thing I saw was a statue of St Francis, holding a basket, inside which stood a single white pigeon. I thought it was fake- it wasn't moving, and it was in a dark corridor- no pigeon would nest there. However, passing the same statue again, we were all shocked to find that there were now two pigeons there, in St Francis' hands, both well-and-truly alive. Why were they sitting there? Margaret suggested that they knew it was a special place. It was truly bizarre.

Outside, the clock hit 7pm, and the bell-tower broke out in song. Grace, mum and I watched the two bells swinging back and forth, their noise reverberating off the roofs and along our alley, filling the air with a stunning, smooth echo. Bridgette hadn't seen the pigeons nor the bells ringing because she had stayed inside the duomo, and, being little and tired, she then burst into tears. Blaaah.

What a beautiful city it is. So peaceful and clearly loved. So old. They even had a gelateria.

On the way home, Bridgette came in our car to be with her mum. I didn't mean to, but I wound her up, and soon we were both in fits of laughter, winding through picturesque Umbrian forest and farmland with the sun dipping behind the hills. Crying Girl was now very much transformed into Joyous Girl, and kept asking me questions and playing and giggling. I felt like I was 5, too.

Back at Coccorano, we had a lovely dinner of pumpkin risotto and a stew of zucchini, meat, carrots and onions, followed by a desert of custard tart, topped with our blackberries. Truly delicious. We had a great group chat, as we ate at the table with the 6 of them, which extended well past baby Anne's bed time; she was completely out of it, flopped over her mother's shoulder.

Posted by hazelnutty 07:57 Archived in Italy Comments (0)

Farm 1 - Sheep in Umbria - Week 1

10 August: Another day’s work (from Hilary)

It was already pretty balmy outside by the time we were done with cheese-making, but we agreed to have another shot at the Hilary & Lynda Vege Garden Project. I was a bit sore from yesterday, but with a bit of tape on my blister, I went a-hoeing all morning long. We spent several hours planting all the cabbages, fennel, summer lettuce and winter lettuce. I hoed, 'ship-shitted', re-covered the trenches, and watered in after mum had done the planting.

We finished at 12:30 and so had a bit of time for a swim before lunch. I jumped in with mum, while the mad kids ran around the edges. George screamed his face off because he's scared of dogs.

For dinner, we made a pretty appetiser with orange tomatoes that tasted like heaven, separated by mozarella slices and covered in olive oil, sale, pepper and basil leaves. The effect was grand. And the colours of the Irish flag. Marjatta had also made the good old cheese, zucchini and zucchini flower sauce for pasta, also white, orange and green. Definitely intentional.

Sunday 9 August: New arrivals and making ravioli (from Hilary)

As usual, mum woke me up at 5 minutes to 8... I headed up at like 8:15. The new guests are three families from Cork, in Ireland. Shiobhan, mother of three of the wild kids, sat on the step with two of them. George, who is three, said “Hello” - we love those Irish accents.

Pasquale had left a jug of sheep milk for us to try. It was a lot stronger than normal milk, but also creamier. I liked it, even though it had no association to the stuff I had drunk every morning of my life.

Mum said 'We're making ravioli this morning!', in fact we made enough for 16 people, all on our own! After grabbing my camera to record the process, we got stuck into it. Using the pasta machine, I thinned each clump of dough from size 1 down to size 7, along the way, learning how to make them fairly square at the ends and and even width all along. Yay!

The Pussy Cat Dolls song from Slumdog Millionare came on the local Italian radio station, which made mum dance, while I wanted to spew. Then 'We Are Sailing' came on, and we were both happy. I'm such an old nerd. I ran out of dough so Marjatta showed me how to make more: 280-300g of flour, 2 eggs and a dot of oil. Blend. Brilliant.

Mum managed to put the blobs on, fold the strip over, and cut it into squares in almost exactly the same time as it took me to make the bands. Perfect! We ended up making about 130-150 squares. 10 per person, probably good for a 4 course dinner. Marjatta then said 'Pasquale has bought some plants for you... hahaha'. More jobs? This was a great morning!

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I got my iPod for mum to garden-bop to, and we dragged the pile of seedlings out of the car and over to the fairly barren little vegetable garden. They were in polystyrene blocks, with little cups within that. Why haven't Australians thought of that?

Pasquale showed us where and what to do, and once again we were left to make that vege garden by ourselves. I did all the hoeing and throwing 'ship shit' (as Pasquale said, I think he meant 'sheep droppings'... cough) into the channels. Mum planted away, singing to the Presets and Missy Higgins, while we were both eaten alive by all manner of flies and prickly bushes. And there were enough rocks in that dirt to make a stone wall!

The sun blasted down on my dark hair, and before long I was dreaming of a big, cool jug of water. The three Ca'Mazzetto kids headed across the paddock with the blackberry basket, preceded by a soccer ball bouncing across the garden. Ta. Watch the baby lettuces.

We planted and watered in the majority of the summer and winter lettuces, before taking refuge inside our big stone house. The Irish crew were at Mass, so we had another naughty dip in the pool before lunch. Risotto. Pasquale, the purebred Italian, doesn't like risotto that much. Nor does he like tomatoes. At what point does one become un-Italian?

Mum and I had a lovely nanna-nap as the sun blasted down on our poor little lettuces. When we woke, the sky was grey, thunder rumbling in the distance. It was a lot cooler, so we headed back out to our little vegetable patch and planted all the cabbages, lightning booming overhead and soon rain followed. All my hoeing resulted in a blister in the most perfectly unavoidable location on the palm of my hand. Sugoi. As the rain poured down, we gave the cabbages a good soaking, and jumped back in the pool.

Mum 'I think we're pretty much asking to be struck by lightning here'.

Me. 'Nah. That tree'd be hit first'.

Mum 'Ah yeah'.

She'll be right, mayte.

Prosciutto laid over melon, our glorious ravioli, grilled meat, pannacotta with caramel on top. I taught Amelia and Pasquale what 'oishii' means. But they said 'Oshii' instead. And they say it all the time: not only to say 'delicious', but also 'hello' and 'goodnight', and pretty much any other time.

The Irish kids helped with packing up the table, only tonight they were in full - force. There were thousands of them! Even the 18-month old baby tottered across the room, watched what all the other kids were doing, and after 3 stern observations of the whole process, she joined in. One by one, she brought serviettes across the dining room and into the kitchen, displaying it to me with a slight smile. Kids are clever.

I drank about a litre of water after finishing all the washing up. As we walked down to the house, the two kittens leapt out from the lavender bushes and shouted at us. Their mother jumped into an olive tree nearby. They were on the job. Look out, crickets.

Friday 7 August: A day off in Perugia (from Hilary)

Waking up late, I bolted up to the house to scoff down some cereal, before we headed down to Valfabbrica with Marjatta. We had 10 minutes before the bus to Perugia arrived, and so explored the market that was being set up in the fountain square street. Mainly daggy clothes and shoes, but I got a couple of bananas and peaches. A little loyal husky-ish dog sat outside the Milk Bar, where we waited.

We meandered through hillsides and villages that were becoming vaguely familiar, for one stunning hour. Sunflowers hailed the sunlight, and this sun-dried landscape braced itself for another scorcher. The stone houses in every village kept their shutters closed, but people were still out and about, making the most of this gorgeous morning.

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From the bus station, we climbed the hill through the underground escalator (scala) to the huge Rocca Paolina, where we had been bombarded with driving rain a few days prior. Now the sun was blasting down; the heat penetrating our skin. We headed down the Corso Vannuchi, past the Piazza Italia, to the Piazza IV Novembre, where half a dozen men where balanced in a vertical line on scaffolding, passing up consecutive pieces of the structure. Nifty. One man had to do tightrope walking, without being clipped in, to get to another pole. Definitely up to Australian safety standards.

We decided to follow the Brown Route in the 'Guide to Perugia', a book that Marjatta had lent us, which was a loop around the eastern side of the city. Starting in the Piazza IV Novembre, we headed east, to a COOP store to get some brilliant pear juice. I noticed that 'Pesche' seems to be acceptable in Italy, despite being the French word for peach. Passing the ancient Church of Gesu, not welcome to tourists, we headed down Via Cartolari, and meandered through tiny passageways, where we were often shaded by the high buildings all around us, even in the middle of the day.

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The Arch of Lillies (Arco dei Gigli) is one of the 5 major gates in the city's ancient circular Etruscan wall. Traces of the original Etruscan wall can still be seen in the present wall, which was rebuilt in the Middle Ages. That's young! We grabbed apricot and chocolate gelati, which we ate in the shade, foreign university students wandering past all the while. Walking through narrow streets reminiscent of Gamla Stan (Stockholm) but with a far shabbier appearance, we caught a glimpse of the Church of Santa Maria Nuova- first built 8 centuries ago. Yaawn. What next? A 15th century fresco? Yep. In the Chapel of San Severo, a fresco by master Perugino and student, Raffaello, still stands in the chapel after 600 years of ongoing use.

Giving the Church of the Compagna Della Morte (Company of the Dead) a miss, we headed down into the gloom of a 37m-deep Etruscan well. When it was first built, it was open at ground level, but over the last 2300 YEARS, a bit of matter and dust has accumulated, leaving the well's ceiling several metres below street level. As if.

After a quick bite to eat, we visited the Cathedral of San Lorenzo, which stands above Piazza IV Novembre. The marble columns in there would give the Russian cathedrals a run for their money. I cannot believe how distinct the character of each cathedral we visit is, but also how each country seems to create a different air inside these massive monuments that unite and represent its people. Like the streets of Russia, Russian cathedrals had a slightly macabre atmosphere; Japanese temples capture the serenity and peacefulness of their patient, quiet people; Mongolian temples are, well... dishevelled, but full of passion. Italian cathedrals capture the strong pride of their people, yet the monks' sandals and single wooden chairs convey the laid-back character of this hot Mediterranean country.

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In the centre of the Piazza stands that Fontana Maggiore, a fountain built to commemorate the restoration of Perugia's aqueduct in 1322. Mum and I agreed to cram it in, as usual, and try to do part of another circuit before our bus left for Valfabrica. One of my favourite sights of the day was not heavily featured in our books- the Palazzo Arcivescovile, or Archbishop's Palace, was built 400 years ago; Latin writing carved into its huge facade, and below, an arch of white and pink granite stones, laid in horizontal layers, creating a warm, earthy feel in an otherwise grey or painted city.

We headed along a walkway, part of the 13th century, 5km-long aqueduct, which carried us above the city streets to where dogs barked from the 3rd storey and women hung their washing out of their windows. Then getting off our little highway, we walked through more Gamla-Stan-esque narrow alleys and down to a university Chemistry building. In the underground floor, behind glass, lies the incredible Roman mosaic of Santa Elisabetta. The 2nd century black and white-tiled floor depicts Orpheus, whose songs lure every kind of animal to him. The floor was originally used in a bath-house, and later was part of the Santa Elisabetta church. It was incredibly intact, considering how old it is, and how practical it had once been.

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By then we only had half an hour to get to the bus terminal, so up, up, up we went in the steamy afternoon heat. After gelatis number 3 and 4 for the day, (H banana & choc chip, L grapefruit & pine nut) we descended back down through the underground scala to the bus, where mummy had some more pizza. I had a bite because bus station pizza is brilliant.

Another hour of windy Umbrian roads left me worse for wear- I was glad to be back on solid ground. Amelia's troupe were rehearsing in the fountain square, where they would compete in the talent quest that night. I daresay, Amelia sure knows how to shake it. Gosh.

Pasquale kind of forgot to pick us up for like, half an hour, but eventually the RIGHT tiny silver car arrived before us- everyone seems to have a little silver car in Valfabrica. It was the last night that we would be serving the Dutch crew, and my god did Marjatta cook up a storm. You don't realise how badly we massacre pasta at home, until you eat it in Italy. Lesson for the day: you are eating pasta, so don't drown it is sauce. Eat good pasta so that you only need a slight hint of sauce for it to be really interesting. Subtly delicious. The shop-bought pink cake for dessert really impressed the two Dutch girls. We had to finish up early because the talent quest started at 9pm.

We noticed that all the music gigs in Perugia also started at 9 or later, which is later than you ever really see in Australia. Italians are ragers, I guess. Amelia's item was up first, a fairly saucy number in little black costumes with bob wigs, every colour of the rainbow. Awesome.

There were a lot of karaoke-type performances by older people, some good, some not so good, a performance of Pink's 'Who Knew' sung with an Italian accent, a trumpet-horn-whoopie cushion act among others. Amelia's second performance was great; Hawaiian outfits and some hilarious choreography. A young girl did belly-dancing to a song including words such as 'innocence is lost'- we suspect the irony of this was lost to the Italian audience. In the end, a young man with an incredible voice came out on top, thereby earning himself the pleasure of being bombarded by a dozen hyped-up 13 year old girls dressed in Hawaiian gear.

There are lots more photos from Perugia in the photo gallery for Italy: http://www.travellerspoint.com/photos/gallery/users/hazelnutty/countries/Italy/

Wednesday 5 August: Making pecorino....

Pasquale crashed into the kitchen, heaving a giant can of sheep's milk from the dairy, and poured it into our big cheese pot. We heated it, and Marjatta soon went back to the house to do paperwork, so mum and I were left to mind the milk, or cheese-to-be, pot. When it was body temperature, I put 3 caps of the rennet into the pot, and then turned it off. After 15 minutes it was setting, and Pasquale came in and said give it another 5 minutes.

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Pasquale had a different technique to Marjatta. He whipped the curds and whey up a lot more- the curds so broken up that they were more or less liquid again. While Marjatta had made the curds be pressed to the bottom of the pot, Pasquale made a big sausage, which he then chopped in half. Well, in two.

He plopped the first one into the drainer and then swore as he realised that the two halves were not remotely equal. He's good at swearing.

We helped squeeze the two cheeses down. Pasquale explained that the hotter they are, the better they mould, so the more dense the product is. He put the whey back onto the stove, and after 10 increasingly aggravated minutes of stirring, he realised that the flame had gone out. 'Aaaah.'

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I stirred and scraped the bottom of the pot until the ricotta started to float. He wanted it to be 75C. Hoooot. Mum was on ricotta duty, putting the cheese into the little draining cups. I took photos. As mum put the last pieces into pots, I headed out to the dining room where, in the mean time, Marjatta had laid out a beautiful lunch of leftover stew, mozzarella, ricotta, bread and salads. Oh, and meat, which I didn't try. Amelia, their 13 year old daughter, came to lunch too.

We chatted and occasionally Amelia would say 'ugh?' to Marjatta, who would promptly translate the entire conversation into Italian. And she speaks Finnish, French and Swedish. And German. Why not. Amelia left the table in a flurry of overt moans and high-speed Italian. Mum and I couldn't help but giggle. I don't think what she said was cute, though, because her parents did not laugh. After chasing out the 3 kittens and packing up, we were allowed to have a break, to avoid the midday heat.

Marjatta called us after a couple of hours, to pick some blackberries. We got a big basket and marched across the paddock, hopeful for lines of kind, manageable bushes laden with ripe and juicy berries. Ha ha. In our sandals and thongs, skirts and shorts, we climbed over the sticky, sharp bushes to grasp at tart but dehydrated berries. Joy.

We stuck it out though, like good little WWOOFers, while nearby, Pasquale carried sheep fencing down the steep hill. Under the scorching sun, a huge ball of fencing balanced on his shoulders, he yelped and cursed in very emphatic Italian as he staggered along. Fair enough!

After a couple of hours, we managed to half-fill the big basket, and triumphantly marched back up the hill with our prize. The sun, in the mean time, had ceased to make the golden hillsides glow, dipping behind our huge hill.

How to make pasta:

1/ Flour, eggs, a drop of olive oil. Mix. Should be dry enough to be solid, but not so dry that it won't mould easily.

2/ Use rolling pin to flatten out until as flat as can be, ensuring that there is enough flour on the surface to stop it from sticking.

3/ Fold into sort of spiral, and cut into 5-10mm strips. Open out spirals and lie them out to dry. PASTA.

When you have learned to do it the traditional way, get a pasta machine!

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3-6 August 2009: On the Farm in Coccorano

Pasquale and Marjatta and their three teenage kids live on the family farm, with Grandparents, Uncles, Aunties and cousins. They have 400 sheep, which are milked, to produce Pecorino cheese and ricotta. They also grow various cereals and sunflowers, make olive oil and run an agriturismo, which is like a farmstay with meals. At the moment their guests are several families from the Netherlands and Belgium.

There is a lot to do, and the day is very long for Marjatta, who gets up at 5:30 to make bread and is still cleaning up until very late at night. The evening meal has four courses, and uses a lot of local organic (bio) produce. We even had boar a couple of nights ago – Pasquale said we had to eat it, because it had been eating his crops.

The sheep are getting milked once a day We have made two lots of cheese, and helped with cooking and meals. We have done a lot of washing up. We've picked blackberries, gone for walks and been out to a festa last night.

The cheese making is done very much by hand, and we are starting to get the idea of it. Great fun, and the product is delicious. Pecorino is a firm cheese, aged with a salt rind, and there is lots of whey left over to make the most delicious ricotta, which is nothing like we have ever tasted. It is very sweet and light in texture.

We are between Gubbio, Perugia and Assisi, the area is very beautiful. There is a ruined castello on the ridge below the farm, and many signs that the area has been settled for a very long time. It is great to live is a stone house, and to have Italian spoken around us all day every day. We think we'll learn a lot here!

Here is a link to their website for more information and pictures: http://www.camazzetto.it/index-en.php

3 August 2009: Bologna to the Farm

Bologna to Perugia involved a change of trains at Florence, and then a really lovely trip along the shores of Lake Trasimeno, passing through Arezzo and Cortona. The last part towards Perugia was stunning, as the train took a wide curve around the top of the valley, with the old walled city of Perugia running up a ridge on the skyline. As we headed up into the town by bus, black clouds gathered, there was thunder and lightning and blasts of dusty wind that had everyone running and shrieking. We bolted from the bus at Piazza Italia, under an arcade that overlooked the incredible Umbrian countryside. A few big splats and then torrential rain. A crowd of us stood and enjoyed the show.

We were to catch a local bus for 40 minutes to Valfabbrica to be picked up by our WWOOF hosts at their farm, Camazzetto, at Coccorana. This involved heading back down the hill on the “scala mobili” a set of escalators that ran downhill through the tunnels of an old fort. Very atmospheric.

The bar at the bus station sold the best wood-fired oven pizzas, so we had a piece of margharita for lunch and jumped on our bus. The trip took us into farmland, with olives, sunflowers and other crops. We were met by Pasquale at the bus, and made the 5 km trip up to his farm at the top of the hill.....

1-3 August 2009: Bologna

Another train trip to Bologna, where the Hotel Il Guercino was a huge treat. Near the station, in a quiet courtyard, terracotta lime wash and groovy decor. REALLY nice bathroom, air con, cheap internet and bikes for hire and, as it turned out, fantastic breakfast. Heaven. We immediately decided to stay two nights, to get ourselves organised before our farm stays.

Here is the hotel website: http://www.guercino.it/ - the "Discover Bologna" video on the left gives a great overview of the city Bologna (in English or Italian!)

Bologna was one of our favourite places yet. Very lived in, with a massive medieval centre, all red bricks, and block after block surrounded by arcades at street level, and very heavy restrictions on vehicles. It was really pleasant to walk and cycle around, and would have taken days to really have a proper look.

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We found the Piazza Maggiore, with it's churches, palazzos and yet another orchestra rehearsing! We saw the “impressively muscled” (Lonely Planet) Neptune statue. Had pasta and gelato and hit the sack.

Spent the next morning doing washing and having long chats on Skype with family.

Went out on bikes and followed a local on a bike through gorgeous narrow streets until we were completely lost. Spent a few hours visiting several churches and a great archeology museum. Who knew the Estruscans had been so creative and prolific? It was amazing how much had been dug up under the streets of Bologna. A couple more gelati later, we found a Lonely Planet recommended Trattoria and ended up having four amazing courses.

Rode back to see some of the real performance in the Piazza Maggiore, which was being recorded for television. First was a big dramatic number from Madama Butterfly, which we mostly missed because we were chatting with a woman from Queensland we had met earlier in the museum. It is nice to chat in English sometimes!

The bikes rolled quickly downhill on the cobblestones of Via Independenza, to our lovely home at Il Guercino and we promised that it was a moment we would always remember.

Parma

..... was wonderfully quiet, especially as we got there as the market was finishing up and people were heading home for a few hours. It's called “la pausa” and it's a very good idea! On the winding medieval streets, nothing was happening and the shutters on the houses were closed.

We managed to leave our bags at a bar, and wandered until we found the Duomo and the Baptistry, closed until 15:00, of course. They are considered among the greatest in Northern Italy, so we decided to return after more of a stroll. Very beautiful paintings and frescoes filled the cathedral. The dome had an amazing Correggio painting of saints and bible figures streaming up to heaven through clouds, very lovely.

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Milan

Milan was hot and hectic, we eventually found the Hotel Demo, and went to have a look around.

The Duomo is a very ornate white marble Gothic affair, on a large square. We explored the old centre, and followed a quiet pedestrian street to the Castello Sforzesco. It's massive, made of red brick and very Italian medieval in appearance, but largely rebuilt after damage in various wars

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Passing an arched doorway in a very high wall, we heard music and glanced inside. There was an outdoor stage and seating, and a fantastic orchestra was rehearsing. It was still hot, although the courtyard was in shade, and all the musicians were in shorts and sandals. We'd love to know more about them, because they were outrageously good. We sat there for a blissfully long time, as their youngish conductor took them through a massive wad of music.

The leader of the first violins had an instrument P Kirkbride would have loved. It was very old and beautiful and with a rich and delicious sound. We took a photo of the trombone for Gramps. The stage was set for an opera, and the singers were in the audience, singing along.

Wandered through gardens and streets full of designer shops, ending up at a park where dogs ran around off lead. a very happy park. Back at the hotel, the internet was expensive and crappy, the street was really noisy and we were way too hot to sleep. Glad to leave.

Loved the Trenitlia automatic ticket machines at the station, they were really easy to use and they give change. Yay!

31 July 2009: Friday train to Milan

Made our final Metro trip to the Gare de Lyon, for our train to Milan.

It's amazing how many people have little dogs with them on the trains, in shops and restaurants. They have groovy little harnesses, or get carried in bags, baskets or backpacks on bikes and motorbikes.

The train to Milan was incredibly full, and everyone had heaps of baggage. We stopped at Chambery and people piled in, and the train left, but it took another 15 minutes till everyone was in their seats. Lots of “Excuse me, but I think that's my seat”.

Saw a pair of wild boar with 6 or 8 babies running around in a forest clearing. A huge lake with castles on the southern slopes, our train followed the northern shore. The architecture became more Swiss, with steep roofs and barns, then more Italian. The Alps were just as spectacular as further north, and then we were in a very long tunnel, and emerged in Italy.

More castles, then flatter country, then we were in Turin.

Posted by hazelnutty 05:00 Archived in Italy Comments (1)

Switzerland and France

including the Tour de France

Photo gallery for Switzerland visit http://www.travellerspoint.com/photos/gallery/users/hazelnutty/countries/Switzerland/

Photo gallery for France visit http://www.travellerspoint.com/photos/gallery/users/hazelnutty/countries/France/

More Photos from Paris

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30 July 2009: A day out of Paris in Caen

Whizzing through the very beautiful countryside in Normandie, on another train. Hedgerows, tiny fields, horse studs, dairy cows, apple orchards, half-timbered farmhouses and barns and little villages with Norman churches. Spent a great day catching up with Maddie Harrington, who is on exchange for the year, near Cherbourg. We met at Caen, the pronunciation of which I cannot properly explain phonetically – it's a bit like cong, with a silent ”ng” The train trip from St Lazare was lovely and we are sitting on the other side of the train for the return trip, seeing a whole different view.

Maddie was pretty excited to be speaking English, and it was basically 6 hours of non-stop talking. We wandered through the town and did some window shopping (which we read somewhere is léche-vitrines in French – literally “window licking”! Hilary and Maddie bought us lunch and we found a shady tree on the slopes leading to the Norman castle and basically spent our time chatting. Got the low-down on being a French student, and shared family memories and gossip. Had a very nice time. Lloyd phoned in the middle of it all.

Lynda explored the castle and its ramparts, while Maddie and Hils kept yacking.

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A bit more of a wander as we headed back through town, where Maddie impressed with her fantastic French, in purchasing parrmiers, maccaroons and little muffins, from a very nice looking selection in a pattisserie. Unfortunately, in the rush for Maddie's train, (which were almost in time for!) the tasty treats were forgotten, and Lynda and Hils had to eat them later. Oh well.

30 July 2009: Horse Spectacular at Chantilly

The Grand Ecurie at Chantilly, north of Paris is the most incredible building. It is something like 150 metres long, and looks like a palace. It was built in the early 18th century to hold 200 horses and 500 dogs, to be used for hunting by French princes

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We were there to see an equine performance, but not too sure what to expect. The stables were open, and we were able to watch about 10 riders working horses in a ring in one of the beautiful courtyards. Visitors came and went, but H and I stayed for an hour or so, as various horses came in to be warmed up before the show. The standard of the riding was very high, with most of the horses doing movements that indicated many years of training.

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As usual, we had our favourites, and as usual H fell for the biggest, chunkiest one – black, feathered, with a very intelligent eye and awesome movement, possibly Friesian? The riders were all very elegant, rode very quietly and addressed any issues quietly and skilfully. For us, it was enough of a show, just to see how they worked with each of the horses. They were obviously stabled, well fed, and very full of beans.

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The show itself took place in a 20 meter arena in the centre of the long wing of the stable block, with a high vaulted ceiling, and tall, narrow windows. As we arrived, we were given a program, which looked like a history of Chantilly, tracing its origins as royal hunting lodge, its flourishing castle and gardens, race course and its surviving the French Revolution etc. It turned out that the show was to retell this story, with horses!

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What followed was truly spectacular, and the effects created with such highly trained horses were really astonishing. In gorgeous costumes, the riders performed very elaborate formation rides to music, in about 10 different “scenes”. As well as the 8 large greys and blacks, there were a pair of palomino ponies, four miniatures and a donkey. We loved the very solid taffy gelding used for a vaulting display, and an arab mare who performed all kinds of incredible moves at liberty, in response to small hand gestures from her trainer.

It was over too quickly, but we got some photos and will never forget it.

We spent a couple of hours in the “parc” of the chateau itself. Classic gardens, by Le Notre, with parterres on an enormous scale, grand avenues and lots of woods. The vast “English” landscape garden was absolutely beautiful. It had very mature trees, a swan lake and vast swathes of seed-sown meadows of flowers.

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22-27 July 2009: Geneva, Annecy and Paris

That thing happened this morning where you wake up and have no idea where you are. Then the bells of two different churches rang and I remembered that we are in Paris, between the Place de La Republic and the Bastille.

The past few days have seen a lot of action, and we're feeling a bit dazed!

First we said goodbye to Lloyd in Geneva. Tears were shed, and we were back to just the two of us. It has been so great having the three of us together to share the fantastic places, the responsibilities and the laughs. A very good travelling team.

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So, down to Hils and Lynda. On Wednesday we borrowed bikes from Alan and Kate, and set off with maps and snacks to explore a quiet rural corner of Switzerland, along the Rhone and the border with France. We covered a lot of ground, on bike paths, quiet country roads and “bush tracks”. We rode through woods and fields of sunflowers, vineyards, tiny villages and farmyards. Saw people driving horses in carts, moving cows, carving stone, ploughing ground and working in gardens. Crossed the Rhone and climbed hills, sat and watched the world go by and stopped to take snaps.

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Got rained on in Aire-le-Ville and then baked by the sun as we rode through vines on a ridge before we dropped back down to the shady back roads before Geneva. Lovely.

The next day, Kate and Alan very kindly took us to the station at Annemasse, where we caught the train to Annecy, to see the Tour de France Time Trial (TT). Left our bags in a cafe near the station and headed through the ridiculously picturesque little streets and along canals towards the lake.

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It was a great day, with plenty of time to see riders going off one at a time, and great access to the team buses and the action there. Highlights were the chance to see Stuey O'Grady hanging out, incredibly relaxed and chatting at the back of the team (Saxobank) bus, before his ride and Cadel Evans on the cool down bike after his, joking with fans at the Silence Lotto bus.

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As the hot favourites got out on the course, we headed back to the finish line, and watched the big screen and the track! It was great, the crowd really getting involved and cheering the riders as they flew past us, after the finish line. Plenty of Australians, but also Dutch, Spanish, American and Pommy cycling nuts, including many fit looking types. Saw a Collingwood, a Richmond and a Swans jumper. What the? We are always hearing Australians in any crowd – a classic at the TT was a full-on Aussie accent declaring “Pft, Cancellara – what a freak.” Comment from a young bloke walking with a mate and glancing at the Swiss champion on the big screen.

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At the end of the day, we thanked the blokes at the cafe (and had a hot chocolate) and jumped on the TGV to...... Paris!

Arrived late, negotiated the Metro to Voltaire station and found our way to the Garden Hotel. Crashed for a big and very solid sleep. We love the neighbourhood, which is VERY cosmopolitan, and has little corner shops, boulangeries and cafes. The Hotel's internet fails and we have wasted heaps of time trying to get it to work. Across the road is the best little park, a classic railed rectangle with huge trees, shrubberies, park benches and a very popular playground – it even has WIFI! But it doesn't allow Skype and we can't do more than check emails.

Got ourselves a five day Paris Visite transport pass, and we have been giving it a hiding!

In the first two days we built on our previous picture of Paris (9 years ago) by starting with the familiar places and filling in with long walks through new territory. The Louvre, Tuileries, Place de Vosges, Musee D'Orsay, Musee des Arts Decoratifs, the Marais, Les Halles.

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Then the Marche de Barbes under the metro line, a fantastic, hectic fresh produce market, packed with women in spectacular African dresses and Arabic men with overloaded shopping carts. The view from the top of the Arch de Triomphe really shows the layout of the boulevardes of Paris. Moulin Rouge, Jardin des Plantes. Lynda visited Saint Chapelle, a gorgeous Gothic gem, with 15 stained glass windows 16 metres high.

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The Jardin de Luxembourg was a great place to be with thousands of people, late in the afternoon. A bit like the riverside in Kyoto, here we hit on the place where people came to relax and play at the end of the day. They were here to read, sleep, play tennis, hang out at cafes, meet and chat. Children played with little sailing boats on a pond, rode ponies and donkeys and enjoyed an amazingly creative playground. There were huge areas of trees, lawns and ponds with fountains, all edged in the most beautiful flowerbeds, about 2 metres wide, with a stunning colour scheme of yellow, white and purple. Incredible.

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On Sunday, the Tour arrived at the Champs Elysee at about 4:30pm. We had a prime position because we had been there since 9:00! while waiting, we made friends with people from New York, Spain and France. We bought an umbrella to shelter from the sun, and took turns taking walks. Lynda did a 10km lap of the whole circuit, right around the Petit Palais, the Tuileries, Rue de Rivoli and Rue St Honore and the Champs Elysee. Hilary went looking for a toilet. It was amazing and kind of amusing that the whole event was so well managed, with maybe a thousand police to direct tens of thousands of people, but no toilets! Hilary asked lots of police who looked puzzled and shrugged their shoulders. She eventually found a suitable bush near the Orangerie!

We were exhausted by the time the “Caravan” (a huge procession of all the team and sponsors vehicles, with loud music, tooting horns, dancing and give aways thrown into the crowd) arrived. The Champs Elysee crowd was about 10-15 people deep.

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The riders arrived as one bunch. So exciting!! Apparently, they are all pretty pumped to roll onto the cobblestones, too. It is a very big moment. As they flew through their 8 laps of the 6.5km circuit, we saw them 16 times, and we had a huge screen beside us, to see all the action.

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There were people hanging out of all the trees, and the crowd cheered madly. The final sprint by Cavendish, lead out by Australian Mark Renshaw was a great ending, although we were happy that Hushovd got the green jersey. A hundred photographers mobbed Cavendish right in front of us, after he crossed the line, and we were very close to (but behind) the dias, for the presentations. Our Spanish friends cried out, “Bravo, Contador, bravo!!!” We exchanged contact details with our new friends, Louis and Zara and chatted with Lloyd (on the phone), who had been watching in Gippsland in the middle of the night. We dropped into the Champs Elysee Clemenceau Metro station and said goodbye to the Tour. What a day.....

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20-21 July 2009: Tour de France in Switzerland Again!!

We spent most of Monday packing up stuff for Lloyd to take home. Lynda and Lloyd went with Alan and Kate on bikes down to Paquis on Lake Geneva in the middle of town. There were a lot of people sunbathing (in various states of undress) but very few were in the water even though it was sunny and quite warm (because it was 11C!! as we soon discovered). We had a very quick swim and a nice lunch.

For Lloyd’s last day we decided to make it an exciting one, so Lynda, Hilary and Lloyd drove around to Martigny (at the east end of Lake Geneva) to watch the start of Stage 16 of the Tour de France. We arrived in good time (3 hours before the start) and wandered around town marvelling at the massive amounts of organisation that goes into the event. We watched the tour “caravan” go through at 11am (this is a procession of 60 or 80 vehicles with advertising and give aways that leaves a few hours before the start) and saw some of the riders “sign in”. We had a perfect spot next to the starting barrier. Because the stage passes over the Col de Grand Saint Bernard, there were of course loads of Saint Bernard dogs in tow around the start. We cheered the riders off on what was going to be a very arduous day’s riding and watched on the big screen for half an hour or so before buying a couple of souvenirs.

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Having farewelled everyone back in Geneva, Lloyd caught a flight back to London then Melbourne. It had been a great holiday with the girls which started exactly a month before in Irkutsk, Siberia.........

19 July 2009: Tour de France in Switzerland!!

We got up early and trundled on bikes over to the local market in France at Collonges-sous-Salève, just a 15 minute bike ride from Alan & Kates. Great stuff and mostly reasonable prices.

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Having spent the previous day cleaning up and getting ourselves organised, we decided to dash into central Switzerland to get a glimpse of Stage 15 of the Tour de France. We managed to find a spot at Vaulruz near Bulle, just of the freeway, and waited for about 40 minutes for the cavalcade to come through. Before the rider there were 50 or so cars and 50 or so motor cycles over a 30 minute period. We could tell when the bunch were getting close as 3 helicopters emerged over the hill low to the ground. We got a quick view as a bunch of about 12 came through then the main peleton followed about 3 minutes later. There were 2 stragglers off the back – poor things.

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We then took a scenic drive to Gruyères, home of the famous cheese, that was nearby. Very picturesque.

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We then traced a route that back tracked along the Tour de France for that day. All the little villages had bike sculptures and old bikes hanging on lamp posts. More Swiss flags than you could ever imagine. And picnics and parties every few km to celebrate the passing of Le Tour through their town.

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The scenery was also lovely – very neat and very Swiss......

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We finished our day with a brief visit to the lovely monastery town of Romainmôtier and a drive along the Jura before heading back to Geneva.

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Posted by hazelnutty 05:03 Archived in France Comments (2)

The Italian Alps

13-17 July 2009: Gran Paradiso National Park

We drove down to Italy through the Mont Blanc tunnel and passed through La Thuille, following some of the route of the Tour de France (Stage 16). On the recommendation of Rosevita, we undertook a half day walk to Lago D’Arpy – very picturesque. We then pushed on to our campsite up the incredibly steep Valsavaranche valley.

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Our gorgeous camping ground at the top end of the Valsavaranche lays claim to being the highest in Europe. We set up camp looking up the valley to spectacular and dauntingly high and steep mountains, and checked out the maps, planning five days of walking. We were in the heart of the Gran Paradiso National Park, in the Piedmont area of north western Italy, close to Mt Blanc, the Matterhorn and dozens of other seriously big mountains. The Valsavaranche is a very high mountain valley which runs south of the Val D’Aosta.

Days 2-3

Ruing the drop of 300 metres down the valley to the start of our first walk (knowing our legs would have to make it up later in the day), we set off from Eaux Rousses, a little bunch of stone houses on the river. The walk went straight up the lower slopes of the glaciated valley wall, and as it got steeper, began to switch back and forth. We crossed areas devastated by avalanches last winter and wandered through beautiful larch forests. After a couple of hours we came out into alpine meadows, where the wildflowers were stunning in their variety, lovely colours and extraordinary numbers. It had been a very long winter, with metres more snow in April, so the Spring flowers were at their peak. Gushing rivers coursed through lush green valleys and plunged over drops towards the valley.

It was climbing all the way and we had made a late start. We began to wonder if we could make it to the Rifuge Chabod before dark. We had booked beds in the mountain lodge, which is one of dozens in the mountains, run by the Italian Alpine Club for climbers, skiers and walkers. Our progress was slower than the signposted times, partly because we spent so much time stopping to look around and take photos, and partly because three hours of up really wears you out. A quick lunch of bread, goat’s cheese, pretzels and apples, and we pulled on the packs and hit the trail again.

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At the Levionaz d’en Bas we refilled our water bottles at the icy cold spring, and kept going. We passed a hardworking crew mending and building the stonework for the often very steep paths, and smiled and said, “Bongiorno!” as we passed.

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At the next hut, Levionaz d’en Haut, we met a fellow on the way down who knew about the route we were to follow. In French he explained that the way crossed moraines, skirted around the bottom of a glacier, and traversed the very steep ridge, before we would need to use the chains and ladders bolted to the rock face to make it over the Col near the Torre del Gran Neyron at 3245m.

We were a bit worried, but keen to give it a go. As Hilary said, “Come on, it’s the Harrington way!” She was referring to the many previous near-debacles in the outdoors, for which our family is famous. Time was getting away, so we plodded on, crossing creeks and climbing a very narrow gravelly moraine ridge, always looking out for the yellow arrows painted on rocks here and there, to mark the way. Soon we were walking across snow drifts, the markers and stone cairns had become more sparse, and we hadn’t seen anyone for an hour. We stopped to repair a very large blister on Lloyd’s heel and ate some more pretzels. The climb got steeper, and yet the ridge on the skyline, which we had to cross, still seemed to be hundreds of metres above us, and we couldn’t imagine how we were going to get over it.

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Eventually we convinced ourselves that some lines in the snow were old tracks and followed them, until we saw a steel ladder on a massive boulder about 100m above us. To get to it, we climbed very steep snow and then an even steeper slope of big, loose rocks. Lloyd and Hilary were going well, but Lynda was mildly terrified of the climb above and not at all pleased that many of the rocks moved and rocked underfoot. By the time we got to the first chains, she was a complete mess, and alternated between whimpering and cursing. The chains were there to make it possible to climb a very exposed section of rock for about 150 vertical metres. They were great, but hard work, carrying a pack. Lloyd huffed and puffed, Hilary cruised up, stopping to take photos, while in between them, Lynda flew up so fast that her arms ached for days afterwards. It was great to be at the top, and to look back at the climb we had made. It was also 7:00pm, and the climb down and the track to Rifuge Chabod were not clear. We rang the hut, to say we’d be late for dinner, and were told it should take an hour and a half – “we will wait for you,” they said.

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So we set off down the not quite so steep northern face, but soon came to more soft, steeply sloping snow. We had to traverse to our right for more than a kilometre on this, because we were above a rocky drop, with no other way down. Lloyd suggested we just slide on our bums, but we all gave up on that after getting up too much speed. Hilary told him (in very direct and colourful language) to get lost. We tried all sorts of approaches. Lloyd was braver than Lynda and Hilary, who tried a combination of heel stamping and bottom shuffling. Lynda was in fact fairly hopeless and ended up with a little bit of frost bite, while Hilary sunk up to the tops of her legs, and was dangling above a void.

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We finally made it onto some grassy ground and massive rock slabs, and made great speed. We found the track again, and after a speedy 30 minutes of crossing rocky (but thankfully solid) ground, we made it to Chabod by 9:00pm having seen nobody for more than 5 hours. We had used all of our map reading and outdoor skills to get there.

It was a pleasant surprise to enter the toasty Rifuge after hours trundling through snow in the fading light. After peeling off our snow-drenched clothes, we staggered upstairs to dinner. We were treated to a fantastic and hearty 3-course meal - delicious stew and local alpine cheeses - just the sort of thing one dreams of when stuck out in the icy wilderness! Lloyd had a beer, the girls didn’t need to - we were all falling off our chairs without it! While exhausted, we all lay in bed with hearts racing - too pumped to sleep, but very happy to be alive! We had climbed more than 1700m and pulled off another ”Harrington adventure”.

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The walk from Rifuge Chabod to the Rifuge Emanuel Vittorio was very beautiful. We pottered along, enjoying a slower pace, making sidetrips to waterfalls and stunning views across the Valsavaranche. After a fairly sleepless night, we had been woken by many of the other people staying at Chabod, as they got up at 4:00 am to climb Gran Paradiso, the 4061m peak above us. Thudding boots, jingling crampons and ice-axes, they ate an early breakfast and crunched their way uphill.

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We traversed for about three hours, climbing over moraines, crossing alpine meadows, snow drifts, rocky ridges and wildly full rivers, fuelled by snow melt. We loved the artisan-built stone bridge, the one-off never-seen-that-before wildflowers and the feeling of being very high above the valley.

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The Emanuel hut was surrounded by sweaty climbers who were on their way down from Gran Paradiso, looking exhausted and very happy. We had pasta and hot chocolate on the deck outside, before starting the spectacular descent to the valley and our campsite “home”. We had a gorgeous stop at a tiny hanging meadow, with a ruined “Alpe” or hut, and views so clear across the valley.

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Days 4-5

The Lonely Planet “Walking in Italy” guide inspired the next two days, which they commended as a top walk in Italy. It involved climbing the opposite side of Valsavaranche, over the Col de Collet, and into the next valley. So we set off up the madly steep track we had seen the day before from the Emanuel ridge. It zig-zagged, and crossed little grassy meadows between boulders and climbed amongst cliffs.

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Two hours later, we reached the Col, and took a breather. We had lunch and a flower spotting stroll on the broad shelf below the Col, and then headed down more ridiculously steep zigzags, overlooking the Piano del Nivolet. The valley was broad and open, grassy and full of flowers and lovely old hut ruins. We walked upstream for another 3-4 km, and told off the marmots who constantly called alarm calls to one another as we passed, but would not show themselves. Finally came to the Rifuge Savoiea, where we spent the night.

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Before dinner, though, we did a side-trip recommended in Lonely Planet, among a series of hanging lakes in the high valleys above. Swirling mists covered the tops of magnificent mountains, and cut out the late evening sun. It got cold and we go hungry, and we started to wander back down to the hut, laughing at the absurdly spectacular scenes that unfolded over every hill, and around each corner.

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We met the beautiful Valdostan cows of the family who own the Rifuge. They were very sturdy, red and white, black and brindled girls who were extremely friendly. They really loved the salt from the sweat we had put out all day!

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Dinner was again a delicious three-course affair, and we fell into bed and slept like logs.

The next morning we decided to explore the lakes some more, and spent a wonderful couple of hours wandering over trackless alpine meadows trying not to stand on the incredible flowers that literally carpeted the ground.

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We traversed on tracks that barely clung to the steep valley sides, climbing and dropping to avoid cliffs. There were stunning views of the whole range of the Gran Paradiso, and we could pick out the whole of our walk from the dramatic ridge-top, through Chabod to Emanuel, which had taken us about 5 hours in total, but was dwarfed by the massive scale of the landscape. In fact it looked so vertical, it seemed impossible that a track could even exist there.

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Our path took us through the Valley de Meyes, which was a lovely big open area, where we hoped to see some ibex, but they saw us coming and hid. The tiny settlements of Meyes en Haut and Meyes en Bas were deserted, but it was fascinating to imagine when people brought their animals up to live in the alpine pastures for summer.

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The way down to the valley had so many flowers and was so beautiful that we thought we would never reach the bottom. Eventually we made it to a tunnel through the mountainside, and came out at our campsite. a fantastic four days of exploring the Valsavaranche, and all on foot. Great.
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11-12 July 2009: Geneva, Switzerland

Caught the plane to Geneva on Saturday morning and Alan picked us up from the airport. We had a wonderful lunch at home with Alan, Kate and one of their friends – it was a beautiful sunny afternoon, a perfect day for an outside meal (that went for 4 hours!). Hilary and Lynda went by bike with Alan to pick blackcurrants, at the cooperative farm where they get much of their fruit and vegetables.

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It provides food for 120 families, ones of many CSA’s (Community Supported Agriculture) in Geneva. The variety of food was fantastic, grown on about 100 acres of land originally belonging to a castle. The church bell in the castle chapel went off a few times as we picked.

On Sunday morning, Lynda rode with Alan on the tandem bike to France! We went to the local market, which is only 5 km away. A classic French market – piles of fresh produce and great food. We got beautiful local cherries, baguettes, four kinds of olives, tomatoes, new potatoes, and five kinds of cheese, including chevre, vache and sheep.

At home, we met Rosvita, a friend who has spent many years walking in the Alps, and was a wealth of knowledge and maps, as we planned our trip for this week.

An early evening walk on the Saleve, the cliff faced range overlooking Geneva, gave a fantastic view of the whole valley, the lake and the Jura – the mountains on the other side of Geneva. Turning the other way, we gazed on the spectacular Alps – Swiss, French and Italian.

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We’re heading to the Gran Paradiso National Park, in the far north west of Italy, for 5 or so days of alpine walking! Yippee!

Posted by hazelnutty 20:20 Archived in Switzerland Comments (0)

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