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July 6th 2015
Published: July 7th 2015
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Saturday 27thJune Rome to Lago di Bolsena 113 miles

Chris decided after our hard days in Rome, we would have a gentler day, exploring the area north of Rome. Negotiated our way back to the GRA around Rome and then headed for Ladispoli! Got caught in a traffic jam – we think that because it was a Saturday that the whole of Rome must be going to the seaside!!

Got to our first stop at Cerveteri at about 11.30am. We wanted to see the Necropolis, a city of the dead dating back to the Etruscans from the 7th - 1st centuries BC. The site was enormous and there still looks as though there is plenty to excavate. Whole streets of tombs, some of them housing twenty people or more and you are able to go inside quite a few of them! Some are deep underground, some in tumulus tombs – many have different rooms – it’s all a bit creepy!! Our guide told us that there are over 400 tombs and that a lot of the artefacts found in them have been removed to museums! There were no skeletons found – maybe because they were so old? Anyway, we watched a film in Tomb No 7 and then another film in Tomb No 9 and by then I was totally creeped out so a quick peer at the underground tomb No 10 (that we were told was the prettiest?!!) and followed a trail above all the tombs around the site! A totally unique experience!!

Onwards towards Lago di Bracciano and a photo stop for the pretty village of Anguillara Sabazia before heading for Viterbo and Montefiascone where we decided to stop and have a look at the old medieval, hill town, perched on a volcanic crag above the largest crater lake in Europe. The town is dominated by Santa Margherita Cathedral whose dome, created in 1670 is second, only in size to St Peters in Rome !!. Wandered up to the castle, and Chris climbed the tower (of course!) and then had a look at the gardens and the old squares before heading to the campsite around Lago di Bolsena, getting there about 19.00! So much for the easy day!!! (ACSI Lido Camping Village)

Sunday 28th June Lago di Bolsena 106 miles

Bolsena looked too nice to miss so we had a quick look at the old town first, walking the pretty medieval streets, nooks and alleyways, up to the 14th C castle and back down again! Was definitely worth a look!

Onto Orvieto ( one of the twelve Etruscan strongholds) and after a lot of hassle trying to find a place to park, discovered a lovely little town with a spectacular Cathedral built out of lava rock, in stripes! Very different! The city sits on top of a tabletop plug of volcanic lava that rises 300metres sheer from the valley floor so its quite spectacular as you approach, and to top it all, the ferarri’s that we had also seen in Rome, all turned up at the square, about 100 of them! Fantastic sight and an amazing rally! Ferrari’s from all over the world!

Before we left, chris wanted to see the huge cylindrical well commissioned in 1527 to guarantee the City’s water supply during any unexpected siege by the Imperial Army (which never came!!) Water was brought to the surface by donkeys on two broad double helix staircases, designed never to intersect! Anyway – its 62 metres (about 200’) – that’s 248 steps down to the wishing well pool…..and 248 steps back up !!

Lunch was by Lago di Corbara, overlooking the grapevines and the lake – very pleasant and then onwards to another hill town – Todi.

Todi is one of the best established hill towns in Umbria and as we drove up to it, it promised to be something special! It had a wonderful glass lift, like a funicular, that took you to the top, but then we found the town to be disappointing – its got a Cathedral with a square, but we couldn’t find much else of interest, so we decided to go on to Spoleta.

Parked at the bottom and walked up into the old town, through various arches and flying buttresses. It’s a long walk up, but fairly pleasant through the old streets and you eventually arrive at the Cathedral and square. There is then a 2km walk around the castle that takes you to quite a spectacular Roman Bridge spanning a gorge. Had a walk across and then walked back down through the town to get on the road to the campsite near Assisi.

We passed several hill towns that looked quite interesting, Trevi especially, as well as S Maria degli Angeli with a huge domed church and field of sunflowers surrounding the town! (ACSI Camping Village Assisi)

Monday 29th June Assisi to Lago del Trasimeno 32 miles

We caught the campsite bus into Assisi (5 euros return) and spent 3hrs wandering around! The Basilica di San Francesco has been built on three levels and the tomb on St Francis is in the bottom church – the crypt! The Lower church was created in the 13th Century to accommodate the growing number of pilgrims! And then there is the Upper Church which has been decorated with frescoes! The town suffered serious damage in the 1997 earthquake, so a lot of the town has been rebuilt and seems quite fresh and new! Walked up to Rocca Maggiore, a castle that has been in existence since 12th Century and has some stunning views over the city and the valley.

Back to the campsite for lunch then drove to Lago del Trasimeno for a relaxing afternoon and an evening boat trip out to the Isola Maggiore, where we walked up to the 12th Century Church! The islands hey-day was in the 16th Century when 500-600 people lived on the island but now there are only a few houses and churches. Had an interesting meal at the restaurant, where, yet again the house wine had to go back to be replaced by a good bottle, and a limited menu of five items or pizzas, it actually turned out to be quite a reasonable meal, very tasty – and cheap!!! (ACSI Punta Navaccia)

Tuesday 30th June Lago del Trasimeno to Sienna 73 miles

Our first stop was Montepulciano which is the highest town in Tuscany, standing out on a hilltop at 605 metres. It was a very pleasant little town, not completely over-run with tourists, and we walked up to the Cathedral through the old streets, where wine sellers were tempting you in their shops with local food! Visited the wine cellar just off the main square and went up to the terrace for some fine views over the square, town and surrounding countryside, including Lago del Trasimeno! Carried on to Siena and decided that the easiest thing to do was to stay in the Sosta overnight and walk into town. If you are on the Siena-Firenze motorway, come off at Siena S. Marco and turn left! Its about 200yds on the left and the Car Park says 8.00am – 20.00 but you can pay 20E and stay the night) It is about 20 minute walk, but there is a nice set of six escalators that take you up to the top!! The Cathedral is stupendous! It has certainly got a wow factor and we sat for a while just admiring the façade, dome and striped tower! We are saving the inside until 2nd July when we are in Siena all day for the Palio!

The Palio is Tuscany’s most celebrated festival and it occurs each year on 2nd July and 16th August in the Piazzo del Campo – the site of the old Roman Forum. The torre del Mangia in the Piazzo was built in 1348 as a town hall and the tower is the second highest medieval tower ever built in Italy. Siena is made up of 17 Contrades or parishes, and the ancient rivalry is acted out at the Palio. It’s quite complicated!! For 3 or 4 days before there are practice races at 9.00am and 19.30 – the riders ride bareback and wear medieval costumes in the colours of their Contrada, and race the horses around the old medieval square for three laps, and then the horse is led back to its own church (I think!) followed by the hundreds of supporters! The race was first recorded in 1283 but it is thought that it may originate back to Roman Times. The actual race is all over very quickly – but the atmosphere and the build -up starts 4 days before the Race. Celebrations by the winning Contrada can last weeks apparently !!

You can pay 200-300 euros and have a seat around the square, but the middle of the square you can watch the race for free! We got there about 19.00 and after the canon fire at 19.15 (to clear the track) the horses are rode out amid much shouting, singing and cheering! They then have to line up, which usually happens after three or four attempts and then they are off! The race only lasted about 90 seconds but the rivalry tends to overspill sometimes into fights!! Anyway – there was a little skirmish, the stretcher men raced to the incident but quickly returned so fortunately it all broke up quickly!

Back to the Campervan, where we stayed overnight! Very noisy as traffic both sides of us but we slept quite well!! (Sosta – Siena)

Wednesday 1st July Sienna to Sovicille 59 miles

We woke up quite early and went back into Siena to watch another practice race at 9.00am. It wasn’t quite so manic as the evening practice with less singing and rivalry! Other than that it was the same format as yesterday evenings race. I think the Owl won today (the goose won yesterday!!)

Went to the campsite about 11.00am and caught up with washing etc and then just had a little ride out into the Tuscan Hills to see the ruin of San Galgano Abbey. It was built by the local Cistercian monks between 1218 and 1288 but then there was a famine in 1329, the Black Death in 1348 and by 1500 the Abbey was abandoned. Lightening struck the Bell Tower in 1786 and collapsed onto the roof and then three years later the church was deconsecrated. A sad end to a very fine building! Missed the “sword in the stone” at the adjacent Monastery as Chris forgot it was there!! Went to a little medieval village – Monticiano – had a little wander, and then tried to find Petriolo thermal baths where the temperature is 43c. Failed, got lost in a dead end village and gave up!! ( ACSI La Montagnola)

Thursday 2nd July Sienna to Monteriggioni to Sienna 37 miles

Today was the BIG day!! The Palio at Siena but as it didn’t start until later we thought we would visit Monteriggioni that was only about 10 miles or so……..

It was a beautifully preserved medieval (1203) hilltop walled village! A little gem!! There was a church and a square, three little streets and some walls to walk on but the village was so small it dint take long to explore it at all!

Back into Siena where we bought 12 euro tickets for the Cathedral! It was built between 1136 and 1382 with 14th century plans to incorporate the Baptistry and double the size of the Cathedral but unfortunately the Black Death of 1348 halted the plans. It’s completely stunning inside with striped black and white marbled towers and marble pictures on the floor! There is also a library that houses 15th century music books and Pinturicchio’s fresco’s showing the life of Pope Piccolomini Pius II. A stunning room. To visit the Baptistery you have to go outside and down the steps where you can also visit the crypt as well. We could also climb the unfinished façade of the Cathedral that gave us some stunning views over the city – and we could see the crowds gathering already in the Piazzo del Campo for the Palio!!

At about 14.30 the horses are taken to their respective Churches and blessed – we managed to catch up with The Goose Contrade and watched the ceremony (very short!!). It is considered an auspicious omen if the Horse craps in the Church!! The blessing was followed by some flag waving and drumming before the followers of the Contrade parade around the streets before filing into the Piazza del Duomo, where each contrade parades up to the cathedral and performs a little flag waving/twirling routine! All very colourful, if not a little monotonous as all 17 Contrades perform the same ritual!! After this, then the bands parade around the town hall before going to the Piazza del Campo – which is now shut as they are parading here too!!

Unsure what to do, we could see that the square was still quite empty, we went to the market place at the back of the Palazzo Publico where people were jamming the streets and crowding into the central square. Managed to get in and made our way over to the fountain and prepared for the 1 1/2hrs wait! Lots of parading and flag throwing before the actual Palio (silk flag) is brought in by a wagon pulled by 4 oxen! The Palio flag is then hoisted up onto the wall to be claimed by the winner of the race.

We spent the time talking to an Italian family (they could speak English!!) and an American girl and the time passed fairly quickly before the horses came out about 7.30 pm and lined up for the start. No stalls!!! What we didn’t realise was that the horse drawn number 10 (Leocorno) hangs back and lines up last, as his Jockey can choose when to start the race whenever he wants, when it is advantageous to him!! After numerous attempts for form a line, one false start and an hour and fifteen minutes later, the race actually started!! It was nearly dark!!! Anyway it was all over in 90 seconds and Torre won the coveted Palio. We left the square shortly afterwards. Watched the race again on a TV in a Bar on the way back to the Van! (Sosta – Siena)

Friday 3rd July Siena to Barbarino Val dElsa 47 miles

An easy day today! We wanted to visit San Gimignano, one of Italy’s most visited towns and it didn’t disappoint! It was a very pretty place with arches, 12th and 13th century towers, walls, churches, squares……it was really nice! Chris had to climb the Tower (of course!!) but we just had a general wander around and some lovely ravioli (stuffed with Ewes cheese) for lunch before driving to a little campsite at Barbarino where we just chilled out!! (ACSI Camping Semifonte)

Saturday 4th July Barbarino Val d’Elsa to Florence 26 miles

It was going to be hot today – 35 C forecast so we made an early start, set the Sat Nav for Camping Michaelangelo that everyone has told us is the best and got there just before 10.00am to be told that they haven’t accepted Campervans for 2 years – only tents! They directed us to their other campsite which is about 3km east of the city along the river (no views, just a busy main road!) where, after a 10minute walk, you can catch a No 14 bus, that runs quite regularly into the train station at Florence.

Got into Florence about 11.30am and just wandered around trying to get our bearings! We wanted to do the free walking tour at 14.00 so it was quite a relaxed wander – the heat makes it impossible to do too much! The walking tour was about the Medici family and how they rose to fame in Florence but got politically involved and then the other families made them leave the city! They were eventually allowed to return but the Medici line came to an end with one of the daughters and she left all the wealth to the City of Florence. Saw quite a few of the Palaces they had built, as well as the 1 km corridor linking 2 of them through the old town and across the River (above the Ponte Vecchio) so they could walk above the city without risking danger at street level. Went past the Cathedral (even bigger Wow factor than Siena – it’s the 3rd largest in the world I think!) and walked across Ponte Vecchio to Palazzo Pitti.

That was about it!! Walked up to the old fort that looked impressive on the map, but was completely uninspiring when you got there and you couldn’t go in and then got the bus back to the campsite. Group of half a dozen Irish Traveller families occupying site, their kids creating mayhem. Don’t think they were there for a cultural tour of Florence !! (Sosta Camping Firenze)

Sunday 5th July Florence to Pisa 79 miles

Decided to drive into Florence and park as the buses didn’t run very frequently on a Sunday. Drove up to Michaelangelo Piazza on the other side of the River above Florence for photos of the Cathedral and the City below. Parked up nearer the City and walked along the river into the City, where we had a look around the Bargello, National Museum that is housed in a 12th Century Palace! All the museums are free on the first Sunday of every month so we had every intention of doing a few more after our free walking tour at 11.00am starting at Santa Maria Novella. It seems that Florence is split into four quarters and we walked north to south yesterday and walking from West to Santa Croce Church in the east today! They still have football/rugby matches in the square here between the four districts. Florence seemed to have been quite a violent place to live in the past as the noblemen all lived in towers that were easy to defend! – We passed quite a few, but there were hundreds in Medieval times !! Also saw a 12’ high water mark on a wall that marked the level of the floodwater of the devastating floods in 1966.

After a quick lunch we wanted to go to the Uffizi museum but the queue was so long it just wasn’t worth the queuing – in 36c heat! Thought we would look inside the Cathedral but again the queue was too long so we cut our losses and drove out of Florence to Pisa!

As the evenings are slightly cooler it was a good opportunity to see the Torre Pendente (leaning tower of Pisa) and take the usual “holding it up” photo shots!! It was fun to watch all the Tourists trying to outdo each other with the best “hold up” shots! It was 18 euros each to climb the Tower and times slots, so we didn’t bother!! Stayed at a campsite to the south of Pisa – drove along some really straight roads, over marshy fields and eventually found the campsite! Had a fantastic meal in the restaurant there – the guy was also a butcher I think as he chopped the meat at the bar and cooked on a wood oven!! (ACSI Camping and Restaurante Lago Le Tamerici)

Monday 7th July Pisa to Massa 57 miles

It was just a short drive to Lucca so we had time to do some shopping at Carrefour and still arrive by lunchtime! Quick lunch in the van and then into Lucca, which is the most graceful of Tuscany’s capitals, set inside a ring of 4 km of Renaissance tree lined walls (20-50 metres wide) with 10 massive bastions. Decided to walk the walls first, diving off to look at the Cathedral and then San Michele Church (impressive façade) and square (old Roman Forum)! The 16th Century walls are quite a delight to walk as they are basically wide avenues and have been used through-out the centuries for promenading!

The town itself is quite charming to walk around as it has 70 churches – and a lot of them have little squares and little cafes so you always seem to find something new! There is also an oval Piazza Amphitheatre (incorporating old Roman Amphitheatre) with tall houses and lined inside with restaurants and cafes, as well as a small palace with beautiful gardens. Most traffic is banned from the old City, so that most locals get around by bike in the mainly pedestrian streets. We then spotted a tower with holm oak trees growing at the top – just begging to be climbed!! Eventually found the 44 metre Torre Guinigi and climbed the 230 steps to the top (I wasn’t too keen on the last bit as it was just metal steps with gaps!!) and were rewarded with views over Lucca, surrounded by the mountains! It was lovely!

Anyway, back to the van with the intention of driving up to Cinque Terre, to find that it had been broken into and everything was all over the place! Spent the next two hours finding the police station and filing a report etc……Nothing irreplaceable had gone, so it could have been a lot worse but we had lost a fair bit of time. We also lost more time as we went on the S439 over the mountain pass before getting on the motorway at Massarossa, and ended up camping somewhere north of Marina di Massa as we couldn’t find the ACSI site!! (Camping Lilly)

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