Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Reflections - 21 October 2007

Early morning on the River NeneAnother fine and frosty day was perfect for a morning walk around a country park, the River Nene and some water-sport lakes within the Peterborough area.

Wansford BridgeA recent TV production recommended visiting Wansford & Yarwell. Both towns are built of lovely stone, miniature versions of the nearby stunning town of Stamford. Wansford was the prettier of the two; in particular it's 10 span medieval bridge.

Why the long faces boys?Our final stop of the day was Burghley House, home to the famous Burghley Horse Water Garden at Burghley HouseTrials. This stunning house was built by Lord Cecil in Tudor times. They have recently added a lovely water garden, based on the trick water garden built by Lord Cecil. On such a glorious day the gardens looked wonderful.

Burghley House

Angels and the Trinity - 20 October 2007

The Bell at StiltonAs we drove north from London on a beautiful frosty autumn day, we passed through areas with heavy fog patches. Our first destination was Stilton of Stilton cheese fame, and we hoped that it wasn't in one of the foggy spots. Fortunately there was bright sunshine at Stilton (although only a matter of a mile away we had passed through dense fog). We enjoyed a walk through the crisp sunshine, finishing again at Stilton. We couldn't leave town without sampling some Stilton made & purchased in Stilton. Browns of Stilton have a very tempting shop, full of a variety of goodies.

Angels in the roofFrom here we drove to Ramsey, a prosperous town in the middle ages, and still has the remnants of an Abbey. From here we drove the short distance to March. The special feature of March was the amazing double hammer-beam roof of the Church of St Wendreda. Over 400 years old, the 120 carved angels are stunning. We talked to a local lady who told us many interesting stories of the church and the angels, including her ingenious fundraising system when the roof needed extensive repairs in 2002.

Ramsey reflectionsWisbeck was once an important port, and although miles from the sea today, ships from Europe still access it via the River Nene. The town has very pleasant Georgian houses lining the riverbank, including Peckover House, a home once owed by a philanthropic Quaker family but now in the care of the National Trust. We enjoyed looking round the house & garden, and in particular their apple themed restaurant's apple, quince & squash soup.

The whole area around here is called Fenland. Prior to the 16th century, many of the towns we visited today were islands in the low lying marshes. Croyland AbbeyIn the 16th & 17th centuries, the fens were drained by digging long channels and re-routing rivers. As we drove towards Crowland, our GPS indicated we were only 3 ft above sea level. At the time we were about 3 feet above the surrounding fields, so they were in effect the old sea level. At Crowland we completed our look at Croyland Abbey, which we started in April. Today the Abbey looked stunning in the sunlight, and we were able to have a look inside the church, once a christening was over. We had a look at Thornley, another abbey town nearby, before calling it a day in time to watch the final of the Rugby World Cup.

Trinity Bridge, CrowlandAlso at Crowland is the rather unusual C14th three-cornered Trinity Bridge, now a curiousity with no water in sight. Originally built where the Welland river divided it cleverly allowed the townsfolk multi-way access across the river.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Centuries past - 13 & 14 October 2007

Autumn returns

The leaves are beginning to turn, in what they promise will a fantastic autumn, so it was time to get out of London for a walk or two.

North MimmsSt Mary's North Mimms

JordansSaturday’s walk was from one of our favourite little villages close to London, Chalfont St Giles. The walk went from Milton’s house to Jordans, a planned Quaker settlement that never quite worked out the way that was hoped. Nevertheless it is a cute, quiet, rural village that looked a world away from the crime and violence of the big English cities.

St Mary's North MimmsJust outside the village is the Mayflower Barn, so named as it is supposedly built using timbers from the Pilgrim Fathers’ ship.

On Saturday night we thoroughly enjoyed a different sort of autumn when we attended The Four Seasons by Candlelight. Held at the Albert Hall, the Mozart Festival Orchestra, all dressed in period 18thC costumes and wigs, performed Vivaldi, Handel, Mozart, Albinoni and Hayden with stand-out solo performances by soprano Nicola Stonehouse; trumpeter Crispian Steel-Perkins; and violinist Daniel Rowland.
Heart wood
Mayflower Barn
As we had splashed out on seats just three rows from the front, the view was fantastic and it really appeared that the performers were enjoying themselves as much as we were.

Mozart Festival Orchestra
Beresford TombIt was not at all hard to imagine that you were back in the 1700’s listening to the premiere performance of these pieces.

On Sunday we headed northeast from London to a rather pleasant dormitory suburb with some very nice and, clearly, very expensive houses. From Brookmans Park we walked west to North Mimms to have a look at a C14th church with its Beresford Tomb. This has a very unusual alabaster tomb cover with the picture Folly Towerof a lady outlined in bitumen: it dates from 1584.

Walking east we eventually came to the Folly Tower built in 1754 as the entrance gate to a Pleasure Ground and then turned westward back to our starting point.

Grass SnakeAlso out enjoying the unseasonably warm autumn day was a grass snake, the first snake we have seen since 2002 when we came across 3 in a matter of months.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Curious Constructions - 10 October 2007


The sky was no bluer today than yesterday so our photos could not be improved upon. TrulliNevertheless we went for another wander through the trulli areas of town before leaving town in the direction of Bari. Murray's Dad served the last few months of WWII in a hospital based at the Bari Polyclinic. The Polyclinic still occupies the same site so we thought we should at least call by since we were so close. We knew, from war archive data on the web, exactly where the medical stores were based so headed for that part of the site. TrulliThe traffic into Bari and around the hospital was horrendous but we found the particular part of the hospital without getting lost in the one-way system, took some photos in the rain and left.

A little way to the north of Bari was our last World Heritage site, Castel del Monte. An amazing and intriguing structure build in 1240 by Emperor Frederick II. It is entirely composed of octagons: eight octagonal towers positioned around the corners of an octagonal building, of eight rooms, that enclosed an octagonal courtyard with walls eighty feet high. No one is quite sure why it was built that way or, in fact, why it was built at all. It is not defensive and it has no kitchen, storerooms or servants quarters - so was probably not lived in. Theorists have pointed out that it is built Castel del Monteat the intersection of two great alignments: halfway between Stonehenge and the Great Pyramid of Egypt; and halfway between Jerusalem and Mont St Michel. "The truth is out there somewhere." Unfortunately the day had not improved by the time we arrived so once again the pictures lack the blue Mediterranean sky.

Our official itinerary was now complete but as we still had quite a bit of day before our flight left, we headed out to the coast rather than straight back toGiovinazzo Bari and enjoyed a leisurely drive along the coast past several fishing ports and finally stopping for pizza at Santo Spirito. The fish market was in full swing with the fishermen selling their catch from stalls right on the water's edge. The fish were so fresh that many were still flapping on the counters.

The inevitable could not be delayed much longer so it was off to the airport for the tedious business of queuing and waiting that is air travel these days.

Housing styles - 9 Ocober 2007

The sassi at MateraBecause of the rain last night when we arrived, we could not explore Castelmezzano so we were relieved when today dawned dry with patchy cloud cover. Wandering aimlessly through the village we finally arrived at some signs for 'Fortezza Normanna', which we took to mean Norman Fortress, so followed the streets and stairs to the site of an old fortress which provided commanding views of the village and, over the ridge, across the countryside. We finally dragged ourselves away from this beautiful village and left town via a different route headed for Matera. 5km down the road a motorcycle policeman stopped us, indicated the road was closed and sent us back the way we had come. Passing back through Castelmezzano we felt compelled to stop for another photo opportunity before retracing our inward route from yesterday.

Looking down into Matera old town
From here the day became another World Heritage Day as the next two stops were UNESCO World Heritage sites. Matera claims to be the oldest continuously settled city in Italy having had traces of settlement going back at least 9000 years. The tourist feature is the Sassi, a huge complex of dwellings carved out of the soft tufa stone the city is built on and of. Up until a Resettlement Act in the 1950s these dwellings were still occupied by the city's poor.

Inside a sassi dwellingWe declined the offer of a personal guided tour by the professional guide even though the price dropped from €30 to €25 to €20, as neither of us thought we could cope with the Italianesque rapid-fire English for an entire hour. Instead we made our own way around the sassi and paid to visit a typical home set out and furnished as it would be in the C19th. The small space would, typically, be home to Mum & Dad, 6 children, a donkey, a pig, and several chickens.

TrulliFrom Matera we travellled across some fairly boring countryside, along basically straight 'roman' roads to Alberobello, the 'capital' of trulli country; and another UNESCO site. Trulli are houses built of limestone with drystone conical roofs similar in construction to some 'beehive' dwellings we had seen in Ireland. This type of construction does not exist elsewhere in Italy and it seems that is was begun here simply as a means of flouting building regulations.

Our trulliOur accommodation was in a trullo which consisted of a open-plan bedroom, lounge, kitchen, dining room and a separate bathroom: it was a 'trulli' delightful place to spend the night.

Inside viewAfter getting ourselves settled in we went for a wander through the trulli parts of town where there are wall to wall trulli along the streets. It makes for an amazing streetscape.

Sea to sky - 8 October 2007

Temple of Apollo

Temple of AthenaFrom Greek Temples on the coast via a Carthusian Monastery to an Italian mountain eyrie along some very dodgy Italian back roads, the day was full of interest. Our day began at Paestum, originally a Grecian outpost from 700BC which was taken over by the Romans, then the malaria carrying mosquitoes, which got rid of the people; Temple of Heraand finally by the jungle where it remained hidden until a funny thing happened on the way to the forum in the 18th Century when a road builder drove a bulldozer (as it were) though the arena and rediscovered the site. Today the Greek temples are some of the finest examples outside of Greece and are simply stunning.

The DiverAfter a good look around the site and the accompanying museum, where there is exhibited a unique painted tomb with a diver symbolizing the plunge from the end of the known world into the unknown, we set off into the unknown across some mountains looking for Padula, to find the St Lawrence Carthusian Monastery we were seeking.

St Lawrence Carthusian MonasteryIt is unbelievable that this huge complex was there to service the spiritual needs of just 24 Carthusian Monks. The interiors were remodelled in the Baroque period using inlaid marble, mother of pearl, gold leaf and so forth. St Lawrence Carthusian MonasteryBehind the monks seats in the chapel are inlaid wood scenes for the life of Christ and in front of their pews the wood inlay pictures depict the martyrdom of various saints. After the (Italian) dissolution of the monasteries it has been a children's camp, a WWI concentration camp and various other roles before being recently rescued and restored as a tourist attraction that is clearly not expecting anyone other than Italian tourists. The maoastery has the largest cloister in the world enclosing nearly 3 acres.

CastelmezzanoBack in the car we finally convinced the sat-nav to take us to our final destination via a sensible route but even so the contrast between crow-flies distance and road distance was surprising. Eventually, after crossing another pass at 1145m, and in the clouds, we descended into Castelmezzano, a magical place clinging to the mountainside among majestic dolomite peaks.

CastelmezzanoThis town is rather off the normal tourist route, but we found fabulous accommodation at the La Locanda di Castomediano. Our hostess, Antonia, indicated that we were the first New Zealanders to stay there. The three highlights of the day were very different, but we would recommend them all to anyone visiting this part of Italy.

We left the choice of our evening menu in the capable hands of Antonia, who did us proud with a mushroom salad antipasto, two delicious pastas and a rolled beef second platti; all local dishes which we enjoyed with a bottle of local red wine. The wine list here is amazing: 4 whites; 2 rose; 2 pages of Basilicata reds; possibly 6 pages of other Italian reds; and one page of reds of the world.

Amalfi Coast - 7 October 2007

PositranoSaturday's storm finally calmed down sometime after midnight leaving the air washed clean of all the pollutants that had been spoiling the views so far. If the weather were to stay dry, the clear air would be good news for our drive along the Amalfi Coast. The best we could get from the locals regarding tomorrow’s weather had been Amalfi Cathedral crypt"same as today" so just in case, we set off early to cross the Sorrento peninsula to the Amalfi side. As it turned out we should probably have stayed in bed a little longer as the weather got progressively better through the day as we followed the storm along the coast.

The first tourist trap along the coast is Positrano but the weather was still a little inclement as we arrived and the day still somewhat gloomy. AmalfiWe drove through the town but decided to press on to Amalfi where we stopped for a look at the Amalfi Cathedralcathedral where, in the ornately decorated crypt, is the final resting place of the bones of St Andrew (or so they say). We detoured off the coast road to Ravello, our favourite town of the day. Back on the coast road we enjoyed the vistas and villages until Veitri sul Mare, the home of the local distinctive ceramic industry
This village marks the end of the Amalfi Coast road, another World Heritage Site, so we joined the highway to skirt the city of Salerno en route to our overnight destination, Paestum.

Pompeii - 6 October 2007

Temple of ApolloThe weather forecast was for torrential rain after midday (it actually arrived about 5:30) so we decided on an early start for Pompeii. There were added benefits in that we could park easily and we beat most of the tourist hordes to the prime photo spots like the forum.

Small Theatre[A side note for parking for anyone reading this and thinking of visiting: Don't be so focused on finding the front gate that you drive past the cheaper parks just outside the complex. We paid €2.50 per hour and the machine only accepted coins! As we left we passed €1/hr parks.]

Temple of ApolloPompeii is much, much larger site than Herculaneum and has a basilica, temples, forum, theatres, amphitheatre, and even a brothel, as well as the shops, homes and gardens. It also has many more tourists. Vesuvius dominates the sceneYou can also see Vesuvius looming over the town as you walk along the city streets, a constant reminder of the reason why the ruins, and you, are there. The 'cityscapes' along the streets: shop-fronts, cart-tracks, food stalls, drinking fountains and so forth seemed to provide a much better insight into their life and times. To finally see the plaster casts made of the doomed inhabitants, that one learnt about in school is quite remarkable.

Villa AriannaHowever, while Herculaneum was much less popular with the tourists, to leave the tour parties well behind there are other sites to visit. We knew about them because they were included in the 5-site, three-day pass we purchased. A note of caution though, be sure you go equipped with a sat-nav system as the instructions given and the tourist brown signs are completely inadequate to Villa Poppeafind these other places.

These other sites were palatial country residences, two of them on the escarpment overlooking the Bay of Naples. Their view, when occupied, was not spoiled by row upon row of cluttered high-density housing. Today's view from Villa AriannaThese three villas, one of which belonged to Nero's second wife, show the amazing opulence of the high-class in Roman times, e.g. 67m long swimming pool, their own bath complexes - no tripping down to the public baths and mixing with the hoi-polloi for these folk. They were built around atria and had other indoor gardens as well. To bump into another tourist at these locations was a rarity. Villa San MarcoThey are: Villa Poppea, Oplontis; Villa Arianna & Villa San Marco, Stabia.

It is such a pity that the treasures from these sites have been 'looted' for museums around the world, centres hacked out of frescoes and mosaic floors to display in the Louvre or British Museum.

Villa PoppeaOne of the weather web sites consulted before our trip predicted "tons of rain" for Sunday; a very odd turn of phrase for a weather forecast. It seems the forecast was out by about 8 hours as at around 6:30 the heavens opened and "tons of rain" fell so that by 7:30 the street outside the hotel was a river with at least 6 inches of water rushing down to the sea. The sudden change in the weather was not entirely unexpected as, during our time at Pompeii, Villa San Marcowe noticed that every time we opened our water bottles we could hear the air-pressure equalising, something we have previously only ever experienced after a flight. The barometric pressure must have been dropping quite dramatically to affect the water bottles like this, repeatedly, in such a short time span.