Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Up and down the Downs - 27 September 2009

UpparkToday's glorious late summer weather, took us to the MG day at Uppark, on the South Downs.

On the way, we detoured to Black Down, the highest point in Surrey. The car did most of the climbing, and we walked on a mostly level track to a view point Uppark houseknown as the Temple of the Winds. This was a favorite spot of Tennyson, and he describes the view in a poem:

'Green Sussex fading into blue,
with one grey glimpse of sea'

Uppark house was as we remembered it on our previous visit in 2006, but the views out over the countryside were tranquil and a real tonic on such a lovely day.
West Dean Gardens
West Dean GardensIn 2006, we had also visited West Dean Gardens in springtime, and were very impressed with their orchard. As it is very close, we decided to visit on the way home. The trees were laden with fruit, and looked stunning on their circular and pyramid shaped frames. A real inspiration for a garden of our own one day.

West Dean GardensWest Dean Gardens

Monday, September 28, 2009

Bibury and beyond - 26 September 2009

A late summer revival, had us heading again to the Thames, but further upstream from our trip last Sunday. We started the day in Bibury, where Arlington Row is apparently one of the most photographed scenes in England.
Arlington RowFrom here, we wended our way through Cotswolds towns to Whitehorse Hill, with its amazing stylized chalk horse, dating back to Celtic times.
Whitehorse Hill
Great Coxwell barnJust along from here is Great Coxwell, where we visited one of the most impressive medieval barns in Britain, built 700 years ago.

Faringdon FollyThe next stop was Faringdon, where we climbed the hill behind the town, to the newest folly in England, built in 1935 by Lord Faringdon. His house at Buscot Park is a real treat to visit. Still lived in by his descendants, we admired the artwork in the Faringdon Collection, in particular the four large briar rose paintings, based on the Sleeping Beauty story. Buscot ParkThese paintings, 20 year's work, by Burne-Jones, made his art a hit with the London public. The artist did not like their arrangement, when visiting the house, and painted extra panels, which together with matching framing, now wrap around the entire room. For us, this room is the highlight of a visit to Buscot Park. Buscot ParkThe gardens are also a real treat to wander around; from the flower filled wall garden, to the formal clipped hedges of the water garden, leading to a lake.

Nearby is the Cotswolds Woollen Weavers in Filkins. Here fabric is woven on hand looms, and garments, cushions, rugs etc can be purchased. It is a fascinating glimpse of the craftsmanship of the past.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Toadally Let Down - 20 September 2009

CookhamToday we enjoyed the quintessential British Sunday afternoon drive. A leisurely start from London took us to the Chilterns, starting a circular drive in Cookham. This is the birthplace of Stanley Spencer, an artist born 1891, and we enjoyed looking around a gallery with a selection Cookhamof his work, including his last unfinished canvas which was on loan to the gallery for the current exhibition.

Cookham is also the home of Kenneth Graeme, and we hoped to find a shop selling “toads”, as we felt this would make a suitable mascot. But none were to be found, we even tried a garden centre called “Toad Hall”, but still no success.

Continuing on along the Thames, and fortified by the traditional Sunday pub lunch at Caversham, we visited Mapledurham House & Water Mill. This house was built in the Elizabethan era, in the traditional E shape. It has a very tranquil, backwater-on-the-Thames feel to it.
Mapledurham Water MillMapledurham Water Mill

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Taking a 'Butcher's' at London - 19 September 2009

Butchers' HallToday was the annual London Open Homes, and we once again enjoyed a look at various places in the City of London. This area has endless fascination, with its many historic buildings. We headed for a tour of the Bank of England, but a look at the queues quickly changed our minds, and instead started with the Butchers' Hall. This added to our interest kindled with previousl visits to various Livery Company Halls. Modern London architectureThe Butchers have a number of links with New Zealand, which made it extra interesting. Apart from various Maori objects there was a glass screen designed by John Hutton of NZ and their Court Room was panelled in NZ beech.

Modern London architectureWe followed this visit with a walking tour led by a very knowledgeable City of London Guide. His knowledge of London's history, made the walk of alleyways very interesting as well as informative. We crossed the route of the Tour Of Britain cycle race twice during the walk.

Masonic TempleAfter a visit to a hotel with an amazing marble former Masonic Temple tucked away inside it, we set out on a self guided tour, which was perhaps the highlight of the Open Day for us. Broadgate is a new development within the Square Mile, full of sculptures, public areas, and a water feature. We found this such a fascinating contrast to all the historic areas we had previously visited.
The day ended in a very different new public building – the O2, where we saw the show 'Ben Hur Live'. This was an attempt to recreate the epic story, first made into a film 50 years ago, into a stage production. Although the critics were damming with their faint praise, we thoroughly enjoyed it. The huge arena at the O2 was turned into village scenes full of people and interest, with entertainers and regular village activities; then the sea where the galley where Ben Hur served his sentence was attacked by pirates and finally into the Roman arena for the chariot race with 5 chariots, each drawn by 4 horses. It was really quite an amazing spectacle.
Ben Hur Live chariot race

Friday, September 18, 2009

Contrasts - 15 September 2009

Bascilica di Santa Maria degli Angeli We began the day just down the road from our overnight accommodation, at the Bascilica di Santa Maria degli Angeli (St Mary of the Angels – after which Los Angeles was named: major contrast!)
The Bascilica is a huge edifice build over two smaller structures. One, a chapel on the site of the original chapel the Pope granted St Francis for his work and worship and the second, a chapel built over the spot where St Francis died in 1226. (Major contrasts in size and d├ęcor.)

AssisiOf course, one cannot overlook the contrast between the simplicity espoused by St Francis as he rebelled against the decadence of society and the church, and the commercialization of the area around the whole St Francis story, the pilgrims and the grandeur of the churches that have been built in his name. Another contrast is San Francisco, named after the saint and, again, far removed from the message he bore.

AssisiBut, “when in Rome” and all that, we needed to experience the full deal and after seeing where he lived and worked and the spot where he died we joined the hordes and filed past his burial spot in the crypt under the Bascilica of St Francis in Assisi proper. A contrast here is the insistence on modest dress, no bare arms,Assisi no shorts for men or women etc (as in many major churches in Italy) and yet one can often see drawings, statues or carvings of naked men and women in these same churches and Christ, himself, is usually only clad in a loin cloth.

We followed a tourist route through Assisi and also visited the Bascilica of St Clare founder of the order of the Poor Clares (think Santa Clara, California, for the contrast) and saw her tomb and various objects she owned or wore.

GubbioIn contrast to St Francis' teachings, we were beguiled by a couple of very nice works by local artisans and so left Assisi considerably poorer than when we arrived; and in that respect we were similar to the great man himself.

We left Assisi and set the sat-nav to take us to Gubbio: the road was great until the sat-nav sent us off on a fairly minor road along a ridge, then directed us down something that was not much more than Cortonaa goat track before depositing us on a motorway that seemed to start/end in the middle of nowhere – quite a contrast.

Although Gubbio is reputedly the most beautiful medieval city in Umbria, it is not so much a hilltop town as a hillside town as it spills down the hill from the Bascilica past the two large Palazzo on opposite sides of a square, down past the loggia and onto the flat land where there are the remains of a Roman amphitheatre.

CortonaLeaving Gubbio we took another minor, but very scenic route over the hills to Cortona crossing from Umbria back into Tuscany as we went. After exploring this small hilltop town and finally locating the street that has some of the oldest surviving medieval buildings in Italy we found a bed for the night just outside the town of Montecchio.

The photos would have been much better had our 4-month old Canon Powershot G10 not failed

On to Umbria - 14 September 2009

OrvietoLeaving Tuscany we moved east into Umbria for even more hilltop towns, stopping first at Orvieto to see the Duomo with reportedly the most striking facade in Italy, Why is such a grand church tucked away in such an obscure location? For the same reason that many grand churches exist in odd locations; a 'miracle' occurred in the dim and distant past.

OrvietoNot far away is the tiny little hilltop village of Civata, which is getting smaller all the time as the cliffs around it slowly erode. Just inside the gate is a grand facade that has nothing at all behind it, the villa having slipped down the cliff some years ago.
Likewise the access path disappeared and the village is now accessible on foot only across a bridge from the neighbouring town. The are very few permanent residents left but some of them run the most fascinating restaurant, the food is cooked over an open fire and the preparation rooms are really just alcoves off the main dining area.

MontepulcianoWe had just crossed the long bridge and got back to the car when the rain came lashing down so there was no sightseeing to be done in Bagnoregio, we just drove on to Todi which unfortunately did not live up to its description in the guide book. (but the cappuccino was fabulous)

Heading in the general direction of Assisi, we stopped off at Deruta, home of 'the best ceramics in Italy' Todiand had a browse though a number of the workshop/showrooms, eventually leaving with a piece we hope will fit in our hand-luggage.

Our 4-month old Canon Powershot G10 died suddenly leaving us with inferior quality photos

Along the Via Francigena - 13 September 2009

SienaAlthough not planned that way our stops seemed to always be on the Via Francigena, the Pilgrims route. The closest we got to genuine pilgrims was some walkers who were staying at the same accommodation as we were in Monteriggioni; the rest were tourists, like us, on a a much more rapid progression across the landscape.

SienaSienaLeaving the enclaves of tiny Monteriggioni we headed into the big city of Siena were we bumped into a procession that appeared to be something to do with the local saint day: to us it was much drum beating and banner waving.

SienaAfter seein' Seina via a tourist trail and a look around the fortress we moved on to Asciano where, once again, banners were out and preparations were being made for their saint day festivities.

Monte Oliveto Maggiore monasteryVery nearby is the Monte Oliveto Maggiore monastery so we made a short detour for a quick look at the outside as we had arrived after closing time and then moved on to San Quirico d'Orcia, a tiny UNESCO World Heritage town that seemed to be largely ignored by the tourists, but definitely worth a visit.

In an act of considerable vanity, Pope Pious II completely redesigned his birth-town, Pienza, as a utopian San Quirico d'Orcia“New Town” and it remains an outstanding example of Renaissance architecture. The tourists certainly knew about this stop-over. We could happily have spent the night there but Montepulciano, the home of our favourite Italian red wine, was calling so we moved on.

PienzaPienzaMontepulciano is the highest of the Tuscan hill towns and is a rabbit-warren of twisting streets on many levels. Parking is restricted to areas outside the city but our hotel had parking available and fortunately our host offered to take me to our car and lead me back to the hotel parking. I am not convinced that even with the aid of a sat-nav I would had found my way back through the maze of one-way streets, alone.

The photos would have been better had it not been for the failure of our 4-month old Canon Powershot G10

Touring Tuscan Towns – 12 September 2009

VolterreAfter our croissant and coffee breakfast we set off for Volterre, the first of our four Tuscan hilltop villages that we were to visit today. Being there fairly early in the morning we beat any tourist rush that there may be and the town seemed like a 'regular' town with normal shops selling normal stuff to normal folk. This certainly did not hold for the next town.

VolterreWe visited the Palazzo Viti, one of the finest private residential buildings in Italy. However, after seeing so many wonderful ceilings in England painted by imported Italian artists we were surprised at how under-whelming the ceilings were in this Palazzo. Nevertheless it was an impressive home, still lived in by descendants of the Viti family.

San GimignonoThe entry ticket entitled us to a sample of local produce at the bar in the cellar below the Palazzo. There was local salami, 60-day and 6-month old cheese and a glass each of wonderful white and red wine. San GimignonoNone of it was from more than 20km away. (The food-mile police would be very proud of us.)

Leaving Volterra we plunged into tourist territory by arriving at San Gimignono. Eventually finding a carpark, we joined the thronging tourists wandering along the streets lined with shops all selling tourist oriented Tuscan goodies.

San GimignonoThe town is remarkable not only for its hilltop position but also for its distinctive skyline made up of 14 towers; all that remain of the original 72 mediaeval towers built by the feuding families each seeking to out-do the other for the highest tower.

Colle de Val d'ElsaLeaving the tourists behind we wandered into a different world when we visited Colle de Val d'Elsa. There may have been some other tourists around but they were few and far between so it seemed we had the narrow streets and cobbled passageways to ourselves as we explored.

Setting off for Siena we drove straight towards another hilltop village vista of walls and towers so a quick detour was called for and we stopped at Monteriggioni. Colle de Val d'ElsaThis tiny gem of a medieval hilltop town was built in 1203 and still retains its complete set of towers and city wall.

Both Monteriggioni and San Gimignano are on the pilgrims route from Canterbury to Rome which passes along the via Francigena.

Monteriggioni appealed so much that we decided to stay the night and found a delightful room in one of the old buildings in the town.

Apologies for the poor photo quality but our 4-month old Canon Powershot G10 failed