STORY BY Jane Holden
The first 3 days – ROME (Italy)!
We flew back in time, into Rome after a 24+ hours commute, and arrived on Saturday night the 3rds September, where we met Jane and Will (Jen’s sister and brother in law), who had checked into our shared air BnB apartment, just off Palazzo Navona, in a central part of the old, historic town.
It was all picturesque alleyways and medieval churches, ciggie strewn cobblestones and kamikaze Italian drivers on scooters…
We were in Rome until the Tuesday morning. We wandered through the city, exploring the streets, shopping, people watching, absorbing layers of history, intrigued at the architecture.
Will and Jen did a tour of the Vatican, Jane and Jane shopped for fabulous designer things… The Vatican was packed like the MCG on final day and Michaleangelo’s Sistine chapel was the standout, just remarkable. Though with so many people, and selfie sticks and giant iPads flashing everywhere, it often felt more spectacle than sacred, which was a common thing we found in most of the tourist traps. (We are not sure which was more scary overall, the mass of selfie sticks being waved by narcissists throughout Europe, or the super cheap, bumpy interstate plastic plane flights.)
There were ancient or medieval churches on every corner, covered in frescoes and jammed full of icons, statues, and other art, like a historical jumble sale on acid. (No wonder the more puritan Christians, with their sparse worship places, think the Catholics worship idols, even Jen was a little overwhelmed by it all, and the layers of visible history in EVERYTHING you looked at.)
We unwittingly got caught in a crush to see the Pope (no luck, we heard a few echoey words in Italian we didn’t understand.) The Colosseum and Roman Forum (remains of central ancient Rome) were fascinating and as good as the pictures. The Pantheon was an incredible structure, the largest unsupported dome still standing from ancient Roman times, around 2000 years old.
Jane’s highlight was running through the streets of old Rome early in the morning (anytime before about 7.30am was “early” there…) when the streets were sparse and quiet; usually packed places like the Spanish steps, Trevi fountain and Medici Palace or many Palazzos’ were all but deserted… but for a puffing Aussie in lycra… and the light during the morning, bouncing off the various marble statues and filtering through the flower lined alleyways was quite beautiful.
The pizza and pasta in Rome was surprisingly underwhelming, though we were in tourist areas. But we took to the many freshly baked pastries, croissants and espresso coffee like starving people. Delicious!
The week in TUSCANY (Italy)!
Dr Jane and Will spoke a bit of Italian, so that helped a lot. We managed to make our way on public transport to San Gimignano, in Tuscany, and met Concetta our host, who was a little old Nonna that turned up in a shoebox sized car with hubby Paulo, packing him off with our luggage and and walked us to our very old, terrace apartment, talking in rapid fire Italian and waving at highlights, or friends, we weren’t sure. San Gimgnano is a well known, medieval, walled village with only limited access to small local cars. We spent the next couple of days there, exploring the streets and museums, as well as contemporary art and artisanal shops, and taking in the sights, set as it is on a hilltop. Some highlight included an afternoon tour through some local wineries (famous for their “Chianti” brand of red wine), and an amazing spread of meats, breads, tomato pudding, tapenade and other local fare, put on by the wife of one winemaker (they called it a “light supper”, we thought it a huge spread!). And we saw an Opera performance in a 12th Century church, a very simple old stone setting, with a single fresco on the wall behind them, it was a bass singer and pianist performing a selection of different short pieces. There were less than twenty people, and apparently being the only ones who booked in advance, they reserved the front row seats for us, so we were within touching distance. It was pretty stunning, sitting there listening, as the light slowly changed and turned to early evening.
On our last evening we decided to book a special degustation (6 or 7 courses) dinner at the Michelin starred restaurant that was raved about in a “Hedonists Guide to Tuscany” (which Jane was reading). Before hand we took a bottle of Italian prosecco up onto the a turret in the city wall behind our apartment. For a few minutes we had it to ourselves, there were just a few sounds of the village floating up to us, and it was so peaceful. We just soaked in the amazing views out across the old city, and the rolling green and gold hillsides of Tuscany beyond – the olive trees, vineyards and occasional field. Then Jane pulled out a ring and asked Jen to marry her!
We all went together to the restaurant and the degustation that followed was simply amazing and one of the food highlights of the whole trip, from the olive starter that turned out to be an olive flavoured creme (shaped and coloured to look like an olive), though to amazing mousse’s with meats, caviar topped oyster flavoured custard, rabbit tortellini, and mouth watering desserts. All with delicious matched Tuscan wines. The storm that threatened never came, and we sat in a vine wrapped courtyard, with soft lighting and decorated with art pieces – it was an incredible, joyful, evening!
Second week or so – Sicilian Villa on the mediterranean (also Italy)
We travelled to Sicily Friday afternoon, with a short stopover in Pisa, long enough to see the Leaning Tower, though we didn’t stay around long, as we were getting selfie stick fatigue.
We stayed the night near the airport in Catalonia on Sicily then got up early the next morning and went up Mount Etna, the largest active volcano in Europe.
We caught the cable car part way and walked part way, several thousand feet up, the oxygen was a bit light on, and it was a most bizarre almost moonlike landscape of dark rock and gravel, with views from the top of the crated (a non active part) over to smouldering top of Etna, and beyond across half of Sicily.
Then we were off in our hire car, Jane braving the insane Italian roads to take us to our Villa in where we stayed for a week with our good friends Amy and Shaz and some other friends and family they had invited along. It was a large four bedroom villa, right on the water of the mediterranean, with multiple outdoor terraces, views across the bay and a short drive into the ancient city of Siracusa.
Throughout the week we mostly just relaxed! Drinking and eating the very best of Sicily, we snorkelled at our doorstep, swam in the pool, drank evening aperitifs as the sun set on the Mediterranean, read books and played the Italian card game – Scopa.
We also took some trips into Siracusa to explore the incredible markets and history and shops of the Island of Ortygia. At the markets, eating fresh shucked oysters washed down with a plastic cupful of Italian bubbles, Jane discovered her new love of fresh figs.
There were also some amazing ruins dating back to Greek (theatre) and Roman (ampitheatre ) settlements and a museum with artefacts that stretched back to the bronze ages and through to the literally dozens, if not hundreds, of different tribes, ethnicities, empires that had occupied the region over thousands of years, having once been more important, if not bigger than ancient Athens itself.
One evening we had a local women come into the villa and cook us an amazing Sicilian meal, of seafood, salads and sweets, with Tuscan wines chosen by Shaz (a wine specialist). Another evening we took a trip up into the mountain village of Noto, exploring its shops and churches and laneways at dusk, and again having an incredible Sicilian meal in one of the best restaurants there, (which was so carefully designed and decorated it even had something like a < tree growing in the centre of the womens toilet.)
It was an incredible week and we were so grateful to the girls for having instigated the trip for us and invited us along to celebrate their 20th anniversary!
Third and bit week – Barcelona and Southern France
We flew to Barcelona and had our first fix of TAPAS (Jane’s highlights of most of the trip were food related) the next morning we met Steve and Julia and went on a bicycle tour of the city, which was loads of fun, then drove with them up to the Costa Brava (coast to the north) stopping in Cadaques, a little seaside village for the night which was so gorgeous. The next morning we went for a run to the bluff and watched the sun come up over the water, then we all went to a tour at the house (now museum) of Salvador Dali. It was like a rabbit warren, stuffed full of stuffed creatures and art and knick knacks and was a really wacky and curious insight into this most famous surrealist artist and painter. Very inspirational!
We then drove up to St Genieres de Fondetit in the Langedoc region of Southern France and stayed with Steven and Julia (Jane’s Brother and his wife) for the next week and a half – and what an amazing stay we had!
They truly live in a beautiful and incredible part of the work, we completely understand now why they love it so much.
The village itself is gorgeous, and surrounded by vineyards. Around one corner from their house is the patisserie with delicious pastries and fresh bread twice a day, a vigneron a short walk away sells a very tasty champagne (or local variant), a better pizza shop than what we tasted in Rome or Tuscany (and as good, but different, to Sicily) and the surrounding countryside is just incredible for cycling! (The French are also a lot more civilised on their roads than the Italians!) It is also a really lovely community and there is a really nice group of ex-pats living in the region,
Somehow, after the 24+hour flight to Europe, and cankles and stress of Italian driving and getting to France, Jane managed to break out in Shingles, so we were even more grateful to that expat community including the presence of an English GP in the nearby village… as it could have been a lot worse, and as it was, just moderately required medicine and a wee bit more rest (any excuse to get out of the 60km cycle with Steve!).
We met some of their other lovely friends, including Paul and Isla, their Australian and Irish friends who settled there a couple of years ago and started a winery. All of us pitched in the week we were there and helped them to hand pick the last of their vines, and also on one of their twice yearly bottling days, when we bottled, boxed and stacked over 10,000 bottles of red wine!
Steve and Julia also took us on a couple of incredible trips around the region including up into the Pyrenees and through other villages,
We saw an ancient roman cobblestone road, and drove to some remarkable lookouts and views from ruins of medieval fortresses and Cathar castles. And we spent a day winding through the Pyrenees, meandering through small towns and again soaking in some incurable views of the snow-capped mountains unlike anything we have in Australia. We stopped in at one of their favourite local wineries and did tastings, and ate some fabulous french set menus (three course lunch meals). On other days we hired a car and drove through the region (with some expert guidance and maps from Steve and Julia), on another we borrowed their village bikes and cycled across the countryside and backroads past vineyards, to drink beers in the local tavern and picnic in another town beside the orb river, watching French kids play in the water, and a family spend an hour to coax a young horse of theirs into the freezing mountain waters.
On the last Saturday, we had amazing day of markets and food. We drove to Pezenas and explored their huge markets of food and artefacts, and bought an incredible piece of contemporary art from a little shop in a back street, from the French artist designer whose studio was in the back of the shop, then drove down to the mediterranean for the most incredible seafood lunch cooked over open fire pit created from the wood of old wine vines. It started with freshly shucked oysters, then there were fresh sardines smoked over the flames, followed by two flavour courses of mussels, a white wine and french hers, and a tomato sauce, all served with ice cold rose and baskets of bread, it was a self-yourself beside the coals, on colourful plastic plates. Incredible!
Then that evening we all went for an incredible dinner in an old converted Abbey in a nearby town. It was run by a husband and wife team, and was the fine dining opposite to the rustic seafood of
the morning, but just another incredible culinary experience, with chefs starters including an olive panacea and pork terrine, an entree of smoked trout, waffle, lemon mousse and greens, a main of succulent lamb medallion, girl mushrooms, a mushroom tart, vegetable puree, polenta square, and vegetables, and deserts of spiced bread with berry sorbet, or milieu fleur and plums sauce…. just all such amazing food and a wonderful night out in the most gorgeous and ambient setting.
Last few days in Barcelona
Bursting at the seams we managed to throw down some final pastries and train back to Barcelona for our final few days.
Unsurprisingly perhaps, we drank and ate our way through town, mostly more delicious pastries, tapas, wine.
We spent a day travelling up to Montserrat, a monastery with a 1000 year history perched within unreal rock formations and the mountains above the valley in which Barcelona sits, it is known as the “spiritual heart” of Catalonia (the region of Spain, currently fighting for independence).
The final day we had a head spinning day of history, art and design, starting the morning in the baroque Barcelona Cathedral, winding our way through the gothic quarter, and Born district, full of design shops and boutiques, we made our way to the Picasso museum. It was fascinating to see an entire collection of his that bookended the “well known” post modern painting s he created, with a variety of other styles, and experiments and influences….
Then we managed to catch an exhibition that had traveled from London, on David Bowie, his life story, artistic influences, creative vision, it was full of sound and vision and artefacts and interviews and of course music – it was a terrific and such different piece…
Then, just to completely overwhelm us, we went to our evening booking to explore the Sagrada Familia, which is a Cathedral that was begun by Catalan architect and famous modernism architect Antoni Gaudi. It was only partially complete upon his death, it had become his life work and obsession, and has slowly been working towards completion over the years, after a great pause during the Spanish Civil war of the 30’s, which was followed by the Franco dictatorship up until the 1970’s…
It is the most unusual looking building from the outside, and its very essence reflects a vision that is both modernismo and authentically Catalan.
Things we learnt in Europe:
You can smoke a ciggie anywhere. (Really anywhere. Sicilian petrol station attendant standing beside a pump, a French postie with a half smoked ciggie hanging out of her mouth while leaning inside a postie bin to collect the mail).
French women do get fat. Italians love themselves looking beautiful, but not so much their plastic bottle strewn countryside.
The Spanish are revolting! (literally. The Catalan successions movement was gearing up while in Barcelona, you might have seen the news.)
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