Month: December 2016

Brussels stopover

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Brussels is one of the finest unsung cities in Europe.

We’ve just spent a lovely two days with Hilary’s sister. Stephanie moved to Brussels a number of years ago and has become fluent in French and Dutch. (There is hope for us all!) She’s started a second career working for the European Commission and loves the city.

We had a really pleasant walk around Tervuren Park in the east of the city, at the end of a fun tram ride. The great thing is that Stephanie plans to meet up with us in the USA next May/June to see Yellowstone National Park and other sites.

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Winter hits us

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Children play around the tree at Colmar’s Christmas Market

Crikey. It got so much colder as we headed through the Alps and into France.

Our overnight was at Colmar – a place all American readers of our blog should be aware of as the birthplace of the designer of the Statue of Liberty.

In the freezing fog, a ten metre high version of the statue graced one of the roundabouts coming into town. Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi would have been proud.

But we headed to the centre which was packed with thousands for the large-scale Christmas Market. It’s considered one of the top ten throughout the whole of Europe.

The mulled wine stall was doing a roaring trade.

A walk in the woods

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Unbelievably it was 19 degrees in Switzerland. We asked the locals and they said it was the warmest late December they could recall.

We had broken our journey back to the UK in the small hamlet of Sigirino. Tracks led up into the hills, through beautifully sunlit silver birch forests.

Our conversation started to turn to getting ready for South America; our flight is now just five days away.

What we learnt about Italy

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Termoli at first light – one of our many overnight stays

It’s so sad to leave Italy after our 54 day road-trip. Here are ten things we will take away, some significant some less so:

  1. Late Autumn is a great time to visit Wherever we went we had attractions to ourselves and could easily park. And the weather was perfect; warm enough to miss the winter cold but not so hot we couldn’t keep going.
  2. There is not one Italy We drove through 14 of Italy’s 20 regions and it’s probably true that the only thing that unites them is Italy playing in the soccer World Cup. The referendum demonstrated a divided north and south, but the regional loyalties go much deeper.
  3. You can’t have a secular holiday in Italy The story and beauty of Italy is told in its buildings and art that worship the Roman Catholic faith. And it’s powerful still today, just stand outside a church on a Sunday morning.
  4. There are lots of steps We like walking but you can’t get the most out of Italy without the ability to climb lots of steps. They are everywhere. Goodness knows what the infirm do here!
  5. Is the passion being sucked out? We wonder if Italy is becoming more like northern european countries. We never saw road rage, arguments in the street, passionate embracing.
  6. A poor country with rich people From the outside the houses look like near ruins, but once inside they are stylish and desirable. A perfect metaphor for how the world’s economists misread Italy; even if the banks collapse the Italians themselves will surely be fine.
  7. Dogs are best avoided Italian dogs are best behind very high security fences. The trouble is many are not and often terrified us.
  8. Don’t drive a British car without a passenger If you did it would be a simple nightmare at the autostrada toll booths or joining slip roads.
  9. In cafes you get served by Italians We were never served by an East European or a migrant. In Italy, jobs are for the family or friends.
  10. They don’t drink much tea Kettles seem to be rare in Italian kitchens; “I’ll just put the kettle on” doesn’t translate very well.

Mondeo says “no”

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After eight days languishing unused in a Bologna car park, our trusty Mondeo refused to start. What to do?

Our Airbnb hostess sent out a little man on a moped, duly equipped with jump leads and a spare battery. After some minutes of trying, with sparks coming out of the engine, he gave up and said “Caputo”. This didn’t need translating.

So another call and a tow truck to take the car to the main Ford service garage in the city. There was a long queue of other cars in front of us, but we told them our plight  and our hero, Davide, who spoke fluent English, told us to come back at 3pm.

And when we did the car was fixed, all it needed after all was a new battery.

In our hour of need, every Italian came to our aid.

Bologna Christmas

Over Christmas the historic centre was pedestrianised and the crowds came out to enjoy the sunshine. Musicians played, couples strolled, children chased pigeons.

These were the Christmas moments we will remember. We walked for miles around Bologna – up to San Luca monastery, north along the old canal, and around the empty park.

And we loved staying in our mediaeval loft conversion right in the very centre. Below Natasha and Hilary stand outside it.

Today our children fly home and we start the drive back to the UK to catch the flight to South America.

Shopping for Christmas

We’ve been enjoying shopping in the market area of Bologna for our dinner tomorrow

The Quadrilatero quarter is the ancient Roman heart of the city and it was full of people buying their fish for today and meat for tomorrow. Lovely atmosphere  – very different to a Tesco on Christmas Eve.

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Salumeria Simoni – the so called VIP deli
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Brunelli Prescheria – fantastic service
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Ditta Bardelli – established in 1863

Ferrari’s birthplace

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Whilst Natasha and Hilary went to Florence, Lyndon and Roger went to Modena and the Museo Enzo Ferrari. On display were Ferraris that had featured in famous films driven by iconic stars and a gallery showing the progression of the Ferrari engine.

As a young boy, Enzo used to come down the pink stairs of the house to watch his Dad  Alfredo in the metal fabrication workshop. Then at the age of eight he went to watch his first road race and decided to become a racing driver.

The growth of the Ferrari brand is the story of single-minded determination and (pun intended) drive. After the death of his father he sold the family house to buy a better car, later re-engineered the business into car production and eventually the 90% sale to Fiat.

What Silicon Valley near San Francisco is to modern-day IT, Modena was to sports cars some 100 years ago. And of course, Ferraris are still manufactured at Maranello just outside Modena.

 

Florence revisited

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To stand in front of this picture is sublime

Hilary visited Florence with her sister in 1977 and with Roger in 1993. Both times it was hugely impacted by traffic but delighted to say this time the authorities have now banned all traffic from the historic centre. As a result, Florence is now quiet and a delight to walk around.

Today Hilary and Natasha climbed up the Duomo, visited the Uffizi Gallery, the Palazzo Vecchio and Boboli Gardens. The best thing with it being 23rd December was that we just walked straight into all of these sites with NO queuing! Back in the summer of 1976, it had been a four hour wait at the Uffizi and this hadn’t improved much by late October 1993.

Glad to say the visitor experiences were fantastic. The Birth of Venus by Botticelli in the Uffizi and the room of historic maps in the Palazzo Vecchio, where Italy is shown in a map dated 1564, were special treats. And of course the Arno River by sunset.