Tuscan touring

Wednesday was much quieter with another big sleep in, followed by a short drive to markets at Certaldo. I finally found some jandals for a steal (€4) & my feet could breath again. For a change, we didn’t get lost on the scenic route home. Dinner at the trattoria across the road & no great gelatos this day.

Thursday was a bit more adventurous – a drive out west to the Mediterranean & then south with the idea of getting a ferry to Elba (where Napoleon was exiled for a while before he returned for the so-called one hundred days). Unfortunately an unplanned detour, the ferry schedule & the hour long trip meant we flagged the idea of crossing to the island & just poked around various towns. Mum was pleased to find Etruscan ruins & artefacts – the little castle (compared to some – I still wouldn’t have been able to conquer it with my Swiss Army card). Cocktail party back at the estate – this was to be the welcome party earlier in the week, but the wedding was then.

Siena was the plan for Friday – lunching with my Uncle & Aunty. I must have eaten some thing not too agreeable the night before as stomach cramps lessened my enjoyment of the day all round. Still, Siena was beautiful & the cathedral quite spectacular. Spent quite a while trying to find where we were to meet for lunch (this seems to be a common theme) & eventually settled on the edge of the Piazza del Campo. We were glad to have missed the crowds of people two days previous – it was one of the twice-annual runnings of Il Palio. Il Palio is a centuries old horse race around the piazza (square) between representatives of the different neighbourhoods & it is very popular. Considering it was well over 30 °C much of the week & the crowd of 50,000+ is locked in the middle of the piazza for the four hours before the race – I didn’t really miss the three lap, one minute race.

Farewells for all over Friday night & Saturday morning. We drove north about half an hour to Empoli – a much less touristy town that is on the railway route between Pisa & Florence. After we eventually found the hotel, it was off in to Florence to have a look around. After the previous weeks in the heart of Tuscany, I wasn’t particularly impressed by Florence (Philistines – I know) & its crowds of people & lots of artwork (although I did keep saying ”stat you bro?” every so often). Our general apathy for Florence & Mum’s tiredness led to a day off around Empoli on Sunday – Dad & I did manage to venture to Vinci (not to difficult to guess who the most famous son of the town is – there were an awful lot of models of various mechanical devices).

Today en route to dropping Mum & Dad at Pisa airport & dropping the rental off, we made a rather circuitous route to seeing the tower – which is a rather remarkable stuff up. People/tourist watching there was quite fun – I think I have more photos of people standing waving their arms around in the air for others’ cameras than I do of the tower. The excitement (although I quickly grew bored of it) of today is trying to get back to Empoli tonight – for some unexplained reason, all the workers on the regional trains & buses have been on strike since last night & that is due to finish at 2100 tonight – it could be a late trip back. Tomorrow (regional transport dependent) I’m back to Heathrow to pick up another rental & then drive north to meet Mum & Dad again for our tour of bits of Britain visiting various friends & family.

Tuscan sun…

I arrived in Florence a week ago to a somewhat sweltering 38 degrees Celsius (a slight change from London) – to find that Mum & Dad were not there to meet me. The highlight of the transfer at Frankfurt was the long bus ride from the terminal to our plane – beside a taxiing A340, which we almost stacked in to which the bus driver somehow didn’t quite see (!) when it turned right in front of us. My baggage receipt performance improved to being the first bag out on the carousel (that’s two seconds & a first from my last three flights). Eventually they turned up & we much more successfully navigated our way to Il Castagno (not that I had anything to do with that). My cousin (who I have not seen in over ten years) came out to meet us & we ensconced ourselves in our apartment (Il Forno – named after the rather large clay oven in the corner of the apartment). After sorting ourselves out (Mum & Dad had come from an equally hot Beijing) it was off to catch up with Dad’s brother & his family and meet the fifty odd wedding party & guests that had come from all over the world for the week of sun, celebrations, sightseeing, eating & drinking. The views from the estate were quite what I expected of Tuscany (hills, olives, grapevines, big old houses), except there was a lot of forest/bush & a strange haze off in the distance that we never really identified.

Monday dawned another scorching day & we had plenty of time to sleep in, learn to drive on the right, drive in to Montignoso, find supplies before siesta time & have a nice relaxed lunch before the wedding. Mercifully the weather cooled enough for the 5 pm service that a suit was bearable (just). The service on the lawn next to the main house was very nice indeed & the nine course meal stretched well in to the night – but of course not as far as the celebrations (being the party animal that I am, I was tucked up by the relatively modest hour of 2 am – although tucked up is a pretty poor description given the heat).

After a big sleep in (although not compared to some), it was off to explore San Gimignano & some of its towers. Parking outside the ancient walls gave ample opportunity for exploring the tight, narrow & steep streets as we meandered our way towards the centre of town. The seventeen or so remaining towers from centuries ago provide much of the tourist attraction to the town – the view from the tallest one showed much more of the countryside & an interesting take on the narrow streets. After wandering round some more it was time for our first Italian gelato. These were from what has been judged the world’s best gelateria for most of the last ten years & they were divine – I managed to stuff up ordering three separate gelati so mine came out with three different flavours; the only problem with such gelati first up, was that ever since then each gelati has been somewhat disappointing.

For dinner that night, we managed to escape the trattoria across the rode from the estate & hightailed it (a rather enthusiastic embellishment of my at-this-stage-tentative driving on the narrow, winding & steep Tuscan roads) to Volterra. In the calm & coolness of the early evening, it was great to wander the much less crowded (than San Gimignano) & have a very relaxed meal on the edge of the main Piazza & check out the castle & watch people go by. Also caught a look at a ruined Roman ampitheatre before the drive home.

Days of London sights

The last & next three days have & will be spent seeing a few of the many sights that London has to offer (with the help of my trusty London Pass saving me many, many pounds). I’m not sure when the holiday part starts – after the busy weekend in Basel, it hasn’t really let up with many hours spent walking, reading placards, sitting/standing on the tube – still it beats shift work.

With walking around London being stangely familiar & a case of happening on landmarks, it’s been quite enjoyable. Highlights from the last three days have been Windsor, especially St George’s Chapel & the State apartments with all the portraits; Eton (seeing students’ names carved in the stone from five hundred years ago is a little strange when your own country isn’t anywhere near that old); Tower Bridge & the old steam mechanisms that raised the deck; and HMS Belfast – one of the only surviving big gun ships from WWII.

Hampton Court Palace, Kew Gardens, St Paul’s, Greenwich, Imperial War & many other museums to sneak a look at.

Masses of Orange

After a day of looking around Harrow & Pinner & generally not doing too much it was off to Switzerland with a uni friend, Josh. Some months ago we had chosen Basel at random for a weekend in Europe. It turned out that Euro 2008 was in town & it was quarter-finals weekend – consequently the city was pretty much alive & teeming with football fans.

Having negotiated Terminal 5 & Josh doing a great impression of someone losing his boarding pass at the counter, we arrived in what turned out to be three countries at once. The Euro airport services respective French, German & Swiss cities – once landing you can choose which country you want to go to. In Basel itself (pronounced Bar-zil), we were eager to have a look around so after wandering through the crowds, over the Rhine, up the cobbled streets & down again it was back to the hostel for a horrible two hours of sleep.

Saturday dawned wonderfully sunny & the bike was quickly assembled & we headed off down to the station for a train ride in to Germany for a spot of riding in the Black Forest. Somehow we managed to make it through the station – as the Netherlands were due to play their Euro quarter that night against Russia, every train coming in to the (large) station disgorged hundred of orange clad fans.

After a missed connection, a high speed train & then a small diesel up in to Stauffen – we were out in the baking sun trying to find somewhere for Josh to hire a mountain-bike. This proved rather frustrating, & in the end, unfruitful – never mind, we had a good look around the small town & rode/ran up a hill above the town to a ruined castle affording great views over the surrounding plains.

Back in Basel after, this time, successfully changing trains it was in to town to join the 150-200,000 odd Dutch fans that had invaded the city (there may have been a few thousand Russians around too). All the orange shirts were a bit hard on the eyes…

Eventually we found a pub that had big screens on the outside, so we could stand with the masses & soak up the game & the atmosphere. It was a great game to watch, with the Dutch drawing level in the last few minutes of regulation time & then two Russian goals in extra time to take them in to the semis. We wandered our way back to the hostel listening to cheers of “Rush-e-a!”.

A big sleep after yesterday’s big day in the heat & we were well prepared for our epic ride to France, then on to Germany & finally back to Switzerland – ok maybe not so epic, maybe only twenty to thirty kilometres in total. But it was hot – well into the thirties, a nice change to the weather left behind at home. Managed to find a bike for Josh to hire underneath the main station – & also happened across the largest collection of bicycles I have ever seen. It was a full-on bike park where you had to get a ticket out of the machine before the gates would open automatically for you to push your bike in – fantastic.

We managed our ride quite easily & border crossings were a complete disappointment – no machine gun fire, flashing lights or even a stamp in the passport. Back to London & frustration with Terminal 5 – you would think they would sign post it from the major roads & the pick-up points, but that seems to escaped someone’s attention.

Biking to go places, going places to bike.