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Tuscan Roadtrip – 20 Photographs To Make You Want To Drive Around Tuscany

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The car we used for this road trip around Tuscany was our MINI JCW Coupé. He performed in sterling fashion and the Italians loved him. The owner of the castle where we stayed loved him and when we pulled up in roadside lay-bys for a drink at a roadside café they would admire him too. It added to the fun.

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Holiday Diary – France and Italy August 2015 Day 12

Tuesday 1st September.
Our Venice adventure ended today and we were returning to Port Cogolin for a few days. Breakfast in our room came a little after nine and together we enjoyed our last breakfast in Venice for this trip. I hoped my health would let me return in the future.
We washed and packed and I thought back on our time spent here. We had not really done that much, but I think this time it was about just enjoying the place. We loved our hotel room and had spent lazy mornings there breakfasting, reading and writing. Our room was such a lovely place to be, lying on the bed, or sitting on the sofa, with the balcony window ajar listening to the bustle of the city below coming in. Shopping of course is always fun here and we did a lot of that. The Murano glass visit was a new experience for us and since we assembled and hung our own chandelier earlier this year, Peanut has been fascinatingly looking at chandeliers, assessing their intricacies and breaking them down in her mind into their component parts. Yes, Venice as always has given us a lovely time.
We went to reception ordered a water taxi and checked out. The taxi meandered through the busy narrow canals and emerged onto The Grand Canal just by The Rialto Bridge between the bridge and the fish market. I bought Peanut the first leather gloves I ever bought her on the Rialto Bridge back in about 2006 when we came here on a day trip from the Dolomites with a bunch of fellow MINI drivers. This trip the lady got mask earrings off the bridge. I got a kiss in 2006 and I got a kiss this time round too. That’s the important bit.
At twelve we drove out of Piazzale Roma, crossed the long bridge to the mainland and pointed at Port Cogolin. The sat nav said 18.30 for our arrival. I did the first 2 hours, the motorway was wide and fast and SilverBeast purred along at the Italian pace set by the drivers around me.
We stopped for lunch in a service station and had pizza and chips each. If we had known we would have had one portion between us – they were huge!
Peanut took over for a big middle stint, I reclined my seat leaned a pillow against my window and had an afternoon Gentleman’s nap.
An hour later Peanut’s hand reached for mine and woke me. The tyre pressure warning light was on and Peanut had slowed to 50. An HGV behind us honked at us as he overtook. We were too slow for them forcing them to down change. A big deal for truckers. I told P to put her hazards on, whenever a truck loomed behind then they could set themselves up to overtake without down changing. It worked no more tooting horns.
It wasn’t a blow out the car handled fine, though a little soft. We cruised to a service station where there was air. Unfortunately, the air worked but the gauge didn’t. We hadn’t packed our own pressure gauge. Schoolboy error by us on a long road trip. I pumped a hefty amount of air into each tyre and we carried on for the next service station.
The gauge worked. I aimed for 37 psi all round. As it happened all were there or there abouts. We concluded that it was an all round lowering of pressure that had prompted the Tyre monitoring to trigger a warning. We decided to drive home to Port Cogolin and check again on Friday, just to be sure it isn’t a slow puncture. Visually we could see nothing. In Italy we had done a lot of farm tracks and hit a few potholes so with hindsight we should have checked our tyres before leaving Tuscany for Venice. Another school boy error.
The handling was definitely right now and Peanut put some more miles behind us. I was wide awake now and we put our iTunes onto random. An hour from Monaco the music cycle hit a golden patch and we had a sing song in the car where appropriate. Fleetwood Mac’s The Chain (F1song) got Peanut right in the groove and she drove this 3 and a half hour stint superbly. She had found a Chevrolet muscle car to follow. He was fast but not crazy fast and we hung onto his shirt tails. I think he enjoyed it too teasing us on a straight opening it up a bit and so on it was fun.
T Rex and The Jeepster blasted out. Such simple light words. Look up the words. I think you know my nickname is Beastie, or The Beastmaster. I loved this song and told Mrs P my full title had just got longer. I am now il Maestro, Beastmaster The Jeepster! God I’m vain aren’t I? Well yes I am but to be serious the first step to having someone like you – the real you – is to like yourself, to like the person you see reflected back at you in the bathroom mirror each morning.
Dean Martin did a stint on the stereo too and we swayed, smooched and sung in the car to Amore and Sway. Sinatra’s My Way helped us along our road and Pavarotti belted out E lucevan le stelle from Tosca, which made me want to sing but, I can’t speak Italian! This was so good I played it twice. Dire Straits made me reach behind the seat for my air guitars, classic and electronic, as we did 9 miles listening to the sublime Private Investigations. A few Abba songs had me clapping and singing and Frankie Goes To Hollywood put us through the emotional mangle with The Power of Love. “I’ll protect you from the hooded claw” is a line that always makes us think of our cat Ola, as she raises her paw to warn our other cat Alfie to stay away. He never listens and we fail to protect him from the hooded claw. 
It was a fantastic series of songs that came up in a row. We swapped drivers and I did the last short stint home arriving back at 19.15. A good run with few traffic hold ups. 15 minutes later we were unpacked and drinking tea. We read. I’m 5 hours into the 61 Hours Jack Reacher book that P has finished and she is getting slowly into Michael Connelly’s the Fifth Witness. 
A day of not a lot, yet a day of fun, of singing and clapping and driving and laughing. But stage left in the pantomime, dark in the corner, the evil witch lurked, as my back had ached all day.

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Holiday Diary – France and Italy August 2015 Day 11

Monday 31st August.

We had decided that having breakfast served in our room was how we should roll, so again we started our day feasting on the delicious trolleyfull that was provided. While we waited lazing in bed P opened the door to the balcony and was met with a wall of heat again. We have the airconditioning in our room set at 27 at Mrs P’s request but this is in no way a reflection of the real temperature in our room which was far far colder. Even at 9am it was a great deal hotter outside, and is reaching 34C most days. 

This was the day we took advantage of our complimentary trip to a glass blowing factory on Murano Island and we were to have been picked up at our hotel but there was some kind of gondola jam in the canal outside, so we were escorted to the main stop at San Marco where a water taxi awaited.

We then had a very pleasant boat trip across to Murano where we watched a master glass blower at work. It was in truth incredible as we watched him create a beautiful glass horse before our eyes in minutes. The guide was amusing, Il Maestro as they called the genius glass maker was astounding to watch and then full of wonder and delight we were lured into the sales rooms.

This clearly was the point of our visit – we were meant to buy something and we were led through endless galleries of gorgeous glass of slowly diminishing value. The business began with your personal assistant showing you chandeliers with prices that made your eyes water. Every time you stopped to admire you got a lecture on how wonderful it was and why it cost £4000 or more, nothing was priced.

After a while we both got a bit irritated by this “hard sell” and by then had made our minds up not to buy anything almost as a point of belligerent principle! But what we didn’t realise was that there was no facility for a drink, unless you purchase something, in which case you evidently get a glass of prosecco. We weren’t that thirsty! And as we soon found out also a water taxi of your own to take you back to Venice! For those who decline their wonderful bargains, you wait in the sun for 20 minutes or so, until they can fill a boat and take all the tight fisted humbugs back together. We began to think we might have to row ourselves back, or maybe swim. So never forget there is no such thing as a free lunch, or factory tour.

On balance it was a great morning, high speed water taxis across the lagoon (Bond and Moneypenny were out again), an eye opening chance to watch a master craftsmen create art in front of your eyes, etc. However, the hard sell left a bad taste in our mouths and it is not our nature to put up with that just for a “freebie”, which is what this was.

Back at last in Venice we had lunch and enjoyed our freedom, having safely escaped Burano Island. It is a feature of this holiday that wherever we go in Italy, we seem to fall foul of the Curse of the Loud American! What is it about them? Why do they bawl? Why can’t they eat, walk or just exist quietly? And why do they wonder why the rest of the world finds them irritating? So yes we had one behind us at lunch, obviously and also one on the glass blowing trip. Worse still, she bought nothing so was on same boat as us back to Venice. We had to sit inside as she successfully drowned out the noise of a 250 HP boat engine.

After lunch we shopped some more with Peanut adding some rather fetching cream trousers to her collection. Then we wanted to find the shop where we bought P’s Valentine bracelet back in February and that took some doing I can tell you! We headed for the Rialto Bridge as it was definitely on the other side. As we approached the bridge, Peanut had a brainwave and said she wanted some earrings fashioned as carnevale masks, one gold and one silver. This was prompted by a brooch she had seen of two masks one gold, one silver depicting the happy and sad faces of theatre. I too was smitten with her idea. 

The Rialto Bridge is full of small jewellery shops and 35 seconds later we were gazing at a set of gold and a set of silver earrings. Peanut decided to buy both split them and give the spare pair to The Elf. This was an incredibly fast example of turning an idea into reality – under two minutes by my estimate!

Back on our mission to boldly go where where every man in Venice has been before (can the enlightened ones tell me what I’m paraphrasing?) and indeed after a few wrong turns we found the shop where Peanut’s bracelet came from. 

One of the wrong turns took us past another master craftsmen this time in the noble art of mask making. The classic masks were there and indeed he was making a double headed mask representing the same theme as Peanut’s earrings as we walked in. He was applying gold paint to it and the shop smelt gloriously of the vapours from the paint. It felt, as it was – the work place of a great artisan. We spotted a fantastic half bust perfect for our bedroom and decided to have it as our Christmas treat. Once home we will check wall dimensions and then we will get it. It’s great when we both fall for the same thing!

The bracelet shop had been taken over and was now solely a watch shop. They were new Hamilton watch distributors so I hoped they had the latest Ventura there but sadly it wasn’t. Peanut tried the Bagley Hamiltons, which we had not seen in the flesh before and they were lovely, but really we are looking for a sports watch not another dress watch.

We wandered some more, back across The Rialto, had some ice-cream sat on some steps. Aargh an American woman sat next to us accompanied by two more. Someone was missing from their party. Have you any idea what it is like to listen to one American woman talking at 244 decibels to her companions on how they were going to solve this for the whole duration of my vanilla scoop and my lemon scoop? Have you? Well… Aaaannnd calm.

We sought the sanctuary of our hotel room where after an hour our hearing levels seemed to have returned to normal parameters. Later we changed and headed out for dinner.

Dinner was very pleasant as we stumbled on a slightly upmarket place away from St Marks. My Mum is never happy if a place doesn’t have table cloths. By definition it must be a cafe not a restaurant. I’m not saying my Mum is right but God dammit I can’t help but always clock the presence or absence of a table cloth. This place had table cloths.

We had a superb seafood risotto to share and as it was freshly made and would take some time to cook, the waiter suggested a small traditional starter. No idea what it was called but it was made of soaked dried cod mashed with olive oil and then deep fried. Delicious but you wouldn’t want too many of them. Oh and yes, more loud Americans, this time playing cards in between courses!

This was the day of The Americans in Venice! A lovely day for us both in truth and to balance the records, Americans come in all shapes, sizes and volumes, many I count as real friends and they make the truest and best friends you could hope to have.



Holiday Diary – France and Italy August 2015 Day 10

Sunday August 30th

We had a lie in with breakfast ordered in our room. We had ticked off from a list what we wanted the night before and hung the list on our outside door handle. What tickled me was it asked how long you wanted your egg boiling for. Four minutes for me. Because we have been fortunate enough to visit Venice a lot in recent times, we don’t have this urgency to get out and see it all.

Breakfast came on a large trolley and the maid put it on the table. It was perfect and we sat and ate it in the cosy white dressing gowns the hotel provided. We were sold on this as a way to start the day, even deciding to get a bistro table set for our bedroom when we get home! It was good waking to this and feeling so well again. 

We stepped out and immediately spotted some graffiti on the wall – Peanut’s daughter’s name! Strange as another time we saw “Amelia” written in a prison cell in the Doge’s Palace.
Our plan for the day was to do some shopping. My friend in work Laura had asked me to get her a Venetian mask in shades of black, grey and white and a budget to work to, so as we meandered about we started to check out masks. It was thirsty work in the hot weather, so we paused for a fancy coffee and cake, in a lovely elegant cake shop. 

Then I spotted a jumper I liked and as I seem to have better look with Italian made jumpers than I do with those I stumble across in England, which seem to be made for 7 feet tall Giants or super skinny men very in touch with their feminine side, I decided to try it on. Bingo! Job done.

We meandered more through the shopping alleys of Venice, stopping every few minutes as we spot something else to intrigue us. Calligraphy pens, old parchment paper, leather bound note books, a watch box tempted me but I resisted. Murano glass in a million shapes and sizes, classic pieces, contemporary pieces, comic clowns galore, magnificent stallions rearing tall, Murano glass jewellery. For fun we went round all the shops counting, comparing masks to Murano glass. There were 4,223,000 masks in Venice and 9,456,000 different pieces of Murano glass to buy.

After this exercise we carried on in the direction of Luisa Spagnoli. Kate Middleton, as she then was made the name more familiar in the UK by wearing some of their outfits. What draws me to them for Mrs P is that they create style rather than fashion. Their garments have durability beyond just one season. Timeless elegance, that sits well both with younger girls seeking style before fashion and the older girls too such as Mrs P.

We went in having seen an outfit in the window we liked. A jumper and some Capri style trousers in blue caught our eye. Peanut loved it as four assistants ran around collecting things for her to try. The trousers were right but the top wasn’t. We tried another and another and then the jumper worked too. Chunky necklaces were adorned around her neck but every time she moved they framed either her left or her right boob looking a bit silly. It was amusing but I think it was because the were just a tad too long. A beautiful blue coat was draped on her which had been on the mannequin in the window. Gorgeous in the window but it drowned Mrs P and the raglan shoulder did her no favours, as Mrs P does not have strong shoulders. The assistants were on thin ground, if they were going to insist that everything looked wonderful they would lose their credibility. There is a saying, “buy cheap, buy twice”. Well there should be another one for the sales world, “Sell right, sell again”. 

Nonetheless it was fun in the shop, a nice shopping experience and we came away with the trousers and jumper.

The mask hunt we made easier by eliminating all the Chinese or imitation junk. A ten euros mask is pretty enough, but when a friend asks you to choose one, what you pick reflects on you, and as the budget would allow us to get the real deal that sat better in my mind. 

We saw a mask shop with a display that pulled us in and on a table at the back we saw the perfect mask for Laura. Below you can see the early beginnings of a similar one. We sent Laura a photo of her mask that evening and then purchased it the next day.

However, it proved expensive for us too as we saw the violin below on the same table as the mask and loved it. It would be perfect for us for our living room. The problem is that our connection to the violin is tenuous at best. 40 years ago Peanut got a Grade 1 at violin playing but hasn’t played since!

The next day when we collected Laura’s delightful mask, the violin was picked up too. Price? Don’t even ask!

We headed back towards the hotel, wandered around the nearby St Mark’s Square, bagged a cute little Murano bottle stop and retired to our room shattered.

Suitably rested we changed for dinner and returned to a restaurant that in February we walked out of without paying for our drinks because they kept us waiting far too long. The service in there was swift but we just got missed after taking our order. It was a good restaurant though so we gave them a second chance. Peanut had a delicious steak with mixed vegetables while I had a carbonara which was lovely and made up for the apology for one I had endured the previous night. With my treatment I’m getting very lightweight on the alcohol front so just a couple of Bellinis  for us both to go with the meal.  Another drink that goes hand in hand with Venice is Negronis. With my tummy how it is, I have shied from trying one. However, if you come to Venice, steal a march on me and order a Negroni and tell me what it is like.



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Holiday Diary – France and Italy August 2015 Day 9

Saturday 29th August.

I’d had a bad night up and down all night being sick or suffering diarrohoea. By morning the symptoms had eased off but I was as weak as a kitten. On the plus side we were heading to Venice today so Peanut could drive and I could just rest in the passenger seat. 

For now I lay in bed while Peanut packed the cases around me. These European trips are so easy for us because we do them as a team. We share the driving and the work that’s needed and then if one of us gets lame the other can step up. These days in truth I am the lame one mostly.

I had a bath and stumbled on wobbly legs down to breakfast where I could only manage a fruit juice and a cup of tea. Andrea spoke to us at breakfast full of concern, saying stay as long as you like, rest and get your strength. This couple were so kind, what can I say except make the effort and see them for yourself, they will help you see Italy in such a lovely way.

Finally, Peanut and one of Andrea’s sons packed the car and we said our goodbyes. We strolled to the car and this provoked a whole new conversation as they admired the car. The son was fascinated by it too and Peanut proudly rolled off facts and figures, explained the significance of the roof numbers and then had to explain about the other three cars one of which belongs to The Elf.  We have had this conversation at every petrol station we stop at in Italy. The Italians love their cars.

Actually sad to go, we set off with Peanut engaging sport mode to give our audience a few extra pops on the exhaust as we left. For the last time we stopped at the wooden gates as we waited for them to open electronically. Bizarrely one of the cutest things we have ever seen.

It was just over 3 and a half hours to Venice but it was twelve before we had left. Although on paper this holiday looks hectic, in truth it has been one of the laziest we have had. Lazy lie ins in Port Cogolin and the same at the castle.

En route we stopped at a service station and hadn’t even got out of of the car before a friendly Italian with a beaming smile was over to us making thumbs up signals. His wife translated for him telling us how he loved Motorsport and had worked for Porsche in Motorsport. They both loved the car. A long discussion ensued on the suspension with me explaining that it was a softer ride on the non run flat tyres and that this change had got rid of the interior rattles we had suffered prior to changing them. It made the car better for the long distance touring that we were doing on this holiday. Knowing nods from three experts in the field of vehicle suspension exchanged, akin to conversations men expert in all fields, exchange over pints in an English pub or wine in an Italian bar. 

This is touring. Meeting strangers, chatting, fixing the world, breaking it again, then re fixing it with new Elastoplast. Inside the service shop, I got a drink an energy bar and some fruit pastilles. Never underestimate the power of the fruit pastille.

Our journey continued with Peanut still at the wheel, my symptoms had all but gone and this bit of energy food was pulling me round. Peanut told me more of her chat with Andrea up at the top of the castle tower sat around a table drinking red wine and nibbling cheese. They discussed the Mafia as one should in such a setting, a fascinating conversation about the power battles between the Italian, Russian and Chinese Mafia. Thus the journey passed and we were parking in Piazzale Roma in Venice. 

We wheeled the cases across the square to the canal and jumped onto a water taxi to take us to the hotel. I have made this comment before but to take a little boat trip as the first thing you do in Venice makes going to this place special. We went under Ponte dell’Accademia then past St Marks Square and turned inwards by the Doge’s Palace and went under the Bridge of Sighs before docking at our hotel boat door.  James Bond and Moneypenny thanked the taxi man and stepped off the boat and into the hotel. We were greeted by a loud and enthusiastic “bonjiorno” from the suave young hotel receptionist whose English was gloriously elaborate. It was so friendly and set a good tone for the start of the next stage of our trip.

Thus welcomed we were shown to our room, which was gloriously grand with a Murano chandelier that you do not realise from the compression in the photo below but is actually taller than I am! No jokes about my height today please, I’ve not yet stopped being James Bond. Still acting as Bond, I asked Moneypenny to tip the bellboy who had brought our cases. 

  We checked out the bathroom and there was another Murano chandelier in there! This was our kind of a hotel, we loved the room and after the castle in Tuscany it could so easily have been a let down. It wasn’t. The room was very cool due to the air conditioning, so Peanut turned it up and stepped onto the tiny balcony to let some warm air in. The view alas was not of the Bridge of Sighs. An imposing head of a bearded man topped a grand door facing us, 12 feet away across the narrow alley. A sad Kodak sign hung from the wall to the right and below this. Looking right a large “O” symbol seemed to straddle the alley.
The “O” is a mystery to be solved. It has chased us on this holiday. It is a Dan Browne like symbolistic oddity we repeatedly encounter. A later blog will follow on this once we crack the mystery.

I rested while Peanut unpacked and then we stepped into Venice below us. We headed to St Marks 50 metres away. The Longchamps shop nestled in the corner of the square and we headed there. The handbag we had seen in St Tropez was there but only in plain colours. It was 30 Euros more, oh well we’d be back in St Tropez soon enough.

We mooched some more then settled for a small trattoria directly under our hotel. Peanut had a pizza and I had a carbonara. To be honest they were pretty poor, not helped by my still being a bit feeble on the eating front.

An early night and  I immersed myself in the Lucy Foley novel I was still enjoying. It was rather lovely lying in bed reading my book and looking around the hotel room we were in.

“Night Moneypenny.”

“Night James. Oooooh…”



Holiday Diary – France and Italy August 2015 Day 8

Friday 28th August 2015

The castle at San Fabiano had a feeling of peace. Our hosts Beatrice and Andrea were simply lovely, so again we had no urge to dash off too soon. We made it down for breakfast at a quarter to ten and bumped into Andrea as we went down. He asked what our plans were for today so I explained that as we had explored north of the castle at San Fabiano yesterday, today we wanted to explore south and try to find the traditional Tuscan landscapes that you see on postcards. Andrea nodded gleefully  and said he would prepare us a map while we had breakfast. He had a boyish excitement about him as he disappeared to do this, which was really endearing.  

After breakfast he presented his map and explained a few things and then we were on our way. We drove first to Asciano taking some photos along the way of a landscape which was exactly what we hoped to find. From there we went to Chisure. The road to this was nothing more than a dirt track, the village then was small so we carried on heading for Pienza but not before we did another 4 kilometres along s dirt track. It was however a dirt track that traversed some idyllic Tuscan countryside. Be assured then, the Tuscany of the postcards is real!

Our first proper stop was Pienza where we had lunch. This was a beautiful little town with not many tourists about but we needed lunch before we explored. We spotted a cafe serving Taglieri, which literally translates to “cutting board” but meaning a tray of meats, cheese and bread to share, served on said cutting board! Simple but enjoyable. We washed this down with some lemonsoda and then explored the town.


We were intrigued by some large busts, such as the one in the first picture. Then we stumbled upon this one below.

A man was stood next to it being photographed by his wife. It amused me how much he looked like the bust, so I insisted on photographing him as we shared a laugh about this.

A small hotel displayed a sign inviting you to explore their gardens for free. We stepped in walking through the beautiful courtyard above. Photographs were on display on the walls depicting the Tuscan landscapes. They were very good and I realised sadly that our photographs taken on our Fuji cameras will not match up to these. Still once home we will edit them and post up what we have.

The hotel gardens were very pretty and they served lunch in a very appealing setting and this doubtless was what they hoped you would do. However, the big meal we had the evening before meant we only wanted the light meal we had already enjoyed.

Where Chrissie is stood we were looking down at the hotel pool and I saw this shot above which for some reason I feel really pleased with.

We wandered further about the small town. These days with the power of the Internet and television, you can explore the world from your armchair, never leave home. However, I feel that travel and exploring for yourself can’t be beaten. You taste the food of the region, you smell the fragrances of the flowers, you feel the wind. So… Walking down a narrow street our noses were suddenly overpowered by an incredibly strong smell of cheese.

What a fantastic little shop. Back home where we live in Malvern, we shop in Solihull, or Cheltenham or Worcester but the high streets are all full of the same chain shops. Independent shops are hard to seek out and for us Malvern probably does best for this. In Tuscany there are plenty of small shops to explore.

 Off again and our next stop was  San Quirico d’Orcia where we had our by now traditional 4 o’clock ice cream. This was another beautiful Tuscan town and again not too touristy. 

By now we had visited quite a few towns in Tuscany and I was struck by the quiet air of prosperity they all had. They were all very tidy – chocolate box photo tidy- they reminded me of San Marino which we visited two years ago. The graffiti you see in the bigger places such as Rome or Venice wasn’t there. Not all of Italy is like this, but Tuscany really is a beautiful landscape dotted by very attractive towns.

We drove on homewards to Montalcino where we made a brief stop took a few pictures, not even pausing for a coffee. I was tiring and by now we were “Towned out”. 

From here we went back to the castle. We had a 7pm rendezvous with Andrea who was going to tell us the history of the castle, over cheese and wine up in the top of the tower.   

As the day wore on I was aware that I had been feeling increasingly queasy and by 7pm was really feeling quite ill. I think the heavy steak and wine the previous night were more than my body could take. I was feeling very sick indeed. Sadly shortly after Andrea started his story I had to retire to our room where I spent the rest of the evening, enjoying an intimate relationship with the toilet.   We had also planned to have a meal on the first floor terrace on our last night there, so poor P had to eat her meal alone except for about ten minutes when she came and coaxed me out to join her. I sat with her while she enjoyed a mouth watering fresh fruit dessert. It was so beautiful up there in the warm evening air with just the stars and a full moon for company. It was very emotional, a tear escaped my eye, a moment of self pity as I cursed the cancer I fight, that had prevented me sharing this special moment with the lady I love.

I shall not dwell on it but the night got worse for me. Fortunately I managed not to disturb Peanut too much through the night so at least she was fit and well for our next day’s journeying to Venice. 

It had been a lovely day, a special day, a day of memory making and I was glad I did enjoy the terrace with P as she finished her meal. Tomorrow is another day, another adventure and another set of smiles.


Holiday Diary – France and Italy August 2015 Day 7

No alarm today and we awoke around 8 after a good night’s sleep. I wrote the blog for yesterday and uploaded it and then we showered getting down for breakfast at a quarter to ten.

Breakfast was served on the terrace on the first floor. This was on the side of the castle      and gave wonderful views of the surrounding Tuscan countryside.  Two large awnings hung off the castle to provide welcome shade and simple bistro sets made up the tables with soft cushions on the seat. A simple heavenly oasis was created and breakfast promised to be a lazy pleasure. To access the terrace we had walked through a large room where centre stage was a large table atopped with most of the buffet breakfast. A large food cover of lace covered the hams and cheese. It was so pretty that it deserved a better word than “food cover”. In the garden it might be called a cloche. I kept thinking this cover needed such a word.

Beatrice appeared and explained the breakfast in detail. She pointed out the home made cake with jam from the castle, and the jams made at the castle, that you could buy pots of to take home. Three types of meat, from the breast, the belly and the thigh and a simple cheese cut into the finest slivers you could imagine. On a side table were four jugs of different fruit juices. Each jug had a simple cotton cover sitting on top. Such little details caused me such delight.  The bread was a dark brown colour  made at the castle from seven cereals and again wrapped in a cotton napkin that you unfolded to access the bread. 

Once at our table a waitress that the castle employed appeared to take our tea and coffee order. She had a simple uniform on that seemed so apt for the setting we were in. We had stepped back in time to a past age the twenties or thirties perhaps where all the characters in an Agatha Christie movie were appearing for breakfast in a big country house. Breakfast then simply put was a wonderful way to start the day.

As we walked out along a corridor we saw some pictures on a side table close to the castle office. Beatrice our host was passing and stopped to explain them. This is my Mother in Law and her friend skiing with Ernest Hemingway when she was very young. And this is my Father in Law with your Queen. In this picture though she is but a beautiful Princess. The Queen loved Italy and came often as a young Princess.  Our hosts clearly knew people.

We talked more with Beatrice and she offered to help us plan our day. We stepped into the castle office. An electrician was on site hanging lights in the garden for a wedding next weekend and the power had tripped. Beatrice powered up the Mac. I looked around the office. It was real, a working place. To the left of the door an old wooden coat stand, hung with an eclectic mix of hats. A Panama caught my eye. At the foot of the stand green welling tons stood, splashed with mud. On the wall to the left of the desk we sat in front of hung an old map and on my right a tall bookcase full of books and maps in a haphazard fashion and clearly used regularly. 

Beatrice went to great trouble to help us and then her husband Andrea appeared. He had been cleaning the pool. A very heavy storm a few nights before we arrived had wreaked havoc at the castle. The rainwater in the pool had pushed the salt and cleaning agents to the bottom of the pool, turning it green. Normally the pool is a 45 minute clean but today he had worked on the pool for two hours in the morning Tuscan sun. He stood before us in a check shirt drenched in sweat on his back and chest. One black protective glove on his left hand. 

Andrea too wanted to help with our day and he quickly added polish to the plan Beatrice had sketched for us. He loved our car – SilverBeast our JCW MINI – and Beatrice had explained to him that we had driven straight from St Tropez to Siena and this seemed to impress him greatly. He identified us as keen drivers and refined our day to include some great driving roads. This couple had a huge castle to run. Jobs would queuing for their attention. Yet here they were both keen to ensure we had a great day and full of help. Staying at Castello San Fabiano is not like staying in a hotel. You are driving down to the country to stay with old friends. It’s that special.

We packed our cars and got our day underway. First stop was San Gimignano, which Beatrice felt was a bit touristy. I remember Bryan Ferry playing through the HiFi. It was Back to Black his jazz version of the Amy Whinehouse hit. To me it was the right sort of cool for the drive we were doing.

San Gimignano proved to be as touristy as Beatrice had said! The car parks were full and after two laps of the walled town, which included a few miles on dirt tracks, we gave up. By then though we had seen too many coaches, cars and people and really didn’t mind giving it a miss. On the plus side the scenery and roads on the way there had been fantastic.

We headed to our next stop Volterra famous for its alabaster. Diana Krall’s version of  Besame Mucho played in the car and I felt that the shuffle on my music sensed where we were and the landscape we were driving through and was selecting the perfect tracks. We had no parking issues at Volterra and exhilarated after another great drive with sport mode engaged all the way we walked through a huge gated entrance into the town.

This place had a touristy feel but nonetheless felt real. We had a light and frankly indifferent lunch of toasted ham and cheese in the main square and then had a walk round. We thought we might like an alabaster souvenir and explored a few shops, but while their were some beautiful works to be seen, we saw nothing that we thought we could take home and enjoy.

We passed a paper shop and I loved the array of magazines they had hung on the wall outside the shop. A wall of colour that to me created a work of art fit to be compared with Jackson Pollock’s finest!

From Volterra we were headed to Monteriggioni, a medieval walled town built between 1214 and 1219. The town is referenced in Dante’s Divine Comedy. It is one of the most beautiful and intact walled towns in Tuscany and we were looking forward to exploring the town and having dinner in a restaurant that Andrea had recommended. The town promised so much, a perfect medieval setting and with the heat beating down on the hot landscape blurring the distant hills, Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez seemed not out of place on the HiFi. This music evokes the perfect image of Spain like nothing else. A classical guitar comes face to face with a full orchestra in this piece and  as if representing and fighting for the heritage of Spain, the guitar refuses to be overwhelmed by the orchestra.  To listen to this piece and be immersed by this music  is to cry with emotion as it draws so much from your soul as it washes over you. 

Andreas had suggested we go via Poggibonsi and Castellina in Chianti as this would avoid the motorways and give us a much better drive. He was only right and the scenery was stunning emphasised by the music we were playing.

We stopped in Castellini in Chianti for an ice cream. This was a beautiful town and we loved meandering through its streets. An English wedding was taking place and it amused me to see my fellow English men dressed in their finest tight fitting suits with a nod to the continentals as much linen was sported. The suave Italians must have loved the spectacle and I felt sad to see just how bad us Brits (myself included) are at following fashion but always at the expense of style.

I was pondering this while sitting on a bench outside a Gellateria enjoying my caramel and tiramisu ice cream. This was by the way as fine an ice cream as I have ever tasted. After demolishing it I felt compelled to go back into the shop and tell the young, rather attractive girl behind the counter just that! In my mind this girl wanted me, but then in my mind I am also James Bond, so we cannot hold too much store by that.

Back on the road seeking our walled town and dinner we once more went through some beautiful scenery on great driving roads. The eagerness of the engine on the Coupe was irresistible and from time to time I was compelled to open the throttle to be rewarded by a glorious cacophony of pops and bangs from the exhaust once I let off the throttle again. To my ears this was music on a par with all that had gone before on the car’s stereo! Roads like this were what this car was made for.

We reached Monteriggioni just after 6. It was indeed the stuff of computer games. The perfect walled town referenced in The Assassin’s Creed series of computer games. Fairy tale stuff. We explored its walled boundary and the small shops selling expensive Chianti and then sat at a cafe drinking lemon soda watching the people pass by. Rested we crossed Piazza Roma its main square to the restaurant there, Restorante il Pozzo which Andreas had recommended. I had a beef fillet and Peanut had pork steak with porcini mushrooms. We shared spinach and small cubed roast potatoes. It was delicious. I washed my steak down with a glass of Borghera, which meant that Peanut copped for the drive home in the dark.

Back home (we thought of the castle as home) we saw Andreas who was so pleased our day had been such fun. Doubt not this was a fun day.


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Holiday Diary – France and Italy August 2015 Day 6

Peanut’s alarm clock beeped it’s repetitive and relentless sound at 6.30. We showered and dressed and drove away exactly an hour later. Not military fast but we don’t do that these days and we were pleased with the getaway. The sat nav said 13.30 for Siena so we pushed on. There is a long road from Ste Maxime to the A7 motorway and halfway along we got stuck behind two circus trucks both pulling three trailers. 10 minutes were lost straight away.

We had no hold ups though passing Cannes, Nice and Monaco so that was good as was the weather so no hard rain to slow us either. After Monaco though it is a long road of relentless tunnels and bridges that can be quite intense. It amused us though to realise we have driven this road more times than we have crossed the Severn Bridge. Then just as we crossed into Italy our car SilverBeast developed a nasty hesitation and began running rough.  I suspected dodgy petrol when we filled even though it was Total excellium. I decided to stop at the next services, throw a petrol additive in the fuel and quickly check the engine for loose pipes. 

I threw the additive in the fuel and got Peanut to open the bonnet. Straight away I saw the problem. The air intake just behind the radiator had worked loose where it connects to er… well something? Turbo perhaps? I asked Peanut to run back to the petrol station, give the man her most irresistible smile and return with a screwdriver. 1 minute and 42 seconds later and I was tightening the loose pipe. A personal best for Peanut methinks!

We hit the road, this time with Peanut at the wheel and SilverBeast was once more running like a dream. We had another stop for a light but poor lunch and swapped drivers again. I used a few Italian cars as markers to follow and pushed in hard. We had no hold ups at all and the sat nav led us straight into Siena. We drove past the Moderna Hotel that we stayed in two years ago and parked in the car park there. This was 50 metres from some escalaters that led up to the old town. Ten past two saw us ascending these stairs. 

We meandered towards Piazza del Campo, the large square in the centre, famous for the wild horse race held there each year. We window shopped as we walked and wallowed in the joy of being back in a town we love so much. The heat was strong, but the narrow streets and tall buildings provide total shade and meandering is great fun. 

We decided to find a cafe for a drink and turned down an alley that opened onto the Campo. We emerged between the restaurants all fully shaded as the Campo is large and open and the heat was intense. We turned left, found nothing, backtracked and explored the cafes to the right of where we entered the Campo.

Half way along and three familiar faces were sat on a table. Dave, Becky and their daughter Mini. MINI friends who we have shared many continental adventures with. It was a wonderful surprise seeing them. They were just finishing their drinks and were heading off in search of a spot of lunch, so of course we joined them.

They had a place in mind which Dave had found on the Internet, so we crossed the campo in search of it. We arrived at another square with a covered area in the middle presumably where a weekly market is held. We carried on up some steps and along a narrow street. 

Suddenly in front of us a rat jumped up out of a drain in the middle of the road and raced into a shop where it was trapped. Dave was struggling to locate the restaurant on his sat nav so we paused to watch the drama unfold as the people in the shop tried to catch the rat. They cornered it in a back room where it met its fate. Meanwhile I noticed that the shop was a lovely old fashioned shop full of maps, old paper and hand made bound writing books. I saw a map of Italy in the window for 4 euros which I couldn’t resist, so sent Peanut in to buy it for me.

We failed to find the restaurant Dave wanted and settled for one in the market square we had passed through. Dave had wild boar, Mini had chips and the rest of us had home made pasta, mine and Peanut’s topped with a tomato and onion based sauce. Very nice but in truth the pasta was like spaghetti but much thicker which made it almost chewy. The waiter was very friendly and helpful though which was good. 

I think the whole purpose of Siena is to meet up with old friends and have a leisurely lunch  outside in a lovely restaurant it is a lovely way to idle away a few hours. 

Our day had been long with the drive down from Port Cogolin, near St Tropez to Siena and as we left the restaurant poor Peanut suddenly felt quite unwell getting very overheated. She had wandered around without a hat and now was feeling quite ill. It was well after five by now anyway, so we said our goodbyes and left in search of our castle.

It was called Castello di San Fabiano and was 18 km from Siena. We set our sat nav for the nearest town – Monteroni d Arbia and once there put in San Fabiano. Basically San Fabiano is a few houses plus the castle, so the sat nav took us straight there.

The road took us up a long road that was really a glorified track. A long plume of dust trailed behind us and it reminded me of a MINI run we did many years ago on just such a road in Belgium where trails of sand plumed after every car. The castle loomed up in front of us, a fairy tale fantasy that didn’t disappoint. We were greeted by Bernice who with her husband owned the castle. She was very friendly, explained where breakfast was served, on the terrasse on the first floor and showed us to our room.

It was perfect. We love hotels with character and authenticity. We recently stayed in a Holiday Inn in Northampton for a night. Perfect catered for all your needs but was soulless, very corporate and very uniform.  This place was real. It had history, it had flaws, bits that needed work on, where the work had to stop as taxes went up twenty fold on the property. It is a castle owned by an architect and his wife who had opened it up as a bed and breakfast in 2011. They try different things, cooking lessons, castle tours to assist in the revenue flow, there is a grit in their determination to carve out a viable way to run the castle that lets them enjoy living on their castle estate. We are not staying in some faceless corporate hotel, we feel we are staying with friends who own a castle. That is the essence of the charm of this place.

We felt the same when we stayed in a chateau in the Dordogne some years ago. So think to yourself, why stay in a hotel if a castle will do.

Our evening was lazy. We walked around the castle estate and used the wifi to catch up on our mail. The silence of the castle lulled us to a deep sleep that night.

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Venice For The Carnevale February 2015

Carnival MaskOk so Wikipedia is my friend but it does explain the Carnevale in Venice:

The Carnival of Venice (Italian: Carnevale di Venezia) is an annual festival, held in Venice, Italy. The Carnival ends with the Christian celebration of Lent, forty days before Easter on Shrove Tuesday (Pancake Tuesday or Mardi Gras), the day before Ash Wednesday. The festival is famed for its elaborate masks.

It is said that the Carnival of Venice was started from a victory of the “Serenissima Repubblica” against the Patriarch of Aquileia, Ulrico di Treven in the year 1162. In the honor of this victory, the people started to dance and make reunions in San Marco Square. Apparently, this festival started on that period and became official in the Renaissance. In the seventeenth century, the baroque carnival was a way to save the prestigious image of Venice in the world. It was very famous during the eighteenth century. It encouraged licence and pleasure, but it was also used to protect Venetians against the anguish for present time and future. However, under the rule of the King of Austria, the festival was outlawed entirely in 1797 and the use of masks became strictly forbidden. It reappeared gradually in the nineteenth century, but only for short periods and above all for private feasts, where it became an occasion for artistic creations.

After a long absence, the Carnival returned to operate in 1979.The Italian government decided to bring back the history and culture of Venice, and sought to use the traditional Carnival as the centerpiece of its efforts. The redevelopment of the masks began as the pursuit of some Venetian college students for the tourist trade. Today, approximately 3 million visitors come to Venice every year for the Carnival. One of the most important events is the contest for la maschera più bella (“the most beautiful mask”) placed at the last weekend of the Carnival and judged by a panel of international costume and fashion designers. Continue reading