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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

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Venice In February – The Photography Mission


We had a recent holiday break in Venice for the Carnevale and to enjoy St Valentine’s day together and you can see our holiday photographs for this here. We also took a collection of photographs of people celebrating the Carnevale and these can be seen here. We were sold on going to Venice in February by our good friend and keen photographer Andy Williams, who explained how the people dressing up for the Carnevale would happily pose for photographs etc. He suggested we get up before breakfast as the models are around then and you can photograph them without all the tourist being around. Continue reading


Venice In February

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We had dinner with an old friend of ours Andy Williams sometime this winter before Christmas and we were telling him of our love for Venice and our recent adventures there. He mentioned that The Carnevale was on in February and  to cut a long story short he inspired us to go there. We looked at this and then found out that it fell over Valentine’s Day so that was it, we were hooked and the trip was booked. We went for Hotel Ambassador Tre Rose which is just off St Mark’s Square and right in the thick of the action and for once we decided to fly.

We overnighted at my cousin Lorraine’s in Ashtead from where we booked a taxi to catch an early flight on Wednesday morning. I don’t like flying, not because I hate flying as I love that part, but I don’t like the whole airport experience anymore. Too much queuing and The Easy Jet model discourages hold luggage. Anyway Gatwick was fine and in truth we got through very quickly and were able to enjoy a mooch around the expensive shops post passport control.

At Venice airport we had a long walk to the water buses where we soon boarded one  that meandered its way to St Mark’s square  and by about 2 pm we were unpacking in our centrally placed but frankly small bedroom. I learned to love this room though as it was very warm and cosy and to be honest I feel that any city break demands a centrally placed hotel and tin truth it doesn’t get more central than the Tre Rose! Continue reading


Venice By Night


Venice is possibly the most photographed city in the world. It gets huge numbers of tourists all clicking away catching every vista and detail and in truth I am just another in the hordes of tourists. But if i don’t take the pictures then the memories will disappear and it is nice to look at pictures of Venice that are your own and your own memories. Not only is Venice beautiful by day but it demands to be photographed at night too. To be honest though, I go to these places as a visitor and tourist first and a photographer last, I don’t want my photographs to take over from the experience of just being there. The result is I get good snaps, rather than great photographs but i am happy with that, because I was there, I have lived, breathed, tasted and smelled Venice and that is the main thing. Anyway nonetheless, I hope you like my snaps of Venice by night.