Monday, 21 September 2015


6th Sept 2015

On parade at 0830hrs in the hotel foyer for the now normal 'buongiorno!' briefing by the indefatigable Adrian who, today, was a vision in polka dots. I cannot cease to be curious as to how he manages to carry such an extensive, and exotic, wardrobe in what appears to be a smallish wheely suitcase; much smaller than mine may I add. He has never worn the same 'outfit' twice and changes into something different, and increasingly glamorous, every day and most evenings. I will investigate...tactfully.

Bus to Florence and then a 2 hour train journey to Venice Mestre, a suburb of Venice at the western end of the causeway from the town proper. We were informed that we would be passing through something called the 'breadbasket' of Italy, Bolognia, Padua and the Veneto region renowned for Valpolicella, Suarte and Prosecco wines, plus something to do with St. Anthony....who is, I discovered, the Patron Saint of 'Finding Things or Lost People'. Could be a most useful sort of Patron Saint if you ask me. Venice, the once great city state, hub of commerce and naval power in the middle ages.......captured by Napoleon and now a tourist attraction.

We were also informed that today is the annual Venice Regatta when they hold boat races and the the Doge's barge (not sure if they have a 'Doge' nowadays) is part of a fleet of decorated boats which process up the Grand Canal. Lots of locals dress up in elaborate costumes for the occasion. After booking in at our hotel in Mestre, back to the station for the 10 minute ride into Town. This couple (left) were on the platform and suitably attired for the occasion.

The 'biennial' exhibition is also in full flow. This is when many public buildings and churches put on a mix of 'cultural' musical and artistic displays.

Right: First view of Venice, east from the main station across part of the Grand Canal to the Chiesa (church) di St. Simeone Piccolo. Patron Saint of Small Instruments, perhaps. We were greeted by loud pop music blaring from speakers and the occasional commentary on the progress of the regatta. I also bought my 20 Euro 'go anywhere' 2 day vaporretto ticket. Vaporettos are the public canal taxis which operate on many routes around the city and across to the islands. They are the aquatic equivalent of a Metro system.
We were met here by our local guide, Cynthia. One of the features of all our guides' briefings is to point out where the nearest 'toilets' are. A vital part of the itinerary for several in our group. 

First stop was the St. Rocco cathedral. He, Rocco or Rock, is the Patron Saint of Falsely Accused People and Dogs, would you believe. The place is full of Tintoretto paintings, but I didn't go inside. Next door is the Scuola Grande de St. Rocco which is an elaborate building set up by a wealthy fraternity following one of the many Plagues (Black Death, Bubonic, Japanese Tourists etc.) which tended to sweep the city. The worst occurred in 1630 when a third of the city's population was wiped out. Hardly surprising really considering the fetid sewerage filled mosquito and rat infested canals on which the place is built.
FYI the place was totally constructed on wooden piles, which became petrified over the years and platforms laid on top. It is now slowly sinking and falling apart.

Right: A Venetian plague doctor with mask. These masks had long beak-like noses into which was stuffed scented straw with an orange in the end to camouflage the stink of putrifying bodies. These and many other papier-maché fancy dress masks were on sale everywhere. Venice is more famous for masks than the Kray brothers. We were advised not to buy the plastic Chinese versions. To be honest I couldn't think why I would want one....unless to amuse people in our local high street.

Our walk continued with Cynthia telling us lots of interesting things as we shuffled (so many tourists jamming the small alleyways and streets it was only possible to shuffle at times) through various 'Campos' (Squares). In fact Venice only has one 'Square or Piazza'; that of St. Mark. All the others are Campos. I think we had lost a fair proportion of our group by now.

As I discovered early on it is difficult/impossible to map-read your way around the smaller is a maze. It was useful to be told that Venice main island is shaped like a fish with the railway station at it's nose and St Mark's Square at its arsehole. Using that advice, and the sun, I seemed to manage. There were yellow signs at regular intervals throughout which pointed either to the railway station or St. Marks Square, which was a help.

Left: Ponte Dell Accademia, over the Grand Canal. It is the only wooden bridge in the city.
When we were guided over it was packed with tourists hoping, I suppose, to get a view of the regatta, but we were officiously ushered on by the police. I hadn't seen any sign of the regatta yet and was hoping Cynthia was taking us to a good vantage point.

Right: This colourful chap was sitting at the end of one of the bridges. I don't know where the rest of the band was. Watching the regatta I expect.

Lots of gondolas of course which are punitively expensive to hire. I was told it cost about 40,000 Euros to build a decent gondola, so that might explain the high charges of about 80 Euros for an hour's paddle.

I also noted that a large number of the gondoliers were not wearing their straw 'boaters' (with ribbon). In fact some of them looked downright scruffy. Falling standards of gondoliering I'm afraid. I think I would, for the price, insist on my gondolier being properly turned out and wearing his hat.

More gondolas (right).

On we marched, or shuffled, through such places as the large Campo St. Stefano (Patron Saint of Bricklayers). This square features the statue, and there are not many statues in Venice, of an academic in a gown with a pile of books behind him. His local nickname is 'the Bookshitter'.

Still no view of the regatta as we approached St. Marks Square. I think Cynthia was sticking to her script and itinerary which did not normally include regattas. I should have deserted the tour and gone to look for I think several others had, or had just got lost.

Anyway, we ended up in the square under 'Napoleons Ballroom". Napoleon had captured the city and rather taken a fancy to it.
At the far end is St. Marks Basilica, the Bell Tower and the Doges' Palace. I read that St. Mark is the Patron Saint of Insect Bites and Scrofulous Diseases.

Left: The Bell Tower. The original collapsed in 1902, the only casualty being the caretaker's cat. The rebuild was completed in 1912. The red brick looks rather out of place with the rest of the square, in my opinion.

Behind which is the Basilica (right). Not sure what that scaffolding is on the right side. Perhaps they are putting up a Coca Cola advert. It wouldn't surprise me.

...and to the right of that, adjoining it, the western wall of the Doges' Palace (left) which leads on down to the southern entry of the Grand Canal.

...and the Bridge of Sighs; so named because relatives/friends of those sentenced to be executed stood on it to watch the doomed prisoners walking over the passageway between prison and Palace to the square to be hanged, beheaded or garrotted or by whatever means. A final glimpse.....and sighed.

Left: This lady about to cross it was certainly of considerable sighs.

Right: The view from the bridge up to the passageway across which the prisoners walked from the prison cells.

Left: The view the prisoners had, throught the stone grilled window, of those on the bridge.

We finished our guided tour in St. Marks Square, and I had seen little sign of the great Regatta. I think it had moved on towards the railway station by now. What a bummer.

So I paid a visit to the Doges' Palace. A vast four winged building adjoining the Basilica with a courtyard and clock tower in the central quadrangle and was joined to the extensive prison by a suspended passageway.

There were many varying sized palatial rooms, mostly empty except for some old bench seating at the ends, which had been used for legislative, administrative and legal proceedings. They all had extraordinarily ornate ceilings. As per right and below, plus extravagant artwork on the walls.

The Doge and his various committees held meetings, gatherings of the clans and trials in these imposing rooms.
Talking of Doges, who were the city state rulers, they were elected by a very arcane system whereby people were selected by a committee to elect other people who elected another bunch to elect a smaller group to elect the Doge, or something like that. Apparently the eventually elected Doge may not have even wanted to be the Doge at all!

Right: The largest room measured about 100yds long. This served as a mass meeting hall for all the various state and district leaders in which to be addressed by the Doge. I hope he had a good sound system, or a very loud voice.

There is an extensive armoury museum housing thousands of medieval weapons and military paraphernalia. 

Amongst all the armour, helmets, swords, horse armour, daggers, crossbows, early firearms etc. was this ancient form of flintlock Gatling gun (right). Not sure how it worked

Left: Horse armour.

Along a maze of corridors and down into the dungeons such as this (right).

Left: The prison yard in the centre.

Those sentenced to death, having walked over the passageway and waved goodbye to their loved ones on the bridge, were brought out onto the St. Mark's Square and stood on the scaffold facing this clocktower (no clock there now). It was so they could witness their time of death. How useful.

Next, up the Bell Tower. Not too long a queue and the journey to the top is by lift. No climbing steps. 

Left: View of the Square below facing north. Basilica on the right. 

Right View to the west towards the causeway and Mestre. Napoleon's ballroom is at the far end, 1st floor.

Left: Several pleasant cafés around the Square which had small orchestras or bands to serenade you. Not cheap; it cost about 10 Euros just to sit down.

Right: Yet more gondolas.

The Grand Canal is in the shape of an inverted 'S' which enters the city near St. Marks Square and leaves near the railway station (see fish description). At the eastern extremity is the Rialto bridge, another popular tourist spot with  myriad restaurants and markets. This pic (left) of the Rialto bridge was taken from a vaporetto going home that night.

We, the group survivors, had met up for another 'on the house' dinner that evening at a restaurant near Campo St. Stephano and it was a very jolly place with excellent nosh and, significantly, an unlimited supply of freeby vino. Not a bad way to end the day. I was again seated between the 'singlies' including Bob, the 2nd World War weapons expert. There is now nothing I don't know about German half-tracks and anti-tank guns.

I believe we are off to visit a couple of the outlying islands tomorrow....all will be revealed.

Wednesday, 16 September 2015


5th Sept 2015

Naff....but it had to be done
I met Adrian in the bar at our hotel before the concert the night before and mentioned that I would like to go up the Leaning Tower at Pisa. He said he had been there several times with tours but had never been up it. If I was getting a ticket he would like one also. Apparently you have to book 'on-line' to do this, preferably with the official website ( Due to the vagaries of the website and erratic internet connection, it took ages to fix, but I managed somehow. So, at 18 Euros a throw, he and I were ticketed for the following day.

After breakfast and the the daily "buongiorno" ceremony and briefing we set off by train, firstly to Lucca about 50 miles west. We were down to 24 now as someone had twisted their ankle the day before and was confined to barracks.

The ancient bit of Lucca was occupied (as were several Etruscan towns) by the Romans and fortified by a very large wide, well restored, wall, 2 miles in circumference, with 10 bastions at regular intervals (as per left). It is now a popular tourist trap. The wall is wide enough on top for a road and footpath and has various market stalls along it's length. 
One can hire a bicycle (3 Euros per hour) which I did, and a jolly good bike it was too. Six gears and in good nick.

I spent a happy few hours pedalling around the wall and diving down into the town at various points, normally at the bastions. It was indeed busy with tourists but a charming little 'town' nevertheless designed on a grid system of narrow streets, although even equipped with a street map it was easy to get lost. Or at least I did.

Several 'entertainers' were in evidence in the many piazzas such as this lady (right) who played her violin remarkably well. So well I stayed to listen for quite a time. Perhaps she should audition for the St. Petersburg Northern Sinfonietta...maybe she was in it already and doing a bit of freelancing.

The main piazza (left), with many cafés and bars, was called Piazza Anfiteatro and was indeed the old Roman amphitheatre. That's my bike in the foreground...with Waitrose shopping bag in the basket. A good pit stop for a refreshing glass of beer.

Several churches in evidence, all having the mandatory campanile/bell tower. 

Apparently, when medieval wealth came to Lucca, there was prestige in owning the tallest house in town. This resulted in fierce competition to see who could outdo the rest. The town council then put a stop to it and limited the height of buildings. One crafty owner then got one up on his neighbours by planting oak trees on the top and claiming it the highest. It still stands, with the trees, but I didn't find it.

There were, perhaps unsurprisingly, many prestigious and expensive 'designer' shops amongst the otherwise ancient buildings. I noticed that those infamous old Romans Signores Armani and Prada had outlets here.

The town was the home of the composer Giacomo Puccini of Madame Butterfy, Tosca, La Boheme etc. fame.

His house, in Piazza Cittadella, is now a museum. It is the red one to the right of his statue (left). I paid it a visit. Lots of old documents and artefacts on display and presumably of great interest to an opera buff.

Right: One of his original musical scribblings of....can't remember.

Left: Puccini's study...with magnificent gramophone.

Anyway, it was a pleasant and relaxing way to spend the morning before boarding another train.....

.......and on 40 miles south-west to Pisa and it's famous Leaning (used to be 5.5º now 4º) Bell Tower.
Pisa is a university town of no particular interest (to tourists) other than the Piazza dei Miracoli, or Duomo, which contains a baptistry, walled cemetery, cathedral and it's aforementioned wonky erection (right).

We had a lady guide here, Sara, who gave us the low-down on the place. She was most pleasant and informative but admitted that when off-duty she didn't much like tourists. In brief, Pisa was another Roman town which was, initially, on the coast at the mouth of the river Arno, hence it's importance as a trading centre and staging post from sea to river traffic down to Florence. Due to the silting up of the river over the centuries the town is now 6 miles from the coast.

The cemetery, baptistry and grand cathedral (from left to right in pic) were built in the 12th century and surrounded by a rather hastily thrown up fortified wall. Construction of the bell tower was started in 1173 on soggy ground, but not completed until 1372 (199 years later). They must have realised the problems with the terrain and storeys were added cautiously. "Ay Luigi, you theenka we reeska one more?". As you are no doubt aware the whole edifice was slightly straightened and stabilised in the 1990s.

While the main group of our dwindling party were being given a gentle escorted tour of the cathedral (with it's famous echos apparently), self and Adrian climbed the tower.....amongst lots of others of course.

Right: Looking up the inside of the tower. The spiral staircase was between the inner and outer walls. 264 steps and it felt a bit disconcerting leaning one way and then t'other on the way up.

Left: Adrian's legs protruding from one of the bells. I think he was examining it's donger.

Right: The rest of the bells....which are definitely not for ringing. Any such vibrations could be catastrophic. 

Left: The view from the top over the cathedral and baptistry. There is a museum to the left which we didn't visit.

Back to Montecatini for a 'group dinner'. Other tour groups were also present; some of which must have paid more money than us because they were served before us and got gallons of free wine. Talking of wine, we were in the Chianti region. A drinkable bottle of the stuff cost 3 Euros in the local supermarket, but sold for 18 Euros in the hotel. There were several birthdays raucously celebrated involving cakes, firework candles and singing. It was all very jolly.

Off to Venice tomorrow...........

Monday, 14 September 2015


4th Sept 2015

Montecatini...on the right
We had a 'free day' today to wander around Montecatini. A perfectly charming place with many 'termes' (spas) and plenty of expensive shops and restaurants. The weather has remained sunny and warm so far. On looking down on the town I was struck by how built up the area is which presumably  runs east along the Arno valley towards Florence.

Not so much of interest to visit here, but there is a funicular railway which goes up to Montecatini Alto on the top of the overlooking hill to the north. So I went up. 

Left: The opposing funicular.

There were several Russians on my funicular carriage. I believe Tuscany has become a popular holiday  destination for them. I noticed that menus etc. are normally translated into English and Russian which confirms the point.

Montecatini Alto is one of those 'quaint' Tuscan villages which does quite good business with tourists. Quite small and not many shops.

It has two main features; a largish central piazza featuring no less than eight restaurants and an old fortified tower at the summit from which Romans/locals fended off invading Goths and others.

Right: The central Piazza, Montecatini Alto.

After a decent lunch, fortunately with no "mind if we join yous", I wandered the short distance up to the fort. It isn't a particularly inspiring edifice but just outside it is an extraordinary 'monument'. I thought at first I was looking at a small scrapyard but this, I learnt thanks to a plaque on the railings, was a monument to St Barbara of whom, I must confess, I had never previously heard. 

Left: The monument to St Barbara.

It consists of, amongst other detritus, a rusty old artillery piece, some barbed wire, a fire extinguisher, a couple of artillery shells, an old pumping mechanism, a stand-pipe, an anchor and, perched on the right-hand side of the back wall, a small statue of St Barbara herself.

Apparently she is the Patron Saint of all things that go 'bang', bell ringers and anything else not covered by other patron saints.

Right: An explanation. (click on to enlarge).

Left: A view up to Montecatini Alto.

Not much else to do after that except wait until 8.45pm when we had been booked in to a concert given by the St. Petersburg Northern Sinfonietta. This was held in the magnificent palatial grounds of the Terme Tettucio in the town gardens. Quite an impressive location. No camera so no pics.
This featured an orchestra accompanied by a very lively soprano, tenor, baritone and basso profundo, all Russian. The first half was a selection from Tchaikovsky's 'Evegny Onegin' of which, I am afraid to say, I hadn't heard and which was a bit 'heavy'. The second half was a selection from Verdi's 'La Traviata' which was much more jolly. They were very good indeed. 
There was a long interval. Those with the more expensive tickets were ushered into an enclosure to enjoy freeby wine (prosecco) and nibbles. Those, like us, in the cheap seats, were not. That, as you can imagine, merely provided a challenge to blag one's way in, which I accomplished without much had Adrian whom I met already on his umteenth glass of wine. Very generous of them. I even got to have quite a long and interesting chat with the conductor, a charming Italian who had studied in London before going to Canada then St Petersburg. It was a most enjoyable evening even though it went on until well past midnight. Most of the town restaurants, and the hotel bar, were closed when we returned. Probably no bad thing.

Right: The conductor, Fabio Mastrangelo. a charming bloke who spoke fluent English, Russian, Spanish and French as well as Italian. I've just looked him up; he has quite an impressive CV.

I think we are off to Lucca and Pisa tomorrow. Stand-by for more gems of cultural edification.