Sunday, 27 April 2014

Medieval Tuscany - on the trail of Ezio

Our short break to Toscana / Tuscany in Italy began with our arrival in Pisa and a quick visit to the leaning tower - from the outside only as there was a queue to climb the eight storeys of steps - tickets are now available for tourists to enter the tower, unlike our previous visit.

You will note a recurring theme throughout the post that refers to long queues and full car parks during Easter so if you can arrange your visit for a less busy time, you will probably benefit.

Our next stop was Siena. We parked reasonably easily about 100m from the northern gate then wandered along the busy streets and crowded piazzas, taking in the architecture and popping inside a few buildings for a different perspective. So many people though!

For a change of pace, we decided to visit a couple of smaller walled villages.

Monteriggioni, the main piazza viewed from the arched entrance
Monteriggioni is a tiny place where, apparently, Ezio from the Assassin's Creed game lived for a while. So compact that we walked around it twice in ten minutes, the village was quiet and peaceful with a handful of visitors. From the car park, enter the village through the arch and you reach a large piazza; the cafe-bar-shop immediately to the left serves the best coffee and at half the price of more touristy places. For 2€ you can walk around the ramparts.

Radicondoli is a slightly larger walled village. Sitting at a table outside a cafe in the small square by the church, gazing around and discussing how we felt like we were on a film set, we were forced inside by the arrival of a heavy downpour. The cafe owners were friendly and the toilet was like a home bathroom. As suddenly as it arrived, the rain stopped.

No trip to Tuscany is complete without a day in Firenze / Florence, even though we anticipated difficulty parking and walking through throngs of tourists. It wasn't too bad - we parked free, just above the Piazzale Michelangelo, and walked down to the River Arno and along to the Ponte Vecchio, the famous bridge with (mainly) jewellery shops lining either side. Crossing the bridge took us to the main tourist areas of the city.

San Gimignano ItalyOur final visit was to San Gimignano - our second attempt as the car parks were all full with others waiting on Easter Monday. We managed to park and meandered around for about an hour before a 20 minute deluge forced us to shelter under various cloisters and a cafe. After the shower, we visited the ancient gardens and walked part-way around the wall. This is a nice, medium-size walled town with no obvious modernisation and the occasional Masterchef celebrity enjoying a wander, too.

Driving between destinations wasn't difficult and was often pretty. Despite our lack of Italian language skills, we encountered only polite and helpful people wherever we went. Tuscany gets the 'thumbs up' from us.

Tuesday, 15 April 2014

April in Paris

Gare de l'Est, Paris
Gare de l'Est
The first weekend in April didn't have the best weather forecast for Paris (cloudy on Saturday, rain on Sunday) but we had booked the London to Paris Eurostar train and our hotel at the Gare de l'Est, a 5 minute walk from Gare du Nord.

Arriving on Friday, there was time for a stroll - via the Notre Dame* cathedral - down to the bistros of the Latin Quarter and a brisk walk back to the hotel in the cool night air. After a huge breakfast on Saturday morning, we headed for the Sacré-Coeur* (further than it looked!!) and Montmartre, the Artists' Quarter, which is situated immediately behind it. The weather was beautiful - sunny and warm, as we then found our way back down the hill to find the Moulin Rouge (big disappointment, don't go out of your way) and a café-bar. Duly refreshed, we wandered over to Gare St Lazare of Claude Monet's oil painting fame (from an arty viewpoint, the modernised station was also disappointing) past the fascinating architecture of Printemps Haussmann and l'Opera, ever slowly as our feet complained of blisters from 7 hours of walking.

As late afternoon merged with early evening, we decided to eat and were shown to a table at an Italian restaurant on the Boulevard Poissonnière, which we left after 20 minutes of being ignored to find a small restaurant in a side street before heading to the theatre for a one-man comedy show "How to become Parisian in One Hour" (very entertaining, by the way) then back to the hotel bar to 'wind down' before bed.

River Seine, Paris, Easterly view towards the Notre Dame cathedral

Another big breakfast on Sunday then down to the Metro for day tickets! Bearing in mind that the weather forecast was for rain, we had decided to spend much of the day in the Louvre* but, apparently, so had half of the visitors to Paris - the queue was off-puttingly long - and many other people on the streets of the city were involved with the Paris marathon. We did neither, opting instead to meander through les Jardins de Tuileries, along the banks of the Seine and up the Champs Elysees, followed by a much-needed refreshment stop. Then we hopped onto the Metro towards the Parisian Statue of Liberty in the centre of the River Seine as it flows west. alighting at Passy and walking over the pont de Bir-Hakeim... Quelle surprise! This bridge was featured in the film, Inception, and was being used for a couple of photo-shoots as we strolled by.

River Seine, Paris, Westerly view towards the Eiffel Tower

After another long walk to reach the statue, we took an even longer walk back to the Eiffel Tower* along the left bank of the Seine, fascinated by all the moored boats. It had been a lovely warm and sunny day but as dusk came, there were spots of rain in the air and we went to find a Metro back to the Champs Elysees to eat at Pizza Pino before taking the Metro again, back to the hotel for the night.

After breakfast on Monday morning, there was time to wander along the canal (Quai de Valmy) and through the gardens to the Place de la Bastille before catching the Eurostar back to blighty. Another nice day... until we were back in a rainy London but we considered ourselves very lucky.

*We had previously visited these landmarks, which is why we didn't spend too much time there this visit. However, we were hoping to visit the Rodin Museum but it was closed. C'est la vie.

Footnote. The architecture in Paris is breath-taking but there was a distinct (should that be 'stinked'?) smell of urine every few hundred metres. On the bright side, only two instances of dog poo to be avoided on the pavements is a major improvement over previous visits!