Scuse! Part One – Trasimeno and Florence

Saturday 24th September

As I write this latest update, I am sitting on my own, in the van, parked in a tiny ‘aire’, 240m up a very steep cliff overlooking the Ligurian sea. 

I am very sorry, dear reader, for the lack of notes on our progress through Italy. My only excuses are the poor connectivity I have had lately and the punishing schedule Lesley has set us!

Now let’s put things to rights.

I am sitting on my own as Wendy, Lesley and Andy have gone off to do a Ligurian cookery course. The forecast for today’s weather is very poor. There will be rain and probably lots of it. This has been predicted for a few days now, and it was with some trepidation we pulled into “Il Poggio”, more of a lay-by than a campsite, yesterday morning. We are here because Il Poggio is the nearest campsite to the world famous and  Condé Nast-tastic, Cinque Terre. A collection of five extraordinarily pretty little villages that cling to the steep sea cliffs in North Eastern Italy and the site promises easy access to them. The downside is that the campsite is like an ‘aire’ which you find in most villages in France; a car park for motor homes that has access to water and electricity. It has no toilets or showers let alone a bar or restaurant, and so you can see that we were a little concerned how we were going to spend a wet Saturday with not a lot to do.

But as luck would have it (and we have certainly had more than our fair share of good luck so far!), there is a restaurant across the road; and when Lesley and Wendy went across to see if it was a possible venue for dinner they found a couple of very friendly owners, who speak good English, and run popular cookery courses. So our three gastronomic geniuses have booked themselves in for the morning with the promise that, if I look after the dogs, I can join them for lunch and share their creations. Meanwhile, I can enjoy the peace and quiet, the unexpectedly good Wi-Fi connection to upload my photos, and try and make things up to you.

On Monday, driving south west from Ancona, my spirits soared as we passed two immaculately kept rugby pitches belonging to the rugby club of Jesi, Rugby Jesi 70. It reminded me that we were back in a country of high culture, where proper sports shorts have pockets for gum shields!

Do you know which is Italy’s fourth largest lake? Don’t worry, I will save you the time googling it. The answer to this unlikely pub quiz question is Lago Trasimeno, a glorious, almost circular gem, half way between the east and west coasts. We were booked in for a couple of nights at the very tidy Camp Kursaal, in the grounds of a smart hotel, right on the shore.

The campsite was on the edge of the posh holiday town of Passignano sul Trasimeno. Actually this whole area is clearly a tourist hotspot and we were lucky we had got here just in time, before things began to close up at the end of the month. Our very helpful campsite owner showered us with leaflets about the area and the first thing that caught the eye (you can guess whose?) was a bike route that circumnavigates the lake and is 58km long (the lake really is that big!). So it was bikes and carriages out and off we set for a gentle loosener of 14km to Monte del Lago and back. I am sad to say I didn’t make it! No sooner had we set off, on what was a pretty flat and smooth track, when Bryn began to wail. It got so bad, at least to my ears, that I had to turn around. It felt as if push on the pedals was making him squeal louder and louder. We clearly have some serious de-sensitisation work to do if we are ever going to be able to take Bryn on rides with us. The terrific trio carried on and we all met up at a café in the shade of large plane trees in Passignano.

Passignano is one of Italy’s ‘Borghi plú belli’. One of the prettiest villages in Italy. And it has a very quaint medieval heart on a hill overlooking the lake,  with plenty of bars and restaurants down by the lakeside. It also has a pretty swish sailing club and it was good to see three Optimists out training in the evening, after school. Every august they hold a pretty unusual race. All the villages around the lake are very proud of their maritime heritage, if that is how you can describe their one-time dependence on the lake of their livelihoods, and now ‘big it up’ for the tourists. Passignano have their own unique take on racing the traditional fishing boats – they race them on land! Teams of six have to carry the boats, up and down,  through the narrow cobbled streets of the village until they come to the end where at the top of the hill, where it is too tight to turn, so they have to throw the boat up and over a wall and catch it the other side! It’s a shame we weren’t here in August.

With bike riding firmly off the agenda for Bryn, on Tuesday we waved adieu to the Fozzies, as they set off on a marathon expedition to Castiglione and back. A distance of 50km or so. The Jones’ party set off back to Passignano to catch the ferry. We had a last minute panic in our attempt to catch the boat. We weren’t allowed on with our standard UK face masks we had to have better ones, so Wendy had to run the length of the pier and back to get to a souvenir shop that sold the regulation face covering. Bryn had to wear a muzzle too and wasn’t happy and found various ways to dislodge it, but as he was lying on the deck under our seats no one could tell.

Our ferry took us to Isola Maggiore, one of a number of islands on the lake and, as we discovered, a very interesting history.

Back in the Middle Ages the island was a thriving community of around 600 folk, fishermen and their families. It played an important part in the life of central Italy, supplying fish to all the major cities , Perugia, Florence, Siena and even as far away as Rome. This was much in demand as in the strict Catholic country meat couldn’t be eaten for 150 days of the year. The catch doesn’t sound very appetising as it was eel, pike, perch and chub and this was even less appetising as the locals found they could preserve the fish for up to seven days (it was a long way to Rome) by soaking it in urine! This is in the historical record as they have a law that was made to ban the practice. The islanders also had a unique method of fishing. They used to build large mounds of submerged logs and branches which the fish were drawn to for safety, then in the winter the fishermen would surround the pile with nets and then begin to dismantle the heap with long handled rakes (the depth of the lake is no more than five metres). This would scare the fish into the nets which were then pulled into the boats. A similar method is used by the anglers of Allestree to protect the fish in the lake. In the winter they sink cylinders of pig netting, stuffed with discarded Christmas trees, as fish havens, where the fish can lurk safe from the attentions of diving birds such as grebe and cormorants.

Isola Maggiore was such a well known place that it had a visit from St Francis of Assisi, he of the first crib scene, in the 1211 (when he was just plain old Frank). His voyage to the island (unlike ours) was it by a terrible storm and he is supposed to have created one of his miracles by calming the waters so that everyone was saved.

The lake was created by a geological fault and is only fed by a couple of streams. It relies mainly on rainwater and so it is at the mercies of the climate and has suffered in times of drought. At the moment the water level is at least a metre below its normal level. In the 1600s there was an extended period of drought and the water level feel so much that the lake was more a swamp and a lot of fish died. This led to the first of many exoduses from the island

At the beginning of the 20th century commercially manufactured fishing nets became common and the daughter of the local Marquis, who had just turned the monastery into the family’s summer home on the island, had the bright idea of converting the net making skills of the wives and daughters into those of making Irish style lace. This proved so successful that soon Maggiore ‘Irish’ lace was in high demand and the girls were earning three times as much as their fathers. Apparently they used this money to fund their own dowries. Our guide described this as an early example of women’s emancipation; but for dowries, really?

Some of the historic wealth of the community is displayed in the parish church, dedicated to tSt Michael the Archangel. On the walls were some fascinating frescoes which demonstrate the change in style from the early Byzantine to the onset and development of the Renaissance styles. The Church is undergoing detailed investigation and restoration and one of the paintings is now attributed to Giotto (there were other painters mentioned too that were clearly important, but I didn’t recognise them!).

In the 1950s the water fell again to disastrous levels and more folk left the island. Now there are only nine inhabitants; all the people who work on the island now commute each day. Among those were the two lovely ladies who opened our eyes to the island. They spoke English well, if heavily accented, and were passionate about the place. 

Andy and Lesley were waiting for us at the café as we disembarked, with a couple of cold ones already on the table. This is the life!


“It’s my favourite city!” 

Says our good friend, Lesley Needham, and I can see why. I know this is beginning to sound a bit repetitive, but if you haven’t been already, you need to add it to the list. Regarded, by many, as the birthplace of the Renaissance Florence is truly remarkable (I am beginning to run out of suitable adjectives). It was founded on the banks of the river Arno, where the river’s power was used to spin and weave wool. The wool merchants became traders that was underpinned by a developing banking expertise that gave the world ‘double entry book keeping’, the ‘letter of credit’ and ‘holding companies’. This innovation and expertise led to even more trading and an exponential rise in the wealth of the city and that of its major families. The competition between these families led to them competing with each other for prestige by patronising artists, sculptors, musicians and architects. In turn this led to similar competition between the city states of Italy and kick started the Renaissance.

We made an early morning dash on Wednesday, from Lago Trasimeno to ‘Camping hu Firenze’ on the banks of the Arno, less than 5km from the centre of the city. The camp site is pretty new and very good. It has a shuttle bus service to the city and what a city it is! The shuttle bus dropped us off ten minutes walk along the river from the Ponte Vecchio, the old bridge lined with jewellery shops, and as we walked we kept getting more and more glimpses of its magnificence. We walked from the Ponte Vecchio up to the Cathedral di Santa Maria, one of the most stunning buildings I have seen that appeared to glow and shimmer as the marble reflected the sunshine. We had a coffee in the cathedral square at a café/bar called ‘New Move’ which was also a specialist vinyl record shop full of photos of famous bands from the 60s to the noughties. It has a first floor balcony that provides the best vantage point for photos of the Cathedral and the Baptistery. 

From the cathedral we followed our own tour of the cities key points, including Dante’s birthplace and palace after palace. Those bankers and traders have certainly left their mark. Florence is a living city of splendid buildings, museums and galleries. Next time we are going to have to come without the dogs so we can have a look inside too, I hear they have some great paintings?

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