Monday, 29 February 2016

Are we nearly there yet?

Clare substitute
We really do know how to tiddle around. At the end of my last blog I’d gone in search of tea. As the bells had just tolled to tell everyone it was 8am I expected missy to arrive any moment soon so a full pan was ready.

Sure enough she arrived.

And then skipped upstairs to have a look out of the window. Normally I would post a picture of her looking out of the window as it’s become a bit of a thing but, err, I won’t this time. So we sat and nattered and - rather unexpectedly given her retirement - she sat and wrote her current awareness though unlike the approach she’s taken for the last 20 years she added her interpretation and comments. It’s hilarious, you need to read it!

It was just like, well, the last four years, us sitting writing over a cup of tea in nighties and cackling. Different location, same insanity. Comforting really. We had more tea. As there is no kettle we have to put a pan on which does rather remind you that things are slightly different. That and the decor, religious icons and stone floor. Obviously I couldn’t do *anything* until I’d finished my tea so it was a while before we eventually decamped to our respective boudoirs to shower, dress and pack bags ready for the journey to Ancona, the last leg of the Contrary road trip. Crikey.

Of course breakfast would happen before journey.

Ah. Breakfast. Now that was an interesting and delicious mix. We still had things left over from our Lidl run yesterday, just not quite the range, so we split the remaining focaccia, sliced hard boiled eggs and tomatoes, layered dirty cheese on to the bread, added with wild boar sausage, cheese and anything else to hand before devouring the must disgusting sandwiches we could manage. Perfect.

Considering how heavy the rain had poured in the night it was a surprise that we were able to eat on the roof terrace, but oh with that view it was quite wonderful. It wasn’t long before we finished so it was back downstairs to clear away the breakfast things, pack bags and prepare to head East to Ancona.

Obviously it took me longer to tiddle around as I’d decided to re-organise my bag. Before we knew it we had reached the point where it was time to wave goodbye to out home of the last 48 hours. Clare left the bible outside our suite on the song of songs, though I can’t help but wonder whether revelations might have been equally as apt.

Needless to say the owner looked happy that we’d stayed an extra night and as Clare finished chatting with him I headed off to fetch the Contrary Clio so we didn’t have to carry bags.

She wasn’t very happy. The Clio that is.

You know when an engine is quite hesitant and feels like it’s going to die? Yup, the torrential rain had really upset the plucky little car. At least I hoped that’s what it was. Fortunately with coaxing we managed to climb back in to the old town and once more parked on the narrow streets we carefully reloaded the bags in their correct places, bid our farewells and with a little growl we rolled out through the town gate and on to Ancona.

Well, except that we had to stop to take some last pictures of the lake as the light was amazing and also enter the complete address of the ferry terminal in to Tom. We were off! The journey started off uneventfully enough. The rain confirmed our decision to skip Perugia as being a good one. All was well. Okay we still laughed at how abysmal the Italian road surfaces are and how they improved or worsened according to which region you were in, right in the border. We even realised that whilst Italian drivers have a certain reputation there are very few accidents as most people expect most people to be utter lunatics and hence drive very defensively. Once we were on the autostrada we rolled along happily until, unexpectedly, the road ran out. Oh. It turned out they were still slowly building the road and we were decamped on to the original roads. Most people would think this bad, but not us as this meant a) we could let the Contrary Clio have fun on the twists and b) we would get to see a road being built. And tunnels. And bridges. It’s really quite something to see and gave us a huge appreciation of the Italian way as well as understanding just why they feel the need to hack through the countryside. Yes it’s a shame that people miss out on the really interesting roads and scenery but - and this reflects a theme in Clare’s blog earlier - people have the choice, they can choose speed over interest. Plus the more people on the autostrada the more off the interesting twisty roads.

I became aware that our fuel was getting a little low and said we’d stop at a suitable garage. This lead to a discussion about the cost of fuel in Croatia versus Italy, i.e. was it worth waiting? I had enough range to get me to the ferry and about 50-60 miles out of it, plenty really, but where best to refuel.

And then I found a filling station so I peeled of deciding that I’d leave the question of cost to another day… Hmm, except a problem. I got out. I put the fuel nozzle in the tank. I waited. Nothing. I pressed various buttons. Nothing. I looked at the station office. Nothing. Oh. Where was the attendant? After a few minutes I gave up and was ready to push on. As I got back in the car we realised that there was a little machine fifteen feet away which *might* have taken cards and *might* have been the payment mechanism but we had no idea and didn’t really want to translate each and every sign.

Oh well.

We also had a bit of an incident. About twenty miles from Ancona I was at a safe distance behind a lorry at 90KPH, the speed limit. Another lorry went to overtake, then realised we were entering a tunnel where lorries overtaking is forbidden so he started rolling back in. To where we were. Cue heavy breaking as he had decided he had priority. I wasn’t best pleased. As we left the tunnel I wanted to put distance between me and the lunatic. As I passed I realised the driver was looking down, clearly irritated that I had the audacity to be (legally) where he wanted to be as he was speeding and performing and illegal manoeuvre. I know, bitch. This bugged me so I might have accidentally given him the bird as I whizzed by. The blast of his horn confirmed what I believed, he was looking.

Anyway. Not much further on I realised that not only had he *not* overtaken the lorry I’d been behind and he was presumably trying to overtake but he’d actually dropped back a long way. This made little sense and all I can put it down to is that either the lorry in front or the van behind had used their CB radios to explain what a silly chap he’d been and maybe he should drive in a more considered manner.

Perhaps slightly more colourfully put.

At exactly 1500 miles Clare said “Are we nearly there yet” for the second time. Perfect timing. It’s astonishing, the original plan showed about 2000 miles of driving, but then we deleted an entire day in France, took a full day off in Italy and pared down the number of places we would try to visit. The reality is that the time we took to drive from Grasse to Acqui Terme could easily have been used to cover 500 miles but that wasn’t the point, we took the route because it looked fantastic. And it was. Definitely a driving highlight of the adventure.

As we approached Ancona the rain started again. Which with the string sunshine made for some epic rainbows, hopefully Clare has caught them! By coincidence we are both getting tired and I said that I had got as far as rainbows… As has she! So I have fifteen minutes left to finish this before we head off for a good night’s sleep. Anyway…

I still needed fuel but I passed several stations as they were exorbitantly expensive and whilst I would be more comfortable with a full tank I did have range to play with. We did agree we needed to pick up water for the night and as if by magic a Lidl sign appeared. Ooh! The Lidl in Ancona is right by the seafront and must have one of the best views of a Lidl anywhere. We also decided that as we were here we’d get wine for the evening, unfortunately we don’t have a corkscrew so it had to be one with a screw top. In Italy. Hmm. We had the choice of either a milk carton full of wine or 1 1.5L bottle of red that cost a massive €2.79. It’s surprisingly drinkable!

As we still had three hours or so until the ferry check-in time we told Tom to shut up and headed in to the old town to have a mooch around. And find a loo. Ah yes, so we found a covered car-park, parked, followed the signs to the ladies, passed the exit, kept following the signs to the ladies and… Ended up back at the Contrary Clio. Seriously Italy SORT OUT YOUR BLOODY SIGNS. They are worse than your road surfaces and that’s saying something.

We gave up and headed in search of a bar to have a coffee and a loo break. But it was that stupid time of the day and it was Monday so that place was almost totally closed. Except, fortunately, for one bar. The one with the lunatic customer that was living on the edge of reason. Oh dear. Still, the loos were clean and after the coffee and a rapid fanning to cool myself down as I was having a mammoth hot flush we were ready to push on to the cathedral.

Along the way the town redeemed itself, the unpleasant, featureless outer town was replaced with dirty character and interesting buildings. It was no Siena but the town was growing on me. I imagine my earlier discomfort did have a negative effect on my perception.

What did we see? Well our ship, yet another Roman amphitheatre, a really interesting cathedral that was a wonderful contrast to the previous three we’d seen, incredibly plain and simple. What else? Oh yes, two security services types in what looked like army camouflage looking the level of hot that gives Clare a desperate flush. And they knew it. Bastards.

We wandered back to town and discussed the perception of time, namely it took just a few minutes to get to the car but it had taken us *ages* to get to the bar we had coffee in. We decided that it must have been the pee factor, you’re desperate to find a loo and time perception slows to a crawl to make sure everything seems to take forever. Science at play.

Finally we were back at the carpark and were pleased to see a beggar that had hassled us earlier had gone. Good. We told Tom to take us to the destination the ferry company had given us and… There were barriers across the road. Hmm. Clare pointed out a man in uniform and we decided he must know what he’s doing. Mind you, she always points out men in uniform so not exactly guaranteed to be successful. Fortunately he got the gist and explained that we needed to follow the yellow signs to the ticket office. We can do that! *hopeful face*.

It was all going too well, we went in, we were given boarding cards, even the plucky one had one. Back we went to quay 11, we got was far as barriers and… were told to come back at 6pm. Oh well. This did at least give a chance for the rearranging of bags and packing the “picnic”, read wine and crisps and Clare looked for sailors, just in case we needed one. Or something.

Finally it was time, we went, we handed over our bits of paper and we were let through! Hurrah! Trundling round to Quay 11 the plucky little car hit a range of 64 miles, slightly unnerving but ooh, I think we can make it. We had one more stop as we went through passport control, we obviously didn’t look too dodgy as they let us leave, the question is whether we’ll be allowed back.

Within just a few minutes we were rolling in to the ship and the little car was directed to it’s spot snuggled up by the corner of the hull. And the best thing? We were right next to an entry hatch so relatively easy to find! By this point Clare is bouncing with excitement so out we jumped, scurried in to the passenger area, collected the key for our cabin, dumped bags and went squealing on to the deck to squeal lots more.

It was at this point as we looked towards where we’d been walking earlier that I realised I never did get fuel, looks like I’ll be filling up in Croatia after all!

Not that this matters a jot, we were do busy being silly, running up and down and singing “why are we waiting”. As you do. Finally we ended standing near the bridge so the skipper could observe the clearly good looking navigator as he plotted his course. I’m not sure I believed her. At exactly 19:45… We were still there. Hmm. This was going well. We saw various straggling lorries roll in and at exactly 20:00 the radar started rotating and… We were still there. More stragglers. This was getting annoying fast, my feet were cold, my hair was everywhere and we were going nowhere fast. And then, at 20:15 the bow thrusters burst into life and the ship moved perceptibly away from the quay. Hurrah, we were off!

We watched the open sea advance towards us, we passed the end of breakwater navigation lights, and as we looked back we saw the lighthouse doing it’s thing as Ancona faded away. Goodbye Italy, it was fun. Looking above we could see stars appearing in the sky as the light pollution of town faded to the blackness of the sea. It was magical.

So we went to find something to eat.

The restaurant was fairly quiet, mind you I imagine it being February the ferry was no way near capacity however the menu looked extensive, the atmosphere jovial, the waiters possibly on something and the food when it came was perfectly okay. I decided on the wiener schnitzel as I’ve not had it in a while, with a side of french beans, Clare went for the squid and a side of peas so we could share the two sides. Or could do if they didn’t eventually deliver two bowls of peas. Okay… Not that it stopped me eating and eventually they got it right. As the evening progressed we did notice they kept apologising for holding us up and we kept pointing out we were going nowhere. Well except for the obvious. It was over dinner that Clare attempted to teach me some Croatian as I felt I really needed to know *something*. Shame I can’t remember any of it.

Dinner done it was back to the cabin to collect pooters, two plastic skifs and a bottle of the finest plonk before we headed up to the bar area to sit in a quiet corner by a window and amiably write. Around us there was a mix of very loud groups chatting animatedly in Italian or Croatian with further bodies laying or slumped as they prepared for a night sleeping on the banquette seating. Mad fools, we did agree that it would have been too much to spend 12 hours on a ship sleeping on a chair.

As we wrote we occasionally nattered about the way that thoughts had been moulded by the previous week or so. Would they lead to changes in my life? Goodness knows. It was also becoming apparent that we were becoming tired, the last week had rather worn us out and even though yesterday was a day of rest it was also a very physically active. In other words we’d reached the point that I mentioned earlier. It was time for bed. Bunk beds. With ladders. Oh dear…

I’ll be in *Croatia and will have found WiFi by the time you read this, but as I write we’re currently somewhere in the Adriatic…

*specifically we are in a bar, as there is WiFi. And Wine. And cheesy muzik. Doviđenja

Current Awareness for 29th February 2016

For the past twenty years or so I've read the papers on every week day morning. Given that it is a special day today - there is even a Google doodle - I thought I'd treat everyone to a bulletin. This is the sort of stuff I'd put in the current awareness, if I was truly uncaring about what work wanted to read. The sound of me reading the Times will probably reach London, as I go apoplectic with the bullshit propaganda.

BBC* Current Awareness for 29th February 2016

Art & Leisure

It's been Milan Fashion Week and the country of dreamy imagination continues selling its clothing concepts to the world. I'm surprised the reporter made such a big of deal of a wardrobe malfunction. As a cynical marketing ploy, it would seem that breasts falling out of minimal clothing would work quite well. Also hugely important for some name's instagram account.

Oh dear god, one article suggests that you can now contour your hair, as well as your face - everyone is turning into a Ordnance Survey map...

Now this is cool; Among Lancelot “Capability” Brown’s gardens are those at Blenheim Palace in Oxfordshire, Bowood House in Wiltshire, Prior Park in Bath and Chatsworth House in Derbyshire. His contribution to the landscape will be commemorated by the Capability Brown Festival 2016, a series of events to mark the 300th anniversary of his birth. Everyone should appreciate a good contoured landscape.

Artists are fighting over the colour black. This will not end well.


Apparently car insurance will drop for women. EU referendum: Barclays, Royal Bank of Scotland want to stay, as Priti Patel says Brexit will cut car insurance for women That's a nice bit of Telegraph clickbait.

I seriously can't be bothered with Brexit. If we weren't part of a union, this trip away would be a serious headache, with requirement for visas, travel permits.

The headline that caught my eye was the story about police officers trained to tackle extremism being sent into a school after a pupil was seen reading UKIP’s website. Joe Taylor, 15, and his father Mick were called to the office of Wildern School, in Hedge End, Hampshire, to be questioned about their political beliefs after teachers reported “safeguarding concerns” to the police.

I'm sorry, what? Safeguarding concerns? Was the boy questioning political issues; how the heck are the young supposed to learn critical analysis and debating skills. Let's just let them read Peter & Jane books and how to colour in. It's all anyone needs these days. Adult. Colouring. Books. Just saying.


The Times says that charities have to clean up their acts regarding commercial operations. I couldn't agree more, and frankly, if you have any sort of commercial basis and highly paid executives, you should not be called a charity. So there.


There is a plan to reform and expand Sunday trading laws. The whole thing is ridiculous; if you want to open, open, if you don't, don't. It was Sunday in Italy yesterday, we could still have bought basics at any time we liked. Tourist shops were open in the morning, then closed for the afternoon. It's all about choice and customer preference, innit?

The state of your office desk can reveal lot about your personality - My desk is currently a c15th palazzo but I'm running out of clean underwear.


This one made me pull out the world's tiniest violin; Did the financial crisis hit the rich hardest? The net incomes of the top fifth of households fell the most between 2007-08 and 2012-13, by an average of £4,400, or 7.9 per cent in real terms. Pardon me for not giving a rat's arse - I wonder if the world's poorest received the benefit? 'Wealth inequality in the UK is much starker, and has recently risen on the back of house price inflation in London and the Southeast'. Oh so clearly not then. Imaginary money clearly disappeared into a black hole. Let the artists figure that one out.

And since when did banks - or any large corporation - every understand empathy? Banks ordered to treat vulnerable customers with empathy Ever since we lost branches and personal service, the computer can never be argued with, so if you don't have an address, a job, a conventional life, how would you get an account? Even the FCA recognises dealing with vulnerable people FCA encourages firms to do more to support ageing population


A wonderful collection of stuff, as ever from the FT. 'Little sign of life stirring at virtual cemeteries'. What to do when your dead, how will your ancestors remember you on social media?, from California, promises “virtual immortality” in “a library that has people instead of books”. And from Italy, there’s, which is launching in London next month.

Now this is something we could all benefit from. 'App seeks to bridge language gap for migrants in Germany' - Duolingo, a platform used by 110m people around the world, plans to launch a test version of a German for Arabic speakers course next week. Anything that helps people learn a language is good but it doesn't address true integration and actually speaking to one another.

The Times says 'The Investigatory Powers Bill, known as the “snooper’s charter”, is expected to attract controversy when it is introduced to the Commons this week.' Let's hope that the rebels in the backbenches really scupper it. How about all MPs turning up and actually debating it?

And a wonderful nannying app from the government; Sugar Smart app gives small drinks and snacks firms a toothache - the telegraph reckons that consumers are 'panicking' after Government app fails to take into account portion sizes and brands natural sweeteners as bad as refined sugar. Forgive me if I don't panic, and don't download it. Sugar - bad. Every dick knows this.

The rest is all the usual stuff about house prices, badgers, and the economy being buggered. So a week away and nothing has actually changed. How reassuring.

*Bring Back Clare

Seeing with your ears

I drift awake. Briefly I open my eyes and see light clearly defining the edge of the shutters and sleepily they close once more. I hear birds, sparrows by their song, a roar of car tyres briefly breaks the natural sounds, as it fades I’m aware of the constant drum of rain hitting something, I know not what. I hear voices, maybe a mother and child. I don’t know what time it is but I know what time it isn’t.

It isn’t 8am yet. At 8am the town will wake properly with the insistent call of the church bells as the ones opposite battle with the church on the town square, the buildings a mere hundred yards apart.  That’s the thing with seeing with your ears, it tells you so much but without something it doesn’t tell you quite everything. All that will change soon I imagine.

Another car passes, a squeak of brakes as they pull up. I don’t know what model it is but I know it’s not one of those crazy little Piaggio vans that splutter around all of Italy, their two stroke engines spewing unburnt fuel and traces of oil in to the otherwise sweet air.

Another car, a horn declaring impatiently that the driver is ready. It must be nearly 8. So much activity.

It’s 8am.

Contrary Kettle ;-)
All of this reminds me of me of other places I’ve spent time. In Barnes I used to know when it was 4:30 as the first flight of the day would roar overhead as the plane descended in to Heathrow after a long trip from Hong Kong. I came to wake just before the plane arrived and if I did and the plane was silent I’d worry about there being a few hundred Chinese people floating lifelessly in the sea. My head really can think stupid things. At home in Contrary Towers I place value on the activity of cars with precision being added by the refuse lorries. All these sounds conspiring to build an image of the world, an image it takes a while to construct, but once you do it adds to the comforting rhythm of the day.

Time for tea!

Sunday, 28 February 2016

No place like home

In my last piece, I promised that I’d say more about the accommodation here. Unfortunately I don’t think I can do that without writing about some of the other places we’ve stayed, simply because it’s easier to compare. We have stayed in some really interesting buildings and enjoyed a breadth of experiences.

There was no plan; or rather the plan was to turn up in a place and see what they had. After two days of panic and late night driving exhaustion, we had relied on the French chain Citotel. Even this was pure chance because when we arrived in Bourges after an abortive attempt to follow a more interesting accommodation choice, we’d ended up on a dirt track in the middle of the French countryside. Sometimes you have to admit defeat.

We asked google maps to find a hotel on the edge of town and luckily there were a number to fall into, but they were always going to be a chain. When we saw the neon signs of the Aurora, to be honest, we were too tired to be worried. Was it going to be clean, quiet, and have vacant rooms? The Mediterranean aspect of the reception with the 1990s décor was pure cheese, but the welcoming duo were almost reassuring in their comedy double act.

The room there was warm, comfortable and clean so for immediate rest purposes, perfect. This is why we checked to see if there was a Citotel in Montpellier because we were covering so much distance, and needed some reassurance that rest was relatively guaranteed. The second place was never going to be as good as the first, but we knew what we were getting. This time though, the Mediterranean colours of the place seemed to fit much better now we were in the south. I wonder if the smell of pine and sunshine affects the perception of colour?!

I think the laissez-faire attitude of the south had affected us, because we had started to slow down and think of more creative solutions to our nightly stays. I had started to dream of Tuscan farm houses, spa town grandeur, and tiny B&Bs. I was navigator, and it was my trip so why shouldn’t I start thinking a little more imaginatively.

I’ve always had a problem with thinking big.

So I emailed the first place I found on google ‘rural grasse B&B’ – this wasn’t even tripadvisor or, this was just an email to the owner. Marianne came back almost instantly with an offer of a room and so we nominally had a place to stay. This time nothing was guaranteed, apart from parking and breakfast. There was a slight query on whether it was a double or a twin, and that happily stressed me out all day, only to be comprehensively resolved on arrival, when naturally, it all turned out perfectly.

You may recall that that Grasse was the place where the satnav discovered it could make the driver cry. Not only were the roads insanely narrow and tracklike, but some keen French gardener had been in action and left shrubbery clippings all over the road. Our final destination turned out to be an absolute oasis of calm, with unmistakable French style, built around subtle scent. The marble and rough tiled bathroom was huge, with a window allowing in natural light – you could shower whilst looking out at the garden. Every shower should have a view… This place had a stunning garden with a pool and spa but at this time of year, we were just happy that it was sunny. We had the place to ourselves which made breakfast the usual relaxed event, where we were free to drizzle honey on cake without being judged by other patrons.

So we had discovered that with a little foresight we could actually stay in beautiful places, without spending much more than we had been. Who knew?

Morning became a time of research to reflect my previous life. So whilst we were sat in the charmingly elegant breakfast room, I started to look for the next place, which sat well with destination planning. Acqui had been of interest because of the spa, so I came over all Agatha Christie, and started looking for a place of splendour which had seen better days. The Grand Hotel with an art nouveau feel seemed to fit the bill. As it was in town it would offer a contrast to the rather secluded B&B.

We arrived frazzled from the traffic, but in relatively good time. The room was large, with an equally massive bathroom overlooking the hotel roof. I had asked them for a quiet room, so I guess this was their solution. Mildly disappointed, our baggage had not been brought in by one of those bellboy carrying cages, and neither was there any shoe shine stuff, nor, more urgently, an ironing board. And the bar shut quite early. I’m nitpicking, but, damn it, I wanted grandeur. On the bright side it had a shower that could wake the dead…perhaps I should have put the wifi in there?

So this is why in the morning I was struggling with the flirty one’s shiny mac thingy. All my tech had refused to speak with the hotel wifi, which was making research rather difficult. I’d found a converted convent in Volterra the previous night and I was unable to see whether there was room or not. After confirming that there was, I was excited about this one. An ancient building in a medieval was everything you’d want it to be. On the top floor, with a dizzying view of the street below through the tiny shuttered windows, our ceiling went up and up. Perfectly co-ordinated furnishings finished the look.

You will already know of the wifi trials there, so it was in a rather odd little café that I went looking for something special. Each time we came away from a place, there was a feeling of expectation that it couldn’t be beaten in terms of interest, contrast, location or comfort! We had tried many things, old/new, garden/town, private/chain…what could we do now?

I had been going through the top places in Castigleone del Lago on Tripadvisor and an incredible looking place kept coming up. I tend to ignore reviews because people are generally intolerant and stupid, and I’d rather make my own mind up. I asked the posh one whether she fancied a Palazzo and there was a hasty nod, and a ‘book it now’. I did. Now, I have a thing about Italian townhouses, especially ones that go up and up from an unpromising doorway; the most stunning places being hidden behind the plainest edifices. The lady of the house showed us the suite we’d been allocated as it turned out the one we wanted only had a kingsized bed. So we ended up in an actual home-from-home.
  • We had a view of water…which we had a lovely walk around this morning.
  • We had a private balcony…where we could have breakfast and cackle like usual.
  • And I’d unconsciously chosen the bedroom on the left, just like home. 
  •  Not to mention the nearest supermarket being a Lidl. We may have laughed a lot at this.
It didn’t take us long to decide that we were never going to top this, so decided we should stay two nights. Now entering into our last day in Italy, I feel like it will be hard to leave here because it is so homely.

Although the places we have stayed have been wildly different, I guess the creatures of habit will make themselves known, regardless. It also shows that home is wherever you have milk-teabags, quiet conviviality, and wifi. Somethings are hard to get away from.

Over the hill

The day continued. As you might imagine the bells starting at 8am did encourage Clare to leap out of bed. And then scurry up to the roof terrace to have a look. It turned out that I am a bad person and that when I opened my door, which scraped as I’d not worked out I needed to lift it, I woke madam up. Pfft, she’s always complaining I don’t write enough and I was heading to where I could get WiFi to publish said writing.

Where was I?

Oh yes, so we’re awake, we had some wild boar sausage and a little cheese left from the night before but we needed other bits and bobs for breakfast, there was only one solution… Lidl. Oh yes children the Fortnum & Mason of E14 is available in Italy. Now I have mentioned them before but I have a new observation, the Italian ones very much push the fact that they are Italian. Even down to special badges in their uniforms that proclaim this is the Italia Lidl. Interesting stuff and it did lead us to discuss what the reaction would be if such national pride was displayed on the Lidl uniform in the UK.

Yep, exactly.

Anyway, we toddled off and from our perch in the old town we could see the local branch in the distance, obviously we couldn’t get there for the opening as well we had making ourselves presentable to be done, this is Italy after all. Not that Clare would be disappointed, more on that in a bit. It was clear that the Italian cavalier approach to road surfacing applied to pavements and the layout thereof, namely you walk for a bit on one side of a road and then you have to run shrieking to the other as the sides change. Utterly at random. Fortunately you smile and the blokes stop, it’s a super power.

We eventually managed to arrive at the local branch, passed some old bloke and the inevitable beggar and as I was pulling a trolley out Clare noted that the old bloke had loudly passed comment to another about “looking at legs on her”, I presume the her wasn’t me as between coat and boots there wasn’t much showing. This of course lead to yet another discussion about the social differences, would somebody in the UK get away with such comments or was it simply that they didn’t recognise as as locals and let’s face it we don’t look Italian and so it was considered okay to pass such comments.

We moved on, we had breakfast stuff to buy! Yet again the layout was quite different, but this was a left hand store rather than the right hand stores I’m used to so I was confused anyway, fortunately we didn’t need that much so harvesting didn’t take long and before we knew it we were out and heading back to Palazzo Barbini for food and more importantly… Tea with milk!

Goodness we’ve missed decent tea with milk. This morning we did have tea before the shower, but without milk and somewhat lacking. On our return the first thing to be done was boil the water, in a pan of course, and then ferry the things up to the roof terrace, well, after a little cleaning of the table we would use to lay out food.

And what a layout. We had dirty triangle cheese, little noranges™, croissants of the clean and dirty variety, cheese, wild boar sausage, yoghurt, nananas™, red orange juice, tomatoes, tea and so on. It was lovely. As was the view. Fortunately missy’s phone was out of space so she couldn’t capture some of the disgusting concoctions I came out with. Phew.

It was during breakfast that we decided roughly what we’d do for the day, as you may recall we’d decided that we would go for a walk/hike, this plan was extended to include a nap followed by actually finding somewhere to eat for what would be the last evening in Italy and, actually, the last evening of the first leg of the Contrary Roadtrip. Sounds like a plan.

After breakfast a suitable route was tracked down, a relatively tame 11km route that started on the other side of the lake, round a mountain and come back. Easy.

If you’re not an airhead.

Post breakfast sandwiches were made for the trip, well, when I say sandwiches they were focaccia with wild boar, tomato, cheese and instead of butter some dirty cheese spread to stick it all together. We trundled off, arrived in Passignano, grabbed the bag and wandered off to the start of the route. Trouble was I couldn’t recall if I’d locked the car. The one with lots of academic research stuff in. Oops. So we went back. Fortunately by this point we realised that the end of the suggested trail was at a free parking spot. Hurrah!

Needless to say I felt like an idiot, but better safe than sorry. So the next attempt involved us moving the Contrary Clio to the start of the trail and starting again. Seems simple…

…but maybe it wasn’t. Within 100yards it was clear things were tricky, we’d already got lost. 100yards. Yes. Hopeless. This was classic Contrary Towers in action. Eventually we were on the right track, trouble was the angle. Steep. No, steeper than that. And then the road disappeared only to be replaced with a dirt track helpfully filled with broken bricks, broken porcelain insulators and anything else to hand that would stop it turning in to a mud quagmire.

What fun.

Bloody photobombers
We stomped, we crawled, we pulled brambles out of arms, we lost the route quite a few times. It was *brilliant*. The best loss of the day was when we realised we were in the wrong place, retraced our steps and then lost the GPS signal. It returned when we were some distance away and, well, the wrong way. but heading to the right way if only we could take a short cut and not go back. Through almost virgin terrain. Which was very steep. And muddy.

Then we lost the way again. And again. By this point it was getting a little tedious and *very* wet owing to extended precipitation. This is what happens when you curse the bells in the church opposite, God decides to play chicken with Contrary Towers. Such a mistake.

Not an olive terrace...
As we were getting tired we decided some more short cuts were needed, my favourite being running through an olive terrace as this would save about 500m of walking to a hairpin and back again. Fortunately they weren’t shooting trespassers today. Or are really bad shots.

Even when we were nearly back we managed to lose our way because, well, err, we were talking, I can’t remember what about but it was clearly *very* important™ and you wouldn’t understand. Come to think of it this may have been why we got lost most times. If we’d been at school together we would have been separated for talking too much.

So yes, we lost our way, but also realised that it was better to move forward as the routes intersected, this lead to a game of last one to the top is a whatever and we started to run. After eight hard slog miles with over a thousand feet of altitude change and though mud. We didn’t get very far as this stretch was of course very steep and I’m a rubbish runner. So I’m a whatever.

Finally we made it back to the Contrary Clio and headed off in to town to find a spot near the lake to enjoy the sandwiches we’d brought along. Obviously this was done in true brit style, sitting on a  bench in the blasting wind ignoring all stares. At least until the parking attendants turned up and we made a run for it as payment may not have been made. I’m sure it was a popular place but this was FEBRUARY and the place was empty.

On returning to the Palazzo the pan was put on to boil ready to make tea. It was now too late to have a nap but after a cup of tea, a giggle and a shower we felt ready to face whatever Sunday night in Castiglione del Lago could throw at us.

Glad rags on we headed out to the chosen restaurant for the evening, it was after all the last night of the first leg so it had to be dressed nicely and fawning waiters. We got there at 18:45.

Sorry, we don’t start serving until quarter to seven

Errr… Oh well, clearly the warnings had got through. We went back, all of a hundred yards and opened a bottle of wine from the day before. It was very nice. After about 45 minutes we headed back. Finally they were prepared to let us in…

The reviews we’d seen were pretty good, so we had high expectations, very high. We weren’t disappointed. Eventually. The first two things I tried to order weren’t available. The downside of being here in February!

My starter was octopus. A bowl full of them. Fully formed and fully cooked. Quite weird to look at but oh so tasty. The main was roast veal in the chef’s special sauce. Which might have lead to some giggling as a side I had beans with garlic and something or other plus roast spuds. All were perfect and the shared sides were soon depleted.

The wine? Pink and the second choice as being out of season the main choice wasn’t available. Pink was also a good choice as it was the what we first drank all those years ago in Bloomsbury Square to cement an unexpected friendship, one that lead us to be sitting in a restaurant in Italy after a bonkers road trip. Pink wine is good.

Being vaguely sensible there was no pudding or coffee and after paying the bill we headed out in to the main piazza for the hundred yard walk home. I did ponder whether we might reimagine La Dolce Vita and dance in the fountain, but honestly middle-age does bring its limits. Especially in February.

And that brings us to now, I’m sitting writing, as is missy, music is playing and we have exhausted the the bottle of Chianti we started the evening with whilst also breaking out the grappa. The companionable silence is a good ending to a perfect day and a fitting testament to the four years we’ve spent being contrary. Of course the adventure isn’t quite over, tomorrow we get on a ferry to Split in Croatia and then, after a few days, I have to wend my way back with my lovely friend Clarissa who will be joining us for just this purpose.

Along the way new memories will be crafted and I’m hoping to meet with an old friend in Versailles for the ultimate catch-up. But that, as they say, is in the future. For the moment I will simply wish you a good night and leave you with this thought…

Never be dull.

The day of rest...

Day 7 dawn, Brando Suite, Palazzo Barbini, Castiglione del Lago, Italy.

At first all I could see was a dull glow seeping through the shutters, a faint background noise that might have been hot water in the pipes as the building shrugged off the night chill and made the world a more comfortable place. Above me I could see five of the six nightlights on the chandelier gently giving off enough light to give form to the unfamiliar room. When we first saw them glow last night they seemed designed to scare the bejesus out of any unsuspecting traveller but that soon turned to comfort as the purpose became apparent.

Clare's alarm clock...
As I opened the shutters the dawn chorus hove into my consciousness, a mix of birds chirping and calling to bring in the new day. Just as the tolling of the bells in the church opposite will bring Clare chirpily in to the morning. Or something like that. Occasionally I hear a voice down in the street below as the town stumbles sleepily in to the light. I hear another sound, which might be a drip and occasionally I think I hear the white noise of rain but all this is dulled by the decidedly non 16th century double glazing.

I open the window to take a peek and I’m immediately struck by how good the glazing is as the gentle dawn chorus becomes a roar with distant birds suddenly becoming audible. It’s definitely raining, but that’s okay as the plan for today is to not go haring around the Italian countryside en route to our next destination, instead we are being contrary and staying in a place two nights running because it’s simply perfect.

Actual faded grandeur
Sure it lacks the pristine perfectly styled French glamour of the house in St Jacques de Grasse, nor does it have the grandeur of the elegant dining room in the Grand Hotel Acqui Terme and I even doubt it will have the stunning vistas of Volterra. But it does have something, it feels like a home and I think that was needed, a brief break from the nomadic existence of the last week. There are coincidences too, as with Contrary Towers Clare’s room is to the left, mine to the right. There is a terrace overlooking water, albeit a lake rather than a canal, and the small kitchen is in the living room. There are even Italian neighbours! Though admittedly I think these ones will be both less irritating and less inclined to induce our ire.
An actual home from home.

The metaphor will be expanded later if we vaguely stick to plan as there will be a walk around the lake though this will rather depend on just how big the thing is. But first breakfast, which will involve going out to forage for bread and milk.

Just as I did last weekend in Contrary Towers.

The bells have started, Buongiorno!

Saturday, 27 February 2016

Getting steamy...

Being on the road for so many days, especially after such a long journey the previous day, takes its toll physically. I’d planned some exercise but Italian roads/pavements aren’t ideal. The morning I woke up in Acqui Terme, I felt like I could do with a run, a swim or something seriously drastic. Like a few hours on a rack. Although I’m not hugely fit, or a complete gym addict, I really enjoy being out in the open, stretching my legs and letting off some steam.

The only steam being let off here was to be found in the main square.

I couldn’t even have a swim as sadly we had no time to explore the hotel’s pool. Still, unlike the last few places we had stayed, we were within easy reach of the town centre. This makes wandering around much easier, as evidenced the previous night. Given that we were no longer wearing pretty evening dresses, but the usual (me: jeggings, boots, sensible coat; her: summer frock and cardy – bloody geordies), and it was quite fresh out, we took a brisk stroll up the main street.

Well we tried, once again, there was a market clustered around the marble fountained street. Taking a detour and conscious of the huge breakfast, we opted for the steps up, which ended up at the cathedral. The door was wide open and with a hazy hushed step we entered.

I must admit, I wasn’t feeling my best. The late night and sheer
travel exhaustion had made me feel light headed and irrational. So much so, I actually said some words of thanks for the safe journey up and down the mountain; also, I lit a candle for a number of personal reasons. I don’t think it had to be in a church specifically, but there was a moment of quiet acceptance and peaceful reflection on this journey. The cathedrals we’d visited in France had had a different effect on me; majestically remote and awe inspiring like the mountains we’d traversed. However this squat friendly Romanesque felt like family.

So onwards we went, and upwards to a wooded area around the archaeological museum. I was initially drawn to a marble sarcophagus, in the shape of an old fashioned bath tub, but then the thoughtful and nature-sympathetic garden layout drew us in further. The roman columns and pieces of viaduct added a romance to the shrubberies, and I sat and enjoyed the view over the town. Birdsong and green quietness was quite as peaceful as the church had been.

This was not helping the dreamy head. I thought perhaps some healing sulphur would help, given the energy it had given me the night before. We really needed to be heading back to the car because although we had a relatively short distance to go, it had been pleasant to arrive somewhere before dark. So we headed back down the hill into the centre of town, taking in the roman theatre, which had been set out to include the hot spring below. Moderns had just put a building in front of it, which had ruined the view somewhat.

The effect of the steam was still magical. The brisk day enhanced the theatrics, and locals filled their bottles. Reading the properties of the water had me wondering what sulphur-bromine and iodine water could do to my sensitive tummy…so I bought some nice bananas and Lidl fizzy water instead. Given I’d got this far borrowing the flatmate's toothbrush, it was also time I bought my own. Which I did. Thank goodness for Lidl.

Returning to the car, we knew we had a place in Volterra for the night, so relaxed into a shortish drive. There were plans to visit the seaside at La Spezia but the weather decided to play dirty. After such a wonderful stroll at Cagnes-sur-Mer, we didn’t want to stare at the sea from under sodden umbrellas; what would be the point? So we pushed on, tunnel after tunnel, gloriously phone signal trolling, and extremely scary at times. The clouds were also quite happy to come down close and have a look at the cars too…

Turning inland the weather definitely improved, and I had the privilege of seeing the Piazza dei Miracoli at Pisa as we whizzed past on the Auto-bumps-strada. Lit up in the sun, it truly made me want to visit again. I had the oddest feeling as I went past Pisa Airport; given that is my airport of choice for Italy, it finally felt like I’d arrived in the country. That I was truly here. I can’t explain it but the wise one said it was all about context.

The roads leading up to Volterra had that clichéd beauty that has been featured in every posh glossy magazine, which has me slightly nauseated. I wasn’t hankering after the sexy dirtiness of previous journey stretches, but perhaps I wanted something slightly more honest. Still, we were now stuck behind the slowest truck whilst climbing the hill. Earpopping should be an Olympic sport…

You know those really annoying people who drive through medieval streets? Trapping pedestrians at the side of the road, between fruit stalls and marble statues? Yes, well that was us. The most direct route to the hotel was through this gem of a town, down slippery stone streets, so we squeaked around every corner…until we arrived at La Laconda. I popped in to find out about parking and we made the little car secure. We returned, to be shown a stunning room with a high tiled and oak beamed ceiling, with two tiny windows with a view to make you weep.

Tired-fuzzy head had now disappeared as we trotted off into town for an immediate look round. The
sun was out and given the poor forecast, we needed to take advantage of the weather. So of course I went shoe shopping; not only had I forgotten a toothbrush, but my boots were falling apart. So when I passed a shoe shop with some boots in the sale, I couldn’t resist. I am now the proud owner of the most stylish Italian leather boots you’ve ever seen. And given the weather today, they have already done me proud.

I’m not going to wax lyrical about the pizza, but the wine was lovely, and the golden grappa lovely. The flirty one had been making eyes at this sweet innocent young man, so he was very happy to join us for drinks. Proof, if any was needed, that I can actually speak excellent English, was confirmed by the gentleman being able to understand me. They don’t teach northern in German schools, clearly. Anyway after a discussion covering everything from Brexit to marmite, the journey, and what people do in Volterra – tourism and geothermal energy, mostly – we let the poor man go, and headed home. Personally I think he was up for a proper night out…

Sensibly we went home to write!

We've not done a lake. Let's do a lake!

Vampire avoids light.
We’ve not done a lake, let’s do a lake.


That was pretty much the conversation last night over wine/grappa and for Contrary Towers it constitutes planning. Trouble was we’d not been any more precise than that and as you may recall the former convent we were staying in was having a few teeny issues with the internet connection, a bit of a problem in this connected age, not just for us but for them as well, no new bookings!

So the plan was I’d wake early, scurry down to add more money in the car park at 8am, then breakfast, wander round town, find WiFi, finish blogs, find hotel, book hotel, drive to hotel. See, we PLAN!

So at about 8am I trundled downstairs, bid the lovely receptionist a good morning, got outside and… Realised my purse was still on my bed. So I came back in, looked humiliated, and ran back up the stairs. Collected purse, ran down the stairs, bounced out, became irritated with the first beggar of the day, topped up the meter, changed my ridiculous ballet pumps for sensible boots, marched back to the hotel, ignored the beggar totally this time as seriously this was getting old and ran back up the stairs.

My fitness regime seems to have paid benefits. Thank goodness.

Fortunately by this point missy was pretty much dressed so we scampered back down the stairs, wished everyone a good morning *again* and then walked in to the breakfast area. Which was delightfully empty so we could blag the choice table. I was remiss though as I’d managed to not take an annoying picture of food to demonstrate what a fabulous person I am for managing to eat, so instead I created a new emoji with what was to be my second course. There would have been more but let’s just say that the skirt I put on this morning was a little tighter than expected…


Arty Volterra
After breakfast we walked back upstairs - remember that tight skirt - finished packing, paid the bill, ignored the beggar, packed the Contrary Clio and marched back in to town in search of WiFi and interesting things to look at. It was during this time that we first mooted that we’d not really looked at any art, a bit of an omission for us, but surely one that would be corrected at some point soon.

Oooh, shiny!
Volterra was still fab, albeit now soggy fab, and the only truly dampener was when a commercial grade beggar really hassled us. I was a little displeased. But I was cheered when we saw the now renamed Crunchy gate as it seemed to be made out of honeycomb, the reality was more awe inspiring, the lower part was built maybe 500-400BC, but the recent addition was around 300-200BC. Modern upstarts. Eventually we found ourselves on the Piazza Martiri della Libertà and could see the promised land: a place with coffee and WiFi.

Actually, this was an ace place, it was clearly a locals place so we really fitted in. *awaits laughter*. Okay so we fitted in about as poorly as we could manage. As I stripped off my hat and coat and busied myself getting online so I could finish the blog missy was ordering coffee. It turned out that whilst the rugged looking locals were queuing to get their quick espresso the girl behind the counter has busy creating beautiful floral patterns in our lattes. Oh how they must love us now.
Fortunately Clare had her legs on show and kept twinkling at any rugged local in range so they were happy and I typed feverishly as I really didn’t want to not finish. The coffee was nice by the way and reminded me of an earlier conversation where we pondered why on earth people insist on making drinks that were so huge. Recently I’ve struggled with coffee, possibly because my HRT prescription has changed, but whatever it is I drank coffee and I felt queasy. But not here or in France. In both case where the portions were small but perfectly formed. Hmmmmm.

Coffee. Sorry locals.
Blogs finally finished and with half an hour left on the car park ticket we rushed to find, choose and book something near a lake… Oh crikey. In the end we chose the Palazzo Barbini as, well, it’s a palace. The only issue was the room we’d chosen didn’t present an option for twin beds so a quick message was fired off before we headed South. Of course the heavens decided to open which only reinforced the view that a day by the seaside would be stupid and what would be better than a relatively quickly two hour blast cross country followed by a chilled afternoon over a bottle of red and catching up with bloggage. But we’re contrary…

I've not been either!
…which is why we changed destinations en route and headed to Siena. In the pouring rain. I’ve never been before so I was quite excited at the prospect, regardless of the weather that was determinedly trying to disrupt things. Pah, we laugh in the face of rain, we’re from t’north.

An hour and fifteen minutes after rolling out of Volterra we rolled in to a car park in Siena and proceeded to head up to the town. On an escalator. And another one. And another one. It seems that not only do Italians like making tunnels, they like making escalators too! Crazy people. But it did make the trip in to town less painful.

More Volterra art
I loved the place. We’d discussed earlier about how we’d not really seen any art and the subject came up again and we agreed it wasn’t necessary as around us everything was art. Profound? Possibly, but that’s how it felt and to be honest my boots seemed to be leaking so I wasn’t going to squelch around an art gallery. Besides, we had a Palazzo to go and call home.

But not until we’d walked around lots. And it was a meandering walk, mostly off the beaten track and all it did was left you with an incredible feeling for what an amazing place this was, definitely one that you have as tapas but will return to it as a main meal. One day.

By some miracle, or more likely Clare knew where she was going we found ourselves wandering down one very steep and very long road that by some magic lead us back to the car park where the Contrary Clio was having a little rest so after we had a moment of irritation at a bloke who thought it perfectly acceptable to leave his continent covering brolly open and on the ground so we couldn’t get by we got to the4 plucky little car, shed our now soggy outer garments, jumped in and started on the final 78 minute leg of the journey out of Tuscany and in to Umbria.
The danger with the Contrary Roadtrip was always that a) we might not find somewhere to stay and b) if we did it would be an utter s*** hole. What makes things worse is that so far the skipper has managed to find some pretty good places and honestly how would we beat the former convent? In other words, we had no idea what to expect at our stop for the night…

What could possibly go wrong?

My room!
Nothing. Seriously nothing. True it transpired that they couldn’t change the bed arrangements in the original choice to twin, so instead they suggested - and we agreed - to change to a two bedroom apartment so we could have at least one night of independence, she’s my best friend and I’d like to keep it that way! Anyway, we walked up the stairs in what can only be described as slightly gloomy though impressive surroundings, lighting in the 1500s was clearly not a high priority, one entering the room, as we then thought it to be, we saw a small day bed and I wrongly presumed that was their solution, fine to be honest. Like I say, wrong. The lady patron showed us to the two bedrooms and the changed arrangement suddenly made sense. We had a mini palace for the night. With a roof terrace overlooking the lake.
And a kitchen hidden in a commode. And distressed walls. And strange religious art. This. Was. Cool.

Officially cool.

A place next to the town square, opposite the church, with space and character and we could be utterly contrary by cooking for ourselves. Perfect.

Did you say church? Oh yes, that. So yes, a working church with bells. Big ones. *sniggers*

So that’s what can possibly go wrong. However, even with that we liked it so much that we did ask whether we can stay another night as actually it would be nice to do a little walking instead of endless driving and as changing the plan was what the plan was all about then this fits the bill. Plus, it’s only about two hours from Ancona, our destination on Monday.

With this organised we went exploring and, naturally, to forage for food for the evening. Pasta, a sauce, some vegetables, a little wild boar sausage and some cheese we’d tried. Oh and wine. And grappa. Because we’re responsible like that.

*ignores flatmate*
At this point I will cut a long story short. I could talk about the fortress at the other end of town, or the lake, or the n’er do wells, or the joys of Italian parking, or how the shopkeepers pounce, or that this is a town that depends on tourism for it’s very existence now. I could talk about all of that but, actually, it would bore you all to tears and I can save that for an indulgent longer write up of all that has happened over this last week.

In the meantime I will take another sip of grappa, listen to the music, finish writing and enjoy the kind of companionable silence that can only come from being with a best friend.

Goodnight from the Palazzo Barbini.