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Malaga – Art

Museo Picasso


Centre Pompidou

Malaga – Semana Santa in Pictures

Sagrada Cena

Calvario

Amor

Malaga, March 29- April 1, 2024

When we were planning this trip and exploring where to spend Easter in Andalucia, a region of Spain famous for its Semanta Santa (Holy Week) processions, Malaga was one of the cities recommended. Unlike other Andalusian cities, where the celebrations are sad and dark, Malaga is known to celebrate Semana Santa differently, with Malageños cheering as the processions pass. Having moved up our trip, we had now been witnessing Easter preparations in Malaga , Cordoba and Seville, and experienced Semana Santa processions in Cadiz. It was good to have a better understanding of these centuries-old celebrations, and how they vary from one city to another. Malaga is unique in its tradition of releasing a prisoner on Holy Wednesday. This practice dates back to 1759, when inmates in a Malaga prison discovered Easter processions would be cancelled due to a plague outbreak. In response, they escaped from jail and carried Jesus’ image through the streets before returning to their prison cells.

While the rainy weather continued to disrupt celebrations, we were able to see some of the Semana Santa processions in Malaga, which were certainly larger and more spectacular even than those we had seen in Cádiz . There are often two “thrones” or cajillos (not called pasos here) in a procession here. The first throne contains an image of Christ or sculpted scene of the Passion, and the second one, an image of the Virgin Mary, known as dolorosa. The thrones of Christ are adorned with flowers, the Virgin’s throne is covered by an ornate canopy. We arrived back too late to view the famous procession escorted by the Spanish Foreign Legion, but did see the Sagrada Cena procession from the comfort of our cafe table along the route. The procession was long and large, with the two huge thrones carried by more than a hundred men each. The rest stops for the nazarenos were frequent and the effort was palpable. On Good Friday, we watched the solemn Calvario procession coming from outside of the old city, again with two very large thrones. By evening, the afternoon rain had tapered off and we were able to see yet another procession from the balcony of our apartment. Pictures are in a subsequent post.

In between the celebrations of Semana Santa, we visited three of the many museums in the city. The Museo Carmen Thyssen contains a fine collection of mostly 19thC works by Spanish artists, predominately Andalusian. It was fascinating to see the works from Spain painted during the impressionist era, as well as depictions of places that we had seen in Andalucia. There was also a current exhibition of Spanish Figurative Art from the 20thC which showed the evolution of art as it was shaped by developments in Spain before and after the civil war.

A second current exhibition was of selected photographs by Man Ray.

In the Museo Picasso Malaga, we were treated to a wonderful collection of Picasso’s paintings, sculptures and pottery. Finally, we enjoyed an interesting exhibit in the Malaga Centre de Pompidou examining the tensions in our environment, particularly those between urban and rural life. Selections from the Picasso and Centre Pompidou exhibits are in a subsequent post.

The rain over Saturday and Sunday was heavy and relentless. We found shelter in the Cathedral for high mass on Easter Sunday. Lois wanted to experience an Easter Sunday mass and was intrigued to find that the high mass was actually a sung Latin mass, although not a version Lois recognized from her childhood, and the rest of the mass was conducted in Spanish. While Lois felt slightly nostalgic hearing the Latin mass sung (by a skilled choir), she was disconcerted to later read about a “Latin mass” movement among ultra- conservative Catholics.

In Spain we have benefited from the ability to rent apartments for a few days at a time but through an article in The Guardian discovered that issues of affordability and availability for residents are present here as at home. We noticed stickers referred to in the story on signs denoting tourist accommodation, like the one below.

Cadiz – Semana Santa in Pictures

Servitas

Obediencia

Jesús Caído

Sentencia

Cadiz – March 22-28, 2024

With the hopes that we might have some beach time, we decided to spend 6 nights in Cadiz, a city recommended to us by our friends, Sharon and Charles.While the weather did not cooperate, we had plenty to see, including the beginning of the Semana Santa celebrations. We thank Sharon and Charles for encouraging us to explore this interesting city!

Cadiz is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in Western Europe. On the Atlantic Ocean side of the city, there are long sandy beaches which are busy in the summer, but now are almost deserted. Also on this side there are at least three fortresses, confirming the importance of Cadiz as a port from the Phoenician and Roman times, underMoorish rule between 711 and 1262, when the city was called Qādis, through to when Spain was a colonial power in the east (Indies) and in the Americas.

We were excited to be able to view ruins dating from both the Phonecian and Roman eras. When the present day puppet theatre, Museo del Títere, was being built, workers discovered remains of Roman buildings, as expected, but to their surprise, underneath they found the site of Phonecian houses and streets, ( and two skeletons) dating from the 9thC BCE. Visiting the Yacimiento Arqueológico Gadir, we were able to view one of the skeletons, this of a man trying to flee a fire that destroyed the city. The remains of one cat, one cow’s skull and hoof prints were also revealed, as well as remains of clay ovens and the cisterns used for making salt fish, an important commodity of the times. It was truly remarkable to be able to see what had remained hidden for so long.

In the 1stC BCE, the Roman Theater of Cádiz was ordered to be built by Lucius Cornelius Balbo the Lesser. Since its discovery in 1980, excavations have allowed the recovery of an important part of the stands as well as the orchestra. The date of construction and its size (almost 120 meters in diameter) make it the oldest and the second largest Roman theatre on the Iberian Peninsula. It is estimated to have had capacity of more than 10,000 spectators. The importance of Cadiz in the Roman Empire is reflected in the fact that there were seats at the Colosseum in Rome reserved for representatives of the city. Much of the ancient city was destroyed by the conquering Visigoths in the 400s.

During the age of exploration, the city experienced a renaissance. Columbus sailed from Cádiz on his second and fourth voyages and the city later became the home port of the Spanish treasure fleet. Consequently, it became a major target of Spain’s enemies. Having grown up in the west of England, Paul remembers a picture of Sir Francis Drake sighting the Spanish Armada from Plymouth Ho in 1588. The previous year Drake had led an occupation of Cadiz Harbour for three days, an attack which delayed the Spanish Armada by a year. With the right to trade with the Americas expanded to most parts of mainland Spain in 1778, the monopoly of trade enjoyed by the port of the Bay of Cádiz came to an end. Many of today’s historic buildings in the Old City date from that era. These include 133 towers constructed as part of private houses, many designed to enable owners to monitor the arrival of their ships. We visited one of these towers, the Torre Tavira, to see a unique view of the city through a camera obscura. As it stands, the city’s skyline is not substantially different from what it was in the middle ages. Despite its relatively modest 45 meters of height, theTavira Tower still commands a panoramic view of the city and the bay.

Today, Cadiz’ population is decreasing for various reasons related to its geography, including the fact that Cádiz is built on a sandspit, making it a costly proposition to sink foundations deep enough to support the buildings that would allow for a higher population density. The main industry of the Province of Cadiz is tourism and the area has the highest unemployment rate in all of Spain.


In addition to soaking up history (if not sun), we experienced the beginning of Easter celebrations, with the first of the Semana Santa processions which just happened to go along the street directly below our balcony. Unfortunately, by Palm Sunday, the weather had deteriorated, causing all processions to be cancelled. Only one proceeded on Monday evening. While out for a walk along the sea wall that day, we noticed a number of (mostly) young women wearing cloaks and carrying or wearing teal-coloured capirotes (hats), walking away from or waiting outside the Iglesia del Carmen. Soon, the church doors opened. Curious, we went in to find it crowded with young and old waiting to view the two pasos, which were to have been carried to the Cathedral, but with the procession cancelled, were being guarded by honour guards. Some young people, including musicians, who were clearly upset with the cancellation of the procession, were being comforted by family members or friends.

Coffee notes: Sensa Cafe serving a blend of Brazilian, Honduran and Colombian cor espresso (9.5).

Seville – March 19-22, 2024

Seville is a large city, busier and more hectic than Malaga or Cordoba. Our host informed us that the Holy Week/ Semana Santa celebrations begin here on the Friday before “Easter Week” and advised us to plan ahead, as things would get busy. We had not yet booked transportation onwards to Cadiz and now discovered all the trains were full! Fortunately, we were able to find seats on a bus running between Seville and Cadiz.

Having sorted that out, we decided against visiting the “over the top” ( in Paul’s view) baroque Iglesia Colegial del Divino Salvador and went for tapas next door instead. The highlight was the Payoyo cheesecake! The cheese is a mixture of goat and sheep cheese from the Sierra de Grazemela, to the east. On our wanders later, we passed a church where we were able to view one of the Semana Santa processional floats, or pasos. We saw another paso in the church near our apartment. All through Andalucía (and many parts of Spain), Semana Santa is marked by ancient penance processions through the streets, performed by religious brotherhoods or fraternities. Each procession begins from its parish church, makes its way to the cathedral for a blessing and then back again. These processions can last up to 12 hours. Nazarenos, members of the brotherhood dressed in penitential robes consisting of a tunic, a hood with conical tip (capirote) used to conceal the face of the wearer, and sometimes a cloak, walk silently, usually in pairs, carrying processional candles, a long pole (vara) or a lantern. Following the nazarenos, and preceded by monaguillos (altar boys and girls), a magnificent paso or float is carried on the shoulders of the costaleros. Depending on the size and weight of the paso, there may be 100 or more costaleros. The pasos contain sculptures depicting different scenes from the gospels relating to the Passion of Christ or the sorrow of the Virgin Mary. Many of the floats are art pieces created by Spanish artists over the centuries. Usually, the pasos are accompanied by marching bands performing compositions devoted to the images and fraternities.


Our first morning in Seville, we decided to combine a long walk with a visit to the Centro Andaluz de Arte Contemporáneo (CAAC), across the river towards the site of Expo 92. Some parts of the Expo site are used as a theme park, but others, including a park along the riverbank appear neglected. Eventually, we found our way to the Monasterio de Santa María de las Cuevas, which had been converted into a porcelain factory by Charles Pickman in 1839 and now houses the CAAC. There are still kiln chimneys rising above the buildings. In the gardens is an Ombú tree (or type of grass that grows to about 15 metres, native to South America), believed to have been planted by Hernando Colón, the son of Christopher Columbus.

The art exhibits were extraordinary. The CAAC’s collection pays particular attention to the history of contemporary Andalusian art, in the context of Spain, Europe and the wider world. The exhibits are cleverly and artfully set out throughout the old monastery. One of the current exhibitions is a powerful installation of murals and sculptures by Malgorzata Mirga-Tas, a Romani activist and artist who challenges racist and colonial narratives of her people, particularly those of the women. Her murals, composed in colourful materials, dominate the walls of the main church and adjoining rooms. In another room, a lone sculpture represents the remains of a monument that she erected in a Polish forest commemorating a WWII massacre of her people. It was vandalized in 2016. Another exhibit showed a selection of works by more than 50 contemporary Latin American artists.

Taking a taxi back to centre of the old town, we headed to the Setas de Sevilla. This is an interesting but incongruous large structure housing a market and exhibition halls, with a viewing platform on top. Made of “micro-laminated” Finnish pine, it is apparently the largest wooden structure in the world. In the evening, we attended a flamenco performance recommended by our host, Tablao Flamenco Andalusí. Arriving early, we walked around the neighborhood and past the 18thC Plaza de Toros de la Real Maestranza de Caballeria de Sevilla, the 12,000 capacity bull ring still being used today.

The venue for the flamenco show was small and intimate, allowing the audience to be immersed in the experience. It began with a short video (fortunately with English subtitles) of the history of flamenco in Andalusia. The performance itself was mesmerizing, our attention flitting between the energetic footwork and dramatic gestures of the dancer, the virtuosity of the guitarist, the melancholic laments of the singer, and the rhythmic drumming of the flamenco box drum. Afterwards, we stopped at a local bar for tapas, including spinach and chickpeas and Spanish tortilla (omelette), with onions, garlic and whiskey! Paul notes here that 0% beer is available everywhere, even on tap. The best so far is Amstel, but the local Cruzcampo is a close second.

Two main draws in Seville are the Cathedral and the Real Alacazar and both were very busy. Compared to the Mosque-Cathedral of Cordoba, the Seville Cathedral, Catedral de Santa Maria de la Sede, left us cold and overwhelmed. When the Catholic Kings of Spain reclaimed Seville from the Moors in 1248, they converted the existing grand 12thC mosque into a cathedral. Then, in 1406, the converted mosque was destroyed and a new cathedral constructed, one which would demonstrate the city’s wealth. Completed in the early 16thC, the cathedral is one of the largest churches in the world and the largest gothic church. The tomb of Christopher Columbus is in the cathedral. It is massive, with 80 chapels, but gave us no sense of cohesion and its grand decoration was intimidating, which was perhaps the idea. Some elements from the ancient mosque were preserved, eg, the courtyard for ablutions, known today as the Patio de los Naranjos, which contains a fountain and orange trees, and the minaret, which was converted into a bell tower known as the Giralda, now the city’s most well-known symbol.

The Real (Royal) Alcázar of Savilla was formerly the site of the Islamic-era citadel of the city, begun in the 10th century and then developed into a larger palace complex on the 11th century. After the Castilian conquest of the city, it was progressively rebuilt and replaced by new palaces and gardens. Among the most important of these is a richly-decorated Mudéjar palace built during the 1360s. The Alcazar is a mixture of styles, but does give the sense of being a whole (unlike the Cathedral). It is known for its tile decoration. We were able to distinguish tiles made with the arista technique, where each coloured tile segment has raised ridges to avoid the mixing of different glaze colours during firing, and those using the majolica style, an innovation developed later in the 15th–16th centuries, which made it possible to “paint” directly on ceramics covered with white opaque glazes. “The Courtyard of the Maidens”, was part of the Mudéjar palace built by Pedro I in the 1360s. At ground level, several reception rooms are arranged around a long rectangular reflecting pool that runs the entire length of the patio. This pool is surrounded by promenades covered with a red brick pavement decorated with green ceramic borders. The garden and the pool were buried between 1581 and 1584 when the courtyard was paved with a white and black marble pavement, but the original structure was discovered and the hidden garden was uncovered after 2002–2005 excavations revealed the good state of conservation of the area under the patio and the ancient Mudejar garden was restored. Beyond the palace are extensive and peaceful gardens, one of which contain a large maze.

Needing reviving, we repaired to the Bar Alfalfa for tapas, a good “cervesa zero” and a glass of Albariño for Lois. This was followed by a marzipan and apple gelato for the walk back to our apartment. Before leaving for the bus station the next morning, we compared the espresso (and flat white) at two excellent coffee shops – East Crema Coffee Santa Maria (single origin Ethiopian 9.5) and Hispalis (Colombian and Ethiopian 9.5).

Cordoba – March 16-19, 2024

Cordoba lies on the Guadalquivir river, which during Roman times, was navigable from Cadiz up to Cordoba. The Roman bridge is from the 1stC AD, but has been rebuilt many times. In its present form, it dates mainly from the medieval period, with the latest changes made in 1876.

At the south end of the bridge is the Calahorra Tower – an ancient defensive fortress rebuilt in the 12thC. More interesting were the remains of mills in the river which fed a water wheel, built under Abd al-Rahman II, to carry river water up to the Emir’s palace by means of an aqueduct. It was dismantled by order of Queen Isabella who disliked the noise it produced so close to the Castle, the royal residence. The present wheel is a replica.

The Alhambra Decree of 1492 was issued by the joint monarchs of Spain (Isabella of Castile and Ferdinand of Aragon) ordering the expulsion of practising Jews from their lands to discourage those who had converted to Christianity from reverting. The synagogue that we visited dates from the early 14thC, but was closed after the Alhambra and another decree. It is small, but has some very impressive decorative plasterwork and is a reminder of the contribution of the community to the city. Those Jews, and Muslims who had converted before the decrees, were subject to the Inquisition, which in Cordoba, was based in the Palace of the Monarchs. The Inquisition was intended to identify heretics amongst those who had converted. The decrees resulted in hundreds of thousands of “false” conversions, the mass expulsion of Jews and Muslims from Spain, 150,000 prosecutions and 3000 to 5000 executions.

Our most memorable visit was to the Mezquita de Cordoba, or the Mosque-Cathedral. It is worth quoting at length from the guide book as it shows that the two religious communities cooperated. In a strange way, this is the sense one gets from walking around the inside of the building where there seems to be a quiet blending of Islamic and Christian sensibilities.

When the Arabs first conquered Córdoba they bought from the Christians half the Church of St. Vincent to use for their Friday prayers and thus the church was shared between Muslims and Christians. The rapid increase in the size of the Muslim population, however, soon rendered this arrangement unworkable and so in 784 Abd ar-Rahman bought the other half of the basilica to erect a mosque on the site. He paid the Christians well for their property and allowed them to build new churches in other parts of the town. Work on the mosque went apace as the Muslim masons took advantage of building materials already present in the basilica and plundered a lot more, such as columns with their bases and capitals and even shafts of timber, from the surrounding ruins of Roman and Visigothic mansions. The mosque was open for prayer in 785, just a year after the work began, although it was not finished by the time Abd ar-Rahman died in 788. It was left to his son Hishan I to put the finishing touches to the square minaret in the court-yard, which was completed in 793. After the reconquest in 1236 and the subsequent christianisation of the Great Mosque no immediate alterations were made to the building itself. It was not until nearly 200 years later, in 1523, that Bishop Alonso Manrique obtained permission from is uncle the Emperor Charles V to build a cathedral inside the mosque. The building was not in fact finished until 1766 and architectural tastes and concepts had obviously changed during those 250 years.

The Alcázar de los Reyes Cristianos (Palace of the Monarchs) was built starting in 1328 by Alfonso XI of Castile on the site of the 8thC Caliph’s Palace. The structure retained only part of the Moorish ruins, but appears Islamic due to Alfonso’s use of the Mudéjar style. For us, the most interesting parts were the main hall, which contains remarkably intact and fine Roman mosaics unearthed in Cordoba in the 1950s and mounted on the walls, and the extensive gardens remodeled in the last century. Of note is the sculpture of Christopher Columbus with Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand, commemorating Columbus’s first meeting with the Catholic Monarchs which took place in the Alcázar.

As with other cities in Andalucía, the scent of orange blossom and of flowering jasmine is everywhere. Not forgetting another aroma, the single origin Brazilian espresso from Coffee Club was memorable (9.5).

Cordoba city walls

P.S. Lois forgot to mention her wonderful visit to the Hammam Al Ándalus on our last afternoon in this city.

Malaga – March 10-16, 2024

Our few days in Malaga were relaxing. We did some sightseeing, sat on the beach and enjoyed the warmth of the sun, found good coffee and sampled some local cuisine (including Pil Pil). We will return to Malaga for Easter weekend, to experience the final days of Semana Santa.

Although there were plenty of tourists, it was possible to find peaceful retreats. We expect it will be much busier during Easter celebrations.

After Morocco, we were interested to visit the Alcazaba of Malaga (the word Alcazaba comes from Arabic « AL-qasbah » referring to a fortification within a walled town), one of the best-preserved alcazabas in Spain, built during the period of Muslim-ruled Al-Andalus. Situated on a hill, previously occupied by Phoenicians since around 600 BC, a Roman villa after 205 BC – a Roman theatre, excavated and visible today, was built into the western slope of the hill in the 1st century AD – and an earlier fortress and mosque, the current Alcazaba was begun by the Hammudid dynasty in the early 11th century. Following the capture of Malaga by the Zirids of Granada in 1056, some additions were made during the reign of Badis (d. 1073). In the early 14th century, the Alcazaba was largely rebuilt by the Nasrid emir Muhammad II, including the fortifications and the palatial residences. While built as an impenetrable fortress, its architecture is impressive and beautiful. On the inside were delightful courtyards with fountains, the scent of orange blossom everywhere. From the parapets, we had stunning views of the city and the Mediterranean.

Malaga Cathedral – The north tower of Malaga Cathedral is 84 metres (276 ft) high, making this building the second-highest cathedral in Andalusia, after the Giralda of Seville. To defray the enormous expenses of the work, the Crown, after the War of Succession, imposed an excise duty or tax on the ships that called in Málaga, demanding an amount for each arroba of weight that they embarked. In this way, throughout the entire 18th century and especially since 1776, when trade with America began to be liberated, the work progressed rapidly. At the end of the century the budget to finish the work ran out as they were assigned by the king Carlos III to be sent as aid to the Americans who had risen against England to achieve their independence. The rest of the budget for port taxes was used to rehabilitate the roads, bring water to Málaga through the aqueduct of San Telmo, and Mount Pío of the ‘Fellowship of Vinneros’, mainly for widows, orphans of the militias that participated in the American Revolution. To this day, the south tower of the Cathedral remains unfinished which has led to the cathedral being called “La Manquita”, meaning in English, “The One-Armed Lady”.

The La Farola is a 21.64 meter high lighthouse in Malaga. The name is unique because lighthouses are generally called El Faro in Spain, using the masculine gender rather than La Farola, the feminine gender. It was built in 1817 and replaced an earlier lighthouse built at the location. The structure was damaged during the earthquake of 1898 and again during the Spanish Civil War, but was restored again in 1939. Today, La Farola serves the port and air traffic.

The Centro de Arte Contemporánio contains many interesting works from modern Spanish artists (and a number by Andy Wharhol).

We could see the spire of the Iglesia de San Juan from our apartment. On our morning walk to coffee (Next Level 9.0) we passed these walls of the church decorated with 18thC paintings.

Iglesia de San Juan

To Rabat – March 10, 2024

Lois felt a bit nauseous when she woke up and gradually felt worse on the drive to Rabat. Fortunately, the drive was all autoroute, so no winding roads. The weather was grey, cloudy and windy, with intermittent rain showers as we passed through flat land and rolling hills. The countryside looked lush and green, with fields of wheat, olive groves and other crops, and further on, pastureland for cattle and sheep.

Close to Rabat, we drove through the Maâmora forest, the largest cork oak forest in the Mediterranean. Also a recreational area for the inhabitants of four major cities and the main source of income for the local population, the forest is included in a recent restoration plan to address habit degradation and loss. Just inside the city, we passed the Royal Palace, marked by high walls and two sentries on guard every 50m or so. Khalid pointed out the Grand Theatre, a large performing arts center, and Hassan Tower, as well as the immense Mohammed VI Tower, the second tallest building in Africa at 250m, which will house a hotel and apartments. As befitting a capital city, the streets outside the Medina are grand boulevards with lawns, flowering shrubs and manicured trees.

On our arrival at our Riad, Lois, who clearly now had an acute GI bug, went straight to bed, soon developing a fever. Paul ventured out later to find some food and to have a look at the stormy sea from a large cemetery overlooking the coast. He returned to the hotel with fresh bread, Dutch cheese, bananas and local cookies. The hotel staff also kept us well supplied with tea, oranges and fizzy water for Lois. Fortunately, by morning, Lois’ symptoms had improved to enable us to make our 7:55 flight. The early start was made easier by the fact that it was the start of Ramadan and the clocks had gone back an hour during the night. Khalid was waiting for us at 5:30 am for the quick drive to the airport. We wished him Ramadan Kareem and, with some regret, said goodbye to Morocco.

Fes – March 7-9

Last night, we had a rethink of our plans for the next couple of weeks. The remaining itinerary of our tour with MSDT included a day off in Fes, with a guided tour of the city, and then a night in each of Chefchaouen and Tangier, before we were to leave by ferry for Tarifa, Spain. After travelling approximately 1500 kms by road over the past week. we, especially Lois, were feeling the need for some down time, to rest and to process all that we had experienced so far. We called Hamid and told him we would like to fly from Rabat to Malaga, Spain. Hamid was very understanding and said he would instruct Khalid to drive us to Rabat and then take us to the airport for our flights. We would still have a day off in Rabat, but without a scheduled city tour.

Leaving our hotel in search of coffee this morning, Lois noticed a sign for “Croissant-Rouge”, momentarily wondering (to Paul’s amusement) whether this might be a coffee option, before remembering it is the Islamic version of the Red Cross! We had a cafe noir in a souk by the Bab Bou Jaloud (the Blue Gate), before setting off on a self-guided online tour. Google maps and GPS were invaluable in the depths of the narrow alleyway of the Medina! It was less busy than usual being a Friday, which was just as well, although it also meant that some of the sites were closed.

We particularly enjoyed visiting Niijarine Museum of Wooden Arts and Crafts. Once the traditional inn for woodworkers in Fes, the building displays samples of native woods and tools, as well as a great array of traditional wooden articles, including musical instruments, boards of customary law, and furniture. This museum is a remarkable omission from the Lonely Planet Guide. Easily finding the mausoleum of Moulay Idriss II, the final resting place of the main founder of Fez and one of the holiest shrines in Morocco, we were only able to look at the intricate woodwork on the exterior. Next, we visited the Ras al-Cherratine Madrasa, built in the mid-17th century by Alaouite Sultan Moulay Al Rashid. This Madrasa was one of the city’s most prestigious student halls, housing up to 150 of the country’s best scholars studying at Kairaouine University to become imams. The cedarwood carved balustrades were impressive, but difficult to photograph as visitors kept leaning over the balconies to be photographed from below (or to sing Italian opera)!

After a lunch of veggie and cheese sandwiches on a rooftop patio, we took a taxi back to our hotel. Dinner at Veggie Pause, the 5th best vegetarian restaurant in the world according to Trip Advisor (!), was Moroccan (vegetable) lasagne and a veggie burger, with fresh fruit smoothies. In search of a (stronger) drink afterwards, we were told at a 5-star hotel that there was no alcohol because of Ramadan (although Ramadan had not yet started), but then we just happened upon a beautiful courtyard of a Riad where a guitar concert of Andalusian music would begin later. On inquiring about tickets, we were told that a glass of wine or beer was included! We were not sure how well-advertised the event was, as only a handful of people drifted in after us. But, the concert, an enjoyable mix of Andalusian and contemporary music, was fun and the atmosphere enchanting.

Midelt to Fes – March 7, 2024


Out of Midelt we climbed again up to 2100m through forests of cedar, Holm Oak and pine. Stopping to take a photo, we came across a temporary encampment of “nomads” living in shelters by the road. The women were selling eggs. Later on, we saw others grazing their sheep, with the help of dogs.

Stopping at Lac Aguelmame Sidi Ali, we walked down to the shores of the lake where it was sunny, but windy and cold. The luxury hotel above the lake was in sharp contrast to the nomads’ tents we had just witnessed. Approaching Ifrane, we caught sight of families of rare local macaques who are found in the National Park.

Ifrane was a bit confusing to the eye, with its leafy parks, wide boulevards and alpine-style architecture. Known as “Little Switzerland, the town, founded in 1929, is a premier summer and winter resort, with nearby extinct volcanoes equipped with alpine runs. local ski-hill (and a Hotel Chamonix). It is the skiing station of the king, who has a residence in the town. It is also the home of Al-Akhawayn University, an expensive university modelled on the American university system.

The Middle Atlas to Midelt – March 6, 2024

After Merzouga, we stopped at Rissani for coffee on the way to visit the mausoleum of Moulay Sharif. An Arab Emir whose family claimed to be descended from the prophet Mohammed, Moulay Sharif, who died in 1659, is considered to be the founder of the Alaouite Dynasty of Morocco and a predecessor of the current King. We hired a guide to show us around the religious complex, which had been rebuilt in 1955 following a disastrous flood from the Ziz river (Oued Ziz). Our guide explained the intricacies of the restored architecture, including sophisticated tile and painted woodwork. Not being Moslem, we were unable to go inside the mosque or to see the tomb, but we could look through one of the intricately carved doors and take photos. We were then shown around the neighbouring 17thC Ksar, which still houses many families.

Next, a stop in Erfoud to sample and purchase some Medjool dates, for which the area is famous. Once the floor of a large prehistoric ocean, the region is also well known for fossils. We visited a factory where we viewed marble slabs mined from a nearby quarry that contain fish, plant and other marine fossils. The marble is used to make countertops, sinks and even sculptures, which are shipped worldwide.

Back on the road, we followed the Ziz river valley north for over 100kms, the walls of the canyon steep and craggy, the valley floor covered dense with date palms, stretching as far as you could see. Khalid pointed out evidence of an extensive fire that whipped through the palmerie in 2022, extinguished quickly using water from the dam upstream, built after the 1955 flood. Although the bark of the palms was scorched for many kilometres, the trees are producing fruit again. In addition to palm trees, other crops are grown, eg, fruit trees, grains, alfalfa and vegetables.

Eventually, the road began its ascent into the Middle Atlas Mountains, emerging onto the high plateau at 1500m. It snows here in the winter and the roads can become impassable. It is also apple country, with a climate similar to that of Washington State. We were now passing field after field of apple orchards. Apparently, many species are grown, primarily for the domestic market.

On the way into Midelt, again we saw, in large letters on the hillside, the “motto” of Morocco, Allah, al-Watan, al-Malik (God, Country and King).

Erg Chebbi – Sahara Desert. March 5-6, 2024

Finally, we arrived at the edge of Erg Chebbi, one of the eastern sections of the Sahara Desert located in Morocco. 30 kms in length, Erg Chebbi is renowned for the colour of its sand dunes, which reach heights of 160 m in places. Incidentally, a couple of days ago there was a story on BBC about “star dunes” and, in particular, one in the Erg Chebbi, the base of which was determined to have formed 13,000 years ago.

We were booked at Sanmao Desert Luxury Camp, one of a number of these camps on the edge of the dunes, offering tent accommodation with king-sized beds, electricity, private bathrooms and showers. We elected to take the 1-hour camel trek to our camp, rather than the jeep option, which was a great (if somewhat uncomfortable) experience! Although we were aware of people riding quad vehicles out on the dunes, it was a peaceful and transportative experience and the dunes became even more golden towards sunset. Lois did object, however, when our camel driver seemed to assume we would wait out on the dunes for another 1 1/2 hours until sunset!

After recovering over the ubiquitous glasses of mint tea, we tramped up on the dunes (snowshoes might be useful here?), hoping the gathering clouds would still permit us a desert sunset. Unfortunately, the clouds prevailed. We returned to the camp dining hall to enjoy a traditional Moroccan meal of olives, dates, bread, vegetable tagine (with cheese), vegetable couscous and fresh fruit. On the way to the camp, Khalid had asked if we wanted to buy wine to bring to have with dinner. This we shared with another Canadian couple from Waterloo. Later, we were treated to drumming by an open fire.

Paul ventured outside in the middle of the night to find a clear star-studded sky. Lois regretted having decided to stay snuggled under the quilt when he returned to tell her this! The next morning, it was cloudy again, so we missed the sunrise, but the colors of the dunes were no less impressive.

Returning to Merzouga by 4×4, we were surprised to be invited into a hall decked with the flags of Africa to watch an impromptu performance of Gnawa music by local artists. The music is characterized by instrumentation with heavy iron castanets known as qraqab or krakeb, and a three-string lute known as a hajhuj, guembri or gimbri, or sentir. For us, three young men sang and played the castanets, accompanied by an electrified gimbri and a drum. It was wonderful to hear live the kind of music that we have been listening to on our road trip so far, via YouTube, thanks to Khalid.

To the Desert – March 5, 2024

We are heading to the desert, but first we must experience two spectacular canyons carved by the Dades and Todra rivers. The Dades Gorge is characterized by fascinating eroded rock formations and folds in colours of rusty red and gold sedimentary rock. While the Dades river seems little more than a creek at this time of year, the floor of the Dades Valley is lined with olive groves, date palms, poplars, small wheat fields (for bread and couscous) and the occasional walnut and almond tree. To protect themselves from invaders, the Amazigh erected hundreds and hundreds of kasbahs. The number of crumbling mud-brick castles give the valley its nickname: “The Valley of a Thousand Kasbahs”.

Khalid dropped us at the entrance of the deep gorge of Todra where we walked along the road below the red limestone cliffs, staring up at climbers on steep faces high above. The high walls of Todra gorge are Morocco’s top rock-climbing spot. As we were leaving, we were approached for money for shoes by two young girls leading donkeys to fetch water from a spring in the gorge. Khalid referred to these girls as nomads. Some nomads continue to live in troglodyte caves, using the valley as a seasonal pathway to grazing pastures in the High Atlas.

Lush palm trees cover about 48 kms along the Todra valley, irrigated by an ancient network of pipes and irrigation canals. On the flat rocky desert beyond, we could see scattered bushes of tamarisk, an occasional herd of sheep and goats and lone donkeys being led by their custodians. The old town of Tinghir, which looked impressive to us, has been deserted for newer buildings which, as is common here, still used the traditional architecture.

Getting closer to the desert, we decided we should buy scarves for our camel ride. Khalid, dressed in traditional dress for the desert, helped us choose the right length for protecting us from wind and sun. In the photo below, he proudly shows us the “Berber” flag.

Over the mountains – March 4, 2024

Our driver , Khalid, was waiting for us ,with the new Skoda, when we came downstairs at 8:30. Leaving Marrakech, we followed National Route #9, tracing an ancient caravan route from the great Marrakech plains to the gateway to the Sahara desert, climbing from 500m above sea level to 2205m in the High Atlas Mountains. This mountain range, which separates the Sahara desert from the Atlantic, stretches diagonally across Morocco for 1000kms. Featuring more than 100 bends, the route to the pass is known as one of Morocco’s hair-raising drives. Fortunately, we were in good hands. Through the foothills we passed Amazigh villages interspersed with green wheat fields, olive and walnut groves, stopping for coffee at Taddert. As we continued to climb, the landscape became more barren, with patches of snow remaining. Reaching Tizi n’ Tichka, “the pasture pass”, we were rewarded with spectacular views over rugged peaks.

Descending, we arrived at Ait Ben Haddou, an historic ksar (fortified village) and UNESCO World Heritage Site, dating from the 11th C. Its location along one of the main trans-Saharan trade routes gave this earthen clay ksar strategic importance as a trading post, e.g., indigo from what is now Mali was traded for local salt extracted from the river water. (The community had to collect fresh water from a site 10kms away). Crossing the stream on stepping stones, we approached the ksar through an archway which was built for a movie set. Several films were made on location here, including Lawrence of Arabia, Gladiator and, more recently, Game of Thrones. Climbing up through the ksar, we saw evidence of damage to ceilings and walls from the earthquake last September. Considering that the buildings are constructed from mud and hay with bamboo and mud for the roofs, and have been standing for centuries, they have remained remarkably intact. Although most people have left for the new town across the river, some families remain. Khalid asked a woman if we could enter her house and she kindly showed us around and even offered tea. The goats (milk) and sheep (wool) were housed in a room inside the home. The UNESCO citation says that Ait Ben Hadou is a fine example of a southern Morocco ksar which would have housed a family grouping, but also community areas: collective sheep pens and stables, lofts and silos, a market place, meeting room for the assembly of family chiefs, mosque, and madrasas, for example. In contrast a kasba is palace fortress, a seat of local power.

On the outskirts of Ouazazate, an historic gathering place for traders from the high Atlas and the Sahara, we passed the entrances to two large movie studios. This is a successful industry where the background of the desert is required. We did not visit the Cinema museum, but did wander through the 19thC Taouirit Kasbah which was interesting for the designs on the walls and interwoven reed ceilings. It has also been a movie set. Some of the structure was not accessible because of damage from last year’s earthquake. Later on, we were surprised to find ourselves in a region growing roses, the Valley of the Roses. The pink variety of Damask rose grown here dates from the 11thC, apparently brought by an Amazigh trader from Damascus. From April to mid-May, the valley produces around 4000 tonnes of roses, gathered by women by hand and processed for culinary and cosmetic purposes. Driving through, we saw sculptures of roses in the middle of roundabouts and even the taxis are pink!

Next, we entered the area of the Gorges Dadés (1600m). Here, the valley base was lined with groves of olives, argan, date palms, the occasional almond tree and stands of poplar, and, on the hillsides, stood crumbling kasbahs, earthen Amazigh villages and unusual sandstone rock formations. Our hotel for the night, Riad Dades Paradise, served us the best meal that we have had so far in Morocco!

Essaouira, March 2-3, 2024

We began our tour with an overnight visit to the seaside city of Essaouira. We wanted to see the coast before heading further inland, and Essaouira, in particular, was of interest, partly for its links to Saint-Malo, one of our favourite towns in France. Occupied since prehistoric times, the present city of Essaouira was built during the mid-18thC by Mohammed III, a Moroccan king, who engaged a French architect , Théodore Cornut, among others, to develop a fortress and modern international port and city. Cornut built the walls modelled on the city of Saint-Malo. Walking around the city and its walls overlooking the sea, brought back happy memories of our visit to that French port with the whole family in 2019. From the time of its rebuilding until the end of the 19thC, Essaouira served as Morocco’s principal port. Goods from sub Saharan Africa came from Timbuktu, then through the desert and over the Atlas Mountains to Marrakech and on to Essaouira. After some years of decay when Morocco was a protectorate of France, the city revived in the late 20C and is now a UNESCO world heritage site.

Normally in his office, Hamid elected to drive us in order to give one of his drivers a day off. Along the route, we passed many olive groves (both domestic and Spanish varieties), fields of melons and ripe green beans, wheat and other crops. The land looked dry, but we were told that the water table is high and easily accessible by wells. When Paul expressed a liking for North African “Saharan Blues” music, Hamid introduced us to bands such as Tinariwen and Daraa Tribes. In turn, Paul introduced Hamid to one of his favourite albums, Talking Timbuktu, by Ali Farka Toure and Ry Cooder.

After an espresso break (Segafredo – 7/10), we entered the region of Argan forests. Indigenous to Morocco and southwestern Algeria, Argan oil has traditionally been used in Morocco for cooking, prepared from roasted Argan kernels (e.g., to dip bread at breakfast, as a salad dressing, or to drizzle on couscous or pasta), but gained popularity in the 2000’s as a cosmetic ingredient. At a women’s cooperative, we observed the manual process of extraction. The unroasted kernels are extracted from ripe fruit which has been sun-dried for a few weeks, the dried peel removed and the kernels crushed to produce the oil. The remaining mash is kneaded by hand to produce more oil. Lois bought some of the products to support the women (as well as for cosmetic use!) Hamid informed us that the king sanctioned the creation of women-only cooperatives, but at least one investigator showed that not all coops operate as originally intended.

We took advantage of Hamid’s presence to quiz him about Morocco, its history and culture. He is proud to be Amazigh, the indigenous people of North Africa, previously referred to as Berbers. While also Muslim. the Amazigh have retained their own cultural practices, language and alphabet, despite pressures to assimilate. Outside of the cities, the Amazigh live in distinct communities. Although the Moroccan Constitution recognizes the Amazigh identity and language, rules for officially implementing these rights are still evolving. Morocco has not adopted the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

Arriving at Essaouira, we were required to park outside of the Medina (next to Orson Welles Park commemorating the making of the 1951 movie, Othello, on location in Essaouira ). We walked to our hotel, a porter transferring our luggage in a trolley. Leaving Hamid, we lunched on a very good seafood chowder and then went down to the beach in front of the city walls, clambering over volcanic rock and watching the Atlantic waves crash to shore. After wandering the souks, we had an enjoyable dinner in the Cafe Sirocco (named after the ever present wind) -freshly-caught sole and delicious chocolate fondant (but, no wine, sigh).

Sunday morning we visited the Bayt Dakira museum commemorating the history of the Jewish community of Essaouira. In the first half of the 19thC, the majority of the population of the city was Jewish as in the previous century Mohammed III encouraged Moroccan Jews to settle in the town and handle the trade with Europe. According to Wikipedia “Changes in trade, the founding of Israel, the resulting wars with Arab states, and the independence of Morocco all resulted in Sephardic Jews leaving the country. As of 2017, Essaouira had only three Jewish inhabitants.” This account does not make reference to the severe discrimination against the community during the first half of WWII when the Vichy controlled the country. The museum houses the Haim and Célia Zafrani Research Center on the History of Relations between Judaism and Islam.

We continued our wanderings into craft shops until lunch when Paul enjoyed a tartine with eggplant and sardines and Lois had fresh green pea soup with mint. The drive back to Marrakech was uneventful, but included a stop for tea for us and prayers for Hakim.

We checked into Perlekech Riad, another gem, and had a seafood feast of scallops and gambas.

Morocco – Marrakech Feb 28-Mar 1, 2024

Watching wet snow fall from the coach window on our way to the Schwartz Bay ferry terminal, we were glad of our decision to leave Victoria two weeks early! Our original plan had been to head first to southern Spain and then to Morocco at the end of Ramadan, but with an earlier departure, we could now go directly to Marrakech. A 10 hour (Air France) flight from Vancouver to Paris and another 3 1/2 hour flight to Marrakech, and we were back in the warm sun of Africa. 

We chose Marrakech as our Morocco starting point as we are both keen to get a glimpse of the Sahara. But, Marrakech itself is a fascinating destination. Known as “the red city”, with its sandstone buildings painted to match the red ochre colour of the surrounding land, it is one of four imperial cities in Morocco, its walled medieval centre (medina) a UNESCO World Heritage Site. With Amazigh (formerly known as Berber) roots,  it was an important trading centre for tribes of the Atlas Mountains, the snowy peaks of which we could see to the east.  Our first night was spent in a traditional guest house (riad) found behind an ancient wooden door at the end of a maze of narrow cobbled winding alleys in the medina. With traffic restricted, the medina is quiet but for the sounds of the Bulbuls and regular calls to prayer (adhan). We were greeted by our host with sweet mint tea served in a greenery- filled inner courtyard. Our small room, with its windows facing the interior courtyard was dark and cold, however, reminding us that it is still winter, despite the 22C in full sun.  Resisting the temptation to sleep,  we ventured out for a walk, stopping at an all-day cafe for vegetable tagine, followed by drinks on the rooftop terrace of Hotel la Maison Arabe and then almost getting lost on our return to the riad! The next morning, we had decided we would change hotels, although we felt a bit badly after being served a sumptuous breakfast  that included traditional bread (khobz) and pancakes (msemen), fried egg, soft cheese, fresh fruit, yoghurt and strong coffee. We will not need lunch in Morocco! After hauling our suitcases on and off narrow sidewalks and avoiding the motor scooters barreling past, we checked in to the Dar el Assafir, a lovely riad with a larger room and sunnier rooftop terrace. The manager put us in touch with a tour operator, Morocco Sahara Desert Travel (5/5 on Trip Advisor). Later in the day, we sat down with owner, Hamid , and came up with an itinerary for the next 11 days! 

We dined on falafel and vegetarian couscous on the terrace at Cafe Medina Rouge, while peering down at waves of scooters, taxis, buses, donkey carts and caleches bustling past the 12thC Koutoubia Mosque. The minaret is visible from all over the city as it is forbidden by law to erect any building that exceeds 77 metres. Although Morocco is a Muslim country, drinking is allowed, but strictly controlled and not available in many restaurants, so we moved on to the Kabana, a rooftop bar recommended by Lonely Planet, for a nightcap. For Lois, this was a glass of excellent white Grenache from Meknès, Morocco (Domaine de Sahari Reserve Blanc). The stairs leading up to the bar were lined with b&w photos of celebrities who had apparently visited,  including Mick Jagger, John Lennon, Andy Warhol and Margaret Trudeau. We wandered back past small shops open to the street selling marble work, brass lamps, 50” TV sets, leather goods, earthenware tajine, parts for bicycles and scooters, and more. 

Friday morning, we were met by our city guide, Hassan, for a tour of the medina. Outside the Koutoubia mosque, we were given a lengthy history of the mosque and its Andalusian architecture (as non-Muslims, we could not enter the mosque, but it is currently closed to all because of damage from the earthquake in September); we visited the beautiful 19th C Bahia Palace; wandered through Jamaa el-Fnaa, the main square; and navigated the labyrinth of Marrakech’s famous souks.

In the evening, we returned to Kabana to share a delicious veggie burger made with lentils and house-made Fraisier for desert (and another glass of the Grenache!)

Tomorrow, we leave for an overnight stay in Essaouira.

Wednesday May 23 to Tuesday May 30

 

Arriving in Lucca, Lois spent the next couple of days with an intermittent fever which was subsiding by the evening of the 24th. Earlier that day, Paul decided to get a haircut and beard trim at a barber’s shop he had noticed. He wasn’t quite prepared for the 2-hour personal service that involved scissors, straight razors (chosen from a large assortment and sharpened with a strop), and hot and cold towels. A first (and probably last)!

We had time (and energy) to take a short walk along part of the city wall, the entirety of which remains intact, at least from the 16th and 17thC rebuild, and is a great recreational path for walkers and cyclists. We viewed the outside of the Church of San Michele in Foro, with its unique 13thC facade, walked past the 14thC Torre Guinigi with its seven Holm Oak trees planted on the roof, and through the Piazza dell’Amfiteatro. This is in the shape of an oval, built on the remains of a 10,000 seat Roman amphitheater, the walls of which form part of one of the inner rings of houses.

A highlight of Lucca was a concert in the Church of San Giovanni, part of the Puccini Lucca festival, which goes on throughout the year with different themes every night. Saturday night’s theme was a Night at the Opera, a wonderful and spirited performance of arias, duets, and intermezzos from the opera repertoire from Handel to Puccini, given by a mezzo-soprano and tenor, with piano accompaniment. Afterwards, we ate in the Osteria Del Neni, a small rustic place known for classic Tuscan fare. Dessert was Tiramisu, made with Bucelatto, a local cake made with sultanas and flavoured with aniseed. We can also recommend a local roastery, Caffé Ninci, whose brew Paul rates 9/10.

Church of San Michele in Foro
Torre Guinigi

The next morning we headed by train to Cortona, an ancient Tuscan hill town which happens to feature in Frances Mayes’ Under the Tuscan Sun. We were a little worried that it may be overrun with tourists, which it sort of was. However, our hotel was located on a quiet side street and when we went exploring it was less busy away from the main thoroughfare. Just after being served lunch at an outdoor table, a sudden hailstorm caused a mad rush of patrons and waiters grabbing plates and drinks and diving for the nearest table inside!

A long walk up from the town to the Fortezza dell Girifalco provided great views of the town and valley below. The present building dates from the 16thC when it was incorporated into the city walls, but there were fortifications there in the time of the Etruscans. It is being renovated and was hosting art students, so we were not able to see a great deal. Later on in our wanderings, we found a row of medieval houses tucked away under the city wall, clearly still occupied as residences. The main squares were bustling and appeared to be hosting various events, including a wedding. A 9-day Cortona Comics festival was starting just as we were leaving on Saturday. Gastronomically, the highlight was a meal at Sartu, an intimate restaurant down a side street (capacity 18), which included chestnut pasta. On the second evening, we dined on a patio overlooking the plains which stretch towards Lago Transimeno to the south and the Tuscan Hills to the west.

Cortona

From Cortona, we took a train and funicular to Orvieto for a night. We had last been in Orvieto in November 1997, when we had rented a car in Rome and stopped there on the way to Florence. It was our first experience of an Italian hill town, and remains one of our favourites. At that time, it was quiet in contrast to the throngs of people we now encountered, partly here for « Flowering Orvieto », an annual festival of flowers, in anticipation of the celebration of Pentecost, the Festa della Palombella on May 28. Sketches made of flowers by students of the Art School of Orvieto are displayed in the churches and palaces of the city. This year’s theme is “Current news of Luca Signorelli in the frescoes of the Cathedral of Orvieto: true or false prophets” to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the death of the painter Luca Signorelli, author of the masterpieces that fresco the Chapel of San Brizio in the Cathedral.

Unfortunately, we missed the Festa della Palombella itself. In a celebration dating back to 1404, on the 51st day after Easter, a white dove « takes flight », descending into the Cathedral square. In 1997, we had stayed in a hotel overlooking the remarkable cathedral. It was no less impressive this time.

On the advice of friends, Sharon and Charles, Paul ventured to the bottom of the Well of St. Patrick. This was built in the 1500’s on the orders of the Pope in case the town came under siege. The bore hole is surrounded by a double helix of 248 stone steps descending (and ascending) 53m. Mules were able to carry empty and full water vessels down and up to the top.

 

Sunday, we took the funicular, train and bus to Viterbo. On Sigeric’s return from Rome, his sixth overnight stop was at the hot springs of Bullicame, just outside the city. Lured by the prospect of restorative waters and the connection with Sigeric, we booked 2 nights at the Hotel Niccolò V, near the Terme dei Papi. The thermal baths include a large, two thousand square metre outdoor swimming pool which is filled with hyperthermal water from the Bullicame spring, at a temperature of 58oC, and an underground natural grotto heated to 48°C by hyperthermal water. Everyone going into the grotto is closely watched and advised to stay a maximum of 10 minutes (we lasted about 3 minutes!), following which you are led to a room with individually screened-off beds where you are wrapped mummy-like in a cotton sheet and plastic and asked to rest for another 10 minutes. In addition to wellness treatments – mud facials, massage, etc. – the spa also offers a range of therapeutic treatments for rheumatic, respiratory, dermatological, ENT, vascular and gynaecological conditions.

While we did not partake of the additional services, we made good use of the monumental thermal pool, the reclining deck chairs and the espresso/apéritive bar. It was a lovely and relaxing way to end our trip. We are in Viterbo tonight and will fly home from Rome airport tomorrow.

Terme dei Papi

Sunday & Monday, May 21&22, 2023

Berceto to Pontremoli

On Saturday evening, we had dinner at Restaurant Pasquinelli, close to our B&B. The menu featured flavorful prugnoli mushrooms, just in season and unique to Berceto. Apparently the mushrooms need rain and sun, alternately. Although a kilo or more had been picked a few days before, we were told that the incessant rain has resulted in a much smaller harvest.

The weather forecast was better for Sunday but we knew the steep trails would be slippery. The fact that some of our clothes, our backpacks and Lois’ shoes were still wet this morning, confirmed our disinclination to walk what would be another challenging route. We caught a lift with our bags to Pontremoli with the husband of the proprietor of our BnB, La Casa dei Nonni. We understood enough of what he said to know that he would be taking the mountain route, which crossed with the VF, rather than the autostrada, for which we were grateful and excited. While low clouds and mist continued to hang in the valleys, the views were incredible. We stopped at the top of the Passo Dello Cisa (1041m elevation), to look at where we would have walked. This mountain pass is located on the border between northern Tuscany and Emilia-Romagna, and marks the division between the Ligurian and Tuscan Apennines.

Back in Pontremoli, where we had stayed earlier, the sun was shining and it seemed that summer might be returning. We checked into the B&B Ai Chiosi, an old stone building converted to smart loft apartments, situated in the midst of gardens very close to the old town. After reading Mag’s comment about her boots smelling after wading through the river, Lois had a closer inspection of her Lowa’s, which had sat damp overnight. She immediately set about washing them in the bidet!

We headed first to the Chiesa di San Pietro, only open on Sundays, to view the fascinating medieval finger labyrinth preserved on the church wall. While we were having lunch afterwards in the piazza, Lois realized she wasn’t feeling well. She later developed a fever, which has continued into Monday. As this is the third time this has happened on this trip, we have decided to end our walk. We will take the train to Lucca tomorrow, with the hopes of spending a few days in Tuscany before heading home.

12thC finger labyrinth
Pinnochio statue in Pontremoli

Saturday May 20, 2023

Sivizzano to Villa di Casola/ Berceto, 13.23km walking

Perhaps we should have listened to the weather. We knew we were in for a hard day, already, with a relentless climb for the first 10 kms. In better weather, it would have been tough, but beautiful.
But the mist, low cloud and constant drizzle deprived us of the views, giving us muddy paths and wet feet instead.

From Sivizzano, we followed the road, climbing steadily to Bardone and on to Terenzo. Where the VF route veered off on a path, a sign advised walkers to keep to the road in bad weather, which we did. However, after Terenzo there was no alternative, as the path and road diverged. We were now in a low cloud on a very steep gravel path that seemed to go on forever. Paul helped keep Lois’ spirits up by describing the book he is reading, The Ink Black Heart by Robert Galbraith (aka JK Rowling). By the time we descended to the hamlet of Castello di Casola, we were pretty wet and getting cold as a wind had whipped up. There was nowhere to get a coffee or even to find shelter. We sat on the edge of a stone wall and had some cheese and crackers and tea from our thermos. The trail plunged steeply downwards from here, water streaming down the path. For a couple of stretches, the path was just a narrow muddy stream, requiring us to walk sideways downhill digging our poles into the mud to stop from sliding. Eventually, we reached a road again, but as we could see on the map that it was a dead end and we would soon have to climb again along a muddy trail to Cassio, we decided to call it quits and sent a message to the taxi driver who rescued us yesterday. He arrived 30 minutes later and took us to our BnB in Berceto.

Outside pizza/ bread oven
In the clouds

Friday May 19, 2023

Felegara to Fornovo di Taro/ Sivizzano, 10.28km

If yesterday was one of our best walks on this trip, today’s gets the prize for the worst!

The tour company had booked us a room in a hotel in Saint’Andrea Bagni last night, near
Medesano, the end of yesterday’s route. The town is described as a hilltop spa resort, known for its therapeutic thermal waters. What we found was an original art deco baths building in huge disrepair and a hotel which had seen better days. (And btw, Lois had Paul remove the black velvet painting from above the bed. ;))

The pizzeria nearby was good, however, and we had an enjoyable meal with Angus and Kathryn. The dining room was plastered with pictures of 60’s singers and movie stars and a large Elvis cardboard cutout stood in the corner!

We woke to rain again and 12C. The news reported that flooding in this region in the past few days has caused at least 14 deaths and left thousands more homeless. After not having rained for seven months, some areas of Emilia-Romagna received nearly 20 inches in 36 hours, about half the annual average.

While waiting for our ride to take us back to the trail, Angus noted that someone had posted on the VF Fb page that the trail was partially flooded near Felegara, which was where we had decided to begin our walk today, to shorten it. We avoided that section, taking a parallel track across a field, plodding through mud, puddles and wet grass. We rejoined the VF path further on, only to find the trail effectively blocked by deep mud and flowing water. We backtracked to the track and followed it to an underpass that went below the motorway, but found that access to the other side was blocked by a wire fence. While Lois contemplated climbing the fence, Paul consulted the map which showed that we would still not be able to get across a ditch on the other side of the field. We therefore made our way all the way back to an underpass we had walked through earlier, only to find it now flooded. We had no choice but to wade through about 30cms of dirty water to get to stepping stones along the edge. By that time, Angus and Kathryn had arrived at the other end and we were able to warn them about going any further. We wrang out our socks and met up for coffee back in Felegara, 1 1/2 hours after we had started out. Now, the only alternative was to walk 5 kms to Fornovo along the busy main road, with no hard shoulders. It was not a pleasant experience.

Just before Fornovo, we stopped at a supermarket to get supplies for dinner as there are no restaurants in Sivizzano, where we are staying tonight. Across the bridge over the river, Taro, we looked for somewhere to stop for lunch. Walking into the first restaurant we came to, La Maison, we realised it was a Michelin restaurant! When Lois looked inquiringly at the Maître D , pointing to her wet clothing and dripping backpacks to see if we would be welcome, he graciously ushered us in, with “prego, prego!” (We didn’t tell him we had wet feet!)

Feeling as though we had suddenly been spirited away to another world, we thoroughly enjoyed a meal of poached egg on asparagus with shaved truffles, fresh pasta and local mushrooms, a glass of Sangiovese for Lois, semifreddo (antica recetta de la casa) and espressos. We contacted our BnB to arrange to be picked up at the restaurant.

Our accommodation is a bit rustic (our “private” bathroom is actually downstairs and outside through another door!), but we were able to convince the proprietor to turn on the heat (apparently against the law in May) so that we could dry out. More rain is forecast for tomorrow.

Thursday May 18, 2023

Fidenza to Cella/ Sant’Andrea Bagni, 18.31km walking

Near the main square in Fidenza we had our pre-walk coffee (9/10) and ordered another “asporto” (to take away) in Lois’ coffee thermos. Cafés are everywhere, but we have never seen anyone with a “take out” cup, or indeed any cafe offering them. Espresso is consumed sitting down or standing up at a counter, and seemingly often “on the run”, but never walking down the street.

We were encouraged by the clearing skies and, in fact, the weather was perfect for the whole walk – sun and scattered cloud, the temperature in the high teens. It was also one of our most enjoyable walks.

The trail was flat at first, following a bicycle/pedestrian path, and then climbed gradually away from the city. We passed the Church of St Thomas Becket, originally the chapel of a manor belonging to the Knights Templar. The guidebook mentioned a series of frescoes, but, unfortunately we should have arranged in advance to see inside.

While having a break sitting on a stone wall, a couple of walkers from Australia stopped to chat. Before beginning the VF in Aosta, Angus and Catherine had spent a month travelling around Eastern Europe.

By the time we got to Costamezzana, we had left the plains behind and were in the foothills of the Appenines. The rolling countryside was verdant with fields of wheat and hay, with masses of red poppies, the scent of roses, honeysuckle and other shrubs heavy after the rains.

We stopped at a trattoria, ordered a bottle of sparkling water and ate our bread and cheese on the patio. The landlord brought us out a pilgrim’s register to sign and a stamp for our credentials and shook our hands when we left. Later, we climbed up past the 14thC Castello di Costamezzana and carried on to the peak of a ridge at the Via Gabbiano. The views were spectacular. We called ahead to arrange to be picked up outside the church at Cella, a few kilometers further on and down in a valley.

Church of Sir Thomas Becket
Coffee break
Castillo di Costamezzano

Wednesday May 17, 2023

Fidenza

We stayed last night in an apartment close to the centre. It was clean and well-provisioned, but a bit over the top in terms of velvet draperies, sheers, masses of silk flowers, knickknacks and generic prints with inspirational quotes. But, it had a washing machine. We have clean clothes for the week.

The cool wet weather continues. We came to Italy to escape the rain in France, but it seems to have now caught up with us again. We are wearing all of our layers most days. This morning, it was raining heavily.

We moved over to our hotel, where a package of information from The Natural Adventure Company was waiting for us. The self-guided tour will follow the VF route through the Apennines, but take it over more days and our bags will be transported for us. We are looking forward to this section, just wishing the weather would improve!

The primary sight we wanted to visit in Fidenza was the Cathédrale di San Donnino. A plaque outside the cathedral describes the church as a “fine example of Romanesque art”. Dating from the 12thC, it was built on the site of the martyrdom of Saint Domninus, whose relics are housed in the Cathedral’s crypt. The interior is peaceful, simple and well-proportioned, and has not been spoilt by restoration. An organist was playing as we wandered through.

The high point of the construction of the Cathedral is represented by the work of Benedetto Antelami, an Italian architect and sculptor of the Romanesque school, around the entrance to the church and the vaults, which we spent some time gazing at.

The Cicerone guide gives a description of Antelami’s incredibly detailed and remarkably well-preserved work:

“Episodes from the Old and New Testaments are depicted along the side walls. In a sculpture between the left and center portal the apostle Simon holds a parchment showing Via Francigena pilgrims the way to Rome. Another scene, above a griffin and a capricorn, shows an angel leading a rich family of pilgrims while across from it a centaur hits a deer under a family of poor pilgrims. On the right tower a bas-relief seems to show pilgrims on the road to Rome, an image that has become iconic for the Via Francigena, though scholars generally interpret it as depicting Charlemagne returning to France”.

Palazzo Comunale
Porta di San Donnino

Monday and Tuesday May 15 & 16, 2023

Sarzana to Massa to Fidenza, 24.6km

We decided to take the short train ride to Massa and walk to the sea rather than along the route, which would have entailed a steep climb at the beginning and a steep climb at the end, the archeological museum at Luni (closed on Monday) and the industry around the marble quarries high up in the mountains.

Leaving our bags at the hotel, we walked 5kms along the Viale Roma road straight to the Mediterranean! Beyond a wonderful sculpture of giant blocks of marble, there was access to a stretch of “free beach”, bounded on either side with fenced areas of beach huts and deck chairs for rent. We sat for a long while out on a breakwater (also constructed of Carrara marble!), enjoying the sun, sound of the waves and sea air. Just north is the Ligurian stretch of coast, Cinque Terra, where we walked in 2017.

Later, back in town, we located a shop where Paul bought new insoles for his boots, having discovered the cause of a new blister! Dinner was standard but very good: ricotta spinach ravioli and penne arrabiata.

The following morning, with a few hours before our journey by train and bus to Fidenza, we decided to hike up to the Castello Malaspina di Massa. It was a very steep trek up narrow cobbled roads to the gates of the impressive castle, unfortunately only open at weekends. But, we were rewarded with great, though cloudy views out to the Mediterranean and behind to the Apuan Alps.

The castle, which has a long history of ownership and structural changes, was the finest residence of the Malaspina family between the 15th and 17thCs.

In 1944, the castle was a prison. After the Allies destroyed the remand centre in the town, the occupying German forces transferred more prisoners to the castle. In September 1944, during a brutal massacre of clerics and civilians suspected of collaborating with the partisans, the SS evacuated the castle and executed the prisoners on the banks of a nearby river.

In 2006 the Comune di Massa was awarded the Medalia d’Oro al Merito Civile (the Gold Medal for Civil Merit) which recognized the Partisans’ fight against Fascism, those killed in combat, the civilian opposition to the harsh German orders, the courage of Massa’s women in their search for food and the support for the Partisans’ fight.

Sunday May 14, 2023

Aulla to Sarzana, 22.28km (Paul)

Paul walked alone today as Lois decided to rest her hip, going instead by taxi with the bags to Sarzana.

The Cicerone Guide says that todays route is short, but not easy. In Paul’s view, it was neither short, nor easy. At times, the terrain brought to mind a certain volcano in Nicaragua which Lois and Maritia will remember very well! The initial steep, rocky and wet climb was through evergreen forests in the Apuan Alps, eventually emerging just below the hilltop village of Bibola, with its 7thC castle. By that time, the rain had begun and it continued into the afternoon. After the next village, the path took another steep incline to the top of the next hill. Paul was passed by mountain bikers a couple of times on the way down to the village of Ponzano Superiore. This village was apparently well known as a centre for Italian partisans (anti-fascists) in WWII. Further on, after olive groves and more rocky paths, the ruins of the Castle of Brina come into view. These fortifications date from the 5th to 4thC BC, but were intentionally destroyed in the Peace of Castelnuovo in 1306. This was a settlement between the Malaspina family and the Count-Bishops of Luni, negotiated with the assistance of the poet, Dante. One of the towers remains on its side.

Eventually, the trail dropped down through vineyards to the valley floor and continued to Sarzana alongside a canal.

Bibola
Ponzano Superiore
Brina
Into Sarzana

Saturday May 13, 2023

Pontremoli to Aulla, 13.52km walking, train

The early morning rain ended as we left the apartment, backtracking into the centre of the town for coffee and croissants. Here, we found the Saturday market setting up, where we bought bread, fruit, and potato and onion flan for lunch.

On the outskirts of Pontremoli, we noticed sculptures of Disney figures. We later read that
there are two popular Italian cartoon booklets, Topolina (Mickey Mouse) and Paperion (Donald Duck), often in serial form, about the adventures of these Walt Disney characters.

The route today stayed mostly in the valley, meandering through forest and amongst vineyards and orchards. In the small medieval village of Ponticello, we were interested to find tower-houses. Locally called caminà, this type of housing was created as fortified buildings.

A placard details: “These were stone structures that served simultaneously, as the name suggests, as both residences and fortresses. The access door was on the upper floor and was served by a retractable staircase. On the ground floor there was a cistern for access to drinking water in the event of a siege. These structures date back to the 11th and 13th centuries.” We couldn’t find any remaining retractable staircases.

Further on in Filattiera, we passed the 12thC Romanesque Santo Stefano Church, which houses two of seven Stele Statues found locally. We assumed the stele behind the church must be replicas.

Aware that thunderstorms were forecast, we watched the sky grow progressively darker and decided to hop the next train to Aulla from Filattiera as lightening began to flash.

It was raining hard when we arrived the delightful B&B Bed and Bike. It is run by a couple of cycling enthusiasts, who own a bike store below. The host was gracious and the apartment wonderful. We shared some cycling experiences with the help of Google Translate.

Our host recommended a pizza restaurant nearby and urged us to try the farinata as an appetizer, which we did and it was delicious. It is a shallow savory pie made out of water and chickpea flour, baked in a wood-fired oven to form a golden crust.

Pontcello, tower houses
Santo Stefano Church, Filattiera
Stele Statue
Weather…
More weather…
Farinata

Thursday and Friday May 11 & 12, 2023

Pavia to Pontremoli via Piacenza

We booked with The Natural Adventure company to support us through the Apennines. As the first date available with them is May 17, we will walk ahead on the route, ie, between Pontremoli and Lucca, and return to do the stages between Fidenza and Pontremoli.

We stopped in Piacenza, only because we had booked accommodation before we had changed our plans. But, it was also an interesting city. The Cicerone guide succinctly describes its history:

“Though captured and destroyed many times in its first centuries, Piacenza always recovered and its rich agricultural roots helped it become one of the most prosperous cities in Europe in the Middle Ages. In the 17th c. one-third of its residents died from famine and plague and in 1802 Napoleon annexed Piacenza and carried many of its artworks away to French museums. Piacenza was heavily bombed by the Allies in WWII to slow the German retreat. Rail lines, industrial areas and bridges were targets, but the center suffered collateral damage.”

Our apartment in the Centro Historico was old, richly decorated and voluminous. On a closer look, the electrical wiring was also very dated! There was also no sign of heating, despite the 12C temperature.

On our way to the train station Friday morning, we stopped for breakfast (coffee and croissants) at a great bar/cafe, Pisarei e Fa… Blues. The walls were covered with written notes from customers and artists, including Canadian blues singer, Layla Zoe. Great music played in the background.

Palazzo Malaspina
Piacenza

During a brief wait between trains in Parma, we went across the road to the Cafe Stazione and had an especially good coffee, 9/10 on the Gully scale. (We can get a good espresso anywhere in Italy and we would rate them all above 8/10.)

Changing to a bus in Berceto, it started to tip down with rain. As the bus sped along the autostrada, we looked out at the Appenines, shrouded in mist, and (Lois) wondered how those walks will go. At Pontremoli, we quickly headed to our AirBnB.

It had cleared up when we went out exploring later. First stop would have been the Church of San Pietro, where, in the modern building, there is a small sandstone labyrinth from the 12thC on a piece of wall remaining after the original church was damaged in 1944. Unfortunately, we discovered that the church is only open on Sundays.

The medieval village of Pontremoli,  believed to have been first settled around 1000 BC., lies in the heart of  Lunigiana, a mountainous area stretching from the Tosco-Emiliano Appenines to the Mediterranean Sea following the Magra River. While a part of Northern Tuscany, the village of dark stone and narrow alleys appears to be relatively untouched by tourism. 

The town may get its name from the phrase “Ponte tremulus”, because of a bridge with a shaky constitution that spanned the river Magra, a bridge that already existed when Henry VI reigned around the year 1165. There are several bridges across the Magra and Verde Rivers which join at the south end of the city. One bridge, the Ponte della Cresa, spans the river Verde with four stone arches. Originally built of wood, this bridge dates back to the 1300’s, although rebuilt many times due to continuous damage by floods and sieges.

We wandered through the town, stopped for gelato, and then took an elevator up to the Castello del Piagnaro, a medieval castle designed to guard the main roads leading through the Apennine Mountains to Rome. While the castle itself was interesting, we were intrigued to find that it now houses the Museo delle Statue Stele Lunigianese. This is a fascinating collection of stele statues dating back to the European Neolithic era. The sandstone figures representing stylized male and female human figures have been discovered all over Lunigiania, this part of Tuscany, but primarily in the area south of Pontremolli.

Berceto to Pontremoli
River Magra
Stele Statues

Tuesday and Wednesday May 9 and 10, 2023

Vercelli to Pavia by train. Pavia walk, 19.09km

By way of a 1.5 hr train trip to Pavia, we avoided four days of walking alongside the flat Vercelli rice fields, now levelled and flooded again with water for planting during May. The rice seeds will be sown in the water, using specially-equipped amphibious tractors.

After locating our apartment, we spent some time over gelatos planning the days ahead. We realize now that our original plan to primarily walk the VF route is not always practical (stages are long and often challenging) or desirable (ie, flat farmland), and often conflict with our equal desire to experience the culture of the cities. We needed a plan to allow for both. Lois downloaded the Cicerone guide for another viewpoint and, as it turned out, better maps. We agreed that, if possible, we would both like to walk the stages of the route in the Apennines and also in Tuscany. After that, we would see. For the Apennine Mountains, we decided to book a tour that would look after luggage transfer and also provide backup, if a stage is found to be too long or strenuous.

In the meantime, we set off to explore Pavia. We walked to the Ponte Coperto, a reconstruction of an ancient bridge across the river Ticino. The Ticino originates in the Alps, flows through the Swiss canton of Ticino and into the Po river near Pavua. The stone and brick arch bridge , including a chapel, was modelled on its medieval predecessor (itself a replacement for a Roman construction, parts of which are still visible on the river floor) which had partially collapsed following Allied bombing in 1945. While the bridge looked old, the knowledge that it dated from 1951 was a bit disappointing, although the desire to replace a beloved bridge in the same style after the devastation of WWII is understandable.

On Wednesday morning, the temperature had dropped to 12C and it was pouring, making Lois question her decision (when it was 26C) to send back her long hiking pants, warm jacket and rain pants! She also second-guessed her decision to wash out her capris (only remaining hiking wear), as they had not dried overnight. Fortunately, Paul came to the rescue, suggesting she use the hair dryer, which worked a treat! Wanting to walk today, we were debating between walking ahead on the route and returning by train to Pavia or walking around the city and beyond to view the sights. We chose the latter.

After a visit to the very helpful tourist office, we headed first to view the Cathedral (Duomo di Pavia). From the outside, the unusual building principally made of red brick almost looks ruined, but inside reveals a massive , somewhat overwhelmingly opulent Renaissance-style church, one of the largest buildings in central northern Italy. Built in the 15thC to replace two existing “twin” Romanesque cathedrals, the Duomo is made in the form of a Greek Cross, with three naves flanked by semi-circular chapels. Leonardo da Vinci is said to have worked on its foundations.

Next, we walked over to the University of Pavia, passing by three medieval brick towers, the only ones still standing of a hundred or more of these structures built to reflect the stature and power of prominent families. The University, opened in 1361, is one of the oldest in Europe. On our wander through, we went into the lecture theatre where Alessandro Volta presented the newly invented electrical battery to Napoleon. Our visit to the lovely Romanesque Church of San Michele nearby was memorable for the delightful man who showed us the important sights inside: a partially preserved floor mosaic from the 1100’s in the form of a labyrinth, with panels above representing the months of the year and the activities in the community associated with each month, and an unusual gold laminated silver crucifix from the 10thC, depicting a peaceful Jesus, with no wounds, his arms outstretched in welcome.

After lunch in a small, smart Vietnamese restaurant, we went to visit the 14thC Visconti Castle, but, as it didn’t reopen until 2:00, we carried on walking north out of the city towards Certosa, an 8 km walk along the Naviglio Pavese Canal. The canal and its locks, two of which we passed (non-working), were part of a plan of Leonardo Da Vinci to link Switzerland, Milan, Venice and the Adriatic.

The canal led us close to the 15thC Certosa di Pavia, a monastery and complex built in 1396-1495, by the Visconti family of Milan. The church was to serve as a mausoleum for the family. The location was strategically chosen midway between Milan and Pavia, the second city of the Duchy, where the Duke held his court, at the end of a large hunting park, which connected the Certosa to the castle of Pavia.

According to Wikipedia, “Certosa is the Italian equivalent of Charterhouse: a monastery of the cloistered monastic order of Carthusians founded by St. Bruno in 1044 at Grande Chartreuse. Though the Carthusians in their early centuries were known for their seclusion and asceticism and the plainness of their architecture, the Certosa is renowned for the exuberance of its architecture, in both the Gothic and Renaissance styles, and for its collection of artworks which are particularly representative of the region”.

As parts of the complex could only be seen on a guided tour by one of the monks in Italian, we had a look in the church and peeked into the cloisters, then walked around the high walls of the perimeter to the train station in Certosa to get a train back to the city. Finally, we visited the Church of San Pietro in Ciel d’Oro. As we had become acquainted with the life of Saint Augustine in Canterbury, we thought that we might see his tomb here. Dating from 1402, it is described as a “splendid monumental marble ark”. A plaque outside bears a passage from Dante’s Divine Comedy, recognizing the Church as the burial place also of the philosopher Severinus Boethius.

Rice fields
Ponte Coperto
Medieval Towers
Visconti Castle

Monday May 7, 2023

Santhia to Vercelli, by train

We decided that we would prefer to look at the rice paddies from a train, rather than walk through them for hours on end, possibly while being bitten by mosquitoes! Additionally, Paul was nursing a couple of painful blisters. So, we hopped on the 9:17 train, arriving in the town of Vercelli 10 minutes later.

One of the oldest urban sites in northern Italy, Vercelli was founded, according to most historians, around 600 BC. It is the largest European rice-growing region and rice is the main factor in the economy. The ancient system of irrigation, described below,  has been found to be a double-edged sword, however.  While saving water, the system increases greenhouse gases by releasing carbon. 

The large plains located between the Alps and the Mediterranean Sea allow for an effective system of irrigation by submersion. When the summer period starts, water melts from the Alps’ glaciers, reaching the Pianura Padana. The water is stocked there for a few months, from April to September, thanks to artificially constructed embankments. Once the rice fields have been flooded and rice has grown, the water is then released and returns to the sea.

We dropped our bags at the flat we had booked and headed for espressos and the tourist information centre. The staff person there was very helpful and guided us to the most interesting sights, most of which are churches. Unfortunately, a sculpture exhibition that looked interesting featuring a major retrospective dedicated to the work of Italian sculpture Giacomo Manzù was not open today.

We headed first to the Basilica di Saint’Andrea, built from 1219 to 1227 with funds that a cardinal obtained from being granted, by Henry III, “perpetual rights to the income of St Andrew’s Church, Chesterton, near Cambridge”! The cardinal also supported the construction of a hospital for pilgrims on the VF. The bell tower was built in the 15thC and is unusually positioned at an angle to the main body of the building. The inside features colourful and decorative vaults. In 1511, the Cremonese cabinet maker Paolo Sacca created exquisite inlaid wood depictions of the town places which are in the quire.

After lunch, we continued our tour, which included a huge synagogue, built in Arab-Moresque style between 1875-1877, the first Jewish temple to be built in Italy after the emancipation of the Jews in 1848 (Carlo Alberto, King of Piedmont and Sardinia, granted the Jews civil and political equality which was extended to the whole of Italy as it became unified, concluding in 1870.)

Our accommodation is on the Piazza Cavour, the arcades of which date from the 13th and 14thC. Two towers overlook the square, the Torre dell’Angelo, which is the remains of a fortified house, and a 16thC bell tower. We spent the late afternoon at a cafe/ bar in the Piazza where Lois enjoyed her first ever Aperol spritz.

Tomorrow, we will go by train to Pavia.

Basilica di Saint’ Andrea

 

Sunday May 7, 2023

Viverone to Santhia, 20.16km

A thunder storm during the night was dramatic and had cleared the air. Hoping for an early start, we arrived at the pasticerria soon after 8:00, but it was already hopping on a Sunday morning in the touristy town of Viverone. They provided great espresso, pastries, yoghurt and fresh fruit. We even stayed for a second capucinno when Paul realized his Apple watch had not charged during the night!

Rejoining the VF, we gradually climbed out of Viverone and along the moraine. It was pleasant countryside of woods, vineyards, orchards and meadows. Descending to Cavaglia, we had yet another coffee (ie, bathroom break!) The terrain became flatter and we found ourselves walking along unshaded tracks on completely flat farmland, with fields planted with corn, wheat and barley. We ate our lunch sitting on our groundsheet at the edge of a field. As the day got warmer, the walk across fields became more tedious, especially when the route went over and then alongside the motorway. By Santhia, we were rethinking the next few days’ walk.

Our spirits were revived when we found a cute restaurant which served antipasto like Mrs. Gobbi used to make, and lemon risotto.

Typical chimney

Saturday May 6, 2023

Ivrea to Viverone, 21.45km

Walking away from Ivrea, we could identify the long completely flat moraine that encloses the plain of Ivrea in a horseshoe shape. The Moraine Amphitheater of Ivrea, which spreads over an area of approximately 530 sq. km, is one of the world’s most important geological formations of glacial origin. It was generated by the actions of the Balteo Glacier a “river” of ice 100km in length and 800m tall which came down from the Valle d’Aosta. The glacier also left numerous lakes, nested in different morainic hollows, one of the larger being Lago Viverone, today’s destination.

Continuing to follow the Dora Baltea River, the route took us first along a path beside tiny Lago Di Campagna, along generally flat tracks, through forest and alongside vineyards and orchards. At Buroli, we found one of two “susta”- places offering a bench and source of water for pilgrims/walkers. We stopped at a cafe there to use the facilities (no public washrooms on the VF!) and to enjoy a glass of thick and delicious local pear juice. Later, at the next “susta”, a group of four Italian hikers were just leaving and motioned for us to use the space. Coming from the Lago Garda area, they were doing the VF in stages – this year from Chatillon to Pavia. While we rested, four other younger walkers passed by. At Canavese, we sat in the shade of the 14thC bell tower and gate, Paul trying to photograph the barn swallows nesting in the ceiling.

The weather was warm and increasingly humid. After a long climb up to Piverone, we passed through another bell tower and gate, this time from the 13thC. Soon after, we came upon the ruins of the small Romanesque church of San Pietro di Livione at Gesiùn, dating from between the 10th and 11thC. The name Gesiùn means big church, despite its miniscule size! We chatted with a couple of young cyclists who wanted their picture taken to show they had cycled all the way up there!

By now, we could see Lago di Viverone down in the valley, looking very inviting in the afternoon heat. Unfortunately, when we checked the location of the apartment we had reserved, we discovered it was not in the valley, but at the very top of a very long hill overlooking the lake. Great views, but not at the end of a long day with temperatures up to 26oC!

For dinner, we were not going anywhere that required any walking so reserved at the restaurant attached to the apartment. This turned out to be a perfect choice as the restaurant was amazing (as well as being extremely popular for those arriving by 4 wheels!). We had fresh ravioli with a braised onion relish, followed by whitefish from Lake Viverone and ended with a desert of fresh berries and cream, flowing out of a chocolate pot. The local white wine was Erbaluce (?)

As we left the restaurant, we were told apologetically that breakfast would not be served before 09:00 as the restaurant would not be closing until 01:00! We were directed to their sister pasticerria down on the village, with a voucher.

Topography of the area
Canavese
Piverone
View from Viverone apartment