Sunday, 29 April 2012

Italy part 2: Padua and district

The Astronomical Clock, Padua
We took the train from Verona to Padua - a painless experience, even though we don't speak any Italian (note to self: learn some Italian so you can understand the station announcements though- your luck won't hold!) Trains are fast and on time and I didn't see anyone standing ... not like trains in the UK these days, unfortunately - there never seems to be enough seats).
Il Ragione
The main reasons for choosing Padua were two-fold - we wanted anther destination en route to Venice, and first choice Bologna was a couple of hours out of the way and secondly we saw the Capella degli Scrovegni on Francesco da Mosto's Italy Top to Toe and it looked amazing, so Padua became our second city.
Food stall (1)
I picked the hotel to be close to the station and it was - so close the tracks ran quite close at the back. Our room was at the front though and was quiet enough- the gentle trundling of the overnight freight trains were almost soothing, they were "distant" and rhythmical.  It was a bit different when the passenger trains began stopping - tortured metal brakes got us out of bed, but we wanted an early start!
The staff assumed our stay was to enable us to visit Venice - so they gave us a complementary guide to Venice - but not Padua!
Food stall (2)
Food stall (3)
I don't have any photos of the main target of our visit as cameras were banned from the Capella degli Scrogveni, which was quite an experience!  You get 15 minutes in the chapel, but this is preceded by 15 mins in an airlock, as they maintain the temperature and humidity inside the chapel to preserve the frescoes.. We were worried as we shared our airlock with a school party, but in fact as they were being lectured by their teacher we had the rest of the chapel almost to ourselves.  And what a sight it was. Completed by Giotto between 1303 and 1305 It is a tour de force of painting - truly jaw-dropping, as each picture is impressive and the impact of the complete chapel really needs to be seen and experienced!  I can only share it by directing you to the chapel web site:  and recommending that you make a point of visiting if you are in this part of Italy (but you generally have to book in advance!).
Meringues - 6in across!
Entrance to Citadella
Asparagus, pride of place
We spent the rest of the day wandering the streets of Padua which has a much more "Victorian" feel than Verona or Venice - wider, straight streets big "four-square" buildings and many statues and commemorations to the heroes of the Resorgimento, especially Garibaldi and Cavour. The atmosphere as a whole was less touristy and more work-like - although this also came with a full share of beggars and illegal street traders - something missing from Verona we noticed with hindsight. It also appeared to be graduation day at the university, as many people were celebrating their class achievements around the university.
The main gate

The highlight of the city though was the Piazze della Erbe and the fabulous Il Ragione building.  A 14thC building which was built to house the Comune - ie local govenment. The top of the building is decorated with 15thC frescoes.  The ground floor is set out in rows of stalls for a huge food market selling local cheeses, meats, sausage, fish and bacala. One fishmonger even had live eels on offer. Outside the square was also filled with stalls many selling other food including big fat spears of  forced white asparagus.
The wall on the inside

Day 2 in Padua, we decided to get out of town, so we took the bus to Citadella - a medieval walled town to the north. The walls are 1.5km around and can still be walked- although as some restoration was underway one part was closed off - and one part has a small section of missing walkway replaced with a wood and metal gantry.  The town was lovely and well preserved.  Some of the houses inside the walls were very prestigious - obviously a desirable place to live in modern Italy.

External view of the wall
As it was very quiet, we made a spur of the moment decision to head back to Padua and try for a bus to the second local walled town - Montegnana, about 40Km to the south of the town. It made for an interesting bus tour, and we had long enough for a quick tour of the town before the rains began and we decided to cut our losses and head back to the hotel.

Exclusive mansion with "wall view"

Montegnana defences

Montegnana central square

Saturday, 28 April 2012


Castelvecchio (from the bridge)
Verona from above
Ponte Pietro
Well - it is almost a week since I got back from Italy, but it has taken me this long to get sorted out. So installment No. 1 is Verona, where we spent Sat-Tuesday of our week away. I have to say, even on the days it rained I loved it - a really great location for a city break, with the ancient town wrapped inside a huge looping bend of the River Adige.Our hotel (the Scalzi) was a short walk from the CastelVecchio, so with the advice of the very helpful hotel staff, this is where we started out tour. It is a large medieval castle, square built, with an interesting escape route - a bridge across the river. It has characteristic fish-tail turrets, the insignia of the family who help this and other strongholds in the area. From there we walked around the river to the Ponte Pietro, the old roman bridge and then back across the city - a trip full of interest, yet all compact enough for an out of condition desk jockey with a dodgy knee (ie me in case you were wondering).
Juliet's balcony
So why did I love Verona? Firstly the atmosphere was great - laid back, but buzzing, with layers of history. Below the medieval was early medieval and then roman architecture, the piece de resistance being the Roman Arena still intact and in use today, thanks to the plentiful supply of fresh stone and marble from local quarries. The Arena is still used for cultural events including the festival of opera in June, and the sets were in build when we visited - in pouring rain. The Duomo was full of art works - like every Italian church it seems with, in this case, roman foundations displayed through cut away and glass floors. The roman amphitheatre nestles into the hill, and after a stiff climb to the top of the bluff, there is a great view of the city.

Roman remains beneath our feet
The Arena at night
Verona is also the location for my awarded "best ever tourism enterprise". Juliet's balcony - as in "Romeo's Juliet's balcony" is located here, and tourists from far and wide come to write love messages on the walls of the villa and rub the right breast of the statue of Juliet for luck (or something!). Authentic tourism?? Well yes, but not authentic history. The (very) old medieval house was bought by the commune of Verona in 1910 and the balcony was added in 1935. Yes, 1935!!!! But people come in their droves and a small army of volunteers collect the letters left here and on the web site and reply with a "letter from Juliet".

Head-sized lemons
On Monday we braved public transport for a trip to Lake Garda. Originally I planned the train to Desenzano then bus to Sirmione, but the bus station was incorporated into the train station so in the end we went direct. Sirmione is at the end of a peninsula jutting north from the south shore of the lake. Across the entrance to the old town stands a 13thC castle with mutliple defended gates, moats and sea gates, all with signature fish tail battlements. However the first sight to greet us was a stall selling the largest lemons I have ever seen - I think they were amalfi lemons. We wandered round the very tall castle, from bottom to the top of the tallest tower, getting great views of the town and the lake before walking around the headland to enjoy more views of the lakes and mountains, including snow covered mount Baldo and beyond.  Just my poor planning though- the roman ruins - Catullo's grotto were closed for the day.

Sea defences
Lake Garda


Sunday, 8 April 2012

St Ninian's cave

Leaving The Machars, looking north to the Galloway Hills

High water springs, Port William
Easter Day 2, part 2! The fine weather held and turned into a lovely morning so we headed off to The Machars, aiming for a walk to St Ninian's cave.  This wasn't to see the cave - reputedly the hermitage for St Ninian who was from the Whithorn priory- but for the walk itself.  We had a number of targets for the visit, including the possibilities of early bluebells in the beech wood but most of all there was the lure of wild garlic or ransomes as they are also known.
South from Port William, Monreith's headland in the distance
Last year we visited at this time and the farmer was moving his two young bulls down the valley. They were somewhat playful and dashed about crushing the garlic - a smell that stays with you for a long time. This year we have our own cooker and a chicken ready in the fridge -a marriage made in heaven!
Red-legged partridge
The coast drive along the edge of Luce Bay was colourful, as the ubiquitous gorse was in full flower and mixed with blackthorn blossom, pressed tight against the cliffs by the persistent south westerlies. Gorse in particular is everywhere here, as the area is a classic area of lowland glaciation so there are drumlins, roche moutonee & raised beaches all providing areas of poor fertility for agriculture, ideal for gorse colonisation. It also provides cover for the animals in summer, when the flies start to bother livestock.
At Port William the full spring tide was at it's maximum, and the first yachts of the year were going into the water. The bronze statue at the harbour entrance definitely had a fine view. We headed on south, choosing not to stop at the memorial to Gavin Maxwell at Monreith (one of the nicest I've seen, being a bronze otter -Tarka- overlooking one of the best views on the coast.)
Beech wood with ransomes along stream
wind-formed trees
St Ninian's cave is about a mile from the car park, a walk down a small valley filled with beech trees, and a range of smaller vegetation.  Besides the ransomes there were marsh marigold in the streams, celendines, the remainders of a long abandoned garden (with a large yellow arums) and yes bluebells! These are really early this year due to the unseasonal warm spell in March, and only a few were flowering, but they were there. As we neared the end of the valley the tall straight beeches gave way to shorter more gnarled trees, formed thanks to the efforts of the onshore winds.
Looking north to St Ninian's cave
When we got to the shore we turned left away from the cave and made our way over the large pebble bank to the cliff path. Here there was a range of other spring flowers including primrose, violet, coltsfoot, celandines, and the least common of them all, dandelion! There is a steep climb up to the top and the path follows along the edge of a precipitous drop over cliffs populated mainly by gulls with the odd pair of shags and on the water we spotted a pair of razorbills. The fields to our left were a mixture of gorse, scrub and pasture and were were rewarded for the effort of climbing the path with good views of stonechat, rock pipits and best of all, larks in full song right along the cliff. The sun shone with some light cloud and we could see in the distance the Isle of Man, sitting under a light bank of cloud coating its high ground.


Male stonechat
Fleeting glimpse of female stonechat

Rock pipit

Herring gull

The farmer's two bulls

Map of The Machars

Easter Day2: River Luce

Luce Abbey through the trees
First Dipper
One of my early starts: the rain had cleared so I headed down the lane to the river. At this time of year before the leaves grow in, there are fleeting views across the valley to the ruins of Luce Abbey. It must have been a tranquil and productive monastery in it's day, as along the valley bottom, there is a large area flat enough to cultivate crops. Today there are no crops though: this is well and truly cattle country, with a constant supply of rain to grow grass, many farmers keep dairy herds, supplying the Caledonian cheese factory in Stranraer, and the remainder keeping suckler herds or sheep.  Some of the sheep farmers aim to have a December lambing period and so now there are two sizes of lamb along the lane - the usual Easter born babies, bleating and falling over their legs, and groups of boisterous strong lambs, out looking for trouble.
My targets for the day were the hedgerows along the valley which are home to a range of small birds in summer including migrants like chiffchaff. The other target was the river itself, which bubbles over areas of boulders and level change- perfect territory for dippers.
Prime Dipper habitat
I found a dipper almost straight away but not close enough for a decent picture.  I tried to get closer but stealth isn't one of my stronger skills and he disappeared ...

Older lamb
Further along the road there was a song thrush belting out a tune from the top of a birch tree, but the other small birds were not being cooperative. so I returned to the river to try some patient waiting and finally got my dipper - although not the best pictures, so I'll just have to go back again in better light to get crisper images- not a hardship, as sitting in peace along the river listening to the water provides a pleasure all of it's own!

Song Thrush

Second Dipper

Saturday, 7 April 2012

Easter, day 1: a gap in the weather

We have headed to South West Scotland for Easter in the hope of getting in some gentle walking and seeing some wildlife. The weather closed in as we headed north on Friday morning and when we got to Glenluce we couldn't decide if we were in low wet cloud or rain ...
We checked the weather forecast which predicted rain clearing from the west so we set out for the Rhins of Galloway and Port Patrick. It was a right decision as it wasn't raining, although the light was decidedly "second hand". We headed up onto the cliff walk to Dunskey castle, to see what was nesting along the cliffs.
The first part of the walk is strange- a safety fence protects the cliff side drop to the sea, but to the left there is another long drop into a disused railway cut with no fence for the first section. The cut is a testament to Victorian engineering, as it must have been an enormous undertaking and probably reflects the importance of the fishing industry in the port, which still has a well protected fishing harbour. There is an interesting transit line marked on the harbour wall and a building along the main road to guide boats through a narrow rock-lined entrance.  I wouldn't want to be bringing a boat in here for the first time less than perfect conditions!
Along the cliffs we spotted Fulmars and herring gulls setting up nest sites on ledges dripping with vegetation. No eggs yet though- it's a bit early. Rock doves flitted along the cliffs but way too quick for me - especially in poor light.
As we reached the castle the break in the weather began to fade and the rain - or low wet cloud returned. Despite the weather though, the signs of spring were there to be seen including a range of flowers along the path.
As we got back to the car park I couldn't help noticing the lichen covered rocks- lichen is meant to be an indicator of fresh air- and I can at least vouch for that along this coast line!
Port Patrick

Railway cut looking south

Fulmar staking a nest claim

Dunskey Castle

First thrift flowers

Port Patrick, looking north through the railway cut

Lichen covered rock