GROW FOOD slow foodHave your garden and eat it too. A practical guide to organic gardening in the sub-tropics with step-by-step instructions and delicious seasonal recipes. Come with me too on some of my travels in Australia, Europe, Asia and beyond.
There’s a lot to be said for discovering your own back yard, hopping in the car and taking the road less travelled and one that avoids going anywhere near an airport. That’s exactly what we did for two weeks over Easter – we tossed a few things in the back of the car and took the back roads and byways from our home in northern NSW, heading south to Canberra where our choir was performing at the National Folk Festival.In two weeks we travelled over 3,000 km and, I have to say, it was absolutely wonderful – stimulating, easy and relaxing. I came back feeling as though I had been away for two months, not two weeks, which is always a sign of trip worth taking.
I had booked farm stays en route, and I am happy to report that Australia has moved into the 21st century – finally. All the accommodation we stayed in was comfortable, clean and charming with everything I wanted – real coffee, local maps, dishwasher, chopped wood, stocked pantry (with olive oil), good bathrooms, classy linen and COMFORTABLE PILLOWS – I didn’t need to use my own from home once. Oh, and that’s before I have mentioned the stunning locations, heavenly views and peace and quiet.
FIRST STOP – Wollombi, New England
We drove south through Ballina to the the big river country with timber houses on stilts surrounded by swaying paddocks of emerald green sugar cane to Ulmarra which has to have one of the most well stocked book shops in the country – I could barely see the owner sitting behind her cash register. Who said print was dying? Ulmarra also has a fabulous converted pub on the banks of the mighty Clarence River that has been turned into a classy eatery, and I can’t think of a better place to have a break, read a book and eat a plate of scones with a cup of tea.
On to Grafton, then headed west on the Waterfall Way to Armidale – our destination a beef stud of Angus and Charolais cattle with a stay for a couple of days in the old farmhouse. I knew that this trip was going to turn out well when young Lucy – seventh generation of farmers on this land, turned up with a loaf of freshly baked bread to greet us. Engaged to be married, she has taken on the farm-stay as her project and, if she does everything else in her life with such passion and attention to detail, she will make a success of whatever she turns her hand to. Now in my seventh decade I know that I probably should have married a farmer! I love cows and being on a farm – which is a long way from the East End of London, where I was born. Is there still time, I wonder? Lucy had created a lovely cottage garden around the house full of late flowering roses and dahlias and, lucky us, a vegetable garden, and I was able to out and pick fresh zucchini, basil and tomatoes for our dinner.
I just went out walking – early morning, twilight – didn’t matter – I was happy – trying to identify the trees, grasses and late summer flowering wildflowers – like these Paper Daisies, Xerochrysum bracteatum , noticing the health of the trees and pastures and appreciating the effort and love that the custodians of this land had put in over the past 160 years. Not every farm is like this. The New England tablelands are incredibly lush and beautiful and I urge you to get out there and take it in. It’s a particular treat at this time of years when all the exotic trees are in their autumn glory; golden poplars, scarlet claret ash, fiery liquid ambers ……………………….
This undulating land had 4 km of trout river and me mate was itching to get a rod twitching – next time maybe, for we will be back. The air was crystal clear in all shades of blue to purple – all you could hear were the birds calling and the odd moo.
Soundtrack to our stay: I like to play music while I am cooking dinner and yipee, I found an ancient, dusty ghetto blaster with a basket of cassette tapes that mostly worked – remember those? Me mate was happy – what was on offer was Dire Straits ‘Sultans of Swing’ and the best of the Eagles and some homemade tapes that were an eclectic mix of Aussie rock, English punk and Dean Martin! On the road it was Vivaldi and Van Morrison.
Australia has over 500 National Parks and I have a long held desire to visit them all – this is
my ‘bucket list’ if you like, and I purposely booked our accommodation for this trip close to a National Park so that I could begin to tick off some I have never been to before. We started with New England National Park, but it could have been one of about 30 that we have in our region within a few hours drive of where I live in Mullumbimby.
A quick sketch of some of the National Parks of our region.
New England NP – all 673 square kilometres of it, is high up on the Great Dividing Range that runs like a backbone down the east coast of Australia, so every walk takes you up where the birds soar on down into valleys with rushing streams and cascading waterfalls – it’s magic.
New England National Park – why you should go
Welcome to country: This magnificent wilderness was once home to the Djungutti, Anaiwan and Gumbaynggirr Peoples. The Aboriginal name for Point Lookout Berngutta roughly translates as ‘prohibited area’ by virtue of its sacred character. It is home to the legend of the giant wombat that was feared by all and able to cause the earth to tremble and winds to sweep down the valleys. I acknowledge and honour the elders of this land and past custodians which was their country for more than 60,000 years.
The views: At 1560 metres above sea level there are many walks that take you to vantage points that look out over the Bellinger Valley and Dorrigo Rainforest and you can see for miles and miles. Start with Point Lookout – an easy stroll from the carpark which you can turn into a day walk if you have the time.
View from Point Lookout – watch out for the giant wombat
The country: This is a World Heritage Wilderness area with an ancient volcanic history – the last, about 18 million years ago. Its weathered basalt lava flows form an undulating landscape with precipitous cliffs and plateau edges that plunge into valleys of 500 million year old sedimentary rock that have been carved into densely forested peaks and ridges. Eagles Nest Track 2.5km takes in some of these features with lookouts and soaring rock faces.
The vegetation: Step back into a time when this wilderness area was part of Gondwana, the mighty southern land when Australia formed one land mass with Antarctica, parts of Asia, Africa and South America, and the ancient Antarctic Beech forests in this Park are a living reminder of its past geological history. Take the Cascade Walk(5.7km) to experience this ancient remnant forest with cascading waterfalls and amazing scenic views The Park contains a rich flora of over 1,000 species of plants in an interesting variety of plant communities – from cool temperate rainforest to more subtropical vegetation and mallee, swamp and heathland that put on a spectacular display in the springtime.
The paths are clearly marked with great information signs and maps and we did two circular walks from the car park of a couple of kilometres each. This is a Park where the rocks drip, the moss glows in the dark and lichen hangs in the trees like an old man’s beard.
Looking east over New England and Dorrigo National Parks towards the Pacific coast.
Perched high up where the eagles circle, we couldn’t see one building or any signs of human habitation, just undulating hills and treetops – it was like a green velvet cloak had been thrown over the land, and then something very special happened. We were walking through a mossy covered ridge line when I suddenly heard all the birds of the forest, one after the other calling, and I realised I was listening to a lyrebird mimicking its feathered forest friends. The naturalist David Attenborough has said that of all the creatures he has encountered in his long years of exploration, he considers the lyrebird to be one of the most remarkable. And then we saw it, and I stood transfixed as this male scurried about the forest floor, displaying his extensive vocal repertoire and fluffing up his magnificent tail feathers – his calling card to attract the female of the species. In all my years of walking in the bush I have often heard lyrebirds but never sen one before. I managed to capture some video footage – not fantastic quality for I was trying to stay hidden, but thrilling nevertheless.
TOP TIP: On the Point Lookout Road that goes into New England N.P., is the Dutton Trout Farm where we bought a really delicious pack of smoked trout fillets that had been seasoned with native bush pepper. You can take tours there but its also nice just to have a wander around.
Ahh, the romance of the grape. The end of day one of our cycling trip out of Bordeaux found us in the delightful old village of St Macaire which is steeped in the history of winemaking with cellars and wine stores on every corner. As we were wheeling our bikes up the cobbled street, in search of our hotel, we even encountered a bloke rolling a barrel of wine down the road – a first for me.
Our stopping place for the night was the charming Hotel Les Feuilles d’Acanthese (Leaves of the Acanthes) a restored 16th century wine cellar with pool and spa in the basement and very good restaurant. However, being Sunday, there was not much open when we arrived so we had a late lunch in the local Pizzeria that had lots of local dishes on the menu, including one of my favourites Gesier Salad – duck gizzard salad. (The first time I had this I had absolutely no idea what I was eating – I just knew it tasted damn good). And when I saw the spa, back at the hotel, I knew that things were really looking up and where I was going to spend the rest of the afternoon.
Dinner that night in the hotel restaurant did prove to be a treat and this is what I had; mille feuille de tomatoes – a flaky pastry tart with tomatoes, goats cheese and parmesan, followed by the chap on the left with his local sturgeon, lentils and baby carrots, then a delicious salted caramel tiramisu, all washed down with a crisp bottle of rose – yum.
Our comfortable room was part of the converted stone wine cellar with walls two feet thick, blocking out all noise. So, with all that pedalling, soaking, eating and drinking under my belt, I slept like a baby ready for the next day on the bike through the famous Graves and Sauterne vineyards.
The start of Day 2 proved to be a real challenge for we quickly realised that the route was not on the quiet bike tracks we were used to from previous cycling tours ; but instead found ourselves negotiating busy roads and motorways. We tried to be smart, taking various ‘shortcuts’ and detours. but ended up in a real pickle on the wrong side of a crash barrier with trucks and cars hurtling by. A traveller on foot, with an Eastern Rosella on his shoulder, came to our rescue and helped us negotiate the labyrinth of very dangerous roads and then kindly helped us lift our bikes over the barrier to safety. He was very surprised that I knew what his bird was and, in my halting French, explained that we too came from Australia and flocks of them were regular visitors to our garden. With a broad smile, exchange of pleasantries and a handshake we parted company. That’s one of the nicest things about these cycle trips – you never know what delightful chance encounters you may have.
The day improved as we travelled into the countryside of Premier Crux Sauterne with many chateaux dotted on the hillsides, charming villages and old churches, stopping for a while by the ruined castle of Budos (1306) amid the grape vines with the clouds gathering and crows soaring. Our route had become decidedly more rural and we had a few hours of stress free cycling through verdant vineyards with the late summer harvest ripening on the vine.
There was not much going on anywhere, but as we rode into the village car-park in Budos we were surprised to see a large group of pensioners, in a picnic shed, having a cook-up and drinking Ricard at ten o’clock in the morning. They started to wave their arms about and remonstrate with us about something we didn’t understand until we realised that we had cycled over their especially prepared gravel boule court – all marked out and ready to go! Quelle horreur.
On we cycled, through the villages of Sauterne, past its chateau and the imposing Chateau Yquem, Chateau Clos Haut Peyraguey, Chateau de Villandraut and Chateau Rayne Vignau – all normally open for wine tasting but closed on a Monday.
Nothing here would tell you that mind boggling wealth lurks amid the picturesque vine-laden slopes and hollows. The unprepossessing village of Sauternes has a wine shop where bottles of the celebrated Chateau d’Yquem 1990 gather dust on rickety shelves, next to hand written price tags demanding 500 euros for one bottle.
We were now coming out of farmland and into the forests of Landes de Gascogne, heading for our guesthouse in the village of Origne. This Regional Natural Park stretches from here to the coast and is another good reason for visiting Bordeaux and the Gironde – it’s very green and you can get away from it all in acres and acres of forest.
This forest covers over 10,000 square kilometres and is, what is known as Atlantic mixed forest – which is mostly maritime pine with oak, alder, beech and holly. Until the nineteenth century this was a vast swampy area and when struggling agriculture was abandoned and a massive reforestation programme was undertaken, draining the swamp and planting thousands of trees.
We were going to have a real contrast tonight after St Macaire, staying in a small guesthouse, La Maison Rose, with our hosts cooking dinner for us – we weren’t really sure what to expect but the ominous storm clouds made us hurry on to seek shelter and find out.
The Town Hall in the centre of sleepy Origne
I was expecting rustic sleepiness at La Maison Rose, but what we got was a very chic converted old house and our hosts Corinne and Gerard de Rochefort, of similar age to us, having made a tree/sea change from Paris with accompanying chic decor and comfort. Bonus, the place also has a swimming pool.
Blue hydrangeas were the theme in our room and, initially, I was a little disconcerted by all the guest signs dotted around our very comfortable suite. – an extra 20c for milk in my tea and slices of lemon indeed. It seemed that our stay was to be governed by a lot of rules and regulations and I was beginning to feel slightly uncomfortable – (would I remember to put a coaster under my water glass on the bedside table?). All this fell away when we appeared for dinner and met our hosts, and told by them that we were to take dinner en famille – with them in their gorgeous dining room, and started to swap mutual grandchildren stories with accompanying photos (what would we do without smart phones?). Lovely simple, home cooked dinner of jambon with melon and feta, lamb cutlets with rosemary and a platter of cheese with fresh peaches – perfect.
The dining room at Maison Rose laid for breakfast.
Early to bed, for tomorrow the adventure continues!
in 2015 we did a cycling trip from Innsbruck to Verona and it was so wonderful that we wanted to do the same kind of thing again, only somewhere different. We love the south-west of France and had glimpses of Bordeaux on a previous trip, vowing to return – the city and whole region is just so lovely. This was where our trip in August 2016 started.
How bad could cycling through the premier wine growing of France be with its chateaux, historic villages, the forests of Aquitaine to the seafood heavens of Arachon and Cap Ferret on the Atlantic coast – staying in comfort and eating and drinking some of the best food and wine you are going to get anywhere in the world?
First let me point out that we own no lycra, but after last years’ experience we did get some cycle touring shorts that have a kind of padded nappy insert – as me mate lovingly said “all ready for the nursing home Nanma”?
The companies that we organise these tours through take all of the stress out of the trip – you just have to turn up, get on the bike and pedal!
They organise: the bike – touring upright kind with panniers and basket,
Repair kit for the bike,
Book hotels in advance with choice of standard (we go 3-4 star – come on, I’ve been on a bloody bike all day),
Take your bags from hotel to hotel.
Provide you with comprehensive and detailed daily route maps that include places of interest, historical background and recommended restaurants and lunch stops.
Place de Bourse, Bordeaux where our trip began
DAY 1 Cadillac to St Macaire 50km 28th August 2016
We were then taken by taxi on the 30 minute journey to Cadillac where we spent the night at the lovely Chateau de la Tour Hotel which had the added bonus of an outdoor swimming pool and three acres of leafy grounds. Things got even better when we realised that the restaurant in the hotel had a pretty good reputation so we booked for dinner that night on the terrace – we were not disappointed. Unexpected delights like this, we have discovered, are one of the features of these cycling tours – you go to lots of places you have never been to before and probably never go to again – a real adventure, with fabulous food thrown in savouring the novelty of it all.
Medallion of pork with truffle oil potatoes & roast capsicum sauce
Cadillac has a lot to offer for a stopover – no pink American cars but an historic 15th century chateaux, 12th century church and cobbled market square. My luck was in because it was market day and a short stroll into the town from our hotel turned into a two hour culinary adventure.
Ah, the joys of a traditional French produce market – which I ate my way around and bought some pate de campagne from the butcher for our picnic the next day (he had four different homemade kinds). With that and some REAL bread and tomatoes we were all set.
Next day we set off bright and early on our bikes, which had been waiting for us in the grounds of the hotel, looking forward to our ride through the premier Bordeaux wine country. The weather forecast was promising a scorching hot day of over 36oC – which I was not looking forward to – my thermostat does not work too well these days, so we wanted to get the bulk of the ride out of the way before late morning.
The start of our adventure – outside the Cadillac Chateaux
We started out on a bike path along the lovely Garonne River and then headed into rolling vineyard country and past many small chateaux with wine tasting – just a tad bit early for us though – 8am on a Sunday morning.
Could see from the outset that this was going to be more of a walking/cycling trip – with my bung knee paining me and the heat I just couldn’t get up the hills and ended up walking a fair bit! What an absolute joy it was to be out here though – a great sense of freedom.
Arrived in the lovely village ofVERDELAIS, cycling through the beautifully proportioned town square lined with plane trees still dressed in their summer emerald green foliage. and stopped at the only place open for a coffee watching the locals turn up for Sunday morning mass in the 16th century basilica. I was drawn in when the choir began to sing with the congregation joining in – a moment of peace, joy and cool!The bell tower is topped by a magnificent gilded copper statue of the Virgin Mary, after whom the basilica is named – Notre Dame. I wondered, at the time, if this town was particularly devout as the church service was packed – not the half dozen elderly ladies you get in St Michael’s in Mullumbimby on a Sunday. I subsequently discovered that the church houses a famous shrine – a 14th century wooden statue of Our Lady of Verdelais, that is said to perform miracles and is on the pilgrim route through France. I also read of a ‘Black Virgin’ cult centred around this statue and the church – intriguing non?
Our short coffee stop got even more interesting. The small hole-in-the wall cafe, opposite the church, I am sure was just open on a Sunday to take advantage of the post service need for refreshments by the huge congregation for the rest of the place was as quiet as the grave. In fact, the cafe overlooked the village graveyard which snaked up the hillside and, mooching about, I was astonished to read, on a faded sign by the gate, that Toulouse Lautrec was buried there – the renowned Impressionist painter of can-can girls, famous singers, prostitutes and the cafes around Montmarte, Paris at the turn of the last century. As a teenager I loved his poster art and had a copy of the famous ‘Jane Avril’ on my bedroom wall – all that talent, dazzling paintings, debauchery and absinthe drinking – what was not to love for a nice girl from Brockley.
Lautrec was born in Verdelais and was living here in the family villa when he died of a stroke, aged 36, in 1901, after suffering years of alcoholism and venereal disease Its hard to believe that a recent painting of his sold for US22 million for his grave is unlovingly neglected and looks hardly visited.
Magnificent bell tower of the Basilica of Notre Dame in Verdelais topped with her gilded copper statue.
So after cycling through verdant vineyards, with this year’s vintage ripening on the vine, and after 50km or so, we finally cycled into the charming and historic village of St. Macaire to find our hotel, where we were met with our sight for the day – a man rolling a barrel of wine down the street! To be continued……..
Last year we did a cycling trip from Innsbruck to Verona and it was so wonderful that we wanted to do the same kind of thing again, only somewhere different. We love the south-west of France and had glimpses of Bordeaux on a previous trip, vowing to return – the city and whole region is just so lovely. This was where our trip this year started.
How bad could cycling through the premier wine growing of France be with its chateaux, historic villages, through the forests of Aquitaine to the seafood heavens of Arcachon and Cap Ferret on the Atlantic coast – staying in comfort and eating and drinking some of the best you can get along the way?
First let me point out that we own no lycra, but after last years’ experience we did get some cycle touring shorts that have a kind of padded nappy insert – as he said “all ready for the nursing home Nanma”?
The companies that we organise these tours through take all of the stress out of the trip – you just have to turn up, get on the bike and pedal! They organise: the bike – touring upright kind with panniers and basket, repair kit for the bike, helmet, book hotels in advance with choice of standard (we go 3-4 star – come on, I’ve been on a bloody bike all day), take your bags from hotel to hotel and provide you with comprehensive and detailed daily route maps that include places of interest, historical background and recommended restaurants.
If you have never been to Bordeaux – go! Fortunately we decided to have a two day break in Bordeaux before the cycle trip started – it’s wonderful!! Fifteen years ago was not the thing of wonder it is today. After an extreme makeover under mayor Alain Juppe (former French Prime Minister), Bordeaux was admitted to UNESCO’s World Heritage Register in 2007 and now shines in majestic splendour beside the Garonne River.
Place de Bourse
On that previous trip we had driven past Place de Bourse and thought wow! I have since read that it judged to be the most magnificent riverside squares anywhere in the world. My photo doesn’t do justice to it’s romantic grandeur. Beautiful pale limestone buildings surround three sides of the square that front the Garonne River – the lifeblood of this historic wine growing region – topped with grey slate moulded roofs. You would not be wrong in thinking that you could be in Paris because, if not designed by Baron Hussmann, then the style was certainly copied when Bordeux got a complete makeover in the 18th century banishing its grot to history.
Hotel Bordeaux with its award winning restaurant and the kind of clientele who double park their Ferraris and Lamborghinis right outside. Place de la Comedie. Unfortunately, this was not where we stayed – next time.
What also makes Bordeaux refreshingly lovely is that you can actually enjoy the place on foot for much of it, like Place de Bourse, is pedestrian only. They also have a fantastic network of cycle paths and terrific light rail – with no overhead wires – that connects all the transport hubs and stopped right outside our hotel in the centre of town at Place de Comedie – making it easy and inexpensive for us to get from the airport and around the rest of the city.
Grand Theatre de Bordeaux from 1780, Place de la Comedie. An astounding building of the Classical style, crowned by nine statues of the muses. Daily tours of the building only in July and August when there are no nightly performances. Make sure you do a tour or book yourself a performance ticket – the interior is breathtaking.
What to do with two days in Bordeaux?
1. First of all, stay in the historic city centre with walking distance to most places of interest. We stayed at Hotel du Normandie at the junction of Place de la Comedie and Quinconces (tram and bus stop). Housed in one of Bordeaux majestic 18th century buildings – most of the rooms are huge with soaring ceilings and windows – just make sure you ask for one of these on the side away from the tram stop! Or stay in one of the numerous other hotels in the city centre. Hotel du Normandie was chosen for us by the bike company, and very happy we were too.
View from my bedroom window, Hotel du Normandie
2. Take the hop-on, hop-off tourist bus. I’m a big fan of these for ‘getting the picture’ when you arrive in a city for the first time. The one in Bordeaux stops right outside the very good Tourist Information Office – handily located opposite our hotel with the audio on the bus giving a good background history. You can spend the whole day on there, if you want to, exploring places of interest on the way. They are inexpensive, with discounts for seniors and students, and usually last one or two days.
One of the entrances into the city from the riverfront of Quai Louis XVlll
3. Hire one of the bikes that you can pick-up from one of the many bike stations around the city, and take a trip along the Garonne River on one of the numerous signposted bike tracks that criss-cross the river. You can also take day cycling trips around some of the most famous chateaux and vineyards of the region.
The bar at the Grand Theatre
4. Go shopping, get a French haircut and stop for an aperitif on the way home. Rue St Catherine (pedestrian) has some fabulous shops, including Galleries Lafayette (Paris) where I managed to pick up a good, black, travelling frock (scarce as hens teeth in Mullumbimby) while waiting for a hair appointment – makes a girl happy. Me mate was equally content exploring the Aquitane Museum – Bordeaux archeological museum – which, he said, was really terrific. Stop on the way home for an aperitif on the gloriously romantic terrace of the Grand Theatre Bar and Restaurant and, well, just let your mind wander!
5. Bordeaux has 8,000 plus chateaux scattered among this famous wine growing region so taking one of the many themed tours that visit the premier vineyards is a must. It’s easy to book through the Tourist Office, or online in advance if it is busy time of the year. We missed out because it was August and we hadn’t pre-booked, but we would have gone for the afternoon/evening dinner tour that visited Chateaux Lafitte Rothschild and Margaux having dinner in the Historic village of St Emilion. We weren’t too disappointed though as we were going to be cycling through the Sauterne and Graves vineyards in a couple of days.
Timbale of fresh tomato, whipped light goats cheese and small pot of octopus salad with capers. My delicious entree at the Brasserie d’Orleans.
6. Dining out is a real pleasure in Bordeux. Ask your hotel to recommend somewhere off the tourist track that is authentic. Brasserie d’Orleans was certainly that on Esplanade Quinconces – one minute walk from our hotel. I was sold the minute we arrived by smiling, efficient waiters in white shirts, black ties and crisp aprons with a small but traditional menu that did not disappoint. (15-30 euros)
A LITTLE STORY: Me mate was busy trying to order a bottle of red wine amidst a lot of confusion – not understanding what grape varieties were on offer – with French wine you are expected to know that simply from the vineyard – we are not that smart. At this point the waiter brought over a bottle of wine from the sauve, silver haired gentleman at the next table, who had been listening to our conversation, with a “Monsieur Claude would like you to try his wine – he thinks you may alike it”. M. Claude was correct – we struck up a conversation and found out that Bordeaux was his home and, when not travelling, ate at Brasserie d’Orleans every night, as we subsequently did and then asking for a bottle of the ‘M. Claude’ when we ordered and every waiter knowing exactly what we meant. Got to love that!
Esplanade de Quinconces
End your evening out with a wander down this vast tree-lined esplanade to the lights twinkling along the Garonne River – the statues and fountains in this huge park are fantastic.
Day 5 Lake Garda to Verona 35 km
(Just realised I had better conclude the story of this trip because it is almost a year since we did it – wow, where did that go?)
Last day of our mammoth cycle ride and ONLY 35 km today. Was very glad that we had elected not to carry on to Venice because Italy was experiencing very hot unseasonal weather and they were expecting 40oC today after an exceptionally hot day yesterday.
Well, today nearly killed both of us (I wrote in my diary “I never want to see that bloody bike again”). Our morning route was quite pleasant that took us through rolling countryside with grapes, peaches, apricots and lots kiwifruit and what made it even more enjoyable was that we were away from the main roads for a few hours. We then caught our first sight of the Adige Valley and the approach to Verona.
It was very hot which was exacerbated by the fact that we were out in the sun for most of the afternoon, with very little shade, as the bike track came down out of rural Veneto to follow the Adige Canal into Verona – bitumen and concrete and no trees. Several times during the afternoon, found me lying down on a foot-wide piece of road-side verge, amongst all manner rubbish and some things I can’t bear to think about, in the shade, feeling quite nauseous and about to blow a gasket.
Our difficulty with the heat today was compounded today by the fact that the tireder we became, the busier the roads as we approached Verona, and we had to negotiate screaming autostradas via lengthy detours and underpasses. On top of this, when we finally got there,we discovered that our hotel in Verona was outside of the old town and could only be reached after traversing two motorways – we could see it’s multi-storey edifice like a beacon in the distance – but do you think we could work out how to get to it? Finally we made it to our room in the Hotel Leon D’Oro. I chucked my cycling shorts in the bin, had a shower, ordered room service and collapsed in bed for about twenty hours – Verona would have to wait. Fortunately we had booked an extra couple of nights before having to catch a flight back to Athens from Milan.
Verona – entering the old town through the Porta Nuova
So relieved to wake up and realise that we had made it and I didn’t have to; get our bags ready for forwarding to the next hotel by 8am, put on my cycling gear, eat another stale croissant that I had found in the bottom of my pannnier when I was starving and miles from anywhere and – more importantly, get back on the bike again and cycle the 75km to Venice – yeah!! Bonjourno Verona!
Although it was very hot again 38oC, we did our best to see as much as possible – starting out where my memories were kept and walked to the Arena, built by the Romans in1st century AD, and Piazza Bra where it was in full tourist and opera season. There is no room in the Arena building to house the lavish sets for each production so they are just kept out in the Piazza – like these props for the upcoming Aida concerts – fortunately it doesn’t rain much at this time of year! Verona is an art lovers paradise that rivals Venice – you just need the energy to explore it’s treasures.
We decided that taking the city tour bus was the best option on a day like today – and it was wonderful – we saw lots of parts of the city that I had never seen the first time around. Hopped off when we saw a trattoria that had big fans with vapour mists blowing over the diners – tops! An insalata caprese and Aperol Spritzer fortified us for the afternoon session on the bus – then a very long siesta before dinner.
We took a taxi late to the Duomo area – the loveliest part of the city I think. It was cool enough now to enjoy wandering around the beautiful cathedral and soak up the atmospheric back alleys and glorious buildings. Verona was just crawling with tourists and we wanted to find somewhere away from them, where the locals might go – so we headed for the Duomo ‘Slow Food’ restaurant Antica Osteria and were not disappointed. Me mate was happy because they served local wines (and he could ask for corposa – a red wine with the corpse in it) and I was happy because we had a lovely table outside in a gorgeous courtyard seated next to a Veronese family dressed in fabulous style and smelling divine – and that was just the men!
And so our wonderful journey had come to an end – would I do it again – of course!
“………Of course I should love to throw a toothbrush into a bag, and just go, quite vaguely, without any plans or even real destination. It is the Wanderlust. …………..”
The pressure was on today because we had to get to the ferry terminal at Riva del Garda by 1.45pm and had 50km to cycle. Situated at the northernmost tip of Lake Garda, we had to pick up the ferry from there to take us on a five hour boat trip on the lake to the southernmost port of Peschiera – and there was only one ferry a day so we couldn’t be late. Believe me, my little legs were peddling nineteen-to-the-dozen and I ended up being in a kind of daze for most of the morning, valley hugging the Adige River through fruit farms, vineyards and fields of maize.
Our first glimpse of Lake Garda
We set out early – very sad to leave Trento vowing to return one day, but it was a good job we did for today put many obstacles in our path by way of detours and wrong turns – one of which added another 12km to our journey.
I was getting seriously overheated as temperatures had risen today to above 35oC and we had several climbs before we could freewheel down to the lake – what a welcome sight that was.
Day 4 and I have finally managed to work out the gears on the bike, the saddle height and padding in the shorts to stop numb-bum and the trip finishes tomorrow!!
Everything changed today and we knew we were in Italy. Whenever we stopped on the bikes, looking lost, someone would come up to us and offer help – such a welcome change from the unfriendliness we had experienced on the first part of our trip. An old chap in the little village of Marco was typical. “Turn right by the machina bianco – go over the ponta and past the fabrica” and parted with a “how romantic, the two of you on bicycles”. At last I could understand a little of what everyone was saying (my father had been in Italy during the war, learned to speak Italian and spoke to us kids in Italian). How lovely is a smile and a friendly exchange when you are in a strange place – priceless!
Lake Garda suddenly appeared beneath us as the Dolomites parted – like a pot of gold at the end of a rainbow – we had an hour to make the ferry. Then the strangest thing happened. We could see the ferry port of Riva del Garda around the top of the lake to the north with boats chugging in and out but, no matter how hard we peddled, it seemed to get further away – it just never seemed to be getting any closer.
Finally, we dropped down to a bike track that skirted this Italian water-sport playground – it was such a lovely sight, with everyone, young and old, having fun on; surf kites, wind surfs, yachts large and small, peddle boats and stand-up boards. I spotted number plates on camper vans from every corner of Europe and, I could certainly see why they would make the journey here – it was fun and it was warm and there was water and a beach!
We made it – Riva del Garda
And we had time for a very welcome Aperol Spritz and handsome prosciutto, cheese and salad panini. We had discovered these very strange looking bright orange drinks in Trento (where they originate from) and they became our pre-dinner drink for the rest of our time in Europe – once tasted, there was no going back. They are made from Aperol vermouth (bitter orange, gentian and rhubarb) prosecco and mineral water with a slice of orange – tops.
Aperol Spritz – probably number 20 on Sifnos Island, Greece
Again, we would have liked more time to look around Riva which was full of fabulous medieval buildings with a beautiful water-ilned piazza but, we had a ferry to catch.
The last time I had been on Lake Garda was in 1990 (singing with Pavarotti!) and, while maintaining that charm and beauty I remembered from twenty-five years before, it was just incredibly busy. Traditionally the playground of wealthy Venetians, going back centuries, the shoreline is dotted with elegant villas, draped in scarlet bougainvillea, gardens punctuated with Lombardy cypress trees, and private moorings that sported classy motor cruisers that would probably cost more than my house – all shiny timber and sleek lines. I was waiting for George Clooney to come zooming past flashing a smile and an ad. for Nescafe.
There was so much to see that the five hours went in a flash – the fact that they served prosecco in real bubble flutes, albeit plastic ones, may have helped and I spent most of the time just gazing, dreaming and writing my diary. The lake is 50km long, mountainous in the north with reliable winds whistling down from the Dolomites with the accompanying choppy waters, to flat terrain and calmer waters in the south. Italians have been holidaying here since Roman times – and eating and drinking – the area is famous for its lakeside vineyards and fish restaurants.
Hotel Puccini in Peschiera turned out to be a rare dud – it definitely did not sing! We met other cyclists on the ferry heading for the same hotel and we turned up like the peloton on the Tour de France – equally as tired and hot as we were, only to be told that the pool closed in five minutes!! I was also looking forward to a swim before breakfast only to find out that it didn’t open until 10am. What is that? I thought hotel amenities were there for the convenience of hotel guests, not the staff. It was also the only place in three months that we were asked to pay for WiFi; there were no products in the bathroom, apart from one minuscule bar of soap that was like trying to lather up putty, and the fridge was totally empty – not even a bottle of water.
Fortunately Peschiera itself was another gem and well worth a visit. We were back in the land of oleanders, figs, potted geraniums and olive trees that skirted the lakeside esplanade as we walked from our hotel in search of dinner. We found a floating restaurant that was just gorgeous. One of the bonuses of being Europe in summertime are the long days – it doesn’t get dark until after 10pm at night and people eat late, enjoying the long twilight and balmy evenings.
NOTE: While I go for the prosecco and pinot gris, me mate always drinks red wine and, having zero Italian, was having a bit of difficulty explaining to waitstaff that he likes a full-bodied, robust wine. Paolo, our very nice young waiter in Peschiera, gave hime a good tip – he told him that should ask for corposa – which literally means having the corpse in it!!
Even after a few corpses, he still managed to get back on the bike the next day for our final run to Verona.
Bolzano turned out to be another gem of a place – just lovely. Our Hotel Scala was great and, hallelujah, had a pool – just what I needed to straighten out the body after a day in the saddle. So while Michael went off to the museum to check out ORTZI – the Ice Age Man, I spent a happy couple of hours chuckling to Bill Bryson’s Neither Here Nor There eating a stale croissant, that I found in the bottom of my pannier, with a cup of hotel room tea; Sunday means that you needn’t bother to feel hungry or thirsty in this hotel because everything was closed.
We were really getting to love rocking up to all these towns we had never been to before and doing as much exploring as we could in the short space of time that we had available – it was a real adventure with the stress taken out; all the hotels were booked for us and the bags were transported every day and there was never a hitch in any of that. (UK company FreedomTreks).
Beautiful Bolzano, with its lovely central square lined with grand buildings, is the largest city in the South Tyrol where, once again, you are in Italy, still but it feels very Austrian. For a large University town it was remarkably quiet – that Sunday thing again, and we were beginning to despair of finding anywhere decent to eat. That’s when we noticed a boutique hotel with a roof-top garden restaurant that was open and, although we were the only customers, the nice young man who served us couldn’t have been more helpful. So with a glass of prosecco in one hand and a forkful of very good lasagne in the other we suddenly felt that, at last, we had arrived in Italy. That was after the capriosca and insalata caprese and, with all thoughts of endless pedalling quickly fading we settled on our rooftop to watch the sun setting over Bolzano with full moon rising over the mountains.
The next day we set off after breakfast destined for Trento on what was supposed to be a mammoth day of riding – 75 km, but we had already decided that this would be a little too much for us and took the train option for part of it – what a smart move! It meant that we could ride the scenic bits and avoid the not so pleasant parts that followed the autostrada – remember that this is the main route into Italy from the north, and the traffic on these large roads was horrendous.
Our 40km of cycling today took us through mile after mile of luscious scenery; grapes ripening in vineyards; fertile river valleys edged with mountains, and lovely Lake Caldaro where we were very tempted to go for a swim. As we had cozzies, but no towels, we thought we would try our luck and cycled into the rather grand, but very Austrian, lakeside Park Hotel to enquire about hiring some towels and a bit of lunch. We were met by the frosty receptionist in the whole Heidi outfit – dirndl skirt, white blouse and black velvet waistcoat – she even had her hair in bunches and very rosy cheeks! She informed us that it was verboten to swim in the lake without first paying 45 euros each for a days’ ‘Wellness Ticket’ (about A$80 each). Well, we din’t feel at all well as we wearily pushed our bikes back up the driveway and onto the road again.
The unfriendliness we had encountered over the past couple of days continued on the bike track and, to us, it was very strange. The lycra brigade would come hurtling past us, without ringing their bells, and just shout abuse at us. One chap even gave Michael a shove as he was going past – nearly knocking him flying. I asked my Mullumbimby Austrian friend about this the other day and he said that we were probably breaking some rule that we didn’t know about – written or unwritten – I suspect we were just going too slow!. Anyway, this all seemed to suddenly change as we headed towards Trento with more Italian cyclists coming the other way – people started to give us a friendly wave or a thumbs up – a couple even said ‘bravo’. I also noticed that the high wire fences we had seen around all the orchards and vineyards, had suddenly gone and an open rural landscape stretched out before us in all its glory.
The last part was easy because we were on the train. The only difficulty was that the stations didn’t have lifts and we had to carry the bikes up and down several flights of stairs AND the bike carriage at the back of the train had a steep three stairs up to it – that’s when I tore a muscle in my shoulder trying to hurl the bike up. Don’t ask me why you would have a specific carriage for bikes on trains and not be able to access them easily – the automatic doors didn’t help either – the bruises lasted for months! And then we arrived in Trento – what a gorgeous place!!
Anyway, there we were, finally wheeling our bikes from the train station through Piazza Dante, centred around the most marvellous statue to its namesake, on our way to the Grand Hotel Trento – and very grand it was – we thought we were in the wrong place. After a quick wash in our marble bathroom we were ready to explore yet another new place and, I can tell you, we were in for a treat. Trento is stunning – a feast for your eyes: cobbled streets, lace ironwork balconies, frescoed villas, shuttered windows, and then the Piazza del Duomo – the cathedral square, which was surrounded by wonderful buildings and a fantastic baroque fountain of Neptune playing in the centre.
Standing on the steps of the cathedral, as I looked around, the mountaintops of the Dolomites formed a backdrop visible above the rooftops in every direction – just breathtaking. To top it off, an arts festival was in full swing and the streets were full of flowers and public art.
NOTE: Our daughter, Francesca, subsequently told me that on her first European travels, twenty years previously, that Trento had been her favourite place and that she and her partner had tried to get work and stay there.
Dotted around the Piazza were very enticing looking eateries – just deciding which one caused a bit of a marital hiccup, but we (I) settled on Scrigno del Duomo (the bread looked good and the waiters were cute) – and we were both very glad we did because we had a most memorable meal. Trento is in the heart of prosecco country so we started off with the waiter’s recommendation and a delicious roasted octopus salad on a potato and tarragon salad with a passionfruit sauce – sounds weird, but it worked.
This was followed by for me by a homemade fettuccine with a veal ragout and Michael had a very good pea and prawn risotto – the bread was very good too. We wandered back to our grand hotel and thankfully slept like logs because tomorrow was going to be a real test – Lake Garda or bust!
NOTE: Cleaners throw out art installation because they think it’s rubbish. This happened at the Bolzano Museum just after we were there. An artist had set up a room depicting the excesses of the 1980’s – a room after a very wild party; full of bottles, glasses, overflowing ashtrays, streamers, balloons – except they forgot to tell the cleaners and they binned the whole lot. I would love to have been a fly on the wall and wonder what they would have thought of Tracy Emin’s unmade bed?