San Marino

San Marino

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On this day we planned to spend the morning exploring San Marino before heading off down for our next night in Bologna.

The breakfast in the hotel was nice, if limited in choice. There was a decent selection of fruits, cereals, pastries and breads and all of them were nicely fresh and being consumed fairly rapidly. We checked out of the hotel and wheeled our one suitcase uphill to the car, and then we continued uphill to have a pop at the Three Towers of San Marino that sit right on the cliff edge at the top of Monte Titano. The towers are accessed by walking uphill along the main street. Kas had been out for a somewhat challenging run first thing, and sort of knew what to expect in terms of terrain.

After the last switchback you exit the permanent buildings and there’s a collection of temporary retail locations in wooden buildings alongside the path up to the first tower. Our eyes got hijacked by a nice collection of leather goods and ultimately we all ended up buying a new wallet/purse apart from Izzy, who never keeps hold of money long enough to need a purse.

The old wallet had to be opened at the first tower (Guaita) to pay a nominal entry fee. It’s well worth the time and the money to go into this one. The views are spectacular and the climb to the highest part is quite entertaining, including a dodgy little bit of ladder up through a trap door. We walked the length and breadth of this fortress before deciding to move on. Second up is Cesta tower, which is on the highest point of the mountain. We decided not to go inside this one but we did muck about a bit doing a couple of geocaches.

The walk on to the third tower (Montale) is an unpaved path through trees, and it is somewhat less trodden than the paths around the first two towers. There’s not a lot at Montale as it’s basically just a single tower. When we got to it, we discovered that it doesn’t even have a door, or at least it doesn’t have one at ground level. There’s one about a dozen feet up that would require a ladder to get to. I guess that’s the point.

After completing the three towers we took a leisurely stroll back and grabbed a drink on the way back past where we’d parked the car. From here we descended a couple of flights of steps onto a quite broad road. There was supposedly an earthcache there, but on reading the description on the GPS it turned out that the earthcache has a half a dozen waypoints to visit, half of which were back up at the top of the mountain. As we’d not collected the requisite information I decided to leave that one. So we just walked along the flat until we reached the very far end, passing through San Marino’s rather compact government district.

When we ran out of town, there was a geocache in the wall of an old fortified gate, which was found easily enough. From here we returned to the government district and climbed upwards towards the Basilica and the Palazzo Pubblico. Further climbing got us to the upper end of the cable car and then eventually to the top of the main street where we’d started off first thing in the morning. There were still two restaurants up there, and we went into the one that wasn’t the one we’d been in the previous evening. And today we also didn’t have any chips with our drinks. They must have been someone else’s.

After all this walking we made one final trip to the umm-ing and ahh-ing shop near the hotel, and essentially bought one of everything. The girls both more or less emptied their wallets buying Lord of the Rings branded (and also some locally made) jewellery. And while we were at it, some more of those were purchased as Christmas presents. That particular shop must have loved us.

Back at the car, Kas volunteered to drive. After one hair raising moment driving into something that appeared to be pedestrianised but actually wasn’t, we found ourselves on the dual carriageway that snakes down the base of the mountain into Italy. A little way past the border we took a short diversion to complete a geocache in the Province of Rimini. After joining the motorway towards Bologna similarly short stops were made in the provinces of Forlì-Cesena and Ravenna before we arrived on the outskirts of Bologna.

Violet managed to get us to the hotel painlessly, but the same can’t be said of the hotel’s car park. The entrance off the main road felt very small and at the end of it there was a tight turn down a steep ramp into an underground park. We had to call reception to get them to open the doors to the garage, and space inside was a bit tight.

The hotel in question was the very modestly named Grand Hotel Elite, which is on the outskirts of the city centre about 2km from the famous Two Towers. Our room was ready for us and was suitably large, but had been prepared only for three people not four, so we were short one set of bedding and one towel. The room itself was pretty big, containing a double bed in one half and a sofabed plus extra mattress in the other half. It also had an entrance hall with a kitchen area and bathroom. And finally it had a lot of wood. I think this was the “Grand” part of the name. everywhere in the room was floor to ceiling wood panels, which were quite dark and probably made the room look half the size that it actually was. It’s a design feature of the place, I guess. It took multiple attempts to get them to bring up the necessary bedding and towels though.

One of the reasons for coming to Bologna was that Izzy wanted to eat spaghetti bolognese, that well known non-Italian dish. Surely it couldn’t be too far to find a restaurant that served it. The hotel seemed, though, to be in a restaurant-free area. We ended up walking quite some way towards the town centre before finding a restaurant that looked tolerable – the Restaurante Ma Gusta, close to Porta San Felice. The kids both had tagliatelle alla bolognese. I had an escalope which had “bolognese” in the name, but it wasn’t a meat-based tomato sauce. Kas went a bit off-piste and ordered something that didn’t have “bolognese” in the name. The restaurant had good beer too, and puddings.

Kas was suffering a bit after damaging an ankle while running in the morning, so she wanted to head straight back after dinner. So there we were. The end of our eleventh day in Italy. At least when we got back to the hotel room they’d finally brought us some extra bed sheets and towels.


Urbino

Urbino

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Time to move on again after three nights in Florence. Our willingness to leave was enhanced by another distinctly average breakfast at the hotel, and we were fairly happy to get out of the place at mid-morning. I guess there wasn’t anything especially wrong, it just wasn’t what we were expecting for the price and it was distinctly average compared to at least two of the previous stops. Never mind. All done and dusted. Onwards and upwards, quite literally in the case of this day. We were heading for the Republic of San Marino.

There’s no quick way of getting there from Florence. If you want motorways you have to drive all the way up to Bologna and then back down again to Rimini to access the only dual carriageway that enters the tiny republic. That seemed like a long way around and we fancied exploring a bit (well, technically I suppose, I fancied colouring in a few more provinces by finding a single geocache), so that’s what we did. We left Florence on the A1 heading south towards Arezzo and then headed east towards Citta di Castello. On the way between those two towns I’d found two roadside geocaches within half a mile but either side of a provincial border, so that accounted for the provinces of Arezzo and Perugia. Doing one in Perugia also meant colouring in the region of Umbria, which certainly wasn’t on my original plans. Anyway, both were easy finds.

I’d planned to colour in the Province of Pesaro and Urbino on a mountain pass just as we entered the province, but that opportunity was denied to us by some roadworks which had closed that entire stretch of road over the mountains. We therefore had to divert south by 10 miles or so to the next road down. This one was wiggly and winding, and rather sadly I found myself behind a large lorry just as we started climbing. The road was not wide enough to get past, so we drove for what seemed like an eternity behind this lorry all the way, in fact, to the town of Urbania, which is where we’d have ended up if we hadn’t had to make the diversion. It was scenic, but very slow going.

Thankfully the lorry ducked out somewhere near Urbania and we were free to accelerate all the way up to the 70km/hr speed limit, or sometimes even 90km/hr. It wasn’t a great set of roads, but I guess we weren’t in any particular hurry. In our sights we had the World Heritage Site of Urbino. We found it relatively easily and parked up in what my GPS was telling me was a big parking area. It was indeed a big parking area, and it was also underground.

The amount of time we’d spent in the car meant we immediately needed drinks and a toilet, as you do, so we popped into a little cafe on the town square where we’d parked and sat outside staring in amazement at the bottom of the Palazzo Ducale. It looked well worth the walk up the hill. We decided that Urbino would be today’s “place”, and hence we’d spend 2-3 hours wandering around before continuing on to San Marino.

We started off by walking straight up the steps towards a beautiful overlook under the palace. There was a geocache there too (Province of Pesaro and Urbino – tick) and then we climbed a couple of ramps into the rather lovely piazza next to the cathedral. From here we ventured a little further east and then northwards towards an old fortified entry gate (with prison cell included) which housed another geocache. And from there we headed back south and west again until we ended up at the Piazza della Repubblica, from where we walked directly back downhill to the car park. Most of central Urbino is traffic free, partly, I assume, because most of the roads aren’t wide enough for cars anyway. It’s also a university town, and students tend to like the whole traffic free thing. It stops them from getting run over when they’re staggering home drunk in the middle of the night. There, that’s my daily quota of horrendous stereotyping done with. I feel better for that.

Back at the plot, though, central Urbino is mainly traffic free apart from a couple of main streets, and a lot of the roads (or paths) are incredibly steep. In many cases, buildings bridge over the top of the paths, or at least form very narrow canyons. There’s not a lot of greenery around, but it doesn’t really need it, and the locals seem to do a good job of keeping everything neat and tidy. Also, most of the buildings are faced in brick rather than being rendered, which avoids the typical Italian medieval scene of coloured walls with big chunks of exposed blockwork beneath.

So all in all, Urbino is a very worthwhile stop for an afternoon. Had we not already booked all the hotels we might well have stayed here longer and moved on to San Marino a day later.

Talking of moving on, we found a fuel station and then spent absolutely flippin’ ages trying to figure out how to make the pumps work, before heading off in a vaguely northerly direction towards San Marino. Our route was going to take us over some minor roads and in through the “back door”, as it were. By “minor roads”, I mean “unpaved” in a couple of parts, but we figured if the geezer coming the other way in the RV could get through then so could we. It was rather twisty to say the least. At the crests of a couple of the hills, though, it became very apparent where we were heading to. It’s difficult to explain quite how much Monte Titano stands out from the surroundings, especially when viewed from the side, but from about 15km away you’re very aware that there’s a city on a mountain approaching.

The back door into San Marino was very much that, and we found ourselves approaching the City from the south side. Before we knew it we were winding our way up narrow street with multiple switchbacks and trying to guess where on earth we ought to park. I thought I’d read somewhere that the hotel said to park in Car Park 6 or 7, but we didn’t really know how to get to those. After one switchback we seemed to be driving up to the end of the road. There was a car park at the top so we resolved to pull up and call the hotel to ask them. The car park had some spaces and the hotel answered their phone immediately. I explained to the receptionist that I didn’t know which car park we were in but I could see a sign on the rock reading “Piazzale Cava Antica”, to which she replied that we’d magically found our way into Car Park 6, and that was the best one for accessing the hotel. Magic. Off we go then, having first established that she could sell me daily parking permits that were half the listed price at the car park.

The hotel in question was La Grotta, and it proved to be a small but perfectly formed affair. I think it only has about 15 rooms, but crucially for us, a couple of them could sleep four people. We’d sort of arranged our luggage the previous day so that we only had to carry one suitcase and the day bags into this hotel. The other three suitcases stayed in the car, so we were able to get checked straight in and the girls went up to check out the room while I ran back up the hill to put a parking ticket in the car.

It was still relatively early in the evening – about 5pm I think – so we had a quick wash and went out for a walk. It was immediately apparent that the City of San Marino doesn’t have many flat parts. It’s all either uphill or downhill, and in most cases it’s fairly steeply uphill or downhill. We opted for uphill, in the general direction of the top, but got distracted somewhat by shopping. On entering a couple of the shops the kids were delighted to discover that the lack of a local sales tax means that San Marino is actually pretty cheap to shop in, at least for souvenirs and luxury goods. Both kids also got very engaged by one shop really close to the hotel which sold an array of jewellery and stationary goods on the themes of Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter. Lots of umm-ing and ahh-ing was done before we left that shop.

The street up to the top of the hill is almost all restaurants and souvenir shops, as you’d expect, but when you do get to the top there’s a couple of cafes that have views which are rather dramatic. We felt obliged to sit at one of them and have a beer (or soft drink, depending on the person). We were also a bit peckish, but we definitely didn’t order a bowl of chips and we definitely didn’t eat them when they didn’t arrive. No, you must be thinking of someone else. Cough !

After we’d finished not eating any chips we decided we’d got time to go for a quick clean up before going out for dinner. On the way back down the hill we went into the umm-ing and ahh-ing shop again. Izzy had broken her rucksack, so we got her a new one (Harry Potter), because she was going to need it for school anyway, and we didn’t want her to have to lug stuff around in a broken rucksack for six more days.

The hotel recommended a restaurant which was a little way back up the main street / mountainside ( * delete as appropriate ) and which had a terrace view looking out over the northwest (downhill) side. Well, to be honest, if it was facing the south-eastern side it wouldn’t be a terrace, it would be a cave, but that’s by the by. The view was pretty impressive and we sat there watching the sun go down whilst gorging ourselves on a selection of local dishes. Izzy discovered the seemingly popular local delicacy of the chip pizza. We would also have gone for a pudding, but the staff seemed somehow reluctant to offer us any, so eventually we just went up to the desk to pay and left. Never mind, I’m sure there’ll be other places that have puddings later in the holiday.

And that was the end of that day. In summary, San Marino is beautiful in a way we were more or less expecting. Urbino is beautiful in a very unexpected way, and the day ended with us feeling like our decision to take that particular driving route had been a very good one.


Florence Again

Florence Again

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You will have to forgive a certain lack of enthusiasm that may be apparent in my tone whilst typing this post. Everywhere else we stayed on the trip we’d assumed that one full day in a city would be enough for us to “do” the important bits before moving on. This had proven to be the case in Milan a week previously, where we’d planned two but got done in one and went to Bergamo the following day instead. For some reason we held on to the belief that two days would be needed to see Florence. Maybe it was the heat getting the better of us, or maybe the crowds, but by mid-afternoon we’d had enough again.

Back at the start of the day, we had a full crack at breakfast, arriving at 8:30am, but somehow it was better the previous day when we only had 20 minutes. The hotel split the breakfast room into two sections, one for bus tours and one for everyone else. As there were loads of people on bus tours their buffet was getting lots of focus and was kept pretty fresh by the rapid turnover. Ours was a somewhat stale affair of dry bread, limited fruit and overcooked eggs. This was definitely the worst breakfast so far.

We caught a bus downtown at about 10am and made our way to the ticket office for the cathedral. We managed to obtain tickets for the cathedral, bell tower and baptistery. We couldn’t get tickets for the cathedral dome, because those apparently sell out months in advance. Did I mention it was hot ? A sign outside a pharmacy we passed was reading 41°C.

So first of all we walked into and sat in the baptistery. There was no queue to get in, although it was busy inside. We mainly sat and tried to photograph the walls and ceiling, which are rather ornately painted. It was difficult to get a good shot in the half light.

Next up we queued for 20 minutes to go up the bell tower. For me, this was probably the highlight of an average sort of day. It’s quite a long way up but the stairs weren’t too bad and at least it was in shade. At the top there’s a really good view aside from the chicken wire grade fencing they’ve put round to stop people throwing stuff off. This essentially means it’s nearly impossible to take good photos of the town from up the top.

When we got back down it was 12:55, so we decided to queue up for the opening of the cathedral at 1:30. By the time we got to the front door it was more like 2pm. And here we hit upon a bit of a problem. Apparently Kas was showing too much leg to be let in. The same rule didn’t apply to either of the kids, and nor, seemingly, did it apply to most of the other women entering the building, but it applied to Kas and she couldn’t go in. Me and the girls therefore suddenly lost any interest in wandering round the place, so we did the necessary selfie with Uccello’s clock, as required by a virtual geocache, and then we went straight out again. From what little we saw, the inside of the cathedral has a highly decorative floor but otherwise is rather plain, certainly in comparison to other cathedrals we’d been into on this trip. No loss then, really.

Kas was fairly easy to find, and once we met up we decided to go and get something to eat. We sat in a small cafe nearby and had some over-priced sandwiches, drinks and ice cream whilst generally feeling a bit touristed-out. Izzy shopped for a few trinkets and then we had a less than enthusiastic walk back to the bus stop, consuming several bottles of cold water between us while we walked.

We were back in the hotel room by 4:15 and that’s where we stayed for a couple of hours while we cooled down and tried to get our mojo back. For dinner we went back to the Restaurant Aloisius. It was just as good, except this time we had to ask them for the silly liqueurs. And that was more or less it for Florence. I’m sure it’s really beautiful, but if I was going again I’d go in winter and in the middle of the week. I probably won’t go again though.


Florence

Florence

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Saturday. The mid-point of the trip, being the eighth of 16 days, and after a cunning bit of planning on our part, we found ourselves in one of a handful of locations in Italy that has a parkrun. The parkrun course was a mere kilometre or so from the hotel (also planned) and we walked down there after what was a very quick and rather disappointing breakfast at the hotel.

The parkrun itself was on the small side, with only about 35-40 competitors. The majority of those seemed to be British, as seems to be the case with these things in France and Italy, in our experience. The course was dead flat and involved a couple of loops on gravel or soil trails through wooded parkland. It was quite pretty but also fiercely hot. As the girls are both “of age” now, we let them run round together whilst Kas and me burned it at our best speed. The girls made friends with the daughter of one of the organisers who’d decided to run around for the first time, which just goes to show you.

After finishing the race Kas ran back round the course to find the kids and I started walking back around after having a breather. They took a while but they were enjoying it. Kas managed to find a tree root to trip over and hurt her ankle. Once we were all back at the finish line we grabbed some drinks and then retired to the nearby kiosk-cafe for some more drinks before walking back to the hotel wishing we’d put more suncream on.

We were all mucky and sweaty, so we decided to have a round of showers before going out again. It didn’t make much difference, because it was so hot we were sweating again almost immediately, but at least it meant we were un-smelly enough to be allowed onto the bus into town.

The bus into town was a bit slow but it got us eventually to the Porta al Prato bus and train station, from where we basically had to walk. We arrived there at about 12:30.

We didn’t really have much of a plan and the heat was definitely getting the better of us, but we kind of ambled towards the cathedral via the Basilica Santa Maria Novella, attempting a handful of geocaches on the way past. We weren’t able to obtain tickets for the cathedral or baptistery or bell tower that day because we were too late, so we skipped that and continued walking.

The highlight of the day was finding the Magnum Shop – basically a “your way” method of presenting the popular ice-cream-on-a-stick delicacy. You got to choose a flavour of ice cream, a flavour of chocolate coating, and then a handful of different sprinkles. The effect was good except that it didn’t freeze solid again quickly enough, so they were a bit messy to eat. Kas didn’t fancy an ice cream so she ordered a cappuccino instead. It turned out to be a rather ornate affair. It was a pleasant enough setting in which to pass half an hour anyway.

From here we walked our way down to the Palazzo Vecchio for a few more photos and then on to the Ponte Vecchio for a few more. Progress through the streets was very, very slow, partly because it was really busy and partly because it was really hot. So hot, in fact, that it was dragging us down really quickly. We headed back to the bus station for just after 4pm, having managed to wander round Florence for all of three and a half hours.

To be fair, though, we did have plans for the evening that involved being in the car by 5pm. Over the previous couple of days I’d noticed there was a geocaching event on the Saturday night in the small town of Montecatini Terme, about an hour away in the direction of Pisa. Well, Google says it’s an hour, but we actually did it in about 35 minutes. Anyway, back at the plot, a French family visiting the area had created a geocaching event and on the evening before they had got precisely zero “Will Attend” logs on it, so I messaged them to see if it was still going ahead and they said yes. Well, you have to, don’t you ? After all, it was a new cache type for us in Italy and it coloured in the Province of Pistoia too. It’s the second time we’ve been to a regular event whilst outside the UK on holiday, the previous one being three years previously in Albufeira (see Caching on the Beach).

Because it took us a lot less time than we expected to get there, we were able to have a quick drink in a cafe before heading up to the event location. We then spent five minutes or so playing spot-the-cacher whilst sitting 40 metres away, but the family in question were very easy to spot. I sidled over and waved my GPS at them and got instant recognition. Thankfully they spoke really good English. Given that I’m the only one of the four of us that has anything more than a basic grasp of French it would have been a struggle if they didn’t. Not that the kids really paid any attention anyway. We had a nice long chat about all things geocaching, and got an invite to go visit them in their native Ardennes next year. That works for me, because their home department is the only one in the north-east of France that I haven’t been caching in, and there are plenty of caches there to be going at. Many of those caches belong to the family in question.

After we split up we dived into the first available restaurant to grab some dinner. It had been a long day again and we hadn’t really eaten much other than ice cream during the day, so we were ready for some proper food. We had to wait a while to get served because it seemed that the evening staff had only just arrived and were engaged in a pre-evening pep talk, which seemed a bit strange. Once we did get served, we ordered a platter of mixed starters and then burger, focaccia, Caesar salad and risotto, all of which were very nice. There was some beer involved too, at least for me. Kas had volunteered to drive home.

The drive back home was uneventful, and when we got there Kas wanted to get straight to bed. I thought I’d spend a bit of time finishing off caching logs for the day, so the girls and me went down to the bar, but rather unfortunately almost as soon as I’d got the PC connected to the wi-fi the battery ran out. I’d left it switched on and unplugged while we were out. So that was the end of that. We spent about 20 minutes down in the lobby bar and then had to give up and go to bed.