LAKE COMO, ITALY

Lake Como has always been a fashionable resort but never so much as now when its permanent residents include George Clooney and his wife, Amal Alamuddin Clooney.  Before this, the most famous residents were probably, Pliney the Elder and Pliney the Younger.  And the Italian Lakes, of which Como is but one, offers visitors some of the most beautiful scenery in Italy.

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Como by Night – ©IProvincia di Como – Settore Turismo.

I can see why the Clooneys chose to make Como their home.  Apart from the beauty of its setting – green hills running down to the blue waters of the villa-rimmed lake, just yards from the historic centre, it has the charm of a small town while actually being a large city, a city that has easy access to mountain walks, ski-slopes and plateau parks.   It has excellent transport connections (30 minutes to Milan by train), just a few miles from the Swiss border, and ferries and buses service the lake front.

Como's Old Walls
The City Walls of Como with Gateway

Because of its lake, it is often overlooked that Como is actually a walled city and around which can be found a huge daily market selling everything from leather bags to lentils.

 

 

Market under old walls in Como
Market Beneath the City Walls

 

 

As in any large Italian town, the most important sight is the Duomo, an imposing cathedral built over a period of several centuries, from 1396-1740,  Although the façade dates from the 15th century and the dome was designed in the 18th century, the main influences are chiefly Renaissance and Gothic.

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The Duomo, Como

Having seen the Duomo, and it is worth seeing, there are many more churches, museums, architectural gems to check out, too many to list all here, but I would especially recommend the Boletto, the unusual striped-marble building which stands next to the Duomo and which is Como’s 13th century town hall, the 10th century Basilica di San Fedele and the Porta Vittoria, the tall stone gateway defending the old town walls.

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Piazza san Fedele, Como.  © Provincia di Como – Settore Turismo.

Readers of Battery Connections (marketed by publisher Don Cleary) should head for The Tempio Voltiano where they can spend many happy hours browsing the exhibits.  This unusual Museum is dedicated to Alessandro Volta, after whom the volt was named, and contains much of his working equipment – a truly unique place.

Duomo, Como, Italy

Como is known for its grand buildings, like 18th-century Villa Olmo,

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Villa Olmo – © Provincia di Como – Settore Turismo.

Villa del Grumello, and Villa Sucota on the waterfront and, of course, the long-established, elegant resort of Bellagio, the small village between the two southern branches of Lake Como with a population of only 200.  It’s an excellent place to spend a relaxing day, with gardens, lovely views, upmarket boutiques, lots of restaurants and bars.  But be warned, it is probably the most expensive spot along the lakes!

Como

But sight-seeing can be hard on the feet and that’s where the boat trip comes in.  The regular service of Navigazione Lago di Como steamboat company will take you around the lake, with stop-offs at Cernobbio, Moltrasio, Torno and Blevio.  Cernobbio is a charming tourist resort on the shores of the lake and along its banks, there are some beautiful villas, including Villa d’Este and Villa Erba, Villa Bernasconi and Villa Pizzo.  The two to see are Villa Erba and Villa d’Este, the former an architectural gem built at the end of the nineteenth century and today important as an exhibition centre, the latter now the famous luxury hotel of world renown.

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But my favourite is always to head for the mountains where possible, and all along the lakes, this is very possible.  In Como, the funicular railway that opened in 1894, is in Piazza De Gasperi and you can’t miss it.  It is a red, half-timbered house with carved woodwork trimmings: once through the gate, you are faced with a platform with one of the steepest inclines I’ve ever seen.

Funicular
Entrance to Funiculare – ©  Provincia di Como – Settore Turismo.

Tourist by Funicular

The cable-car is listed as ‘unmanned’ but fear not. this just means that the operator doesn’t actually ride on the car but is still in control over the external engine that drives it.  The Funicular ascends through a tunnel that gives way to an open line above ground. Halfway up you meet an identical car coming down.

The Liberty-style houses on top of the hill, 750 metres above Como, are mainly summer homes for wealthy families fleeing from the heat of north Italian cities. During the winter months, when a thick carpet of snow covers the mountains, there are few permanent residents.  There is a restaurant and a café, plus a souvenir shop but you won’t have come here to shop but to take in the views which are stunning.  On a clear day you can see the lake, the city of Como and the outline of its historic centre, the antique Roman castrum, neighbouring towns Tavernola and Cernobbio, the Alps and the Brianza plain.

Above mosaic of pictures taken from the viewpoint at Brunate.

Once you’ve admired the views and stocked up with water, there are quite a few hiking trails around Brunate.  A popular one is a 30-minute hike to the Volta Lighthouse, and the trails are well sigh-posted.

On the return journey, you will find most people crowding the front cabins to take selfies as they make the steep descent.  I think it’s better not to fight for space and just to enjoy the trip and the magnificent views.

And at the end of the day, I decided this was the most enjoyable thing I had done in Como – and that included the two ice-creams I’d had!

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The Italian Lakes, Maggiore, Como & Orta

When Queen Victoria travelled to The Italian Lakes in 1879 it took four four days to reach Lake Maggiore, where she stayed at the magnificent Villa Clara.  I visited the Lakes a few weeks ago and it took me just three hours from London to my hotel in the same town of Stresa, on Lake Maggiore.

The Queen had to journey from London to Portsmouth, then cross to Cherbourg by boat where she boarded the 9-carriage Royal train which was waiting for her, on to Paris for an overnight at the British Embassy before travelling to Stresa by yet another train.  I flew from Heathrow, a two-hour trip over the Italian Alps, snow glinting in the early morning light, de-planed in Milan and then a quick one-hour run through to Stresa.

Once again, I think how lucky I am to live in this century.

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The Italian Lakes didn’t become part of the Grand Tour until the 19th century.  In the 17th and 18th centuries, this traditional trip to Europe was mainly a search for the roots of Western civilization through the Greeks and Romans, and served as a rite of passage for the British nobility and landed gentry, artists or the literati who could find a sponsor, and a few women – usually widows of sufficient means

The New York Times in 2008 described the Grand Tour as something that could last from several months to several years.

The Queen couldn’t spare such a long time and I couldn’t afford it.

 

In my eight days, however, I did manage to cover a lot of ground, taking in the area of Lake Maggiore and the town of Stresa, enjoying meals along the lakefront, taking the cable-car to the peak of nearby Monte Mottorone – a natural balcony offering magnificent views over the Alps and lakes – walking the trails and delighting in the views from the 1,492 metres high plateau; taking a boat to the stunning Isola Bella (I won’t translate as it is much too prosaic) and wandering through the gardens of the 17th century Borromeo Palace; a day spent at Lake Como where I rode the Funicular Railway to Brunate, enjoying stunning views and an incredible panorama over Como which lay 500 metres below, and the surrounding larch covered hillsides; a day spent in Medieval San Giulio on Lake Orta where I visited another small island where The Silent Walk around a Convent allowed time to appreciate the beauty of the place: a day at Locarno, a Swiss town on the Italian/Swiss border; and a day in Zermatt where the highlight of my visit was the trip on the funicular to the top of the Rothorn from where I had a spectacular view of the Matterhorn, sadly not covered in snow, but there were plenty of snow-covered mountains around me.

 

 

If I add my Italian Lakes experiences to my travels around Italy I guess I can say I’ve completed my own Grand Tour which has included plenty of Roman and Greek remains from Rome to Ragusa.

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I’m still in that post-holiday mood that makes me just want to look at my photographs and read the many guidebooks I bought, but I’ll get around to posting about the individual lakes soon.   With any luck I should manage to link on to this post today.

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CIVITA: A ‘dying village’ born again

Another lazy Sunday afternoon, thinking I should be gardening, blogging or doing something more useful, and then I opened The Observer, my Sunday paper of choice, to find a picture of a village I’d visited back in 2004, and I shot awake.

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The village was Civita di Bagnoregio and there was a whole page article (well, almost a whole page) about the place which, when we’d been there was deserted, save for a few cats and the charming owner of a small, inky-dark, Bodega into which we’d wandered.  It was June and there were blazing logs in the open fireplace.  Deserted wasn’t the word to describe the village.  It was the sort of place you felt you would want to leave come sundown as ghosts seemed to haunt its medieval streets.

What has brought about the article in today’s paper is the fact that Civita has become the first area in Italy to charge tourists for visiting.  Venice, where marches against tourism are a regular event, may care to take a lesson from the Mayor, Francesco Bigiotti, who made the decision to charge visitors for accessing the footbridge to the town in 2013 when the charge was 1.50 Euros, raised to 3 Euros this year with 5 Euros on Sundays.

Not only does this small fee enable the mayor to monitor the numbers entering the hamlet, it has also meant that communal taxes have been abolished in Civita and nearby Bagnoregio (pop.3,650) of which he is also Mayor, but it has provided much-needed employment.  In fact, the town has zero unemployment now.  Four hundred jobs have been created via two hundred new tourism-linked businesses that have emerged in the past few years.  And there’s more: there is now transport for disabled local people and an improved health service.  With an estimated 850 visitors due this year, the charge has obviously not had a detrimental effect on tourism.

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Back in 2004, our party of nine people had been staying at a nearby agriturismo farmhouse in Aquapendiente in Italy’s Lazio region, and one of the places recommended for a visit with our hire car had been Civita.  There is no access for cars so visitors must be prepared for the walk across the sloping footbridge.  We’d visited Orvieto, Siena and other surrounding towns and this fascinating cobble-stoned village built high on a plateau of volcanic rock surrounded by steep ravines promised to be a complete contrast.

Lying approximately 74 miles north of Rome Civita was founded by the Etruscans nearly 2,500 years ago and its year-round population is only 10 people.   It was known as ‘the dying town’ due to floods, landslides and earthquakes that constantly threaten its survival.  In 2014 and 2015, some of the old properties plunged into the ravine when the sides of the outcrop on which they were built gave way.

Cappella-in-CitivaOnce at the top of the footbridge, you are faced with a huge stone gateway, the entrance, through which you arrive at the main Piazza which contains a 12th-century church with a bell tower.   Off this are meticulously maintained streets of old stone houses, some of which have now been turned into holiday homes.  At sunset the stones glow golden, softening the aspect of what could seem fortress-like.

I have no hesitation in recommending Civita as a perfect day-trip from any of the neighbouring towns, Siena, Orvieto, even Rome or Florence, if you have transport and are willing to hike up to the village, but remember, there is no post office, supermarket, chemist, doctor or hospital.

 

Road to CitivaThe site is under consideration to be given world heritage status by UNESCO and two important names from the world of cinema are backing this, Oscar-winning composer Ennio Morricone and director Bernardo Bertolucci.  But even if it is not successful, the outlook seems positive for Civita which will live once again, thanks to a tax on tourism.

Now, let’s see Venice do likewise.

Citiva 5

I acknowledge, with thanks, the information on the Mayor’s initiatives which I got from the article by Angela Giuffrida in The Observer of 20th August 2017, on p.21

The photographs are mine all dating from 2004.

 

 

A CRETAN VILLAGE WITH 2 MUSEUMS

Crete is the largest island in Greece, a place of dramatic mountain ranges and gorges dotted with ancient ruins and architecture from the medieval period onwards.  Known as the cradle of civilisation and the birthplace of Zeus, the island provides the backdrop for many of the Greek myths and legends we are familiar with.

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Throughout the mountains are scattered hamlets and villages and high in the dramatic White Mountains not far from Chania, lies the village of Therissos, which has not just one, but two museums.  One would be unusual in a place of this size (pop. just over 100) but to find two is extraordinary.

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The Modern Resistance Museum

I visited the village two years ago when I was staying at Malarme on the coast, mainly to visit the Museum dedicated to the Greek resistance in World War II which I had heard about in the course of my studies in war history.

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Home-of-the-great--Eleftherios-Venizelos
Home of the great patriot, Eleftherios Venizelos

Sadly, my interest in the wars in which my own country had been involved had led me to neglect local Greek history.  I had a lot to learn about the resistance of Therissos over many decades, centuries one might say.

Talking to local people, I soon realized that the important museum for them was the one dedicated to the great Greek patriot and politician, Eleftherios Venizelos who fought for Cretan independence from the Ottoman Empire in 1887, who became the island’s first independent Prime Minister in 1905 and then Prime Minister of Greece in 1910.   Of more importance to the locals, however, was the fact that Venizelos was actively involved in the drafting of the Cretan constitution, that he took part in the armed uprising in 1905 which deposed Prince George, and that he negotiated the unification of Crete with Greece.

He lived in Therissos and his house is now a museum dedicated to Venizelos and other local people who were involved in the struggles for freedom from the Ottomans.

The other museum, one dedicated to World War ll, is a purpose built modern space with few artefacts but many pictures and letters.  Unfortunately, not many of these are translated but sometimes a volunteer is on hand who can help with this.  Entry is so cheap I felt duty bound to leave a large donation as it is purely self-supporting.  It is very local to the young men who died fighting the Germans in the mountains, a bloody conflict that is known for the savagery on both sides.

Photo from Resistance Museum in Therissos

Some of the pictures are harrowing and deal with the war on the mainland as well as the war on Crete, pictures of starving children, scenes from the village of Kandonos which was burned to the ground in retaliation for the killing of 50 Germans, and pictures of the terrible life lived by the villagers during the harsh winters.

War Memorial in Maloliopoulo

The savagery on both sides was legendary, from the locals shooting parachutists out of the sky in cold blood to the occupying forces, shooting whole families and villages on what often seemed a whim.

It is difficult to take all this in, surrounded as one is by a landscape of such beauty.

 

The-Dotto-Train-navigates-the-Therisso-Gorge I journeyed up from the coast on the little ‘Dotto’ train with which most of us are familiar in cities and resorts, but in this case, it traversed the famous Therisso Gorge.  It surged up the hill in under an hour, through magnificent scenery, the air heady with the scent of herbs, great swathes of wild thyme, rosemary, pine, marjoram, oregano, and fennel. Many of the olive trees along the side of the road are hundreds of years old and behind the rocky caves can be glimpsed walnut, almond, hazelnut and chestnut trees.

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Mountain Goats

In the village itself, red, white and pink oleander trees bloomed, the scent mingling with the smell of cooking from the little tavernas that were operating, some with open wood fires and all serving delicious Greek salads and fresh fish, alongside local dishes infused with the scent of pine seeds, olive oil and fennel.

The little Dotto train allowed about two or three hours for a visit, long enough to wander around the village, have some lunch and still have to time visit both museums.

I enjoyed the trip so much I went back a second time a few days later and spent more time in the museums, reading the letters with the help of a student and trying to come to grips with what had happened here where the resistance hid out for many years during the second world war, harried and hunted like animals, during bitter winters of extreme cold, and parched summers of extreme heat.

The photographs tell a tragic tale and I am haunted by them still.

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Best books on the history of the Battle of Crete:

Crete:  The Battle and the Resistance by Antony Beevor (John Murray, Paperback – a division of Hodder Headline (1991).  Still regarded as the best history of Crete during WW11

The Cretan Runner by George Psychoundakis (trans. by Patrick Leigh Fermor):  John Murray, Paperback (first published 1955).  A first-hand account by one of the partisans from the mountains.

Weekly Photo Challenge – Texture

Both my ‘texture’ pictures come from Bratislava, a lovely city where old traditions are still honoured, lace making is still practised by ladies who sit in the square with their spools of white cotton, and where the coffee house is an institution.

This first picture definitely reminds me of texture.  Before visiting I had read about the fabulous Bratislava chocolate and couldn’t wait to try it.  It was a cold, rainy day and I was looking forward to some hot drinking chocolate with a dollop of cream on top. No one had told me that it is a liquid chocolate eaten with a spoon.  Texture.

Coffee in Maxamillians
Coffee at Macimillians, Bratislava

My second texture is also nostalgic.  This was a sweet-shop in the centre of town with an array of boiled sweets, caramels, toffees and chocolates, that so reminded me of my childhood.  I could taste the texture of the clove sweets, the bullseyes, and the fruit caramels but I ended up buying some delicious chocolates.  You guessed it, I’m a chocoholic.

Old Fashioned Sweet shop

Weekly Photo Challenge – UNUSUAL

 

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St. Lucia in the Caribbean

I couldn’t resist this one.  I also saw it printed in very large white letters on a wall in the downtown area but it was in an area in which one felt uneasy taking photos so I didn’t even take my camera out.

It reminded me that we once had notices all over the place, including buses and trains, that said: “Do Not Spit”.  How times have changed.

 

Strasbourg – Cross Roads of Europe

With the UK about to depart the EU after the 2016 Referendum, albeit with only an extremely narrow margin of Leave votes, my thoughts turned to my visit a few years ago to that lovely city, Strasbourg, site of the European Council and European Parliament.

A-Strasbourg-Square

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This delightful city, full of medieval churches and half-timbered houses seems to have become a byword for what some in the UK see as a hijacker of British sovereignty.   Which is a shame, because it is blinding people to an elegant, international city of great charm that in the Middle Ages was referred to as The Crossroads of Europe.  At that time, goods from the Baltic, Britain, the Mediterranean and the Far East poured across the borders to be traded for wines, grain and fabrics and just like today, when the languages of the 46 member states can be heard in the squares and streets of the city, traders speaking a dozen different languages, met and conducted business.  People from different countries working together and mingling in Strasbourg’s squares means that the city continues to be the crossroads of Europe.

Once a free city within the Holy Roman Empire, Strasbourg later came under periods of French and German rule, which has given the ancient centre a unique appeal, enhanced by the half-timbered Medieval houses that sit alongside elegant French-style mansions.  In 1988, UNESCO classified Strasbourg as a World Monument, the first time such an honour was given to an entire city centre.

It is an easy place for visitors to discover, as the traffic problems that beset most big cities have been solved here with a combination of canal boats, a sleek and comfortable light rail system, local buses, and pedestrianised squares.  Although it presents itself as a folksy-like small town, Strasbourg is very international, cosmopolitan and multilingual.

GRAND ILE ISLAND

This is the historic part of the city where you will find the main sights and using the 142-metre high spire of the Cathedral as your landmark, you will soon find your way around Strasbourg.

The city’s charm has much to do with its canals which surround the Grand Ill island where the Petite France, is located.  A 70-minute boat trip (open-top in fine weather) on Batorama’s Twenty Centuries of History, circumnavigates the whole of the Grande-Île before skirting the 19th-century German Quarter.  The turn-around point and good photo opportunity is where the European Parliament, Council of Europe and European Court of Human Rights are head-quartered, a magnificent architectural display of concrete, steel and glass.

Flags-of-all-Nations

If you take the boat cruise, the Vauban Dam will be pointed out, a defensive lock which allowed the entire southern part of the city to be flooded in times of war will be pointed out.  It is near the confluence of canals by the Pont Couverts.

 

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They even grow grass between the tramlines in the street

Walking around the canals, especially in the early part of the year when everything seems green and lush and the spring flowers are out in abundance, is an equally attractive method of seeing the main sights.  This is a city that loves nature and it takes pride in decorating every bridge and windowsill with baskets of flowers, changed according to the seasons.

PETITE FRANCE, STRASBOURG (a UNESCO site)

 

The number one attraction in Strasbourg is Petite France, the historic part of town, a photographic cluster of 16th and 17th-century half-timbered houses reflected in the waters of the canal.  These houses were originally built for the millers, fishermen and tanners who used to live and work in this part of town.  If you have taken the boat tour, you may like also to take a tour of the historic centre with an audio guide (€5.50) from the Tourist Office which will introduce you, via a winding route through the narrow streets, to a truly fascinating old town.

NOTRE DAME CATHEDRAL Opening hours: 7am-7pm

Cathedral-from-the-canal

The Cathedral, an imposing red sandstone edifice, stands alone in its square and towers above the city.  It was the tallest building in the world until the 19th century and is the second most visited cathedral in France after Notre Dame in Paris, receiving 4 million visitors a year.  Built in 1439 it is considered to be an outstanding masterpiece of Romanesque and late Gothic art with outstanding 12th-century stained glass windows. Inside is one of the world’s largest astronomical clocks.

Try to get to the cathedral by noon to get a good viewpoint for the 12.30 display of the famous Astronomical Clock.  The procession of sixteenth-century automata was designed to remind us of our mortality.   Afterwards, you can climb 332 steps to the platform below the cathedral’s twin towers for a stunning view.

The narrow street that leads to the cathedral and the Place de Cathedral is the liveliest place in Strasbourg, especially in summer, and are filled with outdoor restaurants that remain open late into the night.  Entertainment is in the form of jazz musicians, mimes and clowns.

 

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This is the oldest house in Strasbourg

 

And finally, Strasbourg’s Christmas Market has a high reputation but its popularity may be its undoing.  After a few evenings of mulled wine, yuletide cake, Silent Night and Adeste Fidelis, a spring or autumn visit begins to look very attractive.

But Strasbourg is a city that has a very special charm at any time of the year and the organisations that dominate its life are what still guarantees peace in Europe.  If you are looking for culture, cuisine and character, Strasbourg is hard to beat.

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A few recommended eating places:  Expect the usual French coq au vin, boeuf bourguignon, crème Brulee and crepe Suzette, but be prepared also for the German influence of pork and sauerkraut.

First up though, is wine.  Strasbourg is the capital of one of France’s premier wine regions and if you are in the mood to sample some of the best, head for Terres à Vin, 1 Rue du Miroir, tel +33 3 88 51 37 20, with several by-the-glass options from €3.20 to over €10).

Pain d’Epices, 14 Rue des Dentelles, for indulgent gingerbreads and cake and for the heady scents of spices.

Master-Patissier, Christian Mayer, offers a tea room second to none in Strasbourg at 10 Rue Mercière, just a few yards from the cathedral.

Maison Kammerzell 16 Place du Cathédrale, tel +33 3 88 32 42 14, where the oldest section dates back to 1427, is a Strasbourgeon institution.  Occupying rooms on four floors, you can sample the house speciality of fish sauerkraut if you fancy that but there are many less thought-provoking dishes from which to choose, average €40 for three courses.

Au Pont Corbeau, 21 Quai Saint-Nicolas, tel +33 3 88 35 60 68, – a warm and welcoming place where the onion soup is so thick you could stand your spoon up in it.  A modest but excellent wine list available.  Average €32 for three courses.

The Batorama Tour departs from the quai outside Palais Rohan, adults €12.50.

A ticket with unlimited tram and bus trips valid for 24 hours is available for €4.30. Also, you can rent bikes (vélhop) for $5 per day.

Tourist Office, 17 Place de la Cathédrale

Weekly Photo Challenge – Bridges

Just literally bridges.  I thought of all sorts of ways in which to interpret the challenge, but when I started looking through my photos I decided to go with the obvious.  It’s too hot for serious thinking today, so here is a selection of some of my favourite bridges.

Above – Sur le Pont d’Avignon

Amsterdam, Triana Bridge Spain, and Ponte Vecchio Florence, Italy

Rome, Italy:  Pisa, Italy: and the famous painted bridge at Lucerne, Switzerland

La Somail, France, Linked houses in Strasboug, Williamstad, Curaco from our cargo boat.

Sur-le-Pont-d'Avingnon,-France

The Daddy of them all – the bridge at Avignon, France.

 

 

A Sandwich on the Bosphorus

Looking through photographs taken in Istanbul some years ago, I came across some images of the fishermen selling their catch from boats on the Bosphorus and was overwhelmed by feelings of nostalgia.  Nostalgia for those simpler days in Turkey when Kemal Ataturk was revered by everyone, the secular state was praised and remarked on with pride by the Turks we met, and the food, hospitality, and people were second to none.

In fact, I wondered as I ate dinner every night, why people raved so much about French cooking.  I thought the Turks had them licked.

Galactica-Bridge-Sandwich-Making

But, to the sandwich.   I’d joined the Istanbul locals as they queued by the Galactica Bridge where a couple of fisherman in a bobbing boat with nothing more than a primus stove, a frying pan, a heap of freshly caught fish, crusty bread, and big, yellow, lemons, provided the best takeaway I’d ever had.   I pointed to my choice of fish, it was fried, slapped between two pieces of bread, and a gourmet sandwich worthy of at least one Michelin star was handed up to me as I stood on the bridge.

Impossible to eat elegantly.  This sandwich demanded two hands wrapped around it, and with the absence of napkins, the oil did make rather a mess, covering mouth and chin in a scented, herby, grease, that encouraged one to lick fingers clean.

Istanbul is a great place for snacking and the food is fresh, tasty and clean.  Apart from the open charcoal grills where succulent marinated meats are singed before your eyes, there are shops selling simple dairy dishes like herb yoghurt with sweet garlic and a very tasty rice pudding.  Over 1000 bakeries in the city sell freshly made baklavas, almond cakes and melt in the mouth pastries (it was the Turks who introduced the Austrians to strudel pastry as they hammered on the gates of Vienna in the 17th century).

A short post today, brought about by a bit of time-wasting as I took a stroll down memory lane.

Bazaar in Istanbul - Carpets

San Francisco’s Cable Cars

My first time in San Francisco and I felt as though I were in a state of shock.  It looked just like the movies but it was real, very real.   From the “Vietnam vets.” hustling for dollars and dimes at Fisherman’s Wharf and Haight Ashbury, to the open-sided cable cars grinding and ringing their way up and down those vertical hills, this was a movie-set.

Most great cities are walkable – with the exception of Los Angeles – and San Franscisco is no exception.  The one great drawback to this accessibility however, it that it is exremely hilly. But somehow, transfixed by the trolley-cars that rattle up those perpendicular slopes and listening to either the fog-horns in the Bay or the sound of itinerant Mexican musicians – depending on the weather – you forget the hills and throw yourself into the joy of being in San Franscisco, riding the cable cars, eating at Fisherman’s Wharf, taking trips on the Bay, gazing at the Rock (Alcatraz), and watching the sun goes down on The Golden Gate Bridge.

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If you ride the cable cars, there are a few things you should know.

There are three cable car routes in the city, but the two that offer the most attractive rides are the Powell-Mason and PowellHyde lines.  At Powell and Market streets, the cable car turntable serves as the beginning stop for the Powell-Mason line which runs from there up and over Nob Hill and down to Bay Street at Fisherman’s Wharf. The Powell-Hyde line starts from the same turntable and runs up over Nob Hill and Russian Hill before coming to a halt near Ghiradelli Square. Both lines take significantly different routes and end at different areas near Fisherman’s Wharf so it is important to know where in Fisherman’s Wharf you want to arrive.

For the best views when travelling, you want to be on the side that faces the bay.  That means the right-hand side for cars leaving from downtown and the left-hand side for cars leaving from the Fisherman’s Wharf area.

Fisherman's Wharf

The California Street line runs East-West from the Financial District, through Chinatown, over famous Nob Hill and stops at Van Ness Avenue. Since all the cars on this line have the same routes, the signs are painted directly on the car.

Looking down from one of SFs most famous streets

The Powell/Hyde line ends up close to Ghirardelli Square famous for its shopping and chocolates, and the Vietnamese restaurant owned by Don Johnson, the ‘Ana Mandara’.  Lombard Street is known as the “world’s cmost crooked street” and if you want to take some great pictures, then you should get off at Lombard.  If you plan to stay on, make sure your camera is at the ready because at the top of Hyde and Lombard you will have an unobstructed view of San Francisco’s Alcatraz Island, way, way down in the Bay.

San Frans view with Golden Gate Bridge and AlcatrazAt the end of this line (at Hyde and Beach) is The Buena Vista Cafe, where the locals insist that Irish Coffee was born.  Don’t believe it.  I’m with the good folk of Shannon Airport who claim to have invented it many years ago to comfort passengers held up by fog in the days when Shannon was a mere stop-off point for the ‘planes to the USA.  What makes me so sure is that I doubt if the rich cream you need for an Irish Coffee – and that you get at Shannon – would be served in the USA as it would be too calorie rich!

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The Powell / Mason line also passes close to Lombard Street but it is at the bottom, so the view you get is of the crooked street, like the postcard pictures you will see everywhere around.  The Powell/Mason stops off in North Beach, a quick walk to San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf near Pier 39, near some good eateries.  Best thing to do from here is to walk down to the Wharf and get one of those famous San Francisco sourdough bread bowls.

The California/ Van Ness car rides through the hills of the Financial District and hits the top of Nob Hill where you’ll find the most stunning views of the city.  For a real treat, go to the 19th Floor of the Mark Hopkins (Top of the Mark) and sip a dry martini, listen to some jazz and feel the buzz.

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Another popular drinking hole is The Nob Hill Tavern at California and Hyde. Polk Street is good for shopping before the cable car makes its way down the hill to Van Ness where it stops and goes back the other direction.  And just to throw in a bit of culture, if you’re into Gothic architecture, make sure to check out Grace Cathedral at California and Taylor.

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The cable cars start at 06.00 and finish at midnight.  Single cable car tickets were $7.00 when I was there, a 1-Day visitor passport was $21.00, a 3-day was $32.00 and a 7-day $42.00. There are trips around the rock of Alcatraz with its sinister watchtowers, from $33 to $110, the more expensive boat ride including a stop on the island and a tour of the grim penitentiary which once held Al Capone, The Birdman, and ‘Machine Gun’ Kelly.