Mystery Tour 2019

Time to unravel the Mystery

 

I am writing this Mystery tour update sitting in my room in the Hotel Aquila Bianca in the heart of ancient Orvieto. My fellow Mystery travellers are scatted throughout town. Some will be resting in their room ‘recovering’ from a ridiculously good lunch in a restaurant that they will always remember, others are climbing the city towers, shopping, or eating more ice cream. Some will be going back to photograph what is possibly the most beautiful cathedral in the world… because at this time the sun will be bathing the gold, blue and white mosaics and frescoes, and elaborate friezes that adorn the front. Stunning.

 

This evening will be free. Tomorrow the adventure continues.

 

Let me tell you what has happened so far…

 

Day 1 Rome

Rome, the Eternal City, this is where it all starts.

 

Whilst the tour officially started this evening in our hotel, around 30 of us, strangers to each other, met up outside the Galleria Colonna. We had loosely organised a group visit and at the last moment they switched entrances on us. But amazingly we all met up and the tour, handled by 2 local guides, was spectacular. The Colonna Palace Gallery has been on my Bucket list for years. But since it is only open on Saturday mornings, I have always seemed to miss it. This was a Saturday morning and the sun was finally shining after a month of intense rain. The opulence and beauty of this Galleria defies description. See for yourself at https://www.galleriacolonna.it/en Watch the video and then dream of visiting as the real thing is even more spectacular!

 

Colonna Galleria

 

This evening the tour started. We all met at 6.30 p.m. on the roof top in the terrace bar for a welcome drink. Here we officially met our wonderful Tour Manager, the delightful Prisca. We enjoyed dinner on the rooftop, under a canopy of vines while we watched the sunset.

 

Part way through dinner I stood to reveal some of the Mystery. “Where do you think we are going tomorrow?” I asked. Puglia? says one, the Po Valley? says another, Arezzo? Albania? Ischia?  Then I explained we would be flying out tomorrow to…. to…  Yes aha, I was fibbing!

 

Then I mentioned that we would be going only a short distance to a unique area of Italy that has managed to be missed by mass tourism. First thing tomorrow we would be standing, staring into Etruscan tombs that date back to pre-Roman times, and that this first part of the tour would be seeing magnificent sites, many astounding ones of Etruscan origin. This tour was to be about amazing sites and experiences you do not expect or know about. We were going to Tarquinia, a UNESCO World Heritage site, then Villa Lante, with its garden terraces and flowing water cascades… Then ancient Orvieto for 3 nights.

 

Orvieto, which lies halfway between Florence and Rome, is actually visited quite often on less speedy tours. But usually for just 2 – 3 hours. My fear was that many would have been there and that this could be seen as ‘unexciting’. At least until they see what we do here! To my complete surprise only 2 of our travelers had previous visited Orvieto. And that was for one speedy night 18 years ago. Now I knew we were onto a winner as Orvieto is ancient, beautiful and fascinating and makes for an incredible base for 3 nights.

 

Day 2 Etruscan Necropolis, Villa Lante an ancient Abbey dinner

A full day, yet in actual fact, the driving distances will be only be a little over 200 kilometres in total. We wound our way through the beautiful countryside, enjoyed two special stops, and then went out in the evening to dine somewhere very special!

 

Today was Italy’s National Day and it appeared everyone in Rome was asleep as we had such a smooth and easy exit from the city. Hitting the coast, we travelled north past the cruise port of Citavecchia. That big, blue, flat stuff we saw off the left, was the Mediterranean. If we could see over the horizon we would be looking directly onto the east coast of Sardinia.

 

Our first stop this morning was in Tarquinia. Just outside the town we were be joined by an expert local guide called Anastasia, who showed us around the UNESCO World Heritage site of Tarquinia’s ancient Etruscan Necropolis. We stepped back to pre-Roman times and learnt about the Etruscans and this very special civilisation that thrived some 2,500 – 3,000 years ago.

 

On a landscape scattered by ancient burial mounds, we descended stairways to look inside the tombs, complete with colourful paintings and frescoes.

 

In Tarquinia we enjoyed another tour through the Etruscan History museum with its amazing sarcophagus, statues and beautiful artefacts. Lunchtime was at leisure.

 

These visits are an excellent way to start this tour as the Etruscans appear to be a race of people many of us have heard of, but know little about, and over the next few days we will continually encounter cities, amazing sites and legacies of this amazing civilisation.

 

Strangely, we consider Rome as ancient, yet when it was founded as a humble gathering of crude shelters on a hill where Rome now stands, this civilization had been thriving for 700 years. The Romans adopted and mimicked much of the Etruscan ways, before either absorbing them or smashing them to pieces in battles and wars.

 

Villa Lanta, Italy

 

Cutting across undulating hills and meadows, passing Viterbo on the horizon, we reached a town called Bagnaia. We stopped to visit the delightful gardens of Villa Lante - an amazing, cascading, set of water gardens created by the Duke of Bomarzo in the 17th century. Voted one of the top gardens of Italy… yet due to its location, peaceful and virtually without tourists. Delightful!

 

Our destination for the next three nights was the ancient Etruscan hilltop city of Orvieto. How old is Orvieto? The answer is in the name. When the Romans visited it and then conquered it, it used to be the Etruscan city of Bolsena. They shifted the Etruscans out and the current name Orvieto derives from the Latin name meaning ‘Old Town’. So even back then, 2,300 years ago, the Roman’s thought this city was very old!

 

Orvieto

 

Our hotel is right in the centre of town, and apparently it was the first hotel too. Access to the town is via a funicular as the streets were designed for chariots, horses and carts so not quite large enough for a coach!

 

No rest for the wicked because after checking in to our hotel we then reboarded our coach and drove out of town to the Abbey ‘La Badia of Orvieto’. The ruins of this ancient Abbey date back 1300 years! We enjoyed a welcome drink in the heart of the oldest ruins with stunning views through an ancient stone archway, across the valley.

 

 

Orvieto, this massive city perched high on a volcanic outcrop, sat high up on the hill across the valley. What a magnificent location. Dinner was inside the converted abbey with vaulted ceilings. The food kept coming and the wine flowed and on our short drive home Dean Martin had everyone singing.

 

Our Orvieto hotel – The Aquila Bianca

Located right in the heart of town. First class, and within walking distance of all the major sights and surrounded by shops cafes bars restaurants. What a great place for ‘My Time’.

 

Day 3 Orvieto and a Labyrinth lunch

A leisurely start as we were joined by local guide for a walking tour of Orvieto. His name was Paolo, and he was exceptional. Humorous, but intensely knowledgeable and passionate about ‘his’ extraordinary town, he made the city come to life. You know one of the most important things about staying multiple nights right in the heart of a city like Orvieto is that in the morning we had the whole city to ourselves, to wander through, before the tourists came in.

 

 

The Cathedral was very special, and the detail and colours on the exterior stonework are amazing. Inside has a massive story too and the statue of the ‘Pieta’ is astounding.

 

 

 

 

Some chose to leave the walking tour here. Others followed the guide down to the other end of town to an amazing well, called ‘Pozzo di San Patrizio’. Dating back about 500 years, it was built as a double helix construction. Two spiral walkways that never cross each other. This enabled water carrier donkeys to be taken down one spiral walkway to the bottom of the well, fill up their water barrels, and then wind back up on a continuing spiral walkway, on the far side, never having to cross paths with another donkey coming down. Incredible construction! There is no elevator, so you must be able to not only walk down the broad, flat steps, but also be able to walk back up again! Oh yes, it is 72m deep, 13m wide, and there are 72 arched windows inside. The light bouncing off the walls coming in from the natural opening of the top was very beautiful.

 

Labyrinth

 

We then all met up for lunch, Italian style! This was somewhere very, very special. 40 years ago, Rita and Adriano were renovating their famous pastry shop, the Pasticceria Adriano, when they discovered an ancient labyrinth of Etruscan caves, passageways and catacombs beneath their shop. They brought in the archaeologists and were astounded to learn that the caves were 2,500 years old. Over 20 years a team of archaeologists sensitively renovated them. To visit these ancient passageways, with carved reliefs and niches, was a delight and surprise to all.

 

Then it was time to indulge in a 4 course lunch paired with wine and coffee. A delicious home-made meal, the chef is Rita and Adriano’s son. After coffee in the Pasticceria, we all ‘rolled’ our respective ways. The streets had once again emptied of the midday tourists, we had totally missed them! The rest of the day… is now, as I write this, and at leisure.

 

In the labyrinth – Il Labirinto Di Adriano – they have a saying…  'Fermati or a respirar la storia, de quel che vedrai serba memoria’. Which translated means… ‘Stop now and breathe the history, what you see becomes the memory’.

 

Today, in Orvieto, we certainly did that!

 

Mystery Tour Latest Update.... 6th June

Let’s tell you about days 4 and 5 on the Mystery Tour…

 

As I write this I am sitting on the coach as we head towards Chianciano Terme in Tuscany. I’ve just consumed a delicious homemade ice cream in the cutest little village called Sovana. The sun is shining, and Andre Bocelli is singing. Well not him, but his dulcet tones are resonating from a CD. We are cutting across country, through green Tuscan fields and rolling hills, past sleepy villages and towns that ooze memories that span centuries. The roads have been narrow, as this was a necessary shortcut, and in one town, just now, our driver Carmine, was tested to the limit. You see, there was a tight ‘s’ bend, that would be challenging at the best of times but today, a very helpful Italian chose to park his little white Fiat right on the bend. Carmine had to reverse back uphill and around the bend, and chose another route, which happened to be right up through the narrow main street. For an Italian he really kept his ‘cool’. For a coach driver (and I’ve seen quite a few) his driving was excellent.

 

It has been a long day, but not in kilometres, as the total distance has barely been 160 kilometres. It is just that discovering incredible hidden gems of towns and cities scattered through the back roads of Umbria, Lazio and Tuscany takes time. But enough of that… what happened yesterday?

 

Day 4 Park of Monsters, lazy lunch and catacombs

This was a very relaxing day. Heading back south we enjoyed a morning walk around the Sacro Bosco – or the ‘Sacred Forest’ - in Bomarzo. Otherwise known as the Parc dei Mostri - or the Park of the Monsters. Walking around the shaded pathways of this woodland park, was a very surprising experience. This garden was designed in the 16th century. Instead of the classic style pretty sculptures and cherub fountains you would expect, we were immersed in the surreal experience of a ‘monster world’ created 500 years ago.

 

Millions of years before then, the massive volcano of Bolsena, now Lake Bolsena, erupted and scattered giant boulders all over this region. Strewn everywhere, the giant stones were soft and easily carved, and so, in a dreamy, shaded forest they were sculpted into enormous statues and shapes. Here you will see Neptune, the gods, enormous dragons, a war elephant, a huge tortoise, and two angry giants tearing each other apart. There is a tilted stone house, serpents, monsters and enormous human(ish) heads with mouths agape, appearing to scream at you. Demonstrating the size of the carvings, many of us even walked inside that mouth! Utterly unique, it’s a beautiful forested area with winding paths, shady trees, and it is not only very weird but also surreal and very, very peaceful.

 

 

 

Now our appetites were aroused and it was time to enjoy another, special lunch. Next stop was the Locanda della Chiocciola (the Inn of the Snail). Skirting the dramatic hilltop city of Orte, we drove down a bumpy dirt track to an ancient farmhouse, now converted into a beautiful Inn. Walking under a shaded pathway we stood awhile by the ancient pizza and bread oven built into the old brick wall.  Around the corner, we were greeted by Christina Alessandra, our hostess. Time to relax on a shaded stone terrace, enjoying great food, whilst gazing out over the Lazio countryside.  The views were stupendous. Across the valley was another walled city, that of San Michele Arcangelo, perched high on a distant ridge. The food and wine were terrific and the other half of the husband and wife team, Chef Roberto, received noisy applause.

 

Later we returned to Orvieto for a late afternoon guided tour deep under town, through the ancient Catacombs. Very different from the caverns under the restaurant we dined in yesterday, these were dug well over 2,000 years ago to store water, olive oil and wine, amongst other things. They are part of over 1,000 interlinking cave systems under the town. During the 2nd World War they were also used as air raid shelters for the local citizens, even though Orvieto old town was never bombed. We also visited a separate set of caves dug with hundreds of little niches for pigeons to nest in. They bred them as in the olden days Orvieto’s most popular food dish was… you guessed it… tasty pigeon!

 

The evening was free for walking the walls or climbing up the 47 metre high ‘Torre de Mori’ to catch the astounding 360 degree views from this 13th century clock tower. For others, simply sitting in cafes in the shady alleys and squares, was a delight. For some, the sunset over the hills absorbed them, for others, like me, I sat and enjoyed a Campari during the ‘golden hour’ as the glorious cathedral was bathed in light from the setting sun. Later, as dusk approached, the marble, and the blue and gold hues of the frescoes, turned to a beautiful pastel colour. And best of all, all the tourists had left the city and the peace and quiet was sublime.

 

That is the beauty of our longer stays in incredible locations. During each day, tourists come in their droves, they flood the place, the streets, the shops and cafes, and it can often feel like an invasion. And then as quick as they have arrived, they go. Yet we are here before and after their impact. We wake up to an amazing city before the tourists come, and then midafternoon they leave, and the city becomes ours again. What a pleasure.

 

Ahhhh, this evening was divine, Italy at its best!

 

 

Day 5 Civita di Bagnoregio, Pitigliano Via Cava

 

 

As I said above this was a long day. To be able to link three of Italy’s most beautiful towns and cities is a hard task anyway, and to do this, we had to necessarily take a number of twisting and turning back roads. And there was just so much to see and enjoy, all of it well off the beaten track. We had a fascinating day.

 

First stop was at a mysterious town called Civita di Bagnoregio.  None of our fellow travellers knew anything about what was coming up. You could not actually see it until you arrived at the Belvedere – the beautifully positioned lookout point that faces directly on to the expansive ‘badlands’, and the glorious sight of this perched city.  Everyone was taken aback. It was so dramatic bathed in the morning sun. The drama of this remarkable sight is incredible. Yet so few people even know of it.

 

Let me describe it… There is this giant crater of incredibly unstable soil that they call the ‘Badlands’. The soil is vulnerable to the torment of wind, rain, the sun and even snow. A thousand years ago man made a home on this rocky pinnacle and built a picture-perfect walled citadel. It was connected to the outer walls of the huge crater by a skinny spine of land. Then that collapsed. So, in the early 1900’s they built a bridge over 300 metres long. Then the land under that bridge collapsed. So, they built another bridge which later fell into the chasm. In the 1960’s they built the third current bridge. It is now an enormous gap to span and the last part of the walkway is very steep.

 

From the Belvedere we still had a downward walk to get to this bridge. There is a hidden turning and here our wonderful Tour Manager, Prisca, decided to use a crumbling piece of rock to chalk directions on how to get back. On the roadway she even included the name ‘Albatross’ and drew a picture of a bird, and a helpful arrow. Other groups passing by were perplexed. Crazy Aussies! (but it was an Italian who did it!)

 

We spent the morning in this striking hilltop medieval town. Flowers and stone buildings, views and cliffs. Delightful.

 

Lunchtime was spent in the ancient Etruscan city of Pitigliano. To get there we had to cross country and wind our way down and through the pretty lakes side town of Bolsena. Pitigliano is also striking with its pale limoncello coloured cliff clinging city perched above the valley. The winding streets, dark shady alleys, and the buildings simply ooze thousands of years of history. The Jewish quarter is also famous, and known as ‘little Jerusalem’, is one of the oldest Jewish settlements in Europe.

 

Afterwards we popped just outside of town to introduce everyone to some extraordinary carved walkways. There are a dozen of these Etruscan ‘Via Cava’ (excavated roads) around Pitigliano which once linked it with other nearby Etruscan cities. We visited one, the most dramatic, called Via Cava Di San Giuseppe. It is about 1200m long. Some walked up to the small cave necropolis, but really the best bit was the first 150m - 200m to really enjoy the surreal experience. Amazingly, even now historians and archaeologists genuinely do not know quite why they were carved and what their true purpose was! Certainly, for water collection channels, but also major routes and connecting roads, and possibly ceremonial procession pathways.

 

 

Later we continued to the spa town of Chianciano Terme (pronounced Kienne Cheearno Termay) where we will be spending the next three nights. But Neil needed an ice cream, and I reckon a few could have used the loo. So, we made a very small detour to another of the listed ‘most beautiful villages in Italy’ called Sovana. Homemade ice cream, a shady vine covered terrace area, and well managed toilets… what more could you want?

 

Our Chianciano Terme hotel – The Grand Hotel Excelsior

This first class, grand style hotel in the heart of the spa town, is in the perfect location to explore the surrounding region.

 

Now, I have caught up…

 

What next? I will tell you in 2 days..

 

Ciao..  Euan

 

 

Let’s tell you about days 6 and 7 on the Mystery Tour…

I do apologise for the delay in posting this update. I started in Chianciano Terme, then we had another set of visits to do, a surprise visit to the old town for a pasta festival, then…  yes, I know…excuses, excuses, excuses… but I managed to complete this a couple of days later, after the tour finished.

 

This is how I started….

The weather is definitely warmer as I sit here Chianciano Terme in Tuscany.

I have eaten way too much (what’s new!). You see we have just returned from lunch in a famous restaurant in an old town (again, what’s new!)  called ‘Trattoria Bruno Coppetta’. It is a bit of an institution in that region being handed down from father to son, over 60 years. But I get ahead of myself.

 

On Day 5 we had a long but amazing day. We eventually arrived into Cianchiano Terme quite late. But there were so many highlights included and so much beautiful countryside covered, it was just a question of what we saw, as opposed to what we simply could not cut out! Nothing like a good night’s sleep and we were ready for…. Perugia.

 

Day 6 Perugia and Collegio del Cambio 

Perugia is a fantastic historical city and the heart of it is wonderful. It is often ignored because in order to get a fully rewarding visit you need quality time. And that is what we have! So today we went to Perugia and met a local guide who took us on a walking tour through this splendid historical town. His name was Francesco and he was another excellent guide.

 

Perugia is an ancient city set high on a hill. We started off by parking down at the bottom and instead of climbing relentless tiers of stairs we followed the locals lead and used a series of underground, public escalators to take us to the top. Well not quite to the top as we ended up inside ‘La Rocca’. This utterly amazing underground city of nobles’ houses was intentionally buried by a pope to teach them, and those in other cities, a lesson that it is not a good idea to resist his power. So, he built a fortress on their wonderful homes. Let me explain…. Step back a short period of time, let’s say 2,500 years, the Etruscans had built a wonderful city with superb vaulted villas and walkways at one end of town.

 

The Roman’s came and in 1540 the Papal state marched to the gates and demanded to take over the salt trade. The Perugian nobles said no and attempted to fight back. Pope Paul III didn’t like it so once he had conquered the town, he built a fortress down one end, the wealthy end, right over the top of the superb villas. The nobles house and galleries became the underground military and gun emplacement centre of the Renaissance fortress called the ‘Rocca Paolina’. The fortress is now long gone but the underground is still there, and it consists of the structural shells of the noble palaces which remain beautifully preserved.

 

They now enjoy the role of being not only an incredible place to visit but also transit passageways for locals on their way to work. The high, vaulted ceilings and interlinking archways above your head were once surface walkways linking nobles and merchant villas. Fascinating. And our guide Francesco was quite brilliant in helping us understand the whole story. 

 

Then we walked to the surface, took in the massive views across the countryside, and moved down the narrow, stretched central piazza. Centuries old buildings flanked us, as we walked toward the cathedral. Our guide split us into two groups, for more manageable size, so we could enter the frescoed Collegio del Cambio (remembering this Mystery was an unusually large group for Albatross). As far as art goes these 2 rooms, gorgeously painted, are the pinnacle of renaissance paintings. More than that, this place bore a deep story of banking history and currency exchange. Here massive interstate and inter-country merchant money trading was measured and overseen, gold coin values were set, and people who flaunted the economic or business rules and regulations were brought to justice. The ceilings and walls depicted justice, fairness, and whilst the area was quite small, it oozed an authority that could not be denied.

 

The enormous cathedral was a wonder, again with painted ceilings, scattered murals and works of art. Above, we could see the metal strengthening rods added hundreds of years to stop the gigantic central pillars from being pushed apart by the downward weight of the vaulted ceilings. This, in the land of earthquakes!

 

After free time, ‘My Time’, for lunch and shopping we returned to Chianciano Terme around late afternoon. Some simply relaxed in the hotel, others went to the old town, and we went to the Spa Centre to wash away the 20th century! Mud bath anyone?

 

Day 7 Hilltop Cortona and Lunch with Bruno

This morning we visited another hilltop town, Cortona. An hour’s drive from our hotel and we arrived in the peaceful morning just after the shops opened. Sitting at the tip of a hill again we walked up to the central square from the 2,500-year-old Etruscan archway where our driver, Carmino, parked the coach.  You guessed it, the centre of town is car free, with all streets radiating out from the central square.

 

The sun was already beating down, and it was another glorious day, and again we witnessed the wisdom of the narrow alleyways of these ancient towns. Their narrowness meant that the sun rarely ever poked its nose down the street level and, built from stone they absorbed the cool night air, keeping everything nice and cool. Our time was our own. To shop, enjoy cappuccinos, photograph the sites and views in this time capsule city – perfect ‘My Time’ to explore, shop and relax.

 

Later we continued to another beautiful town called Città della Pieve for lunch. First off, we visited Italy’s narrowest street for a bit of fun. As little as 70 cms wide (it felt ever narrower in places) this is called the ‘Kissing Women street’. Various stories say how it got its name, the usual being that women, in the course of their working day, would cross back and forth between 2 other streets. Being so incredibly narrow when they crossed paths they would squeeze past each other, as if embracing or kissing. We all walked through the street and back again. Ladies first, then gents. Perhaps the funniest thing was trying to set up a video opportunity with half the group at one end and the other half up the other. Some couples took the opportunity to ‘embrace the street’.

 

Next, we enjoyed lunch at Bruno’s restaurant, called ‘Trattoria Bruno Coppetta’. The 500-year-old building was once the home of the city mayor and we sat upstairs in the painted, high ceilings room. This restaurant is famous throughout the region, the food was great, in abundance, and the ambience terrific.

 

Our evening was originally to be at leisure, however, being Italy, something was always going on. In the old part of Chianciano Terme, they were holding an annual Pici Festival. Pici food stalls, wine and music. Pici are small, individually hand rolled lengths of pasta. Nonnas - grandmothers – have always made pasta this way and the town celebrates the family tradition, and the grandmother role, by holding this celebration. So, for some, in the early evening we took the mini train into town. Some enjoyed more food, some more beverages and some a little street music. Then the power cuts came and singing had to be improvised!

 

Day 8 Somewhere…….

More on this later… all I can say is that we saw green Tuscan fields and rolling hills, and we visited sleepy villages and towns that boasted memories spanning centuries.

 

Let’s tell you about days 8, 9 and 10 – the last 3 days of the Mystery Tour…

 

I’m actually writing this in the lounge of a hotel in Agrigento in Sicily. It’s hot outside. Very hot. Unusually so for this time of year. We have just been visiting the superb Valley of the Temples. I would dearly have liked to complete this blog a few days ago but since the end of our mesmerising, magical, marvellous, ‘mazing, Mystery tour I’ve been on the move and had little precious time to sit and assemble this. I can now. So please accept my tardiness with my apologies.

At the end of Day 7, after 3 nights in Chianciano Terme I said tomorrow we would be… Somewhere!

I promised we would see green Tuscan fields and rolling hills, along with sleepy villages and towns that boasted memories spanning centuries. So where did we pack our bags and travel to? Actually, nowhere!

We stayed a 4th night because we had sneakily left the best to last. A day in the nearby, glorious Val d’Orcia (pronounced Val Dor-chee-ya). The entire valley is UNESCO Heritage listed. Not because of the amazing towns but because 560 years ago mankind developed and groomed beautiful farmlands and it hasn’t changed since. You see the same buildings, perched farmhouses, line of slender, deep green Cyprus trees, dusty farm roads, all set amidst fields of fruit, olives, wheat and…. Let me tell you the story…

 

Day 8 Pienza, Montepulciano and Val d’Orcia 

The landscape around us is called the Val d'Orcia. This whole valley has been listed by the UNESCO Heritage organisation because of its unique character, beauty and the fact that it has remained unchanged for 600 years or more! 

The countryside has wide open vistas of farmland, broken up here and there by cypress or umbrella pine trees, rolling hills and charming farmhouses. The beauty was celebrated by Renaissance painters and featured in scenes from Ridley Scott’s film ‘Gladiator’, and the film ‘The English Patient’. Also scattered round the countryside are ancient towns and farmsteads, perched high on picturesque hilltops. 

Our morning was spent at leisure exploring the nearby hilltop town of Montepulciano with its 14th-century Palazzo Comunale and Duomo on the Piazza Grande. As with hilltop cities, they weren’t developed with large cars of coaches in mind, so we had to walk up hill. But we had time, the whole morning in fact, and the long winding street that gently (well, gentle for most of the way, there were some steep bits too!) wound uphill was filed from the very beginning with shops, bars, wine and produce tasting vendors, cafés, and leather and souvenir shops. Coincidentally on this day the town was hosting a wine, olive oil and regional produce market so tasting and sipping stalls were set up along the street and in the main square. It took some of us over an hour to make it to the top with distractions along the way!

Later we continued through the astonishing Val d’Otrcia to beautiful ‘perfect’ Pienza. In the 15th century this non-descript, poor village was the birthplace of Pope Pius II. When he became Pope, he patronized this town and with his enormous wealth transformed the town into what you see now. Unlike other cities that were ‘developed’ this one was re-built and re-created according to a master plan of design.

No, the city does not conform to regular symmetry, rather it is called ‘perfect’ because it is just so pleasing to walk through… just perfect! And that is why it is on the UNESCO heritage list!

The central Piazza Pio II is surrounded by 15th-century buildings such as the Pienza Cathedral and Piccolomini Palace, the Pope’s Summer residence. The views down on the UNESCO listed valley are simply vast, and the city just bursts with flower filled window boxes and quaint walkways, shops and cafes. Oh yes, and the city is famous for its Pecorino cheeses. Red wine and cheese board anyone? Utterly delightful! We followed the ancient Via Francigena – an ancient pilgrimage route that started at Canterbury Cathedral, in SW England, wound its way through France and Italy to the Vatican in Rome - to Bagno Vignoni. This peaceful little town is unique in that the whole central square is one giant thermal water feature. At one end you can see the earth’s hot water bubbling to the surface. In the middle of this giant pond are some curious modern art ballerina sculptures, and surrounding this is the walkways, with one end fully shaded like the terrace of a giant villa. Prisca had briefed us to bring hand towels from the hotel and so, towels in hand we walked down to where this warm water gushed down the channel in the centre of the street. We all took our shoes and sandals off and bathed them in the hot thermal waters. On our return journey we stopped briefly at ‘La Foca’ where we took in a classic, often filmed, Tuscan view of a lane zig zagging up a hill lined, with Cyprus trees.

This evening we had dinner in a wonderful farmstead terrace restaurant in the Val d’Orcia with views directly over to the hilltop town of Montepulciano. This restaurant – the Fattoria Pulcino – is part of a 600-acre homestead with all food coming from the local land. First, we visited their historical wine cellars, and hidden down on the wall is the emblem of their homestead – a Etruscan stone plaque about 80 cms across, of a human head, mouth agape.  Discovered on their land, the state gifted these 2,500 antiquities to their family.

Their Val d’Orcia Pecorino is famous and so we started with a wine and cheese tasting before moving out to the stone terrace where we had an amazing banquet. We first met the daughters of the owners, Cecelia and Angela, and later ‘mama’ came in to say hello. There was an abundance of genuine Tuscan food, and here we were reminded that the strange thing about Italians is that they don’t take ‘no’ for an answer when dishing out food! Later we went and sat back inside for a limoncello, biscotti and coffee.

What an unbelievable day!

 

Day 9 Medieval Todi and Marmore Falls

 

 

We re-entered the region of Umbria to spend our lunchtime in the picturesque town of Todi. Perched high on a hill this medieval town overlooks the River Tiber as it flows on its way towards Rome. Accessed by an elevator, the central Piazza del Popolo, surrounded by the three palaces of del Capitano, del Priore and del Popolo, is considered one of the most beautiful squares in all Italy. Todi is often used as the set for movies.

 

 

In the afternoon we also made a special stop at an unusual set of waterfalls. The Marmore Waterfalls, the Cascata delle Marmore, are man-made and were created by the ancient Romans. They diverted the Velino River over this cliff to cleanse the stagnant swamp below. In doing so they created the tallest man-made waterfall in Europe. Cascading in 3 stages, the top tier alone is 83 metres high! You must time your visit perfectly (well done Prisca and Carmino). As we walked towards the falls a giant siren boomed around the valley. 15 minutes to go. Then it boomed again. 10 minutes to go. Then it happened. Not fast, at first, but with immense, growing power. The waterfall was turned on. Yes, this waterfall has an ‘on/off’ switch. You see, diverting this vast amount of water created another problem in that it occasionally caused flooding in the cities downriver. That is why, 450 years ago, a new feeder canal was built, and they installed water flow regulators. In effect these waterfalls now have an on/off switch, which go on and off 3 times a day.

 

 

From the base you could see the massive power of the falls as they erupted over the precipice, and then each succeeding set of falls starting filling and gushing. Many of us took the walkway around and up alongside the falls to the middle stages where the air became wet with clouds of spray. Wet? Certainly! Incredibly refreshing on such a warm day, and yet we were dry by the time we got back for a gelati!

Moving on, we enjoyed our last night on the outskirts of Rieti. To celebrate we arranged a farewell dinner in our hotel – which happened to be a glorious palatial villa hotel called the Park Hotel Villa Potenziani! This first-class hotel was once the hunting residence of the Potenziani family. Dating back to 1788, and set in a beautiful park and gardens, this grand, noble villa made a perfect place to enjoy our last night together. Our farewell drinks and canapes were served on the enormous rose filled palace terrace under the shade of a large gazebo. Later we enjoyed our farewell dinner inside the ornate wood paneled ballroom. The dark wood paneled ceiling was a sight to see. Dining beneath it, we were accompanied by the classical tones coming from of a duo of chamber musicians. A brilliant finale to and amazing tour.

 

Day 10 To Rome

It should have been about 80 minutes back to Rome, but the Italians decided to put on a traffic jam, just for us. We called back into the Victoria Hotel, where we started, to pick up any bags held in storage, and drop people off, and then headed on to the airport. With sadness, we all said farewell, and reluctantly we realised there was no Mystery anymore.

But then, isn’t life a wonderful mystery in itself….  Where too next??????

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Julia Austin

Julia Austin is the Marketing Executive at Albatross Tours