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We left Eeklo about 6.30am the first Friday in June and drove through Antwerp before the morning jam then to the North of Liege and down to the German border and the Mosel valley to the South of Koblenz following the River Rhine before heading South to Fussen and the little village of Hohenschwangau, about half way to our first Italian destination of Assisi.
Unfortunately our car air conditioner decided to cease working and, it now being summer and hot, we arrived in a bit of a sweat after a rather long and uncomfortable journey. We had booked into a little hotel in the village which is located right on the Austrian border and which lives on tourism, it having two "Disneyland" castles.
The oldest and prettiest (photo RHS) is called "Niewschwanstein" which dates from the 14th Century although rebuilt several times since. The present edifice was finished in 1837 by artist and architect Dominico Quaglio for the Bavarian Prince Maximilian.
In 1868, King Ludwig of Bavaria wrote to the composer Richard Wagner of his intention to build a genuine German castle of the Middle Ages. He so misunderstood what such a castle consisted of that he completely demolished one of the most important Bavarian castles dating from the 12th century which had stood on the site, to build what he thought was a "Disneyland" castle in the best possible taste! It was finished in 1891 and became known as the Castle of Hohenschwangau. Wagner was a visitor here and you can gaze at the piano he played on if you are prepared to part with about €30 but we had neither the time or the inclination as it was a 7.30am breakfast then off through the mountains of Austria in a cloudless sky.
Evidence of the cold spring weather was to be seen in the amount of snow on the mountains when driving through Austria. Apart from a petrol stop and purchase of a road toll vignette which is obligatory in Austria, we drove straight through the country.
The road surfaces off the autostrada were generally atrocious. The goverment has no money to resurface the roads so the black economy is at work with more and more Italians buying Range Rovers so that, as the roads revert to cart tracks, they can still drive at 180km/hr, flashing their lights at you bumping along risking death at 70km/hr while overtaking a Fiat Cinquecento doing 60km/hr and tailgating you until you move over as they talk on their cellphones!
Assisi of course is famous as the birthplace of Saint Francis who found fame by preaching peace and loving the countryside and its wild animals. He was born in 1182, the son of a draper and had a privileged upbringing, not converting to Christianity until 1206. Then he gave all his wealth away and founded the Franciscan Order of Minors.
It is interesting that successive Popes violently suppressed this peaceful area in later years to bring it back under the control of the papal states. They rebuilt the Rocca Maggiore fortress in the 15th and 16th centuries to subdue the local population. From the castle towers and battlements there is a fantastic panorama over Assisi and the surrounding Umbrian countryside.
Sue bought herself some little ceramic souvenirs of Assisi from I Due Soli in Via A. Fortini and we stood chatting with the owner who explained how the different ceramic designs came about. We explained that we had often visited Italy in the past but had never been to Assisi. "So you were saving the best until last" he said! A nicer bloke you couldn't wish to meet and when I mentioned my car aircon problems he gave me the address of a specialist who will recharge the system. He also told us to visit the Roman Forum (a funny thing happened to me on the way there!!) a little further along the road which was only opened to the public last year. In the Piazza del Commune are the Corinthian columns of the 1st century Roman temple of Minerva which was subsequently converted into a church and very lovely it is too as you can see in the photo on the LHS.
The Italians make the best ice cream in the world and there are loads of genitalias (my "Del Boy" spoonerism for gelatarias) in Assisi which we try not to abuse! I write this sipping cold white wine and nibbling salami and cheese. Mange Tout!
In our bedroom there is an amusing and very Italian "seat" on which Sue posed but refused to do it naked and painted pink!
Sorry to revert back to Belgium but a few words about parking in Eeklo.
There is a notice on the ticket machines there that say you have 15 minutes gratis parking, however, it is in Dutch and it was not clear to us that you are supposed to press the green button which issues a ticket for 15 minutes free parking and if you do not display the ticket then you are comitting an offence.
We who do not speak Flemish have been parking regularly without taking a ticket so were booked one morning and fined €15.
I did of course argue but finally had to admit defeat after several email exchanges here in Italy. Fortunately we still had money in our ING Belgian account so were able to pay by internet. There is no internet in our apartment so we update our emails and web site in the bar over breakfast.
Our first attempt at getting our aircon recharged ended in failure as the address our new found ceramics friend Ricardo gave us did not exist. We contacted him again and he gave us another address which worked, aircon recharged in 15 minutes, €38 grazie, prego and we're cool again!
We visited the Duomo St. Rufino in Assisi, built in the 12C and reckoned to have one of the finest Romanesque Facades in Umbria. It houses the font where both St. Francis and St. Clare were baptised. St. Clare lived at the same time as St. Francis and has her own Basilica nearby.
St. Rufino was the first Bishop of Assisi who was martyred by the Romans. I think I've got that right but it's a job keeping up with all the saints round here! St. Rufino who 'yer Romains' tried to burn, miraculously escaped the flames so they made sure the next time by tying a millstone round his neck and dumping him in the river!
In the crypt of the Duomo is a museum with frescoes and religious artifacts of some interest. There is also a display of paintings of Pope John Paul II by an artist who uses strange materials for his colours but the most eye catching statue, who I assume is of St. Clare, is illuminated but has no mention on the inscriptions of who it is. It is difficult to see in the main photograph but she has four swords sticking out of her chest which was no laughing matter. She died from natural causes so I do not know what the significance of the swords are but they may be to do with her standing up to a bunch of Saracens (not the Rugby team). Whatever the significance, they were certainly a brutal bunch in those days!
The weather is unsettled at the moment and the locals complain that the weather is more like England than Italy. Hot sun interspersed with thundery showers and cold winds.
Our daily internet session at the Baccanale Cafe revealed that our Lions Rugby Union team were triumphant against the Queensland Reds 22-12 in the toughest game yet. We need the internet for such important news as France 24 TV does not report such life changing events! BOD has befriended MT and is teaching him to pass the ball. Sexton is injured but OF did a grand job of kicking the points as he usually does.
The one on the left is for ladies while the other is for the larger endowed gentleman. The designer of the male apparatus had thoughtfully catered for inadvertent erections by making the vital parts flexible!
Later in a delicatessen devoted to Umbrian gastronomy we found some large salami prosaically called Grandfathers Testicles! The owner spoke very little English so I did not find out the origin of the name or the type of meat from which they were made! Back now to churches and religion as there is no escaping them here.
In 1615 at the request of King Phillip III of Spain, the Chiesa Nuova (New Church) was built in the Renaissance style. It was built in the place where St. Francis's father's house had stood and in a little alleyway outside is the original wooden door of the house and the original warehouse. The church itself has a very beautiful interior with interesting paintings and frescoes.
But if we thought the interior of the New Church was beautiful then we had no adjective to properly describe the Basilica of St. Francis. It is really two churches, one on top of the other. The upper Basilica was the one that suffered the earthquake damage in 1997 and some of the famous frescoes painted by Giotto and his assistants were damaged.
You walk out into the cloisters where there is a museum of religious artifacts then down further and into the lower Basilica where there is hardly a square centimetre if wall or ceiling that is not painted with frescoes or patterns. Down underneath this church is the crypt where you find the tomb of St Francis.
We drove down to Perugia, Umbria's capital city. The Michelin Guide says that the "Piazza IV Novembre" is "one of the grandest in Italy". Well it is rather grand but if you think of the Piazza San Marco in Venice or the Piazza del Campo in Sienna then no contest! From the "Parcheggio PartiGani" you climb up through the underground remains of the fortress "Rocca Paolina", built in 1540, on escalators and stairs to emerge onto the "Corso Vannucci" named in honour of the famous artist who taught Raphael and which is the main street leading to the "Piazza IV Novembre".
The square is dominated by the huge 14C "Palazzo dei Priori", the Priors' Palace which houses the national gallery of Umbria on the top floor. Opposite is the cathedral which has to be one of the ugliest externally but inside is classically Gothic and has a famous painting by Barocci. Even though we were completely churched out we did manage to find and photograph it. The Barocci painting is "The Descent from the Cross" which inspired Rubens in his painting Antwerp Descent. By the way I do not use flash in most of the photographs I take and the reflections you see in this and the one of the marquetry below are from the electric or natural lighting.
We wandered at length around the centre but found little more of interest in Perugia so decided to visit the town of Gubbio some 40km distant.
St. Francis spent some time in this little town and was supposed to have talked here to a wolf, persuading him to stop killing the locals after which it became a pet whom they fed until it's death!
Gubbio sits on the slopes of Monte Ingino and is not unlike Assisi without all the tourists. It never the less caters well for that ilk with two "ascensores" to make the climb up to the higher slopes easier and many signs with distances to local sites of interest and with English language descriptions. French tourists must by now be completely pissed off!
The first lift takes you to the level of the "Piazza Grande" which in it's own smaller way is actually more grand that the one at Perugia because of the spectacular view over the surrounding countryside and the imposing "Palazzo dei Consoli" (the Palace of the Consuls). In mid May every year, thousands gather here to witness the Race of the "Ceri" or candles. The "Ceri" are 4m long heavy carved wooden poles which each have a statue of a different saint on the top.
At the top of the second lift is the cathedral which is rather plain but we had to walk through (being churched out) before arriving at the Ducal Palace which they let us in for nothing due to our great age! One little room was beautifully decorated in marquetry and there was a huge collection of paintings of the Montefeltre family who built the palace from 1470 onwards.
A cable car can whisk you to the Basilica but you have to stand up in little cages and Sue was too frit! From December 7th to January 10th the whole of the mountain side is decorated in coloured lights in the shape of a Christmas Tree with it's apex at the Basilica. They call it the biggest Christmas Tree in the world! We walked back down into town to the post office where Sue posted five postcards to New Zealand. The stamps each cost €2.50 and even the clerk was shocked at the price! Those are the last postcards you Kiwi's will be getting from Italy!
On the drive South the autostrada passes very close to Montecassino. The abbey was rebuilt after WW2 and sits in a prominent position overlooking the town of Cassino and the valley. You can see why the German army chose it as a strong point on their "Gustav Line" to prevent the advance of the allies moving up the Italian peninsulas from their landings in Sicily in 1943.
My suggestion we visit on this occasion was met with agreement from Sue so off we went.
We found our way to the top after some difficulty as Sue reckoned Daphne Satnav did not like "Montecassino" but when I asked Daphne she led us right up the mountain where the man in the car park told us to run as they were closing in 10 minutes!
So let's have some nice war stories!
Well there was an almighty battle here throughout the 43/44 winter. Polish troops who spearheaded the attack suffered heavy casualties fighting often hand to hand in freezing temperatures and there are more than a thousand buried in the war cemetery next to the rebuilt abbey.
The abbey was obliterated by aerial and ground bombardment. Many civilians sheltering in the abbey lost their lives along with German soldiers when it finally fell to the allies in May 1944.
We also visited the Commonwealth War Cemetery just outside Cassino itself where over 8,000 are buried or commemorated of the 42,000 Commonwealth soldiers, sailors and airmen who died in the Italian campaign.
Not all these fought and died at Montecassino but mainly Brits, Canadians, New Zealanders and Indians are buried or commemorated here.
Many mistakes were made by those Allied officers in charge of the Sicilian and other landings leading to the eventual liberation. The original idea of the Italian campaign was to draw German forces out of France in preparation for the Normandy invasion but it is debatable if that strategy was a success, especially in view of the eventual human cost.
We continued on South to the Amalfi peninsula.
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