Often overlooked in favour of Northern Italy’s other big hitters (Florence, Milan and Venice, I’m looking at you), Bologna is an underrated gem which, dare I say it, I much preferred to its northerly neighbour, Florence.
Florence is synonymous with the Renaissance, and I’d wager most visitors to Florence venture to at least one of its museums to catch a glimpse of Botticelli’s Birth of Venus or Michelangelo’s David. Not us.
Once upon a time, Ostia was a thriving port city with over fifty thousand inhabitants and a buzzing social scene (a theatre, plus public baths and taverns aplenty). Over time, attention shifted to Portus – a harbour on the north of the River Tiber – and Civitavecchia – a city sixty-odd kilometres to the north-west of Rome. Trade in Ostia slowed, and the city fell into decline.
Rome took me by surprise, in a good way. I expected it to be busy – and it was, but not excessively so (travelling in shoulder season certainly helped). I expected it to be rainy, because the weather forecast looked dire for the few days we’d be there – but it was balmy. I expected it to expensive – and while I’m sure it can be, I found it wasn’t all that difficult to visit on the cheap.
There was no need for an alarm clock at Rifugio Elena: noisy snores from a neighbouring bunk woke us from our slumber, and a rather inconsiderate person from the far side of the dorm came over and drew the curtains next to our bed. Farewell Land of Nod, hello breakfast: bacon (or was it warm ham?), sausage, a dollop of yogurt mixed with plum jam, (more) stale bread, and a slice of a jammy shortbread tart.
Fuelled up on multiple croissants (our hotel had not one, not two, but five different types to choose from), yogurt, apricot tart, fruit, bread and juice, we hit the trail. Yesterday, Courmayeur’s piazzas and winding streets bustled with gelato aficionados, window shoppers and holidaymakers. This morning they’re empty, save for a few walkers trickling out of the city towards Rifugio Bertone.
Nestled at the foot of Col de la Seigne, Refuge des Mottets lies in shadow. On with the flip flops and, for good measure, the micro fleece; breakfast calls. We cross the yard to the breakfast room, find our places at one of the breakfast tables. Here, there’s lots of orange juice to go round, pots of coffee and tea, jugs of hot milk, jars of muesli and honey puffs and a choice of bread, complete with butter and jam; it’s infinitely better than Gîte le Pontet’s meagre offering.
Traversing France, Italy and Switzerland, the Tour du Mont Blanc (or TMB, for short) is an iconic hike, and one which had sat on my wish list for nigh-on six years. The TMB is 170km (or thereabouts, depending on any variants taken) of snow-capped cols, alpine pastures (minus the cast of The Sound of Music) and lush valleys; an adventure like no other. / Traversant la France, l’Italie et la Suisse, le Tour du Mont Blanc (ou TMB, en abrégé) est une randonnée iconique, qui est sur ma liste de merveilles depuis presque six ans. Le TMB, c’est 170km (à peu près, dépendant des variantes) de cols toujours enneigés, d’alpages (sans la distribution de La Mélodie du Bonheur) et des vallées verdoyante; une aventure sans pareil.
Once a maritime powerhouse, Pisa now owes its spot on the well-trodden tourist trail of Italy to something else entirely: an unnervingly wonky tower, which cheerfully photobombs every photo you’ll attempt to snap in the Piazza dei Miracoli. The Leaning Tower of Pisa may draw in hundreds of thousands of visitors annually, but there’s arguably more to this city than its famous tilting tower.
If Oxford is the City of Spires, then Lucca is the City of Towers. (Towers which, in my humble opinion, outshine the iconic Leaning Tower in neighbouring Pisa.) Having spent three days exploring the nooks and crannies of each of the Cinque Terre’s picturesque villages, we were keen to make the most of our time in Italy and, at Laurence’s colleague’s suggestion, decided to spend our final full day in Lucca. It was a hop, skip and a train ride away from Manarola, and we felt it was a day well spent.