Ferrara, where the bicycle rules and not the tourist

So that is it. Home tomorrow. I leave you with images of Ferrara. There could be a lot worse places to leave you, and no, this is not where they make very flashy sports cars. This place is like a mini, fabulous Florence without a coach party in sight. In fact there are no cars in the centre to disrupt the seemingly endless flow of the bicycle. Many of the riders are particularly pleasing on the eye.

We hit gold with the hotel, for a start. A little bijou place on a central piazza, opposite the castle. Then the upgrade to a room with a small balcony looking directly onto the ancient Continue reading

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Padua in the heat

OMG. What a shock to the senses. The last time I spoke to you I was in the peaceful tranquility of La Marche, alone with the farmland, the soaring buzzards, the pool and mama Anita’s cooking. I have come 250+ km north to Padua, a university city in the same mold as Oxford, established yonks ago but in comparison to the past two weeks so hot and busy and full of people and noise and bikes and trams and shops and gelatos. It is wonderful but such a shock to the system. Welcome back to reality and back-home normality. Oxford in a 34° heatwave. Enjoy the churches, the piazzas, the shade, when you can find it.

 

 

 

Eating out at Trattoria Anita

Eating out in Cupramontana gives you Gina’s, a pizza restaurant, Rosina’s a few miles out of town with a glorious terrace overlooking the surrounding hills & Ristorante La Orietta within the medieval, walled core of the town.

But I must spend some time telling you about the special delights of eating in Trattoria Anita. This can be found down a narrow, dark, cobbled street beside the butchers, under a totally inappropriate sign showing a golywog drinking a cup of coffee.

The first doorway is into the kitchen of open charcoal grills and steaming, aluminium pots & pans where three elderly, hunched mamas pirouette around each other in the space in the middle.


The second door is the entrance to a time capsule taking you back 70 years when it was OK to have signs like that hanging above your door. Four tables, covered in white tablecloths, covering red gingham, are positioned on each side of the narrow space, a counter, behind which are shelves of ancient, crusty bottles containing different coloured spirits, faces the entrance, a doorway that leads into the kitchen and a fridge unit holding two types of wine-white in loosely corked bottles and red in those old Corona clasped 1litre jobbies, about 20 of each.


Yes, we can eat. Papa, aged about 75, appears and shows us to a table. A bottle of gassed water and a bottle of white is dumped on the table. There follows 5 minutes of sign language with papa grumbling away in discontent, where we exchange these for still water(we get a bottle of tap, so we keep the fizzy) and a litre bottle of home-produced red, which is surprisingly good and has gone by the end of the evening.

No menu is immediately obvious. A 4th, younger lady, by that I mean later 40’s, who also speaks only Italian, appears at the table and gabbles through the premier platas. Recognising tortellini and ravioli we choose the former. Papa comes out of the kitchen with a tray of small curled pasta, covered in cream and parmesan and filled with cheese and bacon pieces, he serves us and retires, mumbling about something or other. The food is absolutely delicious.

Meanwhile the room is starting to fill up. Local Italian families take the tables in the room and get the same food as us. But hey, they keep coming. Two police officers, with guns, mother and child, pairs, threes, larger groups know their way to the hidden door which leads, via a single pointing finger to ‘upstairs’.

Papa has a problem. He appears with a piece of cotton wool protruding from a nostril, which doesn’t look good. As he returns from the door and showing some people upstairs, he gestures and the plug falls, to land, much to the surprise of the customers, on the table in front of him. They accept this invasion of their space and carry on eating as papa returns to the kitchen, never to be seen again.

His serving duties are taken over by mama. Mama is stooped with age yet skips around the joint, involved with everything. She explains, in a high, fluttery voice, the meats that are available for the secondi. Acorn Antiques comes to mind. She is lovely, breaking into a huge smile when ever a dish is complemented.

We spot the only menu, a hand written poster on the inside of the door, which helps us choose the rabbit (and that is what you get, cooked in oil, garlic & tomato-delicious) from the 4 available, all served with pots or tom gratin.


Dessert is the only slightly disappointing element of this wonderful, home-cooking experience so I’ll gloss over that as I don’t want to leave on a sour note. Coffee was great and the bill ever greater. This was a true family meal, cooked by the family, served by the family and prepared by the family, for locals. If you are ever nearby this is so worth the effort. Thank you mama.

 

 

 

A day at the Adriatic seaside

Having seen, over the past days, the turquoise strip lining the horizon in the far distance, it was time to leave the peace and tranquility of the Marche countryside and have a day at the seaside. On reflection, a mistake.

An hour down the motorway to Ancona and then, a few miles out of town, the map suggested a narrow, picturesque lane down to a bay. Clues to what we would find lay in our approach. Firstly, stopping off on the cliff-top to see, in the distant haze, the waters of the Adriatic and a shimmering beach covered with row after row of different coloured sunbeds lined up like regiments preparing an attack. The battalion stand like small-scale, model soldiers, on station, firm and erect, facing the appealing waters, stretching away as far as the eye can see. Preparing to attack or defend what? The sea? Hmmmm.


With trepidation we follow the tarmac down. Like an evacuation, cars are parked, nee abandoned, on every spare bit of road, every field. We get down the bottom. Both beach car parks are full. ‘Park your car up on the field a km away with the other thousand motors and get the shuttle bus down’. OMG. What must the beach be like!!

So we cut our losses and abandon that plan. We take the cliff road to Soroli. A picturesque town high on the cliffs above the coast and, yes, the car parks and rocky beaches way, way below.

The place is almost empty. I suppose everyone has booked their sunbeds for the day and is roasting down on the rocks. Here we find our one nugget, our small piece of calm and class. In the shade of a fig tree, outside a small boutique hotel we have a simple lunch- canelloni stuffed with assorted seafood, a couple of glasses of the local white and apricot tart to finish up with. Heaven. The high spot of the day.


Then back in the car, down to Sunbed Strip and Umbrella City and the angled, wooden beds of browning, burning bodies on one side of the road and the parked heat-locked cars parked on the other, before giving up, hot and exasperated, and heading for the the cool breezes of the hills, back to our peaceful base. Why did we go out in the first place?

 

Even further along the back roads

Today is a drive over to Pergola to pick up the trail again. The countryside remains the same but the further west, the higher the land gets and the more alpine the scenery and the architecture becomes.

Pergola is another ordinary but charming, warm place on the route. Narrow streets lead through from one sunny side to another creating shady patches for the locals at play. Animated chatter and card schools seem to be the order of the day.

The castle at Frontone can be seen from miles away standing erect over the hills and low mountains of its immediate neighbourhood.

Close up it stretches up high into the sky whilst the rest of this cobbled medieval village shudders in its shadow. The views from the walls show how much the landscape is changing.

The last place on this mini tour is Cagli. Again a huge fortress guards the entrance to the town. Once negotiated it is a downhill walk through the streets to the central plaza where wonderful faded buildings create a perimeter of flaky plaster and ancient, muted whitewash. The locals, as everywhere, collect in groups to chatter the evening away.

So that’s it. You could drive on a few km to see the view from the top of Mt. Catria. Or you could have dinner in Cagli and call it a day. I decided on the latter.

Along the back roads of La Marche

Whenever you get a chance to explore a new area, ignore the glittery postcards, the guide books and head for the back roads. Of course a car is essential to get you away from the main tourist sights and onto the those little narrow roads that reveal surprises and amazing sights around every corner. This is a 40 km route in La Marche that is a little gem of a journey that takes in a collection of hidden treasures for the intrepid traveller.

The route runs along the ridges from west to east, south of Urbino nd ends in the foothills of the high hills and mountainds of Italy’s central spine. Beautiful country spreads out on both sides of the road, rolling away to the distant horizon in folds.

This is enough, in itself, to take one’s breath away but wait until you stop at some the places along the way. Ostra Vetere is a sign of things to come when it appears in the distance above the farmland with its medieval facade becoming larger and then falling away behind me as I drive past.

I am heading for Corinaldo to start my little tour. The only sign that this place is about to give up its wedding cake secrets is the large fortified gate in the middle of town. Through the arch round the corner and there is the medieval escalator of stone steps to take punters into the heart of this pretty, peaceful place and, yes, a wedding has taken place and the happy couple pose in front of this romantic backdrop, snapped by cameras and a whirring drone. The only other people here are a scattering of folk finishing their lunch in snug little terrace restaurants.


Mondavio sounds l like the country from a Marx Brothers’ film. It doesn’t look that impressive from a distance. Up close and intimate it becomes a set for Game of Thrones, not that I’ve seen a single episode.

A cobbled-streeted villages with its 12th century church merges with its main protector with a moated 13th century castle, all made from bricks. They must have needed millions and millions and so clever. The fortifications curve and flow around the town, the lines built to. presumably divert cannon balls along their contoured fronts.

San Lorenzo in Campo is an small, charming, ordinary town. We hit it later afternoon a the locals chatter in their favourite patches of shade.

This lot thought it hilarious that their 2-stroke road-friendly, three-wheeled, vans were the focus for us visitors. I asked them to pose with their vans and they agreed with great hilarity all round.

To be continued.

The butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker in Cupramontana

It’s Saturday. Up early and a short drive into Cupramontana for provisions for the weekend. Nothing is open tomorrow, Sunday. So into the car, first gear & 20km per hour up the white gravel track to reach the metal road into town. Hills to the left, hills to the right, hills in front and hills behind. Up and rolling, bending down and over, roads and tracks squeeze around bubbles of woods and trees, stoned villages close and far away on tops and in valleys and through fields with every hue of browny earthiness. Every metre has a view across this rolling patchwork of awesome agricultural colour mixes.

It is like moving across an artist’s palette, driving from one colour to the next as ploughed earths mix it up with harvested grasses and rows of vines stand next to clumping trees that abound with fruit – walnuts and pomegranates and olives. Textures, shapes, rural colours crowd in on your eyes and your senses.

So the first stop is to get in to the bakers. Now the Italians do many things perfectly – pasta, pizza, fish, wine, coffee, but bread is not on this list.Usually it takes the form of snubby loaves with hard middles and even harder crusts the are past their best within 30 minutes or so of baking. So when you have a recommendation that the local baker’s fresh loaves are to die for, you go for it, especially as they tend to go before 1030. Park outside, straight in and a fresh crispy French stick is on the lunchtime menu.


The next up is the butcher. This is found down the small side street with a narrow entrance with a pink, porky pig above the door. They love their pork around here. On a narrow table a lady is selling crackling in every form and just crackling- ears, tails, cheek flaps, every bit of skin you can imagine large and small. We have a bit of friendly agro trying to order meat. Avoiding the stare of the white skinned rabbit, complete with head and long neck attached, snuggling around a large carrot, the campaign starts. We want duck. A picture of 2 plump duck breasts comes to mind, like what might be found in Waitrose. None are obvious. Using Google we show signor the word. He mutters under his breath, goes out the back and gets his wife. Ah yes, she leans over, moves some carcasses about and comes up with a whole duck. We hold up two fingers for 2 breasts. You want two she says. No, one finger, duck, but 2 breasts. This goes on for a few minutes until we agree on one duck that she will cut up. Next problem. How do we want it cut? Firstly legs, neck, wing are lopped off with a chopper and put in a bag. Then the bird is halved with an electric saw. Then one half is cut into slices with a big chopper and the other into a front half and a back half with an even bigger chopper. Never had this problem in Waitrose. Now we gotta cook it!

Very good duck in plum sauce, Hazel.

The grocer is a lot easier. We can stand there and just point at tomatoes and lettuce and onions and melons and peaches put them in a bag, say ‘grazie mille’ in our best Italian and move on. The candlestick maker was supposed to produce anti-mosquito coils and citronella candles. Sadly the village had no candlestick maker but we did find some coils in the local super mercado.

After a very necessary cup of coffee in the square it was back in the car and home. Mission accomplished. You want to see the quality of the local entertainment and live music? Come over on the 18th. It’s free!!!!