Orvieto: Lesson no.1, remember where you park

The fun and games driving in Italy with my crazy family continue.  Mum, Dad, Susie, Zorba and I all decided to head to the nearby hilltop medieval town of Orvieto.  Ben was tired from jet lag, as were the kids, so they opted to hang out at our Umbrian palazzo.  We thought we’d be gone for about 2 or 3 hours…. hmmm…read on.

The drive to Orvieto was easy enough, the town is well sign posted and the windy roads and distant rolling hills made it a pleasant and pretty drive. When Orvieto came into view, we were all astounded – a gorgeous looking medieval town perched on top of a hill, church spires and castle towers striking the sky, surrounded by rolling hills of vineyards and trees.

Orvieto in the background

There was a bit of debate as to where to park.  Walter (Dad) wanted to us to drive direct into the centre of the old town of Orvieto, probably because it was 36 degrees, uphill and baking hot.  Zorba and I were more cautious, warning Walter that in old historical towns there were often restricted zones where after a certain point only registered resident cars were allowed to enter and everyone else would be issued with a fine.  We had learnt from experience as it happened to us in Lucca, Tuscany in 2010.

Walter was being fairly insistent about driving in to the town, “Let’s just go up and have a look, if there’s no parking, we’ll come back down.” Fine. If that’s what you want to do Walter, that’s what we’ll do – but you are paying the infringement if we get one!

We drove through the Porta Maggiore – the old city walls – into the old centre of Orvieto. It looked fabulous. And low and behold, there was a free parking spot – whoo-hoo!  The sign had a little picture of man with a trolley and an 1-hour sign.  Hmm, was this a loading zone?  We were all umm-ing and ahh-hing about whether to park and risk it or move the car when a local polizia (policeman) pulled up. I asked him in my most polite Italian if we could park there for one hour? The response from him was — well, normally this is a loading zone, but today is Sunday and it will probably be ok.  Ok, I’ll take that! Let’s park and check this place out!

Orvieto is as cute as you like. A gorgeous medieval town with narrow streets, beautiful flower boxes filled with coloured blooms everywhere you look, portico and arch ways, and pretty cobbled streets.  It is very agreeable.  

We walked to the Duomo and were all utterly amazed at the sheer size and intricate detail of the structure.  From the side, it reminded me of the Duomo in Florence with the striped dark blue and cream brick work. Inside it was breathtakingly beautiful.  Frescoes, marble pillars and flooring, statues, artwork, stain glass windows – the Duomo had it all.  A Mass was in progress, so we couldn’t really look around too much.

The front of the Duomo was stunning.  Built in the 1200s and finished in the 1400s, mosaic images adorned the front and were finished with gold leaf and the usual ornate marble statues and decorations really made the Duomo an impressive structure that you could stare at for ages and ages. Absolutely magnificent.

By this stage, we were starting to feel peckish and lunch was calling.  Knowing how fussy I am with food and eating – well, fussy is the wrong word, I consider myself particular – I took charge of choosing a lunch place.  I hate eating sub-standard food in tourist traps, especially in Italy, a country that has so much good food (as soon as you are away from the tourist spots).  So, a turn here, a turn there, and we stumbled upon a nice looking restaurant off the main streets with an private courtyard covered in shade, thanks to the overhead growing vines. Simply gorgeous! And so lovely and cool on a blazing hot day.  It was a little bit expensive compared to other restaurants we have eaten at in Italy, but Dad was paying and the cool gorgeous setting seemed to be worth it. And we were right.

I ordered for us to share grilled vegetables and a caprese salad with buffalo mozzarella. Oh yes, a delicious start. For mains, we all had something different.  We all enjoyed our meals as much as we enjoyed tasting each other’s.  Ravioli with porcini mushroom sauce, spaghetti amatricana, four cheese lasagne, papadelle with cream and pancetta sauce, local salami-like sausages – all really beautiful.

After lunch Dad decided he wanted to see the famous well in Orvieto that dates back to the 16th century that is 15 metres wide, 62 metres deep and has 248 steps on the spiral staircase along the inside of it.

In the steaming hot sun, it was hard work walking around with a full tummy that was also holding a beer or two.  Curling up in a shady spot was far more appealing.  We didn’t know where the well was and Dad was happy to abandon that idea and get back to the car.  Yes, the car.  Now where did we park the car?

We walked up and down the main hilly street – and up and down again looking for where we parked the car.  Oh dear.  Everyone insisted it was this way, or that way, or the other standard frustrating reaction of, “No no, I remember walking past this shop, that theatre, that church…”. Sigh.

Far out. It was getting hotter and hotter, if that was even possible, and my patience was wearing thinner and thinner.  I had to just sit tight and butt out and let them all argue about the direction we had first entered the town from.  You know, too many cooks and all that. Plus, I had no clue where we had parked the car. None.

Inside the well

A tourist overhead our confusion and helped our plight by giving us her map. She said the famous well was a little way down the hill and worth a look – don’t disappear because there was a local bus that would take us back up the hill once we were done.  We decided to visit the well, after all, we were there in Orvieto and may as well.  Bom-bom, pun intended!

The well was great. It is amazing to think that something as complex as a deep underground structure was capable of being built 800 or so years ago.  It was so lovely and cool inside the well too.  But bloody hard work climbing all those stairs to get back up to the top!

Ah the top, yes, now back to the original problem. Where was the car?  After the sixth time walking past the Massimo Theatre, Zorba cracked it and instructed us to wait there while he checked out a side street to see if that lead to our lost car.  We waited and waited. And waited and waited.  Thank God there was shade on the steps of the Massimo Theatre. There was also the most awful stench of horse manure that keep invading our space every couple of minutes.  Where the hell was that coming from?  We didn’t know, there wasn’t a horse in sight.  It was gross, but what could we do? We couldn’t really move to another spot because firstly there was no shade, and secondly Zorba would never be able to find us.

In the meantime, Susie went through her photos she had taken on her camera and closely examined the first photo she took when we arrived into Orvieto. Between that, asking several locals, “where is this?” and the map the nice Canadian tourist had given us, Dad worked out the general area of where the car must have been parked.

After 40 minutes or so, Zorba finally returned completely and utterly hot and flustered, almost in a panic and declared that the car was nowhere to be seen. He was almost implying that it has been towed away. I wasn’t convinced. But I was cranky.

We were all together again and off we charged up the hill. Seriously, if only we had walked another five minutes up the hill the first time, we would have never have been lost and would have saved ourselves about three hours of inconvenience and stress in the blistering hot summer sun.  Susie kept saying, “Oh no, we are the Griswalds!”  I was in denial. No were weren’t. She might be, but not me. I wasn’t a Griswald. Nope.

It was only when we were trying to find our way back from Orvieto to our lovely Umbrian palace the that I had to concede and agree with Susie after we went around a round-about three times because the stupid GPS couldn’t make its mind up which way we should go.  Grrr.

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Our 2 to 3 hour trip look almost 7 hours.  Yep. We are hopeless.  That’s two days in a row we have been lost.  I hope this is not setting the scene of things to come. Please God no!  But somehow I think it already has.

Ben and the kids were the sensible ones that opted to stay home, and as a result, missed the complete chaos of the Bortoletto’s / Griswalds on tour. Speaking of Ben, he has actually been pretty nice to me thus far.  Normally he stirs me to the point of a snappy reaction (something he takes great pleasure in doing!), but I think he is feeling a bit sorry for me.  After all, holidaying with the Griswalds is no easy feat!

For dinner we had the best BBQ ever at our Umbrian palace consisting of local sausages made by the butcher in Castel Giorgio, veal scallopine steaks (same butcher) that soaked in the beautiful smokey flavour of the coal BBQ, served with a mixed fresh salad. Healthy and delicious and in a setting that offers a view – with matching sunset – to die for.  A great end to an eventful day, oh thank you Umbria!

Arrivederci! xx

Finding our Umbria palazzo

An exciting day! I was meeting my family for a wonderful holiday in the mother country. We live all over Australia and I was really looking forward to being altogether again.

We picked up hire cars at 10am from Rome airport after meeting my family – Walter (dad), Gina (mum), Susie (sister), Ben (bro-in-law), Indi aged 5 (niecelet), and Sam just 3 years old (nephew).  Our hire cars were beautiful new black c-class mercedes benz.  Happy.  Driving two in convoy in rural Italia, one would be forgiven for confusing us  for mafiosi!

The drive to our rented villa in Umbria would have been a direct drive of an hour and a half if we chose to go directly there.  We couldn’t check in until 4pm – so we decided to drive off the main autostrada to a half-way-ish town, Virberto and stop to have a look.  Mum, Dad, and I visited Viterbo back in 2007 and remembered it being a gorgeous medieval town where we had an awesome lunch.

Today, Viterbo was still a gorgeous medieval town that was steaming at 35 degrees.  The poor little kids were so tired from flying from Singapore the night before and tired from being in the car for two hours.

Our mission was to find a restaurant for lunch.  By this time it was 1pm and the whole town was closing for siesta.  The restaurant we found could accommodate eight of us inside and in we piled.  The service was as slow as a Galapagos tortoise.  I had to almost tackle the waitress to ask her to bring some bread – poor little Indi and Sam were almost passing out from low blood sugar levels.

Finally bread and water came out, an hour or so later our food came out and we wolfed down a mix of parmigiana di melanzane, pasta, and beans.  Lunch was nice, but we had more pressing matters to deal with.  We were keen to get going and find our home for the next week, get settled and get out of the heat.

Our drive onto the villa started off straightforwardly. The GPS that Walter brought with him from Australia was programmed with the villa’s address and off we went.  As the front seat passenger, I was a nervous wreck in the car and doing all I could to hide it. So scary with other mad fast drivers, my side of the car veering close to the barrier / wall / other traffic, and narrow narrow roads.  Zorba did a great job driving and Ben did a good job following us in the other car – well, most of the time – besides the moment when he went to over take a truck about 300 metres before we had to take the autostrada exit.  It was only a little sudden swerve that he did that made us all shriek in the other car.

Finding our villa Laguscello was a challenge.  The directions from Rome were very clear.  However, we weren’t coming from Rome on the autostrada.  And we were relying on the GPS.  When we finally heard the GPS announcement, “you have arrived at our destination”, we knew we had not arrived at our destination. We were in a little rural suburban village that had dirty looking kids playing soccer on the street, and the picture of Laguscello that we had all fallen in love with on the internet was no where near to be seen. The black mercs rolling up to this little place made the locals peer out their windows in curiosity.

We stopped, consulted the GPS and consulted the written directions which were a bit useless given that we had come from a different direction on rural roads.  I wandered off to  see what I could find and to see if there was anyone I could ask for direction.  I found a friendly enough family sitting on their front verandah.  The directions they gave me did not sound quite right as they had no idea of the villa I was looking for.  Whilst I was doing that, Gina found someone else who did seem to know the location of our villa and gave fairly precise directions.

Off we went. We turned off the main rural tarmac road up three different gravel roads that were all wrong.  The kids were getting restless, Susie was getting cranky, and we all stopped laughing at how funny it was to get lost in Umbria.  The worst thing of all, we did not follow the directions that Mum had been given.  We went the total opposite way.  Why? I have no idea!  By that stage, I was keeping out of it.  Too many chefs and all that.

Indi, over it.

Eventually, after the fourth gravel road and fourth time of Susie getting out of the car being tetchy, Mum rang Roberto, the manager of the villa.  He said he would wait for us in his blue 4WD on the main tarmac road and gave us directions to come and find him.  We were so close it only took us two minutes to find Roberto – IF we had followed the directions Mum had been given in the rural little town an hour earlier, we would have been there an hour earlier! Susie said we were like the Griswalds. No no no no please no. But looking at it, maybe she was onto something.

From the main tarmac road, the gravel road that lead to the villa was about 500 metres and a little bumpy, nothing the mercs couldn’t handle.  When we pulled into the gated driveway we collectively gasped. It was a gorgeous sight and the exact vista of what we had fallen in love with on the internet.  Rolling Umbrian hills, a huge stone farmhouse style villa and colourful flowers in the well-kept garden.  Yep, this was the picture we were all looking forward to seeing in real life.

When we walked in, we could not believe how stunning it was. A massive down stairs living area that has a formal entrance, formal lounge, kitchen, dining, informal lounge, games room with fuzball table and table tennis table, laundry, bathroom, and second laundry / kitchen area.  Massive!  The walls are all about 50cm thick and the inside of the villa is lovely and cool even if it is 35 degrees outside.

Upstairs, the four bedrooms were ginormous and all with ensuites. The massive main bedroom has a little balcony overlooking the back garden and pool as well as bath tub in the bathroom. The main bedroom was bigger than my entire Craven Terrace flat in London  (Lancaster Gate) that I shared with two other girls for 18 months!  We were delighted and just thrilled to be able to call this place our home for the next week.

Outside we had a large in-ground pool complete with deck chairs, a hammock, beautiful fragrant bushes of lavender and flowers dotting colour all around, two BBQs and the old fashioned wood-fired pizza oven.  There’s no wood for the pizza oven, so that is something we’ll have to find in the next couple of days because Gina (mum) has been instructed to give us all a cooking class on making the best pizza dough.  It’ll be fun to make pizza with the kids.

Zorba, Dad and I drove to the nearest town, Castel Giorgio, to pick up some supplies for dinner. The little town is fairly nondescript, although the butcher served us well with unbelievable homemade salami, tasty proscuito, smokey pancetta, and some freshly cut veal scallopini.  The small roma tomatoes I bought from the little supermarket in a packet were some of the tastiest I’ve had so far this trip.  Walter was of course in charge of the alcohol and bought enough to keep a small army inebriated for several days.  At those prices, why wouldn’t you?

With an eventful day travelling, jet lag that the family was suffering, and a big lunch we enjoyed in Viterbo, everyone decided to get a good night’s sleep and turned in fairly early. Except me of course. I just had to write to you to keep you up to date with all the shenanigans.  There’s bound to be more, so stay tuned!

Thanks readers for taking the time to read this post.  Knowing you are there is all the motivation I need to stay up late and tap away on my adored MacBook Air.

A domani – til tomorrow x

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Lessons in driving in Sicilia

Lesson 1:  always stick to the main roads

Lesson 2:  make sure you have a Greek around who can do the driving for you

Lesson 3: invest in a Tom Tom

Lesson 4;  hire the smallest size car you can

After a blissful three nights living the island life in Favignana, we returned to the mainland, Trapani, ready to pick up our hire car and explore Sicilia.  First stops: Erice and Segesta – both places date back to 6th century BC – yes peeps, BC, more than 2500 years ago.

The lady working at Auto Europa car hire had the misconception that her job was THE most important and stressful job on the planet.  She would not release the car to us without a print off of the car hire voucher.  I tried to show her on my iPhone email that I had the voucher there with all the information – NO! Not acceptable.  “I muuuuuust huv the prrrrrrrint-tt outta of de voucherrrrrr” GRRR.  I offered to email it to her so she could print it out from her computer – NO!  “I dontta huv an emaile herrrrre”.  BullSHIT is what I wanted to scream. In the end, I called the booking agent in Ireland who faxed the stressed out car hire chick the voucher.  She quickly went over the Fiat Bravo to point out the existing scratches, and handed us the keys and said, “bye” and trotted off.  “Wait wait wait!” I called out.  “are you going to give us a map or anything? or can we get a Tom Tom?”  There were no Tom Toms left, and she threw me a map of Italy (useless) and said very curtly, ‘bye”.  Yeah, f-off to you too lady!.  Luckily the mechanic was there and must’ve seen the look of bewilderment on our faces – he was lovely and helped us by asking where we were going and giving us directions out of the city.

The first shift in driving was mine.   I nervously got us out of Trapani and up the twisty windy roads of the mountain to the beautiful ancient town of Erice.  Zorba was quite a nervous passenger, and I was a pretty nervous driver.  Not because of the car, but because it’s so hard to judge the distance of the passenger side of the car when driving left hand drive.  The windy road up to Erice was pretty narrow, which made it interesting when a big bus or truck came screaming around the corner.

Erice is gorgeous.  It has an imposing castle on top of the hill which is also the site of the temple that was built for the Goddess Venus back in the 6th C BC.  During the Roman era, Erice remained a sacred town devoted to Venus and in the castle, sacred prostitution was practiced.  Trust the Romans to make prostitution a sacred practice!!

Favignana Erice Segesta 114 Favignana Erice Segesta 129 Favignana Erice Segesta 132 Favignana Erice Segesta 134 Favignana Erice Segesta 137

The town is hilly and has lots of narrow streets made from stones – not flat stones mind you, round ones, so walking on them is not very comfortable. Tip:  if you ever go to Erice, wear runners.   Erice was baking hot – stifling hot.  The sun was blazing down and there was no shade and no breeze to provide any relief.  After a salad for lunch, we decided it was too hot to stay there any longer and made our way to Segesta where the most perfectly preserved Greek temple stands.  Before leaving though, I bought a decent road map of Sicilia.

I asked Zorba if he wanted to drive and he said yes, so off we went, with the Greek at wheel.  Zorba then understood the difficulty in judging the passenger side of the car, but did a good job getting us to Segesta. Segesta was pretty spectacular.  There’s nothing else there besides a tourist shop, ancient amphitheatre (2km up the hill – take the bus) and the ancient temple.   After a lemon granita and a look around the monuments, it was 4pm and we thought we better find a place to stay.

Favignana Erice Segesta 153 Favignana Erice Segesta 155 Favignana Erice Segesta 170 Favignana Erice Segesta 181

Zorba at the wheel and off we went towards Palermo with the view of finding an agriturismo (farm stay) to stay in not too far from the auto strada.  To find a farm stay we had to get off the autostrada – and did.  I was following the map very closely as Zorba was driving.   We decided Zorba was better at driving and I was better at giving directions and reading maps.  Off the main road we went, onto a smaller highway.  Then Zorbs decided we should take the smaller road to where we wanted to go.   Ok cool!  I envisaged open roads, flanked by farmland, dotted with cute agriturismi every so often – instead we arrived into automobile hell. 

Taormina Giardini Naxos 006

Here we were driving in narrow narrow pot-holed streets, buildings lapping the curb, cars, vespas and scooters carrying whole families, trucks, buses, and the three wheeler mini utes – apes – everywhere. Cars would tear past us, shaving our duco without giving it a second thought.  I was terrified!!  Every five minutes I would see a truck coming straight for us with the road barely wide enough for it, let alone
wide enough for the truck and us in a Fiat Bravo, a car about the same width as a Holden Astra or Toyota Corolla.

I just braced myself and shut my eyes, expecting the hear the sounds of smashing glass and our Fiat Bravo being crushed every five minutes.  To top it all off, we were hopelessly lost. The little streets were not shown on the road map I had, so Zorba would ask me in a panicked voice, “which way?” and I couldn’t help.  After about 30 minutes of being trapped in automobile hell, i got my iPhone out and used the map on it to get us out of there – stuff the cost, this was a crisis.  My knuckles were white, my lip blistered it’d bitten it so much, and my nerves wrecked.  Thank God for the Greek. If he wasn’t there driving, I don’t know how I would have coped.  I would have pulled into someone’s drive way and waited until 2am until the madness stopped and attempted to drive out of there then…

The iPhone helped, but it took several attempts. That stupid blue dot that tells you where you are kept jumping from street to street – so i thought we were somewhere, then the ball would jump to the parallel street to say we were there.  So i’d look up for a road sign and see a bus coming straight for us and Zorba swerving as close to the parked cars on my side of the road as he could. Aaarrrrgh we are going to hit the car on my side!!   I kept freaking out, which didn’t help him – but it was a reaction i had no control over. I thought our time was up and we’d end up dying in automobile hell, leaving our families with a massive car rental damage bill in the process.

Two hours of sheer nervous frightened terror later, and we were back on a ‘super strada’ or high way, and heading to the beach side town of Mondello, an outer suburb of Palermo.  Phew, we made it out of automobile hell alive.  It was 8.30pm before we arrived at the very comfortable B&B Baglio – which for 80 euro per night, with an extra 5 euro for parking, was exactly what we needed.  It was secure, new, and for now, our little oasis of calmness. 

Mondello is a big seaside city beach town with amusement parks, loads of expensive promenade bars, Moroccans selling cheap jewellery, and a very lively atmosphere.  For a night, this place would do just fine.

For dinner we choose a pizzeria away from the promenade and had the best pizza in Italia to date.  Better than Di Buffa in Rome, better than the place we waited an hour for in Palermo, better than all of them.   I had a pizza I’ve never seen or had before. It was called a Cattevio – or something similar – and only the pizza base was cooked, the rest of the ingredients were placed on top – rocket, proscuito crudo, shaved parmesan, cherry tomatoes – my god it was YUM!!!  Washed down with a beer, yay!  We turned in about midnight. I was not looking forward to being the car again the next day, but as they say, I had to “toughen up princess”.