Saturday, 15 August 2015

Italy - Umbria and Tuscany 2015

This year saw us returning to Umbria for our summer holiday. Umbria is like the kneecap of the leg that is Italy.

Umbria. Tuscany is NW of it.

We went to Lake Garda in 2011 but we wanted to visit again the lovely rolling hills and gorgeous cypress tree landscapes of northern Umbria and southern Tuscany. We also wanted to see our friends Terri and her husband, Paolo. Terri worked with Lynne in the 70s, had married Paolo and lived in Italy ever since. They were having major structural problems with their house so, on their recommendation, we booked into a local country house, Le Torri di Porsenna.

Le Torri di Porsenna 

We flew to Pisa because we could go from Gatwick. Perugia is nearer than Pisa, but that meant flying from Stansted, a very long way from where we live. On arrival mid-evening, we picked up the hire car and we were off. We arrived at Le Torri di Porsenna about 11 PM, where Bruno greeted us with a glass of sparkling water. This family run converted convent had 15 rooms, swimming pool, restaurant and a fully blown beauty parlour, which we didn't use because it wouldn't do much good at our age! We did use the pool and also drank our gin and tonic in the large canopied seating area facing the sun, setting over the nearby vineyard-clad hills. Bliss!

View from the terrace of Le Torri di Porsenna

Over the next 10 days, Bruno, his wife Marisella, as well as Donatello, the Gardener and general handyman, proved to be delightful hosts. Breakfasts were delicious and wholesome. We dined four or five times in the restaurant and found the food fresh, expertly cooked and the meals and wines reasonably priced. We highly recommend Le Torri di Porsenna.

The map below is from the internet and shows many of the places around the lake. 

Those not named on the map are as follows:
1.   Le Torri di Porsenna     2.  Oasi of San Savino
3.   Leaning Tower, Vernazzano   4.  Lake Montepulciano

Oasi Reserve at San Savino

This was not strictly a birdwatching holiday. However Lynne, as ever, was keen for me to see some wildlife. The main tourist brochure in our room mentioned a wildlife reserve (Oasi San Savino) on the East of the Lago Trasimeno which was open to visitors from 9:30 AM. After a not too early breakfast, we arrived at the Oasi reserve just as a tour, guided by Maddalena, was about to start.

There was a short talk and demonstration of bird ringing by Marco before we ventured out onto the raised boardwalk over this protected area of the lake. 
Marco ringing at Oasi San Savino - (phone photo)

It was getting quite hot by then. Apart from several waterbirds to be seen in the UK, we did catch sight of a Little Bittern (It. Tarabusino), a Purple Heron (Airone rosso) and a flock of Yellow-legged Gulls (Gabbiano reale del mediterraneo o zampe gialle)

Purple Heron in flight

I wanted to come back earlier on another day. Maddalena said that the following Saturday I could come at 6:30 AM when the bird ringers would open up early.

Palio delle barche, Passignano sul Trasimeno

Every year, this modest lakeside town holds a festival and a light-hearted boat race. Our friend, Terri, was in a rehabilitation centre in Passignano. She had suffered quite a severe stroke two months earlier, unbeknown to us. Terri had to re-learn how to use her left leg but was making good progress. We visited her several times in Passignano.

Before I describe the boat race, you should know that, shortly before our arrival in Italy, there had been a prolonged heatwave, with temperatures consistently at 40° C or more. This had caused some violent local thunderstorms with hailstones as big as golf balls. Some of these had smashed car windscreens and damaged some solar panel installations. Although it was slightly cooler during our visit, we still saw 40° C on some afternoons. Generally the daily high was around 35 or 36°C.

Before the actual boat race, there was a long procession depicting the four teams. It showed the trades or industries carried on by them and a host of characters in period dress. Costumes were often long velvet dresses and velvet hats. All this in the searing summer heat!

At the end of the afternoon, after the procession, the boat race proper began. Here is the Blue team, who did their preparations in the street below Terri's hospital dining room.

The Blue team get ready! - (Lynne's photo)

First, the teams ran through the streets carrying their boats. This was followed by the boat race on the lake. Two team members rowed a pretty young girl around a marker buoy and back again. 
Neck and neck! Girls prepare to jump ashore - (Lynne's photo)
The girl in blue jumps ashore first!  - (Lynne's photo)

Touching the shore triggered another race through the streets carrying the boat, followed by the final leg on the water to the finishing line. It seemed to us that the boats that were raced through the streets were smaller and lighter than the boats used on the lake. The ‘land boat’, when upside down, still had the writing the right way up - see picture above. 

Also, the team members who ran through the streets were not the same as those who rowed on the lake. The evening was finished off with a firework display at midnight. However, we were safe in our beds by that time.

The leaning tower of Vernazzano

Now, you've all heard of the leaning Tower of Pisa, but have you heard of the leaning tower of Vernazzano? No? Neither had we. Vernazzano is a small village on the North shore of the Lago Trasimeno. Its only claim to fame is the leaning tower, which is quite high up in the hills and very difficult to find. Initially we tried to follow the signs but we ended up driving in a big circle. Next, we stopped at the village bar and had a coffee. One of the locals was overjoyed to explain exactly how to get to the tower and told us much of its history.

After coffee we set off again, up a narrow winding lane and through hairpin bends. Eventually, we arrived at a point where the tarmac gave way to a rough stone track. Undeterred, we pressed on. The track entered a thick wood. After some distance, as the track got even narrower, we thought we must have taken a wrong turning. We decided to turn around, no mean feat on a track barely the width of a car. No sooner had we turned around then we caught a glimpse of the tower through the trees. Another scary ten-point turn and we pressed on until we reached the tower, perched high on the edge of the hill overlooking the lake.
The Leaning tower of . . . Vernazzano!

With Lynne, from the other side.

Now, I have to admit that there is absolutely no comparison between the two leaning towers mentioned above. The one in Pisa is large, magnificent, impressive and infinitely more accessible. Nevertheless, the crumbling masonry that is the leaning tower of Vernazzano has evidently had significant engineering talent lavished on it, not to mention a substantial amount of state funds. The steelwork supporting it and the tensioning cables are truly impressive. 

The cables are impressive. (phone photo)
The view was also expansive over the lake.

Lake Trasimeno from Vernazzano - Isola Maggiore (R), Minore (L). - (Lynne's photo)

The tower was interesting in a curious sort of way and we enjoyed the challenge of finding it.

After the tower, we had a pizza at a hilltop cafe before heading back to our hotel.

Cascata delle Marmore, Terni

About 2000 years ago the Romans built a canal to divert the river in order to drain wetlands that were a source of illness (probably malaria). The diversion created the Marmore Waterfall (Cascata delle Marmore) near Terni, about 160Km from Castiglione. The water does not flow over the waterfall at all times; only for two or three periods a day. The rest of the time the water is used in the nearby hydroelectric plant to produce electricity. We planned ahead and looked up the times when the water would be flowing and timed our visit accordingly.

The waterfall is impressive. Its total height is 145m. The first, and principal, fall is 83m. This makes it one of the tallest waterfalls in Italy and the highest man-made waterfall in Europe. If we had planned it even better, we would have arrived shortly before the water started to flow. I think that would have been even more impressive.
By the Marmore Waterfall, Terni -  (phone photo)
The main fall, 83m

There are almost always rainbows

The main fall, 83m

Lynne by the Marmore Falls

Lago di Piediluca

After going over the waterfall, the water eventually ends up flowing through the Lago di Piediluca. This pretty lake is a few kilometres away, downstream. We took the opportunity to visit it before returning north.

The Lake of Piediluca

The Lake of Piediluca


One of our neighbours, Laura, is Italian and spends a few months each year in her native Tuscany. We called her and suggested that she spend a night at our country house so that we could spend a couple of days together. 

Lynne and Laura
Laura joined us and we decided to visit Montepulciano, a nearby hilltop town famous for its red wine. After the long drive to Terni and back the previous day, my right shoulder was painful and tense from driving an unfamiliar car on the other side of the road. Laura agreed to drive to Montepulciano, which was about half an hour away. We arrived in time for lunch and enjoyed a leisurely and relaxing midday meal in one of the restaurants. We wandered the streets looking at the Artisan shops, the many wine shops and eventually ended up in the main square at the top of the town. Montepulciano is quite built-up and viewpoints are few and far between. The only way for a true panorama was to climb the tower of the town hall. 150 or so steps later we were able to enjoy magnificent views over the Tuscan countryside.

From the tower of the Town Hall, Montepulciano 

From the tower of the Town Hall, Montepulciano

From the tower of the Town Hall, Montepulciano

From the tower of the Town Hall, Montepulciano

From the tower of the Town Hall, Montepulciano

From the tower of the Town Hall, Montepulciano

From the tower of the Town Hall, Montepulciano

On our return, we dropped Laura off at Le Torri di Porsenna while Lynne and I went to Passignano to visit Terri in hospital. In one of our early visits we discovered that the drinks vending machine had "cappuccino with ginseng" for a mere 55 euro-cents! That became our drink of preference while visiting Terri. We always bought one on our way up to her floor! Terri was doing well and there was talk of her going home the following week.

The bee-eaters

On our way back from Passignano, the satnav took us through an open country lane bounded by fields of sunflower and one or two ploughed fields. Lynne, who was always on the lookout for birds for me, noticed a number of birds in the distance. From the country house I had heard a number of European bee-eaters (Gruccioni) flying over, perhaps a dozen or so. When we got out of the car it was clear there were a couple of hundred bee-eaters enjoying a feeding bonanza over these fields. I put my camera together (digital SLR, 100 – 400 mm zoom lens +1.4x converter) and spent about 15 minutes taking pictures.

European Bee-eater (Gruccione)

European Bee-eater (Gruccione)

European Bee-eater (Gruccione)

European Bee-eater (Gruccione)

European bee-eaters are very handsome birds. They are colourful and acrobatic. They dive off telegraph wires or nearby trees and swoop down over the fields. They often take their prey from below, swooping up and grasping the lethal sting in their bills. They then return to their perch, beat their prey senseless against the wire or branch, before removing the sting and swallowing the bee. Lynne meanwhile photographed the sunflowers, her favourite subject in Italy. However, we couldn't stay long as we had booked a table for dinner at Le Torri di Porsenna. Terri's son, Christopher, joined the three of us for dinner.

The first time we had eaten at Le Torri di Porsenna, we ate outside on the terrace under a canopy (not the one in the picture above). In view of the sweltering heat, Lynne had encouraged me to wear my shorts. Big mistake!  I did not put any insect repellent on. By the end of the evening I had a dozen or so mosquito bites to which, uncharacteristically, I had a dramatic reaction. Each bite came up in a large red weal, larger than a £2 coin, i.e. 3 – 4 cm across.

My leg after the "Tiger" mosquitoes had got to it! -  (phone photo)

These proved very itchy and didn't go until we were almost ready to leave Italy. I did not understand my reaction but Christopher gave the explanation. It seems that a few years ago a very virulent mosquito arrived in Italy in a consignment of car tyres. These "tiger mosquitoes" are much more vicious than the native ones. From that day we always put on insect repellent before venturing out after sunset.

Castiglione del Lago

The main town on the Lago Trasimeno is Castiglione del Lago. The town is set on the only significant hill for miles around. Although we knew the town quite well from previous visits, we had never visited the Palace. This was the stronghold of the dominant local family for some centuries. The palace is joined to the nearby Castle by a narrow corridor about 150m long, running through the middle of a wall and wide enough for only one person.
Through the wall from the Palace
to the Castle. - (Lynne's photo)

The castle ramparts and tower afford good views over the town and the lake.

Castle of Castiglione del Lago - from the lake.

From the Castle of Castiglione del Lago

From the Castle of Castiglione del Lago

The lake water is replenished only by local rainfall. It is not fed by any significant river. A few years ago the water level in this already shallow lake dropped significantly, by about 2m I am told. In a lake where the average depth is only about 4.7m, a drop of 2m is dramatic. This caused great consternation amongst the local inhabitants. The edges of the lake became very swampy making it less attractive to tourists (but see a different point of view below!).

Today, the water is up to its normal level and everyone is happy about it.

The Co-op

On our first visit to Castiglione del Lago about 24 years ago, Terri introduced us to the Co-op. There we bought some bargain French white glass crockery and took it back to England with us. We still use some of these plates even now. Naturally we returned to the Co-op for our modest needs while on holiday. Castiglione now also boasts a Lidl. Lynne and I cannot resist browsing overseas supermarkets, especially the home and kitchenware departments for the unusual little gadgets you find in these places.

These days, tourist attractions, especially supermarkets where tourists shop, are stalking grounds for some of the many migrants that arrive in Italy each year. We got "ambushed" a few times. Once, outside Lidl, we bought a CD of African religious music for €5 (he originally wanted €10). We will never play it.

Whilst in the Co-op, we marvelled at how cheap the alcohol was. A bottle of Bombay Sapphire gin, which in Tesco costs about £22, was a mere €13 (about £9.50). Laura, who was in her English car which she would be taking back to England in a few weeks, offered to bring back to England any purchases we cared to make. We didn't wait to be asked twice!

Cittá delle Pieve

Before Laura left, we visited Cittá delle Pieve, recommended to us by Christopher. Unfortunately, we arrived at about 1:30 PM when everyone was going home for their lunch and everything was closed. It was also the hottest part of the day. Laura asked some locals the best place to eat and we ended up in a very homely, family run restaurant in a small backstreet. The food was excellent. Lynne also thought the wine was good. I was only drinking water because I was driving, but I tasted the wine and didn't like it.

We visited one or two of the churches but our visit did not really do the town justice. Cittá delle Pieve is also noted for some extremely narrow alleyways. We sought out the narrowest just so we could say we had been through it! 

The name, Baciadonne means 'kisswomen'!

Cittá delle Pieve

On our return to Le Torri di Porsenna we said goodbye to Laura, who went back to Tuscany. 

The following morning Lynne and I made our way to the "bee eater fields" so that Lynne could take some pictures of the sunflowers with the sun in the right direction. Here she is with her camera.
Lynne with the sunflowers
Isola Maggiore

The Lago Trasimeno is one of the largest lakes in the area. It's about 10 – 15 km across and is the fourth largest lake in Italy. There are three islands named Maggiore, Minore and Polvese. Now, Minore is the smallest but Maggiore is not the largest, despite its name.  Polvese is the largest. We decided to visit Maggiore as being one of the most interesting. Unfortunately we missed the late morning ferry by a few minutes so we decided to take the mid-afternoon one. Lynne was keen to revisit some of the shops selling ceramics in Castiglione. I was keen to hang around at the base of the castle walls where Laura had seen a couple of Hoopoes (Upupe) (birds, need you ask?) the day before. Lynne definitely had more success than I did as we met up later. Lynne had bought some ceramics and had packages. I had seen no hoopoes. I did see some cheeky Italian sparrows (Passeri) and some loud cicadas.

Italian sparrow - male
Italian sparrow - female

Italian sparrow - female (L) and begging juvenile.

Cicada - big and noisy

We bought our tickets for the ferry. I photographed a nearby Yellow-legged gull before we boarded. 

Yellow-legged gull
I am really not a lover of great heat. I always wear a hat and  try to keep out of the sun. Lynne says that my hat and my lurking in the shade engendered some amusement amongst our fellow passengers! I don't mind.

Approaching Isola Maggiore  - (Lynne's photo)
The island was quite picturesque although the locals were clearly cashing in on the tourist trade. Until that point I had been used to ice creams being €1.5 – 2.00 (£1.50) for a small cone, €2.50 (£1.85) for a medium and €3 (£2.25) for quite a large ice cream. Here the smallest ice cream was €6 (£4.50)! I didn't buy one. After a short trip to the tourist information office we headed up to the top of the island to the church.

The church of San Michele Arcangelo was quite interesting with some pretty frescoes. A young student gave us a short guided tour. This was one of the few churches where it was hotter inside than out! The frescoes were weird! There was that San Sebastian, who manages to stay on his feet despite having so many arrows through him, and the woman on the right with a sabatier sticking out of her neck!

Some of the frescoes in the church of San Michele Arcangelo

We walked slowly down another slope of the island and through the village back to the landing stage. The boat was due to leave shortly. Lynne felt she wanted to return on this boat and so we ran for it.

Back in Castiglione we had coffee (well, OK, I had an ice cream!) and watched a Great-crested Grebe (Svasso maggiore) with her three chicks near the shore. These grebes often carry their young on their back between protective wings. It's quite sweet, I have to admit.

Great-crested Grebe and chicks
Terri told us the moon was 'blue' tonight. It was clear so we kept a lookout for it. At Porsenna, light pollution was very low. We saw the moon well, but it wasn't blue, Terri!!

The Moon at night.
Oasi again

On Saturday morning I got up just after 5 to go to the Oasi for 6:30 AM. On arrival I introduced myself to Mario and greeted Marco whom I had met the previous Saturday. They went off to look at the nets and I went to look at the reed beds. The Little Bittern was present but elusive. I sat down on the raised walkway so as to keep a low profile. Later Mario came to tell me that a Little Bittern had been caught in the nets and would I like to come and see it being ringed. They also had a Great Reed warbler (Cannareccione). I followed them eagerly.

The Little Bittern is the smallest heron. Up close it really does look very small as you can see from the photos below. It has quite a vicious bill. Mario had to be careful when putting the ring on and taking measurements.

The Little Bittern is ringed, weighed . . . .

. . measured . . . 

. . . . and finally released.
Great reed-warbler

Remembering that other people thought the drop in water level was something of a disaster, I mentioned it to Mario and Marco. They confirmed that the water level had dropped by about 2m. Being a bird lover, Mario said that that period had been "fantastico". He told me enthusiastically how the drop in water level had turned the edges of the lake into mud which had attracted large numbers of birds, including several species which didn't normally come to the lake. I could see his point of view. Mario quickly added that most of the local population bemoaned the drop in level, and were happy now that the water had risen again.

After the ringing I went back to the boardwalk and sat down again. Shortly afterwards a male little bittern came fairly close.

Little Bittern, the smallest of the herons.

Despite my best endeavours I could not locate any great reed warblers on the lake. By about 10:30 the public were starting to come in, the sun had risen high in the sky and the temperature was soaring. Time to go. Thank you Maddalena, Mario, Marco and the others at Oasi San Savino for letting me in early and being so friendly.

Back at Porsenna I joined Lynne in the pool for a while.

Lynne in the pool.

Magione is a small town on the east side of the lake. Lynne had read about another tower that she wanted to see. Magione is another hilltop town where traffic is often restricted in the centre. When we got to a large car park, I looked at Google maps and the tower looked to be just around the corner. I was misled! 20 minutes later, after slogging up the hills, we finally arrived at the Tower of the Lambardi (or Lombardi). We could have driven up and parked right outside the tower! The only car was of the tower attendant. You probably know that August is the month when most Italians go on holiday. Many places are deserted in August and Magione was no exception.

The Tower of the Lambardi (or Lombardi)

The fortified tower, like many other substantial buildings, was for the protection of the leading family in the area for a few hundred years. Eventually, it had fallen into disuse and had started to crumble. The internal floors had fallen down. Recently, a lot of public money had been used to restore it. The original stone floors were not restored. Instead, they were stabilised, and an internal steel structure had been installed to replace the missing floors. The rough stone edges of the original floors were still visible. In fact they looked extremely precarious, as though bits might fall off and knock you on the head.

All floors were given over to an exhibition about the Second World War. This included informative posters and original postcards that troops sent from the front or that were sent to them by their loved ones. We were struck by the similarity of the things that their families said. Children missed their Papa, wives missed their husbands/lovers. Soldiers bemoaned their lamentable conditions and lack of food.

From the uppermost floor there was a spiral staircase leading to a motorised trapdoor that gave access to the flat roof. It was worth the climb. The roof gave an unobstructed 360° panorama of the countryside around. Beautiful.


Nature reserve - Lake Montepulciano

A few kilometres from our country house was Lake Montepulciano, which just happened to have a nature reserve on it! No, honestly, it was Paolo who suggested we go there. Online it looked promising. The best way to see the reserve was on an electric powered boat that wouldn't scare the birds. In reality, the local authority was carrying out some work on the lake and boats were prohibited for the foreseeable future. The friendly warden suggested a short route through the reedbeds. We came across two derelict hides which had literally fallen to pieces. We did see a Night heron (Nitticora) and three Hoopoes, and I saw a Cetti's warbler (Usignolo di fiume).

Night Heron - Lake Montepulciano.

The warden suggested that we visit another reserve, Pietraporciana, on a hill not far away. Satnav set, off we went. On the way we passed Chianciano, famed for it's natural hot springs, and other gorgeous landscapes.


Tuscany  - (Lynne's photo)

Nature reserve - Pietraporciana

We couldn't find the right road at a certain point until we asked a local, who directed us towards a very narrow, stony track. This quickly became much steeper. In fact, it was so steep that in one or two places it was too steep for first gear without slipping the clutch to rev the engine a bit. If we had been in an automatic I doubt that we would have made it. After several kilometres meeting absolutely no one and climbing through lovely woodland we eventually came to the visitors centre! Visitors centre? Yes, and it was a hive of activity. 
Pietraporciana's Visitors' Centre - (Lynne's photo)

It was towards the end of lunchtime and many people were just finishing their meal. The centre itself was also a hostel with lovely walks round about. We were even able to buy coffee and ice cream in such a remote location.

The staff were very nice and suggested a walk to the top of the hill, past some caves and onto the clearing at the top. It was lovely to walk through the relative cool of the forest on a hot day. 

Near the clearing was a former hermit's cave with some stone art.

Cave man fries eggs for . . .
. . . his cave woman! 
They also had a pet owl:
Cave owl!  - (all Lynne's photos)
After talking to another couple we descended by a different route, but always in the shade of the mature trees. One of our hosts, Ivan, suggested a slightly gentler way down to the main road. He also told us that a Hen harrier regularly perched on the fence surrounding a small tract of water that we remembered passing on the way up. That clinched it. We had to go back the same way we had come up! We didn't see the Hen Harrier but it was still quite an adventure to get down again.

Terri was discharged from the rehabilitation centre on the day that we left. She looked a lot better. 
Phil, Lynne, Terri and her mother Jeanette

We packed our cases up again, said our goodbyes at Porsenna,

Phil with our host, Bruno. . . .

Phil with Donatello, a great guy.  - (Lynne's photos)

 . . . and we started off towards Pisa.


We drove through the outskirts of Florence and saw the damage to trees caused by a storm a couple of days earlier. We stopped for a while in Florence. Well, actually Fiesole, a small town on a hill overlooking Florence. Lynne remembers going to Fiesole regularly when she lived in Florence. We had an exorbitantly priced coffee in the main square before climbing up further to a lookout point. 

Lynne at the Blu Bar in Fiesole, overlooking Florence below
Even on the hot and hazy day that we were there, the view over the whole of Florence on the plane below was dramatic.

Florence from the Blu Bar - (Lynne's photo)

Florence from the viewpoint above Fiesole. - (Lynne's photo)

On a really clear day, this view has to be one of the most stunning anywhere - a fitting end to our holiday, before going to the airport, handing back the car and checking in to fly home. 
 The Fiat 500L diesel, manual. Our hire car was good. (Lynne's photo)

Our flight was about 45 minutes late, but we arrived at our front door just after midnight.

Many of the photos were taken by Lynne (using a Canon 100D with 18-135mm STM lens), showing how well she has progressed in her photography. Some were taken with a phone. The rest were taken with a Canon 7D mk2. The birds were taken with a Canon 100-400mm zoom lens, sometimes with a 1.4x converter.