25 December – 1 January: Oh what a year! Reflecting on 2019 as we enter a new decade

Author: Mrs A

Location: Sydney, Australia

The past week has been full of friends, colour and laughter, starting with a Christmas day feast, lunch catch up in the city, and finishing the year with a bollywood inspired new year’s eve fancy dress party.

Christmas and new year’s fun with friends in Sydney, Australia

Coming to the end of the year, it’s a great time to reflect on all the amazing things we have seen and done – even we pinch ourselves when we recall all the adventures we have had.

The year started in New Zealand, spending time in Omokoroa, a stunning quiet harbour side area in the North Island near Tauranga. We did some incredible walks, met up with lovely friends and spent some quality time with my dad and his wife Sue.

January 2019 in New Zealand

From there, we returned to Australia and spent a couple of months touring Victoria, catching up with friends new and old, a little wine tasting, paddling and cycling thrown in for good measure.

February-March 2019 – Victoria, Australia

At the end of March it was time for our long awaited Europe adventure. We flew to the UK, arriving on what should have theoretically been Brexit Day. Of course it didnt happen, which suited us fine, allowing us free reign to explore Europe without deadlines. We picked up a new-to-us motorhome, which we named Truffy (all motorhomes have a name apparently!), and set about making him comfortable while we caught up with friends and family, Mr A becoming expert in piloting a left-hand-drive vehicle.

Our first month with Truffy, touring friends and family

In May we set off for France, taking a ferry across the channel. We joined friends at a gite in the Champagne region and learned a lot about sparkly bubbles. In Provence, there were more friends to see, beautiful scenery and amazing weather.

Champagne and Provence, France

Leaving there, we headed off to the Italian Riviera and Tuscany, falling in love with the beautiful towns, friendly people and delicious food and wine.

The stunning Italian Riviera

We travelled across the middle of Italy over to Le Marche, where we spent a week with more friends, touring the stunning villages, vineyards and mountains of the area.

Fun with friends in Le Marche, Italy

Croatia was our next stop, with some time in Dubrovnic before a cycle-cruise with friends up through the islands. Sparkling clear waters, peaceful sleepy villages and friendly smiles on the islands, a little edgier on the mainland, busy with tourists flocking to the pebbly beaches for the summer. From there we worked our way up through the country to Slovenia.

Amazing sunsets and turquoise waters greeted us in Croatia

Slovenia, we really loved. From spectacular art, delicious wine, amazing cycling opportunities, safe, friendly cities and the most beautiful lakes of Bled and Bohinj. To say nothing of enjoying the novelty of cycling into Italy and back, just because we could.

Picturesque Slovenia

We drove through the Karawanks Alpine Range to Austria next, a country chock full of stunning views, colourful houses, and a cyclist’s dream with hundreds of kilometers of paths away from traffic or through quiet villages.

Awestruck in Austria

A brief interlude with Bavaria in Germany caught us up with some old friends while visiting lakes, waterfalls, castles and more cycle adventures.

Beers and bikes in Bavaria, Germany

Our 10th country of the year was Switzerland, where a pulled pork sandwich is a cool $42 at the airport. Mr A spent some time by bike exploring Zurich while I flew to the UK for a hospital visit, and once I was back we moved on to cheaper regions back in France.

Cycling and river swimming in Swizerland

We spent a few weeks in France, did some big day walks, explored Brittany and Normandy and wallowed in the Anglo-French history, learning lots about everything from medieval times through to the second world war. We did some cycling and wine tasting the Loire Valley, and decided we were not so keen on French oysters when we parked for the night on a farm.

A final jaunt across France

Back in the UK we spent some time with family and explored areas we had not seen much of before. We visited Derbyshire, Yorkshire, County Durham and the Lake District, but the absolute highlight was Scotland. After a few days in Edinburgh, we set off for the Outer Hebrides, visiting Skye, Harris and Lewis, and the highlands. Being off peak, the weather was rather fresh, but the scenery spectacular and unlike anything else.

Previously unexplored corners of the UK

We finished off our time in the UK with visits with friends in Chester and Nottinghamshire, before putting Truffy into storage for a few months and jetting off on what should have been the next Brexit Day (but wasn’t) to the warmth of Australia.

A final fling visiting friends and family before we jet off around the world

Back in Australia we had a brief catch up with friends in Sydney, before picking up our Zone (caravan) and heading south. We went back into Victoria, exploring some more wine regions and attending a Zone-muster.

Beautiful Victoria before the fires

We were fortunate to be invited to house sit for a good friend for six weeks over the Christmas period – a time we generally try to avoid travelling due to the busy school summer holidays. It has really made us appreciate being settled in a home for a few weeks, a chance to unpack, take stock and enjoy the city life from a location that is quiet and bushy.

Many of the areas we visited in November have now been burnt beyond recognition, the tarmac melted and warped, trees down across roads, properties and lives lost. It is so sad, but we feel privileged to have visited the regions in safety before all this happened.

There is enough in the press about the fires through Australia so I won’t dwell on that, only that like the rest of the country we are hoping for relief sooner than later – sadly no rain forecast at least until the end of January. Mark and I have donated to the Salvation Army Bushfire Appeal – please click on the link if you’re able to help too – any sum of money is appreciated to help those families who have lost everything.

Thank you to everyone who was a part of our year and helped make it so special. The kindness of friends and strangers (who became friends!) has really made our travels so memorable.

Thank you too to everyone who regularly follows our posts, we really appreciate it! If you’re not yet a subscriber and would like to make sure you don’t miss an update from us, you can subscribe here. We have an exciting year ahead planned, with more travel in Australia, Singapore, the UK, Austria, Spain, France and Scandinavia.

We would like to take this opportunity to wish you a very happy, healthy and safe year ahead, may 2020 bring you adventures and maybe we’ll meet you on the road somewhere?

Keep in touch, we LOVE hearing from you!

PS If you were part of our year and we’ve not included a photo of you in our montages its only because we are so limited in how many to include – I am certain there is likely a photo of you on this blog somewhere! Thank you!

5-6 September: And so back to the UK!

Author: Mr (and Mrs) A

Location: Dieppe to Newhaven ferry, English Channel, Europe

And so after just over 4 months touring Europe (we find ourselves already distinguishing that from the UK!) and we are on our way back to the UK. A time to reflect on our experiences.

We started Europe on a high, with a few days with friends (new and old) Champagne tasting
We feasted in a farmhouse in Provence

110 of those nights were spent camping, in all sorts of places from car parks in the middle of towns, ‘fancy’ (often not) campsites charging more than a hotel, vineyards, oyster farms, beside crumbling castle ruins…and so the list goes on. What those places had in common was a respect for other campers. Even when crowded together a metre apart, not once were we were disturbed by thoughtless noise from our fellow campers or passers by. In Australia, as our camping friends know, you’re lucky to go a couple of nights without some booze ot drug fuelled hoons running your serenity. A very different culture here, both on campsites and on the roads. We’ve loved that.

A vineyard with a view in Barga, Italy
Magical sight of Assisi complete with friendly cats
Seafront views complete with oysters in Brittany
A little bit of history in Normandy

What we’ve missed is the ability to just chat to people easily because we share a language. This morning my trip to the boulangerie went particularly smoothly, even ending up with what I thought I ordered, a rarity I have to say. There was a real sense of achievement in that, given my very sad state of linguistic ability. I spent French lessons at school being mostly slapped with a ruler by a very uninspiring educator. I will though miss being challenged to learn at least the basics to show courtesy to our local country hosts. But our UK friends and family beware, we are incoming with A LOT TO SAY!

Plenty of English spoken with friends in La Marche, Italy
New friends made in Austria
Old connections reestablished in Germany…

We have loved the variety of scenery and culture that Europe offers. You drive a few miles down the road and everything you see changes so fast. The landscape, the architecture, the farming, the signs (despite the EU’s best efforts), it’s a constant assault on the senses and we have loved it. The variety in the food as well, stacked up in supermarkets groaning with options. And please explain why you travel 20km down the road and go from one “country” to another and the food is completely different. How did that come to pass? Well I’m glad it did anyway. For us, Italy was an absolute standout winner on the dining-out front, quality, price, service, ambience…all just brilliantly executed. And on dining in, well we found great fresh produce everywhere, and the very talented Mrs A turned that into awesome lunch and dinners in our little Truffy.

From Italian hilltop villages…
….to fields of poppies….
To Lake Bohinj in Slovenia….
…and Slovenia’s Lake Bled…..
Alpine lakes in northern Italy
Incredible scenic cycleways in Austria

In the driving department (there’s only me working in that one), it was a little stressful to start with getting used to the dimensions of our Fiat truck, with its the manual gear box changed with the right hand (it is left hand drive), plus everything happening on the other side of the road. But…OK…settled into it. A few hairy moments, like driving into a tunnel in Italy having roadworks performed, which clearly didn’t involve fixing the tunnel lights, and seeing massive lorries thundering towards me in the other lane, usually reserved for traffic going the same way!! But I have to say while on the subject of Italy, the drivers there were some of the most courteous we encountered, overtaking in places I wouldn’t, but understanding of my constraints in Truffy. We had one horn honked at us in 4 months, I was a little cautious after the tunnel nightmare of every dark yawning hole that I approached…a little too carefully it would seem.

Finding somewhere to park for the night, even in the middle of the high season, never presented a problem. We didn’t always like the prices or the facilities, but there was always somewhere. France the clear winner here. Their network of places to pull up, refill with water, empty your grey and black water, is just fantastic, and many of these are free. We always tried to make sure we went into the town though wherever they were and spent some money, only fair. Many of these places were no more than scruffy car parks with a bit of kit in the corner that allowed for the emptying and filling, with various degrees of success and cleanliness. Mrs A was also an absolute wiz at researching all of these stopovers, allowing me to focus on getting us there in one piece. What a team!

Diverse scenery in Austria…
Our bikes that took us for literally hundreds of kilometres
Our packrafts allowed us to get away from the crowds and see some wildlife

So what would we have done differently? I asked Catherine this yesterday and we both agreed…very little. Splashed out on an awning for Truffy to keep us cooler, that’s about it. We also knew we had a great team in our dealer’s workshop to talk to if something went wrong with Truffy, which it rarely did. We loved the layout of the van, but more of that in a separate post. Having almost constant internet thanks to our 4G signal booster on the roof and a super plan from Vodafail…connectivity and therefore information was almost always on hand…well except in Germany where they seem to be strangely lagging in the internet department given their usual level of efficiency! Even the amount of time on the road felt right, if we hadn’t have had our stopovers “drive surfing” through France and Italy we think it would have been more challenging. As it was we got to stretch ourselves out every so often and move our elbows while having a shower…luxury.

A bit of drive surfing to celebrate a big birthday in Italy
And another big birthday celebrated in Croatia, island hopping by boat and cycling

So…friends-and-family time next and we are both really excited to be doing that. One thing we have noticed about writing this blog, our friends don’t feel they need to check in and share what they’re up to (or maybe it’s the excuse they’ve been looking for all along!?).) We have so much catching up to do.

Red legged bees in Slovenia

Then at the end October its back to Australia, our fur child and Aussie based friends. That also is something to look forward to. Retirement…the holiday that never ends. Or sorry I should say “career break” for Catherine. She gets a bit touchy if I say “we’re retired”. She’s clearly too young for that, and spends a chunk of her time volunteer-working on her role as admin for the health support group she runs along with research with doctors across the world. Much to admire in my wife…

21 July – Kranjska Gora: a ride in the Julian Alps

Author: Mr A

Location: Kranjska Gora, Slovenia

How any times have you said when setting off for a ride…”well we had better take our passports!” Thats what we did today when we set off from the small ski village of Kranjska Gora in Slovenia to ride along a short section of cycleway that joins to one of Europe’s most scenic long distance routes, the Alpe Adria trail.

We’re in love with this rugged scenery

At 477km in total, it runs from the city of Grado on the Italian Adriatic coast, to Salzburg in Austria, mostly on dedicated cycleways, with the odd bit of quite road and one section of main road near Salzburg.

Crossing into Italy…as you do….

It was a Sunday afternoon, and heaving with bikes, everyone from toddlers out with their parents and siblings, to grandads like me, all with big smiles. Then there were the Lycra clad road riders, with their long serious faces, clearly on a mission of some sort. We are all out there for our different reasons. For us it’s the sheer joy of zooming around these new places, breathing in today the fresh mountain air, and being awestruck with the views.

Lago di Fusine Inferiore, Tarvisio, Italy

We cycled up to a couple of lakes, after crossing the border into Italy. No security here of course, both countries are in the Schengen Zone. The view was just stunning up to the Julian Alps, still with some snow way above us on the north facing slopes.

Our fine steeds
Lago di Fusine Inferiore – when the cloud lifts the colours are incredible
Day trippers fill the car park at Lago di Fusine
The mountains almost look unreal with their patches of snow remaining

With thunder rolling round the mountains, it was time to head back to our bedsit on wheels. After our few days of luxury in a hotel room we are back to quick showers in our cosy little Truffy, and a home made red Thai chicken curry to end the day. Not a bad trade for a different view out of our window whenever we fancy a change.

14-16 June: Final days in Italy

Author: Mrs A

Location: Loro Piceno, San Ginesio, Sirolo, Ancona, Le Marche, Italy

Friday: Our friends Karen and Stuart left early for their flight back to the UK, leaving the rest of us recovering from the night before, chilling by the pool and generally relaxing. After lunch we jumped into the car and drove to San Ginesio, about a 20 minute drive from Loro Piceno.

San Ginesio was greatly impacted by the 6.6 magnitude earthquake that hit this region in 2016, and has sadly not yet recovered. There is a lot of debate at civic level regarding the types of materials to be used in the rebuilding as well as a lack of funds being distributed. Signs posted by the few remaining locals around the town square displayed their frustration at the lack of progress in rebuilding.

The church in the square covered in scaffolding – the sheet hung in the background displays a message asking for rebuilding to commence now!

Walking around the town which was once a bustling gem of a historical centre, it feels more like a ghost town, with closed shops, empty buildings reinforced with scaffolding, wire and wood, and hardly a single soul to be seen.

Putting up all these reinforcements would have been quite a feat

A precarious looking tower

Views from the top of the village

There were some signs of life, with the occasional sound of renovation, drilling and machinery behind the hoardings, and the local football pitch being relaid. But otherwise it felt like a sad place, somewhere where the heart and soul had been removed, abandoned shops and buildings still advertising menus and events with dates long past. We left hoping that something is done soon to relieve these poor communities and help bring them back to life while maintaining the history which makes these areas so unique.

There is still a heart here…it just beats slower than before…

Friday night was spent out in Loro Piceno – the town comes to life with its bars and restaurants, live music livening up the lanes.

Saturday: As our final day in Loro Piceno it was a relaxing one, with a lot of pool time and even a chance to catch up on some reading. Mark and I left John and Catriona in charge of the house and went off to do some shopping with Mel and Barney…some new clothes purchased (the all important new bikini!) and a lovely light lunch on our way home.

Looking across the well used pool towards the village of Loro Piceno

That evening, some of Mel and Barney’s English neighbours drove over for a barbecue. It was interesting hearing their stories of the earthquake impact – they too are still awaiting funds to restore their home and business. Their Italian cooking school will have to wait.

Barney finally fires up the BBQ – only took him a week! 😉

L-R: Lucy, John, Mike, Mel, Catriona, Barney, Mr A, Mrs A

It was lovely to meet more people from around this area and hear their perspective on life in Italy.

Sunday: John and Catriona left to fly back to the UK, while Mark and I took our chance to do some final washing before we moved on our way after lunch.

We farewelled Barney and Mel, secure in the knowledge we have made some very lovely friends there, ones we hope we remain in touch with and see again in the not too distant future. We are so grateful for them opening their hearts and home to us and our friends this past week, their generosity on all accounts.

And so we jumped into Truffy the Hymer and drove off down the motorway towards Ancona.

Our first stop was Decathlon to buy a table – we decided that eating off our laps and the odd box was not the thing to do. The princely sum of €14 bought us a table that fits neatly in our garage.

From there we drove to our campground for the night. We’d selected a location just south of Sirolo, a cliff top village I had read about. As soon as we were settled we got out the bikes and went for a ride along the seafront and up to the village.

Lots of boats out on this Sunday afternoon

Overlooking the Adriatic Sea, Sirolo used to be a castle in medieval times, but now is a very pretty bustling village. There are plenty of the usual tourist shops, but generally everything is beautifully presented, flowers everywhere and lots of shady trees to cool those who have hiked up the cliffs (or ridden their eBike!) to the viewing points.

The village retains the layout of the ancient medieval castle with the same laneways closed within the fortified walls. One of the ancient towers remains. Cycling down the narrow lanes you could feel the atmosphere of an ancient medieval village.

Well worth a visit if you’re in the area.

Monday: We departed and headed a short way up the coast to Ancona. We had a few hours to kill before we were to catch our ferry to Croatia, so parked up along the coast at the war memorial for a few hours. We were grateful for the cooling sea breeze and fabulous views as we whiled away the hours before we left.

Stormy skies behind the WW1 memorial, paid for by the Ancona community

Parc Regionale del Cono – can anyone spot Truffy?

We reflected on our time in Italy – we had expected it to be full of crazy drivers and pickpockets, and instead found people full of warmth, always a smile, and roads which were not at all stressful. The food and wine has been delicious and affordable, and scenery just beautiful. Italy is definitely on our list to return to, there is so much more to discover.

13 June: Roman ruins brought to life

Author: Mrs A

Location: Loro Piceno & Urbisaglia, Le Marche, Italy

Thursday: For hundreds of years many of the ancient Roman buildings in this region remained covered by soil, a combination of earthquakes, floods, plant growth and decomposition and invertebrates gradually hiding away the buildings, artwork, pottery, coins, statues and jewellery which were left abandoned.

Barney had organised a private tour of the nearby Roman artefacts and a live archaeological dig with a local historian and guide…absolutely fascinating and definitely one of the most interesting things we have done.

We met up with Leonardo at a nearby village and commenced our tour.

Leonardo, our private guide, passionately shares stories of the Roman Empire

A scale model of the temple – Leonardo explains where we are standing

Urbs Salvia (nowadays called Urbisaglia) was settled around the end of the 1st century BC and unearthed by archaeologists during the 1800s. Our guide, Leonardo, took us around what was a large temple explained how a female archaeologist ignored directions from colleagues to dig in an area where artefacts had already been found, and decided to follow her instincts and dig here. She found one of the most important temples in Italy.

Many of the wall paintings are still visible, decorated with lions hunting and killing antelopes, bears, wolves and other powerful symbols, demonstrating the strength and how far and wide the Roman Empire had travelled and conquered. So much is excellently preserved, with bricks imprinted with the manufacturer’s name still clearly visible and mosaic tiles that could have been laid in the last decade.

Perfectly clear a thousand years after being manufactured – how much of what we see today will still be here in a thousand years?

Mosaic tiling and evidence of a floor beneath

The stories kept on coming, with cattle skeletons under a collapsed row of archways showing that animals were once kept in this area, probably killed during an earthquake.

A collapsed row of archways, likely to have been earthquake damage

A Roman side street – in better condition than many roads in the UK we travelled on!

The tour then continued to the nearby amphitheatre, in which there would have been gladiator fights, both males and females – women fighting ‘dwarves’ a favourite of the community apparently! It is estimated this amphitheatre (in its original state) would have seated more than 7,600 spectators.

Our little private tour group admiring the amphitheatre

You can imagine the gladiators entering down this slope

Spectators would have come in through these archways to take their seats

Tales were told of how one of the most gruesome of events held here would have been how the arena would have been flooded and a boat full of slaves or prisoners floated on, with the aim of tipping it over and drowning them in front of the audience. Apparently there is not much they enjoyed more than watching wild beasts or people die in front of them. Other than sex of course, with orgies and prostitution common among the Romans.

Our next destination was the in progress dig, with a mixture of volunteers, academics and students from a variety of universities involved. We turned up just moments after they had unearthed a Roman coin…it was fascinating to wonder when the last time this was held in a human hand, and by whom.

The coin is discovered by the dig team

The coin is fairly corroded from the use of fertilisers and suchlike in farming practices here

From here, we drove a short way up to the hilltop village of what is now Urbisaglia. Leonardo unlocked a door at the side of the road, and we entered an underground chamber. This was the water system, designed by a slave and built by more slaves, with two tunnels to reduce the water pressure and overflows to maintain a pocket of fresh air to keep the water pure. So much of the practices invented by Romans is still in practice today. These tunnels were only discovered in the 1940s and are in excellent condition.

Discovered in 1947, this doorway has been built to allow access to the tunnels

Water was gravity fed to here from a spring in the mountains. They are in excellent condition other than some limestone build up

Our usual stunning views across the countryside as we climb into the village

We continued on into Urbisaglia, and to the fortification Mr A and I had cycled to last week. This time we were allowed inside as Leonardo had the key. He told us stories of those that lived here (only about 12 people, all soldiers) with the purpose of protecting the area from invaders, It certainly had magnificent views.

Looking out across the rooftops

Our furry companion was impressed but warm

Leonardo’s passion for history and stories never wanes

Looking out across the countryside

I would highly recommend you do something like this if you’re visiting this area or anywhere with significant Roman history, it really brings the region to life.

We returned to Barney and Mel’s home for a relaxing afternoon before preparing for the evening. Two of our UK guests, Stuart and Karen, are off home tomorrow so we were to have a final group dinner out at a hotel restaurant on the other side of the valley.

Looking out across the valley towards the hotel

We had been looking out at the hotel all week, admiring the bright lights as it sits on top of a hill almost directly opposite where we are staying in Loro Piceno.

Dressed up and ready to roll, Aperol Spritz before we head off

Once over at the hotel, we enjoyed Prosecco while we ordered our food. What a gorgeous setting for a dinner.

Gorgeous evening light

A poolside table on the terrace

Fantastic food, everything delicious

A great spot to watch the sun go down

As we retired for the night we farewelled Stuart and Karen who were planning to hit the road at 7am…we all knew we would be unlikely to be awake to see them off!

11 – 12 June: Vineyards and beaches of Le Marche

Author: Mrs A (yes, again, Mr A having a break!)

Location: Loro Piceno and Porto San Georgio , Le Marche, Italy

Tuesday: After all the birthday celebrations the night before it was a slow start to the day, mostly spent in the pool clearing the heads. We had a delicious lunch and then piled into the cars to visit one of the many vineyards nearby.

The one Barney and Mel had selected was one of the grandest around, with amazing buildings housing artwork and incredible sculptures. Il Pollenza is a relatively young winery, having been growing grapes in the region for just 20 years, but in that time they have built up quite an estate of renovated 16th and 18th century houses and 70 hectares of vineyards.

Driving up to the estate is quite a contrast to what you might see in Australian wine districts, with no signage advertising the vineyard or tasting. In fact it was lucky we had Mel navigating otherwise we would not have found it at all! The tasting had been booked in advance and included a tour of the cellars and bottling facility.

Beautiful vineyards set amongst the Macerata Hills

One of the many mansions on the 270 acre estate

Renovated 16th century building where the wine is cellared and bottled

Count Brachetti-Peretti bought the vineyard as a hobby, but clearly is extremely well off. This hobby is treated fairly seriously and he has invested in the best of everything. You can literally see the quality in all of the renovated buildings and equipment as you tour around.

Carefully temperature controlled barrels

Learning more about the processes

Bottles ready to be boxed up

Catriona is tempted by a pretty label

We tasted four wines, none of which suited our palettes, nor our wallets. When we compare the quality of the wine to that which we tasted at Murola at around half the price, we decided not to buy anything we had tried.

Our first tasting is poured

Karen and Catriona taking the tasting very seriously

We left with a bottle of Rosata Prosecco.

The girls colour coordinated without any planning!

…and here we have a lovely bronze horse statue!

Wednesday: It was time to have our first experience of the Adriatic Sea as we left the beautiful countryside and drove for lunch at the coast, aiming for Porto San Giorgio, a coastal settlement. One of Mel and Barney’s English neighbours had recommended Ristorante Chalet Quadrifoglio to eat at.

It is one of many restaurants along the coast, set behind the sandy beaches, specialising in seafood (though offering a handful of alternatives for the non fish eaters).

We had an absolute feast, choosing a starter of mixed hot and cold seafood, which kept on coming. Once we had consumed mussels, olive fish cakes, grilled razor shell, scallops, anchovies and more we were quite full, and still had the main dish to come!

A glass or two of white wine was consumed

Lots of stories and laughter accompanied our seafood feast

Barney and Mel

Our waitress serving up a local speciality, Monkfish – delicious

After lunch we wandered down the the water’s edge. Unlike Australian beaches which stretch along bay after bay, often deserted, those here are full of sun beds and umbrellas which you pay to use – giving you access to toilets, showers and changing rooms. It really made us appreciate our local beach in Sydney!

We had to experience the water of course, which at around 24 degrees was refreshing and rather lovely for a jump in the waves.

Catriona and John are surprised by a wave crashing into them from behind…oops, did I not mention it was coming?!

Stuart and Karen head for shallower water so they don’t get unexpectedly wet

Our lovely hosts looking very summery

And Mr & Mrs A

Catriona and Stuart are first into the water

Looking north up the beach

We had a good hour down at the water before heading on back to Loro Piceno via Murola Vineyard to stock up on supplies.

10 June: Catriona has a birthday to remember

Author: Mrs A

Location: Loro Piceno, Le Marche, Italy

Monday: Catriona’s birthday is the event that had brought us all together on this occasion, and what a place to celebrate. Our friends’ spectacular house and grounds we are staying in has ever changing views over the the valley, buzzards and swallows constantly soaring overhead. At night, fireflies light up the undergrowth and there is a nightingale that sings beautifully after dark.

The terrace and pool have views to die for, and there are multiple zones to sit in and relax, surrounded by beautifully groomed gardens and an olive grove below.

A house and pool with a multi million dollar view

We had a lovely birthday breakfast for Catriona with strawberries and yoghurt, keeping it healthy in anticipation of more delights to come, allowing Catriona to open presents and cards and Mr A to read out a poem he had composed, in special birthday tradition.

After a little refreshing pool time I accompanied Catriona, John, Stuart and Karen back down to Abbadia di Fiastra to show them around there. We explored the church with its frescos dating back to the 1500s before taking a stroll along the avenue of mulberry trees and looping back around the fields.

The walkers

Birthday girl enjoying the serenity

Very quiet on a Monday morning

Returning for a light lunch it was a relaxing afternoon had before G&T o’clock.

Mel and Catriona

G&T to start…

Mr & Mrs A enjoying the view

Full team: Barney, Karen, Mel, Mr A, Catriona, John, Mrs A and Stuart

Karen and Stuart enjoying the view

Mark and I had bought Catriona a magnum of champagne from Pannier when we were in France, which she kindly shared with us all (given she would have to abandon all her clothes in order to take it home!) – deliciously good memories there!

Birthday girl with champagne

Before long it was time for Catriona’s birthday dinner, cooked by a private chef at the house. We don’t think you could find a better restaurant than this!

  • Full menu:

    • Warm asparagus salad, lemon dressing with crispy pancetta and crutons

    • Pappardelle, pork ragu with mushrooms and fresh herbs

    • Roasted beef with mixed vegetables

    • Chocolate texture with cherry compote and roasted hazelnuts

    Catriona’s private chef, Fabrizio preparing our entree of asparagus

    Fine views across the valley

    Surrounded by views and flowers, the table is set for dinner

    The village lighting up behind us

    Amazing menu in a great setting

    The fine wine flowed and the music got louder…there was dancing and laughter and I think Catriona’s next decade was entered into in fine style!

    Fabrizio joins us for a post cheffing beer before he heads off

    Catriona, Karen and I boogie on the ‘dance floor’

    8 – 9 June: Enjoying a little piece of paradise with friends

    Author: Mrs A

    Location: Loro Piceno, Le Marche, Italy

    Saturday: It was a dusty start to the morning after a fun Friday night out with Mel and Barney in Loro Piceno, with delicious food followed by dancing to a live band on the cobbled streets.

    Exploring the streets of Loro Piceno

    May explain the sore head on Saturday morning…Varnelli – similar to ouzo…

    Fabulous cover band at La Taverna, singing a wide variety of songs in English

    Mel had booked a haircut for me in a local village, and with none of the staff speaking English I was pleased Google Translate worked well enough for me to get the cut I wanted and not end up with a shaved head!

    Our friends from the UK arrived early afternoon, successfully finding the house and enjoying a light lunch as we all caught up on news.

    In the evening Mel and Barney had booked us a table at a local restaurant, Casa Azzurra. It is set around a pretty courtyard, with delicious food and wine.

    Pink Prosecco to commence the evening

    Enjoying our aperitif

    Casa Azzurra

    Sunday: The eight of us piled in to two cars and headed up to Mount Sibillini National Park, a hour’s drive away. It was a warm day, around 35 degrees in the valley, but as we climbed we were relieved as the temperature dropped to the late 20s.

    Our first stop was at Lago di Fiastra (Lake Fiastra), the main reservoir for the region. The turquoise waters look quite striking, surrounded by mountains and beaches. There were quite a few people swimming in the water and picnicking on the shore.

    John enjoying the view in a field of wildflowers

    Karen, Mel and Stuart enjoying the view

    Many of the buildings in this area are still damaged from the two major earthquakes in 2016. On the winding road up the mountains there was extensive evidence of work done to shore up the cliffs and prevent rockfalls and landslides, and many buildings remained abandoned, shored up by steel cables and wooden braces.

    Church and buildings unsuitable for occupation post earthquake

    We continued a short way up the mountains to Rifugio di Tribbio, a lovely rustic restaurant Mel and Barney had found. What a gem! There’s no way you would stumble across this as a casual visitor without the local knowledge. There we feasted on three generous courses and two litres of wine for the grand cost of about €160 between the eight of us (AU$33/£18 a head). We sat outside on a bench table with great views across the mountains.

    Views of the nearby ruins of Magalotti castle

    After lunch we wound our way up the mountains even further, found a shady parking spot and headed off for a walk. It’s a glorious time of year in the mountains, with wildflowers in every corner.

    Wild peonies (Paeonia officinalis) growing on a limestone slope

    Every square metre is covered in flowers – pinks, mauves, purples, yellows…so pretty

    Lovely orchids

    Wild Narcissus (Narcissus poeticus)

    We did a lovely circuit walk – steep on the way up and blissfully downhill on the return loop, helping us burn a few lunchtime calories and enjoy the clean mountain air.

    Wondering whether the last glass of wine was wise!

    The walkers – minus Barney – L-R Mrs A, Mr A, Catriona, John, Stuart, Karen and Mel

    Looking back at the lowlands which look rather hilly when you’re down there!

    We drove back down the mountains and into Loro Piceno for an evening cocktail at La Cantina, a bar with a terrace boasting amazing views over the valley and out towards Mel and Barney’s house. We then headed home for an early night in preparation for celebrating Catriona’s big birthday tomorrow, the reason for this gathering of friends.

    Enjoying the views and drinks

    Catriona tries out a swing chair

    Karen and Catriona try out their first Aperol Spritz

    Beers for the boys – Stuart

    John

    5-7 June: Our introduction to Le Marche

    Author: Mr A

    Location: Abbadia di Fiastra, Le Marche, Italy

    Wednesday: We have friends of friends who have kindly invited us and some of our friends (with it so far?) to stay with them in eastern Italy in the region of Le Marche (pronounced lay markay). To be honest, until they gave us their address we had no idea where that was, or even pronounce it. Well now we do and what a find it has been.

    Le Marche doesn’t roll off the tourist tongue like Tuscany, and the thankfully the coaches aren’t rolling down the streets just yet in this region…. We arrived via the excellent west to east route along SS77. A dual carriageway with tunnel after tunnel bored through the mountains that run in a chain down this part of central Italy.

    We were making for a campsite our friends had suggested in the grounds of an old abbey and country park near to their village. We had given ourselves a couple of days to explore the area and get things prepared for the onslaught before everyone else arrived.

    We arrived to find a beautifully near deserted camping area, with only a couple of other vans there. We picked our spot and had just set up the chairs…as a motorhome drove right next to us completely blocking our view. I gave him my best evil eye and exaggerated “what the ….” shrug…he moved off when Catherine joined in! She’s a terror…

    Time for lunch

    So with view restored we were soon visited by a young cat who was clearly Italian given his chattiness and general exuberance! He was to become our constant companion over the next two days..,well until someone else pulled up he thought might feed him…

    There goes our last tin of tuna…

    It was time for our customary exploration on two wheels. What a ride we had, as we came round corner after corner with a new vista of perfectly green fields opening up…and the odd snow capped mountain! This was cycling heaven.

    Fields of spinach

    We made our way through the park, exploring Roman ruins, admiring the bird life, and smelling the wild flowers.

    Thursday: The next day we went further afield through several of the nearby villages. And not a tour bus in sight…

    Yes, still snow up there

    More fields of poppies looking towards more hilltop villages…

    The castle in Colmurano

    A couple of happy cyclists

    in the late afternoon we headed out again, I had spotted a winery within striking distance of the bikes.

    Now that’s a decent driveway!

    The terrace tasting area with fabulous views

    Murola tasting room

    Enjoying a few drops of red…yes we invested in a case and a half

    A post tasting tour around the barrels and bottling plant

    After some initial confusion about what we wanted, as I had asked for a “wine tasting”, which apparently in Italy is more of a wine experience with food (and €15-20 a head), not a tasting with the purpose of trying before you buy. We embarked on our mission to stock up with some more wine before the rest of the troops made it here. It’s a tough job but someone has to do it. And what a great selection of wines they had, set in beautiful grounds. Our host Anna even offered to deliver our wine to the campsite! Now thats a service I doubt you’d find at your average Tuscan posh as you like winery.

    We think we will like it here!

    A fantastic cycle home to Truffy

    Friday we did a little more exploring on foot, taking a look at the monastery and abbey, and taking some of the footpaths at a slower pace, listening to the birds, smelling the flowers and generally just enjoying the peace before the storm.

    Poppies are everywhere splashing red into the fields

    Wild roses

    Inside the abbey

    Our friends Melinda and Barney arrived at around 5pm to escort us to their home in Loro Piceno, and tomorrow four more friends arrive from the UK. It’s all going to get a lot busier around here!

    5 June: Spellbound in Spello

    Author: Mrs A

    Location: Spello, Umbria, Italy

    Wednesday: We only drove 15 minutes to Spello, just 10km away from Assisi, everything we had read suggesting it was worth a visit.

    We took quiet winding roads through agricultural land, grateful we didn’t meet any other traffic along the way.

    Maybe just room for a cyclist to pass here…fabulous roads to drive on as long as you don’t meet anyone!

    Gorgeous views accompany us on our way

    Spello is far less well known than Assisi, but its history stretches back just as far. Much of the town is built on Roman remains and foundations, and sits within an old amphitheatre. The churches are often built on top of old Roman temples, and encompass little clues here and there to the past.

    We entered through a grand gateway flanked by towers, amazed that there was not a soul around. In fact that is one of the main appeals of this town – it is so close to Assisi but there are so few tourists here. The streets and buildings are quiet, taking on a pink hue from the Mount Subasio limestone used in their construction. The constant call of swallows can be heard as they swoop catching flies around the rooftops, and the hum of insects on the ever present flowers.

    Where are all the people?

    These stone walls were restored in the early 1900s

    Every corner is filled with flowers

    Pretty pathways in all directions

    A lovely looking villa

    Every little space is used for pots of colour

    Richness of colour in every direction

    Seppo is full of flowers, every windowsill, doorstep and corner brimming with blossoms. The few people we did see were often tending to their pots, painting wooden planters, replacing dying plants with new ones.

    A local gardening enthusiast tends to his pots

    There seemed to only be one cat in Seppo…quite a chunky one too!

    Fine views across the Umbrian countryside

    From the top of the town there are fabulous views back across to Assisi, a monastery behind us enjoying this view daily.

    Assisi on the hillside opposite

    Wander around forever and never see another person!

    Heading off down yet another enticing lane way

    Will we get tired of these views?

    A flower within a flower?

    If only we could understand the stories behind this architecture

    We tried to find somewhere nice to have lunch, but the menus were quite restrictive in terms of dairy-free, and the restaurant we really wanted to go to was closed on Wednesdays.

    Mr A making use of the Google Translate app to ask about dairy-free meals

    So we wandered back through the town, calling in for some wine tasting on the way through (three small glasses for €10), and popping our heads into the Chiesa di Saint Andrea, a church built in the 11th century, an example of Francisan architecture.

    Hard to resist another little alleyway to explore

    Chiesa di Saint Andrea

    Frescos by Tommaso Corbo in 1532

    We’ve seen sculptures like this all over Italy

    It was well worth the visit to Seppo. We didn’t buy any wine, the prices set for the American market (two to three times the usual cost!) rather than the Italian value we have become accustomed to. It would be a great location to stay if visiting Assisi and wanting to avoid the crowds, assuming you had a hire car you could park outside the town walls.

    We, meanwhile, jumped back on the road and continued our journey towards the east coast.