4 June: Are we getting tired of all these lovely villages? Not yet!

Author: Mrs A

Location: Assisi, Umbria, Italy

Tuesday: While sad to leave Lago Trasimeno, we were keen to see some more of the area before we were due in La Marche on the eastern side of Italy. We decided to head to Assisi. Mr A was originally reluctant, claiming it was ‘too much about religion’, but given the whole town is a UNESCO world heritage site, I felt it was a location not to be missed.

It was a short hour’s drive and we were soon pulling up at a relatively new sosta outside a motorhome owning farmer’s house. What a view of Assisi it had!

We were also excited when a little ginger kitten came bounding up to greet us, six month old Esther is an Italian camping-cat!

Cheeky Esther bounds into Truffy for an explore
I wonder if she meows in Italian?

We wasted no time in getting out the ebikes and heading up the steep hill into town.

Mr A heading under the city gateway

As we rode up through the streets, very thankful for the electric motors helping us on our way, we passed a whole mixture of stone archways, pillars and building styles from throughout the ages.

At the very top of the hill there sits a fortification, the Rocca Maggiore, more than 800 years old. The views from here are fabulous, looking across the patchwork valley of Tescio. The castle has been built, pillaged, restored again and again in its history – it’s in pretty good nick these days but we didn’t go in.

Rocca Maggiore
Solid stone walls more than 800 years old
Fabulous views across the valley
Look where these little bike bring us!

The settlement of Assisi has been populated for thousands of years, with evidence dating back to 1,000 BCE when the Umbrians lived on the hill top in a small fortified settlement. The Etruscan civilisation took over around 450 BCE, introducing architecture heavily influenced by the Greeks, and then 295 BCE was when the Romans took over central Italy.

A Roman water trough still adorns a square

You may have heard of Saint Frances of Assisi? He was canonised in the 1200s, born and buried in Assisi and is co-patron-saint of Italy along with Saint Catherine of Siena. Pilgrims still flock to the town, and we saw several monks in long brown robes strolling the streets.

There are indeed a lot of churches in Assisi, containing magnificent frescoes and paintings by famous Italian artists. But churches aside, the history and architecture is fascinating, often intermingled through the ages.

Piazza del Comune

Santa Maria Sopra Minerva
These pillars date back to the 1st century BCE – part of a temple dedicated to the Egyptian Goddess Isis
Santa Maria Sopra Minerva – interior from the 1500s, covered in frescoes
Magnificent painted ceilings

We made our way gradually through the streets, exploring nooks and crannies and stopping to try some local produce – some delicious Umbrian wine, olive oil and balsamic vinegar.

A delicious crisp fresh dry white from Umbria

Sold! One tin of extra virgin olive oil and one aged balsamic ‘no caramel in here!’ – bought from Francesco, such a character…

Love the sign outside Francesco’s shop: ‘Please come in and taste now the best olive oils and balsamic vinegar, Later you will not feel like walking up again. Don’t miss this chance.’

Houses frame yet more views of the surrounding countryside as we descend through the town
Such a clean and uncrowded city

The most famous of all the churches is probably the biggest, Basilica of St Francis. It is also the most visited, with coach trips heading here just to see the artwork here. I recall visiting while an art student at university, way back in February 1990. The temperature was slightly different then, I can tell you – think snow flurries and bitterly cold wind! I decided not to go back in, but did a fly by on the bike to remember how it looked.

Outside the Basilica – inside, frescos painted by Giotto depict St Francis’ life
A grand entrance way

As we returned to camp, the farmer and sosta manager pointed out his cat had a litter of four kittens needing good homes. They’re only a month old at the moment, so too young to adopt, but very adorable…no room for another cat in our life though, our Aussie Miss Tassie is still our most important fur child.

Kitten fur is just so silky soft

We settled down to a relaxing evening, enjoying the view as the lights turned on across Assisi.

Better than watching the TV – I even got a cat curled up on my lap for half an hour!

The Basilica of St Francis all lit up
Looking up to the castle
Sunset over Umbria
Santa Maria degli Angeli – just around the corner from our camp. Famous for housing the home of St Francis and his followers – where he founded the Franciscan order and also where he died in 1226.

2 – 3 June: A lakeside retreat in Umbria

Author: Mrs A

Location: Castiglione del Lago, Lake Trasimeno, Umbria, Italy

Sunday: Although part of me felt I really should be spending more time in Florence, perhaps visiting the art in the Ufizzi Gallery or one of the many Leonardo da Vinci exhibitions I just couldn’t face a day amongst the crowds after getting back to camp well after midnight from the UK.

Instead we packed up and hit the road, driving just over an hour south-east from Florence to Lake Trasimeno. At 128 square kilometers surface area, Lake Trasimeno is the fourth largest lake in Italy (slightly smaller than Lake Como, the third largest). The town I selected purely on the reviews of where to stay – the lakeside sosta sounding peaceful and picturesque – just what the doctor ordered.

After a relaxing lunch, we jumped on the bikes for a ride. There is a route which goes right around the lake – just over 70kms, but apparently the heavy rains during the winter have raised the lake’s levels and some of the pathways are covered with water. We decided to do a 45km return ride, heading towards the north of the lake from our sosta. It was a perfect day for ride – the weather warm but not too hot, birds singing, cuckoos calling from the woodland, butterflies fluttering by, everyone in a great mood…

Such a picturesque ride

The pathway wound its way along the shore, through poppy lined fields and over reed lined bridges. The views kept on coming.

Couldn’t resist this diversion for a perfect field of poppies!

You often don’t see the water, but the surrounding countryside is lovely
A brief water break
A rowing boat sitting on a quiet inlet
I had to run over this rickety old bridge
The locals enjoy a cooling dip too

Definitely up there with one of the best rides we have ever done, and one we’d be keen to repeat and perhaps complete the whole circuit.

Monday: We started our day more locally, jumping on the bikes again and heading into Castiglione del Lago. As with many towns with an ancient history, this is located up on a hill, overlooking the lake. It has a fortification which dates from 1247, currently used for shows with its natural amphitheatre.

‘Castle of the lion’ – which later became Castiglione…
Looks like a great spot for moonlight cinema
Remains of round towers
Ancient olive trees cast strange shadows with their near hollow trunks

The old town is very pretty, full of bars, restaurants and little shops selling local produce. Mr A did find a shop with a 50% off sale and made a few clothes purchases, and we did a little wine tasting along the way. Around every corner there is a medieval gateway framing yet another fine view. Just lovely.

Perfect eBike territory with lots of steep hills
Free wine and chorizo tasting? Why not!
Another gateway frames a lovely view
More lake views across the terracotta rooftops

Mr A had spotted Cantina Del Trasimeno, a wine co-operative, not far from where we were camped which was offering free wine tasting, so we decided to head along late afternoon for a sample. It turns out it is an outlet for more than 2,000 wineries from the local region – that’s the area around the lake, not even the whole of Umbria!

Mr A looking excited to sample some local grapes
Our lovely host – excellent English skills and some fabulous wines

We tried a selection of rosetta, blanco and rosso wines, and placed and order for 18 bottles. We are meeting up with friends in a week’s time and are keen to share some local drops.

From here, we jumped back on the bikes and back along the lake, it was Monday afternoon after all, and the lakeside bars were already serving. We found a bar with nice waterside tables and settle down with a beverage to enjoy the view.

Ahh the serenity
Dramatic looking skies did not bring any storms

We really like the feel of this area, a lot less touristy than Tuscany (we barely heard an American accent – sorry USA friends!) and very beautiful. The wine is delicious, the climate lovely at this time of year and for us the cycling opportunities not too hilly and interesting. It is definitely a region we would be keen to return to in the future. Added to our (ever growing) list!

Enjoying our lakeside view – just €16 a night
Final sunset…off in the morning

24 – 25 May: Hello Tuscany…

Author: Mr A

Location: Barga, Tuscany, Italy

Friday: We left the Cinque Terre behind and headed inland into north western Tuscany. Catherine (navigator extraordinaire) had spotted on one of the apps that we use to find camps a winery that was welcoming motorhomes to come and stay on their property. Sosta La Cantina del Vino is also a 5 minute walk from “One of the most beautiful villages in Italy” the hilltop town of Barga, close to Lucca.

We were greeted so warmly when we arrived, and set up on their lush front lawn, power and water on hand, and invited to a wine tasting later in the day. That’s not a bad start for our first day’s exploration of Tuscany!

The village awaited so we walked in and I dived into the first providore I spotted, to be offered wine to taste and local produce…its just gets better.

When in doubt ply your customers with Chianti when they visit!
A local artist paints inside to classical music

A wander up to the old part of town and a cafe in a quiet courtyard just couldn’t be resisted.

The self proclaimed unofficial cultural centre of Bargo – Da Aristo di Togneri Lorenzo

We tried the local bean, lentil and potato soup, just delicious. Some local cats even decided to let us get our feline fix. 

I carried on to sample local cheeses and meats, then we rolled down the hill to camp.

I decided to take a quick explore on the bike. Thank goodness for that Bosch engine I would have never have made it up these hills so quickly and seen so much.

Endless picturesque lanes to explore

I still burnt a few calories though and worked up a thirst for wine tasting. What a grand affair this was, with Prosecco, then rosato then a Chianti, with each wine local delicacies were served.

Not your usual tasting

The nibbles kept on coming

We shared the tasting with the occupants of a couple of other motorhomes that were parked there as well. It was quite an international evening with Germans, an Israeli, Italians and us with a couple of nationalities to chose from. Sometimes we play the Australian card, as Brits dont seem to be too popular right now in Europe. It’s more of a shaking of heads and some quizzical eyebrows and wishing them the best of luck on their separate path post Brexit.

Saturday: We had arrived in low cloud, but waking the next morning this view had opened up.

A fine view to wake up to

Wow – after spending so many years in a country that’s basically flat with a few bumps, it thrills us to see mountains like this. I headed off into the village to source breakfast and discovered it was market day. Catherine’s “fear of missing out” kicked in and she joined me to pick up some local goodies.

Plenty of fresh produce to choose from

Following a delicious lunch consisting of some of our fresh purchases, we went out for a ride on the bikes to explore more of the area, enjoying the gorgeous spring sunshine and perfect temperatures in the early 20s.

The Duomo of Barga – 11th-16th centuries – a good example of Romanesque architecture
Th limestone church was restored in the early 1900s following extensive earthquake damage
Fabulous view from outside the church – twice a year there is a double sunset viewed from here through an archway in the mountain across the valley
A large moth hanging out in town
In the Middle Ages, Barga was known for is manufacture of silk

The further out you ride, the greater the views become, incredible vistas with the mountain ranges looming high over the town

Barga, perched up on the hillside
Pania della Croce, a mountain of the Apuane Alps dominates the skyline

I watch life in Tuscany unfold, trying to figure out what’s peculiar to the region, so what is different about people’s lives here and what’s universally the same. One of the main joys of travel for me. Striking up conversations and learning what I can. I think the big difference seems to be the rhythm of the day, with many, but not all, businesses closing for an afternoon break (the “riposa”). Some said they use the time to return home to family if possible, then head back to work mid afternoon. Family time seems to be given higher priority, and lives seem the richer for it. However, to close your business when so many tourists are passing its door and want to spend money when suits them is a brave decision. Some say the tradition is dying away, but I saw no evidence of that in this town in Tuscany with around 80% of business closed for several hours while us tourists marched past with a hungry look in shop windows.

Sunday: It was time to leave, and that meant no HGVs on the roads today, another pleasant change from what we’re used to in Australia. They are banned in Italy from Sunday travel at slightly different times depending on the time of year. What a relief on some of these twisty roads! We are now heading into Lucca, but that’s for Catherine to share.

7 – 8 May: Castles, Champagne and Churches

Author: Mrs A

Location: Château-Thierry & Reims, France

Tuesday was the day Mr A and I had planned for the household, taking us to the small town of Chateaux-Thierry, about a 25 minute drive from our gîte. We parked up outside the town hall, a grand building in the centre of town, and climbed up the stairway to the castle above.

Hôtel de Ville (Town Hall)

A magnificent view awaited us at the top of many stone steps, looking out over the town to the Marne River and south to the farmland beyond.

View over the town from the first set of stairs
Jenny enjoying the sunshine and view
Thank goodness for breathing!
Mates. Mr A and David
Mr A proceeding along an avenue of trees along the castle wall
Ancient varieties of roses grow here, with incredible aromas
Jenny climbing the tower steps up to the next level
More great town views as we walk around the castle
Jenny and Karen

The walls and tower

The castle has a varied history dating back to Roman times, starting with a wooden fortification and gradually being added to and amended by subsequent inhabitants. There is evidence of the biggest castle kitchen in Europe within this shell, once employing in excess of a hundred workers in meal preparation.

We all had an explore around the town before meeting for a delicious plat du jour served at L’adresse Rive Droit, a superb recommendation from our next destination.

Wandering along the pedestrianised streets
This feels a very authentic and alive town, many local residents and lives lived here
Pretty streets
Pretty dogs 🙂

After lunch we drove a short distance to Champagne Pannier, a champagne cooperative sourcing grapes from 400 small producers across the region. Our guide, Elina, took us into their caves, a combination of natural and man-made caverns originally discovered in the middle-ages.

The Middle Ages carving found on the walls which inspired the archer on Champagne Pannier’s logo
Champagne is laid down for a minimum of three years before bottling
The caves

We learnt a lot more about the making and bottling of champagne, giving us an appreciation of why champagne is so expensive. We finished off with a tasting of two champagnes, one a 2014 vintage. Delicious.

Champagne and Ratafia Champenois (made from the skins of grapes pressed for champagne) were purchased.

Happy times. L-R: Ann, Jenny, Peter, Penny, Karen, Chris, Steve, Mr A, David and Mrs A

After this we returned to the castle in the hope of witnessing a falconry show – sadly after climbing up to the entrance we were advised they did not do it on a Tuesday any longer (despite the sign saying they did), and so we did a little shopping for the evening’s dinner and moved on.

Our final destination for the day was the American War Memorial, a magnificent monument overlooking the town in recognition of the relationship between the American and French armed forces during World War II. It was quite sobering after a jovial day, and reminded us how fortunate we are to live in peaceful times and to be able to do what we are doing.

‘This monument has been erected by the United States of America to commemorate the services of her troops and those of France who fought in this region during the World War. It stands as a lasting symbol of the friendship and cooperation between the French and American Armies’

Mark and Karen reading the inscription – horrified at the sheer numbers of lives lost (67,000 American soldiers alone)

We returned home to consume our goodies of the day – delicious food from the bakery, deli and greengrocers, accompanied by some fine French white and red wines.

Wednesday morning began with rain, which continued on as we piled into the minibus and Chris drove us all for an hour to the nearby town of Reims.

Our plan had been to split into two groups, five members heading to a car museum, and the rest of us heading to a large market in the city centre. Mr A and I were in the market crowd. On arriving at the market we found it was closed. What we hadn’t realised is that today is a national holiday in recognition of V-E Day, the day in 1945 the Germans surrendered in Reims following World War II. The wet weather didn’t discourage several people from attending a ceremony close by, and we immediately forgave them for closing the market.

I decided to break from the rest of the group and go to see the cathedral. Mr A and I leave this region tomorrow, so we wouldn’t have a chance otherwise.

The city of Reims was very quiet, with most of the shops closed and the rain keeping people at home. It has some fabulous classic French architecture and the cathedral itself is hard to miss as you wind your way through town.

Shining empty cobbled streets of Reims
Beautiful architecture in empty squares, the cathedral towering over in the background
Need a hand knocking on the door?

Strangely it was great to see the Cathedral Notre-Dame de Reims in wet weather, as the water poured from the roof and out through the mouths of gothic wolves.

Gothic wild beasts foam at the mouth, drainpipes channeling the rain down to the street

The more than 800 year old cathedral has been listed by UNESCO since 1991, and is has been the location of the coronation of many of France’s kings. It’s quite incredible to stand inside and imagine centuries of kings and courtiers looking at the same or very similar view.

It was built between 1211 and 1516 and during its time has been damaged by revolutions, attacked by peasants, and bombed during World War I. But the cathedral within told of a progressive view, with beautiful stained glass windows telling stories from the old and New Testament as well as more recent additions which are there for the pure art of colour and form. There is a fabulous window dedicated to the local peasants, recognising their part in the congregation and work in the champagne industry.

One of the newer stained glass windows
Dedicated to the wine growers, harvesters and makers in the area

I returned to meet the others, who were sipping coffee in a local bistro, and together we went up to the local war memorial to watch the ceremony, observe a minute’s silence and spend a moment or two in recognition of the significance of the day.

The local gendarmes in short sleeves despite the chilly wet day…their dogs ensure we observe the minute’s silence

We returned to the house for a fine three course dinner prepared by Penny and Steve, starting at 3pm and concluding around 8pm. Much fun, very delicious and a fine end to our visit with our friends in this area.

About to start course 2 – delicious roast chicken, potatoes and vegetables. L-R: Mrs A, Jenny, Ann, Mr A, Chris, David, Karen, Peter, Steve and Penny.

5 – 6 May: In the epicentre of Champagne…Epernay

Author: Mr A

Location: Priez and Epernay, France

Truffy drive-surfing outside our farmhouse home

Sunday: We had been invited to join friends who had hired a gite near the hamlet of Priez on the western edge of Champagne country.

Bumble bees alive and well in the garden

Would be lovely in summer out here – sadly not the weather for sitting outside for breakfasts or lunches

The rear courtyard
What is written on this roof joist? And by whom? And why?
Made in Paris

Our first evening together was of course a lively affair…we thought we had catered sufficiently for the group of 10 with a dozen bottles of wine, beer, pastis, breads and cheeses. However, the night drew to a close with not much left on the table and a few sore heads in the morning!

Monday: We left early for our first day learning about champagne with two tours that couldn’t have been more dissimilar. The first was to a relatively small, family run producer called Champagne Jacquinot.

Jean-Manuel passionately telling us his family story – he is the third generation
Chris and David listen intently
On our tour – some of this champagne is currently on a boat to Sydney
Rose champagne during its first fermentation
Mrs A, and behind the original concrete vats
The steep stairwell down to the hand-dug chalk caves

What a great way to learn about the complicated business of growing, harvesting, cellaring, fermenting, and finally bottling this product. For many of this the big takeaway was the impact that climate change is having on all the growers in the region. More variation, less predictability in weather patterns and hotter temperatures all serve to narrow the window for growing and harvesting as one example.

The tour was so eloquently given by the grandson of the man who established the business. He took us down into the cellars, dug in 1873 out of the chalk layer that enables the champagne region here to produce the amazing vintages that it does. It was so good to see a small business doing so well. Demand is strong and the production tightly controlled to ensure a sustainable future, even with the climatic impacts they face.

Champagne stored to allow sediment to fall to the head of the bottle
Graffiti in the chalk cellar walls
Beautiful coloured rose bottles
A tasting session before we head to lunch
Team photo

After a typically French lunch, except for how quickly we had to get through the three delicious courses, we were off to the next tasting at the by contrast very expansive and “Corporate” house of Mercier. You are likely to recognise their logo, they distribute all over the world.

It was a total contrast to the last place with an almost Disneyland like approach to showing us through their extensive cellars…on an underground train!

Mr A admiring some of the 18km of underground cellars full of champagne
Recorded stories in English timed with the train ride through the caves
Literally millions of dollars worth of champagne down here
Sculptures and relief artwork carved in to the walls
Machines which take away the need to turn the bottles by hand
One of the many relief carvings

When it came to the tasting I wasn’t sure to what extent my lack of excitement about the flavours was contextual or “real”. What I mean by that is I think tasting wine is so influenced in my case by what I am thinking and feeling at the time, who I am with, my engagement with whoever is presenting the wine and so on. It felt like quite a bland presentation to be honest, by people who seemed to have little passion for their product. And so the champagne tasted the same…how much of that was in my head or in the bottle?

Mr A sharing some thoughts with Steve
Chris holding court over champagne
Team photo of course

It’s a fascinating industry, clearly Epernay is doing very well. The place oozed money and presented a really smart brand for the this oh so French business. Grateful to be able to experience it with old friends and making new ones.

One of many champagne brands along Rue du Champagne
Views across the vineyards as we headed back to our farmhouse
Almost team photo

19-20 February: King Valley winetasting

Author: Mr A

Location: Whitfield, Victoria

Tuesday morning saw us saunter south from the small settlement of Chilton, just south of Albury, well rested after the best nights sleep in months thanks to the cooler night. The drive took us down through the King Valley in the foothills of the Victorian High Country. We landed at a lovely little campsite in the small village of Whitfield. Tassie, or camping cat, decided she liked the place using pretty much the same criteria as us….there were no dogs yapping or cars racing round. It’s a very laid back little place called Valley View Caravan Park and we’ve loved it.

We took a gentle ride (Catherine’s first since her stomach op two weeks ago) down the road to a winery that friends had recommended called Pizzini Wines. I recognised the logo as their Pino Grigio was our go-to white.

Only 3km each way, this was a very gentle ease back in to cycling!
One of our favourite sign posts!
Pizzini, nestled in the valley, spectacularly peaceful – all about to be shattered as harvest has started here

Well, we were blown away by the rest of their range as well. We both really like cool climate wines, and Italian varietals, so we tucked into this tasting with gusto. Their Barberas, Sangioveses and Nebbiolos we thought we’re exquisite. Just so well balanced, delicate wines. Our lovely host even dropped off our case of purchases at the caravan park!

Wednesday: The first few hours of today were spent trying to make room for more wine and all the extra clothes we have now brought with us because our belongings are all in storage. We have discovered the joys of packing cubes….I know its sad isn’t it but they are sooooo good at keeping things organised in the somewhat restricted space of our caravan and car.

After the frenzy of organising we headed over the road to another winery, Dal Zotto Wines. Not as spectacular, but still three bottles made their way somehow to our under bed storage!

Catherine said she felt up to a longer ride today so we headed out to explore some gravel roads along the King River.

Beautiful gum-tree lined lanes with no traffic – bliss!
Grapes are ready for the picking…
A miniature horse foal – so cute – we also saw deer, sheep and many wombat burrows
A chill out before starting dinner

It was a great ride with the temperatures being in the gentle mid 20s, the vineyards looking ripe for harvest, and apparently at 3am this morning they will start harvesting!

It has been a great start to our travels in Victoria, but off to pastures new tomorrow. Marysville and Melbourne here we come!