thumb_IMG_6856_1024A great day trip from Barcelona takes one by train to the Santa Maria Benedictine Abbey in the Montserrat, a multi peaked mountain, part of the Catalan Pre-Coastal Range. The mountain lies about 45 KM northwest of Barcelona.

 

 

Christopher Columbus, famous in Barcelona, named the Caribbean Island of Montserrat after this mountain.

 

thumb_IMG_6851_1024The Santa Maria de Montserrat Abbey hosts the Virgin of Montserrat sanctuary, identified by some as the location of the Holy Grail well known in Arthurian myths. It was founded in 1025 by Oliba, Bishop of Vic and Abbot of the grand monastery of Ripoli. By the 12th century Pilgrims began to make the climb up to the monastery. Legend has it that in AD 880 the Virgin Mary appeared in a cave to school children, then their parents and eventually was also seen by priests. The sighting is now known as Santa Cova, Holy Cave or Holy Grotto and people still trek to the small chapels erected there in commemoration.

 

Montserrat means ‘serrated saw’. Looking at the photos of Montserrat and its multitude of rock formations, you can understand why the mountain has this name. Montserrat was Spain’s first National Park.

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We arrived by train and took the cable car to the monastery. You can also travel by funicular railway. The trick is to decide which option you prefer before leaving Barcelona, as you purchase a combined ticket and you exit the train at different stations.

Barb my friend, wanted to really push her comfort zone so we took the cable car. The views as we climbed up the mountain were spectacular.  The mountain is about 1200 meters high and the views from the monastery and surrounding hills are beautiful.

Having arrived we made our way to the monastery, which hosts the Virgin of Montserrat and a publishing house with the oldest press in the world. The first book was published in 1499. Apparently it is still running.  Regrettably, I was not aware of this before, and I don’t know if one could visit. Nevertheless, we had some amazing experiences while there—but more on that shortly.

Prior to entering the basilica we passed through a broad esplanade, Placa de Santa Maria. There are several beautiful buildings along the esplanade, still used to house and feed pilgrims and visitors. Statues of the founders are also on display.

 

The interior of the basilica is dazzling. Restored in 1990, it dates back from the 16th century and is a mix of gothic and renaissance architecture.

The Virgin of Montserrat is a statue of the Virgin Mary and the infant Chris. They are a black virgin and child. It is one of the black madonnas of Europe, its Catalan name “la Moreneta, –the little dark skinned one”. I found depictions of this Madonna in other churches in Barcelona as well. Apparently, in 1844 Pope Leo XIII declared the Virgin of Montserrat, the patroness of Catalonia. Given the patriotic nature of Catalonians you can understand her popularity.

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In the monastery her statue is at the rear of the chapel, but we regrettably did not get to view it there. We were simply overwhelmed by other happenings. We entered the monastery at the close of the morning mass. It was a sung mass (Gregorian I think but I am not an expert in this field—but I can attest that it was beautiful). As the mass ended we decided to mover further into the basilica, to secure better seats and wait for the ‘L’Escolania choir which performs here every day at 1 pm. As we moved up, people in the pews began to simply sing. Slowly we began to realize that a large group was spontaneously singing a beautiful hymn in German. Looking around we realized they were all dressed in Tyrolean costume, the traditional dress of Austria. We had just come across our first pilgrims, a large group of Austrian Christians.

No sooner had their voices died down and we found ourselves surrounded again by music. This time we were standing beside a group of 12-15 men all singing Ave Maria a cappella. We were side by side with a group of men on a pilgrimage from northern Italy.

We were moved to tears.

Awed by the experience, we seated ourselves. We were treated to yet another musical experience—a short concert of a catalan songstress singing and playing perhaps a bandurria and two Japanese musicians with shamisens. This was a planned concert to reinforce hope and peace in the world. It seemed we were exposed to a truly global musical experience.

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L’Esconalia, the Montserrat Boys Choir, then entered and lifted us with their beautiful voices singing the midday Salve. The basilica was packed, the aisles filled with people standing and listening to the boys’ choir of sopranos and altos. The choir, composed of 50 young boys , is one of the oldest in Europe and has recorded over 100 albums.

 

It was simply an amazing and unforgettable blessed experience.

 

 

 

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Leaving the basilica, we were lucky to secure a picture of the Austrian pilgrims in their Tyrollean costumes.

We decided to take one of the trails up above the monastery. The hike was a bit more of a climb than we anticipated, but we were rewarded by spectacular views of the valley as well as climbers scaling the Cavali Bernat, an interesting rock feature popular with serious climbers. Apparently young people from all over Catalonia make overnight hikes at least once in their lives to watch the sunrise from the heights of Montserrat.

 

We did not hike to the top. We simply found a lovely rock, enjoyed a late lunch and a nap in the sun, ending our great visit to Montserrat.

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It is perhaps very fitting  that my first blog on Barcelona should be about its beaches.

Not three hours after my arrival in Barcelona, I found myself taking a short walk to the shore( 4 minutes from my flat in Poblenou). Within another 2 minutes I was sitting at a “chiringuitos” pronounced chee-ring-geet-toes enjoying my first glass of white wine, the lovely April sun and a breeze off the sea. Life is great in early April on a Barcelona beach!!!

The Beaches in Barcelona, and there are many of them, 9 in all, are magnificent!! On the Mediterranean border they stretch for almost 5 kilometres. Each beach has a name and all have the EU blue flag of excellence for water quality and services. It seems even the National Geographic gave its approval naming Barcelona as the best beach city in the world. I would agree.

 

Every morning I get up and have a long morning walk along the beaches and then enjoy a cup of coffee in my favourite  chiringuito. These small beach bars are dotted along the beaches providing libations as well as lounges to bask in the sun. I can imagine in the height of the summer they would be very full.

 

When I return in the afternoon for a little sun time, the sailboats, pleasure yachts, windsurfers, swimmers, sunbathers are out. Volleyball courts dot the beaches and impromptu soccer games take place. Entertainment along the boardwalk on weekends.

 

At Mar Bella the kite surfers come out late afternoon when the wind picks up. It is incredible to see them fly across the sea and perform their tricks. There is no end of people watching available from early morning till late evening.

 

I understand that  millions of people visit the city beaches every year. I expect in the height of the summer season the beaches are incredibly crowded—not my thing. But at this time of year they are really enjoyable. I have read that the city makes a big effort to keep the sand clean and the seawater clear and already I see signs of the cleaning routines that attest to this. Every morning city people are out washing down the boulevards and all day long beach cleaners walk up and down the beach removing trash.

 

Garbage bins are prominent for all to use.  They even have divers in the winter do an annual cleanup of the seabed.

 

In Spanish the beach is called ‘Playa’, but here in Catalunya they go by ‘Platja”. Mar Bella Platja is the beach I frequent. It has a dedicated nudist beach which I came across one afternoon by accident on one of my strolls along the beach…. But not too many visitors yet at this time of year yet.

I was curious about the beaches and was surprised to discover that up until the 1990s, the seafront had no resemblance to what I am experiencing here. The shores of Barcelona were dotted with factories( textiles  here in Poblenou) , fishing ports and even shanty town slums. All this changed with the 1992 Barcelona Olympics. The 5 kilometers of beach front, boardwalk, cycling and walking paths, and green space was constructed along with the Port Olympic  and Olympic villages. Sculptures, including Frank Gehry’s Peix and modern architecture make the beach walk engaging for full 5 miles. Remarkable!!! Today the Barcelona beachfront remains as an exemplary of Olympic infrastructure spending at its best!! Providing to the city beauty and economic wellbeing.

 

However, now more than 20 years later, some cracks emerge.  Being a popular tourist destination has its downsides. Residents struggle in the height of the season to get to work, do their daily shopping and the number of flats rented ( like mine) to visitors  impacts the real estate prices making local housing less affordable for the locals.

The recently elected Barcelona mayor Ms Colau, is talking about setting a limit on the number of annual visitors by freezing hotel construction or tightening up the rental of flats. Looking at pictures of the beach or the pedestrian La Rambla in summer, I can understand her concern. Apparently Barcelona has 1.7 million inhabitants. It sees over 7.5 million tourists a year… that’s quite an imbalance. Apparently the tourist numbers doubled in just 13 years.

 

The city has already taken some measures.

To ease mobility for residents the popular pickup bike that you find in almost all European cities ( and now even in Toronto in the summer), are generally available to tourists as well as residents. In Barcelona the system operationally supports residential use.  Fees are only provided on an annual (47 euros) basis, no shorter term fares available and one needs a Spanish credit or bank card and a local address to sign up for the system. The system has in fact been put in place to work alongside the local bus and metro system to enable people to get to work in the busy tourist season. I guess if there are 4 tourist to every local, weighting in favour of locals makes some sense.

In the height of the season large tour groups are barred from the famous La Boqueria market enabling local residents to shop for their daily food…. Getting your meat or fish and veg and fruit on a daily basis is still common here. Within the first week I have adopted this pattern.. shopping for my fresh fish, bread fruits every day… its great!!

When we visited Park Guell you have to book on line for a ticket and are assigned a time to enter.  I was quite happy that visitors were restricted to 400 per hour and understand the requirement for a fee.  I don’t think I would have enjoyed my ramble through Gaudi’s park if there were no restrictions on the numbers in the park.

Bottom Line April is a great time to visit Barcelona beaches.. sunny, warm, not too crowded and clean

 

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Fall 2015 found me one more time in London, one of my favorite cities. It was a rather different visit. Instead of exploring the museums, sights and shops I spent several weeks ‘hunting’.

Daughter Rachael was facing down 2 weeks to ‘homelessness’, having been unsuccessful for more than 2 months in finding a new flat to move into with 2 new flat mates, Ana and Lauren. Who would have thought it would be so difficult to find a place to live in central London?

Well I was soon introduced to the challenges of London Flat Hunting!!!

It is incredibly competitive to find a flat in London. Rentals are logged with rental agencies and there are hundreds of them…check out any of the key London neighborhood corners and you will find 4-6 rental agencies within spitting distance. Those looking for a place, log their requirements with agencies—many of them!!! Or you don’t stand a chance!! Each of Rachael, Anna and Lauren were registered with multiple agencies in the 2-3 neighborhoods they were interested in living in. Oh yes, that’s another key element, narrow your search so that you can actually manage the activity…if you don’t you will be run off your feet.

Listing Checking, Agent Pestering, Frustration

Every morning, the flat hunting drill means you 1) troll your search engines (http://www.rightmove.co.uk or http://www.zoopla.co.uk) , 2) hope your agents are also searching for you and sending you emails about new listings—(they often get them before they are logged on the search sites). This later step requires ongoing pestering, as of course in the current environment the agents have many people who are looking for a flat just like you and 3) pick the flats you want to check out. So far so good. The challenge is that you need to move very quickly, almost at the drop of a hat. Getting to the new rental flats first is critical!! I found that for every flat there are another 5-10 people interested in the same space…so it is all about getting your rental offer in quickly!!!

So, as fast as you can, check out the flat, make a decision re what to offer ( at rental price listed, above, below, special requirements etc), get the offer to the agent and wait to see if the owner chooses you for the flat…and yup it is their choice and they typically have multiple offers.

Never Ending Listing Checking and Flat Hunting exhaustion

Sound easy? No, not so much. Frustrating? Yup, and increasingly more so as you make offers and time after time are not chosen!!! arrrggghh

All of the above, is complicated hugely by the fact that you have to make a living…meaning that you typically can only focus on this before breakfast, during work breaks and lunch and after work and on the weekends..in other words you have no life other than flat hunting. And naturally not being able to check out flats until after work, means that you are not typically the first offer!!!

Rachael, Ana and Lauren are all young professionals. Two weeks before they would all be out of their current housing arrangements, Ana was dispatched to Croatia to follow the refugee crisis for Reuters, Lauren was off on a long planned holiday she could not cancel and Rachael had colleagues from South Africa in for the week for a workshop… yup life gets in the way !! They of course were all now not only looking for a new flat to rent, they also needed to pack up their belongings and figure out where they are going to live in 2 weeks time…yup life is complicated and VERY STRESSFUL!!!

Packing up the belongings and storing across London at Friends

So on my arrival, I joined the house hunting task force!! The girls would do the searches early in the morning from wherever they were, send me the possibilities and I would contact the rental agents to see if I could set up a viewing. They armed me with a list of questions to ask, and a checklist of their requirements to confirm in the flats.  The best trick was to take a video of each flat I visited,  check out the flats and load my  visual and verbal observations  ASAP on our WhatsApp group, and the girls could check out the flats virtually.

Walking the streets of Clapham & Balham, checking out flats—lovely ones

WE DID NOT GET!! Aaarrrggghhh!!

I became very familiar with Balham, Clapham Junction and Clapham Common…having walked the streets and visited flat after flat. I, along with niece Madi,  experienced with them the disappointment of a flat that did not live up to expectations, of trying to decide if they would offer, of losing to another bid, and the nerve-wracking waiting to hear.

So every now and then we needed a break!!!

Cocktail Breaks to keep up our Spirits

It took  another 3 weeks to finally secure a flat!!!! But they did it!

It took seeing beyond the distressing lack of housekeeping by the current renters, begging and negotiating with the owner, and constant follow-up with the agent but the girls were successful and late October moved into their flat in a great neighborhood in Balham.

 

Happy Flatmates Ana, Lauren and Rachael in their new flat !!!

They now live happily in a flat, newly scrubbed, decorated and made ‘home’. Balham is where they settled…a great neighborhood, pubs, cafes, parks and easy transportation.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Brighton by the Sea

Brighton by the  sea.. a city sandwiched between the South Downs and the English Channel—a city that is  colourful, quirky, cool and tacky !!!!

Top of the tacky list is the Brighton Pier… a very long pier enabling all to soak up the tackier side of Brighton …tons of kitsche, noisy arcades, games, lights, fish and chip shops, bars…and at the far end, an old fashioned carnival style amusement park.. horror house to roller coaster to an  old style merry go round. And at night lit up like a grand old dame.

 

 

 

 

 

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My favourite part of the pier, are the great chairs to sit in and soak up the sun.

 

The Brighton Pier opened as a pleasure pier in 1899. In world war II the pier was closed… clearly it was an easily identifiable landmark  at night.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Just down from the Brighton Pier is the rival West Pier. It was closed in 1975 and having been severely damaged by fires and storms, today is just an iron wreckage rising out of the sea. I think I prefer it to the tacky main event.

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Top of the quirky list is the Royal Pavilion…the exotic extravaganza commissioned by the equally quirky Prince Regent.

Designed by John Nash, the architect of London’s Regent Street, the Royal Pavilion is a a rather unusual, extraordinary building, boasting minarets, pagodas, twirling domes, balconies and Indian and Chinese motifs. George IV, was a huge disappointment to his straight laced father George III. The Prince Regent was anything but straight laced. He devoted his life almost entirely to pleasure….gambling, heavy drinking, dining, mistresses, racing, fine clothes …and clearly extravagant lavishly furnished homes..and in the process running up huge debts for the royal family.

George IV’s love with Brighton started in 1783. Introduced to him as a health retreat, George IV made it his “London by the sea”.  Here he  settled his mistress, Mrs. Maria Fitzherbert, whom he secretly married, and later disavoved when his father forced him to marry  Princess Caroline of Brunswick . This marriage did not last as Princess Caroline shared his father’s views about George’s lifestyle. Nevertheless having set up in Brighton , the Prince’s royal followers followed and made Brighton fashionable and racy.  He died in 1830 at 68. By this time he was king, morbidly obese, often caricatured by the press as completely out of touch with his subjects, who following the Napoleonic wars suffered famine and high unemployment. The times summed up his passing as follows “ there never was an individual less regretted by his subjects than this deceased king”. 

Interestingly, he clearly left a strong mark on Brighton. I had always planned to visit the Royal Pavilion but was always waiting for a rainy day.. as i barely had any rain when I was in Brighton, I never did go in to see the interior extravaganza..I will probably live to regret this.

Top of the Colourful Cool List …Brightons eclectic vitality  Today Brighton  continues to have a  bohemian vitality. It comes from artists,writers, musicians and other creatives and a thriving gay community. During my month there, it was the comedy festival, so regrettably I was not able to participate as fully in the musical cultural events.

Brighton  has a charming inner core —known as the Lanes and North Laines. Generally car free, it is  a maze of little alleyways crammed with shops and boutiques—lots of jewelry places. I loved to wander the Laines, check out the shops, pop in to a coffee or wine bar and quite lovely restaurants. My favourite was Riddles and Finns, a champagne and oyster bar which also served fabulous sea food. If you are in Brighton check it out.  There are two one on the beach and one in the Laines. I loved the one in the Laines. Tiny venue, open kitchen chandeliers, candelabras on long tables where you are seated family style—a great way to meet people —and sure enough in Brighton, of the artistic sort. One evening my guest and I met a heavily tattooed and pierced young woman from Australia who was a producer of electronic music and her friend a film producer.

Another favourite walk was of course, the one along the seaside on the promenade. Brighton has a long wide pebbly beach ( which is actually very comfortable to sit on—who knew? )  you can walk for quite a distance along the coastline. People flock to the beach in the summer…but even throughout my time there in October it was well populated with people taking in the fall sun rays and simply strolling or cycling along. Lots of places to stop for coffee, a snack or wine or beer. In the first few weeks it was still quite warm and I loved to grab a comfy couch at the outdoor bar, with glass in hand sit in the sun and listen to a wonderful female singer singing jazzy tunes.

I lived in the area of the Seven Dials. Lovely homes, nice pub nearby ( The Cow) and a great Coffee place ( Small Batch Coffee) . My flat was really wonderfully decorated…french provincial country style. Again I booked through AirBnB…my go to place for great flats. The owner was a british airways stewardess and clearly an experienced home decorator. It was a cosy and delightful spot to come home to after a day in Brighton or on the downs.

All in all I enjoyed my time in Brighton on the Sea. A part of which was the hiking in the South Downs, which will be the subject of my next blog.

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Hiking in Exmoor National Park : September 2015

I will begin my 2015 blogs describing my recent visit to Exmoor National Park. My daughter Rachael, currently  working in London UK, had given me a hiking trip for my 65th birthday. She organized it through HF Holidays. Our destination was Holnicote House, a National Trust Home operated by HF Holidays near  Selworthy, a small village within the Exmoor National Park in Somerset.

It was a tremendous 3 day retreat. HF Holidays is one of Britain’s largest walking and outdoor leisure holiday specialist.  They have been in business over 100 years and every year over 50,000 guest travel with them in the UK and other destinations beyond. In the UK they operate 20 Country Houses. Holnicote House was one of them. Although a very old house, the rooms had been completely renovated and updated. Our accommodations were first class.

Holnicote House : A National Trust House

Holnicote House : A National Trust House

Holnicote House

Holnicote House

The holiday included full home cooked board and most importantly guided walks in the area.

All of the HFHoliday guides are volunteers..many of them for a long time. Both of our guides had been doing multiple walking trips with them for well over 10 years. The house was full ( I think about 40 guests). Every night the guides would go over the next days walking trips ( easy, medium and hard) and Rachael would rule that we were there for a challenge so ‘hard’ it would be for us.

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The guests with the exception of Rachael were all 50+. You can imagine how delighted they were to have a ‘young’ person in their midst. Rachael quickly figured out that in this crowd, I should have no difficulty with the ‘hard’ walk. And indeed I did not, although there were several guests much older than I who easily surpassed my ‘walking capability’. Our ‘hard’ walk each day had about 8-10 in the group—a perfect size in our view. We met 2 wonderful women from Denmark whom we hit it off with on the hikes. They also were always game for a drink in the bar after the days hike.

Moor Sheep

Moor Sheep

IMG_4495The hikes were outstanding!! the scenery spectacular, the spots along the way of interest both geographically and historically. Each day was a full day. Day one we walked down to Lynmoth. In Lynmoth we took a cliff rail way. It was a funicular cliff lift powered by water.  From Lynmoth climbed to the Valley of the Rocks and then on to Lee Bay.IMG_4567

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We ascended to a high level path above Lynto and then over to Cleaves to Watersmeet. The walk was 11 miles ( 17.5 km)  in total with 2000 feet of ascent ( whew) and 2400 feet of descent ( hard on the knees)

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The next day we hiked directly from Holnicote House ( day one we had taken a bus to our starting point) from Alleford to Bossington and along a long pebble beach to join the South West Coast Path, and then up to Selworthy Beacon and finishing at the lovely tea house in Selworthy.

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While we had full days, there was still so much more to see and do. I am sorry I missed the town of Selworthy. It is a small picturesque village of thatched cottages. owned by the National Trust ( more on that later). We glimpsed Dunster Castle on our way but did not have time to explore.

So a little about the National Trust. As noted above the National Trust owned the house we stayed in ( although operated by HF Holidays), it owned the village of Selworthy and Dunster Castle. I had also seen several signs along our hikes denoting National Trust, so my curiosity took me to the web. It turns out that the National Trust is a charity that works to preserve and protect historic spaces and places – for ever for everyone.

They were founded in 1895 by three passionate victorians interested in preserving outdoor spaces. Today they look after historic houses, gardens, mills, coastlines, forests, farmlands, moorlands, islands, castles, nature reserves, villages and pubs.. Here are just a few of the interesting facts about the National Trust.

  • they are one of the UK’s largest farmers, with more than 618,000 acres of land and 2,000 tenant farmers
  • they own and run 61 historical pubs, 49 churches 9 monasteries
  • they own 59 villages
  • they look after 775 miles of coastline—some of the best beaches and coastal paths in England, Wales and Northern Ireland
  • they have over 60,000 volunteers contributing 3.1 million hours of their time—equal to 1590 full time staff.
  • they have over 4 million members

Quite the organization I would say!!!

Exmoor  was designated a National Park in 1954, in recognition of the outstanding beauty, wildness and tranquility of the moorlands which dominates its landscapes. The moors and heaths of Exmoor are wide open areas overlooking the whole of the West Somerset, North Devon and the Bristol Channel Coast. But Exmoor National Park is not a wilderness. It is a living and working landscape with many settlements from small towns and picturesque villages to tiny hamlets and isolated farmsteads.

The coastline within the National Park stretches for (59 km) 37 miles. It is outstanding for both its scenery and its wildlife and was one of the prime reasons for the designation of Exmoor as a National Park. Exmoor has the highest coastline in England and Wales with coastal hills rising to 433m (1421ft).

Seeing wild ponies on the moor is a highlight for many hikers.IMG_4504

We saw both feral goats and the Exmoor ponies on the moors. The Exmoor pony is one of a number that are native to Britain. I learned that they are only wild in so far as the the herds roam freely on the moor. In fact they all belong to someone.  A number of years ago there was a fear that the ponies might become extinct. Today there are 11 privately owned herds that run on the Exmoor National Park

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The National Trust Holnicote Estate is located in Exmoor and makes up 12,000 acres of the  Exmoor National Park. All of the National Trust estates, and cottages in Exmoor are easily identifiable by their yellow painted walls.. a lovely colour making the homes quite distinguishable.

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All in all a really terrific start to my fall time in the UK.

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Visiting Florence one cannot help but cross, re-cross, walk and walk again along the banks of the River Arno which cuts through the centre of the city. Having crossed or walked along it daily, I found myself constantly shooting pictures of the River, its banks and bridges—it was constantly mesmerizing….there were days when I simply sat by the river, glass of wine in hand or leaned for hours on the river walls spellbound by the interplay of river, buildings and light.

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It is clearly central to the identity of Florence.

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Since ancient times, the Arno river has been the transit route between the mouth of the sea and the Apennines when wood was needed for architectural works. It is 241 kilometers long. Over time the Arno greatly influenced the economic development of Florence. However drought and periods of low water reduced its navigability and with the construction of railroads in the 19th century, it was no longer a commercial transit route.

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Almost immediately one notices there are no tour boats, no water taxis or commercial craft. The only boats I saw were the local rowing club members out for their sculling practices. I very calming form of boat traffic. One Sunday I was entertained by a two teams of 6 players in kayaks that seemed to play a sort of waterpolo / waterbasketball at the rowing club just below the Ponte Vecchio.

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Even though the river is often low and calm, it has flooded. The worst in the history of the city since the flood of 1557 was the 1966 Flood. It had a lasting impact on Florence. 5000 families were left homeless and 6000 stores were forced out of business. Immeasurable damage was done to the art and the ancient book collections in the city. People from around the world, including experts (named by Florentines subsequently as MUD ANGELS) came voluntarily to help clean the city and retrieve the works of art and books. Restoration efforts continue even today. In 1984 a dam was built and the river banks were raised to protect the city from future disasters.

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The Ponte Vecchio ‘Old Bridge’ is possibly the most well known and most photographed of the bridges. Oltrarno or ‘other Arno’, meaning the other side of the Arno, is the neighborhood across the river. A wonderful area, in which you will find the Pitti Palace and the Boboli Gardens. I spent 2 weeks in a loft apartment in Oltrarno and loved this neighborhood. It is the home of many students and working Florentines.
The Ponte Vecchio was, until 1218, the only bridge across the Arno in Florence. In World War II, it was the only bridge not destroyed. It withstood the weight of the tons of water and silt when the Arno burst its banks in 1966.

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While today goldsmith shops are housed in every nook and cranny of the bridge, the shops were owned by butchers in the 13th -15th centuries. As the Pitti Palace was ‘oltrarno’ they had to use the bridge to get into central Florence. The noble Medici did not like walking amongst the lower society nor the smell of the meat cutters,they built a corridor above the shops as their personal passage to the Palace—the Corridoio Vasariano. The original butchers, fishmongers and tanners were banned in the 16th century (probably due to the rank smell that accompany these businesses) by Ferdinand I. He decreed only goldsmiths and jewelers could have stores on the bridge.

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As you can see from my photos ( and I took many more) I loved taking a passeggiata (stroll) along the rivers and across the bridges. Ponte Santa Trinita lay at the bottom of my road, a stones through from my loft apartment. It led straight to the Ferragamo and best gelato shop across the river.

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You will see from many of the river and bridge pictures, that the other element which fascinated me was the amazing skies in Florence. I read ( can’t remember where I picked this up) “ Italy celebrates an endless vocabulary of light on landscape that change from morning to evening, north to south and season to season. The luminous vistas recorded by Leornardi da Vinci in his paintings can still be seen when travelling any Tuscan Road”.

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Certainly I was constantly drawn to take photos of the skies. I hope you enjoy the pictures….they will long be a wonderful memory for me.

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I am always attracted to green spaces…I love walking the belt line in Toronto, hiking in the Rockies, golfing as much to hit the ball, as to take in the scenery. It is no different in cities. I always seek out the parks and gardens.
Initially walking the streets of Florence is was not easy to see a lot of green..narrow streets with high walls, but I soon discovered that the city blocks of high walls held hidden gardens…most of which regrettably were private. With front green gardens not being a norm in Florence, I checked out the Florence city map and indeed found green slices for exploration.
062The first of these was close to my first Florence apartment and I found I was skirting this large green space without my knowledge as I made my way to the old city. The map indicated it was Giardino Della Gherardesca…but as is typical in Florence it was surrounded by walls or homes. At 4.5 hectares it is one of the largest private gardens in the city and has been in existence since the 15th century…and like most things of value was owned at one time by the Medici family. Constanza de Medici married Count Guido Alberto della Gherardesca hence the name. I discovered walking the block where the map indicated the garden was located, it was flanked on two sides by entrances to the Four Season’s Hotel… and so I had my entrance.
Years ago, traveling with my friend Mary in Paris she shared with me a great traveling tip. In the great cities of the world, research the famed hotels, dress up and of a late afternoon, stroll in, make your way to the bar, and experience some of the best cocktails and wines in the most beautiful bars of the world and simply enjoy!!! the surroundings, the drinks and the people. So that is what I did in Florence.

The Four Seasons

The Four Seasons

Of a late Sunday afternoon I strolled into the Four Seasons and asked to be shown to the garden bar.
It was delightful!! First of all the terrace, the impeccable service and to my delight the garden was filled with art!!! All in all a priceless day, a lovely glass of wine and the experience of a beautiful garden museum.

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068I also got a glimpse of the beautiful hotel… a 15th century palazzo and a 16th century convent beautifully restored over seven years—original frescoes, bas reliefs and stuccos. Stunning!!!!!

Boboli and Pitti Palace

Boboli and Pitti Palace

The second garden is the famous Boboli gardens—a park behind the Medici’s Pitti Palace.

Boboli

Boboli

Entrance to the Pitti Palace includes entrance to the Boboli. It is 111 acres!!! In Medici times it was for the exclusive use of the Medici family—no entertainment or parties ever took place in it. A shame for as far as I am concerned, it would have been an amazing venue for a grand event.

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The Boboli were laid out for Eleonora di Toledo, the wife of Cosimo I de Medici. The gardens had no natural water source, so a conduit was built from the nearby Arno to feed water into an elaborate irrigation system.

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Even today the gardens are elaborate. I can only imagine what they must have been like in the Medici times. Statuary, an Egyptian obelisk, an ampitheatre, a hippodrome—a classical race course, garden temples, an orangery, fountains, Neptune, the Grotto of Vulcan and Bacchus.

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Vulcan Grotto

Vulcan Grotto

Bacchus

Bacchus

The Boboli Gardens are situated on a rise over theFlorence so in addition to the gorgeous park surroundings one gets an amazing view out over the city of Florence.140

Both these gardens were definitely worth the hours spent wandering through them.

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The Last Garden I want to introduce you to is Giardino Incantanto ( Garden in Bloom). This was the name of the second apartment I rented in Italy. Just outside of Firenze ( a mere 10 minute bus ride into town) near Imprunetta, this lovely Tuscan home was surrounded by an amazing garden, the love of Fiametta, mother of Lorenzo my host. I spent 3 weeks in Giardino Incantanto a marvelous airbnb location.
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The house was beautiful and large enough to host family and friends. I welcomed my daughter, my sister and brother in law, friends and cousins ..all of whom marveled at this beautiful space. We enjoyed it with coffee in the mornings and with wine in the evenings. It soon became the most photographed garden in Tuscany!!!

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