Tuesday, October 21, 2014

October 20th – Beautiful Bonifacio

There can't be many cruise calls that look as stunning from the sea as Bonifacio. This Corsican port is crammed together onto a narrow peninsula sticking out to sea, at the top of 200-feet high vertical limestone cliffs. With those tall higgledy-piggledy houses rising straight from the cliff edge, it doesn't look quite real – like something from a fantasy film maybe.

With the natural defences of the cliffs augmented by a huge set of city walls on the landward side, this place was clearly built with defence in mind by the Genoese who ran the show in Corsica for 500 years or so. As you walked up the steep slopes to get up to the Citadel, it wasn't difficult to see why those defences saw off attacks from the Saracens, from the Spanish and the French amongst others – by the end of a thigh-burning 10-minute climb up there, we were exhausted and dripping in sweat.

But, the climb is definitely worth it, because Bonifacio has an agreeably historic and laid-back atmosphere within its network of narrow streets – an atmosphere that wasn't too busy with tourists at this late stage of the season. As you wander around the town, you'll see that virtually every shop is selling a selection of fearsome-looking Corsican knives, a reminder perhaps that this is the island that invented the word "vendetta", and a place where you do your best not to cross the locals. I kept this in mind when I asked the bar owner where we'd stopped for a drink if I could have a receipt – when the answer came back with an unsmiling and uncompromising "No", I thought it best not to argue!

As the final port of this leg of the cruise, Bonifacio has shown yet more of what the Mediterranean does best – great scenery, atmospheric towns and fascinating history. I think quite a few passengers are now planning return visits to Corsica.

October 18th & 19th – "On Holiday" in Lovely Lucca

With an overnight stay in Livorno, this was a perfect opportunity to stay a night in our favourite Tuscan town, Lucca. So, we booked a B&B online, hopped on the train, and within an hour we were within Lucca's famous renaissance walls.

We really struck gold with the B&B, "Le Terrazze" – it had only opened a week earlier (so it was priced more keenly than I think it would normally be), it was beautifully decorated and furnished, plus, it was right in the centre of the action, next to Piazza Anfiteatro.

We've been to this atmospheric city many times, so we didn't have much of an agenda – we just wanted to wander its lively streets, peruse its historic churches, potter in its shops, and chow down on some wonderful food. This trip ticked all those boxes, in an atmosphere that felt a world away from the cruising life.

Of course, the one must-do in Lucca is to take a walk around the city walls, which have become a joyful recreational area rather than a defensive shield, as every day they're taken over by cyclists, joggers, dog walkers, speed walkers and slow parambulators (we featured in the last category). The great thing as you walk around those walls, is that you get some wonderful views over the historic city, with its timeless skyline of churches and tall towers – not a modern building in sight.

After a wonderful evening meal and refreshing sleep, we got up early to call in at Pisa on the way back. I don't think that I've seen the splendid Campo de Miracoli looking better – its fabulous ensemble of white buildings were positively glowing in the sunlight, against the intensely blue autumn sky. Of course, the highlight of the lot was the gravity-defying Leaning Tower, which looked as ridiculously off-kilter as ever. Actually, every time I see it in person, it always surprises me how much it's leaning, ready to topple at any point.

This was a really refreshing and enjoyable "mini-break", re-confirming for us that Tuscany is definitely one of our favourite regions in the world.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

October 17th – A Diverting Time in Genoa

We were scheduled to spend today in the peaceful little fishing village of Portofino on the beautiful Ligurian Riviera, but that was not to be. Instead, strong winds made the tender operation impossible, so we diverted to the safe harbour of Genoa, Italy's busiest port.

Where Portofino is quiet, Genoa is noisy and traffic-filled; while Portofino is tiny, Genoa is a teeming metropolis of 700,000 people; and if Portofino is exclusive, Genoa is a cosmopolitan world city. But, what Genoa has that Portofino can't rival, is a fascinating history, some extremely impressive historic architecture, and an incredibly vibrant streetlife.

Unfortunately, the modern world hasn't been particularly kind to Genoa. In the Middle Ages, this was one of the richest cities on the planet, which has given it a whole set of grand palaces and impressive churches; however, the war (and post-war development) has seen the addition of new buildings that jar with its architectural riches, and a waterfront scarred by a raised motorway that runs its length.

But, get away from the waterfront, and into those narrow lanes of tall buildings, then the city begins to grow on you – you see real life going on at a hundred miles an hour, in almost medieval levels of activity and grime – it wasn't always pretty, but it was compelling. To get a rest from those mean streets, we went for a delicious lunch at a cheapo local restaurant we've been to a few times, for a bit of pesto (Genovese of course), and Tracy's favourite, acciughe ripiena (stuffed anchiovies).

As we wandered the streets, it was interesting to note how cosmopolitan Genoa has become – lots of Africans, and plenty of Chinese and other nationalities on the streets and running its shops. I guess that in some ways this mix of ethnicities is quite appropriate for a city that made its fortunes on world trade. Genoa once vied with Venice to dominate Europe's trade with the East, while the city's most famous son, Christopher Columbus, was the man who discovered the New World. These days, it seems that the Orient and the New World has come to Genoa.

Friday, October 17, 2014

October 16th – Kalliste Calvi (Most Beautiful Calvi)

The Ancient Greeks, who knew a thing or two about beautiful islands, gave Corsica the name – "Kalliste", meaning "most beautiful" - and our day in Calvi certainly proved them right. This has got to be one of the most beautiful islands in the Mediterranean.

On a tour of the north west of the island, we saw white sandy beaches that could be from the Caribbean, turquoise seas to challenge the Pacific, rugged towering mountains to rival mainland France, and impossibly remote hilltop towns that could only be Corsican.

Corsica's strategic position in the Mediterranean has left it as an almost-constant target for a succession of foreign navies and pirates, and so this has shaped the way that the islanders live. Most of the coastline was too dangerous to live on, so they normally headed for hills, and built their villages at the top of incredibly steep mountainsides in such remote places places that most lazy pirates couldn't get to them. Those that stayed on the coast, had to build enormous defences to keep any attackers out – you only had to look at the enormous walls of Calvi's Citadel to see that this place was built with defence in mind.

We joined a tour that travelled along the coast to the pretty resort town of Île Rousse, which had an absolutely gorgeous beach (and empty at this time of the rear); before we ventured up one of Corsica's long and winding roads up into the mountains, to visit the precipitously situated village of Sant' Antonino. This town clings onto the steep slopes over 1,500 feet above sea level, and its streets are some of the narrowest and steepest I've come across. It made you wonder at how people can possibly live up here, having to carry everything up by hand from the car park at the bottom of the village. This way of life can only re-inforce the famously stubborn and independent-minded attitudes of the locals.

As we travelled around the island, we were treated with one stunning vista after another, before we returned back to the forbidding bastions of Calvi, rising majestically straight out of the sea. Inside the walls of the Citadel it was incredibly quiet, with only a few French Foreign Legionaries roaming around (they have a base here), the odd cat, and a smattering of Silversea visitors, breaking up the silence of the somnolent Old Town.

These were medieval defences built by the Genoese during their 500-year ownership of the island, and you could see why the town was never captured in this time. Instead, it was money-worries that caused the Genoese to leave, as their 18th century financial difficulties led them to see the island to the French for 40 million Francs. Any time spent on this most beautiful island confirms that the French definitely got their money's worth.

October 15th – Exploring Alghero’s Catalan Roots

Having sailed from Barcelona via Ibiza and Menorca, by now we've got used to seeing plenty of evidence of Catalonia's medieval empire. However, discovering even more Catalan culture and architecture here on the Italian island of Sardinia comes as a surprise to many. Because, the beautiful port of Alghero first became Catalan back in the 14th century, and the people here still consider themselves as Catalans first, Sardinians second, and Italian a distant third.

In the narrow streets of Alghero's atmospheric Old Town, there was enough impressive Catalan Gothic architecture on offer to justify the town's nickname of "Little Barcelona", while the street signs in the Catalan language and the presence of paella on many of the restaurants' menus all point to an enduring Iberian influence. This unique combination of Catalan, Italian and Sardinian, really gives the town a cultural dimension that can't be found anywhere else in the Mediterranean; while the presence of Alghero's beach just outside of its huge city walls means that there's a relaxed holiday atmosphere to savour too.

Actually, we weren't able to lay anchor in Alghero as planned – high winds meant that the tender operation here would have been too dangerous. So, instead we docked in the more protected harbour of the sleepy town of Porto Torres on the north coast of the island – a 40-minute drive away. That drive showed us a bit of Sardinia's unpopulated interior, and also allowed us to stop for a few views of its stunning coastline. It was interesting to see how undeveloped this western coast is. You get the impression that anywhere as beautiful as this, located elsewhere on the Med, would have been chock-a-block with hotels and resorts.

Before we got to Alghero, we also stopped in for a quick visit at one of Sardinia's 7,000 Neolithic monuments, mysterious stone towers called "nuraghe". Like Menorca's stone monuments the day before, we don't really know the purpose of these 3,000 year old enigmatic constructions, but they point to an ancient civilisation more advanced than perhaps you'd expect of the bronze age.

But, the star of the show was Alghero, a town that seems to tick most of the boxes for a tourist destination – great beach, good food, fascinating history, intriguing culture, stirring location, beautiful architecture, and an enjoyably lively atmosphere.

Sardinia has always been a bit different from the rest of Italy, but Alghero offered us something a bit different from the rest of Sardinia.