Holiday Diary, Part 3

Saturday 18th June

The night before, I’d looked at my list of places to go, and counted the number of days I had left, and thought I’d better make it a day out. Since it was a Saturday, it seemed like a good day to visit the big city, with the commuters at home. Perugia in the morning.

Actually, I was a little later getting out of bed than anticipated, and I considered postponing the trip until the afternoon, but decided to go anyway. It’s only 25 kilometres or so. In fact, the latter part is straight autostrada for about 16 kilometres, but there’s quite a lot of messing around at Magione to get on the motorway in the first place.

Perugia MinimetroI had looked at the map and decided that as long as I took the right motorway exit, finding the huge parking lot at the Pian di Massiano Minimetro station would be easy. Well, I managed to miss one turning and had to muddle my way back to the right route, but got there in the end. This would be my first use of Perugia’s Minimetro. €1.50 to whisk you right to the city centre from the free parking.

There are some very steep slopes, meaning that a typical metro railway wouldn’t work. What Perugia decided to do was put in a cable-based system, with individual, driverless cars. The minute I saw it, I realised that, although hailed as a modern marvel, it was basically nineteenth-century technology. Any Victorian engineer would have understood its operation at once.

The steel cable runs in a continuous loop, powered from one end. Something in each car’s undercarriage grips the cable and the cars are pulled along. Simple. At the stations, the cable ducks down under a floor (perhaps for safety in the event of a door malfunction that let passengers fall onto the tracks) and horizontal rubber wheels grip the car and slow it to a stop. At each end of the track, the car is lifted onto a turntable, turned around, and set down on the opposite track.

I don’t know why the latter was chosen as part of the design. The cars look symmetrical, and you’d think they could travel in either direction, but apparently not. Cutting through several kilometres of ancient cityscape must have been a challenging project, but the sight of the little silver cars shuttling along by themselves made me think of the imagined future that should have been, not the world of iPads and X-Factor.

My street map of Perugia was too old to show the Minimetro stations, meaning that I had no idea where I would ultimately disembark. But when I emerged to street level, I recognised the location. I had my bearings for central Perugia, and knew that the central Corso Vanucci was just a few steps away.

My first port of call was Giardini Carducci, on the South end of the Corso, to sit under the trees and take in the sweeping views. Then I walked the length of Corso Vanucci, picking up a slice of pizza on the way, and had lunch on the steps of the town hall, the Palazzo dei Priori. A wedding couple must have just tied the knot: they were being taken round the piazza by the photographer, stopping for photos at scenic locations. The bride had a pretty, medieval-style dress in cream, and no headdress veil, just the medieval braided loop thing.

I’d finished my pizza and the happy couple gone out of sight when an old brown and cream Bentley glided into the square. A second wedding couple got out for photos, both with the car and the scenery. A traditional white dress with headdress and short train this time. (I overheard someone helping the bride to arrange her dress and found out that the Italian word for the train is ‘coda’, reasonably enough.)

PerugiaWedding car

Then, just a few minutes later, I realised that there was a professional-looking photographer beside me, and she was shooting a group at the Palazzo dei Priori doors just behind me, where presumably another wedding had just taken place. I heard English voices (well, almost — Yorkshire) but I couldn’t overhear enough to decide which partner was the Italian. I guessed the bride was the English rose, with a short blonde bob and a strapless sheath dress in very pale lilac satin. Six-inch heels too, which made climbing down the stone steps an adventure. They “borrowed” the other couple’s limo as a backdrop for some photos.

PerugiaI suppose Saturday is a common choice for weddings. With all the excitement over, I started on my tourist itinerary, which was to see some parts of the city I knew and liked, and some interesting things that the guidebooks had mentioned. One of the latter was the Via del Acquedotto, an elevated street made out of the ruins of an acqueduct. According to one guidebook, the original acqueduct supplied the water for the large Fontana Maggiore, which sits between the Palazzo dei Priori and the Cathedral. That seemed wrong to me, unless the destruction was more significant than I imagined, because the current little street over the acqueduct’s arches slopes steeply in the wrong direction.

I followed a more-or-less planned route back to my favourite sight in Perugia, the Arco Etrusco. It really is an Etruscan arch, or more correctly, a city gate, still intact after two and a half thousand years. Some hundreds of years after it was built, the Roman Emperor Augustus had is name chiselled into its outer face. “AVGVTVS PERVSIA” it says.

Another place I wanted to see again was the little church of San Michele Arcangelo. It’s very old (and had many later embellishments stripped off in relatively modern times) but the exact date is uncertain. It used to be said of any very old church in Italy that it was converted from a pagan temple (and that’s obviously true of the Temple of Minerva in the centre of Assisi) but modern research suggests that the early Christians were just recycling Roman building materials. Sant’Arcangelo has sixteen very fine but mismatched Roman columns holding up an octagonal roof.

There’s something very ancient and peaceful about the building, which I like very much, although, quite incongrously, the lawns outside are used for sunbathing by bikini-clad beauties. The area between the church and town centre is an ancient borgo composed of packed medieval terraces. I suppose they have no gardens to sit out in.

I continued my tour and came back to the main Piazza XX Novembre again. I realised how the Cathedral and Town Hall glower at each other across the square, clerical versus secular. In fact, that does exactly represent some of the history of the city, with outright warfare between the two sides, until Pope Paul III conquered the city government in 1540. In typical papal style, he then had a big fortress built so that his mercenaries could control the town, but as an added twist, sited it right over the palazzo, streets and piazzas of the Baglioni family, who had led the resistance.

When the Perugians eventually threw out the Papal forces and joined the new Italian state in 1849, the Pope’s oppressive fortress was entirely demolished, and a new town hall and gardens put in its place. But the streets buried for three hundred years below its foundations still exist, and can be visited. By escalator, no less. So I did.

That completed my day in Perugia. I returned to the Minimetro and glided silently back to the car park. (Residents’ complaints about the noise led to a revision of the hours of operation, and it now stops at 9pm, quite inconveniently for the traveller.)

Sunday 19th June

Lago TrasimenoSunday is a day of rest. My only expedition was mid-afternoon, when I walked down to the lake shore via the road that runs parallel to my usual route. The campsite lies between, and I assumed that it would have a gate onto the other road so that I could cross inconspicuously across their property and return home up the first road.

The new road led me to some sort of water treatment plant, with large, rectangular pools, and at the edge of the lake, equipment that pumped water from the lake through four parallel pipes. Although the area of the plant was fenced off, it was done so as to allow access on foot along the lake shore.

A breeze was blowing, and waves were coming in. The Southern shore is known for its reed beds, but there were enough places where you could get close to the water.

Putting my plan into action, I went through the gate labelled ‘Private Property’ and along a tree-shaded path through an array of wooden holiday chalets, most unoccupied. What I didn’t realise was that this was a separate establishment to the caravan and camp site, until I came to the barbed wire fence separating them.

I had to make an undignified clamber over the wire in sight of a couple of campers. That was not the inconspicuous arrival I had intended. I didn’t even look as much like a resident as I expected. I looked like a foreign tourist, no doubt, like many of the campers, but their dress code on site amounted to merely bikini and/or shorts, with lashings of sun tan lotion. Most people were lying in the full, harsh sun, not safely in the shade as I would have done.

Anyway, I made my way unchallenged through the park and out the gate I knew. I passed the bar and pizzeria, but in the afternoon, it was closed and hard to know if it would be buzzing with life in the evenings.

After a short stop (in the shade) looking out at the lake, I turned and walked up towards home, but after a hundred metres, I noticed a path to my left, parallelling the lake shore. I took it and it led me evenutally to the main road towards Magione. I knew there was a layby with views about a kilometre out of town and as I was half way there already, decided to make it my end point.

It was very hot and there was no shade on the road, and as the cars whished past me I did get to thinking “mad dogs and Englishmen”, although I’m neither, and in any case it was close to five o’clock by then. But after achieving my goal, I turned around and walked back to my home crossroads and up to my apartment.

Monday 20th June

I’d decided to go to Spello and Assisi, one of the longer trips I’d be making, but left it until after lunch to depart. I’d go via the motorways to Spello first, the farther point, and then return via Assisi. That had the advantage of making my route from the motorway to Assisi the same as the one I had travelled several times on a previous holiday. I knew where the best carpark was.

The motorway intersection from Perugia towards Assisi and Spello involves a fork to the left, which I find unintuitive, given that you usually exit on the right. On one previous occasion, I had ended up, late at night, on the road to Ancona, 125km away on the East coast, instead of to Spoleto where I was staying. But my TomTom GPS was on this time and the advance warning of lane changes was invaluable.

SpelloAt Spello, I remembered a convenient carpark outside the city walls, and left the car there, for free, even though it did break my rule about hill towns: park as high up as you’re allowed. The town is very hilly, which of course adds to its picturesqueness, but it’s also a challenge in the Summer heat. Probably the most characteristic features of the town, though, are the pots and baskets of flowers everywhere. There is an annual competition for the best-flowered alley or steps, making the whole town look attractive for residents and visitors.

I hit the roads again. I didn’t really need the GPS, but turned it on for instructions anyway. About half way to Assisi it suddenly went silent. It was running off the lighter adaptor, so I knew it wasn’t that the rechargeable battery was flat. In fact, I could smell burning, or at least very hot plastic, and I discovered that the power adaptor was hot. The GPS was blank and dead, although I couldn’t really investigate while driving. When I got to Assisi, I had a look and it definitely seemed to be deceased.

Anyway, I’d planned to arrive in Assisi at about five, which seemed a good time, after the peak tour bus period. For my fifth or sixth visit to the town, I didn’t feel the need to cover every notable sight. It was just catching up with an old friend.

AssisiThe one touristy thing I wanted to do was to visit the subterranean Roman forum for the fist time. I’m not much of a museum or gallery person. Objects don’t say as much to me as places. But what they’ve done in Assisi is to open up the excavation of the Roman piazza which lies beneath the current one. They call it the Roman town’s forum, although there’s no specific evidence identifying it as such, except it was a big, regular public square in the middle of town, and that’s pretty much forum-like.

The beautiful, classical columns and pediment of the Temple of Minerva have always been one of my favourite sights in Assisi (partly because I like the little bit of pagan sauce on the ambient Christian piety) but I admit that what had never occurred to me was that the temple is at current street/piazza level, yet the Roman layers are about three metres down.

In fact, the temple originally stood high up above the forum, and there were two enclosed staircases leading up to its portico. Although the exits are now sealed over, you can see the stone steps at their bottom end. I did feel that I had got an idea of what Roman Assisi would have been like.

After that, I did nothing more than loiter in the piazza. One thing I witnessed did make me smile: a van-load of frozen Co-op supermarket pizzas being smuggled in to one of the main tourist restaurants. The one near the fountain. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

I strolled back to the car (actually, my feet were killing me: too much walking) and manually navigated my way home.

After quite a late dinner, I sat with the remains of my wine, looking out at the tiny, shabby piazza from the bedroom window. It was a warm night, and some of the locals were sitting out, chatting. (There’s one old lady with a loud, piercing, nasal voice. I got my earphones on with some music.)

Tuesday 21st June

I put the GPS on the mains charger and the green light came on, but I couldn’t make it come back to life. There was definitely a sniff of smoke about it. But after I’d left it on charge for a few hours, bingo! it booted up. I unplugged the charger, and the red battery warning came on instantly and immediately the thing died again. Battery problem. Soluble, probably, even if it would have to wait until I got home.

I dismantled the car charger and found an 8-pin chip on the circuit board so overheated that the plastic shell had split, and the surrounding board scorched. Well, there’s your problem! I couldn’t tell if the TomTom’s draining battery had drawn too much current, or if it was just crap.

I’d been putting it off, but it had to be done: in the latter part of the afternoon, I got the bike out. Marco’s “garage” is not attached to the apartment, it’s round the corner at the ground level of another of the old village buildings. Three bikes, two modern, utility types and a traditional, thin-wheeled racer. The racer had a cable tie round the front tyre, which I took to mean “don’t use this one”.

All six tyres were flat, but inflating two (on the same bike, obviously) took only a few minutes, and I wheeled it out to the little piazza and set off, downhill to the main road.

The obvious route would have been to cross the main road and carry on down to the lake shore and jetty, having tested the brakes on the way, but that would have meant that the return journey would have been uphill all they way, and it was still quite hot. I decided I’d turn left and go just as far as the lay-by on the Castiglione side of town. A couple of days previously, I’d walked to the lay-by in the opposite direction, towards Magione. The symmetry appealed to me.

The road was mostly flat, with a climb only at the end, because the site picked for the lay-by is on something of a headland with good views of the lake. And a tree for shade — they always put a tree on them. I cooled down for a while and then got on my bike and returned to town.

The gears on the bike were the usual derailleur type, but the control on the handlebar had no fixed positions marked. I think that was what caused me to clumsily slip the chain off during one change. I let the bike freewheel until I got to a patch of shade and was able to get the chain back in place quite quickly and without getting very dirty.

No more adventures, and the hill up to home wasn’t hard. The whole outing had been less than an hour, but at least I’d done it.

Wednesday 22nd June

Isola PolveseThe largest island in Lago Trasimeno is Isola Polvese, and I knew that there was a regular boat service from San Feliciano, just ten kilometres round the coast from the apartment. In fact, the previous year’s timetable for all the lake services was in the apartment, and it had a web address, allowing me to download the current one and select my departure time.

After lunch, I drove to S. Feliciano and found a shady spot in the large car park, bought a return ticket and waited for the boat. Not a very big boat, perhaps about twenty metres, although certified, according to the labels, for up to 140 passengers. Actually, there were about a dozen people on board, and two well-behaved dogs. The trip across is only ten minutes.

The island belongs to Perugia (the regional government, I think, not the city council) and is maintained as a combination of recreational park and plant and wildlife park.

I set off randomly from the landing place, in what turned out to be an anti-clockwise circumnavigation of the island. The first section of the walk passed the beach areas, with one large party of noisy children splashing in the water, and a few groups of adults and teenagers lazing under free, community umbrellas (or free, community trees).

Since I was going to the Northern, cooler side of the island, I was soon in the oak woods, and was soon totally alone, the bathers and sun-bathers left behind. The path twisted through the dappled woods, and butterflies and dragonflies flitted past. Lizards scuttled for cover as I went by.

I underestimated my progress and somehow managed to miss the ruins of the monastery, being past before I began to look out for them. (The map shows the monastery right adjacent to the path. No idea why I saw nothing.) The South, sunny side of the island is mostly composed of olive groves.

I couldn’t fail to see the castle, at the Southern tip, very much restored and cleaned, but unfortunately not accessible, except by guided tour bookable from the tourist centre. It’s not far then from the castle to the cluster of buildings above the jetty for the ferry. The walk had taken me just over an hour, and if I’d cared to hurry, I could have caught the departing boat immediately.

Isola PolveseBut that was not my plan. I sauntered to the bar, took a seat outside and ordered a beer. It could have been better-chilled, but was acceptable. As I sat sipping, a group of men took another table, obviously old friends, including two “on duty” police officers from the Polizia Regionale, although they were dressed like Florida cops: you know the look, shorts, polo shirts, black leather belt with an automatic pistol.

The older cop had a beer. Good for him. There was a second group of children doing organised “activities” on the lawn, so I guess that the total population of the island at that time would probably have been about fifty kids and perhaps slightly fewer other people. As far as I could tell, no-one other than myself had walked all the way round.

When I’d finished my beer, I still had about half an hour before the next boat departure, and went in search of the acquatic plant garden shown on the map. It’s based around a swimming pool of the nineteenth-century which has been re-purposed for lillies and other plants. Actually, I missed it initially and had to double back, so that I arrived at the opposite side from the gate. Since there was nobody around, I climbed over the fence.

After I’d had a look around and taken a couple of photos, I went to the gate to find it locked. The sign on it was the same one I’d seen at the castle, although when I’d seen it there I’d ignored the fact that the guided tour included the acquatic garden too. Oh well, I’d seen it anyway. I returned to the landing jetty and boarded the ferry for the short return crossing.

I needed some food supplies (and wine) so drove in to Magione and visited the supermarket before returning home. After a very pleasant dinner, at about nine in the evening, I took some buckets of water out and washed the car. Not only had it acquired more than a week’s worth of road dust, the local swallows in the village had been using it for target practice and it was seriously defaced. No point trying to wash it in the heat of the day, because the soapy water dries too quickly and leaves an ugly residue. I was hopeful that the cooler evening wash would be better.

Thursday 23rd June

I thought I’d have another lazy, no expeditions day, except that I wanted a new charger so that I could use the TomTom in the car. I remembered that there was an electronics store next to the Co-op in Castiglione del Lago. Only about ten kilometres, and I could have a look at the town again.

Sure enough, they had a couple of suitable types. I picked the one that fits right inside the lighter socket and converts it to a USB power port, even knowing that I’d probably forget to take it out of the car when I left the country.

The last time I’d been to Castiglione, after I’d exhaused the sights of the old town I had walked down to the lake shore, where the town is more geared to beach holidays than perusing ancient monuments. The town is on a long promontory, pointing due East into the lake, and on that occasion, I’d happened, randomly, to walk to the North-facing shore. This time, I thought I’d have a look at the opposite side, and navigating only by sense of direction, managed to get where I intended and parked the car in the shade of a tree.

The South shore, being in direct sun, seemed to attract more sunbathers, including a few topless ladies. Back in the nineties, bare breasts on the beach were virtually compulsory, but have now largely gone out of fashion. I was quite surprised to see them.

There is a marina full of yachts on that side, a straggle of beachfront pubs and restaurants, and not a lot else apart from reasonably well-tended municipal lawns, although I did smile to see one fenced-off private establishment, the Lido dei Carabinieri. Cops in speedos, no doubt.

As the sun got lower and the blazing heat declined a little, I returned to the car and drove up the hill to the old town. There’s not much to it, so I’d already explored all of it on the previous visit, but it’s pleasant for a wander. After that, as I was leaving I saw a marquee by the old town gate,  the first sign of the Festa del Lago. I was planning to come back on the Saturday night for the ‘Notte Bianca’, with events scheduled between evening and 6am.

Friday 24th June

I was woken at about seven by the sound of a petrol-powered brush cutter. I know they have to get the work done early before it gets to hot, but it meant I definitely didn’t get enough sleep. It was actually slightly cloudy and still reasonably cool by mid-morning, allowing me to cycle comfortably down to the corner shop for a couple of bottles of wine. Didn’t want to be caught out at the weekend with no wine (although I got a flyer from the Magione supermarket announcing that they are opening on Sundays).

I could have walked there and back in ten minutes, but the bike had definitely been underused. When I came back, I didn’t put it away in case I mustered enough get up and go for a proper cycling expedition later.

Well, it wasn’t exactly an expedition, but in the afternoon I cycled down to the lake, which can be done without any pedalling at all, except while stopping and crossing the crossroads. There had been some patchy clouds, and it hadn’t been excessively hot. I sat down by the water for a while and was approached by three Dutch people, who asked in bad Italian, and then good English, if it was permitted to swim there. I replied that as far as I knew, it was permitted, but that I personally wouldn’t recommend it because the water didn’t seem very clean.

They obviously weren’t convinced, because I saw them ask a couple of locals fixing a boat, but after a wander round, they came back without braving the waters. I’d never seen anyone swim in the murky green water of the lake at that point, but the previous day at Castiglione and the day before that on the island, plenty of adults and children had been splashing around in what appeared to be much clearer lake waters. You still wouldn’t get me in it though.

After a while, I got back on the bike and rode out to the end of the pier. Well, you have to, don’t you? The rail around the pier has a break right at the end for access to a ferry, (although there are no scheduled ones from Sant’Arcangelo), and I did imagine what it would be like to cycle hard right up the centre line and over the edge. Fun, briefly, probably.

When I got back to the landward end, I lifted the bike down the step and in doing so, dislodged the chain. This time it came off both the drive sprockets and the spring-loaded derailleur mechanism. Fortunately my mechanical intuition was able to work out the correct re-installation. I took to the wheels again and went up the hill, then detoured rightwards to the adjacent road, over a path where I had to steer between deep potholes. It still only took a few minutes to get home, and this time I stowed the bike.

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