Chapter six

Day26 Friday 26th December.

Boxing Day already and we are due at our friends home at 9am for a little trip, 140 kilometres to Siena, home to a famous Cathedral, horse racing around the huge ancient town’s “square” (piazzo and it’s fan shaped, not square) and other famous things I have not known or forgotten. You can look them up on the Internet.

It is as cold as a nun’s embrace, maybe even Mother Superior’s. Two degrees, overcast and a 20 kilometre an hour wind to liven one up.

The drive is unspectacular but pleasant in the warmth of the diesel box.

Daughter number one Dora, is driving her car with mumma as director, and we have dad and Erion with us. Daughter-in-law / pacemaker Eri has opted to keep little Bjorn home due to the rather low temperature this morning.

That didn’t stop her from sending Erion off with a full lunch pack for all of us, including a type of Albanian, well, pizza I guess, for want of better description, panini (sandwich roll to you) cake, fruit, a mini bottle of wine and drinks. No way are we allowed to waste money on buying lunch.

I have seen the Sistine Chapel, but the work in this cathedral is right up there with Mike’s job for the Pope. The amount of labour, talent and skill that went into creating these cathedrals is simply beyond anything we could contemplate in today’s world.

Not a horse to be seen in the town square today, but the walls are adorned with the rings for tying them up.

The cold in Italy has a beneficial effect on the landscape in the form of tight jeans. Tights in general are essential in keeping warm, especially if one feels the need, as many Italian girls do, to wear a skirt, when the temperature is below freezing. It goes without saying that knee-high boots are the other must-have in this important combination.

At other times, when jeans are the go, it is essential that they be as tight as possible and Italian girls, yes and ladies too, take to this good advice with relish.

As far as the landscape reference goes, I have only heard it expressed as “Luce alla porti di paradiso” which as far as I can make out, roughly translates as “daylight to the gates of heaven” whatever that means.

We were back in Todi in time to finish the washing and head up to see Mario.

We were only there 5 minutes when his other Australian friends arrived, Geoffrey and Trish who are right royal Sydney tossers. They had been working on choosing decore for their new home they are building in “Toad E”. (I can’t believe they are so ignorant of the local pronunciation for a town they intend to live in.) SIMPLY ALL their friends have ordinary holiday homes on the Gold Coast and after all they have been coming to Italy every year for their annual skiing trip for 20 years, and well, building a new home in Italy is just so right for them. Where is the barrier reef, I know its in Queensland, haven’t been there for years, is it anywhere near Brisbane?

Dinner with the family at 8pm and then over to Eri’s again to send off some emails.

We are off tomorrow and the lovely Carlo will be here at 10am to get paid and pick up the keys. Lovely chap, Carlo and we were both pleased with the effort he went to, to make us feel welcome and the apartment is great.

Day27 Saturday 27th December.

No time for sleeping in this morning. I have some shopping to do, fresh bread for lunch, coffee at Mario’s etc

By the time we packed, had breakfast, got the car from the car park and tidied up the apartment, Carlo had arrived. The heating bill was steep, (90 cents a unit) at 60 euros, but the alternative was a whole lot worse.

We finally got to the family for coffee and goodbye, which of course is nothing like coffee and goodbye. It was a mini banquet in itself, with cakes, chocolates, little banana pastries, light red wine, sparkling water, pineapples split and decorated etc. Oh, and coffee too at the end which was, by now, 12 o’clock.

Finally hit the road in bright sunshine and a cool but tolerable 8 degrees.

The weather map had sunshine all the way so this should be a great drive. We take the long exit from Todi along the river and head North to Perugia. The traffic is easy and soon we are past Perugia and now heading North West to Cesena which is a pit stop before our destination, Bolognia.

After 10 minutes we notice the sky ahead is no longer blue. After 30 minutes we are under cloud and it is getting a little darker, even though the afternoon has just started. The temperature has dropped noticeably.

We stopped to eat our sandwiches at a service station just as snow started falling on our parked car. We have never been snowed upon before. We were actually traversing a mountain pass and the town on the pass is called San Pietro in Bagno, literally “Saint Peter in the bath” I reckon.

Half an hour later we were through the pass and out on the plains, flat land as far you could see, not even a snow capped peak on the horizon, but still bloody cold.

Bolognia is a large city, home to the world’s oldest university, (500 years plus). We found accommodation in the old city area, which is more like Rome, wide thoroughfares and grand buildings.

The hotel is over priced and has primitive internet, ie some tacky computer in an anteroom and call it an internet point. In other words, no access for anything except kids wanting to surf the net or maybe send a simple email. Annoys the hell out of me.

As we walk the streets at 7pm to choose a restaurant, small flakes of snow are falling and disappearing on contact. Quite charming really, but bloody cold. We have found that the right gear does take care of the cold as we have a jacket under our coats, a scarf and gloves. Even without thermals, that is enough for most local walks.  Saint Peter’s bath.

Our hotel is called Academia obviously a reference to the University area, which seems to be a town within a city. There are huge buildings, theatres, etc mixed with shops all of types, especially those related to study, restaurants at all levels, expensive stores with designer labels, all within this large precinct. We walked a few blocks to a long wide shared street, almost devoid of traffic and found a restaurant that was not too expensive. Very busy with good food and service.

On our return journey we missed our street and gave ourselves the opportunity to get better acquainted with the area. Slept well.

Day28 Sunday 28th December.

Not an early start and snow is falling. Breakfast is not bad at the missed-named Academia Hotel (the room is not bad but you would not want to be a student at these prices for no internet, no bathroom exhaust etc) They tried to hit us up for an extra $10 for parking the car in their yard. Fat chance.

The receptionist was sympathetic and said she had complained to her “directore” many times about the poor internet service. I told her to tell her “directore” that we were moving to another hotel because they did not provide internet.

We had time to spare so we took the opportunity to see some of the city. The main impression is of the different architecture, the use of colonnades. Virtually every footpath is covered by buildings supported by one type of column or another. This makes it very different from other cities, where you may see a few colonnades , but here uncovered foot paths are rare. The whole feel of the city is one of moderate wealth, quality merchandise and very clean. There were a few beggars but no more than any other town.

The buildings were not the astonishing palaces of Rome, but large good quality, slightly understated types with a few show pieces here and there.

Even the cathedral was relatively plain both inside and out, while boasting the usual 80 foot tall arched ceilings, there were few elaborate paintings and masterpiece sculptures. It seemed to be a working version rather than an exhibit for tourists. (Mass was in progress while we were there.)

All the coffee shop employees wore ties. At this rather flash joint, 2 coffees, $2.40.

Nice place Bolognia and we could spend a week here no problem.

Now we hit the road for Padova.

The sky is still overcast at lunch time as we head further North along the autostrada. As this is flat country there is no sight of snow, even on the mini mountain tops as we approach Padova. Only frost on the Northern side of everything erect. We have been driving through what the locals call Nevechio which is Neve for snow, but not enough to be flaky, more like sleet. The illuminated signs on the autostrada give updates on the weather ahead and, as I have noticed before, contrary to some perceptions, most drivers are fairly safety conscious.

Our arrival is early, plenty of time to find a hotel in a difficult-to-find older part of town. Padova is a “new” city and from what we can easily see, is unspectacular.

The parking area is pay by the hour and we walked quite a way looking for a hotel, and after asking some locals, still only found a choice of one, and that was the 4 star Hotel Europa.

I told the manager it was too expensive so he dropped the price another 30 euros to 100 and included the parking garage down the street. As we couldn’t see another hotel anywhere and he had a bit shuffling to do to give us a room, I am not sure what we would have done if he had refused.

We went out for dinner down the old quarter and came across a little osteria with two regular guys running it, early thirties and keen to make a go of their venture. One spoke quite good English and was keen to show it off. Curried chicken and rice made a change from other more traditional Italian fare. Excellent desserts and a good bottle of wine made the 38 euro price tag quite reasonable.

After several frustrating hours I accepted that I would not be able to send emails tonight. Receive was fine, but send, no.

It’s 1am and if that damm shelia in the room above doesn’t stop clip clopping around in those shoes I will strangle her.

I don’t think we saw anything in Padova we wanted to photograph and the “4 star” rating must have cost them a hefty bribe.

Day29 Monday 29th December.

One thing I can say for the Padova Hotel Europa is that breakfast was very good. One last go at sending email and failed again.

The sky had changed from the heavy overcast of yesterday to a beautiful blue clear and cold day, increasing our appreciation of sunshine to a whole new level.

We extracted the car from the underground car park up the street and saw nothing on the horizon to encourage us to stay longer.

Within half an hour we were stopped at a “servizio”, topped up with gasolio and ready to hit the autostrada for Venice, not that we are going there.

As we have become used to over the last few days, everything on the Northern side of everything else, is covered by frost, ice or snow. All the rest is green grass and sunshine. Bizzare.

Not far, maybe 40 kilometres later, we followed the signs, turned left and North to the Belluno autostrada. At this rate, we would be in Belluno before lunch, but there was more to see along the way.

The Treviso turnoff arrived and we paid our toll and left the autostrada. This is an interesting city, quite different from anything else we have seen before. It reminded me of one of those American movies with the mini mansions and sweeping lawns with little fountains and statues in the middle. Old houses of people who used to have money but the future has caught up. The streets have canals running across and along side and water from the not too distant mountains kept them running along a fair pace.

House prices were low too as I read in a real estate mag in a snack bar where we stopped for coffee. We parked by a canal that used to be a stream a few hundred years ago and the water was running quite swiftly. After donning coats (but not the heavy duty ones as it was a warm 4 degrees in the sun and only just below freezing in the shade) we headed into the snack bar, figuring there was industry nearby as the atmosphere was quite whiffy.

The pictures in the real estate rag looked great, nice houses with water views on the door step and I asked the young lady with the bare midriff behind the snack bar counter if these photos were taken in Treviso.

She assured us they were, but advised the smell from the water would sicken a dingo, or something to that effect, in Italian. Now I remember where I knew that pong from, Venice, not more than 50 k’s from here.

Not that they are poor here, nice houses, plenty of business although it is Monday and Italy is closed on Mondays, except for those businesses that are closed on Tuesdays, or on lunch.

Real estate must be in short supply judging by the way the poor buggers have to park the new cars for sale.

Enough sight-seeing, we hit the autostrada for Belluno. In no time we climbing mountains on a concrete monolith stretching across mighty valleys between tall mountains whose steep sides are covered with leafless trees and snow on the bare ground below.

It is quite exhilarating and the view spectacular. One thing we learned is to always turn on your camera in tunnels because you never know what you will see when you come out. Not surprising when you consider you have just plowed through a mountain and usually you come out the other side halfway up.

A few cautious turns later and we finally see one of the things we came for, snow. Not just on mountain tops, right there in-your-face snow, on trees and roads and on cars and on roof tops, snow.

After coffee with Auntie Maria Terese de Battista and husband Idilio, we book into, yep, the Hotel Europa, no relation to the one last night in Padova. Same price too, but better quality, definitely 4 stars. Nice.

Notice the mountain in the background, here Coles and Woolies sell ski boots to help you get out of the car park.

Just up around the corner, if you are completely mad, you can go skiing at night.

We have decided to walk from the hotel to Auntie Maria Terese de Battista’s for dinner.

In theory, as it is only from street number 158 to number 290, it would be a nice stroll before dinner.

Imagine two Michelin Men wrapped in 5 layers with hats, beanies, scarves, arms locked for mutual support, taking tiny cautious steps along the ice that partly covers the footpath and the snow that covers the rest. It is probably only 5 minutes normally.

Better still, move forward to 10pm and consider the reverse course. Like a four legged centipede, we crawl forward clutching each other as we slip and slide just enough to make sure we don’t get too cocky. Anyone with half a brain is home by the fire or heater as they are these days.

The air is so cold, you get that pain you can sometimes get in your forehead from eating really cold icecream.

I have no idea what the temperature is now, but it was minus 3 at 5pm and the footpath has new frost that was not there when we went out.

We shared dinner with two of their grandchildren who are staying overnight and while their English and my Italian are never likely to meet in the middle, we communicate with the disappearing coin that dissolves into my arm and mysteriously appears in their pockets.

Back at the pub and the 4 stars are working as promised. My emails actually go this time.

Another great day.

Day30 Tuesday 30th December.

I like this hotel, it has a shower.

Please allow me to explain about Italian showers. The normal Italian shower cubicle is designed for people of the dimensions of Pinnocio, minus the nose.

In the cubicle there will be a contraption. There is no other way to name it. Halfway up the silver pipe that forms the backbone of this contraption, you will find a flexible hose and attached to this is a shower rose, which is placed in a movable slot that will invariably be so worn that the rose hangs down like a flaccid hose, not the colour you were thinking of.

The control for this contraption is a single handle that you must pull towards you. Cold water then rushes out a spout onto the floor of the cubicle.

Next, one must pull a little knob on the spout to encourage the water to rush up the flexible pipe, which immediately rears up to the stiffly erect position like an aroused stallion on Viagra.

Cold water then covers you and the rest of the bathroom.

After 10 minutes or so, hot water has warmed the half-kilometre of pipe through the building leading to the hose to ensure the emerging stream is now lukewarm. One now needs to quickly disrobe in the cold, turn sideways and slide into the narrow gap that has formed between the sliding doors set at 90 degrees to one another.

Assuming you have taken a deep breath to gain access and not injured yourself thus far, you should now be under a warm stream that will become progressively hotter as the half-kilometre of pipe absorbs the heat of the water.

Grasping the handle to exert some minute sideways movement of the handle will produce some interesting results, one of which will be the complete loss of water to your torso, but covering your feet with suddenly boiling water from the bottom spout which has found new life.

Quickly pulling the little knob on the spout top will re-engage the rearing stallion and the instant flailing of the rose will cover the walls and ceiling with another wet experience.

Using the practiced hand-to-eye coordination of an overpaid surgeon or 747 Captain, you will, with persistence, get a satisfactory medium temperature. This is where the Italian shower becomes a truly memorable experience.

You are now standing with your back only millimeters from the control handle and any effort to wash the nether regions that cause you to turn ever so slightly, one way or the other, will produce some startling effects.

Should this turn be counter-clockwise, your impact on the protruding handle will result in a stream of water so hot that your skin will start to peel off your bare buttocks. You will immediately start to make thrusting movements on the unforgiving sliding doors in an effort to remove your buttocks from the attack in the rear.

Should you turn clockwise however, the resultant stream of melted snow will cause all exposed equipment to retract to invisibility, the lips to purse until they resemble a sparrow’s beak and the eyes to glare at one another across the bridge of your nose.

Quickly exiting the cubicle, having decided you are already clean enough, you find yourself standing on the half-inch of ice that has formed on the floor from the shower overflow and you can complete your quintessential Italian shower experience.

As I said, this hotel room has a shower. What joy from simple things.

It is another perfect day of blue skies and no wind. We have been incredibly lucky so far, the floods of Rome and we were in Southern Italy, the big chill here and we were further south, etc.

There is a footpath buried under here and you can just see the diesel box parked in the snow in the background.

It is late morning, probably 6 or even 7 degrees, so who’s cold?

After lunch we took a little drive to Cortina, only about 60 kilometres from Belluno. The town is about he same again from Austria and as it was late in the day when we left and it gets dark at 4pm, we turned around just before getting into the main town proper.

We came here to see mountains and snow and we certainly achieved that goal. The scenery is just like the many photos we have seen over the years, spectacular.

The autostrada runs out here at Belluno so the road North to Cortina soon dissolves into one lane each way. By the time we reach the halfway point, we are driving through villages strung together side by side for many kilometres with little between them.

All are hung onto the mountain sides, a necklace of houses and small enterprises that stretch for at least 25 kilometres, like one long thin town of Swiss architecture, quite different from the houses in most Northern Italian towns.

In places there are traffic lights where there is not enough room between houses for two vehicles at the same time.

This is the only road to Austria without heading South to get onto an autostrada and there were a fair number of large trucks and even a few articulated buses which made some of the corners very interesting.

Snow was about a foot thick on roof tops and about a metre deep on the road sides covering most of the fences, but the road itself was clear. I don’t think it has snowed for at least a few days.

By the time we got back to Belluno, about 5pm, it was very dark and minus 3 degrees. We decided not to retrace our steps of last night and so we drove the kilometre down the road to Maria Terese and Idilio’s house for dinner.

When we left to come back to the hotel at 9pm the temperature had dropped to minus 6 degrees and the receptionist told us that a guest had just arrived from Cortina and the roadside gauge up there was reading minus 14 when he left there at 7pm.

We were shivering in the car by the time we drove the 3 minutes to the hotel.

Well, we did come here expecting to see snow.

Tomorrow is the last day of the year, time to head South and eventually, home.

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