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Posts tagged ‘Europe’

Tuscan Towns #5 – Siena

Of all the towns we visited during our last trip Tuscany, with Siena I have saved the best till last. More of a city really, this glorious product of the golden age of Renaissance is disproportionately heavy on art historical treasures, elegant shopping streets and stunning piazzas culminating in the most magnificent of them all – the Piazza del Campo. Siena’s geographical position, up on a steep hill and surrounded by verdant rolling countryside, is no doubt both the reason for its untouched beauty and for its prowess as a self-defended city. Today the city is almost intact in its historical architecture, with barely a modern blemish staining its golden walled, silver cobbled streets. The only embrace of modernity has been the emergence of super chic boutique shops and cocktail bars serving plate upon plate of tempting aperitifs, best enjoyed with an Aperol Spritz amidst the bustling atmosphere of locals filling out these packed social hang-outs.  Siena is a place of vespas and La Bella Vita, of large sunglasses and shopping bags, of that irrefutable union between seductive Italian passion and the innate elegance which can be found in every street. It is Italy at its urban best, surrounded by the most beautiful rural landscapes imaginable.

The seductive streets of Siena

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We entered Siena up a set of steep staircases, arising, blinded by the light, as though from a cellar onto the reflected glory of the Duomo, its black and white stripy façade literally glimmering as the sunshine hit the golden details of its external mosaics. What an entrance to a city! It was the ultimate precursor to a place whose treasures fill the senses like tree blossom swept liberally into the wind. A stunning mosaic here, a mighty altarpiece there. Cafes that dazzled, sculptures to inspire, street corners whose tangible charm roused the soul and inspired the mind. We went, of course, into the heart of the Duomo, but that adventure I will leave for the second part of this article. Rather today I want to concentrate on the soul of this ravishing city which, quite justifiably, has been declared a UNESCO world heritage site and is one of the most visited in all Italy.

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Getting lost in Siena’s uniquely sloping cobbled side streets is one of the greatest joys that Tuscany can offer, but after a time, the idea of being lost here becomes something of a fiction. For just as all roads in Italy may lead to Rome, as though in defiance of the expression, all roads in Siena lead to the magnificent Piazza del Campo, whose enormous semi-circular construct more or less dictates the layout of the remainder of the city.

The Piazza del Campo

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It was in that delightful main square that our visit concluded. As we approached, the atmosphere of a thousand visitors lying out on the sloping pavements to enjoy the sun, or sipping upon spritz and bubbles in one of the many cafes which line the square was highly tangible. It was like human electricity, building up in the semi-circular square before finding occasional release as it leaked into the side streets through the Piazza’s odd openings. Once in, the space literally dazzled as before us the enormous scale of the campanile of the Palazzo Pubblico unveiled itself and the Piazza, which is famous for the annual Il Palio horserace which plays out around the square, glowed as sun rays met red and ochre brick. There we sat, at one such café, as the sun swept a shadow across the curve of the Piazza much like the effect of a sun-dial. Soaking in the last of the rays, as golden sunlight reflected against the prosecco and gelato on our table, we people watched and soaked in the atmosphere, and observed a city which seemed to exude contentment. We were certainly contented in turn. It was a visit which would provide the highlight of our year so far. I wouldn’t be surprised if we were return again, before the year is even out.

The highpoint: Prosecco on the Piazza

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© Nicholas de Lacy-Brown and The Daily Norm, 2001-2017. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of the material, whether written work, photography or artwork, included within The Daily Norm without express and written permission from The Daily Norm’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited.

Dubrovnik | Day 3 – A tale of two cities

It is a rare thing indeed to find a holiday destination with mixes both superbly intact historical treasures with a good old golden beach. One can only dream of taking a dip in the sea when sweating profusely around the dry old ruins of Rome’s forum; and in Paris, a manmade beach clinging to the side of the moderately filthy River Seine in the summer months is about as good as it’s going to get. But in Dubrovnik, Croatia’s diamond of the Dalmatian Coast, you truly get the best of both worlds. Not only is the city a treasure trove of historical beauty encased in a perfectly unbroken ring of ramparts, but immediately outside of those stone walls are long beaches and crystal clear cerulean blue seas. And what’s more, Dubrovnik has to be one of the only beaches in the world where you can lounge out in the sun and swim lazily in the shallow waters while being afforded a stunning view of one of Europe’s most unique medieval cities.

Charismatic old streets in the South of the city

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Day 3 of our trip made for a perfect demonstration of this fortuitous combination. In the morning we undertook yet further explorations of some of the narrower “back” streets climbing up to the seaward extent of the walls, where streets form successively more beautiful labyrinths of plant pots and strung out laundry, and the steps get steeper and steeper as you advance towards the sea. This then led us to the city’s Domenican Monastery, a place which is not only the epitome of tranquillity with a stunning cloister whose stony silence is interrupted only be the gently dappling of the sun, but whose museum claims to hold the heart of St Luke the Evangelist himself, as well as a good few other body parts of the great faithful.

The Domenican Monastery

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In the afternoon, by contrast, we made our way down the winding streets which lead Eastwards out of the city, beyond the protection afforded by the mighty walls, and onto the nearest stretch of beach to the city – a wonderfully golden expanse fringed by warm shallow waters and of course benefitting from that incredible backdrop of the city. As this was, ostensibly, a city trip and we knew that this beach day was likely to be a unique endeavour, we splashed out on hiring two comfy loungers and eating our way slowly through the menu of the beach restaurant ably servicing the many beach goers. And in that mode we enjoyed this second face of the city, plunging regularly into its incredibly warm and clear waters, gazing in wonder at the views of the city rippled in the almost still Adriatic waters.

The beach of Dubrovnik

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As evening descended , it seemed only appropriate that our evening dinner should combine both facets of sea and city – and dining out on the visually spectacular terrace of the restaurant 360, positioned up on one wing of Dubrovnik’s old walls, we were afforded a view not just back to the old city, but also over its port where small fishing boats barely moved in the still air of this warm evening. The food was apt accompaniment to this eye-watering view: my crispy sea bass with spiced cous cous and a basil puree deserves particular mention, although star of the show was a bottle of Croatian red – Lasina (2011) – one of only 600 bottles ever made, and so deliciously complex and richly velvet that I wished they had made a thousand more. But then that’s Dubrovnik all over: a place of rare treasures unrepeated elsewhere in the world, and all the more enjoyable for it.

360 Restaurant and Dubrovnik at night

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All photos and written content are strictly the copyright of Nicholas de Lacy-Brown © 2014 and The Daily Norm. All rights are reserved. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of the material, whether written work, photography or artwork, included within The Daily Norm without express and written permission from The Daily Norm’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited.

Dubrovnik | Day 2 – Paradise set in a ring of stone

Day two of our trip to Dubrovnik had to be about the great walls. Encircling the city in an unbroken ring of metres-thick stone, the walls not only offer the best possible vantage of the city from multiple angles, but also enable a complete appreciation of the scale and extent of the city. While on the one hand the city feels very small and self-contained, when you are walking around these huge walls, feeling rather like an ant by comparison to their mighty size, you start to realise that the city is really quite large, and packed full of treasures and unique panoramas on an almost incomparable scale.

And as if by way of example of the wealth of the city’s offerings, our first ambling of the day, walking through the land-bound streets of the North of the city (in an attempt to discover the entrance to the walls…) demonstrated that every street in Dubrovnik, no matter how small nor narrow, is a thing of beauty. This steep region of the city, which used to be separate from the main island city of Dubrovnik before the Stradun, which is now a main street but used to be a river, was filled in, constantly wowed us with picturesque sights around every corner – washing strung between houses, little wooden chairs placed outside front doors ripe for neighbourly gossip, street lamps poking out from every house in an overlapping cluster of glass and metal, and of course a backdrop to die for of further escalating roofs and the steep hillside beyond.

The picturesque backstreets 

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We didn’t find an entrance to the walls in those backstreets however. At every turn we could see the walls, and see an increasing number of tourists walking upon them. Nonetheless the entrance alluded us (it turns out that access to the walls, which is charged at around £10 each, is tightly controlled) and we headed back down to the city centre in search of coffee, before finally heading to the Pile gate, where we already knew that the main entrance to the walls is located.

The walls of Dubrovnik are so impressive, extensive and magnificently steeped in history that they ought to form the basis of a song. Or perhaps they already do (or perhaps I should write one). I can well imagine how the lyrics would poetically describe how the undulating extent of these mighty ramparts plunge robustly into the sea on the one hand, and sensitively encircle the city’s old port on the other. Or how to the north they take you up to the back of the city, affording the most sensational view across Dubrovnik’s sea of rooftops, and how to the south, they offer sweeping panoramas of the Adriatic sea on the one side, and quaint little citrus-filled gardens on the other. Of course photos probably do just as well to describe the brilliance of Dubrovnik’s major attraction, and I shall leave you to look at my pics, while remembering fondly the drink we enjoyed upon one rampart terrace, with a commanding view over the city’s cathedral and the island of Lokrum beyond.

Compelling views from Dubrovnik’s Walls

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Of course the walls were all rather tiring. What felt like a small city from within suddenly magnified once you were required to walk around the whole place in a single morning, and come the afternoon, a restful lunch under a port-side pine tree, followed by a series of leisurely coffees taken in the city’s various squares was just the ticket to refuel after our morning’s exertions. We also found a little secret passage across slimy sea-weed covered rocks extending from the harbour into the old city, ending up rather awkwardly in the kitchen of a restaurant (a breach in Dubrovnik’s walls!).

Lunch with a view and a passage way through the sea

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We also discovered that the best time to enjoy the city is surely of an early evening, when the tourist masses and the groups from docking cruise liners have departed, leaving the locals and those tourists lucky enough to be staying in or around the city to enjoy the place in relative tranquillity. And there was no better way to do that than with a drink on the Stradun with jazz playing from nearby cafes and house martins swooping in the air. Nor with dinner under the city’s starry sky, eaten al fresco in front of the Romanesque façade of the Jesuit church to the accompaniment of a Spanish guitarist.

Clearly it was not just their freedom that the residents of this city wanted to preserve by building such magnificent walls around them, but also the secret held within their embrace: paradise on earth.

The best time of the day…

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All photos and written content are strictly the copyright of Nicholas de Lacy-Brown © 2014 and The Daily Norm. All rights are reserved. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of the material, whether written work, photography or artwork, included within The Daily Norm without express and written permission from The Daily Norm’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited.