Tuscany: Two Castles, One Revelation

8 08 2012

This is the second in a series of articles about my recent trip to Italy. Enjoy!

Views from atop Castello di Broli. With a vantage point like this, advancing enemies can be seen from miles and miles away.

It’s always a bit of a pleasant surprise when you find out that so-and-so shares mutual friends with you:

Oh, so you know him too!”

Oh my, how do you know her as well?”

...we’ve all had moments like these. That little spark of affinity when you realise that your paths have crossed with someone else’s; when you find out that your are not a lone island but rather one of many interweaving, intersecting tributaries; when you appreciate the fact that however vast the world may seem, we are not separated by as much distance as we may originally thought. This may seem to you like a timeworn fact, but to me, it made all the difference on my recent Tuscan Castle Tour.

We had two castles down on the list for that day’s tour: Montessori Castle, picked because there was a geocache there; and Castello di Broilio, chosen because it was ‘highly recommended’.

The ruins of Montegrossi castle.

The castles couldn’t have been more unlike. Montegrossi, an 11th century fortress, stood dilapidated, in ruins, overgrown with weeds. No signposts indicated its existence, and we only reached the ruins after climbing up an obscure footpath. Castello di Brolio, on the other hand, stood proud and majestic, immaculately maintained, a potent symbol of wealth, power and status. This was a fully functioning castle, with a chic osteria at its base, a winding dirt road lined with cypresses and conifers leading up to the gates, and a lovely garden to stroll through.  Nothing suggested any kind of connection between the two disparate castles. And yet, as I soon found out to my amazement, the two castles do in fact share a mutual history. In Facebook-speak, they share mutual friends.

Castello di Broli…and this is just one part of it!

It turns out that the Ricasoli family (owners of Castello di Brolio), when they first arrived in the region, had at first lived at Montegrossi Castle before moving in to di Brolio. Despite the two castles being entirely dissimilar, here was an unmistakable link drawing the two together. In Facebook-perspective, both castles shared a mutual friend in the Ricasoli family.

Inside the ruins of Montegrossi. The Ricasoli family had lived here when they first arrived in the region, before moving into Castello di Brolio.

It’s fascinating, really, how seemingly contrasting elements can actually have close links. It’s almost  like a spider web, or tangled tentacles of an octopus. You may start off on one lone spoke of the web, or one solitary tentacle of the octopus, thinking you have no connections with those around you. Yet as you dig a little deeper and probe a little further, connections start to appear one by one and before long, a whole cobweb of an intricate system has emerged. That’s when you realise that though you may be but a speck in this world, you are also latched on to a highly network – a network which, unless you explore relentlessly, you will never fully appreciate.

And that is my revelation from my little Tuscan Castle Tour.

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Running, Walking & Getting Lost to Find Venice

22 07 2012

This is the first in a series of articles about my recent trip to Italy. Enjoy!

My favourite photo from Venice: Hierarchy?

Venice: supposedly the most romantic city in the world.

I’m not much of a romantic, but I can sure tell you another thing about Venice: it’s an absolute nightmare to navigate! Forget the tourist maps – they won’t help you much. You’ll spend so long squinting at those darned blindingly miniscule alley names that by the time you’ve figured out where you are, it’s probably time to go home. And those yellow street signs, forever pointing you to San Marco and the Rialto? Sometimes they work, but I’m convinced that more often than not, they’re conspiring against all of us tourists, pointing us around in endless circles, laughing at us while we wander around like headless chickens, hopelessly lost.

Ditch the map. Go for a run.

Don’t get me wrong, I like Venice. But to really get a taste of this lagoon city, I decided to ditch the map, un-bury my face from all guidebooks, and just go wherever my running shoes took me. After all, what is it really that we want to take from our travels? Memories, sure, but what are memories? The view of Venice from the lagoon, the tourist-filled Piazza San Marco, the gondolas and their oarsmen (which, perhaps a little harshly, AA Gill describe as “unsmiling…a cross between a pork butcher and a French mime”) – all these are fine memorable views, but also views that every other tourist will see, whether personally or on postcards. What I want to take from my travels are more than just memories of these mass-produced views. I want to make make these memories mine, to attach to the views my own emotions.

This is what I will remember.

I will remember the endless winding narrow alleyways and the ubiquitious presence of calm waters; I will remember the way one emerges from a claustrophobic alley, hemmed in by buildings on both sides, out into a majestic square, and likewise retreat from the buzz of San Marco into one of the many quiet streets. I will also remember the soothing sun rays at dawn and at dusk, caressing the brick walls and cobblestones with its slanting, casting walls a vivid red, leaving a slither of gold here and there.

Beware the tourist traps!  

There is also, of course, the less beautiful side of Venice: the hordes of tourists everywhere. It’s ironic that I should say this, because as a tourist myself I’m part of the very horde that I so despise. The main tourist traps are Venice at its worst: tacky restaurants with menu turistico‘s in seven different languages, displayed together with unflattering photos of their food taken with harsh and direct flash; store after store selling you I Love Venice baseball caps, t-shirts with cliched memes, ‘Not-Made-In-China’ masks and other crappy touristy paraphernalia.

Don’t just ‘do’ Venice. Make it yours.

How was I to go about touring Venice, avoiding the tourist traps and unearthing the city’s inner beauty? Ditch the maps, chuck out the guidebooks, avoid the crowds. In short, eschew the conventional Venetian tourist checklist for something more spontaneous, self-directed and self-created. I would walk wherever my walking shoes escorted me, run wherever my running shoes took me, and explore wherever the geocaches pointed me! I had my qualms about this at first; after all, how can you say you have ‘done’ Venice until all the big name, ‘must-see’ attractions have been ticked off? This was a little quandary in which I found myself, but I also quickly found reconciliation in thinking that this was the real way to journey, the real way to create lasting, personal, emotionally rich memories.

So, here are a few of my favourite photos from Venice, taken during my map-free runs and walks. You can also view them on my Flickr page here.

Also, some questions to consider – I would love to hear your responses!

Have you been to Venice? Some say that you either hate it or love it. What did you think of it?

What are your thoughts about travel? Why do we travel?  What is the purpose of travel?

Venetian Archways

A Narrow Lane in Venice

Peekaboo! Hide and Seek in Venice?

Made in Venice…not China!

A Venetian Street

View From A Hidden Street

Venice at Dusk

A Street Cleaner in Venice

Along the Venetian Shore

Piazza San Marco, Venice…early in the morning, without the tourists!

Ponte dell’ Accademia, Venice