Korea Change

A lot has happened since I last graced you with my eloquent diatribe. Relationships have come and gone and come back again, family members have got ill then better then ill again, my employment situation has changed, I’m about to be living in London again (part time), and I’ve somehow become rather obsessed with NASCAR.

But despite these partly inexplicable adjustments, one thing remains constant – my desire to see the world.

Since returning from my jaunts around Western Europe earlier this year, I’ve been looking forward to, planning, and talking a lot (mainly to myself) about when I’m heading back out again, and to cut a long story short, it will be in January.

But whilst my previous endeavour lasted a mere seven weeks, this journey – thanks mainly to the absurdly wonderful value for money ticket I’m buying – looks set to keep me occupied for around six or seven months.

The basic idea is this:

Jan/Feb – South East Asia

Mar/Apr – Australia & New Zealand

May/Jun – USA & Canada.

Now, if this year has taught me anything, it’s that trying to make any more detailed plans will probably be a waste of time. Nevertheless, I’m still hoping to see many speech-destroying sights including wild tigers, massive rocks, bright lights, and a sex museum. Because why not.

One part of my journey that has changed, however, is my stance on visiting North Korea.

I’ve always been fascinated in the way of life over there, and how it differs from other civilisations thanks to its style of leadership. However, given recent and inevitable future escalations in diplomatic tensions, and for the sake of the sanity of my loved ones, I’ve decided not to go.

Now, those of you with a sturdy memory will recall that I mentioned something about my job situation changing. More specifically, I’m back working as a casino dealer again. Those lucky, lucky customers.

Given that it’s another few months before I once again head off on a big adventure, I figured it would be sensible for my bean collection and my own sanity to do some part time work until the end of the year.

So, if you happen to find yourself at the G Casino just off Leicester Square on a weekend evening, you might just see my cheeky smile and ridiculous ears as I take copious amounts of money from people daft enough to give it to me.

And so concludes my summer update. Now if you don’t mind, I need to remember how to play blackjack…

20. Santa Fiora, Italy

The quietest, loudest place in the world.

If you’re not a close relative of mine, or in a particular one of the many social circles I skirt the fringes of, then you’ve probably never heard of this place. To be fair, why would you? It’s just a small town half way up a hill in the middle of the countryside, with no world-famous landmarks or tourist attractions. You can’t even drive through most of it unless your car is the size of a shoe, and the only supermarket there is closed for umpteen hours during the middle of the day while everyone goes for a nap.

On the face of it, it’s not really worth the ~3 hour drive from Florence. However, if you enjoy wandering around a sleepy town that for 11.5 months of the year is largely untouched by swathes of tourists, getting lost in tiny, historic back alleys before being greeted by spectacular views of Italian mountains, then Santa Fiora is right up your, err, tiny back alley.

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This is not a place for activity seekers and adrenaline junkies, but it is a place that houses pretty bridges, churches with rivers flowing through them, countryside views that will take your breath away, and, if you’re me, a very friendly, very welcoming, very Italian lady who’s been your life-long friend and is happy to give you a bed to sleep in and enough pasta to fill a reasonably-sized Colosseum.

If all that isn’t enough for you, then hopping in a car and driving (which you need to do around here, don’t rely on public transport) in pretty much any direction will see you navigating your way up and down mountains and through similarly beautiful, similarly historic villages. Just keep your eye out for potholes, the Italians have a very…Italian attitude towards mountain road maintenance.

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Possible summer activities include driving to the top of a mountain and taking photos of an abandoned ski resort.

I recommend visiting Pitigliano, which appears to pre-date the invention of time itself, whilst perching dramatically and somewhat precariously on the edge of a cliff. It also has some very lovely wine and cheese shops, if you fancy having a picnic on the top of said cliff.

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The theme of my five-night pit stop in this utterly gorgeous part of the world, was quiet. After spending the last month hurtling around in trains and cars, immersing myself in both hustle and bustle, and gawping at what Western Europe could offer me, it was nice to take a step back, chill out, and embrace the calm.

Have a think about this for a minute – how often do you experience total silence? Probably less than you think, for there’s usually a background noise or three courtesy of cars on a distant road, birds tweeting in the nearby trees, or if you’re in London, the tutting of angry businessmen whose journey you have the audacity to slow down by more than a nanosecond. As a matter of fact, you get to experience complete silence so rarely that when it does happen, its power and presence is so noticeable that it seems like the loudest thing in the world.

In Santa Fiora, I was able to experience this feeling whilst sitting in the Chiesa di Santa Chiara. I’m not a religious man, but I do appreciate religious architecture, both big and small, and this establishment certainly fits the latter. Barely large enough to hold a family dinner (which admittedly is usually a big occasion in this part of the world), this is the place where I sat, closed my eyes, and forgot all about the rest of the world.

That is, until the Italian fighter jets started doing their practice runs through the nearby valleys.

I feel I should point out at this stage that if you’re seeking peace and quiet, don’t come here in the middle of August. The “Ferragosto”, a public holiday observed on the 15th, sees pretty much the entirety of Tuscany descend upon this small town for markets, fairs and other generally noisy festival-based activities. So if you want a good night’s sleep, avoid coming here at this time.

This town is not for everyone, maybe that’s why it’s not very well known, but for me, it served as a perfectly quiet interlude in the middle of my constantly noisy journey, and all whilst being hosted by the lady who gives the best hugs in the world. Thanks Rose.

 

Don’t panic

Yes, I know, I haven’t written anything for a few weeks. Don’t worry, I didn’t get picked up by a dodgy Italian hitchhiker, or accidentally got on a plane to Antarctica.

A combination of some very Italian internet connections, being busy meeting other people, and my own laziness during and exhaustion after the journey are the reasons behind my lack of recent creative juices.

I’m back home now though, with WiFi that actually works, and a fresh pair of legs that is already thinking about the next stage of my adventures now that it doesn’t have to recover from driving for nine hours in one day.

I’ll be catching up with the last handful of places in the first leg of my trip in the foreseeable future.

19. San Gimignano, Italy

Ice cream, you scream

These days, we’re constantly being bombarded by companies over-selling their products by making grandiose claims about them. “The closest, shaviest shave yet”, “The best kebab in London”, “Lose all your weight in five minutes”. It’s all very tiring and unnecessary.

Happily though, there is a little town in rural Italy where such a bold and ambitious claim does actually live up to its billing.

It’s a popular little tourist spot, just off the main road from Florence to Siena, its (mostly) vehicle free town centre characterised by old fashioned hilly streets, with the main square in the middle(ish) of it all. If you can find the main square – which is not always an easy task if you don’t have a map to hand – and you make your way to the “bottom” corner (you’ll know what I mean when you get there), you’ll come across a gelateria that claims to sell the “best ice cream in the world”.

With cautious optimism, I ordered my 4 euro cone with three scoops (other options are available), and gave it a go.

Second best thing I’ve had in my mouth this year.

I quickly realised why this charming little town had become so popular with tourists – mainly Americans, it seemed – with nearly every one of them enjoying a similarly delicious experience as myself, whilst desperately searching for a decent place to sit in the square. My choice of flavours was, of course, perfect. The sweetness of the mango, tartness of the lemon, and richness of the chocolate flavours combining beautifully to create an experience that does actually live up to the self-claimed hype.

Oral explosions and John Torode impressions concluded, it was time for part two of Reasons Why I Drove To San Gimignano – La Museo Della Tortura.

I’ve always had a morbid fascination with medieval torture instruments and methods, and the museum in San Gimignano gave me the opportunity to fully indulge in it, with a fairly impressive display of ways and means of inflicting pain, suffering, and in most cases, death.

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With my wallet somewhat lighter and my blood sugar level significantly increased, it was time to hop back in the car to drive to my next destination, my second home.

More on that later.

18. Monte Mauro, Italy

On top of the world

Here’s one for you: you’ve walked a lap of a famous race track in a town that has little else to offer, and it’s still only early afternoon. What do you do? Answer: drive to the top of a mountain and witness one of the best views you’re ever likely to see. Obviously.

Yes, I know, I’ve already raved about spectacular views in other recent posts, and I probably will again in the future, but despite already being treated to the drama of Lucerne and the tranquillity of Bologna, nothing quite prepared me for my experience at the summit of Monte Mauro.

Situated not far South of Imola, reaching the peak of this impressive-but-not-quite-tall-enough-to-be-snow-capped hillock involves driving up a “road”, that pushes the boundary of the very meaning of the word. Successfully negotiating the narrow “I hope I don’t meet a double decker bus coming the other way” dirt track, with all its hairpin turns tighter than a nun’s nethers, is rewarded by, of all things, a church.

Yup, it seems the Italians love to put churches on top of hills, but while the Santuaria in Bologna was a popular tourist destination on top of an easily(ish) accessible hill, the Eremo di Monte Mauro is a modestly sized, quiet little structure that receives far fewer visitors per day. Those that do visit, though, are treated to one hell (sorry) of a view.

Situated right next to the church is a solitary bench, which, occasional massive-quadded cyclists notwithstanding, allows one to sit and contemplate in peace, with the glorious view of the Parco Regionale della Vena del Gesso Romagnola (yes I copied and pasted that rather than trying to remember it) and beyond laid out in all its various shades of green in front of you.

The picture at the top of this post is some of that very same view, as much as I could fit into my lens anyway, but if that isn’t enough tranquillity and fabulousness for you, and you have a decent pair of walking shoes and the ability to climb some steps that would make your health and safety boss at work wince, then there’s an even better view just up ahead.

And when I say better, I mean this much better.

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Now imagine that, but in 360 speech-stealing degrees.

Of course, there are taller mountains and higher spots in the world, but this is the highest peak within the confines of the horizon, so standing at the summit – which consists of little more than around fifteen square feet of flat stone – really gives you the sensation that you’re standing on top of the world, a sensation unlike any that I’ve ever felt before.

I’m often (by which I mean never) asked what my favourite view of all time is, and before I set off on this planetary conquest, my answer would be the view from a bench, on a hill, near the town of Pateley Bridge, in North Yorkshire.

Now? I’m not so sure.

17. Autodromo di Imola, Italy

Where legends are made, and lost

The third (and probably final) leg of my tour of famous European race tracks comes from a circuit that is able to evoke emotion like no other: Imola.

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Built in 1957 and hosting Formula One races regularly from 1980 to 2006, Imola is a fast, demanding circuit that rewards bravery, and punishes mistakes. It is also very undulating, as I experienced first hand whilst walking a lap of the track during one of the circuit’s public open days.

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For cyclists, joggers and other get-fitterers, the lap of the Autodromo Di Enzo E Dino Ferrari provides an opportunity to sweep the corners and climb the hills with little concern for traffic besides the occasional over-excitable child. For Formula One fans – such as myself – it’s a chance to get up close and personal with one of the most iconic racing tracks in the world, but it’s also a chance to reflect.

Imola is infamously dangerous, and there was no better example of this than the 1994 F1 race, when, early in the race, Ayrton Senna lost control of his Williams at the freakishly fast Tamburello corner, and crashed into the wall. The injuries he sustained would be fatal.

This is not the only time a racing driver has been killed while on duty – indeed only the day before Senna’s crash, Austrian driver Roland Ratzenberger was also killed during the qualification session of what would turn out to be one of Formula One’s darkest weekends.

However, as I write this blog, I’m sitting on a park bench just a few yards away from the statue that has been erected in Senna’s honour, and the constant swarm of people – of all ages – taking pictures and paying their respects is a mark of just how loved and respected he was.

On the face of it, being a racing driver shouldn’t be a particularly big deal. So what, you can drive a man-made machine around in circles quicker than anyone else. Well done, have a prize. But motor racing is more than that, it’s about pushing the capabilities of a human being as far as they can possibly go – and sometimes even further. It’s about the constant desire for improvement, even though you can already do something most people can’t. It’s about putting your life on the line to achieve something nobody else can – that is what people respect.

In Senna’s case, people respected him more than most purely because he was one of the most talented and fastest racing drivers ever. But it was his desire and ability to do whatever it takes, his focus and determination to sacrifice whatever he needed to in order to achieve his ambition, that turned him from a driver who was respected, into a man who was loved, a man who is missed.

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16. Santuario Madonna di San Luca, Bologna, Italy

Pew with a view

When I was planning this trip, I spent a long time carefully studying exactly where I wanted to go, how long I wanted to go for, and how much I thought it would cost me. My itinerary was as impressive in its detail as it was in the nature of its content.

But, if there’s one thing I’ve learned from my travels so far – besides not putting a bottle of liquid detergent next to your passport in your rucksack – it’s that, with regards to where to go and what to see, impulse decisions are normally a good thing.

Don’t get me wrong, a general sense of direction and a modicum of common sense are fairly important, but there is definite value in looking at a map of the nearby area that you’re currently in, seeing what shouts at you, and saying “let’s go there and see if it’s any good”.

That’s exactly what I did during my stay in Bologna, and boy did it work.

The city itself I found pretty, but relatively uninspiring, but drive up the right (very long) hill, and you reach the Santuario Madonna di San Luca, or, in English, one of the most impressive churches you’re ever likely to see.

When I say impressive, I don’t mean millions of tons of stone, thrown together to create a vast cathedral. What it is, however, is unique. It’s orange exterior provides a beauty from the outside, whilst the deceptively large interior is beautifully presented, with the tourists and worshippers both gathering their thoughts in respectful quietness.

The focal point of the interior is the icon of the Madonna of San Luca. This is why the religious – of which there seem to be quite a few in Italy – make the journey to the top of the hill, some of them by walking it under the famous portico, with its 15 chapels and 666 arches, which was built in the 1700s to protect the Madonna during her annual descent. The portrait sits proudly at one end of the church, accompanied by a constant throng of Christians of all shapes and sizes, praying, reflecting, or simply admiring the beauty of what lays before them.

As if a uniquely beautiful building with an unusual pathway and a world famous religious symbol isn’t enough, the Santuario has one more, breathtaking ace up its sleeve. If you’re willing to give a handful of Euros to a cheerful young lady at the front of the church, you can climb the steps to the top, where you will be greeted by a panoramic view of mile upon mile of Italian countryside. The view is, to crudely shoehorn a pun in this blog because I haven’t done so in too long, biblically beautiful, and a fitting reward for those who braved the everlasting ascent under the portico (I didn’t, because I’m lazy and didn’t really know what I was doing).

So if somewhere looks interesting on a map, go check it out, because you might just get rewarded with a spectacular view. Sadly, I can’t share this view with my adoring fans because Italian internet still hates me, but trust me, it was pretty damn awesome.

Sorry for swearing.