Chiusi on a Hilltop
It seems that every hilltop in central Italy – that region where Umbria and Tuscany border each other – is home to a fortified medieval town or city.
Late summer last year, my husband and I were in central Italy enjoying the sun – and the sun-drenched olives and tomatoes and grapes – that Italy is known for.
We were holidaying Italian style: we rented a wonderful villa in the tiny town of Gioiella, Umbria (Villa Gioiella), practically on the border of Tuscany, and packed the rooms with three generations of friends and family. We filled the house with wine (so many bottles that it took more than one trip to the recycling depot!), fresh food, late nights and laughter.
The days were long and lazy – but we did get out to explore some of the local countryside, albeit not very efficiently, thanks to many “lost in translation” moments. For example: we drove two hours to the medieval hilltop village of Roccatederighi to take part in their “Medieval Times in the Borgo of Roccatederighi (Grosseto)”, which happens on the first weekend of August – only to discover that we were a week early! It seems that “the weekend” starts on Friday in Italy. On the other hand, we were late for (and therefore, missed out on) our pre-paid visits to the Etruscan tombs near Chiusi because we understood we were to arrive some time after 4pm, not by 4pm.
But, the sun was shining, the wine was good, the food was fabulous, and there were so many places to visit that I think we had more than our fill of culture and history.
Join me for a few highlights from the medieval towns that sit amid the rolling hills and vineyards of central Italy.
Around every Medieval Corner…
As the roads crossed back and forth between Umbria and Tuscany, we were treated to repeated scenes of red roofs against dusty green olive orchards and fluffy white clouds against blue skies. (iPhone6)
Steps to the Citadel
Castiglione del Lago, Umbria, was the city closest to us, so it was where we spent much of our time. Like other medieval cities, the best access was on foot: we’d park in the “newer” neighbourhoods, and walk up to the old walls of the “Castle of the Lion on the Lake.”
The Fortress and the Fountain
The Castle of the Lion was built on an island in the southwest region of Lake Trasimeno in the mid-1200s. Over time, the growing city extended beyond this original island by land-bridge, leaving the well-preserved medieval fortress and historical centre bounded by water on the remaining three sides.
The Fortress of the Lion
The pentagonal-shaped castle was built by Emperor Frederick II and finished in 1247 CE.
Inside the Old City
The old fortified city and its three piazzas are now filled with shops and restaurants.
Old City Gate
Three gates lead in and out of the old city.
There are three churches within the old city walls; the bell tower of the Church of Santa Maria Maddalena is the most visible. (iPhone6)
It is the people that make a city. The people in Castiglione del Lago are passionate about their food: …
… their wine, their olive oil, their soup mixes, and in this case, their truffles. The truffles here were the absolute best, she assured us.
The Renaissance style Palazzo della Corgna or “Ducal Palace” was predominantly painted in the late 1500s. It now operates as a museum.
Window over the Fortress
From the Ducal Palace you can look to the walls of the fortress…
Through the Corridor
… or you can walk to them through the covered corridor, built in the early 1600s.
From the Medieval Fortress, looking back to the Ducal Palace, the most predominant feature is the olive grove.
On top of Castle Walls
We enjoyed glorious summer weather as we walked around the ramparts.
The Lake Beyond
There are great views over Lake Trasimeno and the surrounding countryside from the top of the castle walls.
Up a Castle Turret
The Castle of the Lion (Castello del Leone) features square towers in four of its five corners and a triangular shaped bastion in the fifth.
Looking over Lake Trasimeno
Sun on the Ramparts
Ancient olive trees grow in the shelter of the ancient walls. They may well have been planted when the fortress was new: olive trees often grow to be centuries old.
Castiglione del Lago Street
Outside the museum/castle grounds, the old streets are cobbled, narrow and charming.
Nothing says “Italy” to me like a scooter – even if it is a Japanese model!
Tile City Map
Outside the old walls, there is a ceramic tile map of the city sights and surrounds.
A late evening sky makes the Castle of the Lion (Castello del Leone) look even more imposing.
War Memorial Of The First And Second World War (1923)
Chiusi, only thirty minutes away in Tuscany, is another charming medieval city who’s origins date back even further, to the ancient Etruscans and the centuries before the Modern Era.
The cobbled laneways in these old, medieval cities are narrow, winding, and often covered with arches. They are also well lived in: festooned with laundry and decorated with colourful plants.
Inside “Saint Secondiano the Martyr”
The history in the buildings goes back for years: the Saint Secondiano the Martyr Cathedral dates to the 6th century.
Tourists admire the old, narrow, streets. (iPhone6)
Statues in the Atrium
Chiusi is known for its National Archaeological Museum which houses priceless Etruscan artefacts.
Canopus Headed Urn
The Etruscans, from whom the name “Tuscany” is derived, had a complex civilisation. Although little is known about their origins, they left behind artworks in terracotta and bronze, and elaborate underground tombs. This beautiful bronze canopic jar dates to the 6th Century BC.
Etruscan Canopic Urn
A terracotta head and other pottery, dating to 675-650 BC.
An ancient sarcophagus, dating back to about 800 BC: the sarcophagus itself depicts the battle of the Greeks against Gauls. Many of the sarcophagi were carved from la pietra fetida, a type of limestone that smells due to its sulphur content.
Another medieval city on another hillside, Roccatederighi comes alive for its annual medieval festival; what a shame we missed it!
Many were the bottles of wine we drank as the sun went down over Gioiella, Umbria, Italy.
Food, family, friends…
… and great sights.
Gandantegchinlin, “the great place of complete joy”, is one of Mongolia’s most important monasteries. The central attraction is a 26m statue of Avalokiteśvara, a bodhisattva who embodies the compassion of all Buddhas.
The best way to immerse yourself in a new culture is to spend time where local people congregate and worship.
In the early morning of my first day in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, I took a taxi across the busy city centre from my hotel in the east, to the country’s largest monastery, Gandantegchinlen (“the great place of complete joy”) Khiid, west of city centre.
According to the national census of 2010, 53% of Mongolians identify as Buddhist (38.6% profess no religious affiliation, leaving very small proportions practicing traditional Mongolian shamanism, Christianity and Islam).
The country experienced its first wave of Buddhism in the third century B.C, but over the years, the religion’s fortunes have waxed and waned with the political tides. Gandantegchinlen Khiid (Gandan Monastery) was originally built in the centre of Ulaanbaatar in 1810, and was moved to its current location by the 5th Bogd Jebzundamba (the Spiritual Head of Tibetan Buddhism in Mongolia) in 1838. It grew into a complex of colleges of Sutra-Tantra Buddhist teachings, Astrology and Medicine.
Mongolian Buddhism flourished into the early twentieth century, with 843 major Buddhist centers, about 3,000 temples of various sizes, and nearly 6000 associated buildings by 1934. However, the Stalinist religious purges of 1937 took their toll. By 1940, nearly every monk across the country was either dead or had apostatised. Although most of the buildings in the Gandan Monastery were destroyed, it remained open for international display purposes. The Monastery, and its community of 100 monks, didn’t come back to proper life until the 1990s, when Buddhism was once again practiced openly.
Gandantegchinlen Khiid is the largest monastery and temple complex currently in use in the country.
In religious environments there are many photographs which can’t be taken: young monks performing their prayers, ordered by age and rank as they sit on hard wooden benches in expansive rooms with lofty ceilings but little light; or community members in distress seeking comfort and blessings from elders and abbots.
In any event, photographs never quite capture the smell of the incense, or the thrumming drone of Buddhist prayers reverberating against ancient walls.
But, they can give one a small peek into a different world.
Monks Bang the Morning Gong
At 9 am, young monks give a single bang to the gong in the drum tower of Gandantegchinlen Monastery, calling all the resident monks to prayers. I was expecting three gongs, so I almost missed them! (iPhone6)
Tashchoimphei Datsan (Monastic College)
Their gong-ringing completed, the young monks return the gong to the Datsan …
Old Woman at the Datsan
… where resident monks and people from the local community gather for morning prayers.
Mongolia’s famous blue skies are clear – with just an echo of the moon – over a golden Datsan roof.
Deer and the Dharma Wheel
Another roof is adorned with the Buddhist symbols of the deer, representing the Buddha’s first sermon at Deer Park, and the Dharma Wheel, which represents the content of the Buddha’s teaching itself.
Incense Burner in the Courtyard
As the morning prayers drone on inside the Datsan, people keep arriving, stopping for some incense smoke …
Monk on the Steps
… before going inside to take their place for the chanting.
Brass prayer wheels invite you to walk the prayer circuit, …
… spinning the wheels and offering your prayers as you go.
Building inside the Monastery Complex
Built in 1840, the Vajradhara Temple houses a statue of Vajradhara, a Buddha from Tantric practice.
Relics, Buddhas and Icons
Migjid Janraisig Sum
Ulaanbaatar is a confusion of old and new.
Migjid Janraisig Sum
Built in 1911, Migjid Janraisig Sum features elements of traditional Chinese, Mongol and Tibetan architectural styles.
Heavy doors lead into the dim interior of Migjid Janraisig Sum.
Ayush : “Long Life”
The walls of Migjid Janraisig Sum are lined with images of Ayush, the Buddhist god of longevity.
In the centre of the Migjid Janraisig temple, the tallest indoor Buddhist statue in the world – the 26.5-meter-high Avalokiteśvara or “Lord Who Looks Down” – stands over us. Covered in gems and gold leaf, this 1996 statue replaced the original copper one, reputedly dismantled by the Russians in 1938.
The temple is dimly lit with candles …
A Girl and her Father
… which illuminate worshipers.
In a separate nearby building, a man lights countless candles.
Sustained by the memory of flickering candles and the blessings of chanting monks, it was an easy walk back through the streets of Ulaanbaatar, to the hotel.
The entrance to the old town of Hội An is marked by colourful silk lanterns against a winter sky.
Irony: the future of the little city of Hội An has literally been saved by it’s own past demise.
Hội An (會安) means “peaceful meeting place”. Once upon a time, particularly between the seventh and 10th centuries, this strategic port near the mouth of the Thu Bon River was part of the Chăm Pa Kingdom (192-1832). The Cham, who were seafarers and traders, controlled the spice trade, and so commanded great wealth and territory before being absorbed and annexed by the Đại Việt (Great Viet) under the Lê dynasty.
Around 1595, under the feudal Nguyễn lord Nguyễn Hoàng, Hội An was established as an international trading port. By the 18th century, the city was considered by many to be the most important trade port on the East Vietnam Sea, or even in all of Asia. Japanese, Chinese, Indian, and Dutch merchants had made their homes there, as had Portuguese Jesuits. Their architectural legacy remains in the “well-preserved complex of 1,107 timber frame buildings, with brick or wooden walls” that are still standing in the old town.
The collapse of Nguyễn rule following the Tây Sơn uprising (1770-1802) marked the end of Hội An’s importance. The Tây Sơn brothers, who saw themselves as champions of the common people, were opposed to foreign trade. When Emperor Gia Long (Nguyễn Phúc Ánh of Nguyễn) defeated the Tây Sơn in 1802, he gave the French exclusive trading rights to nearby Đà Nẵng. That, and the silting up of the Thu Bon river mouth, sealed the fate of Hội An, ensuring its status as a backwater that remained frozen in time.
This is what has saved the little city: with no pressure for modern development, the original street plan – with its two-story shop-front buildings backing onto the waterways to facilitate transport of goods – remains intact. The wooden buildings themselves have predominantly been repaired using traditional methods and materials. In 1999, Hoi An Ancient Town was “recognized as an exceptionally well-preserved example of a South-East Asian trading port dating from the 15th to the 19th century” and declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
A single entry ticket to the Ancient Town, costing 120,000 dong, or just over $5 USD, gives you entrance to five of the museums or designated old buildings within the precinct. I don’t think we actually used all five coupons: we spent a lot of our time trying on assorted bamboo-fibre and woven-silk clothing, and visiting some of the countless souvenir and coffee shops that now occupy the old shophouses.
Join me for a relaxing afternoon/evening wandering the ancient streets of old Hội An.
Hội An Old Town Street
The streets are tree-lined and shady – it must be lovely (but crowded) in summer! Alas for us, is is still winter, and unseasonably cold. The streets are fairly quiet.
Our first stop is at the Đình Cẩm Phô Đình, the Dinh Cam Pho Communal House, where the Ticket Taker is careful to vet us before we enter.
Dinh Cam Pho
The Cam Pho Communal House was restored in 1817 – there is no information inside the temple courtyard to tell us when it was originally built.
Inside the Dinh Cam Pho Communal House
Apparently, the communal house was built in the shape of the Chinese character that means “country” – the only information I could find about the building was badly translated, and difficult to understand. Certainly, the roof-ridge and gable ornamentation are Chinese-style.
Mickey Mouse Plant (Ochna Serrulata)
Colourful flowers bloom where they are planted in their terracotta pots around the courtyard.
The Dinh Cam Pho Communal House was built as a shrine for the god of the village, and later included worship of Cam Pho Village ancestors – hence the alternate name: “Cam Pho Huong Hien” (Ancestors of Cam Pho Village).
Outside the Dinh Cam Pho Communal House, women sit selling freshly cooked corn.
Linh Pham Shop
Nguyễn Thị Minh Khai road is lined with shops selling manufactured goods and handicrafts. The clothing stores, with silk, cotton, wool, and bamboo-fibre products, seemed particularly good value, and we came home with several items.
Hoi An Shop
Paintings, pottery and handicrafts are on offer – as are intricate cards of paper decoupage.
Hoi An Gallery
The shophouses are beautiful maintained.
Old Town Laneway
Our next stop was at the Nguyen Tuong Ancient Family Chapel – also called the “Ong Lon Palace” (Dinh Ông Lớn) – where a young descendent of Nguyen Tuong, who build the temple in the beginning of the 19th century, shows us around.
Betel Juice Grannie
Old Chinese coins and other trinkets are for sale in the street.
Guide in the Phung Hung House
The old Phung Hung House is one of several open to the public.
Although the Phung Hung Old House is beautiful with its open stairways and dark timbers, the focus of the tour is the production and sale of hand embroidered tablecloths and handkerchiefs.
View from the Phung Hung Old House
The balcony on the second floor is rickety, but gives a good vantage point over the street markets.
Thu Bồn Riverfront
Japanese Covered Bridge
The Japanese had a community on one side of a small stream. In 1593, they built a unique covered bridge (Chùa cầu) to connect them to the Chinese community on the other side of the water.
Shrine: Japanese Covered Bridge
Inside the bridge is a shrine to Tran Vo Bac De, the Taoist deity of storms and weather.
Bảo tàng Văn hóa Sa Huỳnh
The Sa Huynh Culture Museum contains pottery and other artefacts from the Sa Huỳnh culture, dating back over 2000 years.
View of the Street from the Sa Huynh Culture Museum
The exhibits in the museum are dark and dusty; I amused myself by taking street photos through the railings in the courtyard.
Fresh Vegetable Markets
As night fell, the markets got busier …
… and the silk lanterns came into their own.
The Japanese Bridge
One of Hoi An’s most popular tourist attractions, the covered Japanese Bridge is beautiful under lights, …
Lovers at the Japanese Bridge
… making it a perfect spot for romantic, after-dark photographs.
It is, indeed, like walking into the past –
– but with good food and excellent souvenir shopping.
A perfect day out!
Flowers in the Rocks
The mountains of Southern California are well known for their sunny blue skies and outdoor activities.
California, the third largest state in the USA, covers some remarkable terrain. With almost 900 miles (1450 km) of Pacific coastline and several mountain ranges, the topography ranges from magnificent forests of giant redwoods to the subtropical Mojave desert.
The state is also home to two of the US’s top-five most populous cities, with their notorious fogs and smogs, and home to my least favourite airport. If I have to travel through Los Angeles International Airport (LAX), I always heave a sigh of relief when I break free from it.
So it was last June: we dragged our bags out of one of LAX’s terminals, got into a shuttle bus, and finally pointed our rental car east towards San Bernardino. We drove along the multi-lane Foothill Freeway (Interstate 210), not slowing down until we escaped the basin of smog that hung over the lowlands, and started climbing into the San Bernardino Mountains and some welcome fresh air.
Our final destination was the small resort city of Big Bear Lake. The lake for which the city is named is Southern California’s largest recreation lake, and the surrounding hills are criss-crossed with hiking and biking trails.
One of the most popular walks is the short, steep Castle Rock Trail; I was glad I had a new walking stick!
Join us for an uphill-hike.
California Highway 210
Over an hour out of Los Angeles, and the smog is still with us, hanging over the San Bernardino lowlands and almost obscuring the mountains ahead. (iPhone6)
Bend in the Road
Finally we rise up out of the smog, into the fresh air above, twisting and curving our way up into the mountains. (iPhone6)
Pathway up to Castle Rock
The Castle Rock Trail is a short (1.3 mile; 2 km), but very steep, walk up to a beautiful rocky crag. The return route is by the same track.
Path to Castle Rock
The first half of the hike is the steepest; we ascended through granite boulders and shrubs …
Sun in the Pines
… as tall pines touched the sky over our heads.
The dry, sandy ground is littered with boulders.
Western Fence Lizard
The sun has brought out countless little lizards – almost invisible against their rocky back-drop.
Most of the trees here are Jeffrey Pine, but there are also Ponderosa Pine, White Fir, Western Cedar and Incense Cedar.
The pines are incredibly tall and straight.
Walkers on the Path
Because this trail is so popular, it has a reputation for being over-crowded. We were lucky – even though it was a Saturday, the other walkers were scattered.
Blossoms on the Bushes
The summer heat has brought out the blossoms. I thought this was Ocean Spray (Holodiscus discolor), but now I’m not sure.
It feels as if the path will never level out, as we gain over 500 feet (152 m) …
… before cresting into more level – but just as rocky – terrain.
Fallen trees line the pathway like sculptured art; –
– their intricate surfaces polished by wind and sand.
Sap on a Log
Like jewelled amber, beads of sap sit against slowly decaying wood.
Rock with Character
Finally! Another signpost, indicating that we are on track, comes into view.
Tree on a Rock
Castle Rock itself requires a bit of clambering; with two cameras and a tricky knee, I decided against it! It was nice enough sitting on the view points just below the summit.
As we walk carefully back down the hill, we pause to admire the various wildflowers.
Indian Paintbrush (Castilleja)
Like a Sphinx
The lake comes back into view as we descend …
… into long afternoon shadows.
The walk down the hill was much quicker than the walk up! While it was only a short hike, the combination of heat, elevation gain (690 ft / 211 m), and starting altitude (Big Bear Lake sits at 6,752 ft / 2,058 m), had us happily exhausted by the time we returned to our car.
Still, we recovered enough over dinner that we were out on a different track the next day. 😀
‘Till next time,
Pictures: 29May2016 and 04June2016
Epupa Falls is a series of cascades stretching about 1.5km through the Kunene Region. This is the northern-most point in Namibia, where the Kunene River forms the border with Angola.
(ISO100 16mm f/16 30sec Crop)
It is a primordial landscape, born out of the very heart of the pre-Jurassic Gondwana super-continent.
The Kunene Region in Northern Namibia is dry, mountainous, and underdeveloped. It is home to semi-nomadic tribes whose ways of life have barely changed for hundreds of years (see: Women of the Himba, and Himba Model Shoot).
The Kunene River, which starts in the Angolan highlands and runs 1,050 kilometres to the Atlantic Ocean, is the only perennial river within the ecoregion. The river marks the Angola-Namibia border and tumbles over Epupa Falls at a gorge formed between 2,100 million and 1,750 million years ago.
Although the time-lines are wildly different, I had no trouble imagining dinosaurs walking among the primitive baobab trees that cling to the rocky river banks.
That was, of course, once we got there.
I and four other photography enthusiasts were travelling with photographer Ben McRae and local guide, driver, chief cook and bottle-washer, Morne Griffiths, across the vast expanses that comprise Namibia.
I knew we’d be camping for the next several nights, so I treated myself to a small cabin with a plywood bed the night we stopped in Kamanjab, and enjoyed a decent sleep and a shower with water so splayed that I got my exercise dancing around, trying to get wet without getting scalded; facilities in Namibia can be “rustic”. After a very early hot breakfast, we started our journey of 440 kilometres north through the dry winter landscape dressed in subdued autumnal colours; about six bumpy hours past hornbills perched on electrical wires, ostriches and giraffes loping in the distance, and long-horned cows and humped brahman along the roadside. Gradually, the thorn trees gave way to palm forests, and we came across our first giant baobabs.
Nothing, though, prepared me for the magnificent Epupa Falls.
Join me in Namibia’s timeless Kunene.
Rosy-Faced Lovebird (Agapornis Roseicollis)
The sun wasn’t yet up and the winter air was still cold – but the birds were already gathered around the feeder in the rest-camp courtyard in Kamanjab.
View from the Truck
We set off early morning, heading out on the long, dusty roads north to Epupa. (iPhone6)
The mighty baobas (Adansonia digitata) grow along the side of the road.
“Make your Mark”
There is an African proverb: “Knowledge and wisdom are like a Baobab tree, one person’s arms cannot encompass it.” The trunks are huge, with an average diameter of 5 m (16 ft).
Scars and Textures
Baobab trees frequently live for between 1,000 – 3,000 years. Their succulent trunks have a high resistance to drought and fire.
In the right soil, baobabs grow quickly, and can reach between 5–25 m (16–82 ft) in height.
Nests in the Branches
Cairn or Shrine
View from the Truck
Leaving the baobab tree behind, we rejoin the the road and climb the rocky hills to Epupa. (iPhone6)
Above Epupa Falls
After pitching our tents in the allocated camping spot, we join the other visitors on the dry, rocky terrain above the falls.
(ISO200 70mm f/4 1:320sec)
Afternoon above the Falls
The afternoon sun still packs heat as the shadows deepen and grow longer. It is not as quiet as it looks, however: the roar of the falls, just hidden from sight, is palpable.
(ISO200 24mm f/11 1:100sec)
Nothing had prepared me for the first sight of the magnificent falls, with the waters of the Kunene tumbling straight down the rocky gorge separating Namibia from Angola.
(ISO200 70mm f/3.5 1:400sec)
Below the Falls
Before sun-up the next morning, I grabbed a head-lamp and tripod and picked my way carefully over the jagged, primordial landscape below the main falls. Countless waterfalls tumble into the river below from all directions.
(ISO 100 70mm f/25 3.2sec)
Morning on the Falls
(ISO6400 200mm f/2.8 1/400sec)
As early as I was, I wasn’t the first. Photographer Ben McRae had already found a spot on the ancient rocks.
(ISO800 16mm f/2.8 1/100sec)
(ISO200 24mm f/5.6 1/200sec)
(ISO100 70mm f/32 3.2sec)
Below the Falls
Epupa Falls are thought to be the oldest rock formation in Namibia, between 2,100 million and 1,750 million years old.
(ISO400 35mm f/6.3 1/60sec)
As the sky finally lightens, the green river contrasts with the ancient rocks of the gorge.
(ISO100 16mm f/5.0 1/60sec)
Water on the Rocks
(ISO100 200mm f32 2.0sec)
Morning Light on the Baobabs
The spray from the falls backlights the baobabs.
(ISO100 175mm f/32 0.8sec)
Angola over the River
Angola looks wild and empty across the river.
(ISO100 30mm f/7.1 1/60sec)
The giant baobabs have a shallow roots, spreading further than the height of the trees, allowing them to cling to the river banks and survive the dry climate.
(ISO400 70mm f/8.0 1/400sec)
It’s a pre-historic landscape: baobab trees are among the oldest living trees in the world.
(ISO100 70mm f/2.8 1/400sec)
Leaves on a Baobab Tree
To conserve moisture, baobabs only have leaves about three months a year, during the wet season.
(ISO100 35mm f/14 1/60sec)
Top of the Falls
(ISO100 200mm f/32 0.6sec)
Top of the Falls
“Epupa” is a Herero word for “foam”; the falls are named for the the foam created by the tumbling water.
(ISO200 70mm f/5.6 1/400sec)
Girls at the top of the Falls
The morning sun lights up this “foam” at the rocky top of Epupa Falls.
(ISO100 200mm f/2.8 1/400sec)
Since 2012, Himba chiefs have been protesting against a proposed dam on the Kunene River in the Baynes Mountains. The dam might bring in economic development to the region but would irreparably change the traditional ways of life, and this ancient landscape itself.
Development is not always “progress”.
Until next time.
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