Fénis Castle – A Highlight of the Aosta Valley

If you can’t visit all 72 castles (who could?) in the Aosta Valley of Italy then at least visit one–Fénis Castle. Dating back to the 12th century, Fénis is pretty much exactly what you’d expect from a medieval viscount stronghold, with crenellated walls, towers and frescoed rooms and courtyard in a dramatic setting in a valley surrounded by tall mountains.

Fenis Castle, Aosta Valley, Italy

Exterior view of Fénis Castle.

Fenis Castle, Aosta Valley, Italy

The inner courtyard of Fénis Castle. The frescoes date from the first quarter of the 15th century.

Fenis Castle, Aosta Valley, Italy

Another view of the inner courtyard.

The only way to visit the castle is to join a group tour offered at specific times throughout the day. Our tour was in Italian, but lucky for us the castle’s main rooms had explanatory information in English.

Fenis Castle, Aosta Valley, Italy

A dining room on the castle’s ground floor.

Fenis Castle, Aosta Valley, Italy

A room believed to be the kitchen on the ground floor.

The castle was built by the Challant family and much of the structure we see today is the result of additional construction work early in the 15th century.

Fenis Castle, Aosta Valley, Italy

A bedroom in the castle. The Challant’s living quarters were on the 1st floor (one floor up from the ground floor).

Fenis Castle, Aosta Valley, Italy

The 1st floor Great Hall, also frescoed.

Fenis Castle, Aosta Valley, Italy

15th century religious frescoes adorn the 1st floor chapel.

The castle was used as a hay barn, stables and granary in the 19th century until significant restoration started at the end of the 19th century and continued through the 1940’s.

Fenis Castle, Aosta Valley, Italy

A view of the inner walls of the Castle.

Fenis Castle, Aosta Valley, Italy

The corbelled dovecote tower on the castle’s western side.

Fénis Castle is about 15 km (9 miles) east of the town of Aosta. Don’t miss this great castle if you visit the magical Aosta Valley, one of Italy’s less visited regions.

 

The Town of Aosta – “Rome of the Alps”

Recently I’ve been sharing posts on the beautiful Aosta Valley in northern Italy. The town of Aosta is also quite lovely, sitting in a spectacular setting at the foot of the Alps. The town’s Roman ruins remind us of the importance of the route through the Alps and this valley in ancient times. The town was founded by the Salassian Gauls, whose lands covered the nearby Little and Great St. Bernard passes over the Alps. In 25 BCE Caesar Augusts (Octavian)  defeated these Gauls and built up a grand city which became known as Aosta.

Arch of Augustus, Aosta, Italy

Arch of Augustus, erected in 25 BCE stands at the eastern edge of the old city (the roof was added in the 18th century).

Porta Pretoria, Aosta, Italy

The Porta Pretoria, near the Arch of Augustus, also dates back to 25 BCE.

The flagship sight in Aosta is the Roman Theater, with one tall exterior section of wall remaining. Medieval buildings once stood around the wall, and they were removed during restorations.

Roman Theater, Aosta, Italy

Roman Theater in Aosta, built sometime after 25 BCE. The wall is 65 ft. high.

Roman Theater, Aosta, Italy

Seating area inside the Roman Theater.

Roman Theater, Aosta, Italy

Another view of the area around the Theater.

Cryptoporticus, Aosta, Italy

Some of Aosta’s Roman ruins are underground. This is the cryptoporticus, which sits underneath the Forum (marketplace), now occupied by Aosta’s Cathedral. Its function is unknown – storage, shops, or something else?

Aosta Valley Day 3

There are numerous Roman, pre-medieval and medieval tombs and ruins underneath Aosta, and some are accessible through the churches built on top of these sites. You can buy a pass and map to direct you to the sites.

Aosta, Italy

Part of a Roman chariot. Various interesting artifacts have been unearthed and are on display in the underground museums.

Aosta, Italy

Aosta’s piazza (town square). The setting reminded us a bit of a Colorado ski town, nestled in the mountains.

Aosta, Italy

Another street scene in Aosta.

Aosta makes a good base for exploring the Valley, we stayed in a small hotel just outside the city and enjoyed the quiet and scenic location.

La Bicoque hotel, Aosta, Italy

We stayed at a little boutique hotel, La Bicoque, just north of the town of Aosta.

A Few Less-Visited English Castles

Just about anyone who travels to England has heard of Windsor Castle, a still-in-use castle and residence of the Queen of England that dates back 1,000 years to the times of William the Conqueror. While England has many famous castles, there are a number of less-visited castles worth seeing, scattered around the countryside. The first two shared below (Kenilworth and Ashby de la Zouch) are only 35 miles apart in an area of England called the Midlands. The third, Goodrich Castle, is near the southern Welsh border.

Kenilworth Castle

This castle, located in the town of Kenilworth, southwest of Coventry and northeast of Stratford-upon-Avon (home of William Shakespeare), is one great example. The castle dates back about 900 years and the ruined structures are a mix from that era and from the reign of Queen Elizabeth I (1558-1603).

Kenilworth Castle, England

The oldest surviving structure at Kenilworth, the Norman keep, originally built in the 12th century, and later modified in the 16th century.

The Queen made three visits here, the last and most lavish being in 1575. Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, received the castle from the Queen (she wanted to marry him, but it never happened). He spared no expense preparing for her last visit and kept her and her entourage of several hundred fed and entertained here for 19 days! It almost bankrupted him. Entertainment included fireworks shows and a floating island with the “Lady of the Lake” (from the King Arthur legend) and attending nymphs. You can learn more about visiting the castle here.

Kenilworth Castle, England

This is the castle tower, built specifically for the Queen’s visit in 1575. Since the time of my visit, they have added a viewing platform in the upper floor area where her bedchamber would have been.

Kenilworth Castle, England

The ruins of the Great Hall, where the banquets and feasts would be held. How fun it would be to see the spectacle!

Kenilworth Castle, England

Another view of the Elizabethan tower and Great Hall.

Kenilworth Castle, England

The stables of Kenilworth Castle, now a tearoom for visitors.

Ashby de la Zouch Castle (and Bosworth Battlefield)

Northeast of Birmingham and northwest of Leicester, is the ruin of a 15th century castle, Ashby de la Zouch. The town was originally known as Ashby, but during the reign of Henry III (1216 – 1272), the town became the property of the La Zouche family and hence its current name. Mary, Queen of Scots, was briefly jailed here in the 1500’s. The castle was significantly destroyed during the English civil war in the 1600’s.

Ashby de la Zouch Castle, England

A tower at Ashby de la Zouch Castle.

Ashby de la Zouch Castle.

A series of archways at Ashby de la Zouch Castle. Note the carving at the top of the first archway.

Ashby de la Zouch Castle, England

The tower on the right can still be climbed for views of the surrounding area and town. My visit was very late in the day and the tower was closed, unfortunately. There is also an underground passageway from the tower to the kitchens, for use in times of war.

More information on this castle can be found at the English Heritage website, a great resource. By joining English Heritage, you get free access to historic sites covered by their system.

Bosworth Battlefield

Located about 17 miles south of Ashby de la Zouch is Bosworth Battlefield, the place of a significant turning point in English history in August 1485. It was here that King Richard III was killed, ending the reign of the House of York and the beginning of the Tudor dynasty, first with Henry VII, followed his son, the famous Henry VIII. This battle was the end of a English civil war period known as the “War of the Roses”. There are signposts at various spots on the battlefield explaining what happened on that fateful day.

Bosworth Battlefield, England

Bosworth Battlefield.

Goodrich Castle

This castle, close to the town of Goodrich and not far from the city of Gloucester is an old one, dating to the 12th century. It is built on top of a hard sandstone outcropping, on a hill overlooking the River Wye near the Welsh border. In fact, like other castles in this region it was a defensive outpost protecting Norman England from the Welsh.

Goodrich Castle, England

The rocky sandstone base of Goodrich Castle can be seen in this photo.

Goodrich Castle, England

The light gray sandstone distinguishes the keep, the oldest part of Goodrich Castle.

Goodrich Castle, England

A view from the keep tower roof top overlooking the castle courtyard and the countryside.

Goodrich Castle, England

Note the base of the round tower – the angled stone “corner” sections provided protection against enemy attempts to undermine the tower during a siege.

England is one of my favorite countries to visit with great castles like the above and other sights tucked into far flung corners of the country, off the beaten path. If you get a chance, take the time to find and explore these gems!

 

 

Aosta Valley – Visiting Savoia Castle

Savoia Castle is another wonderful sight in the Aosta Valley of Italy, it’s actually up a narrow side valley not far (33 km or 20 miles) from Bard Fortress. While this “modern” Italian castle does not have the ancient history of typical European castles, it evokes the past by having been built in the 15th century Lombard style. It’s worth seeing for its lovely interior, the mountain setting and to gain some insight into the personality of its builder, Queen Margherita.

Savoia Castle, Aosta Valley, Italy

An exterior side view of Savoia Castle.

This castle was the project of the queen of Italy (Queen Margherita, widow of King Umberto I) and completed in 1904. She could escape the summer heat of Rome here in this gorgeous setting at the foot of the Italian Alps.

Queen Margherita, Aosta Valley, Italy

Photo of Queen Margherita (1851-1926). She was a smart, powerful figure who dealt with tremendous political turmoil in Italy at the time. Her husband, King Umberto I, was assassinated in 1900. Legend has it that the margherita pizza is named after her!

Savoia Castle, Aosta Valley, Italy

The castle’s entry way leads to this beautiful staircase. Note the fine wood ceiling displaying the royal coat of arms (detail below).

Savoia Castle, Aosta Valley, Italy

A view of the castle’s first floor ceiling detail showing the coat of arms and other royal symbolism.

Savioa Castle, Aosta Valley, Italy

The outstanding woodwork and artwork of the railings, walls and ceiling above the staircase.

Savoia Castle, Aosta Valley, Italy

Billiard room in Savoia Castle.

Savoia Castle, Aosta Valley, Italy

Formal dining area of Savoia Castle. The preparation area is behind the wooden screens. The actual kitchens were separate from the main residence.

Savoia Castle, Aosta Valley, Italy

A reading alcove in Savoia Castle.

Savoia Castle, Aosta Valley, Italy

The Queen’s bedchamber in Savoia Castle.

Savoia Castle, Aosta Valley, Italy

The Queen’s bath. The castle had many conveniences not yet in wide use at the time (hot water, heating, electricity, plumbing).

The queen would spend her summers at the castle. She entertained guests here and even took them on sleigh rides in the winter in her unique sleigh.

Savoia Castle, Aosta Valley, Italy

The sleigh the queen used where riders would sit “side saddle” and could have a great conversation! There is a photo in the castle of her with guests on a mountain pass in the sleigh.

Savoia Castle, Aosta Valley, Italy

This photo shows the dramatic mountain scenery and setting of Savoia Castle. Queen Margherita knew how to choose a location!

To visit the castle you must take a guided tour and they are offered in English only at certain times. However, when we visited, we were the only guests (it was a very rainy day) and even though an English tour was not scheduled at the time, the very kind guide was able to give us a tour and did her best to explain things in English–we were most appreciative. Photos are allowed without flash. There are also Botanical Gardens on the castle grounds, but given the wet weather we did not take the time to visit them.

Aosta Valley – The Mighty Bard Fortress

One of the great attractions in the Aosta Valley, Italy (see my overview of Aosta Valley here) is Bard Fortress. Named for the lords of Bard, it is a massive, stern-looking fortress complex sitting atop of a rocky outcropping in the narrow Aosta Valley along side the Dora Baltea river. It demands attention as you drive by.

Bard Fortress, Aosta Valley, Italy

The Bard Fortress complex. You take a series of trams to the top, known as Opera Carlo Alberto Headquarters, which in its military capacity housed a church, hospital, barracks and storage rooms.

Bard Fortress, Aosta Valley, Italy

Taking a tram up to the fortress – it’s worth the ride just for the views.

Bard Fortress, Aosta Valley, Italy

The fortress is built right on top of the rock – it must have taken some effort to get the foundation secured!

This strategic spot has been a defensive outpost since the 5th century CE and Bard Fortress sits atop ruins of past castles. It was a perfect place to control traffic passing through the Valley from Switzerland or France into Italy. There have been numerous conflicts here over the centuries ranging from the Goths and Burgunds, to the Lombards and Franks trying to seize control of this route and territory.

Bard Fortress, Aosta Valley, Italy

The fortress commands an impressive view of the Aosta Valley, this view is looking north.

Control of the passes through the Alps was critical to protecting pilgrims working their way south to Rome and the passage of goods flowing from southern to northern Europe as well as marking geographic boundaries for numerous kingdoms.

Napoleon, who became Emperor of France and conqueror of most of Europe, laid siege to the Fort on the 19th of May, 1800. Four hundred soldiers at the fort held back his army of 40,000 for nearly two weeks.

Bard Fortress, Aosta Valley, Italy

Covered passageway in the fortress to move soldiers and goods from one level to the next.

It wasn’t until Napoleon was able to get a 12 inch cannon blasting away on the 29th of May that the fort finally was destroyed and the small defending force surrendered on June 1st, a few days later. The fortress was rebuilt in 1830.

Bard Fortress, Aosta Valley, Italy

Some of the prison cells located in Bard Fortress.

Thousands were imprisoned here at Bard Fortress in World War I. More recently it was used as a movie set in Marvel’s Avengers – Age of Ultron and the buildings now house exhibits, museums and music performances throughout the year.

Bard Fortress, Aosta Valley, Italy

A sign commemorating Bard Fortress as a movie set location.

Bard Medieval Village      

As interesting as the Fortress is, the little medieval village (Bard village) nestled below it is fun to explore too – many of the buildings date back to the 14th century and have signs providing historical information.

Bard Village, Aosta Valley, Italy

A street in Bard Village.

Bard Village, Aosta Valley, Italy

An old stairway in Bard Village.

Bard Village, Aosta Valley, Italy

Pockmarks remain from past battles in the streets of Bard Village.

Bard Village, Aosta Valley, Italy

Remnants of 14th century decorative paintings on a building in Bard Village.

Bard Village, Aosta Valley, Italy

One more street scene in Bard Village.

Bard Fortress and the medieval village should be on your list if you visit the Aosta Valley!

 

 

Pont-Saint-Martin, Aosta Valley, Italy

The Magical Valle d’Aosta (Aosta Valley)

In the northwest corner of Italy (north of Turin) lies a magical region that receives few tourists. The natural beauty of the Aosta Valley along its historical treasures makes it one of my (many) favorite spots in Italy.

Pont-Saint-Martin, Aosta Valley, Italy

A view of the Aosta Valley from Pont-Saint-Martin, near the southern end of the Valley.

The snow-capped mountains, rushing rivers, numerous waterfalls, castles and ancient Roman ruins all combine to make the Aosta Valley magical. The Valley leads north to the St. Bernard Pass and into Switzerland, an ancient route through the Alps that has been used since Roman times as a trade route and for invading forces (including Napoleon) to conquer the Italian peninsula. (Going west leads to Mount Blanc and into France).

Roman road, Aosta Valley, Italy

First century CE Roman road and tunnel in the Aosta Valley. Ruts from chariots in the road are still visible.

Roman road, Aosta Valley, Italy

Stairway leading up to the Roman road, with a carved column on the opposite rock wall.

Pont-Saint-Martin, Aosta Valley, Italy

Another relic of ancient Roman times, Pont-Saint-Martin, gives the town its name.

Verrès, Aosta Valley, Italy

The town of Verrès, a beautiful small town that has a castle overlooking the town and valley.

Verrès Castle, Aosta Valley, Italy

Verrès Castle, a 14th century castle open to the public, sits on a rock outcropping above the town of Verrès (note the slate roofs on the right). Unfortunately I lost my camera here with its pictures of the castle’s interior! Luckily all my other pictures of Italy were backed up on a computer.

Because the Valley was such a popular thoroughfare for centuries, medieval lords built numerous castles in the Valley to protect their domains from invaders. Some of these castles are open for visitors while others are inaccessible due to their locations. As you drive through the Valley you’ll see castles on the surrounding hillsides.

Aosta Valley, Italy

There are castle ruins almost at every turn, overlooking the Aosta Valley.

Saint-Pierre Castle, Aosta Valley, Italy

Saint-Pierre Castle, near the northern end of the Valley. It is currently not open to the public.

Aosta Valley, Italy

Another old castle (I don’t know its name) in the Aosta Valley. There are about 70 castles surviving in the Valley, some of which are open to the public.

Sarre Royal Castle, Aosta Valley, Italy

Another view of Aosta Valley with Sarre Royal Castle (18th century) on the left.

La Bicoque hotel, Aosta, Italy

We stayed at a little boutique hotel, La Bicoque, just north of the town of Aosta. Not a bad setting for our continental breakfast!

More to come on this magical area. I will write separate posts on the town of Aosta, Bard Fortress, Fènis Castle and Savoia Castle. Stay tuned!

Laupahoehoe Point Beach Park, Hawaii

Visiting the Big Island of Hawai’i

I’ve had the privilege of visiting the islands that make up the state of Hawai’i a few times: twice to Oahu, once each to Maui and Kauai and most recently the Big Island of Hawai’i. All of the islands have their charms, but the Big Island is the most unique island in many ways. It felt more laid back, quiet and rural with fewer tourists and big resorts.

The island of Hawai’i is not only big (bigger than the rest of the Hawaiian Islands combined), but has some amazing diversity in its climate zones – from a dry and very (volcanic) rocky western shore, to the more tropical eastern side, with active volcanoes in the middle and southern central parts of the island and farm and ranch lands in the north central part of the island. The Big Island is also far less touristy than Oahu and Maui and receives about the same number of tourists as Kauai.

Below are a few sights around the island starting on the western side and working our way north and south along the west coast and then east over to Hilo and further south to Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park.

Waikoloa Village – West Coast

This trip was sponsored in part by Hilton Grand Vacations. On a snowy day in Colorado after booking a business trip, I was susceptible to one of those calls telling me that I could experience a vacation package on the Big Island for almost nothing, with the caveat that we listen to a presentation on the wonders of purchasing a share of an available property. To Hilton’s credit, the actual sales pitch was very low key and within an hour or we were on our way again (resort living is just not our type of vacation thing–it took us a while to convince them of this).

You could easily land at the Kona airport, head north 20 minutes to Waikoloa Village resort, and have a full, relaxing (and expensive) vacation never leaving the Village–eating, golfing and swimming all day every day. While all of this was tempting (and fun), we wanted to see more of the island, since we knew it was unlikely we would be back.

Waikoloa Village, Hawaii.

We stayed at the Waikoloa Village Resort, a Hilton property on the northwest coast of Hawaii. The resort has hotel rooms and condo properties. It’s about 20 minutes north of the Kona Airport.

Waikoloa Village Resort, Hawaii

The Waikoloa Village is of course beautiful, set right along the rugged volcanic coast with many amenities.

Waikoloa Resort, Hawaii

The Waikoloa Resort is so big that you take a tram or water taxi to your room from the main entrance.

Kohala Coast, Hawaii

This photo was taken just south of the Waikoloa Resort, along the Kohala Coast. Much of the island is volcanic rock meaning white sand beaches are few and far between. Since the coast is not heavily developed, many spots can be found for a quiet picnic.

Waikoloa King’s Trail

Near the Waikoloa Village is the ancient King’s Trail. This trail was used by Hawaiians from about 1400 – 1800 CE as a transportation route along the coast. You can walk along parts of the trail, with signs to guide your way and explain the historical features.

Waikoloa Kings Trail, Hawaii

The Waikoloa Kings Trail winds its way through the pretty barren volcanic landscape.

King's Trail, Hawaii

Along the King’s Trail. Overhanging cliffs like those shown here provided protected overnight camping spots for the ancient Hawaiians. In the near lower left foreground petroglyphs can be seen on the rock.

King's Trail, Hawaii

Examples of other petroglyphs along the King’s Trail.

From Waikoloa Village, we explored north and then south along the west coast.

North/West Coast of Hawai’i (North Kohala)

Like much of the Big Island, this part of Hawai’i is quiet and felt pretty remote, with just a few tiny towns and lots of open hilly countryside. It was apparent that the northern tip of the island receives more moisture than most of the western side.

Hapuna Beach State Park, Hawaii

Hapuna Beach State Park, a short way north of Waikoloa Village. Hey, an actual sandy beach!

King Kamehameha, Hawaii

This is the original statue of King Kamehameha, commissioned and cast in 1878. The King’s birthplace is near here. He united the Hawaiian Islands in the 18th century. This statue is found in the little village of Kapa’au, at the northern end of the Big Island.

Kapa'au, Hawaii

The little village of Kapa’au in North Kohala, a town that doesn’t feel like it’s changed much over the years.

Continuing a little further along the northern coast of the Big Island from Kapa’au, is Pololu Valley Lookout. Given the rugged terrain, you have to back track through Kapa’au to continue going south and east around the island.

Pololu Valley Lookout, Hawaii

This is a view of Pololu Valley Lookout, just east of the town of Kapa’au. There is a steep hike down to the black sand beach, it took us about 30 minutes to reach the shore.

Going a little further east along the northern end of the Big Island from Kapa’au, is the village of Honoka’a and Waipi’o Lookout.

Honoka'a, Hawaii

Downtown Honoka’a, the People’s Theater from 1930, a place that feels like old town Americana. With 525 seats, this theater presents films, concerts, dance recitals and classes.

Waipi'o Valley Lookout, Hawaii

This is the Waipi’o Valley Lookout, near Honoka’a. The island has lots of deserted beaches, due to their limited accessibility.

South/West Coast

This section of the island is drier and is the “urban” center of the island, with most of the shopping and restaurants along this part of the coast, south of Kona airport.

Kailua-Kona, Hawaii

A view of Kailua-Kona area, the main center for services and shopping on the Big Island’s west coast. There isn’t much of a “downtown”, just a series of small shopping centers and neighborhoods stretching for miles along the coast.

Honaunau – Saint Benedict’s Painted Church

As you continue south for Kailua-Kona area, you come across some other interesting sights.

Saint Benedict's Painted Church, Honaunau, Hawaii.

We visited this little church in the town of Honaunau, south of Kailua-Kona, known as Saint Benedict’s Painted Church.

Saint Benedict's Painted Church, Honaunau, Hawaii

The interior of Saint Benedict’s was painted right around the end of the 19th century. A Belgian priest used the biblical scenes to teach the natives who could not read. The interior reminded me a bit of the Scandinavian painted churches we have seen during our other travels.

Pu’uhonua O Honaunau National Historical Park

Don’t ask me to pronounce the name of this Park, but this is an interesting sight right on the coast and a very sacred spot to Hawaiian natives. It was where Hawaiian royalty lived and it now serves as a historical educational park. This park is just due west from the Painted Church above.

Pu'uhonua O Honaunau National Historic Site, Hawaii

The setting of Pu’uhonua O Honaunau National Historic Site is quite beautiful–the royals knew how to pick a good location!

You get a map with your entrance fee, and walk from point to point to learn more about ancient Hawaiian customs, skilled craftsmanship and way of life.

Pu'uhonua o Honaunau National Historic Site, Hawaii

In the shadows at dusk are examples of native carvings near the entrance to Pu’uhonua o Honaunau National Historic Site.

Pu'uhonua o Honaunau National Historic Site, Hawaii

An ancient ceremonial structure in Pu’uhonua O Honaunau National Historic Site.

Pu'uhonua O Honaunau National Historic Site. Hawaii

Example of an outrigger canoe, showing construction from traditional materials.

North/East Coast (Hamakua Coast) of the Big Island

After exploring north and south along the west coast, we crossed over to the east coast of the Big Island through Waimea, a ranching area that reminded me a bit of Colorado.

Waimea

The countryside of Waimea, this scene looks like it could be in Colorado or Wyoming or New Mexico!

There are not many driving routes across the island, and this route is the main one. As you reach the east coast, the climate zone shifts to a more tropical feel, clearly this side of this island receives more moisture than the west coast. The northeast coast of the Big Island, known as Hamakua, is rugged and the surf is rougher than on the western side. It has a wild beauty, with the dark volcanic rock contrasting with the dark green vegetation. While there are numerous state parks on this side of the island, you won’t find a lot of soft sandy beaches.

Here are a few State Parks heading south along the east coast towards Hilo:

Laupahoehoe Point Beach Park, Hawaii

Laupahoehoe Point Beach Park

Kolekole Beach Park, Hawaii

Kolekole Beach Park

Onomea Bay, Hawaii

Onomea Bay, a protected cove on a rugged shoreline.

Just a few miles inland from Onomea Bay is another state park, Akaka Falls.

Akaka Falls State Park, Hawaii

Akaka Falls is just inland from Onomea Bay, and a short hike takes you to a view of the falls.

Akaka Falls, Hawaii

A view of Akaka Falls.

Hilo

Just few miles south of the locations above brings you to Hilo. I had expected Hilo to have  a bigger city feel and tourist vibe, but it felt very “local” and is relatively small town. It became apparent to me that most tourists hang out on the west coast, rather than Hilo. Hilo also has an airport, which makes sense given the size of the island and the fact that two 13,000 ft volcanoes (Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa) separate the east and west coasts, making travel across the island slow.

While I don’t have a photo, be sure to stop at Ken’s House of Pancakes in Hilo any time of day for delicious pancakes and about everything else! We enjoyed our meal there.

Hilo, Hawaii.

Downtown Hilo maintains its early 20th century look, I felt like I had stepped back in time to what this town must have looked like during World War II, during my Dad’s time in the islands.

Hawaii Volcanoes National Park

Our last stop on the Big Island was Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, south and west of Hilo in the southeastern part of the island. This is a big park, one could easily spend several days exploring the various features, hiking trails and sights. Volcanic activity on the Big Island is seemingly constant, so parts of the Park may be closed at any given time. Due to the dangerous gases, you are not allowed close to any active craters.

Kilauea Iki Crater, Hawaii Volcanoes National Park

The Kilauea Iki Crater, the lava flows here are from 1959.

Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, Hawaii

The entrance to Thurston Lava Tube, close to the Kilauea Iki Crater.

Volcanoes National Park17

Inside the Thurston Lava Tube.

Volcanoes National Park2

Steam vents in the National Park, everywhere you go there are reminders that you’re standing on active volcanic soil.

Volcanoes National Park1

The sulphur banks near Kilauea Caldera, wow, you could smell the sulphur!

Kilauea Caldera, Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, Hawaii

The huge Kilauea Caldera, this is about as close as you can get right now. There are trails in the Caldera, but they were closed due to volcanic activity during our stay.

If you enjoy exploring, try the Big Island of Hawai’i and remember there’s more to do than just hit the beach, pool or golf course!

 

Portovenere – An Unexpected Bonus near the Cinque Terre

After a sunny picture-perfect first day, the weather turned a bit stormy during our 2nd day in the Cinque Terre. Since it wasn’t a good beach day, we decided we would visit the other Cinque Terre towns. Luckily, the weather was not so bad that the boat couldn’t run its route. As I mentioned in my previous post on the Cinque Terre, the small ferry boat is a great way to see four of the five Cinque Terre towns, and it includes a wonderful ‘bonus’ stop at the southern end of the route.

We purchased our tickets, got a copy of the schedule for timing our stops and hopped on the boat in Monterosso. We decided to go all the way to the end of the route first and work our way back, stopping in the towns we hadn’t visited yet on the return trip. The woman who sold us the tickets explained the ferry’s route and told us that Portovenere (the last stop) was quite a beautiful town, even though it’s not officially part of the Cinque Terre. She wasn’t joking. Portovenere (also spelled Porto Venere) became one of my favorite spots in this part of Italy. (You can also hike to Portovenere from Riomaggiore, the nearest Cinque Terre town, in about 2 hours).

The travel writer Rick Steves calls Portovenere “enchanting” and I would say that’s an accurate description. I was stunned with our first view of Porto Venere, an old medieval church perched on a rocky outcropping guarding the harbor entrance.

Church of Saint Peter, Porto Venere, Italy

Arriving by sea from the Cinque Terre, the 13th century Church of Saint Peter (La Chiesa di San Pietro) is your first sight.

As we cruised further into the harbor, I could also see remnants of a castle fortress on the hill behind the town and an old wall with towers extending down the hill to the harbor. We hopped off the boat and wandered the town for a couple hours, which gave us time to visit the Church of Saint Peter, Castle Doria and explore a few of the old town streets.

Porto Venere, Italy

A view of Portovenere from the inner harbor.

Portovenere was purchased by the city-state of Genoa in 1116, which ruled this part of the Italian peninsula and was a rival of Pisa [which is about 92 km (57 miles) further south with its famous Leaning Tower], and other Italian states at the time.

Church of Saint Peter, Porto Venere, Italy

Walking up the rocking outcropping to the Church of Saint Peter.

Cinque Terre Porto Venere18

Interior of the Church of Saint Peter, which is actually two churches – the older part dates from the 9th century and the “newer” church (above) is 13th century, from the Genoese era.

Castle Doria, Porto Venere, Italy

A view of the rugged coastline, cliffs and Castle Doria, taken near the Church of Saint Peter.

Castle Doria, Porto Venere, Italy

Taking the stairs up into Castle Doria. There is not too much of the castle itself remaining, but the views of the surrounding area from the grounds are remarkable.

Castle Doria, Porto Venere, Italy

A view of the castle grounds with the Church of Saint Peter in the distance. The castle was rebuilt in the 16th century as a coastal fortress.

Church of Saint Peter, Porto Venere, Italy

I love this view of the Church of Saint Peter with an old castle window in the foreground.

Porto Venere, Italy

Looking down on Portovenere’s harbor and the walls extending from the Castle, with the old town directly below.

After enjoying the great views from the castle grounds, we meandered through the old town on our way back down to the harbor. The Genoese left their mark on the town, including two churches from the 13th and 12th centuries, San Pietro (Saint Peter) and San Lorenzo.

Church of San Lorenzo, Porto Venere, Italy

The 12th century Church of San Lorenzo, another Genoese contribution to Portovenere. Over the main doorway (a little hard to see) is a sculpture of the martyrdom of San Lorenzo who was roasted alive on a grill. Yikes.

Porto Venere, Italy

A view of a residential area near the Church of San Lorenzo.

Porto Venere, Italy

A focacceria with some yummy pastries and pizza and a window covering made out pasta! I wonder how the pasta holds up in a heavy rain?

Porto Venere, Italy

A light rain doesn’t deter tourists and shoppers in the old streets of Portovenere.

Porto Venere, Italy

A typical street scene in old town Portovenere, looking toward the medieval gate.

Porto Venere, Italy

Just outside the walled portion of Portovenere.

Porto Venere, Italy

I always love exploring new places and Portovenere didn’t disappoint. If you get to Cinque Terre, be sure to visit this great town too!

 

Some Tips for Visiting Cinque Terre

Let’s state the obvious…the word on Cinque Terre is out. Many years ago this little corner of Italy would have been a unique find – five colorful quaint villages hugging the coast overlooking the clear turquoise waters of the Ligurian Sea, all connected by hiking trails. While all of the above still holds true, just be prepared to share this “secret” with thousands of your closest friends. We were there in May and it was pretty busy. I cannot imagine what it would be like in July and August, when many Europeans take their holidays. Since the towns are small, there are not many hotel or B&B rooms available (and there’s really no place to build more) and hence why the rates are rising and more people are visiting Cinque Terre as a day trip from either the north (Levanto) or the south (La Spezia). We’ll share a few tips for your visit in this post.

What to Do

Because the towns are small, the main attraction are the towns themselves. Things to do in each are similar: exploring the little streets and alleyways, the town squares and shops, people watching (you will find tourists from all over the world), taking a peek in a few old churches or other buildings, sunbathing, eating wonderful food and gelato, and of course enjoying the local (white) wines. This area has been a wine producing region since Roman times.

Cinque Terre Manarola19

All kinds of interesting pastas were available at a shop in Manarola.

Here is a little bit about each of the five towns, from north to south.

Monterosso al Mare

This is where we stayed and it was a good choice for us. It is the largest of the five towns and has the most hotel rooms, the best and biggest sandy beaches with easy access, including parking. We were able to drive our rental car down into the town since we had a confirmed hotel reservation and the hotel had a tiny car park garage a short walk away (see more info below on transportation).

Monterosso, Cinque Terre, Italy.

The beaches of Monterosso. The newer part of town is just in the distance.

There is a newer part of Monterosso (the north section, where our hotel was) and the older part (southern section) with more typical old world European ambience, separated from each other by a rocky point with a pedestrian tunnel (or you can hike up and around the point). Since we were only staying a couple nights the new section was fine for us and the hotel was very comfortable.

Monterosso, Cinque Terre, Italy

A view of the rocky point that separates old Monterosso (show here) from the newer town (behind the point). An old convent sits above the town.

Monterosso, Cinque Terre, Italy

Street scene in old town Monterosso.

Cinque Terre, Italy

A view along the trail between Monterosso and Vernazza. The hike took about 1.5 hours with lots of stops for photos (and to catch my breath). This is probably the most popular section of the trail between the towns. The trail had a lot of up and down sections, so be prepared to burn some calories. Please note that a Parco Nationale della Cinque Terre pass is required to hike the trail. Better to pay the €7 fee than to pay a fine if caught without the Pass. There is a little booth right by the trail a short distance south of Monterosso to get your ticket and there are probably other locations on the trail or in the towns too.

Vernazza

Perhaps the most scenic village (a very difficult call), with a little castle and tower overlooking the bay and the town center. Vernazza is probably the second most popular location for staying in the Cinque Terre.

Vernazza, Cinque Terre, Italy

A view of Vernazza from the trail leading north to Monterosso.

Vernazza, Cinque Terre, Italy

A view of the little beach in Vernazza.

Vernazza, Cinque Terre, Italy

A view of Vernazza from Castle Doria.

Cinque Terre Vernazza31

Inside the church in Vernazza, which dates from 1318.

Vernazza, Cinque Terre, Italy

An alleyway in Vernazza, with a cat checking things out!

Corniglia

We did not visit this town since it is more difficult to access (there is no boat connection) and my guess is for that reason it is the quietest of the five towns.

Corniglia, Cinque Terre, Italy

A view of Corniglia.

With more time, we would have hiked to the Corniglia from Vernazza. You can also hike to other locations from Corniglia via a higher trail that connects town above the Cinque Terre. Because it is a bit more remote, Corniglia attracts more backpacker tourists.

Manarola

The best views of Manarola are from the northern side of the tiny bay, from a little park that overlooks the town and bay (Punta Bonfiglio).

Manarola, Cinque Terre, Italy

A view of Manarola from Punta Bonfiglio.

Manarola, Cinque Terre, Italy

A view of Manarola from the upper town looking towards the harbor.

Manarola, Cinque Terre, Italy

Boats are parked like cars in Manarola.

I believe that the trail along the coast between Manarola and Corniglia is closed, as is the section between Manarola and Riomaggiore. This is a real bummer since the hike in both directions from Manarola would be pretty easy. The closures are due to slides and unsafe trail conditions. It is not clear when or if these trails will reopen.

Riomaggiore

Probably the third prettiest town after Vernazza, once again a very tough call. I thought the little harbor was so unique and scenic.

Riomaggiore, Cinque Terre, Italy

Riomaggiore, Cinque Terre, Italy

Another view of Riomaggiore from an upper street.

Riomaggiore, Cinque Terre, Italy

Stairway in Riomaggiore.

Some Practical Advice about Transportation
There are three ways to get from town to town: 1) a “hop on, hop off” type of boat service, which I heartily recommend; 2) train service, which is fast, crowded, somewhat pricey and less scenic; 3) taking a hike between the towns (note the trail closures mentioned above). Hiking a least one section of the trail should be on your list of “to-do’s”.

Cinque Terre Manarola0

A view of the passenger unloading process at Manarola.

Cars are worthless here. The roads are extremely narrow, steep and curvy down into the towns. There is almost no place to park, and you will probably be stopped on the road above each town, with the police telling you not to attempt the drive down. Check with your hotel or B&B beforehand on what to do if you are traveling by car. The boat service allowed us to “hop on and hop off” all day long, and provides great views of the coastline along the way. Keep in mind that the boat service will not be operational in the winter. Also, the boat does not stop at Corniglia since there is no dock access. Keep your boat ticket in a safe place! We used the train once from Vernazza back to Monterosso. It is busy and is the main transportation method between the five towns and into and out of the Cinque Terre. In some cases you’ll have to hike a bit from the train stations into the towns – there is only so much room. It must have been a huge job to build the train tracks through these rugged hills and coastline.

The boat service did provide a ‘bonus’ stop (probably my favorite place in this region) that I will discuss in my next Italy post!

 

Urbino — Birthplace of Raphael and Home of the Palazzo Ducale

From the Republic of San Marino we headed south and visited one other town in the afternoon before heading back to our home base in Ravenna, Italy. Urbino is about 45 km (28 miles) south of San Marino, via a winding country road that meanders through the hills and valleys of this beautiful region of Italy.

Urbino, Italy

View of Urbino from the west.

The main tourist sight in Urbino is the Palazzo Ducale, considered Italy’s most beautiful Renaissance Palace, built for Duke Federico da Montefeltro, ruler of Urbino from 1444-1482. One of Italy’s greatest Renaissance artists, Raphael, was born in Urbino in 1483, and thankfully he is represented in the Ducal Palace through some of his works as well as those of his talented father.

Ducal Palace, Urbino, Italy

It’s difficult to get an overall view of the Ducal Palace due to its location in the heart of Urbino.

The Palace is in the center of the hilltop medieval town of Urbino. It contains a number of priceless works of art, including paintings, tapestries and beautiful three dimensional inlaid wood panels.

Urbino Duomo, Urbino, Italy

Urbino’s Cathedral (Duomo) with the Ducal Palace visitor’s entrance on the left.

Ducal Palace, Urbino, Italy

The inlaid woodwork gives a 3D look to the walls of the Studiolo, the former study of the Duke. The artist Botticelli is said to have designed some of the images in this room.

Studiolo, Ducal Palace, Urbino, Italy

Another inlaid wood panel in the Studiolo.

Studiolo, Ducal Palace, Urbino, Italy

One more panel in the Studiolo. It feels like you can walk right through the porch and out into the landscape.

Angels' Room, Ducal Palace, Urbino, Italy

The Angels’ Room, one of 500 rooms in the Palace.

Ducal Palace, Urbino, Italy

A Great Hall in the Ducal Palace.

La Muta, Ducal Palace, Urbino, Italy

Raphael’s La Muta (or Portrait of a Gentlewoman), oil on wood, from about 1507. One of the great paintings housed in the Ducal Palace, and often compared to the Mona Lisa. Raphael died at the young age of 37, but left an amazing legacy of art in that short lifetime.

Ducal Palace, Urbino, Italy

The entire first floor of the Palace is filled with fine Renaissance art.

Cortile d'Onore, Ducal Palace, Urbino, Italy

Central Courtyard of the Ducal Palace (Cortile d’Onore).

In addition to the main rooms of the Palace, the basement level contains stables, kitchens and storage areas that are worth a look.

Ducal Palace basement, Urbino, Italy

Hallway leading through the basement of the Palace.

Ducal Palace, Urbino, Italy

This is a cistern-like ‘refrigerator’ in the basement of the Palace. Snow would be packed in here during the winter to keep stores fresh for months.

Ducal Palace, Urbino, Italy

Washing/kitchen area underneath the Ducal Palace.

Horse stables, Ducal Palace, Urbino, Italy

Horse stable area and storage facilities in the basement of the Palace.

Ducal Palace, Urbino, Italy

Toilet area near the stables. The servants would sleep in this area too!

The Ducal Palace was pretty quiet with just a few visitors roaming. Urbino is another Italian town that has few tourists in May. The town of 24,000 inhabitants, is largely made up of students at Urbino’s university, the primary ‘industry’ in town.

Urbino, Italy

Street scene, Urbino.

Urbino, Italy

One of the steep narrow streets in Urbino.

We enjoyed wandering the streets after visiting the Palace–be prepared to get some exercise!