back to Bolsena

On our first trip to Italy, we discovered Bolsena when we chose a place on the map to break our journey from Cortona to Rome. Our brief sojourn left us wanting to return and see more of this beautiful town as well as explore the magnificent Castello Rocca Monaldeschi.

Refreshed from our sustenance at RetroGusto, we continued down Corso Cavour

to the medieval Fountain of San Rocco. Built in 1450, the spring water was deemed to be miraculous when San Rocco recovered from a thigh wound after drinking it.

We made our way up ancient stone steps, along narrow alleys and through medieval arches to the castle.

A thoughtfully positioned bench beckoned us to rest awhile and admire the vista across rooftops to Lake Bolsena under the gaze of insentient eyes.

A fortress was originally built above the town in 1156 to protect from invasion. In 1295, the Monaldeschi family of Orvieto asserted their power and moved in. The walls were reinforced and the castle extended with the addition of three more towers. The Monaldeschi ruled until the mid 15th century and over the ensuing years the fortress was robbed, burnt, restored and used as a prison and warehouse. Renovation work began in the 1970s and the restored fort has been home to the Territorial Museum of Lake Bolsena since 1990.

Unfortunately, the museum was closed but the climb had certainly been worth it. On the opposite side of Piazza Monaldeschi,

the 15th century Church of San Salvatore was intended to look more like a fortress than a religious building.

We returned to the car

and parked lakeside for lunch at Trattoria del Moro, an experience we had been looking forward to since our first visit.

Lake Bolsena is the largest volcanic lake in Europe, formed 370,000 years ago following the eruption of the Vulsini volcano which was active until 104BC. The lake covers an area of 115sq km, has a circumference of 43 km and a maximum depth of 151 metres. Impossible to envision from photographs.

Our meals were equally as delicious, if not better, than we remembered.

The same can’t be said for the weather but the inclement conditions didn’t detract from the peaceful surroundings as we ambled back to the car.

I would like to think we will return again to Bolsena and Trattoria del Moro.

Porto Venere

We had an early start for our day trip to Cinque Terre, catching the bus from Le Grazie for the 3km trip to Porto Venere. The winding, narrow road made for an interesting ride, one of the reasons we opted to leave the car behind. We alighted at the Grand Hotel, a majestic building from the 1600s that has seen many incarnations since. The original monastery became the Hospital of the Marine Military in the 1800s and then the headquarters of the Municipality of Porto Venere. A hotel was established in 1975 but closed in the 2000s before being refurbished and re-opened in 2014 as the luxury boutique hotel it is today.

1.Grand Hotel

The tall, narrow houses seemed to defy gravity, as though they were being pushed toward the water by the cliffs behind.

2.Porto Venere

We followed the road along the harbour to the headland, spying a perfect spot for breakfast. Unfortunately, Le Bocche was closed and thoughts of food would have to wait.

3.end of the road, Porto Venere

Climbing the steps to investigate the church at the top of the cliff

4.Chiesa di San Pietro

we found much more to explore. Part of the ancient stone fortifications are still standing,

5.old stone wall

a plaque above a doorway announced Byron’s Grotto through which steep stone steps led to the bay below.

6.steps to Byron's Grotto

English poet, Lord Byron, would swim in these waters and even crossed the bay to visit his friend, Percy Bysshe Shelley, who lived in Lerici. Hence, the stretch of water is known as Golfo dei Poeti, the Gulf of Poets. The legendary swim is commemorated each year with the Byron Cup swimming race across the 7.5km from Porto Venere to San Terenzo. We were content to remain on dry land and savour the spectacular scenery.

7.Byron's Grotto

High above the sea caves, the remains of Doria Castle dominate the ridge. Built by the Genoese in 1161 for the wealthy Doria family, the military stronghold has undergone major restoration and is now open to the public.

8.Doria Castle

On the opposite side of the cove, the remains of an ancient defensive post balance on a tumble of rocks

9.ancient defensive post

and the views across the gulf are mesmerising.

10.Gulf of Poets

I wasn’t the only one who thought so. Just beyond the steps to the grotto, the serene figure of a rather buxom lady sits gazing out to sea. The bronze sculpture, Mater Naturae, is the work of Lello Scorzelli but there is no indication as to how long she has sat here. Her thoughts are summed up beautifully in a wonderful piece of prose, The custodian of Portovenere by Francesca Lavezzoli.

We spied the octagonal domes of the 11th century Chiesa di San Lorenzo, in the centre of the village, arising from the terraced hillside

16.Chiesa di San Lorenzo

before we retraced our steps to explore Chiesa di San Pietro.

17.Chiesa di San Pietro

Dating back to ancient Roman times, the town was called Portus Veneris and a pagan temple, dedicated to the goddess Venus, occupied this site. An early Christian basilica replaced the temple in the 5th century and was consecrated in 1198. The black and white bands were added in the 13th century by the Genoese, though the belltower retains the original stonework.

18.Chiesa di San Pietro

Sculptor Lello Scorzelli created the magnificent bronze portals depicting the handing over of the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven by Jesus to St. Peter.

When the doors are closed Jesus, dressed in the robes of a poor man, offers the keys to Peter who reaches up to accept them

21.St. Peter

while intricate figures representing the apostles bear witness to the ceremony.

Morning light streamed into the central apse, the striking vaulted ceiling seemed impossibly supported by black and white marble.

25.central apse with altar

A small pipe organ fills an alcove and a statue of St. Peter resides in an adjacent niche.

We savoured yet more spectacular coastal views from the sheltered loggia

28.loggia, Chiesa di San Pietro

before returning to the town in search of breakfast. Via Giovanni Capellini is the main shopping thoroughfare, stone steps connecting it to the harbour.

31.steps to Via Giovanni Capellini

The street was quiet at this hour, shops were just opening

and thoughts of food amplified in our heads.

Replenished with coffee and pastries, we made our way to the harbour to meet up with friends, Deb & Jim, to board the boat for Cinque Terre.

37.Porto Venere harbour38.Porto Venere harbour

As we rounded the promontory, we could appreciate a different perspective of Chiesa di San Pietro and Doria Castle clinging precariously to their rocky foundations.

41.Chiesa di San Pietro42.Doria Castle

Blarney Castle

After spending the night in Cork, we fortified ourselves with a substantial breakfast and headed for Blarney Castle.

1.Blarney Castle

The walk from the car park, crossing the River Martin, warmed us up a bit.

2.Blarney Castle

The castle presented a stunning backdrop for the burnished autumn foliage.

3.Blarney Castle

Across a bridge over the river,

4.Blarney Castle5.Blarney Castle

we stood looking up at the north wall. The original Blarney Castle, a timber hunting lodge, was built in the 10th century and replaced by a stone construction in 1210. The existing castle, built on the edge of a cliff, was completed in 1446 by the King of Munster, Dermot McCarthy. The castle changed hands over the centuries, to Oliver Cromwell in 1646, back to the McCarthys fifteen years later before they lost it again in 1690, then sold to the Governor of Cork in 1703.

6.North Wall,Blarney Castle

The rather elaborate windows, halfway up the wall on the right, are not the romantic bedchamber embellishments one might imagine. They are, in fact, garderobes, the medieval answer to the ensuite.

7.garderobes

We followed the path past the guard tower

8.guard tower

and well-worn steps that led to the dungeons

9.dungeon stairs

before starting our climb to the top of the castle. Our ascent was frequently interrupted to take in the spectacular panorama through the windows.

10.Blarney Castle

13.view

There wasn’t a lot of breathing space in the passages, I can’t imagine running along them dressed in a suit of armour.

14.Blarney Castle

The narrow, spiral stone steps finally ended at the top of the castle. Looking down, we could see where the three floors would have been in the main living area.

15.standing over the main room

The pigeons are the only ones on lookout these days.

17.pigeon lookout

At the top of the tower is the infamous Blarney Stone, believed to give anyone that kisses it the gift of eloquence. At one time, anyone wishing to kiss the stone would be at risk of plunging from a great height but there are now railings to hold on to and some underneath to break the fall.

18.Blarney Stone

Even so, we didn’t join the queue to bend over backwards from the parapet, there is only so much blarney one needs in life. Besides, the Blarney Stone has been named the most unhygienic tourist attraction in the world.

19.Blarney Stone

The magnificent view from the battlements was well worth the climb.

20.view from the battlements

Once back on terra firma, we discovered Rock Close, a garden landscaped in the 18th century around existing stone monuments.

21.Rock Close22.Rock Close

It’s easy to believe the tales of Druids and Fairies in this mystical place, the senior Druid Priest was reputed to have lived in the Druid’s Cave.

23.Druid's Cave Rock Close

We would have liked to spend more time in this enchanted garden but time was ticking on.

Legend has it that there is a witch who will grant wishes to those who can walk up and back down the wishing steps with eyes closed (I didn’t get a photo of the steps, nor did I try this). In exchange for this gift, she is provided with firewood for her kitchen. I didn’t get a photo of the kitchen either, but we did see the witch stone. Some believe it was the Blarney Witch who told McCarthy about the power of the Blarney Stone but it remains a mystery how she became entrapped in the rock.

27.The Witch Stone

Dunluce Castle

The light was beginning to fade as we left the Giant’s Causeway and we had yet to find accommodation for the night. Heading to Portrush to do just that, we diverted to investigate Dunluce Castle. The ruins of the medieval castle perch precariously on the edge of a cliff and are reached by a bridge connecting it to safer ground.

1.Dunluce Castle

The first castle at Dunluce was built in the 13th century by the 2nd Earl of Ulster. In the 16th century, Sorley Boy McDonnell arrived from Scotland and based himself at Dunluce Castle, consolidating his territories in both Ireland and Scotland.

2.Dunluce Castle3.Dunluce Castle

He certainly couldn’t complain about the view.

4.Dunluce Castle

There is a pathway leading down to the cove, looking back at the castle gives a rather startling perspective.

6.Dunluce Castle7.Dunluce Castle

There is a story that the castle was abandoned in the 17th century after the kitchen , along with the kitchen staff, fell into the sea when the cliff face collapsed. It’s easy to believe but apparently a myth, as paintings from the 18th and early 19th centuries show that end of the castle intact.

8.Dunluce Castle

There are caves under the castle, although we didn’t venture that far.

9.Dunluce Castle10.Dunluce Castle

The north wall of the residence building collapsed into the sea sometime in the 18th century, I wonder how long before this one follows?

11.Dunluce Castle

Carrickfergus

Travelling north from Belfast, we followed the coast to Carrickfergus, hoping to explore the magnificent Norman castle perched on the northern edge of Belfast Lough.

1.east side & keep

We were once again disappointed to find, not only was it closed for the winter season, the imposing entrance was covered, undergoing restoration.

2.entrance under repair3.west side

In 1177, Sir John de Courcy, an Anglo-Norman knight, decided he wanted some lands for himself. He gathered a small army and headed to northern Ireland. After a few battles along the way, he conquered eastern Ulster and built the castle as his headquarters. Strategically placed, surrounded almost entirely by water, the fortress has withstood invasion by the Scottish, Irish, English and French over the centuries. No wonder there is always someone on guard.

4.soldier

We would have liked to wander around the castle and the historical displays that are housed within. We had to settle for a glimpse of the 17th century cannons just visible along the battlements.

5.cannons6.cannon