Volcanic Hills Winery

We are always eager to visit anywhere with the word ‘winery’ or ‘vineyard’ attached to the name and so, after a few hours absorbing the sulphurous splendour of Whakarewarewa, we sought the more mellow tones of Volcanic Hills Winery. While the wine making facility is located at ground level, the tasting room, high on the side of Mount Ngongotaha, can only be reached by a 900 metre ride on the Skyline Gondola.

The Skyline complex offers cafes and restaurants as well as luge, ziplines and mountain bike tracks for the thrill-seekers. We prefer our thrills on the more sedate side. Volcanic Hills was established in 2009 with the tasting room opening three years later.

There are no grapes grown in Rotorua, instead the best grapes are sourced from various wine regions in New Zealand and the finished product is only available at cellar door and hand chosen outlets, restaurants and hotels. We enjoyed a five wine tasting, guided through by a very knowledgeable Larissa, wife of winemaker Brent Park. The gondola continued its circuits on one side of the window

while magnificent views across the town and lake filled the rest.

Lake Rotorua was formed around 200,000 years ago following the eruption of a volcano and is the second largest lake in the North Island. The resulting caldera is about 16km wide, although with an average depth of only 10 metres.

Mokoia Island is a rhyolite lava dome in the centre of the lake, created when magma was pushed through a crack in the caldera. It is now a bird sanctuary and home to several rare species.

We wandered around the complex but, tempting though the restaurant was

we stashed our bottles of 2019 Hawkes Bay Rose and 2019 Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc and made our way back to Matamata as the sun descended on another wonderful day.

Civita di Bagnoregio

Despite the exhaustion from our adventures at Bomarzo, we couldn’t resist a detour to explore Civita di Bagnoregio. The two towns of Civita and Bagnoregio were once connected but by the 16th century, Civita had begun to disintegrate. The clay base below the tufa subsided and the cliff edges were weakened by the constant removal of stone to build houses. An earthquake in 1695 sealed its fate and the residents moved to Bagnoregio. There is now a permanent population of 12 in Civita, swelling to over 100 in the summer months, not to mention thousands of tourists. There is only one way into the town, across a long, steep footbridge.

We parked the car in Bagnoregio and boarded a shuttle bus, the driver uninterested in collecting our €1 fare. A white-knuckle ride brought us to the start of the walkway with magnificent views across the valley.

As we climbed, the vista opened up to the mountains beyond.

At the end of the bridge, we entered the town through the Porta Santa Maria, a stone doorway cut by the Etruscans 2500 years ago. Redecorated in the 12th century, the lions holding a human head are medieval symbols of the church.

The effort was definitely worth it, this magical place seemed frozen in time.

We wandered through streets unchanged since medieval times, the decorative door of the old palazzo and window above it has nothing but sky beyond. The rest of the building has long tumbled off the edge of the cliff.

The main square, Piazza San Donato, takes the name of the 5th century Romanesque church dedicated to Saint Donato of Arezzo, a 4th century martyr. The only church in town, it was the cathedral of Bagnoregio until 1699 when damage from the previous earthquake rendered it unsafe.

There was no shortage of eating establishments in the piazza, though the dinner crowds had yet to emerge.

A double archway leads to the Piazza del Vescovado, the seat of the ancient bishop’s palace.

We ambled along the cobblestones, fascinated by the architecture and intricacy of alleyways, arches and stairs.

At the end of the village, a road leads to nowhere

and an interesting set of steps descend into the tufa below.

The return journey was easier on the legs,

though we were tempted to hitch a ride.

The erosion on the surrounding hillsides hinted at the future of this beautiful landscape.

We waited for the bus in a lovely square with a bronze monument dedicated to Bonaventura Tecchi, a writer born in Bagnoregio in 1896.

From here, ‘the dying town’ of Civita shone radiantly in the evening sun.

Hamilton Gardens – Paradise

I am always on the lookout for beautiful gardens to visit on our travels and was very excited to discover Hamilton Gardens is only an hour drive from Matamata, perfect for a day trip. The world class gardens are situated alongside the Waikato River, an area that was once a thriving Maori settlement and home to Ngaati Wairere chief Haanui. Sadly, after European settlement, the land was used for other purposes including a rifle range, sand quarry, go-cart track and finally the city’s main rubbish dump. In the 1950s, the Hamilton Beautifying Society lobbied for a public garden and, with most development occurring since 1980, the gardens now occupy 54 hectares.

Passing by the Events Centre, we were drawn to a huge wood carving depicting real and imagined life in the gardens. The intricate carving was created from a single camphor laurel tree which grew on the river bank, far too big to capture in one photograph.

At Hamilton Gardens, the emphasis is on different types of garden design rather than plant collections, exploring the history, context and meaning of gardens. The individual gardens are presented in three separate themes – Paradise Gardens, Fantasy Gardens and Productive Gardens – too much to cover in one post so I will start with the Paradise Collection. Each garden radiates from a central court, in this case it is Cloud Court featuring statues of Egyptian gods Horus, the falcon-headed god of the sky and Sobek, the crocodilian ‘Lord of the Waters’.

We started in the Japanese Contemplation Garden, entering into a karesansui, or dry landscape garden, of the Muromachi era from the 14th to 16th century. Often called ‘Zen gardens’ because they are found in Zen temple complexes in Japan, these are designed for quiet contemplation and study.

Beyond the pavilion, a pool surrounded by Japanese Maple trees infuses a serenity felt by even the smallest inhabitants.

The traditional gardens of the Arts and Crafts period in the late 19th and early 20th centuries are the inspiration behind the English Flower Garden. Walls and hedges create a series of outdoor rooms, each with a different planting theme, that are linked by pathways terminating at an arbor, fountain or seat.  

It is easy to see why the gardens of this era are often referred to as ‘the gardens of a golden afternoon’.

The art of Chinese gardening dates back to the Han period, at least 2,000 years ago and this influential art form has been called the ‘mother of gardens’. The Chinese Scholars’ Garden represents a traditional Chinese garden from the Sung Dynasty, 10th to 12th century, when a social class of mandarins, scholars and the landed gentry created and maintained these distinctive gardens.

The winding path led to a blooming Wisteria bridge and would eventually reach a pavilion with views of the Waikato River.

Instead, we retraced our steps, past the giant bronze half turtle-half dragon, the Celestial Yuan of Taihu, symbolically protecting the garden from floods.

The 20th century brought the minimalist design of the Modernist Garden, particularly on the U.S. western seaboard and northern Europe in the 1930s. Elements such as swimming pools, barbecues and outdoor eating areas dominated with little ornamentation or formality. Not really my idea of a garden.

In stark contrast, the colourful Indian Char Bagh Garden was stunning. The symbolic four-quartered garden was designed for the Mughal aristocracy and spread throughout the Muslim world between the 8th and 18th centuries. The Mughal emperors, descendants of Genghis Khan, expanded their empire eastwards from Persia into northern India from the 13th century onwards. The design was adapted to local conditions but the basics of geometric layout and a focus on water and irrigation remained integral. In harsh climates, the subtle trickle of water combined with floral perfumes made for a sumptuous living Persian carpet.

Beyond the pavilion, some were making the most of this glorious day on the Waikato River.

We retreated through the decorative entranceway

and made our way to the Italian Renaissance Garden. Many of the elements of earlier Medieval gardens have been retained such as high surrounding walls, square beds and arched trellis work.

The Renaissance designers introduced a strong central axis linking different compartments of the garden and included antique sculptures. A perfect example is the copy of the original 5th century Capitoline wolf with Romulus and Remus, the founders of Rome who, as babies, were thrown into the Tiber River, which carried them to Platine where they were suckled by a she-wolf and then raised by a shepherd.

I could imagine enjoying a beverage on the vine covered terrace but there was much more to see.

piccioni Italiani

The mention of pigeons in Italy usually conjures images of tourists in Venice being smothered by masses of the unruly birds, left with hair dishevelled, clothing akimbo and the odd splattering of egesta. The feeding of pigeons in Piazza San Marco was legally banned in 2008 with a penalty up to €700 to discourage the practice. While we saw the occasional pigeon on our travels, they were very discreet and didn’t exhibit any manic flock behaviour. A paddle in the waters of Fontana dell’Acqua Felice cooled the feet on a warm day in Rome.

The ancient stonework of the Colosseum now serves as a comfortable columbarium. The word is from the Greek for pigeon or dove and describes the niches in walls designed for roosting and breeding.

The merging of local and imported breeds over the centuries has led to an array of colours and markings. There aren’t many places better to enjoy the morning sun than the walls of Chiesa di San Pietro at Porto Venere.

Pigeons have long been maligned as bearers of disease, possibly due to their indiscreet toilet habits and their link to the infection, psittacosis, which causes a pneumonia type illness in humans. Along with that, it seems they were responsible for the closure of five rooms in the Uffizi Gallery in April 2016. An infestation of ticks was discovered by a security guard and the rooms, displaying 15th century Italian paintings, were closed for two days to undergo pest control. The outbreak was blamed on the pigeons that perch on the Uffizi’s windows. No such problem in the Torre Guinigi at Lucca, there is plenty of aeration and fabulous views.

Pigeons obviously have a head for heights, what bird doesn’t? They can fly at altitudes of 6,000 feet or more with speeds up to 90 mph and can travel 700 miles in a single day. Some are happy to just find a quiet perch and admire the fabulous vista in Pienza.

One of the most intelligent birds on the planet, the pigeon can apparently recognise itself in a mirror as well as all 26 letters of the alphabet. Sounds like interesting research, some do look more inquisitive than others.

The belltower of Chiesa di San Donato in Bagnoregio provides a perfect niche from which to observe the wanderings of tourists in the piazza.

Pigeons have been used as messengers for centuries, the earliest reference dating back to 2500 BC. They have been credited with saving tens of thousands of lives in both World Wars with their efficient, reliable service. It wasn’t until 2006 that the last service, used by the police force in Orrisa, India, was disbanded. Presumably, the Orsini family relied on the birds to keep in touch at their palazzo in Pitigliano.

As well as breeding for food, sport and as messengers, pigeons were found to have another valuable resource. In the 16th century, their excrement was found to contain saltpetre, a substance used in the manufacture of gunpowder and fertiliser. It seemed to be in plentiful supply on the window ledges of Acquapendente.

The first mention of domesticated pigeons being used for food was in Egypt in 3000 BC and it is not unusual to find a piccione dish on menus throughout Tuscany. In January 2016, Italian celebrity chef, Carlo Cracco, caused controversy when he cooked a pigeon with turnips on Masterchef Italia. The president of the Italian Institute for the Protection of Animal and the Environment reported him to the police for encouraging people to cook wild animals. He overlooked the fact that pigeons are farmed for food and the law protecting pigeons only applies to wild ones. Of all the pigeons we encountered in Italy, this was by far my favourite.

Highland Restaurant

There are so many wonderful things about staying at Cradle Mountain Lodge and if you enjoy amazing food, the Highland Restaurant is the place to be. We wandered in for breakfast on our first morning, expecting the usual buffet. Not being a fan of buffets, I was pleasantly surprised to find, thanks to social distancing rules, full table service instead. The restaurant had been tastefully refurbished since our previous visit but retained a light, airy and welcoming ambience.

Despite the inclemency outside, the lake was tranquil

while the log fire added warmth inside.

We started with Spreyton fresh juices, a seasonal fruit plate and freshly baked croissants.

I opted for a simple omelette while Michael indulged with smoked salmon, capers and spinach, cheekily adding a pair of poached eggs atop the sourdough.

Returning that evening for dinner, we were awed not only by the flavours of fresh Tasmanian produce but also by the creative works of art presented on our plates. For entrée we chose pepperberry and gin cured ocean trout, beetroot foam & citrus crème fraîche and wallaby scallopini, tomato, king brown mushroom & truffle.

We couldn’t resist the Scottsdale pork belly, Tasmanian scallops & apple rémoulade and beef fillet, truffle mash, buttered asparagus & black garlic for mains.

Of course, we had saved room in our dessert stomachs. Already impressed by the artistic talents in the kitchen, they excelled themselves with the sweet offerings. The coconut panna cotta, pistachio sponge & moss seemed inspired by nature

and the chocolate forest floor with chocolate fungi & chocolate floss was truly spectacular.

We waddled back to our cabin, convinced we wouldn’t need to eat for a week. It turned out that wasn’t the case, we were back for breakfast in fine form. This time we followed the fruit plate and croissants with a Mountain Breakfast – bacon, sausage, eggs your way, tomato, mushrooms, spinach, sourdough, sautéed potatoes & house baked beans.

With a menu that changes seasonally, I think the time is nigh for another visit.