Being urbane in Urbino

Urbino is a small hilltown in Italy’s Marche region whose historic centre is listed by UNESCO. This beautiful and relaxing mediaeval town is notable for its buildings, streetscapes, and cultural richness, all enlivened by a large student population from the University of Urbino, which was established in 1506.

The town rewards strollers with views of fine buildings, cobbled streets and lanes, glimpses of the nearby hilly countryside, and that all-important find of the next venue for sampling delicious local food and wine.

The surrounding countryside is very picturesque, here including Chiesa di San Bernadino (Church of Saint Bernard), the burial site of a number of the Dukes of Urbino, including its most famous ruler, Duke Federico da Montefaltro.

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Urbino became famous during the Renaissance, particularly during Duke Federico’s rule (1444-1482) when his interests and efforts led to a cultural and artistic flowering, and a restructuring of the town on the principles that it be beautiful, efficient and comfortable.

If only modern town planning could achieve such a fine result.

This is my contribution to Tiffin’s A-Z Guidebook, this month starting with the letter ‘U’.

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Wild in the streets: Thekkady, India

Thekkady, in Kerala State, is best known for its closeness to one of south India’s main wildlife sanctuaries, Periyar National Park. Visitors hope to sight wild elephants and tigers, as well as other fauna.

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My visit purposely coincided with Kerala’s  biggest annual Hindu celebration: the 10 day Onam festival. Days and nights were punctuated by music, song and ritual. The streets went wild.

This is my contribution to Tiffin’s A-Z Guidebook, this month starting with the letter ‘T’.

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It’s raining in Santiago

Santiago de Compostela, in north west Spain, has been one of the Christian world’s main pilgrimage destinations for over 1000 years, based on the belief that it is the burial site of one of the disciples, St James (Santiago in Spanish).

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The old town is a UNESCO World Heritage site, and an intriguing, hospitable and welcoming place, with narrow winding streets to explore. The grand cathedral is the ultimate goal of the pilgrims who have travelled the Camino de Santiago from faraway places.

Santiago is the capital of Galicia, and the region is quite different from most other parts of Spain in terms of culture, music, language (Galician) and climate.

Unlike much of Spain, Galicia is wet. Santiago is said to experiences some rain on more than 300 days per year.

Galicia is considered to be one of the seven Celtic nations (along with Scotland, the Isle of Man, Ireland, Wales, Cornwall and Brittany) and its music reflects this heritage. Bagpipes (called gaita gallega) are a common feature of Galician music. My favourite Galician band is Luar na Lubre. A link to their song Chove en Santiago (It’s Raining in Santiago) is here.

This is my contribution to Tiffin’s A-Z Guidebook, this month starting with the letter ‘S’.

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Wimmera Wanderings

In the north west of Australia’s state of Victoria, the Wimmera region ranges from highly productive sheep and grain growing farmland to desert. It is on the edge.  Horizons seem endless, solitude is close.

Mechanisation of farming over the last century has displaced the large rural workforce that was once essential for agriculture. Then, teams worked on the  wheat harvest and bagged the grain in hessian bags capable of being handled by one person. Now a huge truck with a lone driver carts away many tonnes at a time for delivery to the silo. Machines, not people, now dominate. Currently pressed bales of straw and grass are so large and heavy (at around 600 kilograms) that they can no longer be moved by hand, as was formerly the case, but require a powerful tractor with forks.

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[This image of traditional wheat harvesting has been reproduced with the kind permission of the State Library of Victoria]

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Large bales of wheat straw, baled after the grain has been harvested. Near Beulah.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Grain silos are numerous and the largest constructed form in the area, dwarfing the frequently ornate local pubs, commercial buildings, and austere churches. A few silos have been painted, with others on the way. There is already a designated driving circuit to enjoy this art form. Guido van Helten painted the Brim silos, surely a masterpiece:

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Grain silos in Brim
Grain silos in Brim

Brim silos

Small towns in the Wimmera are generally in sharp decline as people drift to larger towns for shopping, housing, amenities and work. Those small towns slumber amongst closed shops and businesses, with houses increasingly unoccupied and neglected. In a country with some of the world’s highest house prices and rental costs, as well as homelessness, it’s a pity that this housing is going to waste.

The main street in Beulah:

Beulah

Another stark reminder of the depopulation of many small Wimmera towns is the war memorial listing residents killed in the two World Wars. A town that may struggle to sustain a small store and a hotel amongst its streets of closed shops usually has a memorial listing a shocking number of the district’s young men who died in Europe and Turkey in the 1914-18 World War. Hopetoun, with a population of 555 in 2011, lists 91 or 92. The Rainbow War Memorial (pictured below) lists 41 names under the heading ‘They sleep well’. The town’s population in 2011 was 525.

War memorial in Rainbow

Jeparit’s silos:

Jeparit - silos and garage

As a contrast to the rather forlorn sight of numerous empty shops, most small towns have well maintained sporting infrastructure; tennis courts, a swimming pool, a football and cricket oval (which sometimes doubles as a venue for the annual agricultural show), and sometimes, a lawn bowling club.

For wanderers, the region has camping grounds and pubs offering accommodation. Camping fees are moderate compared with the rates at more popular destinations; $10-$20 per night for a powered site is usual in the town’s caravan and camping park, generally located beside a river (Jeparit – the Wimmera River) or lake (Brim, Beulah and Hopetoun).

This year’s good rainfall has replenished the region’s watercourses and lakes, which were suffering from a long drought, and local spirits. A farmer of around 60 years old, chatting in Jeparit’s Hindmarsh Hotel, intimated that this year’s grain crop is the best he’s ever seen. By staying and mingling, perceptions alter. As a result of his recommendation we drove to Brim to see the painted silos, and also included Warracknabeal, Beulah, Hopetoun, Rainbow and Jeparit; a nice driving circuit.

The Wimmera River at Jeparit:

The Wimmera River at Jeparit

Walking in the Grampians: Halls Gap to the Pinnacle

Halls Gap in the Grampians (Gariwerd in the local Aboriginal language) is about 260 km west of Melbourne, and a popular place to visit for bushwalking and other pastimes.

My walking friends and I visited in November, a good month for moderate temperatures and the end of the wildflower season (August to November), another Grampians attraction. The photos below were taken on the walk from Halls Gap to the Pinnacle and return, designated as moderate (for ‘fit and experienced walkers’ according to Parks Victoria), and about 10km in length.

The walk ascends about 470 metres (1560 feet), with numerous ups and downs. Many features encountered during the walk have names such as The Grand Canyon, Silent Street, Wonderland, the Pinnacle, and the Nerve Test.

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Never leave home without an umbrella.

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OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASomeone doing it the hard way

Climbing the hard way.

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The pinnacle.

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Halls Gap is in the valley.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

 

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John gets closer to the edge.

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Time to descend by another loop.

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On your knees in Rocamadour

Rocamadour, in south-west France, became famous in mediaeval times as a place of pilgrimage, and an important stop on the pilgrimage path to Santiago de Compostela in Spain (the Camino de Santiago, or St James’ Way). One of Rocamadour’s main religious attractions is its wooden Black Madonna.

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Today, Rocamadour’s 600 residents are joined by around one million visitors yearly. Pilgrims of the past climbed the steep 216 stairs to the top of the village on their knees. Now, visitors who don’t wish to climb by stairs have the option of a lift.

This is my contribution to Tiffin’s A-Z Guidebook, this month starting with the letter ‘R’.

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