Italy in November Cont.

Day Five – Quintessential Tuscana

Poderi Arcangelo, San Gimignano

It was dusk when we turned onto a long gravel driveway passing several villas; the last villa sat at the top of a hill among acres of vineyards. From the Poderi Arcangelo B&B farmhouse we saw the medieval villages of San Gimignano and Certaldo. I looked across hundreds of acres of vineyards and olive groves, subtle mixes of greens, russet and gold and watched as the mist softly rolled into place. My son had to drag me away.

We dreamily made our way to the main house upstairs to our suite. I surveyed the stone floors, dark wood furniture, queen bed with wrought iron headboard, coral coverlet and daybed across the room; an open window displayed the fields we had just studied. It was so Tuscan.

I sank into a luxuriously soft mattress…

Day 6 – Easels, Drones and Relentless Fog

The next morning we went downstairs for a buffet breakfast of croissants, nutella, chocolate cake, apricot juice and coffee. I loaded up my artist’s easel and headed outside to the fields to do some plein air painting. I painted the patchwork of fields in front of the distant villas while Jonathan’s drone flew overhead.

One thing that continued to follow us in November was fog. We couldn’t see San Gimignano from our location, which was only a few miles away.

On the road to San Gimignano

San Gimignano – The Purchase

Disappointed with my painting of the fields, we headed out to San Gimignano, a 13th century medieval walled village. We stopped along the way, pausing to photograph golden vineyards whose leaves clung tenaciously to vines. I passed the village years earlier; the unmistakable profile with 13 towers made an impression.

It was dusk when we arrived at San Gimignano. We saw shops with leather purses, pottery and paintings. Since my son was with me, I knew my shopping time would be limited. I decided to get him involved in the process –– I wanted him to share it with me. I settled on a pottery shop with a likeable owner and a good selection of traditional and contemporary artists.

Shopping in San Gimignano

I wanted a traditional design with lemons and flowers, but my son preferred a more contemporary scene. Then there was the problem of what to choose: a bowl, plate, vase, an olive oil holder. Finally I settled on a contemporary scene of San Gimignano by a local artist. It was a happy scene of bright colors, towers, olive groves and blue sky.

As night approached and remaining tourists cleared out, we had the village all to ourselves. The quiet indigo sky and warm lantern lights returned and we embraced the night sights and sounds. Illuminated passages led us further down brick paths, through arches, and past sleeping churches. I originally regretted that it got dark early in Italy in November; now I was glad for this new way of seeing it.

Village of San Gimignano in Evening

Italy in November Cont.

Day Three – Casual in Como

On our way out of town the next morning, we walked through the arcades past booksellers and a man still dozing on his marble bed. We noticed an espresso bar. The mahogany wood, granite bar and marble floors excited our imaginations; poets and writers had frequented this old world haunt. We pulled up a chair to one of two cafe tables. I ordered only one cappuccino…

Normal Driving in Italy

Driving in Como

We left the Piedmont region and headed Northeast around Milan to Como; I was ready to exchange city traffic for laid-back Como. We approached town on a two lane road near a 4 way stop and a car sped around us on the our left, barely missing the oncoming traffic. This was not the laid-back experience I had in mind.

We pulled into the hotel Como Metropole Suisse in the city center across the lake; it had hosted kings, princesses and members of the Danish royal family. Established in 1892, the hotel had a dated sophistication. We made our way to a sparsely decorated room with an oversized bath and floor-to-ceiling green tile. I spent several minutes poring over a tray loaded with scented, wrapped soaps, shampoos and towels.

Gelato,Torino Style

Salvation Found in Gelato

We dragged our regrettably heavy luggage to the parking garage many blocks away; I was happy to relinquish the car for a couple of days. Our salvation was found next to the hotel in a gelateria — a rare sight this time of year.

In the evening we explored the town of Como and happily stumbled on an outdoor market of cheeses, breads, crafts and umbrellas. We stepped inside the cathedral of Como where the locals were having a procession.

After some night photography, we found a restaurant in the village with brick interior, petite string lights, and intimate tables. I had an unforgettable dinner of Risotto with bacon and regional red wine; my son had a huge calzone.

Dinner in Como

Day 4 – Our Misadventure

The next morning we had a lazy breakfast in the spacious dining room overlooking Lake Como. The fare was grand by Italian breakfast standards: bacon, eggs, pastries, peaches, lunchmeat, accompanied by peach, apricot, and orange juices, served in silver trays and glass pitchers.

Lake Como

After breakfast, we spent a disappointing morning hiking around Lake Como; it was chilly, overcast and foggy and we could barely see the villas clinging to the sides of the mountains.

A Local

In the afternoon we went in search of the funicolare which led to Como Alto, we happened upon an older gentleman, who offered his assistance. With unusual dexterity, he led us up and down the passageways of stairs, conversing as he went. “I was born in this village and have lived here my entire life”, he said. “Most Italians do not leave the village of their birth.”

Finding Our Way by Flashlight

By the time we reached the funicolare, the sun was already obscured behind the mountain. However, from the summit, the sky was blue above thin veils of mist that revealed distant mountains and remote villages.

Overlooking Como

As dusk approached, the outline of Lake Como shined with tiny lights from boats and the surrounding villages.

We ventured into the remote village of Brunate and found Andrew the Apostle –– the village church. The locals obliged us to come in during their evening activities. In Michelangelo fashion, figures floated above our heads and beneath us on a mosaic floor.

Andrew the Apostle, Brunate, Italy

Utter Darkness

It was long past dusk by now. My son had looked up a well-rated restaurant located at the top of the mountain. He assured me it was only a little further uphill. We began the dark ascent on the single lane road as oncoming cars whizzed pass, pushing us into the rock wall and bushes. Shortly thereafter we ended up on a hiking trail.

By now it was blackest dark. There were no streetlights, no house lights, nothing…

With only an iPhone flashlight, we stumbled along, making out one set of feet at a time. I joked that this misadventure would be one to write about. We pushed forward, tripping on roots. We couldn’t go back. We were lost either way. We had no idea where we were, or where we were going.

Finally, we reached our destination –– an abandoned building.

Ristorante, Brunate, Italy

Italy in November

Story and photography by Sharon Martin

Day One – Chic in Torino

Torino Church

“Would you like dis at da bar or tavolo?”

“At the bar, per favore.”

I felt like a real local on her way to work as I stood at the bar and sipped my cappuccino — the surroundings’ old world elegance and the locals’ chic! But gee that cappuccino was small! I casually ordered another; this brought interesting looks from the barista. I think I just did something not so Italian.

When I asked for the bathroom, I was sent downstairs only to find a huge room with a drain in the middle of the floor. Uhhh… where is the shower head? Suddenly a hip young woman casually exited another stall.


I had waited 14 years to return to Italy. We arrived at the Star Hotel Majestic in Torino after 36 hours without food or sleep. I was struck by the grandeur of the lobby as we passed through the massive wood revolving door. The concierge offered suggestions for restaurants — we opted to go straight to bed.

Since entering the city (and every village thereafter), we were careful not to enter the restricted area in the center of the historic districts. The mere thought brought back memories from a previous drive through London and the hefty fine which followed.

Since dinner reservations were customary, we settled on an indistinct pub with chicken, fries and loud music videos. We
couldn’t find Scottish food in Edinburgh; now we couldn’t find Italian food in Torino.

Day Two – On My Own in Torino

After breakfast, which consisted of a croissant and cappuccino, I walked past beautiful shops, more coffee bars, and the Egyptian Museum. I was just relaxing and enjoying the scenery — only to find myself in the middle of a student demonstration!

There in front of me was the University of Torino. Accompanied by police, the students held signs which read arabic. There had been a terrorist attack in Paris, and we had been there only yesterday!

Torino at Night

Torino, Italy

Since we were in Italy in November after the time change, it got dark by 4:50 PM. Over the next 12 days, we became friends with the dark; the quiet stars hung above an indigo canopy and the village lanterns warmed the streets. Alleyways you would never notice during the day became mysterious passages at night!

Torino came alive with planetary strings of lights. On our second night in Torino I walked to several of the famous piazzas, pausing to take photos before heading back to the room.

Torino at Night


I assumed the streets were parallel, but they fanned out from the piazzas. My international phone service hadn’t kicked in yet… no GPS. I kept asking for directions from people that didn’t speak much English and kept making wrong turns, getting further and further away from my hotel. Torino is a big city and it was unsettlingly dark.

Panic set in.

Finally after a couple hours I decided to ask the shop owners, who were more likely to speak English. I found a kind lady who didn’t speak much English, but left a customer in her shop to help me out. I found a map in my pocket from the hotel and she recognized the piazza. The moral to this story…when in Italy, know which piazza you need to get to.

A Happy Ending

When I got back to the hotel at 10 PM my son was jealous of the photos I had taken of the lights, so we walked back for night photography. We didn’t get back till midnight; I felt so adventurous!

Italy Nights

Scotland in 10 Days Cont.

Day six – Arisaig

St. Mary and St. Finnan

After two nights near Glencoe in Ballachulish, we started for our new destination: the Isle of Skye. We drove Northwest via Hwy A830 and stopped at the Glenfinnan monument on Loch Shiel. In 1745 Bonnie Prince Charlie raised his standard to begin the rebellion of the Jacobites—he was defeated at the battle of Culloden. A few miles down the road we made a sharp stop at a gray, stoic structure set against a Loch and mountains. The sculptures inside drew us into the 1873 church of St. Mary’s and St. Finnan.

Arsaig Coast

As we drove Northwest towards Mallaig our path brought us to the teal water and white sand of Arisaig—I was sure we had left our sulky, moody Scotland for the Caribbean! The tiny white village had a post office featuring fresh produce and groceries, and was reminiscent of the small village postal shops of England.

We boarded the Ferry Caledonian MacBrayne from Mallaig and crossed over to the Sleat peninsula to Armadale on the Isle of Skye. As we drove along the coast of Armadale, the greenish teal water changed to an inky blue.

Sleat Peninsula, Isle of Skye

Sleat Peninsula

Simple white houses on carpets of thick mossy green dotted the countryside as we made our way North. How suddenly on crossing over from England, the flowers end!


Edinbane, Isle of Skye

The sun never set at our next destination in the North of Skye. In Edinbane on Loch Greshornish we left our B&B to have dinner down the street at a pub with deep rich paneling. Barely able to stay awake, we watched the sunset over the Loch. It was beautiful, all night long…

The next morning, all the guests at the Straethern B&B gathered around one large table set with Edinbane pottery; we got to know a vivacious German couple who enjoyed correcting one another’s English. Our gracious hosts—an older couple who cared for us like children—loaded us down with bagged lunches featuring cheese and ham on thick hunks of bread wrapped in wax paper.

The Quiraing

Travel book photos had enticed me to Scotland. The most intriguing were those of the Quiraing in the northernmost Trotternish peninsula. We made our way northeast on a tiny road passing more sheep than cars and blankets of green.

Quiraing Path

We reached the trailhead of the Quiraing and began our five hour trek down a dirt road. In the distance to our right we saw small lakes and the sea. Huge crazy shapes sprang out of the ground covered in green carpet. More sheep…loud vivacious young sheep occasionally charged towards me.

Quiraing Lakes

We bundled up against the cold, wind and mist. The one-of-a-kind formations and sudden drop-offs were not of this planet—and I sank into the effect. Each turn brought a heart stopping view of crazy wild shapes that would have made Edward Scissorhands smile.

Near the end of our trek we left the footpath and ascended to the rocky pinnacles known as the Storr. As there was no path and I don’t like heights, it took some convincing before I resigned my fate to this rocky hazard. I tried not to look down as I grasped thick grass on hands and knees and placed my feet in giant divots. And yet more unnerving was the fog. I could barely see more than one step in front of my feet! No one followed.


When we reached the summit, the ghostly shapes of the pinnacles were barely visible. The granite giants made a cozy enclosure and I hated to leave. We would have gone beyond the summit, but the fog made it impossible to see and we didn’t want to get lost.

The Summit

The Storr

The climb down was slightly less unnerving, but I enjoyed the challenge, and I would never forget this hike…

Before leaving the Isle of Skye, we headed over to Neist Point at the far west end to see the Lighthouse. The drive on the tiny single lane road was the most deserted of our trip. We made a brief stop at the Dunvegan Castle and the Skye Museum of island life.

Driving in the Highlands and Skye on isolated twisting roads through unreal scenery: the misplaced carribean, desolate landscapes of white cottages, hiking in the space age Quairaing and making new friends is etched in my senses and I want to return…

Scotland in 10 Days cont.

Day three – Holyrood Palace

The Woolen Mill
I returned to The Royal Mile to visit the Woolen Mill, where everything imaginable was made of…wool. The colors of the store’s wares were softer than expected; I was especially struck by the shades of blue and should have picked out a scarf. Unfortunately, I couldn’t make up my mind—I’m allergic to wool.

At the opposite end from the Castle sat the Holyrood Palace (which translates “Holy Cross”). The Queen wasn’t in (I’m told she resides in summer). Although not as grand as I like my palaces to be, I enjoyed the audio tour included in the ticket.



I wandered along until at last I came upon a ruined abbey behind the palace, which was once inhabited by Augustinian monks. This 12th century haunt drew me in with its mysterious aura. As I walked down the nave past the arcades, I was drawn to the furthest arch. Its stone work resembled fine delicate lace work, and I was transported hundreds of years back in time. I think I prefer the abbey in this exposed manner, with the sapphire sky pouring in.
This put us near Arthur’s Seat. We made this hike to get a better view of the city, but didn’t quite make it to the top. (It was getting late, and we didn’t want to get caught in the dark coming down.) Arthur’s Seat is actually just a rock, and Arthur wasn’t there anyway. We headed back down for some genuine Scottish food and found the World’s End (a highly-rated Scottish pub). Unfortunately the small space was full, so we ate Italian.

Day Four – Heading Northwest towards Glencoe

By now I was comfortable driving on the left side of the road, and was looking forward to delving into the country in my nimble red 6 speed car. On our way to Glencoe, we made a brief lunch stop at a compact village named Callander off highway A84; the village’s main street boasted several cafes, bakeries, shops and a church.

Callander Bakery

Callander Bakery

We finally found traditional Scottish food (meat pies!) at a bakery called MHOR Bread. The bakeries were reasonable, especially if you carry out. I chose the pie with chicken (it tasted like homemade chicken pot pie, but in a pastry shell). We scarfed the parchment-wrapped pies on a bench by a pond. We had also purchased dessert bars—mine had thick layers of mild caramel and chocolate on shortbread. Now we were ready to drive to highland country.

Scottish Highlands

Our drive through Glencoe was…surreal, like floating in slow motion: the flat limy green landscape, sculpted with twisting ribbony roads which cowered beneath quiet bronze giants (as in one of Tolkien’s novels, the mountains come to life and throw rocks at each other). I pinched myself several times while driving through Glencoe. No, I wasn’t dreaming, but I didn’t want to wake up either. In this entrancing landscape, my son had no complaints about stopping excessively for photos. None at all.

Glen Etive

Glen Etive Mountains

The most splendid mountains in Glencoe were those of Glen Etive on Hwy 82. It is a popular destination for hikers and photographers, so unsurprisingly some of my favorite pictures of the trip came from here. Apparently there is an (easily missed) car park near the trailhead, and an 18th century Inn (Kings House). If only I could have explored this area more…

From Glencoe we drove through Fort William and came to a landing in Ballachulish on Loch Linnhe (pronounced Linny) at the Craiglinnhe House B&B, where we stayed two nights. Our warm host welcomed us and showed us to our room upstairs. As we settled in, we made an unsettling discovery.

Our Bed and Breakfast

The Craiglinnhe B&B

My son uncovered three deer ticks on his shoes and legs, one of which was embedded in his skin. Naturally, I was alarmed.

Craiglinnhe B&B

Our host reassured me that this was quite common and not a big deal at all. After telling us not to panic, I overheard her as she spoke to her husband in the next room. “Oh my God”! Those were his words. Okay… now I’m going to panic. My son finally pried the creature out of his leg piece by piece. We washed all our clothes in hot water (nearly ruined my fave sweater) and put our shoes outside.

On a happier note, we found a lovely hotel restaurant with white tablecloths, the Hollytree Inn, just down the street from our B&B. The salmon was wonderful, albeit pricey. Over an elegant dinner, we gazed out of a wall of glass overlooking the Loch. Ahhh…

Loch Linnhe


Scotland in 10 Days

Scotland in 10 Days

Story and Photography by Sharon Martin

Day one – Arrival at the Airport

Edinburgh Airport Coffee

“Sittin’ in or carryin’ out?”

What? How cute is that. We’re sittin’ in. I picked up my order, Cheers…(warm smile)…I love Scotland, and I haven’t left the airport yet.

Upon our arrival to the tiny, quaint, and very friendly airport, we were welcomed with open arms to the country…by security no less. They asked about our plans, and seem genuinely interested and delighted with everything we said.

First Impressions

Edinburgh Cityscape

On our first impression, Edinburgh was the color gray. The buildings were gray. The sky was gray—which cast an ambience of mystery and romance over the city.

Our Bed and Breakfast

Edinburgh B&B Guest House

After 36 hours of traveling, we arrived at our B&B guest house: an 1870’s three-story Victorian structure. Our cottage sat at the back of the house with a separate entrance, kitchen, sitting room, and a bedroom with two soft, enticing beds…

We awoke famished.

And so our hunt (with sword-and-dagger) for Scottish food began. After wandering around Prince street for half an hour, we finally accepted defeat and had Bar-B-Q and fries.

Back at our cottage, I reflected in a cozy green armchair that overlooked a quiet courtyard. I gazed out the window as the sunny day lapsed into a chilly, misty scene. Sigh. In Scotland, there truly are four seasons in a day…

A Traditional Scottish Breakfast

Breakfast Scottish Style

In the morning we headed down our little path to breakfast in the main house. We were asked for our choices of everything.

Like the English breakfast, the Scottish breakfast was very hardy: eggs cooked to order, sausage and ham, marmalades, toast, scones, and porridge (oatmeal) with hot coffee and tea. I had my own pot of coffee; how do they keep it so hot? And—oh!—that marmalade in those small white bowls with tiny spoons is so classy. Where are the scones? How can I get my hands on one? They keep offering me toast…

Day two – Exploring on my Own

Vintage Edinburgh

Ready to take on the day, I walked a few blocks to catch the bus. I could pay 1.50£ for a round trip ticket or 3.50£ for the whole day. I decided to pay for a round trip. This was far easier than trying to park my car in town…I had a hard enough time just trying to park it in front of the B&B!

I got off at North Bridge, which was just one street over from the famous Royal Mile. This was a good location for the main sights I wanted to see. To come back, I simply took the bus directly across the street from where this one dropped me off. Simple enough.

I soaked it all in as I strolled down the Royal Mile—the shops, the Woolen Mill, the bagpipe player, the people, the ancient buildings, the Starbucks. The Starbucks? Never on an ancient street in an ancient city would I stop in a Starbucks and get a souvenir cup.

(That Starbucks mug looks great in my bookcase.)

St. Giles Cathedral

Giles Cathedral

On the way to the Castle at the end of the Royal Mile, I stopped at Giles Cathedral. The outside of the cathedral was plain and stoic, but the inside was…plain and stoic with stone arches. I found out later that John Knox had preached there.

Finally I made it to the Castle and purchased tickets. Wow, that was expensive. Maybe I should have purchased a Heritage Pass. The clerk remarked on my southern accent.

A little research on the history of this place beforehand would have made my visit more interesting. Also, his Scottish accent made the tour a little hard to understand. He must be a Southern Scott.

The Great Hall

The Great Hall

However, I did enjoy the sword demonstration. I was handed a sword so I could see how heavy they were. Just wielding it would have required great strength. Every part of the medieval sword was effective in combat. The handle was used for head bashing—yeah.The chainmail used for protection was even more amazing; I could barely lift it. Makes me think of Gimli in Lord of the Rings. He had issues with it too.

View From Edinburgh Castle

View From Edinburgh Castle

Housed within the Castle was the Stone of Scone (yes, scone) or Stone of Destiny. And yes, we are talking about a rock…a very old rock. The story of this stone began in 594 with St. Columba, a catholic missionary, who carried it around as an altar; for centuries Scottish Kings were crowned on it.

This way to the Stone of Scone

Royal Palace in Crown Square

In 1296, it was stolen from Scone Abbey and placed in Westminster Abbey. In 1950 on Christmas Day, four Glasgow University students stole it from Westminster Abbey. It was returned to Westminster Abbey, then eventually to Scotland on loan, and is currently on display at the Castle.

I recalled this was not the first time in history that rocks held such significance for a nation. The Israelites would set up a rock as a memorial and altar to God.

St. Margaret’s Chapel

St. Margaret's Chapel

All in all my favorite part of the Castle was the tiny St. Margaret’s Chapel, after Princess Margaret. The romanesque structure dates back to the 12th century. Robert the Bruce spared this building when he destroyed the Castle in 1314. It is the oldest surviving building, and the most charming. Only a few people can fit in at one time.

At the end of the second day exploring, I walked back to the B&B guest house and passed a small family-run antique store. I was compelled to go in…

The Royalest of Miles

The Royalest of Miles

The treasure hunt was on as I fumbled through half-tarnished silver tea pots, old Edinburgh Prints, and spoons featuring the national flower. The older gentleman, filling in for his son, was great fun and joined me in my search. I found a silver coffee pot; he found a creamer. Together we found a couple of thistle spoons (one said Edinburgh). A bit of easy going negotiation followed.

I spent a little under $50—not bad for such gems. A little polish (don’t tell my husband I took his saxophone cleaner), and my treasures looked better than new…or is that better than old?

Our second day came to a close as we went for Mexican food. Hmmm…

Photography in Scotland