Going Back

In just three weeks I’ll be off again – and though that seems the story of my life, it will be the last trip on the cards for at least a year.  Money making beckons.

So where am I off to?  Somewhere I feel most alive – Asia.  After my mega, sight-seeing laden trip to Europe in May, I am craving a trip where I can just experience the life and the culture rather than lining up for sights.  I’ll be starting in Thailand, heading through Laos, staying in Vietnam and ending, of course, in Singapore.

The bit I am most nervous about is going back to Ho Chi Minh City.  And I’m not really sure why.  I last visited in 2008, still a relative newbie to travelling – and certainly not solo travelling.  I think that my first memory of Ho Chi Minh – where I found myself standing at a five way roundabout with no traffic lights and what seemed like a million scooters coming at me – is some thing that will never leave me.  And although I’ve been back to Vietnam, Hanoi’s traffic is nothing compared to the sheer panic-inducing volumes that I will be encountering in HCM.

Travel 101

Whilst travelling with my Mum recently, it did occur to me that this whole travel and getting through airports thing could probably be very overwhelming if you didn’t know what you were doing.

How did I manage the first time I went overseas?  Well, the travel agent my friend booked through took care of our visa’s and I guess I just copied what my friend did when we got to the airports, but it would have made it a lot less daunting if I knew the process!

So I’m going to tell you.

Having said that, every airport is different and has different procedures, so a general outline of how things goes I can give you, but a lot of the time you’ll just have to ride it out and take it as it comes.

Of course, I will be writing this from the point of view of departing from Australia on an international trip.

So, you’ve booked your flight and the big day has arrived.  You’ve packed and repacked and fingers crossed you have everything you need for your holiday.  Wait!  What do I need when I get to the airport?

OK, well, 99% of the time, all I’ve ever need to produce is my passport.  Lots of people take a print out of their flight itinerary and their online boarding pass and I think it is a great idea to have a copy of your itinerary with you, but most of the time nothing else will be required to check in.  The check in desk will print you your boarding passes anyway.  Besides, there are quite a few airports that are becoming automated and you’ll get your boarding pass from a machine outside the check in area (if you do have to use one of these automated check in machines there are always staff around to help you through it).

When you get to the check in counter, hand over your passport.  They’ll usually ask you where you are travelling to, whether you have any bags to check in and whether you packed your bag yourself.  Pop your luggage on the conveyor when they prompt you, you’ll get your passport back, along with your boarding pass and an Outgoing Passenger Card, which looks like this…

Outgoing Passenger Card

Depending on where you are going, you may also get an Incoming Passenger Card for your destination though sometimes these are handed out during the flight.  The IPC for Singapore looks like this…

Incoming Passenger Card - Singapore

So I’ve got my boarding pass, my luggage is on its way to the plane…what next?

Boarding is usually scheduled for an hour before the flight is due to depart.  If you are like me, I like to get to the airport early to avoid any last minute surprises and I usually love to get through immigration and head to the boarding gates as soon as possible.  That way I feel like I can relax and there’ll be no last minute rushing.

Before doing this I’ll take a seat at a bar with a drink in hand and fill out my Outgoing Passenger Card (along with my Incoming one if required).  At this point, it’s useful to note that if you have any gels or aerosols they need to be in a separate zip-lock bag.  You will have to pull them out of your bag when you go through security, along with your laptop and anything else you are carrying in your pockets.  I usually make sure this is all easily accessible in my bag before I head any further.

Then I head to the immigration queue.  This is where they check your passport and take your Outgoing Passenger Card before you head through security.  If you have any duty free goods that you want to claim tax back on, this desk is usually between Immigration and the security area.

Next you head to the security area where if you are lucky, you won’t have to strip down to your underwear!  I usually try to wear shoes like sneakers which are easy to slip off and are unlikely to set the scanners off.  Put your hand luggage, any jacket you might be wearing, your aerosols and laptop in the plastic tubs provided and then walk through the scanner when asked.

At some point you may be asked for a random testing for explosive residue.  They’ll wipe a little wand over you and put the swab through a machine and fingers crossed, you’ll be clear to go.

Then you head to your gate!

What now?

Relax!  Buy a magazine or a snack for the plane.  Go to the bathroom.  Have a drink or a quick meal.  Do some duty free shopping.  When your plane is ready to board, they will make an announcement over the speaker and usually start boarding with frequent flyers/business class passengers first, people travelling with elderly relatives or children and then by groups of row numbers.

That’s it!  Until you get to the other end.

You disembark off the plane and head through Immigration in your destination country, again handing over your passport for inspection, along with any Incoming Passenger Card that is required.

Then you’ll collect your luggage (when you arrive in the luggage hall there is usually a screen somewhere that tells you which carousel the baggage for your flight will be coming off) and walk out into the arrivals hall to depart the airport however you have planned.  Most airports are clearly signposted at this point as to where buses, trains or taxis are located and of course, if you have pre-arranged a transfer, they should be waiting for you outside the doors to the Arrivals Hall, a piece of card in hand with your name on it.

Bon voyage!

So….Cruise vs DIY?

So did we do it better than taking a cruise?

Well, if you take out having to lug our suitcases everywhere, on and off trains, to and from airports and up and down all the steps we ended up having to navigate, then we obviously would have had a better time of it on a cruise.

BUT, we were able to immerse ourselves a lot more in the cities we stayed in and this, to me, is invaluable.  We were under no time constraints when it came to most of the things we wanted to see and do (unless it was those imposed by ourselves when we chose to do guided tours).  It was particularly lovely in spots like Venice and Capri to enjoy the place once all the day trippers had left.  We ate what we wanted, where we wanted and when we wanted.  We could stop when and where we wanted.  We got to use all sorts of public transport and we got out of the cities too.  We saw so many more countries and sights on our itinerary than if we had been on a cruise.  And there’s nothing like staying in a place for a few nights to get into its groove.

I loved the fresh markets we came across – being able to buy and cook with fresh local produce was a great experience, not to mention being able to interact with the locals.

I’m not saying don’t go on a cruise, they definitely have their place and there are people who absolutely adore cruising, but for us and the way we travel, d.i.y is the way to go.  Maybe just with less luggage next time….

The main thing I learnt out of this trip was that while it was great to tick off some of the major icons of the world, I actually much prefer going to a place that is quieter and where you can appreciate it for being itself.  I much preferred Barcelona and Lisbon over Paris and Florence.  Those flag carrying big tour groups were so annoying and I got so sick of being harrassed by people trying to hawk me stuff whenever I came near a popular sight.  I hated having to line up for everything, although to be honest, we didn’t have to do very much of that, we just moved on if there was a huge queue.

Where would I go back to?  Lisbon and Barcelona.  For sure.

I can’t tell you how much I’m looking forward to my Laos trip in November.  Even more so, because I know it will be a much more intimate experience.

If you’re interested in any of the facts from our trip, here they are:

We stayed with:

Parkroyal on Pickering, Chinatown/CBD, Singapore

Citadines La Ramblas, La Ramblas, Barcelona

Hotel Convento do Salvador, Alfama, Lisbon

Villa Montmartre, Montmartre, Paris

Citadines Lyon Presquile, Lyon

Chateau de Trigance, Trigance

Private Residence (AirBNB), Vieille Ville, Nice

Locanda Ca’Amadi, Cannaregio,Venice

Villa Il Mosaico, Florence

B&B Antico Monastero di Anacapri, Anacapri, Capri

Casa Di Eddy, Termini Station, Rome

We flew with:

Singapore Airlines Perth to Barcelona and from Rome to Perth

TAP Airlines from Barcelona to Lisbon and from Lisbon to Paris

HOP Airlines from Nice to Venice

We took trains between all other cities, a waterbus in Venice and the high speed ferry between Naples and Capri

We drove with:

Sixt (between Aix en Provence and Nice)

We bought these city cards to help save us money – they included free public transport:

Lyon City Card

Lisboa Card

Roma Pass

We used these tour companies (everything else we did ourselves):

Urban Adventures in Barcelona (Tapas Walking Tour)

France Tourisme in Paris (Versailles)

Tour Azur in Nice (Monaco Evening Trip)

Florencetown in Florence (Pizza and Gelato Making)

Dark Rome in Rome (Vatican Tour)

Coop Culture in Rome (Domus Aurea)

If you have any questions about our trip though, please ask me!

Wanderings

Neither of us are massive fans of the Catholic Church.  Even though my Dad is a Catholic (non-practicing) and I have attended a couple of Catholic church sermons in my life, I was raised in the Anglican Church like my mother, and attended until my late teens – at one point even teaching Sunday School.  I long ago decided that religion was not something I believed in or wanted to continue with.

Mum and I are, however, interested in the artwork and the concept of the Vatican City as a destination and that is why we decided to do an Express Tour of the Sistine Chapel, St Peter’s Basilica and the Vatican Crypt.  Besides, we’ve seen a whole load of churches based on their artistic and architectural beauty on this trip so it would be a travesty to miss out on what is supposed to be the granddaddy of them all.

Meeting our Dark Rome tour guide outside the Vatican Museums before they have officially opened (our early Sistine Chapel access means we are entering 20 minutes before customers of other tour companies and almost an hour and a half before the general public), she gives us a bit of a run down on the history of the Sistine Chapel.

Michelangelo was not a painter, he was a sculptor and his quick rise to fame threatened a lot of people.  The artistic community of Rome, which included Raphael and Bramante, decided on a plot to discredit and embarrass him, by persuading Pope Julius II to hire him to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.  When he was first asked to paint the Sistine Chapel, Michelangelo declined.  He was already working on the Pope’s Tomb and wanted to finish it, not to mention that he didn’t consider himself a painter and had never actually painted a frescoe in his life.  But Pope Julius was insistent and Michelangelo was forced to take up the job.

He taught himself along the way using trial and error and it took him four years to complete, all the while standing (not lying down) on a purpose built scaffold.

Our guide leads us directly to the Sistine Chapel, explaining what to look for in the frescoes, from Michelangelo’s daring self-portrait in ‘The Last Judgment’ to the iconic ‘The Creation of Adam’ painted on the ceiling.  Of course, you cannot take photos inside the Sistine Chapel (though that doesn’t seem to stop some people), but it is quite incredible and you can stare at it for ages finding new things all the time.

The Sistine Chapel is where new popes are elected.

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After we have finished gawping at the roof of the Sistine Chapel, our guide leads us through St. Peter’s “Gate”, a special access door, not available to the general public, that opens directly into St. Peter’s Basilica.

Upon entering St. Peter’s Basilica, you are stunned by the extraordinary size of this building. You’ll also be stunned by just how much money the Catholic Church must have spent on a basilica like this and I can’t help but thinking about how the money could have been spent better on perhaps the poor and the sick maybe?….  Just saying.

The architecture and decoration is absolutely stunning, especially Bernini’s incredible altar (recycled from the Pantheon) but I felt a trace of disgust in my throat the more I thought about the amount of money that had been obviously poured into this place and it started to detract from the experience of the visit.  It was weird, I haven’t felt this way about any of the other churches I visited, but I was quite relieved when our visit to the Basilica was over.

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Below the Basilica is the Vatican Crypt, which is where the most important Popes in Church history, including Pope John Paul II, have been buried.  There’s even the crypt of St. Peter, one of Jesus Christ’s disciples and the first Pope, whose bones are said to be buried beneath the Basilica.

The Vatican City is the world’s smallest nation, with 550 citizens (I can officially say I have now visited the world’s two smallest nations!).  The Sistine chapel and St Peters Basilica are within the Vatican grounds.

The current Pope is Pope Francis and he’s proved very popular to date – he has his own twitter account and, as of very recently, an Instagram page.  When the Pope is in town, he gives a mass audience on Wednesday mornings – you can get one of the 40,000 tickets by rocking up to St Peter’s Square, locating the bronze doors to the Apostolic Palace and request one from the Swiss Guards.  Easy!

Leaving the Vatican City we wander off in search of food and something to do for the rest of our last day.

On a whim, we decided to take a boat cruise down the Tiber.  It was a barely professional outfit.  The boat, which consisted of a deck strewn with plastic chairs, was tiny and to get to the ‘rooftop deck’ required quite a bit of agility and some faith that the tiny metal ‘staircase’ would hold you as you pulled yourself to the top.  But as we boarded, the sun was out (barely) and there were only four other people on board, so it was a nice quiet escape from the crowds.

The Tiber itself is no stunning beauty.  She looks as if she’s been long abandoned for more fashionable parts of the city.  With her graffiti lined walls, piss-stained staircases, half submerged wrecks of ‘stuff’ and murky green colour – she’s not very inviting.  If it weren’t for a batch of temporary stalls being erected on the banks, you would think that no-one came down here save for the homeless you see decamped under the bridges.

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I had heard of Trastevere and how it was an ‘off the beaten track’ area of Rome to visit, but I’d somehow come to doubt that and after my initial research I didn’t really think too much about actually making any real point to get there.  Then at dinner last night, one of our fellow diners was waxing lyrical about the beauty of it and how you just must go and see it if you have time.  I still wasn’t that keen on making time to see it, so it seemed kind of funny that it started to sprinkle just as we got to Trastevere, and with the boat having no roof, we decided to disembark.

We were both feeling a bit touristed out and were really just filling in time on our last day, the weeks of lugging suitcases up and down stairs and on and off trains setting in.

It poured as we got off the boat and headed up the pedestrian ramp to the road.  When the light turned green, we ran across the road and into the dry safety of a nearby restaurant to wait for some clear weather.  A can of soft drink and a half finished Caprese Salad later (Can you tell this is my new favourite salad?  It’s surprising how each one is so different!), there was no rain in sight and we took off to explore the streets of Trastevere, without any real direction.

Every street or alleyway is a picture postcard and I can’t help but think it would have been nice to stay here instead of near Termini Station.

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Although we wanted to head back to the hotel, there was no metro stops on our map for this part of town, so we thought better luck would await us back on the other side of the river.  Magically we arrived out of the maze of Trastevere’s streets at a bridge that crossed back over and led us on another alleyway jaunt.  Spotting the Pantheon on the map, we decided that we should probably check that out and that in any case, it should be easy to get to our hotel from there – some form of transport would have to be around.

To get there, we would have to go close to the Campo de Fiori.  What is the Campo de Fiori? I wondered.  I knew it was the name of a high end Italian restaurant that used to exist in Perth, but what was it actually here.  We were so close, we thought it would be embarrassing to not find out what it was, so we kept following the alleyways, which led to the square where whatever it was, would be revealed.

The Campo de Fiori was a pleasant surprise.  I didn’t realise this was a market, but it was like a puzzle, wandering the streets to get there to find out what it was!  Oh yay!  A market!

Campo houses all sorts of fresh fruit and vegetables, local produce such as vinegar, oil, limoncello and other liqueurs, pasta, truffles, clothes, bags, flowers – all sorts!  It’s not a huge market – about the same size as all of those we’ve come across in France and Italy, but it had a nice relaxed feel about it and it was a nice place to stroll around for a while.

A few streets away, we find the Pantheon – with a line of empty taxis outside – so we head around to the front of it.  At first we see a line of people and assume that we’ll have to queue to buy a ticket to get in, but the line turned out to be a tour group, and once they disappeared, there was no line to get in at all.  In fact, you didn’t even have to buy a ticket to get in because it was free!

Emperor Phocas donated this pagan temple to Pope Boniface IV in 608.  It was designed by Emperor Hadrian who was an amateur architect in 118-25 and the dome at its centre is the widest masonry dome in Europe.  It’s dark inside save where the light pours in through the enormous domed ceiling.

That’s it.  We’re done.  Time to go home and pack and rest up before our long flight home tomorrow. One more dinner – what I would call a traditional Italian meal of bruschetta, lasagne and tiramisu – and that’s it!  The end of five weeks of travelling.

Roman Ruins

Have you heard the story of Romulus and Remus?  No?  Well, Romulus and Remus were twin brothers, thrown into the Tiber River as babies.  A she-wolf somehow found them and suckled them, saving them from starvation until they were then found be a shepherd and his wife, who raised them.  When they grew up, the brothers laid out a plan for Rome – which was then unnamed, but which was eventually named for Romulus after he killed his brother quarrelling over who should be the king of this land.

The Romans ruled most of Europe around two thousand years ago.  In 117AD, the Roman Empire stretched from Britain to the Middle East.  Today the same area includes more than 40 countries!  The Roman Empire lasted nearly 500 years.

Is Rome really all about ruins?  Well?  Yes.  Mostly.  Of course there’s some great food and other stuff, but the ruins are why we are all here.

After a bit of a botchy start to the day, we arrive at the Colosseum.  Unfortunately there isn’t enough time to go in at the moment because of our next appointment, but we stand gaping at it’s immense size for a while, snapping photos, before ascending the hill behind the Colosseum to find the Domus Aurea.

Haven’t heard of this one?  Well, listen in.

Back in the day, wealthy Romans would own a large townhouse, called a domus.  The domus was plain on the outside, but super luxurious on the inside.  It featured a grand space in the centre called an atrium, with an open roof that let the light in.  At the centre of the atrium was a rain water pool.  This area was where guests to the domus were greeted.  These domus’ were well ahead of their times, containing running water and underfloor heating.

Today, we are visiting a domus – in fact it was the domus belonging to Emperor Nero – Domus Aurea, the Golden House.  Nero began building the incredible villa in AD54 (yes, AD54!!!!) by damming the Aniene River to create not one, but three lakes below his patio.  It featured a monumental bronze statue of Nero (103 feet high, only 7 feet short of the Statue of Liberty) and more than 150 lavishly decorated rooms and public areas.

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Domus Aurea was found by mistake in 1480 by a few excavators digging around Oppian Hill when one of them fell through the dirt and found himself looking up at stunning frescoes.  Upon further investigation, one can only imagine the wonder they beheld as they surveyed the ruins.  One historian described it like this:

“Its vestibule was large enough to contain a colossal statue of the emperor a hundred and twenty feet high; and it was so extensive that it had a triple colonnade a mile long.  There was a pond too, like a sea, surrounded with buildings to represent cities, besides tracts of country, varied by tilled fields, vineyards, pastures and woods, with great numbers of wild and domestic animals.  In the rest of the house all parts were overlaid with gold and adored with gems and mother of pearl.  There were dining rooms with fretted ceils of ivory, whose panels could turn and shower down flowers and were fitted with pipes for sprinkling the guests with perfumes.  The main banquet hall was circular and constantly revolved day and night, like the heavens.  He had baths supplied with sea water and sulphur water.  When the edifice was finished in this style and he dedicated it, he deigned to say nothing more in the way of approval than that he was at last beginning to be housed like a human being.”

Nero was a bit of a nasty fellow – ordered his first wife dead, kicked his second (and pregnant) wife to death, saw to the murder of his mother and, and not to forget, he also possibly murdered his stepbrother.  He forced his mentor to commit suicide, castrated and married a teenage boy and presided over the wholesale arson of Rome in AD64 only to blame the Christians for it.  That’s probably not all, but I’m not sure what worse of a picture you could paint of the guy.

After his death in AD68, the next few emperors reconfigured it, but after that, it lay forgotten for the next 1400 years.  The boating venue was drained shortly after Nero’s death to make way for the Colosseum.

Domus Aurea was closed to the public after a partial collapse of its roof in 2010.  In fact, I had read about the closure in an old copy of National Geographic some months back and was disappointed that I wouldn’t be able to see it.  But, by chance, I discovered that Domus Aurea had in fact recently reopened, although in a limited capacity (weekends only and only by guided visit) and we just happened to be in Rome on such a day, so we couldn’t miss this incredible opportunity.

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What you see inside the Domus Aurea today is somewhat of a mongrel version of it.  You see once the time of Nero was over, history was to be erased.  The Flavians wanted to build straight over the top of it, and to do so, they had to create walls within the rooms of the Domus Aurea to create foundations to backfill and do so.  So you see plain Flavian walls and also some of the decorative original walls of the Domus Aurea.  It’s unfortunate that much of the building was ransacked and raided, but incredible that some of the frescoes are still here to be seen.

Unfortunately what they thought was a rotating dining floor, is not as such.  It was found elsewhere in Rome.

You’ll notice big holes in the ceilings as you go through the Domus Aurea – these holes are where people – in particular artists such as Raphael and Michaelangelo – climbed through to check out the art and whatnot.  They never knew exactly what it was they were climbing into!

An absolutely incredible visit and if you happen to be there at the right time – make sure you book in to do the tour in advance!  Restoration work continues and your visit helps to pay for it.

Now it’s time for a squiz inside Rome’s most dominating ruin – the Colosseum.  Constructed in AD72-80, it was originally known as the Flavian Ampitheatre, as it was built by the Flavians.  It was possibly renamed after that giant bronze statue of Nero that stood where the Colosseum stands now.

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It was an incredible feat of engineering for the time, with elaborate pulley systems between levels for the use of transporting caged lions and other goods between the basement and the stage for entertainment purposes.  It surprises me that they let so many people in here to trample all over it, especially when a lot of tourists seem to have no regard for the magnificence of the building and the fact that it’s still here – rather more keen to get there selfies no matter what they are leaning or standing on!

A bus ride through the streets of Rome brings us to the back of the Spanish Steps.  I’m sure we’ve passed some amazing sights, but I’m guilty of having nodded off on the bus.  I don’t know what’s wrong with me today – I have no fuel left in my tank, so to speak.  Slightly revived with a banana cocktail and a caprese salad, we head off to find the steps, brushing off vendors trying to see us roses in the heat of the day.

The Spanish Steps are Rome’s most beloved rococo monument.  Francesco de Sanctis designed the steps in 1723-6 for King Louis XV, and their true name in Italian is Scalinata della Trinita dei Monti after the church at the top.

In May, they are supposed to be covered in azaleas, however the Spanish Steps have been closed for renovation since October 2015 as part of a restoration project funding by luxury jeweller Bulgari.  Expected to be finished by Spring 2016 (not finished at the time of our visit) at a cost of 1.5 million euros, the works include re-leveling of the steps, maintenance of the rainwater drainage system and restoration of the original lamps that light the steps at night.  I was that unimpressed that I simply took a photo of the crowd looking at the steps rather than the scaffolded steps themselves.  Oh dear!

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The repairs have taken place in response to the Italian governments plea for help to restore heritage monuments – Tod’s (luxury shoe maker) is financing works at the Colosseum an Fendi is refurbishing the Trevi Fountain.

Which, is a stones throw away.  Tradition holds that if you throw a coin backwards over your shoulder into the Trevi Fountain, you will ensure a return to Rome.  Well, there were so many people surrounding the fountain it was hard enough to get a good photo, let a lone toss a coin in there!

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That’s it.  All I can manage for today.  A late afternoon nap is calling me (yes, I know!  The nap on the bus didn’t help at all!) and I can’t resist, so I give in.

A couple of hours later, we find a little restaurant nearby to our hotel and take a seat on the sidewalk.  Amid the damned street vendors who are still following us with their endless selection of scarves, sunglasses and other stuff we are already wearing, we chat to fellow diners and laugh with the wait staff.  We end up having a lovely evening with a great meal and wine which is a great way to finish the day.

Ahhhh, one more day to go.

 

A Quick Roam Round the Streets of Rome

Today we are leaving Capri (sadly) for our last stop in this whirlwind tour of Europe.  We’ve really enjoyed Capri (more specifically Anacapri) and if we hadn’t been away so long, another few days here would have been heavenly.

But five weeks on the road is quite a bit and there’s a part of each of us that is keen to get home.  We pack our suitcases into one of the open top Capri taxis and head down the windy OMG Mamma Mia road for the last time wondering just what Rome will have in store for us.

To be honest, although we have met some absolutely lovely people that have made our time in Italy pleasurable, we have had enough of the rude attitude we have found from the majority of Italians we have come across and we are not exactly fired up about our next few days in Rome.

To fill in some time, we stop at a cafe along Marine Grande, a coffee here, a sandwich there, an icecream, a glass of wine.  It’s a great spot for people watching, and being a Saturday morning, it means one thing – the tourists are in!

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The busses, boats, taxis and funicular queues sport masses of people, growing in number then clearing, and then growing again.  It’s crazy!  I wonder how people feel about coming to Capri for just the day – I bet they end up wishing they were staying at least one night.

Finally, it’s our turn to depart on one of the massive ferries.  I’d like to tell you about the trip, but the truth is I fell asleep.  It may have only been a 40 minute ride, but it felt like I was asleep for hours!  We disembark the ferry and head to the waiting area to flag down a taxi to get us to Napoli Centrale train station, where we’ll be boarding our train to Rome.

I’ve heard the drivers in Napoli are absolutely crazy but to see it with your own eyes is incredible.  They just drive anywhere, whenever, no matter if there’s a car right there in front of them.  It’s no lie to say that every second car had a dent, or multiple dents or parts that would have been hanging off the car if it hadn’t been for the layers of sticky tape holding it together.

But we manage to make it safely to the station and after waiting what seems like AGES for our train (and encountering some more rude people along the way), we are finally on our train and heading to Rome.

It takes less than 1½ hours to get to our final destination and we aren’t sure quite what to expect when we get off the train.  On our way through from Florence to Naples, the station didn’t look very inviting at all, to the point where I was beginning to rethink staying where we had booked.  But we were quite surprised to find our way out into the streets easily and even found our hotel without too much trouble, which was quite the surprise inside.

It was quite early in the day, so after a freshen up, we decided to hit the streets to see what it was all about.  We were in need of another one of the Hard Rock Cafe’s famous steaks and a load more broccoli (we ordered an extra side of seasonal vegetables to which the waitress replied I’m really sorry, but it’s just broccoli, to which we replied that was exactly what we wanted – she must have thought we were plain weird!).

Rome has a similar kind of feel to Budapest (not as beautiful or awesome though in my books) – gritty, but you know you kind of love it.  You want to get to know her and explore her nooks and crannies because you know it will be worth it.

I just hope I can muster enough passion for exploring to get through the next few days because I’m really intrigued to check this place out!

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The Bluest of Blues

This morning we have Rosaria’s Capri Cake to look forward to for breakfast.  Capri cake, or Torte Caprese as it’s rightfully known in Capri, was created in the 1930’s by two Austrian maids who wished to merge the Mediterranean flavour of almonds to the most northern taste of chocolate.  There’s really not much in it – sugar, margarine, egg yolks, dark chocolate, almonds, vanilla and baking powder (not forgetting a little icing sugar for decoration) – but the taste is rich and chocolatey.

Our hosts have also told us a bit about limoncello and how they are currently brewing a new batch, which probably won’t be ready before we leave (boo hoo), but with the number of shops that we saw selling it yesterday, I’m sure we’ll have no trouble trying to find some to taste.

One of our hosts suggestions was to take a boat tour of the island of Capri and it sounds like just the perfect thing to do in order to escape the crowds.  We catch the bus down to Marina Grande, and although the next boat isn’t scheduled to leave for a couple of hours yet, as we round the corner and walk past the LaserCapri shop, a gentleman says Next cruise 11.15! – which is like, now!  So we jump right on board with the tickets that Carlos pre-arranged for us.

Departing Marina Grande, the sun is shining beautifully over the town and the water is twinkling like it’s strewn with diamonds.  What a life!

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Damn, I’d forgotten my hat – so my scarf would just have to make do as a turban of sorts to keep that sun off my head, no matter how unfashionable it looks.  Soon we are smoothly bumping our way over the waters with our boat guide pointing out things along the way – the Statue of the Scugnizzo (the statue of the boy nicknamed Gennarino), the amazing blue and green grottos where our boat backs in as far as it can for us to check out the stunning waters – colours like I’ve never seen, homes of the rich and famous and the Faraglioni – legend has it if you kiss your sweetheart while passing through, you’ll have good luck!

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There are some bumpy times on the waves as we pass by Marina Piccolo, but this one and a half hours is one of the best ways to see the island and feel Capri.  Highly recommended.

Afterwards, we stop for lunch along the water of Marina Grande, watching the ferries come in and depart offloading their tourist cargo, all the while this little daschaund ran around keeping an eye on everything.

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And when we got back to our room that afternoon, there was waiting for us, two small glasses of limoncello.

 

Lots to see in Little Capri

Awakening this morning, we join our hosts Carlo and Alessandro Scoppa (Rosario hides out in the kitchen!) for breakfast.  Apart from supplying you with a great spread of food to start your day, with fresh coffee to boot, they love to hear about how you plan to spend your day, giving suggestions along the way.  Breakfasts are simple but with plenty of choice – I go for the ham with tomato and cheese with some fresh bread, along with not one, but two of Carlo’s espresso’s.

We don’t have to go so far for our first sight of the day – the San Chiesa Michele.  In fact, it was once a part of the same building we are staying in.  When you visit San Chiesa, all the glory is in looking down.  There are some gorgeous altars surrounding the church’s octagonal layout, but the highlight of this church is the tiled floor, which tells the story of the temptation of Adam and Eve.

There’s also a spiral staircase leading to an upper floor where you can get a great birds eye view of the stunning floor.

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Monte Solaro is the highest point of Capri, reaching 589m above sea level and you can get there by taking the chairlift from Anacapri.  Apart from being the highest point on Capri, it is also the most panoramic, with views of the whole island afforded from its terraces.

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Unfortunately for us today, the view on one side is not so great….

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…but we still manage to sneak some views of the Faraglioni and the Marina Grande side of the island.

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There’s a little cafe where you can stop for a drink and lots of seating to take a rest if you are one of those adventurous traveller’s who hiked up the mountain instead of chair-lifting it.  It’s good to get up here early-ish in the morning before all the groups of tourists start following you!

At the bottom of the chairlift, we start following a stone-paved, curving path along a shopping street that leads us towards Villa San Michele.  The shops sell everything from linen clothing to capri sandals, from limoncello to touristy t-shirts and from ceramics to Murano glass.  Hang on, Murano glass????  Yes, Murano Glass – it seems there’s not a place in Italy that you can’t find it, but to me it seems a silly thing to buy here in Capri!

We decide to leave our shopping til after our visit to the Villa – besides, there are enough people crowding the shops at the moment.

Villa San Michele was the dream of Swedish physician Axel Munthe.  Axel had visited the island of Capri as a teenager and fallen in love with the ruins of San Michele, along with a plot of land owned by a farmer who was getting on in age and looking to sell his plot.

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Although Swedish he actually spent a great deal of his life in France before moving to southern Italy to look after the poor and sick, whilst working towards seeing his life goal come to fruition.

As Capri was littered with Roman ruins, many of the locals gave him pieces of the ruins to help complete his villa – one such find being the Sphinx that overlooks the Gulf of Naples.  And of course, there’s a legend here about the Sphinx.  Legend has it that if you rest your left hand on the sphinx and make a wish while looking out over the sea of Capri, your wish will come true.

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To learn about how Axel’s wish came true, you can read his book “The Story of San Michele”, which of course you can buy in several languages at the villa bookshop – it’s one of the most widely translated books in the world!

We still have loads of time before this day ends, because the sights of Anacapri are relatively close together, so we decide to catch one of the little orange buses down the hill to the centre of Capri.  Hmmm, seems everyone else on the island is here too – groups of tourists, groups of school children, just groups and groups of people everywhere!  There aren’t any particularly outstanding shops and you find yourself heading for the alleyways just to get away from people for a moment’s peace and quiet!

It’s down one of these alleyways that we find the Charterhouse of San Giacomo.  It’s one of the oldest buildings on Capri and was originally a convent.

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Now it houses a collection of somewhat dark and scary paintings by the artist Karl Diffenbach, though throughout the building you will notice fantastic old frescoes in the photos above.

All in all, we are so glad to be staying in Anacapri, away from all the madness.  At the end of the day as the tour groups go back to the mainland and the sun goes down, the quietness is almost deafening, but certainly welcome and this is when you can begin to enjoy Capri the most.

For dinner we try what looks like a relatively newly opened wine bar, Casa Rossa Wine & Food (named for it’s location right across from the Casa Rossa Gallery.  The menu consists of whatever’s on the chalk board (the moveable board is plonked on or near your table once you are seated) and so does the wine list.  I ordered a type of pasta which I had never heard of before but which turned out to be like two giant pieces of ravioli, with mushrooms and cheese inside – just divine.  Washed down with a really nice glass of red, and served by a really friendly guy, we really just enjoyed this place.

The Little Island of Capri

Back at Florence’s train station, we discover something that would have made life a little easier had we known it before – there is a luggage porter service at the station, where for €5 a bag, a porter will put your case on a trolley, accompany you to your carriage and load your bag on board (not to mention getting rid of any pesky passengers which are sitting in your pre-allocated seat!).  It was here we met our second nice Italian – the porter chatted away to us about his home town of Sorrento and where we should try to visit if we have time.  A nice goodbye to Florence.

A few hours later, we arrive in Naples, jump in a cab and head to Molo Beverello where our high speed ferry to Capri is waiting.  The journey takes about 50 minutes and we get our first glimpse of Capri’s Marina Grande.

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It’s chaos at the port with passengers disembarking and waiting to embark, all over the place, but we are soon in one of Capri’s many open-topped taxis and driving our way up the winding road to the top of the island – home to Anacapri.  It feels very special and a welcome change from the big cities.

In Capri, or more precisely Anacapri – because this is the part of the island on which we are staying – is an old Monastery.  Converted into three rentable apartments, along with the main residence, it was once a part of the San Michele Monastery – the church next door – which we’ll visit tomorrow – is open for viewing and I’ll tell you why then.

The monastery itself prospered for nearly 200 years, with the church being completed in 1719.  However, it was requisitioned by the state and converted into military barracks during the Taking of Capri.  In 1883, Russian-Dutch Count Oswald Papengouth bought the whole building and transformed it into a hotel named Castello San Michele. It never made enough money to cover the expense of restoring the building though so it was sold and eventually divided into several lots – as it remains today.

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Our B&B occupies what was the nuns’ choir, part of the cloister and the study of the Abbess.

At the suggestion of our hosts we choose one of the nearby restaurants for dinner so we can try some local Caprese dishes including the beautiful Caprese Salad (mozzarella, tomatoes and basil), Caprese Torte and finishing off with a glass of limoncello – for which Capri is best known.

We are off to a great start in Capri.

Exploring the Incredible Sights of Florence

Not really knowing where to start in exploring the city of Florence, we head towards the Ponte Vecchio and start from there.  The Ponte Vecchio (old bridge) was first mentioned in records dating back to 996 and was designed in part as a defensive structure against attacks from the water.  Of course it has been rebuilt many times thanks to flooding of the Arno River which is spans but it has always played host to various shops and artisans.

Now it is lined with jeweller after jeweller, no doubt selling overpriced jewelry to the hoardes of tourists that come to pay homage to the bridge.

Before deciding where to go next, we decide a coffee is in order, so we make a stop across the road from what happens to be the Galileo Museum.  Well, no better place to check out next then!  I’m not one of those people who gets science, maths or philosophy, so I can’t say that I got the full experience out of this museum, although I could certainly appreciate it.  But with all of its mathematical and planetary calculation devices, early forms of machinery for checking the weather and atmospheric conditions and science equipment – I could imagine that someone who was, would get a real kick out of the museum.

The thing that I thought was coolest, was this…

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Gallileo’s fingers.

We try to get into the Uffizi, but the lines are incredibly long and we are not in the mood for waiting in queues, so we move on and find ourselves stopping for lunch at a local trattoria, which is a type of eating establishment that is less formal than a restaurant.  There are big tables of workers here and the staff flutter around attending to everyone in an efficient but friendly manner.  Our meals were delicious (especially the beautifully simple and undressed salad – I always think dressing and oil ruin a salad) and the wine was unbelievable.  We loved every bit of it!

Emerging from the alleyways of Florence into Piazza del Duomo, you can’t help but gasp at the sight of the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore.  Like a monstrous drawing coming to life before your eyes, this magnificent church stands 90m high and 153m long and takes pride of place within the square.  It is the third largest church in the world after St Peter’s in Rome and St Paul’s in London.

Inside, a loud speaker echoes ‘shhhhh, shhhhh, be quiet’ reminding the tourists to take note of where they are and pay due reverence.  The beauty of the church lays on the outside really, but if there’s no line, it’s of course worth a visit inside.

For something different, we head past the Cathedral to visit the Ospedale Degli Innocenti – hospital of the innocents.  Funded by the Silk Guild and taking 26 years to build, it was the answer to Florence’s problem with abandoned babies for over fie and a half centuries (it still cares for children).  Babies were usually left with a token of some kind – usually a half of a medallion or something similar – in the hopes that it would make reunion possible in the future.

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Today, it is undergoing extensive renovation and as a result, there is only a small room available (for an entry fee of 1) which tells the story of the building from its conception.  At the entry to the building you can see the turnstyle door, the unofficial ‘loading point’ where the babies were left.  Of course, children are no longer left in this way.

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Our last stop for the day was the Gucci Museum, which we just happened upon on our way to our evening tour meeting point.  Inside, is the story of Gucci, which began in Florence in 1921, along with displays of some of Guccio Gucci’s most successful products.  From scarves to handbags and from luxury travel goods to homewares, this compact museum is a good way to take a break from the normal museum route and it is really interesting to note that a lot of the pieces could easily be relevant in today’s society.  Did you know there was even a Gucci car?

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We figured we wouldn’t have been in Italy properly if there wasn’t pizza involved and what better way for this to happen, than to learn to make it ourselves.  So we booked a tour with Florencetown for a pizza and gelato making class in the Chianti Wine Region.  We drove up into the hills with our chef/guide Daniel, along with seven other visitors and before long we were kneading dough like there was no tomorrow.  We watched Daniel make the gelato, though he got people involved in the process along the way.  Afterwards, we sat together to eat our pizzas with big glasses of beautiful red wine and a variety of local toppings (it is here I discover basil salt for the first time and I’m in love!) with a helping of homemade gelato to top it all off.  It was a great night and we even get to take home the recipes!

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But perhaps the best part of the night was this…

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