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!

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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Not Every Day is a Good Day

When you are travelling, it’s not always fun and games.  Yes, I know – you aren’t working and you’re living it up in cities around the world, how can it not always be a good day?

Well, let’s just say there can be tough days.

Like the day we left Venice.  We began trailing our suitcases down towards the waterfront, when a local bar owner stopped us.  “There are no boats today”, he said.  We looked at him, not exactly comprehending what he was saying.  “There are no boats,” he repeated, “there is a special race on the water and there are no other boats running”.  But how do we get to the train station? I ask.  “You will have to walk, there is no other way”.  Great.  Now I don’t have any problem walking, and in fact the walk wouldn’t have taken that long, but we had a backpack each and two large suitcases which we would have to guide up and down all the canal bridge stairways from San Marco to the train station and of course I was helping Mum to carry her suitcase up the stairs also.

It wasn’t a joyous start to the day, and when a tourist walked right across and stood in front of me to take photos while I was trying to lug my suitcase up the stairs, I lost my composure.  Are you kidding me right now?  I asked her.  “Why don’t you carry your suitcase a different way, it might be easier” she dared to say to me.  Because I am also carrying my mothers suitcase up and down all these stairs and this is the easiest way for me because I am starting to tire, I said, as if I had to explain myself.  Why couldn’t this rude, selfish woman just move out of the way?

Anyway, we finally made it to the train station, albeit tired, hot and a bit mad.  We managed to buy a ticket and find a train that was going to the next station in Venice (a task in itself) and settled in to ride the next two stops.

Arriving at Venice Mestro, we had some time to fill in before our train to Florence, so we headed out of the station and across the road to find some lunch.  We sat at a cafe, where we were served the most horrid meal but the most sour-faced, nasty waitress I’ve just about ever come across.

Time to board the train – just about every platform at the station had a lift from the ground floor up to the platform – except ours, so once more I lugged both suitcases up the stairs.

Our train eventually came and we boarded, but the luggage racks were all full already, so I tied the two together and left them in the passageway behind us, checking every now and again to make sure they weren’t in anyone’s way.

Finally, an inspector came along and said I had to move the bags – fair enough, but I said to him where shall I put them, there is no room.  He pointed to a small space left on the luggage racks high above our head and said “Put it there, or wherever, I don’t care”.  But I can’t lift them, they are too heavy!  “I don’t care, not my problem”.he said.

Soon a couple of the male passengers started talking in rapid Italian – I thought, great, they are thinking what a stupid Australian, not putting her luggage in the right place – I struggled to lift one suitcase onto the high railing, but of course, it could not fit, so I was obviously just going to have to stand there and hold it up for the entire trip.

But it turns out the Italian gentlemen couldn’t believe how rude the attendant had been and they began discussing how we could accommodate the bags.  They kindly helped me lift down the suitcase on the high luggage rack to a vacant chair after checking with the person sitting next to it and I had to lob the other one on top of a bunch of other suitcases, which no doubt enthralled the owner of those cases.

One of the Italian gentlemen begged us not to think of all Italians as being so rude and chatted to us on and off throughout the trip, even helping us down off the train with our bags once we arrived in Florence.  Some faith restored.

With a few minor hassles and some more rude Italian attitude, we finally got ourselves on to the tramvia and arrived at our hotel, only to lug our suitcases up another five flights of stairs.

Tomorrow will surely be a better day.