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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