Richard and Weez Excellent Adventure - May 1999...
Monday 17th May - 9.30am
I'm really not sure where we are right now, but from up here the view is beautiful (I think we may be somewhere over France). The fields below stretch as far as I can see and they have the most fascinating irregular shapes. Not square or rectangular, but twisty and curving fitting together like a giant jigsaw puzzle. I can see two snaking roads disappearing into the distance like someone has scrawled a line down the middle of the puzzle with a wide gray pencil.
We woke at 4am this morning and Louise ordered a Black Taxi for 5.20am. At 5am, Louise was ironing clothes and her bag was still unpacked... quite normal, but none the less a good way to wind me up! We made Liverpool Street Station in plenty of time so we didn't have to run for the train thank goodness. The trip to Stanstead airport took about 45 minutes. Arriving there, we just hopped off of the train, zipped up an escalator and there was the check in counter. So easy!!! We checked our luggage in and milled around for a while before heading on through immigration to the boarding lounge. To get to gate 13 (unlucky for some) we took another train. We hopped in right at the front with a huge glass window facing forwards... this train has no driver! With the automated messages over the intercom, the wine of the electric motors and the twisty ride through the tunnels it reminded me of a scene from Logan's Run.
Our 'Go' plane looks like a pretty new one. That means two things to me.
1 - The newer it is, the less likely it is to break down mid way.
2 - The newer it is, the more gremlins it is bound to have and...
Either wasn't going to get to Italy unless I hopped on so I had to harden up!
Louise is sleeping... as she did on the train... as she did in the airport. She hasn't been feeling well for the last couple of days with a sore throat and a bit of a cough so I hope it goes away quickly. (Louise did say to me later that she thought the two and a half hour flight seemed like half an hour to her... that's how well she slept!)
So here we are, mid way I guess. Better go read the phrase book so we can try buy train tickets to get us in to Rome.
Well, here we are at our hotel. It has been an interesting experience. We ended up buying tickets on the plane for a 'Go' bus service which took us into the center of Rome. Then we caught a taxi from there to the Hotel. I thought Paris driving was an eye opener but Rome is even more so. There are hundreds of scooters over here. People zipping round by themselves, people in tandem, people with helmets, people without, dogs with people - anything goes here. Our taxi driver wasn't very friendly. We tried to be nice, but he just wasn't interested. At one point he was having a conversation in Italian with another taxi driver next to us at a set of traffic lights, obviously about us from the gestures and hand motions in our direction. Damn... where's that phrase book...
After he dropped us off and he left somewhat abruptly (we don't think he was happy with his tip) It took us a while to figure out how to get into the Hotel. The outside has big walls and a big steel gate that they open for you when you press a buzzer. All the rooms seem to have large aluminium blinds over the windows - the kind you would put over the front of a jewelers shop window in a dodgy area of town. Security perhaps? I'm sure it isn't to keep the sun out.
Our air conditioning doesn't work which we complained about but as it turns out no ones does. We thought we'd check out the swimming pool instead... but it looked like it would be safer to swim in the Thames river. There is meant to be a Contiki notice board in the foyer however, no one at the hotel knows anything about it! So, Louise is just having another sleep before we go back to the reception around 5pm and see if anyone knows what is going on yet.
Well, it's late, but I suppose I should do this now or it will never get done. We went down to the bar at 5.30 and met 3 other people on the tour. As the evening progressed towards 7.30, everyone else arrived and we eventually met our tour guide. It was good to speak to others to find out that our perhaps less than favorable experiences with the taxi drivers and transport so far were not unique! Most people had difficulties of one kind or another. Our tour guide is going to tell us tomorrow about the ins and outs of Italy (i.e. why things that we think should work this way don't work this way here) and how to keep out of trouble. We have met many interesting people, and had a great evening talking to them all over drinks and tea. The majority of the tour is Canadian or American. Louise and I are the only Kiwis, there is one Australian girl, one girl from the Netherlands and one girl from Costa Rica. Girls / guy ratio about 10:2 !!! We are hopelessly out numbered... Cool!!
Anyway, we need to wake at 6.30am for breakfast at 7am and on the bus at 7.30 so I should get to bed.
Tuesday 18th May 2.45pm
Here's me thinking those aluminium shutters over the windows are because we were in a bad ass part of town! Now we've been traveling for a few hours, it seemed that there were either a lot of bad ass places in Italy or they had some other function. Turns out they are used to keep the big mosquitoes out and also protection against the heat of the sun whilst still letting some light in!!! I'm still a bit suspicious...
We've just left San Gimignano after stopping there for lunch. San Gimignano sits on a hill overlooking the beautiful Tuscan Landscape. It is famous for its towers which were built as a demonstration of power by its prominent families in the middle ages. The town had a strange sense of calm all around it despite being full of visitors. There were plenty of side streets to explore where most of the crowds didn't venture where the sense of calm was even more noticeable. No one seems in a rush over here. Fantastic.
We arrived in Florence around 5pm, checked in to our hotel, slept for an hour before showering and heading down to the restaurant for tea. Ciro (pronounced Cheero) our bus driver dropped us off in the center of Florence and we spent the evening just wandering the streets, taking in the atmosphere and getting our bearings ready to see everything for tomorrow. Ciro picked us up again at 11pm and we made bed by midnight.
Wednesday 19th May
We are so exhausted. We were up very early to get as much time as we could in Florence. The first thing we did this morning was head to the Galleria dell' Academia to see the the original sculpture of David by Michelangelo. We also saw four of Michelangelo's unfinished slaves. I believe the original David once stood in nearby Piazza Della Signoria but has now been replaced by a very good copy. I found it amazing that Michelangelo worked with a single piece of stone for his sculptures. Imagine after 3 years work...tap, tap, tap, chink... woops... there goes his finger... pass me another piece of stone please!!!
The next place of call was the Uffizi Gallery. The Palazzo degli Uffizi was built in the 16th century and houses the most important art collection in Italy. The paintings date from the 13 to the 18th century. I have to say that after queuing for over an hour to get in I was really disappointed in the gallery. Sure the works are important and famous, but for whatever reason, there has obviously never been the money available to maintain and restore the paintings. I'm sure the below the dull surface of what we saw, there were brilliant colours waiting to burst out for all to see. Something I was going to discover later when we visited the Vatican in Rome. Unless you are really into art in a big way, I would give the Uffizi a miss. There are more interesting things to do if time is at a premium.
On to the Ponte Vecchio, a famous 14th century bridge which is lined on both sides by gold and silversmith shops. This bridge was the only one to survive the German bombing in World War II. Here we looked in vain for a silver Ankh for Mum. Unfortunately the shops were predominantly gold merchants and we didn't find what we were after.
We spent the rest of the afternoon just wandering the city and enjoying the sights. The weather was really hot so we enjoyed plenty of Gelatti (ice cream) as we walked around. Italy does have the best Gelatti we have ever tasted.
Towards the end of the day, Louise was starting to feel more and more under the weather with her cold so after practicing her best Italian we walked into a chemist and she said "Sono raffreddato". To which the chemist smiled and said "You've got a very bad cold"! Language barrier conquered he gave her something to help her symptoms. We caught our bus late in the afternoon back to the hotel where we got freshened up and got taken out into the country for dinner at a busy restaurant. There were people from all countries there, many of them taking turns at showing off their own style of dancing to the music from a live one man band. There was an opera singing waiter and Ciro even showed off his singing skills. The food was great, the wine was plentiful. We had a great evening. A few of the group went to a night club in Florence on the way home but we were just too shattered so we went back to the hotel and crashed out.
Thursday 20th May
A red wine induced headache woke me this morning at 3am! agggh. Two Anadin and a few glasses of water fixed that by the time we got our wake up call at 8am. What a luxury it was to sleep past 6.30am.
We got moving by 9.30 on our way from Florence to Pisa. The country side here is very green and the design of the houses is so cool. If I had to describe the country, I would describe it as quite similar in looks to the North Island of New Zealand with the difference of the fantastic buildings and towns built on the hills. Mist covered mountains are all around us.
Pisa was not at all what I expected. Square of miracles?
I was really surprised at how much the tower really did lean. Work was going on trying to stabalise it.
On to Lake Como
Friday 21st May
Finally, we have hit a hotel with an RJ45 phone socket so I could check my Email and find out how NZ did in the cricket against Australia. We kicked ass!! Now I really wish I'd put a tenner on NZ to win the world cup before we left.
We started the morning taking a boat cruise on Lake Como. The Swiss Alps overlook the lake and their are beautiful churches and villas clustered around the lower hills. We passed many beautiful 'mansions' on the lake front with perfectly manicured gardens. We stopped in Bellagio? for an hour to wander the peaceful alleys and window shop. It was here that I made friends with a wonderful little dog who sat in front of her owners shop and lifted her front paw up as you passed. A few of the girls with us thought she was sick, but being a dog lover, I knew she just wanted a scratch in the right spot! Hence I stopped and made a friend.
From Como, we made our way by bus to Verona. On the way we stopped for lunch as we usually do when traveling over lunchtime at one of the many Autogrills on the motorway... Alperto 24 ore. In Italy, we now know that you pay one price to stand and eat your food, and another to go into the restaurant and sit. At the Autogrills, you peruse the food on display, try and remember the Italian name of what you want and then queue to pay for it at the till. I get Louise to do this bit because I usually forget the name of what I wanted by the time I get served! After paying, you get a ticket that says what you ordered and you take it back to where you started to collect it! All a bit confusing at first but now we have it sussed.
When we arrived in Verona, we made our way over to Juliet's House where I bought myself good luck by putting my right arm around Juliet and putting my right hand on her right breast... twice for extra good luck!! Louise then had her turn being Juliet on the balcony before we left our names on the graffiti smothered entrance walls as thousands of lovers before us have also done! A dash back to the bus saw us back on the road to Venice...
Saturday 22nd May
What a great day in Venice. I didn't think I was going to see any of it because for about 4 hours during the night I had the shivers and for the last four hours of the night I had the sweats and stomach cramps. All this started from a sore throat yesterday. However, being the man I am and not wanting to disappoint the Venice girls, I got up and soldiered on!! At this point, all I can remember is we had a packed day walking the back streets away from the tourists with Aletta, observing lace being made, glass blown, eating, relaxing, riding on gondola's in the evening with wine and running for our lives to catch our ferry home... only to find it stopped right outside the restaurant we ran from! The two pictures on the right are two of my favourites from Venice.
Sunday 23rd May
Today was mainly a travel day between Venice and Assisi
Monday 24th May
Today was again mainly a day of travel from Assisi to Sorrento. Another welcome break to sleep on the bus. I'm not a good sleeper under ideal conditions let alone in a bus. But today I slept and the time on the road just slipped by. For me, the highlight of today was a stop at a war cemetery in Cassino. This is the first time (and the only time) that I felt rushed on the trip. The peace and tranquility here was incredible. The sky was blue, the sun was warm the grounds were immaculately maintained and all you could hear was the chirping of the birds and the quiet click, click of tools from two grounds men quietly tending the gardens. I could have spent a whole day here just sitting, wandering and reflecting. Sadly we had just 30 minutes before we had to drive on.
Hundreds of men lie here after what I believe was one of the worst battles of World War II fought over the course of 5 months, with a loss of 120,000 lives. In the photograph to the left, you can just see the Abbey of Monte Cassino standing on the hill at a height of 520 metres, overlooking Cassino and the surrounding country side. The Germans occupied this point on the hill in 1944 and from it directed air and ground fire against the Allies. This was an incredibly strategic point for the Allies and was finally taken by the Polish 8th army and led to the link up between the Allied troops trapped further north and their comrades further south. This link up of forces resulted in the eventual capture of Rome which severely damaged the enemy's morale. I hope that these photographs can convey what a peaceful, beautiful place this was.
We drove by the port of Naples to arrive at Sorrento late in the afternoon. Our hotel was situated just out of town not far from the sea. From the outside the hotel looked old and run down and boy did some of the people on the bus start to moan. And boy did they moan even more when there was no elevator to carry their suitcases up the stairs to the reception. And the moaning continued when again there was no elevator to carry their suitcases up to their rooms. I'd got a bit tired of complaints about the accommodation we'd stayed in by this stage but I kept my mouth shut rather than razzing some of them up... if you know what I mean. We were in someone else's country, experiencing someone else's culture. We have stayed in three star tourist class hotels which as far as we have found have always been generally clean and comfortable. European hotels tend to be of a slightly lower standard than their equivalent category in America and Australasia and they tend not to have tea and coffee making facilities, air conditioning and the like. We were very happy though. Inside the hotel, it was all very nice and Louise and I were lucky to get a room on the third floor with a balcony overlooking the sea and Mt Vesuvius.
We showered and freshened up and Louise, me, Erika and Angelo decided to travel across to Positano for dinner.
Tuesday 25th May
Today ends another fantastic day on our travels. After getting to bed at 1am last night, we needed to get up at 6.30am this morning. Louise was first in the shower to find that the hot water only arrived 10 minutes after she started it. She missed breakfast as usual and as usual, I smuggled what I could for her out of the restaurant! We left Sorrento at 8.30am for the island of Capri where e immediately boarded another smaller boat that fitted about thirty of us very comfortably. We then cruised right around Capri, stopping to see natural arch ways formed i the rock, the donkeys ears, a mini blue grotto and most importantly the 'real' Blue Grotto.
The amazing thing was that to get into the Blue Grotto, we had to leave our boat and get into smaller row boats. These smaller boats took us to another boat where we paid to enter the caves. After this, we had to pull up to a second boat where we paid 8000 Lira in tax to enter the caves.
Friday 28th May
We left the hotel at about 10.30am today. What a sad day saying good bye. After spending the last 10 days with thirty others, travelling with them, eating with them, sharing new experiences with them... it is impossible not to form close friendships with a few people. We hope to see some of them again in our own country, or theirs. We have had such a fantastic time. I was quite reluctant to go on a Contiki trip of Italy but now, I wouldn't have missed it for the world.
We caught a taxi to Tiburtina Cotral where we sat in the cool at the train station before making our way over to the buss station to catch a connection to Siena. We hope to stay there for two nights before moving on... however, we have nowhere to sty there yet so this is going to be an adventure! I tried to call three hotels there this morning but none of them spoke English so I didn't even attempt to book a room!
The weather has really turned out for us in the last few days Very warm, blue sky... we are so glad we didn't come a month or so later in the height of summer - it would have been unbearable.
So, here we are on a bus somewhere between Rome and Siena on a road to the unknown... living on the edge!! Louise is asleep so I had better pay attention to what is happening just in case we miss our stop and end up in Switzerland! Cio.
Well, we arrived in Siena at about 3.15 and thankfully, the bus stopped right outside the tourist information office. It seems that in Italy, these offices act as agents for motels to book rooms for travelers for the huge fee of... 3000 Lira - about 1 pound! It turns out that there is a conference here in Siena this weekend so we have managed to get a room for tonight anyway, and we will ask at the hotel in the morning if there is a cancellation so we can get the second night we would like.
The hotel was about ten minutes walk from where the bus left us and ten minutes walk from the town centre. It is the Hotel Moderno, Via B. Peruzzi. The room is clean and comfortable, typical of the three star Hotels we have stayed in here. We decided that we should try and book our travel from Siena to Santa Margarita Ligura and Santa Margarita to Rome this afternoon. Travel agents here on the whole tend to be very good for us as there is usually someone there that speaks very good English. Having now learned that travel agents can only book trains and not busses we booked train tickets for the remainder of our trip.
We stopped briefly at McDonalds for a drink as we had had little all day before spending the rest of the day wandering the quiet streets away from the tourists.
After getting lost and ending up back near our hotel a couple of hours later (Louise was map reader!) we made our way back into town to a small restaurant that was recommended in the Lonely Planet guide to Mediterranean Europe. La Chiacchiera, Costa di Sant' Antonio is a lovely small restaurant with a good menu and local specialties. We had a wonderful meal, probably the best we have had so far. A lot of the restaurant was filled with locals so it must have been an all right place. We had fun with the phrase book trying to figure out what the food was and ended up very happy. The owner came back asking for desert but because we couldn't understand a word she said, she sent another girl back to us who explained very well. Louise did manage to ask the owner for the bill in Italian which seemed to bring a smile to her face.
We got lost momentarily on the way home again! The streets here like many Italian towns we have wandered through are very peaceful and feel very safe. We got back around 10.30pm and fell asleep exhausted.
Saturday 29th May
We ate a big breakfast this morning and checked out of our room. The staff here are very helpful and said if we wait, they have one small room available that if we like we can take at a reduced price.
While we waited, I sat and typed and we fussed the hotel dog. It is a black and white Cocker Spaniel which must be reasonably old because it seems to have cataracts and also seems a little deaf (just like our Bonnie at home) However, her tail never stopped wagging and she ran round like a daft brush all the time so she must have been well.
Our room new room was ready at 10.45 which we have taken and we're quite happy with it.
Sunday 30th May
We woke this morning at 6.10am... well, the alarm went off at 610am, I nudged Louise to get out of bed and get moving and we both fell asleep again! So luckily, 3 minutes later I woke again and pushed her out of bed. We ordered a taxi to the Siena Treno Stazione at 7.30am and arrived there in plenty of time for the 8.10am train. Our destination, Santa Margherita Ligure (Near Genova) We took three trains, first changing at Empoli. The train between Empoli and La Spezia Centrale was very late. The Italians seem quite laid back when it comes to time. Fiji time comes to mind! We missed the connecting train at La Spezia by twenty minutes. Louise was certain that we should get on a certain train that was arriving very soon but I was a bit unsure. So, after a bit of a heated discussion, we missed it. As it turns out it would have gone where we wanted. OK Louise, you were right. Anyway, we eventually caught another train that took us along the beautiful Cinque Terre coast to Sainta Margherita Ligure. On arrival we made our way down to the Tourist Information office to try and arrange some accommodation. Being Sunday, the office was only open till 12.30pm and we were too late. Aaaaaarrrggg... So, with our phrase book in hand we made our way to the nearest 3 Star Hotel that looked ok and was central between the sea and the train station. In my best Italian I asked the owner if she spoke English which luckily for us, again, she did. We find that we get a far better reception by trying in Italian rather than being blatantly ignorant and speaking in only English. This is in complete contrast to our experiences in Paris. There was a double room available with a bathroom which we asked to see and decided to take. As it turns out we were very lucky we arrived on Sunday as the day before, the town was swamped with tourists.
After Louise snoozing for an hour or so we made our way down to the beach front. Santa Magherita Ligure is a very beautiful town on the West coast. However, when we reached the beach front we really didn't like it much. The beachfront stunk of money, image and pretentiousness. We were wandering around what seemed to be hundreds of rich Italians in their designer clothes posing and being seen on the shore and on their launches. We should have put on our Versace and La Qua before we left! As before, in most Italy towns we have visited, we made our way a few blocks away and found the real Santa Magherita Ligure. We found a restaurant that was recommended in the Lonely Planet. However, because it wasn't open yet we sat in a Piaza and joined some old locals watching four or five youngsters playing football. We seemed to be somewhat of a novelty. It wasn't long before one of the youngsters came up to us and asked us if we spoke English. A little later, one of them asked us our name. Half an hour later, we had three or four of them around us trying to have a conversation with each other. The old people near by tried their best to help the young ones get their message across to us. When we left the hotel, we planned to go back before dinner so I left our phrase book behind... it would have been really useful. However, it appears that we are to meet them back there again tomorrow at 6pm for another attempt.
Monday 31st May
We slept in today and had a good breakfast at the hotel. Yogurt & Cocoa Pops, pastries, bread, Yogurt & Corn Flakes, Fruit Juice, Coffee... We then made our way down to the Tourist Information Office where we got maps of the local areas and bus and ferry timetables. We decided to catch a ferry to Portofino. When we walked down to the waterfront it was so completely different to what we saw yesterday. 95% of the 'money' had gone home from their weekend and Santa Magherita Ligure was back to the quiet pretty town we had hoped for.
We sat in the sun at the back of the ferry for the 15 minute trip and took in the views of the Cinque Terre Coast over the clear blue water.
Portofino sits in a beautiful blue water bay with typical Italian buildings lining the waterfront. As with most places, it is a little touristy so we made our way into the back streets and just wandered in the peacefulness. We met cats sleeping under benches, lizards basking in the sun and a Labrador trying in vain to swim after two ducks in one of the smaller coves.
Tuesday 1st June
We caught the train from Santa Margherita Ligure to Riomaggiore this morning, the beginning of Cinque Tere (Five Lands). These coastal towns are linked by walking tracks joining Riomaggiore, Manarola, Corniglia, Vernazza & Monterosso. The walk between Riomaggiore and Manarola was a fairly easy half hour walk along the coast of beautiful clear blue seawater. We took a small break here and watched a local couple fish for octopus. He bought one in in a bucket and we let it's suckers grip onto our fingers. They left at about twelve so I guessed the octopus was their lunch after I asked them if they eat it. Their reply was 'Buona' (Good). We walked for the whole day. Pictures can speak for themselves here.
Wednesday 2nd June
We are presently on a train traveling between La Spezia Central and Rome. The train we are on is pretty crowded. Louise managed to get a seat in one of the compartments, I am sitting just outside in a makeshift seat getting up and down each time everyone passes. Hopefully the train empties as we get further on.
Our trip is drawing to a close and in some ways I will be glad to get home. We are tired and it will be good to get back to living in a single dwelling for a while. In other ways, we have had such a great time and experienced so many fantastic things it will be hard to say good bye to them.
Well, we've just passed Pisa and Louise and I have a seat next to each other now for the remainder of the journey.