Friday, November 23, 2012

Europe on a shoestring, not quite


29th October – 5th November 2012

After walking our tootsies off in Rome it was time to move on to Florence in the region of Tuscany, and catch up once again with English friends Bridget and Peter. As I mentioned in an earlier posting, they were renting a villa with Pete’s two sons and their families and they very kindly invited us to join them for a few days. We’d been to Florence way back in our motorcycle riding days in the late 80’s but since cruiziemers has set in, neither of us remember much about the place. So in essence it would be a whole new experience for us. The easiest and the most economical way to get there from Rome was by train, so off we trotted to the Central Termini  and boarded our Italia Rail fast train. PA290022_1

It’s a great way to travel as you can just sit and watch the countryside whizzing by.The trains are very modern and comfortable and run like clockwork. In just over a couple of hours we were met by Bridget's beaming face standing on the platform and were whisked away to the villa a la White Rose.



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Including us, there were nine staying in the villa and it was an interesting mix of personalities.

Peter and Bridget had hired a car so the four of us spent a few days touring the beautiful Tuscan countryside and poking around the medieval towns of Monteriggioni, Siena and San Gimignano, the latter being our favourite,


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Having been away from Europe since we crossed the Atlantic back in 2010 we’d almost forgotten how lovely and rustic these ancient towns are, but sitting in the warm sun on the piazza in San Gimignano, woofing down a plate of fresh meats, cheeses and crusty breads soon had all the memories flooding back.

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A common theme in these old towns are the narrow streets lined with tall stone buildings . Every so often they will open out onto a large square full of little cafes and usually a church or two.

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On another day we drove out to Pisa. We’d been here when we were on GWTW back in 2010 but it definitely was no problem to spend a day revisiting the place. It was a cool sunny day and the place was bustling with tourists. We wandered the grounds around the tower, took lots of photos then  found a nice cafĂ© for lunch before heading back to the villa.



For most of our time in Tuscany the days were drizzly and the nights were downright chilly. Luckily the villa had an open fireplace and the caretakers had a huge pile of wood and we certainly made the most of it.The evenings were a family event with each couple  taking turns to cook. Of course when our turn rolled around, we  did the Aussie thing and cooked up a storm on the BBQ.It was pretty cold outside but Liam was determined to show off his culinary skills.


DSCF0152Our focal point in the city of Florence was to see the  Michelangelo’s statue of David which is housed in the Galleria dell’ Accademi. Created when the artist was only 29 it is an impressive statue carved from a single piece of marble.The detail was so life like. David certainly had a great body.Liam took some sneaky video on his ipad as photography was not allowed. Luckily there is a replica of the stature in one of the other town squares.

As the weather was pretty dismal and cold we cut short our visit to the city but we did have a quick stroll through town and stuck our heads into the Florence  cathedral which was lovely but after just coming from Rome, in our minds’ it didn’t really stack up.

Before we new it our time here was over and we all headed to Bologna airport for our flight back to the UK. We spent two more nights staying with Peter and Bridget  before we boarded the BA flight which would take us back to Trinidad, and our beloved GWTW.


Friday, November 16, 2012

Europe on a shoestring ? not quite.

Rome, part two

24th-29th October 2012

Bright eyed and bushy tailed we arrived back at the Basilica just before 8am. The plan was to view the church, the grottos below and then walk up the 280 steps to the viewing platform on the outside of the dome.

With only about 40 or so people ahead of us we reckoned we would be done and dusted in a couple of hours.


The queue seemed to be moving along nicely but we did think it strange that the nuns and priests who’d already gone through the security scanner ahead of us were literally running for their lives towards the church. Maybe they were late for the early morning Mass we guessed. Finally it was our turn to go through and with our backpack already on the belt, security closed the whole show down. What the frig was going on? Coming from every direction there were men in uniforms with dogs and men on walkie talkies heading for the church. It was all a bit bewildering especially as we don’t speak Italian. Finally we found out the reason. Today was the finish of a four week conference.The attendees being Bishop’s and clergy from every corner of the planet and the finale was to be the Pope celebrating Mass. Entry was with a ticket only. Ok, so we’ll go buy a ticket. Nope, they had to be sourced via your local bishop months before, so we were told. Hearing a rumor from people near us that sometimes the Nun’s have a few spare, we asked around but with no luck. Next thing we knew, we were told to move through the scanner, so we, like everyone else headed for the church doors at a fair clip hoping we’d make it in before anyone asked us for the elusive ticket.

We almost made it. Pleading our case to the guard who stopped us,… good Catholics, travelled from Australia, last day in Rome etc. etc. he pointed to one of his colleges and said “go ask him, he has lots of spare tickets”. With that, Annie took off across the square, almost challenging Cathy Freeman’s efforts in the Sydney Olympics, and came running back with tickets in hand. Once inside we realized why people had been running. Everyone wanted a seat on the aisle so you would be within touching distance of the Pontiff as he made his way in on the Pope-mobile. The scene was amazing, the church was huge. Already inside were hundreds of people with hundreds of cameras, iPads and iPhones snapping of photos and movies. The choir was warming up and television cameras were at the ready. Finally the church was full, several thousand people we figured.


A procession led by hundreds of Bishops and other clergy made their way to the front pews. Then on the stroke of 9.30 with the flick of a switch the incredibly bright ceiling lights turned a well lit church into a Hollywood movie set.Trumpets sounded, the congregation rose to their feet as well as on the chairs, shutters clacked and the Pope made his grand entrance.

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It was a surreal feeling, watching him move down the aisle only a couple of feet from where we were standing. Mass took two hours and they were the most religious two hours that we will ever spend. It was a wonderful experience. Unbeknown to us, while we were inside the church the square outside was also filled with thousands more of the flock who watched the entire mass on the big screens. Leaving the church we noticed the crowd looking towards a small window in the Papal building and as the bells sounded midday the pope appeared at that window to address the patient crowd below.

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The flag waving faithful let out a huge roar and the Pope blessed us all in a multitude of languages including French, Spanish, English and amongst others Russian.

We had a fabulous time in Rome and our last morning was spent taking in the city sights from high above the outside of the dome of St Peter’s Basilica. Rome is truly is a magnificent city, expensive but magnificent.

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Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Europe on a shoestring? not quite

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  Rome, part one

24th-29th October 2012

Our travel time from Bournemouth to Gatwick airport was about three hours so we clambered into Liam’s cousin, Malcolm's, car at around 6am and hit the motorway going north. The traffic was heavy and an accident about halfway there caused a bit of a hiccup in our timing. Arriving at the airport we still thought that we’d have plenty of time to spare but  lady luck had other ideas. The Easy Jet check-in was chockers with happy and some not so happy holiday makers. It made for slow going and to top it off our departure gate was at the furthest possible point in the terminal. Still, all’s well that ends well, and  after a good aerobic workout we settled into our seats for the flight across to Rome. Europeans are so lucky, pretty much everything is only an hour or two’s plane ride away. So different to Australia where usually the first stop is eight or nine hours unless, of course, you’re going to New Zealand.


This was our first experience with the low cost carrier and I must say their cabin staff and service were really good. Knowing that Rome is a year round tourist destination weeks earlier we’d booked our accommodation at the B&B Rome River Inn, and sometimes it’s the luck of the draw when you do this over the internet. As it turned out it was an excellent choice located in an area called the Centro Storico with all the major sights within walking distance. Being a family run business staffed by the owners three daughters, they’d organised a hire car to pick us up at the airport. It was so nice to be met by a smiling driver in a foreign country. Kinda takes the stress out of everything.

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Now you might be wondering why we were going to Rome as we had already spent a few years on GWTW in the Mediterranean and had done Italy while we were there. Truth is there were just so many wonderful places in Italy to see that we ran out of time, but promised ourselves that one day we’d go back . So there you have it.

Allowing five days to see the sights, on our first evening we strolled the streets nearby just to get our bearings and soak up the feel of the place. Evenings in Italy and especially Rome are intoxicating.The only word that describes it is vibrant. Everyone is out and about. Families, lovers  tourists and there are heaps of  buskers and street vendors nearly everywhere you turn.



Meandering away from the main drag down a quite lane well off the tourist track, we found a small little pizzeria with outdoor seating and the obligatory red and white checked tablecloths. It was perfect. Just the spot  for a bite to eat, a glass of chilled Proscecco and watch the world go by before hitting the hay for the night.

The following morning we were up early and pounding the pavements to the Colosseum. We bought a Roma pass which amongst other things  allowed us to jump the massive queues of people waiting to get in. It’s an impressive building to say the least.



With over 2000 years of history standing in front of us, once inside we hired an audio guide which gave a better insight into what was what. Looking down into the tunnels which led around and under what  once was the arena, it was easy to imagine the gladiators fighting for their lives against the lions and the crowd on their feet cheering them on, or maybe they were rooting for the lions !

Leaving the Colosseum behind we mooched across the road to the Palatine and the Roman Forum. The former, set on top of a hill with magnificent views over the city, is where the most affluent citizens of Rome set up home. It’s also where Romulus killed his brother Remus and founded Rome back in 753 BC.There are a few ruins still standing but mostly it’s like a huge parkland in the middle of a very busy city.The Forum, in it’s day, was the heart and soul of the city. Large covered markets were the focus of the place as well as being  the civic and religious centre of town. From here we briefly stopped at the war memorial building, took the elevator to the roof top and had a good look at the sprawling city that surrounded us. Then it was to the trendy Campo de’ Fiori which is a very colourful produce, floral and general market during daylight hours. It is then hosed down and swept out in the late afternoon and transformed into a noisy bar and restaurant  and scene.



We joined the revelers for a sundowner and then, weary footed, headed back to the hotel for the night.

By the end of our second day we’d walked almost one end of the city to the other. Starting with the Piazza Navonna, which was yet another lovely restaurant square overlooked by pretty apartments brimming with flower boxes.

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The central feature here was a rather elaborate fountain, “Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi”,  meaning fountain of the four rivers, featuring a palm tree, lion, horse and obelisk. We thought it was a bit dorky really but hey, when in Rome. Next stop was the Pantheon. It’s enormous dome was the largest in the world until the 15th century. The dome is the same width as the the building’s internal height of 43 metres. Now that’s a big dome by anyone’s standards. From here we toddled along to the Trevi Fountain and threw in a couple of coins. Legend says if you do this you will one day return to Rome.


The water in the fountain comes from one of the city’s ancient viaducts and the sculptures depict Neptune’s chariot being led by Tritons with sea horses, one wild and the other docile. It is symbolic of the moods of the sea and believe me we know all about that one !


Next up were The Spanish Steps and apart from being steep with lots of people sitting, standing or gawking at them, the whole thing was a bit lost on us. At the bottom of the steps the roads pan out to the ritzy area of town.This is where the likes of Hermes, Cartier, Prada etc, along with those who can afford to shop in these establishments, can be seen perusing the shop fronts. As for us, well we just kept walking, no point stopping to look. We had one more place to visit before our day was done and that was the “over the top”  Villa Borghese. Once owned by the opulent Borghese family, the estate, started by  the Cardinal of the same name has now been turned into public parklands and a museum.The place is brimming with artworks and sculptures from around the world and the market value of these pieces would have to be worth billions. No photos were allowed inside so you’ll just have to Google it, though there is no way that the internet could do it justice. And who said there’s no money in religion!

Over the next couple of days we really did see how much money there is in religion, especially the Catholic religion. Vatican City, the world’s smallest sovereign state covering less than 1sq km of ground, is the centre of the universe when it comes to Rome. It has the really big ticket items, meaning the Vatican Museums,the Sistine Chapel, St Peters Basilica and of course it’s home to the Pope when he is in town. Vatican city even has it’s own  post office, stamps, postcode, radio station, currency and army which is separate from the rest of Rome.


It is definitely the focal point for the clergy from around the world. You only have to take a look at all those flowing black robes scurrying through St Peter’s Square and the surrounding streets at any given moment in time.

We had planned to visit the Basilica first but when we got there at 8am there was already a huge lineup of people waiting to get in so with a change of plan we headed up the hill to the Vatican Museums instead. There was still a fair queue but as we’d booked on line we were fast tracked to the front.

The museum, which houses an unbelievably opulent collection of artworks, frescos and sculptures, having been snapped up worldwide over hundreds of years, actually comprises of two palaces joined by long hallways.

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But the grand prize for being shuffled along like cattle and loosing all your personal space for hours on end is the Sistine Chapel. This is really what everyone has come to see. Disappointingly it wasn’t at all  what we’d expected. As there was no stand alone stone building, or anything that resembled a front door, we were inside the chapel before we even realized. In fact the chapel was just a big room with an alter at one end. The lighting was extremely dim and the “minders” kept telling everyone to hush and move along, so the time spent in there was quite limited. Michelangelo's paintings were indeed spectacular. How he laid on his back way up above the chapel floor for all those years was an incredible feat of patience and endurance to say the least. Photos were not allowed but I did get manage to snap off two.



By the time we’d finished here we were pretty much art-worked out. Now there was just one more place left to see, St Peter’s Basilica. Think of the longest queue that you’ve stood in and then triple it. That was what greeted us when we arrived back in St Peter’s square. Thousands of people stood there in a line that snaked it’s way around in front of the most important church in the Catholic religion.


The afternoon was getting on and with no more patience left in us we decided to call it a day, get up early and come back the next morning.