A Travellerspoint blog

Rome to Bari via Sicily

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Thursday it was time to move on to our new destination – Sorrento via Napoli. This was a very pleasant 1 hour train ride south from Rome. Once again we had a luxury first class Eurostar fast train which really “flew” between Rome and Napoli. In Napoli we needed to change to another railway company for the trip to Sorrento. This was a direct opposite of the train from Rome as the carriages were very Metro like, dirty and cramped with graffiti all over. The train stopped at 30 stations on the way, it was packed so Liz and I had to stand and manage our luggage in a packed carriage and a 70 minute trip.

Once we arrived in Sorrento it was only a short walk to the Hotel Eden, our base for the next three days. We managed to score a fifth floor room overlooking the water and across the bay to Napoli. After check in we needed to do some washing so set about walking across town to the launderette, this takes about 2 hours but has become an interesting basic of our travel. Once done we did some walking about town to get some phone credit for Liz and visit the tourist information centre (unfortunately it was closed), we still did find some time to check-out the local shops.
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Friday saw us off to visit the ancient city of Pompeii, which is just a 30 minute train ride from Sorrento. We can see Mount Vesuvius clearly from our hotel window, it’s the volcano that erupted in 79AD and covered the city of Pompeii in ash. This is a very popular tourist site and as such there was a fair crowd at the ruins which wasn’t actually obvious as the site is huge – I suppose it was a city! We did a guided tour of the ruins that lasted two hours and took us through many of the restored buildings. Our guide explained what the various parts of the city were. Most surprising was the city planning with pedestrian only streets and long wide streets for major thoroughfares, the whole place was interesting and was not what we thought it would be – only a few plaster casts of people who were killed and the number and variety of buildings exposed was also different from our perception. The grey dust was about but not as prevalent as I thought it would be – I suppose it was nearly a 1000 years ago so erosion and excavation would have moved a lot of ash.
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After the visit to Pompeii we took the train back to Sorrento and joined a small train tour around the town, it only took about 40 minutes and as was expected the views from the cliff tops were spectacular. Interestingly, Sorrento is a city on two hills, straddling a deep valley in-between.
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The most exciting thing that happened over dinner when firstly I found a small piece of metal in my Ravioli (with creamy tomato and basil sauce) and then Liz did the same with her pasta dish – first time ever either one of us has had to complain about a meal. What are chances of it happening to both of us on the same evening???

Saturday we spent the day around Sorrento doing a hop-on hop-off bus tour which took us through the narrow and winding roads of the peninsula. It took about an hour and 40 minutes which was plenty as we chose to sit right at the front on the top deck – the number of times I tried to apply the brakes as incredible – bloody Italian drivers/riders speed around like they are in a Formula 1 race so I thought we were going to crash about every 15 seconds.
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We did survive the trip and even got to take some photos but the whole Bay of Napoli was shrouded in a hazy/mist that detracted from the quality of the images. We had a good look at Capri from the end of the peninsula and as is the case with any nice place, a cruise ship was moored off the island. We had a large cruise ship drop in for the day at Sorrento – the town was full of rich Americans who were doing wonders for the local economy by the number of shopping bags they were carrying about.
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On returning from the bus tour we visited a few spots we had been to on the first afternoon in Sorrento to take some photos (mid afternoon was a better time and had better light) and then walked the old streets looking at the shops, were I got to purchase a very Italian chess set. This area is very renowned for its inlayed wooden boxed and growing citrus fruit particularly lemons, which are made into a variety of produces including a liqueur.

During the afternoon we stopped in at a pizzeria for a slice of the local product, Napoli is the home of pizza. We shared an excellent cheese, ham and peppers (capsicum) pizza which was well worth its €7.00.

In the evening we once again packed all our gear up. We are taking a chance by catching an early ‘metro’ train to Napoli (the ‘metro’ train is privately run so we can’t reserve our seats to Sicily – can only be done in Napoli at a Trenitalia station) and hope that there will be seats on the morning train. We are actually going to a place called Taormina on the east coast of Sicily; it’s apparently a very picturesque town that sits on the top of cliffs overlooking the beach, which is accessed by a cable car.

Sunday morning wakeup was a bit of a mess as without our knowledge, daylight savings finished so the alarm I’d set for 5.56am was actually 4.56am, luckily Liz’s iPhone updates it’s time automatically. So we tried to get another hour of sleep which was not really successful but you must try. When the alarm went off at the correct time we finalized the packing, checked out and started the walk to the station – we’d never seen the streets so deserted! After lugging the bags up the hill to the station we made it to the 6.49am train with plenty of time, this was supposed to be a direct service to Napoli but turned out to still stop at about a third of the stations so it was still faster than the all stations train.

Once arriving at the station Liz queued for the reservations while I guarded the bags. Luckily we managed to get seats on the 9.42am train to Palermo which stops at Taormina. Cool, now we just had to wait the hour and a half for the train. We thought we’d get some breakfast at McDonalds at the station but they didn’t open until 9.00am and when they did, no breakfast menu! So we basically sat in the open seating area of McDonalds and watched the Romanian women beg for money – it was a very entertaining time really. Liz went to find a paper and had the misfortune to be accosted by one. Liz said that they were aggressive and intimidating but she didn’t give them anything and so she was probably cursed for eternity.

Once on the train we had a problem as there wasn’t any luggage space so we had to put the bags in the walkway outside our alcove – a real pain as every time the refreshment cart came through I had to jump up and move the bags into the compartment (really made our fellow travelers happy) and then out again when he went past. It was a long train ride, leaving Napoli at 9.42am and arriving Taormina at 4.53pm, and even involved a ferry ride while still on the train! Yes, the ferry has train tracks on the bottom level and the train goes in. The ferry then transports us to Sicily, where the train disembarks. As I am prone to travel sickness I went up on the top deck for the trip across leaving Liz in the bowels of the ship to mind the luggage in the train. She didn’t like this very much as she felt she didn’t really have a good escape route if there was any trouble as she was in the train in the bottom of the ship – 3 levels down from the deck to the outside. Quite claustrophobic – did I mention that they also turn out the lights inside the train, so she was sitting in semi darkness. Only about half the passengers bother to leave the train to go up on deck so she had plenty of company; admittedly she couldn’t understand what they were saying, but company none the less. She can’t wait for the return trip (not).
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After a long day on the train we arrived in Taormina and with some ominous clouds gathering over the mountains inland from the coast, for the first time on our travels we took a taxi to the hotel. The train station was down near the coast while the town centre and most hotels were on a cliff top about 200m straight up the side of a cliff. The road up the cliff was narrow and full of switchbacks (as we arrived they were taking race cars away as they had had a hill climb rally that day – lots of rubber left on the road on the entry to the switchbacks).

Our hotel was a little more expensive than our usual type as we were staying at a resort town and hotels are all expensive in this area, it is a nice hotel with a good sized room and shower, and has a panoramic view of the coast from our balcony (that what you pay the higher price for!). The only downside was the cost for the internet, €7.00 an hour. Italy is absolutely ridiculous when it comes to internet access in hotels with almost nowhere offering FREE WIFI and most places charging between €3.00 and €5.00 per hour.
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Once we had checked into the hotel we did the usual and reconnoitred the local area, we were still a little worried about the weather but it didn’t seem to be getting any worse. As it was Sunday night and the high season had finished we didn’t expect much, the positive was that the car race had been on during the day and plenty of people seemed to be still walking around. When we did get to the centre of town, about 10 minutes walk, we were pleasantly surprised to find a long main street with plenty of shops still open, from high end fashion and jewellery to souvenir shops and restaurants. The main square was open on one side overlooking the cliff with the beach and coastline stretching out in front; viewing the town at night was great as it gives a different feel to the place than during daylight. Liz managed to check out most shops as we strolled along and we stopped at a nice pub for a pizza dinner and had a delicious ice cream at a gelataria.
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Monday turned out to be a public holiday (only found out when we asked reception where the Tourist Information Centre was), All Saints Day I think. Overnight it had really poured rain but the day was sunny even though it was very windy. So we walked towards the town centre to see what was open, along the way we came across the cable car that travels from the town to the beach and decided to take the ride (700m long, 68o slope and 200m drop from top to bottom). Now Liz is a little fearful of heights (see Paris entry –Eiffel Tower) and squeaked with every bump and sway of the carriage but we made it to the bottom where we walked down to the beach.

At the beach Liz decided to remove the shoes and roll up her jeans to get a feel for the water, she soon realised why they all use sun lounges on the beach as the gravel beach was extremely hard/sharp on her bare feet, when she did make it to the water she said it was reasonably pleasant. We checked out the beach area and Isola Bella (a small island connected to the coast by a spit of sand) before taking the cable car back to the top.
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Once we made it to the town we checked out the famous ancient Greek Amphitheatre (renovated by the Romans), that overlooks the water. It is still in use as over the summer months they still put on concerts etc there. We then explored some of the small side streets that were missed during the previous evening’s exploration. Sicily has a great deal of ceramics in the shops and Liz fell in love with some large (600mm diameter) bowls with bright and colourful glazing – unfortunately there is no way that we could purchase one because: 1. they are expensive, 2. too costly to be sent home, and 3. It would get smashed in our luggage over the remaining 6 weeks of our tour. Some more wandering and a few photo stops finished our tour about town.

On the way back to the hotel we did stop at a patisserie for some authentic Sicilian comfort food, when we said we would take it with us, they gift wrapped our purchase – very nice but really unnecessary and after watching I realised they did it for all take-away purchases.
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Upon returning to the hotel we purchased some internet time and set about planning more of our trip, booking a hotel in Palermo, checking train timetables to Bari, ferry timetables to and accommodation in the Greek Islands, and finally booking a ferry from Bari to Patras (Greece). This all took almost three hours of searching and discussions about where, what and how for each stop. With some stuff booked we still had a list of things that we needed to do face-to-face with booking agents – just part of the fun of travel.

We did the buffet for dinner at the hotel, something we haven’t done before on this trip, as it cost only €15.00 per person and included vino and aqua (wine and water). This was more attractive than walking the 10 minutes into town and then spending another half hour trying to decide in which cafe or restaurant to dine. The decision to go to the buffet was a good one as the spread was excellent, roast meat and vegetables, local seafood dishes, pasta a plenty and many other local dishes. The wine was good, a whole bottle to ourselves and dessert was superb with gelato and other sweet dishes I didn’t know but they tasted very good.

Tuesday is moving day again and it turned out to be one of those days! It started OK with a taxi ride down the cliff/hillside to the station but just before the train arrived it started to pour rain which wasn’t so bad except the train carriage leaked over the arm rest of both inside seats. Our journey to Palermo was supposedly going to be a simple affair by taking the train from Taormina to Messina (about 40km north) and then changing trains to go to Palermo. Half an hour into the first train ride out train broke down. After about half an hour, we managed to get going again and made it into Messina.

We thought things were looking up when we found the train to Palermo, which should have left at 11.04am, was still on the platform at 11.20am (nice of them to hold the train for us, so we thought!). So we jumped aboard and settled ourselves in for the trip. Then we waited and waited. After an hour we were eventually told that there was a problem at the next station and that we needed to board a bus for the journey westward to Palermo. Great! So we grabbed all our bags and disembarked from the train and followed the other passengers to a coach waiting outside the station. I send Liz ahead with the two backpacks to score us a couple of seats while I put our other three bags under the bus. When I eventually get onto the bus I saw Liz scoring the last seat on the bus and another 10 people already standing in the aisle – I’m thinking it could be a long trip to Palermo standing up in a bus, but what could I do but smile! Then the driver started the bus and guess what? We waited! Yes we waited for another 30 minutes before the driver actually put the bus into gear and we left – no explanation (we probably wouldn’t have understood if he told us!). A least the sun had started to shine.
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We travelled along steadily through the city and eventually got to the motorway and after about 30 minutes we took an off-ramp and headed towards a railway station to drop off some passengers. We found out why the train wasn’t running; as flash flooding from the rain had caused quite a bit of damage - tons of mud and rumble washed by the rain deluge had swept through the town and covered the road and rail line. Of course getting to the station required navigating some of the samller streets, made more difficult because many of the streets were closed due to the mud. We came down a narrow street in our big coach and a truck coming in the opposite direction became stuck. Struck in that neither could pass one another without losing lots of paint and cars were backed up behind both vehicles (and don’t start me about the cars parked along the road). Eventually, the police arrived and made some of the cars parked along the side of the road move further onto the sideway so the bus and truck could eventually maneuver past one-another (Liz even put something on Facebook about it –she never put anything on Facebook!).
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Our journey continued with stops along the way to let people off; eventually I got a seat and further down the line Liz and I actually got to sit together. Each time we arrived at a station, the conductor got off and discussed with the train staff the situation. Then he would get back on and we would travel to the next one. By around 3pm we had settled comfortably into this routine when we arrived at another station, the girl who had become our unofficial interpreter said that we would rejoin the train at the next station except the conductor (who by this stage was looking very haggard), rushed back onto the bus and told everyone to get off the bus as there was a train to Palermo sitting at the station. It was chaos as we all raced to get off the bus, collect our bags, and run onto the train before it left. Finally, we were on the train and heading to Palermo. The views were great as we travelled along the shoreline (it felt like sometimes we were actually on the beach – yes that close to the water!!) which is picturesque, the only problem was that we were about 3 ½ hours later than expected.
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Finally arrived in Palermo and found our way to the hotel which was old but very clean and comfortable. Palermo is an interesting place; the streets aren’t very clean, the back streets look particularly uninviting and the hotel locks the doors at 8.00pm (and it's on a well lit main street!). So Liz and I intend to be back in our room by 8.00pm each night. I hope I haven’t insulted ‘The Family’ with my comments - after all it is Sicily!!!!!!
Wednesday was supposed to be a horrible wet day but, in fact, turned out to be sunny with the occasional cloudy patch. This was great as wanted to walk around Palermo to get a feel for the place. It must be said that the traffic in Palermo is on par with India. Pedestrian crossings mean nothing, so you literally cross the road at your own peril, speed limits????? What speed limits? And parking your car is wherever you bloody well feel like it. We once again came across some markets but Liz wasn’t really into browsing and eventually we walked to the main train station to organize our reservations to our final stop in Italy, Bari.
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Bari is on the east side of the Italian boot and is the port for ferries travelling between Italy and Patras in Greece. The train trip to Bari is going to be interesting as we don’t leave Palermo until 5.00pm and change train just after the ferry crossing back onto the mainland at 11.30pm and then catch a connection which travels around the south eastern coastline at midnight that will arrive in Bari at around 8.00am. There is no first class on this train and no sleeper carriages so it will be a tough night! Added to the fact that we will be relying on both trains being on time to make the connection – based on our experiences with Italian trains, this is not sounding like such a good idea.

Now returning to our Wednesday adventures, we thought it would be good to travel to one of the other area of Sicily so, after checking the departure and arrival times to and from the various towns, we caught the 12.30pm train to Agrigento which was about 2 hours to the south down near the coast but involves travelling through the centre of Sicily; which would be good as we had only seen the coastal areas. The train ride down was really scenic as we weaved our way through, and at times under, the mountains that cover the interior of the island. On arriving at Agrigento we had a look around and despite walking considerable distances in two directions, we were concerned to see there was nothing to see. Eventually we found the centre of town (in the third direction) and went to the tourist information centre. We were interested in seeing the Valley of The Temples which was out of town, however, due to haphazard bus timetables; it wasn’t going to be a realistic option.
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After trying, unsuccessfully, to get some lunch is a restaurant (all closed at 3.00pm???) we decided to catch the 4.15pm train back to Palermo. The only problem was that the train didn’t exist – it was on the timetables and departure board but no actually train was running – so we asked about and got differing explanations, for example: the ticket office said the train on platform 3 was going to Palermo but the conductor of the train on platform 3 said the train was only going part way and then returning to Agrigento. As the departure time approached we decided to take the train and see how far we could get, at least it would be closer to Palermo. Along the way the train stopped at other stations and each time passengers tried to get on, and each time the conductor quizzed them about where they wanted to go with “Palermo” as the consistent answer. The conductor refused to the let the passengers on and after we travelled for about an hour and a half we came to the final stop where we and the other passenger (just 1) disembarked. We now had to wait for an hour for the next train to Palermo, it was cold and dark - a little like my mood by this stage! Liz and I could really only laugh at this predicament as we had no control over the situation and simple put it down to one of the adventures of our trip. It was really suss though as to why the scheduled train was not running. The Sicilian passengers waiting for the trains were not happy and let the train staff know their feelings.

Eventually the train arrived so we jumped on to find a warm and comfortable seat but then we waited and waited; for one elderly lady it was the final straw and discussed this at length with the uncaring conductor (even though we couldn’t understand the discussion the content of the discuss was obvious). Finally, a train going in the same direction pulled up and a couple of passengers and some rail staff changed to our train and then off we went for the final 40 minutes of our trip back to Palermo. After departing from Agrigento at 4.15pm we arrived back in Palmero at 7.45pm only a little longer than the 2 hours we had envisaged.

The weather on Thursday was suppose to be wet but turned out fine, warm and sunny – we have been blessed as we have rarely had a bad weather day. Our plan was to brave the Sicilian train service again and take a bus to the northern railway station and take a train to Trapani on the western coast but we didn’t count on the fact that it would take 3 ½ hours to get there – this day excursion was not going to happen! After a rethink we decided that Palermo was not the place for us so we walked back to the main station taking some streets we hadn’t visited and took in some different sights – a leisurely stroll on a nice day.

At the main station we exchanged our tickets to Bari so that we would leave that night. A radical move that would cost us a nights’ accommodation in Palermo but we saw little use staying where we were.

With still half a day left (our train did not leave until 6.30pm) we visited a local supermarket to get some supplies for the trip and, taking a recommendation from the clerk at the hotel, had a fabulous lunch in a small ‘family’ restaurant. We were the restaurant’s only customers and they still had about 6 staff?? The meal however was great, Liz had penne pasta with a tomato and eggplant sauce and I had a meat ravioli with a creamy mushroom, ham and pea sauce, all washed down with a nice glass of wine.

To help lunch settle we walked around the streets and visited a market strip which stretched along 3 blocks of narrow alleys. As it was lunch time very few of the stalls were open, most stall/store owners were sitting together playing cards, but the goods were still sitting on the tables so we could look. If you did touch anything the stall holder was quickly there to push for a sale.

By late afternoon we made it back to the hotel not looking forward to what was going to be a long night on the train. With all the bags packed and checkout completed we walked to the station to be ready to board the train as soon as it arrived, as with the amount of luggage we have it’s often difficult to find enough space to store it on the train if we get on late. Our plan worked and we scored the luggage racks in the carriage compartment we were allocated and were lucky that we shared the 6 seat compartment with only one old lady for the trip to Messina. The train to San Giovanni station (first station on mainland Italy) took about 5 hours and included the ferry ride from Messina to San Giovanni, where we changed trains for the ride to Bari.
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The train departed San Giovanni at midnight and wouldn’t arrive in Bari until 7.30am and unfortunately the whole train was second class so no sleeper carriages. Our seats did, however convert to a laid out type of lounge seat and when you did the same to the seat directly opposite you had a bed of sorts. We were lucky to have 3 people in our compartment so we each could lie out ( bit) and attempt to get a little sleep. The other person in our compartment left in the early hours meaning we could lie out along the 3 seats (the arm rests folded out of the way) which was longer and more comfortable.

Posted by lizanddave 10:47 Archived in Italy Comments (1)

Padova to Rome via Pisa

sunny 20 °C
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Thursday was a moving day so after a late breakfast we packed up and lugged the bags to the station for our midday train to Florence via Milano. Again you have to love the late checkout in Europe. The train from Milano to Florence was a surprise as we were offered (free) beverages, Liz thought it was great as she drank down some champagne and munched on the snacks. The train system in Italy is punctual but the quality of train varies considerably, the fast trains are well appointed and have quality service while the regional trains are generally old, with stained seats and smell bad and that’s in first class!

Anyway we arrived in Pisa after 2 changes of train but the entire journey only took about 4 hours which isn’t too bad. After booking into our hotel (The la Torre) near the station we decided to walk to the famed Leaning Tower of Pisa. It was a pleasant walk of about 1.2km through some of the new town and much of the old with many of the streets were closed to traffic – probably because they were so narrow that cars and people wouldn’t fit.

We eventually made it to the Tower which is freaky because a building that size just shouldn’t lean at that angle. As with all the famous sites the place was packed with people and surrounded by souvenir stalls and illegal hawkers (mostly selling watches). The area around the tower was filled with people except the grass areas which was a no go area – crazy! Many people were taking photos showing someone holding the tower up (see my effort below). We dropped into the local tourist office located near the Tower only to find out Pisa had nothing much else to offer.
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Friday we decided to head for Livorno about 20 minutes east of Pisa and on the coast. It’s actually an important port with many cruise ships visiting, the departure point for ferries to Barcelona, a major port for the importation of cars and other stuff and they also make luxury yachts. We walked from the station using Liz’s iPhone as the guide (we had asked for tourist information) which led us about 1.5km out of our way – I wouldn’t say we were lost as we knew exactly where we were but the tourist information centre wasn’t at the end of the walk. We reprogrammed the iPhone to go to the Grande Plaza which was supposed to be near the Tourist Information Centre and this time we were successful reaching it after almost 2 hours walking around.
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We decided that after 2 hours walking it would be nice to sit in the open top bus and be shown around the area with the audio guide telling us about the important stuff. While it was a little cool in the breeze on the bus, the sun was shining so it was a nice tour only taking about 45 minutes. On the advice of the girl at the Tourist Centre we visited a local restaurant located on a canal in a grotto, at first we weren’t sure about the place, which was nowhere near anything else (real backstreets) but it turned out to be a very nice place with good food – Liz did the pasta while I had spaghetti with tomato sauce and Scampi au gratin.

After lunch we walked to the clothing and covered market areas which had mainly closed down for lunch break (1.00pm until about 4.00pm) we then decided to walk back to the station to catch the trip home. However, we only made it about 3 blocks before we can across the International markets which, as the name suggests, has stalls from various countries selling their country’s products. Some had food and others clothing or souvenirs etc. Liz particularly liked the British stall which was selling crockery – she ended up adding to her collection of tea cups, sauces and plates – I’m worried that the stuff will get smashed in our travels.
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We had resumed our trip back to the station when Liz began feeling ill so we caught the first train back to Pisa and returned to our hotel where Liz spent the rest of the afternoon and night tucked up in bed feeling very sick – she thinks it may have been a little food poisoning! I didn’t mind as I got to lie about and read a book, after all the walking it was a relief.

After the previous afternoon I wasn’t sure how Liz would go the next day but like the trooper she is, she was up and ready to go – couldn’t waste a day on her ‘holiday of a lifetime’. So again we caught the train this time to Florence (Ashlee highly recommended it) for the day. As always we visited the Tourist Centre, luckily it was located at the station, and got a map and an idea of what to see. To begin with we followed the crowd as they wandered though the street between the station and the Cathedral di Santa Maria in the Piazza del Duomo, this was an incredible structure and we decided to walk all the way around it to see all its sides, however, upon reaching the first side street I noticed what I thought was one or two stalls and made the huge mistake of pointing them out to Liz. It wasn’t a couple of stalls but a market – the biggest market I have ever seen. This market stretched for blocks and blocks in every direction and was selling everything, but in particular, good quality leather goods and clothing. Many of the stalls were still expensive but they’d give you 50% off! Only problem was that they wouldn’t give you the price to start with – I suggested 20 euro so with the discount it would be 10 euro but they didn’t get my humor - must have been the accent!
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Liz loved it wandering about the stalls, joking with the hawkers and generally soaking it all up – I on the other hand was a little bored after the first 20 minutes as all the stalls seemed to be selling the same stuff. Liz knew she wanted to buy a new leather bag from Italy which she did at a discount of 75% off the original asking price, so the waiting and searching was worth it as she was happy with her purchase and it only took 2 hours! From the markets we walked back to the Piazza del Duomo and walked around the Cathedral before wandering down towards the river to the Piazza della Signoria which is the area surrounded by the museums and galleries. We made it to the river Fiume Arno and viewed the Ponte Vecchio, a covered bridge that has house along it.
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As Liz was feeling much better we had a nice lunch in a café off the Piazza della Signoria while watching and listening to the street performers enthrall the large crowd. We also enjoyed watching the local police, they look very smart in their uniforms; but they were constantly chatting on their mobile phones and smoking their cigarettes to really appear to be “on duty” as such. After lunch we visited a bookshop to score some reading material, they cater for English much better that we cater for any other language that’s for sure, before heading for the station and the one hour 15 minute train trip back to Pisa.
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Sunday is moving day and as we’d reserved our seats the day before we took out time with breakfast and packing, as the train didn’t depart until 11.00am. While the train trip was a nice journey down the west coast of Italy from Pisa to Rome I barely noticed as I read a book but Liz never wanting to miss a minute of the trip watched the scenery and water constantly. Upon arrival at Rome Termini we consulted the iPhone again for directions to our hotel, The Flower Garden, and this time the mapping was good as we only had a couple of blocks to walk.

After checking in we consulted the map given to us by the hotel and decided to check out a couple of the sites before dark. We walked around from the hotel to find the Piazza delais Repubblica with it’s amazing fountain and then proceeded towards the Trevi Fountain but somehow managed to wander past the Quirinal (residence of the President of the Republic) just at the time of the changing of the guard ceremony. Liz was very impressed as she’s now seen a number of these ceremonies in various countries and rated the Italians as the most impressive and flamboyant. The thing that impressed her the most was the fact that the band stayed after the ceremony and gave the crowd a small concert performance. Top class according to Liz.
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Once the ceremony was over we, and many others, completed our walk to the famous Trevi Fountain which was as remarkable as anticipated. What wasn’t anticipated was the huge crowd of people visiting at 4.30pm on a Sunday in late October; so it took us a little while to find a spot from which we could take some photos. After the walk and the waiting we visited a gelateria for a refreshing cone of Italy’s famous ice-cream, Liz had chocolate fudge and I had choc chip and it was bellissimo!
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We moved on along the crowded street looking for a Time Elevator - a 3D cinema experience that takes you back through the history of Rome – which Liz was keen to see so she could have a better understanding of the places and buildings we were going to visit over the next couple of days. While we waited we took a walk along to the large and very marble Vittorio Emanuele II Monument and while we sat on the steps outside the fence I had to laugh at the policeman who was stopping people sitting on the steps inside the fence – all of a sudden you’d hear his whistle blast a couple of time and see him waving his arms about wildly at some poor tourist who didn’t know that sitting on the stairs was a bad, bad thing.
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We returned for the Time Elevator which Liz thought was really good and useful while I read the paper in the foyer (3D/aircraft simulator style experience + vertigo + ice cream = not a pretty sight/sound/smell). At the end, the light was fading fast so we decided to head back to the hotel and have a quite night.

Monday was wet so we decided to venture to Vatican City to visit the museums, St Peters Square and the Basilica along with most of the other tourists in Rome – indoor activity on a wet day. The line for the museum entry was 4 blocks long which apparently would take 2 ½ to 3 hours. All along the line hawkers were trying to get people to join tour groups (“..no waiting. In 5 minutes you’ll be inside …. You probably know the lines they use.) so Liz and I decide to give them a go and walked about a block closer to the entry to an office where 20 or so other people are waiting. We paid our money and were given the audio receiver and ear piece for the tour (so the guide didn’t have to yell she only had to speak into her microphone and we all could hear) and then we waited!!! It was only for about 15 minutes before we then walked as a group to the museum priority entry for groups and then a 30 minute wait in that queue before getting to the entry, meanwhile it started raining but we had an umbrella so that was OK. Once we made it inside we went through a security screening and then finally started the tour which turned out to be excellent as our guide seemed to be very knowledgeable, was supposedly an Art History graduate, and we were very happy with the tour.
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The only problem was that the tour finished in the Sistine Chapel and from there we were suppose to go directly to the St Peter’s Basilica except we took the wrong door and ended up at the main exit to the museum. On asking the guard about the entry into the Basilica he explained that we needed to take the door at the right rear of the Sistine Chapel, so back through the museum we go eventually making it to the Chapel only to run into a very officious guard who refused to allow anyone through to the Basilica unless they were with their guide who had the paperwork and as our guide had gone through to the Basilica we had no chance, he even refuse a guide with about 30 tourists entry because she didn’t have the right paperwork! Back through the rest of the museum we go to the main exit again where we met up with the guard who had told us about the Basilica exit and he was amazed we couldn’t get through as everyone pretty much is allowed through (after all everybody has been security screened to get into the museum) as the door is always open, so we explained what happen and his response was “..so you got one of those!’
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After walking through the museum twice we now had to walk around the outside of the Vatican walls to the Piazza San Pietro (St Peter’s Square) and queue to go through security screening again (luckily only about 15 minutes) before we could enter the Basilica. This is a truly amazing structure. It’s huge and the sculptures and marble work are so finely detailed, to think of the time and care the artisans needed to complete the works really put the place into perspective even without considering the religious implications of the building. Looking at all structures throughout Rome that have been named after Popes and Emperors it is easy to forget that many thousands of simple workers really did the work that resulted in the iconic structures.

It was a long day after arriving at the museum around 10.00am we were very tired by the time we walked back to the Metro at 4.00pm. The Rome metro has only 2 lines and the volume of people using these is immense so it was a squishy ride back to the main train terminal and our hotel.

Tuesday was cooking class day, having at last managed to secure 2 places in a cooking class after many attempts in various countries we were really looking forward to the experience and it was a good day for an indoor activity as it was raining again. Andrea the chef and teacher was a great bloke who had visited Australia when he was younger – he even had an Australian flag hanging on the wall in the kitchen! Our class only had 11 students which was all that could have possibly squeezed into the restaurant kitchen. We prepared, cooked and ate a 4 course meal consisting of an entrée of Potato, Leek and Chestnut soup, first main of Spinach and Ricotta ravioli with butter and sage sauce, a second main of Chicken Scaloppini and desert of Chocolate Soufflé all matched with wines. The food was based on Zero Kilometers, meaning that all the produce, including wines, were sourced locally.
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After the class we walked back across Rome to our hotel as the rain had stopped. Rome is small and compact only taking about an hour to walk from one side to the other of the main attractions area. It’s also easier to walk as many streets are closed to traffic which is good as crossing the street gives a whole new meaning to taking your life in your hands! Pedestrian crossing are plentiful but drivers don’t stop unless you are on the crossing – as in right in front of their car and then they’ll head diagonally across if they think you’re not walking fast enough!!!!
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Wednesday we’d booked for a walking tour of the ancient sections of the city which didn’t start until 2.00pm. So after a leisurely start to the morning, breakfast at 9.30am and laying around reading a book until midday, we boarded the metro to Spagna station which is right next to the Spanish Steps. Liz really wanted to see these and fortunately we scored a beautiful bright sunny day to visit. Liz explained that the steps were well known as they are the place to sit, hang-out and be seen. They also have an interesting fountain at the bottom which is not strange in Rome as they have fountain everywhere.
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From the Spanish Steps we headed to the Colosseo (Coliseum) to join our walking tour. Our group was moderately sized at 21 people and our guide Agnes was British and had been running various tours through Rome for the past 9 years – she really knew her stuff! She didn’t stop talking for the 3 hours of the tour. We had the radio system again which was brilliant as you could hear perfectly if you were anywhere within about 100m of the guide.

We started at the Coliseum and spent almost an hour walking through the structure from top to bottom. It’s amazing how this structure and modern sport stadiums are so similar but the entertainment 2000 years ago was a little more barbaric.
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After this we walked the short distance to the Roman Forum (or what’s left of it!) and strolled through the ruins while Agnes regaled us of the history and drama of the Forum throughout its history. So after about 2 hours of constant information my brain was about to explode while Liz was loving it and soaking all this information up like a sponge. I don’t think either one of us will remember much the next day.
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Once we finished at the Forum we made track to the Trevi Fountain which Liz and I had visited on our first afternoon in Rome so we basically found a seat while the group took some pictures and had a pit stop (toilets and/or gelato). Next we walked to the Pantheon which is a weird building as it has massive and orate column in a square pattern at the front portico but the main building is round with a massive hemispherical dome for the room and a circular base supporting this roof. Most peculiar was the hole in the top of the domed roof which “allowed the worshipers prayers to go directly to God” – they had drain holes in the floor for when it rained. It is still a remarkable building considering the size and nature of the structure which was built with technology from around the time of 80 AD.

We finished our tour with a quick look through the Piazza Navona before departing to find our way home – unfortunately I’d left the maps and guide books at the hotel! Luckily my sense of direction was good and we made it back to the hotel with no problems at all – I was impressed by this achievement but Liz thought it was just what I was expected to do!

Posted by lizanddave 07:23 Archived in Italy Comments (0)

Nice to Padova, Italy via Geneva and Interlaken, Switzerland

sunny 20 °C
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Another day another train strike in France (striking about the increase in retirement age by 2 years), Friday was a travelling day with a long trip to Geneva Switzerland planned. Our first problem was to get out of France into Italy by catching an early train to Monaco followed by another to Vintemille. In Vintemille we stopped for an hour and managed to get some breakfast – I had a hot chocolate that was a block of melted dark chocolate in a cup – rich and thick which I could only half drink/eat.

Vintemille was Italy so it became easier as all the trains were running and we eventually caught a train to Milano. The Italian trains are much older than the French or Spanish, First Class seating was comfortable but the seats needed a good clean (hate to think what 2nd class was like!) but they did run on time which was good. By afternoon we had brought a SIM card for Italy and refueled with a light lunch of pizza and were ready for our final journey of the day with a long trip from Milano to Geneva via Bern – unfortunately most of the Swiss scenery was missed as it was dark and rainy by the time we crossed into the mountains.

Once we arrived at the station in Geneva we set about finding a hotel (first time we actually turned up in a city without a prior reservation – we weren’t sure where we might be because of the train strike), I guarded all the bags while Liz set about canvassing the hotels near the station for ‘cheap’ rooms. It didn’t take long to realize that Geneva was a bloody expensive city as our extremely basic hotel was 140 Swiss Francs (about equivalent to the Aussie Dollar) and its rack rate was around 300 SFrancs! So with a bed to sleep in we managed to complete another day of travel and fun.

Saturday was Geneva and because of the cost of staying in Geneva we decided to have a quick look around then head for Interlaken (central Switzerland – near the Alps). Geneva was somewhat underwhelming, which probably wasn’t helped by the continual drizzle, with the old city not being very interesting, the fountain in the lake was good as was the shopping strip, all the souvenir shops had were watches, clocks, Swiss army knives, and cow bells. The food was expensive (McDonald 40 Francs for two meal deals!!!) I couldn’t wait to get out of the city before it bankrupted me.
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After a four hour journey from Geneva to Interlaken with a change of train in Bern we stepped out onto the cold wet platform at the Interlaken Ost station and realised we should have gotten off at Interlaken West (the previous station). It was supposed to be only a short walk to the Hotel Blume (15 minutes from Ost or 5 minutes from West Station) however obviously lugging our luggage meant it took longer. It was however a good opportunity to get the lay of the land, find the local supermarket and have the odd discussion about whose fault it was that we didn’t know that Interlaken had two stations. We arrived at the hotel a little wet but we did arrive to find a nicely renovated room with good heating the only drawback was the shared facilities – we knew this when we booked. The shower was on the floor above our room and the toilet on the floor below.
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I’ll prefix the next paragraph by saying that it’s ridiculous that the Swiss have a different power adaptor to the rest of Europe. On check-in at the hotel we asked if they had an adaptor for the power, the lady produced a box of adaptors and picked one out for us which I thought was good as our phones and the computer hadn’t been charged in two days. On getting into the room I checked the room and decided that I should put Liz’s phone on the charger so with adaptor and charger ready to go I plugged in – flash of light, burning small and no lights in the hotel - I’d managed to short out the place! Luckily it turned out to be just our room and the neighbour’s as the hotel had upgraded to circuit breakers in the recent renovations. So with the owners help we reset the breaker, no power still; the owner then had to find the main circuit board and reset another breaker before we again reset our floors breaker, power at last 30 minutes after the flash – I don’t think Liz’s Iphone charger is going to work every again! We didn’t dare to try and charge our stuff again so we used what charge was left in the laptop to charge Liz’s Iphone via the USB cable. What a night!!

Interlaken was a recommendation from Ashlee and it turned out to be a lovely town sitting in a valley at the bottom of the Alps in the Jungfraujoch
region (Jungfraujoch called the Top of Europe at 3454m is only about an hour away by train – Mt Jungfrau stands at 4158m). The weather was still overcast and rainy and we could tell from our TV investigations (a channel is set aside for the view from cameras on top of some of the popular peaks) that the cloud cover extended all the way to the top – a complete whiteout and not worth the money for a journey to the top! Instead we were directed to a place called Trümmelbach which had a series of 10 glacier water falls inside a mountain in the Lauterbrunnen Valley about 20km up the valley from Interlaken. I came to embrace the gloves and beanie that I had been carrying in my bag for so long and a scarf that Liz lent me (she really wanted to breakout a new one she had brought I think!) as it was pretty cold.
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The trip to the waterfalls was cool with a narrow gauge train hauling us from Interlaken (567m) to Lauterbrunn (796m) and a bus taking us to Trümmelbach. The falls were inside a mountain and involved a funicular ride inside a rock tunnel, the water of the falls look a strange green colour and the spray was very cold. It is impressive what the passage of water over time can achieve with large passages cut through extremely solid rock. We walked down from the falls via a staircase and walkway that followed the path of the 10 falls.
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From the falls we travelled to Stechelberg (910m) at the far end of the valley where they had a cable car to go up to Schilthorn (007 movie was filmed there) at 2960m but the camera positioned at Schiltorn fstill showed was a whiteout so we had no chance of seeing the Alps – plus I didn’t like the looks of the cable car that was swaying in the wind as it climbed up the mountain. So it was back to Lauterbrunn for a 50 minute wait for the next rain to Interlaken. On our walk from the station at Interlaken to our hotel Liz saw an ad for a Chocolate show/class so we booked in for the class later that afternoon.
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Chocolate class was fun and Liz felt very at home when she was asked to step behind the bench and coated and decorated some coffee praline. It was interesting to taste some of the creations the chef was developing, a tequila and lemon which had a real bite (he said he’d garnish with salt so that it added some balance to the taste), a passionfruit which was very nice and lychee which I thought was only OK but I’m not a lychee fan. Around the room was a display of show pieces made by apprentices for their qualifications - these where really amazing, the pirate ship in the photo below was a gold medal winner.
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In the evening we decided to have dinner at our hotel which had a Mexican restaurant, we started with a margarita each before Liz had a fried burrito thingy and I had seafood skewers with garlic chili sauce which was really good. After dinner it was time to get all our stuff together as we were moving on to Padova Italy the next day but not before taking a journey to another small village higher up the Alps in the morning.

Once we checked out of the hotel we lugged our bags back to Interlarken Ost station, (the furthest) as it was where we needed to catch the train for the mountain lines which are run by private companies, and stored our bags in a locker. We brought tickets (not covered in our Eurail pass but we did get a discount) to Grindelwald one of the largest ski resorts in the Alps and sits below Mt Eiger (3970m). We had decided to travel there as we’d seen on the TV that it was snowing and, as I still haven’t been to the snow, Liz wanted to take me (probably just to throw snowballs at my head!!). The train trip was just over 30 minutes and passed through some quintessential Swiss country side, as we got closer to the village it became apparent that there was no snow which was disappointing. We wandered around the village for about 40 minutes checking out the stores and being amazed by the indoor pool with big waterslide that came outside the building be flowing back indoors to the pool (it was a covered tube). It was a little cold here with the temperature at about 3oC outside and with the heating 23oC indoors so we were constantly removing and then putting back on jackets, scarves, hats and gloves.
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Once back in Interlaken we had about an hour before our train left and Liz really wanted to try a traditional Swiss fondue for lunch. This was a great disappointment as dipping bread into the melted cheese really wasn’t as interesting or tasty as it sounds. Liz and I didn’t finish our fondue and nearly fell over when we had to pay 50 francs for the experience – Switzerland is great but very expensive even if it is the quiet season.
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The train trip from Interlaken to Spiez was uneventful but at Spiez I sat on the cold platform waiting for our connection to Milano while Liz tried to find something to spend our remaining Swiss francs. Our train to Milano was warm and only took a couple of hours – the countryside was interesting and as usual Liz didn’t take her eyes off the scenery not wanting to miss a moment of the experience. We changed trains in Milano for Padova which is about 30 minutes from Venice, Padova is a university town and was selected for the sole purpose that accommodation was cheaper than Venice but still not far for a day trip.

While the weather in Switzerland was cold and rainy Italy was warm and sunny. So after a good night’s sleep we decided to have a look around Padova before taking a train to Venice for the afternoon. We walked to the centre of town and found the tourist office who gave us the usual list of monuments, cathedrals and stuff to visit but Liz had spied some markets nearby so we spent most of the morning looking at the food produce, clothing and general markets around the town squares.
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Once we’d finished at the markets we walked the kilometre to the train station just in time to squeeze onto a train to Venice. Venice was stunning with people swarming (more than 20 million visitors per year – no wonder it’s sinking!) and boats zooming over the water of the canals. With map in hand we decided to walk the street to Piazza San Marco, basically from one side to the other, the guide books had told us that everyone gets lost in the narrow backstreets. I can honestly say that we didn’t get lost once and thoroughly enjoyed the experience of navigating the labyrinth of canals, bridges, streets and alleys. Every street had something to offer in small stores, shops and cafes it really is a remarkable place. The area I least liked was the Piazza San Marco as it seemed so big and impersonal (could have been any major square in an city) compared to the intimacy of the backstreets and smaller campo (squares).
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Our time in Venice really flew, as we walked along the canals, up and over bridges and checked out many shops and purchased some small things to remember the experience, and before we knew it the time was gone and so was the sun. We took a water bus through the Grand Canal from Piazzetta San Marco (where we met a couple of ladies from Hawks Nest – small world) to the station which was magical as we started at dusk and by the end of the 40 minute trip it was night. We eventually got back to our hotel exhausted and a little cold, the temperature drops rapidly as the sun disappears and we’d not prepared to be out so long and it was about 13oC as we got on the train in Venice and even colde when we arrived back at Padova.
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Wednesday was going to be another day in Venice but we decided that we’d pretty much covered what we wanted the previous day so we visited the station for the required reservation for the train to Pisa, our next stop. A stop at the post office to post Ashlee her Christmas present, always fun as we don’t speak Italian and they mostly don’t speak English, so the package that we sent to Ashlee could end up anywhere. Once again we visited the markets looking for a bag to carry our increasing load but couldn’t find what we were looking for so journeyed on. Eventually giving up the search for a rest at the hotel where I sat and caught up with my blog entries and Liz stretched and researched the next adventure on our travels.

Posted by lizanddave 01:26 Archived in Italy Comments (1)

Marseille to Nice, Cannes and Monaco

sunny 22 °C
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My trip to Australia and back was long and painful. Liz and Ashlee enjoyed their time in Marseille doing many of the tourist activities. They travelled on an open top bus tour of the city (pity it was a wet day), did a petit train tour of the city, went on a boat tour along the coast visiting the beautiful little coves along the way, and went on a wine tour of the Provence region. In short, they had fun and did not miss me at all!
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On the same day I arrived back, Ashlee returned to England – not interested in spending time with her dad as she’d just spent a week with her mum. I was absolutely wasted with ‘travel shock’ and just slept most of the next day. On the Saturday we walked around the Port Viex area checking out the markets and enjoying the sunny morning before using the afternoon to pack our bags ready for the journey to Nice the next day.

Sunday morning the rain started to come down just before we left the hotel but luckily we were able to wait for a break in the weather before making the 250m dash to the Metro before the next shower arrived. The trip to Nice was a 2 ½ hour TGV ride (fast train) along the French Riveria coast line with its iridescent turquoise water and picturesque coastal villages, along the way we pasted Cannes (home of the famous film festival). The rain was left behind by the time we reached Nice but the cloud was starting to gather so we were pretty sure we’d get the same weather as we’d had in Marseille the day before.

Once we’d checked into out room, which was great as it had obviously been recently renovated with new bathroom, carpet and bedding, we decided to have a walk down to the beach – about a kilometre away. As we walked along the street we found plenty of stores still open on the Sunday evening and Liz with her consummate skill managed to add to our souvenir collection along the way. After checking out the beach and the old city we decided to have dinner at an Irish Pub (decent size and cost compared to the French fare), Liz upset the barmaid by asking if the Steak and Guinness Pie was traditional Irish or did it have a French twist to which the barmaid (who was an Irishwoman) replied ‘It’s an Irish Pub!’ So Liz had a good pie and I had some very nice BBQ Pork ribs which we both washed down with a Magners Cider – how I love the cider!!

Monday was cold, wet and windy so we decided to visit the local Tourist Office to see what we could do indoor, this was not really successful as there wasn’t really anything to do at short notice. So we grabbed our wet weather jackets and caught the train to Cannes, about 30 minutes away, where we once again visited their Tourist Office to find a Gen X customer service person who was so “over her job”. The explanation was rudimentary but we got the gist that most places we wanted to see where down near the waterfront.
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The walk was only a few blocks but it was pleasant and interesting regardless of the rain. Liz took a liking to the Gucci shop but the area we most wanted to access, the Palais Des Festivals Et Des Congres, was closed as they were setting up marquees and stuff for a future function. This area has hand prints of all the Hollywood actors and is also the site of the Casino Croisette. As it was continuing to rain we walked back through the streets commenting that this was the place to test the limit on your Platinum Amex card if you had one – we don’t in case you’re wondering. Didn’t see a tourist shop in the area we walked around! Feeling poor and wet we caught the train back to Nice.
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Tuesday we visit the Italian Markets in San Remo and Menton. It was a lovely morning with the sun shining when we visited the market which specialised in leather bags, clothes and accessories, it also had some fruit, vegetable, meat and cheese. We stayed about 3 hours during which we wandered around the markets and down to the waterfront – some of the motor cruisers looked more like small ocean liners! Unfortunately the wind had come up and the water had a vicious wind swell going causing plenty of spray as the waves broke over the stony beach.
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Our next stop was Vintimille which is a small village between San Remo and Menton, we only stopped for 30 minutes and had a walk around the town but most places were closed for lunch. The next stop was Menton was another small town on the border between France and Italy which was very quiet but had a nice old section of town and an impressive marina. By the stage we reached here the wind was almost gale force and the boats in the sheltered marina were bobbing about like corks in a bathtub but Liz and I ventured out onto the breakwall getting sprayed as the waves broke and almost blown over by the winds.
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We were also supposed to visit Monaco but the tour had been changed (but not the brochures or internet) so Liz negotiated a partial refund. We decided to visit Monaco ourselves the next morning travelling by train and walking around and visiting the important sites, Casino and Princes Palace. We did get to see Monaco from above which was interesting in itself as the Country is only 1 km wide and 3km long.
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Wednesday was supposed to be our last day in Nice and we had hoped to visit Monaco in the morning, but we didn’t realise that the transport strike had carried on to a second day so when we arrived at the station we found our train had been cancelled! So instead of Monaco we did the Nice open-top bus tour which was not pleasant as it was overcast and the breeze was cold. The tour lasted about1 ½ hours and visited the important parts of the city, Russian Cathedral, monastery, promenade, and port area. After the tour we visited the markets (flowers mainly), had lunch at the Irish Pub and walked back to the Hotel. We booked into the Hotel for another night so we could still get to visit Monaco on Thursday provided the train strike is finished by then.
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At 2.00pm we were picked up by our driver/guide for our afternoon tour – Glass Factory & Olive Mill, it turned out that we were the only people – cool; a private guided tour. We drove south west for about 30 minutes to the La Verrerie de Biot Glass Factory which was amazing, workers in shorts, singlets and sandals wandering around with molten glass on long poles – Work Cover NSW Australia would die looking at this workplace! We watched as one guy made a 3 litre jug and another made 4 glasses in about 20 minutes and also saw what happened when things didn’t go right – smashed into the waste bin for reuse. The gift shop was well stocked with a wide variety of products – bowls, plates, glasses, jugs, vases, and lamps. Liz and I decided to purchase a jug and 6 glasses as an anniversary present, (thanks Bruce and Irene) they are very nice but plain and clear they did have bubbles through the glass which is a signature of the factory.
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After this we travelled another 20 minutes to the Olive Mill where we were taken on a tour of the mill by Letitia who explained the historical and modern methods of extracting oil for the olives. Interesting and fairly basic compared to wine. Letitia then gave us a taste of the 3 olive oils produced at the mill – a local fruity variety and mild and fruity varieties produced from olives sources about 2 hours from Nice in the Provenance region near Marseille – you could really taste the difference between the different oils. Of course these the tasting also included wine to “cleanse the palate” between each taste. Liz also tried some black and green tapenade as well as some of the olives from different stages of maturation – green freshly picked (yuck!), green mature (these are picked early in the harvest season) and black mature (picked at the end of the harvest season). After this visit we recognised the following: I’m not a fan of olives and Liz likes Spanish olives better than French olives.
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Despite the French rail strike on Wednesday we finally made our trip to Monaco. We caught one of the few trains travelling west. When we arrived in Monaco we walked straight to the Princes Palace to watch the changing of the guard – a fairly quick (10 minute) ceremony. A walk through the narrow streets around the palace area was appealing as there were a heap of tourist shops which contained a lot of gear related to the Formula 1 Grand Prix. They were all too expensive to purchase but it was nice to look.
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We then walked back down the hill, across the road (part of the Grand Prix track) and onto the boulevard around the marina. The marina was full of very, very expensive boats (perhaps small ocean liners would be a better description), there was even one called LizLiz which Liz thought I may have bought for her as an anniversary gift (like I have a couple of million spare! Or at all!) We followed the marina around until the casino which wasn’t yet open but we waited until 2.00pm and entered for a look see. We gave each other 5 euro for gambling – Liz lost some of hers but I doubled my money!
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So after a short visit we went back to the station to find a train heading back towards Nice – we only had to wait 50 minutes. At Nice station we asked if the strike was continuing tomorrow as we are travelling to Italy and up to Switzerland – bad news the trains are still striking but they are running a few buses that hopefully we take us across the border into Italy where hopefully there isn’t a strike. This area of the Cote d’ Azur has been so stunningly beautiful it will be a shame to leave.

Posted by lizanddave 09:12 Archived in France Comments (0)

Barcelona

sunny
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Saturday Liz and I caught the train to Barcelona at 10.30am while Ashlee didn’t catch her plane to Poland until 7.30pm (she got to stay in bed as check out in Madrid isn’t until noon). The train trip took about 3 ½ hours with much of it travelling at just under 300km/h which is freaky when you consider the weight and size of the train! Checkout the photo below of the inside of Atocha Railway Station in Madrid – talk about a few indoor plants!
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Upon arrival at Barcelona we decided it would be best to reserve our seats for the next section (Barcelona to Marseilles) on Thursday, as we had heard that there would be a general strike in Spain on Wednesday. Eventually Liz got the seats reserved while I did bag watch so next was a visit to the Tourist Centre at the station (most stations have some form of tourist information office) to get a map, check out what to do and investigate cooking classes. With map and information in hand it was time to challenge ourselves on the Metro, always a struggle with all the baggage as some stations don’t have escalators or lifts. The Metro stop at Lessops was only a couple of blocks from the Hotel which was great as we were getting pretty tired.

After a bit of rest and a chance to catch up on things via Wi-Fi we decided to go and checkout the city as the Festival of Barcelona finished the next day. We decided to go see the Correfoc (Fire Run) it is a festival of fire which starts with the opening of the gates of Hell, from which all kinds of devils and fire beast pour out, they throw bangers and fireworks – there are dragons, flames and explosions. The notes in the brochures say to wear long trousers and shirts and wrap your head in a scarf or have a hat, all preferably cotton, to avoid burns. After dressing appropriately we took the Metro to the correct station only to find out that the party had already started (wasn’t supposed to be until 8.00pm) we didn’t realise that it would still be going at 11.00pm went we were heading home. Liz even got a tiny burn on her forearm, from a Dragon, because she didn’t have her sleeve pulled down.
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The city was very vibrant, loud and colourful as we walked to Barcelona Beach for a fireworks display at 10.00pm, along the way Liz found some market stalls, we found a bunch of drummers in the street performing, and we stopped for a light supper at a beach cafe. The fireworks were absolutely brilliant with a few effects I’d never seen before (fireworks shot into the water which eventually exploded), it took 20 minutes and a huge pile of fireworks which Liz compared to Sydney Harbour New Years Eve! This was the third night of fireworks as it was part of the competition between 3 companies, Fiatlux from Canada, Pyragric from France and the one we saw Pirofantasis from Valencia (Spain). The display took place on a breakwater along the beach which meant that the beach and promenade were absolutely packed with thousands of people – great atmosphere!

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We had a good sleep-in on Sunday morning eventually rising at 10.00pm. We checked out the festival program and decided to see the Santana dancing competition at the Cathedral before returning to the port area for lunch. The calamari is a specialty so we thought we’d give it a go at one of the many restaurants. Of all the restaurants in Barcelona we managed to sit next to two couples from Australia, one from Darwin the other from Melbourne – what are the chances! We had a good chat over a lunch of calamari (it was only OK I’ll have to try it at another place as I’ve seen better as we’ve walked past street cafes) and seafood and chicken paella all washed down with a couple of huge glasses of icy sangria. The sangria actually cost more than both the meals????
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Sunday night was the last night of the Festival Le Mercè and they saved the best fireworks display for this occasion. So Liz and I jumped the Metro to Avinguda de la Reina Maria Cristina (a wide avenue looking towards a grand palace with fountains) at 8.30pm to get a good viewing spot before the start at 10.00pm. The place was packed by start time with a couple of hundred thousand people standing, sitting on top of port-a-loos, on monuments and every conceivable place to get a glimpse of the fountain at the end of the avenue which was the focus of the light show, speakers along the avenue played well known musical themes that have had a second life in the voice of other artists (simply the best, champions, girls just want to have fun, imagine and thunderstruck to name but a few), and the 35 minute fireworks display that matched the musical themes – it was simply spectacular!!!

I thought it was funny that when you looked down the avenue towards the fountain the displays of digital camera and mobiles phones displays produced the effect of stars against on the darkened profiles of people. What wasn’t so much fun was the battle to get out at the end with the one Metro station swamped we had made a plan earlier to walk down to a Metro station 2 stops away that had connections to any line so that people would leave to give us space to get one – good plan as it only took us an hour to get back to our hotel. If you want to get a good idea what it’s like check it out of youtube.com (link http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AvtplmpP9H8)
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We were a little slow to rise Monday because of the last couple of nights but we eventually made our way to the old part of city in search of a cooking school we had heard about. This proved to harder to find than anticipated as I led us around the city and getting no closer to our destination. We did however come across Salvador Dali’s Gallery/Museum which was €8 entry and a bookshop that had a sale on English fiction books (€3 each) but we kept looking but planned to return later.
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After checking out the area and finding Starbuck (Chocolate Frapicino and toilets) and a Tourist Information for direction we found our way to the right place (via some tourist gift shops – more souvenirs!) only to find out that it closed when classes were in session and booking needed to done on the phone or by internet. So it was back to the Dali Gallery only to find out that the admission price had risen to €10 (first price rise since 2002) – couldn’t believe it!! We paid and walked through the exhibition
Looking that the sculptures, paintings, drawings and photos but once again it was all lost on me!
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About mid-afternoon we returned to our hotel for siesta and to do the cooking class booking. We went for a walk around the local streets looking for a Moviestar (mobile phone) store so Liz could top-up her credit and found a thriving shopping street just a couple of blocks away. Liz got her credit and we brought some dinner while we were out. When we arrived back we had an email saying that unfortunately the cooking class is fully booked until after we leave but if someone cancels they’ll call.

So after a quiet night we jumped the Metro again for another visit to the Tourist Centre with the hope of booking an evening at the Palacio del Flamenco. We had decided to do a dinner and show package so it was pleasing that there was space available in the early show with dinner at the ridiculously early hour of 6.45pm - so we had dinner planned as well as a night of entertainment. While we were booking the show we also got tickets to the Barcelona Bus Turistic an open top bus that travels 2 routes through the city it drives by the important tourist sites and is a hop on and off affair and has recorded audio commentary in a variety of languages – even English.

We walked a couple of blocks to a pickup point when the bus arrived on the red route the top deck was packed and we had to sit downstairs for a few stops until some people disembarked. Once we were up top we stayed for the full circuit which took also two hours. We visited a number of important statues and monuments, the port area, Fira de Barcelona (Palace of Barcelona – site of the fireworks the other night), the site of the 1992 Olympic Games and other assorted buildings, churches and plazas. Luckily the day was sunny with patches of cloud – bloody hot when the sun was shining down on us and cool when the cloud combined with the breeze of the bus.
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We changed to the blue line at the Plaza de Catalunya and also checked out the underground Tourist Centre that we’d been looking above ground for!! While at the gift shop section of the Tourist Centre we ran into the Australian people we had sat next to at lunch the other day, amazing in a city of 3.5 million (if we see them again I’ll think they’re stalking us!).

The Blue line of the Barcelona Bus Turistic took us to a pile of other buildings, statues, etc but of most importance was a visit to the Estadi del FC Barcelona (the stadium for Football Club Barcelona). Otherwise I was getting a little fatigued and bored with the tour so Liz decided to change back to the Red Route and visit some markets, the next day was a general strike and much of the place would be closed down including the Metro, and I took the Metro along the route to the station for Thursday morning (moving day) to check that stations had elevators for moving our heavy bags. We planned to meet back at our hotel before heading out to the Flamenco Club.
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Everything went to plan with Liz navigating the bus and metro like a true Catalonian. We made dinner a little late as we got a little lost – thank God for the iPhone map app. The meal at the Flamenco Club was simple but tasty – paella, salad, bread, Sangria and “Crema Catalana” (like crème brulee) for dessert. The show was great with a variety of dancers, singers and musicians entertaining us for an hour, the dancers were excellent with the speed of foot movement astounding and the body movements powerful and precise. The photo is blurred because they move so fast.
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Once the show had finished we decided on a walk through the city to get to a metro station that would take us back without having to change lines. The walk was very pleasant and the many shops were still doing a good trade from the many people who were out and about.

Wednesday started a little late and when we did go outside the sound of whistles and chanting could be heard in the distance. We could tell that the garbos were on strike as there was rubbish along the street (Barcelona is a very clean and tidy city so it was noticeable), many of the shops were closed and those that were open had their shuttles partially closed. This was interesting and we didn’t realize how confrontational the strikers were until we returned from our walk and the supermarket that had been open when we left was closed with graffiti painted over the building and a mess of some chemicals oozing out of the entrance under the door. When we went out later the supermarket was open again but now had a security guard outside. All along the streets where we walked graffiti had been sprayed about the strike – ATMs were attacked and the screen spray painted which made it impossible for us to use them! Cars and motorcycles had been set on fire; one car alight was actually a police car!
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We walked a rather lengthy route to the uphill Park Güell as we wanted to avoid the protesters. The park was designed by the famous Spanish architect Gaudi. He was known for his unique designs involving multi coloured mosaic tiles and smooth rounded features in his structures. This was a really interesting walk with some pretty weird looking structures in the grounds; the mosaics were really attractive and colourful.
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The afternoon was very quiet as we started to prepare for our departure the next day, it would be an early start 6.30am to be at the station ready to leave for Marseille (France) at 8.30pm on the train. The packing is getting more and more difficult as we have brought souvenirs so it was lucky that I was making a quick trip back to Australia – clear out the accumulated stuff, return the clothes and stuff we haven’t used – while Liz checks out the sights, sounds, smells and tastes of Marseille with Ashlee.

Posted by lizanddave 10:26 Archived in Spain Comments (1)

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