Monthly Archives: October 2015

Naples – Sorrento & Pompeii

We slid into the huge port of Naples and it was not long before we were off on a long day out…

Driving along the Sorrento Peninsula was interesting – we were happy not to be driving the bus on a cool and rainy day along the narrow road with so many hairpin bends! All these ancient towns seem to have long and often violent histories.

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As with many medieval coastal towns we have experienced on this cruise, the little back streets were full of souvenir shops. This time we spotted a couple of items we needed… Like some lovely Limoncello in a cute bottle (keep it in the freezer and served as a slushy!) and a shirt for Ian and a top for Ginny. We also admired these intricate clay models.

After all that shopping it was time for coffee or wine – guess what we chose?

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Then it was on to Pompeii. What an experience!

“Civilisation exists by geological consent, subject to change without notice.”

This quote from Will Durant sums up our feelings very well.

Pompeii was already pretty ancient before Vesuvius blew its top in 79AD. All very interesting, but we found the most telling evidence of age were the cart ruts in the hard basalt cobbles! All this happened well before the eruption and is a solid indicator of the town’s antiquity.

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The barriers across the road in the photo above are not ancient speed humps, but were used to get across the road without walking through a lot of waste water and sewage. Hmmm.

Check out the pizza/bread oven – not much has changed in the design as it is almost identical to the one in our back yard, if a bit larger…

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Other parts needed a little imagination, but the artefacts recovered, including the remains of a dog and a person needed no explanation.

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It is worth remembering that the Mediterranean area was the centre of the rise of civilisation in Europe with cropping in the Fertile Crescent – and therefore sedentary populations were present from very early times.

These people built on previous building remains as and where convenient, so there are several layers of work present in most of the cities… It is all pretty mind blowing in its extent and scale.

Why did they build such huge places?  The Pantheon is an outstanding example. The columns outside are one piece and were transported from Egypt by sea and river! The capital (top section) came from Greece!

Amazing…

We hope these photographs successfully convey the situation in Pompeii. However, you really need to walk the streets and experience the place yourself for it to sink in…

Corfu & the Messina Straits

Our only stop in Greece was the island of Corfu.

How many people remember reading “My Family and Other Animals” by Gerald Durrell?!  It was such a fascinating story about his family’s experiences living on Corfu, as well as all the ‘beasties’ they nurtured.

We enjoyed our scenic (hairpin) drive around the island, and seeing spectacular seascapes from on high…A Corfu 1 A Corfu 9Especially seeing ancient farms with typical Mediterranean produce – think olive groves, garlic, pomegranates, oranges – mixed with cannons, fortresses and other relics of war.

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Unfortunately Inland Corfu is looking very run-down, with many deserted homes in evidence. The only upmarket area was the sea front with the usual tourist traps… Very sad.

Then it was back on board to sail around the south of Italy, past Mount Etna – hiding behind a shroud of cloud – and through the Straits of Messina – the tiny gap between Sicily and the mainland.

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Control over this gap has been a historic – well, nightmare is the only word that comes to mind. It has only been navigable for large ships since 1957.

OK, test for today – how many seeds do you think are in a pomegranate? No googling!

Croatia

After 10 days, we sadly had to say “Ciao for now!” to Italy. It has been a wonderful time and we have learnt so much from many special people – we hope to return one day.

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This map shows the places we will be visiting over the next 13 days on the Mediterranean. We sailed on the Viking Star from Venice late in the afternoon, out into the Adriatic Sea.

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Croatia put on a magnificent sound and sky show for our arrival early in the morning – lots of thunder and lightning!

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But by 10 am, the sun was shining as we walked into the seaside town of Split which was named as one of the first UNESCO World Heritage sites way back in the 1960s.

These photos show parts of the Roman Emperor Diocletian’s “retirement palace” built in the 3rd century. One part is now a cathedral, the original living quarters are a hotel and the underground storage tunnels are used for a market.

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We walked back through the ‘green market’ – it’s always interesting to see where the locals buy their fruit and vegetables, and what is in season.

Overnight we sailed further south to Dubrovnik. It was so peaceful to watch the sun’s rays slowly light up the red roofs of the homes dotted around the hills of this walled medieval town. In complete contrast, the sky was a mass of criss-crossing contrails – they are definitely on the flight path to everywhere!

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Walking through the town was an unexpected pleasure! Instead of cobblestones (beautiful to walk on but really hard on the body), their Stradun pathway is paved with limestone. It has been finely polished to a smooth surface over the centuries. Not sure what happens in wet weather though – we suspect it could be a very slippery experience!

The alleyways were fascinating as always, with graffiti dating back to the 1500’s on the walls and pigeons and feral cats doing their best to make a nuisance of themselves.

There were also some lovely spots down by the sea.

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Our local guide spoke passionately about the impact of the “last war” in 1992-93 when parts of the town were destroyed, 13 000 people were killed and they were without potable water for months.

Today local people find it hard to make ends meet and there is very high unemployment. It is common for families to bunk in together so they can rent out their homes to tourists during the summer. However we felt very safe, welcome and enjoyed our time in the lovely country of Croatia…. have you been there?

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Venice – Water City

And so we headed east through Northern Italy to the famous City of Water to start our cruise of the Mediterranean…

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We recently watched a documentary about the considerable social, economic and environmental stressors for native Venetians, and frankly it was quite tragic. Few local people can afford to live in Venice itself, so those lucky enough to be employed commute daily from the mainland.

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And although the major subsidence (caused by extraction of water from below ground) has halted, poor Venice is continuing to sink about 2mm a year. Doesn’t sound much, but it must be a worry when the water is already lapping at your front door!

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First great surprise was how easy it was to find our way around. We caught a vaporetto (water bus) that transports both locals and tourists. It was a whole new experience to travel in a floating city where 118 small islands are separated by 170 boat canals and linked by 400 foot bridges… Magical!

We easily found our stop and only had to walk 150m to our hotel.  Accommodation is very costly in this city, but we had booked the Hotel Ala at a reasonable rate.

So Surprise No 2 was the brilliant location, within walking distance of all the places we wanted to visit. Our room overlooking a canal was fine, and the desk staff were helpful. Fantastico!

First visit was to Piazza San Marco, the famous St Mark’s Square which is just full of history through the ages. Several of Venice’s major sights are located here and if you turn around slowly you see so many different styles of architecture.

We were puzzled to see raised walkways on most streets but their purpose soon became clear! It was high tide in Venice and the city was flooded with water up to mid-calf level. The locals were wearing their gum boots, and the tourists had to buy very fashionable (not) plastic leggings.

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There was no choice as there is no other way to move around other than walking… And those walkways were overcrowded… And barefoot just did not appeal!

Murano glass is famous for its beauty so it was great to see the artisans at work. Some pieces were beautiful, others were not to our taste. Of course the one piece we loved was 5000 euros. Hmmm, it’s still on the shelf waiting for that Lotto win!

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We finally boarded the Viking Star and met up with our American friends. What an amazing reunion, and what a beautiful ship.

She really stands out in port, and the interior is also beautifully designed. Not sure how they have achieved it, but our home for the next 13 days looks and feels like a luxurious hotel while still being truly comfortable.

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So we came to Venice with eyes wide open, and left feeling great tenderness for this city. She  reminds us of a lovely old lady wearing lots of furs, jewellery and bright lipstick to disguise the fact that time is moving on – but is even more lovable for her attitude.

If you have been to Venice, do share your experience with us…

Florence to Turin

Our favourite market in Florence was the Mercato Centrale, literally 30 steps around the corner in San Lorenzo Square. On the ground floor are outstanding artisans – the rules ensure that only “healthy, good, tasty food” is provided and it truly was like heaven for food lovers. Outstanding seasonal fruit and vegetables, meat and fish of all sorts. You can see the the second story in the photo, which houses about 20 different food outlets – and this is where locals also go to eat and drink for a casual, good value, evening out.

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It was time to bid farewell to Florence and travel to Turin by fast train. Ian has recently made contact with some previously unknown Italian relatives, and so we were privileged to have a very special travel guide and a wonderful interpreter. Grazze mille, Claudia and family and to Lorena – your generosity made our two days in Torino an outstanding experience!

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We shared several beautiful meals, wine and family time with Claudia and her extended family. No wonder this region of Piedmont is known as the centre of the ‘slow food movement’.

Turin is a very impressive city, with wide streets and beautiful architecture.

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The Egyptian museum was founded in 1824 when archeology was all the rage and it is ranked as Number 2 in the world, only after Cairo! It houses many floors of antiquities dedicated to culture and art and was truly impressive. We only saw a small part of this collection and these few photos don’t really do it justice. A ‘must see’ museum if you are at all interested in this fascinating period of Egypt’s history.

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It was so sad to say goodbye to the family in Torino at the train station. We hope to return one day, and that they will also come to visit us in Australia.

And now, off to explore Venice and then meet up with our American friends to go cruising – just a tiny bit excited!

Ponte Vecchio & Galileo Museum

Of course no visit to Florence would be complete without walking across the Ponte Vecchio – the Old Bridge – across the Arno River.

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There have been shops here since the 13th century including butchers, fishmongers and tanners. You can imagine the pong! A happy solution: King Ferdinand 1 decreed in 1593 that only goldsmiths and jewellers’ shops would be allowed on the bridge.

During World War II it was the only bridge not destroyed by the fleeing Germans. Instead they blocked access by demolishing the medieval buildings on each side. A tragedy!

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Very close to the Ponte Vecchio is the Galileo Museum. There is some material of Galileo’s there, but it houses a lot of 16th & 17th instruments used in many other disciplines beside astronomy.

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The ornate fashioning of some of these instruments in brass and wood is a joy to behold. The Italian way of doing things didn’t include ‘plain’…

History really is on every cobblestone and corner in this beautiful country. Ciao for now!

More Wonderful Florence

Please enjoy some of the amazing pieces of art to be found in the huge Uffizi Gallery in Florence. It  has been open to the public since 1765 so really is one of the first modern museums.

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This is mostly the legacy of the famous Medici family who regularly collected and commissioned works of art. The last Medici heiress was very specific in her will that all these treasures must remain in Florence – clever woman!

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We could just imagine artists such as Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo gathering here to create their masterpieces and relax.

We really enjoyed our Tuscan cooking class with Walkabout Florence. It really could have been a disastrous day: cool and wet, but our guide Mollie (yes, an English art historian immigrant!) led about 30 of us through the back streets of Florence and explained all sorts of interesting social and culinary history. This also required drinking coffee and eating the most exquisite tarts. The seasonal delicacy was a sweet bread dough covered in small black grapes that are only ripe just now…. Yuuuummmy.

After collecting food from the fresh market for our class, we travelled out to a beautiful farmhouse in the hills behind Florence to start cooking. Our lovely chef demonstrated all the techniques e.g. making fresh pasta by hand (Ian made the best tagliatelle in the class!) along with a meat sauce.

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Onto the pizza dough and toppings and the best ever bruschetta – we are sure the secret is the quality of the olive oil, all pressed and bottled on the premises.

Next was the Tuscan roast pork and potatoes … And just to top it all off, Tiramisù.

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In one way, we were surprised to cook dishes which we already associated with Italy but in fact it was a superb lesson in cooking techniques and creating the correct flavours. We enjoyed sharing our meal and excellent regional wines with our fellow students – a great bunch of people and a wonderful way to spend 10 hours!

 

Tuscany

We woke up very early on the morning that we were leaving Rome, so decided to wander around the local streets. There seemed to be a busy buzz on one corner… And we had stumbled on the amazing Mercato Trionfale, the largest fresh market in Rome busy stocking up for the day’s trade.

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We were definitely a curiousity – tourists up early! Many stall holders gave us tastes…warm breads, pickles, cheeses, ham off the bone, gorgeous berries and pears. And the seafood section was pretty astounding – check out the eels and swordfish!

Sadly our booked transfer to the train station was a no-show, so we did a last minute dash up several flights of steps to find a taxi rank. Naturally he was a ‘pronto’ driver so we just caught our train to Firenze (Florence) and sat back to soak in the scenery at varying degrees of warp speed! Ian still feels a little uncomfortable travelling at 300kms per hour on the ground…

We are in Florence for 4 days – beautiful, old and stylish. Our beautiful apartment in via Rosina is an ideal location, walking distance to all the major places we want to visit and 10 mins from the train station. Laura, the owner, enjoys making tourists welcome and gave us many helpful ideas and maps.

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Off we went on a HUGE day out exploring a little of Tuscany with Albatravel. It is chocolate-box pretty, especially with a tinge of early autumn colour on the trees. First stop was Monteriggioni…..

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In Siena we walked down very steep beautiful medieval streets past an array of beautiful palaces, the cathedral and hundreds of shops to the Piazza del Campo. This is the location for the crazy bareback Palio horse race – you’ve probably seen it on TV – let’s just say the rivalries are deep and emotions run high! We wandered off and found a local spot where we had the special of the day – mackerel and vegetables, along with a (of course) vino bianco and a basket of bread and olive oil. Message to self – do not rely on memory! Write down the name and location of good places to eat – especially when they don’t do cards, Facebook etc because they don’t need to!

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San Gimignano is a tiny medieval town (and a world heritage site) with interesting buildings and shops. The old city is surrounded by huge walls built in the 13th century, although the Etruscans settled there in the 3rd century. The antiquity is  quite overwhelming, and then we remember that Australia was settled 40,000 years ago and that puts it all in perspective!

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We ended at the Tenuta Torciano Vineyard, privately owned since 1720. The peppered olive oil was deluxe, also enjoyed a luscious balsamic vinegar and then there were the wines. Well, some were yummy, and some just OK, and wow, do they have drinking rules!  Just don’t think that drinking un-chilled white wine in our West Australian climate is going to catch on any time soon.

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We think the photo above shows us in our perfect natural environment, and hope that these other photos capture the beauty of the vineyards, olive groves, castles and farmhouses we have seen. More to come soon on our visit to the Uffizi Gallery and our Tuscan cooking class!

Italy…

We have been planning (and saving for!) our Mediterranean holiday for 18 months.

First off we spend 9 days exploring some of Italy, then we cruise around the Mediterranean from Venice, finishing with several days in Barcelona.
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Enjoying every moment of our time in Italy so far. We won’t bore you with travel details from our home in Perth [the most isolated capital city in the world apparently] to Rome – let’s just say “time passed”…
Yes, we could have used public transport to get to our apartment one block back from the Vatican City but it was so welcoming to find our ‘driver’ (booked weeks before) actually waiting for us. This is a top service offered by even small scale accommodation.
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Ginny reckons Rome looks and feels pretty much the same as her last visit 35 years ago – it’s grungy,  graffiti-ised to the max and the traffic is insane …. But of course it is all so fascinating that we just ignored all that and relished the architecture, the antiquity and the statues on every corner.
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We are lucky to have two opportunities to enjoy the ‘Eternal City’ as we will return during our cruise, so joined the hop on, hop off bus. Yes, we know that it’s a ‘touristy’ trip in any city, but it’s also a good way to find your bearings and earmark places to explore further… Which we did!
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Then La Bella Roma turned on the sprinklers for us (a.k.a. A beaut thunderstorm!) and out of the woodwork came touts to sell brollies and ponchos. Us two wet people decided to be semi-sensible and return to our apartment to change clothes before our beautiful afternoon walking tour with Viator.
This was a great way to see some of the beautiful squares, monuments, fountains and artwork. First stop, the Pantheon…
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It was also a good reminder of how the ancient cobblestones look absolutely fabulous but play havoc on your feet and legs – thank goodness for a rest and a refreshing gelato!
Fortunately we didn’t have to park… It’s a nightmare! But amusing, and we fell in love with the tiny cars that can – and do – park anywhere!
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Meal of the trip so far was at La Locanda di Pietro – a stunning combination of finely sliced medium rare beef, pear slivers and pecorino to which we added drops of olive oil and a luscious balsamic vinegar. OMG.
By the end of two days we had walked many miles and seen some astonishing sights – some that just give us so much joy and some that will make us sad for the rest of our lives. Mark Twain called Rome “a museum of magnificence and misery” – a great description.
Ciao for now!