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Archive for October, 2012

Our grand tour of Italy started in the Capital of the World, the mighty Rome, and then we made our way through two of Tuscany’s treasures, Florence and Siena, before acquiring some wheels and heading south for a beachy retreat to Sperlonga to catch our breath. Then started the second half, our Amalfi Adventure, hugging the coastal road down to wtiness some of the most incredible history, geography, natural beauty and outright crazy cityness of the trip so far… My observations…

  • It takes a long time to drive along the coastal road, you hit towns and have to pass through them, and we managed to time this with rush hour on a Saturday lunchtime! It looks a shortish wiggle on the map, but it takes time, the traffic gets progressively more “fun” the further south you head, having to dodge, swerve, brake heavily, and check all mirrors at all times to keep a beady eye out for pedestrians, motorcyclists, other vehicles, dogs… Signposts come very late and even if you have a navigator (my job), it’ll be a “quick, exit now!!” right at the last minute that sends you careering off in perhaps the wrong direction. Be patient, or invest in sat nav…

  • Pompeii is utterly incredible. It’s huge. There are several suggested itineraries, ranging from a speedy 2 hours up to 6 hours. We did 3 and felt a little rushed, but it was enough to explore the streets and cover most of the ground. We didn’t linger though. It’s truly amazing and incredible to imagine it as it was two thousand years ago. You’ll get caught up in the tourist traffic though, of which there is a lot. I just imagined it was 79AD and all the tourists were locals from Pompeii, having just read Robert Harris’s book, tricksters, prostitutes, swindlers, traders… much more interesting to use your imagination here.

  • We went in through a back entrance rather than the main one, it lead to quieter streets, and the necropolis, from where you get a stunning view of Vesuvius, silently watching over Pompeii. Smiling secretly about it’s dark history.

  • Don’t buy the book from a guide outside. We spent 6 euros on a book and map only to get hugely frustrated that the numbers didn’t match up with the maps inside the ruins. We gave up in the end and I decided I’d read about it afterwards. There are plenty of tours, if you can handle them (I can’t), or it’s fun just to wander and imagine…

  • Drive to the top of Vesuvius if you can, especially after visiting Pompeii (if you only do one, do Pompeii). It’s so intense to walk up the volcano and gaze down on the city from above. As you peer into the slightly steaming crater, you feel that you’re in a dark and mighty place. The view of the Bay of Naples is stunning.
  • Sorrento is beautiful and as you drive and get closer, winding around the roads (channeling Bond), you get peeks over the cliffs of the craggy coast below and the beautiful towns clinging to the rocks.

  • The side streets in Sorrento are CRAZY thin, in our hire car (i.e. no dinks allowed) we accidentally turned down a street that we were convinced was not for cars. We were stuck (and stressed) a local says that yes of course cars could pass – simply pull in both your wing mirrors and drive slowly. With a 5cm clearance each side, we crawled along this “road” sweating profusely and swearing like troupers..

  • Sorrento is HUGE! I thought it would be tiny, but there is a whole labyrinth of beautiful streets adorned with tourist shops and boutiques, lots of lemon shops, fake belts and bags, even a Christmas shop!

  • We caught the Hydrofoil over to Capri for an outrageous 78 euro return (2 tickets) – so expensive! 40 minutes later on the isle of Capri, we jumped in a boat and motored around the island. I love being on a boat and had a lovely 1.5 hours getting the best views of the island, checking out beautiful cliffs, natural arches, blue, green and white grottos (at the Blue Grotto we paid the overpriced ticket to get into a small wooden dingy and go into the cave. It was beautiful but I could tell others were hugely unimpressed, especially by the ticket price!). We cruised under the lover’s arch, past houses belonging to millionaires (Georgio Armani, Swarovski..). The sea was the most incredible mix of deep royal blue and turquoise – so inviting!

  • Caught a crazy little bus up to Ana Capri for the best views from the top of the island – down to the harbour and out to Naples and Vesuvius in the background. Cute little town on the top to wander through, pop into church and grab a lemon slushi.

  • The final hydrofoil from Sorrento to Naples is now around 4.45pm, unlike the timetable we had that said it was 6.45pm. So we missed the last boat and had to head to the train station. Despite the drama this worked out well. In less than an hour and 4 euros lighter, we were in Naples. Cheaper and quicker than the boat!

  • I wish we’d had more time in Naples, and I wish it wasn’t our last night. We were exhausted and this is not a city to experience exhausted! It’s like no other Italian city I’ve seen (or European for that matter). It’s loud, fast, dirty, busy, crazy… people shouting, scooters zooming by, there is definietly an edge here. Taxi driver told me to hang onto my handbag.

  • After getting a taxi to our lovely hotel we were feeling a little spun out from the trip from Sorrento. We also didn’t had a guidebook. I remembered that Naples featured in Eat Pray Love, so I sought out some info from that book instead (my alternative travel guide!) – Naples as described by Elizabeth Gilbert:

    “I instantly love Naples. Wild, raucous, noisy, dirty, balls-out Naples. An anthill inside a rabbit warren, with all the exoticism of a Middle Eastern bazaar and a touch of New Orleans voodoo. A tripped out, dangerous and cheerful nuthouse… The city is decorated with the laundry that hangs from every window and dangles across every street; everybody’s fresh-washed undershirts and brassieres flapping in the wind like Tibetan prayer flags...”

    YES YES YES. It is JUST like this, and I happily forwent the Lonely Planet and just rattled that beautifully accurate (having been to both New Orleans and a Middle Eastern bazaar) description around in my mind as I lay on my bed and listened to the noises coming from outside my window… deep within the rabbit warren.

  • We did go out to eat but we didn’t venture far, I didn’t get my famous pizza or napleotean icecream, instead we had our final carbonara of the trip whilst watching the locals thunder up and down the streets on their scooters and finally headed back, exhausted and ready for an early night… We had a 5.45am taxi to the airport. Time to leave Italy and go home…

So, the trip is over. It had been a real adventure, a sensory invigoration, tasting the most delicious food, seeing picture perfect countryside and beautiful coastal scenes. I’d travelled back in time to Ancient Rome, exploring Medieval cities with incredible architecture and renaissance art, and those buried in firey lava at the start of the century. I’d climbed to dizzying heights and gazed down on the labyrinths of those ancient cities, and peered up at towering church domes and felt overwhelmed by the scale and opulence of the past. I’d walked the rim of the most dominating and awesome natural feature on the landscape, Vesuvius and bobbed over waters of sparkling turquoise. Had my ears battered with the beep and buzz of scooters, listened to the sing song italian voices, always animated, always in drama, smelt the richest coffee to tantalise my tastebuds and felt soft sand between my toes. It’s been a blast Italy, and one day, I’ll be back!

PompeiiPompeii victimSorrentoSorrento StreetsTop of VesuviusPompeii

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On the middle stage of our Italian adventure, it was time to descend the boot of Italy, from thigh to calf, and we decided the best way to do this was by car. After picking up our little “pencil-sharpener” car in Siena, we wound our way to the A1 autostrade, starting to experience (but not even getting close to) the chaos that is driving in Italy! Our ultimate destination was Sorrento, much further south, and we needed a half way stop, and I was desperate to get to the coast and gaze out across the mediterranean sea. I love the coast, and a holiday is not a holiday if I don’t feel sand between my toes. So, the research led me to Sperlonga. And 4.5 hours of driving (and ducking and diving on the autostrade) we made it there! My observations…

  • The drive from Siena along the A1 was one of the most beautiful drives I have experienced. Once you get past the tarmac and vehicles whizzing by, the scenery is pure Tuscany – cypress trees, landscapes straight out of renaissance paintings, hill villages perched ontop of rocks, and all this was bathed in a beautiful pinky orange glow as the sun came down on our race to the coast before dark…

  • The autostrade is a toll road, but worth the 17 euros we paid. Probably spent around 3 hours on it, zipped past Rome without a blink of the eye. The roads here were very clear (unlike those around Naples) and like I said, with a front row seat to an artist’s inspiration of landscapes.

  • So, onto Sperlonga. We arrived after dark (driving and navigating in the dark in these parts without sat nav was a little testing). On entering Sperlonga it reminded me a little of the Truman Show. The streets were in neat little rows, everything white, manicured gardens and not a soul in sight. It was late in the season, it’s probably jumping in high season. I hear locals from Rome and Naples flock here for their holidays!

  • Our hotel was the 4 star Hotel Ganimede. It was a delight to see this place glowing in the night after our 4.5 hour drive – free parking, a glittering pool and lovely white halls to our high tech room!

  • Sperlonga can easily be covered in a day – spent the morning exploring. Walked round to the castle and into the bay on the other side of the spit. Went and sat on some rocks at the harbour watching a local diver. Spotted a guy with flippers and a harpoon fishing around the rocks. The water is crystal clear and super inviting but COLD!

  • We decided to plug the expense hemmorrhage and have one meal “self-catering” so went to a local supermarket. Here we got bread, proscuitto, cheese, a salad selection peaches and crisps for under 5 euros – BARGAIN!

  • We sizzled in the heat and retired to our pool for a good 5 hours catching the gorgeous rays. The Kindle came into its own and I downloaded Pompeii by Robert Harris (fabulous book!) to get myself in the mood for the next day.

  • It was only in the evening, after an amazing walk along the beach (with writing in the sand) that we discovered THERE IS AN ENTIRE VIBRANT BAR, RESTAURANT AND SHOP SCENE NESTLING INSIDE THE OLD TOWN ON THE HILL and the end of the strip! We climbed the stairs on a whim, and kept going, the sun was setting and we stumbled upon this incredible little world, ontop of the rock, overlooking the sea, with faulous bars (killer mojitos), and beautiful little boutiquey shops and quite a buzz with locals (how did we nearly miss that?!?!).

  • Finally, on leaving Sperlonga, it’s easy to get gnarled up in the one way system. It’s the town that perhaps you aren’t allowed to leave! Get back on the main road and head out the way you came in (rather than trying to continue round on the main road). Signposting isn’t their strongpoint and it’s a fair trek still to Pompei…

Over-all I loved our little respite on the beach, Sperlonga is beautiful and it’s a wonderful contrast of purpose built resort with old town with hidden boutique treasures. The sunset is stunning and it’s super chilled, the perfect sandwich filling between the two crazy cities of Rome and Naples. A spot to recharge before moving on. We spend 2 nights there (one whole day) put with the temptation of Pompei within sniffing distance, definitely time to push on!

Sperlonga harboursperlonga harpoon fishingbeach at sperlongasperlongaon the way up to the old town sperlongawriting in the sand at sperlonga

Sunset in Sperlonga

Sunset in Sperlonga

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Although I had always wanted to go to Florence, Siena was really the place that I was most looking forward to in my entire trip to Italy (ever since watching the opening scenes of the Quantum of Solace). During the planning stages Florence was really meant as a hopping point to get to Siena, but we ended up only spending an afternoon in Siena in the end. That’s the trouble with having to fit adventures into your annual leave restrictions. Despite the brief affair with Siena, it is one that will stay with me forever. It left enough of an impression to find a place in my heart and take up permanent residence. My observations…

  • We arrived by bus from Florence, which is a beautiful way to get between cities as it’s relatively quick, very easy (bus station right next to the train station in Florence) and CHEAP! I also had my first proper glimpses of the stunning Tuscan countryside, starting right away as we left Florence – cypress trees poking out between the buildings, opening up to full blown countryside, winding round corners, and hill villages peeking out of the top of vistas. As we got closer and closer to Siena, there were some stunning views of the slate rooves and drops down into the valleys. It’s a good build up to the beautiful city…

  • Since we were travelling through Siena and not stopping the night, we had to find somewhere to stash our wheelie cases so we were free for the afternoon. We learnt a little lesson here, as we had to drag them around the cobbled streets for a while before coming full circle and realising we can store them directly beneath ground where the bus dropped us – should have kept our eyes open!

  • Siena sizzles! Even in October, it was significantly hot there – much hotter than Rome – I don’t know if this is usually the case, but especially in the Piazza del Campo, it’s like a giant frying pan!

  • Nothing prepared me for the incredible view that hit me when I finally descended the steps down a little alley and it opened out onto Piazza Il Campo. I think I actually said “WOW” out loud. It just opens up like a lost city in the jungle, this huge sweeping piazza covering what feels like 180 degrees of your vision. The Torre de Mangia skyrocketing up ahead of you, clear blue sky overhead and the fabulous curve of the frying pan piazza sweeping infront of you. Even after a bus ride and dragging my wheelie over those cobbles, this was incredible!!

  • The best Piazza EVER for just sitting and enjoying being alive! We got a front row seat at one of the many trattorias on the piazza and ordered my very favourite – Vongole and beer, and enjoyed the sizzle in the sunshine (rolled up my shorts to flash a little flesh and feel those rays on my face… ahhh…) NOW you know you’re on holiday!

  • This is another city for shopping, I’m sure. I just want to wander around and enjoy the medievalness of it all. But the beautiful shop windows and the contrast of glitzy watch shops against the crooked architecture make it all the more enchanting.

  • With very little time (3 hours), it felt impossible to see some sights, but we bought the joint ticket to see the duomo, museum, crypt, and we got to climb another “spagetti” staircase to get our money shot of the gorgeous red slate rooves over the city. It was quick, but I’m not the type of gal to linger, so it was perfect for me (and the church is a great escape from that sun!!)

And then, just as quickly as we’d arrived there, it was time to move on 😦 We had a bus to catch to Due Ponte, to find our hire car and press on for the next leg of our adventure. 4 hours through fabulous tuscany scenes south, back past Rome, and onto Sperlonga and time for our beach section of the itinerary! It was time to discover if it was true what they say about Italian drivers…

Red rooves of SienaDuomo, SienaEntering Piazza Il Campo, SienaBeer and vongole at Il Campo

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Florence was the second stop on our tour of Italy (after Rome), and it’s a city I’ve always wanted to visit. I knew I’d love it there, I had big expectations, and it didn’t disappoint. My observations…

  • We stayed in a lovely B&B with amazing friendly and super helpful owners, Hotel San Giovanni, teetering on the brink of the Piazza del Duomo, the view of the square and the ridiculously ornate and breathtaking Duomo from our window was distracting in the best possible way. Nothing like throwing open the shutters in the morning to watch the piazza getting busy with hawkers and tourists.

  • Got spun round by bicycles whizzing by – tourists and locals are encouraged to cycle here, which is great but there are no rules and they zip and swerve all over the place. A slight improvement on the same motorised version further south in Sorrento…

  • Spent many a happy moment taking pictures of the full moon, peeking out from behind the Duomo dome, between high walls of the alley ways, magical…

  • Enjoyed getting lost in the medieval alleyways, every one with little boutiques, cosy bars and tardis like caves of restuarants. It’s small so OK to wander at will without fear of ending up in some shady district…

  • Decided to climb the Duomo tour in the late afternoon – around 5.30, with an hour left and it was nearly empty! Even managed to run up all the twisty turny staircases – no queues (I imagine it’s horribly packed and hot during the day..) – just in time to experience a gorgeous view across the city as the sun was starting to set.

  • Spent a very painful 2 hours in the slowest moving queue to get into the Academia Gallery mid-morning. Watched a tour groups and people with advance tickets jumped infront of us. In the end, despite committing 2 hours we’ll never get back we bailed and went and had lunch. Went back later that day (at 5.30) and queued for around 20 minutes then got straight in! Go after the tour groups right at the end of the day. Michelango’s David is immense. One of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen. Stand at the back of the room and admire him from afar.

  • Eat well in Florence. Acqua al 2 for a suprise sample set of mains, Vivoli for gelato…

  • There are so many beautiful shops with designer clothes that it’s enough to make your purse shudder… I indulged in some serious window shopping, and spoilt myself with cheap but cheerful bright coloured nail varnishes from Kiko – a sweetshop of makeup!

  • With potential to spend a lot of money here, and spend a lot of time in queues, don’t feel a slave to it all, there are plenty of amazing things to see around every corner, from the outside. There’s the original plaster mould of David on the Piazza del Signores, other curious statues on that square, the beautiful Ponte Vecchio, and the views of the river, and fun little perches to sit and watch the world go by.

There’s something timeless about Florence. It’s an incredibly beautiful and mystical city and although I only spent a couple of days here, I felt I was able to peek behind the curtains and see some real treats! Just the perfect balance of history and modern day before jumping on a bus and heading to the sizzling pan of Siena!

Greatest tiramisu in FlorenceGoing up the Duomo, FlorenceFlorence Duomo at night

Feasting in FlorenceDuomo roof, FlorencePhotos at the topView over Florence

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Just fresh back from a grand tour of Italy. Well, maybe more a mad dash around some places I’ve always wanted to go, and my head is still buzzing with thoughts, feelings, tastes, smells, crazy car journeys, historical and cultural delights and natural wonders.
Instead of delivering my lengthy diaries, I thought I’d sum it up in a set of “observations” posts. So here is Rome…

  • I was last in Rome 10 years ago, expected a slightly edgy, dirty experience on entering via the train from the airport, but it’s changed and now turns out to be a buzzy, lively area with shops, bars and beeping scooters..

  • Vias lined with ancient buildings with gnarly old doors, scooters and cars zooming up and down the streets, small doors leading into dimly light rooms and little shops open up and down the street. Life on every corner, old men shuffling along the pavements, a dog walker, pockets of youths, lovers, tourists. This city is alive and full of promises of stories and history.

  • Despite being nearly October, it was warm and muggy, mosquito bites already appearing on my sandalled feet

  • Found the Santa Croce B&B after having a moment with the map, B&B up some flights of stairs behind a buzzered gate. Simple but clean, with a huge breakfast of meats, cheeses, yogurts, pastries, delicious OJ and coffee to blow your head off, all laid out for your designated time in the morning.

  • The Coliseum at night is a spectacular sight, even better than in the day, and a wonderful intro to the city. It’s only a 1/2 hour walk from Santa Croce, and there is a maze of cobbled side streets with eateries in the area, fun place to spend the evening…

  • Food to die for… Creamy carbonara, pizza piled high with rocket and proscuito, tarts fat with fruit and custard, mouthwatering mountains of gelato, all washed down with carafes of red wine and coffee so strong it makes you shudder… Leave your guilt complex at home and enjoy the gluttony!

  • Trevi is overcrowded and beautiful but perhaps over-rated. Pantheon is breathtaking. Enormous, overwhelming. Let it completely blow your mind, walk in, walk round, gaze up at the roof. If it’s raining, love the fact that the spray comes in through the centre and drains away through almost invisible holes. Read about the engineering in your guide book. Spend time here just feeling the majesty of the place…

  • Check out the pooches of Rome. Romans love their dogs in every shape, size and colour. All manner of personality, each to match their owners. Sit at a cafe nursing a 7 euro coffee and secretly snap them on your smart phone… nevermind people watching, this is pooch watching!

  • Develop a coffee habit (this isn’t limited to Rome). I completely replaced tea with coffee (latte) whilst in Italy, It’s the nectar of the gods… It’ll keep you going on your sightseeing marathons as well!

  • Queue for St Peter’s Basillica (if you’re there in October, August is a different matter…) It’s worth it. Embrace the queue, it’s part of the process and the adventure. I nearly fell over when I got inside. THE most spectacular church you’ll ever visit. Try to find a peaceful spot and avoid walking round with your camera held aloft. Keep your camera in your bag for at least 20 minutes, then take pictures. Just enjoy the view with your own eyes. Breath it in. Let it knock you sideways. LOOK. Then snap.

  • Do the Vatican Museums around lunchtime, they’re emptier then. Don’t do the quick route to the Sistene chapel, do the long one. I think there are actually more interesting and impressive things on the way, that you can take pictures of. Again, in the Sistine Chapel don’t take sneaky photos (you’re not allowed), just be with the place and see it through your eyes. It’s magical. Even if you are shoulder to shoulder with hundreds of tourists.

  • Take a segway tour. It’s a lot of fun, incredibly interesting and a great way to see the sights and cover a lot of ground in a short period of time. There are hills and cobbled streets that the segways make light work of, the guides are ace. It’s worth every penny (but you may develop a segway addiction). And take the tour on Sunday morning (it’s quieter at the attractions and the main road – Imperial Way – is closed to traffic – great for Segways!)

  • Don’t try to do everything. There was a tonne of stuff we didn’t get to do, but we picked the things we really wanted to see and built in enough time to spend sitting sipping lattes and pooch watching. The experience of wandering and really enjoying a tasty meal are as good and important as standing in lines waiting to see momuments. Mix it up!

  • It’s expensive, really expensive, so accept it and don’t get stressed about it. Restaurants charge covers (for the bread) and add service, and there’s always a guy trying to sell you a plastic Coliseum or a neon thing to fling in the air. Try to keep cheerful through the whole process…

  • When it’s time to move on, try the train – easy, comfortable and cheap!

Next stop, Florence!

PoochSpagettistatuesVatican statuesVatican

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