Travels in Italy – part 4: Roma (8 – 12 July)

If it’s Friday it must be Rome (or something like that…)
Arrived via train from Naples, found our hotel easily, stored our baggage (too early to check in) and set off for a walk around the city. After the chaos of Naples, Rome is a pleasure. No congested streets, very little hooting and traffic flowing smoothly. Of course the place is full of tourists, accompanied by the inevitable touts selling – oh yes, hold me back – wooden African giraffes (like the ones you see leaving SA with overseas visitors) and elephants. 

In the afternoon we joined a free walking tour (we have derived great benefit from these various tours) from the Spanish steps, criss-crossing the streets to end up at the Trevi fountain. Very hot, but most enjoyable. A great first day in Rome.

One very busy cultural day:

Part 1 – The Colosseum. We met our well-informed and interesting guide bright and early (again – you need to try and do things before it gets too hot) and were shown so much relating to the ancient Romans. It is amazing how advanced their engineering was e.g, staircases planned to get 70 000 people or so out of the stadium in 15 minutes. 
Rome seems to be the city of temples (formerly) and churches (now) as well as fountains. Fortunately there are fresh water fountains regularly placed in both the ancient and modern cities. A real bonus! 

Part 2: We made our way (with some difficulty, getting confused with the transport system) to a meeting place near the Vatican. With our guide, we went through the museum, as she carefully explained what we could expect to see in the museum and Sistine Chapel. There was just so much excellence seen in sculpture, architecture, painting and tapestry in the museum. Then the Sistine Chapel (with strict controls regarding dress for both men and women) no pics allowed but just the most amazing artwork, something that will stay with us forever! Then San Pietro – we have seen so many churches on this trip, each with its own character (and glorification of the local big politician) but St Peter’s is in a different league. Such artwork, such architecture, a wonder to behold. We feel privileged to have had the opportunity to visit places of this calibre. WOW!!

After a hectically cultural day yesterday, today was quiet: a leisurely breakfast, then we walked towards the gardens of Villa Borghese, and had a glimpse of Sunday as the Romans do it – families in the park, walking their dogs, children playing, picnics on the grass. A visit to Hard Rock Cafe for M to souvenir shop. Then pizza and beer at a local eatery, maybe coffee for locals but for us today, just far too hot! – and possibly a gelato for families with children. We walked through the city, tossed coins in the Trevi fountain (me – making a wish, as required, to return to Rome and adding some cash to the apparently €1500 collected daily!) and then back to the hotel. 
Our budget doesn’t stretch to Sunday as the Romans do it – couples walking out of Bulgari, Gucci and Louis Vitton with smart bags advertising their purchases – “saldi” meaning sale when items have been reduced from €200 to €150 – still a cool ZAR 2500 or so! Sorry SA friends, no such fancy souvenirs for you!
Interesting observing the general population in Rome – a lot more cosmopolitan, not as well dressed as the Florentines. The streets also seem dirtier than Florence, but cleaner than Naples. In all cities, an obvious police presence, although the more attractive ones seem to be out of the capital. Generally Rome seems more expensive, although public transport is cheaper than Florence. Most cities seem to have gone for a ticket that gives you access to the network for approximately 75 – 100 minutes, so you can change routes as many times as you want in that time. We have found this most convenient, especially when getting lost, and having to turn round and find another route!

Tomorrow our last full day before we have to consider the logistics of getting all our goodies into our suitcases to go home. One friend says she always takes old clothes when traveling, then ditches them at her last stop to make space for purchases! Sounds like a good idea!

Travels in Italy: part 3 – Napoli and Southwards (5 -8 July)

And now we’re in Napoli – a very different experience. One of the blogs I read talked about a city of contrasts, and indeed this we can see. The smart Piazza Garibaldi, hub of the city transport system, surrounded by people from our continent selling “Nikes” and similar running shoes, handbags and other rubbish. 
Once we had checked in, we decided to catch a metro towards the harbour, and then further south to “flat land” – many units of sub-economic housing, lots of tv aerials and satellite dishes (facing south west, we think?) and then drying racks suspended outside flats filled with washing drying in the brilliant sunshine. 

We had great fun returning to our hotel, experiencing life on the metro – one very irate mama with a string of off-spring including one bambino in a pram,merging to make her way down a very crowded train, losing her frayed temper with the people in her way, who really had nowhere to go! Interesting that the Neapolitans all chat on the train – something we seldom saw in Florence.

Seen at a little supermarket – the largest lemon I have ever seen – apparently a speciality in this region! 

Tomorrow we look forward to a trip to Pompeii – as they say, watch this space!

Exploring Pompeii and Napoli:
This morning, fairly bright and early, we caught the Circumversuvia train which travels towards Pompeii and Sorrento. I was very pleased that the “skip the line” tickets which I had bought online were successful and there, we were, the ancient city of Pompeii at our feet. It really was a wonder to behold, areas of living, murals, statues and normal houses all evident. It was very hot and dusty and we were most grateful for the ancient water fountains offering cooling fresh water. Although there were many other tourists it was quite possible to walk around with the free book guide, reading up on the different sites as we went. A very worthwhile visit – and I could post 100 pics or more, but that would be overkill! 

Back to Naples, a quick stop at our hotel and then off on the metro to explore other parts of the city. We eventually got to Castel San Elmo, which far less touristy and a real delight. The views from the top helped us put our various wanderings in Napoli – along the promenade past Castel Nuovo (which annoyingly was closed for the day), along the beachfront (no sand, just concreted walkways and rocks but lots of sunbathers and swimmers, some more attractive than others!) and the impressive Piazza Plebiscito into perspective. A good excursion, which we finished off with “happy hour” drinks in the smart Vanvitelli area of Napoli where we ordered a Spritzer (fizzy wine and prosecco drink) which was accompanied by enough food to feed us for supper.

A busy day being tourists!

Thursday. Another wonderful day – feeling part of the rich and famous visiting the Amalfi coast – thanks Sally Beuster for the suggestion!

We started in Sorrento, a town about an hour by train from Naples. Sorrento felt a bit like the Umhlanga of this area – a definite holiday feel although the town itself is about 300 – 400m directly above the almost non-existent beach. 

From Sorrento, our mini-bus traveled along the very winding but spectacular Strada Statale 163 which to us seemed like Chapman’s Peak drive on steroids, measuring half the width, and twice as dangerous. Cars are frequently parked along the road, often illegally, people are walking, and just about every stretch is taken up with fruit or veggie vendors, curio shops or restaurants with the most amazing views. One cannot even begin to appreciate the genius of the Italian civil engineers who built this road in the 1930’s. And mention must also be made of our bus driver, who negotiated all those hair-pin bends and hundreds of zig-zags, driving us safely to Amalfi and back again. On the way there, we were seated on the side closest to the sea, and at times we looked down what seemed to be a sheer drop of 300m. Beaches can only be accessed by descending 100’s of steps, or by boat. Often rather scary to say the least. Houses were pointed out belonging to celebrities such as Sophia Loren, Gina Lollobrigida and Roger Moore (except Sophia’s is no longer hers – apparently tax problems!) The sea has luxury yachts with holiday makers suntanning or diving into the beautiful blue sea. 

Our first stop, besides a view point on the road, was Positano. It seemed full of tourists, and hundreds of shops with opportunities to spend money. Next stop, Amalfi, where we chose to add a boat trip to view that magnificent coast from the sea. Pictures really don’t do justice to this world heritage site but hopefully ours give you a little glimpse of the beauty which greeted us as we drove along from one zig-zag to the next.
Our visit to Naples is over and our last destination on this trip – Rome. But first I must reflect on our visit here.
Ever since Mrs Berezowski taught us about Garibaldi sucking lemons on the hills of Naples, I have been interested in this area. While this may have been poetic license on her part, it is certainly not difficult to imagine. Guiseppe Garibaldi is certainly celebrated locally, with Piazza Garibaldi 100m away from our hotel, statue and station. Our hotel as well, although I suspect that’s because of the Piazza. 
And then the lemons: you have already seen the pic of M holding a huge lemon, a “Stusato”, a speciality in this fertile agricultural area. Lemons are used widely, in food and drink – we enjoyed fresh lemon-ice (a bit like a slush puppy) and then after our supper last night, we were served “Limoncello” which is a tasty liqueur. Pictures of lemons adorn table linen, or are painted on pottery from tabletops (a cool €3000 to ship home!) to large urns, platters, and a variety of kitchen items. 
Naples has been interesting – the city itself ranging from the upmarket area where locals gather in their courtyards or at a local cafe, at tables set out on the pavement. In other areas, teenagers sit on the back of a stationary motorbike (think “Westside Story”) and old men sit on some old chairs gathered in a group on the street amongst the battered cars and motorbikes. In climate very similar to Durban, much of the vegetation the same (even aloes!) and warm enough for migrants to live in squatter type conditions (not that we’ve seen many of these.) There are large numbers of blocks of flats, no more than 5 stories high, often with washing hanging outside each flat’s balcony – this you certainly don’t see in the better areas. Many people make use of “Metronapoli” the “tube” system (again much admiration for Italian engineers) but also hectic traffic with buses, cars, motorbikes and bicycles all being involved in commuting. 

And now, the last leg of our trip – off to Rome.

Travels in Italy – part 2: Firenzi and Tuscany (29 June – 5 July)

Next stop Florence: 
The high speed Trenitalia train, traveling at times at almost 300 km/h through farming country side and 10 tunnels altogether from Venice to Florence was an interesting experience. 

Upon arrival we stored our luggage at the station and found the Hop-on Hop-off bus, traveling around Florence and up the Tuscany hills to Fiseole, where we walked around and a bite to eat – at quite some cost – more expensive we felt than Venice! Then back into the city, visiting Hard Rock Cafe, walking around The Duomo, before meeting up with Heidi. Great joy of HRC, nice and convenient and decent toilets.

Her villa is lovely with a beautiful view over Florence. We enjoyed a most relaxing evening catching up. Interesting about living in this part of the world – few people have cars, so one either buys a few groceries which one has to somehow get home (walking) or one gets them delivered. We asked the taxi to stop at a supermarket en route home, which he did reluctantly while Heidi and I dashed around the shop getting some supplies. She had ordered a delivery for this evening, but alas no such luck, the delivery still haven’t hasn’t happened.

Florence – Thursday and Friday:
We’ve had a couple of hectic days! 
Yesterday (Thursday) we walked with Heidi into town, where she is based at the UNICEF offices in the centre of the city. We then joined a free walking tour focusing on the Renaissance – interesting learning more about Santa Maria Novella church and obviously the Duomo. Then a bus ride to the Michelangelo view site over the city, where we had time to relax in the gardens and eat our picnic lunch. Then back “home” (whoever would have thought we’d be able to enjoy a holiday in a villa in Tuscany?) before walking up the road to meet Heidi at a pizzeria in San Domenico.
Today involved LOTS of walking! Besides a bus into town, we then walked (it felt) everywhere. First to the Duomo, going inside to look at that magnificent structure. The art work and mosaics are a wonder to behold. 

One of the problems of traveling is that you get thirsty, requiring much consumption of water. That’s easy – you leave home with several filled bottles. But then, nature calls and “spend a penny” translates into spend some euro’s – normally €1 – €1.50. That’s about R20 to use a toilet! Eek!! Anyway, we are grateful to have found Hard Rock Cafe (where Euro’s have already been spent) and which is conveniently placed in the centre of the city. 

A wonderful find was the Da Vinci museum – it has interactive displays, which we both enjoyed. There was also very informative film about Da Vinci, which offered us respite from the outside heat as well as insight in a man ahead of his time.

Our day ended with another free walk, this time focusing on the Medici family which had been so influential in this area.

Saturday – here we are in Bologna. We decided to travel here by bus, a most beautiful journey, winding our way through the Apennines from Florence. 

Once we had arrived in this city, we walked through a flea-market (I’m sure at least half the goods would have been seen at Essenwood market – like traditional Zulu mats which we didn’t dare enquire about, lest we get hassled to buy.

Interesting that Bologna is the only place where we’ve felt uncomfortable at times. We were sitting on a step looking at the map, when a man dropped a chunky gold ring on the pavement in front of us. He then attempted to get us to buy it, but we walked away quickly – Mark probably swearing at him in Afrikaans. Then later, another map consulting moment and a ” bag” lady started asking us to buy some of her goods. There are also other occasional beggars on the streets, but nowhere as many as we are used to seeing in SA.

Bologna is known as the city of towers – and indeed, we experienced this as we got 2 for the price of 1! The San Pietro campanile is a tower within a tower. It provides access via a graded walkway between the inner and outer towers. Once at the top we enjoyed the magnificent views. After visiting a number of sites, and enjoying a wander about the inner city, we attempted to negotiate the bus system to find our hotel. Alas, this was not a great success and we ended up schlepping around the streets of Bologna – and thank goodness for mapping apps which helped us find our way to our hotel. 

We had booked this place on a special offer for a traditional meal which included the room. A good meal indeed with a bottle of prosecco. Tomorrow we will use the hotel shuttle to get back to the station.

I really enjoyed our excursion to Bologna (thanks Marie Joubert for the suggestion) not only for the spectacular drive to the city but also for a less tourist-congested place. A city rich in history, very interesting. 

I must also confess that one gets to a stage of suffering from historical and cultural overkill. Tomorrow we are planning our return to Florence, and a day to catch up.

Returning from Bologna: oh dear! 

We arrived at the station, confidently went off to the machine to buy tickets, very pleased with ourselves that we managed to work out what we had to get, costing us about €26. The train was due to leave from platform 6 at 11.23 so off we went and waited at what we thought was platform 6, only to suddenly realize (at 11.23) that there was more than one platform 6, and we were on the wrong one. Goodbye train! So off to enquiries and after a long wait seats were found for us on an express train for which we had to pay another €20 each. Damn! However, we are now on the train, returning “home” to Via del Forbici in Florence.

Monday: our Tuscany trip.

We left “home” bright and early, meeting our tour at the station. Onto a bus (with air con and wifi) and on our way, 12+ hours of being a tour guide tourist, instead of a self-guide tourist. While the tour guide has definite advantages such as knowing where to go (huge plus!) and procuring discounted rates (presumably) for lunch and special tours, it also means you get informed that you have only 45 minutes and you must get to spot X, otherwise you’ll be left behind. At our first stop, one errant couple got confused, didn’t meet us at X, but went to the bus (different spot) but delayed us as we waited for them at X. The tour guide berated them – very kindly I thought, given how concerned he was – and they made sure they were timeous thereafter. 
Our first stop was Pisa, and yes, the leaning tower certainly lives up to its name. The town is extremely tourist orientated, and well populated with touts similar to those seen in other tourist spots selling ” Rolex” watches, “Ray-Ban” sunglasses and “genuine” leather handbags as well as African bongo drums (really – you’d come to Pisa to buy a Bongo drum??) and lots of cheap Chinese rubbish. The cathedral looks impressive but we didn’t have time to inspect it. 
Quite a long drive then to San Gigmignano, very picturesque but full of tourists. Most of the town is accessed on foot, and the main walkway has touristy shops left and right, many selling exactly the same sort of stuff – pottery (lovely but pricey) and food. The town is known for its towers and from the viewpoint we could see 7 or 8 at a glance.
From there we drove via Poggibonsi (just love that name!) to a wind farm for some wine tasting – real Chianti red wine, we were told. I’m not a red wine expert but what we tasted could compare favourably to some SA merlot. I had some white with lunch, which I enjoyed (both wine and lunch.)
Siena was our last stop – this for me, was the best. We walked through the town guided by a woman from Siena who enlightened us on much of the culture and uniqueness of that area. The Sienese pointed arch, the annual Polo del Siena, a horse race which takes place in the main Piazza (town “square” which is a hemisphere) and the impressive cathedral which amongst other interesting artifacts has some ancient books and a beautiful fresco in its library. 
Finally, back to Florence, and our last schlepp up the steep road “home”. How lovely it was to have had the use of Heidi’s villa, with its scenic outlook over Firenzi and the hills, space to unwind and time to catch up. 
And now, next stop Napoli. For the first time, we experienced a delay in trains – ours was nearly half an hour late.

Travels in Italy – Part 1: Venezia (26 -29 June)

First 24 hours in Venice: they say you should allow yourself to get lost in Venice, this way, you get to know the city. Also, don’t trust google maps, as we have discovered! 
The first challenge was getting to the hotel, and after a most welcome shower, we then wandered off to San Marco Piazza, then supper at a little restsurant (of which there are hundreds! ) we went wandering along the Grand Canale, with lots of tourists and an equal number (it seemed) of vendors selling the same cheap eastern goods that you could buy in Durban! Back to our hotel, where we met up with some South Africans and Americans and found out where the local supermarket is – the place to get fresh food and drinks (beers and proscetto). 
This morning off to Campo San Polo to join a free walking tour. This was a most wonderful experience, led by a young woman who is passionate about this city. The walk focused on the San Polo island, but we leant so much about the history of Venice, as well as how normal people live their lives in this very different and interesting city. There are no roads – so families might have a boat to drop the children at school, and then go to work. We saw the ambulance boat arriving, and also witnessed the official looking police boat patrolling the waterways. 

Day 2 (more or less) in Venice. 

Venice has 118 islands and 500 bridges and yesterday I think we traversed most of them. Besides our morning walking tour, we later walked to the station. For those of you who have never been to this city, direct land routes don’t exist. You look at the map, look for the roads/walkways mentioned and about 50% of the time you find a name that coincides. But eventually we found the station and returned via a different route. Pizza and wine on the Campo outside the hotel, once again watching life go by. Then an evening walk to Piazza San Marco to get some evening pictures. 

Today we opted for a visit to some of the other islands. First stop was Murano, famous for glass blowing. Venice is full of shops with glass objects to buy, and Murano equaled this. But it was possible to shop around. We enjoyed a visit to the Glass museum which included an exhibition by Silvia Levenson, who left Buenos Aires with two small children, and her work relates to that. We also saw a glass-blower – although this is tourist trap, one cannot help but be fascinated by the artistry and skill of the man.

The rest of day 2 – exploring the islands

After Murano, we caught the waterbus (together with throngs of other tourists with the same idea) to Burano. This island (or set of islands) is known for its beautiful lace as well as its colourful houses. We enjoyed wandering the streets, looking at the the shops, eyeing out the beautiful lace tablecloths but at €100 or more paying R1700 didn’t seem viable. 
Our next stop was Lido, and getting our feet wet in the Adriatic. We had found some vacant loungers under an umbrella and we able to relax there for about half an hour before the rep from company running all the facilities came to ask us for money – so we just apologized and moved on. On our way back to the bus stop we saw tuk-tuk double cycles (side by side), hired one for half an hour, exploring some of Lido. Lots of fun, although some arguments about control!
Back via the Grande Canale and then back to our hotel. We bought some cold meet and salads from the local supermarket and again enjoyed watching life go by in the Campo.

We are now on the high speed train to Florence, looking forward to meeting up with Heidi and exploring a different city.