Thursday, July 21, 2011

Final days of the trip - Sam Gimignano and Siena

Now I am home I still have to post the details of the last couple of days of our trip, so here they are.

The evening of our “escape” from the horrible accomodation we headed into San Gimignano for dinner.  It is a medieval town situated on a hilltop with 13 towers.  There were originally 72, but only 13 remain.  When seeing it from a distance it is like seeing a modern city centre with skyscrapers, but it’s really old towers.  It’s a really strange sensation.  Inside the town walls it’s all medieval stone buildings and narrow alleyways.  We ate at a restaurant on one of the two squares in the town, the Piazza della Cisterna, so named for the 13th century well in the centre of the square.  Grooves have been worn in the edges of it from centuries of ropes rubbing against them while pulling up buckets of water.  As the sun slowly went down the colours of the stone buildings kept changing.

Next day it was back to San Gimignano to explore further.  We found some places with breathtaking views of the Tuscan countryside, and then Andy and Tommy went into a torture museum.  That was of no interest to me, so I went to look inside the Cathedral.  All the walls and ceiling were painted with fantastic frescos, although in a couple of places you could see that they were covering up other, older frescos, which was frustrating.  What were those frescos of, and why were they painted over?   Andy and Tommy then decided to climb the tallest of the towers, the Torre Grossa, while I wandered around and browsed in the shops.  They said there was a fantastic view from the top.
The rest of that afternoon was spent driving through the countryside, and then back at the hotel relaxing by the pool.

On our final day of sightseeing we decided to go to Siena.  Before we got there Tommy saw some signs pointing to Montereggio, which was one of the towns in his Xbox game Assasin’s Creed, so he was keen to see how it compared to the representation in the game.  It was another medieval walled town, but very small (only 2 streets) and very unspoiled.  But the town was getting ready for a medieval re-enactment event that was started at 5pm that day.  There was a stall where you could exchange your Euros for “Grossi”, and other stalls all had prices in Grossi.  It was very frustrating, as it looked like it would have been great fun to stay and experience the event, but we had to be back in Florence that night.  I know there are medieval re-enactments in Australia, but not in a real medieval town.

After looking around there (which didn’t take long, because Montereggio is not big) we were back heading to Siena.  We found Siena, but had no idea where we were in relation to the old part of the town, or where we could park.  Over the years I have been to lots of towns and never had so much trouble before.  Eventually we had to ask a policeman where the old town was and where we could park.  We made our way to the Piazza del Campo, the semi-circular town square where twice a year the famous horse race, the Palio, takes place.  The Piazza is completely surrounded by Palazzos.  One is a public building, but all the rest were private residences.
The next thing to see was the Cathedral.  First part to view was the Baptistry, with more lovely frescos.  Then the crypt.  That was incredible.  There had been so many different phases of building that you could see Gothic arches cutting through Norman arches, barrel vaulting cutting through old frescos and so on.  At one place the floor was clear so you could see down, and you were looking at a column going down about 20 or 30 feet to another room below.  It was like a giant archaeological site.
The Cathedral itself was spectacular.  Once again, all the frescos, but black and white stripped marble columns and off the nave a room that they called a library, with the most incredible ceiling, and lots of medieval music manuscripts.  The notes were shown on a stave, but without any indication of their length (i.e., whether they were crochets or quavers etc).

After that it was time to head back to Florence, return our hire car, and check into our hotel for our last night.  The next day we caught a train at 8:22 for Rome to get our flight back to Sydney.
Rome airport was the most chaotic, disorganised and badly equipped airport I have ever been to.  The flight from Rome to Bangkok was long and tedious as there was no individual entertainment systems, and watching a movie on a screen at the front is hard at the best of times (people keep standing in the aisles and blocking your view), but it is virtually impossible for me, as I am too short to see over the heads in front of me.  Luckily the flight from Bangkok to Sydney was better.
And now we are home and back to reality... whatever reality is.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

The Chianti Road

We picked up the hire car from Avis and made our way out of Florence.  The experience was for better than that in Naples.  The office was better staffed and the employees had a better attitude.   The cars were parked in a garage next door, not just somewhere on the street.  But we had booked a class C car which is what we usually book in the UK, as is something like a Vauxhall Vectra or a Ford Mondeo, was again going to be a Fiat Punto, which is way too small to fit even one suitcase, far less luggage for three people and the said three people.  Consequently we had to pay a bit more to get a Peugeot 308, which only fitted 2 of the bags in the boot, and one had to sit on the back seat.  But eventually we set off.
We took the back roads, rather than main roads, and headed for a while down the road known as “the Chianti road”.  We didn’t stop at any of the numerous vineyards offering tastings along the way, as Andy would not have been able to try any wines as he was driving, and Tommy wouldn’t because he was underage.  The scenery was fantastic, though, and we found a wonderful place with a marvellous view to stop for a very extended lunch. 

After that we made our way to our accommodation, which was in the countryside near the medieval town of San Gimignano.  The directions were very hard to follow, and Andy had to use the Google maps on his Blackberry to locate the place, otherwise we would never have found it.  The directions assumed that you’d only be coming on an Autostrada from either the north or south.  We walked into reception and it started very badly.  The girl on duty there was on the phone and completely ignored us for at least 10 minutes.  She could have looked up and nodded, or said excuse me to her caller and quickly apologised to us before carrying on her conversionan.  But no.  She reacted as if we were not there.  After a while the postman came in, and he got some attention, although she did not put down the phone, but still we got no acknowledgment.  When she finally got off the phone she issued a terse “Sorry” that was said in the same way and tone as if you’d just brushed against someone as you passed them.  From there it went downhill.  She got into her car to drive to our appointed accommodation in a villa far from reception.  That in itself would not have been a problem, but it turned out that the villa had several “apartments”, and we were pointed to a set of stairs and told to take the door to the left.   The lock was incredibly difficult to open, but finally opened into a kitchen (which we had been told we were not to use), and from that very basic kitchen there were a set of ugly metal stairs leading up.  At the top of the stairs were three locked doors.  Our key did not open any of them.  We finally realised that there was another room downstairs, off the kitchen/living area.  Before I describe the room, let me describe that kitchen/living area.  The kitchen was very basic, with formica benches, and very old appliances.  There was a wooden “dining” table, that looked more like the type of table you find at picnic sites.  On one side were some plain, un-upholstered, wooden chairs.  On the other was a bench.  There was something else in the room which was probably supposed to pass as a sofa.  But the worn orange fabric was actually the back-board of a single bed.  There were no cushions, so it would  not have been a place where you could sit and relax.  A very small TV was located under the ugly metal stairs at right angles to the sofa/bed.
And what about the room?  There was one small window about 4 feet from the ground and about two feet by three feet in size, a tiny bathroom (although perfectly clean) and a double bed with a green floral polyester bedspread, with gathers on the side.  It was straight out of the 1950s or early 1960s.  The other bed for Tommy was a metal framed bed of the type that were used in hospitals in the 1930s.  And this was supposed to be a superior room.  This place bore no resemblance whatsoever to the web site I had looked at.  If I’d seen a room like this on the web site there was no way I would have booked it.  We went back to reception to see what could be done, though to be honest I didn’t want to stay anywhere there by this stage, and there was a second woman there.  This one was obviously more senior, because when we started to complain to the girl, the woman took over.  She refused to acknowledge that the room was anything but fine.  She said the other rooms were all the same.  This really was a superior room, as it allowed space for a third bed (how come they allowed bookings for a triple standard room then?).  Apart from the room being awful, I couldn’t stand the communal “living” area – even if there wouldn’t be anyone else in the “apartment”.  I found a picture in their brochure that I’d seen on the web site.  It showed a nice brass-type bed, with stairs to a mezzanine level where there appeared to be a single bed.  She said they only had one room like that, and it was occupied.  And would you believe we would have had to pay an extra €5 per day for air conditioning, and €3 for each pool towel per day! 
Eventually we left, refusing to stay.  They’d better not charge our credit card.
We did (fairly easily) find somewhere else to stay, although it costs a lot more that I’d planned to pay.  But Andy preferred to pay that rather than spend hours looking for somewhere else.  The room is a fairly standard hotel layout, but has a nice little balcony looking out to San Gimignano.  There is a pool, restaurant, bars (including lovely pool bar) and beautiful gardens.  A lucky escape.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Florence 2

Next day was not quite as hot, but still very hot.  First stop was for Andy and Tommy to climb the bell tower next to the Cathedral before it got too hot.  Meanwhile I went off to look at the street  markets, as I didn’t think I could manage 414 steps to the top.  While looking at the street market I stumbled upon the central food market.  I always like looking at food markets, seeing what there is that I haven’t seen before, or seeing how they display their produce.  This market certainly didn’t disappoint.  As well as fantastic and mouth-watering displays, there was a stall with the biggest mushrooms I have ever seen, lots of stalls with huge amounts of dried porcini mushrooms and sun-dried tomatoes (which were NOT in olive oil) and a couple of butchers where the only item I could recognise was tripe. 

When I met up with Andy and Tommy after their climb we had to make a change of plans.  We had intended to go inside the Cathedral, but the queue was so long it stretched around the corner, along the side of the Cathedral and round the back.  We decided that seeing the inside of the Cathedral wasn’t that important to us.  So we went to the Science Museum, which has a huge collection of scientific instruments, mainly collected by the Medicis, and which includes Galileo’s telescope and many of the contraptions he built to prove/demonstrate movement of objects (like a ball rolling down a ramp, getting faster as it went).
Next was a visit to the Baptistry in front of the Cathedral.  Its doors are said to have been the first piece of work of the Renaissance, demonstrating depth, perspective and background.  Inside the octagonal building is a breathtaking mosaic roof on a background of gold tiles.
Final stop that afternoon was a visit to the Medici Chapels, where many members of the Medici family are buried.  Spectacular inside, but unfortunately about half was covered in scaffolding.
Back to the room for a bit of a rest til it cooled down a bit and then out to dinner, which we ate at a restaurant fronting the Piazza della Signorna.  Towards the end of our meal an orchestra started playing in the Loggia opposite where we were eating.  We enjoyed listening to that for a while, then started chatting to a Canadian family who were also listening.  After that we went down to the river so I could see the Ponte Vecchio by night, and then a slow meander back to our hotel.  Florence had really changed now that it was dark.  It was 10:45 and there were hundreds of people out and about, strolling around, and restaurants that had looked very quiet during the day had spilled out onto the roads.

Florence 1

Our hotel in Florence was very nice.  It was located in a quiet old cobbled street.  Part of the old town, but not the noisy crowded touristy part.  That said, it isn’t a long walk to that touristy part.  It was fairly hot when we arrived, and we had a quick drink at the hotel’s terrace bar, and then set off to look for dinner without asking for a map.  As a consequence we walked a long way out of our way before finally finding ourselves in the Piazza next to the Cathedral.  Thus we first laid our eyes on the confection that is the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore.  I say confection because it is made of white, green and pink marble, set with statues and a couple of mosaics.

We found a restaurant with Ossobucco on the menu (one of my favourites), so climbed down a narrow set of stairs with medieval (or so they looked) frescos decorating the side of the stairs and found ourselves in a vaulted undercroft.  Unfortunately the Ossobucco wasn’t as nice as the architecture and I think I can make a nicer version.
Next day started with our pre-booked trip to the Uffizi Gallery.  I’m glad we had the tickets pre-booked – the non-booked queue looked awful.  Unfortunately half of the exterior was covered in scaffolding, which has become something of a theme on this trip.  We got audio guides to narrate our way through the gallery.  At first that seemed a very good idea, but after a while Andy and I got very sick of the art analysis (“this painting exhibits the juxtaposition of form versus perpendical shading and shows a flow through the picture, illuminated by the afternoon light…”).  If you were interested in art it would be ok, but I’m just a philistine.  Since they already have multiple languages, they could easily have different versions within each language – one for the art ponce and one for the art philistine (“see that ugly face on the bottom left corner sticking out his tongue in a suggestive manner?  People have said that makes this painting rather perverted”) in the same way they have adult and child versions of the audio guides at Hampton Court Palace in England.  (I’ve only every listened to the childrens’ versions, and they are great and not at all patronising.)  Although I liked a lot of the paintings, the only one I recognised was Botticelli’s Birth of Venus.  Most of them were Biblical, and I have to say that most painters of the Madonna and child can’t paint a baby.  None of them look like a real baby.
It had been feeling hot in the gallery, but that was nothing compared to what it was like when we got outside.  I gather the day got to over 40⁰ and it must have been about 150% humidity.  We had some lunch and then headed to the Palazzo Vecchio.  Very beautiful, but very hot inside (strangely enough there is no air-conditioning in medieval palaces).  Out the front of the Palazzo Vecchio is a copy of Michaelangelo’s David.  This is where the original (now in the Academia) was located.  What is there now is a very good copy, and Tommy preferred to see the copy in its original location, which we were happy about as it saved us having to queue up for another art gallery.  We then treated ourselves to a horse and carriage ride, although it was awfully expensive, but Tommy had never done anything like that before.
Next sight to see was the Ponte Vecchio.  It’s amazing how the back rooms of the shops on the bridge stay up with the wooden supports.  It was very crowded on the bridge, and someone didn’t want me looking in the windows of the jewellery shops.  Funny that.  We then wandered around for a bit trying to decide what to do next and eventually decided to give up for the rest of the afternoon as it was so hot, and Andy was suffering – probably from a mild case of heat exhaustion, despite the fact that we had been drinking water almost non-stop for the day.  In the end we decided not to go out for dinner that evening, and I just went out and got us some bread, cheese, salami, prosciutto etc, which we ate in our room.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Sorrento and trip to Florence

Sunday was our day for relaxing.  Andy and Tommy set off for the hotel pool and I set off to explore the town of Sorrento.  I went into a 13th century Franciscan church, which had its cloisters next door.  There was another church I wanted to look in, but there was a service going on (as it was Sunday), so I felt I shouldn’t intrude.  I found several places to enjoy the view along the coast and look down at the sun bathers roasting themselves with no shade.  I then went back to the hotel for an afternoon relaxing and swimming.
This morning we stayed relaxing in the hotel grounds until check out time and headed off on the drive back to Naples.  We had spotted that there was an Avis near the station, from where we were catching the train to Florence, and as that was much closer to our destination, not to mention much closer to the end of the Autostrada (motorway) and therefore didn’t require as much driving through the streets of Naples, we had rung up from Sorrento and arranged to return the car there instead of to the office from which we had rented it.  Then it was just a question of waiting for our high-speed train to Florence.

Amalfi Coast

Saturday was the day for our drive around the Amalfi coast.  Our driver arrived bright and early and we set off in his Mercedes.  The views along the coast really justify all the hype that has been written about them.  The roads weren’t as narrow or the corners as sharp as I’d thought from the description.  They were certainly nowhere near as narrow or sharp as the road up Mt Vesuvius.  A few stops were made to admire the view before we got to Positano. 

It’s really unbelievable the way the houses climb up the steep hillsides.  We were dropped near the start of the pedestrian area of Positano to walk down to the waterfront and explore the narrow street lined with shops.  We went into a church famous for its painting of a black Madonna and otherwise just explored until it was time to meet our driver again.  Next was a stop at a ceramic factory where we saw lots of hand painted plates, jugs, bowls, platters, planters, urns and so on.  Unfortunately although they said they would ship anywhere in the world, they were only interested in doing so for the large, expensive pieces.  As an example, the urns ranged between 600 and €1350.  Much as I liked them, I wasn’t paying that much.
Across the road from this ceramic “factory” (more like a shop to me – I never saw any signs of manufacture) was the lift down to the Emerald Grotto.  I was really pleased that we were getting the chance to see the Emerald Grotto, as I was very disappointed that we weren’t going to Capri to see the Blue Grotto there.  When the lift opened down at sea level it was noticeably cooler – at least 15⁰ at my estimate.  We went into the cave and were loaded into a boat with lots of Japanese tourists.  The “guide” then rowed the boat into the middle of the lake telling us about the cave and its lake.  Near an underwater entrance to the cave the water was a very different colour.  I would have described it as an aqua blue.  When he got the boat into a particular point in the middle of the lake he started splashing his oar and the drops of water landing back in the lake were definitely an emerald colour.
Next stop was Amalfi  where we walked into an alley which suddenly opened up into a Piazza with the most incredible church on one side.  There was a campanile (bell tower) with a multi-coloured ceramic tiled roof.  The church itself appeared sort of striped, with a mosaic on the pediment above the entrance.  We had a drink and an ice-cream in a cafĂ© on the edge of the Piazza so we could sit and enjoy the view of the magnificent church.

Final stop was Ravello, where we opted for a wine tasting.  It wasn’t forced on us, and we could have refused, but thought it would be a good idea.  And it was – until we were told the price of the wines!   Unthinkable by Australian standards.  We did buy one bottle of after-dinner wine.  Very expensive, but very different to anything I have tasted back home.
After all that wine tasting we were noticeably quieter (and tireder) on the return journey to our hotel.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Next day we thought we’d get an early start to go to Pompeii to beat the heat and the crowds.  We wandered over to the entrance which was not far from our hotel only to find that it wasn’t the main entrance, where we needed to be to get the audio guides.  A long walk (about 2km at an estimate) finally took us to the main entrance and the audio guides.  Finally we got in, and by then it was already very hot.  Pompeii was a wonderful experience, despite the heat.  Andy even went across to the far side of the (very large) site to the ancient gladiatorial arena to listen to Pink Floyd on his iPod while remembering their concert they recorded there some forty years ago, which he has on DVD.

After that, it was a drive to Sorrento and our rather swanky hotel.  We had a swim and a relax - both well needed

Herculaneum and Mt Vesuvius

To leave Naples we had to pick up a hire car and drive through the insane traffic.  Andy has to do all the driving since my driver’s licence was stolen.  The plan was to drive out of Naples and onto Herculaneum.  But Naples doesn’t end, it just merges with the other towns until you finally come to Herculaneum.  Then you have to find the remains of the town buried by a mud slide in the eruption of 79 A.D.  We went round and round in circles until finally we found it.  Only about two thirds of the remains have been excavated, but it was fascinating.  And very, very hot.  It was mind blowing seeing houses, in some cases intact up to their second floor, that had been buried nearly two thousand years ago.  And in a couple of cases you can see the remains of wooden door frames that had burnt in the heat, but been preserved by the 20 metre layer of mud.
Next was a drive up to the top of Mt. Vesuvius.   Very hair raising and hundreds of hair-pin bends.  We got to the car park and from there had to walk the 860m to the summit.  It was extremely hot.  And steep.  I struggled.  I made it as far as the first place that you could look down into the crater and no further.  Andy and Tommy went around a bit more to the highest point on the path, but even this was not the end.  Then we had to go back down to the car, back down the hair-pin bends and onto our hotel in Pompeii. 
The hotel was very nice, and was located opposite an entrance to the Pompeian archaeological site.  The area of the hotel was much nice than Naples.  We had dinner at a nice restaurant and then went back to the hotel where we had a drink in their very nice garden, surrounded by fruit trees.

Nasty Naples

Tuesday morning at breakfast there was a strange feeling in the air.  The sky was cloudy, but a very light colour cloud.  Still, it felt like there was a big storm on the way.  And there was.  It hit while we were in the taxi on the way to the station to catch our train to Naples.  It went dark, and everyone had to turn on their headlights.  Then it started hailing.  It was still raining extremely heavily by the time we reached the station.  The train trip was good.  High speed and comfortable, after an hour we were preparing to get off at Naples. 
We got a taxi to our hotel.  It was terrifying.  The drivers were mad.  Red lights meant nothing.  Pedestrians just stepped off the road.  Cars drove down the tramways.  Cars headed blindly into an intersection, oblivious of anyone already there.  And the streets we drove through were piled with bags of garbage.  I’d been warned of that, but hadn’t warned Andy and Tommy.  Everything was covered in graffiti, and all the buildings were well overdue for cleaning and repainting.  Long before we reached our hotel Andy and Tommy hated Naples.
After checking into our hotel – which was nice, but none of the surrounds were – we asked for directions to the National Archaeological Museum of Naples.  It was still raining.  We were told to take the bus R4 and it would take us where we wanted to go.  We went to the bus stop and waited.  And waited.  And waited.  After more than half an hour with no busses the rain had stopped so we decided to walk.  All the way there no busses passed us.  When we finally made it to the Museum it was closed.  It seems it is closed every Tuesday.  They didn’t tell us that at the hotel when we asked for directions.  By this time we had walked though filthy streets, stinking of rotting food and weren’t keen to sight see.  But we looked at our guide book and started off to walk through the historic town centre.  Every sight, every church, was closed for the afternoon.  They had all shut at 1:30 or 2:00 and would not open until 4:30 or 5:30.  We found a bar in a square, had a drink and contemplated our options.  The one we chose was to go back to the hotel early and take it easy.
Next day we went back to the Archaeological museum, which was open this time.  There were lots of very interesting exhibits, though some of the Pompeian rooms were closed.  Still, we saw many painted frescos from the walls, and mosaics from the floors of houses in Herculaneum and Pompeii.  Well worth while.  Then we decided to get a funicular up the Vomero, which is one of the hills in Naples there.  We had lunch at a nice, though rather expensive restaurant, with fantastic views over Naples, with a backdrop of Mt Vesuvius (see below).

Last day in Rome

Our last day in Rome.  We had a few things that we had not yet seen that we wanted to do.  We started off by catching the bus up to the Piazza del Popolo (very attractive big square) and visiting the Church of Santa Maria del Popolo.  It was really interesting inside, and had two paintings by Caravaggio in one of the chapels.  There was also a chapel that was one of the places where a cardinal was murdered in Dan Brown’s “Angels and Demons”.  After a cold drink we wandered around, past the site of Augustine’s Mausoleum.  Not open to the public and very neglected.  Then it was the Piazza Navone, also a murder site in “Angels and Demons”, and a very pleasant place for our lunch.

After lunch we visited the Parthenon, the only remnant of the Roman era still intact.  It is a large round space, with some very beautiful paintings and a domed roof.  I really loved that.
Final stop for the day was a visit to one of the 60 catacombs under Rome.  The one we chose to visit was the Catacombs of San Callisto, which is the biggest.  It was very interesting, and nice and cool down there (15 degrees C).  There were 20 km of winding passages full of tombs, not that we walked the whole 20km.  There were some wall paintings, and a tiny bit of mosaic left.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Roman Rome

Sun 3 Jul
This morning we were all still tired and decided to get a latish start, as we were very tired after all the walking and standing around waiting yesterday.  The itinerary for the day was to visit the Archaeological sites – the Palatine Hill, the Roman Forum and the Colosseum.  We had been told that the queues for the Colosseum were horrific, and that since one ticket gave entrance to all three sites, it was best to go to the Palatine Hill first.  One hour we waited in the queue.  They had run out of English guide books, and the English audio guides were all uncharged.  There wasn’t even a map we could walk around with, although there were boards with maps scattered around the site.  It was really hot, and we wandered around not really understanding what we were seeing.  The same applied to the Roman Forum.  Thus we didn’t really enjoy those two sites.  There was a chapel in the Forum with fantastic frescos which were obviously very old, but we don’t know how old, as there was no information.  You could also get a feel for the size of the Temple of Saturn.  But when you think about what an important tourist site it is, and how many visitors it must get every year, then you really feel they should have done a lot better.  There should be more information available, and clear ideas of the recommended rout to visit the site.  A self-guided walking tour map and commentary would be best.  And they should keep enough available in English so that they don’t run out.
Lunch was in one of the restaurants near the Forum, which I expected to be exorbitant in price, but it wasn’t too bad.  They had a normal menu and a pizza menu, and we chose to have pizzas.  They divided their pizzas into red pizza and white pizzas.  The red one had the tomato paste.  We all chose white ones to see what they were like, and very nice they were, too.
After lunch it was time to see the Colosseum.  It was very hot by now.  We decided to risk getting another guide, and this one was much better.  The preamble talk did not take too long, and they had pre-purchased tickets for those who didn’t already have then.  For those of us who already had tickets it was only 10 per person.  The guide was good and funny.  It was also amazing to actually be in the Colosseum.  After that we were so hot and tired and our feet were sore after standing waiting so much during the past two days, that we decided to go back to our hotel.  We had a very pleasant late afternoon sitting in their gardens with a cold beer, relaxing, and then finally eating a very nice meal in their restaurant.


Sat 2 July
We decided to go to the Vatican today, as we thought that Sunday might be more crowded with people wanting to observe the Sabbath.  So we headed off by bus, which we got off near the Castel Sant’Angelo and walked down Via della Conciliazione, all the while facing St Peter’s Basilica.  When we got nearly to St Peter’s Square we were approached by someone suggesting that we went on a tour with their company, which would let us bypass the queues for the Vatican Museum and St Peter’s Basilica.  The tour would cost 25 for the tour, in addition to the €20 for admission to the Vatican Museum and Sistine Chapel.  It sounded reasonable to us – I certainly learnt how much more I get from visiting a site with a good guide when we toured Parramatta with Judith Dunn.  We were taken over to our guide, who started giving us a talk about some background information.  Some more people came to join the tour, and she kept on talking.  And kept on talking for nearly two hours until there were about 24 people to go on the tour.  Then she walked us around to the offices of her company (in case you want to know so you can avoid using them they were called “When in Rome tours”) so we could pay.  Plus we suddenly were told that we had to pay a €10 each deposit for the headsets we were using to hear the guide, or else leave some ID as deposit.  But we didn’t have any ID with us.  And they would only take cash, even though that hadn’t been made clear – in fact their paper work said they “may not” accept credit, not that they would not.  We then went in to the Vatican museum ticket office to buy tickets.  While I was waiting I saw that tickets actually cost €15 or €8 for under 18s.  So this company had ripped us off for our admission. 
Once we were inside our guide raced us through extremely fast, showing us only a handful of the exhibits and galleries in the museum.  Andy was very frustrated as he kept being raced past things he would like to have looked at, and Tommy was frustrated because we never went into any rooms with paintings, even though he spotted one as we raced past its entrance.  I was just frantically trying to snap photos so we could look at them later at leisure.
The Sistine Chapel was really crowded, and the guards kept shouting out “SILENCE!” to the assembled masses.  At least the crowds didn’t stop us seeing the ceiling, though I had no idea there were all the panels, and the picture of God creating Adam that I knew well wasn’t as big as I imagined it would be.  Our tour guide said that her favourite was the panel depicting Adam and Eve being tempted with the apple and then being expelled from Eden, due to the difference in their faces and demeanour between the two incidents, and I must say I did think it was a very good panel, for that very reason.
After the Sistine Chapel our tour came to an end and we were taken past the queues to be able to enter directly into the Basilica.  I have to say the tour was very disappointing, and I would not recommend this particular company to anyone, although there may be better companies out there.
We then went into St Peter’s Basilica.  The amount of statuary and paintings and so on there is incredible.  I really enjoyed that.  Andy and Tommy wanted to climb to the top of the dome (a lift up a certain distance then 330 steps), so I could spent my time enjoying the basilica.  They said the view was really good from the top, but Andy was somewhat disappointed as he expected to be able to come out inside the dome, as at the whispering gallery in St Paul’s Cathedral in London.  But the climb was hard work, with very narrow spiral stairs, and at one stage the passage is not perpendicular to the floor, but at maybe a 60 degree angle, following the slope of the dome.
After a VERY late lunch we went to the Castel Sant’Angelo, which featured in “Angels and Demons”.  It was really strange, with spirals, and slopes going off at all sorts of funny angles.  There were diagrams that kept showing you where you were, but precious little in the way of labelling or information signs.  That said, there was still more than in most place we’ve visited in Greece or Italy.
We then crossed the Ponte Sant’Angelo, with its statues of angels (one of whom had a seagull on it’s head) and wandered through the back streets and pedestrian areas until we found somewhere we took a fancy to for dinner.  The meal was good, and it was really interesting to see people parading up and down the little tiny street all evening.

First day in Rome

It’s been a couple of days since I posted a blog.  Partly this was because we often got back so late to the room that I was too tired, and partly because I was somewhat dispirited by what happened on our first day in Rome.  Read on…
Friday 1 July
We flew from Greece to Rome today, and were picked up and taken to our hotel, which is located on the Aventine Hill – one of the seven hills of Rome.  It’s a very nice hotel, with lovely gardens, and decorated in the Art Nouveau style.  Our room is also nice, and the hotel is in a quiet area with lots of trees and birds.
We decided to go and see the Trevi Fountain first up.  Seeing it, I felt ‘Wow!  I’m actually in Rome!’  We threw our coins in the fountain, and then a couple of minutes later I really did feel like I was in Rome, when I discovered that my purse had been stolen from my handbag.  There wasn’t a great deal of money there, but there was my visa card, by ATM card, my driver’s license…  I wasn’t happy.  Then we had a lot of trouble trying to find the right kind of policeman to report it to.  And they couldn’t have cared less.  And they were rude.  It really was a bad introduction to Italy.
We weren’t too keen to do much for what remained of that day, but we did wander up to the Spanish Steps.  In the mood I was in my reaction was ‘yeah, it’s the Spanish Steps.  So what?  Big deal.’


Thursday morning was the trip to the monasteries at Meteora  What can I say.  I’ve run out of descriptive words.  Andy felt that the rock formations made Ayers Rock seem insignificant.  I’m not sure I’d go that far, but they certainly were impressive.  Here are some photos of the scenery, which will say more than words.

The inside of the monasteries was very interesting, but women are not allowed in wearing shorts or trousers, so they provide these very unattractive wrap-around skirts that you need to put on over your trousers.  Men can’t wear shorts, so Andy and Tommy had to wear jeans, which was a bit hot today.

I’m writing this bit of blog from the roof-top bar of the Plaka Hotel, where we are staying on our last night in Greece.  I probably won’t be able to actually post the blog until tomorrow, as this hotel only has internet access from the Internet room, and I’d rather enjoy the view and sunset from the roof.
It was a very long bus ride back from Meteora, and we only arrived back in Athens after 7:30.  Thank goodness I had podcasts to listen to on the MP3 player – it really helped pass the time.  When we got back the city centre was closed due to the strikes, but the coach couldn’t have gotten up to our hotel anyway, because the streets are too steep.  We had to wheel our cases for two blocks, but that’s lots less than the people staying near Syntagma Square, which is right next to the Parliament where all the trouble is.
I’m still missing veggies, and I hope that Italy has more of them than Greece.

Friday, July 1, 2011

The Temple of Apollo at Delphi

This morning we saw a news broadcast.  Riots had broken out in Athens late last night, and a news broadcast van was set on fire.  We spent the morning at the Temple of Athena Pronaia and the Temple of Apollo at Delphi.  I’ve run out of superlatives to describe the scenery: outstanding, breathtaking, magnificent, awesome, amazing, beautiful, spectacular.  Are you starting to get the idea?  It’s one of those places where you can really understand why it was chosen as a mystical and religious place.  It’s also really interesting to see the remains, and particularly the hole up through which would come the smoke that was part of the process of the Oracle making a pronouncement.  The other amazing thing was the inscriptions recording the rules and pronouncements and finances.  The contents may not be that interesting, but what was amazing was how well it had survived.

After lunch it was a longish drive up to Kalambaka, our overnight stop, which is near to the monasteries of Meteora  We made a quick stop on the way at the location of the Battle of Thermopylae, and saw the monument to the memorial, along with a monument to the Australians and New Zealanders who served in Crete in WWII.
This afternoon was the vote in the Greek Parliament about the reforms, and the Parliament voted in favour, so the violence erupted again.  Protesters set fire to the finance building, and the fire fighters couldn’t get there to put out the fire.