Thursday, June 19, 2014

Start of the road trip

We picked up our lease car in Nice. Our luggage only JUST fitted into the boot [trunk to my American friends].

No spare room in the boot

We drove around for a while, making our way to the Italian border and Ventimiglia. Why Ventimiglia? Well, many years ago Andy had been there with his mates, and had ordered a pizza, which turned out to be an enormous anchovy pizza. Just anchovies. So it had stuck in his memory. But his memory did not match the reality. Ventimiglia was very shabby, very crowded, full of traffic, and it proved impossible to find a parking place. He didn't recognise anything, either.

Instead, we decided to head inland to see what we could find. We drove through narrow roads, full of hairpin bends and in the distance saw a town on a mountaintop. We eventually arrived there (it was called Perinaldo) and saw a hotel (Hotel la Riana), so we pulled over to see if they had any vacancies. As soon as we got out of the car we saw an incredible view back down the valley.   We were greeted by our very jovial German host, Gunter, and his friend Stefan who was visiting for the weekend. We took our bags up to our room, which also enjoyed that wonderful view, and then were invited to come downstairs for a drink, which was very much appreciated after the long drive.

View from Perinaldo hotel room down to the Mediterranean
Gunter recommended a restaurant for our dinner, and phoned ahead to tell the hosts, Angelo and Patrizia, to expect us.  We climbed up the hill to the restaurant, seeing more fantastic views with each corner we turned.  On the way up we passed a lookout with astronomical paraphernalia,  including a giant sextant. It was a cloudy night, but if it had been clear the view of the stars from that point. In fact it turns out that Perinaldo is the birthplace of the astronomer Giovanni Domenico Cassini.

When we arrived at the restaurant,  I Pianeti di Giove, we were greeted very  warmly. Angelo and Patrizia did not speak English,  so communication that night was a combination of my poor Italian, German (with Angelo) and French (mostly with Patrizia). The food was wonderful (though we ordered too much) and at the end of the evening we were farewelled as old friends (Patrizia hugged me and gave me a present of a Venetian mask). I would love to put up a link to their web site, but they don't appear to have one.

Waking up to that wonderful view was magical. After breakfast, we set off across the mountains headed for San Remo. It was hard to find our way around, and there was no parking, so we headed out of town to follow the coast eastwards.  Not finding somewhere to park became a common occurrence.

I have to say I was not impressed by the Italian Riviera.  It was overly built-up, had few buildings of architectural interest, and no "Wow!" views. It just couldn't compare to the Côte d'Azur. We eventually got onto the autostrada to try and get some distance. We were just not finding anywhere to stay, so I thought we'd head down towards Rapallo, Santa Margherita Ligure  and Portofino.

We couldn't find anywhere to stop and park in Rapallo, so continued on to Santa Margherita Ligure.

We weren't very impressed with the town.  It was crowded and noisy, especially with the huge numbers of mopeds and motor bikes that kept roaring along the waterfront.

It took us ages to find somewhere to park so that we could even start to look for somewhere to stay. We eventually found a parking station just after we had passed two hotels.  The first one we walked up towards and rejected out of hand straight away. The next one we looked at, Hotel Park Suisse, we could see high up from the carpark at the front.

They couldn't even fix their sign
It looked horribly dated, and the fact that the illumination was working only on half the letters gave a bad impression.  A quick check of trip advisor did not give good reviews. Still, we were getting rather desperate, and checked in for two nights so that we could use it as a base  to see some of the other places around there, since parking anywhere was next to impossible. Here is the review I submitted to Tripadvisor:
We found this via trip advisor when we found ourselves in the area. The reviews their rated this hotel well, but that was not our opinion. The pictures on trip advisor make it look like this hotel in on the top of the hill with great views. It isn't.  It is right down the bottom, with no views, and located on a busy road. Our room was next to that road. The site said it was 10 minutes drive from Volterra, it wasn't - it was twenty minutes drive. The whole place feels like the 70s, and the bathroom in particular needed updating.  The shower had mould on the grouting, and the tiles were a horrible dusty pink. Add that to the green bathroom door with doorframe in a different green and it is not a good effect.  The restaurant looked nice, but the meal was very average. I had papadelle with wilk boar, which was a meat ragout on the pasta, but it  contained lots of little bit of bone.  Quite offputting. There is no phone coverage, and no wifi. That might not matter to some people, but it was a problem for us.

We were going to use buses to get to Portofino and Rapallo, but when we were on our way to find something for dinner I noticed that there were ferries. So the next day we chose to catch the ferry to San Fruttoso and then to Portofino. Rapallo missed out on seeing us.

San Fruttoso was very small, and had no road access, only access by boat or ferry.  It had a small beach covered in dark grey pebbles, and many people were swimming. Aparently, it was unusually quiet for a Sunday,  due to the European election that was being held on that day. We didn't actually do much exploring here, just enjoyed our lunch and looked at the besutiful scenery and soaked up the atmosphere until it was time to get the ferry to Portofino.

San Fruttoso
After the quiet of San Fruttoso, Portofino was completely different. It did not have a beach, and was predominantly a yachting paradise. Some of the boats we saw were unbelievable.  I don't know whether the occupants owned them or were hiring them for a holiday, but even in the latter case I'd like to know how many banks they had to rob!

Portofino itself was a cute little town. We wandered up to (and inside) the church,  around it village, and past a very surreal sculpture exhibition in a park. We also had some delicious gelato before we finally boarded the ferry to head back to Santa Margherita Ligure.

It was much quieter in Santa Margherita Ligure that night (Sunday) as it seems most of the people filling up the town were Italians having a weekend away. By the evening they had all gone home and the constant roar of motorbikes had stopped. Our hotel was positively deserted on Monday morning - the only people apart from us was one English family and two American couples.


Enormous yacht

How the other half live

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Venice Islands

The evening before we planned to go to the Venetian islands of Burano and Murano we asked at the hotel about it, wanting to know how to get to the right vaporetto stop. They told us to ask the person who was on duty in the morning.

The next morning we went to the reception desk and duly asked about getting to the islands.  We were told that as a special service only to guests, we could get a water taxi to Murano and a tour of a glass factory, all free of charge. To get from Murano to Burano we would have to take the public vaporetto, and likewise take the vaporetto back. We should have smelt a rat. Or should I say, a scam worthy of "Scam City" [a TV program that sets out to reveal scams in various cities throughout the world, like the "tour of the Vatican" which will miss all the non-existent queues, which we fell for in Rome]. We were walked (at any incredibly fast pace) to the Rialto, where we boarded the water taxi. When we arrived at Murano we were met by someone who took us to the glass factory, and then passed us onto another man, who said he would be our guide for about the next 45 minutes. We watched the glassmaking, which was incredible.  Such skill! The process was explained to us and everything was looking good. Then we were taken to see some examples of the finished products, and that is when the hard sell began. I must say, I did enjoy looking at the pieces, though much of them were things that I wouldn't have bought at any price. One of the hard sells were for gaudy chandeliers. There were a couple of things I really did like - red glass jugs and glasses - but the price was astronomical. Once we made  comments to the effect that we did not want to pay 400 Euros for a jug he started losing interest in us. He suggested that we look at the room with the discontinued pieces as they were cheaper. Again, a lot of them were things that I didn't like, but there were one or two pieces of jewelery that I might have been interested in, but our guide had to leave us at that point, and another man took place, and he kept following me around with a mirror saying that I could try things on if I wished.  That hard-sell was the final straw. We left without having bought a single thing. So it was a waste of time and money for them, but not so much for us.

Glass making in Burano
After that we wandered around the rest of Murano.  The concierge had also given us recommendations for a place to eat on Burano and a place to buy lace,  but after that we didn't feel like even  considering them, so we had lunch on Murano,  and then caught the vaporetto to Burano.

All the examples of lace I saw in the shops there were all the same thing. What appealed to me most about that island were the brightly painted buildings, though I don't think Andy was so keen on them. Well, we can't all like the same things. [Andy is a Georgian at heart - he likes symmetry and muted colours.]

Colourful buildings in Burano

Monday, June 9, 2014


View from our room
Our hotel in Venice,  the Hotel Flora, was fantastic. An old, character-filled building, good location not far from Piazza San Marco, with friendly staff. Luckily I spotted one potential source of trouble before it created havoc.  I was the first in the shower, and warned Andy about the temperature control. It was marked C (for calda which is hot) and F (for freddo, which is cold). He would have though C was cold and that may have resulted in a nasty burn. [Correction: Andy says he couldn't see anything in the shower anyway without his glasses on].

Add Hotel Flora courtyard

We spent a lot of our time in Venice just walking around. We very rarely used the vaporetto (a boat which is the Venetian equivalent of s bus), but we did go to some of the major tourist sites.

The first was a tour of the Secret Itineraries of the Doge's Palace.  These rooms, which include the old prison cells (including those of Casanova) and some of the rooms used by the clerks working for the council of twelve can only be seen via an organised tour.  When it ended were were left in the main part of the Doge's Palace to see it under our own steam.  I have to say that I was not as impressed as I was with the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence.  Maybe if I had been interested in the art works it might have been different, but I am a philistine and am far more interested in the architecture. The one thing I did enjoy was being able to walk over the Bridge of Sighs.

The courtyard of the Dog's Palace
The Bridge of Sighs
Likewise, I found St Mark's Basilica disappointing (except for the originals of the Bronze Horses stored upstairs). We have seen churches that made a far greater impression on me, like St Peter's in Rome and the cathedral in Siena. It was also very disappointing that much of the facade of the basilica was covered in scaffolding, but then there's always something that is.

St Mark's Basilica and the scaffolding
We did an obligatory gondola ride. It's not cheap, but it would have felt wrong not to do it.  Traveller's Tip: make a note of the time your trip starts and compare it to the time you have sgreed in advance to pay for. We suspect we were short changed, but can't prove it as we didn't note the time we started. 

Gondola Ride
We also splashed out on a coffee at the Cafe Florian in St Mark's Square one evening while the musicians were playing.  That was very definitely worth the money. I also really enjoyed the two times we sat at cafes alongside the Grand Canal and had a cold drink and soaked up the atmosphere.

The Rialto bridge was unbelievably crowded and noisy, but that was to be expected. We didn't go up the campanile in St Mark's Square to see its views over Venice as the queues were very long, but we caught a vaporetto over to see St Giorgio Maggiore and went up it's bell tower to enjoy that view.

View from the Bell Tower
The other thing you see everywhere in Venice are masks. Some are good, some just cheap junk.

Venetian Masks
Unsurprisingly, everything in Venice is very expensive,  but that's just the way it is. Budget accordingly.

Friday, June 6, 2014

The Orient Express

The highlight of our trip, which we had been promising ourselves for more than twenty years, was our trip on the Orient Express.  It was everything we could have hoped for and more.

We got ourselves all dressed up in our new clothes, and in my case my high heeled shoes. That was a challenge for two reasons. Firstly, I have rarely worn high heels for a very long time, and secondly, my ankle was still very swollen after twisting it badly the previous day, and I had blisters on the other foot.  Still, as my mother used to say "pride must abide" (by which she meant 'stop complaining if you want to wear that item of apparel').

The taxi took us from our hotel to Victoria Station (we had way too much luggage to do it any other way) and we went to the VSOE (Venice Simplon Orient Express) check in. Our luggage was taken from us, to either be returned in Venice or to be put in our cabin on the continental leg of the journey.

Eventually we joined the British Pullmans for the first leg of the journey, which was to Folkstone.  We were given Bellinis (champagne with apple puree, though the original Bellini was with peach juice) and a fancy brunch.

One of the British Pullman Cars

Decoration of our car (named Lucille)

Andy at our table

After ninety minutes this leg was over and we alighted at Folkstone West, to transfer to luxury VIP coaches that would take us on a shuttle under the channel through the Eurotunnel.  These coaches had leather seats, and a "kitchen" area, from where drinks could be served. The seats were arranged in groups of four - two facing backwards and two forwards, so got to know the first of our train-mates. We had quite a wait (over an hour) for our place on the shuttle at what was in effect a motorway services stop in Folkstone.  We also had a long hobble (for me in my high-heels and sprained ankle) to get there and back. This was the only low-point in the trip, but no doubt unavoidable.

Luxury coach with its kitchen
Eventually it was time for our coach to drive onto the shuttle to be carried under the channel. It was a weird experience for me, feeling that we were moving, but nothing I could see was moving, as we were effectively in a freight car on a railway.  Some people who suffered claustrophobia were not happy, but we all forgot about it while we chatted and laughed over a glass of wine.

Normally the travellers would be taken to the train in Calais.  But due to engineering works in France, we had to be taken to Bruges to join the train. On our extended journey I think some of the countryside we drove through may have been where some of the WWI battles took place. It was remarkably flat, and I enjoyed being able to see it.  It also gave us more time to get to know our new friends, Joan and Angela.

Eventually we arrived at Bruges station and were directed to our carriage and cabin. By this stage it was 6:30 and the first dinner sitting was at 7:00. Since the second sitting was not until 10:00, we elected to enjoy the first sitting.  It was a big rush, though, as in that half hour our steward had to show us (and every other cabin) the amenities of our cabin, and then I had to quickly get into my posh frock and adjust my makeup. All the women in that first sitting were in the same situation, but the men took a sadistic delight in watching us have to get ready so quickly.

Our cabin
Dinner was (as you would expect) a wonderful experience.  We had been asked whether we minded sharing with another couple, and said that we would be happy to do so. Our dinner companions were a Norwegian couple, who spoke very fluent English (I don't know any Norwegian), so we had a lovely time.  After dinner we adjourned to the bar and had a lively night.

My "special" entree - a salad (since I don't eat seafood). Pretty fancy for a salad
We returned to our cabin to find it converted into two bunk beds. Just as we were about to go into our cabin the train locked on the brakes and we went flying.  Andy ended up "running" (to keep his balance) three-quarters of the way down the corridor, and I went flying about half way down the corridor.  However, in the process I hit my hand on the door frame and injured my little finger. I know that makes me sound like a sook, but it swelled up and hurt a lot, and I think I did some real damage.

The cabin in its night configuration
I slept solidly all night, but Andy kept waking each time we stopped, as we did frequently since every time we went over a border we had to change locomotives to one run by the local rail service.

When we woke the next morning we were in Switzerland and we buzzed our steward who remade the room and brought us breakfast in our cabin. We spent the morning relaxing, partly in our room and partly in the bar car (over a cup of tea!). Then it was time for lunch. It was a huge, fancy meal - way too much for me - but very nice.  More relaxing until our afternoon tea was brought to us in our cabin. Incidentally, there were two other very sudden stops of the train during that day.

Before we knew it it was time to start getting ready to leave the train. Our cabin bags were taken for us, which joined up with our checked bags, and we used the transfers to our hotel that we had arranged on the train.  Porters managed everything for us at both ends of the transfer.  The water taxi took us and two other couples from the train (who we had gotten to know, so they weren't strangers) down the Grand Canal, and dropped each of the other couples at their hotels, then dropped us at a wharf on the Grand Canal, where a porter from our hotel met us and took our bags on a trolley. We were led to our hotel and checked in.

The hotel, Hotel Flora, was very nice, quaint, and with a lovely courtyard. I have no complaints at all.  The whole experience was absolutely fantastic, and it's a memory that will stay with me forever.
Goodbye Orient Express

Monday, June 2, 2014

Last Day in London

We woke on our last day in London to find that my ankle was very swollen as a result of spraining it the previous day.  However, it seemed that I could still walk, so we set off to look at Borough Markets. 

On the way we passed all sorts of people with bicycles dressed up in old fashioned clothes. I asked one of them what it was all about and was told that it was the Tweed Run - a 12 mile cycle through London.  I was to run into them again later.

Borough Markets are located under the railway arches near Southwark Cathedral. I had heard so much about these markets on foodie-types of programs and I loved them.  I wish I could shop there all the time.  So many interesting and different types of food! We bought various bits and pieces in preparation for a picnic.

After leaving Borough Markets we had a look at Southwark Cathedral, which I had never seen before, before heading to Green Park for our wonderful picnic lunch. Many of the locals there were sunning themselves on rented deckchairs, but we headed for the shade under a big old tree. It was a beautiful day and a marvellous lunch.

Andy then headed back to our hotel to do some work and I headed to Fortnum and Mason. I much prefer it to Harrods, I don't know why, but I spent a very enjoyable time looking at all the food items.  A few very exotic, but mostly just beautifully packaged and very tempting.

BBQ Flavour Worm Crisps - not the strangest thing on sale

I next decided to go up to Oxford Street. Rather than hop on the underground to get to the stores on Oxford Street I decided to walk via Bond Street. It is only from the outside that I can ever afford to see these shops.

While walking down that street I discovered that part of it had been blocked off to allow the Tweed Run to pass through. That was a lot of fun, seeing these mad people on their bikes. Pedestrians could get through when there was a break in the cycles, but cars were completely stopped.

Tweed Run participants
That evening we did the ghost walk.