Friday, May 18, 2007
Our first stop was the Eiffel Tower, and since it was a rainy, grim evening, we were some of the few tourists who decided to make the accent (although somehow we yet again managed to pick the lift full of German teenagers). The top level was closed because of the strong winds, but level two was perfectly high enough to experience the wonderful views (and the horrible winds).
Dinner that night was in a blissfully warm award-winning little restaurant a short walk from our hotel in the Latin Quartier. Feeling a bit poor, fat and not overly hungry, we decided to just order an entree each, which confused the waitress - she had to go and check with the chef it that was alright. Everything must have been fine, because shortly after, they brought us wonderful serves of pate de fois gras and Camembert. We followed our small but very rich meals with desserts of apple tarte tatin and chocolate amadeus.
The nice people running the Paris Walks had an excellent morning walk around the Marais district the next morning, so we decided to tag along (after receiving the devastating news that the Paris Chocolate walk was all booked out). Again, it was a good dose of history and interesting stories, and a great way to see part of a big city. We grabbed a quick lunch of bagels, quiche and almond croissants bought from a Jewish bakery and ate them amongst the former mansions in the Place de Voges.
Then it was a metro ride across to the Musee d'Orsay so Karina could get her fill of Monet and other impressionist paintings. We had hoped to get to the Musee Rodin to see the sculptures, but we spent too long looking at paintings. So instead we decided to walk all the way along the Champs Elysees - in the rain - to the Arc de Triomphe (stopping for a coffee and people-watching along the way). We climbed to the top of the Arc de Triomphe for another bird's eye view of Paris (and a chance to see the cars, buses and scooters try to negotiate the roundabout below).
We had dinner at a place in the Marais, just on the other side of the River Seine from where we were staying. After dinner we walked past Notre Dame, which was all lit up for the evening, and across the Ponte Louis, which is apparently the most romantic spot in Paris (we're guessing because of the accordian player on the corner, but we're not sure, because he wasn't that good).
Simon was very excited about going to the Musee des Arts et Metiers (the depository for scientific instruments and equipment) - especially to get a chance to see Foucault pendulum. Karina was not. So the next morning, while Simon looked around the museum like a small child in a lolly shop, Karina went shopping and bought a new pair of shoes. Seemed like a good compromise to us! After we met up again, we decided to finish our ABC tour of Europe, with a visit to Notre Dame. We climbed up a thousand million stairs to get to the top of the bell tower, talked to the gargoyles (Karina was disappointed - they looked very under-fed, and not nearly gargoyley enough), and then climbed back down.
After a late lunch of French onion soup and an omelette, we managed to squeeze in a quick visit to the Musee Rodin before finally making it to the Louvre. It supposedly would take 9 months to just glance at every item in the Louvre, so we settled on just visiting one wing - predictably the wing that contains the Mona Lisa. We spent two hours looking at hundreds of fabulous paintings, before joining the small crowd in front of da Vinci's most famous work. After quickly getting bored of a picture we'd both seen thousands of times in other places (even if this one was the original), we made the fateful decision to quickly check out a couple of the Michelangelo sculptures before going out to celebrate our last night in Europe.
But we never made it.
Despite having walked up and down hundreds of thousands of stairs on this trip, climbed over rubble and ruins, navigated slippery paths and rocky roads, it was on the second last step of a short flight of marble stairs in the Louvre where Karina managed to fall down and break her ankle.
Of course, we didn't know it was broken, until five hours later, after we'd found the Louvre infirmary, ridden in a fire truck, discovered there's no such thing as a reverse-charges phone call in France, dealt with non-English speaking nurses and waited in casualty until 2am.
We were stuck in Paris for an extra night while the travel insurance people sorted things out for us. If there's a city in the world that you have to be stuck in, you could do much worse than Paris. We didn't manage to walk around Montmarte (which we'd planned for our last morning), but we were still able to have our special "last night in Europe" dinner (Simon tried snails, Karina stayed with the pate), and to enjoy some more people watching and cheese platters from Paris' wonderful cafes.
What can you do? C'est la vie!!
Monday, May 14, 2007
And then, there were the markets!!! The markets we've seen on this trip have just been getting better and better, and Aix-en-Provence takes the cake. From fruit markets, to flea markets, spice markets, and the beautiful flower markets. We had been wanting to find an original painting on our travels, and everything we'd seen so far had been fairly touristy and mass produced, but Aix presented us with a small street market of local artists and authors displaying their works. We found a beautiful painting of Aix's flower market, and bought it straight from the artist himself.
On our first day in Aix, after spending the morning browsing through the markets, we followed the Cezanne walking route (much better than the one in Marseille). It was a Saturday afternoon, and the city centre was bustling, so we joined the locals in poking around the shops and the streets, and soaking up the atmosphere over cups of coffee, gourmet buscuits and nougat. We love how accepting the French are of dogs (even more so than the other countries we've visited) - there are little dogs everywhere, in shops, restaurants, public transport - Bella would have a lovely time!
The next day we caught a bus through the countryside to a village on Mount Sainte Victoire, which turned out to be a very sleepy little village (maybe because it was Sunday morning). We filled in a couple of hours before the next bus back to Aix, admiring the countryside, and checking out the old buildings. The afternoon we were back in Aix, and since nothing was open, we again followed the locals' example, grabbed our books and headed to the park.
This post wouldn't be complete without a mention of the Provence food. The district has a very rich culinary tradition, and some of things we sampled were Bouillabaise, baked duck breast, crepes and baked cod. And given that Aix is still so close to North Africa, we had brekky at a Moroccan bakery, and found a Tunisian restaurant for a wonderful cous cous lunch.
Given that we only had time to see one small part of France other than Paris, we're so glad that we chose Provence, and Aix-en-Provence in particular!
Saturday, May 12, 2007
The guide books had raved about how Marseille had a wonderful gritty, edgy vibe and pulsed with energy from the meeting of French, Mediterranean and North African cultures. But we must have got it on a quiet day, becuase to us it just seemed like Naples without the character and charm.
The city of Marseille had set up a walking route through Le Panier district, highlighting the artisan craft and food shops which sounded right up our alley. The Lonely Planet had commented that the red line painted on the footpath to mark the trail was a little erratic - occasionally going down dead ends and at one point straight into a tree. We found it was in even worse condition - road works had destroyed the line in places, occasionally it forked in confusing directions, turned corners not marked on the map and seemed to avoid most of the interesting looking shops in the heart of the district in favour of the closed auto repair shops around the edges.
In the afternoon we took a boat trip out to the Château d'If, a former fortress turned political prison, and was made famous by The Count of Monte Cristo. The museum on the island seemed to be a bit confused about whether it was trying to explain the building as a historical monument or a literary one, and so didn't do either particularly well. But it was a fun visit, even with the dangerous giant sea gulls and the huge primary school group on the boat back (where the teacher decided the empty seat next to Karina was the punishment seat, and so kept sending naughty kids to sit there).
That was about it for Marseille, so after a lazy afternoon tea, we caught our train to Aix-en-Provence.
Friday, May 11, 2007
After working out how to cross the road with all the construction work going on, we climbed up the giant hill to drop in on Prince Albert. He kindly gave us a guided tour of his house, which included lots of pictures of Grace Kelly. On the way down the hill, we ogled the giant yachts moored in the harbour and headed over to Casino Monte Carlo for an afternoon of people watching at the Cafe de Paris.
We didn't see anyone famous (that we recognised), not even Daniel Craig, much to Karina's disappointment. But we did see some very rich people, some people trying to look very rich, people with more money than taste, people who'd dressed up for the visit, people who hadn't dressed up, and people who just thought they'd dressed up (occasionally with horrifying results). Once we'd had our fill, we decided to try and beat the impending rain, and caught the bus back to Nice.
If you like youth hostels, and are ever in Nice, Villa St Exupery is a great place to stay, even if it is a bit out of town. It was a converted monastry, with ensuited dorms and private rooms, and everything you could possibly need. They had a good breakfast selection, they offered a couple of dinner options, they had a bar with beers for €1, free internet access, and they provided so much detailed tourist information that it made everything so easy.
The next morning, despite the recommended bus line not running (much to the confusion of locals and tourists alike), we eventually made it into Nice's old town to kick off our one day in the French Riviera. We explored the fabulous markets, and picked up some cheese, some terrine and some fruit for a picnic lunch, which we ate by the beach. The ocean there really does live up to its name - the Côte D'Azur - we've never seen water so many different shades of blue. But we can't really understand why anyone would want to sunbathe or even walk on those horrible expanses of pebbles that Europe calls beaches!
The afternoon was spent in Monaco, and then it was back to Nice for dinner. After wandering through the streets filled with amazing delis, cheese shops, spice stores, bakeries, wine 'caves' and restaurants, we found that night's Lonely Planet dinner recommendation, which really did look like something "straight out of an impressionist painting". We were obviously too early, because we found the owner and his family/staff sitting around having dinner in the middle of the restaurant. They were very welcoming, but we left them to it and came back half an hour later for a fantastic meal of traditional French home-cooking. Getting home after dinner, we discovered that Nice has a fantastic night bus service, complete with on-bus security guards, and little old nannas who help you figure out when to get off for your stop.
The next morning we were up again at the crack of dawn to catch the train to Marseilles. A girl from the youth hostel drove us to the station in the hostel van. Unfortunately for her, she must have been chanelling Karina's skills in a crowded parking lot, and managed to scrape the side of another car on the way out of the hostel. Oops. We're glad we cancelled our car hire for the south of France!
Wednesday, May 9, 2007
Our hotel was a former palace right by a canal, only a short walk from Piazza San Marco (St Mark's Square). After looking through the Basilica (completing our Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle tour of Italy with a Donatello sculpture), we walked around the square, decided not to have €13 coffees at Cafe Florian (where Casanova used to frequent) and contemplated buying some original Picasso and Dali works on sale at a gallery.
We delved into the heart of old Venice, and spent a lovely evening losing ourselves amongst the picturesque streets, canals and bridges. We made sure not to miss Venice's best gelati (finishing our "best gelati" tour of Italy), Karina got a new bag to match her new shoes, we took a ride on a very shiny black gondola (getting ourselves in lots of people's Venice photo albums), and had dinner at another wine bar.
The next morning we had just enough time to head up to another square (surprisingly off the main tourist track) for some morning tea, before taking the boat-bus down the Grand Canal and back to the train station. Venice was a lovely way to end our time in Italy, and before we knew it (for once, the Italian trains seemed to be on time), we were heading for France.
Tuesday, May 8, 2007
We had four days in Tuscany. Unlike Santorini, the weather was bleak and rainy pretty much the whole time, but like Santorini, we figured one activity a day was probably enough. There was a designer outlet mall only an hour away, so we spent an afternoon looking through discounted Gucci, Armani, La Perla, Marni and Burberry stores. Despite being prepared to walk away with armfuls of clothes and shoes, we didn't end up with anything! At least Karina still has her Gucci bag from Rome!
The next day we went on a winery tour through the Chianti region, visiting two wineries (one small family-owned, one large commercially owned) and a few small villages. Despite us only having 20 minutes in the last village, Karina managed to find an Italian shoe store, find a pair of shoes she loved, tried them on and buy them. Simon thinks it must have been a reaction to not buying anything the day before.
On our last day, we checked out the town of Siena, which was bigger but not as enjoyable as San Gimignano. Apartly Siena is the safest city in Italy. Simon thinks this is because of the pigeons. What thief is going to stick his hands into your pockets after a pigeon has pooed into it (yes, this did really happen to Simon). Karina managed to leave her camera in an Internet cafe, but fortunately it was still there a few hours later when she realised. After all our adventures, we ran out of time to climb the Siena town hall tower, so instead we went back to our apartment and sat by our log fire all afternoon.
The Tuscan food was good, but Karina did inadvertantly manage to have spaghetti bolognase three times (apparently once with duck, once with beef and once with wild boar - but we couldn't tell the difference). On this trip, she has now eaten Bambi, Bugs Bunny, Donald Duck, and Pumba. The mysterious wine Donato served us on the first night was so good we decided to buy a dozen bottles. It cost us as much to ship home as the wine itself, but since the villa owns the entire 2003 vintage, and you can't get it anywhere else (and since it was the nicest red we'd ever drunk), we thought it was worth it.
Despite our concerns about how long the drive back to Florence would take us, and where the GPS would send us, we made it without any trouble, and with more then enough time to catch our train and head for Venice.
Thursday, May 3, 2007
Yet again we decided to drag our bags from the station up to our accommodation, and instantly noticed the difference between Florence and Naples - both much cleaner and much safer. Our conversation with the lady at the B&B upon arriving went something like:
Karina: Do you speak English?We decided to give up before getting to Japanese, but managed to get by with a lot of nodding and smiling, and the Lonely Planet's Language section.
B&B Lady: No, do you speak Italian?
Karina: No, do you speak French?
B&B Lady: No, do you speak Spanish?
From the our first taste of dinner that night, we knew we were going to love Florence, and that one day wasn't going to be nearly enough. Karina's rabbit and Simon's steak were both amazing and we had our first taste of the famous Chianti red wine.
The next morning we joined yet another queue, this time to look through the Uffizi Gallery to see such famous paintings as The Birth of Venus by Botticelli. We past the two hours of waiting talking to a friendly and very interesting American named Ed. The gallery was good, but didn't leave us much time to see the rest of Florence. We grabbed a quick bite for lunch, after crossing the Ponte Vecchio (a bridge filled with gold and silver smiths). After briefly poking around the quaint streets, we had just enough time to track down Florence's best gelati before heading off to pick up our car.
The drive out of Florence wasn't too bad - Simon's now used to driving on the wrong side of the road, and much to everyone's surprise, Karina can actually read a map! But the drive to the airport to pick up a GPS was an eye-opening introduction to Italian drivers. Still, it was less chaotic than Naples...
We were really disapointed to have had such little time in Florence. It really felt like we barely scratched the surface. Yet another place we'll have to come back to!
Wednesday, May 2, 2007
We know that in most places in Europe people drive on the other side of the road from in Australia, but we couldn't work out what side of the road they drive on in Naples. And as far as the scooters were concerned, there was no difference between the road and the footpath. We did learn how to cross the road Naples-style - when you get to a road, don't look left or right, just walk straight across and hope for the best!
We discovered while in Rome, that Pompeii was closed on the 1st of May - the day we had set aside for our visit. But thankfully the B&B owner set us straight at breakfast on our first morning, and since it was a public holiday, we only had to pay €1 instead of €11. Pompeii was great - it wasn't very crowded, the weather was (mostly) nice but not too hot and we had an excellent day exploring the ancient town. We finished the day with a dinner back in Naples at a cafe-come-bookshop-come-publishing house in the quirky Piazza Bellini.
The rain seemed to have washed away a lot of the grime of Naples, but had unfortunately left many of the more "characteristic" smells. We wandered the backstreets, checked out the catherdral and had lunch in the old fishing village at the harbour. The harbour, especially the area where the big cruise ships were docking, was noticably cleaner and had a much stronger police presence. Although, as we walked through, a man emerged from an alley and asked if we were interested in buying his "beautiful laptop".
We really enjoyed Naples, but we were very pleased to be back on the train with all our possessions, albeit with very grubby jeans and smelly shoes!
Monday, April 30, 2007
We then headed off to the Roman Forum, and then to the Collosseum. After taking in the exterior, we joined the end of the 90 minute queue to get inside. However we were very quickly set upon by someone offering to get us stright inside, and give us a guided tour, followed by a guided tour of the Paletine Hill. Remembering all the stories of con men fleecing tourists, we decided it couldn't possibly happen to us, and handed over the money. It turned out to be an excellent decision, and we discovered that the guided walking tours were a fantastic way to see Rome's major sites in a short period of time.
Despite the claim that all the guides were native English speakers, our guide for the Colosseum was an Italian guy who spoke like a machine gun and didn't quite know when to stop with the stories, but was very entertaining nonetheless. Then we were taken up the Palentine Hill and back to the Roman Forum by "Geoff from Georrrrrrrgia". It was bizarre to learn about Roman architecture from a cross between a modern-day cowboy and Indiana Jones. We had dinner at a restaurant near out guesthouse in Trastevere, which is a great old part of Rome, filled with picture-perfect twisting alleyways, shuttered windows and ivy-covered buildings.
The next morning we got up early to find that on Sunday mornings Rome either goes to church or just sleeps in! We wandered the streets for an hour before we found somewhere open for breakfast and Simon accidentally ordered a jam tart and a chocolate chip biscuit - that's what you get for attempting to order the unknown! Karina went for the safe option of a cheese and ham croissant, and Simon is very pleased that at least espresso is the same in all languages!
We walked over to the allegedly amazing Italian shoe market, to find that it doesn't open on Sundays, so instead we went to the big flea market, which only opens on Sundays. Karina came out with a "genuine" Gucci handbag, that she had bargained down to almost half price - she paid about AU$25! Determined to track down the famous pear and blue cheese pizza that we'd heard about, we combed the streets of Trastevere for the resturant, and then we waited 15mins for a table. When we finally sat down, we were told they didn't have any pizzas (our Italian didn't stretch to finding out why)!
That evening we joined with another walking tour - a twilight visit to some of the sites on the streets of Rome. We visited the church Michaelanglo had his funeral in, the smallest church in Rome (an exact copy of St Peter's Bascillica), the Pantheon, the Trevi Fountain, and the best gelati in Rome. We ended the day with dinner at a cool winebar and a fantastic meal including buffalo mozzarella.
We liked our last guide - a young, charasmatic Italian-American guy named Alex - so much that we decided to do his Vatican tour the next morning. Unfortunately, Alex was having a very bad day at work. After arriving late and obviously already a little frazzled by whatever had delayed him, he took us and the group to join the entrance line - normally about an hour long at this time of the morning. We had to walk almost back to St Peter's to find the end of the queue, which was the longest Alex had ever seen it in his 4 years of tours. After four hours of waiting in the rain, dealing with pushy tour groups, dangerous umbrellas and frustrated visitors, we all finally made it inside (just after 1pm).
Somehow Alex managed to maintain his good humour and enthusiasm - despite having to cancel a lunch date with his wife - and gave us a fantastic tour of the Vatican museum, the Sistine Chapel and St Peter's Basicalla.
Since we had a 5:30pm train to catch, and our luggage was still at our guest house, Alex put us in a taxi after the tour finished. We flew across Rome - our plans for the afternoon in tatters - grabbed our bags and collapsed on to the train for Naples, glad to finally be off our feet. Two days will never be enough to see Rome, but if you must try, make sure you don't go near a national holiday!
Saturday, April 28, 2007
The resort was a set of 11 rooms/apartments just outside the village of Oia, overlooking the caldera and the volcanic islands in the centre. They served us a huge breakfast out on the terrace, which included amazing museli, a selection of meats and cheeses, all sorts of bread, croissants, muffins, honey, jams, fantastic Greek yoghurt (Karina will never again be able to face a low-fat tub of yoplait), a big fruit bowl and a pot of tea and a pot of coffee each. Best of all, it was all just for us, and it came every morning.
We decided that one activity a day, fitted in around pleanty or r&r, was more then enough. The day we arrived, we explored the village of Oia (basically the stereotypical Greek island village - tiny white buildings nestled tightly together with stairs and alleys leading everywhere). On day two, we took a boat ride out to the volcanic islands and jumped off the boat to swim out to some thermal pools (the Medditeranian being as cold as it gets, and the thermal pools being only slightly warmer). The third day was a strenous trip into Oia for relaxation massages (after which Simon was told he was the second most stressed person the masseure had ever met, based on the tension in his shoulders. Karina thinks it's more because of lugging our heavy bags for a month). On our last day, we took a trip to lie on the black sand beach at a place called Kamari, on the other side of the island.
As always, food was extremely important! Dinners included a selection of Meze (like Greek tapas) from an ouzori (traditional Greek pub), some Greek fare at a rooftop taverna in Fira, Santorini's capital, a great meal from a resturant hanging on the edge of a cliff in Oia, and €7.50 milkshakes made with Haagan-Daas ice cream. Of course, we also enjoyed a lot of local wines.
When we weren't exauhsting ourselves doing any of the above, you could usually find us relaxing by the pool, ordering cocktails and eating olives and cheese. If you ever find yourself on Santorini, we strongly suggest you stay at the Ikies Luxury Hotel. We had the smallest and most basic room (the Gardener's House), and they still made us feel like royalty. Santorini is yet another place that we would definitely like to visit again!