Archive | June 2013

Lyon – France

No pictures from Lyon – pretty dull day.  Well we are now on our final train leg of our journey from Lyon to Paris on the speedy TGV “bullet train” feels like it is going as fast as a bullet too.  The whole journey takes just under two hours so we will be in Paris before we know it.  Train travel in Europe has been so easy and the high-speed trains have been really great.

We arrived in Lyon yesterday afternoon from Nice after travelling for about four hours by train.  By the time we found the apartment it was already about 5PM so we headed out to explore a considerably cooler Lyon.  We didn’t do a repeat of Nice – so not too much walking – just into the central city and back to have something to eat.  The rain clouds looked a little threatening so after a very ordinary dinner (something that was supposed to be rump steak – not sure what it was – horrible) we headed back to the apartment stopping off to buy some milk and OJ for the morning from a local grocery store.

The Airbnb booked apartment in Nice was up on the 4th floor again with a lift thank goodness.  The apartment was quite a nice even though the building was over 100 years old.  It had everything we needed including a kitchen and Nespresso coffee machine, which was good.

This morning we had a good breakfast of scrambled eggs with tomatoes and baguette rolls before heading off to the station to catch the train.  It was still a lot cooler in Lyon and raining / drizzling on and off.  Still we cant complain the weather for the whole trip has been pretty awesome – not really expecting too much in the way of good weather in Paris, but Sunday (update) is a lovely day, blue skies and sunny 23 degrees! Lovely.

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Nice France

We only really had an overnight stop in Nice to catch the TGV fast train to Lyon, which is where we are up to now.  It was a real pity because the weather in Nice was fantastic (again) and Nice turned out to be a really pretty little city worth more of a look.  The beach is beautiful and the city also boasts an old city (pedestrian only), which is full of fantastic looking and crowded restaurants.

We had a slight hitch with our Airbnb host not being available on the phone initially but we got into the apartment and then he rang and sorted it all out.  It was a little apartment up on the 6 Floor luckily with a lift to Floor 5.  Only a small loft bedroom with a bathroom – but it had everything we needed even WiFi.

As we only had the one night and it was still light at about 8:00PM, we walked down to the beach and headed for one of the recommended restaurants near the port area.  The walked proved to be a bit of a hike, as we included a bit of a wander around the old city, so it was getting late when we eventually ate at about 9:45PM.  Pauline not happy, hungry and tired!

Anyway we had the best Cheeseburgers & Chips we have ever had at this place so it was (almost) worth the walk!  Not really your typical French food, but cooked beautifully with a great sauce!  We ended up walking back as well, so we got be bed a little late.  Really needed to spend more time in Nice.

After a good (French) breakfast of croissant and coffee and a walk down to the beach we headed back to the station to catch the TGV to Lyon.  Getting closer to Paris and the end of the holiday and back to reality.

 

La Spezia Italy – Cinque Terre

Writing this as we speed along in relative luxury at 300KPH on the TGV in France from Nice to Lyon. A few days back when we arrived in La Spezia from Naples we were met at La Spezia station by Marco, the father of the owner of the B&B we were staying at for the next three nights.

Rail travel in both Italy and France on their high speed trains has been pretty good on the whole, probably the only part where it was a bit long and crowded was the Genoa to Nice leg, where we couldn’t reserve seats and had to crowd in to the train with our bags squeezed in between seats.

The day after we arrived in La Spezia we caught the train to Cinque Terre the 5 picturesque towns along the coast of the Italian Riveria, which are Unesco listed as world heritage sites.  The towns originated along the coast after an extensive network of terraces were constructed for cultivating crops and vines.

The train ticket gave us the option of 2 days to hop on and off the train between the towns and La Spezia for about 16 Euro each – which was pretty good.  We started with Riomaggiore the first town, which was really very pretty and we had a good look and walk around taking pictures.  Still quite a few tourists around even though the hiking tracks were mostly closed except between two of the towns further up (Corniglia and Vernazza).  The area is famous for the hiking tracks and spectacular views between the towns but recent earthquakes and land slips in the area had closed most of the tracks.  You can see the evidence from most of the towns, where the racks have been cut.

Still it was very pretty and we had another great day with the weather, we really have been extremely lucky all holiday with really great sunny weather.  We had lunch in the second town Manarola in a very pretty spot overlooking the harbour and ocean.  The third town, Corniglia is the only one without a natural harbour and it sits on top of a hill which involves a climb up 488 steps to the top, quite a hike in itself.  We had a glass of the local white wine in a great little wine bar in Corniglia, which was a nice break.  Then it was on to Vernazza the town that was devastated by a flood in 2011.  We ended up in the final town Monterosso and had a lovely Italian dinner at one of the local restaurants again with the local Cinque Terre white wine.  Lovely.

Originally we were going to go through the 5 towns over 2 days, but managed to finish them all in one long exhausting day!  That left us free the next day to catch the ferry from La Spezia to Portovenere that is just west of La Spezia.  This town is also heritage listed but not quite as touristy as the Cinque Terre towns, so it was a very relaxing day we had a quiet stroll around the town, went up to the old church situated on the point and then had a great lunch in the old town.  Again it is one of the towns where the houses were all built next to each other to form a wall to keep invaders out.  The houses have been retained and painted in the lovely pastel colours similar to Cinque Terre.  Pontovenere turned out to be just as pretty as the Cinque Terre towns, but without the tourists everywhere.

We took the ferry back to La Spezia and had a great dinner at a local La Spezia restaurant.  I must say I have really enjoyed the Italian food.

Positano – Colle dell’ara

We took a taxi to the Rome Termini station in the morning, which turned out to be a really expensive taxi ride! As I was rushing to get out of the cab I took what I thought was a 10 Euro note from my wallet and got a 1 Euro coin from Pauline to pay for the 11 Euro fare. The driver came around with what looked like change and when I looked confused made some noises about the 1 Euro coin and rushed off.

I only twigged after he had driven off that both the 10 and 50 Euro notes are similar colours and I had given him 51 instead of 11 Euro! I am sure it made his day – Dumb Touriste! Anyway expensive lesson in the currency! We were pleased to leave Rome after that and the crowds and traffic and rush.

The train took us to Naples where I had hired a car to get to Positano and 3 days rest at a BnB up on the hill. Pauline who remembered the drivers and roads from this area from 30 years ago was by this stage in a state of panic. It didn’t help that we immediately got lost trying to get out of Naples onto the A3 highway. Luckily I had an Italian SIM with data in my iPhone and we could use the Apple Maps and turn-by-turn GPS navigation to find our way out. All this in a manual Left Hand Drive car driving on the wrong side of the road – first time driving a manual Left Hand Drive by the way. Nice little car though –small Volvo diesel manual (hardly used any fuel).

We eventually got to the freeway and managed to drive through the wrong lane (eTag) at the tollbooth, but other than that made it to Positano. Once we got to Positano, if we thought the roads were narrow and twisting before from Sorrento, here they really got scary! They were really only built for one car and they were two way, but also had cars and scooters parked along the side. We managed to meet a truck coming the other way and had to get right off the road to let it get past.

Eventually we arrived at what the GPS thought was the destination and we had no idea where the place was, so I call Giacomo the AirBnB host. He managed to work out from the bus stop nearby that we were only about 100M from the BnB intercom and sign which is the only indication of Colle dell’ara on the road – the actual BnB is some 200 steps up the hill from the road. We drove up a bit further and were met by Marco, Giacomo’s brother who loaded up our bags on a bag lift on a wire pulley system that was winched up the hill by the father. We parked the car and walked up the steps to Colle dell’ara with Marco.

The view from the BnB is really breathtaking! It is the highest accommodation at Positano and really beautiful. The brothers Marco and Pasquale, are really proud of the place and their gardens on the hill where they grow all their own produce for the BnB and to sell to local restaurants. We went down the hill with the local bus that afternoon and had dinner in Positano and Chez Black right on the beach – lovely. Positano turned out to be a great place and the BnB even better. The second night we had a home cooked Italian meal, cooked by the father served with local wine and local rocket fuel lemon liquor (brewed onsite). We met a group of three young Aussies who were great company (Jody, Liz and Todd) and there was also a French Canadian and his wife from Quebec.

The next night we were there we had dinner just down the road from the Colle dell’ara at the La Tagliata restaurant which also had stunning views of the sunset over the Positano bay and had a great Italian family meal cooked by Mama which was huge (no menu – they just feed you – Lots!). Started with antipasto, then pasta, then meat, then dessert each of which would have made a meal in itself.

Overall Positano ended up being one of our favourite places so far on the trip. Quite restful after the full-on days in Rome, Florence and Venice.

The trip back was fairly uneventful aside from clipping wing mirrors on the road down from the BnB in Positano we found our way back to the Naples station with no drama to hand the car back and even paid the toll on the way! One of the enduring images of Positano was the number of cars with wing mirrors dangling off the side or missing altogether!

 

Rome

We didn’t start out too well in Rome, our train was delayed by over two hours from Florence so we ended up getting into Rome after 8:30PM and caught a taxi to the apartment after letting our BnB Rome host Serena know of the delay.

Once we had got into the apartment and had a shower it was about 10:00 before we went out looking for some dinner.  We had a lovely meal though at a place recommended by Serena that was just down the road.

Next day, our only day for sight seeing in Rome, again didn’t start well.  The apartment was just a short walk from the Colosseum and the Palatine Hill, so we were down early (just after 8:30) to make an early start as I had pre-booked tickets, only to find that the so-called “guardians” of the Colosseum had taken a half day strike and the Colosseum and Palatine Hill (Forum, etc) was closed until 12:30.  I had also booked a tour of the Vatican Museum for the afternoon so that rather spoiled the start of the day.

We walked a little further into Rome and caught a Hop on Hop Off bus that took us to the Vatican (the idea being that we would try and get back to the Colosseum at the end of the day on the bus).

It was a really hot day, Rome was really crowded and the Vatican was worse, hotter and more crowded.  We waited in a queue to go through security for St Peters Basilica for about 45 mins to an hour with thousands of people.  When we finally got into the Basilica it was pretty crowded.  Still it was worth the wait to see Michelangelo’s Pieta – quite beautiful!  The Basilica itself was enormous – huge! Even filled with tourists you got a real impression of the size and grandeur of its design – very impressive.

We spent about an hour in the Basilica and then went closer to the Vatican Museum to grab a bite to eat for lunch and get ready for our tour that started at 1:30PM.  The Vatican Museum is really impressive and worth taking a guided tour as there is just so much to see – it is huge.  We spent well over 2 and a half hours in the museum and the Sistine Chapel before getting out again just next to St Peters.  The museum is really interesting with a huge amount of treasures from ancient Greek and Roman statues and artworks (including wonderful mosaics and tapestries).  The Raphael fresco’s in the Papal apartments were particularly impressive.  Obviously the Sistine Chapel with its beautiful painted ceiling of the Creation and fresco of the Last Judgement by Michelangelo were the real highlight and definitely worth seeing.  The only downside is that you are crammed into the Sistine Chapel (which is relatively small –being the Pope’s private chapel) with thousands of other tourists – but still it was awe-inspiring to see the fresco’s for real the first time.  Beautiful!

We snuck back into St Peters to have one last look at the Pieta before heading back through St Peters square to catch the Hop On / Off bus again back to the Colosseum, only to arrive at the gate at about 6:45 to find that it had closed 30 minutes earlier (an hour before the official closing time) and we couldn’t get in.

Anyway at that stage we were tired and over the crowds in Rome and wanted to get back to our apartment and get something to eat for dinner.  Next day we were due to catch the train for Naples and 3 days at Positano to recover.  We needed a break by then, totally over the crowds of people, museums and churches!  Looking forward to the beauty, peace and (relative) serenity of Positano and Cinque Terre.

Florence

We arrived in Florence by train from Venice and managed to find our way to the AirBNB apartment we had near the central Florence Market with not too many problems.  When we arrived they asked  if we would mind if they gave us a larger 2 bedroomed apartment on the first floor across from the market.  We didn’t mind at all!  It was really nice and spacious and close to a number of nice restaurants around the market square, once of which was owned by the husband of the apartment owner and we had a nice 10% discount on all meals there – which was great.

The first afternoon in Florence we had a walk around the city, everything was really close and we ended up at the Duomo Cathedral which was really impressive – only just over a block away.  It is just huge, and as you walk into the square it makes a huge impression.  We also walked down to the Ponte Vecchio Bridge and had a look into all the expensive jewellery shops along the bridge.

We had a nice dinner at the Garabardi Trattoria  (with a 10% discount) which was really great (pasta and pizza have been the standard fare while in Italy).

The next day we had bookings at the Accademia and the Uffizi Gallery which I had made before I left.  The Accademia is where they have Michelangelo’s statue of David which he carved in Florence when he was in his early 20’s int he early 1500’s. It just takes your breath away when you walk into the room – it is just beautiful.  Huge, over 5M high – much bigger than I expected – really something.  After David we went along to the huge Uffizi Gallery which is a short walk away near the Arno river.  Also beautiful with Bottechelli’s Birth of Venus and the only Michelangelo painting “The Holy Family” as well as a number of Leonardo Da Vinci paintings.

Our train to Rome was supposed to leave at about 4:30 and we were at the station in plenty of time to make the train only to see it delayed (initially by 10  minutes then 55 then 120 then 130 minutes!).  Not much information available other than it was delayed and not many cool places to sit and wait!  We eventually snuck into the Freccia Club which was nicely air-conditioned and not too crowded.  Anyway we ended up arriving in Rome over 2 hours late at around 8:30.

Reflections on the cruising and Greece

Now that we are sitting in beautiful Positano (more on the trip here later) we can reflect back on the cruise and Greece.

The 12 days of the cruise was really great, just long enough with a great itinerary and plenty to do and see. The 2 days we had at sea on board the ship were also great as they allowed us to relax and recover and also take everything that we had seen in and digest it all. It was still a pretty busy schedule, but it was great having the ship as a base where we had our cabin and could unpack everything and leave it all in a wardrobe. (Last few days has been living out of a suitcase with our travels). The food and service on board the Ruby Princess was also great – couldn’t fault it. Our cabin steward (Adrian) was friendly and polite and our cabin was always cleaned twice a day and spotless. Great experience all round. It was really hard to believe that there were 3,000 passengers on board the ship – it was never rushed or over crowded, there were always tables and places to chill out. Mind you there were 1,200 staff looking after us all.

Greece was really beautiful especially the Greek Islands (all of them were different). Santorini and Mykonos were fantastic and Corfu was a real contrast. Athens was big and crowded, but we still got to see the Acropolis and Parthenon – one of the highlights. Mykonos was a real highlight, beautiful place, beautiful colours and crystal clear water.

It was still pretty sad that everywhere we went in Greece they talked about the economy and the fact that there was little hope and little light at the end of the tunnel for the Greeks. When we were in Olympia the Greek Government even ended up shutting down the Government run TV and Radio stations to try and save money, that was not popular. There seemed to be many other options for saving money than cutting that service completely. Anyway there still seemed to be plenty of tourists around especially on the Islands and the economy really relies on the tourist continuing to come along – I hope they do. All the Greek people we met in our travels were just lovely.