A Travellerspoint blog

Crazy Weather

a few weeks back home (aka Summer? What Summer?)

rain 23 °C

Travelling anywhere for a break ( a proper lazy holiday) frequently relies on sunny days that allow you to go at your own pace, sleeping in without fear of missing the sunshine that you aimed to a) lie in with a good book/glass of wine or bear b) walk in through charming vistas or c) enjoy from the pool/balcony/garden with friends. While the tropics tend to afford this certainty at the right time of the year I'm beginning to see that the rest of the world only offers uncertainty and a gamble on holiday times. Friends return from their holidays (Portugal or the Canaries, say) with tales of windy days that were too cold to spend by the pool or unseasonally early snow (New York this autumn). All wonderfullly exciting if that was what you were looking for...

My recent return home for a break over Chirstmas joined these tales of holiday weather gambles that didn't pay off. Unusually for December in NZ it rained and rained and rained. The temperature was a charming 22 DegC or more and glimpses of blue sky promised better weather if only these wet old rain clouds would just trickle past. If only.

Northland farmers were delighted that for once their prayers for rain before the summer really got underway. My dad is one of these. Holiday makers were less delighted.

With the air seasonally warm but the conditions less than encouraging towards outdoor pursuits I'm fairly confident in saying cinemas, shopping centres and other indoor facilities (the snow dome in Silverdale for example) will no doubt have done a storming trade. All you have to do is adjust your perspective and make the most of the chance to enjoy the local experience - go to the pictures, people watch in cafes, try the lingo in some shops and do a little gift purchasing. Come next Christmas you'll be delighted when you find you don't have to battle it out on the crowded and noisy High Street because you have already done your shopping (added bonus - your gifts are exotic and interesting regardless of their usefulness!!)

It would also be wise to make the most of all sunny and dry days by cracking on with your list of things to do safe in the knowledge that you can sleep in and laze about as soon as the weather turns.

That's not to say New Zealand no longer has lovely summer weather. Au contraire - you just have to head there Mid January!

Posted by TravelMc 03:41 Archived in New Zealand Comments (0)

Too much driving

Christchurch to Dunedin to Auckland...

sunny 25 °C

Having a brief but definite opportunity to visit the deepest depths of the South Island, NZ would probably prompt you to catch a plane whenever you have a long distance to travel just to keep yourself on time. That would be sensible. If you happen to have a spare $400 for flights that is...

However, as NZ hasn't really caught up with the cheap flight bonanza and as we wanted to see the Southern Alps from the ground (ditto the Marlborough Sounds), spend at least a night in Wellington and also visit my grandparents along the way driving was the best option.

Did I mention Transrail (NZ rail company) also decided to axe their Auckland to Wellington journeys until the 10th Jan? That was a kick in the itinerary. I console myself with the sure knowledge that they didn't make any more money out of me as a result (nor the half dozen friends also travelling around NZ at the same time).

So we started in Christchurch. Took a day to do the Transalpine then drove to Dunedin to visit family. It rained the entire way but we still made use of the opportunity to stop at the Moeraki Boulders (totally circular boulders protruding from the sandy beach at Moeraki) which was well worth it.

Dunedin was enjoying a classic British summer down under and it was cloudy and drizzly most of the time we were there however its an interesting town built into crazy hills (hosting the worlds steepest street, you just know this place was built by hardy colonials who had never been told they couldn't do something) that are frequently draped in a cloak of cloud that rolls in at a moments notice. We were taken to Sandfly Bay to watch the nightly epic of blue and yellow eyed penguins emerging from the waves to begin their assent up the steepest and highest of sanddunes and hill sides that closely resemble cliffs, to nest for the night. These tiny creatures - all of 1.5 feet in height - waddle their way to the base of the sanddunes, resting and shaking out their little bodies every few minutes only to tuck their beaks down and shuffle their way up the slopes with an amazing resilience and determination. It was breathtaking to watch and a priviledge to see.

Did I mention the seal lions? Those logs of wood on the beach aren't drift wood washed up on a king tide. They are sea lions lolling drowsily, occassionally turning over to stretch a flipper. As we got up from our mid-dune perch to head back a host of sea lions all over the beach were making their way back into the water. They waded on all fours our from behind rocks and drift wood and sand dunes and immediately made us mere mortals feel dwarfed and precarious as we side-stepped them in what I hoped was a respectful manner in their terms!

We struggled (I struggled) our way back up the massive sand dune to the foot path that would lead to the car park as the sky that peeked through the grey and dangerous clouds flamed a deep redy pink and we headed back into thick cloud on our way back to our beds for the night.

The next morning we began the long haul to Blenheim - having the offer of a free bed, a delicious dinner and a precious moment with a treasured Aunt so far away but too tempting to turn down. We drove through first cloud, then drizzel and finally broke out into flaming sunshine somewhere around Christchurch. By the time we made it to Kaikoura it was registering at 30+ degrees C on the cars thermometer and the waves were crashing into the rocky coast line with a strong and shifting breeze (here offshore, there onshore). We stopped to film seals on the rocks at a look out point just north of Kaikoura. We saw fights and frippery as the seals either squared off with one another or played happily in the rolling waves. We also saw maternal care as mothers with very young calves gently urged their offspring down to the water or further into the shade. The cicadas were creating a huge racket and it felt like a real summer should!

We made it in to Blenheim in the early evening and previously mentioned succour was enjoyed. We then slept like the dead, waking to receding stratospheric clouds and emerging glorious sunshine. After a coffee at Wither Hills Winery (I highly recommend you pop in for a visit and if the weather is good get a bean bag on the lawn!) we headed for Picton and the ferry.

I would recommend you do the ferry journey between NZ's north and south island heading from Wellington to Picton. It does make coming into the Marlborough sounds truly breathtaking. However doing it the other way is still beautful. Wellington was windy as usual but sunny and the city was oddly quiet for a Friday night. We found a fabulous little cafe on Cuba St for an amazing caesar salad (I think it was called Ernesto) and I highly recommend this as an eating establishment of top notch nosh. The staff were brilliant too so good all around! Having sauntered along the waterfront and then down some of the main streets we had located our hire car company and got a deal to return a hire car to Auckland within 48 hours for a mammoth $20 hireage. So at 10am the next day we were collecting said car and heading north!

After a mere 8 hours travel we'd left Wellington far behind and travelled up through Taihape (lunch) to Taupo and Rotorua to Waihi Beach where we stayed with grandparentals and soaked up yet more good kiwi living. Oddly we saw an island that seemed to appear in the morning and disappear in the evening. Some beach side property had loped down a pine tree which obscured this view of the water until recently which explained why, in 15 years of looking at the view the island hadn't been spotted sooner but its pm disappearances were truly weird! It was probably a sea mist or something.

Having only 48 hours to get back to Auckland we were thoroughly lazy and just mooched about not doing too much but eating lots at the grandparentals gearing up for the final, very brief run to Auckland with our hire car. Having traversed about 2000 kms of road in 8 days our carbon foot print isn't looking too great however the tourism value is getting up there.

I would highly recommend to anyone wanting to do NZ in a short space of time to look into a return deal on a campervan and just hot foot it about the place enjoying the journey! They apparently give you 7 days to get a campervan from Y destination to X origin (ie Wellers to Aucks) and it beats heck out of paying full price!

Take a camera with a good zoom. Speak to people where you park up for a night (you never know what cool places they'll recommend you stop at). Have spare cash in your pocket. It will all be good.

Posted by TravelMc 07:45 Archived in New Zealand Tagged driving Comments (0)

Sicillia!

sunny 25 °C
View sicilly on TravelMc's travel map.

Being in Sicilia (01/10/08-08/10/08)

This one will hopefully not be too long. I know the tomes of old were massive and only covered a long weekend and this was a week’s holiday but a lot of activity can be summed up so hopefully this is a less arduous read!

So, Sicilia! We (Edwin, Mark and I) flew out on Wednesday 1 October. We had to get up at 3am to get to the airport for a 6am flight. Understandably we were pretty shattered that afternoon. We landed at just after 10am to bright blue skies and rugged mountains practically standing up straight out of the sea. They are rocky and fairly barren mountains so cast a very striking view as you fly in. The airport is an hour train ride to the city. We discovered most of this time is taken up in being stopped at a station. We finally got into Palermo central at around noon and quickly found our hotel. Right outside the station is the highly Italian copper statue of Vittorio Emmanuel II on his horse and he faced straight down the Main Street which was where our hotel was located – all extremely straight forward. We went for a wander to get our bearings and found the streets are absolutely manic. All over Sicily shops shut around 1pm and don’t open again until after 4pm so it’s really busy on the paths until 1 and then the roads fill up with cars while everyone leaves work. There’s a traffic jam until around 5pm and then the streets are full of pedestrians once again. Madness!

Our wanderings eventually took us down to the water front on the first evening. There was a jogging track and places for people to gather as well as a wonderful view out to sea. It was very peaceful and picturesque.

For the next 2 days that we were in Palermo we got a ticket on the City Sightseeing bus tour. We wandered to our chosen bus stop to see some of the city on foot and then hopped on the bus (feeling mighty relieved and a lot safer) to see the city from the top deck. It’s an odd and old city. A lot of its buildings are extremely dilapidated and in various and advanced stages of disrepair but there is some stunning architecture. There are several street markets, most of which sell seafood and fruit/vege but a couple which sell clothes and so on. The main cross roads are called the Quarto Canti – the four corners. The buildings that face onto the intersection have 4 statues of Spanish kings, 4 of saints and lots of cherubs spread around the four facades. From here the roads run up to the mountains or down to the port.

We did the full tour on the red circuit twice on the Thursday as we had hopped on at the train station and missed a chunk of the talk while we got settled. This was quite good because the Italians are quite laid back about when they play the talks and sometimes you are half a street ahead or behind the narrative and have no idea what they are talking about! We did get to see a lot of the different influences from Spanish to French to Italian to Arabic on this tour. We also got to see a lot of mad moped-ists and motorcyclists as well!

The blue tour took us a little bit further out of the city centre and at its furthest we went past a former mosque and old Arabic centre. Most of the buildings are gone but those left are stunning to see. Along this route we also past a rotunda that had been given to the city by a resident who decided he didn’t want anyone building in front of his home so he’d give the city something to occupy the space rather than having housing developed there! Genius!

We dined both nights at a little restaurant just down the road from our hotel. The waiter was very good – telling us ‘in confidence’ what was freshest on the menu and what to try each night. I had swordfish on the first night which was very good. We also tried cassata which is a cake filled with a Sicilian ricotta cream. Tasty!

The Sicilians go in for a lot of sweet foods. At breakfast there were ricotta and jam filled croissants (they called them brioche) and tarts and pastries as well as the continental deli meats and cheese and rolls. We did very well for breakfast at both our hotel and B&B to say the least.

We went to Balestrate on the Friday afternoon. We had thought to spend the whole week there but couldn’t book into our B&B for the first two nights – hence staying in Palermo. I will say the places were chalk and cheese to each other. Where, in Palermo, it was chaos with busy streets and people everywhere and having to hang onto your bag, in Balestrate it was much more laid back. In Palermo a girl in our hotel was mugged our first night there. In Balestrate we didn’t ever feel that was a problem. We arrived in the town at 4pm and found our B&B really easily, despite forgetting to print out the map. Casa Ruffino was lovely. It has been in the Ruffino family for at least 3 generations and our host Giuseppe has set it up perfectly as a B&B (see the website: http://www.casaruffino.it/GB/home.html and click on the icons below the main pictures for more photos. We stayed in the room called Regina).

As we arrived during the siesta time the town was deserted. It was a bit weird after the hustle and bustle of Palermo. Anyway Giuseppe arrived to show us our room and he didn’t speak very much English. He said something to us about 10 minutes and going out so we nodded and thought ‘oh he’s going out. Well that’s fine’. We spent 15 minutes unpacking and then went to have a look at the main part of the house to find Giuseppe waiting for us and ushering us to his car. He took us along the coast to Castellamare which is a superb fishing village with a gorgeous port lined with restaurants and a Castile at the end of the port. It was all sloping alleyways and one way lanes. Giuseppe drove us further around the coast to get a photo of the town from the mountain side which was fabulous. On the way out of town we stopped at a café and Giuseppe bought Mark and me a coffee each and Mark a brioche bun stuffed (STUFFED) with gelato! Astounding!

Breakfasts were equally as interesting. Our first morning, we were the only people in the B&B and got the full force of Giuseppe’s generous hospitality. He showed us every plate on the table and insisted we try something from every plate, forking ricotta and jam onto our bread and giving us pastries to try and so on. Given we barely spoke each other’s language it was a bit of an uphill battle to understand what each other was saying and sometimes Mark was thinking Giuseppe’s saying one thing, I’m thinking he saying something different and Giuseppe’s actually saying something else altogether! The rest of the mornings there were several other couples there too, some who spoke Italian and some who didn’t but it spread the focus a bit and in the end was quite funny. For the most part we did well to make each other understood and we did try some wonderful food in the loveliest dining room! Including Guiseppes homegrown vege like tomatoes and radishes which were so good! Well worth the small effort of misundertsnaind each others languages!

Saturday we took the train to Trapani hoping to be able to get up the hill to Erice (ear-ee-chee) which is a town on the top of a mountain that looks like a rocky outcrop from sea level looking up! It was the only day it rained but it rained twice. For half and hour as we ate breakfast and for 15 minutes when we were looking for somewhere to have a late lunch! But it was quite windy so the Funivia or funicular (they translate it as cable car but it’s more like a gondola) that runs from Trapani up the mountain to Erice wasn’t operating. We had a wander around Trapani all the time thinking we must have missed the touristy area but absolutely at a loss to find it, before heading back to Castellamare for a bit of an explore. The country side on the western side of the island is mountainous for the most part and looks quite barren but smattered with vineyards and olive groves and wind turbines! And everywhere you look there are derelict houses! Oddly the homes look a bit dilapidated but the olive groves are neat as a pin! We had a great look around Castellamare having a look at the museum display in the Castile (all about the films made in Castellamare, of which Oceans 12 is one, and the tuna fishing and local festivals) and wandering until the heavens opened and we had to find a café toot sweet. We had a great lunch in a wine bar in a little alley leading to the port. After ordering Salsice Arrostto and pommes frittes I realised I had asked for something that really wasn’t at all traditional – sausages and chips. Mark had a pizza though so the side wasn’t completely let down.

Back in Balestrate we discovered Saturday night is a Massive night out in the town – everyone goes out for dinner. We were fortunate to have stopped at the main restaurant briefly (some hours after lunch mind) just for a snack and within 20 minutes (about 8pm) the place was full and there was a queue out the door! The main square (fronted by a very Greek looking church) was heaving with people too and every eating place – take away, low cost or restaurant was absolutely packed! It was great for people-watching.

Sunday we had decided to spend the day on the beach and had a picnic lunch ready and fingers crossed it was going to stay fine for the afternoon. And it was! We spent almost the whole day on the beach with several other touristy couples (only foreigners would be mad enough to be swimming when it’s only 25 degrees!) It was superb. We also decided what to do with our last two full days and to hire a car and go and see Erice properly and perhaps visit Agrigento. When we got back to the B&B Giuseppe said something to us about food and his wife and 6.30pm and we had no idea what he meant. It dawned on us that as it was Sunday perhaps none of the restaurants/cafes opened and maybe his wife was going to bring some food to the B&B so we nodded and said ‘yes thank you’ as you do and at 6.30 found ourselves being hustled once again in to his car (which he assured us now was ‘good, it’s ok’) and being taken to Trapani and Erice before dinner in Bogania on the other side of the mountain. Giuseppe and Paola, his wife, were brilliant. She spoke even less English, but a little French so we couldn’t really chat but she was very patient. They took us to Segesta to see the ancient Greecian temple on the hill – which just appears out of nowhere. It was excellent. They took us to a hill opposite where there is a lookout to take photos and enjoy the view and pointed out the ‘zone archaeologica’ and everything too! Then it was on to the castle on Erice's highest point. The drive up just went on and on and on – you just go up so, so high! It must have taken 30 minutes of winding up along the roads. At the end of it Giuseppe pulled up at a car park and told us to go for a wander up the path to the castle before driving us through some of the bigger streets (not that big) for a café (more coffee) and then down the mountain again to the town of Bogania for dinner at a wonderful restaurant where they knew the owner and waitress (who spoke English- fab). It was a lovely night if a little hard work. We had a traditional dinner of cous cous and fish broth as well as Busiata pasta and seafood. Fabulous. Finished off with a lemon sorbet with vodka in it. Then we went into Trapani for another coffee and Giuseppe proved there was a tourist area and I have no idea if it was close to where we were or not but it was exactly what we had been looking for! A lovely finish to the evening though. And we made it safely back to the B&B with no more breakdowns!

Monday we asked Giuseppe where the ticket office was for the train (having been unable to buy advance tickets at the train station) to go to the airport. He said he’d show us and once again we were in Giuseppe’s car. He took us about 5 minutes walk down the road and we were a bit confused as to why he didn’t just point it out until he said ‘café’ and off we went, once again. This time to the next village along to the east for supposedly the ‘best coffee’. And it was quite good. However things like this don’t bode well for Giuseppe and this trip was no different. On the way back an old chap backed into Giuseppe’s car so we had to wait while the Carabinierre were called and so on, missing the train to collect our hire car in the process. This wasn’t all bad news though. Giuseppe was very good and drove us the 15 minutes to the airport (which would have taken an hour on the train) and wished us well with our car (a rocking little fiat panda) and we did get to see Italians at their emotive best with the two chaps arguing over whose fault it was and the older chaps wife trying to calm things down. Giuseppe was extremely measured but the old chap just lost the plot! Street side entertainment, Sicilian style!

Having obtained our lovely little fiat panda we headed for Agrigento to see the Valle De Templi (Valley of Temples) which was astounding. The drive took just over 2 hours and took us through this lovely and changing landscape. Giuseppe had told us the roads to take (that was an easy conversation because all the direction points were in Italian) and it was extremely straight forward (well, Mark did all the driving). We passed some astounding places where you could see canyons in the mountains and big alluvial valleys with towns on the hill sides and more cut out of the mountain sides. I also noticed these odd little walled villages where the houses were packed together and looked really tiny and had crosses on the rooftops and so on which Mark calmly informed me were the cemeteries. This was made more odd by the fact some of the doors had glass in them. I still haven’t figured out why. Siculiana was the biggest one and was also a cool looking little town right before Agrigento that sat on the far side of a hill absolutely covered in the ruins of either a big farm settlement or an older town. I have quite a few photos from this drive!

The Valle was excellent. We bought our tickets and went up to the first temple on the map via the olive grove beside the main pathway up and discovered lizards and crickets the size of your hand (yuck…ok not that big but still yuck!) I have to admit to never having seen olives actually growing on the trees until now. Its slightly odd having spent so much time wandering the olive grove of One Tree Hill in Auckland…for the non-Aucklanders reading this the grove is sterile for some fully explicable reason not realised when the original owner planted them c100 years ago. However, it was strange to see the trees with olives in situ but nice all the same. The temples were awesome and the view down to the beach front was great. We could see quite a lot of the site which included a great deal of archaeology and ports and town gates and so on. We got to explore in Juno's temple too which was great. We saw one of the lighting cables on a rock shifting and then realised it was a black snake! I can admit to walking promptly in the other direction.

The site is split in half by the road so we explored the top site first before heading down to the next site and seeing a great big toppled statue of a man in the middle of it all. It was extremely good fun to wander around and speculate what the various areas were and what bits of the rubble went where. A superb visit!

Tuesday we decided to go and see Erice in the day time. We stopped on the way to visit Segesta for a better look around and found the whole area used to be a city and had been occupied for several hundred years by various groups including Greeks, Romans, and Arabs/Muslims and had medieval occupation too. We took the bus to the top of the hill first and explored the archaeological excavations and restorations (and discovered dozens of little lizards everywhere) and the Teatro Greco which is nearly fully restored, before heading down the mountainside to the Temple. It was brilliant because we could wander right through the temple and explore the area all around it. We thought we’d spend maybe 1 hour on the site before heading on and found we spent nearly 3 hours looking around!

After such a long stop we had to hot foot it to Erice. We had a superb day with brilliant blue skies overhead and really got to enjoy the landscape. From the low land near Trapani we headed up, up, up the mountainside once again. From even half way up the view was stunning. There are lots and lots of abandoned farm houses all the way up the mountain side – I counted 12 near the top alone – and plenty of ‘sheer drops’ from the road side. Mark had a ball but I suspect (probably from him muttering fairly loudly) that he would have really enjoyed driving up the mountainside in a Ferrari more than the fiat panda.

At the top we parked up and headed to the Castle for more photos passing a classic car rally parked on the side of the road which was entertaining all in itself. We then wandered through the loveliest garden and into the main town. We had finally found souvenir central and Mark got dragged into a dozen little shops selling the same aprons, tea towels and boxer shorts (featuring the classic anatomy of Michelangelo’s ‘the David’). We managed to pass possibly a dozen Saga coach loads (retired people living it up and having a ball) by turning down interesting looking narrow alleys and had a good look around. It’s a really lovely little town and is very well set up for the tourist trade it gets but the beach called and it was time to get back to Balestrate for one last dip!

After a lovely couple of hours back at the beach we settled in for our last night anticipating the adventure of getting from Casa Ruffino to the airport in one piece. Giuseppe, true to form, met us the next morning and offered to take us somewhere for ‘café’. Finally, after a week with the straight forward Italian example we dropped the polite English demurring and went for a straight out ‘no’ explaining we had to get to the airport. Lord knows what would have happened if we had said yes! We did have a good time and I was very sorry to leave the glorious blue seas and skies behind but it was nice to get home!

Travelling Mc (still travelling)

Posted by TravelMc 09:23 Archived in Italy Comments (0)

Gorgeous Cotswolds

rain 4 °C

I have to recommend looking for a venue for something like a wedding or large family gathering as a great way to see a bit of the countryside. In the past month or so we have been to Newmarket, Essex, Somerset and the Cotswolds looking at everything from large country houses and manors and priory's to interesting hotels and conference centres and seen some amazing late winter English countryside.

I felt so moved by the most recent trip I have to recommend you grab your car and go for a drive next time you happen to be in the UK or, more pointedly, anywhere near the Cotswolds. Go down the odd looking little lanes that seem only to lead to that distant farm house. Wind through the tiny streets of little villages that will convince you you're time travelling.

We first went to Bibury which is a captivating village of stone houses and fast running streams. We had a look at the proposed venue - The Swan Hotel (the most amazing bathrooms you've ever seen!) - and a short stroll in the very nearby area and I'm fairly certain if you like walking and taking photos this place will keep you occupied for a couple of days. I wouldn't go in expecting highlife and bright night lights but you should go looking for peace and the chance to see somewhere very enchanting.

From Bibury it was off down the aforementioned little lanes towards Moreton-on-Marsh ('on'? 'in' perhaps? either way). Diverting off one main carriageway to get to another somewhere north west via what looked like a glorified driveway was an excellent though initially worrying move from the Sat Nav. As a result I could never suggest following main routes in this area of the world. As we wound along teeny tiny lanes past horse boxes and stone walled fields we got to see farm houses and buildings that I am prepared to swear have been kept in a near perfect state since probably the 17th century. These amazing, large houses and barns and stables and you could almost convince yourself they had servants and carriages instead of cars and vacuum cleaners. Awesome. WE even went past one place that had the stone walled garden, stone sheds and what were probably pig stys and the white geese like a Beatrix Potter story!

After Moreton-in-Marsh we headed back the way we'd come and to Lower Slaughter - another small village of stone buildings and a very picturesque stream through the middle of the village. We were to view Washbourne Court Hotel. A modernised hotel based around a very old public house. Very Chic but not the sort of venue I was prepared to go for. Though I will say we stopped for afternoon tea (being THE thing to do in 2010) and they did the most amazing tea board - gorgeous fresh scones, the most delicious but tiny slice of carot cake, grogeous raspberry preserve (I don't think it qualified as jam or jelly as it was quite runny but it was amazing!). Definitely add a stop for afternoon tea there into any Lower Slaughter itinerary! We then wandered up the lane by the river, saw a lady feeding ducks and geese at the ford, visited the old mill craft shop (which also has a museum but we didn't have that much time) and sauntered about delighted by the small cottages with stacks of cut branches as firewood in the little covered entryways. Superb.

From there we were supposed to head home but we did a little detour to Upper Slaughter which is slightly grander by default of having slightly larger stone cottages and the manor house looks to be in private hands rather than bein gan event venue like Lower Slaughter Manor (though at £9000 a day exclusive use fee its still pretty swanky!)

Anywho - I highly recommend just going for these little jaunts around the English Countryside. We also recently passed through Finchingfield in Essex which is gorgeous - a stunning period village complete with pond filled with geese and ducks and swans and the tea house that has photos on its walls of its past life as a butchers at the turn of the last century! Spains Hall is 1 mile out of the village and just as stunning - a gorgeous venue at any time of year.

This sounds like an ad now. Either way I've been captivated by the countryside and the chance to see some of the stunning places you can hold an event in England and if you can drum up a reason (Like 'because I want to') then get out there and see this beautiful country!

Posted by TravelMc 08:35 Archived in United Kingdom Tagged events Comments (0)

Beautiful Florence – Belissimo Firenze

A short trip: 7 – 10 August 2009.

sunny 35 °C
View Florence on TravelMc's travel map.

Friday
Dawn hadn’t even thought about cracking when our alarms went off at 3am. However, in 2 short hours we were at the departure gates ready to head to Italy for some beautiful sunny days of cultured art, architecture and food.
We landed in Pisa airport to 29 degrees and bright sunshine, got ourselves sorted and headed for the train that would eventually take us to Florence Santa Maria Novella station.

We bowled up at our hotel (gorgeous Hotel River right by the river Arno, 5 mins walk from the main city centre) a couple of hours early expecting to only be able to leave our bags and have to come back later to check in only to be warmly welcomed and given our keys within 10 minutes. Instant good impression made even better by the fact this was achieved despite their computer system being frozen and the concierge not even being able to see if the rooms were ready. (Fortunately he was a smart chap who just called the housekeeper to find out if our room was sorted!) The heavenly bliss of an air-conditioned room with balcony and scrumptious apricot jellies on our pillows. Honestly it just got better and better. After getting settled we headed into town to get our bearings.

A short, 5 min walk lead us to Chiesa Santa Croce with its stunning marble façade. We had pizza for lunch at a little restaurant just down the road, tried to accustom ourselves to the heat (now about 32 degrees) and studied the map to decide where to go next.

After lunch we chose a side street and wandered until we reached the Palazzo Vecchio which is the town hall. The square by this building houses the replica of Michelangelo’s David as this is where it first lived. There is also a loggia that has many other lovely sculptures from the same period.

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From here we headed down past the Uffizzi Gallery to see the Ponte Vecchio from the road beside the river. You may be unsurprised to hear that at this point we found a rowing club. Situated underneath the Uffizzi. A highlight moment.

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By now the heat was taking its toll – the air conditioned room at the hotel was calling. So we headed back to chill out and plan our next foray.

The concierge at the hotel had recommended we visit the top floor balcony that overlooked the river while at the hotel. Before heading out to look for likely places for dinner and enjoy the city in the cooler (?) evening we decided a quick stop upstairs would be worthwhile. The view was stunning (next pic).

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The area to the left of the top of the tower is Piazzale Michelangelo – another (bronze) replica of the David sits here and this is where all the bus tours stop to give you a view of the city (Contiki takes a group photo from here too).

We also spotted a cat-sized creature crawling along the weir in the river. Closer inspection showed it was an otter – right in the middle of the city! Fantastic.

We decided to head into town the long way – crossing the river and walking down to the Ponte Vecchio from the far side. The jewellers shops that operate on the bridge had all closed but there was a chap busking who had attracted a massive crowd so the bridge was still really busy. To either end of it were the most fantastic gelaterias to tempt you:

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After dinner we headed back to the Ponte Vecchio for more photos then bed – big day tomorrow.

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Saturday
We took our time about heading out deciding to aim for the Duomo first. We joined a fast moving, short queue to look around inside and as we came out and saw the same queue stretching back around the building and completely stopped we realised we’d been extremely lucky. Every time we went past the cathedral we saw a longer and longer queue – we didn’t see it short and fast moving any other time we were there!

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From the Duomo we headed for the Bargello museum to see more Davids. This time there was Donatello’s David – a bronze statue that made me think of Peter Pan. We also saw hordes of byzantine panels, some armoury and so on. The building was built as a palace first, then housed the magistrate, then the police and became a prison, then became a convent before becoming a gallery. Quite a varied old life! It was very peaceful. Quite unlike the Uffizzi which we decided to pass on as the queues were SO long.

After some more wandering, eating and an afternoon relax we decided again to stroll up to the Ponte Vecchio in the hope of getting there before all the shops shut. We joined the throng and spent quite some time admiring the sparkly glittery things in all the windows. I suspect the lights that were illuminating the displays are responsible for the heat in Florence – they must have been kicking out some massive wattage because I definitely got not only tanned but slightly baked from being near them.

There seems to be a taste for knuckle dusters in Italy – there were rings in all the displays that could have weighed down Rocky’s fist. They were garish and superb at the same time.

Fortunately for us, when the heavens opened and a month’s worth of rain fell in 50 mins we had just stopped for a drink and were sheltered under the umbrellas watching other people get caught out (mwah ha ha ha). There was a massive thunderstorm. Unsurprisingly the little chaps that go around selling the prints of paintings and tacky plastic junk immediately appeared selling umbrellas (Dad – do you remember the ones in Rome?)

When the rain had reduced to little more than a drizzle we headed for a restaurant we had found the day before to try out their fare (photos as right). This place is just down the road from our hotel and served the best value, most delicious food and because of the rain was almost empty so we got a brilliant table outside under the covered area (the bright area to the left) and watched Florence go by over pasta and antipasti. We even got an accordion serenade. We came back to the same place on Sunday night when it had not rained all day and it was PACKED. It looks quite small from this picture but it’s massive inside – luckily for us.

And so Saturday wound down over a carafe of Chianti.
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Sunday
The rain on Saturday evening cooled down all the streets and buildings so Sunday started relatively cool. We had decided to get a 48 hour ticket to sightseeing bus which conveniently stopped right outside the hotel. We were aiming for the Duomo to climb up to the top but when we got there the long, long line to the cathedral was still in operation but the entrance to the dome was shut! Ah well. Next time.
Plan B: take the bus up to the Accademia di Belle Arti (?) to see THE David (Michelangelo’s one). The line for this also stretched off around the building but, helpfully, there is a big sign on the building saying you can cut the queue and pre-book tickets at a museum just up the road. So that’s what we did. For a small extra price we pre-booked for 30 mins time and after a nice little rest in the park nearby we wandered down to the pre-booked entrance and walked straight in – well worth the extra!

To be honest the most important and impressive thing in this place is The David. It’s astonishing. It stands in its own domed alcove exactly as it looks in all the photos. It is massive! However it doesn’t impose on its space – it’s been very well situated. There was a special exhibition of photos by a photographer who was inspired by Michelangelo’s use of form so there were a couple of his photos hung near the sculpture but normally there is nothing hung around it. Despite that you are still not allowed to take photos. You can walk right around it and there is a platform for seating at the back so we sat and contemplated. It’s quite novel to see his bum! ;-)

The rest of the building is dominated by byzantine works of art – loads and loads of alter panels depicting biblical stories. It’s a massive collection but largely can go unmentioned here.

After contemplations and whatnot it was definitely lunch time. This time we went for the walk and eat option grabbing a scrummy sandwich at the first tasty looking shop we passed and continuing on our way heading back towards the Palazzo Vecchio etc.

It got extremely hot in the early afternoon so we decided to make use of the pool that was “800m” from the hotel. We set off following the directions we had, saw a rowing club… and a canoe club… and some parks… and no pool… We wandered further and further until we decided we must have missed it. We turned around and about 5 mins back the other way we stopped someone to ask where it was – only to be told it was back in the other direction. So back we went with me muttering it better be worth it. And it so was! We eventually got to it – a big park with a kiddies paddling pool on one side and a big, deep, multi-laned pool on the other with a bar and snack shop etc in between. A very good set up. The area was quite busy with people picnicking and sunbathing but the pool wasn’t very busy. We had to walk through a foot bath to even get up to the pool which was quite a clever way to ensure everyone had at least bathed their feet. But finally we were there – at the pool. In we jumped and there we stayed for a glorious 2 hours!

However thirst and hunger drove us back down the road to the hotel. The evenings plan was to catch the bus around the next bit of the sightseeing circuit (we wanted to visit the Piazzale Michelangelo at sunset then do the rest of the ride) before stopping at our now favourite restaurant for dinner. So here is the view of the Ponte Vecchio (bridge left), with Piazza Vecchio tower to the right of that, then the Duomo to the right of that again:

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From the piazzale the bus follows the winding hill road through what is obviously the right side of the tracks. Galileo’s observatory is up in these hills as are villas that used to belong to some rich, famous and (ig)noble people, then the road winds down back into the city and loops back over the river eventually taking us to the stop by the restaurant. It’s a brilliant ride passing through wide squares and down the narrowest alleyways, passing old churches filled with beautiful works of art, passed monasteries and convents and castles and villas, cake shops, restaurants and gelaterias – all the wonderful things you want to see in Florence!  It hits most of the main spots related to the Medici family who rules Florence for centuries and were responsibly ultimately for all the works of art and cultural relevance being retained in the city for the public. You can even see the private walkway they had from their grand palace over the Ponte Vecchio along the frontage of the Uffizzi and into the Palazzo Vecchio – so that they would not have to tread where commoners do!

Naturally we enjoyed another glorious evening with a carafe of Chianti and some wonderful Tuscan food before retiring in preparation of ‘the last big day’.

Monday
Final day. Things to do: Pack. Get into town. Buy Souvenirs. Re visit everything! Get home!

We started out by aiming for all the carts selling souvenirs – bags, belts, wallets (anything leather), fridge magnets, fans, hats, scarves (in that heat?), t-shirts, mini Davids, tat, tack etc etc.
Monday is obviously the day all the tour groups come into town. It was packed with groups of people being given guided tours – from within Italy, from Spain, America, England, China, everywhere! We were aiming for the central market on the far side of town and walked down every increasingly swanky streets before we finally came to a massive area of carts the filled the little streets – all selling more and more of the same leather and souvenir goods. And then we reached it – Mecca! A giant market selling meats and cheeses and wine and pasta and herbs and all sorts of things – the place where real Florentines shop. Brilliant. We did end up buying some salami (wow!) and humming and hah-ing over absolutely everything else! I could easily live in Florence and that would be where I spend all my money!

Eventually we had to suck it up, leave the market, make our way back towards the hotel for one final run around all the sites – the one big hit – and make for the train station. We had a moment or two at the station and on the train thinking ‘oh my word please let this be the right one’ and all the trains were running up to an hour late. A lovely Italian girl who spoke flawless English became the translator of all the station and train announcements for our carriage – helping all us bemused tourists out! She further confirmed to me that Italians are superb!

Then we were at the airport, then on the plane, then home again (back in that darn queue at Stansted!).
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Posted by TravelMc 08:00 Archived in Italy Comments (0)

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