Sunday, August 07, 2005

Time for a Reality Check!

And here I am in Canberra returning from the Gold Coast with a virus - doctor's orders not to do any sweat-inducing exercise for TWO weeks. Bang goes the City to Surf. I'll just have to be a good spectator. Tomorrow, it's back to the office and a return to the real world! So now I'll complete the travel blog by returning to where I left off in Bad Kreuznach, Germany.

Before returning to Germany I must just add that while we were parked outside Kirsty's apartment in Vienna we received a parking ticket because parking there is for locals only. We were parked on that spot for three nights and the one ticket was for 21E (about $30Aust). It will make a good souvenir! Kirsty was most impressed and thinks she will tell all her overseas visitors to park there as legal parking places cost far more than that for one day let alone three!

Saturday 23 July - Bad Kreuznach
We brought all our bags into the hotel and did another complete organise and re-pack. It was a cool, cloudy day and after a shower and good brekkie we walked through the shopping centre and into the township to browse. Here we found the internet cafe where I caught up with my blog which took three hours I might add! We next found a hairdresser to tidy up my hair. It was a very trendy salon with music so loud nobody could chat. When they realised I spoke English (pretty obvious after my interesting hand signals for a hair cut!!) a black South African girl was selected to cut my hair as she could speak English! A shampoo and cut cost 12E ($18Aust). In Oz I pay nearly four times that for the same result! My young hairdresser had lived in Germany for some years and in Bad Kreuznach for four months. I asked her if she would ever go home and she replied, "Oh yes, the German people are not happy - they never laugh". I thought about that and actually that statement is true to a certain extent all over Europe. Although people are helpful it is not often shop assistants smile and middle aged people don't generally laugh a lot. Again, we live in a great country in Australia or indeed New Zealand. We are generally happy people or at least we know how to smile!

The shops stayed open until 7pm when we walked back to the hotel, changed, collected some towels and walked to the public bath house. Wow, what an experience! We had just over two hours to enjoy all the different rooms of saunas, spas and bubbling pools. Each room had beautiful aromas, hot marble benches to lie on in the saunas of varying degrees of heat (we avoided the 90deg one) and there was also a plunge pool and an ice room. Everybody walks and lies around naked - you just take a towel to dry off. It was so relaxing once you became used to it - all shapes and sizes. Nobody cared. If there is one of these bath houses in Aussi lead me to it - I'm booking my next holiday there! What an amazing way to spend a Saturday night. Later we ate at a lovely restaurant overlooking the river with the houses reflecting in the water. By the time we walked back to the hotel it was approaching pumpkin hour again. What a fantastic evening!

Sunday 24 July - Auf wiedersehen Deutschland - Bonjour le France
We set off late morning after writing and posting a few postcards and visited Frei Laubersheim where Dave's great grandfather was born in 1840. I think I said previously he was his grandfather but it was his great grandfather. This is just a small town but very pretty with flowers in windowboxes in the houses. The war memorial had several Baussmann names listed. It's possible some may be distant relatives. Dave's great grandfather emigrated to England in the early 1860s and died there in 1926.

We stopped to top up with petrol a little further on and there just happened to be a car rally going on at that spot so it was quite busy. Of course Dave had to investigate so we had a slight delay here. It was a 'slalom' which is where the cars go in and out round cones on a circuit - Polos, BMWs, Clios, an Opel Manta and one Ford Escort (JS and PB - this is for your benefit)! Back on the road we spotted lots of windmills (at least 40 in one spot) and many vineyards.

We stopped just past the French border for a bite of lunch, then on to France where it started to rain, lightly at first then quite heavily. We haven't seen a proper downpour for ages. At least it cleaned our windscreen! We stopped at Chalons en Champagne after passing long meadows of lavendar. There was a band playing Latin American music under a tarpaulin in the square and it looked like the entire population of the town was gathered there listening to the music. We wandered round but couldn't find an information centre or a place to stay so decided to continue on our way, driving past patchwork meadows of wheat fields interspersed with green and flat, flat countryside with not a hill in sight. Occasionally there were a few farm houses and there weren't big distances between villages. I was delighted when we passed some fields of sunflowers. They always make me feel happy and remind me of Tuscany. And then we drove past fields and fields of vineyards as we approached champagne country.

We stopped the night at Epernay, about 120km from Paris, on a drizzly, grey evening. We found accommodation in a hotel up a few flights of steps without a lift. Our room was small, cheap and very basic but it had a double bed with one mattress, one set of bedding and two extra pillows - whoopee! We walked through the town in the evening but being Sunday nothing was open and it was very quiet.

Monday 25 July - Champagne and Paris
We went for a 38minute run around the streets of Epernay and to the furthest part of the town after a pretty rough night - paper thin walls with next door's telly blaring until the small hours, rattling pipes which Dave threw a towel over to stop the noise and a really hot, stuffy room with no air conditioning or fan. We have definitely had some variations in the standard of our accommodation.

We bought some croissants for brekkie from the local bakery on our return from our run, showered, packed up and drove to Mercier Champagne Wineries. Here we had a guided tour in English which included a movie and a lift down to the caves with panoramic views on the way. There we rode on an open train ride through the caves as our guide explained the processes of champagne making. At the end of the tour we had some tasting - mmmm! This particular champagne is not available in Australia and they didn't ship boxes overseas so we bought a few bottles to take home but carrying them could well prove a problem!

It was after mid-day when we left Epernay after buying some fruit, yoghurts and water to keep us going. We reached our hotel in Paris without too much of a problem and emptied the car completely as Dave had to return the car to Europcar in town. It's been a great, economical car and very roomy. Now we have to work out how we're going to carry all these bags back home on the aeroplane on Wednesday. I'm sure we'll have to pay excess baggage!

Our room is on the fourth floor but there's a lift, just as well as all our bags have to be brought here. We are very near to the tube station and lots of shops. It's a much better kept room than in Epernay, small but fresh, clean and pretty and the bathroom has a bath in it - definitely a first in any of the accommodation we've had. We walked around the local area in the evening but were very tired and didn't stay up late.

Tuesday 26 July - Paris
The room was so hot last night. We opened the window but there was no breeze. Dave slept ok but I didn't sleep well at all. After brekkie we walked and walked and ended up at the square by Notre Dame where we sat to drink water and eat bananas. After more exploring we decided to catch a double decker tour bus and sat on the top deck with headphones with an English commentary telling us about the sights. We drove past the Eiffel Tower, Les Invalides, The Arc de Triomphe, The Champs Elysee and left the bus at Lafayette. As it's a two day ticket we can resume our ride tomorrow. We browsed through Lafayette and had a pastry in a cafe nearby. By the time we emerged it was raining and quite cool so it was a brisk walk back to the hotel where we showered, changed and went walking again to find a nice restaurant with a French menu and a nice bottle of wine. I had chateaubriand with a most beautiful sauce and Dave had grilled lamb chops which were really tasty. We also had the most beautiful baby green beans (haricots). I'm unsure how they were cooked but they were delicious which surprised me as I'm not usually a great fan of beans. We of course had dessert - Dave had a tarte tatin (an upside down apple tart) while I had a very rich tasting chocolate mousse. Then I tried to ask for a liqueur coffee. It was so difficult to explain that I wanted the Baileys in the coffee. Eventually I was given a small espresso coffee and Baileys - very nice but a big mistake for me at 11pm as I was awake literally all night!

Wednesday 27 July - The long long journey home
As usual Dave slept well and I tried everything - windows wide open to let the air in but the neighbours across the way were talking loudly until 2am. It was so hot in that room I tried wet towels, reading, sleeping with my head up the other end, panadol - nothing worked. I watched the clock on the telly all night in a hot sweat. It was awful. Then at about 7am I fell asleep and had a vivid dream about my father (who died in 1988) telling me that something had happened to my mother (who died in 1989) - so much for that sleep! Anyway I hoped there weren't omens afoot!

Eventually, feeling like a zombie, we headed down for breakfast, took all our bags to the hotel manager who stored them for us and walked into town again. We bought a couple of lovely pastries in the course of the morning and Dave found a model car shop - they seem to be everywhere. We hopped on our tour bus again just as it started to rain. This time we came prepared and donned spray jackets. We were taken on a slightly different route past more sights and left the bus at L'Opera stop to catch an underground train to Montmartre where we caught a funicular (tram) up to see Le Sacre Coeur. Le Sacre Coeur is an enormous cathedral in a most spectacular setting. It was great up there - just how I remembered it with the street artists and brightly coloured umbrellas. What's more the rain stopped and the sun came out and it was really hot. As we had booked a taxi to pick us up from our hotel at 4pm we didn't have very long and as it passed 3.30pm we thought we should hurry up or we would miss our pick-up. At 3.40pm we put on a very brisk walking pace and make it back to the hotel just 5 minutes before the taxi - one with a big boot fortunately!

And so farewell to Europe and off to the airport allowing plenty of time for our flight which was not due until 8.15pm. Nothing is ever straighforward when Ruth and Dave fly however!

We arrived at the airport well before 5pm and queued to check in our bags chatting to a lovely kiwi couple who had just returned from following the Tour de France on their bikes. They live very near where we used to live in Wellington, belong to a vets' cycling club and looked brown and fit, as you would, cycling those Pyranee hills! Anyway, when we reached the check-in we were told our flight had been cancelled and if we wished to catch our connecting flight in Bangkok we had no choice but to catch a flight that was due in half an hour. Here we go again - another mad rush! Our bags were weighed; we held our breath hoping she was in a good mood - no such luck.

"You are 28kg overweight" we were informed. "That will cost 34E a kg (translates to $1,000Aust). Ok, what now? We took back one cheap suitcase (we started with two to check through, now had four) and emptied the contents. What we could squeeze in extra backpacks we did, including our washing and my precious running gear and several pairs of shoes. We did leave behind all our travel guides but at least they are replaceable. I think the check-in lady (an Asian lady whose native tongue was French) felt a little sorry for us by now as in the end she let us through with 10kg over. Then we raced to catch the plane which was delayed about 40minutes after all that. We left our open suitcase in the middle of the airport with beach towels, travel books etc strewn everywhere - someone else would score a few good books!

And so finally on to the plane in separate rows of seats to Heathrow - only an hour's flight then a bit of delay before catching the plane to Bangkok - twelve long hours from 10.15pm Wednesday arriving in Bangkok at 3.30pm on Thursday local time. We had about two hours in Bangkok and fortunately we were able to leave our six heavy items of hand luggage on the plane when we disembarked. Here we were able to relax in the Qantas Club before boarding the final flight to Sydney where we arrived with a big bump at 6.05am on Friday. We were cleared uneventfully through customs and drove our hired Toyota back to Canberra arriving about 10.30am.

And so we are home enjoying our family. I managed to stay up, unpacking very slowly, until 11.30pm with a good night's sleep until 9am next morning in our beautiful soft waterbed with comfortable pillows. During the night we both woke startled surveying our surroundings and staring at the print on the opposite wall.

"This is an unusual apartment" I said.

"That print looks like the one we have at home" replied Dave.

Realisation dawned. Ahhh, we are home. In spite of that amazing, beautiful world out there, there's no place quite like home.

Saturday, July 23, 2005

A little time for some catching up!

Guten morgen from Bad Kreuznach in Germany! I´ll have to watch this keyboard as, like Austria and Ceskzy, some of the keys are in different places but I will type slowly and try to update this at least a little. When I return to Canberra I will do some editing of this blog!!

Back I go to Tuesday 12 July - Farewell to Tuscany!
This morning we went for a run around the streets of Lucca, in and out the paved streets, becoming lost but loving it. We ran for about 40minutes and followed this with a great brekkie, a walk round Lucca, lunch and a coffee in a gorgeous bar (a 7 for the coffee but a 10 for the ambience)! Finally left Lucca just after mid-day and started our long drive to Como. So now we farewell Tuscany as we leave the countryside we love so much.

We took the autostrada route and drove past the marble works again and past lots of villages perched high on the hills. They look so pretty way up there. We crossed some very high bridges and drove on through much flatter landscape, not nearly as pretty, just lots of flat, dull landscape. I listened to my music on my ipod while Dave listend to his CDs so it worked out well and made the time pass quicker. I followed the map too which makes it interesting watching each place go by. We stopped at an Autogrill for coffee (8) and a wee break! Then on we went through a tunnel and there was Como - wow, what a sudden change - spectacular views at last. We drove down the hill to the incredibly beautiful lake. There were hills surrounding it with little houses scattered all over the hillside - so pretty. What is more, we can swim here!

We drove into Menaggio and organised accommodation for two nights at The Garden Hotel about 1.5km from town - a pleasant wallk. Just after we checked in (lovely, clean modern hotel with stunning lake views) a storm started and we sat outside on the deck and watched spectacular lightning flashes over the lake against a backdrop of mountains and hilltop villages. When the rain became heavy we moved inside but it didn't last long and later in the evening (about 10.30pm) we walked into the township to browse round and look at the pretty views. The storm had dropped and it was a lovely, balmy evening.

Wednesday 13 July
No sign of any storm today! The sun was hot, the lake calm and it was a truly magnificent day. After a great brekkie including a jug of coffee with crema and a jug of hot frothy milk (do-it-yourself cappuccino - a great start to the day) we walked into the town and bought ferry tickets to Bellagio and Varenna and back to Menaggio. First stop Bellagio - a village which tumbles up the hillside accessed by narrow paved streets with cute artistic shops on each side and big hotels , restaurants and bars on the waterfront. Bellagio is the scene of a print we have on our bedroom wall which we bought in Sydney many years ago. We walked through the grounds of the hotel which looks like the print's setting and took photographs - so very beautiful. Back we went to the ferry and on to Varenna. Here we found a suitable lake for swimming and oh what heaven. The water was cold but it was so stony underfoot that there was no choice but to lift those feet and immerse oneself in the water. How refreshing on such a hot day swimming between the boats and seeing the little fish and weeds far below. Later we bought a gelati and ate it by the lake watching the little boats and feeling at peace with the world. The ferry back to Menagio was also a car ferry so slightly different from the others but it is such a pretty ride and over too quickly.

After returning to shower and change at the hotel we decided to drive to Switzerland just cos it was so close - a half hour's winding hilly drive away. As we approached the border we remembered two things:

1. Switzerland uses Swiss Francs, not Euros
2. We had left our passports at the hotel!

However, there are definite advantages in driving a French registered car. The police were busy putting a woman in handcuffs as we drove up to the border and they said in French to keep going through, obviously thinking we were a respectable middle-aged French couple! Let's hope we don't have any problem returning to Italy.

We drove through a few tunnels and into Switzerland where we noted that the roads were suddenly in much better condition - less pot holes and quite smooth driving. We drove to the first town, Lugarno, took a few photos while parking illegally (everyone stared) and managed to buy a couple of postcards with Euros - how lucky! We had a quick drive through the large city - nothing spectacular to report but nice views of mountains and villages. As we saw some banana palms I imagine this part of Switterland is probably quite tropical and would not have the same cold and snow as it does further north, nor is it as high up into the mountains.

We returned across the border but fortunately without a problem. Again the guard at the border stopped us, then told us to go on, all in French. All Dave said was 'ok' - that seem safest!

Back in Menaggio we bought takeaway pizza from a recommended pizzeria and sat by the lake to eat it (we have plenty left over for tomorrow!) - a lovely day and it was after midnight when we returned to the hotel.

Thursday 14 July
Today was another stunning, hot day. We went for a brisk run at 8am just for 31minuts then after a shower and another yummy breakfast overlooking the lake in the hotel, we packed our bags and drove to Villa Carlotta in Tremezzo just on the other side of Menaggio. The building was built in 1690 and in 1850 Princess Marianne of Nassou gave it to her daughter Charlotte (known as Carlotta) as a wedding present. Carlotta used it as a summer house but hardly ever lived there and in fact died just 5 years after her marriage at aged 23. The gardens were so beautiful - rhododendrons and azaleas and little flower beds of pansies etc on the rocky hillsides. The villa, with its gorgeous lake views, is fabulous with sculptures including Eros and Psyche. Then upstairs we could admire all the stunning living areas and bedrooms, nursery etc. Carlotta had 3 children and it seemed so sad that she only lived such a short time to enjoy this fabulous villa in the summer.

After our visit we left Como and continued our journey. On the outskirts of Milan we stopped to visit the Alfa Romeo Museum which is a well-kept secret. It was free entry but they held our ID until our exit and we passed guards on the gates. This museum houses Alfas dating from the first ones in 1911. There were standard touring cars, luxury touring cars, sports cars and racing cars. There were some prototypes which never went to market. Prior to the war the Italian cars were right-hand drive then changed to left-hand drive after the war. There were five floors of Alfas (Dave's heaven) set out in their years and we spent 1 hour 40mins browsing and taking photographs. It seemed strange that we could not buy a single postcard or souvenir - not even a ticket on entry so I hope the photos are ok.

It was nearly 4pm by now and there was lots of traffic as we filled up with petrol and resumed our journey. We arrived in Padova (pronounced Padoa in English) about 6.45pm where we decided to stay a couple of nights. We found a convenient hotel through the Tourist Information. It has garaging and breakfast included and is five minutes walk from the station, a 30minute train ride to Venice. We walked into the 'old town' in the evening, about 15mins from our hotel. It is quite attractive and was full of Uni students. There were a couple of squares backing on to the Uni full of bars and restaurants where people were having drinks and snacks. This isn't as pretty as some parts of Italy but it's convenient and the room has air-conditioning, a big plus, and is fresh and clean. What's more we have an excellent shower which we can easily figure out!

Friday 15 July
After brekkie we took the 30min train ride to Venice. It was full of tourists and shops selling Venetian/Murano glass, masks and souvenirs. We walked and walked over the little bridges looking at the canals and the gondolas, to St Mark's square to see the magnificent cathedral and thousands of pigeons. We visited Cafe Florian where musicians played but if you sat down there it cost 5Euro to listen to them. We could listen as we walked. After a lot of walking and browsing we took a boat trip to Murano where the glass factories are located. We watched through viewing windows as the glass was shaped and heated in huge ovens. We had a good look round Murano, only accessible by boat, and browsed round all the little shops selling glassware then we caught the boat back to Venice. We saw the queue to go inside St Mark's Church and decided against it as we only had one day here. Instead we looked at as much as possible, we saw the Bridge of Sighs, Rialto Bridge and later in the early evening we went for a romantic gondola ride remembering advice from Janice NOT to take photos on the way. Instead at the end of the ride, we asked the gondolier to take a photo of us with my camera. It was a perfect, calm ride seeing parts of Venice we would not otherwise have seen, but the canal is definitely a bit smelly. However, we really enjoyed the whole experience.

Later we ate a beautiful meal with those superb roast veges in olive oil, grilled veal for me and fish for Dave. We a 'touristique' menu special so we had a starter too - Dave had marinated sardines and I had the best lasagne I've tasted in my life! A nice glass of wine and bread and cheese sticks - aaah, Italian food is so good.

We took the 11pm train back to Padova. It was actually a long-distance train travelling overnight to Nice so a number of carriages were sleepers. Everyone seemed to have load of luggage but we only had a 30min journey back to our hotel, after an exhausting day!

Saturday 16 July
We decided to have an extra day here and have an early start tomorrow instead so that we can visit St Mark's. We validated our train ticket but caught an ES train which is apparently an especially fast and comfortable train, usually for long trips. The ticket collector made us pay an extra 16E ($25) for the privilege and as were already travelling on the train we had no choice - a very expensive train ride but comfortable!

As soon as we arrived in Venice we took a boat trip to the other side of town to visit the Academia which houses 24 rooms of masterpieces spanning the full development of Venetian art from the early 1400s. It is Venice's equivalent to the Uffizi in Florence but this time we didn't have to queue. Each room had explanatory cards in English which helped heaps. Each painting tells a story and the detail is amazing. We really enjoyed our visit.

After this we sat by the canals to eat our lunch (which we collected from the hotel at the breakfast table!) then followed the signs to St Mark's Church - this time to look inside. This turned out to be a bit of a procedure as we had to deposit our bags and I had to go shopping to buy a t-shirt with sleeves (what a shame!) before entering the Church. The queue moved quickly and the church was beautiful inside. It is breathtakingly beautiful outside as well. Inside the ceilings have fabulous mosaics with goldleaf over glass and 13th century mosaics depicting the New Testament. Even the paving on the floor is a mosaic masterpiece.

After the visit we wandered off to a bar to buy a tasty pastry each and a cappuccino for me (yes, they still serve them in the afternoon - probably used to tourists). Then we waked past an area of Venice we missed yesterday and window shopped past all the 'brand name' classy shops.
Later we bought pizza and soaked up the atmosphere. We caught the train back to Padova just after 8pm as an early start is required for a very long drive tomorrow to Vienna.

Sunday 17 July - En Route to Vienna
After a large brekkie and collecting a few goodies from the table for lunch, we left Padova by 10am and headed towards Vienna on the Autostrada. It goes without saying that it was another hot, sunny day. We turned off at Lignano which is by the coast and here we found a proper little beach resort with sand - the first sandy beach we've seen on our trip. And gosh, was it popular on a Sunday! I think half of Italy was there. The beach was covered in deckchairs and umbrellas. We spent 20mins finding an illegal parking spot. We changed into our swimmers in the car and walked to the beach. Ah, sand between the toes - what a feeling. The beach was very busy with frisbees and ball games. In fact the games continued in the water which was shallow for ages, but finally we found clear space to swim far out in the Adriatic Sea (no waves). The water was not at all cold, in fact it was positively tepid and not particularly clean and clear but we enjoyed our swim thoroughly and way out there it felt quite safe to skinny dip - bliss. Later we walked along the beach enjoying the sunshine, then walked back to the car via a bar where I had a great cappuccino (I scored it a 9), standing at the bar which is 30cents cheaper than sitting down. Dave had a coke and we had a bite to eat before continuing our journey. I guess that is the last coffee I'll have in Italy so I'm glad it was a good one with nice creamy froth.

I must just add here that I believe we are so lucky with our beaches in Australia - I agree with my friend Maree, that Australia has the best beaches in the world and wonderful soft sand!

We have noticed that on the Autostrada sometimes the distances to places seem to go backwards. You can drive several kms then find that the place sign says it is further than it was 20km further back - not sure how they calculate the distances here - quite bizarre!

It didn't take long to suddenly find some lovely Italian mountain ranges ahead of us. They looked quite spectacular as a backdrop which gradually surrounded us as we started the ascent to Austria. We saw a few pretty Alpine villages and drove through lots of tunnels one after the other and quite long. The hills were very beautiful, rocky with the light shining on them.
There appeared to be no definite border to cross into Austria but when the signposts changed to German names we assumed we were now in Austria!

We had dinner at the Autogrill - wiener schnitzel followed by apfel strudel which seemed the appropriate food for our current location. We continued on to Vienna without problems but managed to become horribly lost on the outskirts of the city. Finally Dave succumbed and bought a map and we found Kirsty's approximate location. However, the streets were one way and it was quite a maze. Eventually Dave stopped at a corner pub which was just closing and the pub owner fortuitously happened to be English! By the time we reached Kirsty's it was well after 11pm and the poor girl had been up all night the night before giving a farewell party for a friend. We had a lovely welcome and will catch up properly tomorrow night after Kirsty finishes work. What a beautiful apartment!

Monday 18 July - Vienna
We spent the morning washing and repacking our bags. Kirsty's apartment is on the top floor of a 5 level apartment block (145 steps in a circular staircase or alternatively a creaky small open lift operated by a key). For those fans of Inspector Rex on SBS it is very familiar territory. Kirsty also has a beautiful black 12yr old labrador, Boston, who she took with her from Aussi 3 years ago. He has his own little outdoor courtyard during the day with kennel, trampoline and swimming pool. At night he sleeps inside. He has two walks a day and has a beautiful, friendly nature. In Austria and Italy people love their animals so much. If Kirsty takes Boston with her shopping she has precedence over others. We've noticed that people take their dogs into shops and restaurants in this part of the world. In fact in one of the hotels we stayed in Italy a family had their dog staying too and he was at breakfast with them. Also a number of restaurants and bars have 'hundsbars' with bowls for the dogs to have food and water!

After lunch we walked along the street to Hundertwasserhaus which is not far from Kirsty's apartment. It was a lovely discovery - all bright colours and unusual angles. Apparently he had a special affinity with NY and spent a lot of time there. He only died in 2000. We walked round the apartments which are all individually decorated by the occupants then caught a tram to the city. Here we visited Stephansdom - the large cathedral located in the heart of the city. We had a good look inside. It was very beautiful and lots of people were wandering through.

Next we wandered through the city and I made the mistake of ordering cappuccino which was really just a coffee with cream plus an extra blob of cream and chocolate flakes on top - too rich for me. Kirsty tells me I need to order a melange next time and this will give me a cappuccino! We found a shop called Steffl which had a skytower with good views of the city. We met Kirsty back in her apartment in the early evening and sat outside on her deck eating pizza, drinking wine and having a lovely catch-up chat. Kirsty helped us plan the next day.

What a spot, there on top of the world, with stunning views over Vienna. In winter apparently her deck is completely covered in snow. That day was a scorcher - really hot and tiring but as we sat up there we watch lightning flash across the sky and later the wind picked up and we shut all the windows. It was quite a storm and Boston slept on the floor at the end of our bed enjoying our company. He is so gorgeous.

Tuesday 19 July
We started our day with a 12km run. We ran from the apartment to the Prater (about 1.5km) where we ran a 9km track where Dave says dead bodies have been found! It's a great surface for running and is lined with chestnut tress. The only problem is it is quite flat. However, it was a good 70 minute run and a good start to a busy day.

After a shower and brekkie we walked to the Hundertwasser Museum as distinct from the Hundertwasser Apartments. This has two floors of artwork by Hundertwasser and two floors by Marcus Waske. We really enjoyed it - all very modern, colourful and different. After seeing the Hundertwasserhaus yesterday it was great to see lots of examples of his artwork and read about his life. Marcus Waske was quite different again - paintings full of irony - three eyed Mona Lisa, lots of naked women with animal heads etc - rather strange but certainly interesting.

After our visit here we took a tram into the city and an underground train to the United Nations Centre where Kirsty works and had lunch in her enormous cafeteria with her. In Kirsty's organisation there are 3,000 people although she only works directly with 25. The spoken language is English. In fact Kirsty can go a week without having to speak German at all. Kirsty travels quite frequently to countries all over the world and lovers her job. She is a public relations officer and it certainly sounds an interesting, stimulating career.

After lunch Dave and I caught the train back to the city and found Julius Meinl to have a coffee. We looked in the supermarket where the rich and famous shop - a bit like Harrods. I remembered to ask for a melange this time but I would only rate it a 6. However, they did serve a cute little chocolate square with it and a glass of soda water (or 'water with gas' as it is known in Europe).

We next walked through the grounds of the Hoffburg Palace, Vienna's former Imperial Palace. The chapel here is where the Vienna Boy's Choir sing mass every Sunday. We explored lots of shops, fancy and otherwise, and found an internet cafe to check emails. We also found some yummy pastries. Why do we keep finding these delicious morsels full of pastry, custard and fruit - so fattening and mouth watering? I had another coffee in the afternoon as we sat listening to some great buskers, playing beautiful classical music on cello, violin and oboe. The coffee would barely rank a 4 - very ordinary with thin disappearing bubbles - but the music was lovely.

In the early evening we walked to the Rathaus (town hall) where there was a large food and wine festival. We bought some nice goodies for tea and a cocktail and sangria. Later we watched a free outdoor screening of the original Rogers and Hammerstein black and white version of the musical/operetta of Cinderella - all in English. It was lovely. There were about 2,000 chairs and they were all filled. We took train rides back to Kirsty's as it approached midnight.

We sat and talked for a while over schnapps and choccies. We have enjoyed our visit here very much.

Wednesday 20 July
We said our goodbyes to Kirsty as she left for work, loaded up the car (several trips up and down that lift), said goodbye to Boston, then walked to the PO for stamps, then the bakery (oh dear) and set off on the next leg of our journey. The weather today, although sunny, was a lot cooler than Monday. We first drove to the Schloss Schonbrunn - the summer residence of the Habsburgs who were the ruling family in the first world war. It is enormous and the gardens alone are very extensive. We decided, as time and money were becoming limited, that we would explore the grounds and not go inside the palace. We'll save that for our next trip! The grounds, gardens, fountains and ruins were beautiful. One would need a whole day to 'do' the palace properly inside and out, not just a few hours. We walked to the top of the gardens where we had stunning panoramic views over the ground, palace and Vienna. There is a zoo there too which we didn't visit. There were lots of runners running through all the maze of paths - a great venue for running.

We drove on through Austria but felt very tired today so had a short break in a rest area before heading North towards the Czech Republic. We stopped at Freistadt, just before the Czech border, visited a Tourist Information and found a gorgeous little B & B - very cheap with parking and breakfast and comfortable. (Kirsty - if you read this - the loo has a shelf!) This bed is actually a double bedhead and base with two single mattresses, two single quilt covers and soft pillows. We walked throught the village in the evening and shock, horror, we ate at McDonalds which was the only place we could find open! We were hungry and anything tasted pretty good at that stage. We had a good night's sleep in our cheapest accommodation - best value for money by far!

Thursday 21 July
We had a lovely sleep, a fantastic brekkie - salami, cheese, rolls and bread of the region, juice and that great coffee with a jug of warm frothy milk - a good way to start the day. We both feel much more alive today. It is cloudy, windy and cool.

We drove to Cesky past fields of wheat, many houses with flowers in window boxes and very green countryside. We had to show our passports as we crossed the Austrian border and again as we crossed the Czech border a few minutes later - first time since Europe! Now we are seeing signs in a language neither of us can read - very exciting. As we crossed the border we saw two prostitutes (Kirsty told us they were always there waiting hopefully). We also saw hitch hikers a bit further on including a whole family with a mother and baby. There were lots of trucks on the road which slowed our progress. This is the first time we have been behind the former iron curtain.

Once we arrived in Cesky we walked up a fairly steep paved pathway to the castle grounds to browse. Cesky is a medieval town dating back to 1253 with a castle and a very picturesque village. We found the information centre and changed a few Euros to Krone which is the currency used here. For 20E we received 560K so everything sounds expensive although it is really quite cheap. A Krone is worth about 5cents Aust.

We had some strudel and I had a coffee which was VERY sweet with chocolate and cream. I asked for 'English' cappuccino - interesting result! In fact it was unrecognisable as coffee but was surprisingly drinkable. They even gave me two extra sugar lumps on the side! We English must need some sweetening!

We saw people dressed in medieval costumes and on horseback as a duel was planned, people kayaking in the Vltava River way below us and white water rafting over the rapids. The buildings all had terracotta tiled roofs. The castle is built high up on the cliffs to protect a ford across the river. It was a lovely little glimpse of the Czech Republic.

It was after 4.30pm when we drove back through Austria through Germany and thus we became caught in a traffic jam on the motoway. We passed over the border into Germany at 6.55pm. We stopped for petrol near Passau - much more expensive here, diesel was 1.13E per litre. We decided to stop at Deggendorf just before 8pm to look for accommodation. We stayed in a hotel with twin beds as that was all they had. We walked through the town to have a browse and returned to the hotel about 9.45pm. The streets were cobbled and wide and the shops were full of sales. At that time it was very quiet except for the bars and restaurants. It's a nice little town.

Friday 22 July
Had a dreadful sleep - must be that narrow, single bed. We rose early and went for a run round the town square and across the bridge over the Danube along a track chasing two rabbits. We only ran for 33 mins as we need to keep driving today but we picked up speed in the last half so would have run a good 6km. After a shower and good brekkie we walked round the town square to buy postcards and cheap bananas at the markets then set off on our way again.

We passed through Munich and Dacchau turn offs where we visited in the 70s but no time to stop this trip. There were lots and lots of trucks on the highway. It was a cloudy day, only 23deg.
We stopped for a break at Augsburg and had some lunch in the very nice Rasthaus leaving again at 1.15pm and driving along 'The Romantic Road' passing corn and wheat growing in the meadows. We passed pretty houses and drove through the villages slowly. Over the Danube againg and past some more pretty villages in the distance. We detoured through Donauworth, an interesting town with pastel coloured quaint village shops and apartments. It looked a bit like a movie set. There was a big market happening in the centre of the town where everyone was congregating. We drove slowly through but did not linger. Further on we saw a large castle high on the hill so this called for another detour. We drove on through pretty villages and little streams searching for a place to stay with a 'Bad' in its name as this means there are public hot baths. Eventually we decided to drive to Bad Kreuznach which was a little further north than we planned but Dave has been here before and knew there are baths here. Daves's grandfather was born about 5km from here so it is a very interesting place to stop. We checked into the hotel he stayed at last year and it is amazing - really roomy and comfortable. We have 2 nights here before driving on to Paris. In the evening we walked down into the town and checked out the baths where we will go tomorrow and stopped at a nearby bar for cocktails before walking back to the hotel feeling very, very tired.

Saturday 23 July - Bad Kreuznach
I am now up-to-date with this blog - unbelievable! We are about to go check out the baths. It's a coolish day and I'm wearing my jeans and a t-shirt. This is a really pretty town and much bigger than I imagined. I will continue this in Paris. In a week I will be home. I think we are starting to wind down now and feel a bit tired. It would be good to stop except the day after I arrive home I have to hop on the plane and fly to the Gold Coast for work - I think I would rather sleep! I am so looking forward to a normal queen sized waterbed - aaaaah!

Saturday, July 16, 2005

Arrivederci Italy!

Oh dear, this has been my first opportunity to write anything in my blog for over a week. I won't be able to bring it up-to-date but at least I can add a little tonight from Padova (pronounced Padoa in English) which is a 30km train ride from Venice. Tonight is our very last night in Italy as tomorrow we drive the long stretch to Vienna. How sad to leave this beautiful country but there is still more beauty to come. Now I will return to when I left this and update gradually. Access to the net has become more difficult for any length of time but I will do my best for the time I have.
I do want to mention Italian public toilets while I remember. They are so very different! Some start flushing the moment you enter the room and it's most disconcerting to be using a loo which is constantly flushing beneath you! Some have only standing loos and a place for each foot as you crouch! Most loos are manned and you have to pay at least 50c to use them. In one case there was a man actually in the room waiting to clean the moment you left, most embarrassing as you washed your hands. The handwashing is another interesting experience. I never knew there were so many types of taps. Some work automatically, some you push and some are operated by foot pedals! Now that one took some figuring out!
Then of course no two showers are alike - again the managing of the water temperature and the flow of the water is quite a challenge!
It's all such an adventure! Back to the blog!

Friday 8 July
We slept a bit late then walked over the Ponto Vecchio and browsed through the Duomo (the cathedral). As we entered there was a large empty space with marble floors. The area where the congregation sits is cordoned off and has seats there. There are beautiful stained glass windows and the dome is exquisitely painted showing 'The Last Judgement". One wonders how the artist managed to access such high ceilings! The church started being built in the 13th century but wasn't completed until the 1800s. There is so much history here. Today we looked at more of the buildings and browsed through some of the designer shops. Wow, the prices boggle the mind yet so many people were carrying the bag labels in abundance in stark contrast to the beggars kneeling nearby with cups and bowed heads or approaching passersby with pleading eyes and maybe a photo of their family.There are so many contrasts in this amazing city.
Tonight (Friday) was our last night in Florence and how beautiful indeed. We went to a free outdoor classical concert in the Piazza della Signora where thousands of people stood together listening to Beethoven's 9th symphony, including the Ode to Joy, played by the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra and choir. The conductor was Zubin Mehta (an Israeli). It was a full orchestra and they played non-stop for 1hour 15minutes. It was magical. Where else but Florence would you have such an opportunity - free, romantic and what an amazing atmosphere. And yet as I looked up at the people in the windows of the terraces staring down and at the crowds surrounding me I thought how vulnerable we all were - about 3,000 people gathered in one place totally exposed. The thoughts disappeared quickly as I felt the ambience and the beauty of the moment.

After the conert we walked back over the Ponto Vecchio one last time and sat on the steps listening to quite a different sort of music, Italian and American pop. The same two Italians play there every night and it's fabulous. What a setting, overlooking the lights on the river and people everywhere. This is Florence at 11.30pm every night - alive - united in music and the language of love!

Saturday 9 July
We managed to fit all our bags (four suitcases plus hand luggage) into our boot - phew! We made one last visit to our cafe/bar for coffee again and finally they got it absolutely right - a creamy froth swirled with coffee - a definite 9 1/2 - yes! The only problem with it was there wasn't enough of it!
We drove firstly to the outlook where we ran to the other day to take the requisite photographs. There was a little marketplace up there with yet more temptations. We bought a tiny original painting of sunflowers - a little memory of the Tuscan countryside. We drove right through the Chianti district this time noticing a number of cyclists struggling up the hills this time looking professional in the proper gear (though still some do not wear helmets). We noticed too lots of places where they make terracotta tiles and of course lots of vineyards. We drove through Greve and had a short stop here for a browse. The local markets were being held and there were lots of cheeses and fruit and cheap clothes. We visited a shop selling cycle tops but the prices were very high. We drove back through the stunning countryside on a steady incline past lots of olive trees and patchwork countryside on the hills, through a number of picturesque little villages. The landscape changed to lots of green trees by the roadside but still lots of vineyards intermingled between the trees.
We stopped at Castallina in Chianti to buy water. This was a really gorgeous village with pretty pink flowers by the paved pathways.
On again - more winding hills, more serious cyclists - many without helmets which seemed crazy on that steep hill. We stopped at San Gimignano for another quick visit and as we were walked up to the village just after parking the car who did we see but Janice and Wendy from Canberra who we had dinner with the other night in Florence. I waved my arms wildly but we were almost upon them before they realised it was us. They had no idea we were doing this detour and it was pretty amazing that we bumped into each other really. So we decided to meet for coffee in half an hour after we had visited our favourite leather shop for CJ among others! We had a great cappuccino in an outdoor restaurant outside their hotel followed by the white wine of the region - very pale, very light, very nice indeed! We spent a very pleasant hour catching up on the past couple of days. They're staying in San Gimignano four nights. It's a beautiful spot and they should have a lovely relaxing few days before returning to Rome to fly home from there. It was great to meet up with them again.
At 6pm we continued our journey to Lucca. It was nearly 8pm by the time we finally found our way back through the one way streets of the walled city to our hotel. We have a different apartment this time but it's still very beautiful - very old, high ceilings with exposed beams, antique furniture and lovely carved features- all fully self-contained with a much better fridge than Florence and a tiny kitchen and sofa - very comfortable apart from the bed of course. All through Europe a double bed has meant two singles (of various widths) pushed together with a double bedpost, a hard mattress and hard pillows. We have learnt to sleep in spite of discomfort and at least in Lucca the evenings are a little cooler and we have a larger fan so that's a big plus for sleeping purposes.
In the evening we heard that George Benson was performing at an outdoor concert so it was takeaway pizza again and a quick shower before heading off for the concert - rather different from the previous night as this was NOT free we discovered and we had to buy tickets for 30E (about $50) each which is still pretty reasonable. There were plenty of seats and although the concert started 50minutes late due to technical difficulties it was well worth the wait. He performed non-stop with a great back-up band for almost two hours. For the uninitiated George Benson is a black American singer/guitarist. He sang a mix of R & B, jazz and romantic love songs all in English. It was wonderful. It started at 10.20pm and finished at 12.15am - outdoors in the Piazza. The accoustics were great, the polizei were on patrol stopping the use of cameras, the gelataria was doing great business especially during the long delay at the start and it was altogether a fantastic evening.

Sunday 10 July
We started the day with a run from our apartment to the walls of the city. Although the wall is wide like a road no cars are allowed on it so it was great, safe, uninterrupted running among lots of cyclists, walkers and a few runners (NOT wearing the proper running gear - it's just not available here - CJ we have to start that business). It's a 4 1/2km run round the wall and Dave ran with me for the first loop then I continued alone as his knees were playing up. However, he found some grass and joined me again for the last 10 minutes then we ran back to our apartment which added 2km so I guess that was 11km in total. We ran the first loop in 23mins and I ran the 2nd loop in 25mins so I guess Dave keeps me honest - he likes to start fast!
After a shower we had our interesting Italian breakfast then went for a walk round Lucca. It's so peaceful here, unspoilt by tourism, paved streets, very few cars - only the locals and the pace is slow. On a Sunday we discovered there are few shops open and in fact the shops are closed here until 4pm on Mondays! However, we did discover a cycle shop selling local gear at a reasonable price at last. We have still not found a single running shop that sells running tops or shorts. In fact we have seen very few runners in Italy, not nearly as many as one might expect.
The motor racing and some of the Tour de France was on the telly and we decided to return to the apartment to watch some of it. However, Dave fell asleep and missed it all! I think the run wore him out.
Tonight we ate at a lovely little restaurant and listened to a Canadian school concert band performing in the piazza. I could happily live here for a few months. It's so utterly unspoilt, peaceful and Italian. The locals speak very little English. If we lived here we could pick up the language very quickly. There's an Italian language school to help us!
We organised to stay an extra couple of nights here just to give us a rest.

Monday 11 July
After brekkie, a walk and a disappointing cappuccino in a different bar, we collected the car and drove to Bagni di Lucca, stopping at Ponte della Madelina (The Devil's Bridge) on the way. This bridge is purported to having been built by the devil in exchange for sacrificing the first one to walk over it. The locals sent a dog over the bridge to foil the devil! We walked over it and it's really very pretty in spite of that little story!
We arrived at Bagni di Lucca (about 20km from Lucca) and 'took to the waters'. These were supposed to be hot spa baths. In order to enter them we had to pay 10E ($15 each) and purchase a swimming cap (another $6 each). The water was definitely only tepid and various jets of water erupted from high up on the walls as well as the normal spa jets - still not warm though. It wasn't quite as hot a day as usual either unfortunately. Never mind, it was an interesting experience and very relaxing indeed.
On the return journey we did a bit of a detour (as we do) to Lugliano which was a village perched on a very very high hill with roads far too narrow for a car - scary stuff. I think it was only meant for pedestrians somehow!
We arrived back in Lucca about 5pm to find everyone had suddenly woken up. Where had all the people suddenly appeared from? The shops had been closed since Saturday and suddenly everyone was out spending money. We even saw a medieval parade going through the streets with flags, crossbows and loud drums.
That evening we went for dinner at another fabulous restaurant - grilled chicken for me and steak for Dave with all those fantastic roasted veges with olive oil, followed by real Italian tiramisu - heaven in the mouth. Never have I tasted such a divine dessert - mouth-watering even to remember it. It has definitely spoilt me for tiramisu ever again outside Italy - drool, drool!

Friday, July 08, 2005

Aaaah - bella Tuscana!

Wednesday 6 July
Had a dreadful night's sleep last night and as a consequence didn't rise until 9am. After a great coffee (rated a 9 and a much better price - E1.80 = approx $3) - in a cafe near our apartment, we collected the car and drove through the beautiful Tuscan countryside toward Siena. We stopped at San Ginignano, a medieval town - a delightful village to explore. The houses and shops were grey concrete terraces and the streets were paved. Perhaps it was a little touristy but it was so pretty with lovely churches and castles and magnificent views of that glorious Tuscan countryside - olive groves, vineyards in rows, cypruses, stone farmhouses and green everywhere you looked. We were there a few hours before driving on through Chianti where we saw field of giant golden sunflowers - what a stunning day! Chianti is a wine region and has lots of castles and wine tasting places on the way. Our next stop was Monteriggioni - a medieval hilltop town built in 1203. It is totally encircled by high walls with heavily fortified towers. It's just a small town and didn't take long to walk up the lavendar lined paths and steps (mmmm - lovely smells) to browse. Then off again to Siena where we bought petrol for the first time since leaving Nice. Diesel is very ecoomical. It took 53litres to fill up and cost $100Aust - 660km since we filled which means petrol costs about $1.80 a litre here for diesel and we're using about 7litres per 100km - not bad.

Siena - Here the main attraction is the Piazza del Pallio where a horse race is run in July and August each year and was actually held last weekend. Tonight the winning district (contrado) of the winning horse marched around the Piazza with drummers and a long parade of people from the winning district holding flags of that area (yellow and green) and displaying the winning trophy.

Siena is quite a big spread-out medieval town with more narrow streets, concrete terraced shops and houses and many lovely little boutiques. There were some excellent buskers in the early eveing but after 8pm even the bars seem to close which is very different to Florence which buzzes with activity until very late at night. At 8.30pm we decided we needed a little sustenance and rather than face the hour's drive and walk back from the carpark in Florence on an empty stomach we decided to buy take-away pizza! Although it wasn't as crisp and delicious as a sit-down pizzeria it still beats Pizza Hut any day of the week! It was large and good value. We are finding cans of flavoured iced tea very refreshing in the heat.

We drove back to Florence after a lovely day discovering more of Central Tuscany, just in time to watch the glow of the red sun go down behind the hills!

Thursday 7 July
We rose and went for a run - yes a run!! We ran for 1hour 4mins and 39secs in fact - at least 11km and enjoyed every moment of it. We ran up the hills of the south side (or left bank) of Florence - a steady gentle climb - to an outlook over Florence where we took a photo in 1974 and our daughters had their photographs taken on their various Contiki Tours a few years ago. There is a wonderful view all over Florence there and we must return there with our cameras before we leave. We ran on through the camping ground where we camped in 1974 - ah memories are made of moments like these, then back to our apartment. It was a glorious morning, not too hot at that time of day and it was a comfortable enjoyable run. We showered, changed and went to our little cafe for a pastry and cappuccino. Those pastries are so yummy, I never know what to choose!

Off to the markets and also the "real" markets - two floors of cheeses, meats, fruit and vegis - lots of exotic goodies. We chose some fairly mild hard Italian cheese - have tried a few now. We found a large Post Office where you take a number (like a deli) to be served and sit or browse while waiting instead of standing in a queue. They even had CD's in there. Music shops seem few and far between in this part of the world as do shops selling running or cycling tops. We did see some VERY expensive cycling tps in San Gimignano yesterday but apart from that nothing. We haven't seem many people running either come to think of ot, However we have seen lots of rowers on the river. Maybe they obtain all their exercise from walking or gentle cycling. Everyone does plenty of that!

While exploring the markets we were told about the tragedy in London. We had not read any papers or watched any television since leaving Canberra so at lunchtime we walked back to our apartment and watched the news on the TV when we finally figured out how it worked. It is indeed devastating and we are aware of how lucky we are to have had such a wonderful time in London only a few weeks ago. We are concerned for friends there and will be waiting for further news. It is so sad that in this very beautiful world there is still so much senseless tragedy out there.

In the evening we had arranged to meet up with two girls from Canberra (friends of a work mate of mine). They are two single ladies on the loose with all these Italian stallions and are having a ball. We went to our favourite litle restaurant and received a big welcome from our Aussie/English/German waitress from Melbourne. It was a great night - we had plenty of wine and a delicious meal, trying different food from pizza! I had a lovely grilled veal and we were served grilled vegies which were so yummy and melted in the mouth. Food here is served with plenty of olive oil and herbs and is very tasty. Later we were given complimentary drinks of limoncello and meloncello (a rather potent little drink which hit the spot)! We walked the girls back to their apartment and then walked back over the Ponto Vecchio to our side of Florence. I wore my new white sandals (yes, I succombed and bought cork sandals - oh dear, they look more comfortable than they really are, believe me) and by the time we reached our apartment I had very sore blistered feet! It was loads of fun though and great company. They only have 8 days left of their travels which makes us very aware that our time is certainly running out!

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

A morning of culture!

Yay, I do believe I'm up-to-date and today really is Tuesday 5 July. If the date shows differently it's cos it's showing Aussi time but we're actually 8 hours behind you and no way am I going to attempt those Italian instructions and risk entering another 59 blogs so the date will have to stay the way it is and just remember I'm actually writing these blogs in the evenings! Thank you CJ for rescuing me from all those scary blog repeats. I started deleting but it was taking ages and internet access is actually quite an expensive exercise over here - well worth it to keep in contact with everyone though.

This morning (Tuesday) we had an early start as we walked down to queue for the Uffizi Art Gallery. We were there joining the queue at 8am (it opened at 8.15am) but still had a 2 hour wait. My legs were so sore, they hate standing still and the queue moved sooooo slowly. However it was well worth the long wait. We hired a double audio guide to share and spent 3 hours going through 46 rooms - absolutely amazing. What can I say, the lighting, the paintings - thousands of them from the Medieval period, Renaissance, Botticelli, Michelangelo, Caravaggio, da Vinci, Rembrandt to name but a few. It was mind boggling. No photos were allowed inside of course but it was a truly fantastic gallery. We had lunch in the cafeteria there - a really nice cappuccino which cost a mere 4.50E which is equivalent to nearly $7 Aust!! Cappuccino here is different from Oz - it isn't the creamy froth I imagined. It is a white froth. A good one is about 3/4 froth but the coffee itself is strong and really delicious. I had a latte the other day (always have to say 'cafe latte' or they give you plain milk!) and it was very disappointing - not much flavour at all so I must remember to always have cappuccinos in the morning in future!!

I did forget to mention that while in France in Eze we visited the Fragonnaud perfume factory. Dave and I had our own personal English speaking guide who showed us how everything was made. It was fascinating and of course we were tempted into spending a fortune - lucky daughters! It was a beautiful place.

Anyway back to the Uffizi - I digressed a bit there! There were corridors of Roman statues and stunning painted ceilings. It was an exhausting morning but very well worth it. It was slightly cloudy with a very few drops of rain when we emerged from the gallery but still very very warm, not requiring any more than shorts and t-shirts. However, our feet were very tired after 5 hours on them so we had an hour's siesta (like the locals do) before hitting the streets again. Walking over the Ponte Vecchio (the bridge between the left and right banks of Florence with shops on each side) is an experience in itself. There are a large number of modern and antique jewellery shops and little boutiques and there's always musicians playing in the evenings. It's a popular place to browse and just listen to the music or stare over at the beautiful views across the water.

Just before coming to our Internet Train we returned to our favourite gelataria for a quick fix. Oh boy, those icecreams are sooooo good. We had quite an interesting experience there tonight. Dave is becoming quite proficient at his Italian phrases. I'm picking it up a bit more slowly. There was a jovial Italian man sitting there and he tried to guess Dave's nationality - I think he tried everything except Australian. Anyway, once he knew that he tried to explain that he had cousins in Melbourne (surprise, surprise, half of Italy seems to be in Melbourne and the other half of Melbourne is in Italy!!) - anyway Mario could not speak a word of English but he was quite sure we understood him! He went on and on. He decided we could communicate in a few words of French which were only the words for dog and cat. It was so funny cos I was sitting in the middle and picking up a few words which sounded like something and repeating them to Dave so Mario thought I was translating. We did work out a few things such as the Pope being Benedictine 16 - I think he thought we were off to Rome. He told us the names of his relatives in Melbourne - he probably thinks we are all best buddies! Anyway, we said our farewells. It was a good thing he couldn't understand us cos the girl who served us obviously knew Mario well but couldn't discourage him. She could speak perfect English and she was grinning from ear to ear at us inbetween serving customers and apologising for him! We didn't mind. It made for yet another interesting Italian experience!

Monday, July 04, 2005

Buona sera - last update for tonight

Sunday 3 July
Today we walked through the streets of Florence mainly window shopping. Lots of shops were closed today but there were a lot of roadside shops and market stalls. We found lots of nice postcards (which no doubt will return to Australia with us) and a very nice leather outlet where I tried on THE most beautiful red very soft leather jacket. It felt just like a second skin and is very fitting. Although it wasn't the cheapest we saw it was certainly the nicest and Dave bought it for me. Mmmm, I love it. Today we caught up on our washing at the laundromat (you know all about that dodgy laundromat), did some food shopping and walked around Florence, over the Ponte Vecchio (bridge with shops either side) and in the evening listened to fantastic musicians playing beautiful music. Night time comes alive here in fact everywhere in Europe, but Italy is magic as there is music everywhere and the atmosphere is so romantic.
I do need to say that not everything about Italy is perfect. We have seen lots of beggars on the streets and sometimes the smells in the narrow alleyways are less than desirable. There are also mosquitos who just love me so I need to buy some repellant tomorrow! However, on the whole it is definitely beautiful and the way I remember and imagined it would be. There are lots of scooters in Florence and cyclists, many on hired bikes, also a lot of tourists. There are street painters and black Africans selling bags and sunglasses (obviously illegally as they pack up very quickly when the policizia are in sight). It is an exciting and interesting city.

Monday 4 July
Guess what! This morning we went for a run - only about 5km as it was very hot but we did manage to find a few shady back streets. We have studied the map and should be able to lengthen the distance next time. We slept in this morning until 9.45am so it was very hot when we ran. I forgot to mention that all the windows in apartments have shutters which close out all the light and this does mean that usually you sleep well and have no idea of the time at all in the morning!
Today we walked across the river to where all the luxury shops are - Gucci, Dolci & Gabbana, Armani, Yves St Laurent, Cartier, Hermes, to name just a view - wow, interesting prices!! We also went to the central markets (mercato centrale) where we found lots of stalls with souvenirs, leather and such like. We also browsed in the shops there and bought a few bits and pieces. There are lots of bargains. We moved the car from its expensive spot to one more reasonable and found the best gelataria ever - icecream to die for - so many choices. We'll be back there to try all the other flavours!!
Tonight we ate in our apartment and drank our white wine from Cinque Terra - so beautiful. Life is pretty good. Tonight I feel sorry for the rest of the world! Buon notte! Ciao!

Italy repeats 59 times -aaaaaaaaah!

Ok, I knew that the laundromat was not the place to write a blog! I'm informed that my last blog was recorded 59 times, oh dear me, I've sent my blog details to CJ in the hope that she can fix it for me. So I hope people out there don't read my last entry 59 times!! It is sooooo hot here, perhaps it affected my computer entry! Anyway, it was another very hot day in Florence and I will backtrack again to 29 June when hopefully I left this last night!

Wednesday 29 June - Menton, France
We walked around Menton looking at the shops then went for another swim at lunchtime while waiting for my photos to be downloaded on to a CD. We forgot about the 3 hour siesta at lunchtime so had a few hours to fill in as when we returned to the photo shop it was closed. The water was of course heaven, gee the Mediterranean water is beautiful, so warm, not at all difficult to enter! What's more we could swim properly as there was very little surf. Later we drove on to Santa Margherita on the Italian Riviera. Aaah, here we are in Italy - wowee! We booked in to a hotel (pretty pricey here) and walked around in the evening to soak in the atmosphere. Later in the evening we drove to Portofino to "promenade". This is a very trendy very expensive resort, quaint, high prices but oh so lovely. All the little shops were open. We took lots of photos and just generally drooled! After this we drove back to San Margherita, parked the car and promenaded more there. One has to dress reasonably nicely to promenade. The men wear long pants or you are picked out as a tourist and ladies should wear high heels (I didn't). The atmosphere is amazing. We went to a gelateria and sat outside eating icecreams in bowls, not realising that you pay twice as much is you don't take them away! However, it was well worth it - yummy!

Thursday 30 June
Our hotel (and every one since in Italy) has a bidet. It also has a hand held shower. Every single place we've been to has a different sort of shower -makes for interesting experiences! The double bed again was actually 2 single beds pushed together.
This morning we woke at 7.30am and went for a run along the boardwalk by the ocean towards Portofino. It was approx 7km there and back. It was a magical morning and we really enjoyed the run although I made Dave run beside the steep incline to the sea. I preferred the security of the cliff side! After our run we showered and ate a wonderful brekkie including a great coffee - at last! It was served in a jug with crema and a separate jug of warm frothed milk. It was just like a cappuccino - beautiful flavour too. Next we packed the car, walked round the streets once more, sat and had another coffee and mineral water in a cafe facing the street (yes CJ just like Noosa) and while there we were serenaded by an Irishman on a guitar, singing. It was so very beautiful and romantic. In fact it made me want to cry. I was really moved by the music, must be getting old! The weather was stunning - really hot and beautiful - singlets and shorts required. I think I'm starting to tan!
One thing we noticed is the number of Vespa-like motor scooters in abundance. There are more scooters than cars and teenagers drive them everywhere. Although the required age is officially 16 I am reliably informed that they drive them as young as 14.
Next we drove on to Levanta which is a town very near Cinque Terra. It was a steep winding drive with sheer drops and amazing views - talk about scary! It was only about 70km but it felt a whole lot further. Don't forget, I'm married to a "wannabe" car racing driver! On the way we detoured to Camagli which used to be a fishing village and is the most photographed town on the coast. We took lots of photos, bought cold water and paddled in the ocean. It was a really pretty place. Then we continued on our hair raising drive to Levanta. We found a hotel to stay the night then walked into town to a pizzeria for dinner. It was a fabulous Italian pizza and nice wine. We bought a gelati and walked around. It was another hot day. We did find an internet cafe but there were a number of people waiting so the blog had to wait - again!

Friday 1 July
In this hotel we have towels like giant teatowels - not like our fluffy variety at all, quite strange and not very efficient for drying. We woke this morning to rain pounding down. I didn't have a particularly good sleep as the bed was hard (2 beds pushed together again) and the pillows thin and hard. By the time we had checked out of the hotel the rain haad stopped and the sun had come out. We bought train tickets for day trip and walks round Cinque Terra and parked at the station. First we caught the train all the way to Rio Maggiore and walked through a tunnel to and round the village (absolutely delightful). We bought foccaccias for brunch. It was a very pretty village with lots of cute shops. We bought postcards and took lots of photos. The houses aare built into the cliffs going down to the sea. We then walked to Manarola, the next village, along a steep path on the cliffside with rails in the cliffside (fortunately) along Lover's Lane. Lovers' Lane was a tunnel where lots of people had written messages and love letter to each other over the years. There was lots of interesting graffiti. The walk was about 30minutes. Manarola was another delightful village with narrow streets and coloured houses and shops. In Italy the washing hangs outside the high windows. We had an icecream (seems to be a daily event -oh yum) and then had a very long wait for the train. While waiting we walked down to the seaside and watched lots of teenagers jumping off very high rocks and cliffs into the ocean - it looked very scary! We had to walk through a long tunnel to reach Manarola and to return to the station. As we waited on the platform the rain returned and it bucketed down. We fortunately had brought our spray jackets and the temperature suddenly dropped. We caught the train to Corniglia (the next village) and it only took about 5minutes to reach it. By that time the sun was out again and it was piping hot so off with the jackets! Now in order to reach this village we had to negotiate hundreds of zig-zag steps. They went on forever to it was just as well they were zig-zag and not straight up! Corniglia is situated on top of a high mountain with the most amazing views. There is no sea front here. It was well worth the climb. The views were so good. This is another gorgeous village with cute shops - lots of walking! After our steep climb back down we had another long extremely hot wait for the train to the next village. It seemed that one train completely missed stopping! We finally arrived at Vernazza, the next village. Here there was a stony beach and we wantered round looking at everything. There were very narrow streets and a swimming spot with stone steps to sit and watch the big waves (yes, breakers at last) splashing against the steps. Our next stop was Monterrosso. By this time we were extremely tired. Monterosso was quite different from the other villages. It was much bigger and more traditional. Here we bought foccaccia and a few pastries of the region. We also bought a bottle of Cinque Terra wine which is purportedly excellent. I'll no doubt report on that in the future! We caught the train back to Levanta, collected the car from the station and drove along the motorway to Lucca. We were so lucky as Dave went to the place he rented an apartment from last year when he was here and as he was trying to make a phone call someone cycled past him and stopped to ask if we needed accommodation. He was an American and he managed the apartments. He lived in France for 9 years but has been living in Italy for several years too. It was about 10pm and we were very lucky as he rented us a large apartment in the centre of Lucca (in Tuscany) within the walled city. It is large with 2 bedrooms (in case of arguments), a lounge room, family room, kitchen and bathroom - a proper apartment - a pity we only have one night here. It was very comfortable. We walked around the town to have a look late a night. It was a pleasant, quiet, pretty township with cobbled streets adn stone terraced shops and houses with narrow steps leading to high-up apartments.

Saturday 2 July
We slept quite late (we were so tired) then went to the included brekkie in a different building. The lady who served us spoke no English at all, which is actually quite unusual but good practice for us! We had juice, pretty ordinary coffee, a whole hard-boiled egg in the shell, prosciutto, melon, sultana aniseed bread (of the region) and baguettes - plenty to eat. We next packed our bags then walked round Lucca until 1pm when all the shops close here for a 3hour siesta. All over Italy it's like this apart from market places and tourist shops. Everyone goes home for a big lunch and siesta in the middle of the day. Also the school holidays last for nearly 4 months - from mid-June until the end of September!
We found a few lovely shops in Lucca then we drove on to Florence in the afternoon. Here we are booked into a very nice apartment on the 'left' bank for a week. The receptionist is delightful and stunning to look at. What's more she can speak English. We spent some time sorting out our bags and finding a car park. Now this was so expensive. Nobody warned us that we just should not take a car into Florence. It cost us approx $90Aust to park for 48 hours. On Monday night we can move the car to a cheaper place but it's still pretty exe!
That evening we walked into the city and found a cute little pizzeria restaurant where we were served by an Aussi girl from Melbourne. Her co-worker was an American and the table next to us had an American dad and his two boys. The restaurant had a lovely ambience and it was a delicious meal. We had a yummy dessert which was a pastry filled with a cream chees and fruit on one end and cream cheese and chocolate chips in the other end. It tasted like real cream and was so yummy! It was a great night. We chatted to the Americans and his 2 teenage sons and they gave us lots of ideas on good markets and shops. It was such fun. It seems that a lot of Aussi girls meet Italian men and end up opening shops and managing them in Italy. In Cinque Terra we came across another shop owner from Melbourne who had done the same thing - met her Italian stallion and moved to Italy to live and work. (Sandra, you did it the other way round!!)
Later we walked round the city window shopping and listening to the singers on the walkways - so awesome. It was a beautiful evening. At 10.45pm we found an internet cafe and managed to answer a few emails but no time to blog! Another midnight lights off!

Sunday, July 03, 2005

Now the washing is drying!

This really is the worst place possible to write this! I can't access anything but my blog so as I have a little more time to wait I'll write a couple more days!

Saturday 25 June - Back in the UK
After doing several loads of washing (gosh, where does it all come from?) we walked into Epsom we walked down to the shopping centre where we bought another suitcase (!) and more bits and pieces for the next stage of our journey. In the afternoon we drove to Welling in Kent where Pat (who I worked with in London more than 30 years ago) and Wayne's (hubby) daughter Melanie lives with her partner and two children (Harrison of 4 and Grace almost 2). Three of Pat's adult children and their partners were there and it was so good to catch up. We last visited Pat and Wayne 13 years ago. Sadly, last August Wayne was in a serious accident when he was thrown from his motorbike into a brick wall when avoiding a pedestrian (an Aussi girl) who had just wandered into the middle of the road near Tower Bridge without looking. As a consequence Wayne is now a paraplegic in a wheelchair. It is very frustrating and sad as Wayne is such a lovely man and they are so very happy together. They actually got together officially when Pat took Wayne to our farewell function in London in 1974 and we have always kept in touch at Christmas time. They have just bought a car which has hand pedals and wheelchair access and this has made a tremendous difference to Wayne. He has a very positive attitude and is even talking of returning to work in the near future. We had such a great evening with them all - a barbeque dinner for the Aussies and lots of wine, tears and good company. I hope it won't be so long between drinks next time we meet!

Sunday 26 June
We had an early start today as we had a big day ahead. We drove for about 1 1/2 hours through lovely English countryside (so green) to Goodwood to the 'Festival of Speed'. Here we saw Formula 1 modern classic cars, hill climb races, motorbike races, sports cars and the latest Alfa Romeo which is not due in Aussi until 2006. There were several stallks and stands and aeroplanes performing aeronautics - an F3 tornado fighter plane and a Boeing 747 for example. It was very hot and there was heaps to see. We found a great stall which our Peter will benefit from! Hours later we drove back to Epsom where we had a beautiful last meal with John and Gill. Jane (22) came home later after a weekend away so we had a chance to catch up with her too and take photos. Later (much later) we packed our bags and it was 2am before I finally dropped into bed!

Monday 27 June
After brekkie and fond farewells we drove to Heathrow to catch the plane to Nice. Another debacle awaited. There's something about us and aeroplanes! We had to queue for ages and ages and nearly missed our flight (AGAIN) so we were told to RUN and take all our suitcases with us. We did just that but of course we had expected to be checking the large bags through the normal way and these had to go through the conveyer belt and of course two of the bags were stopped as they contained cutlery sets, a corkscrew and Dave's Swiss army knife - carefully NOT packed in the hand luggage. So with 10mins before the plane left there we were pulling everything out of our large well-packed bags to remove said objects. Then you should have seen us run - I think that was pretty good interval training for both of us! Yes, we made it with about 1 minute to spare and the hostess said 'well done' as she threw our large suitcases safely down the chute into the plane! That was not a great start. Unlike Aussi airports they do not allow anyone to go ahead in queues even if your plane is due well before others. It obviously pays to be hours early when catching flights overseas. Be warned those of you about to travel anywhere in the future! It was a good calm 2 hour flight but more hassles awaited us at Nice Airport trying to collect our hire car. Finally we decided it would be easier to walk to our collection point as we had a trolley full of bags which were tricky to lift into the free bus. However, there's a reason for that free bus as we soon discovered. It was a very long hair-raising walk along paths too narrow for the trolley and bags. After detouring several times and carrying bags over gutters etc we finally arrived at the hire car collection point. There we had to queue again for well over an hour to collect our car. It was extremely hot, there was no shelter and we were overdressed as we were wearing our heavy clothes. We were tired and frustrated by the time we finally received our very nice Renault Scenic which is only a month old, takes diesel fuel which should be economical and has air conditioning - yay! France is one hour ahead of the UK and so we are now only 8 hours behind Oz! The weather is wonderful when we are dressed appropriately and everyone is very brown. We drove to Eze which is not far from Nice where we stayed for one night. We are in a stunningly beautiful spot. We took an evening walk up to the Eze castle up lots and lots of steps and old villages. The gardens were closed at night but the views were magnificent. We had dinner in a little seaside restaurant - fabulous. The shops are very quaint, the accommodation is comfortable but the pillows and bed are rock hard! Double beds here in France seem to be two single beds pushed together so cuddling up in the middle of the bed could be a bit of a disaster!

Tuesday 28 June
Eze is a medieval hill-top village. There are lots of quaint little shops and gorgeous gardens. After brekkie of baguettes and pastries (included in the cost) we walked back up to the castle and through the now-open gardens. I just can't stop taking photos. Everywhere is so very beautiful. The shops and houses are built on to the rocks. After a good explore we drove on to Menton via Monte Carlo and booked in to a hotel for one night. This is another beautiful although much larger seaside town. We went for an evening swim at about 8pm in the beautiful Mediteranean ocean. The beach was very stony but the water was divine - quite warm - just gorgeous. Later that evening we promenaded (which is what one does here) through the streets of Menton. There were markets open until midnight and we watched men only playing Petanque (a form of French boules). There were so many people out - children and babies to the very old. Here in Europe everything comes alive after 10pm and continues on until midnight. There was music in the streets, open markets, lots of nightlife and restaurants outdoors. We bought icecreams and soaked in the atmosphere. J'aime Le France!

Buon giorno from Italy

Greetings from Italy - sunny days, amazing shops, stunning looking Italians and best of all good coffee! The countryside is amazing and the villages beautiful. I am going to have to backtrack to 23 June. Internet access for any length of time has been a problem and some computers (like this one at the laundromat) are decidedly dodgy! I can't access my hotmail from here. I think it thinks I should be speaking Italian but at least I can access my blog! I will now backtrack and at least do a few days at a time and maybe continue this from an easier access point - a laundromat is probably not the best option after all! Training has been difficult as we seem to be constantly on the go. Now however we are in Florence for nearly a week so maybe we will improve. At this stage although we are walking heaps and heaps running days have been few and far between.

Now I will go back to where I last entered my log.

Thursday 23 June - still in Ireland
This morning we did go for an early morning run of nearly 8km along a country lane with 'fresh' country smells - even a bunny rabbit crossed our path. Later we drove to the Rock of Cashel where we went for a guided tour of the remains of the 12th century castle - fascinating history and beautiful grounds. From there we drove on to Dublin where our B & B was like a hotel. After the peaceful Irish countryside and villages we found Dublin very big and busy and not nearly as attractive as the smaller towns. However the atmosphere was exciting and that night we went on a Musical Pub Crawl - such fun. We were taken to three different pubs and listened to an Irishman play his guitar accompanied by his mate on a piano accordian. He told us many stories and amusing anecdotes and bit of history of Irish traditional music. We joined in singing some of the songs he taught us and it was loads of fun.
Sight of the night: On our long walk back to the hotel at nearly midnight we spotted a cyclist in dark clothing with no lights, no helmet, cycling along a busy Dublin street with a lighted cigarette in one hand!

Friday 24 June
This morning we walked into Dublin city and browsed round the shops. After lunch we went on a guided tour of Trinity College which is part of the Uni of Dublin. The tour included entry into the Book of Kells which is the version of the New Testament written by the monks in the 3rd century. This building also housed the Book of Armagh written by different monks and a library with a copy of every book printed and published in the UK and Ireland. Interestingly these books are sorted in size order to save space so as a consequence are almost impossible for students (or anyone else) to access - sound Irish to you?
We flew back to London from Dublin that evening and our flight was delayed an hour. Then after boarding and everyone was settled on the plane we were all requested to produce our boarding passes again as there was an extra passenger on board. Thus we had another 20min delay - Ryannair of course! Friday night is not the best time to travel - the plane was very full again. Finally after a long queue at Heathrow we collected our hire car - a blue Fiat Pronto this time and drove back to Epsom by about midnight.