Thursday, August 20, 2009

It's like a boot kicking a ball.

Yep, it's official. I'm moving to Italy; where fresh food, a sophisticated style and a laid back approach to life is the norm. There are beautiful landscapes, magnificent coastlines and quaint villages. The population are attractive, refined and their cars are the same. Can you offer me a reason not to live here? Best answer receives a Margherita flavoured Gelato.

Our Italian adventure started with an all-nighter in Paris in order to avoid paying for an extra nights accommodation and to catch an early morning flight to Venice. Needless to say alcohol was involved and when we arrived at Marco Polo airport we were so wrecked we couldn't even make it through customs. Sleep was inevitable and the floor looked surprisingly comfortable.

We woke sometime around lunchtime to the clunking of yet another luggage carousel as it carried a load of tightly glad-wrapped suitcases in front of a hoard of camera-toting tourists. We pulled ourselves up, rubbing sleep from our eyes and stumbled out of the terminal to catch a train into town.

Venice is a bizarre and amazing city and consists of 118 islands formed by 177 canals. Nearly 400 bridges connect these islands and the result in a maze of small lanes and cobbled streets which make it nearly impossible to navigate anywhere. A distinct lack of street signs means map reading skills become obsolete and most of the buildings are so similar that nothing can be used as a point of reference anyway.

Despite an obvious lack of direction however we actually thoroughly enjoyed delving into the narrow streets to explore the small boutiques and cafes the Venetians had to offer. The city’s motto should be ‘Get lost, you’ll love it.’

Wanting to see the city from a different angle we decided to hire a gondola. It is an extremely expensive venture and after some crafty haggling we finally found a Gondolier who was willing to bargain the price down to somewhere around the cost of buying a small car. You’re only in Venice once though right?

After the gondola ride we found a small pizza restaurant by one of the canals and enjoyed a vino or two while we waited for the evening to set in. We were saving on another night’s accommodation by catching an overnight train to Rome that turned out to be a big mistake. The compartment was perfect for cooking a pizza and the train made more noise than a dump truck driving through a quarry. Definitely not ideal conditions for sleeping, How many sleepless nights is that now? I’ve lost count.

Rome was fantastic. It was significantly cleaner and less polluted than Athens and it seemed the Italians had a much better way of displaying their ancient ruins – mainly by not covering it all in scaffolding. We only had a day or two here so a quick whirlwind tour of the Vatican, the Colosseum, Trajan’s Column, Trevi Fountain and the Spanish steps had us sorted. We may have fit a pub-crawl in their somewhere as well. When in Rome.

From Rome we were headed down to Sorrento for a three-day tour that included Pompeii, Capri and the Amalfi coast. It was here that my infatuation for this country came into fruition.

Pompeii was the first stop before we got to Sorrento, and, for me in particular it was an extremely surreal experience. It might sound a little weird but the better half of my schooling years were spent trying to decipher the complexities of the Latin language. For a restless schoolboy, Latin is very low down the scale of exciting school activities. Luckily for us however, the textbooks we used for the subject contained lots of colourful pictures of Pompeii to distract us from the excentric ramblings of manic Latin teachers (none who shall be named here). Speaking of rambling, the point I am trying to make is that all the images in the books were now seen through the lens of my own camera. I was standing in the famous petrified city that Caecilius once strolled through on his way to the market. Fantastic.

I suppose a more suitable phrase would be ‘parturient montes, nascetur ridiculus mus,’ which translates literally as ‘mountains will be in labour, and a ridiculous mouse will be born.’ Well, in this case the people who built Pompeii were the hard working labourers and the eruption of Mount Vesuvius (the ridiculous mouse) meant they had nothing to show for it. Plausible justification?

This was the case of course until the ingenious Italian archaeologist Giuseppe Fiorelli discovered that he could inject plaster into the cavities left by the victim’s bodies in the hardened lava. The result is truly remarkable and means the people of Pompeii have something to show for their toils.

From Pompeii we went further south to Sorrento, which was my first real taste of Italy-by-the-sea. We used this town as our base and spent a day on the island of Capri followed by a day driving along the Amalfi coast. The shopping was great here and the food and wine was even more palatable. We stopped at three towns; Positano, Amalfi and Ravello and only photos can describe such scenery.

Florence was our next stop and we soon discovered it was a deceptively small city, but one full of charm and stunning Renaissance architecture. At its heart is the Gothic Duomo and this was easily the most magnificent cathedral we had seen on our whole trip. Unfortunately the queues for ‘Mike’s Dave’ were huge and we were unable to manage waiting in the stifling summer heat for a chance to see him. No love lost though as we’ve managed to see enough prominent art in the last six weeks to last me a lifetime. Well almost.

Our last stop in Italy was the Cinque Terre and it was by far the most beautiful. There are five towns stretched over 12km of sheer cliff faces that fall right into a bright blue Mediterranean sea. Each town is a cluster of pastel coloured buildings, all huddled together around small inlets that allow for fishing boats and leisurely swimming. There is a walking trail that connects the five villages and it varies in difficulty from an easy stroll to a rough and physically challenging hike. Why did we try and run it?

The most charming aspect of these towns is they don’t really offer any sort of hotel or hostel to stay in. Instead there are several agencies set up which find you accommodation in people’s houses, spare rooms or on their couches. It is an interesting concept and meant you could be crammed into an apartment with eight other people. No harm in a bit of sharing though. On the topic of sharing we did order a pizza in the town of Riomaggiore that was advertised as being fit for six people. We probably could have eaten two of them.

In all Italy really had a defining effect on me, and it probably shows heavily through my eating habits and change in clothing – Linen shirts anyone? I would love to have spent a bit more time here but the travel train must continue. Maybe one day I can call a little corner of Italy my home.

Nice is next followed by Spain.

Farewell Bel Paese.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

The City of Lights

Yes, the city of revolution, nouveau fashion, and many (many) cultural treasures - Paris.

We stayed here for just under a week and squeezed as many galleries, historical sites and cathedrals into the six days as we could. Needless to say I've decided to let my photos do the talking as they're meant to tell a thousand words and I don't want to bore you explaining how many people were crowded around Ms. Lisa or how long we waited to climb the Eiffel Tower.

Let me know what you think.


*Apologies for these posts being so late, I left my computer charger in Roma and couldn't buy another one until I reached Nice!

Sud France

Allez! Allez! Allez! It’s that time of the year again when the infamous Tour de France steams its way through this country faster than you can say baguettes and frog’s legs – and I was lucky enough to be there to see it.

We arrived in Paris late on the 21st July after a frantic transit from Ios that included a late ferry, a slow Athens train ride and a Greek taxi driver who thought 180kmph was a suitable speed for driving two passengers to the airport. Luckily we still made our check-in with moments to spare and limbs intact.

So here we were, twelve minutes past midnight in a new city and a closed airport, completely perplexed as to what to do next. We had booked a rental car for the next day but had no idea where to sleep. Fortunately we managed to find a cab to take us into the city to the only accommodation that was likely to take us in at this ridiculous hour. Not surprisingly the hotel recommended to us by the taxi driver was located underneath a highway and included a free continental breakfast and someone getting arrested in the foyer. Needless to say it was a sleepless night.

On Wednesday morning we caught another taxi to Europcar and had an enjoyable and ‘hassle-free time’ (sic) picking up our car. For those that can’t appreciate my terrible sarcasm, let’s just say that I’ve had more success cleaning my teeth with a cheese grater than getting any co-operation out of a French car-hire salesman. Eventually though, after much restraint, the keys were handed over and we were on our way.

We didn’t last long. Sure enough, after 2 minutes of driving we had somehow managed to negotiate our way onto the Arc de Triomph roundabout. We soon realised we had no idea what were doing and hastily decided it would be best to turn off before we caused a seven-car pile up.

We pulled the car over in a side street and the scenario unfolded thus:

‘What the hell was that!’ my colleague screamed.
I removed my nails from the dashboard and took a look at our map of Paris.
‘Circle of Death?’ I suggested. Too right it was.

After some careful planning and some utter sheer luck we managed to avoid the ruddy roundabout altogether and were finally on our way to Annecy, our first stage of Le Tour. We were safe for now but in no way stress free.

Annecy was beautiful. We met up with some friends from Melbourne who let us stay the night in their rented chalet in the French Alps, about 1.5 hours from the race itself. We arrived at night so the next day we were pleasantly surprised with the view.

That day we drove back to Annecy to see the cycling greats; Armstrong, Contador, Canchellara and Evans battle it out in the 40+ minutes time trial around Lake Annecy.

The Tour itself has such a big impact on the French population, and the streets of every stage we went to were lined with locals – cheering, socialsing and dining on delicious picnics by the roadside. We relished in the electric atmosphere they created.

We followed the Tour for the next three stages; through Bourg de Peage,

up Mount Ventoux

and for the final leg into Paris along the Champs Elysees.

It was an experience I will never forget, and having the car at our disposal meant we could be as independent as we liked.

One thing you do notice while sharing the roads with Europeans is that for some insane reason they seem determined to set a new land speed record, even at the detriment of other drivers. Call me old fashioned, but I don’t have a particular urge to spend the rest of my holiday dead.

This was most worrying during our trip back to Paris from Mt. Ventoux. We left the mountain around 8pm, knowing full well we were about to drive the same distance between Melbourne and Sydney surviving on nothing but coffee, Red Bull and chewing gum.

Thankfully, no ill fate came of us and we arrived into Paris at 6am to find a room so uninviting that I’m sure most prisoners would refuse to repose in it. We were too exhausted to complain though and promptly fell into a deep slumber.

All up the three days spent on the road were memorable, exciting, and expensive and I will never regret nor forget them.