Friday, April 18, 2014

Announcing: Ciao Italy 2014!

Milestone birthdays should be special. After all, we're getting older and, hopefully, wiser and that should be celebrated. For my 30th birthday Gareth and I went to Zanzibar, and I spent the day swimming with dolphins. We visited the Finnish arctic circle for Gareth's 35th birthday, where we went husky sledding and snowmobiling, amongst other memorable adventures. My dad climbed Kilimanjaro for his 60th birthday! And this year I'm turning 35 and I chose to spend it in Italy, one of my favourite countries.

I've seen many of the touristy sights in Italy during four previous visits, but it will be almost completely new for Gareth. Although I am revisiting many of the places on our itinerary, I hope that instead of spending an afternoon somewhere and moving on, we can take some time to really get to know a place, to see what life is like for Italians, to stop and taste the gelato.

So we are doing things a little differently this year. My first visit to Italy was with my parents, many years ago, touring Europe in a camper car, the holiday that started it all. We came back another year to stay for a week in Assisi, and twice again to ski in the little town of Corvara in the Italian Alps.

This time, Gareth and I are making use of the popular accommodation site, Airbnb, for the first time. We will be staying in the homes of Italian people, living like locals in the suburbs, buying groceries at the neighbourhood market and speaking (broken) Italian with people on the bus. It will be a completely new experience.

Three weeks is a long time, but not nearly long enough for everything I wanted to see and do. Our planned itinerary is therefore limited to the northern half of the country.

We fly into Rome's Leonardo da Vinci airport where we will pick up a car and drive straight to the town of Montegabbione in Umbria. We will stay there for two nights, exploring the countryside and visiting Orvieto and perhaps Montepulciano.

Image seen at The Amazing Pics

I wanted to spend the next week in Florence, but the city is apparently not very car-friendly and the apartments we could afford did not meet my picky standards, so we will be staying in a lovely little house just outside Lucca for five days. From here we plan to visit the Cinque Terre (something I've long wanted to do), Siena, Pisa and, of course, Florence.

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

We head north again, stopping in Modena to visit the Ferrari museum, to Castion Veronese, a little town close to the shores of Lake Garda, part of the Italian Lake District. While there, we may head out to Verona, to pay our respects to Shakespeare's two fictional lovers.

Image seen at St Clement

We drop the car off in Mestre, as close to Venice as we could afford without actually staying in the island city. I searched and searched for something inexpensive inside Venice itself, but our price class seemed to allow only for dark, dingy and musty-looking hovels. I'm very pleased with our apartment on the mainland, which our host promises is only a 15 minute train ride away from that iconic city. A week in which to thoroughly explore every nook and cranny, every island, every church and every casa, is something that I've dreamed about for years.

Image seen at AUP

The high-speed train zips us back to Rome for the last week. We will be staying in an apartment just outside the main tourist district, but close enough to explore all the historical sites of this ancient city on foot. The Vatican City and St. Peter's Cathedral, the Coliseum and Roman Forum, Villa Borghese and everything on the "Angels and Demons" tour are in our sights. If we have time, I'd also love a day-trip to Herculaneum and Sorrento or Positano.

Image courtesy of Shed Expedition

Spectacular enough? I think it will be! If you have any advice or tips, or just want to reminisce about your own memories of Italy, please feel free to leave a comment below.

For more posts in the Ciao Italy 2014 series, click here.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Travellers x2: Anniversary Cruise 2014

When two people are travelling together, there are bound to be some things that the one didn’t enjoy quite as much as the other one. I think it’s a good idea to reflect on the trip afterwards, to learn from possible mistakes and to better plan for the next one. So… the verdict is out on our Anniversary Cruise 2014 trip:

High Point: I enjoyed the evenings sitting in the cocktail lounge listening to the live music, singers performing popular songs that we know and listen to on the radio.

Low Point: The after-effects of being back on dry land and my inner ear trying to balance the lack of movement on solid ground, which lasted for about a week after we arrived home.

Comments: Would like to do it again, but a longer cruise, perhaps around the Mediterranean instead.

Holiday Rating: 5/10

High Point: For me, there weren't any high points to this trip. It was a bit of a let-down from start to finish. If I had to choose something, I would say the time spent in the Cotton Club listening to two brilliant bands was the best part of the cruise. The real highlight, of course, was spending the time with my husband - happy anniversary!

Low Point: Quite a few! The teeny-tiny shower gets first mention, followed closely by the queues for everything, the seasickness and the crowds on board. And let's not forget the week-long land sickness afterwards.

Comments: Clearly cruising is not our thing. I'm glad we had a chance to take this trip, and for our anniversary no less, but I think in future we will keep our feet firmly on dry land.

Holiday Rating: 4/10

No idea which trip we're talking about? Check out these posts:

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Dear Cruise Diary - Day 3

Sunday, 26 January 2014

8:00 Shower curtain woes!

9:00 The queue for breakfast is so long today that it is wrapped around the length of the room and continues outside the breakfast hall. Luckily, there is an empty table right by the door. I sit down to reserve it while Gareth braves the masses.

9:30 Gareth returns with some toast and scrambled eggs. I refuse to join the queue, but I've heard rumours of another breakfast bar on the outside deck. I go to investigate.

9:40 The rumours were true. It's a flapjack station and there are only five people in line! I return to our table triumphantly.

9:50 Today is a sea-day, which means everyone on board is milling about in the halls. The duty-free shops are open and the hallways are lined with tables covered in clothes, jewellery and perfume at special prices. We feel suffocated by the crowds and decide to go to our "secret" lounge on deck 12.

10:00 We watch the waves of the open sea. It's overcast and cloudy, and the water is choppy. I don't feel that well - disoriented and almost like I'm coming down with the flu. I try to read my book, but it makes the seasickness worse. A rowdy group of people are playing Risk a few tables away from us. We ask them where we can get hold of a board game too, and they tell us they got theirs from Reception.

10:10 We make our way down to deck 5 again, but the lady at Reception tells us to go to deck 6 instead.

10:15 A small table with games is set up next to the Bingo salon. We squeeze through all the people hoping for lucky numbers, only to be disappointed to find that all the best games have already been booked out. Left with a choice of a deck of cards, Twister or Who Wants to be a Millionaire, we decide to see how good our general knowledge is.

10:30 Back at deck 12, we set up the game. We wonder how we're going to ask the audience or phone a friend when it's only the two of us. It's the British version of the game, and we keep on drawing cards about politicians or daytime soapies. We're not very good at it, and the highest either of us get to is £16,000. Bored, we give up and decide to return the game.

11:00 The crowds are still everywhere. We find my mother and her friend in one of the main lounges, watching a live cooking lesson from a celebrity chef. Gareth and I take the opportunity to browse through the wares on display. I buy a bottle of eau de toilet for half price and Gareth gets a name-brand aftershave on sale. We also find a fridge magnet of the boat to go with our collection from around the world.

11:40 I'm feeling extremely woozy and as Gareth goes to the smoking lounge, I return to our cabin to lie down for a bit.

12:45 Gareth sneaks into the cabin with a tray of pizza and some delicious fruit tartlets. We pig out on the bed while watching The Fast and the Furious 6 on TV.

13:00 Apart from our evening meals, this is the first time I've properly eaten since we came aboard. Satisfied, I fall asleep, waking every now and then to sounds from the new Man of Steel movie Gareth is watching.

18:00 I refuse to set foot in that ridiculously small shower again! The day's newsletter indicated that this evening would be casual wear, so we decide to go down to dinner dressed as-is in jeans and T-shirts.

18:15 We sit down in one of the lounges while waiting for the restaurant to open. A girl in an evening dress saunters past. I turn to Gareth, who shrugs. Maybe she didn't get the memo. Not long after a couple dressed in a tuxedo and ball gown walk past. We're worried now. Maybe the last night on board is fancier than the rest? We rush upstairs to go put on our dinner clothes.

18:32 Back at the restaurant, we realise that it was indeed casual night, as everyone else are dressed in their everyday clothes. We shrug it off and have a delicious meal that includes oysters, pumpkin soup and chicken schnitzel. No birthday cakes and champagne for us this evening, but we clap and sing along as someone else at another table blushes beetroot red.

20:45 After dinner, we head to the photo gallery to look at all the photos taken of us during the cruise. We only want the one on the Titanic grand staircase. It's overpriced, as these photos usually are, but we buy it anyway.

20:50 Back at the Cotton Club, we catch the last few minutes of Duo Majest's performance, followed by 15 minutes of Duo Moonshine.

21:15 Thoroughly enjoying ourselves, we're disappointed to hear them announce that an Oriental dancing lesson is about to take place where we will learn to move like Bollywood dancers. A women steps off the stage and takes my hand, trying to "volunteer" me onto the dance floor. I mumble an apology and we beat a hasty retreat back to our cabin.

22:00 Relieved that we would be returning to land tomorrow, I fall asleep with The Hobbit playing again in the background.

For more posts in the Anniversary Cruise 2014 trip, click here.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Dear Cruise Diary - Day 2

Saturday, 25 January 2014 

6:45 The alarm goes off, nice and early to get a head start on the day, and perhaps skip the inevitable queues at the breakfast buffet.

6:50 I'm in the shower, bending down so I can shave my legs. The shower curtain is wrapped around my face and I can't see what I'm doing. I wonder if the more expensive cabins have showers larger than a postage stamp?

7:50 Is that the queue for breakfast? Sigh, alright then.

8:00 We grab an open table and sit down for breakfast. Neither of us wanted to queue for food, so we're eating whatever we managed to forage from stands where there were gaps in the line. I have a croissant, a banana and a bowl of cereal. Gareth has a slice of toast, a banana and some watery scrambled eggs. Perhaps we'll stop for lunch somewhere in Maputo to make up for it.

8:30 We head down to reception to find out about daytrips to Maputo. Shuttles are scheduled to leave from the ship into the city centre every hour. The 9am slot is already full, so we book the 10am slot.

8:45 Finding a quiet lounge to wait in, we sit down to read a bit and watch the coastline of Mozambique pass by through a large porthole.

9:45 Is that the queue to get off the boat? It's 300m long already! Sigh, alright then.

10:30 After 45 minutes of queuing, everyone is sitting on the floor, playing with their cell phones. Oh look, people are starting to move. Finally.

10:40 Smile for the paparazzi - this time we're being threatened by Johnny Depp lookalike pirates!

10:45 It's chaos on the dock. Apparently people were queuing irrespective of their booked timeslots and now everyone is trying to get onto a shuttle bus. The crew have their hands full trying to get people who booked first to get onto the busses first. One couple, angry that they were the first to get off the ship but only allowed to get onto the 12 o'clock bus, are particularly vocal. We grab the last two seats on the 11am bus. 

11:10 The bus drops us off in the centre of Maputo, where we spend about two hours exploring the sights

12:50 We've had enough of Maputo and are ready to go back to the boat. There's a short queue at the bus stop, but this time we welcome the other people standing with us, because they distract the street vendors' attention away from us. One of the couples give in to the pressure and buy a traditional wooden drum for their little boy.

13:10 Back at the boat, we pass the couple as their drum is confiscated by customs. Apparently wooden objects are not allowed out of the country.

13:20 Is that the queue for lunch? Sigh, alright then.

13:30 I'm quite pleased with myself - I managed to get a plate of calamari for lunch. Two bites later I give up. Rubber masquerading as calamari is just not worth the effort.

14:00 We head over to a lounge for some virgin cocktails. I have a fruit smoothie and Gareth tries a raspberry mojito while I tease him about drinking pink drinks.

14:45 The ship is scheduled to leave the harbour at 3pm. We go out on deck for the departure.

15:15 Windblown, hot and bored, we decide to go inside. It doesn't look like the boat is going anywhere soon. We head up to our "secret" lounge on deck 12, where we'll have a comfortable seat while watching the ship depart.

15:30 The speaker system bongs: departure is delayed indefinitely due to bad weather. Luckily we are sitting down, because we have visions of being stranded in Maputo for a week.

15:40 I'm feeling woozy and we head down to our room to lie down for a bit. Oh look, The Hobbit is showing and they're about to enter the goblin lair.

16:00 The ship lurches and we realise it has departed without any further announcements.

17:00 Shower curtain woes!

18:00 We're dressed in our evening wear, ready for dinner. We head down to the formal restaurant, passing by the photo gallery to look at the pictures taken today.

18:30 Seated at the same spot as last night, we have a delicious meal.

20:00 It's my mother's birthday today and all the waiters sing loudly when they bring her the cake. The whole restaurant is looking at us again. Our waiter surprises her with a napkin beautifully handcrafted into a heart and roses. He doesn't speak a word of English, but he can tell that she is extremely pleased.

20:30 Before my mother and Magda head out for the evening show, we all gather in the coffee lounge where we drink cappuccinos and I indulge in a cup of After Eight hot chocolate. Decadent!

20:45 Gareth and I catch the end of the salsa lesson. We join the group on the dance floor and show off a few of our dance moves. When the lesson ends, we do one more dance on our own while the band plays, but the boat lurches too much for us to keep our balance and I suddenly realise that we have spectators, so we end off with a dip and decide to sit down.

21:00 Two bands are playing at the Cotton Club tonight, Duo Majest and Duo Moonshine. They are brilliant and we have a wonderful time listening to them perform cover versions of our favourite songs.

22:00 It's been a long day and I can hardly keep my eyes open. We head back to the cabin for the night. The day turned out much better than anticipated, but tomorrow is a whole day at sea - how will we keep ourselves entertained?

For more posts in the Anniversary Cruise 2014 trip, click here.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Dear Cruise Diary - Day 1

Friday, 24 January 2014 

4:00 I don't usually sleep well the night before a trip, but luckily this was not the case last night. I jump out of bed like a springbokkie, refreshed and eager to get going.

4:50 Magda arrives and we try and load the suitcases into my dad's Merc. They don't fit! Magda hurriedly repacks everything into a smaller suitcase. It's a tight squeeze, but we manage to get everyone's luggage in. Wow, who would believe we're only going to be gone for three nights!

5:07 I warned everyone the day before, whoever isn't in the car by 5 AM would be left behind. We're seven minutes late - not too bad. And we're off to Durban!

6:20 Gareth and I tell the story of the time we nearly stopped without petrol on the N3. I watch a speeding car in the rear view mirror. He's getting closer, I should probably move out of the fast lane. Oh wait, he's moved to the left. Wait a minute... He's going to try and squeeze between me and this truck - what the hell?! I swerve out of the road as he misses our car by centimetres. Bloody crazy Limpopo drivers!

6:25 Everyone's nerves are on edge. We spend a few minutes abusing the stupidity of other drivers, threatening to put his license plate up on Twitter to name and shame and tag the metro police.

7:30 No time for a sit-down breakfast, we decide to grab something from the tuck shop. We spend about 20 minutes trying to get over the fact that there's nothing but chips and chocolates to buy. Oh well, we'll make up for it on the boat.

7:55 Isn't that the guy who nearly drove into us parked in the parking lot? Shall we go scratch obscenities into his paint job with the car keys? No? Okay, let's get going before we have to share the road with him again.

10:05 Clearly we're in KZN now. We're on the highway, but the speed limit is 80km/h. Talk about a change of pace.

10:15 Oh look, this is where we turned off that time we stayed at Lords of the Manor. We really need to go there again - what a fabulous long weekend that was.

11:30 Ah, here we go, Durban city centre. We have directions to the harbour: five robots, then turn right. Wait, wasn't that the fifth one? Where did you learn to navigate?! Don't worry, I'll just turn right here. And then left here. Yes, I'm sure it's left! No, we don't need to go right again, do you want to get us lost?! See, there's the entrance to the harbour.

11:45 Just read the signs, ignore what that guy is doing, we don't know where he's going. Long-term parking there. What, you want me to follow this guy around the roundabout? But - okay. Now look what you've done, we're at the drop-off. Great, we're lost inside a parking lot. Let's just ask this parking attendant? All the way back and then follow the signs to the long-term parking? Gee, who would've guessed...?

12:00 Is that the queue to check-in? Sigh, alright then.

12:20 Is that the queue to get onto the boat? Sigh, alright then.

12:30 My mother warned us that there are always people taking pictures of you on the boat, like the paparazzi is stalking you, and here it starts. With a cardboard cut-out of a palm tree on either side, Gareth and I smile as a picture of the two of us is taken, then one of each.

12:40 Ooh, look, there's the boat! Ah, now it's starting to feel like we're on holiday.

12:45 Finally, past customs and out of the queue. We're starving, let's see if we can go grab a bite to eat while we wait for our suitcases to be brought to the room.

12:50 Is that the queue for lunch? Sigh, alright then.

13:10 Grab that table! The queue for the buffet was not moving, so instead we found a counter where only a few people were waiting to be served pasta. A bowl each and finally we get to sit down. I take a bite and realise why no one else was interested. Hope the rest of the food on board this ship is going to be tastier than this. Never mind, let's go find our cabin.

13:20 Our cabin is quite cosy. We don't have a window (or even a porthole), but that's okay, we'll only be sleeping here anyway. The bathroom is tiny. Really tiny. The whole thing is not even as big as our shower at home. It reminds me of the bathroom in the camper car when we toured Europe for the first time.

13:30 Time for the compulsory emergency drill. We have our red lifejackets on and we're standing around at our muster station with a bunch of other people, waiting for something to happen. We watch as people scramble around, unsure of where they should be. Gareth and I look at each other, amazed by how clueless some people are. Your muster station number is shown on your lifejacket, and the stations are clearly marked - it's not rocket science. Half an hour later, when everybody are finally sorted out, we get to go our own way again.

14:00 Departure time! We stand outside on one of the middle decks, watching as Durban slides by. So excited! We return to our cabin to drop off the lifejackets. Our suitcases haven't arrived yet, so we decide to go explore.

14:30 Oh my goodness, this is a madhouse! The pool is packed, the hot tub is squirming with people and there isn't a single open sun lounger in sight. Techno music is blaring and people are crowded on the deck, dancing like there's no tomorrow. I hate crowds and this is too much for me, let's move on.

14:40 Gareth and I climb the ladder to the top deck in the stern. Immediately the wind whips my hair every which way and I can't see where I'm going. The ship is swaying so much, we stumble with every step. We've left Durban behind and there's nothing to see but blue sky and blue waves. I suddenly realise how tired I am and we decided to get out of the wind and go see if our suitcases have arrived yet.

14:50 Is that my suitcase standing next to the elevator? Yes, it is, and my name tag has been ripped off. Luckily we came across it, otherwise it might have been lost.

15:00 The Hobbit is showing on the movie channel! Hmm, would actually have liked to watch that again. But we didn't book a holiday on a cruise ship to watch TV.

15:45 Suitcases are unpacked. Perhaps now is a good time for a nap before we have to get ready for dinner?

16:30 Ding! I wake up with a start as an announcement is made over the internal speaker. Due to bad weather, the ship will not be able to go to the Portuguese Island as promised. Instead we will be docking at Maputo. Well, that's disappointing.

16:45 Ugh! My hair is too tangled to brush after the wind on deck. Hopefully a wash will sort it out.

17:00 What a horrible little shower! If I face the curtain, I touch the cold tiles and if I turn around, the shower curtain clings to my ass! Need to get out of this claustrophobic trap!

18:00 Gareth and I are dressed in evening wear. We glide down the stairs to the formal dining room. The paparazzi are waiting and we have our picture taken in front of the Titanic's grand staircase. Hopefully it's not a prophesy of some sort.

18:45 We sit at table with my mother and Magda. Our waiter is very friendly and very lacking in English. Because it's our 10th wedding anniversary today, we had pre-booked a cake and a bottle of champagne. It takes a visit from the restaurant manager to sort our order out.

18:50 We have a starter, a soup and a main course while sipping on our champagne. The food is delicious! 

20:30 The cake arrives for dessert. There are sparklers in it and suddenly our table is surrounded by waiters, all singing Happy Birthday at the top of their voices! Everyone in the restaurant is looking at us. I point at Gareth and our waiter puts the cake in front of him while we all laugh uproariously. He blows the candles out and pretends to make a wish. Happy birthday, Gareth!

21:00 Tonight's theatre show is a tribute to 60s, 70s and 80s rock bands. We're exhausted though, and decide to call it a night. We'll need our beauty sleep for tomorrow's visit to Maputo.

For more posts in the Anniversary Cruise 2014 trip, click here.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Two Hours in Maputo

Although Maputo never featured on our must-see list, we were determined to make the most of the two hours we had when the boat's bus unceremoniously dumped us in the middle of town. While driving through the derelict streets of the capital of Mozambique, many other passengers decided not to get off the bus, but rather to go straight back to the boat. However, armed with a camera and a can-do attitude, Gareth and I set out to explore the few highlights the city has to offer.

Finger pointing threateningly, the new statue of Samora Machel, the first president of Mozambique, loomed over Independence Square in the middle of a busy interchange. We didn't know much more about the man other than that he had been the husband of Graça Machel, late president Nelson Mandela's third wife.

We dodged traffic across the circle to the dramatically white church (the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception) on the other side, only to find that a wedding was taking place and we couldn't go in.

So we headed over to the Municipal Council, a particularly pretty neoclassical building, which was also closed to the public. We posed on its steps, taking pictures of the beautiful patterned sidewalk and the acacia trees lining the city's avenues.

After a quick drink at the French Cultural Centre, we walked down the Avenida Samora Machel where we happened upon the Iron House, a building constructed entirely of steel and designed by none other than Gustave Eiffel (famous for Paris' Eiffel Tower and New York's Statue of Liberty).

As our luck would have it, the Tunduro Botanical Gardens were also closed for the day, so we proceeded further along the road into town. Maputo is not a pretty city. The streets are dirty and the buildings are dilapidated and covered in grime. An unpleasant odour permeates the air, the combination of the smells wafting from open sewage drains and overripe bananas peddled by street vendors.

We made our way through the traditional crafts market with surprisingly little harassment from the stall owners trying to sell the usual array of carvings, jewellery, batik cloths and paintings. Then it was time to turn back and return to the bus stop, where we had to fend off insistent street hawkers trying their best to make a quick sale before the tourists returned to their boat.

Later, from the deck of the ship, we watched as Maputo faded in the distance. We've been to other African cities before and had a good idea what to expect before we set foot off the boat. But in my opinion, two hours in Maputo is about as much time as one should spend in Maputo.

For more posts in the Anniversary Cruise 2014 trip, click here.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Wish You Were Here: Titanic Grand Staircase

We had our first professional picture taken before we even set foot on the boat. Banners of palm trees to either side, Gareth and I smiled brightly as a photo of the two of us were taken together, then each separately, while the queue for customs at the dock stretched out before and behind us. As our long weekend progressed, it almost seemed like the paparazzi were hounding us, for everywhere we turned we had to smile and pose for the camera. We didn't mind, it was all part of the fun, and we looked forward to our evening stroll to the dining room where the walls were lined with pictures taken during the day. There I was, being threatened by pirates, and over there Gareth was grinning from the cover of Time magazine. The inventiveness of the photographers knew no bounds.

We only bought one photo as a memento of our trip, taken on the very first evening on board. Luckily, there was nothing prophetic about the setting of this picture!

For more posts in the Anniversary Cruise 2014 trip, click here.