Sunday, October 26, 2014

Cinque Terre: How Not To Do It

You may not have heard of the Cinque Terre before, but chances are you've seen photos of them. Five colourful little villages on the northeast coast of Italy, clinging to the cliff tops and mostly inaccessibly by car. The stuff jigsaw puzzles and fairy tales are made of.



I did the research beforehand. Most tourists drive to La Spezia and then take the train from there to Monterosso, the first village. Somewhere on the internet I read that La Spezia is a busy town with expensive street parking, and that it would be best to drive to Levanto and catch the train from there. Then I talked to a friend who had visited the Cinque Terre a few years ago and she told me that I could take the boat that stops in each little village, providing a more scenic view from the coastline, and then take the train back.

Armed with this knowledge, we set out from Lucca early one morning. At first, everything went well. We had data for our GPS and the A12 autostrada was smooth and straight. We found the correct exit to Levanto and even navigated the twisting bends down to the village without mishap. We parked the car at the train station, fed the coin meter with enough Euros to last us until late afternoon and walked down to the beachfront.

I think Italy must have experienced a heat wave when we were there. It was 9AM and the sun beat down relentlessly. Soon, we were dripping with sweat as we strode along the esplanade in search of the boat that would take us to Cinque Terre. We searched and searched. We walked from the one end of the beach to the other. Nothing. Eventually we headed into town, hoping we might find a ticket office somewhere next to a hotel or a beachwear shop. Still nothing. Back to the beachfront we hiked. By now we were both red in the face, frustrated, tired, dehydrated and generally fed up. After two hours of fruitlessly searching for a boat, we were ready to give up.

“Screw the boat,” Gareth said. “Let’s take the train.”

We plodded back up the hill to the train station. As we stumbled into its shady interior, what should we see? A ticket office for the boat to the Cinque Terre! As the woman explained to us that you can only take the boat from Monterossa and that we needed to take the train there first, a high-pitched whistle indicated that the train was about to leave. “Hurry,” she said. “You don’t want to miss this train, or you’ll miss the next boat.”

We sprinted! We piled onto the train just as the doors closed and it pulled out of the station. Sitting down for the first time since we got out of the car, Gareth and I smiled at each other. Not the best start to the morning, but at least we got it right in the end.

We got off at the next town and started walking down to the beach again. A signboard caught my attention: “Benvenuto a Bonassola.” Bonassola? Bonassola! I stopped two passersby and in broken Italian asked if we were at the right village. Of course we weren't. We had taken the train in the wrong direction! We sprinted back up the hill again and arrived at the train station just as the train pulled away. It was an unmanned station. We didn't have a train ticket back, we didn't know how to buy another one and we didn't know when the next train would show up. Dejected, we sat down in a small patch of shade and waited.

When the next train finally arrived, we took our seats nervously, knowing that you could get hefty 50 Euro fines if you were caught without a ticket. Luckily for us, no conductor showed up and, much to our relief, the next town we stopped at was Levanto again. At least this time we were headed in the right direction.

We knew we were at the right place the moment we set foot in Monterosso. The streets thronged with tourists and a holiday vibe hung in the air. Following the flow, we made it down to the harbour. As we had feared, we had missed the previous boat and the next one was only due in three hours.

Never mind, we told ourselves. At least now we had time to explore...



Next up, the Cinque Terre villages as seen from the boat. Have you visited the Cinque Terre? If so, how did you get there and can you give hints and tips on how to do it better?

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

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Within the Walls of Lucca

We went to Tuscany for Florence, but it was Lucca we fell in love with. Lucca, with its tree-lined ramparts encircling the old city, with its attractive cathedral and sunny piazzas, and with the music of one of the great Italian composers wafting through its alleys. Lucca, with its gelatos!



It was a very hot summer’s day when we arrived in Lucca. The kind of day that frays tempers, especially when you were planning to spend it in Siena instead, but missed your exit off the highway. Instead, we ended up stuck in traffic in the middle of Lucca-that-is-not-Siena, without a map and without a GPS to guide our way. To say we were irritable was an understatement.

And then, as if a light from heaven pointed the way, we found ourselves next to a cell phone shop. Twenty minutes later we emerged with a data contract that would ensure that no matter how much we got lost from then on, we would always be able to find our way back.

With that burden lifted, it was time to explore and behind its imposing walls, Lucca’s old city beckoned. The wall itself, first built in the second century BC and expanded on until the sixteenth century, is a 4km walk around the old town. It is a peaceful walk, in the shade of tall trees, with locals sitting on park benches or cycling by on their way to wherever they spend their siesta.



We stopped for lunch at a garden restaurant, blissfully air-conditioned, on the wall overlooking the duomo. The Euro isn’t very friendly to South Africans, but our budget stretched enough for drinks, a pizza and a calzone. By the time we were ready to leave, the morning’s frustrations were well and truly behind us.


Our first point of call was Cattedrale di San Martino, better known as the Lucca duomo. Most tourists come to see Tintoretto’s Last Supper, but for us the highlight was the stained glass windows and rainbow pools of light they cast on the floor.



On our way out, we noticed a labyrinth embedded on the wall. I now know the Latin inscription says: “This is the labyrinth built by Daedalus of Crete; all who entered therein were lost, save Theseus, thanks to Ariadne's thread.” I love Greek mythology and was fascinated by this bit of paganism at the entrance of a Christian place of worship. Apparently it was designed to allow people to trace the engraving with their fingers, a way to quiet their minds before entering the church.



From there we wended our way through the narrow streets of the old city, past the Torre delle Ore, Lucca’s only surviving medieval tower. We didn’t fancy climbing it’s 207 steps for the view and instead plunged deeper into the historical centre. Gareth was delighted when we came upon the Piazza dell’ Anfiteatro (apparently it featured in an episode of Top Gear) and I was even more delighted when we spotted a gelateria!


Ice creams in hand, we decided it was time to return to the car. We chose a different route, following the sound of beautiful piano music floating on the wind. It led us to the Puccini museum! We didn’t go in, but lingered outside for a while, finishing up our gelato and enjoying the ambiance.

A final walk back on Lucca’s walls brought our visit to this charming city full-circle.



Have you been to Lucca? Did you enjoy it as much as we did? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.

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

Sunday, August 31, 2014

A Festival in Orvieto

Toom-ta-dum, toom-ta-dum, dum, dum, DUM!

Gareth and I looked at each other. What was going on? We were sitting outside in the sun enjoying brunch at a little bar in the hilltop town of Orvieto in Umbria, Italy. It was a Sunday morning, and we had come early hoping that we might miss the masses who, like us, arrive in droves to admire the cathedral for which the town is famous.

Judging by the amount of people crowding our little square at the moment, the chances of a short queue was getting slimmer by the second. And they were all looking down the winding road that we had followed, which we assumed would eventually lead to the top of the hill and the centre of the old town.

I stood up from my seat to get a better view, and suddenly they were there. Four trumpeters dressed in red and blue medieval clothing had stopped on the edge of the square. Behind them were drummers, also in red, and a following of onlookers brought up the rear. The trumpeters blew a few notes, then marched off in procession once more, the drummers keeping the rhythm.



Gareth and I quickly finished our meal. I was excited. I’ve always wanted to go to a medieval or renaissance faire, and it seemed like today might be my lucky day. We chose a different route up the hill, hoping to bypass the throngs following the parade, and stopped dead when we reached the main piazza.

A sea of people surged under the shadow of the immense Gothic cathedral. We couldn’t get close to it, because the steps leading up to the entrance were blocked off by barricades and people in police uniforms were keeping a nervous eye on the crowd. The musicians, along with a few dignitaries also dressed in traditional clothes, were already up on the steps.



We pushed our way through the people to try and get a closer look. Something was obviously going on, not a faire like I had hoped, but a festival of some kind. Around us, the people were chatting excitedly in Italian. It felt like they were waiting for something.

Suddenly everyone turned around and looked up. A self-propelled device that looked like the blades of a fan with a green wreath around it came hurtling down a rope towards the duomo. It crashed into the statue of what might be the local saint, or perhaps the Virgin Mary, setting off smoke and the sound of crackers crackling. The crowd burst out cheering.


Gareth and I looked at each other. We were baffled. We had no idea what had just happened.

The crowds started dissipating and we decided this could be our chance to get inside the cathedral. We waited impatiently while the barriers were removed, then sprinted up the steps. A stern-faced guard at the main gate made it clear that we were not going to get in this way. We headed towards the side door where we saw other people entering the cathedral. Just as we were about to step out from under the intense noonday sun into the cool dimness beckoning inside, another guard barred our way. “No tourists,” he stated in a no-nonsense tone.

And just like that, our hopes to see the inside of Orvieto’s duomo were dashed.

We ambled down the hill back towards our car, somewhat disappointed and yet thrilled that we had unwittingly stumbled upon a local festival. Even though we did not know what Orvieto’s people were celebrating, we were glad at the chance to be a part of it.



Do you  know which festival we stumbled upon? Please shed some light in the comments below if you do. Do you like taking part in local festivals?

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

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Living Like Locals

For our recent trip to Italy, Gareth and I decided to make use of the popular accommodation site, Airbnb, for the first time. We wanted to live like the locals and experience another side of Italy, one where we bought our groceries at the nearby market, made use of public transportation and generally pretended to be Italians. Well, we found out that living like locals is pretty much like staying at home - you get to cook and clean just like you would as if you hadn't travelled halfway around the globe. Personally, I'd rather be waited on hand and foot while on holiday, but I do think our accommodation was great value for money. We had fantastic hosts and no trouble at all with booking or staying at the homes we had picked and I would recommend anyone on a budget to consider the site as an option.

Montegabbione

Our base for exploring the Umbrian countryside was a beautiful apartment within a picture-perfect farmhouse near the tiny town of Montegabbione. A winding dirt road led to the old stone house. The only sounds we heard were crickets chirping and the church bells of the nearby hilltop town pealing at dawn and at dusk. Pink roses, wild grass swaying in the breeze and a cuddle of curious kittens completed the idyllic scene. This was the Italy that I had been looking for.

Our hosts didn't speak much English, but with a mixture of broken Italian, university  French and a few Afrikaans words peppered in to spice things up, we managed to get along quite well. Because we didn't have the chance to stop for groceries on the way from the airport, our landlady provided us with linguine, tomato sauce, a clove of garlic and a bottle of red wine to see us through the first evening. The resulting meal turned out to be one of the best we'd have during our three-week trip.


Lucca

Our holiday apartment in Lucca was not quite as romantic. It was well-situated just a few minutes' walk from the historic city centre and close to a large supermarket, but the three-storey building was uninspiring and could have been located anywhere in the world without looking out of place. The apartment itself was pretty modern, but unfortunately the owners' taste in decor seemed to be stuck in the '70s and although everything was comfortable and perfectly functionable, it just didn't appeal to my idea of Italy. Combined with the extreme heat and the neighbours' noisy children, we were glad to get out early everyday to go sightseeing, only returning much later at night.


Castion Veronese near Lake Garda

The moment we stepped into our weekend abode near Lake Garda, we fell in love. This was a house that we could easily see ourselves living in permanently. A beautiful kitchen and dining area, complete with fireplace, led onto an inviting yellow lounge - perfect for entertaining lots of friends. Upstairs, our large bedroom came with a walk-in closet and a pristine white bathroom. The house was situated on a church square. The clock tower bells rang the hour every 30 minutes, a sound I find incredibly soothing, even throughout the night and up until midnight. Our view was of the little town's main street on the one side, and the countryside leading down to the lake on the other. It was perfect.

Again, our host was incredibly generous and made us the most delicious traditional breakfast every morning and when it was time to leave, drew a map of Verona that guided us to that extraordinary city's most interesting sights within the limited time we had available.


Mestre near Venice

I would have loved to stay within Venice itself, but that was not to be. Instead, we stayed in Mestre, a mainland suburb of that iconic city, in a beautiful apartment only 20 minutes' walk from the train station. This apartment was nicer than some hotels I've been in. We had a large balcony to ourselves, an elegant bathroom and someone came in every two days to change the towels and sheets! Our host left a welcome pack that included detailed maps of Venice (on foot and by boat) and lots of handy hints and tips on how to save money and see the best sights. Our favourite tip however, was of the pizzeria not 5 minutes' walk away that served a wide variety of pizzas, including one topped with french fries to my delight.


Trastevere in Rome

The flat we stayed in in Rome was arguably our least favourite. It was a studio apartment, and although there was nothing wrong with its size or the amenities, it was just not quite as nice as the other places we stayed at. It had the perfect location for what we wanted to do in Rome - all the major sights were only 20 minute's walk away and there was a supermarket close by. However its most redeeming feature, the location, was also its most condemning. Trastevere is known for its nightlife, and there was a restaurant and a bar right underneath our bedroom window. Suffice it to say we didn't sleep much while in Rome, even with earplugs in the noise kept us up till the small hours of the morning. Only on the night that Italy fell out of the football world cup did we have any peace and quiet.


What do you think of our accommodation in Italy? Would you prefer to live like locals, or are hotels still the way to go for you?

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

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Driving in Italy - "Just a Suggestion"

One of my most vivid memories of Italy from our camper-car trip back in 1997 is of my father's white-knuckled grip on the steering wheel as two painted lanes on the highway turned into five swarming lanes of Italian cars. There were no rules except "first come, first serve" and no regard for other road users. Almost all of the cars already had scratches and dents in them. We prayed and hoped for the best and somehow managed to get through it alive and accident-free.

And so it was with a little trepidation that I climbed behind the steering wheel of our rental car at Rome's Fiumicino airport and headed towards the ring road. Luckily, it was not my first time driving in Europe, so I had some experience driving on the wrong side of the road while sitting on the wrong side of the car. And all the Roman gods must have been smiling on us when the rental company upgraded us from the smallest, cheapest manual car available to a luxurious, automatic Audi A1! Which was a good thing too, because driving in Italy is not for the fainthearted.

The tolled highways are in pretty good shape, but there are certain things you need to know before you set out:

  • The left-most lane are for faster drivers. Italians will expect you to get out of their way if you hold them up and they also expect you to squeeze into the smallest possible space between two other cars to do so. Granted, they will do the same for you.
  • Never pass another car from the right side. Trust me, it's just not done.
  • The speed limit of 130 km/h is a just a suggestion.
  • If a large truck wants to overtake another slow mover and there is a gap in the fast lane, it will take it, no matter how hard you need to slam on your breaks to avoid crashing into it.
  • When you first get onto a tolled highway you will receive a ticket (sometimes you need to push a large red button to print it, but usually it's there waiting for you at the gate). There are automated and manned toll gates when you get off the highway (avoid the gates for frequent users who have tags). The manned gates are the easiest to use, but most people head for them, so the queues are longer. We found the automatic gates confusing at first, but once you get the hang of them they are very convenient. Just make sure you have enough change.
  • We paid anything from €2 to €30 in tolls per trip, depending on how far we drove. The most expensive trip was from Venice to Rome.

Of course, if you'd like to see anything of Italy other than concrete highways and the inside of long tunnels, you may want to take the scenic route. That was our plan at first, but I found the tiny, twisty roads of the countryside exhausting and nerve-wracking. The speed limit on these death traps are supposedly 70 km/h, but the only vehicles adhering to that are tourists who are clutching onto their steering wheels for dear life, and rusty tractors. The locals will drive up so close to your backend that one good sneeze will put them on your rear seat and will maintain this (lack of) distance up until the point that you either chicken out and turn off to let them pass or until they can find a blind corner at which to overtake you. This, of course, instils no confidence in you when approaching a blind corner yourself.

Driving in cities holds its own challenges. The roads are peppered with traffic circles (enter on the right and exit on the left), sometimes two or three off each other and you have to keep your head to make sure you exit where you're supposed to. Although Florence had cameras on top of traffic lights to regulate traffic, people in other towns consider a red light just a suggestion, and I had someone hoot and throw their hands in the air at me when I stopped at one. Fortunately, we never had the opportunity to drive in Rome, where the continued wail of ambulance sirens is now forever etched into my memories of this magnificent city.

Parking can be tricky if you're not used to parallel parking or find squeezing into tight spaces problematic. In cities we always parked in large underground garages - they are a little pricier but centrally located, safe and easily manoeuvrable. If you park in the street it's imported to know Italy's colour code system - white spaces are either free parking or residents only, yellow are for the handicapped and blue spaces are paid. In most cases you have to prepay at a pay point and display the ticket on the dashboard, which is a little inconvenient if you don't know for how long you're going to be out. We frequently had to return to our car to extend the ticket, and suffered a few nervous hours where this wasn't possible and we expected to come back to a car that had its wheels clamped. Luckily, this never happened.

I was a nervous wreck the first few days driving in Italy, but then one day I realised I was so busy concentrating on the road that I was missing the scenery, which is after all why we came to Italy in the first place. So I relaxed my grip on the steering wheel, unclenched my jaw and just went with the flow. And that was the moment it all became part of the adventure. After all, when in Rome...

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

Sunday, July 13, 2014

A Comedy of Errors

As always, the first question everyone asks after you've returned from a trip abroad is: "Did you enjoy it?" Of course I enjoyed our recent trip to Italy, but so many things went wrong this time that I sometimes hesitate before nodding. Here are a few things that happened to us that threatened to spoil parts of the holiday:

  • We planned on buying Italian / European SIM cards for our smart phones at Rome's airport, so that we would be able to keep contact with friends and family while in Italy. No such luck. We eventually did buy a data card, but only four days later.
  • We had brought my GPS from home to navigate with (I bought maps for Europe for our trip to Spain a few years ago), only to find that Italy was not included. Luckily we had also packed a guide book to the back roads of Italy that had a very basic map with which we managed to get by the first few days.
  • As a result of no GPS and no mobile data, we got lost. A lot. And argued about it, a lot.
  • We completely missed the turn-off to Siena and only realised it when we reached Florence.
  • We drove a very long time to go see sights that turned out not to be worth the effort.
  • We spent four hours walking along the waterfront in Levanto trying to find a boat that would take us to the Cinque Terre. When we finally gave up and headed for the train station instead, we learned that the boat only sails from the next village. Then we took the train to the next village in the wrong direction.
  • I packed the wrong shoes and my feet were killing me each and every day. I might have done permanent damage to my ankles.
  • I forgot to inform my credit card company that I would be travelling overseas. The first time I tried to pay for something on my card, it was declined. The second time too. I spent two days trying via email to get my bank to unblock my cards (all the while nervously hoarding our last remaining cash), only to find out later that it was the grocery store in Lucca that didn't accept chip cards and that my cards worked fine everywhere else.
  • Early on in the holiday, something went wrong with our DSLR camera. No matter what we tried, it would just refuse to take pictures. Ten minutes later, it would be fine again. Very frustrating.
  • We bought extremely expensive day-trip tickets for the boats at Lake Garda, then only visited three towns fairly close to each other, individual tickets for which would have been a fraction of the price.
  • In Venice, we bought a 24-hour bus pass, which is pointless unless you plan on travelling right through the night. We should have gotten a 72-hour pass instead.
  • Gareth made an ill-advised comment on Facebook that caused a ruckus among some of our friends, upsetting him for a few days.
  • In Rome, we bought a 48-hour bus pass for the Hop-On-Hop-Off bus, which, again, is pointless because the bus only runs until 18:00 and once you've done the circuit, there isn't much else the bus is good for. On the last day, we waited for an hour for the bus (which supposedly runs every 10 minutes) in the rain and when it did finally show up, there wasn't space for us to get on too.
  • We were pushed out of the queue for the Coliseum, upsetting me so much that we had to leave and come back much later that day.
  • We were constantly harassed by the street vendors, and eventually scammed out of 5 Euros in the Borghese gardens.
  • Many of the major sites, especially the ones in Rome, were covered in scaffolding. Disappointingly, the beautiful Trevi fountain was totally closed off.
  • We completely missed our flight home (by 15 minutes) because I had read the departure time on our ticket wrong. We were lucky to get an alternative flight via Paris on the same day, however that flight was delayed by over two hours due to technical difficulties with the emergency landing gear. People had to volunteer to leave the plane before we could depart.



So as you can see, quite a few things went wrong. Some were our own fault and some we had no control over. I think we learned a few things about ourselves and about each other from all of this. But, as they say, what doesn't kill you makes you stronger, and we definitely came out stronger.

Veni, vidi, vici.

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

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Travellers x2: Winter Escape 2012

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 Winter Escape 2012 trip to Finland, Wales and Scotland:

Gareth: 
High Point: I absolutely loved the snowmobiles, they were fantastic! Spending time with the huskies is a close second.

Low Point: Filling the house with smoke on the first night after I managed to get the fire going, setting off the smoke alarm and spending the night overheated and coughing. Also, the freezing cold temperatures while sitting still on the sled during both the husky and reindeer excursions.

Comments: Unfortunate that we didn't see the northern lights, would love to go back some time to try again.

Holiday Rating: 8/10

Suneé: 
High Point: Finland as a whole was the high point for me. I loved everything we did, the people we met, the quiet, beautiful, strange landscape and the chocolate! If I had to choose one specific highlight, it would be the husky sledding trip.

Low Point: We didn't see the aurora! We went to the arctic circle with the express intent to see the northern lights, and was disappointed by cloudy weather. Apparently, January is a better time to go than December, which we will keep in mind the next time we head out to Scandinavia.

Comments: I was somewhat disappointed with our time in Scotland, mostly due to lack of planning on my part and the fact that the castles all close for the winter. I resolve to do my homework better next time.

Holiday Rating: 8/10


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