Sunday, April 19, 2015

A Tower, a Church and a Pizza

We arrived so early at the Piazza dei Miracoli that the famous Leaning Tower of Pisa was still darkened by its own shadow. We sat down on the cold marble tiles of the Duomo and watched as the trickle of tourists turned into a steady flow. Luckily we had pre-booked our time slot, so at 8:15 exactly, Gareth and I were allowed past the guards and started the climb up the disconcertingly tilted bell tower.

I won’t lie to you - I was out of breath before we were even halfway. With 296 steps to the top, I wondered if I was going to make it all the way there. But this was the Leaning Tower of Pisa, and I had a once in a lifetime chance to climb it, so I wasn’t going to give up. Panting, and with frequent rest stops to ostensibly admire the scenery through the small windows at every level, the spiralled staircase eventually opened up onto the seventh floor.

I found Gareth there, pale-faced and clinging to the wall, peeking over the edge of the railing. Wordlessly, he handed me the SLR. Apparently I was the designated photographer from now on.

One more set of steps to go and I found myself at the very top of the Tower. Blissfully, it was just me and the bells (the bells, the bells!) up there. The solitude didn’t last long, but it was long enough to admire the spectacular view and remember Galileo’s renowned experiment.

Afterwards, we did the touristy thing and posed for forced perspective photos next to the Tower. It was actually more fun to watch the others - arms flailing, legs in the air, some even upside down - as everyone tried to get a memorable pose.

The interior of the cathedral was busy, but beautiful. Golden ceilings and colourful stained glass windows drew my eyes ever upwards, as I suppose they’re meant to do. We didn’t visit the baptistry or Campo Santa, the cemetery, but instead watched as a newly married couple made memories of their own in front of the Leaning Tower.

Our morning at Pisa ended with pizzas on the steps in the shade of the Duomo. I watched the crowds pass by, listening to interesting snippets from tour guides, and reminded myself how very lucky I am to have had this wonderful day in one of the most historic places in Europe.

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

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Cinque Terre By Boat

After a very frustrating morning, we had a pleasant afternoon in the town of Monterosso while waiting for the boat. We had lunch in a crowded pub, wandered the streets looking for souvenirs and dipped our toes in the warm Mediterranean water. By the time the boat finally arrived, the morning's worries were forgotten.

As the boat pulled away from the dock, we gaped at the crystal clear water. This is what they had in mind when they invented the word azure!

Our skins bronzed as we sat on the top deck, the wind whipping through our hair. The villages are quite picturesque, and seeing them from the ocean side was worth the wait. My pictures hardly do them justice!






The boat only stopped at two of the other four towns. It was a leisurely trip and took about 45 minutes or so from Monterosso to Riomaggiore, from where we caught the train back to Levanto, two hours overdue on our parking. We were very relieved to find that our wheels had not been clamped!

Because our morning started off on the wrong foot, we did not have time to venture into Vernazza or Riomaggiore, and Manarola and Corniglia are only accessible by train or on foot. I would recommend taking a full day, or even two, to explore the Cinque Terre villages.

Have you walked the Cinque Terre trail? Which way would you recommend - by boat or on foot?

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

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Book Review: Great Adventures - Lonely Planet

The cover is what first caught my attention. As some readers may know, Gareth and I visited the Finnish Arctic Circle in 2012 in the hope of seeing the Aurora Borealis. Unfortunately, although we had a fantastic time, the pyrotechnics of the arctic sky was obscured by a perpetual cloud cover while we were there. I left Finland with a need to see the Northern Lights that grows more persistent as the days, months, years pass by. So this image of a solitary camper gazing at the green-lit night sky immediately drew my eye.

Lonely Planet's Great Adventures is a truly special book. I don't consider myself an adventurer, not in the context of this book in any case, but I enjoyed reading about all the possibilities out there to make your trip an unforgettable one.

From swimming with whale sharks in South Africa to driving the world's deadliest road in Bolivia to racing a rickshaw in India to cycling through Vietnam, this book is sure to have at least a handful of things that you'd want to add to your bucket list. I, for one, want to do almost everything mentioned under the Animals section! I want to see pandas in China, wolves in Yellowstone and gorillas in Uganda. And that's just the figurative tip of the iceberg.

The book is divided into nine sections: Hike, Dive, Bike, Above & Below, Climb, Ice & Snow, Animals, Water, and Drive. Each adventure is marked out on a map to provide context, accompanied by gorgeous full-colour photos, essential experiences checklist and a recommended reading list that has seen me add at least twenty other books to my must-read pile. The prose is short but evocative and had me yearning to visit places I had only the faintest interest in before.

If I'm honest, many of the adventures are for outdoorsy, fit and active people, not people like me who like to lie on the couch and read about others climbing Everest or riding the Tour de France, but there are some that even I would make the effort to get fit for. I would love to dog-sled the Yukon, do a camel trek in Wadi Rum, sail Croatia's Dalmatian coast and white-water sledge the ice cold rivers of New Zealand. Who knew you could cycle the Camino de Santiago or raft at the source of the Nile?

If anything, this book has been an eye-opener. For any traveller, armchair or otherwise, Great Adventures might just awaken a spirit of adventure that could become hard to deny.

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.


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.


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.