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:

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Inverness, the River Ness and Loch Ness

Before our trip to the Finnish arctic circle, Inverness was the most northerly point Gareth and I had ever been to. Since we were in the region again and had fond memories of our first visit, we decided to take a day trip from our resort in the Cairngorms National Park to this iconic highland city. Unfortunately, we didn't plan very well and went the day after Hogmanay, only to find that most of the shops and museums were closed. We also didn't realise that Inverness Castle is not open to the public, so we spent some time on its grounds taking pictures of the Flora MacDonald statue and the River Ness that flows through the heart of the city centre.



We wandered through town a bit before we decided to move on and soon found ourselves on a road that wound along the banks of Loch Ness. It was a cloudy, overcast day, perfect for sightings of the elusive monster, but even though we tried to entice her out by skipping stones across the turbulent waters, Nessie was not in the mood for playing.



I guess one sighting in a lifetime is about as lucky as one gets?


For more posts in the Winter Escape 2012 series, click here.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Animal Encounters at the Highland Wildlife Park

As South Africans, we can sometimes be excused for thinking we have a monopoly on animals and game watching. After all, the Kruger National Park is world-famous and synonymous with the Big Five. In our preoccupation with lions, rhinos, elephants and other interesting denizens of the bushveld, we tend to forget that the world has so much more to offer.

Gareth and I visited Scotland's Highland Wildlife Park during our stay in the Cairngorms on a cold but clear day. The Park is unique in my experience as part zoo, part game drive. The animals are all in large enclosures, most of which you explore on foot, but there is also a section through which you drive by car.


The huge paw print gave some warning, but we were amazed by the size of the tiger. This animal is simply enormous! He strode up and down along the fence, right by us, so we could see every rippling muscle. Soft and furry enough that you just want to cuddle him, but then he yawned and those teeth made it clear that this was a predator, an animal that should not be underestimated. Beautiful.

We walked from enclosure to enclosure, taking pictures of animals that I had never even heard of, and still can't remember the names of. Monkeys, deer of some sort and even a polar bear looking strangely pleased while basking in the sunlight with no snow in sight.



To my great delight, we also saw some feathered friends. I spotted a tiny red-breasted robin, as well as a raven that was, thankfully, neither tapping nor saying "nevermore", but innocently sitting on a pole gazing out over the landscape. And Harry Potter fans will delight with me in finding a couple of snowy owls, one of which kindly looked straight into the camera for the perfect shot.


We wandered past the wild cats and eagle owls, up the hill for the most breathtaking view over the Scottish landscape.


For the past year or so I have been working on a novel that features a wolf as one of the main characters. But I have never seen a wolf other than on TV, not even in a zoo. To finally come face to face with this magnificent animal, to watch the energy of the pack as they stalked through the woods, was the day's highlight for me!


Then it was time to get into the car and drive through the Park. We saw many strange antelope and deer, a herd of camels and one particularly photogenic elk.



We loved our visit to the Highland Wildlife Park. It was a wonderful day out in nature, getting to see some amazing animals, and yet another reminder that conservation of all animals is important, no matter which country they hail from.

For more posts in the Winter Escape 2012 series, click here.