Saturday, October 15, 2011

Surprise! It's Winter!

When we woke up in our lovely pre-booked hotel room, a magical fairy (Courtney's Mum) had banked cash directly into my account (we didn't have access to Courtney's) and we were able to not only fill the bike, but eat again. Heaven sent bliss. A different, less favourable fairy had also left us a surprise - winter. It was freezing and a huge thick fog blanketed our doorstep and the view beyond.

We ate at the hotel and then headed towards Cherbourg on the west coast. We passed near Paris, whose road signs are all in a special just-for-Paris font, and again it felt nice to know the things we had seen and experienced were just - over - there. It was Courtney's birthday, and we found a lovely restaurant at a truck stop for lunch. Despite being a truck stop this was a 'real' restaurant, and incredible food. We filled up on buffet entrees, massive mains and... all you can eat dessert. I'm talking miniature sized individual servings of chocolate mousse, tiramisu, profiteroles, a pancake bar, and about 10 other desserts I had never tried or seen before. I didn't have any pancakes because I, um, didn't want to be greedy (they wouldn't fit on my tray) but to the amusement of our very nice waiter, I got my moneys worth.

As we were finishing, they were packing up to close for the break between lunch and dinner, and he gave me more desserts and then gave us the entire tray of profiteroles. We ate what we could and he insisted we eat more. When we told him it was Courtney's birthday he packaged the last of them up and sent us home with 'birthday cake'. All this and he barely spoke English.

We made it to Cherbourg around 7.30pm. Winter had decided it would stay with us the whole way from Avallon and we were subzero on arrival at camp. We decided to ask for a cabin rather than putting up the tent on the frost but this campsite only had small houses, which were twice the price of any hotel we had stayed at even after our prepaid camping costs had been deducted. Tenting it was, so we put down the heat blanket Courtney's Dad had sent us away with, then put the tent on top, and put our bike gear between the floor and our mattresses. We put on every item of clothing we had and snuggled under the blanket.

We continued to do this for the next 36 hours, leaving occasionally to charge a gadget, go to the toilet, or buy more chocolate. On our second night we braved the freezing air to go to the restaurant at the bottom of the hill. I should mention that the freezing temperatures were not helped by the fact we were basically on the beach. The crisp sea air that resulted reminded us a little of Ireland and a lot of home. It was kind of like a nice easing-in to heading back home. Sue in Cormatin had mentioned it would be cold when we returned, but in the 45 degree Italian temperatures of the prior week we hadn't even thought of her comments until now.

Anyway, dinner at the restaurant was really really good and we went to sleep cold but satisfied, and slightly dreading the next day, when we would say goodbye to both tent and bike.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Going Home Shouldn't Be This Stressful

I haven't forgotten you, I promise. After eventually getting supplies the following day in Cannes, we ended up doing... not much. On our hunt for supplies, we drove into Cannes town itself. The miserable drizzly weather did nothing to spice up the town and while we only saw the beach from afar, it definitely didn't scream "Hey! International celebrities and filmakers! LOVE ME!". It was kind of average, and while we only explored from the safety of the bike, we saw nothing that peaked our interest. I was a little disappointed, but that could have also been an offset of the weather.

We spent the following day in a huge argument, absolutely miserable. Plans to see Nice went completely out the window as the emotions of leaving Europe, wanting home, missing family, friends and furchildren, facing leaving the bike and the tent... all got too much and taken out on each other. Eventually it all got sorted and the tent became a house of love again instead of a pathetic screen dividing us and the fellow campers with zero audio blockout of the fighting.

While planning to leave Cannes, we realised I had made a massive miscalculation in drive time and we had two of our biggest rides yet ahead of us over 2 days. We had planned to leave early and see an incredible medieval castle (one that is being built in present day, using only medieval tools and methods) after lunch but that idea proved impossible to fulfill.

At one point, we found ourselves riding past off ramps to Taize and Cluny, both right next to the tiny campsite we stayed at in Cormatin. Knowing we were on the opposite side of the towns than we had previously approached them from, I strained my eyes to see the familiar flour mill that indicated we were close to camp. I knew it was in vain, we were nowhere near the actual camp, but seeing a place we had been before gave way to a yearning for familiarity. I wanted to call in to Sue and Cees, our hosts, and say "Look! We DID IT!" but time was not on our side.

We stayed the night in a beautiful little boutique hotel where the rooms opened onto the path and curved in circles with their backs to each other. It was late when we arrived, and it was while deciding what to do for dinner that I realised my last few hundred NZ dollars, which were to get us home following our banks third massive bugger up (in previous posts you will find the details of how they accidentally stripped us of the last 400 Euros on our travel card just when we needed them) were going to be going out on an automatic payment the following day. These loan payments had completely left my memory and we were now faced with the prospect of having literally 5 Euros in the bank.

As Courtney made frantic calls home, I had 2 chocolate chip cookies for dinner and went to sleep miserable.

There's no place like home, right?

Sunday, September 25, 2011

From Summer to Winter in One Easy Border Crossing

Our days exploring San Gimignano and Siena were bookended by two days at the pool. It’s really hard to express just how incredible this campsite was. Minigolf, Tennis, Soccer, Archery, Kids Concerts at night, Aqua Aerobics in the morning, a pool bar, three restaurants, a lagoon an river ride at one end, 3 pools and a water slide at the other. A night club, an arcade, a hairdresser, a gym, a spa, saunas. All free, except the hairdresser and the mini golf. And the food of course.

We swam a lot, and lazed on the loungers that crowded around the pools. Courtney finally got his hair cut, something he’s wanted since before we left home, and I got my hair coloured. 40 Euros for both of us – cheaper than home but still a splurge. I’m growing out black hair dye and had very faded auburn and very apparent blond roots all in the mix so I was very happy to have my hair sorted out. We used the 10 foot spa in the gym a lot – there was hardly ever anyone else in there, so we could laze around in the luke-warm water, floating on our backs and being pushed around by the jets. I gave the sauna a go, the first time I’d been in one in my life. I couldn’t decide whether it was the most luxurious or the most uncomfortable thing I’d ever experienced.

On our final day in Tuscany, we went back to Greve, because Courtney still hadn’t been inside his Salami shop, the one he saw on TV. He wasn’t disappointed. The 300 year old shop was more like 5 shops with doors between them and every meat product you could imagine. We were down to the last 5 or so Euros we had budgeted for the Tuscan leg of our trip, so he got a couple of packs of Salami and was in heaven.

We had 400-odd Euros left for the last week before we went back to England and then home, and we attempted to get it all out at an ATM in Greve. Of course, being the very last of our money, the ATM decided to pull it’s little rejection trick again. Once again, the transaction didn’t go through and once again, the money got deducted from our account. Good old Kiwibank. Luckily, we had the forethought to have coming-home funds in our New Zealand (non-Kiwibank) accounts, enough money to pay the bond on a new house and keep us afloat until our first paydays. It was rather painful when the travel card rejected the next morning, checking out of camp, and I had to put 160 Euros on my debit card from home. Seeing over $NZ300 go in one foul swoop sucked the big one.

We headed off on the bike and, squashed between Courtney and our ever increasing tower of luggage, I texted Mum to get onto Kiwibank as quickly as possible.

The ride that day was long, from Tuscany to Cannes, France via Monaco. We rode out of crisp, warm, sun drenched Tuscany and felt summer speed away behind us as we rode into horrible fog and occasional rain. Most of the ride was along highways not far in from the ocean so the views were amazing when we could actually see them.

It felt good riding back into France. France is the country we best picked up the language in and the country we most enjoyed riding through. We didn’t spend any longer in France than any other country, 3 weeks, same as Spain and Italy, but because those three weeks were broken up into three separate visits to the country, returning felt almost like going home. I always thought of Tuscany as our last real stop on the trip anyway, so  it really felt like we were speeding towards home and we both got quite excited at the prospect.

Our lunchtime stop in Monaco was awesome. Such a tiny country, such a rich country. We rode down to the marina and saw the huge cruise ship in the harbour, surrounded by the sails of hundreds of yachts. The buildings were ornate, almost Victorian looking, and crowned by the castle. Our actual lunch wasn’t so great – the Croque Monsieur was just a ham toasted sandwich with so little cheese I had to add mayonnaise so it wouldn’t be so dry. The coffee cup was so dirty Courts refused to pay for his drink, and our requests for help with the wifi were met by extremely rude customer non-service. Overall though, there was a certain air of magic around Monaco. When I win the lottery one day, I’ll go back on one of those yachts.

We eventually made it to Cannes. Well, not quite Cannes - Auribeau sur-Saigne, 10 minutes away. The campsite backed onto a river with overhanging trees and an old aqueduct-looking bridge. The pool looked promising, and it was nice to pitch the tent on grass, not dust for a change. We had been reminded 6 times we were definitely in France by all the toll booths along the way, and we were reminded once again of the fact when we realized toilet paper was BYO.

A trip to find a supermarket about 7.30pm produced no results. Everything was closed and we returned to camp toilet paperless, with food from a patisserie for dinner. Who cares though right? Cause we were on our way home.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

When Awesomeness Becomes Normalness

I never intended to blog every day. I wanted to write like a ‘real’ travel writer, finding angles and stories and carving a niche for myself. Angles don’t come naturally to me though, and it wasn’t fun trying to find them just so I could document something we did. This is my blog and at the end of the day it’s my trip memories and so I wrote every day.

When I travelled America, I wrote a travel diary for 2 or 3 weeks of the month. The last leg of the trip though, I never put pen to paper. I guess I’ve dropped the ball here too, because we are sitting on a ferry to England, hours away from dropping the bike off, and you’re still bloggily stuck in Tuscany, two stops ago in travel land.

After our day in Pisa and Lucca, we spent a day at San Gimignano. Kim and Richard had told us they should have seen some of the other walled cities in the area before San Gimignano, because it was the best and so seeing lesser ones afterwards made them seem somewhat lackluster in comparison. We understood once we saw it, but for a different reason – Once you’ve seen Carcassonne, as we did early on in our trip, all walled cities are ruined for life because it’s just that good.

San Gimignano was lovely, the views over the rolling Tuscan landscape were incredible, and the world-champion gelato was quite literally second to none. As we walked through the gates and onto the main street, there were cute souvenir shops, Courtney-enticing sword and knife shops, salami shops, and way more Museums of Torture than one tiny city actually needs. None of the shops kept our attention for long though because, while they were very cool, we’d seen them before.

We sat in the piazza under the shadow of the medieval Town Hall, eating our eccentrically flavoured gelato and people watching (actually, dog watching, they’re far cuter and more interesting). We wandered the streets looking for something more but just ended up getting lost in a maze of quiet back streets, at one point finding ourselves on the outside of the city walls and having to find a new way back in. It was this new way back in that led us to a small trattoria for lunch, where we tried Italian Cola called Chino – it tasted like ear wax, no kidding. We explored the courtyards of the town hall with their flaking frescoes and rooftop views and then headed back to Figline Val D’Arno.

The following day, we left early(ish) to go to Siena. There was a market on Wednesday mornings that we had planned our week around attending and we weren’t disappointed. The market was huge and sold everything you could think of. There were clothes for 3 Euro right up to leather jackets for 100. There were beauty products, kitchen appliances, souvenirs, shoes and bric a brac. The highlight for me was 5 Euro knitted slippers. They’re like boots, with souls, almost like ugg boots, except knitted and amazing and cheap.

Courtney’s highlight was predictably food related – he relished all the attention he got from gaping strangers as he sat on a rock eating the huge roasted leg of some poor farm animal. He is telling me it was lamb but when I asked he couldn’t even remember Siena so don’t trust him. No lamb I’ve ever seen has had a leg that big, I think it was pork from memory. I had deep fried cheese and potato croquettes and followed them up with Lavender Honey from a little old man selling jars he had farmed himself.

When the stallholders began packing up, we headed over to the town of Siena. I found out quickly that I actually had no knowledge of Siena at all, despite all my planning. The GPS lead us on a wild goose chase that took us back to the place we had originally been parked for the market, and it was then we realized that Siena is basically just a huge walled city. There are very few cars and most traffic is on foot, so we wandered on in and immersed ourselves in the alleys and cobblestones we’ve become accustomed to.

We wandered the main streets, found the Piazza that hosts Il Palio, the annual horse race, and then wandered further in to find the Duomo. The Cathedral and duomo were amazing, even if they did look like a tacky and over the top wedding cake. The exterior was white and pink with other pastel accents and trims that could have been piped icing. The statues and frescoes were of course incredible, and we sat on a ledge at the edge of the piazza just staring for awhile. Well, I was staring, Courts may have been semi comatose from the heat.

We let ourselves get lost, played in a playground after taking pictures of the view, and, surprise surprise ended up with gelato. We ate it on the slope of the piazza that hosts Il Palio, dog, toddler and pigeon watching. Adult watching is so last year. I have to say as far as gelato goes, Siena is letting down the team. We perused 3 or 4 shops before we found one that looked good and wasn’t mass-produced, glorified ice cream.

So that was Siena, another lovely day, as every day is in Tuscany. How can it not be?

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Leaning Towers and Shirtless Italians - I mean, Medieval Fairs

It wouldn’t be a kitsch trip of touristy goodness without seeing the Leaning Tower of Pisa. After riding just over an hour to get there, we of course had our priorities straight and instead of going directly to the tower, went to a family-run Gelateria passed through the generations from the man given credit for inventing modern ice cream. Once again, Italy proved why it is the reigning King of Gelato. Although not as cute and quaint as some of the other, younger Gelaterias, the service was wonderful and so was the Gelato. Courts strayed from the norm and got a Tangelo Granite (slushy) while I did my usual and asked them what the best they had was. The three they chose were chocolate (lazy, fail-safe choice), pear (bizarre because pear itself is such a mild flavour and should probably be sorbet) and almond (nice, but no chocolate-wine).

After a tiki-tour across the river (thank you GPS) we eventually crossed back and behind the Gelateria in search of the tower. We stumbled across an antiques and crafts market on the way, which was awesome. There was all sorts I would have loved to have bought but the highlight was undoubtedly the pet rocks. You heard me right, pet rocks. These river stones had been hand painted to look like various animals and then places in context. Dog and cat rocks slept on little pillows, parrot rocks stood upright on rock feet, and owl rocks slept on tree branches stuck to canvas backgrounds of night sky. They would have been laughable if they weren’t so amazingly painted, and I would have left with a Border Collie rock if it hadn’t deservedly been priced at 23 Euros.

As per usual, it was a bevy of tour groups that alerted us to the presence of the aforementioned tourist attraction, and if you hadn’t known it was the Leaning Tower you were near, you could have easily figured it out by the stupid number of idiots posing as if they themselves were holding it up in photos. Seeing photos of friends and tourists ‘holding up’ the leaning tower is one thing, but seeing a field of people all leaning haphazardly with one hand in a bizarre salute as others kneel and twist to get the camera angles just-so is a spectacle unto itself.

We walked around the tower, ridiculing the people walking up the top who had paid 15 Euros for the priviledge, ignoring the street vendors and marveling at the very cool cathedral and basilica in the same piazza as the tower. The tower itself is actually a pretty cool structure, and I’m really glad we made the trip to see it. We saw the first of what would turn out to be many, many sculptures on top of poles of human twins suckling wolves. I’m presuming they’re Romulus and Remus, the mythical founders of Rome who were raised by wolves, but I haven’t yet figured out why we saw them in Pisa, Florence and twice in Siena.

The highlight of seeing the Leaning Tower was not the tower, nor the very good Italian food we had just around the corner. It wasn’t even the Gelato. It was the idiot tourists who, standing next to me at a tacky souvenir shop (I do love tacky) who were trying to return a small figurine of the tower because it was straight. They were very upset that the figurine was straight and they wanted to find a leaning one. Despite the shopkeeper amusedly trying to explain it only looked straight when they held it up straight or when they put it down with the lean facing away from them, and then pointlessly trying to explain they were 3 Euro souvenirs and all came out of the same mold in identical shapes and leans, the tourists spent about 10 minutes comparing leans. At one point the patriarch of the family came over to make a big fuss and point out yet again that this tower did not lean.

When we recovered from our fits of giggles and the lunch we had afterwards, we jumped back on the bike and drove to Lucca, a medieval walled city. We had never heard of it before, until seeing that the day trip our campsite ran to Pisa included Lucca. When we found our way in, it kind of seemed like a lot of the old medieval-ness had been renovated and remodeled with the times, and many of the buildings were quite modern. The further in we went though, the more labyrinth-like the streets became and the more authentic the town felt. We stopped for drinks in a small café and were drawn outside by drums that sounded rather similar to those heard in Florence the previous day. The parade that was making it’s way past was exactly the same as the one we saw the day before, but with the leaders bearing ‘Lucca’ crests instead of those of multiple towns. The café owner told us it was the last day of a September festival in the area and that there was a medieval revival on the other side of town. We couldn’t pass that up, could we?

After finishing our drinks and stopping for candied nuts at a street vendor, we followed the sound of the drums to a piazza and into a medieval fair. It was awesome, stall holders all in medieval costume, metal workers crafting the jewellery they were selling as they were selling it, men playing medieval backgammon in the middle of the square sat on hay bales. I bought a small pot of honey and Courtney didn’t buy a small bag of Salvia he saw at a medicinal herb stall. The piece de resistance was not the shirtless Italian 20-somethings sword fighting in the field beyond the city walls, but the crossbow competition nearby. We sat and watched teams in medieval costume load crossbows with precision and shoot bulls eye after bulls eye across the field.

It was a long walk back to the bike and an even longer ride home, but such a good day. Funny how the most enjoyable things are those that are unplanned or unexpected, like walking into medieval Italy on a seemingly regular Saturday.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

The Search for the Elusive David

Riding into Florence, half an hour from camp, the first impression was that it was just another city, nothing particularly special or charming or new. That was, until we dug deeper. We parked the bike with a row a scooters on the edge of town, where the cobblestones started becoming more frequent and the roads narrower. We were a short stroll from a Trattoria we were keen to try out, and headed straight there, winding between tall imposing buildings and staring up at the churches and reliefs that called to us from the end of every second alley.

After a minor hunt, we found the trattoria, Fratellini’s I think it was. It was easy to miss – the tiny shop had about a foot between front step and counter, and just enough space behind said counter to allow the two men working there to occasionally take a breathe. The menu was posted to the side - all sandwiches were 2.50 and there were easily 20 or 30 varieties to choose from. Courts had goats cheese, Tuscan salami and fennel while I had salami and artichoke. We added a 1.50 glass of wine to our order and joined the small crowd of old Italian men and curious tourists that paused outside to eat, leaving their wine glasses on specially sized shelves to either side of the stall.

Beyond our sandwich stop, we wandred the old streets laden with modern shops, and found ourselves amongst a sea of slow paced walking tours again. When you start seeing fake flowers bobbing in the crowd, you know you’re getting close to a must-see. If ever there was one, it was the Duomo. Only days after the breathtaking Pantheon in Rome, the Duomo in Florence was incredible, an easy rival to every piece of architecture we had seen thus far. Of course as with everything else featured in any guide book ever, there was a massive queue to go in, so we happily snapped photos of other tourists happily snapping photos in front of the cathedral, wandered around the outside and then proceeded to get ourselves lost, as we do in most cities.

We were attempting to use GPS to find the copy of Michaelangelo’s David, which as I understood was right outside the Accademia that houses the original. Instead we found a market that we hadn’t planned on visiting until later, and after deciding to come back to it, eventually found the Accademia. There was no David to be found, just a nondescript museum building with yet another massive queue. We walked right round the outside and did find an empty piazza with plenty of other statues, but David eluded us.

Courts, hater of all things hot and queue-like, even volunteered to stand in the unshaded queue for the Accademia to see the real one. He knew how much I wanted to see it and how often we hadn’t gone inside things to avoid the queue, but I too was hot and sick of walking and I didn’t think the admission fee and queue was worth the one statue I wanted to see.

Instead, we ambled on back to the market near San Lorenzo Church. Most of the market was either leather or scarves, Florence’s two specialities. There were souvenirs aplenty as well and lots of jewellery and we set about shopping for presents to take home and occasionally remembering to get something for ourselves.

The stall holders were insane. A bracelet caught my eye and I asked ‘How much?’ without really stopping, only pausing as I knew I most likely wouldn’t buy it. “10 Euro” was the response and I smiled and said thank you, and started to walk away. With Courts a step behind me the guy had just enough time to offer “8!” to which we replied no and kept going. We could hear him yell “7!” in the background but we were a fair distance away when he appeared behind us, tapping me on the arm and saying in quick succession as we shook our heads “5!... 2!... 50 cents!”. Seriously, 50 cents! After trying to get 10 Euro he was willing to go 50 cents and he had left his entire stock behind him unattended to try and get it.

Although this guy was the most extreme, he was far from the exception to the rule. It was common for stall holders to pull faces and shake their heads when we walked away after their third attempt at getting us to buy something. One girl kept passing me scarved to look at without ever taking back others, until I was left with an armload. She seemed shocked and annoyed when I gave them back to her and she had to put them all away. I had known I wanted one of two scarves and they were the only two I asked to see.

At least she wasn’t touchy feely, because when a pushy Italian man grabs my arm to try and show me something or emphasise a point, that’s it – I’m done. I don’t generally have personal space issues, but I hate it when stall holders do that and all niceties fade with it. Not all stall holders were bad though – a lovely man who sold me two of something (I can’t specify because they’re gifts) let me get away with 2 for 12 when the asking price was 8 each. I had started low expecting to get a small discount but you can’t be upset with buy-1-get-1-half-price, even if the margins at the markets are stupidly high.

With a backpack full of market goodies it was most definitely Gelato time. Courts saved a seat outside and I went in to order. Courts wanted a milkshake but it wasn’t as simple as ordering ‘chocolate’ because it was made with as many gelato flavours as you wanted and there’s not often a flavour as simple as ‘chocolate’. I went back out to ask him what he wanted to add in and the lovely shopkeeper followed me out to offer suggestions to Courts. When we were finally settled with a very good milkshake and our daily serving of gelato, we settled into a game of backgammon on our phone, sitting in the shade.

We walked back towards the Duomo, hearing the sound of drums getting louder and louder. We had stumbled across a parade, making their way around the cathedral with sections holding flags for different towns Coat of Arms. There were drummers, lords and ladies in medieval costume, and flag throwers. We watched for awhile before heading down a side street for a coffee.

Eventually, it was time to go. As we headed towards the bike, Courts wanted to duck down an alley that looked like it led to a piazza. When we broke through the narrow path into a square full of sunlight, low and behold there he was – unassuming, shaded, in a corner, and surrounded by countless other statues, was David (or at least a copy of him). We ended up spending almost an hour in that piazza, not only because there was a huge columned, open air building full of statues to look at, but because the parade made it’s way through the crowds again as well, heralding our discovery of David. The perfect end to another hot, sticky, pushy, crowded, gelato-filled – aka Italian – day.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Tuscany Looks and Tastes Like Tuscany Should

Our ride from Rome to Figline Val d’Arno in Tuscany went pretty much as expected. The GPS took us the most annoying way possible, the combination of traffic lights and heat annoyed us as we tried to leave the city and Tuscany looked just like Tuscany should - if you’re to believe film and TV, which you should. It’s absolutely stunning, and any road higher than sea level gives you the most picturesque, warmly lit and hazy views of golden fields, vineyards and castles.

We were happy to add a new home comfort to our thus far inanimate list of travelling traditions - Richard and Kim, our friends from Sorrento, had decided to stay at the same camp as us again. This marked the third campsite we had been at together so the scenery may have changed as we all travelled north every few days, but we now had real neighbours and friends.

We didn’t find them until after we had enjoyed another tradition – our travel habit of eating dinner at the camp restaurant on ride days. The food was good but it could have been rubbish for all I cared – I ordered a glass of wine that sounded like my cup of tea (sweet and sparkling) and it tasted just like Moscato, my favourite drop at home and something that hasn’t passed my lips since we left. As it turned out, it was Moscato, but we didn’t figure this out until we saw the same wine on a menu the next day, with subtext stating as much.

That next day was a goodun. We set out with every intention of going to San Gimignano, a walled city just over an hour away, but we didn’t want to go on the motorway. We tricked the GPS into taking us past a few small towns and around the windy roads that cut through the countryside. The first small town we came to was Greve, a village we intended on visiting that night with Richard and Kim for an annual Wine Tasting Festival that just happened to be on.

As it happened, we never made it past Greve. We decided we couldn’t be bothered with the trek to San Gimignano after the late start we had given ourselves, so we parked up to check out Greve. Greve had been on our list since the idea of visiting Tuscany had been but a sparkle in our eyes, when Courtney saw a salami shop in Greve on a travel show on TV. The salami shop was closed for siesta but we found plenty more to keep us occupied for awhile.

We bypassed the festival, saving that fun for our evening out. Instead we wandered the streets of the town, checking out a wine cellar and eventually settling on by-the-slice pizza from a little takeaway shop that sold every kind of beer you could ever imagine, hundreds of different bottles in every shape, size, flavour and price. We ate our pizza and drank our beer on the shady steps of the church across the road before turning back for home.

It was only a matter of hours before we were back again with Richard and Kim, this time armed with a wine glass and festival guide each. You got both for 10 Euros and the guide included 7 free wine tastings. Olive oil, biscotti and preserves were all free to try and as we discovered many of the vendors weren’t to bothered with clicking off our tasting passes either, so there was a lot of bang to be had for our buck.

Despite attempting to find vino blanco (white wines) to start with, most of the festival was full of red. The real star of the show, besides the incredible Tuscan Olive Oil, was the new love of my life – Vin Santo. Courts had tasted a few wines at the camp cellar the previous night and had told me of one that was made essentially with raisins. I hate raisins and didn’t think much of the idea until we put two and two together and realized he had been talking about this one. The grapes are left until they just about fall off, and the result is a syrupy thick dessert wine that tastes almost like a mulled wine, like it’s spiced. It’s not though, it’s au naturale, and the Italians traditionally dip biscotti in it, especially around Christmas time. I tried it with biscotti twice and in a glass three times (once was finishing Richards, who didn’t quite see it in the same light as I) and it was love at first through fifth tasting.

When the sun had gone down and we had each developed a warmth of our own by the glass, we found a restaurant on the main square and settled in for dinner. I chose Lemon and Rosemary Risotto and oh my goodness it was the most amazing flavour you can imagine. The after taste of the herbs made me think of Lavendar Ice Cream while the soft hints of lemon made a thick, creamy winter food taste light and summery. Courts made his way through pasta and was so enamoured with Kim’s beef stew that he then had a second dinner of that too. Richard filled himself to the brim with a thick manly T-Bone that Kim eyed up for the sharing, and us girls finished it all off with Pannacotta in a white grape syrup.

Thoroughly full and still slightly hazy, we were all very ready to collapse when the time came to turn back. Richard had been very kind and driven us all in, which not only meant that he had to spit the majority of his tastings out but that himself and Kim had to turn their rental van back from usable transport to comfy accommodation while Courts and I just faded into the shadows of our tent. Eternally grateful for small luxuries, we slept in the lingering cloud of a wonderful night with lovely people and incredible gastronomy.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Raphael and Michelangelo

Vatican City was beckoning on our last day in Rome and we went into the city mid morning. The shuttle advertises that it goes ‘to’ Vatican City but it doesn’t, and while we had seen the dome peeking up above the rest of the skyline, and had seen the city walls, we hadn’t seen a way to get in. When we figured out we had to climb several flights of stairs to get up to the road the museum entrance was on, we knew why we hadn’t seen it before – there’s no way we would have climbed those stair voluntarily!

The entrance to the Vatican Museums is through a door in the wall of the city, well before you go anywhere near St Peters. The line was massive and we almost left it till later but while walking past it we realized it was moving, and decided to give it a shot. Not only was the line moving, but it was fast enough that we were able to basically walk straight up to the door, just behind all those other people.

I don’t Courts was at all sure what lay ahead and I just knew that the museums were full of things given to, commissioned by, or acquired by the church. They turned out to be one of the best art museums we’ve been to. We paid 7 Euro for an audio guide to share and decided to follow the long route as opposed to the signs for the short route. We had been told all the tour groups follow the short route but we found out that plenty take the long one as well.

On a trip like ours, you can become saturated with amazing art so much so that you see another 500, 1000 or 2000 year old sculpture and glaze over it in search of something more interesting. If you stop for long enough and take it all in, you realize just how incredible the artist was, to have seen this figure inside a slab of marble and have drawn out every fold of cloth, every string of muscle, every emotion in his face. Often though, it’s just as good as the last one and the one before that so you forget to see these things.

We passed courtyards, long halls, marble staircases, and domed rooms with open ceilings, all filled with incredible sculptures. Amongst the naked or cloaked men and women sculpted in the same way as each other, there were also countless statues that stood out on their own. Some were bizarre or creepy, some just different – a goddess several times taller than I and with a snake wrapped round her feet – one with molars rather than fangs no less.

There was an entire room dedicated to sculptures of animals and these weren’t just your typical Lions either. Aside from the lion stretching, chest to floor, there were centaurs with angels and dead rabbits, men about to slit the throats of cattle while dogs and snakes looked on, and several sculptures of animal versus animal, mid kill. I don’t understand the mind set of the sculptor that thinks, ‘Hmmm, I have a spare few months, I might create something out of a slab of marble – how about a frightened deer about to have its throat ripped out by the dog on its back?’. To have got the look of fear in the eyes and the tensed muscles as the neck arched back – the sculptor can’t have been in a particularly happy place when he was putting all of his effort into these things.

It’s a good thing the ceilings are so incredible in the Vatican – paintings that look more 3D than some of the sculptures, other areas that really are reliefs, gilded and ornate – because beyond the sculpture halls we often had plenty of time to stare at them. The first time we waited 5 or 10 minutes to get through a door, we thought we had just hit the rest of the crowd, and resigned ourselves to patience. When we got through though, we realized there was no continuous crowd, just a tour group damming the area in front of the door way. I’d like to say they were oblivious to the massive build up of traffic behind them, but we saw several different tour groups do it on several different occasions, and quickly learnt to push through and break out on the other side.

We saw the papal apartments painted entirely by Raphael, after the new pope of the time decided he didn’t want to live in the same place as his predecessor, and the dark, dimly lit halls of Modern Religious Art – apparently commissioned by the Church to prove they were allowing artists to think for themselves and not constantly forcing them to do the same things as the Renaissance artists in the halls prior.

We stopped for a drink before climbing the small staircase to the Sistine Chapel, the piece de resistance, that which I had been waiting for the entire day. Of course, as with all things that rest in high hopes, it did not meet expectations. Away from the perfectly lit photographs we’ve all seen in books, the Sistine Chapel is dark and drab, barely lit for the preservation of the artwork. When the frescoes were commissioned, only the highest windows were left intact, to make room for the art work. It now feels like the hall at my first school, like I should sit cross legged on the floor and wait for assembly.

The Last Judgement was amazing though, as were the ceilings. There were no photos allowed but I joined the hundreds of other people turning off their flashes and subtly turning their cameras upwards from waist-level. Guards were on hand to loudly Shhhh every minute or so, their requests for silence ignored by all. More so than the ceiling, where the famous painting of the hands barely touching between clouds lies, proportionately tiny and unimportant, The Last Judgement is the best part of the Sistine Chapel. Taking up one end wall, it is a far cry from the normal religious frescoes we had been seeing, with a human skin near the centre (apparently a self portrait of Michelangelo) and enough demons near the bottom to keep Courtney satisfied.

Once we had made it through the Sistine Chapel, there were still rooms to see but we kind of rushed them, looking forward to fresh air and lunch. We followed the city walls for 5 or 10 minutes until rows of columns beckoned us into St Peters Square. The square itself is less breathtaking than I thought it would be – pictures don’t show all the rows of cordoned seats, the metal detectors and the big screens – but the basilica is very cool. We didn’t go inside, of course because of another massive queue, but we ate our cheese and salami crostini in the centre of the square, people watching and taking in the massive dome and the arms of columns hugging the crowd.

Afterwards, we did our best to navigate yet more tour groups and know tour busses as well, to walk past Castel Sant Angelo of Angels and Demons fame (a secret tunnel leads to it from the Vatican, used by the central characters in the climactic scenes of the novel) and cross the river in the search for the relative quiet of Piazza Navona. Of course no wander through Rome – or anywhere really – would be complete for us without gelato, and we found a gem of a place not far from the Piazza itself. This place had at least 10 travel guide and newspaper write ups on the walls, and a plexiglass window at one end where you could watch the gelato being made. The gelato was outstanding – I had Chocolate Orange and White Peach and Lavendar, and Courts had Chocolate Wine which turned out to be the best flavour we had ever tried in our entire lives, made with Sicilian red wine and dark chocolate.

Piazza Navona, when we did get there, was lovely. The protesters camped out in the middle did little to detract from the three fountains and the art market, or from the incredible buildings surrounding it. The real high point of our afternoon wanderings though, was the Pantheon. Richard had told us it was amazing but there’s no way to understand how a church with a hole in the top can really be amazing until you see it. When you walk out of a narrow side street into the square infront of it, the building itself is breathtaking. Over hundreds of years the buildings that have gone up around it have been built very closely, almost suffocating the Pantheon. All they really do though, is change the scale of the Pantheon and make it look even more massive and powerful than I imagine it would otherwise.

Inside, it is hard to explain, but the oculus in the ceiling is far more than just a hole in the roof, the light it lets in and the glow it creates is awesome, and I only wish I had seen it when it was raining to witness the surreal column of water that descends through it from the sky. The sculptures and artworks around the edges are awesome, and I didn’t realize until I was in front of it, that Raphael is buried here, amongst Kings and Saints. It’s a weird little buzz to discover you are standing in front of a legend, however long he’s been under the marble.

With a slight detour to Campo Dei Fiori to see where the stake burnings of ancient times were carried out, it was back over the river and to the shuttle bus again, just making the last one home. I don’t even like museums but the Vatican really was worth the trip. It was the Pantheon though, that had us talking about it all night as we treated ourselves to a restaurant dinner for our final night.

Next stop, Tuscany.

Monday, September 12, 2011

The Charms of Not-So-Must-See Rome

Our second day in Rome we intended to repeat our efforts of the previous day and tackle Vatican City. We woke up early but took our time getting ready, saying goodbye to Richard and Kim as they headed to Siena. We had breakfast and vaguely tidied the tent house, causing ourselves to just miss the hourly shuttle and create a spare 40 minutes to continue doing nothing-much with. It was during that time that there was a knock on the vinyl door and an apologetic Kim requested Courtney’s assistance down the driveway.

Our poor Aussie friends have had nothing but trouble with their persistent rental van, and this time while rinsing it off they discovered a bubble on the tyre. It was really weird, like a hernia on the side of the tyre, not even a piece of inner popping through the join but the tyre itself. To be honest by the time we got down there Rich had it pretty well covered and the only assistance we (Courtney) could offer was a ride to the nearest auto shop to see if they had a new otyre for them.

Kim and I sat in the tent house and had a gossip in the shade while the boys did boy things. They returned amidst an air of success and Richard and Kim were off once more, albeit via the auto store. In amongst the excitement, Kim had told us about a public transport strike in Rome, and we witnessed for ourselves the huge queue waiting for the shuttle, some of whom had been waiting so long they had seen the previous shuttle come and go without making it on for lack of space. We decided that with our early start long gone in a sea of lethargy and a strike in our midst, it might be a better idea to spend the afternoon riding around the neighbourhood of Trastevere and save Vatican for later.

Our not-so-trusty GPS got us into the old medieval neighbourhood, nowadays a bohemian centre for those living out the Italian dream, mixed in with old Italian Nonna’s descended from the first inhabitants of Rome. The only thing we knew about Trastevere was that it sounded like our cup of tea and that it centred itself around a main piazza (as most Italian areas do), so we parked up and wound through the streets in the general direction of the piazza.

Holding the square down was a big beautiful fountain. We love our fountains so we were instantly sold, even before we took in the cute little church with frescoes and sculptures and the trattorias that dotted the remaining sides. We sat at one that had comfy looking couches at a few of the tables and spent 15 or 20 minutes taking photos from our vantage point and skimming the very-helpful Lonely Planet City Guide to Rome for places that might be worth a gander in Trastevere.

When we reached the point of starting to skim other neighbourhoods and still hadn’t been served or even handed a menu, we decided to leave in search of a traditional Italian pizzeria Courts had found in the City Guide. It wasn’t far and it turned out to be on the edge of another square, this one full of cars that could only make it into town that far before the roads got too narrow, and shaded by Nonna’s washing hanging out the windows above.

We didn’t end up eating at the recommended Pizzeria, but next door. This place was the best little eatery we could have ever hoped to find. The interior was decorated just like the picturesque square outside, with doors and windows painted around the walls as though it were a courtyard. There were ceramic tiles showing the house number of each imaginery house, a town clock in the middle and even rows of laundry draped from the ceiling.

We ordered a bottle of local wine, which turned out to be red although we hadn’t realized it originally, and both started with carbonara, which was invented in Rome. A traditional Italianmeal generally has about 7 courses from antipasto through to dessert and so the portions are smaller than we might have elsewhere. We followed our carbonara with real Italian pizza and real Italian bruschetta and finished our wine before leaving in search of real Italian gelato.

It took us awhile to find as we saw seats in the shade at an inner city playground and had very little choice in the matter as our bodies dragged it away from the heat and cobblestones. We bore witness to a crazy drunk sauntering through the small park, at first stopping directly in front of a child on the slide, hopping up and down on the spot and pulling faces. A woman I assumed was his mother looked on carefully, but later on the child seemed to be there by himself. The little boy wasn’t the drunks only port of call though as he begged a couple of ladies eating their lunch for some coin. One of them offered him half her lunch but she was apparently  rejected and the resulting conversation (which we couldn’t hear) caused her to pack everything up and leave in search of safer territory.

It was not long after that we left ourselves, taking the long way back towards the bike still hoping for gelato. After a brief distraction at the nail polish counter of a department store, we found our hearts desire only a hundred metres away from our parking spot. We used our newly learned authentic-gelato-spotting skills (banana flavour must be grey, not yellow, the containers must be stainless steel, not plastic, and the gelato must be flat, not piled up) to evaluate our pickings before selecting the best flavours they had to offer. We sat outside to take our time with the days indulgence and I couldn’t resist pulling out my new nail polishes to play with, nail geek as I am.

It was a very content and overflowing Pen and Courts that climbed up on the bike and rode heavily home, and a settled and crashing Pen and Courts that fell into the tent house and spent much of the night moving as little as possible. The crostini and cheese we had bought to have as a light dinner remained unopened and while the sounds of tour groups and drinkers (oh how many walks of shame I heard in the early hours of each morning – Him: “Well, what about the awkwardness?”, Her: “WHAT awkwardness?!”, cue defiant horror) drifted through the night, we barely batted a well-weighted eyelid.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Exploring the Must-Sees

I was determined to make the most of our first full day in Rome, so we were up early and on the shuttle to the city centre at 9am. The shuttle dropped us off near Vatican City but we had decided to start the day at the Colosseum, the furthest point from the Vatican, and work our way backwards. With this in mind, it was straight to the Metro, which we figured out quickly with our wealth of Metro knowledge. We can’t say we didn’t learn anything on this trip!

There is a Metro stop directly outside the Colosseum so as you make your way out of the station the building fills your only vision of the outside world until you’re in the open and it’s sitting there, comfortably, across the road. To be honest, I was a little underwhelmed. After the initial wow-moment of actually being in its presence, it’s not as overwhelming or empowered as the Parthenon or the Pont du Gard.

We had heard that since we are now into the Autumn months, the queues were much shorter and we didn’t need to buy ludicrously expensive skip-the-queue tickets before we went. What we didn’t realize though was that we had arrived before the Colosseum was even open, so not only was there a queue wanting to be first inside, that queue was massive, wrapping around part of the building. We circled it, and peered through the ancient gates that pierce the building at regular intervals. Maybe not as effective as circling from the inside, but we got a decent view of what went on in there. Some gates had no flooring left, and you could see the ancient tunnels once used to lead wild animals and gladiators into the arena.

We perused the Roman equivalent of the Arc de Triomphe nearby and fended off sweet talking gladiators who wanted our money in exchange for a photo. I’m not sure how many gladiators had tattoos and spoke perfect English, but the gladiators did their best to charm anyone they could (“Hey big boy, want a picture?”, “Hey nice legs, want a sexy photo?”, “Hey darkness, where you from, want a souvenir?”).

It was near the gladiators that my shoe broke. The gold sandals I bought from home lasted until Barcelona, when I bought some nice black ones for 10 Euro. In only 7 weeks of travelling, almost all the black had worn off, the soles were half their thickness and more of a ‘cross section of a shoe’ than a functioning form of footwear, and that morning the edge of one heel had started flapping around. We were aware that these sandals would not stretch much further so we already had shoe shopping in mind when the bit that joined top to bottom between my big toe and second toe, came away completely. Courtney got all Man-vs-Wild on it and used his keys to pierce to bottom of the shoe, threading the broken piece through and knotting it underneath. A much snugger fit, but a functioning shoe, at least temporarily.

The nearby entrance to the Roman Forums and Palatine Hill was just as queue-heavy as the Colosseum, so we kept going and eventually found ourselves at the Monument to Vittorio Emmanuel II. This huge building was very impressive, complete with guards, flaming altars and gilded statues, and that was just the front steps. We climbed the stupid number of stairs to get inside and followed the signs to the panoramic view. You can take an elevator to the very top for 7 Euro, but the free view you get not far below is amazing enough. From there, you could see all of Rome – Colosseum, St Peter’s Basilica and everything in between. We also got a birds eye view of the Roman Forums so we felt less of a need to go back there when the queue would be shorter.

It was a short walk through narrower and quieter streets to the Trevi Fountain so we rested in the shade there for a minute before descending on Burger King for a well earned fatty lunch. It was while sat at Burger King that I skimmed the Lonely Planet City Guide we had for Rome, and it was the city guide that led us back a bit to taste “possibly the best Gelato in Rome”. Real, honest, natural Gelato made my craftsmen rather than machines, and it was amazing. We ate it as we wandered towards the Cappuchin Crypt we had read about, with a detour to buy 2 pairs of 5 Euro sandals at an outlet store.

Getting into the Cappuchin Crypt wasn’t as easy as just walking there however – first it was closed for siesta so we used the time to do the mandatory Hard Rock Café stop. When it did open we were sent away to find a cheap souvenir shop that would sell me a scarf to cover my shoulders. 3 Euros later, we were happy to find the entry fee wasn’t the advertised 7 Euros but a donation of 1 Euro. The Cappuchin Crypt is basically a series of rooms off a church where Cappuchin Monks wanted themselves and their families to be buried so badly they ran out of room. What results is several rooms of ornate decoration – except the decoration are made from pieces of human skeletons.

Most of the rooms feature several monk skeletons, whose bones remain intact and bodies still cloaked. Some of the skeletons aren’t even clean, resembling some sort of creepy bog body, and one had it’s tongue poking out. Around the standing or lying robed skeletons, arches, flowers, decorations and even lamps are made out of millions of human bones. It wasn’t as big or as full as I expected, but the whole thing was well worth a scarf and a Euro, a bit creepy and very cool.

With not long to go before the last shuttle back to camp, we made one last attempt at crossing off a must-see – the Spanish Steps. To get there we walked through an area of town full of designer brand stores and Victoria Beckham look-alikes and then came across the steps from the top. Despite having explained to Courts that they were basically ‘just steps’, I actually really liked the Spanish Steps. They’re way bigger than I expected, with multiple tiers and landing-like piazzas, plenty of sun and plenty of shade and a fountain at the bottom. I could imagine myself sitting on them, writing away, gossiping with friends or just watching the world go by.

With a detour to see the staircase at Louis Vuitton made of LCD screens and a Carrefour Express for drinks, we made our way to the nearby Spagna Metro stop and back to the stop by the Vatican to get the last shuttle home. The day was long but it didn’t feel busy – we didn’t actually have a plan beyond the Colosseum, just a vague idea of things we wanted to see over the three days and a wandering nature that always seems to find us cool things to see. It was nice though, to find a little bit of the travelling spirit we had been lacking lately.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Longing Swings in Roundabouts

Rides in Italy feel so short. Prior to Venice, ride days were usually a minimum of 6, maximum of 10 hours (including stops, not on the bike non stop). After Venice we spent a couple of weeks riding only to the next ferry terminal and since then the rides have been around 3 hours. We don’t even really need a rest in that time, such as we are used to long rides. The 5 minutes we are off the bike when we fill the tank half way are enough to keep us going to our destination. We find ourselves leaving later than normal and still arriving at a time that feels early.

When we rode from Sorrento to Rome, the ride was pretty easy – until we got to Rome itself. You are well aware how much we love, or rather loathe  our GPS and despite there being a ring road around the city (which we didn’t find out about until later), it took us through the centre of town. We missed driving past the Coloseum by a block but we rode past the Roman Forum, Circus Maximus and across the river. It was by this time the hottest time of day and of course in the city centre there are stupid numbers of traffic lights where we have no choice but to sit in direct sunlight in all our protective layers. Courts was not happy, even after he passed his jacket to me and rode the last half hour in a singlet.

When we did eventually make it to camp, there were a couple of surprises waiting for us though – when we checked in, they handed us a key. We didn’t really understand why they did so, just drove in the direction they told us to, looking for our tent site. What we found was that we had unknowingly booked a ‘tent house’ – essentially a cabin, but with walls made of tent material. In terms of what we normally pay for camping, it was on the high side, but not over the top. Either way, since we had booked it, we had budgeted for it, and it was all ours – real beds, lockable door and all – for 4 nights.

The other nice surprise was that with our tent on the end of the row, we were 3 spaces down from our Aussie friends Richard and Kim - the ones we met in Sorrento – who had ended up at the same campsite as us. After Courts had had a dip in one of the two pools to cool down, we spent the afternoon lying around and the evening at the bar with Richard and Kim.

Conversations of the evening and previous weeks got me to thinking – as the Italian butterfly doesn’t know that it is Italian, and therefore doesn’t long to see how New Zealand butterflies live, it also doesn’t suspend itself in a no-mans land of eternal missing. I had my bouts of homesickness in Sorrento. I’m extremely excited to get home and start expanding my Acrylic Nails business. Now, with the Rugby World Cup starting and RWC Fever plastered all over the internet as well, I miss home. When I get home though, I will no longer live on the road, sleep in my tent, squish onto the bike, and cook on the billy. When I walk into a restaurant and look for a powerpoint, the action will be redundant – I’ll have plenty of those at home. Weeks will be punctuated by weekends instead of long rides to new destinations. I’m going to miss travelling.

It was the same when I lived in Australia – in Aussie, I missed New Zealand, but when I returned to New Zealand I missed Australia. Richard and Kim have been in London for several years and will have a few days there post-Italy before they make the big move back home. They talk of how excited they are to go back to London and visit their friends and see and do familiar things, yet they of course also miss their families in Aussie. In Sorrento we talked to an American couple who had lived in Switzerland for a year. Now on their way home, they spoke of missing Switzerland.

We are spoiled for choice but in taking advantage of it we open ourselves up to yet more longing. Instead of longing for the unknown, we know more of what there is to miss. Unlike the friends we have made, for us we won’t miss countries – we move too often for that – but the bike and the tent and our new habits are home now.

Time to explore Rome so we can miss that too.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Almost Ready for Home

We never did make it to Naples. Our last full day in Sorrento we were both still lazy and I was in a very average mood. Boys, skip to the next paragraph if you are so inclined. As we talked about many months ago, I had a contraceptive implant called Jadelle put in my arm in January. The side effects vary greatly but for me they mean that in the time since I had the implant put in, I’ve gone from very frequent 7-day periods to having had three 2-day periods in 9 months. Only one of those has been during the course of the trip, and that was in Sorrento. Rather than being nasty with PMS, I just got very tired and in an over-tired mood. I couldn’t be bothered doing anything but at the same time I was getting frustrated with the lethargy of the last couple of weeks.

The bike needed an oil change and so Courts went off and did that while I wrote and surfed the net at camp. When he got back, it was too late to justify a trip into Naples and I couldn’t be bothered anyway. We decided to go to Amalfi but we never made it there either. Instead, we had a huge lunch at a cheap little eatery in Sorrento village and then rode down the slippery cobbled hairpin road to the port, where I lay on the beach in the shade and Courts explored underwater with his trusty snorkel.

And that was about it really. I people watched from the beach and tried to play games on the phone but with an emotional, hormonal PMS cloud hanging over my head I ended up engulfed in homesickness. I wanted to see my Mum and my sister and my friends. Most of all at that particular time, I wanted to see my dog. Courtney’s family had said that if anything bad happened to anyone while we were away, they wouldn’t tell us until we got back – no point spoiling the trip. I knew that my dog Toby and his sleepover buddy Jimmy had escaped out the back fence a few weeks ago and I started worrying that he hadn’t made it back and people just weren’t telling me.

While Courts watched fish and found dead crabs to pull the legs off for me (my favourite kind of gift – not!) and I watched obese children splash in the water, all I wanted was my dog. Like an overtired child with a pout and folded arms, I just wanted my dog and I wanted to be home and I didn’t want to wait 3 more weeks for it to happen.

The homesickness was entirely PMS related I’m sure but I do think if I went home now I’d be OK with it. At the tail end of Courtney’s Netherlands-Germany-Czech leg of the trip, I was starting to think I was ready to go home then, but the Dolomites and Venice completely renewed my travel lust. Italy was the country I was most looking forward to and I’m loving every second of it, but I’m thinking about finding a house and work and seeing everyone and a lot of my travel energy has already been used up by the previous 10 countries we’ve been to.

Funnily though, the same thing happened around the same time of my much-shorter American travels when I was younger. When I was about 80% of the way through the trip, like we are now, I was suddenly ready to be at home. That was only a 1 month trip though, and I did the second half of it on my own so it was a different dynamic to this one. Our next stops are Rome and Tuscany and I can’t wait for either of them. I’m very conscious of the fact that a month after we get home I will wish I could go back and relive these last few weeks if I don’t make the most of them now. I’ve told Courts that when we get to Rome, we are getting up and moving at normal times and exploring the city like we would have done London.

Next stop, Colosseum.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Lazy Summer Days

The day after Pompeii we lazed around all morning, eventually heading back to Positano late afternoon. This time we parked up and wandered the streets that are inaccessible to vehicles – windy, slippery, stepped and full of stalls selling mostly jewellery. We made it down to the beach in our hunt for decent priced food, and spotted L’Alternativa, the small stall that sells Albertissimo, a supposedly amazing alcoholic drink that can only be purchased here. I don’t see the big deal. We paid 4 Euro and got a cup of Granite di Limon (lemon slushy made from real lemons, I’m addicted) with something red and something clear quickly splashed in. It tasted good, sure, but there was nothing special about it so if you have read that it’s a must do, like I did, it’s not. It’s average.

We clambered back up the hill to an eatery we had seen on the way down and sat dripping sweat in their garden terrace. With a view over their own orchard and down into the valley there was no better place to cool down for a bit. We had calzone and followed it up with desserts from their quintessentially Italian, homemade selection. We had a Rhum Baba with cream, the lightest, spongiest thing you’ve ever tasted with a runny sauce that soaked through it and onto the plate. We also tried a Crème Limon Sponge which was again insanely light but this time filled and covered with mild lemon crème, which looked and tasted kind of like meringue and whipped crème has a love child.

Well fed and happy, we made our way back down to the beach to give Courtney’s new snorkel another wetting. As with most Amalfi Coast beaches, boats come in close to shore and so there is a swimming area roped off for safety. The beach was pebbled and we lay out our towel, bag and helmets. At almost 5pm the beach was still full but people were slowly drifting away. For the first time in our trip, the person we asked to mind our things said no. She didn’t go anywhere, I guess she just didn’t want the responsibility.

We both went into the water anyway and kept a vague eye on them from there. The water was warm and slowly deepened until a steep drop made it,at Courtney’s underwater guess, 3 times my height. You could still see the bottom, which darkened with seaweed the deeper you got, so it was easy to see when it was time to swim rather than have your feet drop out from under you like they would with low visibility. I had a go with the snorkel first and discovered heaps of small silver fish swimming around us. Despite being able to see the bottom, the fish were almost clear and we couldn’t see them at all from above water. They were very tame and swam right up to our fingers, following us round as we swam  further out.

A kid on the beach had been showing off a starfish so we hunted for those to no avail but did see a few other kinds of fish. Despite making Courtney swim near me the whole time just in case I needed to stop, my new found confidence in my (still techniqueless) swimming skills kept me going on my own for ages. I have discovered that I get a twinge in my left arm sometimes when I’m using it to swim so when that started happening and there were no new fish around, I gave up and went back to shore and left Courts snorkeling as the water emptied of locals. The heat of the pebbles on the beach soaked through the towel and I could easily have fallen asleep but when Courts eventually made it out of the water around 6.30pm, we headed up to the bike and went home for packet Risotto, which is surprisingly tasty.

We are getting lazier and lazier. Not long till Rome now though so we had better switch it up soon!

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Sticking it to Vesuvius

Riding the momentum of our tour day in Capri, we decided to spend the following day at Pompei. Our Aussie friends from camp had recommended we pay extra for a guided tour so when we eventually got there via walking, bussing, missing the stop, walking back, catching the train and then walking again, we looked for a tour guide straight away. We didn’t have to look far because the tour guides well trained eye for suckers zoned in on us immediately. We bought our entrance tickets and chatted to the tour guide, who said we had time for lunch before his tour started.

Over the road from the entrance to the ruins, we had sandwiches and drinks and returned on time to find the tour guide had left without us. Another one was now milling around, but he had a very thick Italian accent we couldn’t always understand and we weren’t too keen on going with him. We debated the pros and cons of audio guides and milled around reading posters to pass the time in the hopes another guide would show up. No one did, and as the Italian’s numbers started to reach capacity we resigned ourselves to joining in.

The entrance to the ruins is at the city gate which used to lead to the wharf, back when the sea was much further inland than it is now. Huge boulder-sized cobblestones lead a slippery path up to the two gates, a small one for pedestrians and a larger one for carts. The tour guide, whose real born and bred name was Fabio, took us first to the Temple of Apollo. We knew the ruins were well preserved but this was a wow moment that prepared us for what was to come later. Bronze statues of Apollo and Diana stand in the places they have held for thousands of years, in the same condition you would expect any bronze statue of that age and showing no indication of the volcanic burial ground they were immersed in for much of that time.

Following the wide port road, we headed towards the main town square. Fabio was open to few questions, giving the impression he knew only what he had to and had memorized his route in a particular order. Several times different people asked him why the roads had raised stones in the middle of them in places, and every time he would tell them to wait until later. The stones were so the citizens of Pompeii could cross the road without getting their feet wet, the roads running with fountain water from the constantly-running drinking taps that kept the streets free of horse poo. Fabio didn’t want to explain this though until much later in the tour when he could show us the fountain in the right order of his carefully memorized route.

The town square had another temple, the barely surviving remains of a basilica, and the ruins of shops and outlets used by the 20,000 citizens that lived there. An ornately carved marble arch decorated the entrance to the local Laundromat and beyond the protective glass Fabio was able to point out peacocks, wildboar, snails and all sorts of other animals still as easily recognizable as the day they were carved. He also pointed out the public toilet next door, where deposits were collected for their ammonia content and used on tough stains at the Laundromat.

It was impossible to ignore the looming figure of Mt Vesuvius sitting smugly above the town. Now boasting a misshapen tip, the mountain was once perfectly round and it’s easy to connect the dots and see the invisible crest that hit the town like a cork before showering it with lava champagne and toxic gases. Not far from the town square, in a corner of the old food market, glass cases naively protected the remains of people who died well before the ash and lava hit, unable to be protected by far more solid items than glass, suffocating on gases and contorting in pain with their last breathes. When lava and ash did eventually arrive, it hardened quickly around the still corpses and as they decomposed, remained as a perfect plaster-cast of their terror. When Pompei was eventually discovered, a smart thinking archaeologist filled the air pockets with plaster, preserving the last moments of these mostly lower class people for millions of tourists to gawk at in years to come. Not wanting to destroy any part of the air pockets, they were filled through small holes, with the skeletons still inside. The bodies we now see in cases are therefore plaster surrounding real bone, with the far less sturdy plaster now starting to crumble to reveal teeth, skulls and finger bones.

These sad, painful creatures are displayed in a most unfitting of places. Around them, the brightly coloured frescoes that brought good luck to the market and also advertised the goods it sold, still adorn the walls. Although faded, you can easily make out loaves of bread, chickens, and fish showing the wares that were available, above pictures of gods and battles. The market itself had shops around all sides, and you can still see the foundations of the pool where people could catch their own fresh seafood in the middle of it all.

More breathtaking than the frescoes in the market where the frescoes, relief and statues in the Roman Baths. As much a meeting point for socializing as an place for getting clean, the baths were a labyrinth of rooms of various means, all still intact and boasting mosaic floors. Trees again grow in the courtyard garden within the walls, breathing a small amount of life back into the structure as you first enter the changing rooms, then see the lonely, empty tepid baths, the warm baths and the steam rooms. Once the most lively place in the whole town, now stray dogs make the most of the shade, oblivious to the tourists that step around them.

In another area of town, a wealthy shopkeeper lived between his two shops. One was a takeaway food store and the counters are still intact, complete with holes that once held vases full of food and wine for the choosing. When you were finished your meal, you could head upstairs to the brothel if you liked, before heading home to your wife. His house greeted it’s visitors with an intricate mosaic of a dog on the floor, an ancient Beware of the Dog sign.

We entered his house through the slaves entrance so as not to wear down the mosaic, and were able to see the layout of a typical Pompei home. Beyond the front door in a large entrance room, a square pool in the floor collected water from a hole in the ceiling, reflecting light into the rooms that surrounded it. The shopkeepers office was immediately beyond, a place where he would hold court with his visitors and arrange plots and dealings. Surrounding the courtyard garden behind the office were bedrooms, a kitchen with the woodfire oven still waiting for another meal, and a brightly decorated dining room, used only in the winter when it was too cool to eat outside.

Passing a bakery, still housing it’s grinder and mixers, we wound down a narrower road that was crowded with tourists. We discovered why when Fabio pointed out a phallus protruding proudly from a wall – an ancient neon sign that may as well have read ‘Red Light District’. The tourist crowd were mostly Cruise Liner tour groups, all jostling to get into the entrance of the most well preserved brothel. By far the highlight of the visit for Courtney, the bedrooms of the brothel all still contained their built-in stone beds complete with built-in stone pillows. The uncomfortable nature of the bed apparently ensured a good time not a long time, allowing the next patron in quickly. More intriguing than the beds were the frescoes. Prostitutes were slaves and therefore often didn’t speak the language, having been stolen from their home countries and sold to their present masters. To combat the issue of trying to communicate what you like to a person who doesn’t understand you, patrons of the brothel could point to one of the various frescoes – a visual menu. There’s nothing quite like seeing an ancient depiction of doggy style or a girl on top with a spanking paddle.

Abruptly post-brothel, the tour ended, with Fabio saying goodbye in a matter of seconds and wandering off into the crowds. We wandered off on our own, in the direction of a hastily pointed out theatre district. Why the tour didn’t go there I don’t know, because it was by far the best thing I saw there. An entire Roman theatre, still intact, rows upon rows of tiered seating gazing down on the stage. From the top, you could look out and see more of the 163 square kilometers of city than you would ever be able to touch on in a day. You could also see an 18th century house perched high above the ruins, the only building still remaining from the period between eruption and excavation and showing just how deeply the ruins had once been buried.

Courtney was in his element but it was hot and the cobblestones were doing unfriendly things to my knee, weak from an injury a couple of years ago. We meandered along the Villa of Mysteries, stopping for gelato at an Autogrill in the middle of the ruins before finding the train home. Although Fabio was less than inspiring, the 10 Euro each we spent on joining him was well parted with. An audio guide means hunting for discreet numbers adorning various structures and without one or other you would have no idea that those big concrete urn-looking things were the ancient machines of a bakery, or notice the phallus-shaped road stone discreetly pointing the way to the Red Light District.

The town was the 4th-largest in Italy when it was buried, and was mid-reconstruction following a massive earthquake several years earlier. Because of reconstruction efforts, some of the ruins were ruins back when they were covered. Others, like the Temple of Apollo, were already 600 years old. Seeing the toppled columns of the Basilica or the overgrown crumbling walls of an old home is cool, but it’s not until you see the shops lining the market or the take away stores in the residential areas that you can blur your vision and see carts coming down the road, sliding between the pedestrian crossing stones, or old ladies coming out of the Laundromat with their freshly pee-cleaned washing.

Courtney loved the shopkeepers house because the layout and his day-to-day activities were exactly like the TV show Spartacus. It was cool knowing how accurate Spartacus is and using the show as a way of seeing the house come to life. Of the 20,000 people that lived there, most got out ok, and most of those that didn’t were slaves, not even Pompeian to begin with. When the town was covered, no one actually knew where it was until the discovery of Herculaneum gave some indication as to where nearby Pompei might be. And now, we wander the streets again, wearing down the cobblestones, drinking from the same fountains, staring down at the same stage from the same seats. It’s surreal, and haunting, and hot, a so worth it.