Italy 2004 - Virginia and Mark's Travel Diaries
- Submitted by: Virginia Scott, Australia
- Submission Date: 24th Jun 2006
Wednesday 9th June,2004 London to Rome
At 4.30pm we land at Fiumicino or Leonardo da Vinci Airport in Rome. This is more like it! The weather is hot and sunny, no-one is speaking English and Italians are everywhere! A monorail takes us to baggage collection then we catch the airport train into the city. After half an hour we enter the outskirts of Rome and see ancient ruins already. At Termini Station we put on our packs and head off to find our accommodation that weve already booked on the internet. I think we take the long way round and its a hot thirty minute walk to Via Giovanni Lanza. At last we find the right address in a row of old buildings with an avenue of trees outside. Mark presses the buzzer for the Red Rose Bed and Breakfast but no-one answers. Inside the foyer another couple is also trying to get in so Mark makes a call on his mobile. While we wait we chat with the young American backpackers whove been in Italy for ages and give us a few tips. I just love this foyer with its marble floor and wrought iron winding staircase. Its so very Italian and the real thing. Soon a lady called Anna Rosa arrives with the key. Shes a buxom bleached blonde in her fifties and not exactly friendly until she wants us to come to her restaurant.
The Red Rose is fabulously Italian! Our room is huge with ornate furniture, a marble floor, a chandelier, two velvet couches and a gilt mirror over the fireplace. The window has three sets of shutters and looks onto an old convent. Mark opens the shutters to let the afternoon sun flow into our room lovely! We also have a shared bathroom and a homey kitchen where well have breakfast tomorrow morning.
After unpacking we walk up to the busy Via Tonna to look for Anna Rosas restaurant. Sorry, Anna Rosa, its far too expensive so we find a small osteria instead and sit at a table on the sidewalk to order wine and a capricciosa pizza - olives, prosciutto, mushrooms and artichokes. Now we wander the streets and stop at a small fruit and vegetable shop. The owners are a friendly old couple and we buy cherries, onions, tomatoes and a lettuce that we drop back at the Red Rose. Further down Via Giovanni Lanza we find a wonderful little piazza called Piazza Madonna del Mondi in a maze of tiny laneways. It has a fountain in the middle and cafes on two sides. We have a lovely time sitting in one of the cafes watching the locals and drinking expensive vino bianco to celebrate our first night in Italy.
Thursday 10th June, 2004 Rome
Buongiorno! Our first full day in Rome. It was a bit noisy last night with traffic outside our window and guests coming and going but we still managed to get plenty of sleep. By seven thirty were up, showered and having breakfast made for us by another Italian lady in the kitchen. She doesnt even bother trying to be friendly and throws us stale croissants, tea, coffee and orange juice welcome to Italy.
At eight thirty we set off and realize that we can see the Roman Forum at the end of our street dont know how we missed seeing it last night. Our first stop is the Colosseum. Its only a five minute walk and sits in the middle of a sort of giant roundabout. It looks wonderful even though its now just a shell of its former glory. The queue isnt too long and were inside within fifteen minutes.
Climbing the stairs to the top level we can see how incredibly huge it is. It once held fifty thousand spectators who during the one hundred day inauguration games watched five thousand animals killed and gladiators fight to the death. During another set of games that lasted one hundred and seventeen days, over nine thousand gladiators died. They could even fill the arena with water to put on displays of sea battles. Its hard to imagine all this happening in this lovely peaceful place. We spend an hour or so inside then I have a photo taken with one of the gladiators out in the forecourt.
Now we head for the Roman Forum which is just a short walk uphill along the Via Sacra. At the top of the hill is the pretty Arco di Settimio Severo where we sit on a boulder in the shade to eat bananas for morning tea. From here we can see the whole area the Basilica Aemilia, temples, churches and columns all in ruins amongst orange poppy fields beautiful! This is also where Caesar was buried and where Mark Antony gave his famous speech Friends, Romans, countrymen lend me your ears; I come to bury Caesar not to praise him. Its so much bigger and beautiful than we expected and so spread out that its still a relaxing haven despite the hundreds of tourists.
We walk up the stairs on the far side to Capitoline Hill for an even better view and to see the Piazza del Campidoglio. The piazza is surrounded by three palaces and reached by the Cordonata which is a wide ramp designed by Michelangelo. At the bottom of the ramp its just a short walk to the Piazza Venezia which is dominated by the spectacular monument of Vittoriano. A fountain and pool at the bottom is a good place to cool down as we splash water over our arms and legs.
From here we walk through back laneways then sit on the shaded steps of a church to look at more monuments across the street this whole city seems to be a treasure trove of ancient history. Mark has packed a salad for our lunch but we stop at a nearby supermarket to buy more supplies two bottles of wine, a loaf of crusty bread, salami, a block of Edam cheese and prosciutto. We plan to be out all day and to have a picnic somewhere wonderful.
Using our map we soon find the Pantheon, the next stop on our itinerary. Its surrounded by lively cafes and men playing Italian music on accordions which adds to the wonderful atmosphere. The Pantheon itself is spectacular and apparently the greatest architectural achievement of the Roman Empire. The marble floor spans a forty three metre diameter circle and the dome is also a soaring forty three metres high. Outside we sit at the base of one of the sixteen Corinthian columns to have our picnic lunch and to watch all the action.
Its so hot by now that at nearby Piazza Navona we sit on the edge of one of the fountains to paddle in the cold water. Pigeons are sitting on the nude statues and one is pecking at a doodle. Two young boys have thrown their mate fully clothed into the fountain and throw the poor guy in again when they see our video camera. In the centre of the piazza is Bellinis beautiful Fountain of the Four Rivers and surrounding the fountain are a few hawkers and artists selling original paintings of Rome.
From here we make our way to the famous Trevi Fountain. This is set in a tiny piazza and is every bit as magical as wed expected. The sunshine is glaring as its reflected off the white marble sculptures and the blue pool beneath. Hundreds of tourists are crammed into this little square but we find an empty space on the edge of the pool to throw in three coins each over our shoulders. In a nearby air-conditioned internet café we spend an hour emailing home then head back out to find the Spanish Steps. We read the map wrong and lose our way for an hour and have to stop for soft cone Cornettos. The best part of getting lost is that we stumble across Bellinis Fontana del Tritone in Piazza Barbarini. This is one of my favourite sculptures because the very spunky body of the figure reminds me of my darling with his clothes off I wish he says but I know its true. An old man is running around the piazza dancing and dunking his head in the water and spouting it out of his mouth like a fountain.
At last we find the Spanish Steps but were almost too hot to care. Hoards of more fucking tourists are here as well. The heat is sweltering so we dont hang around for long but take the Metro to Termini Station. Weve never seen a train so packed and I even have a man rubbing his crotch against my leg. At Termini we cant stand the thought of another packed train or another pervert so we decide to walk back to the Red Rose. On the way we stop at a supermarket to buy more picnic supplies cheese, proscuitto, salad dressing and aluminium containers. The checkout chick is a model of Italian service lazy, talking to her friends and a scowl. Closer to home we come across a travel agent and book tickets for the train to Florence leaving tomorrow morning.
So glad to finally get back to our room to lie around on the bed eating cherries and reading with the fan keeping us cool. At seven thirty we wander down to Piazza Madonna then find a crowded pizzeria to have dinner. The atmosphere couldnt be more Italian if it tried. An accordionist is wandering around between the tables, everyone is smoking, theres a jug of wine on every table, the air is thick with garlic and everyone except us is Italian. Predictably the menu choices are pizza or pasta so we order both as well as a jug of vino russo. The tomato and basil bread seems to be free till we get the bill. A great night.
Friday 11th June, 2004 Rome
Both wearing earplugs we slept much better and ready for our second day in Rome. Waking at seven we shower, have breakfast and Mark packs our picnic food. Outside is hot already but its great to see the sun and blue skies above. At nearby Cavour Station we buy a day ticket each then catch the Metro to the St Peters stop in Vatican City. A ten minute walk from the station takes us through pleasant streets past shops and souvenir stalls to reach the seventeenth century Piazza San Pietro. St Pauls Square is a massive area in front of the domed basilica with fountains in the centre and flanked by semi-circular Doric colonnades four rows deep. We sit here in the shade to admire the view, eat cherries and feed the pigeons.
Before we can enter St Pauls Basilica we must line up for fifteen minutes in the sun then have our bags checked. Only one gate is open because the guy in charge of the other gate is having a casual chat and a fag. Its free to get in which is like most of the sights weve seen in Rome so far. Once inside the foyer its much cooler and the atmosphere is amazing already. But the Basilica itself is even more amazing. The interior is huge with shafts of sunlight beaming in from the tall windows above. We stop first to look at Michelangelos Pieta which, in a sculpture or painting, means the dying Christ in the arms of the Madonna very moving. The Basilica has so many other famous statues but the building itself is so marvellous that its hard to put it into words so I wont.
The other wonder of Vatican City is the Vatican Museums mainly because this is where well find the Sistine Chapel or the Capella Sistina. The sun is scorching and we line up in the street behind hundreds of people. As we get to the corner we realize that the line goes up another street, around a corner, up that street, around another corner and then up another street. One and a half hours later were finally paying our 11 Euro each to get in. To reach the Sistine Chapel we have to walk through untold rooms of priceless paintings and statues while all the walls and ceilings are painted with frescos of Biblical stories. This is really unexpected and by the time we arrive at the Sistine Chapel its almost an anti-climax. No cameras, no videos and definitely no talking and it seems that the main job of the guards inside is to go shoosh. We see the famous Creation of Man at the very centre of the ceiling and The Last Judgement on the back wall and Mark manages to get most of it on video. The fact that most of the chapel was painted single-handedly by Michelangelo himself is enough to draw thousands of visitors here every day.
The exit to the Museums is back at the Basilica where we see some of the army of the Swiss Guards wearing the traditional blue, red and yellow costumes. We decide to have lunch in the shade of the colonnades so we wash our hands and splash water over our faces from one of the water fountains weve seen all over Rome. The water is freezing cold and great to fill our empty water bottles. Mark makes lunch of salami, lettuce, onion, tomato, cheese and dressing. Untold people are here now and most of them are trying to get out of the sun. I love feeding the pigeons in these piazzas but theyre not too fond of our salad today.
For a change we think well get a bus back to Rome so we wait at the bus stop near the station. An old lady waiting with us looks like shes got sunstroke or something thats making her look very sick. We wait for ages but its too hot to hang around any longer so we decide to go back by train. Catch the Metro to Termini Station then Line B to Cavour. We buy supplies at a supermarket then cherries and tomatoes from our favourite little fruit shop on the way to the Red Rose a great relief to get back to our room to lie around on the bed with the fan on.
Later I decide to walk up to the internet café to see if any emails have come through and then at seven oclock we grab our bottle of wine and wander around a few local piazzas. None compare to our favourite Piazza Madonna so we end up back here for the third night in a row. We sit on the steps of the fountain drinking our wine and watching the locals. After finishing the bottle we head up Via Cavour to find a small pizzeria where we have a lovely time eating pizza and drinking a jug of vino bianco.
Even though we dont leave till nine oclock its still light outside. These very long days are perfect for travelling because we can fit so much in as well as not having to rush.
Saturday 12th June, 2004 Rome to Florence (Firenze)
Wake at 5.30, shower and walk down to Cavour Station to catch the Metro to Termini Station. Boarding our very flash train we pull out at 7am for Florence. Its only a one and a half hour trip through the Tuscan countryside. We eat a bag of cherries and I catnap most of the way cant seem to stay awake. Arriving at 8.30 at Florences Stazione di Santa Maria Novella, we book in our backpacks, have brekky at McDonalds (sad but true) and book tickets for Venice tomorrow morning.
Using our Lonely Planet map we leave the station to look for the Galleria Academia to see the statue of David. We end up at the River Arno near the Ponte alle Grazie and the Ponte Vecchio. The river looks like glass this morning with the buildings opposite reflected in the still water. The Ponte Vecchio is a 14th century pedestrian bridge lined with expensive jewellery shops and at the moment is standing room only with daggy tourists. We cross the bridge to the other side and walk for ages looking for the Galleria Academia. No luck till we finally realise that Ive marked it wrong on the map and its right over on the other side of town. Back across the Ponte Vecchio we line up at the Uffizi Gallery but I have urgent toilet business (too many cherries) so we find a public loo in a backstreet have to pay to get in. Cant be bothered going to the Uffizi so we head back towards the Duomo. On the way we visit the Piazza della Signoria. This is like an outdoor museum and we see Ammannatis Fountain of Neptune and sculptures like Cellinis Perseus.
Deciding to leave the Galleria Academia until later we head back to the station to catch the No7 bus to the village of Fiesole in the hills above Florence. Bus fares are done on the honour system in Italy so we dont pay. Its a pleasant half hour drive out of town with spectacular views of Florence beneath us and Tuscan farmhouses perched on the hills above. Fiesole is a seventh century Etruscan town and still has a beautiful cathedral next to the Piazza Mino da Fiesole. This is where the bus drops us but we decide to explore the other side of town first. We walk up the hilly main street to a leafy area that overlooks a deep valley dotted with olive groves and vineyards. Mark makes our picnic lunch on a park bench near a low stone wall built on the edge of the hill.
Back in the piazza we eat gelatos in a cute café then check out the views of Florence from another café facing the city. This really shows how very lovely it is a sea of old terracotta rooftops and the magnificent dome of the Duomo dominating it all. Not a sign of modern architecture to be seen. Now its time to get back down there. Buses run frequently from the piazza and we dont have long to wait get away with not paying again.
Half an hour later were back in Florence and feeling very hot and tired but decide to have one more go at finding the Galleria Academia. On the way we buy a big tapestry at an outdoor market - will probably be our only souvenir of Italy. At last we find the Academia where surprisingly theres no queue at all. We pay 9.5 Euros each and see lots of beautiful paintings and statues but the prize is Michelangelos David. The statue sits alone beneath a tall dome at the end of a wide corridor and is truly spectacular just love it! Mark takes a sneak video then we sit for a while just staring at it. Suddenly I have another toilet emergency and make a beeline for the loo - no more cherries, please!
Now we just want to get to the hostel so we make our way to the train station. Getting our packs out of storage we catch the No17 bus to take us out to the ostello dont pay again. We know that its about half an hour out of town but were not sure where to get off. I keep asking the driver are we there yet?. We share the bus with a group of nuns in grey habits and they get off about half way. At last the driver gives us the signal and we can see the gates of the hostel across the road. A long, long driveway winds through a wooded area till we can see Ostello Villa Camerata up ahead.
Its a grand sandstone coloured mansion with green shutters on the windows and a walled garden at the front and supposed to be one of the best hostels in Europe. Inside, the foyer is as big and elaborate as a ballroom. We check in quickly as wed been able to book on the internet from home. Its single sex accommodation only so we go off to our separate wings. Mark is sharing with three other guys who arent in the room at the moment and Im sharing with two Asian girls and a Swedish girl called Mona. Downstairs we sit in the shade of the back balcony drinking and eating cheese. Mark reads while I watch the local cats and catch up on the diary. From the Lonely Planet we choose a pensione for the next two nights in Venice and make a booking from our mobile. Later we go for showers and to get changed for dinner. I wash my hair and then cant get the hairdryer to work have to go a la natural yuk! Dinner is pasta, roast chicken, a breadroll and a peach for 8.5 Euro. Mona comes to sit with us and then an American guy called Tom. Have a fun night drinking and talking till 11pm.
I manage to sleep okay even though a noisy party is going on in the garden all night. Despite earplugs Mark doesnt sleep well at all.
Sunday 13th June, 2004 Florence to Venice
At 6.15am we meet downstairs feels like we havent seen each other for a week. Not at all fussed on this sleeping apart thing. Its nice to be leaving early even though its a bit cool this morning. We manage to catch a bus just pulling out and have a quick trip into the city through the empty streets steal another free ride. At the station we have McDonalds for breakfast this is becoming a habit and eat it sitting on our packs on the station floor while we wait for our train information to come up on the board.
As we leave Florence at nine oclock Im nodding off almost before we leave the station. The weather has turned cool and cloudy and theres even a few drops of rain on the window. An hour and a half later we pull into Bologna where we have an hour to wait before changing trains for Venice. By now its raining but we still have a peek outside the station to decide if well have a look around. There doesnt seem to be much point in this weather so we spend the time waiting for the train by pulling out any warm clothes we can find from the backpacks. We just chuck on anything and end up looking like total retards. By the time we pull into Venices Statione di Santa Lucia an hour later, the rain has cleared with only partial cloud and intermittent bursts of sunshine. The station opens directly onto the Grand Canal which is bustling and full of excitement. We cross a nearby bridge called the Ponte de Scalzi and make our way through the laneways and along smaller canals to easily find our hotel, Albergo Casa Peron in the Santa Croce quarter. Its an atmospheric pensione in a narrow laneway amongst cafés and pizzerias. The owner has a big green parrot on his shoulder and shows us our room on the third floor.
After showers we lunch at an outdoor café just near our pensione lasagne, calzone, and half a litre of vino bianco. Feeling very relaxed we wander through the narrow streets, through laneways so tiny we can touch the buildings on either side, across wooden arched bridges spanning big and little canals and finally end up at the Canal Grande. Here at San Toma Pier we buy tickets for a vaporetta to take us to the San Marco quarter. The canal is like the main street in any other city and busy with vaporettas (motorized river ferries which go along the Canal), traghettos (like gondolas and which go across the Canal), river taxis, police launches, private boats and the tourist gondolas. Other gondolas are tied up to blue and white striped poles sticking up out of the water and the gondoliers wear black and white clothes with straw hats very Venetian. The buildings are built right to the edge of the Canal and most have boat moorings with doorways leading straight into the house. With flowered window boxes it all looks very pretty and romantic.
At the San Marco Pier we disembark with a crowd of other tourists to join the masses that are here to see the famous Piazza San Marco. The pier is alive with tourist stalls selling carnival masks and plates painted with Venetian scenes hideous. Mark hears a familiar and unmistakable voice in the crowd its Pauline Hanson! My God, whats she doing in Italy? Doesnt she know its full of Italians non-Australians wogs! She actually looks quite attractive in a long pink top and I stalk her to get her on video. She seems to have a couple of minders with her - to keep away the wogs maybe. Get bored with Pauline so Mark buys corn from a street cart and we feed the pigeons. Now we have a look at the very elaborate Basilica in St Marks Square. This is probably the most famous piazza in Italy. Its massive with expensive boutiques and cafes all around and the centre filled with tourists and pigeons. Florian is a very famous, very old and very expensive café that has an orchestra playing outside. We stop to watch and decide we have to sit down at one of the tables outside even if it costs us a bomb it does. Coffee and a hot chocolate cost us thirty five Euros or about fifty Australian dollars but worth it to be sitting here in Venice being entertained by classical musicians. One of the musicians is getting off playing his accordion while waiters wearing white tuxedos serve us our drinks. Every now and again the pigeons must get spooked and do a lap of the square before settling down again beautiful. Another orchestra is playing on the other side of the square so we have stereo classical music.
From St Marks Square we plunge into the crowded touristy back streets to find an internet café then melt in with a tourist group to watch a glass-blowing exhibition. From here we catch another vaporetta (dont pay this time) to San Toma Pier and the sanity and tranquility of our truly Italian little area. As we walk back towards our pensione we see lots of gondolas filled with awful tourists and it really doesnt appeal to me at the moment. The canals themselves look quite lovely though at this time of day with the sun low in the sky so we decide to grab a slab of pizza and eat it on the edge of the Rio del Malcanton. This quiet little canal is just a stones throw from our pensione and were the only ones here except for a few local boats passing by. Later we wander around the backstreets and come across the big Campo Santa Margherita. A campo is the same as a piazza but in Venice only St Marks is given the name piazza. We sit on a bench in the centre of the square drinking our Bacardi and watching the local kids playing while their parents eat and drink in the open-air cafes around the outside.
Its dark by now so we buy kebabs and go back to our quiet little canal to eat them on the steps. Im ready for bed so I go back to our room while Mark finds a nearby bar to watch todays soccer game.
Monday 14th June, 2004 Venice
Up at seven thirty to shower and have breakfast in the little dining room on the second floor stale croissants, jam, tea, coffee and orange juice. The weather is sunny and warm as we set off for the station to catch a vaporetta to the Rialto Bridge. This lovely arched stone bridge was built in 1592 and is one of only three that cross the Canal Grande. Weve come to see the one thousand year old market but were too early so we decide to catch a ferry to one of the outer islands. This San Marco quarter is similar to our Santa Croce area - a confusing labyrinth of tiny alleyways and canals but we somehow find our way. We stop at a small supermarket then easily find the vaporetta stop at Fondamente Nuove.
Risking not paying again, we jump on a ferry to take us to the island of Murano. From the water we have a wide view of Venice then make a stop at the small island of San Michele. This is Venices cemetery and where a crowd of people get off carrying big bunches of flowers. Murano is the next stop. This is where the famous Venetian glass is made and at a glass workers showroom on Fondamento dei Vetroi we watch the artisans doing their thing. Very interesting but we dont stay long as weve seen it all before. The whole village seems to be full of shops selling the finished glass products most of it hideously elaborate or else too expensive. The wind is driving us crazy so we take refuge in the Chiesa dei SS Maria Donata cathedral. We walk along some of the small canals then cross a bridge to buy bread from a nice lady in one of the small shops facing the canal. There doesnt seem much to do here so we decide to dump the other islands and head back to Venice.
At Fondamente Nuove pier we wander through cute laneways, across little bridges, along canals and past stone houses with flowering window boxes on our way back to the Rialto Bridge. At a marker near the bridge we buy a silk scarf for Mum and a soccer shirt for Mark. Crossing over the Grand Canal to San Polo we stop for an hour to sit in a sunny piazza to have our picnic lunch on a red bench. Very pleasant here watching the locals doing their shopping.
After a rest in our room, we walk to Campo Santa Margherita where we buy cherries from a market stall in the middle cant resist them despite the probable consequences. At a very Italian bar Mark watches some of the Italy versus Denmark game on the television while I stuff myself with cherries. Moving to another bar closer to our pensione we wash down a pizza with a few vinos then go back to Campo Santa Margherita. Its very dark by now and the locals are out in force. Everyone seems to be drinking a very orange coloured drink called a spritza bitter so we order one to share between us. Good move because its horrible or maybe its just the depressed state Ive suddenly talked myself into.
Sometimes I cant understand what I feel or rather what I dont feel. Here I am in a country that most people would give their right arm to see and yet I dont feel anything. Everything is beautiful so theres no disappointment there but still I feel nothing. So should it bother me, being different, or should I be happy that I am. I knew it would be this way and I think Mark did as well. It was the driving force behind coming here in a way - to see for ourselves if Europe was the be all and end all, as they say. But our love for Asia has out-won the norm of the Europe thing, something wed both suspected all along. Finally getting this sorted out in our heads, I must take Marks stance - that well enjoy it for what it is but know where we really belong. Time to accept our weirdness and just enjoy the holiday but from now on go where our hearts take us. God, Im such a drama queen!
Tuesday 15th June, 2004 Venice to Verona to Lake Gardia to La Spezia
Today we leave Venice and pick up our hire car to take us to Verona. After breakfasting in the dining room were ready to leave at 8.30am. With packs on we walk towards the Grand Canal. Lots of Venetians are on their way to work either on foot or by vaporetta. Much nicer to be amongst the locals than the tourists who arent out of their hotels as yet. Mark finds our car rental place easily and we spend the next half an hour with the very vivacious woman in charge. Like lots of Italian women shes volumptuous with waving hands and passionate phone calls. At last our car arrives but smaller and not the one wed ordered. I ask her if this means we get a discount but she says No this one better. You see whatever.
As we head out of town Mark is getting used to a left hand drive and driving on the right hand side of the road while I try to turn on the radio. It crashes to the floor and thats the end of that. Crossing the Ponte della Liberta bridge we leave Venice behind. Trucks and cars fly past us but were doing fine in our little blue Datsun. On this glorious hot sunny day we pass through open countryside then pass the turnoff to Vicenza and one and a half hours later arrive in Verona. The old part of the city is across the Ponte Nuovo bridge on the River Adige where we stop at the first parking spot we can find. Incredibly when we check the map were within a few metres of the Piazza del Erbe which is exactly where we want to be. A lively market is set up in the piazza which has a fountain in the centre and surrounded by historical palaces, cafes, wandering accordion players and churches. For lunch we buy cordona which is dry and horrible so we feed it to the pigeons.
A short walk from the piazza is Casa di Guilietta which is a leafy courtyard with the balcony from that famous scene in Romeo and Juliet. Theres also a bronze life-sized statue of Juliet where Mark has his photo taken with his hand on Juliets right breast for luck. Back at the piazza we walk under the Arco della Costa which has a whale bone suspended from the top and, which legend has it, will fall on the first just person who walks beneath it.
Through interesting back laneways we find the Caffe Antica Osteria al Puoma as recommended by Lonely Planet. The tavern has a friendly, dimly lit atmosphere where locals are drinking and eating. Because wed had to dump our lunch in the piazza we now have a bowl of sausage and ricotta tagliatelle and drink the local strawberry wine called fragolino.
Now we set out for the River Adige where we walk beside the stone wall that follows its high banks. The current is incredibly fast and we can see the first century built Roman theatre on the hill opposite. This really is a beautiful town. Wed planned to spend the night here in Verona but its only one oclock so we decide to keep moving. Making our way back to the car through arched colonnades we pass statues of Dante and Garibaldi then take off for Lake Gardia.
Even though we found our way easily into Verona we cant find our way out. Happily cruising along an empty traffic lane, a police car pulls up beside us and the policeman in the passenger seat holds up a kind of ping pong bat with Italian writing on it. We pull over and he tells us that were driving in a bus-only lane and wants to see our papers shit! Luckily he can see that were just dumb tourists and lets us off. Mark asks him the way to Lake Gardia and he gives us the directions. As we pull away they drive up beside us again and yell out eh, follow us! and give us a police escort out of the city. Not sure if theyre being friendly or just want us to get the hell out of their town.
Once out of Verona we find ourselves lost again and end up miles from where wed been headed. Backtracking, we at last find the lake. Very pretty but been there done that so we take off only to get lost again. Finally after a few hours we make our way to the towns of Modena and Parma then head for the mountains. The views are spectacular but where the hell are we going? The road winds up and up around hairpin bends till were so high up were in a forest of pine trees. Finally back down the other side of the mountain we eventually and thankfully join the A15. This is more like it. Now were racing through the Italian countryside as fast as our little buzz box will go. Again we have fantastic views of mountains and deep valleys while the road cuts through the mountains ahead via tunnels that seem to go on forever. Bigger cars are tearing past us, obviously going much faster than the 130kph speed limit. I make a phone call to a cheap hotel in La Spezia to make sure we can get a room for the night. Soon we can see the blue Mediterranean ahead of us and were nearly there after eight hours on the road.
The outskirts of town is unattractive to say the least but quite pretty down near the waterfront. Its a modern city lacking the historical character of other towns weve seen but still appealing in its own way. One way streets mean that we do a few laps of the inner city while we try to get as close to our hotel as possible. Mark finally finds a car park only a block from the Albergo Nuovo Spezia. This is in a pedestrian-only area in a quiet alleyway and we like the look of it. After ringing the bell, the bottom door opens and we find our hotel on the first floor. Its a rabbit warren of rooms to rent plus the owners quarters old and spartan but still very Italian. The owner is a smiling old man, full of information and unusually friendly for an Italian.
By the time we shower and unpack its time to eat. Just around the corner in another quiet alleyway is a café recommended by Lonely Planet called Trattoria da Luciano. We sit outside with the locals who all seem to have brought their dogs along. The dogs even sit up at the tables and everyone is smoking. Its so lovely sitting here in the warm night air and we have the best pizzas so far. The jug of white house wine is perfect as always. From here we move on to a nearby bar for more drinks and to use the internet before falling into bed a big day.
Wednesday 16th June, 2004 La Spezia to Cinque Terre to La Spezia
Our plan for today is to catch the train from La Spezia to The Cinque Terre. Cinque Terre is Italian for five towns and includes the villages of Riomaggiore, Manarola, Corniglia, Vernazza and Monterosso.
Skipping breakfast we shower and drive to the free parking area next to the station. At the ticket office Mark buys day-passes which let us travel between the five villages and back to La Spezia. Lots of other tourists are doing the same thing and everyone looks very summery and beachy. Along the Genoa/La Spezia line the train passes through long dark tunnels to burst into a glare of sunshine at the first village of Riomaggiore. At the cute station we walk through a pedestrian tunnel to reach the town. It clings to the cliff face with four storey cement rendered buildings all painted in soft shades of cream, yellow and pink. To get down to the water we walk through tiny dark alleyways between the houses. It smells dank and fishy especially on the waters edge where fishing boats are pulled up onto the shore. We find a spot on the rocks to sunbake in our swimmers and to enjoy this lovely place. So nice to have the sun on our backs again.
An hour later were back on the train which weve decided to catch to the last town of Monterosso. The train passes through the hills between each town so that as we emerge from a pitch dark tunnel were greeted by a wonderful scene of golden sunshine, blue water and a picture postcard village.
Unlike the other four towns, which hug the cliffs, Monterossa sits at the bottom of the hill and spreads out along the coast. Also unlike the other towns, it has a long sandy beach covered with umbrellas and sunbathers. A huge rocky peak juts out of the water in the middle of the beach and the road in front is lined with cafes and tourist shops. We chat to an Australian woman and her daughter then eat gelatos and drink the local limonchina under a tree overlooking the beach.
Back on the train we head for Vernazza which is said to be the most picturesque of the five towns. It sits in a protected cove with a small rocky promenade covered with cafes and a thin strip of sandy beach on the other side of the water. We sit on a stone wall to wait for a table at the best café on the headland. Sitting under bright yellow umbrellas, we have pizza, tuna salad and a jug of vino bianco while looking back at the town and the boats bobbing in the cove. Lunch over, we jump off the rocks for our first swim in the Mediterranean. The water is crystal clear and so nice to cool down. After drying off and a bit of sunbaking we catch the train for the hilltop town of Corniglia.
At Corniglia station a shuttle bus takes us up through the vineyards to the town which sits at the top of the cliff. Its a small village of narrow streets, tall stone houses with green shutters and churches surrounded by terraced vine clad hills. Looking out over the town from its highest point at Belvedere Santa Maria, its a maze of terracotta rooftops and church spires. In a tiny cobbled laneway near the main tree shaded piazza we stop to look inside an old doorway to watch two men bottling wine. They welcome us in to taste of one of the local red wines before we run to catch the bus back down to the station.
The next town along is Manarola. This sits above a rocky beach where sunbakers are spread out over the rocks and young people are jumping from the top of a massive outcrop into the water way below. We spend ages watching them then walk around the headland to get a better view of this really breathtaking town. Up in the village Mark has a beer outside a trattoria while I buy an icecream and wander around the shops. Before leaving we buy a bottle of the local limonchina which is made from the lemons grown around Monterosso. But now its time to head back to La Spezia.
At Manarola station were so tired we crash out on the ground till the train pulls in. This has been such a lovely day and these villages are really something special. I think that what makes them so different is the lack of motorised transport which not only keeps them peaceful but also out of reach of the dreaded tourist coaches. Its good to get back to La Spezia, though, and were soon at Albergo Nuovo Spezia. We change rooms before showering in an old fashioned shared bathroom then head out for the night. After a drink at the internet bar we eat again at Trattoria da Luciano and drink jugs of the house white. Again we end up at the bar so that Mark can watch the soccer on the television. A few men are here playing a wooden board game with the barmaid and we enjoy this very local atmosphere.
Thursday 17th June, 2004 La Spezia to Pisa to San Gimignano to Sienna
This morning we leave early for Pisa. At this hour the autostrad is relatively quiet and we reach the outskirts of Pisa in an hour. Within seconds we see the Leaning Tower over to our left. Parking the car in a side street, we cross over to the Cathedral and the Tower. Theres a slight mist in the air which creates an almost magical backdrop for them both. The Cathedral is a green and white marble Romanesque church started in 1064 and sits in the grassed Campo dei Miracoli. Were too early to go in and even the tourist stalls are only just opening. We decide to move the car to the other side of the campo to get a better view of the Leaning Tower. Once you could climb it but now its under repair so that it doesnt fall over altogether.
From Pisa we hit the back roads that lead to the walled medieval city of San Gimignano. The scenery is pretty and after about an hours drive we see the towers of the old city perched on a hill before us. It looks wonderful until we see untold tourist buses in the car park beneath the main gate great! The gate called Porta San Giovanni leads us up a cobbled street lined with expensive shops to the Piazza del Duomo and the Piazza della Cisterna. Both squares are filled with tourists and umbrella covered stalls selling crap to tourists just hate it. We escape the rat race and find some lovely quiet laneways with locals sitting outside their doorways and views from the city wall of lower parts of the town and the vineyards beyond.
Leaving San Gimignano behind, we head for the hills that will take us to Sienna. We cant find anywhere to have a picnic until we finally spot a place on the edge of a vineyard. A quick u-turn and we pull into a dirt track just off the road. In the distance we can see the towers of San Gimignano and before us is a green valley of vineyards and cypress trees. Very romantic until we notice the toilet paper behind the bushes and the bull ants trying to pinch our lunch.
Finally reach Sienna and easily find the ostello on the main road into the city. Its a semi-modern monstrosity but we do get a double room so were happy. After a rest we drive into town but as no cars are allowed in the medieval centre we park near the outside wall of the fort. Sienna is a hilly ancient town with paved streets and very picturesque. We stop to look at the thirteenth century Gothic cathedral then find Il Campo. This is a wide fourteenth century square in the heart of the city and slopes upwards on all sides. We can see a bar with a verandah high up on a wall overlooking the square so we find a couple of chairs right on the balcony. A beer or two later we wander around town then head back to the ostello.
For dinner we walk down the street to a busy pizza restaurant then watch the soccer back at the ostello before an early night.
Friday 18th June, 2004 Sienna to Montepulciano to Assisi
Breakfast is provided in the price of our room so we eat it sitting in the sun on the side verandah before heading off through the Tuscan countryside to Umbria. After passing through a few uneventful modernish towns we see the old walled city of Montepulciano sitting high up on a hill. The road twists its way upwards to reach the bottom of the town where we leave the car in a leafy laneway with lovely views of the surrounding countryside. The streets of Montepulciano are steep and narrow like all these old Etruscan towns so its a strenuous walk up the Piazza Grande. This ancient square has the usual cafes and palaces with the Cathedral taking up one whole side. This is Lidos home town so we go into the cathedral to see where he would have come as a boy. At one of the cafes we stand at the counter, as is the Italian way, and drink thick black coffee and eat one of the local cakes. Mark stays in the piazza while I pay to go into one of the palazzas and climb up to the rooftop to look out over the town. Nothing modern here at all and very few tourists so at last we feel were seeing the real Italy. We sit at the fountain in the piazza for a while then walk up to the castle before getting back in the car to head for Assisi.
On the way we stop at a pretty place for wine and cheese tasting but were just beaten by a busload of tourists. We look around anyway and love the traditional atmosphere very gloomy inside with lots of polished wood. Onward to Assisi we drive through the town of Chiusi, around Lago di Trasimeno and past the turnoff to Perugia. At last we see Assisi clinging to the side of a hill. It looks almost too lovely to be real. Driving up the hill we come to the top of the town and park the car. Walking down narrow streets with stone houses on both sides we end up at the Piazza del Commune. This wide pretty square has cafes with flowering planter boxes, shops, palazzas and, of course, a fountain.
Just near the square through a stone archway and up a set of old brick stairs, we find Lieto Soggioro. This is a cute family-run pensione where a friendly young woman books is in for the night. For 40Euro we have a clean shared bathroom and a nice room with a shuttered window overlooking a shaded courtyard. Back up in the sunny piazza we sit under an umbrella for a panini lunch then grab our packs from the car. After a look around town, Mark has a rest on the bed while I do some window shopping and emailing.
At six thirty we walk down to the Basilica di San Francesco which is dedicated to St Francis of Assisi. Inside is typically beautiful but were too late to get into the lower church. More wandering around town, we buy a wooden St Francis cross then find an atmospheric trattoria in a quiet side alleyway. So nice sitting here with only a few locals having dinner.
On dusk we run back down to the Basilica where were just in time to see the sun setting behind the church. Up in the Piazza del Commune again we have drinks in an outdoor café and Mark has the most ginormous beer weve ever seen. The Italy/Sweden game is being played on a television inside and we hear loud cheers whenever Italy scores. Its so peaceful here with nuns in their grey habits and Francescan monks in their long black garbs. Were so glad we came to this lovely town. And were so glad we have our car. Besides having a new experience and a fun experience, weve been able to see so much more than we ever expected.
Saturday 19th June, 2004 Assisi to Pompeii
We want to have an early start today as we plan to make the long drive down the centre of Italy to reach Pompeii in time to visit the ruins. At seven oclock we pack then have breakfast in the dark dining room downstairs. The mumma of the house brings us our breakfast and what a surprise stale buns again! These Italians really dont make much of an effort and getting a free breakfast is definitely not a bonus. Weve decided that we really want to leave Italy earlier than planned and to get back to Bangkok so we ask the daughter to ring British Airways in Rome for us. No luck getting through but at least we have the phone number to try later.
Mark now brings the car down to Piazza Commune so we wont have to walk as far with our heavy packs. Leaving at a quarter to eight we set off for Perugia, get lost twice then eventually end up on the A1. Keeping on the autostrad the whole way we only stop once for baguettes at an Auto Grill. I make a call on our mobile to British Airways but sadly no seats from London to Bangkok. Seems like were stuck here. Five hours of driving later, with me snoring most of the way, we finally arrive in Pompeii.
Just opposite the ruins we see a camping ground and decide to stay here instead of the ostello which is further out of town. This is a pleasant change as well. The grounds are full of trees and were given a cabin with an annex at the side. For lunch we eat in an open-air café overlooking the campsites. Mark has a pizza but I order sausages and a tomato salad for something different. Bad move one sausage cut in half and a few skinny slices of tomato.
Its still too hot to visit the ruins so we lie around till five thirty then cross over to the main Porta Marina entrance where cafes and markets are still in full swing. We pay 10 Euro each to get in then spend an enjoyable couple of hours walking around. The ancient city of Pompeii was buried in AD 79 by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius which still looms ominously over the area. Ominous because the volcano is still active and could wipe out not only this same area but the huge city of Naples as well. The ruins are so much bigger than wed expected and unbelievably well preserved public buildings with colonnades, a brothel, murals, preserved bodies and floor mosaics. This is really something well never forget.
Coming back out through the Porta Marina we look around the market and buy a couple of prints of wall murals from old Pompeii. Crossing the busy road we head back to the cabin for drinks in the annex then on dusk wander up to the main road. We like the look of an outdoor osteria and settle in for the night. At first its quite empty but as it gets dark the Italians start piling in. This is excellent people watching with a mixture of families, young couples and groups of trendy teenagers. A huge television screen has been set up for tonights soccer match and old nineties songs are being played from somewhere inside. Three jugs of vino bianco later they run out so we go on to the vino busso. While we watch the soccer I serenade Mark - hes amazed at my voice I can tell by the stunned look on his face. What a great night our best yet!
Sunday 20th June, 2004 Pompeii to Sorrento to Positano
At eight oclock we pack the car and set off towards the Amalfi Coast on another glorious hot sunny day. We pass Naples and drive around the Bay of Naples to Sorrento. This popular holiday town is where we finally leave the car but it takes a frustrating half hour to actually find the drop-off point.
Instead of staying here tonight were heading further south along the Amalfi Coast to Positano. We walk to the train station which is where the SITA buses leave for the coastal route. With standing room only, we spend the next exciting hour flying around hairpin bends on a road scarily narrow and clinging by its toenails to the edge of the cliffs. The water below is a deep aqua blue and the view up and down the coast is truly spectacular.
The approach to Positano is postcard material. The town is bathed in golden sunshine while the top of the mountain it clings to is hidden by a soft mist. The bus drops us at the top of the town and just a few metres from Ostello Brikette where we have a booking for tonight. Apparently the hostel is run by backpackers who decide to hang around for a few months so were booked in by a dickhead Yank whos more than happy with himself. Of course, our booking is nowhere to be found but we still manage to get a room together. This is up a few flights of stairs and actually opens straight into the communal bathroom. We do have a nice garden view from our postage stamp sized window but there arent any sheets, the room stinks and we cant be here between the hours of 9.30am and 3.30pm. All this luxury for a mere $100 AUD get us the hell out of here and back to Bangkok!
Actually the ostello itself isnt too bad with a balcony overlooking the town and the sea beyond. Just down the hill we catch one of the small orange local buses that go up and down the hill all day. The road twists and turns all the way to the bottom passing hotels, cafes and shops all very Italian and expensive. The bus stops in a tiny space where the road ends and where the tourists are here in the hundreds. Narrow laneways lead down to the water but we decide to stop first for lunch. In a garden courtyard trattoria we have a horrible lunch and, because were feeling pissed off in general, we do the first runner of our lives.
Escaping down to the water at Spiaggia Grande, we sit amongst the sunbathers who have to hire deckchairs because the beach is covered in grey pebbles. This waterfront area is full of life swimmers, cafes, markets, ferries coming and going and tourists, tourists, tourists. On the pier we book tickets to visit the Isle of Capri tomorrow at eleven oclock then walk around the rocky headland to find the wonderful Lo Guarracino trattoria set high on the cliff face. We order cokes and enjoy this lovely leafy place with a cool breeze coming in off the Gulf of Salerno.
Back in Positano we window shop for about five micro-seconds (boring, boring, boring) then stop at the Chiesa di Santa Maria Assunta. Now we sneak past the runner café one at a time then catch the bus up to the ostello. At six oclock we decide to walk down to the water and eat at a café on the way. At Il Saraceno dOro we sit at an outside table for pizza and vino and watch the local world go by. Much nicer up here than down on the water where most of the tourists congregate. From here we walk down Via Fornillo past interesting houses and small vegetable gardens to Spiaggia del Fornille beach.
Its dusk by now so were the only ones here except for a couple of locals with their dog. We sit on deckchairs right on the water and enjoy the sound of the waves lapping against the pebbles. After dark we buy cokes at the beachside bar then follow the track around the cliffs back to the beach at Spiaggia Grande. From the cliff path Positano looks especially beautiful and we can see the twinkling lights of Amalfi further around the coast.
The cafes and restaurants right on the beach are literally bursting with happy holiday makers and all the shops and stalls are still open. Weve had enough for today though so we catch the bus back to the hostel.
Monday 21st June, 2004 Positano to Sorrento
Breakfast is on the balcony of the ostello but at the moment the sun is hidden behind the mist that seems to hang permanently on the mountain tops. Were leaving this morning for Sorrento but when a young French guy is booking us out he asks for the towels and sheets wed supposedly been given when we checked in yesterday. When we tell him we didnt get any he definitely thinks weve pinched them. Of course the smart-arsed Yank isnt around to tell him we werent given them in the first place so the French guy still thinks weve got them stuffed inside our packs - get fucked!!
Were heading back to Sorrento because weve decided to dump the trip to Capri cant face the tourists so we sit on a stone wall in the sun while we wait for the Sita bus. We manage to get seats today and pick ones on the left hand side of the bus to have the best views. Its an enjoyable trip till we realise weve left our pillow bag at the bus stop not a good start to the day.
Arriving in Sorrento at ten oclock, we book in at the Ostello della Sirene. At 50 Euros for a sunny room with double bunks and a bathroom, its much better value. The hostel itself is a funny little rabbit warren of rooms reached by a ladder-like staircase and with a dining room and café downstairs. Mark rings the Ostello Brikette to see if theyll put our pillows on the next bus heading for Sorrento but seeing they think weve got their bed sheets, Id say theres no chance. After dumping our packs we walk into the main part of town and see a funeral then an old lady get hit by a car still not a good day.
In the busy Piazza Tassi we stop at a picturesque trattoria for drinks and panini then wander around the narrow streets full of cafes and markets. Weve forgotten our swimmers so we go back to the hostel and have a rest before heading back out into the streets. At a local supermarket we buy cheese, proscuitto and bread for our picnic lunch. Its a long walk down to the beach and very weird when we get here. The good is fenced off so you have to pay to get in and the free bit is only about twenty metres wide and covered with black muddy sand. Theres not an inch of sand without a body on top of it anyway so we sit on the wall eating our lunch and watching the locals.
Further along we sit at the pier and feed cheese to a sweet stray cat who I name Little. She curls up on my lap and this little darling has made my day. Nearby in a raised café were served drinks by an annoying waiter we call Mr Slimey then walk back to the ostello for showers. Later we sit in the café downstairs while the transvestite waiter prances around then Mark goes over to the bus station to check if our pillows have turned up no they havent bummer!
On dark we sit outside the hostel for happy hour drinks and talk with an Australian guy and two friendly Americans. At half time we walk around to the Red Lion café which is packed with singing English tourists. A fantastic atmosphere as we eat pizza and watch the rest of the game. The Poms absolutely go off when England finally wins. We only get charged for our drinks so, before they realize, we do another runner.
Tuesday 22nd June,2004 Sorrento to Naples to Rome
Today were going back to Rome for our last night in Italy. We catch an early Circumvesuviana train for the one and a half hour trip to Naples with the Bay of Naples on our left and Mount Vesuvius above us on the right.
At Statione Centrale in Naples we change to the Eurostar train to take us to Rome. We sit opposite a pretty, young woman who cries the whole time. Shes sitting there with tears streaming down her face and not even trying to wipe them away very melodramatic. Later an accordionist wanders through and then a trumpet player. Weve really enjoyed the train trips and theyve been an experience all their own. On the Rome to Florence train another young woman had moved from seat to seat placing a small parcel wrapped like a present on each windowsill. A small tag attached to the parcel told us that shes deaf and that a small donation will help her.
In Rome the train stops as usual at Statione Termini where we walk in the opposite direction to where we stayed last time so we can experience a different area. We find a big, airy room with our own bathroom at Hotel Cervia for 67 Euro a night. The hotel is on the first floor of a lovely old building but the lady at the counter is, not surprisingly, a grouch. After a rest we wander around the streets to find an internet café then Mark buys a few beers to take back to the room.
For a very late lunch we eat in a pretty outdoor café and order lasagna and pasta then sleep till it gets dark. Italy is playing in the Euro 2004 tonight but the only place we can find with a television is an upmarket restaurant near our hotel really fed up with Italy!
Wednesday 23rd June, 2004 Rome to Bangkok, Thailand
Our last day! Our flight back to London doesnt take off till late this afternoon so we have most of the day to fill in. We decide to go back to the Spanish Steps to see the Keats/Shelley House which Id forgotten to look at last time. On the way we see more beautiful piazzas, fountains and statues. Just near the Piazza di Spagna in front of the Spanish Steps we find all the designer shops Chanel, Yves St Laurent, Gucci and Prada. Too expensive to even window shop and, anyway, I cant be bothered. I thought it would be good to get back to Rome but Im still bored would love to throw a tantrum.
Finally its time to go so we catch the airport train from Statione Termini and fly out from Italy at 6.35pm. Landing at Heathrow on a cold windy day (its the middle of summer) we have a one and a half hour stopover before taking off for Thailand.
At last were on our way at ten oclock for the eleven hour flight. Managing to get some sleep mainly due to our sleeping pills we arrive in Bangkok at three thirty in the afternoon. Sharing a taxi with a backpacking couple from England were soon at Khao San Road - were finally back! And all the old emotions are back. I feel something so deep and intense something so passionate that it catches my breath. I have such love for this place and these people I feel Im home and totally me.
Now we walk through the temple to get to Soi Rambutri where we hope to get a room at the Wild Swan. This wonderfully atmospheric guesthouse is in the backpacker area and in the middle of cafes, massage parlours and markets. Our room is typically Asian and we have our own sunny bathroom for the grand sum of AUD20. In the café downstairs we have a drink and salad rolls while we cool down under the overhead fans. From here we walk around to Khao San Road to Aviv Clothing where Mark wants to get a few business shirts made. Our old friend Alex is here to greet us with a big beaming smile as usual.
At six oclock weve arranged to meet Kerrie and Paul who are also on their way home from England and Italy. Theyve already had a look around Khao San Road so we take them around to Soi Rambutri where its quieter. We have cocktails and fresh seafood and swap travel stories in an open-air café then show them where were staying. They love this area much better than the upmarket place their travel agent booked them into and we could only say we told you so.
Thursday 24th June, 2004 Bangkok to Sydney
Today we wake to sunshine, humidity and the smells of Asia. We follow our usual pattern of shopping in Khao San Road, a massage at Mamas, drinking orange juice squeezed fresh on the streets, eating in the open-air cafes, watching the worshippers at the temple and buying a bronze Hindu holy man at the Mahatat Market. While Mark packs, I round off a wonderful day by having a foot massage from the transvestite next to the Wild Orchid. Hes so nice and spends all day, every day calling out you want mathage?
Sadly its finally time to go. Weve had an amazing trip and seen much more that wed hoped for. And yet if I was asked for the highlight Id have to say it was being back here in our beloved Thailand. All the history and beauty of England and Italy isnt enough. You have to be in the place where your heart skips a beat where youre deliriously happy because thats what life is about. No mediocrity it has to be about passion and undying love or its not enough.