Notes from Prague to Greece

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Yep, we’re here, Naxos Island Greece. Arrived at 0:30 (that’s a.m.!) from Prague. Veging today. As soon as I finish this blog, I’m gunna hop in that swimming pool. It’s almost right outside our room.

But 1st the journey. We arose at 5:30a.m. And headed off on what would be a 19 hour journey on which we had a few bizarre experiences.

We’ve said to each other a few times how the enjoyment is not just in the physical places we are seeing but also the mix of people and their culture and customs. Certainly there was a good mix of that yesterday.

Our wonderful lisping Russian guide on our Prague tour said that it will probably take a couple of generations to overcome the effect that Communism had on their country. This particularly applied to religion, but also to their worldview.

Remember Brunehilde at the Prague Hotel? On Saturday I asked her to book us a taxi for 6.00 a.m. the following morning. With a ‘well, if I must!’ kind of look, she agreed. We both were sure that she’d have an uncle or nephew who would be called into service.

After 9 reassuring yellow taxis had sped past, a nondescript car with no taxi markings pulled up at 6:08, a young guy ran into the hotel (we were waiting outside), came back out and informed us he was our ‘taxi’. He could not speak ONE word of English – I kid you not! (We are sure he was a nephew.)

We got in, he took off and suddenly I thought, ‘Here we are, we’ve hopped into a strange car, doesn’t appear to be a taxi, we have no idea where the airport is, what if we’ve been kidnapped?’

Interestingly, C must have been thinking the same as at one stage she leaned over and told me she’d seen an airport sign and we appeared to be going in the right direction. The driver slouched in his seat, drove at about 10 k’s under the speed limit, played with his mobile phone, wrote messages on paper on the steering wheel and nearly ran into a steel barrier whilst doing so!

Then a 2 way radio squawked into life and guttural voices seemed to be telling him to take us to the old forest, where body bags had been prepared and the holes pre dug. I’m not sure my translation was exactly correct, but it went something like that.

A photo to ease the stress you must be feeling:

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So you can see I’m not dead, just in case you were worried. Whilst we were in Prague there were big, beefy police everywhere, pulling over drivers and glaring at the public. The male police were even worse! I suspect their presence explained the absence of those helpful men from the Congo selling Prada bags. A pity really as I was starting to hanker after a man bag again.

However, there were many men in grey raincoats who would come up and flash not watches, nor questionable postcards, but Czech money and offer me amazing currency rates. C had to pull me away several times as I was in the process of finalising a brilliant deal.

Anyway, at 06:15 I was wondering why there weren’t any Police around I could surreptitiously signal to. Luckily all went well and we arrived at the airport for the next instalment. We flew on Czech Airlines. There was one person actually doing check in and about 6 or 7 others giving him encouragement.

The queue built and finally another young lady swung into action and processed one person in front of us. That left us with only a young couple before us. She finished with the 1st person, then stood up and had a nice long chat with her cheer squad. The queue built. Meanwhile the other pesky passenger was still being dealt with.

Finally the young lady called the couple in front of us. They were dealt with quickly. Phew, I thought, our turn. Nope. Up she got again, had a playful time with fellow staff members, which included them sitting on her seat and swinging around a bit. All the time ignoring the queue that continued to grow.

Finally, the other guy was clear and we went to him, leaving Miss Precious to her flirting. He weighed our bags and C’s was 22.6 kg (amazing I know!). Phew again, I thought limit is 23kg. But guy said, ‘you haff exceeded your limit! Limit ist 20kg! You cannot travel unless you pay me 500,000 kronor!’ Or something like that.

Luckily, I’d actually checked their website the day before and informed him that the limit was 23kg. With a muttered curse, he sent us on our way. The flight was uneventful.

Second bizarre taxi ride. I’ve always yearned to arrive at an airport to be met by an official looking man holding up a sign saying ‘Mr Wilson’. A sort of a ‘meet & greet’ experience. Well, it half happened. We were by the ‘Mr Wilson’ carrying man who never looked at us and were driven straight to Piraeus. However, we only received the ‘Meet’ component, the taxi driver grunted when we arrived and did not speak another word until he dropped us off – about 45 minutes! He also saw the speed limit as a challenge, consistently going at least 20 kph over. However, it was an air-conditioned Merc with leather seats – much was forgiven.

Our ferry wasn’t leaving for another 6 hours or so, so he dropped us off at this large open area cafe and said it was better to wait there. He was right, it wasn’t too bad and was nicely under trees so was cool.

There were signs everywhere saying street vendors were not allowed. Well, that’s a challenge isn’t it? Every few minutes one would dash through with watches draped up their arms, binoculars, jewelry, you name it.

I think they may be related to those nice men from the Congo. Nearly picked up a couple of Tag Heur watches and a spare set of Leica binoculars at a great price. C wouldn’t let me.

Then the ferry:

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We’ve travelled on a few ferries in our time and inevitably the process goes like this: they open the gangplank, everybody rushes in for the best seats and then you sit around for hours wondering why you were so early as there are plenty of seats.

We boarded at 3:30 for a 5:30 sailing, hunted around for some good seats, elbowed a few old Greek ladies out of the way, tripped a pregnant mother and picked some beauties. Then I went wandering.

Found a door leading into a swank looking area, opened it and this officious and very large (read fat, but I’m being polite) Greek steward superciliously informed me that this was business class, so go back to the peasants and closed the door. I had indicated I was happy to do some business but I think he missed that one.

Later a couple of English young ladies we’d seen at the cafe came past looking for numbers on seats. Oops, I thought. Questioned them and found out each seat was allocated. They showed me their tickets with the codes. I showed them the ones we had which had DKN as the class. None of us knew what it meant. My guess was Do Knot No.

So, I went to ‘reception’ and was told it was Business Class!!!! Woohoo. Did I have fun with the fat Greek guy! Waltzed back up to him, shoved my tickets under his nose and strutted past! That was soooo good!

Business Class is right up the pointy end and the photo above shows C gazing out the window as we left Piraeus. Here’s a photo looking back into the lounge:

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Knew it was too good to last. Young families with very young children kept arriving and sitting all around us – in Business Class! Where was the fat Greek guy when I needed him? The final straw was some passengers coming in with dogs. However, several bewdiful glasses of Greek vino helped and we survived what was a very calm journey.

Another man with a ‘Mr Wilson’ sign met us on Naxos. He was your classic Greek Tour Guide. ‘Anything you need, call me, always there. Need a tour, need food, need vino, whatever. Just call me. My name is Demetrios.’ This is true!

There were 4 others in the mini taxi – yep, they were all Australians! All with rellies in Kingston, or they’d visited or they wanted to move to Tassie. Nice people.

Booked in, fell into bed and this was the view from our balcony the next morning:

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Ah, time for a swim I think….

Adios

Jim

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Notes from Prague

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Yes, we made it! Even though we were illegally on several trains (despite repeated attempts to make it legal, but no-one was interested. We discovered later why none of the Italians could help us.) we quietly slipped into Prague. We had helpful conductors, none of whom asked the right question! I mentioned the war once in Germany, but I think I got away with it.

The photo above shows celebratory drinks as we rumble through the Czech Republic with some of their wine and beer. Did you know that the Czech Republic is the biggest swiller of beer in the world? Followed closely into second place by Australia! I did my bit for the stats whilst we were here.

The trip through Austria & Germany was fantastic: steep mountains and idyllic high country villages. The photo below is an example of much that we saw. Germany & Austria were neat, tidy and prosperous looking. Not so the Czech Republic.

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We left Venice at 7:00am and arrived in our Prague Hotel at midnight. Slightly over train travel by then. Discovered on the way, courtesy of some very nice Austrians and a German lady, that it is all the fault of the wonderful Italian Prime Minister. Journey that took us 18 hours should have, and used to take 6 hours. However he decided he didn’t want Austrian trains travelling through Italy, so 2 years ago he stopped a century old practice!

In Prague we stayed in the Hotel Merkur – the next morning we discovered it was an Eastern Bloc version of Fawlty Towers! Came down for breakfast and discovered the reception was being presided over by a huge Brunehilde type woman. We quickly discovered that they were doing us a favor by letting us stay, as did some other guests.

I was at the counter when another poor customer was barked at for daring to want to checkout before the appointed hour of 11:00am. ‘Vot iss da problem’ was hissed at him. He obediently trotted off to come and try again later. Hope he didn’t miss his flight…. I retired to await a more opportune moment. I’m not sure she realises the wall has come down…

I have lost count of how many people told us Prague was beautiful when I mentioned we were coming here. They were right. An VERY old town that was spared the bombing of WW2. A guide blithely informed us that we were passing the ‘new’ synagogue built in the 13th Century and then the ‘new’ Town Hall, built in the 14th C.

There are castles, clock towers and church spires all over the place, but in a very small area, so the total impact is quite breathtaking. Here’s an example:

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We had pre booked 2 tours before we came. When we showed Brunehilde the 1st tour we were going on (a river cruise) she sniffed pejoratively, as much to say ‘You haff made your bed, now lie in it!’ she was right.

The next day we did a Grand 3 hour tour of the highlights of Prague. If you had seen a video of it, you would be convinced that some good Aussie comedy company had made a spoof TV show about guided tours behind the (former) iron curtain.

For the past 6 weeks, we have watched guided group after guided group being led by an energetic tour guide holding a (usually) furled umbrella on high, like a shepherd with a flock. We used to laugh and avoid them as much as we could. Well today we gleefully discovered we were going to have an umbrella to follow.

The guide was a very nice Russian woman with a fascinating accent and a distracting lisp (what rotter put an ‘s’ in that word anyway?). We had a variety of people on the ‘walk’ including a woman in a wheel chair (she got up and walked at one stage, but I resisted the urge to shout hallelujah), a group of Russians and a perennial moaner.

You get one in every group don’t you? The seats too hard for my back, it’s too hot back here in the bus…. And also a complaint that the tour wouldn’t finish in time for her to catch her next tour. Did you not read the timetable lady?????

At this stage I met a long lost relative from Canada with his wife, both on the tour. His sense of humor was fantastic (read, like mine) and we swapped great stories about other tourists. He was obligingly taking a photo of C & me when some other tourists came right over to where we were. You should have seen the look on his face, it was priceless! C says it was identical to the one often on mine when other stupid people do stupid things!

We swapped moaner stories and he told me of being on a tour in Jerusalem, doing the 12 stations of the Cross. Also on the tour was a quadriplegic lady who had saved all her life to do this trip. Most of the other tourists were Americans. They were on a fairly tight timetable to get back to their bus and by about the 6th station it became obvious they might not make it as the woman slowed them down considerably.

The Americans started complaining and in the words of my new found best buddy, ‘in this Holiest of places, the Americans wanted to ditch the quadriplegic!’ Somewhat of an ironic attitude.

Here’s a photo to cheer you up:

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Then came the changing of the guard at Prague Castle. In true Eastern Bloc style they strutted out in great formation, stamping their feet and slamming the butts of their rifles on the ground. A great spectacle. Unbeknownst to them, C was 2 paces behind, doing a great imitation! Here’s proof. (it’ll be the final photo at the bottom)

A health scare for C last night. A tooth broke plus some filling disappeared. Several emergency calls later, we ended up at an emergency dental clinic where running repairs have been made. It means C can only eat soft food for the rest of the trip as she can’t bite anything. Try finding gluten free soft food with no cooking facilities! Challenging!

Tomorrow (well, today really) we head to the Greek Islands – woohoo. We’ll be on Naxos for 4 days and Santorini for 5. We should have wifi on Santorini, not sure about Naxos. If I go silent, don’t take it personally.

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Up at 5:00 tomorrow morning, arriving on Naxos at 11:35pm! Another long day. Will need to fortify myself on the ferry I’m thinkin’!

Jim

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Notes from Venice

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We’re in Venice!!! Can you get much more of a Venetian image than that above? I bet you’ve heard all those stories about how expensive it is to go on a gondola in Venice? Well they are true! About $120 each!

There seems to be Gondoliers wandering the streets at will. There are heaps of them and they strut around like matadors. How they make a living is beyond me as they just seem to wander, smoke, strut and talk all day.

But we beat them at their own game! We found a ‘public’ gondola that took you across the Grand Canal for 50 cents each!!! Think we won that one!

I said to C that I wasn’t all that excited about coming to Venice, expected it to be a bit ho hum after all we’ve seen and done, plus the ABC effect is starting to kick in (another bloody cathedral/church/castle). However, to my surprise it’s lovely.

We are staying in a charming little boutique hotel only 30m from the Piazza San Marco! It’s a gorgeous little place, possibly one of the best we’ve stayed in and very Venetian.

We arrived hot & thirsty on a 30+ degree day, had a refreshing ale and headed off. Found a large tower to climb, climbed it via the elevator and had magnificent 360 degree views of Venice.

We then wandered around in front of San Marco Basilica, decided the queue was too long so wandered along the waterfront and ended up winding our way through the back streets to our hotel.

Hint: don’t step outside the door of your hotel without a good map. Stories of tourists departing for a day’s wandering and never being seen again are numerous. We saw several skeletons clutching Minolta cameras in some of the back alleys we ventured into!

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The photo above was taken from the tower. It looks like a photo of a normal suburb near the beach. What you can’t see is that there isn’t one ‘road’ nor car in that entire area, nor anywhere around. And, in fact, although it looks like a continuous stretch of houses that area is actually a labyrinth of canals.

So what you are looking at is a myriad of islands – 117 in fact!

This morning we went exploring (very bravely) and it was fascinating. It was just like a bushwalking experience. The map was consulted continuously; the map often didn’t match the streets we were in, but it was close enough; we discovered areas we had not expected and sights we had not planned for.

On the map, you see the street you are heading for and it looks like a normal ‘street’, even though some streets seem to be more ‘main’ than others. However, it is usually a narrow lane you can only follow in single file.

But it was great. Somehow we managed to find our way back to the hotel and we felt like a successful Burke & Wills – except they never got to feel that.

Now some serious stuff! Cheryl has bought a handbag and Jim nearly bought some shoes! The only reason I didn’t was because they didn’t have my size. But just look, aren’t they gorgeous?

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Man bags. After a stern but warranted pep talk from my fellow Rugged Mountain Man, Tim O, I am eschewing thoughts of a man bag. This is much to Cheryl’s relief. So I steadfastly turned my head away every time one of those kind gentleman from the Congo (yes they are here too) thrust a genuine Prada bag under my nose.

Tim suggested that a genuine red leather Italian iPad cover would however provide significant bragging rights. I couldn’t find one but came close. Lynne Grant you will be sooooo jealous:

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The smaller item is a leather card wallet made by a guy who has his shop not far from the hotel, so we know it’s genuine. That’s actually been an issue. There are heaps of shops here selling ‘genuine’ leather bags, all stamped ‘Made in Italy’.

C found a few she almost liked enough to buy, but not quite. Then on the Rialto Bridge we found a small shop run by a local whose family has been making and selling leather products in Venice for generations. He explained most of the the ‘leather’ shops in Venice are run by the Chinese and the bags are actually made in China, not Italy!

Well, we have no reason to doubt a genuine salesman, so C finally bought one. It will be on show along with the shoes when we return!

Last night we were woken at 3:00 to the sound of a huge explosion just outside our room. It startled both of us. I suggested it may have been thunder, although I’d never heard it like that before. I went to the window and started to open a shutter when there was a brilliant flash of light followed immediately by the loudest crack of thunder I have ever heard.

It was so loud and frightening it made me involuntarily jump back from the window. Once we had worked out what was happening, we lay back and enjoyed it. But I’ve never experienced anything like it and I’ve been in a lot of thunder storms.

We finished today with a tour of the canals of Venice in a tour boat – one of those low slung, beautiful wooden boats. It was great, lasted an hour, saw some amazing canals, houses and churches – and a desire to come back and explore some more.

A classic ‘sunset’ type photo to finish with. We are off very early again tomorrow hoping to reach Prague and won’t arrive until after 11.00pm. Don’t actually have train tickets for some of the legs, hoping to find a kind and efficient German conductor who will help us.

Note to self: Don’t mention the war.

Arrivederci

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Notes from Florence & Ravenna

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Cheryl is in Seventh Heaven. She has visited Florence and Ravenna. So, a report on both. The photo above is the 1st Mosaic we encountered in Ravenna. It’s a ‘Where’s Wally?’ kind of photo. (And I’m NOT the Wally!)

Florence:

We arrived in Bologna a day early courtesy of the train driver’s strike. I was all for wandering around Bologna (bit of spag bog, few beers, soak up the cultcha), however little did I know how much a certain girl had set her heart on Florence.

What’s more, she hadn’t expected to get there. But now the glittering prize was in her grasp. ‘What would you like to do tomorrow Jim?”. Naively I assumed she wanted to actually know and would take that into account.

I talked about spag bog, beer, sitting around etc. ‘No,’ she said, ‘What would you REALLY like to do?’. At this stage a normally dormant sense of self-preservation started to kick in and I sensed this was one of those ‘Do these jeans make me look fat?’ kind of questions.

I realised that I just might have missed an important cue and like a drowning man clutching at straws I could only throw out what I thought might be the right question. ‘Oh, I don’t really mind what we do, dear. What would you like to do?’

Phew, I hit paydirt. Actually in hindsight it was obvious – what I REALLY wanted to do was visit Florence! So we did.

We tried the trick of hopping on a train and seeing if we had to pay. We actually had Eurail passes, but we hopped on one of the High Speed trains with 1st class that you have to book. Florence was the 1st stop, only 1/2 an hour down the track, so we felt pretty safe.

Complimentary wine, coffee, nibbles delivered. This is the life for us!

10 minutes to go and up came the conductor. We were THAT close! Now, if you don’t pay in advance they sting you on the traino. But because it was the strike day, we only had to pay the normal fare, €10 each.

A bit of a lecture, but we got away with it. On the way back we tried to buy tickets, but the queue was an hour long! So, did the same again, got caught again, still only €10 and the required lecture. C got 2 glasses of champagne though!

Now, Florence. Bit of a staggering place really. Pretty old, some magnificent churches, a history of top artists and a certain statue by one Michelangelo. That’s a photo of C in front of David below:

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It’s the real thing! Ridgey Didge! If you want to know why he’s turned green it’s because I was with C and not him!

One of the great places in Florence is the Ponte Vecchio. It’s the only bridge not destroyed in WW2 and actually has buildings on it that project from the bridge out over the water. It’s the heart of the silversmith business in Florence and they have been operating there for yonks.

Here’s a photo from up the hill:

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Of course Italy is a great place for leather handbags and Florence in particular has heaps of shops selling them. I tried to convince C to buy one, but the heat took its toll and she was too hot to even be interested! However, I discovered you can get Prada etc bags on the bridge at a fraction of the price in the shops from some really nice men from the Congo.

We are sure we’ll be able to do the same in Venice, so will try again there.

There are some fantastic sights in Florence, but I can’t add as many photos as I’d like because I think I’ve got some sort of limit on this blog and I need to include some from Ravenna. So, come and see me when I’m home and I’ll show you.

Ravenna:

C has been telling her art students for years that one day she would go to Ravenna and look at all the mosaics there. Today was the fulfillment of that dream. C has shown pictures of these famous mosaics to countless children, filling them with an enthusiasm for such art in the way that only C can do.

Today she walked around gobsmacked. Open mouthed. Breathless. Rapt. (get out your Thesaurus, you’ll find plenty of words). Here were all these fantastic mosaics that she has enjoyed copies of for years, now in the flesh, so to speak.

At one stage she asked me if I was as excited to see them as her. My reply was that no-one could be AS excited. However, I too was blown away by the intricacy, the colour, the ‘aliveness’ and the skill in producing these magnificent works of art. The real thing just blows you away.

From a distance some looked just like paintings or even photos they were so skillfully done. It was only as you looked up close you could see the ‘bits’ they used to make them. It was then that the vibrancy of the colours and different types of tiles stood out.

Here’s the one of the Empress Theodora and Her Retinue that C has been telling children about for years:

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How about this one?

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Remember, these are mosaics, not paintings done on the ceiling.

Oh well, off to Venice tomorrow. Could find that a bit boring I suspect. Hope the boys from the Congo are there, might be able to pick up a Prada man bag for me!

Ciao

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Notes from Bellagio to Cinque Terre

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A lot to relate in this blog. An old writing adage says don’t use 10 words if you can use 3. In Italy it is don’t use 10 words if you can use 300. I’ll try and split the difference. We have discovered in Italy that more is more.

Above is a photo of C at the entrance to our apartment in Riomaggiore, Cinque Terre. But first the journey.

We left Bellagio very early on a misty but warm morning. Our train was leaving Varenna at 10:37 and we had a tight changeover time in Milano Centrale and were worried about missing the 1st train. We remembered when we arrived in Varenna a steep trek down to the ferry that would take ages to climb on the way back. So, we slept little, rose as dawn was breaking, 1st in for brekkie, 1st ferry, steep trek took 5 minutes(!) and we were at the train station by 9:00!!! Only had to wait 1 hour and 37 minutes for the traino!

And when I say Train Station, think Parattah Siding, not some fancy place with 4 coffee shops! We sat there waiting and waiting as other travellers wiser than us arrived just before the train.

Then on a cramped 2nd class Italian traino to Milano. Onto our 1st class carriage for Milano to Monterosso and it turned out to be 2 rows of 3 facing each other in one of those compartments with a sliding door. And what did we end up with? 6 Aussies!

Of the 6, 3 were teachers and one had done volunteer work in a school as a speech therapist. Plus one niceish bloke who was a bit of a know-it-all type whom C said she’d strangle if she spent too long with him!

Our meeting with this group proved fortuitous down the track as unfolding events will reveal.

Then Riomaggiore! We saw the following sign outside the traino station when we arrived and had a bit of a giggle – quite apart from the thought of a town that needed a lift.

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975 steps later with a 24 kilo pack on my back, dragging C’s case plus carrying my 5k day pack in the blazing sun we were wishing the ‘whether’ had been better!

However, views like the one in the photo at the top only come with effort. How’s this for the view from our balcony eh?

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See the church bell tower only about 50 metres from our balcony? We were rapt until we discovered that Quasimodo was still in residence!

The landlord of our apartment could speak about 10 words of English. They included ‘I donna speaka mucha English.’ Not leaving much left. So the handover was done in sign language. His farewell wave was much better than those I had received from the English & French drivers I encountered. He ensured ALL of his fingers remained upright as he waved!

The tiny town is staggering. 5 mini supermarketo’s within 50 metres. This is something we’ve lost in Tassie. Little corner shops all stocked with local produce and fresh fruit & vegetables. Whilst we have Hill St & the Salad Bowl, they are upmarket, these are for the locals and all are smaller than our living room.

Cinque Terre is a region of 5 small villages literally hewn into the steep, rocky hillsides. (You have to look at some of our photos). Just about every square metre of available land is utilised. They produce tremendous quantities of vegetables and citrus fruits plus excellent quality vino!

Between them they have 7,000 kilometres of dry stone walls! And they are magnificent. That is SEVEN TIMES THE DISTANCE BETWEEN SYDNEY AND HOBART!

Four of the towns are at sea level and wind their way up the hill. The 5th, Corniglia, is on a steep hill you climb to via a switch back ‘staircase’ that rises vertically for 367 steps from the railway station. It’s actually not as hard as it looks or sounds.

Coming back down we met some people coming up. I said to them ‘I’d like to say you are nearly there.’ Quick as a flash they replied ‘Only an Aussie would say something like that!’ Yep they were.

2 minutes later we heard them, immediately above us meet some other other Aussies descending. So of course I called out ‘Aussie, Aussie, Aussie,’ Quick as lightning came the reply ‘Oi, Oi, Oi!’ In my own impromptu little way I was able to introduce some Aussie culture to the natives. Made me feel all warm inside.

Down on the train station we met the couple who had been behind us. They’d just come from Santorini (we are going there last), and were blown away by it and now Cinque Terre. This bronzed Aussie guy from Perth waxed lyrical saying, ‘It’s like I’ve died and gone to heaven!’

I’ve swum in the Mediterranean! 1st day at Monterosso stinking hot and forgot my towel. Next day, overcast, cool and looking like a storm coming in. Will I? Won’t I?. Another Aussie couple came past and had been in. ‘Freezing mate.’ in answer to my question. Then, ‘You from Tassie? It’ll be like a sauna for you!’ How could I resist?

While I was swimming along came another Aussie group (per capita more Aussies than Americans!) They just laughed, looked along the beach and commenting on the fact that I was the only one in the water said ‘Pick the Tasmanian.’ How rude. Anyway, here’s proof:

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By the way, the sand was like blue metal! It really hurt getting to and from the water!

Then things became interesting. We met one of the Aussie couples from our train earlier. We’d bumped into them several times over the past few days and always stopped for a chat. This time, they were looking red faced, harried and hurried. ‘Can’t stop.’ They said, ‘Just found out there’s a train driver’s strike on Sunday and that’s the day we have to leave C/T for Milan.’

Uttering condolences we left them, moved on and then it dawned – we too were leaving C/T on Sunday and had 3 separate train connections to get to Bologne! Aaarrrgghh.

We had 2 choices: 1. Leave C/T a day early and miss our day on the boats traveling from town to town. Also surrendering one night at our apartment, losing money on a paid train trip and having to book an extra night at Bologna (if we could).

2. Stay an extra day in C/T, extra accom costs (if available), re-arrange trains, hope strike ended Sunday and miss Ravenna.

After a lot of to and froing we chose 1. When we reached Parma there were 2 trains leaving. A fast train with 1st class on which you needed to prebook or a slower 2nd class train 15 mins later. We didn’t have time to prebook and as we reached the platform the fast train rolled in.

We looked at each other, said ‘why not?’ and hopped on. We decided to plead dumb tourist if caught. However no conductor came near us on the whole trip!

So, 2 good things came out of it. We managed to get a 1st class ride from Palma to Bologna for free and today (Sunday 22/5) we made an unexpected visit to Florence. Magic.

All for now,

Arrivederci

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Notes from Bellagio

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Saturday 14/5:

The photo above is taken from the roof terrace of our hotel. Fantastic views from up there and we’ve had it to ourselves for most of the afternoon. The photo below is taken from street level looking up. You can see a fine figure of a man waving from the 1st floor balcony. C’est Moi and I’m standing outside our room.

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This is a fantastic hotel, Lee-Anne put us onto it. We had no plans to come to Bellagio at all, but when we sat down with her to plan the trip she said we HAD to come here and she knew just the right place to stay. And she was right, it’s fantastic.

Here’s the website for you to look at. They even have a webcam so you can look up and down the lake and see what’s going on. If you let us know when you are going to look at it, we’ll stand in front of the camera and wave!

http://www.albergometropole.it/

Having said all of that, it is also a bit surreal. We feel like we’ve stepped into the middle of a Noel Coward play. An Italian hotel that is almost English; staff that all speak English; and fading English guests (not us!) that wander around with cigarette holders and long tapered cigarettes with a glass of gin & tonic or Pimm’s in the other hand.

Even the younger women frock up for breakfast!

There were a few more tourists around the place today than I thought was appropriate, but what can you do? The town is gorgeous. Narrow and steep alleyways climb up the hill behind the hotel, all beautifully cobble stoned with small shops lining them. Just look at this:

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Of course most of the shops are all ‘tourist’ shops and outrageously expensive, but the difference between here & Paris is that in Paris it was Tourist Tat – awful stuff. Here it is very good quality leather, silk, merino, carvings and so on.

Today was a total ‘veg out’ day. Breakfast at 9.30ish, left the hotel at about 10.45 for a wander around the streets then back for a picnic lunch on the terrace roof.

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After a bit of a ‘Nanna’ nap for the 2 of us, I even raised enough energy mid afternoon to descend to the ground floor and procure 1/2 litre of the house white and return to the roof where C eagerly awaited my return.

We are dining at the restaurant again tonight, such good gluten free food should not be sneezed at. Last night I tried the veal. It wasn’t bad, but not quite as good as the genuine Italian food you get at Da Angelo in Battery Point.

I’ll see what they can do with duck tonight.

By the time dinner had come around we had been entertained with a great thunder storm and rain. The temperature had dropped about 15 degrees.

Note to overseas travellers, check the menu VERY carefully. I ordered what I thought was breast of roast duck with apples somewhere (I assumed some sort of apple sauce) along with a side of grilled veggies. I was really looking forward to a hot meal.

The veggies arrived as ordered and as expected. The duck however was somewhat different. It was like thinly shaved priscuitto and was lying on a bed of sliced apples – and it was cold! Aarrgghh!

Note to self: check the menu VERY carefully tomorrow night! Additionally, if the waiter gives you a funny look and says ‘you wanto that for your maino courseo?’ Think again.

The photo below is a better one of an alleyway than the one above. I don’t know how to delete that and replace it with this one, so you get 2!

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Just heading off to bed, turned on the TV for a check and stumbled across the final of Eurovision complete with Italian commentators. Now you can’t get much better entertainment than that!

Sunday 15/5: Sunday, the day of rest, so we decided to take it literally. A late breakfast (again) and then a walk over to the Porto (you can work it out, come on….) followed by a stroll over to a neighbouring suburb – magnifico. Then time to hit the terrace roof.

Now, some notes on terrace roof chair etiquette. Today the terrace was much more crowded, with not a spare deck chair in sight, although we had managed to secure a couple through our wise early appearance.

However, if you have to move away from your chair, you don’t both go at the same time! An English couple unwisely did this and before you could say Papa Guiseppe, one of the chairs had been flogged.

Down the length of the terrace ran the enraged Pom, ‘Scusa, Scusa, that’s my chair!’ The offending thief pretended to look sheepish and embarrassed, but didn’t carry it off well.

Property rights re-established, calm settled on the somnolent group and we slumbered on.

We made the acquaintance of a new drink later – an Aperol Spritzer. Introduced by 2 English ladies who insisted they didn’t drink much but who had already sculled 2 of these and just finished a bottle of red. Think we will try them again tomorrow to see if they still taste as good.

Restaurant for dinner, took note of previous ‘note to self’ and ordered the fresh char grilled fillet of sea bass. Buonissimo!

The streets around here are very narrow, not much wider than the alley ways. This morning we were surprised to see a cavalcade of fine cars winding their way through the hordes of tourists. I think it was the local version of Targa – or Targo as they call it here. Below is a photo of some of the cars with our fine hotel in the background:

Ciao

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Monday 16/5: It’s 8:00am and the sun is shining magnifico. Thinking it might be wise to go to breakfast a touch earlier, get in a quick walk and establish property rights on the terrace before the great unwashed get ideas above their station.

Ciao

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Notes from Paris to Bellagio

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That’s Bellagio above. Our hotel is the building immediately on the right of the boat that’s on the right – make sense?

She’s gone and done it. Not one pair of shoes but TWO! Bloody Paris. At least we are now in Italy!

Hang on…..

This blog could have been titled Four Trains and a Ferry – that’s what we did yesterday. I was a bit nervous, the last train was a ‘local’ on which you couldn’t reserve seats and then we had to catch a ferry, about which we knew little.

I remember at one stage looking at a sign on the train from Paris to Basel that said there was a defibrillator on board and being thankful as I thought I might need it before the day was out.

It had started badly when they made a boarding call for our train. We walked the whole length of the train and couldn’t find our carriage. Walked all the way back (these are long trains!) and asked a conductor person.

‘No, not zees won, I haff deux trainz togezer. You are on ze zecond train. Justa keep working..’ (By the way, have you noticed how my French has improved? I can quote it verbatim now!)

Now, how would you know there were 2 trains bumper to bumper? Could have easily got on the wrong train. On the mile long walk back past the wrong train I rescued some Americans who were also lost. American was the most common language we heard in Paris after French!

But everything went amazingly smoothly, thanks largely to the effort of our wonderful travel agents Lynn & Lee-Anne at the Travel Studio.

If you are traveling, use them! (I get a spotter’s fee!!!). They’ve been brilliant.

When you use Eurail passes you still have to ‘book’ the actual seat, but you can choose 1st or 2nd class – take 1st class every time. Only a small fee relative to the cost of the train tickets but worth every cent. On our 1st train there were 5 Aussies in a total of about 20 people!

2 were sisters from Vic and were catching the same next train as us (Basel-Milano Centrale). We only had 28 minutes to alight and find the train in a huge central railway station, so we were all quite nervous.

They teamed up with us, and off I headed with a gaggle of girls in tow doing the hunter/gather thing. Couldn’t believe our luck, up an escalator and a sign right in front of us saying which platform to go to. Romped it in!

The other 2 sat near us so we were able to swap lots of travel stories. Ended up sharing toilet stories from around the world – thought I might be able to write a book on it! (BTW could also write a book on how to sit in the seat you really want as opposed to the one allocated to you.)

Scenery through Switzerland and into Italy was breathtaking. The photo below is just a small sample of what we were seeing:

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Because of the mountainous countryside, we had to go through heaps of tunnels. We’d just be about to take an award winning photo and whoosh, it would all disappear. But we were able to get a photo of the inside of an Italian train tunnel, magic!

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I’m not sure what I was expecting here at Bellagio, but I sure wasn’t expecting the sheer beauty of the place. It is spectacular. I’ve been trying not to put too many photos in the blogs, but below is one showing what we saw as we left Varenna and approached Bellagio on the ferry:

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The one below is from our 1st floor balcony:

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We planned to self cater for dinner last night, but we left our apartment in Paris at 6.55am and arrived here at 7.00pm. Looked at the menu for the in house restaurant and said ‘what the heck’!

When we were seated C bought out her book on gluten free and showed it to the waiter who immediately said, no problemo, we have gluten free pasta here-o!!!! Woohoo

By the way, I am already picking up the lingua franca and being mistaken for a local. I’ve discovered that the trick is to just add o to the end of words. Works like a treat!

Now, a serious question. We’ve found an unidentified object in our bathroom. I don’t want to a appear totally ignorant, but it could be either a bidet or a separate urinal. Given the toileting habits of the French, I don’t want to jump to conclusions.

However, I also don’t want to use it as the latter in case it’s the former! Can you understand my dilemma???? Despite having stayed at dozens of hotels, we’ve never actually seen one before, except possibly in Crocodile Dundee.

Here’s a photo to help you identify said object:

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In addition, they have supplied us with bath towels but no obvious hand towels. However, there are these other ones that are more like tea towels. They are on a shelf above said object. C refuses to use them believing they may have been used for something further away from the face.

I’ve tried to explain the marvelous advances in washing machine technology and am happily using them as my hand towel.

C says my faith in the power of washing machines is touching.

And naive.

That’s all for now

Arrivederci

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