Tuesday, 21 October 2014


Please accept my apologies, dear readers - I think there's more than one of you - for not adding the final week of our trip, nor yet updating with photos.

We got home to the marvellous news that the renovations on our home are almost complete, and we can start moving back soon. I'm also back at work, the boys are back at rowing, and after a week, we've nearly all gotten over our jetlag. Oh, and I'm now into book six of the Outlander series, which is probably the main reason I've not done anything.

I think I warned somewhere that I tend to run out of steam for the last 10-20% of a trip, and photos are rather a pain in the arse to select, resize, upload, and embed. And I've got a book to read :)

I will try to update, and will post once I've added photos to the previous month's worth of posts. So drop by from time to time/subscribe so you can see if, I mean, when I get around to it.


Wednesday, 8 October 2014

Day 25 - Erice: another medieval hilltop town

When talking with Mum and Dad in Brive for some highlights we should aim to see while in Sicily, one of the first ones they scribbled onto my tiny guidebook map was Erice, just outside Trapani. It was also one of the closest ones to where we were staying, after Palermo. The Michelin guide book I'd acquired in Palermo gave the town three stars, rating it as highly recommended.

At my insistence, we set off reasonably early, around 10am, and following the bizarrely circuitous route demanded by the GPS system, we eventually got to the A29 freeway. The GPS shut down periodically, freaked out if the cable was slightly askew, and insisted that it would send us to Via Erice in Trapani. With the help of the map in the guidebook, we were able to bully it into sending us to a street in Erice instead. The only really useful service the GPS provided was to advise the speed limit for various sections of the freeway.

We climbed the hill into Erice (~750m/2500 ft above sea level), arriving about 11:30 (our parking meter ticket was stamped 11:47am), and then set off to investigate the town.

Erice is an old town perched on a triangular outcrop overlooking Trapani in one direction, and the Tyrrhenian Sea in another. I overheard a guide tell a group that on a very clear day, one could see Africa (specifically, the port of Libya) some 80km to the south across the Mediterranean Sea. As someone who has lived mainly in NZ and the south of Australia, the concept of seeing another country, let alone another continent, by standing on a readily accessible hill is gobsmacking. Today was not a crystal clear day, so we couldn't see Africa. Instead, the sea blended into the sky, the horizon barely discernable, like one of those photographer's backdrops, but made of shimmering shades of blue.

[Pretty pics of buildings on blue backdrops]

The origins of the town are steeped in legend, but long associated with Venus and her predecessors (according to my guidebook). It was reputedly named by Eryx, king of the Elimi, for the temple thereon dedicated to his mother Venus Erycina. It was later associated with Astarte by the Phonecians, with Aphrodite by the Greeks, and later still with Venus by the Romans. It still styles itself the 'Mountain of Love'.

The Elimi-Punic wall, built ca 8C-6C BC, runs along the northeastern edge of the town. It protects the only exposed side of the town - the other two are precipitous cliffs. Within the three sides of the roughly equilateral triangle, the are some 60 churches and monasteries, in various states of repair (several presently undergoing restoration), as well as a scattering of piazzas, connected by a maze of cobbled streets, some potentially wide enough for two cars, many barely sufficient for one car, some barely wide enough for a large person.

[More pretty pictures of walls, churches, and cobbled streets]

We enjoyed an excellent lunch (the 'Antipasti Rutica' was outstanding, a selection of local salami, cheese, and mixed baked vegies), and a bit more of a walk, making it back to the car just before our parking display ticket expired at 3:47pm. The boys were both knackered - Ky was asleep before we were halfway down the mountain - but we  wanted to have a squizz at Segesta on the way back.

Segesta has an exceptionally well preserved Doric temple, built ca 430 BC, but likely never completed. There is also a well-preserved amphitheatre, as well as some other, Norman, remains at the archeological site. Unfortunately, the boys were too tired (and stayed in the car), so we couldn't visit either of the structures. [Pics below will be borrowed from the interwebs.]

Back on the road, it was already 5pm. We weren't sure what time the little local supermarket closed, but it would likely be before we got back. With no internet with us, and a bloody useless GPS system, we decided to pick an exit from the freeway, and just ask for directions to a supermarket. Quite by chance, the exit we happened to choose was right next to a large shopping complex, whose primary tenant was a massive supermarket. We stocked up on requisites (speck for the cabonara for dinner, more bread and cheese and wine, some toothpaste, a couple of large coffee mugs (the demitasse in the holiday apartment not really sufficing for a large cup of tea), some cannoli for the kids to try for dessert, and some oranges (JD is missing his daily megadose of vitamin C). We also got a bottle of softdrink for the boys, and a couple of bottles of water, although the latter turned out to be 'frizzante' (lightly sparkling) and therefore barely acceptable to the kids.

Once past Palermo, we again had to put some faith in the GPS system, which again freaked out (ie turned itself off) at inopportune moments. The GPS's main use when in town is to help identify a path through the warren of one-way streets and to give the driver sufficient confidence to push into a stream of on-coming traffic which has right of way, being the only way to get across some intersections.

In Bagheria, at the end of the exit ramp, we again encountered the single worst intersection I have ever had the misfortune to drive through. It has five roads, all of them two way, with nothing more than a couple of give way signs, and a heavy volume of traffic, into and out of each. In the morning, we had to turn sharp left across five different lanes of traffic to get onto the on-ramp, where as best as I could tell, we ranked lowest for right of way. On the way back, we only had to deal with other cars trying to do what we did that morning (oh, and in peak hour traffic). Such an intersection in Australia would have both roundabouts and traffic lights, and would still be hideous, but nothing compared to the clusterf**k of this one. Still, it worked, we didn't see any prangs, and we got through relatively unflustered.

Of course, the GPS then flaked utterly, having decided we weren't going to Solunto, but to some random street in Bagheria, and then shutting down completely. At that point, I went with my gut and said, I'm going that way, let me know when the GPS agrees with me. Thankfully my gut proved more reliable than the GPS, and we were soon home.

Dinner was linguine cabonara, followed by cannoli, with a lovely ginormous mug of tea to take with me to bed.


Tomorrow is JD's choice, and he's not telling anyone yet where we're going (but he is threatening Ky that we might go to the catacombs in Palermo where mummified, dressed bodies are interred and on display).

The day after, Thursday, we're up and out early as we have a 11:30am flight from Catania, and not only have to drive back, but also return the car (a process that may take an obscene amount of time given our experience a week before).

We then have two nights in Naples (Pompeii, Herculaneum, Vesuvius), and finally will head homewards, departing from Rome on a 10pm flight via Dubai and Singapore

Day 24 - Solunto: washing and ruins

JD and I set off earlyish to take the washing to the laundry place, telling the boys we'd be back in half an hour or so, and would then head out to do something.

Except the laundry place turned out to be a dry cleaners, and our massive bag of washing (8kg or so) would have cost a helluva lot to get cleaned. On talking to the proprietor, he offered to do it for 50 euro (AUD75), which would be a loss for him, but a lot for us. While we appreciated his generous offer, we hoped to find a laundromat.

Back at the house, our internet searches revealed that there were only a handful of laundromats as we know them in Sicily, the nearest ones in Palermo. I spoke with our host, but after working through several options, and me getting absurdly wound up (and freaking her our with my tears of frustration), JD ended up handwashing a fair bit of it, and Marida, our host, offered to use her washing machine for the jeans and my (still unbelievably stinky) fleece jacket.

At least one of my frustrations was that if I knew we'd be handwashing, we could have bloody done that yesterday when we were sitting around doing not much, instead of losing another day to doing not much. At least the mega-sized travel plug, and quarter bar of Sard laundry soap got used!

After lunch, we went up to the local ruins of Solunto. We had been told it was walking distance, but after the last few days efforts with the rain, we decided not to risk it, and drove up, with the brollies in the car. In the end we probably should have used them, as parasols - it was quite hot up on the top of the hill.

[Lots of pictures, and some more info, to come]

On the way back down the hill, we went into town to pick up some more groceries (speck or similar for cabonara, more wine, few other items), but discovered the route blocked - some kind of festival or other going on. We found a park a block above the supermarket and walked down to discover the supermarket closed up tight even though it had only just turned 5pm. We moved the car, and this time left the hot and tired kids in the car while we went to find the little convenience store we'd spotted on our first night. Turns out the festival was some kind of major local religious event, with every shop shut, and people either lining the street, or waiting in groups with a big banner and some kind of uniform, as the parade slowly progressed up the main drag, collecting the waiting groups as it went.

No shopping was happening in Porticello today, so we headed back and made bolognaise out of whatever we had left over. It wasn't bad, but it was a little lacking, and particularly lacking wine. Ah well, a sober day wasn't going to kill us.

Day 23 - Solunto: another lay day

We identified that we really need to do some washing, but that the laundry place recommended by our host is closed on Sundays. The heavens opened aggressively again before we'd decided what we were going to do for the day, which put an extra vote towards the 'not much' option for the day.

After the frustrations of yesterday, I was happy enough to sit around a read for a bit while the boys played in the pool in the arvo. We did another supermarket run (having found that it was open Sundays, but not sure when), and puttered about.

On the one hand, it feels like an utter waste to be sitting on our arses while on the far side of the world on an island that was host to dozens of civilisations (Punic, Carthaginian, Greek, Roman, Norman, Arab, and plenty of others) over more than three millenia. On the other, the lads are all a bit burnt out, and this is as good a place as any to have the 'holiday to recover from the holiday' that is often missing.

Lunch was fresh bread, pesto, salami, fresh local cheese (tuma fresca, a very mild somewhat flavourless cheese, a bit like fresh mozzarella, and excellent with) tomatoes, and some vino for the grown ups.
Dinner was risotto made with the rest of the speck and dried mushrooms.

Day 22 - Palermo: another day's travel plans thwarted by rain

Will flesh out later

- caught 10:34 train to Palermo (running a bit late)
- wandered a bit, found a tourist office, and a map, and a guide book
- poked heads into a couple of churches, including one where a wedding was taking place (it's a Saturday)
- got some lunch (some trepidation choosing restaurant after last night's effort, but perfectly adequate with very good service)
- got some umbrellas, as it had started raining again, heavily but not monsoonal like Thursday night in Ponticello
- walked up to the duomo, a hodgepodge of building styles, reflecting construction, repairs, renovations, alterations over several hundred years
- then on to Palazzo dei Normanii (no photos allowed in the Royal Apartments) and the Capella Palatina (12th C Arabo-Norman design, ceiling decorated with rich gold mosaics)
- boys (and JD) utterly over it, so we head back to the train station in the light drizzle

- arrive at station around 3:45pm, and identify train (16:14) and platform (2), and find coffee/tea in the half hour until it is due; get on train
- get off train when advised train not going, and race across to another train, a limited stops train which will get us to Bagheria, the stop before ours (Santa Flavia)
- train was supposed to leave half an hour ago, and still hasn't left a half-hour later
- everyone gets off, and some one with a little English explains that the (only) line out of Palermo is cut due to the rain, but he can't tell us more as there are those who decide, and those who do, and he is one of the ones who does.
- we split up: I get bus tickets (having already validated our train tickets) while JD tries to find out where the bus goes from
- meet up, and go to bus stop (unmarked, but others also waiting for bus to Bagheria) for 5pm bus
- at 5:25pm, decide to give it another 10mins, and then get a cab (I'm reluctant as we're already 20 euro out of pocket for this trip)
- bus shows up at 5:30, and into Bagheria a half hour later or so. My bastardised Italian identifies that we should get out here (not in fact the end of the bus route) for the train station, and us four plus three other English tourists with less Italian than us, get out. They decide to catch a cab; we've been assured it's only a couple of kms from Bagheria to Santa Flavia, and our place is this side of Sta Fl, so we'll walk.
- forty minutes later, walking along the non-existant shoulder of a busy road in the drizzly rain, we get home.

- make bolognaise for dinner using miniscule kitchenette using ingredients bought yesterday

Day 21 - Solunto: a lay day (and a lousy dinner)

We agreed that a day lazing about, reading, drinking vino, a bit of grocery shopping and the like was in order. The rain came in the morning, the lads played in the pool in the afternoon. I finished book 4 of Outlander, and started number 5 (yes, that's the main reason I'm a bit tardy with my blogging).

Dinner in town again. We wandered up and down the tourist section, including a large section on the waterfront that looked like sideshow alley, without the rides. there was practically no-one about eating dinner - many places seemed to be packing up, but may have in fact been setting up.

In the end, we chose the place next door to where we ate the night before, not least because they had non-seafood options for my non-seafood adoring menfolk. Bad choice. It was by far the most unpleasant meal we've had to date, and at least as bad as last night's meal was good.

Surly, bordering on rude, waiters who ignored repeated polite requests for drinks (billed multiple times, but not brought); the 'antipasti caldi' turned out to be a plate of chips, a handful of overcooked chicken nuggests, and a couple of squareish battered things that I still have not identified. The meals for the other three came out, and after a few minutes I asked where my meal was. It took another ten minutes before it arrived, without so much as a comment, let alone apology, for its tardiness, by which time the others had of course finished theirs. (Well, Ky hadn't eaten his - it was practically inedible.) We requested the bill before I'd even finished, challenged the overbillings, and paid the exact amount in cash, eager to get out of there.

Day 20 - Barcelona to Solunto: driving in Sicily

Our 12:30pm flight was not even on the board when we got to the airport around 10am - there are a heckuva lot of flights from there. It later appeared that one reason was because it was in fact a 12:40pm flight (I'd printed our boarding passes a month before).

We'd packed and breakfasted at leisure, discovering that I *really* should not have left my wet fleece jacket hanging in a separate wardrobe (ensuring it was overlooked when I did a load of washing). Good Lord, it stank. I mean ponged. I quickly zipped it into one of the packing cells, and then wrapped that in another layer of bag so as not to contaminate everything else nor utterly freak out any sniffer dogs.

I contemplated using public transport to get to the airport (I don't think you've really been to a place until you've navigated its PT system), but I was outvoted by the others. Given the uncertain timeframe, and the ticket cost for four people, I was not hard to persuade.

Through security and with a couple of hours to kill, we found a cafe for a drink - no, 11am is not too early for a drink in southern Europe - and a pastry for the boys. The gate for our flight was only posted a few minutes before boarding began, so by the time we got there we were straight into the queue and onto the plane.

The flight itself was uneventful, as all good plane trips should be, but there was some heavy cloud as we approached Catania. (This resolved into heavy rain shortly after we landed.) We got across to the hire car place (not screamingly obvious), where two separate buildings each hosted five or six hire car companies. (Hertz had a counter inside the terminal - if you ever fly into Catania and need a hire car, seriously consider paying the premium to go with them.)

Inside the building which held Europcar (with whom our prepaid reservation was made) were possibly as many as a hundred people in a not very large space. The two busy desks (Avis and Europcar) had a ticket system. My ticket was #51; they were up to #24 when I got it. At some point, dismayed by how unbelievably slow the process was, I checked whether it was possible to get fast-tracked given I already had a reservation. Ah no, everyone there had a reservation. Right, then. A German guy standing waiting near us said it was as busy as Sardinia's car hire set up, but far far more organised (no ticket system there). Things could always be worse! Oh, did I mention it was now absolutely pissing down?

It took well over an hour for our number to come up (complete with me whooping rather loudly when ours did finally tick over), and a long half hour extra to complete the process. We endured the upsell process: this Fiat 500L is a much better car that the small one you've reserved, it's diesel, and much bigger and more comfortable, and you can have it for just 12.60 euro a day extra, instead of 36 euro extra. Hmmm, nope, not unless you can throw it the GPS system as well. The GPS was to cost 12.30 - discounted from 15 euro - per day. Nope, couldn't possibly do that. In the end, we effectively got the GPS with the Fiat thrown in, as there were no small cars left, when it was clear I was getting mighty pissed off, and they'd best just bloody give us a car.

It took less time to drive the 195km from Catania to Solunto than it did to collect the damned car (and a shitbox it is too). The autostrada is two lanes with one shoulder in each direction and an upper speed limit of 130km/hr, although signs vary this often and drasatically (although such speed reductions seem rarely obeyed). The most bizarre thing about the autostrada speeds is that at any given time a car could be travelling at anything between 40km/hr and 150+. The exit ramp speed is 40, but very few cars actually move into the slip lane when slowing down to take the exit. Trucks and small cars are often speed limited too. Oh, and indicators are only occasionally used, and often left on for miles and miles (I'm sure my OCD-level use of indicators marks me out as a tourist as much as anything else.)

Carefully following the instructions provided by our host to our accommodation, we arrived around 6:30pm. After a brief introduction to the facilities (including a detailed exposition on the artworks on the walls - limited edition prints of paintings done by our host's husband), we had a cuppa tea and a brief collapse. Having eaten very little since breakfast, I was aware I getting a bit hangry, so we ventured down to nearby Porticello for dinner.

It was threatening to spit, so we decided to drive down to town, so we had some flexibility if the rain decided to get heavier. Ha! Once we had found a park, and had walked a few hundred metres further into town, the heavens opened. We eventually found an overhang where we sheltered for about 10minutes, with no sign of it abating. I then offered to go back and collect the car (no point all of us getting wet) and then come back and get them. I was soaked through to the skin within a few minutes, mostly dodging the ankle-deep puddles and gushing rivers flowing down the steep cobbled streets.

In trying to orient ourselves in the pissing-down rain, we managed to collect a lump of wood under our front axle, which took a fair bit to dislodge, and finally bullied the GPS into taking us to where the restaurants were. Of course by then, the rain was finally starting to ease. We picked one across from where we parked and had a very pleasant meal, in their toasty overflow upstairs seating area. (I was still dripping wet, so very happy to be in a warm place, although the others got a bit hot.)

Not the best day of this trip, but pretty much all first world problems. Except the f**king mosquitoes - they're a third world problem too. Flyscreens are utterly unknown here, and while the flies and mosquitoes aren't as plentiful as they are in some places, there's enough of them to be really bloody annoying. Will be getting some insect repellant tomorrow. **

** No insect repellant to be had, only bug sprays and plug-in zappers. We eventually went with mosquito coils.

Day 19 - Barcelona: a very Gaudi day

Our apartment in Barcelona was a modern serviced apartment type hotel, with washing machine, Nespresso machine, and excellent internet. The only (minor) complaint was that, yet again, the double bed was made up of two singles pushed together, so snuggling up to my husband was again difficult, and one of us would be on the crack, and in this case the mattresses slid apart readily. Nothing like being away to make you really appreciate your own bed and pillow!

After breakfast (we got two serves of hueovos frites and bacon, and two serves of a local sausage served with rather yummy white beans, cannellini?, coffees and tea, and a sweet muffin to finish, we then headed off for our appointment with the Sagrada Familia.

Given the boys' weariness, and our utter lack of Spanish/Catalan, we wussed out and travelled only by taxi while in Barcelona. (With four of us, public transport is not always cheaper.)

Our entry time was 10:30am, and our hour-long guided tour at 11:15am. I had also bought entry to climb the Nativity tower, beginning shortly after the conclusion of our tour.

We were all utterly blown away by the Sagrada Familia. I will likely do a whole separate post on it once I can process my photos. To think this entire building is the vision of just one man, albeit with the assistance of many, is incredible. We were awe-struck.

After a late lunch, we caught a cab up to Park Guell. Also designed by Gaudi, this park is set on the gently sloping hills to the north of the city. We meandered through the outer park, with various buskers including a balloon man (soap bubble, rather than helium) who was delighting many young children (and some not so young ones too).

At our alloted time of 4pm, we then entered the 'Monument Zone' where most of the mosaic work for which Gaudi is rightfully famous is located. Unfotunately, the boys were fading fast so we didn't spend quite as long there as we would have liked.

An ice cream each, and a cab back to our hotel for a rest was in order. I had entertained thoughts of going out for a walk by myself to find one or two of the Modernisme buildings for which Barcelona is well-known, but I could find neither the relevant guidebook, nor the energy.

I knew that two days in Barcelona would not be enough, so one was never going to do. Ah well, I guess we'll just have to come back!

Wednesday, 1 October 2014

Day 18 - Narbonne to Barcelona: the slow train

With limited wifi, and only in the hotel lobby, I tried to find out whether there were trains to Barcelona. With the help of a similarly stranded traveller, a Russian trying to get to somewhere less than an hour away by train, the SNCF website seemed to indicate there were no trains to Barcelona today.

We booked the rooms for another night, and then set out for some breakfast. I left the others and went on to the train station, figuring that we'd be wise to secure our alternative train as soon as possible. After waiting in a long queue with a whole heap of other similarly stranded travellers, I discovered that there were trains going to Barcelona today. They were only the slow, regional trains (no TGV like our original booking until tomorrow), but we could get there today. The next train left for Port Bou (just over the Spanish border) at 11:55am (it was already 10:15am); from Port Bou, we'd change trains to another regional train down to Barcelona.

I walked briskly back to the cafe/bakery where I'd left the others, and sent them off to fetch the bags, get a refund on the now unrequired accommodation for tonight, while I had some breakfast. As I type this, we are bound for Port Bou, arriving around 1:30pm. We hope to arrive in Barcelona before nightfall (I've no idea when the trains from Port Bou to Barcelona runs, but I think it will take around 2.5 hours)


Customs control at Port Bou involved us showing our passport to the Polizia (??) standing either side of the train station entry - very low key. After some lunch (chips (fries) for the boys, and a glass of wine each for the grown-ups), we boarded a slow train to Barcelona, arriving around 5:20pm. A taxi to our accommodation, and apologies for not contacting them when we couldn't make it there last night, and we were in our rooms with (finally) excellent wifi.

Once the rain eased off, we set out for dinner at a recommended wee cafe nearby. We had some excellent tapas type dishes to start, and the over-the-top burgers for the boys, and paellas for JD and me. For the first time in a long time, Jos could not finish his dinner. We're back home and the guys are watching telly while I type this.

Day 17 - Brive-la-Gaillarde via Narbonne to, erm, Narbonne: the rain in Spain falls mainly on the train (station)

Our plan was to drive from the gite to Brive-la-Gaillarde, return the car before the hire place closed at noon, then find lunch in town before catching our 2pm train to Narbonne. We'd then grab a quick bite to eat in Narbonne, before joining the coastal TGV from Narbonne to Barcelona, arriving there at 8:40pm. I had read the instructions and watched the video for retrieving our room access cards after hours, and after getting settled, we'd then find some late supper in Barcelona.

It all went exactly to plan up to and including the part where we grab a quick dinner in Narbonne, although Brive was very very quiet. The poster I bought in Rocamadour continued to be annoying, as no-one sold (or could even suggest who might sell) poster tubes for securely carrying it, let alone posting it.

In the end, La Poste managed to find a square tube that I cut down to a short triangular prism. I then took it back to the post office to be told that it would cost 27euro to mail a 6 euro poster. Ah, no. She then said I could send it as a 'petit paquet', which would take a very long time to get there, but would only cost 8 euro. Done.

The plan only came unstuck when our train from Narbonne didn't appear on the board, not least because the board was filled with a whole lot of delayed trains, from indeterminate to 3+ hours. We heard from an expat English man (at the station to put his son and daughter-in-law on the train to Barcelona) that Barcelona station was underwater, and the train had been cancelled. Merde. (That rain we had in Cahus overnight was significantly heavier in places south.)

I nipped across to the Hertz rental place, still open, to enquire about hiring a car. One way fee is 800 euro (!!!!), *and* they didn't have any cars suitable for Spain. She suggested we try the bus depot down the street a bit. JD returned the station to try to get verification that the train was indeed cancelled, while I went down to the bus depot. No buses there, and the office was not only abandoned but looked derelict. We met up again outside Hertz, JD having confirmed that not only was the train cancelled but the road was also cut. We met a few other English speakers, and with them a francophonic expat American, Susan.

Susan, an international relations consultant who works in Narbonne but lives in Montpellier, had also been caught out by the train cancellations (apparently the line to Montpellier was completely washed out). She recommended some accommodation, cheap but clean, and offered to take us there. Although she'd made her booking online, she rang on our behalf to ensure they had rooms for us. On a poor line, Susan managed to secure our rooms, and we set off the 600m or so to the hotel. A little tiny bit of me was thinking it could all be a scam, but at that point I didn't care too much - the credit card company could sort it out if it was. In the end, it wasn't. The hotel was a perfectly servicable commuter hotel, offering a two bed room for 50 euro a night, with a kettle and hotplate, and a window that opens. We got two rooms side by side, JD had a quick shower, and then we rejoined Susan downstairs to go out for a drink, and a bite more to eat for the boys.

We walked through the middle of the old town, with its Norman towers and other old buildings, past the exposed bit of Roman road (ca 3rd century, possibly Domitia if our memory serves). Narbonensis was an important Roman settlement for quite some time. The wine bar was on the promenade facing the river, and we sat down to enjoy a beverage each, plus some saucisson Susan sweet-talked the proprieter into providing.

Shortly after that the heavens opened. We were sitting outside under umbrellas, which fortunately had guttering slung between the umbrellas. Ah well, looked like we needed to have another round (or three), plus some tapas. By 9:30pm, the kids were slightly manic - too little sleep, too much lemonade - and I went in to settle the tab, including a bottle of wine to take away. And the rain, which had eased before, resumed more aggresively than before.

We waited it out for another 15-20minutes, but it showed no sign of easing. Nothing for it - we had to walk home in the rain. I had my hoodie with me, and the wine, so I walked briskly, while the others dashed ahead, dodging puddles, and trying to find overhangs to wait under until I caught up. After a while, we were all so soaked, we utterly gave up hiding from the rain, to the point that Susan and the boys started jumping in puddles.

We got back to the hotel, soaked to the skin, and into our room, agreeing to meet Susan shortly in her room to share the wine. We each stripped off, and hung our wet clothes on the heated towel rail (thank heavens for those!), the boys had a shower and went to bed, and JD and I went up to Susan's room (taking some toothpaste and the spare deodorant - she'd bought a toothbrush when she discovered she was stranded unexpectedly). With only one set of very wet clothes, Susan entertained us draped in two towels, and we chatted for a while as we finished the bottle.

We exchanged contact details, and assurances of a bed and assistance should we ever find ourselves in the other's town (Michegan for her). Although it is exceptionally unlikely to ever happen, I hope it does.

We slept well, albeit in single beds yet again, and woke with a light hangover.

Day 16 - Gagnac-sur-Cere: dejuner au Auberge du Vieux Port

For our last day, we had booked a table at one of the two main restaurants in Gagnac, the town at the foot of the hill. Apparently here, one goes out for lunch, not dinner. That was booked for 12:30pm. Mum and Dad, apparently sleeping much better than us, went exploring for the morning, while we happily sat around reading books and drinking tea etc.

Lunch was a very pleasant, multi-course meal, served at the perfect pace over 2.5 hours. We were pleasantly filled, but not painfully so. (Well, except Jos, who insisted on having La flambee Quercynoise, which turned out to be a Bombe Alaska, with lots and lots of very sweet meringue - he was uncomfortably full.)

We returned to the gite, and pleasantly lolled about - reading, napping, and generally relaxing, followed by a light dinner of various leftovers.

For our last night in France, it rained fairly heavily much of the night, but was pleasantly cool, rather than the warm humidity we would be returning to as we went further south and closer to sea level.

Day 15 - Pech Merle and Saint-Cirq Lapopie: some old paintings and an old town

To fit in both our destinations (~1.5 hours away), we had to be sure to leave somewhat earlier than we had been used to, and even (gasp) set an alarm.

We got to Pech Merle, another limestone cave, accessed uphill from Caberets. While this one also has large caverns and gorgeous millenia-old limstone confections, but it also has an impressive array of Neanderthal rock art. Photos inside the cave a very stricly forbidden, so the images below are [will be] taken from other sources. Entry is restricted to 700 people a day, and no more than 25 per tour group. Therefore, even though we arrived at 10:30, we were just behind a tour bus, and therefore the earliest entry we could get was at 11:15am.

From there, we drove back down the hill, and along a bit to another gobsmackingly picturesque town perched on another cliff-top. Clearly, these defensive locations were very important. On the flat, the towns tended to be jammed between the river and the cliff, rather than on the flat. Presumably, if under attack, it was fairly straightforward to block off the two ends of the town, and thereby cut of all non-water avenues of attack.

We enjoyed a leisurely lunch on the terrace of a restaurant in Saint-Cirq Lapopie, and then went for a bit of a wander about town.

[More pics of pretty places here]

We took the long way back, via Figeac, but the others were fading hard, so we didn't stop and explore the old part of town. We did stop in the supermarket and got a range of local antipasto type things for dinner (terrine de lapin, jambon sec, olives, stuffed baby capsicums, and some more bread).

Day 14 - Le Sireyzol: a lay(about) day

The boys were feeling in need of a day off, so we farewelled Mum and Dad, and instead pottered about the gite. I took a rather too long nap in the middle of the day, and any plans of venturing out petered out.

[Some information about the French countryside, styles of buildings, potted history, how town names end in 'ac' as often as not - ?same as ville/town/pur (in northern India), climate, etc]

Day 13 - Padirac and Chatelneu: unders and overs

Today, we went underground, and then to the top of an outcrop.

The gouffre (sinkhole) and associated limestone caves of Padirac were (re-discovered in 1889, by Alfred Martel).

[Pic of sinkhole from above and below]

Unlike NZ limestone caves, these ones don't seem to have glowworms (or perhaps the lights are always on, so you'd never know). There are, however, grand canyons and huge rooms, the base of which hold clear pale green water. Photographs inside the caves are forbidden, but I did manage to sneak a few (no flash).

From the sinkhole, you go down another few flights of stairs, and then walk along the base of the canyon. There is no natural river through this cave - all the water trickles down from through the limestone. The slighly acidulated water carved out these huge channels over a million years or so, about 40million years ago (if my French, and memory, serve me well). The base of the cave is around 103' below the surface, and the biggest room is 94' high. The remaining 3m of limestone is expected to give way at some point in the very distant future, leaving some very surprised cows (or steak tartare, if they're in the wrong place at the wrong time).

Some way into the cave, you then bunch into groups and get into a gondola-shaped dingy, and are poled along the next section of the cave. The water depth is between 40cm and 6m, and a fairly steady 12-13 degrees C. Some 20mins later, you disembark and are guided through the next section of the cave. Undisturbed by the gondolas, the water here is an extraordinary pale green, tiered by naturally formed weirs. There are stalactites (down) and stalacmites (up), and a massive column 2.5m in circumference and the full depth of the cave where two have joined. The column hangs from the ceiling, stopping an inch into the water (as the dissolved limestone can't deposit in water).

There is also the gorgeous confection in the upper lake, formed by calcium carbonate-enriched water droplets falling from a height (rather than trickling down a stalactite). As the droplet splats, the carbonate precipitates out, slowly building up a flat shape, rather than a column.

After the walk, including more stairs, and more surruptitious photos, we then return back out via the gondolas and the stairs, and then back up the stair (or elevator) from the sinkhole.

Emerging at 1:30pm, and with lunch at most restaurants finishing at 2pm, we chose the slightly futher of the two adjacent tourist-focused restaurants, and had a surprisingly enjoyable meal. (Jos still struggles with the fact that 'berger' does not mean (ham)burger, but instead means fieldworker, or ploughman's lunch.)
After lunch, we then agreed to visit Castelneu, a fortified castle atop an outcrop of rock (visible across the valley as far away as Cahus). Built in various stages from the 13th to 17th centuries, it fell into ruins, but was partially rescued by a tenor in the Paris Opera who bought it in the late 19th century before donating it to the state shortly before his death.

[Pics of buildings, and info about their construction, plus pics of the panoramic view].

Everyone was a wee bit pooped by the end of the day, and we staggered home again.

Thursday, 25 September 2014

Day 12 - Rocamadour: a pilgrim's town perched on a cliff

We enjoyed another slowish start to the day over a continental breakfast, and then set out for Rocamadour. Dad insisted on taking us by a rather circuitous route, mainly to ensure we got a splendid 'big reveal' as we came over the adjacent hill to see Rocamadour full on.

Down to the river, and then back up the other side, we parked and then wandered slowly down this fairy tale town. Small buildings with steeply pitched tile roofs, either jammed up into the cliff face, or perched precariously on the cliff edge, lined the narrow one-way streets.

An important site of pilgramage in the 13th century (Louis IX, later Saint Louis, who built Sainte Chapelle was one of the more famous pilgrims to visit), the place fell into disrepair by the 1600s or so. It was rediscovered and restored from the late C19, and the sanctuary was recognised as a minor basilica in 1913.

We had lunch at a place about halfway up, Mum and I enjoying a salad each, variations on the themes that JD and I had the day before; Dad went for snails plus some confit of duck as a two course option under the Formule du Terroir (fixed menu of local specialties); Jos chose the plat du jour - a pork steak marinated in spices of some sort; and JD and Ky had a faux fillet, which is some cut of steak we haven't identified. JD and the boys chose the Formule Rapide, so their meals included desserts (creme caramel or panna cotta). And the only choices of tea they had were Earl Grey (bleuch), Green or Mint - I think I need to start carrying around a couple of my own teabags for such occasions.

Unfortunately, the day was a little hazy so our photos are not quite as splendid as they might have been, but you're still going to have to wait until I've got something better than intermittent dial-up speed internet before you see any of them.

JD and Ky particularly started fading by mid afternoon, so we put off visiting the cave at Padirac until tomorrow and headed home for a bit of reading and sitting around.

The folks were in charge of dinner, and we had gazpacho, arancini (made from the leftover risotto from last night), and very fancy cheese on toasts, plus some salad. We again finished with a selection of cheeses - a local blue, a vintage cheddar type, and the last of the three very ripe Rocamadour cheeses Mum had bought on Monday.

Day 11 - St Cere: a drive in the countryside

We slept soundly, able to leave the window open instead of enduring with the aircon running. We enjoyed a late, leisurely breakfast including fresh pain au chocolate and apple turnover-type things, as well fresh baguette with butter and marmalade, topped off with tea/coffee as preferred. With approval from my parents and the boys, we left them all behind, and JD and I drove off to explore a little of the countryside.

In Australia, away from the cities, you're used to driving a minimum of half an hour between towns, and in between is just flat farmland. There might be the odd low hill from a millenia-extinct volcano, but the land is flat and old; ribboned with wide roads, speckled with the odd farmhouse, occasionally a century old, but often newer.

In New Zealand, away from the cities, the are some areas of flat land, mostly alluvial plains, and elsewhere it's all sharp, angry hills and mountains, lush with trees and plant life. Roads turn sharply, with a new vista at each corner.

This part of France is something else again - it had the heaving hills and valleys of NZ but softened and worn down, with a patina of age, the ferocity completely gone from them. The limestone country here is dry, as all water immediately seeps down far below the surface. Structures - houses, barns, dovecotes, towers - are centuries, if not millenia, old; their thick stone walls that have more than stood the test of time. The tile or split stone rooves may have tumbled in or gone completely, but the two-foot thick walls remain resolute. Towns, villages, hamlets, locations that don't even warrant a name, flow from one to another; Biars-sur-Cere abuts Bretenoux, which is turn is only a few kilometres from the next major town, and there is rarely more than half a km where you don't see some kind of structure, if not several houses grouped together.

Unfortunately, until I work out how to do accents, my posts about this specific region of France are likely to be a little confusing. [Now edited to add them.]The river that runs along the bottom of the valley is the Cère (pronounced like the first syllable of Sarah). The towns along here are mostly '-sur-Cère': Gagnac, Biars. We went a little further on to a town, around 20km from where we're staying, called St Céré (pronounced like Cherie, but with an S not a Sh).

After wandering about the town, buying a couple of postcards, wandering into the old stone church (Norman on the outside, gothic-lite on the inside), and found some lunch at a restaurant on the edge of the market square. We'd both had more than enough bread and pasta for the time being and chose this restaurant because it offered a number of salads, either entree or main course sized. It turns out the two we chose are specialties of the region.

My Salade du Quercy comprised lettuce, tomatoes, half a drumstick of duck, some smoked duck meat, a cheese-on-toast of the local Rocamadour cheese, some cubed fried potatoes, a slice of foie gras, and some confit gesiers (gizzards, we think). About a third salad, a quarter spuddly cubes, and the rest being a range of specialty meaty things. I apologise that I did not even think to take a photo of my meal until after I was well into it.

JD had the Salade gourmande, being lettuce, tomatoes, chevre toasts, smoked duck, ravioli with chevre and tomato, and some other bits that fell off my photo of the menu. We plan to make the chevre toasts (a round of chevre, laid on a square of puff pastry, sprinkled with rosemary, then the corners of the pastry square folded over the cheese so they almost meet, then baked in an oven until delicious) for dinner in the next day or two.

On the way back from St-Cere, we stopped at the supermarket (Leclerc) in Biars to pick up some bits and pieces for our turn for dinner. Tonight, we made BLT risotto - bacon (speck), leeks, and (oven-dried) tomatoes, plus some tomato and basil bruschetta, finishing with some more of Dad's cheeses, including some whiffy but yummy Rocamadour cheese (rounds of goats milk cheese, each around 5cm/2" across, perhaps 0.5cm high, runny inside with a light crust on the outside).

Wednesday, 24 September 2014

Day 10 - Paris to Le Sireyzol, Cahus: a trip to the countryside

Emma, our marvellous travel agent, had carefully chosen our hotel for its proximity to the train station given our early (7:53am) train to Brive. Unfortunately, it was near the wrong station - Gare St Lazare is for trains heading north; we needed Gare d'Austerlitz for our train southbound. [EDITED: Nope, just my dodgy memory - Emma was certain to make sure the hotel was near a metro station accessible to Gare d'Austerlitz, which is exactly what it was.] After consulting the map and realising there was no straightforward way between the two stations by metro, I did spot that the Gare de Lyon was only a few blocks away from our destination, and it was on our metro line.

Our alarms were set for 6am (ugh), and we were out the door by 6:40am. We picked up some breakfast at the train station, and got to our train with plenty of time.  As I type this, we are in a comfortable second class carriage heading south. While not a TGV, this Intercities train is definitely travelling pretty quickly - I'd guess at speeds of up to 150km/hr.


Nous sont arrivees au Sireyzol! I have successfully driven on the wrong (right) side of the road, avoided hitting the curb no more than half a dozen times, and negotiated some very narrow, very winding roads. Thank heavens for GPS and JD's navigating! It is gobsmackingly picturesque - tiny hamlets of centuries-old stone buildings dotted along our route, perched on hillsides and in valleys, and all deliciously peaceful.

As we weren't sure that we'd be able to pick up our hire car before they closed for their lunch break (noon to 2pm), I told my parents that we'd arrive at either 2:30pm or 4:30pm. We managed the former; they heard the latter, so we've a little time to kill sitting in the pleasant afternoon sun until they return (JD has texted them - they're an hour away).


The gite (holiday house) is an old stone building, with a steeply pitched split stone roof - they get three foot of snow in winter around here - and thick walls. This one has two bedrooms upstairs, one down, a couple of bathrooms, plus a separate sitting (TV) room, plus open plan kitchen/dining/lounge.

Dad showed us some of his photos from his and Mum's time in Cheltenham (a Regency town where you took the waters*), Scotland, and Toulouse. They also overwhelmed our brains with some of the local things-to-do.

Mum & Dad made dinner - truly a homecooked meal - cheese toasts, chilled melon soup, veal tournados, apple flan type thing, and a selection of local cheeses, plus some Champagne (for me) and some random Bordeaux (merlot) JD chose from the supermarket. We collapsed into bed by 9:30pm, and slept well in the pleasantly cooler climes.

* Taking the waters meant paying to drink the magnesium-rich spring water, then going for a walk around the beautiful gardens, then paying even more to use the toilet as the purgative effects of the magnesium took hold, sluicing out your innards.

Day 9 - Paris: beaucoup de marcher

Ky nearly fell back asleep at dinner, and the avuncular cafe proprieter asked "beaucoup de marcher?" (lots of walking?), to which I replied (in my ghastly schoolgirl French), "Oui, et beaucoup des eglises."

We got maximum value from our 7 euro a head hotel buffet breakfast, with cereal, pastries, tea/coffee, ham, cheese, bread and juice. We then headed off towards Ile de la Cite to Notre Dame and Ste Chappelle. We dawdled a little at the exhibition of photos and story boards around the Palais de Justice, detailing the liberation of Paris in August 1944, seventy years ago.

[Pics to come]

JD baulked at the long queue to get into Notre Dame, but I insisted, pointing out that it was moving very quickly. Sure enough, within five or so minutes we were within 20m of the entrance, at which point the heavens opened. The queue quickly crammed up, with people running for the "Masse" entrance, rather than queueing politely for the "Visiteurs" entry. We got a little damp (on principal refusing to enter via the door reserved for the pious), but otherwise unscathed.

Thankfully, JD and the boys were suitably impressed. The huge nave was fully occupied by filled seats (those attending the 10am mass), and the large crowd of tourists slowly circulated en masse around the outer aisles. The mass concluded with a magnificent recessional (?) played on the grand organ, above the front door, after which I was able to nip down the centre of the nave to get a photo looking back to the west rose window and the nave.

[Pics to come]

There was also a series of display boards where they detailed the various phases of construction and repair over the 850 years of the cathedral's life, including one part where they 'popped the top', much as we are doing in our renovation at home.

From there, we went to Sainte Chappelle, and again the boys were suitably impressed, if a little weary. The exceptionally pious Louis IX had the chapel built so he could attend mass whenever he wanted (several times daily), and to hold the relics he had acquired, including the Crown of Thorns. Oh, and entry was free as it was a Sunday (apparently).

[Pics to come]

In need of loo, we bought a round of hot drinks, some frites (french fries) and a nutella crepe for Ky. This also restored the boys sufficiently to be willing to go on to the Musee d'Orsay. (JD and I agreed that something inside would be sensible, given the dodgy weather.)

We walked the half dozen blocks to the Museum, passing the bridge with the padlocks,  and the Louvre on the other side (seeing its size, the boys were grateful we weren't going there). The serpentine queue for the M'O was long, but moving reasonably. JD picked up a couple of panini (8" baguette filled with ham and cheese) which we ate in the queue. And then, about 5min before we reached the shelter of the overhanging awning, the heavens again opened. The touts around the queue promptly switched from selling sunglasses to umbrellas, and we again got a bit wet, despite the queue bunching up as much as possible.

Soon inside, we passed through the metal detector (manual, not x-ray, bag inspection) and then to the queue for tickets. Although entry wasn't free, it was reduced - the adults got in for kids prices (8.50 euro instead of 11), and the kids got in for free. We then headed straight for the top floor for the permanent Impressionist exhibition, entering from the wrong end as it turned out. Photographs of the artworks is not permitted, so I can't make you green with envy at the works we saw (iconic works by Monet, Renoir, Pisarro and others), but we could take photos of the building, so you'll have to make do with those.

[Pics to come]

The boys were flagging, and having found some comfortable bean bags to sit on, insisted we leave them there while we did a quick review of selected parts of the rest of the gallery. We briskly walked through the post-Nouveau decorative arts (chairs, vases, dressing table etc), past a number of Rodin sculptures and plaster maquettes (including one for the Gates of Hell, the bronze original of which we saw in Japan last year), and in to the very crowded rooms holding works by Van Gogh and Gaugin.

As JD put it so well, some of the works did nothing for you (the Nabis, with their flat planes of colour and complete lack of depth), and others, you had to physically tear yourself away from.

From there, we took the metro back to our hotel, showered, and collapsed for a while (Ky fell sound asleep) before setting out for some dinner at a local brasserie.

Despite the Eiffel Tower being top of the boys wishlist for Paris, we unforutnately didn't make it there - the closest we came was a glimpse from the Pont Neuf. Oh well, they'll just have to come back another time to see it.

Tuesday, 23 September 2014

Day 8 - Florence to Paris via Pisa: planes, trains and automobiles

We packed and left early-ish. Unfortunately, the cafe we ate at yesterday morning (with the "No Whining" sign) was closed (it being a Saturday and all). We found another place on our way to the train station, and got tickets for the 1h20m regionale train to Pisa. As we only just made the train, it was only once we were underway that I realised we were supposed to validate our ticket (travelling without a validated ticket has a fine of 40 euro). In the end, our ticket was not inspected, so my worrying was for nought.

From the Pisa train station, we briskly walked the half hour across town in the steamy late morning heat. By the time we got to Campo Piazza dei Miracoli, the boys were completely over it. They were charging entrance fees to all the buildings, including the Duomo (except for one small, cloistered section reserved for those wishing to pray). None of the others were remotely interested in entering yet another bloody church, so I left them sitting in the shade with a light breeze and wandered about the Campo taking photos of the marble tiered wedding cakes that decorated the immaculate green lawns.

[Pics to come]

Last time I was here, the perimeter of the lawns were lined with stalls selling crappy souvenirs - plaster models of the torre pendant (leaning tower), postcards and all the other usual dreck. This time, the piazza was free of the touts, instead the buildings were lined with printed screens over scaffolding. Also last time, there were families picnicing on the grass - walking on the grass was now mostly forbidden.

The lads had all had enough, so we walked more slowly back towards the station. I refused to allow us to buy any food within a couple of blocks of the Campo (mega tourist prices), but we eventually found a gelateria about halfway back to the station. As we crossed the river, we ended up walking down the main pedestrian shopping strip/thoroughfare. There were pop-up stalls all down the mall, with fake grass and a display board advising what that particular stall was about - I gather it was an alternative health expo, and the stalls were advising on various aspects. My Italian is not anywhere near strong enough for me to tell you anything more. We had a relaxed, modest lunch at a small cafe just off the main strip, and then continued on back to the station.

Although we had several hours until our 4:50pm flight, the guys just wanted to get to the airport so they could collapse/stop walking, so we queued for a while to catch a taxi out to the airport. Turns out it was about the same distance from the station as the Duomo, so we could easily have walked, but then we wouldn't have the 'automobiles' of title. And my feet wouldn't have coped - my blisters are still giving me a lot of grief.

Pisa airport, like most regional airports in Italy, is the domain of low cost airlines. Nonetheless, it is much better equipped than Italy's premier airport, Fiumicino. Reading the departures board here is a huge contrast to those in Melbourne's airport. These are going everywhere, including to countries/cities I couldn't hope to place on a map. Our easyJet flight was uneventful, and we arrived in Paris pretty much on time.
We chose train again to get to Paris (discarding taxi and bus) - not a cheap option, but deposited us at Chatelet-Les Halles, where we could change to the metro line at no extra cost to get to St Lazare.

Our hotel was the closest to traditional hotel that we've stayed at on the Continent, with a 24-hour reception (where you had to hand in your key each time you went out). JD commented that it was the quickest check-in we'd done - no payment required immediately, no photocopying of passports, no detailing of the amenities of the room, only asking whether we wanted breakfast the next morning (yes), and to advise that our room was on the third floor. In fact a slightly more effusive welcome would have been helpful - there was no in-room information, and it was only on sending JD back down to reception to enquire about the remote control for the aircon did we discover that those are also kept at reception, and only available on request (!). Oh, and the wifi was out of service, apparently some problem up stream due to the weather.

Horrified at the dinner prices, and limited by options (many were closed by 8:30pm on a Saturday night), we ended up eating at a chinese diner type thing. JD and I had pho, the boys had fried rice and dumplings (mini dim sum and steamed gyoza type things), called 'ravioli' in French. We then returned to our hotel and collapsed into bed - the aircon barely adequate in the small quad-share room in the heavy humidity and heavier bedclothes.

Friday, 19 September 2014

Day 7 - Florence: leather jackets and hailstones

We made a lateish start to the day, assisted by finally buying some tea bags and milk (reducing the urgency to get out and find breakfast). Once we did venture out somewhat after 9, we found a rather cheaper breakfast than yesterday, with extra bonus excellent signage.

We passed the gobsmackingly long queue for the Galleria, and moved on the the Leonardo da Vinci museum. It had made models of lots of his inventions based on his drawings, many of which you can operate, and many of which are still in use today largely unchanged. Others are just remarkable and straight-up ingenious.

Scythed Chariot, pulled by two horses, the scythes rotate
It's a paddle pedal boat, suitable for tweetle beetles

Returning from the LdV museum, I got the boys to line up in the queue for the Galleria while I went to the front to investigate how long. The couple at the front of the Non-reserved queue had been waiting for an hour and a half. While talking to them, another woman in the Reserved queue said she had just bought tickets at the ticket office a little way up the block, for a four euro premium. So I moved the others to the Reserved queue and went to the ticket office. To get the kids rate (booking fee only) for the kids, I had to get proof of age. I bought tickets for JD and me (11 plus booking fee) for a 3pm entry, and then dashed back to our apartment to get the boys' passports, and then back to the booking office to get their tickets.

In the meantime, I sent JD and the boys off to look at leather jackets. Jos particularly had been nagging horribly for one. In hindsight, I shouldn't have left JD in charge of their purchases - he's not as stingy with money as I am. The boys jackets were double the agreed budget (at 180 euro a piece), and JD completely went overboard with a fully reversible antelope leather jacket (glossy on one side, matte on the other).

I also had had plans to get a jacket while we were here. The one that I had spotted on my first day actually looked dreadful on me, but after trying on a number of other jackets I found one that flattered me reasonably, and that I knew I would get a good amount of wear out of, and negotiated him down to a reasonable price (200 euro).

Yes, I know, we make very glum models - we hate having our photo taken

As we admired our respective purchases, the heavens suddenly opened as a heavy hail-and-rain storm hit. We were bloody glad we weren't standing in a queue somewhere, particularly one we'd been waiting in for over an hour. Another advantage of being at the apartment is we could move the rubbish bins to collect the rain leaking around the skylight.

Drifts of hailstones were everywhere - this is just outside our front door

It's now 1:30pm, and we're about to venture out to find lunch before heading to the Galleria dell'Accademia to queue for our 3pm entry. We'll return for dinner and pack before our last night in Florence. We head to Paris via Pisa tomorrow.

Requisite shot of David's bum
The Prophet Malachi
One of 13 surviving Stradivarius violas

Day 6 - Florence: including queues, loos and stairs

Florence has lost some of its lustre for me, I'm sad to say. Unlike Rome, you don't get delightful foodstuffs included with your pre-dinner drinks; water fountains are few and far between; it's much pricier with fewer bars (for breakfast coffee and sandwiches), and there are so many bloody tourists (yes, I know, including us). It is still a beautiful city, and very compact, and the rest of my group seem to be enjoying it.

While I was resting my poor unhappy feet yesterday, and doing a load of washing at the laundromat, JD and the boys went for a wander, including poking their heads inside the Duomo (reportedly the fourth largest church in the world).

Today, after finding a light breakfast, we elected to climb the Campanile (bell tower), it being the only edifice of the set open that early. JD made it halfway up, but needed to head back down; the boys and I climbed the 356 (?) steps to the top. As expected, the view was magnificent.

[Pics to come]

We returned to the bottom, but the queue to enter the Duomo proper was already absurdly long and it hadn't quite opened yet, and the Baptistry wasn't due to open for another hour and a half. Instead, we set off towards Palazzo Vecchio and the old bridge. We considered going into the Uffizi, but the queues even for ticket holders were obscene. At this point, Ky decided he very desperately needed a loo, and after several unsucessful inquiries, we decided to visit the Galileo Museum, not least to use their loo. For the 22 euro family ticket, it was a pricy loo stop (still cheaper than breakfast), but there was some interesting stuff in their too.

[Pics to come]

Barely past noon, but the light breakfast we'd had earlier meant the boys were getting hungry. After considering and discarding a few options, we went for a modestly priced tourist-filled trattoria. I consulted my guide book fragment and finally worked out how to ask for tap water (acqua dal rubinetto), which will save us a few pennies (euros).

Across the Ponte Vecchio, with its jewellery shops and view of rowers on the Arno (Jos and I critiqued their technique), and then back, heading back to the Duomo.

[Pics to come]

The boys were suitably impressed with the C13 mosaics on the ceiling of the Baptistry, although JD thought the devil looked more fun than the good guys.

[Pics to come]

JD and Ky chose to head back to the apartment, while Jos and I went into the Duomo, and the sussed out the queue to climb the cupola (way way too long). The latter is open until 6:20pm, so we agreed to return about 5pm, when it should be shorter.

By 5pm, Jos and I had napped, but Jos would not be dragged from his bed, so I climbed the cupola alone. I hadn't been up it before, but knew of the double skinned dome. This climb is 414 unairconditioned steps, and worth every one of them. In addition to getting to the top, and getting an unparallelled view of Florence, you also get to walk around part of the two walkways on the inside of the dome, overlooking the nave and altar.

[Pics to come]

I returned to the apartment, and after a bit more of a rest, we all set out for another pleasant dinner (Ky stayed awake and finished his whole meal). JD and I are both noticing that we're losing a little weight with all this walking, despite the mutiple pasta meals, and our calves are definitely feeling it. Still worth it!

Wednesday, 17 September 2014

Day 5 - Rome to Florence: where Jos begs for il bagno

Our body clocks are finally getting sorted, so we mostly woke at 7am (instead of 4, 5, 6 and 7am). After showers and the light breakfast included in our room rate, we packed our bags while JD dealt with yet more work stuff. (It's making him unusually grumpy, so I hope he sorts it out soon.) We got to the train station and after organising tickets (a little more pricey than I'd expected at 43 euro per adult for the cheapest fare), we then sorted out some extra cash, some food, and then 15 mins before our train, Jos announced he needed to go to the toilet.

We were getting increasingly anxious when he still hadn't returned by 10:30 (our train was due to leave at 10:35am). It turns out that the loos are pay-to-play, and Jos didn't have any cash on him. He must have looked sufficiently desperate (he later said he was sweating and quivering with urgency) that someone took pity on him and gave him the one euro required, and he got back to us just as I was starting to curse him.

We dashed to the platform, found our carriage and our seats with about half a minute to spare. My feet are still desperately unhappy with me (blisters on the balls of my feet, below the second toe on each foot), so I can't walk very far or fast at the moment.

The boys are now getting their first glimpses of the Italian countryside as our train hurtles along at well over 125km/hr in suburbia, up to 250km/hr in the open countryside towards Florence, our ears popping with every tunnel we go through.


Florence is bustling. Like Rome, I remember Florence as being quite quiet, but clearly that was because I was there in winter. We are staying in a third-floor walk-up just off the open air market (think Victoria Market on Sunday, but with a lot more butter-soft leather goods. Jos is eyeing the jackets off and pleading for one. I'm rather keen myself.

After a light lunch at the Mercato Centrale, at a fancy food court type thing (on the floor above the specialist food purveyors, like those inside the buildings at Vic Market), we split up: I went off to do a load of washing, while JD and the boys went off for a bit of wander about town. We got back to the apartment around the same time, and are having a bit of a rest before we venture out for high tea (wine) and later, dinner.

Day 4 - Rome: we went to see the See

Today, the boys saw St Peter's Basilica, the Musei Vaticani including the Sistene Chapel (all within the Holy See), as well as Castel Sant'Angelo (outside only), and Piazza Navona, and the Pantheon, and the Trevi fountain.

Jos says that, like the Colosseum, St Peter's was bigger than he expected. For me, the crowds were bigger than I expected, and the security much stepped up from last time I was here. There were queues to get into just the basilica, including metal detector and bag scan, and far too many aggressive touts along the way. We left St Peter's in time to get a coffee/tea/chocolate and a panini for the boys, and walked briskly for ten minutes past the queue for tickets (I had pre-purchased tickets, for a 4 euro premium (each), but clearly worthwhile). Inside, there were swarms of people, including tour group after tour group after tour group. Ultimately, the boys were suitably impressed by the various highlights, including the map room, Raphael's rooms, and the Sistene Chapel. Despite imprecations against talking and taking photos, we did manage to spot Josias (Josiah) and the panels for Genesis and took a suruptitious selfie.

[Pics to come]

We found a tolerable if touristy lunch near Castel Sant'Angelo, and then went on to Piazza Navona and some excellent gelati, and then onto the Pantheon. Re-purposed to St Mary and the Martyrs, there were again repeated, recorded requests for silence, which were again mostly ignored. We took a couple more selfies while sitting in one of the pews to rest back and feet.

[Pics to come]

Home again, past the Trevi fountain (empty and scaffolded for repairs), for a rest, or in JD's case, a chance to respond to yet more concerning emails from work. We left him to that and went out for a prosecco and some nibbles (free with alcoholic drink), and chocolate/coffee for the boys, bringing him back an Americano (long black). Later, we found another restaurant for dinner, and each had a simple pasta dish, and Ky again couldn't finish his dinner and all but fell asleep. (Last night I ended up walking Ky home halfway through dinner.)

The blisters on the balls of my feet got blisters under them, and I'm now hobbling quite badly. Hopefully, the whatsits the chemist recommended will help somewhat. Thankfully we shouldn't need to walk quite so much tomorrow, as at least an hour or two will be on a train, and Florence is even more compact than Rome.

Tuesday, 16 September 2014

Day 3: Rome - a funny thing happened on the way to the forum

Actually, nothing terribly funny happened on the way to the forum, but we did spend the whole day there (Colosseum, Roman Forum, Palatine/Capitaline hills etc). We were all awake obscenely early (damned jetlag), and so were out the door pretty much straight after our breakfast at 8am.

We strolled towards that region, poking our heads into the odd church including San Bernado (3rd century dome with 15th century marble facia/facelift), and Santa Maria degli Angeli (looks tiny and very old from the outside, with a domed vestibule and a massive nave and body proper). The fellas were suitably impressed.

[Pics to come]

We found some brunch and coffees to supplement our light breakfast provided at the hotel, and sat to eat it overlooking the Piazza del Colosseo.

From my architecture studies, and visits to Rome some **cough**twenty-five**cough** years ago, I knew that one of the reasons the Colosseum still stood is that it was made partly from concrete (as was the Pantheon). The technology was known to the Greeks, who did nothing much with it, but was lost sometime around the fall of the Roman Empire (I think). The bits that could be pilfered were, and I overheard one tour guide explaining that many twelfth century houses were made from third century bricks excavated from the Colosseum.

Access around the Roman Forum region is much more restricted than when I was last here, and there were squoodles more people. (Admittedly, my previous trips were in winter, when only Antipodeans travelling in their summer are daft enough to come.)

[Pics to come]

The boys coped well in the heat (high twenties, somewhat sticky), and lasted until late afternoon with occasional bribes of food, hot chocolate/coffee, and gelati. All three have decided to revisit Assassin's Creed, so they can once again scramble and leap over various Roman monuments, now that they've seen them in the flesh.

We're back at the B&B, for a late siesta type thing, and to rest our sore feet and legs, before setting out for dinner in a few hours.

Edited to add: Dinner was very good, at a Sardinian seafood restaurant just around the corner. From fresh sardines and half a dozen other dishes as entree/antipasti, to a magnificent seafood risotto (mussels, clams, baby crustacea like a 4" long lobster) and sliced tuna salad. Ky ordered a seafood marinara, and then flaked out halfway thru' declaring that he no longer liked seafood. Unfortunately we were too full from the delightful antipasti to possibly finish his as well as ours.

Day 2 - Dubai, then Rome: some airports are better than others

We all woke painfully early - jetlag is a bitch - and after packing our bags and settling our bill (tourist tax plus wifi card; accom was prepaid), we set off to the old part of town around 9am (taxi AED8). We spent a very interesting hour and a half in the museum, housed beneath the Al Fahidi fort (built 1899).

Dubai feels a lot like India - rapid growth, ugly utilitarian concrete buildings with tiny shops all along the ground floor street front, lots of cars (but hardly any vespas, unlike India). Until around 1950, Dubai was a fairly small, quiet port, most famous for its pearl divers. It was only with the oil crisis of the 1970s, plus an expansionist sheik, that the place has sprung from almost nothing.

[Pics to come]

We emerged into the scorching heat and set off in a random direction looking for brunch. After wandering past a scores of tiny shops, each selling silk and other fabrics, we finally found a bunch of restaurants, all selling Indian food. (We also passed places that did month-by-month tiffen programs; tiffens being the tiered canteens of hot food delivered to and collected from your workplace each day.)

For AED24 (AU$8) we got a huge amount of samosa, bhaji, and other stuff, as well as a comfortable seat in air conditioned comfort. Our lunch the day before cost more than ten times that.

We managed to get some extra cash (after the extortionate taxi ride from the night before depleted our reserves), and found sunglasses and a cap for the boys. A little uncertain about what to do next, and Ky suffering badly in the heat, we decided to head for the train station by cab. Bugger all distance, it was little more than the flagfall, but the minimum fare was AED10 (still worth it!).

We considered catching a train out to the Emirates mall, the other big shopping centre, but that would be a half hour train trip, with barely half an hour there before we'd need to turn back to get to the hotel in time for our transfer to the airport. In the end we decided, bugger it, the heat is too much, let's just head straight out to the airport. As we couldn't bring forward our transfer, we cancelled it and just took a cab out (AED29).

An iced coffee/chocolate each, and we felt much better. We then had a light lunch as well before finding our check in gates. With no checked baggage, we could use the self-serve kiosks (a little astonishing for international travel, but there you go). We walked the length of the cavernous, and largely empty, terminal 3, and arrived at our gate with plenty of time to board an A380 for the six hour flight to Rome.

[Pics to come]

Fiumiccino airport is not as nice or efficient or functional as the previous three airports we'd spent time in (Dubai, Changi and Tullamarine). It took 45mins to get through passport control, with about three massive plane loads of people jammed into a small space, fed through two bottlenecks to four passport control agents who barely even looked at us or our passports. [NB, open out your passport to get a much more effective fan.]

There were only three ATMs in the place, and all were out of service, and the rates the bureaux de change were beyond extortionate. We ended up settling for the fast train to Roma Termini station (which ended up costing about the same as a cab would have), and then did take a cab to our hotel (given we had no idea where it was).

Note to self: on our way back, aim to be fully fed and watered before heading out to FCO airport, and time it so we don't arrive any earlier than necessary.

Day 1 - Dubai: where we did tourist stuff and got ripped off like tourists

We got into Dubai around 5am, and got to our hotel an hour or so later. We were delighted to see a kettle, and tea bags, but there was no milk. We had to wait until the nearby mini-mart opened around 7am until we could have a much needed cup of tea. We crashed out for a bit, with me venturing out into the steamy heat for milk around 8am.

Late morning, showered and somewhat rested, we decided to venture out to the Dubai Mall, if only because we'd be able to get air con plus lunch. Taxi fare: AED19 (around AUD6). We gawped at the massive fish tank, spent a stupid amount on a pleasant lunch (all about the location), and wandered around one of the largest shopping malls in the world - it has a Bloomingdales and Galeries Lafayette and H&M and M&S, as well as a shop for practically every retail brand you can think of, from Prada and Rolex to Forever 21.

[Pics to come]

I decided we might try the metro system to get home, and after a 1-2 km walk along an airconned tunnel, we got to the train. For AED4.5 (AU$1.50) each, we got to the station nearest our hotel. Which was still a 20min walk in unrelenting 40deg heat, which was a really stupid bloody idea. The massive blisters I got on the balls of my feet will make all the walking to come that much more painful.

JD and the boys went for a quick swim in the rooftop pool (water temp was a not very refreshing 30deg plus), and then we all set off back to the Dubai Mall, or rather this time aiming for the Burj Khalifa. Taxi fare this time was AED24, and the wrong end of the building completely.

There was very little info about the tower on the way up, although the lift was very impressive - 124 floors in about one minute, with no noticable acceleration or deceleration. The view from the observation deck, only halfway up the building at 455m (of total 828m). (Top of the Empire State building is a measly 381m, by comparison.) We stayed up there watching the shadows lengthen and the sun eventually set.

[Pics to come]

Afterwards, we got some food in the food court (speed over quality), and then walked the length of the mall (yet again) to get to the taxi rank. We were directed to a non-standard taxi, who turned out to be a scam artist. This fare was AED119.50. I indicated my displeasure and offered AED40, being the most the trip was worth, but JD was too soft-hearted and insisted on paying the full amount. What really pissed me off is that we did the right thing going to a taxi rank, and the people running that were clearly in cahoots with the scammer(s).

Anyway, we did get back safely, if expensively, and barely got the boys to bed before they fell asleep again.

Thursday, 11 September 2014

Packing list

I've had my head buried in novels for the past few weeks, when I haven't been at work etc or running around getting the house renovation stuff sorted, but given we will be packing tomorrow, I need to get the packing list sorted. And yes, we're still taking carry-on only.


Minimal jewellery for Ab + couple of scarves.
Edited to add: Plus sunhats

Electronica - all fully charged and podcasts/books/movies downloaded/updated as required.
'Wear' means packed into SeV hoodie etc (equiv of handbag)

Toiletries & medical
Liquids bag
 - shampoo, conditioner, cleanser, facial moisturiser, deodorant, toothpaste, sunscreen, lip balms, bite cream, insect repellant, hand cream/body moisturiser, baby wipes, contact lenses, hand sanitiser, lip stick & mascara
Non-liquids bag
 - toothbrushes, dental floss, body soap, laundry soap + universal sink plug, tampons,
 - prescription medicines (Ab x 3), Symbicort, Ventolin, anti-histamine, analgesics (minimal), bandaids, carry-on compliant nail clippers, tweezers, basic sewing kit

Day bags - Kathmandu fold-up satchel & backpack; handbag for Ab
Packing cubes
Collapsible water bottles
Notebook & writing implements
Sunglasses (incl normal & prescription for Ab)
Passports, tickets (electronic copies as well as paper), IDPs & drivers licences
Tissues, mints
Spare shopping bag (one of those ones that folds up to the size of a matchbox)
Coin purse (will hold credit card & drivers licence + local currency; in lieu of normal wallet)

(I'll likely update this through the day as I think of things, but it's a good first pass.)

Tuesday, 26 August 2014

Two and a half weeks to go!

We're now two and a half weeks from take-off, and while I've knocked over a few of the things on my to-do list, there are still a bunch to go.

What I have done:

  • Organised International Drivers Permits for both JD and me
  • Bought spare battery for camera (actually three, after the first one took so long I doubted it would come at all - who knew that the best route from Hong Kong to Australia was via Sweden?)
  • Advised school of boys' absence
  • Renewed scripts for medicines, still need to get extra refill to cover period away
  • Confirmed no additional vaccinations required (although we didn't get the HepA booster we should have after India, and probably should follow up)
  • Decided I'll get an Italian SIM while I'm there, rather than any of the other options
  • Prepared a first-draft packing list, and discovered that JD and the boys will need to do some clothes shopping before we go (see after the jump)
  • Booked JD and the boys for haircuts a week before we leave
  • Added weather reports of a few of our key locations so I can distract myself when it's cold and wet outside. It's 3:30am in Cahus, and 18C there right now - that's higher than today's forecast maximum and it's a relatively warm day today.
  • Got a couple of collapsible water bottles (freebies from Yarra Trams)

I'm also keeping a close eye on Iceland's volcanoes which are threatening to blow. After the disruption caused by the 2010 eruption of Eyjafjallajokull, I'm a little wary of what might happen. At the very least, I'll be sure to have at least one extra week's worth of medicines with me. And travel insurance to cover any losses.

As an aside, Australia's Civil Aviation Safety Authority now allows mobile devices to be used during take-off and landing, and Qantas and Virgin have formally received approval. I decided to check Emirates policy, and it appears it's been okay all along (as long as they're in flight mode). Yay! I definitely won't need to get a paperback version for flying.

Wednesday, 6 August 2014

Barcelona: dammit, two days will not be enough

Dad lent me a tourist guide for Barcelona, and the more I browse through it, the more I suspect we won't make it to Montserrat. With only two days in Barcelona, there's too much to see and do!

We arrive around 8pm on Monday night by train, and fly out at 12:30pm on Thursday. (I haven't checked whether we're required to be at the airport two hours before because its technically an international flight, or whether intra-EU flights count as domestic. Either way, Thursday morning is pretty much a write-off.)

So that gives us all of Tuesday and all of Wednesday. And Wednesday I've already booked.

On advice from several people, including my SIL, Rachel, who has just returned from a whirlwind trip around bits of UK & Europe, I have booked tickets for Sagrada Familia and Parc Guell. (All pics on this page are from wikimedia, unless credited otherwise.)

Sagrada Familia
Our committed Wednesday schedule looks like this:
10:30am Entry to Sagrada Familia basilica
11:15am Hour-long guided tour
12:45pm Entry to the Nativity tower (including the lift)
 -- grab some lunch etc, and catch a taxi to the front gate of Parc Guell by 3:30pm or so --
4:00pm  Entry to the Monumental Park bit of Parc Guell
Parc Guell
So, that's Wednesday pretty much done. But there's a whole heap of other things I want to see in Barcelona, and I don't think I can squeeze them all into Tuesday.

There's "La Ruta del Mondernisme", a 4km walking route (plus deviations) covering around thirty of the fifty-odd key buildings, starting at Palau Guell, and going up past the Illa de la Discordia, to the Casa Mila. There is a Guidebook (12 Euro), which includes half-price entry to all the monuments. It's so full on that the "One Day Route" recommends only visiting inside one of the monuments.
Casa Mila

One of the included monuments that I'm very keen to see is the Palau de la Musica Catalana. Tours run every half hour, and last an hour. They are open 10am to 3:30pm. There are English-speaking tours on the hour, from 10am to 3pm incl, with up to 55 people per tour (Euro 18 per adult, various discounts available).
Palau de la Musica Catalana
I think Ky may be interested in visiting a whole bunch of surreal/fantastic buildings, but I suspect Jos and JD might get a bit over it. Perhaps they can do some of the other things and report back instead.

There's the Barcelona History Museum which I mentioned in my earlier post which focuses on the 13th and 14th centuries, but also has some Roman baths, mosaic floors, and other bits in the basement

There's the Museu Maritim, in the former shipyards with a collection of vessels from a replica 16th century galley, to a wooden submarine, open 10am-8:30pm.
Rowing slaves on the replica of the medieval galley (photo credit)
The Fundacio Joan Miro looks wonderful, as does the Museu Picasso, and the Salavador Dali ones are a bit further out of town.
Woman and Bird, at Parc de Joan Miro

And even if we can't get to Montserrat to go on a funicular and cable car to the top of Montjuic hill, where many of the 1992 Summer Olympics events were held. Unfortunately, I think my chronic shoulder injury means I won't be able to go diving there.
10m platform, with Sagrada Familia in the background (AFP/Getty via dailymail)

Wednesday, 23 July 2014

Mobile phone use while in Europe

I learned a bit back that my Aldi mobile plan doesn't do roaming. So I've been keeping half an ear out for alternative solutions. Ideally, I'd be able to seamlessly forward calls to my current number, but that might be a pipe dream. Alternatively, I'd like a single number to reach me on for the whole time I'm over there, preferably one know before I leave.

When looking around the RACV website for info regarding the International Drivers Permit, I found a page about RoamingSIM. The idea sounds great: reasonably low call and text rates in around 200 countries; call forwarding works, and you also get an Australian landline number that locals can ring to connect to you.

Being the smart little cookie that I am, I checked out some reviews. They were not good. In fact, they were rather damning. It looks like the various other equivalents (eg Woolworths) can be just as bad. And I'm not the only one unimpressed with the choices. (Here's an explanation of how Global SIMs work, and why the sound quality and customer service is often lousy.)

It looks like I might have to get au fait with Skype, a WiFi Dialer app (various options), and/or local SIMs. Fortunately, WiFi seems fairly ubiquitous throughout the bits of Europe we're going to. Oh, and FWIW, my new phone is a Samsung Galaxy S5 (3G).

Here are a couple of other links that might be useful:

  • Lots of useful comments to the SMH article linked above
  • Pay as you go SIM with Data wiki (the Australia page seems fairly comprehensive). 
    • The Italian option page notes that you might need a codice fiscale for online purchases and ID.
    • Given our relatively remote location in France, I might enquire which network would be best.
  • Whirlpool discussion re SIMs for a month in Europe (hint: buy a UK one)

Do you have any experience with buying SIMs for travel in Europe? Good, bad or otherwise?