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.)