Monday, 3 August 2015

Hey, mambo! Mambo Italiano!

The 90 minute flight from Paris to Florence is cheap as chips and hassle free with Air France. The French airport security however, is the most intense I think I've ever experienced - military dudes with berets and assault rifles abound. In a way it's reassuring, but I'm also quietly hoping that none of these guys have any unresolved psych issues! If you're flying out of Paris on an international flight be prepared to pull every electronic item out of your bag for scanning and allow plenty of time (we were sweet but fortunately were there a lot earlier than we thought we had to be).

At the Florence end of the journey the fun continues - our Italian taxi driver is a nutcase - he's fanging it through these tiny streets with no regard for pedestrians or basically anyone else on the road (the taxis charge a fixed fee of about 20 Euros to get from the Airport to the city so there's all the incentive in the world to speed!). Anyway, we survive and are welcomed into our little AirBnB apartment by our host. It's quiet, comfy and close to all the action.

Florence itself is a stunning city, but absolutely crawling with tourists. It's actually nauseating to see that many guided tourist groups in such a small area. We get owned by a gelato shop.. blindly asking for a scoop of gelato in a cone each despite no prices being displayed. I just about have a coronary when the chick at the counter asks for 20 Euros in exchange! Rookie mistake. It's admittedly a huge scoop and the best icecream I've ever had which dulls the pain slightly. We check out the Florence Cathedral (Il Duomo di Firenze), which at almost 600 years old and 114.5m high is pretty impressive, but meh to the huge queue and cost to go inside so we just cheat and google images of the interior.

There's an awesome restaurant nearby that we've heard about through friends - Osteria del Cinghiale Bianco. Wild pork and pasta is their speciality and it's amazing (especially the truffle pasta Em ordered). The service is amazing too - the owner is super friendly and even gives us a free glass of champagne each while we wait for a table and complimentary grappa at the end of the meal. Legend! 

We catch a bus for an hour or so out of Florence for a day trip to a little town called Grieve in the Chianti region. There's a wine museum there were you can supposedly taste 200 varieties of wine. Which sounds amazing until we arrive and see that it's shut for renovations!! All good though, there are other places to do tastings and plenty of cool things too see including an amazing butcher/smallgoods maker who specialises in all things wild pork. Probably not your thing if you're a vego as there are hundreds of pig legs hanging from the roof (curing for prosciutto).

There's a little medieval town about 20 minutes up the road from Greve which is also worth checking out.

Duomo in Florence

The Fiume Arno (Arno river) flows through Florenc's centre

Pisa - We've been given advice from a few people to not bother staying here (not much to do apart from visit the leaning tower). It's just a day trip from Florence, or you can do as we did and catch a train Florence to Pisa, then a second train from Pisa to Rome.
We had around 4 hours in Pisa which was ample. Of course, everyone takes the cliche 'lean against Pisa' or 'Look like you're holding Pisa' shot. We had a slightly different take on it..

We meet a cool Kiwi couple (Tom and Sophie) on the train from Pisa to Rome. We had a couple of cold beers and do the decent thing and offer one to them. After giving Tom the beer I kook it and spill mine all over the floor of the train. Beer is everywhere and the whole carriage stinks of warm beer. Fortunately Sophie has a newspaper which semi-mops up the mess. Turns out they also sell cold beers on the train so we're winning for the rest of the journey!

Rome had us staying at another AirBnB joint, this was handy as it had a decent kitchen allowing us to cook our own meals and was located centrally with decent cafes and restaurants nearby. I was blown away by how close everything was in Rome - most of the historical attractions were within walking distance. 

 Spanish Steps

These drinking fountains are spread out all over Rome, inlcuding the places with ruins. The water is safe and  cold. Perfect when you're exploring in Summer.



View inside the Pantheon

Gelato.. it's everywhere in Italy. For good reason.

The Vatican. They day we visit turns out to be one of the few days of the year that the pope makes a public appearance. I find it amusing that of all days, he chooses a day when there's a scout convention in town (how convenient!). Anyway, if you do the Vatican I'd recommend doing a tour - the line to get in is over three hours long. Take a tour and you can skip the line. Vatican City is huge and if you don't know where you're going you'll probably miss most of the good stuff or take fives times as long finding it. There are some awesome paintings and sculptures, the most famous of course is Michelangelo's frescos on the Sistine Chapel. Despite the calls for silence when in the chapel, it's actually pretty noisy with people's chatter, the loudest of all being the security guards 'No photo! No photo!'. Taking a pic in the chapel isn't a fast-track ticket to hell, but rather it's banned because a Japanese company paid for the photography rights in exchange for paying for restoration costs years ago. I accidentally left my camera on and somehow the camera took a few photos..
Interestingly the Vatican has a few scandals, including the 'Ballet of Chestnuts', where the story goes that one of the Cardinals arranged for 'fifty honest prostitutes' toi attend one of their parties. The story goes that during the party they threw chestnuts onto the ground and made the ladies crawl around naked on their hands and knees picking them up while the pope and others looked on. Defenders of the pope will deny the bit about the chestnuts, but nobody denies that the fifty hookers were actually in attendance and somehow I doubt he was only inviting them around for a nice cup of tea!

 My favourite sculpture in the Vatican - the god of wine! 

Inside St Peter's Cathedral

View from top of St Peter's Cathedral

 Swiss guards outside the Vatican - probably hiding their pocket knives under the clown suits

After Rome we head off to the Amalfi coast - we catch a nice air-conditioned train to Naples, then a slightly rough looking local train to Sorrento (which leaves every 20 mins or so - no need to book). We hear all sorts of horror stories about pickpockets etc. for this route but it really doesn't seem any different to other trains around Europe (just make sure you take the usual precautions against pickpockets). When we get to Naples the weather is beautiful and with the light winds we decide to catch the ferry across to the island of Capri. What a stunning place! We end up hiring a boat from Capri banana sport for the afternoon which costs around 80 Euro. They're very easy boats to use and they give you a bit of a lesson beforehand if you don't have experience. Couldn't recommend this enough. 

The blue grotto is one of the coolest things we've seen in our lives. It's basically a cave inside the cliff with a small opening at sea level - the sunlight shines through the deep blue water from below and the inside of the cave is lit up blue with the filtered light.
You can reach it from the roads and a short walk on the island but a boat is the most convenient. There are a heap of rowboats in front who take you into the cave from the ocean (note that the tide needs to be low and the swell down to get in safely so it's only open at certain times). You pay 13 Euro to get in - we took snorkelling gear in and had about 15 mins in there. The other option is to go there late evening when the boats are gone and you can swim in for free and take as long as you want. Wouldn't recommend this unless you're a confident ocean swimmer though. If you're serious about seeing this place, I'd allow a few days in Sorrento and just catch the ferry over on the day that's calm and when the tides are mid to low. 

View from Hotel Defino looking towards Capri.

View of Pompeii from Sorrento

Ristorante Bagni Delfino - awesome seafood in Sorrento

We hire a rental car from Sorrento to check out Pompeii and also along the coast towards Amalfi. The scrapes all along the side of not only our car, but most of the other cars in the hire yard are a good indication of the fun that's about to ensue. The roads are so freaking narrow. Most of the parked cars have folded their wing mirrors in to stop them getting taken out by the cars driving past. It's a little daunting for us to start with as we're not used to driving on the right - throw in the fact that you're on a road that's cut into a cliff with a rock wall on one side with oncoming buses that leave you with just a few inches of clear space either side and you've got a recipe for fun! 

Lunch in Positano on the Amalfi coast

Followed by a dip in the relatively shark-free ocean

More Amalfi Coast..

In 79AD Mount Vesuvius lost it's shit and spewed ash all over Pompeii, with very little warning many residents were still there when it got engulfed by metres of ash - preserving the buildings, artwork, artifacts and of course, the victims. In the 1700's excavation commenced to reveal the original town and now provides a unique snapshot of what life would have been like back then. It's very eerie to walk through it. I'd heard a lot about the shapes of bodies that were found in the ash, but didn't actually realise they incoroporated the skeletons of the victims. You can actually see the skulls/teeth/bones protruding through many of the casts which is pretty full-on. Interesting also is that there were a lot of sexually themed frescoes found within Pompeii - which are now availble in a calendar for your fix of first century erotica!

Vesuvius in the background.

 Ampitheatre in Pompeii - this place has amazing acoustics. 
If you stand in the dead centre of the stage area and speak you can hear your voice is hugely amplified. 

Milan - our last stop before we head to Switzerland. You know you're in the fashion capital due to the number of models just cruising around the streets. They stick out a mile off as they're dressed to the nines and walk with their catwalk swagger. Plus they're about a foot taller than everyone else in the city. The Milan Cathedral is stunning too - it underwent a few design changes throughout it's history - they eventually setlled on a gothic style (unusual for Italy). Looks pretty epic if you ask me.

Amusement photo to demonstrate my lack of maturity:

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