Jillian & Bob

European adventures 2017


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Drum Bun Romania,Willkommen in Deutschland

30 June – Focsani served its purpose as a waypoint for our journey northwards but had nothing else of note to interest us.  The road today followed a river valley for ages with not very inviting looking towns until we finally climbed out into more rolling countryside.   We had a little trouble finding our accommodation with the address listed so resorted to the GPS co-ordinates and found it.  It was out of the town which sits at the foot of a huge dam we went up and over to find this “motel”. First appearances were not deceiving – it was grotty.  The complex had quite a few little cabins and a “motel” block – three floors with about 10 rooms one each floor.  Grotty from the outside and tacky on the inside.  Decided to go for a drive around the lake – what a horrible road – we bumped along for about 20kms before calling it a day and returning the same way. Did however find a gorgeous pensiune offering meals, so stopped off dinner and had we known about this place it would have been much much better than our ‘motel’.

 

01 July – Not such a great night in our grotty motel – awoken by screaming and what we thought was an argument but turned out to be a medical emergency as there were two ambulances outside when we ventured out.  We had decided the night before that we would ditch the second night we had booked  – it was just too cheap and not cheerful for comfort.  Back down into the outskirts of Bicaz before heading off through the Bicaz Gorge.  What a spectacular drive through the narrow canyon with high rocky outcrops – it was spoilt a bit by all the tourist shacks lined up along the sides of the road selling “souvenirs”.  We climbed up and out of the gorge over a couple of pretty passes and through various villages. The local handicraft in this region is wickerwork with loads of little stalls selling baskets, chairs, brooms and other odds and sods.

 

Made it into Sighisoara and breathed a sigh of relief to get have a “nice” place to stay – it was an old villa built in early 1900’s, renovated nicely within a short walk of the old city up on the hill.   We made the pilgrimage up to the top, little streets with quaint buildings and a nice square for refreshments to sit people watch.  Moved to another place for our dinner – that was a surprise – I ordered Transylvanian sour bean soup which came served inside a huge hollowed out loaf of bread – very tasty and oh so filling.

 

Back home to base in time to watch our own sound and light show going off in the way of a thunderstorm.

02 July – After a comfortable night in our pensiune, spent a little time before setting off trying to figure out the next leg of our journey through to Germany.  Leaving Sighisoara behind we got into some lovely countryside with rolling green hills dotted with little villages.  It is so much more pleasant driving than on the hot plains.  Turga Mures was our target for our first break.  This town was so similar in layout to Arad, the first town on our entry into Romania but poles apart in charm.  The buildings were clean and tidy, the pavements in good condition and a very pleasant area to walk around.  A nice little patisserie for our refreshment stop and then back on the road.

 

Stopped at little local restaurant in the countryside for lunch – nice vantage point to watch the horses and carts venturing out into the fields.  We then had a short hop on more scenic roads through to Bistrita and our hotel for the night just a short walk from the town centre.  Another pleasant town square – again with a large pedestrian street lined with outdoor tables and seating areas.  We walked around all the interesting old parts of the town before dining in a restaurant offering traditional food – sadly we didn’t have room for dessert but they sure looked inviting.

03 July – Heading north today towards the Ukrainian border.  About 200kms – the first half was on a typically bumpy road, so slow going but then it improved markedly as we headed up into lovely rolling hillsides and neat little towns.  Our destination – Sapanta – a fairly rural little village but renown for its “merry” cemetery to which tourists flock to. We had a lovely local pensiune right opposite the cemetery. Ileana the owner’s mother was a very gracious host.

The pensiune was in a typical house which had been converted into rooms for accommodation.  We had a nice clean room and if you overlooked the bright pink bath and toilet it was a neat little place.  Took the visit over to the cemetery – what an interesting place.  In the late 30’s a poet/writer decided that the people buried in the cemetery deserved something fitting to show for their lives so he started created these carved wooden grave markers, painted bright blue with a carved picture of the deceased person showing their profession or what they did in their life (eg. weaver, homemaker, miner, fireman etc.) then under the picture was a carved poem about their life and death.

 

Reading through the translations afterwards – some of them were not very kind about the deceased – ie. he was far too fond of the drink and it got the better of him; others detailed the hard life they had suffered and there were even a couple of curses attached to graves of children killed in car accidents directed to the drivers of the cars.  All in all a very illuminating visit.  Even more outstanding was the new church that was being built on the site (how a town which would be way smaller than Cambridge could afford such a building beats us) and this was not the only church being built in this small town – just down the road the Catholics were in the process of building a wooden church and then about 1km away the local monastery had also built a fantastic wooden church with a 75m spire along with new quarters for the monks.  Did a quick search on google and found that there were 400 monasteries in the country with about 3500 monks and nuns so it they must still be getting new recruits coming through the ranks.

04 July – Last full day in Romania. Ileana showed us her special heritage family room used for special events – weddings, funerals, Christmas etc.  Two of the walls were lined with brightly covered hand-woven rugs, the other two were hand painted with red flowers on a blue background.  She had a couple of display cabinets with old china and some very finely decorated eggs.  She then showed us her loom and demonstrated hand spinning.  Their sheep’s wool is very coarse and they don’t do too much in the way of carding out all the flotsam and jetsam.

The tourist buses had arrived bright an early to start their visit of the cemetery.  We set off first to have a look at the monastery with the wooden church – the workmanship required to construct these churches is amazing as it was stunning.

With that done it was one the last leg of our trip. We travelled within spitting distance of Ukraine for a while – we were on one side of the river and just on the other side was Ukraine.  Went though a bit of forest and then it was down onto the plains again – fortunately the temp has dropped a few degrees so a little more pleasant.

Saw our first gypsy caravans today – just two of them and very distinct – very grubby covered horse-drawn wagons (a bit like the pioneer wagons in the USA) with all manner of things hanging on the outside and crowded inside with grubby looking kids and adults, quite different from the few other Roma we have seen in the towns – the women wear very bright coloured long skirts, white blouse and an equally bright headscarf.

Stopped off at a supermarket to pick up some lunch supplies then it was on to Oradea our stop for the night.  Here was yet another lovely surprise – coming into the city it looked to be fairly typical, bland apartment blocks and boring buildings and even the street where our hotel was located was not particularly inspiring.   The hotel itself was in a new building, nicely furnished and a very comfortable room for our last night.  Went out to explore and just a couple of blocks away we came into the town centre and boy what a contrast – some gorgeous buildings, lovely pedestrian streets and a really nice feel.    Since joining the EU, Romania has received grants to assist with beautifying their cities and where they have  this grant they seem to be making real inroads into bringing these cities back to life.

Oradea (10)

Dined in the courtyard of one of the very old early hotels – this one still needed renovation but would have been very grand it its day. The biggest surprise was when we opened the menu – first thing we saw was Monteiths Summer Ale and Pilsener available as well as Old Mout Cider on the drinks list and then one very expensive cut of meat from New Zealand (it was in the grill section and when translated back at base – it came out as Cattle Muscles from New Zealand so have no real clue as to its cut).

05 July – Our attempt to find the nice patisserie we had seen in town the night before failed so it was just a tea and coffee instead before heading off in the direction of the border and a new country.  The border was only about 30 minutes away from Oradea – manned by both the Romanians and Hungarians – they checked our passports and made us open the boot to ensure we hadn’t got any stowaways and then we were waved off.  Flat going all the way through to Budapest – this part of the country a lot more prosperous than the little corner than we covered earlier on.  Managed to get to our accommodation right in the middle of the city with not too many hassles although finding parking was a bit difficult as we couldn’t get enough local coins to feed the parking machine.  It is a good thing we don’t easily get put off by outside appearances, as the apartments were in a very old and distressed looking building and up the first two flights of stairs was particularly dark and dingy, but once into the apartments themselves – bright, airy and very modern.  9 rooms most with their own en suite facilities and a very up to date kitchen area.

Within walking distance of the Danube they were certainly a good find.  We ate a quick dinner in before heading off to see Budapest come alive by night – this place seems to be a mecca for young tourists – bars were crowded with 20 somethings making the most of cheap booze.  Down on the river, had to wait a while for darkness to fall, but once it did the buildings and bridges all came to life with lights.

06 July – Quick blat on to Vienna.  Arrived mid afternoon to our nicely placed hotel which enabled us to just hop on the tram for the short ride into the centre.  Armed with the local map were able to cover all the interesting sights to see.  What  a lovely city – compact centre with elegant buildings and very clean.  To really appreciate this city you need to come for a week or so, armed to the teeth with a load of cash and take in all of the different theatres and museums.

We were happy though to just wander around and admire its beauty.  Of course we had to sample Weiner Schnitzel for our dinner.

07 July – Another day another capital.  Prague today – again arriving mid-afternoon.  Our easy to find hotel was again right next to a tram stop with a short ride into the centre.  The last time I had visited Prague – so many of the buildings were being restored and covered in scaffolding and there was hardly a soul around.  Fast forward 30 years, the buildings are visible and the tourists are there in throngs.

Very interesting areas on both sides of the Danube.  After a wander around the inner part of the city we crossed over the historic Charles Bridge for a break in a little bar to people watch for a while.  Nearby we chanced upon a really lovely walled garden before having to find refuge from a thunderstorm in a local restaurant.  When the skies cleared we were able to amble back to the centre and catch our flash tram straight back home.

8 July – Another day another country – Germany today and our stop for the next few days – Lake Wannsee just 20 minutes from Berlin.  We knew our hotel was going to be close to the railway station, just didn’t realise that it was just outside our window (all five lines of it).  Oh well, them’s the breaks.

09 July – The train into Berlin was a relaxing 20 minute trip. Berlin is not as compact as the other three capitals, so we made use of our day travel ticket and sampled trams, underground and buses.  Ticked off the big things Brandenburg Gate, remains of the wall and checkpoint Charlie.  At the remains of the wall there was a very moving timeline of Berlin’s history prior and post war and the fall of the wall.

10 July – Wet and miserable start to our day.  Spent our day visiting with Torsten, Lydia and two of their five children – their two sons Jonathan and Florian.  We had met Torsten when he was still a student in the late 80’s in Czechoslovakia when at that time he was living in the then DDR and over the years we have kept in touch, at our last get together Florian was just a toddler and now he is a bright and bubbly teenager and his brother Jonathan is about 16 and a very fine young man.  The family were staying in their caravan just about 30 mins from our hotel at Wansee at another lake – so we joined them there first before venturing out for lunch at Ferch and then on to Potsdam.

The first stop was at San Soucci Palace for a wander around their impressive gardens then into the old town for a delicious stop at a local ice-cream parlour.  We then spent an hour or so in the early evening enjoying the ambience of the old town before farewelling our friends.  How fortunate we are as we travel around the world to meet such lovely people and to be able to share joint experiences.

11 July – Monique led us a fine little dance this morning as we headed south and ended up going through the middle of Potsdam before finally getting us on the autobahn and a straight blat down to our destination – a tiny little village Eisenbuhl and a divine apartment to stay in.  Came prepared to cook our own dinner so it was a nice relaxing evening.

Eisenbuhl

12 July – Regensburg was today’s target – and with a diversion to Bamberg arrived at another of our friend’s place mid afternoon.  Tom and Gabi once again made us feel so welcome in their lovely home as we settled in and caught up on their news since seeing them 18 months ago.

13 July – Tom and Gabi had discovered a new museum for us to visit, so it was off to Neumarkt and the Maybach museum.  This was quite a new museum, very nicely laid out with a good display of Maybach cars and bikes – everything was explained in both German and English.  The company originally developed and manufactured diesel and petrol engines for Zeppelins, and then rail cars. Its Maybach Mb.IVa was used in aircraft and airships of World War I.  The company first built an experimental car in 1919, introduced as a production model two years later at the Berlin Motor Show. Between 1921 and 1940, the company produced a variety of opulent vehicles, now regarded as classics.

We had a short break out of the museum for lunch and returned to finish the last exhibits before returning home. Dinner in the local beer garden made a pleasant end to the day.

14 July – Said our farewells and it was on the road again down to Munich and the BMW museum situated in the Olympic park.  Very impressive museum with a very large temporary exhibition celebrating the centenary of the company and then their permanent display of their vehicles.  We managed to spend a good 3 hours before having to tackle Friday afternoon Munich traffic.

Fortunately we had only 90 odd kms to get to our next stay for the night but we did have quite a lot of very slow spots. We did feel for the folks in their cars travelling towards Munich as they had to deal with a large nose to tail pile-up accident which backed the traffic up for miles.  Mindelheim was the stop for the night – another pretty town with some very attractive old buildings in their town centre.  Our small hotel was a renovated water-mill used to mill flour in days gone by.  Quite a lot of the original woodwork still in existence and also the belts and pulleys were a feature of the restaurant.  The countryside in this region is so pretty – very green fields and forests interspersed with quaint little villages.

15 July – Another autobahn blitz – through the very green German countryside, followed by a short stint of about 10kms through Austria before finally hitting Switzerland.  They really do exploit the visitors using their roads.  We had to buy a vignette to use the motorways (all other countries have short tem ones – ie. 1 week or a month) but the Swiss make you buy a pass for a year and at 40 euro it makes it an expensive exercise for just a couple of days motoring.  We needed to break our journey through to France so it was a little town called Biberist that got the tick for our stay for the night.  Nice and orderly as you would expect from the Swiss – streets are clean and countryside very green.


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Romanian Rhapsody

20 June – Not too far to go today – destination Sibiu.  We managed to go on the motorway for a short distance, but then it ran out and we were stuck with the heavy traffic that leaves you no option but to trail along in a queue as passing opportunities are few and far between, mainly because there is no break in the oncoming traffic.  Can’t believe how many trucks there are on the roads.  I have to take back my initial observation that Romania was a poor relation to Hungary – in fact it seems much more prosperous – the houses and surrounding properties are of a much higher standard and apart from Arad the cities are also bustling and much more westernised.  There is still very much a mix of the old and the new, with the rural areas still coming into the modern age of mechanisation.  On the whole the driving is quite good, but there is the odd crazy overtaking on blind bends which makes you heart miss a beat or two.  Found our accommodation very easily, and with parking in the garage underneath the building it was a good base.

21 June – Way too hot to venture into a city for walking around so opted to visit the open air historical museum which was a good choice.  Set in 93 acres in the Dumbrava forest just a few kms out of the city, it had houses which had been bought in from all over the country from all different walks of life – potters, millers, wheelwright, peasant farmers etc. and laid out in separate areas.

Several exhibitions along the way including a good array of fruit presses and another of local types of carts.  In the middle of the complex was a traditional restaurant so we had a good feed there before finishing off our wander past the windmills and little farming areas.

Have a look at “Farmer Bob”

22  June – Left our DaVinci residence after two very comfortable nights.  The main roads (equivalent to our State Highways) are well-engineered but as Romania is slowly getting its infrastructure into place, if there isn’t a motorway you are subjected to end to end trucks and this was the case as we had to head off towards Bucharest.  Fortunately it was only a short stretch this time, then we were on to a country road to take across to Curtea de Arges.  Slow going, in that the road surface was not so good and a lot of villages but a very pretty drive.  We were into a much more rural area, still a lot of horses pulling carts and manual work being done in the fields.  There are tractors doing some of the hay cutting, but it seems that the hay is still picked up by hand and first dried in little conical stacks before being transported to the farmers hay barns.

OSH would have a field day in this country – people riding atop the piles of loose hay as it is taken back to the farms (with one very incongruous sight – a women sitting up there chatting away on her cellphone).  Made it to our next lovely accommodation where we have finally got the views from our rooms as promised.  Very nice setup with a bar downstairs and rooms on the next two levels,super clean and good wifi.

Walked down into the town and ventured into the Monastery gardens which were a real surprise.  The main church was built in the 1500’s and what a work of art inside. Lavishly painted on the walls, ceilings and right in the top of the domes.  The last King and Queen of Romania were buried in the church – the Queen being Marie, Princess of Scotland – Queen Victoria’s granddaughter.  Nice gardens surrounded the entire monastery which is still in use today.

23 June – A full day of motoring today on Ceaușescu’s Folly a road renown as one of Europe’s most exciting roads.  From Curtea de Arges we first had 70kms of slow winding road as we followed the contours of a large hydro lake before we finally got into the road itself.  What a magnificent piece of engineering climbing up to just over 2,000m with continuous steep hairpins and long s-bends winding up the side of the mountain and down the other side.

Built mainly by military forces, the road had a high financial and human cost. Work was carried out in an alpine climate, at an elevation of 2,000 metres (6,600 ft), using roughly six million kilograms (5,900 long tons; 6,600 short tons) of dynamite, and employing junior military personnel who were untrained in blasting techniques. Many workers died; official records state that only 40 soldiers lost their lives, but unofficial estimates by workers put the number in the hundreds.

Transfagarasan Romania (44) (32)Transfagarasan Romania (44) (21)Transfagarasan Romania (44) (38)

The road itself was easy to drive, no long drop offs as you went from bend to bend, plenty wide enough but you could only average about 40kph – which was fine as it gave you plenty of time to admire the views.

Watch part of our drive on this magnificent road

It is on the list of bikies must do’s and we saw bikes from many nations tackling the curves, including three very serous looking trike conglomerations from Hungary.

The interesting bit of the road was about 40km long, crossing over the Carpathian mountains.  The road had only opened four days ago for the summer and just the day before there had been a serious rockfall just before the tunnel at the top.  It is a bit hairy going through the areas of potential rockfalls as some of the rock faces do look incredibly precarious and about to let go at any moment.   Having both had a drive on this masterpiece we stopped off for a picnic lunch on the way down – it looked a good spot, signposted as a picnic area but as soon as we stopped we realised it was a private area with four grotty caravans parked and some little tables.  Immediately the little man came up to tell us we would have to pay (depending on how long we were stopping) and would we like to stay the night in one of the caravans.  He turned out to be quite knowledgeable and a we did have a good conversation with him.  When it came time to go he wanted 100lei (which is more than we pay for a room for the night) so all he got from us was 10 lei and that was really more than enough.

After leaving home at 10am we got back to base just after 4pm – in time for a nice cold beer and a light snack of cheese, biscuits and cherries for our dinner.

24  June – Only a relatively short distance (on the map) of 135km to go but the going was very slow.  We first headed out for about 50km on a secondary road which was full of pot holes and patched road (I hate to think what the suspension will be like when we finish our trip) through a fairly flat valley and then we joined up with the main road hoping for an improvement.   It was slightly better and was through some of the prettiest scenery we have had yet – up and down through mountain valleys with little villages dotted along the way.  The alpine meadows very lush and saw our first herd of cows (about 40) all with bells on and managed by a single cowherd who was happily chatting away on his cellphone.  All along the way there were little shacks with local produce for sale – lower down fruit and veges, as we climbed further up it was honey, cheeses and dried meats.  You could even buy mountain dog puppies from guys sitting on the road.  Plenty of manual labour was being employed in the fields in this area – scything the hay by hand, tilling the land etc.

The style of building has changed – houses have little turrets on their roofs and instead of the brick and plaster have seen some wooden clad houses as well.  We had only one visit planned on the route which was Bran Castle (more commonly known as Dracula’s Castle).  Not quite the fairly tale looking castle but impressively built on a pice of rock.  We are now coming into tourist season and boy was it busy, we just had to follow along in a queue for the entire walk around inside.

The castle had been gifted to the Romanian Royal Family in the 20’s to use as one of their many residences.  It would have been a nightmare to live in with loads of narrow staircases to get from area to area, the rooms were all fairly compact but comfortable.  Had enough of the crowds so settled for an ice-cream in the local park before heading to Brasov.  Quite stop start trip along the flat valley as road works were in progress – the enterprising locals were out in force at each traffic stop trying to sell strawberries or raspberries.  Brasov itself was another pleasant surprise – it is a lovely city, by far the best we have seen yet.  Our hotel was about 10 mins walk from the centre with a lovely open square surrounded by interesting buildings and quaint streets plus of course the obligatory church or four.  A little classic car show was happening in the square which was creating quite a bit of interest.

Travelling through the countryside is like going through Americas bible belt with at least one massive church in every town.  We again managed to be provided with “views” from our little balcony – overlooking a smaller square and out to the hills beyond.  Found a delectable coffee and pastry shop for a brief interlude before heading back for another nail-biting Americas Cup session.

25 June – Sunday today and a lot cooler, so it was join the locals and just promenade around the city.  We took the recommended route around the city walls, first along the base of the Tampa mountain then down into the town and around the other side.  With that done, it was into the nice old town centre with its pedestrian streets and the main square.  The main street was lined with tables, chairs and umbrellas in the middle so that you could partake of the local cafe/restaurant culture – we were forced to sit down and have crepes and a drink while we watched the world go by.

The Romanians are a real mixed bunch – from the very swarthy to the very light-skinned. Have only seen one Roma (gypsy) so far – a woman begging with her children but we have figured they must have a very good welfare system here as there are no street bums and at most we have seen about three old women begging all outside of churches. The Roma only make up 1% of the population – they must have all moved to bordering countries where they are much more obvious.  Romania feels very safe, no threatening looking people lurking in their cities and just ordinary people going about their daily lives everywhere.  No real language problems as English is widely spoken and if not the language has latin roots so many words are distinguishable.  Dined in a small Italian restaurant before heading back for the obligatory AC session.

26 June – Heading towards the coast today but first it was up through a couple of mountain villages which were very much holiday destinations judging by all the little touro stalls on the side of the road.   Quite impressive views of some very dominating rocky mountains as we wound through the valley and then it was out onto the plains again.  200kms of very flat agricultural plains – more commercialised with much larger paddocks and more mechanised but there were still the odd horse nd cart trying to compete on the busy road with big trucks whizzing by.  The style of housing has changed markedly – mainly single story homes with tin roofs as opposed to tiles, the towns were not very inspiring and I did wonder what our next stop was going to produce but it turns out that Amara is a little lakeside tourist resort (and if you rely on google translate for info – then it is famed for its sludge!). Our hotel had been built with funding from the EU and local govt. in a bid to promote tourism in the region.

A little montage of Romanian driving

Nice and clean and half the price of Brasov without dropping too much in comfort. The heat wave is continuing to follow us around with temps heading up in the mid 30’s plus humidity so not conducive to a lot of walking around.  They had a restaurant on site serving “International” cuisine – I chose Shanghai chicken – not sure which part of the chicken was from Shanghai but it was about 10 little tenderloins deep fried (no sauces, no rice) and if it wasn’t for the salad ordered as an extra it would have been a very dry argument.  Bob had grilled trout which was probably the better bet.  Finished our meal just on time to hear the final AC race and poor Jimmy Spithill’s defeat.  What a great effort by our guys and really nice to be able to stick it Oracle.

27 June – Mostly agricultural scenery today with one little bit of forest for a change.  In that forest there happened to be loads of beehives – but more interesting were the mobile hives in trucks.  They obviously just move around to follow the flowers as they come into bloom and probably don’t have to pay for the privilege as they just park up in public parking spots.  Crossed over the Danube via a toll bridge and then it was into the huge expanse of the Danube Delta and a little village at the end of the road to stay at a nice Pensiune.  In this area we have noticed many storks nests atop power poles still with chick/s and their parents.  Many of the houses now are sporting thatched roofs – with reeds readily available from the delta this makes a sensible altenative to steel and tiles.

Danube Delat (8)

28 June – Today’s  treat was a boat trip out on the Danube Delta.  We had chanced upon a local guide who offered a reasonable deal so agreed on a duration and were duly picked late afternoon to embark on our exploration.  Five minutes into the trip a huge thunderstorm was bearing down on us, so it was quickly out at the first available stop and into a bar to shelter for nearly an hour until the rain passed.  With the storm out of the way we then proceeded – first crossed over the Danube river and into one of the arms before hitting a series of little canals and trails through the delta.

Our guide was very knowledgeable and a great spotter of the wildlife as he motored us about in his small outboard driven boat.  The bird life was quite varied with egrets, storks, cormorants, ibis, heron and even pelicans.  We ventured into a couple of lakes the first lined with water lilies around its edges and then through a very narrow passage out into a larger lake, this one covered quite comprehensively in a float planting – bit like a the leaves of a pineapple plant.  Both of the lakes very quite shallow and had extremely weedy bottoms which was creating a bit of a problem for his outboard – at one stage I had visions of us stuck out in the middle of nowhere as it did seem to stutter for while until he finally managed to clear the prop.

There are villages in the delta area which can only be reached by boat – they one we passed used to be a fishing village but had been turned into a little tourist area but didn’t look very appealing.  We also passed by one of Ceaușescu hunting lodges – it turns out that he decided one day that he wanted to have this lodge for himself and in the middle of the night turfed out all of the tourists who were staying there.  Our guide’s mother had to go in the next day to clean up and she told him that the people had had to leave so quickly that most of their possessions were left behind.  The overriding feeling as you motor around is one of decay – both from the smell of the very dank water that pervades the whole of the delta and the abandoned buildings and projects. During Ceaușescu’s reign he had a lot of the delta drained to make more farming land and that changed the landscape dramatically.  Also hard to imagine as we puttered around in hot humid temps that most of the waterways freeze over in the winter including the lakes and the Danube itself.

29 June – Stinking hot day again with a drive over very hot plains to boot so it was nice to arrive at our destination of Focsani and break the monotony.  Not much to see along the way except cornfields, sunflowers and wheat with the odd little rural town thrown in. The last town we came through had a series of little tables outside of the houses with plastic bottles filled with homemade wine for sale – needless to say we passed on buying them.


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Trulli something else

10 June – Another glorious day heralded in Bob’s big day.  Breakfast was typical Italian,  extremely basic and certainly not the value for money that we have come to expect.  Today’s destination was over on the east coast, so it required a mix of motorways and ordinary roads to achieve that objective.  Hit the coast at Sibari and followed the coast almost to Taranto.  Must say that we find this coast much more pleasant than the much-lauded Amalfi coast – maybe because it was far less hectic and easier to travel about.  Had  a few side trips down to coastal villages looking for lunch – took a few tries before we found somewhere open.  First go we ended up at a very exclusive marina resort which was a no-go, but on our second try we found a lovely little restaurant – whitewashed with blue trim and a little blue boat parked outside on the pavement.  Nice relaxing meal – very tasty although I am not quite sure I like my pasta as al dente as the Italians cook it.  Lunch over it was time to head inland again to get over to the eastern coast just south of Bari to Alberobello.

The countryside was very pretty as we headed away from the coast – mile after mile of dry stone fences surrounding smallish paddocks, olives, fruit trees and hay being cultivated here.

I had read about the place and their interesting houses but did not expect it to be so stunning.  The little studio apartment I had booked was just on the edge of the town – in a very narrow street with lovely whitewashed houses.

First stop after settling in was to go up on to the terrace and we were certainly not prepared for the view from up there – surrounded on 3 sides by hundreds of these little trulli houses (not visible as we drove in) with their conical stone roofs – it was just magical.  Just a street away from our lodging, the old town began – tiny streets all with perfect whitewashed tiny houses and their funny little cones.  It was so pretty and like nothing we have ever encountered before.  It was quite a tourist trap with the usual little souvenir shops selling tiny trullis and other artisanal handcrafts but still managed to keep its charm.

A street vendor selling all manner of olives, dried and fresh fruits managed to part us of some cash as we sorted out a sumptuous antipasto dinner for later on – olives, fresh figs and gorgonzola along with french pate purchased early on in our travels.

11 June – Can’t believe how early people have to get started when taking coach tours – I had gone for an early morning (not really early mind – about 8.30am) walk to find some yoghurt for breakfast and the tour groups were already wandering around the little streets.  They would have bussed in probably from Bari.  I managed to find my yoghurt – a necessity to go with figs that I had stewed the night before.

We had nearly 400km to knock off today so we didn’t hang around too long – back out through the pretty countryside for a while before hitting motorways to knock off some of the distance.  Only made one stop – Termoli.  Parked in the port area and took the stairs up to the old part of the town to have a little walk around.

Carried on to just north of Pescara to our fairly ordinary hotel for the night.

12 June -More coastal scenery today as we went further up the coast.  Stop for the night was Rimini and made a bit of a blue here.  I booked what looked like a relatively quiet seaside area, but oh dear it was like Billy Butlins on steroids – mile after mile of built up area – hotels on one side of the street, beach complete with brollies and chairs on the other side as well as little fairground rides interspersed among them.  It was awful, quite busy during the day but everyone seemed to come out of the woodwork at night.  Not the nicest of hotels either, but it was somewhere to put our heads down.

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13 June – Breakfast surpassed itself in expectations so we were well setup for the day ahead.  First stop, back towards Rimini and the Nazionale Museo del Motocicilo (how did we manage to pass a whole month and not visit one of these?).  Quite a little gem – situated in a little backwater on the side of the airport it housed quite an exceptional collection.

They only had a couple of display buildings but managed to cram in a large number (around 250) of very original machines – not just Italian marques but a few Nortons, Sunbeams etc.  About 20 sidecars, quite a few scooters and other bits and bobs.  Not very many visitors seem to make it to this museum.

Museum done, it was off to San Marino (a little country enclave just inland from Rimini).  The only country in the world with more cars than people.  The drive through the countryside was just beautiful as it wound up through the hills – wish I had booked up here instead of down on the coast.  Parked our car at Borgo Maggiore at the foot of the aerial tramway and rode the very short steep gondola up to the old town on the top of the peak.

It was quite magical up there, with little fairytale castles, tiny streets and super views.  Very high end shopping – tax free perfumes,watches, leather etc.  Had a little spot of lunch before heading back down.  Had another 3 hour drive to get to Venice, which part way along Monique decided to turn it into a 4 hour drive by taking us off the autostrade and on to the state road (it did look like she had foreseen traffic delays).  From there it was a very slow 150km along the coast road with nose to tail traffic in both directions averaging about 70kph at best.  Anyway we made it into Venice with no difficulties, staying at Quatro D’Altino on the norther end of the city.

14 June – Venezia beckoned.  We caught the train from near our hotel for the 30 minute ride into the central station.  Nice little journey, through countryside first and then through residential areas.  Busy central station, but easy to find our way around. Caught the vaperetto, which is the waterbus that runs on several routes, but we took it right around the Grand Canal to Piazza San Marco and then set about walking back to the station.  Very busy of course around the square, but it was quite easy to get away from the crowds and get to more enjoyable areas.

A lot of interesting little shops, particularly the antique and print shops.  Shops selling masks of course abounded as well as the Murano glass.  We just had a leisurely walk around with the mandatory coffee, lunch and gelato stops. The canals are super busy with water taxis, buses, gondolas as well as all of the trade boats which have to service everything within the city.  How nice to have no vehicles whatsoever and being able to walk with ease.  Most of the buildings around the canals have definitely seen better days but would have been grand in their day.  Must say that it was nice to be able to walk around with dry feet (when I came here in the lat 70’s I was wading through knee-deep water throughout the streets).   The gondoliers look quite cute in their striped shirts and little hats and were doing a reasonable trade despite it not yet being peak season. Well satisfied with our wander around it was time to get back on the train home.  The forecast thunderstorm came in just as predicted whilst we were on the train and was in full force when we had to get off.  Haven’t experienced such heavy wind and rain for quite a while.

https://youtu.be/fzi8UzcBfeo

We had to get off the train on to an uncovered platform and the dash to the subway was such fun.  We did have parkas but that didn’t a lot of good and we were little drowned rats by the time we got to cover.  Sheltering in the subway until the rain eased didn’t last long as the rain swept down into the ramps and made it unpleasant.  Another quick dash to our car then a short drive through very flooded streets back to the hotel to work out how to get soaked clothes dry overnight.

15 June – The thunderstorms had well and truly gone, replaced with yet another hot sunny day.  With not too far to go, it was at a leisurely pace that we began our day.  Trieste – just about an hour’s drive up the coast was our lunchtime stop. What a different city that was – wide open plazas, clean and tidy and relatively calm drivers.  Managed to find a park on the waterfront, right in front of the main square with the huge P&O ship the Oriana berthed right alongside.  Spent ages in a little book shop trying to find a decent map book of Europe, in the end settled just for an individual Romanian map which should be adequate for our next leg of the journey.  Lunched in a nice little Greek café just back from the main touro areas before it was time to retrieve the car and head out of Italy.  I didn’t realize that we were quite so close to Slovenia, only 11km up the road and it is like being in another world.  We climbed very steeply out of Trieste and on hitting Slovenia the first thing we noticed – spotlessly clean, no rubbish at all on the sides of the road, road verges were mown and there were footpaths that you could actually walk on.  I had booked us into a hotel right on the border – didn’t really dawn on me when I had booked it that is was a casino – I guess the name should have given it away – Safir Casino Hotel.  Anyway it was much better priced than anything I could find in Trieste, very comfortable with the most luxurious beds and of course the Casino.  I was forced to try that out and managed to come out with a huge 10Euro more than I went in with – that’s a first for me for a while.  We didn’t need to have an evening meal due to the large and late lunch that was consumed earlier – so we went out for a little stroll instead.  We weren’t close to any shops or the like, so it was just a pleasant walk on footpaths that actually let you walk unimpeded.  Slovenia is just so different from Italy, how is that two cultures living side by side are so diverse.  Driving the short distance we had made it into the country was so much more relaxed – the roads seem to be top class as well, houses neat and tidy (more Austrian in appearance).

16 June – Just a few kms down the road was one of the first stops for the day – the Lipica stud, horse stud of the famous Lippanzer horses – the beautiful white horses which you see in both the Spanish and Austrian riding schools, but which originated from here.  Entry fee included a guided tour which we participated in – very informative and a good background to the stud.  It started in 1580 and in the 1800’s was part of the Hapsburg’s estate.  It covers 350 hectares of beautifully treed pastures, stables, historic area and their riding school.

Hadn’t timed it right for a performance at the school, but managed to have a good walk around, see the beauties up close and just enjoy the area.  They had a new batch of foals, just a couple of weeks old which had been let out in the open air for the first time along with their mothers.  They are born black and as they age they slowly turn white with the exception of about 1% which remain black or brown.  Their bloodline is a mix of Spanish, Italian and Arab.  Only stallions are used for the performances – and it takes about 5 years to train them to the “Stage of Excellence” that they must reach.  The mares on the other hand are relegated to pulling the carriages.  When the foals are born, they stay with their mother for about 7 months and then are split off into their gender groups –the males are sent off to a different farm for about three years and then return to start their training. The mares have foals every 3-4 years, and this year’s brood produced 15 males and 8 females.  On the way out of the complex encountered a large group of mares browsing the paddocks.

With that done, it was on to the next visit – the Military museum.   What a pretty drive through the wooded hills, quite narrow roads but hardly any traffic and through a couple of small villages to the site of the museum, lovely vistas from its sit atop the hills – unfortunately too much heat haze for any photos.  Outside temp was up to 38C. Indulged in a spot of lunch (we ordered hamburgers expecting a small meal – they were huge – the patties alone the size of bread and butter plate with about 5 slices of bacon, lettuce peppers and onion as well as the bun part) which will also pass for dinner.  Left Bob to his own devices to look around whilst I had time to catch up on blog and reading.  Continued on to Ptuj our stop for the night.  We opted for the motorway to get us around Ljubljana and it took us an hour to go 30km – so painfully slow and masses of trucks.  Getting out the other side we then branched off onto another motorway which was traffic free and we were then able to zoom along again hassle free.  Our accommodation for the night – Panorama Rooms – was a family run B&B in a large house overlooking the town.  Set in lovely gardens and a very friendly hostess.  Our room was quite small but it did have a “Kitchen” – clean and basic.

Had a little wander down the hill which was the site of an old roman town although nothing to see now.  Very patchy wifi, so fortunately no Americas Cup coverage needed.

17 June – Wholesome breakfast complete with eggs cooked to your choice.  Rosemarie gave us a recommended route to get to Hungary and so began a very long drive. We left soon after 10am and didn’t arrive in Baja until 5.00pm but the drive was interesting.  Through the balance of Slovenia we wound through their wine growing area, very picturesque, clean and green.  Houses and gardens are all very tidy, nicely painted and colourful.  Mainly two storied houses on quite large properties.

Crossed over into Hungary and immediately a noticeable difference.  Within less than 1km from Slovenia the difference began.  Houses very poorly maintained, mainly single storied with no garaging on the property.  Houses built right up to the road.  No more nicely trimmed road verges but still reasonably clean.  Our journey then took us through a series of minor roads which were well maintained in the most, but the main problem was that nearly every 2km was a town which required slowing down to 50km so it was a quite a slow drive.  We had received a call from our accommodation asking if they could transfer us from an apartment to their VIP room with breakfast for the same costs – no problem for us so happily agreed.  What a room – the bathroom was bigger than many of the places we have stayed in recently complete with a spa bath, nice shower and very spacious.  Beautifully appointed room, with top class furnishings and great wifi.  We dined in their very nice restaurant with Bob sampling for the first time goose liver which was cooked to tender perfection.

18 June – On the road again and off to Romania.  Only 200km and all of that was through flat, flat, agricultural land.  Hay, maize, sunflowers and wheat were the main crops – good roads but boring.  Stopped off in Szeged for lunch and a little look around before crossing over the border 50km later.  We had to actually have our passports stamped and car papers checked before being let in.  Purchased the obligatory road tax necessary to travel on any of their roads and just another 30km to get to Arad.

Romania is a further step down the chain from Hungary, buildings very run down but the motorway system is  brand new.  Found our stay for the night relatively easily – it was a bit hectic getting though the centre of town as there was a big street food festival happening.  We were just outside of the centre and our ‘’apartment’’ is in an old building – it did have a kitchen and although everything was a bit second-rate still clean enough and suitable wifi to listen to the next installment of Team NZ.  The centre of Arad would have been impressive in its day – a wide boulevard stretches for a couple of Kms, tram line through the centre, wide pavements both sides and two lanes of traffic in either direction.  The buildings were very grand but extremely run down – the streets quite unkempt  compared to both Hungary and Slovenia.

19 June – Another hot day.  Had a little walk back into town to get some cash (they don’t use Euro here so needed some local lei) and see what the tourist info office could advise.  Turns out – not that much.  We had seen all the notable buildings.  Headed off on the road down to Timişoara – a nice quick ride on the motorway (these motorways are so new that they haven’t got their service areas organized yet) but they have managed to put toilets in them but no gas stations.  With no real expectations of Timisoara it was a pleasant surprise.  We were able to drive right into the city centre and find a parking spot.  Only problem was we couldn’t work out how to pay.  In the end I collared a young woman who had just parked her fancy Jag and asked if she spoke English – her answer was yes and then she proceeded to take me through the payment process.  The sign had a number where you texted your car rego to and for each text you would be charged for one hour of parking. Duly sent two texts and we then hit the centre.

A large area of the historic centre is made over to pedestrian only making it such a pleasant way to explore the area. The main square was surrounded by impressive buildings lined with cafes and restaurants with interesting streets leading off in all directions to various other smaller squares.  Had a nice lunch and another little walk before heading back to our car.  It seems that the text must have worked as many cars parked around us had been ticketed.  Off out of the city and on to our final destination for the day – a small town called Lugoj.  A little better standard of accommodation but right on a busy intersection so might be noisy overnight.

Drove back into town to see what it had which was not a lot but there were nice views from the river front.  Home for dinner – chicken schnitzel with nice boiled potatoes and a tomato/cucumber salad.

 

 


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Sicilian Sampler

01 June – Our first few weeks has passed very quickly and still not a drop of rain.  Checked out our local surroundings before breakfast – not a lot around here, just a mix of villas/apartments and cultivated fields.  Olives and grapes seem to be the predominant crop, but figs, oranges and artichokes are also plentiful.  Headed into Sciacca later on – caught the mad lunch time traffic not made much better by navigator making a wrong call on the parking entrance and ending up having to trail around a series of one way streets before we could finally get back to the parking area.  Needed to buy an envelope – thought that would be a difficult task but the first shop (a tobacconist) had them for sale so it was then off to the post office to get the letter sent.  Post offices seem to be a real social place here – as you enter you take a ticket from the machine and then wait until your number comes up and in the meantime they seem to catch up on the local gossip with each other.  With that chore done, we had a little walk around the town, as always plenty of churches.  Some of the buildings going back to the Norman times.

A nice little park overlooking the harbour, but not a lot else.  Came back to find a parking ticket on our car – sometimes it is a pain when you can’t understand the language.  It seems that the car park attendant goes on his siesta break from 2-4pm so during that time you can’t pay and it seems that if you know that you are going to be there over that period then you have to prepay.  Our host back at the apartment offered to sort it the next day – we did have to pay the fine of 5euro instead of just the charge for the couple of hours we were there.  Lesson learnt!

02 June – After a nice lazy start to the day, made some sammies and set off in the direction of Trapani about and hour’s drive away.  As we neared the city, we noticed a much more interesting looking place high up on a hill (2500ft) overlooking the city. Called Erice, it was a fortified medieval town and another neat place to walk around. Seems it was Republic Day Holiday so the locals were our in force, but we did manage to find a parking spot close to the city gate.  Ceramics are a huge thing in this area, very gaudy and not at all to our liking but they must sell as there were so many little shops packed to the gunwales – most of them are hand painted and each shop had its own little workshop.  Walked up and down the little streets, the paving throughout the little town was amazing – divided into 40 cm squares – the inside of which were bits of stone laid on edge,then surrounding each of these squares were four oblong flat marble stones, each dovetailed to form a larger square.  Very hard to walk on, and would be a nightmare in heels or when wet.  Can’t imagine that it would have been very easy for horses either as the streets were quite steep.

Visited a very cute display of Erice in miniature, series of diorama depicting early life complete with little mechanised figures going about their work – ie. blacksmith, baker, musician at the restaurant, butcher etc.

We had our first few drops of rain, so ducked into one of the churches until it stopped.  It is always a surprise, from the outside these churches look plain and uninspiring but stepping inside it was bright with a very fancy altar and the usual Catholic accoutrements.

Once the rain eased we headed to have a look at the castle then back into the town square for a sit down and taste some Sicilian delicacies.  That was well-timed as there was a special medieval procession taking place with a band of incredible young, vigorous drummers.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MuXbx6f7u6o

Back down to our car and then down a different little road laced with switchbacks – getting used to these now – they would make great hill climb roads but with opposing traffic you need a bit more care!  Came home via a different route, between Sciacca and Trapani the rolling hills are very heavily cultivated – olives and grapes mainly but also many hectares of greenhouses growing capsicums (they thrive here and the ones you can buy in the markets are huge).  On the outskirts of the towns you find little trucks laden with produce for sale – in season at the moment are melons – huge watermelons and all sorts of other ones – too much for us to cope with, we have to be content with cherries, apricots and peaches.  Back home to Sanmarcomare and a home cooked meal for a change.

03 June – Moving on again – destination Marina di Modica via Agrigento.  Agrigento is home to the Valley of the Temples – a bit of a misnomer as the Temples are all along a ridge – this a World Heritage site with excavated and partially restored temples from the 6th & 5th C BC they constitute some of the largest and best-preserved ancient Greek buildings outside of Greece itself.  A couple of hours in the heat of the day walking up and down the ridge was enough for us – certainly an impressive site.

Back to the car for a spot of lunch then on the road again for the last couple of hours of our journey. This time we have a small villa, with a couple of bedrooms upstairs and kitchen, bathroom and lounge/kitchen downstairs with a lovely covered patio  – we are in a small subdivision called Residence Bougainvillea – the colourful plants are in full bloom and along with scent of other tropical flowers it is very nice.  Inside to welcome us was a full fruit bowl, a fridge full of goodies including wine, cheese, sweet things and eggs.  A short drive to the supermarket to pick up dinner things for the next few days and then time to settle in and listen to the Americas Cup transmission from Radio Sport NZ.

04 June – Stay put day with just a walk down to the beach – crowded today being a Sunday.  Very shallow beaches here but the water is clear and clean. Don’t think I have ever seen so many speedos!!  Picked up some nice fresh bread to take home for lunch.We have temps getting up into the low 30’s now, so really should be joining the locals and having our siesta from 1-4pm but somehow not quite managing to co-ordinate ourselves for that.

05 June – A drive into Siracuse today – only about an hour from our base along a variable state road – in places nice and smooth but at times the surface very broken up and not good for the car’s suspension.  Travelled through Nota but after getting taken around a series of one way tiny streets with no hope of finding parking flagged it and headed on Siracuse via Fontana Bianca for a morning tea stop.  Sampled one of the local Sicilian delicacies – canolo which looks like a brandy snap, but the shell is made of a nutty chocolate concoction filled with whipped cream, more chocolate and pistachio – extremely sweet and rich.

On into Siracuse where we found a great public car park close to the old town so set out to have a good explore.  A compact area – separated from the main part of the city in the old port area surrounded all around by water.  Docked along the main waterfront parade where a nice collection of fancy yachts and launches were moored (not as flash as St Tropez or Valletta in Malta) but a couple from Aussie and one very large one from the Cayman Islands.

Down one of the little side streets we came across a neat little museum devoted to Leonardo and Archimedes – inside were a about 30 of their models which had been recreated, many of which were interactive so you could have a little play to check out their workings.  The inventions were such marvels of engineering brilliance – they were certainly well ahead of their time.  Finished our visit with a meander around the maze of tiny streets before heading back to the car.

A large cruise ship was moored out in the harbour but the passengers must have mostly been whipped off to other places as there wasn’t too much sign of them in the town.

06 June – Our first rainy day, but with not too much planned other than moving on to our next destination it didn’t really matter.  With only a couple of hours driving to Piazza Armerina our next stop  – were able to have a very relaxed start to the day.  Drove inland this time, still very highly cultivated, the hills were a little more pronounced but every scrap of hillside seems to have some sort of cropping on it.  To begin with the hillsides were divided into paddocks with stone walls, which I guess at once stage contained grazing animals but today the walls are in various states of disrepair and the land seems to used for making hay.  Ragusa was our first stop, but we didn’t quite manage to get ourselves in the historic Ragusa Ilba, but a spot midway between that and the new town much higher up.  Embarked on a walk down to the old city, but upon reaching a suitable overlook of the town decided that the view was just fine from where we were, it wasn’t necessary to descend down to the lower depths as we would just have to walk all the way back up again.

Contented ourselves with a little spot of lunch in a nice little cafe – Sicilian speciality for me – little deep-fried croquette filled with rice, cheese and spinach – very tasty.  Getting out of Ragusa entailed going uphill very steeply for a distance before emerging out onto a high plateau, the views from the top out over the next huge cultivated valley were spectacular.  Down into the valley, through the huge areas of cultivation – grapes and olives mostly (three-quarters of the island is given over to horticultural production). Drove through the valley and then up through little more winding roads to get to Piazza Armerina and our next little sojourn – Apartment Sant Andrea.  I could see Bob’s mind working overtime when we took the turnoff to the northern end of the town – straight into narrow streets with very dingy looking apartment blocks and Monique advising us that we only had 500m to go.  500m that made a huge amount of difference – our apartment was set in a huge garden, up a little cul-de-sac of about 6 villas – a veritable oasis.  Giulia our hostess was there to take us through our apartment – this has to be the best stay yet – immaculately furnished with white walls and furnishings in greys and reds very stunning and all for 52 Euro a night – very good value.  A little kitchen and dining area and a nice bottle of local red wine to welcome us. Giulia insisted on taking us around the gardens – the perfumes from all the flowering trees and plants was very heady.  A few lemons plucked off the tree for us followed by an explanation of what we must see tomorrow then we were left to settle in.  A quick search on google showed that in amongst these little streets of dingy buildings were various little shops for us to re-provision.  A tiny grocery store, the butcher next door and the baker a few doors down.  It is really nice that the big supermarkets have not dealt to these neighbourhood businesses as they have done in so many other countries.  For the grand sum of 3Euro we had our dinner sorted.  It was then time to settle in to listen to the disastrous events of the Americas Cup happenings – poor Team NZ doing the nose dive is probably not the best way to get match racing practice.

07 June – Giulia’s recommendation that we must not miss the Villa Romana del Casale was taken on board, so we duly set off before it got too hot to find this Unesco World Heritage site.  It was only about 10km from home, nestled in a tree studded valley and wow what a place.

The villa was constructed (on the remains of an older villa) in the first quarter of the 4th century AD, probably as the center of a huge latifundium (agricultural estate) covering the surrounding area. How long the villa had this role is not known, maybe for fewer than 150 years. The complex remained inhabited and a village grew around it, named Platia(derived from the word palatium (palace). The villa was damaged and perhaps destroyed during the domination of the Vandals and the Visigoths. The outbuildings remained in use, at least in part, during the Byzantine and Arab periods. The site was abandoned in the 12th century AD after a landslide covered the villa. Survivors moved to the current location of Piazza Armerina.

The villa was almost entirely forgotten, although some of the tallest parts of the remains were always above ground. The area was cultivated for crops. Early in the 19th century, pieces of mosaics and some columns were found. The first official archaeological excavations were carried out later in that century.  What they unearthed was this villa which largely still had its mosaic floors in tact – The Great Hunting Scene, in a corridor almost 200 feet long, portrays a fanciful  jungle in which lions, tigers and leopards hunt game and are in turn hunted by rearing horsemen in embroidered tunics and colored cloaks.

Blood drips, and one all but hears the screams. Circuses, chariot races and mythological scenes abound along with scantily clad female athletes performing olympic style sports.

Our visit began however with the bath houses complete with steam rooms, plunge pools and larger swimming pool, ingeniously heated from air forced through under raised floors.  From there we entered through into the villa’s porticoes quadrangle – a three phased fountain in the middle, surrounded by gardens then the covered portico, off which were various guests rooms.

Off the large corridor with the hunting scenes were the master’s northern and southern apartments – again with lavishly decorated mosaic floors.  It seems that the internal and external walls were all plastered and painted with scenes as well (some were still visible) but in later years these had been covered up with marble facings.  The amount of work in the mosaics just beggars belief – the mosaic pieces were sourced from marble from all around the Roman Empire – reds, blues, greys, whites and yellows and some poor devils must have had the job of breaking them into the 10mm squares, whilst others the painstaking work of actually making them into scenes.

The colours looked quite dull until the little man mopped them over with a damp mop and then they came to vibrant life.  The villa walls have been extensively reconstructed and the entire villa has been roofed and walled to protect the mosaics with a walkway installed around at ceiling level so that you can look down on each of the rooms.  A massive project –  reportedly it contains the richest, largest and most complex collection of Roman mosaics in the world.  Got ourselves in sync today so that we were back home in time for siesta.

Headed back out into the wide world to have a peek at the other of Giulia’s recommendations – namely the Greek ruins at Morgantina.  Monique had fun with us again getting us out there, I don’t know how she manages to find the most obscure little crappy roads but she does.  We did eventually make it to a road that at least fitted two vehicles and wound up through the hills to the site.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R4TyIKD_Xe0

For a Unesco site it was very run down and overgrown.  Over the years various excavations had been done but it seems that the money kept running out as they were in quite a sad state.  The site covered a large area the most interesting area was the main public square with a small theater and adjacent to it another meeting area with more seating where the people gathered to listen to their councillors.

There were the odd bits of columns outlining areas where porticoed streets would have existed.  The shopping area was visible with the walls of individual shops partially in tact.  There were nice views of the entire valley from the higher points of the town.  Odd floors still had some mosaic remains but they were not covered or protected in anyway so just left to the elements and were deteriorating quite badly.

Back home via the little hillside town of Aidone to the peace and calm of our nice little apartment.

08 June – A very vigorous farewell from Giulia as we set off for our last night night’s stay in Sicily.  Decided that we would drive around the base of Etna – first off via the motorway then as we neared Catania headed off to a minor road  that would do the circle trip for us.  Coming down the motorway we had fantastic views of Etna – smoking away out of a couple of fumaroles.  It certainly dominates the landscape.  The landscape coming down the motorway was dominated by fields of wheat then as we headed off around the base, the sides of the mountain turned green, with the lava flows covered with trees – the trees were mainly pistachios, planted in little spots where stones have been cleared.  Just amazing that anything would grow in this harsh environment but they were certainly flourishing.

Out of the relative calm of little farming villages and down close the coast where once again it was built up.  Our stop for the night – a little different – an Agriturismo called Antico Borgo.  It seems that it is an old converted villa – our room is OK but not quite sure where the promised Etna or sea views are but perfectly adequate.  The agriturisom bit means that we are in a little farm – surrounded by citrus trees – lemons and oranges, olives, peaches, figs, mulberries and grapes.  I was pleased to finally solve the answer to a tree that I had been seeing in plantations with bright orange flowers – turns out that they are pomegranates which are also growing here.

09 June – A lovely array of fresh fruits and jams straight from the orchard along with freshly squeezed orange juice made a nice finish to our Sicilian adventures.  With a backward glance at Mt Etna, it was off up the coast and back to the madness of Messina to catch our ferry back to the mainland.  We managed to have trawl 7km through the whole waterfront of Messina and the erratic drivers before coming to the embarkation wharf.  Just missed a ferry so it was a wait in the hot sun for about 30 mins for the next one to arrive.  Efficient loading and unloading at the other end and we were off up onto the freeway making our way north for the night.

Cosenza was meant to be our destination and here we struck the first hiccup in our bookings – can’t really work out what happened, but we went to the address of our hotel, the picture looked exactly like in the booking but everything was all closed up, and workers next door said the hotel was closed. We called the number I had but only got a message so we went to plan B and headed off to look for somewhere else to stay – we think it must have moved to a different place, because the later on we got an email asking where we had got to.  In the meantime I had contacted booking.com to tell them we couldn’t find the place and to make sure that we didn’t get charged – they confirmed that we wouldn’t so that was OK.

Our alternative accommodation was a bit of a budget blowout, but it was Bob’s birthday and it was very nice.  High up on a hill in the village of Contessa was this very spiffy hotel complex open but not really geared up yet for the season so we were the only guests.  They had a nice restaurant – we were joined by some other local couples who seemed to be there to critique the menu items as they all had pens and paper and the chef kept coming out and asking them about their courses.  The complex had all a little mini farm complete with one sad donkey, a couple of black piggies and all manner of chickens and birds; nice swimming pool complex (not open for the season), venues for weddings and functions; nature walks and lovely views out over the countryside.

 

 


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Rome to Sicily

25 May – Set off on the metro into the centre of Rome – a relatively easy trip as we didn’t have to change lines.  Popped out of the metro right in front of the Coliseum – in the past there used to be a hectic road circling this amazing monument, but now it is mainly pedestrian areas so you can walk right up to and around it.  The area was bustling with tour groups all following their allotted flag bearer – we were content with viewing from the outside, having been spoilt over the last few years in seeing many splendid versions of these.

We then proceeded to walk around the many other highlights that Rome had to offer – quite amazing that so many great buildings remain and with so much new construction going on – the lengths that they have to go to to protect them.   Covered most of the important places in the vicinity of the Coliseum, then got back on the metro to head over to St Peters Square and the Vatican.  The queues waiting to get into the Sistine Chapel were snaked right around the square.  Although the area was busy it was nothing like it can get when the Pope is doing his thing.

Fortunately we managed to miss Trump by a day – but the remnants of his visit were still visible – with roads still closed off, seating areas being dismantled and still quite a big police presence.  All of the busy areas had visible security around – either police or army.  Next stop it was Trevi Fountain – the mass of crowds here was just as bad, so it was a quick look and then off to find some more peaceful streets to wander around.

Found a little Sicilian restaurant for lunch, nice to get out of the head and away from the masses.  Suitably refreshed, we made our way down to the Tiber, to promenade along the bank for a few kms. Not much of a river – dirty looking, a few boats running tourists up and down, some interesting old bridges crossing and what looked like a few permanent houseboats moored.  A cool off with a refreshing ice-cream before heading back to the tube station and back out to our hotel in the burbs.

And here the drama began!!  The first line we boarded was so busy, we were packed in so tight it was a real mission just to get inside the train doors and equally as hard to get out – having to physically push and shove to get off.  We felt sure that this would be the place we could get done over but we managed to get off unscathed.  We changed over to the line that would take us home and fortunately this had much more breathing space on it.  In fact the carriage only had about 8 people in it – I got on and went straight to a seat but Bob got waylaid by two women who wouldn’t let him past.  People were shouting at us but we couldn’t understand what was being said – turned out they were telling us that the two women were pickpockets and that Bob had just been robbed.  They hopped off the train before the door closed and disappeared into the wild blue yonder.  Quick stock take once we realized – quite lucky really – the pocket that they had raided also had Bob’s passport and our car papers but fortunately they left those behind – just filched his small card folder containing two credit cards and his drivers license – this from inside a pocket with a velcro flap on it.  Grrr!!

Got back to our hotel and had to make the necessary phone calls to NZ to stop the cards, but can’t do anything about the license though fortunately he still has his International one.  Quite lucky with the ANZ card as we could immediately put a temp hold on it via internet banking, and then make the necessary phone call.  Quite a rigmarole when you phone with having to prove your identity but we finally got everything sorted.  New cards will be sent to England and luckily we have enough backup options with us but it is still pretty galling when it happens.  So our adventure in Rome did not go quite as planned but it could have been worse.  The metro may be an easy way to get around, but boy is it dirty – the carriages are all covered in graffiti, the stations dark and dingy and not at all pleasant when busy – what a complete contrast to Shanghai.   We were not at all in the mood to venture out in the evening so it was apples and nice NZ kiwifruit for dinner.

26 May – Destination Salerno today – no real option for us but to take the motorways as we had a reasonable distance to cover and the coastal route would have taken too long.  Did pick up on the map that we were going to go past Cassino so that merited a stop off.  They have a war museum there of which they are very proud.  It can only be visited with their guide and the hour long tour goes every 20 mins.  We were whisked around the various exhibits by a young woman who translated everything for us as we went – it was a bit difficult to understand her at times but she did have a good depth of knowledge about the battle and all the subsequent consequences.  The main part of the museum was explained to us as a 3d spectacular which had been put together by top Italian Oscar winning producers. It wasn’t that flash but as we went from room to room there were various types of displays from original footage of the bombing of the monastery to dioramas of the region showing just where the Germans had their defensive lines and the how difficult a task the Allies had to break through.  The whole story was told of course from the Italian perspective and the utter devastation that it had wreaked on Cassino town and all the surrounding towns.  The town of Cassino was 95% destroyed as were a couple of others whilst the remaining villages had differing levels of loss.  The devastation was such that when the war ended the townspeople just emigrated in their droves – mainly to the UK, Canada and USA, with smaller numbers to Australia and South America.

The monastery which was so needlessly devastated has now been rebuilt and is a massive structure that towers way above the town.  We drove the steep windy road up to the top to get a feel for the enormity of the task that the Allied forces faced.  When you look around from the height of Monte Cassino, you can see just how difficult the terrain was – huge mountain ranges looming up from the plains which Hitler had flooded to make it nearly impossible for the tanks to make any impression.

Back down the winding road and onto the motorway to take us to Salerno.  Monique is pretty good at finding places which is just as well as our map would never have found our B&B Bellavista – very aptly named as we have great views down over Salerno, out to our right to the Amalfi coast and to our left the toe of Italy.  Nice place, we have our own room and bathroom with a shared lounge, kitchen with one other room.  The local restaurant was highly recommended by our hostess, so we trundled off for dinner.  Hard to get used to the hours that the Italians keep – everything closes from 12-3, shops reopen from 3-7 then they don’t hit restaurants until 8pm onwards.  We got there at 8 and were the first patrons, we left well after 10pm and people were still coming in to eat.  We were singularly unimpressed with most of the meal especially our mains – my roast chicken was as dry as could be, and Bob’s weird cut of steak was tough.

27 May – This was a day for exploring the region around Salerno, in particular Pompeii and the Amalfi coast.  Pompeii was only 30 mins drive away – surprisingly easy to find and also managed to get parking on the street just down from the entrance.  Paid for 4 hours parking thinking that would be ample time to look around – 30 mins of that was wasted just waiting in the queue to get tickets.  Once through the gates and armed with a map – we began our exploration of this once buried city. Set over 40 acres, it had a population of 15-20 thousand at the time of Vesuvius’s eruption in around 80AD.  17 years prior to the eruption a huge earthquake had caused quite a bit of devastation and the town was still being reconstructed when they were engulfed by the ash and gasses from the sudden eruption.

The town remained buried under the ashes until the 1700’s and over the next 300 odd years continuous archaeological excavations have unearthed it to what we were able to see today.  What an incredible site – from the moment you enter the gates – a large arena one side and a colonnaded building on the other.  These were the outskirts of the town and from then we wound our way through paved streets lined with houses of varying degrees of reconstruction and varying degrees of wealth.  The streets had footpaths on both sides; the road had worn chariot ruts in places where the paving stones were obviously softer.  At most intersections there were huge stones in the middle of the road, placed so that the chariot could pass over them, but they must have been something to do with water redirection or perhaps stepping stones to cross the road.  Many houses seem to have survived pretty well including wonderful paintings on their walls, mosaic floors and water features.  The more money you had, the larger your water features.  We passed through streets lined with shops, the shop counters still visible including amphora set into the counters which would have held things like olives, fruit and vegetables.

 

The writing on the walls of some of the shops was still visible.  There was a huge piazza in the middle of the town, the streets leading to it were colonnaded and these would have been covered porticos.  Various temples and places of worship in the centre.

Other places of interest were very well preserved baths – the women’s especially so – complete with lockers, marble mosaic floors and a marble baths.  Apparently the rooms were very hot, heated from hot air underneath and too hot to walk on in bare feet, the women had to wear sandals which did not grip too well in the steamy heat resulting in quite a few broken legs and ankles.

Brothels were also commonplace – the prostitutes were Greek and other foreign nationalities and could not communicate with their Roman clients therefore very graphic pictures were painted on the walls above the beds to enable their clients to choose their service, these pictures were still well preserved on the walls.

Gymnasiums were also common – men were the only ones allowed to exercise, and these gyms had indoor and outdoor swimming pools and various other rooms.

We used all of our 4 hours to get around the site and took in all that we could. There were quite a few guided tours going around, so from time to time we could listen in on the commentary.

Back to our car, it was then on for the next little excitement – a drive over to the Amalfi coast.  By over – it meant that we had to climb over a small mountain range – “lovely” winding narrow road, up and over to the other coast and then we hit chaos.  The coastal road – this coast is mainly high cliffs, coming at odd times down to little bays – was even narrower, with a lot of crazy drivers in both cars and on scooters/motorbikes.  Parking was a nightmare near Amalfi, so we opted to turn back towards Salerno, stopping off at Minori where we lucked a decent parking spot and decided that we would stay put and have dinner before braving the elements back home.

Our choice of restaurant was rather a costly ordeal, our host insisting that we kept trying Mama’s homemade specialties – her spaghetti was homemade and dessert- “Mama’s surprise” was profiteroles filled with a chocolate cream. Ate way too much but the food was better than the previous night.  The 22km that was left to go on our journey took a whole hour as we dodged and wove around bend after narrow bend. Finally made it back home without incident and were able to relax for the rest of the evening.

28 May – Bade a fond farewell to Isabella our hostess then it was off on the motorway again with about 350km to our next destination of Lamezia Terme – not chosen for any particular reason other than it was a decent way down towards Sicily.  There were no tolls on the whole of this section of motorway, a lot of the road had just recently been finished, so the surface was excellent, the tunnels pristine and the engineering a marvel as per usual.  With brief stops at the various service areas along the way, we arrived at Lamezia around 3pm, no-one home at the B&B we had booked, so had a little wander around the area – very grubby which seems to be the norm in Italy.  By the time we had returned, our host there to greet us and settle us in.  Again a spotlessly clean room – our “garden views” were out over the parking lot to the next buildings, but comfortable enough and the price was good.  Ate out at “Mary’s Pub” – good food at a fraction of the previous night’s cost.

29 May – Decent breakfast to start off our day then wasted nearly an hour trying to get a document printed on our host’s printer – all to no avail.  Quick stop at the supermarket then off on the trusty autostrade (motorway) to the “toe” of Italy to catch our ferry across to Sicily.   A bit chaotic getting on the ferry then a short 30 min journey across the straight to Messina.  If we thought that it was chaotic when we boarded the ferry it was nothing compared to the absolute mayhem in Messina.  It was pure bliss to finally find the motorway and get away from the crazies.  We only had about 60km to get to our destination, most of that was on the motorway with about 10km off on the state road.  We couldn’t put the address into Monique’s brain for some reason so ended going about 6km beyond where we were meant to be.  After some messing around with her maps and finding a place with similar co-ordinates as the booking conf. said, back-tracked and finally reached it.  Well worth it, the B&B has only been open for 2 years, everything is still nice and new – with our own little private patio, a flash shower and a comfy bed with breakfast included all for 40Euro.   Just on the edge of the town of Patti, it was a nice short stroll into the main part of the town and beach.  Stony beach, but beautifully clear water.  The town is lacking in any sort of maintenance which seems to be typical.  Projects seem to start out nice here but soon turn to tack from complete neglect.

The little supermarket had a nice little treat in store for me – Limoncello cream for $10NZ a bottle, I don’t think it will last very long!

Returned home and managed to listen to the Americas Cup racing on NZ Sport Radio (we bet Artemis) before heading back into town for dinner.  Nice little restaurant – or it would have been if it wasn’t for the birthday party that was in progress for a 10 yr old girl – a dozen little Italian children sure make an awful lot of noise.

30 May – Not too far to go today so we took the coastal road to Cefalu – certainly an improvement on the Amalfi coast road.  Made a couple of stops along the way, morning coffee outside a nice little hotel on the waterfront; not far from the coast, there are a series of little volcanic islands, from our seat on the terrace we could see about five.  Stromboli is one of the active ones, pictures showing it glowing at night are quite impressive.

Lunch was interesting in an abandoned coastal development.  A lot of money had been invested in putting a lovely paved walkway along the length of the beach, every 50m or so, pillars which would have had showers on them all rusted and now missing most of their vital parts.  I guess it was about 1km in length but all overgrown and completely neglected.  Unfortunately Italians do not seem to have much pride in their environment – rubbish is strewn down both sides of the roads, every parking spot is even worse.

Quite a few seaside towns down this part of the coast – the sea is beautifully clear, some beaches are sandy, but most are small pebbles.  Our stop for the night was just a few km before Cefalu, but with a very tricky drive up to it, had to go a few km beyond before we could turn around and come back and tackle the drive from a better angle.  Another good choice, lovely views from the shared terrace and a nice clean room.  Our hostess welcomed us with a hot drink and gave us the run-down on the town.

Had a little rest up before heading into the town, public parking was available on the beachfront just a short walk from the old town.  Spectacular setting, with a steep rocky cliff looming over the old town.

Our first stop was the local Polizia to see if we could get an authenticated copy of Bob’s passport so he could apply for a replacement driving license. No luck with that – were told to come back the following morning as an English translator would be there.   Set off to walk around the medieval town, and what a neat place.  Tiny paved streets occasionally opening out into little piazza.  Loads of very touristy shops but still interesting to wander around.   The shopkeepers are not pushy and there were no touts or hawkers trying to get you to buy watches etc.

Its main attraction is a Norman Cathedral which was built in 1131.  It must have been a very imposing feature when it was built.

The old port had a tiny beach with houses built right down to the sea, in many places it was obvious to see that they had just been built atop the original city wall.  Our hostess also ran a restaurant with her husband in the old town so we decided to dine there – wow what a lovely meal (for me it was the best meal I have since leaving home).  I had very thin fillets of swordfish which were wrapped around a filling of sultanas, breadcrumbs, pine nuts and lemon – lightly dusted with more crumbs and deep fried.  It was just getting dark when we headed back home for the night – just in time again to listen to the Americas Cup racing.

31 May – Spoilt this morning – scrambled eggs on top of cereals, fruits, yoghurt and sweet things.  Back down into Cefalu to try again for the authentication.  Polizia sent us up to the Municipal Offices.  They found someone to help us out and from there it was quite an excursion for Bob and him as they trailed back and forth from the Municipio and Polizia and back to the Municipio where they were finally directed to a Notary who spoke perfect English, knew exactly what Bob wanted, signed the form and all was rosy.  It only took a couple of hours to get it sorted!!  In the meantime, I had returned back to the car to extend our metered parking and had a nice time people watching.

Bob had managed to glean quite a lot of info from his escort who was a retired policeman.  He was forced to retire as he had got shot in the leg.  He explained that the mafia still exerts a very strong influence on the island while the police do not have much sway at all.  Apparently the crime rate is very high on the island, but it is organised crime not crime directed at tourists.

Getting out of Cefalu and on the way over to Sciacca was not too difficult – had motorway for about 60km to Palermo, a hectic interlude getting from the motorway to the state road and then a wonderful road up and over the spine of the island and down into a very fertile valley – very sparsely populated, growing almonds, grapes and different ground crops.  The roads are realy colourful in places as they lined with flowering oleanders in white and all shades of pink.  By the way it is apricot season now – $1NZ per kg and cherries about $4NZ.  Monique then decided to have a bit of fun with us and turned us off the lovely road onto a little road running through all the fields  It was sealed but a little rough – it did come out right near out accommodation though so worked out fine.  You do wonder as you are heading off in the middle of nowhere if you will ever make the destination, but just have to keep the faith!!  We are stationed for the next three nights in Sanmarcomare, which is about 5km from Sciacca on the south coast.  We have a little self contained apartment with a balcony looking out towards the sea in the distance, were welcomed with a Limoncello which was a nice start to our stay.

Apparently just a 10 min walk down to the beach so will explore that tomorrow.  We needed to stock up on food for the next few days, so it was in towards Sciacca and a small but well stocked Lidl supermarket.  It is interesting wandering around and seeing what delights you can pickup.   Weather has been superb since leaving home – sunny days with temps constantly in the high 20’s with cooler mornings and evenings.

 

 


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Shanghai to Siena and beyond

18 May/19 May – spent our last day in Shanghai experiencing the Metro – what a great service.  There are over 600km in the 12 different lines that service the city.  We ventured down to the one closest to us – spotlessly clean, easy to use ticket booths featuring an English option – our ticket for a one way journey – $3 yuan (less than $1).  Bob was really impressed when the locals kept giving up their seats for him (being an old bugger sometimes has its benefits).  All announcements on the trains are given in Mandarin and English and also bilingual signs made it a breeze. We did make sure that we didn’t “frolic” in the station and kept the public order!  We didn’t want to do too much due to the late flight we had to take so just wandered around one of the old international concession areas, had a coffee and cake and returned back to the hotel for a couple of hours before setting off for the airport.  We had decided that we wanted to sample the Maglev train back to the airport, so it was a short taxi ride to the train station.  The Maglev is the only commercially operating magnetically levitated train in the world running 30km out to the airport.  The speed indicator starts the moment you set off and in no time at all we reached our running speed of 301kph – that 30km got us to the airport in just 8 minutes.  Auckland could do with one of these!  Again the train and station were all spotless.

Lufthansa was our airline for the flight to Nice via Munich – it was nearly an hour late leaving due to the long queue of flights waiting for their turn.  That time was pretty well made up by the time we got to Munich which was just as well as we used the full 2 hours of our connection time just getting through customs and immigration controls.  A short hop to Nice had us touching down at 8.30am then an easy walk to find our new car ready and waiting for us.  Neat little red one this time – the paperwork was quickly dealt with then in was out into the world of French chaotic driving (Shanghai was very calm and collected in comparison).  I had booked a hotel just 14km from the airport which on paper looked quite short, in practice it was up in the hills reached by quite a narrow windy road – thank goodness for a small car, I had forgotten just how tight the roads are in these hillside villages.  Monique our GPS found the hotel without too much drama – OK place with great views from our tiny balcony, up the valley towards the Maritime Alps, down the valley to the coast.

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After being on the go for well over 24 hours with not very much sleep, a comfy bed was very much appreciated and needed.  A few hours kip was enough to shake off some of the jet lag to feel somewhat more human again so that we could have a little explore of the local environs.  We are based in La Gaude, not a lot here – a supermarket, petrol station, boulangerie and a couple of restaurants.  Stocked up with a few essentials – wine and chippies etc.  and an electric kettle as many of the places we will be staying at don’t have them in the room.  Dinner was at the local Chinese restaurant – we were their only customers – good food and reasonably priced compared to the other local restaurant.

20 May – Time clocks out of kilter again so up with the sparrows.  The clouds over the Alps had cleared this morning revealing snow-capped peaks. Breakfast in the hotel had a nice selection of eats but the ambience was rather spoiled by a bus load of Indians lodged at the hotel, extremely loud as they tried to make video calls back to India via the wi-fi in the lobby – totally inconsiderate of any other guests.  We set off early for a little exploration – we had espied a poster advertising a model exposition up in the next village of St Jeannet, so it was in with the address into the GPS so that Monique could guide us.  Grrrrr!  Will have to learn to ignore some of her instructions as we ended up going through the old part of the town – barely single lane alleys where as Murphy’s law would have it, we meet oncoming traffic and have to back up.  After a few attempts we did manage to find a parking spot and also the hall holding the show.  We got there before opening time, but were warmly welcomed by the organiser.  It was just a little affair – some large model planes, smaller model planes, boats, a train setup and an incredible display of drones – these were designed and made locally – the designer/owner of the company was on hand to explain the process.  Nice views from the town over to Cagnes-sur Mer and Antibes with a towering rocky outcrop making a stunning backdrop behind the town.

Set-off back down another windy road to Cagnes sur Mer to visit a medieval castle and museum.  First stopped off at the local market – as always, so impressed with the range of produce available, fresh and such good quality.  Can’t believe how manic the traffic is as the locals all head off at noon for their lunch.  We stayed put and had a bite to eat until it had all calmed down, before driving up to the old town and the castle.

The present castle was built in 1309 by Rainier Grimaldi (Lord of Cagnes and an admiral of France) – a distant ancestor of the present ruling house of Monaco. Later it became the residence of the Governors of the province. Following the French Revolution, it was used as barracks and later as a hospital. Now owned by the city of Cagnes.

Built upon a hilltop, the castle towers over the town. Constructed in the local stone, it retains many of its original medieval features and motifs, it is machicolated with crenelations surmounting its towers and keep. The castle is built around a triangular courtyard. During the reign of Louis XIII (1610 to 1643) the castle was altered, and the principal rooms made more comfortable and redecorated in the contemporary taste. The great hall has a painted ceiling depicting the Fall of Phaëton, completed in the 1620s by the Genovese painter Giulio Benso while the chapel has a ceiling painted with folk scenes.  Great views from the tower, looking down to the coast and back inland.  Having fulfilled our cultural intake for the day, we drove back to our hotel for a nice snack of local produce in lieu of dining out.

21 May – Destination Italy.  As we had quite a distance to cover, and the fact that the coast is so built up, opted to use the toll road to Recco. You can’t help to be overawed by the amazing road building skills the Italians have.  The road was a combination of viaducts and tunnels for the whole 215km – speed limits vary from 90-130kph although no-one seems to care about that – it does come at a price though – 21Euro to drive that distance.  We did a little side trip down to Monte Carlo and managed to cover a little bit of Grand Prix Circuit – although it is a bit lame to have to travel at 50kph.  There were some flash villas, all the top end shops and flash cars around, but mainly it was quite ordinary.   Gave up trying to find a carpark and headed back to the motorway on into Italy.

Recco was easy to get to, our little hotel was perfectly adequate even if it was squashed in between the road on one side and the railway track on the other.  Took a little drive back 20km into Genoa along the coast road, very slow going with scooter riders on a death wish, ducking and diving in and out of the cars.  Sunday in downtown Genoa was fairly quiet, parked in a central square and then walked the length of their main drag.  Grand buildings from more prosperous eras are now quite tawdry.  The main shopping street about 1km long and for the length of this you are walking under covered porticos, on tiled pavements, these would have been spectacular in their day.

We had to resort to Maccas to find clean toilets – that is one thing that Italy does not do well.  Our drive back to base at Recco was in the face of heavy traffic – can only surmise that it was the Genoese returning home after the weekend – would have to say that scooters outweigh car numbers in this area – you can see why when the roads are so narrow, it makes them the perfect mode of transport – nippy, easy to park and cheap to run.

22 May – Couple of hundred km’s to cover today with the main aim of exploring the town of Pisa and of course it’s leaning tower.  First up though we had a wander around the local market happening in Recco- these are fairly standard affairs throughout Italy and France – stalls seems to sell the same range of things – clothes, bedding, shoes, local produce.  Got onto the motorway towards Pisa, came off on the coast for a break then back on again and from there it was a relatively easy drive to get to the main tourist area in Pisa with good parking just a short walk from the sights.  The tower itself was quite different to the last time I saw it which must have been nearly 40 years ago when travelling through Europe on a freebie Contiki tour courtesy of the travel agency I was working for at the time. It was quite grubby back then, but now it is bright and light.

There were a lot of tourists, but nowhere near the number there will be during the peak season.  We had paid for 2 hours parking – in that time we managed to get the obligatory photos, walk around the town and experience a nice little degustation lunch.  There was a joint blonde/senior moment when it came to finding our car – we missed a vital footpath on our way back and just couldn’t find the parking lot.  Ended up doing several circuits of the area until we finally retraced our steps, found the right alleyway and were soon back at the car – rather relieved to say the least.

Out of Pisa and back on a non-toll motorway in the direction of Florence, but stopping about 30km short of the city in the smaller town of Empoli.  First attempt to find our lodgings didn’t quite work- confusion of the street name entered into Monique’s brain had us  down a dead-end street and no sign of where we should be staying.  A rethink and reprogramming of Monique, got us on track – our booking mentioned free public parking is possible nearby (realise now that is real estate speak for “you just park on the street”).  Our B&B had no advertising signs, but luckily did have its name on the list of letterboxes and a ring on the bell bought out our host.  Our room was on the 3rd floor, nicely laid out with a spotlessly clean bathroom and shared kitchen facilities.  Chosen for its proximity to the train station and reasonable price – it seems to have been a good choice.  Dinner in town at a very nice Japanese restaurant followed by a stroll back home.

23 May – Awoke to the tragic news of the Manchester bombing – a cowardly act at any time but to target young kids is really despicable.

Italian breakfast this morning (with the promise of a more suitable one tomorrow now that the owners know we are not Italian).  Easy walk to the train station and with trains leaving every 20 mins we were quickly speeding our way into the central station at Florence.  Double decker carriages gave a good view of the countryside.  The station is within reasonable walking distance to all the main attractions, so over coffee we set about on our plan of action for the day.  First up we took the road to the Pitti Palace, behind which we noticed on the map were the Boboli Gardens – covering a huge area it looked like a good place for an easy stroll – how wrong we were – great gardens yes, but they are on the side of a steep hill, and all paths seems to lead upwards!  The reward was great views out over the city.

 

By the time we had covered  as much our feet could handle, it was time for lunch.  What looked like a little basic Trattoria turned out to be quite an upmarket affair but we bit the bullet and enjoyed a tasty ravioli in a butter and sage sauce.  Fulfilled and recharged it was off to do battle with the hordes and cross over the Ponte Vecchio – both sides of this covered bridges were lined with little jewellery shops and sidewalk artists plying their trade.

A short walk along the riverside, got us the Piazza Uffizi –  and also the Uffizi Gallery home to David (the original inside but a copy resides outside – today with the Union Jack draped in his hand and sporting a black armband.  Even more hordes here and with huge queues for the gallery is was an easy choice to give that a miss and just walk around the piazza instead and admire the myriad of statues and take in the grandeur of the gallery buildings.  The police presence was certainly more pronounced here, but you do wonder how they would ever spot anything untoward when there are so many people milling around.

Were in need of another break, so a little gelataria with seats nicely placed for people watching was the ideal spot.  Purchased the three scoops plus a macaroon option and with over 20 different sorbets and ice-cream to choose from we were certainly spoilt for choice.  I settled for lime and basil sorbet, fig and walnut ice-cream and a dark cherry ice-cream. A lovely refreshing break – with the temp topping 30C certainly not conducive to racing around.

The last leg of our walk around this city, took us back via the Santa Maria Cathedral and that was just mind-blowing in its magnificence.  Faced in white and green marble with intricate carvings and statues, it certainly dominated the surrounding square.  Large queues here if you wished to visit the interior, but not for us – just happy to view from the outside.

Soon back at the main train station and back on board a train to Empoli – quite weary from pounding the streets.  Very nice to finally get home and chill out.  With a little shared kitchen available at our lodgings we settled for dinner in – ham, cheese and tomato toasted sammies washed down with the last of our French merlot made for a satisfying finish to our day.

24 May – On the road again after stocking up at the supermarket.  Opted for a non-motorway route down to Siena (about 60km) but it was quite slow going as the road went through town after town for the first part before opening out in farmland.  You could really be in NZ with the rolling green hills but instead of animals grazing the land, there is cultivation – grapes and vegetables mainly and the houses of course are typical Italian – terracotta roofs and plastered walls.  Many of the roads into and out of the towns are lined with trees making a very pretty drive, but does require concentration as they are very close to the side of the road.

Hit the motorway to make the final 200 odd kms to Rome – not too much traffic and nice to zip along at a nice clip as it was mainly a 130kph speed limit.  Joined up with the large ring road which circumnavigates Rome – our exit was to the north and we had only about 6km to go once exiting. That 6km was a little fraught – road works all the way.  Monique found our hotel, but it took us 3 circuits to finally work out where to park.  Hopefully the car will be OK as it just parked in the street below the hotel.  Hotel chosen again for its proximity to the Metro, we are about 10 stops from the centre of Rome so will venture out there tomorrow.

 


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Shanghai continued…

16 May  – Much clearer air in the big city today.  Jet lag had us awake at 5.30am so a little time to kill until the city came to life.  From our window could see the locals getting into their early morning tai-chi exercises so guessed we would be able to find somewhere open for breakfast.   A great coffee shop around the corner did a mean scrambled eggs which gave us the energy to get on with some serious sightseeing.  First stop was the “Tourist Tunnel” which took us under the river to the other side.  We hopped into little capsules running on rails through the tunnel with a little sound and light show on the tunnel walls as we went through it.  Came out the other side to the commercial area, beside the iconic Pearl TV tower.  Hard to believe that this is a city of 24 million people as we had the river path to ourselves while we watched the hustle of barges steaming out to the mouth of the river.    Had a walk around the area for a while and returned via the tunnel to the Bund.

The hop on/off bus seemed like a good option for today’s exploration and with three routes to explore, started off with the red route taking us through older parts of the city, the French Concession. Swapped over to another route to get to the Jing An Temple.  This temple has had various reincarnations over the years (first built in 220 it was then relocated in 1200 to it’s present site; during the Cultural revolution it was converted to a plastics factory; 1972 burnt to the ground; reconstructed in the 80’s and finally reopened to the public in 1990).  It houses some iconic items- The jade Buddha has a height of 3.78 meters (about 12 feet), a weight of 2.6 meters (about 9 feet) and a weight of 11,000 kilograms, a 15 tonne silver buddha, a 3 tonne Ming Dynasty copper bell.  The main temple is constructed in Myanmar teak – 49 huge solid columns and interior carvings.  It was quite an impressive building and very incongruous in amongst all the highrise buildings.

 

After a spot of lunch, it was back on the bus to do another loop and get off at YuGarden area.  We decided to head off the beaten track around here so have a little peak at the more original Shanghai – much more reminiscent of backstreets of Hong Kong.   Narrow alleys, tiny shops, multitudes of wires overhead mixing in with the washing drying on poles.

Had intended to visit Yu Gardens, but by the time we reached that stop they were already closed so it was back to the hotel for a break with the plan for taking the blue route over the river to see the nightlights.  That plan also scuppered as the last blue bus turned out to be at 5.30pm not the 8pm we were expecting.  Plan B was implemented with a walk along the bund to watch the lights come on along with the thousands of very excited Chinese – wedding photos seem to be a favourite on the Bund with the nightlights in the background.  Walked back up Nanjing Road to our hotel.  What a complete contrast walking around in the evening – Shanghai really comes to life, the main preoccupation seems to be shopping and the streets are just seething with Shanghai-ites.

 

Opted for a local restaurant for our dinner – just nice to get out of the hustle of the main shopping areas and happened to share our table with a very interesting Australian working in the fire service who was currently on a round the world  10 week Winston Churchill funded scholarship studying his field of expertise – fire fighting/evacuation plans of fire services around the world.   Yummy dinner sampling little delights such as steamed prawn and meat balls, wonton soup and chicken – washed down with the local beer – well fed for a fraction of the main street prices.

17 May – With a few hours still left on our bus tickets, we got to take the blue route over to the other side, over an impressive bridge and through the financial centre of Shanghai.  China’s highest building Shanghai Tower dominated the landscape – this miracle of architecture is the second tallest building in the world, creates 10% of its own energy needs and incorporates all manner of energy saving features.  It only cost 2.4billion US to build.

Swapped buses to get back to People’s Square with the intention of going to the Shanghai museum – after about an hour of walking around we finally found it.  Had a good few hours to explore some of their impressive collections – jade, coins, calligraphy and bronze.  The museum is set in a lovely building, four floors with a central atrium.  Walked back home for another welcome break before heading out for dinner in a Thai restaurant.  A lot of places will not accept non-local credit cards, so we have had to make sure that we have enough cash on hand.