All Roads Lead To Rome

The saying goes “All roads lead to Rome” based on the fact that at some stage all roads did lead to Rome. In our case, this saying was extremely close to home and in fact Rome has been our home for the last three weeks. So, this post is written with an extreme fondness for this ancient city, it’s people, it’s food and amazing culture. We knew little about Rome (apart from the Roman sayings) before arriving there, but everyone had told us Rome was amazing and it certainly did not disappoint.

We arrived in Rome (Termini station) after a three hour train ride from Florence. Rome was hot, but unlike Florence it lacked humidity – this and the many fountains around the city made the heat bearable.  We chose to stay at a B&B in Rome along via Volturno called A&A Bed and Breakfast, a quick five minute walk to the train station.

As you can imagine, the amount of things to see and do in Rome is massive, so we got started quick smart. The first thing we did was go to the Metro – a 75 minute ticket to use the metro, will set you back one euro. We used this as our main source of transportation, over the six days here, with the exception of the first two days where we got the hop on and off bus.  This we thought would be a good option if you only have a short time to spare in Rome and drops you off at a wide range of sights. But we were able to do the same tour taking the metro, for a lot cheaper. We’d probably skip the hop on and off bus next time.

The sights: If you look at a map of Rome, it’s insane how many sights there are to see. Almost every street has an ancient ruin or sight you must see.  We started with the grandest ruin of them all – the Colosseum. The Colosseum is ancient, majestic and to some is what defines Rome. We got to the Colosseum, surrounded by street vendors, beggers, tourists and Romans dressed in their costumes ready to take pictures. When in Rome…I thought we should get a photo with these guys. Initially, I saw a girl ask for a photo with them and she was charged 10 Euro. I asked them and they said 10 Euro also. They separated me from Gus and said I should get solo photos with them first and then they bought Gus into the photos. They ended up charging 20 Euro for the both of us…10 Euro each they said. So, just a word of warning if you do decide to get your photo taken with them, negotiate up front first and be clear.

We knew nothing about the Colosseum, so decided to take a guided tour of the arena and the Forum for 25 Euro each (also included entry into the Colosseum and the Forum). It was worth doing a tour, as we had no knowledge or understanding of the events that took place here or what it all meant. Without a tour guide it really would look like just a bunch of old rocks and we definitely didn’t want that to happen. We were lucky in that we scored a superb guide! His name was Silvio and he was the most animated and energetic guide we’ve had to date. He explained every detail in such a way that he made history entertaining and really kept the tour up beat. He was so good that we decided to do the Vatican City tour with him the next day.

 

Vatican City is the smallest country in the world and home to St. Peters Cathedral and it’s famous Sistine Chapel. There are all sorts of security that will weed you out of the line if you are not dressed appropriately. You are not allowed to expose your shoulders or wear a dresses / shorts above your knees here – so don’t even think you will beat the system.  The nuns will get you in the end. Again the tour was fascinating, we got to walk through the Sistine Chapel and understand the art – the detail behind each of the major pieces and then we walked into the room that holds Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam. Silence filled the room. A few whispers that would immediately be silenced by one of the 50 security guards walking around ensuring that no one took photos.  The roof is covered in art and the Creation of Adam is one of the seven main pieces of that cover it’s ceiling. It was amazing to finally see this and the Cathedral.

 

We asked Silvio where a good place to go for lunch was – as a local we thought he’d have some pretty awesome ideas and he did. We ended up having lunch with him and apart from his brutal “picking up” of the waitresses – the restaurant and meal were both divine. A real gem and our favourite Roman meal!

The next day we headed out to see the remaining sights, the Pantheon, The Spanish steps and of course the Fountain of Trevi. Legend has it that if you throw one coin over your shoulder into the fountain you are certain of a return to Rome. Two coins means you will get married or divorced. While three coins mean you will marry a Roman. Any guesses on how many coins we threw? :)

Rome was unbelievable. So much history and we only managed to see the tip of the iceberg , of a city so immersed in culture and it’s history. It has become our home while travelling as we’ve now used it as a port to travel to the Amalfi, Greece and London and are always delighted to go back to it. We’d be happy to come back here anytime – all Roads lead to Rome they say – we definitely hope they do.

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Florence, Tuscany & Venice

Toscana (Tuscany) – Home to beautiful olive groves, vineyards, great wine, leather apparel and olive oil. It’s capital city Firenze (Florence), is considered the cultural hub of Italy. Housing Michelangelo’s David and the biggest Cathedral in Italy’s northern state called Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore.  Florence was approximately a three hour train ride from Cinque Terre, passing Pisa on the way – the trip was surprisingly quick and very scenic. We chose to stay in Florence because of it’s proximity to places like Pisa, Milan and Venice. Our thoughts were if we wanted visit one of these places, we could easily do these by train.

Our apartment was in an area on the outskirts of Florence and only a short 20-minute stroll into the centre of town. We decided to do some good old-fashioned walking here, which is probably why we felt the unrelenting heat burning the insides of our brains even more. The city of Florence was extremely hot, with only a temperature of 30 degrees – it’s cobblestone streets, buildings and no breeze made for a human furnace. We often found ourselves in gelati shops to recover and I was encouraged to visit the almighty Zara to find some air conditioning relief. This may have slowed down our sight seeing a little, but we still managed to see some of the beauty Florence has to offer.

The sights: Ponte Vecchio (Old Bridge) is the most obvious landmark in Firenze. It’s one of the five bridges that crosses the Amo River that flows through the city. This bridge is famous for it’s façade, which simply looks like houses stacked up on top of each other and their windows face the outside of the bridge. On the bridge itself is a different picture all together – there are dozens of jewellery shops, specialising in  gold and silver. Not to mention street vendors. We were lucky enough to be there for the San Giovanni festival, which meant fireworks off the bridge. Not foreseeing that this festival was just as big as NYE fireworks for us, we got to the bridge 10-minutes before start time and the fireworks had already started. We wormed our way onto the Ponte Vecchio, for what would be known as the longest display of fireworks we have ever seen. After an hour, the crowd was clapping for it to finish, but the firework master would start up again – a larger display of fireworks, which he would then pause, the crowd would applaud and then they would start again. It got to the point where people were sighing and screaming for them to finish. 90 minutes later and it was done, we followed the thousands of people home for some late night pizza.

 

Piazza de Michelangelo looked relatively attainable on the map and we were told it was a must do as you can see all of Florence from the top of the hill. It’s about a 20 minute walk to the bottom of the piazza, before taking a 20 minute uphill hike to the top of the piazza. It is here that stands a replica statue of David in it’s bronze form and awesome street vendors selling bottles of iced water for one euro. The view of Florence from the top is amazing and a very worth while attraction to visit while in this town.

Michaelangelo’s statue of David, is still considered THE piece of art to go and see while in Italy. It is housed in La Galleria L’Accademia and you must reserve tickets if you don’t want to miss out or wait in line. The ticket office is across from La Galleria and for 12 euro each, we were are assigned a time and date of when we were able to visit. We got there a bit early and we just waited outside the door until they called in our time. There was no need for a line, they will let you in if you’re ticket signifies the correct time. The statue of David is impressive, not only because Michelangelo managed to carve it all out of one single piece of marble or the fact that it towers over you at eight feet tall – but because of how Michelangelo captured each contortion of David’s body and defined the extension and tension of muscles and veins – making it seem almost human. He was the first artist to understand and translate the anatomy of the human being in a sculpture. It’s amazing what you’ll pick up with  a little eavesdropping from a tour guide next to us – we don’t know if there is any truth to it, but it sounds impressive so we’ll just roll with it for now. Just beware, you can’t take photos of the Michelangelo – so you just have to settle for the fake versions outside.

Cooking class: Our mission when visiting this amazing city was to of course see the sights, but to also get into a cooking class. As cliché as it sounds, a number of our friends had recommended we do one and well…when in Florence! The first thing we realised when we looked up Trip Advisor for cooking classes were that most of the ones rated highly were 300 – 400 Euro for both of us. A bit over our budget, we kept looking and found a class that was 80 euro each. The tour was via a company called the Florence Cooking School and included a visit  to the market for some olive oil and balsamic vinegar taste testing.

 

Our chef Giovanni was great, very funny and was happy to answer all our “Foodie” questions. He took us to his dungeon in the middle of the city, where we started with the Tiramisu (just because it takes a good hour in the fridge to be ready), then moved onto the Bruschetta, melanzane parmagiane and finally the fresh pasta with a Ragu sauce.  To date this has been the best pasta we have had on the trip. Nothing beats fresh pasta and now that we know how to cook it, we’re going to masterchef it up at home. We got some great tips here and our highlight of Florence, so definitely recommend it to anyone who would like to experience an amazing Italian meal that will keep giving.

Venice: We decided to take the train to Venice on our last day in Florence. It was a three hour ride and again got to see the country side pass by, all be it very quickly. Venice is bizarre. As soon as you exit the Santa Maria train station you are faced with the canal. We knew we wanted to get to the Piazza San Marco, the Piazza famous for its beautiful square covered in pigeons and of course San Marco’s Basilica. The Basillica is beautiful, but again make sure you take a scarf if you plan to go in, as a lot of churches in Italy won’t let you in with exposed shoulders. I made this mistake. :(

We caught the ferry to the Piazza San Marco’s for 26 Euro each. The ferry ride was great, all kinds of boats everywhere. Ferry’s, gondolas and vaporettos – each with it’s own purpose. The Ferry will take you across to both sides of the canal and is used for longer distances, the gondola mainly for tourists to take along the main canal or the back streets and the vaporettos take you from one side of the canal to the other. We explored the Piazza and went to sit down for a drink in the square, when we saw the price of coke was 10 euro. We quickly got up and decided to take a gondola ride down the back streets of the canal, it was divine. We got a great gondolier who explained the significance of the buildings to us, the history and culture of Venice.

Venice is beautiful; we loved the back streets, the little boutiques and unique shops. It can be a massive tourist trap – especially if you don’t know where to go. We didn’t, so we were lucky we only had the one day there. If you do go to Venice, maybe get some tips on where to stay and where to go for lunch and dinner.

Overall, Florence was a great central spot for us to stay. Immersed in culture and so close to other main cities in Italy – it’s definitely a must see while you’re here.  There is always something to do, some holiday to celebrate and glorious food and wine to consume.  Onto Rome…

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Cinque Terre – What better way to start our Italian leg?

Take five small fishing villages along the coast, add some rocky beaches, some lemon trees, limoncello and a couple of hundred Aussies – this is Cinque Terre. Cinque Terre (literal translation being five villages) is sprawled along the north west coast of Italy just passed the French border. The five villages named Riomaggiore, Manarola, Corneglia, Vernazza and Monterosso are all beautifully perched upon a jagged and mountainous landscape – creating the most picturesque images you will ever see.

We had decided to stay at the first village Riomaggiore. Our B&B, which was quite the hike up a hill, required us to take the bus up to the house. The instructions to get to the bus stop were simple:

“Turn right from the exit of the train station, go through the tunnel, walk about 50 metres out of the tunnel and it’s on your left, in front of the pizza shop”.

Usually it wouldn’t be a problem, with the exception that there were about five pizza shops within those first 50 metres. However, working out where it was, wasn’t too much of an ordeal with the locals being so friendly and welcoming. Asking where we were going and advising us of the stops along the way so we would know when to get off – lovely people.

It didn’t take us long to get to the beach. We left our bags at the B&B and went down to our beach at Riomaggiore. Like most beaches in Europe the sand is replaced by massive black rocks, making the walk down to the shore a bit awkward. For those of us that can swan dive (i.e Gus) the entrance was spectacular. The rest of us had to settle for the all safe belly flop – at least when we got in, the water was warm and pleasantly calm. Absolute bliss.

The next day we set out to see the villages. We bought a Cinque Terre card for 20 euro each, which allowed you to travel on the buses and trains for two days. It also allows you entry to walk along the coast of the villages which is named the Cinque Terre National park. We were set to start our adventures at the furthest village called Monterosso and work our way down back to Riomaggiore. However, the trains ran rather infrequently – one every hour. So, once we got to Monterosso, we found some sun beds, got an umbrella and hit the beach – the total cost was 15 euro. Not bad for a day at the beach!

Vernazza and Corniglia were on the itinerary for the next day. We took the train to Vernazza the following day and explored this lovely little village. There was no beach in this village, but the town was gorgeous. An old church overlooking the ocean, lots of colourful homes again perched up on the side of the mountain. We had some lunch here, before heading to Corniglia for the afternoon. Corniglia was a funny one, it has a ramp leading you up to a staircase claiming the village is at the top of the 380 odd steps that lay in front of you. Most tourists look at the sign, turn back and look for another sign hoping that there is maybe another way of getting up there. There isn’t. We soon found ourselves trekking up the 380 stairs. You do get a congratulations sign at the end of it though – makes it all the more worth it! Here in Corniglia, we stopped off for (one of many) gelato and took in the breathtaking view from the top of the hills. It was a good rest before making our way back down the stairs again.

That night we were having a lovely dinner in Riomaggiore, when we noticed a couple sending their dessert around the room for a taste. It was so good, they had decided the entire restaurant had to try it. This was how we met the first of our many dinner friends in Italy. The Norwegian couple told us about the walk through “Via dell’amore” or Lovers lane. A walk from the village of Riomaggiore to Manarola, in which superstition says if you write your name on a padlock and clip it somewhere along this lane your love is never lost. After several bottles of wines, some grappa and limoncello we decided it would be something we had to do the next day.

We (slowly, and fairly hungover) headed up to lovers lane the following day, armed with Gus’ padlock from his luggage. It’s quite amazing how many padlocks there are here, we saw thousands upon thousands of padlocks of all shapes and sizes. There were also people proclaiming their love by writing their names on the cactus plants along the path and sitting in the Lover’s Chair. This lane lead us to the second and last town for us to discover called Manarola. Much like Riomaggiore, it’s a lot smaller than Vernazza and Monterosso and has relatively more affordable cafes and restaurants. It was here that we saw people cliff jumping from gigantic rocks in the ocean. Still recovering from the Grappa and Limoncello shots the night before, we decided to take it easy and just enjoy the sights.

One thing we did do was try the gelati from each of the villages and the gelati shop in Riomaggiore was by far the best. Rated number #1 on tripadvisor for a reason. All their gelato is homemade with the freshest home grown fruit. Next time we probably won’t bother getting the Cinque Terra card, it’s not worth it unless you plan on doing the walks along the coast on one day and then use the trains the following days. You’re better off buying train tickets on the days you want to head to the next village.

Cinque Terra was simply stunning. It was our first stop in Italy and we definitely recommend to anyone who may find himself or herself this way. Each village is unique in it’s own way and although they were flooded with tourist for most of the time we were there, the locals loved it. It’s a town full of colourful locals, beautiful beaches and just a great place to relax.

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Nice… Gateway to the Cote D’Azur

We’d finally made it to the French Riviera and we were ecstatic to be so close to the ocean again. Our apartment was a 10 minute walk from the Promenade des Anglais which right across from the beach. We chose Nice because of it’s location along the French Riviera, it was central enough to get us to Eze, Monaco and Ville Franche. All places we wanted to visit during our stay.

Getting around in Nice was relatively easy. We used the bus to get us from our apartment to the train station, which ended up being the most frequently visited site while in Nice. A bus ticket to the main road (Avenue Jean Medecin) would set you back one euro. We tried to use the blue bikes, but you needed to register online using a French number and we didn’t have one so that didn’t work.  If you do get a French number its only one euro a day and obviously a lot quicker that waiting for the bus.

We started our tour of the Riviera in Nice itself. We walked around the old town on the first day and tried to get our bearings. The town itself is rather small and with it’s narrow streets, traffic is generally restricted to only pedestrians. We walked to the centre square located across from the Promenade del Anglais and overpriced cafes, boutiques and restaurants surrounded us – obviously catering for mass tourism. We found some other restaurants that were away from this tourist hub, had great food and were a reasonable price.

 

We did enjoy the art market in the tourist square held most nights. Showcasing some beautiful ceramic pieces, along with the gorgeous prints and paintings – it’s nice to just have a stroll through the stalls.

Monaco/Montecarlo: We decided to take the train and do a day trip up to Monaco and Montecarlo. The train from Nice Ville station leaves about every 10 minutes to Ventimiglia (all trains in this direction can take you to Monaco, Montecarlo, Eze and Villefranche) Monaco was beautiful. Giant yachts, high end fashion and the Grand prix track. It was just amazing.

We walked to the Hotel du Paris, right across from the Casino of Montecarlo and we were in awe of all the cars driving through.  Everything from Ferrari’s, Maserati’s and Lamborghini’s. The one thing we did want to do was to check out the casino here (just to see if it measured up to our expectations). They did require our passports to enter the casino, but we’d come prepared and a quick spot check and 10 Euro later, we were in!

The casino was majestic and you could play the tables, both inside and out. We didn’t realise you couldn’t take photos inside the casino and you had to leave your phones and cameras in the cloak room.  Ignorance is bliss and we happy snapped away.

 

The tables outside had the most amazing view of the ocean and were easily the most expensive tables there at 50 euro minimum bet. We settled on a five Euro Roulette table and put our 20 Euro to work. We’d just about finished up about even, when we decided to call it quits with one last bet on 16. Who knew, it came up and ended up paying 175 Euro. There was a moment when we thought cops were going to come around the corner and bombard us with questions. But everything was fine and we left Montecarlo a whole 150 Euro richer!

Eze: is a little medieval village at the top of a hill, along with a castle and beautiful gardens. We were there to visit the Frangonard Perfumerie, famous for it’s delicious fragrances. When we arrived in Eze, we realised that the bus taking us to the top of the town had already left, meaning we had another hour to wait until we could catch the next one. Normally we would have walked, but the path to the town was a good 700 meters above sea level, at an incline of 45 degrees – we would have died.  Instead of waiting in the heat, we hit the beach which was only a five minute walk from the stop and decided to wait there.

Once our bus arrived to the top of the hill, the Fragonard Perfumerie was only a five minute walk from the stop. We managed to pick up some goodies, pay and run back up to the bus station just in time for our bus back to the train station. We would have loved to stay here for the day and make a day trip of it, but we had no time. It would be a worthwhile day trip if you have the time.

Nice was a great place for us to base ourselves while exploring the French Riviera. We loved the beaches here and the water was crystal clear. Although we didn’t get to see the the other gems along this riviera like Cannes, Villefranche and St Tropez, we loved that we could have had the flexibility to do so. It was a great last stop in France, no more crepes for a while. It’s onto Pizza and Pasta in Italy…bring it!

  

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Lavender Fields of Aix-en-Provence

Two Christmas’ ago I received a calendar on a region in France called Aix-en-Provence. I’d never heard of it before, but the calendar inspired me – full of lavender and poppy fields it looked so beautiful and made it part of the must-see’s while in France. For something that was such a priority, there really wasn’t a lot of planning that took place before leaving Barcelona, which is why we ended up doing this the crazy, somewhat longish way. We had massive issues trying to get from Barcelona to Nice.

Eurail was giving us nothing with their confusing online timetables, so we decided to go stand in the endless line at the Valencia train station. It was here we found out that the timetables were in fact correct and there were no direct trains going to Nice.  It would take us 15 hours to get there, with three stops along the way. Time being of the essence, we decided to fly to Nice (Niza) from Barcelona. This was my mistake. It was only after Gus hit the confirm button on the Spanair website, that I whispered “What about Provence?” knowing the response would less than favourable and we would lose both our money and the plot if we cancelled the flights. We settled on the idea that we would drive to Provence from Nice Airport.

As we were driving to Provence, we saw lots of signs heading back to Barcelona. So for those going there, driving from Barcelona would probably be easier or you can also fly to Marseille and drive from there. Regardless of which route you choose, you will need a car. The drive from Nice took us three hours, from Marseille it should take a bit less.

We stayed the night at a cheap and simple hotel in Provence, but it would only be a quick stay as we had to drive to the Lavender Museum early the next day in Avignon, which was an hour away. We also had to drive back to Nice that afternoon and return the car back to the airport by 6pm. We had breakfast and headed off. I was so excited when I walked into the Lavender Museum. Obviously we expected fields and fields of purple lavender just like the calendar – but obviously we were wrong. Instead, we were told it wasn’t the blooming season for lavender and shown the barren plants outside. Rightly so, there was no lavender – just flowerless plants.

Convinced there had to be lavender somewhere in the area, we asked the lady at the “Lavender” museum if there was anywhere else we could see it – she stated there was only lavender in the highest mountains in Provence and that we would have to head towards Sault (another two hours away from Avignon) to see them,  if we saw any at all. With no time to waste, we jumped straight into the car and headed towards Sault.  The drive itself was very mountainous but extremely picturesque. We could see the potential for lavender, as there were the odd buds that had burst through – but nothing as dramatically purple as the calendar had shown.

After an hour and a half of driving, we hadn’t seen any thing remotely resembling the fields and we were over it! I had written off the calendar, declaring Photoshop was at work and Gus had started planning our next trip to Provence. Deciding it would probably be wiser to come back during the season July – August and perhaps stay up in Avignon for a week.  We came to terms that there wouldn’t be any lavender fields that day and that we would settle on having lunch in Sault and then heading back to Nice for the next week.

But just when we’d lost all hope and were about to run over some cyclists, out of the blue appeared a magical field of wild flowers. With a gorgeous snow capped mountain backdrop there they were – Lavender plants by the hundreds. We hit the brakes and got out of the car. We stood and just admired the fields with our cyclist friends for a whole 10 seconds before we happy snapped like crazy. We stayed there for about 30 minutes – it was stunning, but the bees, mosquito’s and spiders make sure you don’t overstay your visit!  The stop was about 15 minutes away from Sault at a place called St Jean and it really was worth it!  And even though only about 20% of the lavender fields were in bloom it was still stunning, I’d love to see what it would be like in season.

We headed to Sault for some much deserved late lunch and a stroll in the town. It was a beautiful little town, with lots of cafes and souvenir shops decorated in abundance of brightly coloured pot plants and, of course, lavender. We had a quick bite and headed back towards Nice. With a four-hour drive in front of us, again we just made it back to the rental car place on time.

The whole area of Provence is really very underrated. We were originally going to also see the Verdon Gorge that is used in all the L’Occtaine advertising but the lavender fields took a bit longer to find than we thought. Provence is beautiful and we really wished we could have stayed longer, instead of speeding through all the smaller towns. It would have been awesome to have a couple of days in each town. But then again we got to see what we originally wanted to see and we’re pretty happy with achieving another item off the bucket list. Although now the Verdon Gorge is a new item on our list…it just never ends! :)

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