Daintree Rainforest Day Tour

On Wednesday I went for a day tour of a small part of the Daintree Rainforest in Queensland with tour company Billy Tea Tours. The day started with me getting picked up at 7am in Cairns and then driving north to pick up the rest of the tour group, a mix of nationalities and ages.

Our first proper stop was to catch a boat and take an hour-long cruise down the Daintree River. I think this was the best part of the tour as we saw the most wildlife here. This included three crocodiles (including one big one called Scarface), a brilliant blue kingfisher, three tree snakes, a Papuan frogmouth and other birds.

Whenever the boat stopped, the oppressive humidity slopped in and made everything uncomfortable. The bonus was we could get some photos (but I was glad after a while to get moving again). We met our bus driver at the river ferry on the other side and set off to a lookout.

The takeaway I got from the tour was that the rainforest was dinosaur country. It has three of the prehistoric tree types – conifers, cycads, and ferns – plus a lot else that more than qualifies the Daintree Rainforest as a world heritage site.

We took a walk along a boardwalk through the rainforest as the guide told us bits and pieces about the flora and fauna. One thing that really interested me was the purple fruits that he called the cassowary plum. Without the cassowary swallowing these fruits and stripping the flesh to reveal the seeds, the tree they grow on wouldn’t be able to survive. A great example of the cassowary as a keystone species.

Unfortunately, we didn’t see any cassowaries during this trip. Next time though.

We had lunch further up in the rainforest, where we also fed Agile and Swamp Wallabies. Very adorable. I, unfortunately, got into a conversation with a couple of 70-year-olds from Colorado who voted for Trump. I couldn’t get away fast enough. Considering this was also the day of the same-sex marriage survey results, I was already feeling pretty raw.

After lunch we headed up to Emmagen Creek. No crocodiles in this part of the river so we were allowed to go for a swim. The rain was starting to come in so it wasn’t as warm as expected but definitely not freezing. I was first one to get in, and a few others finally plucked up the courage to submerge themselves.

Meanwhile the guides set up tables of tropical fruit, damper and billy tea. The rain bucketed down on us for a while so rather than get dressed, I was standing around in my speedos eating mango, sour pop, black sapote, papaya and jackfruit. Couldn’t get any wetter so why not.

The rain stopped, we ate damper, warmed up with a cup of Daintree tea and then set off for a beach on Cape Tribulation. No swimming allowed as crocodiles swim all up and down the coast, but we watched tiny crabs pushing balls of sand out of chambers in the beach. I also got changed.

Drive back down we stopped at an icecream shop that makes different flavours depending on what’s in season. Today’s four-scoop selection included coconut, wattleseed, soursop and passionfruit. I probably didn’t need it but I had it anyway.

We zoomed back down the rainforest, caught the car ferry across and then continued down the coast, dropping people off as we went. I was home by 6.

If I ever go again, and I think Glen should come and see it too, I’d prefer to do one that includes more venturing into the rainforest (despite the snakes and the large tarantulas I know live in there) with the hope of seeing more wildlife. The tour I did was a good taste for now.

The Road to Sounio and Temple of Poseidon

Glen went to the conference on Tuesday morning while I stayed in the apartment catching up on some work. It’s both a positive and a negative that as a freelancer you can work from anywhere. He returned at lunch time with the other radiologists and we went for lunch at a local fish restaurant. We then collected the car and set off on our second road trip.

Vouliagmeni Lake

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About half an hour out of Athens (if there’s no traffic), you’ll find Vouliagmeni Lake. It’s a lake carved out of the mountain and set back a little from the coast. It’s fed from sea water and an underwater thermal spring. To capitalise on this unique natural feature, it’s been turned into a ‘spa’.

We paid our €12 and claimed a table underneath an umbrella and went for a swim. The sign said the water was between 26°C and 28°C but it didn’t feel as warm as that going in. It was a bit like being in a saltwater pool, the water only tasting slightly of salt.

Another unique feature of the lake are the schools of tiny fish that swim around, waiting for anything to stand still long enough so they can attack it and strip it of dead skin. This resulted in many, many squeals as their little mouths rapidly suck away at your flesh like a ticklish massage.

After a swim and a fish-pedicure, we continued on our way.

Cape Sounio and the Temple of Poseidon

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About an hour farther up the road are the town of Sounio and the Temple of Poseidon, an impressive ruin that dominates the landscape from the land and the sea. We stopped to get a photo from the opposite side of the bay before going around, parking and exploring the site.

We went down before we went up, seeing ruins of the walls and settlements. I saw a long green lizard while we were later treated to the sight of an adult bird corralling (and trying to defend) its brood of six chicks. We watched them for a while as they peeped away and tried to climb a wall.

We reached the top of the hill and walked around the temple. I was impressed with the number of columns still standing (or the number that had been restored). The weather was perfect and I got some great shots (Glen and I doing our traditional #lickingthings photos).

It was well worth the trip out to see and I was glad I’d chosen to drive rather than hire a driver. Felt we were free to do what we wanted. We left at about 5 something and headed back into Athens.

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Mount Lycabettus

As we had the car we decided to check out Mount Lycabettus in Athens, also known as ‘the other big hill’. Getting back into Athens-traffic was not pleasant, especially when I had to drive down narrow streets lined with parked cars. I got us fairly high up the hill before we had to get out and climb the rest of the way. (There is a funicular from the other side to the bottom of the hill.)

Our first view of the Acropolis and Athens was impressive and we oohed and aahed over it. We then repeated this the higher up the hill we climbed. The only downside was a slight haze over the city but in the gradually fading light, it was a real treat. Athens just goes on forever.

At the top of the hill is a restaurant that’s apparently expensive (I didn’t look) but instead of eating there, we head back to the car and I drove us to the Gazi district. We settled into a Greek restaurant (well, they’re all Greek as they’re in Greece but you get what I mean) called Frog Island and ordered lots of different things.

It was all delicious. Alison was coming to join us so we had the problem of deciding whether to leave things for her (and risk it being cold when she arrived) or gorging ourselves (and destroying the evidence) so she could order something fresh. In the end we were too full to finish it all so Michael made up a plate for her. We waddled out sometime around 9pm, dropped the car back at the parking garage and went home. Another successful day in Greece complete.

Athens: Day One

After a 25-hour journey, we landed in Athens on Saturday afternoon feeling fairly fresh. This was probably due to the fact that during our nine-hour stopover, we checked into the Premier Inn in Abu Dhabi for a few hours’ sleep. (This involved traipsing back and forth through Terminals 1 and 3 trying to find the right exit for the hotel. Glen’s fault, not mine.)

At Athen’s airport I wanted to go through the EU Passport holder’s line (I have a British passport). A couple in front of us asked if they could go as a couple (one with EU, one non-EU) and they were given a sort of ‘well, you can try’ answer and off they went. We didn’t see them again. Glen refused to follow their lead so we joined an exceptionally long queue with all the other non-privileged people. In the end it didn’t matter so much because our luggage was one of the last pieces out so we were standing around a while.

A taxi driver was waiting for us when we got through everything and out into the Meditteranean heat. We then had a 40-minute drive from the airport through the city, during which time I managed to check the pronunciation of the 20 Greek words I know. They’re really going to come in handy. We’re staying fairly central so the drive gave us our first view of the Akropolis. Wow, we really are in Athens.

Glen had booked us a comfortable and spacious apartment not far from the National Gardens (although he had thought it was closer to the train station and therefore easier for him to get to the conference venue by public transport). Two bedroom, second floor apartment with kitchen, bathroom etc. The hosts left us a bottle of white wine and a bowl of cherries, apricots and peaches. Mmmm cherries.

We resisted the urge to sleep so after a shower and a moment to get our bearings we head out to explore Athens.

Athens in an Afternoon

First stop: National Gardens. Incidentally, the circuitous route we ‘chose’ took us past the Prime Minister’s and President’s residences and then into the gardens…where we saw a tortoise. Did not expect that. One surprising but lovely thing we noticed about Athens are the fruit trees everywhere. Orange trees are the most popular, with fruit littering the ground where it’s fallen. Mulberry trees are also popular.

Through the gardens we popped out the other side near the parliament building and Syntagma Square. Lots of tourists in this part of town with a lot of touristy food places. Nevertheless, we were drawn into a Greek bakery by the sight of galaktoboureko in the window, one of Glen’s favourites. I also bought a chocolate/biscuit/nut slice thing and a sesame bar. All very rich, I couldn’t finish mine.

We wandered through the Plaka district (the old town) and remarked on how it look like Paris/Le Castellet/La Spezia/[insert other old town names]. All pleasant and chill and easy. We passed an ouzo distillery called Brettos. It’s the oldest ouzo distillery in Athens at over 100 years old. While neither of us drink ouzo, the different coloured bottles on the wall drew us in. I figured, while in Greece, I may as well have some.

We took our place at the bar in this small place. There were about 10 other people there and it felt full. I chose an ouzo, Glen a gin fizz and then ordered a meze plate (cheese, salami, bread and olives). Really, we just wanted the meze and conveyed this to nearly the point of desperation to which the waitress replied that ‘don’t worry, no matter what, you’ll get the meze plate.’ We were happy. I only drank half my ouzo which was enough for me, we finished off the meze and went on our way.

Saw lots of old ruins dotted about the place, old churchs and columns and walls, which have all been built around. How else are you supposed to build a city when there’s all this history here? We wandered here and there, even stopping into a tablecloth store and buying a table runner and placemats. (We’re now old.) We saw the Agora and another small church and walked through the flea market before finally succumbing to the numbing in our legs and walked home.

Just before we got home a man walking a dog overheard us talking and asked if we were Australian and struck up a conversation. He’d lived in Melbourne for a few years with his partner of 18 years (who’s now dead). He told us how conservative Greece can be, yet this year’s Pride parade (which we missed by a week) was held in front of parliament in one of the busiest and most popular parts of the city. (Every other year it’s been held somewhere out of the way. Some progress.) He also told us about the stadium (where the first modern Olympics were held) and how, on Monday, there’ll be a big music festival to celebrate a composer who was a major figure in the fight against the dictatorship. Our apartment is barely a block away so we’ll probably hear it from our balcony, but he did suggest grabbing a bottle of wine and finding a spot on the grassed area around the stadium and settle in. Hopefully we’re back from Delphi in time.

Despite the bad rap that Athens gets, I really enjoyed the few hours we spent wandering around. The parts we saw were easy to get around, very relaxed, and accessible for non-Greek speakers.

Summer Rain

It’s daylight savings in Greece at the moment so the sun stays up late, later than us. We got back to the apartment at 6ish. We sat for a while, me on the balcony with a glass of wine and watching the rain come down. Glen then decided he needed food but didn’t adequately assess the rain situation (and I thought it was only spitting). He found a supermarket so we set off.

We got drenched!

We took refuge at a kebab shop where we had two skewers of meat, some chips and a piece of bread. They even gave us tequila shots. We sat outside at a table under an awning and watched part of Athens closing down while another part opening up as people had their drinks and went on to other places. Reminded me a lot of Italy where people always seem to be outside.

The rain eased. We found the supermarket and bought groceries then came home. We were in bed by 9pm and asleep soon after.

The Sights and Suits of Jaipur

After what was a pretty crap night’s sleep – jet-lag, Glen’s sniffling, noise in the halls – we got up at 7:30, had breakfast (me and my stomach were a bit over Indian food, plus I’m having so many carbs I’m feeling guilts) and then met Mr Singh at 9am to go sightseeing around Jaipur.

The streets of Jaipur were pretty quiet at this time of the morning, what with most of the shops still being shut. The paths in front of the shops, however, had all been swept. Jaipur is a planned city and as such looks a bit more like a city I’m used to. It’s still chaos but there’s a bit more order to it and it’s not as disorienting as Agra or the outskirts of Delhi.

Our first stop was the Hawa Mahal, which was a fly-by visit. We pulled up in front of it in the car and Glen and I jumped out to get some photos before getting back in. It’s where the king’s harem would sit and watch the bazaar below without being seen. Despite being five storeys high, it’s only one room deep. A beautiful building.

Amber Fort

We were then taken to the Amber Fort, getting out of the city and into the countryside, where we could see the ‘Great Wall of Jaipur’ that cuts along the hills. There are a number of forts along the way but we were going to what is the most popular one, the Amber Fort.

Mr Singh asked if we wanted to go by elephant but not knowing how they’re trained, how they’re looked after or anything about their well-being I wasn’t keen. Apparently they only do five rides a day each, and there are 120 elephants, but I’ve since heard they’d not suited for Rajasthan weather and they’re not well looked after. Nevertheless, it was a thrill to see elephants wandering about.

Mr Singh drove us to the fort entrance, gave us the standard tourist warning, and in we went. It was busy with tourists but there were areas where they didn’t congregate and because there are so many walls and nooks and crannies, you could find these moments of quiet that were really lovely.

Glen and I climbed to the top floor and poked our heads out the window to Christine below. The three of us then stopped and had a coffee and tea – really good coffee apparently – before leaving the fort to find Mr Singh.

On the way out I was again called Ali Baba, something the kids at Fatehpur Sikri had called me. I asked Mr Singh about it and apparently he’s a famous movie star in India who has a beard. For some reason I, as a white guy with a beard, remind people of him. At least I know now.

One striking thing I’ve noticed on this trip is occasionally seeing young men holding hands. At the fort there were three all holding hands, and at other times there have been two. While I’m pretty certain they’re not gay, it’s such an unexpected thing to see, this way of men showing their friendship. It’s really nice.

After the fort, we stopped at the Water Palace to take some photos. This is a palace set in an artificial lake that, when the water is still and the light is right, creates an impressive display. The water and the light were not right when we were there but it’s still an interesting building and would make a great place to visit – or stay.

Tailor-made Clothes and Knick-knacks

With some sightseeing done, Mr Singh then took us to a textile shop. We saw how they did the block printing, which was cool, and then were shown into the shop, which sold tailor-made suits and shirts, saris, table cloths, bed linen and scarves.

Glen and I immediately started choosing fabric for new suits, which was fun, as the cost for getting a tailored suit was very reasonably. I was a bit uncomfortable having to take my shirt off in the store, but that’s not uncommon for me, and I caused a bit of a fuss by having one shoulder higher than the other, or one arm longer than the other. Anyway, we chose our fabrics – 100% kashmiri – and then they said they’d be ready by Sunday.

I also chose fabric for four fitted shirts, and then also a tablecloth and a bedspread. It was easy to get swept up in wanting to buy lots of beautiful things. Christine also did very well and we came away with bags of stuff. I’m not sure how we’re going to get them to Mumbai and then home. Might have to buy another suitcase as Glen and I only brought carry-on. Glen and I will go back on Sunday to have any last minute alterations made to the suits.

And Judi Dench had also been there. (There was a photo on the wall of her with one of the staff.)

After we’d spent a lot of money but were happy with the value, we went to a souvenir shop. Christine bought a few things and I resisted buying a singing bowl. I love them but they’d only collect dust on a shelf back home.

From there we were to the big outdoor observatory – Jantar Mantar – and looked at these centuries-old instruments used to tell time and the movement of heavenly bodies. The geometric shapes made it look like a cross between an Escher painting and a giant child’s building blocks. It was hot and open to the sun so we didn’t stay long. We also skipped the City Palace, having been saturated with history for a while. Instead we sat at the gate and ate a pomegranate. Delicious.

By then it was about 3pm so we opted to go back to the hotel and chill for a few hours. In the evening Mr Singh drove us to a restaurant where we ordered and ate far too much food. I’m really looking forward to getting back into the gym properly and working off all this eating.

Day Out in Delhi

With Sunday being almost a non-starter as far as fitting in much sight-seeing, Monday was our last chance in New Delhi to see some of the things other people talk about when they go here.

The four of us – Glen, Christine, Dipu and I – started the day with breakfast in the lounge, determined our plans and then set off for what was going to be a full day.

Endless Pashminas

Yes, I’ve said before that shopping is not one of my favourite things but Christine was keen to check out a market and Dilli Haat seemed like the nearest and best place to go. It also gave Glen and I some more time to hang out with Dipu.

We caught a car to the market, getting dropped off somewhere that was apparently near the markets but was not readily obvious. Nevertheless, we were in a fairly quiet street and we could walk up to the markets.

We thought it opened at 10 but it didn’t open until 11 at this time of the year so we hung around and attempted to get cash out of the ATM. India is currently in the midst of a bit of a cash problem following the demonetisation of the 500 and 1000 rupee notes last year. They’ve been replaced with a new 500 and 2000 rupee note but there haven’t been enough put into circulation so ATMs frequently run out. Such as the case at these two ATMs. I figured the chances that I’d actually buy anything that needed more than the 300 rupees I had in my wallet were slim.

Guess again.

When the markets opened we wandered in, strolling past shops that were just getting ready for the visitors. Some were already displaying their wares and were calling out for us to come and look at their items, which for the most part were shawls and scarfs. I didn’t need any scarfs so why would I stop?

But then I took a look and was caught in the net. Perhaps I could get a few for presents back home. So then I looked at one, and then two, and then he offered a price which he lowered because of Dipu, and then stools came out and we were invited to sit while he showed us yet more pashminas and we oohed and aahed over all the colours and the designs, and added more and more to the pile of the ones we would like to buy. In the end we selected ten. Then the bartering happened.

I sat it out but Dipu did most of it for us and by the time we were finished and had probably driven a decent bargain, we walked away with our ten scarves and everyone was happy. After that splurge, Glen and I left Christine and Dipu to it so we could do some sightseeing. They stayed until 3pm!

Entering Old Delhi

Dilli Haat was near a metro station so we bought our all-day tourist travel cards for 150 rupee each (great value for giving you unlimited travel on the metro all day) and caught the train up to Chandi Chowk station in Old Delhi. Glen and I were the only non-Indians on the train so we drew attention but no hassle.

Up at Chandi Chowk  we joined the crush of people getting out of the station and onto the busy, busy streets. Auto-rickshaws, people selling spices and balloons, fruit vendors, bicycles and carts, not to mention some cows…all happening in Old Delhi. Despite it being a very busy place and so many things being sold, Glen and I were not approached. While we weren’t invisible, we may as well have been.

We walked down the street, past ATMs with queues out the front of them or else with ‘No Cash’ signs stuck on them, and headed towards the Red Fort. We knew it was going to be closed as it was a Monday but we wanted to get a look at it – and Old Delhi.

The Red Fort is huge and it would have been something to explore inside. Outside its walls, a celebration was taking place, either for Republic Day or Gandhi’s Death Day or maybe both, so we couldn’t get close, and we chose not to attend the celebrations.

Instead we walked back towards the station, seeing the bird hospital in the Jain Temple, at least from the outside. The sudden appearance of a large and grumpy macaque was a good deterrent from exploring further. We walked down an alley street that ran parallel to the main road. Again, no hassles. I don’t even think anyone looked at us. It was a good place to walk too as it was much quieter than being near all the horn-blowing on the roads.

We eventually cut down another alley to get to the Metro and walked past a hole-in-the-wall restaurant where two men sat out the front, one making chapatis, the other cooking them on coals. I beckoned to Glen – who’d run ahead as usual – that there were some delicious looking chapattis there and before we knew it we had gone inside and squeezed ourselves onto a shared table with a large man wearing a turban.

The other patrons must have thought we were some kind of joke, or that the tone of the place had dropped. We didn’t speak their language, and then waiter didn’t speak English. He brought a menu that was written in script, not English, so the only thing we could read was the prices. The man sitting next to us said something to the waiter and then food appeared.

We were given a small bowl of chickpea and potato curry, the name of which I can’t remember, as well as a yoghurt thing, and some delicious chapatis. I really liked the curry too but the yoghurt thing not so much. We finished off our food, endured the funny and bewildered looks, paid our $2 for the privilege and left. We were both giddy from eating like locals. What they must have thought of us!

The Hunt for Cash

As I wrote in Sunday’s post, the metro in Delhi is really convenient, clean, safe and useful. What I’m not quite used to is the long distances between stations. I guess I’d never really considered how large Delhi is – and with a population of 19 million I’m not sure why I thought it would be huge – so the time taken between stations felt like quite a while.

We changed lines at Central Secretariat to get down to JLN Stadium where we would walk to see Humayun’s Tomb. As we left the platform, we spotted an ATM and decided to chance it, thinking it would be empty. An Indian mate waited outside to see if I would hit the jackpot. Lo! Cash appeared! Hurrah!

Talk about post-apocalyptic. The panic at just the idea of not being able to get cash when cash is needed was unsettling. Chaos is not far away.

Now we’d loaded ourselves with money we walked out of the station, down Lodhi Road, towards Humayun’s Tomb. But not being I asked a couple of police or army officers the way, getting the name wrong or talking to people who had never heard of Human’s Tomb. In the end Glen and I decided to just call it Yum-Yum’s – cultural insensitive, yes, but it’s also funny.

The walk was along busy streets littered with rubbish. People everywhere. Buildings in disrepair. But we managed it and arrived at the tomb.

Yum-Yum’s

Humayun’s Tomb is apparently a model for the Taj Mahal. Either way it’s a beautiful complex with walls, monuments and gardens. Once we were through the gates and into the crowds, the bustle of Delhi faded away and we were able to enjoy a bit of respite and looking at some old buildings. I took photos of more squirrels and some beautiful green parrots, as well as the buildings. Check out the pictures for a bit of an idea of what it was like.

We were there for about an hour or so. Our legs were killing us by the end and we opted to not go to Qutb Minar or any other bit of sightseeing. We had museum fatigue and all other fatigues as well. So you’d think that would mean we’d pay whatever to just get home, right?

Wrong. Instead, when we walked outside the tomb’s entrance and were greeted by auto-rickshaw drivers, we were given a price of 300 rupees to drive us the 20 minutes to our hotel, rather than to just the metro. Glen baulked at the price and then we haggled over a price to get us to the metro, which we still didn’t agree to. What the hell? So we walked.

Two women followed us because they weren’t sure how to get to the metro but as we walked we realised how far it actually was. Again, what were we thinking? So we walked and then we took the metro and then another train and it probably took us an hour to get home.

When we saw Christine and Dipu later we found they’d paid 300 rupees to go about a ten minute journey so we all had a big laugh. That was after Glen and I had rested for a while and I went to the gym.

Two Dinners

We went up the lounge for our last evening in Delhi and had some snacks. Glen and I ate too much, especially considering we were going to Dipu’s daughter’s house for dinner. After about an hour we went downstairs to catch an Uber, which took a ridiculously long time to sort out, made harder because we don’t have roaming so can’t call the driver, and in the end took a taxi through horrible, horrible rush hour traffic to Anavinda’s house.

There we had dinner with Anavinda, Titus and Dipu, enjoying a traditional Indian meal with dahl, paneer, parathas and curry. Great food and lots of chats about politics, family history and the like.

After dinner Titus took us to the nearby cash machine because we’d been warned that it wouldn’t be easy to get cash in Agra. Fortunately these cash machines out in what seemed the middle of nowhere were ripe with cash so we were sorted.

We said our farewells and then went back to the hotel, collapsing into bed sometime around 11pm. Thanks, Delhi for an interesting few days.

Return to Roma

Friday was a travel day. After a restless night’s sleep, with some pretty weird and dramatic dreams, we had breakfast at the hotel, finished packing and then walked down the road to the station.

Yesterday’s guide told us about the express train – the Campania Express – which only takes 50 minutes to get from Sorrento to Napoli and is a nicer train than the Circumvesuviana.

We got into Napoli just after 11, bought our tickets to Rome, had some food and then hopped on the train. We were in Rome about an hour or so later and then catching the Metro down to Piramide.

The pyramid is initially a bit of out of place in Rome but considering Egypt was part of the Roman Empire at one point, perhaps it’s strange there aren’t more Egyptian influences here. We were staying at an AirBnB place near the station owned by two guys called Fabio and Massimo.

Fabio let us in, showed us around, gave us coffee and then he went back to work. Meanwhile, Glen and I took the opportunity for a mini-stroll around this part of Rome.

We walked up the nearby hill which sported a number of old churches, looking very picturesque on their tree-covered hill. They looked more suited to the Tuscan hills. The great thing about them though is that even though they’re still in Rome, they’re relatively under visited.

There are some great views from this part of town and a beautiful garden too – Giardino degli Aranci – that, as the name suggests, has a lot of orange trees. It’s enclosed behind old walls and would be a lovely place to have a picnic or read a book.

From the garden we walked down the hill to the Bocca della Verità – the mouth of truth – probably made most famous from the Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck movie, Roman Holiday. When I’d visited in winter many years ago, I was the only one there and the monument seemingly ignored.

Today it had a line out the front that would have taken about 20 minutes to get to the front of. Glen was pleased to get to see it but was happy to not have to wait to put his hand in the ‘dirty’ mouth. We had a quick look at the nearby fountain and temples and then crossed the bridge into Trastevere.

Hungry again we stopped at Akbar which was offering a €10 aperitivi, with a small buffet of salads and cold foods with water, coffee and I think a drink (which was never offered). It took the edge off our hunger and we found a cool little bar in the process. (They have a glass-topped table that’s really a garden bed for succulents.)

We walked through a bit more of Trastevere, stopped into the basilica to hear a bit of singing and look at the gold mosaics again, then decided to head back to the apartment.

We did laundry, I updated my blog and then at 7:30 we went to a local restaurant called Da Bucatino recommended by the host. We managed to get a table – ours was reserved but they weren’t due in until later – and we ordered far too much.

There was the obligatory bread, and we ordered a pasta each, thinking they’d be small. They weren’t. And then Glen had steak, I had pollo alla romana (cooked to perfection) as well as asparagus and green bears.

We were full after the pasta. I finished the chicken and got through half of the beans. Glen couldn’t finish his steak so we asked for it to takeaway which the waiter, a nonno it seemed, did take away but also picked up the plate of unfinished vegetables and plopped them in front of Glen with a gesture that roughly translated to ‘eat your greens’.

We failed on this score too. ‘Non posso finire,’ I said. The waiter repeated it with a bit of good humoured derision. No dessert for us that was for sure. We waddled home.

Then we packed and we’re ready for our flight home tomorrow. The holiday hasn’t felt like it’s gone quickly; we packed in a lot. Work and our lives in Perth seem a million years ago. I suppose that’s a good thing. Looking forward to giving Smudge a cuddle, that’s for sure. Hopefully she won’t be too annoyed at us.

 

The Pope and the Train to Sorrento

Wednesday morning started with me doing a phone interview for a job back in Perth. I banished Glen from the room so he could have breakfast and I could have some quiet to focus. The interview lasted an hour and then I joined Glen outside, sensibly taking a jacket with me to keep warm on the terrace. After breakfast we hit the streets to see a few more sights before our train to Sorrento.

The Pope

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I wanted to get a look at St Peter’s Square, if not inside the basilica itself. Glen wasn’t fussed about looking inside the church either and finds the ins and outs of the Catholic religion, or much of Christianity, baffling. Even if he’d wanted to see inside what is no doubt an impressive church, we wouldn’t have been able to until 1pm anyway.

On the route to the Vatican we were asked by about 20 people if we wanted a tour of the museum or the basilica and told that the church was closed. I ignored them because mainly I didn’t want to go into the church but after about the tenth I got concerned and told them this. They said the square was open (of course) while the Pope was giving his address. The last bit of information was only grudgingly given.

The square was indeed open for visitors, and probably actively encouraged so this head of state and head of the church could address the masses and lay his blessings upon them. We went through security and then got a bit closer. The Pope was a speck in the distance, seated beneath a shade sail.

Screens dotted around the edges showed either him speaking, another priest speaking or the crowd. The audio was terrible and inaudible, and I imagine you could only hear him clearly if you were standing within a certain part of the crowd. Nevertheless people waved or clapped or generally looked with adoration.

We stayed for about ten minutes, got our photos then got the hell out of there. We walked towards Castel San Angelo and then crossed Ponte San Angelo, one of my favourite bridges, before heading towards the Pantheon.

The Pantheon, Again

Glen’s interest had been piqued by the Pantheon and he wanted to see inside it so we headed south and got a look inside the old temple. We watched the sun tracking its way around the inside of the dome, its light cast on the wall. We could actually watch time pass.

We grabbed a bite to eat at a little paninoteca, a simple place with only two tables but easier than finding a sit-down restaurant and it really offered all we wanted. We got another ice-cream at Grom, the same place we’d been to in Siena. I had trouble deciding which flavour to finish last as they – peach, raspberry, and cookies & cream – were all so delicious. In the end it was cookies & cream.

Then it was back up the Via del Corso, into the Moleskine store so Glen could have a look, into the Piazza del Popolo and to our hotel where we collected our bags. The subway took us to Termini and we booked our tickets to Napoli.

Roma – Napoli – Sorrento

It was another few hours of travelling in the afternoon to reach our final destination. We caught the high speed train to Napoli and then the local Circumvesuvian to Sorrento. Unfortunately we took the rickety subway-style train that stopped at every stop getting out of Napoli, then all the stops in between there and Sorrento. We stood the whole hour and a half journey, and at times I feared we’d crash and die. It was not a fun train ride.

In Sorrento we walked up to our hotel, walking up the Corso Italia, a two-lane street that seems to be the main thoroughfare cutting through the village. It’s hell, crammed with cars, bikes, mopeds and buses. The pedestrian sidewalk is only about one and a half person thick so meeting people coming the other way requires risking life and limb to step onto the road and into chaotic traffic.

As always, it baffles me that there aren’t major traffic accidents (at least if there are they’re not more frequent) on streets like this as there’s very little give and take and much swerving and near missing. The traffic also doesn’t gel with the nice image you have of the picturesque seaside town of Sorrento. Perhaps it’s only picturesque from a distance.

We checked in and went walking, mostly along back streets which were quieter and calmer, until we reached Sorrento proper. The place was crawling with tourists but at least corresponded a bit more with the image in my head. There were plenty of narrow streets for pedestrians only where shop after shop sold lemon-everything (except actual real lemons I think).

We stopped for an early dinner at a place down one of the streets but really we should have kept looking. It was a last minute, oh-god-can-we-stop-now decision and the food was edible but definitely nothing to rave about. Probably our worst meal in Italy.

We walked home along the busy – but direct – street and were in bed by 8pm. So much for wild nightlife in Sorrento.

All Roads – and Trains – Lead to Rome

Friends of ours arrived in the countryside of Siena the day before and we’d hoped – though knowing it unlikely – we’d be able to meet up with them on Sunday morning but it was not to be. Instead we packed up our stuff, checked out and walked through the gradually filling streets of Siena towards the train station.

A quick stop at a bar for breakfast – my croissant had so much nutella in it – and then we picked up a few supplies at the supermarket before getting to the station early and waiting to head to Florence.

I’d prebooked these tickets so I could be sure we could get seats – the route between Firenze and Roma can get busy – but unfortunately this meant that we couldn’t leave any earlier without forfeiting our tickets. Next time, I think I’ll do it differently.

Our train to Firenze took about an hour and a half with a 20 minute change over to catch the high speed train to Roma. It was nice to sit back in the comfy seats, well worth the slightly higher price point.

In a State of Constant Anxiety

As we got off the train at Termini, I started to get worried about pickpockets. When I was in Italy on a high school trip, we were on a packed subway train and the teachers wallet was stolen out of her bag (and this was on the first day of the trip). When I came to Rome a few years later by myself and stayed at a hotel near the station, my aunt nearly had a conniption when I told her as the area was ‘not safe’. That fear and apprehension was alive and well on Sunday, however, it was thankfully unnecessary.

Glen and I maintained a death-like grip on our luggage and positioned our bags – and ourselves – so we were well clear of everyone. We managed to arrive at Flaminio station unscathed and still in possession of all our belongings.

I thought one of my zips had been opened a bit in the jostling to get out of the train but that might have just been me (yet it still added plenty of fuel to the paranoia). Turns out though that soon after checking in at the hotel, the guy at the desk warned us about pickpockets, ‘especially at the Termini’ and the ‘gypsy girls are a lot better dressed these days.’ Benvenuto a Roma.

We stayed at Vico Rooms, a hotel that has about four or five rooms and is built in an old converted apartment inside an apartment building. The lift up is a rickety contraption that has two doors and a floor that doesn’t feel like it’s going to last the next year. It beat climbing four flights of stairs with our luggage (and me with blisters on both feet).

The rooms were nicely decorated, modern and the booking came with breakfast. It was also close to the train station so it was a good choice (even if I do say so myself).

Whistle-stop Tour of Roman Sites

With Glen at a conference for the next two days, that didn’t leave him much time to see some of the classic Roman sights so we caught the train to the Colosseo and arrived at 6pm. The sun was getting close to setting so that cast a lovely orange glow on the outside of the building – as well as over the crowds in the area. Luckily the queue to get in wasn’t too long (it closed at 7) so we hurried inside.

Unfortunately we couldn’t hire an audioguide so we were left to navigate our way around, backtracking thanks to inadequate directional signage. I’d been to the Colosseo before (a couple of times in fact) so I didn’t feel much of a burning need to see it but I was sad that Glen didn’t enjoy it.

The crowds inside (even though there weren’t many people really – especially not compared to how many people I saw there the next morning trying to get in. Holy mother of God, I wouldn’t have even bothered.) made it difficult to enjoy, the light was dying and Glen didn’t like the ‘restored’ look of it.

Still, I think it’s an impressive structure and considering the ancient Romans could flood the floor and stage ship battles on it, it’s a staggering testament to human achievement at the time (even if it was just for shits and giggles – and death). We were done in less than an hour.

We walked up towards the Wedding Cake, the monument to the unification of Italy, and took some photos of this recently restored (i.e. cleaned) building. It’s impressive in its size and I was glad that on this trip I was able to get more of a look at it (though we didn’t go in or climb the tower).

From the monument, we headed towards the Trevi Fountain, stopping on the way to eat Chinese food at a restaurant tucked away in a little piazza. Glen had had enough of pasta and pizza for a day so we attempted this Italian-style Chinese food. It was adequate. They had noodles and some green vegetables.

The Trevi fountain was next. Absolutely packed. Hard to enjoy the recently renovated fountain with the hordes around and street sellers trying to get you to buy selfie-sticks of blue-light things that you throw into the air.

We forewent the coin throw (this time) and then hurried through the streets up to the Spanish Steps, again covered with people, before heading home. We went through Piazza del Popolo, which was playing host to an Animal Aid music event. There were fewer people here than on the Spanish Steps.

Considering the crowds and the feeling that it ‘wasn’t like Lucca’, Glen didn’t feel too bad that he’d be in a conference for the next couple of days. Meanwhile, I was considering what I could do that would involve seeing as few people as possible.

Bologna, Here We Come

We’re still plagued by jet lag, waking up around 5 and 6. Fighting it though, I managed to stay in bed until 7 or so until Glen demanded we go find breakfast. We packed most of things then went walking the streets of Lucca for something to eat. There were plenty of small places open selling pastries but no English breakfast type meal (not a surprise).

We walked around in a circle to eventually settle at the first place we’d looked at but couldn’t stay at initially because we hadn’t yet had an argument about it. Argument had, we returned there and ordered crepes and hot drinks. The waiter was gorgeous. The crepes were tasty. The smoking drove us away.

The shop that sold the jacket I wanted to look at (and had probably already in the back of my mind decided to buy) didn’t open until 10 and it was still before 9. We went walking again, heading south-east towards the green section of the map. We passed people on their way to work, children waiting to be let into the school gates, and walked up to the botanical gardens. Which were closed and didn’t open until 10.

We walked more of the wall instead, cutting through the city at another basilica, and then heading back to the apartment. We checked out just before ten and then went to a patisserie that sold these long or circular loaves of fruit bread called buccellato. The taste reminds me of something from my childhood but I can’t figure out what it is. It’s almost like a burnt taste but not, and it’s not almond. I’ll have to look up the recipe.

We were trying to catch the 10:31 train to Bologna so were relieved to find that the shop with the jacket had opened ten minutes early. I tried the jacket on, a slightly woollen blue jacket made in Italy. It fit and it looked good. With some encouragement or, really, approval, from Glen, I bought it. Nice purchase made, we could leave with plenty of time to get to the train station.

Bologna

After the quiet and beautiful Lucca, rolling into Bologna was quite a shock. It’s a bit city, home to the oldest university in Europe and housing 80,000 students (one-fifth of its population). There’s graffiti everywhere, cars everywhere. It’s noisy and jolting. It’d be an awesome place to study.

We got off the train after two and a half hours of travel and trundled down via dell’Independenza, dodging traffic and slow-moving individuals until we reached Piazza Maggiore, hung a right, and found our accommodation, Albergo Centrale. And it really is central.

Piazza Maggiore is one of the main spots to visit, with a basilica, a fountain, some towers, a piazza or two – basically a lot of obviously old stuff. After dumping our luggage (thankfully we could check in early) and having a bit of rest (it was siesta time, after all), we went exploring, checking out the piazza and then the two towers, both of which are leaning. And one of them leans a lot! You can’t really notice it looking up because of all the buildings around it but it’s definitely not level at the ground.

We stumbled across a fast-food pasta-type place called Sfoglia, packed with young cool people sitting at the window eating plates of freshly made pasta. We couldn’t go past. We took a table and ordered quadrati and torteloni. Mine was made with zucchini, mint and ricotta. Delicious and just what we were looking for for lunch.

After that we wandered more of the city, heading north again through the university area – the stench of urine and pot was strong – to il Parco della Montagnola. The park was dodgy looking and we stopped long enough so I could use the bathroom but soon left because of this feeling of threat running through the place.

Back south to the hotel, we bought an ice-cream, then tried to find the Fontana del Netuno but couldn’t. It wasn’t until I asked at the tourist office that they said it’s just outside but it’s covered up for restoration. Sure enough. There it was. A big block of scaffolding.

More Food

Later in the evening we went in search of dinner, finding a place on TripAdvisor that was highly recommended and nearby but when we got there, it was empty. The emptiness was made only more stark by how parked the next door bar was. We left, wandering further south, noticing that the bars were full and the restaurants were empty, or if they had people in them, they were eating crisps and finger foods while drinking negroni. It seems that at 6:30/7pm we were hellishly early for dinner in Bologna.

We wandered, going from restaurant to restaurant, with Glen, I’m sure, getting more and more frustrated with each of my refusals to eat at a certain place for one reason or another. We stumbled upon (though perhaps stumble isn’t the right word as it was quite large) a piazza in front of basilica – Piazza San Domenico and Basilica di San Domenico – which suited us for a place to have dinner.

We sat at the edge of a restaurant’s al fresco area, on cobbled streets, listening to a guitarist/pan-pipest playing and watching cars, pedestrians and cyclists all talking on their mobile phones while they went about their business. I’m impressed by the cyclist’s skill – as well as their insanity – that they can navigate a bicycle over bumpy roads with such ease with a phone stuck to their ear. I couldn’t do it.

We ate a big meal – again – with two courses each. My main was sesame-crusted salmon, a massive serve that fortunately didn’t come with vegetables. I had a Bologna beer, though couldn’t get through the whole 750ml bottle I’d ordered, not unexpectedly but still unwisely. We ate. We enjoyed the night and the increasing quiet as the Bolognese (the people, not the sauce) disappeared. We wandered home and went to bed.

The Remaining Two of the Cinque Terre

The jet lag has been a bit of a hassle and not as easy to overcome as I would have hoped. I think I woke up at 3, listening to the bells toll at ten minutes to the hour, and was in a mostly awake but sometimes dozing state for the next few hours. I should have just taken a sleeping pill. Managed to fall asleep eventually and woke up at 9am.

We went for breakfast in the same cafe we’d been to the morning before, though this time service was slow and verging on rude. Nevertheless we stayed and ate, then set off to buy our Cinque Terre cards.

Again, all the trails were closed. This was despite the sun being out and not a cloud in the sky. It was even more beautiful a day than the day before. But still, no trails. We caught the train to Corniglia instead.

Someone's legs are tired. #notawalker #Cinqueterre #Italy #travel #gaytravel

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Corniglia

Corniglia is one of the smaller of the five villages and is built higher up the side of the cliff than the others. The train station is a distance from the town and up a LOT of stairs. We hiked our way up, navigating around German tourists with an ‘entschuldigung, bitte’ and puffing and panting when we reached the top.

#Cinqueterre really putting it on today. #Italy #corniglia #travel #gaytravel

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From there it was a short walk through narrow streets, stopping at a church and then buying freshly squeezed lemonade and a fruit bun called Fisherman’s Bread, which was a bit like a rock cake but much, much harder.

Being smaller, Corniglia’s narrow alleys are more prominent. On a sunny day like this they provided a cool place in the shade. In the middle of winter or at midnight, they probably would have freaked me the hell out. A great place to stage a murder.

At the end of the alley we reached a panorama view out over the ocean. A great view. More sunshine. It was here Glen insisted that it was my turn to carry the backpack. I acquiesced, especially considering he’d been a gentleman and carried it all the day before. It didn’t stop me from grumbling at how sweaty he’d left the straps.

With Corniglia complete, we walked back through the town, down the million steps and towards the train station. We again asked whether the trails were open; they weren’t. So we caught the train to the next town down.

Manarola

#manarola #Cinqueterre #Italy #travel #gaytravel

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Manarola is a bit more what you’d expect when you think of the Cinque Terre: colourful houses perched on the edge of rocks. We walked down the main strip towards the water before retreating to eat at a restaurant that was empty when we arrived. I think we should have taken that as a sign, even though it filled up almost immediately after we sat down.

Glen was attracted to the idea of squid ink pasta as he’d liked the mouthful he’d had the day before in Vernazza. So we stopped in for squid ink, prawn and zucchini spaghetti and a plate of fried calamari. We drank wine too.

When the food arrived, the spaghetti was the normal colour but was placed over a generous supply of squid ink. So the squid ink wasn’t in the pasta but outside it. When we swirled the spaghetti around, everything turned black. It was salty. The prawns swill had their shells and heads. I ate most of mine; Glen did not. Understandably the waiter asked if there was something wrong. We feigned being full, yet still requested our calamari. I had visions of the chef seeing the unfinished food and exclaiming, ‘Don’t they know how hard it is to get ink out of a squid?!’

After lunch we walked up the side of the hill to the cemetery which has the best view of Manarola. We took photos and looked down at the beautiful water below with people jumping in and going for a swim. I wanted to do that too but rather than just decide and do it, I then had to hum and haa about it. Glen gave me the push I needed.

We went down to the rocks below. Glen stayed on one of the steps while I went and sat on the edge with my feet in the water. Not content with this, I then borrowed Glen’s bathers and went for a proper swim. It was glorious. Not cold. Extra salty. Really glad I took the plunge as If I’d left the area without going in the water at least once, I’d have been disappointed in myself. Glen then went for swim too while I attempted to dry off (we didn’t bring towels).

Not a bad spot for a swim. #manarola #Cinqueterre #Italy #travel #gaytravel

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Done with Manarola, we headed back to the train station. La Via dell’Amore started just past the train station and we decided to be rebellious and walk the damn trail back to Riomaggiore. It was meant to be short, and honestly, how could it be closed?

We walked up the ramp and out to the cafe at the start of the track…only to find that via dell’ amore was more or less permanently closed due to a rock fall. So much for walking the tracks. Mind you, both of our legs were suffering so perhaps it wasn’t such a bad thing.

La Spezia and Riomaggiore

Is it a clock? Is it a chimney? #laspezia #italy #travel #gaytravel

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We lounged in Riomaggiore for a little while, after buying postcards and crepes, then took a quick trip to La Spezia, a larger town south of the Cinque Terre. There was more walking, and Glen refused to climb some awesome looking steps.

There were some beautiful streets lined with old buildings and being late in the afternoon, there were plenty of people out and about. We checked out the garden, bought some stamps (with the woman behind the counter inexplicably disappearing for about five minutes to bring back four stamps), then wandered back to the train station. Nice town.

In the evening we ate at a restaurant in Riomaggiore, I think called La Grotta. We tried the local specialty, Trofie, a short pasta with a basil pesto, and then shared a grilled bream, which was delicious. Accompanied with a glass of prosecco (for Glen) and a local beer (for me), it was a lovely last dinner in Cinque Terre.

Back at the apartment, I sat on the balcony reading my book and listening to the hustle and bustle of the restaurants below. A nice way to end the evening.

We decided that we’d leave Cinque Terre a day earlier, having visited the five towns and the trails more than likely being closed for another day, and head to Lucca for a night.