We’ve had some trouble getting on the internet for the past few days, so I’m afraid this is going to be a long one...
So I left you in the beautiful Tuscany. Wednesday was the last day of our Italian tour – all of a sudden this trip seems to be winding down very quickly! We packed our bags and left the hotel in Florence to head back to Rome, with a stop in Siena on the way. It’s a really beautiful city, with a lot of medieval buildings and windy, steep, narrow streets. It also has the famous Piazza del Campo, a massive clam-shaped square that slopes downhill. Very beautiful but also home to a famous (and arguably cruel) horse race which takes place each year around the sloping cobbles – a lot of horses get badly hurt in the race, but it’s the old animal rights vs. history and tradition problem. At any rate, it’s a beautiful square. Basically we were free to just wander around the city, and wander we did! Up the hill to the huge and beautiful cathedral, then down the hill to grab an early lunch of giant pizza slices. We sat in the square to eat them and I got pooped on. By a swallow. It was very traumatic, and was a couple of inches away from landing on my pizza. Instead it went on my skirt. After cleaning myself up with copious amounts of Purell and tissues and pulling myself together again, we decided to walk and eat so I wouldn’t be such an easy target. First we wandered back up towards the cathedral via some quieter streets with amazing views, seeing stacks of scooters all parked along the street (in these old towns they really are the only way to get around!), and coming across the most amazing accordion-playing guy. He was incredible! We were a bit early getting back to our last meeting point at the Piazza, so we kept wandering and this time got a little bit lost. But we took advice learned years ago from Blues Clues: ‘go back go back go back, go back to where you were!’ and made it back to the group on time.
The belltower in the Piazza del Campo
Piazza del Campo
Siena's historic town hall
More cute pigeons! One is drinking out of the fountain, another one is having a shower under it. I may be the only person in the world, but I really like pigeons! I think they're funny...
Siena's cathedral with its funky stripey belltower
Giant pizza, moments before being pooped on.
A parking spot for your horse.
Piazza del Campo
Back in the bus for the last leg of our trip, stopping at our last truck stop/service station for a Chupa Chup (my stick came off. So it was really just a cherry-flavoured lolly for me), before arriving in Rome, our road trip at an end. How sad! A high-five for Luca-the-driver (I don’t know that they do them in Italy, he seemed a bit confused and amused by it. But then I think he’s always confused and amused by Mads and I. I don’t blame him really. Even most English-speakers don’t know what we’re on about most of the time), and a group photo with Brendan the Bus. We got our room allocation and ended up being in a huge two-room suite! Rad! (Mind you I didn’t like it much, I felt a bit lonely in my own room after having Mads right next to me for 7 weeks).
Last motorway stop
Presents for being frequent travellers (I guess it was an administrative error...) a bottle of Chianti and some local Marzipan cookies.
Mads was pretty happy with the arrangement...
On the bus for the last time to go to our farewell dinner near the Colosseum, at a restaurant in an ancient spa where they sing opera at you when they deliver your food! Sooo fun! There was plenty of wine, and four courses of delicious food, so it was rather jolly. And we were at a good table with Jim and Becky, two of our favourites, and a nice family from Colorado. The bus ride home was pretty fun too, Marisa playing Grease over the speakers and a few people getting up to dance around, including Abraham (one half of the young Aussie couple) who did a very big performance all up and down the bus to Grease Lightning. Back at the hotel and time for final farewells. It was a bit weird – we’ve spent only two weeks with these people and won’t see them ever again, so it always feels a bit... false and contrived I suppose. Plus there wasn’t really anyone in particular that we bonded with very strongly. However it was very sad to say goodbye to Marisa and Luca, both of whom we like a lot!!
The mighty Colosseum
A little Roman laneway
Opera for dinner! So much fun.
Mads and Marisa
Luca, the best driver in the world! Nice, funny (and a bit cheeky), and a demon behind the wheel. Honestly, he could get that bus parked anywhere, down the narrowest of streets and around the tightest of corners. Not too bad on the eye either...
I love Marisa!!
Thursday, naturally, we slept in, before waking up and feeling rather lost without Luca driving us wherever we were going and Marisa telling us what to look at and where to eat and what was good to do. Eventually we decided to go to the Roman Forum again for a better look around, so we had to navigate the Roman public transport systems. The bus was fine. The train was okay (except we had a bit of trouble finding the station), however we discovered that the Italians are not as polite as the Brits when it comes to the underground: trying to get off at Colosseo station the people on the platform just started streaming in and we couldn’t get out. Thankfully the next stop wasn’t too far away, but I had to actually yell ‘scusi!!’ before people would get out of the way to let us off. We toddled up to the Forum and I have to say it was much more extensive and incredible than I had realised. The site is absolutely huge, and there are still a lot of excavations going on (I always love seeing archaeologists at work). We had a look in the massive, restored Senate building, which has a beautiful floor and there were a lot of beautiful glass artefacts on display in there: amazing how well preserved these glass objects are, some over 2000 years old! We kept wandering around, and then I saw something that completely changed my day: in the house of the Vestal Virgins I saw two imbecile tourists lean over and steal some tiles from the ancient floor. Oh my goodness I was absolutely livid. I was shaking with rage. I wanted to find someone who worked there to apprehend the disrespectful idiots who seem to think these important, ancient ruins exist solely for their enjoyment and have them deported at once, but there didn’t seem to be anyone around. I later lamented the fact I hadn’t said anything to them, but Mads informed me that I did actually yell at them... Good! What a couple of nong-heads. Apologies, I’m just really passionate about history and I really dislike tourists. Hypocritical perhaps, but I certainly hope I’m nothing like the obnoxious idiots that go to significant places just because that’s what you do in Rome. Anyway I’ve come up with a system: before entering important archaeological attractions (or any other cultural attraction, for that matter), everyone must take a simple ‘respect and appreciation’ test to determine whether or not they should be allowed to enter. They should pay to take this test, so there is no loss of important revenue for the sites, and if you’re successful the fee is deducted from the ticket price. This would make these attractions much, much, much more enjoyable places to be. I think it’s a brilliant idea, personally. Then you would weasel out people like the fellow I heard saying of an ancient window ‘oh, and that would have looked out on St Paul’s Cathedral. Beautiful!’ Jeepers, where to start with the errors in that statement... But enough snobbery for the moment.
The Roman Forum
Mads walking in the footsteps of the ancient Romans.
Inside the old Senate building. Massive!
This plate is over 2200 years old. Incredible!
The mosaic floor of the Senate building.
Exterior of the Senate Building.
The return of the series on Mads Walking from Behind. Heading in to the house of the Vestal Virgins
Courtyard of the Vestal Virgins
We continued to wander through the Forum and the attached sites, energy levels getting lower and lower, before we decided to head back to the hotel to pack up our stuff and prepare to leave Rome and Italy. We got the train just fine, however had a lot of trouble finding the bus to take us back to the hotel. This had us crying out for our trusty tour leaders. ‘Marisa! We can’t find the bus! Help us!’ ‘Luca, where are you? Come and pick us up and take us back to the hotel!’ We stopped for some pizza at a little bakery/bar, before heading back to the train station where we found a bus information desk and a very, very, very helpful fellow who looked like an Italian version of Tobias from Arrested Development, who told us our bus left from a side street and went back towards the hotel a different way. Honestly, I could have kissed that man. We got back to the hotel totally buggered, and honestly just ready to go home. The Austria/Germany leg of the trip was looking less and less appealing.
Some of the ruins are spectacularly preserved.
The window that would have looked out over 'St Paul's Cathedral'... Actually we're in Rome, it's St Peter's Basilica and it wasn't built until about 1500 years later...
Another cute pigeon. This one apparently owns these ruins.
And for most of Friday we got more and more homesick, and more and more desperately sad for the loss of Marisa and Luca. I know this is starting to sound rather pathetic, but consider: for the last two weeks we have been sheep. We’ve just been blindly following our Travel Director around Italy, hopping on the bus, falling asleep and waking up at our amazing destination. Getting to our hotel to find our bags delivered to our room. Being told where to eat and when, what to see, what time to be places, where to meet and where to get on the bus, where are the best places for souvenirs and cash and water. I have discovered that I like to be a sheep. Independent thinking is so overrated. Plus our bags are really, really, really heavy and we had a bit of trouble with the trains.
We were supposed to go from Rome to Bologna, Bologna to Kufstein, Kufstein to Vienna. We got to the first train just fine, boarded, found places for our luggage (oh my goodness my bag is so heavy! Our arms have lost their conditioning over these last two lazy weeks), found our seats, all fine. But the train was a few minutes late arriving at Bologna, we had less than ten minutes to find our platform and get our bags on. And as we got there the train pulled away. With it went all the rest of our day’s travel arrangements. I found a bloke who worked at the station who told us to go to Verona to get a train to Kufstein and then to Vienna. But it was leaving in ten minutes! So I sprinted through the station to find Mads, who I’d left with the bags, then dragged the stupid things behind us to find the platform we needed and we made it! But I was a sweaty ball of stress just ready to go home now. All travelled out. So we arrived in Verona, and got a few puzzled looks from the station staff. ‘Why did they send you here to get to Kufstein??’ Oh great! But then we were pointed in the direction of the Germans and everything was alright!!! The lady at the desk found us a train to Innsbruck that would take us on to Vienna. We wouldn’t get there til 11.40pm but at least we would get there!
Maccas for lunch, then we headed to the platform to wait for our train, and were very excited to find that this train had real compartments! Like in Harry Potter! It was very exciting. We found one, and managed to put Mads’ bag up in the rack – we tried with mine but nearly squashed the poor girl already sitting in the compartment, so I just put it on a seat. Thus we headed north, to Austria. The scenery was so beautiful! Austria looks like a fairytale land: huge, snow capped mountains, beautiful greenish-blue rivers, gingerbread houses, green fields. Australia being as flat as it is, big mountains are a big deal. They are so pretty! We had a Mr. Bean type fellow join us in our compartment for a while. He was rather annoying but quite amusing at the same time. He could not sit still, leaning over everyone to get brochures and magazines, standing up to put a bag here, move a bag there, get something out of his jacket pocket. He was also listening to his music rather loud and even started singing along at one point.
Hooray, train compartment!
Location location location. I think this was still in Italy
Change of train at Innsbruck, to another very nice, new Austrian train. By this time I was rather zombie-like, having been travelling since 8.15am. Plus I finished my book (Dune. Torturous) and the battery on my iPhone ran out so I didn’t have anything to do. We arrived in Vienna. I realised I was out of cash, and apparently in Austria taxis don’t take credit card. So we shuffled around the station like Zombies do and Mads found a cash machine so we were all good. The driver had a little trouble reading the address of the hotel, but we made it and we totally crashed into bed.
One of the best things about Europe is how late check out is at hotels. We didn’t have to check out in Vienna until midday, so we slept in late. It was fabulous. The pillows were so comfy! But we did have to check out, so we got up, packed up, and got the hotel to store our luggage for the day. The dude on reception looked kind of scary, but really he was very nice! We took two steps outside before realising we actually didn’t know where on earth we were, so headed back inside for a map and some directions, which were gladly given. Off we toddled towards Ringstrasse, the masterpiece of Vienna as the cultural capital of Europe at the turn of the 20th Century. We stopped in at a schnitzel place, which Mads was very excited about, for some tasty schnitzel (in Austria. Crazy!). Afterwards we wandered around looking for the Ringstrasse, and despite having two maps we found it a bit difficult. The problem is that Vienna has a lot of really small streets with really long names that don’t fit on the map. So finally we just stopped, sat down and made a plan: to go to Schloss Belvedere, on the other side of Ringstrasse to where we were, to see my favourite all-time painting, Gustav Klimt’s The Kiss. We found the right tram stop, we were all ready to go and then foiled!! The tram wasn’t running because there was a stoopid gay parade on. Blast it! Normally we might have walked, but it was an absolute scorcher of a day, even by Aussie standards, so change of plan we decided to go to the Kunsthistorisches Museum (which will be known now as Kunst because I can’t be bothered to write the whole name out again). Off we toddled, Mads almost being taken out by a tranny with a long-handled sign, before reaching the beautiful art gallery. While I didn’t get to see the Kiss, at least I could see some Klimt in Vienna, as he helped decorate the interior of the gallery. We looked mostly at the Dutch, Flemish and German gallery, which included a famous portrait of Jane Seymour by Hans Holbein the Younger, Henry VIII’s official court portrait artist; a lot of Rubens, and an amazing picture by Barthel Beham, ‘Portrait of a Man’, in which the man seems to be looking right at you after you’ve interrupted him in the middle of a task. Incredible! There was also a very interesting exhibition on the cult of wine: ‘Bacchus always triumphs!’ no matter what measures are taken to attempt to curb the excesses of drinking and its effects.
On the Ringstrasse
Bloody parade ruining my efforts to see the Kiss. I will just have to come back...
The building itself is absolutely stunning.
'Portrait of a Man' by Barthel Beham
Jane Seymour by Hans Holbein the Younger
A cool gallery, full of medallions mostly from the Habsburgs I believe.
More Klimt. Beautiful, I love this painting.
Vienna. A very pretty city.
The roof of one of the cathedrals.
Courtyard of the Wien University
After this we wandered back to the hotel to get our bags and head to the station for our next train to Salzburg. We got there a bit early, so while waiting I taped up the holes that have appeared in the bottom of my bag from being dragged around the place (it has wheels but has a tendency to flip itself over like a turtle at the most inopportune moments. I’m trying to decide if I should call it Ignatius after the obese, flatulent main character in Confederacy of Dunces, or Ryan after the biggest contestant in Biggest Loser Singles who seemed to always be either on his back on the floor or rolling down hills). We also got very pestered by a guy trying to sell magazines. He didn’t seem to get the fact that we don’t speak German and he doesn’t speak English. We got to Salzburg at about 10pm. More compartments in this train but this time we were awkwardly stuck in with an extremely over-amorous teenage couple. I’m really starting to hate trains. After arriving I was a bit worried that we wouldn’t have enough cash for the taxi. So I tried about a million ways to get cash out – no one could point me to an ATM, so I tried Maccas and the supermarket to no avail. Finally I found a cash machine but it gave me a 100 Euro note. What taxi driver is going to change that!? Back to the supermarket to buy some M&Ms for change. After all that the taxi was only 6 Euro which I had all along. Figures. We got to the hotel after 10 and reception was closed. Luckily (for once!) a couple of nice American fellows staying in the hotel were able to let us in to the lobby where an envelope with my name on it and room key in it was taped to the wall. So off to bed ready for a big day today!
Today we were very excited because we got to be sheep again on a tour of Salzburg! Hooray for not using our brains! Also hooray for not having to move Ignatius/Ryan (Ryan Ignatius?? Has a nice ring to it!) for the whole day! We got up early to be picked up from our hotel and taken to the tour bus stop. First stop: the Salt Mines! We actually drove into Bavaria in Germany for this: the mine is in a mountain right on the border. We popped our funky suits on and had to hop on a train that took us into the mountain. It was very dark and kind of felt like a ride: I was expecting a big drop at any moment. Instead we just arrived in the cathedral, a biggish room, I suppose, with a couple of shrines to saints in there. But there was also the best part of the salt mines: these big, steep wooden slides you get to go down to reach the lower levels of the mines. So fun! So weird going down that kind of hill on your bum: and it’s not like a normal slide, either, you kind of sit on these two raised rails, I guess, that support your cheeks, and down you go holding on to the person in front of you. I made Mads go first (we’ve already discussed my height issues...) but it was really fun! The mine isn’t especially pretty, but it’s quite interesting to learn about how the salt is mined today and in the past – and kind of weird to think that salt is sort of a kind of rock that we eat. If you know what I mean... you just don’t really think about eating something that has to be mined. And the slides are super fun. There is one amazing part of the mine, an underground lake that is so clear and still it reflects the roof perfectly, initially you think you’re looking on a wide, low passageway with a rock floor and roof, but actually it’s water! Amazing. You cross it on a boat and it really does get ruined by a music and light show that plays dramatically while you’re crossing. I guess that’s the problem with the salt mines, they’re a bit overproduced. But still a lot of fun! We got to taste some of the water: mega salty! And I kept thinking of the book Germinal by Emile Zola which kind of freaked me out. But it was a cool tour. The mine is still in use today, and we all got free samples of the salt they get out of the rock.
Me in my funky suit.
A huge mountain! With snow! In Summer! Beautiful. All the rivers are this beautiful greenish-blue colour.
The train that took us in to the mine
I am loving the Bavarian portion sizes.
Onto the bus and we got near Eagle’s Nest, Hitler’s mountain pad/second HQ to pick up others on the tour who went there instead of the mine. Didn’t get to see it though because the mountain was too cloudy. Then into a little Bavarian town (very cute!) for a traditional Bavarian lunch: I had roast pork and beer, and Mads had ribs, before getting back on the bus. The driver kept trying to joke with us, but again we didn’t really get him and he didn’t really get us (seems to be a theme on this trip). Then back to Salzburg to join up with our Sound of Music tour! It was pretty fun to drive around Salzburg with our guide in her traditional Austrian garb (you would be amazed how many people actually wear it around! Very cool!), listening to the soundtrack from the movie and seeing where it was filmed. We saw the mountain (from a distance) Maria sang on and they climbed over to get to Switzerland (a bit of poetic license here as the mountain actually leads into Germany via Eagle’s Nest); we saw the famous Gazebo; the laneway Maria skips down to boost her confidence when meeting the Von Trapps; the front of the movie Von Trapp villa; the palace used for the gardens and the lake the children fall into; the abbey the real and hollywood Maria went to; and the church in which they filmed the wedding. It was fun, and we got to see a bit of Austrian countryside, which is very beautiful. AND I got to have some apple strudel with vanilla ice cream which was divine!
The famous gazebo from the Sound of Music
A palace, where the Gazebo is kept.
The lane down which Maria sang 'I have confidence'
Front exterior of the Von Trapp Villa
Mads with a dragonfly in her hair.
The lake and garden location.
Our guide, Mikhaela
Castle built in the 11th Century
How cool is this shop?? They sell Leiderhosen and everything! I really want to come back for 1st May, when everyone wears these outfits and they do the maypole dances and everything, how fun!
A nice looking lake. I can't remember what it's called...
The church Maria and Georg were married in. Awww.
We were very happy to find that our hotel is actually rather close to the drop off point from the tour, so we toddled back and have been fairly relaxed (albeit hot) all arvo.