Wednesday, 29 February 2012

Ambling Ramblings #18- Berlin Blunderings and Broodings

As a city that, in its current modern and united state, is only as old as me, Berlin has always been a place that I have wanted to visit and experience for myself (being the setting of one of my favourite books 'Stasiland' may also be a contributing factor!). Although the transport system in Berlin wins the prize for having the most confusing network of any capital city in Europe, we still managed to see quite a lot while we were there. There were numerous times when I was completely and utterly mystified as to the whereabouts of both my location and my destination! The system is not as clearly colour coded as it is in other cities, and the underground and aboveground lines overlap and merge and cross over on the map and in the stations and to change trains you have to go up two levels, cross a street (or walk around the block), go down one level, walk down a tunnel (the stations are like rabbit warrens, with tunnels everywhere!), go down more escalators, around a corner and along another tunnel and then hope that you choose the right side of the platform to get on the train going in the direction you want to go! For someone that is navigationally challenged-to put it mildly-I spent most of the time in Berlin completely disoriented and bewildered, but thankfully we made it to a few of the major icons of the city and back to our hotel in one piece.
In Berlin we saw the standard sights-government buildings, skyscrapers, historical relics, parks, shopping districts and monements including the Reichstag, the TV Tower and Brandenburg Gate. The two most impacting moments for me were seeing the Holocaust Memorial and the East Side Gallery. The Holocaust Memorial consists of rows of large cement blocks of varying heights (many of them are a lot taller than me) and wandering between and around them was quite sobering and chilling as we reflected on the loss of so many innocent lives all in the pursuit of an ideal. The sheer number of blocks and being surrounded by a maze of rows of cold hard cement and only just being able to see the sky through the top helped me to grasp a deeper understanding of the scale and heartlessness of the Holocaust and to reflect on the horrors of it. Experiencing that has made me convinced of the need to respect all humans, regardless of their race, religion, culture, language, background, physical condition, social and economic status and to ensure that human rights are protected in order to prevent such tragedies occurring again. There certainly are valuable lessons to be learned from history if we would only listen and stand up against injustice.
Visiting the other iconic landmark of Berlin, the Wall was another impacting moment for me. The longest remaining section of the Wall is known as the East Side Gallery and was painted by artists from all around the world after the Wall came down as an expression of the joy and freedom that people felt. One of the artists, Fluvio Punha, painted this quote on the wall, and I felt that it summed up the significance and symbolism of the Wall in modern Berlin:
"I painted over the wall of shame, so freedom is ashamed no more. Inferno ruled too many years, until the people chose the light. I put my faith in you Berlin and give to you my colors bright."
It was quite remarkable to be standing next to a wall that completely divided a city for so many years and is a very visible reminder of the stark realities of the Iron Curtain and Communism in Europe. Berlin was certainly a noteworthy place to visit as there is so much recent history with visible reminders of it scattered throughout the city.
I was able to put my four years of high school German to good use one evening in Berlin as an elderly lady stopped us as we were walking and asked for help to get her trolley down the steps as it was too heavy for her to lift and she didn't want it to fall-I was very glad that I was able to understand her and respond appropriately and to be able to help! Another highlight of our time in Berlin was the buskers everywhere-even on the train! I loved hearing music everywhere (predominantly accordions-like Hans in 'The Book Theif' another of my favourite books set in Germany!) but we were pleasantly surprised to get on the train one afternoon and hear a violinist playing incredibly well in spite of the jolting and bumping of the train! Another of my favourite things in Berlin was the pedestrian traffic signals-the green and red men have hats on!

Saturday, 25 February 2012

Ambling Ramblings #17-'Purfect Prague'

Warning: According to Marnie, her blogs are the storybook version of our travels, while mine are the encyclopedia/novel versions so if you want a more condensed and entertaining recount of our adventures, please head over to her blog (marnie-abroad) and save yourself from having to scroll all the way to the bottom of my blog to get to the interesting story!

We arrived in Prague fairly late in the evening, but thanks to Marnie's fantastic navigating skills, we made it to out hotel incident free (she has finally learned to not listen to me-I would have sent us in the wrong direction entirely and we never would have got there!). Our hotel itself provided us with much entertainment-even the name (Hotel Purpur) made us giggle! The decor of the hotel is bright pink-a rather uncommon colour scheme in a hotel! We were upgraded to a triple room when we arrived, so it was nice to have a bit of extra space (and an extra bed to dump all our paraphernalia on!) but the highlight of our room for me was that we didn't just have a kettle, but we had a little kitchenette! I thoroughly enjoyed being domestic again and cooked dinner, washed dishes and played 'house' (Marnie seemed all too willing to leave the cooking to me so I had fun experimenting and improvising with our 4 saucepans, 3 place settings and 2 hotplates). On our first night I made soup using some things we had brought with us, and then the next day we went grocery shopping so that I could make a pasta dish and then a rice casserole, both with lots of veggies in them,-it was very nice to eat 'home cooked meals' and to eat off a plate with cutlery! 
Outside of the hotel, Prague is a charming city, situated on a river (as most old cities are) with beautiful buildings with ornate windows and doors, winding streets, statues of famous heroes from years gone by and of course, it's fair share of steeples, churches, bridges, town squares and even a castle thrown in to even out the mix! I took aver 300 photos on our first day of exploring-I think that's a record for me! 
On our first full day, we went walking through Old Town, finding lots of beautiful little shops selling exquisite Bohemian crystal amongst other things, as well as seeing Wenceslas Square, the Astronomical Clock, which is well worth waiting for it to chime on the hour-first a bell rings, and then images of the apostles parade around the top of it, a golden bird 'cuckoo's' and then a horn player trumpets from the top of the tower-all in all, the chiming process takes about 5 minutes! We then walked to the river and along the Charles Bridge (which is very, very old)  and saw many other old buildings that we assume are significant, but are not sure what their stories are! Methinks I will have some research to do when I get home in order to find out about all of the things that I have seen. 
The next day, we made our way to Prague Castle which is situated on a hill-it was quite a steep climb to get up to the castle complex, which is quite extensive, having a large gothic cathedral and numerous other buildings which we enjoyed wandering around. The views of the city from the castle complex were well worth the climb as Prague is indeed a lovely city. We then went shopping as we had converted some Euros into Czech Crowns and since we can't use them anywhere else, we thought the best thing to do would be to spend them! We spent quite a few hundred Crowns on beautiful scarves alone, as well as buying a few other little things, but the scarf shopping was by far the most fun! Our only dilemma was narrowing down the selection as they were all so lovely (and scarves are my one weakness!). 
We did learn one important thing in the Czech Republic-a country where neither of us knows any of the language, which did make us feel somewhat alienated but we got by and just smiled a lot (at least smiling is fairly universal!). We learned that just because you are in a foreign speaking country, you cannot assume that the people around you don't speak English. On the train to Prague, Marnie and I were engaged in a very girly discussion, about very girly topics which we continued even when we were joined in our compartment by a Czech gentleman whom we assumed didn't speak English as he greeted us in Czech and didn't seem to understand our 'hello'. This very innocent, but extremely girly conversation lasted for well over an hour and covereed numerous topics (not a difficult feat for us girls!) until the train stopped and the gentleman rose to leave, saying in very clear English 'thank you for allowing me to travel with you in the compartment. I wish you a pleasant journey'. Marnie and I just stared at each other and then (after he had left the carriage) burst into laughter and giggled for the rest of the way to Prague! (Note to self, confine yourself to sensible conversations in train carriages, even when you are far away from English speaking countries! Thankfully, we won't ever have to see him again!) Hopefully we have learned our lesson....for now....let's see what adventures we can have on our next journey!

If you chose to read on, regardless of my warning at the top, I congratulate you and thank you for your time and effort!

Thursday, 23 February 2012

Ambling Ramblings #16-Vacationing in Vienna

A highlight of our stay in Vienna was having a kettle and teacups in our hotel room....needless to say, we had many cups of tea each day we were there (I think I averaged 4 cups of tea per day!). Finding our hotel however, was no cup of tea (if you'll excuse the pun) and it was only thanks to the help of a very kind stranger who showed on her map where we should go to find our hotel. The directions that we had acquired from the tourist information centre at the train station did not get us where we wanted to go and this lady obviously noticed our very bewildered and 'lost little girl' looks on our faces and offered her assistance and set us in the right direction. We have been constantly reminded of God's care and protection over us throughout our trip, but it is especially clear that He is watching over us when we arrive in a strange city when it is already dark, and He sends someone to help us find our way. We have truly been blessed and are so very thankful for having the protection of the creator of the world and to know that Someone who is greater than every situation we find ourselves in is watching over us. We certainly appreciate all the prayers of those of you who have been praying for us.
Our stay in Vienna was relatively relaxing (once we got our bearings and figured out the underground metro system, as well as the trams, above ground trains, buses and long distance trains) and we both enjoyed bubble baths in our hotel, along with the many cups of tea (I'm very glad that Marnie appreciates tea jut as much as I do and therefore can join me in sampling new kinds of teas!). We were also finally able to find a bandage for my ankle (something that was quite a feat to find as they aren't very easily available!) as well as mail home some postcards (finally! Hopefully they will beat us home and not get lost in the mail).
As a city, 'old Vienna' is encircled by 'new Vienna' and most train lines and trams take you right into the heart of the old section where many of the main sights are located (and where I, being a history teacher and therefore interested in all the 'old stuff', am more interested). There is a change from paved streets to narrower, cobblestoned streets lined with old buildings and with spire of cathedrals and bell towers marking the skyline. Vienna is a very modern city, and yet they haven't diminished the richness of their past, but built upon it and incorporated it into the city. The sights of Vienna were well worth seeing and we enjoyed St Stephens Cathedral, the Rathaus and the Hofburg as well as Schonbrunn Palace (the previous residence of the Habsburgs-the imperial family of Austria) where we spent quite a while wandering in the extensive gardens. In our wanderings in the city, we stumbled across quite a few lovely little antiques shops in which the antiques are really, really old (at least by Australian standards) and beautifully preserved as well as being exquisitely beautiful!
Something that made me giggle was a lot of tourist paraphernalia promoting 'no kangaroos in Austria!' (I assume that Austrians must have problems with tourists expecting to find kangaroos and other such Australian icons there!) As Australian tourists, Marnie and I were very much amused at seeing signs, posters, shirts and a big, yellow plastic kangaroo all with 'no kangaroos in Austria' emblazoned across them!
Another highlight of our stay in Vienna was a visit to the Spanish Riding School (somewhere I just had to go on behalf of a certain little sister of mine!) where we watched a morning exercise routine which was accompanied by classical music. The Lippizaner horses are truly magnificent and beautiful animals and their riders have such control over their every move. I think my favorite part was when they had the horses skipping!
It was then time for us to load ourselves up like packhorses and make our way to the train station to move on to our next city. We only have a few weeks left of our nomadic lifestyle but I'm sure there are still many adventures awaiting us!

Tuesday, 21 February 2012

Ambling Ramblings #15- Marching through Munich

Mein Deutsch ist nicht so I won't write my entire blog in German, but I have been having fun putting to use the 4 years of studying German that I did in high school! It's been good to be in a country where I at least have some idea of what is being said to me and around me and where I can make appropriate replies and greetings.
Although our hotel in Munich was quite a hike from the train station (1.4 kilometers) we decided it was worth it because we had a coffee/tea maker at our disposal which we made very frequent use of! We also loved the fact that the quilts on our beds were very fluffy and wonderful to snuggle in on a chilly winter night.
We have discovered that the combination of two girls who have been travelling together for a while, long train trips that get boring when we run out of food, too many late nights, overactive imaginations, too much tea, too much sugar (for marnie) and too much laughter and giggling leads to some very strange occurrences (however, what happens in Europe, stays in Europe!)-it's ok, we've got away with only a few minor infringements!
Our first day in Munich was not spent in Munich, but rather in Fussen, the location of Neuschwanstein Castle, one of the most picturesque and happily situated castles I have ever seen or heard of. King Ludwig II of Bavaria had it build based on an artist's painting and dedicated the interior of the castle to the operatic works of Wagner. Although these are all important facts, one of the highlights of the day for me was not the castle, but rather the horse and carriage ride up to the castle! Due to the snow and ice, the buses to the castle weren't running (what a shame....) so, instead, we had to go up by horse and carriage ride (quite appropriate for a visit to the castle that Disney allegedly based theirs off!). The view from the castle was spectacular-it was enthralling to be up in the Alps looking down over the plains, rather than always looking up at the mountains from below! The castle itself is magnificent, framed by the Alps and yet fitting it's surroundings so well, with the spires of the towers mimicking the peaks of the mountains. Seeing the castle in wintertime, with everything covered in snow and glistening in the sunlight only added to the magical atmosphere and made it feel even more like a fairy tale.
We went on a tour of the castle (as that is the only way to get inside) and although we were disappointed that being inside the castle wasn't any warmer than it was outside-we were both freezing-the interior was incredible. The furnishings and decorations were beautifully and tastefully done (although extravagant and splendid too!). There was a even a cave inside the castle! (as well as all of the other, standard castle-y type rooms like a chapel, bedchamber, dining room, servants quarters etc.) I have decided that I want a castle so that I can indulge my every whim and have caves, towers, attics, spiralling staircases, stained glass windows, frescoes on the ceiling, gold filigree on pillars, a canopy bed, a ballroom, libraries and window seats! My favorite room of the castle was the Singer's Hall or ballroom, which had a painting on the stage backdrop that looked exactly like a forest scene from a Disney movie (so much so that I expected the squirrels to scamper up and down the trees and someone to burst into song!)
That night we enjoyed multiple cups of tea whilst watching Jane Austen's 'Emma' (the BBC version, of course!)-I am working on improving Marnie's knowledge of period dramas and great literary classics :-)
The following day, we shopped for some supplies in Aldi (for the authentic, German Aldi experience), did a bit of sightseeing around Munich and then headed for the train station (which was quite a feat in of itself as between Marnie's bags weighing her down with all the food we bought, and my ankle causing me to limp very slowly along the street it took us around 40 minutes to walk a kilometer-and what a sight we were!) By the time we got to the train station we were very ready to be able to sit down for 4 hours as we moved on to our next city.

Sunday, 19 February 2012

A Match Made in Munich

She's finally gone and done it! This time, I don't think I can get her out of this mess! Marnie has discovered the hard way that it pays to know a foreign language, and that when the man with nice eyes asks you a question, you don't just nod your head and say 'yes'! (Courting customs overseas can be a little different to those in Australia!)
My attempt in educating my traveling buddy in BBC Period dramas has taken an unexpected turn, as she was growing impatient with our heroines taking 6 hours to work out who they really loved, that it only took her a 2 hour train trip to make up her mind.....(hmmm, maybe I'm not the best one to go to for relationship advice!)
I seem to have lost my job as a traveling buddy but have procured one as an interpreter (I knew those 4 years of learning German in high school would come in handy one day!)

Saturday, 18 February 2012

Ambling Ramblings #14-Ambush, Albanians and an Alpine Avalanche

The Alps are truly stunningly breathtaking and well deserve their reputation as some of the world's most. Incredible peaks. The towering, snow capped, rugged and rocky mountains, many with their peaks obscured by cloud, surrounding lakes with chalets dotted high in the hills, gushing streams with snowy banks, lovely stone bridges, curving gently over the creeks and streams, frozen waterfalls on rocky outcroppings and small towns scattered along the railway tracks kept me vastly entertained on the train trip from Italy to Switzerland.
Our journey was not without adventure though, our first train pulled up and we boarded and looked for our seats which were in carriage 9, only to discover that this train only had 8 carriages! We managed to find some other seats and settled in for the first of 3 train rides. Arriving in Zurich, our next train was delayed due to the snowy conditions, meaning we would miss our following train, which wasn't too much of an issue, as trains run that route every hour, it just made our day a bit longer! It was so nice to finally arrive at our destination in Switzerland and curl up by the fire in the home of some very kind and generous friends from years past. It was so nice to enjoy some home cooked meals and to stay in a house, instead of hotel rooms for a change! We felt quite refreshed when we left after having had a 'snow day'. We enjoyed countless cups of tea by the fire, went for a walk with our umbrellas in the snow (it was falling all day), made snow angels on the backyard and then I was ambushed with a great, big wet snowball from my lovely travelling buddy! (I got her back though and we had a good snow ball fight!) It was a lot of fun staying with a family and eating some very Swiss meals (with lots of good cheese!) as well as getting to do some washing!
Our next lot of train travel was not dull either and made for quite a day as we left Switzerland! The first train trip was without incident, however, then the fun really started! We were settled comfortably in our seats and had eaten our lovely packed lunches when the train suddenly terminated at a small station somewhere near the border of Switzerland and Austria due to the risk of an avalanche in the mountains! The hazards of travelling in winter I suppose. We were transferred to buses to take us through the mountains and then were put back on a train for the rest of the way, adding another hour to an already 4 hour long trip. This meant that we missed the next train, but managed to amuse ourselves at the station while waiting for the next one by having a picnic of biscuits and nutella (our new staple food) on the platform. We got some very strange looks from passer-bys, but we had fun with it! Getting on the next train, finding seats with enough space for us and our bags proved to be somewhat problematic, and when we finally found a compartment with enough space in it, we tumbled in, almost landing in the laps of our fellow passengers! One of these passengers proved to be a most interesting fellow from Albania who spoke very limited English, but was determined to make conversation with us. He could well have been an ambassador for his country as he was very keen to encourage us to visit Albania and reassured us that although there is violence and trouble in his country, tourists are quite safe and protected by the police.....we weren't entirely convinced and will be leaving Albania off our travel plans for this trip!
Oh the fun and adventure of train travel! Never a dull moment (especially with a travelling buddy like mine!).

Friday, 17 February 2012

Ambling Ramblings #13-Vanquishing Venice and Verona

After spending two weeks being perpetually lost due to my severe lack of any sen of direction and my inability to follow directions from Google maps, my every faithful travelling companion decided she would take over and do the one can be worse than me so I gladly relinquished the map and Venice is the first city that we have been to where we have successfully found our accommodation without getting lost (which was absolutely no thanks to me!). I thought that this was quite impressive as Venice is notorious for being confusing and for getting lost in as all of the lanes, canals and bridges start to look the same after a while-as we discovered that evening when we did get lost (thanks to me!). Thankfully, Marnie does have a sense of direction and can remember where we have and haven't been, while I keep getting distracted by all the pretty things and old buildings and lovely bridges! Good thing I have her along, or who knows where I would be by now! I think it was quite the accomplishment to conquer navigating a city that has canals instead of roads and winding little alleyways and very few street signs!
Venice was indeed a beautiful city and we got to experience it in Carnevale mode which was a little bit deterring at first, but we got into the spirit of it and quite enjoyed all of the costumes and masks after a while-although the city was very busy and there were a lot of people around. We were still able to see the main sights and admired St Mark's Cathedral from inside and out as well as seeing the Doge Palace, but more than that, we just enjoyed walking through the lanes and along the canals, crossing countless bridges and visiting lots of beautiful little shops as well as window shopping. We saw a lot of beautiful handcrafted lace and glass-2 things that Venice is justifiably famous for, as well as the elaborate masks!
After our 2 days in Venice, we moved on to another famous 'V' city-Verona! Again, Marnie navigated us to our hotel successfully (even though the street signs were hard to find here as well)-she certainly has a better track record than I do for finding our way around! We were only there for one night, but in that time managed to see the Arena(a smaller, pink version of the Colosseum, but still impressive in its own right) as well as Juliet's House (or La Casa de Guillieta) on Via Capello (Capulet Street). The iconic balcony was worth seeing and now I can say I've been there! We were very excited to find a supermarket with more than 3 aisles in it-somthing that we have not come across thus far-and spent quite a while walking around it and then stocking up on some fruit and other bits and pieces for our next train trips. We then spent our last night in Italy eating pizza near a lovely fountain in the middle of the main square in Verona, a perfect ending to a visit in a country that has so much rich history, natural beauty and remnants of centuries past.
It's onwards and upwards from here, through the Alps as we head further north.

Saturday, 11 February 2012

Ambling Ramblings #12-A Fun-filled Frolic in Florence

Florence is a city that is full of Renaissance charm. Not only is it a city where Da Vinci, Michelangelo, Raphael and a host of other famous Renaissance artists based themselves for some period of time, for a while it was the cultural capital of the world and there are remnants of that time around every corner. From the people in their little shops making beautiful items (leather work, instrument making-we watched a man making a cello, restoring beautiful old furniture, painting, sculpture, picture framing, making light shades and lamps) to the historic architecture,quirky little lanes, beautiful church spires, old castle walls and watch towers and cobblestoned streets, this truly is a beautiful city. Down every lane we walked, we found something either to amuse us or admire or take photos of! There's just so much character here, but yet it's such an unassuming and unpretentious place (unlike some of the bigger cities we have visited). There was even a very light snowfall yesterday that just added to our love of Florence!
One of the things that has amused me most (and this just shows you how tired I am!) is the size of the cars and vehicles here. Scooters and motorbikes are very popular, but those who do drive cars, drive very small ones. A lot of the trucks have just 3 wheels and look quite comical (yes, i have photos of them) and I have seen quite a few smart cars and numerous tiny one person cars (for those of you who are familiar with Top Gear, it's the car that Clarkson drives into the elevator of the BBC building-they seem to be quite popular little cars here!). Even the buses are small, they look like a cardboard box on wheels....and look to be about as sturdy as that-needless to say, we walk everywhere we go!
Hopefully our next city will be just as amusing-although I don't think there will be as many cars there! I'm sure I'll find something else to entertain me though.

Friday, 10 February 2012

Ambling Ramblings #11-Roman Ruins

Rome, an ancient and historic city, once the centre of the world and the capital of one of the greatest ancient empires, one of the birthplaces of western civilization and a significant part of early Church history. And I had to fit all of this into just 3 days!
Rome was an adventure from before we even arrived. Our train from Pisa was stopped in Grosetto (a little more than half way to Rome) as the trains weren't going any further due to the snow and ice on the tracks-I guess this is what happens when you're travelling in Europe during a heavy cold snap! Rome apparently has not had snow like this since 1986 and it severely disrupted the city, so I'm glad we arrived the day after the snow storm, and not during it! We were transferred to buses into Rome, thus arriving almost an hour later than planned. The task of finding our hotel room has always been quite difficult as I am severely navigationally challenged and yet am being left in charge of directions! thankfully, an information official noticed our bewilderment at being in yet another new city and gave us a map and pointed us in the right direction from the station, however, we still managed to get quite lost and it wasn't until after if made a very graceful entrance into Rome by landing on my back after slipping on some ice, thus ending up like a turtle upside down on the ground that we found our street located the hotel. We are very good at making ourselves quite at home in a new room and very quickly end up with our belongings strewn from one end of the room to the other!
Getting lost on our first night apparently not enough of an adventure for us, as the next morning we set out to explore and proceeded to get very lost quite quickly (travel tip: when exploring a new city, stay on your map and don't walk off it! It makes finding yourself very difficult indeed). After walking up and down streets and trying to figure out where we were and where we should be going for almost 2 hours, we finally found the right street and made it back to our hotel to dry off (yes, I'd fallen over....again....Rome looks different from the ground looking up-I just wanted a different perspective on all the sights!) and then set off in the opposite direction, this time following our map and ended up in Old Rome, seeing the Colosseum (which truly is colossal and magnificent) the Roman forum and other ancient ruins. I found it quite surreal to be walking in places where the early Christians lived and were persecuted and martyred and where the apostle Paul wrote one of his letters to. Also just seeing all these places that I'd read so much about and studied for so many years was quite amazing. Rome is a city that I would love to go back to one day to explore further (although it was exciting being there with the snow, it meant a lot of things were shut so we couldn't go into them this time).
Our second day in Rome was largely spent in the smallest sovereign state in the world, Vatican City and exploring St Peter's Basilica (which we didn't have to wait in a line for-contrary to what people trying to sell us tours were telling us), a walk along the Tiber River, a stop in front of the Castel Sant' Angelo, wandering across some very petty bridges and then into the Vatican Museum. The museum was another place that I could spend weeks in and not see enough! The Map Gallery, with huge topographical maps in it was one of my favorite galleries, but I loved just walking though the corridors, many of which had ceilings that were more fascinating than the art on the walls! The Sistine Chapel was quite crowded, which made it difficult to absorb the grandeur or Michelangelo's interpretation of Creation and The Last Judgement and although his work is not my favorite, seeing it in person was still a remarkable experience.
Our last full day in Rome involved a search for the elusive Trevi Fountain (we had looked for it the day before and got lost-again) but we finally found it and it was well worth the search, it's almost more of a waterfall than a fountain! We also went to the Pantheon which is very well preserved and compared to many of the other churches and cathedrals we have visited, was quite ,simply decorated on the inside, which I appreciated and found to be quite beautiful.
Sightseeing thus ended and we spent the remainder of the day windo shopping-the streets are lined with designer shops, most of which had lots of sales on so it was fun to go in and look at some very fancy things. We ended up in the high end of town where we found shops with coats on sale for 7000 euros ( yes, seven thousand is correct)-a little bit out of our budget! We retreated back to the main streets and stumbled across a lovely little gelati shop which we just had to try! I had hazelnut (which is a very popular flavor and well deserves to be!) and nutella (something that is also very popular-you can buy it in 4 kg jars here!) and managed to eat a good portion of my scoops, although the dairy was a bit much for me after a while! It was certainly yummy enough to make it worth it though.
This is as far south as we come before we head home, so we head north next, but will still be in Italy for a few days, but exploring other parts of this beautiful country.

Sunday, 5 February 2012

Ambling Ramblings #10-Passing through Pisa

We paused in Pisa to pass through and eat platefuls of pizza and pasta and patter down pavements and peer at postcard-worthy places (can you tell I'm an English teacher with all the alliteration in that sentence!).
Our accommodation, although located on a main street and so therefore fairly noisy, was filled with Italian rustic charm, with a frescoe on the ceiling of our room, antique decor throughout, lace curtains, patterned tiles on the floors, lovely old furniture and a very quaint feel to it. Compared to my impressions of France, Italy is very unassuming, quaint and charming- there are still old buildings everywhere and beautiful sights to see, but somehow it's not as pretentious or overbearing, it's far mo subtle and I feel that there is more of an adventure to experience in peeling back the layers and becoming familiar with this place so full of history from so long ago! We quite easily found the famous (or infamous, depending on your viewpoint of this architectural failure turned national monument!) Leaning Tower of Pisa, which is surrounded by a very ancient looking wall and a lovely old church. Located nearby is a statue of Romulus and Remus with the she-wolf, eliciting an ancient history lecture from me to my poor traveling buddy (she has had to put up with me being fascinated by all this 'old stuff' for a week already now!). I found Pisa to be a lovely place for a stopover and enjoyed our day of shopping and wandering the cobble-stoned alleys, through old buildings and across a quant bridge over the river. Now all I need to do is improve my Italian vocabulary and then I'll be better able to communicate here!

Friday, 3 February 2012

Ambling Ramblings #9- A Note from Nice

The French Riviera is certainly a place that I would love to come back to and visit for longer...the views of the deep and brilliant blues and greens of the Mediterranean, the snow capped mountains, red rocky outcroppings not the ocean and a beautiful sunrise combined to create a most picturesque scene. Not to mention all the farms and old buildings, and even the odd castle and fort ruins along the way! I have come to a point in my life where 3 degrees celsius feels warm and I start shedding layers! Arriving in Nice, we found our hotel after only getting a little bit lost and have decided that this is our favorite hotel thus far! Not only did we get a choice of rooms on arrival, but the room we chose is huge compared to our other ones. It is an attic style room on the top floor with a skylight window and quite a big bathroom. We went for a walk around Nice and found the ocean and enjoyed some time in the sunshine! We went for a climb up more stairs to some viewing platforms to see out over the ocean as well as over Nice and to the snow capped mountains in the background-lots of good photo opportunities as it was truly beautiful! Back on a train today to the next country on our list. Au Revoir France!

Thursday, 2 February 2012

Ambling Ramblings#8- Perusing Paris

Paris, I have concluded, is a melting pot of opposites, the ancient and the modern, the very wealthy and the very poor, fast and slow, the old ways and new ways. The population of paris would be at least 1/3 of African descent with a lot of other ethnic groups making up the other 2/3 along with caucasians. The place we were staying in was near 'little India' as i chose to call it, the streets were lined with sari shops and Indian restaurants. The juxtapositioning of the old world and modern world blends and works in a way that is quintessentially Parisian and wouldn't work in any other context. The ancient buildings with designer label shops in them, the opulent displays of wealth in stores with beggars sitting out the front of is certainly a city with character! Although it is famous for being the 'city of lights' I think it could equally be known as the 'city of sirens' as we heard and saw numerous emergency vehicles every day we were in Paris. It could have something to do with the hazardous roads-driving seems to be a free for all with a lot of roads having no lane markings and cars queuing 3 across intersections and people pulling out in front of each other all over the place! I am very glad I was not driving in it-sitting on a bus was enough of a Parisian road experience for me! Walking across the roads was scary enough-we discovered that there comes a time when you do push the big red button, although a lot of the pedestrian crossings in Paris are on a timer and you don't have to push a button to get a green man signal, there are some where you have to push a big red button, just like the buttons you are always told not to push! 
We very quickly put our limited French to use, saying 'Merci' and 'bonjour' at every turn! We navigated the metro system, which thankfully is well signed and although all of the stations are a maze of tunnels, stairs, corridors, escalators and moving walkways, we successfully got to each of our destinations. The Louvre was our first stop, and one of my favorites, it is definitely worth it and I could have easily spent days there! The Mona Lisa was just as beautiful as I had thought it would be. We then boarded 'les cars rouges' a big red tourist bus so that we didn't have to navigate the streets ourselves! This way we saw most of the major sights and could get off and on whenever we wanted to. The Notre Dame cathedral and Arc de Triomphe were both spectacular in their own ways, we climbed up both of them and froze in the wind while looking out over a rather cloudy and smoggy city, that is somehow still pretty through the haze. I loved all the Gothic architecture everywhere, the gargoyles and swirls and sculptures -it seemed that in any space possible to put a flourish, there was something and even when there wasn't space, there was still a flourish of some kind anyway! 
By far my favorite place in Paris was not in the city; the Palace of Versailles was absolutely amazing, the palace itself is spectacular and gorgeously decorated, let alone the gardens that surround it that are impressive, even in winter! The Eiffel Tower was definitely worth facing the cold night air for and I discovered that elevators can move on an angle (something I had not experienced before). Another of my favorite places was the Musee de Orsay, an old train station that was converted into an art gallery where I was able to see some original Monet's- definitely one of my favorite artists as I love the peace and tranquility of the scenes he paints as well as the color and texture that he uses. The museum itself is very cool, being an old train station certainly gives it character. 
I must have blended in fairly well in Paris and not looked too much like a tourist as I was asked for directions or stopped and asked something in French numerous times! I was also asked by some Malaysian tourists to have a photo taken with them on the Eiffel Tower. It certainly was an adventure trying to figure things out in a foreign language, but we just smiled a lot and most people were very friendly and tried to help. 
All in all, Paris was certainly an adventure, from getting stuck in the lift at our hotel the first night (a story in of itself there!), to navigating our way through the streets, figuring out a new currency, communicating in a foreign language and getting very very cold (well below zero if you add the wind chill). Next, we begin our journey south, hopefully to somewhere warmer and with blue sky and sunshine, out of the big cities.