A Travellerspoint blog

The Eternal City


Rome is one of our favourite cities. Everywhere you go in Rome history stares you in the face, it's everywhere, it's unavoidable. We first visited Rome on a Contiki tour in 1998 and it would be fair to say we didn't really have a clue. We never even had a guide book. It was only when we got home that I flicked through a guide to Rome and suddenly realised just how much we'd missed - we'd never even visited St Peters! In 2004 we returned and stayed in a charming little apartment near the train station, walked all over the city and had a great time. But we still hadn't even touched the surface. So now, in 2009 we were back again.
Learning from our recent accommodation debacles we made sure we had accommodation booked through the internet, but we couldn't get anything suitable for more than a single night. Our first hotel was on via Tiburtina, just north of the Roma Termini station, alongside the remains of the 3rd century Aurelian Wall. It wasn't the nicest of areas. I was surprised to see so much of Rome's ancient city wall intact, but then Italy's turbulent history meant that such archaic artifacts as defensive walls were required for a lot longer than in other countries. From the 8th century to the late 19th century, Rome was ruled by the Pope as both spiritual and temporal lord. It was only in 1870, when the guns of Garibaldi's revolutionary army bombarded the city that the Papacy begrudgingly surrendered its power and Rome became the capital of a unified Italy.
That night we took the underground to the Spanish Steps to join the Rome Pubcrawl. It was a huge affair with maybe seventy people attending. The route involved lots of walking and taking several public buses and the crowd, especially once the drinking started, was very unruly. It proved to be a very, very long night and the last bar was far on the outskirts of the old city, near the Pyramid of Caius Cestius. At 5am there is VERY little public transport in Rome and so I had the dubious pleasure of walking across the city, from wall to wall. One other observation about Rome in the early hours - all the homeless (and there are lots of them) congregate around Central Termini and along the Aurelian Wall. It is not a place to be walking at night.
We only had the hostel room for the one night so we were forced to rise early, clean ourselves up as best we could and move on to the next hotel. Before we moved though we decided to stop at the Termini post office and ship some more of our luggage back to Australia. Since Madrid we'd accumulated a considerable amount of 'souveniers' and other crap. So while Shelly joined the queue at the post office, I minded the bags at an internet cafe and found another hotel. The best I could find in our price range imaginatively named "Roma Rooms" or something similar and was situated in the medical district of Polyclinico. Although we didn't know it at that time the vagueness of its name was to cause us a lot of trouble.
After an hour in the queue Shelly came back, disappointed. Post Italia would not ship used clothes from the Termini station. We needed to go to the Plaza Della Repubblica office. The Repubblica office wasn't far from Termini but we didn't want to drag all of our bags there so we hopped on the underground to Polyclinico. Polyclinico was not on our map so we didn't know which way to go to our hotel, but thankfully a couple of locals new the street and pointed us in the right direction. For some reason or other though I'd forgotten to write down the street number (probably assuming that we'd be able to see the hotel sign). But there was no sign. We walked up and down the street four times. We stopped several locals on the street or in nearby businesses and asked if they knew the hotel. Most shook their heads, "No, I don't know it." Several though thought it was "just past this corner" or "on the other side of the street." No one said the same direction. It was a stinking hot day and by the time we walked up and down the street the fifth time we were soaked in sweat and totally frustrated. We'd been here more than an hour! And then, as these things always happen, we stumbled on it by accident. Roma Rooms didn't advertise itself as a hotel and it had virtually no signage. What it did have was a large metal gate out the front and underneath an intercom button were the words "Room Zimmer Chambre." It was so small we had walked passed it each time; it was only by chance that we'd stopped in front of the gate to exclaim (as we had done quite a lot by now) "where the hell is this place?" Let's just say that we rather firmly expressed ourselves to the disinterested desk clerk and then went upstairs to our room and long mid-day shower. I'm pretty certain that Roma Rooms isn't a real public hotel but provides accommodation for family members visiting their relatives in the many nearby hospitals. Certainly the area around Polyclinico isn't geared up for tourists - there were no cafes, shops or restaurants in the area open past 8pm at night and the hotel itself provided almost nothing in the way of services or refreshments.
After that lengthy and frustrating delay we decided to squeeze a bit of sight seeing. We'd visited St Peter's basilica before but it is such an impressive building we had to visit it again. The current basilica is at least the third church to stand on the reputed site of St Peter's tomb. A small shrine had been built on the site in the 2nd century. Constantine the Great then erected a huge basilica over the shrine in the 4th century. In the 13th century the basilica was almost completely rebuilt in lavish style, but in 1506 Pope Julius II decided to make his mark by tearing the whole thing down and building the largest catherdral in history. Julius spared no expense and had his favourite architect, Michaelangelo, design the thing.
It's a long queue to get into St Peter's but it's worth it. From the outside St Peter's monumental size isn't apparent; yes, it's big, but its only when you step inside that you suddenly appreciate the scale of the place. It's enormous. Everybody shuffles around with their neck cricked, staring up the ceiling. The walls and floor are expensive Carrarra marble; expensive tombs of the popes decorate the side chapels. The view from the dome are amazing. St Peters is a must see Roman experience.
That afternoon we wandered through the Plaza Fiori and Plaza Navonna (which is built over the remains of the old Roman hippodrome and retains the shape of the racetrack in the outline of its streets). We passed by the remains of Hadrian's Temple, now built into the facade of a modern building, and visited the Pantheon, the most impressive surviving building of the Roman era. The original Pantheon was built in the 1st by Marcus Agrippa, son-in-law of the first Roman emperor, Augustus. It was originally a rectangular, peristyle temple like the Parthenon in Athens, but in the 2nd century the building was rebuilt by the emperor Hadrian. He retained the front porch of Agrippa's temple including Agrippa's dedicatory inscription, but replaced the central section with a domed drum. The walls of the building are an astonishing 6 metres thick, which helped ensure the building's survival. The Byzantine emperor Phocas donated the building to the pope in 609AD and it was converted into a church. Renaissance architects were amazed by the Pantheon's incredible dome, pierced by an enormous oculus to allow in light (and rain). It was the largest dome in the western world until Michaelangelo's St Peter's in the 16th century.
The next day we decided to split up. Shelly wanted to go shopping while I wanted to explore more of Rome's Roman past. We also wanted to ship off our surplus luggage. I left Shelly to go to the post office while I went across the street to the Baths of Diocletian and the Basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli. This monumental bath complex was dedicated to the Roman emperor Diocletian in the early 4th century. The scale of the building was enormous, but with the collapse of the western empire a century later the bath slowly fell into ruins. All of its valuable marble and columns were pillaged leaving it an enormous brick and concrete shell. During the 16th century Michaelangelo recieved a commission to use build a church on top of the ruins. He did more than that. He re-used the barrel vault of the old bath-house , decorating it with sumptuous coloured marble slabs and a sundial/calendar etched into the floor. In the entry hall he attempted to re-create the dome of the Pantheon. The basilica represents a real turning point when the architects of the Rennaissance stopped being in awe of the Roman predecessors and realised they were capable of matching, and even exceeding them. It remains one of my favourite buildings in Rome.
A little to the southwest of Diocletian's Baths is the Palazzo Massimo. The Palazzo is now home to an extensive Roman artwork collection that used to be displayed at the Baths. The collection includes mosaics, coins,statues and frescoes. The frescoes are particularly impressive, having been removed from the walls of tombs and other buildings and then reconstructed as they would have appeared in-situ. It's a wonderful museum and highly recommended.
We finished up our day at the Forum wandering around admiring the impressive ruins, including:
The Basilica of Maxentius;
The Temple of Saturn;
Trajan's Market:
The Arch of Constantine
The Colosseum;
The Arch of Titus;
The Arch of Septimus Severus;
The Circus Maximus, and;
The Castello Sant Angelo (the mausoleum of Hadrian)
Later that afternoon we sadly bid adieu to Rome, caught the train to the airport and caught our flight to Athens. Another phase of our holiday was beginning.

Posted by paulymx 06:14 Comments (0)

Viva Tuscany

Red Bologna
We were both feeling surprisingly sprightly after two nights on the turps and could well have stayed at the Oktoberfest longer, but we'd only had accommodation for two nights and as there was no other accommodation available it was time to move on. In 2004 we'd briefly visited Bologna for a couple of hours while we waited for a train to Verona. We had been very impressed and always talked about going back for a proper visit, so we decided to stop off on the way to Rome.
We arrived at Bologna about 4pm and headed straight to the tourist office at the train station. The girl there was very helpful and provided us with a tourist brochure "The sights of Bologna in half a day." Clearly not that many people linger. Unfortunately she couldn't help us with accommodation but told us the tourist office in the central square could, so we jumped on the bus for a cramped ride during peak hour to the centre of town. The central square of Bologna has a fine collection of fourteenth and fifteenth century buildings all built in Bologna's distinctive red brick, which gives Bologna its nickname, "Red Bologna."

The tourist office shares the ground floor of the old council house with a distinguished cafe/gelateria and a library and it provides an accommodation booking service. But once again luck was against us - there was a bathroom & plumbing industry trade fair town and almost every hotel was fully booked. We had a choice of one room near the square for 120euro or a hostel room back near the train station for 100euro. It seems like a bit of a no-brainer now but at the time it led to an argument about the cost of accommodation and we ended up taking the cheaper option. The upshot of all this debate was that we wasted our last hours of daylight making our way to and from the hostel, which was in a pretty ordinary part of town.
One of Bologna's most impressive sights is the Basilica of St Peter. Construction started on the brick built cathedral in 1392 . In the spirit of the time, the Bolognian town council wanted it to be bigger than St Peter's in Rome, but the plague intervened and construction was never completed, but the half finished marble facade is quite appealing. The interior is lavishly decorated in marble and features a sundial calendar built into the floor. When we visited a chamber orchestra was performing a free concert. The acoustics are marvellous.
We wandered around Bologna's colonaded streets in the evening and enjoyed wine and tapas at couple of bars before we settled in at a pleasant restaurant that spilled out across the street to enjoy Bologna's specialty, Bolognaise. It was lovely of course but as it's such a staple of Italian cuisine everywhere it wasn't particularly adventurous.

"It looks like a wasp!"
The next day we set off for Siena early, but with a detour to the little Tuscan town of Pontederra. Pontederra is the home of Piaggio the industrial engineering company that manufacture the iconic Vespa scooter. Piaggio got into scooters by accident. The company started in the late 19th century building engines. They later became one of Italy's pre-eminent aircraft manufacturer, building fighters and bombers for the Italian airforce. During the Second World War the factory was bombed and pretty well destroyed. After the war they were banned from making aircraft and so needed to find a new raison-d-entre. Like most of post-war Europe, Italy was beset with transport problems - there was a desperate shortage of motor vehicles and Italian roads were bad; what people needed was a cheap, simple and rugged vehicle. And so the Vespa ("wasp") was born. Thanks largely to Piaggio's skillful marketing the Vespa became a phenomenon all around the world.
Here is link to some of the photos we took:

Ahhh, Siena!
It was only a short stop at the Vespa museum so we arrived in Siena about 4pm. You could say Siena it the classic Italian hill town. The city sprawls across a number of hilltops and is surrounded on all sides by its impressive 15th century walls. Vehicle access into the old city, even for scooters and motorbikes is limited to the outskirts. Public buses run from the train station to bus stops on the southern and eastern edge of the old city. We had booked an apartment online but it was situated at the far northern side of the city, which meant we'd end up having a long walk with our bags whichever stop we chose. We crammed onto the bus, but the missed the southern stop. The bus then turned out of the city and proceeded to drive north around the outskirts. For a moment we thought this might actualy work to our advantage we were being taken closer to our destination, but as the bus had almost completed its circumnavigation it turned west away from the city and off into the countryside. We should have jumped off immediately but we stayed on until we reached a recognisable village. We were horrified to realise when we got off that there was only one bus heading back to Siena that afternoon and we'd have to wait an hour. Damn!
That little detour cost us more than an hour and got us only as far as the southern bus stop. For the next half an hour we dragged our bags through Siena's winding, hilly, cobblestone streets until we reached the office our "apartment." Only it wasn't an apartment but the office of a rental agency. The agency hired out vacant rooms around the city. You can imagine our delight to discover that the apartment was in fact all the way back across town, a few blocks from the bus stop. Damn!
But it was a great room and the agents were very helpful. They told us that tonight there were celebrations all over the city for the Palio, the famous horse race that is run in the centre square every year. The Palio has been run in Siena since the 15th century. All the districts of the city have their particular teams and rivalries are fierce - neither politics, religion or football come close to the passion Sienans' have for the Palio. The whole city was hung with the team's banners and decorative street lights. That night, in the 'il campo', there was a formal dinner and presentations for the winning team. We even got to watch a video of the race projected on huge screens before the award ceremony.
On the far side of the city, near the rental agency office the streets were decorated for a full on street party. Free drink and concerts provided to the residents (they wouldn't serve us as we were foreigners and this was a very local celebration). But the atmoshere was great and we had great fun. We stopped for a while a restaurant and were served the largest glasses of wine I have ever seen in my life. We were both horrified at the size of them and were expecting a bill of 12-15 euro each. You can imagine our shock when the bill arrived for 4 euro a glass!!

The Best Italian Restaurant in the World
The day we arrived in Siena in 2004 it was pouring with rain and we got absolutely soaked by the time we found accommodation. After we got settled and cleaned ourselves up it was early evening so we set out to get something for dinner. Shelly thought she had seen a cute little restaurant during our search but we'd been wet and pre-occupied at the time and neither of us could quite remember where it was. Eventually we came across a place that Shelly thought looked familiar so we settled in. I had pasta with wild boar sauce and it was lovely. Shelly was a bit stuck with the menu though so eventually chose spagetti carbonara - a rather safe fallback really - I mean, who hasn't had spagetti carbonara a million times. We did not expect much of the dish and I must say when it was presented it looked even less inspiring - but, the taste! It was extraordinary - it was so unlike any carbonara we had ever tasted, anywhere. The flavour just blew us away. We determined then and there we'd come back again the next night and have it again.

But the next night we couldn't find it. We walked and walked and tried to retrace our steps, but it was though the restaurant had disappeared. With great disappointment we opted for a very average pizza. Then, wandering home later, we stumbled across the restaurant again. It was closed on Tuesdays and with the windows shuttered we'd walked right past it earlier without even realising. The next day we left Siena and we never made it back. Damn!
For the next five years we talked about how amazing that meal had been and swore we'd go back one day. Now we were back, but we still couldn't remember where the restaurant actually was. You can imagine our delight when we walked out of our apartment, turned around the corner and bang! - there was the restaurant 'Resto Antika Siena.' Shelly wouldn't believe it at first, but I pointed out the very same surly waiter who served us five years earlier, still there. Of course we had to have spagetti carbonara again but I'm sad to say it didn't quite live up to the meal we had remembered. That's not to say it wasn't good, it just wasn't the same.

Scooting around Tuscany
After visiting the Piaggio museum I had to ride a Vespa in Tuscany. The hire company was pretty casual about the whole affair. "Do you have a license?" "Yes, I have ...." "That's fine, sign here!" I took a relatively new Vespa 125LX. It was red and new and modern and much more reliable than my 1963 Vespa VBB back home. But it still wasn't plain sailing. Firstly, I was pulled over by the police as I tried to negotiate my way back to the apartment. I had unwittingly crossed over a 'pedestrian only' street (what can I say, I was just trying to be like all the other Italian riders and doing whatever I wanted - I guess I stood out because I looked unsure of what I was doing). The policeman wasn't at all happy and sent me on my way with a stern warning. I ended up parking the scooter in a side street and walking back to pick up Shelly.
About lunch time we set off on our scooting adventure. We decided to head south from Siena towards Asciano but got stuck on the wrong road quickly found ourselves heading north. Whoops! We ended up in the delightful little hill town of Montoriggiori.
We had a pleasant lunch is a cute little restaurant before we set off to Colle da valle d'Este. It was kind of a random destination choice really. It was a beautiful little town but as it was Sunday everything was closed, so we set off back towards Siena. Unfortunately we got a bit lost travelling on the local roads, which at times were pretty rough, but eventually made it safely back in the late afternoon.
I must admit, there were so many motorcyclists in Germany that I had been longing to get on a bike and cruise along the autobahns - but after four hours of tandum riding on the Vespa we were well and truly over it! Both us will attest that it's not very comfortable.

The next day we did a final round of sight seeing. We visited the amazing and enormous Siena Duomo. The main part of the catherdral was built in the 12th century. The exterior is composed of alternating rows of black and white marble, while inside it it a riot of marble cladding and mosaics (there is even a moden shrine decorated with a profusion of motorcycle helmets - something of a lesson there!).
In the mid 13th century the city planned to extend the cathedral to make it grander than rival city Florence's amazing Duomo. In order to make use of the existing construction, they decided to build the main isle of the new church at right angles across the centre of the old cathedral, effectively turing the cathedral into the two naves (think of the letter 't' - the naves would be the cross bar of the 't', which gives a pretty good idea of the scale of the extension). Once again, as in Bologna, the plague put paid to such grand designs, but the scale of the two walls that were built are breathtaking. You can even take a tour up through the hollow wall section to get a view from the top.

In the afternoon we packed up our bags, dragged them to the bus station, waited an inordinant amount of time for the bus to the trainstation (45 minutes late) and arrived 10 minutes after the express train to Rome had left. Hmmm. But not to worry, all roads do eventually lead to Rome.

Posted by paulymx 07:06 Comments (0)

Octoberfest 2009

I love a girl with a big jugs... of beer

Okay, so we made it to train with minutes to spare. It proved to be a very long, slow and tiresome journey and neither of us managed to sleep very well. We arrived in Munich at the crack of dawn and checked in to our hostel. It was hours before we could actually check into our room though so we wandered around the city for a few hours. We took in the impressive Rathaus and obligatory glockenspiel (which brings all the tourists to a standstill at 11am - I must say it's quite over-rated).
Munich itself isn't a great sightseeing city though. It was bombed to rubble during the Second World War so there is not much left of the old city. It does have some excellent museums though. On the second day we visited the automobile collection of the Deutsche Museum. Here is a link to some of our photos of the motorcycle collection.
So what can you say about the Munich Octoberfest? It's basically just one big excuse for three weeks of drinking beer and eating enormous slabs of meat and sausage. There were about twelve tents and we visited all of them but only drank at the Hopfbrau (HB) tent as that is the only tent that will serve you standing. The other tents you need reservations. Consequently the HB tent is where all the foreigners gather. And it goes off! There was alot of raucous behaviour but it was all in good fun I guess. Some of the people we met there had been at Octoberfest since it started - that's three weeks of solid drinking from about ten in the morning to ten at night. I also had the BEST steak I ever had in Europe here - BBQ steak and onion in a bun (Steak mit semmel). It cost 4.5 euro. I had three (plus a foot long wurst mit semmel)! The quality of the food puts Lisbon even more to shame. All in all we had a great time and met quite a few interesting people.
Shelly bought herself a drindle. I was satisfied with my hat from Austria. It has to be said that the Bavarians' take the Oktoberfest very seriously. Traditional clothes were available in all the shops and I was accosted several times for not wearing the appropriate gear.

Posted by paulymx 16:00 Comments (0)

La Dolce Vita

A quick jaunt across Italy

We made the flight from Barcelona to Milan only by the narrowest of margins and we were similarly rushed when we arrived. We bolted to the underground only to realise that we needed to buy tickets from the unmanned upstairs counter. The train was about to leave so we grabbed a rail security guard and in .... not even remotely understandable Italian, advised him we needed to catch the train. He nodded casually and pointed upstairs. I held the bags and Shelly ran back up the escalator. The guard indicated we should chill, "Is okay." he said. Shelly got the tickets, we jumped aboard and the train pulled away. We were off to Como.
In 2004 we'd spent two months travelling across Italy, Croatia, Turkey and Egypt and we loved Italy very much, but there were a few times when things didn't go our way. Our time in the Cinque Terra was completely rained out and we could have spent much longer in Siena and Rome, so this was an opportunity to go back and relive our Italian adventure. We were also catching up with some friends. Our friends Matt and Aggy had just popped over to Italy to catch up with a friend in Como so we agreed to catch up. They were staying with their friend in a little village just south of Como. We went directly to the city, but after a quick trip to the tourist information office we were confronted with some bad news. There was an international cycling meet across the border in Switzerland as well as powerboat racing on Lake Como so accomodation was scarce. Even worse, it was Fashion Week in Milan and the every hotel between Como and Milan and all the surrounding districts was full. Given that we did not have any accomodation organised, we were in deep trouble. Instead of enjoying Como in the afternoon we ended being driven around to every hotel, B&B and hostel in the Lakes district by Matt's Italian friend. In the end, Matt's friend offered us a couch in his tiny flat and he slept on a friend's couch. We were extremely grateful.
That night we ate a delicious meal in a local restaurant before crashing out.
The next day we were all in a bit of a quandry. We'd given everyone the run around the day before so didn't want to make a fuss, Matt wanted to go to Switzerland to watch the cycling, and Aggy didn't want to spend the day in the car. Eventually we decided to drive over to Lake Maggiore. It was quite lovely and there were preparations in hand for jet boat racing later that month. After a couple of hours of wandering, conversation, reminiscence and gelati we bid everyone adieu and hopped on the train to La Spezia. It was time to revisit the Cinque Terra.

As I mentioned, we'd visited the Cinque Terra in 2004 and although we had a wonderful afternoon in Portovenere, just around the headland from La Spezia on the day we arrived, it promptly poured with rain for the next three days and was a total wash out. The weather this time was beautiful. We arrived in the late afternoon in La Spezia, the port city where the main train line terminates. La Spezia is big, busy and a little grubby - certainly not our favourite city. As soon as we got off the train we rushed to the tourist information office and tried to arrange accomodation. We were in a bit of a quandry - should we catch the local train to the furthest village of Montorosso and then work our way southwards and finish up in Portovenere? Or should we start in Portovenere? The clerk, who was dressed like he was on his way to gay rave party, was a little indifferent. "Either is good.", he said, "Is the end of the tourist season, there is lots of accomodation." We opted for the lovely Portovenere. Although it's not officially part of the Cinque Terra, it is one of the largest towns and has more facilities.
Portovenere is a very beautiful village situated at the end of a promontory at the edge of the bay of La Spezia, but it's also quite isolated. We'd just missed the bus so had to wait half an hour and by the time we arrived it was beginning to get dark. The first hotel we visited had one room available but it was 160 euro - far above our price range. The next hotel was more expensive. The next one was full. And so on. Every hotel in town was either full, closed down for the season, or ridiculously expensive. It was Como all over again. We did two laps of the town and were on the verge of giving up and heading back to La Spezia when an Italian lady came up and asked us if we needed help with accomodation. She was staying at a hostel at the top of the town and was pretty sure they had a couple of spare rooms. She kindly phoned the hostel manager and then led us up a long winding path to the highest point overlooking the over to the Ostello di Porto Venere e Isola Palmaria. As the hostel was virtually empty we had our pick of rooms. We chose the one overlooking the port. It was magnificent and only 75 euro a night! We could not believe our good fortune.

The Five Lands
The next day we took the train to Montorosso. Although it was the end of the season it was beautiful and sunny and the were a smattering of people on the beach, including the obligatory topless sunbather. She was 106 years old with skin like old leather but she still went off like a firecracker. Motorosso is perhaps the less scenic of the five towns but it has a real beach and lots of little cafes and bars. We stopped to enjoy a couple of wines before heading off to Vernazza.
Vernazza is my favourite of the towns. It has a lovely little harbour surrounded by cafes. We'd spent some time here in 2004 so didn't spend too much time exploring. We stopped for a delicious gelati while the late afternoon sun bathed the ancient church is a rich honey glow.
Just before sunset we took the train to Manarola. We walked out around the headland and took some photos of the town as the sun set. It was beautiful. Then we walked along the Lovers Walk to Riomaggiore. We ate that night at a cute little restaurant that looked promisingly simple and rustic. We were made even more hopeful when a small tour group we bumped into at Genoa train station the day before walked in. We'd overheard the guide telling the group how he knew of this little local restaurant that served traditional Ligurian cuisine. But it was not to be. Italian food is so international now that no matter where you go customers can tell crap Italian from real Italian and the food they served us here was nothing more than ordinary packet pasta and sauces that can be picked up from any supermarket shelf anywhere in the world. Italy has so much great cuisine that it is really a highlight of any trip to Italy so to be served that sh*t is a great disappointment.
The next day we opted to take the ferry that links Portovenere to five towns. It was a beautiful day and it was great to see the towns from the water. We got off at Vernazza with intentions of walking all the way back to Riomaggiore but got a little distracted shopping and sightseeing.
We took the train back to Riomaggiore as we'd never visited that town in daylight but shortly after we arrived we realised that both the ferry and trains stopped running between 1pm and 3pm. As we were taking the overnight train from La Spezia to Munich at 4.30 that afternoon, we had a bit of a problem. We ran down to the port but just missed the boat. There were worst places to be stranded but it was hard to relax. All the problems of transport to and from Portovenere were coming home to roost. At 3pm we would catch the local train back to La Spezia, then we'd have to wait for the next bus to Portovenere, take the half hour trip out, grab the bags and catch the next half hourly bus back and then walk from central La Spezia to the train station for the 4.30 train. It was going to be a VERY close run thing.

Posted by paulymx 06:22 Comments (0)

The Dordogne

Though shalt back to France!

It was inevitable I guess that once we got back from our travels that my interest in finishing this blog would wane, but it's important that I finish this off even if it is now months after the fact.
So we left Lourdes and headed on the motorway north. We were now running quite short on time. It was now Wednesday and our friends would be heading back to the UK on Friday and we had about four hundred kilometres to cover. I felt a pang of regret as we sailed past Toulouse, one of my favourite French cities. There was no time to dilly-dally. Sharon messaged me on the road to ask if we could make to Gourdon for lunch. That was just a little too ambitious. I predicted we would arrive by about two pm but we really didn't make it till nearly three. It was wonderful to catch up with Sharon and Iain again. The last time we'd caught up was in Paris in 2006.
Sharon's parents had retired from the UK to a little village of Milhac in the Dordogne. Like the rest of the region, it was beautiful, green and very rural. The Dordogne is covered in tiny, quaint villages and walled towns, all hidden away in amongst the mountains and forests. This was also one of the main battle grounds of the Hundred Years War between England and France (14th century) and there are castles on every strategic hilltop. It seems like a world lost in time.
Sharon's parents kindly put us up for two nights and we all had a great time. Much drinking was done, along with much lamenting. It was all over too soon. They had to fly back to the UK and we had to drive back to Barcelona to catch a flight to Milan, so we bid adieu on the Friday morning and headed south.
We stopped for lunch at Cahors, a charming medieval city famous for it's 14th century bridge, the Pont Valentre.
We also visited the interesting Cathedral St-Etienne. From the outside this 12th century catherdral is an unimpressive jumble of styles, partly Romanesque, partly Gothic. Inside however it is notable for it's twin cupolas (domes). They look distinctly Mediterranean and out of place so far north but then Cahors has an interesting history.
In the 9th century Cahors was the northern most outpost of the Emirate of Al-Andalus. Few people realise that the Muslim 'Spanish' Emirate covered far more than just Spain - it stretched as far north as Bordeaux, here in central France, and as far east as Nice. But this really was the outer edge and within forty or fifty years the Muslims had given up and pulled back to the Pyrennes, just as we were doing right now. It was a long, long drive. We passed the magnificent walled city of Carcassone and stopped to take a quick photo. We crossed the border near the Costa Brava. It's hard to think of Spain and France as enemies, but the line of Spanish fortifications along the border suggested a difficult history.
During all our travels we'd almost never visited the sea (maybe Gdansk counts) so we decided to stop in one of the beach front towns of the Costa Brava. Now we were in a race with the sun. It was a near run thing, we arrived in the little beach town of LLanfranc just on sunset. It was the end of the season and things were very quiet. Even so, rooms were still fairly expensive. That night we sat at beachfront bar and ate a wonderful Italian meal - not quite the way to finish up our Spanish adventure. That night we packed, leaving behind all the surplus junk we'd been carrying in the car. The next morning we were up early and stopped in Girona for breakfast. Girona had a pleasant enough old city, but it was nothing like the 'well preserved medieval city' that the Lonely Planet described. Sometimes I wonder if the writers have in fact visited all the cities they write about.
Although we'd timed our journey to get us to Barcelona with plenty of time to spare, things didn't quite go to plan. The closer we got to Barcelona, the more traffic we encountered and the slower things got. As we entered the outskirts of the sprawling city we suddenly realised we had no idea where the airport was and there was a moment of panic as we'd not seen any highway signs. We came across them eventually, but it made for a very tense drive. We arrived at the airport only an hour before the flight - just enough time to drop the car, check in and board the plane. It was time to say goodbye Spain and hello Italy!

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