We woke early to head into Milan as the weather forecast was threatening. It looked like the best window was going to be in the morning, so we were off for downtown before 8:30.
I expected Milan to be a more elegant city than it turned out to be, based on it being the fashion capital of the world with names like Gucci, Versace, Louis Vuitton and Prada located here. I envisioned it to be a Miami or Los Angeles. Instead it felt more like Pittsburg or Detroit, more industrial than elegant.
Our camp site is in a working class neighborhood at the end of a tram line which is convenient for getting downtown. We take public transport in most of the cities so we get to see the less glamorous parts of town. It gives a view of life away from the tourist centers, and a chance to watch people interacting in a normal environment, which we enjoy. Milan is a more diverse city than any we have seen in Italy. It definitely has the largest Asian population we have seen which seems to be mostly Pilipinos. We had been commenting on the lack of Kebab shops in Italy compared to the other countries we have visited, but Milan had plenty of Kebab shops.
Downtown Milan did have some of the elegance we were looking for with all of the big name fashion designers having stores in the Galleria off of the main square. Right after we arrived downtown it started raining and the Galleria is covered so we headed there to get out of the rain. We walked around looking at all of the fancy stores and enjoying the Galleria. I believe it is the inspiration for all of the malls that dot the US, but on a scale that no developer is going to pay for.
Between showers we would dash out of the Galleria and head towards the Cathedral which is the largest Gothic Cathedral in the world. It was built over 600 years so it passed thru a lot of design styles. It is know for the hundreds of statues on the exterior and the interior.
We decided to pay the small entrance fee to visit the interior as there was no line. We were both impressed with one particular statue of St. Bartholomew. The statue is in great detail and you can see his bones, muscles, and veins. We did not realize this was because he was flayed alive. What we thought was a robe wrapped around him is actually his skin!
We had been remarking on Italy being the first country we had visited in Europe that did not have several Starbucks in every major city. Ton looked it up and there is only one Starbucks in Italy and it is also the largest Starbucks in the world (until next week when a larger one will open in Chicago). We decided to visit it as it roasts its own coffee that Starbucks calls a “Reserve Roast”. They also feature many different ways of brewing coffee. We expected to have a quick coffee and head out, but ended up in there for well over an hour and enjoying two coffee’s each.
After a wet and windy night we woke up to sunny skies with a touch of fog. The bet we had made on the weather had turned out, so we headed over to Venice for the day.
As I talked about yesterday I had to decide if we were going to take a gondola ride today. Instead I decided that we would ride on one of the ferries that acts like a bus called a vaporetto. Line 1 follows the Grand Canal and it costs considerably less than a gondola, and covers more ground. After a couple of stops we gained the two front seats in the bow of the vaporetto. This proves (at least to me)that it is possible to have romance without spending a lot of money.
We also planned to visit the Rialto Bridge which is the most famous bridge in Venice. So we disembarked from our vaporetto there after about an hour cruising the Grand Canal. The bridge and the market next door did not capture our attention, so we headed over to St. Marks square. The tide was quite a bit lower so the square was not under water today. The places that were flooded yesterday now had fancy outdoor cafes with bands and extremely expensive coffee for sale. It was quite a change from yesterday. While it was a lot prettier it somehow felt less genuine than the square under water.
It was much less crowded than yesterday even with the better weather. The long Italian weekend was over, and there was only one cruise ship in town instead of the three that were here yesterday. So when we walked by St. Marks Cathedral we were shocked to see there was no line at all. Ton was in full photography mode so she sent me off to see how much it cost to enter. Another shock, it was free, so we headed in for a walk. St. Marks is the first cathedral we have come to that allows no photography so we do not have any pictures, but it was very beautiful.
By now we were quite hungry so we headed over to the old Jewish quarter of town where we had heard there were lots of restaurants. It was a nice walk and to our surprise the further we got from the tourist part of town the wider the roads got which spread the crowds out, the shops and restaurants were still intriguing, we found a nice garden with several interesting art works, and the people watching was still quite good.
After our late lunch we decided to head back to the ferry as it was getting towards dark. While waiting we were treated to the cruise ship in town passing by on the canal with three tugs shepherding it along. It was a final giant connection to the city of canals.
As planned we moved to the other side of Venice to a campground that was open for the whole time we are planning to be here. The drive over in light traffic was pretty uneventful except for my inability to follow Greta’s directions. This resulted in us twice unnecessarily being on toll roads for short distances. The first time we ended up paying a toll, the second time when I put the ticket in the machine the barrier went up and the ladies voice on the machine said arrivederci before I could put my credit card in for the toll. She must of felt sorry for the fool who could not follow directions.
We arrived at the new campground early, hooked up and headed over to Venice during a little break in the rain. We had no real plans for the day and thought we would just walk around and take in the sights.
We followed the signs towards St. Marks Cathedral. The crowds were plentiful but not overwhelming, despite the three cruise ships we saw docked. As we walked I contemplated Ton’s offer of whether we take a gondola ride or not. Last night she told me gondola rides were €80 and lasted 30 minutes. She said she had taken one with her mother in 1978, so it was completely up to me whether we took one as she had already done it. We will see tomorrow.
It has been wet and blustery the last couple of days and the tides were pretty high along the water front, the sea was nearly up to the footpath with occasional waves washing over. This looks like it must be becoming more common as many places have temporary bridges stacked so you can walk without getting your feet wet.
St. Marks square was interesting because when we arrived about 60% of it was underwater. The water depth ranged from 6 inches to a couple of feet. All of the stores and restaurants on one side of the square were closed as they had about 2 feet of water lapping at their doors.
We wandered around for another hour or so, mostly people watching. The weather channel was dead on as about 1pm a light rain began. By the time we got back to the ferry station about 2pm it was a steady hard rain and the wind was starting to blow.
We spent the rest of the afternoon in François. We have a nice waterfront spot looking across the water at Venice and the cruise ships, it really is a nice view. Ton cooked up a wonderful seafood pasta. We have really enjoyed both the restaurants and the quality of the food in groceries in Italy. We spent some time trying to figure out what food from Italy we should try to bring back home.
We departed Sienna reluctantly, the town really struck us as one of the most beautiful we had seen. Part of the reason we left today is we had a fairly long drive and we thought it would be easier to do today because it is a holiday here in Italy. Our thinking was there would not be any trucks on the road (which was correct), and there would be fewer cars on the road as people would tend to stick around home (which was really incorrect). It turns out this is a holiday for extended families to get together to celebrate, and lots of people are on the road. We ran into our first traffic jam around Florence. This was just a prelude to the mess we ran into around Bologna. A drive I thought would take 2.5 hours ended up taking over 4 hours. We were really regretting not sticking around Sienna.
We picked Ravenna because it is known for having impressive churches with World Heritage Mosaics. It is also known for its’ writers as Dante finished the Inferno here. It was also one of Byron’s favorite cities. We also picked it because it had several campgrounds near the ocean. When we first entered the town we were in a highly industrialized area with factories and lots of shipping containers so the initial impression of Ravenna was not spectacular. When we got down to the beach front where the bulk of the campgrounds were it was extremely quiet. The campground I had programmed into Greta Garmin was closed, I told Ton not to worry as there were two more just up the street, but they were all closed also. We pulled over and began working on a plan B, do we brave the traffic and continue on to Venice, look for another city to spend the night in, or try the last campground in Ravenna which was on the other side of town. We decided to give the last campground a try before moving on. It was about 11km away and we ended up on this weird unused freeway thru industrial sites. We were the only vehicle on the road until we came upon a car that had somehow managed to drive into the center divider and was being tended to by a tow truck and a couple of police.
Happily when we exited the weird freeway we saw some RV’s parked where we were going so it looked like we were in luck. When we pulled up the harried looking owner asked “reservations?” which of course we did not have. She then smiled and said well if you don’t mind improvising on the electricity we can squeeze you in.
After settling in we debated whether to even go into Ravenna as it was 3 o’clock, and Ravenna hd not made much of a first impression on us. The owner told us they could take us into town and pick us up for €2 so we decided to go. Ravenna turned out to be beautiful. The center of town is quite clean and easy to walk in. All of the people heading off to see their families were promenading thru town which made the people watching fun.
When we got to the main church the Basilica San Vitala we debated whether to pay the admission fee. It would be a good deal if you were spending a few days in town as it included admission to 5 different sites. But we only had a few hours and would only be able to visit the Basilica. We finally decided to spring for the tickets as we had come this far.
The Basilica was built in the 6th century by the Goths and features Byzantine inspired mosaics that are absolutely stunning. We were mesmerized by the mosaics and spent almost an hour admiring them. They are in incredibly good shape for being 1500 years old, and the artistry of the figures is stunning. The remainder of the church is covered by Baroque era frescoes from the 18th century, and they are beautiful in their own right. The blending of art from the 6th century and the 18th century works much better than you would think.
At the end on the walk back to our pickup I told Ton, that the first half of the day seemed like a mistake. But in the end I’m glad we hung around to see Ravenna as the town and the church were worth the effort.
If you are following our destinations you will notice we have headed south. The drive was pretty uneventful, the last 45 minutes were thru some pretty rugged hills that are the home of the famous Chianti grape. Tomorrow is a major holiday in Italy so the traffic on the autostrada seemed a little heavier than normal but still moving well.
We arrived at the campground in Sienna around 11:30 and after checking the weather decided to head right downtown. When we bought our bus tickets at the campground office the lady warned us to make sure we stamp our tickets as soon as we got on the bus as they have monitors and they are mean. In Europe you can buy tickets in bulk and it is your responsibility to stamp the ticket when you use it, this is also true on the trains. We have gotten used to this and have only forgotten once and of course we were checked. The conductor on the train let us off with a polite lecture about using the stamp, sometimes it is good to be perceived as a clueless foreigner. We were checked by monitors both going to town and coming back so they really are strict in Sienna.
Sienna has been on our must see list for the trip and while we had last minute thoughts of skipping it we decided this morning to double back and I am glad we did. It is a mountain city and has maintained a great deal of the old world feel to it that we like.
It is known for two things the gothic era town hall with a large tower, and of course it’s cathedral. We came across the town hall first and it is indeed impressive. But for us the Piazza in front of the hall is more impressive. In addition to the town hall the Piazza is surrounded by 6 and 7 story brick buildings. Unlike most Piazza’s it is not flat but kind of concave.
The Piazza is used to stage a twice annual horse race called the Palio of Sienna which is pretty wild. There are 17 neighborhoods in the city which in the past were organized as battalions for the defense of the city. 10 of them are selected at random to take part in the race. The first thing is that the Piazza is not an oval nor level so the turns are angles which makes them a lot more intense. The next thing is that the jockeys ride bare back which makes for a much more precarious perch on the horse. The jockeys are allowed to use their whips on their horse, but also on other horses (not the jockeys) to “disturb” them. Finally it is the horse that wins the race not the jockey which means if the jockey falls off sometime during the race and the horse carries on without him and crosses the finish line first it is the winner.
Our next stop was the cathedral. We have seen a lot of cathedrals over time here, but Ton and I both said wow when we saw the Cathedral in Sienna. It is not the largest cathedral, but the front is beautiful with intricate carvings and colored marble.
Having knocked out the two main attractions in town we just wandered up and down roads and alleys for a while taking in Sienna. We both agreed that it would be easy to spend a few days here, but we are running out of time.
We woke early to catch the bus as there were only two options, one at 8:15 and the next at 11:10 which we thought was too late. As I was getting things organized outside we ran into the owner of the Agritourismo, Andrea and he asked what I was doing up so early. When I told him he said that he could have his father drive us in at a more civilized hour and we happily took him up on the offer.
Ton did some research on the comic book festival in Lucca and it goes back to 1966. It is the largest in Europe and the second largest in the world with 90,000 tickets sold each day and the festival apparently sells out the 450,000 tickets in hours each year. It is a much larger event than we expected. We figured the people watching would be interesting even though we do not have tickets.
Arriving at one of the city gates all of the tents we had seen around the city yesterday had long lines leading into them with fans of different cartoons and comics looking to score the latest merchandise. We wandered the streets pretty aimlessly and Lucca is a great site for this kind of event as the long narrow streets with frequent piazza’s allow it to absorb the people effectively and allows the participants interesting places to stage photos.
A lot of the participants were dressed up in costume, though Ton and I are not the right age to identify most of the characters people were dressed up as. We did have fun trying to guess. Eventually we climbed up on the wall that encircles the old city and it turns out it is an unofficial promenade for the people in costume to walk and see what other people were wearing. We ended up walking completely around the city. We found one exhibit that was open to people without tickets, it was based on the video game Resident Evil so we got to go in and interact with a bunch of zombies in Raccoon City.
In between all of the characters we also continued to admire Lucca. After a while we needed a little break so we went to a restaurant Ton had her eye on that has been in business since 1865. Our waitress was a young lady who spoke English well. She asked if we were here for the cartoon festival, we told her no, it was a happy accident. She apologized and said that Lucca is a beautiful city and while the festival was really good for the local economy she is happy when it is over because it was just a little too weird, and to illustrate her point she had to run up to the cash register to ring up the bill of a zombie with his intestines hanging out and a knife in his back.
We returned to François just before the rain that had been threatening all day hit. I am writing this a little early today because we are heading up to the farmhouse for a 4 course Italian dinner, I will write about that tomorrow.
Today we headed south back into Tuscany. It was a short trip so we were able to complete an important task which was a stop at Lidl to fill up the cupboards which were pretty bare.
After stocking up we headed out to the outskirts of Lucca to an agritourismo site. Like France, one of the camping options in Italy is on farms. In this case we are on a vineyard with 14 spots dedicated to campers. When we pulled up to the site there were no campers in site, but we were immediately met by the owner Andrea who asked if we had reservations. He said I know it looks crazy but we are full. It turns out Lucca holds the Italian equivalent of Comicon and it is this week and 500,000 people are expected. But in true Italian fashion with a twinkle in his eye he said we can stay for two nights which was exactly our plan, so it turns out there is no problem. I then asked him about the bus into town and he said the schedule was posted, but he would give us a lift into town if we could leave soon.
Lucca was a treat. It is an old walled town with the walls still intact. It has suffered little damage over time and has been a settlement since the Romans so it is full of interesting buildings from many different eras. We wandered the town for a few hours and were rewarded with small revelations around every corner. There are no spectacular buildings in Lucca, just a bunch of medium sized churches and palazzos with really interesting features.
While it caters to tourists, (Italian Comicon), it is not overrun with tourists like a lot of the places we visit. Tomorrow we are going to give Lucca another look and take in the sites of Italians dressed like superhero and comic book characters in a town that goes back to the Romans. It should be a treat.
We tried to take the bus back to the campground, but the bus runs on a pretty irregular schedule. Google told us the next bus was not for 2 and a half hours, the bus stop seemed to imply there was one an hour sooner than that. We gambled on the bus stop sign and lost, so we decided to take a taxi. This turned out to be a good idea as a major thunderstorm rolled in just after we got back knocking out power in the area.
We had another great day on the Cinque Terre. We are staying at a basic Sosta run by one of the local ambulance services, so in addition to a bunch of motor homes we are sharing our space with a couple of ambulances. When the drivers are not out on runs they man the front gate and take payment. When I went to buy bus tickets into town I tried to do the ordering in Italian (“due persona, biglietta a autobus retorno”) for anyone who speaks Italian you will know that is terrible, but the guy understood and thanked me for trying and then switched to perfect English for the rest of the transaction.
Yesterday we covered the most popular of the three cities on the Cinque Terre, today we planned on covering the last two towns. After our twenty minute bus ride to the train station in La Spezia we headed out to Corniglia. It is the least visited town because it does not connect to the ocean, and you have to climb 365 steps to get to the town. The town is really perched on a promontory overlooking the ocean with great views up and down the coast. It is also has good views up to the mountains above the coast. In addition to climbing the steps to town we climbed up above the town into the vineyards that were the primary source of income before tourism took over.
Our next stop was the town of Manarola. It is considered by the people who write about the Cinque Terre as the most romantic of the towns. It consists of one main street running down to a small harbor. But what makes it romantic are the trails around the town which after a pretty good climb take you thru the vineyards that cascade down the mountainside into the town. The trail is quite spectacular and you are rewarded for your effort by some great views.
Having climbed about 770 feet in total between the two towns (if my fitbit is to be believed) we decided to reward ourselves with a nice lunch. We walked up the road in Manarola scouting for lunch. Ton would walk up to each restaurant and look at the menu and inspect the food on the tables that the customers were eating. After a while she pointed at a restaurant and said that is the one. I noticed that there was a table for two on the second floor balcony and asked one of the waitresses in terrible Italian if we could sit there. She said of course; and informed the manager/husband that we were going to get those seats (my reward for trying to speak Italian), clearly to his frustration. It turned into a wonderful meal as we both had great fresh seafood on a balcony overlooking the town. We shared the balcony with a nice German couple, and inside there was a French tour group who had quite a bit of wine with their lunch, and in the end their Italian tour guide broke into song and the group joined in. All in all a very memorable lunch.
Our final plan for the day was to walk from Manarola to Riomagiore but unfortunately the trail was closed. So instead we headed back to La Spezia. Ton says I owe her a massage for making her climb 770 feet today, but I think most of the climbing was her idea.
Todays trip was driven by the weather. So far the weather has been spectacular, the one day it did rain it was nice enough to do it during the night and by morning the sun was out again. But our good luck is changing and we are supposed to get a week of rain, starting tomorrow night.
One of Ton’s bucket list items on this trip was the Cinque Terre. This location is really weather dependent, and since today was the last guaranteed good day for a while we decided to head over from Florence. We will end up heading back into Tuscany for a more extended visit once we are done here.
We were up bright and early, and it turns out today was the day Europe Falls Back from Daylight savings time. With our early start we covered the 140km’s to La Spezia quickly and arrived at the Sosta on the outskirts of La Spezia at 9am. After a quick breakfast it was off to the train station to buy our two day Cinque Terre pass.
The Cinque Terre is a series of 5 coastal villages carved into the sides of cliffs along the Ligurian Sea. They are part of an Italian National Park as well as UNESCO Heritage sites. While they are difficult to reach by road, the Italian Railway has carved tracks that connect them all. This is by far the best way to explore the Cinque Terre. A two day pass is only €27 per person and allows unlimited trips on the line between La Spezia and the five towns (it also includes free access to the walking trails between the towns, and the bathrooms in the train stations!).
As today was the only guaranteed good day we picked the three largest villages, Riomagiorre, Vernazza, and Monterosso. They are all in spectacular settings with small harbors at the bottom of steep roads leading to the ocean.
We started the day in Riomagiorre and as we got off the train we heard a lot of Thai being spoken all around us. It turns out we had stumbled into a tour of about 25 Thai. We listened into the guide for a while until he caught on and we introduced ourselves. He thought it was funny.
Monterosso is the largest of the towns and has the largest of the harbors but probably the least spectacular setting. I was a little disappointed when I saw a big parking lot on the edge of town with about 20 RV’s parked in it. It turns out this is the one place you can camp in the Cinque Terre. I missed it in my app because it was listed as parking and not a Sosta. In Italy I am not looking at parking areas like I have in France and Germany as places to stay only Sostas and Campgrounds.
Vernazza is the smallest of the towns we visited today and is considered by most people to be the prettiest of the towns. It only has one main road that leads down to a small harbor. As you walk down to the harbor you see pictures of a massive flash flood that shot down the road in 2011. After walking around town we headed up on to one of the trails that connect all of the towns on the Cinque Terre. We wandered up there by accident but the view was so good we kept going. At one point Ton was shooting some pictures when she overheard 4 Thai taking turns taking pictures of each other, she could not resist and asked if they wanted a picture of all 4 of them. They reciprocated by taking pictures of us.
After our quick view of Florence yesterday we headed back in today with a plan for a walking tour of Florence. It is another beautiful Indian Summer day, low 70’s and sunny.
Florence is beautiful and an easy city to walk around in. We hit all of the tourist highlights. Because of the weather the city was teeming with people, but everyone seemed in a good mood. We had thought of visiting the inside of the Cathedral but when we arrived the line was far too long so we moved on.
Our next stop was the Ponte Vecchio (Old Bridge). We had gone by yesterday to get some photos but Ton was not happy with the results so she wanted a reshoot. (She is turning into a real professional.) After getting some good shots we headed up hill on the far side of the river. It was much quieter and we really enjoyed walking thru some interesting but less busy neighborhoods. We headed up to the Piazzo Michaelangelo where we had a great view of the city. On the way up we made a short detour into a very beautiful rose garden that we both enjoyed.
Our next stop was the Florence Market which is always a highlight for Ton in every city. The Florence Market did not disappoint, we wandered from stand to stand for a good hour, and ended up with spices, pasta, and a kilo of parmesan cheese which we have optimistically vacuum packed, but I suspect will not make it home. The upstairs of the market is a food court unlike any we have ever seen. There are 50 or more food stands with an eclectic mix of Italian and non-Italian foods. We were tempted but had two restaurants we wanted to check out for lunch.
The first restaurant was right outside of the market but when we got there it was clear we were not the only one who had selected this restaurant. The other restaurant on the list was a 20 minute walk away but when we got there it had already closed for lunch. Now we were really hungry, we discussed going back to the food court at the market but neither one of us wanted to double back.
As we were walking down the street Ton saw a place offering a two course meal with wine for €10. It seemed too good to be true, and I was skeptical but Ton talked me into it and it turned into one of our best meals in Europe. There were 6 choices for the pasta plate, and 6 choices for the meat plate. We each picked different ones and shared and they were all good. It also came with a carafe of wine that was a solid Tuscan. In the end for €10 we had a memorable meal.
When we finished our meal we both had gone into a food coma, so we decided to head back to the Hilton for the day.
At the beginning of the trip Hilton informed us that we had to use points by November or we would lose them, so we are spending the next two nights in luxury at a Hilton Hotel near Florence, François is parked safely in the parking lot.
The drive over was relatively uneventful and we arrived early. We had hoped to see a grocery store on our way to the hotel, but did not. Since we were early we tried going to one near the hotel, but after wandering around for awhile (and possibly blundering into a ZTL) we could not find it so we headed back to the hotel and checked in.
We headed downtown to give Florence a preliminary look and were really impressed. We just walked the streets but Ton killed the battery on her iPhone in about two hours she took so many pictures.
We walked down to the river to see the old bridge which is quite interesting as it is one of the few bridges to survive that continues the medieval tradition of having stores and dwellings on them.
We then came upon a Medici Palace and wandered in to check it out and decide if we would return and pay for the tour tomorrow. We took a walk around the Cathedral and decided we definitely would return for the tour tomorrow.
Having walked for awhile we decided to have a dinner of pizza and watched some Rugby on TV. Florence makes a very good first impression.
Our second day in Rome was aimed at the Roman ruins and the Colosseum. Again the public transport in Rome worked very well and we arrived early for our tour. This time we were able to get a slot on an earlier tour which was lucky as this tour was pretty small and we had some things we wanted to see after the tour.
We began by visiting Palantine Hill which contains many of the ruins of the old Roman city center. They are still discovering many ruins as Rome like many cities is in layers. We were told that there are seven layers of buildings from the modern we see today to the original remains of the founding of the city. We began the tour by looking over a site that was uncovered when they were extending the metro system. It was the remains of a temple and was quite impressive. The guide says this happens all of the time when new construction is begun in the city.
The tour of the ruins around the coliseum was very interesting, and the history is fascinating to hear. The ruins are different than those of Pompei because Pompei was destroyed in a flash, the ruins in Rome happened over centuries due to neglect. Originally Rome was built on hills because the areas between the hills were flood plains. Over time as the Romans developed their sewer systems they were able to manage the floods and much of what we saw today was development in what had been the flood plain. As Rome declined the sewers and other flood control measures failed, and things were covered over with mud from floods.
After a thorough exploration of Palatine Hill, we headed over to the Colosseum for the big finish of the tour. The Colosseum is an impressive structure. The resemblance to modern stadiums is striking. The building held 50,000 people for events, and they could have the crowds into the building in 30 minutes and could empty the building in 20 minutes. The construction techniques are fascinating to me, and their solutions to structural issues were quite sophisticated. Most of the seating is gone but you can easily visualize the crowds. They even had a method to cover the seats during rain using canvas and ropes.
Our final two sites for the day were the Trevi Fountain, and the Spanish Steps. They are having a real Indian Summer here so the crowds at these two sites were summer like. For the Trevi Fountain I picked a spot where I could enjoy a view and let Ton dive into the crowd to get some pictures.
Today we decided to start our time in Rome by visiting the Vatican. Yesterday after some research we decided to do a guided tour, it was €10 more than the unguided ticket. It was expensive but the other option was waiting in line for an indeterminate amount of time to purchase a ticket as an individual.
Our tour was at 11am but not having tried the public transport in Rome we left about 8:45 to give me some time to get lost. It turns out the trip to the Vatican was a breeze and we were there about 9:30. We used the time until the tour began to wander around St. Peters Square. The square itself is very impressive and we had no trouble killing the time we had until our tour.
We joined our tour and headed over to the Vatican Museum. The museum was fantastic but the crowds inside were incredible. I am not sure how many people they let in per day, but if today is any indication it is too many. At times you could not stop walking as you were being carried along by the crowds. We saw a lot of beautiful things that we would have liked to stop and admire but were unable to due to the crowds. It also made following the guides talk very complicated as we would frequently be separated from her by a wall of people and were not quite sure what piece of art she was talking about. We later learned that even in shoulder season Mondays and Saturdays are very crowded.
We eventually made our way thru to the highlight of the trip the Sistine Chapel. Again the place was jammed with people and you were basically herded into the middle of the Chapel and had to stop and stand in one place. There was no moving around to get a better view of a particular part of the chapel. Having complained I know why so many people want to see the chapel as it is absolutely stunning, one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen. In the end it was worth the trouble. Sorry there are no pictures from the Sistine Chapel allowed.
The tour finished up with St. Peters Basilica. We have visited a lot of Cathedrals during our time touring in Europe but this one is special. While the crowds were just as large, St. Peters was more than big enough to handle them. While the place is ornate it struck me as more understated, as if it has nothing to prove. We appreciated this, but the art that is in the cathedral is beautiful, and surprisingly to us from many different eras. It is not frozen in time which is also refreshing.
In the end our three hour tour took a little over four hours due to the crowd, and we emerged from St. Peters famished. Ton had picked out a place she wanted to try and following Google maps we arrived at the site, sat down and ordered some pasta, when I looked across the street and saw the name of the restaurant she had picked out, we were in the wrong place. The food was pretty good though.
Taormina was on Ton’s must see list today. I made a scouting run down to the terminal to discover the best way to Taormina. Option 1 was a hop on hop off bus that gave us use of the tourist bus and the regular bus for €14 each or take a regular bus for €3. We were torn about what to do, and still had not made up our mind when we got to the terminal. We finally chose the regular bus, but after we bought the ticket the cashier who must have heard our debate, asked the Hop on Hop off bus driver to let us ride to Taormina, so we ended up with the best of both worlds. This good samaritan was the same guy who had rebuffed my earlier attempt to ask him about the bus to Taormina in Italian, with a gruff “What do you want?” in English.
Taormina has been a town since the ancient Greeks, and it is really a spectacular site on a large bluff overlooking the harbor at Giardini-Naxos. We were dropped off at a nondescript bus terminal, but as soon as we began hiking up the road to the town the views were spectacular. As we got closer to the town center we both became more charmed. Despite the fact that Taormina is definitely on the tourist trail, complete with all of the brand name stores lining its main street, it still had a spirit that we both really enjoyed.
The town meanders up and down hill. The main road is wide and flat, but all of the roads off of it are either up or down and quite narrow, which adds to the atmosphere. Off of the main road the shops were run by locals who were very friendly without being pushy. Ton had picked out two potential restaurants for lunch, but one had gone out of business, and the other was not open. Just down the street was a cheese store that advertised lunch and we were both drawn to it. We went inside to take a look and saw a restaurant in the back. We asked the lady at the counter if they served lunch and she said yes in an hour, would we like a reservation. Something I have learned is that in romance languages my short name “Ron” (in Spanish it means Rum) is perplexing, so when she acted confused about my name I switched it to Ronaldo, she immediately connected the dots and had a good laugh with one of the customers.
Having an hour to kill we decided to head up to the Greek Theater which is the big attraction in town. When we got there it was €10 to get in, and since we have seen a lot of antiquity sites on this trip decided to pass. We still had time to kill so we went to the municipal park and sat down on a park bench to enjoy the views.
The lunch at the cheese shop was superb. We opted for a Sicilian food and wine tasting. It consisted of three wines, and a plate of cheeses, meats, and grilled vegetables. We have had a lot of good meals on our trips in Europe, but we both agreed that so far this is the best. The food and wine while simple was fresh and delicious. The service of the husband and wife was great and they enjoyed explaining the food and wine to us. They were clearly proud of their Sicilian heritage and happy to share it with us. At the end neither of us could bring ourselves to leave so we stalled with a coffee, and an aperitif. Ton was tempted to return for dinner, but they were full, though we could tell if we pushed and had some flexibility they would have found a way to accommodate us. We rarely mention places by name but if you are ever in town do not miss La Bottega Del Formaggio.
We finally have a plan for Sicily and it was time to move on from Marsala. It was a short drive to Agrigento for our first stop.
We had heard a lot about the poor quality of Italian roads and particularly those on Sicily. The road today was on the whole good, the only problem was I spent the whole trip more or less not knowing what the speed limit was. The road was controlled access most of the way and while it was only two lanes there was very little cross traffic. But the speed limit was a total mystery, sometimes really good stretches were posted at 50kmh, some other stretches were posted at 70, and once in a while we would see a short stretch of 90. Near the end just to add some variety there was an 8 or 10 km stretch posted at 60. The problem was there was no rhyme or reason to the speeds, and the Italians around here are pretty stingy with signs. The Garmin was no help as it seemed to have a different opinion than me and was also frequently different than the signs. You cannot judge by the local drivers as they bomb along at any speed they feel comfortable with, but they know where the speed cameras are. I think it will be a miracle if I do not end up with a ticket somewhere along the line, if I did not get one today, even though I was one of the slowest cars on the road.
The purpose of todays trip was to visit the Valley of the Temples near Agrigento. The area around here has been an urban site since the Greeks and there is a large area with different versions of mostly Greek temples, with an area of Roman development thrown into the mix. Ton and I counted 8 different temple sites, but we may have missed a couple. The entire Valley is about one and a half miles, and is one of the most extensive archeological sites I have seen.
The highlight of the valley is the Parthenon like Temple of Concorde which dominates the valley. Originally built by the Greeks 2500 years ago it has been repurposed over time as Carthaginian, Roman, and Christian Temples/Churches which is why it has survived in such good shape. Many people say it is in better shape than the Parthenon in Athens.
The Valley of Temples is one of the most impressive World Heritage Sites we have visited. For me it was pretty awe inspiring.
The jet lag is starting to wear off so we woke a little earlier to head into Lyon. We purchased an all day pass for public transport in Lyon which is a good deal for €6 as we wanted to cover a lot of ground today.
On the way to Lyon we asked a young gentlemen to confirm we were at the correct bus stop, and ended up chatting with him most of the way to downtown. He is trying to start a company to refill wine bottles directly rather than sending them to recycling first and then remolding them. He told us there is a similar program going on with beer bottles in Oregon that we were not familiar with. We enjoyed a wide ranging conversation from tax methods to population density of Oregon vs France. These small contacts are always fun and encouraging.
When we finally arrived in downtown Lyon after a detour due to a market along the route and getting caught in a major traffic jam, we ran into the finish line for the Lyon marathon. We spent a little time watching the runners finish, and enjoying the good mood of the spectators and runners as they crossed the line.
Our next stop was the Roman theater which was pretty close to the finish line, the problem was it was about 600 feet higher on a pretty steep hill. There were two funiculars up the hill which were covered by our transit pass, but I could not find them so we ended up climbing the hill. The Roman theater is quite large and well preserved. It is still used to stage plays during the year, and holds about 6000 people in its current configuration. During the Roman era there was a second wooden deck that accommodated another 5000 people.
In the distance we saw a cathedral dedicated to the Virgin Mary and headed over there. It was a fairly modern cathedral built around 1872. The story about the cathedral is it is on a hill overlooking the original cathedral in Lyon Saint-Jean. In the 1500’s when the plague was going thru Europe the town prayed to Mary that if she spared Lyon from the plague they would do an annual procession to the top of the hill, and the plague skipped Lyon. In the 1600’s there was a cholera epidemic in the area, and the citizens again prayed to Mary and promised a church on top of the hill if Lyon was spared, and it was. Finally during the Franco-Prussian war in 1870 the citizens asked Mary to spare them from destruction by the Prussians this time promising a cathedral, which was duly built when the Prussians by passed Lyon.
We also found the funicular so our trip down to the main city was much quicker and easier on the knee’s. I have become quite reliant on Google for navigation, and it was at this point that I realized that despite Lyon being the third largest city in France, its transit system was not loaded into Google maps. So now to get to our next destination I had to go back to the old way of trying to compare a city map with a transit map to figure the best way to get to a food hall with several famous restaurants. It was not pretty but eventually we arrived just in time to watch all of the restaurants close up for the day.
So instead we headed back to François where Ton prepared me a delicious meal.
We woke up to a pretty serious thunderstorm. It had been raining off and on all night with a few gusts of wind strong enough to rock François back and forth. Our neighbor had to get up and secure his bicycles and table to prevent them from blowing away.
The neighbors were Belgian and we spent some time talking to them last night. Neither spoke English fluently but they both could communicate to us. The first question was where we were from as it was clear to them we were not French. After we got that sorted out, we began to talk about traveling. The wife volunteered that this was her first time in this part of Belgium. Since Belgium is quite small we were a little surprised so Ton asked her where she was from, “Bruges”. We both laughed as Bruges is about 40 miles from where we are today and she was probably in her late 60’s. She thought about it for a minute and laughed too, saying she has been to Spain, France, and Indonesia but not to Westvleteren until today. She made me laugh again later when we were heading back to François, I told them “See you later”, she replied “See you later alligator”, giggled and followed it with “after a while crocodile”. I got a real kick out of that which she appreciated.
Today was the biggest day of our beer tour of Germany and Belgium. Tons’ favorite beer in the world is Duchesse de Bourgogne by Verhaeghe Brewery. Ton had been on their website and they only offered public tours on Friday and that would not work for us. We decided to send them an email explaining our problem and asking if they could accommodate us in any way. We were thrilled when they agreed to give us a private tour of the brewery today.
We arrived at the brewery and met our guide for the day Katrien. She sat us down and began the tour with a tasting of two of their beers that they only sell locally. After that we were off for a walk around the brewery. The brewery is family run for 4 generations and has survived two world wars. In the first world war the owner of the brewery refused to brew for the Germans so they confiscated all of his beer making equipment to melt down to make guns.
Their beer is all pre-sold so they are in the process of a significant expansion of the brewery to double their output. We were shown both the historical old buildings and the new modern buildings that will make up the expansion. Katrien did a great job explaining the process, and talking us thru each of the beers. It was a great time and we have a fresh bottle of Duchess de Bourgogne to drink before we leave.
We finished the day in an aire in the town of Kortrijk which is a major town in the region. We did not see as much of it as we wanted as it was raining pretty hard when we first arrived with occasional flashes of lightning. It finally calmed down enough for us to take a quick walk thru the town. It has two World Heritage Sites, their town belfry which along with all of the other belfries in Flanders are grouped as a world heritage site, and the Beguinage of Courtrai which is a well preserved 13th century womens community. It was run like a nunnery but the women did not take any religious vows. It was still active as a womens community until the 1960’s.
Bruges deserved a second day so after spending some time talking to our Dutch and English neighbors we headed into town to take a look at some other sites for the day. We were hoping it would be a little less crowded than on Friday but if anything it was busier.
Our first stop was the oldest bar in Bruges dating back to the 1560’s. One of the stories is that the famous Flemish painter Paul Reubens ran up a bar tab in the 1600’s that he did not have the cash to pay off, so he paid the bill with a painting. Hopefully they kept the painting long enough as it would have paid off whatever tab he ran up plus a million Euro or so today.
Something interesting happened as we walked to the bar. It is not in the tourist core of Bruges, and after we got a few blocks past the square we were suddenly alone. We were following a beautiful canal with really interesting buildings all around us, but hardly any tourists, just locals. We really enjoyed this stretch of the city.
On Friday we passed on a canal boat tour because of the crowds, but today despite the crowds being worst we felt obliged to do it. There were 40 seats on the boat and they were all filled. Our boat driver was multi-lingual so he did the tour in 4 languages, English, Dutch, French, and Spanish so we had to pay attention for when our explanation was coming. By this time we had walked all of the canals we went down on the boat a couple of times so we were familiar with the sites and the short explanation did not add much to our experience.
Ton treated me to a fathers day meal of Flemish Mussels which are a delicacy around here. After we started eating we realized that Delirium Brewery from Brussels had recently bought this place which was listed as one of the best restaurants and beer halls in town.
At the end of the day we returned to Half Maan Brewery for a tour. It is clear that lawyers are not the powerful force in Belgium that they are in the US. Our tour had us climbing up and down ladders and very small stairs thru working industrial space. At one point the tour guide let an 11 year old boy climb into a 500 liter beer tank, that would result in a fine from the safety inspector in the US. The brewery has a 2 mile pipeline for beer from the brewery to their bottling plant in the industrial outskirts of Bruges which is the longest beer pipeline in the world. The highlight was when we popped out on the roof of the brewery for a great view of the top of Bruges. The tour ended with a nice glass of Belgian Blonde Ale, and some soccer discussion about the US women and Timbers with another couple from Portland who were also on the tour.
As we headed back we heard voices near François and it turns out our English and Dutch neighbors had also just returned and were exchanging stories of their day. We joined in and an impromptu party broke out where some French wine, and Irish, and German beer was consumed. That is why this is being published a day late.
Bruges is one of the most visited cities in Europe and a world heritage site. It is one of the cities that is being loved to death and is looking at how to reduce tourism without killing it. So we are here with all of the tourists trying to enjoy the city.
When you get here you see why it is popular. It has most of its older buildings intact and is a great size to walk around and take in the sites. On top of that it has an extensive canal system that makes it feel even more fun and interesting. The entire town is a UNESCO site and for good reasons.
Having said all of that we we are here in shoulder season and it was packed. It is not a place to visit if you do not like crowds. We usually avoid crowds but braved them today and are glad we did as the city is really worth it. There is not one thing that is truly outstanding, but what you have is all of the pieces of a European City, palace, cathedral, market square, old houses and businesses and they are all well preserved and presented. In this case the sum of the parts is greater than the individual parts.
The aire in Bruges is next to a giant bus lot for all of the tour busses who come to the city each day. The aire is expensive but the location is good as it is a quick 10 minute walk to the center.
We had a list of things we wanted to see and do. One of the highlights was a visit to a chocolate shop that is known for outstanding hot chocolate. This was absolutely the best hot chocolate we have ever had. When our order arrived we thought they had made a mistake because we received two very large cups of hot milk, and a tray with two heaping servings of chocolate. The girl explained that we put the chocolate into the milk and mix it ourselves to taste. It was unbelievably delicious. In addition to the chocolate we split a Belgian Waffle with chocolate, whipped cream and ice cream. It was decadent, the best desert we have had on this trip.
After that we spent the day enjoying ourselves wandering around town. Ton ran the battery down on her camera taking photos. Bruges is one of the best cities we have visited to just wander aimlessly as there is a new view, or statue, or people doing interesting things all around. We accomplished all of our list but the canal boat ride as the lines were crazy and the boats were gunnel to gunnel going down the canal.
We ended the day with a stop at at the Half Moon Brewery which has been around for six generations now. We enjoyed two of their signature beers. Even though it was our last planned stop we still took over an hour to get back to François as new sights beckoned us to turn aside all the way back.
Another long drive today as we decided it was time to move on from Germany. Just like with Spain we thought we had enough time to see most of Germany and it turns out we have missed most of the central part of the country. We wanted to make one more stop on our way out of the country in Cologne.
Cologne is one of the largest tourist destinations in Germany and has the most visited place in Germany in its Gothic Cathedral. Since it was on the way towards The Netherlands we decided to spend the night here. Again we were both up pretty early and got an early start so our drive to Cologne was nice and easy if a bit long.
We got a nice spot in the aire facing the Rhine River so we have spent part of the day watching the river barges going past. After settling down we headed towards the city center to join the crowds at the cathedral. Our route was along the Rhine, and for the last mile the path was a sprawling flea market. Between the flea market, the holiday and the five river cruise boats docked along the river the river walk was jammed with people.
We finally reached the cathedral, and had a quick walk around the exterior before going in. Much to our surprise the entrance was free. This cathedral is still Catholic unlike many of the churches we have been visiting lately which started out as Catholic, and were converted to Lutheran after the reformation. The exterior is massive and the spires are the main attraction. Construction was started in 1248 and suspended in 1473, it was finally completed in 1880 after over 400 years of suspension.
The interior is attractive, and the stain glass is pretty though we presume it is all post WWII. The Cologne cathedral would probably make our top 10 list of cathedrals if we were keeping one, but closer to number 10 than number 1.
Cologne is also famous as the originator of Kolsch Beer, so that was the next attraction we headed for. The first place we went was Peters Beerhouse where the first waiter asked if we were there to eat or to drink, we replied drink and he immediately showed us to a standup bar in a corner next to a bar, and the place where waiters return the used beer glasses. This was in a huge place that could easily seat several hundred and it was 90% empty. The tradition in Cologne is to serve beers in small glasses so that the beer remains cold, the server is supposed to come by frequently so you can get refills. In this case after the first round the waiter came by and said his shift was over so we needed to pay up. So we were out of there.
Hoping that was an aberration we headed over to another famous Kolsch place which again was largely empty, this time we got to pick out table and sit, but the service was not particularly friendly so we decided to cut our losses and head on back to François thru the slightly less crowded flea market. Ton cooked a great German meal of pork cutlets, spatzle, sauerkraut and kraut salad so the day ended on a positive note as we enjoyed our meal while looking out on the river traffic on the Rhine.