Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Unlike Any Other Place

Venice is a great city just to meander and wander around.  No cars, traffic lights, horns honking - well a few boats do have horns and of course there were the 2 boat drivers having a bit of 'water rage' when we first left the train station - yelling at each other for about 5 minutes while we decided NOT to take the water taxi (€80!) and walk the 20 mins to our apartment. Speaking of our apartment, it was right on the grand canal a bit north of the Rialto bridge. And I mean right on the canal - we could almost reach out and touch the water. It was quite amazing to see the amount of traffic going by here all day - the vaporetto (water buses), ambulances, boats delivering produce to the stores, garbage 'trucks', police, EVERYTHING in the city is done by boat.

View from our window:

We hit the main tourist sites - including St. Marks Basilica - again an amazing church lined with gold mosaic tiles for which no picture can do it justice.

The intricately tiled floor made me think this would be a good place to do a lesson on tessellations (Math 8)

Even convinced Garry to take the 'cheesy' gondola ride - at night when the canals were peaceful and calm and ultra-romantic (hah!).

Most complaints about Venice are about the overload of tourists which is likely helping to cause the island to sink lower into the sea! However, without tourists I'm not sure there would be a Venice.

Almost all our accommodation for this trip was booked through Airbnb and if you haven't used it before I'd recommend it. Most of them were apartments with kitchens and living rooms; quite a range of quality but the range went from very good to excellent. You also need to check the details carefully including bed arrangement - lots will claim that the couch is a bed.

All in all Italy is like one great big museum/art gallery/history lesson and even though we missed lots it was wonderful to see some of the major works (Sistine chapel/David). The food has less variety and less spice than you would generally associate with Italian food - I guess what we eat are all 'americanized' versions.  We were pretty done with pasta and pizza by the end of our trip.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Under the Tuscan . . .

. . . rain.  On our last morning in Florence we were awakened by a very loud thunder and rain storm.  That was the morning we took the train to Siena, rented a car and stayed one night at Montepulciano.  The walled village is a series of relatively steep hills and the rain stopped just long enough for us to walk up and down a few. The next day, near Cortona, was our scheduled cooking class.  We met our teacher Rita in town for coffee and pastries, during a downpour, and decided on a menu for the day. Then we went to the little village shops to get our vegetables, bread, chicken, etc.

The only complaint about the cooking class was the over abundance of food - we had enough leftovers for several days but unfortunately no way to keep them (except for Alanna's biscotti of course). First we prepared several dishes for lunch - rice stuffed tomatoes, eggplant topped with pesto, tomato and cheese, zucchini blossoms stuffed 3 different ways, bruschetta topped with either chicken livers (negative reviews on that one) or eggplant/onion/garlic, large variety of meats and the local sheep cheese (peccarino). And everything either fried in, brushed with or topped with copious quantities of olive oil, some of produced on the farm of the teacher. We barely finished eating lunch when we began making 2 types of pasta - the local specialty - pici (pr. peechee) - which is hand rolled, and chard/ricotta filled ravioli. The pici was topped with a zucchini carbonara and the ravioli with a puréed tomato sauce that we had made first thing and had simmered all day (hint: never boil it). The third course was chicken scaloppine with lemon sauce and we finished with a lovely tiramisu that had also been chilling since morning (and the biscotti). There were only the 4 of us so you can imagine why there was so much leftover. It was a long, but satisfying day - we all learned lots.

Garry cutting up the ravioli he's just made:

The next day poured as we drove through what we could only imagine was the scenic Tuscan countryside. We found one of the famous thermal hot springs (Rapolano) and spent a few hours soaking in the sulphur pools before we ended up in our destination of San Gimignano - (another) beautiful medieval village - just as the sun finally came through.

Ponte Vecchio in Florence - the only bridge Hitler didn't bomb in WW2 - presumably because of his appreciation for the art work housed on the top.


I'd have to say that of all the big cities Florence has been my favourite - the beautiful renaissance architecture, Michelangelo's David and the huge Boboli gardens all contribute to its beauty. 

Everywhere we've gone we've remarked that it would be nice to stay there longer, although I think the 4 of us agree that Tuscany tops the list.

The view from our apartment in San Gimignano - the hills are beautifully manicured.

Saturday, September 06, 2014

If you like stairs . . .

If you like stairs Cinque Terre is the place to be.  I can't even begin to think how many stairs I've climbed in the past 2 days since we got here.  However, the natural beauty of the place is almost enough to make you forget about all the hills. I can certainly see why it's become a favourite tourist destination.
We're staying at Monterosso, the most northerly of the 5 small villages on the hills above the Ligurian Sea.  The thing to do here is hike the trails from one village to the next so of course that's what we did yesterday. Well at least we hiked from one to the next which took about 2 hours, mostly uphill (or so it seemed).  My calves are saying things to me today that I don't want to hear.

This is at the end of the hiking trail coming down into Vernazza.

This morning (Saturday) we took the boat to Portovenerre, a larger village about 1.5 hours away, with stops at the other villages along the way. Then back to Manarola and Corniglia - where you have 383 stairs up to the village from the train station (thankfully we took the bus up, stairs down). Each of the villages have narrow, winding roads with very few vehicles. They were originally fishing villages, obviously still lots of fishing from the offerings in the restaurants. The floods in 2011 in this area were quite devastating and some of the lower (and easier) trails are still being restored.
The cliffs rising from the sea are steep and rocky and it's very odd to see houses, vineyards, churches, etc. built high on the edge with no visible way to get there (except stairs of course).  Apparently there is one residence that requires 1000 stairs to get there. The hills are terraced with vineyards and lemon groves.

Monterosso appears to be a real happening little place.  On Thursday night we happened into the annual Walnut competition - kind of like bowling only with walnuts.  Then last night there was a wine festival so we bought tickets and had samplings of several types of wine. Today was a band festival - several different military type bands playing in the town square, complete with majorettes. Both Ross and I are hoping that tomorrow (Sunday) will bring a bit of peace - I think we're both exhausted from holidaying!

My daily dose of gelato.

Wednesday, September 03, 2014

Pristine Sistine

I wouldn't say that the Sistine Chapel was the only reason I came to Italy but it was certainly up there on my list.  Our tour started at 7:30 am and we entered the Vatican about 8:00 'before the public'.  By the time we made our way through to the Chapel there were actually quite a few people there - but not as crowded as it would get later.  According to our guide, to see everything in the Vatican Museum would take 7 days at 7 hours per day and our guide did her best to show us as much as possible in the 3 hours we were there. Much of the time we just got a quick glimpse of the tapestries, sculptures, relics, paintings as we moved to another section of the museum.

Here are 2 photos of random ceilings along the way:

In the 1980s the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel was restored but since the Vatican didn't have enough money for the restoration (?) the Japanese came up with the 4 million euro necessary.  As part of the deal the copyright for Michelangelo's masterpiece was retained by Japanese TV and no photos are allowed. Of course we had originally thought it might have to do with preserving the artwork!

St. Peter's Basilica is (perhaps) the largest in the world and holds up to 50,000+ people.  It covers over 5 acres. The top of the dome, designed by Michelangelo, is over 400 ft from the floor. A lot of the columns and artwork found here were actually taken from other sites and "repurposed" here. I found it amazing, not so much for it's religious significance, but more for the intricate tile floors, mosaic artwork, Michelangelo's sculptures, etc.  A magnificent place! The whole Vatican museum is more like an art gallery than a church.

A photo can't do justice to the scale and beauty of this place:

Monday, September 01, 2014

Rome - In which Ross's hat makes a break for it

We arrived to a very hot and sweltering Rome on Saturday.  The 2 bdrm apartment we rented on airbnb is quite roomy - huge bedrooms, 2 bathrooms, big living area and kitchen with everything except a toaster and air conditioning. We're about 10 mins from the Vatican so on our way to find the hop on hop off bus on Sunday we noticed a large crowd starting to gather by St. Peter's square. Alanna approached one of the security guys who mentioned that the crowd was here to hear the pope speak at noon. So we decided to come back after the tour and joined a few thousand others as the pope gave his sermon in Latin then Italian.

When the Romans built the colosseum 2000 years ago I can't imagine they thought it would last this long. Only an earthquake in 1349 managed to down part of it.  The first few hundred years after it was built saw lots of death and violence - animals, gladiators, Christians.  We joined a tour but it was really a waste of time as the guy just droned on for about 30 minutes then we wandered by ourselves. 

We dodged a couple of thunderstorms in the morning that really cooled things off but you can see it got quite sunny by noon,

Most of you would recognize Ross and his Tilley hat - he's quite attached to it and they are inseparable in sunny situations.  Well today we ended up in a slightly different situation.  We had just ended the 'tour' on the 2nd level of the colosseum when a rogue gust of wind blew it down over the edge into the middle of the ruins. He raced down the nearest flight of stairs and proceeded to search high and low for his hat.  Well he didn't look quite high enough as it had come to rest on a small ledge half way to the ground. And there was no possible way to retrieve it! Meanwhile Alanna, Garry and I couldn't stop laughing although Ross was still in shock. He stood there looking, almost pleading - all of a sudden it broke loose and wafted gently down in front of us.  One more Tilley (and Ross's scalp) saved!!!

You can see it up about 20 ft on this ledge.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Bike And Barge - more details

Now that I've had a chance to do the laundry and say goodbye to jetlag, I'm going to post a few more details about the trip, much of it in response to questions I've had (and mostly so I won't forget). Although we had internet access on the boat it was not completely reliable and I was generally too exhausted from the day's ride to get into too much detail in my blog posts during the trip.

The company I booked my trip with was not the actual company that manages the boats.  The company is an Italian company Giro Libero.  They run quite a few bike trips and another bike/barge from Venice to Mantova. The crew was mostly Italian, so I didn't get much chance on the boat to practice my French!

The boat is a converted barge which was upgraded about 5 years ago. The name of our boat was Soleo and for this trip it housed 18 clients and our 2 guides.

The rooms are below, each with ensuite and portholes. Though small, the rooms are very efficient - kind of like motor home living.  The beds are in an L-shape. There are plenty of shelves to store stuff, a closet (which we didn't really use), some drawers under one of the beds and a space under the other bed to store our suitcases.  Even Marj's large one fit under. As you might expect the bathroom is quite small but the shower had plenty of hot water and good pressure.

On the main deck is the kitchen, dining room, bar/lounge, deck, bike storage area. This is the dining area - on the door into the kitchen is a blackboard where the chef, Paulo, would write the evening's menu.  On the last day, however, he had a surprise for us, in the 4 different languages spoken on the boat (French, English, Italian and Swedish).  I can't remember the whole meal, but I won't forget the tiramisu we had for dessert!

The bikes were a better quality than I'd expected - perhaps even better than mine at home - 21/24 gears, with high-quality pannier. We were given detailed maps and written directions in case we wanted to self-guide.  Neither Marj nor I felt comfortable trying to figure out all the little turns, roads, paths, etc. so stayed with the group (most did). We did a bit of traveling on high traffic roads but it was mostly smaller roads and some dedicated bike paths. At one point we were on a unpaved section where we were required to walk our bikes for a few hundred meters. The trickiest parts were in the villages, navigating through the main streets jockeying with traffic. But most often we were biking through vineyards, olive groves, cherry orchards, flamingo ponds, roads lined with oleanders, poppies and rhododendrons, under vast blue skies and looking forward to the next village's patisserie and pain au chocolat.

Bonus photos:
Butterfly among the lavender.  We didn't see much lavender in bloom - this was at the chateau at Les Baux - although it is certainly in evidence in the tourist shops - on linens, soaps, calendars, etc.
 The hill up to Les Baux was probably the toughest of the trip - here the 4 Canadians pose for a shot before continuing the rest of the way up to the town.  Ed and Linda (former teachers) are from West Vancouver.
In the village of Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer we climbed the narrow circling stairs up to the roof of a church where we ate our lunch and had a great view of the Mediterranean.  Of course we later dipped our toes in it.
 This was our second morning in Marseilles along the old port.
 Google street view car in Le Grau-du-Roi - a very touristy town.  Maybe you'll see us on the Google.
 Getting ready for a group photo just before the hill up to Chateauneuf du Pape.
Our guides Tamy and Bert liked to entertain us by strumming and singing.

Friday, June 13, 2014

A wee dram or a nip

Well at least we're learning the lingo - a nip is one finger and a dram is two.  A single malt is a whiskey made in one distillery unlike a blend which could come from 2 or more. And if you're having it before noon you're having a 'morning'. We had a morning yesterday because it was before noon when we travelled up some pretty narrow, windy paths to get to the Glenlivet distillery. We got a pretty good overview of the whole distilling process and a nice little nip at the end. Some of this terminology we also learned from a Scottish gentleman we met at lunch. Surprisingly he has travelled the entire route Alexander MacKenzie travelled all the way to Bella Coola. He worked in Inuvik and Tuktoyaktuk and wrote documentaries for the BBC. Very interesting fellow and very helpful when it came to informing us about Scottish ways. He also convinced us that we HAD to see the Isle of Skye.
Dunvegan Castle has been the ancestral home of the Chiefs of Clan McLeod for over 800 years so I felt that I owned a small piece of it. It's not a very pretty castle, more utilitarian I think, but the grounds have some beautiful gardens.
Even with a bit of mist and rain the Isle of Skye couldn't hide its beauty. Plenty of sheep, green, water, rock bridges. I had a bit of a moment when I was taking this picture - my lens cap dropped over the fence and rolled just out of reach. I had to do some agile maneuvering over the fence and back to retrieve it.

Sorry I didn't actually purchase these potato chips (crisps) pictured below - I'll just have to imagine what they taste like.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Swilcan bridge

First the good news - Marj's suitcase has been found and retrieved and you might have heard her sigh of relief from there!

Earlier today we walked around the old course at St. Andrews - they have 6 other courses as well.  And of course we got our photo on the Swilcan bridge - you might recognize it.
Strange as it may seem you can just walk on to the course any old time you want - just watch for golf balls.  They must not have the same lawyers as we have in Canada.

We're staying at a lovely farmhouse about 10 miles from St. Andrews surrounded by huge green fields that seem to go on forever. This is the view from our second story window and even though you can't see it in the photo at the bottom of the field is the Firth of Forth.

think Marj may finally get some whiskey tasting tomorrow.

Monday, June 09, 2014

Scottish Kings

We've transitioned from sunshine, wine and croissants to beer, fish and chips, and a bit of sogginess. Only one unfortunate incident in transit yesterday - Marj arrived but her luggage didn't!  Fortunately it was a simple task to get a SIM card and a 'bundle' for my phone so we're better able to contact British airways for updates. As well as navigate after tomorrow when we get the car.

We started the hop on hop off this morning while it was still sunny, then the rain started part way through our visit to Edinburgh Castle. We heard about all the ill-fated kings and queens of Scotland and which ones lost their heads and who tried to gain control of the castle. Some of it is vaguely familiar and Marj's knowledge of Hamlet came in handy. The oldest part of the castle dates to the 1200s.

The rain dampened our spirits a bit so we returned sopping to the BnB in the afternoon, still no luggage has arrived!

Saturday, June 07, 2014

Disembarking and on to the highlands

I was surprised that I got a little emotional saying our goodbyes to everyone (fellow passengers AND crew) as we disembarked Saturday morning. We had a couple of hours to kill in Aigues Mortes before we caught the train to Marseilles so we stopped at a little cinema for tourists that showed a movie of the town's history.  Apparently this is where Louis IX began several crusades in the 13th century to 'take back Jerusalem from the heathens'. His attempts were not successful and thousands of men died trying (including Louis who unfortunately died of dysentery in Tunisia).

Our train to Marseilles included at transfer at Nimes where we had a 1.5 hour stop.  There is a huge feria or festival in Nimes this weekend celebrating Pentecost (50 days after Easter) but mostly including a huge bullfighting competition.  We walked down a long boulevard to the fair and found a stall selling a very popular dish around here - moules frites - Mussels with fries - and the mussels were delicious! While we ate, brass bands marched down the street - in fact at one point it was like duelling bands. We ended up having a 'conversation' with a older man, who was here to see the bullfighting (and also eating mussels), and the guy operating the stand - a volunteer with a charity organization raising funds by selling food at the fair. Between our french and their English we found out a bit about the events taking place. He gave us the program that lists all the matadors and where you can make notes of their performance in the ring. Lots of revellers in the streets even at noon.

Back to Marseilles for one night and currently leaving for Scotland this morning. By 10:00 the temperature is already 30 and rising. I'm sure it will be likewise in Edinburgh ;)

Friday, June 06, 2014

The Sun Continues to Shine - Last day of biking

Well we certainly can't complain about the weather (not that that would do any good anyway) - it's been pretty well perfect.  A bit of overcast a couple of days, mostly sunny, a light breeze off the Mediterranean and 4 drops of rain in Arles (and I'm not kidding).

Aigues Mortes is a medieval walled city (like hundreds of others in France) and one of the main industries is salt. There are 10,000 hectares of salt marshes and surprisingly they are pinkish due to the little shrimp-like critters that inhabit the waters - the same critters that make the flamingos pink. Marj and I did a little tour there after our short (35 km) ride today. We mostly just did a couple of loops out of the village of Aigues Mortes so it was a pleasant ride although for some reason I'm feeling the sun a bit more today - perhaps just cumulative.

Here's a flamingo coming in for a landing. We saw hundreds today.
This is the colour the salt marsh is at this time of year.  In the distance are the huge hills of salt waiting for processing.
One last night on the boat; tomorrow on the train back to Marseille. Not only has the biking been stupendous and the food fabulous but our guide Tamy, and her partner Bert (both originally from Holland now living in Italy and running their own mountain bike company as well as guiding here) have been exceptional - enthusiastic, informative, helpful, fun and super-competent.  We have been well taken care of in every department.

Thursday, June 05, 2014

Day 5 - Flamingos and Horses

Today might have been long (67 km) but the elevation (0) was quite favourable! And the scenery spectacular. This entire area is really one big marsh with many birds and of course the horses and bulls.
There is a surprisingly big Spanish influence here - right down the to bull demonstrations and the paella and sangria in the restaurants. There are a lot of rice fields and they also harvest the salt.
For lunch we stopped at Sainte Maries de la Mers, waded in the Mediterranean and climbed to the top of a church to eat lunch. Could it get any better?
Tonight we've stopped in Aigue-Mortes (pr. egg-mort) which is literally 'dead-water' where we'll stay for 2 nights.

The schedule

By now we’re completely familiar with the routine of the boat.  At 8:00 breakfast is served which consists of cereals, yoghurt, some cheeses, meats, fruits, bread. Coffee is available from about 7:00.  Yesterday we had croissants for a treat.  By 8:30 we start taking the bikes off the boat and getting ready to ride.  After a couple of hours of biking there is often a ‘coffee’ stop when Marj and I try to find a patisserie (bakery).  Along the route there may be several stops to explain a historical site or to take pictures of something.  Lunch is usually in a little village.  After breakfast, there are baguettes, meat, cheese, lettuce, etc., for us to pack our own lunch. If we prefer we can visit one of the local restaurants.  The afternoon will often include a longer stop for beer or coffee as well.  We usually meet up with the boat by around 5:00.  The bell for supper rings at 7:00 at which time Paulo (the cook) and his assistant Stephanie introduce the dinner menu. If we want wine with dinner we mark it down in a little log to pay when we leave.  So far we’ve had no more than one bottle per day.  Dinner generally gets over around 9:00. Tammy, our enthusiastic guide, then gives us a briefing for the next day’s ride, letting us know what to expect or what to look out for. It’s a full schedule and so far there has been little ‘free time’ as both Marj and I have been pretty spent from the riding (and the wine) by the time dinner is over.

Our captain and bar man Alan (originally from England):
Marj gets a photo of Chef Paolo and Stephanie:

Wednesday, June 04, 2014

Day 4 - Into Arles and down the Petit Rhone

After we completed a tour of the city of Arles, complete with Roman amphitheater and forum ruins, we had a short (20 km) bike ride that led us past “Carmargue” horses and bulls, and many rice fields. We then had our first actual ride on the boat, down the Petit Rhone – a western branch of the Grand Rhone – before docking for the evening.  We are now in the Camargue - an area of the Rhone delta that has been preserved as a botanical and zoological nature reserve. The horses are born brown but turn white within a few years.

Each little village seems to have a carousel. Our 'guide-in-training' Bert, decided to buy a ride for the whole group. Marj picked the tiger.

Marj’s contribution to today’s blog:

“Roman ruins and Van Gogh’s madness – that pretty well sums up our day.  Croissant for breakfast and bruschetta for lunch – can’t get much better than that.”

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