Category Archives: Eurotrip 2012

Eurotrip 2012: Annecy, France

20 April: Annecy, France

Continued from part 7: Chamonix Mont Blanc, France

Snow, snow, snow, and cold
Our little hotel and surrounds have been transformed to an area covered in a fine layer of white. The snowfall whithers to light rain and strengthens to snow again, and as we arrive in Chamonix from Passy there is a marked difference in the amount of snow and how low on the mountains it is now. We arrive at the train station and travel up the mountain at a crazy angle.

Heading down to the Mer de Glace

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Eurotrip 2012: Chamonix, France

19 April: Chamonix Mont Blanc, France

Continued from part 6: Genoa and Turin, Italy

Trains, taxis and “airports”
We wake up to some mighty cold weather and sadly, no hot water. After packing, checking our goodies and making sure we have easy access to our passports, we head off towards the train station. Francois has our train tickets and luckily we are both close to the station and he set it up as a destination on the GPS last night. We arrive approximately 15 minutes before our train is set to depart, but as we look at the “Departures” board, our train is not on there. In fact, there is no train to Chambéry from this station… we’re obviously at the wrong station, with 10 minutes before our train leaves the platform.

The realization sets in that we cannot afford to miss this train, and we run out of the station straight to a waiting taxi. The driver must’ve had some experience with people emulating contenders on The Amazing Race, and he has the car ready and loads our bags in record time. Without waiting to hear where we are headed, he starts the car up and heads towards the station exit. We show him our tickets and emphasize the departure time. He nods in understanding and races us to the other train station in Turin, a mere two kilometers away. We meet the train and gratefully (though panting and breathless) sit back in our reserved seats, finally on our way to France.

We wind through the amazing landscape and as the train snakes through the mountains, it is under the cover of thick fog and light snow. Francois and I are like small children, staring out the window at what can only be described as a wonderland.

Arriving on the train station in Chambéry, we start looking for a bus or metro train that connects the train station to the airport from where we need to collect our rental car, about 10 kilometers from the station. After much debate (and now having to not-understand people in yet another language), we figure out that there is no bus or train line to the airport. So, two taxis in one day it is, then.

The airport is tiny. Miniscule. Ridiculously small. It’s an airfield, with converted shipping containers for offices. The taxi driver looks at us a little dumb-founded (as there aren’t any planes), but off loads us none the less and points us in the direction of the rental car offices.

We walk in to find about eight rental car agency desks, though only one is manned by a slight French woman. We explain in a mixture of English and newly-acquired-Italian that we’re looking for a representative from Europcar, and eventually she calls their offices. She hands the phone to me and I am confronted by an angry-sounding Frenchman, accusing us of not booking a car. I assure him that we did, give him our reference number and he inquires as to why we booked a car from the airport, when we arrived by train. I tell him that their website only showed the Europcar at the airport and he changes his attitude and assures us that he is bringing our car to us.

He arrives in a huff and apologizes profusely. He refunds us the cash we’d spent on the taxi to get to the airport and very deftly handles our contract. We receive the keys to a tiny Renault and are off on our way to Chamonix Mont Blanc.

Snow-covered French Alps
Driving from Chambéry, we watch as the temperature drops as we close in on the Alps. Accommodation in Chamonix itself is very expensive (due to all the skiers), so we are staying in the next village over, Passy. After checking into our rather quaint hotel rather high up the mountain, we get our “we’re seeing snow” today faces (and gear) on, and hop in the car to Chamonix. The temperature drops even further, and as we arrive in Chamonix it is 0ºC. The mountains are all covered in mist, but it only adds to the effect of having an all-white landscape surround us.

A quaint street in Passy, France

There are a number of cable-cars and -lines in Chamonix so after enquiring as to which ones are operational, we buy our tickets and head up the mountains. As soon as we depart the ground station, I have an insane feeling of trepidation and excitement build as we enter the fog and lose visibility of Chamonix and anything more than 50 meters away.

A last view on Chamonix

The first stop is at 1800m. It feels warmer than in Chamonix, but is ghastly white. Francois and I run around in the snow and make scrunching noises as we walk. The skiers look at us with dubious eyes and obvious judgment, but coming from sunny South Africa, we don’t care. Before we depart to continue our ascent, we make snow angels on one of the banks.

Francois & Catherine in the snow. Chamonix Mont Blanc, France

The cable car winds further up the mountain and the next stop is at 2500m. We get out and are immediately blasted with a freezing wind and swirling snow. When the wind isn’t blowing, it is deathly quiet and feels as if you’re inside a huge ball of cotton wool. There really isn’t much to see this high up other than snow and wind, and we head back down to our previous stop to enjoy a (VERY) expensive cappuccino.

Cafe at 1800m on Mont Blanc, France

Back in Chamonix we get something for dinner and some more medicine from the pharmacy, as we’re now both officially sick with flu. We plan on coming back tomorrow morning, to take the train du Montenvers up the mountain to the Mer de Glace glacier and ice cave.

Continues in part 8 with our visit to the glacier and our stay in Annecy, France.

Header photo by Deon Joubert.
All other images by the author: © catterflyworx 2012.

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Eurotrip 2012: Genoa and Turin, Italy

17 – 19 April: Sleeping in Genova and Torino, Italy

Continued from part 5: The sites of Florence

After completing our visit to the Uffizi gallery early on the morning of the 17th April, we get in our little rental car and take to the road. We’ve planned a road trip to the North-Western tip of Italy and from here we will be crossing the border into France.

Our destination for tonight is Genoa. We aren’t expecting much and take our time driving up the coast. There are storm clouds over the ocean and it seems that we will spend another night with rain as a constant companion, but for the moment at least the sun is shining and it’s easy driving. We stop in a few of the smaller towns along the highway towards Genoa, but most are deserted as it seems they thrive on holiday crowds in summer. The beaches are pristine and we risk setting our toes in the water, but it’s freezing!

Francois drives the last stretch into Genoa and it’s nerve-wracking. There are three ‘layers’ of roads on top of one another, as bridges cross over and run on top of one another and this thoroughly confuses our GPS. It takes a while to arrive at our hotel, where we receive the coldest “welcome” yet. The receptionist does not understand a single word of English and does not even feign interest in trying to let us know where we are going or how to get there. Obviously smiles are also foreign to her, and I’m less than impressed by her attitude. We settle in and park the car somewhere we assume is safe for parking, but spend a great deal of time throughout the evening checking up on it to make sure it’s not towed away or clamped in.

The hotel seems to be in little China/Nigeria and street vendors, loiterers and Chinese supermarkets are all we can find in the area. We get some supplies for dinner and head back to the hotel. We spend the evening watching horrible reality TV, as it’s the only English show we can find. Francois had a cold since we were in Rome and it seems I’m coming down with it as well.

Wednesday, 18 April
It’s my birthday! Francois wakes me up and hands me a gift that one of my friends from SA had him carry around all over Italy so that I would receive it on my birthday! It’s a pair of earrings I had been eyeing for months and I can’t believe the amount of trouble she’d gone to.

We leave the dreary city of Genoa behind and, unlike the city itself, the countryside around Genoa is absolutely stunning. We arrive in Turin just after 12:00 to find it’s an amazingly beautiful city. The weather has however closed in once again, and after dropping our bags at the AMAZING Tomato Backpackers Hotel, we head into the streets to explore the city. There is a biting wind chilling one to the core and finally we decide to get Francois a scarf to keep him from freezing to death. A very helpful lady unpacks some of her winter stock from a stack of boxes and after completing the transaction, we head off in search of a true Italian dining experience for my birthday. Unfortunately basically everything is closed at that time of day and as this is the first time we experience it, we have to come up with alternative entertainment.

A black and red bistro signboard in Torino, Italy

One of Turin’s main tourist attractions is the Molé Antonelliana. It is one of the city’s major landmarks and depicted in most of the souvenirs and features in photos of the city’s skyline most prominently. We find parking in a side-street and take a walk through the cinematic museum on the ground level. From here we drive past a few landmarks while we wait for the rental agency to open so we can return the car, but the wind dissuades us from venturing out of the car.

The Mole Antonelliana in Turin, Italy

The Mole Antonelliana in Turin, Italy

Back at the hotel after returning the car, we explore our accommodations and find a great common area in the basement. We decide this is a great place to kill some time and avoid the rain (again), and open a bottle of wine, gather our books (or Kindle, in my case) and cozy ourselves in on the couches.

Wine, books and couches in the basement of Tomato Backpackers Hotel on a rainy day in Turin, Italy

Wine, books and couches in the basement of Tomato Backpackers Hotel on a rainy day in Turin, Italy

For dinner we decide pizza is in order for a birthday in Italy, and on the owner’s recommendation we go to a restaurant whose name I can’t seem to find anywhere (not even with Google streetview) just around the corner. The food is amazing and the prices unbelievable and we thoroughly enjoy ourselves, splurging on wine, beer, pizza, coffee and dessert (all for under €30!). We are sated afterwards and decide to spend our evening in our warm accommodation like an old married couple. We also have a 7:46 train to Chambéry in France tomorrow morning, so will have to be up early.

Continues in part 7 with our mad dash for trains, arriving at ‘The Airport at the Apex of Nowhere’, driving in France and seeing snow in the Alps in France. 

Header photo by Deon Joubert.
All other images by the author: © catterflyworx 2012.

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Eurotrip 2012: Florence, Italy

15 – 16 April: The sites of Firenze, Italy

Continued from part 4: Roadtrip through Tuscany

We wake up to (yes, still) rainy weather and a cold atmosphere. In addition, there is also no hot water in our bathroom, and my dreams of a shower die a shivering death. One of our number is missing as he’s collecting his phone from the police in Siena and the remaining four of us decide to take a self-guided TripAdvisor tour, with yours truly acting as guide.

Following the Florence City Guide‘s Historic Highlights Walking tour, our first stop is the Duomo and the Campanile. Both these structures are very impressive and massive, with constructions having started in the 1200’s. The Duomo cathedral was built with the intent to shame all other churches in the Roman Catholic world – shaming everything that the Greeks and Romans built in their most powerful times, and at the time the design was put on paper, nobody had even known how the dome would be built or supported. Opposite the cathedral is a small baptistry with golden doors depicting scenes from the Old Testament.

A view on the Duomo cathedral with Campanile on the right in Florence, Italy

A view on the Duomo cathedral with Campanile on the right in Florence, Italy

We continue our “tour”, stopping momentarily in the leather markets and shops to get some gifts for people back home (and because I love the smell of leather). The next point of interest on our itinerary is the Capelle Medicee. These house some of the remains of the Medici family and is home to a lot of their amassed wealth and some interesting relics. The Medicis produced four Popes and financed a lot of the Renaissance in Italy, with staggering amounts of work being commissioned by the artists in the area. We receive an sms from our somewhat lost friend that his train is not too far from Florence, so we start heading towards the Santa Maria Novella train station.

The Campanile in Florence, Italy

The Campanile in Florence, Italy

We find a gelato store on the piazza in front of the Santa Maria Novella basilica, and decide that this is a great meeting spot. The sun also shows up for a few minutes and we lavish in the sheer awesomeness of sunshine, eating gelato on a random bench in Italy.

Ordering gelato from a colourful shop in Florence, Italy

Ordering gelato from a colourful shop in Florence, Italy

Eating Gelato on the Santa Maria Novella square in Florence, Italy

Eating Gelato in the sun on the Santa Maria Novella square in Florence, Italy

Finally reunited, we forget about following our tour and head towards some shops and other things that catch our fancy. We end up in the Piazza della Signoria and view the copy of Michelangelo’s David, together with an assortment of other amazing sculptures that are on display. Musicians play in the space outside and we find a few steps on which to sit down for a while outside the mull of the crowd. It’s a Sunday in Italy and the locals seem to take to the streets as badly as the tourists, taking advantage of the little sunshine there is.
From here we head across the river to view the Ponte Vecchio and visit either the Boboli Gardens or the Parco Bardini (I can’t remember which). It offers a nice view of the city and the gardens are immaculately kept.

It starts raining again while we are here though, so we head back to our lodgings to have some dinner and prepare for per-birthday celebration night out for me. We end up finishing four bottles of dreadful red wine and take to the streets of Florence in search of a party. We meet up with some locals who are also enjoying a Sunday night on the town, and we return home at some unholy hour the next morning.

Monday, 15 April
Our plan for today is to visit the Uffizi gallery before parting ways. Francois and I head further North into Italy tomorrow, while the other three are sleeping in Venice tonight. To our dismay, the Uffizi is closed on Mondays and only Francois and I will be able to visit it tomorrow. Instead we head up the hill towards the Piazza Michelangelo to collect the rental car and return it. The view from the piazza is amazing!

The view on Florence from the Piazza Michelangelo at sunset

The view on Florence from the Piazza Michelangelo. (Florence Sunset # 1, by Christian Krieglsteiner)

After returning the car, Francois and I are alone for the afternoon and we stroll through the shops and markets once more. Both my mom and mother in law gave me some money for my birthday and I’m in search of a gift for myself from Italy. I find a gorgeous brown leather jacket and red gloves (lined with rabbit fur) and from here we head up to check into our hostel with a room for two instead of five. We’ve also procured some more stock for our depleted grocery bags and have coffee in a quaint little shop across the street. We have dinner on our bed and find this is the first time since our arrival in Europe where the WiFi access actually works relatively well in our rooms. I chat with my mom in SA (who is very happy to find out we’re OK and enjoying it) and share some of the places we marked off as interesting in Venice with the guys there. We’re in bed fairly early and sleep rather well, considering that there is an entire school booked into the same floor as ours.

Tuesday, 16 April
Francois and I booked our tickets for the Uffizi gallery online and, after collecting our (much smaller) new rental car, we arrive early and miss most of the first crowds in the gallery. We buy a guidebook in the foyer and start strolling through the artworks, starting in Medieval and Byzantine eras, moving into the Renaissance and a little beyond. Sadly no photos are allowed, but it helps to not distract one from the art. The highlight of the visit for me is Sandro Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus, and I spend a good amount of time staring at the immense work.

Sandro Botticelli's The Birth of Venus, c. 1486. Tempera on Canvas. Uffizi Gallery, Florence.

Sandro Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus, c. 1486. Tempera on Canvas. Uffizi Gallery, Florence. (From sinoorigin).

Our tired feet let us down sooner than we were hoping on and we head back to the car and start our drive North. We are sleeping in Genoa tonight, and we’re taking a route that will lead us along the western coast of Italy.

Continues in part 6 with our drive up the coast to Genoa and Turin, Italy. 

Header photo by Deon Joubert.
Florence Sunset #1 by Christian Krieglsteiner. The Birth of Venus by sinoorigin.
All other images by the author: © catterflyworx 2012.

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Eurotrip 2012: Roadtrip through Tuscany and Pisa, Italy

14 April: Roadtrip through Tuscany, Italy

Continued from part 3.2: Two days in Rome

It’s another cold, wet, rainy and grey day in Rome as we pack our bags and head to Termini station to collect our rental car. We’re sleeping in Florence tonight, but we plan on making a roadtrip of it through the Tuscan countryside and are hoping that we will be escaping the weather a little further North of the city.

This is the first time that I will be driving on the “wrong side” of the road, and I have no idea what to expect. We get the car and luckily it seats five of us, plus all our luggage quite comfortably. The first stretch out of Rome is both the worst and best part of the drive, as due to traffic it moves quite slowly. After this the real test starts, as we’re on a small back-road out of Rome heading North to eventually join up with the highway. It takes a lot of concentration to stay far enough in our lane, without off-roading on the right-hand side whilst changing gears with my right hand. By the end of the day the driving won’t be as daunting as it was at the beginning, though when we arrived in Florence that evening I was absolutely dead tired.

Our first stop is the small town of Orvieto. We find parking quite close to the Orvieto cathedral and draw out our hoods and umbrellas to brave the rain. I am in no mood to bring out my camera only to then try and keep it dry in the rain, but instead grab Francois’ hand and walk around the massive zebra-striped cathedral with him. The rain is relentless and soon we opt to find some shelter in front of the cathedral from where we can view it without getting soaked. The header image to these posts were taken while we were hiding from the rain (but not the wind).

Duomo di Orvieto Cathedral

Duomo di Orvieto Cathedral, Italy (by fortherock)

Our second point of interest is Siena. The massive Piazza del Campo is slanted to allow for drainage of storm water, and though we’re sure the tower would offer amazing views of the beautiful city, the rain serves to dissuade us from making the climb. Instead we look for a coffee shop and treat ourselves to some fresh, warm coffee in one of the dodgiest little shops we’ve come across so far. We have our packed sandwiches for lunch in a dreary concrete parking lot and decide to trek on towards Pisa.

Piazza del Campo, Siena

Piazza del Campo, Siena (from Visiting Siena)

Our last planned stop on the way to Florence is Pisa. How can one visit the area and not see the famous leaning tower? We arrive late in the afternoon, delayed by rain and the twisty, windy roads of the Tuscan countryside. We remark again that, if it were not for the rain, we would’ve loved to stop at one of the hundreds of lookout points, wine & olive farms and miscellaneous other points of interest along the way. As it happens, the rain served to keep us in the car and make me more cautious about driving too fast in unknown territory.

The tower leans out at a somewhat ridiculous angle, and though it’s still pouring with rain, the tourists (like ourselves) abound to take ‘that’ picture with the precariously balanced tower. This is literally the only reason we are in Pisa and, after having the photos taken and reading some of the informative plaques, we get back in the car to head to our destination.

As we start heading out to Florence, we receive an sms from another one of our friends’s cellphones. He had apparently lost his phone in the coffee shop in Siena, and someone kindly handed it in to the Siena police, who are sending sms’es out to the people he last contacted. Included in this list happens to be his parents, who are understandably sent into a panic back in South Africa. It takes some time to sort out the misunderstanding and unfortunately he will have to return to Siena to collect his phone from them the next day.

We arrive in Florence in peak hour traffic and it’s a nightmare driving through the rain in the dark with Italian drivers who flow like water amongst the lanes of traffic. It’s a rather harrowing experience and by the time we get to the backpackers where we will be staying, I am overjoyed at the prospect of being able to park the car outside and just forget about it for the next two days. We finally check in and are sadly advised that the parking outside is only for permit holders and that we should take the car to the Piazza Michelangelo, where parking is free and safe. It’s however approximately 2km out on the other side of the river, but we’re assured that there are buses that will bring us back into the city. We fire up the GPS again and head to the parking lot, where we spend about 40 minutes waiting for a bus that never shows. In the end we walk all the way back in the rain and by the time we get back, we’re soaked, starving and (I am) quite irritated with the whole situation. We get some kebabs from a store around the corner and get in bed, hoping that tomorrow will bring some sunshine and a brighter view on Florence.

Continues in part 5 with our visit to the sites of Florence, Italy shortly. 

Header photo by Deon Joubert.
Duomo di Orvieto Cathedral by fortherock. Piazza del Campo from Visiting Siena.
All other images by the author: © catterflyworx 2012.

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Eurotrip 2012: Day three and four in Rome, Italy

10 – 14 April: Roma, Italy

Continued from part 3.1: Rome (Pompeii & Vatican City)

Day 3: Colosseo, Forum Romano, Fori Imperiali, (not having any money), Scalinata della Trinità dei Monti, Villa Borghese
We are up early and after a hearty breakfast, we set out in an attempt to miss the crowds at the Colosseo and surrounding historical sites. The metro lines are packed with people on their way to work and we are shoved into an already overfull cart, bulldozing the people in front of us deeper into the mix as the press of bodies from behind intensifies. We arrive well ahead of the tourist crowds, and are rewarded with almost an hour of tranquillity in the stunning ruins of the Colosseum. The sheer size of what remains today is simply magnificent and we walk through the two upper levels of the old building constantly amazed at what Rome built in its hey-day.

From the Colosseum we walk past the Arch of Constantine towards the Roman Forum, where we whiz past the lines of people waiting outside (as we’ve bought tickets that allow access to most of Rome’s historical sites). Though impressive, the ruins of Rome eventually all start to look very similar and, after having lunch in the shade of a few trees, we decide to go in search of something a little more modern.

The Arch of Constantine as seen from the Colosseum

The Arch of Constantine as seen from the Colosseum

As we stroll through the streets of Rome on our way to the Imperial Forum, we happen to pass by the Vittoriano Complex, where there is a Salvador Dali exhibition on show. Dali is one of my all-time favourite artists, and after seeing two of his works in Venice, I insist on returning to the exhibition before we depart the city. We then continue on our original quest. The Imperial Forum is an amazing and imposing building, with many statues and a lot of small details. It seems that once could stand and stare at it for ever and a day, and still find something new in the façade.

Ruins at the Roman Forum

After feeling a little indecisive as to where to head next, we sit down under some great trees in front of the Piazza Venezia and watch a street artist using cardboard strips, rumpled up newspaper and spray-paint create a beautiful image of the Colosseum at twilight. Finally we settle on a (rather boring) plan. Our three friends will return to the flat for some much-needed rest, while Francois and I make our way to Termini station. The Cash Passport onto which we have loaded all our foreign currency has been giving us some problems, and we’re hoping to find a ForEx branch that can help.

We arrive at the station and approach a foreign exchange desk and explain our problem. The gentleman explains that he can’t help us with the Cash Passport, but that we should be able to withdraw money from the account through their service. Hope flickers brightly, but the transaction is denied and we’re left wanting. He suggests we visit a bank branch, and in broken English and with a few gestures we head in the general direction we think he was pointing at. No one in the branch understands a word of English, but to their credit they do figure out that we would like to withdraw some money and point us (very helpfully) in the direction of their ATM. As we already know that the card doesn’t work at ATM’s, we head straight out and I’m sure we leave them quite perplexed. In a desperate attempt we decide to bite the bullet and to make an international call using a pay-phone and my credit card, in the hopes that we will be able to contact the help desk. We seem to be too blonde to figure out how to manage this though, and after smsing our families in South Africa it dawns on Francois that, if we can find an internet cafe, he should be able to reset his pin from his online profile. We stumble into an internet cafe not a block from Termini station and within a few minutes, Francois says that he thinks the problem should be solved. We head to the nearest ATM and stand in front of it with trepidation. We are down to our last 10 Euros, with more than three weeks left in Europe, and the money in my account has all been earmarked for accommodation and car rental payments. He completes the transaction, and the sweet, sweet sound of an ATM counting out cash rings in our ears. I have never been as happy in my life as at that moment!

We sms the three stay-at-home-stooges to meet up with us at Termini station, from where we set out to the Spanish steps.   The steps were never high on my “things to see in Rome” list, and true to my expectations they are overcrowded and overall a little disappointing. The view from the hill behind the steps is, however, amazing. We head into the Villa Borghese gardens and thoroughly envy the people zooming around on their Segways. Day seven of walking almost everywhere is finally taking its toll on our feet and bodies and, though we wish otherwise, we are spent and absolutely tired.

As we head back to our ‘home’, we stop in the neighborhood close to the Vatican to visit the market we saw on our first day here, as well as going into the Storia & Magia shop. It’s an amazing fantasy shop with exquisite jewelery and is absolutely every geek’s fantasy come true. They stock everything from Lord of the Rings, Star Wars and Harry Potter to Firefly and then some paraphernalia. I decide there and then that I will definitely have to visit Rome again, even if it is just to return to this shop! I buy a gorgeous silver dragon ring and grin like a little four year old all the way back home,  where we spend another evening of storytelling, great food and (surprisingly) good wine.

Story & Magicka fantasy store in Rome

Entrance to the Storia & Magia fantasy store in Rome

Day 4: Capuchin Crypts, Fontana di Trevi, the Dali exhibit, and a night on Campo de’ Fiori
I have a somewhat unusual fascination with the macabre, and the Capuchin Crypts fell right into this category. This was very high on my must-see list for Rome, so after having breakfast and finally finishing with all the washing, we set out to find the crypts.

For those of you who are not familiar with the crypts – a fair warning. The crypts contain the bones of roughly 4000 skeletons, believed to have been Capuchin friars. From the Wikipedia page:
“Described by Frommer’s as “one of the most horrifying images in all of Christendom”, large numbers of the bones are nailed to the walls in intricate patterns, many are piled high among countless others, while others hang from the ceiling as light fixtures.”
Please skip the photos below if this does not sound like your cup of tea.

The woman who welcomes us is witty and handles the funny characters who enter the crypts in such a deft way. I fall in love with her at once, and more than once we struggle to contain our mirth as she tries to make it clear to some other groups of tourists that no photos are allowed. The crypts are eerily small and intimate, with low-hanging ceiling ornamentations and intricate designs all made from various parts of the human skeleton. It’s the creepiest, most wonderful experience! The forms of the ornamentations and wall decorations are exquisite and, for as long as you forget that they are skeletal parts, it’s really astonishing. The realisation does however soon settle in that you are looking at human remains and, try as one might, it sets my scalp a-prickle and a shiver down my back.

Image 1

Image 2

Image 3

We leave the crypts behind and head deeper into Rome on our way to the Trevi Fountain. It’s another cold and rainy day in Rome, but despite that the fountain is packed with tourists snapping away and enjoying the view of the magnificent statues. We get a few scoops of gelato from a nearby shop, and sit on the steps directly in front of the fountain enjoying our sweet treats like children.

Fontana di Trevi, Rome, Trevi Fountain

From the fountain we head to the Pantheon, stopping over at the Church of St. Ignatius on the way. The pantheon is a super structure and again it’s incredible to think on how old these buildings actually are. Once inside, a lot of natural light is allowed to enter through a massive hole at the top of the dome, and the rain gently drifts down to the marble floor below (which is slanted slightly down and to the side to allow the water to drain). The art and historical significance entombed in this building is amazing!

After revelling in the weird and wonderful all morning, three of us decide to submerge ourselves in Dali’s surrealism whilst the remaining two head home to catch up on some sleep. The exhibition encompasses a range of different mediums, including a video installation and lavish costumes that Dali had designed for him and his wife for the Venice carnival. Also showing is a digitally remastered and rendered animated short film that he worked on for Walt Disney. I lose myself in the paintings and magnificence of his works and I have no idea how long we spend there. When we do finally leave, we head back into the cold rain that seems to insist on staying. We go home and have dinner together, making plans for the evening.

The day we checked into the flat, the owner showed us the areas that have a reputation for their night-life, and we decide to take the weather on and spend an evening in Campo de’ Fiori. We take the last metro train to the stop at the Colosseum and walk to the square, which is filled with bars and students. Finally we find a spot with reasonably priced beer and a table open inside, and we settle in. Our pitcher of beer soon runs out, and the next round is a pitcher of a very strong cocktail. Luckily there are five of us, but as we head home later that night (in the rain) we sing Afrikaans folk songs all the way to the night bus’s stop at the Colosseum. What a great evening! Tomorrow we collect a rental car from Termini station and head out to Florence.

Continues in part 4 with our trip through the Tuscan countryside towards Florence, Italy. You can find more of our photos from Rome here.

Header photo by Deon Joubert.
Capuchin Crypt photos: image 1, image 2, image 3
All other images by the author: © catterflyworx 2012.

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Eurotrip 2012: Day one and two in Rome, Italy

10 – 14 April: Roma, Italy

Continued from part 2: Assisi. I am breaking our time in Rome into two posts. This first post will focus on our trips to Pompeii and the Vatican, while the second will be about the rest of our time in the city.

From a small train station in Foligno, we spend one and a half hours standing on the train all the way to Termini station in Rome. It is incredibly busy and a little overwhelming. This is our first encounter with any metro system, and we are a little lost as to which metro passes will offer the best value. My engineer husband insists on first working out how many trip on average we are most likely to make in a day (factoring in all the obvious ones), adding a few incidentals, and then comparing that with the cost of a five day pass for the trains and buses. We find a news stand and buy our passes, and head down into the depths of Rome’s metro lines. We are staying in a Bed & Breakfast within easy walking distance of the Vatican our first two evenings. We find our lodging without too much difficulty, and again realize that we will have to look for a local grocer that’s still open in order to restock our supplies for lunch and dinner. After walking around the Castel Sant’Angelo and discovering a little market as it is closing for the evening, we give in to our tired feet and aching bodies, and set off in search of a restaurant rather than a grocer. We have some delicious pizza and lasagna and head home. We have an early start in the morning with a day-trip to Pompeii.

Day 1: Pompeii
Up early (bright eyed and bushy tailed, more bushy tailed for some), we join our tour group for the two hour bus drive to Pompeii. We stop along the way at an Auto Grill next to the highway, and are super surprised to see that they sell everything from kids’ toys to wine and groceries. We arrive in Pompeii and realize that we’re starving, so after getting our entrance tickets, we find a little shop just outside the ruins and have some delicious sandwiches packed with cold meats, lettuce, tomato and mozzarella. We buy a guidebook with map before heading in, and finally we are trundling along the ancient roads of Pompeii.

A plaster cast and ceiling from Pompeii

Detail from a ceiling and a plaster cast of a victim in Pompeii

As with most cities you visit as a tourist, we realize the whole of Pompeii will be too big to see in one day, so we set about prioritizing what we want to see and devise a route that will encompass all of these. Halfway through said route, upon rounding a bend expecting to find the Lupanar and instead finding the stadium, we realize we are hopelessly lost. The closed-off roads for excavations and “renovations” have clearly played havoc with our sense of direction, and I feel a little happy that I was not the one in control of the map.

We walk down the cool, pine-lined road and I know that the smell of cold air and pine cones is one I will forever associate with Italy. We spend a little time taking a break on the grass and collecting our strength, before moving along to the Gladiatorial training arena and amphitheater. Francois loves this part of the ruins, as he has been watching a lot of series like Rome and Spartacus. 

A wall with mosaic, artwork from a bar, and detail of a bath in Pompeii

External wall with mosaic, frescoed wall in a bar with serving ‘holes’ in the foreground, and a bath in Pompeii

Finally we find the brothel, and quietly snigger at the age restriction signs outside the door. The artwork inside is amazingly well-preserved, as so many other frescoes and mosaics throughout the city. To me, this is the most fascinating part of the whole experience – how exquisitely rich the colours are in these works that have been through so much and dating from so long ago.

We return to Rome along with what seems like the rest of Italy, as it is the end of the Easter weekend. We arrive back in Rome with barely enough time to catch the last metro train to our B&B, and set off in search for a spot to have dinner at.

Day 2: Musei Vaticani, the Raphael RoomsSistine ChapelBasilica Papale di San Pietro
It is a cold, rainy, miserable day. We get out of bed late and lazily have breakfast, before checking out of our B&B and heading to Termini Station, where we’ve arranged to meet three of our friends. We are spending the next three nights together in Rome, sharing an amazing apartment on Piazza Bologna. We store our luggage on Termini and they rush off to join their tour of the Vatican ahead of us. Francois and I have more time before our tour starts, so we get a panini for lunch and wait around in the rain before we can get in.

We’ve booked our tickets to the Vatican online and luckily that means we get to skip the insanely long queues and walk right in. We receive earpieces and our guide meets us in the foyer. While we’re waiting for the rest of the group, I buy a postcard to send to my mom from the Vatican City.

We start with a virtual tour of the Sistine Chapel, as the tour guides aren’t allowed to accompany the groups inside and talking is firmly shushed by the Vatican guards. She explains in intricate detail the significance of the Last Judgement, leading us through it’s creation, alterations and historical controversies. She then moves onto the amazing panels on the ceiling, constantly reminding us that Michelangelo was not a painter, but a sculptor. Every part of my being is tingling with anticipation… ever since the first time I saw pictures of the Sistine Chapel, I dreamt about seeing it. I am dumb-struck with the mere thought of the amount of amazing artworks we are about to see and it feels like an eternity before we finally start moving towards the museum.

We are guided through a plethora of sculptures, paintings, frescoes, tapestries, relics, urns, tombs, mosaics and more. I revel in the experience. It’s inspiring. It’s jaw-dropping. It’s intimidating. It’s amazing! It’s… an overload on the system. There are absolutely no words that could ever describe this feeling! The Raphael rooms are overpowering in their vibrancy and richness.

Laocoön and His Sons

Laocoön and His Sons

Detail of ceiling fresco in Musei Vaticani

Pressed ceiling and fresco detail from Musei Vaticani

From the Raphael rooms, our guide bids us farewell and we are directed to the entrance into the Sistine Chapel. The walk to the door through which millions enter the chapel seems to take forever, but we finally arrive amidst a throng of people all craning their necks to see over one another, gawking at the Last Judgement while others stare straight up at the incredible ceiling. A few guards are assigned to keep the crowd quiet and to remind the visitors that no photos are allowed. Both directives are blatantly ignored, and it’s not the first time on our trip that I am disgusted with the gross disregard that people have with regards to requests  not to take photographs. It’s a common occurrence to see people snapping away in ancient basilicas, with and without flash (though the former irks me to a level I can’t explain. I will get into this subject on a later stage).

Finally we decide to leave the Sistine Chapel behind and we fall into the next line snaking its way to the entrance of St. Peter’s Basilica. The immensity of these churches, the lavish finishing, their age – it all seems too much to take in. I had some expectation before heading in, but nothing prepares one for the sheer overwhelming riches and imposing size of the collections of art and architecture. I’m also relieved to see that Francois is enjoying this, as I feared that the art historian in me might take over the trip and (eventually) bore him to death.

St Peter's Basilica from the outside on a rainy day, Vatican City, Rome

St Peter’s basilica from the outside on a rainy day in Rome

The altar above the tomb of St Peter in St. Peter’s Basilica, Rome

After a day of sensory overload and historical splendour, we check into our flat on the ninth floor on Piazza Bologna and enjoy a great family-style dinner of pasta and wine with friends, recounting the time we’ve spent apart. Oh, and doing washing (so domesticated!).

Continues in part 3.2 with our visit to the rest of the city of Rome, Italy shortly. You can find more of our photos of the Vatican and from Rome here.

Header photo by Deon Joubert.
All other images by the author: © catterflyworx 2012.

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Eurotrip 2012: Assisi, Italy

9 – 10 April: Assisi, Italy

Continued from part 1: Venice.

We head into the Santa Lucia train station in Venice a good hour ahead of our train’s scheduled departure. Not having any experience with trains, we head to an information booth and a helpful Italian official informs us that the tickets we have booked only allows one class of travel, and what we thought would be a three and a half hour train-ride with one stop-over, changes instantly into a nine and a half hour trek with four train legs, ending with a bus to take us to our final stop. Also, the train departs in 15 minutes. So much for planning ahead! We’d informed the Bed & Breakfast in Assisi that we will be staying at to expect us at around 18:00, but clearly this would no longer be the case. For the next three hours, my main entertainment as we stop at stations on our way is to see if there is an open wi-fi network available that I can connect to, so that we can inform the B&B that we will only be arriving at around 00:30. Luck is on our side and not only do we find a network, but luckily the owner also checks her email (on a Sunday) and responds, confirming the new arrangements. We travel from Venice to Bologna, from here to a small-town-whose-name-I-can’t-remember, make a trip to Falconara Maritina, from here to Foligno, and finally take a bus from Foligno to Assisi.

Finally we arrive in Assisi at approximately 23:00, and start walking to the B&B. At what should be our destination, we encounter farmlands and families, together with a few dogs who find our presence most unwelcome. After waking the neighbourhood, we establish that we are in the wrong place and now have nowhere to sleep. An Italian family of four (mom, dad, grandma and son) finds our tale quite unbelievable, and while Francois is trying to explain to the father and son where we were trying to go, the grandmother repeatedly asks me whether we really walked all the way from the “stazione” to their house, using the universal sign for walking indicated by trotting her index and middle finger across the palm of her other hand. She finds my tale very amusing, and I can tell she thinks something along the lines of ‘all tourists are mad’.

Eventually we figure out our error: there are two streets with the same name in the area, and luckily the father knows where we were meant to go. He kindly offers to drive us there, and the son tags along to act as a translator for us. We are very glad to accept this help, as walking back to the station and then to the B&B would’ve meant another 10km. After struggling to find the address in the correct street, a joking offer that we could spend the night in their house with them, and some ‘lost in translation’ incidents, we finally arrive at B&B L’Arcobaleno. We are greeted by a very worried hostess (who’d sent her husband to both stations on Assisi and Basta Umbria to look for us), a bottle of champagne and a wonderful room. We’re told to rest out and come down for breakfast when we wake the next morning, as we’ve arrived so late.

Breakfast is served in the family kitchen, with a range of local breads and cheeses and best of all, a lit fire in the hearth in the kitchen corner. We spend most of the time swapping stories with our hostess, and she advises us on the best sites in Assisi and what to look out for in the rest of Italy. After finding out that we only have the rest of the day to spend in Assisi, she commandeers her husband to drive us up to Assisi itself so we can view the Basilica of St. Francis. On our way up the hill he also shows us which bus stop to use in order to view the Basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli and also how to get to the station in order to catch our train to Rome that afternoon.

Assisi is a fully functional, fully fortified medieval town and it’s an amazing experience to walk up the cobblestone streets approaching  the Basilica Papale di San Francesco. It seems like thousands of people throng around the entrance to make their way into the massive church, and as we enter we are swept around the outside with the crowd, making our way steadily down the stone steps that have been worn smooth with years and years of feet treading over them. We finally reach the crypt where St. Francis is buried, and revere in the meaning this place has for so many. This basilica is one of the most important in Christian pilgrimages in Italy, and it houses great frescoes by the medieval masters such as Giotto and Cimabue.

Basilica St. Franceso, Assisi, Italy

The Basilica of St. Francis in Assisi

Moving down from the hilltop, we travel to the Basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli – St. Mary of the Angels. The building is an impressive structure from the outside, but is completely awe-inspiring and jaw-dropping on the inside. Artworks the size of small houses decorate the walls, and way at the back of the massive basilica is the Porziuncola – the tiny 9th Century church in which St. Francis died. It is to protect this small little structure that the basilica was built between 1569 and 1679.

St Mary of Angels - Assisi, Italy

Basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli in Assisi

After spending as much time as we can in this most holy of places for the Franciscans, we drag ourselves away and take the train back to Foligno, from where we will be heading to Rome for the next five nights.


An arched gate entrance to Assisi, and the entrance to the Basilica of St. Francis

F+ C in Assisi

Francois & Catherine in front of the Church of Angels, and Fountain of the “26 Spouts” (commissioned by Cosimo de’ Medici [1450])

Continues in part three with our stay in Rome, Italy shortly.

Header photo by Deon Joubert.
All other images by the author: © catterflyworx 2012.

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