First time to Europe

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On 14 September 2008, I packed my bags on the verge of ending marriage, to head to Europe for the first time in my life. I was very nervous and excited at the same time, and it was a big deal given I had spent 6 months feeling void of emotional support, and felt lost about where my life was now going, and struggling with the beginnings of a serious illness. So it was with courage and an open heart that I embraced the three weeks, and opened myself to meeting new people, new sounds and scenes. I realised more to not take things for granted, and to not to wait hoping for things to happen, that each moment is precious and what you see now may not been seen again.

This is my experience as I traversed and tip toed my way through Europe, not knowing who I’d meet or what I would experience.

Canals, Yoghurts and Bicycles -Arriving in Amsterdam

After a very long flight I arrived in Amsterdam at about 6.45am, moving quickly through customs and found myself easily navigating the airport. But, as soon as I left, I discovered just how luggage unfriendly the transport system and city is. The train leaving from the Schiphol airport was old style, doubledecker, with huge step stairs to hike up, then more stairs inside and little room for luggage – but it was cheap!. Tackling all this with a dodgy foot/ankle, let a lone a bulky duffle bag was a real effort! To exhaust myself more, I managed to accidently get off a station too early, as I could not understand the language!. After a short time I arrived into the beautiful city of Amsterdam -and to more stairs!!! cobbled uneven roads. Oh yes this was going to be fun again.

I managed to catch a Tram to the StayOk Hostel I had booked, by about 8.45am, and of course I was unable to check in until 2pm so I had to pay for a locker and decided to explore on foot…..I realised this was a foolish idea trying to do and see so much on arrival and was mega tired and out of sync..but not too jet lagged really. So off I went to explore this beautiful dutch city, afterall I am part Dutch and I’ve always wanted to come here.

I was well located near Vondel Park in the old south section of the city,known for its wide avenues lined with tall buildings, its Art Nouveau façades, which was near many great attractions. So my first stop was the Van Gogh Museum to explore Vincent Van Gogh’s classic works, and really enjoyed seeing the evolution of his work. After this I found a beautiful park and could not resist buying a coffee and waffle before utilising my famous Njari navigation skills (photographic memory) to discover the city further. I already had a visual of the layout in my  head, and planned to see Anne Frank huis. Wow, I managed to find it without even a map!!.The Anne Frank Huis was so small, and hard to move through, and I cannot comprehend the manner and lengths to which the Frank family went to, to remain here for so long. It’s hard to comprehend the times of war, and the Netherlands was captive for 6 years.My grandfather was captured here in the war and taken to a concentration camp, he survived, but left scarred physically, and mentally and emotionally.

The Dutch are very straightforward, liberal and quiet people, oh, and tall also. There truly are a lot of bicycles, and you have to look carefully, when crossing roads or walking across paths, because they are everywhere. Most locals own one!

Rather than stay at the hostel, my friend Alex invited me as a guest at his home, we have never met but became friends via facebook. I will be meeting up with him in the city centre and tagging along to his home town of Utrecht, where he has an apartment.  Alex is funny, tall and generous to me. I discovered he has a penchant for collections of colognes, watches and shoes! His bachelor pad in Utrecht (30 mins drive), is modern and funky, and completed with the most adorable little cat who was such a sook and gave me cuddles as I desired.  This day was so long and I got to do so much yet there was still more to come, as we had plans for dinner in Amsterdam. Tomorrow, well I have no idea what to see and do…..honestly feel like a good bed and sleep  at this point.

Night Out in the Red

After getting ready to go out, we walked about 15 min to the train station, via the beautiful old canals and restaurants in Utrecht. The cityscape is old and very beautiful, very venetian and my mind wandered to how romantic it would be to live here, and enjoy sitting outside with candle lit cafes and restaurants. The train to Amsterdam Central took about half an hour. We then caught a tram to a stop near a canal to meet with Alexs’ friend Andreas (who was staying on a house boat) and some IT friends. I enjoyed a Heikenen, and general banter, before hopping onto a book for a 1.5 hour private night canal cruise. This was just so cool – seeing all the beautiful homes along the canals, through the windows adorned with chandaliers and paintings – and it was super quiet. It wasn’t until we got to the red light district where everyone was at, including the ducks!! couldn’t see them anywhere else but here they were in the dozens..LOL, I guess they like the action too!. The Red light district was as imagined, girls in lingerie parading their skin in windows and trying to entice men with flirty gestures and eye contact.

After the cruise we got off and headed for dinner at 12pm…the Dutch do eat late, of course not this late .. so we had some yummy chinese food, ordering scores of plates and sharing them around. But by the time I had eaten, this long day, my first day in Amsterdam, I was starting to feel tired and could barely keep my eyes open on the way home on the 40min train trip. Needless to say, I slept like a baby!

NEXT MORN

This morning Alex took me for a walk around the canals to the local supermarket to buy goodies for breakfast…OMG it was a feast for my eyes!…the Dutch love their flavoured milks and yoghurts, in imaginable flavours, and lots of crisps, sweets, cookies, cheeses…I was in foodie heaven. Because today is my last day in Amsterdam, we are heading to the city to meet up with Andreas,  to go for a walk and grab some lunch. Tomorrow it is a train to Paris for me and I am thanks to Alex, I am stocked up with food for the train trip. I was laden with breads, jam, real peanut butter, dutch licorice, and chocolate…there was no way I was on a diet this holidays.

Ici Paris

After getting up at 4.45am, Alex drove me to Amsterdam  and dropped me off at the Centraal Station for the 4 hour train trip to Paris, which would arrive at Gare du Nord.

It was a fairly comfortable ride by train and seemed to go quicker than the given timeframe.  Looking out of the window and seeing  lovely old buildings dotted in the french countryside was peaceful and I was excited I was finally getting to see this wonderful city, full of romance and history. I arrived in Paris about 10.30am local time. The platform was long, and I started walking along the platform with my heavy bag , only to hear “Madam” being called behind me. I turned and then a lady flashed a badge (I couldn’t even decipher what it was) and two accompanying officers – in all plain clothes – proceeded to search my bag, ask me to show my passport and answer questions about anything to declare, where I was from, where I got on etc. I was thinking, I hope they are who they say they are.

After this little event, I regrouped, and having remembered the layout of the station (yes my photographic memory again) I enacted the directions to St Christophers, the Hostel I was staying at. I actually did not have any maps, but had some brief notes of the walking direction. Once again like Amsterdam, the streets are narrow, cobbled, paved and manovering my suitcase was challenging (but a nice french man assisted me up stairs. As I approached the hostel, a young, tall and handsome frenchman  pulled me up, excitedly talking to me in French. “Je ne comprends pas”, “je suis Australian” I told him. In which he attempted in what little English he knew to express that he was excited to meet me  and wanted to invite me to some party on Samedi (Saturday) with a friend.With some hand gesturing and little words, I could decipher that he like my height, eyes, smile and face and wanted to know how long I was here for. He was excited in meeting this Aussie girl and was sharing this animately with other french passerbys. Well that was some welcome, and it ended with a hug, check kiss and on the lips (he snuck that one in)…funny and random moment. Bonjour Paris.

When I went to check in at the Hostel, I discover they are doing renovations.  This means I cannot get to my room until 2pm and instead had to pile my luggage on top of everyone elses (yes it was literally a pile above my head). So after this, I went and had a Cappuccino in the bar. After unwinding a little, I took a walk across the road near the Seine river, meandered a little and watched the world go by.I’m staying in the 19th district which is a former industrial area, and is located only 10-20 minutes away from main stops. As for plans tonight, I’m not sure, but I rang family and friends to let them know I was okay.

An  afternoon in Paris

After a walk around my local Parisian district, I was able to check into my room.The room swipe card was a bit dodgy but otherwise the room was neat and clean and I had a bottom bunk bed. No one around in the room to greet, so I decided to head out again and I found a map/brochure advertising a free 3.5 hour walking tour.I ventured out to find the meeting point which was at St-Michel.

The Paris metro is incredibly efficient, fast and quite easy to get around, but…it is very very hot and I was boiling everytime. After a bit of people watching and wander around the district,  it was time to meet the guide and group to go on a walking tour. Well, what a surprise,  it was led by an Australian guy from New South Wales who knew his French history very well. We walked for quite a few hours and I got to see a lot of the sights by foot (funny sight to see the French police on rollerblades). I was also observant, and scanning my environment, because as a tourist you can always be a target. It was no surprise when I caught sight of two suspicious men on a bridge from a distance, their body language didn’t fit the scene. Then I understood what it was about them. They were scammers, and they were doing the ring scam I’ve read about. What they do is drop fake gold rings in front of tourists, then claim they found it near them after picking it up, question if it is theirs, and then say that its got to be worth a lot, so try to get some money out of them.

After such a fascinating walking tour and photos taken, I headed back to the hostel and met my roomies – four English girls who were ready to go out on a pub crawl. They invited me a long – and it was meeting in the same place in Paris I had just come from!!! I literally had about 15 minutes to get ready…and I thought ‘Why not’!!. So we arrive, and it is mainly Aussies, some Brits and Canadians, and the pub crawl was going to four pubs and one club. To be honest, I didn’t enjoy it at all, and the places chosen were not Paris bars/clubs but instead Irish and Scottish where local people don’t go to. It was embarassing to be associated with loud, drunk and silly people – and I would have preffered mixing with the locals in a quiet bar and enjoying wine. So no more pub crawls it is just not my thing.  I  skipped from the group, and went back to hostel, where I slept like a baby and was ready to meet up with my friend early in the morning for a day of sightseeing.

Parisian Monuments, Gastronomy & History

This morning I got up early, had some cornflakes for breakfast and waited to meet my friend Eric who would be my guide and show me Paris as he knows it. We have never met in person, but become friends on Facebook.  Eric was promptly waiting outside the hostel at 9am.  Although he was a little shy, he was friendly and confident in sharing details about the city and his life. We jumped on the metro to begin a day of walking around the beautiful streets of Paris. I knew I would love this place, full of character, and all of those images I had conjured in my mind of small parisian restaurants, shops, very cosy romantic, so french 🙂 oui, oui, j’adore Paris.

Our first little rest stop, involved a small cafe, where I enjoyed a capuccino and delighted in a tartlette chocolat banane – Soooooo good 😀 – I know I could probably find this somewhere back home, but not as fresh and well its not French. Later, lunch  was a starter – crab ravioli and then a sliced duck dish with apricot lightly spiced sauce and and pasta side with a juice.

We had a full 9-6 day with a visit to so many wonderful places in the city:

We walked the high steps and streets to Sacré-Coeur -a basilica – the city’s white castle in the sky, perched on top of Montmartre – an artsy bohemian village like district with painters and quaint restaurants. It was built as an attempt to symbolize the return of self-confidence to late 19th-century Paris after the Commune and Franco-Prussian War, the French government decided to build Sacré-Coeur in 1873.

The Musée du Louvre – absolutely amazing!!!!. Some of the things seen were, milo de venus, mona lisa, Appartements Napoléon III, Egyption and Renaissance antiquities, classical works from Greek, Assyrian eras, Italian art work, lots of amazing scuptures. The collections are divided into sections: Near Eastern antiquities, Egyptian antiquities, Greek and Roman antiquities, sculpture, objets d’art, paintings, and prints and drawings.  This amazing building houses 35,000 works of art drawn from eight departments, displayed in over 60,000 square meters of exhibition space dedicated to the permanent collections.Coming here is like a dream come true for me.

Panthéon -A former church, now the burial place of France’s most important citizens — the list is a virtual who’s who of France’s cultural and political elite, including Voltaire, Zola, Dumas, Victor Hugo, Rousseau, and Marie Curie. Amazing inside.

After a big day, I ventured back to the hostel and prepared my bags for London.

London bound

This morning was a little concerning for me, because there was a fire in the euro tunnel, which was delaying trains and vehicles crossing over to UK. But, after some delay in Eurostar at the tunnel for half an hour I arrived at London St Pancras station – a huge station which was very busy and little overwhelming. The tube was accessible from this station but there were a lot of maintenance works being done on lines and I had to cart luggage from three different trains. Then when I got off…I realised I got off a stop earlier…some suburb near where I had to be. I admitted I was feeling lost, so called my friend Claudio who kindly rescued me, despite having just sat down to enjoy a cold beer :-D!!

I checked into the Hostel, which was a pretty cool place, and it was a toss for Claudio and I as to who would get the top or bottom bunk…of course i get my way 😉 though. We headed out for some lunch at the local pub called The Raven and then later caught a train into city, where we walked from the tower bridge, seeing the beautiful Tower of London building, and then over the Thames.

I saw Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, and was amused by entertainment at a Food Festival (lots of people) along the Southbank and near the London Eye. Went to see what was a lame but funny history of the tower bridge..one of those walk throughs with actors, and things jumping out to try and scare you – like a ghost train ride from show. Passed by the London Eye cross the Westminster Bridge. A great view of Big Ben and Parliament from the River. Later we went to a little wine bar and then a good Indian restaurant for dinner before heading back to the hostel.

London City Exploration

Today was one of the best days I’ve had, full of so much spontaneity, adventure and diversity.Started the adventures with my first Cinnabon – Caramel pecanbon- which was so delicious and laden in sugar no doubt!.

Because I did so much, I cannot begin to describe in detail, but some of the things we did were:

Watched a Manchester United and Chelsea football match in a traditional pub – soaking up the local enthusiasm 🙂 and drinking a beer or two.

Visited the National Art Gallery, where I was pleased to see all the artists I have read and studied about in Art class, such as Van Gogh, Cezanne, Gaugin, Constable, Renoir, Michaelangelo, Leonardo Da Vinci etc…so cool 🙂

Watched and soaked up the atmosophere at Speakers Corner in London corner of Hyde Park – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Speakers’_Corner a place where people have freedom of speech, can debate and discuss topics of all sorts. Many we listened to were around capitalism, muslim relgion, new and old religion. It’s quite an experience!

Saw a Muslim parade of men and women near Hyde Park, which was confronting, as men were singing and beating their chests (many had self mutilation scars on their backs evident). I have never seen anything like it.

Walked through Covent Gardens (saw some great entertainment), Soho, Leicester  & Trafalgar Square ( embraced a free hug by the group that hold ~free hug~ signs…possibly more I can’t remember …

Enjoyed a night socialising at the Hostel, drinking shots, listening to music and lots of laughs.

London calls again

Checked out of one room and then into another dorm and farewelled my friend Claudio.

I hit the British Museum around lunchtime with two new friends and enjoyed seeing ancient Egypt, Rome, Greek, Celtic, Middle Ages and relics which I just looooove. I’m a bit of a geek when it comes to history, mainly because I reflect on the stories and times when life was different for humanity and shows us how we have evolved. The talent and skills individuals had for creating beautiful art, or crafting weaponry, for example is incredible to see in detail.

Later we went to Covent Gardens for some yummy lunch at Wagamans, and then browsed the many shops, where I bought my favourite dark chocolate, LUSH products and food ready for tomorrow’s  tour commencement.

Spent the afternoon doing some washing…changing rooms and then eating and socialising with new found friends.

Je t’aime Paris

I met all the people going on the Top Deck Tour of Europe in the morning, and quickly made friends as we crossed the English Channel by ferry – which made me very seasick. Most of the group were couples and only four of us were travelling solo. I had initially booked this trip for me and my husband, but when things fell apart, I ended up going by myself.

Our group arrived in Paris around 6pm and checked into hotel. We then had about an hour and a half for dinner. Us travelling solo went to first a sports bar down the road and had some drinks, the waiter didn’t speak english so I had to take control and use what French I knew. We found an Indian Bistro across the road for dinner, which was celebrating a 3rd birthday, so we got sangrias which were very strong..needless to say we were on abit of high on the excitement of Paris and the meal was very very good.

We went on a city of lights tour of Paris, amazingly beautiful, and got out at Sacre Coer  and climbed up the stairs for a great night view of the city. I took  some photos and had to fend myself against the string people, African Parisians who try and put friendship bands on your hands and make you pay for them and say they are cursed…etc…told them to leave me alone. There are just so many tourists there that they just target people constantly.

Eiffel of Paris

This morning we got dropped off near the ET..Eiffel Tower and yes climbed it with one of my tour friends. Dizzying height and an amazing view from the very top!!!

Then headed out to do some shopping and practice some french which was fun. My friend just smiled and pointed..LOL which worked just as well. We did what the Parisians do best, sat outside at cafe and had a coffee and chocolate crepes and people watched. Great table service in Europe, no walking to a cash till over here, you sit at a table where there is a menu and order and pay here too. I love it !

Did some great shopping around the city – especially the Galleries Layfayette (7 levels of shopping heaven girls) and had some fun navigating the Paris metro. After some shopping in various streets around St Michel we headed back to the Eiffel tower where we meet the tour group for a picnic and champagne – we had a great dinner and it included escargot…ummm no i did not want to try 🙂 they were marinated and looked green…apparently very rubbery like according to a travel companion…. after this we went to a Parisian caberet show called Paradis Latin…very interesting and I’ve certainly never seen anything like it….http://www.paradis-latin.com/la-revue.aspx – it features topless girls, lots of pink, and colourful glitzy outfits and men in tight pants and topless dancing around in different themes – one which reminded me of a scene in European Vacation with chevy chase – an exercise scene, girls in leotards, men in karate outfits,  15th century scenes, future paris with space ship..interesting…a tap dance and juggler and highflyer who had a massive rope burn evident on his leg..ouch. It was all very elaborate!and spectacular…awesome choreography, colour, humor, theatrics.

After this finished around 11.30 we got the metro back to hotel and slept very very well. In the morning we were leaving for Wengen in Switzerland.

Wengen the Swiss Alps

Our group arrived in Wengen last night and checked into hotel, located up a big hill but surrounded by beautiful mountains and swiss chalets 🙂 very scenic. Discovering that Switzerland is very expensive – after have a drink of spirits and mix which cost 14Francs.

The most amazing view from my room

After good night sleep, the next morning we caught a train to the top of Jungfrau, the highest train station in Europe and a temperature around -10 degrees – lots of things to do – first of course was a hot chocolate…then we went to an ice palace with sculptures and finally the high lookout for some photos. Braving the cool elements, we walked on the plateau high in the alps. I wanted to do the dog sledding but was not dressed for such temperature. Bought some swiss chocolate of course and now just come down to another town by train to do some shopping. Bought myself a swiss army knife 🙂 cause you know a girl needs these things :-)!!!

Tonight it is cheese fondue for dinner and I want to have a good sleep ready for trip to Nice tomorrow and celebrating my birthday out.

Leaving the beautiful Swiss Alps

Well today is my birthday! We left bright and early, and caught a train to Lauterbrunnen to meet our bus. It was going to be a long 9 hour bus ride to Nice, France, passing back through Italy. We watched a couple of movies on route, The Happening and The Anchor Man, but I slept most of the trip on and off. We get a pit stop every 2.5 hours and a theme song to alarm us to the stop which is novel.

Oh apparently every trip has a hospital visit and one of the guys went mountain biking in Wengen and cut his thigh open needing 20 stitches…ouch..!!!

The scenery was absolutely gorgeous on the road, rustic wooden stone homes, swiss chalets, with cutouts on window shutters, rolling green hills, wonderful lakes, high mountains and lots of tunnels. Saw a kitty cat sitting on the hillside watching the main road and world go by.

The scenery changed going through Italy, very old, lots of highrise concrete homes and apartments and vineyards on little crooks of hillsides. Finally we saw the ocean and approached the city of Nice. The weather starting to warm and enjoying 20 degrees.

The streets are really narrow and we caused a stir in Nice with our bus, stuck in a cross road with islands in the middle. Our driver did a fab job to get us reversed out and change direction. We had to jump out of the bus and make our way to the hotel. It is my birthday night, we went and had a three course meal at restaurant, entree salad nicoise, then beef burgandy and profiteroles for dessert. Then we hit Wayne’s Bar, a bit of an institution here, and there was a cool band was playing.

We got there about 10pm and had tables near stage, and were offered discounted drinks. I got surprised for my birthday when it was announced to everyone in there of my special day and I had to throw back a cowboy cocksucker shooter -hands behind my back, mouth only – placed between the groin of our barman….hmmmmm….I think I took about 10 minutes to recover from this experience…LOL..but it was my birthday and all good fun!!. After that, drinks were shouted for me and I partied with my friends, and become centre of affection from 3 french boys, til about 2am, closing time. Then wandered back to the hotel. I wasn’t too intoxicated thankfully.

French Riviera – Yachts, Casinos and Palaces

Well after a late night of partying for my birthday, Jen (my hotel buddy) and I went to do some laundry around the corner and we decided to walk down to the promonade, the beach strip. It is a sunday so nothing is really open, but there was a produce market, with fresh fruit, veges and spices, the weather warm and no cloud in the sky! Bought some french grown grapes and headed to the beach to enjoy the view and savour the flavours and colours of the french riviera.

We strolled the promenade, and found a little gelaria. I proudly ordered a coffee and icecream in my best french :-)!! then we leisurely walked back to the hotel, where we will get frocked up, ready for our trip to the Grand Casino in Monte Carlo, Monaco, where James Bond was filmed. I wore my new party dress for the night out and boarded the bus for  Monte Carlo as sun was setting across the azue blue ocean…amazing view…imagine blue sea, terracotta and taupe dwellings, crimson sunset, yachts, ferries, stone forts, houses of the rich with magnificent views.

First we spent an hour at the Prince’s (Monaco) palace before heading to the Casino. The area was surrounded by men in suits, cafes and lights. Apparently it is illegal for citizens of Monaco to gamble so only outsiders come here. We paid 10 euro to get in. We felt completely out of place…it was a big building with luxurious drapings, paintings and lights, well dressed and proper french staff and security and very few tables and people – essentially very quiet. As they are probably accustomed to…we did the loop around the tables and ended up at the cocktail bar where I had two extremely strong Tequila Sunrises which impounded me there until we had to leave…the french staff were visibly amused by nearly our entire group doing the walk through only to end up at the bar. Others left afterwards for the commoners free casino whilst me and a friend stayed and chatted…so I could sober up..lol…on the way home on the bus we were all tired and sleepy.

Pisa and Florence

After breakfast we checked out of the hotel and left for Pisa and Florence. We stopped at Fraganard Parfumeur where we had a brief tour and then spent lots of money on perfume. I am in love with Fraganard now. I bought Belle de nuit (Beauty of the Night), Miranda (a fav of mine now – lingers with bergomot,coconut,jasmine, opponax, ylang ylang, rose, amber and vanilla) and Juste un Baiser (Just one kiss) which is fruity and edible.

We arrived at Pisa (in Tuscany) a few hours later, and I can attest it is very touristy, lots of people and hundreds of tour buses in the car park and men of African origin with souveniers over there arms trying to make you buy stuff. After walking for about 10-15 mins we got the the site, that is after passing through food and market stores and packs of tourist groups.

As you can imagine it was full of people all trying to take that ‘pushing the pisa’ photo…quite funny to sit and observe people all over the grassed area contorting into positions and snapping photos. Oh yes, me too, I did a cartwheel just for the fun of it! we ended our time there, as you must in Italy, with gelato…of course…

In the evening we arrived in Florence and settled into our hotel where we had a quick check in and then later had a group dinner at a place called The Sizzle House where for 15 euro we had a pasta dish, a main (I had omelette and wedges) and then icecream. The  girls and I ordered a “Sex on the Beach” cocktail in a jug for 27 euro, and then …another two into the Bar area where there was Karaoke on. It was full of tour groups (which annoyed me a bit) and a I found a bit corny..including the song choices. There were some locals hanging around later as the night progressed and one of the young girls I was with got distracted by two local men, one of which slipped a pill into her drink….thankfully she realised and didn’t touch it. We left soon after and went to another bar, which was full of only men and very quiet, until my young girl companions livened it up a little. It wasn’t very exciting so we ended up eventually going back to the hotel.

Florence a city of art

An early morning start, we headed to the main square to commence a walking tour with a local guide. Florence is a beautiful city, lovely architecture, character, bridges and rich history. It was interesting to read about Michelangelo, Leonardo Da Vinci  and their lives, personalities and feats. There is not simply enough time to stop, appreciate and comprehend as we walk on old stones, and see hundreds of year old statues and monuments.

After the walk we had a leather demonstration and then about 45mins to find lunch and walk back to hotel and check out  of the hotel ready to leave for Rome on the bus again. My friend Emm and I found a great little pizza bar in a side street, so delicious :-). Then we walked back to the hotel, bellies satisfied, once again to drag our bags from our rooms and cross the Italian road to the bus. On route, everyone was quite tired and slept very well.

We arrived in Rome and didn’t get our gear off the bus, as we were going on a 3.5hour walking tour immediately. We  essentially jumped on the bus and train to the heart of the city, starting at the spanish steps, passing sights like the pantheon, trevi fountain, roman forum – with pizza and gelato (i had spagnola (cherry) and yoghurt) and ending at the colesseum as the sun was setting.

We finally made it to our hotel in the evening, it was the best one we have stayed at yet!. We were in time for dinner, pasta, main (beef) and custard and vanilla dessert. The day certainly gave us all a whirlwind taste of Rome. Tomorrow we had another busy morning and afternoon – Vatican City and Vatican Musei…and the Pope is visiting, so we get a glimpse.

Vatican City and Sistine Chapel

Today we visited Vatican City and waited over half an hour in a good position to see the pope in St Peters Square. It was naturally filled with people to capacity and strict security checks in place. After seeing the Pope,  we went to the Vatican Museum and Sistine Chapel. How amazing to see  500-1000 year old statues and relics, and hear stories about the renaissance artists who created these artworks. Quite incredible and so much to take in visually.

After this we all separated into our groups to do what we wished for the afternoon. My friends, Diana, Jen and I made our way to the stately Colosseum, which was capable of seating 50,000 people in its day. It was used to host gladiator shows and other events and had a religious element but also reflective of power and family prestige in Rome. They used to re-anact animal hunts (elephants, lions, crocodiles, bears..thousands of animals killed)  and battles with elaborate sets – moving trees or staged oceans. Incredible relic.

After this we enjoyed some italian food at a cafe and then went to the Capuchin Crypt…a bizarre chapel which is the the final resting place for over 4,000 monks, who died between 1528 and 1870. The soil in the crypt was brought from Jerusalem and each chamber you walk through consists of the human bones  nailed to the walls in intricate patterns, many are piled high among countless others, some hang from the ceiling as working light fixtures. There are six total rooms in the crypt, all but one featuring a unique display of human bones. A sombre place to be.

The afternoon was mainly shopping, and souveniers for the others as they were leaving for Venice the next day and I was staying on in Rome by myself in a bed and breakfast for another 3 days. We all organised a dinner at a local pizzeria. Sadly my experience in Rome with food has not been very good, salty and not particularly special. I did get my first taste of Limoncello liquor though 🙂 and I like it a lot.

Farewell to Topdeck Friends

This morning I farewelled my travel companions who were continuing on for another two weeks of Europe and I checked out and shared a cab to a bed and breakfast with two other male tour members. The bed and breakfast was recommended and organised by the hotel (they didn’t have available rooms so suggested http://www.vacanzearomarooms.it which was near Vatican City). It was excellent accomodation and I was happy to have my own space for three nights.

The two boys from tour and I then headed out to try and find an Internet Cafe, which we did, and I managed to book a day tour to Naples and Pompeii for the 4 Oct. We then walked to the city and parted ways, I did a spot of shopping and then rested at the Spanish steps, an area where I was started to feel worse (I had woken with sore throat and congestion in chest and felt pharyngitis – loss of voice coming on).  One of the guys spotted me there, so we shared a cab back to the apartments. I then spent the afternoon and night sick, sleeping it off and drinking only water.

All Roads lead to Rome

This morning I was still feeling really unwell, but I just had my voice back again thankfully. I decided to go into centro Rome for something to do and decided to catch the bus. I asked a lady in italian if she could speak english, with some basics she gave me instructions, but I would have to change buses. I decided in the end to walk the remainder of the way and perused the shops.I wandered around, very easy to get lost and go in circles, as they say all roads lead to Rome. I ate lunch and watched the world go by at the Spanish Steps, very busy with tourists groups.It’s interesting to see how they keep some groups together…the leader will hold something up as they walk like a scarf, or people wear embarrassing bright yellow caps or tags around their necks…thankfully not something I had to endure :-).

Trevi Fountain

I did try to catch a train back to the nearest metro station and walk the way back to my apartment, but I was feeling a little poorly and went left instead of right and straight (the map I had didn’t look right), so I let my inner navigation guide me, and I ended back at the previous metro stop. Along the way I found a supermercati (supermarket) and bought some coffee, food, fruit and bread for apartment and then got off train and caught a taxi back to my abode. Taxis are not very expensive here so the easiest way to get around.

After walking and travelling alone for only part of my holidays, I realise how much I prefer to share experiences with others, it is much more rewarding and special to me. I spent my evening eating in and resting up ready for my Pompeii trip.

Naples and Pompeii – Tragic Remains

I woke up this morning in panic…I didn’t set my alarm on my mobile and rose at 6.15am and had to meet tour bus in central Rome at 7.15! I couldn’t call a taxi as the 4 digit number wouldn’t work on my mobile and I could not find any taxi numbers in the phone box. So I decided I had to wait for a bus, which I had caught before, but would only take me half the way. I kept faith that some how I would find a taxi. After a quick wait for the bus, I jumped on, not really knowing where to get off, but fortunately trusted my gut instinct and directional sense, and walked towards the city. I saw three taxis parked and the drivers socialising.I asked one to take me the remainder of the way 🙂 and thankfully got there on time.

The bus departed promptly at 7.30am and it was going to be a very long day! I quickly made friends with my seat buddy, Sandra, a doctor from Sydney who I keep in touch with still. The bus ride seemed lengthy, and we had some stops along the way before arriving  to Pompeii at 1.30pm, so we were pretty much starving by then!.

Our first port of call, literally, was Napoli, where people were being dropped off for ferries to Capri, and we did a short city loop with places of interest pointed out. Napoli is quite run down, and notorious for crime rings, but apparently possesses some great museums and relics particularly from Pompeii. After this we visited a cameo or coral factory for those who were interested in the craft. I was just happy to get to Pompeii and enjoy some sustenance.  We went to a local pasta restaurant not far from our excursion point. After not eating for so long, my choice of a glass of wine…went straight to my head and made me more animated.  Enjoyed some decent spaghetti, meat and antipasto followed by fruit to abate the tigers growling in our bellies.

So the Pompeii was terrible, probably the worst weather I have seen all of my three weeks in Europe. It was grey, cold and pouring with rain on and off as we walked the Pompeii excavations. Sombre and stopped in time…you can see the culprite Volcano menacing in the background…which left this city ash covered. Bodies of animals and people in terror crouched, in foetal position or contorted, covering their eyes, nose, mouth…was a sad sight to be hold. A dog all twisted up that got stuck because he was chained up and couldn’t get away and a pregnant woman were seen behind grills from excavations. Ever since hearing about this ancient place, and viewing enactment movies on television, it was on my bucket list of places to see.

Pottery, ampitheatre/training grounds, garden fountains and frescos, elaborate paintings, chariot wheel treads embedded into the roads, water fountains, ancient speed humps and stepping stones for wet days, marble baths, and temple for apollo (sun) and diana (moon) deities, brothel houses and engraved penis’ into the roads pointing to locations,are viewable as you wander the cobbled streets. Simply amazing to be able to see this world heritage site.

I was amazed at the scale of the place, and how they actually managed to unearth this city that once would have held about 200,000 people. It apparently laid undiscovered for about 1700 years and was found by accident. For those interested in history there is a very good dramatised doco called Pompeii – The Last Day which was made in 2003 – it is very good and documents from eyewitness accounts the eruption of Mount Vesuvius on 24 August 79AD.

I enjoyed Pompeii, but only saw probably what our tour guide chose to talk and explain during the time, which is slightly disappointing but interesting non the less. The bus trip itself seemed more aimed towards transpotting people to Naples, Capri and Sorrento and I didn’t get dropped off at my apartment until 10.30pm at night after everyone was transferred back to their hotels. We did stop on the way home for a break, and I bought some delicious Limoncello.

HOMEBOUND – 5 October

I got chauffered driven to the Leonardo Da Vinci International Airport, by the suavest Italian, oozing the romantic charm that could only be read in some romance novel. Opening the doors for me, playing cool jazz in an immaculate polished vehicle, and assisting me at the airport. Leaving me with a “Njari, it was a pleasure to meet you, I hope we meet again, and you come back to Rome”.

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