trip pics and writeup

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I finally got the trip pics sorted and uploaded. From 3267 I whittled them down to just over 2000 in 10 sets:
holland belgium: lily | almere, naarden, oostvaardersplassen, amsterdam | antwerp, brussels, mechelen
italy: florence | siena | assisi | rome
ireland, uk: dublin, cork, ring of kerry | london | cotswolds

 

If I had to pick just one image from each set. First in our friend’s house I’ll pick one of kaocao, her cat, who was instrumental in bringing us close together and a great little cat to boot:
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Holland will be Oostvaardersplassen nature reserve, it made me want to move to Holland to enjoy the wildlife and running paths:
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Belgium will be the strangely cosy café at Het Steen, especially after hearing the story of the tyrannical prince who lived there:
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Florence is difficult, we were there the longest of all stops. So many great memories. I’m going to pick two, the first is hanging out at the retreat house. It was so peaceful and calm that some days, we didn’t want to venture outside: flr061garden

The second is us walking all the way to oltrarno and up the hundreds of steps to piazza michangelo to take in the view of the city:
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In Siena it’s this strange, rather creepy statue of a semi-naked woman peeping out of a first floor window:

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In Assisi it’s watching the sunset from our room. There was so much to see and experience in Assisi, it was a blessing to return to our room every night and relax:
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Rome, hands down, seeing the Pope: rom126papa

After the spirituality that was Italy, my memory of Ireland is the breath-taking views in Kerry:
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In London it’s cooking at home:

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And not forgetting the picturesque Bibury:
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We were lucky that we had internet almost every day, so I was able to upload a few pics and post daily reports. Made the writeup so much easier, it was just a matter of grouping by location and fixing some typos. I also added a few more pics. Still came to 6 travel posts: holland belgium | florence siena | assisi | rome | ireland | uk

Quite an epic trip, and memorable too.

europe day 20: rome, vatican, heathrow

Early start, left retreat house at 8.30am. It’d been raining and thundery all night, and it was still raining quite heavily when we left. Nearer the Vatican, the crowds suddenly got very thick. There were plenty of bottlenecks and no one knew where to go. Whilst the other Italians were complaining at the volunteers, we struck up a short chat with a Canadian volunteer. He was there to open and close one gate. It was pandemonium, our new friend said that they were expecting 100,000 people in St Peter’s Square for Easter mass.

We had tickets but couldn’t find our way to the proper ticketed area. It was pouring, everyone was wet, anxious and cranky. We found a spot near the front of one of the non-ticketed sections and decided to stay put.

It was very cold and wet. We got to our spot at 9.30am, the mass started at 10.15am. The rain got heavier, we were trying to follow the readings and gospel and our mass booklet got so wet and ruined. Luckily around the Communion stage the skies cleared up enough for most umbrellas to be put away.

After mass ended, there was a sense of anticipation as everybody pushed forward towards the corridors. Pope Francis came by in his Popemobile, we saw him twice. Our spot was just behind a couple of shorter people so we had a great view of him coming by.

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The Pope returned to his apartment and came out to the balcony to give us the urbi et orbi blessing. It was definitely a blessing to be there in person for the day.

It started to rain again, and at 12.30pm we’d been standing outside for 3 hours. We were SHIVERING. Our hands and feet were numb and even with an umbrella and waterproof coats we were completely soaked. We were grateful that our retreat house was so near, we still struggled to walk back to the café opposite. Tea, hot chocolate and a hot meal of pizza and gnocchi.

Back across the road to collect ouf luggage and say goodbye to the sisters. Sister Donatella gave us each a book about the convent, so touched. The taxi came at 2pm and took us to the airport direct—would have cost around the same to get a taxi to the train station and a train. Check in was straightforward, boarding was efficient and the flight to LHR was 2.5hrs. We got our bags and went to M&S to get juice. Free bus to T4 and we were in our cabin at the yotel and settled.

europe day 19: rome

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Our last full day in Italy, and the weather turned from blue skies to cloudy and rainy. Took the subway to the Coliseum and ran into a wall of people. Walked around the southern end and around Palatine Hill.

Happily came across a local market. Fruit & veg, cheese, meat, flowers, snacks. We bought breadsticks and biscuits from a very nice man. Had early lunch at the market too—sausages with greens and lasagna. Simple, homemade.

Walked through the city, heading towards Campo di Fiore market. Stopped for gelato and coffee. The market is supposed to be a big food market but we were disappointed. Yes it was big, with fruit & veg, pasta, cheese, sweets, oil, vinegar, clothing and bags. The disappointing part was that it catered purely for tourists, unlike the other market that was almost all locals.

It had started to rain, we headed to Piazza Navona, Santa Maria Maddalena church and the Pantheon. Found a small trattoria in a side street and had early dinner of stuffed courgette flowers, spaghetti cacio e pepe and fettucine funghi porcini. We were so early that the kitchen had barely opened, the cooks and waiters were watching football on tv.

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The route back to our retreat house took us across the river and a classic view of Ponte St Angelo with St Peter’s Basilica in the background in the evening sun. There was a commotion at St Peter’s, as the people who were attending tonight’s vigil mass almost stampeded inside the security area.

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Shopping at the supermarket then back to our room to shower and re-pack. Here’s a random pic in Rome, of a line of smartcars parked at the side of the street.

europe day 18: rome sick | 3030: 10photos

Started the day feeling dizzy with a heavy-head headache. Managed to walk a couple of blocks to a nearby bar café for some vegetables before needing to head back to our room. [TMI]Promptly threw up the food.[/TMI]. Slept for a few hours until around 3pm. Did about 12mins of mindfulness meditation, ate some pasta, drank lots and lots and lots of water and juice. Feeling a more human but still slightly dizzy. No idea why I suddenly got sick, and we decided it wasn’t worth speculating. The important thing is to quickly get better. I feel bad about wasting a day but mm, bless her, doesn’t see it that way. I leaned on her all the way walking this morning, and she ran up and down to the vending machine and across the road to the supermarket to get stuff. In a way, today Good Friday was as good a day to get some rest. We’re at halfway through our trip and aside from 2 masses (the next one is Easter Sunday mass) and the Sistine Chapel (which we covered yesterday), we don’t have anywhere pressing to go. If I continue to feel under the weather, I’ll try to hold on until London so I can go see my GP.

I did manage to upload the photos that were tasks #21-30 of 30.30: take 10 photos over 10 days. I set these tasks deliberately knowing that I would be travelling the second half of march and figured it would be easier. One would have thought that there were plenty of opportunities in Amsterdam, Antwerp, Belgium, Florence, Siena and Assisi to take 10 simple photos. I don’t know if it’s the subjects I picked but it wasn’t as straightforward, may be it’s because I kept forgetting. Managed to get 10 photos in the end. Posting thumbnails, click for full size.

21colour 22shape 23direction 24loud 25morning
26nexttome 27numbers 28old 29people 30water

  1. a colour
  2. a shape
  3. direction
  4. loud
  5. morning
  6. next to me
  7. numbers
  8. old
  9. people
  10. old

Challenge is done. I’ll post the final update.

europe day 17: vatican

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9.30am mass at the Vatican meant leaving our retreat house at 8.15am, even though we were only 10mins’ walk away. Had to find the right queue, go through security and find seats. We sat around the middle of the basilica, together with many many faithful with tickets. Note to self: next time, apply for more tickets than needed because there were many fathers and sisters from all over the world without tickets. Hopefully they were able to watch the mass from outside in St Peter’s Square.

The mass was in Latin, with some Italian. We could follow as the mass booklet had English translation. This was the Chrism mass, or blessings of the oils—the oils that would be used for baptism, the sick and others throughout the year. They were containers as large as whisky barrels—must use up a lot of oil at the Vatican a year. Pope Francis delivered the homily in Italian, and it was quite lengthy, we wished we could understand it. It was still a blessed experience. Communion was very efficient, with many many fathers stationed at strategic points that meant we only had a few steps to move from our seats. Lots of people taking pictures, and we were a bit too far to take clear ones of the Pope. The mass was very long, finishing around 12pm. We didn’t mind, mm was a lot happier than me about it, obviously.

Quick lunch at a shady spot at the square next to the Vatican. Shared the St Francis bread we bought at Assisi. We probably looked like poor students, sitting forlornly there sharing one piece of bread, one of the the street vendors that were selling souvenirs, selfie sticks or fake handbags approached us, took one look at us, and walked away. Hahaha!

We’d pre-booked tickets for the Vatican Museum and Sistine Chapel for an extra €4. Totally well worth the additional cost, the queue for tickets looked like it was an hour long. We breezed through, got our entrance tickets, audioguide and went the the bathroom. Then we joined the masses. Oh boy, it was crowded. Lots of slow moving tour groups as well as hundreds of thousands of visitors.

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The whole place was a one-way system through the Vatican museum, full of ancient artefacts, sculptures as well as Renaissance paintings and frescos. The audioguide was helpful in explaining the history and story behind many of the exhibits. One of my favourite rooms was the Galleria delle Carte Geographie, with both sides filled with ancient and modern (for the period) maps of the world and Italy. The roof was more intricate frescos. I left the bottom of the pic intact, to show the sheer crush of the crowd. We were quite tired halfway through the museum, so we stopped for coffee, tea and a slice of cake at a strategically placed coffee shop.

The main attraction of the visit was the Sistine Chapel. For all the times I’d visited Rome and the Vatican, this was my first time there. There were signs before we reached the Sistine Chapel that it was a sacred place so everybody should be silent and no photography was allowed. The chapel was absolutely stunning. It was also as crowded as the Tube at 5.30pm. Difficult to find room even to stand. Every 5 minutes or so the staff had to announce to the crowds to observe the silence and no photography rules. The experience could have been ruined by the crowds, but it wasn’t, because of the unbelieveable brilliance of Michaelangelo’s work. The audioguide talked us through each aspect of the frescos, from the depiction of God’s creation of Man, Man’s temptation and the Original Sin on the ceiling; to the 12 frescos on the side telling various Biblical stories (Moses parting the Red Sea, Jesus handing the keys to St Peter); to the entire wall at the entrance dedicated to the Last Judgement. We learned a lot, and didn’t want to leave.

Strolled through the rest of the museum, mainly consisting of gift shops and more exhibits. Since we’d only eaten half a St Francis bread the whole day we were famished. Went to the supermarket and bought a feast: lamb cutlets, rocket (on sale at 99c, we bought 2 boxes), tomatoes, burrata. Enough time to do some handwashing too. So happy to be back in our room before 7pm.

europe day 16: assisi to rome

Last morning in the retreat house in Assisi. Had breakfast, final packing then checked out. There was a 9am mass in the chapel, which mm attended while I used the internet in the sitting room. Our train was at 11.26am, so we left with plenty of time to catch the bus to the station. We’d scoped out the route to the bus stop yesterday—it was mostly pavement, about 12 steps up then 2 lifts through a car park so we figured we could manage.

The train was quite full, and the teenagers sitting next to us were quite noisy. The train stopped at one of the outer platforms at Rome Termini so it was quite a trek to the taxi stand. The taxi driver was helpful and friendly, we got to the retreat house without any drama. This retreat house is within walking distance to the Vatican, around the corner from the small market my parents and I visited twice during our two stops at Rome in the past 2 years. Yep, this is my third visit to Rome in as many years, and the area is becoming slightly familiar.

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Anyway, the retreat house is at the corner of a busy side street, with 5 storeys. Luckily there is a lift. The Sisters were so warm and nice, there was even a helper lady who translated for us. Sister Donatella spoke a little English, and we communicated with the other Sisters with lots of grazie and si. Our room is a very large twin with lots of room to walk around and a private bathroom. A very old 14” tv which we unplugged because we needed the plug for our charging station (I set up an extension cord so we can charge 2 iphones, 1 ipad, 2 cameras, 2 fitness trackers and occasionally 1 external battery). No internet in the room, we knew that when we booked. We asked the Sisters and heard the good news that there is internet in the common room. We don’t mind coming down here to use wifi every night, that’s what we did at Assisi.

Had a late lunch at the café bar opposite. Spaghetti alle vongole and a side of grilled vegetables. Glass of house red for me. The spaghetti was nice but ultra salty. It was past 4pm so it was probably early dinner / high tea.

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Next stop was the Vatican. We knew we had tickets for the mass on Easter Sunday in my name, but the confirmation letter for mm’s application never arrived, so we thought we’d check with the office to see if she got lucky with her application too. There was the perpetual long queue for security, and we figured it wasn’t the right place. Asked the Swiss Guards and were directed to the side entrance to pick up tickets. No problem for the ones in my name, I had the letter and reference number. When mm explained that she was travelling and missed the confirmation letter, the nice guy checked her name and yay! we have tickets for mass tomorrow with Papa Francesco.

Strolled around for a bit. Had a gelato, bought some magnets, headed to the bridges and the river. So different from Florence and Assisi. Florence, though touristy, is still a small town. Assisi, again touristy, is an even smaller town and felt more intimate and peaceful. Rome, well, it’s Rome. It’s noisy, busy, full of beggars and people selling selfie sticks. You fight with cars and buses and a million other tourists when you cross the road. There is a special smell and atmosphere. It’s Rome.

europe day 15: assisi porziuncola, bosco di san francesco

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For a change we were out relatively early, caught the 10.10am bus to Santa Maria degli Angeli near the train station. This was the site of Porziuncola, a church that was already standing in St Francis’ and St Clare’s time. This was the second church rebuilt by St Francis. The original church was still standing, a tiny sacred stone building with a simple altar and single pews. Over the small church in the 1500s they built the basilica which had many small chapels and ornate decorations. We went into a chapel for prayer, and, as per our experience so far this trip, the chapel filled with people and all of a sudden organ music rang out and we found ourselves participating in a mass. It was quite nice, even though we couldn’t understand any of the Italian.

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There was a lot to see at the rest of the cathedral. The various chapels, a rose garden, sculptures of St Francis and a statue of St Clare dedicated by mm’s mum’s school. It was quite moving to see the name of the school so prominently displayed amongst an exhibit showing St Clare’s life. There was also a small cinema and we caught a 10min film about the church and its significance in St Francis’ life. The Porziuncula attracts many pilgrims because St Francis obtained the Indulgence of Pardon, or total forgiveness for all temporal sins, from Jesus here.

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Lunch at at nearby café of pizza, pasta and salad. Caught a bus back to near St Francis Basilica so we could visit the Bosco di San Francesco, or St Francis’ Woodlands. This was where he went to pray and experience nature. There was a 1.5km trail to a small church Santa Croce, then another 2.5km roundtrip to Terzo Paradiso (three paradise), an art installation of 3 circles made from an olive grove. The hike was pleasant if quite long. Since the path from the basilica entrance to Santa Croce closed at 4pm we had to return to town via a tarmac road. On the map it looked less than the 1.5km trail but the map didn’t show that it was all uphill. We got back into Assisi proper past 6pm.

Refuelled with water and gelato. Bought tomatoes and peppers from a small greengrocer’s and wandered into a gourmet shop wanting porchetta panini. We got our porchetta sandwiches, the friendly shopkeeper gave us parma ham to try and we ended up buying a few slices which she packed in vacuum. Perfect to bring back for the family. Dinner was late, almost 8pm, in our room. Laundry was dry, suitcases packed for the next leg of our trip. Rome and the Vatican over Easter. I’m excited for the occasion but very wary of the potential crowds. We met a young Father from Michigan here at the retreat house and he says he will be at Easter Sunday mass too and they anticipate 50,000 or more people. Yikes.

europe trip day 14: assisi basilica san francesco, rocca maggiore

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We finally found the wifi password at the retreat house and spent the morning catching up, uploading and posting. Also took time to do laundry so it wasn’t until around noon that we set off. The first destination today was Basilica di San Francesco, the largest basilica and the primary attraction of Assisi. The basilica consisted of the lower basilica built in 1230 and the upper basilica built in 1239, together with other buildings dedicated to St Francis, St Clare, St Anthony and many other saints. We waited till after the weekend, hoping for thinner crowds. There were plenty of visitors still, although the complex was big enough for there to be space between groups.

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The iconic entrance to the lower basilica through a sloped pavement was like steps taken by pilgrims. The façade of the upper basilica overlooked a lawn with a statue of St Francis on horseback. Both basilicas were extensively painted with frescos and paintings depicting the life of St Francis. The lower basilica led to the tomb of St Francis, a sacred place. There was also an exhibition of Franciscian manuscripts.

While we were at the upper basilica, a group of teenagers and their teacher stood respectfully in front of the altar and broke out into song. Afterwards, we found out that they were a choir group from Minnesota on pilgrimage. The acoustics of the basilica was such that the song seemed to echo and reverberate around all of us who were there at the right place at the right time. Some of the kids were so overcome with emotions that they were in (happy) tears at the end of the spontaneous recital. As a bonus, photography wasn’t allowed inside the basilica, but with the choir singing, everybody took the opportunity to take pictures or videos without being scolded by the staff.

All in all, an interesting and meaningful visit. Almost all of Assisi was full of St Francis or St Clare, it was like we couldn’t turn around and there was another place where they were born / prayed / baptised / lived. Everywhere were stories. Every wall had a dedication. I could see why pilgrims flock here. Am I overwhelmed? Not necessarily by the spirituality, but by the sheer preponderance of everything associated with the saints. It’s like being immersed in saintliness.

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Quick late lunch of average pizza at the most unfriendly place this trip—the silver lining was free loo and free wifi. Hiked uphill to rocca maggiore, the highest point of Assisi and a fort located on the remains of defensive walls. We debated whether to shell out the €5.50 entrance fee and since we made all the effort to trek there, seemed a waste just to turn back. What appeared to be old walls made up of piles of rocks turned out to be really interesting. A dark, hidden doorway led via a spiral staircase up one of the towers. The walls were too high for us to see much.

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A secret passageway from the first tower ran underneath the walls and came out at to another tower, this one with breathtaking 360º views of Assisi, from the rocca minore furthest east, to San Ruffino Cathedral, Basilica Santa Chiara, almost the entire town and the Basilica San Francesco. It was quite scary as the fence was open, so eventually my fear of heights kicked in.

Like last night, we bought porchetta sandwiches to enjoy in our room while we relax in peace and quiet. Last day tomorrow, still have a lot planned.

europe day 13: assisi palm sunday, san damiano

The clocks changed overnight, and we thought we would pre-empt by manually setting our iphones but somehow they updated themselves so we woke up way too early at 6.30am. Sat in chapel for a bit then back to our room to wait for 7.30am breakfast. Similar continental food as Florence retreat house. We noticed all (seriously, 100%) of the other guests were American, and the sort who: a) talk loudly even at 7.30am; b) talk loudly about themselves, about their faith, about how even they were the only member of their family who was Catholic, about how coming to Assisi for pilgrimage utterly change their lives; c) were quite demanding to the sisters and staff. Some stereotypes are true.

One of the sisters told us about the events today, Palm Sunday. We headed to the main square at just before 9.30am where a crowd had gathered around baskets of olive branches. We picked out a nice bunch each and waited for the fathers to appear and bless the branches. Mostly olive branches although there were a few palm fronds. After the blessing, there was a procession towards the Cathedral San Ruffino. The choir leader sang us up the hill and into the cathedral. The mass was in Italian and I was able to follow at least the procedures, if not the words. We could follow the Gospel because mm had it on her iphone. Mostly the mass was similar in structure to what we were used to. Afterwards a few nice gentlemen in official looking grey overcoats took pictures with us. We stayed behind after the mass to take pictures of the cathedral.

Early lunch at a sandwich shop next to the cathedral of torta with rocket & ricotta and pancetta & mozzarella. Back to the retreat house to deposit our olive branches and take a rest. The next stop was the long walk (1.5km) to San Damiano, the sanctuary where St Francis heard the voice of Christ and where St Clare established a convent. A crisp cold morning had turned into a glorious blue sky day. The sanctuary was locked when we got there, and we were afraid it was closed. But people kept appearing and sitting patiently outside on benches. It was 1.55pm so we figured it might open at 2pm. Yay, we were right!

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It was free to enter and we walked through the chapel, dormitory and cloisters. Supposed to be silence and no photography but people were taking pictures at will and this woman was talking on her phone (thought she got shushed).

A longer walk uphill back to town. Really tired so found a café and ordered a large bottle of water plus snacks of pizza and pasta. Further visits to S. Maria Maggiore and San Pietro churches. The churches were beginning to blend into each other. And it seemed everywhere we turned, it was someplace St Francis stayed at or did something. I guess it’s par for the course.

Souvenir shopping led us to St Francis Basilica. It was getting late and our plan was to visit it tomorrow. Not a huge amount of choices for dinner so we bought porchetta sandwiches and headed back to our room to relax and have an early night.

europe day 12: florence to assisi

Checked out of our room after breakfast and left our luggage in their sitting room while we popped outside to the supermarket to get lunch. There was a little time to visit the chapel and lounge in the sitting room. Sister Lucia called a taxi for us, around 10mins to the station. Waited at the concourse for our train to come up on the board. Departure was at 12.09, and it was a semi-fast regional train with no reservation. We snagged a 4-seater and wedged our suitcases in between the seats. There was space near the door but nothing to secure the bags, and too exposed with so many stops. Lunch was mushroom and pepper foccacia from the supermarket, with smoked cheese and a black (squid ink?) foccaccia.

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Arrived at Assisi around 2.45pm. The station is 4km from town so taxi seems to be the only option with 2 big suitcases. The retreat house is St Anthony’s run by the Franciscan Sisters of the Atonement and we were greeted by Sister Sue. I think she’s from the US. She showed us to our room and we got settled down then explored the retreat house. Our room is the one at the bottom right with the balcony. This retreat house is different from the one in Florence. Seemed to be slightly more business-like with housekeeping staff. There is a chapel, a multi-level garden and a few more house rules. There were specific rooms we could go, the dining room was locked, whereas in Florence we had the run of the place at all time.

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We had a couple of hours of daylight left so we headed to Basilica Santa Chiara or St Clare’s Cathedral. St Clare has an equally important place in Assisi’s history as St Francis and the Basilica was very beautiful especially in the late afternoon sunlight. There was a service inside, we sat and listened for a while then visited the crucifix chapel and the crypt where St Clare was interred. Making our way to the central Piazza del Comune square we passed by Chiesa Nuova, site of St Francis’ paternal home and Santa Maria Dopra Minerva at the square. Assisi is a typical Mediterranean town, narrow hilly cobblestoned streets and stone houses. Very pretty in the evening light.

Dinner was at a touristy deli type place, the sort where the food is reheated and served on paper plates. Pizza margherita, penne arrabiata and grilled vegetables. The pizza was passable, the penne was from the packet and the grilled vegetables more like ratatouille. For a moment there we thought we were in south of France. A large house red was the best bargain. It was almost dark so we made our way back to the retreat house. There didn’t seem to be a supermarket in town, we stopped at a vegetable store and bought some tomatoes. They had wine on tap so I got a 1l plastic bottle of sangiovese for €2 (plus 0.90 for the bottle). Tasted fine.

Had to get used to a new room and new bathroom. This retreat house, aside from having no internet, also had no laundry facilities so we will be handwashing a few items a day. It was a completely clear sky tonight, chilly with lots of stars in the sky. Could see all of Orion.

europe day 11: florence

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Rainy day plus a late start due to laundry meant we spent the day in Florence instead of taking a day trip out to Tuscany. It means we only get to go to Siena this trip. I’m a little disappointed although mm preferred to stay in town.

Headed to south of the river to Piazzale Michaelangelo. A long trek up steps brought us to a wide open square with spectacular view of the city. The rain stopped long enough for the sun to peek out to give us even better views.

Quite a lot to see and do over there. There were 2 churches next to the square, a small church associated with a missionary and the basilica San Miniato al Monte which had a spectacular view to the city as well as an extensive cemetery behind the church. In front of the square is a small garden with roses and citrus trees, very pleasant to sit there once the weather cleared up.

Back to San Lorenzo market and Duomo area for last minute shopping. Dinner at our usual restaurant and florentine steak again. Back to the retreat house for our last night, packing and relaxing. We weren’t as agressive as before, taking our time everyday, so it meant we saw fewer sights than how we used to travel. Then again, we didn’t feel as rushed and it was sometimes nice just to sit at a café and watch the world go by.

The retreat house we stayed in Florence is the casa per ferie regina del santo rosario run by Sister Flora, Sister Lucia and others. I can’t recommend it high enough. Yes, it’s fairly basic. There is no TV in the room, no room service and other fancy stuff. I found it very peaceful and pleasant. We spent a little time this morning in the living room with the door to the garden open for fresh air and it was as good as life can get. They are actually on booking.com, the Sister was using the computer the other night.

Train to Assisi tomorrow. From the website, the retreat house at Assisi has no internet. Let’s see how we manage.

europe day 10: florence

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Leisurely breakfast. Laundry after breakfast too, the sisters charged us a nominal €1 to use their laundry facilities, there was plenty of room in the garden to hang our clothes to dry.

Walked to the Basilica di Santa Croce, the biggest franciscian church in Florence. The entrance fee was €6 and it was worth it, there was a lot to see. Aside from the main area, there were rooms and corridors full of art and artefacts, including many that were ruined by the 1966 flood and carefully restored. The church is also the final resting place for MIchaelangelo, Galileo, Machiavelli and other prominent people.

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I enjoyed visiting the church, but got a bit impatient. We would go to a particular spot, an altar, a painting or something interesting. It’d take me a couple of minutes to look at the object and take a picture. Then I’d have to stand there for another 10mins waiting for mm, who seemed to read, look, appreciate and photograph every.single.thing with excruitiating slowness. We definitely have to compromise going forward. Sigh.

It was past 2pm by the time we came out of the basilica. I had plans to go to Piazza Michaelangelo across the river, but obviously the plan disappeared. We still had to find lunch. The first place, near palazzo vecchio, was way too touristy for our liking. We found a trattoria slightly off the main squares. It was still touristy, with some locals inside. Their lunch menu was until 3pm, so we took advantage of it. I had chicken liver crostini and mm had grilled vegetables. For mains we had veal scalloppine. Everything was good, the scalloppine was underseasoned, as if the chef forgot salt. Their bread was the best we’ve tasted in all of Italy. They made their own pizza and we noticed they made their own bread too. For dessert we shared a cheesecake with strawberries and cream.

More walking. Had a small gelato (mint and yogurt for me, mint and lemon for mm) and got a few things at the supermarket. Back at the retreat house at around 6pm. Still full from lunch, no need for dinner.

europe day 09: florence shopping

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We woke up at 9am, too late for breakfast at the retreat house. Had our coffee and tea at a nearby coffee shop instead. Bought sandwiches from the street market—porchetta and lampredotto (cow stomach).

First stop was at the religious shop near the Duomo, to give the sisters there a cake we bought at Siena. They were so nice. Sister Stefanie invited us to visit their chapel above the shop. So peaceful and blessed.

The rest of the day was quite boring for me. Walked to the bus station to catch the bus for the outlet. The bus was full so we had to wait for the next one. Good timing to have lunch. The outlet had a number of brands—Prada, Ferragamo, Coach, BV, Burberry, Tods, Hogan, EA and the like. Honestly I have no interest in branded stuff, especially since most of the stuff for sale was handbags, shoes and accessories. There were a few wallets that looked alright, and mm as usual was tempted by handbags. I don’t get why anyone will buy wallets for €100-200 or handbags for almost €1000, nice thought they were. We didn’t buy anything at the end.

Walked through the market back at Florence and looked more carefully at things to buy. Came across a couple of stalls where the salesperson wasn’t obnoxious or pushy. Bought two handbags (mm) and two belts (me).

Bought chocolate at lindt then headed for dinner at the taverna near the retreat house. We shared a 1kg florentine shirloin steak on the bone, good taste and well cooked.

europe day 07: florence

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Woke up at 7am, mm wanted to go to early morning mass with the nuns. I didn’t go, but I got up anyway. We had breakfast at the dining room of the retreat house—bread roll, cereal, yogurt. We then explored around the house, gardens and chapel, everything was immaculate with a sense of peace. The furniture admittedly were older, made the place even more charming.

The distinctive Duomo was around 15mins away. There were queues for both the dome and the cathedral so we walked on towards San Lorenzo and the Mercato Centrale. Just the right time for an early lunch. The second floor of the market had about 10-12 artisan food stalls, we opted for a plate of mixed cold cuts & cheese from one and spaghetti pomodoro from another. I had a glass of rosé as it was the same price as coke.

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From the market we walked past the train station, Santa Maria Novella church towards Piazza Republica. Checked out the hard rock café and the market nearby. Lots of leather goods and souvenirs, also quite sticky salespeople. Followed the crowd to reach Palazzo Vecchio and the copy of David at the entrance.

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Where the crowd was thickest was at Ponte Vecchio. Around the bridge and on the bridge. Not inside the jewellry shops on the bridge though. Across the river we ambled towards Palazzo Pitti and Biboli gardens. Didn’t go inside, we weren’t that interested in the art in the palace and €10 for just the gardens didn’t seem value for money. We were pretty tired so had tea at a small coffee shop opposite the palace. One street over and we were at Santo Spirito church. Free entrance, so we went inside. It was quite nice, the main attraction was Michaelangelo’s wooden crucifix. We walked around the interior that had lots of art (didn’t know how to appreciate though) and sat for a little while.

From south of the river, we walked slowly back towards our retreat house. On the way we stopped at a religious store near Duomo. We were looking at the figures at the window when the sister inside waved us in. The store was run by nuns from a religious order. We were drawn to wood carvings of Mary and baby Jesus that was handmade by one of the sisters at their order. Quite expensive, but after some thought, we decided that they were worth it. Very beautiful pieces. The sisters at the shop were so friendly, we even took pictures together. We won’t forget Sr Stefanie, who spoke English and have travelled around the world, for a long time.

Dinner was at a taverna near the retreat house—caprese salad, grilled vegetables, pici cacio e pepe. It’s the first time we tried cacio e pepe pasta, and even though it’s a Roman speciality, the one here in Tuscany was very good. I had 250ml carafe red wine that was only €3, which was cheaper than coke. I think I’ll end up drinking a fair amount of house wine in Italy.

Walked a lot today, probably 3-4hrs. Helped burn off all the good food and wine.

europe day 06: amsterdam to rome to florence

Travelling day. Early start, 6.30am alarm and out of the house at 8am. Had to repack at bag drop as our luggage was just a little above the limit. First time we fly easyJet and we can see the nickel and diming at work. Flight was almost 100% full and almost on time arriving at Rome. Picked up our luggage and leisurely made our way to the train station. We had a couple hours to wait for the direct train to Florence. It was fine, we found seats and had sandwiches we made at our friend’s house for lunch.

The train was very nice. When I was booking online, the first class (non-refundable) was the same price as second class (flexible) so I sprang for the first class tickets. For that we got comfrotable seats, a free drink and a small snack.

Florence train station was a big heaving mess. We had the option of taking a taxi or bus, and ended up at the bus stop. The bus arrived a few minutes later and we squeezed in with what seems to be the entire population of florence. I had the fare in my pocket but wasn’t able to figure out how to pay when we were pushed further down the bus. We knew we had 4 stops to go, and were glad the directions were correct.

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We found the retreat house with no issue, the only slight problem was pushing our suitcases along the narrow cobblestone streets. We were greeted by Sister Lucia and Sister Flora, both from India. Their warm and friendly welcome was a good sign already. Our room was a good size and basic, with our own bathroom. We took a peek at the breakfast room, sitting room, chapel and garden. More pics tomorrow.

After leaving our bags, we headed out to find dinner. Found the remains of a market at a nearby square selling baked goods, cheese, olive oil and balsamic. I bought some balsamic glaze for mum, as requested. We also found a small supermarket where we stocked up on water.

Dinner was a small café nearby. We both had spaghetti vongole and we shared a plate of grilled vegetables. The spaghetti was good if a little salty; the veg was very good. I also had a small carafe of house red, which was the same price as a large coke. Pretty good. The retreat house has a curfew of 10.30pm, we were back well in time.

cruise day 11: rome

Civitavecchia for Rome 9am – 7pm

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Quick exit at 9am, no delay today. A free port authority bus took us to the entrance of the port and we got a day pass for €13. 10min walk along the pretty promenade to the train station and we were on the 9.43am train to rome in no time.

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The guidebooks told us to get off as rome ostiense station then change to the metro to the colosseum. We realised we didn’t want to go to the colosseum, so we got off at san pietro station, which i figured out was st peter’s, ie the vatican. Couldn’t resist taking pictures again. Tried to find a map but the tourist information kiosk had run out, so i was quite bummed. We did manage to find the market we had lunch at last year, but no reaction from anyone so we were stood there like idiots with no directions. So frustrating.

Walked along the street and eventually bought a map from a roadside newsagent. We were near the palace of justice. Visited a spar supermarket and bought biscuits and more balsamic.

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Lunch at a snack bar: potato pizza, lasagna and an artichoke. Came to €17 without drinks. The pizza was really really delicious. Simple thin crust with potatoes — crispy, nicely seasoned.

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Walked to the river, it was I think my first time seeing the river tiber. The thing about rome, you walk along a street and all of a sudden there’d be some ruins or a church or a nice square. I wish I could enjoy it more and not constantly be pissed off.

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There was time, so we walked to the trevi fountain and then to the spanish steps. Very crowded and dangerous metro, first to the hard rock café to find a shirt (duplicate of stockholm, didn’t buy) then to termini train station. Long trek to the platform to find the right train back to civitavecchia, everyone was relieved when the train finally got going and we returned to the port.

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Dinner at restaurant: aracini, salad, falsomagro (beef meatloaf), cannoli, bread pudding. Our last night on the cruise, luggage had to be outside by 1am and everything packed and ready to go.

med cruise day 6 – genoa

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Absolutely gorgeous sunrise at Genoa, was watching it on our balcony. I’m quite happy we had a balcony cabin, I enjoyed watching us dock and leave. We didn’t join any tour today, and our friends were tired so it was just parents and me. As soon as we stepped off the boat we were accosted by the open top bus tour at €10 per person. Grabbed their map and I said I saw a sign for the metro so let’s look for that first. It’s only literally across the road from the dock! For €1.50, it’s only one line with a few stops.

The centre of town at Piazza de Ferrari was quiet early in the morning and we ended up walking around in circles. Found a charity stall selling oranges and honey. We asked about market and was given instructions to go to the mercato orientale. On the way we found panettone on sald €15 for 2, yay! The market was not a disappointment. Easily spent an hour looking at the stalls and being annoyed we could only buy spices and a little fruit and veg. Lots of produce and seafood.

Found a discount supermarket and a Coop (wow, remember them?) to stock up on chocolate, more balsamico and I bought a bottle of grappa. Rested at Mcdonalds before metro back to ship. Again, they didn’t bother with my grappa. Late lunch, rest and more reading. Italian night at MDR — cold cuts, salad, osso bucco with risotto, steamed veg, rum baba, lemon sorbet. I had a glass of chianti and limoncello in the souvenir MSC glass.

med cruise day 5 – rome

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The ship docked at the port of Civitavecchia, which was just a port. We hopped on an excursion that took us 1.5hrs to Rome, transport only. The coach drop off was conveniently located next to the Vatican, which was a lovely as I remembered. Could have spent a lot more time inside. There were a couple of chapels that didn’t allow photography, for praying only, and they were the prettiest of chapels. Sent a postcard to my niece, with Vatican stamp and all.

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Asked at the tourist information for the way to a street market. Ended up at one, which I think wasn’t the one we were told, but was still nice. Covered market selling fruits, veg, pasta, dried goods. Bought polenta, porcini mushroom and dates. Had lunch at the snack bar inside the market — simple sandwiches and pasta.

Took the subway and continued our walking tour of Rome, hit Spanish steps, Trevi fountain, wedding cake building and Colosseun in quick succession. Subway back to Vatican and back on the coach for transport back to the ship. Our coach was one of the last to arrive back, almost 6.30pm. Late dinner in MDR again — rice ball, salad, fish soul, beef roll with cous cous, cannoli and a sugarless ice cream.

med cruise day 4 – palermo

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Palermo today. The ship docked right next to town so no need for excursion. It was a rainy and dreary day so it spoiled a little. We got right off the ship and got a map at the tourist information booth, and another map from a hop-on-hop-off stop. Headed straight for the street market. Very nice! Lots of fresh fruits, vegs, meats, fish. Just a shame we couldn’t buy any of it. We did end up at a shop that sold spices, sweets, oils, vinegars and such. Mum asked the young man if he knew somewhere we could grab a snack and he directed us to the café next door, run by his mother and sister. Had calamari, potatoes, pizza and gratin. €20 for 5 people.

Visited small church opposite, very pretty. Then walked to the cathedral, which was actually not as pretty. There was more walking, and most of the group was tired so they headed back to the ship. Mum and I had a final bout of shopping at a deli near the dock, bought limoncello and balsamic. The ship’s policy is that they take your alcoholic purchases away and give it back to you when you leave, but they didn’t touch our purchases so all was well.

Read a bit in our cabin and then it was another gala evening, which we didn’t know about. Marlin salad, tagliatelle with veal, grilled king prawns, baked alaska and a chef parade.

europe trip 04: high altitude

We set the alarm early to try to catch the sunrise. She was indeed up and about (in a pleasantly unexpected reversal of our usual roles), but I was really tired. But I also managed to get up around 7.30am to be greeted with a cloudless view, with the morning sunshine gradually bringing more in from the darkness.

Breakfast was typical fare of cheese, bread, boiled eggs and cold meat, but even these tasted better cos of our great mood.

There were so many alternatives to choose from and so little time, at the end we decided to go up to Klein Matterhorn. A couple of cable car rides later we were there, and it was great. The first venture out to the viewing platform was a bit of a shock, it was cold. Couldn’t move too far too fast without being out of breath, and a little dizzy too. Of course, we were at high altitudes, so not as much oxygen.

Most of the other passengers in the cable car were there for skiing or boarding, I was so jealous. The run from the cable car was a long straight one down the glacier and it looked like so much fun. Sigh.

We made our slow way back down the valley, by the time we reached the middle station the shortness had all but disappeared, and we took even more photos. 3 cheers for digital cameras I say. A last walk through the village, a short wait for the train and we were back in our car.

I’d suggested we went back to Zurich via another route, through Ticino, looking at the map it seemed manageable, albeit a bit far, I was determined to try it. It was a long way, up and down some very steep inclines. Plus we drove through Italy, literally, we didn’t stop. The border checkpoints were almost invisible, and all of a sudden I was driving on an autostrada! Then shortly after, we were back in Switzerland.

I’d initially wanted to aim for Bellinzona or Lugano, but it was getting late and we ended up in Locarno. No big, it was still very nice. The difference in temperature was fairly pronounced, we enjoyed a short walk around the lake, had an outdoor dinner of pizza and risotto, then headed back to Zurich.

2001 09 Venice

A city with no cars, no diesel buses, with a rich maze of alleyways and squares that interconnect with one another. By all means, line up to go inside the Basilica, feed the pigeons at the Piazza, take a picture at the Bridge of Sighs. But Venice is more that that. Venice is where every street and square leads to another alley, another square, another new place to explore. Just go without a map and without a fear of getting lost. Eventually you’ll come out into a bigger street or square and you’d know where you are.

Venice is where all the senses are fully occupied, sight, sound, smell, taste. During the summer the canals tend to have a distinctive, perhaps even stinky, smell. But that’s what makes this city unique. Everyday life goes on under our noses, gondolas may take tourists on the romance of a lifetime, but the vaporettis run 24 hours and are the lifeblood of locals. To cruise down the Grand Canal on a sparsely occupied vaporetti is just as fulfilling as the equivalent gondola ride. Cross the canal on the rickety standing-room only traghetti which are old gondolas. Buy souvenirs from the small shops everywhere selling the unique masks, or colourful glassware, or beautifully handcrafted notebooks.

Visit the Rialto Bridge of course, but don’t miss the Rialto markets where stalls groan under the weight of foods on sale. Try squid ink pasta at a small osteria, or make a meal out of cicchetti (Italian version of tapas) at a small bacarro. Try the melt-in-your-mouth varieties of smooth creamy gelato. Sit at a café and sip bitter, strong coffee. What else is there, what else?

Bridges
rialto bridge of sighs

Views
street life roadside

Boats
gondola private boats

Street scenes
the use of clothing as flags nice roof