Monday, July 30, 2007

Let Me Share My Perfect Day With You!

We are home, back to a welcoming family and a very comfortable bed and are pleasantly surprised that Canberra has turned on the sunshine even if it's not exactly what one could call "hot" right now! We arrived home on Thursday evening and unfortunately I have been suffering from complete lack of sleep, an extreme case of jet lag and a nasty little bug. However today I returned to work and am finally starting to actually feel human again.

Tuesday 17 July
Mykonos, although touristy, still has considerable charm. The town is full of little cobbled alleyways and people everywhere studying maps and looking totally lost as every little alleyway looks remarkably alike. We had great views from our delightful little hotel - all blue and white - perched on a hill about ten minutes from town. It had one of those 'infinity' swimming pools where the water looks like it's flowing over the edge into the ocean far below.

This was the day we took a boat to the island of Delos and toured the 'ruined' village. In fact the whole island is an ancient site totally uninhabited apart from a few guards. The museum there has held excavations since 1873.

We spent another wonderful afternoon swimming at Paradiso Beach and from about 7pm the partying started. The DJ, dressed in nothing but a g-string, led heaps of very gorgeous briefly clad young people of both sexes in dancing to loud and exciting music while we drank cocktails (or 'coctails' as they spelt them there -' two for one' after 5pm) and 'enjoyed' the scenery.

Later in the evening we dined in a lovely restaurant and had a great conversation with a Melbourne couple sitting at a table next to us resulting in a rather late night. Incidentally we never did find out what time the shops closed - most were still open well after midnight which was time for we old folk to head for bed!

18 - 19 July
Our boat trip to Santorini on another Australian built catamaran took only three hours this time. Our hotel in Karterados, just out of the town of Fira, had less character than in Mykonos but we were comfortable. In Santorini, because of Greek plumbing, one is not allowed to put paper down the toilet, instead bins are provided. The trick is remembering! This called for some interesting signage in places and one loo in a public bar read "No paper or rugs or any other useless material to be put down toilet"! The mind boggles!

Fira town was a 15 minute walk from our hotel and from here we took a bus to Kamari Beach where we enjoyed great swims in gentle waves. Although the beaches in Santorini were not as sandy as in Mykonos (in fact they were positively rocky in parts) the gentle waves and refreshing water were heaven. We found a great bar in Fira serving beautiful cocktails as we watched a magnificent sunset over the water. We also enjoyed fabulous traditional Greek food.

Santorini's official name is Thira but the locals refer to it as Santorini after Saint Irini. When we arrived at the port our initial impression was of a very barren volcanic island but as the bus drove us up the narrow steep winding road (reminiscent of the Amalfi Coast road) towards Fira we were met with stunning views of the bright blue water and the changing landscape as civilisation approached. Santorini is nestled among volcanic rocks and the houses and shops are not all white, like Mykonos, rather there are a lot of shades of pinks and sandstones as well as the predominant white and blue. It is positively gorgeous.

Friday 20 July
Today we took a full-day excursion on a fishing vessel from Fira to see the active volcano, the thermal pools, Thirassia and Oia. This was a great day. First we visited the volcano which last erupted in 1950. We walked and walked through lava and rocks and enjoyed stunning views of the blue water below. There was lots of molten rock, lava, black, red, grey and large stones. It was quite magnificent.

Our next stop was the thermal pools. Here we were able to jump off the side of the boat into clear deep water and swim about 30metres to the brown muddy warm thermal pool. As we swam to the far end of the mineral pool it seemed a shame to miss so many great photo opportunities. Up on the hills were a couple of old-fashioned wooden loos, a surprising sight, way out there. It would have been great to have taken photos of the heaps of people (me included) covering themselves in the dark brown mud which is full of minerals and very therapeutic for the skin - it also has a strong smell! We swam back to the boat in the clear water to be taken to our next destination - Thirassia - more walking here (or a donkey ride) for those who chose to visit the village. We opted for the walk and enjoyed the uphill challenge. The town was virtually deserted - nothing was open - no shops, no restaurants, no people - quite deserted except for lazy cats and the occasional sound of Greek music wafting through open windows. It was a good walk with lovely views and we next headed back down to the beach for a fabulous swim.

Our last stop was Oia (pronounced "ee-a") where we were recommended the ideal spot for watching the sunset. Oia is a very scenic and tranquil village with some houses built into the near-vertical cliff face. The views are stunning with blue-domed Byzantine churches, views of the volcano lagoon and crater with white-washed houses. We enjoyed a cocktail at a restaurant overlooking the water and as the sun became lower over the water we walked to the castle to watch the most magnificent sunset ever. My camera has been working overtime trying to capture the perfect sunset. The castle walls were an ideal sunset-watching spot but several hundred others obviously thought so too. A tour load of boisterous fellow Aussies were enjoying lavish helpings of Greek salads and cold meats and copious amounts of alcohol while waiting for the big moment! Everybody burst into spontaneous applause as the sun eventually disappeared in a red glow. We then hurried to catch the bus to return us to Karterados after an exhausting but fabulous day. We were too tired to walk back up the hill to town and instead we thoroughly enjoyed a Greek version of wood-fired pizza and local wine in the nearby pizzeria.

Saturday 21 July - The Perfect Day!
I thought nothing could top yesterday but today had to be the one that did and it didn't even involve shopping!

We took your advice, Lulu, and decided to walk to Oia from Karterados - a total of 13km. The problem was finding a walking trail. We kept being directed to the bus stop. Walking to Oia? No way! However through perseverance we found a track which headed in the general direction.

It was a stunning day and the views the entire way were mind-boggling. In fact there are just not enough adjectives to describe the beauty of this place. At times we actually walked on red volcanic rock (I think we lost the main path at this stage) and it was quite slippery and required some caution. It took us a few hours to finally reach Oia as we kept 'stopping to stare' at the awe-inspiring cliff faces and blue water with tiny boats in the distance and little villages perched on hilltops far away. We stopped for a spot of lunch and asked again for directions - again we were shown where to catch the bus. No, we wished to walk. "No, very far, too far to walk". At that stage we were well over half way. Eventually we were vaguely directed to a path. Obviously walkers are not a common sight as when we walked the last few km, now beside the road, we became aware of people staring out of bus windows and from the back of motorcycles. We saw only one other couple on foot on our entire journey and they were sitting contemplating their guide book at the time, having come from the opposite direction.

When we finally reached Oia we felt fantastic. That walk was absolutely stunning the entire way. Thank you for the suggestion Lulu - I agree with your analysis! And yes, we consumed copious amounts of water.

After a walk through Oia we caught a couple of buses to Parissa Beach for a much-deserved heavenly swim. There we were still swimming at 7.30pm at night, absolute bliss under the slowly setting sun. We threw our clothes over our swimmers, caught a bus back to Fira and walked to the top of the hill just in time to watch our final Santorini sunset - perfect!

We walked back to the hotel, showered, changed and walked slowly back up to town to find an absolutely gorgeous restaurant overlooking the water. The service, atmosphere, food and a bottle of Santorini wine were absolutely fantastic. We decided to splash out for our last night here and I could not fault this restaurant - sheer good luck in finding it. Somehow it was the icing on the cake on what had turned out to be an absolutely perfect day!

Homeward Bound!
Santorini will be etched in my memory forever. It is somewhere to which I would like to return one day and perhaps stay in an apartment perched on the hill with constant stunning views at a cost of thousands per week - soooo romantic!! Every day here has been beautiful, sunny days with a very slight breeze but the time has gone so quickly. It certainly felt like paradise - the views and sunsets breathtakingly beautiful.

Sunday 22nd we set sail back to Athens after a wonderful ten days in the Greek Islands. It was a four hour trip on the fast ferry, twice the pace of the ferry from Athens to Mykonos and far more comfortable. We spent a night in Athens, then on to Rome for a night and home via Hong Kong - one final day for shopping but by then we were starting to feel tired and irritable and were longing for the comfort of our own bed. Sleeping in aeroplanes is no fun and in my case impossible.

Our return luggage weight was impressive compared to our last trip two years ago when we were refused 80kg and had to leave some behind - this time only 47kg of checked luggage between us - no problems through customs although there were a few heart-stopping moments declaring certain wooden items!

And so now we are home. Yesterday I attempted to run the block in the afternoon knowing I would never make Mt Taylor in the morning (especially after crawling out of bed at 1.30pm) - an abysmally slow 6km and I felt dreadful. Until last night I slept and unpacked and slept the entire weekend. Last night the family came over for an Italian meal then I slept only one hour the entire night (not related to my cooking I hope). My time clock is definitely way out - here's to a good night tonight - to sleep, perchance to dream - of sunsets, stunning views and paradise!

Monday, July 16, 2007

It all looks Greek to me!!

Wow, we are here in Mykanos and it's startlingly beautiful. What is more we went for a run this morning - long overdue I might add, but we have had plenty of exercise honest!!
We visited the cathedral in San Gimignano before we left and every wall was completely covered in frescoes including the scene of 'the seven deadly sins'. It was fabulous with a story for every frescoe. On Sat 7th we headed off towards Vernazza stopping for a short break in Pisa on the way to ogle at the leaning tower, the baptistry and huge cathedral before going on to the Cinque Terra, where we spent three nights, parking a long way up a narrow winding road, with a bus ride to and from the town included in the exorbitant parking fee! We were led up another steep narrow track of steps to our apartments (aka rooms with bathrooms - our shower being outside but covered in plastic), not exactly conducive to a good night's sleep. However, Vernazza was beautiful. Each morning we breakfasted on a pastry and good coffee at the local bar.
Vernazza is one of the five towns of the Cinque Terra and in my opinion the pick of them. It's a delightful fishing village where we enjoyed gorgeous swimming in the little beach in the salty but clear water winding in and out the rocks. We enjoyed lovely meals at different places each night and explored the cute little beachside shops. We also purchased a two-day ticket to walk the Cinque Terra.
On the Sunday we walked the first three stages starting at the easiest end and covering four villages on our first day, taking our time by visiting each village - Riomaggiore, Manarola, Corniglia and our own village of Vernazza. Each stage became progressively more difficult but all were manageable with stunning views. There were lots of people going in both directions along the winding narrow paths, many steep steps and goat tracks.
On the Monday we walked the most difficult of the walks from Vernazza to Monterosso - the largest town. This was just a craggy goat track in parts, very steep and narrow with many many steps at the start and towards the end. It was a real sense of achievement to finish all the walks without difficulty. Two years ago when Mr B and I went to the Cinque Terra we could only walk the easiest walk as, due to inclement weather, parts of the walk was closed as there were falling rocks. This year the weather was perfect and it was all open. On our last stage we came across a cat shelter built in the hills where little bowls of food had been put out for the wild cats.
On our last night we visited a recommended restaurant - Cafe Sandro (took a photo for you Sandra) which was opposite our apartments and the food was yummy. After the meal Mr B and I listened to a visiting school band playing by the waterfront. They were great but the most entertaining part was watching the reaction of the locals and the little children starting from about two holding on to each others waists forming a long line and weaving in and out of the crowds having a wonderful time. It fascinates us the hours that children stay up in all parts of Italy. We often see them up and about well after 11pm.
Tuesday 10 July we went to collect our cars from the carpark only to find that somebody (I won't mention names of course) had left our headlights on for three days and our battery was flat. A group of helpful South Africans tried to assist us but our Mercedes being an automatic was impossible to crash start. We also discovered the battery was in the boot and this was interesting in itself as the boot opened by battery. However eventually we found a secret key hidden in the automatic opening lock and with the help of the bus driver we eventually managed to start the car with jumper leads. Phew - another little drama overcome!!
From Vernazza we drove to our bed and breakfast homes in Lucca - one of Mr B and my favourite spots from our visit there two years ago. It's a delightful medieval town set inside walls. Our intention was to run round those walls which we have done previously but both Mr B and CJ caught some sort of bug and were decidedly off-colour for our second day in Lucca and I had a slight touch of the bug so we gave running there a miss.
Mr B and I had explored Lucca fairly thoroughly a couple of years ago but it was good to walk through the familiar little streets. We were disappointed to discover that the sales had not yet begun in those classy little shops but perhaps it was just as well considering our weight restrictions in our suitcases!
On our first evening we were lucky to purchase some of the last tickets for a live performance of Elton John. He sang and played non-stop for 2 1/2 hours. For a short fat bloke with a bad haircut who's past his prime he can sure sing well. It was a fantastic performance and the atmosphere and location were fabulous.
On Wednesday we all had a drink in the bar where Puccini (composer of Mme Butterfly) used to play the piano - very classy bar with wood panelling and we were given plates of shortbread biscuits free with our coffee. We ate our final evening meal at Trattoria da Leo where it states that 'it is not difficult to eat well'! How true indeed! The food was exquisite and a very apt finale for our final meal for just the four of us.
Later we walked through the village where we found ourselves in the middle of a medieval pageant - absolutely amazing outfits and performances of flag throwing, bands etc all dressed in medieval costumes.
And so on Thursday we drove to Civitavecchia where we finally met The Black Knight and his lady along with one of the members of his army and his lady. He booked us into lovely hotels near the port and guided us to Tarquinia where we visited the most amazing Etruscan Tombs. They were really well-preserved. We also saw lots of artefacts that had been buried with the bodies.
In the evening we enjoyed the wonderful hospitality of our Italian companions and CJ and I were presented with black t-shirts - photos will be blogged in due course - but we are now Aussie followers of the Black Army - so exciting. We will wear them with pride and promise never ever to "piss off the Black Knight"! We were taken to a lovely restaurant in the hills with a fantastic banquet selection of Italian delights - a superb meal and just so much food including delightful sorbets to complete the meal - bellissimo. It was so lovely to be part of true Italian families and enjoy such superb hospitality. Grazie Stefano. One day you all must visit the many Aussie friends here who also want to meet you.
Friday morning was an early start as we had to check out of our hotel and drive to the Rome Airport to check in two hours before our flight at 9am. Mind you although we were on the plane ready to go we all had to sit there for 1 1/2 hours as the flight was delayed. It was a long stuffy wait as the air conditioning was not on and we were hungry and thirsty by the time we were given a small cake and cold drink 2 hours after the plane took off. We arrived in Athens, checked in to a nice hotel, where we will spend one more night on our return from the islands.
We were not very impressed with Athens - a bit grubby looking and absolutely everybody smokes in Greece inside and outside of restaurants and shops. I guess we're just not used to this. In Italy lots of people smoke too but not inside as a rule. Mind you, there are some interesting looking shops.......!!
Another extremely early start on Sat when we were collected from our hotel by taxi (bright yellow cabs here) just after 6am and taken to the ferry where we spent a very long six hours sailing across to Mykonos with a couple of short stops at other islands on the way.
Mykonos is absolutely beautiful - blue, blue water and blue, blue sky and white, white buildings. The ground is quite barren - no grass, but the astounding views overcome this. We are in a cute hotel with blue doors and earthy tiles - fresh and clean. The weather has been extremely windy but hot and sunny. Yesterday, Sunday, we went by bus to Paradiso Beach where we had a couple of swims in cold, clear water. It was indeed like Paradise - just fabulous. We did become a little sunburnt but gee it was so lovely there. Later we explored our local island and we have so far enjoyed delightful evening meals in Mykonos at different waterfront spots. Our hosts are always very friendly and we are always given a taste of something unique after the meal 'gratis'. On our first evening it was a little icecream on a stick and last night it was a yummy liqueur something like a brandy with honey but lighter - very delicious. Must try the cocktails and the ouzo tonight! The wine here is very pleasant too.
This morning, Monday, we ran up and down hills to a beach about 4km away, then went for a refreshing swim for 15 mins before running back up up up to our hotel.

Total distance: 8km
Time taken: 45mins

And all this before breakfast!!
We have another sunny day here today and tomorrow we are sailing across to Delos to have a guided tour of the "ruined" city in the morning giving us a free afternoon for more swimming. Wed afternoon we have another long ferry trip to Santorini, another beautiful Greek Island. Paradise is here indeed!

Friday, July 06, 2007

A Final Day in San Gimignano

On Wednesday after our busy day in Sienna we returned to San Gimignano in the evening for dinner in a lovely little hidden-away pizzeria on the hillside. With our four different selections we could have quite a variety and each one was superb as was the local wine of course! After our meal we walked back through the walls and into the town. There had been a huge wind rushing through the town earlier in the evening and quite a bit of damage had been done in the garden including smashed pots. However, when we emerged from the restaurant it was dead calm and the township was really quiet as I think people were staying inside. Later it livened up a bit but we enjoyed the relative peace and it gave us a chance to explore a bit more.
CJ and I went for an 8am run extending it to extra hills and we ended up running a bit further. There were a lot of uphills but there were a lot of downhills too and overall I really enjoyed this run - not fast but very pleasant.
Total distance: 11km
I don't have the details with me but it did burn up plenty of calories and every calorie helps!!
Today we stayed in San Gimignano as it was market day. We managed to buy a few goodies for our evening meal and there was a lot of climbing up and down the hill from our apartment to the town as we also later did more food shopping for the meal in the supermarket.
Today we incorporated 'The Museum of Torture' in our explorations. What an horrific experience. How can mankind be so cruel! Those instruments of torture were absolutely revolting and mind-boggling and graphic to say the least! What really surprises us is that in this small beautiful town there are THREE museums of torture - aaaaaah - enough to give one nightmares! The details of how they all worked were translated into English but some of those torture methods were very self-explanatory. Incredible punishments were metered out for women who gossiped, anyone caught smoking tobacco and for those not attending church regularly - hmmm - just as well we didn't live in those days!

In the evening the CJ's came over to our place for our cooking efforts. We started with antipasto as we had found some various prosciutto and salami and melon and crostini. We had also found some fresh Italian bread at a bakery. The Tuscan bread is unsalted and different from other parts of Italy. We followed this with a pasta dish, salad and grilled veges and an apricot pastry dessert we found at the markets and of course the prerequisite local San Gimignano wine, chocolates and limoncello. No wonder we have to continue burning calories with our running and walking all these hills! However, the burning of calories does not seem to compensate for all the calories we are eating and the clothes are definitely feeling tight!
Friday - Last day in San Gimignano
This morning CJ and I ran at 8am again while Mr B ran at 9.30am! It was a hot day today so I was glad we ran early. This time we ran up to the town and ran round the walls - it was still undulating but we saw lots of little interesting niches that we hadn't seen before. However on the return I had to cut my run short and return to the apartment.
Total distance: 6.5km
Although we all had a pretty good night's sleep everyone was a bit tired this morning and we decided against returning to Florence. Instead we decided to spend our last day ensuring we didn't miss a single thing in San Gimignano. We walked up to the town and explored every little street. Mr B and I walked to La Rocca where there is a wine museum and a stunning view. There we sat on a wall and listened to a harpist playing and singing beautiful music outside in the sunshine.
We walked through the back alleys discovering little nooks and crannies hitherto unseen and stopped for delicious bruschettas in a hidden away Taverna - absolutely yummy. Later after finding all sorts of gorgeous artwork we ate our last gelato here and sat in the piazza watching and listening to the locals. This was a much more relaxing day.
This afternoon we will go inside the cathedral. Later we need to pack before farewelling another beautiful Tuscan town.

San Gimignano - City of Towers

......and many undulations aka HILLS!
Last Saturday we said farewell to our agriturismo and set off for San Gimignano stopping on the way at a huge newly built factory outlet where we spent some time buying cheap light clothing and eating a cheap light lunch before driving to our destination.
Our apartments here are stunning, obviously very newly built, clean, decorated in the Tuscan style with lovely prints and interesting dried flower arrangements on the walls. The views and gardens are lovely and we're just ten minutes hilly walk away from the town. The town here is set high up on a hill enclosed in walls, somewhat touristy but very pretty with quaint little shops, restaurants, gelateria and lots of character. San Gimignano originally had 72 towers but there are only 14 remaining. The towers were built in the 12th and 13th century as symbols of social and economic power. From the the tops of the towers the enemy could be spotted approaching from far away.
Sunday 1 July
At 9am we went for our first run here allowing us a little time to recover from lots of vino the night before! Our run started on the downhill which of course mean returning uphill and those hills are tough!
Distance: 5km
Calories: 300
We explored the town today and Mr B and I walked through the Civic Museum where there was some amazing artwork including frescoes of 'the wedding night' scenes then we went on up to the top of the Town Hall Tower up many many flights of concrete steps followed by wired see-through ones (didn't like those) and at the very top there was a very narrow steep flight of steps up into the open air. Here I stopped as vertigo took over and Mr B took the prerequisite photos for me. I was happier surrounded by walls and could admire the views through the safety of the glass!
Later we met up with the CJs and had a gelato from the gelateria purported to be the best in Italy. It was pretty damn good and may require more visits. In the evening we drove back up to town and ate at a recommended restaurant where we were seated by the window overlooking gorgeous views of the countryside. Ah me, I love Tuscany!
Monday 2 July
This morning we reverted to an 8am run and ran a few downhills and flattish country roads as well as incorporating uphills. It was a really enjoyable run.
Distance: 8.5km
Calories burned: 500
Later we drove to some nearby villages stopping first at Monteriggioni, a tiny medieval hamlet only two streets wide and entirely enclosed within medieval walls. We walked through the village and around the walls and had a coffee - it didn't take long! Then on to Chianti wine district, firstly stopping at Castellina, the most medieval of the Chianti towns. We had lunch here before driving on to Greve. Apart from wine shops galore and free samples of cheese and prosciutto, this town had a street of butchers' shops with amazing window displays. We browsed inside one with its 200 year old cutting table on the street and prosciutto hanging in the window. It was fascinating - very clean with fabulous cutting tools and benchtops and many samples to taste.
In the evening we dined at the CJ's next door for a home-prepared Italian meal - bruschetta, a lovely pasta dish and panacotta for dessert. Limoncello, Italian wine and chocolate Lindt balls completed a beaut meal with great company. Thursday night is our turn!
Tuesday 3 July
Mr B and Mr CJ drove into Maranello (approx 200km away) to visit the Ferrari Museum dropping CJ and I off in Florence on the way. Here we spent the day browsing through the market stalls and shops and soaking in the atmosphere. We had three good cappuccinos and a gelato in the course of the day. The markets were totally overwhelming - stalls and stalls of leather bags, belts, t-shirts and souvenirs. There were hundreds of tourists. We walked past the fancy shops in via Tornabuoni and looked at the statue of David, popped our heads into duomos and walked over the Ponto Vecchio several times ogling at the amazing jewellery. The street artists were painting stunning works of art on the pathways for all to enjoy and the black Africans selling fake bags, sunglasses and paintings were everywhere, just like in Rome, ready to pack up all their goods in a big hurry if the signal came through that the 'polizei' were nearby.
We had a big day and were pretty exhausted by the time the boys finally arrived to meet us at 7.30pm. We found a lovely little restaurant to eat (people were queuing as it was very very popular) and after a scrummy meal we walked around the piazza and over the Ponto Vecchio where we had already walked several times in daylight. In the evening it was quieter and buskers were playing on the bridge - very talented ones though. It was a lovely atmosphere and much more peaceful than during the hot, busy day. Our plan is to return to Florence with the boys on Friday.
Wednesday 4 July
This morning we drove to Sienna. It was market day and as we just really wanted to explore the town we pushed our way through the crowds and walked to the 'piazza del compo' where the horse race (the palio) was held a couple of days earlier. We watched a parade of the victorious team marching through the streets holding the flags with the 'oca' (goose) on them. The atmosphere was great.
Sienna had some lovely shops and streets and we headed for San Caterina's duomo. It was really interesting to read all about St Catherine (especially for CJ) and we headed for St Benedictine's church too where her thumb was on display and we read more about her there! The frescoes and gorgeous stain glass windows and ceilings are truly awe-inspiring.
My time on this net is running out so I will continue this when time permits. Tonight is our turn to cook so Mr B and I must head for the supermarket. On Saturday we leave San Gimignano. It is such a pretty town. We have run again today (Thursday) so I will update this from my entry on Sienna yesterday. Suffice to say we are making the most of every single moment!