After departing Monterosso, Cinque Terre, we drive past Genoa and Milan and cross the border into Switzerland at Lugano. There are lots of winding roads, tunnels, and mountain passes along the way. We take the Gotthard Tunnel, the third longest tunnel in the world, and cross over the Sustenpass, where we have a quick rest stop. After descending a steep, winding road, we are finally in the valley at Interlaken where we make a short stop mainly so everyone can withdraw some Swiss Francs (CF) from the ATMs and banks. One Canadian Dollar equals 0.85 CF, or about CD$1.20 to buy a Swiss Franc.
We drive along the Lauterbrunnen Valley to the town of Stechelberg, and then further to the end of the road to our hotel, Hotel Stechelberg. I draw a single room with a sink in it. The toilet and shower are in the hall (one for men and one for women) and shared by 6 others. So this is the most basic accommodation on the tour. I would judge it to be equivalent to a hostel. There is a group dinner provided at the hotel for both nights, since the nearest restaurant is some distance away. Otto, the owner (and chef) of the hotel starts us off this evening with a demonstration of how to make authentic Swiss cheese fondue, and then we follow that up with dinner.
After driving from Rome, we turn off the Autostrada and drive down a steep valley to Vernazza, where the bus parks. We walk over to the train station, and after riding the train for four minutes we arrive in Monterosso. This pretty little town by the sea on the Cinque Terra (the Italian Riviera) is our home for the next two nights. Since today is Saturday, there are lots of Italians here on weekend get-aways. We are staying in the Hotel Punta Mesco, a nice hotel located about a block off the main street, so it is quiet, and yet close to the beach and main street.
This evening, we have a group meal at Ristorante Belvedere in old town. They cook a rich seafood stew of squid, fish, and mussels in an amphora and then pour it out into big bowls and we serve ourselves family-style.
September 14, 2014 – Sunday – Cinque Terre, Italy
Today is our “vacation from our vacation”…in other words, a free day. I take the little coastal ferry on a round trip from Monterosso al Mare, where out hotel is located, to Vernazza, Corniglia (hill town, no ferry stop), and Riomaggiore. On the way back, the ferry stops at Manarola and Vernazza, before terminating at Monterosso. I had planned to get off in Vernazza, see the town and walk back to Monterosso, but after seeing the crowds in the square at Vernazza, I decide to stay on the ferry and return to Monterosso the easy way!
I have lunch with a couple from our group, and then just chill out in my hotel room for a while. My ground floor room has a small patio, so I catch up on some journaling and annotate my photos while sitting outside. Our hotel hosts a Happy Hour this afternoon for our group – pizza, cheese, cold meats, bread, wine, and Limonchello. I fill up on the delicious pizza since they have lots, and skip dinner!
2014.09.15 – Monday – Cinque Terre, Italy to Lauterbrunnen Valley, Switzerland
After leaving the Cinque Terre this morning, we bypass Genoa and Milan and cross the border into Switzerland at Lugano.
After leaving Rome on the Autostrada, our first rest stop is a small AutoGrill, where many of the group rave about the fresh-squeezed orange juice. I have a cappuccino for 1.40 Euro – no tables, just a stand-up bar, Italian style. The area we drive through up the west coast is much drier than the areas of Italy we have traveled through up to now. This is where olives and grapes are grown.
Our midday break is in a little town called Massa Marittima, where we go for a wine, cheese and olive tasting at Il Baccino. Everyone on the bus does the tasting (modest extra charge) and thoroughly enjoy ourselves. We spend almost two hours in this beautiful little town, so there is plenty of time to soak up the Tuscan sunshine while we explore. It is an absolutely perfect day – blue sky and warm, but not too hot.
I walk uphill to the ancient Siennese wall, which runs through the town half way up the hill. It is 3 Euros to go up the clock tower and along a portion of the adjacent wall. It is well worth it to take in the wonderful views of the town from above, and appreciate the vistas of the whole glorious valley (see banner image above). I stroll back down the hill along the back alleys to the town square, where there is a troubadour playing some lovely music that echoes off the buildings. I have a simple lunch of prosciutto in a fresh crusty role, and sit outside Il Baccino with others in my group, soaking up the ambience of this Tuscan town. It simply doesn’t get much better than this!
As we drive the Autostrada north along the coast, we pass some interesting sights. There are resort areas all along the coast featuring cottages and recreational vehicle parks, a massive power station, endless vineyards and farms, and sales yards featuring beautiful white massive blocks of Carrara marble. The mountains where this well-known marble is quarried is visible inland across the valley. Imagine Leonardo da Vinci making the journey to these same quarries to select the marble for his famous statues.
Eventually we turn off the Autostrada, and drive down a steep valley to the Vernazza train station, where the bus parks. We walk over to the train station, and after riding the train for four minutes we arrive in Monterosso. This pretty little town by the sea on the Cinque Terra (the Italian Riviera) is our home for the next two nights.
After breakfast at the hotel this morning, we take the subway to the Vatican to take an escorted tour of the Vatican Museum, which includes the Sistine Chapel, the Raphael Rooms, and other amazing displays. I missed the Vatican Museum last time I was in Rome in 2006 due to a screw up with the arrangements, so it is great to finally see this astounding collection of friezes, tapestries, and paintings, but I find the opulence to be obscene. I am fascinated with the 40 frescoed maps of Italy in one hallway, since they were created so long ago and yet are very detailed and beautifully crafted.
We are then led through a side entrance to St. Peter’s Basilica, where we are on our own for the rest of the day. I think there is more lighting than the last time I was in St. Peter’s in 2006, which makes taking photos easier. I still find the place rather creepy, especially seeing the popes and cardinals who are embalmed and on display in crypts with glass windows in the side so they can be viewed. There are several worship services going on as I walk through the basilica taking photos.
I meet up with several members of my tour group in St. Peter’s Square, and we return to the hotel on our own using the subway ticket Jennifer gave us earlier. I am completely bagged, so I have a two-hour nap this afternoon. I had great plans to work on my travel journal, but that doesn’t happen!
Nine of us go to the Oratorio Bistrot for dinner this evening, which is in the same block as our hotel. They have a wine bar downstairs and an upstairs patio where lunch and dinner is served. It is very nice on the covered patio, and the meals are tasty. I have rolled veal with bacon as a main, and start with grilled zucchini, which turns out to be more of an omelet. I also have an Italian beer with dinner, but the rest of the group order two glasses of wine each, since they don’t seem to have house wines served in jugs like the other restaurants we have eaten in up to now.
Upon our arrival in Rome, our driver Sylvain has to maneuver through some pretty challenging turns and narrow streets to get us to the drop off point in the city at Repubblica Square. Driving a vehicle that large in Rome is a real challenge! Once we are parked, we schlepp our bags the few blocks to Hotel Nardizzi Americana in sprinkling rain. A bunch of us have lunch on our own at a nearby salad bar deli. I have a delicious prosciutto panino (we say Panini in North America, which is actually the plural form of panino in Italian).
We go on an extensive walking tour of Rome this afternoon with a local guide who succeeds in bringing the Coliseum, the Roman Forum, and the Pantheon alive for us all. Several of us are tired after all the walking this afternoon, so we return to the hotel on our own using the Rome subway. Jennifer taught us well earlier in the day when we started our tour by taking the subway, so we have no problem reversing the route.
Three of us have dinner at Ristorante Esperia, which is a trattoria only a couple of blocks away from our hotel. I have Spaghetti Carbonara, which is very rich and tasty. We all enjoy our meals, although the wine is a bit expensive.
The cornfields have turned brown and the farmers are harvesting as we drive from Venice to our first rest stop near Bologna, which has Jennifer’s favourite, an AutoGrill. The rest stops on the Italian expressways (Autostradas) serve very tasty food – not a Burger King or McDonalds to be seen thank goodness! As we travel through the Tuscany area, the road has more curves and hills, and we drive through lots of tunnels.
We arrive in Florence early this afternoon. The bus stops in a local square, we unload ourselves and our bags, and walk a few blocks to our hotel, Hotel Accademia Florence. After getting settled, we go on a walking tour of the centre of Florence. We have an Italian guide with us, but Jennifer leads the tour. Apparently, the Italian guide is with us so the Rick Steves tour group doesn’t get hassled for conducting “unauthorized” tours of the city – Italian bureaucracy in action!
We line up for the Gallery of the Academy, and after 10 minutes or so get inside to see Michelangelo’s statue of David. I saw the copy of the David statue in the nearby Plazza della Signoria when I was last in Florence in 2006, but there is no comparison to seeing the original inside the museum. David is beautifully lit with both outside light coming through a transparent dome, and also floodlights. Jennifer points out how his expression changes depending on where you gaze upon him. His naked body is exquisite, although his right hand is too large. Jennifer explains that the original plan was to mount David high on the front of the Duomo, which might explain why his hand was bigger than normal…otherwise from the perspective of people on the ground, the hand would not be easily visible.
We go for a group dinner to nearby Trattoria Nella this evening. The food is good, and wine and bottled water is included with most of our Rick Steves group dinners. Our guide Jennifer takes us out for gelato afterwards, so I am really full by the time we return to our hotel.
September 10, 2014 -Wednesday – Florence
I am awoken at 6:30AM by thunder and lightning crashing and booming over the city. The rain comes down hard, however it is all over by 7AM. An exciting start to the day! Several of us go to the Duomo (Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore) early this morning and climb up to the top of the dome. It is very close quarters, since the stairs to the top are between the inner dome and the outer dome. We are rewarded with superb views of Florence from the top.
I go to Trattoria Antellesi for lunch, which is the little trattoria right beside our hotel entrance. I have a beer and a wonderful soup called pasta a fagioli, which is a vegetable soup made with pasta, beans, vegetables in a rich and creamy broth. It is often thickened with shredded bread.
We go to the Uffizi Gallery this afternoon with a local guide who specializes in the Uffizi. There is a crush of people and groups, so we have to wait about three quarters of an hour to get in. Photos are now allowed inside, but when I checked earlier, there was no indication of this recent change in policy. So I am stuck using my cellphone camera inside. Our local guide tries to maneuver us around the huge crowds inside, with limited success.
Quite a few of us go to Giglio Rosso Ristorante for dinner on our own this evening. Our meals are excellent, and they bring around a dessert cart with some really yummy choices, which virtually all of our group can’t resist!
Tipping in the European countries we visited is not required in restaurants, since servers and other staff are well paid. That said, leaving the change on the table when the bill is paid is considered polite. Americans (and Canadians) have the reputation of leaving too much of a tip, which the Europeans interpret as being too flashy. If exceptional service is rendered, a 10% tip would be in order, but no more. Payment in cash (rather than credit card) is expected, and many restaurants don’t accept credit cards, or charge extra if a credit card is used. So take Euros to pay for your meals, and don’t tip too much!
September 11, 2014 – Thursday – Florence to Rome
I am awoken again this morning at 6AM by thunder and lightning however the rain isn’t coming down hard like yesterday when we walk to meet the bus. Once we are on the Autostrada to Rome, the rain comes down hard, so the views are not great as we travel south. It’s a good time for me to pull out my notebook computer to write in my travel journal.
After parking in the Tronchetto parking area of Venice, we get our bags off the bus and take the Vaporetto (water bus) to the Academia area. Jennifer previously warned us that an historical regatta was happening along the Grand Canal, which means some bridges and portions of the canal are closed to traffic. We schlepp our bags through the crowds, but when we reach the Academia Bridge, it is jammed solid with a crowd and is complete chaos. At this point we can no longer roll our bags as we squeeze through the crowds. It takes us about 20 minutes to carefully cross to the other side and regroup before continuing the rather stressful walk to our hotel.
The Hotel Serenissima is located just four blocks from St. Marks Square, and it’s not much further to the Rialto Bridge area. My room is the tiniest hotel room I have ever stayed in, however it has a bathroom and a single bed, and is comfortable and quiet, since it faces the inner courtyard instead of the street.
We don’t have much time, but I manage to get cleaned up before we go out for a group dinner at Trattoria alla Madonna. The food and service is very good. The dinner includes salad, main course, wine, dessert, and some entertainment from a trio that wandered in from the street. They make out like bandits from all the tips our group give them!
Another highlight of the tour is a night time gondola ride through the canals, complete with a singer and accordion player! Our guide Jennifer arranges this extra (reasonable) cost activity for those of us who want to go, so we share four gondolas. It is great to experience this with the group. It is a beautiful night, the Moon is full over the Grand Canal, and the city is alive with people as we glide by listening to our musicians. Jennifer even serves us Prosecco (Italian sparkling wine) before we start the gondola ride!
September 8, 2014 – Monday – Venice
After breakfast at the hotel this morning, we go on an early morning guided walk with a local guide. We see Marco Polo family’s square, then go to the Venice Hospital area, where we have a break. The hospital looks like a church to me. The walk continues wandering through Venice, and we eventually come to a little shop on a canal, which sells Venetian masks. Our guide takes the whole group inside to see how the Moroccan owner makes the masks. I’m not interested, although the rest of the group seem to enjoy it.
Our last stop on the tour is the famous St. Marks Cathedral on St. Marks Square (Piazza San Marco), where our guides leave us. Timing is important, since at 11:30AM, the lights illuminating the ceiling inside the church are turned on. This is new for the cathedral and well worth planning for, since the ceiling comes alive with the extra light, and photography of the ceiling detail is much more rewarding. I decide to pay extra to see the famous golden horses, which are upstairs in the museum part of the church. This turns out very well, since I also have access to the balcony over the main entrance, which gives an unobstructed view of the flooded St. Marks Square, the Doges Palace, the intricate St. Mark’s Clocktower, and the nearby islands and canals. I skip touring the Doges Palace, since I saw it last time I was here in 2006.
I get my shoes soaked as I try to dodge the water in the square on my way back to the hotel. After a nap in my room, I go out walking around the Rialto Bridge and the Grand Canal, take some photos, and just enjoy my free time in Venice. I join a couple in the tour group for dinner at a nice outdoor restaurant with a great view of a canal near the Rialto Bridge. Now that the cruise ship passengers have left Venice, the place is civilized again!
September 9, 2014 – Tuesday – Venice to Florence
We don’t encounter any problems taking the Vaporetto back to the Tronchetto parking area of Venice this morning, since the Regatta is over – things are back to normal.
As we leave Austria, Jennifer tells us we will be following the original Roman road (Via Claudia) the whole way today. The road ends up in Rome, although obviously we won’t be traveling that far today, since our destination is Venice. We travel out of Innsbruck through the Brenner Pass, across the Alps and into Italy. Crossing borders in Europe are non-events, since all the countries except Switzerland and Sweden are in the European Union.
The scenery in this part of Italy is nothing short of stunning. There are villages nestled in beautiful green valleys, with tall mountains behind. Vineyards are common in the valley bottoms, although this region must get quite cold and experience snow in the winter months. The Italians in this part of the country (South Tyrol) speak German first and Italian is their second language. At our lunch stop in Neumarkt-Egna (both German and Italian names for the town) there is a concert going on in the town square in front of our restaurant. The men are wearing lederhosen, and the women are wearing long medieval dresses. I have my first glass of Italian wine at lunch for only 1.10 Euro.
“The sweetness of doing nothing” – Italian philosophy
After our leisurely lunch, we drive south along the Autostrada (expressway or freeway) to Venice, where we will stay for the next two nights.
April 14, 2006 – Friday – Athens, Greece -Milan-Toronto-Victoria, Canada
My alarm goes off at 3am and I am picked up by Jimmy (Paul’s alternate) at 4am. It is a bit confusing picking out Jimmy, since there are so many cabs going by. Exarhia is still going strong at this late hour! Jimmy and I have a nice chat on the way to the airport, and I pay him the €500 I owe Paul for the taxi services over the last week.
As I board my Alitalia flight to Milan, it is raining lightly at Athens airport. We taxi over the airport’s main access road on an overpass to get to our runway. As we takeoff, the rain is increasing. What luck I’ve had on this trip. At most we had some overcast in Venice, otherwise it has been sunny every day. We fly the length of Italy’s east coast south to north, and land on time in Milan. I end up only two gates away from where my group left Malpenza for Tripoli three weeks ago! This is the old part of the airport, and it is very crowded. Destinations for the four gates include: Prague, Bucharest, Tunisia, Timisora, Cairo, Istanbul, Krakow, Dublin, and (of course) Toronto – my flight.
The Tunisia flight seems to be popular with the Italians by the look of the passports. Lots of tired, squalling kids, and they all appear to be waiting for the Toronto flight. I observe two common types of passengers for Toronto: Indians with kids returning home (after already spending many hours in the air), and older Italians obviously going to visit their family in Toronto. We board Alitalia AZ652, a Boeing 767-33A (ER) about 20 minutes late, then once we are aboard, another 30 minute delay is announced due to ATC traffic congestion.
I take some nice photographs of Lago Maggiore and the Italian Alps, where my eclipse tour group stayed in Beligerate on our last night (just north of Milan). We are flying over Guernsey and the south coast of Wales while having dinner. I also spot several large ships in the Atlantic shipping lane off the coast of England. Flying over Newfoundland reveals endless frozen lakes and not a tree in sight. I think the Italian woman sitting beside me was impressed, and perhaps a little worried about finding the same thing in Toronto! Unfortunately she doesn’t speak English, so I can’t reassure her about Toronto’s milder climate.
I’ve noticed as we fly over the Atlantic that aircraft in the traffic lanes fly very close to each other – at times I could almost make out the aircraft markings. One of the female Alitalia cabin crew sees my digital SLR, and tells me I can’t use it in flight. This doesn’t make any sense – it’s normal to prohibit use of electronic devices during takeoff and landing, but not during flight. Alitalia’s own announcement states this, but I wasn’t going to argue the point with her so I put my camera away. Despite this warning, I took some great aerial shots all the way from Athens through to the St. Lawrence!
After 9.5 hours in the air, we finally arrive at Pearson Airport in Toronto. Alitalia lands at a skyway equipped gate, but it is off in some remote area of the airport. Everyone has to get on a shuttle bus and go for a 20 minute ride to Terminal One. We then go through Canadian Immigration. There are a dozen officers, however two flights are being processed: ours from Italy, and one from China. The Chinese take a long time to be interviewed, since many don’t speak English, and it appears some haven’t filled in the form. Once I am finally interviewed by an officer, I breeze through in less than a minute. I also am lucky to find the correct luggage carousel and grab my bag right away. Customs decides they don’t want to talk with me, so that was easy!
I now have five hours to kill before my Air Canada direct flight to Victoria departs. I sip a Cappuccino Grande, which is my first cappuccino since we left Italy. While in Athens, I made coffee with my breakfast in the apartment. I really didn’t feel comfortable spending time in the numerous cafés in Athens for some reason – perhaps it was all the smoking that put me off.
Pearson International Airport is quite impressive, now that the expansion is completed. The new Terminal One is grand-looking, with soaring ceilings and glass, new car displays, bars, restaurants, coffee bars, duty free shops, bookstores and all sorts of other shops. Even the cleaning staff are impressive: they wear black and white suit-like uniforms complete with ties, and the airport is absolutely spotless.
While I’m waiting for my flight, I call home and let them know I’m in Toronto and the flight appears to be on-time, so they should plan to pick me up at 10:30pm. After this call, I watch a young Chinese guy try to use one of the pay telephones without success. He then asks me for help, and I see that the number he is calling is Ottawa (long distance). I coach him through the process of using a credit card, but the telephone rejects his Chinese card. I then offer to let him use my cellular telephone, which works fine. He is very grateful, shakes my hand, and runs off to the gate to board his flight.
I am extremely tired when I finally arrive at Victoria Airport. It takes me about five days to fully recover from the jet lag. The westward journey was certainly the killer. I wouldn’t let a travel agent talk me into a 30 hour elapsed time flight again…that’s for sure. I should have had an overnight stay in Toronto on the way back, as happened for the start of my trip.
We fly out of Tripoli aboard Alitalia to Rome in the afternoon, flying over the Mediterranean Sea and spotting both Mount Etna and Sicily along the route.
Our bus that meets us at the Rome airport is very deluxe: a Mercedes with lots of room (since several of our group left us in Tripoli to return home directly). We check into our hotel, the Grand Palazzo Carpegna. Our hotel rooms are tiny, but very well appointed. In retrospect, this turns out to be the best accommodation we have in the two week trip.
Before dinner a few of us gather in the hotel lounge and have a couple of drinks over stories of our Libyan adventure. These drinks are somewhat of an event, considering we have just traveled a week in a dry country. The strongest drink you could order in Libya was an espresso!
Our bus picks us up at 8pm this evening to take us to Castel Gondolfo for a tour of the Vatican Observatory.