February 13, 2015 – Friday – Al Ain, UAE to Musandam Peninsula, Oman
I get up a bit earlier this morning, since we are leaving early for the long drive north to cross the border into Oman. The breakfast buffet is very extensive, and they have cappuccino, which is always a big bonus in my books!
Before leaving Al Ain, we stop at a camel sale this morning, where there are hundreds of camels in sheds and open air pens, as well as sheep and goats. It is fun watching the haggling, but I finally go back to the bus early to get away from the heat and the smell. Kais tells me even city people buy camels and keep them outside the city, in order to maintain their connection with their culture…and no doubt some race them.
We drive along the expressway to the outskirts of Dubai, and then north to Ras al-Khaimah. Here we drive along the coastal highway to the border crossing, and leave both our UAE guide and driver. The border crossing process takes awhile, due to some confusion which I don’t fully understand. Our Omani driver and guide meet us, and we drive the beautiful and scenic highway along the Musandam coastline to Khasab.
Before we check-in to our hotel, we have a late lunch or early dinner at the Al Shamaliah Grill and Restaurant in the New Souk Area of Khasab. Since it is Friday, everyone is being called to evening prayers – the whole town is filled with wailing sing-song broadcast from the minarets on the mosques. Our hotel is the Atana Musandam, built right next to the harbour, and it is adjacent to a LuLu Hypermarket (like our supermarkets).
The Musandam Peninsula is separated from the rest of Oman by the east coast of the UAE. It is in a very strategically important location with the Strait of Hormuz separating Oman from Iran. Iranian smugglers pick up goods (mainly household appliances and cigarettes) in Khasab early every morning and zoom across the strait to customers in their country. The Musandam Peninsula is very arid and rocky, but features beautiful khors (rocky inlets), small villages, and dramatic, mountain-hugging roads.
February 12, 2015 – Thursday – Liwa Oasis to Al-Ain
We leave early this morning for Al-Ain, so I gulp down some breakfast and coffee before boarding the bus. We drive down the main highway back to the outskirts of Abu Dhabi and then take a freeway to Al-Ain. It takes over three hours for the trip with one rest stop.
The highways and expressways in UAE are superb. They have all been built within the last twenty years, so they are in great shape, and support high posted speeds. The interchanges and ramps rival or exceed any found elsewhere in the developed world.
After arriving in Al Ain, we have some time at the Sheikh Zayed Palace Museum. This was the residence of the sheik who unified and created the United Arab Emirates. I find it fascinating to walk through the formerly private rooms, and ask myself “if these walls could talk”. In particular, the Private Majlis meeting room must have seen some pretty important discussions during the unification process.
We go for lunch to nearby Foodworld Restaurant, which was a very nice meal. They handle our group of twenty and our drivers very promptly. Our final stop for the day is the Al-Ain Zoo. I’m not a big fan of zoos at the best of times, although this one has large enclosures for the animals. It appears they have a mix of indigenous species to the Arabian Peninsula, and also have some exotic (mainly big African) animals.
Our hotel in Al Ain is the Al Ain Rotana. This is a five star hotel…very posh. This is obviously the place to stay in Al Ain, since I see a couple of cars with government plates on them (a crest and three digit number). Despite this, our tour leader Michele has some trouble to contend with before we are all settled in our rooms, however I won’t publish the details online. My room is quite luxurious…too bad we are only staying one night!
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.
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.
September 12, 2014 – Friday – Vatican City
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.
September 13, 2014 – Saturday – Rome to Cinque Terre, Italy
We have breakfast in our hotel and then everyone walks a couple of blocks to the bus, which is waiting for us at Repubblica Square with the beautiful fountain and the metro station beneath. We drive by St. Peter’s on our way out of the city, and pass Civitavecchia as we drive up the west coast. This is where the cruise ships dock, and then the passengers are transferred by bus to Rome for the day.
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.
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.
We spend two nights in Routte, Austria at the Alpenhotel Ernberg hotel, but don’t see much of the country. Some of our group hike up to Ehrenberg Castle ruins, which are on top a hill near our hotel. We have our own dining room for the group dinner in the hotel each evening. Jennifer is a chef, and so is always on the lookout for regional food treats to share with the group. After one of our dinners, she serves Apple and Cheese Strudel for dessert.
September 7, 2014 – Sunday – Austria to Venice, Italy
We are listening to the Sound of Music on the bus audio system as we drive through the Austrian Tyrol on our way to Italy. The first hour reminds me of our mountain highways in British Columbia, Canada – winding, rocky, and steep hills. We descend into a long valley and take the Autobahn to the outskirts of Innsbruck.
We turn south and drive over the Brenner Pass, crossing the Alps into Italy. Border crossings in Europe are non-events, since all the countries except Switzerland and Sweden are in the European Union. Jennifer tells us we are following the original Roman road Via Claudia the whole way today. That road ends up in Rome, although our next stop is Venice.
After leaving Rothenburg, we drive down the Autobahn to another medieval Bavarian town called Dachau. Of course, everyone has learned this name in their history lessons, because this is where the Nazis built their first Concentration Camp during WWII. Our guide Jennifer carefully prepares us for our experience this morning by describing the history of the war, how Dachau Concentration Camp is now run as a memorial to the prisoners. She also lets us know that we can stay in the bus if any of us can’t handle seeing the Concentration Camp. I seriously consider staying behind, but I decide I owe it to the prisoners to bear witness to their suffering by seeing this place for myself.
We are taken on a walking tour by a guide who is originally from Ireland. He first assures us that there is nothing gory about the exhibits we are about to see. He explains that dehumanization of the prisoners was the primary aim of the Nazis. The prisoners were literally worked to death. If they weren’t healthy, or if they were too big or too small, they were immediately executed. Our guide tells us the crematorium was going full bore most of the time, and in the weeks running up to the end of WWII the Germans ran out of coal, and then resorted to burying the bodies in mass graves. Dachau was the first concentration camp built on German soil, and was a training facility for the staff that ran the other concentration camps as they were built in other countries.
We have an hour and a half to ourselves after our guide leaves us. It is very sobering as I walk around the site, and I soon realize that I only have a limited amount of personal energy I can expend in this bad place where so many suffered and died horribly. I force myself to take some photos to document what I see, but I can’t bear to look at them for weeks after I return home from the trip.
It is a relief to leave this deeply disturbing place.
We stop to visit the Pilgrimage Church of Wies in Steingaden, Germany. This Rococco church has Jesus sitting on a rainbow on the ceiling. In the adjacent farm there are young cows frolicking in a paddock with bells around their neck, and children playing in the farm yard. I find this a welcome relief from the profound sadness of seeing Dachau earlier today.
We take the Autobahn to Austria, and check into Alpenhotel Ernberg, our hotel in the small city of Reutte.