Europe 2002 Diary

4 [ Nice - Montecatini - Rome - Venice ]

This is part four, when the tour travels through Italy, staying in Montecatini, Rome, and Venice. During this time, some people left the tour and others joined. Italy also gave us some of the worst weather of the trip.

See also parts 1, 2, 3, 5, 6 and 7.


4.1 [ Pisa - Montecatini - Florence ]

On Sunday April 7 we left Nice to go to Montecatini, near Florence. We stopped not long out of Nice to go to a perfumerie. It was more interesting than I thought it would be, but the smell lingered in the coach for a couple of days. We had lunch at a roadside services stop in Italy - the food was cheaper and nicer than the places in France. The next stop was Pisa. There's not really a lot to say about Pisa - everyone's familiar with the Leaning Tower, and there isn't much else there. It's very touristy, with lots of people selling crappy plastic souvenirs. It might have been nice if there was more information around about the Tower, and the recent efforts to stop it from falling over. As you can see from the photos, it was very overcast and there was a little rain about - not what we were expecting from Italy after the brilliant weather in France and Switzerland.

Leaning Tower of Pisa
Leaning Tower of Pisa
Leaning Tower of Pisa
Leaning Tower of Pisa

After arriving at the hotel in Montecatini, we checked in, then went out for dinner at a great pizza place, where I had penne and crumbed veal. Very nice.

The next day we saw a bit of Tuscany. First stop was Castello Il Palagio, a small gothic-style castle originally constructed in the 1200's. The castle is still occupied, so we couldn't see the inside. They are now a small winery and olive oil producer, so we had an interesting tour of the cellars, followed by a delicious meal. During the meal we tasted some of their olive oil on bruschetta, and three of the wines, all very tasty. There were a lot of non-drinkers on the table next to us, so we had to make up for it by consuming their wine as well as our own. We also had a group photo inside the courtyard of the castle.

Group photo at Castello Il Palagio
Il Palagio

The next stop was a mediæval Tuscan town called San Gimignano. Some people paid money to climb one of the town's three towers, but by this stage the novelty of paying money to climb lots of stairs was starting to wear off for me. Instead, Jamey and I just walked around the town for a while. We saw a couple of churches, then started following signs to the mediæval fountain.

Once we eventually reached the fountain (located at the lowest possible point in the town), we were slightly disappointed. The fountain is simply a bricked pool of water with a pipe running into it. We made our way back into the centre of town (walking up a hill the entire way), had a gelati, then tried to tell everyone how great the fountain was. I guess we wanted to share our disappointment with the group. We found a group of people from the tour, and told them to go and see it, but they didn't bother. Then we found Chris about ten minutes before the bus was due to leave. We told Chris about the fantastic mediæval fountain, and I told Chris he could probably make it to the fountain and back in the ten minutes before the coach left, if he ran. So he gave me his bag and ran off. At this point Jamey decided that I was a horrible person, and that Chris would do almost anything if encouraged enough. She didn't seem reassured when I said "he'll make it back in time... probably". Chris did make it back in time, but he never found the fountain. The photos below are of the gate into the town, and a view of Tuscany, down towards the fountain.

Entering San Gimignano
Entering San Gimignano
View from San Gimignano
View from San Gimignano

I suspect we didn't do anything interesting that evening, because I don't remember it, I haven't written it down, and there are no photos.

Tuesday was our day in Florence. It was raining and cold. Unfortunately I listened to our tour leader and wore walking shoes, when common sense would dictate that I wear waterproof shoes. We started with a walking tour of the town. The most impressive thing for me was the church in the photo below (Il Duomo) - the colour on the outside isn't painted, but is different types of natural marble. By the end of the walking tour, my feet were soaking and I was cold and miserable.

Il Duomo
Il Duomo

At the end of the tour, Jamey, Chris and I joined the queue for the Galeria dell'Academia, which houses Michelangelo's David. The rain had stopped, the queue moved at a reasonable pace, and there was plenty of graffiti on the wall for us to read. The museum itself was quite poor, with the exception of David. None of the paintings seemed remarkable in any way. But then I'm not an arty person, so I wouldn't know. David is an amazing sculpture, more impressive than I thought it would be. This trip taught me that I appreciate sculpture far more than painting.

When we left the gallery, it had started raining again so the three of us headed across the road to the dodgiest Internet cafe we had ever seen. It just had three computers, with slow and unreliable Internet access. But on the positive side, it was €2 per hour instead of the €8 that we had seen elsewhere in Florence. Once the hour was up, we ventured back outside and met up with some of the others from the tour. They strongly recommended climbing Il Duomo (especially Paul), so that's where we headed.

They were right about Il Duomo - it was the most impressive thing that we climbed on the whole trip. The best thing is that when you get half way up you emerge inside the dome (photo below). It's an amazingly elaborate dome - the paintings are incredible. And the views from the top aren't too bad either. In the left of the third photo you can see the Cathedral of Santa Croce.

The inside of Il Duomo
Inside Il Duomo
Florence from Il Duomo
Florence
Florence from Il Duomo
Florence

That night we ate dinner in Florence (my feet were still wet) before heading back to Montecatini for a well-deserved change of clothes. Florence was good, but would have been so much better if it wasn't so wet.

4.2 [ Rome ]

On Wednesday April 10 we drove from Montecatini to Rome. Once we arrived, we checked into our hotel and went on a walking tour of the city with a rude local guide. We started at the Colosseum, then went through the Roman Forum, saw the Pantheon, and finished at Piazza Navona. It was on this tour that we first experienced Roman traffic. Crossing the road requires a certain amount of courage, basically just stepping out in front of cars and hoping that they will stop. The first three photos below were taken during the walking tour, and show the Colosseum, the Pantheon, and Piazza Navona. The fourth is me on a bridge over the River Tiber, with St Peter's Basilica in the background.

The Colosseum
The Colosseum
The Pantheon
The Pantheon
Piazza Navona
Piazza Navona
Me in Rome
Me in Rome

I think we had dinner in the restaurant at the hotel that night. Afterwards, we discovered that the hotel bar was reasonably priced, which was to work in our favour the following night when we farewelled Paul and Cindy from the tour.

The next day was our free day in Rome, and it was an excellent day. We started at the Vatican with St Peter's Basilica. Getting inside was a bit problematic because of Chris's willingness to tell the security people about the knife he had in his first aid kit, and then their refusal to let Dave carry his backpack in. When we eventually got inside we had an excellent free tour that explained most of the good bits - for example pointing out that all of the pictures in the basilica were mosaics rather than paintings. I took a couple of photos inside, but they were limited by the no flash rule.

Inside St Peter's Basilica
St Peter's Basilica
Inside St Peter's Basilica
St Peter's Basilica

Next we headed towards the Vatican Museum, and stood in the rain for a little bit as we queued. The museum is far too big to see when you only have a day to see everything in Rome, so I rushed through it. I was impressed by the Gallery of Maps, and of course the Sistine Chapel. The walls and ceiling of the Chapel are brilliantly painted, but the huge crowds of people didn't contribute well to the atmosphere. Once I left the Vatican Museum, I went to meet some of the others for lunch, but only Bron and Nicky turned up. The photo below was taken from a bridge over the Tiber looking towards St Peter's and the Vatican.

Looking towards the Vatican
Looking towards the Vatican

We headed to McDonalds Pantheon for lunch, another Royale with Cheese for me. One of the employees was wearing a McDonalds Pantheon cap - I thought that would have made a great souvenir. I should have tried to buy it from him. McDonalds was actually a good choice for lunch on this occasion - we were able to sit outside at a great location, without having to pay rediculously inflated prices.

After lunch we walked to the Trevi Fountain. I had the same reaction that I've heard other people have - they don't expect much (after all, it's just a fountain) but were very impressed by the size and grandeur of it. The first photo below is of me and Bronny at the fountain, the second is the fountain again. It's so big, it was impossible to fit the whole thing in a single photo. Near the Trevi Fountain we found an Internet cafe where we spent half an hour resting our legs.

Bronny and me at the Trevi Fountain
Trevi Fountain
Trevi Fountain
Trevi Fountain

The next stop for the three of us was the Colosseum. We had seen it from the outside on the previous day, but we wanted to go inside. It was definately worthwhile - it's difficult to fully appreciate the scale of the arena from the outside. It's incredible that a 70,000 capacity stadium can still be standing after 2,000 years. Nothing built today could possibly last that long. When we walked in we could look down to the levels below the ground that had been excavated, and then we went up to the second tier. In the photo below you can see both the excavations and the tiers.

Inside the Colosseum
Inside the Colosseum

After leaving the Colosseum, I left the others and walked down to Circus Maximus to meet my uncle. People said there wasn't much to see there, and they were right! I met my uncle, and had a very pleasant dinner with the rellies.

That night was the last night on the tour for Paul and Cindy, so we went down the hotel bar for a few drinks. The first photo below is of Paul, Cindy, and me, and the second is of Bronny in the bar looking strange. When the bar closed at midnight, we headed up to my room to continue the festivities with a bottle of wine. Unfortunately some of the other guests in the hotel didn't approve of our celebrations, and after two complaints we decided it might be best to call it a night. At least, I decided that. Apparently there was more drinking going on in one of the other rooms, and every one of the plants on our floor of the hotel were moved into one of the bathrooms.

Paul, Cindy, and me
Paul, Cindy and Me
Bronny
Bronny

4.3 [ Venice ]

Friday April 12 was mostly spent driving from Rome to Venice. After our arrival, we had dinner in a dodgy seafood restaurant. There was very little actual seafood, and the actual seafood was very little ("anorexic prawns"). The only good thing about the meal was that wine was included. I think it was here where we all wore serviettes on our heads. Then it was back to the hotel for more drinks in the bar.

Saturday was our day in Venice. First, we walked around for about half an hour, and I took some photos. At this point it looked like the weather would be overcast and miserable for the day, but over the next hour it cleared up completely to become fine and sunny. The first photo below is of part of Venice - the interesting thing with this picture is that it's difficult to tell where the sea ends and where the footpath begins. This photo also gives you an idea of how miserable the weather was looking at the start of the day. The second photo shows a gondola in a canal, with the Bridge of Sighs. The third is a poor photo of St Mark's Basilica, from the main square of Venice.

Venice
Venice
Bridge of Sighs, Venice
Bridge of Sighs
St Mark's Basilica, Venice
St Mark's

When everyone met up, we went to a glass blowing place. First we saw the creation of a drinking glass, which was ok, but just the sort of thing that I expected. Then the guy pulled another bit of molten glass out of the furnace and turned it into a little horse in about two minutes. Now that was bloody impressive. We spent a little time in the showroom marvelling at all the impressive items that we couldn't afford, and then walked to where our gondola rides were leaving from.

At this point, my feet became very wet. Shana, our esteemed tour leader, decided that the best way to reach the gondola ride was through the ankle deep water that now flooded St Mark's Square. We were told the previous day that we should wear waterproof shoes, but most shoes give very little protection when the water flows over the top of the shoes. My feet were soaked for the rest of the day. The gondola ride was great - it took us around some of the small canals of Venice, out into the Grand Canal, and then back again. The photos show the Grand Canal, and Chris, Jamey, and me on the gondola. They also show the amazing change of weather since the first few photos above.

Grand Canal, Venice
Grand Canal
Gondola ride on the Grand Canal
Gondola Ride

After the gondola ride we went to McDonald's for one of the few affordable meals Venice had to offer, then said goodbye to Jamey, who was leaving the tour. We had a walk around St Mark's Square (this time from the dryness of the elevated walkways), and marvelled at how the flooding of the square was routine for the people of Venice. The first photo below shows St Mark's Basilica, with the square flooded. Then we did what we had done in most other cities of the tour - paid money to climb a large number of stairs to get to the top of a tall building, in this case the Bell Tower. The views were good, but it wasn't possible to get an appreciation of the canal network, since the canals were hidden behind the buildings. The second and third photos below were taken from the Bell Tower. The third is interesting - it shows a church that takes up a significant percentage of the island on which it's built. I would have thought that was a silly place to build a church, but I guess it shows how willing everyone must be to travel by water.

St Marks Square and Basilica
St Mark's Square
Venice
Venice
Venice
Venice

Chris and I walked around for a while, then we went back to the hotel. We ate at the pizzeria next door to the restaurant that night, and then got to bed around midnight, which was relatively early for us.

The diary continues in part five.