Italy

Tuesday April 20: Paris to Milan

After a pleasant Easyjet flight from France, we arrived at Milan Linate at 12:25. The bus stop for the bus into the city is just outside the terminal. It has a small shelter which is inadequate for the number of people who catch the bus, and would be particularly uncomfortable if it was hot, cold, or raining. There were crowds of people around the overflowing shelter, and a bearded man who made occasional appearances to sell tickets for the bus at a cost of EUR 2.50.

The bus arrived about 10 minutes after we did, and there was a disorganised rush to get cases into the luggage areas. We got ours in eventually, only to have to pull them off again when we discovered that the bus had filled and we couldn't get on (the bus apparently holds 46). It was all very uncivilised with lots of pushing. The buses are half an hour apart, but we weren't about to surrender our EUR 5 to the bearded man and get a taxi. It's all about principle, and now we understood the "system" (or lack thereof). Some people tried asking bearded man for a refund, but there was none forthcoming.

We positioned ourselves at the very front of the shelter; others had different tactics of standing on the road, or standing on the opposite side to be first to get their luggage on the far side of the bus. When the bus did arrive, it stopped about 10 metres away from where we were, so we moved as fast as we could and got our luggage on quickly. Then we joined another couple of Aussies in trying to force our way on to the bus while waving our tickets at the bearded man so that he could put a hole in them. We made in on board this time.

So, here are the things I have learnt about getting from LIN to the Milan city centre. Firstly, don't get the bus. If you have to get the bus, don't let good manners or consideration for others stop you from getting on to the bus. Rest assured that other people will do the same. Finally, dressing up as a nun apparently guarantees that you will get on the bus without any uncivilised behaviour. Sure it's a drastic measure, but possibly warranted if you can get away with it.

With that unpleasantness out of the way, we eventually arrived at Milan Centrale around 14:45. It had taken longer to travel the 8km from the airport to the city centre than the 639km from Paris to Milan. We walked to the nearby Hotel Soperga, which thankfully was far nicer on the inside than on the outside.

After we settled in we took a walk into the city centre. We walked through a huge shopping mall in a very imposing building that was almost a tourist attraction in itself. Right outside was the fantastic Duomo. The front was covered in scaffolding but there was still plenty to see. We decided to go up to the top, and paid extra to take the lift (€5) instead of the stairs (€3.50). It was great! We went inside as well, and saw the huge columns and stained glass.

Duomo, Milan
Duomo, Milan
Duomo, Milan
Duomo, Milan
Duomo Spire, Milan
Duomo Spire

Next up we walked over to Castello Sforzesco, a 15th Century castle not far from the city centre. It didn't look anywhere near as impressive as other castles we've seen. It looks far newer, though really it isn't.

Castello Sforzesco, Milan
Castello Sforzesco

We walked around Parco Sempione, and then sat in the sun for a while. It was very pleasant. As it started to get late, we started walking back towards our hotel and got dinner at a pasta restaurant near the Duomo on the way. Very tasty!

Wednesday April 21: Milan to Venice

We had a decent continental breakfast at the hotel then walked to the train station for the 11:05 train to Venice. It looked like it was going to be very full, so we got on very quickly after our experience at the airport the previous day. Some passengers were initially left without seats.

We had decided to stay in Mestre, just outside of Venice, to save a bit of money. The train arrived in Mestre as its penultimate stop after around 2 hours 40 minutes. We had no change for a taxi (and we figured they wouldn't be too keen to change a €50 note) so we walked to the Hotel Vivit. It was a long walk in the sun with suitcases, but we made it in the end.

We decided to head into Venice for the afternoon. There was a bus that left from just down the road for €1.50 each. We didn't actually do much in Venice that afternoon; we just walked around, enjoying the atmosphere, and looking at the multitude of glass shops. We were impressed at the range of items available, and their unexpectedly low prices. As we walked, we saw the Rialto Bridge, the Bridge of Sighs, and San Marco.

Basilica di San Marco
Basilica di San Marco
Piazza San Marco
Piazza San Marco

As evening approached, we decided we should go on a gondola ride. It wasn't cheap at €60 for about 35 minutes, but it was worth doing once. The gondolier took us down the Grand Canal, under the Bridge of Sighs, and past Marco Polo's house.

Bridge of Sighs
Going under the
Bridge of Sighs
Gondola ride
Gondola ride
Gondola ride
Enjoying the ride

We decided to call it a day, and walked back to the train station following the somewhat confusing signs. We decided to get the train back, since our Eurail passes were valid for the day. The train was slow and late, but when we did leave it only took ten minutes to get to Mestre. We walked back to the area of our hotel, and started looking for a restaurant. There were lots of bars, but not much food around. Eventually we found a reasonably priced restaurant and pizzeria, and enjoyed an excellent pizza meal.

Thursday April 22: Venice

When we went to breakfast in the morning we were starting to get the impression that the hotel wasn't really three stars. There were no clean tables, so we had to clear one for ourselves. As we left the hotel, we saw a "Hotel Vivit **" bin in the foyer, which convinced us even further that the third star had been manufactured as a marketing ploy.

We took the bus into Venice again, then walked to a vaporetto, getting lost on the way. We walked through some quiet residential areas on the north of the island, but eventually found what we wanted. We took a vaporetto to the island of Murano for €3.50 each.

We thought we might as well have a look at a free glass blowing demonstration. First up was a vase, then a horse (which took about one minute to make). There were lots of glass shops on Murano to look at.

Cimitero
The island of Cimitero
Glass blowing on Murano
Murano glass blowing

We took a vaporetto back to the railway station and bought a wrap for lunch. We spent the next four hours wandering around and looking in shops and spending money. I bought a seahorse family, a giraffe, and some serving plates.

Having been walking for most of the day, we took a bus back to the hotel for a couple of hours of rest and relaxation. For dinner we asked the hotel for recommendations; they suggested a pasta place nearby. I had some mini-gnocchi style pasta with a cheese, ham, and pepper sauce. And for dessert, chocolate mousse topped with chocolate sauce and nuts. Yum!

Friday April 23: Venice to Florence

We had another average continental breakfast at the hotel, clearing our own table once again. We paid for the room, and the hotel generously offered to call us a taxi. It took ages to arrive, and when it did arrive it turned out to be a limousine service which cost us €13 for the five minute ride to the station. But we didn't have much choice due to their delay.

We just made it to the train, which had inadequate room for luggage. Mine fitted on the overhead rack, my fiancée's had nowhere to go so it just stood in the aisle. We arrived in Florence at around 12:30, and Hotel delle Nazioni was only a couple of minutes walk from the station. Very conveniently located, and good quality for a two star hotel.

We took a walk around the city centre, and grabbed a quick lunch. We saw the magnificent Duomo, and submitted to climbing its 438 steps for an excellent view of Florence, Tuscany, and the Duomo itself.

Duomo, Florence
Duomo, Florence
Duomo, Florence
Duomo, Florence
View of Florence
View of Florence

One of the must-see attractions in Florence is Michelangelo's David, at Gallerie dell'Accademia (entry costs €6.50). They were doing some restoration work on David at the time, but this actually added to the experience. They had taken care to to block our view, and provided a heap of information about the restoration process and the history of David's maintenance.

There wasn't much daylight left, so we took a walk over the Ponte Vecchio, had a large and tasty pasta for dinner, went to an Internet cafe for an hour, walked back to the hotel, and did our washing.

Ponte Vecchio
Ponte Vecchio

Saturday April 24: Florence

After an average breakfast, we asked the hotel to book a tour to Chianti for the day, but the tour was booked out. We walked down to the Uffizi Gallery instead, but were put off by the huge queues and decided to come back later in the afternoon. We headed instead to Palazzo Pitti.

The palace is a huge. We started by looking through the Ducal Treasures museum, which had lots of old glass from Pompeii and the 1st century, with good explanations of ancient glass blowing and how it developed. But the most enjoyable part of the palace was the Giardino di Boboli, the enormous palace gardens. Big hedges, statues, fountains, and excellent views from the top. The statue of the naked man on the turtle was unusual. Entry to the palace and gardens cost €6.

Giardino di Boboli
Giardino di Boboli
View of Tuscany
View of Tuscany
Naked man on turtle statue
Naked man on turtle

We tried to investigate going to Chianti on our own, but by the time we found the bus station there were no more buses. We were a bit disappointed, and headed back to the Uffizi Gallery. Unfortunately the queue hadn't diminished during the day, and it took about half an hour to get in. There wasn't much to see inside. Lots of statues and paintings, but when we went half of the permanent exhibition rooms were closed due to a staff meeting. It was most disappointing after the Louvre. Entry was €9.50.

We walked up to the church of Santa Croce, but were disappointed to find it scaffolded. Then we walked back to the hotel.

Sunday April 25: Florence to Rome

After a relaxing morning and breakfast at the hotel, we walked over to the station at 10:15. Our train turned up a little late, but there were relatively few people on board so we didn't mind. We found a little six seater compartment for ourselves and the purple case.

Once we arrived in Roma Termini, we went to look for our hotel. It was easy to find the street from our map, but finding the hotel was a little harder. We found the address, but it was completely unsigned and appeared to be a residential appartment block. We almost gave up, but looking at the buzzers on the door we saw Hotel Farini. The hotel is located on the second floor. It seems strange, but apparently it's quite normal for Rome.

Hotel Farini, Rome
Our hotel

After check-in, we walked down towards the Colosseum, and had a tasty lasagne and a large beer in a cafe for lunch. We walked around the Colosseum, and then went in. Unlike my previous visit two years before, the central walkway had been fenced off, so it was difficult to see down into the excavations. We went up to the first level for a reasonable view of the Colosseum, and the Arch of Constantine and the Roman Forum.

The Colosseum
The Colosseum
Inside the Colosseum
Inside the Colosseum
Arch of Constantine
Arch of Constantine

We walked up to the Spanish Steps, stopping in the Lindt shop on the way for half price Easter eggs! Very tasty! The Spanish Steps were uninspiring, there were lots of flowers, a scaffolded building at the top, but we didn't really understand the significance.

Spanish Steps
Spanish Steps

It was back to the hotel on the metro, then out again later for dinner to La Giunca Ristorante Cinese, which had tasty food for a good price. We had spring rolls, sweat and sour pork, chicken with cashews, rice, fried icecream, and drinks for €27 for both of us.

Monday April 26: Rome

We had a very full, enjoyable day with lots of photos. It started with breakfast in our hotel room, of crusty bread, croissant, orange juice and hot chocolate. We left around 10:30. First of all we walked down to the Colosseum, and took a couple of photos that we would have taken the previous day if it wasn't for the weather.

Colosseum and Roman Forum
The Colosseum and
Roman Forum
Arch of Constantine
Arch of Constantine

Next we walked up to the Palatine Hill area (free admission as part of our Colosseum tickets from the previous day). There were lots of ruins of residential buildings, but not much that stood out. The bits I found most interesting were a sculpture of a sandal, and a huge unidentified structure, both pictured below.

Roman sandal
Roman Sandal
Palatine
Huge ruins at
Palatine
Palatine
Us at Palatine

Walking back to the Roman Forum, we were offered a free tour. Hooray! The theory is that by offering free half hour tours, we might pay them for other more in-depth tours. In any case, the free tour was excellent, and we learnt a lot.

  • The area was originally marshland, and was drained by the greatest drain ever built.
  • Each of the arches commemorate military victories; there were originally 50 of them, but now only three remain.
  • Each of the statues was assumed to contain part of the god that they portrayed. When the status of Hercules was struck by lightning, they assumed he was dead and buried the statue.
  • The emperor Caligula was mad, and had his favourite horse appointed to the senate.
  • The law courts had no walls, in order to appear accessible and uncorrupt.
  • If the vestal virgins ever misbehaved, they were punished by being whipped with feathers. But if they broke their vow of chastity, they were buried alive.

We saw heaps of interesting things as we walked through the Forum. Ceasar's burial place, the Arch of Titus (partially rebuilt by Napoleon), the Arch of Septimius Severus (with one of the original names erased by an angry brother), and lots of other bits and pieces. It's a fascinating place, and the free tour made our visit even more enjoyable.

Arch of Titus
Arch of Titus
Temple of Antoninus and Faustina
Temple of Antoninus
and Faustina
Law Courts, Roman Forum
Law Courts
Arch of Septimius Severus
Arch of Septimius Severus
Roman Forum
Roman Forum

We walked from the Roman Forum up to the Trevi Fountain. We bought lunch nearby (roast pork rolls), sat on some steps, and tried to work out how to photograph it (it's really big!). Then we threw some coins in, as is the tradition. €0.01 coins are good for that sort of thing (and not much else). There were lots of crapsellers and beggars around. I'm not sure which are worse.

Trevi Fountain
Trevi Fountain
Trevi Fountain
Trevi Fountain

We continued to walk. Next stop was the Pantheon, an amazing Roman temple with a hole in the domed roof to let the light in. The dome itself is pretty impressive; it was the largest in the world from its construction in 125 AD until 1436. It's also the burial place of the renaissance painter Raphael, and several Italian kings.

The Pantheon
The Pantheon
The Pantheon
The Pantheon

And still we continued walking. We had a quick look at Piazza Navona, and bought some delicious gelati on the way to St Peter's Basilica and The Vatican. We went inside St Peter's and walked around, marvelling at the incredible domes and ceilings. I impressed myself with the photo of the dome, a long exposure with the camera sitting on the floor.

The Vatican
The Vatican
St Peter's dome
Dome of St Peter's
Basilica

By this time we were exhausted. The bright sunshine of earlier in the day (which gave us a bit of sunburn) had been replaced with some light showers in the evening. We took the metro to Circo Massimo, met my uncle, and went to his place for a fantastic roast dinner, with risotto for entree. It was much appreciated, and it was great to catch up.

Tuesday April 27: Rome

After our adventures the previous day, we didn't pack so much in. After breakfast we walked to the railway station to investigate trains to the airport. We discovered we could buy tickets in advance from a machine, and did so for €9 each. Then we took the metro to the Vatican Museum. I was amazed that there was no queue after my previous experience where the queue stretched several hundred metres down the street.

We walked through the painting gallery first. Not surprisingly there was a religious theme in most of the paintings, which doesn't appeal to me. But we did see a few nice works, in particular there was one of the gardens of Eden. We liked it so much we bought a copy!

We saw many sculptures, and lots of interesting Egyptian stuff, monuments to Egyptian gods, and a 3000 year old mummy. It was a bit freaky really, with the face recognisable at hair intact. We went through the Sistine Chapel, where there are huge crowds and photos are prohibited. And we walked through the hall of maps, which I really like. They have amazing ceilings as well.

We had lunch in the cafe at the musuem. My fiancée seemed unimpressed with her spaghetti marinara, so we swapped meals (she's not a big seafood fan). The drinks were interesting - I had a can of Saint Louis beer, my fiancée had white wine out of a tetra-pak.

Lunch at the Vatican
Lunch at the Vatican

After lunch we left the Vatican and walked to the Mouth of Truth. It's amazingly non-touristy; there were only a few other people there when we went, and there's no admission fee. And despite its age, you can touch it! So we did, and both took photos with a hand in its mouth. Supposedly it will bite your hand off if you tell a lie, so I remained silent. The internet tells me that it's actually a drain cover from ancient Rome, but that's a less interesting story.

Mouth of Truth
Mouth of Truth
Mouth of Truth
Mouth of Truth

We walked back to the hotel, with a stop on the way for my fiancée to buy dancing shoes. Apparently they're a lot cheaper in Italy than they are in Australia. We went out for dinner that the same Chinese restaurant that we had been to two nights before.

Wednesday April 28: Rome to Hong Kong

Our time in Europe had come to an end. We got up at 08:30 and had breakfast at 09:00, then left the hotel straight afterwards for the short walk to the train station. My fiancée insisted on visiting the Lindt shop to stock up on chocolate. With infinite wisdom, the train station to the airport had been placed as far as possible from everything else; it was a good 10 minutes walk! I think it was further from the station concourse to our platform than it was from our hotel!

The train to the airport was quite slow, but had heaps of space and a big luggage rack that designers of long-distance Italian trains would do well to emulate.

We arrived at the airport and found the check-in desk quickly. No problems there. We found the tax refund place and received the princely refund of €1, which we spent entirely on chocolate. I also bought a hideously overpriced book to get rid of most of my change. We took the shuttle train over to our gate (it's a very strange and confusing setup at Fuimicino). We spent some time in the disappointing lounge area after a brief struggle to get in, then before long it was time to board our aircraft for the long flight to Hong Kong and beyond.

The long trip home.
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