Hitting the coast

Italy

The Cinque Terre was one of those places we should have booked months in advance, so we were lucky to get an apartment in Monterosso only one week out.

As the name suggests, the Cinque Terre is made up of five towns on Italy’s west coast just above La Spezia, each of which is perched on the cliff above the ocean. With the surrounding terraced vineyards, the setting is spectacular and the area has become a big tourist destination in summer. They had a massive flood in October last year and nine people lost their lives, but we found no traces of the devastation.

From Verona, we trained to Milan and then changed to an intercity train that runs to Genoa and then down to the five towns through an impressive series of tunnels, finishing in La Spezia.

This wasn’t such a good apartment and it was one of our most expensive… The owner didn’t speak a word of English, so we wouldn’t be getting any free tips (given we could barely work out what she wanted us to do with the rubbish). The apartment was on top of a restaurant, so come 6am an army of noisy Italians wheeling trolleys (on cobblestones) full of ice and fish turned up at our doorstep. We looked out our window to the church bell (which didn’t bother us, except every fifteen minutes) and the train ran across a viaduct 20 meters away. Actually one day I thought Em was taking her suitcase for a walk in the lounge, but it was a tourist in the square down below. All that said, the place was very quiet between midnight and 6am if you were a sound sleeper (the key to this turned out to be lots of walking + wine).

The main attraction of the area is walking the ancient path between each of the towns. From our base in Monterosso al Mare the order of towns was: Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola, and Riomaggiore. Monterosso is probably the least enchanting of the five, but it served us well as a base.

Day 1 we were intent on walking the coastal path from one end to the other and catching the train back. Shortly after beginning the steep ascent out of Monterosso, the heat kicked in and we were both quite glad that we’d had a week in the Dolomites to sort out the legs. The paths were busy and some of our fellow path-walkers were really not suited to any walking, let alone the Cinque Terre. Not that we are highly-tuned athletes by any means, but it is baffling why some people pick this as their holiday and then decide they can manage the paths! Must be in Rick Steves’ Guide to Europe or something.

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Looking back to Monterosso

The towns are a bit touristy, although still have plenty of charm and some great eating spots.

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Heading to Vernazza

We made it to the middle town of Corniglia, having taken our time, and started towards the fourth. All was going well and we must have been almost there, before all hopes of getting any further were dashed by some walkers coming the other way saying the path was closed due to a landslide. Given you pay to use the path, you might expect some kind of notice with this information before you climb down 300 steps from the previous town. Nope. Not in Italy.

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Corniglia – the 300 steps are on the other side of the headland

We gave up and caught the train back for dinner. Dinner in Monterosso was at ‘number 12 Trip Advisor ranked’ Trattoria Da Oscar. Em discovered the awesomeness of local Trofie (tight twisted pasta with pesto) and I tried to choke myself on a plate of anchovies in white wine sauce.

Perhaps it was the 6 am ice/fish army alarm, but we really didn’t feel like walking on day two. Following some procrastination, we trained to the middle town where we had terminated our walking the day before. Then we cheated by taking the free shuttle to the top of the road, avoiding the 300 steps going up and rebellion by Em. From there, we enjoyed some of the best walking of our whole trip, Dolomites included.

With the coastal path being closed between Corniglia and Manarola, the only walking option was straight up to Volastra (somehow ditched from inclusion as a Cinque Terre town). The walking was tough, but this meant far fewer tourists on the trail. We found growers tending to vines and grapes on the precarious terrain and one gave us a handful to munch on. Views from Volastra = vast.

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From Volastra looking down to Corniglia – compare with the photo above to see the height difference / Nice looking tomatoes as well

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Grape picking on a cliff

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From Volastra, we took an uncharacteristic risk and left the main trail to follow an unofficial ‘panoramic path’, expecting that we were going to be sprung by an Italian at any moment asking for a fee for crossing his land. This never happened and we walked for 40 minutes between vines and down a ridge without seeing one single other person. It dropped us right to the main street of Manarola. If I hadn’t already proposed, I could have easily done it anywhere on that path.

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Down to Manarola

The walk to the last town was only 20 minutes and we caught the ferry back, finding that some of the best views of the towns were from the water.

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Riomaggiore

Next morning, we were back on the train to Pisa Centrale.

One for the boys

Italy

Hiring a Fiat Panda and taking to Italy’s autostradas could have been a fatal move for any couple, let alone a couple one day after their engagement. Fortunately Em’s calm but forceful approach to navigation kept things under control as we drove from Verona to Modena (an hour and a bit south).

Fiat Pandas don’t comfortably sit at (or sometimes get to) the speed limit of 130km/h. The result is one lane for Pandas and another faster lane for everyone else. We were happy in the slow lane.

The attraction to Modena was the recently-opened Enzo Ferrari Museum. The Museum is a giant yellow structure (designed to look like the air intake of a Ferrari) built around Enzo Ferrari’s family house.
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Inside, the display was less about the cars and Enzo Ferrari himself, and more about the history of the car industry in Modena (home to Ferrari, Maserati, Lamborghini, Pagani etc, all still having their factories in the area). The history is basically a story of a bunch of guys all building racing cars to go fast and beat their rivals. Sounded like a lot of fun really, but the result was the development of world-renown brands producing high-end racing and sports cars, creating jobs and wealth for the region.

If you don’t like my facts, skip the next paragraph.

Scuderia Ferrari was established in 1929. Ferrari was the sales agent for Alfa Romeo in that area of Northern Italy. Ferrari supplied service and assistance to the few very wealthy owners of Alfa Romeos. Just down the road in Bologna, the Maserati brothers had been producing racing cars since 1926 and moved operations to Modena in 1940. Shortly after, Ferrari produced its first ever Ferrari-branded car, and an Aeautodromo (race track / landing strip) was built in the town in 1950 (for better racing and more fun). This started the enduring rivalry between Ferrari and Maserati, first with racing cars and then with GT cars. To give you some idea of the strength of the region, in 1956 and 1957 the starting line of Formula 1 was made up exclusively of Ferraris and Maseratis. It was the only time in the history of F1 that all the cars were built in the same town.

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The Maserati brothers and the first ever Maserati with four wheels

As for the cars on display, there were some beauties, ranging from a 1914 Alfa Romeo through to a 2012 Italdesign prototype.

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Old Enzo was one smooth dude and had a pretty incredible life, as documented in the displays inside his old house (which was mortgaged to buy Enzo his first racing car). He had some successes racing cars, but his ruthless nature was best suited to running the company. He always wore dark sunnies (Raybans – you were very lucky to see him without them), wrote only in purple ink (it reminded him of his father), and never travelled overseas to watch Ferrari races.

After lunch at the Museum, we were back in the Panda to head to Maranello, 20 minutes from Modena. Maranello is home to the Ferrari factory (sadly, you need to own a Ferrari to tour it) and the Museo Ferrari which houses a massive collection of Ferrari F1 and GT cars. But that Saturday was also “Red Night” in Maranello – a massive party to celebrate all things Ferrari.

We looked around the Museo Ferrari, at all the latest and greatest, as well as most of their F1 cars from 1985 to 2011. It’s incredible to see them all lined up and the changes to the aerodynamics – nowadays with all kinds of wings and fins. There was the (very large) wall of Ferrari trophies and we also liked a film showing clips of Ferraris featured in Hollywood movies (with a good looking actress usually).

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Enzo himself

Once outside, the band was getting warmed up and hundreds of Ferraris were pouring into town. The Police close some of the roads so you can drive fast, and there are several companies who will let you drive a Ferrari of your choice (prices started at €80 for 10 minutes). Didn’t really need to go to the Museum, because every model from the past 15 years was in the car park across the road. Perhaps more bizarre than the cars, were their drivers – an eccentric lot to say the least.

Here’s a few photos and a video of the car park.

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I was just happy to get the Panda out of Maranello without scratching any Ferraris, and back to Verona without an argument with the navigator.

One for the girls

Italy

Rather than moving around too much, we decided to use Verona as a base for two day trips – one to Lake Garda and one to Modena. Garda is Italy’s largest lake and seems to have a lot to offer by way of great towns and activities, though it often plays second fiddle to the better-known Como. To reach the southern end of Lake Garda it was an easy 40 minute train to Desenzano. It had a nice feel as soon as we started walking in the direction of the lake – nice tree-lined, clean streets and tidy houses.

With a little more time we would have had more of a look around Desenzano. We hadn’t found much info about it, but it turned out to have a great atmosphere and there looked to be some nice restaurants and shops. The lake setting sucked me in straight away – with the small harbour of boats, a little light house and the water stretching off in the distance, I was at home once again. Wanting to get out there, we jumped straight onto a ferry heading to Sirmione. The ferry system on the lake was great – a mix of fast and slow boats heading to all of the towns regularly throughout the day.

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Sirmione was humming with activity, but if you looked past the hoards of day-trippers it was really very cool. There was a maze of little lanes, copious gelato shops, an awesome water-bound castle, and plenty of little nooks down to the lake edge. After sharing a quick pizza, we started wandering.

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Alex had read about the Grotto of Catullo located on the tip of the Sirmione peninsula. Knowing nothing about it I duly followed him, and discovered once we arrived that it was the ancient Roman ruins of a palatial villa from the end of first century BC – start of first century AD. It wasn’t known who lived there (just that they were rich – go figure), and it is the largest in northern Italy. As with most of these sites, it had been pillaged for materials and worn down over the years, but a fair amount of it was still standing. I have no idea why anyone who didn’t have at least four families under one roof would need something so big, but apparently someone did. A lot of it was grand hallway and pools of different temperatures, but I suspect the best thing about it has always been its view.

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The site was surrounded by acres of olive grove, and had 180 degree views of Lake Garda. Adding to this, on the day we were there the sky was blue, the temperature was perfect and the distance between grotto visitors made it feel as if no one was there. We spent far more time just lazily strolling the paths and soaking in the atmospheric goodness than reading the info signs, and we soon decided it was one of the prettiest places we’d been.

There were some great arches and ruin structures at end of the peninsula, and after some photos we parked up for a bit on a stone bench looking over the lake to enjoy the sunshine. A few people were swimming off the rocks below, but unfortunately the property was well-fenced so we couldn’t get down to get our feet wet.

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We’d probably been there for about half an hour without a soul around, when one Alex Mamo wandered towards me where I sat and started to get down on one knee in front of me. I’m not going to lie, I actually thought mid-bend that he was going to stand up again and laugh, and how mean that would be. You may think after ‘all this time’ that I would be expecting a proposal – especially in such a spot – but I was so absorbed in the place and just enjoying the day that it took me completely by surprise. So much so, that when he stayed on his knee and said “Emmy, will you marry me?”, I gracefully replied with “are you serious?” (x5). He later admitted that some sort of pre-question speech may have made me more certain of his seriousness, but his spontaneity (he had no plans of doing it there or on that day) hadn’t allowed him to gather himself for more than just the most important question. I of course eventually found the correct response which was “yes.”

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We finally left the grotto with big smiles on our faces when we thought we might get locked in at closing time. It was a great day made especially memorable, and it was hard not to start talking about it all (as we celebrated with giant gelato).

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When I saw you in Verona…

Italy

It’s a bit sad, but from the moment we got off the train in Verona I had Elemeno P’s Verona spinning round and round in my head thanks to Em and Andrea. But Italian Verona has a bit more going for it than the Verona in the song.

We’ve stayed in a few apartments now and find them pretty good value for money. Verona turned out to be the best apartment accommodation so far. We were met by young first year uni student Enrico, who practiced his English by explaining all the good stuff in town. His dad Rudolfo then joined us for a coffee and talked about all things Kiwi and Americas Cup. We met Luisa (actually the owner) in the morning for another coffee. Luisa was super interesting – a lawyer who was very well travelled (knew all about the Bay of Islands etc) and was happy to give us her view on Italian life and politics. She even invited us to go skiing in the Dolomites sometime.

Must sees in Verona:

– 1st century Roman Arena (mini Colosseum) used every year for the famous Verona festival (which we just missed). It’s had some pretty amazing concerts over the years – Pink Floyd, The Who, Muse and Pavarotti, who is a native of Modena down the road.

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– More street performers. The best was a guy dressed as a baby in a pram. Hard to describe, but very clever.

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One for Dad and Nicky

– Balcony, which is supposedly the one used by Juliet in Shakespeare’s famous romance. Could show you the photo of just the balcony in black and white (very romantic)…

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…But the reality was a tiny courtyard jammed with tourists, kids pashing, love notes all over the wall, and people trying to get their ten seconds alone on the balcony. Chances are it’s not even the right balcony.

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– Robert Capa Exhibition. This was excellent and my favourite exhibition of the trip. Robert Capa was a Hungarian war photographer, whose work included five wars. His most famous pictures are probably those of the D-Day landings in 1944. Through his work he constantly put himself in unbelievably dangerous spots and once said “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you aren’t close enough”. It was the ability to tell a whole story through a single photograph and a five-word caption that makes his work so incredible. In addition to his war photography, he had an illustrious circle of friends and snapped many celebs and other famous names (such as Pablo Picasso).

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The best things about Verona:
– The back streets with an abundance of coffee shops and bars hidden away.
– Rustic Veronese cooking.

A great place to see the best of northern Italy.

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Let’s get lost

Italy

It was hard not to fall somewhat in love with Venice from the get-go. We arrived at the water taxi depot just as the sun was setting, with the wooden ‘vaparetto’ private water taxis zipping around to collect numerous groups of people heading to events on the island. The stereotypes we’d heard of the city were largely filled straight away.

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We took a regular taxi with the masses and headed to our Rialto Bridge stop, where we were met by smooth Italian dude Stefano. Stefano ran a hotel which had a ‘special’ room advertised at a discount, which turned out to be a small apartment 10 minutes away from the hotel, but right by Rialto Bridge. He and his girlfriend showed us the way through the busy streets as we dragged our suitcases and tried to commit some of the location references to memory for use in the morning. His ‘included breakfast’ were the hideously dry preservative filled croissants most Europeans seem to love, but the apartment was really nicely refurbished (no windows) and the location was perfect (and on top of the best gelato shop we have found).

Having seen it in numerous movies (including The Italian Job on the iPad the night prior), St Marks Square was impressive in real life. The buildings that run the sides of it really make it, with their repetitive architecture and scale. Not to mention the Basilica at the end, which was a very worthwhile visit. Thankfully we read the tip somewhere to book a visiting time online at a cost of €2. When we saw the size of the queue out in the hot sun we decided it was the best use for €2 in Venice.

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After being awed by the immense mosaic interior, we spent quite a while sitting on the terrace of the Basilica overlooking the square on one side and the water on the other soaking it all in. It cost an extra €10 to access the terrace, and the upstairs museum areas, but it was worth it, and it wasn’t too crowded.

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On our travels to the Square, I had spotted a restaurant called ‘Da Mamo’ down a small street by our apartment. A bit of research showed it to have some great reviews, so we turned up at opening and were lucky enough to get the last table. The food was great and our waiter was a real character, who thought it hilarious when Alex explained that his surname was Mamo. He told us that Mamo had been the nickname of Massimo senior, who had passed away, and now Massimo junior – also nicknamed Little Mamo – was running it. Turned out that the Italian Mamo was also called Alex, and he came over to take pictures with the Kiwi Alex, much to the cheeky waiter’s delight. We ate the best tiramisu either of us had ever tried, and before we left Italian Alex presented Alex with the restaurant t-shirt. It would have to go down as one of our best dinners on the trip, and we would have happily gone back there.

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We did a day trip on the ferry to Murano to explore what the different islands were like and to check out some dudes blowing glass. After some wandering we found a fornace/factory which was operating and had a free demonstration. The whole concept of how the pieces come together and the skill involved was pretty impressive. We watched them make parts for a chandelier and then a ‘dancing horse’, before watching with fascination in the large shop as tourists chose their knick knacks to transport home (hopefully in one piece). Unfortunately there was far less shade from buildings on Murano, and we kind of cooked ourselves in the heat (no sunburn mind you – we’ve avoided the tourist trademark burn all trip).

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We spent a bit of time getting lost in the other suburbs, canvassing a fair bit of Venice on foot. We had toyed with the idea of taking a gondola ride, but by the last evening we decided that just being on the water was the cool, and we could do that just as happily on the water buses. We got on one that traveled the length of the Grand Canal and got off at one of the last stops. The bustle on the water is always entertaining, with a constant small margin between miss and collision. We saw all sorts of items being transported, from a casket to a load of photocopiers. The nature of living water-bound I suppose.

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We subsequently found out that the gondola rides are so expensive in order to pay off the cost of a gondola license – apparently €500,000 – though not sure on that statistic as I can’t see how that would *ever* be profitable. It’s a shame the costs and nature of living in Venice is driving the locals away. We were told by an Italian that they feel like they are losing their identity, as Chinese have taken over so many local businesses.

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Before our cheap version of seeing more of the water, we ran into a couple from our Dolomites tour in a little side-street. A bit surprising, having thought that it was too chaotic a place to actually see them again. The man mentioned seeing a huge superyacht with a helicopter on the back and some of the other spots they’d found during their days. After our water bus excursion we came across said boat (from the front, which ensued debate as to whether or not it included helicopter – it did). We sat on a bench in the sun and watched the entertainment of the Venice waterways go by – including the superyacht (belonging to Mr Westfield of Sydney) doing a 180 and departing in front of us.

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Of course everyone has their own opinions, but this was the sort of place which could be totally overwhelming under certain circumstances, yet if you take it for what it is, soak it up, and give yourself over to its mess of streets and people, it’s so easily to forgive it its vices. Graffiti seemed to become art, chaos on the water was charming, the odd whiff of curious smell was something expected, and even the rat scurrying by the water alluded to what made Venice, Venice. The word that kept coming to mind was ‘surreal’ – it is completely surreal. It shouldn’t exist, but it does, though who knows how it will fare into the future. It all looks somewhat precarious, and the wear of the water has to take its toll no doubt. So pleased we were fortunate enough to cross it off our list.

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Tour take two

Italy

Whilst it is categorized as Italy, Dobbiaco is in the far north and far more German/Austrian in reality than it is Italian. 85-90% of the people speak German as a first language (though they sometimes speak German, Italian and English in one sentence, making ordering a beer a challenging experience). We quickly recognized that we hadn’t really left Austria at all when we arrived there from Innsbruck via a somewhat chaotic train system.

Dobbiaco was quite quaint with a few good shops, but mostly hotels and their associated restaurants. We did see some excellent free jazz in the square on our second day. Once at our hotel, we met our guide Barry (who sounded just like Postman Pat which was awesome) before he headed off to pick up the rest of the group from Venice airport. We had no idea what to expect with this tour, but it sounded like we didn’t need to be worried about keeping up with the pack as we has first imagined. The activity based tours seemed to attract an older age group, so we would most definitely be the youngest this week (but by no means the fittest?!)

Not bad for a tiny town

The hikes involved taking the public bus system to a starting point then heading off on a trail. Day one was a ‘warm-up’ to a pretty amazing lake nestled amongst the trees and mountains. To some extent it could have been NZ – it reminded us a little of the Blue Lake in Rotorua.

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Day two we headed up Mount Elmo in Sesto via gondola, then trekked up to the summit. It was an interesting place to go, with markers indicating the border between Austria and Italy, WWII remnants amongst the rocks and huge friendly Austrian cows with giant bells amongst the mist. Unfortunately the weather wasn’t the best to take in the views, and we needed every one of our layers (double merinos, beanies, gloves) including the newly-purchased wet-weather pants. A hot shower was much appreciated when we finally got back to the hotel at 7pm.

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20120921-134110.jpg Awful photo (so cold!) but had to be done: Em in Austria and Alex in Italy

Day three would be our first experience with ‘Tre Cima’, the famous Italian peaks which actually only became famous to us when we started the hike. The plan was to approach it from the south side that day, then from the North side in the better weather later in the week. I quite enjoyed this day – the route took us through a valley with a river, lots of limestone slips and great cliff faces. Being met with a cool view at the top of the final climb was also the sort of satisfaction you hope for on these sorts of hikes. We started to get an understanding of why this area was so popular for the outdoorsy crowd.

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After a couple of good days on the legs, the hotel stairs were getting slightly harder to descend so the mid-week day off was probably beneficial. Not keen on spending more time on trains, we took a short bus trip to the ski town of Cortina. Supposedly it’s pretty ‘exclusive’, and the heights of the ski fields were certainly impressive. Unfortunately, the town was a little lacking, not helped by the fact that everything shuts for three hours from lunchtime so the Italians can conveniently go and do whatever it is they do, never mind the tourist dollars walking around unsatisfied in the streets.

We had a slightly unsatisfying second to last hike, which had a nice lunch spot up a peak, but that was about it. Alex and I were keen to be amongst the gravel on the bigger peaks we had been staring at. Our last hiking day took us up to Tre Cima, to touch the base of Cima Piccola.

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Straight from wiki, I shall give you some Alex-style facts: “Until 1919 the peaks formed part of the border between Italy and Austria. Now they lie on the border between the Italian provinces of Bolzano and Belluno and still are a part of the linguistic boundary between German-speaking and Italian-speaking majorities. The Cima Grande has an elevation of 2,999 metres (9,839 ft). It stands between the Cima Piccola, at 2,857 metres (9,373 ft), and the Cima Ovest, at 2,973 metres (9,754 ft).”

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We certainly didn’t gain that height on our feet, with Bazza taking us up to a ‘base’ area via bus. We walked a hell of a way downhill though, which most find harder on the body than getting up. A shame not to have the satisfaction of climbing up as well, though it was darn hot that day. Despite all this, the views were incredible with a backdrop of azure blue sky. Tour guide Bazza told us how there is a canister at the summit of Cima Grande containing a ‘guest book’ which has his name in it from about 2004. He seemed to think Alex and I could manage it, but I don’t fancy my stumpies as very successful mountain-climbing legs, not to mention the risk of the rock you nailed your support rope into breaking off. We’d seen a number of posters showing before and after of huge rock falls which had happened over recent years throughout the area – it creates such destruction that a massive layer of silt like a volcanic eruption covers the nearby valleys. Pretty terrifying if you’re in the wrong place at the wrong time. A conservative girl attitude I suppose!

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We headed to Venice in a shuttle with the group on the final day, with everyone going their separate ways at Venice airport. The length of the tunnels through the mountains on the way south were baffling – so different to our roads weaving up and around rather than through. We concluded that budget-wise this tour hadn’t been the best in terms of value-for-money, though it was really great to be in one place for a week and do something a little different. We definitely enjoy the more remote locations – as true Kiwis, if it has mountains, lakes or sea, we are in our element. Big cities can be fabulous, but sometimes in smaller doses! We said goodbye to another great group of people, with a few good contacts made, and headed off to find a water taxi to Venice.

My favourite things

Austria

I had ‘Sound of Music’ songs in my head as soon as we boarded the train from Budapest to Salzburg. Our accommodation was a big hostel-style place with a few disappointments but a good location.

Salzburg was gorgeous – everything you might expect and more: from the mountains surrounding, the castle perched high above, the river running through it; to the great shopping, excellent food and cultural attractions. I’d love to go back to the area in winter and see more of the lakes and mountains, but it was great to see it under cloudless skies. Adding to its charm was the number of folk actually dressed in lederhosen! There were also a lot of pearls and suits around for the Salzburg festival, making Alex and I realize that our scruffy t’s and jandals might not cut it here.

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Our surroundings (and the nice shops) may have swayed our accidental afternoon shopping. Sick of our suitcase contents, we ‘only’ bought a couple of tops each – our first purchases of such a kind on the trip. We then proceeded to justify it by sending a decent sized box of gear we deemed unnecessary to Dad in NZ, lightening our load somewhat. It only takes a couple of train stations to wish you had nothing but a small rucksack! The post office was an experience in itself: the Austrian chap proceeded to burst out laughing & whistle in horror at our request to send a package to New Zealand. “Neuseeland! Neuseeland?!” he kept proclaiming in laughter. He was pretty crack up and actually damn efficient at his job, which was reassuring for the safety of our gear.

I wasn’t sure I was enough of a die-hard fan to part with 60-odd euro for the bus tour, but we did go to the Panorama Museum to see an exhibition on the story behind the Sound of Music. It was actually pretty interesting reading about the family and the Hollywood take on it. The hotel played the movie in the common area every night, but we never partook. Between that and Mozart, Salzburg really went to town on its famous associations.

We made like a Salzburgian and hired bikes for a day, covering some good distance along the river side and visiting the Mirabell Gardens. We also most-importantly followed our noses to a local brewery and had a pint in their beer garden. Apparently I’m somewhat kamikaze on a bicycle, but we came away sans any insurance claim – always a successful day. In the evening we walked up around the castle to the soundtrack of a free opera screening happening down below as part of the big festival – it made the whole setting rather dramatic! All of the houses and lanes near the town were really nice, so all in all it seemed a cool place to live and an even better one to visit! Salzburg is definitely one of my faves thus far.

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Innsbruck heId so much potential, but we arrived in 28 degrees and woke up the next morning to 8 degrees, rain and the surrounding mountains had all but disappeared. Given our main ‘to-do’ was a €40-something ride away up the awesome gondola in the centre of town…the weather pretty much halted our plans. After checking the stirling weather-forecast for our week ahead hiking in the nearby Dolomites, we donned our thermals & rain jackets and went on the hunt for wet-weather pants. The ski-town had awesome outdoors shops, great savory strudel (our first) and a cool pub which you could easily imagine full of the mountain crowd in winter. Fortunately, we were staying in an awesome hotel in Innsbruck, so I was also pretty pleased to spend time in the luxury of a deep bath, and we attempted unsuccessfully to overcome our sudden addiction to Austrian wafer biscuits (like Griffins pink wafers but oh so much better).

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The ‘golden roof’ and the window boxes we’ve become so accustomed to seeing

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After a bit of to’ing and fro’ing in and out of this country, we said “so long, farewell, auf wiedersehen, adieu” to Austria, and headed for Dobiacco….

Bratislava, Budapest, Eating and Marty

Hungary, Slovakia

The trip to Bratislava (the capital of Slovakia) was unfortunately too rushed and too hot. Most of us in the group decided that it’s not really worth the detour – we had only three hours to see the old part of the city. There is actually a bit to see in Bratislava, contrary to what we were told by a 16 year old local girl on the train.

It was 40 degrees when we arrived at midday – hardly the climate for running around. So we did a bit of walking and then found a spot that served fresh lemonade and massive pizzas (not exaggerating).

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Bratislava is trying hard to attract tourists and has much of what the other popular Central European cities has to offer. It’s also very easy to get around and it isn’t swamped by tourists. Probably an up and coming destination… Plus great statues and street performers.

20120912-233426.jpg Rubberneck, who has had his head knocked off three times by bad drivers

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Tour leader Viv was particularly excited about showing us her home city of Budapest. We arrived by train from Bratislava around 7pm on Friday night, checked in (nothing flash, but ok), and went for dinner. Viv had picked the retro and buzzing Menza Restaurant, serving tasty Hungarian dishes. The food in Budapest turned out to be the best of the last five countries. I had the popular Hake fish and Em had trout. They also did their own beer which was very good. (We came back to Menza by ourselves on our last night and had their stroganoff, which is in my top 5 meals of the trip).

20120912-233952.jpg Best stroganoff ever

In the morning, Viv took us on her walking tour. Over about four hours, we saw most of the city, often jumping on the underground tube or a tram to get around. We didn’t see much of Buda, except from the river, but we saw lots of Pest, where the action is. They are gradually doing up many of the old buildings that were destroyed either in the war or during the post-war violence with the Soviets. The idea is that they do a really good job of each one – do it once and do it right.

20120912-234136.jpgBullet holes from the 1956 uprising

That evening was our last night with the group and another excellent restaurant choice – renown for its crispy skin goose.

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Dinner was followed by a river cruise, showing off the best bits of Budapest at night, although it was a little pricey.

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Six of us then headed out to taste some Budapest’s Saturday nightlife. It turned out to be mostly entertaining for people watching in this part of town which is a park by day, and a series of bars at night. There were some real sights, and we were entertained by a local guy, who we nicknamed Marty cause he liked to party, and who took a particular shine to Em. (I didn’t feel threatened, as we later saw him unintentionally use a drinking fountain as a bidet).

20120912-234700.jpgMarty on the left

A very late finish meant a pretty slow day afterwards. We tried unsuccessfully to cover off the not-so-glamorous bits of travelling – laundry, next bookings etc. In the late afternoon we made it to the House of Terror, which was highly recommended on Trip Adviser. It canvassed the horrors of the Soviets in Hungary and the 1956 uprising, but we were disappointed by the lack of good information in English in favour of strange artistic displays that didn’t seem to have any real purpose.

It would be great to spend more time in Budapest – certainly one of our favourite cities, along with Krakow.

More blogging to come on Austria, hiking in the Dolomites and Venice… Slowly catching up.

Mountaineering

Slovakia

When we set out for a hike in the Carpathian Mountains, Slovakia, we were expecting a leisurely walk rather than the rock-scaling/mountaineering day we had. We arrived late the night before, after a long afternoon in a shuttle bus. There seemed to be a noticeable change in the landscape as we neared the Polish border with Slovakia, and as we crossed over we saw more lakes, darker greens and most noticeably the awesome jagged mountain ranges.

Our accommodation was a hotel in Tatras Lomnica that dubbed as a tennis centre – Dominic Hrbaty, who was pretty good once upon a time, was cruising around coaching some kids. A ski town, it was mostly made up of accommodation to service the ski area located smack next to the village. It cost about €15 to get up the mountain in a gondola. From the top of the gondola, some of the group were going to dine and head back, and eight of us headed off on the ‘trail’.

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Naturally, I was designated group leader and given the map (our tour leader had a cold, so didn’t join us). Within minutes of this designation, there was discontent in the group and we became scattered all over the mountain like disobedient llamas. Two turned back shortly after we scaled the first hill, then started traversing the large wobbly boulders. Another turned back after we reached the peak. Despite these defections, I was still confident, as we still had the team doctor around (although she had a dodgy ankle). Em was back to being the pretty mountain goat.

From the peak, we could see a jade green lake and small hut – our target for lunch. We naively thought the way down looked to be more of a kept path – not so…

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The descent started ok, but we ran into our first problems when one of our number, who was totally deaf, got quite far ahead and disappeared down the wrong track. Given we couldn’t yell at him, I thought about throwing stones to get his attention, but you’re not really supposed to throw stones at other people.

Soon after this, we came to a nasty bit of rock face that required grappling with a dodgy chain to clamber down. When it was apparent that our deaf friend hadn’t made it to this point, I retraced our steps to try and find him. The path he had taken disappeared at a steep waterfall. As the marked trail involved using the dodgy chain, we figured he probably hadn’t found an easier way down by getting himself lost.

With no choice but to keep going, we clambered down the chain and headed towards the hut for lunch / calling Slovak search and rescue. To our relief, our lost comrade was waiting for us there, apparently having found a better way down?! I drafted up an angry message on the iPhone for him. I was mainly grumpy because it meant we were an hour late for lunch.

All this was partially forgotten in the hut, where we were served piping hot cheese Pirogi. Excellent hearty mountain food. Would be even better on a cold skiing day.

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View from the hut

The rest of the hike went smoothy – the hardest bit of navigation turned out to be finding our hotel once we were back in town. Total walking time was eight hours, so we were all pretty knackered.

The next day, a local on our train to Bratislava informed us that there had been three deaths from bears in that area this year. Pretty glad we didn’t come across these hungry Slovak bears.

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In mountaineering circles, the higher your pants, the more competent you are

Krakow

Poland

The trip to Krakow (Poland) by shuttle was a long one, only broken up by the stop at a McDonalds on the side of the motorway. This Maccas was absent of the usual “fast” food efficiency – our group’s orders meant a 20 minute wait for us at the back of the queue.

Some of the smaller Polish towns along the way exemplified the “other” kind of European architecture – plain communist square buildings in grey – with the odd splash of colour (via graffiti mostly) or some other kind of subsequent attempt to make the place feel slightly less depressing. The Communists might have been more successful if they had someone like Hundertwasser designing their buildings, to make everything seem a little rosier.

Unlike some of the bland 2 and 3 star hotels we’ve had, the accommodation in Krakow was excellent. One minute’s walk from the largest Medieval square in Europe, the hotel was a converted 18th century building with enormous apartment rooms.

Krakow has a great vibe and the people are very friendly. The Old Town is home to some 400 odd restaurants and bars – the whole square is lined with them – making eating and drinking very easy and very pleasant. Tour leader Vivian picked out some good restaurants for the evenings we were there.

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Googled this aerial shot of the Old Town Square

In the Old Town Square, the bell of the St Mary’s Basilica chimes every hour. The bell is then followed by a guy playing the trumpet from the top of the tower. He plays a tune that was a warning for Mongolian invasion in the 13th century. The tune breaks off mid-stream in remembrance of the original trumpeter who was shot by an arrow in the neck whilst blowing his trumpet. It is played every hour, 24 hours a day. Snapping photos of the trumpet guy is very tricky – he moves around to different windows, so you have to run around trying to figure out where he is.

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The Square has a number of market stalls – some of which actually sold stuff we wanted to buy. Being a true romantic, I bought Em a rose from one of the stalls on her birthday. It lasted two days of travelling.

The old part of Krakow has some interesting buildings, as it was largely untouched during WWII. There is a castle at one end with some great views. At its base is a memorial to the Katyn massacre, which in turn has become a place of remembrance for the plane crash which killed the Polish president, top officials and families of those massacred on their way to commemorations in 2010. (You can google for more information!)

The daytime temperature in Krakow was well into the mid thirties. Firemen hook up their hoses to the hydrants in the public squares so that the kids (and some adults) can cool off. Fortunately a big ice cream was only 3 Zloty, about 80 cents, and there were stalls in abundance.

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On night one we ate Bigos, a Polish dish, with pork and sauerkraut in a bread bowl. Em ordered a side of vegetables (rare on menus) and became very animated about having broccoli, given broccoli (and most other vegetables) had been largely absent from our diets since we left home.

Day two was Em’s birthday. Em was stoked to hear from her nieces, Ella and Lily, in the morning via Skype – their happy birthday rendition is coming along very nicely. It was a bit sad not to have any family around for this birthday, so to cheer up Em we made a trip to the Wieliczka Salt Mines (about 25 minutes out of Krakow) with a few others from our group.

The Salt Mines no longer serve any other commercial purpose other than tours, but they were once a major operation and produced table salt until 2007. They are 327m deep and over 300km long.

Our female tour guide had some great punch lines emphasised by the drawl of her Polish accent. Our favourite line was at the statue of Copernicus (who studied his astronomy in Krakow in the 1400s): “Please do not lick Copernicus. With one million visitors each year, if everyone licked Copernicus, there would be no more Copernicus.” As everything in the Mine is made of rock salt, licking stuff is popular.

There were lots of cool statues in the mine, but the the highlight was the massive cathedral (made of salt), complete with chandeliers (made of salt) and a big statue of Pope John-Paul II (made of salt). Incredible to think that the cathedral is 135 meters below the surface.

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Disco party in the gnome cave

We had lunch in the Old Square – Gwen the Aussie bought Em a little pavlova as a birthday. Then we found a Pirogi shop selling the Polish specialty to the locals. We instantly became big fans of this dish and ordered a second plate.

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That night, Viv had picked out a great restaurant which looked after us very well for birthday dinner. She managed to get everyone wearing party hats and there was champagne and cake. One of the ladies had even bought a necklace in Prague as a present. After dinner we had a drink in the Old Square, but were too knackered to do much else.

We had planned to get to the Oscar Schindler Museum (i.e. “Schindler’s List” – his factory was in Krakow), but ran out of time the next day, so we just enjoyed wandering around.

Would certainly recommend Krakow for a three night stay if you are ever in Poland. It would be one of our favourites of the tour. Some birthday pics:

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