Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Travel update number two

As planned we left the beautiful city of Florence, but not before we took a recommended walking tour which explained the city’s history through Roman times, it’s lead role in the Renaissance enlightening, and the following domination of the region by the powerful families such as the Medici’s. It was a great wrap up to the city and explained so many things we had been seeing.

But after glimpses of it out the train window from between Pisa and Florence, the Tuscany countryside was beckoning!! We caught a bus to the small hilltop town of San Gimignano for a few nights, which was one of several Tuscan towns that I have been dying to see since seeing a slideshow of an old boss who toured the region years ago. We filled the days strolling the streets, and spent a full day hiking around the surrounding vineyards stopping for a picnic overlooking the town and surrounding valleys dotted with villas, farm sheds, and endless rows of grape filled vines. Picture perfect.

Next we headed to Siena, home of the famous twice-yearly Palio horserace. The town itself was brilliant so we settled ourselves here for 3 nights giving us time to get a good look around the town, and also hire a scooted to spend some time out in the surrounding central and southern Tuscan countryside visiting small villages and hilltop fortified towns, some amazing churches and monasteries, and never ending scenery like something out of a picture book. We spent so much time stopping to take photos that in the end we were nearly late getting our trusty bike back to the shop. The city of Siena was so rewarding to walk around. Narrow streets, friendly people, surprisingly good shopping, and an impressive Cathedral constructed in competition with rival Florence. The view from the top of it was breathtaking - plenty of photos of the countryside.

We moved south from here, travelling in one terrible and very forgettable day from Siena to Rome, then from Rome to Naples, then from Naples to Salerno, and then with one final hair-raising bus ride along the Amalfi Coast we were in Atrani just next to Amalfi. A nice enough town on this spectacular coastline to spend a few days day-tripping from, but we were pretty disappointed with our accommodation. So we found and moved to a great pension northwards in ritzy Positano where we spent another 4 days lapping up the sunshine and the spectacular Amalfi Coast and its sights. While based here we spent a very long day walking around Pompeii which was brilliant – such a huge site to take in, we actually never got around the whole lot while we were there. So much of it remains intact that you can easily visualise how the Roman city must have operated and how its citizens lived their lives. A must do for everyone.

Having spent nearly a week on the Amalfi Coast, it was time to say goodbye to relaxation and head to fiery Sicily – a place that we’d long had on our list of destinations to get to.. for me, it was for Mount Etna, for Carly, the Sicilian red wines!! We trained it down to Catania on the east coast of the island, via a ferry which transports the boat over the passage from the mainland. We got a good taste of Catania on our walk from train station to B&B – traffic madness, plenty of action on the streets, this place was a madhouse!! And being a uni town it had a great late night scene too. Exactly what we were after following the somewhat bland tourist havens on the Amalfi. Amongst this small rabbit warren of small back streets and alleys not far from the main square we found streets overrun with milling groups of young people, tables and chairs spilling out from bars simply taking up the now pedestrianised bitumen – these people knew how to do it. So on several nights we found ourselves amongst this area, working our way down a list of Sicilian wines our B&B host had written up for us to seek out. The food was good too. Excellent seafood here, and cheap - all coming from the brilliant daily produce, meat, and seafood markets that get going early amongst this small area in the old part of town down the road from our B&B. As for Mt Etna, it took two trips to the mountain before I was satisfied – the first was as part of a 4x4 tour which was to take us around 3 sides of the mountain, visit a river carved into the volcanic rock which originates in the snow and water from the mountain, and take us to a viewing point to see the peak of the mountain from a reasonably close distance. Everything was great except for the last part – by the time we got up there the entire mountain was shrouded in cloud, and we couldn’t see a thing. I was gutted.

That night we met up with friends Richard and Jenna, who we’ve been meeting up with at various points on our trip (so far Prague, Florence, San Gim, Positano, and now Sicily). They were yet to go up the mountain having just arrived. Jarvo had a plan. I got a call on the mobile early on our last morning in Catania, with Jarvo deciding that they were going to hire a car and make the trip to the nearby mountain. So we hurriedly joined them and managed to get to the southern access to the mountain just as the cloud was clearing, leaving the slopes to the top of the cable car visable from the Etna Sud Refuge. So Jarvo and I made the long 1.5hr climb up the rocky and barren prepared ski slopes, and from the top of the slope we were able to see, hear, and feel the erupting peak of the volcano still kilometres away and another kilometre above us in height, but it was close enough to experience the force of the mountain. Just a fantastic experience that after watching the mountain on plenty of documentaries and news articles, I have finally had the chance to see for myself.

After our long day up the mountain, and then having the negotiate Catania’s traffic on the way back to town, we said goodbye for now to Jarvo and Jenna and we headed to the coastal town of Taormina for a few more nights amongst the fantastic Sicilian people. This place was obviously a bit of a tourist mecca, with plenty of t-shirt shops and nowhere to hide once the buses arrived at the gates mid-morning, but it was a complete contrast to the pace of Catania so we enjoyed the break. The town overlooks the spectacular coastline along here so we spent an afternoon down at the beach opposite the beautiful Isola Bella, and another part day looking around the Roman Theatre which remains here cut into the hillside with Mount Etna as the backdrop for the audience seated in the impressive horseshoe-shaped theatre. The rest of the time we just strolled the streets and the gardens of the town.

We said goodbye to Taormina and Sicily, and boarded a horrific overnight train to Rome. Arriving in the capital at 6am, we then embarked on a very busy day of first doing some very necessary clothes washing, and then a 12 hour walking tour of Rome, taking us to our favourite café, sights, gelati store, bar, and then pizzaria we had visited in our trip there in 2004. Getting back to the hostel after midnight wasn’t the best move, as our flight to Spain the next morning had us leaving Central Rome at 4am. It was worth it to do the reunion tour of my favourite city.

So we headed to Spain after our fantastic month in Italy. Valencia was the first destination, where we simply relaxed for most of the first day in the hostel lounge room after cooking up a huge brunch with supplies from the nearby buzzing produce markets where you could get absolutely anything!! Valencia was a good place to get back into Spain following our previous visit to the south in 2005, and we spent 5 enjoyable days here just hanging around. We spent a day out at the coast having Paella, some quite late nights amongst brilliant tapas bars in the Carmen barrio in the old town, and a few days just strolling through the city visiting sites and enjoying the way of life here. One morning we took up position to watch the weekly ‘Water Court’, which is one of the oldest courts of justice in Europe. It is setup to adjudicate and rule on any water irrigation disputes between local farmers, and is all conducted with presiding judges from each of the surrounding farming regions in a public open forum off of one of the main squares. The locals seem to love it judging on the crowd that it pulled – however once the judges appeared and the head bloke called out the crowd if anyone had a dispute, and none appeared, it was a fizzer! The judges simply stood up again and walked back into the doorway they came from! We loved it anyway..

Next we went to Madrid, the capital. And on walking out of the subway station near out hostel we certainly knew we were in the thick of it. Just like Rome or London, this place was busy. And it seemed to be the capital of very late nights as well. Even though we had started to acclimatise to the late starts of the Valencian nightlife, Madrid was a step above. We spent each night in a different area ranging from the heaving area around Sol where we’d go between Tapas bars just grazing for dinner; to the Gay district of Chueca on Halloween night which was packed with people in costume spilling out of fantastic bars and clubs that were only just beginning to open by the time we were headed home. During the day we found Madrid to be very interesting, with heaps to see and plenty to walk amongst as we filled in our 6 days with visits to markets, museums and a new favourite art gallery, and the large always busy shopping area. I could just go on and on about Madrid – such a great place!

But the La Rioja region to the north was calling. So we boarded a bus and found ourselves in the busy town of Logrono, where we had a great night eating and drinking around the old town – the prawn and garlic Tapas mushrooms where a hit, so too was the very cheap local Rioja wine that we first encountered here (LAN for 0.60c a glass! Can’t beat that!!). We then travelled onto the tiny hilltop town of LaGuargia, which overlooks the Rioja grape-growing valleys on all sides, and with only 1100 people living there it was a great relzxing visit. We then went to Haro - again, great wine, people, and food. And surrounded by the best of Rioja’s wine producing companies who base themselves around the town. From here we travelled to Bilbao, capital of the Basque region where we spent a great 4 days walking the city, taking plenty of photos of the outside of the strikingly cotemporary Ghery-designed Guggenheim Museum, and we also made a visit to the oldest Transporter Bridge in the world near the mouth of the city’s river on the coast – this was somewhat of an infrastructure nerds ‘Mecca’. Bilbao surprised us, the old town which we stayed in was busy and always full of locals at all times of the day, but also the new town hadn’t disconnected itself from the old town and performed a function of connecting the City. We really liked it there.

But time ran out and we headed to San Sebastian. We’re not sure what it was but we liked Bilbao more than San Seb. We spent 3 days here, although we’d expected to be here for up to 5. Sure the place had a fantastic old town and some great tapas bars and restaurants, but Bilbao was more our style. We spent our days here walking around the huge crescent-shaped bay which is lined with a stunning gold sandy beach, and is overlooked at each end by two fantastic headlands which give you views over the city to the stunning inland mountain ranges. The temperatures were still so warm that the beach was still attracting a fair few swimmers, seemingly out to catch the last warm days before winter was expected to arrive with a blast any day. Several locals actually told us that it was unseasonably warm even though it was now into November – but we weren’t complaining given the perfect weather we’d had for the last 2 months. There’s plenty more to see in the Bilbao-San Sebastian area, so we will definitely be back to explore the coastal ranges just inland and to do some hiking up there, but not on this trip.

So we moved on to a day and night stop over in Pamplona,, to check out the town now famous for the ‘Running of the Bulls’. We never got to be in the town for this mad festival – too much going on in London to let us get away, but it was still good to see the route of the run marked out along the streets, and see plenty of photos hanging in bars along the way. We had a fantastic meal in one of these places, and actually found the town to be quite a buzzing place with locals everywhere, even though it was a weeknight.

We took an early bus on the last leg of the trip, towards to coast and to our last stop – Barcelona! We met Richard and Jenna here (as they were beginning their time in Spain), and had a brilliant 6 days winding down after the hectic past 2 and a bit months. Even though we had some lazy days just wondering the streets shopping and eating, we got out and experienced some of the renowned nightlife in both the old town and the new harbour areas which were regenerated as part of the 1992 Olympic Games. We took a paella cooking class, took a walk up and around the Olympic stadium to see the Olympic stadium and the torch which we the world had watched being lit by an archers arrow, and spent days walking the city in search of Gaudi-designed buildings which seemed to be everywhere. We also spent a few good hours admiring his legacy/work in progress project – the Sagardia Familia Cathedral – which is a mammoth project scheduled to be finished by around 2020, though this is scoffed at by the locals. I think we preferred Madrid to Barcelona, given the tourist-laden La Rambla and side-streets, or maybe it was the waves of opinionated annoying Americans who seemed to pass through the hostel every day, complaining about what time the restaurants and bars opened. But it was a great fun city with fantastic locals, and some stunning sites which made it a great place to finish of our long trip. So at the end of the last day we put on our packs, walked to the Metro, and trained it out to the airport for our flight back to dreary London.

But Egypt and the Middle-East beckons, so within 72 hours we’ll be on another plane and another trip begins.

We’ve got pages and pages of handwritten travel notes of things that happened on the way, jotted down in two very tattered A5 spiral notepads.. so we’ll see how busy we are over xmas and I’ll try and get the blog finished off with all of those handwritten tales.



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