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A Not-So-Slow First Trip to Italy and Budapest


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Trip Description: My sister is invited to a conference in Budapest. Mom and I quickly muscle in on her trip and madness ensues - travel madness, that is! By andasamo from Nova Scotia, Canada, Spring 2006

Opportunity Knocks ...

It all started when my sister (L) was invited to speak at three-day conference in Budapest (she is a researcher specializing in prostate cancer research.) Mom and I thought we would join her because she was not able to take her husband or daughter, plus how often does a trip to Budapest come along? We began planning a week long trip to Budapest, but the trip quickly took on a life of its own ... next thing we knew, we had built a trip from March 6 to 23 (2006), with Budapest sandwiched between destinations in Italy. It was the first visit to Europe for all three of us, and there was so much we wanted to see that we couldn’t narrow our base destinations down any further than Venice, Budapest, Rome, Sorrento and Florence. But spread over two and a half weeks, we managed a reasonably leisurely pace (most of the time!)

We immediately applied for passports and checked what, if any, medical precautions were necessary. Budapest was in the yellow zone for hepatitis, so off to the doctor we went for our Twinrix shots. We pored over maps and through books trying to decide exactly where to stay. I spent hours and days researching hotels, transportation, museum reservations. We waited and waited for L's travel agent to get her ticket booked so we had a starting point on our dates. Finally everything fell into place and we finalized our plans. The excitement continued to build day by day. My hubby and daughters constantly teased me about being on the computer looking at yet another travel site!

Our packing efforts are a tale unto themselves. I researched packing tips online and my list of necessities grew. Mom and I agonized and compared notes for weeks trying to decide what to wear, what to bring, what to buy ... in the end, however, we just opted for whatever was comfortable and to be honest, mainly wore the same couple of outfits day after day, washing them in the hotel as necessary. The only dressy outfit we took was for the ballet in Budapest. (L’s wardrobe was a tad more upscale but only because of her conference.) My hubby was convinced I needed to take more clothes and a larger suitcase, but I stuck to my decision and took only a small wheelie (21” maybe?) and a backpack. And thank goodness for that – I can’t imagine lugging a larger suitcase on/off vaporetto, the Circumvesuviana, the trains, the sidewalks of Florence, etc...

The big day arrived and with bags packed and repacked, it was off to the airport for our first European adventure! Mom and I flew from Halifax (to JFK) to Venice. (L couldn’t get away before her conference, so we would meet her in Budapest.) The flight from Halifax to JFK went off without a hitch, although we nearly missed our flight out of JFK to Italy. We heard no boarding calls for our flight until we were in line to use the washroom and I heard a faint “last call for boarding flight xxx” so we abandoned the call of nature and raced off to the gate. We made it, boarded without difficulty and proceeded to sit on the ground for an hour. But once underway, the transatlantic flight was decent, considering that we were seated in the middle section hence a bit squished. There were two couples (plus one son, I think) behind us, who reminded us of the parents from Seinfeld. They spent the whole flight fussing over how to work the earphones (thought the channel change buttons were for volume), accidentally buzzing the flight attendant (not twice, but thrice!) and arguing over meal choices. It was a real comedy of errors and kept us entertained for the duration of the long transatlantic flight.


Over the hills and far away...
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A Mother and Daughter Fall in Love with Venice

We arrived in Venice safe and sound alas our luggage did not. Quite disheartening to watch the terminal empty out around us, the baggage carousel come to a halt and still no sign of our bags. We went to the baggage counter and it turned out that our bags were still in JFK (aHA! I knew something was amiss!! I’d checked at every point in JFK because of this nagging feeling about our bags.) But we were assured our luggage would be flown over and couriered to our hotel the next morning. We had packed most essentials in our carry-on bags anyway, so decided we’d manage just fine even if our bags never materialized and carried on our merry way.

We found the bus right outside the airport door headed for Piazzale Roma. The excitement mounted as we drove through Mestre. I was filming out the bus window and when we got our first glimpse of Venice, we were as giddy as little kids! At Piazzale Rome, we boarded a vaporetto for our first taste of the Grand Canal – it was everything we read about and more. We managed to snag seats in the bow so had an incredible view as we motored along. The water was sparkling and the air crystal clear as we rounded the first bend – the magnificent buildings lining both sides of the canal seemed to glow in the sunlight! (I filmed the ride and have been watching and reliving it ever since.) We got off at the San Stae stop and sat on the stone steps for a few minutes, waiting to be sure it wasn’t a dream – we were really in Venice!

Our hotel, Al Ponte Mocenigo, was a short walk from San Stae. We HIGHLY recommend this lovely spot. Sandro (one of the owners) was especially helpful, making reservations and giving directions (bit of a maze walking from San Stae to San Marco, or walking anywhere in Venice for that matter!) Our room was spotless and fairly large, with windows looking onto a small canal. The wooden beamed ceiling was lovely. And the shower was great - lots of hot water and good pressure.

Activity the first day was a bit slow, due to jet lag, but we still managed to have lunch, sample the Basilica (stunningly gorgeous), the Piazza (not a pigeon fan but the piazza itself is fabulous), and climb the Campanile (what a view!!) After that, we explored the area around San Marco, the Rialto and San Polo, bought a couple small masks from an old lady in a tiny little shop in San Polo as souvenirs for my two daughters, and eventually took a vaporetto back to the hotel. Sandro made dinner reservations for us at Trattoria al Ponte del Megio in Santa Croce (where we seemed to be the only tourists). We had delicious spaghetti with shrimp, sea bass (complete with the head, which we left on the plate) and white wine. We then strolled back to the hotel – a magical, mystical and mysterious evening walk through dimly lit, nearly deserted and hushed calle – Mom and I were both deeply touched by this timeless experience.

The next day, we walked from the hotel toward the Rialto, munching on fresh apples and feeling invigorated by the liveliness of the market. On our own, we rambled through the Doge’s Palace, marveling at the contrast between the opulence of the palace and the starkness of the adjoining prison. The great council room and the huge room with the huge painting (Tintoretto's “Paradiso”?) were our favourites; we had a hard time dragging ourselves out of them, so the visit took longer than we planned. Rather than try to squeeze in another “major sight,” we chose to wander around and soak up the beauty of Venice, this time in Dorsoduro and Santa Croce. The view from the Accademia bridge is gorgeous and the Zattere was a beautiful spot to sit, relax and enjoy a beautiful view. We meandered around narrow calle, quiet campos and oh so many bridges. We passed one pink building that glowed a glorious red in the sunset. Eventually we found ourselves at Piazzale Roma, where we took a vaporetto back to the hotel for an hour’s rest before heading out for an evening Ghost Walk.

Our guide, Isabella, made the fascinating stories come to life (so to speak – we are talking about ghosts after all!) We were thrilled by this after dark introduction to the legends of La Serenissima. After the walk, we ate at a dreadful tourist place just off the Rialto, only because nothing else seemed to be open. The Antico Caffe Ristorante al Buso is definitely not recommended. We arrived at 10:10, which apparently was unacceptable since they closed at 11:00. They did reluctantly seat us, but the food and service was so incredibly poor all we could do was laugh afterward. The waiter literally threw a couple stale rolls into a basket, brought a stingy pitcher of wine, and served us the most incredibly soggy lasagna ever.

The late night stroll back to the hotel put us back in a magical mood though. From one house we heard voices laughing and singing in Italian, with music and lights streaming out into the night from the third story window...

Once again we felt like this was all a dream.


Gondolas drifting along the Grand Canal
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On to Budapest - And Now We Are Three!

Up early the next morning to catch our flight to Budapest and meet up with L. We had a bit of trouble sorting out which bus to take to the airport – there are SO many buses at Piazzale Roma and we couldn’t seem to figure out which was which. Eventually though we made it to the airport in time to have breakfast before boarding our plane to Budapest. Our flight was delayed for an hour or so, so we missed hooking up with L at the Budapest airport (she was arriving from Halifax around the same time as our scheduled arrival from Venice.) L’s limo driver (arranged by the conference folks) was not able to wait, so she had to go along to the hotel before we arrived.

Mom and I gamely decided to take a combination of bus and the Metro into the city. Thank heavens for the kindness of strangers! The experience was much more disorienting than we anticipated since we are not very familiar with public transportation, nor had we ever ridden a subway. It didn’t stress us overly, but we couldn’t sort out where to get off the subway (there was an announcement at each stop, but we couldn’t match up the sound with the place names written above the door ... tough language, that Magyar!) An extremely kind girl (late teens or early 20’s) helped us out though, and even went so far as to walk us right to the door of the hotel. She didn’t speak English and we didn’t speak Magyar, so all we could do was hope that our gestures and effusive “thank-yous” were understood. (She was gone before we could find someone at the hotel to thank her.)

We stayed at the Radisson SAS Beke (booked for L’s conference), which is quite grand and centrally located downtown. We had a boisterous reunion with L, and three of us set out for a walk as Mom and I recounted our Venice adventure. A light rain (turning to snow) fell upon us as we walked along the Danube but no matter, we were in Budapest and undaunted by the weather! The Parliament Building was massive and beautiful with snowflakes softly falling across the beams spreading out from the lights.

Growing ever hungrier, we paused in front of a place called Oroszalanos Kut Etterem-Gerbeaud Haz to peruse the menu. We peeked in the window and saw a very upscale decor. Since we were by then very bedraggled from the rain, plus wearing only jeans, we were about to turn away and look for a less formal place, when one of the waiters came to the door and politely asked if we wished to have dinner. We explained that we thought we were under-dressed plus dripping wet, but he waved our worries aside and escorted us in. This was THE most gracious and elegant dining experience I have ever encountered in my life (Mom and L felt the same). Our waiter was professional and very attentive, and at the same time completely unobtrusive. And the food – oh my, what a delicious feast! Aperitif, Hungarian Goulash soup, pork medallions with goat cheese, stuffed potatoes, wine, a sampling of traditional cakes, dessert wine ...

We left the restaurant completely satisfied and walked back to the hotel. We strolled along Andrassy Avenue, stopping to shake our heads at a boldly coloured building looking incredibly out of place amid the other gorgeous light stone buildings on this stately avenue. As we stared, the building changed colour – we thought, what is going on here? We were puzzled until at last we realized it was not paint at all. A laser light was being projected onto the building from the Opera House across the street, with the patterns and colours changing every minute or so. It was a neat display.

Over the next couple days, we explored St. Stephen’s Basilica (amazing how the natural light shines in), Matyas church, Fisherman’s Bastion, Buda Castle, City Park and Heroes Square. We were also lucky enough to see a Ballet Gala at the opulent State Opera House. The Basilica contains the “holy right relic,” or mummified right hand of St. Stephen, which can be lit up by dropping a coin into a box, as the guard enthusiastically points out. The stained glass windows were my favourite part, though. The walk across the Chain Bridge was thrilling, as was riding the funicular up the hill to see the Buda Castle. Matyas church felt so old, which it is, and was amazing both by day and night. Fisherman’s Bastion, on the other hand, is quite new, with spectacular sweeping views of the Danube. The Danube is gorgeous in the sunlight, and perhaps more so at night with the lights blazing from the bridges, the Parliament Building, St. Stephen’s and all the grand hotels.

I must say that there is quite a contrast between the beautiful tourist areas of Budapest, such as Andrassy Avenue and the Buda Castle district, and the loud, harsh, colourful and seamy Metro stations. I guess it that contrast exists in all cities, but I noticed it more here, perhaps because it was my first encounter with the underground.

I had bought advance tickets to a Ballet Gala at the Hungarian State Opera House. It was our first visit to a grand opera house and we were rendered speechless by the opulence and grandeur! What an incredibly magnificent building. The performance itself was also fabulous and we left absolutely giddy with delight.

While out exploring, we bought some lovely silver jewelry (really low prices), plus t-shirts all around. (I know, t-shirts are pretty tacky souvenirs, but my Budapest shirt is a major conversation starter – everyone wants to know if I’ve really been there and what was it like!) Everywhere the food was absolutely fabulous and very rich (sour cream sauces, goat cheese, goulash, chicken stew, yummy pastries); we even had a terrific pizza for lunch on our last day (L wasn’t up for more Eastern European cuisine so fortunately we happened upon a great little pizza and beer joint called the Korona Cafe.) All in all, Budapest is a beautiful city and I am thankful for the opportunity to visit.


Mom and I in front of Vajdahunyad Castle in City Park
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Rome . . . Three Travellers, Three Coins in a Fountain ...

The three of us caught a late afternoon flight to Rome. We joined the “line” at customs, only to gradually find ourselves mysteriously at the back of the pack and realize there was no line at all, just a crowd of people jostling their way to the front! Oh well, it didn’t take that long and we were through. Next we had to get to Hotel Lancelot, a few blocks from the Colosseum. I’d tentatively booked a spot with a transfer company but we never did find them. We thought about taking the express train, but it was getting late so we opted for a taxi. I’d heard that red lights and stop signs don’t mean a thing in Rome, but hadn’t believed just how true that is. Our driver flew through intersections, sped around corners and generally seemed to disregard anything resembling road rules. What could we do, but put our faith in his driving, sit back and enjoy the wild ride!

We were expected and warmly greeted at the Hotel Lancelot. After checking in, we went for a stroll (the hotel staff told us that we need not fear for our physical safety in Rome, even walking at night – but be very aware of pickpockets!) and a bite of supper at a crowded little trattoria a couple blocks from the hotel. The place was full (jam packed in fact), but the proprietor (a woman named Luzzi with dyed red hair and cigarette in hand) was not about to let us slip away. In a flash, she got a table setup and herded us in. So we had minestrone di pasta and beer, scrunched in a corner by the kitchen door, with the waitresses having to lift dishes over our heads to get past us. There was a large group of young people nearby who seemed to be celebrating some occasion – it was like watching a movie scene, with spontaneous singing, clapping and loud, laughing conversation. What a glorious introduction to the Eternal City!

On our first full day in Rome, we eagerly headed off to the Colosseum, long a source of interest for us all, especially L. The sun was blazing, which was oh so appropriate since all stories seem to mention the sun beating down on the spectators. During our stay in Rome, we felt as though we developed an intimate relationship with the Colosseum: every time we headed out, we would circle at least once around the structure, marveling at its immensity and history. Next we moved on to the Forum, guidebook in hand. After walking around for some time trying unsuccessfully to identify the ruins from the book’s descriptions, we realized we were on the Palatine, not in the Forum – duh! But we were glad of our mistake because we wouldn’t have seen the Palatine otherwise, and we all agreed that it is well worth a visit. It is a lovely oasis amidst the heat and stone of the city.

Eventually we wound around to the Farnese gardens, with their fabulous view of the Forum, and then on down into the Forum itself. We were past the Arch of Titus and on the way down into the site when a man yelled at us to stop, asking didn’t we hear him whistling? In surprise, we said yes, but had no idea the whistles were directed at us (which was entirely true – we’d never encountered this practice of blowing whistles at people in tourist attractions.) No matter, we would return tomorrow to walk in the footsteps of the Caesars.

After supper, Mom decided to retire early and catch up on the news while L and I went for an evening stroll. One of the hotel owners mapped us out an amazing route for our walk that evening, and also for the next day. (Complete with walking instructions – “stroll confidently at a leisurely pace, the cars will flow around you; do not run or pause or you will mess up the traffic pattern.” Needless to say, this was a bit daunting but we tried our best!)

First we walked to the Trevi Fountain, where L and I threw in our coins (who can resist?) and sat for a while admiring the play of light and water over the stone. Then we made our way to Via Condotti to approach the Spanish Steps. I’d long wondered how a set of steps could possibly be such a huge attraction, but now I know! We lounged around a la Keats and Shelley until the flower man drove us away – what is up with those dudes? They are the same guys who peddle umbrellas when it’s raining. (Someone told us it is an extortion scheme run by the Mafia, but that seems a bit far-fetched ... makes for an interesting story though!) Up, up, up the steps we climbed and then continued along to Pincio. We had the terrace to ourselves as we gazed out over the lights of Rome. L and I could have lingered for hours, one minute laughing with glee, the next quiet with disbelief - can we really be in ROME? Down the switchback streets to the Piazza del Popolo, which was nearly deserted and quite marvelous. The streets were quiet and bathed in a golden glow – we felt the night was ours and were intoxicated just by being there! Back along Via del Corso to the hotel for a sound sleep.

Next morning, we set out to see the Forum – this time successful. Standing in front of Caesar’s temple and soaking up the centuries of history and culture was a dream come true. Perhaps because we are from the “new country,” Mom, L and I are all drawn to ancient places. The sun was again blinding – Mom had a bit of a reaction and her eyes got red and puffy, but fortunately she recovered when we reached the Vatican. Quick jaunt over to the train station to buy tickets for our day trip to Florence tomorrow and then we took the Metro to San Pietro for our Vatican tour. Liz, our Irish tour guide from Angel Tours Rome, was very entertaining and shared many fascinating tidbits. (Did you know that every Dec 22, the shadow of the obelisk falls over the Capricorn marker in the square?)

As millions before us, and as expected, we were amazed and enthralled by the Sistine Chapel, although this was the most crowded spot of our entire trip. Unexpected delights were the Raphael Rooms (love the School of Athens), the Gallery of Maps and the Gallery of Tapestries (the Christ who seems to twist when you walk by is most impressive). After the Vatican museums, we moved on to the Basilica. The Pieta is so fluid and graceful, how I wish I could have admired it from all sides instead of from the front only through the glass. The basilica itself is breathtaking – its immense dimensions make it hard to gain perspective. We couldn't resist joining the line to rub the foot of St. Peter (which is probably a sacrilege since we’re not Catholic), lingered awestruck by the architecture and glory for quite a while, then back out into the sun and grabbed a quick bite of pizza.

Our route back to the hotel took us past the Castel San Angelo, along the Tiber and across the Ponte Umberto I, to Piazza Navone, where we stopped to admire the Four Rivers fountain. The Pantheon was next and is simply gorgeous (one quickly runs out of new adjectives in Italy!) I was enchanted with the birds to be seen wheeling overhead through the open dome. The acoustics are amazing, there was almost a continual hum yet hushed at the same time ... very cool. Stood in awe before the tomb of Raphael. Next was St. Ignazio di Loyola church with its surprise ceiling. We then slipped back over to the Trevi Fountain so Mom could see it (she wasn’t with us the previous evening). She too threw her coin and our return journey was guaranteed (I can believe that if I want to!) All this walking and overwhelming beauty had tired us out – we could not manage anything more than take out pizza and went back to our room to mull over the day and call it a night.


My mom, sister and I in Piazza Navona
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Daytrip to Florence ...

Up early to catch the train to Florence. L wanted to at least glimpse some of Florence's wonders before she headed home. So I booked the “Original Florence in One Day” tour in advance, thinking we’d be better off with a guided tour. Mom and I would return later in the trip but this day was a treat for L.

Out of the train station and straight on to ... er, where were we? OK, I admit it; we got lost on the way to the tour office. But we bought a map and managed to find the street, although we were late. Lo and behold, there was our tour group coming toward us, with our guide Freya calling out, “You must be the Hogansons, join right in!” We didn’t miss a thing. Freya had an amazing knowledge of Renaissance Florence. The morning was spent walking around the historic centre absorbing Freya’s intriguing stories of the Medici and Strozzi families among others, and viewing Orsanmichele, the Ponte Vecchio, Piazza della Signoria and the Duomo. Break for (hazelnut) gelato and then a tour of the Uffizi. Talk about overwhelming (there’s that word again.) Freya explained how we could see the progression from the Dark Ages to the Renaissance as we went through the rooms. I especially loved Cimabue’s Madonna; it has a grace and gentleness that I found so beautiful.

After lunch at the Uffizi cafe, our final tour was the Accademia. Our guide held us back at the entrance of the room to explain Michelangelo’s partially completed Slave statues and I am glad she did so because they are so powerful and worth one’s attention, but as soon as David comes into view, all else is eclipsed. Now I finally and completely understand what can possibly be so incredible about a statue. I won’t try to describe how it feels to be gaze upon this work of art, it must be seen in person. All I can say is that we spent far longer than we ever imagined because we simply couldn’t pull our eyes away.

Reluctantly we left, after a final backward glance, and walked to the train station to head back to Rome.


The beautiful Giotto's Bell Tower
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Our Time in Rome Comes to an End ...

We went to the hotel to freshen up, then went for supper at a lovely spot called Hostaria Isodori on Via di San Giovanni in Laterano. I had egg and spinach pasta with mushrooms and peas, which was delicious, and wine, of course. We ended the evening with our “usual” stroll around the Colosseum (with its arches beautifully lit up at night.)

We come to our last day in Rome. We had made reservations for the Borghese Gallery in the morning, and managed to get a bit lost in the gardens before we found the actual museum. However, we considered ourselves quite fortunate to be lost for only 20 minutes or so after we encountered a couple who said they’d been wandering for over an hour trying to find the Gallery! The highlight for me was Bernini’s statue of Pluto carrying Persephone off to the Underworld. Powerful and dynamic. I circled round a few times, finding something new each time. The way Pluto’s fingers press into Persephone’s flesh, and the look of mad glee on his face (at least that was my impression from a certain angle) gave me goosebumps of horror.

After the Borghese, we had lunch then took the bus out to the Appian Way. We thought we’d walk for a while then catch the hop on, hop off bus. The bus, however, had other plans and just cruised on past us fools standing in the rain at the bus stop. Oh well, I’ll see the catacombs and the aqueducts on my next trip to Rome! I have set foot on the ancient Appian Way and that’s enough for now.

For our last meal in Rome, we decided it would be fitting to return to Trattoria Luzzi, where we ate our first meal in Rome. This time we sat outside under the braziers, lit to warm the chill March air. We had a litre of wine, a litre of sparkling water, and three pizzas (mine was chicory and garlic, yum) for less than €25 in total (including a large tip). On our after supper stroll, we stumbled upon the estate of Nero's Golden House and enjoyed a quiet tour of the darkened grounds, winding our way back down to the hotel.

L had to fly home early the next morning; Mom and I continued on our travels, though sad to see her go.


Our beloved Colosseum at night
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Sorrento ... and Our Trio Becomes a Pair Again

We took the train to Naples and then the Circumvesuviana to Sorrento. (I got to see the aqueducts after all from the train heading out of Rome.) We were not impressed with our glimpse of Naples, although to give it credit, we only saw it from the train and the train station. When the train station official made us bundle our wallets inside our jackets, zip up to the chin and cross our arms over our chests, we were glad of our decision not to linger! We each bought a Campania artecarde, which covered the commuter train, bus rides, the admission to Pompeii, plus gave us 1/2 price on admission to the Correale Museum in Sorrento.

On the way to Sorrento, we stopped to see Pompeii. We were able to check our bags and enjoyed a wonderful stroll around in the sunshine. I had not known, or forgotten, that Pompeii was such an advanced civilization. Definitely worth seeing and I want to return on another trip for further exploration. I think it could be sweltering in the summer though – it was plenty warm on a sunny day in March. We reached the amphitheatre and suddenly realized the time – rushed back to the baggage office just as the woman was closing up – whew! Then we carried on to Sorrento.

We stayed at the Antiche Mura, a four star hotel just off Piazzo Tasso, with a gorgeous marble reception and lounge area and absolutely the most sumptuous breakfast spread one can imagine. At the off season rate of €105, it was hard to resist! Our room had a private terrace plus access to the main terrace along the front of the hotel. There was also a lovely garden out back with lemon trees (I fell in love with the splash of lemon trees everywhere in this area.) We dined at Zi’ntonio Ristorante Pizzeria, which was a passable touristy spot but nothing special, and walked back to the hotel to tuck in for the night.

The spectacular breakfast buffet enticed us into spending more time than we should have lingering over our meal. Fresh fruit, fresh juice, coffee, tea, espresso, cereals, eggs, sliced meats, bacon, sausages, yoghurt, fruit salad and pastries. The hotel has their own pastry chef and oh, did he dish up some light and melt in your mouth goodies! But soon thoughts of the Amalfi Coast beckoned, so on to the bus station we went.


One of many delightful hidden corners in Sorrento
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A Wild Ride to Amalfi…

Where to start with the bus ride? I took the window seat. I asked Mom if she wanted a turn by the window, but (gripping the back of the seat in front of her) she said no thanks, she was fine in the aisle seat. I eventually clued in that I should tone down my excited outbursts (“wow, the cliff goes straight down here” and “did you see how close we drove to the side of that building?”) for the sake of any fellow passengers suffering from a fear of heights or Italian bus drivers! Oops. If you are up for it, grab a seat (on the right-hand side of the bus going toward Amalfi) and it is the ride of a lifetime! The bus charged around corners honking and assuming the oncoming traffic would yield (which it did most of the time, although in a couple spots other vehicles had to back up to make room). Not to mention that every time we passed another SITA bus, the two drivers would stop and have a chat through their windows, with seeming disregard for any traffic behind them, and then away we’d go again. The roads were also filled with motorcyclists who would fly by the bus at every chance, even on turns. As I said, it’s quite a ride! I loved it but judging from the comments, other passengers loved it less.

The Amalfi Coast is stunning. The Mediterranean sparkles. The houses seem to climb over each other and grow up the hill. The ancient stone towers silhouetted against the sky or the water are marvellous.

Mom and I got off the bus in Amalfi and wandered around the town. The Duomo is beautiful, with its wide sweeping staircase. We were fortunate to witness the end of an actual wedding ceremony. (Hearing the wedding march on a cathedral organ ... priceless!) I felt a bit guilty for intruding on their private occasion, but we didn’t know a wedding was taking place until we were actually in the church looking around. (In retrospect, the men making a heart of rice on the stone entryway might have clued us in, but at the time we were oblivious in our desire to see the cathedral.)

To save our legs from an arduous walk up to the top of the town, we rode the tiny electric bus, and then made our way back down the steep, winding street. Afterward, a rest on the beach was in order. We dipped our hands in the Mediterranean, then Mom basked in the sun, while I collected a few bits of old beach glass and took a couple photos. (When I got home, I glued the glass onto photos of the beach to make souvenirs for my daughter and niece.) We strolled around the waterfront for a while, then bought a gelato and sat outside a little café, enjoying the picturesque view. On the way back to Sorrento, we got caught in a traffic jam that seemed to stretch for miles and miles. At one point, the driver pulled up to the end of the traffic line, stopped in the street, went into a little store and came back out with a sandwich. Turned out he’d called in his order in advance when we hit the traffic jam. The passengers clapped and cheered for his ingenuity in making sure he got his supper!

Our own supper was, again, nothing to write home about although very pricey, especially considering Mom’s wine had a ton of dregs in it. The waiter was not very concerned, did not replace it, nor was our bill adjusted. Unfortunately I forgot to note the name of the restaurant in my journal. Next time I’m in Sorrento, I’ll search harder for the local spots. But we didn’t let a bad meal ruin our evening – we joined the passeggiata along the Corso Italia and thoroughly enjoyed ourselves.

I saw many young ladies walking arm in arm with older ladies, presumably grandmothers, and found that very heartwarming. In North America, one doesn’t see the different generations hanging out together very often – not that there’s no interaction, but the interaction is more like a planned visit to Grammy’s house on Sunday, rather than just casually passing time together. And of course we posed in front of the famous Sorrento webcam! Unfortunately I'd not been able to coordinate our on camera appearance with my family back home so they missed it.


Lazing on the beach
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Last day in Sorrento

On our final day, we strolled around Sorrento and Marina Grande. We felt right at home in Marina Grande, standing on the rocks while the waves sprayed around us – the Mediterranean and the Atlantic are not so different after all! Marina Grande is well worth a visit, especially in off-season, when we encountered very few other tourists. An old woman was hanging her laundry on the wall of the stone steps leading down to the shore; a couple fishermen were returning with a boatload of fish; a group of older woman seemed to be readying the church for a celebration of sorts. The small church, Chiesa Santa Anna, had a beautiful altar and paintings on the ceiling. We met a lovely Italian tourist who stopped us to ask how far up the hill it was from Marina Grande to Sorrento. She spoke a bit of English, but then after we said we were from Canada, she told us that she had studied in Montreal many years ago so we managed a stilted conversation in pidgin Italian-English-French.

After the somewhat tiring walk back up the hill to Sorrento, we came across the Museum Correale quite by accident. It houses some gorgeous examples of wood inlay, a beautiful library with floor to ceiling bookshelves, many lovely paintings, pieces of Greek statues and sarcophagi. The rooms had cards explaining their contents. One room’s card said simply “Foreign Painters.” As we looked around, we discovered that one of these foreign painters was Rubens. At the top of the museum was a terrace looking out over a garden and the bay in the distance.

More wandering, with Mom buying a beautiful inlaid wood box for her hubby. And we poked around a little hardware store and chatted (mainly gestures, nods and one syllable words) with a lovely old couple running the place. They were watching the Pope's ("Papa") Sunday service on TV but were very friendly when we made our purchases of tea towels and tiny yellow limoncello glasses. Boy, are hardware stores the places to shop ... so much cheaper than the more touristy shops.

Back to the hotel for our bags (we'd checked out earlier, but they kindly kept our bags for a few hours) and then we caught the Circumvesuviana to Naples and the train to Florence.


Marina Grande fishing boats reminded us of home
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Florence and Pisa - Lots of Stairs and a Golden Opportunity

After a quick pastry and espresso in the Naples station, we boarded the Eurostar for Florence. The journey was not quite as scenic as one might think because of the long dark tunnels through the mountains, but still many views of hilltop towns and rolling countryside through Tuscany. No sunflowers though, being only March. We made our way, dragging suitcases along the incredibly narrow and crowded Florence sidewalks, to the Hotel Carravagio on Via Nazionalle across from Piazza della Indipenza. Our room was clean and complete with complimentary bottle of liquor. Eager to see more of Florence, having tasted it briefly during our one day tour, we dropped our bags and left the hotel for a stroll around. Magical. We had supper at La Dantesca – I had an exquisite pizza with arugula, parma ham and Parmesan on a margherita base, and insalata campagnota, a salad of arugula, Gorgonzola, green apples, walnuts, oil and vinegar.

We rose early the next morning (around 7am), had a decent breakfast and headed off for the day’s adventure. Pisa called today, so on the train we hopped and were soon at our destination. We walked from the station to the Campo dei Miracoli. I’d read that Pisa itself isn’t much to see, so we were pleasantly surprised to find it quite lovely. A photo of the Arno, very calm with the buildings reflected in it, taken by Mom from the Ponte di Mezzo is one of the loveliest photos of our entire trip. The woman at the tourist office was very helpful and drew out the route to the tower on our map for us. As for the “main event,” I know many travelers consider the Tower a mere tourist trap, but for us, climbing it was incredible! You can tell when you are on the “up” side and when on the “down” side as you climb, and the stairs are worn down to bowl shapes. The view of Pisa from the top was amazing.

Once out, we strolled around and admired the tower and the cathedral from all angles. And yes, I did the clichéd leaning-with-the-tower pose when having my picture taken! (My younger daughter was so excited that I was going to see the Tower that I tried to capture all of its glory, both historical and touristy.) We had no trouble getting back to the train station, and even managed to board an earlier train than planned. The train was running late and just rocketed back to Florence, taking only 50 minutes instead of the scheduled 70.

Our afternoon and evening plans were low key, consisting mostly of wandering around the streets and then along to the Ponte Vecchio to check out at the wares in the gold shops. Neither of us was interested in making our trip about shopping, but Mom thought a piece of Florentine gold would be the perfect souvenir – it would make a good conversation piece and be a lasting reminder of our time in Florence. After much searching, and many rings looking not dissimilar to what the jewelry shops at home stock, we found a gorgeous ring that we were told was handcrafted in an intricate pattern, raised with tiny white gold flowers. Mom is thrilled with it to this day! We also bought a few small ceramic pieces, for ourselves and as gifts.

After our shopping success, we went in search of food. Not up for anything fancy, we ate at Osteria Vineria ‘l Brindici on Via Nationale, just a couple blocks from the hotel. The waiter, a young man with tattoos and rhythm, was very friendly. I had a simple pici (thick round long fresh pasta) with tomato sauce and white bean salad ... and of course, wine! Back at the hotel, we sampled the limoncello we’d bought in Amalfi. Mmmm, limoncello, a little sip of sunshine. After supper, we turned in for the night.

The next day, our bus to Siena didn’t leave until mid-morning, so we thought we’d take advantage of the time and climb the Duomo ... all 463 steps (I think that’s how many there are). How fortunate we were to visit when there were only a handful of other people around. At the top we experienced the spectacular view and a great feeling of accomplishment! We could see so much of Florence and surroundings, although it was fairly hazy (is there smog in Italy?) The painting of the Last Judgement inside the dome was most impressive, if rather gruesome in spots. These painters pulled no punches when depicting their vision of the horrors of Hell. I loved walking around up there, looking down into the church and listening to the intonations and singing of the service below.


Me atop the tower in Pisa
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A Bus Trip to Siena…

We took the express bus (about 75 mins) from Florence to Siena. The countryside was beautiful, even in an overcast day in March. In Siena, we made our way to Il Campo (where else would first-timers head?) and had some lunch at Il Palio along the edge of the campo. I had a hearty bowl of Tuscan soup (very tasty), plus a hot chocolate/coffee mix (which was so-so in my opinion, but I generally don’t care for hot chocolate so am not the best judge.) Il Campo is, just as the guidebooks promise, an absolute delight and, in March, was not at all crowded. The fountain of joy (a reproduction, I think?) was lovely, and amusing with its horde of pigeons sipping from the spouts. We had limited time, so skipped the City Tower climb.

We moved along to the Duomo (unfortunately the façade was covered up), the Museo dell'Opera and the Baptistery. Inside the Duomo, it was hard to know where to look first: the inlaid floor panels, Pisano’s pulpit, the Cappella della Madonna del Voto ... but our breath was taken away when we stepped into the Piccolomini Library. Pinturicchio’s frescoes are so incredibly vibrant and brilliantly coloured. In the museum, I was utterly enthralled with Duccio’s Maesta. Something about it spoke to me – I felt I could have sat peacefully and stared for hours. We also climbed out onto the terrace at the top of the museum and discovered an incredible (although again hazy) view. And then down out of the museum and out to wander the town. Siena’s streets seem to spill down in all directions, under arches, around buildings, fun just to walk around. The time to catch our bus back to Florence came all too soon.


Our first glimpse of the Campo
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One Last Night in Florence ...

Our last evening was spent strolling around Florence and eating. We couldn’t get enough of wandering through the streets in Italy, no matter where we were based. We went again to the Loggia dei Lanzi to have a closer look at the statues. I thought Giambologna's Rape of the Sabines was extraordinarily powerful and photographed it from all sides.

After more wandering, we discovered a little place called Trattoria la Burrasca, so in we went for supper. We had bruschetta, wine & water, an excellent lasagne and salad, and to top it off, a heavenly lemon sorbet served in a frozen hollowed out lemon half, with vodka poured on top. (All this for about €35 total for both of us.) Eventually we made our way back to the hotel, where Mom relaxed in a Jacuzzi bath, while I caught up on my journal and reading. I also called home to say hello to my hubby and daughters, who were very excited to hear about our trip thus far and that we would be home soon.


A last lingering look along the Arno
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A Sidetrip to Assisi And The Kindness of Strangers ...

Before leaving home, we’d thought we might go on a shopping tour in Florence, having heard so much about the outlet stores. However, as soon as we realized we could spend the day in Assisi instead, the shopping idea went out the window ... after all, we can shop at home, but how often do we get to see more of Italy (not often, considering that this was our first, and so far only, trip!)

The journey to Assisi was a bit of an effort – we were uncertain which train to take, but finally boarded the one we felt was headed in the right direction. We asked the Trenitalia official on board and he said, no this train did not stop in Assisi, but then several locals, plus a very helpful woman from Finland assured us that yes, we were on the right train. The woman from Finland was actually going to Assisi herself to meet friends (and perhaps investigate a property since she had a Real Estate in Italy book in hand.) Lo and behold, in time we stopped in Assisi so all was well. We checked our bags and took the bus to Piazza Mattiote at the top of the town. (We thought our legs would thank us for riding to the top instead of walking!)

Where to go from here? Well we did have the Rick Steves self guided tour in hand, but proceeded to get lost while trying to find the starting point. We headed up and found a dirt path running alongside the town wall and what an incredible experience that turned out to be. There was not a soul in sight, nor the sound of a vehicle, nor anything else modern to mar the timeless feel of the place. Along one side of the path was the ancient stone wall, on the other, an olive orchard with a spectacular view across to what we later found out was Rocca Maggiore. Somewhat reluctantly, we retraced our steps (after discovering that the path led to a building I believe was Rocca Minore, and did not appear to be a public thoroughfare.) Then we managed to get on the right track and walked around the remnants of the Roman Arena to the Porta Perlici, which does have a commanding view. We strolled down through the town, stopping at the Church of San Ruffino, Basilica of St. Clare, Temple of Minerva, Church of Santo Stefano, and at a little shop, Poiesis, where we bought hand made olive wood bowls, and Mom bought gifts for her sisters. I must confess we also stopped at the €.99 shop partly because it was just so incongruous in the midst of all that history, and because I wanted to buy something for my daughter and niece, who are dollar store fanatics!

The Assisi churches all felt immensely spiritual. Perhaps that was simply because, unlike most other churches we'd seen, we got to visit these in the absence of tourist mobs. The day was cool and drizzly so there were not many people about. I really loved the area around the Church of Santo Stefano. The building itself was beautiful, with its mix of pink and white stone and small steeple, plus there was a little wall to sit and enjoy the panoramic view, a gorgeous bush in full bloom; even the red brick pathway was pretty! Near the Temple of Minerva, we stopped for a tasty bite of pizza, topped with onions, a salty cheese and olive oil, a mediocre biscuit and a delicious fruit and nut tart.

Time to visit the Basilica of St. Francis. We are not Catholic, but nonetheless felt like pilgrims standing in hushed awe before St. Francis’ tomb, with only a handful of others in the room. Looking at his rough patched robe impressed upon me the conditions under which he lived his life. In the Upper Basilica, we were captivated by the frescoes of his life cycle. We managed to tear ourselves away reluctantly since we did have a train to catch and I still wanted to see Santa Maria degli Angeli in the lower town. The porziuncola took us completely by surprise. I had read that the church was built over St. Francis little chapel, but still - we stepped into this massive cathedral and – whoa, there was a tiny (and very old) stone building in the middle, right under the dome! It was a moving experience to stand inside the tiny (and I do mean tiny) chapel and listen to the service being held in the main cathedral. In the passageway to the Chapel of the Transito, there was a statue of St. Francis holding a basket in which were perched two live doves (talk about photo op!) and a view of the rose garden, unfortunately not in bloom. Our spirits high, we walked back to the train station and ... missed our train to Rome.

We had tickets for the Eurostar, which train, thus far in our journey, had a very distinctive appearance. When one of the funky coloured Trenok trains came along, we just watched it until the last minute when we got a sneaking feeling it might be “the” train to Rome. I ran inside to ask the woman at the counter and she waved me frantically toward the train “yes, Rome, yes”, but as I ran back out, the train was pulling away. Mom was running along the platform toward me but we couldn’t make it. Oddly, although we were in a foreign country, didn’t speak the language and had an early morning flight, this did not particularly stress us out.

We went back to ask when was the next train to Rome, only to discover that was the last direct train of the day and that we would have to go to Foligno and change trains there. OK, we felt we were up for that challenge. No problem getting to Foligno, but once there we realized we had no idea which train might be headed for Rome. A man was standing beside one train so we pointed to it and asked “Roma”? Not so. He asked where we were from and when we replied Canada, he broke into a grin saying that Canada was the capital of the world (maybe he has family here?) Then he pointed across the way to where the train bound for Rome sat, ready to pull out. We had to go sottopassagio to the next platform before the train left. I guess he felt we wouldn’t make it because next thing I knew, he came flying past grabbing Mom’s bag and yelling to the train officials to hold the train (at least he was yelling to them in Italian while pointing back at us so we assumed he was saying to hold the train.) Mom and I ran after him, just barely making it. As he handed Mom's bag in after us, the doors closed and the train pulled away. So unfortunately we had no chance to thank this kind gentleman, but we certainly appreciated his help! (And the help of the kindly nun who made sure we didn't get off the train at Roma Orte instead of Termini, or Roma Centrale as she called it.)


Remnants of Roman forum in Assisi
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Rome and Homeward Bound ...

After a bit of wandering - and a hair raising street crossing - we found our way from the train station to the Hotel Italia on Via Venezia. How fitting to spend our last night in Italy on Via Venezia since we had spent our first night in Venezia. We walked along the very short street, seeing no sign of a hotel. On closer inspection, we found our hotel listed on a small nameplate by a nondescript door (good thing we had the actual street address and not just the hotel name!) We got buzzed in, went up the ancient elevator (complete with sliding mesh doors) to the hotel lobby on the building’s second floor. Our room was clean and comfortable, with a window overlooking the street. At first we could hear a horrendous noise and thought we were in for a sleepless night, but it was just a passing street cleaner; otherwise it was a very quiet street.

Conveniently, there was a trattoria (Al Venezia) right across the street so we did not have far to walk for supper. Supper was a great pizza capricciosa (love those artichokes) and vino rossi del casa (the wine lovers may wince at our having house wine all the time, but we liked it.) Then we took a short walk before bed around the Piazza della Republicca and area (at least I think that's where it was...)

After a good night’s sleep, we arose, packed and hit the breakfast buffet before catching a taxi to the airport. The buffet was decent (although we’d been spoiled at the Antiche Mura in Sorrento, in comparison with which all other breakfast buffets paled!)

The taxi drive to the airport was not as smooth as the drive from the airport had been when we’d arrived from Budapest, but was just as fast. Mental note: heed the advice of every guidebook ever written for tourists and NEVER drive in Rome myself!

We suffered a bit of anxiety at the airport because at the check-in we were told the flight was overbooked and they had to seat the frequent fliers first, but in the end boarded the plane for home. I must say the meal on the return flight (presumably prepared in Italy) was FAR superior to the meal we had on the flight over. The contents were basically the same – chicken breast with rice, a salad and a dessert – but what a difference in food quality and flavour. We also had a much better movie selection this time (I seem to recall only one or two movies being offered on the outbound flight, but five or six on the return flight.)

A couple hours layover in JFK and then we were truly homeward bound for Nova Scotia. We had a good flight and Halifax looked beautiful from the air (I’d never flown over at night before), but the best part was walking out of the customs area to the cries of “MUMMY” and into the arms of my two daughters! (And my hubby too, but he had hung back to let the girls have the first round of hugs, such a generous daddy.) Mom’s hubby was there too so there were hugs and greetings all around. It was a good thing I didn’t have to go back to work the very next day because I was way too wound up to sleep – I kept poor hubby up half the night telling him about all the places we’d been to and the things we’d seen.

Before this trip, I’d thought Italy would always be just a dream, but now I’m already plotting my return! We are now planning a family trip (me, hubby and our two daughters) in July 2007. And I am sowing the seeds of a return trip to Rome, with my mother and sister. Hmmm, perhaps in 2014, just in time for my 50th birthday...


Our dream is fulfilled
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