Friday, June 29, 2012

Loving Lucerne

Now where are we?
Our track was over there...
Our transition from Italy to Switzerland took considerably longer than expected. Due to a rock slide in Switzerland part of the track was inaccessible. The consequences for us (considerably worse for anyone directly affected or repairing the rock slide) were a doubling of time for the length of the journey and multiple changes from train to bus (to drive around the rock slide) to train again and then another train etc. We arrived in Lucerne late in the afternoon.

The wait was worth it, whatever your preconceptions about Switzerland from the popular media they will probably be exceeded here. Lush green valleys and forests, towering snow capped mountains and crisp clean air was what awaited us a short walk from the train station. In fact our hotel was only a short walk from the train station, as this is a very small peaceful town. Like the hotel manager was quick to exclaim 'walk around for 10 minutes and you will have seen everything' (he slightly understated the size of the town but it was small). Another plus was that directly across the road was a health shop that had a whole gluten free corner where I quickly purchased some muesli bars. I was really starting to like it here.

The next day we spent getting to know the town itself by walking. Erika and Paul bought some new jackets as it was cold and wet, we went and saw the 'Lion Monument' a monument created for the Swiss mercenaries that died while fighting with the French and then we saw one of the town's greatest archeological finds from a guy trying to build a wine cellar.

Which one am I?
The Gletschergarten displays 20 million years of geological and town history demonstrated through archeological digs, multimedia and interactive displays. It was a fascinating education of how the Earth and this town has evolved until now. It finished with a hall of mirrors that had me perpetually banging into glass as it was very difficult to tell the true path from a mirror, and then a long walk up the hill behind to a cubby house (that was what it looked like) with brilliant views of the town to the mountains behind. As it started to rain Erika and Paul went shopping while Elizabeth and I continued to walk around the town finding our way up to the top of the rampart of the fortress that surrounds the town.

The next day was our final day as we had only booked two nights here but our train was late in the afternoon and I had found out on 'Lonely Planet' that there was a terrific mountain to visit and a golden ticket that could be purchased for a memorable journey to it. So off we went to the lake and purchased our golden ticket to Mount Pilatus (not pilates). The first part of the journey consisted of a relaxing trip along Lake Lucerne to the base of the mountain. The water was still and the views from the boat were magnificent and within a too short period of time we were deposited at the base of the mountain.

Steepest Cog Train
Second part of the journey was a ride up the steepest cog train in the world, and it was long and steep with again breathtaking views of the lake below and the Italian Alps beyond. Finally we reached the top where there was a hotel of all things. We looked around at the maps on the walls with the possible trails you could take and decided that we had time to reach the topmost point of the mountain (over 7000 feet). Off we went on a windy but solid trail around the mountain to where we would have had breathtaking views if it wasn't for all the clouds. We were able to make out the lake and the Italian Alps but the other side never revealed itself. Nevertheless it was an exhilarating and rewarding experience.
Time to relax
Nearly there...

Back at the hotel we were just in time to see a paraglider jump off the mountain and then the trip down consisted of a large cable car, with a large 'ooohhhh' moment as we broke through the clouds to see Lake Lucerne in all its glory below us, followed by a switch to a smaller cable car for the rest of the way. Then a bus trip back to town completed the vast array of rides afforded to us by this golden ticket. This is a must do if you ever get to Lucerne, it was a brilliant day and then we raced back to grab our bags and run to catch the train to Zurich.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Viva Italia

This is going to be a hugely long post. Why? I hear you say, well because I am going to do the whole of our Italy adventure in one go. It will not be too heavy reading though because I intend to do most of it in pictures. I will keep the pictures small, but you can click on them to see the full sized versions.

Firstly we left Athens and arrived by plane into Rome early evening. We caught a bus to the main train station from the airport after Elizabeth found out that it was really cheap (4 euros each) and one was leaving in minutes. So while we were racing with all the bags to the bus stop, Elizabeth went racing to buy the tickets, followed closely by some Aussie backpackers who had heard our conversation and agreed that it sounded like a good idea. They had not even organised accommodation for the night yet. Their usual trick was to go from hotel to hotel seeing who would give them the best deal (or sleep on the streets). Yep that's Aussies for you.

After finding our hotel location (trusty google maps) and walking from the train station we were told that our rooms were out of water and we were booked into another hotel. Luckily it was also walking distance away. Most of our accommodation is located near train stations as this whole leg will be by train travel. Elizabeth and I have 23 country, 3 month, unlimited eurail passes for train travel. Sheldon is not the only one who loves trains :-) And so started our adventure in Italy.

The Trevi Fountain
mmm where's mine?
We had one full day and a morning in Rome before we were on a train to our next stop. We spent the first day hunting down all the treasures of Rome. According to the android pedometer ap on my phone (walkroid) we walked just under 9km. First stop the Trevi Fountain where most of us had gelati from the best gelati parlour in Rome (the one on the corner of the Trevi Fountain) according to the airline stewardess.

From the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier
From there our journey continued to several beautiful piazzas, churches and monuments until we finished the day at the Colosseum. Awesome sight from the top of 'The tomb of the unknown soldier', and to be inside is to imagine the gory battles that ensued.

The next morning we hunted for a bus to take us to the Vatican, and then on to the Sistine Chapel to see Michelangelo's masterpiece on the ceiling. Fair warning, you can't just see the Sistine Chapel, you need to allow two hours to go through a maze of magnificently decorated hallways and rooms with paintings and sculptures to get to it. There is no direct route (due to time constraints we tried), when finally there the sight is breathtaking, but as no pictures are allowed I cannot show you (and pictures could not do it justice anyway).

The Vatican
Beautiful stained glass
Decorated hallways

Then on to Rimini for the sole purpose of seeing Italy in Miniature. A full blown amusement park of miniatures of Italy's famous landmarks complete with rides such as the Venice gondola ride (nothing like the real thing, see below), the Pinocchio story and a runaway log ride (see picture) among others. An awesome day.
Just like the real thing
Don't fall out...

Overview of the main park

Just like the one in Disneyland

Then off to Florence for a whole 3 nights (2 full days). This city is magical, it manages to stay in character with its old world architecture no matter where you look, day trips took in the sites including the 414 steps up the Santa Maria Del Fiore Companile for a fantastic panorama. The Statue of David was stunning with the level of detail amazing and we had long discussions about his expression, is he sad, thoughtful, triumphant, are his hands and feet in proportion etc (again no pictures, but I got several of the replica out in the Vecchio Plaza), and also interesting were the artists sitting around him sketching, brilliant atmosphere. We also went in a museum with working recreations of inventions from Leonardo Da Vinci, just amazing the amount of modern day technology he had a hand in.
Halfway up Paul
414 steps
Check out the 2 guys in the window
Amazing working replicas

Not the real one

mmm gluten free pizza & beer
In the evening we found a pizza place that made gluten free pizzas then we took a long walk until late at night where we found amazing views and came across enchanting buskers that would have an audience of several hundred captivated for hours. Yep we really loved it here (and yes I know part of that was the amazing gluten free pizzas).

The next day was a brief train ride to Pisa to see the leaning tower, with obligatory photos of us holding it up before going racing back to Florence for our bags and catching a train to Venice. Amazing that the tower apparently started leaning by the second floor but they kept on building it and over centuries different generations have added to and tried to fix it. I would have just given up and said 'hey guys let's build it over there instead'.

Two whole days in Venice saw us walking around the canals and taking a gondola ride, and seeing the amazing island of Burano with its multicoloured buildings (the place looked like a painting, there must be some strict clauses in its building codes to make it this way). Then dinner and a late night taking in the ambience of the San Marco Plaza with music from outdoor comical, but excellent, musicians.

How romantic...

We ended up taking so long we caught one of the last buses, that was so overcrowded the bus driver had to come down to the back of the bus to tell us to squash up as the door wouldn't close. Then to add insult to injury we were all kicked out (not only us) about a kilometre and a half from our hotel without explanation. We ended up walking the rest of the way and found out later that the bus terminates at half its normal route after 8 pm. C'mon Venice this is no way to treat your tourists!!

Next we were on to Milan, shopping mecca for the girls and it also had a magnificent castle (Castello Sforzesco) with associated huge park. Only one day here and unfortunately the only day of the week that the courtyard containing the Mural of the Last Supper by Leonardo Da Vinci was closed. Damn. Never mind we may be back later on and make a special stop to catch it as I have a friend coming to Italy who has offered some accommodation in August. So put that in the later basket and on to Switzerland.

Elizabeth the fashion model

Heaven for Paul in the Ferrari shop

Some tips for anyone else contemplating train travel through Italy. The website can be wrong about times so organise timetables at the station. The eurail pass (after purchase) is free on some trains but for the fast ones you are supposed to reserve for a nominal charge. It's also wise to reserve for long trips to guarantee seats throughout Europe. I have gotten into the habit of emailing the next hotel a few days in advance to find out what their closest train station is and asking for instructions on how to get to their hotel from there. This has proven very helpful. I have also (as I am allergic to gluten) asked if they cater for gluten free. Amazingly in Italy most hotels do.

Some videos...

  Elizabeth and the statue...

  The busker in Florence

  The musician in Venice

 Trevi Fountain

Tuesday, June 19, 2012


We decided to start our Greek adventure on the island of Santorini, but due to weather problems our flight out of Athens was missed and so we had to suffer 5 star accommodation near the airport for our first night complete with free dinner and huge buffet breakfast (it´s a tough life). We arrived at Santorini mid morning the next day and this place is definitely the quintessential embodiment of what you expect a Greek island to be.

Lots of beaches of a variety of colours, they have a red beach, a black beach and a beach with kilometres of restaurants, bars and cafes with associated sun lounges and umbrellas as far as you can see.

At sunset the place to be on the island was the most north west point which also happened to be one of the highest points. We got there and one of the best spots was teeming with people distributed among the buildings waiting for the sun to take its light and warmth to the other side of the planet. We were fortunate enough to catch people leaving a table at the only cafe in the area. We jumped in and took the table and ordered a delicious dinner while we waited overlooking the whole vista. This was truly magic and movie perfect of a Greek island paradise.

As the sun went down the most prolific sound was the clicking of many cameras from people in awe of the magnificent view as the sun did what it has been doing every day for billions of years. At a point spontaneously decided by a majority of people at the completion of the sunset applause and cheers broke out. It was a brilliant atmosphere and refreshing to see people take such joy and revel in the beauty of a common everyday occurrence. Well done sun, good job, see you again tomorrow.


During the next day we travelled back to this area of the island (we had hired a car) and by pure fluke found this marvellous little restaurant on a clifftop. The chef was an American who owned the restaurant with her Greek husband and fully understood gluten free, so I had a beautiful meal with a wide range of flavours that was one of the most yummy I had eaten for a while (chicken and vege kebab with a tropical salad but different to any other I have had).

Then we wandered through the myriad streets and alleyways in this picturesque location. I don't think I could give it justice in words so I will leave it to my pictures to paint a story. (I hope they do it some justice).

Then it was off to Athens for a brief (less than 24 hours and only one night) whirlwind tour of the ancient ruins this city has to offer. Our hotel was hugely cheap (less than $80 per night), with big rooms and a good breakfast. We found out why in the morning when we left the hotel, the area was a little bit on the dodgy side. Some youths were being chased by a gang with baseball bats and took refuge in a shop by pulling the metal shutters down. When we returned in the afternoon there was a mellee of sorts in the street with police moving in. As we caught the taxi to the airport a police car pulled up and arrested a very surprised young gentleman who had from the looks of it been earmarked by a plain clothes policeman next to him who blocked his escape. Plenty of action.

On the plus side we had a brilliant day visiting a lot of ancient monuments all within walking distance of the hotel. This included the Acropolis with the Parthenon, Propylaia, Hadrian´s Gate (no Adrian, not your gate), seeing the restoration of the ruins underneath the Acropolis museum and the Temple of Olympian Zeus. Finally, and as a complete surprise, we came across the Panethenaic Stadium, the home of the modern olympics. This really was the icing on the cake for a long day out and to wander around the stadium soaking in the history and atmosphere of the whole place was really amazing to all of us. We only just got back to the hotel in time to call a taxi to get to the airport. On to Italy.

Ruins at the Acropolis Museum
The Acropolis from The Temple of Zeus
The Panathenaic Stadium (birthplace of the olympics)
and the winner is...