Monday, 23 December 2013

Austria and Lederhosen

We left the rail system of the SBB for the OBB, equally as good in my mind.  Such an efficient way to travel, if only we could have it in Australia.

Our first stop was Salzburg and the main reason for our visit was for The Sound of Music of course. We managed to negotiate our way out of the train station in Salzburg through all the construction.  Well there were no elevators or escalator due to the construction, so we had to schlep the 4 heavy bags up the stairs, well Tony did, I just stood at the bottom while the kids did duty at the top.  Tony's bag is a little worse for wear and we are thinking that the wheels are not going to make it to the end of the journey in Europe.  Just a little bit further, that's all we ask.  The sidewalks are scattered with small rocks to keep people from slipping on the snow and ice....hmmmm this didn't bode well for wheels on luggage.  A 15 minute walk and a few words between Tony and myself  (love is bliss) we arrived at our lovely little boutique hotel, what a pleasant surprise we were in for.  When booking all these places you really are never sure what to expect. So between the organic and  locally sourced full breakfast spread, cozy bar with mulled wine, giant interior design and travel books to flip through and not to mention the wellness centre with herbal steam, sauna and relaxation area, we were made to feel quite comfortable.

We got ourselves sorted and the next day Emma and I were off on the big red bus while the boys opted to be laundry rats and wash 4 bags of gear that had been piling up. We boarded the bus along with the 40 others and we can't forget to mention Peter our tour guide who tried to be everso funny..and he wasn't! but somehow you you were laughing at the the bad jokes, so off we set singing "The hills are alive with the sound of music"... our first stop was at the grand house of the Van Trapp family as seen in the movie, not their actual home.  Now we only get to see it from a distance and it is where all the outdoor scenes are shot, the children and Maria on the row boat when they all fall in...did you know Gretal almost drowned filming that scene?  Also 'Sixteen going on seventeen' was filmed here.  Hollywood, that is what the Austrians refer to the production company as, wanted desperately to be able to use this home for all the filming inside and out, but after much discussion and bureaucracy they were frog marched out of the home when they finally thought they had approval.  Well, do what Hollywood does, copy it and make it better! So they got permission to sketch the rooms and than duplicated this into a set in California and voila the Sound of Music was on its way. We continued on to various points of interest singing songs, had a bit of a film clip narrated by Liesel in her adult years and told us some behind the scenic stories. what a great day we had, a fabulous tour for all Sound of Music lovers.
We enjoyed the Christmas markets, meandering through the pedestrian only district and just enjoyed the area during this festive time.  We braved the cold in the playgrounds, but even so the weather did limit our time outside...brrr.

After 3 nights in Salzburg we boarded another train on our way to one of the most fantastic cities I have visited....Vienna!  Stunning, beautiful and just a pleasure to walk about. Schronnbrunn Palace was a real gem and the kids really seemed to enjoy this tour, we received a wealth of information with the audio tour which puts all the history jigsaw pieces together for you. I ask how many reception rooms does a household need...gosh!  We visited the oldest zoo in the world and really did give you that old world feeling, many of the animals were in other quarters keeping warm, but the seals put on a good show for us.  Again, it was cold! In between the Vienna Boys Choir, the Prater, St. Stephens and the magnificent Christmas markets at City Hall we enjoyed some amazing food here.  Thanks Vienna, we will most definitely be back!

We come to the end of our European tour with a feeling of sadness, though we know we will be back for more.  We catch a flight from Vienna to Rome, last minute shopping in Italy for all those amazing leather goods, the major sites for the kids and 4 days later we are off to Asian shores....Vietnam!

Wednesday, 4 December 2013

The Swiss Alps, The SBB, Pistes...well all things Swiss.

THE SWISS ALPS (please note, photos are not my own and taken from the Internet)

We left for Montreux after a fabulous weekend in Interlaken. a beautiful scenic snowy journey took us to Lake Geneva aboard the SBB train.  Montreux is a pretty city, like most Swiss cities nestled on the banks of their fabulous lakes.  It was a time to enjoy long walks around Lake Geneva with the winter flora in bloom.  With the purchase of a kilo bag of bird seed, the kids were entertained feeding the feathered creatures and onlookers amused.  Seems every city we go to, the birds become a priority to ensure they are fed.  We visited Chillon Castle with it's extordinary views over Lake Geneva.  The next day we had a visit to the games museum which had us entertained for hours with chess (of course), pinball machines and a new game of Tigers and Goats, a primitive game which evolved in India played in the sand with some beans or pebbles as markers, one I know the kids will continue to play.  We had a lovely evening with our good friend Fran, who took the train from Lausanne to meet up with us to enjoy some yummy food and the boys drank many a bottles of red wine.

Chateau de Chillion on Lake Geneva, I had beautiful walk around here.

It was time to leave for the highlight of our Swiss trip and hop on a train to Zermatt for snow skiing and snow activities.  In true form, the Swiss Alps put on a show for us with a snowfall starting just after our arrival.  This was magic as it could have been green grass and bare roads, as it was never a given that there would be snow in the middle of November.  Thanks to those I sent a little message to!  We immediately donned our snow apparel which was thankfully waiting for us at our hotel.  A walk in the snow, a snowball fight, rolling around in the snow and snow angels completed the afternoon before we immersed ourselves in the heated pool and outdoor jacuzzi with the fall of snow capping our heads with a dusty coolness.

We skied next to this beauty

The first morning we were ready to hit the slopes with our ski instructor Nicolas.  A few runs on the magic carpet and the gang was ready for the blue run. We set off without our poles at a height of 3,000 metres above sea level.  The Matterhorn is such a spectacular site to behold and we couldn't get any closer to it unless we climbed it.  It is not the highest mountain in the Alps, but as it stands alone it gives that appearance.  In my last post, I mentioned that Jungfrau was the highest mountain in Switzerland, well I stand corrected as our ski instructor informed us there are many misunderstandings about this.  In fact, Monte Rosa (the 'Pink mountain') is the highest mountain in Switzerland with the main summit, known as the Dufourspitze (4,634 m (15,203 ft)).  Now after thinking this through, perhaps Jungfrau is labeled the highest mountain you can ascend with a funicular or cable car.  Monte Rosa is a mountain you must climb with your own will with one side of it facing Italy and the other in Switzerland.  Ok, back to the slopes, the weather wasn't the best in terms of visibility though we had great snow conditions and very little wind.  Just not being able to see can make things a bit tricky and to top it off at an altitude of 3,000 metre it also plays havoc with your balance.  We plowed through and eventually Tony, Emma and Hamish conquered the red run with Nicolas in tow or was it the other way around.  I stayed back so they could tell me how the visibility was. Hamish has his own method with straight down, who needs turns! When he needed to stop all was required was a face plant.  Well, I am glad I didn't attempt it, as this one eyed mummy might not have gotten down unless they carried me.  It is all very exhausting and we felt trimmer for the extra work we were putting out.  Our ski instructor, Nicolas was a champion and really made the skiing so enjoyable.  It would have been rather hard for me to try and keep Hamish on the straight and narrow, provide tuition to Emma and Tony all the while learning the new craving technique, which I am sure has been around for decades.  I have just been on the beach during that time, so my skills and confidence needed attention.

We regretfully left Zermatt and our new found friends Sam, Christian and Mia who graciously welcomed us into their home for home cooked meals.  It was truly wonderful after so many restaurant meals. We enjoyed sledging, walking through the snow and snowman making to name a few. We will definitely return to this winter wonderland paradise.

Next stop St. Moritz, home of the 1928 and 1948 Olympics.  Well I don't really have much to say about St Moritz as it was pretty much a ghost town during our stay. The season wasn't to begin until the weekend after our departure.  So we played in the snow, walked around the deserted Olympic village and ate.  I am a bit over the eating 3 meals a day and the restaurant routine.  After 3 days, we boarded our next train to Zurich. We were pleasantly surprised with this number and booked ourselves in for a city tour which provided us with a brief overview and an insight to the history and development of the city.  Something I highly recommend to everyone when going to a new city.  The Christmas markets were in full swing and we enjoyed meandering around and observing all the wares on offer.  I like the fact that everyone comes together for a good old fashioned chat sipping on gluhwein (mulled red wine laced with clove and spice)  in sub-zero temperatures...very civilised.  We hung out in English book shops and visited one of the best toy stores ever, Franz Carl Weber one of the best selections I enjoyed browsing over.  Yes, even a Christmas present or 2 was secretly purchased with unsuspecting eyes.

It was time for the end of our journey in Switzerland after 30 days and return to the euro in Austria.

…our feet are the same

Sunday, 10 November 2013

Swiss Precision

We have swapped our Euros for Swiss Francs.  1.00 Swiss franc = 1.16 AUD

All aboard the magic train! Here we go...faster and faster and faster we go, where it takes us nobody knows...clicketty clack ckicketty clack and suddenly we slow...first stop Lugano, Switzerland.

The Swiss rail system is a pleasure to ride aboard...the term Swiss Precision is exactly that.  The rail system works seamlessly and is very easy to navigate.  We left Rome, which is a little less organized, via Milan on our way to our first stop in Lugano.  We are met with a chilliness we haven't experienced yet, we shuffled off to our hotel only a short 5 minute walk from the train station.  Lugano is such a pretty little town with Lake Lugano being the feature of this quaint town.  There are 2 major mountains you can go up by funicular, being Monte Salvtore and Monte Bru, we did neither due to the poor visibility and the rain which dampened the days.  We were very keen to do the high ropes course at Mount Tamaro, but of course it closed the day we arrived...seems to be a pattern.  I enjoyed Lugano, regardless of the rain, as it allowed us to settle back and take in all the scenery and walk through the town and local park.  We found the most delightful cafe called Gabbini, everything you can imagine from meats, cheese and sweets.  In the outdoor alfresco sitting area was kitted out with cosy sheepskin hides lining the chairs while you sat back, listened to the rain and drank hot cocoa which had the consistency of pudding. It was so yummy!  Mr Gabbini had decided that he and I knew each other and after telling him I was from Australia, he pointed to the name on the door and the second floor window of an adjacent building saying that's where he was born.  Such a funny man, but boy did he have the staff hopping as he roamed from cafe to hotel to market.  We were in a lovely hotel with the most wonderful staff, so we ate dinner in each night.

Here we go again..all aboard the Wilhem Tell Express, an overview of our journey begins with a short train ride to Bellinzona, 1 1/2 hour stop, before boarding another train to Flueelen where we embark on a boat cruise of Lake Lucerne with the final destination being Lucerne.

An insight to Wilhem Tell, if you are already not aware, Wilhem Tell in short struggled with his adversary, Gessler, the local Governor.  Tell refuses to obey an order, the consequence is Gessler forces him to shoot an apple from his own son's head using a crossbow.  Tell let's it out that he has kept a 2nd arrow intended for Gessler, he is arrested. On this lake we travelled, he escapes when being ferried across the lake, he gets his revenge after ambushing and killing his adversary.  What would you do of you were forced to shoot at your child with a fatal arrow?

Back to the journey, which took us along the Gotthard route with 4 loops (we call them twirly whirlies) and a tunnel which lasted 10 minutes.  The scenery was majestic, stunning, divine.  Landscapes of mountains, some with snow caps and vivid greenery lower down in the fields and valleys below these mountains nestled some Swiss style homes with uninterrupted views of their land. After a quick change in Fluelen, we boarded our saloon style motor vessel and enjoyed this 1st class boat journey on Lake Lucerne, while we dined and watched the landscape of this beautiful country as it engulfed us through mystical and legendary coves, villages and mountain landscapes and past to the Rutli, where the original Swiss Confederation was founded.  2 1/2 hours later we arrived at the port of Lucerne with the magnificent railway station adjacent to it.

The town of Lucerne is divided in 2 parts with the old town and new town.  As you can imagine the 'old' town is very old, but beautifully, restored Swiss structure buildings maintained in all their glory, right out of vintage Christmas drawings. Cross the bridge to the new town and this is where the famous Kappel Bridge sits, completely made out of wood and in summer adorned with colourful blooms and of course the water tower you see in all the photos. Our first day, we decided to make the climb to Mt. Pilatus, a mere 3,123 metres up.  Taking the steepest cogwheel train in the world, had us up in the clouds in 30 minutes.  Here the kids first experienced snow and a snowball fight broke out immediately, I took refuge behind my lens and snapped the joy on their faces.  The visibility is so poor, so there was no view of the land below, we were right in the mist of the fluffy clouds...a white out!   We stayed up for a couple of hours playing in the snow, eating lunch in the clouds and attempting the dragon cave walk.  This was aborted due to high winds and those who were wet from the snowball fight were now very cold.

Speeding down the rails again! Next stop - Interlaken.
Being Emmas birthday, we are keen to find something exciting to do. Interlaken either has modest and extreme outdoor activities with hiking, paragliding, skydiving and of course the Top of Europe - Jungfrau, the highest mountain in Europe at 4158 metres OR you can pass the time in the sport of buying Swiss made watches.  Seeing we had already been up to one mountain albeit not the highest, paragliding was calling out to us.  The weather broke for after the kids had a morning of swimming at the indoor pool, so off we rushed for a bit to eat and get Tony and Emma ready for their first flight.  How exciting!  As Hamish and I waited in the cow field below, we got our first glimpse of the duo as they peaked over the mountain top, soaring through the sky over the legendary Victoria hotel.  Doing a few twirly whirlies and a few whistles, hoots and hollers, they landed without incident, only pure elation and exhilaration!

Tony writes;
A 20 minute drive from the centre of Interlaken, up the hill through the mountains to our take-off point. I must admit I expected emma to be more nervous than she was expressing during the car ride. We finally arrived at the top, our pilots already decided for us, and the insurance waiver signed off on.  A short walk up the hill with our gear to the take-off point, a very professional outfit with good instruction put us at ease.  I was allowed to video Emma's take off and then follow her into the blue.  Emma took off at a run as requested then pulled her feet up a bit early, but the instructors are used to that with children, he kept going and they sailed off quite quickly out over the mountain tops.  A bit of a belly laugh from me at the sheer exhilaration of watching my daughter take-off on a paragliding adventure.  I am jealous, how do they get to do these things at such a young age, I'm sure I didn't have these experiences at their age?

My turn, what a thrill, walk down for ten steps, run as fast as you can for three or four steps and then your weightless and flying through the air.  The view was simply spectacular and the feeling of floating on air just indescribable.  I was busy taking photos of everything I could see, hopefully they work out from our 'old' little camera from 2001. The pilots knew that we would enjoy flying close to each other, so despite my rig weighing alot more than Emma and her pilot he brought us close together.  Some more great snaps as we soared around the Swiss Alps with views over Jungfrau, Eiger, and Monch, the 3 highest peaks.  A little over 12 minutes in the air and we start to descend, my pilot says, "do you want to do some turns?" Why not, I answer, silly me!  Round and round we go, very fast soaring on the thermal winds coming lower over the landing grounds and the hotels.  A loud whistle for the ground crew of Tracey and Hamish so they know it is us and down we come.  Emma comes into land a little after me and Tracey captures some excellent snaps as she comes down.  Landing is very easy and gentle but the memory of floating around the skies of Interlaken is one not to be forgotten soon.

10.11.13  Happy Birthday Emma
The is day cold and wet with heavy rains at times.  We take ourselves to the bus stop, wait for an hour, and board the bus to our next activity - skating.  Emma has chosen this for her birthday day, Hamish wasn't missing out on anything as who would argue with going skating.  A great time had by all and we even managed to get Tony on ice in skates.  I have to say I almost wet myself watching him with laughter, not a very supportive wife I am.  It was funny though.  Emma swirled around and practised alongside me and Hamish had it mastered soon thereafter.  The zimmer frames were available for those a little unsteady on their blades.  Hamish found a hockey stick and tried to join the big boys, he was bound and determined to play hockey and he did, he will find any suitable opponent willing to give it a go and who can resist that face.  Afterwards we walked down the road to the Irish Pub and had a fantastic meal finished off with apple crumble and a sparkle for Emma's Happy Birthday.

Sunday, 3 November 2013

The Wisdom of a Turtle with the speed of a sail to help her along...

After disembarking from the cruise, we all had a little 'coming down', to a bit of travelling reality to do. That said, we hopped into the green bus, back on the roads of Italy towards Florence.  I was sick with flu which I got on the ship the day before we came into our final port, so I was eager to get into our next pad.

The first line of Rick Steve's travel book for Tuscany and Florence states, "Florence with kids: not ideal, but it's certainly good for them!"  Thanks Steve's!  On we forged and got the kids out walking the pavement once again.  Oh great Yay, another building! as Emma and Hamish have started to joke.  I love Florence and everything about it, the people (even the tourists), the culture, the history, the architecture is just so amazing.  I love the fact that they never tear anything down in Europe, they just keep it restored or...not.  We stayed in Florence for 4 nights and much to our dismay had to move on as our apartment was booked.  We had 4 nights to fill in and again I scoured the airbnb site and hastily booked a villa in Sovicelle (12 km outside of Siena).  We paid a fair bit for this place and I expected dishwashing liquid and a clean sponge, not one which was saturated with grease. Do I write a review with airbnb? Can I be bothered? No, I leave it with our gracious host, who lives in France, Agostino took on all I had to say and did his best to make it right.  Will he be able to keep the demographics with these villas at the price point he is charging without the amenities?  We were in a fabulous Agriturismo village, which bordered a National park.  I enjoyed my daily walks with the abundance of nature around me.  We spent our days out visiting nearby local towns and enjoying the Tuscan countryside from our green bus.  It was time to move on and we were happy to do so.  We moved to our fabulous villa in Sciano, the most gorgeous hillside Tuscan village, we seem to gravitate towards the country properties, is this a calling?  We were met by the most wonderful host by far, Elizabeth, a Native American married to her Austrian/Italian love Adinoflo.

Here we immersed ourselves in the local town and surrounding nearby villages of Certaldo, San Gimgnano, Volterra, Colle del val Elsa, Poggibonsi with additional visits to Siena and Florence, we couldn't stay away from 2 of our favourites.  In San Gimgnano we visited the Torture Museum, what a dark past, some really disgusting devices that were actually put to use. Interesting that is was religion that led to the use of a lot of these devices.  I enjoyed telling the kids in those days you only had one chance to do as you were told, or else.  I found a chastity belt I could use for Emma.  Volterra for its Alabaster and well apart from leather handbags, shoes, gelato, panneforte, they are all great for their grapes.

We went bowling, played spotlight, went for walks and we even managed to put a play together, directed and produced by Emma with our neighbours.  Snow White and The Seven Dwarfs...under the Tuscan Sun.  Elizabeth and her son Henri graciously participated with playing the parts of Doc and Sneezy.  I was given the part of the wicked Queen..hmmmm what is Emma telling me?  Tony our film crew, inadverdantly stopped filming with his clumsy fingers, so we only managed to get bits of the rehearsal and a section of my wicked ways.  Hee hee hee!

The kids did a great job in completing their studies with Hamish reading and is all happening.  Quite amazing to see it evolve from our point of view in the days we have been teaching.  Is teaching a profession for us? Well perhaps not with our own children.  Emma completed her workbooks imath, cars and stars and both year 5 & 6 core spelling lists.  We had a cermononial burning of the books at the end...shhhh don't tell anyone!

On one of our return visits to Florence, I took Rick Steve's advice and attempted to book in for the children's tour of Museo di Veechio, but no luck for us, I left it too late.  We went along anyhow and and rented the audio tour which both Emma and I enjoyed.  The Museo is very forgiving with children and the grand room has plenty of space to sit and listen to your audio and take in the beauty of the sculptures and paintings sprawled across the ceiling and walls.  i was quite interested in the history of Cosimo in particular the family crest.  Between the children and Tony they began calling me the Turtle, I believe it started in Hawaii, amongst other names such as 'old duck'.  Little did they know that naming me the turtle was one of  'wisdom' or was it just because I was lagging behind.  Cosmio's family crest was one of the turtle, which of course is wisdom with a sail attached to its shell providing the speed.  So there you have it my little family, you knew I had the wisdom of a turtle with the speed of the sail to get us through our adventure.  I thank you for your confidence.

We covered just over 6,000 km (3,730 miles for my non metric friends) travelling in our bus through Spain, France and Italy.  A certain look of calm now beams off Tony as he sits relaxed on the first leg of our train travel.  No more crazy assed Italians driving like absolute lunatics with a death wish. Tony will not have to endure my every flinch or reaction with one of those formula 1 moves, thinking he is going to have a coronary.  I did save us a few times.

Arrivederci Italy!  Switzerland, it is time we made your acquaintance.

Tuesday, 22 October 2013

Cruising - Greece, Turkey and beyond

11 Night Eastern Mediterrannen Celebrity Cruise - Reflection

Rome > Santorini > Istanbul > Kusadasi > Mykonos > Athens> Naples > Rome

Our dear friends Craig and Christina put the thought of cruising in our minds.  We had a 3 week gap to fill when we were in and around Italy and Christina mentioned the cruise they were why not.  After a couple of weeks with trying to secure 2 cabins, it was only 10 days before sail date that we were confirmed.

Reflection is the youngest ship of the Celebrity fleet with her maiden voyage being October 2012, we were able to celebrate her first birthday with her in style.. The making of these ships is amazing and this one only took 5 years to complete.  With 3000 passengers and 1500 or so crew members we sailed off into the sunset with our first stop being Santorini after a day at sea, a perfect way to become aquainted with the ship and all it had to offer.  Tony and I took advantage of a couple of packages for ourselves and got the kids booked into the 'Fun Factory' where Hamish remained for 11 days straight with never setting foot on land.  We enjoyed the fitness centre each day and were able to go into the Persian Garden for relaxation with body scrubs, aromatic steams and sauna.  The place had a ceiling to floor glass view of the endless ocean and several heated relaxation beds for rest after a stenuous work-out in the fully equipped fitness centre.  We choose a few different body scrubs, as it was self administered in the common steam room there were always onlookers and a bit of chat about the flavour of scrub we were using.  I have to say my skin was as soft as a new borns bottom.

Ports of call in a nutshell;

Santorini - the jewel of the Greek Isles.  This was a special day for Tony, as he has always had a drawing to this place.  It was absolutely wonderful to be sitting at the top after our trek up, approx. 600 steps as we weaved our way through donkey's and the trail of mess they left behind...I was certainly hot after that climb and was thankful for the cool drink at the top.  The first thing we see is the green and red sign (Victoria Bitter).  We stepped inside to cool off, use the facilities and of course wifi.  We were having withdrawals.  It is the funniest thing to see all us tourists in this bar in one of the most scenic places on Earth and we have our heads in our devices.  Well Tony had an excuse as the final payment and  close of sale was requiring attention and wet signatures.  Of course this happens whilst we are cruising.

Tony writes:
Having trekked all the way to the top, I figured we are in Greece better try the Ouzo. Brings back memories of my teenage years with the boys drinking ouzo and lemonade. Not bad, but just not the same, oh well a bit older and a lot more sensible these days just one is fine, back to enjoying the view and a beer. 

There was no line-up for the cable car down to the port so given we had already had our workout going up the stairs it was cable car down for us and some quick photos of the track we had taken to get up to the top. 

Istanbul, Turkey - Istanbul is a unique city built on 2 continents - Europe and Asia...this was very cool to see!  It is located on the shores of the Bosphorus, with the waters of the Black Sea and combined with The Sea of Marmara and the Golden Horn.  We travelled through some of the narrowest waterways on our way in, it was quite surreal to be running on the treadmill in the gym and seeing all those historical sites just off to our left and right as we approached.  Istanbul houses some very special monuments that we were able to get a closer look at.

A two day stopover, so we decided to do the first day by ourselves and went in for a look around with Emma. The shopping bazaar holds some 4000 shops and is all undercover, it was surprisingly cold outside. After a bit of a look around we came to the realisation that there might be 4000 shops but they were selling mostly the same stuff, time to escape and have a spot of lunch. A quick trip past the outside of the blue mosque for some photos and back to the boat for us via the leather shop for the girls.

Day 2: We scheduled an excursion through the ships 'shore excursions' desk and we set of with our group of 40 odd shipmates to see the sights.  We started at the Aya Sofia also known as the Hagia Sophia, which was a magnificence mosque and was the first Imperial mosque in Istanbul from 1453 - 1931. Today, it now serves as a museum and has since 1935.

We went on to see the The Blue Mosque as known by us Westerners, but the proper name is The Sultan Ahmed Mosque and serves as a historic Mosque.  It received it name due to the blue tiles adorning the walls of its interior.  It took 7 years to build from 1609, it is still used as a Mosque today. Unfortunately, we were unable to enter the Mosque due to poor timing, it was Friday after all and prayer was in full form.

Our favourite had to be the Basilica Cistern, which is one of the most magnificent historical structures of Istanbul.  It wasn't a far walk from Hagia Sofia, across the street, so off our group of 40 went as we herded together like sheep.  It is an enormous underground cistern built by the Byzantine Emperor.  There are 336 columns in it with each being 9m in height each.  It is a large rectangular structure being 140m in length and 70m wide.  The Cistern has a capacity of 100,000 tons of water storage and is 9,800 SQM in total.  They used the left over materials from the Hagia Sofia to build the Cistern and it only took 1 year as opposed to the 5 years for Hagia Sofia.  2 Medusa heads rest here and are used as plinths, there are many myths concerning how the heads arrived there and their uses.  (I'm so sorry my photos cannot load here, as it is so beautiful).

Kusadasi (Ephesus) - Kusadasi means "Bird Island" and is thought to be one of the most eye pleasing cities on the Aegean Sea.  It is on the west coast of Turkey and the main holiday destination for the country. It was originally a small fishing village and is now dedicated to the tourists who flock to visit their beautiful beaches and of course the old town of Ephesus.  For both Tony and I, this had to be the highlight of the ports.  The Ephesus ruins were exceptional...too bad as so did 7000 other people.  Ephesus is a showplace of Aegean Archaeology.  It is something to see and resembles a large park with ruins all within walking distance from each other.  My favourite was The Celcius Library, the work that went into restoring this beauty is remarkable.  Afterwards, we were taken by our driver to a Turkish carpet weaving centre.  I loved this and was educated on wool on wool, wool on cotton and silk on silk.  I had a go with the wool on cotton and mastered that, but was no where as fast as my teacher.  The silk on silk, I couldn't even get 2 strings on my finger to start the weaving.  I surely would have purchased one of these pieces of art if given the chance.  Tony didn't even entertain the notion of a beautiful Turkish rug adorning our lounge room with the thought of rubbing his toes through it.

Mykonos - this island is part of the Cyclades in the deep blue waters of the Mediterranean.  Rhinos, Siros, Paros and Naxos surround it, it has countless bays, beaches (much too cold for our liking to enjoy that) and quaint cobblestone streets.  Just as you have seen in the pictures white everywhere trimmed with accents of blue.  Our ship arrived in the early morning so it was a sleepy little town, but I am sure it would have been a bit of a party later in the day.  Tony and I were keen to enjoy the quiet of the Spa on a port day, without having to cue for the heated beds.  They were only suppose to have made 40 passes available to the Spa, but it's seems like we were all taking advantage of this at the same time.  A bit of shopping with Emma, a coffee and a baklava and we headed back to our floating hotel.

Athens - Piraeus is Athens' main port, the biggest in Greece and yes I agree with that fact as they  have 7 ships daily, most days of the week. So what does that mean? Too many tourists. We were lucky as I believe there were only 5 ships the day we were there.  We disembarked and were ready to tackle the Acropolis of Athens.  We discovered it was just as easy to do your own excursion/tour and arrange for a driver outside.  We did just that and with a bit of negotiation we were on our way.  Our driver was ever so pleasant and helpful with information and stopping to get that special pic.  Seeing he was only suppose to drop us at the Acropolis, this was a very kind gesture.  From the little exposure we had of the Greeks and a bit of chit chat with 2 different drivers, it seems they are very angry and bitter with their government for allowing the country to reach the economic disparity that they are in.  He felt he paid his dues and taxes for all those years and stopped paying any tax for the last 18 months.  He tells us that 70 % of the population feels this way.

Onto the ruins of the Acropolis, which was amazing!  Emma was quite taken with the whole scene and we were even able to do a bit of rock climbing in the area, let's just call it rough terrain.  It is unbelievable to think that these structures have been maintained and restored for so many centuries. Some of the works were erected in 432 BC. The Parthenon in particular was sensational, it is a temple dedicated to the goddess Athena and was one of the earliest of the classical monuments of the Acropolis.

Naples - we forfeited this port as we had just spent a week in the Amalfi coast.  So no pizza in Naples for us.  From what I understand it is not that great anyhow and we discovered some great pizza in Siena since than.

I never thought I would be a cruiser, but I have succumb and converted.  I get why the oldies prefer this mode of travel.  Think about it...fuss free! Never having to unpack and pack again. While you see many ports of call and numerous cities, transport issues solved, food and at the end of the day you are back on the dance floor doing the two step in your formal attire on those special nights.  We all had our own private holiday, the children were entertained all day long with Emma being able to come and go at her will.  What a sense of freedom for her to decide when she wanted to eat and plan her day.  I have come to see that Emma is very good with the younger children and really enjoys being with them, she doesn't think they are a nuisance or a pain and has a lot of time for them.

The fun factory stage performance was something to see, some of the boys playing musical instruments, Hamish doing magic tricks and Emma doing a gymnastics routine.  Check out the photos of the gang from fun factory.

Saturday, 12 October 2013

Road trip in Italy (Massa, Pisa, Cinque Terre and Benevento)
Road trip snacks and movies
We left the French Meditterranean and drove towards Italy along the coast.  The last big city to pass through was Monaco before we crossed through the tunnelled mountains.  Now we only just drove along the top of this famous city, but what a site it was.  Hotels, sky scrapers, beach and pink.  One minute we are in France and the next Italy with only a couple of hours under our belt. Living in Perth, Australia, you don't really get very far or a destination really after 3 hours let alone another country, so it was a bit of a novelty for us.  Immediately upon crossing over you see a vast difference from the lifestyle from the South of France into this hardworking countryside of terraced farms with hothouse market gardens.  Imagine the padi rice terraces in Bali, though these are large enclosed veggie gardens.  Using the land is always a smart thing to do in creating an income.. The homes were far from palatial or elaborate but rather barrack like, and needing some love.

This road trip in our green bus takes us through San Remo and down to Massa, which is on the coast and part of the Tuscany region.  It was not so much the town that we wanted to visit but establishing breaks from driving in between towns.
View from apartment terrace in Massa
 MASSA is a industrial town filled with yard after yard of marble slabs on pallets waiting to be shipped out and placed in your kitchen.  Upon arriving at our destination on the coast, we were greeted with private beach clubs lined up one after another, it is a locals summer playground with full service clubs. Many include a childrens play areas, tennis or ping pong, restaurants, bars and tiny little huts to store all your summer paraphnalia waiting for you each summer holiday season.  Here we were able to continue with our exercise on a much flatter terrain and not the cardiac hill of Extarri.  Tony challenged himself to get back up to his 10 km goal without pain...goal achieved.  Between visits to Pisa and Cinque Terre we managed to knock off quite a bit of home and world schooling.  The kids are happy to have 1 or 2 hours a day rather than a main stream school day....bribery included!

Day 2 - We did a day trip from Massa over to Pisa, approx a 20 minute drive and did the tourist thing as everyone does in Pisa.  Take pics and simulate your kids holding up this teetering magnificent structure.  Our 1st visit to Pisa was in 2001 and we understand that the tower has tilted a further 5cm since then.

Day 3 - We ventured into La Spezia with high hopes to board a ferry to take us to one of the stops in Cinque Terre.  Of ourse we were in no hurry and taking everything in stride.  After painfully listening to Annoying Annie taking us to a port for shipping lines, we decided to pull her battery and rely on the street signage to get us to our destination.  Once there, we realized there wasn't a parking spot to be had, after much sighing and trying to ascertain what the parking signs meant, we aborted the mission and resolved to try again the next day.

Day 4 - Up early and ready to tackle the parking and hopefully arrive before the ferry departs.  The website for the ferry schedule is not up to date and as it is dependant on the weather.  As it was, there were only 2 departures from La Spezia for the day due to poor weather conditions with stops only in Portovenere and the first village of Monterosso al Mare.  We found our park paid our coin to the meter and made the ferry with 10 mins to spare.  The sun was shining and the wind was up.  It all started off lovely with a slow cruise out of the port and on our way to our first stop of Portovenere.  Once out of the protection of the bay it started getting a little sloppy and waves were rolling the boat from port side to starboard side and not only that but bow to stern.  Great!  I am not the most fearless of individuals and lucky for me we were on the top deck and not enclosed as I fear my breakfast would have appeared as one gentlemans did.  I felt for him, as I knew very well it could have been me.  It is all in the power of the mind with seasickness, so I stayed positive for the journey not only for myself but also for Emma and Hamish as my fear would have made it unbearable.  Emma was fine, but Hamish was alreay with me with the movment of this vessel. He stayed very quiet throughout the trip and when his little hand slipped through mine ever so gently and remained there I knew I had to provide him the reassurance.  It was a moment in time where you know your children are still so vulnerable even though they are seeking that independance.  We got a birds eye view of the 5 villages from the water, as we were travelling from La Spezia we hit Riomaggiore, Manarola, Corniglia, Vernazza and Monterosso where we were able to get off.  Vernazza was the only village where the captain thought it was a good idea for a photo opportunity, so with the waves crashing up against the rock faces and us some 10 metres from the dock, I thought to myself was it really necessary to put us at risk and the safety of us for a 'happy' snap.  I am sure amongst all those photographers, there was 1 or 2 more with the same thoughts as I.  Moving on from my inner ear imbalance, we had a very impressive view of the 5 villages and I believe the only way to see this is from the water.  Both Tony and I would like to return to hike through the 5 villages, we are told it takes about 5 hours in total.  We enjoyed a lovely lunch of seafood and fresh pasta pesto.  Both Emma and Hamish are extending their taste buds to sample the various variety of specialities provided in each place.  Well done kids!  We took the train back as both Emma and I opted for this considering the water was getting considerably rougher.  It was a good way to see how the train system worked before our Eurail Swiss/Austria journey.

We packed up again and left this marble yard for a vineyard...Tenuta Torre Gaia located nearby the hill town of Benevento.
 We stayed at a vineyard which was only getting back on its feet after being closed for 2 years due the the country's economic situation and only re-opened a year ago after it was purchased by 2 brothers,  the courts still hold the deed on the land after the foreclosure.  This was a lovely time with wine tours and great wines, swimming for the kids and outdoor play.  I couldn't pass up a trip to the Italian designer outlet, here we managed to get some formal wear for the boys to wear on the cruise.

Positano and Capri

 "you are starving my life out" a fabulous quote from Hamish after ascending some 400 stairs of the 630 odd required to get back to our house from the beach.

One week in Positano was an exceptional experience for us, Tracey has done well again with the accommodation.  Getting here from Benevento was not such a relaxing drive, the Italians are crazy drivers, overtaking on blind corners, driving at 150 km/h or more whilst talking on their phones and smoking with the other hand. The bends and curves into Positano overlooking the cliffs and ocean are an amazing site, I'm driving like an old grandpa again just so I can see a little of the sites . Poor Hamish the constant turns are making him car sick but there is not much that can be done about that. Buses coming at us from the opposite direction sure make you clinch a little tighter, breathe in and we will fit through.

We finally make it to our destination to meet Julie our host. We pull over on the side of the road park on this skinny little curved street, unload a few bags and head to the villa.  Down 160 odd steps , with two suitaces in hand, drop the bags, get instructions to where to take the car and off I go.  More hairpin turns with no idea really of where I'm going but I'm sure I can't get lost, or can I? Found the one way street I was told about, keep going car park is down here somewhere!  Well finally found it, now to find the house, lucky for me our host sent Emma down the stairs to wait for me so I'd find the correct staircase. Up another 160 stairs and I'm home, what a view, nice villa, plenty of room and fresh herbs, chilli's, strawberries all growing under the grape vines.  I cannot tell you enough about the beauty of Positano and the Amalfi coast, you must come and see it for yourself.

Those of you that are familiar with Jacobs Ladder at Kings Park and thought it was hard work going up and down it try Positano. 630 stairs from the beach to our house, 165 stairs up from our house to the shops, oh my thighs are killing me. Well at least it helps to justify the beer and wine being used for rehydration purposes.

By day 4 we are stair fit, Emma and I take to having running competitions up the stairs, poor Dad is going to have a heart attack on the stairs, oh well at least we have had a great time and seen some sites before I fall over and die in Italy. Hamish is holding on to my shorts,  it is a conspiracy concocted by a 10 year old and assisted by a 6 year old, I can't catch Emma, she claims the victory. I'd argue and protest but I can't breathe.

We have had a very nice relaxing time going to the beach most days, playing chess, checkers and watching the occasional movie. We book a private boat tour to Capri and are not disappointed, the water is sensational and shows a beautiful spectrum of blue and is alot warmer than the water off Trigg beach . Our guide Pedro, takes us along the coast and shows off the caves, the small grotto's and the heritage sites along the coast.  Arriving to Capri Island we are shown some beautiful swimming spots, we swim as a family through the caves an amazing feeling.  Even the old duck, or 'turtle' as she is fondly now often called, decides she is going to come in.  A half day tour around the island and a quick peak into the harbour at Capri and our days comes to an end with a quite beer on our terrace over looking the sunset.  I'm glad we decided to do the tour it really topped off a fantastic week in Positano, some great home cooked meals, lots of time together playing games but alas time to go soon.  Hang on its grand final weekend, going to have to get up early and listen on the radio.

Final Day - 5:30am, something wakes me up, I bolt out of bed turn the alarm off and head out to see if by some chance I can find the footy on the TV, I look at the iPad to see about radio streaming, oh crap I'm an hour too early. Oh well I'll put the coffee on, 6:30am I find the AFL broadcast live on the TV but the commentary is in Italian, kind of weird listening to it in another language, though the broadcasters knew the game and the players.   Hamish comes to join, we turn the sound off and sit and enjoy the game live. Our friends, Craig and Christina and their boys are in Croatia but cannot get the footy, so I grab Traceys ipad and skype call them then hold the ipad on my lap so they can see the rest of the game. Not quite my AFL grand final tradition of going to Yallingup with the boys to watch the game but still not bad.

Games over back to porter duties and drive the car, we are out of here and heading to Rome for 2 nights before heading out for our Eastern Mediterranean 11 night cruise.