Archive for May, 2009|Monthly archive page

Angels, Demons and grafitti

In Italy, Travel on May 11, 2009 at 1:50 pm

When in Rome, do as the Romans do. In other words, drive like a lunatic and take four-hour lunches. And it seems, scrawl in marker pen over every available surface, no matter how sacred.

I digress. I deliberately re-read Angels And Demons before visiting the Eternal City. I (misguidedly, I confess) had hoped to retrace Robert Langdon’s steps and be guided by the angels on my lofty quest. However, I settled for an open top bus and took what I could find.

My hopes of glamming it up a la Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday were scuppered due to a small misunderstanding over setting my alarm in the morning. I don’t remember Gregory Peck at any point shouting at Audrey for an error of judgment and maintaining a three-hour stern and crackling silence just because she hauled him out of the shower and gave him four minutes to get dressed and on a coach. No, I do not.

Five hours is not really sufficient time to acquaint oneself with myriad churches and fountains, so I settled for Basilica di San Pietro and St Peter’s Square, peered off the top deck of the bus at the bridge of angels and the Castel Sant’Angelo, and excitedly told Mark about the secret passageway between Castel Sant’Angelo and the Vatican before the audio guide got chance. He just looked at me with narrow eyes, he hadn’t forgiven me yet, then.

The main objective of my trip had been to see the Trevi Fountain and nothing had prepared me for its size and composition. I had envisaged it as a grand and beautiful fountain in a square, or a park. Not a huge engraved building akin to Buckingham Palace. Completed in 1762, the fountain forms part of the Aqua Virgo viaduct system, and centres around Neptune.

Trevi Fountain

Trevi Fountain

This picture’s not mine – there was no way I could get far enough away to get it in a frame. The sculptures and detail that made up the enormity of the vast baroque fountain only served to make it the more remarkable. It easily took half-an-hour to fight our way to the front of the fountain, where we cast our coins into the water to secure our return to the city.

Next stop was The Colosseum, the iconic symbol of Imperial Rome. The building, again, is awe-inspiring, and it’s not difficult to imagine the gruesome gladitorial contests, executions, mock sea battles, animal hunts and dramas that it hosted. It is estimated that more than 500,000 people and more than a million animals died in the Colosseum Games.

The Colosseum

The Colosseum

The building remains partially ruined, a legacy from devastating earthquakes and stone robbers, but is still breathtaking in its architecture. And there is no shortage of plume-helmetted faux gladiators on hand for a photo opportunity should you wish to reanact your own battle.

The cobbled streets (havoc on the heels), roaring roads, impatient motorists and general sprawling nature of Rome do not make for a relaxing visit, and five hours in no way did justice to the imposing city. But it was terribly blighted by the constant vandalism – sadly not confined to Rome as we later discovered. It is very sad that you can live in one of the most revered and spectacular cities in the world and yet not show it the respect that it really deserves. It seemed everywhere was marred by ugly marker pen; something that is no doubt too costly to clean away as frequently as would be desirable.

I’m hoping that fountain’s true to its promise and I’ll get to return for a longer stay some day soon.

Buried alive and lost for centuries

In Italy, Travel on May 8, 2009 at 10:23 am

I remember, somewhere in the darker recesses of my mind, learning about Pompeii in a classical studies lesson at school. I’d probably forgotten altogether, not thinking I’d ever visit, but when the opportunity to visit a city that was consumed by a volcanic eruption, and then forgotten for 1700 years presents itself, you have to go and see the evidence for yourself.

It was a blisteringly hot day when we visited the site close to Naples. But the heat didn’t prevent the chilling feeling and the goosebumps I experienced on visiting the site. Inside the city walls, away from the bustling souvenir vendors, restaurants and ice cream sellers, there is an eerie calm, which intensifies as you realise that this entire place was a hive of activity with wine and oil merchants, bars and a brothel – where the faintly pornographic frescos remain, tame by today’s standards – until Vesuvius erupted in AD 79, burying Pompeii beneath 60 feet of ash and pumice and leaving it destroyed and dead, undiscovered until 1748.

While the frescos, the walls and even the giant storage jars used for oil and wine remain intact in some areas, what I wasn’t prepared for was the casts of dead bodies.  When the volcano erupted, the first sensation that gripped the ill-fated residents of Pompeii was the smell of the gases. Though the bones and remains have long since disintegrated, the casts of the bodies, set in pumice, remain. Some face-down on the floor, seeking to protect themselves, others hunched, knees to chest, with their hands over their mouth and nose to shield them from the gases.

Cast of a victim of Mount Vesuvius

Cast of a victim of Mount Vesuvius

To die that way is terrible. But for people to forget about the tragedy for centuries is worse.

The Archaeological Museum in Naples houses more casts of bodies. Anyone who has ever uttered the words “Sometimes I wish I could just curl up and die” when the going gets tough should maybe pay them a visit and be thankful for the luxury of life and of being cared for, for making a difference to someone else’s life.

(An expensive, but) Nice day in Nice

In France, Travel, Uncategorized on May 8, 2009 at 8:50 am

Having  written a letter of complaint to the travel agents about the disappointing changes to the itinerary of our hol, I’ve calmed down a bit now and I can start to talk about some of the more impressive parts of my holiday, which in short, was the time we weren’t on the boat, kicking off in Nice.

We headed out of the port at once to hit Monaco, home to Prince Albert and Princesses Caroline and Stephanie.

The buildings in Monaco are gorgeous, the streets clean and the gardens beautifully tended. Views over wondrous hillsides, crystal clear blue seas reflecting dazzling shards of light from the burning sunshine…I know we saw it at it’s best, but I imagine the people who can afford to live in Monaco have some kind of deal with the rain gods where he takes a cut to make sure it only rains between the hours of 2-5am to ensure the greenery remains lush.

St Nicholas Cathedral, where Grace Kelly married Prince Rainier of Monaco, is a stunning church, perfect for the wedding of a film icon and Princess in waiting, while the principality’s courthouse sees very little use – essentially the domain for divorces now. Monaco does have a prison, where there is one prisoner – and as criminal addresses go, that’s not too shabby.

St Nicholas Cathedral

St Nicholas Cathedral

The prince’s palace itself, now inhabited by Grace and Rainier’s son Prince Albert, enjoys 24-hour security from terribly chic marching French guards, and is close to the enviably grand homes of daughters Caroline and Stephanie. The public gardens opposite their homes are beautifully kept, and could easily be the location for many lazy hours of relaxation if the lure of Monte carlo wasn’t just a few miles away.

Right now, the Grand Prix track is being set up in Monte Carlo, ahead of the race later this month, and we proceeded to the famous casino – which fortunately didn’t open in time for me to go a drop a load of cash.  The world famous Hotel de Paris lies alongside the casino, with rooms costing 1,000 euros a night, and those overlooking the Grand Prix track later this month will go for 10,000 euros a night, my my my, Monte Carlo requires some wealth to enjoy its luxuries.

Casino, Monte Carlo

Casino, Monte Carlo

We compromised by enjoying a beer and a coke at the Cafe de Paris, and having received a 21 euro bill, I got my money’s worth by keeping my Hotel de Paris coaster and drinks stirrer as evidence as the most overpriced coke I would ever drink (I was wrong, by the way, see Venice at a later date).

We headed back to Nice to amble along the chi-chi pavement cafes, bask in the sunshine and playing my new favourite game: “If I won the lottery, I would buy that yacht. No, that yacht. the one with the helicopter on it.”

The one that I liked best was a snazzy little number with blacked out windows and a blue helicopter, which I later learned I could hire for a week, if I could get my hands on 67 grand.

Elton John has himself a rather swanky yellow house high in the Nice hills, which I spent some time squinting at through binoculars as we left port, but I didn’t see him anywhere. Oh well, I was later to learn he has lots of yellow houses, all over the place, so I didn’t give up hope.

When is a Venetian Adventure not a Venetian Adventure?

In Uncategorized on May 7, 2009 at 2:00 pm

When it doesn’t give you enough time to have an adventure in Venice, of course.

The boyfriend and I have had nothing but trouble with First Choice holidays. Last year we forked out for an excursion to Cairo when we went to Taba, and found out two days before we were due to go that there was no such excursion on that occasion, and it did in fact leave in three hours’ time. The entry to the pyramids that we’d paid for was apparently not part of this trip and we were left well and truly ripped off. First Choice’s response to our complaint? ‘We can’t possibly do anything about it without substantial proof that you were told you were going on Saturday’ – which is fairly impossible when their rep firmly removed that proof from my fingers and failed to return it, yes?

We booked this cruise back in October as a compromise – I wanted to go to Rome, Mark wanted to go to Nice, we both wanted to go to Venice. A cruise called the Venetian Adventure that started in Nice, moved on to Rome and Sorrento, traipsed through Dubrovnik (figuratively speaking) then landed in Venice for an overnight stay before concluding with stops in Split and Sicilly sounded ideal, and being the super organised being that I am, I had the whole itinerary planned to maximise those two days for a magazine feature, from the gondola ride through the Grand Canal to the trip to the Murano isle to have some glass jewellery made to order.

So it was terribly convenient when six months after the holiday was booked, and around 24 hours after actually setting sail (is that what a cruise ship does? I saw no sail. I suppose it powers along.) we were all told that actually, we wouldn’t be going to Venice overnight, they wouldn’t allow it due to the water weight.  BEDLAM. I feared the captain would be lynched, not that it was his fault; it’s not his responsibility to write to the 1,500 passengers who’d all paid in excess of a grand each to visit these ports of call on a frankly fairly shabby ship; it’s up to the tour operator. As I heard hundreds of people complain over the two-week break, First Choice and Thomson knew damn well that anyone booking a cruise called the Venetian Adventure probably wanted to see a bit of Venice, and they weren’t going to run the risk of having to give everyone their thousands of pounds back. Bad customer relations – tick.

So it was that instead of spending a wonderfully romantic evening in the restaurants of this truly unique city, I found myself herded back on to the damn ship seven bloody hours after I’d got off it to see everyone milling around in the carnival masks they’d bought in the Island Escape’s very poor idea of recreating a Ventian ball.

Disappointed? I don’t think that covers it.