Kath's Travels

Joined August 2017Living in: Ringwood East, Australia
  • Day39

    And Home.....

    September 27, 2017 in Australia ⋅ ⛅ 19 °C

    On our final morning I was up before 5am so that I could have an hour in the gym before a quick shower and a final lavish breakfast. I indulged in 3 courses with Fruit, A freshly poached egg and then something I had never tried - a waffle - mmmm. And of course some of their wonderful coffee. We had barely got back to the room at 7am when the concierge rang and said our airport transfer had arrived - early as they were not due until 7.15.
    It was down to the foyer and a speedy check out and into the car. The driver was another lovely gentleman - from India - he told us a lot of interesting things about Dubai - including that 80% of the people who live there are expatriates - certainly most of the staff at the hotel (who were lovely and incredibly hard working) would have been Indian, Philippino, African or from Eastern Europe.
    the 20 minute drive to the airport seemed to fly buy as it was no time at all before we were unloading our bags and proceeding to bag drop (gotta love that on-line check in, it makes things much quicker and easier). Then unencumbered we were able to make our way quickly through passport control and security to the gate where we spent the next hour and a half browsing the shops to use up our remaining Dirham (lots of Christmas and Birthday presents sorted!). All to soon it was time to board and this seemed to take ages although I guess that is to be expected as there were around 520 passengers!
    Once we settled into our seats it was time to rest back, select movies and prepare for our 12+ hours on board.
    As long haul flights go it really wasn't too bad, we were fed regularly, supplied with beverages and Emirates planes seem to have the most leg room of any economy class seats - plus we backed on the galley so that meant no one behind us to jiggle the seats or inadvertently knee us in the back. A couple of glasses of red wine and the binge watching of the entire season 6 of call the midwife helped to make up for the lack of sleep. There was quite a bit of turbulence although it was more at the level of annoying (go back to your seats and fasten your seat belts - no you can't go to the toilet right now) rather than nauseating or dangerous.
    Oddly we were woken at about 3am Melbourne time and the special diets (vegetarian, gluten free etc) were given their meals - the rest of the plane had to wait more than an hour to get theirs. Finally however we were descending into Melbourne where the current temperature was 9 degrees (what a rude shock).
    Disembarkation proceeded smoothly although it did seem that it took ages for our bags to come out and then I was held up at customs where the cigarettes I had not really wnted to buy Sam in the first place were mostly confiscated - I thought you could bring in one carton - not one pack! Oh well he should give up anyway - disgusting habit.
    Kirstin's parents had kindly agreed to brace the traffic and come and collect us which was wonderful and we really had a quick run back to Mum's where my lovely Lucy puppy was waiting.

    What a trip - what an amazing trip - when you are in the midst of it, dealing with the good and the bad, the joy and the stress it is easy to loose perspective - but stepping back one realizes how many wow moments there were! We walked the streets of Paris, Rode in a Gondola. We road through cities on the far side of the world - including down a road built more than 2000 years ago - and visited Churches more than a 1000 years old. We paddled in the Rhine, Swam in the Mediterranean Sea and the Arabian Gulf. We rode trains, trams, buses, camels and in taxis possibly driven by lunatics
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  • Day37

    Dubai Explored

    September 25, 2017 in the United Arab Emirates ⋅ ☀️ 40 °C

    It was an earlier start this morning meaning that I had been to the gym, showered and breakfasted lavishly by 830 in time for pickup for our "Traditional Dubai CityTour". And what a disappointment this turned out to be. When one thinks of traditional one thinks of history and old buildings and souks ( ok I know that Dubai is not an old city however I did not expect to be driven around for 2 and half hours and shown all the new and fancy hotels while the guide talked drivel).
    We were taken to a mosque.. but could only take photos despite it being open to all from 10am daily to promote discourse and discussion about Islam (would not that have been a great opportunity for cultural exchange?). We had brief stop at some palace with little explanation and were encouraged to take more photos before moving on to the museum which was interesting. It is housed in an old fort built in the 1700's and had some great dioramas. Unfortunately we were hustled out to quickly and without a decent tour so it couldn't be fully appreciated.
    Our next spot was the cloth, clothing and carpet souks, however as we had wasted so much time driving in circles and looking at fancy hotels there wasn't time to visit and we were hustled onto a water taxi for a quick ride across "The Creek" (that's actually what they call it) to the Spice Souk (no time to visit) and on to the gold souk (be back in 25 minutes to get the bus back to the hotel).
    I was seriously NOT impressed, and in fact was not the only one, so asked the Guide how I could get back too he hotel on my own. He was less than helpful but when I pressed conceded that the Metro was nearby and then gave me directions which later proved to be totally inaccurate and would have had me walking in the wrong direction had I followed them.
    I headed off and had a couple of pleasant hours wandering the souks, buying a few gifts and a scarf for modesty. At about 2pm I hit the hunger wall and asked a man trying to sell me saffron (sorry, I'm Australian, I'd never get it past customs) for a suggestion as to where to eat and was directed to his friend's restaurant. It was an interesting cultural experience.. it turned out to be a sort of Indian restaurant/cafeteria full of capped and bearded Arabic men. Also, I was the only female. The only vegetarian things I recognized on the mostly Arabic menu was Palak and Roti. I ordered both and also received a bottle of water and a large salad. The Roti was fresh from the oven and the Palak (spiced spinach with potatoes) was fantastic. I was amazed by the 7 dirham bill and rounded it up to 10 Dirham (about 3.20 AUD). I tried to do some more shopping but only the tourist souvenir places were open until about 4pm. I decided to head back to the hotel and with no thanks to the tour guide located the Metro and was soon on my way.
    Back at the hotel a surprising short time later I did a quick change and joined Kirstin by the pool for a lovely swim on the mezzanine deck... just magic.
    At 5pm we were in the lobby for our shuttle to the Dubai Mall .. this is an INSANE shopping centre below the world's highest building (which we declined to climb as it is crazy expensive) we did see the beautiful Dubai fountain, the 3 level aquarium, the ice rink, and a small proportion of what appeared to be about 7 million shops. We bought a few things and had some tea before finally locating the 930 shuttle bus back to the hotel where it was time to pack and do our online check in for our early departure tomorrow... the holiday is at an end bar the final flight
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  • Day36

    And today we travelled by....

    September 24, 2017 in the United Arab Emirates ⋅ 🌙 29 °C

    We actually travelled by the following... foot, train, tram, monorail, rubber ring, 4WD and camel... phew.. but more of that later.
    We awoke this morning to hazy (there have been dust and sandstorms in the last week) yet amazing views over Dubai. I ducked down to the gym which was very well equipped (complementary towels and bottled water, plus steam room and sauna) and enjoyed an hour's workout. Then, showered (in the amazing bathroom) it was off to breakfast.... OMG talk about over the top... massive breakfast room with various counters... Indian, Asian, Middle Eastern, Eggs, Pastries, Cereal/Fruit/Yoghurt, a toast station and even an ice creamery.... and of course coffee to order bought to your table. Amazing!!!
    After breakfast we sorted out tickets for the water park at Palm Atlantis and then headed out into the heat. We had been given some vague direction to the local Metro but clearly went the wrong way as we ended up dicing with some scary road crossings in the 40+ degrees heat. Thus we were relieved to find the Metro Station, purchase our tickets and board the nice air-conditioned train. We chose a "women's and children's" carriage but clearly no one is bothered by the threat of the 100 Dirham (about $33 AUD) fine as there were many men in the carriage. The Metro Stations have some odd names ... amongst the traditional or practical ones such as Noor or Dubai Mall, these included Internet City and Media city. We got off at Damac Properties and transferred to the Tram which we took to Palm Jumierah and then (having weirdly to walk through an indoor car park) to the Monorail that took us to the tip of the Atlantis Palm Complex. We purchased our tickets, quickly changed and hit the water.
    Given both our limited time and the costs involved we only got the basic ticket (no swimming with sharks or dolphins) but we spent a couple of hours riding the river complex.. this was huge.. circling the whole park complete with conveyor belt, rapids, and a kind of wave shoot. There were also diversions up into towers with insane water slides.. one had a bather eating conveyor belt so now I have a hole in my bathers.... well at least there is a sewing kit in the room! We had a quick dip us the sea... very warm, turquoise and salty water (so easy to float!) And then it was a quick shower, change and a reversal of our earlier journey back to the hotel ready for our sundown desert trip.
    We were picked up by a nice young man in a 4WD drive and driven out of Dubai to the desert. Unfortunately he was also a very softly spoken young man and as we were in the rear most seats I really struggled to hear what he was saying about the camels (and camel racing) which we passed.
    We soon arrived at a dessert conservation park of about 250 hectares, after a brief stop to reduce the type pressure we were off into the park were we, travelling in massive 4WD convoy, we're able to view gazelle and aurox on our way to a small palm wadi.
    At the wadi we were able to view a falconing demonstration. The falcon, whose name was John, was flow by his handler (who was actually South African) who told us all about falconry, including that falcons are the fastest creatures on earth having been clocked at over 350km per hour.
    After the demonstration it was back into the 4WD for a crazy bouncing ride around the dessert to a dune where we could view the gorgeous sunset before continuing on the the "Camp" in the dessert where we were able to enjoy sand boarding, camel rides and henna tattoos before a huge meal (we thought the "starters" where it and over indulged leaving little room for the ample main course and desert).
    After dinner there was a belly dance demonstration and then a "star gazing" experience when all the lights where turned out and we could watch the stars.
    Then sadly the night came to an end and it was back in the 4WD and back to the hotel
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  • Day35

    Areviderci Roma

    September 23, 2017 in the United Arab Emirates ⋅ ☀️ 40 °C

    Today we sadly bid farewell to Italy and indeed to Europe. Up and packed we breakfasted and arranged our shuttle to the station for 10am. We finished our packing somehow managing to fit everything into our bags and were ready to go at the appointed time. 10 minutes saw us at the station, we duly purchased our tickets and after a lovely time sitting in the sun we were on the train to Rome. 30 minutes later we were transferring to the Leonardo Express.. zip 32 minutes later we were at the airport. Having completed the online check in we could skip the line and drop our bags in a matter of minutes. We then had over 3 hours until boarding... no matter.. there was plenty to do.
    We browsed the duty free (I bought some squidink pasta and make up and Kirstin a few last minute gifts). We sampled perfumes and beauty products, I had my make up done and drank wine, Kirstin ate some dumplings and then we enjoyed one last gelati. Finally it was time to board... finding our way to tailgate involved a trip on a people mover and by the time we got there it was pretty much straight on board.
    Settling into our seats (68F & G... boy the Airbus 380's are whopping great planes) we were soon enjoying a selection from the 534 movies on offer (plus TV, music and podcasts), wine and then a meal, more wine, hot beverages.... etc etc there are benefits of flying Emirates!!!
    It was about 1130pm local time when we landed in Dubai after a really quite tolerable 6 hour flight. Dubai airport is insane, massive, high tech and totally OTT. we somehow missed our pick up having made our way rather quickly through all the disembarkation processes. Non-the-less with some assistance, found our way to the appropriate office and we're soon heading to the car. Walking out of the airport after midnight and into a humming city and 36 degrees was a bit of a shock, as we're the bright lights and interesting driving (Kirstin was wondering if there was something wrong with the cars accelerator!!!!).
    We were soon at the hotel, much to our exhausted relief... it had seemed a very long day! And what a lovely place it seems to be.. apparently it is the tallest hotel in the world, it certainly seems to have all the bells and whistles, but really at this point all we cared about were that the beds were amazingly soft and comfortable..... sigh!
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  • Day34

    Rome in bicicletta

    September 22, 2017 in Italy ⋅ 🌙 17 °C

    Or in other words... Rome by Bike. In fact we almost didn't make it to our bike tour as the computer was broken at the station and the man couldn't sell us a ticket apparently... I was starting to panic... but a kind lady directed us to the local shop where we could get a paper ticket. We just made the train and then had a brisk walk to the bike shop near the Colosseum.
    The bike tour company has top range e or carbon fibre mountain bikes and we were soon sorted with our gear, had met our group of 10 (8 Aussie's, 6 from Melbourne and 6 on the same Emirates flight tomorrow... how freaky) and been introduced to our guide Matteo. We set off, winding our way through the streets to find the Appian gate which is to the south of Rome. We had a brief stop at a museum in the gate and were able to enjoy some great views. We traveled on and our next stop was the Catacombs ..these were really amazing.. covering an area of 45acres with 4 levels up to 30m deep and containing more than 500,000 burial sites.. we had an approximately 45 minute tour with a lovely fellow from the Philippines.
    We then continued on along the Appian Way... we learned that this road originally stretched from Rome over 500km via Naples to the Adriatic and hence was an important trade route. The route is also lined with impressive burial sites as well as lumpy cobblestone. We rode on.... carefully!!
    After a bit of a ride through some local streets we ended up at the aqueduct park where we could see the remnants of several aqueducts.. some of which had extended more than 100km into the city of Rome in the past and which were still in use during the middle ages.
    Riding on we made our way to a farm when they milk over 2000 sheep to make the pecorino cheese... we ate cheese and drank wine in the sun (perhaps not a sensible combination) before getting back on the bikes and returning to Rome. What a great day! Even through it was only about 30km it was great to be out on the bike on such a lovely day.
    Having returned the bikes it was back to the station and then onto a train for Zagarolo. As it was still early when we got back I decided to continue my explorations of the Old town of Zagarolo which is built on a kind of long narrow spur. While Kirstin returned to the hostel, I went for a wander in the old town which is just gorgeous... amazing medieval buildings. It is not touristy at all and the streets were busy with locals chatting and drinking at the bars.. I would have loved to join them.
    Back to the hostel in time for their Friday "pizza party" the most amazing thin crust pizza cooked in the wood fired pizza oven with sourdough base and veggies from the local organic farm... Mmmmmm yummo.
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  • Day33

    Rome in 35,000 steps

    September 21, 2017 in Italy ⋅ ☀️ 21 °C

    So the day didn't start well when I woke up to find my my computer had completely died... aaarrrg.. bloody thing, nothing I tried could revive it and the damn thing is not that old! Sigh!!!!
    Breakfast is far more simple here... but none the less satisfying, then it was off to the station for the train into Rome which costs 2.60 Euro each and takes about 35 minutes.
    Arriving at Roma Terminale we were soon heading out to explore.... our aim today was NOT to pay to look at old things! Our first stop was the Colosseum... amazing, historic, but unbearably packed and tourist infested.. we walked around the outside, took some photos and then wandered on to the Circus Maximus and from there to the Piazza Porta san Paulo, where, just behind the museum which is in the centre of the roundabout, we discovered a random Pyramid (Pyramide Cestius, which was built in 12 BC in only 330 days as the tomb for Gias Cestius). Interesting but apparently only open on random Sundays and as it was a Thursday..... We continued on to the Aventine keyhole.. literally a keyhole you look through which perfectly frames the dome of St Peter's Basilica. Amazing!
    From there we continued on to locate the Mouth of Truth... Bocca della Veritas which is an ancient sculpture of a face, the mouth of which one is supposed to place one's hand into to test truthfulness... again we declined to pay and queue, but took a photo and moved on.
    Our next stop was Torre Argentina which is a cat sanctuary located in the ruins of a temple complex believed to be the site where Julius Ceaser was murdered... it is currently home to 640 stray cats... I felt guilty and bought the t-shirt to help support their work caring for the cats. Moving on again we had a quick visit to the street market at Piazza Campo de Fiori (uninspiring) before heading for the Pantheon... which I was amazed to discover is free.
    We ended up going via Piazza Nuova which has a famous fountain and also many tourists. The Pantheon also has a stupid number of tourists but it was well with seeing.. it is a gorgeous building!!
    Becoming slightly lost we were relieved to finally find the Trevi Fountain... again stupidly packed with tourists... and whistle blowing police... however I tossed in a coin as per tradition and we continued on to the Spanish Steps. Again they were stupid with tourists but I did the requisite walk up and down and then we headed to La Romana... a famous Gelatria which has been in operation for over 70 years... here we enjoyed the most amazing Gelati .. 2.70Euro for a choc filled cone and 3 delicious flavours....mmmmmmm.
    Well and truly full it was time to say goodbye to Rome. Back to the station we quickly sorted out a train to Zagarolo and were there by about 10 to 7. We grabbed a few bits and pieces from the supermarket for tea and while Kirstin headed back to the hostel I had a bit of a wander via the old town before returning to the hostel for tea and some local red wine... aahhhh Roma
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  • Day32

    Buongiorno Roma

    September 20, 2017 in Italy ⋅ 🌙 15 °C

    Another long day of travel this time from Catania to the hills of Rome – about 760km. We started with yet another wonderful breakfast at the B&B – delicious! And then final packing and a chat about Sicilian food with Federico (whom I had been emailing but never spoken too) he explained our mistake at Il Sale – only eat the Pizza – the rest is crap (well we had learned that the hard and expensive way!).
    Leaving the B&B (which is apparently evolving into a boutique hotel – I can understand that as they did a very good job with the B&B) we walked around the corner to catch the Alibus to the airport (4 euro’s, free Wi-Fi and takes about 20 minutes – very convenient). The boarding pass had stipulated that we needed to arrive from check in and luggage drop at 11am (this was for a 1.30 flight and despite the fact we had completed online check in anyway (but hey it was a weird Spanish airline and I wasn’t going to argue with whatever they required). We arrived in a timely manner and duly lined up and waited… and waited… and waited… at 11.40 someone turned up… at 1150 they started processing people.. we were sorted by 12.05 (so glad we arrived at 11am). Another massive line and then we were through security at about 12.30 and had an hour to kill before the flight was due to leave. This was spent wandering the shops, marveling at the numerous dogs wandering about the terminal waiting to board (including the one packed in the carry-on bag and barking in a shrill and REALLY annoying manner!) and generally being astounded by the masses and masses of people thronging about. At last it was time to board – again this took ages and by the time I got onto the plane they had run out of space for hand luggage and were trying to tell me my backpack had to go in the hold (I argued I have my Venetian glass in there and they took pity on me and found space). There was a scarey amount of crashing and banging, the cabin crew seemed to have trouble with the PA and then finally – about 45 minutes late we took off in a very erratic manner for our hour and a bit flight to Rome.
    Throughout the flight there were various weird and troubling noises, there was NO air-conditioning, no cabin service and the toilets were rank (and I am not that fussy really – hey I’m a scout, I pee in the bush if need be!) Finally we were relieved to survive a very bouncy landing at Rome’s Fuimicino Airport. Into the terminal by bus and then a not toooo long wait for our bags to come off before we headed off, following the signs, to the station for the Leonardo Express (14 euro) into the main Rome train station – this was a non-stop service and took 32 minutes – very handy. There we, relying on my feeble Italian, were directed to the train to Zagarolo via a ticket machine where we purchased the required tickets for 2.90euro (I was hoping I had said – I’m sorry I only understand a little Italian- where is the train to Zagarolo” and that the answer of “20” was pertinent). Anyway we got on the train with about 20 seconds to spare and it pulled off. We then spent the next 35 minutes worrying that we were travelling where we were hoping to go… Phew! The 5th station, at exactly the expected time, turned out to be … Zagarollo!!! Yea!!
    Kirstin had spotted a supermarket as we arrived so I nipped down the road and made a few purchases while she minded the cases and then called the hostel for pick up (how convenient). We were soon in a nice van and a mere 5 minutes later we were entering Rome Wiki Hostel – a terribly weird, kind of hippy, trippy place in the hills of Rome. We have a “Private Room” which includes an ensuite at the princely sum of 30 euro pp per night (inc breakfast, free shuttle to and from station, a kitchen, wi-fi and cheap food and beverages if required - inc a 7euro pp pizza party on Friday nights).
    We settled in and then off to the kitchen (where Kirstin resisted the urge to sterilise the dishes and contented herself with giving everything a good wash) to make dinner. We had been carrying clam sauce and squid ink pasta since Venice and added some salad and cheese to make a delicious and filling meal (the wine I had been lugging around since Germany also helped – well we did have to drink it as we couldn’t risk taking to Dubai after all!). Sated… or perhaps to be honest… stuffed… the next step was to plan the next 2 days in Rome… and actually Zagarolo which looks like a really nice little town!
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  • Day31

    Back on the bike

    September 19, 2017 in Italy ⋅ ⛅ 22 °C

    After yet another wonderful breakfast at the B&B, I ventured down to reception to inquire about using one of their bicycles for the day – with a bit of banging around in a large cupboard a helmet and the key for the lock were unearthed. This was followed shortly by a bicycle (a vintage, step through with no gears and a seat like a rock – but it worked). The seat was duly adjusted to something approaching the required height and with some elaborate pantomime I indicated that I needed a pump as the tires were flat. More banging and one was found – I was about to set to with it when a laborer from the adjacent construction site stepped in and insisted on attending to the problem (I must look frail or something). Tires fixed and I was ready to set off in the direction of Aci Castello as recommended by Manuel yesterday as having a lovely castle and a good place to swim a little further on at Tezza.
    We had also discussed the interesting Italian, and more specifically Sicilian, approach to driving. This being that traffic lights, street signs and indeed most road rules were “suggestive”. Manuel further explained that if one approached a pedestrian crossing with a red light it was merely a “suggestion” that you might like to stop, if you were in a good mood, the crossing wasn’t in use and so on. With this in mind I ventured out into the traffic and it turned out to be good advice. Staying alert was important but also relaxed, cars were going everywhere and it was clear that road rules and even which side of the road to drive on were pretty notional, however there was NO aggression, people just kind of wafted about, let each other in and I certainly felt more comfortable than I have on several occasions road riding in Melbourne. I WAS beeped twice, however it was clear on both occasions that this was a “I’m coming past” warning, not a “bloody bike I wish to squash you” type of encounter.
    I had a fair idea how to get to Aci Castello (keep the sea on your right and ride for about 8.5km) and was pleased to locate the town and castle after about 40 minutes – the ride was really pleasant with gentle undulations along the coast. I paused to enjoy the view and take photo’s but decided not to visit the castle and then pressed on. Passing Tezza I couldn’t really see anywhere to swim so I decided to keep going – again I knew that if I kept the sea on my right I would be ok, I also recalled that road SS114 was one that I needed to keep track of. Unfortunately this plan didn’t quite work as I got a bit turned around and seemed to be heading towards the Autostrada (turns out I wasn’t but never mind) and to avoid this, I took a left turn and ended up diverting through a village with lovely views of Mt Etna and a long hill – never mind it was a lovely day.
    Eventually I found my way back to the coast at a lookout overlooking a nature reserve. I could see a small village and a swimming spot so I followed the cobbled lane down (1km, and very steep) to the water. By this point I had ridden 19kms so I decided to stop for a drink and a swim. Again no “beach” as we would know it but all the locals were swimming from the rocks so I did too (the water was warm and clear) and then sat on the rocks for a while to dry off. Deciding that climbing back up the lane was not going to be ideal I headed through the village which was really rather pretty and I zig zagged my way up through the terraces to the main road (good old SS114) again and turned back towards Catania.
    The trip back was certainly quicker, first because I avoided the previously mentioned village detour and second because I was able to enjoy the benefit of all that climbing with some long steady downhills where I found myself whizzing along at almost 50km/hour (perhaps not entirely sensible given the dodgy bike)! Returning to Aci Castello I got a bit turned around in the village but once I found the castle and coast again I was able to orientate myself (keep the sea on the left this time) and head back into Catania. At one stage I stumbled across a beautiful bike path which seemed to start in the middle on nowhere in particular, run for about 4km and then just as suddenly stop – very nice while it lasted.
    Back in Catania after a 40km round trip (very pleasant) I visited café Spinella opposite the Giodano Bellini – this had been recommended by 2 people as the place to go to try the local speciality Pistachio Anrancino and I had decided that I couldn’t leave Sicily without tasting. I duly took a seat and ordered a anrancino and a beer and took my time enjoying both immensely.
    Back at the B&B I returned the bike, thanked the kind gentleman who had assisted with the tires and then having showered and refreshed headed out for a final walk around the city centre, just wandering and enjoying the warmth and sunshine for a few hours.
    Kirstin meanwhile had had a more relaxing day visiting the herbarium museum and Sicilian tea rooms where she enjoyed an informed discussion about herbs and tea plus tea and biscuits afterwards. She also visited the beautiful and historic library which not only houses historic books but also had art on display and a lovely palm and cactus filled garden.
    At about 7.45 we ventured out for dinner. The restaurant Il Sale (the Salt) had been highly recommended and hence I was highly disappointed when my meal turned out to be under-cooked, bland and overpriced… really it would have to be the worst, most boring food I have eaten in Sicily – I was so disappointed with my black tagliatelle. Kirstin had the Cod Ravioli and reported it was ok but really, I wasn’t impressed and was happy to leave and go and have a Gelati from the place on the corner (pistachio and chocolate… not bad) rather than add insult to injury with a second-rate dessert! What a bummer ending to our stay in Catania – oh well Rome tomorrow!
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  • Day30

    A tale of a volcano - Etna

    September 18, 2017 in Italy ⋅ 🌙 17 °C

    After another substantial and delicious breakfast we headed out to a designated meeting point for our “Etna Excursion”. A small minivan arrived promptly at 9am and we met Doctor Manuel Paulo – a Vulconologist and geologist from the Italian Seismic Institute along with well our 5 fellow participants (3 mates from Greece and a couple from Israel – interestingly all our age or older). Manuel proved an amazing guide. The 40 minute drive to the highest village on the north side of Etna (Milo) was simply filled with information about Volcanos in general and Etna in Particular. We learned for example that Etna is a fairly young volcano (in geological terms) having popped up out of the sea some 250,000 years ago, filling in what was a huge bay in the prehistoric Sicily. It has 4 top cones one of which is very unpredictable in its behaviour having gained 300m in altitude in the last few years. Etna erupts from the top on a regular basis – showering the local villages with ash and dust several times per year – however given that the top of the volcano is at 3,300 and the villages are not permitted above the 1000m line this is considered little more than an inconvenience. Etna also erupts laterally quite often, the last major incident being in 2002 – this can involve months (or even years) of lava flow from the lateral vent – however as lava is generally very slow moving it is, again, considered more of an inconvenience than a danger as it rarely impacts on villages as mostly these eruptions occur well above the 1000m line. However having said all this Manuel explained that unlike many other volcano’s (Vesuvius for example) Etna is generally considered a very predicable and “safe volcano” having an open vent, it is not likely to explode unexpectedly and can be (an is) easily monitored – indeed Manuel explained that when he is not living his gypsy life guiding on volcano’s all around the world – does measurements and predictions for the Italian Government.
    A brief toilet and further chat stop in Milo and then we were off in to the Etna national park. Our first stop was a lava flow from the 1970’s we were able to see the beginning of regeneration of this flow with plants starting to take hold here and there. We walked on the flow and Manuel explained about the nature and behaviour of lava flows – how they are slow moving – a few metres per hour and have a crust that (in Etna’s case) means you can stand within inches of the lava and feel nothing more than a “bit warm” – indeed we were shown how a flow passed within inches of a tree and didn’t set it on fire, indeed didn’t even bother it as it was still alive and healthy. Next, we were taken to the 2002 flow so that we could contrast how sterile and dessert like the newer flow was compared to the older one. It was interesting to see how one moment you would be standing in 600year old forest (from the last time it was destroyed by lava), then suddenly you would be on a sterile black dessert, then crossing the space of 20m you were back in 600-year-old forest.
    We continued on and had the opportunity to climb a series of lateral craters (the top craters require a high level of fitness and many hours trekking as the road does not extend beyond 1800m and thus the climb is a further 1500m. The craters we visited were at about 2200 m and afforded an amazing view of both Etna and the surrounding area. They were part of a “chain” or “bottle” of lateral craters extending down the side of the volcano which erupted in the 1860’s. Once the lateral vents have erupted however they seal off forever as the lava in these lateral tubes solidifies into basalt, this is in contrast to the top craters which on Etna remain open (and are hence safer as the gases cannot build up an hence risk the catastrophic explosion which is the concern for Vesuvius) due to the continued action of the magma chamber and hence the inability of the lave a to solidify.
    Manuel also shared amazing local knowledge of plants and animals and how they had adapted to the local conditions – there are a number of Etna specific species – a type of Birch for example, a grasshopper that is black like the volcanic rock and sand, a type of Broom and a variant of the Jägermeister plant that grows taller and has longer flower stalks as an adaptation to the dark, rocky soil.
    We were also able to visit some of the lava tube caves – these form when the lava flows slowly through a steep gully and the top of the lave crust cools and seals over, the lava then continues to flow down the slope and eventually as it stops flowing from the vent the tube which has formed empties leaving a tunnel or cave. Hundreds of years ago clever locals used these caves for ice – they would pack the caves with snow, compacting it to make ice, in the winter and the insulating properties of the volcanic rock would mean they could “harvest” and sell the ice in the summer – it was a very lucrative business apparently
    Leaving the national park we ventured down to a local winery to taste some of the Etna wines made from the grapes grown in the rich volcanic soil. We tried a white which I thought was ok and then 2 very very nice reds. This was accompanied by antipasto, bread, olives, pasta and tiramisu – delicious! And certainly, more than the light lunch we were expecting. We were also shown the wine making “Cantine” including the bottling machine that can bottle around 1000 bottles per hour! Last stop on the tour (which ended up taking almost 9 hours) was a honey centre – honey is the other major industry on Etna and we were able to taste several varieties – some of which combined pistachios and hazelnuts which are also major crops of the region. With full stomachs and fuller brains we returned to Cantania – indeed we were so “overloaded” that we decided that a evening stroll to the supermarket (to buy deodorant, toothpaste and a drink) was all we needed!
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  • Day29

    Catania – Ruins, Escher & Fish

    September 17, 2017 in Italy ⋅ 🌙 25 °C

    I woke feeling sad and sooky – call it the Birthday Blues, I don’t know but if I could have magic’d myself home would have done it in a flash. However birthday wishes from Sam and then Kirstin brightened my day and we meandered off to breakfast, something, we were to discover, not to be missed. They certainly take the “breakfast” part of B&B very seriously here as there was soooo much lovely food.
    Once we had eaten, we ventured out into the city. Catania is both old and young – old in that there is evidence of Greek settlement 100’s of years BC but young in that most of the city was destroyed following an earthquake in the late 1600’s. We visited many of the significant sites of the city, several churches as well as the Roman Theatre – the latter was a fascinating archaeological site - originally constructed by the Greeks in approx. 730BC, it was subsequently rebuilt and then modified by the Romans in the 1st through 4th Centuries AD before being abandoned around the 5th or 6th Century. It was completely built over in the 11th and 13th Centuries but rediscovered after the 1693 earthquake – excavations followed intermittently from the late 18th Century and have been steadily ongoing since the 1960’s. The site is now used frequently for live performances and was really quite amazingly intact, although it was much smaller than the theatre we saw at Verona (9 sections with a capacity of about 12,000) and was only used for theatre rather than Gladiatorial activities. We also visited the Castle Ursino – this was originally a fortress and strategic military position built between 1239 and 1250. When it was built it was on the edge of the sea, however during an eruption of Mt Etna in the mid 1600’s the moat filled with lava and the shoreline shifted such that the castle is now more than a kilometre inland, it is also one of the few buildings to have survived the 1693 earthquake which caused more than 60,000 deaths (about 2/3 of the population of Catania at the time). We didn’t go into the castle as we were a bit over looking at old things but had a wander around outside admiring the lava flow that surrounded it.
    We moved on to the Duomo (Cathedral of St Agata) where the local Indian community was celebrating what appeared to be a first communion – it was vibrant and noisy and the Cathedral was thronging with people posing in family groups to take celebratory photos. The Cathedral itself is massive and certainly the largest of the many many churches (there seems to be at least 2 on every corner!) in Catania. Originally built between 1078 and 1093 the structure was battered by earthquakes and volcanic eruptions of Mount Etna several times and had to be rebuilt. The original cathedral was then totally destroyed in 1693 and is an interesting mix of Norman and Baroque architecture. Most of the churches we visited were similarly decorated ornate but less over the top than those we had seen in other cities – they reminded me of an old-fashioned wedding cake or as Kirstin suggested Wedgewood plates – gold scroll work, cream plaster, cream and pale pink marble and soft hued ceiling frescos.
    It was a lovely warm to hot morning but with a pleasant breeze. We wandered past fountains and an open air market until about 1pm when we called in at a café called Prestepino which had been recommended as serving tasty snacks aimed at locals rather than tourists. I enjoyed a birthday been and a pistachio cannoli.
    While exploring the previous afternoon we had noticed that there was a MC Escher (the Dutch graphic artist who made mathematically inspired woodcuts, lithographs, and mezzotints) exhibition at Plazzo della Cultura (about 3 minutes’ walk from where we are staying. It was only 12euro to visit and we spent about 2 hours enjoying the pieces – really a fantastic exhibition with over a hundred works, a free audio guide and even some interactive stations – just great. With full brains we headed back to the B&B to fill our stomachs with left over pizza and calzone.
    With a such a lovely afternoon and several hours to spare we decided to head down to “free beach number one”, that really is the name of the beach, it isn’t far from “free beach number two” and, you guessed it… “free beach number three”. It was about a 2.2km walk but the google maps directions made for some hairy road crossings as the Italian ideas about what constitutes a safe foot path are well…interesting to say the least! We arrived to find a fairly grubby beach but still it was nice to sit on the sand in the sun for an hour and I even went for a quick dip before we headed back to the B&B for a shower and change.
    Federico (one of the B&B staff had recommended Corte dei Biscari as a local fish restaurant for good (non tourist) food, seeing as he had been spot on with Locanda Cerami where we ate last night and Prestipino (mmmm that cannoli) we decided this would be a good place for my birthday tea (I only wish we had been hungrier!!) It was lovely, the service was fantastic and it was 50euro for the best meal that I have eaten in Italy so far. There was eggplant and zucchini bruschetta to start (complimentary, along with the fizzy mineral water and a HUGE basket of delicious bread and grissini), we then chose swordfish croquettes (me) and tuna with black and white sesame, almonds and a type of marmalade (for Kirstin) plus a huge plate of delicious grilled veggies AND Wine (plus I got a free glass of prosecco because it was my birthday! There was also a visit by the restaurant cat - they were amazed when I said I really liked the cat, but that it wouldn’t be allowed in Australia!
    After all that food I needed a walk and went for a stroll up into the centre of town – the place was absolutely humming 930 at night and people just seemed to be getting going, streets clogged, restaurants packed, cars going everywhere! Amazing … but apparently that’s Sicily for you.
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