Maureen's Travels

Joined February 2018
  • Day17

    Day 17 - Sun, May 5 - Heading Home

    May 5 in Italy ⋅ 🌧 12 °C

    Up early to have breakfast - it was lovely to watch the sun burning the mist off the lake. We rendezvoused with Simone and two other couples at 7:30 a.m. and headed to the airport. The other couple had an 8:00 a.m. flight so Simone had done a 6:00 a.m. trip to the airport.

    It was sad to say goodbye to our travel companions, but nice to know that we were headed home. Our flight didn't leave until 1:40 p.m., so we had to wait almost two hours until we could check in our luggage. The flight left on time and arrived a bit early. Thankfully, it was a smooth flight, so Doug was in great shape. We were home safe and sound by 7:00 p.m. Toronto time - that's 1:00 a.m. Rome time. Going to have to stay up for a while to get back in synch.

    And so, our Bella Italia trip with Great Tours of Italy has come to an end. We had a fabulous time - there is nothing quite like small group touring. And there is nothing like a small group tour led by Simone to leave indelible memories. We learned a lot, saw a lot and laughed a lot and enjoyed the company of six wonderful fellow travellers.

    We hope that you have enjoyed following along with us and learning about the art, history, architecture, culture, geography, food and wine of Italy. We will be traveling again in the fall - see you then for more adventures!
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  • Day16

    Day 16 - Sat, May 4 - Ruins of Pompeii

    May 4 in Italy ⋅ 🌧 16 °C

    Today we woke up to light rain. After having such glorious sunshine for our day driving around the Amalfi Coast, none of us was going to complain. We loaded up the van and started our journey north. Our first stop was the ruins of Pompeii where we met up with our local guide, Sabrina.

    Pompeii was an ancient Roman city near modern Naples in the Campania region of Italy. Pompeii, along with Herculaneum and many villas in the surrounding area, was buried under 4 to 6 m (13 to 20 ft) of volcanic ash and pumice in the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in AD 79. (We saw Mount Vesuvius on Tuesday - it was obscured today by clouds and fog.) Volcanic ash typically buried inhabitants who did not escape the lethal effects of the earthquake and eruption.

    Largely preserved under the ash, the excavated city offers a unique snapshot of Roman life, frozen at the moment it was buried and providing an extraordinarily detailed insight into the everyday life of its inhabitants. Organic remains, including wooden objects and human bodies, were entombed in the ash and decayed away, making natural molds; and excavators used these to make plaster casts, unique and often gruesome figures from the last minutes of the catastrophe. The numerous graffiti carved on the walls and inside rooms provides a wealth of examples of the largely lost Vulgar Latin spoken colloquially, contrasting with the formal language of the classical writers.

    Pompeii is a UNESCO World Heritage Site status and is one of the most popular tourist attractions in Italy, with approximately 2.5 million visitors every year. It is the second most-visited sight in Italy, after the Roman Colosseum.

    Sabrina walked us through the huge site, pointing out how the people of Pompeii would have lived - small shop owners selling clothing or fast food or leather goods, wealthy import/export merchants living in large, beautifully decorated houses and being waited on by slaves, communal fountains providing clean water and a place to exchange tidbits of information, the forum where people would gather to hear messages from the city rulers, the local brothel with its frescoes showing “available experiences” - a sort of early sexual catalogue, the bakery which provided loaves and loaves of bread, the flour miller’s shop providing the flour for the bakery, the long roads laid out in a grid pattern, grooves cut into the volcano rocks on the roads caused by wagon wheels, the baths where people (men and women separate) gathered to bathe and gossip and be seen. It was fascinating - our interest was not dampened by the rain.

    Pompeii was our last tourist stop. We continued on towards Rome. We are staying overnight in a town called Castel Gandolfo. This is where the papal summer residence, Palazzo Pontificio, is located. Pope Francis doesn’t use it - he stays in Rome even during the insufferably hot summers. Our hotel room overlooks Lake Gandolfo which is actually a volcanic crater. Yet another beautiful setting. We are only 30 km from the Rome airport and only about 30 km from the the Roman Colosseum. You would never know it - this area is green and lush and tranquil - a far cry from the hustle and bustle and noise and crowds of Rome.

    Tonight’s dinner will be our last together. Simone won’t be with us. His mother lives nearby and he will be attending her retirement party. That’s a very good excuse to not join us for yet another laughter-filled dinner!
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  • Day15

    Day 15 - Fri, May 3 - Taking it easy....

    May 3 in Italy ⋅ ⛅ 16 °C

    With our decision to skip the day trip to Capri, we were able to have a leisurely morning. It was a rather grey, overcast morning. From the breakfast room, we watched the ferry leave with four of our fellow travellers. Another couple has decided to take it easy today.

    After breakfast, we explored the lower town - the part down her the water's edge. Virtually all the stores in the lower town are cafés and most were just beginning to open up. Retail stores here typically are open from 9 a.m. to 1:00 p.m., and then closed from 1:00 p.m. to 4:00 p.m. for siesta time. They reopen then and stay open until about 9:00 p.m. which is what we saw last night. At this time of year when the temperatures are moderate, the siesta time is just a nice break in the day rather than a necessity for escaping the fierce summer temperatures.

    We walked back to the hotel and shed a layer of clothing as the day was warming up nicely. We headed out again, this time up the hill towards where we were last night. It's a maze of narrow streets and tiny shops, many of them ceramic shops. I got a Veltri thimble for my collection. We found a little shop and got sandwiches made up and a I sprang for my one and only date with a cannoli on this trip - Italian bakeries are dangerous places to enter. That delectable treat was seriously good.

    It's finally warm enough to put shorts on - yeah!!! I brought them all this way - have to give them some air time. We are going to camp out for the afternoon to read, watch Netflix, perhaps try out that siesta idea, and take it easy until our dinner date in the dining room here at the hotel at 7:45 p.m. We'll be interested to hear how the Capri visitors made out.
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  • Day14

    Day 14 - Thu, May 2 - The Amalfi Coast

    May 2 in Italy ⋅ 🌙 15 °C

    Before I tell you about today’s adventures, I have to tell you about Doug’s adventure last night. One of our travel mates came down with a gastro-intestinal virus when we were in Venice which laid her flat out. We are fortunate to have two nurses in our group. They agreed that Gatorade would be good for the patient. Doug went out last night on a hunt for Gatorade on a national holiday. He headed uphill and eventually found a little place that was open and he got the requisite medicine. But, in the dark, he missed the stairway that would take him back to the hotel. He got hopelessly lost. He asked for help from two young couples. Between Google Translate and their few words of English, Doug was able to relate his sad story. He didn’t know the name of the street for the hotel, and even worse, he didn’t know the name of the hotel! I was watching Netflix in bed when a message flashed on the screen from him asking for the name of the hotel. I scrambled to find it - there is nothing in the room that says the name of the hotel but I found it in the documentation we got from Great Tours of Italy - and sent it off to him. Then I started watching where his phone is using the “find my phone” technology. I was panicky as I watched him drift off the street he was supposed to be on but then, blessedly, he got back on it before I called out the troops. Turns out the young people took him to a parking lot so they could get their car (which is why I saw Doug moving off the main road…) and drove him to the door of the hotel, finding it all a great adventure that they had rescued a Canadian!! The Gatorade was delivered to the patient, who this morning, was looking and feeling much, much better. Must have been the Gatorade…..

    This hotel is sort of upside down. The lobby (street level) is on the third floor. The restaurant/breakfast room is on the second floor. Our rooms are on the first floor and there are rooms above the lobby floor. That’s how things go in a town where most of the buildings cling to the side of a cliff. All rooms look out over the water. We had breakfast in the hotel dining while enjoying the bright sunshine and the sight of dolphins dancing in the gorgeous blue water. We could have sat there all day watching the fishermen and the birds and the dolphins, but we had a 9:00 a.m. date with Simone. We headed off to Sorrento via the scenic route called the Amalfi Coast. The Amalfi Coast is on the World Heritage List for its unique landscape, its natural beauty and its balance of human settlement with the dramatic topography of the coastline. Amalfi was once a distinguished maritime republic and trading power whose influence was felt in the Orient as well as the West.

    Doug and I have seen a lot of fabulous coastal scenery in our travels, but the scenery we saw today vaulted itself into first place for being the most dramatic and beautiful. Look at the first picture - it’s a map of where we went on the Sorrentine Peninsula. We twisted and turned, navigated tight switchbacks, went through tunnels, dodged crazy drivers, edged past tour buses, avoided the cars and scooters that are parked everywhere, and all the while, we all gawked at the incredible scenery. Steep mountains to our right; precipitous drops to our left; a rugged shoreline far below us; and azure blue water as far as the eye could see on a warm, sunny day. We passed through little villages with houses and tiny shops clinging right to the rock face. We saw precious parking spots cantilevered out over the edge. We saw grand villas, terraced vineyards, and cliffside lemon groves. This is where the lemons for the famous Limoncello liqueur are made. It was simply an incredible experience.

    Our first stop was in Maiori. We enjoyed a leisurely stroll along the waterfront and soaked up the glorious sunshine. From there, we went to Positano, passing through the town of Amalfi that gives this coastal area its name. Positano is a major ceramics centre. We went to a shop and learned how the ceramics are made and ogled the huge selection of brightly-coloured hand painted items. From Positano, we cut across the peninsula towards Sorrento. We stopped at a lovely little restaurant that Simone discovered by accident a few years ago and now uses for all of his tour groups. With beautiful panoramic views to feast our eyes on, we had a 5-course lunch along with wine and limoncello! Yikes! This good living is taking its toll…..I'm living at the gym starting Monday......

    Next stop - Sorrento - another town perched atop cliffs that separate the town from its busy (and expensive) marinas. We had some free time here. We easily found the main square, Piazza Tasso, which is lined with cafés. All around it is a warren of narrow alleys, one of which led us to a lookout point with a fabulous view of the beach and the marina. We finished our shopping - a little oil painting of Amalfi and Doug’s tie for Patrick’s wedding - finally!

    Another swoop-and-run and we headed home. Thankfully, there is a highway/tunnel system that cuts across the peninsula that took us home in half the time that the morning drive took. Doug’s constitution couldn’t have taken a second trip like that. (He has done fabulously well on this trip. Yippee!!!) On the way home, Doug and I both mused about how services such as fire, ambulance and police deal with the winding, narrow roads and the hordes of tourists. It’s not an area for the faint of heart….beautiful but challenging.

    Dinner was on our own tonight, so Doug and I climbed part way up the hill to a little pizzeria that Simone had pointed out this morning. We enjoyed a delicious pizza and a bottle of water - our cheapest meal by far, but one of the best.! We kept on going up and up and up and found a lot of stores still open after 8:00 p.m. We were on the hunt for chocolate (as if we hadn’t had enough to eat for one day….) but found only flowers, stationery, jewelry, clothing, ceramics, many cafés and lots of meat/fish/cheese stores. Some of these stores are smaller than our bedroom - we can’t figure out how they survive. We finally tracked down some chocolate which has fuelled this typing session. For future reference, the best selection of chocolate is at the rest stops along the highway.

    Tomorrow, the island of Capri is on the agenda. One of its best-known natural sights is the Blue Grotto, a dark cavern where the sea glows electric blue, the result of sunlight passing through an underwater cave. However, it’s a two-hour ferry ride to get to Capri and another two-hour ride to get back. Doug’s motion sickness gets badly aggravated by the rocking/rolling motion of boats. No sense poking a snake with a stick when he has done so incredibly well. So, we are going to bypass Capri. (There must be YouTube videos of the grotto.) We’ll explore the lower part of the town and walk on the beach and enjoy a bit of downtime. On Saturday we head to Pompeii and then to Rome. We fly home on Sunday.

    It’s been another memorable day. Time for some Netflix watching.
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  • Day13

    Day 13 - Wed, May 1 - Assisi & Amalfi

    May 1 in Italy ⋅ ⛅ 16 °C

    Today’s first stop was Assisi, the birthplace of St. Francis, who founded the Franciscan religious order in the town in 1208, and St. Clare, the founder of the Poor Sisters, which later became the Order of Poor Clares after her death. St. Francis shares honours with St. Catherine of Siena as the patron saint of Italy. He is also the patron saint of animals and is remembered as a lover of nature (his preaching to an audience of birds is one of the legends of his life). On November 29, 1979, Pope John Paul II declared Saint Francis the Patron Saint of Ecology.

    We met up with our guide, Francesca and did a walking tour of the town. Today, May 1st, is a national holiday in Italy when Italians commemorate the labor union movement's social and economic achievements on Labor Day. The town was festooned with red and blue flags representing the two teams of Assisi residents who compete in friendly games on Labour Day. We saw an area being set up for a cross bow competition to be held in the afternoon - alas, after our departure.

    UNESCO collectively designated the Franciscan structures of Assisi as a World Heritage Site in 2000 - we could see why - there are churches everywhere. We drank in the beautiful views and then toured the Basilica of Santa Chiara (St. Clare) with its massive lateral buttresses, rose window, and simple Gothic interior, begun in 1257. It contains the tomb of the St. Clare. This was especially moving for me as my middle name is Clare.

    Francesca told us how St. Francis wanted to be buried with the other sinners (the town criminals) and to be forgotten. Well, he got his first wish, but NOT his second wish. The entire town is a homage to him and a popular pilgrimage spot. Stores sell a huge range of Francis-related products - statues, carvings, ceramics, key chains, t-shirts…..the list goes on and on.

    We wound our way through the narrow streets to the Basilica of San Francesco d'Assisi (St. Francis). This is actually two churches. The smaller, lower one contains the tomb of St. Francis. When the small church could no longer handle the massive numbers of pilgrims, a huge church was built up above it. The walls and ceilings are adorned with fabulous frescoes done by the Italian artist, Giotto. They depict scenes from the life of St. Francis, including his preaching to the birds. The colours are still vibrant and hundreds and hundreds of years. The mosaic patterns on the floor and on the ceiling and on the pillars made this quilt lady’s fingers itch to take pictures - but, alas, photos are not allowed.

    We had a bit of free time. We got some lunch in a lovely little café run by friends of two of our travellers from California. Simone did another swoop-and-run and at 12:30 p.m., we continued our trip south. Destination - the Amalfi Coast on the Mediterranean Sea. We drove through rain several times, and were finally rewarded with clear skies when we got to Salerno after 4 hours. We saw Mount Vesuvius off in the distance - we will see it again on Saturday. We are actually staying in a little suburb called Vietri sul Mare. We wound our way down, down, down the side of the hill to shore level which whetted our seaside appetites, and then partway back up the hill again to our hotel where we will be for 3 nights. Our hotel balconies are right, and I mean, right over top of the shore line. The view over the Mediterranean is enchanting.

    We are having dinner in the hotel tonight overlooking the sea. Today’s drive was well worth it for theses views!!
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  • Day12

    Day 12 - Tue, Apr 30 - Venice to Assisi

    April 30 in Italy ⋅ 🌧 10 °C

    It was another 8:30 a.m. departure. Simone drove us to the closest point that buses and vans can get to the old city of Venice. There we took a water taxi right to San Marco Square. It was another perfect day for sight seeing - a bit cool but sunny with no threat of rain. There were three things that we wanted to do - see San Marco Church, take a gondola ride and look for a tie for Doug to wear at our son Patrick’s wedding in early July. We scored 2 out of 3!

    The Patriarchal Cathedral Basilica of Saint Mark (Italian: Basilica Cattedrale Patriarcale di San Marco), commonly known as Saint Mark's Basilica, is the cathedral church of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Venice. It is the most famous of the city's churches and one of the best known examples of Italo-Byzantine architecture. It lies at the eastern end of the Piazza San Marco, adjacent and connected to the Doge's Palace. Originally it was the chapel of the Doge, and has been the city's cathedral only since 1807.

    For its opulent design, gold ground mosaics, and its status as a symbol of Venetian wealth and power, from the 11th century on the building has been known by the nickname Chiesa d'Oro (Church of gold). It achieves an Oriental feeling of exoticism, partly through blending Byzantine and Islamic elements, but remains unique, and essentially a product of Italian workers of all sorts.

    In 828, relics believed to be the body of Saint Mark were stolen from Alexandria (at the time controlled by the Abbasid Caliphate) by two Venetian merchants with the help of two Greek monks and taken to Venice. A mosaic in St Mark's Basilica depicts sailors covering the relics with a layer of pork and cabbage leaves. Since Muslims are not permitted to eat pork, this was done to prevent the guards from inspecting the ship's cargo too closely.

    In 1063, during the construction of a new basilica in Venice, Saint Mark's relics could not be found. However, according to tradition, in 1094, the saint himself revealed the location of his remains by extending an arm from a pillar. The newfound remains were placed in a sarcophagus in the basilica. The relics of St. Mark, now the patron saint of Venice, are interred under the main altar of the cathedral.

    Even though the cathedral didn’t open until 9:30 a.m., there was already a long line up when we arrived at 9:15 a.m. Waiting in line gave us time to watch San Marco Square fill with people and street vendors. We eventually got in - no photo taking allowed so you will have to take my word that the mosaics are incredible. The building gets little natural light, so it's hard to see the incredible details. The ceiling and the upper walls shine with gold - they are lit at 11:30 a.m. and 12:30 p.m. - alas, too late for our schedule. I particularly liked the mosaic floors - I would have loved to take pictures because so many of the designs would make fabulous quilt patterns.

    Our next objective was to take a gondola ride through the canals. We hopped into a gorgeous black and red one and enjoyed the leisurely ride. It was fascinating to see the boat traffic work without stop lights or roundabouts - lots of friendly shouting and warnings. Because it was morning, there was a lot of commercial boat traffic. As there are no cars or trucks allowed in the old city of Venice, everything - absolutely everything from toilet paper to milk must be brought in by boat. The boat must be loaded by hand at the commercial terminal near where Simone dropped us off, and then it must be unloaded by hand (technical name: “hand bombing”) at a tie up point. (We saw the hand bomb of a case of juice boxes go NOT as planned.) At the tie up point, goods are loaded into little wagons (they look like rickshaws) which are pulled by very strong men who thunder through the streets and alley ways chanting, “Attentione!! Attentione!! It’s a completely different way of life from anything that we have ever seen before.

    After our gondola ride, we wandered the streets, looking at ties. We just haven’t found the right one yet. We will continue our search at every future stop. Like pros (or perhaps with a bit of luck), we found our way back to the water taxi stand and waited and waited for our reserved taxi. No show. Karen phoned Simone who put the giddy up on the driver who arrived shortly. Back to the van and our rendezvous with Simone.

    We began our journey south - destination - Assisi. For the first two hours, We paralleled the Apennine Mountains that run down the centre of Italy like a spine. The land was mostly flat - this is farming country. We passed fields of grapes and apple trees and vegetables and grains. Then we entered the mountains and wound our way up and down valleys and through many tunnels. It was fascinating to see rows of grape vines clinging to the sides of mountains.

    After 4.5 hours, we finally arrived in Assisi which is located on a mountain. The hotel we are staying at for just one night is the same one I stayed at during my 2016 Italy visit. This hotel has a wonderful terrace that gives glorious views of the valley but it’s raining right now. Perhaps it will clear for the morning.

    Dinner will be in the hotel dining room. It’s been another good day.
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