Thursday, May 25, 2006

From Paris

Bonsoir and hello again,

Following on from my last update from the Plitvice Lakes National Park in Croatia, we continued north back into Italy via Slovenia and a visit to the world-renowned Postojna Caves. Those who took the two and a half hour cave tour certainly appreciated the natural beauty of the magnificent caverns, the glistening stalactite formations and cave animals in this largest and most visited cave in Europe. After a picnic lunch in brilliant sunshine along the river in the park at Postojna, we had a slow trip for our three nights in Verona. Heavy semi and truck traffic plus a truck accident slowed travelling to a snails pace for some kilometers. However we kept amused with a sing-along in the buses and arrived at the elegant Hotel Giberti in Verona around 7pm, in plenty of time to find a good restaurant for dinner.

Our very passionate local guide of Verona was the same chap we had on our last visit here. Those of you who were on that tour would surely remember Andrea. You would also remember the fantastic meal we had at the Il Cenacolo restaurant - roughly translated to 'The Last Supper'. Well nothing has changed except a slight price increase, absolutely delicious food and great service. Thanks to Jaak Jarv for the restaurant recommendation some years ago, we enjoyed this gastronomic indulgence again.

Although Verona is very much a walking city, many locals ride bicycles, as did Myles and John, who took the hotel bikes and cycled around - a great way to go.
The sun shone for our entire time here as we strolled through this truly impressive city with its picturesque winding lanes of the old town centre, lovely walks beside the river, the Arena, churches and monuments and shops to die for. As you know, Verona was the romantic backdrop of Romeo and Juliet's mythical and tragic love affair so of course we visited the courtyard of Juliet's house with the famous balcony! In this courtyard is the brass statue of Juliet with her very shiny right breast, enthusiastically polished by the fondling of many tourists eager to find their true love, which allegedly will follow! Let's see! 'Verona' is the name painted on the lead-light in the front door of our 100 year old home in Naremburn. It would be interesting to know why the house was so named. Maybe our home is like this city, ancient and modern, calm and chaotic, yet with its own charm and significance.

En route to Switzerland we had a splendid drive particularly around beautiful Lake Como. We lunched outside at a lakeside café in Tremezzo and were flabbergasted by the absolute opulence of the magnificent villas that surround the lake. Here is serious money! We arrived at our family owned and run hotel in the village of Intragna to be instantly invited to join the family on the decorated hotel terrace for an aperitif at 5.30 to celebrate the marriage that afternoon of the eldest daughter. Well all Australians love a party and it was not too long before we were singing, dancing and supporting the piano accordion player and violinist with me playing the spoons and Nancy expertly converting a tray into a tamborine. Although the more reserved bona fide wedding guests were clearly enjoying themselves, I did feel they might have been slightly thankful when our group moved into the dining room for dinner at 7.30pm and they to the wedding breakfast. It was a fun impromptu evening.

Intragna is a delightful small village with many buildings made of stone giving one the illusion of having stepped back into the 13th century. It is also unique because (as we witnessed), it combines Italian grace and charm with Swiss efficiency and hospitality.

The next two days we spent in the village of Lauterbrunnen in the spectacular Lauterbrunnen valley surrounded by the natural beauty of the Swiss Alps. From this base our group used their time to individually explore the area. Some took the amazing mountain rail to mountain villages or the cable car further up to the Schilthorn (2970 m) and on to the Top of Europe the Jungfaujoch (4158 m). Myles and I hiked to the spectacular Trummelbach, ten glacier waterfalls inside the mountain. Interlaken was a popular shopping destination and easily accessibly by train. As a result, more purchases included a rather large cuckoo clock found their way into our buses!

Our last stay before reaching Paris was in a elegant XV11 century Château set in a 27 hectare private park near the vineyards of Bourgogne, in the Saulon la Rue district about 16km out of Dijon. It was here we had our last official group dinner and what a gastronomic experience it was, true to the Bourgogne tradition.

Paris was unseasonably cool when we arrived and had apparently had a week of very cold days. This morning was cool however the skies cleared this afternoon and the sun peeped through enough for one to confidently anticipate a better weather day tomorrow. This city is full of light and magic no matter what the weather.

We hear that Sydney has had some rain, the Swans had another victory last weekend, Sophie is making remarkable progress and Tony Mundine is still 'the man' - so all is apparently well!

Those who are flying directly home or staying over three nights in Bangkok depart Paris on Saturday. It has been a great tour and gone rather quickly.

Looking forward to catching up with friends and relatives very soon.

Au revoir for now,


25 May 2006


Thursday, May 18, 2006

From Italy

Hi Everyone,

This is day 24 of our fantastic tour and I cannot believe this is the first email update I have written. Apologies to those who have been waiting with bated breath for news!

Today the sun is shining brilliantly, it is not too hot and our group is discovering the magnificent Plitvice National Park in Croatia with its crystal clear lakes and cascading waterfalls.

However, I should start at the beginning: - Our flight to Rome was uneventful and on time. The Eternal city welcomed us with radiant sunshine and a hotel that had been flooded the night before by a burst water pipe. No problem, another hotel had been booked for us. This replacement hotel is well located near Termini station, within walking distance of the Colosseum and Trevi fountain and has a metro and train station practically at the door - most convenient. For some of our group our three-night stay was an introduction to Rome but for most it was a very pleasant re-acquaintance.

Our group of sixteen set off in our comfy mini vans to Sorrento via Pompei. Visiting Pompei has become a lot more of a commercial exercise since my last visit with designated parking lots and landscaped entrances to Pompei but the excavations remain as they were of course and are still fascinating. We had three nights in beautiful Sorrento with our hotel overlooking the bay of Naples. Perched on a cliff and surrounded by lemon and orange groves, Sorrento is a real tourist resort of natural beauty without the bustle of the larger cities. It is easy to amble around the cobbled streets and find great restaurants snuggled under bougainvillea pergolas. It is also the ideal location to base and take day trips to the islands and the Amalfi coast. Most of our group took the ferry to Capri and Ana Capri on the first day here. The next day was rainy but this didn't dampen anyone's spirits, they took the very hairy bus ride to Positano. Absolutely stunning views all the way on this narrow snaking cliff-side road to this fascinating village that is famous for the invention of the bikini and home to some very rich and famous people.

From Sorrento we travelled mostly on minor roads from the Amafi coast into the Citron Rivera of Calabria. Our stay at Cape Vaticano in a country family run hotel was wonderful. We left laden with bags of oranges from their trees and Papa's home made wine. Cape Vaticano is the last strip of land before the Straits of Messina. About 10 km away we spent a morning in the popular resort town of Tropea that overlooks a stretch of the Tyrrhenian Sea. This ancient historic town has for years attracted archaeologists and historical researchers looking for Calabrian history. It is full of monuments, churches, ancient memorial plaques and narrow cobbled streets and of course has panoramic sea views. Few people speak English here in this region. The streets were full of life and processions; we think they were celebrating May Day.

The next nine days we spent discovering the best of Sicily. What can I say? Sicily is steeped in history and a mind-boggling heritage. Everywhere we visited on this lovely island was fascinating. Brian Johnston, the author of the book 'Sicilian Summer' said that although Sicily might be overlooked today, conquerors of the past recognised its attractions. Today the legacy left by the Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Normans and Spaniards who all ruled Sicily at some time is both breathtaking and fascinating and clearly evident in well preserved ruins, glittering mosaic work and baroque churches.

We stayed in a beachside hotel in amazing Taormina and drove to Mt Etna on our way to our elegant hotel on the medieval baroque island of Ortygia, Syracuse, with the harbour on one side and the sea on the other. The island is linked to the mainland by bridge and is a maze of streets and alleyways with elegant Piazzas and Baroque squares. We visited many notable villages such as the baroque Noto and Caltagirone famous for ceramics and mosaics and we stayed in the heart of the World Heritage-listed 'Valley of The Temples'. The Sicilian countryside is absolutely beautiful. Our timing to visit was perfect, the weather was kind and we meandered through miles of fields full of various brightly coloured wildflowers to the ancient seaside resort town of Cefalù in northern Sicily. From here we took a train to the dilapidated capital city Palermo with its scruffy buildings and the striking and dazzling world- renowned Monreale mosaic cathedral just outside of Palermo. I know when one is travelling one can tire of visiting endless castles and cathedrals but this cathedral is a definite must-see. I should add here that if I do not visit another ruin for a few years I wont mind!

Next we had an overnight crossing the Adriatic Sea on the Marco-Polo from Bari in Italy to Dubrovnik. Visiting Dubrovnik again has confirmed that this historic city is close to the top of my 'favourite destination' list. The drive up the Dalmatian coastline is definitely the most stunning I have ever experienced. After our stay in Split and visiting the World heritage town of Trogir, we came here to the Plitvice National Park.

As I mentioned we have sixteen fun loving travellers in our group, all easy to travel with. We have enjoyed many evenings wining and dining plus a few memorable impromptu parties singing songs as John played his beloved ukulele.

Our only hiccup on the tour was the death of a starter motor on one of our new Peugeot Boxer buses with only 1200km on the clock. We now have a suitable replacement bus- a VW Opal.

Myles has again proved that he is a navigator extraordinaire. He delights in finding the back roads and over-ruling and reprogramming Rita (Rita The Router - our GPS). Rita served us well in Italy but does not know Croatia.

Besides navigating, Myles has taken hundreds of wonderful photos. Add his to mine and you could be are in danger of wading through a very large photo album or slide show!! So be warned.

Tomorrow we go onto Verona via the fabulous Postojna Caves in Slovenia.

To those who email bits of Australian news I thank you. I am thrilled to hear that the Swannies are getting some points on the ladder.

Wish you could all be here sharing this wonderful travel experience.

Arriverderci and Doviðenja for now.