Thoughts of a geek

23 May 2011


Filed under: Photos, Travel — Tags: , , , , , , , , , , — qwandor @ 12:09 am

Oh, time flies. I was going to write about my Italy trip just after my last post, and now it is 10 days later. Well, I have been busy since then. And lazy.

So! I went to Italy. I went for 9 nights in all, over the Easter / Royal Wedding week, as there were 4 bank holidays over 2 weekends and so by taking 3 days of leave it was possible to have a total of 11 contiguous days off work. We left early on Easter Saturday, 23rd April 2011, and got back on the evening of the Early May Bank Holiday, on Monday 2nd May 2011. I guess I should start by noting that I went with my friend Vivian, and her friend Cathy. Both are American and both accountants, though Vivian lives in London at the moment. They had actually planned the trip anyway, and I was fortunate to be able to join them. Travelling with other people is nice, though it does bring its own set of challenges.

Milan: The entrance to Castello Sforzesco

Anyway, we started off by flying to Milan, where we stayed for one night. We had a wander around the city on the Saturday, and saw most of the main sights that we could find, including (as was to become the pattern of our trip) lots of beautiful churches. The castle, Castello Sforzesco, was pretty cool, and the park around it is nice too. We also made it to an interesting interactive art exhibition in front of the Duomo, in large white bubbles. There were all sorts of interesting things to see, try and listen to. On Easter Sunday we went to a service at the Duomo, which was interesting and beautiful despite having little to no idea what was going on due to it all being in Italian. We also paid our money and climbed up to the top to get a view of the city, which was worthwhile. I also bought an Italian SIM card to use in my phone for cheap 3G data. For €20 I got a prepaid SIM with 50 MB free 3G data to use per day for a year, plus some number of free SMSes and the prepaid credit itself, which was rather more than I needed but still a good deal. After a little more looking around near the Duomo we caught the train to Venice.

Milan: The Duomo is really quite spectacular

Venice was completely different, of course. We arrived at the main station on one of the islands, and decided to walk the 20 or 30 minutes or so to our hotel, which was an adventure in itself. The route we took, like most routes in Venice, was rather roundabound and involved crossing many bridges, sometimes back and forth over the same canal. We also found ourselves going from crowded streets, to wide empty streets and squares, to narrow back alleys and back frequently. 3G data, a GPS and Google Maps routing came in very handy, here and for the rest of our time in Venice. Well, it was handy for all our time in Italy, but especially so in Venice.

Venice: Gondolas, of course

After checking in to the hotel the girls got some dinner while I wandered around for a bit, then we met up again and headed to the Basilica di San Marco as it was not that far away. It was a bit late to do anything much, so we just spent the evening wandering through all sorts of different streets, along the waterfront, through empty back streets and crowded streets of shops and restaurants, and over the famous Ponte de Rialto and along the main canal a bit as it got dark. One thing I did notice about Venice is that it never seemed unsafe, even at night on back streets. Perhaps it is just too expensive for the usual criminal demographic to live there. The next day we went back to the Piazza San Marco, where there happened to be a celebration of the city’s anniversary day, or something along those lines, with various military types parading around and raising the flags of the EU, Italy and Venice. We then attended part of the Easter Monday service at the Basilica, which was again beautiful if incomprehensible. After that we climbed up the bell tower to take photos and enjoy the view, then went to the Palazzo Ducale and the various other museums on the piazza. All were interesting, especially the Palazzo, but we were not allowed to take any photos inside so I have no record. For the rest of Venice, though, check out my photos! After that we picked up our bags from the hotel and caught a very crowded river bus back to the train station to head on to Florence. Unfortunately it was rather late by this point, and the only train left was a slow regional one, so it took quite a while and we arrived in Florence quite late that night. Curiously, despite Venice in most respects being one of the most expensive places in Italy, the gelato there was probably the cheapest, ranging from €1.10 to €1.50 for a small cone or cup, compared to closer to €2.00 in most other cities. Strange. Though perhaps they were smaller? I am not sure.

Venice: Looking over St. Mark’s Square and Basilica

We got to Florence late on Monday night, and went to bed as soon as we got to our hostel. Tuesday was our only full day exploring the city, and we saw plenty of things. Lots of lovely churches, again, the Duomo, and again we went up a tower and took panoramas of the city. In Piazza della Republica we found a 3D map of the central city with labels in braille, for the blind. I again tried various different flavours of gelato, all of which were yummy. We went past the Uffizi, which was really near our hotel, but even the queue to buy a ticket for a time later on was enormous and we did not want to spend our limited time waiting in a queue, so we decided to miss it. We did however make it into the Galleria dell’Accademi to see the original David, by paying extra for a 1 hour tour after which we could stay and look around by ourselves. It cost a bit but saved time waiting in line. There were also replicas of the statue in the Piazza della Signoria near the Uffizi, and in the Piazzale Michelangiolo up on the hill across the river, where we went that evening to look down over the city lights.

Florence: The Duomo at night (click the photo, it looks much better bigger!)

On Wednesday we went straight to Pisa on the train, and booked our tickets to climb up the tower. While we were waiting for our assigned timeslot we had a bit of a look around the town, which apart from the touristy bits immediately by the tower and duomo and so on is actually a nice old university town, with lots of nice old buildings and lots of students. It is a walled city, so the walls are interesting to see too, and there are the remains of some old Roman baths. When it came time we headed back to the tower and climbed up in our group. It did have a nice view, and quite a noticeable lean as we climbed the spiral staircase around and around. We also went into the Duomo and the Baptistry (Battistero di San Giovanni), which were both nice. The Baptistery in particular is definitely worth a visit on the half hour, when one of the guards comes in and sings a few notes. It is a circular building with a domed roof, and if you sing from the right position as he does it has a quite spectacular echo. By singing different notes each for a few seconds he was able to harmonise with himself, forming chords with the still-echoing notes. After that and the obligatory tourist photos we hired bikes and biked out to the coast. Unfortunately we did not have much time to look around Marina di Pisa, but is was still an enjoyable ride. After returning the bikes we got dinner, had a little more time looking around the city as it got dark, then headed back to Florence and back to bed.

The next day we caught the train to Naples, which took a while. Our hostel in Naples was my favourite of the trip, a proper lively backpackers’ hostel with plenty of people from all sorts of places and quite friendly. It was a pity that we only stayed there one night. We were not impressed with our first impressions of Naples, getting from the train station to the hostel in rain and busy traffic, but it did somewhat redeem itself later in the day as the sun came out and we wandered around some of the nicer and more interesting streets. The staff at the hostel recommended two famous pizza places for us to check out (pizza having been invented in Naples), which we did for lunch and dinner that day. Both were very busy, hectic and quite small, with crowds waiting outside trying to get a seat. We got our pizza to take away both times rather than wait for ages. Both were nice, different to the pizza we had had elsewhere, and also the cheapest we had on the trip. They seemed very popular with locals and visitors alike. We also went to see various churches as we walked by, of course, as well as some streets of interesting shops. We made it down to the waterfront in the evening and walked past a castle, though it was closed by that point.

On Thursday we took the advice of the hostel staff to catch a bus from near the hostel straight to Pompeii scavi, taking our bags with us to store there, which they do for free when you buy your ticket to see the ruins. We spent the whole day wandering around the ruins, which are really quite extensive. The main baths are particularly well preserved, as well as many homes large and small, shops, bakeries, fora and public spaces, theatres and a brothel. It was fascinating, especially because when I was learning Latin for 3 years back at Rongotai College the textbooks we used followed the life of a boy growing up in Pompeii. Sadly I have forgotten most of the Latin I learnt, so I was not actually able to make much sense of the signs and inscriptions around the place. At the end of the day we picked up our bags, took the local train straight back to the main station in Naples, then the next train on to Rome. Unfortunately it was delayed quite a while, but we made it in the end.

Rome was full of people, even more so than the rest of the cities we visited. No doubt it is always pretty crowded and busy, but the particular weekend we went happened to be the weekend of the beatification of John Paul II at the Vatican, so there were even more visitors than normal for that. Especially Polish people. We spent the Saturday looking around some of the main sights, including the Forum area and of course the Colosseum, along with Trajan’s Column, the Arco di Costantino, the Spanish Steps, Trevi Fountain, the Pantheon, Piazza Navona. We also happened to walk past the Palazzo di Giustizia (Palace of Justice, apparently something like a supreme court), which just happened to be open to the public for a free tour just then, as part of some anniversary celebration, so we went on that. There were a lot of guards and other staff going around with the tour group, and we were fortunate to have one of the staff give us an English translation of some of what was being said. We were not allowed to take photos though. We found a nice restaurant near the Pantheon for dinner, which was better and less touristy than many of the other places we had eaten.

The next day we attempted to get somewhere near the Vatican City to see what we could see, but could not get anywhere near due to the streets and streets packed full of people all around. We gave up and tried to see some other things in the area, but again got stuck in crowds which took quite some time to escape. We finally made our way to the park near the Monumento a Garibaldi for a nice rest in the sun, lying on the grass and snacking on fruit, which was a welcome respite from all the crowds and walking. There was a nice view of the city, too, as it was up a bit of a hill. We went back past the crowds, which were thinning a bit but with a lot of people still around (and there was so much rubbish all over the streets!), and went to see the Piazza del Popolo and a little bit of the park on the hill above it, then headed back to the Colosseum to take some photos of it in the evening sun. That night we went to the Palazzo del Freddo Giovanni Fassi, a particularly famous gelato place near the railway station. It was indeed popular, and they had an enormous range of flavours including many unusual ones. It was also cheap, especially for Rome, and tasty. I had mandarin, liquorice and coconut, and tasted some of the other flavours including rice. On Monday morning we did not have time to do much as we had to get to the airport to catch our flight and it takes quite a while to get there, so we just paid a quick visit to another famous gelato shop, Giolitti. It was also nice, and I tried some new flavours, but I think Giovanni Fassi was still my favourite. Go there, if ever you are in Rome! We then made our way to the airport and flew back to London, which took the rest of the day.

All in all, it was an interesting trip. We saw lots of places, I ate lots of gelato and a fair bit of pizza, and it was nice to have company for a change rather than travelling by myself. I took many many photos, some of which are already online (and linked above). The rest will hopefully be making their way online shortly, so check my Picasa gallery.

Now, where to next? Scandinavia has been suggested to me as a good area to visit in summer. What advice and suggestions do you have, fair readers?


  1. Wow Andrew! I’m amazed by all the intricate carvings and spectacular monuments you saw on your trip.
    I didn’t know you were such a big gelato fan. I got introduced to gelato while in Sydney (which was expensive), and my family and I like a gelato shop on Courtenay Place called Kaffee Eis. That was an awesome holiday you went on, thanks for sharing all those pics and stories (I know how hard it is to select what to say and what to leave out!). Oh, and I found that picture of the front door in Venice that opened onto the canal most amusing. 🙂
    I saw bits of Pompeii at Te Papa last year, but I bet it doesn’t compare to the real thing.
    If you plan to visit Scandanavia in summer I suggest you try for early summer, as the mosquitos there come alive and eat you alive in high summer! (Or just take some industrial strength insect repellent!) Ask someone with local knowledge, but I well remember my Geography teacher telling my class about the giant mosquitos he encountered in Sweden during summer. Apart from that, I don’t know much. Northern parts within the Arctic Circle stay light nearly 24/7 in summer, that could be fun. 😉

    Comment by Sharon McGowan — 29 May 2011 @ 8:05 pm

    • Yep, Kaffe Eis is good. They have a couple of other stores in Wellington too, one across from Oriental Bay and one near Frank Kitts Park. I think it is a bit cheaper and nicer in Italy though; and there are stores all over the place and with a huge variety of flavours.

      Interesting tip about Scandinavia. Actually I remembered that Charlotte is going to be over in Sweden, so I might wait until she gets there so I can visit her. That would make it more autumn than summer, I think, so hopefully that is still good.

      Comment by qwandor — 29 May 2011 @ 8:08 pm

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