This is my original blog for all our non-caravanning trips since 2009 and more recently posts about coming to terms with being single again having been widowed in 2018. And anything else too really!

My caravanning blog is (Get Your) Legs Down and all our trips in the caravan are there. My grog blog is The Ale Archive where I list every beer I’ve ever tried.

Friday, 1 October 2010

Heathens in the Holy Land pt 1 – October 2010

For once the parcel delivery was early, so with parcels dropped (some literally) and other necessities completed we were on our way to Heathrow by 2.30pm. Traffic was light, so it was soon after 4pm that we pulled into the car park of the Holiday Inn. The receptionist was smart, efficient, friendly, knowledgeable and courteous – yeah, I know. Somewhat unusual.

I hadn't won the lotto or the pools so we gave the hotel restaurant a miss, headed outside, fired up the old crate again and headed for a pub. I remember seeing when I booked the hotel originally that there was a pub nearby, but not exactly where it was, or even what it was called. Even so a five minute drive brought us to the King William IV in Sipson. The beer was excellent and the food good too. We headed back a different way and almost immediately came back across the hotel - had we turned left instead of right we have found the pub even quicker - we would also have found the Plough that was literally just around the corner from the hotel - and was no doubt the one that I'd looked up originally. To be honest we'd had our fill but did pop in for one - all in the interests of research of course! The pub was very busy, and, having had a surreptitious glance at a menu over someone's shoulder, was a good couple of quid dearer than where we'd been. Pleased that we'd made the right choice we downed our pints and headed back to the hotel for an early night.

Well, after a rotten nights sleep we weren't exactly raring to go but, nevertheless was on the Hoppa Bus at 6.25am. It was just gone 7am when we passed through security and onto the departure lounges, so no hanging about which was great. The flight was slightly delayed leaving but the captain reckoned he could make up the time anyway.

The in-flight 'meal' if you could call it that was shocking - evidence of yet more cut backs by B.A. A salmon and cream cheese roll the size of my little finger was the offering though you would never have guessed the fillings from the taste of it. The accompanying orange juice raised the sugar levels and the tea was ok though. In the third seat was an Australian lady who we got talking too. She had only flown in from Melbourne early that morning and would be at the Vatican on Sunday, together with an estimated eight thousand or so Aussies to see the first Australian canonised, or made a saint, or something similar anyway. Should have paid more attention but always tend to cloud over a bit when it comes to religion to be honest!

The captain was true to his word and the flight arrived on time. Baggage retrieved we boarded the train for Rome and around forty minutes later we were pulling into the Roma Termini. The hotel was already booked and would normally have been within easy walking distance. We were loaded down with bags though - always the case when going on a cruise, so instead piled into a taxi. The cabbie clearly knew a couple of mugs when he saw 'em and on arrival at the hotel presented a bill the size of Italy's national debt. I blame myself for not insisting that he put on the meter, but that doesn't excuse the blatant overcharging, bloody shyster.

The hotel was an unusual arrangement, occupying two floors of a large block. Another hotel owned another two, the rest appeared to be private apartments. A delightful old Otis gated lift transported us surprisingly smoothly to the fifth floor reception and our faith in Italians was soon restored by the courteous and helpful receptionist.

The room was fine, if a little dark thanks to the traditional wooden shutters on the window that, along with a high ceiling helped keep the room cool. Five star it wasn't but was clean, tidy and perfectly acceptable for what we paid - you don't tend to get much for your money in capital cities and Rome is no exception.

Didn't do much this afternoon, just a stroll round in search of a cash machine and to grab a bite to eat. Discovered a Spar across the road and, at the time of typing have just uncorked a bottle of Chianti. Sightseeing starts in earnest tomorrow and the Vatican is first on the list. We have realistically just two days to see as much as possible before heading down to the port on Monday to board the cruise ship which departs Monday evening.

First things first -last nights Chianti was delicious - and at just under four Euros a bottle it was a bargain. Might be taking some of this on the ship.

The weather forecast for our time here had not been particularly promising but we woke to a clear, dry and reasonably bright morning. Perfect weather for sightseeing so, so far, so good.

Breakfast was the usual continental offering and, whilst the preferred option is always a gut busting, cholesterol laden fry up, the rolls were fresh and the coffee was good. Caffeine, carbs and sugar consumed we were all set for the days exploits. The Vatican was first major attraction - probably not the best description - makes it sound rather like a fairground ride but still, it being just about the furthest away from our base, the idea being to work back from there. Google maps had given us what looked like the most direct route so off we went.
Day 01 (1)
The first photo opportunity was in fact the Vittoriano, a white marble monster of a building built to commemorate Italy's unification and named after it's first King. Still very much an infant by Rome's standards it was built in the late 1880's.

It was ten minutes or so later that we realised we had taken a wrong turning, though in fact not turning at all had been the problem. The phone went back in the pocket and we resorted to an old fashioned map which put us back on the right course.

Our meanderings took us over and up the western bank of the Tiber River and were soon on the approach road to the Vatican. Unfortunately, we weren't the only ones. Hundreds of tour coaches lined the streets and thousands of people were streaming towards St Peters Square. It transpired that Sister Mary McKillop, due to become Australia's first saint on Sunday was not the only person due to be canonised, five others were on the list and this helped to explain why the city was even busier than usual. Thousands of chairs had already been laid out and big screens erected in readiness for the big day. Trev commented that it was quite opportune that he was here on the weekend that the Pope was giving out Sainthoods and wondered when he could collect his. I pointed out that people call him many things, often behind his back, but a saint certainly wasn't one of them!

The queue to get inside was massive - at least 800 meters long and we decided, a little reluctantly not to join it. There were plenty of touts offering tours that allowed you to queue jump - for a tidy fee of course. We refused them all, most quite politely but they did get on your nerves after a while. Instead we walked around to the side and around the boundary  Pretty pointless really but we can always say we've walked round an entire city, even one as small as the Vatican!
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On the north side is the Vatican Museum and the Sistine Chapel. Yet another queue, even more daunting than the Day 01 (12)other, with even more touts hoping to separate us from our hard earned. I wasn't quite so polite to some of these, particularly the more insistent ones. A little disappointed that we were not going to get to see two of Rome's greatest sights we set off for our next port of call - Piazza Navona. One of Rome's most iconic public places it was originally laid out in AD86 - so quite old in other wards. What must be one of the campest fountains ever seen dominates the centre. Restaurants around the sides offer alfresco dining - for a price.

Day 01 (14) Next stop was the Pantheon, impressive at over 2000 years old even despite the scaffolding. Much less impressive if you turned your back on the pantheon was a 'restaurant' proudly displaying that world famous 'M'. Yes, McDonalds was there too. We ambled around and found a shop selling good value silk ties, two of which we procured for the upcoming cruise.
Day 01 (23)
Next up was the Trevi Fountain, again packed with tourists so appreciating its undoubted beauty was a little tricky. It is said that if you through a coin into the fountain you will always come back to Rome. Trev did when he was here many years ago but neither of us did this time - maybe subconsciously for a reason. Who knows? Many people do though - three hundred Euros a day is the estimate. It is hoovered up every day and given to charity. Apparently.

Day 01 (26) More crowds at the Spanish Steps - so many in fact that it was difficult to see the actual steps. Pictures taken we decided lunch was imminent. Being Italy, pizza had to feature somewhere so we found a little café, sat down and ordered. The pizza came and it was delicious, no question. Trev opted for a ham and cheese sandwich which was, to put it mildly, disappointing. Think British Rail buffet car and you will understand. It was when the bill was presented we knew that for the second time in this city we had been stitched up. I still blame myself to a point as having travelled a bit I should have been more wary. Three Euros fifty for a diet coke (the price displayed was takeaway only) and a hefty service charge on top twisted the knife even further. We threw the money on the table in disgust.

This wasn't turning out as hoped. I was expecting, and wanted, to be blown away by this famous city and it's ancient sights. Instead we had, and had been, pushed and shoved about and it seemed everyone wanted to part us from our money. ROME I decided stood for one thing: Rip Off Merchants Everywhere. These were not the memories I wanted to take away with me but they were starting to stick and I didn't like it. It was now mid afternoon and we decided to call it a day and head back to the hotel.

Our walk took us back past the railway station at which we had arrived yesterday (before falling into the clutches of that bloody shyster cabbie). We wanted to check out the trains down to the port for our departure on Monday and discovered that it was much bigger than we had first realised - twenty nine platforms in total but no grander for all that. Think Central Station in New York and you will definitely be on the wrong er, track!

Several roads around the station were closed of to traffic around the station as a march was taking place to protest against the government in general and it's spending cuts in particular. We witnessed some of the march and it all seemed very placid. The sirens which we could hear from the hotel room later on suggested it didn't stay that way.

Well, tomorrow's highlights should be the Colosseum and the Roman Forum. Here's hoping we're not disappointed!

Until tomorrow then....

I said yesterday that the Colosseum would be a highlight and we were not disappointed.

We set out early again, after the usual breakfast. The weather was, again, perfect for sightseeing though a little cooler than yesterday. Soon the Colosseum came in to view and it is awesome. No day in Rome though would be complete without the seemingly obligatory tourist stitch up and today's came somewhat earlier than usual when we bought the tickets to get in. The fee was nine Euros which also covers the Palatino across the road. An extra three Euros is levied when an exhibition is on. Well we were charged the extra - as was everybody else - but the exhibition was strangely absent. No wonder cabbies and restaurateurs think they can get away with it if official bodies are at it too!

Anyway, with today's moan over (honest) back to the matter in hand. The Colosseum was even more impressive inside. Inaugurated in AD80 a considerable amount of blood was spilled throughout it's gory history. The days events would start with men in mortal combat with animals of all shapes and sizes complete with elaborate sets winched up with complex pulley systems from the area below the arena. Next up would be condemned prisoners who too would face the animals (not just lions, anything with big teeth would do) without the benefit of weapons to attack or defend themselves. They would literally be torn limb from limb.

The lunchtime period would see more executions by methods varying in their barbarity though burning alive was a popular one. Dancer competed for the audiences attention whilst the unfortunate victim writhed in agony.

The afternoon session was man on er, man combat - the gladiatorial battles depicted in so many films. The defeated gladiator could ask the victor to be spared or finished off.

The arena was basically a wooden floor that covered area below where the animals, prisoners and props were stored. Sand covered the wood to stop the 'participants' from slipping over and to soak up the blood. In later years the blood was sponged up and sold as it was believed that it would cure epilepsy!

The whole spectacle was not just for the emperors and wealthy. Joe public was allowed in too, though they had to sit up in the Gods. People took their own food and water was available from the many fountains incorporated into the building. Wine too was on offer though through a ration system of tokens to prevent any loutish behaviour. Ironic when you think what was going on in the arena below!

It was in the fifth century that the shows dwindled then stopped and the 6th century, with the fall of the Roman empire that the Colosseum was abandoned.
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Next stop was the Palatino just across the road. Crowds were still mercifully small thanks to the Pope doing his thing across the river and we enjoyed the relative tranquillity. A saxophone player was knocking out tunes from 'The Godfather' near the entrance - and a damn good job he was making of it too. An old dear, bent almost double rattled a begging bowl nearby.

The Palatino can be crudely described as Ancient Rome's Beverly Hills. The glitterati of their day surrounded themselves with palatial residences and even grander gardens on one of the hills overlooking the city. Great views can be had from the top, not least of the Colosseum across the road and the Roman Forum below.

Afterwards we headed away in no particular direction but with food on our minds and stumbled on the Trevi Fountain again, this time attracting at least a few less people. More old dears and begging bowls abounded but my theory is that that they are not locals, just tourists that have been fleeced once to often. They probably had to pawn their passport to pay a taxi fare or something!
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To be honest that’s about it for Rome. We got back to the hotel mid afternoon and aching feet were again plunged into hot water in the bidet. After last nights slightly rougher vinegar we're back on the Chianti tonight and have procured another couple to take on the ship tomorrow. Boarding starts around lunchtime, so will head to the train station (another taxi, better get to the cash point then) soon after breakfast for the one hour journey to the port.

Overall we've enjoyed it. I am glad I came but having seen almost everything we came to see am unlikely to came back. Our time in Italy is not at an end though as our first port of call on the ship is down the coast at Naples, where we hope to go to either Herculaneum or Pompeii.

Monday 18th October - it was a cool fresh morning and, not wishing to enrich Rome's taxi drivers any further we decided to walk from the hotel to the railway station. I wasn't too bad, we took it steady and arrived at the station without having been stitched up.

The journey to the port of Civitavecchia took just over an hour and was about 10:30am when we arrived at the station. Another longish walk but thankfully there was a shuttle bus at the port entrance to take us to the ship. We handed our luggage over and proceeded to the departure hall. There was only a short wait here and we were soon on the ship.

The Celebrity Equinox is a big beast, coming in at approximately 122,000 tonnes and has only been in service a year or so. The cabins, sorry, staterooms as they like to call them were not yet ready so we gladly took the proffered glass of fizz and wandered.  Early impressions are that it is well fitted out, smart without being to glitzy and easy to find your way around - it doesn't feel too big.

The call came that the cabins (ooops!) were ready for occupation so we scurried off to find it. We had unusually for us gone for one with a balcony - normally we just have a inside but the price (once they had reduced then enough) was too good to resist. 

The luggage had not arrived yet, so we headed back upstairs for some lunch. First impression of the buffet restaurant, lido, or whatever you want to call it was good; spacious and well organised with plenty of choice. We tucked in.

Our friends Kevin & Lawrence and Ann & Peter were on this cruise too. We met up with them shortly after lunch then returned to our cabin to check on our luggage. Two of the bags had arrived but third (crucially the one with the booze in) took a little longer.

Cruise lines are very tetchy about booze. It is strictly forbidden to bring beer and spirits on board - the well worn excuse being it is to prevent loutish behaviour. In reality of course it is too protect their revenue. You could argue that if their prices were more reasonable such restrictions wouldn't be necessary but there you have it. Attitudes to wine are ever so slightly more relaxed - two bottles per stateroom are allowed on embarkation. It must be drunk in the stateroom or a hefty corkage charge is levied. So that’s about half a glass a day each then - just as well the smuggled gin and scotch arrived intact!

We left at 6:00pm for the first leg our cruise - one hundred and sixty something miles down to Naples where we would arrive tomorrow morning. We had a very enjoyable meal and an early night.

Tuesday 19th October - Naples. At first glance it looked quite an attractive city. By the time we had walked to the train station we had changed our opinion however. Traffic choked, noisy and smelly - at least the part we saw was. The pavements were crumbling and rubbish piled up on street corners. The fact that the skies were grey and it had just started to rain didn't help improve things either. It does have one redeeming quality though - it is the official home of pizza!

We eventually found the train station and more by luck than judgement actually got on the right train too. The journey to Herculaneum took about twenty minutes through some of Naples graffiti covered suburbs. A shuttle bus was on offer at the train station and was surprisingly good value, the fact that we didn't know where we were going either helped us make the decision to get on it!

Herculaneum, is similar to Pompeii in that it got submerged following the eruption of nearby Mount Vesuvius after being destroyed by an earthquake a few years previously. The make up of the lava helped preserve a great deal of the site however, and though much smaller (and possibly more manageable) than Pompeii provides a slightly better preserved insight into life nearly 2000 years ago. It was fascinating although the weather took the edge off the visit somewhat. Inevitably as we returned to the ship for a late lunch, the skies started to clear and we even caught a glimpse of the sun too.
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