Florence: In the Footsteps of Michelangelo

IMG_4923Firenze, or Florence – with the emphasize on the second syllable and pronounced with a French ‘ah’. Ah, Florence… ancient Italian city with iconic cathedrals and towers, first city in our month of exploring Italy.

I flew in from Vancouver, via Seattle and Amsterdam – a long sit but pretty much on time and not too uncomfortable. Especially seat and meals on Delta Airlines were good.

Florence’s airport is small. Right outside is the platform for the new T2 tramway into the city. For 1.50 euros you end up downtown in 20 minutes, on a ticket that is valid for 90 minutes so you can even explore more: http://en.comune.fi.it/administration/tramway/line2.html You buy the ticket on the platform and don’t forget to validate it in the stamp machine inside the tram. A great way to reach the city centre!

IMG_4912It was less than a 10 minute walk to the hostel we booked: Leonardo House turns out to be located in the very heart of the city but on a tiny old street with almost no traffic noise: https://leonardohouse.weebly.com It is very quiet and comfortable, the room is spartan but we don’t need more than a large room, a kingsize bed and our own bathroom. The staff is extremely nice and helpful. No breakfast included so we walk around the corner for coffee and croissants. There are also ATM’s and lots of eateries nearby. A supermarket, near the train station, is harder to find. Kees arrived a few hours later and we found each other easily at the T2 platform final stop: Unitá.

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…others keep it all under wraps

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David is naked…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We explored the city on foot. Of course we visited all the famous landmarks. The Santa Maria Novella church is right around the corner on a nice square with pricey eateries. The Duomo, the most important monument, is packed with hordes of tourists around but also open for actual services. The Bell Tower next to it is an impressive piece of gothic architecture.

We really do want to see the interior of this cathedral, which is among the largest of the world. But we do not want to traipse through it amongst thousands of tourists. So we make the choice to attend a service. Mass it too long and probably just as crowded. So we chose 5 PM vespers on a Sunday. With only a handful of people we relax in a quiet part of the impressive church. The Gregorian chanting is a massage for the mind, almost putting us to sleep. A fabulous way to see the church and to give thanks for this amazing trip. IMG_4927Several times we cross de Ponte Vecchio, an ancient bridge clustered with merchants’ stalls. The medieval looking stalls themselves, built from dark wood and cast iron hinges, are more impressive than the souvenirs they hold. I love the serene views of the mirroring water of the river Arno as it meanders through Florence. Go early in the morning to avoid crowds, or enjoy the lights of an evening stroll across the bridge.

IMG_4903The Church of Santa Croce is also an impressive building. Its square especially pleasant when a man with a violin plays wonderful classical pieces. We sit on a bench and soak in the atmosphere. At night we eat a toasted ham and mozarella sandwich before heading into San Stefano for a Vivaldi, Mozart and Pachabel’s concert. It’s beautiful in this ancient setting. Although going to a soothing concert right after arriving from a very different time zone is not a good idea: we kept drifting off to sleep…

Early on Sunday morning we climb the hill to  Piazzale Michelangelo. It’s 500 years since his death but his legacy lives on in his hometown. The hill is a steep climb with stone stairs part of the way. We pass under the ancient city walls. A replica of David looks out over the city and we follow his gaze over the Duomo and palazzos. Nearby is the Palazzo de Medici. We also walked by the house where Michelangelo lived. The ancient walls and cobblestone streets make it easy to believe that he roamed these very same streets. So many famous people lived in this city, names I had to learn in history class: de Medici family, Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Dante, Donatello, Botticelli, Amerigo Vespucci, the famous explorer, Florence Nightingale was born here… and even Pinnochio. IMG_4953

It’s All Greek…

Listening to Greek spoken all around me, I find that it sounds like a blend of Italian, Spanish with a hint of Russian. I can’t get over the signs with Greek announcements. No idea what they offer but the length of the words is fascinating.

Names, too, are longer than names elsewhere: Constantinides Oikonomopoulos is an example of a common name. Our guide for the day has shortened his name, for the sake of tourists, to Cosmos but it was four times longer than that.… Our driver’s name is Nikos. That one I can remember.

IMG_2356We leave the hotel again at 5 AM. This the taxi actually does take us to the port of Piraeus and the ferry actually does sail today.  The nation wide port strike is over. The ferry blows me away. ‘Greek ferry’ always conjured up images for me of the overcrowded ferries in Burma, where people vied for every square inch on outer decks to spread their mats and huddle along railings with their basket full of vegetables, roses, tobacco leafs and roots. The Greek ferries, however, are towering cruise ships. Shiny floors and glittering chrome everywhere, smiling men in uniforms welcome us aboard and point us towards comfy chairs in air conditioned lounges. BC ferries take note! Leather chairs and cozy sitting arrangements everywhere, shiny clean windows from floor to ceiling, even in the bathrooms. A few elderlyIMG_2359 Greek women stretch out on a couch, snoring away. An Orthodox man in black robe and cap stumbles by, leaning heavily on his carved cane. But most are tourists swaying under the weight of their enormous backpacks, or dragging wheelies up the gangplank. We sip hot coffee as we glide on a blue sea towards our first Greek island: Naxos.

And soon it appears, a cluster of bright white houses huddled along the shore of a brown rocky island, bathed in bright sunlight.

Our hotel, booked through AirBnB, is perfection. Not a luxurious or glamorous hotel but a lovely small Greek family hotel. The bright white apartments have the typical Greek blue doors and shutters and surround a sparkling blue pool. Dark red bougainvilleas cascade over balconies. Even the doves on the powerlines are brilliant white.

We have a cool white room with light blue furniture and a kingsize bed. There’s a plate of fresh grapes and peaches waiting for us. The hotel owners even pick us up at the ferry with our name on a sign. We’re impressed and it takes the hassle out of finding out how to get to the hotel in 34º heat.

IMG_2366Close to the hotel is a large supermarket so we stock up on staples, freshly squeezed orange juice, jam, coffee. Kees walks to the bakery each morning to pick up fresh croissants. Ah… what a treat. We eat on our own balcony in the shade by the pool. And swim… 

We explored Naxos on foot. We walked all the way from our hotel, through winding streets full of little restaurants, coffee shops and stores, to the old town. Old Town is a labyrinth of streets no wider than a meter or so. The white washed walls leans against each other. Wooden balconies cling to the stone in desperation. They are constructed of what looks like driftwood and stones and must be many hundreds of years old. We climb steadily on steep streets or staircases until we reach the catholic church at the top. A stone tower makes it look like the old fortress it once was. Along the way we see many cats who slink in the shadows. IMG_2374

Back down, we spot the sparkling sea and the large, iconic rectangle called Temple of Apollo. It looks exactly like the rectangular frame of the National Geographic covers and is all that is left standing of an ancient temple. We walked out onto the rocky spit and walk around it for a good view of Naxos through this ‘frame’. Then we walked back all the way along the shore, where crowded tourist shops and sunscreen slathered tourists vie for space. We eat perfect moussaka under the stars. Back in our quiet little resort, we are the only ones in the pool. What a perfect spot. The only problem here is that we don’t want to leave… IMG_2398

From Athena to Zeus: sightseeing in Athens

IMG_2119Even though we are pretty experienced travellers – Greece is my 52nd country – planning our time in Greece has been daunting. In most countries or cities there are a few major attractions that you know you ought to see. 

But the sights of Greece are pretty overwhelming… In a country with this kind of history, what do you want to see in a few days? And how do you get around?

Our base for planning this trip was a three day conference in Athens. We decided to follow the conference with two full days in Athens to see the Acropolis, the Parthenon and other major sites in the city. And then we would select 3 islands for a taste of island hopping.

We checked out a pile of Greece guides: Lonely Planet and other books, Rick Steves’ DVD’s, fly over DVD’s that showed all the attractions. And we got even more overwhelmed… How do you decide which islands to visit when there are 1,800 islands?

IMG_2209We decided to determine the Athens sightseeing once we got there, which turned out to be a good move. In the books, I couldn’t even find out the difference between The Acropolis and The Parthenon. Maybe that is obvious once you’ve been here, but not while you are planning… We needed Athens 101 advise…

We started by booking an AirB&B close to the conference center. It turned out to be walking distance, easily reached by Metro from the airport, and very close to the heart of the city. For less than half the cost of a hotel room, we had 2 rooms and a kitchen in a very quiet apartment building: https://www.airbnb.ca/rooms/19603934 Next door was a lovely taverna where we sat outside on the balcony under the grape leafs to enjoy wine, Greek salad and freshly grilled chicken for 11 euros.

We soon learned that the Metro is easy to use: you buy a 90 minute ticket for E1.40 and clear maps show you how to reach your destination, from the airport to the port of Piraeus and many stops in between. Two stops from “our” Metro station was the Acropolis and the old city part called Plakka. https://www.hop-on-hop-off-bus.com/athens/combo-hop-on-hop-off-classic-tour-of-athens_29715

The Metro is fast, efficient and cheap. The ticket machines have buttons for many different languages that talk you through the process. But beware: pick-pockets hang out in the Metro. A friend from Canada had his passport and wallet stolen on his first short ride!

To get a better idea of the attractions and their locations, we bought a two day pass for Athen’s Hop-On Bus. For 14 euros we could ride unlimited and get guided walking tours. First we took the bus and simply stayed on it for the two hours it took to drive its loop around the city. Map in hand, that gave us a clear idea of what was where and what we wanted to see. 

IMG_2156Then we strolled all over the myriad of cobblestone alleys that is old  Plakka, enjoyed lunch on a shaded green square (it was 36º each day in September!) and watched the changing of the guard at the Government Building. We didn’t realize til later that we were very lucky to see this on a Sunday: the guards wear their traditional Greek outfits with white skirts only on Sunday. We walked through the National Gardens and visited the stadium where the first of the modern Olympics were held in 1896.

The next morning we left our apartment early. Rather than take the Metro (2x 1.40 euro) we took a taxi which dropped us off at the path that leads up to the Acropolis for 4.50 euro. Taxis are cheap in Athens, and plentiful. Most of the drivers speak English. They have to use their meters and will give you a receipt.

In the cool of the morning we set off to walk the slopes of the Acropolis. You need to buy a ticket to do so. The 20 euro ticket was the most expensive we paid for any admission in Greece but also contributes to the mind blowing renovations of this thousands years old attraction. We learned that The Parthenon is the iconic rectangle of pillars on top of the mountain. The entire site, including smaller temples and what used to be a city, is referred to as the Acropolis. IMG_2218

Going early in the morning helped to not have crowds in our photos. We were able to take many photos without hordes of tourists obstructing our view. We walked all the way around the top of the mountains and enjoyed reading the interpretive signs. We were back down by 11 AM and then went to the modern, air conditioned Acropolis Museum. This houses many of the original statues and tableaus that were removed from the Parthenon and are being renovated here. Gorgeous museum with great views of the real site. Entrance fee is 5 euros. If you go later in the day, it is a good idea to buy your ticket online to avoid wasting time by standing in a long queue: https://www.theacropolismuseum.gr/en

After lunch in Plakka, we took the Hop-On bus to the National Library. Unfortunately it was closed due to a move.

When visiting Athens, be sure to wear comfortable, flat shoes. You’ll do lots of walking, up and down hills, and the sidewalks are often broken and uneven. They are also very slippery because much of it is slabs of marble or smooth tiles.

IMG_2271The Greek word graphein means “to scratch, draw, write”. Wall writing is  found in many ancient places, but the habit was especially popular among the Romans. No wonder then that Athens is the capital of graffiti! I have never seen so much graffiti in any city! At times it seemed that every available square inch that can be reached from the sidewalk, is covered in paint. Often this graffiti is art – but it does seem a bit much when every wall, door, lamp post and sign is covered in swirls and letters. IMG_2275

Food is expensive in tourist areas like Plakka. But as soon as you venture into a regular neighbourhood where locals live, there are plenty of little supermarkets and fruit stands. You can buy amazing tomatoes, peaches, nectarines and grapes. And of course Greek yogurt and cheese is the best for a simple, affordable lunch.

One of my favourite nights, so far, was spent eating on the rooftop of a hotel and watching the sunset. Slow as molasses, it turned the Parthenon from yellow to orange to pale beige. Then we watched as, slowly, the lights came on and the ancient temple towered over the city in orange and green light.

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V2V: Catch a Ferry with a Catchy Name

I’ll never forget the face of a little girl who overheard me, in a school after an author visit, telling the librarian that I was in a rush because I had to catch a ferry. The girl looked at me with huge eyes, then whispered, “Are you really going to catch a fairy?”

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If you want to catch a ferry, there’s a relatively new one on BC’s west coast.

The V2V (downtown Vancouver to downtown Victoria, or visa versa) is a twin hulled catamaran ‘fast ferry’, traveling at around 30 knots per hour as opposed to the appr. 15 knots per hour traveled by the Spirit of British Columbia. The other main difference is the fact that the V2V Empress is passengers – only, no vehicles.

We boarded in Victoria where a red carpet led into the luxury vessel, docked right across from the Parliament building. The smiling crew welcomed passengers and led us to our reserved seats much like airline crew does.

IMG_1792The large, reclining chairs are comfortable. Each has its own power and USB outlets and, of course, wifi is free on board.

There is also a small bar serving coffees, soft drinks, alcohol and light meals.

Despite the speed, the vessel stopped on a dime, or so it seemed, when orca’s were spotted. Passengers had a close-up view of a mother and baby orca as they drifted by us.

The ferry makes the trip along the southern Gulf Islands, through Active Pass and across the Strait of Georgia to downtown Vancouver in 3 hours. We disembarked close to Canada Place and found ourselves walking downtown Vancouver.

If you have to conduct business or if you are visiting on a cruise ship, the V2V offers a wonderful alternative way to travel between BC’s beautiful coastal cities.

Check it out here: https://www.v2vvacations.com

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From One Jungle to the Next

IMG_1671Getting off the plane that took us from Phnom Penh to Hong Kong, felt like arriving on a different planet.
Suddenly there were no more stalls with piles of coconuts, pineapples and rambutans. Stores have coolers with sliding glass doors again instead of large orange ice boxes. People wear Gucci’s instead of flip-flops. Instead of power outages, the skyline is alive with neon signs and coloured skyscrapers. 
What is generally all referred to as ‘Hong Kong’ consists of much more than just that city. Hong Kong is a Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China, and very different from mainland China. No need to apply for a visa ahead of time and much easier to enter. Chinese and English are the official languages of Hong Kong.
Consisting of 1,104 km2 Hong Kong is made up of over 260 islands. The major cities are Hong Kong and Kowloon. Kowloon has a population of just over 2 million, while the entire Administrative Region has about 7.5 million. Most of these people live vertically: in the many skyscrapers that make up HK’s concrete jungle. IMG_1675
We have visited HK several times and explored much of its city and country scapes. On our first day, we walked from one end of Kowloon to the other, following some of its major roads to the water front at Victoria Harbour where we watched the HK skyline, much of it hidden in heavy clouds. You can cut the humidity with a knife. Ferries scuttle back and forth, people from all kinds of cultures walk along the water front. 
Then we walked through Kowloon Park and into an old part of the city, Mong Kok, where stores still are very Chinese. Louis Vuitton and Hermés made way for roast ducks in the windows and piles of red envelops and gold paper to take to the temple.
We were lucky to see the last parts of Chinese New Year, celebrated with music, drumming, dancing and traditional dragon dances. Amazing to see how two men make up one dragon and jump onto high poles while they can barely see anything, yet never missing a pole. IMG_1732
Walking around Kowloon city and going to schools each day, gives us a glimpse into life in this metropolis. It is so crowded. Hordes of people come down the sidewalks, it is sometimes impossible to pass people. Yet almost no one bumps into you. People are friendly and smiling and helpful. Some speak English and can help explain foods in restaurants. I made sure I had addresses in Chinese before taking a taxi. Meals and groceries are so much more expensive than in Cambodia!
Hong Kong is a place of many contrasts. It has skyscrapers and very crowded city streets. But there are also wilderness areas where you can walk and not meet any people. There are monkeys, snakes, even tigers – we were told – in the nearby wilderness. 
On the streets you can see elderly ladies with Chinese wicker hats selling green leaves. But also ultra modern young women in tights and leather boots. Perhaps my favourite contrast is to see a gleaming high rise being build of mirrors and chrome, with bamboo scaffolding… IMG_1759
Getting around the cities is easy. When you arrive at the airport, buy an Octopus card. It works like a credit card and can be used for all trains and busses and even at 7/11. When you leave, they effectively refund the remainder. The MRT goes everywhere and you can transfer to busses. Pretty simple.  But having your destination printed in Chinese is always helpful. For US$12.- per person you can take the Airport Express into Kowloon. We then hopped onto a free shuttle bus that dropped off us at the hotel. We stayed at the Metropark Hotel Kowloon. The location was great. The room was small but clean, good bedding, a small fridge. And the best part was a glorious pool on the rooftop.
If you like shopping and food, Hong Kong is a fun destination. IMG_1752

Things-we-learned-the-hard-way about Cambodia

IMG_1020After almost a month in the country, this is what we have learned:

  • Bring medications. Getting food poisoning on day three of our 15 day trek, was no fun. I still don’t know for sure what caused it. It is hard to avoid local food. First of all, because it can be very good. But also because, in some places, there simply is nothing else available. Be sure to not drink water from the tap, even in luxury hotels. I even switched to using bottled water for brushing teeth. We brought things like Tums and gravol. I used them all. Anti-Diarea pills are better to bring rather than to buy them abroad.
  • In Cambodia, going to remote areas, we had to take malaria pills. But instead of using official malaria pills at 10.- a pop for about 40 days, we were able to take Doxylin, a mild antibiotic which was less than half the cost. IMG_0508
  • We did not realize, before we went, that money dispensed from local ATMs would be dispensed in US dollars! We had assumed we’d be paying in riels, even though US $ are readily accepted. But basically everything is in US dollars, all posted prices. Just when you pay cash, you get the small change back in riels.
  • Bring a (quick dry) towel. Several times we stopped for a swim and needed a towel. I was also glad to have a towel when washing up in a village during our homestay.
  • Toilet paper! Most public toilets, even in restaurants, do not have toilet paper. Bring your own!IMG_0679
  • You might want to check with your tour planner about meals. We really like to chose our own food. But sometimes we were confronted with a set menu. That resulted in the same fish dish three days in a row until we asked that we can select our own menu.IMG_1222
  • Bring gifts. Any guide will appreciate a small gift from your home country. But especially if you visit local schools, you will want to leave some meaningful things behind. We brought a large pile of simple, English picturebooks, lots and lots of pencils with pencil sharpeners and lots of stickers. We also bought, at a local market, some soccer balls to bring to remote schools where a soccer ball will be hugely popular with the kids. We left good clothing and shoes with our homestay family. I brought clothes for the entire trip that I could discard. This cut down on my laundry but also made it possible to leave good clothes behind with families that could really use it. I just gave a bag of my last clothing to a lady who was raking the beach. Her smile was enough reward.

IMG_0544And lastly, traffic can be daunting. Drivers of motorbikes, tuk-tuks, busses, cars and trucks all ignore all signs or lines. Two lines painted on the road mean at least 4 rows of traffic, all vying for an empty spot. We switched from a car ride to a bus to Phnom Penh, just to be in something bigger… All in all, it’s been a memorable, wonderful holiday in a hot country with lovely people. Arkoun, Cambodia!

Wild Ride Across Cambodia

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This was NOT our bus!

To get from Phnom Penh to Siem Riep in the northern part of the country, we had done some research on the internet. You can fly, but then you don’t see a thing. We opted for a bus: Giant Ibis busses take 6 hours to drive at a cost of 15.- p.p.. We had ordered our tickets online and were lucky that, a month ahead, we were able to get front row seats. Their website is easy to use: http://giantibis.com

A small bus picked us up in the morning and drove us to the bus ‘station’. Our front row seats were great. While most people dozed or read, we had a great view and did not have enough eyes to take it all in. IMG_0512

While the seats and the service were good, the driver drove like a bat out of hell and the bus’ tires were so bald that metal wire shone through the smooth rubber. The company advertises with wifi onboard but that did not work for us at all. The guide said it depends on the server provider of each area we drove through, but for us it did not seem to work anywhere. There is also no bathroom on board – a good thing to realize ahead of time. The bus stops once for a bathroom break and once for a half hour lunch break at a local open air restaurant. It’s a good idea to carry paper because there is none in more bathrooms here.IMG_0523

The road out of P.P. was lined with stalls. Some sold fruit, other sold buckets or chickens or clothing or TV’s. Little children walked barefooted along the road, dogs dozed in the red dust. Cambodia feels to us as a mixture of Laos and Myanmar. As we left the city behind us, green fields replaced shacks. We spotted the occasional very skinny cow. And the bus gathered speed. Even as we passed through towns and people crowded along the road, we must have done 120 KPH while passing kids, cows, motorbikes and tuk-tuks. Honking at everything that moved, we managed to avoid hitting things although one deaf dog had a very narrow escape and I kept expecting a motorbike loading with entire families to swerve in the path of our speeding bus.

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Us western woozies think of a motorbike as transportation for getting from A to B. Here it is obvious that owning a motorbike means you are well-to-do and that you need to help out friends and neighbors. In this one day alone we saw motorbikes transporting:

  • entire families including babies, toddlers and grandmothers.
  • a wicker cage with 6 live pigs
  • armloads bamboo, including one dragging 10 meter poles
  • large flats of potted mums
  • loads of bricks
  • a rack with steaming pots of food
  • enormous bales of rice piled high
  • large baskets, on either side, full of bananas or eggs
  • lumber
  • haybales
  • shoes for sale
  • piles of bottles of gasoline
  • terra cotta charcoal burners
  • large loads charcoal
  • fruits and snacks for sale
  • stacks of about 20 wooden tables (!)
  • teak carved bed frames
  • towering piles of mattresses
  • rolls of fencing
  • dried fish
  • firewood
  • coconuts and mangoes
  • tires
  • a cargo bike with a cow

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