Singapore, Italy, Vatican · 8 Days · 81 Moments · December 2016

An Italian Winter Odyssey

24 December 2016

Our final dinner in Rome was a test of our will and determination to maximise every last minute and eating opportunity. We were hoping to find something open within a 5 minute walk from the hotel, but as it was Christmas Eve, everything was closed! Godfrey kept walking on and on and we dragged our feet following until we finally found a trattoria serving Christmas dinners for local celebrants. We took the last table. This was the only opportunity all week to order ravioli, and we had a yummy steak to share (should have ordered one each!)... The owners were lovely enough to give us free liqueurs and chocolates after dinner, so we had some limoncello to end the feast.
We were all kinda over gelato by that stage, so Godfrey introduced a different frozen chocolate dessert with liqueur. We also wandered around Piazza Navona to the Fountain of Four Rivers that was part of Dan Brown's "Angels and Demons" before meeting the rest of the group at the obelisk. With that, our time in Rome had pretty much ended.
We took up Godfrey's offer for an unofficial tour instead of shopping. First stop was the Pantheon which we just managed to get into before it closed. There were holes in the floor under the dome to all drainage of any rain water that falls through the oculus. The pantheon houses the tombs of the early kings of Italy.
Final official stop at the Spanish Steps for last bit of shopping
The Trevi Fountains in all it's glory after extensive restoration. So wonderful to get it see it in full glory this time!
Exploring the Colosseum, searching for hints of it's ancient grandeur... there were hints of marble in various places.
A drive through Rome
St Peter's Square with the weirdest nativity display at the far end
Inside the beautiful St Peter's Basilica
More from the Vatican Museum. This set of photos starts with huge Flemish tapestries.
Beautiful Vatican Museum
The happy sighting of the Vatican entrance after queueing in freezing temperatures for an hour. Fortunately we were well wrapped up and had stuffed multiple heat packs in all pockets this time!

23 December 2016

Make your own pizza night
The road to Rome is pink at sunset
Pretty spots scattered all through Capri. High up is the scary chair lift to some way up lookout point. We went shopping instead and purchased souvenirs with the bell of Capri.
The tour continues past the beautiful gardens, through a lemon perfumerie and ends up at another look out point with a view of the faraglioni rocks in the sea.
Walking tour of Capri moves from harbour side to a scenic lookout point by a clock tower. Various eateries surround this area, including one with the most incredible lemon cookies.
Sorrento harbour views

22 December 2016

Pretty Disney themed Christmas decorations in Sorrento
We couldn't find our room in the hotel, so were pleasantly surprised to be told that we had been upgraded to the suite! Yippee one room each with a double bed in each one! My room was freezing cold though... Totally love the picture in the bathroom. Majorly like me and my Teddie.
Sorrento suburbs
Quick stop to admire the beautiful coastline of Sorrento
Beautiful countryside views on the walk back to the coach
The central square with markets, temples, etc. Mount Versuvius in the background,waiting to erupt again!
Cement casts reveal the horror of humans and animals as the poisonous ash suddenly descended on Pompeii. Also on show are the excavated objects used during that time.
The walk through the ruins went past majestic old mansions, water points (some stone, some marble), and revealed a good network of lead water pipes. They embedded small pieces of marble into the streets so drivers of the carts could see more clearly under moonlight.
Red light district: each whorehouse was partitioned into tiny rooms with stone beds. Murals in the reception area depicted the services rendered. Sailors from all over could just point and proceed!
The interior of the Roman Baths (male side) was quite well preserved. The red paint was typical of Pompeii.
Gymnasium, theatre and streets of Pompeii. Check out the stepping stones, serving tables, grinding stones. Many houses had multiple stories.
Finally reach Pompeii after a long drive. Pasta and fried seafood for lunch.
Overnight at a converted hospital. Fortunately no special visitors! I braved the cold morning air to photograph the grounds, then admired their Nespresso vending machine at the hotel reception. Location: Hotel Cenacolo

21 December 2016

Tuscan sunset
Church of St Francis of Assissi. We entered the lower church and walked through quickly in total silence. The monks had Friar Tuck type hairstyles and robes. No photography allowed. After ascending to the upper church, we stood enthralled by the massive life sized nativity display, a practice started by St Francis many years ago. After a warming cup of hot chocolate, we made our way back through town towards the coach park.
Low point of the trip was a wasted 3 hours at The Mall. I did buy a pair of Nike bottoms, so it wasn't a total waste, but still... So we just took the opportunity to rest our tired legs in the cafes.
The beautiful hills of Tuscany
Optional excursion to San Giminano in Tuscany. The famous gelateria was closed for winter, but the neighbouring shop was still open and very delicious! We saw red figures perched on the side of a tower as we approached and we most surprised to see they were actual people dressed in Santa coats! The icon of this village is a child named Sarafina who died after a short illness. We stopped outside her house on tour. The delis lining the streets were known for high quality herbs, spices and oils. Truffle oil was so cheap here, at about 5 Euros for a 250 ml can. We also bought some ham, but it was a tad tough because it was manually sliced.
Early morning stop at the Piazza di Michaelangelo for a spectacular view of Florence bathed in golden light.

20 December 2016

After eating too much, we started the long trek through the old city, passing into Venchi to buy ice cream and chocolates. The lights were so pretty!
Our Florentine feast after that started with a minestrone soup, then 2 pastas, followed by a large steak served with roast potatoes. Not as massive as our previous Florentine experience with CTC, but the steak was more tender here. Location: Osteria dei Baroncelli
We were haunted by memories of the most delicious tiramisu when we last visited Florence. With no restaurant name, it had taken hours of sleuthing online with just hints of a menu placemat to locate the Osteria de Peccatoria. Florentine steak or not, we were going to have some tiramisu!
Inspired by Dan Brown's "Inferno", we went on a hunt through Palazzo Vecchio searching for the elements described in the book. We were shocked by the crowd in the Hall of Five Hundred, so just concentrated on finding a way through to enter the museum without searching for the mysterious "cerca trova" hidden in the painting. I was so happy to see Dante's death mask openly displayed in one of the rooms, and the map of Armenia in the map room. We didn't dare look for the secret passageway behind the map though.
Then we explored a Christmas market outside the Church of Santa Croche and had to stop ourselves from trying all the yummy food available... had to save stomach space for a huge Florentine steak feast after the free time.
Florence Walking tour led us to the Piazza della Signora, where we admired the original (and replicas) of many works of art, through the Uffzi Gallery courtyard with statues of the great masters and historical figures, plus admire the Ponte Vecchio over the river Arno.
Onwards to the massive Florence Duomo after that. I had really wanted to enter the Baptistry here as well, but it'll have to keep for our next trip to Italy.
Finally we arrive in Florence and enjoy a wonderful cheap lunch in a little family run trattoria. I had a milanzane parmigiana which was absolutely delicious!
Final stop in the Square of Miracles was at the Duomo. Entry to this building was free, but a timed ticket was still needed from the office. As we had purchased entry to the Compostato and Baptistry, we could just wander in any time after opening.
The Baptistry in Pisa was the highlight of the entire trip. We planned our entry to coincide with the half hourly vocal performance by one of the guards. At 10 am on the dot, the doors closed and sweet sweet music filled the building for a minute or so. We had climbed upstairs by then, and the sound was just incredible! What i would give to experience it again!
Carved doors guarding the entrance to the Duomo depicting various biblical scenes.
The Jewish cemetery (Camposanto) was impressive with beautiful murals and carved sarcophagi. Some were buried underfoot too. Very peaceful within. My favourite painting depicts Satan eating up sinners and pooping them into hell.
Early morning drive to the Square of Miracles in Pisa

19 December 2016

Dinner at hotel that night. The starter was delicious, Ffion surprisingly enjoyed the swordfish main (which I didn't like, but I hate swordfish anyway) and some custardy dessert. Overnight in Lunata.
We then bypassed Vernazza to get to Monterosso at dusk. We went on a walk to see the Giant of Monterosso, then settled in the station bar with a glass of wine. Some of the others trekked over to see the old town area.
Third stop was at Corniglia. Godfrey had recommended the gelato shop, but it was pretty yuck... definitely the worst one the entire trip. At this village, we could climb up for a scenic view, then walk down to the harbour area.
Next stop Manarola... still no food, so luckily we had grabbed a snack earlier! This village is where the most famous photograph of Cinque Terre was taken.
First stop Riomaggiore, where we hoped to get fried seafood for lunch. Nada... all the shops had closed for winter! We eventually found a little cafe by the train station where we bought some sandwiches to tide us over.
After a mad dash to La Spezia, we managed to get tickets in time to catch the train we wanted to enter the villages of Cinque Terre. Godfrey had carefully planned the timing critically so we could see 4 out of 5 of the villages, a great feat since the trains ran less frequently during the winter.
We were a little appeased from the trauma of the Carlton Hotel by the views of the Grand Canal the next morning. Nothing beats morning light!

18 December 2016

The trip to the hotel was pretty traumatizing. We had to walk to the harbour to catch a boat to another dock in Venice. Then came a trek over various bridges including a ultra modern glass bridge which was very slippery. After a long walk, we finally got to the hotel and had to bring our own suitcases up to our ancient shoebox rooms. Definitely worst hotel of the trip with a horrible bathroom setup... i had to shower in the tiny bath tub with the shower curtain plastered to my nose! Overnight: Carlton Hotel at Grand Canal Venice The breakfast was not great either, and we had to repeat the luggage and trek back to boat fiasco in reverse from the night before. We were all glad to be out of that hotel! Definitely not recommended as this nonsense cost us over an hour in travel time on 19 December.
Last few photos around St Mark's Square before we leave for our hotel in Venice.
Tea time at the exclusive Hotel Danielli... most likely the most expensive cup of coffee I've ever had.
Finally we were able to escape from the rather boring tour to dash to the Dolge's Palace. It was pretty deserted as it was rather late in the day. Signage was quite poor, so we were wandering around like lost souls. We eventually found the rooms with beautiful art installed, as well as cross the Bridge of Sighs from the inside. We also saw the prison and the courthouse.
The awe-inspiring St Mark's Basilica is decorated with marble and sculptures looted from elsewhere. Glittering coloured tiles on a gold background describe biblical scenes and events of the crusades. One scene describes how the Venetians brought back the body of St Mark by hiding the corpse under pork so the Muslims would refuse to check
The famous columns in St Mark's Square with the winged lion on one.
Wandering around St Mark's Square, waiting for the local guide to appear. Some of the group had gone for their gondola ride, but since we had experienced that before, we decided to just wander and window shop.
After lunch wander around Venice. Godfrey led us across the Rialto Bridge to the market area. The fish stalls were closed by then and were replaced by a few fruit stalls, run by Asians! They sold clementines, dried fruits and dried herbs. I bought a handful of kumquats. Just beyond the stalls was a hotel which "The Tourist" was partly filmed at, with the male lead jumping off the balcony during a chase scene.
Food in Venice costs more than double of prices seen in Milan! Biggest insult was they clearly did not see any guests returning. The food was awful! The carbonara was a tasteless gloopy mess. One pizza, one pasta and a fruit salad set us back almost 50 Euros!
Bridge of Sighs and Dolges Palace
The walk from the harbour in Venice towards the Bridge of Sighs.
Day 2 was cold and frosty, with signs of overnight snow (apparently very rare inItaly!) Bought a pink can of Coke Light at a toilet stop and was disappointed that it was normal black Coke inside, not a fancy new flavour. The final approach to Venice by boat was far too foggy to see anything.
Best breakfast at the Radisson Blu! Fantastic hot and cold selection, flaky croissants, creamy scrambled eggs, good coffee and freshly squeezed juices. Yumz!!

17 December 2016

Finally, after too many hours on our feet, we check into our home for the night and nibble on a simple but delicious dinner of cold cuts, cheese and salad purchased from the Carrefour in Milan city centre. Overnight at the Radisson Blu.
Lots of window shopping for the weary... As the day got later, the twinkling Christmas lights came on. The chocolate shoes were around Euro 40 a pair!
Post-lunch gelato at GROM with another cup of thick hot chocolate, then a dash across the road to warm up in the museum of La Scala. Shame they were setting up the stage for a performance, so the seating area was pitch black and no photography permitted.
And then it was time for lunch! We were each served half a huge pizza margarita, a roast chicken leg and tiramisu! Pizzas are so cheap in Milan. A pizza margarita starts at just euro 6.50!
Godfrey then brought us to this cute little church that was squeezed into an awkward space just to house the sacred painting at the altar. In order to achieve this feat, the depth of the altar was painted as an optical illusion.
Inside the beautiful Milan Cathedral. It costs 2 Euros per person to enter, and unlike our previous visit, the security was very tight. The tall gothic columns are beautifully carved. The ceilings appear carved but actually are painted!
Finally we enter the beautiful city centre, with the morning light casting off a golden glow on many of the buildings. We see La Scala, pass a small park with a Leonardo statue, through the Galleria and finally reach the Duomo.
Finally we got into Sforza Castle, but it was pretty boring... 😴 The guide was desperately trying to introduce the royal family through the ages and failing badly. The cafe was great though, and we were introduced to the very thick Italian hot chocolate and were spoilt for choice with pastries. The back exit of the castle provided a beautiful walk over the moat and through the park towards the coach.
We rushed out of Milan Airport so effectively that we arrived at our first stop (Sforza Castle) long before the local guide! So we just wandered around taking photos of the grand old European buildings, wondered at the frost and checked out the fountain from a distance.
Driving through Milan on a cold winter morning... temperature -2C!
This conducted tour by Dynasty Travels was led by veteran tour director Godfrey Yeo. The route would take us all over Italy in just over a week, with long walks of over 10 km on many days! We saw lots, ate lots, enjoyed lots! We arrive in Milan early in the morning on 17th July to sub-zero weather conditions and left on Christmas Day early in the morning, tired but happy.