When in Rome

Our final two days in Rome and our final two days in Italy, we decided to do what you must when in Rome: the Vatican, the Colosseum and the Roman Forum.

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Though we started early, the day was already boiling hot by 9.30am when we reached the Vatican Museum entrance. By purchasing our tickets online we managed to skip the long queue that wraps around the walls of the Vatican, as well as the bunch of people trying to sell fake tickets or tell you you need to upgrade the tickets you already had (took me back to Cambodia for a minute). The Vatican Museums are littered with incredible things to look at from marble statues to ancient Egyptian relics. We walked down hallway after hallway of beautiful and intricately decorated ceilings and wall dressings in search of the Sistine Chapel. We were not alone in our search, however and with a lack of air conditioning for most of the walk, we got to know the people around us quite intimately… The Sistine Chapel was amazing once we got there and while we weren’t awed by the silence when we walked in (instead confronted by a guard yelling orders over a megaphone) it was beautiful and we spent a good few minutes staring up.

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Next up we were off to find St Peter’s Basilica and considering it was the hottest part of the day, we decided to treat ourselves to a lovely looking cafe on the way over. Dear god. €36 for two panini. The cafe was heaving though and reminded me of my cafe back at home. Is it sad to say I miss working?

Arriving at the Basilica was monumental and so was the line! Thankfully it moved relatively quickly because I don’t think I would have managed in the sun. I might even have given in to the people trying to sell me umbrellas and scarves had Catherine not been there brutally turning them away. As I got closer to the Basilica it became more and more impressive, but it was once I was inside that my jaw really dropped. We’ve seen a fair few churches in the time we’ve been traveling so far but this one by far takes the cake. It was MASSIVE and every last inch from the windows to the walls was elaborately decorated. As the light spilled in through beautiful stained glass windows, all you could see was a sea of selfie-sticks emerging from the groups of people gathering below. We finished the visit by popping down to the Crypt to see the tombs of hundreds of Popes and read about how they had contributed to the church and faith.

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The next day was an early rise and one of the squishiest metro rides I have ever experienced. We missed the first metro but the next was only four minutes away and though we were only two rows back from the train line, we barely managed to be squished on to the carriage. It was hot, it was sweaty and though we couldn’t reach anything to hold on to, we had no room to fall anyway.

We piled out onto the metro station and raced to meet our tour group with City Wonders that was taking us around the Colosseum and Roman Forum. It was a stinking hot day and our tour guide did such a great job trying to keep us all focused and hydrated throughout the tour. It was blistering hot and with no shade for majority of the tour, it was no surprise that we witnessed at least two people faint. At least we know what to do now if it happens to one of us. The Colosseum was fantastic as expected but unfortunately by the time we got to the Roman Forum I had sweated out most of my concentration and was struggling to stay conscious.
http://www.citywonders.com/en/italy/rome/rome-tours/colosseum-tour.

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After a big drink, an hour or so in the air-con and a €7 all-you-can-eat buffet, we headed off on our own adventure to find a hidden treasure in Rome called the Aventine Keyhole. If you manage to make your way up Aventine Hill, past a few parks, and all the way to the end of the road you make it to the Piazza dei Cavalieri di Malta. This building was the Roman Headquarters for the Knights of Malta and today hosts the Embassy of Malta too. While it is closed to the public if you look through the keyhole of the front gate you see an incredible view of a tree-lined path to St Peter’s Basilica. Unfortunately we took a very wiggled route to get there and in the blistering hot sun it was much to Catherine’s disappointment that the keyhole was just that, a keyhole. I found it thoroughly amusing though and the view absolutely beautiful. Definitely a hidden treasure, but probably worth getting a taxi to. Needless to say we can now call ourselves official adventurers. Find it here: http://www.atlasobscura.com/places/the-aventine-keyhole-rome.

Considering we had spent a bomb on lunch the previous day we had visited the local pizzeria just outside our hostel and had fallen in love with the smiley waiter who had served us, so of course we went back the next night. While he didn’t ask us for drinks this time, while we were standing on the street outside talking to a fellow traveler we had met (hey Zane!) he kept walking back and forth and waving at us, claiming he was just doing deliveries yet we never saw him deliver or collect anything…hmmmmm…we will forgive him for being charming. He even gave us a discount to come back the next night but alas we will be on our way to Spain by then!

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Roaming Rome

Okay, so either Romans were enormous or I have shrunk since I arrived in Rome. Everything is huge! The buildings, the doors, the gardens, the roads, the fountains. Everything. Oh apart from the cars, which I think they think that because they are so small they can park/leave them anywhere. They park on street corners, across pedestrian crossings (which I still don’t believe are actually pedestrian crossings), and over driveways. As long as you put your hazard lights on it’s all good to park in the middle of the street and run to the ATM. We did see a guy driving around today with his hazard lights flashing…and it was probably on purpose. Most drivers in Rome appear to be hazards. Needless to say the #fingerofshame made it to quite a few photos.

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After checking into our hostel Yellow, we wrote down everything we wanted to achieve during our time in Rome and it went a little something like this:
– Trevi Fountain
– Pantheon
– Piazza Navona
– Spanish Steps
– Vatican
– Colosseum
– Villa Borghese
– the Catacombs
– the keyhole at Piazza dei Cavalieri di Malta
– Castel Sant’Angelo

We’ll see how we go.

While our hostel was close to the station, it was a little walk from the major sites…although we later worked out using the metro would have worked. Anyway, we got our walk in and felt a little less guilty about demolishing a whole pizza each, plus two gelatos that night. I also feel that the best way to see a city is by walking. Some people even go so far as to say you only really find a city once you get lost in it. Poetic, really. When scrolling back through my camera though, I have countless photos of the buildings and little corner stores that you don’t see in guidebooks. In fact, it was the big tourist attractions that sort of disappointed us on our first day.

The Trevi Fountain is under construction at the moment and while you can see a little glimpse of how incredible it would have looked normally, at the moment it is just a huge pile of scaffolding. Similarly the Spanish Steps had so much work happening all around them that it was hard to frame a shot that didn’t have some sort of construction in it. Sorry to disappoint Instafans.

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Around the corner though the Pantheon is incredible and a beautiful fountain in the foreground makes for a beautiful view. I can’t get over how in Rome you just have to turn the corner and you find some monumental church or building in the middle of a square. There is nothing in Australia that quite compares. I wish I could label all my photos but honestly for most of them I have no idea what it was, I just turned a corner and found something special, something amazing, something spectacular.

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One that I can name though is the Sant’Agnese in Agone located in the beautiful Piazza Navona. Not too busy, not too big but absolutely breathtaking. You can sit there for ages just taking in all the detail, and that’s really saying something because I’m known to be a bit of a pocket rocket when it comes to sightseeing. And even better the piazza has three beautiful fountains that help to splash away some sweat (and trust me there is lots of it).

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The next day we headed for the Catacombs, buying a 3 day pass transport card (works for buses, metro, etc) and making sure we calculated how many trips we had to make to make it worthwhile. We got a little lost and ended up in the middle of nowhere but eventually hoped on the right bus which took us out to Catacombe di San Callisto. €8 with a guided tour included, we were relieved to find that the Catacombs are at a natural 15° temperature. With 20km of tunnels, we were happy to walk the 400m tour route and managed to see the most interesting archeological discoveries, with over 500,000 people and 7 popes buried there. It was like a library of bodies!

On our way back we stumbled across the Terme di Caracalla, the remenants of Emperor Caracalla’s vast bath complex, and got our first taste of Roman ruins. They were huge and it was hot. I wish there were still baths there so I could have had a swim. But regardless we got free entry because it was a Monday? Is that a thing?

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After our siesta (arguably the most important part of the day) we headed out to Villa Borghese gardens for a bike ride. As stiff competition to New York’s Central Park, the gardens had lakes inundated with turtles that you could row in, police riding horses, beautiful flowers, lovely cafes, a carousel, an old man doing mad roller-skating tricks (you’ll have to wait to see the video), bikes, segways, go-karts and golf buggies. We got bikes for an hour and managed to see most of the park and some beautiful views of Rome. It’s so convenient having sunlight for so many hours a day as it was 7pm by the time we handed the bikes back and we didn’t even realise.

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With a grumble in our tummies we headed for home. Tomorrow is the Vatican and then the Colosseum. How fast this trip is flying…I guess we must be having fun.

N.B. A MUST do when you are in Rome. Giolitti’s gelato. Not easy to find but well worth it. The line was out the door but moved really quickly. I had three scoops for €3.50 – hazelnut, cinnamon and baileys. Oh. My. God.

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Scouting out Siena

We had originally planned to head out of Florence to the nearby town of Siena on the 2nd of July as our trip conveniently coincided with the Il Palio di Siena – a famous bareback horse race around the piazza in Siena. Once we got a feel for the heat though, we soon realised that standing in the middle of a piazza for five hours in the boiling sun, surrounded by huge crowds, may not be the best of ideas. We settled for the following day and crossed our fingers that there may have been some festivities still taking place.

And right we were. After struggling to find the bus station (located behind the train station, around the corner, and down a little back street) we expertly bought our tickets for the rapid bus to Siena…because ain’t no body got time for the ordinary bus! Stepping off the bus in Siena was a particular shock to the system from the bout of air-conditioning we had been treated to for the previous 1.5 hours. The sun had definitely come to play. I was amused for some time watching crowds of people cram to one side of the road in an attempt to walk in the shade, dogs were passed out on the side of the road, and men had never seemed so happy to sit in the air-conditioned shops while their wives tried on six or seven outfits. Thankfully Italy seems to have water fountains in all their villages that have fresh water that you can fill you drink bottles up with or splash over your face providing a dog or pigeon is not passed out in it.

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Siena has a particularly medieval feel to it, and any guidebook will tell you about the aesthetic rivalry between Florence and Siena; Renaissance vs Gothic. The Duomo is incredible though and stands so crisp and intricate against its backdrop. While we sat and stared in awe, we were interrupted by the sound of drums and whistles coming from a small backstreet. Ever the curious creatures we raced to see what it was only to be confronted by the longest parade I’ve ever seen. It was as if everyone in town was out on the street, and it didn’t take us long to realise it was for the winner of the race the day before – Andrea Mari who was representing Torre (http://www.thepalio.com). They were dressed in medieval costumes and waved flags and beat drums. We would have been standing there for at least five minutes as they all walked past.

After seeing that we headed straight to the Piazza del Campo, where the race was held the day before. It was one of the biggest piazzas we have seen and we could only imagine how chaotic it would have been, oozing with people watching the race the previous day. The sun was also blistering hot and we knew we had made a wise choice. The stands were still set up outside the Palazzo Comunale on the lower side of the piazza, apparently the best viewing point as Catherine informed me that a seat there cost over €500. As we walked the loop I began to envisage the race, helped by the indents of horse hooves on the dirt track.

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The most exciting part of the day though definitely happened while eating lunch (as it normally does). We were sitting waiting for our panini when a well dressed man walked into the bar. He was greeted by a woman who had been sitting reading the newspaper when we arrived. A few men shook his hand and then they all had cheers over a glass of spritz. At midday. I knew something was up. After his female companion pointed him over to the newspaper she had been reading, I knew to turn my GoPro on and slyly point it at him. This guy was someone. When he walked away I got up and looked at the paper he had been reading, much to Catherine’s confusion as up until this point all of this analysing had gone done in my head. Sure enough, he was the man who had won the race the day before. A local celeb. I knew it, and let Catherine know just as he walked out the door. Opps.

Siena was lovely, smaller than Florence but full of some incredible buildings. Europe is so rich in history and actually looks so much better in real life than it does in the photos, which it also looks really good in. We walked down little alley ways and back streets to find incredible churches or little piazzas. Even the way their washing flutters from windows, plants dangle from hanging baskets and paint chips off the hot brick walls looks so entrancing to me. Remind me why so many people want to visit Australia?

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Conquering Cinque Terre

The other day it got so hot I actually felt a bead of sweat dribble down the back of my neck – a fully formed bead of sweat. At that we decided we needed water, and not just a bottle of it, but a whole heap of it. We needed the ocean.

Ever against being restricted by a tour, with the help of a guy from our hostel room, I gave into Catherine and we booked a day trip tour through Viator (a company of tripadvisor). For just over $100, we were picked up from just down the road from our hostel, driven by coach to the Cinque Terre National Park (2hrs), transported via train or ferry between four of the five islands, and there was an option to have a three-course meal included for lunch.

I actually really enjoyed the tour, and it was not just because of Stefano our guide. The tour allowed for a lot of freedom and all Stefano was really responsible for was getting us from one village to the next. From there we were given half an hour in the smaller villages of Riomaggiore and Manarola, an hour in Vernazza, and three hours in Monterosso where we got to have lunch and go for a swim. The villages were picturesque and so quaint. Cinque Terre is known for the great hikes you can do between each village and it’s a shame we didn’t get to do one. Stefano explained that there is normally an option of the tour to hike from one village to the next but due to the weather on the day (close to 40 degrees) it would not be advisable to walk.

Stefano our guide was also hilarious. He was able to lead the tour in both Spanish and English and kept swapping between the two throughout the day. At one point Stefano was explaining to us the importance of sticking with the group and returning back from exploring at the times he designated as to not get lost. “I cannot wait, the trains cannot wait, we will not stop,” he said. “Over the last few weeks we have lost at least one couple a week.” When asked how we could ensure we weren’t left behind, Stefano quite aptly replied, “I know in Italy it is normally okay to be ten-fifteen minutes late because normally the Italians are ten-fifteen minutes late. But today it is not okay; today we need to be like Germans. Be on time!”

The swim was delectable, the towns were delightful, and the tour was a great way to see a lot of Cinque Terre in one day. Going back to spend a week there is definitely on my to-do list. I’ll let the pictures speak the rest for themselves.

http://www.viator.com/tours/Florence/Cinque-Terre-Day-Trip-with-Transport-from-Florence/d519-6367CINQUE

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Finding Florence

I can’t believe how fast I have settled into this trip. Normally it takes a week or so to acclimate into my new reality, but this trip just feels so normal already. I even think I convinced the man I bought a punnet of strawberries off (or should I say fragole) that I was a local. And that’s super impressive because I didn’t even learn Italian at school…not that I really learnt any French either.

I wish I could say arriving in our second city Florence was a breeze. But it wasn’t. There was no breeze at all; it was just really ridiculously hot. Our hostel (Archi Rossi) had given us good directions though, and with the help of Catherine’s trusty app City Maps 2Go (which doesn’t require wifi) we were inside in the relative cool before long.

First thing on my agenda as always was to get lost. We wandered the streets and realized what a difference having roads and cars makes to the dynamic of a city. Still not sure whether there are any road rules in Italy or whether pedestrian crossings are really pedestrian crossings, we managed to maneuver ourselves through Florence to arrive in the Piazza della Signoria. Littered with statues and tourists, we were disappointed to find the Neptune Fountain was running dry. It was gorgeous nonetheless, and after a picture and peruse around the numerous statues and the Palazzo Vecchio we wondered through the Uffiizi Gallery to the Ponte Vecchio. Wow, just a few name drops in that sentence. How bloody convenient is Florence!

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The sun was a perfect backdrop for a photo on the iconic Ponte Vecchio bridge, shining almost as brightly as the gold that adorned the shelves of the shops lining the road across. After ensuring we had got the very best angle on our #selfies we headed towards home as while the sun didn’t mention it, our stomachs were starting to make more than a slight grumble. Must be 6pm.

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On the way back we stopped off at the Basilica e Chiostri Monumentali di Santa Maria Novella, which we both agreed was the prettiest we had seen. My favourite part about it is the fact that the incredible green and white marble facade is merely that, a façade. Once you turn the corner, the basilica is just a huge brick building. At least one couple agrees with me though, as they chose to have their wedding photos outside the basilica. While attempting to photobomb a few photos we couldn’t help but notice the sweat absolutely pouring down their faces in the close to 40 degree heat. Ahhhh, love conquers all obviously.

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On our second day we decided to do the Duomo. A convenient all included pass allowed us to climb the Campanile (bell tower), descend into the Santa Reparata (Crypt), behold the beauty of the Baptistry, and of course see inside the Duomo. Learning from past experience we dressed appropriately and were let in relatively quickly to the Duomo considering the length of the line when we arrived. The Campanile, a measly 414 steps was a great work out, and I think its safe to say I sweated out at least three pizzas. The views were fantastic though, right on top of the Duomo. Ahhh, I love me a good aerial view. The Duomo is enormous and breathtakingly beautiful. I can’t help thinking in all of these churches why they built them so big but only have five rows of pews in them. Does anyone know the answer?

To avoid the midday heat, we headed home for our siesta. Yes, this really has become something we do EVERY day. Showered, slept, but still sweaty we headed off on a mission to walk across the Ponte Vecchio to find the beautiful Giardino fi Boboli and Bardini (that’s gardens for all you non-fluents). I am pretty sure we got terribly lost but we ended up walking through some of the most beautiful and tranquil streets that looked like the scene from a movie. All of a sudden I really felt like I was in the Tuscan countryside. Bellissimo! We ended up stumbling across a free art exhibition by Anthony Gormley called Human, which was held at Fort Belvedere and boasted some of the best views of Florence. And this is why I love getting lost when I travel. Moreover, the kind man who lured us into the exhibition was also able to explain to us that the €10 entrance fee to the garden actually gave us access to both gardens and therefore it was not worth going to the garden that afternoon as we would not be able to visit both and get our moneys-worth. Some valuable advice indeed.

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Instead we opted to trek it to Piazzale Michelangelo. Actually opted may be an exaggeration. The only downside to a map is they don’t tell you when that short distance you can see from A to B is actually a huge, massive, gigantically long hill. Needless to say once I got to the top I didn’t think any copy of the statue of David overlooking Florence with a sunset in the background could be as beautiful as the man selling cold lemon granite (crushed ice drink), but once again I was mistaken. The granite was pretty darn good though.

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On our descent we realized there was actually a bus that goes from literally outside our hostel to the top of Piazzale Michelangelo…and so we rewarded ourselves with a sweet ride home. I guess karma is a bitch though and the universe wanted to send us a sharp message about walking off all those pizzas we’ve eaten, as we got slapped with a huge fine by the ticket inspectors who explained that buying your ticket from the driver is not enough and that you actually have to also put the ticket in the machine and validate it. No leniency for tourists. The inspectors were dicks, the fine was a dick, goodbye €50 each. Dick, dick, dick. Oh well, we will put that one down as an important learning experience and will make sure to double, triple check that our tickets are validated before we get on any form of transport. BEWARE OF THE DICKY TICKET INSPECTORS.

In order to cool off we distracted ourselves by a fancy dinner out. Ha, what am I talking about, we go out for dinner every night. But distract us it did, as I spent the night sitting across from Catherine who giggled every time one particular waiter walked past to the point that at the end of the night he asked us if we wanted to go for drinks. I pinky-promised we’d come back the next night…I’ll let you know how that goes. Should be interesting.

Ciao for now.

Vacationing in Venice

So far this holiday has consisted of a series of meals that are separated by a few adventures that we may have encountered on our way to the next meal. I have become at ease with the idea that I will have doubled in size by the end of this trip. Who needs bikinis when they can have pasta?

As I sit down in the sunny piazza below our apartment, serenaded by an accordion and with a glass of spritz in my hand, I reflect on how this reality has come to be from the cold, busy one that I have been living for the last few months. The weeks leading up to the holiday are always the worst, as you begin to realise all the things you have to do before you leave and how little time you have to achieve it. But once your holiday starts, time slows down. In fact, when I am on holidays, time stops and I completely loose track of the time. What day of the week is it? It’s Holiday.

We flew with Ethiad and Alitalia. Ethiad was lovely as always, and apart from the sassy staff and interesting gherkin, butter and lettuce sandwiches as a snack, Alitalia did the trick. I managed to master the high score in Tetris on both flights, and sleep a good 8 hours without a neck-pillow, to Catherine’s amazement.

While Venice looks beautiful from the sky, on land it is hard to believe it’s actually real. I spent the entire first afternoon with my jaw on the ground as we walked through tiny little paved backstreets, amazing grand churches, and along winding, Gondola-filled canals. The city really is like a maze and I have spent so long concentrating on remembering where I am that it took me almost three days to realise that there are no roads in Venice. Men with trolleys deliver stock to shops, porters carry tourists suitcases through tiny backstreets to their hotels, and even the garbage is collected by a boat that floats down the canals.

While we have tried to be adventurous with our meals, we couldn’t go past the restaurant that sits conveniently at the door of our apartment building (Restorante Al Brindisi). The staff aren’t too sleazy like one place we tried (I’ll forgive them, they are Italian after all), the portions are huge, and the prices are low. Plus it’s not too far to roll to our beds after we stuff ourselves full. The place is packed with locals too, so you know its good. On the first night when it started to rain for all of five minutes, the kind group next to us insisted we drag our table out of the rain and join their table, though we were totally incapable of joining their conversation. Throw a few hand gestures into the mix and you fit in just fine though.

We have been fortunate enough to enjoy Venice during the La Biennale di Venezia. This meant finding little gallery spaces in beautiful old buildings and down side streets that we would not have otherwise discovered. In particular we stumbled across a very different dance in the streets and while we still have no idea what was happening we both stood there for half an hour with puzzled looks on our faces. Catherine did get distracted by a dog sitting at her feet, and by almost every other dog that walks, or rather is carried past us by its owner. Small dogs seem to be a thing here, and you are allowed to take them everywhere and anywhere, including inside bakeries and department stores!

My favorite adventure in Venice has definitely been visiting the islands Murano and Burano. After scoring two delicious fresh fruit cups from the markets we jumped on a ferry headed for Murano. Famous for its glass and crystal, after jumping off the ferry we conveniently stumbled across a workshop and were treated to a private demonstration from the “master” who made an amazing vase and horse statue out of glass right before our eyes. While tempted to touch them, the “master” warned us against it as he dropped a piece of paper into the vase which instantly caught fire and turned to ash. Hot stuff…

Out of the two islands, Burano was my favourite. It was once famous for its lace, but I was more attracted to the houses, each painted a different but equally vibrant colour. Some even managed to match their laundry, which was hanging out the window, to the colour of their walls. It reminded me of the Painted Ladies in San Francisco but on steroids. We ate lunch by the water, and watched a couple that appeared to have just married (I can’t think why else someone would choose to wear a big, white poofy dress in this weather) dig away at some fish and chips…odd choice for a honeymoon we thought, but each to their own.

The twenty-five minute journey back to the mainland went by quickly as we were delighted to find the same guy working the ferry that had rode us out to the islands. We had affectionately coined him ‘Poofy’ due to his hair that sat perfectly quaffed atop his head. Known for her stalking capabilities, in the following few minutes Catherine did things that terrified me and I could not even begin to explain, but I will say this: he got out alive.

I woke to the most incredible sunrise the next morning, and though it was 3am, found myself standing at the window looking at the view for several minutes before jumping back into bed. In an attempt to beat the queues, we headed for the Basilica di San Marco early and found the streets empty and most shops still closed…things don’t really start happening until 10am here. These Italians have got life pretty sorted. While we did beat the queues, we did forget to read the dress code and both had to wear a shame shawl to cover our knees, though Catherine did manage to fashion it quite expertly into a neat little skirt to avoid embarrassment. The Basilica was incredible and huge, the walls lined with gold mosaic and the chairs balanced carefully on a floor as bumpy as the water in the canals around it. Afterwards I satisfied my love of heights by climbing the Campanile, a bell tower with incredible 360° views of Venice.

En route for our afternoon siesta (a phenomenon that has become a fixture in our daily routine so far) we watched the flocks of pigeons in the Piazza San Marco climb on people who had PAID for seeds to feed the pigeons. They had PAID to have flying rats eat seeds out of their hands…I still can’t quite get my head around it. But anyway…after a big bowl of spaghetti and a short slumber we headed out for a gondola ride to officially tick of the last of our to-do list while in Venice. Through some excellent research Catherine had discovered the Traghetto, a less-fancy version of a gondola that travels across the Grand Canal like a ferry. The best part about it is it costs €2 as opposed to €80, so I was keen as a bean. Our oarsman even shared his bowl of cherries with us, so I considered it a win-win.

Venice has been an incredible introduction to Italy and I leave with my arms stinging with the hope of a tan, a newfound understanding of siestas, and a tiny bit more of a grasp on the Italian language. Bring on Florence.

Ciao x