Archiving the Ancient Cities

A day exploring the ruins of the ancient cities of Sri Lanka will surely not ruin your day. Okay, now I’ve got that out of my system, I’ll continue.

The history of Sri Lanka is long and winding. With each site we visit, we learn of a new king, a new invasion by South Indians, the Dutch, the Portuguese, the British, each meaning a new city, capital, temple or palace. The last few days have been a jungle of information, steep steps, breathtaking buildings and sweat.

Instead of attempting to explain the serpentine story of the two hundred and sixty-something kings and five ancient cities of Sri Lanka, as guide books tend to do a much better job at that than I ever could here, I’ve decided instead to archive some of the most bloggable* facts that lingered with me at the end of each day.

*I’ve also learned that bloggable is actually a word. And I’m lovin’ it.

Anuradhapura
The fortunate thing about having a car for this trip is that we’ve had the opportunity to visit places off the beaten track that many tourist don’t know about or can’t be bothered to journey out to.

Our first stop was to the ancient Buddhist library building in Padeniya Temple; a beautiful wooden temple encased in intricate carvings, from the lion heads guarding the walls to the swirling patterns scored into the doors of the temple. A small complex used by the King when he needed to escape the capital, it was definitely off the tourist-map. Processed with VSCO with f2 presetNext, we ventured on to Yapahuwa. All that remains now is a stairway so steep you have to crawl, that rises out above the clouds and is guarded by monkeys. While seemingly small, this rock fortress became the capital of Sri Lanka for eighteen years from 1272.Processed with VSCO with f2 presetFinally we reached the ancient city of Anuradhapura, the first capital of Sri Lanka and home to the oldest tree on record – the Sacred Bo Tree. Along with our guide, Channa, we bought the most beautiful lotus flowers from the stall surrounding the temple as offerings. Channa explained that the reason we offer flowers is reflective of Buddha’s teachings about life – as the flowers that we offer today will be dead tomorrow, reminding us that we should live in the present and not the past or future.Processed with VSCO with f2 presetProcessed with VSCO with f2 presetNext we moved on to Jethawanarama, or the brown stupa, believed to be the largest brick monument in the world following the pyramids in Egypt. Channa explained that using the ninety-three millions bricks that make up the stupa, you could build eight thousand and four houses. The whopping structure took forty-five years to build, but only seconds to take your breath away.Processed with VSCO with f2 presetThroughout the day we visited the ruins of architecturally astounding ponds used for water meditation (some could remain under water for up to two hours meditating), hospitals, kitchens and toilets, all of which demonstrated an incredible level of irrigation for the fifth century. Even I was impressed. About drains. Yeah.

There were stupas everywhere, some still remained submerged in soil yet to be rediscovered, all with unique quirks and designs. We had king coconuts and roti for lunch, and found many the stray furry friend along the way. One of my highlights, however, was a special place Channa took us, where no tourists go. It was a functioning monastery that had a tree which had built a cathedral with its roots. Pictures cannot do it justice.Processed with VSCO with f2 presetProcessed with VSCO with f2 preset
We ended the day at Mihintale – a hilltop complex heralded as the place where  Buddhism was first introduced into Sri Lanka, plopped atop one thousand, eight hundred and forty-three steps. At the very top you can pull yourself up a sun-drenched rock to an incredible view across the hills and valleys, even making out some of temples we’d seen previously. As the sun began to set, it all felt very Lion King-esque.Processed with VSCO with f2 presetPolonnaruwa
In the eleventh century, Polonnaruwa rose as the capital after many an invasion at Anuradhapura. Apparently, there were also less mosquitoes. Bonus.

After driving through leafy national parks, we met our guide, Rahul, who took us through our paces. The Royal Palace, where the King lived with his five wives…and five hundred concubines. The Quadrangle, where each King built a new temple to house the tooth of Buddha. The lake, which is surrounded by electric fences because on occasion  the water drops low enough for the elephants way across the bay to walk on over. And the Gal Vihara, the most impressive monument we’ve seen yet. Across one granite stone, standing seven metres high and over twenty metres long, four different sculptures of Buddha have been carved. Immense, inspiring, inconceivable. Processed with VSCO with f2 presetProcessed with VSCO with f2 presetProcessed with VSCO with f2 presetSigiriya
Woah, you really don’t realise how much you can achieve in a day until you try to write it down.

That afternoon, we headed for Sigirya. The giant rock that someone once upon a time had the splendid idea of building a kingdom on top of. Surrounded by the ruins of what sounded like an opulent ‘pleasure’ garden with ponds, pools and fountains (‘like a nightclub’ our guide told us), Sigirya was once the epicentre of the kingdom of Kassapa. We climbed rickety staircases that gripped casually to the side of the rock, passed by frescos painted god only knows how, and finally reached the summit. And what a view.Processed with VSCO with f2 presetProcessed with VSCO with f2 presetProcessed with VSCO with f2 preset

My legs may be aching but my smile is wide.

E x

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Japan 2015

A video from a while back when Hannah and I ran away to Japan and South Korea for the winter holidays. Unfortunately my GoPro decided to pack it in and die after the third day so this video is only a very short snippet of our adventure. Still brings a tear to my eyes though.

Greetings from Granada

One of my most anticipated stops, Granada definitely delivered. After an interesting train ride there, where halfway we all got kicked off the train and instructed in Spanish to a load a buses out the door, around the corner, and across the car park (mind you this was in the middle of absolute nowhere), we arrived in Granada alive. A positive was that we bonded with a fellow traveller called Lyndon, whom was also completely and utterly confused by the process, and ended up going for dinner and drinks with her for both nights we were in Granada.

Settled in at Granada Inn Backpackers, and filled with fresh grilled calamari, we headed for the hills, and got quite lost in the Albayzín district that strangely resembled images I’ve seen of the backstreets in Greece. Two for the price of one, awesome! After what seemed like hours of walking up, we reached the Mirador San Nicolás look out, and could not be distracted from the incredible view across the valley to the Alhambra (although the young teenage couple making out in front of where everyone was taking photos gave it a good shot).  11707525_10153568852654497_7612906513413538825_n 11041037_10153568852779497_2771318323950389130_n

That night we met up with our new mate Lyndon, at a tapas bar recommended by the cute guy from the hostel called Bar La Riviera. It was here that we discovered the concept of free tapas. With every drink you order, you can choose two tapas options from the menu and they bring a plate enough for everyone at the table to eat. For free. Therefore it is economical to drink. Did I mention I like Granada?11240093_10153568851184497_7611325041498055511_n

Next morning Catherine went on a guided tour of the Alhambra, and in an attempt to ensure our day was better, we headed out early to catch a free walking tour. Eric was fantastic, even though he was a bit nervous as he informed us as his parents were part of the tour that day, and we learnt a lot about the history of Granada. He still owes me tapas though as I stunned both him, the group and myself when I perfectly guessed the height of the bell tower (57m). I think the gypsy ladies flicking rosemary around the church must have blessed me, or I’m just a genius. (Free walking tour: http://www.panchotours.com/tours-granada/tour/free-walking-tour-granada).11737973_10153568852389497_798061113727190250_n11217804_10153568851939497_5198379978072410465_n 11264858_10153568851639497_8771039461239411131_n

Next up we hopped on a bus and headed up the mountain to the Alhambra. We didn’t buy tickets because we are tight-asses, but still got to see enough of it for free. Apparently 30% of the Alhambra is free. Just make sure you get off at the Puerta de la Justicia stop before the last stop on the mountain to save yourself the walk. Although it is a good excuse to get an ice cream on a hot day. We even ended up bumping into Catherine on her tour, looking like a goof with her headphones in.11742860_10153568851289497_1302923126655887860_n 11743007_10153568851354497_6354907144267095234_n

After a quick flick through our Lonely Planet guide we decided to explore the Alcaiceria markets more, which were the old Moorish silk markets, to find one of the many tea houses or teterías that lined the Calderería Nueva. With a five page list of teas, we each selected one and relaxed in the candle-lit, bohemian teahouse. A definite hidden treasure of Granada.11755917_10153568851244497_1394163094950679448_n

When we finally returned to our accommodation to find Catherine, we also found three new roommates: two awesome girls from Australia (small world), and Tobias, our favorite costa-rican weed-loving larrikin. We got on with the girls like a house on fire and couldn’t wait to introduce them to the world of free tapas so brought them to dinner with Lyndon that night. God knows how we made it, but by 3am we were dancing up a storm in a tiny hall/nightclub in some random backstreet that was completely empty when we arrived at 1am. We still claim that we brought the party that night, but with a mixture of Beyoncé, Elvis and Spanish pop, who could resist. And nothing quite tops a night off like a gigantic plate of churros to share! I only wished I had eaten them before and not after my zumba-like dance sesh in the club.

10406771_10153568852259497_2214409896790608648_nAfter bidding our new friends goodbye, and planning a reunion once we all returned to Sydney, we hopped on a bus to the airport for a quick flight to Barcelona, baby! It was a whirlwind stop in Granada but a definite highlight of the trip. I’ll be back.

Adios!
P.s. No memory will ever surpass the one of me drunkenly ninja-kicking the bathroom cubical door at the club after Emma locked herself in there. I don’t know what possessed me to do it, maybe I did pick up some ninja moves in Japan afterall. All I know for sure though, is that it was fricken awesome. 11143417_10153568852204497_8259950756164554506_n11781664_10153568852454497_3083840934899123005_n 11760334_10153568852489497_6499775249252137034_n 10410707_10153568852559497_4360289396272756774_n 10394036_10153568852589497_7033414956053805214_n

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Sightseeing Sevilla

I am currently sitting on a plane, jet-setting to Barcelona, our final destination. Emails have already started arriving from home, as reality starts to set in. I’m a city behind on blogs and I don’t know how time has managed to escape me so quickly.

We stayed in Seville for three nights at the Cathedral Terrace apartments (http://terrazas-de-la-catedral.sevilla-hotels-spain.com/en/), with a great central location near the Bull Fighting Museum. With Sarah on board now, and also picking up (another) Emma, a friend of Sarah’s from her time in England, we planned to find the nightlife most of us by now were so desperately craving. With high hopes we were met with a (in retrospect) relatively expensive tapas bar that tried to keep my €20 as a tip, and a rather quiet night-scene. Don’t let me turn you off Seville though, we honestly didn’t look very hard because we ended up most nights on the private rooftop of our apartment, overlooking the Cathedral, with a bottle or two of Tinto de Verano until the wee hours. An attempt for class with a bottle of wine was met with quite the struggle as we realized we didn’t have a corkscrew. Difficult but proved not impossible.

As usual we started our time in the city with a free walking tour with Feel the City tours (http://www.feelthecitytours.com/en/tour/free-tour-sevilla/). A bit of a bigger group we were not as impressed as with the other tours we’d been taken on in other cities. That or maybe it was just the fact that the other English-speaking group got the hot guide. Yes, it was most likely that. We were taken around the Cathedral and shown the inscriptions that were painted on the walls in bulls’ blood to advertise an honor student, which were discovered, still intact, after the walls were cleaned recently. I incorrectly guessed that they were written in red wine, but still maintain it was a reasonable assumption for Spain.

11755779_10153561310884497_951371435819314573_n11745312_10153561312959497_6904426399193305093_n 11036413_10153561312814497_5575392429526175222_nWe were shown the Giralda Tower adjacent to the Cathedral that was originally built by Muslims with Roman ruins and then added to by Christians, which we climbed the next day. I think its safe to say we all seriously reconsidered our love of heights after we hiked the thirty-five story’s of ramps to the top – ramps because there used to be stables located at the top of the tower.

11694943_10153561310744497_4185498749461083701_n 11760235_10153561310589497_4209421192313231757_nWe walked by the Palace, which we later returned to and discovered for the first time ever that someone considered Sarah disabled. She got free entry as a result though, so she is most definitely going to whip that one out next time we have to pay €10 to get into a church.

11223806_10153561310519497_2783527510272176571_n 11755259_10153561310464497_4260189575692511816_nWe finished up in the stunning Plaza de España where we found out parts of Star Wars was filmed. Connected to the Plaza was a luscious green park and some much needed shade. We enjoyed it so much that we came back the next day and hired a quadracycle and rode around the park looking like morons. Much fun was had.

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Adios chicas.

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Chase me around Córdoba

Okay, okay, so I’ve been getting lazy. Or what I should really admit is that I’ve been having too much fun and haven’t had a chance to sit down and write my blog. Not really something worth apologising for is it. Soz not soz.

So remind me what I was up to. Ahhhh Córdoba. By far my favourite destination of the trip so far, Córdoba is an interesting mix of activities and downtime. Due to a lack of hostels in the area, we treated ourselves to a few nights in the Hotel Macia Alfaros – the main draw-card; the pool. Arriving by train at around the hottest part of the day, we dragged our bags through what seemed to be the middle of nowhere. A huge change of pace to the lively Madrid with its busy roads, crowded plazas and bustling backstreets. Whether it was just due to the fact that we had arrived mid-siesta time or that Córdoba is just a less populated area, we instantly began to relax. So much so that after we stuffed ourselves at the first restaurant we could find with Spanish omelette and calamari boccadillo went spent the rest of the afternoon, or should I say night considering it was 8pm before we left, sitting by the pool. At first I was concerned about how white my skin was, and how bloated I’d be after our huge lunch but any insecurities were soon washed away when we saw the group of very confident and very…bootilicious European ladies that joined us by the pool.

11048741_10153552601404497_7117023523192437727_nThe next morning we rose and feasted on what we thought at the time was a complimentary buffet breakfast. With a few minutes to spare we raced off to the Plaza de Tendillas, the lively center of Córdoba, to meet our guide for a free tour. While the city is not that big, it is packed full of history. We got to see Roman ruins and modern day design. By far the most interesting part of the city is its diversity of religious influence. Originally a Muslim community, the city is scattered with incredible mosques each intricately decorated with a distinct arabic style. Probably the most famous part of Córdoba is what was originally a mosque, constructed between the years of 785 and 985 and spanning 23.400 square meters, but was converted into a Christian Cathedral in 1236. While the layout and design of the Mosque still exists, a Catholic Cathedral was designed within the buildings. Absolutely incredible and a symbol of the religious harmony that existed in Córdoba for years between the Muslim, Christian and Jewish communities. The world should take note.

11742818_10153552601674497_6987987621422190945_n11695958_10153552604454497_3487990268046706739_n11752048_10153552604619497_7039441486808001222_nCrawling through the backstreets that seem to have no order, we learned that this was actually done on purpose in order to create shadows and thus shade from the boiling hot sun. Which, might I add, was much appreciated. We learned that Córdoba is the only town in Spain that has two clock towers that chime a flamenco chord of a Spanish guitar to mark the hour, and that Plaza de la Corredera, a beautiful old square, used to host gruesome bullfights and that the men involved were considered by the community to be rockstars. Further on we visited the Alcázar de los Reyes Cristianos and learned all about the history of Isabella I of Castile and Ferdinand II of Aragon, who resided in the Palace. Married, the couple had two children together, but Ferdinand obviously had other ideas as he had a mistress on the side with whom he had eleven children with. As a result, Isabella had the mistress and all the children killed. Very “Game-of-Thrones-esque” explained our tour guide.

11146189_10153552602099497_6098492859558624878_n11703110_10153552604284497_5891193698265780699_nOverall the tour was fantastic, free tours are an absolutely perfect way of orienting yourself in a new city and learning stories and secrets a guidebook could not show you. After tipping our guide, we raced back to a few monuments to have a look inside before they closed for siesta. (Free Tour: http://www.freetourcordoba.com/en/free-tour-m-cordoba/)

With a rumble in our stomachs, we sourced a side-street off Plaza de Tendillas to find the best Tapas – around €2.50 for a tapas and drink. If my memory does not escape me, I believe we went back at least three times. It was delicious and so #instagramable. Plus I discovered my new favourite summer drink called Tinto de Verano (part red wine, part lemonade). Don’t judge until you try it. I was skeptical at first but am always eager to try new things and this one definitely paid off.

11667431_10153552604084497_7940745941933552980_nAfter a late afternoon shopping spree my bag is now filled with beautiful mementos that I have no idea where I am going to fit in my room but I will make it work! Next, a quick train ride to Seville where we are meeting Sarah’s friend from England. This trip is starting to slip through my fingers, and my University email is starting to beep at me. Better start planning my next trip before I go insane.

Adios until then.

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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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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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