Sunday, June 30, 2013

Pisa in a Day

We left Manarola at about 9 plus in the morning and made our way to Pisa by train. We were told that a day trip to Pisa would be sufficient and found it to be true if you're just visiting the Piazza dei Miracoli (Square of Miracles).

We stopped at the Pisa S.Rossore Station, which is a short 5 minute walk to the Square of Miracles. However, we didn't realize this is a small station which does not have the facility of storing luggage. So we walked all the way with our backpacks (and embarrassed myself by stopping by the University of Pisa to ask if they had storage facility along the way) but it really wasn't far. If you want to leave your luggage at the train station, then the Pisa Centrale station is the one you should alight from.

Once we reached our destination, we noticed a place where you could leave your luggage (thank goodness!). We booked our tickets to climb the Leaning Tower of Pisa in advance through this website called As only a certain number of people are allowed in every half an hour, I booked our tickets way beforehand. We had to be at the location 15 mins before our scheduled climb to leave our bags at the counter before lining up to get in. No bags are allowed because of the unnecessary weight.

Buildings at the Square of Miracles
The base of the Leaning Tower

I always thought the tower was built before it began sinking but the tower had a strange banana shape. During the tour, we found out that the first 3 stories were built before the foundation began sinking on one side. The architect left it uncompleted. The second architect then built more levels above these 3 stories, trying to counter tilt it hence the strange banana shape. The third architect then added the top and bells.

View from the top of the Leaning Tower

I actually felt a little dizzy climbing the Leaning Tower and was glad to come down on level ground. The marble steps were very worn down from the sheer number of people who have climbed the tower.

Tip of the Leaning Tower
Of course there were heaps of folks taking shots like these for the Leaning Tower. They were quite funny to watch actually.
So we decided to do the same for the Baptistry as we felt it was sorely neglected despite being such a beautiful building too. And no, it is not leaning just in case you were wondering

We walked around the Square, went into the cathedral for a few peaceful moments before heading back to collect our backpacks and walk to the train station with a lot of time to spare. Our next stop was to Florence.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Cinque Terre

Most people I speak to here in Malaysia have never heard of Cinque Terre. We too only found out about this beautiful cluster of five villages in the north east of Italy when I received advice from my colleague who visited this place a couple of years ago. After a bit of researching and viewing the many beautiful photos of Cinque Terre, we decided to add two nights of Cinque Terre into our itinerary. And we were so glad we did!

We took an early train from Rome, arriving late morning and stayed for two nights.

Cinque Terre marked as "A" above
Cinque Terre ("cinque" means "five" and "terre" means "land" in Italian) consists of five villages, all having the similar features such as colourful buildings hugging cliffs, vineyards and fishing as a main source of income. 

Had I not immediately named this picture, I would have forgotten where I took this! This is Manarola.
However, I think nowadays tourism contributes a large part of their income too since it was difficult to find a place to stay despite trying to book 1.5 months in advance. Each village was also packed with tourists when we got there. 

Streets packed with tourists

Another similarity is the narrow steep paths that coil around each village. Sometimes you never know where you'll end up, which was quite exciting!

Each village has a church that looks almost similar.

Usually at the front of the church, there is a little square for the congregation to gather, I suppose.

Most of the train stations in Cinque Terre are beside the sea so as you step off the trains, you're greeted with a gorgeous view of the sea.

Train station at Manarola

After visiting each village, we discovered each of them had their own charms, one has a beach, another is located on top of a hill so you have to climb many flights of steps to reach the town etc.

We stayed in Manarola, the second village from the main station La Spezia. We splurged on our accommodation but it was worth every Euro!

Our own private balcony with two deck chairs facing the sea
A picnic table where we had our meals overlooking the sea. KS enjoying the sea breeze.
The sea view from where you can see the other town Corniglia from here
The rocks are purposely placed there to calm the waters before it hits the cove where all the fishing boats are launched from. 
View from our window
So where is this place we stayed? It's called Vandiris Room #3. The view was so beautiful that I didn't want to leave to explore the village!

Here's the famous postcard shot Manarola is famous for:

If you stay in Manarola, it is recommended you eat at this place:

Recommended by my colleague, we made reservations on our second night (as they were closed on our first night). The place was packed when we got there at 8pm. However, the owner made sure we got one of the best seats outside, gave us two glasses of white wine while we waited for our table to be ready and the seafood was fresh. KS declared this restaurant made him decide Manarola is the best of all the villages!

The first day we arrived, we hung around Manarola, walking up the hills of vineyards and exploring the tiny paths. I also napped that afternoon, enjoying the cool sea breeze on a hot afternoon. Actually, it was the perfect weather to go visiting the other villages but we didn't know the next day was going to be cloudy and rainy. Oh well. 

So the next day, we took the train to the furthest village, Monterosso al Mare, the only village with a beach (two beaches, actually). This village was the flattest, with the least climbing required.

We made our way down south to the next town, Vernazza. We sat by the fishing boats and had our lunch here. 
Colourful fishing boats at Vernazza
View of Vernazza from the top
The next town was Corniglia. Sorry, because of your many many steps, I didn't quite like you, Corniglia. Still, it was a charming village.
See the zig zagging stairs? :(
Corniglia buildings facing the sea
Manarola was the fourth village from the north and the last village was Riomaggiore.

A dramatic "V" shaped cove with tall buildings on both sides.
If I were to do this again, I would spread my visit to the other villages on both days so that I spend a bit more time in each rather than a quick visit each. Since we visited the other four villages on a single day, my legs were aching by the end of the day!

The morning we left, a storm had hit Cinque Terre. Waves below our balcony pounded on the rocks. It was quite amazingly scary. So do take note of the weather if you are to visit otherwise you'll be limited in your activities such as hiking (the trails were closed when we visited the other villages) or swimming.

Would I recommend anyone to visit Cinque Terre? Definitely! Be prepared for a lot of climbing and hiking but it would all be worth it for the magnificent views. It certainly is a different part of Italy, giving you a short break from ruins, large basilicas, churches or ancient history. 

I liked Manarola, Vernazza and Riomaggiore but if you asked me to name them in order, I can't. This is more of by elimination (Corniglia is too steep, Monterosso is not steep enough - I'm hard to please, huh?).

We bade a sad goodbye and left for a day trip to Pisa before heading to Florence

For more information, visit KS blogpost on Cinque Terre.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Rome in 2 Days

Incredibly, KS and I squeezed quite a lot in two days in Rome. We did five (yes, 5) tours in those two days and would have gone for more if we had our third day.

So here's what we covered:
Day 1:
We took a Skip the Line Tour covering Museum, Raphael's Rooms, Sistine Chapel, St Peter's Basilica from Viator. It was packed with people and we had to ask twice before we could see where our tour group was gathering. There were hundreds of people lining up to get in so we were very glad we got to skip the line!

Flat ceiling painted to look like it was sculpted
Raphael's famous painting (what is it called?)
Tapestry along the corridor

Our tour ended at noon and we made our way to the Appian Way for the Catacombs.

We took a tour into the catacombs and the tour conducted by a Phillipino brother was very interesting! He kept us very engaged, asking us where each one of us was from (he even asked us if Malaysia had a new President!), urging us to rush from one secret place to another as though we were on a secret mission or going into places he wasn't allowed to show.  

On the way to the catacombs
Catacomb entrance
After that, we walked along the Appian Way to see one of the oldest highways in the world. The large stones were pulled out from the ground where the catacombs were and I think they're volcanic rocks. These roads are straight and usually 8 feet wide to comfortably fit 6 Roman soldiers marching abreast to conquer the lands.

We saw some drivers who ignored the no entry sign and punished their car suspensions by going over this road.

Since we still had daylight, we took the train back and stopped by the Colosseum. My goodness! It's colossal! I never imagined it to be so huge! I made KS hang around until it became a bit dark and took like 80 shots. But I couldn't find a decent one out of that whole stack, there were humans everywhere.

The holes in the pillars used to support an exterior layer that has been pulled out.

We ended up having a very late dinner before calling it a night.

Day 2:
The next day, we headed to the Spanish Steps to join the Free Walking Tour. The walking tour through the city past the Parliament, Pantheon, Piazza Navona, Bridge of Angels and ended in the Vatican. 

The Pantheon was packed! Too bad we couldn't go back when it was quieter.

It was an excellent way to get a feel of the city on foot, just to give you a flavour of where you'd like to visit later. We would have liked to go back to the Pantheon but we had other plans lined up for the day.

After the tour, we took a train to St Paul's Basilica Outside the Walls.

Unfortunately I don't know why Paul is holding a sword since he's not a fighter.
I loved this church mostly because there was hardly anyone in it and it was so peaceful.

After visiting St Paul's, we headed back to the city and planned to go for the Colosseum our. As mentioned before, we wound up asking the wrong person where we should be lining up for the tour and was ushered to one of those unofficial tours.

We did learn a few things in the tour though, like how the Colosseum as built to allow 100,000 people to enter and exit within 15 minutes. Why this is different from our current stadiums is because these people were allowed to view the shows for free. Free because the emperor wanted to make the people happy with his rule and divert their attention away from the other things they weren't happy about.

After this tour, we were told the tour offers a free tour of the Roman Forum just next door. At this point, KS and I were weighing whether to go to the Capuchin Crypt to see how human bones are used as part of the decoration or to go for the Roman Forum tour. We ended up with the Roman Forum tour which turned out to be the most informative tour of our trip!

The guide, Stan, whom they refer to as their George Clooney (but he looked more like a Russell Crowe), gave nuggets of useless information which I totally dig! Hahaha! For example, he informed us that we could drink the water from the flowing taps all over the city. 

The first water fountain we came across had a dustbin next to it. I certainly didn't think the water was drinkable! We bought quite a lot of bottled water before we knew we could drink from the taps.
Plus, most of these taps have holes at the top. Notice how low these taps are? To drink, instead of cupping your hands, you can block the flow of the water and the water will eventually spout through the top hole! Smart eh? I managed to try this later in Burano, Venice and was so excited when it worked!

Anyway, back to Roman Forum, the guide made us imagine being right there at the start of the 1st century, how this place would be the downtown, the happening place. The sophistication of the Roman engineering of the Aquaducts, the huge and high ceilings of the buildings they created and how they've endured over the centuries really made me so amazed.

Another one of those structures that you HAVE to be there to appreciate how huge it is. This was a warehouse back then.

Over the centuries, a lot of these structures and material were recycled to build new buildings. Like the bronze sheets plastering the Colosseum were removed to be melted down to make other things, pillars too were ripped down and used elsewhere. See this structure below?

Have a closer look at the pillars. The stripes near the top were created when ropes ate through the pillar surface when they were yanked by horses, in an attempt to tear them down. The pillars held fast and remain there as it is now. Imagine the force! Imagine the workers urging the horses on as they strained against the might of the pillars!

Thereafter, I walked those roads, imagining the hordes of Romans back then hurrying along their daily business on these roads I now tread. 

See the parallel grooves? These roads were used for horse carriages, I think. How many wheels had carved these grooves? 

Yes, I was mesmerized at the Roman Forum and brought back to the past. Something which I totally did not expect.

From there, we walked all the way to Trevi Fountain. How can we visit Rome without visiting this fountain, right?

As expected, the Trevi Fountain was teeming with tourists. Many of whom were just sitting and enjoying the view, others were throwing coins, some with their right hand over their left shoulder.

We stayed for a short while and then headed back to Roma Termini for dinner before we went back to sleep. Our early morning train would take us to our next adventure, Cinque Terre.