Sunday, May 06, 2007

Switzerland: Lucerne, Interlaken; Italy: Tuscany, Rome; Paris

Okay, just a quick catch-up on Switzerland: we spent three days in Lucerne, which they say is everything Switzerland has to offer rolled up into one little easily navigated city. The old cobbled streets are pedestrian only. The price of, well, everything is expensive, except for accommodation, which was one of our cheapest hotels yet. Perhaps it was because it was not yet tourist season, though the weather was beautiful, albeit extraordinary for that time of year. It was as if it was summer.

Next stop was Interlaken, where we spent two days and which we used as a jumping off point for Jungfraujoch, an alpine peak to which a 19th century train line climbs. The view was impressive.

From there we went to Florence, as noted below, at which we didn't realise we were arriving on Liberation Day in Italy, 25th of April, a Thursday before the Tuesday May Day holiday, meaning that all of Italy took the Friday and Monday off work and went to Florence. And Rome, but more on that later. The crowds drove us to spend the following day out of town in San Gimignano, a hilltop town about an hour away. It once featured 75 towers, like medieval skyscrapers, but battles with Florence, the plague and time have whittled them down to about 15. Nevertheless, the city is unique among the Tuscan hilltowns for the towers.

Then, Orvieto, and the most spectacular cathedral I've ever seen. And I've seen a lot on this trip. The detail and craftsmanship to the tiniest detail is exquisite, and the variety of materials includes gold leaf and inlaid stone. We had no idea there was even a cathedral here, and when I first came across it, I just gawped and said, "Wow."

We then went to a little Etruscan-medieval hilltop town called Civita di Bagnoregio, known as the dying city because the clay hill on which it is built is slowly crumbling into the valley below, taking the buildings with it. Population: 14. Fourteen. Oh, and one dog, named Barillo.

And then there was Rome. Arriving the night before May Day and still having been too dense to figure out we should book a hotel before we get there, we were greeted with wide eyes by the tourist bureau when we asked if they could find us a room for the night. They said that people had been booking hotels in Naples—two hours away—to stay in Rome. The bloke did a bit of searching and ringing and amazingly as our luck would have it he found a hotel room just ten minutes away from the centre of Rome by train. Or fifteen euros to return by taxi after the train line shuts down at 9pm. He said we were very lucky, and I take his word for it. Still, it was a rigamarole to get there (it was still a 650 metre hike with the backpacks from the station) and we had already lost a day because of our adjusted itinerary, but we managed to squeeze in the Roman Forum and the Palatine. On any other day, the ticket for the Palatine, for which the queue is about one hundred times shorter, includes entrance to the Colosseum, but because it was May Day they decided not to make this the case, so we would have had to spend one of the three hours we had spare just standing in the Colosseum queue. Alas, I had to (angrily) skip it.

All in all, Rome was dusty and bustling and too busy and big, and always being under time pressure we really didn't have the luxury to enjoy it, and so we left with a kind of relief when we pulled out on the night train to Paris. We slept in our own private cabin on the 15-hour journey and as I write this from Paris we have spent four days here. We now will be spending five and a mere afternoon in Amsterdam because we didn't reserve a seat on the train and all of them are booked up tomorrow. All of them! Lesson: book ahead of time and be wary of weekends and public holidays.

Paris has been relaxing and it's perhaps my favourite city in Europe. It's a very liveable city. The other day we zipped around on Segways on a tour of the city (run by Americans) and had so much fun on the Segways we barely looked at the city at all. Three hours was gone in half the time, and we now want to own one. Or rather, two. But at US$5000 apiece, and no service outlet in Sydney (that I'm aware of, anyway) that's perhaps a silly idea. But when you ride one, you want one.

Well, that's going to have to be it for now, and perhaps for the trip. After Amsterdam we will spend three days in London with Mai Li's sister and her husband before heading home, and I likely won't get any time to update the blog until after we reach Sydney on the 12th of May. Check in later and I'll get some more photos up.

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