Firenze, Italy

After 5 nights in Milano, we boarded a fast train to Florence in Tuscany.

These trains are fantastic, and I wish Australia had one or two of these. Very comfortable – and fast (~260km/hr fast)! You even get a drink and a snack for free on board.

Once we arrived in Florence (Firenze), we caught a taxi to our home for the next 5 nights (Stone Lion Exclusive apartment – very nice by the way and definitely recommended). After checking in, we hit the streets for a look around. Saw lots of interesting buildings and architecture and wandered across the Ponte Vecchio,

before meandering through some markets.

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Anyone who has been to Florence will tell you, there is at least one leather outlet on every block and plenty of market stalls to buy your leather goods. There is plenty of variety and prices, I believe seem very reasonable. I picked up a lambswool lined leather coat (as it was freezing), a couple of pairs of shoes and a couple of hand bags. The leather rush may have gone to my head!

Firenze was amazing, I loved it from the moment we got there, even though the weather wasn’t kind. So many little streets and great architecture.

Our first full day in Firenze, we wandered aimlessly and visited San Lorenzo (the oldest church in Firenze, consecrated in 393).

On the way back to our apartment we managed to get lost. The streets of Florence twist and turn and I found it easy to become disoriented in this city, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Day 2 we did a day trip to San Gimignano, Monteriggioni and Sienna, which also included a stop at a local family run winery for some wine tasting and lunch.

Day 3 we went to see David at the galleria dell’accademia,

Firenze_David-1

Michelangelo’s David

and checked out the Duomo (which I thought was more spectacular on the outside).

Day 4 we woke to snow ❄️ it was a freezing day, with snow, sleet and rain. We managed to visit the Bargello museum and see some more impressive sculptures.

Firenze_Donatello_David-1

Donatello’s David

 

Later we went through the church across from where we were staying, the Basilica of Santa Croce, where Michelangelo, Rossini, Machiavelli, and Galileo Galilei are buried. This was an amazing church and very impressive (I personally liked it better than the Duomo).

And finally, did you know Pinocchio was born in Florence?

It would be lovely to one day return to Firenze, and spend a whole lot more time there, as there is so much more I would like to see.

Our last days in Milano, Italy

There is of course plenty to see in Milan, as in every large city. Just 5 days is not enough to discover all there is to see. I had a list of a few things that I prioritised as things I’d like to do. As I love history, and I’m a fan of old architecture, I thought a visit to Castle Sforza and a viewing of Leonardo’s Last Supper painting were worth the effort for me.

Day 4 – we really had nothing planned, so we caught the metro to Cairoli station, which is just a short walk to Castello Sforzesco. It’s free to get into the grounds and just €5 to get into the museums.

Heaps to see here, and the music museum is unlike anything I’ve ever seen, quite extraordinary.

I also particularly liked the tapestries!

Day 5 – what an interesting day for our last full day in Milan! First on the agenda was a visit to Leonardo’s Last Supper. If you want to see this famous painting, I highly recommend you book a tour. It’s a bit more expensive, but worth it; you get a good commentary on the painting, it’s history and restoration. To view the last supper, you are allowed into the room where it is displayed in groups of 30 people at a time (don’t worry – there is plenty of room and readily viewed from anywhere in the room) and for 15minutes only. Because visitor numbers are limited – this is another reason to book a group tour ticket. LastSupper-1LastSupper-2

After viewing the painting (which is housed in the refectory of theSanta Maria delle Grazie church), we took a look inside main church.

During our walk home we stumbled across some of the craziness that is fashion week in Milan.

And immediately after, we were witness to some street protest march (?political rally).

It was an event filled 5 days and we had a great time in Milano. Next stop Firenze!

A trip on the little red train!

Day 3 of our visit to Italy.

I had heard of a reputedly great train trip –  the Bernina Expressa (the “little red train”), which travels from Tirano in Italy through the Swiss alps to St. Moritz; this is what I chose to do for my birthday.

It was an early start to the day – 7am from the visitors centre in Milan for a bus trip to Tirano. We had a reasonably small group (~25 of us) and the coach was comfortable with large panoramic windows. We travelled from Milan up passed Lake Como (it was a very grey day, with a lot of cloud, so we didn’t see too much) and stopped at the Ristop Bar in Piantedo for breakfast/ morning tea. We arrived in Tirano (the last Italian town before entering Switzerland) around 11:00am. We had a look at the church there, had lunch and wandered around the town before boarding our train to St Moritz at 12:45pm.

We departed Tirano at 1pm and headed for the alps. The train passes through 21 tunnels and over 52 bridges. The maximum slope is apparently 70%. We passed by a lot of snow.

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What a great trip! It was freezing and I’ve never seen so much snow ❄️, but it was fabulous. A great way to spend one’s birthday!

 

A Taste of Italy

I thought an overseas trip would be a great way to celebrate a significant birthday. I love Italian food (my favourite) and I love history, so Italy seemed like a good choice. I’ve done all the planning and bookings myself (anyone else who has organised their own holiday will know just how time consuming that can be).

So, first stop was Milan. We arrived after about 35hours after leaving home, and although we managed to do some exploring soon after arriving, saw some markets,

did a walk down Corso Buenos Aires (which included a lovely lunch at Sabatini where I had Milanese style risotto – delisio!). To walk off lunch we took a stroll through the park by Porta Venezia.

Once we made it back to our apartment, we didn’t last too long and crashed late afternoon and slept until the next morning.

Day 2 we jumped on a hop-on, hop-off city sightseeing bus, which is always good to get your bearings. After once around we decided to first visit the grand Duomo! What a cathedral!

Milan_Duomo-1

This was awesome, and my highlight for Milano. This is a must see, and if possible, you must pay the extra and go onto the rooftop terraces. Spectacular. You could almost spend all day here, there is so much to see; and so much detail.

We also managed to visit the World of Leonardo exhibit. I am a great admirer of Mr da Vinci, and after this visit, even more so. The man was a genius! Unfortunately there were no photographs allowed, but this also is worth a visit, and again, you could spend hours here.

We stayed at Apartmento Vitruvio42 in Milan

Long haul air travel.

So, we are now safely in Australia – in Canberra actually, to pick up my car that my parents were babysitting whilst I was away.

However, I was awake at 4am this morning – getting over a long haul flight can be a bit of a drag. I don’t sleep well on airplanes, and I barely slept on our transpacific flight. I was so tired I had a 3-hour nap yesterday afternoon; this possibly partially explains the wake time of 4am!

Flying from DFW (Dallas/Fort Worth, USA) to Sydney, Australia is a looong flight; it is actually the longest non stop flight in the world. It’s roughly 17-hours depending on weather etc., so you have plenty of time on your hands; you can watch a movie or 2 or 3, read a book, do some handicraft, contemplate your life, write your memoirs or just sleep, if you are one of those lucky people who can sleep on a plane. I’ve tried to sleep, but all I do is uncomfortably toss and turn, and never do much more than lightly snooze.

plane_clouds

The clouds out the window

We were lucky enough to fly premium economy (a step up from cattle class, but not quite business class) on the big A380 Airbus with QANTAS. I can recommend it if you can afford it; that extra bit of room is good (although not enough to stretch out sufficiently to sleep properly) and I also found the service to be great.

 

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premium economy cabin

Flying is always interesting; particularly international flights. Generally it’s exciting. Have you ever wondered why so many other people are taking the same flight? What’s their story? It’s great people watching (& listening) – well, interesting at least if you can ignore the screaming infant, the loud children, the snoring neighbor, etc.

plane_viewSometimes when flying a window seat is not such a great advantage, particularly if you have to crawl over someone to go and use the bathroom; but sometimes the view can be just wonderful. Our flight departed DFW at 8:10pm and we were scheduled to land in Sydney at 6:05am, so for most of the flight it is total darkness outside, so not much to see.  However, I got to see the night lights of Dallas was we took off, which was a nice goodbye and I did see a little bit of Sydney as we landed – there was quite a bit of cloud at the time and we came in from the south, so we didn’t get that fabulous view of the Barbour, the bridge or the opera house. Disappointed sigh! But during the night I opened the shade on the window and looked out – and what did I see? The glorious view of the southern stars with the Southern Cross sparkling beautifully at me. Wonderment sigh!

Anyway, we are back in the land of Oz and now all I have to do is try to settle back in, readjust and overcome that odd feeling of being a stranger in your own homeland!

Kilkenny to Dublin

Well, our journey around Ireland is almost over. 😔

Yesterday we left our wonderful hotel at Kilkenny, but before saying good bye we visited the castle and explored the town a little.

The castle sits above the town with a commanding spot on the River Nore. Disappointingly, there is no photography allowed within the castle – this is very unfortunate because it was beautiful with lots of wonderful things to admire. The portrait gallery in particular was fabulous. The garden was also very pretty.

 After exploring the town (very nice), on the way back to the car, we happened to call in on a music shop, which just happened to have a harp for sale:

 Alas, at €2795 and no room in my luggage, I could not take it home with me. I did however find myself a book of all of Turlough O’Carolan’s sheet music (with 4 cd’s to accompany it) – so I did leave with that. Turlough O’Carolan is a famous Irish harpist from the late 17th and early 18th century for those not in the know.

We called in at the Brownshill Dolmen (it sits in a field, just outside of Carlow) – it has the largest capstone of all the megalithic portal tombs in Ireland (reputedly weighing 150 tons). It is very impressive.

Brownshill Dolmen

Glendalough was our last stop before heading back into Dublin. This is home to an early Christian monastic site originally founded by St. Kevin in the 6th century. It is easy to see why he would have chosen this spot; it is so peaceful and very beautiful! 
  

For our final 2 nights I thought it would be nice to finish off with a stay in a ‘castle’ (it was originally a castle but has been rebuilt and reinvented most recently in in the late 90’s as a hotel)- at Clontarf Castle, a little out of the city.  

Our final day in Dublin has been pretty quiet, catching the local bus into the city and just doing a bit of shopping, having lunch in Temple Bar and some more walking around the city. Tomorrow we fly back to Texas and back to reality. For a little island, Ireland sure packs a lot in! It has been a most wonderful trip (I wish it could have been longer) and I hope I can come back soon! 😊

Cork and Waterford

Sadly we had to say farewell to County Kerry too soon and left with sights unseen and adventures missed! There is so much to do in this area – a week would have been lovely!From Kilarney we headed to Cork taking the longer coastal route, stopping at Buntray House (home of the White family [my maiden name] ,the former earls of Bantry since 1739) and gardens overlooking Bantry Bay. This is a magnificent house (no photography inside the house unfortunately) and is still privately owned (it also acts as a B&B).

Bantry House and Gardens

Before heading on to Cork, I had to stop in at Drombeg Stone Circle, dating from the 2nd century BC.

Drombeg Stone Circle

I must admit I did not really like Cork, it appeared a hard and dirty city; it certainly wasn’t quaint and charming. The following morning we headed for Blarney to visit the castle. This was so much more than I expected.

Blarney CastleBesides the castle (and of course, the Blarney Stone, which I did not kiss!) there is a rather large manor house and some rather extensive gardens; one of which was called Rock Close (a hidden grove of ancient Yew trees and limestone rock formations) – this  was a magical wonderland where ivy grew over trees, tree roots were twisted, the moss covered the trees and the rocks, and where there were waterfalls and hidden caves, the Witch’s steps, the Witch’s kitchen and the Druid’s cave. For me, this was wonderland and I could have stayed here for hours!

BlarneyWoods

We did experience a bit of rain at Blarney castle, but quite a good deal more as we made our way to Cobh, which was going to be our next stop. As is was totally miserable here, we didn’t stay and pushed on, calling in at the Old Midleton Distillery (Ireland’s largest distillery) for a quick visit before making our way to Waterford (Ireland’s oldest city) where we stayed overnight at the Waterford Marina Hotel (a great value hotel and I would recommend it).

Waterford's crystal harpI liked Waterford (and again, I could have stayed longer). Our first stop in Waterford was Waterford Crystal where we did a tour of the factory. This was very informative and I enjoyed it, but it was pricey at 13euro each, although I now have a great appreciation for the craftsmanship that goes into creating these pieces of art – by the way – there are no seconds at Waterford Crystal- any imperfect pieces are scrapped! I couldn’t afford to buy anything here, but I did admire all that was on offer, including The Barclays trophy with Jason Day’s name on it, The Ashes Cup and the People’s Choice Awards Trophies. Of course, I particularly admired the crystal harp on display!

Just down the street we took a look at Reginald’s Tower (a stone tower dating from the 12th century, this is the oldest civic urban building in Ireland).

ReginaldsTower

We also took a look at the ruins of the 13th century Grey Friars church and Christchurch Cathedral (built in 1770). Before leaving Waterford I happened to find my street and took a photo:

Catherine Street– and then headed to Kilkenny.

However, once again, we didn’t take the most direct route; I had to go via The Rock of Cashel! What an impressive and imposing structure. Once again – I loved what I saw here.

RockOfCashel

The views from this former fortress and monastery are also impressive.

View from Rock of Cashel

To cap off my day – we finished up in a hotel bar (Langtons House Hotel) – old and beautiful, having dinner and a few drinks listening to some live Irish music. For me; I was feeling a bit like ‘a pig in mud’, very happy! 😊

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I tried to upload this yesterday, but had trouble with Wi-Fi!

 

Spectacular Kerry

2 days in Kerry – absolutely wonderful – even in wet weather!

Thursday we ventured to the Dingle peninsular and drove the Slea Head road. It was another very full day. We looked in at Inch Beach (part of Ryan’s Daughter was filmed here)

Inch Beachand then went on to Dingle town (where we had lunch at Denners Hotel).

We also saw an ancient stone ring fort and some Beehive Huts:

Beehive Hut

Unfortunately the rain did fall for a considerable part of the day and we did get wet. However, it was still very nice. We saw lots of rainbows – the best I have ever seen – they were complete and very vibrant.

Rainbows in Dingle

Friday we did the “Ring of Kerry” – and, yes, there is plenty of spectacular scenery.

Kerry Coastline

There are also lots of tourist buses and lots of narrow roads! But, we went to some places the tourist coaches don’t go. We had great fun crawling through the ruined remains of Ballycarbery Castle – this was awesome!


We also clambered over a couple of 2500 year old stone forts!


All in all – it was a great day and topped off with my first tipple of Irish whiskey!

I must add; the hotel we stayed in at Kilarney was very nice – The Lake Hotel (even if the bed/mattress wasn’t, and completely stuffed my back) – the room and views over a part of a ruined castle were lovely:

I wish we could have stayed longer – I could have spent a week here easily, there is so much to see and do!

Bunratty and Limerick

I apologise for the lateness of this post; I have been fighting a cold for the past week and the last 2 days it has been fighting back aggressively!

After leaving Galway we headed to The Burren (literally ‘rocky land’ in Gaelic) – and the countryside is just that! Very different to other areas of Ireland. I was keen to see some more of ancient Ireland and we called in on Poulnabrone Dolmen, dating from 2500-2000 BC.

Burren-Dolmen

Afterwards we headed to the Cliffs of Moher. Very spectacular!

CliffsOfMoher_a

Kilfenora_HighCrossWe didn’t really have as much time as I would have liked to explore this region, however I did manage to squeeze in some more High Celtic Crosses at Kilfenora:

– we needed to move on to the town of Bunratty, where I had booked us a 4 course medieval banquet at Bunratty Castle. This was fabulous.

Upon arrival at the castle you climb the narrow spiral staircase to the great hall where we were greeted with a goblet of mead (this was delicious, by the way) and a violinist. We then enjoyed a welcome from our hosts (all the staff are in period costume) with a history of the castle and some more music and song.

Bunratty_GreatHall

Bunratty_performersEveryone is then ushered down stairs to the banqueting hall. The only implement provided for eating is a knife, so the soup – you had to sip from the bowl. The food was very good, and during dinner entertainment was provided by a fiddle player and a harpist; there were also interludes of singing and story telling. Overall though, my favourite was the solo by the harpist. Just wonderful! It was a great night and I’m glad we did this.

The following day we headed into Limerick for a look around. Again, not enough time, but we went to King John’s Castle (sitting on the banks of the Shannon River), which provided a great interactive display of history of Ireland, Limerick and the castle.

KingJohnCastle_RiverShannon

Limerick_StMarysWhile in Limerick we also visited St Mary’s Cathedral, originally built in 1172 – this is probably one of the best ancient churches I have ever seen. This stone building has wonderful stained glass panels, an oak barrel vaulted roof and is probably best known for it’s 15th century oak misericords (a form of seating used by the clergy) with each one having a different figure carved into the underside of the seat (they fold up when not in use).

Limerick_Misericords

On then to Kilarney!

2 days in Galway

Our run of reasonably fine weather has run out! We have had 2 full days in Galway and the weather has not cooperated at all – with it raining probably 90% of the time! Lots of cloud, rain, wind and much cooler temperatures. I guess this is more typical of Irish weather!

I had planned to go to the Aran Islands for a day while we were here in Galway, but we didn’t get there – if the weather is bad, apparently it is not worth the trip. So, our first full day we spent exploring the narrow, paved streets of Galway.

Galway_streets_01

We also walked through Eyre Square, the Latin Quarter, saw Lynch’s Castle (which now houses a bank, but is the grandest 16th century town house in Galway), walked down to the harbour, saw the Spanish Arch (built in 1584 to protect the harbour) and did a bit of shopping!

The 16th century Lynch's Castle

The 16th century Lynch’s Castle

Last night we sought some dinner in the town and then found a fabulous Irish pub Tigh Neachtain to enjoy a few drinks and to listen to some live music (it came recommended by the receptionist at the hotel we are staying in).

This pub is small, low ceilinged, with lots of timber panelling and a few cosy seating snugs; there are also lots of interesting historic wall decorations; it is full of character!

Inside Tigh Neactain (before the crowds)

Inside Tigh Neachtain (before the crowds)

We were lucky to get a seat (having tried a couple of other recommended pubs before this one – and they were all packed), but I am glad we sat where we did (I’ll explain shortly). The pub filled up once the band started playing – it was literally standing room only, and you had to push your way through the crowd.

In the corner there is a small space for the band to play and last night we saw Mike and The Scallywags play – they were a 6 piece band made up of a piano player, guitarist, banjo player, a double bassist, a fiddler and a “drummer” (actually played a Cajon – a drum that you sit on to play). Our table was right next to where the band played. Because I was sitting so close, I got to talk to a couple of the band members too – they were great. The music was fantastic and I had a wonderful time! I tried to attached a movie file of the band playing, but unfortunately I have had no success – sorry.

As I said, this is a fairly small pub, and where we were sitting was right next to the band – so close that the fiddle player could have sat on my lap!

Cate_band

Today we took the opportunity to recover from a big night last night, slept in a bit, had a late breakfast and then, because the rain was coming down still, we stayed in Galway, drove around to Salthill (a seaside resort area) and explored a little more in the car.

The tides out at Galway Bay

The tides out at Galway Bay

The River Corrib flows out into Galway Bay

The River Corrib flowing out into Galway Bay

Don’t let the above photos fool you – the rain stopped for a wee while and the sun struggled to come out (it wasn’t successful) and I was able to get a couple of decent photos without getting wet!

Unfortunately, I think we probably missed a great deal of things to do and see in Galway (partly because of the weather, and partly because I wasn’t organised enough)! So, not too exciting today, but a rest and recovery day was probably in order. Hopefully tomorrow the weather will improve as we set forth toward Bunratty and Limerick.