A visitor from Texas, USA to Newcastle, NSW!

 

My friend Becky is currently visiting us from Texas. We meet through the pilates class at the local gym in Sherman whilst I was living there, and now I would consider her one of my best friends. Becky has been in Newcastle now 5 days. We have been exploring a little and I have been showing of the parts of my town (with plenty more planned). But today is a bit of a rest day as Becky picked up a cold on the way over (we’ll blame the aeroplane germs). So I’d thought I write a little about what’s happened so far.

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A lazy Sunday afternoon drink listening to some live music at Queens Wharf

We have done a bit of walking, well, quite a bit really. We have been along the harbourside, past the beaches, visited the Christ Church Cathedral, have done a spot of shopping (how can you not?) and have taken a few photos. It’s been fun!

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Christ Church Cathedral

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Newcastle Town Hall and the pool in front of Civic Fountain

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Becky and the pump house for the Newcastle Ocean Baths

Becky has written a couple of blog posts about her adventures so far. Check them out here.

We also took a drive up to the Hunter Valley vineyards and tasted some excellent wine. Andrew was the designated driver so we could enjoy what was on offer. Besides the good wines, there are also some lovely, picturesque views. The following pictures were taken at Audrey Wilkinson vineyard (excellent wines). We also visited Tulloch wines (also very good wines),  before having some lunch. There is something for everyone in Hunter Valley wine country, from boutique vineyards through to the large well known wine makers, and many excellent places to stay and to eat – so come and visit and spend the weekend (or week) relaxing in the Hunter Valley.

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Red roses means red grapes

 

This is the first time I have had a non-family member house guest in a long time. It certainly makes you pay more attention to what is around you (and clean up after yourself more). Seeing your surroundings through the eyes of a visitor from overseas will give you a new perspective on things. There are subtle differences between the USA and Australia, from light switches and power point switches to not so subtle differences, like driving on the other side of the road, and it’s fun to be able to discover and comment on these with a friend.

Tomorrow we are going on a Hunter River cruise to the lovely town of Morpeth. We are both looking forward to that.

 

 

A little more of Madrid

With the ECCMID conference over I was left with a day and a bit to finish exploring Madrid.

There are many museums in Madrid, and I thought I should visit at least one. My choice was not the extremely popular and well renowned Museo National del Prado; instead I went to visit the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza (also very well regarded) and solely because I wanted to see Hans Holbein’s portrait of Henry VIII.

I wasn’t disappointed; it’s actually quite a small painting.

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I also got to view many more famous paintings and works by famous artists.

For example – Rembrandt’s self portrait.

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You will also find paintings by the greats – Van Gogh, Gauguin, Renoir, Monet, Manet and Moreau- all in the one room (room 32)! It was fantastic, what a treat!

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Renoir

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van Gogh

I walked a little more of the city; there are some very nice green spaces.

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On my last morning in Madrid, I finally made it to the royal palace. But before I got inside, I was able to witness the changing of the guard.

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What a wonderful place. It is very opulent and not hard to see where the Spanish spent some of that gold brought back from the Americas. There were no photos allowed in the main apartments of the palace (Google images for Madrid Royal Palace, and you will be amazed), but the main central staircase is ok.

The gardens around the Palace are lovely too!

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I found a few more Meninas too:

Holy Toledo – a visit to the historic town in España!

Part 2 of my day trip from Madrid.

After a couple of hours in Segovia, it was back on the bus to Toledo (south of Madrid). What a view from above the city.

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A very interesting old city, located at the top of a hill (we took 6 escalators up to the main city) high above the plains of Castilla-La Mancha. Toledo is a walled city and known as the “City of three cultures” as Christians, Muslims and Jews lived here together for centuries. Toledo was also the capital of the Visigothic kingdom of Hispania following the fall of the Roman Empire. Toledo is well known for its quality steel and sword making (today there is not such a great call for quality swords, but the city has made swords for movies and TV shows such as Lord of the Rings, 300 and Game of Thrones. The city was listed as a UNESCO site in 1986.

After some lunch and a little free time, we headed up to the cathedral.

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The present cathedral dates from the 1220’s as it was rebuilt after the church preceding it burnt down. Prior to that it was a mosque, and before that the Visigothic Cathedral. Yes, it is another awesome church in Europe, and it is of course unique with many wonderful features (including paintings by El Greco who lived in Toledo for 37 years before he died in 1614),

but one thing in particular made this cathedral stand out.

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The Tesoro (or Custody of Enrique de Arfe) – is made up of 18kg of pure gold (the first gold that Christopher Columbus brought back from the Americas) and 183kg of silver, with myriad precious gemstones and some 260 statuettes. Made in the 16th-century, this processional colossus gets out once a year for the Feast of Corpus Christi, when it is paraded around the streets of Toledo.

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Toledo was an interesting town, and deserves more than 1/2 a day –

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The city’s coat of arms – the two headed eagle

Both the cities of Segovia and Toledo deserve more time, but I am so thankful I did this tour; it was great! If ever you are in Spain, don’t miss Segovia or Toledo!

 

 

Segovia – a little town with a lot of history in España

After 2 days wandering around Madrid, I thought I needed something more interesting to do. I decided a day tour full of history and culture would be just the thing. This is the tour I took (recommended). I took a day trip to the UNESCO listed towns of Segovia and Toledo (blog post to follow on Toledo).

Before the tour started, I was already enjoying myself. I had caught the metro to Las Vestas and when I exited the station, right there is the Plaza de Toros; the bullfighting arena. The arena can hold 24,000 spectators and even has its own chapel and hospital (for when things don’t go the way of the bullfighters I guess).

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First stop on the tour was Segovia (northwest of Madrid in the Castile and Leon region) – a walled city dating back to before Christ.

Apparently Segovia was originally a Celtic possession, but control later passed to the Romans. Segovia was UNESCO classified in 1985.

All the buildings in Segovia have a unique finish; it’s very ornamental and you won’t see it anywhere else except for this region. To hide the flaws of the mortared finish they decorated the finishes. They are beautiful:

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There are 3 notable monuments in Segovia. The first is the Roman aqueduct.

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This is over 2000 years old, has never been restored, so stands as it has always been and was in use up until the 20th century. At its highest point it is 29 metres tall and 818 metres in length, with 170 arches. The aqueduct is constructed using about 25,000 granite blocks and has no mortar holding them in place. Awesome!

The 2nd great thing in Segovia is the Alcazar (the castle), which sits between the rivers Eresma and Clamores and was inhabited by the kings (and queens) of Castile.

This is a real fairytale castle, as it was the castle for the inspiration for Walt Disney’s Snow White castle.

Isabella I (also known as Isabella the Catholic – Isabella of Castile) was crowned here.

It is also the place where she met with Christopher Columbus before sending him on his way to India when he ended up discovering the Americas (Isabella also financed Columbus’s journey by selling her jewels). There’s not much to this building really, and it’s smaller than you might expect, but definitely worth a visit.

There are some great views to be had too.

The 3rd thing of note in Segovia is the Cathedral, a gothic style Roman Catholic Cathedral built between 1525 and 1577. We didn’t get to go inside, but it’s an awesome building.

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Segovia was amazing and definitely worth a visit.

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What a view!

España – 2 days exploring Madrid, Spain (part 2)

Day 2: A bit more exploring Madrid

Today I did a bit of training to get to various places, I found the metro very easy to use (and a tourist ticket is the way to go for a visitor). There are 12 different lines, so you can get anywhere within the city relatively easily. My line was No. 5.

On my way to visit the museum I was intending to visit, I passed the Banco de España, a beautiful example of 19th century Spanish architecture:

In the end I didn’t make it to any museum (perhaps I had my fill while I was in Italy, I just couldn’t get motivated – and it was such a beautiful day); instead I visited a park – Parque del Retiro.

Madrid-21The Parque del Retiro was originally part of the royal grounds and in 1767 the aristocracy were permitted entry. It was another hundred years before the gates were opened to the general public.

The park is huge (at 125 hectares, one of the largest in the city) and very relaxing, even if there are plenty of other people around, you can find somewhere to sit, ponder, have a picnic, snooze, play with the kids, whatever.

I found myself having lunch here, by the lake that once was used to perform mock naval battles. It dates from 1631. Today you can hire a row boat and cruise the lake.

After my late lunch (it was after 4 before I left the park), I explored a little more and did a little shopping (couldn’t resist a pair of Spanish sandals – it was so hot, I needed them! Don’t tell my husband) around Porta del Sol (“Gateway of the Sun”).

Madrid-55This square is actually oval shaped and has 10 streets radiating from it. I found some interesting things within the square: the statue of Carlos III (above), the bear climbing the arbutus tree (the symbol of the city):Madrid-16and a Spanish mariachi band performing:

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On the way home I walked part way along the Gran Via (a Parisian style boulevard 1315m long) which was begun in 1910, but not completed until 1940.

Madrid-18300 buildings were demolished and 14 streets disappeared to make it happen. There are still some architecturally fabulous buildings along this street.

At the end of the Gran Via is the impressive Metropolis building.

As I have wandered around Madrid, I have found these Spanish Ladies throughout the city. All are different and after doing some research I discovered there are 90 of these Meninas, created by artist Antonio Azzato in fibreglass. I thought they were pretty cool, so here is a selection.

España – 2 days exploring Madrid, Spain (part 1)

I’m back in Europe!

The European Congress for Clinical Microbiology and Infectious Diseases (ECCMID) has presented me with a wonderful opportunity to do a little bit more exploring of the world. [For those who don’t know, my real job is working in medical microbiology]. This year ECCMID is being held in Madrid, Spain and I have been very fortunate (but have worked hard) to be able to be here. So, I thought I’d take the opportunity to explore for a few days before the conference started.

Day 1:

I am staying about a half hour out of the city (out near the airport), so I caught a metro train into the city centre. I hopped off at the Opera station and wandered a little

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before I did my usual thing of doing a city sightseeing hop-on-hop-off bus tour.

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There were 2 loops you could do, but I only did the one for historical Madrid. This took quite a long time the traffic is crazy busy and we were at a standstill for quite a long time (hence why I didn’t do the second loop).

The botanical gardens looked good, so that was my first hop off stop. It cost €4 to get in, but I thoroughly enjoyed it, so very worthwhile.

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Spring has sprung in Spain, so there was an excellent display of flowering tulips.

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I also saw some great bonsai

My 2nd stop was the royal palace (Palacio Real); I’d read about this and it looked really interesting. Unfortunately, when I went to buy my ticket I was told the palace was closed for the week (Bummer!), but I could get into the armoury for €5 if I wanted. I was most interested in looking through the grounds rather than the armoury, but I went in anyway. So glad I did.

Madrid-11Madrid-12The palace is impressive from the outside and the pictures I saw on inside looked amazing.

The armoury was fantastic- I was so impressed. The body amour of the soldiers and the armour plating for the horses were amazing – these were works of art, so much detail and excellent craftsmanship. The same can be said for the swords and pistols. Most of the armour dated from the16 century. Unfortunately no photos allowed, but Google images for Madrid royal palace armoury and you will see what I mean.

When I came out of the armoury, I encountered this peacock.

Madrid-14He was beautiful, I’d had never been so close to one, and was able to get a close look at his feathers.

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There was plenty of walking thereafter, so many sights to see, and I took plenty of photos.

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Ah, Roma, Italy 🇮🇹 (part 3) – the rest of Roma

In Roma, I did invest in a Hop-on-hop-off bus ticket (which I highly recommend for any city you visit; it’s a great way to get your bearings and to see what the city has to offer – and you can go back and see what you’re interested in later); we spent an afternoon doing a full loop of the city. It also offers great photo opportunities.

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Previously a stadium, now housing

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The Forum

We did do an awful lot of walking in Roma and after the extensive walking we did in the Vatican, we ventured out and explored, pretty much just following our noses. We managed to visit:

the Trevi fountain,

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the Pantheon,

Piazza Navona (which we later returned to and took a look at the underground, where the remains of the Stadium of Domitian exist).

Our last full day in Roma (and it rained all day) we visited the church that sits at the top of the Spanish Steps – Trinita dei Monti.

We walked aimlessly through Villa Borghese park – saw some famous people:

We went to the Villa Medici – guided tour only available.

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There is so much to see in Rome – it’s a big, old city. Here’s a few random shots:

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One other thing we managed to do, and that was do a pasta making class at a local restaurant. It was great fun and I can’t wait to try making my own.

Because it rained so much, we were a little limited in what we were able to see and do in Roma and we didn’t get to see The Forum or Palatine Hill. Maybe next time (I did throw a coin in the Trevi fountain after all)!

And just because I like squirrels – I’ll sign off this post with an Italian squirrel:

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Ah, Roma, Italy 🇮🇹 – a visit to Vatican City

The next part of our Italian adventure saw us leave the snow behind in Florence and travel again by high speed train to Rome, then a metro train to take us to Spagna. The subway in Rome is not as good and less clean than that of what we saw in Milan, but another experience anyway!

Our accommodation in Roma was in Piazza Mignanelli just by the Spanish Steps, so the first thing we did was explore around the Piazza di Spagna.

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Me by the Spanish Steps

Rome is full of things to do, so 4 days is no where near long enough to do even all the “must sees”, so I am going to do more than 1 blog post on Roma.

You cannot go to Rome and not see Vatican City and our first full day in Roma saw an early start for a pre-opening visit.

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We booked an early morning (admission before general entry, with Viator) tour, and I highly recommend this, it’s worth the extra money. It started raining just as we got there, but that wasn’t too bad as most of what we did was inside. Our first stop was the Sistine Chapel – amazing! We had 20 minutes to admire the frescoes. There are no photographs allowed in the chapel, and there is supposed to be no talking. Our guide had provided a lot of information about this chapel, what to look for, what was noteworthy and why, and she provided a visual guide. This was great.

After the Sistine Chapel, we went back to look through the museums, very interesting.

And, it’s not just the Sistine Chapel that has an amazing ceiling – you can spend a lot of time looking up at the marvellous paintings on the ceilings throughout the Vatican.

On the way to St Peter’s Basilica we passed back through the Sistine Chapel (and you can understand why it’s good to go early).

St Peter’s Basilica is amazing! I am running out of superlatives here, but it was awesome. It is a very grand and stunning church.

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St Peter (with a very shiny right foot, where everyone touches it)

Of course, when you leave the Basilica, you are facing St. Peters Square.

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St Peter’s Square

 

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The Pope’s Balcony

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,

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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.

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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!