Joanne’s Collette Tour of Britain – Final Blog

On Nov 23 at 8 am we departed for the longest bus journey of the trip. We travelled south to Wales stopping at Greta Green, where generations of runaway couples came to be married. We travelled through the picturesque Lake District finally arriving at the beautiful Ruthin Castle at about 5 pm. This Castle dates back to 1283. They say that Lady De Grey’s ghost is still here.  I did not encounter her but some did. Her suite was next to my room. I slept with the light on in the closet that night. It just felt a bit eerie.  We toured the grounds in the morning for about an hour. We did find the grave of Lady De Grey!!

We departed early the next day for Stratford-upon-Avon, the birthplace of William Shakespeare. We toured this birthplace, his wife Anne Hathaway’s cottage and then his daughter’s house, Hall’s Croft. Stratford is a beautiful quaint town with lots of boutiques and restaurants. We ended our adventure with a private farewell dinner at Hall’s Croft. We were entertained by costumed actors who performed some of Shakespeare most renowned scenes.

We travelled 1500 km on this British Landscapes tour!

My amazing trip comes to an end with a two hour transfer back to London and then a nine hour flight back to Calgary then Saskatoon.  Collette Tours is a great tour company and I can’t wait to travel with them again.

Here are some of my favourite moments from my trip!

If traveling with Collette or to Britain interests you please feel free to contact me at joanne@uniglobevacation.com or 306-934-3400.

 

 

 

Joanne’s Collette Tour of Britain Part 2

The last 2 days have been very busy and chilly. Once we arrived in York we had a walking tour around the city. What a cute little city with lots of boutiques and restaurants. The Christmas market was on so we wandered through it. We had the choice tonight to attend a traditional Yorkshire dinner at a local pub. It was delicious!!

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Edinburgh Castle

On Nov 22 we departed by bus for Edinburgh, Scotland. The bus ride is about 4 hours. We stopped a few times so the ride didn’t seem too long. Once we crossed the Scottish border we hit snow. We drove through a snow storm for about 1 hour.  The drive is very curvy and it is like a roller coaster.  Yuck! I turned a few shades of green on that ride. We arrived in Edinburgh around 4 pm.  Edinburgh is a beautiful city and the hotel we are staying at is right in the centre of the city. There are lots of shops and restaurants in the area. We toured the Holyrood Palace and the Edinburgh Castle. Both were amazing!!  The rest of the afternoon and evening was free so we wandered around the city and did a bit of shopping. We toured the old city and the new city across the bridge by foot. We also wandered through the Christmas market here and sampled some traditional mulled cider to keep warm.  Tomorrow we are off two Ruthin, Wales to spend the night in a castle!!

Follow @UniglobeCarefreeTravel on Instagram for some great photos of all of our consultants’ travel experiences!

Joanne’s Collette tour of Britain Part 1

My adventure started on Nov 17. I flew from Calgary to London direct with Air Canada. The plane was half full so I had 3 seats to myself. I laid across all 3 seats and I think I slept for 4 hours.  When we arrived in London we were met by a representative from Collette Tours who drove us to the hotel. It took us 2.5 hours to get to hotel because the traffic is so bad here.  We are staying at a beautiful hotel in The City area. You can walk to the Tower of London and across the Tower Bridge which I did yesterday after we checked into the hotel.

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Westminster Abbey

On Saturday Nov 19 we had a panoramic city tour. We were lucky to see the changing of the guards at Buckingham Palace. After lunch we had a guided tour of St Paul’s Cathedral. I walked up 257 steps to the whisper gallery at the church. What an amazing view.  Tonight we had free time so I decided to take in a show.  We went to Leicester Square and found a half price ticket booth. We decided to go to the musical Kinky Boots!! Even though we had to take single seats the show was amazing!!

Tomorrow we are off to York on the train.

 

Stephanie’s Asian Adventure – Final Blog

Day nine is a free day in Vang Vieng, and my birthday, but that doesn’t mean it’s going to be a quiet one. We have already arranged to start the day out with a caving and kayaking adventure, which is about 30 minutes out of town by tuk-tuk. We have to hike through a small village and field to get to the caves, but once there it was so much fun. We each get an inner tube and a head lamp, and off into the cave we go. We guide ourselves by a rope, and once in the cave you can’t see anything without the lamp. Once we make it to the end, we all turn off our lamps and hang out in complete darkness for a few moments before some of the other travellers start to get a bit nervous and want their lights back on.

After the cave, we head to another spot on the river for some kayaking. The kayaks are doubles, so of course I team up with my husband (it also means I don’t have to feel bad for making him do most of the work). Since it’s dry season and the river is quite low, we have to be careful to follow the guide so we don’t get stuck in any shallow spots, or any sneaky rocks. The river is beautiful, and at the start is dotted with a bunch of rivers bars. Vang Vieng used to be very popular with river tubing and bar hopping, but quite a few travelers have died in the past, so it’s not at common anymore. Once we are out of the busy part of the river, it’s so quiet and peaceful. I let my husband take over and take a minute to just enjoy one of my favorite activities on my birthday.

The rest of the day is a little more relaxing, but still pretty full. We have lunch at an Irish Bar with some of our new Australian friends, and then we take a tuk-tuk to the Blue Lagoon, which is a beautiful lagoon just outside of town. Since it rained early this morning, the water isn’t as blue as it usually is, but it was still pretty amazing. There are a few different platforms to jump from, as well as a few rope swings. I already had my fill of tree jumping from Kuang Si Waterfalls a few days ago, so I passed this time and just enjoyed the cool waters. We finish up the evening with a massage, and a pretty early night to bed, as being in the sun all day was pretty draining.

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Day ten is our last full day in Laos as we head to the capital of Vientiane. The drive is just under 4 hours, and we have one quick break along the way. Once we arrive, we jump right into our tour.  We stop at Pha That Luang, a beautiful Buddhist temple with an amazing golden stupa. The original structure is over 2000 years old, though over the years has been raided for the gems and gold. The current stupa is about 450 years old, and just layered with gold rather than being solid. We also make a stop at Patuxai, or the “Victory Gate” and it resembles the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. It was built in 1962 with cement donated by the USA intended for the construction of a new airport, so it has been nicknamed” the vertical runway”. A climb to the top gives some great panoramic views over Vientiane.

Our last stop of the afternoon is the COPE Center (Cooperative Orthotic & Prosthetic Enterprise). Not many people know (including myself until this trip), but there was a secret war in Laos during the Vietnam War. From 1964 to 1973, the USA was trying to stop traffic along the Ho Chi Minh Trail. They dropped over 260 million cluster bombs on Laos during 580,000 bombing missions—equal to a planeload of bombs every 8 minutes, 24-hours a day, for 9 years – making Laos the most heavily bombed country per capita in history. The bombings destroyed many villages and affected hundreds of thousands of Laotians. However, approximately 1/3 of the bombs didn’t explode on impact, and are still located throughout the country today. Up to 100 people per year are injured or killed by a UXO (unexploded ordnance). This is where the COPE Center comes in – they help with prosthetics, therapy and rehabilitation for anyone who has been affected by a UXO. All assistance they provide is complimentary to the patient, and many people require treatment for several weeks. As a group, we all pitch in to make a donation to the center, and we manage to put together over 5 Million Kip (about 800 CAD or 625 USD), which is just a small dent in our lives, but could mean the world to someone here. The bus back to the hotel this afternoon is a lot quieter than usual, as we all take some time to appreciate how lucky we are to have safe, normal lives.

Day eleven we say goodbye to Laos and hello to Cambodia. We take a flight with Cambodia Angkor Air from Vientiane to Phnom Penh, which is 90 minutes. Upon arrival we all notice Cambodia is quite different from Laos – there are a lot more people, and it looks a little rougher and dirtier. Unfortunately, it’s a bit of a corrupt country, and much of the money intended for infrastructure doesn’t make it that far. Many roads and buildings are incomplete, and there is a lot of garbage on roads and empty lots.

We were supposed to make 2 stops today, but unfortunately we were stuck in traffic an hour longer than planned, so we had to cut things short. It’s another heavy hearted day as we have a group tour of Choeung Ek, a killing field located just outside of Phnom Penh. More than a million people were killed and buried in genocide by the Communist Khmer Rouge regime, during its rule of the country from 1975 to 1979. This particular killing field was not found until 1980, and was discovered to have over 129 mass graves, with over 8900 victims, though it’s estimated that over 20,000 people were killed here as not all graves have been uncovered. Our local tour guide shares with us that his family was affected by the genocide, as he lost many aunts and uncles, as well the entire side of his father’s family. Our Contiki tour manager also shares with us that his father was in one of the prisons, but managed to escape when he was 15. We have another somber bus ride back to the hotel as we all take time to appreciate living in peaceful countries.

Tonight there is an included Contiki dinner, at Veiyo Tonle. It’s a Cambodia owned and run restaurant that puts its profits back into the community to help keep kids off the streets. After dinner we all heading to a bar called Top Banana for some dancing and drinks. We all needed a break from the heavy emotions of the last 2 days.

Day twelve is our last travel day as we head to our last stop – Siem Reap. We take a quick 45 minute flight, which of course was delayed, before we arrive is scorching 36 degree heat. We start out with a visit to Tonle Sap Lake and the floating villages. Being right in the middle of dry season, the lake is very small and water levels are quite low. The lake can be as small as 250 km sq., and as big as 12,000 km sq. in raining season. The people who live in the floating villages have all they need with them – schools, shops, and even churches. Since no part of the lake is owned by any one village or person, they move as they see fit, which can be up to 6 or 7 times a year.

The rest of this evening is free, so we take a 15 minute walk to Pub Street where a lot of great restaurants are located. We finish off with a little shopping at the night market, before heading back to the hotel for an early bedtime – tomorrow is a very early start.

Day thirteen is our final full day together, and its starts with a 5 am departure from the hotel to see sunrise at Angkor Wat. This is the largest religious site in the world, constructed in the 12th century and it took more than 37 years to build. It was originally a Hindu temple, but was converted to Buddhism in the 16th century. When the Khmer empire fell, the site was abandoned and lost to the jungle for over 400 years before being rediscovered by the French in the 1860’s.

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In the afternoon we visited Angkor Thom, which includes Bayon Temple and Ta Prohm, also known as the Tomb Raider temple. Bayon is right in the center of Angkor Thom, and originally had 54 towers with 4 faces on each side, though only 37 towers remain standing today. Ta Prohm is where the movie Tomb Raider was filmed, and is still covered by some of the jungle. The trees have worked their way into the stone, and now support parts of the temple.

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On our final night together, we all have dinner at Red Piano on Pub Street. The food was fantastic (some of my favorite spring rolls all trip), but it was an open air establishment and so hot that I was quite uncomfortable. We all hurried through our meals so we could carry on to a nearby bar for our final party. We call came wearing white shirts with markers and highlighters in tow, so we can leave goodbye messages for each other. Now I have a great memento of all the friends I made along the way. I couldn’t think of a better way to say goodbye.

As I think back at all that we did in 2 short weeks, I couldn’t have done it all without Contiki. I would have never made as many friends, seen as many sites, and felt so safe and comfortable if I tried to do it all on my own.  Contiki says it best – One Life, One Shot, No Regrets!

Stephanie’s Asian Adventure – Part 3

Day four begins with an early morning drive to Chiang Rai. It takes around 3 hours. We make a stop at White Temple along the way, which is one of the newest and stranger temples. It was created by an artist who wants the younger generation to take a better interest in Buddhism. Its’ decorated with lots of pop culture figures, and is very intriguing. After this stop, we are only 20 minutes from our hotel – Wang Come Hotel. its a bit more simple than ones we’ve stayed in so far, but its clean and gets the job done. It’s just off the main road, and 10 minutes from the night market.

After checking in, we have a bit of free time for lunch, and then its off to visit the hill tribes of the area. The village is roughly 45 minutes outside the city. Five tribes live together in a community, in their traditional ways. We spend time walking through the village, speaking with locals and giving gifts to the children. We are treated to some traditional song and dance, and there are lots of opportunities for purchasing handicrafts made by the village. Personally, it did feel a bit more like a shopping trip than a cultural experience, but I still enjoyed it none the less.

This evening is one of my favorites so far for dinner. We head to the night market for some fantastic local cuisine – hot pot soup. We also tried some tempura, and even fried meal worms (taste sort of like peanuts.) The night finishes off with a Contiki special party. Each tour has a special theme, picked by the tour manager – ours was a Sh*t Shirt Party. The goal is to find the ugliest shirt to wear, and the winner gets a prize. it was a ton of fun, we had great laughs and lots of dancing.

Sabaidee! Hello and welcome to Laos. Day five starts with a 2 hour drive to the Laos border. With passports ready, it takes around an hour for the whole group to get our visas. Once that’s done, we hop in a bus for a quick drive down to the Mekong River, as we are spending the next 2 days on a slow boat cruising to Luang Prabang. Lunch is included today, and its a great spread of traditional Laos food. There are amazing views along the river, and we get a great chance to see some local living along the way.

Tonight is spent in a sleepy town called Pak Beng – they only received 24/7 power five years ago. The hotel is very simple, but everyone is so tired it doesn’t matter. We have some free time before dinner at the hotel, so we wander up the street. There isn’t much to see, but we find somewhere to have some street food – sausages and duck, which are absolutely amazing.

Everyone is so exhausted from the go-go-go pace we’ve had so far, so it’s an early night to bed.

Day six and we are back on the boat for another 5 hours or so. Along the way, we stop at the Pak Ou caves. Its a beautiful homage to Buddha, with hundreds of Buddha statues placed throughout the caves.

We continue on for another hour before making it to Louang Prabang. We start our with a bike tour of town, and a stop to try snake whiskey (not me though, it freaks me out). In our free time we decide to climb up the mountain to get amazing views of the city. The night finishes up with a trip to the night market for more street food, and gifts for home.

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Day seven, and I can’t believe it’s day seven already. It’s a very early start at 530 am, as we are participating in the Giving of the Alms. Every morning locals line the streets to give offerings of food, money and gifts to the monks. It was such an amazing experience to be a part of.

Later in the morning we get to ride elephants. There are only 2 types of elephants left in the world – African and Asian. the Asian ones we ride are the smaller of the 2. The ride is around 40 minutes and if you want you can get on the neck. It’s really hard to balance, and a bit scary at times, but definitely worth it. After the ride we had time to feed them bananas. their trunks have over 1000 muscles, and the movements are so graceful. I could spend all day with them.
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There is some free time for lunch before we head out again, and we are craving some comfort food, so we head to Aussie Bar for burgers and fries. All I can say is delicious.

In the afternoon we depart for Kuang Si Waterfalls. it takes 40 minutes by car, but its worth the drive. One we get there, it’s another 15 minute hike to the top, but it’s not strenuous. The view at the top is fantastic. There are lots of swimming areas along the way, so most of us decided to jump in. It is fairly slippery wit lots of sharp rocks, so I do recommend water shoes. There is a great tree to jump off of, so I figure I should try. I’m a pretty big scared-y cat, so it took a little coaxing to get me to do it.
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Tonight we had dinner at Hive Bar, which is owned by a Canadian. He runs programs like modelling and break dancing to get kids off the street. During dinner there was a fashion show of traditional Laos clothes, as well as a break dancing set. Both were really great. The owner puts proceeds from the bar back into the community, so it’s really a feel good kind of place.

On day eight we all brace ourselves for the worst part of the trip – a 7 hour drive from Louang Prabang to Vang Vieng, on some of the craziest roads I’ve ever seen. It is very windy, and many people felt quite ill the whole way. Luckily the journey was broken up a few times so we could stretch our legs, and to have lunch. The view at lunch was amazing. It’s at a restaurant called Spectacular Views, and it doesn’t disappoint. Since we are at the highest part of the trip, you can see all the gorgeous mountain peaks.

Once we finally make it to Vang Vieng we basically have free time for the rest of the day, though we all decide to meet at 630 pm to have dinner at Kangaroo Sunset. It’s a backpacker bar, so the vibe is really relaxed. All the workers are travelers who fell in love with Vang Vieng and didn’t want to leave. The food is a great mix of western and Laoation, and pretty good. They have a pool table, though it’s pretty rough, and the walls are covered with graffiti from all the travelers who have come through.

My birthday is tomorrow, but since we are all together tonight, the group got me a cake and sang happy birthday. I got lots of hugs and cheers, and it’s a great feeling to have since I don’t get to celebrate with friends and family at home.

Stephanie’s Asian Adventure – Part 1

What a change from simple, quiet Saskatoon – After 3 flights, many airline meals, and 30 long hours, my husband and I have finally made it to Bangkok. By time we made it to our hotel, our brains were pretty fried but the journey was well worth it. We’re now in an amazing city full of color and culture. Our first night spent at Nuovo City Hotel Bangkok didn’t consist of much more than a shower and sleep, but now that we are well rested the adventure begins.

The morning starts with us heading out in whatever direction our hearts take us. We end up on a street corner talking to a friendly Thai gentleman (everyone is very friendly I might add) who helps us get a tuk-tuk to get around. For only 40 Baht we are driven around the city to various temples, a custom suit store, and Golden Mountain, which is a beautiful temple where you can get great views of the city. For lunch we stop at Patong Go, a cute little cafe, and both of us eat for only 144 Baht, which is just over $6 CAD.

After lunch, the heat is starting to get to us so we head back to the hotel for some air conditioning and a dip in the pool. Tonight we will meet up with our Contiki group to start an amazing Asian Adventure.

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Czarina’s South America Adventure – Part 3

Yesterday we started off early to begin our one-day Inca Trek. I was nervous and anxious but ready to go!

Our local guide, Ray, would be our guide through the trek which made me more at ease since we knew him quite well by then.

Those doing the one-day trek jumped off the train at the 104km sign. Having our first view of the trail was intimidating since it was straight uphill for the first two hours. Those first two hours were definitely the most difficult. We would walk for about 15 minutes and take two minute breaks to catch our breath. During our trek we would go through two check points where they would check our passports and our permits. This is a great way of keeping track of all the trekkers out there and looking out for their safety.

I doubt I could have done this without the support of my hubby. He was a trooper! About an hour in, he suffered from severe cramping in his quads which Ray attributed to the altitude. He just kept powering through with no complaints. So I did everything I could to keep my mouth shut and to stop the whining in my head. The truth is, this trek is not easy and you must be mentally and physically prepared for this. There were sections of the trail where you are climbing some steep steps upwards and off the sides it’s a sheer drop. I would climb those sections using both my feet and hands on all fours.

Lunch was a welcomed break at what Ray called “mini Machu Picchu”. We sat on these beautiful terraces to enjoy a huge boxed lunch. It took me a second to realize how beautiful it all was around me. I hadn’t paid any attention at all to my surroundings as we were walking; I was too busy watching my feet and praying for my legs not to give up. I was jello by then and could barely eat the sandwiches, snack bars, fruit and juice boxes. I was too worried it would all come back up. Couldn’t believe how much food Ray had carried for the eight of us.

There were two very surprising things I wasn’t expecting: Firstly, there is only one “official” bathroom on this portion of the trail and secondly, the bugs along the way were horrible! The only bathroom break was in the first couple hours and you are using a squatter. Once I learned this was the only “bathroom”, I instantly had to go again. But there is almost nowhere to hide. For the guys, this clearly wasn’t a problem. For the girls, on the other hand, we all held it in. Not fun! The bug bites I noticed after I was done the trek but they really got all of us all over our exposed legs. Apparently these tiny bugs are only around Machu Picchu and the nearby town of Aguas Calientes.

Reaching the Sun Gate after six hours was so powerful. With Ray leading the way and empowering us with his words those last few steps, he embraced all of us one by one and told us to enjoy the view and that we should be proud. I felt like crying even before I caught my first glimpse of the mystical Machu Picchu. Such a great time to arrive since the mist was just rising off the site that afternoon. Too amazing for words and too overwhelmed with a mini victory in my chest. We did it!

Czar holding a goat  Czar Machu Pichu

Czarina’s South America Adventure – Part 2

After spending the past few days touring around the Sacred Valley, it’s now apparent to me why this is a “must see” destination for all travellers. Pisac, Moray and Ollantaytambo are all evidence that the Incans were ahead of the game in terms of astrology, farming, architecture and so on. The Incan ruins are stunning and we couldn’t have asked for better weather to tour them. We’ve had some pretty sketchy drives along some narrow cliffside roads where it’s just a sheer drop. I kept my Gravol close and my eyes shut tight on those ones… Yikes!

Our local guide, Ray, is very knowledgeable on this beautiful country he calls home. G Adventures has given back so much to the people of Peru and in turn, Peru is thriving from tourism. Although this is a slower time of year, almost all tours are booked full with G Adventures for the next couple of months.

As part of the tour, we were taken to two different projects that G Adventures have been a part of: a women’s weaving initiative and a Peruvian restaurant set in the Sacred Valley that opened in March. I’m thankful that we selected “G” as our guide. Can’t imagine doing all this on my own. I feel safe and the inclusions have been great.

Altitude was a little bit of an issue on our first day touring Pisac. Mainly I noticed I was out of breath after walking a short distance uphill. Sometimes, I felt a little disoriented and Kathy mentioned that was common when you travel from sea level to 3700m high. Thankfully, I wasn’t the only one. It’s a great bonding experience for the wonderful group of people we are travelling with to exchange stories about how nauseous we all felt that first day! As our days go on, I’ve acclimatized and I’m feeling a lot better.

Tomorrow we start our hike to Machu Picchu. Wish me luck!

Czarina’s South America Adventure – Part 1

My first visit to South America has left a new found taste for adventure! So begins our G Adventure trip through Peru with our 1 day trek to Machu Picchu.

We arrived a day ahead to spend our first day touring Lima. The city itself is massive with about 13 million people living in the city and surrounding areas. First impressions left me feeling like I was back in Mexico.

We spent the first couple nights in the tourist friendly beach town of Miraflores, which is about 30 minutes away from the airport. Everywhere you look there are tourist walking around, lots of shops and restaurants. Our hotel, Hotel San Agustin, is small but is just off the main drag and location is great.

Day 1 was about seeing as much of Lima as we could. We hopped in a cab in front of our hotel to Centro Lima where you can find the main square, the Presidential Palace and St Francis Church. The cab cost $25 Peruvian Soles which works out to be $10USD and it took about 20 minutes to get there. I was most excited to see St Francis and tour the Catacombs below ($7 Sol – 1 hour tour). The crypt is home to about 25,000 deceased Franciscan beginning in the early 1800s. It’s exactly what you except… super creepy, but you can’t look away. The amount of skulls and bones left me feeling very uneasy and I stayed tight to the group for fear one of these power outages that I heard so much about would happen right then and there. Thankfully that didn’t occur.

That evening we had the opportunity to meet our group at the orientation provided by our G Adventures Tour Guide, Katy. There are 14 of us and the majority of us are Canadians or Aussies. I think the biggest thing we took away from the orientation is the importance of water to combat altitude sickness. Katy is from Cuzco and says a trick they suggest is to drink pop. Apparently the sugar helps. I’ve heard so many different suggestions but I’m willing to try anything to avoid being “that girl”…

Right now, I’m flying over the snow capped Andes on my way to Cuzco with my group. Looking forward to getting to know our group and checking out Pisac tomorrow!

Jamie’s Italian Adventure – Final Blog

Well, we have made it home from our delightful tour of Italy and it’s time to catch up on our last few days.  We spend two nights in Florence and Florence was a treasure.  It’s quieter than Rome and quite a bit smaller – a very pedestrian friendly historical downtown, which was a nice change.

 

Our hotel, the AC Firenze, a Marriott Property, was just across the street from the start of the historical downtown area.  It was a brand new hotel and very modern, nice bed (best we had in Italy) and a great breakfast buffet in the morning.  The only complaint was that the Air Conditioning couldn’t be turned down lower than 20 degrees and I found it quite warm at night.  We could walk to the main sights, like the Duomo, the Uffizi Gallery, the Ponte Vecchio, the Accademia Museum and some world famous shopping areas with top of the line leathers and gold.  However, it was quite a long walk from the hotel.  If you had mobility issues, they had bike-taxis (a guy peddling a two seat carriage) and a few regular taxis that could take you around, but most traffic is restricted within the downtown area.  A Bike-Taxi from the Duomo to our hotel was $12 EUR – we took one back at the end of our day.

 

We had one full day in Florence and made the most of it.  Unfortunately, as it was a Monday, we couldn’t visit the Uffizi or the Accademia as they are closed on Mondays. But we did a walking tour of downtown to familiarize ourselves with the area and saw where the Duomos was, as well as the replica of David which is in David’s original home in the Piazza della Signoria, the Ponte Vecchio and the Piazza di Santa Croce which is the square with the best shopping and also home to the Basilica di Santa Croce which was well worth visiting.  It is the oldest Franciscan church in Florence and one of the oldest in Italy and is home to the tombs of Michelangelo, Galileo, Dante and more.  It was also a beautiful church.  After visiting the Basilica, shopping for some leather goods and filling up on lasagna, we decided to tackle the 450 steps or so to the top of the bell tower, connected to the Duomo.  We first visited the Duomo and the Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore, the famous cathedral with the huge dome that dominates the Florence skyline.  The outside was very ornate and the Duomo incredible, however, most of the masterpieces and sculptures from this Basilica have been moved to the museums, so they say it is like an empty jewelry box.  We had the option of climbing the Duomo (almost 500 stairs) or the Bell Tower (about 450 stairs).  There was a lineup for the Duomo and none for the Bell Tower, so that made our decision easy.  It was about $6 EUR for an entry fee.  The stairs are very narrow with people coming up and down and at times they are steep and you can feel a bit claustrophobic.  However, the views from the top were incredible and made it well worth the effort!

 

Following these adventures, we had to go back and prepare for our evening in Tuscany.  We were driven about a half hour outside of Florence into the Tuscan hillside to the Castello del Trebbio – a 12th century castle, surrounded by 350 hectares of vineyards and Olive Groves.  It was originally the home to the Pazzi family, and was the site of an attempted murder of the Medici brothers, who were the biggest advocates and supporters of the Renaissance movement.  The current family bought the estate in 1968 and raised their 5 children there.  After the death of the parents in the 1980’s, one of the daughters, Anna, took over the running and management of the estate with her husband.  They further developed the winery and olive oil production and opened the estate up as a venue for weddings, special events and also started renting several farmhouses on the estate to tourists – all to support the upkeep of their lovely castle.  The castle itself has the winery and wine cellars in the basements – which also used to be the prisons.  The castle is heated only by fireplaces, with the exception of one special event room which has central heating and it is filled with antiques and is very authentic.  It was magical.  There were rolling hills, flowers and vineyards everywhere.  It was very peaceful and easy to see why tourists would want to come and stay.  It was also one of the best meals we had on our entire stay in Italy and included wine tasting.  Although I had to abstain from the wine this time, I was sure to buy some to bring home for a later date!

 

The next morning, it was on to Venice and the city I had been waiting for! Venice, like Rome, was just as I had imagined it to be.  Our hotel, the Amadeus, was only one street over from the Grand Canal and about a 5 minute walk from the train station, so it was very convenient.  The rooms were decorated with antique Venetian furnishings, but the bathrooms were quite modern and the rooms were very charming and clean.  We had a little balcony and the nicest part was with the windows open, we overlooked a quiet courtyard and all you would hear in the morning when you woke up was the birds and the bell tower.  You didn’t hear the people or noise of the canals and busy streets, etc at all.

 

We had about a day and a half in Venice and we spent quite a bit of that time just wandering through all the quaint streets and alleys and over bridges and canals.  It was the nicest city to just walk around.  At first I was worried about getting lost, but they had little signs on the sides of the buildings pointing you down each alley and street either towards St Marks, Rialto or the Piazza del Roma.  Our hotel was near the Piazza del Roma and we usually wandered towards St. Marks or Rialto and shopped or saw the sights as we came across them.  That way, we could always have an idea which way to go and which way to come home.  It worked well and we never had to look at a map – we just enjoyed the journey.  We did a private Gondola ride for two, leaving from right near our hotel.  It was 100 EUR for about a 40 minute ride (total for two of us).  I didn’t think that was too bad compared to prices I had seen online.  The Gondalier was very good, although he didn’t sing – he told us it was better if he didn’t as he only ever sang in the shower!  We did the Gondola at Sunset and it was dark by our return.  I think this was the best time to see Venice and see the city light up.  It was well worth the money.

We also toured the Doge’s Palace in St. Mark’s square and were glad we did.  There was no lineup and it was 15EUR each.  You tour the private apartments of the Doge, which were incredible, as well as the Institutional Chambers, which is where a lot of the official meetings and judicial/court proceedings happened, etc.  Then we were able to tour the Armoury and go across the Bridge of Sighs to the Prison.  It was really interesting and you should plan to have at least an hour to an hour and a half to tour.

The main public transportation in Venice is the Vaparetto (water bus).  It is quite expensive!  For locals, it’s only about 1.5EUR for each ride, but for tourists, it was 7EUR for each ride and they have a schedule, just like buses, so in one case we ended up waiting about 40 minutes for the bus and we could have walked back in that amount of time (but my feet were tired!)

Getting back to the airport doesn’t really have any inexpensive options.  You can take a water taxi right from historic Venice to the airport for about 120EUR, or we could walk (and drag our bags) the 10 minute walk to the bus terminal (just past the train terminal) and from there you can take an airport bus for 10EUR each or a taxi for 40EUR flat fee.  We opted for the taxi for 40EUR so we didn’t have to wait and drag our bags on and off the bus.  I just couldn’t bring myself to spend the 120EUR on the water taxi, but it would have been very nice and convenient!  You could also take a train, but you would have to change trains in Mestre and again you would be dragging your bags to and from the trains.

From Venice we flew Alitalia to Rome.  We arrived at the airport early and they put us on the earlier flight for no charge, so we didn’t have to wait three hours for our flight – we basically just checked in, went through security and boarded the plane.  It was a quiet 45 minute flight and we were there.  In Rome we had to overnight before flying back to Canada on Air Canada.  We opted to stay at the Hilton Rome Airport as it is connected by covered walkway (5 min walk) and we wouldn’t have to take a taxi or deal with shuttles.  The best rate I could find was a prepaid non refundable rate of $189EUR.  I have to say, this was the only hotel I was disappointed with on the whole trip.  The pillows were terrible, the sheets were worn out in places, the bathroom was not very clean and there was rust on the fixtures and mildew in the grout in the shower.  It was OK, but definitely not the standard I was expecting from a Hilton.  The best part – the Hilton Burgers from room service.  For 18EUR each, we got enormous Beef Burgers with onion rings, cheese and bacon on them and fries and after two weeks of pasta and pizza, it was nice to have a taste of home!  🙂