Sunday, 15 January 2012

Naples and Pom Pom Pompeii

Naples is reputed to be the home to some of the best food in Italy.  Unfortunately, we did not find anything truly outstanding.  In fairness to the region, we did not have much time to explore and see the food.  Naples was the landing point for us to go visit Pompeii, an hour or so away.

The area surrounding the main train station in Naples is definitely a bit dodgy, so we didnt go exploring much at night.  The next day, we set out to Pompeii.  Passing by Mount Vesuvius on the way was cool - just imagining the top of that volcano blowing off and the amount of destruction it wreaked is mind boggling.

Pompeii was not what we expected.  We figured to see some of the plaster casts of people who were caught in the ash dump and forever captured in their last dying poses.  Some were apparently shocked and others looked like they were caught in their sleep.  The surprising part is that the ruins of the city were huge and the excavations very extensive.  It must have taken years to clean and restore it to the point it is now.  We easily cleared 5 or 6 hours there.  The first 2.5 hours felt like 30 minutes.  We pleasantly strolled through the ruins (once again, very empty of visitors due to the low season...yay!), had some surprisingly decent pizza, and explored some more with our audio guide.

Several of the sites were closed for restoration but we met a sneaky guide who took us past a fenced area (by peeling it back) and showed us some half cleared ruins and plaster casts.  In some of them, we could still see the bones of the children, men, and women in their last poses.  VERY somber indeed but a highlight of the site and it only cost us a couple of Euros.  We left our sneaky guide with some other people and later saw him again, giving a tour of other areas to tourists.  Enterprising guy, indeed, as most of the guides hang outside and get their groups there only.  Once inside, it can be easy to find lost people and offer them more information.

After a long day of walking through the ruins, we went back to Naples, had dinner and called it a night.

Florence, italy - BEST Gelato and Pizza. Ever

We knew Florence was going to be one of the most beautiful cities on our trip.  What we didnt know was that it was an absolute jackpot for food, gelato, and pizza.  Actually, by food, I mean pizza.  Originally, we meant to stay there only 2 nights and head to Venice, but on day 1, we stumbled into La Tavernetta, right beside the train station and immediately decided to stay longer.  Roberto and Angelo, greeted us with smiles and jokes.  The pizza was amazingly light and delicious and one of the best pizzas I (Chris) have ever tasted.  This is high praise indeed.  I am serious.  We then visited the Duomo (one of the big Three of Italy.  Duomo, Pisa, and Colosseum) and try out 2 gelatos from the top 5 places in the Lonely Planet.

So the next day, we went to have some pizza from La Tavernetta before hitting Pisa. See the other blog post (below) for more details and cool photos.  After Pisa, we took the train back and had more pizza, served to us by Angelos sister, Hui Ming.  By the next day, 36 hours after we found La Tavernetta, we had pizza 5 times (from La Tavernetta) and 6 gelatos as well as a couple of other meals.  Like I said, HEAVEN!

The next day, we woke up early to hit the Galleria di Academmia to see Michelangelos David.  Expecting a huge crowd, we were delighted to face zero line up and only 20 people around the statue.  Amazing carving from a single block of marble and we learned how the artists would make a clay mold, a cast, and then carve the marble piece using special tools.  Afterwards, we went to Oil Shoppe, another amazing recommendation from Lonely Planet.  Despite the map listing it in the wrong place (off by about 2 blocks), it was definitely worth finding for their amazing sandwiches and home made onion rings with homemade sauce.  YUM!!!  Also, on fridays, you get a free dessert and water with a combo.  Not only was it a deal, all of the food was great and the staff was super friendly.  We chatted with the dad of one of the owners for a while and he gave us a tip to go walk up to Piazzo Michelangelo at the top of a hill for a great view of Florence. Tiffany said the sunset there is really good but it was a gloomy grey day, so not much sunset to be seen.

So we took off on a 30 minute walk up the hill, had another gelato (caramel and nocciola.  Good) and saw an amazing view of Florence.  They also had a bronze statue of David there as well but it was green and covered with pigeons.  Afterwards, we walked to Carabe for more gelato (another LP recommendation that we tried the day before.  GREAT Tiramisu gelato) and strolled by the Uffiza where they had a marble replica of David outside.   3 Davids later, full of gelato, and happy with sore feet, we went back to, yep, La Tavernetta for more pizza and called it a night.

Next up - Venice.  We are currently in Venice but do not have a lot to write about since we crashed all day to recover (making time for gelato, of course).  The place we are staying is amazing.  We decided to splurge a bit and stay in the city at a place called L'Imbarcadero that had rave reviews at hostelworld, hostelbookers and all the other online sites.  They kept mentioning good rooms and awesome staff, especially someone named Alex.  He's as good as billed and a great cook.  I'm not just saying that  because he's letting me use his laptop right now (Chris can't type well on iphones, hence his lack of postings).  So far, we love Venice.  The apartment we are in overlooks one of the small canals and is gorgeous!  More later.

The Leaning Tower of Pisa

Pisa itself was very cool.  We took a short train from Florence and upon arrival, did our daily routine of scouting out gelato shops along the way to one of the bigger architechtural 'oopses' of the time.  Along the way, we found Botega Gelato, a shop with fantastic gelato, big scoops, and great flavours.  Naturally, we had one first and then discussed what flavour we would try on our way back.

The leaning tower itself, was very cool.  In our guide book, it says it has a 4cm lean whereas in the past, it was 4m.  They had to correct the tilt by digging underneath it so it would tilt back a bit.  We cannot imagine how bad the lean used to be.  We did all the requisite photos but opted not to climb up the tower for 15 Euro.  Turns out to be a good call as people we met said you only have 30 mins to go up, stay up, and come down since they have a quota on the number of people in at any time.  Also, at the top, there is no discernable tilt.  We hung around for a couple hours, I pushed an annoying kid who was trampling all over Jaimes bag, and we headed back to the train station to Florence....after getting another gelato from Botega.

Italy, Land of Pizza, Gelato and other cool stuff - Rome

Italy started off with a bang.  We reached Rome and had a great meal at a family run restaurant just beside our hostel.  The next morning, we got up very early to head to St. Peters Basilica and the Sistine Chapel.  However, the Vatican museum was closed for Epiphany so we walked back to the St. Peters and were lucky enough to beat the queue and see the Pope!  It was a pretty big affair, with tonnes of security, and a big crowd inside and out.  They had jumbo screens showing the Mass outside in the square.  The only weird part was when the Pope made his entrance, he was carried on a platform (like the ones in C. America in processions) and the crowd was clapping when he passed.  It was like he was a rock star or something.

(note.  I have no idea how to get colons or dashes or apostrophes on this Italian keyboard so pls bear with it). 

Afterwards, we walked around town for several hours, visiting Trevi Fountain, the Spanish Steps, and the main Corso del something which was a road closed off to cars (except busses), with thousands of people walking up and down the italian colour lit streets.  Despite the cold, we had a couple gelatos, with the gem of the night coming from Blue Ice Gelato shop.  The girl there gave me a huge cone with extra gelato.  Enough that Jaime commented on it afterwards.  Good thing we share.

Due to the cold weather and us realizing that 4 or 5 layers was still not enough for Jaime, one of our main missions was to find a proper winter jacket for her.  So half of our time in Rome was site seeing and eating and the other half was finding a coat that was warm, compactable, and fashionable.  Harder than you may think.  Ultimately, after walking up and down and up and down and up the Corso, we got the perfect jacket from Zara at a deal.

Our visit to Rome also included stops at the Colosseum, Palatine, Castle St. Angelo, and numerous gelato shops.  The Colosseum was awesome and something on my list (Chris) ever since coming to Italy 12 years ago and going to see it outside only.  Back then, we got hoodwinked into paying the fake gladiators 5 bucks to take a pic with them.  Thinking there wasn't much inside, we decided not to go in.  Something I hoped to change with this trip.   This time around, we marched straight to the front (no line ups - yay low season) and went in.  The audio guide was crap and said exactly what was on the signs.  Save your 5.5 Euros and just go in without.  OR pay 5 Euros each and get the live guide because ONLY with them, can you go to the wooden platform below and the under-area as well.  That would be worth it.  Absolutely amazing structure and incredible considering all the carnage and barbarianism practiced there at the height of such a creative and artistic period of one of history's greatest cultures.  Nowdays, I guess our equivalent is Jerry Springer or Reality TV.

Our friend, Colin (who we stayed with in Taiwan for a week) will be in Rome next week, so we are going to meet up with him again for round 2 and hit the Sistine Chapel for real this time.  Next up, Naples.

Friday, 13 January 2012

Cold Turkey

Istanbul had such a lively atmosphere and the buzz of the everyday life was electrifying. The food, needless to say, was so delicious!
Their local eateries are something like the 菜贩 stores in Singapore- with rice and dishes. The only dish that is not available is sweet and sour pork which I missed so much. On the subject of missing food back in Singapore, Chris and I were talking about what is the one dish that we will eat forever if we only had one choice for food for the rest of our lives, he said 'pizza' (not surprising there). I cannot live without my Mum's hand-me-down family secret recipe porridge and the BCM (bah chor mee) across my street. I know I said 'one choice', but I'm a girl so I get a free pass and if Chris is not going to let that go, he will have to face a sulky me for the next 1 year.
Anyways, food in Turkey is relatively cheap if you find the right places. ( Chris's note: I had about ten foods picked out that I couldn't live without. When it came down to one, pizza was the obvious choice. Italy is heaven)

We took a tour around for 6 days in Turkey due to time constraint. Cost us a hefty €600 for 2 pax all inclusive (hotel, transfers, buses, entry fees, meals except dinner). It was very organized, considering we had different agencies ran our tour in each city. Some of the places we went to were actually a little hard to get around if we were to travel there on own own. Of course, with 3 overnight buses out of the 6 nights, we wouldn't call it a very comfortable trip.
Cappadocia, our first stop, had such beautiful landscapes that it almost looked unreal. It was like something out from a fantasy novel. Cappadocia actually means "Land of beautiful horses" because in ancient times, there were lots of horses there. The Persians grabbed a bunch from there.

Pamukkale (Cotton land) is really a city with plenty of hot springs. It is called cotton land because of the calcium deposits that accumulated over time as the hot springs cooled down, making it look like snow-capped mountains.

Ephesus is home to the last of the 7 ancient wonders- the temple of Artemis. In actuality, there remains only a single column now - with a stork's nest on top of it. Ephesus also has one of the best Romans excavated ruins and also the only roman public toilet that still has its toilet seats around. Honestly, we had seen so many Roman ancient ruins in the past couple weeks (and especially after Petra's treasury and monastery) it didn't wow us as much when we get to the famous "Library" in Ephesus. It is actually quite impressive but again, was like a Petra-lite.

We were happy to return back to Istanbul to the dessert shop that sold these outrageously yummy cakes. It wasn't even expensive for a palm sized slice of cake. We had 3 cakes in one sitting! If you are planning to go Istanbul and are staying around the Sultanamet area, look for the cake shop called "Cigdem". It is right across where McDonalds is. Anyway, Sultanamet area is where you will want to stay because all the places of interest are there.
We decided to leave Istanbul to go to Italy for 3 weeks before heading back to Istanbul again. Oh, can't wait to get my hands on those cakes (again)!