Travel through Rome with Expat Explore

It’s late afternoon, I’m happily fed (thanks to Ali, our fabulous Expat Explore tour guide who made a delicious pot of pasta for anyone who happened to wander by her chalet); champagne is chilling in the freezer and it’s time now to reflect on our wonderful experience in Rome.

We’ve spent three nights and two days in this incredible city and it’s definitely a place I’d like to come back to because there are just so many areas to be explored. Yesterday I did in fact throw my coin into the Trevi Fountain (or ‘The Fontana di Trevi’), right hand over left shoulder – because as legend has it, this means I will return to Rome one day.

Rome, Italy
 

Travel through Rome with Expat Explore

We’ve been staying at a terrific little place called Camping Village Roma which offers tent and caravan facilities, as well as cabins and chalets which made up our Expat Explore accommodation. The complex features a restaurant, bar and pool area as well as laundry facilities and supermarkets, but the best part about it is that the chalets are positioned in such a way that we’re essentially ‘neighbours’ with our coach-mates. Consequently, afternoons and evenings are spent together by the pool and on our front decks enjoying dinner, drinks and laughs. Some, of course, enjoy later nights than others, but what happens on tour stays on tour, you know…

As with all of our stops on this Expat Explore adventure, we were introduced to the city via a walking tour which took us by famous landmarks including The Spanish Steps, Trevi Fountain, the Pantheon, Piazza Venezia as well as the grand Il Vittoriano building which dominates its precinct; plus the awe inspiring ‘symbol of Rome’, the Colosseum, originally nicknamed as such because of its ‘colossal size’.

Travel through Rome travellivelearn.com

We learned that during World War II the Pope ‘struck a deal’ with ‘both sides’ which meant that the city of Rome was left out of any major battles, and so the ancient centre remained undisturbed throughout this turbulent time. I’ve also discovered that the construction of new train lines takes years to complete because of artifacts which are continuously unearthed! The buildings and ruins in Rome must be seen to be believed. Evidently this society was industrious, intelligent and ambitious and the remains of its fascinating civilisation leave so many interesting clues as to how our predecessors lived here.

Today we had several options: a trip back in time to Pompeii, a guided tour to a whole other country within the walls of Rome – The Vatican City; or the option we pursued, which was further ‘free time’ to explore the city.

Travel through Rome travellivelearn.com

I’d read about a popular meeting place called Piazzo Novano which is accessible via a ‘number 40 express’ bus from Termini train station. We found the stop without too much hassle, but actually had no idea where to get off. After about 15-minutes drive in a very hot, sweaty and crowded bus, we decided to jump off at a point where it looked like something exciting was going on. Turned out we were right near the enchanting Castel Sant Angelo on the banks of the river Tiber.

We explored this area for a while and followed our city map across the delightful Ponte Sant Angelo Bridge a few minutes up the road (and through some very romantic, and importantly, uncrowded Roman streets) to discover Piazzo Navona! On a sightseeing roll, we strolled through back streets towards the Pantheon, where we stopped at a quaint local restaurant, Pantharei, tucked subtly down a side street away from all the crowds. Here, for just €7 each, we enjoyed a buffet of local Italian vegetarian dishes which proved to be substantial, delicious and healthy.

We meandered towards the imposing Il Vittoriano which today we entered and discovered it’s fantastic for a brilliant view of the city. There’s also a free, interesting cultural and military ‘museum’ to browse. Before home we popped back over to the ever-impressive Colosseum. On the way ‘home’ to our campsite we also alighted at Ottaviana and walked around the outskirts of The Vatican City. The line to get in was looooong but it was nice to be able to see the elegant architecture and art, and there is nice shopping in the area too.

Travel through Rome travellivelearn.com

The city is contemporary and engaging; easy to navigate by foot and public transport (which is actually quite inexpensive, in my opinion), although the tiring August heat has hindered our adventures in a small way. If you’re visiting, keep a map handy at all times and just see where you end up! Also be wary of entertainers on trains and anyone dressed up in Gladiator attire – while they are amusing, they are most definitely after some of your purse change, so don’t assume anything is for free.

I must comment on the spectacular trip into Rome, which is such a worthwhile experience by road. We cruised through gorgeous green Italian countryside, over mountainous ranges, by grape vines and sunflowers, in and out of tunnels, and past little towns dotted in the valleys below, cliff-side castles and houses of orange shades perched on the hills above. Can’t wait to see what Florence offers next!

Travel tip (thanks Frank from Cairns): Trying to cool alcohol quickly in the freezer? Wrap bottles in a wet towel before freezing – they’ll chill faster!

Expat Explorers: Basically everyone did something different but fun today – add your comments, suggestions and tips for other travellers to enjoy.

By Sarah Blinco | View our travel galleries on Flickr

Travel through Venice and Ljubljana with Expat Explore

The deal was that I would write honestly, so, in the spirit of such a virtue I will let you know that I’m currently sitting at our campsite in Venice, sipping on something called an Ottweiler Pils beer (pretty nice actually, especially for €1!); Jessie J is playing on the iPod and I’m attempting to catch up on my blogging activities, madly editing a zillion photos from Vienna, Ljubljana and Venice, and procrastinating on this next post because to be honest, I’m a little tired. It’s been hot, and the days long, but as I say to everyone – it’s better than work!

xxx
Slovenia
 

Travel through Venice and Ljubljana with Expat Explore

We’ve arrived in Italy, and isn’t it beautiful. Sleepy as I may be on any bus trip (planes and buses put me to sleep – too bad my parents didn’t know this when I was a baby…). I was wide awake as we drove through the border into Italy. Who doesn’t want to visit this country?

There’s so much history, and despite any recent conflicts or issues, Italy to someone like me represents food, beauty, divine language, various Shakespearian scenes, gorgeous people and fashion. Venice itself is completely charming – canals, gondolas, Renaissance masks all over the place, aged churches, public spaces like the stunning St. Mark’s Square, classical musicians positioned around the restaurants, and people of all demographics. I was interested to learn on our walking tour that traditionally Venice welcomes a melting pot of nationalities and cultures, and aside from certain periods when various groups (religious, political) chose to stamp their authority, the region generally catered to the needs of ‘anyone and everyone who was in the business of making money’. The Merchant of Venice sprung to mind at this point, and I realised that my high school Modern History and literature classes are all only now starting to make sense after actually having the opportunity to visit Europe.

It is indeed very easy to get lost in the unmarked streets of Venice, but the advice we were given was to simply enjoy the experience (however leave lots of time to get from one side to the other if you need to be anywhere at any given time). A beautiful, but expensive city, so save your dollars if planning an extended stay – and whatever you do, don’t forget your camera!

Throughout Italy we’re staying at a series of camp sites, and our accommodation in Venice was basic but fine, and most of us shared with another pair – we had the pleasure of being room mates for the night with the delightful Martin and Gayle (South Africans who currently reside in London). The upside to such a set up is the social aspect, and our group enjoyed some fun by the pool and bar this evening.

ljubljana

Prior to arriving in Venice yesterday we made another romantic stop, in the picturesque town of Ljubljana, capital of Slovenia (pictured above). Ljubljana means ‘beloved’, and it’s certainly obvious that the townsfolk here are fiercely proud of their little piece of the world. Formerly part of Yugoslavia, the country gained independence in 1991. It is surrounded by the Alps, and several European nations including Austria, Croatia and Italy. Slovenia itself is actually 60% forest (which makes for a scenic drive throughout the country), and uniquely the region hosts a series of more than 8000 underground caves! Consequently there are many little rivers and streams as well as quaint bridges in Slovenia’s towns and cities. Long ago, people in the region thought that the Salamanders that lived in the caves resembled dragons, and they became a little obsessed by the creatures – evident in the numerous dragon sculptures and figurines that appear on the streets, in flags and on other local merchandise.

This idyllic little spot is a beautiful place to visit, and I’m so glad to have had the chance to discover it on this tour because on my own I probably wouldn’t have even thought to stop. The cafes and restaurants that line the old streets offer affordable, high quality, fresh cuisine and produce. One amusing venue is the Cafe del Moro (Cafe of death) or Pr’skelet (translated to Cafe by skeletons) – an underground bar that features, as you may have guessed, bones and skeletons all over the walls. Pretty creepy, but totally cool!

I’m loving this part of the world so far – such natural beauty, intriguing history and gelato, delicious gelato – everyone is eating it… “when in Rome (well, almost – it’s tomorrow’s destination)! The trip will be one of our ‘long hauls’, but to be fair, our coach journeys have been comfortable, and Steve does a fab job of keeping us all safe and getting us to each destination in a timely manner. Ally also organises movies, quizzes and games to keep us amused – most recently we teamed up to entertain each other with some songs – here is a video snippet of the entertaining offering from Hector (Ecuador) and Julio (Mexico)…

By Sarah Blinco | View our travel galleries on Flickr

Porsches, Masquerade Balls + UFOs: Austria + Slovakia

Bratislava and Vienna

On the road again and aiming for three countries across two days – major stops – Bratislava (Slovakia) and Vienna (Austria)!

By midday we had reached the sweet little city of Bratislava, capital of Slovakia. An informative walking tour through the city centre meant we learned about the city’s rich cultural and musical history, that the average capped age of citizens is 35 years, that this place is responsible for producing Volkswagons and Porsches, and that the country is currently ruled by its first ever female prime minister – a blonde – so no blonde jokes please.

The ‘new’ and ‘old’ (dating back beyond the 13th Century) streets within the city are lined with beautiful contemporary alfresco dining, cafes, bars and clubs, and in our experience we found the locals to be friendly and customer-service orientated. Clever pieces of art and sculpture also pop up all over the streets and even within eateries – one popular instalment is a statue of famous artist, Andy Warhol (parents originally from Slovakia) sitting at a table in a restaurant; and another is a very old statue of unknown origin (but it has been dated back to the 1500s), of a little naked boy peeking around a corner – legend has it that he was sitting on the loo when he heard a procession of Royalty outside and out of curiosity he jumped up to look out the window.

Bratislava

A lovely sculpture of St. George stands in the old town square. He is the basis for major town celebrations towards the end of April – evidently he conquered a 3-headed dragon one April 24th, and saved the region – good timing, right before my birthday on April 25 – might have to come back one day to join their annual local celebration!

The newest bridge in the city, the Nový Most, was erected in 1972, and was actually one of the earliest suspension bridges built in the world. It boasts a feature lookout/restaurant in the shape of a spaceship – hence it is referred to as ‘The UFO bridge’ – love it! From the lookout (and even from some angles on the ground) you can actually spot the Austrian mountains, which is positive because it means we’re heading in the right direction for our next stop, Vienna.

Bratislava UFO bridge

Our Austrian accommodation, Hotel Congress, is yet another lovely surprise. Although located slightly outside the city centre it is stylish and comfortable, with food and transport amenities conveniently located nearby.

Following dinner we head three train stops into the centre of Vienna, capital city of Austria and host to many major international organisations such as the United Nations and OPEC. The city is actually older than Prague but maintains more of a contemporary edge; architecturally stunning and long regarded as a centre of high culture and modernism.  What can I say but ‘wow’! This city is truly breathtaking – from its main square with luxury designer stores and street performers, to its churches, museums, State Opera House, cathedral (in particular the masterpiece that is St. Stevens) and palaces such as the Hofburg.

To see this city at dusk (or at any time, I suppose) is nothing short of magical. If you can imagine what it might have been like for Cinderella to arrive at the Ball, well, Vienna is that – think opulence, grace, sculpture, masquerade balls and beautiful gowns. Church bells chime in the distance and chic locals rollerblade around in front of the palace to a soundtrack of cool upbeat samba, while behind them elegant horses + carriages gently trot through the streets. It’s the romance of the old world set in 2011; truly one of the most beautiful places I have seen. Does anyone know how I can get my name on the door for the next glamorous Vienna Masked Ball?

Burg_Galerie_-_Hofburg

Tour guide Ali tip: In Austria the locals speak German, and as in Germany we’re required to more or less ‘play by the rules’ – basic things like no J-Walking will keep you in the good books here. Also, ‘prost’ means ‘cheers’, but remember that it’s the local custom to try to maintain eye contact while ‘cheersing’ – it’s the polite thing to do. Enjoy!

 

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