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(Roman)tic France

(Roman)tic France

Sad to leave Barcelona this morning, but excited about our next leg of the journey – Switzerland shortly, and today a stop by the intriguing 2000-year-old Pont du Gard aqueduct, as well as the gorgeous Medieval town of Avignon (France, pictured above).

The Pont du Gard is part of the Roman aqueduct of Nimes, built around the years 50AD in order to carry water 50km on a ‘downwards’ angle to the city, and used up until the 6th Century. The structure is remarkable, built beautifully; it is technologically advanced even by today’s standards – considering no computers were used to engineer the bridge. Take a camera as well as your swimmers – the waterhole underneath this cool Roman construction is perfect for a dip, or even canoeing. Perhaps take a packed lunch though – the restaurant is expensive and the cafeteria wasn’t overflowing with fresh options.

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Not too far up the road is a spot so pretty that evidently Brad and Angelina own a ‘house’ nearby (probably more of a personal hotel than a house, but you get the idea). Avignon (one of the major cities of Provence (Southern France), and located on the banks of the Rhône river) is surrounded by an old Roman wall, and the city maintains a romantic medieval charm.

Avignon’s claim to fame is that it was the city to which the Popes fled when leaving the corruption of Rome in the 14th century. The palace they built, ‘Le Palais des Papes,’ or the Palace of Popes (pictured below), is the world’s largest Gothic edifice. It was largely emptied over the centuries but now serves as a museum and is an imposing building within the city walls.

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It is estimated that about 200,000 people live in Avignon, 16,000 of which live ‘intra-muros,’ or within the ramparts built in the 14th century. The city is now sprinkled with buildings and monuments ranging from the new to the old, the very old, and the ageless, and offers a delightful array of shops, pubs, restaurants, cafes and alfresco dining options typical of cute French towns in the area. We are staying at another Ibis which is ideally located within walking distance of the town, and is once again a comfortable, clean place to rest until tomorrow morning’s early start.

 

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La Dolce Vita exploring Italy

La Dolce Vita exploring Italy

We departed Rome early yesterday morning, headed in the direction of Florence. Fittingly, we watched Gladiator on the way, which was cool because it is now much more relatable after seeing Rome’s living history first-hand. Sadly though, we left a few of our troupes behind – Sarah, Julio, Martin, Gayle – who are heading back to their respective homes and work; but not before many hugs from all of us, because we have in the past two weeks become friends. We’re happy to welcome some new faces though – Salli (currently lives in Yorkshire), Grace and Caroline (Colombian mother and daughter team), Rosa and Phil (Aussies in London), Isaac (yet another Aussie) and Mike.

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The teen in me who used to love an obscure Sandra Bullock RomCom, While You Were Sleeping, was excited to finally visit Florence (fellow school-friends will understand the reference). I didn’t really have much of an idea of what to expect, although I figured it must be relatively charming and quaint, as I’ve found most of Italy to be.

Despite an equally charming 43-degree-heat day to contend with, I must say I was pleasantly surprised by this gorgeous town which, did you know, was actually the capital of Italy for a small period between 1865-1871? Florence is associated with the likes of the Medici family, Michelangelo, art and the Renaissance in general; leather, and a fabulous strip of jewellery shops located along the famous Ponte Vecchio Bridge. The Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore (one of the very biggest cathedrals in Europe) is magnificent – it now rivals Notre Dame in Paris as my favourite religious house in Europe). Unlike most I’ve seen on the continent, it is quite colourful, rather than the usual’grey/black’ stone.

The city of Florence lies on the River Arno and is renowned for history, its importance in the Middle Ages and in the Renaissance. Florence is pretty, and a fantastic spot to explore for art, architecture and its rich cultural heritage. A centre of medieval European trade and finance and one of the wealthiest cities of its time, Florence is considered the birthplace of the Renaissance and is also often referred to as the Athens of the Middle Ages. Shopping is a prevalent pastime for any visitor, and if you’re keen, why not do as many of our group did and take a tour of one of the famous local leather factories.

We stayed at a campsite that was a little out of the city, nestled in the enchanting Tuscan Hills. Our campsite was well equipped with an array of facilities and we even happened across a free local wine-tasting! If you’re seeking a little bit of luxury closer to town though, the Hotel degli Orafi was pointed out to me as potentially being an indulgent and convenient option.

This morning we departed for the famous Italian town of Pisa so we could all snap some images with its most poplar building. I didn’t know that the Leaning Tower is one of several beautiful structures in the area, which the locals had built during a ‘boom time’ long ago. The Tower of Pisa leans sideways because it was built (from around 1173) on unstable soil, and it was only in the 1990s that modern technology allowed for the structure to be reliably stabilised again so that visitors may continue to flock to its site.

The stop is necessary but it’s unlikely you’ll want to spend days in the town. Aside from some sensational photo opportunities, it’s also a nice place to buy some last-minute souvenirs like shirts, bags, leather goods and our old favourite, magnets. Many counterfeit goods line these streets, which is fine if you’re so inclined; but be aware of buying from street salesmen who loiter around the tour buses – in this area the buyer can be fined for purchasing from them. Stick to the ‘official’ stalls in town because it is fine to buy from them. I did pick up a cheap bag, but the strap broke an hour later. That is all.

Travel tip: In these towns (and any in Europe, I’d suggest) be sure to buy gifts, souvenirs, coffees and food away from the centre of the action. We’ve ‘tried and tested’ the theory over and over and prices are literally halved if you can find streets even just a few minutes walk from key landmarks.

Half way through the tour now, and the south of France is next on the agenda. Everything has been quite fabulous so far. Some tour advice I suppose I should impart is on ‘food choices’. Generally meal options on the Expat Explore stops consist of meat and fries/potatoes, or vegetarian options have been salads, risotto and pizza once, so choose according to your preferences (you have to make one choice, pre-departure, which you stick with for the trip).

On that note (and with Italian food always on my mind) I realise that unfortunately this is all our time in Italy for the this year. I’m quite sad to not see more but I’ve added further adventures in this country to my future list of ‘to dos’. I’ve found the culture and countryside completely wonderful, and I particularly liked trying to speak a few of their beautiful words here and there. Ciao for now.

By Sarah Blinco | View our travel galleries on Flickr
Travel through Rome with Expat Explore

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.

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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