Wednesday 31 October 2007

R* Turns 12

We're now in Kuala Lumpur living at my in-laws. This is going to be our home away from home for the next seven months.  Yep, SEVEN months. It's a long time eating just rice and noodles. As you would expect, it's hot and sunny and dreary England is a long way away. No winter for us this year!

Today is also my daughters' birthday. She's turned 12 and is more like a young adult every day. It's a bit hard celebrating birthdays when you're travelling. We gave her a Calvin Klein Swiss-made watch that she picked out for herself yesterday and later this afternoon, we're off to a theme park inside a mall. And there's bithday money burning a hole in her pocket.

Today, I also need to pack my bags. Tomorrow, Jenny and I are flying to Bali to get in ten days of scuba diving all along the east coast. Jenny's brother is coming with us. He's a divemaster and has dived the area before. But that's all of us. The kids are staying behind since we can't look after them while diving. I'm really looking forward to getting back into some serious diving. We haven't done much diving since 2004 when we went to Egypt.


Travel Lessons

So we learned a few things doing this last trip.

Our kids, at this age, do not do scenery. I doubt many kids care about scenery. We spent a bit too much time driving around beautiful places and would plan for less of it next time. Driving with bored kids is never fun . Audio books are the best way we know to pass the time in the car.

It's better to book accommodation in advance. While booking at the last minute offers a lot of flexibility, it also wastes a lot of time and finding room for a family of four is harder than if you're just a couple. Next time, we book it all.

We learned that we can't take our kids somewhere, show them something historic and then try to get them interested in it. It doesn't work that well. They need to know something about what they're going to see before we get there and then they're more likely to be interested. This means building in more time into the itinerary for learning about what we're going to see. See less and understand more.

If you travel Europe and you need Internet access, take a laptop. Internet cafes are few and far between but wifi is everywhere.

With kids it's all about "doing" and activities. We have to keep reminding ourselves that and not just rushing around and "seeing". The kids always seem to like climibing up to the tops of places.

On a long trip, we need to plan on more free days where you don't have any plans and can just take it easy and get the laundry done. We tended to have these days when someone ran out of underwear!


Saturday 20 October 2007

Rome Again

Our last day back in Rome was a wash out. We spent ages tracking down places to stay and being Monday, the places we wanted to go were closed. Doh! Bad timing. We had hoped to either go to Tivoli, Hadrian's Villa or Ostia Antica. Instead, we just did a little wandering around Frascati. Bit of a waste really.

If you're ever flying out of Ciampino airport (eg with Easyjet) and need to stay nearby, I can highly recommend a hotel called Hotel Dei Consoli.

There was ugly traffic getting the airport and the flight was delayed by almost an hour but we got back the UK just fine. I must confess I felt pretty excited to arrive home at last. It's great to be back. We took over 3400 pictures. I'll try and get some posted soon.

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Around Naples

For the last three days of our trip, we rented a car in Sorrento drove back to Rome.

Driving is a bit of a nightmare in Italy but you just learn to keep cool, expect the unexpected and make slow deliberate maneuvers. And you don't expect anyone to stick to any rules. You don't even get lines on motorways sometimes!

But I really wanted to drive the Amalfi coast myself. It's just one of those things. In fact, I'm starting to hatch an ambition to drive all the famous roads I can think of.

By the time I managed to drive from the rental car office back to our apartment, I was already a stressed out wreck. I got stuck blocking traffic because I couldn't figure out how to get the Renault Scenic into reverse and instead had to push the car out of the way while I had some Italian yelling at me. It was a bad start. And it took me ages to figure out how to get to the apartment to pick up the family. French cars and Italian roads; what a nightmare.

We got on our way and I drove around the Massa Lubrense, Sant'Agata sui Due Golfi and on to Positano and Amalfi. Yes, it's a beautiful part of the world and the driving can be crazy. At one point, I drove through a wedding congregation. It wasn't my fault; they were all over the road. I would have liked to explore Amalfi but we didn't have time. Minori looked like a good place to have a family holiday. It has a beach and isn't as famous as the other coastal towns.

We stopped in Vietri sul Mare for lunch, gelati and so Jenny could buy some pottery for which they're famous.

By sunset, we made it down to Paestum to see the famous Greek temple down there. Unfortuantely, the archeological park had closed by 3:30 so we could only look at it from the fence. It's the second largest next to the Parthenon.

We then drove all the way up to Pompei and found a place to stay so that we could get to Vesuvius the next morning.

The next day, we soon found our way to the Vesuvius parking lot and hiked up the last few hundred meters. It's one of the best things we did. It is quite inspiring to look into the throat of an active volcano. There's even a little bit a steam and the smell of sulphur to go with the fantastic views. No, I wouldn't want to live with fifty miles of it.

Next stop was the Palazzo Reale (Royal Palace) at Caserta - a "me too Versailles". The place was used in Star Wars Episode II as the Theed Palace on Naboo. We had to take a bus inside the grounds to get to the gardens its so big. It has a famous botanical garden that was nice to wander around. We didn't go inside.

Then it was back on the road to Rome.

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I'm back in the UK catching up on these blog posts.

The train from Rome to Naples went smoothly. We had bought the ticket the day before which was a bit tedious. Whenever possible, we learned to avoid any kind of Italian bureacracy and queuing. It's very slow with tellers not working particularly hard and its easy to get in the wrong line and get sent to the back of another one.

From the station, it was easy to catch the Circumvesuviana train over to Sorrento. Public infrastructure in Italy attracts a great deal of graffiti and it seems to intensify the further south you travel. The train and the many stations were all well covered.

Our apartment at the Coultur Suites was excellent. It had a view of the (grande) harbour and was fitted out to a high standard. It's only drawback was that it was a bit small and the kitchen was underequiped. The kids are always excited when we get to a new place and immediately loved it.

Sorrento is tremendously touristy and was packed with many elderly travellers. Many of them are day trippers from cruise ships that drop anchor in the bay. It didn't feel like shoulder season so it must be horrendous in high season. If I was to go again, I would stay up in the Massa Lubrense but then you would also need a car and its less convenient than being near all the public transport.

We did all the typical sights in the area. Luckily the weather stayed very good except for a couple of bouts of heavy rain.

We took the cable car from Castellammare di Stabia up to the top of Mount Montesanto. Unfortunately, the last car down was at 4:30 and we got there late so we only got about an hour up at the top. Fantastic views and a great place to go for a walk. Well worth it but you need to go early.

We took a fast catamaran out to Capri. It does live up to its reputation as a beautiful island but it swarms with tourists even at this time of year. Jenny took the kids to see the Blue Grotto while I hiked by myself to Villa Jovi. Ceasar Augustus acquired Capri and started the building of the villa. Tiberius lived there for the last 10 years of his reign. The views from the remains of the villa are absolutely fantastic - especially from the cliff that Tiberius supposedly threw his victims. If you're into sun and fashion shopping, Capri would be a good holiday.

The highlight of the area was visiting Pompeii and Herculaneum. They are very well worth it and the kids were really well engaged in discovering what was there. We spent six hours exploring Pompeii and didn't cover it all. We're sorry that we missed the Villa of Mysteries. It's a huge place. Herculaneum is much smaller but we spent about four hours there too. Both sites really allow you to image what the Roman world might have been like. It's particulary interesting seeing all the mosaics and wall fresco's in place. Herculaneum even has two story buildings and the remains of carbonised wood.

We also took a fast catamaran across the bay to Naples and visited the National Archaeological Museum of Naples. This is a "must do" since all the best finds from Pompei and Herculaneum are there on display.

Naples itself I found to be a very intimidating city and I've traveled through some pretty scummy places in my life. We had dinner in Naples and walked through the streets to the train station in the evening and I certainly didn't feel safe. It's a jumbled, noisy, decrepid, intense city. That said, the shopping and restaurants offer much better value for money. I'm sure there must be nice parts of Naples and there's plenty more to see. I'd like to explore it but without any valuables and without children in tow.

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Friday 12 October 2007


Finally got to an Internet cafe here in Sorrento and got some time to catch up.

The train from Milan to Rome was excellent - a fast Eurostar. We were worried about buying the tickets on the day we were travelling but it turned out that wasn't a problem. The ride was smooth with plenty of leg room. Much better than flying.

From the train station in Rome, it was't far to our apartment near the Spanish Steps. I was very pleasantly surprised when we got there. I usually brace myself for disappointment when we arrive at any apartment. Picture and descriptions don't often match reality. However, in this case, it was much better. It was large and nicely decorated. A cafe was right next door where I enjoyed my morning coffee over the week. The only drawback was that it was a very noisy location. Rome is an incredibly noisy city. I mean, ITS REALLY NOISY!!. Started to drive me nuts.

We covered all the main sites of the historic area of Rome. We didn't bother with the Vatican museum - 7 kilometers of displays is a bit overwhelming and I didn't think the Sistine Chapel was worth a long wait in a queue with the kids. We did climb to the top of St Peters and enjoy the spectacular view of Rome from up there. We visited several churches, Piazza's, Trevi Fountain, Spanish Steps, the Pantheon, the Colleseum, the Forum, Circus Maximus, Boca Verita, etc. The museum on the Capitoline hill was excellent. We also visited the National Museum.

We took the Archeobus out to see the Appian Way and visit the catacombes. Unfortunately, we had picked the wrong day as one of the catacombes was closed but the catacombs of St Sebastian were open so we visited those. It was bit silly driving down the tiny Appian Way in a huge tourist bus. It would have been much nicer to rent bikes but didn't manage to organise it. 

The challenge of course is to make all these things interesting and relevant to the kids. We bought some more books and tried our best to explain some of the history. We spent quite a bit of time studying church architecture. The big lesson we learned was that we need to prepare the kids a lot more about what they're going to see before we get there rather than take them somewhere and then try to answer the question "what was that". To make up for that, we did try to take things quite slow. In the colleseum, we gave the kids time to just sit and draw what they were seeing.

The last day was a bit of disaster.

It started off well. We we went to Santa Maria della Concezione dei Cappuccini where they've used the bones of 4,000 monks to decorate the crypt. Quite something and well worth seeing.

Next we went took the metro out to the EUR to see the Civil Museum which has a large model of ancient Rome. We got there and discovered they had gone on strike so they wouldn't let us in. Overall, we've learned its very very important to check opening times here in Italy.

In the interest of escaping the constant traffic and noise we next decided to go find some green space and the most obvious green space in Rome is Villa Borghese. While there we rented some bikes. Unfortunately, R* had an accident and badly scratch her face. Lots of blood and she was in a bit of shock. After deciding her nose wasn't broken, Jenny got her cleaned up at the zoo while I hunted down a taxi. We got home and set about nursing her better. She has been healing just fine.

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