A Travellerspoint blog

From the mountains to the sea

... sounds familiar, but it's not the Illawarra - it's a 300km drive

semi-overcast 18 °C
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Today was really all about getting from Italy's lake district to Nice in France.

Breakfast at the hotel and then off - Cathy wanted to do more of a walk we did part of yesterday - I'll include the official spiel to help describe it:

    Greenway del lago di Como
    A wonderful walk along Lake Como from Colonno to Cadenabbia. Discover villas, gardens
    Roman findings, quaint villages, restaurants, old Italian architecture, and expansive views.
    The whole Greenway is 10.5 km. We have done it in three sections, doing a round trip on each section.
    Although much of the walk is on flat ground, be aware that there are some parts that go up the hill
    from the lake that are fairly steep.

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I dropped her off at Bolvedro and helped her find the path as it headed away from the lake shore up the hill into the village. Then I drove onto Lenno to find the track again and wait for her. Fifty minutes and a cappuccino later (had to fill in my time somehow) - a hot Cathy turned up after a walk up and down some steep paths. Unfortunately the views weren't at their best because once again a heavy haze was in place (in fact we put up with this haze all the way to the coast).

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Then it was time to drive - 300km, with over 250km of it via autostrada - so we covered the ground fairly quickly and got to San Remo around about lunchtime. San Remo can best be described as a resort town - the focus is on the beach (reasonable) and boating (some magnificent & huge cruisers in the marina). We had a walk along the corso enjoying a beautiful slightly overcast but warm day and even had an old lady offer to take our photo for us. Not sure how the photo turned out because her hands were shaking quite a bit - bit we told her it came out well.

I dropped Cathy & the bags at the station and headed off to find the rental car agency to return the car. I overshot it but with help from the man at a garage found it on my way back. Then i had a 1.6km walk back to join Cathy at the station.

We got the train from San Remo to Vertimiglia (on the border) and then changed onto a French train for the trip into Nice (via Monaco). No real problem except for stairs at Ventimiglia and Nice and me having to lug 2 heavy suitcases.

Our hotel is only a block from the station in Nice, so was easy to get to. This time we have gone a little down market - small room, slightly run down, rough around the edges hotel in a noisy neighbourhood. But it suits our transport needs being close to the station (where I also pick up our next car) and there are heaps of restaurants nearby.

Posted by thomastour 09:21 Archived in Italy Tagged tourist_sites Comments (0)

And it's onto the edge of the Alps

... with glimpses of snow

overcast 13 °C
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A bit of driving again today to get from Mestre to Lake Como, where the lake is surrounded by the Alps (both the Italian & Swiss). Unfortunately it was a very hazy day, with visibility quite low for most, if not all, of the day. But being a Sunday, traffic on the autostrada was a lot quiter and there were very few trucks and I was able to cover almost 200km at 130kph to really get the 300km travel for today covered.

We really didn't see much of the countryside while we were on the autostrada because of the haze, but coming off it around Milano we headed north up to Lecco and our first views of Lake Como. Cathy was surprised that the GPS was taking us up the eastern side of the lake when our accommodation was about half way up the western side, but I decided to trust the GPS. Traveling up the western side we got glimpses of the lake, but spent a fair bit of time in tunnels - some up to almost 4km long, which gave the GPS a headache as it kept losing it's signal. This lead to a bit of confusion as coming out of one long tunnel I calculated that the GPS would want us to turn off (and so I did) but the GPS was still acquiring a signal and by the time it did I had actually done a loop and was heading back through the tunnel. A bit of confusion and quite a bit of backtracking and then over-ruling the GPS had us go right up the western side of the lake and then back down the eastern side toward our destination. It was only when we stopped at Menaggion that we discovered that the GPS was actually trying to get us to a car ferry that would have taken us across the lake.

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Anyway - we enjoyed the drive - when we weren't in tunnels and got some great (if hazy) views of the lake and the Alps. We stopped in several towns, Menaggion being one and had a walk around the lake shore enjoying the view and then moved on the final couple of km to our destination at Griante. We are staying the Hotel Britannia Excelsior - a hotel where the grand name matches the decor and rooms. I'm sitting in a large lounge (which has heaps of nooks and crannies) and is full of antique furniture - our room is huge and also full of antique furniture, but with a modern bathroom.

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We have been able to go for a walk along the lake and will shortly be going to dinner (dress - smart casual). And while I'm doing this blog, I'm also listening to the piano music from the lobby.

Posted by thomastour 08:41 Archived in Italy Tagged tourist_sites Comments (0)

All paths lead to Piazza San Marco

... but it is still easy to get lost in the streets of Venice

overcast 13 °C
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Our day trip to Venice started with a short bus ride from Mestre to Piazzale Roma in Venice. We decided to purchase the 12 hour tourist card that gave us unlimited rides on the waterbuses and regular bus service. Our first water bus ride took us down the Grand Canal and gave us a great first view of Venice.

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We left the waterbus near Ponte (Bridge) Rialto and wandered through the narrow meandering streets. Arched bridges, narrow canals, gondolas, tall pastel coloured Venetian houses, churches,piazzas and market stalls, all make up the atmosphere of Venice. We found ourselves in Piazza San Marco (the main piazza in Venice) in no time.

Home to the Basilica di San Marco and Doge's Palace. Both quite amazing buildings. The Basilica is full of symmetrical arches and amazing mosaics outside and in. The whole ceiling looks golden due to tiny golden tiles surrounding each mosaic picture. Back on the Piazza the clock tower impressed us, beautifully made, a bell sounds the time. A statue ( on the roof of the building) holding a donger actually bangs on the bell to indicate the time.

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We discovered The Palace Gardens, a small green area amidst the houses. Our wanderings took us to the Church of Santa Maria del Giglio. It is currently housing a museum; a tribute to Vivaldi, his works and life and showing off many beautiful, interesting and historic musical instruments. Vivaldi's music filled the air as we explored the museum housed in a beautiful church. With such a display, including several violins maybe Geoff will be inspired to take up the violin again????

We used Ponte Accademia to cross the Grand Canal and meandered our way to the domed Santa Maria della Saluta church. Even though there was a Mass going on inside people were allowed to stroll around the church. Beautifully decorated high ceilings and many side chapels housing paintings make up this church. Perched as it is on the Dorsoduro Peninsula this domed church can be seen everywhere from Venice.

Catching the water bus again we followed the canal di San Marco and alighted at the stop `Saint Elena.' This stop is next to lovely parkland and enabled us to catch another waterbus to the island of Murano, famous for Venetian glass blowing. Fortifying ourselves with gelato we walked through Murano's main areas and examined the beautiful glass work on display. Multi-coloured, various patterns and designs show the Venetian glass artsisans skills. Absolutely beautiful vases, plates, jewelery, glasses, animals and more are displayed in the shops and boutiques lining the quieter streets of Murano. Although they don't do glass blowing on Saturdays we were fortunate enough to see mixed coloured glass being heated and one of the famous Venetian masks being hand painted. Making a couple of purchases to remember our time in Venice we used the water bus to make our way back to the main island. We finished our time by exploring more of the fascinating streets, having hot drinks and later on tea in one of the many restaurants. We had hoped to go on a gondola ride, sharing with some others to make the price more reasonable. It seemed that most of the people in Venice today did not speak English, lots of French and not surprisingly Italians but hard to communicate if someone wanted to share a ride. As the gondola rides were 100 euro ( about A$160) for 40 minutes and we couldn't spot anyone who could understand us and might want to share we decided to give it a miss! It was fun watching others gliding along and almost falling in as they tried to exit the boat. Catching the bus home, it had been a very full day.

Posted by thomastour 08:37 Archived in Italy Tagged tourist_sites Comments (0)

Tales of trucks and prancing horses

…. driving on the autostrada and visiting the home of Ferrari

overcast 14 °C
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Today was basically just a day of driving – going from the west coast of Italy to the east coast.

For most of the driving we decided to use the Autostrada so that we could cover the distance fairly quickly. Driving on these Autostrada is interesting – the speed limit is generally 130 kph, but can be dropped down to 110 kph and if there are roadworks can be any multiple of 10 kph (with various combination's in very short spaces of time).

Imagine 3 lanes traveling in the same direction, lane 1 is nearly all trucks, lane 2 is cars traveling at speeds ranging from probably 100 – 130 kph and trucks passing each other, and lane 3 is cars traveling at speeds anywhere above about 120 kph. Sometimes those combination's have to fit into 2 lanes. You really need to keep your wits about you and there are very few opportunities to use cruise control because your speed is always changing. The trucks in lane 1 are virtually a convoy, there are so many of them.

I have to admit that it is slightly embarrassing to be driving along at 110 kph and be passed by a tiny Smartcar. Then on other occasions you see a Smartcar slipstreaming in lane 1 behind a huge truck.

You also get things like a road worker waving a red flag to get cars to slow down, but with absolutely no evidence of any roadwork going on. And within a distance of several hundred metres you might get the speed signs showing (in this order) 50 – 110 – 70 - 90.

In the early part of today's trip we were passing through the foothills of the Italian Alps, with plenty of tunnels through the hills and also some long (and very high) bridges soaring over the valleys. The view was great, but spoiled slightly by low cloud and as the day wore on a fairly thick haze.

The one real break from driving today was a stop at Maranello – the home of Ferrari, where I visited the Galleria Ferrari (museum). Just looking at so many red Ferrari's make you drool. The museum was full of men taking photo's, which meant I fitted in really well. I had been going to buy something from their shop (no Simon – I didn't order a new car, they are too wide for the garage!), but the prices were a bit over the top 98 euro (about $160) for a scarf gives you an idea. But there were several non-factory shops where I was able to get something at a more reasonable price.

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Our hotel in Mestre is in a great position just 50 metres from a bus stop to take us over to Venice in the morning.

Posted by thomastour 11:44 Archived in Italy Tagged tourist_sites Comments (0)

The Leaning Tower of Pisa doesn't just lean

... it bends - because they tried to fix the first leaning by making one side taller!

semi-overcast 16 °C

Time to move on from Firenze (after an all too short stay there), so it was on the road and off to Pisa. We told the GPS to keep us off toll roads and got a great drive through some wonderful Tuscan countryside.

We were lucky in Pisa and got a parking spot in the street less than 200m from the tower. Apparently they control the number of people going up the tower to a group of 40 every half hour. We got there and found that there were 4 spots left on the next group - so we just had enough time to walk around taking photo's before we got to go up the tower.

The tower is a freestanding bell tower for the adjacent cathedral and obviously was intended to stand vertically, but it began leaning to the southeast soon after the onset of construction in 1173 due to a poorly laid foundation and loose substrate that has allowed the foundation to shift direction.
Construction was in three stages over a period of about 177 years. Construction of the first floor of the white marble campanile began on August 9, 1173, a period of military success and prosperity. it was subsequently halted for almost a century, because the Pisans were almost continually engaged in battles with Genoa, Lucca and Florence. This allowed time for the underlying soil to settle. Otherwise, the tower would almost certainly have toppled. In 1198, clocks were temporarily installed on the third floor of the unfinished construction.
Then in 1272, construction resumed. In an effort to compensate for the tilt, the engineers built upper floors with one side taller than the other. This made the tower begin to lean in the other direction. Because of this, the tower is actually curved. Construction was halted again in 1284, when the Pisans were defeated by the Genoans in the Battle of Meloria.

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The seventh floor was completed in 1319. The bell-chamber was not finally added until 1372. There are seven bells, one for each note of the musical major scale. The largest one was installed in 1655.
The tower presently leans to the southwest. This means that the top of the tower is 3.9 metres (12 ft 10 in) from where it would stand if the tower were perfectly vertical.
We were on the tower when the midday bells tolled - but unfortunately they only ring one of the bells - and you don't get to hear the various tones.

From Pisa it was onto Levanto - a town on the Cinque Terre which is a region toward the south end of the italian Riviera. Rugged coastlines and picturesque villages.
Once again we aimed to avoid toll roads but after driving through industrial areas and the edges of towns for quite a distance we gave up and took the toll road - and got better views.

Cathy was in panic with my driving on the narrow winding roads down to and around Levanto - so I dropped her at the station and she went off to do a walk between several of the villages while I found our accommodation.
A bit of driving in the wrong direction (the B&B's address wasn't registering with the GPS) gave me some magnificent views of the coastline, but I did eventually find the place and we have a lovely room on a remote hillside, but in reality are still only 2km from the vilage of Levanto. And Cathy got to do a coastal walk of 2km between 3 towns.

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Posted by thomastour 10:39 Archived in Italy Tagged tourist_sites Comments (1)

Florence- creative heart of Tuscany

and home of museums aplenty!

sunny 17 °C
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With advice from our B & B host we bought bus tickets from a local tobacconist and boarded a bus for the centre of Florence (Firenze). Once there we decided to walk our way around the city. Our first stop was Accademia; a gallery housing Michelangelo's `David' under a rotunda designed just for him. Also four of Michelangelo's `slaves' still partly in stone, unfinished, holding true to his theory of `releasing' figures from the living stone. The gallery also displays work by Botticelli and Uccello as well as many others.

Quite by accident we came across a museum of Leonardo Da Vinci's inventions; large scale fully working models based on his designs. Geoff had recently been watching a series based on Leonardo's inventions and was keen to look inside. Leonardo Da Vinci was certainly way ahead of his time and quite brilliant. Not only did he design flying machines that it has been proven work but also a tank, robot, swing bridge, parachute, gears and bearings, digging machine, hydraulic water pump and more!

Piazza Del Duomo was our next stop. The Duomo (Cathedral di Santa Maria Del Fiore ) was commissioned in 1296 but not completed till 1418 and is currently undergoing extensive restoration in sections. Despite restoration work the building is still very impressive and climbing the dome gives gorgeous views of the city and surrounding hills, mountains. Of course we had to climb the 463 steps to the top but the views were worth it. We even saw snow on one mountain peak, I'm guessing it was one of the Italian alps. Today's beautiful weather made for great viewing. Coming down we walked around inside the church which has the third longest nave in the world.

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Next stop Basilica di Santa Croce, apart from the church itself we were especially interested in the Leather School which is housed near the back of the church complex. We had read they had reasonable prices and quality goods, however after seeing a very small wallet for 79 euros ( A$130) we decided to look elsewhere!

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We had also read about Florentine Gelaterie's that people rave about so we found Gelateria dei Neri and indulged ourselves in 5 flavours! The place was busy when we got there indicating that others had heard of it too and we weren't disappointed. Yummo!! My favourite flavour was mango and Geoff's was fruit of the forest with chunks of fruit in it.

At Piazza Della Signoria we saw a copy of Michelangelo's David as well as stacks of others statues. Palazzo Vecchio stands on this piazza. We walked across Ponte Vecchio, lined with jewelery shops to the other side of The Arno River. We found Palazzo ( Palace) Pitti and Boboli Gardens but were too late to be allowed in so we wandered back over the bridge and checked out some of the Leather shops and market stalls that seem to line many of the piazzas. The stall holders are an entertainment in themselves! Wandering through Florence was really enjoyable, there seems to be a relaxed and laid back attitude to the place and museums on every other corner!

Posted by thomastour 11:21 Archived in Italy Tagged tourist_sites Comments (0)

A left hand drive view of Rome

... and places tourists probably never venture

sunny 16 °C
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Well our time in Rome has come to an end and I had to pick up the hire car to continue the adventure further north. A simple shuttle and train trip to Termini Station to get the car proved that even at 9.30am Rome peak hour is still going strong. And then the friendly person on the Avis counter told me I had the wrong address & should have gone to a different Avis depot - but he sorted it out for me and gave me an upgrade into the bargain. We have a diesel Seat Altea for this part of the trip - quite nice. (Seat are owned by VW and this car shares its mechanicals with the Golf - so quite a bit of the way it behaves is familiar.)

But the car wasn't at the station, it was at their inner city parking area so I was driven there to pick it up. So now I get to drive a left hand drive vehicle for the very first time right in the centre of one of the craziest cities in the world!!!

I had got my original GPS working properly again (I don't know what changed) and went armed with both GPS units, but I couldn't get them to give me the exact address of the hotel to go back to to pick up Cathy. After a short time driving in what seemed like the opposite direction I found somewhere to stop and a phone call to Cathy and some creative entering of data into the GPS got me going - this time in the right direction, but having to do a loop of the city. And with both GPS units giving me instructions , thankfully for the same route.

Finally on the road to Firenze (Florence) we wanted to take the minor roads - but partway onto the trip decided it was going to take too long, so we reprogrammed the GPS to get us onto the A1 where we had a 190km straight run at speeds of up to 130 kph and wall-to-wall trucks to get into Firenze just after 5pm (and just after sunset). A minor hiccup finding the hotel when the GPS tried to take us up a street that was time restricted on 2-way traffic, but we soon got around it and found the hotel.

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Now for a well earned rest.

But before I close the blog - I need to say that in the bit of travel we did today we have already seen a number of Italian castles perched on hill-tops with villages around them and some beautiful Tuscan scenery.

Posted by thomastour 11:28 Archived in Italy Tagged tourist_sites Comments (0)

Three laps of the Vatican

and take home your own statue!

semi-overcast 15 °C
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We hoped to beat the crowds to the Vatican so arranged to be on the hotel's courtesy bus at 8am. We drove into slow moving congestion to get to Tiburtina railway station and then found the train to Termini fairly crowded. From there it got much worse! We stood on the platform at Termini with a bizillion others squeezed together. The trains were coming frequently but they were already packed and only a few got off and zillions wanted to hop on! After the fourth train had stopped we found ourselves at the front of the crowd and were literally helped onto the train by the crowd behind!

It was about 9.30 when we arrived in the queue for the Vatican and took about half an hour to get in which we thought wasn't too bad. Following advice I had read we made our way straight to the Sistene chapel ( which is actually the last point )and were fortunate enough to be able to sit down after a short while and take it all in. As Geoff said it's almost an overload on the senses, so much to take in. Michelangelo's ceiling portraying the Creation ,First sin and then moving onto Noah. One wall portrays the Last Judgement also the work of Michelangelo. Then other artists including Botticelli and Roselli have painted scenes from the life of Moses and the Life of Jesus in panels along the longest walls. Paintings of prophets and sybil-people ( what the heck is a sybil? - Wikipedia says it is a prophetess but they certainly had names I didn't recognise from the Bible) finish the room.

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We then took our time touring through the museums. From large painted maps to marble statues of people and animals to amazingly ornate and beautiful ceilings the Vatican certainly lived up to what we had heard. The room that really got my interest was the Egyptian room. They had several sarcophagus in perfect condition. I hadn't realised they are painted inside and out. Then to top it off they had two sarcophaguses opened with mummies inside! One was still wrapped in mummy clothes and the other very black looking was not in mummy clothes, amazing!

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After the museums we fortified ourselves with cappuccino and hot chocolate and prepared to reenter the galleries. Somehow we found the Courtyard of the Pinecone; a garden area complete with gold`The sphere within a sphere'. We discovered we needed to start right back at the beginning to see the galleries on a one way track finishing with the Sistene chapel!

I enjoyed the beautiful artwork dating from the 1100's to modern day pieces. Works by Raphael, Michelangelo and Leonado Di Vinci were stand outs. After the Sistine chapel we went through the Vatican Post Office and upon checking if we'd seen everything I couldn't remember seeing the Borgia Apartments, Geoff had had enough by then so I set off on my own while he sat down and rested. Guess what I had to go right through the whole place again including finishing with, you guessed it, the Sistine chapel! Fortunately the apartments were worth it, more beautiful paintings from floor to ceiling.

After that we were ready for some fresh air and headed for the gardens around Villa Borghese. We wandered around these discovering fountains, a lake, tall stately trees and more statues! From there we walked back to Termini and found another lovely restaurant for tea. I was so glad to sit down! I'm sure we'll both sleep well tonight!

Posted by thomastour 10:53 Archived in Italy Tagged tourist_sites Comments (0)

How do 'celibate' Popes display nepotism?

... they build palaces for their nephews & help make their families rich and powerful.

all seasons in one day 15 °C
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A big day of sightseeing had a minor hiccup at the start - the shuttle bus driver for the hotel failed to turn up and they couldn't get him on the phone, but the hotel reacted quickly and paid for a taxi to take us to the station even though we were willing to wait for a normal bus.

Stop #1 was Castel Sant Angelo which is a circular castle within sight of Vatican City and Saint Peters. it was initially commissioned by the Roman Emperor Hadrian as a mausoleum for himself and his family. The building was later used as a fortress and castle and housed some of the popes with each subsequent user making changes and changing the fortifications to match the needs of the time. It also has a secure walkway to Vatican City.

After that it was time to start walking (or is that wandering) through the streets with some idea of where we wanted to end up, but also taking advantage of any sights or opportunities as we came upon them.

One such site was the Museo di Roma which was in a palace (think mansion) - 18th Century Palazzo Braschi paid for by one of the Popes for his nephew - nepotism was very strong in the papacy around that time. It included paintings, sculptures, furnishings and some clothing from the time it was used. It also looked out over Piazza Navona which included 3 magnificent fountains and is a popular gathering place.

Then onto the Pantheon - originally a Roman Temple built before Christ and turned into a church in the 7th Century. It's dome (over 2000 years old) is still the world's largest unreinforced concrete dome. It's missing a few of it's original finishes - like the copper roof covering which was removed and used to make St. Peters. Apparently the Italians were experts at recycling - except they didn't wait for something to come to end of it's life before recycling it. There are numerous examples of features of one building being removed and reused in another of a later period.

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More walking and we saw the Piazza Venezie which fronts onto Complesso de Vittoriano, the National Monument to Vittorio Emanuele II, who was the first King of Italy and is relatively new - being constructed in the late 19th century with some features not being completed until the 20th Century.

A bus trip and some more walking got us to Piazza del Poppolo another large and popular meeting place - only to find that it had been taken over for the afternoon for a concert that seemed to be in gratitude to the various uniformed services. Lots of fancy uniforms and security. The music from what seemed a combined military/police band was very good. We went into the church Santa Maria del Popolo which again had some interseting chapels with artwork by some of the greats including Raphael & Caraviggio. Interestingly it also had a csarved skull and cross bones on one of the pillars and a carving of a skeleton.

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Finally we found the Museo dell'Ara Pacis - which is an extremely modern building that caused some controversy when it was proposed because it is in an area with no other modern buildings. It was purpose built to house a Roman altar built by Augustus to celebrate peace in 9BC that was recovered in that area.

Posted by thomastour 11:56 Archived in Italy Tagged tourist_sites Comments (0)

Ancient Rome

and St Peter's Basillica

sunny 19 °C
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In brief , visited the Colosseum; amazing size and construction. Learnt that it used to have a roof that could be opened or shut depending on the weather ( those Romans were way ahead of their time). Also learnt that the Colosseum and other buildings were able to be completed with funds from the sacking of Jerusalem!

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Palatine Hill is full of ancient ruins softened by planned gardens and water fountains. This was where the Emperors chose to live and an amazing amount of evidence has been found to show how they lived and behaved. Down the hill is the Roman Forum (the downtown area of Ancient Rome) and contains political, religious and commercial buildings in various states of preservation.We enjoyed wandering around in the sunshine discovering more of the history of Rome. On the Hill Emperor Augusus house has only recently been opened and contains sections of wall still clearly showing how it was decorated, very colourfully.

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As the weather was so good we decided to make our way to St Peters and climb the 520 steps to the cupola. The views over Rome and Vatican city were awesome. We're still getting over how many people are still around even though it's not top tourist season. Coming down from the top we wandered around inside the Basilica with a crowd of others. Amazing paintings and statues line the walls. Apparently it's the biggest church building in the world and the most expensive. I can't help wondering if Peter, himself, would be impressed?

We are also enjoying Italian food and feel we should sample real Italian flavours while we're here. To such end we are making great sacrifices and eating gelato everyday as well as pasta or pizza! They also do great salads or I should say Insalata Mista!

Posted by thomastour 11:50 Archived in Italy Tagged tourist_sites Comments (0)

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