Can it be that I haven’t written since France? Goodness me! Our last few days in France were great – I especially loved Pezenas. For those who’ve done reformation history, we visited the ruins of two Cathar Castles… I must say they did their best to stay out of the way! Jenny and Andrew were wonderfully welcoming and brilliant at showing us the best the south of France has to offer… I would add to the highlights of our time in France ‘time to properly unpack and do laundry instead of trying to dig the remaining clean shirt out of the recesses of an already overstuffed bag’. Sadly, this luxury has not continued – obviously this holiday hasn’t been long enough! (Boss, if you’re reading, jokes….)

From France we went to Prague for 3 nights and 2 days that disappeared much too quickly, but here goes…

Stop 1: On Arrival, Take Evening Stroll Across Charles Bridge
Charles Bridge is one of the highlights of Prague, with a beautiful view of the castle, the river and the magnificent skyline. Charles Bridge is lined with beautiful statues that give away the city’s Catholic heritage and compete with the amazing Astronomical Clock (which tells the time in 4 different ways) for the attention of tourists with cameras. The walk along the river shows off Prague in all it’s cobblestoned, Bohemian awesomeness. However, unless you are a big fan of sausage meat in various odd forms, steer clear of traditional Czech cuisine!

Stop 2: Walking Tour of Prague
Fortunately for us, our airport transfer included a 4hr walking tour, which took us around the Old Square, St James’ Church (which contains a shrivelled hand that allegedly belongs to a thief who tried to steal from the church’s treasury – let that be a warning!) and the Jewish Quarter (given the strong links between what was Czechoslovakia and Germany, it has a tragic past). Like most people, we skipped the afternoon section of the tour in favour of a long lunch and shopping! Navigating around the Old Square is something of a challenge but we still had fun!

Stop 3: get lost somewhere around the Old Square.

Stop 4: find Tram station and go to Petrin Hill for stunning views of the city and a down through the spectacular rose Garden. So much to do, so little time. I would have liked to visit the Franz Kafka museum and the Gustav Klimt exhibition, but like so many things, they are relegated to the list for next time! Instead we went on a river cruise, which included not only quite a different but equally beautiful view of Prague, but also my first encounter with Czech herbal liqueur… A faint hint of cloves and about 90% alcohol!

Stop 5: Finish Walking Tour
Our second full day in Prague started with quite a sleep in (Jenny, you’ll be surprised, I’m sure!), a much-needed trip to the Post Office for me and a trip to St Agnes’ Convent for Sar… By the time we’d meandered around and got ourselves lost a few more times, it was time to rejoin the walking tour, which took us around Clementium, to the University, the Jesuit theological college, the John Lennon wall (a testament to the Velvet Revolution that made Czech a republic, so named because it took place relatively painlessly and without bloodshed), around a few of the more popular sites for blockbuster films set in Europe, and finally to St Vitus’ Cathedral and Prague Castle. Honestly, anything built in the last 500 years is starting to look positively contemporary! Dinner overlooking the Old Square, with its many busking musicians and the trumpeters in costume marking the hour with a fanfare and a good-will flag wave was quite a fitting end to our time in Prague, with of course the obligatory nightmare of repacking our bags in order to get through the strict requirements of our onward flight to Rome the following morning… Read ‘carry 10kg of hand luggage in cool and carefree manner so as not to appear to be exceeding the 5kg limit and pray they don’t weigh it’. Oi Vey. As it happened, our flight was contracted to an airline much more generous to over-burdened travellers!

We arrived in Rome with mixed emotions… Sad because it signalled the beginning of the end of this amazing trip, (not to mention, by the time we got to our hotel exceedingly frustrated, hot and bruised by the endeavour it took to get there from the airport), but with great expectations for this beautiful city! One of the brilliant things about travelling at this time of year is the length of the days in the European summer – plenty of time for a late dinner and a stroll before the sun sets anytime after 10pm. So we did just that, making our way past the Colosseum and The Forum on our way to a delightful restaurant for, of course, a Margherita pizza and a few glasses of red. We got to chatting with the ladies at the adjacent table, and after Sar (perhaps unwisely?!) volunteered my profession, we ended up in a long but thoroughly enjoyable theological discussion and fortunately, good directions to the Trevi Fountain, which is actually quite easy to miss! I wonder if Italian men, and especially those who work in restaurants, save up all their charm for tourists, or are they always so flirty? Granted, the gentleman at the restaurant was a little more restrained than the cute guy around the corner who insisted on feeding us gelato, but that is another story. Trevi Fountain! Awesome! Yes, I made a wish; no, I’m not sharing it. 🙂

The following day was epic to say the least – we had to be on a train at 2pm to the Cinque Terre, but I very much wanted to see the Vatican museums… So, having set my alarm for 6:30am, I made my way into town and joined what was fortunately a very short queue at that point (though rightly so, given they don’t open until 8:45am!) and settled in with the crowd. I fail to see how any of the organized tours can possibly claim to give a fair showing of the place in 2 hours, given I had nearly 4 and didn’t spend anywhere as much time in each place as I could have. I shouldn’t have been surprised at the sheer volume of artwork (particularly sculpture) that resides there, but I was, perhaps because so much of it has precious little to do with Christianity and is not dissimilar to the ancient collections of the British museums. It seems several Popes maintained a healthy interested in art collection, particularly from the Greek and Roman periods! I could have spent an hour or two just in the Museum of Contemporary Art (and not the 15 minutes or so I had), but one cannot miss the Sistine Chapel, which is at the end of the tour. Yes, it is just as amazing as I expected… I entirely agree with the rules that there is silence in the chapel and no photos, but the ambience was a bit undermined by the frequent loud clapping and shushing by the overzealous guards – they mean business!

The train trip to Cinque Terre is a lovely journey, through the Italian countryside and along the beautiful coastline. We stayed in a gorgeous apartment right in the centre of Monterosso, fortunately convenient to several pizzerias and gelaterias – I hope lactose intolerance never strikes an Italian – I don’t know if they would survive! On our way back from dinner, we noticed that there was obviously something happening at the church (which really is the spiritual and social hub of the town!), so we stopped to have a look and were greeted by a young friar from the local Franciscan monastery, who told us there was a fundraising concert on, so in we went. Think Sister Act (the first one) meets good contemporary Christian music, and all made a bit cooler and uplifting by the fact that Italian is such a beautiful language. It was really good! We finally left around 1130pm, though I think they partied on into the night!

So, Cinque Terre, first full day…

Stop 1: Go to Mass. I think in most of the churches I’ve been to in Australia, the bells are rung 5 or so minutes before the service… Not so in Italy, where they ring a good half hour before, thus giving those whose alarms have not gone off enough time to get to church… Very smart. Obviously somewhere in the last few weeks I have properly relaxed into being on holidays, given that I woke up to the bells and thought ‘isn’t that glorious?’ and not ‘Ohhh, no no. RUN.’ Also, Mass is much easier to understand in Italian than French!

Stop 2: Head to the beach and swim in beautiful turquoise water that is 20 degrees plus and so crystal clear that you can still see the bottom when it is easily 5 metres deep. Unfortunately we didn’t have time to hire one of the paddle boats that has an attached slippery dip, much to Sar’s disappointment!

Stop 3: Walk from Monterosso to Vernazza, and from Vernazza to Corniglia.
For those who don’t know, the Cinque Terre is a group of 5 towns that grace the coastal hills a few hours north of Rome and can be walked between at leisure, or so the story goes. I should say at this point that what goes around comes around – I happened to post a slightly smug reply on Facebook to a someone’s status update about the weather at home as we enjoyed our cappuccino and croissant for breakfast that morning. Well, didn’t that bite back! To put you in the picture, the Cinque Terre walk from first to fifth town includes some 3000 steps, most of which are between the first two. There is nothing quite like accumulating several layers of greasy sunscreen, dripping sweat and thick dust to make one feel really glamorous! Nevertheless, I quite enjoyed the walk. I cannot say the same for Sar! We decided that we had done our exercise for the week and opted for the ferry the next day!

That pretty much brings up to date Jess and Sar’s Europe adventure, and almost the last chapter… As I write we are on the train back to Rome for a day tour to Pompeii and to visit a few more of Rome’s best sites with our remaining two days… For the faithful remnant who are still reading at this point, I’ll try to post an epilogue with photos when I get home… Though I have had a wonderful time, I am really looking forward to getting home to some familiar faces! Take care everyone!