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September 1999 - Greece (Nafplio), Crete (Matala and Rethymnon), Italy (Tuscany and the Cinque Terre), Monaco and the South of France.
I get quite a few emails from people who have read our travelogues. Most people write that they had made a similar trip and re-lived it through our travelogue and pictures. Some write and thank me for the information they get from the travelogue and some mention that reading the travelogue has encouraged them to put up their own travels. Whatever, it has been worth the effort and we have met quite a few friends through the Internet.
This trip, to Greece, Italy and Monaco occurred in September 1999. Ordinarily, I would not recommend going to three countries on one trip but we had some places to go and people to see. We booked our roundtrip tickets direct through British Airways, Chicago to Athens via London and returned Nice (France) to Chicago via London . We booked our other flights through Microsoftís Expedia and flew on Olympic Airways from Athens to Iraklion, Crete, and then Iraklion, Crete, to Rome, Italy via Athens.
I attempted to book the British Airways flights through Expedia but could not. Even the Olympic Flights were a problem as every time I checked the status I was informed that the carrier had not comfirmed my reservations but then one day the tickets arrived and the status never changed on the website. I had to change my Olympic Flights after the tickets arrived to coordinate meeting up with some friends and since the tickets had no restrictions, I called Expedia only to be told I would have to send the tickets back by mail before they would change them. I called Olympic direct and they changes the flights without question. I did stop in to their Chicago office and they physically changed my tickets, adding one of those yellow stickers airlines use to change your ticket. I felt safer going with a ticket that was correct. Next time I will go directly through Olympic Airlines.
Olympic Airlines seems to have fixed rates for the flights between the islands and I donít believe you can get much of a reduction, you should reserve in advance as they do fill up. It cost $305 US each to fly Athens to Iraklion and Iraklion to Athens to Rome.
Using British Airways in what they call "open jaws" allowed us to fly into Athens, Greece and out of Nice, France. I highly recommend this method of travel as it avoids having to backtrack to fly out of from the arrival city. Of course if you want to do a circular tour you would want to leave from the same city. We have found it very convenient to land in one city and depart from another and it doesnít cost any extra, even in Economy, flying on an APEX fare. An example would be flying into Milan and touring around Italy, then flying out of Pisa or Rome. Now, obviously, there are no direct flights from Pisa to Chicago so you will have to connect in one of the major hubs. Just remember that all the major countries have hubs and you can fly from the USA to one of the hubs and then connect to Milan, Venice, Pisa, Florence, etc. and then return to the hub from another city and on to the USA. The direct flight to the hub will be on a US carrier or the carrier of the country where the hub is located. Doing the Italian trip mentioned above you could fly via KLM stopping at Amsterdam, British Airways, stopping in London, Alitalia, stopping in Milan or Rome. You will find that the prices of all these itineraries are very similar even though some involve longer flights.
We left Chicago on September 15, 1999. We flew Chicago-London-Athens with our friends Jerry and Kathryn. We had a 2 hour layover in London, not bad. Arriving in Athens around 5:30 PM we picked up a rental car and drove to Nafplio in the Peloponnese. We drove into the city and then back out. Athens is the worst city in Europe to drive in and the signs are unbelievable. Some signs are in English and others in Greek and no two Greek signs are spelled alike. Additionally, you will see a sign to your destination, follow it and never see another. Finally, we were on the road out of Athens following the signs that said Korinthos. The Greeks have some sort of numbering system for their highways, unfortunately Socrates took the secret of the system to his grave. Grading and banking of the roads on a turn is unheard of. Take the turns slow, very slow. Most two lane highways fill up with water and flood because they are not graded, be careful when it rains.
Jerry had arranged rooms at the Marianna Pension in Nafplio. The cost per night per room was about $50US and it included A/C, showers, a view and a nice continental breakfast on the patio overlooking the old town. We were very pleased with the accommodations and location. It was dark when we arrived in Nafplio and I actually stopped and asked a man at a kiosk in the park if he knew where the Pension was located. He did and we would never have found it without his directions. Since the pension was located up the hill behind the old town, you had to drive a little out of the old town area, up the hill and enter from the back. We parked the car and walked down a path to Mariannaís Pension.
The rooms were very nice with a nice view, good showers. Marianna's had a nice patio overlooking the town where you could have drink (they would chill your wine for you) and have breakfast in the morning. The first thing we discovered was that the doors were connected to the A/C and when you opened the door, the A/C went off. This prevented the occupant from leaving the A/C on while they were out. This is very common in Greece. The A/C was very good and it didnít take long to cool the room even in the afternoon. Of course if one person left the room the remaining person would have to turn the A/C back on when the door was closed. In some hotels in Greece, they will turn off the A/C power when you leave the room from the front desk. Make sure you ask them to turn it back on when you return. You will know if the A/C power has been turned off, it will get hot in the room.
After we all freshened up, we walked down the hill to the old town area. Nafplio has some great tavernas. There are small streets everywhere and tavernas abound. Tavernas are friendly places and the food is usually very good and reasonably priced. As you walk down the street look at the displays of fish, meat, etc. The waiters will invite you to sit down, ask them what specials they have for the night. They will be glad to take you into the kitchen and show you. They will go out of their way to be nice and it doesnít end when you sit down. Taverna traffic is funny and one taverna may be busy tonight and another next door totally empty. Tomorrow night the reverse is true. For that reason, waiters want you to sit down, even if you are only having a drink. They know that others will sit down at the taverna with the most customers.
Another point about tavernas, people seem to show up at a taverna as we are leaving. Either they are waiting for our table or people eat later than we do. Generally, people just go out and stay out late.
Garbage, the Greeks need to get a handle on this problem and you will see piles of garbage along most roads. Most towns are clean because the shopkeepers sweep the streets but they must take the garbage out of town and leave it on the side of the road.
We walked over to the seafront and had a drink at one of the seaside tavernas and then walked around the old town area before selecting a taverna for dinner. The old town was alive with people, children running and playing in Singtagma Square. The seafront area is called the Napoli di Romania and itís a great place to see the boats in the harbor, watch the sunset, just people watch, and have an early evening drink before dinner. You can also eat at these tavernas but we prefer the tavernas in the old town area, no real reason. Here are Jerry, Kathryn and Christine at a taverna in the old town area of Nafplio. We had some great fish that night.
During our walk we tried a few ATM machines. I had carried a small amount of Greek currency (Drachmas) but I knew I would need some more. Jerry and Kathrynís ATM card worked, mine did not. I called my bank only to discover that a hurricane had knocked out their network and it wouldnít be up for several days. We had just started our trip and I was almost out of money! Luckily, the taverna bill was not much, food is cheap in Greece. Now is a good time to explain my foreign currency philosophy. I get some travelers checks from my credit union without any commission, around $500. I also carry one or two hundred dollar bills, the new design, not the old design. People in Europe are used to currency changes and frequently, the old bills are worthless. They would rather have the new bills. I also carry a Visa card and I know my PIN to get a cash advance. I use a cash card not a debit card to get cash, withdrawing money directly from my checking account in the local currency. The cash card (ATM Card) allows me to withdraw money whenever I need it and I had never encountered a problem before. It also allows me to withdraw a small amount, say the equivalent of $20US if I stop in a country and need to have dinner or lunch but donít want to change a lot of money. Try that with a $100 travelerís check or $100 bill. I used to keep track of the posted rates and compared the posted rates with the rate on my statement when I returned home but I donít anymore. I am firmly convinced the rate is better than you can get using travelers checks or cash. The credit card rate is about the same as the cash card (ATM Card) rate. No, most foreigners do not want US Dollars, they prefer their own currency.
The next day I withdrew money using the Visa cash advance. It cost $10US extra per transaction and 2% per month computed from the day of withdrawal. I wasnít going to worry about a few extra dollars, I was on holiday and we were going to have fun. I didnít want to start using the hundred dollar bills or the travelerís checks as we had just started and I didnít know what the future had in store for us. As it turned out, I had to use the Visa card 2 more times and returned home without using the cash or the travelerís checks. My ATM card started working a couple of days later and my bank reimbursed me for all charges since it was their system that had failed. There are two points I want to make. One, have several sources of money available and two, using a credit card for a cash advance (I had never done it before) is better than not having any money in a foreign country so learn what your PIN for your credit card is.
The next day we went swimming off the rocks south of town (a short walk) and explored the area. By early evening we met our friends for a few drinks at the Corfu Bar, just east of the old town, below the castle. There is a waterfall and trees and the place is somewhat cool. Then we moved to a taverna at the seafront and watched the sunset. Most tavernas will give you some small snacks with your drinks. We ate dinner at a taverna in the old town area; there are many to choose from. Just look down any alley or street. After dinner, we walked over to the nearby park where all the locals stay out until early morning, children included. We sat at a outdoor café and had some cappucino. You can sit as long as you want and just watch the people. We were bothered by a few very dirty Gypsy children begging. I think they try and bother you hoping you will give them something to go away. We ignored them.
Here is a small map of Nafplio, A is where the tavernas are located where you can watch the sunset; B is the park where there are cafes and fountains and locals hang out at night; C is the Elena Hotel, a cheaper hotel but very nice with A/C and nice balconies - Phone: (0752) 23888 /23217 /21021 /20122 and Fax: (0752) 23888 (we've stayed at the Elana twice, good value; and D is where the Marianna Pension is located. The Old town area is between A and D
Our room had not been cleaned and we found out that we would have to leave our key at the desk if we wanted our room to be cleaned.
The next day we took a road trip to Mistras near Sparta. A fabulous ruined city up on a hill overlooking the plain. We all had shorts on so we had to put on "skirts" to go into the church. The skirts were free and I looked good too. Mistra was worth the trip. Christine found this donkey on the trail. At one point near a convent the street was filled with cats. Here are two views from Mistras looking out over the plains near Sparta;View One; and View Two. There were two parking lots, one up and one down. While driving down we saw a German woman running who we had seen earlier in the ruins. I sort of knew she was racing for her tour bus so I stopped and she just jumped in. When we got to the bottom she jumped out and ran towards where the tour buses were parked. We never saw her again and donít know if she got to her bus in time, she spoke no English. We found a nice taverna nearby and stopped for a late lunch.
The next day we drove to Diakafto on the north coast to a place I had found on the Internet. We wanted a base near the Vouraikos Gorge train. Had we known the Kalavrita town at the end of the train was so nice, we would have stayed there. It was also in the mountains and very cool. The Vouraikos Gorge train ride was enjoyable and we walked around the town for a few hours and explored a cemetery on a hill where the Germans had killed all the men of the village. The town was full of German Tourists and I thought it was sort of odd. Of course, we found a nice taverna in Kalavrita for lunch. We also found a couple of nice tavernas near our hotel and learned another vital Greek lesson. We had booked our rooms at the Panorama Hotel, a small family run place. It was reasonable with A/C and balconies and a nice taverna but the trees needed to be trimmed as we couldnít see the sea from our balcony and the sea was only about 50 meters away. We were going to eat at the taverna at the Panorama Hotel but this was the day they were closed. All over Europe this is a problem and we never seem to get used to it. If you want to eat somewhere tomorrow or the next day, find out when their closing day is. We had hoped to try the hotelís oven baked pizza but no chance.
Instead, we went into Diakafto to eat at a taverna recommended by someone and it was very nice. It wasnít very busy but after awhile it began to fill up. We asked what the specials were and were escorted into the kitchen to see what grandma had made. It all looked very good and we decided to have a few more drinks while we decided. When we finally got ready to order, some of our selections were sold out! Most tavernas make only so much of the daily specials so if you see something you want but you want to relax and drink a little longer, have them put it on the side with your name in it, they will be happy to oblige.
Greek salads are really a good deal, plenty of fresh cucumbers and tomatoes with feta cheese and onions. We also had some pickled octopus. We also discovered fish soup.
One note of caution, while driving to Diakafto , we were on the National Road with limited access when I noticed some children throwing rocks from an overpass. In talking to locals, this is a common practice so you may want to be alert or avoid the National Roads.
The next day we drove back to Athens, finally found the airport, and flew to Crete. Jerry and Kathryn flew to Lesbos, rented a car and had a great time. We flew to Iraklion, rented a car and dove to Matala on the south coast of Crete.
Arriving in Matala (a view of the beach from the Lions Cafe - the Last Bar Before Africa), I wanted to look for a place I had seen on the Internet (the Golden Phoenix Hotel) but we couldnít find it. We stopped to ask a woman sitting on the side of the road on her patio. I showed her the printout I had with a picture and name. She soon got it across to us she rented rooms and she wanted us to look at her rooms. She spoke no English. Her rooms were very nice with big windows, a queen size bed and a nice shower. She told us 10,000 drachmas (about $35). Christine said sure but I hesitated and said I still wanted to find the place I had seen on the Internet. The old woman held up 4 fingers (4,000 drachmas). We stayed there for 2 nights at about $14US per night.
Showers in Greece, even at some of the better hotels, are just some plumbing on a wall in the bathroom and a drain in the floor. The shower itself is good and a shower curtain would be nice so it can get wet in there. Watch out for the toilet paper and donít bring dry clothes into the shower with you.
We unloaded our stuff and walked into town to watch the sunset from the deck at the Lions Cafe, the Last Bar Before Africa. On our last visit I had taken some pictures and promised I would put them on the Internet, I had. Walking into the bar I met Ioannis Fassoulakis, one of the bartenders at the Lions Cafe Bar. Now I donít have what they call "a bar presence". Some people can walk in to a bar and get immediate service, I sort of become invisible. Once, I was trying to get served in a bar and suddenly the bartender looked at me and said: "Oh, I didnít see you there, did you want something?" I figured I had become invisible when I entered and had suddenly become visible again, I canít seem to control it. Well Ioannis looked at me and said: "Itís you, how are you?" I know, bartenders remember faces, not names. I asked if he remembered me, and he said, "Sure, youíre John Vittoe, you put my picture on the Internet." Only the second bar in the world where Iím known and itís on Crete!
Ioannis told me he had to leave but was hoping I would be back the next night. Before he left he made sure the bar staff knew we were to get special service and we did. The next night Ioannis stayed after his shift ended and with some others we partied. Ioannis always has a word or two of wisdom, listen carefully. We ate both nights in the Lions Cafe restaurant downstairs. The bar is over the restaurant and overlooks the Matala beach. The sunsets are fabulous and the food is very good. They serve peanuts as snacks in the bar. A very friendly place. Ioannisí cousin, Georgio, owns Georgios bar further up the street. Matala has many bars and tavernas and restaurants. Itís a fun place. Many buses come into town during the day but at night there are not as many people. Grandmas rooms were a 5 minute walk out of town. There is only one road into town and it stops at the sea.
During the day we walked south over the hill to the Red Beach, we also swam later from the Matala beach. The Red Beach has red sand, a nice gentle slope and most people swim in the nude. Itís not crowded at all so you will not feel uncomfortable (Except if the German couple with the perfect bodies are on the beach playing with their paddle and ball). You have to walk over the hill to the south of town and on a hot day it is not an easy walk so few people do it. Take some water, itís about 40-50 minute walk. Sometimes there is someone at the Red Beach renting umbrellas (1,000 Drachmas per day), sometimes not. Itís probably the nicest beach I have ever been at. Alas, Gerard, the last hippie from the 60s is no longer there. I asked about him and was told he had moved further south. He was a naturalist who rented umbrellas and made rock gardens at the base of the cliffs near the Red Beach. We referred to him as Donkey Dick and I had seen several shy girls staring at him when he would approach them to rent an umbrella.
We had lunch at the Lions Café with Ioannis. He was really glad to see us. Christine later sent him a t-shirt from Chicago because he was wearing one from New York. If you go to the Lions Café, consider bringing Ioannis a t-shirt from your city.
We went back to the bar for the sunset show and then a party at the bar with Ioannis and some of his friends. More party pictures: There was "Radioactive Bob", as we called him who claimed to have been in a nuclear plant accident. He had been a hippie in Matala 30 years ago and had borrowed money from Georgio's father to go home, he was half English and half American. There was Steve, from Chester England, and Ioannisí cousin, Christalea who was waiting tables at the bar until she could leave to go to the University to study Forestry, and Win and Tom, two guys from Brussels. After a few drinks at the Lions Bar we went downstairs and took a trip to the kitchen to see what was available. After dinner we went back to the bar upstairs only to find our friends were still drinking at the bar. It was a late night but we had fun. Christine and I even danced to Otis Redding.
Breakfast was not included in the 4,000 drachma room rate so we walked into town each day and ate in the square at Creta Bar. Christine claims they have the best coffee in Greece. By the way, grandma held our passports until we checked out. Although this is very common, I have never felt comfortable with this practice. I have never had any problem either. Just in case, make sure you have a photocopy of your passport with you when you travel overseas. I have noticed that when we stayed only one night at a place and paid in advance, they seldom asked for our passport.
Observations: You donít see any Greek men in shorts, only tourists. The double white line in the center of the road does not mean No Passing, it means Passing is Dangerous. Passing is done everywhere, you are expected to move over and drive with the right wheels on the edge of the road which is usually paved about 3 feet from the edge. In other words, the center of your car is directly over the white line which marks the edge of the road. People can then pass you without really going on the other side of the double white line. You will note that some slower cars will drive continuously with the right wheels off the road. Sometimes on a two lane road there will be four cars abreast, two going in each direction. Greece is permanently under construction.
Important Point: Learn some basic Greek phrases. Thank you is "F Harry Stowe". It will go a long way.
We walked to the Red Beach one more time and then we left Matala and drove west along the coast, heading for Frangokastello, a French castle on the southern coast. We stopped at the beach at Moni Preveli after driving a long way on a dirt bumpy road through some mountains, parking and walking over another hill. This beach had both fresh and salt water. For some reason, the water was colder than at Matala. We drove all the way to Frangokastello and then headed back. The castle was nice and the drive along the coast was beautiful.
We found a place to stay up in the village of Mirthos on the side of a mountain overlooking the sea. It was a small apartment for $18 US, they did not ask for our passports. We had a shower, balcony and kitchen. Later, we ate at the taverna upstairs, they weren't very friendly but it sure had a great view. Here's another view. We had just stopped for a drink before dinner and I decided to stay to eat. Christine had wanted to eat down the road. As far as restaurants, she has a sixth sense, I promise to go with her decisions in the future. The next morning we drove down the mountain into the town of Plakias and had a nice breakfast by the sea. We found a café by the shore, actually the café was across the road from the shore. We went in and ordered some rolls, juice and coffee for breakfast. I pointed to what we wanted and then the owner pointed across the road and indicated we should go sit. A few minutes later he came over with a tray.
The next day we drove towards Iraklion through some very nice gorges and visited the Archeological Museum where all Knossos and Phaistos treasures are kept. Itís worth a visit. We walked around the old town area. It was much better than I thought it would be. We had stopped in Iraklion on a previous trip and found it dirty and congested. The old town area was worth a stop if you go to the museum. We stopped at a café for a gyros lunch. Then we left for Rethymnon and the Fortezza Hotel where we had booked a suite. This was our spurge for Greece. We had stayed here before and we liked the suites so we had reserved in advance. On the previous trip we had just walked in off the street and they gave us a suite for $56US per night. We paid a little more this trip, 19,000 drachmas, about $70US. The Hotel Fortezza has a nice courtyard with a swimming pool; that's our suite on the top right. The Hotel Fortezza is right in the old town of Rethymnon, yet itís secluded. Rethymnon has a lot of jewelry stores and tavernas. A great place to eat and on our last trip we had discovered the harbor area on our last night in town, an area we had missed the first two trips. Well, it was worth the return. The fish was great and the service was fantastic. We forgot about Wolfgang and the bad experience. We would start out at night by the seaside tavernas (Kostas Bar) and then walk to the harbor tavernas. We ate twice at the Cavo DíOro Taverna on the harbor and watched the full moon rise. It was beautiful. We ordered grilled octopus and a grilled sea bream with some good house wine. The first night I told the owner that I wanted to eat slowly and not rush, he said fine. I have found that some waiters assume Americans want to eat and rush away. The second night when we walked up the owner said, "Welcome back, glad to see you..and you want to eat slowly, okay?" There were strolling accordionists. The staff at the Cavo DíOro also couldnít have been nicer and when we returned the second night they welcomed us like old friends. You can walk around the harbor area and each taverna has a display of their food. They all offer you a table but they are not that pushy, just say you arenít ready to eat yet. This doesnít even include the old town tavernas. What a town, with a turkish influence and a couple of minarets included. Rethymnon is worth a couple of days and nights. Here is a picture of another small street with tables in Rethymno More pictures of the harbor tavernas in Rethymno: Picture 1 (notice the octopus hanging); Picture 2; Picture 3; Picture 4; and Picture 5. And, if you're still shopping at night, it will look like this.
One afternoon in Rethymnon around 3PM we walked over to the harbor area and sat down at a café for some coffee, Christine wrote out some postcards and I just watched the people. We saw a lot of tour groups walking through the area but none stopped. Thatís why I donít take a tour, they seem to be always on the move. Iím sure they see more and maybe learn more from the tour guide but they donít take a few minutes to find a quaint place, sit down with a drink and soak up the atmosphere. Of course, as Rick Steves said, "That quaint café doesnít stay quaint when the tour bus rolls in." The owner of the Fortezza Café was very nice, I really like the way these tavernas make you feel welcome.
Speaking of the Fortezza name, there is a very big fort in Rethymnon, itís worth a visit. There are also many tavernas across from the beach. Here is a map of the city with some areas marked.
One thing about shopping in Rethymnon, especially for jewelry. Do not be concerned about quality, itís mostly all 18K gold and marked. The Greek Government is very strict. If itís marked 18K it probably is and you will be given a receipt. There are different prices depending on how you want to pay. Cash, US Dollars or Greek Drachmas, is the preferred method. They will take any currency and/or travelerís checks. They will add 3% to a credit card purchase. They will size a ring for you in minutes, it will still be warm when you put it on. They will offer you a drink, a seat, whatever. They will quote you a price and then offer you the special Greek price because they like you. They will phone the boss at home to tell him they have a special person wanting to buy and can they give you a special price. Of course they are talking in Greek and could be calling home to find out whatís for dinner. Worse, they will offer you a special price that is only good for the next minute. Be prepared to bargain, be prepared to walk out and come back later after looking around. If you make a counter offer, you should be prepared to pay. How much should you bargain; that depends on how much the item is worth to you. I think you should never pay the first price and we have usually been able to get an item for between 25-50% of the original price. Christine likes jewelry.
Every night while having a drink at the Kostas Bar by the seaside before dinner we would watch the 7:30 ferry leave for Pireaus. One day weíll take it. Sit down at the Kostas Bar, have a few drinks, and watch the ship disappear over the horizon. When it disappears, then you know itís time for dinner. One night we sat there with 2 bottles of wine and made up bad poetry about the ship on the horizon, point of light on the sea, stuff like that. Let me tell you, the tour bus doesnít stop here. You may have noticed that I am prejudiced. I know independent travel is not for everyone and I may, some day, be forced to take the tour too. Itís just amazing how many Americans are afraid to travel on their own but then again, many people in my village are afraid to go into Chicago on their own for dinner. I enjoy the excitement of deciding where we will stop for dinner. We enjoy stopping at a café in the middle of the day or early evening, just to relax and watch the people. We like being the only Americans in the place. We make sure we talk softly.
One night we went to the Taverna Old Town. (31 Vernadou Street, Rethymno) We had eaten here on a previous trip. This taverna is on a narrow street with another taverna across the street and a small path is left between the competing tables for pedestrian and scooter traffic. In this picture, the Old Town Taverna is on the left and the table on the right are another taverna (which looked nice too). Theroad is in the middle. The owner was a nice host. He took us back into the kitchen where we selected our meal. Christine had Kleftako and I had a Stifado (stew) and we shared a Greek salad. At point to note is that the Greeks donít seem to mind if you share a plate, they are just happy to have you sit down. Good house wine.
One day in Rethymnon we drove east on the old road out of town where many of the resorts are. These are the "all inclusive" resorts favored by the package tours. Further east we found a little beach and we went swimming. We couldn't go out far as the slope of the beach was very steep and the waves were very high. Once, they ripped off Christineís sunglasses and once we both felt like we were being sucked out to sea on the undertow and we were only 10-12 feet from shore! Be careful! There are no changing places on most of the beaches so leave your modesty at home.
We used the hotel pool every afternoon and some evenings. Most people at the hotel are only there for sunbathing. The hotel has a quiet time in the afternoon, no noise in the pool area but you can still swim. Actually, there was hardly any noise at all, ever.
One day in Rethymnon we walked away from the old town area and found a park, stopped in the park for coffee. No tourists except us, just locals. We had shorts so they knew we were tourists.
After Rethymnon we drove to the Iraklion airport to drop off the car and fly to Athens and Rome, get there plenty early as the rental car lot looks like a flood arranged the cars and the service is slow at the counters. We flew to Athens, changed planes and flew to Rome. At the Iraklion airport we were bussed to the plane from the terminal, bussed about 50 feet. We got on the bus moved 50 feet and we got off.
We had booked a car through InItaly on the Internet and they in turn booked it through AutoEurope. Since that time we have booked several times all around Europe through AutoEurope and we have been very satisfied. InItaly no longer books rental cars. I couldnít have been more pleased. We had to prepay but they said we would get a full refund if we cancelled and they booked us through Avis. The four day rental rate is the same as the rental for a week so next time we will plan on keeping the car 7 days. The InItaly rate was cheaper than I was quoted anywhere else I called. Manual transmission with A/C and it included all insurance, no deductible. Normally, I use my Visa Gold for the Insurance but this rate was cheaper than I was quoted without the CDW. They would not rent without the CDW in Italy. We picked the car up at the Rome Airport and dropped the car in Lucca.
We had intended on heading towards Rome, driving around Rome on the ring road and then heading north towards Siena, Tuscany and San Gimignano. We had a green Michelin Guide book with a small map of Rome, we didnít plan on driving into the city, we didnít plan on missing the ring road, we didnít plan on getting lost in Rome. After almost 2 hours we found our way back out towards the airport and got on the ring road and drove north towards Siena. Once, I pulled over to look at our little map and someone on a scooter pulled up next to me and started banging on the car roof. I opened the window a little and he said I had cut him off. I didnít know one way or the other so I apologized and said we were lost. Pretty soon the man was telling us how nothing in his life goes right and now I almost killed him. We shook hands and he left. Maybe if he didnít bang on car roofs his life would be better.
We were able to pay the tolls on the Autostrada with our Visa credit card.
We had booked a room on a vineyard near San Gimignano. I know, my track record is not that good and you wonder how Christine could let me pick a place, much less reserve for four nights. Well we saw the sign just outside San Gimignano and drove down a dirt road to the end. The old farmhouse had been restored and there were three beautiful rooms. A woman and her mother run the place, breakfast is included, there is an in ground swimming pool, the wine is great, the place is so quiet and the room cost 150,000 lira per night. The shower was fantastic. Those of you who know me know how important that is.
This vineyard was the best place I have stayed in Europe and it had a great shower. Did I mention the shower? There are only three rooms and no room keys to worry about. Here's our room. Here are several pictures around the outside of the house: An outdoor table to sit in the evening and drink wine; The main door of the house; Christine and John in front of the main door; a view of the outdoor table from our room; another view from our window of the coach house in the morning sun;Looking in the breakfast room from the outside; The breakfast room empty; and later, The breakfast room with the guests and the owner, Francesca; a nice place to sit and have a glass of wine and a book with Puccini in the background, the guest's lounge; John and Marjorie having some wine; the cat - there are also 3 very nice dogs; grapes in the vineyard view 1; and view 2; a nice view of the house and the vineyard; and a view of Christine looking out the window of our room, the color is a result of the Tuscany sun. There is also a nice view of San Gimignano we took while out walking nearby.
We hadnít eaten so the owner called and reserved a table at a nearby ristorante. She also gave us directions. She reserved a table for us each night at a ristorante and two of the three places were local places we would never have found on our own. The other place was Il Pozzo in Monteriggioni where we had requested her to book us a table. We slept great as it was so quiet. We were there during the grape harvest (Vendemi) and the next morning there we people in the fields picking the grapes. Tourists to San Gimignano never see this part and it is ever so close. You have probably noticed that I have not mentioned the name. We are staying for 6 nights in September 2000. There are a lot of these farm stays, they are called Agriturismo you see the signs all over. They can rent rooms as long as they get most of their income from the farming or vineyard. The wine was great and one night we just bought some fruit,cheese, bread and sausage and sat outside on a table with some of the other guests and drank wine from the ineyard.
We had gone shopping in Poggibonsi and I should note that the fruit in the supermarket was "self serve". To buy fruit you must first put on disposable plastic gloves before you touch the fruit. Look for the box of plastic gloves. Then you place the fruit in a plastic bag and put the bag on the scale. There are many buttons on the scale, maybe over 100. Each button has a picture of the various fruits and vegetables that are available. Press the button that corresponds to the item you are purchasing. A sticky label will be issued by the electronic scale and you put the label on the bag. There is a place to deposit your plastic gloves next to the scale. We were told to put on the gloves by some very nice Italian ladies. We were able to share this new found knowledge with some other foreigners when we shopped at the San Gimignano supermarket.
The next morning we saw the place in the daylight. It was unbelievable. Like heaven. I will entertain a personal request for the name of this place. Please include a police background check and a list of Nobel Prize awards you have received. We met two nice couples, Andre and Sandra and Hartwig and Enis, at breakfast. They were all from Germany. Andre had some currency he carried with him to remind him not to change money on the black market. The currency he had purchased had larger denomination numbers pasted on the corners and I didnít notice it until he pointed it out. He said he had lost some money but learned a valuable lesson. Most of the people we met at the vineyard would go off somewhere in Tuscany every morning and come back at night. The owner booked tables for people at local restaurants for dinner and reserved tickets at museums in Florence. It was a great place, we fell in love with it. Did I say the Chianti was good? There were three dogs, one is deaf, and a cat.
One thing about Tuscany and the hill towns, the whole town closes for lunch for a couple of hours, every day, you have to get an early start. Parking was never a problem, you parked outside the town and walked into it. Some places had restricted parking such as the "Disco Zones" where you were expected to have a parking disc on your dashboard that indicates the time you left the vehicle. We have found you can write the time on a piece of paper (24 hour time) and put the paper on your dashboard. We donít guarantee this will work in every town.
You can walk into most of the wine shops in the town and sample the wine. You can also walk around the wine cellars like this one in the Chianti country.
One day we drove to Montpulciano and Montalcino in the south of Tuscany. In Montpulciano we found a real nice café(Coffee Poliziano); high up in the town. They had a balcony overlooking the valley below. We stopped for coffee. It was very old and we took pictures of each other: Christine and John. We stopped in the town of Pienza and took a tour of the Pallazo Piccolomini, a famous family home and once the residence of Pope Pius II. The Italian girl gave the tour in both English and Italian and she was very good. We stopped and bought dog biscuits and we were a big hit with the dogs.
One day we drove to Volterra, a town built high up on a hill overlooking the surrounding countryside. In Volterra we visited the Etruscan Museum. We found a nice trattoria (Il Poggio Trattoria) for lunch. We both had spaghetti pomodoro. Back at the vineyard Christine went for a long walk and I sat down in the lounge with Marjorie and had some white wine. Leaving the vineyard was going to be very hard.
We drove to Lucca where we were to drop off the car. It was 1300 hours (remember the 24 hour clock) and everything was closed but we needed to fill the gas tank. I pulled into a station that advertised 24 hour operation, always open. There was a man, woman and young girl putting gas in the tank. I sort of watched him put 10,000 lira into a machine and then use one of the pumps to put gas in his car. They spoke no English and soon got the message that I just wanted to see how it was done. When finished, I got a 50,000 lira note out and went to put it in the machine. The daughter volunteered to do it and selected leaded petrol, I wanted no lead. I pulled my car over to fill it with the leaded, how much damage could a few gallons do. Well, I couldnít the nozzle just wouldnít let me. I had used 50,000 lira because I knew the car would take it. Well, it was my lost so I took out another 50,000 lira bill (about $30US). The man said, "No", the three of them got together, gave me 50,000 lira and put the gas in their tank. Them they helped me again, making sure we chose no lead petrol. We thanked them, how many people would have done that? We werenít even able to communicate.
After that we drove into Lucca and I knew something was up, there were viewing stands set up on the street and people were walking around the streets. We found the Avis Car Rental Office about 2 miles from the train station. It was closed between 1-3 PM. REMEMBER THAT! We waited around and finally they opened and we returned the car. The woman had no one to drive us to the train station. We didnít have much luggage but Christine had purchased a huge clay pot in Crete and we had 6 bottles of wine fromÖ.the vineyard. It was hot. The car rental agent did offer to call us a taxi but the taxi could not come until the bike race had passed through the city (maybe in an hour), remember the viewing stands? We decided to walk or we would miss our train and the next one was hours later. It was very hot. After 2 blocks we stopped to rest when I saw a bus coming down a side street. I started to flag him down but he indicated that we should stay where we were and he turned on to the street we were on, going in our direction. I asked if he went to the train station and he said no. Most of our conversation was sign language and one word sentences. He spoke no English. I used sign language to ask if he went near the station and he sort of shrugged. We got on but then we all remembered that you need a ticket in Italy and you must purchase these tickets, not on the bus, but at a kiosk somewhere. He said, "ticket?", I said no. He turned, pulled a few tickets from his jacket and handed me two. I asked how much and he pointed to the amount on the ticket. We paid the ticket price. What a guy. I knew the street the station was on and as we approached it we got up to exit. He said, "No, no." We drove around the city streets for about 5 more minutes and he stopped his bus, pointed to the station and let us off. He had gotten us as close as he could.
We caught our train to Pisa and then on to the Cinque Terre, Monterosso al Mare and a warm welcome at the La Spiaggia Hotel, which is right on the beach. Just look for the hotel sign one block north of the train station. We were welcomed by the owner, Andrea Poggi and his family. We arrived in Monterosso around 1815 hours, just in time to have a drink at the bar. Dinner at La Spiaggia was, as usual, very good. Christine had smoked salmon pasta and I had ghocchi and pesto. You have to have the pesto in the Cinque Terre. Then we both had a grilled sea bass.
The next day we took the train to Manarola intending to swim off the rocks north of town but the waves were too big and the water too rough. There were no trains stopping at Manarola going north for 2 hours so we went south to La Spezia and caught another train going north to Monterosso. We went swimming at the beach, the waves were high and we couldnít go out far and we were knocked around but it was fun. When we got out the pockets in my swimsuit were full of sand. The front desk at the La Spiaggia Hotel was closed until 1430 and we had left our key at the desk so we just sat down at an outdoor table on the street and had lunch. Andrea had gone into town and when he returned I went over and borrowed enough money to pay for lunch. We had not taken our key because we were swimming and we had locked our valuables in the room safe.
That evening we walked down the street and met some other hotel guests and then Andrea came by and took us all into a bar and bought everyone a drink. We then went into town and stopped at a local bar for a drink. We ended up at the Porto Roco Hotel high up on the hill south of town and watch the sunset. This hotel is a little expensive for us and too upscale but we have found you donít have to stay at a place to enjoy it. Just walk in and sit down. In this case we sat outside. On the way back I stopped for some gelato.
We had dinner with Jane, one of the other hotel guests, we always meet nice people. We had risotto and a fish, sea breem. I got a bottle of the house white wine but it wasnít cold enough for me so I put some ice in the glass to the horror of Guisseppe, our waiter. Andrea came over and tasted the wine only to spit it out and say it was bad. We got a fresh bottle and it was good. What do you expect from people who drink "box wine?" We later had gelato on the beach with Andrea. Here is a picture of Guiseppe, Deborah and Guiseppe at the La Spiaggia Restaurant. Christine and Guiseppe Andrea hops around the tables at night to make sure everyone is having agood time. Here is John, Andrea and Christine at dinner. And John and Andrea. And Christine drinking a toast with Andrea.
The next day, as Christine wrote in her diary, "The sea was angry my friend." We had slept great with the waves pounding the shore all night. Itís amazing how much the beach can change in 24 hours. We said goodbye to Jane, Kathleen and Barbara who were heading to the Italian Lakes and Christine gave Jane some books to read on the train. Later, we went with Andrea and his family in Andreaís new car to the Trattoria Medinelli in Pignone, all 8 of us in a 5 seater. The trattoria was great and we ate family style. Here are John and Isabella Poggi at the table. We had ravioli, tomato lasagna, pesto lasagna, rabbit, lamb and veal, potatoes and mushrooms and wine. It was great. There was no menu, they just kept bringing food. I took some pictures of a couple of old timers and promised to send them a copy. It was not expensive so I paid.
That evening we walked into town and started out with coffee at the Midi-Bar when suddenly we heard music and a marching band came into the piazza and played some tunes. Then the band stayed for some refreshments served by the ladies behind the church. We were ready to start drinking so we went to a local bar, the Central Bar and had some wine and olives. The locals were watching a soccer match on the television. Then we walked to the New Eden Bar on the beach and had some wine with chips and olives. Most all the bars give you snacks. There is one bar that I havenít mentioned, itís south of the train station and right on the beach and is a great place to watch the sunset. They also give you snacks.
The next day we met Andrea in town for lunch. Andrea ordered for us and we had stuffed anchovies, they were the size of hot dogs and very good, not salty. Then we had fish salad and a large parasol mushroom that we all shared. Here are John and Andrea drinking. Later, Christine hitched a ride back to the La Spiaggia with Andrea and John had to walk. That evening we ate with two friends from Minnesota, Bonnie and Wendy. We had risotto and stuffed mussels and then ended the evening at the bar and some of the local Sciacchetrà wine. We said goodbye to Deborah who was leaving the next morning to find work at the ski resorts in northern Italy. The Cinque Terre season was just about over.
We left by train the next day on our way to Monte Carlo to meet some friends (Tom and Beryl) from Auckland, New Zealand. Tom and Beryl were traveling around Europe for two months and had arranged to rent a time share in Monaco on Cap-d'Ail and since we were going to be just down the coast, they invited us to stop in a stay a few nights. They had a great view from there place and I think having a place like this is a nice way to unwind on a long trip around Europe. It was a 5 hour trip along the coast from Monterosso and we splurged and got first class tickets. The trip went well until Ventimiglia where we changed to a local train to Monte Carlo. When we got to Monte Carlo, the platform was packed with commuters and we had to push our way off. Beryl met us at the train, Tom had dropped her off and he went to park the car. Unfortunately, the streets are narrow, they go up and down the hills and some streets were closed for the rush hour. Tom had trouble finding a parking lot in the rush hour and we were getting worried. Before long, Tom came along with his story.P>Beryl figured we would be tired when we arrived so she had purchased some food and we just sat around the apartment the first night with a lite dinner, some snacks and wine and caught up on old times. The second night Beryl and Tom had found a restaurant in Monte Carlo for dinner. It was to be our treat but I tried an old trick and left my wallet in the room. Tom paid for dinner and I promised to reimburse him the next day. I guess they haven't heard of that trick in New Zealand. Tom had a car so we went off in the countryside. I was very impressed with the hill towns in the south of France, Christine now wants to go back.
We travled around with Tom and Beryl for the next few days visiting some hill towns in the south of France. Here are some pictures we took of Tom and Beryl, one of Christine and Tom, the four of us , a nice flower stall, Christine and I; and one more of the four of us having coffee. Here are some photos we took of the hill town Eze and several in the town of Vence, Grasse and St. Paul: Picture one; and Picture two; and Picture three; and Picture four.
We flew home to Chicago from Nice airport via London on British Airways. It was a nice flight.