Venice

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Italy (part 3)

The train trip was much nicer on the way back as we caught the fast one, which was air-conditioned. As we entered the first tunnel and picked up speed, I could not help but think of the poor sods that were about to be covered in food wrappers and get the fright of their lives as we flashed past at over 300 km per hour.

We just managed to get to the bike shop before it closed and they promised us it was fixed, I said they told us that in Barcelona but he assured me that the part costing 1600.00 euros had done the trick. I’m glad that was a warranty job and not an accident.

We popped back the campsite and asked if we could leave the bike while we went to see the Museum de Accademia where we had a 15.30pm appointment to visit David. They were happy to look after the bike even though we were heading off as soon as we got back… we decided to ride a little later due to the unpleasantly aggressive heat of the sun in the afternoon. If we could get a few hours in after 5pm it would be a much nicer ride and the sun was not hitting the horizon now until about 9pm and getting dark well after 10 pm. I love Europe in the summer, the fact you can actually do things in the evening.

If you ever want me to have a good rant, just mention daylight savings on the Gold Coast, or rather the lack of it. Who in government in their right mind can’t see the benefit of changing the times accordingly to give the people of the state a few hours extra at night to kick a football in the park or go for a nice walk? Apart from 17 dairy farmers in the middle of nowhere, nobody wants bright sunlight at 4am and pitch black a 7pm. Wouldn’t it be better to tag a few hours onto the end of the day, so children aren’t forced to be home sitting in front of their TV’s or computers as opposed to outside with their mates? No wonder we have an obesity problem… I feel better with that off my chest…

The nicest feeling of pre-booking tickets is the ability to walk to the front of massive queues and slip into the venues without hassle, I know that face on the poor tourists who had been waiting two hours to reach the front… “what the…where do they.. I want to say something but should I”… the power of knowledge is very important for a smooth holiday in Europe in summer…

It’s hard not to be impressed with the artworks in the museum, considering the hundreds of thousands of hours the artists have dedicated to making them. Museum layouts are so extremely important, a bad layout in a museum can leave you walking around in circles and seeing some pieces five time and missing others altogether. The most important characteristic is that it’s intuitive to know where to go and what to see. It can take weeks looking at everything properly so one has to be selective; we chose to see the masterpieces that were highlighted well and leave the best until last. We eventually reached the big man himself. There is a certain “rock star arriving” feel about the journey to the statue, so many people want to see him it’s not a simple case of walk in and view. One has to be patient, which is not so easy for people like me with a certain phobia called “IHST’ (I hate stupid tourists). Especially the ones that have absolutely no interest in art, they seem to just want a photo of themselves in front of art doing a peace sign, probably so they can prove to their friends on Facebook that they have travelled to a foreign country and “look I’m cultured”. Don’t get me started… Damn I am started… You can watch them, they don’t actually look at the works hanging on the wall; they walk up to them, take a photo and immediately walk away. What the hell are they going to do with a jpeg-compressed photo of a masterpiece taken on an iPhone? Print them, hang them in their living room and recreate their journey through an art gallery… Why don’t they just stop, look and enjoy… “IHST”.

This blog is good therapy for me… I feel so much better writing my frustrations down.

So where were we?… David … the masterpiece of Renaissance sculpture created between 1501 and 1504 by the Italian artist Michelangelo. This 17-foot marble sculpture of the man that defeated Goliath shows that the small man can beat the big man if he uses his brain, which is ironic given the scale of him; if he was 17 foot tall how big was Goliath?

It’s an interesting story about how the artist at the age of 26 got the commission to make David. In short, he took aver a failed attempt by two previous artists Agostino di Duccio and Antonio Rossellino.

The original commission was to build twelve large Old Testament sculptures for the buttresses of the cathedral of Santa Maria Del Fiore. Donatello had made one of the statues in 1410, a figure of Joshua made of terracotta, and a second, also terracotta, this time of Hercules.

So David was to be made of marble and Agostino only got as far as beginning to shape the legs, feet and the torso, roughing out some drapery and probably gouging a hole between the legs. Rossellino’s contract was terminated soon thereafter, and the block of marble remained neglected for twenty-five years in the cathedral grounds.

On August 16, 1501, Michelangelo was given the official contract to undertake this challenging new task. He began carving the statue early in the morning on Monday, September 13, a month after he was awarded the contract. He would work on the massive biblical hero for more than two years.

It’s an awe-inspiring piece of work and it’s not until you stand under him and see the almost perfect symmetry of the piece do you realise the shear genius of the sculpture. We are so used to looking at perfection due to computers and modern ways of mass production. We have the technology now to build anything perfectly, take a look at the plastic models sold in the gift shops and you can see man’s new ability, but the fact is that this was done by hand with nothing but a hammer and chisel under the lights of candles.

Speaking of hammers… In 1991, a deranged man attacked the statue with a hammer he had concealed beneath his jacket, in the process damaging the toes of the left foot before being restrained, taken around the back of the building and having you know what kicked out of him… good job he was only a short man and didn’t swing the hammer higher if you get my drift.

Nicola said ‘The David’ had a physique like mine… normally I would give her a shove and say “love is blind, you crazy fool…” but I had just whispered in her ear that I thought for such a big man he had a disproportionality small willy… Kind of hurt a little… but according to legend it was a particularly cold winter the year a male model stood for Michelangelo.

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(This photo was taken from Google as we were not allowed to take photos inside the Museum de Accademia)

Statues… Tick.

We were on our way to Venice, capital of damp.

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The best opening line I can come up with for my bit on Venice is do yourself a favour… find three spare days in your life to walk with a camera in one hand, a guidebook in the other and buy yourself a ticket to one of the prettiest and most fascinating cities on the planet.

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For a start the engineering of the place is a testament to out-of-the-box thinking. The original population of Venice consisted of refugees from Roman cities near Venice and from the undefended countryside, who were fleeing successive waves of Germanic and Hun invasions. In a way a bit like the Cinque Terre on the Italian Riviera. Except rather than build your home on the edge of a cliff, Venice is built on an archipelago of 117 islands formed by 177 canals in a shallow lagoon, connected by 409 bridges. The only way for the Barbarians to get to them was across muddy water.

“Hey Fritz, wir have a problem…Dia dam cleaver Romans have outsmarted uns again… Nicht worry Helmut, what until we start manafacturing cars”

Even though there are no historical records that deal directly with the founding of Venice, tradition and the available evidence have led several historians to agree that the city is identified with the dedication of the first church, that of San Giacomo at the islet of Rialto (Rivoalto, “High Shore”), which is said to have been at the stroke of noon on 25 March 421AD

What is remarkable is how the Venetians managed to then expand their waterlogged world. If you don’t have dry land to build on then your only way is to create it. Unlike today, where would simply get dredges and bulldozers to reclaim land to build on, the Venetians did this by constructing a closely spaced network of wooden piles. Most of these piles are still intact today after centuries of submersion, literally holding up the foundations of the city. The brick and stone sitting above these footings creates the beautiful buildings seen today.

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It’s all damn clever really, the piles penetrate a soft layer of sand and mud until they reach a much harder layer of compressed clay. Because they are submerged in oxygen-poor conditions, the wood does not decay as rapidly as on the surface.

Most of these piles were made from trunks of alder trees, a wood noted for its water resistance. The alder came from the westernmost part of today’s Slovenia (resulting in the barren land of the Kras region), and in two regions of Croatia. I read somewhere that Russian larch was imported to build foundations too, so all in all there is a massive forest of trees under the city.

We decided after researching accommodation options that we were best to stay out of the city itself, a real shame given the charm of the place at night… but being on a motorbike has its downsides as well as its upsides. One such downside is our gear, which is evenly spread over the bike in five pieces of luggage, including two side boxes that are not the easiest to move, main bag behind Nicola, camping bag on top, tank bag…. this, on top of our helmets, protective gear and boots. So all in all, unless we wanted to load up like a couple of donkeys we are best to simply ride in from a campsite 15 minutes away, park the bike in a free bike-spot next to the train station and walk. We have promised ourselves a return with a small bag to do the nighttime experience.

There is a strange modern design that seems to stump the unwary traveller coming in on a train. On the main bridge crossing over from the station to the first island there is no ramp for the huge luggage cases people bring for their romantic weekend. The bridge is one big curved staircase, so you are forced to pick your case up and struggle in your best Venice frock and shoes to the top, have a breather and give getting down a go without breaking something below the hips. You see the boyfriends’ and husbands’ faces, the “oh bloody great, who designed this ridicules bridge” when they realise they are going to have to muster the strength of Hercules to tackle their partners’ wardrobe changes…

Option two, take a water taxi and again muster the strength of Hercules to lift the wad of cash required to pay for it. Either way it’s going to sting because coming to Venice is not for the person thinking they are in for a cheap holiday. You soon realise after spending some time in the city why it’s so expensive. For a start, sit on the main city canal with a sandwich and bottle of beer and watch the way it ticks and goes about its business; everything from delivering milk to collecting the garbage has to be done by boat as being stuck in the middle of a bay, they is no other option.

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We took the public ferry that traverses the canal on our first day so we could see the manmade labyrinth of buildings that make up the banks of this fascinating city. All the buildings that we saw seemed to have been individually designed with meticulous care to compliment the building neighbouring, opposite and the city as a whole. Everything just seems to work really well. Give anywhere enough time to establish a routine and it will generally establish a unique way to tackle the challenges of being what some would consider a logistical nightmare.

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One of the only things we both noticed, or rather our noses noticed, was at low tide there seemed to be a slightly pungent smell wafting in the air coming from the direction of the mud flats. A bit like the smell associated with bore water or mild rotten eggs. Perhaps the pollution washed out from the city over the past sixteen hundred years is something that the local council would prefer not to talk about but I would be very nervous if I fell into the water as it looks a bit like boarding school bathwater.

One of the lovely surprises to us was the glassware sold in many places in the city, from the tiny family-run glassblowers to the mass-produced. Had we not been on the bike perhaps we could have been persuaded into a purchasing something to forevermore collect dust on the mantelpiece. But at least we could genuinely decline the kind offers to give us discount, as we don’t have room to collect teaspoons let alone glassware.

The other prevalent and interesting local specialty is the carnival masks that the venetians seem to sell in every tenth shop you pass. From the well-known, phantom of the opera style ‘hide an eye and you’ll never recognize me’, to the ones used by doctors during the plague. It is said that the Carnival of Venice was started from a victory of the “Serenissima Repubblica” against the Patriarch of Aquileia, Ulrico in the year 1162. In the honor of this victory, the people started to dance and make reunions in San Marco Square. As far as I can tell the mask was worn to disguise the wearer, but everything I have read on exactly why a mask seems a bit ambiguous. Apparently, this festival became official in the Renaissance, however, under the rule of the King of Austria, the festival was outlawed entirely in 1797 and the use of masks became strictly forbidden.

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After a long absence of a couple of hundred years the Italian government in 1979 decided to bring back the history and culture of Venice, and sought to use the traditional Carnival as the centerpiece of its efforts. The redevelopment of the masks began as the pursuit of some Venetian college students for the tourist trade. Today, approximately 3 million visitors come to Venice every year for Carnival. One of the most important events is the contest for la maschera più bella (“the most beautiful mask”) on the last weekend of the Carnival, a panel of international costume and fashion designers judge the best.

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The Plague doctors mask ‘Medico della peste,’ is an entirely different kettle of fish. Charles de Lorme, who was personal physician to the French King, Louis XIII, designed a mask that had a long beak as a method of preventing the spread of disease, while treating bubonic plague victims. The mask was often white, consisting of a hollow beak stuffed with herbs and other potions to prevent the plague entering.

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Charles de Lorme describes the mask as follows in his own words:
“The nose half a foot long, shaped like a beak, filled with perfume with only two holes, one on each side near the nostrils, but that can suffice to breathe and to carry along with the air one breathes the impression of the drugs enclosed further along in the beak.

Can you fathom how brave this man was dealing with something that killed an estimated 25 million people, or 30–60% of the European population. The fact that he knew the consequences of trying to relive the pain and suffering of his patients but still got in there boots and all.
Anyway, he lived to a ripe old age of 94, in fact remarrying for the third time at 78 so he sounded like a character.

One other interesting fact about the plague, because it killed so many of the working population, wages rose and some historians have seen this as a turning point in European economic development.

We decided against buying one of these also, as I have personally never particular liked them enough to want one hanging on our wall at home or found the desire to wander around our local suburb sporting one as a fashion accessory. I do though appreciate them as been very nicely made and for some that come to Venice a must-buy. When you write something like that you have to quickly think back to all the homes you have entered of your friends and family trying to recall if you ever saw one hanging in the hallway… don’t want to offend…

We stopped at a man who radiated ‘gondolier’, very proud looking in his striped t-shirt and tight pants, when in Venice and all that…

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“Excuse me sir, how much would you charge us for a punt down a canal or two?”
“100 euros.”
“No sorry, you must have misunderstood me, we don’t want to go to the French Riviera and back…”
“I’m not, its 100 euros for 30 minutes.”
“You what… that’s more money than your president is making and that’s saying something.”
“You want a ride or not?”
“No.”
So we never experienced the gondola ride in Venice, but I’m sure it was very nice if you don’t mind becoming one of the city’s main attractions. Every time we saw somebody who had forked out the money, they seemed to be the center of attention for all the other tourists trying to get the perfect iconic shot of the Venetian waterway. We saw one poor couple looking very embarrassed gliding along the canal trying to be romantic. Having both sides of the bank and the bridge they were about to go under flanked with over two hundred people taking their photo kind of dashed the poor chap’s moment to whisper sweet nothings in her ear.

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Italy (Part 2)

Packing a small bag of clothes and getting on a train seemed a little strange at first as we actually had to watch the clock to make sure we caught it on time. We are so used to leaving whenever we’re ready and not having to wait for the sound of a little whistle from a man in a peculiar hat standing on a platform.

We had picked the perfect day to leave the bike in the workshop and head to the capital. It was 37 degrees for the second day in a row and we were, I would love to say as cool as cucumbers, but we had managed to book onto the slower train, which was void of any form of air-conditioning, so the journey was going to be warmer than expected. But saying that, it was nice with the windows pulled down giving a gentle breeze through the cabin, at least for the first part of the journey. What is impressive is the length of the tunnels that the train hurtles through on the way to Rome. We had entered one particularly long tunnel when the train came to a sudden stop about a minute into the gaping hole in the side of the mountain. There was an eerie silence and I could see people around me looking at one another; I guess for some people being trapped in a lift is unnerving, for others it’s train tunnels, personally I rather like the unusual and was enjoying looking out the window at the rock wall of the tunnel illuminated faintly with the cabin lights. Then I felt the air pressure in the cabin begin to change. It was a bit like when you are in a plane ready to land and your ears begin to pop. Nicola was reading her book on the iPad and looked up at me with a slightly pained expression. The pressure and pain were getting worse and now the whole cabin of people were holding their noises in what looked like a sneeze-in-unison. Then with absolutely no warning the cabin literally exploded… one of the high speed intercity trains on-route from Rome to Florence was passing us at 362kmph and at precisely one metre away on the parallel line, it was like a tornado and clap of thunder at the same time. For those not expecting this it was a rather startling event; the compression wave generated by a train traveling at that speed is massive and the resulting wind that entered the small box we were sitting in lifted everything not bolted down into the air so that we were all left covered in newspapers, dust and food wrappers. I could hear high pitched screaming in our cabin as the train passed, but that soon stopped after Nicola squeezed my hand and said I was embarrassing her.

This happened three more times in subsequent tunnels. Apparently bad things happen if two trains are traveling in opposite directions and one doesn’t stop… we learnt the slow trains always loose out.

Rome, where do you start… all roads lead there apparently so it’s easy to find. We arrived at lunchtime and had booked a little B&B just ten minutes by taxi from the train station. We had a list of sights we wanted to see and to start the Rome experience off with a bang we headed for the Colosseum to immerse ourselves in the rich history of the Roman Empire.

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The actual building over the past 2000 years seems to have fought as many battles to survive as were fought inside its huge stone walls.

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Construction of the Colosseum began under the rule of the Emperor Vespasian in around 70–72 AD, funded by the spoils taken from the Jewish Temple after the Siege of Jerusalem. Slightly controversial, given that it has such close connections with the Roman Catholic Church, as each Good Friday the Pope leads a torch-lit “Way of the Cross” procession that starts in the area around the Colosseum.

The Colosseum could hold between 50,000 and 80,000 spectators and was used for many events to please the people of Rome. Top of the billing was a good old-fashioned gladiatorial contest; men (and sometimes women) would fight in pairs or separately to become the victor in violent confrontations with other gladiators, wild animals, and condemned criminals. Most were slaves forced into the sport and if they did well and managed to keep their head, so to speak, could win their freedom. Some gladiators actually volunteered for the shear thrill of it, not only risking their legal and social standing but their lives by appearing in the arena, but as a result of a win could make a lot of money as well as fame. The games reached their peak between the 1st century BC and the 2nd century AD, finally declining during the early 5th century after the adoption of Christianity as state church of the Roman Empire in 380AD, although beast hunts (venationes) continued into the 6th century and some would argue continue today with the one remaining gladiatorial contest, bull fighting… where man and beast enter an arena and the crowds cheer violence and blood. But then that could be said for any sport really where fighting is concerned, take boxing for instance, where man fights man and the crowds cheer. Or now I think about it, ice hockey, where the fans feel duped if there isn’t at least one gloves-off and a good punch up. How far have we really come in two thousand years of ‘civilization’?

It wasn’t just about Gladiators as the Colosseum was also used for other public spectacles such as mock sea battles, where the bottom level was flooded and turned into a lake. They had animal hunts where exotic animals were shipped in from the empire and tragically shot with an arrow or butchered for a bit of fun. Public executions of condemned men were always a popular way to spend an afternoon with the kids. Re-enactments of famous battles that the Romans had won somewhere in the world and dramas based on Classical mythology, not so popular unless it involved a beheading or two. But the building ceased to be used for entertainment in the early medieval era. Over the years that followed it was used as housing, workshops, quarters for a religious order, a fortress, a quarry, a Christian shrine and finally a massive money maker with about 5 million visitors a year.

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Although in the 21st century it stays partially ruined because of damage caused by devastating earthquakes and stone-robbers, these days the Colosseum is an iconic symbol of Imperial Rome and is one of Rome’s most popular tourist attractions.

And what an attraction it is too, well worth the cover charge if any of the above floats your boat, there are not too many places left on earth where you can feel the drama etched into the stonework and see with your own eyes the brutal history of people that made their nation so powerful.

That was enough for one day, we had walked there and back which was about five kms on pavements and our feet were killing us, so we decided on a quiet beer and a pizza just around the corner from the hotel and an early night so as to be ‘tourist-fit’ for the next day.

At 6am we were up and ready… did our morning yoga session of putting our shoes on and holding the bend for an extra four seconds, camera batteries charged, SD cards empty, water bottle full, cash in wallet, breakfast of coffee and croissant… Rome here we come for day two…

First off the checklist was the Trevi Fountain, built in 1762 by Nicola Salvi, the winner of a competition organized by Pope Clement XII to have a new fountain built in place of an existing Roman one, which he thought insufficiently dramatic.

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A traditional legend, nobody knows since when, was that if visitors throw a coin into the fountain they are ensured a return to Rome, that’s if they wanted to come back. However, since 1954 after the American romantic comedy ‘Three Coins in the Fountain’ and consequently the Academy Award-winning song by the same name, things changed. (‘Change’… get it?… wasted)

Now people throw three coins and pretty much wish for what they like because as much as 800,000 euros (more than a million U.S. dollars) is tossed into the fountain each year. To keep the thieves at bay it’s collected each morning. The charity Caritas uses the funds to run food and social programs in the city and even opened a supermarket for the needy.

Nicola and I tossed our six coins into the fountain and made a wish, which was that we had kept them for a coffee, but alas think of the poor and needy…

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Trevi Fountain…Tick.

And we were off for the second stop on the tour-de-Rome, we were heading in a straight line to the Vatican City, world’s smallest country and one of the world’s richest in historical artifacts and works of art.

Before one can enter the city one has to go through a body and bag scanning stop so they can pull out the crazies carrying hand guns or hunting knifes.

The queue, as we discovered, more by chance than by magic, is at a low ebb around 10.23 am when it was less than 17 km long, so we got to the head within the hour; show up before or after and it seemed to grow considerably with waits up to three hours. I went first dropping my small camera bag on the conveyer belt and walked into the waiting arms of a rather serious faced policeman, with sunglasses and gun, to give me a body search. Nicola was right behind me and the last I remember was her dropping the small backpack consisting of sun cream, camera, water, tissues, etc., onto the scanner before all hell broke loose. Now, I’m not saying she was arrested exactly as I did promise her Dad I would take care of her, but how was I to know she had a big hunting knife with her. The truth is everyone was surprised and when Nicola was asked, “why are you carrying a hunting knife into the Vatican City?”, she was truthfully unsure. Well, I forgot it was in there… didn’t I… we use it to cut up tomatoes and baguettes for picnics and besides I had no idea we were going to go through more security than Bagdad airport.

It only took the shocked look on her face and the small flutter of her eyes for them to release her from the headlock, remove the handcuffs and let her get up off the floor.

I stayed well out of it, as I decided a big hairy boyfriend getting involved at this stage would only aggravate the situation, and besides Nicola had them laughing within minutes and had decided to tell the truth about it being for picnics. They bought her story and released her, thank the Lord as we could have been there for weeks. Nicola came up with a very quick and clever idea, finding a man selling gelati and drinks outside the gates. He agreed to look after the knife for her, as it was not a first time request from a desperate tourist to look after a sharp object.

Once you are inside the Vatican City, it’s the pure indulgent grandeur of the place that slaps you in the face. Looking out over St Peter’s Square at the Basilica is awe inspiring, but Nicola and I have seen so many extraordinary monuments to God that another big Cathedral had lost its wow factor. Perhaps had it been the only huge building dedicated to the God of the Christians that we had seen in Europe, the wow factor would have been greater. What hits you next is the shear weight of numbers that pour into the country the size of a small dairy farm, with a population of 800. With an estimated daily average number of visitors of over 17,000, there is a certain feeling one gets that we were being herded like cattle, which I completely understand needs to happen, as with that many people wanting to take a look at the Pope’s hangout it could end up becoming chaotic.

What is interesting is the Vatican City was only established as an independent state in 1929 by the Lateran Treaty, signed by Cardinal Secretary of State Pietro Gasparri, on behalf of Pope Pius XI and by Prime Minister Benito Mussolini on behalf of King Victor Emmanuel III of Italy. I know what you are thinking, this is fascinating stuff, but I always thought the Holy See had been independent for a lot longer than that.

So in short there are two parts to see, the free part, which are St Peter’s Square and the Constantinian Basilica of St. Peter where many believers of the Catholic faith head to for some intimacy with their God. For some it is a day out with the children, grab a postcard with a smiling picture of the pope and on the way home have a slice of pizza before downloading the photos onto the laptop. Vatican City, tick.

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Then there is the cash-cow and the Vatican’s main source of income, the Museum, or as the Italians like to call it, Musei Vaticani.

From St Peter’s, turn left out of the city, through the gates, past the African gentlemen selling knockoff handbags, scarves and tourist tat. Talk about a blatant lack of respect to the designers of French and Italian leatherwear. They may as well camp outside the Yves Saint Laurent personal home and sell their cheap gear. They act like meercats on the prairie, every time there is a sniff of police they lift their heads, make a strange call to one another, pack and wrap the whole set-up in under three seconds and merge with the crowd so you would be hard pressed to distinguish them from the other one thousand people walking between the two places. But what I find surprising is watching the people who buy these rip-off products. What does that tell you about them, apart from the obvious, which is they plainly can’t afford the original… but that they seem to have a clear conscience of what is tantamount to stealing and would go home pretending they have an original. Well, you’re not exactly going to wander into your local bar, get a nice comment on the bag over your shoulder and then say you bought it off the pavement from an African gentleman in Rome for a fraction of the price. Or perhaps they do… but who am I to judge.

The sad part for Yves Saint Laurent, and all the other designers that have been targeted by these rip off merchants, is that when somebody does actually go out and spend $2,000 on a handbag, which incidentally I find amazing that people would spend that to impress others, they then actually look cheap because everybody who sees you with it immediately thinks it’s a rip off anyway. You can’t win…

Where was I, oh yes… turn left past the pizza and drinks sellers and you hit another queue, this time longer that the first. Wait two hours, for those who did not know you can book your tickets online, before reaching the front…. Pay 12.50 euros and head through the scanners, watch Nicola have flashbacks of being rugby tackled to the ground and you are in the museum of museums displaying works from the immense collection built up by the Roman Catholic Church throughout the centuries, including some of the most renowned classical sculptures and most important masterpieces of Renaissance art in the world.

The museum was founded by Pope Julius II in the early 16th century to hold the collection that began with one marble sculpture, purchased 500 years ago. The sculpture of Laocoön and his Sons was discovered 14 January 1506, in a vineyard near the basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome. Pope Julius II sent two very knowledgeable chaps, called Giuliano da Sangallo and Michelangelo Buonarroti (one of them you will have heard of) who were working at the Vatican at the time, to examine the discovery. On their recommendation, the pope immediately purchased the sculpture from the vineyard owner. The pope put the sculpture of Laocoön and his Sons on public display at the Vatican exactly one month after its discovery. Not many people know that.

The collection of works is enormous and it is calculated that if you were to spend one minute looking at every piece it would take you twelve years to see the lot. Now admittedly you would know the collection possibly better than the museum’s curator, but your feet would be killing you so I wouldn’t recommend you try. Over 5 million people visit each year (do the math) so the place gets busy. That’s particularly evident when you begin the pilgrimage towards the Sistine Chapel with its ceiling decorated by Michelangelo. While you make your way though what seems like endless mile after mile of corridors, it takes on a new level of packed, pushed and prodded. We had managed to get bunched in with a very noisy group that were from a country that seemed to have an accent with a high-pitched screech and also appeared not to sell any deodorant. But we were here to see the creation of a genius, why let a few high-pitched squealers with smelly underarms spoil the day.

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There is a sign at the entrance to the chapel that says “No Photos and no talking, this is a place of worship”, completely understandable but we were still hearing a drone of whispering.

When you get in the place is packed, like one of the chicken farms in a documentary, you don’t have much choice but to be taken along with the flow of people being slowly pushed out of the door at the other end of the room. To get over 15,000 people through in a day you can’t afford to dilly-dally. Then slowly the whispering rises in volume to a chatter, which is cut off with a very loud, frustrated security guard, who then shouts in a robotic Italian accent “Noooooo photos, nooooo talking”. This made absolutely no difference, as how the hell do you stop three busloads of Japanese tourists taking photos on their iPhones, let alone keeping quiet, it’s not going to happen, so the man kept shouting “Noooooo photos, nooooo talking”…

Then you look up in the slightly gloomy room, which we personally found a little underwhelming. It’s still an incredible feat of craftsmanship and Mike did an excellent job, given he was upside down for 4 years, but it’s not the most incredible work of art I have ever seen. I guess it’s the hype surrounding this huge masterpiece that is part of the attraction. What Nicola and I did both expected before we went in was that it would be a round chapel, not something you would associate with a boarding school dining hall. We were also surprised that it was part of the museum and not the Basilica… always learning.

We spent a good four hours looking at a fraction of what the museum has to offer before we got “AO” (art overload) and called it a day. There are only so many paintings and nude Roman chaps one can admire before you start to dream of them, which is possibly not a good thing to admit to anyone.

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There is a little interesting fact that I will share with you… did you know that on 22 January 1506 Pope Julius II founded the Pontifical Swiss Guard, who were recruited Swiss mercenaries, as part of his army. He hired these strapping young lads as part of his personal bodyguards and over the past 600 years they have continued to fulfill that function for subsequent popes. At the end of 2005, the Guard had 134 members. Recruitment is arranged by a special agreement between the Holy See and Switzerland. All recruits must be Catholic, unmarried males with Swiss citizenship who have completed their basic training with the Swiss Army with certificates of good conduct, must be between the ages of 19 and 30, and be at least 174 cm (5 ft 9 in) in height. Members are armed with small arms and the traditional halberd (also called the Swiss voulge which is a long pole with an axe and rather pointy spike). They are all trained in body guarding tactics, which is obviously important given what they are there for. Personally, I always associate bodyguards with dark glasses and dark suits and not bright blue, yellow and red bloomers giving off the appearance of court jesters. But if that’s the preferred uniform for the Pope, then who am I to disagree, and besides, they look very fetching and I’m sure given the occasion could chop you in half, so I thought better than to point and make fun.

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It’s hard to summarize all the wonderful things we saw in Rome over the couple of days there, the Spanish steps at sunrise, void of tourists, was a personal moment that gave me a second to stop and smell the roses so to speak and reflect on how extraordinary man can be when he puts his mind to it.

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I say that for the purpose of introducing you to one of the highlights of the trip so far for me… we have seen so many links to the past that I could write for a week and only just get to the front doors. But it’s this place that we walked into next that sent a shiver down my spine and gave me that moment when I stopped, looked up and said nothing, not because I had nothing to say (which you know would be a first) but because I was, as an old British expression describes, “gob smacked”.

The Pantheon has changed very little over the past two thousand years and is still used today as a church, not as a tourist trap making money because it can. It costs nothing to enter and in some ways makes entering it a more personal experience.

The original building was commissioned by Marcus Agrippa during the reign of Augustus as a temple to all the gods of ancient Rome (the name Pantheon is derived from the Greek words pan meaning all and theos meaning god), and was rebuilt by the emperor Hadrian in about 126 AD. The reason it is so well preserved is that in 609 AD, the Byzantine emperor Phocas gave the building to Pope Boniface IV, who converted it into a Christian church and consecrated it to Sancta Maria ad Martyres, now known as Santa Maria dei Martiri, and since then it has been used as a Christian place of worship.

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The building is circular with a portico of large granite Corinthian columns (eight in the first rank and two groups of four behind) under a pediment. A rectangular vestibule links the porch to the rotunda, which is under a coffered concrete dome, with a central opening (oculus) to the sky, which served as a symbolic connection between the temple and the gods. Rainwater enters but drains away through 22 almost-invisible holes in the sloping marble floor. A remarkable fact about this dome is that its diameter is exactly equal to the Pantheon’s interior height of 43.3m. Almost two thousand years after it was built, the Pantheon’s dome is still the world’s largest unreinforced concrete dome.

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If you are a door lover, which Nicola and I have become on this trip, then you can’t be more impressed than when you are standing at the front entrance to this place. Taking in the massive original Roman doors, made of solid wood covered in bronze, you get the feeling you are entering a special place. The tombs of two kings alongside that of Raphael are also housed in this extraordinary ancient monument.

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Looking at the wonderful decorations and incredible feats of engineering that took place so long ago once again makes what we build today pale into insignificance. To give you some idea as to the lengths in which they built these monuments and to man’s capability, take a look at what went into just getting the grey granite columns that were actually used in the Pantheon’s pronaos to Rome. They were in fact quarried in Egypt at Mons Claudianus in the eastern mountains. Each was 39 feet (12 m) tall, five feet (1.5 m) in diameter, and 60 tons in weight. These were then dragged more than 100 km from the quarry to the river on wooden sledges. They were then floated by barge down the Nile River when the water level was high during the spring floods, and then transferred to vessels to cross the Mediterranean Sea to the Roman port of Ostia. There, they were transferred back onto barges and pulled up the Tiber River to Rome. After being unloaded near the Mausoleum of Augustus, the site of the Pantheon was still about 700 meters away. From there it was necessary to either drag them or to move them on rollers to the construction site when workers could then spend months on chiseling them to shape to make the beautiful columns.

Can you imagine the cost to do this nowadays, without the benefit of slaves as opposed to machines and unions, let alone the skills needed… Remarkable.

I often wonder what the generations in the future will have in the way of 21st century architecture, we build everything so cheap and temporary nowadays that I don’t think there will be much for them to look back at and say “what a marvel”. I guess the last great builders that spared nothing and built things to last were the Victorians, so in a couple of millennia they perhaps will be the link to the past. It’s all in context really when you think about it. History lessons in two thousand years will look at us going to the moon, which in our lifetime was a massive feat, as not that impressive really, the equivalent of the Romans moving a 60 ton block of granite from one side of the Mediterranean to the other. You have to really think about what was involved at the time and how amazing humans are at working out problems and overcoming them.

Our trip out of Rome was slightly tarnished with something nearly everyone we met warned us about and that’s pickpockets. There are signs in every station and bus stops in the capital warning you to watch your stuff. We were rushed to the train station due to a huge demonstration in the streets, something about a bank had stolen all their savings and the CEO was sitting in the French Rivera on a super yacht (don’t get me started). We weren’t actually sure what the anger was about but there were thousands of union people shouting something rude to the Government.
During this crazy ten minutes being pushed and pulled in the train station somebody had managed to get there grubby little hands into our camera bag which was over my shoulder and pull out our camera and iPhone. Nicola thank God had just downloaded the day before’s photos so we had an empty camera. Luckily for us they didn’t find the laptop, iPad or wallet, so the reality is we came off lightly considering. We have a spare camera, which Nicola uses, and we don’t use the phone apart from the address and calendar functions. We live and learn…

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Italy (Part 1)

We left the next morning after a delicious breakfast of hot French coffee and freshly baked croissants and rode to their neighboring country Italy, where there is more history and old architecture than in the whole collection of the Harry Potter books (hard to believe, but true!)

When you land by plane from your home country on an overseas holiday, everything seems new and different and you immediately feel like you have arrived. On a bike however, riding from one country to another, especially when there are no borders, it’s hard to know sometimes whether you have actually made the transition. There are some old border booths, where you would have once pulled over to show your passport and get those stamps everyone enjoys collecting no matter how many you have. But with Europe open, it’s like one continued journey; number plates change and the language obviously, eventually as you get deeper into the country the architecture, food and then the subtle changes begin to appear. But in Italy it’s sudden and it’s all due to the way they drive. I actually believe the drivers take great pride in being completely incompetent. It’s a bit like dodgems at the fairground, except the time limit doesn’t stop and you can’t get out for a rest. I have never seen so many rude hand gestures towards other drivers before and it’s quite exciting to be involved in a mass merging situation on a big three lane roundabout. For the first time on the trip I had Nicola on the back joining in and giving rude had signals to cars and bikes determined to crash into us. I’m not sure quite what a hand flicking under your chin actually means but I have a feeling it’s not polite.

We headed to the Italian Riviera to see the Cinque Terre (five consecutive, small, cliff-hugging towns on the Mediterranean). Nicola has done some great research on places to see in Italy and I’m very happy to take her lead when it comes to this country. And after driving into the area I was very glad she had made the decision to make this our first stop.

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With rolling hills and breathtaking views down to the five small fishing villages, precariously stuck to the cliffs on or above the ocean, famous for the treks between them, all in all it is one of the most picturesque places we have visited so far on the trip.

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The villages were basically built in the most inhospitable area, places they figured the marauding barbarians would give up trying to ransack when they saw where they had decided to nest.

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We found a great campsite just outside the main town of Levanto, the gateway to the treks and the train that passes through the five villages. Easy to get to by bike, which is more than can be said for the other places. As we pulled in we saw the smiling faces of a lovely German couple, now living in Tasmania, who were on a two-week motorbike trip.

Anybody who greets you with a big smile, a glass of red wine and a “we must celebrate” line, becomes new best friends. Uwe and Marina, thanks for the great intro.

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Erecting anything let alone a tent, after a few glasses of red wine on an empty stomach is a challenge… but we managed ‘maganifacentlayyyy’ and headed off to find food before we passed out.

If you ever decide to go to Italy be prepared for a serious intake of carbohydrate with bread, pasta and pizza being the stable diet for breakfast, lunch and dinner. I can’t say Italian food has ever been my first choice, if I was to line up at a smorgasbord offering alternatives such as Indian, Thai, French, Spanish or Lithuanian. But I was excited to try pasta made by some master chef that has mama’s recipe which has been secretly passed down through the generations. But to my surprise it was no better than what an Italian cooks up in Australia or Britain. What is the most important recipe appears to be one that starts with the word ‘fresh’ and the pasta dish we had was certainly that. We also really enjoyed the local specialty of the area, fresh anchovies with a squeeze of lemon, absolutely delicious, worth the flight to have that again. However, what did surprise us was the hike in fuel, wine and food in Italy, the three most important provisions on a motorbike trip… and in that order now that I think about it. I was for some reason thinking it would be a little cheaper than France but Italy is quite expensive, especially around the tourist hot spots.

We spent the next day taking a look at some of the villages and surrounding area and decided to stop at one of the small villages Vernazza for lunch. We teamed up with our new friends and the four of us took about two hours to get there due to the fact that all the roads were blocked for repairs, but that was in some ways the best part for us as it gave us a great look into the surrounding area that normally one would miss.

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It’s a lovely little place full of charm, small restaurants selling pizza and pasta, small shops selling Italian brick-a-brack and two hundred thousand tourists that came in on the train and tourist ferries. It was heaving, like a busy market on a Sunday morning full of gelati-licking children and people wandering around with slices of pizza hanging out of their mouths. Then there were the annoying families that walk side-by-side in a line towards you like a rugby scrum. There should be a law passed that tourist families have to walk in a single file and not stop in the most inconvenient places as they fumble for their camera. (Ok… I caught myself just prior to a rant; we don’t want another one of those so soon after the last one).

It’s a bit ironic really when you think that the original settlers to these villages built them to avoid meeting up with uncouth, unsophisticated barbarians… but then open their doors to tourists from Russia (did I think that or write that down?)

However, we did manage to find a relatively quiet rock to sit on in the harbor and had a lovely, well-earned swim in the cool waters of the Mediterranean. Luckily the hoards had not brought their swimmers so we had the water practically to ourselves.

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All was going well for the town until a few years ago, on 25 October 2011, Vernazza was struck by torrential rains, massive flooding and mudslides that left the town buried in over 4 metres of mud and debris, causing over 100 million euros worth of damage. We saw the photos and it was incredible that they had managed to get the place looking as ship shape as it was considering the damage caused.

Next stop the city of Pisa… famous for the thousands of tourists that stand in front of a 55-metre tower and get a photo of themselves holding it up. Except for the day we were there; we saw three thousand tourists holding it up with a hand placed flat and one American that got confused and thought that they would get a photo of themselves hugging it, which kind of looked silly as the tower becomes obscured, but he was trying to be different. Bless.

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The tower’s tilt began during construction, caused by an inadequate foundation on ground too soft on one side to properly support the structure’s weight.
One of the construction workers was heard to say…
“Don’t want to be a stick in the mud, but I think we are going to have problems later down the track if we keep building on this soft stuff…just saying guys.”
But nobody listened to the poor lad and the tilt increased in the decades before the structure was completed. Construction of the tower occurred in three stages across 344 years, but the tilt gradually increased until the structure was stabilized and the tilt partially corrected by efforts in the late 20th and early 21st centuries.

On the lad’s gravestone there is a small inscription in Latin that says, “He was right and we were wrong, but thank God we didn’t listen because it has become a massive tourist attraction due to our little cockup and is making the city a packet.” Apparently it says that but I can’t remember where I read that fact…

So basically Pisa is a small walled cathedral, dome and a leaning tower, which attracts the tourists in their droves to come and eat gelati, get the obligatory ‘holding up the tower’ photo and pay the 18 euros, wait in line for six hours, to climb 296 steps to get a view from the top.

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Fortunately, Nicola and I were on the same wavelength and decided that we couldn’t be bothered. It was a scorching hot day, and we instead enjoyed a quick photo, quick gelati and a quick escape. One fact that I would like to leave you with is how much the tower actually leans. It surprised me to learn that the tower is displaced horizontally 3.9 metres (12 ft 10 in) from where it would be if the structure were perfectly vertical.

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Inland it is, Florence our next destination. Famed for containing ‘the greatest concentration of universally renowned works of art in the world’ according to UNESCO.

On-route to Florence, after Pisa, things started to change in the way we were both thinking about the direction this trip was taking. The heat was now becoming unbearable and while the temperature gauge climbed from a relatively chilly 25 degrees in the morning to 37.5 degrees Celsius at midday, we made the decision that we couldn’t go further south as our original plan had taken us. Motorbike clothing is not something you wear for winning fashion awards, it’s there to serve one purpose and that’s in the unlikely event of an accident. It’s a bit like travel insurance, painful to pay, but worth it in the event of a theft. We were both suffering, as above 30 degrees there is no wind chill factor to speak of, it’s just hot wind so putting your visor up is not helpful. We decided to make the final decision when we arrived in Florence over a cold beer, rather than during the heat of the day when decisions can get muddled with the emotion of physically melting.

We decided to camp in a campground only 15-minute walk to the old part of the city as for the first time since meeting them in Evora, Portugal, we were going to hook up with our American cycling friends RJ and Joe who are crossing Europe for charity. As fate would have it and by shear coincidence we happened to all be arriving in Florence on the same day after 6 weeks of independent route planning. We rode in and met them literally 30 minutes after they had cycled in. I don’t think if we had arranged it, it could have been any better planed, but that’s life sometimes.

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Dinner in the ancient part of the city was a lovely surprise as the place has more charm than an old Bentley on a country road. It’s like wandering around a museum with every corner being held up by history and people going about their business in a manner that oozes cool. We both immediately fell for this place and could not wait to get a day’s sightseeing in to explore the places recommended in the guidebooks.

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We all have our favourites and things that we like to see; Nicola had hers and I had mine. I was excited to see some Da Vinci creations, and Nicola was excited to see a naked 17ft man made of marble. But firstly we would need to drop the bike into the dealer again to get the traction control fixed. We spoke to the people in the UK who promised that this time it was a sure thing and they thought they now knew the problem. We will see…

After a delightful evening spent with the boys, we headed back to the camp for a good night’s sleep, which lasted all of 15 seconds. Unbeknown to us, there was a nightclub next door to the campground. Apparently the managers had forgotten to mention this small detail to the 350 people camping that night. It kicked off at around 11.00pm and continued well into the early hours of the morning. Nevertheless, we did manage to drag ourselves out of bed in the morning to bid farewell to the lads who were off on a big day’s ride heading east towards Turkey.

Nicola and I headed into town for breakfast and brilliant day sightseeing.

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The first thing that strikes you when you walk into Florence, apart from the incredible variety of buildings, is the number of naked men there are sculpted from fine white marble. If they’re not staring forlornly staring into space then they seemed to be killing someone with a big sword, which not something you would expect to do naked.

“Hey Samson, fancy a fight”?
“Sure, only if we take all our cloths off first and then wrestle for a while”.

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We had a look at a fascinating exhibition of marble sculptures, housed in Florence’s City Hall. The Palazzo Vecchio is one of the most important secular buildings in Florence and one of the city’s top attractions. The Palazzo was constructed in the late 13th/early 14th century in order to house the government offices for the newly formed Florentine Republic. The sculptures, hundreds of them, were on display in the many magnificently decorated rooms, but again what was surprising was the number of them that were naked men.

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Italians were certainly a confident lot, can’t quite understand it as it would be considered a bit odd these days. I’m not sure how I would feel if my Dad had a naked statue made of himself and placed it outside his house in the village where he lives. It would certainly make the local paper I’m sure and perhaps be brought up in the village meeting.

But saying that it became evident that everyone in the city of Florence wanted to see ‘the David’. We had to book our tickets three days in advance as he is possibly the most popular attraction on show. I take that back Dad; don’t let me stop you if you get the urge, you might make some money out of it. Not being able to get in for a few days worked out rather well because in the interim we could jump on a train, head to Rome and spend a couple of days sightseeing while we waited for the bike to be fixed. The rest of the day was spent seeing just a few of the main sights of Florence, too many to mention in a blog, but the photos will shed light on the things we visited. It’s a nice feeling to know we will be back in a few days as normally we would simply continue our journey and bid farewell wandering if there was anything we missed. Funny thing is somebody who has been there before you always mentions after you have left if you saw the “big thing on the river next to the round thing around the corner from the brown thing”… “No we missed that.”
“Oh God, you missed it… Well we saw it”.

Rome, here we come.

French Riviera

As a child I have very fond memories of the summer holidays we spent in the south of France in places like St Tropez, apart from the drive south to the sun and sand with my older sister taking delight in giving me hell, as she insisted that the back seat of the car was not a place for 12-year-old brothers… such fun…

However, the long journeys there and back from Germany, where we lived at the time, have been wiped from my memory by the electro-shock treatment and years of weekly counseling sessions where I had to pretend I was floating on a cloud and swimming in cool water. I’m only kidding, you were a lovely sister really, I remember the fun times too, when we all camped and swam in the near perfect water of the Mediterranean on our daily excursions to the beach. I received a metal detector for my birthday one holiday and used to love going to the beach to find coins that tourists had dropped while changing into their swimmers. I think I used to make quite good money out of it and perhaps could look into that for a career change… “get it?… change”… Wasted…

So it had been years since I had last visited the area and the flowers and butterflies were out again for the end of spring and the arrival of summer as we pulled in to St Tropez. It seems much smaller than I remember, but then I think everything does when you revisit from your childhood.

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After looking a couple of hotels we decided that camping was our best option. Nicola hopped off in the center of town to take a look at the hotel tariff for one place and said in the intercom that she thought there must be a typo. The suite was ten thousand euros per night and a smallest double was one thousand five hundred per night.

It’s not until you head to the harbor that you realise the reason for the ridiculous prices. If you want good views of the Earth then go to the moon, if you want good views of the some of the world’s mega-wealthy flaunting themselves, then head to St Tropez. It’s the sandpit in the playground for the billionaires, the multi-millionaires with their massive yachts and tightknit group of hangers-on to pull up in and shout… “look at me… I’m fricking loaded and I have no shame”.

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A 60 meter yacht (180 feet) can just get into the harbor as it’s relatively shallow as harbors go, so we saw in the bay at least twenty-something yachts on their anchors that couldn’t physically fit, which for the showoff factor is slightly disappointing. The owners have to come into town on their tenders and in some cases private helicopters that sit on the deck.

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When you consider the world’s longest private yacht is a breathtaking 180 meters, or just shy of twice the length of a football field, it gives you some idea of what we were looking at here. The boats that can fit inside the harbor are still massive and can range in price from 10 to 100 million euros. It’s the show pony and star attraction for the poor people like us to see how the other half live. It’s completely out of this world and I really had to hold back from shouting… “How did you do it?” It’s phenomenal to imagine that if you were to believe the media there is a still a worldwide financial crisis on at the moment. But then there are 70-odd yachts sitting in just one of the many harbors of the French coast that are worth billions of dollars collectively, so it seems strange that there is a huge demand for these boats and the mega yacht industry is booming to build them at the moment.

We discovered after watching for a while that the bigger the boat and the more money you appear to have, the more one has to act in a serious manner. Stepping off one’s multi-million dollar boat has to be done properly, you can’t just simply put your shoes on and walk down the gangplank. For those that might feel the urge to go out and buy a 50 million dollar boat please take note on the correct procedure:
1) Stand proudly at the rear of one’s yacht looking dismissively at all of the tourists looking back at you with a red wine in hand poured into a ridiculously oversized glass.
2) Laugh as loudly as you can when somebody from your group says anything remotely funny. Giving the impression you are simply having the time of your life is crucial for the wow-factor and the louder you can achieve this, the better the effect will be.
3) But the timing is critical, as soon you look at the minions staring back at you on the harbor side, with wide-open mouths of envy, you must stop laughing immediately and take on a stern and serious demeanor, the one your have practiced countless times in the mirror.
4) Dinner jacket and cravat optional, but white pants a must.
5) Make a flippant motion to your ten-crew with your hand indicating that soon you will be departing the vessel.
6) Have your crew then flap about for a few minutes tending to the gangplank and readying your personal protection team, who also take on an exceedingly serious look, so that your audience can prepare themselves for your grand arrival.
7) Take one’s Amazonian tall super-model girlfriend by the hand and make sure you are the first to slowly ooze from the yacht to the gentle click-click of the tourist cameras waiting to be close to the one and only.
8) Step slowly into your awaiting brand-new Lamborghini with security crew following in matching-colour Range Rover. Or walk into one of the dozens of restaurants lining the dock with mains and desert prices that most would need to mortgage their apartment to afford.
9) Return to boat in similar fashion.

We watched for a while and saw a group of about ten attractive girls letting their hair down on the rear deck of either daddy’s or boyfriend’s toy. I’m not being sexist to presume it was not one of theirs, if it had been then they would have taken their high heels off beforehand because multimillion-dollar boats and stiletto shoes don’t mix well together. Would love to have seen the repair bill to the perfect teak decks that the boat had before they turned the music up.

We took a stroll down the dock to where some of the bigger 60-meter boats were moored and had a chat with one of the crew from a boat called Slipstream, a really nice lad from the UK who had been with the boat for a couple of years. It was privately owned but was also chartered to people with lots of money. Simon Cowell from Idol had hired it, as had some other celebrities last year for a private week’s vacation. Our new friend told us the going price for the week was in the range of 500 to 600 thousand euros. Yep, and that’s without fuel, crew costs, food costs or mooring costs. So you can add another 150 thousand on top. Fuel costs fluctuate, but at cruising speed plus generators it burns the equivalent of 1000 dollars per hour. We saw one boat earlier that was 30 meters long and when it ran its engines at full speed it would cruise at 50 knots and burn 1600 euros per hour, which equates to just under 27 euros per minute.

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So with the feeling I was completely inadequate, we crawled into our tiny tent and fell asleep in a campground just outside the epicenter of the stupidly wealthy to the sound of popping champagne bottles across the water.

The next morning we woke, packed and departed to see the French Rivera on route to Monaco where we decided to stay the night. The coast road is delightful and well worth doing on a bike. But passing the massive mansions dotted along the coast from Cannes to Nice and seeing the “toys” moored in the private harbors brings that “how the hell did they do it” feeling back.

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We stopped in Cannes for lunch, got the photo one needs for the “been there” collection, standing in front of Palais des Festivals et des Congrès, a disappointing architectural put-together of a building commonly known as “The Bunker” that they use as the headquarters of the Cannes film festival. With the festival, which has its origins in the late 1930s and in a city with hundreds of architectural masterpieces, we were expecting to see something old and majestic, not something that could pass as a cat-food factory.

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But we were rather impressed with the InterContinental Carlton Hotel, a super looking building constructed as a 343-room luxury hotel in 1911 designed by architect Charles Dalmas. What is not commonly known is that genius hotelier Henri Rujl came up with a great idea to attract British and Russian Aristocrats to his hotel. Apart from the obvious luxury, the building has two huge domes on the seaward side, which, according to legend, were inspired by the breasts of the most sought after woman in Europe, Carolina “La Bell” Otero; now here’s a character. To be honest, I’m not exactly sure of the difference between a courtesan and prostitute, but I am under the impression a courtesan chooses her clients more carefully, because Carolina was the top pick for some pretty powerful men. Within a short number of years, she was serving Prince Albert I of Monaco, King Edward VII of the United Kingdom, Kings of Serbia, and Kings of Spain as well as Russian Grand Dukes Peter and Nicholas, the Duke of Westminster, writer Gabriele D’Annunzio and a farm boy called Derrick.

Six men reportedly committed suicide after their love affairs with Otero ended, although this has never been substantiated beyond a doubt, it is a fact however, that two men did fight a duel over her. Apparently she had a “technique” that drove these men to literally queue to have time with her… something that is best left to the imagination. Regardless, I still think it was pretty nice of old Henri to honor Carolina by attaching her breasts to the top of his hotel.

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During the Cannes Film Festival the Carlton it is the most prestigious place to stay and the undisputed headquarters of motion picture industry deal-making groups that would all sit in the hotels lounges, smoking cigars, drinking expensive wine and slapping each other on the back, congratulating each other on how fabulous they all were.

Another interesting fact is, while staying at the Hotel Carlton during the 1955 Cannes Film Festival, Academy Award winning movie star Grace Kelly had an arranged meeting and photo shoot with Prince Rainier III of Monaco; they married in 1956.

We departed Cannes with the ever-increasing heat of the midday sun. With temperatures now into the high 20s it gave us the felling would have to perhaps rethink our original plan to head to Greece as slow moving traffic on a baking hot roads, covered in motorbike protective clothing is not the best combination for a comfortable cruising experience.

By the time we arrived in the very pretty town of Nice we had lost the will to live and were sweating like hunted wildebeest, deciding on a quick stop for a cold drink was about all we had the energy to do. Regardless of the fact that we were uncomfortably hot, journeys through unfamiliar areas are really exciting, every corner is like the unwrapping of a present at Christmas, (OK I agree my writing needs some work) but we saw some incredible scenery. It’s a journey like no other, roads tunneled through the rock faces of the Rivera Mountains, emerging into the bright sunshine as you head into the next small town or village. All the while, to your right you see the bright blue waters of the Mediterranean stretching into the distance, sparkling in the sunlight.

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It was rather wonderful to be going to a place I had heard and seen so much about but had never visited. Monaco has that certain mystique that I associate with somebody I really admire and look up to as a role model in my life. Admittedly, I may have occasionally miss-overheard the similarity between the two of us, but this place is James Bond territory. Dashing good looks built on the foundation of an athletic body sculpted from the physic of Zeus, along with the wit and charm of a MI5 agent. Fast cars, casinos, over-tall women whose large body parts had inspired domes on hotels, cocktails and exclusive parties…. and then I woke up from my imaginary little world when Nicola’s voice came through the headset, saying that we were about to cross the border to the second smallest country on earth.

The actual arrival was all of a bit of a surprise; one minute you are riding along dreaming of saving the world with a Swiss army knife and getting your mail delivered by Ms Money Penny and then all of a sudden you exit a large tunnel into the bright sunshine of Monaco, a country made up primarily of concrete, brick and marble, and the most densely populated on earth with an area of 2.02 km2 (0.78 sq mi) and a population of 36,371 (but in reality only 7000 are actually know as Monégasque or as they call themselves, locals).

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Monaco boasts the world’s highest GDP per capita at $153,177 and the lowest unemployment rate at 0% (wouldn’t that be nice) with over 48,000 workers commuting from France and Italy each day. I guess when you have the next fact in the bag you need people to serve you. Monaco has the highest number of millionaires and billionaires per capita in the world, as well as for the fourth year in a row, the world’s most expensive real estate market, at $58,300 per square meter, which would explain why the hotels are so expensive.

Something else that’s quirky about the place is its not a member of the EU, yet still uses the Euro as currency and pays for the French Police to look after the crime.

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Tourism is one of Monaco’s main sources of income with the attraction of its good weather and the Le Grand Casino de Monte Carlo, built in 1858, which incidentally the citizens of the country are forbidden to enter, the payoff for something I wish our Government would introduce, no income tax on individuals. The absence of a personal income tax has attracted a large number of wealthy “tax refugee” residents from European countries who derive the majority of their income from activity outside Monaco; celebrities such as Formula One drivers attract most of the attention, but the vast majority of them are less well-known business people. It has also become a major banking center, holding over €100 billion worth of funds.

And that is what becomes hugely apparent, the shear wealth that is literally bursting out of this place. We noticed the cars first; it was like looking at a massive a luxury car showroom that somebody had forgotten to lock. We passed four Lamborghinis in a line outside a restaurant as well as Ferraris and Porsches, you name it and it was on the road somewhere screeching around the city in 1st gear to give the engine a sound that screams, “Please for the love of god, change me into 2nd you stupid-showoff”.

I’m not even going to bother to mention the marina, apart from if you were to take all the boats in St Tropez and stretch them all a bit longer, throw some more body guards around the place, bring out the leggy blondes and voila, you are in the marina. I will mention one yacht that was there, well to be fair it was a small cruise liner. 140 meters long with a permanent mooring in the harbor… An Arab owns it who has a very, very large… “family”.

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We had a drive around the F1 track that takes up about 50% of the city and stopped in the epicenter for the bright and shiny people. With abnormally dark suntans and cosmetically enhanced parts of the body that should be pointing down and not up, we took a break to watch the spectacle in the small circle just outside the Casino.

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The sight of two young lads not much older than 20 years of age stop and get out of a Rolls-Royce Phantom Drophead Coupe with a price tag of around 600,000.00 euros kind of sums up what was going on, but it was seeing a Bugatti Veyron being parked by a man barely able to get out due the vast quantity of food he must have consumed for breakfast, made it worth hanging around for. Beautiful car after beautiful car pulled up outside casino, with men stepping out in every shade of suit and style of sunglasses, which was a bit odd given it was now night, but damn it looks ‘cool’ and besides, the pretty women on their arms were too busy looking around at all the other pretty women, praying that they were not in the same hideously overpriced gownless evening strap to notice.

After about 10 minutes we had had our fill and left, heading to our little hotel we had found high above the crazy world in the hills in a town called Eze; well known as a respite for people to escape the heat of the coast and have a quiet lunch in the tiny restaurants that are dotted about the place.
We had a great night’s sleep eventually, that was after the normally quite roads above Monaco had ceased being a place to test out one’s new supercharged sports car on the tight hairpins and lovely long straights. Nothing like the high pitched sound of a V10 being driven flat-chat on a quiet country road to lull you to sleep.

Incidentally, it was on one of these roads that winds it’s way down to the coast that there was a terrible tragedy on September 13, 1982; with Stéphanie her daughter in the car Princess Grace suffered a stroke, which caused her to drive her car off the serpentine road straight down the steep mountainside. The accident was on a hairpin that is now marked with a shrine. Grace was pulled alive from the wreckage, but had suffered such serious injuries that she was unconscious. She died the following day at the Monaco Hospital renamed Centre Hospitalier Princesse Grace. Her daughter suffered no lasting physical injuries.

All in all, we loved Monaco, it’s a fantastic place to watch the movers and shakers of the world spend our hard-earned pension funds and savings. Whether it is old money or new money collected legitimately or in many cases illegitimately, one thing that is truly the big overwhelming fear amongst this élite group is not how to spend it, but a far more important consideration, how they can keep it… as it is easier to be a poor man for a lifetime, than a rich man for only one day…

Arles and Provence

Finally the bike was ready; we received a call in the morning letting us know that we could collect it, so we raced into the city to arrive at the dealership before siesta at 1.00pm. I’m not sure I completely like the siesta time anymore. I get it and understand it’s a tradition and all that, but it’s really inconvenient and the more locals you talk to the more they seem to feel the same way. If you live around the corner from your place of work it would be nice to go home and put your feet up after a big lunch and glass of beer. However, many live at least an hour out of the city and don’t quite have enough time, let alone the cost, to make it worth the trip home. So there is a sort of “in-limbo” group of people wondering around at the same time each day with nothing to do as everything is closed.

We had a mission to pack our camp and get into the city to collect the bike prior to the lunchtime “sorry come back in four hours”. We decided the best way to do this was turn up and stand there in the garage and tap our feet while continually checking our watch and giving off the audible big-huff. “It’s working” Nicola said, as I gave a big sigh and checked my watch for the tenth time. The bike finally arrived out of the workshop and we could not get out of there fast enough.

We were mobile again and off over the mountains heading to the French Riviera as fast as the bike could take us. Not that tapas and paella got boring by any stretch of the imagination, but we were looking forward to continuing our journey and perhaps finding a good curry somewhere on route. Two hours to the border with France, two hours to Arles from there, where we decided to spend the night. Arles is famed for the incredible collection of Roman ruins that hold up the area’s economy with the thousands of tourists who visit each year. Most, I’m sure, would be heading south for the sun and beaches, but decide to have a cultural excursion to give the sunburn a chance to settle.

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Arles was also home to Vincent Van Gogh between 1888 and 1889. Not exactly his hometown for just under a year, but what is incredible is that he produced over 300 paintings in that time. He described Arles as a foreign country and wrote in a letter when arriving: “The Zouaves, the brothels, the adorable little Arlesiennes going to their First Communion, the priest in his surplice, who looks like a dangerous rhinoceros, the people drinking absinthe, all seem to me creatures from another world”

Not exactly the way I would have described it and I think Vincent was being a little harsh about the place, but I would imagine in his day it was perhaps different.

Another little fact about Van Gogh, apart from the one that everyone knows, i.e. the chopping off of his earlobe and some more, while visiting prostitutes at a brothel on Rue du Bout d’Aeles and then wrapping the severed ear in newspaper and handing it to a prostitute named Rachel, asking her to “keep this object carefully”; the other fact was that after bouts of severe depression, fits and hallucinations, he picked up a revolver and apparently shot himself in the chest, but because there were no witnesses and a gun was never recovered from the cornfield where he tried to kill himself there is continued speculation to the exact circumstances. However, that shot did not kill him as the bullet deflected off his ribcage, missed his vital organs, and lodged next to his spine. He is reported to have walked home to get help, but the doctors said there was nothing much they could do for him and left him in the room smoking a pipe. Twenty-nine hours later, the infection got a hold in his wound and he died in July, on my birthday incidentally, in the arms of his brother Theo. Theo reported Vincent’s last words, “The sadness will last forever”.

I could not agree with him any more, he is one of my favorite painters and if he managed to produce over 2100 works of art by the age of 37, can you imagine what he could have achieved if he had had the availability of antidepressants? But then, would he have produced the work he did if he hadn’t been cursed with the voices in his head?

The self-portrait of the painter (the one with a bandaged ear) is sold in just about every tourist shop in the city. “We are the city that drove him to the point of removing his ear” is not something that the tourist board probably wants to be proud of, but while the masses keep arriving and spending a fortune I would guess it’s a case of don’t fix something that’s not broken.

However, we did need to fix something that was broken, which took us in the direction of Marseille to the main HQ of the Shark helmet distribution center. During the trip my helmet had become damaged, in an incident that doesn’t need to be repeated (i.e. Nicola closing side pannier, bike falling over, helmets rolling). So in some desperate correspondence with Shark, we had finally managed to hook up to get this part fixed. The best way to describe our experience with this company is:

Dear Soazig and Mark,

I would like to express to you how grateful Nicola and I are for the help you provided to us while we were in Marseille. Our experience with Shark has been nothing but fantastic. We love your products, the Evoline helmets have been very comfortable for our three month European tour which has made all the difference along our journey.

We have also been blown away by the amazing customer service. The personal treatment we received from you and your staff has far exceeded our expectations.

All in all we are very impressed with Shark and will certainly recommend you to anybody we can.

All the best,
Gareth and Nicola

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And that’s pretty much the experience we received from Shark when we arrived at the HQ, and once again, thank you for taking care of us.

For those who are unaware Nicola loves lavender, not her favorite fragrance, which is jasmine, but lavender comes a close second. So it would be almost unfair, bordering on cruel, not to take a drive north three hours to the famous lavender fields near the town of Digne-les-Bains.

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The drive is rather nice if you stay off the main road. The weather was cooler in the mountains and one can feel the energy returning as the temperature drops. We arrived about five in the evening and did some desperately needed housekeeping consisting of Nicola sitting in a laundry watching our clothes spinning in a washing machine and me heading off to find shelter for the night. There is nothing more satisfying than a clean set of clothes to head out to dinner in. Funny how the things you take for granted at home become so important when traveling.

Our day was planned… Ride up to the lavender fields to see the carpets of purple that are so famous in this region. We had read in the guidebook and I will repeat, “The heady scent of lavender is strongest in the heat of the summer, from June to early August is when the fine stalks wave in the wind, blue prairies stretched as far as the eye can see”. A little gushy, but we got the point. We woke excited (I excited in support) and rode for an hour into the mountains to be amazed… and there it was… field after field of lavender… but not exactly the look we were after. Apparently the cool spring had delayed the bloom and the line “blue prairies stretching as far as the eye can see” was something more in keeping with a young crop of kale in spring, “green prairies stretching as far as the eye can see.”

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Nicola (and I) were of course disappointed as were the dozens of other tourists making the long hike up to the high prairies to see one of nature’s magnificent events. But the day was young and the sun shone so we decided to head back down, via a gorge equally as popular in the region.

However, 30 minutes into the trip we had another warning light come up on the dash and the engine cut out, our reoccurring traction control problem had reappeared. Given we had just spent 400 euros (and a week of our trip) to get the damn thing fixed, it was beyond disappointing. Luckily it happened on the top of a hill so we were able to coast into a small village at the bottom, pulling up just outside a shop that sold hair and body products, you could buy just about anything you wanted as long as it was made from lavender.

We headed through some incredibly scenic little villages, literally clinging to the sides of mountains with their foundations intricately woven to the fabric of the rock. Towns and villages in these regions are a testament to human’s ability to evolve and adapt to what nature throws at them. It makes me wonder how they got there and who was the first to put down these very roots.

“Mavis, now that we are married perhaps we should build a house.”
“Sounds great, where were you thinking? On the nice river, perhaps on the coast next to the sea or that lovely area with the gentle slopes looking out over the view of the inaccessible mountains?”
“Funny how you mentioned the inaccessible mountains, I was thinking…”

One can imagine when you look high into the hills and see settlements in the middle of nowhere, how the first few years of marriage went for the men. But somebody would have been the first and they are the ones I look up to in life, as for without them, where would the thousands of tourists drive to on the same day we did.

As I have mentioned at least once in this story, being on a bike has its advantages. We were able to get to the front of a particularly long queue of slow moving traffic that towards the entrance to a small, medieval village had completely stopped leaving a snake of cars in the region of about 3 km. To say the bus driver, who was in control of a the massive coach full of German tourists, was an idiot and should have perhaps looked at his map as opposed to relying on his GPS would sound a little harsh, but what a plonker. He had managed to get his bus jammed on a corner that was tight for cars never mind buses. I think they would have had to disassemble it, move it to the other side of the village and then put it back together again. Luckily for him, he had a bus full of Germans and I hear they are good at that sort of thing, zero sense of humor but damn good engineers. We managed to squeeze passed and once again praised our good fortune and continued to the gorge.

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It’s hard to recognize the beginning of the gorge, as the road simply continues to climb into the jagged mountains. But then you come around a sharp corner and, apart from the dozens of cars and camper vans pulled over with the occupants all gazing out over the magnificent vista, there is a big sign saying “Welcome to Europe’s largest gorge”… I made the big sign bit up, but it is the largest gorge in Europe and there is a small sign saying something about National Parks, but it was in French and we passed it too quickly to read it properly.

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We rode the whole length of the valley in what only can be described as one of earth’s great motorbike routes; switchbacks and hairpins for mile after mile (not completely sure of the difference, but in the interest of making sure I have the right one I shall include both). In a car you would be getting sick of it in about 10 minutes (more literally for some than for others) but on a bike it’s a thrill as you ride past some incredible drops into the gorge 100’s of meters below.

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We stopped at a ‘must see’ spot aptly named ‘Point Spectacular’ and had a huge argument about nothing in particular for five minutes, right on the top of one of Europe’s great views… I included this so that you don’t think it’s always perfect traveling together and we have managed to do the entire trip without there being any tough relationship times. We put it down to eight weeks of being together 24/7 and being no further away from each other than about 6 inches on the bike or in bed. This is a challenge to any relationship and when people ask us or say it must be lovely to travel together, which for the most part it is, it’s not as easy as it looks, you have to work harder than ever at the relationship side. It’s certainly not for everyone and unless you really love and care about each other, don’t even think about it. We would be doomed if Nicola didn’t have the patience of a saint and the ability to keep me from getting too short when I’m completely knackered from the hours of concentration required to get us through this trip safely. But as all arguments end, I was wrong and I learnt the lesson that it’s much easier to simply say “yes dear”…

We stopped for fuel at the end of the road, so to speak, and we saw two lovely old guys with big smiles come out of the tiny roadside village fuel station with one bowser and a cat keeping the dog company. As Nicola went in to hand over 20 euros, the two men stood there looking at the bike with gestures of being impressed with the size of the whole thing. One of them looked at the registration with the little GB sticker next to the number plate and he turned to his friend and said in a thick French accent, “England” then looked at me and winked as he said “GB… Getting better, England, getting better.” They burst out laughing, stepped into their car and drove off still killing themselves with laughter.
Cheeky old sods.
But then that’s the type of people you meet when you travel the smaller roads, real characters that make the trip so much more memorable.

Bike Log

Day 84 – 10-07-13
Portsmouth to Swallowcliffe
1:29hrs, 89.7km

Day 83 – 09-07-13
La Gacilly to St Malo
152km, 2:15hrs

Day 82 – 08-07-13
Paris to La Gacilly
404km, 4:56hrs

Day 81 – 06-07-13
Rest day Paris

Day 80 – 06-07-13
Rest day Paris

Day 79 – 05-07-13
Rest day Paris

Day 78 – 04-07-13
Rest day Paris

Day 77 – 03-07-13
Chamonix-Mont-Blanc to Paris
621km, 6:18hrs

Day 76 – 02-07-13
Rest day Chamonix-Mont-Blanc (engaged!)

Day 75 – 01-07-13
Chur to Chamonix-Mont-Blanc (France)
311.2km, 5:39hrs

Day 74 – 30-06-13
Ortisei to Chur (Switzerland)
394.2km, 7:09hrs

Day 73 – 29-06-13
Mortschach to Ortisei (Italy)
308.5km, 6:46hrs

Day 72 -28-06-13
Stara Fuzina to Mortschach (Austria)
191.4km, 3.54min

Day 71 – 27-06-13
Rest day Stara Fuzina (Slovenia)

Day 70 – 26-06-13
Venice to Stara Fuzina
218km, 5:13 min

Day 69 – 25-06-13
Rest day Venice

Day 68 – 24-06-13
Rest day Venice

Day 67 – 23-06-13
Forli to Venice
155km 3hrs

Day 66 – 22-06-13
Rome to Florence (train)
Florence to Forli
112.2km 2:43min

Day 65 – 21-06-13
rest day Rome

Day 64 – 20-06-13
Florence to Rome (train)

Day 63 – 19-06-13
Rest day Florence

Day 62 – 18-06-13
Levanto to Florence
254.3 km 4.48hrs

Day 61 – 17-06-13
Rest day Levanto (Cinque Terre)

Day 60 – 16-06-13
Eze to Levanto
6:03hrs 310km

Day 59 – 15-06-13
St-Tropez to Eze
5:15hr, 170km

Day 58 – 14-06-13
Digne-les-Bains to St-Tropez
182km, 3:57hrs

Day 57 – 13-06-13
Arles to Digne-les-Bains
265.2km, 4:41hrs

Day 56 – 12-06-13
Barcelona to Arles
425km, 5:29hrs

Day 55 – 11-06-13
Rest day Barcelona

Day 54 – 10-06-13
Rest day Barcelona

Day 53 – 09-06-13
Rest day Barcelona

Day 52 – 08-06-13
Rest day Barcelona

Day 51 – 07-06-13
Rest day Barcelona

Day 50 – 06-06-13
Rest day Barcelona

Day 49 – 05-06-13
Rest day Barcelona

Day 48 – 04-06-13
Valencia to Barcelona
398.6km, 5:45hrs

Barcelona (part 2)

“Is the bike ready yet?” became a daily question to the bike dealer as we got massively held up from our original plan of spending a couple of days in Barcelona. We have a manufacturing fault on the front fork and had to wait for the part to come from the UK. It was promised in 24 hours, which seemed to take a week, not days.

Some would say there are worst places to get stuck and they are right, Nerang or Milton Keynes would suck if you had to camp on the outskirts, but it was the not knowing and being kept dangling that was becoming annoying. We felt that the longer we stayed the more we would miss out on the other end of the trip, which up until now was timed like a Swiss watch… I’m actually joking for those who think we are traveling with any kind of a schedule. We are literally waking up in the morning and saying, “where to today?” So it was the not knowing… glad I cleared that up for my own mind if not for yours.

So with this time on our hands it is time to tell you of the wonderful adventure we had in Barcelona. The city has much to do and see, but it’s an architect born on the 25th June 1852 that seems to bring out the cultural side of the tourists that flock to the city to worship his creations.

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Antoni Gaudi was a Spanish architect born close to Barcelona that became the figurehead of Catalan modernism. He had an extreme passion for design, nature and religion and managed to combine them all into his buildings that can only be described as monumental. For years of neo-gothic design he and a number of other architects in the city got together to become part of this Catalan modernism movement, which reached its peak in the late 19th and early 20th century. His work transcended mainstream Modernisme, culminating in an organic style inspired by nature.

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Gaudí rarely drew detailed plans of his works, instead preferring to create them as three-dimensional scale models and molding the details as he was conceiving them. His masterpiece, the still-uncompleted Sagrada Família, is one of the most visited monuments in Spain and is truly spectacular church, which happens to have the size and looks of a cathedral.

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Gaudí devoted his life entirely to his profession. He is only known to have been attracted to one woman—Josefa Moreu, teacher at the Mataró Cooperative, in 1884—but this was not reciprocated and so he remained single. The reason I mention that is because to design every aspect of this spectacular church from roof to door knobs takes time, see where I’m going with that…

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The church is supposed to be finished in 2026 to commemorate the death of the master, nicknamed “God’s Architect”. His death incidentally was extremely sad… Not only for the fact that he was dead, but the way he died… you have to remember that in 1926 healthcare was for the well off and people of influence. Well, Gaudi let himself go a little in the way of appearance during the later stages of his life. When he was accidently run over during a morning walk by a tram, he was basically ignored and assumed as a beggar due to the appearance of his shabby clothing, unshaven face and lack of documentation (Christ, sounds like me at the moment). He received rudimentary care but by the time the chaplain of the Sagrada Família recognised him on the following day, Gaudí’s condition had deteriorated too severely to benefit from additional treatment. Gaudí died on 10 June 1926 at the age of 73.

The church is not something I would say was my personal taste, but quite incredible to visit and fascinating to observe a massive church under full-scale construction.

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After his death, Gaudí’s works suffered a period of neglect and were largely unpopular among international critics, who regarded them as baroque and excessively imaginative. In his homeland he was equally disdained by Noucentisme, the new movement which took the place of Modernisme. In 1936, during the Spanish Civil War, Gaudí’s workshop in the Sagrada Família was ransacked and a great number of his documents, plans and scale models were destroyed.

However, as in 1588 the Spanish saw the error of their ways (for those who know their history… you know what I’m talking about and for those who are scratching there heads thinking “what the hell is he talking about” simply Google ‘Spanish 1588’). Now he is a demigod in Barcelona and possibly the biggest tourist attraction they have after the mime artists that line the ‘Rambla’.

Can you imagine choosing that as a career? Miming that is…
“OK son, we need to talk about what career you are thinking about and what path you shall take in life.”
“I want to be a mime artist.”
“Okay…what does that involve?”
“Well I have to come up with a silly costume design, make it, pop it on and stand on the street where the tourists walk and stay really, really still until somebody puts money into a tin. Then I do some quirky move of position. Then, as a way of acknowledging their kind generosity of a couple of cents, I go back to being really, really still again and wait for the next person to donate the minimum amount out of their pocket.”
“Have you considered medicine?”

As most know, there is massive youth unemployment in Europe, especially in Spain, and having to beg for money would be a horrible position to take as a way to survive. But there are surprising amounts that do it with dogs. It seems to be very popular in Barcelona as we saw dozens of youth sitting in doorways with lovely dogs of all shapes and sizes. It’s the only city in the world where dog pounds have a shortage of animals and a waiting list if you want one. What is interesting is the style unlike any other I have seen before… they give you a look and gesture, a nonchalant shrug of the shoulders and a sort of hand gesture to say “the dog is the one begging not me…” for they are merely there to support the dog, while they sip on a can of beer and smoke cigarettes. I want to say to them “loose the booze and fags and your dogs might do better with this line of work”, but if you watch for five minutes you see it’s an approach that works quite well as it seems to tug on the heartstrings of the tourists dropping money into the silver dog bowls just under the little sign… “For dog”.

We took a boat ride into the harbor, which was a rather nice way to kill an hour. We sailed past some of the biggest cruise ships on the high seas. Like massive floating blocks of flats with hundreds of small verandas looking out over our tiny boat passing under their shadow.

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There is a massive boatyard in Barcelona that caters to the super yachts, it’s the place you bring it for repair or maintenance. Some of the boats we saw were obscenely massive. Most are privately owned and getting ready for the summer season with a fresh polish and stock up of Champagne.

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We saw one yacht called Topaz. Launched in May 2012, it ties with Prince Abdulazizis for the title of world’s fifth largest private yacht, both holding a length of 147 meters (482 ft). It has a beam of 21.50 m (70.5 ft), which is wider than most boats are long. The yacht’s cost has been estimated at €400 million (approx. $527 million). But this is the kicker…It was built for Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan, a Deputy Prime Minister of the United Arab Emirates. Seriously, at what point would you get suspicious if Wayne Swan or Nick Clegg pulled out that bad-boy when they went for their summer holiday.

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There is a place in Barcelona called the Arc del Triomf, a long, tree-lined, pedestrianized road perfect for a ‘stroll in a park’ atmosphere. It has the obligatory busts of famous people immortalised in bronze for all to look at and think, “I wonder who that is?” There are pushbikes and rollerblades, prams and old men playing boules. There are also the odd groups of street performers who do small acrobatic shows that are like mini Cirque du Soleil.

We were watching one show, which was being performed by eight lads in baggy clothing; handstands, breakdancing, acrobatics and so on. The crowd must have built to at least one hundred and the entertainment was fantastic to watch, with big roars of applause whenever something impressive was done. I would struggle with the run-up, let alone the three midair summersaults with a pike something thrown in for good measure. Just as the show reached a crescendo, the police turned up and the act was stopped immediately to the booing from the crowd. We discovered the lads all got tickets for performing without licenses and the crowd missed out from being able to give them some well-earned coins.

Seems an odd thing to do given how many dogs are begging in the city, at what point do the authorities think, “OK lets see, what are the positives and negatives, given the mass youth unemployment in Barcelona?”
“Not doing any harm to anybody.”
“Staying off the street begging.”
“Keeping fit.”
“Staying positive.”
“Entertainment for the tourists.”
“Negatives?”
“We didn’t get a messily fee for the permit.”

Barcelona (part 1)

We departed early and had a relatively boring ride that morning, 350km of motorway with the additional sting of the Spanish tolls. It was nearly impossible to get off these toll roads and whenever we did manage to we seemed to get directed back on. Tolls are a pain to the rhythm of riding and even more so on your pocket, we are so lucky in Australia and the UK not to be forced to pay for highways and motorways. After an hour of struggling against them we gave in and had a fast trip to Barcelona, the capital city of Catalonia and the second largest Spanish city after Madrid.

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It’s a fairly impressive city to ride into from the south with motorways heading in all directions on the outskirts; the GPS has become useless now so we relied on maps and signposts to navigate our way into the center (old school)…Toni, one of our new Catalonian friends, had recommended a hotel worth looking at; to his credit he had never actually seen it as it was designed to house travelling hobbits and would not have fitted the both of us at the same time.

Our best option would be to get out of the center and find a campground, which we did with the reliable iPad and headed to the seaside town of Masnou 12 km north on the main train line into the city. “The oldest campground in Spain” we were told upon entering, and by the look of the toilet block and front reception area they were perfectly in their right to do so.

At least we can now get the bloody bike fixed once and for all and be somewhere long enough to also sort out our MasterCard saga, that I have spared you the details of (up until now).

What is most ridiculous about this situation is that it has become the hardest and most frustrating part of the trip so far and is still continuing.

We have a MasterCard that has been nothing but a pain. We can’t use it to withdraw cash from the ATM as the pin never arrived in the post when the original card arrived, and given that… we can’t remove cash, it only works as long as the shop or hotel accepts a signature, which is not as frequent as we would like.. So we called Halifax to ask for a new pin to be sent, sounds simple enough, but they ask you a series of security questions to get you to the next stage, able to actually talk to a human. They ask the most ludicrous questions, which is more like being on ‘who wants to be a millionaire’ than a bank helpline.

“We will ask you three questions and if you answer them all correctly you will pass your security check.”

One example from four weeks ago in Portugal in a noisy internet café, and having spent 20 minutes on hold already:

First question, “Three weeks ago you used your other debit card in a store called Marks and Spencer and purchased something at 11am, how much was that for?”

“No idea, I can’t remember, ask me another…”

“Sorry, Mr. Price you have failed the security question and will have to call back and try again.”

“But I have been on hold for 20 minutes and I’m in Portugal!”

“Sorry, there is nothing we can do, please call back.”

“Just ask me another question.”

“Sorry, I can’t, because you failed the first question we can’t proceed to the next question.”

“But I don’t have a statement and I bought lots of stuff from ‘Marks and Spencer’ before we left the UK.”

“Sorry, Mr. Price, I can’t help you any further…” and hung up on me.

And that’s been pretty much the way it has been ever since. On one occasion I passed the first two questions but failed the third.

“Mr. Price, two weeks ago in Marrakesh you used your card in a hotel restaurant on the bla bla bla, can you tell me the full name of the restaurant?”

“No I fricking can’t you idiot… Who do you think I am, Rain-Man?”

This morning I rang them again for the God-only-knows-how-many-time, and after once again failing yet another ludicrous question, I was informed that if I failed twice more I would have my account frozen and would have to return to a Halifax branch to get it unfrozen…

“What the hell are you talking about, return to the UK and visit a branch, have you not been listening, I’m in Spain for Christ sake!”

SO… don’t believe all those lies they put on TV, which tell us they are lovely and friendly and will have somebody swim out of the ocean in a suit delivering your replacement card on a tray, while you sit on a Caribbean beach sipping cocktails.

Halifax MasterCard … Surly it can’t be that hard to establish identity…

I can’t wait to give them a piece of my mind when I return and shut my accounts down. Wow that feels better…

Banks in general are a wrought…(oh God, he’s off again)

The further we head into a technological world with online banking, pay pass, cash cards, self-service supermarket checkouts, the ability to swipe your phone to pay for a toothbrush, the further humans are kept from each other and made redundant by machines. Getting a person to see your predicament from the bank while abroad is impossible, they simply read the instruction manual that pops up on their screen when they type in… “Really angry customer calling from overseas”…

And why don’t governments have a place we can put our money if we choose not to put it into the disgusting privatised money market that seems to be the mainstay of our economical problems at present? Basic healthcare, welfare, telecommunication and education should be any government’s minimum requirement to provide to their taxpaying citizens, which are essential these days and impossible to participate in society without. They should now add banking. ‘Govbank’ could have simple features like withdraw and deposit, nothing fancy, just the basic. If you can afford it and want privatised schooling, healthcare and banking then fill your boots, but we shouldn’t be forced to use the private sector if we don’t want to.

We took the bike into Barcelona and had the Triumph people take a look, which was slightly depressing as the news was it had blown the front fork seal and that a new one needed to be shipped from the UK. They also have given a fairly disappointing verdict on the traction control and why it cuts out, “No idea” …Brilliant… but we did learn the rear brake disk is bent and the brake calipers are shagged and need replacing due to us hitting a rock.

So in short, it looks like they are unable to have the parts delivered and installed before the weekend, marooning us in a campground that is starting to become more like a rave party.

When we arrived we in a quite and tranquil setting with some shady trees and away from the road and noise of the train tracks.

“Ah the serenity.”

Then the first carload of people arrived and decided that regardless of the fact that there was a near-deserted campground with dozens of spots available, they still set up right next to us. This is the equivalent of going into the public toilets and seeing twenty urinals in a row, picture one man standing at the end of the row minding his own business… at what point would you think that the urinal right next to him was the appropriate place to head to?

There were two guys and three girls, Spanish, mid-twenties. The alarm bells began to ring when the first thing they unpacked from the car was a bottle of vodka… and then a portable CD player with a sticker on it saying “MAX BASS”… and in fairness to the company that made it, it did have a pretty good sound that ensured you felt the bass as much as heard it.

Then within minutes another car turned up, three lads blaring some really bad Spanish boy-band at full volume. We call that group of lads ‘One Erection’ after the band… it’s not possible to take anyone in a baseball cap cocked to the side seriously. I wanted to say that the world had moved on from that trend and it was a mistake to call it fashion in the first place, but they were too busy learning a new dance move and checking themselves out in the car side mirrors to listen.

The two groups unpacked, danced, and had a “who can turn their music up the loudest before someone blows a speaker” competition. Then the boy-band began to play out their well-rehearsed comedian skits, so hilarious that they required a ten-minute pant-wetting laughing session. So as to confirm they were having “too much fun”, they keep looking over at the other group to check they were being noticed.

Then four attractive girls in a pink car turned up with playboy stickers and very skimpy clothing and felt they too needed to be close to the action. Now completely distracted and practically salivating with excitement ‘One Erection’ quickly changed the dance track to Waka Waka by Shakira… and started to bust out some moves we were unaware they had in their tank. At first the girls were completely unimpressed with the attention and cooly unpacked their little camping gear, making sure that any picking up off the ground could be done slowly with straight legs and in the direction of the boys who were now in some kind of ritual mating display.

Since the first wave we have had a steady flow of incomers for the weekend. We had to move the tent twice as having music blaring from three directions was getting painful and when the bunnies came out in bikinis, Nicola thought I was spending too much time tidying the outside of our tent and would be distracted from finishing the blog.

“But sweetheart, you love Shakira and I promise our ears will stop bleeding soon.”

“We’re moving…”

So we packed and unpacked on the other side of the campground, which was wonderful to be honest… for about ten minutes at least because literally the moment we got sorted a group of four lads parked right next to us and out came a bottle of vodka. They win the ‘most crap music’ competition… If the groups in the campground were to be rated with annoying we had a 10 right next to us. For some reason 4am over here seems an acceptable time to wake up the entire campground with your drunken antics. We call this group the “hockers” because the skinny runt of the litter, whose name was Ricardo, had a morning ritual of hocking up as much phlegm as he could and spreading it around the campground.

We learnt the campground is full due to a 48 hour music festival 1km from here, just typical it’s on the one weekend we have no bike and are able to move. I spoke to a couple from Australia who were packing to go, they were supposed to stay a few more nights but had had enough. Unfortunately for the campground owners, they lost most of the grey nomads the next day, who would most likely never return.

As Nicola said, campgrounds are a bit like petri dishes and good place to observe life. I know I’m a bit old fashioned when it comes to a few things in life, but seriously, some people have absolutely no respect when they are in a group situation and feel the whole world revolves around them. And it’s not just because they are young, it’s the way they were brought up or in these cases not. I actually feel sorry for a lot of them… Waka Waka by Shakira was never a cool song for grown lads to listen to…