Monthly Update – April 2019

Monthly Update – April 2019

Well, if March was our Africa month, April has definitely been our chill out, drink a lot of wine and enjoy the scenery month. There’s certainly been a distinct change in tempo and a huge change in the climate, which has been both good and bad.

On the plus side, we really needed to slow down and relax a bit after a hectic couple of months of almost daily safaris. Plus it’s been great to spend some time with Cindy’s family in France as we hadn’t seen them for quite a while.

On the minus side, after the amazing weather we had in Africa and South East Asia, the weather in Europe has been a bit of a downer. It’s a fair bit cooler, we’ve had more rain this month than we’ve had on the whole trip and the sun has been very shy. But hey, first world problems! Still, we’re definitely looking forward to getting back to the warmth in South America in the not too distant future.

The Rest of Italy

At the end of March, we flew to Italy and spent the last few days wandering around Rome. We pretty much did it all on foot which gave us a chance to burn off some calories. This was sorely needed after the copious amount of eating, drinking and sitting around all day in jeeps that we’d done during our all-inclusive two-week safari in Africa!

Walking around Florence

The Duomo is pretty impressive, especially on a day like this!

I had distant memories of visiting Florence when I was in my twenties. Nothing really stood out as something I wanted to do again while there, in stark contrast to Cindy who had also visited when she was younger and wanted to see everything again. As usual with me, food played a large part in my memories. I remembered having great gelato there and also the distinct feeling of being ripped off at the local restaurants.

It’s fair to say that this time around I got more out of Florence and appreciated it a bit more than last time. It’s a beautiful city to walk around and we were fortunate to visit outside of peak season. Still, I think to really appreciate Florence you have to be more of an art and architecture buff than I am. I was already tired of churches and statues after Rome (it doesn’t take much to wear me out!) and so I was left enjoying the streetscapes, the food and the views from the several towers we climbed.

If you’re heading to Florence, check out our tips for maximising your time there.

Taking a Tuscany Road Trip

Looking across the fields to Montepulciano in the distance

The next leg of our Italian visit was a road trip around Tuscany. We picked up our little Peugeot 208 in Florence and prepared to head down to San Gimignano. I hadn’t driven on the wrong (i.e the right) side of the road since we were last in the U.S., so I was prepared for a bit of a baptism by fire.

After a lot of animated discussion and with me blatantly ignoring both the Google Maps lady and Cindy’s navigation directions several times, for no apparent reason, we managed to escape the centre of Florence without a  major incident.

Our next task was to get on to the famous SR222 route which takes you from Florence to Siena, heading past some beautiful scenery along the way. We didn’t need to go as far as Siena but we wanted to take it as far as San Gimignano.

Unfortunately, we managed to instead get on the main motorway and after several failed attempts to backtrack, after going through the same series of tunnels about three times and after almost accidentally entering the Autoroute, we gave up on finding the SR222 and headed down to San Gimignano the non-scenic way.

Driving in Italy

Driving through the rolling hills of Tuscany

Driving in Italy is not particularly hard, once you figure out that the Italians drive aggressively and generally don’t obey the speed limits but that you probably should obey them because you have no idea where all the speed traps are placed.

We were told by a couple we met to download the Waze app which tells you where all the speed traps are, but we didn’t get around to it. I’m still half expecting to get belated notification of a speeding fine or two, even though it’s been a few weeks now.

Some of the speed limits seemed pretty arbitrary and they were generally poorly indicated but apart from that, driving was fairly easy. Well, except for that time where I tried to enter the Autoroute the wrong way but we won’t talk about that any more!

The only other things that can throw you a bit when driving in Italy is parking in small towns and navigating some of the narrow roads in the hills. Trying to parallel park your hire car in tiny parking spaces makes you feel like a bit of a chump, especially when you’re not sitting on the side of the car that you’re used to.

Driving through the Tuscan hillside is relatively straight forward, as long as you watch your speed, stay on the correct side of the road and look out for oncoming traffic. That being said, driving around some of the roads near our second accommodation in Sorana took a lot of concentration as there was frequently only enough room for one car.

In fact, coming down the road one day, we came across two semi-trailers going in opposite directions, who were stuck trying to get past each other. I wish I’d taken a photo or video of it because it was hilarious. The drivers had to get out and help each other, backing up multiple times before they figured it out. There was a lot of gesturing and intense discussion.

I will say that I was slightly relieved when we returned the car in La Spezia unscathed and headed down to Cinque Terre and Pisa for the remainder of our Italian trip.

San Gimignano

Looking out over San Gimignano from the top of one of its towers
Looking out over San Gimignano from the top of one of its towers

We chose to have two bases for our time in Tuscany. The first was a small Agriturismo a few kilometres outside of San Gimignano and the second was an Airbnb apartment in the tiny little Village of Sorana up in the hills near the town of Pescia and not too far from the historic city of Lucca.

If you’re not familiar with the concept of an Agriturismo, it’s basically a local business such as a winery that offers either accommodation, a restaurant or both in order to make a bit more money.

The Agriturismo we stayed at had amazing views back towards San Gimignano and our room had views down over their vineyards. Unfortunately, the vines were not yet in bloom but it was still beautiful. We’d love to go back and see them in the middle of summer.

After exploring San Gimignano, we spent the rest of our time tasting wine and driving around the beautiful countryside. Unfortunately, the weather was not great but we still enjoyed it. In particular, we enjoyed trying a different type of wine tasting that is common in Italy.

Cindy enjoying some wine tasting in San Gimignano
Cindy enjoying some wine tasting with a view

In Australia you usually just turn up and taste wine, maybe buying a bottle or two and sometimes having lunch at the winery. But in Italy, it’s more common to have to book your wine tasting experience and it often includes a tour of the winery and an explanation of its history. That’s usually followed by a meal paired with wine tasting and an explanation of how to actually taste the wine. I’m not sure I’d want to do that every time I visited a vineyard but it was fun and somewhat informative to do it a couple of times.

On our last night in San Gimignano, I managed to come down with quite a bad case of food poisoning which lasted several days into our visit to Sorana. In fact, I eventually had to use one of the courses of antibiotics our doctor had given us in order to get rid of it. We’d only expected to use those antibiotics in India or some other South East Asian country, not in the middle of Italy but regardless, I was pretty glad we had them with us.

The Hilltop town of Sorana

One of the pretty hilltop towns near Sorana

Our final stop before giving back the car was the tiny little village of Sorana. It’s one of a handful of similarly sized towns that sit up in the hills just outside Pescia.

We were staying in a really nice Airbnb apartment with a great view, a friendly puppy and a crazy amount of roaming stray cats (it seems like no one neuters their animals in Europe!). The only catch was that getting to it was a little fun with lots of narrow roads to navigate. At one point you even had to do a full three-point turn to turn left onto one of the roads that led to the apartment!

Sorana was a nice base for exploring the surrounding area. It wasn’t too far from Lucca, which is a beautiful old city with awesome city walls that you can walk on top of and several towers that you can climb to look out over the city. We really enjoyed exploring Lucca and we’d consider staying there for a few days as well if we went back.

Exploring the Cinque Terre

Looking down at the village of Vernazza
Vernazza is one of the five coastal villages on the Cinque Terre

After dropping the hire car in La Spezia, we spent three nights on the Cinque Terre coast in the town of Riomaggiore. We had pretty poor weather, to begin with, but the rain held off for the end of our time there and we had great weather for a boat ride along the coast which was the highlight of our time in Cinque Terre.

Cinque Terre is undoubtedly beautiful and we had a great time visiting each of the villages. But even outside of the peak season it was pretty busy, so I’d hate to see how crazy it is in the middle of summer.

Pisa

The Leaning Tower of Pisa
The Leaning Tower of Pisa with the crowds carefully hidden away!

We only had one night in Pisa. It was fairly uneventful although we did make a mistake when booking our bed and breakfast. We didn’t realise that when we gave an estimate of when we’d arrive at the bed and breakfast that it would be taken as gospel. On the train to Pisa, we received a slightly irate call from the owner who had apparently been waiting for us for two hours. Oops!

In the end, we couldn’t check in until after 5 pm while we waited for him to complete his other appointments. I had to laugh when he said that we couldn’t arrive at 3 pm instead because that’s when he always ate his lunch!

It didn’t really bother us too much. It was a nice day, so we went and had some food and a couple of glasses of wine at a nearby cafe and enjoyed a bit of sunshine and people watching.

We weren’t expecting a lot from Pisa and I didn’t have many memories of it from my previous visit but it’s actually quite a nice town to wander around. The Leaning Tower of Pisa wasn’t anything special, although it was bigger than I remembered. But it was fun to watch everyone doing the typical Instagram poses where they look like they’re holding the tower up or resting it on top of an ice cream cone! 

Some R & R in France

Leaving Pisa, we headed to France to catch up with Cindy’s family. We took the TGV from Paris down to Le Mans, where we were picked up by Cindy’s parents who live in a little village about 45 minutes outside of Le Mans.

It’s always fantastic to catch up with Cindy’s parents and her immediate family, especially our two young nieces who are growing up rapidly. It’s nice to be able to take things slowly and enjoy the great food that Cindy’s mum makes and fresh veggies and fruit from their garden.

Semur En Vallon

Semur En Vallon is tiny but it does have it’s own chateau (in need of a bit of TLC)

Cindy’s parents live in Semur En Vallon, a quiet and pretty little village that has lots of lovely old buildings and even its own castle! We’ve been enjoying almost daily walks around the area. There is a lot of great countryside to wander around and some friendly horses and donkeys to meet along the way.

Alsace

Exploring the fairytale town of Eguisheim in France’s Alsace region

A few days after arriving in France, we headed up into the mountains around Alsace for a week. During that time we enjoyed the beautiful countryside, some surprisingly warm weather (for at least the first half of the week) and we also visited some of the fairytale-like villages, such as Eguisheim and Colmar, that are dotted around the area.

Cindy also managed to get her animal fix since the house that we stayed in had goats, pigs and horses nearby. We also managed to bump into two Bernese Mountain Dogs on our walks, which is the breed of dogs that we used to own.

Getting Robbed, Remotely

I’ve saved our worst experience in April for last because, well, it happened at the end of the month! On the way to do some wine tasting in Alsace, Cindy checked our transaction account on her phone and made a strange discovery.

There was a cash withdrawal from an ATM in Queensland a few days earlier. That obviously wasn’t us since we’d been in France. It looked like someone had managed to steal both our card number and our PIN.

We rapidly called our bank and they cancelled the card and sent a new one. Fortunately they were very quick to investigate and reimburse us but it was a real pain in the neck and a bit of a scare.

We’re still not sure how they got our details. Obviously we’ve been in quite a few countries lately so it could have been anywhere. From my limited googling, it seems that it may have been an organised crime gang skimming card number and PINs from a retailer’s software, rather than someone skimming it at an ATM.

It seems that some retail debit card terminals store PIN numbers of cards they read on their disks and also in a format that is not secure. If criminals get a hold of those details they can collect massive amounts of card numbers and associated PINs which are then sold onto the black market where they end up being used by bozos in Queensland.

If I had to hazard a guess I’d say our card details were skimmed from a retailer’s system by a mafia syndicate while in Italy because it’s a fairly sophisticated operation. But I guess we’ll never know.

Coming Up Next

After the first half of May, we’ll be heading to the Baltics for the final part of our European leg. We’ll be cramming in four Baltic countries in two weeks, including Estonia. In Tallinn, we’re excited to be catching up with friends who we haven’t seen in quite some time, who’ll be showing us around town. Stay tuned for next month’s update!

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