A tale of two cities

This is a tale of two cities. One of them is London, but that’s about where the comparison with Dickens’ story ends. After the lemon scented air of the Amalfi coast we were headed for Naples, to catch a train to Rome. Remarkably, we didn’t miss the Naples turn-off which may not seem all that remarkable to you, but for us was something of a cause for celebration.

At our best we missed the turn off for our home on the Amalfi three times in the same outing! Each time necessitated a five kilometre trip up a highway a turnoff over an overpass followed by a 500 metre drive to a roundabout and a repeat of the journey in reverse to make good. I want to say Italian roads are crazy, but that wouldn’t be fair. My children think my driving is crazy. One of the joys of travel is the instant feedback on your driving including random speed checks, fear factor on corners and jerkiness of gear changes.

In Naples we found a petrol station within proximity of the train station to refill the rental car but humiliated ourselves by being unable to work the pump without local assistance. Turns out that the pump will only work once you have fed cash into a non-descript looking vending machine. Who knew?

After that we located the rental car office at the train station where we were told the parking garage was right next door to said petrol station. Getting back there required a hair raising, life force draining ten minutes navigating the streets of Naples which seemed to be waging an unjust war on U-turns.

Then Oliver and I paid a Euro to go to the loo at the train station and the hand dryers didn’t work. Just saying.

The train from Naples to Rome was ear popping fun. It went so fast (about 290 km/hr) that when it entered a tunnel the displaced air couldn’t escape fast enough to avoid the air pressure wreaking havoc with our inner ears. As a result, we spent half the journey looking like cows munching grass as we worked our jaws in an effort to equalise the pressure in our eustachian tubes. Or maybe that was just me.

By the time we made Rome we were starving. The train had a special lunch time deal which made it seem likely a vaguely viable financial option but when Amy, Oliver and I went to inquire we were told the offer was only valid for the next leg of the journey, after the train left Rome. I nearly asked the man to show me where the flyer stated this to be so, but instead I sighed and Amy, Oliver and I returned to our seats hungry.

Instead we found pizza outside the Roma Termini and ate it on the footpath while pondering which bus to catch to our Airbnb apartment. It was city bus number 64, alight at St Petro’s. There was one waiting, about to depart just as our stomachs got down to the serious business of digesting mozzarella, tomato and pizza crust. We climbed laboriously on-board, weighed down with baggage, just as the doors were about to close but didn’t have a ticket. I confessed to a local jammed hard up against me in the crowded bus, but he didn’t seem to think anyone would care. He was right.

Footpath pizza

Margherita, our Airbnb host met us outside our apartment about a kilometre away from St Petro’s. Every time Emma mentioned her name images of the lunch we had eaten before catching the bus leapt to mind. I had to concentrate to stop myself from giggling when we met her, which is totally unfair, especially as she was such a friendly host.

No sooner were we in the door and the wifi on than messages were whizzing through space to track down the whereabouts of the Douglas-Grants, our epic Annapurna Base Camp trekking friends. They were to join us for two days in Rome and were on-route from Florence. It was so exciting to see them we went out for celebratory gelato… because you need an excuse.

The next day it was off to the Colosseum, because that’s what you do in Rome. I love the Colosseum. It’s a place where everything you’ve ever read or know about ancient Rome suddenly shifts from the fiction to the non-fiction section of your mind. The emperor sat there, 50,000 spectators bade for blood all around there and epic battles of life and death took place just down there. It’s the same place with the events transpiring separated by nothing but time. It’s kinda spooky, and kinda cool.

Heading to the Colosseum

The inhumanity of the spectacles that played out here is enough to give you chills. Imagine being the poor soul marched out for afternoon crucifixion (like half time entertainment at the football), about to meet an horrendous end. Not only is there no comfort, no sympathy and no way out, but the more it hurts the more the cheering crowds scream. Extraordinary.

Inside the Colosseum
Together again!


The Roman Forum – so many ruins!

What a long way the world has come since those times, most of it anyway. May the trend continue. Perhaps one day even slaughtering animals (think bull fighting perhaps) for entertainment will seem wrong. That night Peter and I sat down to watch Russel Crowe in Gladiator. I think Peter nodded off half way through, but I enjoyed it. Nothing like a bit of CGI to put the icing on a day’s outing.

A little apathy kicked in the next day, but with good company and the heavens shaking outside, why rush? We made it to St Peters Basilica by early afternoon before idly debating whether or not to brave the queues for the Vatican Museum. The spirit however did not move us in that direction, instead we aimlessly walked the streets of Rome until that wore a little thin with the younger members of our party. After that we wandered the streets with purpose as Peter set the kids off on a geocaching quest.

Inside St Peters – Vatican City (it’s a different country you know)
Good company for exploring
Geocache preparation
Geocache hunting in Rome
Found one!

We bid the Douglas-Grants a fond farewell the next morning and hope that Andrea was able to get back to the apartment after dropping us off down the street to catch our bus. Still, twas not a sad affair. We will see them again in Scotland and then in Iceland and then in Canada… Yep we’re stalking them around the world.

The budget airline Gods decided that our next stop would be London, which was fine because we wanted to go there anyway. The thing about England is… it’s green. It’s unnaturally green. No landscape can be that green. I know plants don’t have emotions, but I swear the grass in the UK is happy.

I love it. For reasons I cannot explain I feel right at home in the UK, even though hereditary birth right and privilege and all that societal hierarchy business makes me rankle, but let’s not go there. I told Amy and Oliver it was because it’s our heritage, and maybe that’s true. I felt the same way when Emma and I visited for a couple of weeks ten years ago. I just like being there.

We spent three days in London, a city in which there is just too much to do and where I felt like I wanted to be everywhere seeing everything all at once. Like a kid in a candy shop, unsure what to gorge on next, I found myself walking constantly ten steps in front of everyone else, subconsciously urging them on to make sure we could peer down as many alleys, roadways, museums and sites as possible.

We bought tube passes within hours of landing and were soon whizzing our way through the underground like Londoners. Except Emma, who got caught in the exit gates with her backpack on because she tried to sneak Oliver through with her. It was a bit funny, at least from our perspective. It was a trick for beginners. Nine year olds don’t need to pay but should exit through the disabled gate. The metro man that came to her rescue just kind of rolled his eyes and pointed at the gate she should have used.


Amy managed her own tube pass
We love the tube – our ‘local’ station

Other than that it is a marvellous system, moving squillions of people quickly and efficiently and in contrast with the system in Athens, you can’t move without paying. Just ask Emma. Amy and Oliver loved it too, although that may well be because they mistook it for a jungle gym, and spent every journey where there was enough room to swing a cat, swinging from the hand rails.

We didn’t see any other children doing this…

We covered much territory in our three days including the Science, Natural History and Maritime Museums, the National Gallery, Big Ben, Royal Observatory, Greenwich meridian, the Cutty Sark, Harrods, Buckingham Palace and Tower Bridge. We also ticked off as many Monopoly streets as we could and took in a musical down West End way in the form of Matilda.

A few of these deserve special mention. Firstly, you should know that the ceremonial changing of the guards at Buckingham Palace takes place every day during summer at 11.30am. That’s what all the tourist info says. You can’t get much more London than watching people march while wearing ridiculous hats for reasons apparent only to them. So we went. And we waited and we waited, along with other people lining the gates five deep. Oliver cheekily squirmed his way right to the front to get a better view.

A good view of… nothing!

Then we were informed there would be no ceremony that day due to the weather! The weather! The sky was grey, but there was scarcely a drizzle in the air and if I’m not mistaken this is London. The grass is not happy here for nothing, surely they canna be serious. If that’s all it takes to keep the Queen’s guard indoors then I’m afraid she’s in serious trouble. I think the real reason is that the guards drunk to much at the previous day’s Queen’s birthday celebrations.

Attempting to visit the Queen at Buckingham Palace

Never mind. We wandered up the Mall to Trafalgar Square with Emma’s friend Jo who had now joined us. By the time we got there it really was raining so we peeked into the National Gallery more to stay dry than anything else. Then I got all excited all over again. Monet’s, Turner’s, Constable’s and even a few Michelangelo’s. What an unexpected pleasure. I don’t know much about art but I did spot the Turners from 50 paces. I’d recognise those stormy seas anywhere and it doesn’t take too much to pick out a few of Monet’s waterlilies.

Big Ben from Trafalgar Square after the rain eased
Some waterlilies
Waiting for Greg (with Jo) to finish looking at the art

When everyone but me had enough, we ventured forth again to find it raining harder than before. Jo found us a double decker red bus to catch, much to Amy’s delight, and we were off on our way to that London institution which is Harrods.

In top front (of course) of the double decker bus
Harrods (with thanks to our travelling photographer Jo)


I had so much fun at Harrods and I hate shopping. My favourite gallery, for that’s what it was to us, was the fountain pen gallery. Amy needs a new one because we lost hers somewhere back in India. I thought the first one we saw was a bit pricey at 50 pounds and then the fun began. The one next to it was 200 pounds and the one next to that 1000 pounds! Oh this is great. So we started really hunting around. It just got better and better. After spotting a few at around the 30,000 pounds mark I called over the shop attendant and asked if he could direct me to the most expensive fountain pen on offer. ‘Certainly sir, over there in the Yves Saint Laurent section (I think it was the Yves section but one designer name is the same as all the rest to me) you will find one worth 50,000 pounds and we had one last week valued at 70,000’.

Diamonds on your fountain pen?!

That’s approximately $140,000 Aussie dollars for anyone who has fallen a bit behind on the latest movements of the global currency markets. We paid less for our first house. My new friend however then showed us to the really cool pens. They were only priced in the 1200 pounds ($2400 Aussie) price range but included a Star Wars X-wing fighter, thai fighter and light saber. There were also Iron Man and Incredible Hulk pens. Apparently they sell really well. How does one reconcile a world in which a pen sells for that kind of cash?

X-wing fighter fountain pen – a bargain!

Greenwich was another highlight. The Royal Observatory at Greenwich was established back in the day when it was so far from the lights of London that it was perfect for mapping the heavens. Now it’s a zone 2 (second closest to the centre) London overground stop away. Here we straddled the Greenwich Meridian before working our way through the history of solving the problem of how to determine Longitude.

The Prime Meridian 0 degrees Longitude
It even showed the Latitude of Canberra!


It’s truly fascinating stuff and you should all rush off as soon as you have finished reading this and buy a copy of Dava Sobell’s book by that name, ‘Longitude’. Emma and I read it years ago. You see back in the day ships kept crashing into rocks because they sailed too far east or west, unable as they were to determine their longitude.

To cut a long story short the problem was solved by John Harrison when he built a clock able to keep time at sea. All you need to do then is compare local time, established by a good squiz at the sun with Greenwich mean time. The difference in times equates to minutes of longitude across the globe and hey presto that’s where you are! Latitude of course is a walk in the park for anyone acquainted with a sextant.

When we found all of John Harrison’s original sea clocks I nearly had conniptions of joy. Travelling the world is like progressively filling in the blanks of human history. Magnificent stuff.

A John Harrison clock
From the Royal Observatory (close to central London now)

Matilda was also wonderful. We have been listening to the soundtrack since we travelled around Tasmania back in 2014 so we all new all the songs. More than the show itself I enjoyed watching Amy and Oliver sit on the edge of their seats totally enthralled by the classy production. Thanks Grandpa Bruce for the tickets!


So, still with a to do list a mile long, we packed up our bags on our last morning and headed for Kings Cross Station. We arrived in enough time to find Platform 9 and three quarters and even stood in line for 25 minutes hoping to get our photo with the luggage trolley disappearing through the wall. Alas it wasn’t to be, or we would have missed our own express to Edinburgh. Scotland was calling us on.

Platform 9 3/4!


Omens on the Amalfi

‘I’m not sure if I want more gelato. Someone fetch me a cat! I’ll spill its guts and check its entrails for omens’. I called this a little more loudly than I intended as we walked through the little Italian village of Erchie to our apartment on the Amalfi coast. There was a cat disappearing through the door of the little store where we occasionally bought supplies. I hoped the owners weren’t listening as I looked for a beast for the slaughter.

We had just returned from a drive exploring the towns of Amalfi, Positano and Ravello. Emma had been reading us all a book about the ancient Romans when we got stuck in traffic, something of a problem in this part of the world.

The Romans of old were a superstitious Gods fearing lot, a bit like the ancient Greeks. They concerned themselves deeply with what mood the Gods were in, particularly before making major decisions. Like whether to go to war. Or in our case whether or not to have gelato on a Wednesday afternoon. The mood of the Gods could be discerned through omens which came in many forms, including the entrails of slaughtered animals. I lacked the services of a professional omen reader to interpret the entrails of my cat but figured I could work it out. How hard could it be?

Quite hard apparently, as the people of Pompeii discovered in 79 AD. Any reliable omen system surely should have seen the catastrophic eruption of Mount Vesuvius coming. You know the story. It was a lovely morning and the good Roman citizens of Pompeii were going about their business when Mount Vesuvius blew its stack in a rather impressive way, ejecting molten rock and ash 18 kilometres into the atmosphere.

It was an explosion beyond superlatives. The people of Pompeii looked up, saw a column of smoke and ash stretching kilometres into the air and then went back to their business because they had no notion what a volcano was. You see now the flaw in the omen system. Someone missed a mighty big mood swing on old Zeus’s behalf and shortly they were going to pay the price. Within 24 hours the whole city had been buried beneath 7 metres of pumice, ash and other pyroclastic goodness, which was bad for them but good for us because it was like the whole town was wrapped in glad wrap and put in the fridge until we came to take a look.

We made a decision to visit on the first Sunday of the month when entry is free. Free entry being a good thing when staying on the Amalfi coast in Italy where everything else is the opposite of free. We got there early, half an hour before the gates opened, in the hope of avoiding the crowds. Instead we arrived just in time to line up behind countless busloads of people from a massive cruise liner that had pulled into Salerno that morning. Guess we should have consulted a chicken[1] before picking our day.

Waiting with a few of our friends at Pompeii

So many people visited Pompeii that morning we later learned that they shut the gate at 11.30 and wouldn’t let anyone else in until 2.30 because there was no room. Which is saying something because Pompeii was once home to 10,000 people. The weight of visitors took a little bit of an edge off the visit but every now and then we found a quiet spot on a side street and soaked in the atmosphere. We sat down to lunch in one such place, sitting on a tall gutter at the corner of a cobbled Roman street, well preserved buildings providing some shade.

Lunch amongst the remains of Pompeii

As we munched corn crackers, cheese and tomatoes it occurred to me that 2000 years ago, in this very spot, on these very stones, in this very place, all hell broke loose as the reality of the volcanic eruption literally rained down from on high. Rocks the size of footballs smashed buildings and pumice and ash quickly buried the lot. My imagination ran away with me and I could just see terrified people hurrying up and down the street looking for shelter with nowhere to hide.

Tragic casts made from the rock remains showed how people died

And then a lady speaking in foreign tongues and waving a purple crocheted dinosaur atop a stick lead a tour group past and the spell was broken. At least for a while. We found another spot where the view up another side street framed the conical shape of Mt Vesuvius in the background, only a matter of kilometres away. I had a moment then too. I could just imagine the view all those years ago when the eruption was in full flight.

Mt Vesuvius towering over Pompeii

It was a little scary. Vesuvius is still active. The most active volcano in Europe and it will erupt again, only now it is surrounded by a population of over 3 million rather than the 10,000 at Pompeii and Herculaneum back in the day. The hope is that the modern day omen readers, scientists with seismographs, can provide 3 to 4 weeks warning before it happens.

My other favourite spot was the very intact gladiator amphitheatre. We walked out onto the arena through the very tunnel where so many walked to glory or an horrendous death and stood in the very spots where the vicious contests unfurled. My imagination ran away with me again. It was enthralling and would have been even more so if the Italian authorities hadn’t deemed it appropriate to build a whopping great wooden pyramid shaped museum in the middle of the arena. ‘Why there?’ I asked myself, but there was no reply.

Where the gladiators battled

Italy is a marvellous country, but methinks they could do with some assistance when it comes to presenting their amazing historical sites. We paid forty euros to visit Mt Vesuvius, which was also amazing with stunning views of Naples, the Mediterranean and deep into the plugged up Caldera of the volcano. But for forty euros ($60 AUD) there’s not so much as a water closet for the bazillion visitors that come every day. Instead you pay another euro to stand in a queue to use one of six port-a-loos!

On the way up Mt Vesuvius
Looking in the top – there were a few areas where ‘steam’ was coming out
The huge city of Naples below Mt Vesuvius, it would be a big evacuation

I don’t get it, but that sounded very much like a grumpy old man rant. Let’s move on. Think of somewhere peaceful… I know. Erchie, our home on the Amalfi Coast. We loved Erchie, a tiny little Italian village nestled on a stony beach between soaring craggy hills right on the Mediterranean. The water was crystal clear and beautiful shades of blue and green.

Erchie from above
The beach

Our apartment was just 30 metres from the beach at the western end of which was an imposing ‘quadrangular bastion of medieval origin, built by Charles I of Anjou in 1278’. In the little bay a dozen or more colourfully painted wooden row boats bobbed up and down their moorings from the wake of ferries and cargo ships which plied the waters further offshore.

Enjoying gelato and books on the balcony after a swim!

The Amalfi Coast is one of the busiest in Europe, but happily for us the tourist busses don’t call into to Erchie. It’s an Italian secret and a very atmospheric and relaxing place to spend some time. It was just so… Italian, quiet during the week and busy on the weekends as folk from Naples came down to relax under the umbrellas of the privately owned beach front or sit on the pebbled shore of the public walkways which found a little room in between them. There is much to be said for Australia’s public access to beaches.

10 euros to sit in here!

On about five of our ten days we went absolutely nowhere. We had breakfast on our little balcony overlooking the water, made our way down to the beach where Amy and Oliver paddled around on the windsurfer board that came with the apartment and read books in the sun. There were tiny grocery stores and even a gelataria a short walk away when we needed to top up our supplies or indulge our senses. It was very pleasant, although the dodgy Wi-Fi caused me some anxiety. Wi-Fi, I need Wi-Fi!

Fun and games


On the other days we explored the broader Amalfi coast which is every bit as fabulous as its reputation suggests. It is just stunning. How else can I say it? It’s stunning. Quite one of the prettiest stretches of real estate I’ve seen. The coast jumps abruptly up from the sea rising to over a kilometre in height and its steep craggy cliffy hills are laden with terraced groves of lemon trees, interspersed with the remnants of what I presume to be native vegetation of shrubbery and umbrella pines.

Towns and villages cling to the headlands and ravines that sit amongst it all, connected by a thin ribbon of road that has no right to exist in this vertical landscape. The road contours its way around the cliffs suspended by pillars and posts and ducking through tunnels through the mountainside often to emerge straight on to bridges over high ravines.

Impossible road and tunnels
The thin ribbon of road

The whole place is quite spectacular, and totally impractical. There is just not enough land to go around, with the road itself barely wide enough to fit two passing vehicles. That however doesn’t deter countless tourist coaches or local busses which clog the bitumen strip. A thirty kilometre drive from Erchie to Positano can take hours and more than a few nervous moments praying not to be tied up on the travel insurance roundabout due to damage to the rental car caused by an accident in which you are stationary!

We put our mirrors in and wished we had made offerings to the Gods
Not such a bad view when you’re stuck in traffic


Getting out of the car to look around is a whole other challenge. If you can find a park, then you’ll need a second mortgage to put your car in it for any length of time and so find yourself racing through town in search of overpriced pizza which you wolf down before racing back to your car to avoid being booked for staying too long by the parking inspector you saw circling like a shark when you arrived. That about sums up our hour in the gorgeous town of Ravello one afternoon!

Walls of flowers

There is however a more pleasant alternative. High above the main Amalfi strip is the little town of Bomerano where relatively few people venture and the parking is free. Bomerano is also the start of the ‘Path of the Gods’, a 7 kilometre trail with breathtaking views over the Amalfi coast, no need to rush and lungful’s of honey suckle and lemon scented air with every step you take. By what magic Emma discerns the internet omens which lead us to such places I will never know but I love her for it!

We spent 4 hours, maybe a bit more, strolling 12 kilometres from Bomerano to Nocelle and back. It was quite the highlight of our time, gazing down upon the beautiful coast littered with magnificent motor cruisers and yachts, across wildflower strewn meadows at the foot of cliffs and tumble down little farming houses and up the coast across Positano towards the island of Capri.

Path of the Gods
The poppies were beautiful
Greg is considering buying this for a Grand Designs episode
See the path down there? Amazing!
Wildflowers everywhere
The crew with Positano behind
Spectacular scenery


For those that are interested, I never did catch that cat and so I had to make up my own mind whether the Gods would smile upon a late afternoon gelato. I think however they must have been well pleased because the gelato was smooth and creamy and really oh so good.

[1] To consult a chicken, place food before it. If it eats, then the Gods are pleased and you should do whatever you were going to do (chickens were generally consulted before going to war). If it doesn’t eat then woe betide, you should go back to bed. A Roman sea commander once consulted a chicken without an appetite before heading into battle and went into battle anyway. He got trounced. Which just goes to show you should always trust chickens.