The Tuscan roads and directions to the villa were actually fairly easy to follow, however it was just the filling of the petrol that caused us a bit of problem. We were given the car with only a quarter tank of petrol and with mums no driving with less than half a tank rule (due to us probably running out on the side of the road where we will probably either be abducted by aliens or savaged by a pack of wild dogs or anything else equally likely, I make sure I abide by it) we had to find a station asap. So up one comes and in we swerve and task one we fail, how to remove the petrol cap, pull, twist, unlock? Combination of two? and nothing happens... so with some help from the attendant (there was actually only one person working the whole station in by the till) it was off (a hard pull was the answer) and then what petrol to put in... (Attendant again required) and how much, hmm? Mum tried 10 euro... and filled a teeny tiny bit of the tank, so had to go back for ten more (you had to pay before filling apparently, after we couldn't make the pump go either) and we were only just grazing half full. So as I felt we had made enough of a dick of ourselves for one station I suggested we go to the next to have another go! So at the next station we pulled up and out Mum hopped and was a total pro with the cap and the pre paying before filling and all the rest of it!, then with not too much trouble with the navigating we made it to our new home for the next seven days, man this travelling stuff is hard work!
Our place turned out to be lovely up in the hills with a pretty view out over the valley and the owners were really nice too and settled us in to feel right at home. We had grand visions of exploring far reaches of the country side while we had the car but we were actually too damn exhausted so we kept our activities to a minimum. We did however go into town and have a good look around and went to San Gimignano to see the neat old stone town with a heap of towers. We also had a hot air balloon ride booked in for my birthday but due to the weather not being up to scratch we had to do it the next day but it was still spectacular! The owners of the house flew the balloon so we went with them early in the morning down to one of their paddocks and helped with the setupand watched as they inflated it which was all very interesting, and then off we went. It was the most surreal feeling the first moment you float off the ground, it was something you would experience in a dream, it was just so slow and gentle and then you were off slowly sailing over the paddocks, just so damn cool! And after we landed we had some bubbles and nice nibbly cheesy treats and bread and fruit for breakfast, very civilised indeed!
On another particularly gorgeous day we set out on a walk through the countryside which was just what we needed after all this city living over the past couple of months. It was really delightful to be wandering down lanes and past vineyards where people were harvesting their grapes (a handful or two were procured for our own sustenance) past little country roads and down a track framed by huge cypress trees. Needless to say we got a bit lost coming back, but it was really due more to our instructions on which way to go than our navigational skills! But we got there in the end (after a comment or two from myself, something along the lines of 'oh god we are going to die out here!') and then sat down with a glass of wine and some cheese and relaxed and gazed out over the view.
Time flew by all too quickly and we had to say our goodbyes and set off again for Florence. Once there we got a bus to Siena (the most bouncy loud annoying bus there was) and in a couple of hours we were made it. We wandered from the bus depot to our hotel which was a nice walk because no one can drive in the city centre (apart from those that live there and taxis, but there were very few of either) and then went for another wander to find some lunch. I very rarely consult the Lonely Planet for places to eat as there is just always so much choice right in front of us but today I did and we found a little place that looked pretty average but its food was DEVINE. It was apparently a family run place that had been around for ages and was part of the slow food movement. I can't honestly remember what I ordered but it looked like green slop to be honest, but it was just so damn good (something to do with spinach and pasta and maybe a sprinkling of peanuts I seem to recall) man what a find! And all the while we were there a little dog sat on the chair opposite us just watching the comings and goings of the place (so cute, but I still can't get over this dogs being allowed inside thing!)
While it was still early we tried to sort out the next day's travel as we wanted to go to Assisi but after asking at two different bus depot counters and even getting the guy at the front desk of the hotel to check train timetables we found that nothing would be going there till the following night which was far too late for us, so we had to switch to plan B which was to head straight to Naples. So after sorting all that out we just wandered around the city, up and down and around a little walking tour we found in one of mums books and we were just coming out of a little shop when this old guy comes up to me and shakes my hand and says hello and tells me I'm beautiful and then hugs me and rambles on about something else, all the while I'm standing there thinking what the hell and mum is just watching doing the same! So he shakes my hand again and shuffles off, so freaking weird, but so funny too, then all of a sudden I thought I hope the old w*** hasn't robbed me and slipped his hand in my bag while hugging me, cause it would be a great ploy if he did, but thankfully no he didn't and I had all my stuff, he was just was just a funny weird old man!
The next day we were back on the train for our trek to Naples and it took a while but it was quite a pretty ride, that was until we started approaching Naples. The Rubbish! My god the rubbish! It was everywhere all over the sides of the roads and in piles by overflowing rubbish bins, I couldn't believe it. When we got to the city itself, we only had to walk for about five minutes from the station to the hotel and there was rubbish everywhere! Piles of it, I was so shocked and disgusted as we hadn't come across anything like this anywhere else around Italy. I have to say the town as a whole was pretty uninviting so we did our best to get out of it most days.
With two full days there we decided to make our way out to the Amalfi coast the following morning. We asked at the hotel reception if we could get there by boat and were told no, so we headed back to the train station and got the city train (which was pretty awful) to Sorrento and then got off there and then had to wait nearly an hour for the bus to Positano. I had heard that the roads into the town were steep but I had NO IDEA it would be like this. Holy s***! We are talking a gazillion metre drop down a sheer cliff to the crashing waves below, all the while in a bus packed to over capacity meaning we had to stand in the isle and negotiate kamikaze bends, half the time it was so sharp we couldn't actually see if there were any cars coming the other way - and sometimes we found out right at the last minute there was, thankfully semi slowly, and both vehicles had to come to an abrupt stop and edge past each other! I think Mum saw her life flash before her eyes, and was pretty adamant she was going to die. She was leaning to the side of the bus every time we went around a bend, just trying to help the bus stay on the road!
Luckily though we did survive and mum said she never wanted to do that again in her life! Although I found it a bit like an amusement ride, although one that I was quite happy to get off. We were deposited at the top of the town, as the cliff was too steep for road traffic and there was just a network of lanes that zigzagged down the hill sides with nice cafes and boutiques along the way. We first off took a moment to sit down and have a coffee and recount our brush with death, then we moseyed off down the hill to find a place for lunch. We found a lovely place down a little walkway and into a huge dappled courtyard with a view over the other side of the city. It is such a pretty place, but you wouldn't get anywhere very fast and you would certainly get fit living there!
When we finally got to the bottom we found where all the boats docked and asked there if there were any boats back to Naples, and they said kind of, but we would have to go to Amalfi first then back to Naples on another boat. Also it would be leaving in 15minutes and it was the last boat of the day as the weather was getting a bit rough, so we said yes! we would take it; it would be nice to see Amalfi too. So we were very lucky with our timing and on we hopped and off we sailed to Amalfi. It was a lovely trip around the coast and pretty smooth too, so we sat up on the top deck and watched the scenery go by. But we were a bit disappointed when we got to Amalfi, it was a bit like Positano, but pretty aged and needed a bit of a face lift. As we only had just under an hour before our boat back to Naples we found a nice little cafe close to the water and had a drink and people watched before it was time to board again. It was a bigger boat this time with no outside area so we settled in and was ready for our trip back. We stopped off at Sorrento on the way and got a few more people, and as we did I took some pikkys out one of the staff doors, which I got snapped doing and I thought I was in trouble, but the guy just invited me out onto the front of the boat to get some better photos, what a sweetie! Then onto Naples we went, which was all fine and dandy till we rounded the head for the last leg and the boat caught the swell and we went up and down and up and down, and so did some peoples stomachs! Mum and I were feeling particularly chipper and were not feeling any ill affects at all but many of the people onboard were looking pretty green, and the staff had to keep ushering them out the back to get some fresh air and not to share their lunch with everyone else on board! Somehow mum and I had our self in hysterics with tales of possible ways to injure ones self, and telling ones doctor that you slid over on a boat on someone's vomit and concussed yourself on a pole, somehow had us nearly rolling with laughter in the isles (and some very odd looks from the crew too!) But the waves settled down in time and we actually had the most stunning ride back to Naples at dusk, seeing all the lights of the city come on and the huge silhouette of Mt Vesuvius in the background was pretty awesome.
The following day we got picked up and taken to Pompeii on a trip we had just decided to book the day before. On the way there we got 'treated' to a rather unattractive large prostitute on the side of the road wearing nothing much more than a skimpy red nighty yelling obscenities to passersby, and even lifting up her skirt to show us her even skimpier g-string... hmmmm... I really don't think she would be getting much business with that carry on, but each to their own ... but it was pretty damn funny! When we got to Pompeii we met with our tour guide who ended up being the most annoying and slow tour guide that drove everyone on the bus crazy, and it was almost enough to ruin the experience. But with her aside, Pompeii was really neat! Just the age of that place blows you away (excuse the pun!) and you can still see the cart grooves on the city streets and the paintings on the walls, just so, so cool to get a chance to see whole city that well preserved. It was so much larger than I realised, so we only really had a chance to see a corner of the place before we had to move on but maybe one day I will have a chance to go and check out the rest. We then drove to Mt Vesuvius, but on the way up it didn't help that two oversize buses didn't read the sign at the bottom that the road wasn't suitable for long vehicles, so we spent twice as long getting there as we had to wait for the buses to do 100 point turns at every corner and blocking both ways of traffic, and getting many bus drivers very irate and tooting and yelling at them in the process. By the time we got there unfortunately the weather had really packed in and the whole thing was in fog, but damn it we paid the money so we were determined to climb it...... so we did, and there was not a single ounce of view from the top! Hell, we could actually only see about two metres in front of us the fog was so thick, but at least we can all now say we climbed it!
The following day it was time to leave Naples, which we were quite relieved about to be honest, it was a very unwelcoming city, and onto Rome. First stop in Rome was pretty obvious, yes the Colosseum! and it was huge and awesome! What wasn't awesome was the line to get into it though, so we just went for a walk around it and took some photos and contemplated going in or not. Mum had already been in there years before so it was up to me if I wanted to brave the line, but at the perfect moment a guy came up to us and asked if we wanted to have a tour through the place for 20 euro each and if we did we could skip the line.... well yeah ok! So we joined up with about 20 other people and this guy took us through and it was all really interesting to learn the history of the place. It was pretty similar to the facts we learnt in Nimes but here we could also see the substructure to the stage and where they housed the animals and where the pulleys would have been to release them up to fight each other, it was all pretty gruesome but fascinating at the same time! With the same ticket that we used for that tour we could also use it with another guide straight afterward to go around Palatine Hill and hear all the facts and see all the monuments there, which was a pretty damn good deal. I think these guys were trying to fund their way through college or something, that's why it was so cheap, but they were all on the ball and very knowledgeable about all the facts and had little flip card thingies to show pictures of what historians believed the places would have looked like had they not been ravaged by time and thieves. It was fascinating to hear the reason the Colosseum looks a bit like Swiss cheese, i.e. has lots of holes in the stone, is because all the braces that held the stones together were chiselled out and sold, and on Palatine hill all the buildings used to be covered in marble, which were ripped off to cover the buildings at Vatican city.... the Pope has some explaining to do I think!
The following day was our last day in Rome and in Italy and we went out to see the gardens Villa d'Este. We managed to miss our first train as it was on a regional line which was about a 10 minute walk from the main station and we didn't give ourselves long enough to get there. But after we figured out what the hell went wrong, and found the right spot, and realised we missed it and got back to the booking kiosks and got ourselves another ticket, luckily only 5 euro each, we were on our way. It was an hour out to the gardens from Rome and when we got there we searched for the shuttle that I read connected visitors to the garden. However there seemed to be no such shuttle and no one we asked knew anything about it so we set off in the direction of a sign we saw for the gardens. We managed to get pretty confused where the hell we were going, and at one point a group of people came up to us to ask if we knew the directions for the gardens, so with us all none the wiser we set off together. Luckily one knew some Italian and asked at intervals and we got pointed in the right direction and after about twenty minutes we made it.
It was a lovely garden; with more fountains than I thought was ever possible to fit into the one place. It wasn't even that big, but just made lovely use of the hill side that it cascaded down and there are fountains and water troughs and rills at every turn. There were even quite a few without water running through them as I suspect at times of lean water they can only afford to pump it to so many places (as there are around 500 fountains!), so it boggles your mind how they got the whole place running simultaneously back in the 1500's. So after a nice long walk around there we trekked back to Rome and then jumped on the underground to get back to the centre of town for one last mosey. We found the nicest outdoor restaurant under tons of fairy lights and had a fantastic meal and toasted to Italy, its beauty, its food, its challenges and surprises, but to be fair we were more than ready to move on. Bring on Greece baby!