A Travellerspoint blog

Tuscan Tour Continues in Pienza & San Gimignamo

sunny 32 °C

Driving through Tuscany has been stunning so far. Our next stop was Pienza, a tiny town with basically one or two streets of shops and restaurants.After taking in the views of the countryside and walking through the town, we were on our way to San Gimignano, the "New York" of Tuscany in a sense that it has a few medieval towers that stick out among the lower buildings. After another freak-out with the standard car in the parking lot (apparently I'm not allowed to panic when we go barelling backwards off the edge - George's note: everything was under control and there was no barreling off a cliff - a weakly powered car is no match for a steep incline so after a failed start and some rolling backwards - cue Janet's panic - we had to back down and get a running start) we entered the amazing town. It was definitely one of the more interesting places we've been to so far. It felt as if the entire town was one big castle. It was, however, extremely busy so it was nice to wander away from the main streets into the real part of the town where none of the tourists venture out. It's amazing how nobody takes the time to walk literally one street away from the action.

La dolce vita

It was time for gelato yet again but this time it was special - it was from the world champion of gelato! George was the most excited he had been this whole trip (George's note #2: I take offense to this statement - a gross exaggeration). It was superb gelato and we savoured every bite. I have enforced a "buy your own cup" policy between us so I'm not fighting for every spoonful and I don't have to deal with gelato droppings on my tummy. He claims the spacial barriers have changed but I say that's no excuse.

Italy's best contribution to the world!

We maximized our time in this wonderful medieval-feeling city and headed towards Siena before it got too late. Siena has been one city we've been looking forward to very much this trip so let's see if it lives up to our expectations!

Is there a hunchback in that tower?

Posted by jgjourney 18:52 Archived in Italy Comments (1)

Sore Calves in Montepulciano

sunny 32 °C

Montepulciano was definitely a far cry from the busy streets of Rome. We got there in the early afternoon and right away we were met with what small Tuscan towns are known for - hilly streets. We had trouble finding our hotel which was in a small alleyway off the main road so we traveled up and down those streets for what seemed like forever. The next day it felt like I had walked up the stairs of the CN Tower.

Time to start our own wine production on the condo balcony

When we actually did find our bed and breakfast, it was lovely, as if we had our own little apartment. We went out and did some window shopping and saw the main sites. That night we ate pizza at what seemed like the busiest restaurant in town and then went for a walk. It was as if we had the whole town to ourselves because the tour buses were gone and you could really appreciate the place in a more authentic way. One thing we have yet to figure out - how do these elderly Italians walk up and down these streets??? I felt like asking them to carry me.

Janet's likely passed out on the ground 100m behind

Our B&B included breakfast at a cafe with an outstanding view of the Tuscan countryside which was breathtaking. With that, our time in Montepulciano was complete and we were on the road again to Siena, with stops at Pienza and San Gimignano along the way.

Ahh, that's more like it!

Posted by jgjourney 18:48 Archived in Italy Comments (0)

Gladiators and Spaghetti - Roma

sunny 32 °C

This year's trip is a little less out there than the last few (China, India, SE Asia) but since one of us is in less than optimal physical condition (5 months pregnant...I guess you've figured out it's not George) we decided to revisit Italy for our babymoon. This time going to different regions we've never been before, aside from Rome which is one of my favourite cities I always said I'd come back to.

Rome was our first stop and where we spent a wonderful and tiring 3.5 days. We stayed steps away from Piazza Navona and it was the perfect location. Although we were tired the day we got there, we walked around the square a bit and also saw the Pantheon, which is where the tomb of famous artist Raphael lies. We started off our first full day with a bang at the Colosseum, which was just as grand as the first time we saw it. What was different however was the constant breaks I needed to sit down...how annoying! We took a guided tour and I imagined George as a Gladiator (is that betraying his Spartan roots?). We also toured the ruins, which were amazing and ended up back at our hotel for a 2 hour nap. That night after a great dinner served to us by a waiter who sounded like music when he spoke, we sat at the Trevi Fountain, the most famous fountain in the world. We threw coins in, which are supposed to solidify your next visit to Rome but we threw them wrong. Not to worry, we passed by the fountain many times after that and made sure our mistake was corrected.

Gladiators for a day

The next day we toured the city and went to Piazza del Popolo (square of the people) and the Spanish Steps, which we sat on for a while. We walked around and just enjoyed the city before coming out again for dinner later on. One thing is for sure, the amount of tourists was astounding! And the buildings are beautiful, like the city is one big fake movie set.

From one of our many visits to the Trevi

Our last day in Rome was spent at the Vatican, where we were filtered in with the hoards of people through the pathway towards the Sistine Chapel (Michelangelo). Once we finally got there, I got scolded by an Italian guard for taking pictures, which you're not supposed to do. Luckily, he only made us delete two of the 5 or 6 I took because George managed to trick him into thinking we deleted them all. Next time, as George kept pointing out, I'll need to be more discrete!

Janet didn't get scolded for this picture

Supposedly the original tartufo

Today we said goodbye to Rome and picked up our rental car. It was a rough start as our GPS was slow to configure itself and took us on a big circle to right where we started. We then drove all the way across the city (quite hair-raising if you ask me, but apparently George thought it was a breeze) to get onto the highway. After some wrong turns, and some stalling, we finally got on the highway and headed to Montepulciano, a small Tuscan town on a hill. Let's just say the first part of that drive was not the most enjoyable thing in the world. However, we made it out of Rome and into Tuscany, which is much more relaxed and serene. We're looking forward to it

Posted by jgjourney 08:22 Archived in Italy Comments (1)

Coming Full Circle - Back in Beijing

overcast 2 °C

We took our last flight back to Beijing where we met the kindest Chinese guy sitting beside me who I interacted with through charades while George was sleeping. We checked into our hotel late that night and the next morning we asked the concierge about our lost bag. They knew exactly who we were and called the cab driver who apparently had it. We were told to leave some money for his fare since he had to return it (about ten times what the fare probably was) and he would drop it off that afternoon. We were a bit disappointed by his request for money since we would have of course rewarded him anyways but the fact that we would get it back at all was a miracle. Since we were going out for the day, we would have to wait until later to see if it worked out so we kept our fingers crossed!

We headed to the Silk Market, apparently the best market in Beijing and once we got there we were surprised to find what looked like a 7 storey mall. It definitely was not the type of market we were used to in our travels - indoors, boutique shops, high quality merchandise. The shop owners were as relentless as ever though and there was a chorus of "come inside", "take a look", "purse lady? Prada, Gucci, Channel?" every time we passed by. We found it to be quite expensive, almost comparable to sale prices at home for REAL stuff so we hardly bought anything. George had a friendly war going with one feisty girl where we bought most of our souvenirs. She said my husband is too cheap and kept getting pretend offended. In the end she said "you win!" but I'm sure we still paid a few times more than what we bought was worth. It's quite surprising that the cost of clothing is pretty much the same, if not more in China than in Canada. Who would have thought??

For lunch we finally went to a hot pot restaurant, a famous style of cuisine in China where you have a boiling bin of water in your table and you cook a bunch of things in it. We had no idea what we were doing so the staff tried to guide us through it and they were so amazing. The food was great and so was the experience and I'm glad I don't have to be embarrassed about not trying the most famous type of food in China. We had planned on seeing the Summer Palace, a famous palace in Beijing but unfortunately we had not time and headed back to our hotel to see if our bag had actually made it back to us. Once we walked in, there it was sitting with a bunch of other left luggage! We actually got it back with everything in tact after leaving it in a random taxi in Beijing and being gone for 2 weeks. We would call this a Chinese miracle! I made a deal with the higher powers not to get angry with certain types of drivers back home if we got it back and I will try to stick to that...for a while at least.

Finally an authentic Chinese meal - we needed better instructions

Later we went out to find hutongs, old alleyways in Beijing that are a little more historic and authentic than much of the modern city that has been built up. Apparently, over 40% of Beijing's downtown area has been demolished and rebuilt in the last 20 years. How unfortunate that they don't value their history. We walked down some hutongs that were definitely off the beaten path and more representative of the real Beijing but it was getting dark and we headed back to the main street for our last bit of souvenir shopping and some dinner in a food court full of locals. Our time in China has come to an end and we are now in the Detroit airport waiting for our connection home. We decided that when people ask us the inevitable question, "how was China?" our reaction would be "unexpectedly great". The people were surprisingly very friendly, the scenery was gorgeous, and the cities were modern. Another memorable experience that we will recall when we're old and grey.

Looking a little haggard after our first leg home - 13hrs down, 1 to go

Some final memories:

- Sporadic flash mob dances in the most unlikely of public places (predominantly old Chinese women who kept stone faces while they danced)
- High end malls on every street corner. Malls linking to another mall on the way to other malls.
- The lack of heat EVERYWHERE (aside from big cities). You think Canadians can handle the cold? Check out the Chinese.
- The lack of English. George got tons of practice writing our hotel names and addresses in Mandarin. I thought it looked wonderful but sometimes the taxi drivers had a blank look on their faces when he showed them his masterpiece.
- How do we say this nicely...the majority of the food we tried was not to our liking. We're sorry! We love almost all Asian food but something about Chinese did not go over well with us. However, we learned that the Big Mac is consistent all over the world.
- Chinese people love their escalators! It's pretty funny to watch a herd of people emerge from a subway and pile onto one escalator while the stairs remain empty. How do they have the patience?
- Women's clothing in China is very sparkly, flowery, glittery and in general, girly. No thanks!
- Chinese people, at least the young ones, love to practice their English. They will fire off a million questions one after the other now that they have a Western person in front of them. You gotta love their spirit!
- Probably the thing we admire most about the Chinese is that they love to explore their own country. There are tour groups all over the place full of Chinese tourists. We found it admirable (although annoying at times) that they are so interested in seeing their country. We hope to take that spirit and discover our beautiful country one day was well.

Until next time...

Posted by jgjourney 05:57 Archived in China Comments (0)

Winter Wonderland of Harbin

sunny -21 °C

We got to Harbin late at night so we got up the next day with the whole day ahead of us. What was the first thing we did? We walked to Walmart (yes, there is a Walmart Supercentre in one of China's most northernest cities). We needed to to find me another layer of pants since it was -21 degrees out during the day and would be -35 that night when we planned to go to the ice festival. Luckily we found some snowpants and also some scarves in a market we wandered into. The weather was actually not as bad as we anticipates, probably because we were wearing almost every layer of clothing we had brought. Even still, we were expecting not to be able to walk outside for 5 minutes without freezing and that wasn't the case. The locals must have been laughing at us (especially me) with out scarves wrapped around our heads so barely any skin was showing but hey, it beats frostbite!

We caught a cab to the Ice Festival and we were on our way to the highlight of our trip. Really, our entire trip to China stemmed from this experience so we were really hoping it lived up to our expectations. We met a Chinese father and daughter in the cab (cab drivers like to pick up extra fares and they still make you pay full price, scammers). The little girl's name was Cindy and she was very cute practicing her English with us and writing on the frosty window pane. We pulled up to the festival and even from the outside we could tell it would be amazing. Once inside we were floored by what was around us. Massive castles, slides, sculptures - basically a whole city built entirely out of ice. We were surprised by the grandness of it all and the fact that everything was lit up was even more beautiful. Now we knew why they charged $50 to get in! We acted like little kids climbing the buildings and sliding down the ice slides. There were many older Chinese people doing the same and it was really fun to see everyone was just laughing and enjoying themselves. George barrelled his way down many of the slides while I took a more "oh my goodness I need to slow down" approach. The Chinese are not known for their safety precautions, particularly on one massive slide that was basically a louge where people were lying down on small sleds going a thousand miles an hour. Even George did not attempt that one.

We're bundled up and ready to take on the frigid cold

The ice festival deserves another picture. It was just that amazing

We stayed out for an hour (hey, in -35 that's a miracle) and went into a warming station for some hot chocolate. Then we satyed out for another hour and a half when we decided to call it a night and say goodbye to the ice festival. When all was said and done, that will rank in the top five of the most amazing experiences we've had and was the highlight of our trip. That night we went to a Russian restaurant for the best meal we've had on our trip - a nice hearty Russian stew. Harbin is very close to Russia and has a lot of Russian influence, which you can see in the architecture and the general feel of the city. It definitely is a very unique combination of Chinese and Russian.

You can see Janet trying to slow herself down on the slide. She needs a little more recklessness

The next day in Harbin our first stop was St. Sofia Church, the first Russian church in Harbin. We also stumbled upon Stalin Park (you gotta love the name), a winter wonderland full of skating rinks, ice slides, ice dune buggies, and tubing all on a frozen river. These people know how to make the best of their cold weather! If it was -35 at home we'd be under extreme weather alerts and told not to leave our homes. Instead we bundled up and had the most fun we've had in a long time going tubing. Basically we were slding down a huge hill of ice on inner tubes. I couldn't stop screaming! I believe the best part was when George reached the bottom of the hill and climbed out of his tube not seeing the couple in the tube bhind him hurdling toward him. The took him out at the legs like a bowling ball! Although he probably hurt the poor little Chinese people more then they hurt him since he toppled right over them. Haha! The Chinese men at the top of the hill in charge of the ride seemed to get a kick out of booting my tube over the edge to make me go faster. I think they were playing the "let's see how loud the little Western girl can scream" game. All in all a great time.

Ah, to act like a kid again. It's amazing what fun could be had just by sliding down a hill

We spent the rest of our time in Harbin walking down the pedestrian street and going in and out of shops to get warm. Although there were ample popsicle stands everywhere and everyone was actually buying them! Perhaps hot chocolate/coffee stands would be more appropriate? We had a great time in Harbin and were definitely so glad we went there. The cold was not as much of an issue as expected and was actually a fun part of the experience. Our last stop is back to Beijing, where we would spend our final day in China. We will also find out if we'll get our missing bag back. Fingers crossed!

Posted by jgjourney 06:27 Archived in China Comments (0)

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