Tuesday, 19 November 2013

Fall 2013: Day 4, Pisa & Florence

The Leaning Tower of Pisa
I had about 5 days in Italy. Other than the base, Rome, I contemplated visiting other Italian cities during the trip - Milan, Venice, Amalfi.

In the end, I decided not to bog myself down with too much travel and settled for a day trip  to both Pisa and Florence.

I began the day bright and early and headed to Rome's Termini Railway Station. There, I bought my high-speed train tickets from the counter. It cost me €43.00 (Editor's Note: At that time, I thought the price was alright and pretty fair. On hindsight, I'm pretty sure I could get it for about 30% cheaper if I had planned ahead and got the tickets earlier. Remember, instant or last minute tickets will often cost a bomb)

My train departed at 8.20am towards Milan. Typically this journey will take about 1.5 hours. Since I was heading for Pisa first, I had to take another train from Firenze SMN. This time, it was a regional train and it cost €7.90 and the journey is about an hour.

Now, there's actually 2 ways to get to the Leaning Tower of Pisa by train:

Option 1:
From Firenze SMN, take the regional train to Pisa Centrale. Upon reaching the station, take the exit and cross the road to a bus stop near a building housing Hotel NH. I practically did zero research on how to get to the Leaning Tower, so I had to ask around if there are buses that will take people there. Apparently, there is a free shuttle. And because it is free, it is often full. This bus ride will take about 15 min. Buses comes at intervals, so be prepared to wait. This was what I did.

Option 2:
As I am writing this down, I was also looking up on the website if there was a better way (a very belated research). If I could go back in time, I would probably take this option. Instead of stopping at Pisa Centrale, stop at Pisa San Rossore. From there, it is just a matter of walking over to the Leaning Tower in about 15 min. This is not tried and tested by me, but I would go for this option, as on paper, it looks like something that works for me.

Train ticket machines 

Departure Board - Mine is Train AV9514, heading towards Milan 

The TrainItalia train that I took to Firenze SMN
Climbing up the Leaning Tower of Pisa will need a ticket and it cost €18.00. I think its good advice to book your ticket online here if you intend to ascend the tower. I did not. Personally, I felt that admiring the Leaning Tower of Pisa from afar is enough. And €18.00 is simply not worth it la (the cathedral is free though). Plus, honestly, I'm on a pretty tight schedule due to the absence of prior planning. One more thing, in the area around the Leaning Tower, there are vendors selling souvenirs at a pretty good price. I got a bunch of keychains for a good price from a Bangladeshi. Check them out.

Hard Rock Cafe, Florence
- Photo Credit: www.hardrock.com
I left Pisa for Florence. Florence was a breath of fresh air. I don't know, but Florence was different from Rome. Florence is prettier. Time is limited as I need to catch the train back to Rome. So I first searched for the Hard Rock Cafe in Florence, got my shot glasses and headed to the Piazza del Duomo where the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore is. After which it was a short walk to the Palazzo Vecchio. There is a replica of Michaelangelo's David at the entrance of the Museo du Palazo, as well as yet another fountain of Neptune. I was also fortunate enough to witness a double rainbow brought about by a short drizzle earlier in the day!

The pretty massive Cathedral Santa Maria del Fiore
Carousel at Piazza del Repubblica
Replica of David
The Double Rainbow
Another short walk led me to Ponte Vecchio, the Old Bridge across River Arno. Although it did not survive a flood, it survived World War II. Ponte Vecchio is not only a bridge, but it also houses a number of shops, mostly goldsmiths and jewelers. I first know about this bridge when I saw it in an "exhibition of bridges around the world" up the Tower Bridge in London.

Walking along Ponte Vecchio
Ponte Vecchio
After sunset, it was time to head back. I traced my way back to Firenze SMN Railway Station, absorbing the night sights of Florence, the back alleys, narrow streets and her cobbled streets.

Firenze SMN Railway Station
Train back to Rome going at 246 km/h
It was a long day indeed, but certainly a fulfilling one.

Monday, 18 November 2013

Fall 2013: Day 3, Rome

The third day began with an early morning visit to the world famous Colosseum. You just have to see it when visiting Rome. Take the train to Colosseo Station on Line B. I got tickets to enter at €12.00. I didn't get a guide. Is it worth the €12.00? I'd say that this is money one should not save on. Enter and walk around the ancient amphitheatre at least once and marvel at the structure.

I was greeted by a group of 4 men in gladiator suits and armor outside the Colosseum. Warning: This is nothing but a tourist trap. A minor scam. So the Modus Operandi will be to get friendly with you and entice you to get a photo with gladiators for keepsakes. One of them will help to take the picture with your camera while the other 3 will gamely pose with you for a couple of shots. And before you leave, they will ask you for some Euros. I'm not sure if they have a market rate. As it was my first experience with such things, I dug out a €2.00 coin, passed it to one of them and walked off. They don't seem too happy so I assume that was way below the market rate.

Next up was a 20 minute walk to Santa Maria in Cosmedin where the Bocca dela Verita or "Mouth of Truth" lies (no pun intended!) There isn't so much of an entrance fee, but more of a courtesy fee of €0.50 needed. When I arrived, there was a short queue. There is a guy who manages the tourists - helps to take photos for them (maximum 2 shots per person apparently) and prank them sometimes.

"Mouth of Truth"
A bridge in ruins at the River 
In the afternoon, it was a trip to the Vatican City. I took the Metro to Ottaviano Station. As you walk from the station to the Vatican City, you will see plenty of souvenir shops, eateries, street vendors selling toys as well as people approaching you offering guide service for a tour of the Vatican. I walked past all of them as my objective was only to see the place for myself and perhaps enter, if time and crowd permits. Not surprisingly, there were hordes of tourists and a whole lot of them in a very long queue. My guess is, they are queuing to enter the museums or the Sistine Chapel. With a shrug, I went the other way and happily snapped photos of the architecture there, St Peter's Basilica and St Peter's Square - the huge open space where people gather to see and listen to the Pope.

St. Peter's Square and St Peter's Basilica
As I'm not a fan of huge crowds, I quickly left Vatican City as soon as I was done with getting photographs. A Metro ride later, I found myself back across the River Tiber, exploring and admiring places like the Pantheon, Piazza Navona and the Altar of the Fatherland - a strikingly huge and white monument.

Pantheon - Natural light shining through the top of the dome
Altar of the Fatherland
I'll recommend Piazza Navona as one of the places to visit in Rome on a fine day. Being an open space, there are no admission charges. You can admire the buildings surrounding it and its fountains with their respective statues. There are often street vendors selling paintings and drawings too. You don't have to buy them, but I like to just admire the talents. Besides, there are eateries in the area, which I think is a good place to sit, enjoy your food and people watch.

Piazza Navona
Piazza Navona - Eateries & Art Vendors
Piazza Navona - Fountain of Neptune
I head back in the early evening to rest for the next day will involve a little bit of inter-city travelling.

Sunday, 17 November 2013

Fall 2013: Day 2, Rome

Unlike previous trips, I was pretty lax with the planning on this trip. So I decided to just go with the flow, during this trip - go where I feel like going, when I wanted to. So the 2nd day was pretty relaxing.

I began the second day with a visit to Rome Grand Mosque. I decided to purchase a Metro Day Pass for my train travel throughout the day. I figured its cheaper than buying Single Tickets. The Metro Day Pass was €6.00 - unlimited rides for the whole day. From the Metro Station nearest to my hotel - Manzoni - I took the Metro to Flaminio Station to change to another rail line. Flaminio is the start/end station of the local line. To get to the mosque, stop at the Campi Sportivi Station. The ride is less than 10 minutes.

Metro Day Pass
Campi Sportiva Station
From there, its a straightforward and easy 5 minutes walk to the mosque. Unfortunately, I wasn't able to enter the main prayer hall during this visit. I had to contend with doing my "Solat Sunat" in a smaller prayer hall. In any case, I managed to get a photo of the sprawling mosque's complex.

Rome Grand Mosque
I left the mosque and headed for Spagna Station on the Metro Line A. This is the station to stop at should you be looking for the Spanish Steps. It is just a few Spanish Steps away. Nearby, you'll also find yourself in an open space - a piazza - with many tourists, people selling roses, and horses pulling carriages. The area is also where all the designer labels are - Louis Vuitton, Prada, Channel, Gucci, and the likes.

Spanish Steps
Horse Carriages

Rome, as per many European cities, should be enjoyed by walking. Buskers and street artists line the streets. If you are into architecture, the walk will be filled with plenty of buildings to marvel at. I continued my walk on Via del Corso towards Galleria Alberto Sordi - a Shopping Mall. I stopped here for a cup of coffee at illy. If you've been around, illy is almost everywhere in the world. 


Americano at Illy, Galleria Alberto Sordi
After coffee, I continued my walk around the area. Its my first day in Rome, so I thought getting myself acquainted with the area will be helpful. On the way, you can browse through plenty of souvenir shops, restaurants by the sidewalks, and cafes. Since the food will not be Halal, I dropped the idea of getting myself into one of those restaurants. But if I could, I will probably want to be seated in one of those restaurants by the side of a piazza. To me, that will give the "Italian Experience".

Cafe by the Piazza
The Fontana di Trevi is just a stone's throw away from the Galleria Alberto Sordi. As expected, throngs of tourists are gathered here. Other than taking photos, tourists are more than excited to throw coins into the fountain. Apparently, it should be thrown with the right hand, over the left shoulder. I'm not into such things, so I wouldn't know if any wishes should be involved with that action.

Fontana di Trevi
Moving on, I walked more towards the Barberini Metro Station. This time to tick Hard Rock Cafe Rome off the list. If you are taking the Metro, stop at Barberini Metro Station. After that, it is a 5 minutes walk. If you can see Hotel Majestic on your left, you are on the right track. I managed to get my shot glasses to add on to my collection, and made my way back to the hotel.

Image Credit: Hard Rock Cafe, Rome

Saturday, 16 November 2013

Fall 2013: Day 1, Dubai

So I begin my second trip to Europe. This time, on my own. Surreal.

And for the first time, I took Emirates. Why Emirates? It was the best option at that time. It may not be the cheapest, but this flight selection gave me the best value. Talk about value, my return flight ticket between Singapore and Rome (with a transfer at Dubai both ways) cost me S$1,108.50.

Which explains why my trip began in Dubai.

So after a flight of almost 8 hours, I arrive Dubai International Airport.......at 1.00am in the morning. It could be better, but believe me, it was the best choice. So I killed time by having a very late supper at Subway, surf the net, did one or two Sudoku puzzles and eventually un-glamourously slept sitting on the floor, resting my back on one of the pillars with a power socket (yes, I was chaging my mobile phone at the same time)

Dubai International Airport
Then at about 5.30am, I woke up to catch one of the first trains out to the city. With the next flight at 3.05pm, I know I have to return to the airport by 1.00pm. I had a plan and a checklist of places to go. Top of the list: The World's Tallest Building - The Burj Khalifa.

Dubai Metro
First stop on my list was actually the Burj Al-Arab. I leave the airport via the Red Line of the Dubai Metro for the Mall of the Emirates Station. Once there, I realised that there is no way I can get to the Burj Al-Arab by foot and still make it to my second stop. My second stop is a pre-booked visit to the Burj Khalifa at 9.00am. You can purchase tickets from home at their At The Top website. My ticket costed AED 130.00. So I had to settle for a photo of the Burj Al-Arab from afar before heading to the Burj Khalifa/Dubai Mall station.

Burj Al-Arab
Dubai City Skyline
Walking over from the Metro station to get to the foot of the Burj Khalifa took longer than expected. Dubai Mall was super huge. It took me about 20 minutes to get to the ticket counter. I got there in good time and after a short queue, ascended to the viewing gallery. Here are some shots:

I then made my way out of the maze that is Dubai Mall to take the Metro to Emirates station via the Red Line. I exited Emirates station to take a bus (You can take either Bus F8, 43 or 64A) to Dubai's Hard Rock Cafe.

Weather is pretty hot. That explains the
air-conditioned bus-stop. 
Hard Rock Cafe, Dubai
Take the same bus back to Emirates Station. From there, I took the Metro back to the airport, in time for my flight to Rome.

At Rome's Fiumicino Airport, I took the train to Roma Termini. I remembered checking that a train ticket to Roma Termini will cost €11, but the ticket I got was €16 (inclusive of €2 in fees) The train ride took about 30 minutes. After which, I switched to the Metro for a 10 minute ride to Manzoni Station. My hotel, Milton Hotel Roma, is just a mere 2 minute walk from the station. By the time I arrive, it was already 8.00pm and all I want to do was to get some sleep on a proper bed!

Fiumicino Station
Single Room, Milton Hotel Roma