Archive for Europe

Review on our Europe trip in 2012

Before the tour
This was our honeymoon trip that took us close to 4 months of research and planning. We went on the free & easy and not the tour package option, for our belief is honeymoon has to be exclusive to only the couple. In planning for a trip we considered many factors, and slowing scaling down into smaller details.

• Started by deciding which part of the world we are visiting
• Deciding on which season of the year for travel
• Zooming into the specific countries
• Deciding on the total amount of days for the trip
• Breaking down the days and nailing the specific city/town of each country
• Research on the key sightsee and highlights of each location
• Research on the flight entry and depart location
• Research on specific train timing and connection points
• Research on accommodation
• Estimate the budget for accommodation, transport, food, sightsee, shopping etc
• Read up travel blogs and watch out for recommendations, warnings, feedbacks etc

In summary we came up with the following travel plan:
Fly into Italy, Rome. Fly back from France, Paris

8 days Italy
Rome -> Florence/Pisa -> Venice

7 days Switzerland
Lucerne -> Interlaken -> Bern

7 days France
Colmar -> Strasbourg -> Paris

My itinerary plan can be found here. From my blog you could see that some of the days did not follow the plan exactly. We did some swapping but I did not update the itinerary to reflect them – too much hassle.

Therefore my travel log is based on our research and actual experience of the places of visit within the shouldering season (Winter -> Spring) in April. It does not serve as a detailed planning tool for these countries, but more so as a memory keep sake for us as travel logs. However you should still be able to benefit from some of my research, useful links, and my actual experience in these countries.

 

Country & Culture
All 3 countries have their unique culture. Of them we like Switzerland best.

 

Weather
April is a shouldering season where this region transits from Winter into Spring. The temperature differs from regions but is generally on the low side, bringing nice and cooling weather all day round. At some parts it could get really cold when the rain combine with wind, so proper clothing is required to travel at this time of the year. Switzerland is the coldest of all these 3 countries, and we love it best.

 

Food
Italian food is rather different from Swiss and French. Italian dishes contain lots of cheese and can get quite “jelat”. Swiss and French dishes are much more balanced. In term of pricing, Switzerland is the most expensive, Italy in the mid range, and France being more economical.

 

Shopping and Money matters
Both Italy and France uses Euro, while Switzerland uses its own Francs. These are major currencies and can be easily found at most money changers.

Over a long trip it might cost up to 5 figures dollars. To carry that amount of cash would be rather dangerous. Imagine you are pickpocket or extorted half way through the trip. With such risks many travellers will chose to bring cash to cover for food and sightseeing, while leaving the major bills like accommodation and transports to credit cards. For us, we bought along SGD9,000 of cash to last the entire trip. It was a risk but we prefer not to incur additional charges from credit cards. To play safe, we split the cash into many different portions, hidden throughout the body.

 

People and Languages
The locals generally do not disturb us, with exception of some that were rude to us. Give them the respect and they will do likewise. Swiss are the friendliest and well mannered.

Italy and France uses its own language while Switzerland is slightly special. Depending on which part of Switzerland you might hear the local speaking Italian, French, or German. Most part within Switzerland uses German language. English is known for most locals, especially at tourist areas. Thus you should not have an issue if you can only communicate in that. Just pick up a few common sentences such as “Thank you”, “Sorry” in the various languages. If you can’t speak their language or English, then you might have difficulty travelling. For example if you only speak Japanese or Mandarin. But if you can’t understand English, you wouldn’t be even reading this blog of mine.

 

Photography
It is safe to carry big and bulky SLR, as long as you keep it strap to you at all times. Do not leave your equipments unattended to. Not even for a minute, as it might go missing when you just turn your head around. Same goes for luggage, keep it within contact at all times!

In the past I travel rather heavy on photography equipments, carrying a few lenses and filters. This time round, I went with my Canon 5D II (without the battery grip), a 24-105L f4, EX430 II, tripod. That’s all. In fact I could have left my external flash at home as I probably only use it for less than 10 shots throughout the trip. I prefer natural lighting and often make do with wide aperture and higher ISO. When it is appropriate for me to have my tripod mounted, it will then be up.

On the whole if you are using a compact point & shoot, that will be easy and light to handle. But for me, I prefer to have the control over my photos so I do not go for anything lesser than an SLR. You might also want to bring along a prosumer level where you get a fixed lens but robust features to adjust the aperture and shutter.

If you are using SLR please consider bringing a wide angle lens as many landscapes require that. If possible bring lenses that has wide aperture. Those bigger than f2.8 are good. Anything below f2 is ideal for low light. I wanted to keep it simple so I went with a general lens that gives flexibility range from 24-105mm. Only thing is to trade that with a f4 aperture that is bad for indoor low light or night shots.

 

Places I enjoyed
We enjoyed many places in Italy as they really have a rich art history. Their buildings are very nicely decorated. Switzerland is probably my favourite as I am a nature lover. Mountains, lakes, and trees make me go crazy. Especially when it is slow pace.

 

Necessary items
Depending on your time of travel, you will need different clothing. But the generic items should not be missed.

• Socket or power convertor for your gadgets (check it out here)
• Maps (or you can get it when you are at the hotels)
• Washing detergent and hanger if you are travelling for a long period
• Medication
• Money pouch
• Photocopy of your important documents
• A good pair of walking shoe
• A smaller backpack for carrying items when you are out for the day
• Umbrella
• Lip balm especially if you are from a more humid country

The rest of the necessity items like money and stuffs for shower should be a no brainer.

 

Useful links
I will list those links pertaining to the specific country in the individual country review. Over here are generic links that are helpful throughout the trip.

Rick Steves Travel Guide
http://www.ricksteves.com

Guide to travelling Europe using rails
http://www.seat61.com

Eurail pass official website
http://www.eurail.com

Rail Eurail SG
http://www.raileurope.com.sg

Accomodation Booking.com
http://www.booking.com

Trip Adviser
http://www.tripadvisor.com

 

Review on our Italy trip in 2012

Before the tour
Italy is a beautiful country, rich in art and history. Depending on how many days you have, you then decide what you wish to experience from Italy. Do you want to go for the common sites like Rome and Venice? Or do you prefer to travel to lesser heard of places like the southern Sicily? Do you want more of the city experience that is filled with museums and monuments? Or do you prefer the country side where the pace of life comes to a halt?

Read up on the travel guides and especially travel blogs. I personally prefer the blogs as they give more real life experience.

We chose Italy as it holds 2 of the Wonders of the World. Our dream is to visit as many of the Wonders as possible. In 2010 we were in Egypt for its Great Pyramids of Giza. This time we wanted the Colosseum of Rome, and the Leaning Tower of Pisa. They belong to different eras of 7 wonders, but to us Wonders are Wonders!

 

Country & Culture
We don’t really research or know the culture of Italians, except that they are well known for the history of Roman Empire, and the trails of art through the Renaissance. This country has a lot to offer, from countryside plains, coastal areas, busy cities, to small towns. Italy is a J shape surrounded by the Tyrrhenian and Mediterranean Sea, and connected by land to a few countries such as France, Switzerland, Austria, and Slovenia.

 

Weather
Just like any country in Europe, Italy goes through the 4 seasons. Snow is not seen during Winter in many parts of this country, except for the higher altitude mountains. We travel during the cooler period of the year and thus the travel log is based on that.

 

Food
Ah, when it comes to food, Italians has their taste of its own. The more well known dishes are pizzas and spaghetti, which can be seen in many other parts of the world.

The price ranges depending on the type of restaurants you are visiting. Take it as a different level of class. There are quite a few categories but the major 3 goes like this:

• Ristorante – Here you can expect the most expensive options with the higher-end service
• Trattoria – It might look identical to a Ristorante but a Trattoria is cheaper due to its locations
• Osteria – This is one grade lower than Trattoria and typically found in neighbourhood

Most dishes can be found in all the various categories so mostly it is the price and service that differ. When it comes to dining, Italians follow a sequence. In a sit down restaurant, you will always see dishes categories into:

• Antipasto (Appetisers)
• Primo (1st course)
• Secondi (2nd course)
• Dolci (Desserts)

Tipping in Italy is welcome but not compulsory. If you wish to tip, a 10% would be more than sufficient. Take note that restaurant mostly have service charge. Most of the time this is incorporated in the bill, while sometime you give it together with the tipping. Look out for the word “servizio”, which means service charge. See if it is included or excluded from the bill presented to you.

 

Shopping and Money matters
Italy uses Euro at time of writing. Keep your money safe at all time. Some places in Italy such as Rome are dangerously filled with pickpockets. Overall Italy is not a dangerous place to travel. They do not have big crimes where crooks come with machine guns and start spreading bullets on people. But safety is still a personal effort for all travellers. Small theft and scams are still common at tourist spots, so be aware when strangers approach you for anything.

We did not do much shopping in Italy. Prices in retails and boutiques are mostly fixed. You get to bargain probably at small stalls. Please only negotiate if you are truly interested in buying.

 

People and Languages
Locals generally do not disturb the tourists. Give them the due respect and you will get that in return. At times we Asians might a different treatment. Some Italians might not be comfortable or might have bad experience with people from our continent. Some locals might have a look-down-on-Asians mentality, but it not widely seen. Overall we had a safe and pleasant encounter with the Italians.

For the language, definitely they speak Italian. We only remembered how to say “Thank you”, that’s enough for us to travel. Most of the places we visit recognise English as a language of communication.

 

Photography
For equipments wise, refer to the overall Europe review. I shall not duplicate that here. Specifically to Italy, you might want to watch your cameras more closely. Especially in a busy city like Rome, you should never ever leave it unattended at all times. Like I said Rome is not a dangerous place but I personally do not feel comfortable getting a stranger to help with taking shots. A tripod solves the problem, but in Rome I never set up the tripod as the city is crowded and I do not want to take any chance of someone grabbing my tripod plus camera from a distance, and me having to chase him for it.

 

Places I enjoyed
We love Florence and Pisa. Venice is not too bad when we ventured into the less crowded lanes.

 

Useful links
Jessica’s whyGo Italy guide
http://www.italylogue.com

Italy holidays
http://www.feiertagskalender.ch

Outlet shopping
http://www.touritalynow.com

Italy official railway website
http://www.trenitalia.com

Rome Metro guide
http://www.rometoolkit.com

Vatican Museum ticket reservation
http://biglietteriamusei.vatican.va

Uffizi Museum ticket reservation
http://www.b-ticket.com

Venice transport tickets
http://www.veniceconnected.com

 

2012 Europe Trip Day 1 – Italy : Rome

10 Apr 2012

It was last year Christmas since I met Nick and Teik, so we decided to meet up at Terminal 3 as a gathering cum farewell. We boarded the flight at 1am SG time, and the 13 hours flight really made our butt cracked. SIA economy seats aren’t the best but decent, so we really can’t imagine flying over on a budget airline.

The plane landed at 8am Rome time (2pm SG time. 6 hours difference), and the captain reported the ground temperature to be 5°C. Amber went into a panic mode while I was rather nonchalant about the announcement. We grabbed our luggage and made it to the train platform. Ticket for Leonardo Express – direct train from Fiumicino airport to Rome Termini, cost €14 each. The counter staff at the ticket booth was rude to us – smiling at the European lady in front of us, but gave us the “you aren’t welcome” look and threw the change to us (yes he literally threw the coins to create an intentional noise, and slapped the notes). Well, what can we do? So we walked off.

We arrived Rome Termini at 10am and were early for check-in. Dropped the luggage and off we went for a quick orientation around the surrounding. Got some lunch, visited a supermart (alcohols are dirt cheap!), and sat in a garden while enjoying the cool weather. Came back to hotel at 1pm for check-in and found the room to our liking. Cost us €252 for 3 nights.

La Locanda dell’Angelo
Viale Castro Pretorio 25, Stazione Termini
Roma, 00185 Italy
Phone +39064957123
Email info@lalocandadellangelo.it

Our agenda for today
1. Colosseum
2. Palatine Hill
3. Roman Forum
4. Pantheon
5. Trevi Fountain
6. Spanish Steps

Rome’s zebra crossing is different from ours. The cars would not stop when you wait at the start point. You need to step into the zebra crossing and the cars will naturally halt when they see you blocking their way. This might sound like a dangerous stun to pull in Singapore, but in Rome this is rather safe, as their traffics are travelling at slow speed of around 30 ~ 50km/hr.

Their subway stations (map) cut through like an X, making some of the areas only accessible via trains or footwalk. Fortunately there is a Colosseo Station next to our 1st destination. Rome’s public transport tickets are rather straight forward. It is a fixed price regardless of distance travelled.

• B.I.T €1.00 – Standard ticket, valid for one Metro ride or 75 minutes on all buses.
• B.I.G €4.00 – Daily ticket, valid for unlimited metro, bus, and train travel within Rome.
• B.T.I €11.00 – 3days tourist ticket, valid for everything listed under the B.I.G ticket.
• C.I.S €16.00 – Weekly ticket

April is not considered as peak season for travelling, but it is not surprising to see long queues at famous tourist highlights such as Colosseum. From our prior research, I know that the best site for tickets would be at Palatine Hill, so we tried navigating towards that. We sort of took a wrong turn and ended up in a mini church, retreating the same route before finding Palatine Hill. While in queue, there were only 2 persons in front of us (literally almost no queue). It does pay to do your research before travelling :). The ticket goes for €12 each, and granting entrance to all 3 sites (Colosseum, Palatine, Forum).

Palatine Hill is like a stroll in the park, with occasional ruins that seems to be their playgrounds at old time. Roman Forum is an entire ruin, which you will need imaginations to “reconstruct” the fallen pillars and buildings. We didn’t fare well in that, and ended up just walking through the ruins, snapping pictures. It might have been a cultural and historical experience to many, but for us, it was just nice to be walking in the same path, thousands of years after Julia Cesar has walked.

Back to Colosseum, and we zoomed pass the long queue. It was mid afternoon, with harsh shadow casted from the setting sun, and throwing half of this blood bath arena’s internal structures into darkness. Probably noon would be the best time to capture the internal without shaded portion. The battle ground where countless bloodshed, is very different from what we see in the movie. It is not a open ground where the gladiator is seen by all spectators, but rather walls of narrow passages where they fight towards their doom. Once again, it was nice to be standing on the ground where souls where given up thousands of years back. This is our 2nd wonders of the world, 1st being Egypt pyramid.

We were rather high on tide after Colosseum, and for those who have been to Rome, you will know that it is a challenge finding public toilets.

We tried to train station – Nope
Tried the tourist information centre – Nope
Tried walking the entire stretch of street from Colosseum to Trevi Fountain – Nope

In the end, we had to grab some drinks in a café. It was for the restroom really, so the foot rest and drinks were secondary.

Trevi Fountain, definitely packed with tourists, as well as pickpockets. We went on high alert and I got Amber to watch my surrounding while I lost myself in composing the shots. As usual, we took the 大头照. Someone saw that and offered to help, so we rather play the careful tourist and declined any “kind offer”. During travels, my camera will hardly leave my side. So the only time we get someone to do a shot, is after they asked us to take theirs, and so we know they too are tourists.

People who are at Trevi will toss a coin (back facing the fountain), as legends has it said that it will ensure your return to Rome. Throwing a second coin leads to a new romance, and a third coin leads to marriage. We don’t need any of those so Amber threw 1 coin just for fun. We could and should have stayed at Trevi for much longer, enjoying the scene and letting time pass away. However we chose to head towards the last destination – Spanish Steps. To us, it was nothing much but a series of steps with people sitting all around. We weren’t really wow by it, so a couple of photos and we moved on. The shopping district is around here, with high end brands such as LV, Hermes etc.

Ended the 1st day at 9pm, with some bread from Termini’s Café Express. We were still adjusting to the time lag, and felt worn out, which was good since the next day will starts at 6.30am for Vatican.

Now thinking back, we should have retreated back to Trevi after that sunset, and probably I could get some night shots of the fountain, which was suppose to be nicer. However on hindsight, with those packed crowd, I guess setting up my tripod will be rather challenging.