Hi all!

I’m back on home soil straight into a week of horrifically cold and stormy weather, and what better way to prepare for my 9am start back at uni tomorrow than a late night slaving over this? This edition is proudly sponsored by the country ITALY, where I spent two weeks in the middle of June….


My second TopDeck tour kicked off in Rome on the 9th of June (yep, that means I’m now over a month behind. But I’m persevering!). This was a smaller tour, starting with 20 in Rome, losing 5 from the original group and gaining 11 new people in Florence 8 days in, so we were 31 at our biggest. This meant just about everyone got a double seat to themselves any time we were driving, which was great!

Anyway, once we got the initial meeting and greeting out of the way we set off on a walking tour of the city, from the Piazza del Popolo through the Spanish steps, Trevi fountain, Pantheon, Trajan’s column/forum and the Colosseum, for a real taste of ROME101. Dinner that night was of course pasta in a local restaurant.

The next day we all headed off on a guided tour of the Vatican which was, in my opinion, a total letdown. It was not our guide’s day as we lined up in the wrong queue, he didn’t plug his microphone in and all the other guides and even ‘tourist police’ seemed against him. The pièce de résistance was when he left us to go into the Sistine Chapel and arranged a meeting place; none of us could tell where he meant but we all manages to end up together…without him. After about 10 minutes a party headed back in to find him and eventually came in range on our headsets to find him despairing and close to tears. Quite hilarious really.

HOWEVER, because he was in such a fragile state this meant that, when we discovered that we could not in fact ditch the group before St Peter’s Basilica to go back to the other museums, like he had told us, and should have in fact gone before the Sistine Chapel, this meant I had to hold my tongue because he would have had a breakdown if I had said ‘actually yes, I am annoyed because I haven’t seen anything I came here to see so this visit has been a total waste of time and not to mention a rip-off’. Aside from the fact that I didn’t get to see the main things I wanted to, (Raphael’s frescoes…Caravaggio’s Entombment…the spiral staircases which don’t intersect to name but a few), the things he DID show us were really shitty and everyone was underwhelmed! Endless sculpture-y nicknacks and a hall of maps was pretty much it. The Vatican has one of the richest collections of art in the world and there was just so much stuff that he could have showed us that would have been so much more interesting! So I was not a happy camper.

From there a group of 10 or so of us got lunch and then headed to the Colosseum and Pantheon. We then split and four of us decided to go to the ossuary at the Capucin monastery; basicallly a whole lot of alcoves with decorative displays made out of bone…of deceased monks. We’re talking completely covering all four walls AND the ceiling which you had to walk under. One of the most bizarre and quite frankly disgusting things I have ever seen. Each alcove had a theme such as ‘the femur room’ or ‘tib and fib’. The worst was that they had full skeletons dressed in Capucin robes suspended and leering out of the walls at ominous angles. No photos allowed so here’s some from google to set the scene…

That evening we went to a restaurant near our hotel where I had probably the best pasta of the trip; orechiette with bacon and broccoli, and then went out for a night of bowling and bonding. I didn’t come last and had some improvement in the second game (still a crushing number of gutterballs though) so geat success!


From Rome we were heading down to the Amalfi Coast and our first stop was at Pompeii, where we spent a couple of hours here with a very glamorous guide. She was really good and the site was huge with lots to see – the arena, amphitheatre, shops, houses, baths, the brothel – but I couldn’t help feeling a little bit underwhelmed. I think it’s because I’ve already seen a lot of ruins, and to me Pompeii is special because  it was covered, and then uncovered, which we didn’t really touch on. Because it was such a massive site I asked her how long it had taken to excavate it all and she said a thousand years – fascinating! So I would have loved to have learnt more about that or seen some displays about the excavation etc.


We then headed on to Sorrento, just south of Naples, where we were staying for two nights. We didn’t spend a lot of time there, with Sorrento mainly acting as a base for most of us to spend the following day at the island of Capri, famous for its Blue Grotto. Unfortunately we weren’t able to go into the blue grotto as the water was too high (with the tiny entrance disappearing every time a big wave hit it), but we still had a great time on a private boat tour right around the island, as well as heading up on the cable car for a quick explore of the ‘settlement’ of Capri and its shops.

Most of us then headed back to the mainland to Positano, a town built right up into the rock, which we ascended only to discover we had to descend to find some dinner (disappointing – carbonara = mac n cheese. It wasn’t even spaghetti). Then we got a bus back to Sorrento which put the Rimutakas to shame, with the added bonus of a sheer cliff drop on one side of the road. Think Grafton Road, on steroids. We were all relieved to make it back to our hotel alive!


From Amalfi we headed to Assisi where we had one night. We had a tour with a local guide ending with, of course, St Francis’ basilica. As usual no photos were allowed but I was very excited to see the frescoes by Giotto and Simone Martini completely covering the upper and lower churches respectively. Here are a few images from my old mate google:


The next day we were headed to Florence via Siena. This was the first place I was really excited to visit as in Year 13 art history we spent a whole term studying fourteenth century Italian art and comparing the Sienese and Florentine schools. We started off with a walking tour which mainly talked about the 17 different neighbourhoods of Siena, which all have an animal as their ‘mascot’; and every year there are two very famous horse races between 10 of the neighbourhoods in the Piazza del Campo (main square). While this was interesting, it was pretty much all our guide talked about and she didn’t mention anything artistic at all, so was once again rather dissatisfied and spent the whole time thinking about all the more interesting stuff she could have been telling us.

After our tour and a painstakingly long wait for lunch I raced off to the town hall, found the two rooms and their frescoes we’d studied and drank them in (google photos below), then raced back up the hill to go to the duomo. Unfortunately Duccio’s Maesta which was what I wanted to see isn’t in the cathedral anymore; it’s in the museum, which you could only visit if you paid to climb the big arch which I didn’t have time to do, so I just had a quick squiz around the cathedral then found my way back to the bus.

From Siena we headed to a Tuscan winery where we learnt about the process of making wine, and had a wine tasting with home-made dinner. Mamma’s ragu is definitely hard to beat!


Once we arrived in Florence we met the 11 new people joining our tour and headed out to karaoke at a bar with ‘the worst guitar player in the world’. He didn’t disappoint. The next morning we had a walking tour with a local guide and were then left to our own devices for the day. There was so much I wanted to see and ultimately there was only one thing (the Medici palace) I didn’t get to, so I think that was a pretty solid effort. First of all we went to the Uffizi gallery to buy advance tickets which let us come back at a certain time and go straight in. We then had about 45 minutes to whip to the Santa Croce cathedral which was fairly close by, but still rushed. Florence is famous for its Duomo (the main cathedral), but I was more exited about this one as it had private chapels in it with frescoes by Giotto which I had studied, with many people including Michelangelo, Leon Battista Alberti, Dante Aligheri and Machiavelli buried there.

I spent a couple of hours at the Uffizi, where I saw heaps of stuff I’d studied at school, mainly fourteenth century tempera panels from both the Florentine and Sienese schools, and high renaissance works including Michelangelo’s Doni Tondo which i did an assignment on in school. From there we headed to the Duomo, which was rather underwhelming on the inside (and we didn’t have time to climb its dome or the bell tower), and then headed to the Accademia to see Michelangelo’s David. Unfortunately there didn’t seem to be any way of avoiding queuing, and it was a long wait in the baking sun. Honestly, I was mainly going as I felt like I couldn’t NOT go, and the nearly 2-hour wait in the sun didn’t help matters. There was a whole lot of other stuff there but I was pretty over it at that point. As usual, no photos allowed and i was too wimpy to attempt it. I will say that he is HUGE and a lot bigger than the copy outside the [Florentine] town hall.

Dinner that evening was Florentine steak, at 1kg (and €36 minimum) a pop. I made it through my half, just.


The next day we had two daytime stops, the first of which was in Lucca, an old walled town famous for its silk and home of Puccini. we had a nice relaxing morning there. We then headed to Pisa which was the first place it was HOT, and I mean really hot (probably 35 degrees, no wind, heat reflecting off the marble) and it stayed that way for the rest of the trip. After taking our obligatory tourist photos most of us hid inside the McD’s until it was time to go (only after a sweltering walk back to the bus park).


Cinque Terre

Our next ‘real’ stop was La Spezia, from where we were exploring Cinque Terre, five picturesque villages along the Ligurian coast. It’s actually a national park with coastal walks between the villages (otherwise only accessible by train or boat), but most of them were shut due to major slips last year. One group of keenos set out at 7am to conquer the two open walks, nearly half a day’s worth of steep walking, but there was no way I could face that – mainly just due to the heat. Fortunately I had a few like-minded souls and we had a very relaxed day, first heading to Vernazza, where we sampled ‘the best gelato in Italy’ (confirmed), and climbed the remnants of the old castle on the hill, and from there got a water taxi to Monterosso, the furthest village, where we had lunch and spent the afternoon on the beach in the blissful shade of some pricey but completely worth it umbrellas.

We then headed back to La Spezia where we were meant to be having a birthday dinner for one of the group. Unfortunately, most of the group were no-shows, including the birthday boy, who was by that stage in an alcohol-induced state of semi-consciousness on a beach somewhere. As we had a cake organised, Matt was going to be the stand-in birthday boy so the staff were none the wiser. What we didn’t forsee was them turning off the lights and the whole restaurant getting involved in singing happy birthday, and then expecting a speech. Hilarity ensued.


Our final pitstop was Venice, and on the way we passed through Lake Garda and Verona – not a lot to report apart from the fact that both these places were unbearable hot, humid and hazy. Our full day in Venice started as per with a walking tour, which included a lace and glass demonstration (which involved being shut in a room with the furnaces. Horrific). We then had the obligatory gondola ride, with sadly a non-singing gondolier, but luckily I was prepared with That’s Amore and Mambo Italiano on my ipod (which he hated). We then went to St Mark’s basilica before splitting up.

From there I went to the Doge’s palace, not to visit the palace itself but to go the Manet exhibition which was examining how his visits to Venice influenced his art. Mainly I wanted to see his Olympia side by side with Titian’s Venus of Urbino, which is a whole other kettle of fish but basically a BIG DEAL for anyone into art history. I then did some shopping before heading to the Peggy Guggenheim Collection to see some modern art, and wound my way through the city to get the bus back to our hotel. We then came back into ‘town’ for dinner and a classical music concert which was nice, but stiflingly hot, despite the fact that it was in a church.

The last day consisted of a drive back to Rome via lunch in Orvieto, home of the roast pork panini (delicious), and one final group dinner in Trastevere. The following day it was back to Lyon for me

Et voilà! No promises on when the next blog will be but I am going to finish! Avid fans can expect two more entries. Brace yourselves…

Catherine x