Friday, August 31, 2012

Life Lessons in Manchester

The move to Manchester was a decision made long ago during a discussion Pip and I had one mould infested damp day, in our shoe box London shed. The idea was to get out and see more of the UK, to live more of English life (geezers, red bricks, pessimism and all that).

After our European adventure we took a bus to Manchester with our lives locked away in a number of barely closed (due to tetris style cram-packing) suitcases. We took the bus as £25 between us was better than £170 each for a last minute train, a lesson well learned.

The first month and a half here was a chapter which, had it been a novel, would have required a steep character arc. When we set down our bags in the Premier Inn that first night, we had no idea of the financial challenges and brick wall head banging that lay before us. In fact the misreading of the map and coming to a building site instead of our hotel seemed like enough of an adventure for us at that point. Manchester had better ideas for us, ideas where it treated us like unloved orphans or new blood to a street gang where we had to earn our chops.

Well it wasn't quite that bad. Sure the property management company did a crap job forcing us to spend a weekend in a dive of a hotel with a helpful but creepy employee who gave me a free bedsheet to take home, in exchange for promising to stop and shoot the breeze with him each time I passed the hotel (which has soo many windows so that every time I walk past he emerges from a different room leaning from three floors up yelling at me and keeping our flurishing friendship alive.)

Manchester at first made me feel uncomfortable. Walking to the hotel from the bus station we were heckled by all sorts of drunks, the place felt empty, abandoned and ugly. The morning I went for a look around I saw nothing but closed shops and shattered dreams. As it turns out I had completely missed the central area which is actually really nice. Manchester is small but has a great vibe, the people are nice and we both really like it. Once we settled into our apartment, work for Pip quickly became annoying because working from home can be very demotivating and a bit alienating. She was also under pressure to fund both of our survivals as I spent all my cash getting this apartment and could not seem to land a job.

Before I get to the whole job search bit, we were fortunate enough to get a decent apartment, albeit on the bottom floor overlooking a car park. We moved in when the place was supposedly 'clean' but found it had been left virtually as it would have been when the last occupier left without so much as picking up a wet cloth. The house has three rooms and a hall. On paper it sounds the same as London but this one has a nice bathroom which is bigger than it really needs to be, and has a bath which keeps Pip happy. The bedroom is decent sized and although the carpet bore years of unvacuumed dirt, it is now looking nice after we finally bought a small hoover. The hall is a nice entrance which we certainly didn't have in London, a place for shoes, umbrellas, coats and illusions of domestic bliss. At the end of the 'grand hall' is an open plan lounge, kitchen and dining room. This is all nice although with our lack of nick knacks to place around, beyond Pip's Morrissey picture, the place feels a little cold but will improve when I get a job.

Oh yes, a job? One of those things which you need to provide a means to live off. Well on our first morning here in London I left the hotel after telling Pip that "I'm just popping out to get a job, do we need milk or anything?" I got an interview at a cafe. After the interview a few days later I'm super confident and don't bother to apply for other jobs, but when the day they are supposed to call comes, they don't. Annoyed at myself for wasting a whole week, I re-start my job hunt - this takes a touch over a month. My daily routine consisted of searching through my hundreds of job emails to make a hit list, heading to the library and using the free internet and computers to apply for jobs.

I easily applied for over 50 jobs over the month and while I did get one job, I had to quit after just one day. After applying and running all over Manchester city I started applying for jobs which I felt would be a wee bit easier to get. The first one I landed was for a company called AES Advertising (barely Googleable), once I shopped for a suit and fooled the guy into hiring me I went through a days training with them and found out I would be selling/ giving away free solar panels and loft insulation. Sounds easy enough until you realize that there are several other (ungoogleable) company names being thrown about (who do I actually work for?). The next day we were to go out and sell, I had decided to wait until they had given us all of our ID's and material to take with us to give them the benefit of the doubt. Cue ID badges with handwritten names with my poorly cut out photo glued to the front along with a laminated piece of paper explaining what we were doing (vaguely) with pixilated images and crossed out phone numbers. So following an afternoon selling these (I sold three), and talking to all the residents of Romiley I became very uncomfortable with the whole lack of credibility. I jumped on the train and came home after a long conversation with Pip and told my boss I wasn't coming back.

So with more time wasted I hit all the cafe's again and after two more weeks I finally got some phone calls. In the mean time I had picked up a part time job as a 'Mystery shopper' which turned out to be a scam and I was caught by the bank and had to give details to the police. So I ended up with a few coffee interviews. Starbucks, Caffe Nero, a new cafe La Vazza, A music university cafe and another door to door sales role. Now this may sound great but I had to juggle the interviews at the same time and be careful that I didn't end up with the worst job or no job at all because I was too picky. I actually did a whole day's training at the door to door fundraising job, got the position and then got a call from Caffee Nero to offer me their job which accepted.

The Caffee Nero job was the one I wanted and I had an interview that very morning where I was told that I would find out that afternoon whether or not I had the job. Baring in mind that I had to officially start door to door knocking again in a few days, I needed one of these jobs to pull through before then. I had a Starbucks trial shift the next day but it was only part time, it had just gone 5:15pm and I was literally talking to Pip about how I was gutted but would now focus on the Starbucks job when the phone rang. I don't know how I sounded on the phone but I struggled to contain my excitement and when I hung up I ended up on the kitchen floor with Pip as my excitement boiled over. It was such an amazing feeling going from that low to such a high in an instant. We went out to celebrate at Jamie's Italian which was delicious. As I'm writing this I have to have a week at home before my start date on September 5th, so am trying to entertain myself and cannot wait to start, how it goes with the job we will soon find out.

Pip also had an exciting time that day. She had applied for a job doing PR for the Comic Relief charity which works with celebrities and is based at the BBC up here in Manchester. Her interview was the same day as my Nero one but she wasn't holding out hope as they were doing the interviews in a few different countries for the role. They had told her that they would be doing second interviews this week unless there was an outstanding candidate so it was a nice big surprise when they phoned up a couple of days ago to offer Pip the position. She was stunned to say the least as she was not expecting it. Pip was also understandably nervous about resigning from her current job after just starting her new role and what they had done for her but we talked about it and she decided it was best to accept the position. I'm sure the excitement will kick in when she begins and I know it will do her good to be out mingling with real people all day instead of sitting in our dining room staring out at the backs of cars looking for inspiration.

So as I write this, Pip has just over a month before she starts work at Media City UK and I have about four days left until I am finally earning some money. I will be more than happy to leave this chapter behind because it has been very stressful for both of us. We have done a couple of fun things up here too. Juliana came to visit and we had a great weekend entertaining her. We also have a space for guests to sleep which we didn't have in London so that makes me happy as I love entertaining guests. Holly, Laura and Holly's Mum and Dad also came up for a weekend and we showed them around. Oh and one thing which I must mention is that we went and saw Morrissey at the M.E.N Arena which was great as we (especially Pip) are big fans of his and he didn't disappoint.



Sunday, August 12, 2012

Benicassim

After a couple of weeks touring around Europe, Pip and I were more than ready to stay in one spot for a little while. We'd been preparing for Benicassim for a while and we'd acquired a tent which we'd carried around in our bag across Europe plus all sorts of items that we were itching to try out.

Having said farewell to our Topdeck group we semi successfully managed to bus across Rome to our hotel near the airport. We were actually early so we went for a wander and found a lovely little Italian pizza place which although didn't make the great Pizzas the guys serving us went out of his way to make sure that we had a great experience at his little shop.



It was incredible to stay in a Hotel after camping for weeks on end. We ate in the hotel restaurant that night and were up before the crack of dawn to get a taxi to the airport. We managed to get onto our Ryanair flight with no troubles and off to Spain we flew with complete ignorance of the long day that was ahead of us.

Landing in Barcelona we caught the train to Barcelona Sants station which we were actually quite lucky to do as when we were getting ready to catch the train from the airport there was a problem with the train and the ticket lady was flipping out telling everyone that they could not catch the train which then departed with no one on it and we were left wandering what to do. Luckily at the last minute we decided against the bus or taxi and tried to purchase a ticket again. We were successful and managed to catch a train to Barcelona Sants. From here we caught our train along with hundreds of other English festival goers to Benicassim.

A few hours later we arrived and piled out of the train. It was quite a walk from the station to the campsite (Although nothing like the walking we'd be doing over the next few days). What followed was quite intense, four hours of lining up and waiting to get a camp spot. Pip was really starting to feel the heat by the end and so I had to duck off to fetch some water. When we did finally get setup we realized that our new surroundings would be quite a bit different from our previous camping experience. The campsite was described by the singer from 'Bombay Bicycle Club' as a "refugee camp" and I must say that he was certainly not far off. It was a messy, sweaty overcrowded campsite where you slept on a bed of rocks (Well I did when our airbed deflated). We were next to a massive ant hill and bunch of lads who would stay up drinking and yelling all night. The showers were communal which meant awkward nudity and half of the showers didn't work. There was a place selling orange juice which was made from only fresh squeezed oranges, it was a fantastic idea and it tasted so good and healthy.





The festival didn't begin for a few days after we arrived so we had to find a way to fill our days. This consisted mostly of heading into cafes and pubs for their air conditioning, phone charging and clean bathroom facilities. It took almost half an hour to walk from our tent to the centre of town and about 10 minutes more to reach the beach, so our trips into town had to be for many hours at a time. For the first couple of days this was fine as everything was new and we bought a few things to help us out but by the end of our time in Beni we were well over it. Even on the festival days there was till plenty of time to kill as the festival itself didn't start till close to 7pm.




The beach on the first day was great. We sat under our umbrella trying to avoid the sun and watched the thousands of people slowly litter the beach with all their rubbish (gosh the British are bad with leaving their rubbish in public places). We managed to avoid any major sunburn although Pip did a poor job of applying sunscreen on my back one day and I had some strange red marks show up. Also Pip can no longer say that she doesn't tan and she wore the same shoes the whole time and had a rather distinct tan line. After we got sick of the beach (Mostly because of the sandyness) we found a nice spot under some very densely leaved trees on some lovely grass which I must say is where we spent loads of time. It was cool, comfortable and great for a catchup on some sleep or some reading.

I think the whole time we were in Benicassim we only had one espresso shot of coffee. It was just too hot and the Spanish people make very average coffee in our experience. Instead of coffee we (myself especially) switched to coca-cola. I must have downed several liters over the time we were there, I just seemed to have huge cravings for it. Food wise Beni was a difficult place to find good food. I thought that being away from the main centers that we'd have heaps of local cuisine to choose from, but since most of the people in town were British tourists, every restaurant and eatery had changed their menus to be more "British". Now this "Britishness" was just a semi-educated interpretation and I think the worst we came across was when Pip ordered a burger and chips while I ordered fish and chips. She got a burger which was literally a really bad tasting burger patty and chips and I got chips with none other than fish fingers from the freezer.



On the first day of Festival International Benicassim we decided to go to Aquarama which is a huge water park just down from the festival area. It was amazing and I have not had that much adrenaline fueled fun in years. They had all sorts of water slides like the slow windy ones, Pip and my favourite which was a slide where you both sit on a two person biscuit and you slide down one in complete darkness not knowing which way you will turn. There were also three steep speed slides which I managed to pressure Pip into sliding down the medium one. I went on all of them including the steep pink one which was an amazing feeling, almost like you're in free fall. They also had a ride called the 'Space shot' which is sort of like the 'Giant Drop' at Dreamword in Australia or the one at Rainbows End in New Zealand, except this one starts on the ground and fired you up and as you reach the top it starts to slow and you loose your stomach and feel like your about to fall out before it goes back down again. Somehow there were almost no lines for this and so we rode it several times.



Ok now to the festival. I am aware that so far all I have done is complain about our trip so I hope this next bit makes the whole thing appear worth it. The main festival was over four nights and the festival area itself was quite neat. There were heaps of food stalls which sold better food than most other places around town, lots of random stalls set up by companies and of course the three main stages. The first night we watched a random Spanish band who we quite liked and then the Horrors who were on fine form and managed to sound a lot better than they did in London only a few months earlier. It was really nice to see some of the bands clearly enjoying playing to bigger crowds than they are used to, I guess that is what made the Horrors feel they needed to be more animated during their set than usual.

The second night was for us the big one. After spending the day at the Aquarama water park, we were more than ready to see a handful of great bands and musicians in one night, after all this is a festival. Miles Kane was up first and Pip and I were in attendance more for the fact that we find him amusing than being big fans. I must say that he is a great performer and a quality musician, I just wish he's stop trying to write average pop songs because when he's doing the old rascal style less polished tunes he is a man to be respected. Directly after Miles was Bob, yip Mr Bob Dylan himself. While I don't know too many songs past his classics, I was keen to catch him while he was still around. He played a huge set and sounded great with his band, he did seem a bit detached from the crowed throughout his set but we'll forgive him because he's getting on a wee bit. After Bob was the Maccabees. After falling in love with them in London and then getting their 'Given to the wild' album, Pip and I were keen to see them again. They were clearly nervous as the first couple of songs were shakey but once they got used to us they sounded even better than the last time we saw them. Wrapping up a great night of music was Bombay Bicycle Club. I am not too familiar with much of their material prior to their new album but Pip and I were both blown away, we could not make up our minds on who the best act of the night was but if I had to reccomend anyone to see one or two of them, it would be The Maccabees and Bombay Bicycle Club.

Night three was all about Manchester for us with both Noel Gallagher and The Stone Roses performing. Noel was great, he was just Noel which is all you really want from him. He struts up, makes some comments to the crowd, plays some of his new tunes, a couple of lesser known Oasis tunes, ends with 'Don't look back in anger' and walks off stage having done a good days work. I think I should give him some more credit as he did have the whole audience singing along throughout most of the set and he even went onto his blog after the show to thank the crowd and say that it was the best solo show he's done so far, it was also his 100th.

Jessie J was next and she was a little strange for our tastes, we only caught the end of her show but it certainly cemented in our minds that pop music doesn't quite do it for us. What does do it for us is a reformed band with 'legendary status' called 'The Stone Roses', Pip and I were pretty fortunate to see them to be honest and we both know northerners who currently reside in New Zealand and won't get to see them unless they tour world wide and stay as a band until they are as old as The Rolling Stones, but I don't think that will happen. They came on blew everyone away, even though they did take a couple of songs to really click, when they did you could really understand why they became such a cult band. Ian's vocals were better than I expected after watching a few live performances on the net over the years but he still did go flat a few time. If we weren't really big fans before the gig, we definitely are now.



The light night of at the festival was odd. It seemed to climax on the third and there wasn't much for us to see. We started by catching 'Fujiya & Miyagi' who play a song called 'Black and blue' which we like. They were a trio of Dad's who looked like this was their first outing from their garage rehearsal space and the one song we wanted to hear appeared to suffer from technical issues. We then caught the start of the Vaccines but were clobbered by 14 year old's. The Vaccines and I have a difficult relationship. I liked a few of their tunes but then I couldn't get their traces of falseness out of my head. The band seemed to nurture these falseness' as time went on and now I just feel awkward about them. So we went and watched 'The Buzzcocks' for a bit and then settled in to watch 'Howler' who are a newish band from the US. Think of them like a swaggery Kooks who are actually good. The singer was clearly annoyed about their time slot as all of their potential fans were watching The Vaccines, he even tried to talk to them from one stage to the other, among his other antics were talking casually with the crowd and introducing his band as both "The Vaccines" and our favorite "Thank you, we're Bob Dylan".



The next morning we packed up our things, ditched the tent and made for the exits. We trained back to Barcelona and upon arriving at the airport with much confusion with getting from Barcelona Sants rail station to the airport, we decided to walk to our hotel. This lead to us walking along the grassy part of a highway which is highly illegal and all because of my blind faith in Google maps which thought there were footpath's. With Pip remarking "If we get arrested now..." we finally arrived at the hotel which was extremely flash and when we walked in looking like bedraggled hikers among people in suits, only then did we fell the true extent of our feralness. The next morning we caught the free shuttle to the airport and negotiated the very strange Barcelona airport to make out flight with not too much time to spare. Pip slept the whole way and when we arrived back into and English speaking country, I must say London had never before felt more like home.


Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Topdeck Europe trip 2012

This is going to be a document of our Topdeck trip through Europe. I guess it began yesterday after we moved out of our flat and headed to The Clink hostel in Kings Cross. For the first time since we've been away from New Zealand we sported massive travel backpacks which is sort of like carrying a big flag professing your tourist vulnerabilities.



We got quite lucky at The Clink as we only had to share our 8 bed dorm room with one other person. Despite this, Pip and I got almost no sleep at all, the unfamiliar beds and our room mate who although nice to talk to, decided to drag her suitcase in and out of the room a handful of times and as slowly as possible in order to (what I can only assume) be considerate and not wake us. I guess we'll have to get used to it and it was far better than the last experience I had in Earls Court in September (Refer to early blogs for details).




We got up nice and early, ate some breakie and took in some much needed caffeine. The trip to Dover was quick and we were on the boat and leaving rainy England behind.
As I'm writing this, we are on a bus traveling through the beautiful countryside of Paris with only periodic rain tickling the windows, so it's not all bad (Topdeck FM is terrible and our earphones are in the cargo hold). The ferry crossing here was nothing to get the least bit excited about. I was quite looking forward to traveling between countries by boat but I wouldn't recommend it. Here is the best way that I can describe it. Imagine boarding a run down ferry in 1986 with a rest home group of field trippers on their way to a special rest home where you never come back from... That's sort of what it felt like. Tonight we'll set up camp and hopefully our school tour group will let us be adults.




We arrived at the campsite and it looked like an unmaintained, overgrown paddock. It's raining heavily and there is no hot water. We set up camp, struggle to sort dinner and go to bed soaked. Everybody is having "what are we doing" moments. Later we got back on the bus and were driven around Paris and feed a bit of history and got familiar with the cities layout.




Monday arrives and we have the most beautiful day you could imagine. The bus drops us into Paris and we are left to explore for the day. Pip and I walked up to the second level of the Eiffel tower, the top was closed so we had to make do but we got some great views of Paris. The city is more touristy than London but more beautiful at the same time. We ate crepes walked to the Arc De Triomphe, popped into the Louvre to see the Mona Lisa, and then wandered back through the side streets to our tour group who put on a picnic at the Eiffel tower for us which included escargot (snails) caviar and champagne. After which we did a river cruise and headed home to sleep. Good day.




Waking up the next morning to rain wasn't so nice but we got all packed up, fed and are now driving for a day to the Swiss alps. I need to stress here that the Swiss Alps are incredible. It's like a photoshopped travel billboard except it's actually real. We pulled into Lauterbrunnen quite late after delays on the road and Pip and I were on kitchen duty. When we finally got away from the cook tent, we were left with the worst tent, the wettest, dirtiest tent and the driver had shut down the air bed machine. It was also semi-raining. I started to enter the early stages of flipping out but it did all work out as we ended up with a brand new dry and unused tent. Washing up in the dark was a mission but at least we are getting our duties out of the way first.


It was a nice surprise on Wednesday to open our tent to see the Swiss alps climbing up from what felt like inside the campsite. The campsite is between two cliffs with the mountains behind them. We took the train up to Jungfrau mountain and played around in the ice palace, outside in the snow and had some lunch. It was cold up there yet sunny, when we got back down it was insanely hot. The rest of the day was spent drinking and mixing with all our tour mates, this was great fun until we all went to the local pub and younger ones started showing their age and it was a little embarrassing to be frank. We are now on the road to Aningnon.





Avignon is a Medieval city which used to be home to the Pope for a while until the Italians got annoyed and made sure that the French never got to be Popes again. It's an old city surrounded by an old wall, which is the centre of town. The town spills out beyond the walls and over the river to where our campsite was. We were only there for a night but I guess there wasn't much to do beyond our walking tour and our dinner. Pip and I bought baguettes parma ham camembert cheese and had a picnic by the river. We spent the evening showering and doing washing.
This morning we packed up and jumped on the bus to head to Barcelona, stopping at Pont Du Garde which is an ancient Roman Aqueduct. It dates back to about 300 BC and is still in great condition. We took some snaps and are now driving to Spain. Hostel accommodation tonight, not that I've really minded being in a tent. I'm stoked that Pip and I have got our kitchen duties out of the way early too as we are now free to enjoy the trip.





Two nights in hostel accommodation are next up. Barcelona is the next city, arriving mid afternoon we get a driving tour around the city checking out Sagrada Familia. The hostel is central, has bathrooms in our dorm and is pretty tidy. That night we are taken to a Spanish restaurant to try Paella. It was sort of average and I was starting to feel a bit queasy after drinking too much local tap water (well that's what we think it was anyway). After that we caught a local Flamenco show (which was interesting). It was in a small bar and had three guys, one playing Spanish guitar, one singing and one playing away averagely on some drum pads. Two ladies in long dresses then proceeded to dance in a both fluent and stuttering freak out kind of way.




Very tired from our day of traveling, Pip and I walked back to the hostel (going about 6 blocks too far after we failed to see the entrance). Just as I was nodding off the room door opens and one of my fellow roommates Nick, is standing there going "oh... Oh... Sorry man", I look over and realize that he is trying to bring one of the girls on our tour into our room and she's standing there looking quite embarrassed. It turns out that they tried a couple of rooms. So back to sleep I go until the door is once again thrown open, this time the lights go on and three guys carry another fellow throwing up on the floor. It turns out that the drinks are rather strong in Barcelona and those who tried to get a bit drunk and got proper plastered. So there were a few sleepless hours of people trying to stop others from passing out and cleaning up spew. Not a great nights sleep was had but we were up nice and early to explore the city.

I was not sure how we were to fill a whole day looking around a city that none of us much care for. I'm happy to say that we found plenty of things to keep us busy. First we went to the massive food market just off La Ramba and got a few things for lunch. We wandered the Gothic quarter and found a spot overlooking the beach to munch down our fresh lunch. We then took the gondola up to the Olympic village, the site of the 1992 games which I remember watching as a very young kid. We descended the hill past the art museum which brilliantly had outdoor escalators to help get you back down. From there we took the Metro back to the hostel. The Barcelona Metro is incredibly easy to use despite everything being in Spanish.




Being disappointed by the dinner the night before, Pip and I decided to call upon the Tripadvisor app to find some proper Spanish tapas. It just so happened that a place down the road had excellent reviews so off we went. My appetite was playing up but Pip convinced me to order a few dishes. We got salted and fried green peppers, prawn skewers, mushroom and asparagus and cured ham with tomato bread. It was a meal we'll never forget, I got my appetite back and it is one of the best meals we've had.




An early night followed and we are now busing down to the French Riviera. After setting up camp down by the beach we all grabbed our towels and hit the Mediterranean. The beaches here are pebble beaches but I'd class them more as rocky beaches as they are far bigger and harder to walk on than what we found on our trip to Brighton. The water was refreshingly nice, a perfect temperature although it's not a surf beach as there are no breaking waves and it also gets deep extremely fast.

The next morning we were dropped in Nice. I was full of a cold like most of the people on the trip which made Nice a hard day to enjoy. We did have heaps of fun however, first we went to Old Town which was absolutely gorgeous, we wound through the narrow streets and eventually found our way up the big hill for some fantastic views of the city. We had lunch in the markets and then as it was so hot we decided to head back to camp on the train. This next bit was a bit crap, we walked over 15 minutes in the searing heat to the train station and once we'd finally sorted a ticket we realized that it left too late and we'd never get back to camp in time to catch our bus to Monaco. Disgruntled, feeling ripped off, hot and tired, we walked back towards town and stopped at a mall which had no air conditioning or seats. We sat in a cafe and paid 4.90 euros for an orange juice. We then made our way back to the pick up point which had grass and shade. We relaxed there for the remaining time until our bus came.




Our little night excursion was to Monaco, we drove up windy roads with views of huge houses, super yachts and general richness. Arriving in Monaco our trip leader told us that we wouldn't have to get off to scan our passports but because Monaco is rich you are just required to hold them against the window while we drive past a big white scanner and we'll be sorted. As unofficial as this looked we did all fall for it.


Next up we visited the castle district where Prince Albert lives, then we went to the Monte Carlo casino where a few of the boys lost some money and the girls spent far too much on drinks. Pip and I just had a wander around and took some sneaky photos of the amazing building. It was much quieter than any other casino that I've ever been to with not many tables but it was really amazing. Now we are traveling through Italy on our way to Venice via Verona.





Our stop in Verona was brief, possibly an hour or so. We went for a walk past the old arena and on to where there is some kind of Romeo and Juliet statue. We didn't go in as there was a fair wack of tourists all pushing to get in. Pip and I just wandered and made our way back to the bus.
We arrived at our Venetian campsite which is more of a resort than a camp site, apparently Italians camp quite different to other countries. For some reason we decided that we would have a bit of a knees up so after dinner it was drinkies. We probably should have stopped before the shots but we didn't. It was fun drinking with the other kiwi couple (Ross and Amylee), but when our alarm went off the next morning it was not so fun.

We headed into Venice which was quite a trek. Pip especially didn't feel well and the sun was extremely fiery. We wound our way through Venice towards the canals and when we reached St Marks square the heat, flu and hangover combined to become too much for Pip. My poor honey had to sit down for a while to avoid fainting and she began to dry reach. We managed to get her feeling well enough by the time we got to the gondolas. The gondola ride was the best part of Venice for us and we got some fantastic photos. Next up was the lace factory. After the perfumery Pip and I decided we'd not go on these sales pitches dressed up as tours so we went and got a snack instead.





The bus was to pick us up from the city at 5:30pm but five more hours in the heat was not so appealing so we headed back to camp with Grainge. This took close to two hours of walking and busing which included a 45 minutes walk with no shade. Back at camp Pip had a nap in the sauna of a tent while I went for a swim, once she did get up we both went back to the pool where we cooled off for a few hours. There was an extremely cute Italian kid at the pools who could not speak English and this frustrated him quite a bit (Well more like he was annoyed that we couldn't speak Italian). He was extremely expressive and almost acted like an adult, that was rather cute. We had dinner at the restaurant as part of our included trip meals which consisted of penne pasta with sauce, salad then a few pizzas. It was really nice and I hear we get another one tonight when we get to Florence. Pip and I had a decent sleep as we tried to cure our ailments although there was a trumpet player who decided to practice for half an hour while we were trying to sleep after sundown, seriously?

We arrived into a sweltering hot and sticky Florence at around three in the afternoon, set our tents for the final time (Rome will house us in luxury tents). My silly stomach was playing up and rather painful while Pips cold was at its peak. Our walking tour began and they took us down to the leather factory, we went along solely to take advantage of the wonderful air conditioning. After the silly leather demo I decided (In a action movie kind of way) that I couldn't go on but as we were told our restaurant dinner was in town we decided to stay on for the walking tour. I'm glad we stayed at the little robotic lady that took us around was quite good. We learnt all sorts about Florence as we walked about including the place where Leonardo Da Vinci painted Mona Lisa, where Galileo made the first telescope and various places where Michelengelo painted including a great fact at how the Sistine Chapel is just a bigger version of the Duomo in Florence and by the same architect.







Dinner was atrocious. It was nice of them to provide us with a restaurant dinner but it was at a tacky Australianized steakhouse with terrible food and service. Pip and I left soon after dinner and went back to camp to sort a few things and turn in for the night.

The next morning we packed up and wandered into Florence to do things on our own terms. We stopped into a bakery/restaurant/coffee shop and had nice but weak Latte Macchiatos at the bar, it is strange that the Italians stand up to drink coffee and they drink it super fast. If you were to sit down they charge you almost twice the price. We then admired the jewelry shops along the old bridge and sussed out a Pizzeria for lunch. The Pizza was good but the service was odd and the stale bread the they gave us to snack on was a bit strange in the sense that I ate half a piece and put it back in the basket, then when our Pizzas came out she moved them to another table to be their starters... My half eaten piece and all...





The last stop on our Topdeck adventure was Rome. We left Florence mid morning and arrived at our campsite late afternoon. We were all upgraded to these permanent tents which are more like hostel rooms with walls made of tarpaulin. We took the metro into the centre of Rome as a group. When we got to our stop the carriage was packed and it was quite difficult to get off. The two Korean girls had more trouble than the rest of us. They had never been camping before nor it seemed had they ever been in a busy urban area where people steal things. Someone tried to rip off one of their bags as it was only hung loosely over her shoulder. Our tour leader had told us many times to keep bags zipped and secured on our bodies but I guess common sense doesn't always prevail. So while she didn't end up losing her bag she did get quite a fright and so upset than her and her friend went back to the campsite alone, on the same metro.

Grainge took us on a walking tour around central Rome although he did have to be discrete as while it is perfectly legal to take people around and tell them things, he could get a fine from the police because he's not a qualified local (Not sure if they legally fine people or if they just fine people). We went past the Spanish steps, some monument where the pope used to climb up each year to change a wreath until they got lazy and now get the fire service to help. We had pizza and gelato for dinner before heading down to the Colosseum where we watch a bird eat another bird.





Our last official night with Topdeck was marred by the sound of parties outside our tent. This went on until a camp official came and told them off, finally we got some sleep. In the morning we enjoyed our last breakfast and got taken into the Vatican City where we got lead around on a tour by an eccentric, Italian/French dude who swore throughout the tour (In a holy place) although he was quite good. The Sistine chapel was supposed the highlight of the tour but was a bit of a let down if I'm honest, I think it's because we were expecting large grand paintings instead of tens of small ones.

Next we hit the Coliseum which we were advised about getting tickets the night before but managed to get in within ten or so minutes. We got audio guides which Pip didn't enjoy and I only found mildly interesting, took lots of photos and just sort of admired the building and its history.
We went back to camp and checked in to our air conditioned bungalow which was absolute heaven for us. We joined the Topdeck team for one last dinner and saw them off as they welcomed new people on the tour.

That is pretty much the end of that trip. Right now we are on a train headed for Benicassim in Spain. We both enjoyed all the ups and downs of the trip and would do it again although I think we got lucky that our group was small and reasonably easy to get along with.

The end