Lake Garda

Lake Garda was not a destination on my radar until fairly recently but after seeing photos of the crystal clear turquoise lake and charming little Italian villages on a friend’s Facebook page, it became a must-see for me. So when we noticed the August bank holiday fast approaching, Alex saw no other option but to book some flights!

After a grim early morning flight, we arrived in Verona after just 2 hours and went to pick up our hire car at Buchbinder. If you plan to travel around the lake during your trip to Lake Garda, there are a number of alternative transport options including ferries to and from most of the main towns but as the nearest airport (Verona) is an hour’s drive away we thought we’d hire a car for ease and to give us the opportunity to visit some of the more remote towns on the lake. The drive from the airport to Torbole was interesting as soon as we merged on to the main highway. To enter the highway you had to first approach a toll booth and take a ticket from a machine. Keep hold of this ticket as you will need it to be able to exit the highway! It was around an hour’s drive to Torbole, the north end of the Lake and it cost us €4.00 in toll charges which we thought was pretty reasonable considering the majority of the journey was on the highway. As we entered Torbole from uphill, the view of the lake was spectacular. The water glistened the most brilliant blue colour and you could just make out the outlines of the windsurfers bobbing up and down on its surface. We stayed at the Hotel Residence Torbole, situated right on the lake and with free on site parking which is a rarity apparently. We paid a little extra for a lake view room which I would highly recommend. Even though we didn’t spend a lot of time in the hotel, the times we were there were spent sitting by the window, watching the windsurfers and fisherman. The hotel was more like an apartment as it had a bedroom, bathroom, seating area and kitchen complete with a fridge and hob. We didn’t use the hob while we were there (instead choosing to eat our body weight in pasta at the traditional Italian restaurants scattered along the harbour) but it was a good space that gave you the option to have lunch in the room. The little town of Torbole is not huge but has everything you need if you’re just looking to chill out. Around five restaurants line the pretty little harbour, all serving a menu of pizza, pasta and the freshest sea food around, sourced straight from the lake.

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Driving into Torbole

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Swimming in the lake
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Swimming in the lake

Top of our list of things to do while we were in Lake Garda was to visit Monte Baldo, a mountain range known for its great hiking trails and beautiful views over the lake. If you’re not feeling too adventurous (and haven’t got a full day spare to climb it!), you can get a cable car to the top that starts in either Malescine or San Michele. San Michele is at a higher altitude and so it only requires one cable car to the top but Malescine is by far easier to reach by car and provides ample parking. We started our day fairly early and got to Malecine just before 9am, parking our car in the multi-story car park located just below the entrance to the cable car. It cost us 5.50 euros to park there for 4 hours but it increases by a euro for each hour you spend there. The timings of the cable car are every 30 mins from 8am at Malescine and every 30 mins from 8:15am at San Michele depending on the season but more information on this can be found here – http://funiviedelbaldo.it/en/timetable-rates. I can’t stress enough just how important it is to catch an early cable car (ideally before 9:30am). One reason being that if you purchase a cable car ticket before 9am and use it before 9:30am, the price of the ticket is significantly reduced. But most importantly, you must beat the crowds!! We ended up catching the 9:30am cable car from Malescine and the 9:45am car from San Michele. There was no wait and we were straight on. However, when we came back down the mountain at around 11:30am, the queue for both cable car stations were out the door and when we asked a member of staff they told us the wait was now approximately 3 hours! The cable car from Malescine holds 45 people and the second one from San Michele holds 80 people. The cable car from San Michele is world famous as it has been engineered to rotate 360 degrees to enable a magnificent view of the ascent up the mountain. All in all, the ascent takes 20 minutes (not including the interchange at San Michele). Once at the top there are a couple of cafes and giftshops, all serving decent but rather expensive meals and snacks. Also at the top are opportunities to paraglide and visit the alpaca enclosure where you can pay to take them for walks! Needless to say, we didn’t partake in either of these activities but we saw a lot of people that did! The view of Malescine and the surrounding lake is incredible and so we made sure to get lots of photos. Alex even managed to fly his drone over the edge which provided us with some amazing footage and a different perspective from above. One tip is to make sure to wear sensible shoes, i.e trainers or walking boots. It sounds like common sense but we saw so many people in sandals and flip flops, struggling to walk on the uneven terrain. We found out at the top that in the winter, Monte Baldo is a lively ski resort with excellent beginner and intermediate runs. The ski season starts in late December and finishes at the end of March if you fancy it, even if it’s just for the cool views après-ski!

During our time in Lake Garda we visited a number of towns, all charming for various reasons. One of our favourites was Salo which has the largest promenade on the lake, stretching a whopping 2km! Salo is home to charming little cafes and boutiques that sit on the promenade, making it an ideal place to venture out for dinner in the evening. Parallel to the promenade is also a maze of shops selling a variety of things from women’s fashion to souvenirs to the best Limoncello around (make sure to visit the town of Limone while in Italy, where the delicacy originates!).

Another of our favourite places was Sirmione. Sirmione is a picturesque town that juts out on the lake, famous for the Scaliger Castle, thermal baths and the ruins of Grotte di Catullo. We parked in a large car park called Viale Guglielmo Marconi 42, just on the right before the drawbridge that you have to cross to enter the town. It cost around 20 euros to park there all day. Sirmione itself is virtually traffic free as you are only allowed to cross the drawbridge in a vehicle if you are staying at one of the hotels. We had every intention of having a look inside the Scaliger Castle but as we approached the entrance, a sign read that last admission was 2pm on a Sunday. We checked our watches and it was 2:10pm…on a SUNDAY! We were a bit gutted but soon got over it when we found a huge ice cream parlour serving 50 different flavours! I’m not an ice cream lover but even I couldn’t resist a scoop of italian gelato in the burning 30c heat. Next on our list in Sirmione was a walk up to Grotte di Catullo, ruins of a Roman villa built in 1st century AD! We were interested to take a look seeing as it topped all of the lists we had seen for things to do in Sirmione but we had also heard that the panoramic views of the lake were worth it alone. It was quite a walk from the centre and we were beginning to get a bit hot and bothered by the time we found it! We paid 6 euros each for a ticket which included access to the ruins as well as a museum showing artefacts discovered throughout the years. It is certainly worth a look as it doesn’t cost a fortune to get in but I wouldn’t say it was the highlight of Sirmione. While we were there and admiring the views over the lake, Alex thought it would be the perfect opportunity to try and get some drone footage. There were no signs to say it wasn’t allowed (as we had seen previously around the lake) but we were soon collared and told to bring the drone down IMMEDIATELY(!) by staff working in the museum! We begrudgingly put it away and left the sight of the ruins. By this point it was mid afternoon and the sun was burning down on us. The walk back to the centre (and where we had parked the car) was a good 20 mins and we had run out of water and so we were beginning to get a bit melodramatic until we spotted a little train that would take you back to the centre for 1 euro. We hopped on and even found a water fountain to fill up our bottles – happiness restored!

Feeling slightly adventurous, we decided to book an excursion not far from our base in Torbole – an activity they call canyoning – with a company called SKYClimber. Alex had researched it and said it sounded like a lot of fun and so I was up for it. The way Alex had explained it, I thought he was playing it up to be a lot more adventurous than it actually was going to be – boy was I wrong! We were picked up in a mini bus from a car park in Limone and immediately started to ascend up one of the mountains until we were travelling up a road with sickeningly steep drops on either side. After a hair-raising ride, we pulled over and were instructed to change into wetsuits that the company had provided. We squeezed into them excitedly, and started the hike to the top of the Gumpenfever waterfall. When our guide discussed a ‘hike’ in the car journey up the mountain, I kidded myself into thinking that he didn’t know the correct words to use in English and it would be a nice little stroll, admiring the views over Lake Garda. 30 minutes later, pouring with sweat and with my thighs feeling as if they were going to explode, we arrived at the top of the waterfall and were given a few minutes to catch our breaths before a safety briefing. The safety briefing included words such as ‘death’ and ‘serious injury’ and so this was the point in which I started to panic slightly! It was an adrenaline-filled hour of jumping off rocks into rivers, abseiling down cliffs and sliding done sheer rock faces(!). By the end of the afternoon, I was absolutely exhausted, bruised, battered and even rather embarrassed after a slight misjudgment when jumping from a rock which resulted in the most unladylike belly flop (which unfortunately for me, was all caught on camera) but it was great! Our guide was brilliant and made the experience even more enjoyable. We undertook one of the easier excursions so I dread to think how difficult the more challenging ones are. You can find details of prices and the different itineraries they do on their website – http://www.skyclimber.it.

After exploring a few of the other little towns, we discovered that Lake Garda was halfway between Venice and Milan. We tossed a coin and it was decided that we would plan a day trip to Venice. We left early and were on the road at 8am and our sat nav said it would take us 2 hours to the port where we would pick up the ferry to Venice. Unfortunately, we got stuck in horrendous traffic due to an accident and so it took us over 3 hours! Still, we were at the Terminal Fusina port just before 11am and caught the 11am ferry. It cost us 10 euros to park for the day (which is reduced to 5 euros if booked online in advance) and 13 euros each for a return ferry with boats every 30 mins until 10:30pm, ideal for spending a day in the city. We arrived in the city at 11:20am and using the map we got free with our ferry tickets, headed straight to St Mark’s Square to start our day which was a 15 min walk. When we emerged into the square, I was overwhelmed by the amount of people around. Hordes of people surrounded St Mark’s Basilica and a queue to enter snaked right back to the river! A feeling of annoyance swept over me, this is not how I imagined it would be! Nevertheless we started to queue to enter the Campanile for the best view over the city and while we were queuing, bought our fast track pass for the Basilica using my iPhone. The fast track passes were 2 euros each which I would pay 20 times over to skip the 3 hour plus queue that snaked from the entrance and all you have to do is google fast pass to St Mark’s Basilica and it comes straight up! The view over Venice from the top of the Campanile was brilliant but again, it was so busy at the top that we were fighting with people for access to the edge to take the pictures. We got there in the end and took a few, including a 360 photo using our newest gadget – the Samsung 360 Gear. Arguably, one of the best cameras we have! We then headed in to the Basilica and it was beautiful but I feel that after seeing the Vatican in Rome and the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, it was one of my least favourite churches I have seen. We spent the rest of the afternoon exploring the city and went to see the famous viewpoint over the Grand Canal. Again, this experience was stressful. It was swarming with tourists all fighting for the best spot and it completely ruined it for me. We decided that the only thing to do was to hunt down the Hard Rock Cafe for dinner and drinks. This was the highlight of our visit! We contemplated taking a gondola ride as the sun was just beginning to set when we left the Hard Rock but after being quoted over 100 euros by a couple of people for a 30 minute ride, we decided against it and headed back to the ferry. We couldn’t help but be really disappointed by our day in Venice. I had such high hopes and have always dreamed of spending time in such an amazing city but the number of people at every tourist spot was just too much for me. It could possibly be the time of year that we visited – mid summer – but even so, it has put us off ever going back which is such a shame. We got some great pictures (cleverly cropping out all the other tourists!) and saw all the main sights so in that respect it was a successful trip.

Overall, Lake Garda is a place you MUST visit. From the adventurous to the foodie to the sun-worshipper, there is something to do for everyone. Stop whatever you’re doing, get yourself on SkyScanner and book yourself a flight – you won’t regret it!

Romantic Rome

Rome is without a doubt of the most beautiful and picturesque cities I’ve traveled to so far. The whole time we were there we felt as if we were walking around a movie set as we took in sites such as the Colosseum and the Pantheon. The weather was fantastic and at 25c was even a bit too hot at times for our liking! After just under two hours on a very uncomfortable Ryan Air flight (especially for Alex – see pic below!) we landed at Ciampino airport in the early afternoon.
plane pic
We had purchased a bus ticket in advance using sitbusshuttle.com for €8 euros which took us right into the city centre, dropping us off at Roma Termini, Rome’s biggest station. The journey took around 40 mins with the traffic but the bus had great aircon and leg room for Alex. It was only a 10 minute walk from the train station to our hotel, Hotel Miami butit was an absolute nightmare! As we’d been in two other cities before Rome we hadn’t packed lightly – I had a handbag and small suitcase and Alex had a heavy large suitcase and a backpack. Let me tell you, trying to navigate through the cobbled streets of Rome with all of that in tow is challenging to say the least! Pouring with sweat and feeling rather traumatised from it all we arrived at the hotel and were shown to our room on the second floor. We always tend to book hotels in a central location when we’re visiting a city so that we don’t have to spend ages using public transport to get around and so were pleased when we found out that all but one sight was in walking distance. However, I’m not sure I would stay at this hotel again. It was perfectly clean and the the receptionists were really friendly and helpful but the rooms are in serious need of a refresh! The shower in particular was a problem as it was so tiny and Alex being over 6ft tall needed to bend his knees and leave the door half open to shower – not what you expect from a hotel that  wasn’t cheap!
The first thing we did was collect our Roma and Omnia passes that we had bought online prior to arriving in Rome (https://www.romeandvaticanpass.com). You can collect them from 4 central locations within the city – we arranged to collect ours from Piazza di Porta S.Giovanni. It is definitely worth buying these passes as they give you entry to all the main sites and attractions in Rome as well as a fast pass to skip the queues. The passes also allow you to ride the yellow open top tour buses and other methods of public transport in the city for 3 consecutive days including the metro which was a godsend on a few days where it got really hot! At roughly €100 per person they’re not cheap but you definitely save money when you add up the admission prices of all the sites. With the passes you also get big map of Rome that shows different routes between different parts of the city as well as a list of all the different places to pick up the open top bus.
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Alex putting his map reading skills to good use!
After collecting our passes we headed towards the colosseum. It was late afternoon by this point and we wanted to try and catch a glimpse of it as the sun was beginning to set. After around a 20 minute walk it appeared as if out of nowhere ahead of us. It was a stunning site, it almost didn’t look real! We walked around in awe. It was around 5pm at this point but there were still lots of people roaming (no pun intended!) around the site so we asked some people to take some pictures of us.
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I already couldn’t wait to have a look inside, something we’d planned for the following morning. We wandered back towards our hotel and found a lovely looking bistro restaurant down a side street where we enjoyed traditional Italian cuisine – pizza and pasta – all washed down with a few glasses of wine!
Food
On the walk back to the hotel we went via the Spanish steps. I had read everywhere that whatever time of day you visit you need to expect crowds and boy were they right! There were people everywhere and the steps were full to the brim with tourists and locals alike, some reading, some painting but most taking selfies with the selfie sticks that are sold on EVERY corner in Rome! We took some pictures in front of the steps and had a wander around the Piazza de Spagna, one of the most famous squares in Rome that sits at the bottom of the steps.
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The following morning we were up bright and early and headed straight back to the colosseum. My heart sank as we approached the entrance and found a queue that wrapped right around the colosseum and back again! However on flashing our Roma pass we were whisked straight to the front of the queue, skipping the 2 hour plus waiting time that we’d been told! Spending the €100 on the pass is worth it for this alone! We paid an extra €5 for some audio guides and walked up some uneven stone steps to the first level. (If needed there is a step free entrance and lifts to the upper levels which is great if you aren’t quite steady on your feet or have disabilities). I honestly felt as if I was in Gladiator and I would definitely recommend getting the audio guides as it really brought the history to life, telling you all sorts of facts about the building of the amphitheatre and the games that used to be held within it until around the 6th century. After exploring all the different levels, we headed to the gift shop and bought some typically touristy items (although we resisted buying gladiator costumes!). The colosseum is a MUST see for anyone and I’m so pleased I’ve ticked it off my bucket list!
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Next on the agenda was a visit to Palatine Hill and the Roman Forum, two of the most ancient sites in Rome. Palatine Hill sits 40 metres above the Roman forum and offers one of the best views in the city. After a little hike that seemed to go on forever in the heat we arrived at the top and took it in turns with other tourists to have our photo taken in the best spot. We then took a little stroll through parts of the Roman Forum, a rectangular-shaped area surrounded by ruins of important ancient government buildings. It was really impressive to see. 
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View of the Roman Forum from Palatine Hill

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Selfie in the Roman Forum
That night after heading to dinner at the Hard Rock Cafe (you didn’t think we’d forget did you? ;)), we went to find the Trevi Fountain and I can’t tell you how disappointed we were when we arrived to find it cordoned off and surrounded by ugly scaffolding. Even the water had been drained! Apparently it is being restored thanks to a generous $2.1 million dollar donation from Fendi – lucky fountain!
Trevi fountain
We then took a stroll to the Piazza della Rotonda, another famous city square where the Pantheon is located. At night it is illuminated and in my opinion it looks even more magnificent in this lighting. We sat on the edge of a pretty fountain for a while, people watching and observing the many forms of entertainment in the square including singers, magicians and artists. It was so much fun and we didn’t return to the hotel until the early hours of the morning. 
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The Pantheon

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Exploring the streets of Rome in the evening

Rome street

The following day we had booked to visit Vatican City. The Vatican City is mainly made up of the St Peter’s Basilica, St Peter’s Square, the Sistine Chapel and the Vatican museums. We had booked an afternoon slot to visit St Peter’s Basilica and so took it easy in the morning before heading there on one of the yellow open top buses as it’s a bit further out and not in central Rome.
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Open top bus in the glorious weather!
This was by far the hottest day of our trip but as it is a place of worship we had to cover our legs and shoulders meaning that Alex was in a jeans and polo and I was in a t shirt and trousers – it was hell! (All around the Vatican City are people selling scarves and shawls to tourists that have forgotten to abide by the strict dress code so it’s never a major issue if you do forget). We took the opportunity to have lunch in an air-conned cafe nearby and then headed to join the queue for the Vatican museums. We joined the back of the queue feeling rather sorry for ourselves in the heat but soon discovered that our Omnia passes came to the rescue again and we were transferred to a much shorter queue in the shade – result! We had been told that we would need at least 4 hours in the museums but as both of us are not really lovers of art we visited the main highlights including the Rafael rooms and the Sistine chapel and were out in around an hour.
Vatican museumVatican museum 2Vatican museum 3Vatican Museum ceiling 2Vatican museum ceiling
We then spent some time taking a look around St Peter’s Square, the design is amazing and we used our Marco Polo guide book to read about the history of it.
St Peter's Basilica
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The best selfie we managed of St Peter’s Square!!
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Fountain in St Peter’s Square
After around 30 mins and several hundred selfies later (trying to get the whole of the square and Basilica in the photo is quite challenging!) we entered the Basilica. It was absolutely stunning and Michelangelo’s dome was beautiful!

St Peter basilica ceiling

Michaelangelo dome
Michelangelo’s dome
Peter's Basilica
We then paid an extra few euros to go up into the Cupola but there are two things to bear in mind if you plan to do this:- 
  1. You can choose to take the stairs for 5 euros or the lift for 7 euros but even if you choose to take the lift it doesn’t take you all the way to the top. It’s 871 steps to the top and the lift takes you up to roof level which is 320 steps up – you have to cover the rest on foot! Personally, I think it’s worth paying to use the lift! We were gasping for air when we finally made it to the top – you definitely have to be fairly fit and so unfortunately it means that wheelchair users or people that are not physically fit won’t be able to visit the very top viewing platform.
  2. Climbing the last 551 steps is extremely claustrophobic. At one point you are climbing within the dome itself and it’s very narrow and the ceilings are quite low. I can see how easily people could begin to panic up there, especially when it’s hot.
When you arrive at the roof level you are given the opportunity to explore the walkway that overlooks the altar and is directly underneath Michelangelo’s dome. Being much closer to it really makes you appreciate just how detailed and intricate the art is.
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View of the altar from the walkway beneath Michelangelo’s dome
After more steps than I care to ever climb again, we finally made it to the top. We caught our breaths and took in the famous view which is often portrayed in artwork and photographs of Rome. It was spectacular.
DCIM101GOPROSt Peter's Square view from dome 2St Peter's Square view from dome 3
At the top is also a gift shop where we both bought some rosary beads which now hang above my dressing table at home. We’re not a particularly religious couple but it seemed the perfect thing to buy from one of the most famous religious sites in the world!
After a long (and hot!) day we went back to our hotel and sorted through the hundreds of pictures we’d taken at the Vatican city before heading out for dinner at the Piazza Navona, arguably the most famous square in Rome. Contrary to it being called a square it is in fact an oblong shape and dozens of cafes and restaurant sit around the edges. In the middle are several fountains. We had read in our guide book that in ancient Rome they used the fountains to deliberately flood the square in the summer to create a swimming pool for the rich and wealthy to splash around in! There was something about this square that was incredibly romantic and we watched the entertainers and artists as we enjoyed more pasta and wine. One artist used spray paint to create delicate paintings of famous sites and views in Rome – we were so impressed that we bought a picture of the colosseum at sunset that we watched him paint for €15! Again we didn’t get back to the hotel until really late (or early depending on how you look at it!) as there is so much to see and do at night in the city.
Rome is definitely a city that I could visit again and again and always find something new to see and do. It’s interesting, beautiful and extremely romantic. Although Paris is known as the city of love, I believe Rome could definitely give it a run for its money!
 
M x