Pompeii, Wine Tasting, Vesuvius and Herculaneum

The main reason my sister and I chose to stay in Naples for our holiday this year was so we could visit Pompeii. We researched lots of different options and in the end decided on a full day tour which consisted of a guided tour of Pompeii in the morning, lunch and wine tasting at a vineyard on the slopes of Vesuvius and climbing to the top of the volcano in the afternoon. It was on the expensive side (around £256 for 2 people) but well worth it, and something I would thoroughly recommend if you have the time and budget.Once we’d made our way to the pick-up point by the train station, we had a short coach ride to Pompeii for a three-hour guided tour. Our guide was very knowledgeable and made sure that our group had time to look around for ourselves as well as showing and telling us about different areas. The main thing that struck me about Pompeii was the sheer size of the place. I knew it had been a town, but I hadn’t realised it had been a sizeable city of several thousand people before Vesuvius had decimated it in 79AD. Two thirds of it have been excavated, giving a huge area that can be explored. It’s absolutely amazing. If you haven’t been there, go!At the end of our guided tour of Pompeii we had a few minutes to buy a drink and souvenirs. My sister and I got matching bracelets made of Vesuvius rock and Murano glass beads, as well as a lemon granita as it was really hot. Our group headed back to the coach and then to the vineyard on the slopes of Mount Vesuvius where we would have our lunch.The vineyard was gorgeous. We were given a short tour which included an explanation of how they use roses at the end of each row of vines to check for diseases instead of using pesticides. Lunch was held in an open room which looked out towards Vesuvius’ peak.Along with lunch we got to try six different wines produced at the vineyard. It was a really great way to do wine tasting, as it really made a difference and gave you an idea of the kinds of dishes different wines would go with. We had a sparkling rosé, a still rosé, a white, two reds and a dessert wine, all of which were delicious and went perfectly with the simple yet scrumptious food. Of course, I preferred the reds, and if I hadn’t been about to go travelling for a few weeks I may have bought some to take back with me! My sister bought one of the rooster jugs as it was really cool – the water poured out of its beak!Instead of the usual post-lunch nap, our afternoon was going to be spent walking off lunch by going to the top of Mount Vesuvius. The hike up took about 45 minutes and was quite steep most of the way, but the views were absolutely worth it. We had enough time at the top to stop for a quick cold drink, get a good look into the crater and walk most of the way around the rim. There were also souvenirs in a small kiosk, which my sister took full advantage of!After we’d admired the view sufficiently, we made our way back down the volcano, found our coach and headed back to Naples for dinner and some chill out time before an early night. It was an exhausting but awesome day, and definitely one to tick off the bucket list.The next day we visited Herculaneum or Ercolano, as it is in Italian. This was another town which was devastated by the same eruption of Vesuvius as destroyed Pompeii; however, this one was covered with lava rather than ash. This meant that many more buildings were preserved in a much better condition than those in Pompeii.When we first entered the site we were a little underwhelmed by the size of it having just been to the city of Pompeii. Once we started looking around though, we discovered just how well-preserved it was. Many buildings still had roofs, mosaics on the floors and paint on the walls. It took us nearly three hours to look at the most significant buildings and it was fascinating to see the detail in the mosaics and wall decorations.If you visit Pompeii, ensure you make time for a visit to Herculaneum as well.As a side note, there are two train stations in Ercolano and the site of Herculaneum is about a fifteen minute walk from either one, pretty much in the middle of the town. Don’t let a taxi driver talk you into believing it’s 6km away and charging you €10 to take you there via a very scenic route as we did!

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Day Trip to Rome

When we were organising our holiday to Naples, my sister Sarah and I decided to do a day trip to Rome. We booked as much as we could in advance – train tickets, guided tour of the Vatican, entrance to the Colosseum and Roman Forum – and we were very glad that we did. It meant we skipped most of the queues and saved us a lot of time which we then spent doing other, more exciting things.

We had an action packed, tiring and brilliant day. Starting off with possibly the best train service ever on the train from Naples to Rome at 8am, we got free soft drinks and snacks plus a nearly empty carriage meant we could both sit facing forward (we both get motion sickness and can’t deal with travelling backwards). After a bit of a search through Roma Termini train station we eventually found tourist information, got a map, found out where everything was we wanted to see and how to get there, and got a metro ticket for the day.

Our first stop was the Spanish Steps to followed by a short walk to the Trevi Fountain. Lots of people of course, but definitely worth seeing. I had forgotten how big the Trevi Fountain is, and my sister was very impressed by it.

From here we headed back towards the metro and stopped at a small cafe to share a four cheese pizza for an early lunch, before going to the Vatican for our guided tour.

The three hour tour around the Vatican, including the museum, the Sistine Chapel and St Peter’s Basilica, was a whirlwind tour that gave us a snapshot of everything the Vatican has to show. I’m going to do a separate post with all the photos I took inside the Vatican because there are just so many! Here’s the entrance though…

After the Vatican tour ended at 3.30pm, our Colosseum entry began at 4.40pm so as our feet were aching from so much walking already we decided to get a taxi there so we could sit for a few minutes. Definitely worth the 8 euros, especially as we drove past the Monumento Nazionale a Vittorio Emanuele II, affectionately known as ‘The Typewriter’.

The Colosseum and the Arch of Constantine next to it are very impressive, and although you can see both of these without paying a penny the entrance ticket gives you access to the Roman Forum as well as the inside of the Colosseum. Inside there are many displays with information about the history of Rome and artefacts which were found in and around the area. Specific tours can even take you down to the floor of the arena and into the pits underneath where the gladiators and animals waited before the games.

The Roman Forum and Palatine Hill are more examples of the spectacular achievements of the Roman Empire, just a short walk from the Colosseum. There you will find temples, monuments, statues and ancient government buildings where the Roman Senate itself was founded. Beyond these is the Circus Maximums, which was the first and largest circus in the Roman Empire, where chariot races were held.By the time we finished looking around the forum, we were starving so we went in search of the closest restaurant. The place we eventually found was Angelino ‘ai Fori’ dal 1947, where we had delicious food and cocktails (although my sister didn’t like her aperol spritz!).Finally we made our way to the station for our train back to Naples only to find out that it – and all the other trains to Naples – had been delayed by around 2 hours. Luckily we were able to get on an earlier train that had also been delayed, meaning we only left Rome about 40 minutes later than planned instead of 2 hours. Despite this it was an epic, if exhausting, day.

My advice to other people? Spend at least 2 days in Rome so you’re not shattered after trying to fit everything in!

North Korea! (Part 1)

Yes, you read right. Otherwise known as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea or DPRK, North Korea is one of those places that no-one ever seems to visit. So when I saw a tour there during the Chinese New Year holiday I jumped at the chance!

Dandong, China, is the border town with North Korea. I arrived around 8.30pm on Monday 4th February, checked in and met my roommate for the next week, Amaia. Randomly there was a knock at our hotel room around 9.30pm; upon opening the door we were given a portion of dumplings!

The adventure began early the next morning when we congregated in the hotel lobby to meet our Chinese guide Sabrina and the other 10 people on the tour. After collecting our North Korean visas and being given some last bits of essential information we went to the train station (handily, just next door to the hotel) to catch the 10am train from Dandong to Pyongyang. Of course, we had to go through customs on the Chinese side before we were allowed into the waiting area for the train. We were all surprised how busy it was.

Once we were all settled on the train (we were in a Chinese ‘hard sleeper’ carriage, which means there’s 3 bunks above each other in each section) it only took a few minutes before we were crossing the river over the Friendship Bridge and entering North Korea. We then stopped at Sinuiju for about two hours for customs entering DPRK. All our passports and North Korean visas were collected, our luggage was looked through and our electrical items were made a note of. All in all, it wasn’t a lot more of a check than getting the train into Mongolia from China, which I did about 3 years ago.

After we’d successfully made it through customs we were in North Korea proper. The train journey from Dandong to Pyongyang took around 8 and a half hours, including the two hour stop in Sinuiju. It was mostly spent chatting to the other people on the tour, looking at the passing scenery, and snoozing. One thing that made the whole trip extra special was the company – everyone on the tour got on really well, whether they had known each other beforehand or not.

We were captivated by the scenery as we travelled through the countryside, seeing expanses of farmland, barren with the winter temperatures, monuments and colourful murals dotted amongst rural villages and empty roads, and people walking or cycling as they went about their daily lives. Around 6:45pm DPRK time (an hour ahead of China) we arrived in Pyongyang where we were greeted by our tour guide Kim, met our other guide Pak, our cameraman Kim Su and our driver An.

It was dark by the time we arrived in Pyongyang, so we didn’t see much of the city as we were driven to the hotel that was to be our home during our stay in Pyongyang: Yanggakdo International Hotel. We were taken straight to the revolving restaurant on the 47th floor of the hotel for our first North Korean meal – seafood hotpot with shredded cabbage salad followed by grilled fish and rice and ending with breaded pork cutlets (which I didn’t eat as I’m vegetarian) and home-made fries.

A long day of travelling and excitement had left everyone on the tour tired and ready for a good night’s sleep after dinner and a bit of exploring . The rooms in the ‘special class’ hotel (equivalent to 5 star) were comfortable and spacious, and the beds were much softer than most Chinese hotel beds! There were also all the usual facilities in the hotel – a shop, three restaurants, a swimming pool, pool tables and a casino. Myself, Amaia, Christina, Hossam and Thomas decided to check out the casino after dinner. There was a long row of fruit machines along the corridor, more round the corner, and in the main room were several baccarat tables with a few Chinese players and two tables with a dice game a little like roulette. Thomas had a bit of a gamble on the dice game while we all watched; it was fun! We also checked out the hotel shop, buying essential supplies like drinks and chocolate. This came to the grand total of 245 North Korean Won (17RMB or £1.95), which we had to pay in either RMB, US dollars or Euros as foreigners are not allowed to have North Korean currency.

The morning of our first full day in DPRK was spent on our minibus driving to Masikryong Ski Resort through dramatic mountainous countryside speckled with ice and snow. On the way we stopped at the Mausoleum of King Tong Myong where we were told about the 5000 year long history of Korea by a lecturer.

We left the mausoleum around 9.20am; about halfway through our journey we stopped for a rest break where there was a frozen lake.

We eventually arrived at Masikryong Ski Resort around 1pm, where we checked in and went straight for lunch: pickled radish, polenta pancake, shredded potato (the meat-eaters had grilled fish), tempura daisy herb leaves (pork chops for the others), kimchi and tofu with red pepper sauce. Each dish was brought out one at a time and it was all really tasty (although the kimchi was a bit too spicy for me!).

After lunch most of our group went skiing whilst Christina and I decided to get the cable car to the top of the mountain. The cameraman decided to join us and film us in the gondola – slightly awkward in such a small space! At the top of the mountain we bumped into a few of the lads from our group who were setting off to ski downhill; the cameraman then decided to go and film them – probably because skiing was much more interesting than watching us drink tea and coffee in the café at the top!

Once we returned to the base of the ski slope we bumped into Hossam and Jane going on a ride on snowmobiles up the mountain, and Kim on skis for the first time. Myself and Christina decided to check out the spa facilities and Frances, who had had a go at skiing with the others but had had enough by then, decided to join us to get out of the cold. The spa was in the basement level of the hotel, and oddly we had to walk through the changing rooms and through the swimming pool to get to the massage room, where the masseuses kicked out the Chinese man who was in there so we could have the room to ourselves! We had a foot massage which was lovely and relaxing, then headed back to our rooms for a bit until we all met up for dinner.

Dinner followed a similar pattern to the previous meals – several small dishes brought out individually: potato pancake and shredded vegetables, kimchi, tempura vegetables (fish for the others), sautéed cabbage and other veg (or beef stir fry), spicy seaweed soup and rice with peas. We then all asked for ice cream (which we had to pay extra for) and had a bit of an interesting time trying to figure out the flavours available – first of all we were told pink or yellow then that there was only yellow or coffee. I of course went for the yellow ice cream which turned out to be pineapple flavour and delicious.

After dinner Amaia, Christina, Hossam and I decided to look for the karaoke in the hotel basement level. We found a room labelled ‘Dance Hall’ which was empty apart from a small stage with a drum kit, guitar and bass guitar on it, a bar opposite and one member of staff. She proceeded to turn on the disco lights and hand us a book of available songs for karaoke, so we took that as a sign that we were there to start the singing!

We were really surprised at all the Western songs that were available to sing; such classics as Bohemian Rhapsody, Like A Virgin, Wind of Change, I Will Survive and Breathless to name a few. After a while JP came and joined Hossam to serenade us with House of the Rising Sun, followed by Thomas, Alexander, Daniel and Marius. Christina finally persuaded the four lads to sing a rousing rendition of 99 Red Balloons in German (as they’re all German!). Our two tour guides Kim and Pak came and joined us for a while and we cheered them on to sing too. They treated us to a traditional Korean folk song followed by the well known ballad My Heart Will Go On, which we all joined in with.

One of the best parts of the evening was during a lull in the singing. A demo Korean song came on the TVs and JP had a go at singing along with it (and a very good effort he made too!). When the second Korean song came on the bar lady changed it to a new Korean song, stood up in front of us and performed amazingly. She graced us with two more Korean songs after that as most of us felt we couldn’t follow an act that good! It was a wonderful end to a brilliant first day in North Korea.

Part 2 coming soon!