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1 note &

San Gimignano, Italia

One of my favourite stops in the tour was the medieval town of San Gimignano in Tuscany (It’s pronounced san jimmy-nya-no), which was an optional excursion we joined. It’s how you would imagine a medieval town would be in ancient Italy…mudbricks and terra cotta, quaint everything, clear skies…

From Florence, it was an hour or so ride away in the direction of Siena. Here you see more of the beloved Tuscan countryside, rolling hills and all.

The entrance to the town is still at the wall that surrounds it

The entire town is so small that you can walk from end to end in around 15 minutes, leisurely! Still, despite its size, I found San G. to be charming, interesting and ever so idyllic.

(it is not without its quirks. wish we had time to go inside that!)

The buildings in the town are generally tall and straight, and the streets are narrow. When it’s sunny, you can still walk comfortably in the shade without an umbrella, similar to how Spanish cities were laid out (or so I remember learning from the Philippines’ Spanish occupation)

There’s a lovely ruggedness to the town, too, in contrast to the marbles and frescoes and gilded furnishings of more widely known cities like Florence.

Here is our lovely guide, “Jo”, short for Giovanna, so casual chic in her jeans and leather jacket.

Several cafes have made their home in the ancient buildings, providing a nice atmospheric coffee break experience.

I love our tourmates Isobel and Scottish Bob—so sweet!

The tour takes us up to the highest point in the city, which coincidentally is also the “mid-point” of the city. From there you can see the hills and valleys all around. Photos of that in a separate post!

Cute souvenir shops line the narrow streets, full of local wares and crafts

Supposedly, it was quite a danger to be walking the streets in medieval San G., as people would toss their excrement out the window, literally. It was the way of life. Hahaha

A piazza—i love the zigzag pattern the tiles make!

Duomo

Students going about

Here’s the entrance to the museo of torture! What a trip!

Here with my brother, gelato in hand.

And my sister

Local pasta and wines in a little deli

Parting view <3

Photos: Canon 450D + 10-22mm, Sony P200, Sony W380

Filed under italia italy europe travel travels italian san gimignano tour trafalgar excursion medieval town medieval town historic site unesco italy 2010

31 notes &

Firenze di Notte, Italia

After a tiring day of touring, we rested for a bit then decided to go out to explore the city at night

I love these Pinocchio things. I bought, from the entire trip to Italy, 2 sharpeners, 4 wooden puppets, 2 yo-yos, 1 magnet, and some paper with Pinocchio designs. All unused except for the magnet which now happily looks at me from its perch on my CPU.

Medusa’s head

Lots of street musicians providing the soundtrack to our city walk

PDA, so cute.

A small night market of sorts

Walked past the bronze “golden door” again

A warm and inviting looking Ben & Jerry’s

A really sad bike outside the duomo

And since we didn’t know shops closed so early (8ish I think), we weren’t able to do the Florentine steak dinner we’d hoped to have.

Luckily though we walked past this quaint little pizzeria with the nicest ol’ couple running it.

Renato e Marina!

Homemade pizza and pasta takeout for us. Yum!

Ah, Florence <3 

Photos: Canon 450D + 24-70mmL + 10-22mm, Sony P200, Sony W380

Filed under city duomo europe european firenze florence florentine italia italian italy paper pasta pinocchio pizza pizzeria steak tour travel travels italy 2010

26 notes &

Firenze, Italia

Random shots through the streets of Florence~

Closeup of the creepy-cool statue I mentioned here.

Me and my sister doing more shadow shots (which we’ve done quite a bit on this trip)

A lovely cafe-lined square

the square outside the Palazzo della Signora

Below, can you spot the David replica?

One of my favourite paperie shops, Il Papiro~

Cute little wine shop

Sure looks like one heck of a museum

Another Il Papiro branch

The Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiori

Little cop car

Parting view of the city

I <3 Florence~

Photos: Canon 450D + 10-22mm + 24-70mmL, Sony P200, Sony W380

Filed under italia italy firenze florence europe european travel travels il papiro david michelangelo tour trafalgar palazzo piazza carabinieri italy 2010

10 notes &

Leather & David, Firenze, Italia

We started one of the mornings by visiting the leather and gold factory in the center of Florence. It was the typical (or at least from my memory of this) demonstration and sales talk, but mostly what I was really interested in was getting my hands on goldleaf, which I’d always wanted to use in my crafts projects.

Display of tools used—these look rather surgical, don’t they?

Goldleaf application demonstration (that’s a leather wastepaper box)

More tools

Sample of a typical workstation

Gold + papercrafts too

After the factory visit, we headed over to the Academy of Art to see the famed stark-naked David.

Technically, photos aren’t allowed, but following the tried-and-true technique of coughing-as-you-click and blindly pointing the camera towards what you’re intending to shoot, we did score pretty decent shots.

A bunch of school-teens were there too, so the camera clicks weren’t too much of a distraction/ alarm. This David is the “real” one, the real one of the copy found in one of the outdoor piazzas by the Palazzo della Signora in Florence.

An interesting thing about Michelangelo’s sculptures is that he doesn’t really think of what he’s sculpting, but rather said he “saw” the subject within the marble, and he was merely freeing them from it.

Funnily enough, David, one of his most famed pieces, was carved from the weakest, least desirable type of marble. When he saw the marble block, he saw David within and it didn’t matter that the marble was not the strongest.

This “real” David used to be outside in the piazza, but due to potential damage from constant bird droppings as well as vandals, it was moved inside the Accademia. Unfortunately, vandals have still gotten a piece of him (literally)—a few years back some of them came in and hacked at his foot, taking out some chunks. Since then security has been much tighter, and a glass enclosure was built around him. You can still see the deformation/missing bits from his leg.

It doesn’t look like it here in the photos or in other photos of David, but the sculpture is actually really ginormous, not life-sized at all. It’s freakin’ 17 feet tall. And even from behind the glass, the details are really vivid—you see all the veins and wrinkled brows and ripply muscles and everything. I’m pretty sure Goliath didn’t stand a chance.

Nice butt, David.

Photos: Canon 450D + 10-22mm, Sony W380

Filed under italia italy europe firenze florence tuscany travel travels european italian david academy academe accademia academia leather florentine trafalgar tour italy 2010

9 notes &

Istanbul, Turkey

It’s my family’s first time ever going to a Muslim country. Even though 1 of 3 of the main islands of the Philippines is Muslim, I myself am pretty clueless to the culture and ways of life. Needless to say, it was quite expectedly a fish-out-of-water sort of feeling, and I was a bit scared and apprehensive about how I would feel being immersed in something so foreign to me. Then again, that’s also something about traveling that both scares and excites me.

Summer of ‘11, and off we went to Turkey, which lies partly in Europe and mostly in Asia. I half expected sand and caravans in my mind, but was surprised to see how modern and developed Istanbul was (clueless me).

I love these funny road signs coming out of the airport. We were picked up at the airport by the Trafalgar rep (in Turkey working via Neon Tours), and taken to our hotel, the Dedeman Hotel Istanbul, which is in the “new city”.

Istanbul, the only city which is straddled across 2 continents, is divided into the new and old city. The Old City, which houses most of the major sites, lies on the European side of the Bosphorus River (which is what splits the city in two), while the New City is on the Asian side.

Below is an example of something we saw everywhere—those castle turrety things/alien spaceship things that sound off the call to prayer five times a day

Stunning views of the Bosphorus River from the car

In the distance, the bridge that links the two halves of Istanbul

Migros, a little convenience store/minimart near our hotel

Cute/creepy kitties!

My brother, Jourdan

Our hotel, the Dedeman Hotel Istanbul

Our tour bulletin

Photos taken by my sister with her Canon 450D + 10-22mm + 24-70mmL

Filed under asia eurasia europe istanbul neon tours trafalgar travel traveler traveling travels turkey turkiye tour touring group tour group tours traveling with a group turkey 2011

2 notes &

On Group Tours

If you’re planning on trying out traveling on a group tour, a good start is using one of the major tour companies as a peg, and going from there*

*This is mostly for people traveling from the Philippines, but the general stuff could be applicable to anyone who’s thinking of this type of thing~ :)

*Land tours, not cruises or adventure tours

Some Major Tour Companies & Their General Profile

Insight Vacations - booked through Rajah Travel Corporation in the Philippines - First class tours, usually the most expensive

Trafalgar Tours - booked through Pan Pacific Travel Corporation in the Philippines - First class tours with several low cost alternative tours (i’ll explain below), usually a good balance between first class and low cost

Globus - booked through Baron Travel Corporation in the Philippines - also First class and one of the most expensive; Globus’ low cost version is Cosmos

Cosmos Tours - also booked through Baron Travel Corporation - Globus’ low cost tour company, usually cheapest but missing lots of inclusions (i’ll explain below)

(Insight & Trafalgar are actually sister companies under the same umbrella, The Travel Corporation. Contiki and other familiar companies are also sisters)

Insight

 

Insight is usually the most expensive of the lot. Note that the marked price difference between each tour company is not necessarily in the quality of the tour or the number of places you go to, but in the hotels you stay at and number of included meals. You’ll notice that Insight usually uses a lot more Big Name hotels like Hyatt, Hilton, Radisson, Swissotel, Mariott, Conrad, and so on. Big Names do not mean best location, though. A lot of the time these hotels are located outside of the city centers and so walking at night might not be an option. Also, depending on the country or places you visit, hotels won’t always be Big Name ones (ie when going to small towns, it is possible that the best hotel there is actually a motel sort of place), or tour companies may opt to choose hotels based on capacity because group tours usually bring 30-50 people. Insight tour directors have been great so far (we’ve gone on a USA one and my sister has gone on a Europe one).

Trafalgar

  

Trafalgar is our most usual option. Usually it falls somewhere in the middle of a superior class and a low cost tour, and so far we’ve never really had any problems with them. Trafalgar is a first class touring option, but not a “superior” first class like Insight is, its more expensive sister. It is not a budget tour either. Again, don’t be fooled by the classes, because the tours are all essentially alike, differing usually in the hotels you stay at or the tour and meal inclusions. Trafalgar is a pretty good middle ground because it’s affordable enough that it gives you value for your money (sometimes Insight prices are quite exorbitant), while giving you the luxuries of first class travel—hotels are usually a mix of named and semi-named hotels. In certain cases, as with most, location is given priority over a hotel’s number of stars, but it’s a good compromise.

Low Cost Trafalgar

Trafalgar’s low cost brochure is essentially the same bunch of tours but with less named hotels and usually less sights included. What this means cost-wise is that you get a lower base price for the tour compared to the first class Trafalgar, with the freedom to add on the optional tours as your budget allows. Basically, if you go on all the optional tours that would give you the same itinerary as the first class version, you’re pretty much paying the same price. For example, a first class 10-day tour of Country X is USD2,750, while a low cost 10-day tour of Country X is USD2,250. The case, usually, is that the low cost tour will just make into optional tours some of the sights that are included in the price of the first class tour. So for USD2,750 you visit 10 sites, while in the USD2,250 tour 6 sites are included, and 4 are optional. I hope I explained that right. Hahaha

Globus

 

I have never been on a Globus tour, but its price range is nearer to Insight, and it is also the first class alternative of Cosmos.

Cosmos

 

Cosmos is the budget/low cost tour class of the Globus family of tours, and while I haven’t been on one, my family’s actually trying Cosmos next year when we do the Central Europe tour (we still prefer Trafalgar actually because we would also get a frequent traveler discount on top of a group discount, but the departure dates just didn’t work for us). My cousin’s been on around 2 Cosmos tours though, and she said it was great, so at least I can breathe a little easier on that front. When comparing tours, Cosmos is usually the most misleading for me. This is because they usually print the cheapest prices, but they exclude a lot of the sights. Meaning, if you compare a Country X tour of Cosmos with a Country X tour of Trafalgar, and you add up the prices of all the optional tours you have to go on with a Cosmos tour to match the same itinerary as that of its Trafalgar equivalent, Trafalgar sometimes comes out cheaper. Or the price difference between a low cost Cosmos and a first class Trafalgar is so little that you’d opt to go with the first class tour instead. Also, Cosmos does not have complimentary hotel/airport transfers, so it’s an additional USD200 per person for a roundtrip to the airport, whereas Trafalgar and Insight tours include it.

Common Terminology: SEE vs VISIT

Almost all of the brochures, you’ll notice, are pretty wordy, and go on and on in flowery sentences about all the wonderful countries and places you’ll get to experience. Don’t be fooled though, once you’re on tour, when you just see a castle from inside the bus or if a palace is just pointed out in the middle of a walking tour. You might argue that the brochures said you would get to go to those places in the itinerary, but these tour companies will tell you that the brochures state if you will just “SEE" a place (meaning you literally just see it or pass by it or spot it from a distance without actually going inside) or actually "VISIT" a place (meaning you actually get off the bus and do a proper visit of the site. There are also "ORIENTATIONS" which usually mean walking tours with a local guide, ie an orientation of a medieval city. We usually type up or jot down a quick table of what sights are "SEEN" or "VISITED" so that we won’t be under any illusions while on tour. You can also compare the SEEs and VISITs for parallel tours among the different tour companies to see which tour will give you the most value for your money. Sometimes the cheaper tours have more SEEs than VISITs, so you want to be careful with those.

OPTIONAL TOURS

In order to give you some free time, tour companies usually allot a number of hours for going on optional tours, which you can opt to join or opt to spend on your own, exploring the city or getting some extra shuteye. Optional tours range from cultural shows to walking tours to local meals and the like, and prices vary quite a bit. Usually tours which are packaged with a meal will cost more because they jack up the price of the meal, but in actuality the cost of the show or cruise is not that high. For example—a cruise only option is 35EUR, but it becomes 60EUR with a meal. And usually the meals aren’t even that good. In some cases, tour directors will allow you to cut out the meal, so always ask. Also, a list of optional tours is usually made available online so it’s best to do a bit of research on them so you know what to spend for. Sometimes the tour description sounds great but it turns out to be a tourist trap. It doesn’t hurt to do a bit of Googling :)

MEALS + ACCOMMODATIONS

While this is really dependent on the country you visit, most tours include all breakfasts and most meals, give or take a few. For example, in the Best of Turkey tour, all breakfasts and almost all dinners were covered, so you really just had to spend for lunch, which was usually at a traditional cafe in a gas station or pitstop where we would stop in the middle of the day. But for some other tours, such as a multi-country Europe tour or the Best of Italy tour we went on, all breakfasts and only a handful of dinners were covered, so you still had to spend for most dinners and all of your lunches. This can be a cramp in your budget considering that meals in Europe, especially the big touristy cities like Paris and London, don’t come cheap! Don’t think that going fastfood is going to improve your budget though—fastfood chains are really expensive too. The best thing to do is to stock up on food from breakfast! (Sneaky and a bit embarassing, but everyone does it—only not everyone admits it!)

There are a lot more topics to tackle but I think this bunch is a good start. Feel free to ask me anything else! :D Attempting sage wisdom.

Logos & brochure covers were Googled. Tour photos by my sister, Stephanie: Canon 450D + 10-22mm + 24-70mmL; post-processed by me; from our Best of Italy tour with Trafalgar

Filed under big group cosmos family globus group tour insight land tour tour touring trafalgar travel traveler traveling traveller travelling travels vacation travel planning plan a trip trip vacation vacay tour bus europe usa

2 notes &

Be My Guest Dinner in Tuscany, Italy

We had quite the memorable dining experience while in Tuscany. While I cannot say that the food was particularly good, the way we got there was the adventure. Trafalgar has (recently, I think) come up with this feature on their tours called “Be My Guest”, which is a meal you have in an authentic home, site, villa or whatnot of a specific country or place. It’s really interesting because you get to experience a bit more of the real life of the “locals”.

But before we even get to the meal itself, let’s begin with ending our day in Florence~

We left Florence early in the evening to head to a nearby farm/villa restaurant for our Be My Guest meal in Italy. It is not in Florence per se, but somewhere in between Florence and Siena. Since it wasn’t one of the places frequented by the tour company, we did get lost a few times and found ourselves almost arriving in Siena. It was getting pretty dark and the roads seemed to keep circling. Our eyes were slowly shutting with the warm haze of sunset rays filtering through the bus windows—and we had just had a really long day of walking all around Florence, so we were all pretty much ready to hit the sack.

On the way, some beautiful Italian countryside scenery~

We were already down a little country road that led into some “suburb”, but definitely not leading to the restaurant.

Lots of these cool jet-cloud things in the sky, making the sunset all the more picturesque

Finally, we found the local tour guide/villa owner and she led the way to the farm in her tiny car

The villa from a distance. It was a really long, dark, and eerily narrow-roaded spiral up to the top of the hill, and with a big, rectangular bus like ours, it really was shaky and felt like we could easily topple over and roll down the side like a toy bus at any moment. Luckily, our coach driver was the best there was! His name is Marcello, and he is the epitome of a classic old Italian gentleman, and one heck of a driver.

Arrivo! This is my brother, Jourdan. We made him tape the whole ordeal/adventure. Hahaha

My sister, Stephanie, all bundled up in her fluffy pink scarf (which I gave some birthdays ago)

Me, and I don’t know why my “background” was the bush and this light post :| hahaha

Side of the villa. No idea what it says on there-

This is our tour director, Gus, with the owner of the farm

Pretty branch things on the ceiling

Some of the olive oil they grow and produce here

Our starters~ I can’t remember what they were exactly but they were WEIRD to me. I just know there’s Buffalo and tomatoes in there

My brother’s face says it all. hahaha

Their own wines as well

My sister Stephanie and I

Our tour group occupied the whole dining hall. Our tourmate there is watching us draw Spongebob.

We forgot to take photos of the rest of the food. The main course was a fresh pasta with Buffalo meat sauce (interesting, but really bland), and I can’t remember the dessert was. Hahaha

Outside, it was pitch black and freezing

Marcello, our coach driver, was truly a lifesaver. He navigated this huge ol’ bus downhill, in the pitch darkness, on unpaved and freakishly narrow dirt roads. Seriously, this guy should get an award or something. He was flattered when we told him he drove better than Schumacher. Hahaha

Photos: Canon 450D + 10-22mm + 24-70mmL + 580 EXII

Filed under tuscany italia italy be my guest dinner meal food italian authentic farm villa winery lost travel bus tour buffalo meat europe europa euro travels traveling italy 2010