Morning Market Delight in Pistoia

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It was Wednesday and it was market day in Pistoia. We drove down from Bagni di Lucca and parked the car at Lucca train station and took the morning train to Pistoia.

It is just a 40 minute train ride from Lucca to Pistoia through lovely Tuscan country side and passing by dozens of local nurseries. The area of Pistoia is very well known for the cultivation of plants and flowers exported all over the world, with a long tradition of local nurseries being passed down generation after generation.

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The city of Pistoia, a distinctive medieval city, is located in northern Tuscany, halfway between Florence(Firenze)  and Lucca and about 40 km away from each. What a gorgeous town. It is so easy to fall in love with Pistoia.

 

Miky from https://passion4food4fashion.com/ was waiting for us as our train arrived at the Pistoia train station. I first was introduced to Pistoia through Miky’s blog which I started following a few years ago. Miky is absolutely passionate about her home town and must be their greatest ambassador.

Miky walked with us through the town pointing out every building, statue and landmark with descriptions and information about them all. We stopped at Miky’s favourite bar/cafe for coffee and the best Italian dolce (pastry) I can remember ever enjoying.

 

We chatted and she filled us in on her involvements in Pistoia including telling us about her family restaurant Pollo d’Oro. Miky I will definitely come to the restaurant next time I am in Pistoia.

 

 

After coffee we continued our walk to the Piazza Della Sala where we found the colourful weekly markets. The Piazza Della Sala is a piazza with charm and character, a very traditional market  that sells top quality Italian fruit and vegetables

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The piazza was crowded, and the eating places around the square were pretty busy. I always love the atmosphere and vibe of Italian markets and this one was no exception. Extending out towards the street was another market, selling all kinds of household items, clothing, shoes, jewellery, Bric-à-brac plus so much more.

 

After the markets are finished each week, and everything is packed away, the piazza transforms into a busy hive of activities with its pizzerias, restaurants and bars.  This continues on in to the evenings. We did not stay long enough for the evening activities however it is a definite must for me next time I am in Italy.

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From here I took the train on to Ferrara and Debra caught the train back to Lucca.

Thank you Miky for sharing your beautiful town with us.

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Simply Captivating – Angkor Wat

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I had no idea how big Angkor Wat was until we went there.   Angkor Wat is a temple complex in Cambodia and is the largest religious monument in the world, with the site measuring 162.6 hectares.  Many will know this place to be where Tomb Raider/ Lara Croft was filmed at the Ta Prohm temple

We were picked up by coach reasonably early at our hotel in Siem Reap to drive the short distance of about 20 k’s to the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Angkor Wat.  It is very popular to arrive at Angkor Wat early enough to watch the sunrise however we were there just after breakfast.

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Prior to visiting the temple, you must first purchase a temple pass at the ticket office which is a few kilometres from the actual temples.  The day passes now cost $37US which is a huge increase from the $20 price prior to February this year. We joined the crowds of people already at the ticket office to have our photo taken and our day pass processed. As we were in an organised tour we were taken through much quicker than most tourists. Every place we visited we were very pleased that we had our own tour guide as they always managed to get us through quicker and easier than if we were doing it on our own.  Of course speaking the local language is very advantageous.

 

What a magnificent, amazing place. We entered from the much less crowded east gate, which gave us an opportunity to see the temple without a huge crowd around us. Our tour guide did a great job of explaining everything we saw and leading us through the temple complex.

Every time you turned a corner or stepped through a doorway there was something else amazing to see.  I was astounded by the huge size of this temple and its beautiful symmetry.

As the temples of Angkor represent a sacred religious site, visitors are asked to dress modestly. It is not possible to visit the highest level of Angkor Wat without upper arms covered and shorts to the knees.

Although we visited Angkor Wat in spring it was still very hot. It is not necessarily distant walking but it involves lots of walking. I recommend being well prepared with good walking shoes, hats, sunscreen and plenty of water. Some of the fittest folks in our group struggled with the heat and stairs.

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We decided not to climb up the narrow steep staircase to the top level, mainly because of the long line of tourists already waiting to go up and also the heat.

We were fortunate to have a local guide whose depth of knowledge and passion for Cambodia and Angkor Wat were phenomenal – our guide’s knowledge and helpfulness took this superb trip to the next level! I cannot say enough about the Angkor Wat UNESCO World Heritage Site. Another Must Visit if you are in Cambodia.

After touring the temple we exited from the west gate. That side was much more crowded, but we were able to get the obligatory photo from in front of the lagoon with the temple in the background.

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This was an exceptional day visiting an exceptional temple.

Memories!!!    Bagni di Lucca.

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It is 12 months since I was in Bagni di Lucca. I have the most wonderful memories and photos of this beautiful area which will last a life time.

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My first introduction to Bagni di Lucca was through a blog called www.bagnidilucca.wordpress.com The first time I read this blog I fell in love with Bagni di Lucca and I knew that I must visit and stay there. So, 3 years ago, I rented an apartment in the little village of Ponte e Serraglio. The apartment overlooked the river and the village. It was wonderful.  I was definitely living the dream.  Thanks to Debra Kolka the author of www.bagnidilucca.wordpress.com I experienced more of the areas around the little village where we were staying that I learned about from Deb .

Then last year while I was planning my trip to Italy to stay in Lucca for a week, Debra invited me to stay in her gorgeous apartment in Bagni di Lucca which is about a 30 minute drive from Lucca. The apartment is on the river looking directly at the little village. To me it was the best location in Ponte e Serraglio.  The view took my breath away every time I stepped on to her balcony.

 

After my stay in Lucca, Debra picked me up,  we went down to the markets in Forte dei Marme before returning to her apartment in Bagni di Lucca.

Debra is well known and well respected in the village and thanks to this I met so many of the locals and regular visitors to the area.  I met up and chatted with many new friends every morning when we went to Il Monaco for our morning coffee and dolce. I also loved chatting with many other new friends each afternoon when we walked across to Bar Italia for our aperativo.

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While staying in Debra’s apartment, from Foligno, which is the next village down from Ponte e Serraglio, I took the train to many of the towns in the Tuscany area for short stays.  It was just so easy for me. Debra would drive me to the train station and was always sitting waiting at the train station when I returned a few days later.

I enjoyed the changing of the flowers on the bridge with Debra which she does twice a year.  This is totally her initiative and her expense but she loves doing it as she is so passionate about her little Italian village.

 

We visited Casa Debbio in Vergemoli up in the mountains several times and I was also fortunate enough to stay in this gorgeous house for a few days. The views overlooking the valleys and the mountains in the distance where stunning.

 

Last year, my stay in Bagni di Lucca was one of the highlights of my travelling life thanks so much to Debra and her husband Jim and their generosity.  It certainly was a wonderful experience for me. Thanks so much Debra.

 

Floating Village on Tonle Sap Lake, Cambodia.

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After checking in to our hotel, The City River Hotel, in Siem Reap, our local tour guide offered us the opportunity of a boat tour of Tonle Sap Lake.  After a great western style lunch, many of the folks in our tour decided to have a free afternoon, however 6 of us chose to take this tour.

It was a rather short bus trip, 15 k’s from Siem Reap,  to the boat terminal where we transferred to one of the many modest passenger boats that take you on the tour of Tonle  Sap Lake.

 

I read a lot of conflicting reviews on this trip, but unfortunately many had bad experiences and had been ripped off but we were certainly pleased with our costs and transport. It was definitely worth the trip, but such an eye opener.  It is educational but heart breaking.

Tonle Sap is the largest freshwater lake in Asia. The soil is clay based which accounts for some of the look of filth but it was disturbing to witness people there washing their dishes in the lake and pulling fish out. It was also sad to see the shacks that the Vietnam people live it. There are over 1000 families (approx 5000 people) living in these make-shift floating homes and over 3 million living on the banks of this lake.

 

It was a great experience to see an entire village on the Lake. We were told by the guide that there were 5 or 6 villages on the lake at different spots.
There were stores for purchasing day-to-day needs like groceries, vegetables, etc and there were at least two floating schools.

Many boats had satellite dishes and television for entertainment, and most of the floating houses had hammocks with many residents lying in them and relaxing.

 

There were children taking a bath in the river and swimming and we saw women in their kitchens doing chores like cutting vegetables or washing dishes etc. Many of the floating homes had there own vegetable gardens which were sometimes a separate floating raft.

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We did not expect a luxury boat or comfort or beautiful water and we were not disappointed.

 

We stopped at one of the larger rafts which was definitely targeting the tourists. There was a shop with tacky souvenirs, tables to sit, a snack shop and a crocodile farm where there are several crocodiles kept in a very small enclosure that is submerged in to the lake.  We could see at least 7 or 8 of the crocodiles from a raised platform. The farm had also displayed full size crocodile skin for sale – as leather.

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From here we returned to our boat and returned to the terminal where our small bus was waiting to take us back to the hotel.

We were all deep in thought after what we had seen and experienced on the Tonle Lap Lake.  We felt sad but pleased that we had chosen to do this very unique tour. Although it is a different way of life to what I have, they mostly seemed quite happy with their lives.

Keep it simple and don’t expect much comfort and luxury. Enjoy and admire how these people manage & survive.

Tuk Tuk around Siem Reap plus its exciting Night Life.

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It was about a 5 hour coach trip from our hotel in Phnom Penh to Siem Reap,  a resort town in northwestern Cambodia, and gateway to the ruins of Angkor, including the main temple of Angkor Wat.

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Siem Reap is a fast-growing city with plenty of new hotels, restaurants and nightclubs. Actually we really enjoyed Siem Reap.

We found the most effective way to get around Siem Reap is by Tuk Tuk (or Remork, as the locals call them). For short trips flag one down; for tours ask your hotel or guesthouse for advice. We used them day and night. In actual fact there were always Tuk Tuks parked outside our hotel waiting on standby day and night. We ended up having the same Tuk Tuk driver each time, Mr Peach. It was like he was always waiting for us. He was very patient in answering all our questions and we even learned a bit of their history through him. He speaks English quite well so it was easy for us to communicate.  Most importantly he makes you feel comfortable and safe. And the tuk tuk itself is nice and clean and comfortable.

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We hired Mr Peach for a few hours on our last morning in Siem Reap to take us on a private tour around the city. We headed out into the city streets and the back alleys and got a little taste of how the locals live and work.  My friend and I had a great trip in Siem Reap. Mr Peach was a really nice driver, he takes the time to explain things (Cambodia culture, history, his own family, etc), and takes initiative in showing extra spots.  It was a great little tour and left us with a great impression of Siem Reap. This was an experience to remember.

Smile! Cambodians are extremely friendly, and smiles go a long way. They are the nicest, friendliets people I have encountered and I have travelled the world!

In the evenings Mr Peach took us to Pub Street – an evening time Must Visit. I read about Pub Street before visiting Siem Reap but was still pleasantly surprised when I arrived. I wasn’t expecting such a bustling area in Siem Reap. The street is closed for traffic at night, giving it a festival atmosphere.

Pub Street is the main street in Siem Reap for Bars and restaurants. Walk down the street and you can chose from almost any cuisine in the world – Burgers/American – Pizza/Italian – Greek – German – Thai – Australian etc. plus a good selection of local Cambodian (Khmer) restaurants.

It is quiet during the day but comes alive after dark and is the go to tourist destination in the town. Drinks are cheap (G&T, cocktails cost $US 1.50, Draft Beer $US 0.50) during happy hour, which in many places seems to last all night.  You can find every type of food from fried grasshoppers and tarantulas to rib eye steaks in Pub Street.

Close to Pub Street, just across a little bridge is the night market where you can pick up more souvenirs, clothes and much more. Once again a great atmosphere with live music.

Pub Street is an excellent place…. Rather than just a street of pubs, it is actually a district of pubs, clubs & restaurants around the old market.

 

Da Nang and its Protector

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It was only about a 30 minute drive from our hotel in Hoi An to Da Nang, which is a coastal city in central Vietnam.  Da Nang is known for its sandy beaches and history as a French colonial port, also its beautiful scenery and great local food.

It was my first time to Vietnam and of course to Da Nang. What an amazing surprise!!! Da Nang is really lovely with its tranquil expansive beaches which are lined with many new resorts, and surrounded with breath taking mountains and natural beauty. It certainly is a fantastic vacation option for us Aussies as it is only about a 10 hour flight from Australia. The accommodation is luxurious and very affordable.  Yes, we did stay in Hoi An and really enjoyed it.  In fact I plan to return to Vietnam to stay and spend more time in Hoi An.

We toured the city and beach areas of Da Nang including walking along the park areas of the main beach.  Although we did not actually visit the Dragon Bridge we viewed it from the beach.  This unique bridge was designed and built in the shape of a dragon and to breathe fire and water which it does each Saturday and Sunday night at 9. Another reason for me to return to Hoi An to see this amazing display

On the Son Tra Peninsula overlooking  Da Nang harbour stands a 67 meter statue of the Bodhisattva of Mercy, otherwise known as Lady Buddha. The views and the size of Lady Buddha are truly stunning. This bright white statue in the pagoda complex was originally built in the 18th century during the reign of Emperor Ming Mang and has since been restored.

This majestic Lady Buddha which is the tallest Buddha statue in south east Asia is so imposing in Da Nang that you really cannot miss Her no matter how far you are within town along the beachfront. The surrounding temples and pagoda add more prestige to this special tourist hot spot. In addition, the meticulously manicured bonsai and gardens make this place exceptional.

The atmosphere here is so serene and although there were many tourists everyone seemed to be caught up in the peacefulness of the Lady Buddha, the pagoda, the beautiful temple gate and the magnificent views of Da Nang and its harbour.

A visit to Da Nang would most certainly include a trip up to see Lady Buddha. It is such an amazing statue that you couldn’t possibly miss seeing her.

Beautiful Lake in the middle of Hanoi

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On our last day in Hanoi, directly after breakfast, we walked to the Old Centre to hire an Electric Car with a driver for a tour around Hanoi’s Old Quarter and Hoan Kiem Lake area. We found the booking stall on Dinh Tien Hoang Street- the tree-lined boulevard right next  to Hoan Kiem Lake. We paid 300,000VND for the car with a driver to take us around the Old Centre and the Lake which lasted about an hour.

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Hồ Hoàn Kiếm (meaning “Lake of the Returned Sword” or “Lake of the Restored Sword”), also known as Hồ Gươm (Sword Lake), is a lake in the historical centre of Hanoi. The lake is one of the major scenic spots in the city and serves as a focal point for its public life.

Walking around the lake is one of the most popular activities for both locals and tourists in Hanoi, however we chose to hire the car as we were limited with time.  It is also a popular area for running, jogging and exercising. If you have the time, an early morning walk around this lake would be a wonderful way to start your day. Stop for your morning coffee or stay for lunch. It is easy to get around as you are not constantly avoiding thousands of motorbikes.

We were delighted with our driver who spoke enough English to give us an excellent tour of the areas. He stopped many times for photo opportunities and explained many of the symbols, buildings and traditions along the way.

There are many monuments all around the lake that give a sense of history and cultural diversity in this special place. There are also many cafes and restaurants well positioned for a view to the lake.

The Old Quarter is packed with charming colonial architecture, Buddhist temples and pagodas. It is Hanoi’s major commercial district. It’s heart and soul is exposed in the ancient commercial streets which are named after their original businesses dating back about 1000 years.

Expect to find plenty of hip café, bars, a variety of restaurants, bakeries, boutique shops and art galleries in this historical area.

There are lots of places to eat and drink. It is so full of life – Wonderful.

“Surprise” – In Ha Long Bay

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The morning of our second day of our cruise on Ha Long Bay, directly after breakfast, while it was still very early, we took the tender boat in to see Sung Sot Cave (Surprise Cave).

 

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Sung Sot Cave is a large cave of 12.200 square meters. The cave has three compartments and high ceilings with lots of stalactites in various shapes. The ceiling’s maximal height is 30 meters

The mouth of Sung Sot Cave is about 25 meters above the sea level. Next to the entrance to the cave, there is a stone in the shape of a horse and a long sword.

This huge cave is considered one of the new 7 wonders of the world. It was discovered by a local fisherman.

Our Cruise tour guide was able to educate us on many fun and interesting facts on the cave formations and what they mean to the Vietnamese people.  He joked about the reason it was called “Surprise Cave” as he pointed to a phallic shaped stalagmite formation however the surprise is the nonstop beauty of the cave.

This huge cavern has walking track and steps throughout. There are over 150 steps but don’t let this put you off as they are not steep at all and we were not rushed.  The natural stones have different shapes inside the cave and the tour guide points them out as you go. Some of the most interesting ones for me were; the dragon on the ceiling, the turtle, heart shaped rock and several Buddhas

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Being as we arrived early, there was no line of people waiting,  nor difficulty getting around, however I have heard it can get very crowded. There is colourful lighting throughout the cave which does take away from the natural beauty giving it a “Hollywood” look however lights are necessary to see where you are going and to see the formations.

You really do need a local guide to give you the cultural and historical information to give more depth to the cave rather than it being purely a spectacle.

 

   Once at the top after visiting and walking out of the Cave,  we enjoyed the best views of Ha Long bay.  Breathtaking!!

My Beautiful Hạ Long Bay Cruise

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I will start off by saying that Hạ Long Bay is utterly amazing!  It has picturesque waterways, out of this world scenery and, I loved it.

Hạ Long Bay, in northeast Vietnam, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and is known for its emerald waters and thousands of towering limestone islands topped by rain-forests.

We were picked up early from our hotel in Hanoi and we drove for 4 hours up to Hạ Long City on the bay. After we arrived at the bay we took a tender boat out to our boat “Majestic.”

While motoring up the centre of Hạ Long bay on our Majestic, we were served an amazing seafood lunch which consisted of 7 courses of delicious foods. We soon learned that all meals in Vietnam ended with platters of fresh seasonal fruit.  How very civilised!!  The food was outstanding. There was always so much of it and always beautifully decorated.

After lunch we “checked” in to our cabins which were a lovely surprise as they were nicer than I had expected, with comfortable beds, en-suite bathroom, air conditioner and power points to charge batteries etc. Also, there was WIFI on board.

After this we took our tender boat to Ti Top Island to spend a couple of very pleasant hours. Ti Top Island is regarded as one of the most attractive sites for tourists to Hạ Long Bay.  It is especially famous for its clean water and smooth white sand beach and magnificent views from the top.

 

The bay itself was breathtaking and even though there were many boats around we didn’t feel they were intrusive. It is the most boats I have ever experienced in one area.

On the way back to our boat, several of our group chose to go kayaking in the bay so we dropped them off at the kayaks.  When we arrived back to our boat, it was late afternoon, where we spent time up on the top deck enjoying fresh fruits and cocktails. As evening set in; the boats in the bay turned on their lights and music, turning the bay into a magical fairy-land.

After, our evening interlude on top deck we enjoyed another amazing meal. We were very impressed with the selection of international wines that were available on board considering this was a small boat with only 10 cabins.

There were plenty of activities on board including a cooking class in the dining room.

We started our next morning early up on the top deck doing half an hour of Tai Chi.  We did not know what we were doing but followed the lead as well as we could and loved it – what a fabulous way to start a beautiful day in an exquisite place.

Directly after breakfast, while it was still early, we took our tender boat to Sung Sot Cave. There were many steps up to the cave and then there was the magnificent view of Hạ Long Bay. This deserves its own story.

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View From Sung Sot Cave

Then as we cruised back to Hạ Long city we enjoyed another fantastic lunch on board our home of 2 days.

Our tour guide, Mr Mau was so helpful, gentle and enthusiastic in his job. We really appreciated him as he helped us to have an unforgettable time

Hạ Long Bay was my high-light of Hanoi and one of my high-lights of Vietnam.