Mary Hamilton-Smith is a passionate traveler and has worked out a way to include travel as a regular part of her life. She set up Australian Womens Travel. Here is an account of her last Freedom Tour – you can join the next one in 2 May 2014, or one of her other tours HERE
My small group of woman for this year’s tour came from all walks of life and varied parts of Australia. I had met the traveller from Adelaide before, as this was her second tour with me and I had also invited everyone to write a blurb about themselves (likes, dislikes, interest etc), that we shared with everyone prior to the trip. We started off as a small group of strangers and ended up very quickly becoming a fun loving group of friends.
We arrived in Rome quite refreshed at 7.30am after our great Singapore stop. Our hotel was only 5 mins from St Peters Sq. We didn’t waste any time getting out there and our excitement kicked in and far outweighed any tiredness we may have felt from our flight the night before. After coffee at one of my favourite cafes and then we braved the crowds in St Peters Sq to catch a glimpse of the new Pope Francis. A short rest and then off to Trastavere, for a leisurely wander through the small hidden cobblestoned alleyways, with the evening topped off with my favourite Pizza
We then continued exploring through the small alleyways, of one of the oldest areas of Rome, immersing ourselves in the unique beauty and intricate layering of the city called Rome. Every twist and turn presenting us with gorgeous streetscapes, fountains and Piazzas. We walked through the old Jewish Ghetto, under the Portico d Ottavía, precious ruins looming all around us. We visited inside Baroque churches, and of course The Vatican – all overwhelming!
Our private transport to Florence took us along the coast road, where we stopped to buy cheese and salame at a roadside shop. We couldn’t wait to get out there to discover/rediscover the many treasures of this unique city. Our first stop was the Duomo, an unforgettable sight accompanied by the Campanile, every square inch of both covered by intricate marble tiles, in various shades of green, pink and white. The Florentine architecture and artworks in the church are breathtaking, followed by another evening of good Italian food and wine in the Piazza Republica .There is nothing like Florence at night, when the tour groups have all left the city and the beautifully lit buildings and statues glow against the night sky.
Florentine favourites. The Bargello, Medici Chapels and Casa Buonaroti. The old centre of Florence is almost like a village, so it is very easy to find your way around. Luckily none of us got ‘Stendhal’s Syndrome’!! Namely a dizziness caused by being overwhelmed by Florence’s fantastic art. Yes, it’s a real syndrome named after the 19th century French author Stendhal, who suffered from it during his stay in Florence!!!
Another smooth and picturesque train ride, delivered us safely to Venice, and again as we left the train station and saw our first glimpses of the Grand Canal with all of its activity, we were covered in goose bumps. A short walk took us to our hotel, which was an old monastery. The decor reflected this and it also came with a large and beautifully tended courtyard garden, a rare thing in Venice.
Our time in Venice was magical, how could it be anything else in this rich and rare environ-ment. We took a tranquil ride on a Gondola, so relaxing and peaceful. We finished our day at a gorgeous restaurant on the banks of a canal, under a big vaulted veranda, crisp white linen, gorgeous Italian food, Gondolas gliding past hmmm doesn’t get any better than this!!
Paris really is one of the most beautiful cities in the world and we made the most of every moment we had. The exquisite symmetry of the buildings and gardens soothed the soul. The attention to detail, the culture at every turn, the gold painted coloured awnings of the cafes on every corner…… the pride of being French, reflected in everything everywhere.. it was great to be back in the ‘City of Lights’
Our first morning in Paris we taxied to The Musee D’orsay, set in one of the most magnificent buildings in Paris, the collection on show of the Impressionists was just sensational. To see the works of Monet, Degas, Van Gogh, Gaughin, Toulouse Lautrec and many more is outstanding. A leisurely wander along the Left Bank, followed by a commentated boat tour of the Seine was topped off by our visit to the extraordinary Notre Dame Cathedral, celebrating it’s 850th birthday this year.
The food – Creme Brulee, a 3 course lunch in a cute restaurant, set in a beautiful garden, next to a stream, in a village called Forges, lunch in the park under the manicured chestnut trees… There is never enough time in Paris no matter how long you have, it is just so intoxicating.
We arrived safely in London after a very quick flight. LOVE London so much, no idea why, it’s just a feeling that we get every time we are there. Just feel so at home in our ‘neighbourhood’ Pimlico , where I have stayed for years. It’s so good to know where everything is and have so much at hand if we need it. Love the food , love the pubs, love the locals !
We took in the sights – Westminster Abbey, scrambling upstairs on the iconic double decker bus. From there our walking tour began, the iconic sights of London such as the Houses of Parliament and Big Ben didn’t disappoint. Visiting London feels so familiar I think thanks to Monopoly!
Next day we visited the Tower of London, where stayed most of the morning such a great spot, so much to see and do and visiting the Crown Jewels is a must. We followed this with a boat ride along the Thames, passing more recognisable sights such as the unique Tower Bridge and then went for our London Eye Experience which is really a must!
We got out into the country the following day and visited Warwick Castle, Oxford and Strafford upon Avon travelling though the picturesque Cotswalds. It was a bit of a whistle stop tour ,but when your in the UK it is a must that you get to see some of the English Countryside.
This very pink, crumbling ,ancient city, surrounded by huge pink walls, unfolding as we entered the Medina and twisted and turned down numerous alleyways .Cars, scooters, motorbikes, donkeys, horses and carts , people going in all directions, busily surviving in this harsh and poor environment.
As usual, once the doorway of the Riad opens, a whole wonderland of beauty and wonder opens up. As we entered the haven of our Riad and were whisked away into the Arabian Nights, in this gorgeous, clean, well cared for and well maintained courtyard home accommodation.
The shopping is just extraordinary, the sights and sounds have to be seen to be believed. Our Riad now has it’s own Hamman ,(A Moroccan Steam room),! We sat in the steam room, covered in black soap, got scrubbed within an inch if our lives, all this followed by a relaxing massage. We had some wonderful experiences and came home with some fantastic, unique, purchases from the Souks.
Once our time in Marrakesh was over, we returned to London, and caught our flights to Singapore, where we all went our separate ways back to our Australian destinations. It is always sad when a tour is over and often difficult to say our goodbyes. We had seen each other every day and spent wonderful times together, eaten every meal together and had shared many special experiences.