How to road trip Tuscany… by train

My first trip to Italy was with my family. Mum, dad, my two sisters and I. We packed into a car and drove allllll around the country for six weeks, made infinitely easier by the fact my parents are Italian, have family scattered all over the country, and speak the language fluently. My second trip was with my husband, a decade later. We didn’t have a car, and stuck mostly to the bigger cities. On my third trip, again with my husband, I wanted get back to some of the smaller Tuscan towns I first saw back in 2002, but using only the rail network.

Siena, Italy

The main reason for this is that all those gorgeous old towns like Lucca and San Gimignano are still encircled by medieval city walls. Even if you can navigate the narrow alleyways and cobbled roads, finding parking inside of them is next to impossible. And when the rail network is as good as it is over there, there’s no need to worry yourself with parking fines and scratched bumpers.

The husband was on board, and our game plan was:
a) Pick out the cities we wanted to visit
b) Book 2 nights accommodation in every 2nd city
c) See the city we were staying in the first day, and day trip on the other day

Because the trains are so regular and reliable, you don’t need to pre-book your tickets months before departing – just roll up to the station on the morning you want to head off, and purchase it on the spot. Just remember to validate your ticket to avoid some serious fines – not speaking the language is not a valid excuse.

Lucca, Italy

Here’s what our 2017 week-long Tuscan itinerary looked like:

Day 1Arrive in SienaSee SienaAirbnb in Siena
Day 2Train to/from San GimignanoDay trip and return to SienaAirbnb in Siena
Day 3Train to LuccaSee LuccaAirbnb in Lucca
Day 4Train to/from VolterraDay trip and return to LuccaAirbnb in Lucca
Day 5Train to FlorenceSee FlorenceHotel in Florence
Day 6More of FlorenceHotel in Florence
Day 7And more of FlorenceHotel in Florence
Day 8Depart Florence

We were able to comfortably cover 5 cities, and in fact had time for at least one more (most people would probably go with Pisa, but we’ve already been and wanted more time in Florence). And that’s all well and good, but how can you do the same thing when you’re in Tuscany? Here are my top 5 tips to organise your own Tuscan road trip (by train):

1. Get a map
And pay attention to the scale. Be realistic about how much distance you can actually cover in the amount of days you have at your disposal. If you have a week, like we did, pick out an area of Tuscany and start circling names of towns that are in relative vicinity of each other.

2. Start looking up the names of the major towns on Google, Instagram, etc
Maybe there are ten bigger towns in the area you’ve marked out – start looking them up online. Check out blogs that mention those town names, online magazine articles, Instagram check ins. Get a bit of an idea of what’s there, maybe some will grab your attention, maybe some you’ll cross off your list.

Siena, Italy

3. Look at accommodation options
If you want to see a few cities, book accommodation in a different location along your path every few nights. See which stops are closer to each other than others. Google maps is nifty here – you can plug in your destinations and drag-and-drop them into an order that flows well. Then, group them together – for example, San Gimignano is just over an hour train ride from Siena, but over 3 hours from Lucca, so it made more sense to take the day trip there from Siena.

4. Start looking at what’s in between the bigger towns
Just because you need to get from Lucca to Florence doesn’t mean you can’t stop off on the way. Maybe you notice on the map the little town of Pistoia on the way, and after a bit of research you decide you’ll stop there for a few hours to check out the sculpture garden or the thermal baths.

5. Leave yourself plenty of time at the train stations
There is nothing worse that being in a rush at a foreign train station. If you’ve looked up timetables before you travel, give yourself plenty of time to get to the station, find the ticket machines, work out how to get your ticket, have it validated, and board the train. It’s a simple process, but when it’s in another language and you’re in a rush, it can get really intimidating, really quickly.

Florence, Italy

** BONUS TIP: Learn a few basic words in Italian
Not so much a planning tip, but in some of these smaller towns, people won’t speak as much English as they will in the bigger cities like Rome and Florence. Even just a few words like hello (ciao), please (per favore), thank you (grazie) and excuse me (mi scusi) will get you a long way! And if you’re feeling a little braver, add these to your vocabulary:
dov’è si trova…?    —-   where can I find…?
quanto costa?         —-    how much does it cost?
non capisco            —-    I don’t understand
parla inglese?         —-     do you speak English?


Around The World In 13 Cemeteries

I’m not a goth. I don’t listen to death metal music. I don’t hold séances or have a Ouija board. I don’t cast spells, curse ex-boyfriends or make animal sacrifices. I am, however, fascinated with cemeteries.
Every time I travel to a new city, I always make a point of visiting one or two. I don’t know how to begin to explain it; I just feel weirdly comfortable amongst the tombs and hidden pasts. It’s a sadly outdated misconception that cemeteries are always dark, dingy places to be avoided at all costs. The majority of cemeteries are set on grounds beautiful enough to rival the city’s botanical gardens. Cemeteries aren’t just a place for the dead, the mourning and the creepy; they’re also brilliant destinations for photographers, history buffs and botanists. These are some cemeteries I’ve loved from my travels over the past decade…

1. Metairie Cemetery, New Orleans, USA

5100 Pontchartrain Boulevard, New Orleans, LA
Claims to fame: Eve Curie (Marie Curie’s daughter), Louis Prima (jazz musician)

The Metairie Cemetery used to be a racetrack, but was converted to a burial ground after the Civil War. It’s known as one of the oldest and most beautiful cemeteries in the city, with enormous open grounds and some seriously impressive mausoleums and tombs.

2. Green-wood Cemetery, Brooklyn, USA
500 25th St, Brooklyn, NY
Claims to fame: Jean-Michel Basquiat (artist), William “Boss” Tweed (politician), Elias Howe Jr (inventor of the sewing machine)

Just over half the size of Manhattan’s Central Park, Green-Wood cemetery is one of the most beautiful green spaces in Brooklyn. It’s open to the public all year round, and with no entry fee charged. And if you’re not into the tombs and mausoleums, it’s a lovely, picturesque place for a walk.

3. Glasnevin Cemetery, Dublin, Ireland
Finglas Road, Dublin
Claims to fame: Brendan Behan (poet, writer), Luke Kelly (singer)

Glasnevin has finally realised the potential it holds as a tourism drawcard as well as a burial ground. They started restoration work on the cemetery 30 years ago, aiming to make it not only a top visitor attraction, but to have it recognised as a National Park and Botanic Gardens.

4. Hólavallagarður Cemetery, Reykjavík, Iceland
Suðurgata, 101 Reykjavík
Claims to fame: Jón Sigurðsson (led the independence movement)

This is a seriously beautiful cemetery, away from the centre of the city, which gives it that extra-eerie vibe. None of the graves are particularly lavish or gaudy, and most of them are tucked under a carpet of green moss. If you’ve driven around Iceland, you’ll notice that there aren’t many trees around – I think that’s because they put them all in the cemetery to protect the graves. Bonus points if you can get there in winter while the snow is falling.

5. Graceland Cemetery, Chicago, USA
4001 North Clark Street, Chicago, IL
Claims to fame: Jack Johnson (boxer), Roger Ebert (film critic), Augustus Dickens (brother of Charles)

Another burial ground taking its commitment to taking the taboo out of cemeteries seriously is Graceland. Set on some of the most magnificent grounds I’ve ever seen, Graceland is a certified arboretum as well as a cemetery – they even offer the option for an arboretum tree tour of their 2000+ trees. Throw in a sparkling lake and tombs designed by some of the world’s best architects, and you’ve got a great day out in Chicago.

6. Montparnasse Cemetery, Paris, France
3 Boulevard Edgar Quinet, 75014 Paris
Claims to fame: Simone de Beauvoir (writer), Charles Baudelaire (poet), Susan Sontag (writer), Jean-Paul Sartre (philosopher), Samuel Beckett (writer)

The second biggest cemetery in Paris, Montparnasse was built on what used to be farmland. The grounds are now covered in trees and flowers instead of bales of hay, and the residents include writers and philosophers instead of cows and horses.

7. Lafayette Cemetery No. 1, New Orleans, USA
1400 Washington Avenue, New Orleans, LA 70131
Claims to fame: The Brunie Family (musicians)

This might be New Orleans’ most culturally diverse cemetery – it’s non-denominational and non-segregated. It sits out in the Garden District, so you can expect some beautiful greenery in and around it, and it was also a filming site for The Vampire Diaries and The Originals.

8. The Imperial Crypt, Vienna, Austria
Tegetthoffstraße 2, 1010 Vienna
Claims to fame: The Habsburgs – Austria’s Royal Family

With around 600 years of rule over Austria, the Habsburgs needed a fairly impressive final resting place. And a crypt beneath a church in the middle of the city, filled with the most intricately made metal sarcophagi, more than fits the bill. This would have to be the most fascinating burial grounds I’ve ever seen – the art work on these sarcophagi was beyond anything I’ve ever seen.

9. Marble Cemetery, New York City, USA
52-74 E 2nd St, New York, NY 10003
Claims to fame: Stephen Allen and Isaac Varian (former mayors of NYC)

This tiny cemetery just pops up out of nowhere – it’s rarely open to the public, its residents are buried in vaults underground, and the plaques list only the families who own the vaults, not the people who are actually interred in them.

10. Protestant Cemetery, Rome, Italy
Via Caio Cestio, 6, 00153 Rome
Claims to fame: John Keats (poet), Percy Bysshe Shelley (poet), Giorgio Bulgari (businessman)

A cemetery in Italy. That sits behind an Egyptian pyramid. Filled with beautiful greenery. Swarming with stray cats. And home to artists and scholars from around the world. Random and fabulous enough to get your attention?

11. Pére Lachaise Cemetery, Paris, France
16 Rue du Repos, 75020 Paris
Claims to fame: Jim Morrison (musician), Edith Piaf (singer), Marcel Marceau (mime/actor), Oscar Wilde (writer), Frederic Chopin (musician), Honore de Balzac (writer)

This is the most visited cemetery in the world – the grounds (all 110 acres of them) are spectacular, and guest list (over a million are buried there) is incredible, and it’s been used as a filming location quite a few times. Just go and visit, ok?

12. St. Louis Cemetery No. 1, New Orleans, USA

425 Basin St, New Orleans, LA 70112
Claims to fame: allegedly, Marie Laveau (Voodoo priestess) and eventually, Nicolas Cage

This is the city’s most famous cemetery (and the oldest), and one of my favourites from this list. Unfortunately, you can no longer enter the grounds without paying a fee and employing the services of a tour guide, but it’s worth it.

13. Arlington National Cemetery, Washington, D.C., USA
Arlington, VA, United States
Claims to fame: President John F. Kennedy and First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy

I usually find cemeteries to be a place of peace and beauty, but Arlington was heart breaking. It’s the only cemetery I’ve visited to date that was a truly sad place for me to be in. To see that many graves representing lives lost at war, in a country that was not my own, was a lot more overwhelming than I’d ever have expected.

Bookstores of Melbourne

Melbourne was designated a UNESCO City of Literature back in 2008, and it’s no wonder why.

Melbourne is home to Australia’s oldest public library, the State Library of Victoria. It’s home base for Lonely Planet and the Wheeler Centre. Host of the Melbourne Writers’ Festival. Location of Scribe Publications, Affirm Press, and Penguin Random House Australia, among other publishing houses. We have world class bookstores dotted all over the city, many of them located near cafes serving world class coffee.

One of my favourite hobbies is bookstore browsing, so I’ll do my best to keep this list of my favourite bookstores updated for my fellow booklovers.

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City Basement Books

342 Flinders St, Melbourne

The entrance to City Basement Books is located on Flinders St, and if you’re not looking for it, you’ll probably miss it. Down a big, steep staircase, what lies beneath Flinders Street is a veritable cornucopia of books. So many, there is literally not enough room for them on shelves; they overflow in piles all over the place. Heaven.

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Fully Booked

824 High St, Thornbury

Fully Booked in Thornbury is one of those old bookstores that makes you feel like you’ve fallen right down the rabbit hole. It’s a little space packed with an insane amount of books, and the range is excellent (war-fi to jazz music to expedition travel to insects, and everything in between). The lady who runs it is delightfully helpful, and they have the added advantage of being very close to quite a few excellent places to eat and drink.

Gone But Not Forgotten…

Grub Street Bookshop, Fitzroy

This was my happy place. The place I could never leave empty handed. The place that I always had time to visit, even when my parking was about to run out.

They had more books than they could fit on the old shelving, piling them up on the floor, on small tables, in cardboard boxes and wherever else they could fit them. You’d find second hand books on everything from cooking to history, art to travel, crime novels to science fiction, and literally everything in between, as well as some beautiful vintage first editions. I loved everything about this shop, from the creaky floors to the smell of the old pages, and I’ll miss it dearly.

Père Lachaise Cemetery, Paris

Père Lachaise Cemetery
16 Rue du Repos, Paris

Starting to look a bit morbid here, with another post about cemeteries, aren’t I?! I guess that’s at least partly true; I’ve always had a bit of a weird fascination with death. But that aside, I still maintain that cemeteries are very overlooked sites to visit when you’re travelling. They can give you a pretty good sense of a place and its history (are there Catholic crosses on the tombs? Coptic crosses? A Star of David?), what types of hardships its residents have been through (are there a lot of dates of deaths around the time of a war or pandemic?), and they’re more often than not in some of the city’s more beautiful park-like settings. Case in point: Paris’s Père Lachaise Cemetery.

It’s less than 10km from the Eiffel Tower, and you can get there easily enough on the no. 2 or no. 3 metro train lines. There’s no entry fee and you can walk around at your own pace, but it IS a big cemetery, so if you’d prefer to have someone show you around, there are plenty of companies that offer guided tours.

The grounds are open all year round, but visiting in autumn didn’t hurt as you can see by the perfect gold and red leaves throughout my photos. It’s become well-known as the final resting place of creative celebrities like Jim Morrison (photo below), Edith Piaff, Frederic Chopin, Oscar Wilde and Marcel Proust.

Another popular grave is that of Abélard and Héloïse, which I read about in Mark Twain’s The Innocents Abroad:

“Yet who really knows the story of Abélard and Héloïse? Precious few people. The names are familiar to everybody, and that is about all. With infinite pains I have acquired a knowledge of that history… to show the public that they have been wasting a good deal of marketable sentiment very unnecessarily.”

Turns out a lot of people know them as a love story, a Romeo and Juliet type love story. The real story as told by Mark Twain? He seduced her, they ran away, had a child. They got married, but were soon torn apart by his meddling uncle. She entered a convent and heard nothing from her lover for a decade until a letter arrived. They wrote to each other for a while, but would only meet again in death, when, as per Héloïse’s last wish, they were buried together…


13 Cemeteries to Visit in New Orleans

I love New Orleans. And cliché or not, I love it for all the things it’s built its reputation on: good food, great music, and death. Visitors usually go for the first two, but many find themselves oddly drawn to the third in little ways – past life tarot readings, voodoo customs, and the city’s cemeteries, many of which are now now popular ‘tourist’ attractions. The people of the crescent city have developed unique rituals that are both deeply fascinating and incredibly beautiful around the celebration of life and death.

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