Europe Italy

Venice: Gelato, Gondolas, and Giudecca

Venice was amazing.  We had a long day of train rides, so we didn’t arrive until the early afternoon.  It was raining as our train pulled into the station, and the light fog gave the city an otherworldly look.

Megan and I stayed in a hostel on Giudecca, which is an island slightly south of Venice.  This meant that we ended up taking a lot of water buses.  Blogs I read seemed to see this as a negative, but I loved seeing Venice by water and that gave me more of a chance to do so.  We got an unlimited transit pass for the three-ish days we were there.

After dropping off our stuff, we headed to St. Mark’s Square.  I wanted to see Doge’s Palace, which is where the leaders of Venice used to live back when Italy was a collection of city states.  We also got to cross over the Bridge of Sighs and see the old prison from that time period.

From there, we wandered around Venice for a while in search of the Rialto Bridge.  I’ve never been as lost as I was in Venice.  I have a very good internal compass, so even if I can’t find specifically where I need to be, I can at least figure out the general direction I should be going.  Not so here.  I would be walking in a direction I was convinced was correct, and then I would look at Google Maps to find that I had somehow turned around completely.  It’s a good thing they put signs up to point you toward St. Mark’s Square and the Rialto.

We did eventually find the bridge, and got a good sense of the city in the process.  With a lot of cities, there will be one scenic area, and all the pictures you see come from those same places.  In Venice, everything is the scenic part.  You’ll turn down a side street and find yourself crossing the bridge of the loveliest canal you’ve ever seen, until you see the next one.  It’s amazing.  I can’t imagine why anyone would build a city entirely on water, but I’m glad they did.

The next day, we headed to Burano, which is north of Venice.  It’s known for tiny colored houses, and you’ve probably seen it on Instagram.  We had lunch reservations at a place I’d found online.  Or at least, I thought we did.  Turns out I’d booked them for the day after.  The restaurant staff were bemused, saying that no one ever comes early for a reservation.  I assumed we were out of luck, but they had an extra table for emergencies and they sat us down there without missing a beat.

The restaurant was incredible.  Our meal started with bread and prosecco, and when we ordered the house wine, a sommelier came out to pour it for us.  It specialized in seafood, so Megan tried something with clams and I had pasta with red sauce, which was one of the best pasta dishes I’ve ever had.  We both got tiramisu as well.  Again, absolutely delicious.  I had a lot of wonderful meals in Italy, and this was among the best.

We went back to Venice for the afternoon and decided to take our gondola ride.  I had bought a small group option, where you could show up at any of the available times daily.  The gondola would have up to six people in it, which seemed like a fair trade for about 70% savings on the cost of a gondola ride.  True to Italian fashion, they were not ready at the time they said they would be, and we ended up killing time by visiting a bookstore I had seen on Instagram.

The gondola ride itself was super cool.  Everyone is right, that’s absolutely the best way to see the city.  I wish it had lasted longer!

After our gondola ride, we got gelato and headed back to Giudecca to explore that island.  That area is significantly less touristy.  One of my coworkers studied abroad in Venice and said that’s where a lot of students live.  At sunset, it has gorgeous views of St. Mark’s Square.

The next morning we spent a bit more time walking through the narrow streets of Venice, and then headed off to the airport for our flight.  We had a long layover in London, although our flight was fairly delayed and we didn’t get to see as much as we’d planned.  Apparently a bus caught fire in front of Stansted and it messed up all the flights.  We did still have time to go to the Shard and have a few cocktails though!  All in all, it was an amazing trip, and I cannot imagine a better end than Venice.

Europe Italy

Cinque Terre: 129 Flights of Stairs

Yes, you read that correctly in the title.  129 flights of stairs.  And all of them were worth it.

I have wanted to go to Cinque Terre ever since my family did a puzzle that had a picture of the houses of Manarola.  I couldn’t imagine that such an adorable seaside village could exist in real life.  It took me a long time to learn how to pronounce it correctly, because I always wanted to use a French accent, and it was only in researching for this trip that I learned about each of the five towns.

Our train got in to Riomaggiore, which is where we were staying.  After dropping off our stuff, we explored the city center and then headed out to the other towns.  We hit all five by train, which was fairly doable in a day.  It took us pretty much the whole day, and it was somewhat tiring, but both of us agreed that we saw everything we wanted to.

After Riomaggiore, we went to Manarola, which is where the most famous pictures are from.  It is so beautiful.  It’s almost embarrassing how many pictures I have of those houses on my camera!

The third town is Corniglia, which is the only one that isn’t directly on the coast.  Instead, you have to climb a lot of stairs to get up to it.  The views were great, and it also felt way less touristy than the other villages.  Luckily, we were there in off season, but this one still felt more authentic.

Fourth up was Vernazza.  At this one, we were starting to flag a bit, so we stopped and did a wine tasting!  We had two white wines and a dessert wine.  It’s fun to be able to taste locally sourced wine.  We also picked up a bottle of the limoncello cream, which we had tried in Sorrento and absolutely loved.

The last town was Monterosso al Mare, which is the only one with a beach.  This one was a bit larger than the others, and felt less touristy as well.  We split a pizza here before heading back to our Airbnb.

This particular Airbnb was a splurge for me, as I fell in love with the views from it.  In classic fashion, I picked one with about a million stairs, not thinking about lugging our stuff up or getting back up after a long day.  We checked on our phones, and our Airbnb was 22 flights of stairs up from the ground level of Riomaggiore.  The views were worth it, though!

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Traveling in Tuscany

We left Rome early so that we could catch a train to Florence, where we were based for the next two days.  After checking in to our Airbnb, we headed to the main tourist attraction, the Duomo.

We had reservations to climb the dome, which I would highly recommend!  First of all, the views are spectacular.  It gives you a clear view of Florence, and it also lets you see the inside of the church without waiting in the long line.  Plus, you get up close and personal with the frescos on the ceiling.  These featured dramatic scenes of sinners being pulled into hell.

There are a ton of stairs, and the staircases get fairly narrow at times.  I believe when I bought the tickets, it gave a warning to people who were claustrophobic.  The ticket also allowed us into all the other buildings in the church complex, although we opted to not wait in line for most of them.  We did go into the museum, which had religious items and information about the architecture of the dome.  One room had some bones from John the Baptist, so that was kind of cool.

We had a little extra time to explore Florence before we had to meet our wine and pasta tour, so we wandered around through the narrow streets.  I generally have a good sense of direction, but it was a challenge in these streets!  We got gelato and found the courtyard, where our tour guides came to pick us up.

From there, we were whisked into the Tuscan countryside.  Our first stop was a winery.  We got a quick tour of the villa, and then had a wine tasting.  There was a white and two reds followed by a dessert wine.  Unlike the other wine regions I’ve visited, it seems as though Italian wineries see the production of dessert wine as a status symbol.  It’s fairly expensive, as it uses significantly more grapes than traditional wine, but we saw it here and at the wine tasting we did in Cinque Terre.

After we had all drank wine and shipped some back to the U.S., our guides brought us back to their family villa for a pasta class.  We ended up with one of the founders of the whole operation, and she told us about how she had started the business.  They were high up on a hill, and the views from their villa were stunning.  They poured more wine and started the lesson on pasta.  It was easier to make than I expected, although I did end up breaking my egg almost immediately when we started.  Oops.  We made ravioli with cheese filling and fettuccini, and they whipped up sauces to go on both.  Once we were done making everything, we all sat down for dinner.  It was such a delicious meal!

The next morning, we left our Airbnb early to head to Pisa to see the Leaning Tower.  From previous research, I knew there wasn’t much else to see in Pisa, so we just grabbed breakfast at a bakery along the way, took some kitschy pictures with the tower, and headed back to Florence for the rest of the day.  Like Stonehenge, it’s one of those monuments where I’m glad I’ve seen it, even if it isn’t all that exciting.  And after seeing it in person, I’ll admit it leans much more dramatically than I thought it did!

After Pisa, we walked back and explored more of Florence.  I had booked timed tickets at the Uffizi Gallery, so we were killing time until that.  We walked across the Ponte Vecchio, which was swarming with tourists, and walked along the river.  We tried to go around the Boboli Gardens without realizing how large they were, which meant we got a very good look at the charming side streets in that area of the city.

The Uffizi Gallery was less busy than I expected it to be, considering the crazy lines outside.  One of the coolest parts of it was walking into a room and ending up right in front of The Birth of Venus.  I also think Renaissance art is hilarious, because every person they ever painted is in awkward positions and the babies have faces like old men, so I entertained myself that way throughout the gallery.  We had an early night again, since we were getting up for another early train ride the next morning.

My main takeaway is that I would definitely love to come back and spend more time in wine country.  Florence was gorgeous as well, especially when wandering the streets that aren’t adjacent to the Duomo and the big museums.  It’s fun to get lost in the side streets as they wind through the city.

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Ruins in Pompeii and Limoncello in Sorrento

You know how when you’re in school, there are events in history that aren’t that important in the relative scheme of things, but you still learn about them a bunch of times and watch videos and write papers and then you grow up and realize that no one will ever talk about that event again?  Pompeii was one of those for me.  Along with the Titanic sinking, Custer’s Last Stand, pretty much anything I ever learned about dinosaurs….  Anyway.  I still remember sitting in 7th grade social studies and watching a somewhat horrifying reenactment of Pompeii being buried in ash.

In short, it was high up on my list to go here.  We got up early to take the train from Rome to Naples, which had some amazing views of Mt. Vesuvius on the way.  From there, we switched to a regional train to get to Pompeii.  For some reason, our train compartment had a bunch of French people on it, which was nice because there weren’t any announcements about what stop we were at so I could ask around to see how close we were getting to Pompeii.  After storing our luggage, we headed over to the ruins.

The ruins were much larger than I imagined.  It’s essentially an entire city, and you can find houses, amphitheaters, a colosseum, and marketplaces.  If I’d had more time, I would have loved to go to the Archeological Museum in Naples, because that’s where most of the objects they’ve recovered are.  The ruins at Pompeii are mostly the structures themselves.  I also would have liked to go to Herculaneum, which is supposed to be better preserved.  But.  I loved seeing the ruins at Pompeii, it was so interesting to walk through a town that had once been entirely wiped out by a volcano.

When our feet got tired of walking through the ruins, we headed into Pompeii for pizza.  I tried Google maps to find a good place.  Since everything near the train station was overpriced and touristy, we picked a place that was about a 15 minute walk away and had great reviews.  We set off into Pompeii, walking through a field and down a small side street.  This took us to a market, where I asked a local where the restaurant was.  He pointed it out to us and we ended up in a truly hole-in-the-wall pizza place, Pizzeria La Bella Napoli.  It was family-run place, and it had the best pizza I ate in Italy.  We each ordered a full pizza and watched them make it in front of us, and then sat down in the restaurant.  Our total came out to 6 euro for two large pizzas.  As we ate, the father came out from the back, where he had been making dough, and tried to speak to us in Italian with his son translating.  It was an amazing experience, and one that I will absolutely cherish when I think back on our trip to Italy.

Once we had gorged ourselves on pizza and walked back to the train station, we headed down to Sorrento for the night.  It took us a while to find our hotel.  I had splurged and we had an ocean-room view, which was absolutely stunning.  I would stay there again in a heartbeat.  We tried to walk down to the sea, but there was a gate because it was still off season so we couldn’t actually get all the way down to the coast.  The below pictures were taken from our balcony.

From there we headed into the town of Sorrento.  We went into tiny shops, where they offered us tastings of limoncello, and killed time until our dinner reservation.  It was lovely, and I would have loved to spend a little more time in Sorrento.

I had booked dinner at La Basilica Sorrento, and when we got there, we were one of two tables in the restaurant.  This is what happens in Italy if you go to dinner at what would be a normal time in America.  We both tried tasting menus, so I tried the vegetarian one and Megan got the seafood one.  I’m usually not adventurous with food, but it paid off here.

My meal was: a half bottle of red wine, a piece of cheese pizza, a mozzarella and tomato salad, a pesto zucchini pasta course, a parmesan eggplant dish that tasted mostly like cheese, and a very strong rum-soaked cake.  It was delicious, and the owner of the restaurant kept coming out to make sure we liked our food.  The pesto zucchini course was my favorite.  All in all, a great day for eating.  We headed back to Rome the next day to visit the Vatican, but I would love to come back to this area and explore more.

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When In Rome….

After my night at the IceHotel, I flew down to Stockholm and then took another flight from Stockholm down to Rome.  While flying over the entirety of Europe, I got to see the Alps from the plane, which was a nice bonus.  I met my cousin Megan in the airport, and then we took the train together into the city.

After checking into our hostel, we walked over to go see the Colosseum!  It’s a classic symbol of Rome, and it’s one of the wonders of the world.  It was pretty magnificent to see it in person.  We walked through a park and turned a corner, and it was suddenly there, right at the bottom of the hill.  After marveling and taking a few pictures, we headed over to a wine and cheese bar I had found, Beppe e i suoi formaggi.  We were there at a weird time so it was quiet, and we each drank some wine and tried a wide variety of cheeses.  It was a fairly early night, because both of us had long days on planes and we were getting up early the next day for Pompeii and Sorrento.

We got back to Rome after our train back from Naples on Saturday.  From there, we headed over to Pizzarium, which was in a lovely area of the city near the Vatican.  It kept showing up on lists of good restaurants in Rome, so I wanted to try the pizza there.  It was delicious, although it wasn’t the best I had in Italy – see my post in Pompeii & Sorrento for that story.  We headed over to check in for our tour of the Vatican, and ended up walking around that area for a while since we were early.

When our tour started, we began by walking down the main road toward St. Peter’s Basilica.  There’s a line on the cobblestones that marks the barrier between Italy and Vatican City, which is technically a separate country.  Our tour guide told us a bit about the history and architecture of Vatican City, and spoke about the semi circle of columns that surrounds the main square.  One of the funniest moments was when she asked a child in our group what that was supposed to represent.  The child loudly said, “A trap!” and our tour guide was horrified, because the answer she was going for was “an embrace.”

We headed over to the Vatican Museums, which were very busy.  We had to go on the Saturday, because they’re closed on Sundays.  We waited in line for a long time to go through the metal detector, and then our guide took us quickly through the museums.  A lot of it was sculptures and artwork about the history of Christianity.  There were some gorgeous mosaics.  My favorite room was the map room, which had a stunning intricate ceiling and old maps of Italy and Europe along the walls.  From there we went to the Sistine Chapel, which was also beautiful.  They wanted absolute silence here, although their attempts were undercut by the fact that someone kept coming over the loudspeaker and shushing everyone.  I would LOVE to see how much money the Catholic Church actually has.

Once we left the Sistine Chapel, we took a shortcut over to St. Peter’s Basilica.  It’s a massive structure, with high ceilings and dramatic columns.  Once we had finished looking around, we headed back to our hostel for the night.

The next morning, we tried a bakery I had found online that was near our hostel.  Pasticceria Regoli, which was delicious.  We ate way too many pastries and then headed down to the Colosseum for our tour of that.  We waited forever in the line for security, and then felt a bit rushed through the Colosseum itself, which was a shame.

Once we had left, we headed over to the Roman Forum, which is apparently the second largest archeological site in the world (after Pompeii).  It had the ruins of the buildings from Ancient Rome, and our guide pointed out some of the places where people had governed and worshipped.  The best part of the Forum for me was the hill where we had magnificent views of Rome.

From there, we did a quick tour of the other main sights of Rome.  We started at Piazza Navona, then up to the Pantheon.  Because it was Palm Sunday, the Pantheon was free to enter, which was cool.  It was nice that everything was free, but it meant the crowds were insanely busy for most of our time in Rome.  From there we went to Trevi Fountain, where we both threw in some coins, and we finished out our tour at the Spanish Steps.  That area was swarming with people, so we broke away from the crowd and got some gelato.

From there, we made our way back to our area and had an early night, because we had another early morning planned.  It was a whirlwind trip to Rome, but I think we managed to see most of the main attractions and try a lot of good food.  Rome wasn’t my favorite of the cities we visited in Italy, but that was mostly the crowds in every major area – maybe if we hadn’t gone the week before Easter, I would have had a much more favorable impression of the city.  That said, it was still amazing to see places I’ve heard about and imagined for years, and it was a great way to start out our trip.