Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Milan and saying Ciao to Italy

As I sit on a train departing Milan it's time to say goodbye to Italy. It's been one beautifully scenic and delicious four weeks. I've finally picked up a few words and I think I've figured out how to properly say 'grazie' and have stopped responding with 'oui' and moved on to 'si'. Saying 'grazie' correctly was important as I didn't want to be mocked by the locals.

My quick pit stop in Milan for the last 23 hours has been quite nice. Yes it's a big city where rather than seeing churches every block you see a bank but I enjoyed my short stay. I'd consider coming back for a day or two in the future - and it's a good spot for connections. It's also got a good metro system so to me makes a city even more accessible. 

With just basically an afternoon and evening I decided that I'd just plan to walk a bit, see the Doumo, and spend the evening at the Milan Expo (otherwise known as the World's Fair) that just started at the beginning of May. One of the top tourist sights in Milan is to see Da Vinci's Last Supper painting; however, the museum wasn't open given that it was Monday and I since I hadn't planned ahead at all on coming to Milan the likelihood of getting a ticket even if it was open was probably slim to none. 

The photos from my Milan pit stop are here. Warning... most of them are from the top of the Duomo. 

I arrived via train from Varenna hopped on the metro a few stops and was at my hotel quite easily. After a quick check-in and dropping of my bags I headed out. My plan was to head towards the Doumo and see that and figure out the afternoon from there. I'd seen a few pictures of the Doumo but honestly didn't know too much about it. The first glimpse of it, as I stepped out from a walkway of restaurants on one side of the plaza, made me gasp. I muttered something like 'holy shit' to myself and smiled as I walked up. Really, this place is unbelievable. I've seen a lot of amazing buildings and of course churches over the last two months but I'd say first sight of this one was especially good. 

I followed the instructions in my guidebook and walked around the outside of the building before heading inside. The scale of it is massive and just staring up at all of the spires and details is amazing. Luckily while walking around the back I found another ticket booth which I think had a shorter line so that was a plus too. Once I decifered the ticket options - there were like six different things I could get - I headed inside. 

There's beautiful stained glass throughout - though it doesn't beat St Chapelle - and the columns that support the structure are massive. Unfortunately the alter area was blocked off so I couldn't get very close to it. But that was OK because the main sight was up next - heading up to the roof to walk among the spires and look over the city. 
With the option of stairs or elevator ticket I of course picked stairs. I had no clue how many it actually was but figured I needed my exercise for the day! Once you pop out onto the roof you're just looking across spires and buttresses. What was most unbelievable is the amount of detail all over the place. Every area was covered in whatever direction you turned. One nice thing about this roof as well is that there's a good bit of area to spread out and not feel like you're totally on top of everyone else up there taking pictures.   

From the Duomo I wandered through some of the shopping streets, did a little window browsing, and headed towards the old castle and park area of Milan. I figured I'd grab a bite to eat and sit in the park to enjoy it. The day was beautiful so enjoy it I did :) 

I then headed for what I thought was a cluster of buildings or perhaps a statue that looked like someone giving the middle finger, but it was actually a legit statue of a hand flipping the bird. Interesting indeed. Apparently this won a contest a few years ago for what piece of art would appear in the square where the Milan Stock Exchange and other financial buildings sit. Hmmmm. It is also apparently called L.O.V.E

The other item on the agenda for the day was to check out the Milan Expo. My mom, aunt, and I had a discussion when we were in Paris about whether or not the World's Fair still existed. With a little Google help we determined that it did indeed but wasn't quite what it was back in it's hayday of showing off the latest and greatest technological feats. And as it turned out the current Fair, or now called Expo, was happening in Milan and the theme was food and the future of food on our planet. It runs for something like 184 days and had just started on the first of May. 

With a bit of research the other day I found that evening tickets starting after 7PM were just EUR 5 so I figured that if it was easy to get to and I didn't really have anything else on the agenda I'd head to it. Sure enough they've made it right at the end of one of the metro lines and for EUR 5 I couldn't really say no. I definitely would not have paid the full price of like EUR 30 to go for a full day but it was enjoyable enough for bit. 

The Expo grounds are enormous! I think it's 1 million square meters or something like that. 130 countries are on display and each has created some type of structure for whatever their 'experience' is. Walking by each and checking out the interesting architecture was good enough for me, I didn't actually go into too many of them. There was of course loads set up related to the regions of Italy and different foods that are unique to each. There's also an Italian wine tasting section where you can have your pick of tastings from 1300 wines. Let's just say that was a little overwhelming!! They too were arranged by region so I picked some areas that I hadn't been. I had a nice taste of a white from Sicily that would be delicious on a hot day by the beach :) 

For basically an afternoon and evening I'd say I did OK with Milan. It was a good final stop on my tour of Italy. 

So where to next? Well, I've been stalking the weather and had been thinking of going south to Sorrento, Capri, and the Amalfi Coast. But it was looking a bit questionable for at least a day or so so I'm heading back to the the south of France and hopefully some sunny warm weather around Nice and Cannes. Amalfi will have to wait until next time. The next trip to Italy will definitely need to focus on the south since I spent most of the time in the north this go-round. 

Back to trying to speak French I go! 

Oh yeah, and one of these days I'll be back in San Francisco... time is winding down, likely in the next week or so. It feels both like I've been gone a long time but then again I feel like it's just been like 2 weeks. But alas, two friends have had babies, two have gotten engaged, and two are now pregnant. A lot does happen in two months - I just choose to stop time and re-start it when I feel like it.  

Monday, May 25, 2015

Italian Mountains and Lakes

If you haven't figured it out yet I love the water, coastal views, and sunshine. But... mountains can be just as mesmerizing. Put a lake in the middle of some mountains and you have a pretty good combo!

I took loads of pictures from the last week, even with some not so hot weather, while visiting the Dolomites for Mountains and Lake Como for lakes...

In all my debating of where to go after Venice, looking at Google Maps, and attempting to look at weather I settled on staying in Italy and heading to the Dolomites. These are Alps that are in Northern Italy and boarder Austria. I was specifically in a province called South Tyrol and spent one night in Bolzano (Bozen in German) and two in the smaller town of Castlerotto (Kastelruth in German). This area has a really interesting history and it's been hotly debated to which country it belonged - Italy or Austria. Eventually it was determined that it would be Italy but the Austrian influence is very strongly felt! Most of the residents speak German as a primary language, then Italian too, and there's a third native language as well that I think some people speak. I stepped off the train in Bolzano and it really did feel like I'd entered into a different country. All of the signage was in German and that's all I could hear people speaking - great I thought, yet another language I know no words of! And the building architecture was definitely a change from what I'd seen throughout Italy. Not to mention the food - I was now for three days choosing between pizza, pasta, schnitzel, sausages, and their local fare.

Bolzano was just for an over night and to figure out how on earth to actually get up to Castelrotto. In the winter there's loads of skiing in the area and summer is crazed with hiking and other outdoor activities. Since I was arriving between the seasons I wasn't quite sure what was going to be open and how the buses up to Castelrotto would be. I couldn't seem to find the info online so I figured I'll stop in Bolzano for the night, go to the tourist office, and then make a plan. With a map and bus schedule in hand I was now ready.

I wandered around Bolzano a bit along their nicely marked many walking paths, scouted out a route for a morning run, had some wiener schnitzel for dinner, and called it a night. For a hotel I had booked whatever was cheap and available in the town center and a quick walk from the train and bus station. Well, unbeknownst to me I booked some place that's run by the church and was basically like a well equipped dorm room. I realized after the fact that the place is actually in the guide book I have, this has happened numerous times, as a basic cheap option. I booked a single room so just a twin bed, closet, desk, and bathroom. Oh and a cross and some religious pictures above the bed. Basic, sterile, but just want I needed with good wifi. Maybe I'd be holier after sleeping there!

The weather hadn't been great when I arrived to Bolzano and I knew that rain was definitely on the way. And sure enough it arrived the next day. This was not what I had hoped for for my mountain stay and planned hiking! The week before the weather had been quite hot and sunny, dangit! My morning run was a little soggy but felt good to get out and after the heat of Venice the cooler weather was feeling good. I actually got to make use of some of the cold weather clothes I've been lugging around! Despite the weather onwards to Castelrotto I went.

Castelrotto is a small little village surrounded by, as I would only be able to see for myself a day or so later, beautiful hills and mountains. The hotel that I stayed in was fabulous and they were so incredibly helpful in giving information about how to get around and what was and wasn't open. Like for example realizing the first night that there was only one restaurant open in the town, it was hopping! Sadly the cable car lift that I was hoping to take up to another village where many of the hikes can start was opening over the weekend - just as I was leaving. So, I'd have to take a bus up and time my hike to catch one of the few return ones back down. Whatever the weather was going to be I was going to hike, it didn't matter. Too bad I'd carried rain pants and gear throughout South America and didn't need it once and I had pretty much nothing with me here. Oh well. I did think to myself as I took about a two hour stroll in the rain shortly after I arrived that this was what I expected the Inca Trail to be like and thank goodness it wasn't. I would not have been a happy camper!

On Thursday the weather was a bit better. I woke up to being able to actually see the mountains but as the day progressed it was off and on. Regardless I was determined to hike. So with a trail map in hand and a suggested route from the folks at the hotel I headed up to the town of Compastch which is smack in the middle of the Alpe di Siusi - essentially the largest mountain plateau in Europe. I thought I was doing like a four hour hike but it turned out to be maybe two hours. It was all fine by me because while it was beautiful and there were a few moments of being able to see blue sky and back down to the village where the hotel was it actually started snowing on me. Eeeek! The last snow I'd seen was in February in Philadelphia when it was so fricken cold, I was not interested in that again! At first it was just a few flakes but then for about my last fifteen minutes or so of hiking it was coming down hard. I was almost in a run trying to get back to the town and find somewhere to get warm and kill time until the next bus. Again, one restaurant appeared to be open so I popped in and hung my coat and backpack to dry!

Even with the not so great weather the area was still absolutely beautiful and a place that I'd love to come back to. There are so many hikes to do ranging from just a hour or so, to many hours, and even multi-day ones. I want to get a ride in one of the cable cars up the mountain to the higher peaks because I'm sure the ride itself and then the destination are absolutely amazing. After my snowy hike I did some more wanderings around the town of Castelrotto as the clouds and light were shifting. As the day went on different parts of the surrounding mountains or hills would become visible so it was exciting to catch glimpses over the day.

After a stunning morning mountain run on Friday I headed via bus and three trains to my next destination - Lake Como which is just north of Milan. This is a popular holiday spot with multiple towns dotting the lake and some massive villas owned by folks like George Cloney. I was on the lookout for him but didn't see him wandering around :)

While the weather again wasn't picture perfect and a bit cooler than previous weeks Lake Como was still beautiful. There are three main mid-lake towns, Varenna, Bellagio, and Menaggio. The lake is shaped like an upside down Y or some like to say a man and Bellagio which is right in the center is the crotch and the towns of Varenna and Menaggio are each hip. Use whatever visual suits you. I stayed in Varenna - mostly because it's where the train stops and there's easy access via ferry boat to other spots. It's a cute little place with a few hotels, shops, and a number of restaurants with awesome lake views.

I went to both Bellagio and Menaggio and just wandered around. Bellagio, for which the Vegas hotel is named, is beautiful and definitely a bit more ritzy than the others but it didn't feel over the top. I'm sure the hotel rooms cost a pretty penny though! You can walk out to the Punta Spartivento which is 'the point that divides the wind' and right where to the two legs of the lake split. I also went into some beautiful gardens along the lake that made the views even more amazing.

Menaggio which is basically due west of Varenna on the opposite side of the lake seemed to be the most built up. There's a nice park and walking area that goes along the lake front so it's good for a casual stroll. The mountains behind it head into to Switzerland so apparently back in the day it was a wealthy town because there was a lot of smuggling of cigarettes and other items across the boarder.

Between visiting the other towns I did two small hikes around Varenna. The first was to check out the shortest river in Italy, Fiumelatte - apparently just 250 meters from source (right out of the hillside) to where it dumps into the lake. The water gushes for just a few months of the year from April to September and is quite otherwise. It's pretty impressive to see the amount of water that is flying down this hillside and into the lake. The second hike was slightly longer and went from Varenna up into the hills and then over to a town called Bellano. This hike had lots of beautiful views but the saddest thing was that many of them were obstructed by electrical or phone wires. Makes you appreciate places where they've moved all of the wiring under ground!

While the weather dry it was never totally clear. However, the clouds did lift a fair amount yesterday and especially by the evening it was much more clear than other nights. I could actually see the sunset. For the third night in a row I plopped myself down at a table at one of the outdoor bars and simple eating spots, ordered wine, got some free snacks, and then eventually ordered an actual bite to eat. Last night paid off with being able to watch the sun drop behind some clouds and then eventually the mountains directly across the lake. Not a bad last evening. And I'll say I'm definitely going to miss how cheap the wine here is! You can get a quarter liter which is at least two glasses for 3-5 euro, yes please.

With mountains and lakes of Italy now checked off my list I head to Milan for a night. From there I'm likely calling it quits on Italy for now. It's been a good run and I'm glad I stayed the extra days to get a taste of lake and alpine life and while touristy it was relaxing and much less crowded.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Boats, canals, and escaping crowds in Venice

Ahhh Venice, I quite liked you. I'm totally fascinated by this city - both the history and how on earth it's still standing today. It's totally a tourist madhouse in the major sights, but once you get a few alleyways and little canals off the main spots like St Mark's square it's actually totally peaceful and serene. I do wonder what this place will be like in 20 or 30 years. Will anyone actually live here or will it be just a massive museum? Some say that's where it's headed given the cost of living and there's not that many young people actually living in Venice so as the older population dies off there aren't new people to take their place. Who knows, time will tell I suppose.

Here are all of my Venetian Pictures for viewing.

As I've been doing for much of my travels I booked my hotel totally last minute, like on Wednesday for a Friday arrival, so the options were limited unless I wanted to pay like $400 a night. That sounds lovely but now that I have no income I'm attempting to be a bit more budget conscious! I came across a great find though on the island of Lido just across the water from Venice. I hadn't heard of Lido until someone else told me that's where they stayed so I started looking. I found a great little B&B about a 5 minute walk from the boat dock and at a much better price point! Lido turned out to be fantastic and I highly recommend it if you're going to Venice. It's a ferry ride away from all the sights of Venice (and numerous boats go there so you're not really limited) but so much more laid back and quite. You can come and go into Venice as you please and escape it if you want. Lido is essentially the sandbar that protects Venice from the Adriatic Sea so it's eastern shore is the beach. It's not the best beach in the world but it was worth a good walk and I found some decent shells.

Given that I wasn't staying right in the heart of Venice, and since I just enjoy them tremendously, I took a lot of boat rides over the last three days. You can get a multi-day pass, I did the 72 hour one for EUR40, and ride as many times as you want in the time period. It's totally worth it considering that buying an individual ticket, that lasts 60 minutes, is EUR7. I probably rode 4-6 boats a day and didn't have to think about timing of my tickets or anything. I could just hop on and hop off different lines as I pleased.

Always looking for water taxis :)

What I did not do was a personal gondola ride. I chatted with a couple one night at dinner and their comment was that their daughter had likened the gondola ride to riding in a New York City taxi. And I'd have to agree with that a bit. If you ignore the ridiculous price the thought of the gondola ride sounds good and it looks nice when you catch them in the peaceful canals away from the Grand Canal or major sights. But, when you see them at some of the major intersections it is indeed like a traffic jam and the gondolas are having to maneuver around boats of all sizes and speeds. So no thanks on the gondola ride. I watched enough people taking them to have my fill and especially the daily rounds of Asian tour groups who would all get their gondola rides as the same time it looked like madness!

In terms of the sights of Venice I did some of them but mostly spent my time wandering or riding around. I knocked off St. Marks Square and Basilica on the first day to get that out of the way. I also went up in the bell tower right in St Marks Square to get a view over the city. The wait for that was long but since I had no agenda and the clouds were clearing as I waited it was worth it. I downloaded a Rick Steves audio guide for the Grand Canal so I hopped on the #1 boat which is the slowest through the canal, popped in the headphones, and listened as we passed all the sights along the way. It was actually quite interesting and a good way to see a number of things and have a sense of what I might want to go back and see up close. I also took a boat over to Murano to see the glass blowing in action and check out what was on display and for sale. I love Chihuly so I was interested to see what was going on in Murano - it's much more tame but the art work and craft is still amazing. I wandered around many of Venice's dead on the Cemetery island. It's an interesting combination of tomb stones and some larger mausoleums and then just rows and rows with many levels stacked high of remains.

Shot from cruising the canal

But as I said some of the best sights were away from the main drag and just wandering the alleyways. I spent a lot of time just turning down little streets as they'd dead end in one direction and eventually make my way into a plaza and then determine where to go next. Once you get away from the crowds Venice feels like to completely different place. It feels like somewhere you want to be whereas around the touristy areas it's like get me the heck out of here.

Two of the churches that I enjoyed the most were the Frari Church and St Giorgio Maggorie. Both of these were pretty much empty when I went in but totally fantastic. Frari has lots of art work inside and two crazy over the top tombs/memorials to Venetian artists Titian and Canova. St Giorgio is on the island that faces directly back at St Marks Square so it's got fantastic views and there's a bell tower that you can go up in for even better views. I liked this better than the one in St Marks and there were way less people. I walked right into the elevator and headed up, no waiting necessary. The views were fantastic looking back at Venice and then all the way around the other direction.

St Giorgio is also where I saw likely my favorite piece of art in Venice. It's an installation called Together by a Spanish Artist of a steel mesh head in the center of the church's nave and then a hand hanging just in front of the alter. The pieces are massive but they don't actually feel that large in the space and the light off of them from a few spotlights but also just the natural light of the few windows is quite nice. Having just a few other people in the church made the experience even better. There was a tour group that came in right behind me but they headed right to the elevators for the tower, luckily for me they weren't interested in lingering as I was.

I enjoyed some good food while in Venice, a few legitimate meals and lots of snacky things along the way. I have determined though that bread in Italy is terrible unless it's in the form of Pizza or toasted for bruschetta. It seems odd to me but bread served at restaurants with meals is stale and just bad, but I still tend to eat it, ugh. France definitely wins on the bread front! Tiramasu on the other hand is delicious. This is a dessert that I would have never ordered before and I've now had it numerous times in the last two weeks. I'm learning it's more about the cream and not so much the ladyfingers soaked in espresso. Some servings you get of it may have only a bite or two of the cake and loads of creamy deliciousness.

I went one night to what turned out to be a slightly more expensive dinner at Oliva Nera than I would have normally sought out but it was delicious so I got over it. I went on recommendation of the owner of a restaurant that I went to outside of Cinque Terra that was delicious so I figured he knew what he was talking about. When I read about it I knew it was going to be popular so if I went right when it opened for dinner I could hopefully get a table, and sure enough, yep. I arrived a few minutes before 7 thinking that's when it opened but there was already a group (of Americans of course) there. So I was seated and shortly after the entire outside section was full, all of English speaking folks - Americans, Canadians, Aussies. When the very nice owner brought me my bill, and a lovely bottle of Olive Oil to take, she said next time I needed to bring back a guy to pay for me. Yes, indeed she was right - for me alone it was EUR 77. Oops, and yum.

Oh, and I couldn't have an Italy post without talking about selfie sticks, could I? Of course not. I won't labor on the hatred, but I'll just have one picture that was too good to pass up. I didn't get the best shot because I was trying to be discrete, but I watched a couple each with their own selfie stick struggle to get them to work and take pictures of themselves. The point of the selfie stick is that you just need one camera, why do you each need one??

Yes, they're together and both have their selfie sticks out.

From the tourism hub of Venice and the Adriatic sea I'm heading into the mountains and I assume away from the masses of people. I had no plan until Sunday as to where I was going to go this morning after checking out of my lovely B&B. I debated a number of locations - Croatia, Greece, Spain, etc - but settled on staying in Italy for another few days at least and heading to check out the Dolomites. This is a mountain range in the Italian Alps and apparently supposed to be beautiful. We'll see how much of it I can actually see since I'm dependent on buses and am only going to really have two full days and I think it's supposed to rain. But if I can get a hike or two in I'll be happy. From here I'm going to Lake Como for 2-3 days and see the real Bellagio and if I'm lucky perhaps I'll run into George Cloney who has a villa in the town of Laglio :)

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Florence, Cinque Terre, and a few in between and around

The last week has been quite busy, very busy in fact. However, it was also relaxing despite seeing loads of stuff and making my way to a number of towns along the coast. I think this was due to staying in one place for multiple nights in Florence and then Cinque Terre. Not constantly changing hotels is much nicer!

For the photo re-caps check out the albums... Florence, Cinque Terre and around

First up, Florence. I definitely enjoyed this city - small and manageable but lots to see and explore. The weather like Rome was toasty but I won't complain! There's easy wandering around and multiple museums and churches were on the agenda so I was able to keep cool. Florence though, again like Rome, was overrun by tour groups and selfie-sticks. In addition to tour groups there are loads of young students - lots of American students. I could pretty easily pick them out from the crowds and so much English being spoken everywhere.

I'd pre-booked the Accademia (to see my new friend David) and Uffizi Gallery with one Friday and one Saturday. I don't know why you wouldn't book in advance unless you really couldn't stand to have some sort of structure to your day. The queues to get in without a ticket to these were ridiculous and I just walked right up. The David is of course amazing, it really is a massive being but as you enter into the far end of the hallway where it's located it doesn't look all that large. Once you're up close and personal it's a whole other story. The art throughout the Uffizi is fantastic. With an audio guide that I'd downloaded to my phone I was able to make my way to much of Renaissance history and sort of know what I was looking at.

Other highlights included amazing sunsets over the Arno river, live music two nights on Ponte Vecchio (I thoroughly enjoyed their rendition of What's up by Four non Blondes, it took me back to middle school!), climbing the Duomo dome and looking over the city, staring up at the amazing ceilings and walls of the Medici Chapel and Duomo Baptistery, tomb watching of Medicis, Michelangelo, Machiavelli, and more, smelling the soaps and scents of the Santa Maria Novella Perfumery and of all the leather everywhere (ahhh!), more meat and cheese plates, and seeing Tom Hanks. Apparently the third installment of the Da Vinci Code is being filmed now and they were in Florence for 10 days shooting and causing more madness than there already is there. I saw loads of people hovering around the Duomo and then overheard something about Tom Hanks. And what do you know I walked back by later and they were filming and I saw the man himself.

From Florence the next destination was Cinque Terre. En route to Cinque Terre there were stops in Lucca and Portovenere. Lucca is a cute little walled city where the old walls have been turned into a pedestrian path so it's treelined and paved. It's quiet, relaxed, and quite nice. There's also an old Roman Amphitheater that at some point buildings were built around and the center was left as a plaza.  Portovenere was my first glimpse of the Italian coast with it's colorful buildings and small harbors. Back to the sea!

Cinque Terre is apparently a very popular American destination. I now know why my guidebook has almost as many pages dedicated to it as Florence or Venice. That's got to draw the crowds! It is quite an amazing spot, or rather collection of spots that it's hard to know what's best. The tiny towns of colorful buildings appear to go right into the sea and they're surrounded by hillsides of vineyards and trees. The hills are so steep where the vines are they've built little tram-like tracks to allow them to harvest and tend to the grapes. The green landscape is speckled with pink, green, blue, and yellow and then at night you see just the lights of each in the distance.

The town of Monterosso (the furthest north of the five towns) was base for three nights. There are trains and boats that connect all of the towns (and additional ones as well) but the key attraction is to hike between them as it is a national park. There are multiple trails but the plan was to just take the most basic one which is estimated to take about 4 or 5 hours from start to finish and then you can take a boat or train back. Well as luck would have it, and the guide book warned, two sections of the trail were closed. So, rather than not actually hike all five towns alternative trails were available but they were a bit longer - estimated to add about an hour - and a heck of a lot steeper. I think it was more than an hour more, but I stopped keeping track of time as I climbed more and more steps to go up away from the sea and then shortly thereafter descend. With a few stops along the way for snacks, lunch, wine, etc it was a successful trek. I will admit that the last leg from Manarola to Riomaggiore was done the next day for a variety of reasons - but it was likely better that way. This section of trail if the normal part was open would be a flat, right along the edge of the sea, lovely 15-20 minute walk. Well, this was one of the sections that was closed so the alternative route was to go straight up from Manarola, wander across some vineyards, and then drop down into the final town. The up was a mix of stairs and just climbing on rocks and then down was a bit better but it took about 45 minutes and my legs felt like jell-o after. I was glad to have done it the following day and enjoyed my swim and wine the day before!

While there were no vendors hawking selfie sticks there were certainly loads of tourists and some groups. What never ceases to amaze me is people's seeming lack of preparation for hiking. Even if you're not planning to do the full five town hike you can at least wear some proper footwear (like something other than your flipflops) and when it's 80 degrees jeans and a button-down aren't really going to cut it. I was just in sneakers and running attire so it wasn't like you needed to be like the crazy prepared people with their trekking poles and serious backpacks but a little thought before you head out might have helped a few folks along the way.

On the way out of Cinque Terre the small ports of Santa Margherita and Portofino called. Portofino is a tiny little harbor but apparently super chic with the yachting fans and a place to be seen on your massive boat. There's only 15 yacht berths so you'd better be willing to pay the big bucks (like thousands of euro a day) to dock! The weather had turned a bit grey so it wasn't super photogenic, but cute nonetheless. These were also where I saw my first examples of many buildings having painted on architectural details. From afar the buildings would look like they had lots of stonework but you get closer and notice that it's all just painted on. Very interesting! Also, the churches here are much more ornate and totally over the top with gold, massive murals, and chandeliers than I've seen thus far. Quite a change in style.

These were just quick pit stops en route to Genova for the evening before then catching a train to Venice. Genova isn't even in the guide book I have other than to be listed as a way to get to Cinque Terre or other spots. However, it's a pretty good sized city with a massive port. Definitely not very touristy and pretty dirty but there's lots of architecture to see in old massive homes now turned office buildings and museums, and of course churches! They were having their own version of Off The Grid with lots of vendors selling food in the evening as part of a multi-day slow food festival. Definitely eating with the locals there!

To the other side of the country for Venice now and a look at the Adriatic Sea. I'm also stumped on where to go next so will hopefully figure that out before Tuesday when I'm leaving Venice!

Friday, May 8, 2015


Another day, another city and country, or perhaps two if you count the Vatican.

A year in the making I finally made it to Italy. Rome has been lovely so far giving me a nice warm welcome in more ways than one - the temperatures are toasty (I can't imagine it here in the summer, eek talk about sweaty and fresh smelling of B.O.), the sights are spectacular, the food is delish (pizza, gelato, pasta, meats, cheeses, wine), and the men are pretty dang beautiful. Ahh Italians. While there's a lot of major stuff to see wandering the little alley ways and saying off main boulevards is how I spent three days. Pretty great start to country number three.

My one problem, well I might have a few but I'll start with one, SELFIE STICKS! OMG, they're everywhere and because they're so popular the annoying street vendors are selling them - I don't know how many times I've been offered to by one or a charger or some other shit. It's like a torture treatment whereby if you're asked enough times you'll give in. I'm holding strong, but not sure how much longer I can do it. Second issue while I'm on it is that the city is great for walking, I've walked miles every day, but there are like no traffic lights. So it's back to a game of frogger every time you want to cross the street. There may or may not be a cross walk, but good luck either way. I was told you just need to look the drivers in the eyes and determine their inclination to stop. Good luck when that's a bus coming at you!

Rome is the first stop on likely about two weeks in Italy. But to be honest I really don't have it planned beyond next week so I'm not really sure how long I'll be here and where all I'll go. After three full days here I could certainly spend a lot more and I'm considering coming back - especially since the Borghese Gallery escaped me and my lack of pre-planning and I wasn't able to get a ticket to visit. Oh well, something for next time.

I'd say I did pretty well though in terms of covering ground - and I did it all by foot! I tried to hit major sights first thing in the morning to avoid the crazy crowds and then just meander the small streets throughout the afternoon and evening while popping into random churches or other things as I passed. There are more tour groups here than you could ever imagine. All of them have their leader with their little flag and microphone so everyone can hear them through the headsets. It's totally insane. I thought Paris was touristy this feels ten fold!

Here's my collection of photos from three days of wandering:

Tuesday I set out for a day in Ancient Rome - Colosseum, Forum, Pantheon, and whatever else I could stumble upon. All of them were top notch. I had pre-planned the Colosseum so was able to skip the ticket queue and head right in after ooging around the outside for a while. It really is magnificent! It's interesting though because today we are fascinated by the structure, architecture, and of course the history. But what tends to be lost is that loads of people actually died in there, and all for sport. Pretty sick when you think about it, but hey, we all loved the movie Gladiator and eventually Rome was taken by Christianity and all that madness stopped. The sheer number of people that the place could hold and the structure itself are mind boggling. And, it's not even so much time that's worn it down, it's earthquakes that have toppled much of it. And then when Christianity came and churches needed to be built most of the marble that once covered the surfaces of the Colosseum was used elsewhere around Rome. Those Romans were advanced in more ways that we could think, even recycling :)

After wandering through the crowds of the Colosseum I made my way across the street to the forum. I intended to just use my guidebook and make my way through it but I decided to jump into a small group tour. I figured why not, it was only 10EUR and I'd have someone to talk to and hopefully learn a bit. The area of land that makes up the forum is massive and there's a lot to it from Emperor's houses of Palatine Hill to gardens to temples, and the senate house. Parts of it look like a wasteland of rubble and parts look quite like what that would have hundreds and hundreds of years ago. Apparently until not all that long ago the Forum area was just a park in Rome so people were able to just go throughout all of the ruins as they pleased. It's now still quite open but you have to pay admittance and certain areas are restricted and there's archaeological activity everywhere. I guess in a city that's essentially built on ruins you have it everywhere and it's hard to know where to begin!

From the Forum I ticked a few more sights off the list and I'm sure saw things that were 'sights' that I just flew by. When you're surrounded by ruins it's not always easy to tell what's a must stop and smell the roses type place and what's just walk by and think to yourself, man that's old. I did a lot of that over the last few days.

One thing that I was keen to see but was totally shot down on was the Trevi Fountain. As has been par for the course of this trip I shouldn't have gotten my hopes up for a fountain. Again, there was no water in it! It's being restored and apparently it has been going on for like a year so who knows when it will be back up and running. I can't remember which company is paying for it but designers like Furla, Tods, and a few others have been donating money to restore some of the Roman sights. Pretty great but dang it again on the water feature!

The plan for Wednesday was to head to Vatican City and do the museum which I'd booked into at 10AM and then go into St. Peter's to checkout the church and do the dome climb. Part of my plan played out and the other didn't so much. I knew that the Pope did a service on Wednesday mornings and the church was closed during that. What I didn't realize was that meant it was til 1PM. I got to the Vatican Museum around 930 and went right in - again, I had pre-planned with a ticket so I just walked past everyone. I thought the line was long when I first got there but man when I was leaving it was insane. I have no idea why you would't do the advanced ticket - paying 4EUR extra or whatever it was as the booking fee sure waits forever in line!

The museum is overwhelming and extensive. I did the audio tour which was helpful but it's so massive that I was exhausted and only listening to overviews after the first few sections. You wander through all of these halls and exhibits and finally end, well sort of the end, at the Sistine Chapel. I don't know that I've ever seen a full picture of the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel because I walked in and didn't realize that's where I was. It was jammed packed but the nice thing is that they do not allow photos in there so the selfie sticks were put away for a moment. The detail of the stories that the images display is spectacular but there's so much of it. I was listening to the audio and actually having a hard time figuring out where to look!

When I finally figured out how to get to the exit - which was ridiculously hard to find and far away - I made my way outside and past all of the crowds waiting to get in and attempted to head towards St. Peter's. I was greeted with every entrance to the square blocked off but there were just loads of people milling around with nothing going on. I ultimately learned that it wouldn't open until 1 and it was only 12. I was not sticking around for everyone else there to rush in. Move on to plan b for the day, which didn't actually exist, and come back tomorrow.

Plan B turned into a delicious lunch of a charcuterie plate and some wine. Just what I needed after wandering the museum! I'd read about this place called La Prosciutteria earlier and decided I needed to check it out - delish! Not sure if it was the wine or the museum but I then proceeded to take a nice afternoon nap :)

Even though vising St Peter's had to wait another day it was totally worth it! The weather Thursday was actually clearer than on Wednesday so it made the views from the top of the dome that much better and I went earlier in the morning so I beat some of the crowds. The queue to get through security wasn't bad and I went straight up to the top of the dome then back into the church. It was hot and sweaty hiking all of the stairs to the top, and the sweater I had on that didn't help! Given that no buildings in Rome can be higher than the dome of St Peter the views across the city are quite nice. Back down in the church itself the views are pretty spectacular too. The ceilings, floors, artwork, canopy over the altar, it's all amazing. Apparently the church can hold 60,000 people standing. Holy cow! So even though there were a gazillion tour groups and it felt like a lot of people there could be loads more.

With my moments of holiness ending I headed off and wandered around for the rest of the afternoon. I walked along the river but that didn't last too long because there's so much pollen I was sneezing like crazy and there's absolutely nothing at the river. Unlike Paris or most other cities that have a river running through there's very little happening in Rome. I saw one sign for boat cruises but I guess given that the riverfront isn't built up and there's no major sights it's hard to capitalize on anything.

As Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn do in the movie Roman Holiday I visited the now ridiculously touristy 'Mouth of Truth' and snapped a pic, and had one of me, sticking my hand in the mouth of this massive old man hole cover. I was hoping that I'd be whisked back in time as Audrey Hepburn :)

When I wasn't transported and turned into Audrey I continued my walking. I strolled back past the Colosseum, Forum, Pantheon and popped into a few churches. Best part about churches is that they're nice and chilled when it's toasty outside. Perfect for a moment's break.

Just before going into the Santa Maria Sopra Minerva Church near the Parthenon (a rare Gothic style church in Rome which I realized I'd paused at earlier due to the elephant obelisk out front) I decided my afternoon snack needed to be gelato. I picked a random spot, selected my flavors (hazelnut and mango this time around) and went to pay... Well, I though I had a 5 euro note but soon realized not so much. I forgot I'd spent my last cash on a four euro coke outside the Vatican. With no cash, and no credit cards accepted I tried to give the gelato back but the nice little lady behind the register insisted that I take it. It was at this point that i realized I was more desperate for an ATM than I'd realized! I couldn't even buy gelato and the Italian mammas were having to take pity on me!

Rome was quite good to me for my short stay. We'll see where the itinerary takes me and what I'm feeling over the next week or so and if I pass back through. I didn't ever notice til someone pointed it out but ROMA is AMOR backwards; definitely a little Amor happening for Italy already after just a few days. I can't stay away from the sea for too long though so Florence is next and then the coastal towns that make up Cinque Terra.

Monday, May 4, 2015

Malta's Finest

I just spent the last four days in Malta. Malta? Yep, Malta... To be honest when this locale was suggested as a meeting spot for some SF/Dublin friends I had to search for it on Google Maps before I could respond with an affirmative. Where on this lovely earth is Malta and why do I want to go there?? We determined that it would be warmer than somewhere like Dubrovnik at this time of year and the goal was a sun holiday. So to Malta six of us went. 

If you're like me and haven't a clue about Malta it's a Mediterranean island nation just south of Sicily and north of Africa. It's one of the smallest countries and has various histories, occupants, and cultures over the years. To say though that I know much more about the country after leaving than when I arrived might be stretching it. From arrival to departure I found myself confused about Malta. 

The sea is absolutely stunning and crystal clear, there are small harbors, islands, and rocky beaches asking to be used for jumping in. However, the land itself is a mix of old and new buildings (and a lot of newer trying to look old which makes it all confusing) and the middle parts of the country look like the middle east or Africa. It's no wonder that we ran (well I should say swam) into the cast of a new movie being filmed called 13 Hours about the attack of the American diplomatic compound in Benghazi when the US ambassador was killed. From where we were staying Malta not a place where you look up and down the coastline and think how stunning it is. I think there are spots where the cliffs and coast are interesting but perhaps my French Riviera obsession is now ruining me. I will not complain though about being on the water and having a fabulous apartment on the 10th floor looking straight out. In terms of inland activities and sights we didn't see too many of them - mostly because you have to drive or take a bus. Also, so many things we were thinking about doing weren't open. Everything was closed at like 430 in the afternoon. Really?!? So Malta does have more to offer than I experienced, but I think we all got what we wanted - sun, drink, and fun. 

All of the pics are here.

Our group did make a reasonable determination that we're boat people, and boat people are way better than bus people. When you're on a boat you wave at everyone you pass by but on an open top bus apparently not. We did two boat trips and a questionable bus tour around the island to get our Malta experiences down. 

Looking for something to do other than sit around all day and drink and not see anything on Friday we hopped on a 90 minute harbor cruise. They told us we could bring drinks onboard so we did. Likely annoying everyone else but hey, we enjoyed ourselves and got to see the multiple arms of the harbor, yachts, cruise ship docks, and buildings. A fair number of good pictures from this jaunt. There are loads of watchtowers along the harbors so those were interesting to see. 

View of the capital city - Valletta

On Saturday we chartered a boat for just the six of us and were taken all around by our new best friend and captain George. George showed us parts of the three different islands of Malta, took us into caves cut out by the sea, and docked us in little bays where we could swim, drink, blast the music, and happen upon famous people (the previously mentioned crew of movie stars including John Krasinski from The Office). Swimming in the Blue Lagoon at Camino Island was like being in a pool the water was so clear. I don't usually find myself opening my eyes when I'm not in a pool but I was and it was crazy. 

We started our boat trip at 1030AM and didn't get off til 7PM - not a bad deal when it was EUR400 plus a hefty tip since George was so awesome. We kept saying after that we should have just booked him again for Sunday. Being able to be out on the water, jump off the boat whenever we wanted to, and feel like we had the whole of the sea to ourselves was awesome. 

Sunday we had loads of attempted plans but none of them really worked out too well. Matt and I were dying to find somewhere to rent paddle boards and just head out for a while and that turned out to be much more difficult than anticipated given that we were surrounded by water! The small water sports didn't seem to be so much a thing. So we decided that we needed to see more of the island and we'd take one of the bus tours. Then we could get off a few spots, check them out, and say we'd seen it. 

Walled city of Mdina

The bus started out ok but we quickly realized that one, the audio that you're supposed to be able to listen to with headsets wasn't working. Or at least none of us could figure out how to get it in English. And two, it was really fricken hot sitting on the top of a bus. So we rode around on the bus, saw things that were closed so it was just a fly by and we had no audio so it was just a guess of what we were looking at based on the map and short descriptions we had. We did get off at a walled city (not as good as the ones I saw in France, sorry Malta), stopped at a crowded beach (one of the few sandy ones on the island) to have a drink, and then wanted to make one more stop but realized we were on the very last bus of the day because like everything else touristy it stopped running at like 5 on Sundays. It was certainly a way to spend the day and it was good to see some of the other areas but fairly comical. 

View from Mdina

One thing we did learn is that the drinks are cheep! The service in most places was absolutely horrific but the drinks were cheap so we made do. There was a lot of Cisk (the local Malta beer), wine (usually white which comes in at about EUR3 per bottle at the store and we dubbed Malta's finest), and daiquiris consumed across the group. We found a band playing all sorts of classic rock one night with a lead singer who looked like a cross between Jack Black and Weird Al Yankovich - they were quite entertaining and the crowd at this bar was bizarre. A fair number of older men who looked a bit like washed up 70s porn stars.  

Despite some failures on likely major sightseeing items the group was very successful in the things that we do and enjoy best - laughing, drinking, dancing, and enjoying the warm weather. A successful trip and for me a holiday within my holiday. It was great to be in one place just hanging out and not buzzing from one sight to the next. And of course, to have all clean clothes is amazing. That was the first thing I did when I got to the apartment on Thursday and then again this morning before leaving :) Had to take advantage. 

With one final bottle of wine with Dan in the sun overlooking a pool and the harbor Malta was a rap and now it's time to see Italy. As the rest of the gang headed back to Dublin and London and their respective realities my plane today was headed to Rome. But first... sleep!