February 14, 2012

Photos From Rome

Happy Valentines, from New Zealand. More photos...

Ahh, Rome. The Eternal City. Well, I took plenty of photos there. Here are but a few of them.

Coliseum during the day, Rome

One of the many cathedrals of Rome

Coliseum at night, Rome

Inside view of Coliseum, Rome

Another view of interior of Coliseum, Rome

Arch of Titus, Forum, Rome

Columns inside the Forum, Rome

View along the Forum, Rome

Ruins on Palantine Hill, Forum, Rome

Tiber River at dusk, Rome

Inside St. Peter's Basilica, Vatican, Rome


Another view of St. Peter's Basilica, Rome

Sculpture in Vatican Museum, Vatican, Rome

Sculpture in Vatican Museum, Vatican, Rome

Another Sculpture, Vatican Museum, Rome

The Pantheon at dusk, Rome

Inside the Pantheon, Rome

Until next time, be safe.


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February 06, 2012

Photos From Perugia

These are photos from our two days in Perugia. It was quite an interesting place, it would be nice to go back and explore the rest of the Umbrian region.

Arches along narrow street, Perugia

City wall of Perugia

Jess on stairs at main Cathedral of Perugia

Oldest church in Perugia, from 5th Century, AD

Countryside around Perugia


Sunset view from Perugia

Until next time, be safe.


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February 02, 2012

Photos From Cinque Terre

This area was my favorite: a place of beauty and ruggedness. These photos really don't do it justice.

Looking down at Riamaggiore

Jess and I near Riamaggiore

View of Manarola

Another shot of Manarola

View from our apartment, Riamaggiore

Waves crashing in harbor of Riamaggiore

Another shot of waves, Riamaggiore

Third shot of waves in Riamaggiore

Hiking above Monterosso

Jess hiking near Monterosso

Riamaggiore at sunset

Looking down at Manarola

Terraced hillsides topped by Volastra

Jess on a plank on the terraces, Manarola

Looking down at Volastra towards Manarola

Bad cat guarding Volastra

A view down to Manarola

Old men in evening at Manarola

Harbor of Manarola

Back at Riamaggiore at sunset

Until next time, be safe.


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January 27, 2012

Photos From Around Florence - Lucca & Pisa

These are from the two little areas we visited near Florence, from Pisa and the small city of Lucca.

Building along river in Pisa

The Leaning Tower of Pisa

Cathedral in Lucca

Buildings in Lucca

Countryside near Lucca

Until next time, be safe.



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Photos From Florence

Here are photos from Florence.

The "Fake David" outside the Uffizi Museum, Florence

Lion statue, Piazza della Signoria, Florence

Reflections of Ponte Vecchio Bridge, Florence

Hills above Florence

Overlooking Florence from Piazzale Michelangelo

Another view from Piazzale Michelangelo, Florence

Ponte Vecchio Bridge at night, Florence

View from Ponte Vecchio Bridge, Florence

Until next time, be safe.


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January 24, 2012

Photos From Venice

Here are photos from our time in Venice. Again, these photos are straight out of the camera, with no post-production work done, so lighting isn't always great

Gondalas in the Grand Canal, Venice

A shaded canal, Venice

Boats in a canal, Venice

Sunset over the Grand Canal, Venice

Another sunset shot, Grand Canal, Venice

Looking down the Grand Canal, Venice

Piazza San Marco, Venice

Buildings on the Grand Canal, Venice

Near north end of Grand Canal, Venice

Afternoon along a canal, Venice

Jess and I near the south end of Venice

The lagoon outside the center of Venice

Until next time, be safe.


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January 15, 2012

When In Rome...

Originally posted on Jess's Blog. Here is her original post.


Currently we are in route to Kathmandu.  We started out from Rome last night around 10:30 and had a tiring four hour layover in Qatar this morning.  Now we are on the final stretch and should be landing in Nepal in an hour or two.  We were both very sad to say farewell to Italy last evening as it has provided us with amazing travel experiences and memories to last for years to come.

We arrived into Rome Wednesday afternoon and made our way from the train station to our hostel.  The train station is the largest one that I have ever seen as we had to walk at least a mile from the train to the actual station entrance.  There were plenty of shady looking characters along our walk, but as we neared the hostel the area appeared a bit more bright and welcoming.  It turned out to be a fine location in a quiet Italian neighborhood away from the crowded touristy sites.  We quickly got settled into our basic four bed dorm and briefly took a rest on the roof top terrace before hitting the city streets.

My first impression of Rome was not great.  After coming from a slower pace in small town Italy, the city completely overwhelmed me with its many crowds and insane traffic.  Frequently there is no rhyme or reason to the pattern of traffic with motorbikes, cars and buses weaving through the congested streets, ignoring all rules and always competing to be first.  There is one monstrous roundabout in particular that we had to walk through at least twice daily during our visit.  There are four one way lanes with faintly painted crosswalks and not a stop sign in sight.  We usually managed to cross with a group of people to feel more protected.  The hostel receptionist told me that if I was hit while using the cross walk, we would be rewarded 8,000 Euros.  He made this sound like a pretty great way to earn a little extra spending money.  No thank you, but after a day or so I had adjusted pretty well and walked out into all sorts of oncoming traffic without
gripping at Aaron's coat sleeve in desperate fear.

That first afternoon we got plenty of walking in, but didn't actually visit any of the tourist attractions.  We enjoyed eating gelato (coconut and pistachio) as we past the Colosseum and the Forum along our way.  The evening was spent strolling alongside the Tiber River and visiting the quaint neighborhood of Travestere.  Travestere lies just across the Tiber and is a lovely old fashioned neighborhood full of piazzas, narrow cobblestone streets, small gelaterias, pubs, and plenty of older Italians.  We entered a small local hardware store looking for a corkscrew.  The ninety year old man working there was very suspicious of us, and came hobbling from behind the counter with a stick in hand ready to defend himself from the haggard long haired man standing before him.  Once he realized that Aaron was harmless and actually willing to pay for the corkscrew he became pleasant, speaking jovially in Italian with plenty of hand gestures.  He even threw in a free
bar of soap and thanked us profusely on our way out the door.  We weren't sure if he was trying to apologize or if he thought that we smelled.  From there we visited the ornate Basilica di Santa Maria, which according to our guide is the oldest church dedicated to the Virgin Mary in Rome, established in the third century.  We were in awe of high ceilings supported by twenty one ancient Roman columns, the colorful marble walls and floors, and the many paintings of Mary and Jesus.  Very Catholic and very impressive.  The long walk back to the hostel just about did us in for the night.  After a quick stop at the grocery store we made dinner of pesto and pasta, and we called it a night.

We had every intention of being out of bed by 8:30 the following morning, but we didn't actually make it out until a little after 10:00.  Our first stop was the Colosseum.  Because we are traveling in the off season the lines were very short, so we only had to wait for about five minutes to purchase our ticket and enter.  Also, before coming to Rome we downloaded Rick Steves' audio guide, which provided us with lots of interesting information about the main tourist attractions here.  Our tour of the Colosseum was amazing.  The weather was cooperative with moderate temperatures, and the cloudless sunny sky provided perfect views of the ancient stadium.  The enormity of this building is breathtaking in itself, and to think it was inaugurated in AD 80 is absolutely mind boggling.  The arched walls stand so high above, and back in the day they were adorned with various statues and ornate decorations.  On the ground level lies an intricate maze of small rooms and hallways that was considered the 'backstage' area, below what was once the actual staging floor.  For all the wonder and the amazing architecture of this structure, it was also astounding to learn about what occurred here.  The theme of the Colosseum was death.  Spectators in the stands drank wine and cheered as they watched their fellow man kill one another all day.  Prisoners were frequently dressed as various characters and brought on stage.  Here they were humiliated and made to act out the parts of past battles or fallen enemies, dying in the same fashion as the character they played.  Gladiators fought to the death.  Midway through a day of 'games,' the rotten stench of blood and death became so overpowering, they sprayed perfume all throughout in attempt to mask the horrid smells.  So, the Colosseum was most certainly an interesting place to visit, but we were both clearly reminded of the cruelty of humankind.

Our next stop was to The Forum, the city center of ancient Rome.  From afar, this area looks like a pile of rocks, but the combination of getting up close, learning from the audio guide, and using a bit of imagination allowed us visualize what it must have looked like back in the second or third centuries. It was interesting to imagine the main road leading through the heart of the city lined with various shops. The guide walked us through all of the significant routes, like Julius Caesar's place of death and tomb. The Palatine Hills above the Forum were where the upper class of ancient Rome resided. Even after all of the many centuries gone by and all that remains are shells of buildings, it is still obvious that this area was for the upper crust.

Our last tourist visit for the evening was to the Jewish Ghetto. Thanks to Rick Steves for providing a guide to this area because it turned out to be an interesting part of the city that we would have missed out on otherwise. The tour started on the Tiber River at Rome's largest synagogue. Sadly, this small neighborhood was frequently flooded by the river many years ago, which is why the Romans chose this place as the Jewish neighborhood. In the ancient times, the Jews were forced to walk through the Forum where they were laughed at and spit upon. We visited a square where several thousand Jews were selected to go to the concentration camps during World War 2; many didn't return. Today, the neighborhood no longer floods, thanks to renovations, and the locals here appear happy and healthy. There are plenty of kosher restaurants and shops, as well a a Jewish school.

After a very full day of walking and sightseeing, we had pasta at the hostel, and our evening spritz. These days we have felt a little on the older side, coming in early and being in bed by ten (at least me). So, after dinner we were determined to go out to a local pub for a beer. We downed a quick pint each and then made our way back to the hostel for what was still an early night.

Our second full day in Rome was spent at the heart of the Catholic Church, the Vatican. The walk to Vatican City was long and tiring but well worth it because it was a fine day. Our first stop at the Vatican was St. Peter's Basilica. After standing through a security line for about ten minutes, we entered this most impressive structure. After visiting many churches throughout our trip so far, we have seen some large and beautiful ones. This gleaming, massive cathedral beat them all, as even our audio guide described its size in terms of football fields. With its marble floors and columns, its walls and ceilings covered completely with paintings, and icons and statues everywhere, there was nothing dull or drab about this church. My favorite part of this tour was seeing Michelangelo's Pieta, his statue of Jesus and Mary. It was subtle but sublime.

The next big experience was our visit to the Vatican Museum. Their collection of art and various archaeological finds is most impressive, but after three hours of walking through endless hallways of statues leads to intense grumpiness. I really enjoy art museums, but even I was limping, and Aaron was staggering like a zombie by the end. It is almost too much, but fortunately the Sistine Chapel awaits at the end, and it is a spectacular sight. Michelangelo's ceiling of frescoes is considered his masterpiece, and it's easy to see why. The colorful frescoes that he painted while standing on scaffolds and straining his neck take you through God's creation to the story of Jesus. The alter wall is his later work, a depiction of Judgement Day, which is huge and scary. It was amazing how our backs stopped hurting after entering the Sistine Chapel. Aaron actually looked human again.

Following the Vatican, we found some much needed gelato around the corner. My pistachio, ricotta, and dark chocolate ice cream cone was perfect after a morning of museums. We continued on our walk, and wandered towards the Pantheon, and even found the Spanish Stairs. I had never even heard of the movie The Roman Holiday, so Aaron had to educate me on this apparent classic that takes place on the stairs. From there, we made it to the Pantheon, which is an amazing dome shaped, Roman era building. We also had an audio guide for this, which made it an interesting experience; it was especially interesting to see the painter Raphael's tomb after seeing his work throughout the city. Before heading to dinner, we sat in the piazza of the Pantheon and took in the crisp evening air. Throngs of people out and about, enjoying the final few minutes of daylight while musicians played various instruments and artists painted the scene in front of us. We were just trying
to take it all in before leaving.

Our final day in Italy involved wrapping things up, doing a few business chores, and eating one more slice of pizza before making our way to the airport. About an hour before we left for the train station, I just happened to look up and see a tour bus full of nuns in their traditional garb, snapping pictures and taking in the sights. It was a classic moment. We have loved Italy and all that it has had to offer us. From the quiet canals of Venice to the beautiful artwork in Florence, from the rugged cliff sides of Cinque Terre to the busy excitement of Rome, we have enjoyed every moment. We have also eaten our way through the country and will refuse to eat pizza anywhere else on this trip. It has spoiled us rotten, and it will make our entry into Nepal that much more different.

Nepal, here we come!

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January 12, 2012

The Ancient City of Perugia

Greetings from Rome. We have had two epic days now of walking, about 25,300 steps yesterday per our pedometer, and 33,000 today. But that is something for another entry, so, I will talk about our brief visit to the medieval city of Perugia. 

Traveling by train in Italy isn't as quick and efficient as one might think, at least when traveling on a route that doesn't have the high speed bullet trains. Often, there are multiple changes, which always makes for slower travel. Going from Cinque Terre to Perugia was no exception; we were three different trains, all of which were regional trains that stopped in most little towns. That made our trip to Perugia, for what appears to be a short distance by map, take over four hours. One side note of wisdom for those who might travel to Italy, and might find themselves on a short train ride such as the Florence-Pisa route: you must get your ticket stamped, or face up to a €50 fine. There isn't a noticeable sign anywhere in stations, nor do the tickets or the salespeople tell you so much. In what appears to be a big scam, conductors roam the aisles, looking for the folks who forget to get their tickets stamped, which are invariably tourists. It is a double system, as not only do you buy specific tickets and have them clipped by conductors, but illogically you must get this tiny stamp from a machine that of course is not on the trains, only at stations. We found this out the hard way, on New Years, but the conductor, perhaps in a celebratory mood, only charged us €5. On our way to Perugia, on between Pisa and Florence, the conductor nailed four separate groups of protesting tourists, raking in €200 in our car alone. It made me mad just to watch it, because it is really unfair. My sympathy for this country's financial woes diminished greatly watching her harass one group after another. Boo, Italy, you should know better than targeting your tourists with unfair fines.

Anyhow, we arrived shortly before dark into Perugia. Ou first sight after getting off the train was truly mind-boogling: the elevated MiniMetro going up into this hilltop city. Believe me, they are definitely needed, as hiking the 1.5km from the station to the center (probably with a 2000ft elevation gain) would be cruel and intense. So they have installed this metro type system. Hilariously, they have these tiny little cars, silvery metallic, rounded and shaped a lot like spaceships. They are hilarious to look at, very cute, and yet they area immensely useful. After my initial laugh, I was nothing but impressed.

Thusly, we were delivered to the top, right into the center. The view was incredible, but we had our packs and were tired from a day on the train. We vaguely had had a little hotel in mind near the center, and so we headed in that direction. We have a lot less stuff than we had on our last big trip, but oddly our packs feel much heavier. We trudged through the center and started down a passageway that we hoped would take us to those selected hotel. Before we arrived, though, we came across a sign that read Albergo Anna, which was also in our guide. We decided since it was the first place we had found, it must be right, so we popped in, making our time in Perugia truly unforgettable.

We were greeted at the door by an older lady, presumably Anna, short and squat and distinctly Italian. Through hand motions and half-understood statements, we negotiated a room for €50, making it clear that the size and view didn't matter much to us. Once we settled on a room and put down our bags, we looked around at the place. It seemed to take up much of the fourth floor of a large building, with multiple rooms and large living quarters. It became obvious that the family lived there, probably six to ten of them, and someone had filled the place with knickknacks, in every corner, crevice, and in the many display cases. There was also loads of crystal and dishes, paintings ranging from contemporary to bizarre hung above it all, and old carpets lined the pathways. There seemed to be several living rooms, most with TVs, which all seemed to be on in the evening. It was a bizarre arrangement, and difficult to believe that it was a hotel. It was like being at an eccentric relative's house, or perhaps more apt, at a senior citizen's center where the inhabitants all got to bring their collections. 

It might have all been too weird, except that the family was very nice. There were some real characters. Anna was like everyone's grandma, a universal relative who made sure you had better feel at home or else. An old man that I assumed was her husband shuffled through the house, as kind as he could be. He made sure to show us his brightly lit holiday manger scene, a mix of the the modern, the ancient, and a few random accents, such as a skyscraper and a tunnel with an electric car. We could hear him coming down the hallway in his loafers, and he always seemed a bit surprised when he came around the corner and saw us, as though he'd forgotten briefly that we were staying there. He'd smile, wave, and then turn on an extra light for us, even if it weren't needed. The rest of the family wasn't strange, but just themselves. We had the impression that we weren't staying in a hotel, but their home. It was great.

We stayed in Perugia for two nights, which was enough for us to see the whole of the city. It is a very old city in the ancient region of Umbria that really was the birthplace of the Italian civilization. Turning a corner or looking down a  narrow passageway, it was frequently obvious that most buildings in the center were very old, as well as beautifully preserved; indeed, a tremendous amount of history can be found in the region, beginning long before the Romans came around, and I was a bit disappointed that we didn't have the time to stop and really explore all around, to learn more about the history and the unique culture. Fortunately, I felt that during our day and a half of exploring the city, we managed to walk nearly all of its historic center. This city is built on a large hill, as I mentioned, and the views are breathtaking of the surrounding countryside. Ancient walls, medieval alleyways, and multiple churches gave us a full agenda for exploration for our time in the city, while its frequently sloping streets gave us a great workout. Fortunately, we found a pub that sold excellent as well as cheap food, as well as the cheapest beer we saw in Italy. In fact, the beer was almost exclusively strong, Trappist-style beers, such as the 9% Chimay from Belgium, which was sold for €3.80, about half of what it would sell for in the US. Since beer is very expensive in Italy, we have not really had much here, but we made up for our lacking at that pub. Sadly, it was closed our second night; we had looked forward to a plate of cheap pasta and a bottle of great strong beer all day.

We visited multiple churches, countless plazas, even some Estruscan era gates, but probably the highlight of the city was a circular church built in the 5th city. While relatively young compared to the Roman sites dating back to 500 BC or sites from other civilizations of even greater antiquity, this church had s simplicity and beauty, as well as a distinct feeling of what was a young, fervent faith in the days of its origin. We happened to arrive at the perfect time of day, the lighting spearing the shadows of the church, filling corners with a golden glow. It was beautiful, and best of all, we had the place to ourselves, yet again an example of the benefits of traveling this time of year.

Our time in Perugia passed by far too quickly, as we had to move on Rome. This would definitely be one of the areas of Italy that I would want to come back to and spend more time exploring, in particular if we were able to rent a car and check out the many small towns that are difficult to visit by public transport. Reading about them, it seems as though our three weeks we've had here in Italy could have been spent just in Umbria. Like everywhere else we've gone, I'm sure that is definitely the case.

Until next time, be safe.

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January 09, 2012

Cinque Terre - Italy's Slow Country

We have just spent the last four nights in the little town of Riomaggiore, in the beautiful coastal region of Cinque Terre. I think that Jess and I both feel like we could have gotten off of a plane in Florence, jumped on a train here, and been very happy with our decision. That is how relaxing it has been here.

We arrived from Lucca to Riamaggiore on January 5th, after what turned out to be a very slow trip over a short distance. Somehow we ended up on three trains to go about two hours worth of traveling. To add to the stress of the trip, I needed money and had a strangely hard time finding an ATM in the stopover towns. Once we reached Riamaggiore, we realized that each little town in the Cinque Terre has an ATM, so it was an unnecessary stress.

Once we arrived, we found the guesthouse we had called from Lucca. That was our one disappointment our entire time in the area, because our room wasn't so great. It's small window looked out onto a wall, it was freezing and musty, and it didn't have any any kitchen facilities. We had already paid for a night, but we immediately went out looking for another place. For future reference and for those who might travel to Cinque Terre, it is quite easy to find rooms, we found an apartment very quickly, booked it for the following morning, and went on for the rest of our day.

The evening was upon us by then, it had taken far too long getting into town and checked in. So, we walked around Riamaggiore a bit, exploring its alleys and steep streets. The Cinque Terre is an area of coastland that is UNESCO protected, as it is a real jewel. There are four little towns along the coast, though several others can be found further up in the hills, which cascade steeply down into crashing waves and dizzying cliffs. The four towns, including Riamaggiore, cling to this hostile environment by backing up into ravines,  which seems like a bad idea given the likelihood of flash floods (actually in October 2011, horrible floods killed several people and severely damaged two of the town, to the point they are closed to visitors). The towns look like the inhabitants simply found a piece of land level enough to build on, and made up for the lack of acreage by building up, so that many buildings are three stories. Or a better way to describe the towns is if a giant shook out a box of buildings to spill down the walls of the gullies, and the buildings just happened to land upright. At any rate, they make for picturesque views. 

The streets of each town climb progressively from a central plaza-like main street that runs down the middle to smaller walkways that are sort of like alleys, building mazes behind the buildings for a few levels. Above that, this hillsides rise up to tree-lined ridges far above. These hillsides have been worked and carved into terraces for, according to some, over 1000 years; those terraces grow all sorts of agriculture, like grapes, olives, citrus trees, and other produce. This time of year, the vines are bare, and many of the terraces seem empty, but from pictures we saw, they are lush and green in the summertime.

We didn't get into the hills that evening, instead fully exploring Riamaggiore and then finding a walkway that followed the cliffside around to the next town, Manarola. The walkway clings to the cliff, jutting out over the crashing waves, and gives great view of the sunset. We didn't walk all of the way to Manarola but stopped midway to watch the sun drop below the horizon. Once it set,  we went back to Riamaggiore and found a market still open, to get some cheese, sausage and wine. We found a cafe for a spritz, then went back to our room for dinner. It was really brisk there, so we piled on the blankets and set in for night.

We weren't too sad to say goodbye to our room the next morning, especially after our lukewarm showers. We were packed and out by 9, to head over to the office of the other rental place. The lady there took us directly over to our next apartment, which was really a treat, especially compared to the first room. This was a full studio apartment, with a nice kitchen and dining area, a great bed,  and a large bathroom. Even better, our window looked out onto the small cove that served as the town's harbor. By 9:30 each morning, we had direct sunshine into our room, and the waves crashing against the breakwater served as a relaxing background sound. Then, in the evenings, the light from the sunset set the buildings across from ours aglow with color. We could have easily had some belongings shipped over to us and moved right into the place.

As soon as we put our bags down, we headed out to the market and bought some breakfast foods. Our little apartment had an Italian coffee pot, which I didn't know how to use, but we also had wifi, a quick google search had us brewing up cups of espresso like native Italians. For our mornings there in the apartment we did well for meals, with eggs, cheeses, salami, and yogurt for breakfasts. We would have soup and focaccia bread for lunch, and for our dinners that we at the apartment, we would get fresh pasta and pesto sauce. Apparently, both pesto and focaccia bread originated in the area, and they certainly did well with both. Of course, we drank gallons of coffee, and we didn't do so badly with the chianti either.

Speaking of learning to be Italians, we also were surprised at the €5 each that they charged for a spritz in the local cafes in the evenings. As having a spritz each evening has become something of a habit for us, we decided we would be better off making our own. We bought a bottle of aperol, a light Italian liquor that isn't as strong as wine, for €12, while a bottle of local champagne only set us back €3. With an ice cube and a slice of orange, we were in business, and our purchase paid for itself after the third drink. Believe me, we had a few more than three. This is a perfect evening refresher, especially after a day of hard hiking, and while the champagne is long gone, we have the last third of the bottle of aperol in a metal water bottle tucked away in my bag at this very moment.

Anyhow, on the 6th, our second day, we were in the mood for some exploring. A little train goes in between all four towns as well as the city La Spezia on one end and the larger towns Monterosso and then Levanto on the other. We rode all of the way to Monterosso, bypassing Manarola for the next day and Corniglia and Vernazza as they were damaged by the floods. Passing by those two towns on the train, we could see the damaged buildings and main street, strewn with debris and dirt, though people were out painting and making repairs. Monterosso is mostly just a beach town, having a nice spit of white sand that people must love in the summertime. We didn't stay long in the town, heading out for what looked like a nice hike into the hills. The hike quickly turned arduous on us, going from a gentle ascent to the tortuous stair climb. Whereas hiking in the US usually involves well-groomed trails, this trail was carved into the hillside a thousand years ago and hasn't been worked on since. Apparently, the idea of zigzagging  up a hill hasn't caught on, despite a civilization being in place in the area for a millennium, and instead the trails tend to aim straight up the hills. We sweated our way to the top, where at least we had great views to look at (at least when the white dots in my vision receded). We continued down to Levanto, where a cone heaped with some gelato  helped ease our tired muscles. We watched bodysuit clad surfers hitting the waves in the fading sunlight and eventually sundown--making the association with California's coast complete--before boarding our train back to Riamaggiore, a pasta dinner, and a couple of spritzes.

Our third day, the 7th, started out very slow. We slept in, then had a leisurely breakfast. We set out for further exploration, but found that our legs were still tired from the previous day's hiking. So, we went back and enjoyed a few more cups of espresso in our apartment. We did a bit of laundry and lounged around until early afternoon, when we started to feel a little guilty about not having done anything with our day. So we walked around Riamaggiore a bit more, looking for a path that would take us to a chapel that sat far above the town on to top of the hill, shining white above the green of the hillside and even lit up at night. We soon found a trail that seemed like it would take us in the direction (that is to say up), and started walking. It did indeed head towards the church, never deviating into switchbacks or anything that might have proved helpful in our ascent. Let's just say that it would be impossible to be fat if you lived in one of those towns and had to walk anywhere more than just across the street. Even crossing the street involved somewhat strenuous exercise. I'm not complaining, though, because with all the cheese and cured meats I've been discovering in Italy, I need all the help I can get.

So, we didn't quite make the church; it soon became clear that although we were close, we wouldn't have enough time to reach the church and still get back to the village before sunset. So, we headed back to Riamaggiore to watch the sunset paint the cove in vivid oranges and reds. A fisherman was sitting on the rocks of the cove, using a pole that couldn't have been much shorter than 20 foot long to catch tiny little fish; I was waiting for him to catch a doozy so that I could run out to help him pull it in, but he was largely unsuccessful. Most of the boats were sitting in their winter storage spots, but a few go-getters were scraping peeling paint from their little boats and getting them ready for the next season. A few folks gathered to watch the sunset, but yet again low-season proved to be the best time to travel, as we mostly had the cove to ourselves. A fine dinner of fresh ravioli and pesto sauce followed our standard spritzes, rounding out the day just right.

Yesterday was our last day of exploration in the area, so we were determined to get started as early as possible. However, when you have your own apartment, getting out of bed and started at 7:30 is nearly unfeasible, and we didn't get started on the day until nearly 11. Still, it was an epic day of walking. We first took the cliffside route over to Manarola, which was pretty dead, as it was a Sunday morning. Nothing much was happening in the village, so we found a tiny little path that led up a hillside. It grew more narrow and more ancient-looking the higher we climbed, and we almost had to turn around when the path took us closer to the edge of a drop off into the ocean than Jess was comfortable being. I had to carry her coat and water bottle for her, but she soldiered on, and soon we came over the top of a terrace to a small flat area. A small bungalow sat in the clearing, and an older couple was working on a terrace in front of it. We didn't know if we should continue, but upon seeing us, the man came over and told us that the building was his home. We were in awe, as it looked out over a bit of the hill and then out across the Mediterranean. We still didn't know if we were trespassing, so we sort of stood there nodding our heads appreciatively, until he told us it was fine to sit on the terrace and rest, which we did. He must have been quite surprised to have a couple of Americans show up on a trail that most definitely was not on the standard tourist itinerary for hiking, but he's sure was nice about having us in his yard.

From there we pretty much took our own route through the hills, aiming vaguely for a town on the top of a hill across the entire valley that ended up being called Volastra. There is actually a trail that leads directly from Manarola to the village, but we weren't aware of it, and besides we were probably at about the halfway elevation point, though across the valley, and figured it would be better to cut around the valley rather than go down to Manarola and then head straight uphill. Seemed like sound enough logic, except there was no trail, so we followed the footpaths along the terraces until we reach a road. From there, we picked up a trail that seemed to be going in the general direction of Volastra. In general, it was, but at some point, after a fair amount of bushwhacking through some serious scrublands and gaining some battle scars from the thorns we found there, the trail headed off in a much different direction. We weren't aware of the direction change, with the towering thorn bushes around us, until we were actually higher than Volastra, so we had to head out again across grapevine covered terraces, then taking these tiny , ancient steps down stairs made for Italians much smaller and less clumsy than myself, to reach the village.

Once there, we found that the single cafe was closed for the season, and there was precious little else to do in  the town besides take in long views of the valley, Manarola, and the Mediterranean. We kept seeing these hikers in the village, looking fresh and happy and less scratched, and then we came across the well-kept, cobblestoned trails leading straight down to Manarola. As we started down that beautiful trail, we didn't envy those hikers coming up, as they still had a massive climb to reach the top, but rather felt very arrogant that we hadn't taken such an easy trail. Midway, we grew bored with the monotony of a well-groomed trail (I did, at least, and Jess was kind enough to indulge me). We set out yet again across a terrace until we found a decrepit looking trail that was more like a heavily eroded gully to make our descent. I will say, it gave us much better views of Manarola and the Mediterranean than the well-groomed trail could have (I think).

Back in Manarola, we stopped  in a little cafe to have a coffee, some pumpkin soup with focaccia bread, and a delicious slice of lemon tort cake. The sun was fully shining in Manarola, so we strolled around the village, checking out its little harbor and walking along its cliffside pathway that sadly did not go far along the coast. By late afternoon, after I'd taken all possible pictures of the village, we walked back to Riamaggiore, where we had a spritz and watched another beautiful sunset. Both if us were pretty tired, so we took a well-deserved nap. We both got in a couple of hours of sleep, getting up at about 7 to go out for a nice dinner. Seafood is naturally a very large part of the local cuisine, so we ordered stuffed mussels and a seafood soup, both local specialties, washing it down with a bottle of the house white wine. It made sense to have another coffee and dessert, so we indulged ourselves. It was a most excellent meal.

We are currently on the train to the city of Perugia, which is between Florence and Rome. We were very sad to say goodbye to Cinque Terre, especially since we now only have five nights left in Italy. In a way, leaving the region was preparing for leaving Italy itself, as Perugia is the only destination we have left before we arrive in Rome, our last stop. We'll have three nights in Rome and then it's off to Nepal we go, though we will have lots of great memories and experiences to bring along.

Until next time, be safe.

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January 06, 2012

Visiting Florence

Repost from Jess's blog. Original entry: Click here.

The past several days in Florence were really nice.  We arrived by train from Venice Thursday afternoon, and thanks to google maps we made it to our hostel without getting terribly lost.  The hostel was really basic with only one shower and a closet sized kitchen, but the beds were clean and our fellow bunk mates were quiet.  After coming from very decent hotels in Germany and Venice, our six bed dorm room was a startling change.  Anyways, we got aquainted with our small living space, found ourselves a map, and walked around for a while.  My first impression of Florence was that it was overrun with massive amounts of tourists everywhere, and I really missed our quiet visit to Venice.  Feeling a bit overwhelmed by all the people we kept our walk short that evening and went out to find dinner.  The receptionist at the hostel sent us to a very touristy restaurant packed with Americans, so that was kind of a let down.  He made it sound like an authentic dining experience... Oh well.  It turned out that the food and wine were really quite good, so we left in better spirits.  Following dinner we made it back to the hostel for a quiet night.

Friday we were up and out early for a action packed walking tour of the city. Breakfast was at a small cafe we had passed the night before.  The beautiful almond glazed scones sitting in the window display had caught our attention, and we just had to give them a try.  The scones, along with piping hot Italian coffee were the perfect combination to get our epic day of walking into full swing. 

We started our stroll around the more touristy area near the center of town and made our way to the Piazza della Signoria.  This medieval styled plaza was a great place to stop for a while.  The small street cafes were full of mid-morning coffee drinkers.  The buildings are all so ancient and grandiose.  The Uffizi and Palazzo Vecchio surround the plaza and house many important pieces of art.  Everywhere you look there are large columns, watch towers, huge buildings and impressive sculptures.  From here we went towards the Arno River and the famous 16th century Ponte Vecchio Bridge. The bridge is always crowded due to the nice views of the river and the many jewelry stores that line its length on both sides. Aaron took a few pictures and we continued on.

We crossed the river and continued our walk beyond the Palazzo Pitti.  After several stops into beautiful old cathedrals, we found ourselves in a non touristy area of Florence.  The south side of the bridge offers a very different experience for tourists. This might have been our favorite part of the day. The quiet narrow streets wound up the hillsides taking us to a beautiful residential area.   The old villas came in a variety of colors, pink, bright orange, and canary yellow.  The well groomed yards housed a mixture of interesting plant species and plenty of olive trees.  Many residences were gated, but we peeked through cracks in the walls to catch sights of the bustling city below and distant mountains.   Tucked among the homes we found a convent and a very small church that was built in the 13th century.   It felt like going back in time as we quietly strolled along this amazing and quaint italian neighborhood.

On our way down we found a cafe to stop and eat lunch.  We sat beside a fireplace and enjoyed a lovely meal.  I had fried polenta topped with fontina cheese and proscuitto, and Aaron had penne pasta with salmon.  Thankfully wine is cheaper than water here in Italy, so we split a half liter of the house red. After a quick Americano to complete our fine dining experience, we were back outside continuing our long walk.  

Before crossing the river back towards our neighborhood, we climbed lots of stairs that led us to the Piazzale Michelangelo.  The plaza is littered with tacky souvenir shops and yet another fake David.  Poor Michelangelo.  Anyways, the panoramic view of the city from this plaza was well worth our time.  The clouds dispersed, the sun made an appearance, and Aaron got some great shots.  

We started the long walk back to the hostel to take a short break and give our feet a needed rest.  Our return trip took us along the Arno River and back into the busier parts of Florence.  Of course we stumbled upon a market, so we had to stop and check out the many interesting foods for sale.  We are both market junkies.  It doesn't matter what is being sold, from trinkets to foul smelling fish, we can be found.  As Aaron says, the more disturbing the better.  Not to get off track, the meats, cheeses and breads had us constantly oohing and aahing, and the fresh produce didn't look so bad either.  We decided to buy a few dinner items here, and so we excitedly left with fresh gnocchi, pesto and some veggies.  

Finally back at the hostel we took a brief hiatus and put our feet up until late afternoon when we went back out.  Earlier in the day we saw fliers at one of the cathedrals about a concert featuring pieces by Handel.  We crossed the river once again and found the church hosting the concert.   Mass was just finishing so we snuck in the back and waited for it to end.  The concert was very small and informal with a soprano and two organists, and there were only a handful of people in attendance.  Really there was only a nun, a few older folks, and us.  The cathedral was dark and gothic style adorned with large columns and frescos throughout.    Heat was lacking, so we stay bundled in our warmest winter wear.  The musicians performed above from the balcony, and the music was absolutely beautiful.  Handel's 'Rejoice' was amazing as the soprano sang impeccably and with appropriate emotion.  This was a perfect end to a perfect day.

Back at the hostel we prepared dinner and just had a quiet night.  The pesto gnocchi was excellent.  I believe we put in about 13 miles throughout the day per our pedometer.  Not too bad...

I won't go into as much detail about the next two days as they were a bit lower key.  Saturday morning we toured The Uffuzi and saw impressive Renaissance art.  Botticelli, Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Raphael...  Standing in front of The Birth of Venice was extremely surreal. We also had gelato several more times.  The pistachio is my absolute favorite so far.  

New Year's Eve was especially nice. I managed to stay out way past my bedtime.  We rang in 2012 in one of the central plazas listening to the Florence philharmonic symphony, watching fireworks, and sipping cheap champagne.  There was a competition going on between the music and pranksters shooting fireworks.  The conductor got very flustered as the surrounding booms drowned out the music.  It was pretty fun to watch him get so angry.  He most certainly could have used some of our cheap bubbles to calm down.

We slept in on New Year's Day, and in the afternoon we made a short hour trip to visit The Leaning Tower of Pisa.  Pisa is a nice quiet town that is easy to navigate.  After walking a short distance from the train station the tower came into view, and sure enough it was leaning at a pretty decent angle.    After Aaron took about 300 pictures we found a pizza place for lunch.   Once again we enjoyed an excellent meal.  In the early evening we caught the train back to Florence and just relaxed and played cards in the hostel.  

Yesterday we packed our bags and made our way to Lucca, which is where we are currently.  Florence was a place that we have always wanted to visit, and it certainly met our expectations! Let the good times continue throughout Italy!


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January 02, 2012

A Visit To The Enchanting Venice

Our time in Venice was quite an experience, though we only stayed for two nights. It was better than I'd expected, as it turned out to be a real charming city. I guess that some places you hear about, and it seems like they are probably overrated, or excessively talked up. That is what I figured would be the situation with Venice, which happily turned out to be incorrect.

We arrived into Venice mid-morning on the 27th, tired and grumpy from our previous day's adventures at the Andechs Monastery (see my previous entry). Our trip from Germany included a short flight up to Berlin, a crowded airport to deal with there, and then another flight down to Italy. I didn't know what to expect in Venice, so I was a little apprehensive about arriving there; it was actually quite easy and fun. 

We started out in Venice's small airport, where we bought a 48-hour transit ticket for only €34 each, giving us unlimited transport in the city's vapretto bus-boat service; the pass paid for itself by the next morning. A bus took us across a long bridge to the only place to see vehicles in Venice, the bus station. From there, we had to figure out which boat to take to get out to the little island of Lido, on which I'd booked a hotel. A friendly local helped us with that. Soon we were out on the water, of which there is a lot of. See, I'd always pictured Venice as being this city with small canals, some boats, not a ton of water, sort of like the canal system of Amsterdam. Instead,  Venice is literally built on a large lagoon, with Lido being the breakwater, and multiple islands either linked by boat routes or built into the city by early citizens who built land from water. According to our Lonely Planet guide, there are 117 islands connected by 400 bridges over 150 canals.  However, a few of the islands that make up the more distant parts of Venice (such as Lido) aren't particularly  close and have wide areas of lagoon between them. Even within the center, the main canals are quite wide to accommodate the boat traffic. It is striking how much water is Venice, more than I would have guessed.

To that end, there are no cars in Venice, with the exception of Lido, which is more like a wealthy suburb. Boats of all sizes and shapes ply the waters of the canals, little private boats, the larger tugboats, vaporettos, and water taxis that are the work horses, and of course the man-powered gondolas for tourists willing to part with €60 euros for a short ride (of which there was no shortage that I could see). Out in the larger expanses of water between the islands and the main core of the city, large ferries, transport boats and even some huge cruise ships sailed, sort of like highway traffic; there are all the types of transport that one could find in any city, from bicycles to trucks, only in Venice they are boats.

The vaporettos follow routes like any city bus system, and within a half hour we found ourselves standing on the dock on Lido, impressed at the simplicity of which we'd gotten there. Our hotel was straight up the street from the dock, so we went to check in, and found our little hotel to be quite nice. We dropped off our bags, grabbed a little lunch at a nearby cafe, and headed back to the center. Getting around in Venice is pretty interesting, because unless you've spent a fair amount of time in the city, it is almost certain you'll end up getting lost. Of course, that is mostly the point. Venice is the kind of city where every corner seems turn to another great view, or a plaza you've never seen before, or a street of shops and restaurants to browse through. It seems like there is an endless list of sights to be found there. 

Our first afternoon we spent several hours wandering around, but by late afternoon, we were getting tired, so we headed back across to Lido. Jess wanted to take a nap, so I thought I'd read a little. Jess woke me up about four hours later, after it had already gotten dark. There wasn't much point in going back across to the center, so we found a little restaurant and had dinner before calling it a night.

The next day was one of epic walking. We felt very refreshed after a great night of sleep, so we got an early start. The no. 1 line left from Lido, and went straight down the Grand Canal all the way to the train station, which was our first goal. The trip there was fantastic, as they don't call it the Grand Canal for nothing. All along the route are colorful buildings, beautiful architecture, smaller offshoots of canals, and lots of boats traveling along in what seems to be a chaotic fashion. There are no lanes for the boats to travel in, and the vaporettos zigzag from side to side to their next stops, often heading straight towards another before veering off. It was a bit alarming for us, though it is just part of life for the drivers and the locals, who certainly did not seemed at all alarmed.

At the train station, which is on the north end of the city, we purchased our train tickets to Florence for noon the next day, and then headed south into the center. The walkways of Venice are mostly narrow cobblestones streets, twisting and curving in random ways, crossing the canals over bridges and opening into large plazas lined with shops, cafes and generally a big church with its tower. We started walking on the western side of the city, the opposite side from the Piazza San Marco, which is the main tourist attraction in Venice and around which most of the hotels seemed to be situated. Probably because of it is low season in Italy, there weren't any crowds in this section of the city, and most of the traffic seemed to be locals. We spent several hours wandering from one end of the center down to the other, stopping along the way for a coffee or a gelato in one of the numerous cafes.  It was pretty slow walking, mostly because I had to stop over every canal and at most corners for yet another picture. Jess was patient but had plenty to say about the photo spree, which she always does, though she is always happy to have the pictures later. 

Eventually we arrived to the lower end of the center, crossing over the Grand Canal on the Ponte di Rialto (Rialto Bridge), which is one of the more famous ones. This out us right into the heart of the touristy part of Venice, culminating with the beautiful but massively touristy Piazza San Marco. This large plaza has some very impressive buildings, including a massive cathedral, the Basilica di San Marco, as well as opulently decorated palaces, towers, and other buildings. It is understandable why most of the tourists flock to it, as it is very beautiful,  but Jess and I aren't huge fans of crowds, and low season or not, there were still huge crowds everywhere. The surrounding neighborhood was packed full of high-end shops as well as high-end tourists, and within a half hour or so, we were content for a simple walk-through of the Piazza before aiming for the other side of the Grand Canal again. We jumped back on a vaporetto and escaped the crowds to the "local" side.

From there, we followed the outside of their center, along the lagoon, giving us excellent views of the late afternoon dusk over the water. As the sun slipped over the horizon, we found a little restaurant to have a spritz, a refreshing drink made with a dash of aperol, a fine liquor. We liked the atmosphere of the place enough that we decided we should have dinner there, though Italians have a later schedule than Americans and the place didn't even open its kitchen until 6:30. We went off to stroll around in the meantime, though it had rapidly gotten very cool (though warmer than Germany, it is still on the cold side here, more like a humid cold). The sun had set by then, the downside of traveling in the low season of winter, but the lights reflecting off of the water of the canals was still beautiful, and it was very romantic.

Not wanting to be the typical Americans waiting at the door at 6:30, we waited until 6:40 to go back. They seated us, and we ended up having a typical Italian meal, with a first plate of pasta followed by a second entree plate and then the coffee. We both chose a fish dish for our entree, which tasted fantastic, and seemed like the natural dish to get in a city so surrounded by water. We also had a big scoop of ice cream dunked in coffee for dessert, which was equally as delicious. Even better than the food was the atmosphere, with our crazy waiter who was kind of like a drunken Italian uncle that everyone, even people with no Italian heritage, probably had. He clapped me on the shoulder numerous times and somehow convinced us to really treat ourselves to a great meal, at our own expense of course. He spoke English, but he was prone to shouting ou Italian phrases or just jumbled words, which according to an American who lives in the city and who we met at the bar, was his standard. At the table next to ours was an older couple from Texas who has done a lot of traveling and with whom we enjoyed a long conversation about the places we'd been to. All in all, it was a great dinner.

After dinner, we jumped back on a vaporetto and headed back to Lido. We'd had a long day; according to my pedometer, we'd taken 25,000 steps, which was more than 13 miles. That is difficult to quantify, but I would tend to believe it, we literally walked all day. Needless to say, we were pretty worn out by the time we went to bed. We slept very well, and got up to pack and head on to Florence. We'd planned getting up real early to explore Lido's posh beaches or go to the morning fish market in the center, but in the end, we just had a relaxing morning, eating a leisurely breakfast from the spread provided by our hotel, then checking out and taking a vaporetto to the train station. We found a quiet cafe and had couple of coffees while we waited for our train, and before we knew it, we were on to our next destination. However, Venice set a standard for our time in Italy, which fortunately our other destinations have been able to meet. Still, it was a special place for us.

Until next time, be safe.

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