Monday Travel Memory: Cinque Terre

Hey kids. It’s been awhile. A solid three month absence. Sometimes it’s good to take some distance from stuff, even stuff we love, to come back with better focus and energy. Right? It’s been nice to have some space and not spend so much time at the computer. Sounds like a legit excuse. Maybe nobody even noticed. 

And maybe you did. I know I miss writing on here and sharing bits of our sometimes interesting life. So why the long held breath? This had a little something to do with it:

This is Flinck.

This is Flinck.

Yes, we adopted a tiny puppy from the shelter where I volunteer (Oregon Humane Society). His name is Flinck, in honor of the street we lived on in Amsterdam (Govert Flinckstraat). And, not that I’m biased, he’s the best. 

But back to the topic at hand. As August hit, I realized that I have not been swimming or have even donned a swimsuit this summer. That’s just not right. To me, that’s the quintessential summer experience that I have not had this year. Too many house projects and other commitments have consumed our time. Bummer. Summer bummer.

This had led to some serious reminiscing. About this time last year, we took our summer vacation to Italy. Twelve months and some crazy life changes later, I’m still enchanted. And amazed at just how much Italy has to offer. Oh, Italy. What can I possibly say about you that hasn’t been said before? From your bustling streets in Roma, to the rolling hills of Tuscany, to your seaside luxury in Sorrento, to your decayed elegance in Venice, you truly have it all. And you have more. And on top of all that, you have this glorious little region known as the Cinque Terre.

I know I shared this trip with you before, but it’s fun to look at the pictures with fresh eyes and see the beauty anew. Sometimes I sit here and pinch myself because I cannot believe we were there. While far from a luxurious resort getaway (you lay out on rocks to sunbathe after all), it was the perfect break from reality for my husband and me.

When we arrived, I was instantly smitten with the colorful structures nestled into the rocky cliffs rising from the Ligurian Sea. It was magical. As we walked the narrow “streets” (they can hardly be called streets as barely a moped could squeeze through), you could smell the salty sea and catch whiffs of a grandmother’s sauce on the stove.

Each morning, we would wake up in our tiny room, head out for coffee and fresh fruit, then spend the days alternating between sunbathing on rocks and exploring the twisty streets in each of the five towns. Below are some more pictures that I didn’t include in my original write up. Those initial pictures captured little moments that I felt (at the time) best depicted our experience. Looking back, I realize I didn’t share much of the actual towns or the panoramas that created the wonderful backdrop to all those fried fish cones we devoured. Here you go:

Vernazza

Vernazza

Vernazza

Vernazza

The trail that connects the towns

the trail that connects the towns

Montorosso

Montorosso

Montorosso

Montorosso’s beach scene

Riomaggiore

Riomaggiore

Riomaggiore

Riomaggiore

Kiss!

Kiss! along the trail

sunset from Manarola

sunset from Manarola

Manarola at dusk

Manarola at dusk

happy tree in Corniglia

a happy tree in Corniglia

pretty door in Corniglia

a pretty door in Corniglia

Corniglia

Corniglia

Corniglia

Vernazza

a "street" in Vernazza

a “street” in Vernazza

Negroni & Aperol Spritz for happy hour

Negroni & Aperol Spritz for happy hour

5am quiet

5am quiet in Vernazza

Vernazza at night

Vernazza at night

Our trip to the Cinque Terre was one of my favorite vacations. Ever. These pictures make me want to be back there immediately. August, while brimming with tourists, is still a great time to go. Now if only I could find my bathing suit…

xxx

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Monday Travel Memory: Capri

Capri, Italy

On a bitter, gloomy, cold Monday like today, I so wish I was back here. Isn’t this path breath-taking? We just traveled to Capri in August and this sight was magical. Must go back someday.

Sorry for not posting in awhile. Things are still non-stop for us as we navigate our lives stateside.

xxx

Road trip: Italian Escapades

It’s no secret that we love Italy. Having been there four times in the past two years might be a non-subtle clue. Everything from the landscape, to the food, to the culture is just a breath of fresh air, especially after cringing through three nights in Switzerland. We had originally (as in two days prior) been thinking about zooming through Italy to Croatia and Slovenia, but then checked ourselves. How could we drive right past Verona and Venice?

Getting through the mountains (driving stick – go me!) took way longer than we thought so we didn’t cross the border until sunset. Grabbing the trusty old GPS, we punched in “campsites near Verona” and hoped for the best. It ended up being a fantastic surprise! We arrived after the office closed, but the night guard was ready for us (thanks to calling ahead) and as we pulled up, he said, “Zijn jullie Nederlanders?” He was Dutch! Since our phone has a Dutch number and our license plate too, he assumed we were Dutch. Close enough. 😉 It was so comforting and pleasant to talk with him about life in Holland and how he decided to move to Italy (jealous).

We spent the next morning in Verona and what a cutie town. They have adorable shopping streets & markets and just general Italian loveliness. It’s also the setting for Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet, so there is a romantical quality as well. Felt it. We had heard that if you love Italy, but don’t need blockbuster sights, then Verona is a great fit. It was.

Unfortunately, since it is a small town and I knew Venice was a mere hour away, my anxiety kicked in and we scrambled over to check out our next destination. Sidenote: I read somewhere recently that Midwesterners (that’s me) often use driving time to measure distance between two places. {i.e. How far away is that city? Oh, about an hour.} I think it’s true! Anyway, we got to a VERY nice campsite (seriously, spa-quality bathrooms), got all our stuff set up and took a public bus into the city. Hey, when you are traveling on a dime, that doesn’t bother you at all. In fact, you feel more like you are having a local experience than if you just pull up in a taxi or park in the garage on the island. So we got to the island, started walking down a street and IMMEDIATELY were lost. Within a few minutes. It must have been some kind of record. Couldn’t even figure out where we were on a map. It’s so disorienting, but also awesome. All the little streets, lined with crumbling, chipped-paint facades, twist and wind over and under each other and those teeny canals. Elegant decay, indeed. And no cars, of course. Some of the streets were as wide as my body.

I have to harp on Venice, however. While I loved sipping wine at Al Merca and Aperol spritz along the Grand Canal, enjoyed hearty ragu at a tiny candle-lit bistro and noticed the canals do not smell like I was warned… there was a certain inauthenticity to it. From what I saw in the two days we spent there, the entire city catered to tourists. Every street had a heavy current of visitors navigating through. Huge signs point you to SAINT MARK’S SQUARE ==>. (Got it.) Every menu had 10 language translations, even those we “discovered” without the aid of a guidebook. So. I need to go back and explore the far corners for something that feels legit. You get where I’m coming from, right? Travel is supposed to take us out of our comfort zones, even just a little bit. Isn’t that the point? Maybe I’m becoming desensitized to it, but THAT is a discussion for another day.

We happened to celebrate our five year dating anniversary there. Our “date-iversary” if you will. (Yeah, we still do that even though we’re married, roll your eyes.) It was a little coincidental because our first date was at Carmine’s, an Italian restaurant in Chicago. I mean… it was fate.

Anyway, here are some pics:

Up next: Northern Croatia

xxx

Summer vacation: Italy’s Campania Region

After 2 whirlwind days in Rome and 5 ultra relaxing days in Cinque Terre, we headed down the coast to Sorrento, where we stayed for a full week! Isn’t it lovely?

But first, let’s talk about the ride down real quick, shall we? Those of you that follow me (I love you), know that I had some train ticket issues in Eastern Europe. Specifically, I bought them in advance when I shouldn’t have. Well guess what? My own advice about not doing that again bit me in the ass. We waited until we were in La Spezia (the major-ish station outside the Cinque Terre) on a Wednesday and requested overnight tickets to Naples for the following Sunday. Lo and behold – it was sold out. Crapola. We ended up having to stay an extra night in Vernazza (happy face) and took a day train (frown face) from La Spezia to Naples via a transfer in Rome. The plus side is that we got to take in the gorgeous Italian countryside. It was pretty. The down side is that we arrived in Sorrento much later than planned.

But, we made it. Stayed in a shack of an apartment, but that’ll make for good stories when we’re older. From Sorrento, we were able to easily visit Capri, Positano and Amalfi. Here is a brief run down of things we did:

Hung out on the beach piers in Sorrento (36 Euro for the day – steep!):

…Bought some handmade (on the spot!) sandals in Sorrento:

…Roamed around the island of Capri and took in the gorgeous views:

(Even jumped off some rocks. This was an achievement for me)

…And, of course, we checked out the Blue Grotto:

Traveler Tip: The Blue Grotto is cool, worth seeing if you are on Capri even for a day. It is a hilarious spectacle… You have to lay down in the row boat and the guide lays on top of you and yanks you in through the small opening with a chain! I suggest going very first thing in the morning to avoid the cruise ship crowds that arrive around 10. Also, bring cash. We forgot (!) and had to buy a tacky souvenir w/ an overcharge from the nearby stand and I don’t know if the seller will be that friendly again.

…We also repeatedly took the scary, yet beautiful bus ride to the Amalfi Coast:

…Visited Amalfi (only for half a day):

…And Positano (my favorite, went here twice):

Throughout the week, we drank about a million of these:

granita di limone

Overall, we had a really great time in this region too. For our last night, we splurged and stayed in a fancy seaside hotel and enjoyed the rooftop pool (& bar) all day. That was a great way to end the week and prepare for a long day of travel ahead. Some things we learned from our time there:

– Sorrento is very much a cosmopolitan city. It felt urban (and touristic) and only had a speck of sand; the waterfront is mostly piers. Positano is a beautiful village built vertically into a cliff with a nice beach. Don’t go there if you don’t like to walk. Much of it is sharp inclines or stairs. Amalfi didn’t have anything that these other two didn’t, so don’t bother if you are short on time.

– Logistically, getting to Sorrento from Naples is very easy, there is a metro that runs straight there. Getting to the Amalfi Coast is a little more tricky. You can either take a relaxing (expensive) ferry ride or a equally scenic (but nauseating) bus ride. I tend to get car sick (yes, I’m a child), so these long, crowded, hot, wobbly bus rides were torturous. Jaro didn’t mind them at all though.

– We had a similar food experience as we did in Rome: a lot of tourist menus slash likely non-homemade food. We still enjoyed it, lots of pasta and seafood, so really how much can I complain. Our favorite spot, Inn Bufalito in Sorrento, was so DELISH that we ate there twice. Definitely seemed homemade to me and if it wasn’t, good trick. Nothing else was quite memorable, anything with an outdoor patio was good enough for us.

We came home relaxed, tan and most weirdly, ready. We were ready to come home. It was a great feeling.

That’s all, folks. Hope you enjoyed reading about our summer vacation.

xxx

Summer vacation: Italy’s Cinque Terre

I have to admit, I hadn’t heard of this area until we moved to Europe. One has to ask HOW. I mean just look at it:

That’s Vernazza, the little village where we stayed for 5 nights. There are 5 little seaside, somewhat-remote towns (try a Google Maps search – nothing!) along the Ligurian Sea that make up this area of the Italian Riviera: Riomaggiore, Manarola, Corniglia, Vernazza and Monterosso.

We spent our days swimming in the warm sea:

…Hiking between towns on the scenic coastline trail:

Scenery along the trail outside of Vernazza

More bougainvillea in Corniglia

I’m sorry, but doesn’t this next one remind you of the NaPali Coast in Kauai?

Cinque Terre, Italy. Summer 2012.

For comparison (how awesomely similar are these photos?!):

NaPali Coast, Kauai. Spring 2008. (Our first vacation together!)

…Eating fresh seafood and my favorite dish – trofie with pesto (this is the region where pesto originated – heaven!). Our favorite afternoon snack was a tasty indulgence of Italian beers and fried fish cones from the little shops on Vernazza’s main drag:

Can’t even tell you how many of those we had. Filled with calamari, anchovies (local delicacy), shrimp, cod and some veggies, those things were a real delight.

…Laying on rocks and soaking up the sun:

…Enjoying some lovely sunsets:

Sunset & dinner in Manarola

SIGH. I think it’s pretty obvious that we were in love with this place. It was enchanting. Some tips for visiting that we learned:

– Coming from Rome, the food scene here was much different. While not the most beautiful presentation and slightly over-priced, it was some of the best seafood and pasta that I’ve had in a long time. The pasta, especially my trofie mentioned above, was unmistakably homemade with a lumpy, doughy texture. It was the best. And the house wine – don’t scoff, get it! The local vines are great. Here are some of the amazing places we ate at and we recommend all of them:

Ristorante Marina Piccola, Manarola

Belforte, Vernazza

Gambero Rosso, Vernazza

– Logistically, be prepared for how much effort is required to enjoy this wonderland. It’s difficult to get there, takes over 4 hours from Rome, and multiple train connections.  I wouldn’t travel in from there again, I’d fly in closer like to Pisa or Genova. And once you’re there, it’s not quite glamorous or accommodating as you would think…

– There are a ZILLION day trippers. People hop from one town to the next on huge ferries and knock ’em all out in a day. They don’t have time to lay out or swim, but they are packing the streets, creating long lines at the gelato stand. Don’t worry, those ferries stop running around 6 and you get to enjoy less crowds in the evenings.

– For sunbathing, you have to climb out on rocks and throw towels down. Everyone else is doing it, so shut up and figure it out. Unless you stay in Monterosso, where they have a beach (lame:).

– For swimming, it’s either very rocky (cut my feet several times, yuck) or wayyyy over your head. I didn’t mind the latter since the water was some of the clearest I’ve ever seen.

– To stay, I’d recommend Vernazza, Corniglia, or Manarola. Monterosso was very resort-y (not what we were going for) and Riomaggiore was not very vacation-y at all (more locals, not many restaurants, not a great swimming area).

– For being connected to the outside world, forget it. We didn’t bother to hunt down cafes with wi-fi; it was nice to disconnect.

Seriously folks, it was such a relaxing vacation. Words really can’t do it justice. And this was only our first week. More on week two in Sorrento, Capri and the Amalfi Coast coming soon.

xxx

Roman “Holiday”

I have to divide this post up into multiple parts for a very specific reason. You see, all year all our trips were trips. Not vacations. What’s the difference? Well let me tell you. A trip, in my mind, is a visit to a place where the focus is to explore, learn, and most definitively, get as much out of a place as we can. A vacation, on the other hand, is a visit to a place to relax. That’s it. No other purpose. If sight-seeing happens anyway, so be it, but that is not the intention.

Therefore, the two very fast and full days we spent in Rome were a trip (literally and figuratively, hah). We RAN through the city, saw everything that we possibly could, and were spent. A quick breakdown:

Day 1: Arrived, found apartment, and booked it to the Colosseum, Forum, Trevi Fountain, Pantheon and Spanish Steps. All on our feet. In stifling 35 degree weather. While all of this was fascinating and really cool neat, in the oppressive heat it became a check-the-box day of attractions. I was constantly drinking water (thank God for those free fountains all over the city), yet still thirsty. I think living in mild Amsterdam has made me a wimp in hot, hot heat. While very glad to have seen such incredible places full of rich history, at the time I could barely stand and just wanted A/C. Which, conveniently doesn’t exist in Rome as our apartment had no A/C and neither did any of the restaurants we ate at. Hmm… At least it cooled off slightly when the sun went down. After an unmemorable dinner near the Spanish Steps, we even got to enjoy a free opera singing performance there! So nice. But then we got lost trying to get home. Then I broke my sandal. And then we hailed a taxi.

Day 2: Took a public bus to Vatican City. Holy crap. Pun intended. (!) What a magnificent place. Regardless of your religious orientation, it’s an amazing place to see. We toured the 11 (!!) museums, craned our necks in the Sistine Chapel and saw the light (as you’ll see below) in St. Peter’s Basilica. We even climbed the huge dome to take in the lovely views of Rome. (As you can imagine, that nearly killed me.) We spent the entire day there. Although we bought time slot tickets in advance, it didn’t seem necessary, shockingly. Unless I blacked out as we passed a huge line to get into the museum (which very well could have happened), we strolled right up to the counter to enter. And despite a huge line to get in St. Pete’s later that afternoon, metal detector inspection and all, it moved really fast. It was surprisingly painless given the massive crowds of tourists and it being hotter than hell. Oops, pun NOT intended! Anywho, it was an incredible day.

Some first impressions about Rome (keep in mind, I was deranged from the heat and this might not be how it actually is at all):

1. The food was “okay.” I know, this is shocking. I mean, it’s Italy! One of my favorite cuisines! Rick Steve’s suggestions seemed to have sold out and become too generic, so we skipped those. And maybe we just wandered into places that were too touristic, too generic, too… microwaved, but there was something about it which didn’t seem very authentic. I wanted that grandma-in-the-kitchen, homemade taste and I didn’t get it. Maybe it’s because Tuscan food (the only other area of Italy I had traveled to til this point) is that much better? I didn’t know. More on this in upcoming posts about the rest of our Italian getaway.

2. People were friendly, but in that I’m-being-nice-to-you-because-I-have-to-since-you-are-a-tourist way. I had a similar feeling in Prague. There is no real intimacy or feeling of an authentic experience. Everyone is a freaking tourist. Everyone speaks English. I’d rather suffer through my terrible Italian than resort to English! In conclusion, I think these places deserve a little more time so you can escape the tourist funnel, get away from the center, and find legit non-touristy areas for that local experience I crave. We just didn’t have the time.

3. Scenery was gorgeous. Italy is very quickly becoming my favorite holiday destination. I love the twisty streets. The paint-chipped facades. And the cool thing about Rome is that you can be walking on a normal street and – bam – there is the Pantheon. Very beautiful mix of old and new.

4. I want to go back. Just not in August.

More on the actual vacation part of this trip coming soon.

xxx