Tag Archives: playing tourist

Believe it or not: I didn’t get a lick of sunburn

1 May

As mentioned before, the Internet was not a major figure in the story of spring break. A stunningly beautiful apartment, a handful of stray cats, some very tasty meals, driving lessons (looks like I’ll be able to help with the driving, Mom!), a couple of women’s magazines in the hands of utterly baffled men, and a power outage all were though–imagine the fun!

From our patio

Colin, Sean, and I were the first to arrive and had most of Saturday to explore the southern port town of Cagliari, where we arrived by ferry. It was sunny, but chilly in the shade or whenever the wid picked up–it stayed that way for most of the week. Sardegna has a rich and varied history (Garibaldi even stopped here), with Phoenician layers buried under Vandal layers buried under Byzantine layers buried under Roman layers with a scattering of Moorish and Berber history as well. Honestly though, I was there to relax on that beautiful patio and enjoy the view.

It was possible to access the sea by going through our terraced landscaping and then scrambling down a rocky bluff. We didn’t have a sand beach, but the big boulders were suited for reclining and climbing, and we all did a little of both. The water was a beautiful bright blue and not too cold to jump in, but definitely too cold to stay long.

Thish, Adam, Alix, and Andrew down by the water.

Sean and Colin on the rocks

All the beauty in the world could not distract from the fact that there were different expectations among our group of how spring break would go. A few lapses in communication led to a couple uncomfortable situations, beginning with that issue of six single beds for nine people and not a single couch. Ultimately though, it was only a week. No one had their face eaten by the stray cats or got bashed against the rocks when the weather changed and the sea got rough. And I think those conditions will from now on be the criteria by which I judge my vacations.

Some of the flowers that Colin would collect for me when he went on runs, which he continues to do in Bologna!

What “Closed for repairs” means in Italian

14 Apr

or How I got to see both sides of lovely Cinque Terre

Manarola fading into the distance.

A few weekends ago Colin and I took an early morning train to Cinque Terre with a couple of his friends, Leah and Christine. It was hard to make up for lost sleep on the ride because the sun was shining right in my eyes, but that’s really not something to complain about when you’re on your way to the beach.

But wouldn’t you know it, as soon as the train reached the coast, we were enveloped in clouds so low I honestly was afraid there was a fire. We stepped off the train and immediately pulled out scarves and windbreakers and made concerned noises about not having enough clothing, but hey, at least we’re here!

Only the ladies selling admission tickets said that three of the four coastal trails were closed due to bad weather—only the first 20-minute stroll to the second Terre was open. To see the other towns, one could ride the train or hike the trails that go up through the mountains.

With no real options but to press on, we set off on the over-crowded concrete walkway between Riomaggiore and Manarola, Lovers’ Walk. As it name suggests, it was covered with romantic graffiti and locks for enduring love, and I imagine that, had we not been surrounded by so many other people, it would have been quite sweet.

Manarola was as crowded as the trail had been, and we didn’t linger long. We started into the hills to get to Corniglia; mountainous trail was maybe not accurate, but it did get across the right meaning. Conversation came to a halt as we huffed and puffed up the hillside, passing groups of aging Italians who occasionally asked for a lift. After not too long, the path leveled out and became quite pleasant. It led us through olive tree orchards and people’s front yards—we paused briefly to smell what someone else was having for lunch (something with roasted bell peppers).

By the time we arrived in Corniglia, the sun was trying to come out and our tummies were grumbling. We lunched on sandwiches brought from home before grabbing a frozen yogurt and exploring the cute little town. At one point a young American couple approached our group: “Do you know what there is to do in this town?” Dude, you just don’t get it.

The hilly trail to the fourth town looked like more than we were up for, but it looked as though walking along the road was another option. But what should we notice just as we were leaving Corniglia? A handful of people walking on the main trail! We tentatively approached the official-looking men manning the (parking) shack next to the entrance: “Can we go down this way?” They gave us a shrug and a what-do-I-care look and that was all we needed!

The coastal trail was a bit easier and certainly scenic, but I wouldn’t say it was better than the hilly trail. It didn’t take quite as long and it did come with some pretty spectacular views, all the more so since the sun was really out by that time. But I maintain it was actually lucky that the trail was “closed,” (we came across one muddy patch), and we were forced to take the opportunity to see a side that most visitors ignore.

Vernazza, the fourth town, had a fun, beachy vibe with a few shrimping boats at anchor in the tiny harbor. The water was cold, but the short beach was lined with bronzing Italians soaking up the last hours of sun. It was getting to be dinner time, and we were anxious to get to our lodgings for the evening, so we hopped on the train and skipped the last town to go just a bit further north to Moneglia where Colin had found us a great rental apartment.

Moneglia, 30 minutes north of Vernazza, is so charming. It clearly thrives on the Cinque Terre tourist overflow that must be starting even as I type, but when we were there it was just starting to wake up. We grabbed some pizza and vino and dined in the room, nobody feeling quite up for a night out. We took it pretty easy the next day as well, finding a bun and some fruit for breakfast and exploring the little town. The only downside was the weather; like the day before, it was downright chilly all morning. After a lunch of pesto lasagna (we were quite near Genoa, the birthplace of pesto as Americans know it), we headed back to Bologna.

Roma e Sorrento (e Napoli)

8 Apr

We made it to Rome, but not on that pre-dawn train. Even so, we arrived early enough in the day to do the ancient city and even found ourselves checking sights off the list that we hadn’t planned to get to until the next day. Rome is so small and convenient/twisty and you’re never really quite sure what direction you’re heading.

I’d been to Rome once before, remember, so I didn’t really take too many photos. There were a few new things for me (like the Bocca della Verita and the Raphael rooms in the Vatican), and of course it’s always more fun to do things with a friend. I also felt a lot less piggy getting a gelato a day when I wasn’t doing it by myself.

Look out, he bites!

After two and a half days in Rome, we were ready to head south for Sorrento. More train troubles meant we didn’t arrive to the area of our hostel until about 10:30 at night, and we probably wouldn’t have found it at all if it had not been for an older Italian man who was friends with the owner and offered to give us a lift up an incredible hill.

The view from Casale Antonietta in Sorrento

We were a little travel-weary but rallied with a lovely breakfast the next morning and managed to catch a bus headed to Positano, I believe the northernmost town in the Amalfi Coast area.

Mamma mia, what a cute little town! Our friend Kera had recommended we visit it, and I’d say it was easily one of my favorite parts of the trip. It was so nice to be by the sea, and since it was still low season, there wasn’t any competition for space on the sand-rocks. The half-day we spent there was just enough time to relax and recuperate.

Those are some sorry winter feet if I've ever seen some.

The next day was spent in Pompei, and my iPod had just enough battery left for Rick Steves to guide us around the town. Obnoxiously, at 11 a.m. they were out of English maps and booklets, so once Rick Steves was finished, we tried to piece together what information we could from the Spanish (Noel) and Italian (me!) guides.

Pompei definitely came with a few mind-blowing moments. I think top among them was the fast-food industry that was established in the city. Marble countertops with holes for pots of hot food and cool wine; tracks in the doorsill for an accordion-style sliding door; grooves in the sidewalk for attaching an awning. Mind. Blown.

This seems like a nice place to discuss how darn easy it was to get around down south without a car. In the Napoli train station we switched to the Circumvesuviana line, which is somewhere between a regular train system and a light rail system. Ticket prices are reasonable and trains run twice an hour between Napoli and Sorrento, the two terminal stations, and stop everywhere I can imagine a tourist wanting to visit, including Pompei and Erculean (another Vesuvius-preserved town). The staff at the Sorrento station had perfect English and helped us with the bus system, for getting to both our hostel and Positano.

Downtown Sorrento, too darn cute

Anyway, I really liked every part of the Sorrento leg of our journey and am happy I’ll get another chance to visit it again in May. We had a brief time in Napoli before we got on the train back to Bologna. Poor Napoli. It was a bit drizzly (the only bad weather we had on the whole trip), we were carrying all of our stuff and a bit paranoid because the first thing most people say about Napoli is how sketchy it is, and we didn’t even get to eat at the amazing pizzeria because the crowd in front of it was just too darn big. Napoli, I’m sure you’ve got a lot to offer, but you kind of reminded me of a developing country.

Ahh one more thing I need to write down so I don’t forget it. On the train back to Bologna we were in a compartment with the most charming Italian kid I’ve met and her grandmother. The 7-year-old had no DS, PSP, iPod, cellphone–niente–and yet she managed to stay well-behaved and not at all annoying the entire eight-hour journey. About halfway through the trip, her curiosity was enough that she started chatting with us, and in my very broken Italian and with the assistance of a 20something with less-broken English, we shared our story. And then I pulled out Noel’s sudoku book and the girl sat right next to me and wanted to know how to play. One of the other passengers knew the game and explained the basic rules in Italian, but then I was left to try to explain strategy in Italian. Oi. But she got it!

Too much of a good thing

19 Mar

Speaking of diminishing marginal returns, this is a terrible photo of the delicious antipasti at our Bolognese dinner at Il 15 the second night. Tragically, I left almost an entire plate of pasta uneaten. Meal fail.

Noel and I have had a bit of a traveling fail. We need to rewind all the way to Thursday, when we were supposedly on our way to Florence to enjoy the free museums. Well, as Noel’s boyfriend put it when he heard the story: “Florence is so cool it sells out.”

Taking the sold-out morning train as a sign of overwhelming crowds on the Florence end, we opted not to take the slightly later train and to save Florence for another day, as originally planned. Instead we bought tickets for a noon train to nearby Ferrara and power walked back to the main square to catch Bologna’s parade for Unification Day.

I have to say, I wasn’t expecting all the military action, but it was neat to see the flags everywhere. I was almost sorry we were leaving Bologna, actually, because everyone seemed to be in a festive mood and enjoying the sunny morning.

With still a couple hours before the train, we climbed Bologna’s tallest tower. Coming in at a remarkable 97 meters, almost double the height of Pisa’s tower, the Torre Asinelli offers a fantastic view for those able to get up all 498 of the steep, worn wooden steps.

We eventually made our way to Ferrara, only 30 minutes away on the train, and it turns out they were celebrating Unification Day with free entrance to museums too! So we explored their castle (one of the few in Italy with a functioning moat—“functioning” in the sense that there’s still water, not that it keeps out invading enemies). We peeked in their duomo (the first time I’ve been caught touring a church when a service started). We shared a gelato (strawberry and some yummy white chocolate and fudge flavor).

I think every Italian city I’ve visited has felt less claustrophobic than Bologna because they don’t have the portici covering the sidewalks and hiding the sky. I have been grateful on so many occasions for the portici (I think they’re ruining my instinct to grab an umbrella when going out on a rainy day), but it’s a nice change to stroll without them, especially through Ferrara’s many pedestrian-only walkways.

OK but the plan for the next day, yesterday, was to try again for Florence. We didn’t have tickets, but figured if we arrived when the museums opened the lines wouldn’t be too bad. Unfortunately that meant catching a 6:45 train. Well, that didn’t happen. Noel met me in the kitchen at 5:30 looking like an absolute zombie: jetlag had struck again—she’d only slept for two hours. Today was not a day for touring museums.

"I don't trust them."

Venice, however, doesn’t require the intense focus of appreciating Renaissance art, nor does it require as early a start. We left for Venice around 10 and had a lovely sunny day strolling around the canals and listening to Rick Steves.

"I'm on a boat!"

But we should make it a fairly early night, we reasoned; we’ve got Cinque Terre tomorrow. Well…

I wouldn’t be sitting here writing this if we’d made it, but I’m kind of glad I am. I feel a little bad: I’ll have another shot at Cinque Terre before I leave, but Noel definitely won’t. We are both bone-tired already, and that’s not the way we want to start our week in Rome and Sorrento on Monday. I think we need this weekend to regroup a little, rest these weary feet.

We will be leaving for Rome before the sun even comes up on Monday for six days down south—that’s the plan, at least.

Happy 150th anniversary of the unification of Italy!

17 Mar

So here is the skinny since I’m hopping on a train soon. Last night I found out I don’t have to work today, so Noel and I are heading off to Florence. As part of the celebrations, Florence has made all of it’s museums free today! Excellent way to save a few euros or an entire day spent waiting in lines? We shall see.

Walking on water

5 Feb

About as close as I got to a gondola. (They're really expensive.)

Venice struck me as exactly how it looks in the movies, but now that I think about it, I haven’t seen too many movies set in Venice. It’s not how it’s represented in Vegas, that’s for sure, so the picture in my mind must just be from twenty-three years of picking up subtle cultural clues.

My point is, Venice looked precisely how I imagined it would. It was perfect.

Being surrounded by so much water made me bubble over with joy. Colin laughed at me bouncing on my toes and giggling at the boats.

We had blue skies and pleasant temperatures, and since almost no one travels in January, there weren’t even too many tourists to compete with. We didn’t go into any of the museums or churches since I’m planning on visiting again in a couple months with a friend, and I really just wanted to be outside and stroll.

My poor digital camera cannot properly capture the beautiful colors of the marble of St. Mark's Basilica behind me.

Stroll we did, to areas that Venice’s tourists never find. That’s what happens when you have a crowd-averse travel buddy. We found the public gardens and lunched in a trattoria packed wall to wall with construction workers. What was on the menu? Bolognese sauce, of course!

It really is sinking.

We caught the 7 p.m. train back to Bologna with tired feet and one new souvenir to bring home.

O little town of Brez

4 Feb

Winter-tortured vines and the mountains we skied in.

In the town of Brez, in the Dolomite Mountains in northern Italy, there is one bakery, one butcher, one bar, one restaurant, one general store, at least three churches, and one little loft apartment that was ours for the weekend.

Our patio with a view of sprawling Brez.

After coming perilously close to staying in on the night of our arrival, drawn magnetically to the couches by a sizeable movie collection and a big bowl of popcorn, we motivated ourselves out the door to try town’s restaurant, an unexpectedly swank place in which we were nearly underdressed. Colin and I made sure to keep our hiking boots tucked out of sight beneath the tablecloth.

I need to give making my own pasta another try because it is seriously good. It’s hard to believe pasta can be so soft, practically melting on your tongue.

Sunday morning we took off under a beautiful blue sky for some not-so-nearby slopes. The boys agreed we should go to Madonna di Campiglio, the most popular ski park in the area. We rented gear there and split up so Aaron and Leah could do the more advanced runs while Colin hung back with me on the beginner slopes.

Colin Cam

I had only two or three really memorable falls and otherwise had a good time. For the second half of the day, all four of us stuck together, as I was feeling a bit more comfortable going down steeper runs. We got a light dusting of snow up there, and for the first time ever, I saw snowflakes that look like the snowflakes you cut out of paper—perfectly symmetrical six-pointed stars. Around 4:30 the lifts stopped, and we trudged back to the car for the hour-long drive back to Brez, where a lasagna was waiting for us.

We decided against a second day of skiing and snowboarding on Monday because it was just so darn expensive, and instead we drove into nearby Bolzano to explore the heavily German-influenced Italian town and get some strudel. How heavily German-influenced? Signs were in German, then Italian, and the strudel-seller sent us off with a “Danke!”