Day 7 (September 20, 2013) [continued]: I was especially excited for Ghent as I had read fabulous things in advance of going — and I was not disappointed. It turned out to be my favorite city of the trip! We arrived at our hotel on Hoogstraat, the Grand Hotel Reylof, in the late afternoon. The hotel surpassed all expectations, especially given how reasonably priced it was. It was very “classic” meets “modern.” They provided complimentary bathrobes and slippers, which is my silly of test for a nice hotel. We settled in and familiarized ourselves with the hotel and explored the pool, fitness center, sauna, library, restaurant, etc.)
After exploring the hotel, we headed out to wander around our new locale. SO picturesque!! We walked by the Graslei and Korenlei (channels), over St. Michael’s Bridge and even checked out het groot vleeshuis, a medival butchers market.
Hungry from all the walking, we split a bite to eat (+ beer, of course). We had a table in the sun which was very nice since it was a beautiful day, and warmer than it had been elsewhere. After we ate, we stopped by Gravensteen castle, but tours had ended for the day, so we made a mental note to re-visit. The castle looked like it was straight from the middle ages — or a fairytale (except that inside is a museum with various torture devices historically used in Ghent — not very fairytale-ish)!
After so much exploring, we figured it was time for more beer, so we headed to a crazy hole-in-the-wall home/bar, café ‘t velootje, that Rob really wanted to visit after reading about it online. We almost couldn’t find it because it was really just a random door into a residential looking place… this is what was inside:
The owner was a bit insane (or plays the part well), but a fun character. In order to make room for us he took his arm to sweep just enough laundry off of a bench to make room for us. His cat (Duval) quickly joined us and we became fast friends. Definitely an experience to remember… though I rather wish I could forget the bathroom in that place (not surprisingly = ew). Tired from walking all day, we grabbed some pizza at Pizza Roma to take back to our hotel. We also stopped at a bottle shop for some brews. The store clerk turned away two girls in front of us because they were paying with a 50euro bill… and then proceeded to accept our 100euro bill for our beer. He went on a tangent for about 10 minutes about “life lessons” and how “sometimes you say yes and sometimes you say no.” We headed back to our comfy hotel to end the day with dinner and a movie.
Day 8 (September 21, 2013): A full day in Ghent! One of the best attributes of the Grand Hotel Reylof was the complimentary breakfast. They served quite a feast with — all sorts of breads and pastries, with delicious spreads (including banana chocolate and caramel apple), fresh juices, breakfast meats, pancakes, eggs, etc. After stuffing our faces with “free” food, we went back to our room to digest before taking advantage of the fitness center. Once showered, we headed into town to tour the Gravensteen Castle, which was built by the Knights of Templar. We toured the nooks and crannies of the castle, took in the torture exhibits (not my fave, but interesting nonetheless) and enjoyed a great view of the city from the highest points of the castle.
And then I sat on a throne.
After we finished touring the castle, we headed back to the hotel to swap out our camera’s memory card (which was, not surprisingly, full of castle-y pictures). After that quick pit stop, we walked around Ghent a bit more before heading to the Ghent belfry, which dates back to 1425! We climbed to the very top and were rewarded with this view:
As the day wound down, we stopped for a late dinner, al fresco, at a charming restaurant along the graselei. This was the view from our table:
Dinner was great – we shared a salad, a monsieur croque and desserts – but, the company was even better.
I had read before our visit that “you haven’t seen ghent until you’ve seen it at night” and I couldn’t agree more. So beautiful!
Then, home again, home again – jiggity jig.
The adventure did not stop though as the electricity went out in virtually the entire city later that evening, including at our hotel. Fortunately, the staff was very accommodating and provided plenty of light-alternatives.
Day 9 (September 22, 2013): Our last morning in Ghent. A sad morning indeed. We enjoyed another breakfast feast, compliments of the hotel, then packed up. Fortunately, we were off to another great city — Bruges (which turned out to be my second favorite city of the trip).
Day 6 (September 19, 2013) [continued]: We left Utrecht, Netherlands and headed to Antwerpen, Belgium. We stayed at another airbnb apartment in Antwerpen on Keizerstraat. Worst airbnb experience ever! The apartment was clean and deceivingly cute, but we had so many issues during our short stay there. When we got there, the place was freezing because the heat had been turned off. Unfortunately, the heating system was not self-explanatory and, in fact, hidden behind a panel in the wall behind the toilet in the bathroom (say what?). Also, the apartment layout was so poorly planned that there were doors, cupboards, etc. that literally could not open because something was built in the way. Totally drove Rob and I crazy given our somewhat OCD/perfectionist tendencies. We also tried to do laundry (which we had successfully done in the past), but the washer would not drain any water — it would just fill with water and then water would cascade down the front of the machine like a decorative waterfall disguised as a washing machine. Last, but not least, there was one very pesky mosquito in the bedroom, which was not fun when it came time for sleeping! Once we were sufficiently settled in, we headed out to explore. First on the itinerary was Grote Markt (“Great Market Square”) situated in the heart of the old city quarter of Antwerpen. Here is a picture of city hall on one side of the square.
As you can see, we didn’t have ideal weather, but it was beautiful all the same. Also, there was some random performance by a Japanese star — thus the chairs to the right. We also enjoyed the view of Onze-Lieve-Vrouwekathedraal (“Cathedral of our Lady), the ornate gothic cathedral also located at the square.
After exploring around the square, we headed to Paeters Vaetje, a timber-lined pub just below the cathedral with more than 100 beers to choose from. We had a bite to eat and a few rounds of brews (I had a Troubadour blond and a Grimbergen).
Day 7 (September 20, 2013): After a lot of back and forth with the host, we were able to get the heat working in the morning, which meant we could finally take luke-warm showers. Yay? In need of morale improvement, we headed out for a renowned Belgian breakfast (/dessert)– belgian waffles! We ate at Queen of Waffles and were not disappointed. YUM.
After breakfast, we stopped by a Belgian chocolate shop (more yum, to-go) we re-visited the Grote Markt, enjoying much better weather than the evening before.
Then we headed back to pack up the apartment. Can’t say we were sad to leave that place.
Next stop, Ghent!
Day 5 (September 18, 2013) [continued]: After picking up our rental car, we set out for Utrecht. Because the rental was a stick shift, I drove. My first time driving in a foreign country! It was interesting to see how, on a four-lane highway, all the cars stayed in the two right lanes only occasionally passing in the third most right lane with almost no one ever bothering with the left lane. It was so organized — and nice! Once we got to Utrecht, we dropped our bags off at our next airbnb place (on Lepelaarstraat) and then successfully searched for some free parking. We walked to the Dom Tower, but had missed the last tour for the day so decided to walk around for a bit. We were getting a bit hungry, so we stopped in an courtyard for some frites from a small stand. In the Netherlands, they top their fries with all sorts of toppings. At the recommendation of the stand-owner, we ordered frites topped with peanut sauce, may and onions. It sounded kind of gross, but ended up being delicious (especially surprising because I really don’t like may or raw onions).
Next, we went in search of Oudaen, a bar/restaurant in an old castle, which Rob wanted to see. We got a table and ordered some appetizers and beers for dinner.
Once it was getting dark outside, we went on a light tour of the city (trajectum lumen), which uses your phone’s GPS to track where you are and which interacts with an iPhone app which told you about the different light displays.
Day 6 (September 19, 2013): The next day, we packed up the car then walked to the center of Utrecht to take a tour of the Dom Tower. We bought our tickets in advanced and had just enough time to squeeze in a quick lunch. It was by far the fastest sit-down meal I have ever had in Europe. Before we left Utrecht, we took a tour of the Dom Tower. The views from the top were great, and the tour was very informative (and great exercise, climbing all of those stairs)!
Next stop: Belgium!
This may be a year and a half overdue, but I stumbled upon some notes from our trip to the Netherlands and Belgium in September 2013 and wanted to organize them here for future reference.
Day 1 (September 14, 2013): We had left Philadelphia at 6:35pm on September 13, and arrived in Brussels around noon on the 14th. From Brussels, we took a local train to Antwerpen, then a high speed train (Thalys) from Antwerpen Central to Amsterdam. Talk about a long day+ of travel. We arrived at our airbnb apartment (the Crow’s nest on Van Noordstraat) in the evening. It was a small, but very clean studio on located on Van Noordstraat on the “third floor” (what Americans would consider the fourth floor). The apartment was conveniently situated above a low-key bar/restaurant, Café de Walvis, which was very convenient for an easy dinner.
Day 2 (September 15, 2013): After 13+ hours of sleep following our exhausting day+ of travel, we were ready to explore. First stop was to visit the location of the big IKEA Amsterdam print we have. We were able to track down the location of the photo (along the Herengracht canal) via the handy-dandy internet. At first there was a man sitting on the bench there who must’ve been wondering why the heck we were taking pictures of him, but we ended up roping him into taking our picture for us. We now have our photo tucked in the bottom right corner of the IKEA print in our dining room.
After snapping a number of pictures, we grabbed a slice of apple pie at a restaurant across the street and soaked in the view a bit longer.
Next, we explored the Prisengracht, which is one of the three major canals that shape Amsterdam, and the boutiques and restaurants that line the Prisengracht. In addition, we walked around the Jordaan neighborhood, which is like Amsterdam’s Greenwich Village, with narrow alleys, leafy canals lined with 17th-century houses, quirky speciality shops, cafes, and more. We were planning to visit the Anne Frank House, but, after checking out the long queue to get in, decided to book tickets instead and visit another day. Our last adventure of the day was a visit to the Reypenaer Cheese tasting rooms. We learned about and tasted some of the finest Dutch cheeses, which were paired with different wines. The cheese was so tasty, we couldn’t help but buy some for breakfasts in our flat.
Day 3 (September 16, 2013): After a leisure morning and breakfast in, complete with mimosas, we walked a few miles to Mike’s Bike Tours on Kerkstraat where we were happy to trade in our walking shoes for a pair of wheels. In Amsterdam, bicycles essentially have the right-of-way at all times and in all scenarios, so it is, by far, the best way to travel. We took our new bikes to the Van Gogh museum (we got e-tickets in advance to avoid any queue) and explored all the museum had to offer. I thought it was really neat how the lay-out of the art followed the timeline of Van Gogh’s life and you could see how different experiences and circumstances in his life were reflected in his artwork over time.
Next, we headed to Vondelpark and rode around for a bit, exploring the park.
We stopped at a pop-up cafe in the park for an afternoon snack and a delicious drink (prosecco, vodka and lime sorbet – yum). After a few hours of biking, we rode back to our apartment for a nice siesta and to catch up on some emails and trip planning. Later, we hopped on our bikes to head to a restaurant near the Prisengracht, but it started raining, so we decided it would be easier to go to the restaurant downstairs instead (Café de Walvis). I had lifeman’s fruit beer for the first time, which basically tasted like juice (or Fruli). For dinner, we shared an assortment of nachos, pumpkin soup, pumpkin ravioli and salad.
Day 4 (September 17, 2013): In the morning we rode our bikes to grab a slice of apple pie and some mint tea (the two most popular items on the menu at Winkel’s. We then headed to Openbare Bibliotheek (Amsterdam’s Central Library). It’s a neat building and atmosphere with a cafe on the top floor and views of Amsterdam. We also checked out the Concertgebouw, which is a historic concert hall known for outstanding acoustics. I wanted to see a performance there, but, unfortunately, we weren’t able to squeeze one in. We also stopped by Tuchinski theater, which is Amsterdam’s most famous theater for cinema. The theater was built in 1921 as a “movie palace” in art deco style.
Next, we toured the Ann Frank House (Anne Frankhuis). The tour was really neat. We got to see the hiding place where Anne Frank wrote her diary during World War II. For more than two years, Anne Frank lived secretively with the other people hiding in the back of her father’s office building along the Prisengracht:
Last but not least, we had to fit in time for a slice of apple pie at Winkels near the Prisengracht. Apple pie is a big deal in Amsterdam, and Winkels is known for some of the best apple pie in town.
Day 5 (September 18, 2013): Our last day in Amsterdam, we went to the Pancake Bakery for brunch. I had an apple cinnamon pancake with whipped cream and cinnamon ice cream and Rob had a chocolate banana pancake. They were almost like crepes because they were more thin, but they were huge and delicious.
Before we left Amsterdam, we tracked down a Christmas tree ornament from Amsterdam to add to our growing collection of ornaments from places we’ve visited. We then dropped off our bikes, picked up our rental car, loaded up and headed off to our next destination: Utrecht.
I have taken so long getting around to this post that it has now been 6 months since Rob and I were in Rome, Italy. That being said, many of the little details I intended to capture in my post about Rome now elude me, so I’ve had to review my photos and piece our days back together. Fortunately, we have plenty of photo evidence showing what we did/saw/ate each day! Here goes:
Roma day 1:
We arrived in Termini station (the public transit hub) in Rome mid-afternoon on Monday, October 8 after a long morning of travel from Positano. After grabbing a slice of pizza at a counter (which totally reminded me a of a case from law school), we hopped on a local metro line from Termini to our new digs in San Pietro (very close to the Vatican). There was a miscommunication with the apartment owner, Luca, about our arrival time, but he let us in shortly after arrival. Another Airbnb success!
After settling into our new place, we walked around the neighborhood a bit and were happy to find a terrific supermarket right across the street and an awesome little restaurant down the street that had cases of mini desserts (yessss!). There was also a restaurant located downstairs which is where we decided to eat. Pizza and some amazing lasagna… and of course drinks.
Roma day 2:
Our first full day in Rome was just that… full! There is so much to see in Rome it can be overwhelming, but the Colosseum was an obvious place to start. On our walk to the nearby metro stop, waiting to cross a street, an Italian guy turned to me and started spouting off a few sentences in Italian. I responded with an “inglese, sorry”… to which he responded (in English), “sorry, you seem Italian!” Needless to say, I took that as a huge compliment! Totally proud of my blending-in abilities. :o)
We took the metro to the Colosseo stop and proceeded to inundate ourselves with ancient ruins. You can see the Colosseum as soon as you exit the metro stop (it’s literally across the street and huge. It’s so strange to think that many Italians pass these ancient ruins daily and probably don’t bat an eye. We headed first to the Roman Forum (or intended to), but got a bit turned around and ended up in the Bascilica di Santa Maria Nova, which was a neat church we wandered into. We then continued to gawk at the Arch of Constantine and then spent hours wandering through the Roman Forum. The Roman Forum was not my favorite. Although you can get a sliver of what amazing structures must have existed in the area at one point, very little is still in tact, so it takes quite an imagination (something which I generally lack). Definitely worth seeing, but also definitely not my favorite site. We then proceeded to the Colosseum. On the way there, we saw one of the funniest sites of the trip. Everywhere throughout Rome there are street vendors illegally selling their wares. Think, Prada and Louis Vuitton knock-offs being sold in NYC. The vendors either carried their wares, or had a very simple display set up (for instance, a sheet laid out with jewelry thereon). Whenever the “polizia” would come near, you would see dozens of vendors grab their wares and book it like their life depended on it (and maybe it did, because the police would confiscate the wares). It was seriously one of the funniest things! Maybe you had to be there…
Anyway, back to the Colosseum. In my opinion, the Colosseum was much more magnificent than the Roman Forum. Granted, it’s much more in tact, so it takes less imagination to picture it in all of its glory, which may well have been the reason. We also picked up an audio tour (literally an ipod with headphones) and it was fun to hear about some of the history while walking through.
By the time we got through the Colosseum we were super hungry and tired. We grabbed a bite on our way back to the apartment and took a much deserved nap. We awoke a few hours later, refreshed, and ready for a bit more exploring.
First stop, Piazza di Spagna to see the Spanish Steps. It was dark by the time we arrived, but the piazza and steps were well lit and it was a beautiful evening. So romantic! A partner from my firm (who grew up in Italy and visits every year) recommended Ristorante Caffe Ciampini as a great place for an aperitif (pre-dinner drink) located near the top of the Spanish Steps. It was perfect, and we basically had the whole place to ourselves!
After drinks and a few complimentary snacks, we made our way to the Trevi Fountain — which I was even more excited to see than the Spanish Steps! I was so excited I forgot to make a wish the first time I threw in a coin! I remembered the second time around!
We ended our day with some late dinner (pizza obviously), and headed back to our place in San Pietro.
Roma day 3:
The next morning on our way to the metro, we were pleasantly surprised with a bunch of vendors set up on our street selling all sorts of wares. From flowers, to clothing, there were all sorts of items to peruse. We did some browsing on our way to catch the metro back to the Trevi Fountain. We wanted to check it out during the day to snap a few more pics (and toss in a few more coins)! Next on the list was Trajan’s column followed by the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and then the Pantheon. The Pantheon is one of the best-preserved of all Roman buildings and really quite magnificent.
We headed to Piazza Navona and checked out the Four Rivers Fountain and scoped out a place for lunch. We settled on Tre Scalini, a fancy little restaurant right on the piazza and the home of the Tartufo! Delish – and a great view of the piazza!
After lunch, we headed to Campo de’ Fiori. We made it just as they were tearing down the market and it seemed like a bit of a mess (not especially impressed, but it could’ve just been our timing). We spent the rest of the afternoon wandering around Rome seeing various sites, including the Theater of Marcellus and Piazza del Campidoglio. We called it a day a bit early and grabbed pizza and an impressive sampling of mini desserts to take back to the apartment where we caught up on some Downton Abbey (which streamed from an external hard drive connected to our network back home in the states). Oh the wonders of technology!
Roma day 4:
Day 4 was Vatican City day. If you’re not familiar with Vatican City, it a walled enclave within Rome with an area of approximately 110 acres and a population of just over 800. It is the smallest internationally recognized independent state in the world. Vatican City was a 5 minute walk from where we were staying, though there are only a few exists/entrances through its big wall, so to get inside took closer to 10 minutes. Our first stop was St. Peter’s Square where the Pope often addresses the masses and where thousands recently gathered for Pope Francis’ inauguration. It’s so cool to see St. Peter’s Square and think – “Hey, I’ve been there!”
We got to St. Peter’s Square just in time for a Roman Catholic Mass. We took it all in for a bit and then our practical sides got the better of us (i.e., if everyone’s at Mass, now would be a perfect time to get into the museums)! We grabbed some sandwiches to eat on the go (which we ate while walking around to the museum) and got into the Vatican Museums without any wait (unless you count waiting for ourselves to finish the sandwiches we just bought) and made our way through some of the greatest museums in the world, displaying works from the immense collection built up by the Roman Catholic Church throughout the centuries.
As we worked our way through the museums, each wall, ceiling and statue seemed to be more beautiful than the last. However, the closer we got to the Sistine Chapel, the more packed it got. After a few hours of wandering through the huge halls and various rooms and collections, we made it to the the Sistine Chapel — famous for its architecture and its decoration that was frescoed throughout by Renaissance artists, including a magnificent ceiling by Michelangelo! Although pictures are not allowed in the Sistine Chapel, that does not seem to stop anyone. There are at least 10 guards incessantly scolding people and making them put their cameras away, but you must consider that the chapel itself is generally so packed that each side of you is touching (or almost touching) a different person. For the most part, it would take a few minutes for a guard to even reach you! I may or may not have snapped this pic while taking it all in.
Although the ceiling was beautiful and definitely worth seeing, it was really high, so I think I’d bring binoculars if I visited again. Also, I was very unimpressed with the amount of people in the chapel at once. It was one of the few times in my life where I thought… add a sense of urgency (fire, gun shot, etc…) and this is totally how people get trampled. Irreverent? Perhaps, but I felt a bit like sardines stuffed in a can.
After we made our way through the chapel, we finished our tour of the museums and, pretty exhausted, grabbed some gelato outside of the walls of Vatican City.
St. Peter’s Square – check, Vatican museums – check. It was time for St. Peter’s Bascilica. We re-entered Vatican City, a bit more tired than earlier, but not about to miss a tour of St. Peter’s Basicilica. And then we saw it… the line for the church wrapped almost the entire perimeter of St. Peter’s Square, and not a single file line by any means. Meanwhile, we were standing right near the entrance to the Bascilica (while assessing the ridiculousness of the line) and it did not seem anyone was really paying attention to who was in line and who wasn’t. SO, we may have accidentally/on purpose ended up in line right at the entrance and saved ourselves about four hours. Oops?
We made our way through the beautiful church and then climbed the stairs (the many, many stairs) to the dome of the church where we had a magnificent view of Vatican City and beyond.
Having seen as much of Vatican City as possible in an afternoon, we walked the several blocks “home” and, in typical European style, took a late afternoon nap (OK, so ours was more like early evening, but still…). We got back up in time for a late (in the US)/early (in Europe) dinner. Our LAST dinner in Italy… there was no doubt about what we were getting. Pizza and wine!
Leaving Roma day 5:
By our last day abroad, Rob was pretty ready to head back to the states where things are “easier.” Me, well, I was ready to explore eat pizza, learn italian and take in all the sites for weeks more! The one consolation of packing up and heading to the airport was that we were flying FIRST CLASS the whole way home, thanks to http://www.extrapackofpeanuts.com !
The first leg of our journey home was from Rome to Madrid. A quick flight and we made it to Rome for a few hour layover. Because we were flying first class, we had free access to the airline’s lounge in Madrid. It was seriously baller. There was an open bar, free food and even all sorts of alcohol, drinks and food to go. We may or may not have grabbed a few mini bottles of champagne and a few sodas for the road (or air, rather).
The second leg of our journey was absolutely ridiculous, in a good way. We were seated in first class in seats that could lay completely horizontal, like a bed, for your resting pleasure, with individual televisions and all sorts of free drinks and food. What a great way to end a great trip!
What a fabulous two weeks in Italy! Hoping our 2013 trip to the Netherlands and Belgium will be equally fabulous!!!
Positano day 1
As a recap from my last Italy post, our travel from Firenze (Florence) to Positano was rigorous to say the least: “By the time we arrived at our splurge-of-a-hotel, we were literally dripping [with sweat] and more ready than ever for the luxury that awaited us!”
Positano was our only non-airbnb stay, so we figured we’d go all out for our two nights there. We stayed at the beautiful Punta Regina. It was worth every euro. Our room was spacious, luxurious (it included bathrobes – my fave!) and romantic, but what really set our stay apart from any others (ever), was our large, very private balcony which overlooked the ocean… complete with loungers, a cabana and our very own hot tub.
We planned Positano to be a more relaxing leg our our Italy travels (other than the travel to and from), which suited us just fine once we saw where we’d be staying the next two nights. We would have been entirely happy spending 24/7 on our balcony, so long as someone would deliver us certain necessities (pizza, gelato and champagne drinks)!
After oohing and aahing over our room and balcony, we took much-needed showers and naps before heading out to see the town for the first time without our luggage in tow. We watched an uomo (man) making sandals, window-shopped at a few store-fronts, took in the beautiful sights and picked an ocean-view table at a romantic restaurant. What a perfect night… UNTIL our waiter told Rob that they were not serving pizza, despite pizza being listed on the menu. Imagine taking a spoiled two-year-old boy’s favorite toy from him in the middle of him playing with it. Now multiply that crankiness factor by 10. Well, that was Rob.
Fortunately, instead of walking out of the restaurant like he wanted to, he ordered a bottle of wine and let me order our dinner. Everything we had… red wine , champagne drinks, ravioli, bruschetta and zucchine alla scapece… was multo buono! The lack of pizza was quickly forgotten!
After dinner, we enjoyed some gelato, then picked up a bottle of champagne and headed back to test out our hot tub. We were not at all disappointed!
Positano day 2
Who could possibly complain waking up to a view like this:
Certainly not us! We lounged around our balcony for awhile and then headed upstairs for the hotel’s breakfast buffet, not exactly sure what to expect. The spread was fancy and delicious – two qualities I thoroughly embrace, in breakfasts and otherwise.
We sat upstairs enjoying the view and soaking up some sun for awhile, sipping cappuccinos and game planning for the day. Unlike our days in Venice and Florence, there was no long list of sites to see, so we decided to walk (or rather, descend stairs) to check out the beach and shopping areas. Of course, going down all of the stairs was a breeze and we were at the beach in no time. The views of Positano from the beach were truly postcard worthy!
The beach itself was unusual in U.S. terms. Instead of sand, there were tons of small pebbles. Not exactly “curl-your-toes” worthy, but it was scenic and somewhat exotic. Oddly enough, there was a sandy section of the beach partitioned off and, for approx. 12 euros, you could gain admission to that section of the beach and use the umbrellas and beach loungers that were all set up and waiting for paying customers. Italy’s version of beach tags, I suppose!
Although not dressed for swimming or sun bathing, there was one thing I HAD to do while at the beach: stick my toes in the Mediterranean Sea. Check!
After snapping numerous shots of our prodigious surroundings, we explored the shops and restaurants near the beach. We picked up some staples, water, sunblock and limoncello, and headed back (up the many stairs) to the Punta Regina to relax by the “relaxing pool” and catch a few rays (in October!). While we were out exploring the beach area, we forgot to pick up anything to eat, so we ate a light, late lunch by the pool which consisted of equal parts of food (fruit and pizza) and mojitos. YUM. A few hours later, and a few shades darker (or so I like to think), we showered and got dressed for dinner. In case you haven’t read Eat, Pray, Love or haven’t caught onto the reoccuring food-consumption theme in my Italy posts, when in Italy, food is a big highlight.
Based on some impressive online reviews, we decided to try out Ristorante Pizzeria Lo Guarracino. Using Rob’s handy OffMaps app, we routed ourselves to the restaurant. Although it appeared to be really close, because of the built-into-a-cliff nature of Positano, our route involved a lot of ups, downs, overs and arounds. We finally found a dark path (yes, a path) that seemed to be leading directly to the restaurant. After walking down the dark path for several minutes, we were about to turn around when, around the next corner, lo and behold, there it was! The service wasn’t anything to call home about, but the food was terrific and the views, even at night, were unbeatable. Since it was off the beaten path, this seems to be a somewhat well-kept secret.
So happy and SO stuffed, we headed back to the Punta Regina for our last night in Positano.
Positano day 3
All too fast, another travel day was upon us. We savored our last morning in Positano (and our last fancy breakfast buffet) wishing all the while we were staying for another week, or at minimum, another day! Positano must’ve known how sad we were about leaving, because it held a parade in our honor, which I enjoyed from the comfort of our balcony… in my bathrobe. Ironically enough, it reminded me a bit of Narberth, what with all of the parading around that happens just outside our apartment in the Narberhood.
Too cheap for an extra bus, we walked/lugged our luggage (makes sense that you would lug, luggage, right?!) up and down steep hills, and reversed our trip to get back to Naples (i.e., long sweaty walk, huge bus whipping around the mountain/cliff-edged roads, sweaty mess of a train), and then took TrenItalia to our next and final destination: ROMA!
florence day 1:
We arrived at S.M. Novella train station in Florence early afternoon on October 2 and made our way by foot to our second airbnb apartment of the trip (“la Gompa”). It was about a 5-10 minute walk made a little more difficult by our luggage and the very narrow streets and sidewalks (many of which cars were partially pulled up onto to make room for street parking). Our host, Silvia, met us at the front door and took us up to the apartment (another 4 flights of stairs, as it happened). The apartment was essentially a large room with a lofted bedroom that looked down over the kitchen and living room area. From the bedroom, there was a ladder to a roof-top terrace with the most amazing views of Florence (including the Duomo).
After we settled into our new digs, we hit the streets of Florence to get acclimated to the area. The apartment itself wasn’t in the prettiest section of town, but it was an easy 5 minute walk to Piazza del Duomo (location of Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore (the Duomo) and there were grocery stores and restaurants around every corner. We checked out Piazza del Duomo, a few other piazzas, florence’s leather markets, the Palazzo Vecchio clock tower and then headed to check out the lines for the Gallerie degli Uffizi, which are infamously long. The line was an approximate two-hour wait, which isn’t bad for the museum, but more time than we wanted to spend in line (then, or ever, really). We decided to keep walking and deal with the Uffizi later.
We continued our walk all the way to the Ponte Vecchio (“old bridge”) and window shopped at some of the jewelry stores lining the bridge.
Not long after crossing the Ponte Vecchio we reached Palazzo Pitti — a huge palace, some of which dates back to the 1400’s. By that time, we had walked quite a distance and our feet were not especially pleased. We turned around and started heading back toward our apartment. On our way back, we decided to stop by the Uffizi once again just to survey the lines. Because it was about 5:30 or 6:00 and the gallery was closing in about an hour, there was NO line. With some cajoling, I was able to convince Rob to pop in with me to see if we could buy tickets for the following day. Although we could not buy tickets for the following day there, they were able to point us to another desk where we could (#3 if you look at the diagram of the U-shaped Uffizi located outside of the museum). We walked right in, purchased our tickets, and headed on our merry way. SO much better than the horrible ticket-purchasing stories I read online! On that note, we checked out the piazza by the Uffizi (Piazza della Signoria, including a replica of the David statue and the Fountain of Neptune) and headed back to the apartment to figure out dinner.
Fountain of Neptune:
After so much walking and quite a bit of traveling for one day, we decided to take it easy for the evening. We picked up some “take-away” pizza and drinks to enjoy at our favorite place in Florence thus far — our roof-top terrace!
florence day 2:
Rejuvenated from a nice, long sleep, we headed back out to the streets of Florence. This time, with more of a plan. First, we headed to Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore (the Duomo). There was only a very short line to get in and explore the church.
Although it was easy, and free, to get into the church, there was a separate line and a fee to climb the 414 steps to the top of the Duomo. Fortunately, we were there early enough that even after exploring the church, there were only a handful of people waiting in line in front of us. We were climbing stairs (lots of stairs) before we knew it. The views from the top of the Duomo, however, were worth every one of the 414 steps (and more)!
After pouring over the gorgeous views from the top of the Duomo, we headed over to the Uffizi just in time for our 12:15 reservations. We probably waited in line a total of 20 minutes to get into the museum and through security–which is nothing! Unfortunately, I couldn’t take pictures inside the museum, so I don’t have much to show for it. Neither Rob nor I are very into art museums, so we did our best to take our time and soak in all of the famous works, but we were in and out of the Uffizi rather quickly (partially due to the fact that we had bypassed lunch to make it to the Uffizi on time–not that they even checked the time of our reservation when we entered!). As soon as we were finished at the Uffizi, we headed straight to a late lunch to make up for lost time. We had some delicious drinks, spinach and cheese ravioli and bruschetta . . . and some very lousy pizza. Who knew Italy was capable of bad pizza?! It tasted almost identical to Ellio’s pizza, only worse, if that’s possible. When we got up to leave, the people at the table next to us joked that they were going to eat the rest of our pizza when we left (we ate less than half). We gave it to them with our blessing. Little did they know, the joke would be on them.
To make up for the lousy pizza, we settled for an extra large helping of gelato. Never a disappointment! After a bit more traversing the streets of Florence, we headed back to the apartment to lounge on the terrace and enjoy the last hour or so of the warm, sunny afternoon. We headed back out around 7:30 and explored all the way to the Arno river, which runs through Florence (the river the Ponte Vecchio spans). We stopped for an appetizer and some delish drinks (I had some kind of grapefruit cocktail) at a fancy restaurant, Caffe Giacosa, and sat outside people watching for a bit.
After whetting our appetite at Caffe Giacosa, we headed off to dinner (probably more pizza, pasta and drinks) and then back to our temporary Florence home.
florence day 3:
First things first, we enjoyed a leisurely and delicious breakfast on the terrace:
We wanted to enjoy our last full day in Florence without trying to squeeze in too much, so we chose one main sight for the day — Palazzo Pitti (and the Boboli Gardens). The gardens were so vast and amazing! There were beautiful fountains, intricate statues around every corner, immaculate landscaping, endless paths, spectacular views of Florence, quaint rose gardens, lots of ancillary buildings the royalty used for various leisure activities… Definitely one of my favorite sights throughout our tour of Italy (although the many mosquito bites I collected throughout were not my favorite).
We spent hours exploring and enjoying the gardens until our stomachs (and bug bites) needed some TLC, so we dedicated the rest of the day to R&R (and eating).
florence day 4 (travel to Positano):
Unfortunately, we only had enough time our 4th morning in Florence to pack up our things and hit the road. We headed back to the train station to catch our train south to Naples (Napoli). The train ride wasn’t bad at all–TrenItalia is basically like Amtrak (internet, food car, electrical outlets, etc.). The next leg of our long trip to Positano, was a second, less comfortable train from Naples to Sorrento. The ride was about an hour long, mostly due to the many stops along the way, and, unfortunately, we got stuck with standing room only (not especially relaxing). Although glad to get to Sorrento, our trip wasn’t over yet! We caught a bus from Sorrento to Positano. The big bus was whipping around sharp corners on the edge of cliffs, with only a few honks to warn any oncoming traffic. Fortunately, our driver seemed to know what he was doing and we eventually made it to Positano. According to our handy offmaps app, our hotel, Albergo Punta Regina was less than a mile away, so, instead of waiting for the local bus, we decided to try walking it. Of course, Positano was significantly warmer than Florence (at least 10 degrees)… and all of the roads led steeply up or steeply down … so less than a mile or not, it was quite a trek, especially with luggage. By the time we arrived at our splurge-of-a-hotel, we were literally dripping and more ready than ever for the luxury that awaited us!
To be continued …
getting to venice:
First of all, Rob and I are very fortunate to have a friend, Travis, who is brilliant at travel hacking (define: researches the ins-and-outs of travel to find the best ways to do it on the cheap and get more for less). We ended up spending a total of approximately $300 for tickets to and from Italy. Best of all, we flew FIRST CLASS all the way home! If you’re planning a trip, international or not, definitely check out his website on travel hacking and consider consulting him personally. We saved a ton of money, thanks to his expertise.
Our flight to Venice left out of JFK airport on September 28. We made it to JFK early and used our passes to the admirals club, which we received as a perk when opening up American Advantage credit cards per Trav’s advice (more props to him). We passed a few hours in style, enjoying free drinks (non-alcoholic), snacks and wi-fi, before catching our AirBerlin flight #1 to, not surprisingly, Berlin. **Note: If you’re planning at trip with a significant layover, let us know. We have a few passes left and I think they are transferrable.**
The flight was surprisingly nice with a bunch of newer movies, a little bag of travel goodies and more of a meal than I’d previously had on a flight in a long time. 4 movies later, without a wink of sleep, we arrived at Tegel airport in Berlin for a several-hour-long layover. The airport was nothing special (think cement floors and uncomfortable rows of chairs in a warehouse looking building). We fought for a bit of sleep before catching AirBerlin flight #2 to Venice. The flight was significantly shorter and yet, due to lack of sleep, impatience to arrive, feeling a little sick, etc… it couldn’t end soon enough! We finally arrived at the Marco Polo airport around 12:30 pm. Hello, ITALY!
venice day 1:
Exhausted, but exhilarated by having finally arrived, we grabbed our bags and headed out of baggage claim. First priority, get euros. We took a right out of baggage claim and headed to the very end of the hall, where, thanks to my prior research, we knew we would find a bancomat (ATM). Second priority, make our way to the Venice apartment we booked through airbnb. There is an information desk located in the same hall, almost directly outside of the baggage claim area where we purchased a one-way bus (from the airport to Piazzale Roma) and vaporetto (from Piazzale Roma to Arsenale) ticket for €12 each.
When we exited the airport directly from the information desk, our bus, bus 5, was already waiting outside, slight to the left. Because we already had our ticket, we hopped right on, scanned our tickets and were off! It was about a 20 minute ride to Piazzale Roma. From Piazzale Roma, after asking a few clueless people, we headed left (facing the water) to find vaporetto line 4.1 (for San Marco, Arsenale, etc.). While still in the states, Rob downloaded an awesome app, off maps, including an offline map for Venice so we could use his iPhone’s GPS capability to track where we were without using any data. Anxious to get to the apartment, we accidentally got off of the vaporetto a little early (San Marco) and had to walk about 15 minutes over a number of a bridges, to get to the Arsenale stop which was only a 3 minute walk to our apartment. Of course, the alley ways of Venice are anything but straight forward, we it took us an extra 15 minutes just to find the right address.
The apartment (“low cost romantic” per airbnb) was perfectly situated close enough to Piazza San Marco (10 minute walk) to be convenient, and yet far enough removed that there weren’t tourists milling about in the alleys and piazzas closest to apartment. It was absolutely the perfect location (once we found it)! Since we arrived a little earlier than expected, we gave our host, Luca, a call. His cleaning [young] lady, Tanya, arrived within 10 minutes and guided us up the four flights of stairs to the apartment.
Our living room/dining room:
We were exhausted, so we pretty much headed straight to bed for a nap–as evidenced by the following picture of our bedroom (and Rob getting ready to climb into bed):
After a nice, long nap, we woke up feeling pretty rested, considering, and found a bottle of prosecco chilling (pun intended) in the fridge from our host Luca. Cheers to being in Venezia!
Ready to taste some legit Italian cuisine (or, honestly, anything at that point because we were starving), we headed two bridges east to via Garibaldi, a street recommended by Tanya for non-touristy shopping and restaurants. We basically sat down at the first restaurant we saw, Sottaprova, which turned out to be our favorite during our stay in Venice! Two delicious pizzas, grilled vegetables, a bottle of wine and a white lady (Italian version of the Rubadue “lemon shark”) later, we were perfectly full, and maybe just a little buzzed, we took a nice long walk around our neighborhood and headed “home” for the night.
AC fiasco: Although it was pretty nice outside, we love a frigid bedroom, so we turned on the bedroom AC unit at our apartment. To this day, I still do not know exactly what we did wrong, but I woke up around 4am drenched in sweat. Somehow, the air conditioner, which utilizes water to cool the room, turned our sealed up bedroom into a SAUNA! The windows were dripping with condensation and the air was thick with moisture. After turning off the so-called AC and opening the windows, the place cooled down in no time. A totally awesome side-effect of sleeping in a sauna-like room for 5 hours was that the sore throat I got right before leaving the states magically disappeared. Winning!
venice day 2:
Our first full day in Venice, we were ready to explore the town. We strolled over to Piazza San Marco (location of the famous St. Mark’s Basilica, Doge Palace and St. Mark’s Campanile [or bell tower]). After a quick look, we headed deeper into the island for some lunch. We hadn’t really had much for breakfast except a few remaining traveling snacks, so we were quite ravenous. We sat down outside at a restaurant somewhere not too far from Piazza San Marco and had some pizza, caprese salad and tasty beer (saint hubert blonde d’abbaye).
After lunch, we went to Museo Correr in San Marco Piazza and checked out some extravagant neoclassical living quarters and art. Next, embracing our decision to eat gelato every day while in Italy, we headed to Gelateria “Il Pinguino” (which I believe translates to “the penguin”). Predictably, Rob got vanilla *insert snore here* and I opted for something a little more exciting — chocolate and pistachio.
We wandered around Venice for the rest of the afternoon, oohing and aahing around at every new bridge, every line of laundry hung up to dry out of windows and every gondolier crowing to his passengers.
After a few hours of spontaneous exploring, we decided to make up for our gelato deficiency in day 1 by getting a second helping before dinner. According to some online research, the “best” gelato in Venice was to be found at Boutique del Gelato, so we used our handy offmaps to navigate our way there (we never would have found it otherwise). Despite online reports of chronic long lines! My blackberry and coffee flavored gelato were fantastic, as was Rob’s cherry and some sort of lighter, whipped gelato. In retrospect, I would have to say this was probably the best gelato we had in all of Italy (which is not to be taken lightly)!
We explored some more dark alley ways before deciding to get some more substantial food. Although delectable, gelato was not enough to fill us after a day of walking. We dined outside near the San Marco vaporetto stop on, predictably, more pizza, along with some wine and bellinis. Fortunately, our outside seating was covered because it started pouring shortly after we sat down and did not slow until shortly before we left.
venice day 3:
On our third day in Venice, feeling fully recovered from jet-lag, I was ready for some serious sight-seeing. We started with St. Mark’s Basilica, which was huge and intricately ornate. It was such a contrast from our church, which meets in a vocational school and puts up curtains every week to create a room which, with some stretch of the imagination, could resemble a church sanctuary. My favorite part of the church was the views from the top of the basilica.
After grabbing a quick lunch (probably more pizza, with some pasta, caprese salad and/or bruschetta on the side), in full-throttle tourist mode, we headed to Palazzo Ducale (Doge Palace). The palace seriously humongous with marble… well, everything. It is hard to believe anyone ever lived in such extravagance. Regardless, it was absolutely beautiful!
After hours of walking/sight-seeing, our feet wearily carried us back to our apartment for a mid-afternoon nap, upon which Rob vigorously insisted and to which I reluctantly agreed (there is so much to see!).
After our [admittedly] needed nap, we headed to Gondole Danieli (or, as Rob decided to call it, “Danny’s Gondolas”), for the epitome of tourism in Venice — the most delightfully romantic and terribly over-priced form of travel in the city — a gondola ride!! It was worth every euro! Our gondolier expertly guided us through the beautiful “back streets” of Venice where motorized boats cannot fit (and gondolas barely fit!). Down one “street,” we enjoyed some lovely piano music emanating from a nearby house. Doesn’t get much more romantic than that!
The only disappointment during the ride was that Rob and I brought beverages with us to enjoy during the ride. Rob brought some Italian beer and I brought “aperitifs” in adorable little glass bottles. They had to be good, they were ADDY-SIZED; plus I had seen tons of Italian women drinking the same thing. Unfortunately, I was wrong; not only were they not good… they tasted like earwax. shnast!
After our gondola ride, we decided to squeeze in a trip to the Rialto bridge before dinner (instead of the next morning). It was pretty, but, pretty much I expected from online research/pictures.
For our last dinner in Venice, we returned to Sottaprova to get some more of their ridiculously tasty pizza. We were not disappointed!
Sad to be leaving Venice the next morning, but excited to explore Florence, we headed back to the apartment to prepare for the next leg of our Italy adventure!
The next morning was a flurry of packing, some last-minute travel planning, trying to expedite the drying of our clothes (without a dryer), cleaning up the apartment and dashing off to the Arsenale vaporetto stop just in time to catch the vaporetto to ferrovia (the train station) in order to catch an 11:3o train from Venice to Florence… or so we thought. After waiting 5-10 minutes with no vaporetto in sight, we started chatting with a couple from Washington DC who heard that the vaporetto workers were on strike all day. A minute later, a private boat pulled up and confirmed that the vaporetto workers were on strike, but provided no guidance as to any alternative modes of transportation. Not especially helpful. In no time at all, a second couple, from Asia had arrived and, clearly the most on-edge of the six of us, quickly asked us to “align” with them to get to the train station. Feeling somewhat like we were guest starring on Survivor (forming alliances and what not), the six of us hurried to keep up with the Asian couple who darted around asking anyone and everyone for the best way to get to the train station. We soon made it to a water taxi station and, after several taxis dropped off people (and refused to take us, for whatever reason), we finally found a taxi that agreed to take all six of us and our bags to the train station for €80. DEAL! We all climbed aboard, proud of our resourcefulness and thrilled at the fact that we were going to make it to our trains in time, have a more scenic ride, and all for less than €14/person (much more reasonable than we anticipated). The Asian guy was so relieved to have found a ride to the train station, he sat in the water taxi grinning and, according to Rob, said something along of the lines of “now all we need are some boat hos!”
Picture from the water taxi:
We made it to the train station, with time to spare, hopped on our train and settled in for a comfortable trenitalia ride to Florence!
To be continued….
P.S. Venice pictures galore to be posted to facebook soon!
Rob and I just returned from a two-week tour of Italy. The cities, sights and food were all so great, I don’t want to forget a thing! Unfortunately, I have a semi-challenged memory, so in order to ensure that I do not forget the details of our trip, I’ve decided to blog about them. Also, for the first time ever… *insert drum roll here* … I’ve decided to share my blog so that friends and family can read all about our trip. Previously, I’ve used this blog as an outlet for myself rather than to share with others (only my husband and my bff knew about it).
WARNING to any new readers: I am a terribly inconsistent blogger, so if you really want to keep up with my life, you’ll have to resort to facebook-stalking me. Regardless, welcome and feel free to comment the heck out of my posts!