Today we are at one of the bottom tips of Ireland, the Dingle Peninsula. If you’ve never heard of it, perhaps you’ve heard of it’s more popular neighbor, the Ring of Kerry. We’re at the Dingle Peninsula because it’s just as scenic, a bit shorter drive (only 47km around) and has a nifty little town (Dingle) with good music and a pretty harbor. After being on the road all day yesterday, I am looking forward to a shorter and easier driving day today. We make a plan to take the drive at 11am. In the meantime, I’m visiting the store and printing the Ryanair boarding passes for tomorrow. I charge the kids with buying stuff for lunch.
We’re staying at the Dingle Marina Lodge and I meet Dawn, the owner (again, found through Airbnb) who gives me some ideas of where to get good music and where to eat tonight. Oh, and by the way, she’s going sea kayaking tonight – I should think about joining her and her visiting guests on this excursion. Well, that’s a thought.
Around 11am, we packed the car with provisions for lunch and started around the peninsula. This should be easier driving. Although it’s a two lane road, (albeit wide enough in some places for 1 1/2 cars) most people tour clockwise (the way we’re going). It’s a beautiful drive along the coast, reminiscent of Maui’s Hana Highway with great views around every corner. We drive by and sometimes stop to look at beaches and cemeteries, ancient ring forts, abandoned houses, and the remnants of the strange stone igloos that are found only here. This was where the film Ryan’s Daughter (the first R-rated film I ever saw!) was filmed, as well as Far and Away.
We stop at a few roadside pullovers looking for the perfect picnic spot and Morgan finally finds one – 200 feet below the road. We grab our goodies and scramble down to a small, flat, grassy spot and lay out our picnic. Seagulls fly by to check us out and we can’t hear the cars going by above us. We can see the Blasket Islands on the right and the Ring of Kerry on the left. It’s sunny and warm. There’s a hunk of rock below that’s just calling out to be climbed. What more do you need?
Back on the road, we find a wee traffic jam. Cars are stopped in front of us where the road is cut out of a rocky part of the hill. There’s a motorhome going toward us (the wrong way!!!) and there are just millimeters between the side of that thing and the cliff on one side and the cars on the other. People are getting out of their cars to provide direction. And I have to get through there. Millimeters, and I’m scared. I inch toward the behemoth in the road, terrified that I’m going to scratch this car and really regretting not buying the insurance. Morgan is telling me that I’m almost too close to the rocks on the left, where I can’t really see. I pull in the side view mirror, but I just can’t see this happening. Suddenly, an Irish knight in shining armor appears (actually, it’s a taxi-tour driver) and offers to drive the Micra through this impossible space. I hop out, hoping for the best, and let him do it. I walk behind the car as it inches past and then makes it through. I thank my knight profusely (he said that I could have done it) and continue down the road. There must be a caravan of French motorhomes doing this tour, because there are more behind the stuck one. The road is wider here, so it’s not a problem, but I pity everyone else in that narrow spot I just left.
We continue to the Gallarus Oratory, one of Ireland’s best preserved early Christian churches, built about 1300 years ago. There’s no mortar between the stones, yet it stays dry inside. We chat with the guy who mans the gate and he shares with us the history of the place and how, if you spoke Gaelic, you could really understand the origin of many of the places in the area.
We’re tired, though, and drive back to the apartment. I bought pasta sauce, chicken breasts, and pasta (some gluten free) for dinner, but as I’m walking into town, I think more and more about that sea kayaking. I stop at the sports center and book myself a ticket. On the way back, I see Anna and Morgan and tell them that they are on their own for dinner and I’ll catch up with them around 930pm and we’ll go out to find some music. Morgan wants to go sea kayaking too, but it turns out I took the last spot.
I grab a quick bite of something and cross the street to the marina and meet the gang. Dawn, the lodge owner, has friends in from Dublin and there are some other folks from that area as well. We suit up, unload the kayaks, and after a quick lesson (refresher for me – I’ve kayaked with my friend Michelle on the Poquoson River) we are off. This is the perfect antidote for the crazy, terrifying driving and the extra alertness required when traveling with others. First we find Fungie, Dingle’s bottlenose dolphin who has been living in Dingle Harbor since 1983. He’s quite well known nationally and likes to play with the boats in the harbor. We see Fungie’s Folly, raft manned by a couple who come out every evening to play with the dolphin. Nobody feeds him yet he still sticks around, enjoying the company of anyone who ventures out on the water.
Refreshed after the kayak tour, I cross the street back to the apartment, cook the last chicken breast and have a bit of leftover pasta, then go out with Anna and Morgan in search of some music. The first place is crowded and there’s no music yet, so we venture on. The second place has a guitar player singing American pop tunes, and we move on. The third place has traditional Irish music, but it’s a woman singing a sad, slow song, so we continue. Finally we find the Courthouse Bar and hit the jackpot. It’s packed, has great beer, and the music is fabulous. We stay til midnight when the place closes.
Tomorrow we say goodbye to Ireland and fly to England.
We start the day with a hearty breakfast at Kathryn’s kitchen table. Her freshly homemade scones and jam served with eggs and freshly brewed coffee hit the spot. As we finish packing, Jon takes a few minutes to interview Kathryn for his documentary and then we’re off.
One thing we wanted to see in Ireland were castles, and today’s the day. Kathryn knows Leonie, the owner of Oranmore Castle, and suggests we stop there first. There are a line of 15th century castles up and down the coast, but Leonie’s castle is the only one that’s lived in. Her parents bought the castle in the 1947 and Leonie was raised there. Now she lives with her musician husband and rents the castle out for events and photo shoots in the summer. We know this because when we pulled up (on this holiday Monday) she was putting her sign out saying the castle was closed. However, when she found out we were friends of Kathryn, she welcomed us in for a short look. It’s not every day you meet someone who lives in a castle!
Moving on, we make a quick stop at Dunguaire Castle in Kinvara. It looks like the sister castle to Oranmore, but more commercial. A redeeming factor is the guy upstairs making jewelry from bits of copper and glass crystals. He started making jewelry there in the 1970’s outside on the castle roof. He’s met all kinds of people and his designs are really nice. He showed me how to create some pieces with his blowtorch. I don’t know exactly what the kids did, but I had a great time chatting with this guy!
Back in the Micra, we head south to the Burren. I’m a bit more relaxed about the driving today and only make one mistake pulling into the right lane when it should have been the left. Thank goodness for my navigator! The good news about driving today is that since it’s a holiday, there’s not a lot of traffic. The bad news is that the country roads all seem to have curbs and/or 4 foot high shale walls, often covered with plants. Very nice, but it becomes a problem because in many spots the roads are really only 1 1/2 cars wide, so when another car comes barrelling toward me, I tend to drift left, sometimes scraping the plants and the curb against the side of the car. Morgan says he is terrified (well, I had to provide some thrills since the skydiving was out!) and I tell him not to stick his hands out of the window. And then there are the moving cow road blockages. Yes, it’s fun to drive, I keep telling myself.
The Burren is the largest limestone field eroded by glaciers in Europe. This stark area is extraordinary because nestled in between the limestone rocks, you can find sea fossils, Arctic, Mediterranean, and Alpine plants together in this singular place. Add to that some megalithic tombs and ancient ring forts and it is a fascinating place to spend some time.
After lunch, we continue on to the famed Cliffs of Moher. Standing 702 feet above the sea and stretching for 5 miles, they are dramatic and awe-inspiring. You might have recognized them as the Cliffs of Insanity from The Princess Bride or the cave of the horcrux in Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince. It’s a shame we only have a couple of hours here – we want to walk all the way from one end to the other.
But we want to get to Dingle before dark, so we pack it back in and head south, arriving just in time for a quick bite at the gyro place for dinner. Beautiful!
We are up and at’em early – we have to take the bus to the airport, grab a rental car, and head out to Galway and a skydiving adventure for Morgan and me. It was a rough night. Even though we were on the third floor, some really happy Saturday night partiers were celebrating life extremely loudly outside our window for what seemed like all night. My earplugs helped a bit, but they don’t block out everything. I should have seen this as a warning for the day ahead.
First, at the bus stop (once we found it) we were accosted by a young Irish drunkard who thought it was funny to take Jon’s hat. I asked him nicely to give it back and move along, which he did not like, but he complied.
Upon arrival at the airport, I get the car rental paperwork out of the way and go to the car, where there is no key. Back to the counter I go. We are driving the smallest 4-door car on the planet, appropriately called the Micra. I have to remove the cargo cover to fit all of the bags in. Jon and Anna are wedged in the back, Morgan is my navigator, but he’s sitting in the driver’s seat! Without the wheel? No, in Ireland and England they drive on the opposite side of the road, therefore everything is opposite.
Normally I would consider myself a good driver. I was a little nervous to drive on the other side of the road, but not a lot. I’ve driven all over the place, including Spain, France, and downtown Washington DC. How hard can it be to drive the bucolic country roads in Ireland? Plenty hard, it seems. First, the car is a stick shift. Yes, I drive stick, but I shift with my right hand, not my left. My left hand does not have the sensitivity to find every gear, so that’s a challenge. I’m used to looking up to the right for the rearview mirror, but now it’s up and on the left. I’m used to looking over my right shoulder when backing up, now it’s on my left as well. I drive slowly and whisper to myself to stay left at every junction. Even the roundabouts (of which there are many) go left instead of right. Stress level is high. Thank goodness it’s Sunday morning and the traffic is light.
I don’t have a great map, so we fire up the GPS, which has served me well in every other country in Europe. However, it is taking us off the freeway that we’re supposed to be on. This is a steep learning curve for my inexperienced navigator and left-hand-side driver. Finally, we end up in the middle of nowhere. The GPS wants us to turn into an empty field. I scrape the sidewalls of the passenger side tires on the curb. This makes an ugly sound, but after a cursory look, nothing seems busted. We get back on the wrong freeway and continue until we find a toll booth. Thankfully, the toll-taker has family in Galway and gives us some good directions. We are on the right way in no time. I later found out that the freeway was newer than my GPS’s card. That’s why it couldn’t find it.
However, we are running about an hour late. In this hour, I was going to drop Jon and Anna at our host’s home just outside of Galway and then zip out to the airport for our skydive. I have Morgan text Kathryn, our host, but get no reply. I have Morgan call the skydive people and can’t get through. Well, fortunately the airport is right off the freeway and we cruise in about half an hour before our skydive appointment. However, no one is there. No Skydive Ireland, no sign, heck, the airport isn’t even open. Skydive Ireland is not answering my call. Maybe it’s my British SIM card from home. I find a guy coming out of the flying club and ask to use his phone. Same story. No answer. Must be too cloudy to skydive. After the stress of driving here, I am equally disappointed and relieved. Guess it’s just not meant to be.
Which is good, because now we can go into Galway. I reach Kathryn and she’s ready for us. NOW the GPS is working and we find her house with no trouble.
Kathryn is another great example of an Airbnb.com win. Her house is located in a neighborhood about 10 minutes drive from Galway town along the beach. If we had the time, we could walk along the promenade. We took all three of her upstairs bedrooms (the boys got to have a separate room each) and after introductions and instructions, along with a cup of tea, we were heading into town. Today is Sunday, the middle of a three-day holiday weekend, and the town is bustling. Kathryn recommended a fabulous restaurant for lunch and it did not disappoint. They even had yummy homemade gluten-free desserts.
We walked up the main street toward the market behind the church. On the way, a very tall man with a very fake beard came up to us and asked, “Have you seen the whale?” We said no. He asked from where we be. We be from America, we say. The Americays! Oh, it’s too long a journey for an old man who’s looking for a whale. We wished each other good luck and carried on. I wish I had taken his picture. We did meet some Dread Pirates closer to the market, though, who were happy to pose. Morgan went into the pub just to use the bathroom and chatted with a fellow at the urinal, garnering an invitation to share a pint. In the street, a guy is playing “Wonderwall” on his guitar, an Irish band of kids age 6-11 serenade the crowd with traditional fiddle and drum, a guy in a box with a stuffed dog on top barks at people who leave him some coins, scary fun for the children. So many families, so few tourists, it’s perfect. We walk through the town, down the hill to another church, then back around to our car.
Jon’s ready to go back and do some editing, so we drop him off at the room. Morgan, Anna, and I drive back into town for some music and dinner. As we head to the pub, we notice they’re closing off the street for a block. It’s the silent disco! After dinner, we poke our nose in a pub looking for some non-silent music, but found nothing but strange looks. It’s past 9pm, and the silent disco is just getting going. There are two DJ’s, strobe lights and smoke, and everybody has headphones on and are groovin to the tunes. The headphones cost 10euros and there’s a line down the street to buy them. Last year, 2000 headphones were sold and the street was packed. Too bad we can’t stay.
One more thing before we end the day. Anna wants to “see the sun go down on Galway Bay,” (apparently, it’s a song) and so we drive down the waterfront to find the perfect place. Unfortunately, it is cloudy and we can only imagine the sun going down on Galway Bay, but that seems to be enough.
Tomorrow is a long drive to Dingle through the Burren with a stop at the Cliffs of Moher.
Pictorially, for me, Dublin is just not that interesting. Perhaps it’s because I have spent the last two weeks in colorful Italy, but at least today – an overcast day with gray buildings with green parks and some red doors sprinkled in, it’s not the most gorgeous city I’ve ever been in.
However, it is a place rich with stories. The city has an amazing history told in it’s museums, parks, and most of all, it’s music. And that’s the Dublin that I’m falling in love with.
Today we start at Trinity College. After a good night’s sleep and a continental breakfast at the hostel, we are ready for the 10am student-led tour of Trinity College, chartered in 1592 with a Protestant mandate. In 1793 they allowed Catholics and dissenters to enter (all professors and faculty had to be Protestant until 1893) but they did not have many, because the Catholic Church in Ireland forbade it’s members to attend – and this was only relatively recently reversed in 1970. Heck, women were allowed in 1901. The campus is not ancient, but stately, and most of the 16,000 registered students live off campus.
But the highlight of the College is the library. The largest library in Ireland, it’s a copyright library, which means that there is a copy of every book published in the country here. That’s saying something, considering the plethora of Irish writers: Joyce, Yeats, Beckett, Wilde, Swift, Bram Stoker, author of Dracula, all Irish. They’re all here, along with the Book of Kells, one of the oldest and certainly the most beautifully extravagantly illustrated Gospels. Hand drawn circa 800AD on calf vellum, it’s named for the Abbey of Kells, where it had been carefully kept before it came to Trinity Library. Today you can only see two of the four volumes, each open to only one page (every day they turn the page, so if you came every day for months at 10euros per visit you can read the entire thing) and it is gorgeous. There’s a nice museum with descriptions of how they made the vellum, how they bound the books, how they did the illustrations (no wite-out back then) and it’s fascinating. After viewing the Book, we ascend the stairs to the Long Hall, which supposedly inspired George Lucas to create the Jedi Library in Star Wars Episode II. A lawsuit was filed, then dropped. You decide. I’m fascinated by the study of dust outlined in one of the displays.
Morgan’s taking it all in, Anna’s found a nice ring, and Jon is filming. He will be making a documentary of the trip and has a fantastic new camera which makes his subjects look almost better than real life (at least I hope that’s how it works with me!) After the tour and while waiting for the restaurant to open, we stop at a local art gallery. I fall in love with Jimmy Lawlor from Wexford and want to buy Sea Horse, but alas, I do not have the 3300 euros in my wallet today. Guess I’ll just have to enjoy the photo.
A few doors down from the gallery is The Farm, which understands gluten-free, a requirement for Anna’s diet. Jon can’t stay because he’s going to catch the free walking tour again and do some more filming, so Morgan, Anna, and I enjoy a nice lunch. Afterwards, Morgan wants to go on his own and Anna joins me to check out some museums and parks in the city. We meet Morgan again by Oscar Wilde in the park and continue to the history museum, where we see Viking gold and hairy mummies preserved in the peat. More parks, more museums, and we meet Jon and wind our way to Temple Bar and the Porterhouse Pub.
The Porterhouse is a place recommended to me by Dara, and it does not disappoint. We finally find a seat on the third floor and have some dinner (beer tasting for Morgan and I) and enjoy the Irish rock band playing under the balcony one floor below. Earlier today I made reservations for a Traditional Irish Musical Pub Crawl for the group, but Jon is wiped, so we send him on back to the hostel and Morgan, Anna, and I proceed to Gogarty’s Pub.
OK, this is one of the best tours I have ever taken. Two musicians, one playing the fiddle and the other a drum, then a guitar, proceed to teach us about traditional Irish music through stories, songs, and audience participation. They take us to two different pubs (our group of about 50 get an upper room all to ourselves) and we
learn when to clap (only at the end, never with the song – how will you hold your beer then?), to stomp (always), and to whoop (whenever the spirit moves you). We listen, sing along, and toward the end (after much Guinness), individual audience members are invited to sing (loved the version of the son “Cups” from the movie Pitch Perfect by one girl!). It was fabulously fun and was a great introduction to the music we were going to hear for the next few days.
Can’t stay up too late, though. Tomorrow is Driving Day and Skydiving Day. (Yikes!)
Dear Readers, I hope you’re enjoying the blog! This last weekend I had a problem finding some photos that ended up on Morgan’s computer (long story) and so I posted the two entries before this one with pics from the internet. However, I did manage to recover my photos of these places, and so if you took a look at those posts before, take another gander – the prose didn’t really change, but the photos are much better!
I’m up early, bags are packed, but are staying at Dara’s while I rush to the airport to meet Morgan, Jon, and Anna. I’m running a little bit late, but they took the time waiting to hit the cash machine and get some euros. They’re a little disoriented, but excited to be there and ready to rock and roll. One of Julie’s Rules of Travel is that on the day of arrival in Europe after an overnight flight, you must stay awake (whether you slept on the plane or not) until at least 9pm. Since it’s only 9am here, we have an entire day to fill.
Our room is not ready when we arrive at the hostel, so we store the kids’ bags and make a plan to take the free walking tour of the city departing in less than an hour. In that time, I bus back to Dara’s to collect my luggage and drag it back to the hostel. Once back, I catch up with the already departed tour and get a look at the center of Dublin.
Our guide is an engaging Trinity College student and aspiring theater manager. He has great stories and anecdotes about every place we pass: Trinity College, Dublin Castle, various churches, and Dublin City Hall. Did you know that Dublin was ruled by the Vikings for three hundred years until in 1171 Anglo-Norman King Dermott MacMurrough defeated them and eventually drove them out? This free tour is actually an effort to upsell participants into the 12euro pub crawl (discounted for participants!) or the 53euro tour to Galway and the Cliffs of Moher, but we don’t bite. The tour ends in Temple Bar, an area of restaurants, pubs, and stores. The pub we are in is one of the oldest in the neighborhood and there is a musician, drinks, and a special menu for tour participants, not a bad deal. I message Julie (Jon and Anna’s mom) from here to let her know the kids made it safe and sound.
After lunch, we walk back via busy Grafton street, a pedestrian-only thoroughfare filled with shoppers, buskers, and people holding signs advertising shops and restaurants off the main drag. There are bands, dancers, sand sculpture, and a harp player. Back to the hostel, we can check in, but just to unpack, because we need to keep moving. A tour of O’Connell street is next on the agenda and we also stop at a store (Penney’s – no JC) so Morgan can buy a belt. They have some adult-sized full-body superman and bunny outfits, and we’re not really sure if they are costumes or pajamas. We’re a little afraid to check them out!
To end the day, we decide to take in a vampire film at the Irish Film Institute. It’s always a tricky proposition sitting in the dark when you want to stay up, but everyone stayed awake and we made it back to the hostel by 9pm. More Dublin tomorrow – the Book of Kells!
Today I begin the second half of my annual May sojourn – I’m flying to Ireland. After a nice breakfast with my Italian family, I get a ride from Nicola to the bus stop where I can catch the cheaper city bus to the airport instead of taking the more expensive airport shuttle from the train station. I’m at Milan Linate airport a bit early; the AerLingus counter won’t be open for check-in for 45 minutes, so I have time for some fresh squeezed orange juice.
I get in line and start chatting with a couple from the US heading home after a two week Italian vacation. They tell me a story of some people they met while renting a car. While these folks were making the endless decisions at the car rental counter (insurance? prepaid gas? upgrade for a fee?) someone had stolen their luggage and valuables right from the rental car office. They spent most of their stay filing police reports, canceling credit cards, and buying clothes and toiletries. (Lesson: you really have to watch your luggage all the time.)
AerLingus is a major airline and the plane is a large plane, so I am expecting to carry on my luggage. However, when I get to the counter, they will have none of that. My luggage must be checked, even though I know for a fact it will fit in the overhead compartment. There’s no arguing, though, and to add insult to injury, I have to pay about $35 for the privilege. I have to go to another counter in another part of the airport, wait for the guy behind the counter to finish his personal phone call, pay there and bring the receipt to show the check-in agent before I can head to the gate. Oh well, the ticket was cheap enough, less than $100 to travel from Milan to Dublin. Through security, on the plane, pulling my favorite blow-up travel pillow, and I’m out til Ireland.
I collect my bag and text my Irish host, Dara, that I’m on my way. I catch the airport bus and follow his excellent directions until I find him in the street in front of his house, tucked away in a quiet neighborhood behind the hospital and just a few blocks from the Guinness factory. He leads me up the narrow stairs to my room and gives me a tour of the house. He’s an English teacher and definitely has the gift of gab. I haven’t gabbed all day, so I’m eager to keep up the conversation, but unfortunately, his mum is sick and he needs to spend time in the hospital. Since I slept through lunch on the plane, I’m starving and he sends me to the local pub, Arthur’s down the street. He gives me the key to the front door, then he’s gone, and soon so am I.
On the way, I pass one of the many churches in Dublin, but the Camino Shell on the sign catches my eye. The sign says you can get your Pilgrim Passport here with a stamp! I’m too hungry to go in right now and check it out… maybe on my way back. Then I walk by the Guinness Factory, another place of pilgrimage. Supposedly there is a tour and it’s not cheap, but you do get samples…
Cod and chips and Guinness (the best ever, it’s sooo much better when it’s fresh!!) and wi-fi. I’m in heaven. I’m catching up on email, doing some writing, and watching as the place fills up, mostly with groups of men coming off the day shift for a pint. Some break into groups of song. It’s quite a show. I move from my spacious table to the bar and have a nice chat with the waitress and the bartender. Here’s what I’m learning: the bars in Ireland are not for drinking, or even eating. No, they are for talking. Everyone is talking to everybody else. The work crowd dissipates and the bar starts to fill with a more well-dressed crowd. A man is trying to chat up a couple of cute girls right next to me. He’s not doing as well as he thinks he is.
I tell the waitress about my plans to go skydiving in Galway in a couple of days. She says that she tried it when she was working in Ocean City, Maryland. She’s doing it again for some kind of charity event in a couple of weeks. She encourages me to go for it and I feel less nervous and a quite excited at the prospect. The bartender used to work in New York City and told tales of a drunk John Belushi and other 1970’s SNL cast members who he used to wait on. I’m having a ball with my new friends. There’s supposed to be music later on, but now I’m tired and want to save my energy for the kids’ arrival tomorrow. So I walk back to Dara’s sweet house. (Mary, it reminds me so much of your 63rd St house! It even smells like it – that’s good, by the way!)
I don’t know if it was going when I got there, but there’s an electric candle on the dresser that keeps changing colors. I must be really tired, because I can’t stop staring at it. It’s still a little early to go to bed, so I fire up the wi-fi on my iPad and catch up on my missed episode of Game of Thrones, so I’ll be able to share impressions with Morgan when he comes tomorrow with Jon and Anna. Goodnight, Ireland, glad to meet ‘ya.
Today I’m in Milan and I’m on my own. After two weeks of intensive sightseeing, I’m taking a down day and just going to see one thing, the Duomo, which is the main cathedral in Milan, and have a nice lunch.
The Duomo is the third largest church in Europe and took six centuries to build. It’s incredibly ornate, with 52 pillars and over 2000 statues on the sides, on the roof, and even on the tops of each pillar. The place can seat 10,000 people, but today is not that busy. There’s a security line to get in and another line inside to purchase the opportunity to take photos inside. No photos are allowed unless you are wearing the 2euro wristband. I’m not here for the photos, though, I’m here just to rest and meditate in this huge space.
http://obika.com/upload/assets/files/IT,32,-1,5187/14259-att.pdf – four different types of mozzarella served with different meat or veggies. Take the elevator to the top of the Rinascente Department Store and the restaurant is on the terrace with a view of the statues on the roof of the Duomo. It’s almost just as fun to watch the other diners as it is to contemplate the statues. One couple in business suits each pull out a tablet and ignore each other, two Italian girls with shopping bags from designer stores draped on their arms are wearing too much makeup. The German girls next to me are frustrated at the service. I just sip my wine, nibble on my mozzarella and artichokes, and smile.
The duomo is awe-inspiring and the lunch was lovely, but the best part of Milan is my Home Away from Home. I found Nic and Ale’s apartment through my now favorite accommodations website Airbnb.com. Check out the link and do some travel window-shopping. Airbnb is sort of a cross between my former favorite, VRBO.com and newcomer Couchsurfing.com. VRBO (Vacation Rental by Owner) still is a good place to find apartments and other types of accommodations with more space and costing less than the price of a hotel room. Once we rented a houseboat in Amsterdam using this site. With VRBO, you usually never meet the owner, you meet a representative of the organization that the owner uses to check people in and out. Couchsurfing, for the uninitiated, is a site where you can find a place to stay with a host (or hosts, depending on how many people are living there) for free in their home, whether on their couch, floor, or in a separate bedroom. When you couchsurf, you are fully expected to interact with your hosts and often they will show you around, which is a great way to tour the town, but privacy and alone-time may be an issue.
When you use Airbnb, you almost always meet the owner of the apartment, or a designated family member. Sometimes they live there and sometimes they do not. Sometimes when they live there they stay there and sometimes they do not. For instance, in Mainz, both hosts lived in the apartments that I rented through Airbnb, but they would vacate the apartment and stay with a friend or be out of town when they rented it, so I had it all to myself. In Rome, we were greeted by the owner’s sister. In Florence, the owners did not live there at all, but used the apartment only for renting to Airbnb customers. In Cinque Terre, we shared the apartment with Beppe, the host’s father.
The beauty of this program is that when you are using Airbnb, you have a local person who can help you with anything that you need, like restaurant recommendations, stores where you can buy this or that, fantastic places to go that are not in the guidebooks. It’s not expected that you necessarily hang out socially, but sometimes there are special offers, like the ride we got to the Frankfurt airport from Mainz in Stefan’s Mercedes, or his offer to show Morgan and Dominic where the best clubs were.
Another really great thing about Airbnb rentals is that most of the time you are in someone’s home with a fully furnished kitchen. When you don’t want to go out to eat, but want to stay in and cook, often you will find your kitchen staples there: coffee, olive oil, salt, pepper. You can go out and buy the main components of a meal without having to buy say, an entire bag of sugar when you just need a few tablespoons. If the host lives there, often they will include breakfast.
One thing about Airbnb you need to know, though, is that you need to be fairly accurate about your arrival time. The hosts usually are not hanging around all day or night to wait for you to show up. You need to keep in close contact with them and be sure to show up when you say you’re going to. It’s pretty easy, though, in these days of texting and cheap phone calls. You do this, as well as leave the place as clean as you found it, to garner a good review. Of course, as you are shopping for accommodations, you can see the reviews for the place (as well as the host) which will help you make a decision. However, the hosts are also making reviews of you. Most hosts will review your profile and check out your reviews before they confirm your reservation. Your good online Airbnb reputation is extremely valuable. Another great thing is that you can make a request and be confirmed for a same day arrival, if necessary.
In Milan, I’m staying in the third bedroom (office?) in Nic and Ale’s three bedroom apartment. They have also converted their living room into a place for Airbnb’ers as well. They have a dedicated bathroom just for guests, but you have to walk through the kitchen to get to it. The cost? $52/night plus $6 fee to Airbnb. Way cheaper than any hotel room. And the details! A set of towels wrapped up in a luxurious ribbon at the foot of the bed, a vase of fresh flowers, and good coffee in the morning. I was exhausted when I got there and was offered tea and cake (they always had tea and cake – what’s not to love about that!) and lots of love from their two little dogs. Just what the doctor ordered!
In the morning, I had more energy to talk to Nic and Ale – they were fascinating! Nic works at the university nearby and Ale is a marketing exec for some Italian cable tv channels. Their teenage daughter is Italian gorgeous (too bad Morgan’s not here!) I tell them about my self-defense program and Ale believes that she could connect me to the right organizations who would sponsor classes to help women live safer lives. Hmmm…. I’d have to improve my Italian, learn what specific issues are most important to cover, and adjust my program to be viable for Italian culture. A couple of days ago, while watching the news on tv, there was a funeral for a woman who was killed by her boyfriend. According to Ale, this was not an isolated incident and there is a great need for women’s self-defense training in Italy.
It’s my last night in Italy, and I’m so happy to have shared it with my new Milano family! Thanks, guys!
Today is a day of goodbyes. Susie is getting on the plane to go back home, and I am heading back to Bergamo, grab the rest of my luggage, and head down to Milan, where I’ll catch a plane to Dublin to meet the kids for the second half of my journey. Arrivederci Venezia, arrivederci Susie, arrivederci Amedeo.
The three of us walk back to the bus that takes us back across the causeway to the car parked next to the train station and drive toward the airport to drop Susie off. Venice airport is not very big, so we can park the car close and go in to make sure she checks in without any problem. Everything’s fine, and after a quick coffee (paid for by Amedeo while we were not paying attention – thank you!), I say goodbye to my best girlfriend travel partner. We both wish that she could continue on with me to Ireland, but I guess that’s for another time.
It’s about a two hour drive back to Bergamo, and Amedeo and I chat along the way, reliving the past few days. Before we get back to his house to get my things, however, there’s one more stop to make. Lunch! But not just lunch, it’s lunch and a castle.
Remember our friend Bartolomeo Colleoni, soldier of the three balls? Well, it turns out that when he finally settled down, he settled down not far from Amedeo’s house. In 1456, he bought Castle Malpaga, originally built in the 1300’s. In 1456 it was in ruins (must have got it for a song!) and proceeded to fix it up and made it the seat of his lordship. The squarish castle, his home, is surrounded by an empty moat, then a yard area, then an outside wall lined on the inside, facing the castle, with small apartments for his soldiers, staff, and animals.
Today, we walk through the outside gate from the road past some workers who seem to be again fixing the place up. They’ve got a lot of work to do, however, because the yard is a mess and the apartments are ramshackle. The castle is holding up pretty well, though. We walk around to the front and I catch a glimpse of a woman in medieval garb leading a group of elementary aged children from the castle over the drawbridge and then through the outside gate. A ghost?
We go over the drawbridge ourselves and enter the castle. It’s not really open for visitors, but Amedeo works his magic and before I know it, I am Signora Giulia, dressed like the lady of the castle (because they had these amazing medieval dresses, adult-sized, available to wear!) and we are exploring the rooms. From the outside, the castle doesn’t look like much, but on the inside the walls are rich with 15th century frescoes, the colors still vibrant. As Signora Giulia, I have to remember to hold up the hem of my gown so I don’t trip going up and down the stairs. Somehow, wearing this silly costume has made it easier to imagine the banquets, the fine furnishings, the lords and ladies as well as the servants and staff that were here before me. It’s one of the most evocative castles I have ever visited and I am fascinated by the details and the stories of these walls. For a while, we are the only ones here and the castle belongs just to us.
Alas, like Cinderella at the ball, Signora Giulia must relinquish the dress (no glass slippers, though!) and cross back over the drawbridge to the real world. Fortunately, the real world has lunch, so it’s a smooth transition. I am the only woman diner in the restaurant across the street, one reason being that we are late, and the other is that the men there are all on their lunch break from work, so you know the food has to be good. And it is. Veal scaloppine, polenta, salad with onion, wine and a yummy dessert, plus a little local moonshine in my coffee made for a fantastic meal.
However, all good things must come to an end and I must move on to Milan. After retrieving my bags from Amedeo’s, it’s time for me to go. My Camino friend really went all out to create some fantastic experiences for us, and I’m afraid my meager thanks are not enough to express what a wonderful time we had and how much we appreciate everything he did. But life goes on, and I’m off. The adventure continues!
The city of Venice is built on 118 islands, and today we’re going to visit three of the most famous. Amedeo has scouted out a tour of the islands for about the same price as just the vaporetto tickets, so we walk to the train station to get the tickets. Turns out the tour leaves from the other side of town near Piazza San Marco, so we hop a vaporetto (water bus) for a tour of the Grand Canal. It’s hard to describe the variety of the buildings (most facades now plain, but handsomely decorated in their time), the watercraft, and the people in this busy place. I’m just going to leave it to the pictures to tell that story.
After a quick coffee break (girls had to pee and a coffee in the shop with a clean bathroom was the same price as the public loo), we boarded our waterbus for the tour. It takes about 45 minutes to get from Piazza San Marco to Murano, home of the Venetian glass makers. We are herded off the boat and into the glassblowing studio. After a quick demonstration, we are led through the gift shop. Since Susie and I bought our Murano glass in Rome (and it’s much more expensive here) we are just looking. The tour guide takes us upstairs for a look at some $10,000 glass figurines and chandeliers. No worries about breakage, they’re insured and can be shipped directly to our home! They’re beautiful, but , um, no. Murano is about a mile long and we walk along the street, window shopping in the many glass stores that line the canal. There’s a church at the end, but wait, there’s no time – have to catch the bus!
The next stop is Burano, home of the lacemakers. We are led into a store where a lonely woman in an apron is hand-making lace among the piles of doilies, table runners, and scarves. It’s too crowded in there for me, so I wait for the group to finish. We walk down the colorful streets and do more window shopping. It’s a beautiful place and I wish I could stay after the crowds leave. Next to our waterbus is another waterbus that has music coming out of it. I ask our crew to sing for us, since our boat has no music player. They decline and laugh.
Last is Torcello, the oldest continuously populated region in Venice, but there aren’t very many people living there now. One low-key hotel, an ancient church and sculptures, vineyards. It’s quiet, quiet, quiet after the hustle-bustle of Venice. It would be nice to stay here and take a nap along the canal under the trees. But the waterbus calls, and after a little more flirting with the crew, we board for our ride home.
Amedeo has the idea that he would like to make pasta con vongole (clams), so upon our return, we search for clams. However, because it is Monday, there are no fresh clams to be found. No fresh seafood of any kind, in fact. The fishermen are off on Sunday, so the fish market is closed on Monday. We search anyway, but to no avail. Susie’s a little tired, so I offer to take Amedeo out for our last Venice dinner to the restaurant from yesterday, which we liked. Walking back to the apartment through the narrow streets, it’s hard not to love the city, even in the dark.
It’s Sunday in Venice. What’s the first thing to do? Go to church, of course! After a bit of breakfast on the apartment terrace, we head out to catch the 10:30am mass at Saint Mark’s Cathedral. We wind our way through the Venetian streets and when we get to the cathedral, we find the service has started. I also find out that my small black fabric backpack is not allowed in, even though some woman with a huge purse went through ahead of us. Fortunately, the church as a bag-check right around the corner and I take out my valuables and leave it with the guy there. Back in line, we are escorted through one end of the transept, around the back of the church, then back to the front on the other side of the transept and are seated in the second row from the front. From here, we can see the altar quite clearly, but that’s not what is catching my eye. It’s the glowing gold ceiling of the domes above. Thousands of gold and brass tiles interspersed with jewels form a mosaic that covers the entire ceiling, telling bible stories and parables. I don’t understand much of the Italian service, but I do understand the magnificence of the scenes above me. Combined with the organ and choir and everyone else in there, it is magical and spiritual.
When it’s over, Susie and I hang out a bit just to enjoy being in the center of the church, and listen while the next choir is warming up. But, for us, church is over and we have other things to do.
Amedeo said he had a surprise for us and led us to the head of the Grand Canal. To the gondolas. And here, he arranged a ride in a gondola poled by a gondolier, across the Grand Canal. Fantastic! Susie and I are beside ourselves and try to sit back and relax in the Venetian splendor. We can’t believe Amedeo did this and thank him profusely. Wow. We wove through the ferries, motorboats, other gondolas, and just about any other type of watercraft you can think of, enjoying the view of the city along the canal. I was torn between wanting to take pictures to remember this amazing experience and just sitting back and enjoying it.
A stroll through the streets and over bridges brought us to the Accedemia Bridge, one of the four that cross the Grand Canal, and right around the corner we found a very busy but not touristy (always a good sign!) restaurant and had some pasta for lunch. Next, time for some art. We stop at the huge Frari church and enjoy Titian’s Assumption, one of the largest altarpieces in Venice, and say a prayer of thanks when we pass the tomb of the artist, also located there.
After a large lunch, we are getting tired, and thinking that a stop at the supermarket is in order to pick up some antipasti ingredients and some wine to enjoy on our marvelous rooftop terrace. Amedeo goes out to check on tomorrow’s plans, in the meantime, Susie and I stretch out with a yoga session on the roof.
In Italy, everything has to be beautiful, and beautiful it is. Not content to just put out some bread, cheese, and olives, Amedeo creates a feast of antipasti and we enjoy it with our favorite Italian drink, prosecco. It’s local, from the vines that we passed through yesterday as we wound down from the Dolomiti. The sun sets.
But the day is not done! We go back into the city and wind again through the streets to enjoy the fabulous Piazza San Marco at night. A band in front of a restaurant at one end of the square draws a crowd, while a band from the other side of the square tries to compete for our ears. I wish I knew how to waltz. We walk down the waterfront, past the Bridge of Sighs, and take a peek into the Hotel Danieli, where I think I stayed on a fam trip as a travel agent 30 years ago. More sighs, then time to go back, crossing the Rialto bridge and seeing the lights reflected in the canal. Goodnight Venice!
We’re up at 5am, having a bit of breakfast made by Amedeo at 530, and out of the house a bit after 6am. It’s light out, and we’re headed northeast toward the Dolomiti. It’s unclear what the weather will be, but the passes are open and the clouds are high.
After driving for about an hour, we head up a huge valley, snow-capped mountains on either side. It’s breathtaking, but Amedeo says we ain’t seen nothing yet! We turn right and head right up the side of one of the mountains, stopping for a quick coffee and strudel. This area used to belong to Austria and you can see it in the churches and houses we pass, as well as the food.
Over the top of the mountain and we continue through Alpine-like verdant green valleys surrounded by the dramatic rock cliffs toward the pass. We take the turn toward the pass and head up a series of s-curves. Before we know it, we’re surrounded by snow-covered trees. We stop at a pristine mountain lake. Since it’s between seasons (and just after a late-in-the-season snow) we have the place to ourselves. It’s beautiful.
We climb higher and higher, at every turn we see a different view of the tops of the various mountain groups. Marmolada, Cristallo, Sella, they weave in and out of the snow-laden clouds. Amedeo is a bit disappointed that it’s so cloudy – there are amazing views on a sunny day – but we are thrilled to be in the clean pine-scented air, chasing the ghosts of these stark mountain peaks. We reach the first pass and walk down to the little store/restaurant/gift shop/base of cable car that takes you to the top. It’s cold, though, so we walk back up the slushy street and move on.
Heading down, and then up again, we reach the second pass and it’s snowing. The temperature outside is minus 2 celsius, or 28 degrees fahrenheit. Leaning against the store/restaurant/gift shop are several bicycles, their riders huddling inside with a warm drink. Bravo to them for making it to the top – it’s all downhill for them now, as it is for us.
More views and more snow accompany the stories that Amedeo is sharing with us about his climbing experiences and some funny stories about how the Italian and Austrian soldiers interacted with each other here on the front line during World War II. Next stop is Cortina, home of the 1956 Winter Olympics, and playground of the rich and famous. Today, though, the rich and famous are absent and much of the town is closed in this off-season. Riders from the Giro d’Italia (the Italian Tour de France) are preparing to start a stage in the race, though, and we find one restaurant open that will serve us lunch. On the way back from the bathroom, I strike up a conversation with the cooks in the kitchen – two from Poland, one from Albania, and one from Italy! An international staff.
Well fed and ready to go, we dodge the racers and drive down the valley, heading to Venice. On the way, we stop to see the Vajont Dam, one of the tallest dams in the world. In October, 1963, a huge landslide from the adjacent mountain tumbled into the dam, creating a 650 foot wave overflowing the dam and destroying everything in the valley below, including several villages and causing 2000 deaths. The memorials to the drowned were moving and it was interesting to hear about the disaster from Amedeo, a civil engineer.
Finally, our last leg through the vineyards gets us to the train station going into Venice. This is the cheapest place to park, since there are no cars allowed in the city. From here, we take a bus across the causeway and are let out near the Venice train statin. Trying to decipher our way through the winding streets, eventually we find the square behind our apartment and meet our host. He leads us down the alley into a courtyard, up one flight of stairs to the outside door, then up three more floors to our apartment. We take a moment to get the intro information of the place, then drop our bags and find some dinner.
We are tired, but so incredibly thankful for Amedeo to drive us all over the mountains. It could not have been a more perfect day. These are places where we would never have gone without a car. The drive, the stories, the stops were all incredible, and we could not have done it without him. Amedeo, whatever you are doing right now, please allow us to say again: thank you, thank you, thank you!
Tomorrow, we explore Venice.
Dear Readers, As some of you know, I am back home in Virginia, busy with getting back into life here and catching up in the Yoga Teacher Training that I’ve started before I left. Somehow, only a week into this trip, I became so busy with planning the next day and trying to go out and enjoy the evenings (my usual time to write) that I had to stop posting. Till now (or rather, the last few posts). However, my mind and spirit are still in Europe, even though my body is not, and I do want to continue the story and I’m going to keep the tense present. I hope you enjoy the rest of the trip!
It’s both a sad day and a happy day in the Cinque Terre. Sad because we’re leaving this wonderful place – even the Cinque Terre seems sad. The warm sun of yesterday has turned into spitting rain and the surf’s up. We have a last, early, breakfast with Beppe, say our goodbyes and catch the first bus down the hill to the train station.
It’s a happy day, though, because Susie and I will be reuniting with our Camino friend, Amedeo. If you have read the saga of my Camino journey in this blog last year, you will remember that I met Amedeo in Spain a couple of days after Uli, my German walking partner, had to leave. It was Amedeo who accompanied me on the climb to Mt. Irago to the Cruz de Ferro, where I left the stone that I had been carrying with me for 350 miles as a symbol of letting go of my spiritual burdens. We walked together and shared our life stories, some invented prehistoric tales, and cocino maragato. He kept me going when I wanted to stop, shared the agony of my broken camera, and celebrated with me in Santiago when I finally made it. Following the travel rule of “it’s always better to stay with someone who lives there,” I contacted him right away when I knew we were coming to his country. He then graciously offered to pick us up in La Spezia, close to our 5T base, and drive us the 2 1/2 hours to his home in Bergamo, just north of Milan. He also agreed to show us his beloved mountains, the Dolomiti, and accompany us to Venice. Fantastic!
So we meet in La Spezia. There are hugs all around and after a quick stop for coffee, we drive north over the pass through the rain. For most of the journey we regaled him with our travel stories of Popes and prosecco, and before we know it, we’re in Bergamo. A fabulous steak lunch precedes a tour of the town.
Bergamo was originally built on a hill at the foothills of the Alps. Originally settled by the Celts, it has always been an important town from ancient Roman times through medieval times and the Renaissance. On top of the hill is the walled medieval old town, the Citta Alta (upper city). Below is the more modern Citta Bassa. The most fun way to get to the top of the hill is to take the funicular – built before there were cars – and enjoy the views of the Citta Bassa and beyond. At the top, we strolled through the medieval streets, visiting the beautiful old squares, the Santa Maria Maggiore church, and the Colleoni Chapel.
I’m intrigued by the story of Bartholomeo Colleoni. He was a condottieri, a mercenary soldier from an important local family in the 1400’s, who was extremely successful at winning battles. He fought for his hometown of Venice, then for Milan, then for Venice, and ended up settling down just outside of Bergamo. Not only a soldier, he was also well known for his charitable works and helping the local villages with agricultural improvements. He wanted to be buried in the Santa Maria Basilica, but wasn’t allowed, so he tore down the church’s sacristy and built this ornate, pre-Renaissance, pink and white marble jewel for his remains. You might say it took balls to tear down the church’s sacristy, and Colleoni had them. Three of them, so they say. His coat of arms (and gate decoration) has sets of three fat commas. They are a play on his name (which in Italian sounds a lot like testicles) and he was proud of them, because they are everywhere!
After a stop at the cafe at the top of the funicular to admire the view, we walked down the hill back to the car. We weren’t really very hungry, but Amedeo stopped at the store for some cake for the evening. Tomorrow the plan is to drive through the Dolomite mountains, ending up in Venice. However, the rainy weather that we drove through to get to Bergamo made for snow in the passes. It was unclear if the passes were even open. Amedeo made some calls and, after some time, determined that we were to go through the mountains after all. BUT we have to leave at 6am, because more snow was forecast for that afternoon. I repack my bags because I’m coming back to Bergamo and call it an early night. Maybe we’ll see some snow tomorrow!
(Note: I am trying a different app for this entry – sometimes the Blogsy app does not always keep the words and photos where I want them. Let me know what you think! Julie)
We have one full day to explore as fully as we can the Cinque Terre and it is my intention to visit each of the five villages, ideally by walking. First order of business is to purchase the pass that allows us to walk the trails in this National Park. The pass also includes train fare between the towns, which we will need since our home town, Corniglia, is in the middle of the five. After a good breakfast and a lunch recommendation from our host, Beppe, we are on our way. And our way is up. Unfortunately, the easy coastal trails are closed, so we must take the high road. This means walking straight up, across the hills through the vineyards, then back down to the village. We did this yesterday afternoon from Corniglia to Vernazza, and it was fun. Today, we have all day to do the rest!
This walk is like a mini-Camino, but with a daypack instead of the full pack we used in Spain. The scenery was gorgeous, it was a good workout and a great meditation, and we saw mostly non-locals along the way (even a few with walking sticks!). Our first leg was 6 miles and took us about two and a half hours, all told. The photo above is where we started and in the one below you can see our first destination in the lower right hand corner. Cinque Terre wine (white, especially) is some of the best we’ve had, and it was a joy walking through the vineyards among the workers and the vines.
We also passed through olive trees with their colorful nets tied around their trunks. In November, they handpick the olives they can reach, but spread these nets out to catch the olives shaken down from the top by machine.
We drop down the thirteen hundred steps to the colorful village of Manarola. We think about continuing up the other side of the hill, but wind down through the village to the train station instead. The trail is closed from Manarola to the next town, Riomaggiore, but it’s a short distance and we hop the train and are there in 5 minutes. We climb through the center of Riomaggiore and around to the church, which has a spectacular view of the sea. Just over the hill, you can see the station where we will take the train to Vernazza, back toward and past where we started in Corniglia.
We’re getting hungry now and are getting ready for a rest. Our host Beppe suggested that we go to Gianni’s (pronounced Johnny’s) on the Vernazza harbor and drop his name for some good service. Sure enough, when we got there and said we were sent by Beppe di Corniglia (no last name required) they went out of their way to seat us at the best harborfront table, shooing some other tourists away who wanted to sit there. We asked for “un buen pranzo” and got 5 different types of anchovies, gnocchi with pesto, octopus, dessert, and limoncello to seal the deal. The food was scrumptious, the wine delicious, and we had the best view of the little harbor, the fishermen, and the never-ending stream of tourists parading by.
Happily full of food and drink, we walk down along the rocks, take our shoes off, and dangle our tired feet in the cool water. There is just no other place I would rather be in the world right now. We look back at the colorful town buildings.
But we’re not done yet. There’s one more town to visit, and it’s only a ninety minute walk away. The day would not be complete if we missed this last town. However, we’re extremely relaxed and a little drunk still from the heady combination of lunch, wine, sun, and water. It’s hard to get going. I make a deal with Susie that we just climb halfway up the hill to get the quintessential view of Vernazza. After a false start, we head up. When we reach the viewpoint, it seems like a waste to turn back, so we keep going.
It’s hard going, but totally worth it. The trail narrows as it starts to descend, and we get stuck behind a slow group of Germans. There’s a man selling limoncello right off the trail, but we’re afraid that if we stop, we will not be able to continue down and finish our quest. People who have traveled with me know that there will be one major and serious walk on every trip and
they are bold enough to call this nice walk “the death march.” Looks like this is it for this trip! We’re so happy to get into Monterosso and have a drink while we wait to catch the train back to Corniglia. We are tired, but happy.
We hobble back to Beppe’s house, but I can’t make a call here, so I walk back to the little town square. When I’m finished, I notice the sign that points through the town the other way to the church and a viewpoint. I walk the narrow street to the end of the point and find the most perfect sunset spot. I run back to Beppe’s, get Susie, and after a stop for some gelato, enjoy the moonrise on the left over Riomaggiore and the sunset over Monterosso. A spectacular way to end a truly memorable Camino day.
I'm so excited for this day – I've been waiting for it for 30 years. I was in my early 20's working as a travel agent in the Seattle area when I attended a seminar given by local Europe expert, 25-year old Rick Steves, who had written his first book, Europe Through the Back Door. One of his “back door” destinations was the Cinque Terre, a set of 5 small towns located along the Mediterranean, south of Genoa, but north of Rome. The picture he painted was idyllic – classic Italian hill towns perched over the sea, painted in pastels instead of the rich ochres of Tuscany. Tourists can't drive into them – the only way to visit them is to take the train that runs along the coast or walk the trail that winds through the vineyards between them (and you all know how much I love walking trails). Sounded like a place I would love, and this afternoon I'll be there!
But first, we have to get there. We have a reservation on a train from Florence to La Spezia, the largest town next to the 5T (shorthand – Cinque means five, Terre means lands). Then we take the small train that stops at each of the villages – it's just a 20 minute ride. Unfortunately, when we arrive at the Florence train station and look at the big board of departures, it says that our train is cancelled due to fires. We scramble to find an agent, who gives me a new schedule of three trains and a bus to get to Corniglia. The first train is ready to depart, so off we go.
We're not the only ones whose schedules are messed up, though, and by the time we board the train, we are left with standing room only. We meet Americans, Brazilians, and Germans and share stories. First stop, everyone gets off and goes to look for the bus. As we wait outside, someone from the station comes out and tells us that there is in fact a train that will take us to Pisa instead of the bus. We pile in again, standing with a group of new friends, pile out at Pisa, then find our train to La Spezia. We wish we could stop for a bit to see the famous leaning tower, but the Cinque Terre calls, and we are late. This time we get a seat, and watch as the scenery speeds by. As we pass by Carrara, we can see the mountains and marble quarries in the distance and the big chunks of marble stored in lots just before and just past the train station.
Finally, we board our fourth train of the day and arrive in Corniglia. The train is packed with hikers who have been walking all day and they spill out of the train and up the stairs where the bus is waiting to take us to the town at the top of the hill. We could drag our bags up 382 steps, but we wait for the third bus to take us up, a little miffed that none of the hikers took pity on our tired, trained-out bodies to let us board.
From the bus stop, up the hill, up more stairs, we find Beppe's house, where we will stay the next two nights. Beppe is in his 70's, a retired railroad engineer, and is happy to see us, but doesn't speak a word of English. He proudly shows us to one of the two rooms he remodeled on the first floor of his house (he lives above and we have breakfast in his kitchen) and we settle in. Right below our room is a fabulous foccia store and we take our bread with olives up to the courtyard of the church in front of our room and enjoy the view with the local cats.
It's 4pm, we've had lunch, and, after sitting all day, we're ready to walk. It's only an hour and a half to the next town, Vernazza, so we start up the hill, enjoying the ever-changing views of our little village and the Mediterranean below. I get a bit ahead of Susie and about halfway there meet a guy who lives right on the trail. He offers two rooms in his house for a reasonable price, and the view is spectacular. I wish I could stay there, but I need to catch Susie, who's gone ahead now, and move on.
We arrive at the most wonderful bar (ok, everywhere is the most wonderful bar when you've walked an hour and a half up and down the mountains) and stop for some 5T white wine. It's amazingly good and we float from lawn chairs to tables to find just the right view of Vernazza below.
Eventually, and much happier but fairly tired, we descend into Vernazza and catch the train back to Corniglia. The foccacia lady sends us to a local restaurant with great food and a view to match. By the time we're done, we've made friends with everyone who works there and I've got an offer for some advanced Italian (language!!) lessons. I decline, gracefully, and we head back to Beppe's.
You know when you have dreamed of a place and when you finally get there, it doesn't measure up? Well, that is NOT the case here. Dreams really can come true!
Today, we visit the Uffizi Gallery, one of the greatest art collections on the planet, and the Accedemia, home to Michelangelo's David, the Renaissance masterpiece that defines the age. Where Rome was about history, Florence is about art and beauty. And this beauty is not just in the museums, but is found everywhere, and in everyone.
In fact, everyone is more beautiful in Italy.
Here's the logic: I know I am more beautiful in Italy, therefore, everyone is more beautiful in Italy. How is it possible to be more beautiful in one place compared to another?
Let me explain. First, the country provides a great frame for a pretty picture. It's sunny here. The rich colors and architecture of the buildings against the blue sea against the varying greens of the trees create the perfect backdrop for anything set against it. When the surroundings are beautiful, it's hard not to be in tune with that.
Second, it's not just the scenery, but the details are beautiful. The way a table is laid, the placement of vegetables in a market stall, the flowers everywhere. It's how the tomatoes are arranged with the mozzarella and basil, the crispness of the cotton shirts, the memorable photo on a simple museum ticket.
Third, you will find some of the greatest, most beautiful art in the world here: David – perfection in sculpture and painters likeTitian, Della Robbia, and so many others. It's not just a coincidence that some of the world's greatest collections are here. The collectors certainly had an eye for beautiful things. And how do you not feel beautiful when in the presence of these?
Last, it's the people. People look at you here. They look and they smile. Not in a creepy, stalking kind of way, but in a “hey, I notice your beauty” kind of way. In my self-defense classes, I teach that when walking down the street, it's a good idea to look people in the eye. This is one country where my glance is met and returned, often with a smile. I'm not just some faceless person in the crowd, I am present, I am noticed, I am beautiful.
Not only am I beautiful here, but I am clever as well! I am hugely enjoying the patience of just about everybody that I meet to let me try to speak Italian and to correct me (kindly) as I stumble through. I've been studying Italian with Rosetta Stone since l got back from Camino last summer and can put together a few words, but sometimes get the verb conjugations wrong. I love being able to speak the little bit of Italian that I can muster and I am so appreciative of the Italians whom I've met who will allow me to do so. It's nice to be rewarded for all of that study!
I experience the complete opposite of this phenomena in France, and sometimes Spain. I'll start to speak in French, and they will finish my sentence in exasperated English. Or, they'll look at me funny, I'll repeat it again, and then they give me another funky look and say, “oh, you mean (whatever I said)”, repeating it as if I said it wrong, but it sounds just how I said it. Perhaps it's meant to be helpful, but it comes across as condescending.
Unfortunately, I was explaining this whole language thing to Susie while on the bus today and, only too late, noticed that there was a French couple sitting in the seats right in front of us. Arrgh! Fortunately, they got off before telling me how I insulted them and their country! I'm hoping they didn't hear me.
After visiting the museums and lunch (don't ever order papa di pomodoro – it sounds nice, but it's just bread soaked in tomato liquid, oh, and never put cheese on it!!) we took the bus up the hill to the medieval church of San Miniato to hear the Gregorian chants that are offered before sunset. The echoes of the seven long-robed monks played among the columns of the crypt. Beautiful!
Outside, the sun was setting and we had a glorious view of Florence on the Arno. One more stop at the Gelato Fest and we were back to the apartment, packing up for our trip to the Cinque Terre tomorrow.
And feeling beautiful!
This morning we're up and at 'em, packing our bags and leaving our sweet Rome apartment for Florence. We have a train reservation (in business class, no less!) from Rome Termini station at 10am, so that means leave the apartment at 8am, roll our luggage for 10 minutes over the cobblestones to the bus stop and ride for another 20 minutes to the train station.
It was really easy to go to the Italian Rail website and reserve seats for our journey. Even though they offer a railpass, it turned out that the point-to-point tickets were less expensive, especially since I booked them a couple of months ago. However, when I looked at the Rome to Florence leg, all of the discount 2nd class tickets were sold out, but there were some discount tickets for business class seats that were exactly the same price as the 2nd class seats that were left. So, when Susie and I boarded the train in Rome, we were traveling in style!
What's the difference between 2nd class and business class, you might ask? Well, frankly, not a lot. The seats are a bit wider (two seats on one side of the aisle and one on the other side) and you get free drinks and snacks. But the best thing that these business class seats came with was a new friend!
As Susie and I found our seats and were trying to determine the best place to stow our luggage, we were greeted by an English speaking voice! Not American English, nor even British English, but Australian English. Music to our ears after so much Italian! Ross was a former vineyard owner from outside of Melbourne who was traveling to Tuscany to meet some friends. Over the next hour and a half of train ride, we shared stories over blood orange juice and prosecco. He was taking several months to travel around Europe and to me, was a kindred spirit. We promised to share emails about our respective adventures as we parted at the Florence station.
Since it was only noon and we couldn't check into the apartment yet, Susie and I dragged our bags over to the Bargello Museum of art. The museum had a place to store our luggage so we were able to enjoy this beautiful place unencumbered. Besides the porcelain, tapestries, and paintings, there was our first encounter with the Florentian idea of David. There were several sculptures of him there, all very feminine looking until you looked, uh, down.
After a quick pizza lunch, we dragged the bags across the River Arno to meet Alessandro and check in to our apartment. It was four floors up (no elevator), but had a wonderful view of the rooftops. The apartment was a two-bedroom (we had one bedroom, another couple had the other) with a shared bathroom, kitchen, and living area. Alessandro had a great map (which he downloaded as a PDF file to my iPad and iPhone) and a list of recommendations of places to eat, things to do, and even places to go for fabulous views.
So, after settling in for a bit, we head to Golden View Open Bar for dinner. On the River Arno with a view of the famous Ponte Vecchio, it's a perfect place to chill. We're not eating in the restaurant, however, we're in the bar. For an 8euro glass of wine (or a 10euro Campari spritzer) we have the run of the all-you-can-eat appetizers and an unobstructed view of the bridge and the Uffizi Gallery across the river. Beautiful!
We head back through the main square, where there's a Gelato Festival going on. Earlier today we got a free sample of a gelato mojito cocktail and we're looking for more. Unfortunately, the cocktail guy is gone, but we are still able to get some mighty fine gelato across the square. The sun sets as we head back to the apartment. Tomorrow, we have a date with David!
The day started at 5:39am with two very drunk Italians singing “Back to Black” along with Amy Winehouse. Loud. Right in our window. That was what got us out of bed, but it wasn't our wake up call. Our Trastevere apartment on the “left bank” of Rome was three doors down from a four story student dorm. It was Saturday night. Smokers, laughers, drivers, singers, we heard them all.
Well, we were planning to go to the flea market before mass at St. Peter's anyway, so we had some coffee, tea, and cookies, and went up to find the bus. The Trastevere flea market is the biggest in Rome, going on and on with almost every type of product you can imagine. There are tables and tables of piled clothes, shoes, and handbags at a euro a piece. (Reminded me of 'as is' in Portland!) One thing I like to do when traveling is bring clothes from home that I don't wear often, wear them a bit, then leave them and instead find something new to wear. Clothes, bags, shoes, and jewelry are the best souvenirs: useful, easy to pack, and often light in weight. We found some of each of the above – my favorite find was summer boots. Turns out women in Italy wear light boots in the summer. The boots go well with my Italian handbag.
At the other end of the market, we have a quick panini and look for a bus to take us back to the apartment so we can drop off our purchases and get to mass on time. When we were in St. Peter's on Friday, we noticed that people were joining the small group of worshippers in front of the altar at all times, so we weren't too worried about getting there right on time. Back to the apartment, we find the bus that will take us to church.
However, when we reached Vatican City, we noticed something strange. The streets were thronged with people, all heading toward the cathedral. In fact, the entire street to St. Peter's was packed with bodies. Along the sides of the road, huge, 20 foot tall tv screens were showing clergy speaking, then… was it… the Pope? OMG! Instead of the small service under the altar, we had stumbled on a mass given by THE NEW POPE!
My heart started beating faster as we wound our way toward the front of the church. The choir was singing, clergy alternated with the Pope as the service progressed. When we got closer, we noticed that we could not get farther than the rows of chairs that we had noticed filling the square two days before. These were the paid seats. As it was a sunny day, Susie went to find some shade. But me, I found a place about 3 people from the front of the free zone. The choir was heavenly – I mean, would it not be a choir of the highest quality that sings in the Pope's Mass? Some short Italians pushed through to the front of the barricade. They stayed for just a minute and left, leaving a hole for me to squeeze into. Now I was just one person away from the front of the free zone. A long way away from the Pope, he was just a dot in the distance, but I could see the big screen and hear the choir clearly in the speakers above my head. Now there are some Italian nuns next to me, singing along with the choir. I am covered in goosebumps of rapture.
I also finally decided why I had been learning Italian. It was to understand at least some of the words when Il Papa started speaking. The crowd around me was focused clearly on every word he was saying. After the missive, the priests of the world came to our barricade and offered communion. People lined up to receive the blessed wafers. I got jostled around a bit, but maintained my position. As the service was finishing, the crowd started buzzing with excitement. Now what?
The Swiss Guards of the Vatican lined the open space between the free zone and the paid seats. For every one of those, there were five other security suits. Something big was going to happen. Then, the huge screens showed the Pope getting into a car and driving through the crowd. He's in the PopeMobile and heading our way! Hands holding cameras sprouted up from the crowd like blossoms. Eventually, he got to our zone, the free seats, and drove, I swear, not 20 feet away from where I was standing. It was hard to decide whether to stare with awe or record the moment in photos. I chose the photos and was handsomely rewarded.
After he passed by, some of the crowd moved on and I moved forward to the front of the rail. The line of security was still in place, and one guy, when asked if Il Papa was coming back this way, said he didn't know. I hung out and watched the faces of the people around me as we all stared at the screen to follow the PopeMobile's journey through the square and down the street. The buzz returned when the car turned around and all of us who were left were granted with an unobstructed view of the most powerful religious leader in the world, blessing us. Wow.
As the crowd dispersed, Susie and I found each other and headed out. Since the last thing the Pope said was, “Happy Holiday (Pentecost), have a nice Sunday, and have A Good Lunch,” we were going to comply. We took a bus to the Piazza del Popolo at the other end of the Via Corso, and walked down it until we found a good restaurant and had indeed a good lunch. We still could not believe that we just had Mass with the Pope. Wow.
Afterwards, we visited the Spanish Steps, saw some ancient and beautiful mosaics and wall frescos at the National Museum, and then bussed it back to our apartment (still without internet) to pack for departure tomorrow.
Truly, truly, truly, we were blessed.
Today is History Day.
Where Naples was about the food and La Dolce Vita, Rome is othe place where we are going to connect to civilizations past.
After a pretty good rest in our little ground floor apartment, we get up, make some coffee, and get going, because we have a date with history!
First, we head toward the Colosseum. Yesterday, we bought the Rome Card, which gives us unlimited bus and metro rides along with free entry to two tourist sites and discounts on all the rest. It's only good for the first two sites you see, so it makes sense to use it on the most expensive. The ticket to the Colosseum includes the Forum and the Palatine Hill, so we start here. The other thing the Rome Card does is that it allows us to skip the ticket line and go straight to the entrance. This is a real benefit, because the line is long… without the Rome Card, you might have to wait an hour or so to get in. Since we're in Rome only today and tomorrow, we don't have time for that!
It's so weird to be riding down the street, turn a corner, and wow, there's the largest amphitheater of the Roman Empire (built 70AD – 80AD) right in front of you! We zipped past the line of people waiting to buy tickets and went inside. It was easier than I thought to imagine the roaring crowds, the growls of the animals kept under the floor, and the clash of swords against armor as the gladiators fought, even among the throngs of tourists. We circled the top level, then the next level, enjoying a new perspective every 10 steps or so. We find the gift shop and buy matching Roman-style twisted bracelets, mine gold, Susie's silver.
From the Colosseum we walk over to the Forum, the city center of Ancient Rome. It's all ruins now, of course, but it was inspiring to walk over the same stones that Julius Caesar walked, to note the temples to the Gods were more numerous, but one government building could be the size of six or seven temples. Did you know that the first basilica was not built as a church, but as a place for people to do their civic business like pay their taxes and settle property disputes? The ruins of the Palatine (palace) hill overlook the ancient grounds.
We find a nice lunch a few blocks behind the Colosseum. It's late, almost 3pm, and many restaurants will not serve lunch between 3pm and 7pm, but there are enough people in this place that we are still served our wine, fizzy water, pasta, and lamb.
After lunch, we walk around the Forum to see the other side of the Capitoline Hill that towers over it. We pass by the wedding-cake of the Victor Emmanuel monument, built in 1885 to honor the first king of a unified Italy, which is a perfect complement to the weddings that are being celebrated on the hill above.
A stroll down the Via Corso, the main shopping street, and a right turn brings us to the Trevi Fountain. We blend in with the Saturday night crowds and each toss a coin over our shoulder to ensure that we return to Rome. There are 3000 coins tossed into that fountain every day, and I'm happy to say they are used to help the needy.
Time to head homeward. A stop for gelati is a must, though, and one of Rome's best gelaterias is on our way. No matter how small and inexpensive the cone, you always get two flavors. Here, they top it with whip cream, the real stuff, not Rediwhip. First you pay at the cash register, then you bring the receipt to the ice cream guys. Since we had a big, rather late lunch, this will serve for dinner.
Last stop, Piazza Navona, lined with restaurants facing the Bernini fountains. It's just starting to get dark and the lights are coming on. This is the perfect place to stroll with someone you love, holding hands. By this time, though, we are extremely tired and drag ourselves back to our apartment, where the internet that wasn't working yesterday was supposed to be fixed. Instead of a working modem we get a plate of cookies from the bakery as an apology. Well, we're exhausted anyway and have more to see tomorrow, so we put in our earplugs (necessary on this increasingly noisy Saturday night) and fall asleep.
It's 730am and we're leaving Lucy's to continue our journey to Rome. After a slight mistunderstanding of the train stops, we find the correct station and still have time for some sfogliate – yummy pastries with a filling the consistency of paste, but the taste of mousse.
At our destination, we buy our Roma pass (good for museum entry and all public transportation) and bus to our Roma apartment. It's in the Trastevere neighborhood, sort of the Left Bank of Rome, a couple of blocks from the Tiber River. It's on the ground floor and the neighborhood seems quiet enough. Everything looks great, except for our promised internet is not working, but we are assured it will be fixed that afternoon. Fine, we're off to Vatican City anyway.
Vatican City is the world's smallest country – all that's there is St. Peter's Basilica and the Vatican Museum. Tourists, Romans, monastics, and clergy mingle, creating an electric, yet peaceful energy. We have prereserved tickets to the Vatican Museum (home of the Sistine Chapel) at 7pm tonight. It's 4pm now, so we have time to see the church and get some dinner.
St. Peter's Basilica is the grandest and richest church on the planet. Home of the bones of it's namesake, it also houses Michelangelo's Pieta, the sculpture of the body of Jesus in the arms of his mother, Mary. The sun shines through the nave like beams from heaven. We can't get all the way to the altar because they're having mass, but we can hear the choir. Today's Friday, but we resolve to attend the mass on Sunday, just to be a greater part of that sacred place.
Just outside of the Vatican we find a sandwich shop and have panini (sandwiches) of zucchini flowers, mozzarella, and pesto, along with a Peroni, the Italian beer. We find a spot to sit on the square across the street and watch the cars and the people cruise by.
The Vatican Museum, as you might imagine, houses some of the world's greatest pieces of art, which are lovely. We pass by ancient Roman sculptures, medieval tapestries, walls decorated by Rafael. But those are only appetizers for the main course, the Sistine Chapel. Painted by Michelangelo, it tells the story of Creation from a Renaissance perspective. Breathtakingly beautiful, especially in the fading light of the evening, you want to devour every inch of it. Bellissima!
On the way back to our apartment, we swing back through St. Peter's, which is illuminated for the evening with a crescent moon above to complete the scene. The two windows of the Pope's apartments are backlit in green, with the shadow in the shape of a head in the center. Is he watching?
On the Camino, Susie was told that the Italians cook like gods, so she's told everyone that her plan is to eat her way across Italy. Of course, I'm totally on board with that, as you might already have guessed. But, even in Italy, how do you get a great meal without breaking the bank?
You ask for “un buon pranzo” or A Good Lunch. Then the waiters (or more likely, the guy who runs or owns the restaurant, if you're dining with Lucy), will bring you their best plates until you can't eat any more. Basta!
In Italy (and many places in Europe), the trick is to eat a little bit for breakfast, maybe some coffee and pastry, and save your appetite for the main meal of the day, lunch. Italians treat their lunch like Americans do dinner. You take your time and have your three courses (antipasti – appetizer), primo piatto (first course – pasta), and secondo piatto (second course – meat).
Beverage of choice is wine, of course, with water on the side. In Italy, nobody drinks tap water. You'll need to order a big bottle of naturelle or frizzante (fizzy, like Perrier). It's not expensive; normally a big bottle of water is about half the price of a glass of wine. Finish it with a digestivo – our favorite is limoncello – lemon liqueur, preferably homemade.
At this little restaurant off the main road, we had all we could eat of the most excellent quality: squid with fennel, octopus in red sauce, little fried anchovies, the best liver and onions you ever had in your life, mini bruschettas, and other wonderful offerings with unlimited water and wine and limoncello for about $25 per person. Paired with the company of Celeste, Will, and Lucy, this will definitely rank as one of the best meals of all time. Plus, the owners gave Susie and I a nice bottle of their homemade limoncello for the road. What's better than that?
You know what makes a good lunch even better? An ayurvedic Sri Lankan massage from Geeth. This guy has an amazing story. In Sri Lanka, while he was studying architecture at the university, he was involved in a horrific accident where he was pronounced dead by the local doctors. Crazy with grief, his family contacted their last chance, an Ayuvedic master, who found Geeth in the morgue and using the most powerful healing techniques, brought him back to life. Geeth began to study Ayurveda and is in Italy today to make money for the Ayurvedic center he wants to open in his home country.
Lucy met Geeth through her neighbor Jenna, and will bring him up to her house where she and her friends will enjoy back-to-back massages and lunch, and she offered the experience to us. He only charges around $30 per hour. Let's just say that it was an incredibly relaxing experience and any jet lag that might have lingered has disappeared.
What a delicious day. First massage, then lunch. I got my Italian SIM card for cheaper calls within Italy ($25 for all the calls and text and data that I can use in two weeks), we took Will to the airport for his flight back to Okinawa, and we had a little sightseeing and gelato in Pozzuoli on the way back. Nobody was hungry when we got home at dinnertime, so Lucy and Maurizio ran some errands while Susie and I sat on the terrace and enjoyed our last sunset here. We finished the night with some Amarone (very very nice wine – a name that sounds like love, no?), a bit of cheese and a bit of prosciutto.
I'm beginning to feel the Italian in me emerge. Va bene.
We're up early this morning because it's market day. The idea was to get up at 7am and leave for the market at 7:30am or so to get the best deals. However, we are Living La Vida Lucy and there are people to see!
It begins with a visit from Jenna, Lucy's next-door neighbor. I believe this visit had something to do with octopus and getting Lucy's daughter Adrianna help with changing airports in Milan on the way home later today.
The Jenna visit accomplished, we're now almost ready to leave when Antonella rings the bell. Her family owns the hotel down the street (along with several others in the area, plus a magnificent yacht; with handsome men and beautiful clothes in every direction). She invites us for a coffee and a bit of breakfast. Even though we have already had breakfast, we do not turn down an invitation from the elegant Antonella. Cappuccino is served on their new rooftop spa overlooking the Mediterranean. A waiter brings some pastries as well. The water below sparkles in the sunlight, Vesuvius looming in the background. Lucy garners an invitation for later this evening for a champagne rooftop spa christening party.
Finally, we get to the market. Traffic is chaotic, yet we somehow find a parking space. There's a guy who will “protect” your car while you shop for a euro or two, but is paid only upon departure. Lucy has a regular guy, but this parking spot was a little closer. Lucy also shops with a regular jewelry woman from Africa and a linen specialist from more north in Europe, who give us great deals. It's one of the best markets I've ever been to, but maybe that's because Lucy skips the cheap stuff for cheap prices and goes for quality stuff for the same money. Some vendors lay out their wares on the ground between the stalls, but disappear in a wave as the police stroll by, only to return again when the coast is clear.
I bought a gorgeous lacy blouse, some kick-ass platforms, a metal cuff bracelet, and a luscious leather bag to match. Before we left, we stopped at the grocery area of the market and admired the zucchini flowers and the big cheese. For a snack, it was fried pizza – a fried dough pocket stuffed with mozzarella, ricotta, and tomato. We had to share it.
We got back just in time to drive Adrianna to the airport. After making sure that she was on her way, we stopped at Lucy's little hole-in-the-wall favorite pizza place. It was on sort of a dodgy corner next to a mechanic shop, but it was busy (all the workers were eating there) and fabulous. Who knew eggplant on pizza could taste so good?
When we got home, we got to meet Lucy's friend, Celeste to go find me a phone card (bust, didn't know I needed a passport), see the tiny castle on the lake, and visit Nunzio's winery. I actually have no idea how Lucy and Celeste found this place, but Nunzio (this young guy) makes some great wine from local grapes. We tasted a bunch and Lucy and Celeste ended up with a case each (18euro for 12 bottles, and they are good!), plus Susie and I were gifted a bottle each of his new white. Yummm.
After a tour around their peninsula for great views and stories, we got back to Lucy's, said goodbye to Celeste, and Lucy made some shrimp pasta so we would be well fed when we went to Antonella's. After dinner, we walked down to Antonella's hotel and watched the lights come up on the water, had some fine wine, and met a very sweet Irish couple who were on their honeymoon. Sweet Antonella just invited them to join our party and for me, it was great to get some tips for my upcoming visit to Dublin. Antonella's hotel is Il Gabbiano (www.ilgabbianohotel.com). For 90euro/night you get a fabulous room overlooking beaches or ruins, breakfast, and a hot tub on the roof with a view of Mt. Vesuvius.
Let's see… how many people did we meet today? What kind of great food did we enjoy? How many amazing views did we see? That's Living la Vida Lucy!!
I must be in heaven. I'm sitting on the front porch of a magnificent villa overlooking the island of Capri sipping Prosecco and nibbling (well, gorging on) mozzarella di bufala made fresh this morning garnished with perfectly ripened tomatoes, tangy basil, and olive oil. There is a splash of balsamic vinegar and some pickled eggplant strips (tasting way better than you would think) to boost the flavor.
Below us is the bay of Baia littered with yachts built by one of the most exclusive yachtmakers in Italy, Fiart (Ivana Trump's yacht came from here). The bay is guarded by a castle built by Catherine of Aragon, creating an imposing skyline. That's on the right. On the left is a string of beaches, an extinct volcano, and Lago di Inverno, the Gates of Hell according to the ancient Romans, a sulfuric lake which inspired Dante's Inferno. We can see two former Roman temples and the ruins of some Roman baths. Straight ahead is the former Roman seaport of Pozzuoli, where it is said that the apostle Paul landed on his way to see the Roman Emperor. You can't get any more Italian than this!
But I digress. Let's back up a bit.
Earlier today, Susie and I walked out of the plane into a warm, sunny afternoon in Naples. Lucy was waiting for us with her two adult children, Will and Adrianna. We were swept up in Lucy's friend's husband's car (her car dropped an engine on the road last week and is in the shop) and we launched into the crazy traffic. Passing by the city of Naples and in the shadow of Mount Vesuvius, we head about 20 minutes north of town to Pozzuoli.
On the way, we stopped at the store/cafe/casino/spa/pool for our welcome treat ingredients. We were given a quick lesson on how to buy vegetables (do not touch them – there is a dedicated store employee to bag and price them for you) and meat. Up the hill we chugged to Lucy and Maurizio's gorgeous villa.
Our nosh was followed by a walk through the neighborhood, meeting all of the neighbors who were out. Her street has a small hotel and a number of eventi, or buildings that are rented out for parties. These eventi have even better views than Lucy's villa because they are on the tip of her little peninsula and are unobstructed.
In the evening Lucy hosts a “hail and farewell” party – goodbye to Will and Adrianna, who are heading back to their jobs in Japan and San Diego, and hail to Susie and I for our first trip to Naples. I don't even get to talk to all of the people who came for dinner, but we had homemade tiramisu and limoncello for dessert.
It's only our first half-day here and yet, it feels like our second home. Bella Italia!
The Grand Departure – this was Susie's title for this picture taken at the Newport News/Williamsburg airport yesterday.
I know for the both of us, we have been slammed with everything in the world to do before leaving on this trip. Susie had papers to grade and a semester to close out as well as a family wedding to attend in the western part of the state the week before departure. I had a self-defense class to finish out, the house to get in order for being gone a month, and finishing making museum, train, bus, and accommodations reservations for the next month of travel. (It turns out that you can save money booking trains and buses in advance in England!) Plus, Susie and I will be starting yoga teacher training when we get back and have taken some classes to make up for the ones we will miss when we're gone.
But today, all that is behind us.
I love the first day of a trip, any trip. It's as if my life is now a clean slate. I am now not just Julie Greene of Hampton, Virginia.. mom, wife, self-defense instructor, cook and housekeeper. Nope, now I'm Julie Greene, world citizen. My travel self is larger than my Hampton self – my consciousness is expanded. I feel more alive. I am part of a bigger system, important somehow, but I don't know exactly why. Each journey gets me a little closer to finding it out.
The Grand Departure does not just describe our bodies boarding a plane, it is a Departure from the normal, the routine, the expected. We are different people when we're away from home. Some of us are worse, some of us are better. Me, I'm always, always better.
Anyone who knows me knows that I pay for just about everything with one of my credit cards. Why? Miles and travel points, of course! If there's any way that I can save money and earn travel credit where it doesn't cost me anything, you know I'm in!
So, what are the best credit cards to use for travel? Here are my current favorites:
My credit union Visa – best for ATM machines. You should know by now that traveler's checks and even changing dollars for euros in a bank is sooo passe. The best way to get your spending money in Europe is to use a cash machine. There are lots of them, they are easy to find, and, if you have the right card, there is no exchange fee or higher exchange rate charged when you use them. Although this card does not give me any travel points of credit, there is no ATM fee when I use it, no matter where. The exchange rate is the same as in a bank, with no extra fees. So, for travel in Europe, at least, make sure that your card has no ATM fee. The only thing I have to do is be sure to call the credit union and let them know when and where I'll be traveling so they don't think those Rome ATM charges are fradulent. And of course, make sure you know your PIN code. If you have forgotten it or have not written it down somewhere, you cannot just call or email and get it. It must be snail-mailed to you from the bank and you have to plan on three weeks to get it. Gotta plan ahead!
My Chase Sapphire Visa – best for purchases in another country. Many credit cards (my credit union Visa, my American Express, for example) charge up to a 4% fee on purchases in a foreign currency. This can really add up. This Visa card has no foreign exchange fees and gives me points I can use for future trips as well.
My Starwood Preferred American Express – this is my go-to card for purchases at home. I don't use it on travel because it has huge additional fees. However, I do bring it to use as a backup in case one of the other cards has a problem. Points go to hotel stays at Starwood properties, which start at 4000 points per night. The cool thing is that if you spend a certain amount of money in the first few months after receiving the card, they give you 40,000 points! That's at least a week of hotel stays at a Sheraton. Not bad.
I also have a USAirways Visa card, which I use for purchasing tickets. I am a USAirways frequent traveler, so using this card to buy tickets gets me more points. Plus, they give you 30,000 miles after the first purchase. A roundtrip ticket within the US will cost 25,000 miles. That's a free ticket plus they include a companion pass – buy a regular fare ticket and the second person flies for $99. I do not, however, take this on on trips.
I also have a Citibank Mastercard, my go-to card before my Chase Sapphire visa. My ticket for this upcoming trip was FREE using the points I had accumulated on this credit card. Yay!
The main thing to remember when using credit cards on travel is to be sure to call the 800 number on the back of the card (except for American Express – no need) and advise them that you will be using the card in a foreign country. They note it in their fraud file and now, that Rome cash withdrawal will not be flagged as suspicious.
Three days to go before takeoff!