Back to the Land that I LOVE

7 May

Yes, Italy! Laura and I’s next stop during Semana Santa was Florence. It’s the fourth city I’ve visited in Italy only a month after my trip with Beau. My general rule while here has been to try not to repeat countries and cities since there is so much still to see, but I can’t stay away from Italy. Going to Florence only reaffirmed that I am in love with everything about that country and absolutely MUST retire there one day…maybe with my own bed & breakfast.

Every city in Italy has had a homey and laid-back feeling with a hint of complete awesomeness in the air while also still staying true to itself and standing apart from all of the others. Venice was romantic, Cinque Terre was beautiful like I’ve never seen before and Rome was enormously impressive, Florence was artsy. From the sculptures in Piazza Signoria and the Dumo to the panoramic views from Piazzale Michelangelo, the entire city is a piece of art.

One of the statues in front of Palazzo Vecchio, the old palace.

 

The Dumo and baptismal chamber in front.

 

Night view of the city from across the Arno River at the top of Piazzale Michelangelo.

 I love Florence for more than just its art and beauty. The center of the city is compact, so it’s completely walkable and doesn’t take more than 20 minutes to get anywhere on foot. This convenience made it easy to really get to know the city and eat the best paninis (mmmm fresh cheese and yummy truffle sauce) and gelato (sheep cheese is the BEST flavor in the world). We walked though all the markets, which smelled of genuine leather, and shopping streets filled almost exclusively with high-end stores. Next time I am in Florence, I will have a bigger shopping budget!!

My favorite two things were definitely seeing The David and going to a wine tasting. The David absolutely is as amazing as everyone claims it is. The larger-than-life sculpture is so detailed, I honestly thought his skin was glowing in the light. It really puts all other sculptures to shame.

The Accademia's main attraction.

 

Bravo Michelangelo!

 I had never been to a wine tasting before, but this one will surely be one of the best I ever go to. Our host, Pinot (as in Pinot Grigio? LOL), really knew his stuff. He told us all about Tuscan wines, three of which we got to sample…if “sample” means two or three glasses of each, haha. We also tried extra virgin olive oil and 10-years-aged balsamic vinaigrette that was to die for! (And cost 35 euro!) We ate and drank all we wanted, then I bottle one bottle of each wine we tried.

Florence was an especially great trip because we stayed with Laura’s friend, Maddie, who was a great host and tour guide! The people were so nice there, as they have been everywhere in Italy and which always makes a place more memorable. I  Italia!

XO

Valencia

30 Apr

Okay, so the entire east coast of Spain is totally different from the middle and southern half of the country. I mentioned that in my Barcelona post and it’s definitely true after visiting Valencia and Alicante during Semana Santa (aka Easter Break). Valencia was Laura and I’s first stop…CORRECTION: technically it was our second stop. We accidentally bought tickets to “Valencia Don Juan”, a pueblo in Leon…to the north of Madrid…land-locked. (Who knew there were two Valencias and that Alsa buses don’t go to the Valencia on the Mediterranean coast? Not us!) We noticed this after the confusion of finding our bus, getting on and passing El Escorial, which is north of Madrid, as well. Luckily our bus driver was extremely nice and called his pal to pick us up in the middle of nowhere and take us back to Madrid.

"Where are we?!"

 Anyway, Valencia is probably one of the coolest cities I’ve been to. I mean, which other city has turned a drained river bed into a park? Or built a giant ship-wrecked pirate as a playground? Or where museums look like the set of Star Wars? Or where paella for 10 or more people is served in pans as big as a table for four? All of this was in Valencia plus a beautiful beach, big boardwalks and the typical old city center and cathedral. The air was definitely fresher in Valencia and it made me miss the water a lot!

I REALLY wanted to play on this!A bridge and aquarium are straight ahead and the science museum is on the left...all museums look like this, right?This isn't even the biggest pan of paella we saw!

 

All museums look like this, right?

 

This isn't even the biggest pan of paella we saw!

 Our favorite thing about Valencia, though, were the random Spanish friends we made. (More often than not these were friendly old men. Haha)! We chatted with one nice old man while waiting for an hour on the bus and flirted a little another with our waiter that agreed to serve us the paella we wanted despite our many dietary restrictions (I’m vegetarian, Laura is allergic to shell-fish). Our new BEST friend was our bus driver. He only was our driver once, but we must have made an impression because when he saw us walking the next day he stopped his bus, honked and waved. (P.S. He looked like Jake Gyllenhaal!) I love vacationing in cities with nice, laid back people!

XO

SanSe

26 Apr
 I remember saying that El Escorial was the best girls’ trip ever, but I think my weekend in San Sebastian topped it. (O.K., bothwere awesome, so I guess El Escorial was the best day trip and San Sebastian was the best weekend trip.) San Sebastian is on the north coast of Spain and the beach is one of the most beautiful I have ever seen! It looks like a horseshoe made up of the two mountains on each end of an arch-shaped strip of sand and one more island mountain in the middle. We took a bright red cable car up to the top of one mountain got breathtaking views…and ice cream.
 
(From Left) Laura, Amy, Paige and myself in front of the beach.
From one of the mountains at the end of the beach.

Speaking of food, the cuisine in San Sebastian actually is the best in Spain. A friend of mine told me some of the best chefs work in northern, coastal cities because of the tourism and French influence. I didn’t fact check this, but I believe her because everything we ate was delicious! The food in Spain has just been O.K. I haven’t been blown away by much except for good paella, brava sauce and aioli sauce. SanSe is apparently famous for its pinchos, aka small servings of gourmet food, which were piled on every other bar’s counter. I loved anything and everything with mushroom sauce!

The old part of the city was great for bar-and-pincho hopping, which phased into just drinking at a pirate bar that was blaring hard rock music while playing Taylor Swift on CMT with Captain Hook’s look-alike as the bar tender and John Travolta’s look-alike as our new friend…??…whatever Spain. LOL! After that bar we went to a couple of clubs, neither of which charged a cover. (Thank you, SanSe!) Regardless of where we went, there were people all over the streets, lots of bars, the usual lack of an open container law, and everything was walkable.

Why not?

In addition to a beautiful beach and entertaining night life, the shopping was comparable to that of Amsterdam, which has had the best shopping of anywhere I’ve been so far! There are a lot of boutiques and shops in the old city of SanSe that are different from the usual Zara and H&M. (Not that I’m hating on either of those stores at all!) Basically, I highly suggest San Sebastian to anyone looking for an awesome vacation!

Last minute shopping. Not even the little bit of rain we got could put a damper on our trip!

XO

Roma

14 Apr

Rome is GINORMOUS!! While it is a big city, I am not just referring to its population. I mean that literally every object is huge. The individual bricks, the individual buildings, the cherubs and gargoyles on the roofs and walls of buildings, the columns, the fountains, the monuments, the mountains of gelato…everything is larger than life. It’s an amazing city and there’s no other place like it! It was almost surreal to walk around the Colosseum and the Pantheon and the streets that used to belong to the biggest empire in the world. All of the places I’ve learned about in history class or seen in movies and on T.V. were right in front of me, and they were even cooler in real life.

The enormous Colosseum.

Inside St. Peter's Basilica looking up toward the more than 14 story ceiling. The letters on the gold are as tall as an average person. The statues are 3 times the size of a grown man.

The Pantheon columns are the largest, intact ancient columns in the world. Beau is 6'3" and see how small he looks!

Everyone knows the saying “Rome wasn’t built in a day”, but Beau an I basically saw it in only one day! Obviously we missed out on some of the places we wanted to go and things we wanted to do, but we hit the must-sees. We got in late one night in the midst of a monsoon, so after a little exploring, dinner, and gelato (of course!) we called it a night. The next day was perfect weather for our sight-seeing blitz. We saw the Colosseum, Palatine Hill, the Forum, St. Peter’s Basilica, the Vatican museum, the Spanish Steps, Capitol Hill, the Arc of Constantine, Trevi fountain and the Pantheon. Whew!

Capitol Hill

The Roman Forum

My most favorite place in Rome was the Trevi fountain. It’s so big and so beautiful that it’s captivating. I could have sat there and looked at it, listening to the sound of rushing water all day long. We hung around it awhile while we ate gelato…I couldn’t have been happier!

Trevi fountain

 Of course the Colosseum and Vatican City, which includes St. Peter’s Basilica and the Vatican Museum, were cool and interesting. The Colosseum was very different on the inside than I expected. I thought it would be pretty well-preserved, but once you step inside to where the stadium seating and gladiator arena used to be, you realize that you really are walking around an ancient ruin. We over heard a tour guide say that the arena of the Colosseum is ranked as on of the top single sites in the world where the most deaths have taken place.

Inside of the Colosseum

It’s amazing to me that Vatican City is considered a small, independent country with its own postal service, guards and radio station! The little country is completely surrounded by walls. When we walked through one of the entrances, I stood in awe. I found myself in the middle of a huge, circular plaza surrounded by columns with an enormous domed building at one end and cyprus trees on a hill in the background. I wasn’t sure where I was, so Beau had to inform me we were at St. Peter’s Basilica, a church that can seat 50,000 to 60,0000 people on the inside!

St. Peter's Basilica

After the basilica, we rushed to get in line for the Vatican museum before the last entry time. I’ve never seen so many marble statues and frescos in my life! (The Vatican museum houses 4 miles worth of art!) Of course, we saw the Sistine Chapel. While it was amazing, I was much more impressed by Michelangelo’s Last Judgement, which took up an entire wall at one end of the room. After seeing some many impressive painted ceilings, I think the Sistine Chapel lacked luster to me. Of course, it could’ve been that the chapel was smaller and darker than expected (unlike the open and airy cathedral of El Escorial with its beautifully painted ceilings).

There’s more to say, but I was trying to keep this short and sweet. I’ll end with saying that Rome is a city you can certainly visit several times without doing and seeing the same things. I definitely look forward to a chance to visit again! I LOVE Italy 🙂

XO

Cinque Terre

13 Apr

Finally arriving to Monterosso was so refreshing after the long train rides the day before. Our train from Venice to Milan had to stop for a repair, so we missed our train from Milan to Monterosso and had to take a different one to Genova and stay the night there, instead. It wasn’t all bad, though. The man at our hotel, which the train company paid for, and our server at the Kebab place, the only open restaurant by the time we got settled, were extremely nice and helpful!

The next morning when we got off the train in Monterosso, the first this we saw was this…

This is the breach literally right in front of the train station!

Ahhhh 🙂 The town only got more beautiful the farther we walked and the more we saw. Clearly, we both fell in love with this place!

This door connected a tunnel to a cave that led to another beach area/ a short cut to the town.

Street shot

We stayed at Manuel’s Guesthouse, and I definitely suggest it if you’re staying in Monterosso. It sits above the town with great views and the nicest owner! (Now that I think about it, everyone in Italy was friendly and helpful.) Our time in Cinque Terre was super relaxed. We stopped in four of the five towns that line the coast to either hike the part of the trail that was open, eat gelato, buy wine, or just explore. Every town was just as beautiful as the one before and after it. Coming from the east coast of the United States, I had never seen vineyards and colorful buildings decorate a mountain side that dropped right into an aqua-blue ocean. It was breathtaking!

The view on our hike between Riomaggiore and Manarola.

Vineyard in Monterosso

The main street in Vernazza. Italians are definitely patriotic!

If somewhere is this pretty even in the rain, it’s definitely worth a second visit! During season all of the trails are open, as are boat rides between the cities and sea kayak rentals. Pair all of that with delicious pesto gnocchi and a veggie calzone I had during our stay…see you soon Cinque Terre!

XO

Venezia

8 Apr

In one word, Venice elegant. Even though Amsterdam has its share of waterways throughout the city, Venice is unlike any other city I’ve visited. It’s one thing to have channels every other block, it’s another thing for your front door to open up to a small pier! There are, of course, streets and plazas, but boats are the main mode of transportation. Even the “metro” and “taxis” are boats!

Police boat on patrol on Canal Grande.

We were only in Venice for about 5 hours while on our way to Cinque Terre and it was worth every minute! Originally we thought we would have to cut it out of our trip completely, but we both wanted to go so we spent half a day there. The weather was foggy, which usually makes for a dreary day, but Venice was beautiful even in bad weather! In fact, I think the fog added to the decaying beauty of the city.

Row of gondolas, restaurants and hotels on Canal Grande.

Riding down Canal Grande on the "metro", much cheaper than a gondola!

The first thing we did in Venice was ride down the main canal. We opted for public transportation since gondola rides are 80-100 euros (with the option to put up to 6 people in a boat to split it, so not so bad for groups). We got off at the end, in Plaza San Marco, and checked out the basilica, ate gelato (twice) and pizza, then wandered back to the train station on side streets and bridges. The food was amazing (of course!) and the basilica was beautiful and cool to see since the architecture was so different from Spanish cathedrals (which we have now seen a lot of, haha).

San Marco Basilica

Standing in an "intersection", aka a bridge.

Shopping street

We shopped around for t-shirts and tried Vin Brule (hot red wine sweetened and spiced, YUM!) before getting on our train to Cinque Terre. I would definitely want to go back to Venice in the spring, I bet it’s even prettier then!

XO

Barcelona

31 Mar

In two words, Barcelona was…just okay. Don´t get me wrong, it’s an amazing city! It just didn’t blow me away, and I think that is what I was expecting. I have heard that Barcelona is the place to be, even over Madrid, and that its proud natives weren’t all that friendly. I found both of those claims to be false.

I didn’t expect Barcelona to be as big as it was, not that I had any basis for that assumption.  The city isn’t just big, though, it’s sprawling! Everything is kind of spread out, which made it a little bit inconvenient to see all of the things we wanted to see (not that the weather was on our side in that case either). As a whole, the city is way more modern than the other places I’ve visited in Spain. The Gaudí houses are awesome!! As is a lot of the other architecture in Barcelona. It’s definitely different from the traditional Spanish buildings and charming, old city centers everywhere else I’ve been so far.

Casa Mila, probably the most famous Gaudi house. So cool!

In front of another Gaudi building.

The Gaudí houses are built right into the city and some are even used for businesses and apartments. Walking down the Block of Discord is definitely a lot to take in. The big sidewalks and artistic details are beautiful! The allies off of Las Ramblas, one of the main streets in the center, had quite plazas, hidden restaurants and a great open-air market and north of Plaza Catalunya had great shopping, but I think my favorite area of the city was the older, medieval part. I guess I love old architecture because it is so different from what you see in the United States.

In front of Plaza de Cataluyna.

The people in Barcelona proved the rumors I had heard wrong. (Maybe the rumors come from the rivalry between Madrid and Barca? Ha.) I thought everyone was nice and helpful and as far as I could tell, everyone spoke to me in Spanish not Catalan. It probably helped that we stayed with the aunt and uncle of Beau´s friend who couldn´t have been more hospitable to us!

I wish we had been able to hang out in Parc Güell longer…and in the daylight! The park is so far away from everything else! By the time we got there the sun had finished setting and you couldn´t see all the details that make the park so Gaudí. (You can make out even less in the pictures.) Also on my list was to see a burlesque show at La Molina, but that was more expensive than planned. Oh well, I guess that gives me a reason to go back! 🙂

Almost Moulin Rouge!

XO