Venice Undercover

Venice; a chart-topper amongst people’s list of their favorite European cities, and my next and final stop as what I now refer to as my Tour of Italy (and much better than Olive Garden’s version.) Stepping off the train from Florence, I will admit I had high expectations after hearing so many rave reviews. I was imagining the romantic labyrinth of narrow, cobblestone streets under cover of nightfall; weaving through the canals as striped-shirted men in hats melodically rowed young couples merrily down the stream, life being but a dream and all that. But this, this was not the Venice I had seen in my imagination, or the movies, or even those tacky reproduced paintings of the Rialto Bridge. This was real Venice. This was Venice with the lights on and no makeup to cover it’s blemishes. In it’s most honest form, I came to appreciate Venice for what it really was: Italy (almost) underwater.

Literally the first picture I took exiting the train station, so my first impression of Venice!
Literally the first picture I took exiting the train station, so my first impression of Venice!
Now, let’s think for a moment about what makes Venice special to so many people. Any one else thinking canals? Because I sure as heck am! But, take the canals away and you have essentially any other city in Italy. Sure, there is some stand out architecture, a beautiful basilica and potentially a few other interesting places to visit, but above all, the thing that makes people want to visit Venice is the temporariness of its state, a temporariness that can be visually and viscerally experienced by the canals. It’s one thing to say something is sinking, and completely another to not only say it, but see it as well. That is the allure of Venice, and for those unenchanted with the limited time only offer that this city seems to capitalize on, Venice can be a bit of a let down.

For me, I’d say that it didn’t live up to expectations, but I am glad that I visited. Though now, when people tell me they’re going to Venice, I don’t recommend they stay too long (three days at the absolute most). Once you get used to being surrounded by alleyways of water, you do get a little bored. And tired of getting lost! After all the fun I had left behind in Florence, Venice just wasn’t as gratifying. However, there are still a few things I would recommend doing should you find yourself there. The first being, Murano Island.

The crowded vaporetto, or water taxi (and the only means of transport in and around Venice.
The crowded vaporetto, or water taxi (and the only means of transport in and around Venice.

One of Murano's many shop-lined streets.
One of Murano’s many shop-lined streets.
You may recognize the name Murano, as it is usually followed by the word glass; and, yes, this island is home to some of the most illustrious blown-glass sculptures (and sculptors) in the world. Getting off the vaporetto at a stop of the same name and walking 50 paces down the first street, I began to realize the magnanimity of what this identity meant to the island. Shop window after shop window, filled to the point of combustion with figurines both small and large of practically anything you can imagine! Continuing on, it wasn’t long before one of these small little hole-in-the-wall factories offered a free demonstration of a glass blower hard at work. Although I was a little late to the show, I didn’t miss much. In a matter of 30 seconds, this guy had already turned a lifeless hunk of glass into a perfect sculpture of a horse on its haunches. Not two minutes after that was he finished with a beautiful vase. Knowing very little about the art of glass-blowing or how much time it takes to perfect such a skill, I was completely blown away!

Just some of what you can expect to see on Murano. While this sculpture is free to ogle at, you can see much more at the island's Museum of Glass.
Just some of what you can expect to see on Murano. While this sculpture is free to ogle at, you can see much more at the island’s Museum of Glass.

A vase and horse made right before my very eyes, so I can tell you, it's legit!
A vase and horse made right before my very eyes, so I can tell you, it’s legit!
It wasn’t easy to follow that act, but a little Italian gelato definitely helped sweeten the deal. If my terrible pun didn’t cause you to navigate away from this page, I first want to thank you, then also tell you that that was the end of my time on Murano. It is a small cluster of little islands tied together by a network of bridges and consists mostly of glass-blowing factories or shops. It is an interesting place to visit and watching that demonstration was certainly a highlight of my time in Venice, but don’t plan to spend a lot of time in this place. As I quickly realized as I walked around, it is a pretty quiet place and most things can be seen in two or three hours at the most.

The bridges that keep the islands of Murano together.
The bridges that keep the islands of Murano together.

The last look at Murano, in it's small island glory.
The last look at Murano, in it’s small island glory.
I got to Venice in the afternoon and originally had planned on tackling the city sights the following day and, thinking that Murano was going to be a bit more of a thrill, I had devoted what remained in that first day to seeing it. However, after pretty much seeing it all in a few hours, I figured I might as well get my bearings in the big city I came to see.

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St Mark’s Basilica by sunset.

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Coming into St. Mark’s square, the unequivocal hub of the city.

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Venice as seen from the Rialto Bridge, with the quintessential gondolas and all!
The first evening in Venice was more recon than anything else. Since I was planning to spend the following day seeing the sights, I wanted to spend that first night just getting familiar. But that St. Mark’s Basilica sure is impressive! Even just from the outside, it is certainly a sight to behold. After circling the square a few times (as counterproductive as that may sound), I decided to catch the next vaporetto back to my hotel and call it a night. During my stay in Venice, I wasn’t actually staying in Venice proper, but rather on a small island outside the city called Lido. I hadn’t made accommodation arrangements until the last minute and as such was staring down the barrel of a rather expensive bill had I stayed in the city. Lido, while about a 35 minute ride away, is a much more economical option for those so inclined (such as myself). However, do beware, because Lido by itself is a pretty boring little island and the only real activity is to catch the water taxi to Venice.

The following morning, I got a decently early start in order to get into the city before the hoards of tourists descended upon the light list of free attractions. St. Mark’s was top of my list, and apparently everyone else’s. One can never be too early to go to a church, I suppose. What was interesting was, compared to my brief visit the previous night, the line to get in was elevated on platforms due to the rising of the water level. After asking around, it seemed this was a pretty common occurrence I mean, after all, the city is sinking. Nonetheless, it was almost a bit sobering to see all these people raised two feet off the ground in order to avoid the pools of water that had gathered down below. Maybe Venice doesn’t have that much longer after all…

The platform leading into St. Mark's Basilica that I assure you was not there the previous day that I visited.
The platform leading into St. Mark’s Basilica that I assure you was not there the previous day that I visited.

Inside the basilica. Photos taken (without flash) under covert ops as picture taking is generally discouraged...
Inside the basilica. Photos taken (without flash) under covert ops as picture taking is generally discouraged…

Another sneaky snapshot.
Another sneaky snapshot.
After touring the basilica, I walked around the city a bit in an attempt to find a few notable shops and restaurants, but had a hard time telling one dark alleyway from another so I eventually just gave up and headed to happy hour at an ecclectic little place called Bacaro Jazz that I had read about on Yelp. Walking in was quite an event, for the first thing you will notice is the plethora of brassieres suspended from the rafters. How they got there, I do not want to know, but I imagine there is a reason European women have gotten a reputation for rejecting this essential item. Interesting decor choices aside, I would definitely recommend this quaint spot, not only because it is located so closely to the Rialto Bridge (and thus much easier to find than other bars in the area) but also because their happy hour was fantastically inexpensive! €5 drinks was something I thought was practically unheard of in Italy, but not here! It is the ultimate place to try out all the fancy Italian liqueurs you can’t find in the states.  My curiosity was the Aperol Spritz, a deliciously orange colored beverage full of fruit and bubbles that was filling the wine glasses of cheeky connoisseurs all over the city. And now I know why!

Bacaro Jazz? More like Bacaro Bras!
Bacaro Jazz? More like Bacaro Bras!
Without an abundance of funds, Venice (as I soon found out) somewhat loses its charm. Of course there are tons of shops and fancy restaurants and designer boutiques, but these activities really weren’t in the cards for me. Aside from seeing the church, grabbing a drink,  and walking around a bit, Venice was a little lackluster. And here precisely is my point; people see Venice in the movies and think that it’s a vibrant city with elegant architecture and unique features but what it lacks (in my opinion) is the palpable vitality of it’s neighboring cities, like Florence. Venice is pretty, but I didn’t find it worthy of being a favorite European city, though I know others will disagree. It is as they say: “beauty is in the eye of the beholder”.

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Despite my overall feelings about Venice, this is probably one of my all time favorite photos from the trip.

Another brilliant deal at the farmer's market, €10 for a plate of fried fish, polenta cake, and glass of sparkling wine!
Another brilliant deal at the farmer’s market, €10 for a plate of fried fish, polenta cake, and glass of sparkling wine!

Of course, I wasn't the only one to recognize a good deal when I saw one! Some people waited all week for this, and I can't say I blame them!
Of course, I wasn’t the only one to recognize a good deal when I saw one! Some people waited all week for this, and I can’t say I blame them!

Cinque Million Tourists

View of Manarola
View of Manarola

Ah, Cinque Terre, the “little gem” of Italy as it is so aptly named by the countless blogs, books, and bumbling tour operators. But this little gem ain’t so little anymore, no sir. By now, the infamy of Cinque Terre is about the size of all the two-bit diamond retailers the world over; and it shows no signs of stopping. But what else can you expect when you see photos of an idyllic Italian coastline, sprinkled with colorfully brilliant seaside homes? To the untrained eye, this is the sort of old-fashioned, nostalgic Italy that people travel from miles around to see: where everyone knows everyone, and the townspeople all run little shops that have been in their family for generation after generation after generation; like a scene straight out of  Mama Mia. This is not the Cinque Terre I experienced.

Of course it’s beautiful, that cannot be denied. However, the difference between what you see on Google images to what you experience when you get there is stark. In fact, this same bait-and-switch happened to Kug, my Cinque Terre travel buddy. Having only seen the jaw-dropping photos, he was expecting these quaint little villages to be as isolated as the photos. Alas, this was most certainly not the case.

On the streets of Riomaggiore
On the streets of Riomaggiore, in the early hours of the day.

Now, Cinque Terre was a day trip I had originally planned to take during the early organization stages. Then, after talking to a few different people about it, I learned that since it’s discovery, Cinque Terre had become extremely touristy. As such, I decided that I’d rather spend more time in Tuscany looking at other, more authentic places so I cut the day trip to the coast. But, with the unforeseen extra time I had in Italy due to the cancelling of my flight to Croatia, Cinque Terre again became a possibility. Arriving in Florence the first night, I began to do some recon on how I might make this trip fit into my schedule, and I have to say that it was actually a lot easier than I expected. Just in case the internet was wrong though, I did do a bit of asking around. With my assumptions confirmed, Kug and I set off!

From Florence, getting to Cinque Terre is a bit long, but not quite as bad as it sounds. You need to take a train out of the city heading for La Spezia, the station just outside the first of the “cinque”, Riomaggiore. This train ride lasts about two and half hours, but after getting off at La Spezia, the next connection is only about 10 minutes so you’re practically there already. The only downside is that in between the connections, there is about an hour wait for the regional train into Cinque Terre. Kug and I killed time by walking around the surrounding area, buying a few snacks for the day, and getting our agenda down so we could hit the ground running. Once the train arrived, we were ready to take on The Terre!

Whether you do Cinque Terre as a day trip or decide to stay the night in any of the towns, it is a fairly easy trip to navigate. The regional trains arrive about every hour in both directions and are instrumental in facilitating smooth transitions between towns. You can also hike between them if you’d like, but with only so much time, we couldn’t afford to spend the whole day hiking if we wanted to explore each one a little, starting with Riomaggiore.

Kug and I in Riomaggiore
Kug and I in Riomaggiore

Getting off the train was a cinch and the signage from the platform to the “center” of town was beyond adequate, but again, we’re dealing with five very small metropoles (meant in the most satirical fashion, of course). Not exactly sure what we wanted to see, we decided to follow the crowd through the quaint, cobblestone streets and head towards the water. Though we hadn’t planned on hiking between the towns, we had read online that you could ferry between them; this I found most appealing! Unfortunately, as we approached the ticket booth perched over the dock, we were made aware that due to the undesirable weather conditions, the ferry was out of commission for the day. Bitterly bummed out, we continued walking along the seaside trail until we came to an uninhibited stretch of beach were we didn’t have to fight for a view, or pay €2 for the bathroom (the latter I’m not particularly proud of, but hey, I’m a girl on a budget!).

Just one of the crowded regional trains, and the only one I could raise my arms up high enough to take a picture of.
Just one of the crowded regional trains, and the only one I could raise my arms up high enough to take a picture of.

After spending a good 20 minutes just admiring the sparkling teal blue sea before us, we decided it was time to hit the tracks and carry on to Manarola. This was where our trouble began. First of all, I will admit that we may not have been quite as prepared as we should have been for our arriving train, and when I say not prepared, I mean we bought our tickets as the train screeched over the tracks above us. Sprinting up the stairs, we were met with a monsoon of what felt like one thousand tourists shoving man, woman, and child in front of them out of the way in order to either board or de-train. Needless to say, it was a mosh pit of chaos! I grabbed ahold of Kug’s backpack as he navigated us through the maze and on to the train, with just milliseconds until departure. Once safely on board, we couldn’t help but laugh at the situation that had just befallen us. I have never experienced anything like that, and I doubt I ever will again. If you consider yourself a bit of a claustrophobic, may I suggest you not rely too heavily on train transportation through Cinque Terre. You may not live to see the next villa.

Overlooking Manarola
Overlooking Manarola
Manarola selfie!
Manarola selfie!

Manarola was really similar to Riomaggiore in my opinion, not a whole lot of reason to spend more than an hour or so there. Leaving the train station, you head down the street, once again following the crowds and once again heading for the sea. Now, don’t be mislead; there is not real beach in either Manarola or Riomaggiore, but this won’t stop crazy people from hopping in anyways! Instead of handing in our sanity, Kug and I opted for a little light people watching as we sat by the water’s edge and enjoyed our assorted snacks. I can’t say I’ve ever had cheese and crackers in a more beautiful place. As we munched, we conversed a bit with a few of the swimmers (apparently it wasn’t quite as cold as it looked, but I wasn’t going to “see for myself”) and then we packed up our things and headed back to the train station. The next destination, if we were doing all five towns, should have been Corniglia, but we decided to skip it due to time constraints. Instead, we headed straight for Vernazza.

Our light lunch by the sea
Our light lunch by the sea
The village of Vernazza
The village of Vernazza, looking a bit more crowded now.

It was at this point in our journey that I was once again in desperate need of a bathroom, but as Vernazza is one of the more (if not the most) popular of the five towns, there were no open spaces to be found. Instead, as some sort of cruel joke, there was a free bathroom that was literally a hole in the ground. Talk about culture shock! But if there was one good thing to come from it, it would be the discovery of yet another lover of Rick Steves. While standing in line, I noticed the woman in front of me had the Italy edition of the Rick Steves travel guide. Hearing the early growls of hunger and having no idea where we should find our next meal, I was desperate for a little taste of Rick’s sage wisdom. A true gentlewoman, this lovely lady let me browse her book and take photos of the pages containing the best restaurant recommendations in the next town of Monterosso. When I met back up with Kug, on the other side of nature’s call, I was more than ready to tackle the city, and eat some darn good Italian! But first, Vernazza.

The quintessential Vernazza
The quintessential Vernazza

Between the four towns that we visited that day, Vernazza was my favorite. Not that they weren’t all beautiful, but just something about the vibe really jived with me. It felt like there was more to this space than just a path to the ocean. The streets went in more than one direction, and whatever way you went, shops and restaurants seemed to sprawl out before you, inviting you in for a peak at the menu or sales rack. Good deals were few and far between of course because this place is essentially Italy’s Disneyland; but even though you know it going in, you still go anyways. It’s a magic power the two places seem to share.

Vernazza selfie!
Vernazza selfie!

After walking around a bit, and still having ample time left in the day, we thought it might be a good idea to investigate how the hiking worked. We had one last town to visit, Monterosso, and seeing as how it was only the early afternoon, we thought a nice two hour hike would be the perfect way to work up an appetite for a tasty meal at the end of the trail. I had mentioned earlier that hiking between all five is a possibility, but it appeared that at the time of our visit, this was not an option. Landslides had dramatically affected the state of the trails, leaving a few of them completely closed for the season. As such, should one have arrived for the hiking, they would’ve only be allowed to hike from Corniglia to Vernazza and from Vernazza to Monterosso (or vice-versa). Also, instead of just paying per leg of this arduous journey (as was previously explained to me), you had to pay as though you were taking the aforementioned route, a cost amounting to about €10 per person. Quite a hefty fee for a few hours work in my opinion, but for the sake of new experiences, I paid it nonetheless. And so we were off! Climbing high above the coastal scene of Vernazza and soon looking out above the whole coastline!

A look from above at Vernazza
A look from above at Vernazza

The hike itself is nothing too strenuous, especially not for a girl from the Pacific Northwest, but what we didn’t quite account for was the Italian heat. By the end of our journey, I wanted nothing more than to jump in that crystal clear water we had been staring at for the better part of two hours. Looking at it from above, it was just as perfect as I imagined it to be below. Even though we only hiked between two of the five towns, I was satisfied with the overall experience. It was enough of a taste for me and Kug! And we certainly worked up an appetite for a delicious Italian meal After our chance encounter with a fellow Rick Steves aficionado, we knew exactly where we were going for dinner: L’Alta Marea.

Seeing Monterosso in the distance, we got very excited! Or at least I did...
Seeing Monterosso in the distance, we got very excited! Or at least I did…

A cozy little place just off the main drag, L’Alta Marea specializes in dishes featuring the fruit of the sea, but is also recognized for their pizza and daily specials. So, in what had now become our little routine, Kug and I figured out our four course meal for two and had ourselves drooling by the time we got to dessert. Seeing all the amazing pasta choices, we couldn’t quite settle on just one so we each got our own (and mine was definitely the better choice). While Kug ordered the chestnut ravioli, I decided to go for the slightly more luxurious crab pasta which, I came to find out, included the added bonus of a whole crab “on the side”. It was so amazing that I found myself practically full by the time our main meal arrived. Now, our entree (a sort of cioppino, mussel soup mixture) was the topic of conversation for most of the hike, so we couldn’t leave Cinque Terre without satisfying Kug’s immense craving for it. I had never really had “mussel soup”, so I figured when in Italy, eh?  But when that vat of mollusks was placed between us, we both knew there was no way we could eat it all, even given the veraciousness of both our appetites! And especially not if we wanted dessert! So we gave it our best shot; it was hard to stop honestly because it was so freaking good, but eventually we had had more than our fill and had to call it quits.

My crab pasta. I still dream about it to this day
My crab pasta. I still dream about it to this day

We weren’t sure if we could handle dessert, but after seeing the dessert menu, we knew we couldn’t leave without having a little taste of panna cotta. This was something new to me, but I am beyond glad that Kug was there to talk me into trying it (to be fair, it wasn’t that hard, knowing me). Although this was my first panna cotta,  I would stake my reputation as a food lover on it being the best. Subsequent panna cottas I tried elsewhere in Italy failed to live up to its glorious standards. The only thing I can say is that you have to try one for yourself. It is seriously life-changing. And this coming from a girl who thought tiramisu was the ultimate Italian dessert! All in all, should you find yourself in Monterosso and looking for a place to eat, I think you would be hard pressed to find a better restaurant than L’Alta Marea.

The mussel stew that Kug just HAD to have!
The mussel stew that Kug just HAD to have!

Rolling ourselves to the train station to catch our journey home, we had nothing but good things to say about our day in Cinque Terre. Despite the onslaught of tourists, it is a nice place to visit; but don’t put all your Italian eggs in that basket. Though it is beautiful, so are a lot of other places in Italy, and Tuscany alone for that matter. Of course in the end it is up to you, and while I did enjoy myself when I went, next time I might take the advice of dear ol’ Robert Frost and take the path less traveled by, for as they say, that makes all the difference.

The perfect pastels that everyone sees when they hear "Cinque Terre"
The perfect pastels that everyone sees when they hear “Cinque Terre”

Florence: The Foodie’s Paradise

The barrage of treats available in one Florentine cafe
The barrage of treats available in one Florentine cafe

If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a thousand times: I’m not an art person, at least not in the traditional sense. The art I appreciate is of a more gastronomical nature. So, when in Italy, I was not particularly excited about the prestigious museums. I was more excited about the mandatory three course meals! As such, I wanted to share my enthusiasm for this delicious cultural norm through the beauty of photos (of which I took many because food this delicious is always worth admiring again and again).

The fresh produce you will find strewn about the central market hall
The fresh produce you will find strewn about the central market hall

I mentioned in my previous post that I had my eye on a particular osteria just two doors down from our cute little B&B, but had not made it there the first night due to the ominous call of Gusta’s pizza. But, on this night, I would not be interrupted. Kug, a foodie himself, hardly needed an invitation.

Gelato piled up so high you think it will only melt, but of course it never does because it's gelato and this is Italy after all
Gelato piled up so high you think it will only melt, but of course it never does because it’s gelato and this is Italy after all

Osteria I’ Brincello has earned many a rave review on TripAdvisor, as well as general word of mouth. When asking fellow travelers and locals where one could find a good Italian meal that was both authentic and affordable, I’ Brincello was top of the list. As such, it was a must for me, and a must for Kug.

Hug, looking super stoked at the current state of things...
Kug, looking super stoked at the current state of things…

Now, the way Italians eat dinner is nothing short of amazing. Not only do you typically have some sort of appetizer, or antipasti, but then you follow that up with a pasta dish; and we aren’t talking small portions here either people! After that, you get to the main event, usually the real meat of the meal (pun intended). Finally, just when you think you couldn’t eat another bite, they bring you dessert. If you love to eat as much as I do, then you will agree that this is what heaven must be like: non-stop, delicious food, in your mouth, all the time.

However, even for a full-blown foodie such as myself, my stomach can only accommodate so much. This is where Kug came in. With the addition of another person, we were able to order the four course meal, but pay a one course price (plus a bottle of wine, and maybe an extra dessert..).

Our delicious wild boar pasta. Seriously, so good!
Our delicious wild boar pasta. Seriously, so good!

So, at dinner, we started out with a couple fried raviolis, stuffed with pear and gorgonzola, a different sort of appetizer for me, but it was still quite tasty. Then, for our pasta course, we ordered the homemade tagliatelle pasta with a wild boar sauce, and let me tell you I’ve never had boar so I can’t compare the experience, but it was pretty dang delicious! And between the two of us, we were struggling to save space for the main course the portion was so big! But of course, we managed, and out came this perfect plate of steak on a bed of arugula, with parmesan cheese sliced off to the side. So tender, so juicy, so perfect. I didn’t think that meal could get any better, but, like I told you, then comes dessert. And in this case, we did not share the one. In fact, of the two desserts available, we got both. Between the tiramisu and the chocolate cake with a very intense citrus orange sauce, we both preferred the tiramisu but there was nothing wrong with either choice.

Hello, steak. Get in my belly!
Hello, steak. Get in my belly!

Following our meal, we started talking with our waiter about how much we enjoyed the food and the service. He thanked us profusely and then brought out the chef, who insisted that we all share in a nightcap of limoncello, a traditional Italian digestive. This was my first experience with this scrumptious little syrup of liqueur, but it would not be my last! So, as the chef, myself, Kug, our waiter, and another server all raised our glass, I took a selfie to remember the first time I had a real Italian meal, with a good friend, where we met the chef, and got a free shot to boot! Couldn’t have asked for a better experience.

Gang's all here!
Gang’s all here!

Flirting with Firenze

Greetings readers, how ever many there are of you at this point. Before I continue my tales of adventure in Florence, I first would like to once again apologize for my absence from the blogosphere. Though I would love to spend my days recounting to you my journey through Europe, girl’s gotta get paid ya know! But with the time I have now, I would like to finally continue with my stay in Florence, or Firenze as it is called in Italy.

After losing our Kentuckian friends, I was curious about our next two roomies, wondering what sorts of crazy exploits they may have gotten themselves up to. Imagine my surprise when I met yet another couple of Americans, two guys named Tony and Nate, traveling around Europe from Minnesota. On their first night in the room, we all shared a bottle of wine and talked about our plans for our stay in Florence. Since Kug, Tony, Nate, and I all had similar plans, we thought it best to tour the town the following day and cross a few things off our to-do list, so to speak. Also, they had a line on a terrific tiramisu that was definitely calling my name, so wherever they were going, I was destined to follow!

The site of our walking tour, the Santa Maria Novella church
The site of our walking tour, the Santa Maria Novella church

The next morning, we started off in search of a walking tour. Of the four of us, I was the only one to have some experience in this area so I was the major advocate for this activity, but of course anything free is always a good idea right? Wrong. I kid you not, this was the worst tour experience I have ever had. We were told to meet in front of the cathedral of Santa Maria Novella which is located conveniently next to the train station (which, if you recall, is super close to where we were all staying). The tour started at 11 am so we made sure to give ourselves plenty of time to reach the meeting point. It was a bit of a rainy day, but this was not a deterrent to myself, my comrades, or any of the other tourists hoping to glean some information gratis from a local guide. However, it appeared we were much more interested than the guide who assumed that due to foul weather, the tour goers would most likely not venture out. Considering that most of the tourists in Italy are American and the tour is free, I would think never to make such an assumption, but apparently they think a lot differently in Italy. Twenty minutes after the tour was supposed to start, a flustered woman appeared with a small microphone and attempted to explain the mishap. Noticing the large group that had amassed before the Santa Maria Novella, she attempted to dial reinforcements in order to divide and conquer, so to speak. But alas, no one answered the call on this rainy day, so this poor woman was stuck taking a tour of about 40 tourists around the city of Florence. This was no easy task of course because, not only were the ancient streets of Florence exceedingly narrow, but the rain had caused everyone and their mother to bring with them a ginormous umbrella blocking all audible noise that uttered from the tour guide’s weak microphone. Approaching the Duomo, the four of us had no idea what was going on. Obviously frustrated that we were unable to hear or understand anything that this woman was talking about, we decided to leave the tour. Yes, I walked off, but it was the first and hopefully last time that it will ever happen. I was disappointed in the lack of planning on the company’s part, and also by this poor woman’s co-workers who couldn’t be bothered to help a sister out when she has a group too large for her microphone.

But it wasn’t all bad, because the site in which we ditched the tour also happened to be home to the terrific tiramisu the guys had mentioned earlier. In my mind, we made the right choice.

Tiramisu and a cannoli, because we are in Italy after all!
Tiramisu and a cannoli, because we are in Italy after all!

After stopping off for our little snack break, I figured we were too close to the Duomo to not pop in for a little look-see. I didn’t want to pay for the whole ticket, including all the other buildings and the tower, because there was still a lot of Florence to see. But the church itself was enough for me! Even though the outside is much more marvelous than the inside, it is still quite the experience to walk around such a lavish place of worship.

The entrance to the Duomo!
The entrance to the Duomo!
And now, the inside. Not quite as lavish as it's exterior, but nice. And FREE!
And now, the inside. Not quite as lavish as it’s exterior, but nice. And FREE!
Perhaps the most interesting thing inside the Duomo is this ceiling fresco.
Perhaps the most interesting thing inside the Duomo is this ceiling fresco.

Exiting the Duomo, I met up with my ragtag group of roomies and we headed off in search for more of Florence’s iconic sights (and food; definitely food). Obviously, Florence is famous for it’s art; it is the home of Michelangelo’s DavidThe Birth of Venus, sculptures by Donatello, drawings from Leonardo da Vinci, etc, etc. Most of this art is housed in two main museums: the Uffizi and the Accademia. But of course, being the most famous of the museums in town, they were also some of the most expensive. Now, as I have mentioned several times over the course of this blog, I’m not a huge art person. Of course I can appreciate talent, but as far as me and art go, talent is not subjective. Therefore, I did not want to waste precious euros on museums when I could be using them for the things I really can appreciate; which in most cases is and always will be food.

As such, on our way to find a few of the less popular art venues, we made sure to imbibe in a little Italian sustenance, or sandwich in this case. Unlike Rome, I found the food in Florence to be much more affordable and also much more enjoyable. The little cafe we popped in to that afternoon was just a small little place, and yet they had a full service Italian deli, along with a myriad of hot food items including, but not limited to, an entire traditional three course lunch for less than €10. Since I was originally planning on going out for a nice dinner that night, I opted for the sandwich, but looking over at my rabid cohorts devouring course after course, I knew I had made the lesser choice. At any rate, Italian food is good food and I had no real complaints.

The historical staircase just inside the Bargello museum's courtyard
The historical staircase just inside the Bargello museum’s courtyard
A quick look into the sculptures you will find inside.
A quick look into the sculptures you will find inside.

Having filled the tank, we rolled on towards the Bargello, a smaller museum than the Uffizi or Accademia, but no less accomplished. Spanning several floors and artistic epochs, the Bargello is home to many sculptures, paintings, artifacts, and exhibitions which show the viewer a lot about the Italian flare for all things creative. Even though I couldn’t really tell you what painters, sculptors, or masters are on display here (besides the few obvious ones like Donatello and Michelangelo), it was still a great way to experience the Renaissance culture of Florence without paying the cost of added hype. Even though it’s not home to David, it is home to a lot of other interesting and thought provoking works of art. Not to mention, you can pretty much get the idea of Michelangelo’s famous masterpiece all around town, as replicas follow you wherever you go.

The view from Piazzale Michelangelo
The view from Piazzale Michelangelo

To prove this point, let’s take a look at Piazzale Michelangelo, the place we were told to go in order to see the best sunset that Tuscany had to offer (and another replica of David). Along with a beautiful sunset, if you explore a bit further, you may also run into the nightly chanting of a group of monks in the church just up the hill.

The abbey of San Miniato al Monte, home of the chanting monks
The abbey of San Miniato al Monte, home of the chanting monks

An idyllic setting for any night in Italy, but even more so in Florence. With it’s iconic and unmistakeable Duomo, Tuscan architecture, and kind people. It was a beautiful night in Florence, but just the beginning of a magical stay in Tuscany. I was lucky to have found such fun and funky friends to spend the days with because I could not have imagined my time here without them, a thought that really resonated with me as we all sat down to pizza later that night. Even though it wasn’t the four course dinner I imagined, sitting on the steps outside the Basilica di Santo Spirito with a box full of Il Gusta‘s pizza was the perfect end to a pretty perfect day. But of course, it was the first of many more to come.

Just me and the boys (from left to right: Kug, me, Tony, and Nate)
Just me and the boys (from left to right: Kug, me, Tony, and Nate)

Under the Tuscan Sun

Getting up the next morning, I was not surprised to see two empty beds where the crazy Kentuckians had once slept. But I had no time to dwell on their absence. Rather I had to prepare for my own. But of course, like a normal person, I planned to return back to Florence at the end of the day.
I was off on this sunny day to San Gimignano (though Kug will tell you that that was a mother of a word for me to say correctly for the longest time) and the Chianti region. Being in the heart of Tuscany, I did want to experience a sip of the wine country that made this place so well-known so when the opportunity to take a day tour came along, I grabbed ahold and rode the wave.
The streets of San Gimignano
My first look at  San Gimignano
All in all, after considering my options, this tour was a great value. You left early, went to San Gimignano in the morning, had a nice lunch in the Chianti region and ended the day in Siena which was a place I had been told I must visit. As far as bang for your buck goes, this sucker packed a punch! Less that $50 for a whole day’s activities? Sign me up!
Blueberry ricotta and saffron cream! And more of the cityscape in the background
Blueberry ricotta and saffron cream! And more of the cityscape in the background
While Siena had been on my mind, San Gimignano had all but avoided it until Hannah mentioned that she had stayed there when we were traveling together in Naples. What really stuck with me was her mentioning that they have the best gelateria in the world. I thought she was exaggerating, but lo and behold, upon my arrival, the tour guide made sure to mention that the gelato from Gelateria Dondoli has been officially rated the best in Tuscany. It has also proved best in the world in past years, but I’m not one for semantics. Any gelato is good gelato in my book. Especially in Italy. Ironically enough this was my first gelato experience in this country. It seems like, knowing me, this is the first thing I would do, but strangely enough it took me more than a week to get around to this scrumptious little treat. In my mind, I was just waiting for the best option, and by golly if this wasn’t it.
Everyone is of course familiar with your typical gelato flavors; you’ve got your chocolate and vanilla, a couple sorbets, stracciatella and a coupe nutty ones like hazelnut and pistachio. Gelateria Dondeli has those, of course, but in addition they offer a whole range of crazy flavors like nothing you will ever have in your lifetime. Hannah told me that she had tried the raspberry rosemary and the chocolate Grand Mariner, but I had my sights set on the prize winners. The flavors that made this place famous.  Blueberry ricotta and saffron cream. If your mouth isn’t watering now, you must be devoid of tastebuds. Together, these two whimsical taste sensations combined in a flavorful swirl of sugar, spice, and everything nice. It was the best gelato I’ve ever had, and I’m not just saying that because they have the certificate to prove it; it really was amazing. And it’s not too bad starting the morning off with a little sugar kick. If only they had this gelato in the states; it’d be my new coffee.
Tuscan countryside in all its grandeur
Tuscan countryside in all its grandeur
After enjoying my tasty Tuscan treat, I took to the streets of the town to see what else this quaint little village had to offer. Aside from it’s hand crafted and artisanal wares, it was your perfectly picturesque Tuscan town. Unable to afford any of the aforementioned artisanal goods, I opted instead to admire at the breathtaking views. It looked just like the menu at Olive Garden, rows and rows of vineyards and olive trees as far as the eye could see. I could’ve spent all day just admiring the scene set before me, but before I knew it, it was time t get back on the bus and head to the next stop: the winery.
The perfect little appetizer plate for trying all the delicious wines that the Chianti region had to offer!
The perfect little appetizer plate for trying all the delicious wines that the Chianti region had to offer!
If it wasn’t enough just to see the vineyards, I got to taste them as well (so to speak, that is). Although the lunch was nothing to rave about, the experience was unforgettable. The sommelier of the vineyard we visited was quite the charismatic fellow. Obviously used to pandering to what the tourists want to hear, he explained to us all the story of the Chianti and San Genovese grape and told us how Tuscan wine has become such a frontrunner in the wine markets of today. Wine tasting in Tuscany is something many of us vino enthusiasts dream of doing, and I’m very happy to say that I have finally achieved that level of “wine person” status.
The vineyards!
The vineyards!
After getting my drink on at the winery, we were back on the bus heading to Siena. Now, as I mentioned, I had an anthropology professor that was from Italy. When I asked her for her thoughts on my own Italian itinerary, she suggested that I take a day to check out Siena. Originally that had been the only place I was planning to take a day trip to, but when this tour opportunity came along, I figured why not see a little bit more? It was a great choice, and a great way to squeeze a few extra things into your stay in Florence, or wherever your trip may take you. But I digress.
The Piazza del Campo in Siena, the setting for the Palio di Siena
The Piazza del Campo in Siena, the setting for the Palio di Siena
The tour guide pointed out the little heads poking out of the side of this historic bank building. The heads are busts of famous Italian men, namely Leonardo DaVinci who can be seen here in this picture.
The tour guide pointed out the little heads poking out of the side of this historic bank building. The heads are busts of famous Italian men, namely Leonardo DaVinci who can be seen here in this picture.
Back in Siena, we were given the opportunity to take a guided tour of the town with a local tour guide. She was very friendly and so fluent in English that I could’ve sworn she had adopted a British accent. She knew all kinds of neat and interesting information about the town and was able to make it interesting for everyone on the tour, not just the history buffs. One thing she told us about that totally blew my mind was the Palio di Siena, a massive horse race that takes place literally in the center of town. Now, having been standing in the “arena”, I’m here to tell you that watching horses race around in such a compact space would definitely ignite some sort of latent claustrophobia (if such a thing exists). But, she assured us that this race happens every year and it brings a massive crowd! It is hard to remember the exact figures, but it’s thousands of people! And, while this may not sound like a lot, once you get a sense of the space we’re talking about, it’ll feel like millions. This race, though it only happens twice a year, is obviously the highlight of Siena’s cultural scene; all the souvenir shops, city streets, and even the medieval buildings are all marked with evidence of the Palio di Siena.
Hallelujah!
Hallelujah!
If you don’t go to Siena for the race, definitely go for the cathedral. I tell you this is one of the most magnificent facades I have ever seen. I have seen my fair share of grand cathedrals, and this one still ranks at the top of the list; it really is absolutely stunning. I was so mesmerized by what was happening on the outside of the church that I never made it inside (also, the line was really long)! But finally, I pulled myself away. As the sun began to slowly start creeping down in the sky, I used my remaining minutes in Siena poking around the shops and walking down the busy little streets. Walking along, something shiny caught my eye from a store window and as I approached to get a better look I realized that I had found the most beautiful Italian leather purses in all the land! Even though I knew they were all totally out of my price range, I had time to spare so I went in anyway. After all, everyone knows window shopping is a total rouse. But of course, the inevitable happened: I fell in love, with a gorgeous purse. Standing there, holding the most beautiful bag in the world, I began to negotiate with myself about how I might possibly be able to take this purse home. I felt like a little kid trying to convince their parents that they need a dog; “I’ll walk it”, “I’ll feed it”. Only in my case it was more like “I could put it on my Visa, credit card debt isn’t a bad thing really..” Eventually, me, myself, and I decided that I needed the purse (although I suppose you could’ve have guessed how this story was going to end, I’m a girl and we’re talking about a purse here!). Yeah, it set me back a pretty penny, but it was a pretty purse so I consider it a fair exchange.
Some of the flags you can see around town advertising the big race
Some of the flags you can see around town advertising the big race
My perfect little purse, if only I had money leftover to put inside it...
My perfect little purse, if only I had money leftover to put inside it…
Getting back on the bus for the last time, I conversed with my fellow tour goers about the tour, what they did in Siena, what they liked the most about the day, and whatever other prattle you may think of on a bus with strangers. Feeling the slightest twinge of buyer’s remorse, I asked my fellow men and women what they thought about my spendy purchase. Resoundingly, the response was very favorable. Not only to the quality and craftsmanship of the handbag, but also to the indulgent appropriation of funds. Money, of course, you can always make back. But, the opportunity to live this day again sets with the sun over these rolling Tuscan hills. So, in short, carpe diem and carpe handbag!
One great sunset over the gorgeous rolling hills of Tuscany
One great sunset over the gorgeous rolling hills of Tuscany, complete with both olive trees and vineyards.

Finding My Way in Florence

Arriving in Florence later that night, I was on a high of euphoria provided to me from the days experience. Nothing could get me down as I walked from the train station to my thrifty little B&B I booked for my five night stay in Florence. Locanda Daniel was really quite the find on such short notice. Not only was it ridiculously close to the train station (and basically everything else) but it was also extremely affordable and very quaint. My room consisted of myself and three other patrons, none whom were currently occupying the space so it was just me and my thoughts.
View of the Duomo from the terrance at Locanda Daniel. I told you it was close to everything!
View of the Duomo from the terrace at Locanda Daniel. I told you it was close to everything!
Not long after I had settled in had my stomach realized that it was time to seek out the necessary sustenance to maintain my jovial attitude. I did a quick TripAdvisor search for the best places near me and was surprised to learn that I had two worthy options right outside my door. I knew in booking my hotel that it was close to the train station, but I could not have anticipated that it was also close to great restaurants, a grocery store, the Florence central market, and the historic downtown itself.
Between the two options at my disposal, one was a “cheap” and the other was a bit more on the speedy side. Since I was just in the mood for a snack of sorts, I decided to save the full meal (and wallet) deal for another night and opted for the more budget friendly choice. Two doors up I found Mostodolce, a little brewery and pizzeria. Unfortunately, I had already had my fill of pizza pie so I opted for a salad instead, but everything on the menu looked good! While I waited for this tantalizing plate-o-greens, I started up  a conversation with the people next to me, who I unabashedly assumed spoke English due to the brilliant white color of their skin. Thankfully I was right and had stumbled across an older couple of Canadians. They had been in town for a few days so they gave me a few recommendations on things to do and even a couple places to eat. Interestingly enough, one of the places on their list was the restaurant right next door to this one ( the second viable choice) that I chose to put off until another night. Nice to know that TripAdvisor seemingly got it right this time
Once my meal was over, I headed back towards my room. Upon arrival I noticed I was no longer alone. What I thought to be a person of east Indian descent turned out to be a displaced Scotsman, originally hailing from Asia but born in Europe. His name was Kug (though I like to think of it more like Coug) and he turned out to be a fellow Florence foodie fanatic. After we got to know each other a bit, we were joined by the other two occupants in the late evening. They were from Kentucky and probably one of the oddest pairs of travelers I have ever seen. A guy and girl who could not be more different, but who could also not seem to stand each other for any more time than necessary. After talking to them each individually, Kug and I started to understand why.
Kug and I taking Florence by storm!
Kug and I taking Florence by storm!
The famous Ponte Vecchio, a bridge now home to some of the most expensive jewelry stores in Florence.
The famous Ponte Vecchio, a bridge now home to some of the most expensive jewelry stores in Florence.
As I mentioned, it is pretty commonplace to discuss travel plans and destinations with fellow travelers and this instance was no exception. As Kug began to ask the guy (whose name has escaped me) where he had been to so far, our mohawk-donning roomie must’ve listed a dozen or so places. Therefore, we got the idea that he had been traveling for a fair bit of time, but just in case, we asked. We were wrong. He had been traveling only about ten days or so. Kug and I looked at each other, looked at his forlorn and exhausted travel partner, and then looked back at him. A myriad of questions shot through my mind, but not wanting to appear too judgmental, I kept them mostly to myself. As if he had encountered this look of bewilderment before, he responded without question, “We get into one place in the morning, spend the day there, then leave at night and spend the evening in another place” so on and so forth. The purpose of his trip was to see as many heritage listed sites as possible. To me, this sounds like a complete nightmare. I know my trip was covering a lot of ground, but I felt that I had accommodated adequate time for each place (with a few exceptions of course). I couldn’t imagine seeing one place a day; in my mind, it’s a waste of a trip. While some people may say that it’s better than not seeing anything at all, I would refute that it makes no sense to see something if you can’t see it right. Although his travel companion, when asked independently, would seem to agree with me, she was already roped into this humdrum operation and she was in it until the end (which thankfully was only a few days away). She had also contracted strep throat due to the immense amount of stress and exhaustion brought on my this type of travel. Lucky for her, I still had a few spare antibiotics from my own dramatic bout with this cantankerous disease. She was over the moon and even offered to pay me for them but seeing and hearing about what she had put up with, I felt too sorry to accept payment. Also, I got them for free.
Sneak peek of my trip to these gorgeous five towns. The most idyllic being Vernazza.
Sneak peek of my trip to these gorgeous five towns. The most idyllic being Vernazza.
Despite their (or more like his) crazy travel philosophy, talking to them was informative for at least one reason: Cinque Terre. They were leaving the next morning bright and squirrely in hopes of accomplishing all five towns in the morning and heading off to Venice in the evening. Normally, when people go to Cinque Terre, it is recommended that they stay a night in one of the towns, or just outside, so they can really revel in the experience. These guys were basically running through them like a marathon.
Originally, I wasn’t planning of going to Cinque Terre because it seemed like a tight squeeze on an already tight schedule and I had heard from many people that it had become extremely touristy and overrated. But, with the extra time in Florence, I figured it might be nice to just check it out for a day. I was not in any way interested in staying there, especially after looking at the prices. So, even though these crazy Kentuckians were just that (crazy), they had also worked out the train trip to get there, back, and in-between in less than a day; this I had to give them credit for, and also interested in copying.
Now Kug, on the other hand, had no idea what I was talking about. It would seem that Cinque Terre is a place that only Americans have been brainwashed by because the people of the surrounding countries in Europe have little to no idea this place even exists. So, not wanting to him to miss out I Googled it and the images made his eyes nearly pop out of his head. In a matter of minutes, he had extended his stay and invited himself to join me on my future adventure. Of course this was no problem for me since I wanted the company.
The hour was growing late and our roommates had a very early train to catch. Having both heard their plans and made our own, we were all ready to hit the hay. It wasn’t long before my head was filled with the idyllic dreams of what Florence had to hold, having already had such great success in my first few hours. And believe you me, the fun did not stop there.
Florence under the Tuscan sun, a gorgeous sight to behold.
Florence under the Tuscan sun, a gorgeous sight to behold.

My Favorite Day. Ever.

Though totally and completely worth it, my day trip to Pompeii and Vesuvius left me with only a few precious hours to spend in Naples proper. But I wasn’t too concerned because Giovanni, the owner of my  hostel, had already provided me with all the information I needed to hit the hot spots of Naples in only half a day (though I can tell you now that he would not advise anyone to see the city in such away). In fact, Giovanni was so passionate about the sights and sounds of Naples, or Napoli, that he made his own map complete with color coded highlighter markings to pinpoint where to go, how to get there, and what to see. I have to say, the check in at Giovanni’s Home was one of the best services that I have ever been provided by any hostel, hotel, or even family friend. Obviously it’s not for everybody, but to me it just showed a tremendous amount of passion and pride for the city that Giovanni loved so dearly. And it was incredibly informative, especially for me because I had done no research on Naples or what to see. In my mind, it was a train stop on my way to Pompeii that also probably had decent pizza. It is so much more than that!

So, during the check-in, Giovanni created his own small walking tour of Naples. On the map, he marked what churches were where, showed me pictures from books he had collected over the many years of such an undertaking, and told me a little bit about the function and importance that each church had to the community of Naples. He marked where some of the best museums were, where the famous Napoli Aquarium was, so on and so forth. As he went along the map with is neon orange highlighter, guiding the way through this ancient city, the tour eventually concluded at a beautiful viewpoint. I knew it was beautiful because he showed me a picture if it, of course. What you see from this viewpoint stood to be quite possibly one of the best views I will have ever seen; the whole gulf coast of Naples, with all of it’s little, old-timey fishing boats in the bay, and colorful apartment buildings sprinkled along the hills. It just looked perfect.

On the morning of my last day, I got up relatively early in hopes of being able to walk the city, get to the viewpoint, and come back to the hostel with enough time to grab my suitcase and get to the train station. My train to Florence was leaving at 1 o’clock so I figured that as long as I was back to the hostel by noon at the latest, the rest would be a breeze! And so far, the morning was going according to plan! It also happened to be my friend Hannah’s birthday that day so for breakfast we all got a slice of this amazing three layer chocolate cake that Giovanni had picked up for her birthday (a super sweet touch, both literally and figuratively!). Running on my sugar high, I was ready to hit the street!

The Duomo.
The Duomo.
Inside, they were doing a few restorations, but the glory could still be seen and sensed
Inside, they were doing a few restorations, but the glory could still be seen and sensed

Close to the hostel was my first stop of the tour. A church. But not just any church, the Duomo of Naples, the cornerstone to the city’s catholicism. It was a Sunday, so I was careful not to disturb any of the pious people inside, but it was a little hard to keep my mouth shut for my mind was being blown. The Duomo was built in the 13th century, but consecrated in the 14th. Although it did suffer some damages from an earthquake during the 1400s, it’s magnanimity and elegance have never wavered. It is renowned for its delicate frescos and other works of art, but there was not enough time in the day for me to stay captivated for long. I was on to the next attraction: another church, lo and behold.

 

The Gesù Nuovo Church
The Gesù Nuovo Church
And what hopefully is a better look at it's studded facade
And what hopefully is a better look at it’s studded facade

This one a little more unorthodox. The Gesú Nuovo Church doesn’t really resemble a church at all. It’s not outlined by it’s steeples or towers, church bells or crosses, or bearing of any religious marking whatsoever. Instead, this Jesuit church by the name of “New Jesus” is most commonly recognized by it’s strange, pyramid-like studs protruding from it’s facade. If you think that’s cool, just wait till you hear what’s on them. A mystery for centuries, it has recently come to light that etched in the stone are Aramaic characters that coincide with musical notes. Giovanni had previously informed me of this, but nonetheless it is absolutely amazing to me that something so old could be so nuanced. I mean, transcribing a song onto the front of a church in a mostly forgotten alphabet sounds like something straight out of the DaVinci Code to me!

Inside the marble madness
Inside the marble madness

IMG_3892And if the outside wasn’t  cool enough, the inside was even more incredible. Warbled marble running all long the walls with incredibly detailed golden molding and gorgeous tile floors. It was truly breathtaking, but alas, my tour had to continue so, feeling a bit more enlightened, I set off in search of my picture perfect viewpoint.

Castel Nuovo
Castel Nuovo

Along the way there were a few more important monuments to be seen, the Castel Nuovo, among others. Unfortunately, I did not go in, for the sake of time and budget, it was quite an impressive turreted structure overlooking the bay. Should I ever have been royalty, my castle would definitely be on the water. Especially in Naples! After taking a quick picture or two, my journey continued.

IMG_3901
Chiesa di San Francesco di Paola

That is until I found my next stop: the Chiesa di San Francesco di Paola, in the largest square in Naples. Though, in reality, it’s more like a circle. Here you find not only the neoclassical church, but also the home of the Royal Palace. Again, it wasn’t something I was going to pay to see and certainly not on a day that was already stressed for time, but it did look like a good place to go if you wanted to learn about the history of Naples, and probably Italy as a whole. I did not know this upon arrival, but Naples used to be a capital city in the country. I know everyone thinks it’s all about Roma, but Italy used to have seven capitals, and Naples was the capital of the south. Therefore, it stands to reason that there is so much to see here!

Uncharacteristically in-castlelike, but a castle nonetheless. I have no idea about the name though...
Uncharacteristically in-castlelike, but a castle nonetheless. I have no idea about the name though…

From the Piazza del Plebiscito, I walked along the water to the Castel dell’Ovo (the Egg Castle). Like the Gesú Nuovo, this does not look like a castle. It looks like the “modern” architecture of the 1990’s. Geometrically unsymmetrical, you would not think this would be the place for kings and queens, but hey, we don’t even have castles in the US so who am I to say what’s what? At any rate, it was a nice change of pace from the castles you get so used to seeing, like the looks of Castel Nuovo which is much more traditional in stature. I wish I could tell you what it looked like on the inside, but alas the clock was ticking and I had to get to that viewpoint!

The panorama can't even do it's real beauty justice
The panorama can’t even do it’s real beauty justice

As Giovanni had drawn it on his map, it was apparently located just off the page in the southwest corner. Therefore, when I came to the end of the mapped out territory, I became a little curious to not find any mention of this place on the streets or sidewalks. The time was nearing 10:30, so there wasn’t much time to dilly dally. It had taken me an hour and a half to get to where I was and I didn’t have a whole lot of time left for aimless wandering. But I did have some time so I made myself a deal: walk another thirty minutes and if I don’t find it, head back. One picture is not worth missing a €40 train ticket. As I walked along the waterfront, I encountered a friendly officer of the Italian police department who noticed my incessant, and failed, map reading. He offered to help direct me to where I wanted to go, but when I showed him my map and pointed to where this viewpoint supposedly was, he shook his head in disbelief and informed me that the place I was looking for was miles away from the place I currently stood. Defeated, I decided to walk to the end of coast and then turn around.

The "fish market"
The “fish market”
What's on the menu tonight, boys?
What’s on the menu tonight, boys?

It was a really nice day for a walk and the beach was scenic, even if it wasn’t the whole coastline I was supposed to be seeing form my viewpoint. Along the way, I saw a small gathering down by the water with boats and small kiddie pools. Curious, I walked toward the crowd and realized that it was a sort of Sunday morning fish market. Maybe not the most official of markets, but still intriguing. I looked upon these worn turquoise “aquariums” and saw all kinds of various marine life. There were small fish, shrimp, baby squid, even moderately sized octopus (which surprised me a little bit). Just as in the olden days, nothing had a price because as the customer, you tell the fisherman how much you’re willing to pay. If it’s acceptable to him, you got yourself a dinner date; if not, you move on to the next guy willing to haggle. After the excitement was over, I decided it was time to head back towards Giovanni’s, disappointed but well-exercised.

When I walked through the hostel doors, Giovanni happened to be at his computer in the front room. Being mislead by his map, I told him that he had misinformed me by saying that the viewpoint he had me drooling over was only a half an hour’s walk away. I had been walking around the city for two hours and was still miles away from that place! Even though I was a little bummed out, I did not convey this too much, but rather tried to joke with him by saying that he lied to me. I’m not sure if he was offended by my teasing, or felt bad for me that I did not have the experience I was hoping for, but for whatever reason he got up, looked at me and said “Follow me.” Cryptic yes, but I was curious so we started off down the stairs. We got to the door leading to the street and I assumed he was going to take me for a little walk somewhere close by to show me something less comparable. But that was not the case. He opened the door, then went over to his little garage, unhinged the lock, and opened the door to his BMW motorbike. Now I was really confused, but as he started to wheel it out of the garage, it was staring to become crystal clear. My eyes were wide with excitement as I looked at Giovanni and shrieked as quietly as I could “Are we going on your motorbike?!”. Then he looked at me, matter-of-factly, and said “Of course.” as if I had just asked the dumbest question in the world. Why wouldn’t he take me to this fantastical viewpoint on his motorcycle?

It was a welcomed brush with insanity because riding on an Italian motorbike and been something I had wanted to do during my time in Italy, but I wasn’t sure when I would have the chance. Now, now was the chance and it couldn’t have been better! Doing a tour or renting one probably would’ve been fine too, but I would never have been able to see how a real Italian drives that thing. Let me tell you, it’s terrifying! The way they zip around moving vehicles and cut across speeding lines of traffic is both exhilarating and horrific. I saw my life flash before my eyes more than a few times, that said, they were closed at least half the time. In fact, several times, Giovanni had to tell me to loosen the death grip I had put him in so that he could continue to drive like a bat out of hell. All the things keeping me on the bike were wrapped around this bald, middle-aged Italian man who kept acting like we were playing a game of MarioKart… So naturally, when things got a little hairy, I squeezed a little tighter. In hindsight this probably wasn’t the best plan, since suffocating your driver is a bit more dangerous than being on the motorcycle in the first place, but it was my subconscious reaction to fear.

View from the top
View from the top

The good news? We made it and it was ever bit as beautiful as it was in the picture! I was so overwhelmed with the entire experience that I completely forgot about my upcoming departure, but thankfully Giovanni got me back on track. With only a few minutes to spend oogling at my surroundings, Giovanni and I snapped a few shots and geared up for round two which was initiated by him pleading with me to please not “kill him with my legs”. I resisted the best I could, and it was actually much easier on the way down now that I knew what to expect. I even took a video as we came down the hill that overlooked the coast. It’s the best thirty second reminder of one of the most amazing experiences of my life.

Me and my favorite Italian
Me and my favorite Italian, Giovanni.

On the way back, Giovanni showed me some of his most memorable places around town, like the place where he got his first kiss from the “most beautiful girl in school”. I told him he was so lucky to live in such a beautiful place and I will remember his response until the day I die. He said, “I’m not lucky. I’m Italian.”

In a place that was completely new to me, it was comforting to hear someone speak about this place in a way reminiscent of an old friend or family member. For me, it highlighted the difference between a place like Naples that is very authentic and homey, and a place like Rome that’s more Chef Boyardee-Italian. I can see now why Giovanni spends so much time telling people how amazing Naples is, but in actuality, he doesn’t really have to. Naples will show you how amazing it is if you just get out and experience it. The people are very friendly and helpful, the streets are cobblestoned and quaint, the history is rich and accessible, and the weather is perfect! Should I ever return to Italy, you won’t find me anywhere north of Naples because the only Italy I want to experience is found solely in the south.