We took another very enjoyable train ride from Marseilles to Carcassonne. Carcassonne is a city, and in this city there is “Le Cite” which I believe is something like “the citadel” – basically, to a non-history expert such as myself, a giant walled city. This is a very famous thing, but I had heard of it because of the board game Carcassonne. I’ve been playing this game for a long time with friends from the Bay. It was a monthly-ish event, playing the game. This board game is 99% of the reason we went to this town, along with the fact that it happened to be roughly on the way to Barcelona.
Jean Jacques, Elsie, and Christoph
After the weather in Palermo, Lindsay and I were both really excited to be seeing and staying with a family once again. So after flying to Marseilles and taking a bus to Monasque, we were so thrilled to get out and see Jean Jacques waiting for us.
Jean Jacques (JJ) is my very, very dear friend Nicola’s father, and Elsie (who we would see in half an hour later) is his mother. I had the brief pleasure of meeting them in San Francisco last year when they came to visit Nicola, but it was only that once. They are, in short, incredibly enjoyable people to be around and Lindsay and I both agreed that not for a second did we feel uncomfortable, awkward, or anything but filled with warmth, and thrilled and lucky to be getting to know them better.
Today, I woke up and decided to run the Barcelona marathon.
I don’t say that to brag, but it did feel quite a bit like that, if I were to be honest. Last night at around 7pm, Kev and I saw a sign advertising the race. I was a bit bummed, as had I known, I might have trained (I’d like to think so anyway :)) or done something to prepare for it, but I didn’t, and it was starting in about 12 hours from the time I saw the sign.
I woke up this morning and thought, “what the hell. I’ll just go enjoy the crowds and run as far as I want, and then stop” assuming it was going to be a 12-15km kinda run, as the MOST I have run on this trip was 9km. So we got up, walked to the subway, gave my biggest supporter a kiss, and I squeezed my way through the crowds to the starting gates. I didn’t register (obviously, it was closed) and so I was quite self-conscious the entire time about getting booted off the course. Thankfully, there were close to 20,000 people there, so I was able to remain pretty inconspicuous.
As we were running, I settled myself behind the 4’30 min mile markers and kept a slow but steady pace. I had no idea how far I was going to run, and just wanted to keep a normalized pace for as long as I could.
I couldn’t help but feel floored as to what a BEAUTIFUL city Barcelona is. After minutes of arriving at the bus terminal, Kev and I felt that this city had an unbelievable energy and life to it, and we loved it immediately. Running by Gaudi’s cathedrals, seeing the futbol stadiums, the unbelievable coastline and enjoying the sun – truly the city could not have looked more perfect if it tried.
Every 5km there were “refueling” stands supplied with oranges, nuts and water for our disposal. There were bands (most playing old school American tunes, which was awesome) seriously at every turn, dancers, Spanish guitarists, and unbelievable crowds the ENTIRE way. I have never seen anything like it. It was amazing, and truly such a testament to the people of Barcelona.
At km 12 – I felt amazing. There was no question in my mind that I was going to keep running.
Km 15 – the same. I decided here that I was going to run a half marathon, and then probably call it quits.
Around kilometer 20, I started to get CRAZY sore. My knees felt like they were going to fall off, my hips were tight, and my (stupid) Merrel “minimalist” shoes (which are NOT the shoes you want for distance, pavement running) where making the tops of my feet ache. I decided, okay, 21km = half marathon, that’ll be it.
Well, I got to km 21 and thought, “well, I’m already this far…now I’m literally stepping closer to the finish line with every step…” so I kept going. I have to say that at this point my time was 1:54. Despite the cheering crowds, honestly from km 25-35, I was really in a ridiculously rough state. It was here, that I must mention a few things….when I ran my first marathon in Bangkok (under similar circumstances) my mind was CRYSTAL clear. My body (knees) was aching like crazy, but my mind was in this “you are accomplishing a life-long goal. Keep going. This is nothing…” state for almost the entire race. I was never so confident in the power of the mind, and how our body really will do anything if we tell ourselves we can. That was NOT the case today (at least not during this 10km stretch). Minute after minute, I contemplated stepping off the course, and simply walking back to where I was going to meet Kev – but for some reason, I didn’t. I felt grumpy, sore, and honestly kinda sad.
Around mile 21 though, my world started to change. First of all, one of the corner bands started playing “Proud Mary.” Instantly, I flew back to my time with my nearest and dearest friends, David, Maj, Jenn, Olga (and a couple other coworkers) who busted out some serious moves to this song for our talent show last year. My spirits began to rise as I smiled and laughed, and sang it word for word until I couldn’t hear any more.
Seconds later, I turned my playlist back on, only to find “Aint no Mountain High Enough” blaring from the speakers. This song always reminds me of my mom and brothers, as I have countless memories of singing at the top of our lungs in the living room, BLARING it from the speakers, Kyle running around looking for homemade microphones of candle sticks, forks, stirring spoons or whatever other object might be laying around for us to use. Again, I started laughing and my spirits lifted.
Next, “Aint too Proud to Beg” and right after “Dancing in the Moonlight,” Sean and my favorite songs. I have perfectly clear memories of picking him up when he was in middle school (and I was a big bad senior in my rinky-dink Ford Ranger truck (complete with red pleather seats, mind you) honking to the beat of the ENTIRE song in the line of parents picking up their kids, trying to embarrass him (which never worked, and he only would roll the windows down and sing as loud as he could as we drove away).
Next up? “Wannabe.” and BOOM. I was back at our Senior Night with my besties, Court, Les and Laura, dressed in ridiculous getups in front of a green screen, doing everything in our power to lighten a difficult time in one of friend’s lives by singing and being silly.
Next? Missy Elliott’s “Work it”. and BOOM! Again, instantly transported back to 14, with another one of my best friends at the time, rollerblading to boys’houses we had crushes on, and getting ice cream from our local ice cream parlor.
At this point, I was still in a LOT of pain, and while my spirits were MUCH brighter, I was still in a bit of a fog. Next on the song list, “Rather Be.” I just found out about this song, but could not get over how perfect the lyrics were for this time in my life,
“We’re a thousand miles from comforts. We have traveled land to sea, as long as we’re together, there’s no place I’d rather be.”
All of a sudden though, among the THRONGS of people, there was Kev. Just sitting there, cheering all of the runners on. And, I started crying. With a HUGE smile on his face, he jumped up and started running alongside me, lifting my spirits with every step. My biggest supporter and #1 fan. I could do this.
For the last 2 km, as I quite literally hobbled to the finish line, I was bombarded with memories of my Dad signing us up for the Bobby Crim when I was just 7 years old, and all of us running together as we crossed the finish line, or the countless XC races he cheered me through in the freezing rain, as he told me to “push the hill!”. I was reminded that the hat that I was currently wearing was one my mom gave me after she and her best friends (Jan and Kathie) completed the RIDICULOUS feat of walking a marathon one day and a half marathon the second day, for Breast Cancer, and how unbelievably proud I was of them. I remembered running through the streets of San Francisco, with one of my dearest friends, Emily dressed to the nines in whatever ridiculous outfit we could think of for Bay to Breakers. I remembered my dad preparing for his marathon which he ran for my grandma and her battle with Lupus. I remembered getting a call from my best friend (the non-runner!) after she finished her first half marathon in Colombia and how infinitely proud I was of her. It was minutes before I was about to cross that I truly reflected on all of the people who have helped me get here. Running this marathon, or not, these people and countless more helped me learn how to make small goals to accomplish even bigger ones. These people have given me the confidence to even CONTEMPLATE such a feat – and I realized and appreciated just.how.thankful. I truly was to them.
It was about here, 100 feet from the finish line, that I got yanked off the course for not having my bib (despite trying to tell the guy that it was “con mi esposo!” He didn’t buy it, but that was fine. Looking up at my time 4:20:25, I realized I had surpassed my initial goal of the 4:30 group and felt like gold.
Minutes later, Kev caught up to me, armed with bags of ice, anti-inflammatory cream and H20. Again, my biggest supporter. As we sat on the steps talking about the run, I couldn’t help but to feel like “Damn, that was something, but this was nothing….” totally clear-headed, and feeling remarkably loved.
Sicily was amazing. We may have said this already, but one of the awesome things about Sicily is that it was exactly what we had hoped and imagined it might be.
Giardini-Naxos, Isola Bella, and Taormina
We took a ferry from Reggio Calabria to the city of Messina. Here is a photo of the ferry
We didn’t stay in Messina long and walked directly (almost) to the train station from the ferry. We stopped for our first REAL Sicilian cannolo (aka cannoli), which was amazing.
A small note on cannolis here. I never realized this, but apparently most “real” cannolis in Sicily at least are made with sheep milk ricotta. This sheep milk has a distinct flavor that both Lindsay and I find very favorable. Basically, they were awesome. I believe I’ve eaten nearly 6 – 8 cannolis in the past 8 or 9 days.That might not sound like much, but considering all of the other food we’ve been eating it’s at least notable.
So we took a train from Messina to a town of Giardini-Naxos. This is semi-significant because it was one of the first trains we’ve taken inter-city, in large part because it was cheap. We ended up taking a number of trains in Sicily, which was pretty nice for a change!
Once we arrived in Giardini-Naxos we had a small micro-crisis as we weren’t exactly sure how to get to our accommodation for the evening. We had a GPS coordinate, so we know WHERE it was, but when you have two potentially correct directions, one that goes up a hill and one that doesn’t, when you’re in a very small town, sometimes it can be stressful because picking the wrong direction means you might end up walking an extra 3 kilometers uphill with your pack if you end up having to backtrack.
We choose the path of least resistance (the path along the water, which was pretty flat) which ended up being the right choice.
Once we left the station and really started walking along the coast, it was BEAUTIFUL and felt like one of those not-so-rare-on-this-trip-but-still-awesome “we are somewhere so awesome!” moments. This photo was taken at dusk from the beach near our apartment, but if you can imagine it being a beautiful sunny day, our walk was from the right of this frame to the left along the coast. It was a good 2.5-3 kilometer walk but it was great.
And this photo is from a totally different angle (and elevation) taken the following day, but the walk was along the coast line.
Our apartment was also nice. It felt Italian, like something you’d see in a movie. Nothing crazy fancy, just nice.
The town was small, quiet, and nice. There was a little grocery store nearby that we walked to to buy some microwavable crepes (which I ate cold with Nutella), beer (which I drank cold with Nutella), milk, and other such necessities. We only spent two nights here, so really we ate most meals out (we went to a small and not-super-fancy meat/cheese place that served pasta that tasted a bit like something you’d get from the instant pasta aisle in Target).
We went out for dinner
The first day/night we spent a bit of time figuring out what to do the next few days (our AirBnB host was super helpful and actually helped us figure out the rest of our trip in Sicily), what we were going to do the next day, etc. Then we walked around the town for the rest of the night, collected a few rocks, etc.
Bad picture (thanks Obama!) but there were lots of very beautiful statues along the coast with various sea related subjects.
I also destroyed my pants. I’ve been wearing these pants nearly every day for the past 7 or so months and was somewhat sad to loose them. At the same time I’m not shocked because they were starting to wear through in a few different spots. This is the crochal region of the pants
We probably watched an episode of House of Cards season 3, and went to bed. Which was a bit cold, so we took the space heater and plugged it in precariously balanced on a shelf.
The next morning we started with a fairly typical breakfast of cappuccino (me) and americano (lindsay), and added some pizza. I believe this cost us 6 euros, which wasn’t bad.
After breakfast at the bar we walked and walked and walked. Our destination was and island called Isola Bella, which was next to the town of Taormina. The island was something Lindsay had read about and our airbnb host recommended. It’s basically a tiny island that’s connected via a small strip of land that is underwater during high tide, and just barely exposed during lower tides.
The walk to get there was pleasant enough, especially considering 99% of it was very beautiful with an awesome view of the sea.
The island was beautiful as advertised and we were quite lucky to have beautiful weather on this particular day. Apparently during the summer the island and the surrounding water is completely packed, so much so that it can be hard to find a place to sit, but seeing as it’s winter there were only a handful of people at the beach.
Lindsay wore her bathing suit and I changed into mine (there were no showers or changing rooms open this time of year so I was just quick, changing behind a rock (ish)). Then we just had an awesome few hours reading, and swimming!!!
This is a situation where I wish I had my GoPro with me. The water was beautiful, not CRAZY visibility but I’d say a good 30 to 40 feet. There weren’t any big fish, but there were a number of sea urchins (once you got past the shallow area near the beach) and a decent number of small fish to watch. I of course brought my mask and snorkel for the swimming.
I have to give Lindsay credit on this trip – she’s been quite tough in terms of dealing with cold water. The water was not quite as cold as it was in Split when I went swimming, but not far off. I’d say we were both in the water for a good 30 minutes.
We got out, dried off (as best we could with the tiny towel we had), then sat in the sun for a while longer to give our bathing suits a chance to dry off. We ended up talking with a few americans/australians who lived in a nearby town (one was in the Army, the others were Au Pairs).
Eventually we walked back from the island (which was easy for us as we were barefoot, but sort of fun/different because as I mentioned the path connecting the land is JUST above water so small waves would make the walkway wet. So people have to sort of time their steps/run to cross the path if they don’t want to get wet or take their shoes off) to find a funicular our host told us about that would take us up to the town of Taormina.
I don’t know what the exact definition of “funicular” is [edit: Ok, I just looked it up, sort of. I googled, and clicked on the wikipedia article, but I didn’t read it all. The pictures though, they look like what I think a funicular should look like. Which makes me wonder if this was a funicular at all!], but I always think of it sort of like a trolley that goes up a very steep hill on a rail of some sort, with another funicular on the other side acting as a sort of counterweight. To me this “funicular” was more of a gondola, but perhaps the two aren’t mutually exclusive.
I’m scared of hights
PSA: if it seems like I post a lot of photos of myself, but not many of Lindsay, it’s because Lindsay is the one with a digital camera. i.e. she takes most all of these photos. I have my film camera, which is great, but I won’t see a single photo from this past year until late April/early May!
Regardless, we got up to the small town above and spent the next few hours walking around and admiring the oldness and beautifulness of the small town. There is also a very old greek theater (by “old” I mean ancient rome/or before old) which I wanted to see, but the entrance fee was a bit much for us (12 euros each I think) so we ended up just walking up to the theater and looking at the outside walls. Not exactly as cool, but if we went to even half of the awesome historic things we could every day we’d probably have to double our budget.
We ate these panini/sandwhich type things, and ate gelato.
After a few hours exploring the town we started the (long) walk home. We stopped along the way at a bus stand to find out information about where we needed to get the bus the next day, and then on the way home spent a bit of time to figure out where exactly we needed to be the next morning to catch the bus. This has become something of a normal thing for us, when possible we’ll spend an hour before traveling to be sure we know exactly where to go to cut down on stress on the early travel days.
All said and done, we walked over 10 miles on this particular day, which was well above our average and it felt pretty great.
The next morning we had a somewhat early morning but made time to stop at a bar (i.e. cafe) and get coffees and “sweet treats” as Lindsay would call them. Probably a croissant with cream or something similar.
We got on the bus and took it across Sicily West to a city called Agrigento.
Lindsay listened to podcasts on the bus
and I read
Agrigento is another small/old city close to but not right on the sea. It’s probably best known for something called the “Valley of the Temples” which is basically a shallow valley that contains a bunch of old temples and buildings from the (I think) ancient Greek pantheon. Things like Zues, et cetra. We came here to see this collection, and because it’s an interesting city, and also because it’s along the path that we needed to travel to get to Palermo by the 9th.
When we arrived in the city everything was completely dead and felt like the city was a ghost town. This is not totally unusual for us on this trip, but you never know if it’s really just an empty city (off season) or if it’s a timing thing. It was a bit difficult as we had an address for our apartment/airbnb, but we hadn’t been able to tell our host what time we’d arrive.
This has become something of a classic/annoying problem, which I’ve likely mentioned in other blog posts, but most of the time AirBnB hosts prefer you to give them a call when you arrive, or know specifically when you’ll arrive and plan ahead. This makes sense of course as often times in the case of a private apartment the host may not live right nextdoor so planning ahead is required. Most of the time we can figure out a pretty good estimate about when we’ll arrive (especially when we have a single mode of transportation like a train, and we’re able to accurately estimate our walking time from the drop off point), but sometimes we have no real idea of how long a bus will take, or how long it’ll actually take us to get from the bus drop off to the apartment. In these cases we don’t want to make somebody wait around for us if we are 3 hours late.
This is what happened here, and we ended up getting to Agrigento, walking NEAR the apartment, and then spending an hour walking around the city looking for coffee shops or open wifi networks. This sounds easy enough, but as we’ve mentioned in other blog posts or as is perhaps obvious to you if you know much about other cultures, there are many times when nearly every shop is closed. When we arrived it was one of those times, and the bars/cafes that were open didn’t seem to have wifi. Anyway, I’m writing more then the situation really warranted as we eventually found a wifi network that was open and I was able to schedule a time for our host to come meet us at the apartment to let us in.
As luck would have it, the apartment was up quite a few stairs once again, but at least they were cool stairs!
The apartment was nice and clean. One of the stove burners was a bit “strange” as it caused a giant flame, (I recorded a short video of this which is on youtube), but apart from this everything was great.
After checking in, our host told us that between 7:30 and 9 (or something close to this) the main street in the city filled up with people and was quite active. This turned out to be exactly the case, and we had a wonderful few hours walking along the street and looking at people/shops/food. We stopped at what turned out to be our #1 cannoli place. Then we eventually (after what was probably an hour of mild debate – Lindsay didn’t want pizza, I didn’t care what we ate) stopped at a trattoria and had a nice pasta meal. Lindsay had (I think?) some sort of oil/cream based pasta with shrimp, and I had some sort of tomato based pasta with the small noodles that are hand made and look like a bit like a cross between a gnocchi and a shell. It was quite good.
The next day was spent primarily at the Valley of the Temples. This actually turned out to be incredibly awesome.
The coolest part, though I don’t believe you can really tell by the photos, is the landscape that you could see behind the hills/cliffs that the temples were located on. The landscape just felt very clean, Italian, historic, old, expansive, magical. Those would be my adjectives. Lots of little olive trees and sorts of desert (or dessert, not sure!) plants mixed in.
I loved the fact that the place was not busy at all. It rained a bit (just sprinkled on and off), but was a really clear day. We even saw a rainbow I believe.
It wasn’t just temples here, there were also a bunch of house foundations which I really enjoyed because there were a number of great description/explanation placards. The text might describe how a house during this period had three rooms, including a large main entrance room facing the West, and then you could walk over the ruins/foundations and stand inside of these rooms and sort of get a feel for how things might have looked.
Anyway, after the temples we headed back to the city and spent an hour or so getting our transportation in order for the next day. We ended up getting quite lucky (or perhaps it’s not luck – we’ve heard that the trains in the South of Italy are just a lot cheaper then other parts of Western Europe) and getting train tickets (which we generally like better then buses) to Palermo.
We went to a very small grocery store near our apartment and bought a bunch of food to make pasta at home, then we stopped at our favorite cannoli place and bought cannoli(s) for desert (or dessert?). We cooked up a feast with pasta, pesto, fresh parmesan-ish cheese, mozzarella, some sort of spicy tomato sauce, and water.
About water, I prefer sparkling fancy water, Lindsay prefers “natural” water, and it’s a constant source of minor argument between us. Water is really expensive at restaurants (like, 3+ euros, which is often the same price as a beer or wine), so we’ll only buy one. The question is which water do we get!
Then, as many nights before, we packed up and prepared ourselves for leaving in the morning, and headed to bed.
In the morning we (as every other morning) went and got coffee and I believe we got one last cannoli at our favorite place, and headed to the train.
We knew that it was supposed to rain the next week so we decided to spend the last 3 days in Palermo, which is a large-ish city, and also the city that we would eventually fly out of back to France/Marseille. Also, we had hoped to head to a number of beautiful nearby beaches/islands that are apparently awesome for snorkeling/scuba diving. Sadly, that didn’t happen as the weather reports were correct and it rained nearly non-stop for the next 3 days.
Palermo is a pretty cool city. It reminded me a bit of Naples in that it was pretty “gritty”, but it was certainly different and had it’s own feel.
We stayed in a small studio directly above a market. This place we found on AirBnB, and it had 3.5/5 stars which is fairly bad for AirBnB (most people seem to leave 4 or 5 stars it seems, unless there was a real problem, because you have something of a personal relationship with the owner most times). The reason for the rating was the market that I just mentioned. People said that it was INSANELY loud at night. But, the apartment was a full 15 dollars per night cheaper than almost any other option in the city so we decided that we’d give it a shot!
The apartment itself was small, but great. The bed was a small couch that folded out. That was another complaint in the reviews actually, that the bed was more of a single bed, good for one person but very tight for two. This turned out to be accurate, but we managed (a few annoying moments when I woke up and almost threw Lindsay off the bed, but I managed to fall back asleep without violence).
The market that our apartment was on top of was really really cool. Frankly, and sadly, it was perhaps slightly less cool for us as we’ve seen a number of amazing markets in our travel days, but we were both reminded of a somewhat less intense version of the markets on the side streets of Ho Chi Min City in Vietnam. Dirty, loud, but with some really great looking produce. Lots of little stores selling various household goods, light bulbs, batteries, some tourist items, etc.
The market was quite loud when we arrived (during the day) but quite honestly I thought, “oh, well, this is a bit loud but not so bad.” And then the night came, and the music (I can’t quite place it, but it sounded like what I’d describe as Caribbean mixed with some sort of African) came on. The music was incredibly loud, with an incredible amount of base. Lindsay and I were sitting in our room when it first came on and we looked at each other and sort of laughed and said, “ok, this is about what we expected.”
The music didn’t stop until, I don’t know, but after 3AM. And the drunk/loud people who as far as I can tell were hiding directly underneath our mattress were incredible. Keep in mind we aren’t super late party people (generally), so we’re in bed by midnight or so, sleeping around then. Even with earplugs in, if we could speak/understand the languages being spoken we could have understood every word being said in the song, and by the people.
It didn’t make for a great nights sleep, but it was at least something we’ll remember!
“OK,” you say, “but what did you do other then not sleep super well while in Palermo?” That’s a great question. In short, not all that much. The weather really wasn’t great (moderately heavy rain) and we found ourselves asking ourselves “why are we outside right now?” fairly often. We walked around the different areas of the city a decent amount and ate quite a few different “fast food” items. In particular, there is a type of fried food that has rice inside with mozzarella or meat inside that I quite enjoyed.
This is a fairly famous thick, spongy pizza/bread cart, which smelled a lot like motor oil
Lindsay went running along the water one day, while I sat and thought about writing this blog post and working on Phapi.
We went to some of the market stalls near our house (closed down mostly in the pictures below) and bought snacks, beer, wine, etc, to eat when we gave in and went inside.
We read and watched a movie. I think I mentioned this in a recent blog post but I’m reading a lot of books from a series called the Dresden Files about a wizard in modern day Chicago. And I’m reading various programming books. Lindsay is reading books that she can use in her classes.
I bought a new hair razor from a super cheap little store that sold knockoff Chinese products, and I attempted to cut my own hair (which I can generally do OK), but screwed up:
The last day, as is somewhat normal when we are getting ready to leave a country, we basically just walked around for exercise, ate to eat (with the exception of one final cannoli which was a targeted food item!), and waited for the morning to come to get to the airport. Oh, and we spent part of the last day walking around looking for a place that was open that we could print our Ryanair boarding passes at.
We took a bus (1 hour, and roughly 8 euros each) to the Palermo airport, got there around 2 hours early (it’s an international flight, although it feels more like a domestic flight, so I’m not really sure how early we needed to be there), and amazingly managed to get on the Ryanair flight without any extra fees being assessed. This is in part thanks to our friend (who we stayed with in Tokyo) Cath, who had recently been charged 70 euros for not checking in online. The crazy thing is that all said and done, our tickets, including taxes, fees, baggage, etc, for two people, was USD $89.XX from Palermo to Marseille! That’s so cheap!
The flight was only 2 hours and once again we were in France! Sadly, once again we got no passport stamps. We had a few hours to wait, and then we caught a bus from Marseille airport to the city of Monasque, where we met Jean-Jaque, Nicola’s father. Which is next post.
We arrived in Reggio di Calabria via train (my first!) really not expecting much. I had read online that there was a great promenade for running (which proved to be QUITE true), but other than that, we really were coming simply because it was a great jumping off point to Sicily, which was to be our final destination in Italy. It turns out, that little ol’ Reggio di Calabria turned out to be awesome. We arrived to our hostel (after booking through hostelworld) only to be greeted by quite possibly the world’s sweetest guy ever who walked us down the street to another place, as the place we had booked was having water problems. Glancing at each other sideways (we have heard that story before), we followed the guy, only to have him take us to a perfect room in a perfect location. Rooftop terrace, great breakfast, wonderful, warm conversation…we couldn’t have asked for anything more.
Anyway, after talking to the guy, it turned out a few hours after we arrived there was something that translated to “the great stroll” which literally meant the entire town comes and walks around the main street eating gelato, window-shopping, teenagers chasing their crushes through crowded streets, lovers loving, families pushing their kids on tricyles…it happens every week, and it was honestly magic. It truly made me wish that I lived in a city where we (not only) had a main street, but had the type of community feel that they had here. Kev and I followed suit and walked up and down the streets snacking for about 2 hours before we came back to our room and turned on HOUSE OF CARDS.
The next day we….
One random memory: one night we went to this place that was recommended to us called “Lord Byron” for typical snack foods (pizza, calzoney type things, etc). It was PACKED because 1) it was SO cheap (everything was a buck) and 2) it was the perfect spot for young kids and their friends, or families to hang out. That night, we went and grabbed a quick bite to eat and a couple beers and walked outside to some of their outdoor seating. Right next to us, there was a table with about 10 10-12 year old kids chowing down on their snacks, and one kid drinking a beer trying to look SO cool in front of his friends (which, by the glimmer in their eyes, he was). Anyway, it was a great memory, one that made us both wish we were 11 again, and one I think we’ll always have.
Honestly, it was a great time. The weather was damn-near perfect, and I think we both were a bit sad to have to leave. It was such a slow moving city, but one that also had such a great vibe and energy to it. Attention those heading south! BE SURE TO STOP in REGGIO DI CALABRIA, stay at Casa Laguana and enjoy Southern Italian hospitality!
We hadn’t originally planned on visiting Naples. The reason we didn’t plan on visiting Naples is a bit difficult to put my finger on, because like much of our planning on this trip it was very haphazard and semi-random. I guess we had planned on spending more of our time in smaller cities on the coast, and less time in cities. But, after the Amalfi coast (which was amazing, but also wet with few indoor things-to-do that weren’t on the expensive side) we looked at the forecast and saw that it was going to be really raining cats and dogs (not literally cats and dogs) and so figured we’d head to a larger city, Napoli being close and easy to reach, and reasonably famous/well known/worthwhile.
This suited me just fine, because to be honest on our way down to the Amalfi my heart grew sad (not literally) knowing that we were so close to the (arguably not really) birthplace of pizza. Honestly, I was a bit disappointed that I had to say that I skipped over Naples, considering how much I love pizza.
And I love pizza. Along with Ramen, Sushi, and (without getting into specific dishes) Indian food, it’s #1. And this is perfect because in Naples there really is a lot of pizza, everywhere. Actually this is a small problem in the context of this blog post because pretty much the only photos we have from Naples are of Pizza. Here is an example:
This photo is from L’Antica Pizzeria da Michele – I ate there twice. The first time, I left Lindsay who was feeling sick as a dog (impossible to really know this) instead of comforting her or helping her recover, and it. was. awesome (love you Lindsay, with all my heart (not literally)). I was really really excited because if you google “best pizza naples italy” (you have to add italy or you’ll get Naples Florida results… thanks Obama) this is generally either the top, or one of the top 5.
The pizza here is sort of like a New York style. Thin crust. Crispy. Often you only have two options: margherita or marinara. It’s always cooked in a pizza oven. It’s always great. It’s sometimes more than great.
So, eating pizza is a pretty big part of what we did in Naples. When we weren’t doing that, we were generally sitting in a bar (aka “cafe”) drinking cappuccino or espresso or americano. I have to give Lindsay some real credit for giving espresso a real shot here. She had espresso 3 or 4 (maybe more?) days in a row.
We stayed in a hostel for 3 out of 4 days in Naples, and like many hostels (I hate this, by the way) they kick you out in the morning while they clean. Our hostel kicked us out at 10 am after breakfast. Breakfast, by the way, was some interesting here. I wish I had pictures, but basically it was toast, ultrapasterized milk in a box, cereal, small round dried biscuit things, terrible toast, and GIANT HUGE containers of Nutella. Oh, I sort of found a photo!
As I was saying, we got kicked out of our hostel every day at 10am. This doesn’t seem particularly early, and it’s not (I’m always up by 8:30, if not earlier. Lindsay is up… early also) but when you are traveling every day, and aren’t planning far ahead, and are trying to not spend a ton of money (which means you can’t just go to museums every day), it is sometimes better for us to hang out in our guest house (reading, writing blog posts, programming, etc) until 11 or 12, then heading out, so we have a really good chunk of time to explore and enjoy the day, but we also get some time at night. Of course, this sounds terrible or really sad perhaps, but it’s just reality – we can’t be tourists 14 hours a day, 7 days a week, for 10 months straight. Anyway, the point of all of this is to say that our normal travel schedule was slightly out of whack in Naples. We left earlier then normal, and we got home earlier then normal.
Naples itself is a pretty awesome city I’d say. It’s dirty, there is more dog shit on the streets then any other city we’ve visited in the West, but it’s a really interesting and unique city compared to Rome/Florence/Venice. Of course, each city I just mentioned is unique, but Naples is unique in different ways. It feels a lot grittier and dirtier and generally more multi-cultural. For us Naples felt totally safe, but some people (who I suspect are perhaps not used to living in a city or being around a real mix of people) call it “dangerous.” I will admit there were a number of shady sorts of places, and I was a bit more cautious of where I put my money in some areas, but really it was pretty great.
Another thing that I really loved about Naples is that a few streets had a sort of “I bet this is what Italy felt like 60 years ago” feel to it. Once again, I wish I had more photos, but there were a few streets where people were selling vegetables in the back of oldish/beatupish trucks. Stuff like this. This photo doesn’t do it justice, but sort of gives the idea:
Actually, I scanned a bunch of slides (film) (I may have posted some of them on this blog before) that I found at an estate sale back in Berkeley a few years ago, and there were a bunch of photos from what I believe is Italy. These photos are very similar how these streets of Naples felt like to me. Again, the photo we took (above) isn’t from this street, but you can perhaps sort-a-kinda get the idea. I have no idea if these photos below are actually from Naples or not, but again, the feeling was similar to me.
We ended up spending 4 days in Naples because we found a good deal on a train to our next destination (Reggio Calabria) that required we stay there 4 days. Quite honestly, it was probably a day or two too many, considering we didn’t really DO anything in Naples. We didn’t go Pompeii (though we drove by Mount Vesuvius like 15 times going between Amalfi and Naples and ride sharing and etc), we didn’t go to a single museum (honestly we just didn’t feel like it), we mainly at pizza, walked around and people watched, ate at cafes, talked with people at our hostel, and hung out.
One other highlight was cooking. One night Lindsay and I (more I then Lindsay, but she was working on planning the next phase of our trip!) made “traditional” bolognese sauce (like we learned in our class!). It was pretty good, and I’d say fun to do. There was an AMAZING grocery store (sort of like in Rome, but a bit fancier) and we went there twice to look around and buy food for cooking/eating. They had these cured legs of various animals that you could buy that were stored in what looked like a fancy soft guitar case. (Photos to come, I hope, if I can find them).
For the sake of documentation, the fourth night we ended up having to sleep in a different hotel. It was the hostel owners “cousin” (when I hear this I generally think, “yeah right” because in India and many other places with touts you hear this constantly, “oh please visit my brothers shop” “oh my cousin has a shop next door with great prices” “oh let me show you my mothers shop”, etc). It actually may have been the cousin, but regardless it was in a pretty shady area of town. And the hotel itself was a bit on the “prostitutes come here” side of things. But honestly, that’s not fair, because the place was actually totally fine. If you haven’t spend the last 8 months traveling or camping or doing something similar, then you might say it was a bit rundown or perhaps grimy, but the sheets felt clean enough to me, and the towels, while grey and dingy, smelled clean enough. Bonus: the rooms had themes, like the America Room with a mural of native americans. Etc. Our room, sadly, seemed theme-less. Though we did have a reasonably nice balcony, and there was an amazing pizza place nearby!
We ate pizza in Naples literally until the last minute. We ate pizza from Naples as we left Naples, on the train. Here Lindsay is standing with a pizza waiting for the train to Reggio Calabria.
Our trip to the Amalfi Coast was honestly kind of a pain. From our hostel in Rome, walked to the metro, which we took to the outskirts of the city where we did another ride-share. We met at this rinky-dink little gas station (Q8) on the side of the road. From there, we drove about 2.5 hours to an airport, where we hoped bus to a city called Salerno. We were the only ones on the bus (guess we were the only ones stupid enough to head to the coast when rain was in the forecast!). After about a 45 minute ride to Salerno, we were again dropped off at the bus terminal where we grabbed yet another bus (after waiting in the pouring and FREEZING rain for 1.5 hours) to Minori.
The bus ride the the Amalfi Coast was BEAUTIFUL, but never having great luck driving, I was crazy sick with the switchback turns. Another hour later, we arrived in beautiful Minori, where we were lucky enough to get to walk 950+ steps up the side of a mountain (no joke) with our packs. (Like I said, wasn’t the best day of travel we’d ever had, but certainly not the worst!). We arrived (somehow!) in great spirits (probably due to our insane view) and despite having un-perfect weather, were thrilled to be there.
Although the weather wasn’t great while we were there, the views were nothing short of spectacular.
The colors of the towns “popped” even more given the dark sky contrast
And the fog/mist rolling in over the hills was awesome.
We could almost imagine what it would have been like to visit in the summer, or some warm months when swimming might have been possible, but instead we collected rocks…
Read on the pier (and made new friends)…
Watched the sunset roll in…
Enjoyed the town (and the cute little lemon trees)…
Ate some delicious pasta a couple of nights, and had a really memorable night chatting with the owner one night (we were the only ones in the restaurant, so we were lucky that way). Talking with her was a highlight of our time in Minori, as was her delicious homemade limoncello that she gave us at the end of our 2.5 hour long meal. It is interactions like these that are definitely one of the perks of traveling in the off season. We saw her on various nights of our stay, and both times she took our hands and greeted us like friends. It was great.
Enjoying views like this from our guesthouse (again, 950+ stairs up the side of a mountain just like you can see mirrored here)
Walking from town to town on the windy sea-side roads….
Kevin posing in Minori.
Enjoying the SEAFOOD pasta (where it couldn’t have been fresher!)
AND, taking a 7-course cooking class in Sorrento!
Because of all the rain (and the fact that we had been meaning to take a class while we were here), we decided to “bite the bullet” and take the class. After an almost 2 hour bus ride (only about 20km away, again, the switchbacks are no joke) we finally made it to the beautiful Sorrento. It was just us in the class, which was yet another instance where traveling in February has worked to our benefit. About an hour into our class, the chef’s father (speaking no English), beautiful mother (who was one of the classiest women I have ever met in person, and reminded me so much of my great-grandma) and aunt (also, Italian speaker only) arrived to come see what was happening, chat with us and talk food. Honestly, it was exactly like you might imagine an interaction with a bonafide Italian family might be. They were warm, and gracious, hilarious and honestly made our time 1,000 times better than it already was. It was awesome.
Standard (ridiculous class photo + certificate).
All in all, our time in the Amalfi Coast was amazing. We were especially happy to have stayed in Minori, which was far less touristy than the other cities in the area. Despite our original plan to make our way south, south, south, we decided to head a bit north to Naples as rain was still in the forecast and we figured that if we were stranded in the rain, at least we would be able to indulge in copious amounts of pizza (which we did, but that’s for another post).
We took a total of three buses to get from Venice to our AirBnB apartment in Florence. The first two were pretty easy (other then having to sit and wait at the bus station in Venice for 4 hours as I mentioned in my previous post). The biggest pain was that the second bus dropped us off at what felt like the side of a major road, in the dark, where there were no street lights or sidewalks, etc.
I had expected this to some extent because like always I have checked out the full route we had to take before leaving Venice, and I knew that our last bus picked up on the side of a highway where there was no clear, obvious bus stop. I even saw the “stop” on google maps. But, it’s a bit different when you’re tired, and it’s pitch dark and you know that the bus is only coming once an hour (or so you hope!) and if you miss it you’re going to be sitting in the road for who knows how long in the cold, with a slight drizzle.
I took a quick video of this situation, though honestly it doesn’t do the situation justice because what you can’t clearly see is that there was literally no place to stand on the side of the road because the road is set down in a little “valley” of sorts. So you’re basically standing on the road. Lindsay had the bright idea of turning on her flashlight, so the oncoming traffic could see that we were standing there, which really did (thankfully) slow traffic considerably.
Luckily we didn’t have to wait long for a bus to come so in the end it wasn’t so bad. It certainly could have been a lot worse (although Lindsay doesn’t look too thrilled there :)).
We finally got to the city (Florence) and had 1.5 kilometer walk to our apartment. On the way we passed a couple of people handing out flyers to a free choir concert happening at a big/old/beautiful cathedral, and we ended up running to our place, and dropping off our bags and then RUNNING back to the cathedral to watch the concert. It was pretty cool I’d say, especially for free. All of these amazing old cathedrals are pretty awe-inspiring on their own, but when you add a choir on top of the building itself it’s even better.
After the first night we had a number of things that we wanted to make sure that we did, primarily involving food (surprise, surprise). Sometime in Venice (or perhaps before) we decided that when we were in Italy, we really wanted to feel like we could eat a variety of different foods without feeling guilty about cost, etc. Of course we always try a ton of food (and talk about it plenty I’m sure), but with Italy we wanted to spend a bit extra if we needed to, and throw caution to the wind sometimes and make ourselves go out to eat (instead of finding one cheap thing and eating it for every meal).
Actually, speaking of the first night, after this concert (it was maybe 10:30 or 11? Late by our standards) we went out for dinner. I had ribollita, which is a traditional/classic Florence/Tuscany soup made with bread (a thickener?) and a bunch of vegetables, apparently twice baked. Lindsay had some sort of pasta dish with mushrooms and truffles. We also each had a glass of wine, which was really fancy. The meal was spectacular.
I’ll take this opportunity to mention that so far, Italy has been a truly amazing place food wise. It’s too much work and I’m not really able to fairly compare countries, so I won’t do that, but I will say that every single thing we’ve done in terms of food in Italy has been awesome. For example, as I may or may not have mentioned in a previous post, nearly every morning we get a coffee and pastry, and they are always cheap and awesome. Pizza has been amazing (more on that in another post), pasta has been amazing, and prices in general have been spectacular considering what we’ve been eating. Much like Venice lived up to our expectations/vision, the food in Italy has done the same.
We only spent two days in Florence, and to be honest the two days were spent doing what we normally do – walking around the town, going into markets and grocery stores, walking into any (free) interesting things we see. Reading. And eating lots of gelato.
A few highlights include:
Reading on the steps at a library near the river that runs through the city…
While we were there (randomly, as I expect in the US somewhere less old and historic feeling), a Red Bull car drove by and gave Lindsay and I each a Red Bull through the window. Lindsay didn’t want hers, but seeing as they were free, I grabbed two drank the Red Bull with excitement even though I don’t really like Red Bull. After drinking mine and part of Lindsay’s I felt sick and decided not to drink Red Bull again.
The markets in Florence were beautiful. We had some truly amazing pasta (in what I now believe was a bolognese sauce) at the central market (very sweet/old/historic) market.
Here is Lindsay reading our guide book while eating…
At our guesthouse, we had an enjoyable conversation with a few girls from China who were studying in France. No photos, but a good memory. One of them was quite interested to know (randomly, soon after talking for the first time) if we used the knife in the right hand while eating. Frankly, I should probably not have found this as funny as I did because on occasion I can ask some stupid/random questions when I’m in an uncomfortable situation, but the girls absolutely shocked and giddy reaction to our response (“I guess we eat with the knife in the right hand…?”) had Lindsay and I both bordering on being rude because we had a difficult time containing laughter.
So, two days of this walking around stuff and then we left Florence. We did very few of the “big” tourist attractions, which some may see as a crime, but we had a nice time just the same. We had a ride share down to Rome with Vito next. Here I am once again doing what we do best, wait for transportation.
The drive to Rome was uneventful. Vito didn’t speak much English, and there was another girl in the car with us that was Italian so she sat up front, which meant that most of the 3ish hour car ride the people that were not Lindsay and I talked. I read (more Dresden File books) and Lindsay listened to podcasts (The Moth). The one thing I wanted to mention is that we stopped at this gas station/rest stop somewhere and it was AMAZING. Most importantly, they had TWELVE PACKS of Kinder eggs! 12 packs! It was crazy. They were 8.99 euros.
We decided to get back to our backpacker roots (or something) in Rome and stay at a hostel. The hostel was OK, though the common area (the main reason to stay at a hostel in my opinion) was outside of the building and down the street half a block. This wasn’t a huge deal, except for the fact that when we asked the guy working at the front desk if there was a common area at all he told us no but that they were building one (there was construction going on). It was something of a confusing mis-communication. Oh well.
So, Rome. I feel like the past few blog posts are a bit boring in terms of listing things we did, and that’s mainly because we are following a pretty standard tourist path in some of these cities. Any photos you’ve seen of Rome pretty much sum up what we did in Rome.
We went to the Vatican Museum and saw all of the crazy/famous/interesting/old/plentiful art that lives there.
We were lucky that we didn’t have to wait in line for more than 20 minutes to get in, but that said, truly the Vatican is overwhelming. We read online that there is apparently 7km of stuff inside Vatican city to see. Crazy. So, we saw what we could see without wanting to kill ourselves and drank cappuccino out in the square when we thought we might. Squeezed through the Sistine Chapel and ooh-ed and ahh-ed in the map room (which was the coolest gallery by far, in our opinion).
The tapestry room
After seeing all we could really see in the Vatican (and walking down the awesome spiral stairway leading out)
we walked to St. Peter’s Basillica which was INSANE (this picture shows nothing). The line of people wrapped around the square was incredible. It must have taken them all day to get in.
We decided (after moseying around for a bit debating whether or not we should get in line) we would instead walk to the Coliseum, which was no small feat, instead. The weather was nothing short of perfect – blue skies and a small breeze to boot, so we figured we’d go for it.
Not too far into our walk, the sun started to set, and it was magic.
And, we finally made it!
That night, we were starving. We decided to walk (a bit further :)) to a restarant we were alerted to by a chick we rode with on our way from Florence that she and her friends recommended. After arriving an hour earlier than it opened (damn Italians and their late night eating!) we sat in a nearby park and read. Our wait turned out to be worth it, as we had a bunch of amazing food, including carbonara which is something Rome is known for (we had it twice at two different restaurants)
The next day, after seeing all of the major sites we planned to see, we stopped to have a quick “breakfast”
and cruised around the streets. After about an hour, we happened across a grocery store which enabled us to have one of the best lunches I’ve ever had. This grocery store was really amazing (not fancy), and it kind of felt like something in a movie. A bunch of dudes cutting meat from 15 different types of cheap, beautiful prosciutto. Fresh mozzarella (that is again) super cheap! but also amazing quality. The strange thing for us was that there were literally legs of animals sitting on the counter that you could have cured meat cut from. Anyway, the lunch was awesome. We bought fresh tomatoes, basil, mozzarella balls (again :)), 2 types of fresh-cut deli meat, 2 types of fancy fresh foccacia bread, a hard cheese of some sort, apples, and a bunch of peel-and-eat shrimp. It was a feast, to say the least (all for 15 euros).
So, I suppose those were the highlights of our time in Rome. We were only there for 2 days (short and sweet!) but I feel like we capitalized on all of the main attractions and really enjoyed ourselves.
From Ancona, as I mentioned previously, we decided that we’d go North to Venice. Actually, Lindsay decided that, and when she told me she had decided this was a good idea I was thrilled because it seemed “smart.” I imagine traveling to a new countries in the way that we are traveling to new countries is sort of like what it must be like for a novice sculpture (let’s say the goal is to sculpt a life size dog) to start a new project with a giant, huge, block of clay. It’s tough to know where to start, and it’s tough to know once you’ve started if you’ve started in the right way. But, once you REALLY get started, then things start to fall into place and you realize that at least you’ve started. Or at least that’s how I imagine us…or something.
We used Bla Bla Car (a website) and found a ride with two really nice guys (Pablo and Alfredo!). We met at Ikea (which was so awesome, because I love Ikea) and made the three hour drive with these two really nice Italian guys.
Lindsay drinking a beer in IKEA
Actually, one of the dudes was born in Argentina, but had lived in Italy for most of his life. Aside: there are a huge number of Argentinians in Italy it seems, or we just randomly keep running into them for some reason.
The drive was nice, and I technically was in Bologna (I stepped out of the car for 10 seconds, Lindsay did not. For the record – although she won’t let me count that) when we dropped Pablo off. Bologna being one of the “big” cities in Italy that Lindsay and I didn’t really visit.
On the drive, we found out that Carnevale (which is how they spell it, btw) was happening in Venice when we were going to be there. It’s a bit difficult to explain how awesome this was, but basically there wasn’t a better time to be visiting Venice than during Carnevale season. This also explained why it was so difficult finding a room (Lindsay did an awesome job and we ended up staying right near Saint Marco Square), and why the cheapest room we found was 70 euros.
Carnevale is a big deal it turns out in Venice, and when we got there at night after taking a train from the nearby city that our driver dropped us off at, it was like a totally different travel experience then we’ve had so far. In general, everywhere we’ve gone in Europe has been pretty dead as far as other tourists go, but when we got to Venice the streets were PACKED with people dressed up in costumes, throwing glitter and confetti, etc. The shops were all open, vendors were outside selling mulled wine, and in general it was a pretty big/awesome/beautiful party. It felt like we stepped into a movie about how cool Venice is on accident. It was awesome.
So we hopped off the train and wee walked a good 2 or 3 kilometers through the zig-zagged streets/canals/etc of Venice and eventually found our hotel. It was nice enough, though very loud (which actually was sort of nice itself) because of all of the people singing/laughing/yelling/talking on the streets below.
Here I am with all of my devices (compass, GPS and phone trying my best to be inconspicuous)
So, unfortunately the rest of our time in Venice was spent doing basically the same thing we always do: walking around and people watching. So, pictures will hopefully give an idea of what things were like.
Some memories specific memories include:
Eating a pizza down by a canal one afternoon
Eating our first legit Italian breakfast (espresso based drink + pastry) – multiple times
Mulled wine and “spritz” with Campari and dancing to “Uptown Funk” in the city square…
Again, people watching 🙂
Lindsay had one fun night of dancing and drinking limoncello and watching the fireworks
Eating these ridiculously delish fried dough and cheese with (once prosciutto, once with sardines (not intentionally) while walking around partying ourselves to DEATH one night(and buying this REALLY cheap and terrible juice box wine and drinking it.)
Lindsay also went to a cool church one night for service and had a cool interaction with a tiny, little old man that was apparently like 4′ 6″ (inside the church)
Walking a long ass way to find get to the bus station we were leaving from (like 3-4km through those crazy streets with our packs). Here Lindsay is, stopping for sustenance (espresso + sweet treat) about 1/2 way to where we needed to be…
Here I am looking just awesome.
Going geocaching (easy cache!)
The truth is that most of what we did in Venice is what you’ve likely seen before in photos. The important thing (I think) is to note that Venice completely lived up to my expectations of what Venice is.
Leaving Venice was a slight pain on account of us having to walk 3ish kilometers from our hotel to the bus station. To make matters worse, on top of being an already (planned) hour early for the bus to make sure we had everything in order when it came, I ended up remembering the ticket time incorrectly and it turned out that we were actually 4 or so hours early. So we spent a long time sitting on the cement reading. Luckily we are no strangers to sitting on the street/sidewalk/dirt/airport/etc for hours, waiting for transportation. At least it was a pretty nice day.