Tonkotsu Ramen Attempt One: Not Very Porky

Well, a small break from the past year of travel style blog posts.

While traveling through Japan, Lindsay and I really fell in love with Ramen and decided that on the top of the “things to do when we’re home” bucket list we’d put “make real-ass ramen.” I want to take a second to point out that this was very much a team effort, though I may have spent a bit more time reading/researching/asking questions about what recipe to follow, which steps to follow, etc. But the point is, this was a team activity, even if I don’t write it up as such.

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Spain

Well, my last blog post left off with us on the train, on our way to Barcelona. It was an update-to-the-minute blog post. I don’t think this makes sense, but I think perhaps I got too close to the sun. My wax blogging wings fell apart. Also, I might mention that a certain somebody I may or may not be traveling with/married to hasn’t been pulling her blogging weight lately. Regardless, as I type this Spain blog post, I am nearly done with PORTUGAL. But, I want to write a few things about Spain before I forget them! So, here we go.

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Carcassone

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.

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Sicily: Giardini-Naxos, Isola Bella, Taormina, Agrigento, and Palermo

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

Ferry in Messina (Sicily) from Reggio Calabria

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.

cannolo or cannoli in Messina, Sicily, Italy

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.

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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.

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Rocks

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Aww
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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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!!!

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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.

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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).

Aww

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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.

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I’m scared of hights

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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.

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We ate these panini/sandwhich type things, and ate gelato.

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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.

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Lindsay listened to podcasts on the bus

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and I read

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Agrigento

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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Palermo

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).

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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.

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This is a fairly famous thick, spongy pizza/bread cart, which smelled a lot like motor oil

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Lindsay went running along the water one day, while I sat and thought about writing this blog post and working on Phapi.

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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.

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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:

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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.

Napoli aka Naples

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:

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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.

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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!

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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.

Here is Lindsay doing some random planning
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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:

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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.

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Italy Naples maybe

Possibly Naples?

Naples perhaps? Italy I think?

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.

See, pizza!

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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!

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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.

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Florence

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.

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A few highlights include:

Reading on the steps at a library near the river that runs through the city…

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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.
IMG_4749The 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…

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Taking our photo in front of this famous church/cathedral (but not actually going in)
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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.

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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.

TWELVE KINDER EGGS

Quick day in Ancona

Well, Ancona was our first stop in Italy. It is a port town, and it is not super touristy from what I can tell. Lindsay and I stayed in a super nice hotel (one of the most expensive places we’ve stayed on this trip), only because it was the only practical option for us as nothing else was available for a single night. The hotel, called the “Seeport Hotel” had a fancy worldpool shower, and we got a chocolate on our bed. And in general it was just really nice with a great view of the port. Also, the included breakfast was super fancy, with fancy cheeses and fancy other stuff. It was fancy. And fancy.

Ancona, well, sadly I don’t have many photos, and there isn’t much I can say that’s exciting. We were only there for a single day and Lindsay was tired as she didn’t sleep all night, and feeling a bit sick, so she ended up sleeping at the hotel. I left, and had quite the adventure. I didn’t do anything particularly exciting, but I did a TON of stuff. I actually tracked it, I walked something like 12 kilometers, and I walked to any and everything that I saw that looked interesting. I walked to old churches, I walked up big hills that overlooked the port where I read for a while in a bench, I walked through old city ruins, I walked into museums (though just through the door, I didn’t pay to actually go in). I even somehow found myself in what felt like the countryside walking through a VERY VERY old cemetery where all of the gravestones were written in Hebrew (?). And I got my first (at least on this trip!) Italian gelato.

Overall, it was an amazing day. It was also warm and sunny on this particular day, which was great and not the norm. I did take a few photos (film), so once I develop them I’ll try to post them here, probably.

For now, here is Lindsay looking great getting ready to move onto our next destination:
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Our next destination being VENICE! Which we traveled to via blahblahcar where we first met up with our rideshare partners (Pablo and Alfredo) at IKEA, of all places.

Kevin with our train tickets in front of IKEA
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Lindsay orders a BEER at IKEA
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Ferry from Split, Croatia to Ancona, Italy

We took a night ferry from Split to Italy, in large part because Lindsay thought it would be fun to take a ferry somewhere, but also because it’s a pratical way of getting from Croatia to Italy. The original plan was to go to Arcona, then go to the South of Italy and then head back North, on the way down sticking to the East coast and on the way back up sticking to the West coast. That has since changed because we realized that it was probably a bit crazy to go in a circle around the country, so we’ve instead decided to go North to Venice, then work our way South to Sicily and then finally fly to France (Marseille) from there. Basically, only go South (except to go North to Venice from Ancona).

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

We walked with our packs from our AirBnB apartment in Split to the port of Split, which was roughly one kilometer, not to bad. Then we walked around until we found the pier that our ship was leaving from.

The Ferry was sort of like a cruise ship, except the entire bow of the boat folds down and makes a huge ramp for cars and trucks to drive in. So it’s bit more utilitarian then a normal cruise ship, and holds more semi-trucks. Before we actually got on the cruise ship we had to wait and pass through imigration which is always sort of fun and exciting, especially when it’s with a new form of transportation (airports are all pretty much the same, but the ferry was a bit different feeling).

Getting onto the ferry is also a lot different then getting on a cruise ship because you walk through the GIANT part of the ship that is for cars (the bottom level), and again it feels very utilitarian. But then you walk up stairs into something that looks like the lobby of a cheap hotel, if that cheap hotel was on a ferry. There was a reception person and everything.

This was a bit strange for us, because as far as I could tell everybody on the boat had a reserved cabin for the trip. There are a few different types of tickets you can buy, ranging from ~70ish dollars to ~170 dollars a ticket. The cheapest are the “deck seating” which we had, and then there is the “cabin” which is what everybody else seemed to have. The cabin is basically, as you may have guessed, a cabin with a bed, etc. The “deck” is basically, as far as we could tell, “sit anywhere you want as long as somebody doesn’t tell you that you can’t sit there.” This sounds easy enough, but when you get on the ship it’s a bit disorienting and I felt what I imagine the third class passengers on the Titanic must have felt like. There were lots of people directing passengers to their cabins, but there wasn’t a person directing deck people to their decks, you just sort of had to figure out where you could/couldn’t sit.

We ended up walking up some stairs and findng a big room with a bunch of tables and chairs in it. It looked sort of like a mess hall or something, or perhaps a cheap restaurant seating area. We said, “maybe THIS is the deck?” Again, sounds simple enough, but it wans’t clear if this room with tables/chairs was the place we were supposed to sleep that night. But, on the end of the room was a big bench with a comfortable enough cushion, so Lindsay and I put our stuff on the cushion and made it home for the night.

One thing I’m sad about is that I didn’t really walk around the ship much, or go out and enjoy the brisk sea air. This was in part because I was worried that if I got up I’d give up my seat, and in part because it was freezing cold outside and we pretty much went straight to bed when we got on the ship to try to get a full 8 hours of sleep.

One highlight on the trip: the tables in this room ended up filling up with a bunch of men who ate dinner at the tables, and after dinner they all sang songs. For like 3 or 4 hours. It was slightly surreal. Lindsay and I are on the bench at the end of the big room on this boat, each in our silk sleeping bag liners, with eye masks on (the lights are on fullblast all night), and then the rest of the room is filled with men eating dinner and singing songs. I guess they were in some sort of choir, apparently traveling to Italy to sing or something. It was pretty cool. Eventually I had to put in earplugs, because these were not quiet songs, they were loud, full on choir songs until after midnight. Video/audio recording hopefully will be posted here.

Around 7:50 AM, after my alarm went off but I apparently didn’t hear it, somebody nudged me and said “Ancona” – and sure enough, we were docked in Ancona! Like magic! So I woke Lindsay up, we threw our stuff in our packs and ran down the stairs and got off the boat, while we were still waking up.

Croatia in words

Croatia in a few words

I haven’t been so great at writing blog posts lately, not for any really great reason, I just haven’t been spending the time. Part of the issue, I think, is that we’ve been in the mindset that when we move from one country to the next we’ll write a blog post, but I I think I end up trying to type too much or we don’t type nearly enough.

Anyway, hopefully I’ll starting writing more frequent blog posts. This one is not really one of those though, because it’s another “catch up.”

Croatia was a pretty great country. I’d recommend you visit it if you get a chance. Zagreb, the capital, where we started, felt like a small-ish city compared to a Paris or a Munich, but nice. It sort of reminded me of what I remember Prague to be like I guess. We did a few noteworthy things there:

  • We went to the “museum of broken relationships” – basically a bunch of items from various failed relationships (most of them romantic, but not all). The stories behind the actual items were the most interesting part of the museum. I was/am very happy to have found that the museum felt “authentic” to me, not like people had edited a bunch of stories to make them incredible when they weren’t. There were just a bunch of real feeling, often sad, thought provoking little stories to accompany the items.
  • The mushroom museum. This was difficult to find. We took two days to find it actually (not searching the entire time of course!). The first day we asked the tourist information area where the museum was and they drew the location on a map and said “Next to the Hypo Bank.” We found the bank easy enough (it was visibile from the tourist office), but found not a single sign that indicated that there was a museum there. We ended up walking around the building, but found nothing. The next day we went back, did the same search again, but this time we went into a random door that looked like it led to a closed down building. You walk in the door and it was dark, sort of like a large apartment building that was condemmed or something. But we walked up the staircase (the museum was supposed to be on the second floor), at this point having no idea if this was the correct place or not (having seen no sign). On the second floor, sure enough there was a sign that said something about the something-something society, not exactly “MUSHROOM MUSEUM IS HERE” or anything, but it sounded like something that might be related to a museum so we knocked and it ended up being the right place. The museum itself was small-ish (two rooms or so), but really really impressive. Hundreds of different types of mushrooms, all well preserved. Plus it was free.

Otherwise, in Zagreb, we spent a lot of time walking around the city, eating different foods (things were very cheap having flown from Netherlands), and walking more. I did some work on my website project, Lindsay and I watched a few episodes of Deadwood (a great show by the way).

We also went to see Interstellar in a movie theater. This was for us both I think a great experience because

  1. It was the first American movie we’ve been to on this trip (we saw two movies in Hindi in India, but those were Bollywood films)
  2. I had wanted to see the movie for a long time, in theathers, and had assumed I’d miss the opportunity but for whatever reason the movie was still playing in Zagreb
  3. The movie was awesome I thought, and Lindsay thought
  4. It was pretty cheap – I think we paid around 7 USD for two tickets
  5. I very much enjoy going to the movies in general, and going to the movies in a different country is always an interesting experience I think. Sort of like eating at McDonalds in a different country, it’s similar but the differences make it so interesting

We ended up heading to Zadar next after Zagreb. Zadar is a small coastal town, and the photos if you were to google look amazing. Zadar was very beautiful, but for me at least more then most cities we’ve visited recently it wasn’t really well suited for tourism during the winter. There are a bunch of places we’ve visited that are sort of “dead” during the winter, and often time that’s OK (even nice sometimes as you feel like less of an annoyng tourist and more of a crazy tourist). But Zadar was really really dead.

Honestly I can’t exactly think what we did in Zadar at this point, except that Lindsay liked the city because she ran every day and there were a bunch of nice routes. I did a fair amount of programming I believe, and I drank some coffee and ate musli.

We also saw the Sea Organ, which is basically a cement structure created so that air is forced up over the holes in the concrete structure when waves come in. So it’s like an organ or some other wind instrument. The cool thing about it is that it’s quite large, and it’s actually built into the sidewalk that goes along the water.

Anyway, our time in Zadar we stayed at the “Sea Gallery” apartment, which was a small apartment with a bunch of water colors the owner painted hung up on the walls. It was a pretty nice little apartment. As I mentioned, I’m unsure of what exactly we did in Zadar, but whatever it was we did it for a few days and then moved onto Split.

Split was probably the easiest town to love, and probably the most popular tourist destination I’d guess, but that didn’t stop me from loving it. It’s on the water, there is a park right near the city area, the entire city feels like the sea/water is part of the everyday life, and in general it was just a cool town.

We did a lot of walking in Split, which isn’t abnormal, but we had a few days of beautiful, warm sunshine and it felt like heaven. I went swimming one day, which was great. Well, it was good, maybe not great. It felt great to get in the water, but honestly the water was the coldest I’ve been in in a while. The type of water that is difficult to stay in for long because you get a headache the second your face goes under. Still, even in the shallow water (2-3 feet max?) I brought my mask and saw a bunch of beautiful sea anemones (which is a nearly impossible word to spell by the way).

Lindsay and I ate out one nice meal in Split. The photos you’ve seen already, but we had the black squid ink risotto. I actually thought it was really really good. I also talked to the bartender/waiter for a while about it and asked him if it was just a tourist gimmick, and he said no, and that he didn’t eat it all the time but normally once a month or so.

I also really liked Split because it felt a bit like a gateway to other awesome water areas of Croatia. For instance, the island of Vis. We didn’t go, but I talked to a guy in a freediving/spearfishing shop about places to spearfish and apparently Vis is one of the top spearfishing and scuba diving places in Croatia. This I found exciting.

Another thing I really enjoyed about Split was sitting outside with all of the locals (mainly men) along the water drinking a beer at 1 in the afternoon. Seriously, there were guys that would sit outside all day long on these benches with their friends and their dogs and drink beer. I remember on day Lindsay and I sat outside and drank a beer in the morning, then we walked around all day and did whatever we did, and then on the way home that night, after dark, the same group of guys were sitting exactly where they had been before, still drinking beer and chatting.

There was also a fishing area (best way I can put it), where there were a bunch of small fishing boats and nets and things laying out drying, and there would always be a group of guys sitting around. One particularly memorable day there was a group of guys who I think had been fishing, and they were sitting around on a picnick bench in their fisherman gear, and somebody was grilling up some fish, and then they all started singing. It was awesome. It was like, a fisherman song, I like to think. Maybe they were singing about the sea, and how beautiful it is, and how they love fishing and the sea air. I have an audio recording of it actually, maybe I’ll try to post it.

In closing, let me say that I’d recommend anybody go to Croatia. I would likely recommend visiting in the summer (though I think Split in particular is crazy with tourists at this point, a bit different from the chill atmosphere we had!). I think I’d like to go back to Croatia one day, and when I do I think I’ll probably stick to the South and to the islands.

Next up, a ferry to Ancona, Italy.

Croatia in photos.

(***Forgive me in advance for the worst blog post yet, but we’ve already done so much since Croatia and time’s a wastin’! In the effort to get caught up, here’s a short and sweet version of our time – but I’m not going to do this beautiful country justice!***)

So, when Kev and I decided to visit Croatia, we went to escape the Schengen region visa restrictions, hunker down, save some money, see some beautiful sights, but again really, to avoid digging into our visa time. I have wanted to visit Croatia for years, since one of my best pals, Brian, mentioned it to me as a possible rock climbing destination during college. Croatia turned out to BLOW our expectations, and will be somewhere we without question visit in the near future (hopefully in the summer) to scuba dive, spearfish and enjoy the absolutely pristine, beautiful water. These photos are backwards given our (sadly!) very basic route due to the way they uploaded, but you’ll see a glimpse of what made this country so incredible.

Split:IMG_4547IMG_4515

Squid-ink risotto (a local delicacy) color created by, you guessed it, a perforate ink sack of a squid. Kinda made my stomach turn (seriously, imagine eating across from those lips pictured below). Kinda delicious.IMG_4550IMG_4554

IMG_4551IMG_4500IMG_4504IMG_4493IMG_4526IMG_4491IMG_4509IMG_4498Sunsets like you would not believe.IMG_4540IMG_4529IMG_4539IMG_4528IMG_4544A couple photos for our dear friend, Nicola.IMG_4564IMG_4562IMG_4527Kevin (being a bad ass), doing something even the locals refused to do…swim.IMG_4502

Zadar.

I told you, the sunsets, right?! I got to run on this boardwalk every day. Heaven. Heaven, I tell you.IMG_4476IMG_4460IMG_4475IMG_4466

Zagreb.IMG_4438

Mushroom museum.IMG_4418IMG_4417IMG_4393IMG_4428IMG_4427IMG_4375IMG_4370IMG_4384Museum of Broken Relationships (yes, you read that right). It was awesome.IMG_4453IMG_4451IMG_4452IMG_4437IMG_4442IMG_4440And another 2 weeks zip by, off to Italy we go!IMG_4576