Germans do not mess around when it comes to hiking

Monterosso is the northernmost of the five towns that make up the Cinque Terre.  Going south, there is Vernazza next, then Corniglia, Manarola, and finally Riomaggiore.  There are several ways you can get between them – most popular is the train, but there’s also boats, and hiking.  Yesterday I hiked from Monterosso to Vernazza, and then from Vernazza to Corniglia.  The paths connecting the last two towns were indeed closed, but it turns out they are the shortest; in fact, the hike from Manarola to Riomaggiore is not really a hike at all, just a 20 minute walk on an actual path.

My guidebook said that the first two trails were difficult, but I kind of blew that off because I figured it was pandering to people who aren’t really experienced hikers (not that I am one) or don’t really get much exercise.  You know, the average schlub.  Well it turns out I AM THE AVERAGE SCHLUB because the two trails I hiked were VERY strenuous, and quite difficult at times.  Going to Vernazza there was a pretty drastic uphill at the beginning and then a steep decline towards the end, and then sections where I had to walk along a very narrow path with cliff on my left and then just a dropoff to my right.  I am very scared of heights, and at one point I felt myself almost paralyzed with fear because there was no barrier of any kind to separate me from the drop.  The second trail (between towns 2 and 3) was much more populated, but like 90% of the people were Germans, and they take hiking VERY SERIOUSLY.  They had the poles and the fancy shoes and the whole package.  Out of everyone I encountered while hiking, 90% of them were German, and like 5% Aussies and 5% Americans.  There’s oddly a ton of Aussies in the Cinque Terre in general, which doesn’t seem like the most convenient place for them to come on holiday, but what do I know?

There is a fancy restaurant in town (Restaurant Miky, which for about 24 hours I kept reading as “Milky”) that has a more casual location a little further down the street (Miky Cantina), so I went to the more cas place for dinner last night and it was SO good.  I had a panzanella with tomatoes, pickled onions, and feta, and then spaghetti with mussels, shrimp, clams, and calamari.

Since I only hit 3 of the 5 town yesterday, today I took the train to the furthest one, Riomaggiore, walked around for a bit, then took the train to Manarola (the second most southern).  By that point I felt like I had seen everything -honestly, these towns are so small that there is the sense that once you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all.  So I am glad that I went to all of them, but I didn’t really need a lot of time in each one.  Not drinking also severely limits my options, because it’s really just bars and restaurants everywhere, and there are only so many cappuccinos I can drink in a day (it’s 6).  So from Manarola I took a boat back to Monterosso, which was an excellent idea because I was able to see all the towns from a different perspective.  Corniglia, for example, is super high up in the hills, which explains why that portion of the hike was so exhausting.  It’s also the only town of the 5 that can’t be reached by boat.

Then, holiest of holies, by some divine stroke of luck, after a dreary cloudy morning…. as soon as I got back to Monterosso, the weather started to drastically improve!  Since it was too cold and cloudy for the beach yesterday, I IMMEDIATELY hauled ass back to the hotel, changed into my bathing suit, and hit the beach about 2 o’clock.  When I got there it was still sort of cloudy, and under normal circumstances I would not have considered it “beach weather”, but I was desperate and it was just barely warm enough.  I was literally the only person on the entire beach in a bathing suit, but then about an hour after I got there the clouds were completely gone and it was WARM and I went SWIMMING and everything was glorious and nothing hurt.  It was really just an absolutely perfect day.

I went back to the same restaurant again for dinner tonight, which I thought was kind of embarrassing (I had intended to go to the original, fancier one, but it is closed today) but I told myself “there are probably different people working, nobody will recognize you, they see hundreds of people every day” and of COURSE the one waitress was says “would you like the same table as last night?” but whatever, I had another fantastic meal and it was well worth the money.

Tomorrow morning I’m off to Nice to spend the rest of my trip with Lynsey.  She texted me the other day and said “I hope you don’t mind, I scheduled a birthday/Halloween party for the twins the day after you arrive” – um OF COURSE I don’t mind, that sounds ADORABLE, and I am so excited to give them candy until they love me.

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I take my coffee like an Italian now

and it brings me great joy when the cashier asks me “to go?” and I say “oh no no no, I will drink it here” – I am also drinking like 5 cappuccinos a day, on average, and IT. FEELS. GREAT.  When I am standing at the bar sipping my coffee I pretend I am an Italian person and that everyone around me also thinks I am an Italian person and I find it very amusing. I think maybe I’ve been on my own for too long?  I’m also talking to myself a lot but I started doing that on day 2.

The rest of my time in Florence was great, I saw Michelangelo’s David and Botticelli’s Birth of Venus, had dinner in a very fancy restaurant (which was actually kind of disappointing), and spent way too much money on a new pair of sunglasses.

Seeing David in person was definitely a high point – granted, I don’t know much about art, but you don’t have to in order to appreciate it.  The most curious thing about it, to me, is that if you look at him from the left, he looks very calm and composed – very determined – but when you look at him from the right, he looks worried and unsure.  Truly marvelous!  The Birth of Venus is very pleasing to look at, but next time you see a copy of it just look at ANY of the feet, because they all look so weird and misshapen.

This morning I took the train from Florence to Monterosso al Mare, one of the 5 towns in the Cinque Terre.  This is the largest of the five, but it’s very very small, so I am curious to see what the rest are like tomorrow.  There is a hiking path that links all 5 towns, but I met two American brothers in Rome who had just come from here, and they said that 2 of the 5 paths were closed because of recent landslides, which I’ve heard happens semi regularly.  But there is a little dinky train that chugs through all the towns, so I can take that if the paths are closed.  I was so lucky that today was warm enough to go to the beach, and of course I forgot to pack sunscreen and had to pay EIGHTEEN EUROS for a bottle of SPF30, which barely even works on me but was the highest they had.  The forecast for tumorrow is promising, so I am hoping to hike in the morning, have lunch at some point, then hit the beach for the rest of the day.

It’s really breathtaking here.  I had seen photos and of course was expecting it to be beautiful, but just being here and seeing it is so much more amazing than I was expecting.

Florence > Rome

Even though the weather has been pretty bad, I am really enjoying Florence.  I arrived on Wednesday afternoon and am leaving on Sunday morning, and while that’s more than enough time to see and do everything, I am happy to spread things out and have some down time.  Right now I am laying in bed while it thunderstorms outside and it’s WONDERFUL.

The train from Rome to Florence is an hour and a half, and it goes through some beautiful countryside with mountains off in the distance.  The train has assigned seating and I was pretty impressed with how fancy it was, only to find out 20 minutes outside of Florence that I was one car off and accidentally sat in business class.  So I had to gather all my things and move down to where the plebes sit in economy – which was still pretty nice!  No free drinks though 😦

After I got to my hotel I just kind of laid around for a while because I was still exhausted from running around all over Rome, and then went to meet Fiona, Gerry, and their friend Mary for dinner at the Mercato Centrale.  The Mercato is is huge indoor market that has butchers, cheese mongers, and produce in the street level during the day, but has an upstairs section that is much fancier and has tons of places where you can get pasta, antipasti, pizza, gelato…there is even a little Eataly shop that sells sweets, dried pastas, even fancy shampoos and soaps.  I had a really delicious rigatoni with bolognese sauce and then went back yesterday for pizza and gelato, and will probably go back tomorrow too!

Yesterday morning I had a walking tour booked, and the other people that were supposed to go just didn’t show up!  So I had my own private tour!  We started at San Lorenzo – a church that the Medici’s adopted as their own personal church after they started hitting the big time in Florence (and also because their first home in the city was right across the street).  I went inside today and wasn’t too impressed with the basilica, but the Medici crypt and chapel were ridiculous.  I hadn’t seen pictures of the chapel so I had no idea what I was in for, and it was truly breathtaking.  The next stop on the tour was Saint John’s Cathedral, including the Duomo and the baptistery.  I also had not seen any photos of that, so when we turned around the corner and I saw it, I literally stopped dead in my tracks.  It is so huge and beautiful, with the green and white marble in the Gothic style.  I went inside the Cathedral today, but didn’t climb the Duomo because the line was crazy long, so I climbed Giotto’s tower instead because there were ZERO people in line.  I didn’t realize until after I left that I had stopped at the lowest of like 3 levels you can climb, so that was kind of a bummer, but I still had a great view and wasn’t about to walk up those stairs again.  On the tour we also stopped at the Piazza della Republica and the Piazza Vecchio, stopping at the Uffizi Gallery on our way to the Ponte Vecchio, and ending at the Palazzo Pitti, where I parted ways with Elena the guide and immediately went and chugged a cappuccino and bought a nice warm coat.  Then I made my way back to my hotel where I showered and promptly fell asleep for two hours.

Fiona texted me and asked if I wanted to meet them for dinner again, so I went to meet them at their flat and we walked over to a restaurant that the owner of their flat recommended.  We were the only tourists there, which is always a good sign.  One local specialty is Bistecca Florentine, or steak Florentine, which is basically just a gigantic steak.  We ordered one to share for 3 people and the resulting steak was almost TWO KILOS – they bring it out on a platter and carve it tableside, and they will NOT cook it above rare, so I had to go a little outside my comfort zone.  It was awesome!

Today, besides San Lorenzo and Saint John’s, I went to the Boboli Gardens at the Palazzo Pitti, since it was actually warm today (albeit very overcast and constantly on the verge of rain).  I really liked the gardens and not just because their name is adorable.

Tomorrow I have reservations for the Uffizi and the Galleria dell’Academia and also plan to hit the Bargello, so it will be an art-packed day.

The Vatican is a bummer.

Before I get into why, these are some sweeping generalizations that I have made about Rome:

  • Do not trust the weather forecast.  Every morning I check the weather, and every day it says it is going to be in the mid-high 60s with a 70% chance of rain, and every day it has been in the low 70s and sunny.  I did get caught in a storm on Saturday night, which is a whole other story (the story is I now have a slight cold), but the weather seems to either be very unpredictable, or Roman meteorologists are bad at their jobs.
  • I was expecting there to be Jesus stuff everywhere, but there isn’t – there is MARY stuff everywhere.
  • People eat dinner late, which is rough when you spend the whole day walking around and are starving at 5:30pm.  Many restaurants don’t even open for dinner until 7:30, so lunch is a must.

I have also figured out how link my Flickr account, so just click on the hyperlink and it will take you to my photostream, or just go here: https://www.flickr.com/photos/145839234@N08/

I went to the Colosseum on Sunday morning, which was AMAZING, even though I was late to my tour because I underestimated both how long it would take me to walk there and how long the line would be even for those already with tickets.  The tour took us down to the lower levels, where you can see parts of the original floor, and where the animals and slaves were held before being put into the arena (which they did via elevator!)  Very morbid stuff, but just so fascinating from an engineering perspective, especially when you consider that it only took them 6-8 years to build it.  I did not go to the Forum, but I am doing that tomorrow morning before I shove off for Florence.

I went to the Vatican yesterday, which was a worthwhile experience, but I left it feeling kind of sad.  The museum’s collection is really amazing, but it was so crowded and the tour felt rushed, so there was a lot of stuff that I didn’t get to see.  It was definitely worth it just to see the Sistine Chapel (or Sixtine Chapel if you are Italian), which was absolutely breathtaking.  It made bearing the crowd through the museum so worth it.  After the Sistine Chapel we entered St Peter’s Basilica, which was the most over the top display of extravagance I have ever seen.  It just made all the stuff about Catholics wanting to help poor and sick people seem like a huge pile of garbage.  Clearly all the Church cares about is amassing and displaying their obscene wealth, and they ARE NOT trying to hide it! This was not a revelation, but it is different to see it in person and flaunted to blatantly.

During the afternoon yesterday I rented a bike and rode through the Borghese park, which is the second biggest park in Rome.  Then I went to the Capuchin Crypt, which has all the walls lined with bones.  It was obviously very morbid, but I was surprised how uncomfortable it made me feel and I actually got a bit nauseous.  WORTH IT though!

Today’s excursion was a day trip to Mount Vesuvius and Pompei.  Definitely the coolest thing I have done so far, besides the Colosseum.  We had to take a bus 3 hours to Vesuvius, which is just outside Naples, and drove up as high as the bus could go.  It was about a mile hike to the crater, and was actually pretty tough, especially since the weather was not ideal, but I enjoyed it after sitting on the bus for so long.  It was rainy and cloudy, so visibility was pretty bad, but I think it just added to the spooky volcano affect (lots of pics on the Flickr stream).  There was one last final section of trail that I chose not to pursue, because I did not want to end up one of those people who falls down a volcano crater because they weren’t paying attention and misstepped.  After Vesuvius we had a Neapolitan pizza lunch which was delicious, of course, then went to Pompei.  The only complaint I had about that was our guide, who was kind of all over the place and didn’t explain things very well.  But overall it was a truly fantastic day and I would definitely DEFINITELY recommend it.

Tomorrow I am off to Florence.  I definitely could use more time here in Rome, but I am ready to move on.  Rome is overwhelming and as you’re on your way to do one thing, you find 3 other things you want to do, so there will never be enough time.  I am bummed I didn’t get to go to the Borghese, but I am sure I will be back one day.

I’m tired and happy and really full

It’s weird to think that I have only been in Rome for just over 24 hours, because I’ve seen and done so much already! My flight landed around 7:30 and I took a bus to my hotel, which is on the Vatican side of the Tiber, just one block away from the Ponte Cavour.  The location really is ideal, I’ve been able to walk everywhere and nothing is more than 20 minutes away.  But back to the flights – I think it’s rare to be pleasantly surprised by an airline, so I have to mention how great Turkish Airlines was.  They gave us a meal after we took off and then served breakfast before we landed, but it wasn’t any of the usual airplane cold-croissant-and-sad-melon breakfast, this was eggs with potatoes, vegetables, cottage cheese…. a true Turkish delight.  Then, although the flight from Istanbul to Rome was barely two and a half hours, they served ANOTHER meal, which I wasn’t even hungry for but of course I ate.

My hotel is more of a guest house, really – it’s several small units within a large unit of an apartment building.  The room is small, but generous by European standards, with a large bed, and there’s an old timey elevator that works about 50% of the time.  Last night I walked down to the Trevi fountain and had a quick meal at a restaurant I realized too late was a tourist trap.  It was good – I had a mozzarella and prosciutto with bread and a non alcoholic beer – but overpriced.  The Trevi fountain is so breathtaking and majestic that you don’t even mind the huge crowds of people.  I can’t wait to go back and see it in the daytime.

I woke up early today to do some exploring before the pizza tour started.  The owner of the hotel brings breakfast to your room at whatever time you request, and he looked at me like I was crazy when I said 7:30, which makes me suspect that Romans are not early risers.  I walked down to Campo di Fiori, which is a big square where they have a giant market in the mornings.  There were vendors selling clothes, flowers, pasta, olive oil, and of course fruits and veggies.  Then I made my way over to the meeting point for the pizza tour, where lucky for me I arrived early, because it was right next to some INSANE RUINS which turned out to be the Emperor Trajan’s forum.  That’s what’s so crazy about Rome, you’ll just be walking down the street trying to find something innocuous and then you’ll turn a corner and see something that’s thousands of years old.  Our tour guide likened Rome to a lasagna – at the bottom is ancient Rome, then Medieval Rome, then the top layer is modern day.  I can always appreciate a good food analogy.

The tour was great, I met a nice couple from Maryland and some hilarious women from Toronto.  Well, two of them were hilarious, the third was kind of terrible and had 90s makeup and kept telling everyone about how she is so great at speaking Italian.  Give it a rest, Monica!  At the first stop, we had just plain baked dough with olive oil and salt (focaccia) and dough with crushed tomatoes.  The second stop was a little meat and cheese shop where we got to try prosciutto, buffalo mozzarella, fior di latte, and olives.  I still do not like olives, despite my best efforts.  The next stop was Roman style pizza, which is rectangular and baked in a pan.  Then we veered slightly off course and had some Neapolitan street food (our guide was from Naples) which was deep fried dough topped with a little bit of sauce, a chunk of mozzarella, and a basil leaf.  I can’t remember what it was actually called but it doesn’t matter because all you need to know is that it was basically a pizza donut and it was amazing.  The second to last stop was Neapolitan style pizza, which was the best thing of the whole tour; to be honest, I think Naples probably blows Rome out of the water when it comes to pizza.  The very last stop was gelato and so by the end of it I definitely felt I had gotten my money’s worth!

So I googled “best cacio e pepe in Rome” and found a place that I tried to get into tonight, but of course they were completely booked, INCLUDING all the seats at the bar.  I then got denied AGAIN because this other place I tried to go to was closed due to “technical failure” so I ended up back at Campo di Fiori at a place I worried was a tourist trap, and probably kind of was, but I finally got my cacio e pepe and it was good and the pasta was cooked perfectly al dente.

Rome can be very overwhelming because everywhere you turn there is something you want to stop and check out.  I have a lot of things pre-booked (to avoid waiting in lines) but I still have a lot of time to do whatever I want, and I am finding that there are almost too many options!  Tomorrow morning I’m going on a tour of the Colosseum, which includes Palatine Hill and the forum, and then see as many museums as I can, since most are closed on Monday.  I totally screwed up and didn’t book my ticket to the Borghese before I left, and when I checked this morning, tickets are sold out through Thursday (I leave on Wednesday).  I may go there tomorrow and ask in person, because you never know.

I can’t figure out how to upload photos on here, but I’m working on it.

2 Xanax and a Benadryl

Although my flight isn’t until 11pm, I took the whole day off because I had to go to the MVA this morning and finally register my car in Maryland.  I expected to be there for basically the entire morning, but I was in and out in under 30 minutes AND don’t have to go back in a few weeks, like I had assumed.  I hope this trend continues for the next 24 hours or so.

I am oscillating between being super excited and super anxious – the first leg of my journey is over 10 hours, to Istanbul, and I have never been on a flight that long before.  I went to the doctor a few weeks ago and explained my irrational flying anxiety and she gave me a Xanax prescription and told me to take two of those and a Benadryl and it should knock me out.  If I can sleep for at half the flight I will be happy, but obviously the longer the better.

I’ll probably update this every other day or so and include as many photos as I can.  They will mostly be food, probably some selfies, and lots of pictures of old things.  I do think the idea of a blog is kind of self-aggrandizing and assumes that people care probably more than they actually do, but I figured this would be a great way to keep people up to date without spamming them with texts at inconvenient hours.  CIAO!!!