Lessons learned………..thus far

I have started to compile a list of the lessons I have learned on this very extended vacation to Europe.  This list is by no means complete but it does represent much of what we have learned in our travels.

1. If you are visiting Italy or Spain bring only a pair of flip flops and buy the rest, the shoes are gorgeous and affordable in Europe.

2. After you pack your suitcase and backpack with everything you are certain you will need for a two month trip, take half out. Those damn things get really heavy climbing seven flights of stairs.

image
Its a long way up and down with heavy luggage.

 

3. Enjoy eating in outside cafes but realize that you will likely be sitting next to smokers.

4. Always secure the laundry that you hang outside with extra clothes pins, because your downstairs neighbors will not give you back whatever fell on their balcony.

image
Greg’s shorts, now the property of our downstairs neighbor

 

5.  Topless beaches are really not what they’re cracked up to be, typically old, overweight ladies and hairy men dress with interchangeable bottoms. No picture necessary.

6.  Any restaurant or cafe with the word “American” in it is a tourist trap where you will end up paying triple for a cappucino and pastry.

7. Pay the buskers, they are providing you with entertainment and it’s hard enough to to earn a living as a musician.

8. Don’t let anybody fool you, that lovely historic, charming building will NOT have an elevator, so choose wisely, but you will get your exercise.

9.  If you are driving in Italy be prepared for motorbikes passing you on both sides.  And realize that there are more cars in Italy than parking spaces.  Better yet, don’t drive.

10. Do not get your hair colored or cut in a salon where you don’t speak the language.  What you will end up with is lost in translation.  Speaking from experience here.

image
Yes, that was really my hair

 

11. Get off your mapquest app and look at the street signs.

12.  Stay at an Airbnb.  The hosts know the area and can really help you get comfortable in the neighborhood.

image
Our lovely flat in the center of Barcelona

13.  Eat like a local, it may be your only chance to try a real delicacy.

image
Calamari, and some delicious little fish that looked back at me.

14.  Smile, be friendly and remember you are representing your country.

15.  See all of the sights that YOU want to see but take time for relaxation.

image
Relaxing in Tuscany

16.  Talk to the people sitting next to you.  You may make some new friends.

image
Our new friends from Malta

17.  Bring digital books only.  They weigh less.

18.  Realize that the television will likely be in another language, so read your book.

19.  Bring clothing with quick drying fabric, virtually nobody has a dryer in Europe.

20.  Get your husband a murse (men’s purse)-these guys need to share the load.

image
The twelve pound purse, time for me to get him a murse

21.  FaceTime is a great way to keep in touch with friends and family, but they will never remember the nine hour time difference and will wake you up at 3 AM.

22.  Remember the bum passed out in front of you on the beach is probably somebody’s son “studying abroad”.  #couldbemykid

image
The “exchange student” sleeping on the beach after the party

23;  Everything you buy has to be carried for the rest of your trip. Think packable.

24.  One good cappuccino can convert a lifetime tea drinker.

image
They didn’t all look like this but this cappucino in Florence was fabulous

25.  Memories cost you nothing but are with you forever.

image
Visiting Mont Blanc in the French Alps

 

26.  The siesta has been a common practice for hundreds of year, take advantage.

27.  Go with the flow, stores often open at different times than you are used to and close whenever either earlier or later than you expected.

28.  Take public transportation, the worst thing that can happen is you wind up with a good story.

29.  Climbing stairs at twelve thousand feet is much more difficult, after only a couple of flights you may be out of breath.
30.  Wine is cheaper than water so drink more of it.

image

 

 

Rambling Las Ramblas

 

We arrived in Barcelona ready to walk Las Ramblas, (the  pedestrian center for shopping, sightseeing and people watching)  Barcelona is packed with visitors, shopping opportunities, restaurants and really interesting neighborhoods. On our first morning we took part in a walking tour of the old city.  We saw Roman ruins of the old wall that surrounded Barcelona, ancient churches and learned much of the history of Barcelona.  We have been warned by many about pickpockets and it is apparent that you must be aware and vigilant with your purse, wallet and cellphone.  But this is a spectacular city with so much to do and see.

This week we have had some wonderful experiences.  The weather has been fantastic.  We have loved walking and dining outside in the cafes along the plazas. Often  buskers (street musicians who rely on tips) surround the area with the lovely sound of their music. Barcelona is an extremely walkable city and we have walked nearly everywhere.  We visited the beach which turned out to be a crowded, urban beach. A young  guy was passed out  the sand in front of me for quite a while.  I thought he might be a bum, but later his friend came and gave his something to eat and drink.   He went into the ocean and didn’t even have a towel.  Apparently he and his buddy went to the beach from the last party. They were foreign exchange students from Australia.  When we left the beach I gave him my unused towel.  The guy was so sweet and grateful.

We also visited La Sagrada Familia, the famous unfinished basilica designed by architect Antoni Gaudi.  The inside was spectacular with changing colors as the sun moved in the sky.  We were relieved that the visitors were limited, which afforded us time in the church so we could appreciate it’s beauty and simplicity.  It is definitely a good idea to purchase tickets online to reserve a specific time so you don’t have to wait in line.

We went to Tibadado mountain up a funicular to see the view of Barcelona from the mountain to the sea.  At the top of the mountain is a beautiful church, Temple of the Sacred Heart of Jesus.  We climbed around a bit and had an early dinner at Mirablau, with a view of all of Barcelona.

It’s fun to visit several local markets.  I loved seeing all of the unique local fresh produce, fish and meats available. We both enjoy cooking and we love paella so we jumped at the chance to book Marta’s Private Paella Cooking Class which we found on TripAdvisor.  After a bit of a difficult time finding her building (we will blame Mapquest and not my husband) Marta warmly greeted us to her home.  We met six other people from around the globe who shared our interest in cooking. Marta, a former teacher explained the fundamentals of paella with patience and charm.  We learned about the importance of quality ingredients and the order in which they must be cooked.  Everyone took part in the preparation of the meats, fish and vegetables.  Marta has a large propane powered paella pan on her patio that easily held enough food for a dozen people. Within a few hours we learned all of the elements of paella typical of  Catalonia.  It was great fun to be part of this diverse group of people who worked together and produced a truly delicious meal! We sat down at the table toasted one another and enjoyed the best paella ever.  If you are interested in joining Marta’s class you can contact her at:ambtucuinem@gmail.com

 Bon Voyage to Barcelona

A picturesque spot in Eze, France
Bon Voyage-good journey, yes indeed it was a very good journey aboard the Celebrity Equinox.  We stepped onto the cruise ship for a seven day cruise from Civitavecchia to Barcelona.  It was a needed change of pace for us.  We went from cleaning up after ourselves and finding places on our own to explore and dine at, to letting the cruise line take care of everything.  Our only responsibility is to show up on time for medals and get back to the ship before it leaves port.

After nearly three weeks in Italy, Greg and I were more than anxious for the company of others.  We have met some wonderful people from the UK, Australia and the US.  Everyone was friendly and happily gave us suggestions for places to visit on the rest of our travels.  We have indeed met some new friends that we hope to visit with again.

The first port we visited Livorno, a nice little port town where we decided to walk the two miles to the train station and take a short train ride to Pisa.  Pisa is actually a lovely town with nice pedestrian walking and shopping areas.  I was surprised with how really beautiful the tower is.  

The typical tourist picture of me holding up the tower
 

Our next stop was Villefranche-Sur-Mer, near Nice France.  The port was an idyllic little town with cafes and a lovely beach.  Before we began our adventure we stopped in a cafe for some cappucino.  Apparently we looked a bit touristy to the proprietor and he tried to charge us 24 euros for our drinks.  I simply smiled nicely and said that there was some mistake.  He quickly apologized and decided to try his scam on the next unsuspecting tourist.  Since we have become so comfortable using local transportation we took the train to Eze, a small picturesque village overlooking the Mediterranean Sea. We initially attempted to climb up to the town from the train station however given the fact that we were not wearing proper shoes for the trip, and it looked like a humongous climb, we opted to take a local bus.  The steep, winding, narrow roads with multiple hairpin turns confirmed to me that as I get older my fear of falling off a cliff is as strong as ever.  The town was lovely and the view was spectacular.

Harbor in Villefranche-sur-Mer
 

Stairs, stair, stairs in the town of Eze

Corsica is a French island with a distinctly Italian attitude. We loved the food, fresh and delicious. The outdoor market was teeming with fresh cheeses, breads, produce and locals shopping for the day. 
We went to the beach to swim and enjoy the spectacular view of the sea with wifi and drinks served chair side.  It was my favorite port, and I hope to return again one day.

 

 

The beautiful beach in Corsica

The bleached white rocks in Corsica
On our last two days on the ship were in the port of Mallorca, Spain.  We enjoyed the city tour on an hop on hop off bus on our first day and a beach day on our second.  I made time for shopping for Mallorca pearls and other jewelry.  The prices for food and drinks were incredibly inexpensive.  

Greg, resting while my shopping continues

We are now onto Barcelona.  The adventure continues.

Touring          Tuscany

Siena from our cottage
Tuscan countryside
This week we have visited the Tuscan countryside towns of Siena, Buonconvento, San Quirico D’ Orcia, Montepulciano and Viterbo.  We picked up a rental car in Florence and began driving towards Siena.  It is very interesting to drive in Italy.  Immediately after we pulled out of the impossible tiny spot onto the ridiculously narrow road we were passed on both sides by motorcycles.  Greg is the calm, passive driver needed to avoid an international incident in this country.  Many times during our drive he would merely take a deep breath and continue driving, while I was yelling at the driver that cut us off or monitoring the pedestrians who stepped in front of the car. Because I am a bad driver we never considered the option of me driving in Italy.  I was the navigator, reading the Google Map directions and telling Greg what was coming next.  We did amazing well on the highways and the country roads.  When we attempted to locate sites in Siena, a beautiful city about fifteen minutes from our AirBnB, we ended up listening to the voice on the Google Maps and driving in circles time after time.  When we looked up from the cellphone we realized that there were signs clearly posted telling us where to go.  

In Siena we visited the Santa Maria Assunta Cathedral in the center of the old city.  Because we are chronically early we arrived prior to the ticket seller.  We enjoyed our new daily habit of enjoying a cappuccino before getting in a very short line for the tickets.  The cathedral was spectacular and the fact that we could enjoy it without massive crowds made it even more special for us.

inside the cathedral completed 1348

Italian Gothic and Romanesque architecture
In Siena we were lucky enough to be take a private cooking class featuring Tuscan cuisine at La Scuola di Cucina di Lella.  The school was located in the center of Siena and included a four course hands on cooking class and a fabulous lunch with vino afterwards.  It has alway been a dream of mine to learn to make pasta.  We began with a hearty soup, vegetables, pici (a thick spaghetti like pasta), a pecorino cheese sauce, grilled steak with dressing, and almond biscotti with sweet wine for dessert. Lella and her chef/translator Fredrico were knowledgable, patient, complimentary and just a pleasure to be with.  

We spent three glorious days outside of Siena at an Airbnb.  The cottage was situated on a hill outside of the city with magnificent views of the countryside and the town of Siena.  This cottage also came with a lovely garden, hammock and table and chairs to enjoy the solitude and beauty of the countryside.

Our little yard in Tuscany
 
We left Siena for Viterbo a town about 120 kilometers away.  Along the way, we stopped at a few little hamlets to enjoy the countryside and unique towns.  We purchased some wine and olive oil and just took our time and enjoyed the journey.  Our last stop prior to Viterbo was Montepulciano, a town sitting atop a mountain with spectacular views and world renowned wine.  I had reserved a wine tasting and light lunch at Cucina  de Ricci.  We were given a tour of the wine cellar, that went back to Etruscan times and then were treated to a fabulous lunch and even tastier wines.  


Tomorrow we leave Italy and cruise to Barcelona, the journey continues…..

Seaside Sights and Siestas

 

We enjoyed our visit to Florence.  Although brief, our three days were packed with sightseeing and culture, lots of culture.  At times it seemed as if there were too many treasures to take in.  Our next destination is Cinque Terre (five lands), encompassing five picturesque villages along the Mediterranean. Once we left the Florence apartment, we walked along Via Panzani with our luggage and backpacks and were soon joined by many other travelers making the half mile trek to the Florence train station.  Upon arrival to the train station every few minutes there were announcements to beware of pickpockets, however there appeared to be no policia to dissuade the thieves.

Once we exited the train in Manarola (the village within Cinque Terre), we followed the tourists through a tunnel and up many flights of stairs and ramps.  One tourist asked if she could hire a Sherpa to carry her luggage up the hill. As we entered the center of the village, a lovely young woman approached us and said “Nancie?”  We were elated to have found our destination.  By the grace of God, Francesca carried my heavy suitcase up  the fifty-four stairs to our new flat.  That was quite the workout, it is no wonder that all of the women in this village have killer legs, no need for stair masters here.  We have gorgeous views of the town, and except for the construction next door, we would have a sea view as well.  We decided upon Cinque Terre, because it is simply beautiful.  Around the village we see spectacular views of the colorful homes clinging to the mountainside, at the edge of the sea.  Time for rest and relaxation.image
By about five o’clock many of the day-trippers and excursionists have left the village.  Although some shops shutter their doors awaiting the next rush of tourists, many stay open and offer simple fresh seafood and pasta.  We explored the village, found a great place for an aperitivo and took tons of pictures. We shopped at Terre 5 Coop for beer, wine and groceries a few times, so  I was upset when the door was closed in my face and I was told “we are closed now”.   I completely understand the importance of a siesta, I embrace the siesta.  However when the door was  reopened for the local man behind me, I felt a bit put off.  Following siesta time we again visited the market to buy some more supplies and get some bananas for breakfast.  When Greg picked up a couple of bananas, the woman behind the register began complaining loudly about “Americanos”.  We know we are tourists, guest really  in another country, so we approach everyone with pleasantries, buongiorno, grazie, Etc. Next we were then told “no credit cards”,  even though we used credit for the previous two days.  I am now boycotting that store for the next few days, but I don’t think they will notice.

We sleep like we have never known sleep here.  The sound of the waves crashing on the shore and our complete exhaustion is  enough to ensure a sound sleep. Both of us were anxious to do some hiking here in Manarola.  We ventured to another village for an early morning cappuccino and then onto another small town for a much needed lunch and vino.  This seven mile hike was spectacular.  My Fitbit tracked one hundred forty flights of stairs and 18,000 steps. These hikes are unlike any we do in Arizona.  The climb is straight up, and we hike through wine vineyards, olive groves, forests, all along narrow mountain trails.  I do not like edges!  While hiking, I avert my eyes at the edge of trail, with the perilous drop off into the sea below.  Greg enjoys all of the journey.  He is unafraid of edges and is not clinging on to grapevines like me.  He walks  behind me with the GoPro.  He claims that he’s there to catch me since I am about as surefooted as a three legged jackass.  However, I’m pretty sure he just wants to document my untimely passing for the insurance company.

Greg and "the edge"
Greg and “the edge”

Rome in the Rearview 

imageWe had a wonderful time in Rome. This ancient city makes you take a look at everything around.  The architecture, the windows and even the streets have a story and history to tell.  You realize what a small part you have in the greater universe.  I insisted on visiting The Vatican again with a Skip The Line Pass.  Although this helped avoid the outside lines, the masses of humanity inside was hard to contend with.  People were everywhere, there really was no space  nor time to contemplate  in the Sistine Chapel.  We were basically herded in and eventually moved along like cattle.  Looking up at the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, it is incomprehensible to me that one man could paint that masterpiece in just four years.  I wonder what mark, if any I might leave on this world when I am gone.  Later in the week we met a couple who visited the Vatican the day after we did, to their surprise, the pope said mass in Saint Peter’s Square and they even had video of him in the Pope Mobile.  Timing is everything.

There is no bad food in Rome.   Prices were very reasonable and food quality ranged from very good to spectacular. I really loved the pace of meals in Italy.  There is no rush.  We are typically eating a long, late lunch and then a nap ( a completely underated activity) followed by lots and lots of walking and a late dinner around nine.  Lingering at meals is encouraged.  In the restaurants there are no televisions, often you join a table with others and conversation is the entertainment.  It seems as if there are modest little eateries in every direction.  Italians were friendly and welcoming to Americans.  One of our favorites was a family run restaurant restaurant named Trattoria da Alfredo e Ada.  The menu was recited by the waitress of what was freshly prepared for  that evening.  The food was so fresh and delicious we both were pleasantly surprised when the bill, including drinks and cookies to dunk in red wine came to twenty four euros.

We left Rome for Florence, a smaller city with some of the greatest works of art in the world, great shopping and more wonderful food to try.  At the train station an older gentleman saw we were a bit confused and offered to show us where to meet the train.  He beckoned us to follow him to the numbered platform, although he spoke no English he gestured for us to wait for the train there.  Then he promptly demanded we pay him for the “service”. Greg have him three euros but he wanted more.  I just told firmly told him “no” and he left us alone to search for some more lost travelers he could scam some money from.

The high speed train to Florence was comfortable, quick and a pleasant experience compared to the hassle of getting to Italy from the US. We are now in a larger apartment right in the center of Florence.  It has rained on and off  but has not really stopped us from exploring the city.  I admire the Italians, they love eating out in their sidewalk cafes, and are not dissuaded by weather.  The outdoor cafes are crowed at ten o’clock even in inclement weather.  We were without raincoats and getting drenched in the downpour.  Some guys were selling cheap umbrellas on the street.  Greg told the first guy, we didn’t want any but, as the rain continued and his natural GPS was fading I insisted on buying one from the next street merchant.  Originally the guy wanted ten euros for the umbrella but we bargained him down to four.  We left with a semi functioning umbrella, walking the streets of Florence.

For the past few days we have meandered the crowded streets of Florence exploring the neighborhoods and piazzas. It is International Fashion Week here in Florence.  Everywhere we look. there are beautiful models, wearing high fashion clothing and impossible high heels wandering around everywhere except the restaurants.

We visited The Duomo, The Uffizi, and The Accademia Gallery.  Greg is not really a big museum guy, years ago when he was in Paris for business he visited The Arc d’ Triumph, The Louve and the Eifel Tower in half a day.  I’m pretty sure he was wearing roller blades.  Since he is just the greatest husband ever we did the Grand Tour of Florence. Tomorrow we leave Florence for the coast of Cinque Terre.

 

Rambling in Rome

image

 

We have arrived here in Rome.  We are both excited and exhausted.  This is our baptism into Airbnb and the place we have chosen does not disappoint. It has been twenty-eight hours since we left our home and now we have discovered our new home in Rome. The cabbie finds the place easily.  We exit the car with luggage and backpacks in hand and head over to the giant door.  We buzz number five and Barry, our host buzzes us in.  To get to our room, we pass through a locked door, a locked gate, a tiny, tiny elevator, another door and another gate until we see our room.  It is compact, with a very comfortable bed, a “kitchen” which includes a hot plate, mini fridge and sink.  The bathroom is normal sized and well appointed.  But the magic of this place are the four terraces.  We walk to the first two terraces and then we enter a secret garden maze to discover the other two terraces which include spectacular views of Rome and the Vatican.  I abandon all sensibility while climbing the  stairs/ladder to the upper terraces.  It is apparent to me that building inspectors have not been around since the Romans built the Colliseum.

Absolutely we were exhausted, but our host was kind enough to give us an overview of the city and his recommendations for places to eat, sightsee and to see Rome from an insiders perspective .  He has thoughtfully left us some prosecco and Brie to enjoy on the terraces.

Next, we walk the cobblestone streets to a fabulous bistro for an early dinner.  The clouds are forming but the temperature is perfect.  We chose a small place, off the tourist path to enjoy dinner.  Apparently, wine is cheaper than water so we happily sip the house wine at each meal. Our first waiter, who looked remarkably like Captain Kangaroo was surley  and overworked. However, he brought us some of the finest pizza we have ever tasted.

imageThe first night we slept well and enjoyed the prosecco and beer we bought at a nearby store.  The next morning, it was raining and we enjoyed the luxury of sleeping to the sound of the raindrops falling on the terrace. Our host thoughtfully left an umbrella for us to investigate the neighborhood.  Greg purchased a map, but I’m pretty sure it is if Ancient Rome because we get lost, nonetheless.  At lunch we eventually found a great place where the owner kissed me and gave us some delicious cherries for dessert. For dinner we found a very small place that cooks fresh pasta daily to serve to the eight tables in the dining room.  We were seated with an American couple and enjoyed hearing about their travels through Europe.  At dinner we devoured two pasta entries, a carafe of house wine and cookies for dessert.  All of this for twenty-four euros. After dinner we visited an Irish pub and watched the American students order margaritas.  It is already more than we could hope for. Life is very good.