Monday, May 29, 2006

Venice the Menace

Our last stop in Italy was the sinking city of Venice which was about a four hour train ride from Florence. While it was probably our least favorite place, I'm glad we went so we can at least say we've been there. Don't get me wrong, it wasn't horrible (or "ha-rrible" as Benjamin would say), but it was just a little too touristy and hard to find your way around. Most people who know me would say I'm directionally challenged, map-illiterate and an overall bad navigator. I agree. Venice was my worst nightmare, I felt like a mouse trapped in a maze. Good thing Benjamin has a good sense of direction! Water taxis/busses take you up and down the Grand Canal, but we mainly walked around on foot. Venice is known for their Murano blown glass, Burano lace, and carnival masks. We visited the Rialto Bridge, San Marco Square, Peggy Guggenheim's Modern Art collection and went on a gondola ride.

Some interesting facts about Venice:
1. Population is roughly 60,000
2. The city has over 100 churches
3. ...and over 400 bridges
4. It's a pedestrian only city - no cars, bikes, or scooters!

More pictures of Venice

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

David Does Florence

From Siena, we drove to Florence (about 40 mi) and dropped off our rental car at the airport. During the taxi ride to the hotel, our first impression was: "What a dirty city!" The buildings all kind of looked old and dingy. It didn't feel like there was much personality. Of course, we kept an open mind since Florence supposedly offered the best gelato and museums in Italy. We would have to see for ourselves. We checked into Hotel Alba (no Jessica though, darn it!) which had an elevator that fit a max of two people. The streets and sidewalks were much narrower in Florence than in Rome. We saw the Duomo, Medici's Palace, San Lorenzo's market (lots of leather goods, big gaudy belts and extra-large MaryKate and Ashley sunglasses). We also visited the Uffizi (art gallery) and Accademia (the David), where photos are not allowed but Benjamin managed to snap one anyway.

Our favorite things about Florence:
1. The David - words cannot even begin to describe this Michelangelo masterpiece
2. Gelato - stracciatella (vanilla w/choc. chips) for Karen and pistachio for Benny
3. Trattoria Trebbio - our favorite restaurant (we loved the bread soup and lamb)
4. The evening scenery - especially the bridges (see picture below)
5. The drunk Americans outside our hotel who were yelling "We need a Whopper!" at 2am

More pictures of Florence

Florence bridge/Piazza Santa Maria Novella:

Duomo/Hotel Alba's tiny elevator:

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Under the Tuscan Sun

We picked up a rental car in Rome and drove to our next destination - Tuscany - where we would spend the next four nights. The cars in Italy are very small. We lucked out with a "bigger" car called an Opel. It was diesel, a stick shift (as most cars there are) and pretty decent overall. On our way to Siena (our homebase in Tuscany), we drove through the rolling green Umbria region and stopped in Perugia. Thanks for the recommendation, Gina! If you've ever had the luxury of tasting Perugian chocolate, this is where it comes from. Unfortunately, I searched long and hard but still didn't find the factory. Perugia was a very cute, laid back town. After walking around and eating some gelato, we got back on the autostrada and continued toward Siena. Driving in Italy was surprisingly easy and quite fun! We explored several hill towns while we were in Tuscany - San Gimignano, Volterra, Pienza, Montalcino. One day, we took a day trip to the Cinque Terre (Italian Riveria) which was about a three hour drive from Siena. The Cinque Terre was beautiful and very peaceful. There are five small towns nestled in the hills overlooking the Legurian Sea. You can hike between each of the towns - we hiked from Monterosso to Vernazza which was supposedly the most wasn't too bad. The views were absolutely breathtaking. Once we got to Vernazza, we chilled out by the water. People were sitting around reading, enjoying the scenery, eating gelato or just enjoying each others' company. It was one of the most relaxing days I've ever experienced. We saw a European guy wearing the same exact pair of Diesel shoes that Benjamin had on! He was also wearing a Speedo (Benjamin unfortunately wasn't).

More pictures of Tuscany and Cinque Terre

When in Rome...

Benjamin and I returned safely from our two week vacation in Italy. We had such a great time, it was hard to leave and come back to the real world. The flight to Rome wasn't too bad, we flew from San Jose to Chicago (~4.5 hrs) and then Chicago to Rome (~9 hrs). On our outbound itinerary, we had access to the AA Admirals club which was pretty nice - free drinks, food and internet access. Our plan was to stay awake on the Chicago leg and then sleep on the way to Rome to avoid jet lag. Benjamin had to keep waking me up; once the plane takes off, my eyes close - especially at 6:30am! A couple of delicious airplane meals and a few uninteresting movies later, we arrived in Rome! We took a train from Leonardo da Vinci airport to Termini (the main public transportation station). From there, we could have hopped into a cab to our hotel but we wanted to be adventurous so we decided to get on the Metro; it looked pretty easy - there are only two lines (A and B). Not so. In theory, it looked easy but figuring out where to actually catch the metro going the right way was a different story. Afer a couple runarounds, we made it to the hotel! Rome is amazing. I didn't think I would like it as much as I did, but it turned out to be my favorite out of all the cities we visited. Pretty phenomenal to see how a city built itself around so much history. You'd be walking around and in the midst of high end clothing shops and trendy restaurants, there would be a massive building built in the days of Caeser. We hit up all the big sites - Vatican, St. Peter's, Borghese, Spanish Steps, Trevi Fountain. Most of these areas were filled with tourists even though it wasn't "busy season". Speaking of which, if you're thinking about going to Italy, I highly recommend early May. The weather was perfect (70s and sunny), we only had one evening of rain the whole time we were there. While it was nice to see the historic and religious venues even though neither of us are religious, we really enjoyed the different piazzas and not-so-touristy areas like Trastevere. We frequented Piazza Navona, specifically Tre Scalini for their tartufo. A tartufo is a ball of chocolate gelato rolled in dark chocolate chunks, topped with whipped cream and a cherry. It was out of this world. We probably ate a total of at least five during our stay in Rome. Our favorite restaurant was Cul-de-Sac near Campo di Fiore. We went there twice for their tapas style dishes and delicious extra-crusty-on-the-outside-but-soft-on-the-inside bread. Of all the places we traveled in Italy, Rome had the best bread by far. And the wine, oh the good and so inexpensive. It was cheaper than Coke so we had a liter of vino della casa rosso with almost every dinner. We also enjoyed the Italian caffe, which everyone said was to die for..we agree. Due caffe espressos, porfavore. I'm pretty sure Benjamin went into caffeine-addict remission on this trip.

More pics of Rome