Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Cinque Terre

Our next destination was a little town on the coast of Italy called Riomaggiore. It is part of what is known as Cinque Terre (five lands) because there are 5 pirate towns connected by hiking trails. We had heard that it was a must-see place so we decided that we needed to spend a few nights here to relax and enjoy nature. We were looking forward to spending some time hiking, eating seafood, and going to the beach. Natali especially wanted to go to the beach and enjoy some nice weather but sadly the weather didn't want to cooperate. That is the bummer about such a long trip is that no matter what we were bound to get some less than desirable weather. 

We left Florence on Monday, September 9 in the morning and went to catch our train. We decided to take a small detour so that we can see another one of the most famous structures in the world: the Leaning Tower of Pisa! What we didn't know is that there are some really cool buildings around the tower that were also neat to see. You can see the leaning tower in the very back and see just how much it leans.

As a structural engineer, I had mixed emotions about this building. On one hand I knew why one end of the building had settled and I also knew that they could fix the tower and make it straight quite easily. But then why would people go out of their way to see the normal Tower of Pisa? They did have to straighten the building out slightly a few years ago in order to make it safe for people to go inside and climb to the top. I was very impressed that the building could lean so much and still remain intact without damage. Another testament to the incredible buildings of the Romans. 

We debated all the way to the tower whether or not we were going to do the "tourist pose" and hold the building up from falling. And we decided that it was just one of those things that you HAD to do, so we did it.

Yeah, I just needed one finger.
Because we were traveling with a lot of our stuff (we left our big bags at the train station) we were not able to spend a lot of time at the tower or get a close-up look at it. It was definitely worth the detour and time to go and see it thought.

We got back on the train and headed to Riomaggiore. We booked our own apartment through airbnb.com and met the apartment owner close to the train station so he could show us the apartment. We headed back into a small alley, then back into another one, and one more then we finally arrived at the door.

This was our view from the kitchen balcony. As you can tell there are steep hills all over the coast. All of the villages were built on steep hills and rock cliffs which make for fantastic pictures.

 The apartment was very nice. It was 3 levels total with the bedroom and bathroom on the second story and the kitchen and balcony on the third story. It was all very nice and romantic. It would have been perfect if it had wi-fi (and maybe we wouldn't have fallen so far behind in our blogging as well ;)

We got situated and headed out to explore Riomaggiore and take some pictures. Here is the main street of the town but you can't really tell how steep the road actually is. 
We hiked up the road and found a great overlook where we decided to take some pictures. This picture is BEAUTIFUL. The scenery is okay too I guess ;)
We love being able to get good pictures of us together. 
I know we have talked about it a lot but the GorillaPod is a must for a couple that is traveling and wants to have pictures of both of them. You can put it just about anywhere. I loved finding challenging places like the side of this rock wall where I could set it up and take pictures.
We then headed down towards the coast to enjoy the ocean and look at the waves coming in. We passed by a gelato place so of course we had to have some to hold us over until dinner.

We got Lobster Gnochi for dinner that was really great. We were right on the ocean and had a great view. Tip: if you ever go to Cinque Terre make reservations at the restaurants you want eat at. The restaurants with views fill up fast and the wait can be horrible. Luckily we were walking by this restaurant and just decided to make a reservation for later.
The next day we were going to go to the beach, but it was a little chilly and overcast so we decided to do one of the hikes instead. We took the train to Monterosso del Mar, the most northern town and hiked to the next village, Vernazza. It was a great hike with some great views. It was pretty steep but definitely worth it. 

Tip: We bought the Cinque Terre Card with train travel. It was unlimited train use within Cinque Terre for 3 days as well as access to the hiking trails. This made it so we could hike when we wanted but also get from one town to another easily and quickly. We also heard that the boat rides from town to town are amazing but because of the bad weather and large waves the boats were not running while we were there (which made the trains VERY crowded). 

This was the view of Vernazza at the very end of the hike. Seeing the town was a very welcome site (because it meant more gelato!) as we were starting to become tired and hungry.

We received a recommendation from the guy that owned the apartment for a restaurant called Trattoria dal Billy in Manarola,  one of the neighboring coastal towns. It was amazing. First, we were seated at a table that was pretty much all by itself with an amazing view. Second, we hit the sunset perfectly and enjoyed all the different shades of pink, orange and purple during our meal. Third, we had some amazing mussels for our appetizer. I am not a huge fan of mussels but these were amazing. Fourth, the dessert (raspberry-covered ice cream goodness) was amazing. And to top it all of, it was one of our cheaper meals in Cinque Terre. Amazing!

We wanted to take some night pictures so we went up the trail a little ways in Manarola after dinner. It was amazing to just hear and see the waves crashing against the rocks at night. Because it was kind of stormy and overcast all day the waves were larger than usual which made the whole thing even better. The picture really doesn't do it justice but the whole experience was amazing. 
It was really the perfect night... until we got back to the apartment. We got to the door and I started checking all of my pockets and in the backpack when I realized I had forgotten the keys inside the apartment. It was 10:30 PM by the time we got back so when I tried to call the apartment owner, there was no answer. So there we were, locked outside, nobody to call, in a teeny alleyway, late at night, all alone. Then we remembered that the owner had specifically told us to keep the bathroom window open at all times. Calling it a window is very generous as it was a tiny opening in the side of the wall. We decided that Natali had the best chance to get inside but it was on the 2nd story. So, she stood on my shoulders to get up onto a small ledge that was below the window. She was still too short to get inside so I grabbed a big rock to stand on and then boosted her up as high as I could extend my arm to help her get up and into the window. Once she was up high enough, she couldn't fit through normally because the window was so narrow so she had to wiggle her way inside sideways. While she was squirming to get inside I knew I had to catch this moment on camera so a snapped a few pictures of her feet dangling out of the window! After much effort and pain, she got inside and unlocked the door, giving me her angry eyes to show how unpleased she was that she had to do that. She wasn't happy about it at the time but I thought it was hilarious. She has come around and we now laugh about the whole experience. It is one of my favorite moments of the whole trip.
The next day was a disaster. We woke up to pouring rain. And it rained, and rained, and rained. We were so sad because we weren't able to go to the beach. When we finally decided to brave the storm and go out we ended up walking in about a foot of water on the streets as it poured down rain. It was crazy how much water was just flowing in the streets (we were so mad that we didn't get a picture of the water on the streets).
Then, all at once, it stopped raining and the sun came out. 

We were still wet so we went in a little restaurant and got some hot chocolate!

We went back to the place we took night pictures to take some regular pictures. Everywhere was a perfect picture but right outside of Manarola might have been the best place for pictures.

Even with the rain it was still a romantic and beautiful few days but we are looking forward to going back again sometime to explore it more without the rain!

Sunday, November 3, 2013


Florence was probably the place I was most excited to visit. I had heard so many incredible things about Florence and about how you never have enough time there so we set aside more days for Florence than any other city. I should start by saying I thought Florence was really really awesome and definitely a place worth seeing. But I also want to note that I think it's a little over-hyped. I've heard many people say that Florence is even better than Rome. Let me just put that rumor to rest right now haha. Florence, in my opinion, is in no way better than Rome. It's not even a close competition. Florence has a few breathtaking sights: The Uffizi Gallery, Michaelangelo's David, the Duomo (outside) and the statues around Piazza Della Signoria. But if you just see these sights and walk around the Pont Vecchio (famous bridge with all the fancy jewelry shops on it) in the evening, you could be completely satisfied in your visit to Florence (though it's a different story if you intend to see anywhere in the Tuscan countryside). In light of this, I think you could see the best of Florence in two days if you hurried and three days if you moseyed about. Rome, on the other hand, has COUNTLESS amazing sights. You really could tour Rome for a month and still find new incredible things to see every day. So if you are planning a trip to Italy and are wondering where to spend your time, I recommend making Rome a priority over Florence. Okay I hope that wasn't too down on Florence haha. Like I said, it's still an awesome place to see.

Anyways... Now that I’ve told you all the best places to see, I’ll share some pictures and stories from when we visited these places. First up, Uffizi Gallery...

On our first day in Florence we did a guided tour of the Uffizi Gallery and it was absolutely the PERFECT way to start our Florence visit. Our tour guide was awesome, the art and her explanations were fascinating, and the tour gave us a great base of knowledge about Florence so that we could enjoy the rest of the city. The biggest downside of the Uffizi is that no pictures are allowed inside. But I still wanted to show a few of our favorite paintings from the Uffizi so here are some downloaded pictures:

This is possibly my favorite Madonna I've seen, even though I'm sure she is completely historically inaccurate cause of her blonde hair. But I just think she has such an angelic-looking face.

And, of course, the most famous painting at the Uffizi is the Birth of Venus by Botticelli...

 Next we spent some time just walking around the Piazza Della Signoria and enjoying the beautiful fountain and sculptures there:
 Below is a the "Rape of the Sabine Women" statue...But "rape" when it was named actually meant "abduction." This Sabine woman is being abducted by a Roman man to be made his wife. You can see as she tries to catch one last look at her husband below while she is carried away.
 The sculpture on the right (below) is a very popular scene to sculpt: when Hercules kills the centaur for kidnapping his wife. I'm not sure what the statue on the left is depicting. The picture below this is one I took of Reed when he was lost haha. I could tell he wasn't listening to me when I was trying to tell him where I was going so I just left. But I kept an eye on him, knowing eventually he would stop reading his map and realize his wife was gone. Don't worry, I didn't let him wander for too long...

 This is a little out of chronological order but here are a couple shots of this Piazza at night...

 Before spending the rest of the evening walking around the Pont Vecchio bridge and enjoying the night time entertainment, we had an awesome meal that started with this delicious appetizer (4 different kinds of sausage/salami, a bunch of cheeses and 4 different kinds pate’s on bruschetta- olive, artichoke, liver (not my favorite), and yellow pepper):

 Pont Vecchio:
 Nighttime entertainment on the Pont Vecchio.

 The next day we got a rare shopping bug and spent way more money than we should have on these extremely sexy leather jackets ☺ (don't mind the fact that this jacket absolutely does not work with Reed's shorts haha).

 Not very responsible spending but I don’t even regret it! What we DO regret, however, was wasting time and money on these terrible “gardens” (just a bunch of trees, weeds and wild grass with a few moss-covered or decaying statues). These gardens are called the Boboli Gardens…Definitely avoid them.

To cheer ourselves up after our unfortunate experience at Boboli we decided to go out for a nice dinner. We looked up a place on Trip Advisor (Il Fagioli) and ordered their famous Florentine Steak. I would highly recommend Il Fagioli to anyone but make sure to get a reservation! The menu is in Italian so our waiter literally went one by one through everything on the menu to describe it to us. The people there are SO sweet and the food was fantastic. Their bruschetta pomodorro was the best we had in all of Italy and the Florentine steak was awesome. You will definitely want to share the steak since 1 kilo is the smallest size they have haha. They won’t even ask you how you want it cooked (they want to cook it the way they believe is the absolute best) and as you can see, some of it was quite on the rare side haha. But it actually didn’t bother us. I ate the least rare parts though and Reed ate the rarer parts. But they didn’t have that gooey texture or bloody flavor that steaks often have when they are more rare. It was an awesome flavor and an awesome ambiance. Great people, great place, great food. What more can you ask for? ☺

On our third day we went to see Michelangelo’s David. You aren’t allowed to take pictures of the David but he was just as impressive as everybody says. One detail we really liked was how his brow is furrowed as he contemplates the difficult task ahead of him (this statue is right before he kills Goliath). It’s little details in sculptures like furrowed brows, wrinkly skin, bulging veins in the muscles working hardest, or indentations in skin and muscles where pressure is being applied that really set amazing sculptures apart from good sculptures. The most impressive thing about David of course is just his sheer size. He is truly gigantic. Seeing him was definitely a highlight of our trip. What was NOT a highlight though was waiting in line to go see him :-/.
 We actually didn’t wait that long because the long line the day before encouraged us to wake up really early so we could be in line when it opened and that was smart. Florence attractions all have really long lines though so I definitely would recommend making reservations (it costs a bit extra but it would be worth it…we didn’t find out about the possibility for that until too late). After seeing the David we went over to the Duomo. The Duomo is really indescribable and pictures can’t even give you an idea for why it’s so amazing because it’s just SO massive. You can’t even capture more than a fourth of it in a photo unless you go up to a view farther away. While I think you absolutely have to see the outside of the Duomo in Florence (and you will, you can’t even miss it), you do NOT have to see the inside. So if there is no line, go on in but if there is, it’s really not worth it. Unlike the outside, the inside of the Duomo is EXTREMELY boring (no décor, just plain blocks) except for the paintings of the final judgment in the actual dome. And while these paintings are very beautiful, they are certainly not worth waiting in a line for since many cathedrals/basilicas in Italy will have equally impressive artwork. Also I’m adding a picture of the paintings right here so now you don’t even need to go in at all ☺. Note that these pics may have been taken on different days and at different times because we saw the Duomo like everyday while walking around in Florence and I just chose a few of my favorite photos.

 The final judgment in the Duomo.

 At the end of the day we went up to Piazza Del Michelangelo to watch the sunset over Florence. We also walked around to look at paintings a bit as we always enjoy doing in European cities.


Oh and this should have been placed on the day we went to the gardens but we had fantastic gelato at this place called “Café Pont Vecchio” (on the Pont Vecchio, obviously). It was a little on the pricey side but really delicious (so good I finished it before we could even take a picture!). However, I think this place called "Serafino" close to our apartment was even slightly better and much cheaper (though a little out of the way). If you go there, Reed and I highly recommend getting strawberry and kiwi gelato together. Another great place for gelato is Eduardo’s right by the Duomo. They pride themselves in producing all natural gelato and it’s really yummy.

Oh and we also got a pass to ride the tourist bus around during our days in Florence..which was nice to see the Florence countryside but I actually wouldn't recommend it for the high price because the buses aren't allowed on the streets near most of the main Florence attractions (in Rome, however, I would definitely recommend getting a pass to use the red tourist buses).

On our last day in Florence we actually decided to leave Florence and go out to Siena (about 40 minutes out) because we had felt like we had seen everything we wanted to in Florence. We really loved Siena. The Siena cathedral was particularly amazing. This cathedral is famous for all of it's very unique and beautiful floor artwork. We had never seen anything like it. It keeps surprising us that we are still able to find things in so many cathedrals and basilicas that we have never seen before. Here are some photos from Siena and the Siena Cathedral...

 Inside the baptistry of the cathedral...
Interesting artwork on the side of some building that looks like a woman peeking out of a window...
 We are always eating gelato in Italy...

 These strange bird light things were everywhere along the streets through Siena. They are kinda cool...but mostly weird haha.

Well that's all for Florence!