Rome


I should confess that Rome isn’t my favorite city in Italy.  Since I’ve only been there in the summer, when I picture Rome I think of intense heat, insanely large crowds and paying 6 euros for a single bottle of Fanta. On this trip I was perfectly happy to skip Rome entirely because I had been there on two previous trips, but I needed to go to Rome to process my Russian visa–twice.  


There are no pictures of Rome from my first trip there this summer because it was a comedy of errors.  It poured the entire day. And I mean poured.  It started just as Mer and I got to the visa processing center & it was so intense that we couldn’t even see the street.  We ended up hanging out at the center for nearly an hour waiting for it to stop, and when it finally eased up we made a run for a cafe to wait it out.  When it tapered out to a drizzle we decided to wait for the bus…for 45 minutes.  When the bus seemed as though it was never going to come we attempted to take the metro only to find out that most of the lines were down & we could only go back to the train station.  Poor Mer pretty much saw nothing of Rome. It was one of those types of days.


Sean and I had much better luck on the return trip to pick up my visa even if I was still not 100% better from my bout of salmonella (I would guess 40% better).  The heat was intense, but we managed to run all around Rome to see all of the big places.  We walked so much. So so much.  


We also got to see quite a few things that I had never seen before. One was a local organic market that was right near the Forum. We got to sample local cheeses and even local beer.  We were also able to go to the Pope’s Cathedral which we stumbled upon while looking for the aqueducts.  We just so happened to be there while the Pope’s main bishop was saying mass so it was kind of a big deal (apparently).  It was pretty amazing to see, and definitely an unexpected adventure.

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Cinque Terre

For my last two weeks in Italy, I was lucky enough to have my fiance join me. It was his first time in Italy, and one of his Must-Do activities was visiting Cinque Terre. Located on the west coast of Italy, the area of Cinque Terre is made up of 5 (in case Cinque didn’t fill you in on that) small towns that hug the coast.   First of all, the towns are each incredibly beautiful.  Coming out of the train tunnel out of La Spezia and catching that view for the first time was surreal. It’s better than my pictures can show. It’s better that you can imagine.  Unfortunately, I barely saw any of it.  I had the incredible misfortune of coming down with salmonella almost as soon as a we got there.


Our goal was to hike a bit of the trails, but the famous (and easiest trail) Via dell’Amore was closed due to landslides, and as we started to head up to the higher trails I started to feel awful-cold sweats, shooting pains in my stomach and queasy.  To be fair, this is normally my reaction whenever someone tries to get me to hike something that takes longer than 20 minutes, but I could tell this wasn’t going to be good.  The more we walked through the first two towns Riomaggiore and Manrola, the worst I felt.  Every time I caught a whiff of the area’s famous fried fish, I wanted to toss myself off the cliffs.  By the time we reached our rental apartment in Corniglia (and the massive stairs that you take to reach the hilltop town) I was done.  I spent the next 12+ hours puking my guts up and wondering if it was possible to die from puking because it sure felt like I was.


One important thing we found out was there are no pharmacies in Corniglia. My fiance ran around town buying bread and water, but there was no medication to be found.  A waitress at a cafe (we were under the mistaken impression that fresh air and some mint tea would help—it didn’t–I puked on my fiance on the street in public. Another proud moment in my life) confirmed the lack of pharmacies but was sweet enough make a mixture of lemon and warm water which she promised would help.  I did seem to feel better afterwards so I’m crediting her with my recovery.


I did feel well enough the next day to continue on to the next two towns of Vernazza and Monterosso. I wasn’t well enough to eat, but Vernazza did have a pharmacy where I paid $14 for one box of anti-nausea medication. I have to say it might be the best $14 I’ve ever spent.  It meant that we got to have a mostly normal day, and enjoy the views the area has to offer. Vernazza was, by far, the most crowded of the towns we had visited thus far.  While the others had a sleepy feel to them Vernazza was hopping with tourists, cafes and tourists shops. It also had the prices to match.

Our final stop was Monterosso which was completely different than the other four towns. Rather than cliffs there was a beach lined with small cafes and outdoor bars (I can’t tell you how upset I was not to be able to sit there and relax with a snack and a drink).  We stopped by a nice hotel and asked if we could possibly leave our bags there. For a fee of 3 euros the lady said we could check our bags and change into bathing suits in the restroom. For another 2 euros we were able to rent towels.  That’s a pretty great deal in my mind.


We swam at this beautiful beach for a bit.  My fiance was good for two swims, I decided to play it safe with just one and rest on the beach. Monterosso seemed to have more of a traditional seaside resort feel to it compared to the other four towns. There seemed to be more standard hotels as opposed to apartment rentals that the other towns seemed to have.

Overall, what I saw of Cinque Terre was lovely.  I wish I had had the opportunity to try some of the local fare and you know…not do the puking tour of one of the prettiest places on earth.

Dante

The reason I was in Florence this summer was to learn Italian for my dissertation. One of the texts I’m working with is The Divine Comedy. So it seemed like a good idea to have a working knowledge of Italian. Since Florence was Dante’s home prior to his exile, there’s tons of Dante related things all over the city. These range from historical (his house & the church where Beatrice is buried) to the kitschy (Dante impersonators & cafes named after him).

Siena

My first trip to Siena was in 2009 when I sailed with Semester at Sea. It was an all too brief stop on an all day tour of Tuscany. I had the insanely good luck to be there on Il Palio so the town was filled with people, brightly colored flags and horses. I wanted to dig my feet in and not get back on the tour bus because the town was just that cool.

Lucky for me, Siena is a quick bus ride (ok, that’s not entirely true if like me you get car sick. Then it’s way too long & leaves you fairly green by the time you get there) away from Florence. Towards the end of Mer’s stay in Florence we hopped the bus and headed out to Siena.

It was a great day trip. The town was busy, but there were enough side streets that we didn’t feel crushed by people. We went to see the house & various severed body parts of St. Catherine of Siena (I like religious relics. I’m a bit ghoulish), and then we went to the Duomo.

This is where I have to confess that I wasn’t entirely thrilled by visiting the Duomo again. I knew Mer should see it, but since I had already been there I wasn’t relishing spending another $15 and waiting in a horrendously long line for something I’d already seen.

Within 10 seconds of walking into the Duomo I realized how incredibly stupid that train of thought was. The Duomo of Siena is just flat out spectacular. Worth every penny. Worth every second in that incredibly long line.

After the Duomo we followed the advice of my Brazilian friend and went to Da Divo for lunch. Da Divo specializes in truffle dishes so I was instantly sold. Add in the fact that they bring out a giant cheese wheel to mix your pasta dishes in and they grate they truffle right in front of you, and I was in truffle loving heaven. Mer is not a truffle person, and even she admitted that it was delicious. That’s high praise from someone who thinks eating veggies is akin to torture.

I have to confess that Mer and I got on the wrong bus to get back to Florence. We had tickets for the express bus, but jumped the gun when we saw a bus that said Florence and just hopped on. Turns out that bus was the local bus. Ugh. It doubled the time it took to get home (and my level of car sickness). We got back just in time for a horrendous thunderstorm so we had to spend an extra 40 minutes hanging out in the bus depot waiting for the rain and lightening to pass.

Luckily the city decided to make up for the hassle with a gorgeous rainbow right over the Ponte Vecchio. It’s hard to stay disgruntled when this is your view walking back.

Fiesole Adventures

Fiesole was another quick day trip for Mer and me. Located just 8km from Florence, the little town’s claim to fame is a spectacular panoramic view of Tuscany.

It was another hot as could be day so once Mer and I figured out how to get to the places with the good views (we headed in the wrong direction first, naturally), we took in the slightly hazy but beautiful view, and the headed to a small restaurant for an amazing lunch of pasta and a meat tray.

The real treat of the day, however, was having a drink at the spectacular Villa San Michele. This place was a “Must Visit” according to our friend from Brazil so Mer and I decided to see it.  Our Brazilian friend was right, the place was definitely a Must-Visit.

First I should mention we walked there from the center of town. This would not be a huge deal except we had to walk on the street and dive into the very tiny ditches every time a car rounded one of the curves.

Second, I should mention we had to walk down the hill to get to the property only to then have to walk all the way up the hill that the hotel sat on. Remember I said it was really hot? Yeah, so take a moment and imagine what sweaty messes we were as we rolled up to this gorgeous 900 euro a night hotel. I’m amazed they let us in, let alone were as gracious as they were.

The entire place was like a dream (a very expensive, out of our league, surprised they aren’t calling security on these two sweaty lunatics dream) but we had lots of fun sitting at the patio bar drinking our prosecco while checking out the view and people watching.

That’s the hotel property, isn’t it wild? As we flipped through the hotel property book I saw the same company owns the Grand Hotel Europa in Saint Petersburg which is equally dreamy.

And the bar was pretty awesome too.

Overall, it was an awesome little day trip, well worth the 2.70€ in bus fare.

Gorgeous Verona

Verona was our second weekend trip while Mer was visiting me in Italy. Originally we wanted to head south to see Positano and Capri, but problems getting my Russian visa meant we didn’t have as much time as we originally thought. So rather than a rushed (and expensive!) trip south, we decided to take a day trip to Verona.

Verona is just gorgeous. We went on an especially hot and busy day so the streets were crammed with people, and there was precious little shade to be found, but we still had an amazing time.

Our first stop was Casa di Giulietta, naturally. While I was really happy we got to see the house and famous statue, it certainly was a test of patience. The courtyard was crammed full of eager statue fondlers making it hard to move let alone get a picture. I also noticed that locks seem to have replaced love letters these days (in a true sign of the times, inside the house museum you can send Giulietta an email on one of the provided computers).

After a tour of the interior of the house (well worth the visit and price of 6 euros) we decided to wander through the center of town and then to the outskirts.  The center square was packed with vendors and our fellow tourists looking for bargains at the crazy end of summer sales going on so we continued to head away from the center.  We lucked out and found a small cafe with a balcony right over the river. For such an amazing view the prices were very reasonable. I had a salad of arugula, lemon & thinly shaved beef. It was one of my favorite meals in Italy. Light and delicious.

We walked around for a bit more after lunch until the afternoon sun forced us to seek out some shade, and take advantage of the extraordinarily cheap aperol spritz specials many of the cafes had (they were around 5-7 euros in Florence, we paid 2-3 euros in Verona). 

Our time in Verona went much too quickly. Since it was only a day trip we were unable to see an opera due to the train schedule (trains stop running before the performances end). This means Verona is on my Must-Return list.

Lago di Como

I’ve been lucky enough to have visitors during my stay in Italy. First, my friend Alex came over for a way too brief weekend visit where we explored Florence and made a quick trip to lovely little Lucca. Alex was my roommate on my first trip to Russia in 2003, so it was our 10 year anniversary of being abroad together. Next up was my best friend Meredith. Since I had class while Mer was here it meant our travels were contained to the weekends. Since Mer arrived on a Friday, it meant she had to hop off the plane & jump right on a train so we could explore Lake Como. She was a trooper–I’m not sure I could have fought off the jetlag as well as she did.

The lake is pretty much what you expect it to be–gorgeous, breathtaking, stunning, etc. I kept asking Mer, “Why don’t we live here? Why would anyone want to live anywhere but here?” We stayed at the Parco San Marco resort for our brief trip, and were spoiled by the incredible view from our balcony and the free room service breakfast.

We spent the rest of our day moving from the various pools to the lake and back again, and capped the afternoon off by playing on the waterslide.

On our final day we took a boat ride to the town of Bellagio where we shopped for silk scarves (what the area is famous for), and had lunch at a great little enoteca where the staff sliced the proscuitto right in front of us. The local wines were 2 euros a glass, and Mer and I lamented once again that we didn’t live there.

It was a quick trip, but we saw enough to know that Lake Como is definitely a place we have to visit again (and again and again and again).

Travel & Technology (Computer Edition)

                                My sparse but effective work station in my apartment in Italy.  

This is my first time traveling with my beloved Mac since I started grad school in 2007.  Last year, my computer started giving me the death wheeze and I knew that it was time to upgrade to something new if I was going to start writing my dissertation.  Right before I sailed with Semester at Sea in 2009, my hard drive crashed and everything was lost so knowing that I never ever want to live through that again (even the thought of that happening during the dissertation process makes me a little hysterical), I purchased a new 13 inch Macbook Pro with a few upgrades thrown in.


When I received my grants to research abroad this summer and fall semester, I was faced with the same problem.   Did I really want to take an expensive (expensive for me at least) computer containing all of my work from grad school, my dissertation and all of my work to Italy and Russia? Did I want it bumping around on planes, trains, buses? What about overnight trains in Russia? Even with online storage, a backup hard drive and travel insurance I still wasn’t in love with the idea of something happening to my computer or the hassle and expense of replacing it.


I knew I needed something to work on while I was abroad, so I purchased a Google Chrome Book by Samsung.  It seemed like a good fit for most of my needs. It’s inexpensive (I actually cheaped out and bought the Warehouse deal for $184 rather than paying full price), it automatically saves everything to Google Drive and it’s lightweight enough to not add too much weight to my bags.  I especially like that if something were to happen to it, everything I had was safely copied and saved in my Google accounts.  


After 7 weeks of working with the Chrome Book, I feel pretty aware of what it can and cannot do.  It’s relatively straightforward to use and adapting to using Google Docs exclusively was easier than I imagined.  The computer is fast and it’s easy to navigate through the various features and apps.  I also love that it’s small enough to use on a plane or train without bumping elbows with the person sitting next to me, yet it has a full sized keyboard so I’m not constantly hitting the wrong keys.  There are certainly a lot of quirks to it, and it can be endlessly annoying to get to a coffee shop with broken WiFI on a day I forgot to download a much needed document. Since everything online it means that without WiFI (or making sure you have saved everything offline if you know you’re going to be without internet) I’m not a huge fan of blogging with it because getting my pictures from the cameras to the computer is a challenge.

Overall, it does what I need it to do so I’m pretty happy with it.  I do have my iPad here as well and the combination of the two (the iPad for reading research documents) works exceedingly well for dissertation writing.  In fact I turned in 60 pages to my advisor last week.   I doubt that it will ever replace my Macbook permanently, but the Chrome Book is definitely going to be my travel computer both on this and future trips.

Souvenirs

I think it’s fair to say I do a good bit of traveling. One of the dangers of traveling around a lot is not falling into the habit of buying a lot of souvenirs. It’s a slippery slope where you see one thing that’s so unique and of course you want something to remember the trip when you get home. Plus shouldn’t you buy your mom something? What about grandma? Or your friend who absolutely just love that necklace? And oh wow is that a handmade basket? You definitely cannot find that in the U.S.

Pretty soon you’re a bit poorer and your luggage is a lot heavier.

A few years ago I decided to really be aware of what I spend on souvenirs especially from places I’ve been to several times. This didn’t mean ruling out souvenirs entirely, but instead focusing on something that had meaning to me and I could really use. That item for me is jewelry. I try to buy one piece of jewelry from each country so that when I wear it, I can remember my time there. My price point is pretty low (under $50), and it doesn’t add much weight to my luggage.  The bracelet above is from L’Accademia. One of my classmates here had one, and I thought it would make a very nice memento of both my time in Florence and of taking classes. It was 8 euros, so in addition to being pretty, the bracelet hardly breaks the bank.

If I’m buying something for someone else (like my mom), I try to make sure it’s something she can really use. A t-shirt might be a good bargain, but is that person going to wear something from a place they’ve never been? I’m a big fan of gifts for the kitchen, like food or the wine bottle stopper above. My mom loves wine, but bringing back a bottle of wine isn’t always practical (especially not when I’m traveling to Russia for several months on this trip first). This is small enough to fit in my suitcase without adding much weight, and isn’t a glaringly obvious souvenir.  

Loving Italy

I have been having such an amazing and productive trip. I finished my Italian lessons, I’ve seen so many interesting places, and I’ve handed in nearly sixty pages of a draft of my dissertation.

I have lots of thoughts on all of those things, but it’s my best friend’s last night in Italy so there is prosecco that needs our attention.