Sunday, August 28, 2011

The Cinque Terre: Yes, Please

Don't get me wrong - all of the places we visited in Italy were amazing.  However, there was one magical place that combined all of the food, wine, and charm with two other things:  walking in beautiful, natural scenery, and swimming in the perfectly clear, blue-green sea. 

This pushed the Cinque Terre over the top and made it my absolute favorite part of our trip.

The Cinque Terre was absolutely full of tourists.  You basically have to stay in a city on either side of the row of five cities, and take the train to a starting point.  We booked our room just a week and a half before the trip, so we ended up in a town called La Spezia since it was the most reasonably-priced of what was left in the starting point cities.  It's a port city, and kind of a hole.  However, we ended up renting a room in an apartment, where we met two Aussies and a Canadian who were staying in the other room of the place.  They were all really cool and interesting, and we sat around one night, drinking wine and limoncello, and talking for quite awhile.  Also, La Spezia seemed to be kind of a main hub for trains, making it easy to get around from there.  So, gritty little La Spezia turned out to be alright after all.

Anyway, moving on to the amazingness...

If you haven't heard of the Cinque Terre (which I hadn't until just recently), it's basically five charming little towns tucked into the cliffs along the Italian Riviera.  Trains run between the towns, but the main appeal is the ability to walk between the towns on rugged trails.  Riomaggiore, the city where most tourists begin their journey, has an easy, paved trail, then the trails get progressively more rugged between the other cities.  We decided to avoid the clogged trails, so we took the train to Monterosso al Mare, the city at the other end of the Cinque Terre.  We started with one of the more difficult trails, but avoided having to walk the trail with 1,000 other people.

As we rode the train through tunnels in the side of the hills along the sea, we were able to catch glimpses of the beauty to come through holes in the walls along the way.

When we got off the train, we were treated to the beauty in full view. 

Gorgeous Monterosso al Mare.

Another view after we started walking the trail to Vernazza.

The trail to Vernazza was quite steep...I really think we walked up rock stairs for at least a half hour during one stretch.  But it was well worth the sweat when we reached Vernazza, which quickly became our favorite town...

Vernazza, unfortunately covered by clouds.  However, we didn't mind the shade during the hike.

Not our cleanest/best-smelling moment in life.  But a great one, nonetheless.

Getting closer to the greatness below.

Vineyards on the way down the hill.

And...we made it.  Due to the clouds, this pic does not do the water here justice.  It was SO clear.  We swam here forever, and we could see everything.  We also stopped and picked up some delish pizza and olive foccacia after the hike, and enjoyed it on the beach.  Not too shabby.

After realizing we still had three more towns to see, we dragged ourselves out of the beautiful water and headed to Corniglia on another pretty steep trail.  There wasn't much going on in Corniglia, other than the fact that we ate the best meal we had in all of Italy there.  We stopped in at a simple-looking cafe after the hike, just for a glass of wine.  Then we saw the amazing pizza on the tables of our fellow diners, and knew what we had to do.  So we ordered a pizza.  Then I saw a plate of gnocchi on a table near us that made my stomach flutter.  So I ordered that.  And both dishes were absolutely incredible. 

My.  Goodness.

After stumbling out of the restaurant in a deliciousness-induced daze, we headed to Manarola.  The trail between the towns was closed due to a landslide, so we hopped on the train.  A few minutes later, we arrived in Manarola, where we discovered the greatest swimming hole in the history of swimming holes.

The greatest.  So clear!

Some fellow Americans from Chicago were sharing our very public swimming hole, so Ken and a new friend decided to jump off the rocks.  Yes, it appears that Ken is actually jumping onto a pile of rocks in this pic, but I assure you it's just the angle.

After finally admitting to ourselves that we couldn't, in fact, set up residence on those rocks and live amongst that glorious swimming hole forever, we headed out on a super easy sidewalk trail to the last town, Riomaggiore, where we enjoyed one last glass of wine in the Cinque Terre.  Covered in sand, salt water, and sweat, we took the train back to La Spezia, showered, and passed out for the night.

Our last day in Italy was spent in Turin, in the Alps.  You may remember Turin from such events as the 2006 Winter Olympics.  Although we only visited due to the fact that it was much cheaper to fly from Turin to Brussels then to Oslo than it was to fly from Italy to Oslo, it turned out to be a very nice, pretty city where we had a really good dinner.  We sadly missed our chance to see the view of the Alps from the city since we missed the last tram up, but we could see them for a bit from our bus to the airport the next morning. 

Anyway, I was all photographied-out after the Cinque Terre, so the only pic you get from Turin is this magical little treasure we enjoyed while we were there:

The amazing Italian cherry slush.  We can't believe we didn't discover this little baby before our last day in Italy.  I've had an obsession with slushies my entire life, especially cherry, and this one takes the cake.  Not super syrupy like the American slush, yet fantastic.

Anyway, we walked a lot, we ate a lot, we drank a lot, and we loved this last piece of Italy we got to experience. 

I'd say you can just call this entire portion of the trip a Moment of Zen.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Italia: Venezia & Firenze

Aren't the Italian names for Venice and Florence much more fun to say than the English versions?  Not sure why we felt the need to change those...

Anyway, our original plan for Ken's vacation time during the first week of August was a big road trip through the western fjords in Norway, camping along the way.  We've really wanted to explore the fjords since we got here, and summertime seemed like the perfect chance before the bad weather of fall and winter arrive.

But then it rained.  A lot.  And we started to realize that camping in the rain for a week wasn't sounding so awesome.  On top of that, a rental car and gas in Norway aren't cheap ($10/gallon...huh?)  So, about a week and a half before the trip, we booked hotels and flights for Italy at around the same price as a rental car and gas in Norway.  Sun, warmth, sleeping in a bed inside of a hotel, good food (no hot dogs!), cheap wine...this was a good decision.  

Our first stop was Venice.  It was super touristy, but honestly, what decent-size city isn't touristy in Europe?

Canals, pretty buildings, lived up to its image.

We spent the entire day wandering through all these little mazes, and crossing bridges.  I had no idea where we were on the map at any point in time.

Loved the buildings.

Loved all the canals and boats.

Looking back through these pics, I thought I caught Ken in a gelato moment.  Turns out it was a rare healthy fruit cup moment.  Not quite the same.

Basilica di San Marco.  A whole lot of detail and glitz going on here.

Apparently the water in the lagoon around the city isn't the cleanest, but all these stairs were so inviting for a little cool-off for the feet.  Hopefully there aren't any lasting effects...

Dragging Ken down with me.

My only shot of a gondolier.

Still enjoying ourselves after seven hours of walking.

After one day and two nights in Venice, we headed to Florence.  Upon reading that the food in Bologna was some of the best in Italy, we decided to hop off the train and have lunch there on the way.  

Beautiful covered sidewalks that were all over Bologna.

We didn't know that most places wait until around 12:30 to start serving lunch, so we ended up taking quite the walk around the city to find a place before our train to Florence.  We finally found an open restaurant, and had some delish tortellini Bolognese.  How do they make the simplest food taste so amazing?

After lunch, we rushed to the train station, full of tortellini and gelato, and headed to Florence.

We aren't always big museum-goers (depends on the museum in question).  However, like every other tourist in Florence, we wanted to see Michelangelo's David.  So we got up early in the morning and headed to the Accademia to wait in line.  Surprisingly, we didn't have to wait long.  The sculpture was indeed massive, and very cool.  Worth the not-long wait.  You can't take pics, so nudes for you!  You'll have to settle for buildings...

The massive Duomo.

 So much crazy detail.

 View of the city from Piazzale Michelangelo.

Ponte Vecchio.

So many people ride cool bikes and Vespas.  Bikes like this one were everywhere.  And the gorgeous Italian girls cruising around in cute dresses on Vespas made me wish I was a gorgeous Italian girl cruising around in a cute dress on a Vespa.

So, after massive amounts of walking, pasta, pizza, wine, and gelato, we made it through two big cities on our list.  Although both places were lovely, my favorite part of Italy will be in the next post, coming soon.

For now, there are the glorious Moments of Zen:

Tasty gelato - anytime, anywhere.  Cherry got the top vote from both of us.

Beautiful food and wine every afternoon and night.  This dinner included the Palazzo Pitti in Florence in the background...not too shabby of a setting!

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Fun Visitors & Stockholm

I'll be cranking out a few posts over the next week or two to make up for my absence most of July.  The calm summer turned a little crazy the past couple of weeks. 

Before I get to the happy moments, I'll reflect on some really sad ones.  Most of you have probably heard about the terrible attacks that happened in Oslo on July 22nd.  Norway is usually a very peaceful country, and thus tends to be quite open as far as security goes.  This was extremely unexpected and sad.  

A couple of pictures to remember:

Flowers outside of the Oslo Cathedral.  We left for Stockholm a couple of days after the attacks, but apparently the city was covered in flowers the next week.  We were able to see this memorial on our way to the bus station the next weekend.  Ken and I were thankful to be safe during the tragedies, but it's heartbreaking to think of those who died, and their families and friends.

Stockholm honored Norway by flying Norwegian flags at half mast along with the Swedish flags.  There was a whole plaza full of these.  It was really a beautiful gesture.

Our good friends Drew and Kristen were set to arrive in Oslo from Tulsa the day of the attacks.  They had a delayed flight in the U.S. that set things awry from the very beginning of their string of flights, so they arrived by train from Stockholm the next day instead.  We really appreciated the extra effort they made to visit Oslo, and had a lovely time getting to hang out with them.  So thanks to Drew and Kristen!  We had such a great time with you.

It rained pretty incessantly that weekend, so I didn't take my big camera out with me (and Drew documented the trip well, so I'll steal some of his photos and post them later).  We took it easy and explored the city, hitting up a couple of museums along the way.  It was lovely just to see familiar faces from home, and laugh a lot after such a sobering and strange time.  

After a couple of days in Oslo, the four of us set off by train for Stockholm.

With Andreas, Sarah, Kristen, and Drew at the Stadshuset in Stockholm.  Andreas and Sarah are friends with Drew and Kristen, and we got to meet them for the first time in Stockholm.  All four of them are loads of fun!

It was our first visit to Stockholm, and we loved it.  It's quite a bit larger than Oslo, and had tons of beautiful buildings.  It's also not as expensive as Oslo, which was really nice (never thought I'd say that Sweden seemed inexpensive, but yeah...).  So we enjoyed going out to dinner and drinks too, and not cooking!  The fact that the city is on islands connected by bridges made it very beautiful and interesting as well.

So here's Stockholm, in pics...

Pretty buildings everywhere.

The same ones, from across the water. 

The palace in Gamla Stan (the old city).

Guards marching at the palace.

Loved the narrow streets filled with shops and restaurants in Gamla Stan.

Beautiful building and flowers in the plaza where the Norwegian and Swedish flags were flying at half mast.

Bridges and water everywhere.

We also stayed in a very cool area of the city called Södermalm, where we had a fun night out with Drew, Kristen, Andreas, and Sarah.  I had a rough bout of seasickness/dizziness from a long boat ride the previous day, so I stashed my camera away and focused on sitting up straight at the table and not falling down while walking instead of documenting that day/night.  Oops!  I'd like to give a shout out to Ken for collecting seasickness pills, crackers, and Sprite, and getting me from one hotel to the other to heal up before the night out.  Thanks Ken!

Henrik, our awesome neighbor and friend in Oslo who has previously appeared on this blog, is from Stockholm.  So we planned the visit during a time he would be in Stockholm, since we wanted to see him on his home turf.  He spends a good portion of the summer at his family's home on an island in the archipelago.  If you check out a map of Stockholm, you can see that there are thousands of islands just outside of the city in the Baltic Sea.  We took a bus out of the city, and Henrik picked us up in his boat and took us to a beautiful island.   

We'd like to give Henrik and his family a huge thanks for a great time!  They were so nice and welcoming, and it was such a beautiful place.  

The American flag Henrik put up to greet us upon arrival...ha!

The dock, where we did a lot of chillin.

The jumping rock.

Ken and Henrik ready to brave the jumping rock...I elected to be the photographer instead after walking up and promptly walking back down.

Ken taking the plunge.

Sweet Duster, who might have the best dog's life ever during the summer.

The main mode of transport - a boat that can handle the shallow passages.

Ken's second time to water ski (his first was the night before).

And he's off!  He did an excellent job.

So Stockholm was lovely, and we hope to make it back there again during our time in Europe!

Moments of Zen for the week:  getting to laugh with good ol' friends from home, sitting on the dock at Henrik's place, and finally laying down on the hotel bed after almost losing my lunch on the subway train (and then subsequently losing it in the station trashcan) during the seasickness day.  Yep...I really left my mark on Stockholm.  

Italy posts are up next!