1. Cinque Terre Photoset

    Cinque Terre, Italy, July 2014

     
  2. Como Challenge

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    This is a really great view. 

    A fun fact about this view is that even though Italy is quite public transport-friendly, you would be crazy miserable trying to get to this view without a car.

    This is the view from outside my small B&B (I think 3 rooms?) in Brunate, Italy, on Lake Como. Brunate is the very, very high hill town just to the east of the bigger and more famous Como. It looks really idyllic on a map. It’s also not very pedestrian friendly.

    Through sheer dumb luck, I avoided the back pain and complaining that would have marked that day in my life had I taken the train into Como. The train was my main mode of transportation in Italy, but while plugging cities into Rome2Rio, I noticed something interesting: there was a cheaper AND faster listed way to get from Verona to Como. I clicked on it with raised eyebrows. It told me to go to BlaBlaCar.

    We don’t have BlaBlaCar where I’m from, so it was a new concept to me. It’s basically a car sharing service: drivers list where they’re going, and you can join them for a small fee. I’m super into the sharing economy, so I was all ready to try this. I contacted a guy named Daniele, who was available to take me in his Audi. Daniele was from Bari in the south, but lived in the north. We talked about the differences between south and north Italy. “In the north, they say, ‘Southerners are so lazy! They have no work ethic!’ In the south, they say, ‘Northerners are so rigid! They have no heart!’” he told me.

    We chatted and had a pleasant ride. Then he gave me his card, dropped me off right at the front gate of my B&B, and went and had an espresso with the B&B owner. I went up to my room thinking how glad I was that I didn’t have to carry my backpack up those hills.

    I wonder what it’s like to be from Como, where most of your residents in the summer are from somewhere else. I wonder if it makes you feel permanent or patchy. More like you belong there, or less.

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    In Como, I visited the towns of Como, Brunate, and Lenno (to see the Villa del Balbianello). A ferry service will take you all around the lake. It’s expensive, like everything else in the area.

    imageThe view from the ferry.

    I tried grappa (Wiki describes it as a “grape-based pomace brandy”—close enough) for the first and only time in a bar near the lake there. Once was probably enough, but it’s one of those “try it for yourself” experiences.

    I spent 3 days in Como. Deciding if that’s enough time is tough. It did feel a bit rushed, and I would have liked to see more of the lake towns, but the value for money is so low that you have to be looking for a swanky vacation to make a longer trip worth it. Do you like seeing things, or do you like doing things? This is a “seeing things” destination. The things are very nice and also very expensive, each town a collection of museums perched on the edge of the water.

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    Como is a tourist destination. Don’t let that stop you from going: after all, you’re a tourist.

     
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    The Leaning Tower from below, Pisa, Italy.

    The Leaning Tower from below, Pisa, Italy.

     
  4. Hang gliding in Selva di Valgardena, Dolomites, Italy, in July. Honestly more terrifying than I expected, but hopefully I made it look fun! The views are worth it.

     
  5. The Dolomites Are The Prettiest Mountains You’ve Never Heard Of

    Mark requested basically just one thing for our honeymoon: that we go to the Dolomites so he could bike across them. He rented a bike outside of Padova and arranged to meet me in Como a week later. 

    imageMark’s bike route.

    Meanwhile, I based myself in two mountain cities for the week: San Martino di Castrozza in the northeast and Bolzano toward the northwest.

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    imageSan Martino, top, and Bolzano, bottom.

    The Dolomites (Dolomiti in Italian) are a range of jagged, sheer mountains in the northeast of Italy. Man, the Dolomites really get short shrift. They’re near the Alps, so people don’t really hear about them. Maybe some Europeans hear about them. I certainly didn’t know much about them.

    Despite the lack of press, they’re absolutely gorgeous. Italians call them the mountains that change color because of how different they look in different lights.

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    Photo post: Verona, Italy.
Clockwise from the top: the cityscape as seen from Castel San Pietro; Juliet’s balcony from Romeo and Juliet; and the Roman Arena.

    Photo post: Verona, Italy.

    Clockwise from the top: the cityscape as seen from Castel San Pietro; Juliet’s balcony from Romeo and Juliet; and the Roman Arena.

     
  7. People Were Half Right and Half Wrong About Venice

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    I know a couple people who are crazy about Venice and a lot more who were not so crazy about it. The not-so-crazy contingent usually had two things to say.

    The True Thing: “Three days is enough.”

    In the summer, Venice is hot, mosquito-y because of the canals, frequently overpriced, and crowded. If you don’t book months and months in advance, accommodation will seem super inflated, and food is expensive even for Italy standards.

    This picture is from near the Rialto Bridge, and I don’t think there’s any time of day or night (maybe 5 am or so?) when I could have gotten a shot without people in it.

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    So I don’t think I could have handled weeks of Venice high season. 3 days is perfectly fine to see the sights and then get out.

    The Untrue Thing: “Venice is overrated anyway.”

    I was really extremely ready to believe this. I tend not to like cities that are mostly or entirely tourism-based. They’re generally hokey and lack character. Often, dealing with the city isn’t worth whatever the attraction is in the first place for me. So when I heard people say that Venice was smelly, unkempt, or just generally Not Worth It, I took it at face value.

    I didn’t really notice the smell; I didn’t find it any more unkempt than any other city; and Venice is unbelievably beautiful.

    Wandering around and seeing the canals, the old buildings, the piazzas, and the boats has charm in spades. It’s a unique part of the world. I don’t think I’d recommend that anyone skip it on their Italy tour, even if all you do is walk around for a day. If you can handle the commute, maybe stay outside the city, but the carless narrow streets have a certain charm, too, and I liked being in proper Venice (as usual, we rented an airbnb).

    I guess the moral is that you should listen to what people say and then reach your own conclusions. How groundbreaking! (Just kidding. It’s not. But I do think you should go to Venice.)

     
  8. We took a gondola ride in Venice. We didn’t get a serenade, but the gondola next to us did, so we reaped the benefit anyway!

     
  9. Milan: Fashion and Passion and Regular Living

    imageLike most people I know, Milan conjures images for me that include high-end stores and well-dressed people and sometimes the Duomo. The fashion facet of Milan exists, to be sure, and the Duomo is definitely a big part of the Milan cityscape.

    imagePretty big. Hard to miss.

    But for the most part, what surprised me about Milan is how normal it felt. While it’s summer in Italy and there are tourists running around, Milan seemed like a place where real people lived and worked.

    The B&B we stayed at was in an “actual” building on a street with real businesses. When Mark and I went for a run in the neighborhood, we did pass the cheap scarf and sunglasses vendors, but we also passed a flower cart.

    We stopped for some appallingly overpriced drinks in the Galleria Vittorio Emmanuele II (5 euros for Lipton black tea? Get it together.), notable for being one of the world’s oldest shopping centers and for its covered ceilings.

    imageIt’s a great place to people-watch. Of course, there were the fashionably dressed, the Milanese families, and the tourists filming everything with iPads, but the crowd turned out to be diverse enough that you would feel no more out of place in a trendy tailored suit than in a grunge outfit, a see-through dress, or a bohemian skirt and flip-flops. Italy seems to be kind of like that—do whatever you want, as long as you do it entirely.

    Milan was also notable in that I would actually recommend every tourist thing I did there to others.

    Duomo. Pictured above. You can go inside; I didn’t, so I don’t know how much it costs. As with the main tourist attraction of any city, don’t eat in the square. Do go see it, though.

    Parco Sempione. This is a park that used to be the grounds of a castle! As an American, I’m not used to castles being around, so this was exciting for me. It also means that the park is really nice. 

    imageNext to Parco Sempione is the aforementioned castle, Castello Sforzesco. This is another place that you can pay to go in, but you are also able to wander around the grounds free of charge if you don’t go inside. Finally, the church of Santa Maria delle Grazie has a very special claim to fame: it’s the church that has Leonardo da Vinci’s “The Last Supper” painted on its wall. This is definitely worth seeing if you’re into art, but take note of the weird rules surrounding it.

    1) Because it’s so fragile, groups of people are only allowed in front of it for 15 minutes at a time. It’s so popular that there is absolutely no chance of buying a ticket at the church—you need to book ahead of time.
    2) This brings me to the next thing. The base price for a ticket is 8 euros. That price is only available from here. The times sell out very fast, and third parties buy whole swaths of tickets and resell them as packages for much more. We ended up buying a package with the da Vinci exhibit called Codice Atlantico, a collection of da Vinci’s notes and sketches, for 26.50, and that’s a fairly reasonable one.
    3) You can’t take photos, again because of the fragility. There is a replication of the Last Supper on the way out that you can take photos in front of, and a lot of people did that when I was there, but frankly, I find that kind of weird.

    There are obviously no photos of the mural, which was bigger than I expected and fascinating to see in person. The church itself is also worth a photo op: like many Italian buildings, it’s old and beautiful.

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  10. The Blue Lagoon turned out beautiful, and even though the temperature barely topped 50 F, the springs are so hot that you don’t notice.

    I’m in Milan now, getting ready to head to Venice. I’m mentally switching gears to compose posts about Italy. So far, it’s both meeting and defying expectations.