1. image: Download

    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.

     
  2. 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.)

     
  3. 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!

     
  4. 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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  5. 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.

     
  6. Layover in Iceland. Journey Beginning.

    We’re finally on our way for real. I still don’t know how I feel, really, but I’m ready to find out.

    Tonight, we fly to Milan on Icelandair. We left last night out of Toronto for the first leg of the flight. Because Icelandair, predictably, has its hub in Iceland, we have this layover in cold-but-pretty Reykjavik. At 8:20 am, it’s a cool 47 degrees F.

    We’re spending the day at the Blue Lagoon in Iceland. The purpose is both practical and indulgent: it’s closer to the airport than Reykjavik proper, making it a good layover activity, and it’s also a giant geothermal spa, making it a good honeymoon starter activity.

    I dozed on the plane and woke up to the words no one wants to hear: “Is there a doctor on board? Please make yourself known.” A woman had fainted just one row ahead of mine. Luckily, she was fine, and the flight attendants kept the peace, but the adrenaline kept me up the rest of the flight. Let’s all hope I don’t fall asleep in the water.

    Blue Lagoon.

     
  7. Willow River State Park, Hudson, WI

    I spent a lovely afternoon exploring this state park close to my dad’s house this past week. Great things can be far away, but sometimes, great things can also be close by.

     
  8. The Road to Machu Picchu: Hiking the Inca Trail

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    The Inca Trail was four days of beauty and wonder. It was an incomparable experience and I would immediately recommend it (or another trek like the Salcantay or Lares) as the best way to get to Machu Picchu. I can’t stress enough how much more you get out of it having worked to get there versus just hopping on the train.

    The Inca Trail was also the most physically difficult experience of my life.

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    You have to book the Inca Trail through a company because Peru limits how many people are allowed on the trail at one time to 500. Mark and I booked with Peru Treks because of a combination of price, reviews, and favorable treatment for their porters, who carry our tents and food. You can also hire a porter to carry your backpack, but as you can see above, I didn’t do so! (I don’t regret it—carrying the pack was the least of my worries.)

    After getting on a bus and driving to the start of the Inca Trail at km 82 (2,750 meters/9,000 feet), we met the group of 13 people plus guides and porters that we’d be traveling with for the next four days. Perhaps predictably, because it seems to happen often in this kind of shared experience situation, we all became fast friends.

    Despite high energy and delicious nourishing food made by the camp cook (they also accommodated Mark’s vegan diet!), the hike is incredibly tough. At the highest point of the trail, you are above the cloud cover at 4,200 meters/13,780 feet. You climb 4,100 feet that second day when reaching it—and I felt every step.

    The high point is called Dead Woman’s Pass. I don’t know why it’s actually called that, but I was basically a dead woman when I got to it, so I had no interest in questioning it.

    imageYeah, it’s that. We climbed up it.

    Every night, the entire group fell into bed immediately after dinner.

    We passed smaller ruins along the way that we had time to explore. As most people know, Incan architecture is bafflingly advanced. Every time we saw a new ruin was a surprise.

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    We all awoke at 4 am on day 4, the final day of the trip, to make it to the sun gate around sunrise. The mountains were blue in the dim light. The last day is mostly a descent, but there are some steep ascents mixed in.

    When we reached the sun gate, everyone’s excitement was obvious and contagious. Every single one of us made it through the trip!

    It was a trip of breathtaking views, tough stone stairs, and llamas. I talked and shared meals with new friends; I walked and saw beautiful things, and it was all so encompassing that I never thought of the world outside what I was doing. Not for four days. At night, I slept the sleep of a life well-lived. When people talk about “living in the moment,” well, those four days are always what I’ll think of now.

    The verdict is simple: do it, but expect it to be a challenge. A big, serious challenge. A big, serious challenge that you will be proud as hell to have completed in your lifetime. The Inca Trail is literally what life is about.

    My first glimpse of Machu Picchu was one of the proudest moments of my life.

    imageThe happiest tired person in the world.

    Exhausted and exhilarated, I made my way down the winding trail you can see in the background of the photo and gained entrance to Machu Picchu. While the ruins are incredible and fascinating, knowing what I had done to get there was the source of most of my satisfaction.

    I’ve heard people call Machu Picchu overrated. I am happy to report that I can’t agree. Five billion stars out of five for Peru—possibly the most wonderful trip of my life so far.

     
  9. You Should Go to Cusco

    I really only considered Cusco a stop borne of necessity. 

    At an elevation of 11,200 feet, it’s a great city to get used to altitude before attempting something like a 4-day hike in the Andes. It’s also home to the offices of most of the trek providers to Machu Picchu, including Peru Treks, whom I booked with, so I had to stop into their office as well.

    After an overly expensive taxi ride (I know you never take the first guy out of the gate at the airport, but it was an 8 am flight and I was tired!) from the airport to the Cusco city center, we ate lunch and found the Plaza de Armas, Cusco’s main square. I had already noticed that Cusco’s vibe was very different from Lima’s.

    The motif was more brown and tan, and in general, buildings looked older and less maintained. This didn’t bother me, but I wasn’t immediately overwhelmed.

    Then we saw the mountains, and I was immediately overwhelmed.

    You should go to Cusco. You should go to Cusco because it’s beautiful. You should go because it’s a place where you can easily arrange to paraglide over the mountains or to sit all day in a cafe with a book and a chocolate caliente (almost always made by melting solid chocolate into milk there, so if that doesn’t convince you, I have no words). You should go because it’s a World Heritage site and because you can see Inca ruins without ever leaving the city.

    We stayed in Cusco for three days. I wasn’t looking forward to it initially. By the end, I was thinking of how difficult it would be to live there for a couple months, and hoping it wasn’t very difficult.

    Things I Recommend to Do in Cusco

    • Visit the Plaza de Armas, Cusco’s main square. It’s very beautiful. I can’t recommend the restaurants—the one we ate in (a pizzeria I don’t even remember the name of) was our least exhilarating meal in Cusco and overpriced to boot—but the bars and cafes without ordering food are worth a look, especially the ones with balconies. Mark and I liked Bagdad Cafe.

    Plaza de Armas

    • Get out into the Sacred Valley. We took a colectivo to Maras to see the Salineras, salt fields. We ended up getting “lost” in the mountains (that is, we couldn’t find a path down) and didn’t ever get to see them. Also, I broke my camera. All totally worth it.

    The last photo my camera took. RIP.

    •    Stay at least 3 days: I was lucky and had few problems with altitude sickness. I got out of breath faster and my appetite was suppressed, but I had no dizziness or nausea. If you do get altitude sickness, though, you won’t want to go out and see the sights, and there’s enough in the Cusco area to keep you entertained for quite a while.
     
  10. Footprints (and Boardprints) on the Sands of Time in the Peruvian Desert

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    We arrived in Ica on a Cruz del Sur bus without incident. (Both legs of our bus journey were good, actually. On the way back, the Cruz del Sur information desk helped us get a hotel, and the cab driver who took us there called the hotel to make sure they had space and then negotiated the room rate for us. It worked out so well that I’m happy to recommend them.)

    I wanted to come to Ica to see the Huacachina Lagoon, located in Huacachina, less than 5 km away, and ride a dune buggy on the sand dunes. I had never been to a real desert and I couldn’t believe that Peru had diverse enough climates to create one.

    The differences between Ica and Huacachina as cities are pronounced. Ica is where all the actual people live: a city of about 200,000 people, the architecture is clearly intended for a desert climate, and that’s perfect, because Ica gets around 1 inch of rainfall a year—a desert in the truest sense.

    Mark and I spent half of our desert time wandering around Ica. We bought a local bottle of wine and took it to the park to have breakfast. The wine tasted more like grape juice than any wine I’ve ever had. Dangerous for something with 11% alcohol content.

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    It was hours before we made it to the main square, where we realized that Ica can be a pretty bustling place, although none of this is preserved only a few blocks outside the square. We sat on the steps of the square while kids sold rainbow-colored gelatin in cups to people on the benches: “Gelatinas?" they called.

    I really enjoyed seeing Ica. But even so, as soon as we got out of the taxi after the short ride to Huacachina, I knew I’d made the wrong choice for a one-day visit.

    Huacachina was absolutely stunning.

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    At the lagoon, dunes surround you in every direction. There was no bad place to be.

    Sure, not really pictured are the price-inflated restaurants, souvenir shops, hotels, and hostels that line the lagoon; the many signs offering tours. There were far more blonde girls than Peruvians. Less than 5 kilometers away and it was like a different country. But for a couple days in Huacachina (I would have liked around 3), I would have endured graciously. Maybe it’s “inauthentic,” but I don’t take any special pride in finding places apart from the tourism infrastructure. In most countries, nearly everything you’d see is inauthentic, anyway. That’s a hazard of just visiting somewhere. It’s almost impossible to cobble together an approximation of a real day-to-day life, even if you eat local and befriend local people.

    Mark and I took a two-hour dune buggy and sandboarding excursion over the dunes ($22 per person). We bumped and rolled over the dunes and down the drops.

    Most people simply sandboarded by going down the hill on their stomach, me included, although I did stand up on the wimpiest dune.

    Ride it with my sandboard… sandboard. (Not pictured: When I fell.)

    We stopped for photo ops.

    (Not pictured: When I fell. Again.)

    Slowly, the sun set over the dunes and over Ica in the distance.

    After the tour was over, we ate dinner at Desert Nights hostel and left the oasis. I wish we could have stayed longer.

    For two days, I poured sand out of everything I was wearing anywhere near the desert. A small price to pay for an adventure.