Archive for the 'Florence' Category

Dec 06 2007

Hiking the Cinque Terre

We’re back in business! We said goodbye to the pigs, went skiing in the Italian mountains, took an overnight train, and arrived in Nice, France, this morning for the next leg of our adventure. We are reveling in the mild Southern France temperatures and ubiquitous wifi. It has been a whirlwind few days, with many bloggable stories, but we have some catching up to do first. Back to Italy…

I would like to point out that Ben had an equally hard time resisting the urge to spend in Florence as I did. Often, as we were wandering the city streets, he would stop abruptly, walk into a store and pick up a sweater or a jacket. “I never even thought of this,” he would say, as he lovingly stroked the item. Then he’d flip over the price tag, gape at the number, and storm out of the store. For the next 30 minutes I’d have to deal with Ben muttering to himself, shaking his head and/or ranting about why we don’t have stores like this in America. “I’ll TELL you why,” he’d yell. “Because we have to make room for ANOTHER FRIGGIN’ GAP.” (Granted, he has a point. For men, the disparity between shopping options in Florence and those in America is huge. Florence has entire stores dedicated to neckties alone.)

Yes, Florence is expensive. But it’s not unreasonable. If the dollar would actually hold its weight against the euro, we may have indulged more. Jay-Z feels my pain.

IMG_2250We decided that the next stop on our Italian tour would be the Cinque Terre, a coastline stretch of five small fishing villages so beautiful they’ve been dubbed the “Italian Riviera.” The towns are connected by an 11 kilometer trail that winds through vineyards, farmland and orange and lemon groves, and gives spectacular views of the ocean and rocky shoreline. Cinque Terre has increasingly become a popular detour off the typical Venice-to-Florence tourist path. To hike the trail used to be free until a few savvy villagers realized the goldmine they were sitting on. Now it’s five euros.

In typical Ben and Brittany style, we arrived in Riomaggiore, the first Cinque Terre town, without a place to stay. We emerged out of the train station late that evening, pumped for room negotiations, only to find that it was pouring.

“Well, this sucks,” I said.

“Yeah, really,” a voice said behind me – a voice that sounded disarmingly not like Ben’s and more like a fellow American girl’s. We turned around to discover a couple that happened to be in the same predicament as us: cold, laden with luggage, soaking wet and without a room.

So, naturally, the men were dispatched to search for a vacancy, a task that proved more difficult than anticipated as Riomaggiore is a teeny-weeny village in the middle of nowhere. Just as we thought we may have to hop the train back to a larger town, we saw the confident figures of Ben and Daniel appear through the sheets of rain, walking towards the station, room key in hand.

Sharing a place with Daniel and Tonilyn allowed us to split the cost in a town that turned out to be surprisingly expensive. It also gave us an opportunity to finish off the Cretan raki we’ve been carrying around. This was probably not the best decision the night before an 11 km hike, but since when have we made any decision with regard to the consequences? Remember that time we decided to blow all our money gallivanting around the world? Yeah, that was stupid.

IMG_2287We had planned to wake up early, but didn’t end up setting out until about 11:00, after an embarrassingly long time spent trying to figure out how to use an Italian stovetop coffeemaker. Thankfully, the rain had passed and the day turned out to be atypically sunny and warm, and perfect for trekking on the Italian shore.

Verdict: Cinque Terre’s terrain is gorgeous and varied and despite a few muscle-taxing uphill climbs, compared to Samaria Gorge, this hike was a piece of cake. It may be a three-hour train ride out of your way, but it is absolutely a must-see, and a highlight of Italy for Ben and me.

Our post-hike evening was spent relaxing, making pasta (the pesto in this region is the best in Italy!) and swapping pictures with Tonilyn and Daniel.

We received a surprise early the next morning when we heard the landlady pounding on our door. “YOU OUT?” she said, as Ben opened the door.

“Huh?” Ben said, sleepily rubbing his eyes. “Out of what?”

“ROOM. OUT OF ROOM! TEN O’CLOCK. ALWAYS TEN O’CLOCK.” Italian (and Greek, for that matter) landlords have the annoying tendency to never tell you when you’re required to check out, or if there is a checkout time at all. And when they spring it on you the day that your supposed to leave, they act as if you’re the dumbest person alive for not knowing that, DUH, check out time is ALWAYS TEN O’CLOCK. Even though sometimes it’s 11:00 and sometimes it’s 12:00 and sometimes they stare at you blankly when you inquire about a checkout time at all.

I also want to note that it wasn’t 10:00 yet when she was pounding on our door, a fact that didn’t stop her from glaring at us the entire time we got packed and ready.

Wandering through the streets of Riomaggiore, Ben and I debated how to fix our current predicament: homelessness. We reluctantly dished out the eight bucks per hour for the only internet point in town to try and find a hostel in Switzerland, a hostel in Milan, a farm in the area, or any place at all that could house us for the night.

You may be confused when I say “farm.” We’ve recently run across a program called Help Exchange that pairs travelers with host families all over the world: in exchange for a few hours of work per day, you get free accommodation and food. We located a farm in the Bologna area that was glad to host us for a week.

We are finally able to upload pictures again! Uploaded the rest from Florence and Tuscany and the Cinque Terre. (Even labeled a few!)

Next blog installment: Ben and Brittany’s adventures on the farm! (Yes, we filmed a video.)

3 responses so far

Nov 28 2007


Published by under Florence,Italy

Because Florence is in the heart of the beautiful Tuscan countryside, and because the temptation to spend all our euros on a city-wide fashion shopping spree was perilously close to consuming Brittany, we tried to fill several of our days in Florence with day trips to the surrounding towns in Tuscany. Brittany will undoubtedly contend that her marketplace purchase of outfit-complementing scarves was an isolated and necessary event, but years of experience have sharpened my vision enough to recognize the first slide down a most slippery slope.

Day Trip #1: Montespertoli
According to a brochure in Florence’s tourism office, we had arrived in town just in time for the biggest event of the year! That is, for all 34 residents of a town I still can’t find on our map: Montespertoli. For one weekend every November, this small town celebrates its annual “Paneolio” – an olive oil, wine, and truffle festival. And for once, not the chocolate type of truffles that Brittany insists are a necessary part of her daily blood sugar maintenance regimen. Rather, the rare and subterranean mushroom type of truffle that requires trained pigs and/or hounds to sniff out. I stopped reading the brochure after the part about trained pigs, and it was off to Montespertoli!

Once in Montespertoli’s town square, the festival was surprisingly difficult to find. But the little bit of Italian we’ve picked up was enough to save the day. More accurately, the day was saved by friendly townsfolk who chose to help a pitiful American guy walking in circles and proclaiming in his best Italian, “Please, where are the truffle?”

img_1985Inside the official Paneolio giant tent, we sampled the region’s wines and partook in the season’s new olive oil. We did not partake in the season’s truffles, which carry a pricetag to match their pungent bouquet. A truffle salesman (did I really just write that?) did let us smell the coveted white truffle, which can be yours for a mere 4,000 euros per kilogram (or, about $3,000 a pound). I tried to convey to him that the truffles smelled delicious, but in retrospect, rubbing my stomach in circles really only succeeded in making me look like an ass. Maybe next year.

Day Trip #2: Greve in Chianti
We couldn’t miss out on drinking Chianti in Chianti, so we picked one of the more bus-accessible towns in the region for our second day trip: Greve in Chianti. You’d think that the town would just be called “Greve” and would be content to simply exist in the Chianti region, but I guess that someone on the tourism board had his eye on a bigger cash cow. Lest any potential visitor miss the fact that Greve exists in the Chianti region of Italy, every map and brochure of the area is guaranteed to only refer to the town as “Greve in Chianti.” I guess the plan works, as they successfully lured two visitors this week all the way from Richmond in Virginia.

img_2108One of those visitors (me) arrived in town quite nauseous after the loopy bus ride from Florence. I managed a few sips during our afternoon wine tasting, but you’ll have to ask Brittany in Chianti about the quality of the diverse wine selection available. Sadly, they weren’t on the menu for Ben in dry heaves.

Thanks to the town’s helpful tourism office, we procured a map of recommended area hikes, and spent most of the afternoon in and around a medieval castle in the Chianti countryside. Today, the castle is home to a variety of locals who seem to be farming the surrounding area, and it thus presently functions as a tiny town. I took a video of us exploring the castle’s nooks and crannies (to be uploaded…)

It gets dark around 4:00 in the afternoon here now, but this isn’t all bad news. Since I coudn’t see out the bus windows at night, I avoided a second wave of nausea on the bus ride back to Florence in Tuscany.

Day Trip #3: Siena
img_2172It’s easy to make Siena into a daytrip when you’re based in Florence, but if I had to do it over again, I wouldn’t. Siena really deserves more time than that, and I actually think it would be an even better place to spend a week than Florence. Once one of the most powerful Italian city-states, modern Siena is full of history, Gothic architecture, and charm to spare. Meanwhile, Florence is full of the tourists. Some highlights from our day in Siena:

  • Climbing to the top of the Fortezza (fort) at sunset, and enjoying the evening city views.
  • Taking the Siena for Young Explorers guided tour pamphlet with map, available at the city tourism office. Full of must-sees like Europe’s original Jewish ghetto, the museum of local fauna, and “a park where you can stop for a while to play in the soft grass.”
  • Searching the botanical gardens for the so-called “living rocks,” which are described in our Young Explorers guide as being two leaves that are camouflaged as rocks. Directional signs posted in the garden failed to ever lead me to the alleged leaves, which ensured that a pleasant stroll quickly detoriated into a scene filled with much shouting and guide throwing. Brittany suggested that the leaves are simply doing a very good job of camouflage, and I have determined this to be acceptable. Recommended!

img_2143I get the impression that Siena isn’t any cheaper than Florence as a place to stay, but for pure ambiance, there’s really no comparison. My advice: spend your week in Siena, and take a day trip or two to Florence. But I must disclaim that Brittany vehemently disagrees, so maybe the right thing is to split a week between the two cities. As Calvin & Hobbes once said, a good compromise leaves everybody mad.

3 responses so far

Nov 22 2007

Thanksgiving in Florence

Published by under Florence,Italy

First – HAPPY THANKSGIVING! It’s tough being away from home during the holidays. Separation has accentuated how lucky I am to have such great family and friends back home, so even though we’re celebrating a million miles away with ravioli instead of turkey, I am particularly thankful this year. Have an extra helping of mashed potatoes for us!

Apologies for the slow blog updates this week. All of our spare internet time has been devoted to figuring out what in the world we’re doing next. We’d pretty much planned this far — couple months in Greece, work our way up the Italian boot. But now what? This question arose in an urgent way upon realizing we have no place to go at the end of this week. Currently considering working on an organic farm in Tuscany, skiing in Switzerland, or living in a villa on the French Riviera. Or all of the above. Because, you know, why not? It’s both stressful and liberating to not know where you’re sleeping the next night. I’m not that concerned since I’m traveling with Ben — life has a way of magically and inexplicably working out to Ben’s advantage despite little effort on his part. So I cling to him for dear life, trying to ride off his luck.

Florence has been beautiful and relaxing. Even though it’s a bustling city with enough history to occupy you for weeks, compared to the enormity of Rome, where every corner you turn you’re confronted with something amazing and ancient and famous, Florence seems like a breeze. We’ve spent our time leisurely strolling around the city, drinking local wine and taking day trips around Tuscany.

And shopping! I’ve been really good this entire trip, having not shopped for nearly three months. That’s a lifetime record for someone who thrives on bargain hunting. It hasn’t been hard thanks to all the incredible things we’ve been doing and seeing. In Florence, however, where designer stores line every street and the Italians around you are unrelentingly chic, it’s difficult to resist.

I’ve run across several unanticipated hindrances: while I might be convinced to spend $250 on a cashmere coat back home, when 250 euros means 375 dollars, it’s hard to justify (side note: Florence is the most expensive place we’ve visited – spent the equivalent of $15 on a stick of deodorant!). Secondly, everything I buy I have to lug around with me. We’ve been purging our belongings as we go (YOU try heaving a thousand-pound suitcase up a narrow, ancient staircase), and the idea of adding to the mass is not appealing. Trying to find a way to sneak my purchases into Ben’s suitcase when he’s not looking.

the church of the duomo
The Duomo!

Apparently there’s art in Florence too. We visited the Uffizi Gallery, which may as well be called the All The Renaissance Art That Matters Gallery. Every time we entered a new room, we were astonished at the number of pieces we recognized and had studied in school.

We also made the obligatory visit to the Duomo, the famous church in the center of Florence. Brunelleschi’s dome, an impressive engineering feat even today, dominates the Florentine skyline. The church with its ornate white, pink and green marble façade will startle you every time you happen upon it, as it’s breathtakingly gorgeous, seems to emerge out of nowhere amidst tiny clothing boutiques and panini shops, and is SO HUGE.

florentine skyline
Florence from a distance

A few days into our week in Florence, we climbed up to a piazza south of the Arno River — a place I remembered from my high school trip here nearly a decade ago as affording unparalleled views of the city. As we were leaving, we ran into a familiar face: the Latin teacher that had chaperoned my trip and brought me to that spot ten years ago! The world is wacky.

Having lived here for months, Mr. Ross showed us the city’s best wine bars and restaurants. Wine being the way of life in Italy, his tour of the good enotecas around town (a pre-lunch white, two liters during lunch, a dessert wine, and a post-lunch glass) meant that I found myself quite tipsy at two o’clock in the afternoon. Ben and I got the scoop on all of our old high school teachers, and attempted to adjust to calling him “Steve.” We also unwittingly revealed how little Latin we’d learned when I asked if it was ever a spoken language and Ben confused nouns and verbs. Then we went home and I promptly passed out.

The best part of our week here for me has been our trips into the Tuscan countryside. But I’ve rattled on long enough for today, so I’ll leave our tales of 4000 euro per kilo truffles, medieval castles and drinking Chianti in Chianti for another day. Ciao!

2 responses so far