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Our location as of 10/2/2012

Madison, WI, USA
Last updated 10/2/2012
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Bologna and Florence

We didn’t have a concrete reason for stopping in Bolgona. I just looked at the map, saw that it was located between Venice and Florence, and thought, “Well, why not stop there?” But now I’m glad we did decide to stay there, because we really enjoyed it. Bologna’s population is around 380,000, so it’s a fairly small city. We could easily walk around the entire downtown area in an hour. It’s a college town and the University of Bologna is actually the oldest existing university in the western world. Bologna’s nickname is??La Rossa (The Red One) because of its red buildings and also because of its political leanings. Interestingly, the whole city was added to the UNESCO World Heritage List because of its “rich musical tradition that is continuing to evolve as a vibrant factor of contemporary life and creation.” It’s also considered Italy’s culinary capital. Basically, it’s an awesome place.

The streets were deserted when we were there because many Italians go on holiday in August. We welcomed the peace and solitude, especially after the crazy tourist circus in Venice. When we went to see the leaning Two Towers, Bologna’s famous landmark, there was nobody around. Another day, we hardly saw anyone when we walked under the Portico of San Luca, the longest arcade in the world, to the??Sanctuary of the Madonna di San Luca. On our last night in the city, we went down to the local farmer’s market and finally saw a crowd of people. The market was pretty similar to our farmer’s market, except in Bolgona they sell draft beer and glasses of wine while people shop around or listen to live music.

Florence was the next stop on our itinerary. I’ve wanted to visit Florence since I read about it in my European history classes. It seemed to me that all the best art from the Renaissance was there. I was mainly looking forward to seeing Michelangelo’s David and his frescoes in the Sistine Chapel. David was incredible, but apparently I didn’t pay that much attention in my history classes; as it turns out, the Sistine Chapel is in the Vatican City. We saw the tombs of several illustrious Italian men, including Michelangelo, Dante, and Galileo. We also visited the Uffizi Gallery, one of the most famous art museums in the world.

However, Florence didn’t live up to my expectations. I liked the art we saw, but I wasn’t crazy about the city itself. I much preferred our??day trip??out to the Chianti region in Tuscany. We went to a farmhouse and tried different types of olive oil, cheese, bread, meat, and wine. Then we stopped at a tiny medieval town for a quick stroll, and then we took a tour of a winery. It was in the Chianti Classico region and they have to follow strict rules when they make the wine. For example, they are only allowed to make a certain quantity of wine per year and 80% of the grapes have to be Sangiovese. ??The wine we tried was very good and the countryside was beautiful. It was a grape escape! (You see what I did there?)

The One and Only Venice

After we said goodbye to our family in Milan, Brad and I moved on to Venice. Walking through Venice was very surreal. Of course I had seen pictures and read descriptions of it, but actually being there was incredible. I felt like I was dreaming the entire time. Everything I looked at could be a picture–I’m pretty sure I made Brad take hundreds of pictures. Many cities in the world like to compare themselves to Venice. I don’t know how many times we’ve visited “The Venice of the North” or “The Venice of the East.” After seeing the real deal, I’m convinced no city should ever try to compare itself to Venice. It’s??embarrassing??for the imitator and insulting to the original.

Venice is by far the most captivating and enchanting place I’ve ever seen. As you probably know, there are no roads, just canals and hundreds of bridges. The whole city is like one giant maze of bridges and alleys that suddenly??end??at the water. It can get very confusing, but wandering around the forgotten nooks and crannies is the best way to explore.

With the wealth it gained from controlling commerce in the Mediterranean, Venice used to be one of the most powerful countries in the world. Strange to think of what such a small archipelago could accomplish. Just building the canals and the city itself was incredible, but it also has an amazing legacy of architecture, art, music, and culture. Of course, now it’s been in decline for hundreds of years.??Everywhere you look, you see moss and mildew,??white marble that’s been worn to black, and cracked plaster revealing bricks underneath it, but somehow all this ageing just adds to the charm. They say that the whole city is actually sinking, and that one day it will all crumble into the sea.??Until then, I think we can all agree that this is the most beautiful and stately collapse??imaginable.

Just like everywhere else, people love gossiping about the negative aspects of Venice. We’d heard quite a few negative reviews about the city, but the most common complaints were about the heat, the mosquitoes, the smelly canals, and the crowds. For the record, the canals didn’t smell bad at all while we there (I actually thought most of the city smelled like the sea) and we didn’t have any problems with mosquitoes. As for the heat, well, if you’re worried about hot weather, you probably shouldn’t come to Italy in the summer. The crowds were the only thing that really bothered us about Venice. It’s so touristy and crowded, the??popular??areas felt more like Disneyland than an actual city. That being said, it wasn’t too hard to wander away from the hordes of people and suddenly find ourselves alone in some quiet corner of town.

We decided to splurge and get a fancy hotel overlooking the Grand Canal to celebrate our anniversary. After that, we resumed our backpacker ways and slept in a tent in a campground on the mainland. (It was actually a very nice campground, so I can’t complain.) While in Venice, we saw the main places like the Rialto Bridge and St. Mark’s Square. We tried some of the local dishes, like cuttlefish and its ink served with polenta (cornmeal). But, like always, we mostly just wandered around aimlessly and enjoyed Venice’s special atmosphere.

Lake Como and Lugano

Lake Como, located in the Lombardy region of northern Italy, is very beautiful. The lake is shaped kind of like an??upside down??Y or like a person with no arms running. It’s surrounded by mountains, and just like in Milford Sound, the mountains continue as steeply below the surface as they do above, making Lake Como the deepest lake in Europe. I believe its maximum depth is over 1,320 feet. However, it’s not very wide and the ferries reach the opposite shore in about fifteen minutes. We stayed in Menaggio, which is on the west side, slightly above the fork in the upside down Y.

Like in Cinque Terre, Lake Como has villages built more or less vertically on the side of the mountain. That’s about where the similarities end, however. Cinque Terre feels rural and??laid back. Lake Como is more fancy and??upper class. There are historic, $50 million villas along its shores and many rich people and celebrities live there,??including George Clooney. He was actually in town and had been spotted out in Bellagio a few days before we arrived, but unfortunately we didn’t see him.

One day we went boating on the lake. We had to reserve the boat in advance and the weather looked pretty nasty in the morning. Luckily, it cleared up and we had an awesome time cruising around and checking out the above-mentioned villas. We drove by Clooney’s place a couple of times, but all we were able to see is that he needs a new roof. ??We also saw??Villa del Balbianello, where parts of??Casino Royale??were filmed. Most of all, though, we just relaxed and enjoyed cruising around.

Since we were so close to Switzerland, we decided to take a day trip over there and check it out. In less than an hour on a bus, we were in Lugano, a surprisingly big city on the edge of Lake Lugano. Like Lake Como, Lake Lugano is deep and surrounded by mountains, but the water in Lugano is a beautiful emerald color. We visited on a Sunday, so most of the shops in town were closed, which was just as well, as everything was very, very expensive. Even with the stores closed, I enjoyed our afternoon there. I’m really looking forward to seeing more of Switzerland in September!

We spent the rest of our time at Lake Como shopping, visiting the villages of Varenna and Bellagio, puzzling over foreign washing machines, drinking wine, watching the Olympics, and keeping our eyes peeled for celebrities. Not a bad three days, overall.

Don’t Fly With United and Other Italian Tales of Woe

I should probably mention our first problem: United Airlines lost my mom’s luggage. Her carry-on bag, to be more precise. Ironically, she hadn’t checked any bags because she was worried they would get lost, so she packed very carefully and fit everything into a small, overhead-bin-friendly bag. However, as they were boarding, they informed her that the plane didn’t have room for carry-on bags and everyone would have to check their luggage and pick it up at their final destination. When she asked if she could grab her bag after the flight, the snotty attendant sarcastically replied, “It’s a wonderful thing, your bag will end up in Milan.”

Needless to say, the bag did not arrive in Milan. It never arrived in Cinque Terre or Lake Como, either. She has been home for a week now and it still hasn’t been delivered to her. In fact, they haven’t even found the bag yet! It could be in McMurdo Station for all United Airlines knows. The customer service agents of United (did I mention this was United Airlines?) were about as helpful as a brick wall. Our interactions reminded me of that scene in Home Alone 2: Lost in New York, when Kevin’s mom asks the hotel concierge, “What kind of idiots do you have working here?” and he answers with a proud smile, “The finest in New York.”

Since the bag had been her carry-on, it contained very important things like medications, and also somewhat important things like new clothes that Brad and I had bought and had shipped to her (since our clothes are quite literally falling apart). Not to mention all the new clothes and shoes that she had bought in anticipation of her big trip. Luckily she could borrow clothes from her sisters, but she still had to wash her underwear in the sink every night. After seeing how completely inept United Airlines is, I certainly won’t be flying with them anytime soon. Do you really want to put your life in the hands of a company that can’t even locate a bag with a??bar code??attached to it?

Our second problem wasn’t nearly as serious, but it was still quite aggravating. We decided to take an early train from Manarola to Menaggio in the Lake Como area. We would have to transfer trains three or four times, but the total journey would only take about four hours. The main problem was that we couldn’t buy tickets in advance at our station, but I figured we’d have time to buy all the tickets at our first stop. I remember on our first train ride, my aunt Diane leaned over and asked me, “Are you nervous?”

“No,” I answered with a laugh and a smirk. My family worries about the strangest things, I thought. We’ve??traveled??on our own through China for crying out loud. Europe will be a piece of cake.

I was wrong.

Our problems began at our first stop. Our train arrived late, so we only had a few minutes to buy tickets. I had written out our itinerary, complete with train numbers and times, on a piece of paper and I showed it to the worker, expecting him to quickly print out our tickets and have us on our way. To my surprise, he didn’t seem to understand anything written on my note. I still don’t know what caused his confusion. The town names were in Italian and the train numbers and times seemed pretty self-explanatory. At any rate, I only had time to get tickets for our next train. I still wasn’t too concerned; I just figured we’d be able to buy the other tickets at the next stop.

Well the line was very long at our next stop, so we missed that train out of there. Even then I wasn’t too concerned. We would just arrive in Lake Como about an hour later. No big deal.

Here’s a fun fact about Italy: there are frequent train strikes. I don’t know exactly how frequent (weekly? monthly?), but it’s common enough that guidebooks and blogs actually warn you about them. When we finally made it to Milan, we were surprised to see that the trains were on strike from 9:00 to 5:00 that day and some of the regional trains were getting cancelled.

That’s where our real problems started. I won’t bore you with all the details, but we were stranded in Milan for hours with tickets that we effectively couldn’t get a refund for. I am suddenly a much less ardent supporter of workers’ rights after the whole ordeal. Really, if you’re going on strike from 9-5 whenever you feel like it, it seems less like a serious strife and more like you just want the day off.

We arrived in Menaggio, very tired and crabby, twelve hours later. Remember, this was supposed to be a four hour trip and it was probably one of the worst travel days we’ve ever had. (And that’s really saying something.) At least we discovered that Lake Como was indeed worth all the trouble.

Vacationing in Italy

Regular llamagoose readers might be wondering where we’ve been the last two weeks. The answer is, we’ve been on vacation. Yes, that’s right, we’ve been on a vacation from an eleven-months-and-counting trip around the world. At least, that’s what spending time with my family in Italy felt like. Seeing them was wonderful, of course, but it was also a bit weird. For one thing, I kind of forgot how to socialize with non-backpackers. There’s kind of a general spiel you go through when you meet a fellow traveler in a hostel: where you’re from, how long you’re travelling, how long you’ve been on the road already, how long you’re staying in that particular place, where you’ve been, where you’re going next, etc. I’ve gotten so sick of answering these questions over and over again, I think I’m just going to print up a nametag that says it all and wear it on me at all times. Anyway, the point is that my social skills have gotten a little rusty. I mean, what do normal people talk about? For us, talking about work or houses seems as out-of-date as discussing college essays and final exams.

It was also strange, but very fun, to have a nice place to hang out. We stayed in hostels, but my family and Kara’s family rented nice villas with space for everyone to get together and relax. Hostels have common areas, of course, but it’s much better to have an area exclusively for your group. (Especially if that area includes an ocean view balcony!) Since we could all just chat in the living room, I kind of felt like I was at home.

And, of course, the hallmark of many vacations is getting exhausted by the time they’re over. The family kept us busy, much busier than our typical travel pace. That might seem a little weird, since obviously we have nothing else to do, but there’s just no way we could keep that busy for over a year. Maybe some people have the energy to be on-the-go constantly, but I am not one of them.

Our first stop was Manarola in Cinque Terre. The Cinque Terre is a group of five small villages strung along the Mediterranean on Italy’s west coast. They’re only a few minutes train ride away from each other and they’re all perched precariously on the cliffs, making for a lot of steep hills and staircases. It’s a very touristy area, but it’s so picturesque and quaint that it just doesn’t matter. There are winding, cobblestone alleys, colorful buildings and shutters, balconies with laundry fluttering in the sea breeze, bright flowers and lemon trees lining the roads, ancient bell towers that toll unnecessarily frequently, green vineyards in the countryside, and waves of clear blue water smashing against the cliffs. It’s almost exactly how I pictured Italy, except I always figured there was no way the reality would match my expectations.

Manarola was quieter than the other villages (except our first night there, when one of the bars hosted a late night disco dance party). One day we walked along the path to Riomaggiore, which seemed a little bigger and busier than Manarola. We hung out on the beach in Monterosso, the most built-up and lively town of Cinque Terre. We spent a morning in Vernazza, then in the afternoon made the hike up the 380-something steps up to Corniglia. Corniglia is the smallest, windiest, and most charming of all the villages. I enjoyed them all, but I’m glad we stayed in Manarola.

And the food. Oh, the food! We had many delicious meals while we were there. Everything tasted extremely fresh–which it was, because in Italy restaurants are required by law to disclose if they use any frozen ingredients. (I think that alone is proof that Italy is an amazing country.)The pesto, bread, bruschetta, cheese, fruit, pizza, and pasta were all exceptional, but what really stole the show was the seafood. Kara ordered grilled octopus and it was the most tender, yummy, and gigantic octopus any of us had ever eaten. The mussels were also the best I’ve ever had. I didn’t try any clams, but I’m sure they were just as good. I’m probably going to gain a ton of weight while we’re in Italy, but I just don’t care.

We enjoyed Cinque Terre so much that I was worried the rest of Italy wouldn’t be as nice. Little did I know, our fun (and our problems) had only just begun.