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Our location as of 10/2/2012

Madison, WI, USA
Last updated 10/2/2012
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Country Recap: Italy

Italy is a country with great food, an extremely old history, and famous art. We started by meeting up with Nikki’s family in northern Italy, a change of pace from our normal traveling routine. After they left, we kept going south, passing through the city of canals, the birthplace of the Renaissance, and the heart of an empire. We braved the heat each day to see some really cool stuff and eat some great food. Here’s what we thought of our stay in Italy.

Top three experiences?

Nikki:

  1. Spending time with family and friends in Cinque Terre.
  2. Roaming around in Venice.
  3. Touring the Colosseum.

Brad:

  1. Seeing the towns of Cinque Terre.
  2. Boating on Lake Como. It’s something we wouldn’t have done on our own.
  3. Seeing the Colosseum and Roman Forum. It’s strange to think we were through the center of the Roman empire and what it would have been like a couple thousand years ago.

Bottom three experiences?

Nikki:

  1. Dealing with the train strikes on our way from Cinque Terre to Lake Como.
  2. The city of Florence. I just didn’t like it as much as the other cities we saw.
  3. The heat. Don’t go to Italy in August.

Brad:

  1. Train strikes. Canceled trains is annoying enough, but the railroad company readily selling canceled train tickets and not providing an easy way to reimburse or exchange them is a outright scam.
  2. United Airlines. We were expecting new shirts to replace our old, torn ones, but they never arrived. We did find a flea market in Bologna and bought some cheap new clothes.
  3. The heat. Italy is scorching the time of year! I was sweating constantly.

Best meal?

Nikki: Wow, tough to choose just one. I really don’t know, I loved it all. I guess the pesto and pasta dishes in Cinque Terre might have been my favorite.

Brad: The pizza slices we had for lunch in Bologna were so delicious! But really just about everything we had was really good.

Worst meal?

Nikki: I can’t think of any bad meals. I think there was one piece of pizza that wasn’t as good as the others, but I don’t remember where we got it.

Brad: In Cinque Terre we were going to make a simple pasta dish, but I bought the wrong kind of cheese. We tried a different recipe, but we didn’t have any spices so it was bland.

And the worst drink I’ve ever had: a Spritz in Venice. It looked red and fruity, but was so bitter I couldn’t finish it.

Favorite person we met?

Nikki: I don’t remember any of their names, but I got a kick out of the outgoing and funny girls from Australia that we met in our dorm in Florence.

Brad: The Australians and Kiwi who suffered with us with in our Plus Florence dorm. They were funny.

Worst disaster?

Nikki: The train strikes on our travel day. Everything else went pretty smoothly.

Brad: We never had as much hassle traveling as the day of the train strike. Seriously, we went through Cambodia, Vietnam, and rural China without so much hassle as in this supposedly developed European country.

Favorite place we stayed?

Nikki: The room we rented through airbnb in Rome. We had a giant, clean room with a big bed, sofa, desk, and a private balcony.

Brad: Our Airbnb place in Rome. We had a huge room with a balcony, fast Internet, and a fan. It was our first Airbnb experience, and we’re planning to keep using it through Europe.

Worst place we stayed?

Nikki: PLUS Florence. The air conditioning in our dorm was broken, so it was super hot and the staff didn’t seem to care about that at all.

Brad: Plus Hostel Florence. They said it would be air conditioned, but each night I couldn’t fall asleep because my sheets were soaked with sweat, the Internet basically didn’t work, and there were only seven lockers for in our eight bed dorm room.

Best thing we didn’t blog about?

Nikki: Seeing the Teatro alla Scala in Milan. It’s one of the most famous opera houses in the world and the inside of it was gorgeous.

Brad: The Galleria Vittorio Emanuelle II in Milan was simply gorgeous. We saw it in the perfect lighting near sunset.

Weirdest thing?

Nikki: The artwork in the crypt of the Capuchin Church.

Brad: Capuchin Monastery. Wow, the museum part was strange with their masochistic rituals, but the crypt with strange displays from thousands of friars’ bones was extremely creepy.

Statistics for Italy

  • Days in the country: 24
  • Places we stayed: 6
  • Rainy days: 0
  • Blog posts: 6
  • UNESCO World Heritage sites visited: 5
  • Photos taken: 1,450
  • Photos uploaded to SmugMug: 273, 19% of all photos taken
  • Geocaches found: 7
  • Hours traveling overland: 22

Statistics for the Trip

  • Countries visited: 18
  • Days on the road: 348
  • Days remaining: 50
  • Places we stayed: 144
  • UNESCO World Heritage sites visited: 39
  • Photos taken: 15,298
  • Photos uploaded to SmugMug: 3,620, 24% of all photos taken
  • Geocaches found: 35
  • Hours traveling overland: 784
  • Olympic host cities visited: 7

When in Rome, Wake Up Early

After our first day in the Vatican City, we spent a couple of days looking around in Rome. We got up very early every morning to try and beat both the crowds and the heat. It was a pretty good strategy because by noon, everywhere was super crowded and the sun was melting us.

One of the first places we went was the Colosseum. I was of course excited to see it, but I wasn’t expecting it to be one of those, “Wow!” moments. Taking a tour through it was actually my favorite part of our time in Rome. As far as ancient monuments go, it’s probably not the best. (I’d say that title goes to the temples of Angkor.) What’s awesome about the Colosseum is how modern it is. Even though it is almost 2,000 years old, with one look you can just tell that it’s a sports arena. That’s probably because our modern sports complexes are based off of it, but that’s still incredible. Think of how different life was in the year 70 AD, and yet we would understand the gate number and seating system if we went back in time to watch some bloody spectacle there. This is unbelievable to me.

The Colosseum also has ancient??graffiti??on display. Looking at this was fascinating. There must be some deep-seated urge in literate humans to scribble messages on walls. However, it’s one thing to write, “Tina was here,” with a pen in a bathroom stall. Actually taking the time to carve this message into a stone bench takes a whole new level of determination. You would have to really want everyone to know that “Maximus sucks,” if you were going to spend two hours carving it onto your seat. And yet there they are, whole rows full of two-thousand-year-old sketches and stories about popular people and important events that took place in the Colosseum. Did those graffiti artists ever imagine that people would be studying their handiwork in the year 2012?

What’s also incredible about Rome is how ancient ruins are strewn all over the place. If you ride around on the bus, you’ll be looking around at a busy street with a McDonald’s and an Armani store, and then all of the sudden you’ll see a roped-off area with marble columns and crumbling walls. It would be so weird to grow up there. You could potentially have Roman aqueducts running right behind your apartment.

Speaking of the aqueducts, Rome is still very proud of its public water supply. Both decorative and metal water fountains are everywhere, and everyone seems to carry around a bottle of water and fill it up as they go. With so many countries that don’t have access to safe drinking water, and other countries that do have safe drinking water but insist on drinking bottled water, it was very refreshing to see people actually using, and even celebrating, tap water.

Besides all the impressive ruins, we also visited??Capuchin Church. It was the creepiest place I’ve ever been in my life. The beginning of the tour is just a museum, but even this freaked me out. I’m not sure why. The museum was spotless and looked very new and expensive. But they were playing this weird background music and they had really gory artistic representations of the??crucifixion on display, along with the whips for their self-flagellation. I kept expecting to run into the albino from??The Da Vinci Code.

And then we got to the crypt. There are several stories about how this place got started, but regardless of how it started, the result is that the bones of hundreds of monks have been put on display in some macabre and disturbing work of art. Femurs and tibias are arranged in crosses and designs on the ceilings. Skulls line the walls. Entire skeletons of long-departed monks are standing around in their fraying robes. Lamps made out of bones hang from the ceilings. I remember one room was dedicated to jaw bones and another featured??pelvises. It’s all incredibly ghastly and bizarre and I’m not sure what exactly the original artist was going for, but he succeeded in scaring the hell out of me!

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.