Archive for the ‘Italy’ Category

Virulently Vivid Venezia

Posted: 14 March 2011 in Europe, Italy

Venice is beautiful. Everything about it is romantic and awe inspiring, but it can also be a lot of fun.

Our first order of business in Venice was to wander aimlessly. It is the best city to just run around and do nothing. When we started to run our noses perked up. It was this unimaginably wonderful smell that wafted down from the heavens. Except in this case it was a crêperie right around the corner that made them right in front of us in seconds. I got mine with dark chocolate and powdered sugar and banana. It was to die for! We took time to thoroughly enjoy them while we sat on one of the canal stairwells. Do be careful though because you’ll be enticed by all of the gondoliers to take a ride. While picturesque and classic the gondola ride is also really expensive. If you’re backpacking, just take the regular ferry instead and have your friends sing to you.

When you waltz around you’ll notice masks. Masks by the thousands. On every street corner, lining every bridge. Carnival is big here, and a mask is an essential souvenir. If you’re thinking of spending around 10 Euro than grab a porcelain mask from any street vendor. It wont get much better, and they aren’t that bad. If you want to get a cloth and plaster mask that wraps nicely onto your face, expect to pay 40-50 Euro, and buy it from an indoor shop. Indoor shops typically house an artisan making the masks right in front of you. It is a testament to the quality of the artists, and it is pretty cool to watch. Once you’ve gone into a store and find one you like, just get it. We wanted to make sure to visit every single store … but discovered that the ones we had initially liked were the best, and there was no huge discrepancy with any of the other artisans. Clearly we could have saved at least an hour, and a frustrating “Wait … where were we?”

The flying rats of New York are the crême de la crême of the tourism market here. So head to St. Mark’s Square (Piazza San Marco), whip out a euro, and buy your neighborhood pigeons some treats. You will be surprised out how fearless and eager these birds are. They wont hurt you and you can complain about the sanitation later. I highly recommend a video camera to capture your first attempt at getting the pigeons off the ground and onto your head.

It may sound obvious to go to the waterfront, but there are a few watery views that can’t be missed. The first is at the south end of town, where it opens up to the sea. Venice has a harbor like no other and is a great walk, lunch affair, or photo-op moment. The Rialto Bridge is fun to go over, under, and take photos upon. It is the largest and most tourist laden bridge, but a must do. If you happen to be taking the train in and out-of-town, be sure to look alive at the train station. Sitting on the steps of the station is an experience found nowhere else in Europe. It opens right onto the Grand Canal and lends itself to a leisurely afternoon of awe and interest. Wherever you do end up taking your much needed break, try the Spritz or the Bellini. Both drinks are classic Italian concoctions and both are a well deserved refreshment.

Treat yourself to a hotel. You will be surprised at the very reasonable rates even in the summertime. We stayed at the Hotel Bernardi, which had a great location, and a nice room. Although our bathroom was technically in the hall, it was still private, and these little perks will make any weary backpacker smile. 🙂


Not every trip goes as planned. Nor will it be seamless and without frustration or annoyance. I seemed to encounter all of these whilst in Rome. I know what you may be thinking “But it’s Rome?! The Colosseum?! Couldn’t you just die?!” Well in fact, I was ready to kill someone. Let me explain all the things that went wrong when I arrived in Roma and all the things you could do to avoid these pitfalls.

The mishaps:

Our train was late. Italian trains rarely run on time, and we didn’t arrive in the city until late at night. Thus the subways were closed. At least the one we were supposed to get on, so we got on the wrong subway. The bus we could have taken never arrived at the train station. After an hour of navigating Linea A vs. B vs. Bus, we settled for a cab.

The cab ride was a highlight. Partly because we passed the Spanish steps at night when they were picturesque and relatively people free. But we were tired and decided to head to the hostel. The Colors hostel was awful.  Small, overcrowded, and with only one fully functioning shower for thirty people! To top it off, all the restaurants were starting to close. Luckily we found a snack shop with amazing gelato! Congratulations Roma, you got gelato right 🙂

New morning. New day. Better day? Not so much. The Sistine Chapel was closed. So we went to St. Peter’s Basilica, not a total loss, just meant the St. P’s would be more crowded. Afterwards we stopped for an ok tasting lunch. Big mistake! Huge! Never, ever, ever eat by the Vatican. They charged us Vatican Tax! 40% on our meal! In case you are wondering there is no such thing as Vatican tax. And I knew it! Then I became one of those Americans… you know, the kind that throws a fit because they were trying to rip us off. And after they wouldn’t budge, they asked for a tip.

Luckily the Colosseum can hardly be disappointing. It was in fact the highlight for the day. The Spanish steps were a disappointment. There were so many people on them you could hardly see them, let alone walk up in a straight line. And I still couldn’t find a decent meal. Yes. In Rome I could find nothing I liked it, except for gelato. My pizza was burnt. Not crispy. Burnt. The wine was cheap and strong at the same time. They put meat on my tortellini. And I never had a redeeming slice of pizza.

How to save a trip from disaster:

A. Anticipate delays in travel, and have a fund specifically if you need to take cabs. Also estimate how much that cab might be. In Roma the cabs are 10-15 Euro if you are heading somewhere within the city. In Stockholm or London it can easily double or triple.

B. Read reviews for accommodations. Read all the bad ones and the good ones and look for intelligent reasons for why someone voted for or against.  Key components are cleanliness, space, facility upkeep, vicinity and friendliness of staff. No one wants a dirty, small, broken, off-the-beaten-path hostel with a bitchy staff.

C. If you are going to Italy during peak travel expect massive crowds. If you hate crowds go in the off-season.

D. Look up places to eat. Stopping in to eat anywhere can be hit or miss. If you have all week it is worth a gamble, but if you are only in town for a short time, look up where to go to ensure that you maximize your experience.

Florence is eye candy. The city itself is a work of art. It is the pinnacle of picturesque Italy that you’ve seen in movies and imagined in books. Every avenue and cove is an adventure onto itself. It is ideal for waltzing about with no particular agenda. It is obscenely close to Pisa, so if you happen to already be by the leaning tower, just hop the always arriving train for an hour and show up. Here are some ways to maximize the experience:

Visit the museums early. The Uffizi is Florence’s main museum, and houses The Birth of Venus. If you come in the afternoon, in the summer, expect to wait for hours for entry. If you come first thing in the morning, you are more likely to wait less than an hour. Off-peak travel is probably better still (though I was not fortunate enough to experience that…). After you’ve gotten your morning fix trot over to the Accademia. This is where you will find David. You don’t want to arrive too late in the day, because eventually they will cut off the line. Also be respectful about taking photos, because they will kick you to the curb. Buy a postcard. The photo will turn out better anyhow.  David itself is impressive. There is more thought and detail put into a single statue than I have ever seen. You can even see the veins. If he wasn’t unusually tall and pale, he could pass for a real person.

Stay at Hostel Archi Rossi. When we were in Nice we stayed at Les Camélias a 5th floor walk-up; snoring go-to-bed early roommates; bugs everywhere; toilet in the hall; small showers; and zero character. Archi Rossi was the first floor; a private villa in a courtyard; private lockers; beautiful design and more character than you’d know what to do with; no bugs; and Canadian roommates. Our overwhelmingly bad impression of hostels was washed clean by a much nicer and pleasurable experience.

Lastly like I mentioned before Florence is perfect for strolling. You really don’t even have to go into any buildings to see the art. Explore the bridges and alleyways, the river and the squares. And look alive because there are statues of naked people everywhere! And plenty of fantastic Italian food.

Pisa by dawn, pain by night.

Posted: 4 March 2011 in Europe, Italy

When we left Nice, we decided to take an overnight train to Pisa. We figured this was a great was to save money that would have been spent on a hostel or hotel for the night and “reclining seats” sounded perfectly acceptable. Here’s the problem: Italian trains suck. Yes, they do. We sat on a three person bench, which had a slide out seat, but no reclining back. The bench across from also sat three people and when both parties slid themselves forward our knees would collide. Needless to say, it was by far one of the most uncomfortable nights of sleep I have ever had. If you decide to go overnight on a train, I highly encourage you to book a couchette. Couchettes are bunk beds. You can lay flat and get a full night’s rest. The train to Amsterdam had reclining chairs, but since it was German and not Italian, they were more like cocoons that made it easy to rest. Much better than the first fleeting attempt at a Lazy-Boy, but not as good as our bunks to Munich.

Despite the awkwardly painful night–including scare tactics about being robbed in Genoa–It was certainly worth arriving to our next destination, Pisa, early in the morning.

I love Pisa for its simplicity. It is an unassuming town, with regular people, who just happen to have a legendary landmark in their midst. (I’m referring to the Leaning Tower of Pisa, in case you grew up under a rock.) If you happen to arrive early in the morning, as we did (5:30 am to be exact….) you’ll be met with a crisp air and a serious lack of tourists. The good news is you will basically have private access to the grounds, and you can run around to take as many pictures as you want without having any strangers blocking your shot. The bad news is that the sun will be on the wrong side. That makes it more difficult to get the classic “look at me holding up this tower” photo. There is also a beautiful church to see on the grounds, and a nice coffee shop to take an easy morning at. It was the first time I ordered a cappuccino in Italy, and it was about the only Italian I spoke. It was great. Small. But not everywhere serves trentes!