Friday, April 23, 2004

The villages of Cinque Terre

April 23, 2004: Enjoyed a lazy morning. Did Laundry in Riomaggiore in a self-service laundry. I met an interesting American from Denver who was holidaying with her boyfriend. Guess that’s where social life in villages is – the laundry! After laundry, we had breakfast at a nearby outdoor café – crepes with fruits and coffee. My experiment of trying out a different type of coffee (panna con caffe) was a disaster! It was strong coffee served with whipped cream. Guess I should’ve simply stuck to Caffe Latte!

We then walked to Riomaggiore train station, bought a three day pass for the park which consists of all 5 Cinque Terre towns and access to the hiking trails leading to these towns. We then started hiking towards Manarola. The trail is called ‘Via dell’Amore’ meaning ‘Lovers Lane’. The trail is fairly easy, flat and well paved. It offers stunning vistas of the sea and the surrounding hill-side. We reached Manarola and climbed down a flight of steps to reach Manarola train station. Walking through a tunnel brought us into the village. We saw a store full of beautiful paintings which grabbed our attention. After about an hour and about $800 poorer we left the Gallery! We bought a beautiful painting of Manarola for our home. We walked through the town, visited the Church, walked through the terraces and reached the trail which would take us to Corniglia. We stopped on the way for several pictures and a brief siesta by the sea. It was heavenly – the weather was perfect, the waves lapping gently by the rocks as I lay asleep on DH's lap! I could not have asked for a better vacation!

Corniglia sits atop a mountain cliff and unlike the other Cinque Terre towns has no natural harbors. So we had to climb a switchback flight of stairs to reach the village. Phew!!! A climb it was! We were rewarded with a quaint little village which turned out to be our favorite. Walking through the alleyways, we came to the village square where we found Café Matteo. We absolutely fell in love with this place. Had Focaccia Caprese, which is a sort of Pita bread stuffed with Mozzarella, Olives, tomatoes, etc. This was absolutely yummy!

I wasn’t too thrilled about doing another hike but Sri being on the mission that he was decided we were hiking from Corniglia to Vernazza. And was I glad I did the hike! This is by far the most strenuous hike – lot of climbing up and climbing down – the downward hike really takes a toll on your knees. Anyway, we reached Vernazza which is the fourth town in Cinque Terre. This place has a neat little harbor, where we sat down for a while. My cell phone has crystal clear reception here and we even managed to talk to Mom and Dad in India. Amazing what modern technology can achieve! Who would have thought I would be talking to my parents in India from some remote village in Italy? We then had dinner at a restaurant right by the port (I think it was called Gambero Rosso but am not sure which is unfortunate coz I think we had the best dinner of our trip here!) I had the gnocchi which was very good and so was the dessert plate! We took the train back to Riomaggiore – the train ride is included in the park pass.

Thursday, April 22, 2004

Jaw-dropping Cinque Terre!!

April 22, 2004: From La Spezia, we took the 6:15 pm train to Riomaggiore – the first of the Cinque Terre towns. The first glimpse of the coastline made our jaws drop –crystal blue water, perfect blue sky (and I though Maui was heaven!). Mrs. Maineri Rosanna was at the station. She walked us through a tunnel to the main [and the only] street in Riomaggiore – Via Colombo. Our apartment – her apartment – was at the beginning of the street above the ‘parfum’ shop. It was meticulously clean – bathroom, kitchen and bedroom. The only drawback was that it was right above the busy main street, so there was a lot of noise constantly.

We walked to the Marina, enjoyed the Ligurian sea and the setting sun, took some great pictures and returned to the village. Had a Bruschetta and Pizza at a local Pizzaria – delicious food! I cant seem to get enough of the tomatoes which are so fresh and delicious here!

Leaning over Pisa

April 22, 2004: From Florence we took the 12:25 pm train to Pisa. Pisa is an unremarkable town except, of course for one of the wonders of the world – the leaning tower of Pisa. We walked through the town from the train station. We thought of depositing our backpacks in the lockers at the train station but didn’t have any luck finding open lockers. So we carried them with us, which wasn’t so bad since the walk was about 20-25 min. The place was swarming with tourists – looked like a bee-hive with bees busy flitting around – in this case taking pictures all over the place! I feel the Duomo & the Battistero (Gothic Baptistery) are more impressive than the leaning tower. The tower is the traditional campanile that appears next to every Duomo but it started sinking into the earth pretty much immediately after construction on it started. It has been restored and the original tilt of the tower is now maintained. Though I wasn’t very impressed, this didn’t stop me from taking many pictures of the tower – even the clichéd ‘I-am-holding-the-tower-from-falling’ pose! I lay down in the lawns in front of the Duomo for a relaxing afternoon. The weather was perfect – ahhh, this was bliss!

After a light lunch of Minestrone soup and Bruschetta, we took the 5:03 pm train to La Spezia.

Last day in Florence...

April 22, 2004: We planned to tour the Uffizi gallery before we left Florence today. The Ancillotti’s were kind enough to allow us to leave our bags at the B&B even after our check-out time so we could tour the gallery. So on we went to Galleria degli Uffizi, since it was so highly recommended. We rented audio guides – I would highly recommend these at the various galleries since they are really helpful. But most of the modern art galleries were closed (about 5 of them). We were really looking forward to seeing these, so it pissed me off that they were not accessible. We paid €25 for just about half the total number of galleries –whatever! It didn’t really live up to all the hype. We walked back through Piazza della Signoria which again caused such awe!

We checked out of B&B Peterson, which turned out to be a very decent place (and I would definitely recommend it to anyone wanting a good, clean room at bargain price).

Wednesday, April 21, 2004

Onto the Tuscan countryside

April 21, 2004: We chose to abandon the chaos of Florence today and go on a biking tour of the Tuscan countryside. Organized by David, originally form Denver, now a native of suburban Florence, it was a welcome change from the Duomos, Piazzas and Palazzos! He is a very knowledgeable guide and proved to be quite entertaining. It cost us about €60pp @ We didn’t have reservations but got lucky – David does not take more than 10 people on his tour. We met as Ponte Vespucci (another bridge on the River Arno parallel to Ponte Vecchio) and drove in his van to his suburban apartment. The rest of the people of this tour were also from the States – Agatha & Phil (from Rochester), Jessica (backpacking in Europe and from somewhere in the states), Bill, his wife who were visiting their daughter Beth (studying in Florence) from Wisconsin. We grabbed our bikes at David’s apt along with helmets and bottles of water. David drove us to San Andrea, a small Tuscan town south of Florence in Chianti. We visited the Michiavelli vineyard and Winery. What a charming little town! We saw Michiavelli’s home (above the winery) where he was banished from Florence. After tasting some local wine, we headed out on our bikes to San Casciano. The ride was amazing – through lush green hillsides with vineyards and apple orchards all over the place. Lunch in San Casciano was at a really cute ristorante called ‘Nello’. I had the ‘Taglieteri ai Funghi’ – mushroom pasta and it was excellent. Dessert was ‘Panna Cota with Chocolate’ – yummm is all I can say! The rest of the bike tour was through Cerbaia, Chiesanuova, Spedalatto and then back to San Andrea. It was the most breathtaking country-side with quaint little towns along the way. We were back in Florence by around 5 pm. This gave us plenty of time to catch the sunset, eat some more gelato (orange & coconut) and have dinner at ‘Quattro Leoni’ – recommended by the Fodor’s guide. This is a moderately expensive place but the food is excellent!

Tuesday, April 20, 2004

The beauty of Florence

April 20, 2004: We had a reservation at the Galleria dell’Accademia, which contains sculptures by Michelangelo. The focal point of this gallery is the original [Michelangelo’s] David, moved here from Piazza della Signoria in 1873. The rest of the gallery is unimpressive, save for this lone sculpture. Words cannot describe how magnificent the sculpture is. Carved out of a block of discarded marble by Michelangelo at age 26, it shows excruciating details of David’s body. Every vein stands out as he flexes his hand in triumph of slaying Goliath. The price of the admission (about €11 with reservation fees) to the gallery is worth this one statue!

After touring the Accademia, we went to the Duomo (which is a cathedral called Cathedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore). It has some interesting structure – it was really too dim inside to see very well. So we went to the Companile which is a Gothic Bell Tower, a soaring structure of multi-colored marble. We had to climb 414 steps (no elevator here!) but were rewarded with a sweeping view of the city and some great views of the Duomo. The climb was invigorating and in retrospect gave me some perspective while reading Dan Brown’s ‘The Da Vinci Code’ where Dr. Robert Langdon tumbles down the ‘Companile’!

We then headed to Piazza della Repubblica – this square marks the site of the ancient forum that was the core of the original Roman settlement that was to later become Florence. The travel book says this is a great spot to people-watch and that we did! Italians are a strange bunch – the weather was perfect, around 18-20°C and most of the Italians were seen sporting winter jackets! From here we walked to Piazza della Signoria. This is by far the most striking square in Florence. It was here in 1497, that the famous “bonfire of the vanities” took place, when the fanatical friar Savonarola induced his followers to hurl their possessions into the flames; it was also here, a year later, that he was hanged as a heretic and, ironically, burned! A bronze plaque in the pavement marks the exact spot of his execution. We saw some impressive sculptures: ‘Rape of the Sabine’, ‘Perseus holding the severed head of Medusa’, ‘Hercules and the Centaur’ etc. We saw Palazzo Vecchio from outside, walked through Galleria degli Uffizi to the Arno River. From there we went to Ponte Vecchio (meaning ‘Old Bridge’). This bridge is really unique since it has been housing jewelers and goldsmiths from the 16th century! So there are all these two-three stories of shops on top of the bridge! All the glitter across the bridge is remarkable. Crossing the bridge brought us to Palazzo Pitti. We went through the ‘Galleria d’Arte Moderna’ and the ‘Baboli gardens’ – these are part of the Pitti Palace estates. While the gardens were not that striking, the modern art gallery is. To me, modern sounded like something arcane and abstract. Apparently, modern in Florence means 18th and 19th century art. But of course! In a country that houses art from the 10th to the 20th century, modern would be 19th century. Galleria del Costume houses costumes from the past 300 years. We saw some beautiful dresses graced by Jackie Kennedy and Audrey Hepburn. Seemed a little out of place being housed in the same location as paintings from the 18th century but the costumes were pretty nevertheless.

Monday, April 19, 2004

From Venice to Florence....

April 19, 2004: Woke up late in the morning, checked out of Ai Due Leoni. We did run of hot water this morning – I wasn’t too thrilled about that! On our way to the train station, we bought some masks, magnets and pins. We grabbed a tomato-brie Panini and water for our journey to Florence. We boarded the Eurostar Italia which is a few dollars more than the IC. Since we had pre-paid IC tickets we had to pay about 8 € pp extra for the Eurostar tickets. These trains are also more comfortable than the IC trains.

April 19, 2004: Arrived in Florence in the afternoon at about 3:30 pm. I was a little disappointed because it was raining. But we had ponchos, so we slipped them on and walked out of the train station to find B&B Peterson, which we reserved, based on Ira’s recommendation. Finding the B&B was an easy task, though reading the signs in the rain were a pain! The B&B turned out to be as pleasant as Ira had promised – we got the room with a red heart! Each room had a name but I can’t seem to remember ours. We had a very obnoxious red heart in the room which didn’t stop amusing us till the day we left. We thankfully had an attached bath and that was a blessing. We dropped our bags and took a walk around Florence… we first found an internet café in the underground mall near the train station (Stazione Centrale). After spending some time there and having absolutely disgusting Pizza in the station café, we walked to the Duomo, went past the Pizza dell’ Unita Novella, which is a very un-church looking Church and had a banana flavored gelato. By the time we walked back to B&B Peterson, the rain has subsided. We decided to try the Indian restaurant that Ira has suggested on the Fodor’s forum. The restaurant turned out to be surprisingly good – who would have thought of an Indian restaurant in the middle of Italy! In fact, I had the best chai to this day in that restaurant!

Sunday, April 18, 2004

Another day in the water city...

April 18, 2004: We went to Piazza San Marcos today. We took a Vaparetto to reach the Piazza and then stood in line for about 15-20 min to visit Basilica San Marcos. It was absolutely stunning. We then rode to the top of the Companile (the bell tower that stands traditionally next to a Basilica) – this offers an excellent view of the city. The funny thing though is that though you are at such height, you cannot see a single canal within the city of Venice from here. Why that is – I do not know. Also visited Museo Correr.

We had lunch at a small snack café by the Piazza. Topped the pizza (tomato, mozzarella, mushrooms) at lunch with a double scoop of gelato! We walked around the Piazza, took lots of pictures and then settled down for a round of cappuccino at Café Florian in the Piazza. The café has live music and is a few hundred years old. We got charged an exorbitant amount for two cups of coffee (which was excellent, btw). 25 € for 2 cups o’ coffee was almost ridiculous – soothing music, lively atmosphere and some historical significance notwithstanding!

Dinner was at a café in Carneggio (cant remember the name). I had vegetarian soup and tortellini with mushrooms & cream while Sri had crab fettucine, Cuttlefish Filet with boiled beans.

After dinner, we walked through the alleyways of Venice – this is a must. It is so fascinating to simply walk around. We walked past the Peggy Guggenheim collection to the Campo Maria della Salute, which is a church on the Darsoduro. I am not Christian by religion but I prayed here – it was the most peaceful experience I had. I am also not very religious but I must say that I felt extremely religious at that moment. I lit a candle for everything that I have, for all the good fortune in our life. From there we went to Hotel Danieli because one of the Fodorites mentioned it was worth seeing. The lobby was nice, pretty. We then walked into the Piazza at night. It was alright, nothing amazing.

Before we went back to our room, however, we had to have coffee. So we stopped for some coffee and also helped ourselves to some chocolate cake. And I found out something interesting today – having coffee standing at the bar (which is what a coffee shop is called) costs less than sitting at a table. E.g. coffee was half the price at the bar as compared to what we paid at the table!!!

Saturday, April 17, 2004

For the love of Venice...

April 17, 2004: We stepped out of the train station and were truly amazed at what we saw – water canals completely replaced traditional roads, buildings seemed to rise out of the water to form this magnificent city! It was very impressive. We had heard many negative things about Venice from friends and so didn’t expect much but we were sufficiently impressed! Straight out of the train station we walked over to the Vaparetto stop and boarded the Vaparetto to take a tour of the Grand Canal. Was astounded by the architecture of the city. Weather was perfect – blue skies, sunny, but not too hot. After an hour of the grand canal tour, we got off the vaparetto near the train station and set out to find our hotel.

Walking around a little in search of the Hotel, we realized we didn’t quite know where to go. This is where the cell phone came in handy – we called the hotel to figure out how to get there. And then learnt the hard way that addresses and road names have no co-relation in Venice. They all seem a little random. After searching a little more we found ‘Ai Due Leoni’ @ 565 Carneggio. I booked this hotel through and found it to be a very clean and neat place, nothing frilly or fancy just simple and clean. We had a quaint, two storeyed, one bed-room place.

We freshened up, left our backpacks and headed out in the evening. Just exploring the city is so much fun! We walked around little alleyways and took another ride in the Vaparetto. We had dinner at Caffe Saraceno right by Rialto Bridge. A glass of Chianti, with mixed green salad started off the dinner. I had Ravioli with spinach and Mozzarella while DH had Mediterranean style bass filet. Food was excellent and the view was perfect - we sat right by the grand Canal. We topped off dinner with some Tiramisu and coffee. Inspite of being so full we couldn’t resist some gelato on the way back to our room!

It was a wonderfully romantic and satisfying day!

Friday, April 16, 2004

Milan, Italy

April 17, 2004: Landed in Milan at 9 am. It was a pleasant flight but felt like we were in the plane forever. In any case, the fact that we were in Italy (finally!!) took all the fatigue away! Since we didn’t have any checked in luggage (phew!) we could walk out as soon as we got out of immigration (which was a breeze).

We decided to spend a few hours in Milan before heading on to Venice. The cool thing is that the metro (or subway as it is called in US) is right there, below the airport arrival lounge. We headed one level down, did a little bit of currency exchange (what a shocker to actually lose money since the dollar is so undervalued in Europe), and bought metro tickets to go into the city. One advice: better to use cash than credit or traveller’s check. My recommendation is to use an ATM card that does not charge you.

We headed over to the Piazza (which is the central square in most Italian cities) – the metro has a stop right there below the Duomo. Walking out of the metro stop, I got my first glimpse of the magnificent architecture of the Duomo – part gothic. I was in awe… before I knew what was happening I had walked into the Piazza and there were tons and tons of Pigeons flocking to my arm!! The reason, I realize a moment later, is because pigeon food (corn kernels, I think) was forcibly thrust into my hand for the benefit of that ooh-la-la photographic moment! While my hubby happily snapped away pictures of me being mauled by Pigeons in front of Vittoria Emanuele, I was trying hard to get rid of them. When I finally managed to get rid of them, I was flocked by these men who were responsible for putting the food in my hands – they started demanding money from us! That was some experience! We walked away after handing them a Euro (they kept insisting 1 euro wasnt enough!) into this narrow alley behind the Duomo, trying to find a decent place to eat. This brings me to the point that there’s no lack of decent places to eat in Italy but because I am a vegetarian we had to be a little picky. Which is again not a problem in Italy – I had plenty of choices! We finally settled for a cute little sandwich/pizza place called Le Tre Gazzelle. After a hearty lunch of pasta and sandwich (boy, were we hungry!), we sunk our teeth into gelato – the delicacy that everyone promised me was going to taste heavenly! And was it! We had mango, limone, pista and niceolea (hazelnut). And it was yummm! I would move to Italy just for the gelato!

We walked around the fancy stores around the Piazza and then walked till we found a place where we could buy a SIM card for my phone. I had a Motorola v600 and needed a SIM card, so I could latch on to a GSM service in Italy. Now there is no need for a phone in Italy during travel but since I had one anyway (thanks to my job), thought I might as well use it. After some aggravating search, we finally found a SIM card from TIM (Telefonica Italia Mobile) that worked! And that was so cool! We called my in-laws in the US from Milan using our cell and had so much fun doing it!

We then boarded a Trenitalia IC (InterCity) from Milan to Venice. We had bought train tickets in US (this allowed us five days of travel anywhere within Italy in the span of 1 month). This did turn out to be cheaper than buying tickets in Italy.

[ – for tickets to trains across Italy. We bought a 5-ride pass that can be used for any 5 train rides from any point in Italy to any other point.]

The train ride into Venice was uneventful. Took us about an hour and half (??). As we passed Venice Centrale stop and started entering the islands of Venice, the lands rising out of water looked mesmerizing.

Italian Dream

Ah, Italy! This was on the top of my list as the destination of my dream vacation! And so it came true this year. After much discussion and consultation on Fodor’s (, we came up with the following itinerary: Leave US, land in Milan, then cover in the following order – Venice, Florence, Pisa, Cinque Terre, Rome, Nice – and fly back to US from Nice, France. Here are some memorable moments from the trip:

April 16, 2004: 6 am… barely got any sleep – maybe it was the excitement of finally going to Italy or maybe it was the haphazard style of packing that we were engaged in for the past 2 weeks!!! So at 6 am, we went in our rented car to the airport – with just two backpacks! In hindsight, the backpacks were the best decision we made! It was so easy to move from one place to another.

Anyway, the flight from San Diego took us to NY – we landed there sometime in the evening. From NY we boarded a flight to Milan, Italy. The flights were courtesy, Sri’s delta miles! Perks of Consulting!