Day 6 – Venice

An early three and a half hour train ride deposited us in Venice on a gorgeous sunny morning. Rather than taking the waterbus, we elected to get some exercise and walk to our hotel. Much like Naples, however, Venice is extremely difficult to navigate with many small, twisting lanes ending abruptly in dead ends. My brother was hungry and aggravated, so I made him navigate to keep him from being able to complain about why we weren’t there yet. It also gave me a chance to enjoy the sights while he stared at the map.

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Our hotel was….interesting. The room was tiny and required going down a small flight of stairs to reach the floor. The shared bathroom was down the hall. It could have been much worse, but after this trip I am finished with Hotwire. I much prefer to know what I’m getting myself into. Luckily we were only in Venice for one night, which necessarily meant limited time in the room.

After paninis at a nearby café, we toured the San Marco Basillica/Tower, ate legitimate Tiramisu, and walked around the Rialto bridge area.

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We ate dinner at restaurant on the riverfront next to a Russian family (I couldn’t help but eavesdrop – I never have a chance to practice my Russian listening skills in real life). We had mouth-wateringly divine bruschetta for an appetizer before a main dish of pasta – I chose spaghetti, my brother went with fettuccini alfredo. We both agreed that it was one of the tastiest meals we ate on the trip.

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Tiramisu

Tiramisu

The best bruscetta in the world

The best bruscetta in the world

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Day 5- Rome

Our final day in Rome. I was determined not to leave Italy without seeing the Mediterranean, and luckily for us there’s a beach about 30 minutes away by subway. Europe has an odd custom of paid beaches. To us Americans, spoiled by our free coastlines, the idea of paying to dip our toes in the ocean is anathema. A bit of wandering led us to a (small) free beach. We had to move a couple of times to avoid paying 5 Euros for a chair we weren’t going to use, but it was completely worth it to go for a dip in the water. My brother initially was going to stay on the sand, but I cajoled and bribed him into wading. Swimming, apparently, was out of the question. On our way back to the city center, we stopped off to see the Pyramide, St Giovanni di Laterno, and the Basilica San Paolo.

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After delicious gelato (cherry and Donatella flavored) and lunch at Re Artu we visited our last church in Rome – Santa Maria Maggiori. Dinner was an antipasta appetizer followed by cannelloni.

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Day 4- Naples

My brother and I are both what you would call “speed-tourists.” We take in a lot, but we tend not to linger. Which is why after 3 days in Rome, we’d checked off most of the items on our list and decided to take a day trip. Initially we wanted to go to Florence and Pisa, but the train tickets were excessively expensive. Tickets to Naples, on the other hand, were quite cheap, so Naples it was.

The train ride was around 2.5 hours through gorgeous countryside. After stepping out of the train station, we bought some sweet sfogliatella to tide us over until lunch.

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Guidebook in hand, we then attempted to find our way to the famous sites. We quickly discovered that Naples is nearly unnavigable. It is hands-down the most confusing city I’ve ever visited. It’s also tiny. And yet, neither of us could make heads or tails of the map in the guidebook. We ended up just wandering. Eventually we found a main church and haphazardly got our bearings.

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Vesuvius

Vesuvius

Naples was…interesting. We’re glad we went, but neither of us was very impressed. The city is quite run down in many places. “Ghetto” is the word my brother used. Nevertheless, the authentic pizza we ate for lunch was cheap and delicious. Afterwards we cruised around the main museum and fruitlessly tried to find the sea (we eventually gave up, defeated by the tiny metropolis), before returning to the train station to catch a ride back to Rome.

Sfogliatella

Sfogliatella

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Day 3- Rome

Our “Holy Day.” The morning was spent in the Vatican and Vatican Museum. Whoever designed the museum was a genius – in order to reach the Sistine Chapel, you must walk through a mile or two (not an exaggeration) of halls and rooms brimming with other exhibits. Gorgeous surroundings, but you can’t help but feel a bit like a cattle being herded through the building, and by the time you reach the so-called holy grail, all you really want is to be away from all the people crushing around you! Ty glanced up for 2 seconds. I forced him to linger a bit longer. No pictures allowed, unfortunately.

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The afternoon was reserved for the Castel St. Angelo – aka “The Pope Prison” according to my brother. But before that, we sought out the best cannoli I’ve ever eaten, Nutella flavored. (side note- there seems to be no peanut butter in Europe, it’s all Nutella. Not that I’m complaining).

Castel St Angelo

Lunch was a simple affair in the Vatican Museum of salad, bread, and yogurt. Dinner was Spaghetti Carbonara and roasted vegetables at (you guessed it) Re Artu. I’d never had Carbonara before and discovered that I don’t much like the alcoholic aftertaste of the sauce, but it was still more-than-edible once I got used to it.

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Day 2- Rome

No longer jet-lagged, we were ready to conquer the city. After brief deliberation, we dropped in to Re Artu – a cute café just around the corner from our hotel. It was one of the best decisions we ever made. We ate breakfast there every day (and sometimes lunch and/or dinner too). Great, reasonably priced food is hard to beat. Although, I did have a rude awakening with regards to European portion sizes with regards to my cappuccino:

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This was a day of walking. We hit the Trevi Fountain (which was, naturally, under construction. It looked pretty through the chain link fence…but there was no cliché tossing the coin into the fountain to make a wish and promise to return):

Trevi Fountain

The Circo Massimo and Boca di Veramente:

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The Spagno area with the Spanish Steps (fountain also under construction, because why wouldn’t it be?):

Spanish Steps

The Pantheon:

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And Borghese Park. We also passed by this gorgeous bridge circa 67BC:

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Food included a divine Caprese Salad from Re Artu, Pizza and Prosciutto and Melon from Li Ronni, and gelato (tiramisu and niccollo flavored):

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Day 1- Arrival in Rome

This trip involved two big firsts for me: my first trip to Western Europe, and my first overseas trip with someone else. I wasn’t worried about travelling in Europe – truth be told I didn’t think twice about it. I’ve managed to get around on my own in Russia and Japan, so Western Europe was a piece of cake. I was more concerned about the second part, but it ended up being alright – even positive.

Our flight was scheduled to leave on Saturday June 8 around 1:45pm. I drove over to my parents’ house that morning to drop off my cat and make sure my brother had properly packed. I’m very particular, you know – I take one carry-on on the way there, with an empty bag inside to fill with souvenirs, because a) I don’t want to haul a bunch of luggage from the foreign airport to the hotel, and b) Can you imagine starting your vacation with lost luggage? Neither can I, which is why I eliminate the possibility.

Mom dropped us off at the airport and we made quick work of security. Our flight was delayed so that our three hour layover in Chicago turned into 30 minutes, but we made the connection with no issues. Approximately nine hours later, we landed in Rome at 9:30am local time. And then sat on the tarmac for thirty minutes because the jet way at the airport was jammed. Not the most auspicious way to start a trip, but as a traveler the first thing you have to expect is that things will go wrong. Customs was fairly non-existent and we caught the 10:35am train to the city center. Our hotel was conveniently right next to the railway terminus. Our first stop was St. Peters Square to pick up our Roma Passes/Omni Cards (Rome’s version of a City Pass which included our subway passes). Since it was Sunday, the Vatican museum itself wasn’t open, but that didn’t stop hoards of people from congregating in the square. We grabbed a quick lunch at an outdoor café before heading to the ancient city center to visit the Coliseum, Roman Forum, and Palatine Hill. I love ancient culture and monuments, but my brother was less than impressed. Part of that stemmed from the fact that he’s a teenager and therefore “too cool to care” and part of it was jet-lag. We spent less time at those three sites than I would have on my own, but I still took plenty of pictures and enjoyed myself.

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It was at these sites that we realized that one of the Roma Passes was defective – naturally it was the one with access to the subway and most monuments. Too stubborn to waste an hour going back and forth to the Vatican office for a new card, we got creative. Our subway journeys became a tightly-choreographed, well-executed tango. My brother would enter ahead of me through the handicapped gate and I would follow quickly behind before the gate swooped shut, making sure to go through the motions of swiping my pass over the reader. We made a perfect tag team. As far as the monuments, having one working card helped with the “confused and helpless tourist” act and we talked our way into them all. Hey, we did pay for access after all. It’s hardly our fault that the card was defective.

We decided to get some gelato to fortify ourselves for the afternoon (and to begin indulging in deliciously unhealthy Italian cuisine), and that’s when my brother encountered his first street scam artist. A guy with a pair of parakeets came up and tried to get us to hold his birds and take pictures, etc. I declined, but my brother was more flustered and we ended up giving the guy a euro or two in return for this picture:

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The jet-lag was really starting to catch up with us, so we went back to the hotel in the early evening, ventured out to get dinner around the corner, and went to bed early.

Gelato

Gelato

Bruscetta

Bruscetta

Carbonara

Rigatoni

Catching up

I have most certainly neglected this blog. It’s been almost 3 months since my last post. A large part of that is that nothing exciting is really happening in my life. I’m as happy and content as ever, but happy and content is my normal, not my response to outside events. However, the main purpose of this blog is to memorialize little things which I would probably otherwise forget, and I have been slacking.

 

Let’s start with Meramec Caverns. My mom had been talking about doing a family camping/rafting trip for years, but it didn’t actually happen until this past June. Now, I say “camping” with a large grain of salt because we stayed in the motel as my mother is absolutely against anything resembling real camping. My family picked me up after work on a Friday and we arrived just in time for dinner at the one and only restaurant within 10 miles – which also happened to be the official Meramec Caverns restaurant. I had a chipotle black bean burger. It was delicious. We walked down the river and skipped stones for a little while before heading back to the motel for the night. The next morning I got up and went for a jog. Disappointingly, there were no trails, so I was forced to jog along the desolate strip of pavement which connected the campground with the wider world. I stayed within half a mile or so of the campground, because I wasn’t all that comfortable running at 6 in the morning in a completely deserted area with no cell phone service. I’m glad I did, because on my way back a convertible sped by three times – first towards the campground, then away, then back again. But the third time I heard him slowing down as he approached me. I watch way too many true crime shows, so my mind started racing. He was a white guy in his 40s or 50s. He asked me if I had seen his black girlfriend who had taken his wallet and “run back to the hood.” I stayed as far to the side of the road as I could, said “no” and started full out running back to the campground. He sped past me and that was the last I saw of him. Now, logically, I was within screaming distance of the campground and it would have been hard for him to find somewhere to shove me in his little convertible, but I don’t care how honest your intentions are, you don’t stop a girl who is jogging by herself in the middle of nowhere to ask her a question. You just don’t.

 

Anyway, I headed back the motel and said not a word of this to my family. After all, nothing actually happened so there was no point in freaking everyone out. After breakfast we boarded the bus which was to drop us off for our 6 mile canoe trip. There were 3 of us in each canoe (we switched frequently) and the trip took us around 3.5-4 hours. We stopped often to let the kids play in the rarely-higher-than-waist-deep water and had a wonderfully relaxing time. My parents zip-lined in the afternoon before we went on the lantern cavern tour. The tour was a little too campy for me (they had guides dressed up in period costumes) but the cave was pretty. The next morning my brother and I went zip-lining- not as thrilling as I thought it would be, but I do love roller coasters, so my thrill threshold is higher than many others – but it was fun none-the-less. Afterwards we piled back into the van for the hour or so drive home.

 

Two weekends later I drove up to Champaign after work to spend some time with Emily. That night we chatted in the garden of her apartment complex before watching the incredibly inappropriate movie Bridesmaids. The next morning we went to the Farmers Market and some other random shops in downtown Champaign before grabbing lunch and chatting at her apartment for a little longer before I headed home. Nothing earth-shattering, but the girl time with my best friend was awesome and much-needed. It’s just not the same talking on the phone.

 

The following weekend I went up to Chicago with my mom and brother. My mom had to go to a Vet convention and my parents thought this would be a good test run for me and my brother traveling together, seeing as how I’m taking him to Europe next year (side note: the kid changed his country of choice from Germany to France, so now I get to see Paris and Normandy in addition to Rome and Venice!). Our hotel was kind of in the ghetto, but it could have been worse. At least it had an exercise room so that I didn’t have to go running in south Chicago at 6 in the morning 😉 That first night we ate at a Thai restaurant (my choice, naturally) before heading up to Navy Pier, strolling along the shops, and eating ice cream. Because, really, you can’t visit a pier and not get ice cream. Mom was at her conference for most of Saturday, so the brother and I purchased the CityPass and went to the Museum of Science and Industry and the Shedd Aquarium before meeting up with mom to have dinner at the Taste of River North, which was like a smaller version of the Taste of Chicago. It was fun and the tacos were delicious, but it was incredibly crowded. On Sunday Tyler and I went to Millennium Park and the Art Institute before eating deep dish pizza for lunch (Tyler’s choice). We headed back to the hotel (where I had to do a second workout to get the pizza out of my system) then met up with mom for dinner in River North followed by a stroll along the Magnificent Mile while we killed time waiting for The Book of Mormon to start. Oh my god, the musical was so inappropriate, but so hilarious. As a lover of Broadway, I naturally enjoyed it, but my mother and brother (who generally dislike musicals) were also cracking up the entire time.

 

On Monday Tyler and I hit up the Field Museum then waited for mom in a Starbucks near the Willis Tower. I introduced Tyler to Frappuccinos – I’m sure his wallet will hate me later 🙂 We went up the Tower, experienced the plastic see-though “Ledge” and then headed back to collect our luggage from the hotel and wait for our Amtrak train. It was a nice little break from work – it didn’t hurt that I had taken Tuesday off (since our train didn’t get in until almost midnight) so I still had a day to myself before going back to the daily grind.