05. September 2017 · Comments Off on Rome in a Day · Categories: Blog Post, History & Culture

“Better to see something once than hear about it a thousand times.” – Asian Proverb

Rome gave me my best and worst experiences during my time in Italy and it all started when I boarded the train from Grado and realized I had left my credit card with my boyfriend. My boyfriend was staying in Italy for a couple conferences and I was flying out of Rome so it was my first solo travel experience outside of North America. I boarded the train and found my car, only to find out the other 5 people in the car did not speak a word of English. This made for a long and somewhat uncomfortable ride to Rome.

After several hours, we reached Rome. By this point I was so overwhelmed by the whole situation that I rushed to the nearest washroom, shut myself into a stall and sobbed. Yup, sobbed. I had no idea where my hotel was, how I would get there, what I was thinking travelling by myself to such a place, basically I was a mess.

Eventually I pulled myself together and found a payphone where I called my hotel and found out how to get there. I had chosen a hotel close to the airport for convenience sake but it was extremely far from the city and not well connected. If you have the time to spend in Rome, stay within the city, it’s not worth staying near the airport.

After a goodnight sleep I was ready to head into Rome for my one-day whirlwind tour. I had pre-planned my must-see sights. I took a bus into the city and started with the Sistine Chapel. When I arrived, they had yet to open for the day and I ended up waiting in line with a couple of fellow Canadians, which made me feel more comfortable and relaxed. The Sistine Chapel is spectacular, albeit it is hard to really enjoy its beauty when you are elbow to elbow with 100s of 1000s of other people and a booming voice overhead constantly telling you not to take photos. Unfortunately, that kind of ruined it for me. I expected to come into a quiet chapel where I could gaze up at that miraculous ceiling painted by Michelangelo between 1508 and 1512, but it was not to be. It’s too crowded and the magic was gone.

I left the Sistine Chapel slightly discouraged but headed for the Spanish Steps and Trevi Fountain, which did not disappoint. Though crowded the Trevi Fountain is so embedded with incredible history and beautiful architecture it’s hard not to love it. Trevi Fountain is one of the oldest water sources in Rome, it’s made from the same material as the Colosseum and is charitable. Every night the coins thrown into the fountain are collected and donated to a charity called Caritas, that makes me smile just thinking about it.

After that I went to the Pantheon, took the typical tourist photo with the hole in the ceiling and quickly moved on to the Colosseum. By this time, I felt pretty savvy with the subway system and when I walked out of the subway and saw the Colosseum I had the jaw dropping, heart stopping experience of seeing that incredible, history steeped piece of architecture in person and in that moment the number one spot on my bucket list had officially been checked off. As I approached the Colosseum I was approached by an extremely good looking Australian guy who asked me if I wanted to purchase tickets for a tour of the Colosseum and the surrounding ruins. I did the stupid girl thing and just nodded, breathing yes in response and gave him my 20 Euros.

It turns out that was an excellent choice. The tour guide was this older gentleman who took his time talking about the history of the Colosseum, so much so that some of the others on the tour were starting to get irritated. To which he promptly noted that Rome was not built in a day. I laughed out loud and that certainly shut up the others. The tour really gave you a feeling of being a part of the history of such a place. You could sit there and listen to him talk about the games and how they took place and almost visualize it happening as you sat in the stands. The follow-up tour of the ruins was equally good, with a young girl explaining the history of the area.

After that I had officially checked off all my must dos and wandered the city for a while longer before finding the bus back to the hotel. However, I got off the bus way before I was supposed to. This lead to me walking up a main road for about 45 minutes, in the dark, alone towards my hotel. I don’t know how I do it but once I have seen a place I usually remember the directions and how to get around after that. Several cars stopped to ask me if I needed a ride, which was a little unnerving until about the third car. Each car I said no to seemed to immediately accept it and drive away wishing me safe travels. It was the oddest thing but left me feeling rather safe.

This city has so much to offer, I really hope to see Rome again someday, as well as more of Italy. What was your experience with Rome? Too crowded with tourists or did you find some quiet alcove that made you feel one with the locals?

18. August 2017 · Comments Off on Barcelona – A City in Tears · Categories: Blog Post, History & Culture

“No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion. People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than the opposite.” – Nelson Mandela (recently tweeted by Former US President Barack Obama in regards to Charlottesville attack; I think it also applies here).

 

In response to the recent ISIS attack in Barcelona I felt compelled to write about my recent time there, only a couple months before this awful tragedy befell this beautiful city. I want to start by sending my love, thoughts and prayers to the families of those that were lost and speedy recoveries to those that were injured during this senseless act of violence. I visited Barcelona back in May. Prior to visiting my boyfriend and I did a lot of research on the area after being told by many to watch out for pickpockets and that it can be dangerous. We were prepared. We had hidden wallets and were constantly vigilant, though why I do not know. There was not a single time I ever felt unsafe or unwelcome in that city.

Barcelona is a city teaming with life. Every corner you turn offers you something different, whether it’s the beautiful sandy beach at the end of Las Ramblas, La Boqueria, the Gothic Quarter (Barre Gothic), or any of Gaudi’s beautiful works of architecture, Barcelona has something for everyone. In this post I am going to focus on areas around and including Las Ramblas in memorium of the recent events, but expect more posts to come with regards to this wonderful city.

Our hotel could not have been in a better location. We stayed at Hotel Murmuri on Rambla de Catalunya, which joined to Las Ramblas via the Placa de Catalunya. It was far enough away from things that it was quieter and a very safe street but close enough to the hustle and bustle. The staff could not have been more accommodating and gave us great tips on locals hotspots as well as which tours were worth it and which were a complete waste of time. Every day we would come back to the hotel around mid to late afternoon with a fresh baguette from Maxi Pan, a little bakery off Ramblas de Catalunya, some jamon from La Boqueria, and a bottle of Rioja wine and they would promptly supply us with dishware and open our wine for us with a smile. The room was also fantastic, I just cannot say enough about this place. Is it good if your on a budget? Probably not, but quite honestly it was the best home base we could have asked for and will most likely stay with them next time.

Las Ramblas is always alive with people, tourists, police, locals, and street hustlers. There was a running joke between my boyfriend and I because you would walk down Las Ramblas and the street hustlers would constantly stick a selfie stick in your face and say “Selfie?” At first it was hilarious but after a while in my mind I was screaming “No! I don’t want your damn selfie stick!” But we would look at each other when ever we saw them and say “Selfie?” I just couldn’t stop myself from saying it, every time. The overwhelming crowd at times made me feel like a herd of cattle but the street is lined with restaurants (which I was told to stay away from because it does not represent local cuisine that well and is overpriced). However, La Boqueria is worth visiting more than once. This is a huge market filled with a plethora of foods from seafood, to cured meats and cheeses, to fruit stands, nuts and candy, and small restaurants to stop at for a tapas or two. This place is an absolute zoo but its a fun zoo. I loved their fresh fruit juices and we always went there to buy cheese and cured meat (called Jamon – which when I say that word in my head it kind of sounds like Micheal Jackson…go figure). The image below is a 4 year cured pig leg and my mouth still waters every time I think about how good that tasted.

But Las Ramblas also leads to other wonderful places like the beach, which if you have never been to a European beach be prepared for nudity. I was not. I was shocked into silence as older couples walked hand in hand down the beach in their birthday suits. But all nudity aside there is a great walkway along the beach where people can bike, skateboard, or just go for a nice walk. There are a few places to grab a bite to eat and a drink but again it was all way over priced so I don’t recommend it.

Just off Las Ramblas on a little side street we discovered a new craft beer bar with great beers on tap, though again, a little pricey. I talk about these high prices because we found a tonne of great places to eat where beer was around 2 Euros and a meal for two would be half the cost of a meal in the high tourist areas. I will talk about those on a later post.

As the sun goes down it is not recommended to wander Las Ramblas as that is when things become a little more risky. Though still, there are a tonne of cops around and again I never felt unsafe once in that city. My recommendations are walk the city, feel the culture that emanates from this place and do as the Catalans do and you wont regret it.

My heart goes out to Barcelona during this trying time. Please let me know your experiences on Las Ramblas and what you love most about this city. Travel safe my friends.

11. August 2017 · Comments Off on Florence, the art mecca · Categories: Blog Post, History & Culture

“Discovery consists not in seeking new lands but in seeing with new eyes.” – Marcel Proust

Florence is one of those cities I just couldn’t help but love. If you love art, like I do, you will love Florence. It has all the things you could want in an art mecca, the Statue of David, the Duomo, and the Uffizzi Gallery. I confess that part of the reason I loved this city so much is because the Uffizzi Gallery holds some of Botticelli’s best and most famous works. And I am a huge fan of Botticelli.  I cannot put into words the feeling I had when I entered the room dedicated to Botticelli’s work. As I walked around the room in complete awe at the shear size of his paintings a nice Australian couple offered me their audio headset so that I could listen to the background on each of his paintings. They waited patiently as I became absorbed in Botticelli’s world. My all-time favorite painting? The Birth of Venus, how could there be any other?

This painting made my heart skip a beat and I just could not get over the shear size of this painting. I was expecting your typical art gallery sized painting, but no, this painting is 5’8″ x 9’2″!!!!! It took up an entire wall! I just couldn’t fathom someone taking the time to create such an immense piece of work, and creating it in 1484-1486 no less. It still blows me away when I think about it. The Uffizzi Gallery is worth the price of admission, just for that room alone, but there are many incredible works in the Gallery. There are also some incredible sculptures outside the gallery in a small square, which are fun to wander around while you take in the city.

We spent the night in Florence, at a small hotel that could probably pass as a hostel, where we discovered that you need to provide hotels with your passport whenever you check in and they hold onto it until you leave. We left our passports at our hotel in Grado for safety reasons but it resulted in a serious headache. We ended up having to go to the police station for what reason I now cannot recall. While waiting an American couple told us how they were robbed while eating at McDonald’s (yeah, I know, who eat’s at McDonald’s when you are in a country like Italy? I thought it was absurd too). The lady had put her wallet on the table next to her and someone came up with a sign begging for some change and in that time placed the sign over her wallet and took off with it. Lesson learned: watch your stuff!!! This beautiful city is not without it’s pick pockets. Irregardless we got the whole passport situation figured out and stayed at this super cheap hotel.

We then took off to explore the city. The Duomo became an instant favorite. It is an immaculate building inside and out and you can climb several hundred stairs and get a view of the city from the top. Though you have to pay extra to climb those several hundred stairs for that view. It was the perfect perspective of Florence. Walking around this city was a first taste of what getting comfortable in one spot felt like. We casually wandered the city (all on foot of course), stopping a various restaurants, gelaterias and museums and art galleries as we saw fit. There was a sense of relaxation as there was no rush to make a train or a bus back to your hotel, you could wander all night if you saw fit. This is how I like to experience places. I no longer want to travel to places and only spend one or two days there. In order to really gain a feel for a place and to really experience the culture you need to spend the time.

My biggest must sees in Florence (and yes I realize they are touristy things but I always have a plan of my must sees of a place irregardless of what others think of them) included the Statue of David, all 17 feet of him, the Uffizzi Gallery (though it is closed on Sundays so try to get there on another day) and the Duomo. I would probably have a more complete list and some local hideaways worth exploring but as I said at the start of this Wandering through Italy series this was my first time in Europe and I was not travel savvy at the time. I now wish I had of spent more time exploring, been more adventurous and more open with my food choices at the time. Irregardless, this was an unforgettable experience and I still smile when I think back on our time in Florence.

04. August 2017 · Comments Off on Venice “The Sinking City” · Categories: Blog Post, History & Culture

“Venice is like eating an entire box of chocolate liqueurs in one go.” – Truman Capote

I spent only one day in Venice but the city grabs you as soon as you enter her walls. My travels in Italy felt like I was just sampling what it had to offer, one day in Venice, two days in Florence and one whirlwind day in Rome. Venice has a very distinct feel, it is an exquisite melancholy feeling that wraps its arms around you and beckons you to explore. It felt like I stepped into some surreal world filled with strange creatures and happenings, like the show Penny Dreadful. I know that’s an odd thing to say but it just felt like there was a mystical undertone to the city. When you first arrive you cross a bridge over the Grand Canal with some of the most spectacular views of the city but once you cross that bridge it’s like entering another world. You can feel the city all around you, closing in with its zig zagging streets that you can get lost in for hours.

Venice has so many charms and I was drawn in immediately. The first thing you notice when you arrive is the Grand Canal and the gondolas. The gondolas really were truly beautiful but 100 Euros for a short ride and a total tourist trap. Take a picture of them and maybe stop to watch them float by for a moment and then move on. If you want something different out of your experience walk the city, slip into the shops, by the local food, and drink the local wine, don’t get sucked into what you perceive Venice to be because you will miss out on the real experience. Those crazy winding streets are like a maze that you may never find your way out of. But within those close quarters are spectacular shops, churches and history. Though, once again, I was a naïve traveler and I think back now and wish I had spent more time there, exploring, spending more time in those hidden shops and delectable restaurants. I don’t know that I was able to take in all that Venice had to offer. But my goal was to at least experience her once just in case she decides to slip into the sea one day, never to be seen again.

After much winding and losing our way we came upon the Piazza San Marco, a wonderful open space, full of pigeons that you can feed (also known as my personal hell, having a significant fear of being pooped on. And the Italian people consider that good luck!?), surrounded by shops and restaurants with San Marco’s Basilica as its centerpiece. I highly recommend going inside. The lines are long, the wait was hot, but it was worth it. The Piazza is on the water (of course, this is Venice, what else would it be on) so there is often a nice breeze coming from the water. Just remember if you plan to visit the Basilica they do not allow bare arms, so cover up.

The Basilica de San Marco was an impressive church but I have to say if I were to recommend visiting one church in Venice it would be the Basilica Maria Gloriousa. This was the most interesting and one of the most unique churches I have ever seen and I have seen a lot of churches. Not because I am extremely religious but because churches tend to give you a strong sense of the history of a place, especially in Italy. The art and sculptures on display are some of the best Venice has to offer. The one monument that stopped me in my tracks was the monument to the Doge Giovanni Pesaro, with its incredible figures this is a must see for anyone going to Venice. The monument shows two bronze figures representing death and four slaves holding up the monument. The slaves really make the monument unforgettable, there is almost a feeling of defiance emanating off these four men (which I am to understand was on purpose). This church was built in the 1300’s and like I said one of the most memorable places in Venice.

Once again we kind of screwed up with the whole food thing. We waited until we were famished before eating lunch and at that time it was probably 2 in the afternoon, poor choice on our part. For anyone travelling to Italy, these wonderful people participate in siesta, which means if you want to eat in the afternoon you can forget about it. We meandered our way back to the Grand Canal area until we finally found an open restaurant and got, you guessed it, pizza….again. I know, I know, Italy is known for its pizza so what’s the problem? Naples is where you should eat pizza, otherwise you really aren’t getting anything all that special but that’s just my opinion.

One thing I wish I had of done while in Venice and still regret to this day is buying a mask. I know it’s cliché but I stepped into a store and saw the most beautiful all white mask, it was 20 Euros and I walked away. If you are in a city and you want a quintessential keep sake, just do it. If you are in Murano and want to buy some of their glassblowing products, just do it.

I hope to go back to this city one day but with my wandering style I struggle to visit the same place twice, there is just so much I want to see. Have you been to Venice? What feelings did this city invoke in you? Let me know what you think.  Do you like to go back to them same places or do you have a need to see as much as possible in your lifetime not thinking twice about going back to the same place?

30. July 2017 · Comments Off on Wandering through Italy – Grado · Categories: Blog Post, History & Culture

“Life is either a daring adventure or nothing.” – Helen Keller

I spent a significant amount of time trying to decide where I should start on this blogging journey. Italy was not the first place I ever traveled to but it was my first overseas location, the top of my bucket list at the time and where I was given a true awakening to what real travel was all about. I feel like I have truly grown, or matured even, in how I travel and I thought I should take you to where it all started so that maybe I can encourage you to take those first steps into the unknown with courage. Don’t get me wrong, it was an amazing trip and I had some incredible experiences but looking back now I am amazed at how much my travel style has changed.

This was my first exposure to another language, to jet lag, and a completely different culture and way of life than I was used to. Grado is a tiny little resort town in the Northeastern part of Italy and a common vacation spot for Italians. We ended up in Grado because my boyfriend was attending a conference there and we decided to go early and make a trip out of it. Our flights were separate, he flew through London and I flew through Paris and we met up in Venice. My biggest fear at the time was that he would miss his flight in London, as his connection was only 45 minutes and that airport is one of the most insane airports I have ever seen, and then I would be alone in this foreign country with nowhere to go. But he arrived and I let out a big sigh of relief. We made it to the hotel and quickly discovered that there was hardly anyone in the entire town that could speak English, except the lady behind the hotel desk.

Our thoughts turned to food so we went out in search of something…anything really and stumbled onto a small pizza joint. It was late and we were tired so we just ordered a couple slices each, most notably my boyfriend ordered a slice of pizza with hotdogs and french fries on it. That right there just goes to show you how naive we were to traveling.

When you have never been outside of North America or the farthest you have been is the Caribbean it’s hard to be travel savvy right off the bat. If I were to travel there now I would have spent some time wandering the town, taking in what it has to offer and then looking for a nice restaurant that offered local cuisine rather than some shady pizza joint that sells the not so authentic pizza with hotdogs and french fries.

The biggest wake up call came the next morning. In our sleep induced comas we heard someone knocking on our door. By this time the jet lag had set in and it was intense! I had no idea where I was or what was happening. I felt like I had been drugged. I had not prepared for this at all. Full disclosure I hate flying and therefore I never sleep on planes, which does not bode well for jet lag. Now when I travel I am prepared for it and have found ways to make it completely manageable, you just have to know what you are getting yourself into. But I am getting ahead of myself. So there is this incessant knocking on the door and eventually my boyfriend gets up and answers it. It is a lady repeatedly saying something to him in Italian, which he of course does not understand, but it sounds like she is saying “Polizia” and “Camera” and we think that for some reason the police are here with cameras and we are involved in something. There was a lot of confusion, on both sides, and the lady just kept repeating herself and then eventually shook her cleaning supplies at my boyfriend and we came to realize she just wanted to clean our room. We told her we were OK but she kind of insisted and we ended up dragging ourselves to the balcony attached to the room while she cleaned up. After that we adjusted to the time change pretty quickly.

The town was quite beautiful though, there was a nice quiet beach (it was September), the weather was warm and the food was great. We also found a great coffee shop by the bus station where every morning we would get cappuccinos and croissants for breakfast before departing to explore what Italy had to offer. There weren’t a lot of sites to see in the town nor a significant historical aspect but it made a great “home base” where we would hop on a bus to the train station that would connect us to the rest of Italy. Though I have to say if you need to use the toilet at said train station, don’t. Just don’t. It was a hole in the ground and nothing more, where people had obviously used it with very poor aim, and I don’t mean to urinate. Needless to say I was a little alarmed and more than slightly disgusted by the whole experience.

I learned a lot from these experiences, I know I am not going to sleep on planes, as I said before so now I try for immediate adjustment. As soon as I reach my intended destination, based on the time of day, I head out to check out the scene and get my barrings on a place, try to find a good cappuccino (if in Europe) and a place with local cuisine and then head in for an early night. This does the trick every time.

This was a jarring lesson in overseas travel but I was hooked. Italy had so much to offer and I was in love immediately. I look back at this and I have a sense that I was so immature in my travel style and I can see how far I have come and am amazed. I never realized just how much your travel style could change as you go along. This was a true lesson in stepping out of my comfort zone and experiencing something I would never experience otherwise. It was new and it was scary but it was also so exciting and instantly life changing. If you are afraid I encourage you to take that first step because it will change your whole perspective on life. It will be scary but if you arm yourself with the right tools you will be guaranteed to have the experience of a lifetime.

My recommendations, start small. Go somewhere that’s just a short plane ride away. Get your feet wet but do your research. Ask the people at your hotel or some of the locals where to find the best food, where the best hiking is, the best wine, whatever your fancy and prepare for the jet lag. I also recommend trying to learn a few useful sentences in the native tongue, people really appreciate it when you at least try (generally speaking but that’s a whole other story) and it opens up a lot of other experiences. I also recommend walking wherever you go. My personal feeling is that the best way to really feel and see a new place is on foot. Those hop on hop off buses are great for seeing a lot of things in a short period of time but you don’t truly, in my opinion, get to know a place or become a part of a place, even if it’s just for a short while.

What about you? How has your travel style changed as you have visited more and more places? How do you cope with the ever evolving situations that travel in other countries tends to bring? It can be such a wonderful experience, one that will help you grow and will change your perspective on life. I know it has significantly impacted my life and has given me a deep appreciation for new places, culture, and the beauty that this world offers. It always leaves me hungry for more, wanting to experience it all at a deeper level and be one with the culture, or nature, or whatever the destination has to offer. Let me know what you think, I want to hear your stories of first time travel.