Venice – Stepping Into Never Never Land

In Venice, I ate like a celebrity. But seriously. My husband was not on the same page as our concierge (not quite sure what happened down at the concierge’s desk, but it couldn’t have gone well), so he decided he would make all of the dinner plans on his own from then on. Best thing to have ever happened because we found ourselves having really fantastic, memorable meals. Aside from dining at A-listers secret spots and eating fine Italian steaks, Venice was surreal. The most beautiful (and most expensive) city where no cars are driven and everyone gets around by foot, water taxi, water bus (also known as vaporetti’s), or the fancy way…. gondolas. It was out of a story book where glittering teal canals peeped through every angle and the buildings date back to the twelfth century. It couldn’t have been a more romantic spot to mark our final stop in Italy. 20140430-132122.jpg We arrived by train early Sunday afternoon where we then jumped into a water taxi that glided us right through the canals to the tip of our hotel. Our hotel sat right on the water just steps away from San Marco Square. San Marco Square was a little scary to me – not only because of the massive crowds and wandering tour groups, but also because of the birds. The bird situation was not normal…when reading about Venice in a few of my nerdy travel books, they warn you about the birds. They also advise you about what you’re supposed to do if a pigeon poops on your head…… Yes, this part takes up almost an entire chapter of a book (for those of you who are curious (I was too) – you’re not supposed to wash it out right away, you need to wait until it completely dries and then shampoo it out of your hair, washing it out while still wet will only make it worse). I took this chapter very seriously – wearing my little red riding hooded Patagonia windbreaker with the hood up every time I’d walk through the Square. I got a lot of strange looks from fellow tourists, and I knew the locals were making fun of me… But if only they knew… Sunday was a bit gloomy and damp, so we found ourselves tucked away in a cozy Italian restaurant close to our hotel – Vino Vino – and just a rock skip to shops like Miu Miu, Burberry, Bottega Veneta, and so on… We shared an afternoon bottle of wine from the region and each got a big plate of pasta. I ordered the special – pasta with meatballs. It was so exciting because this was the first time we’ve seen meatballs on any menu since we’ve been in Italy! How ironic is that? They were really good too! We roamed around the cobblestone roads, crossed a lot of really neat, old bridges, and took a big cat nap. We woke up rather late for Venetian folk to still be serving dinner (9:30pm), so even though our concierge informed us that there would be nothing open, we went on a voyage to prove him wrong (if you can’t tell, he was my husbands arch nemesis). Lucky for us, we happened upon the cutest Italian restaurant right along a back hidden canal. And they were more than happy to serve us! Watching the gondolas and opera singers float by while eating a late dinner was a real treat. You don’t get those experiences anywhere else, so we made sure to take it all in and enjoy our time there. We then found a snazzy little bar hidden amongst a dark cobblestone alley where we enjoyed expensive cocktails, felt fancy for a moment, and headed back to bed.

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Monday took a lot of concentration. We would be spending a lot of time in San Marco Square, so I needed to be on full bird alert (they seriously attack/harass you, it’s not a joke). We started our day by touring the Doges Palace, which held a ton of history. We got to walk through old prison quarters and see true artifacts. It was fascinating. We then took a stroll through the perfect streets to a place we read about, the happiest place of all…. Sandwich Row. It was an entire row of sandwich shops and it was an absolute dream come true. I had been craving a good sandwich for weeks now, I typically eat sandwiches all the time back home, and the only time we have stumbled upon a sandwich shop in Italy has been in Florence. So this was a grand moment. My husband and I were dancing in the streets due to a serious sandwich high. Granted, the sandwiches weren’t that good, it still felt satisfying to eat them and remember that they really do still exist. We then made our way to San Marco Basilica – the awe-inspiring church in the middle of San Marco Square. I got in a few fights with herds of pigeons and some ridiculously obnoxious and oversized seagulls, but we made it in the church safely. It was so beautiful.

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Monday night was the night of our Hollywood dinner. I challenged my husband to find me the best restaurant in Venice that would serve me a true Italian steak. He was dead on. He read about a place that was hidden in a back alley, extremely hard to find, that served incredible steaks – Trattoria da Arturo. It didn’t have a very robust range of reviews on Trip Advisor because it is rarely ever visited by tourists. After getting completely lost in the dark back streets of Venice, we finally stumbled upon the restaurant. Upon our arrival we got some strange, but welcoming looks from the two owners. One of the owners, who I believe also helps in the small kitchen, was the cutest old Italian man. With white hair and the warmth of any sweet grandfather, I immediately fell in love with him. The other owner was an adorably sweet and eager to please little Italian man. You could tell hospitality must have run in his family, for he had the charm and wit that made us want to stay and hang out with him all night long. Mike and I were the only two customers in the restaurant. It felt so intimate in the tiny space, almost as though we had planned a private romantic dinner in a dark, hidden, Italian house in a secret alley of Venice. The owners seemed confused and baffled as to how we found out about their restaurant. Embarrassed to say my husband did some extensive google research and that we love secret spots in hidden alleys (sounds weird, but they’re always the best!), we told the men we heard about it from a friend. After hours of drinking wine, eating pastas and indulging in unbelievably huge steaks in the most savory of sauces (my husband’s came in a green peppercorn cream sauce and mine in what almost reminded me of a vodka cream sauce….both unbelievable), we became fast friend with them. They hesitantly began telling us tales of their restaurant. One tale being…. Ten years ago, an extremely successful Hollywood Producer (Producing the movie The Matrix and many other blockbuster hits) was on holiday in Venice and stumbled upon this hidden gem, much like Mike and I did. This Hollywood hot shot started telling his “friends” about the restaurant, and it has now become a favorite amongst stars such as Barbara Streisand, Nicole Kidman, Leonardo DiCaprio, George Clooney, Cindy Crawford, Reese Witherspoon, Tom Cruise, and the list continues. It has become such a Hollywood favorite that every July, the Producer flies the two owners and their head chef out to LA for two whole weeks to cook for him and all of his A-list celebrity besties. Causing the restaurant to shut down the entire month of July. We were soon smitten’d by two incredible Italian men, sitting at a table together, sipping (martini glass sized) glasses of grappa, looking through these awesome genuine photo albums of them with their celebrity buddies, and all sharing stories and experiences with one another. It got really late, way past our bedtime, and it was time for us to hug goodbye and be on our way until our paths crossed again. Because of all the grappa, we were a bit loopy when leaving the restaurant. It took us entirely too long to get back to our hotel, we chased a fat rat down a dark, narrow street, and I fell asleep on top of the comforter in my dress. I think we can all agree it was the best night ever.

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On Tuesday, we slept in (for obvious reasons) and then decided to get lost on the quieter streets of Venice. But before that, we were led across the huge bridge and took a stroll through the farmers market, where we tried the juiciest strawberry’s and witnessed fresh sword fish being filet’d and oysters being shucked. We then went to the coolest lunch spot Mike had read about. It supposedly is known for having the best Italian styled tapas in the area. It was a super tiny, closet sized place, that had a couple stools along the one wall. We were lucky enough to snag two stools. We got two of everything so we could try it all – my favorite being the meatballs and the fried eggplant, prosciutto and tomato tiny sandwich, Mike’s favorite being the raw swordfish carpaccio with apples and cheese. We then walked all over the quiet, more residential streets along the canal. Everything was so beautiful. We ended our day with a Bellini from Harry’s – Harry’s is this super old, swanky bar where Ernest Hemingway used to hang out. Also known for their clever invention of the Bellini! Because of this history, the Bellini’s there are not cheap! But well worth it. We then took a sunset gondola ride through the canals, which was so romantic and so much fun… We got to see where Mozart bunked when he spent his time there, and where Napoleon lived! It was really neat. We ended with dinner at a seafood restaurant our two Italian friends from the night before had recommended. The dishes were so different there, which was really cool. Unlike any seafood dish I’ve ever had. It was the perfect way to end our trip.

 

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20140502-180918.jpg Moments like these that we had in Venice cause me to take a step back and realize just how amazing these unforgettable memories Mike and I are making together really are. I feel lucky every single day to be sharing such experiences with the love of my life and can’t wait to share all these stories with our kids one day.

Wednesday is a day of travel. Venice to Vienna! Ciao for now, Italy! And servus, Austria!

Musings From Milan

In Milan, I ate Chicken Milanese, duh! And it was the best Chicken Milanese I have ever had. Although, my hero’s – Martha Stewart and Barefoot Contessa’s Ina Gartin – would be extremely proud of my very own Chicken Milanese dish that I craft roughly once a week for me and my husband back home… with their help of course! I discovered my love affair with Chicken Milanese the summer of 2010 when I interned in New York City. My sister-in-law, Megan (who I stayed with), introduced me to this amazing little restaurant in the Soho area right down the street from her apartment. They served the best Chicken Milanese. Megan would always order it, so naturally I started ordering it too, and I have never been the same. So as strange as it may sound, I was actually mainly looking forward to Milan for the sole purpose of eating Chicken Milanese. Aside from that though, we had a really good time exploring the city.

Milan, in certain ways, reminded me of New York City’s Midtown meets Philadelphia’s Old City. It was a mix of old, beautiful, historic architecture with some scattered glass high rises here and there. It didn’t have the typical Italian charm I was expecting, but after exploring different parts of the city and getting lost together on numerous occasions, I started to see the beauty in Milan. After being there for a couple hours, I started to feel like I was more at home than I have been this entire trip. The city held so many attributes Mike and I are used to. Food carts, different kinds of restaurants, sports fans everywhere, the people in general. It was actually quite refreshing.

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While in Milan my husband and I made an interesting observation: some Italian pedestrians really do not pay attention, at all what-so-ever, when they walk (no offense to these certain Italians (kind of)). It’s like they’re all in the midst of this serious daydream where their eyes become fuzzy and their brains start to freeze. And then they run into poles. So, after observing that this literally happens all the time, we started playing a game: how many daydreaming Italians run into poles (or signs, or traffic, or buildings, etc.) a day? It became so much fun and has become a daily activity for us! In fact, we’re worried about what we’re going to do when we leave Italy. It will be a shame if we can’t find Austrians and Germans daydreaming while walking too. Because then our game will have to come to an end. 😦

Aside from the clever game we invented, we had a really good time exploring the city. We hopped off the train into the hectic station of Milan late Thursday afternoon. Pushing through crowds, similar to that of Penn Station, we made our way to a taxi cab that would take us to our hotel. Milan’s driving situation was quite nice, actually! Every single time we have gotten in a cab or a car in any other Italian city, I have feared for my life. It was like driving with my Grandfather all over again (god bless you Popi)…. where I would just silently sit still with my eyes tightly shut repeating prayers to help me stay alive. Milan’s drivers were all normal, which was really nice!

The food and restaurant options in Milan were great. It was like being in a huge diversified city where we had plenty of options other than Italian food. I love Italian food, don’t get me wrong, but when you’re eating it for breakfast, lunch and dinner every single day, a change of pace is nice! My sister-in-law, Megan (the coolest, most worldly person that I know), introduced us to her good friend Silvia (also really cool and unbelievably worldly), who actually grew up in Milan. Silvia was in Philadelphia on a work related basis a few months ago, so Mike and I got dinner with her and she graciously gave us the low down on everything Milan/all things Europe. It was amazing and we are so grateful! She had mentioned that the Nobu in Milan was really good. So our first night there, we made our way to Nobu for a sushi and sake date, and it was exactly what we needed. We ordered a heaping mound of sushi, a rainbow of sashimi and a bottle of sake. We were two happy campers 🙂

On Friday morning we made our way to see the Duomo. It was so breathtaking it blew me away the same way the Duomo in Florence did. Except, not only was the outside of Milan’s Duomo spectacular, the inside was just as detailed and interesting. It’s always cool being in and around such extraordinary history. We then roamed a rather touristy area near the Duomo where my husband and his family ate pizza, twice (!), on their short pit-stop in Milan years back. My father-in-law loves talking about this pizza place because their second time going, the chef/owner was so sweet and made all of their pizzas in the shape of hearts. I obviously had to have a pizza in the shape of a heart, it has literally been something I have always dreamt about. But after hours of circling the same exact area with no recollection from my husband as to where this place was or where it may have gone, we had to give up. Resulting in us walking back towards our hotel neighborhood and eating pizza (in the shape of a circle) at a wonderful restaurant Silvia recommend, Trattoria del Carmine.

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We desperately wanted to see Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper, but trying to reserve tickets two weeks in advance just wasn’t enough time and we didn’t get the chance to go. Take note: tickets sell out fast, so reserve them at least a month in advance. We were extremely disappointed, but this just gives us another reason to head back to Milan one day!

We stayed in the Brera neighborhood and loved it. We were just steps away from the Duomo, hundreds of restaurants, cafés and all of the major shopping. My husband had been to Milan in the past (he had occasional soccer games there), so he was semi-familiar with the city. So we spent the vast majority of our day just exploring the different neighborhoods, walking for hours, eating Italian fare and drinking wine. PS: I think I have walked more in the past three weeks we have been here than I would in three months back home. It’s been great for working off (probably only half) of my pasta intake! That night we dined at a traditional Milanese restaurant the hotel concierge recommended. We tried going to one that Silvia suggested, but unfortunately it was closed that night. The spot we ended up at was delicious though! It was called Il Cestino. It was super cute, had a live Italian acoustic guitar player serenading the crowd, and out of this world Chicken Milanese. We both ordered it and both finished the entire thing. (Mike says my homemade version is better, but I know he’s just saying that for the sake of being a good husband… I can read him like a book)

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Saturday consisted of a lot of window shopping (a lot of super high-end, sophisticated window shopping that made me feel really bad about my “grungy traveler” appearance – we were in the fashion Capitol of Italy, despite my dirty jeans and stretched out t-shirt, we had to witness the layers upon layers of fancy flagships) and rallying for our big night we had planned. That was the night we were going to the soccer stadium to see Inter Milan play Napoli. My husband, a former soccer player who played from childhood all throughout college, was so excited for the event! He had bought tickets in advance and warned me things were going to get crazy. Boy, was he right… Italian sporting events are no joke!! We had excellent seats that were located far from the chaos of the Inter Milan fans, but it was really fun watching them go crazy. They were insane, unlike any other sporting team fans I have ever witnessed. And I have seen Eagles fans at their finest! Throwing tiny bombs to rally the crowds, sending off smoke, holding unbelievably large banners that blocked an entire section of seating in front of them. It’s unexplainable the experience we had there that night. Needless to say, it was a lot of fun. On our walk home, we stopped at a tiny creperie restaurant, where we ate lots of yummy crepes. It was a great night, and the happiness that was radiating from my husband at the soccer game made it even better. 🙂

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Sunday morning we boarded the fast train to Venice. It’s funny for me to see how many Italians start drinking wine in the morning. I think Mike and I were the only two in our car who didn’t order a glass of wine. I always thought water or orange juice was the appropriate 10am drink choice… or maybe a mimosa! Nope… In Italy, it’s all wine, all the time.

Until my tales from romantic gondola rides to fancy bellini’s in Venice, bon voyage!

Lounging on Lake Como – Bellagio Style

In Bellagio, I ate peacock. I know, it sounds a little strange and inhumane, but I promise I secretly researched it from the restaurant bathroom before ordering it (my dear friend Ashlee, who loves peacocks, whose entire wedding was themed peacocks, please don’t be mad at me!!!). It is not endangered and it is an edible game species, so I was OK. I promised my Dad before I left for Europe that I would try new things. So I thought that trying peacock was a step in the right direction! Aside from the peacock, Lake Como was heavenly and Bellagio was the most perfect little town. It has been one of my favorite stops thus far.

Milan’s train station was the most hectic transportation portal I have been to in a while… Or maybe ever. Mike and I had to closely intertwine our fingers just so that we didn’t lose each other in the hustle and bustle of the crowds (I do really like holding his hand, so I really didn’t mind!). It was a very unexpectedly long travel day for us. While on our way from Cinque Terre to Milan, where we had a train transfer to get us into Como, there had been a tragic event involving a person purposely falling onto the tracks. This caused all trains to be delayed.

While impatiently sitting still on the train in the midst of our journey, we met the coolest, most beautiful couple… and they were from California! They looked to be in their early 30’s and were traveling around Europe for five weeks together… with their two young children! How cool is that? Leslie and Aaron had been planning their trip for a lot longer than Mike and I had, and they were so unbelievably organized (or at least they made it seem like they were!). Their little girl was four years old and little boy was just 10 months. And nobody seemed stressed. They made traveling with kids look fun and easy. I know people who would never think of doing this, but seeing Leslie and Aaron so calm and nonchalant, was so refreshing. Being from California might have helped, but their entire attitude was very chill. They were seriously such a travel inspiration to me! Hearing their stories about their travels and how they handle traveling with two young kids was so interesting. I told Leslie (the young mom) she should blog about it! I think a lot of new mothers would love a blog with tips and tricks on how to handle traveling as a young family.

The more we chatted with this couple, the more notes we took on places or go, things to see, and how Airbnb works – this really cool website that allows you to rent out peoples homes and apartments in different cities. We were telling them how we were really nostalgic for a home cooked meal and movie night together (our favorite Friday night activity since we’ve started dating). Eating out all the time and living out of hotels every night can be exhausting, so they had mentioned this would be the perfect solution. With two young kids, they had been utilizing Airbnb in almost every city visited due to space and practicality. We have obviously heard about it from friends and family, but never really took it too seriously until now. We also realized, while impatiently waiting, that we were all traveling from Cinque Terre to Como…. And get this…. We were all staying at the same hotel in Bellagio! Small world if you ask me. Meeting their family and hanging out with them made the three hour delay go by a lot faster!

When we finally got to the Milan train station, we quickly switched trains to a slower rail that would take us to Como. When arriving in Como, Mike and I ran (literally sprinted) across town in the rain to catch the ferry that would take us across Lake Como to Bellagio – the town that we would be staying in. I can’t say it enough, but because of all of the sprinting and running like chickens, I am so thankful Mike challenged me to pack super light (again though, I am still not thankful when trying to find something to wear out to dinner every night). Needless to say, it had been an extremely tiring day.

When we stepped off the ferry into the town of Bellagio, it was like heaven. The most beautiful, charming little town was awaiting us, and all of the chaos we had been through that day was worth it. Bellagio sits right on Lake Como, the most gorgeous lake in Italy. My husband and I are suckers for pretty lakes. We’re in love with them. It might be because we grew up in Wisconsin and spent our summers on lakes, but we often converse about how we’re proudly lake people as opposed to ocean people. So if you can imagine, we were literally in heaven. The town is small, but quite dense. It sits amongst a hill with fabulous restaurants, boutiques, ritzy shopping and cafés scattered throughout. Unlike Cinque Terre, the hotel options were limitless here. Being a top honeymoon destination (and I can see why – it’s perfect!) the hotel situations were rather luxurious. With a few hotels on the bottom of the hill sitting right on the lake, some on the slopes of the hill in the town where restaurants and shops sit, and some on top of the hill with stunning views overlooking the lake and the Swiss Alps, you really can’t go wrong. Mike and I stayed at a darling luxurious boutique hotel that sat right on top of the hill. We had our own private balcony that overlooked the mountains and the lake, where we would often drink wine, eat cheese and sip espresso. It was perfect.

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After being in Italy for two weeks, it had finally felt like we were on a real, relaxing vacation. I was happy 🙂 On our first night in Bellagio, Mike and I walked down the hill to a hotel him and his family stayed at years and years ago – Grand Hotel Villa Serbelloni. Their family constantly tells stories about their time and experiences there, I just had to see if for myself. After not much thought at all, my husband decided he wanted to splurge (big time) and that we were dressed “nice” enough to eat at the insanely glitzy Michelin Star Chef restaurant inside the hotel. With floor to ceiling windows that looked right onto the water and the Alps, white table cloths, long-stemmed candles that lit up the entire restaurant, multiple servers dressed in white tux’s per table and champagne toasts, I felt like a movie star. A really important movie star (like Meryl Streep or someone cool). This is where I ate peacock. Our wait staff assured us that it was their most delicious dish on the menu. It was a homemade peacock tortellini pasta in a light peacock stock. A little hesitant, I decided to run to the bathroom, turn my cellular data on, and google whether or not it is humane to eat peacock. I love trying new foods and I wanted to order it so badly given it was their most delectable dish, but I couldn’t do it without knowing it was OK. Lucky for me, it’s totally fine. The restaurant has their own peacock farm right up the hill where they respectfully and organically raise over 100 peacocks a year. Mike and I both ordered the dish and it was amazing. The taste of peacock, in certain ways, reminded me of dark turkey – you can’t go wrong with the dark meat of a turkey. After an extremely nice dinner, we made our way up the cobblestone steps of the hill and found ourselves at a really neat wine bar that was tucked away in what looked to be an old cellar. It was called Aperitivo. On our walk there we ran into Leslie, Aaron and family, which was a pleasant surprise! The whole night was just such a treat.

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On Wednesday, we woke up early, had breakfast, and spent the entire day exploring the town of Bellagio. It was close to 80 degrees and the sun felt so strong, we must have gone through an entire tube of sunscreen (Mike and I love sunscreen, we’re avid re-appliers and proudly pale people). We found ourselves in the early afternoon at a local deli that my husband’s grandfather used to love. It was really special. I lurked around the cheese counter, trying just about every cheese they had to offer while my husband picked out a bottle of local wine. As we were walking out of the deli, wine and cheese in hand, my husband took my hand and dragged me into the Missoni boutique we had earlier passed. He ever-so-thoughtfully let me pick out any scarf in the store. He then also picked one out for me. It was my first souvenir of the trip – two gorgeous Missoni scarves. The poor guy has to listen to my constant complaints about having nothing to wear and about having to wear the same outfits over and over again, he thought getting me some scarves to help switch up my wardrobe would lessen the late night pillow talks about my struggles of living out of a suitcase. He was right. 🙂

The town of Bellagio is built up a hill, sort of similar to Cinque Terre. There are five or six staircases made up of old cobblestone steps that lead you from the top of the hill to the bottom. Along all of the steps are really cute restaurants, cafés, and shops. My husband and I wanted to see it all. So we got quite the workout in walking up and down and up and down steps all day long… Having few beers here and there. My husband took me to a really shady hole-in-the-wall sports bar where him and his brother would drink beer and play video games all day long when him and his family visited on vacation years back (please keep in mind my husband was 16 at the time….). Because this is where he spent majority of his time in Bellagio, he had just as much exploring to do as I had. We each had a beer at my husband’s old stomping grounds and walked around some more. Exhausted, we made our way back to our hotel where we sat on our balcony, drank a bottle of wine, ate some cheese, and watched the sun set. That night, me, my husband, and my new Missoni scarf, went to dinner in the town at a place our concierge had highly recommended – Ristorante Bilacus. I had ordered the prawns in a homemade spaghetti. It was delicious! We then found ourselves back at the wine bar we had visited the night before. My husband naturally made friends with the bartender (nothing new), so we had to go back one last time.

Thursday was a sad day. It was our last day of relaxation in Bellagio. We sat by the hotel pool in the heat, walked around the town some more, had lunch right on the lake, and boarded the ferry back to Como, where we caught the fast train to Milan. Our itinerary is packed with a couple big cities all in a row, which can be overwhelming, so we really cherished our time on Lake Como where we got some real vacation time together.

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Until tales from Milan, ciao!

The Secret Charm of Cinque Terre

In Cinque Terre, I ate a ton of pesto – because that’s where it was invented! And let me start by saying how absolutely delicious it was. It had a smoother taste than any pesto I have tried in the States. I also found myself eating a lot of anchovies – because they catch them fresh multiple times daily! I’m not typically one for anchovies, my husband loves them, but my tastebuds have matured a bit over the years (thanks to my hubs) and I’ve learned that when marinated correctly, they can actually be quite tasty!

For those of you who have never heard of Cinque Terre, you should probably add it to your bucket list. Cinque Terre lies in the Mediterranean’s eastern Riviera and boasts some of Italy’s most dramatic coastline. The breathtaking stretch is named after it’s five tiny villages (Cinque Terre meaning Five Towns) – Riomaggiore, Manarola, Corniglia, Vernazza and Monterosso. From my understanding, Summer gets very crowded, so Spring and Fall are good times to go. However, the beaches are phenomenal, so I assume a Summertime getaway would be extremely fun! Much like Capri and the Positano Coast, the water holds this amazingly true blue-ish/teal color that somewhat resembles that of the Caribbean. Snorkeling and fishing are top hobbies of the locals and the seafood is always fresh.

The Cinque Terre villages are linked by the Blue Trail – a rather challenging hiking trail that takes roughly five hours to hike, passing over all five towns. In order to get from town to town, you either have to hike this trail, take a water ferry, or take the train. Due to a recent flood, majority of the hiking trail was closed off at the time we were there, so my husband and I either took advantage of the ferry or the train to explore each of the five villages. There was hiking involved during our visit, but not necessarily on the exact trail.

We boarded the fast train from Florence to Milan the morning of Easter Sunday, where we made a short pit-stop in Pisa just so my husband could take the infamous photo of him holding up the Leaning Tower. It was right on our way, so I couldn’t say no… He had been excited about it for weeks. When arriving in Pisa, we checked our luggage at the train station, sprinted 20 minutes over the river to the Leaning Tower… Where we giggled in amusement of the site, took some photos (yes – I took one too), giggled a bit more at its ridiculousness, got a double shot of espresso from a coffee cart, and sprinted back to the train station to collect our luggage and continue on our way. When arriving in Milan, we had to board a slower train that took us along the coast to Monterosso, the furthest of the five towns and where we stayed. The train ride along the coast was quite entertaining. It was beautiful. It literally felt like we were floating on top of the water for a half hour. I could’ve stayed on longer just to continue gazing at the water and all its sparkles.

When stepping off the train in Monterosso, you look right onto the ocean. It’s like you’re stepping onto the beach from the train. It’s pretty cool. Upon our arrival, we were greeted by a family of dolphins jumping in the water and showing off! It was a very happy Easter for us.

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If ever visiting Cinque Terre, be aware of the shortage of hotel situations available. There are a few hostels… maybe one in each village, a couple bed and breakfasts scattered throughout each village, and only a small number of hotels, that mostly lie in Monterosso and Vernazza. Each hotel maybe having an average of 10 rooms each. Because Mike and I are planning our trip so spontaneously, we didn’t start looking for a place to stay until a day or two before our arrival. This made our options very limited, and made our Cinque Terre trip almost impossible (which would have been very sad). We were only looking at hotels and bed & breakfasts, no hostels. All hotels were completely booked and almost all bed & breakfasts were too. Completely discouraged, we stumbled upon a bed & breakfast we had read about in one of our travel books. Not the most luxurious of places, in fact, the shower situation was so weird and unfamiliar to me, I didn’t shower for an uncomfortably long time (gross detail, but had to mention the struggles of a spontaneous traveler). Good news was, it was located right on the beach in the new part of town, was very clean, and had one room left. Phew! Not to mention, it was family owned and run… And the family was so sweet and eager to please. So that was really nice!

Being dirty for a couple days didn’t bother me. I hate washing my hair, so it was a good excuse for me to get away with… with a little more understanding from my husband. Happy to have found a clean bed for the next couple nights, we began our voyage to explore the five towns. Easter Sunday was beautiful outside, so we made it a point to get as much in as we could while the sun was shining. Our first stop being Vernazza, where we read was supposed to be the most picturesque of the five towns – I respectfully disagree. I personally thought Manarola was. But Vernazza was hopping. The mix of the locals and all the tourists was all so interesting to me, and the excitement of the crowds combined with they colorful old architecture and funny looking disarrayed streets made it almost seem as though I was in a circus. A very a very cool circus. We walked around the town and along the coast to grab some photos of the unbelievably amazing cluster of coincided pastel square buildings built up the hill of a cliff right along the coast. We were so taken aback we couldn’t wait to see the other towns and all their character. We stopped for lunch at what we read was a famous American bar. Typically we would try to avoid any and all things American that are not true to the culture of where we are, but when studying up on Cinque Terre in our books and magazines, this place was a must-go. It was called the Blue Marlin and as much as I was secretly craving a cheeseburger, this place was not American at all. Offering homemade pastas, pizzas and caprese salads. We shared a local Cinque Terre bottle of wine, just produced up the hill in a vineyard right above the town! And ate a pizza and made our way to Manarola.

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Manarola’s architecturally charming pastel building situation blew me away. Mike and I stood in awe and amazement with local beers in our hands and just took it all in. We took a hundred photos, some awesome selfies and walked around the cobblestone roads, stopping in shops and bars along the way. It was really fun and I felt lucky to be there.

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We headed back to Monterosso, where we spent no time in our b&b room (for obvious reasons) and just strolled the town. Monterosso definitely had the most going on and is the largest of the five villages. I loved it. The beaches were right out of an old fashioned movie where correlating striped umbrellas lined the sands and tiki torches lit the night. Accordion players sat at every street comer serenading and the whole village smelled like fresh flowers. We had the most amazing dinner, our best meal yet aside from our first night in Florence, at a place we stumbled upon called Ciak. We were drawn to the restaurant as we were walking past because of these huge pots filled with spaghetti and seafood we saw on just about every table-top. We did a couple drive-bys to stalk the outdoor tables and see what the hype was all about… until it got uncomfortably awkward given the amount of times we had passed by the restaurant. We had to go. When we ordered, all we said was, “we want that”, pointing to every table around us. It was honestly the most delicious homemade seafood pasta and was served in such a cool way, I’d go back every night and order the same thing if I could!

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Monday was slightly gloomy, (interesting observation: just about every final day in each of the city’s we’ve visited has been rather gloomy or rainy… not the best luck in the world, but keeps things interesting!) but that didn’t stop us from exploring the final two villages we had yet to see. We started the day trekking it to Corniglia. Corniglia is the beautiful village that sits on top of a cliff (or a bluff), while the other 4 villages lie right along the coast near the water. When arriving in Corniglia, it was a bit of a steep hike to actually reach the point of the cliff where the village sat. Winded and completely out of breath, we reached an awe-inspiring high point where we looked out onto the sea and the other five villages. Because of the weather conditions, the sea was crashing some pretty dramatic waves and the sky felt closer given the clouds and our height. It was incredible. We stood there taking it all in and walked around the tiny village. Not too much to see either than the views from the point we had reached, so we made our way onto the next town, Riomaggiore.

Riomaggiore had more steep hikes where we found ourselves reaching some stunning views of the sea. It also had a pretty cool beach point where you could lay on huge rocks and watch the waves crash. We got lunch in the town, shopped around the local boutiques and eventually, when the rain had started back up, made our way back to home base – Monterosso… Where we bar hopped, chatted with fellow travelers (one awesome couple who was visiting from Geneva – who we are planning on meeting up with once we’re there!), and had another incredible dinner at a place called Miky Cantina. We read some great reviews on the restaurant and it really was a spectacular meal. At Miky Cantina , we ordered what I believe to have been my husband’s dream appetizer – it was a mix of Anchovies presented in different ways. Grilled, fried, marinated, kabob’d, you name it and we got fresh anchovies cooked that way. It was fascinating to see and try them all! We also got a pretty incredible pesto lasagna, something I had never seen on a menu before. Very rich, but very good. It was the perfect end to a fun day!

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Tuesday morning we boarded the fast train to Milan, where we transferred onto a slower train to take us to Como. From Como, we’ll run across town to catch a ferry to Bellagio – where we would spend the next couple days!

Stay tuned for tales of Lake Como/Bellagio! Until then, arrivederci!

 

Frolicking Through Florence

In Florence, I ate lots of meats. Not because I ordered them necessarily, but because they served them at every meal. Prosciutto, bresaola, capicola… My husband was in heaven. I was just trying to fit in. All meats aside, Florence was a remarkable city. My grandfather used to say I was a sight for sore eyes, Florence was that to me. The notable city held such beauty in every aspect – it’s architecture, art, and even it’s people. Everyone was so pleasant and now I understand why – because they live in the amazing city of Florence!

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Every morning when we woke up, we would take a stroll down the adorable streets to a place called Eataly for double shots of espresso and croissants. Eataly is this awesome Italian market that reminded me a lot of DiBruno Brothers in Philadelphia. There are actually Eataly’s in New York and most recently, Chicago! We would then spend a little time getting to know the streets. Walking along the river was my favorite part – seeing all the local outdoor retail stands/artwork and just taking in the picturesque scenery I used to google image all the time before we got here. It felt like I was photo shopped into some perfect little city. And I loved every moment of it.

When we arrived in Florence on Wednesday, it was only a short walk from the train station to our hotel (PS. I am thanking my husband every travel day for making me pack light. I am not, however, thanking him when trying to find something to wear to dinner). In Florence, we stayed at another darling boutique hotel, which was very nice. The hotel was centrally located on a narrow cobblestone road just steps away from the Duomo and all the museums and sights we wanted to see. It was perfect. After throwing our bags in our comfy, yet quite noisy hotel room, we set off to explore the city. It was a beautiful day, so we tried to walk as many areas as we could to get a feel of the city’s vibe – which we both loved. We grabbed sandwiches and beers for lunch (after waiting in a rather long line… always annoying, but always a very good sign that the food is spectacular) at a little spot called Antico Noe – recommended by my friend Kate who studied abroad here a few years back. They were the best, freshest, most delicious sandwich ever! We then ate dinner at what we both agree has been the most delicious meal since we’ve been in Europe. It was at a place just over the Ponte Vecchio Bridge called Alla Vecchia Bettola. Mike had heard about it from a peer and we are so happy we went. The restaurant is known for the best homemade penne pasta served in a blush sauce, very similar to a penne alla vodka dish. Everything we ate there was fantastic. Two thumbs up! On our late night walk back to the hotel as we passed over the beautiful reflection of lights on the river, we happened upon a rather crowded local bar. So we stopped in for a drink. It was an extremely fun first day in Florence.

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On Thursday morning we bought what are called Firenze Cards – these little red cards were 72 euro a person and got you 72 hours worth of full access tickets to all of the well known museums and sights. What was great about these passes was that they also got you access to skip all the lines (it is unbelievable how long these lines are… they can take up to 3 or even 4 hours to get into a museum depending) and on top of that, free wi-fi in all the large squares – which we mainly only used for google maps directions to restaurants, bars and other museums. Needless to say, these passes were worth every euro spent.

After we purchased our passes, we made our way to the Accademia Gallery, where Michelangelo’s David lives. We stared at David for a while, walked around the gallery a bit, and eventually made our way to the Uffizi Gallery, where we spent a lot of our day.  The Uffizi Gallery is home to such important artwork from the renaissance and we had so much fun learning and looking at all of the masterpieces. After we felt like we had overstayed our welcome at the museum, we decided to get a late lunch at this local/organic restaurant close by called Moye. It was really cute and almost reminded me of a trendy New York cafe. After lunch and a few glasses of wine, we thought it would be a good idea to climb Giotto’s Bell Tower – 414 extremely narrow steps that lead you to the top of the tower overlooking the city of Florence. Why we felt like this was the perfect idea after pasta and wine was beyond me. But we did it. And I couldn’t feel my legs for days. But after seeing the beautiful city from such great heights, it was so worth it! That night, we ate dinner at the coolest Italian spot we heard about from our friend Matt, it was called Il Latini. There were no menus and the waiters were super intimidating, which made the experience even cooler. These big Italian men walked from table to table asking you what you felt like for dinner. Mike and I were so nervous and didn’t know what to do, so we ended up copying the Italian couple next to us. Emulating everything they ordered and everything they did. It was awesome. And the food = A+++! A little tip from me: when in doubt, just copy what the locals are doing. It has worked every time thus far!

 

Friday was sensational. My husband got us a private driver to take us into the Tuscany region and drive us around while we drank magnificent wines – it was glorious! I highly recommend doing this. Having your own driver who also acts as a tour guide is really beneficial and so much more personal. Our driver was awesome and took us to some of the neatest vineyards where he knew the owners and made our experiences unforgettable. My friend Erin had mentioned that her and her family had spent the day in the Chianti region and really enjoyed it, so we decided that’s where we wanted to go too. We made a pit stop in the little city of Grieve in Chianti. We spent some time walking around and exploring the area. It was so old and charming and I loved it there. Our first wine tasting stop was a vineyard called Castello di Verrazzano. We went on a tour of the winery with one of the owners who also happened to be one of the best story tellers I have ever met. He spoke a lot about the importance of happiness and sharing your own happiness with others. He had the most incredible views on life. And he also drank a ton of wine. Every single day. So he was just amazing.

At Castello di Verrazzano, after touring the winery, we ate lunch in the kitchen area where we sat with some of the most interesting people. One couple from Berlin and one family of four from London/Kenya (the family of four spent half their time in London and half their time in Kenya – how cool!). We ate a ton of meats and cheeses with these fascinating people and conversed over multiple bottles of wine about travel, stories and life. Mike and I learned so much about where to go and what to see on our trip thanks to these awesome people. I think it was fate that we were paired to sit with such amazing humans! We got lucky. We are actually planning on meeting up with the couple from Berlin when we are in Berlin and the family of four when we are in London! I can’t wait.

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Because we met these people, we ended up staying at the first vineyard a lot longer than we had anticipated. Leaving us only enough time for one more vineyard. The second vineyard we stopped at was called Casa Emma, where we got a private tour of the winery and got to spend some alone time wine tasting together on a terrace overlooking the beautiful vineyard. The views were stunning – everything I had imagined from my pins on Pinterest and so much more! It was very romantic.  When we got back to the city of Florence, my husband and I went down to the spa at our hotel, relaxed a bit, and ordered room service for dinner where we drank another bottle of wine from the Chianti region (where we had just visited). After all the running around we had been doing, a night spent solely in our hotel relaxing is just what we needed!

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Saturday was sadly our last day in Florence. We woke up to a rather gloomy sky with scattered rain showers. Not ideal, but because there were still museums to see, we had to slush through the puddles. Because of the rain, we thought the crowds would be better. We were incorrect. For those who didn’t have the fabulous Firenze Card, the lines were just as long and people were standing in ponchos waiting for hours in the rain. We, luckily, skipped the lines and started our day off at the Duomo Museum where we saw another amazing Michelangelo sculpture along with the infamous Bronze Gates of Paradise. We then slushed our way to the Palazzo Vecchio – which used to be home to the Medici’s (a very wealthy family who helped fund the renaissance). It was spectacular in there. Maybe it was because of the rain, or maybe it was because there was just so much to look at in this captivating museum, but we spent a lot of our day soaking in its history. With ceilings draped in detailed paintings, I started to get dizzy from looking up the entire time! The museum held a ton of Vasari’s artwork along with an amazing Jackson Pollock exhibit. It was remarkable. At night, we tried going to a restaurant my good friend Kelsey had suggested, but it was closed. She also suggested a second restaurant, but it was completely booked. We did end up stopping for gelato at her favorite gelato spot though, Grom. It was amazing! Kelsey and her husband honeymooned around Italy, so she knew of some great places to go! We ended up dining at a trendy new restaurant our hotel concierge highly recommended – Zibibbo II. It was a little fancier than I had wanted… White tablecloth, completely candlelit, roses everywhere, staff dressed to the nines. So I was a little crabby about the situation, however, the food was really good. And Mike and I had an excellent time reminiscing over stories of our pup we miss so much, Calvin. So that’s really all that matters 🙂


Overall, Florence was really spectacular. Another very important reason my husband and I completely fell head over heels for the city was because it was so, so, so dog friendly!! You could literally bring your dog everywhere with you, besides the museums, of course. All restaurants = dog friendly. All shops = dog friendly. All groceries and coffee shops = dog friendly. We were joking around saying that if we were to ever live in Florence, we would never have any alone time!! Because we would bring our dog, Calvin, everywhere (Calvin is an adorable Shizu-Yorkie. To see 100 photos of his muppet-life features, please visit my Instagram: jackieklein12)!!

On Easter Sunday, we shall board the train to Cinque Terrre – 5 breathtaking towns right on the water.

Until tales from Cinque Terre, ciao!

When in Rome!

When in Rome, I indulged in far too much pasta, pizza and wine. None of which I regret… At all (nor do I regret the couple pounds I most likely gained!). It was all worth it! Other than the amazing food and beverage aspect of our visit, the city was so rich in culture, history and timeless beauty. I was completely taken aback.

It was a bit of a whirlwind having our first stop in Europe be in such a hectic spot. Being jet lagged for a day or two never helps, but after learning how to push through the jet lag with excessive pizza and constant shots of espresso, all started to feel normal. What I was not expecting though, were the crowds. I’m not talking New York City congestion… I’m talking uncomfortable mobs of people. But aside from the crowds, it was truly remarkable being in such a historically important city.

After hopping off the plane early Wednesday morning Rome time (2am central USA time) we got right down to business. Dropping our bags off at the hotel and heading straight to the Trevi Fountain…Where we made faces and took hundreds of selfies… Because we were so excited our European adventure had finally begun. We then cheers’d to some celebratory beers and ate delicious pizza at a pizzeria we read about in one of our travels magazines – Sacro e Ristorante Pizzeria . Too much of a good thing finally hit us and after walking far too many cobblestone roads, we almost collapsed… Resulting in a long, much needed nap. We then rallied and made our way to dinner at a cute little Italian restaurant on a hidden street Mike had heard about from a peer – Cul de Sac. Lots of wine and cheese later, we roamed around the Pantheon and made our way back to bed.

Day number two consisted of lots of touristy attractions. First stop, the Colosseum – which was breathtaking. We spent at least two hours in awe at the site. We then walked through Palatine Hill – which was insanely beautiful. And smelled like hundreds of fresh flowers! Which made me extra happy. Lastly, we trotted through the Roman Forum – which was overwhelmingly full of gorgeous columns, marble and history. We ended our day with dinner at the sweetest Italian restaurant just over the river – Ristorante da Meo Patacca. What made this restaurant so special? The fact that my in-laws dined at the exact spot 30 years ago on their honeymoon 🙂 It doesn’t get more special than that! (Fun fact: there is a menu from this restaurant framed and hung at Philadelphia’s own D’Angelo’s restaurant in Rittenhouse Square!)

 On our third day we walked to Vatican City, engulfed ourselves in the culture of the Vatican Museum (which was beyond cool), saw St. Peter’s Basilica, St. Peter’s Square, and the Pantheon. Our brains had finally had enough from taking in so much art and history all at once, we stopped at a local bar for negroni’s and treated ourselves to a “nicer” dinner (you can only get so fancy when the nicest dress you packed was a black Club Monaco shift dress. Paired with a pair of oxfords). We had a bottle of wine and some cheese at a swanky rooftop bar overlooking St. Peter’s Square – Hotel Eden, followed by dinner at a spot called Tullio… Where we met an awesome older roman man (who we believed to be a politician perhaps). This wise man spoke no English, but he was accompanied by a kind translator, of course! Who we conversed with about Italian foods, wines and Roman hot spots. It was indeed a very fun night.

The nice Roman man, Guilio, insisted on us dining at his all time favorite Italian restaurant hidden in an old neighborhood Mike and I had yet to walk through – Capo Boi. He kindly made a special reservation for us on our last night in Rome, and let me tell you, it was quite the experience! Granted we were not planning on having two swanky dinners in a row, we couldn’t pass up the opportunity to eat at a local hot spot. So we thought to ourselves, when in Rome! And we had the dinner of a lifetime our last night in the historic city. Filled with whole lobsters, clams, oysters, prawns, crudo, homemade pasta, local wines and spectacular homemade limoncello, it was an absolute treat.

But before this fabulous dinner, we had quite a hectic final day in Rome. As Mike and I were walking through old churches and the city, we found ourselves amongst a violent riot that broke out right in the middle of a big square. It was a political riot. Over 2,000 Roman police were on duty fighting the riots, many of them who got injured. With gas bombs being thrown, small bombs going off and people violently rioting the streets, we very carefully (carefully running) got ourselves onto some quieter side streets and out of the chaos. Because this was happening, all of the main roads were blocked, but thanks to Google Maps, we took side streets that were completely out of the way back to our hotel. Almost two hours later from navigating our way back without getting caught up in the riots, we were safely tucked into our hotel, where we hibernated until dinner.

Rome may have been chaotically packed and insanely tiring (given all the walking, eating and wine indulging) but after spending some time there, exploring each neighborhood by foot, and taking in all of its history, I finally managed to understand the magic of Rome.

Stay tuned for tales of Capri!

And if you’d like to see more sporadic photos from our trip – follow my Instagram: jackieklein12