PART II: Italy, Croatia: Across Europe in 30 Days
Sorry for the length of this blog, but here is Part II which will be Italy and Croatia. If you get bored of the writing just look at the pictures
Day 17: Venice, Italy – by Jared
Today was Yer’s birthday and what better way to celebrate it than in VENICE??? Boyfriend of the year award right here. I tried to convince her I planned this all along but that was not going very far. Venice is breathtaking. It truly is a city of its own. Everything changed dramatically from the slow paced Austria to the fast paced pushy Italian crowd. The history is overwhelming with the architecture, canals, churches, and of course the crowds! And anyone who has ever told you that Venice is complicated – when you first arrive take that complicatedness and multiply it by 20. None of the streets go straight, half of them are alleys that dead end, and only like 10% of the streets have signs. It was laughable – but we finally found our hotel which turned out to be a great find.
We did our fair share of wandering the streets to get our bearings, and finally a nice birthday dinner for Yer from a highly recommended restaurant (again after a few wrong turns). And I can’t forget to mention for the sports fans…walking through the streets in the evening and I spot Tony Gonzalez (Atlanta Falcons Tight End) – but Yer wouldn’t let me interrupt him for a picture! Funny thing was I seemed to be the only person who knew who he was – not a single person walking even batted an eye, I guess the NFL isn’t quite soccer over here. Oh well, Yer thought he was Rick Fox and was going to tell him he was great on “The Game”.
Day 18: Venice, Italy – by Yer
Venice is a city best enjoyed before the tourists. That is Jared’s philosophy anyways, and to Jared that means waking up at 4 am to get his perfect picture. Yes, 4 am. On vacation. Well, at 4 am we found Venice to be an entirely different experience, a silent city – except for the handful of young tourists still drinking, the 2 other crazy photographers, and the homeless man lying on the ground singing to the café owner as he prepped for the day.
Three things most people don’t tell you about Venice – #1: It stinks. Literally. And #2: It is extremely dirty. So far it is the dirtiest city we have been to yet. And #3: The birds. They are horrible, especially in the crowded areas. Overall, I still LOVE Venice and will come back some day – and of course the food here is uhhh-mazing.
Day 19: Florence, Italy by Yer
Florence was as expected, RIDICULOUS to drive in. Aside from the “zona traffica limitato” signs, (Do not enter otherwise will mail you a $130 ticket in a couple of months.), we also had to dodge Vespa scooters, bicyclists, and double parked vehicles in several two-lane roundabouts (the circular traffic intersections with no stop signs). I think Jared would have taken 10 hair pin turns instead of this chaos.
Regardless, we are enjoying Florence so far. Florence reminds me a lot of San Francisco: fashion, shopping galore, and some romance in the evening. We also got to visit the famous David, at the Michaelangelo Piazzo which had the best views of the city. After dinner we had a good time people watching in one of the many plazas and watched the neon helicopter salesman and the street singer who scammed people into giving him money. After a few songs the singer would describe how he received a $200 ticket for singing in the plaza tonight and how he does not have money to pay his ticket – as police would drive by without stopping. It was such a scam and Jared wanted to ask to see his ticket.
As you look around you can see all kinds of scams – and we are constantly keeping an eye for pick pocketers, you can spot the gypsies a mile away – a stern “no” and not stopping usually does the trick as they approach you - and of course not setting our bags down anywhere. Still, it has been very pleasant as these people are a very small percentage of the people enjoying Italy.
Day 20: Florence, Italy –Yer
Woohoo! The quest for ice has ended! Tonight we decided to eat at the Hard Rock Café after three failed attempts at finding open restaurants with good reviews on trip advisor. We were served tap water with … wait for it…ICE!!! Four cubes to be exact but we couldn’t resist the thought that they actually owned an ice machine and we asked for extra ice cubes, which we got immediately. For the first time in Europe, Jared had more ice than water in his glass. He was a very happy camper. Nachos, macaroni and cheese and a classic burger never tasted so good. Eating at the Hard Rock was a really nice break from trying to embrace the European culture the last 19 days.
Today was a slower day exploring Florence, but it still is impressive. It’s amazing how quickly we can adapt to different lifestyles. Doing laundry in the sink is not really a big deal anymore, and my tip would actually be to pack less! Tomorrow we move on to Cinque Terre, I can’t wait!
Day 21: Cinque Terre (Vernazza), Italy – by Jared
Yer has found her #1 location on the trip – Vernazza. When we started this trip I knew that if I weighted it with all photography like I typically like to do I would have lost Yer around day 4. Vernazza has become the balance we needed. It has the ocean/coast and relaxed laid back lifestyle with perfect weather that Yer wanted, and the picturesque scenes for evening photos I wanted, and I found my place to swim!
We spent our day getting out of the hustle and bustle of Florence – escaping the scooters and the “zona traffic limita” and found ourselves able to just relax. Once in Vernazza our host showed us to our apartment, gave us some history, showed us the newly created beach (from the 2011 floods that nearly destroyed the town) and even gave me some tips on where to go to get the best photo of the town. Then off to test my new bathing suits with a swim in the ocean- until Yer spotted a jellyfish! Then back for dinner, a bottle of wine and a hike for my evening photographs. Definitely a good July 4, although no fireworks.
Day 22: Cinque Terre (Monterosso, Riomaggiore), Italy – by Jared
The day started with a home cooked breakfast in our apartment before walking down to the pier to watch two old men from the village fish. We learned the downside of Cinque Terre – waiting for trains! Trains only run every 30-40 minutes, so when you miss one, you wait. We caught the train up to Monterosso (the beach town) to find the most crowded Cinque Terre town featuring long sandy beaches, with pricey umbrellas, and only a couple small public areas, other areas were reserved to hotels. Still, we grabbed a spot to throw our towel down and jumped in to cool off.
Then, back on the train to Riomaggiore (the laid back town). We loved Riomaggiore and realized that Monterosso was too “resorty” for us and made it feel too much like a Vegas pool. In Riomaggiore we took the trail around the harbor to find a secluded rocky beach (the rocks aren’t a big deal thanks to our Keens shoes!) – again with crystal clear blue waters where you can easily see the bottom at 15 feet. We really enjoyed Riomaggiore because it was quieter and had two great swimming areas where you didn’t feel claustrophobic.
Finally back to our apartment in Vernazza and off to dinner where we had the best raviolis and seafood risotto either of us has ever had. I loved it because it was off the strip and more a locals favorite than the bigger restaurants with sunset views. Then a hike towards Corneglia so I could get another evening photo high above the town of Vernazza. Tonight I came prepared with a bottle of wine to make sure we took a moment to appreciate the view.
Day 23: Cinque Terre (Manarola) – by Jared
Up early this morning for a different twist of Vernazza, as much as I liked my night photo overlooking Vernazza – I absolutely love the pre-dawn photo overlooking the town (up at 4:15 am – photo was at 5 am before the sunrise). I let Yer sleep in on this hike – then we took advantage of our full kitchen again with Italian bacon (panchetta) and eggs. Today was a low key day, we headed down to the local Vernazza beach to bask in the sun and kick our feet up before another evening photo hunt. Luckily neither of us were sunburnt either. We hopped on the evening train down to Manarola for a photo overlooking the village at sunset. Then back on the train for a quiet evening in Vernazza.
We appreciated each of the Cinque Terre towns, but Vernazza offers everything. It was relaxing to enjoy a city without the scams, pick-pocketers, street salesmen with their knockoff purses and junk toys and trinkets and pushy restaurants who care more about getting you inside than the quality of their food. Instead, we found a small fishing village where the locals cling to their customs – in fact the town does not allow new businesses or new residents in Vernazza! (There are only two American women who are residents that married in) Truly unique and a great way to preserve their traditions and history. The best time to enjoy Vernazza is after 6 pm – when all of the day tourists have left and you truly see the town come alive. The men gather on their benches to chat, sing and play with the passing kids. We sat and watched a group of old men play their Italian card game without a care in the world. Time for them means nothing. When a tourist came over to our waiter and complained that the men were too loud, he responded: “Well you see that man in the grey, he is the town policeman – you can talk to him”. Come to think of it – the worst thing about Vernazza and Cinque Terre is the Americans!
Day 24: Italy’s Coast – Tuscany – Siena – by Jared
Tuscany is awesome. I have finally found my equivalent to Yer’s shopping. In Tuscany photos seemed like they were around every corner. We had a long day in the car as we left Cinque Terre on the first train out at 6 am, a scenic drive down the coast and over to our B&B in Siena, then to explore Tuscany.
My highlight of the day was searching to find “Gladiator’s Road” – which is the famous scene from the movie Gladiator. It is the road up to Russell Crowe’’s house in the movie. It took a few wrong turns, this scene is actually well off the beaten path which made it more enjoyable. Luckily I had the feeling to not drive down the unpaved road and walk it instead – even though it was really hot. The road was in horrible condition and I think the car wouldn’t have made it back up if we drove. The walk was initially down the wrong dirt road (those dirt roads usually aren’t marked very well J) – but we eventually found the right scene. If we were here in late August the scene would look exactly like the movie, but still I loved it – and of course it put us in the mood to rewatch Gladiator and of course to visit Rome in a few days.
Day 25: Tuscany – Perugia, Italy – by Jared
They say there are two things you should not drop: babies and cameras. So far on this trip I have managed to have two drops, both were cameras. First was my Mamiya film camera in Venice (when handling it at 4 am the strap holder broke and it hit the concrete). Luckily the Mamiya is built like a tank and there is no damage from what I could tell.
Today, my precious Nikon got snagged getting it out during a stop in Tuscany and it hit directly on the asphalt. The Nikon was not built like a tank. It seems to still function, but some tape was required to cover the crack in the body. I am mortified. Hopefully I can limp through the end of the trip with two half functioning cameras. The first fall was due to a 1970’s piece of plastic that eventually gave way. The second was human error. I just hope Nikon doesn’t bury me with repair costs. Other than the tragic fall, today was a rather normal day driving through Tuscany – covering the many small twisty roads, yet still amazing views throughout the entire drive.
Day 26: Perugia, Italy
Today was a much needed rest day. After 25 days the travelling begins to add up. We rested in Perugia, where we arrived after driving through confusing Italian streets, roundabouts, and poorly paved roads (through the city). Finally arriving yesterday at Castello Monterone which is a beautiful castle on the outskirts of Perugia. Unfortunately it is so far out of the way and in an inconvenient spot.
Browsing in Perugia, Yer had an experience she will never forget. We were mentally prepared to take today as an “off” day and relax at the castle – but for lunch we drove down to the old town in Perugia where there was a Jazz festival. Lots of street entertainment and a few stores, not much for me with photography. While sitting eating our lunch an older gypsie lady walks up begging for change, we gave her the stern “no” and look – but she doesn’t leave. Again, we said “no” and ignored her. So she reaches out and hits Yer on the arm aggressively. Yer was mortified as I went the other way telling her she has now been cursed and she had gypsie cooties. Then back to the castle to relax with a movie, a bottle of wine and chocolates for sunset. Tomorrow we are back to it heading to Rome for 4 days.
Day 27: Rome, Italy by Yer
We returned the rental car today and although we are glad we will not be driving in Rome, we will miss the comfort and convenience of leaving one suitcase in the car while lugging just one combined suitcase to our hotel. From the car company we had to take a 20 minute shuttle to the airport, then a 45 minute bus ride, then a 15 minute metro ride and then walk 4 blocks to our hotel. It was quite a journey and even though I complain about dragging all of my stuff for long periods of time, I am proud to say we have not taken one taxi on this entire trip yet.
Rome is definitely at the top of my list of destinations – it is big and beautiful and rich with history. Thanks to Jared’s great planning, our hotel is overlooking the famous St. Peter’s Basilica church and we are within minutes of walking from Vatican City. Tonight we walked to several tourist attractions: St. Peter’s Square, Castle St. Angelo, Piazza Navona, and the Patheon (all sites were featured in the movie Angels and Demons). And there is still so much more to see!
Despite the hot and humid heat earlier when we arrived, about halfway through our walk, there was thunder, lightning and rain. Just like Paris, we did not have an umbrella even though the last thing I bought before leaving the US was a small umbrella that would fit nicely into my purse. After failing to find the restaurant our hotel recommended, we managed to stumble upon a cute restaurant in a dark alley way and had seafood with homemade pasta. After dinner, we rushed to photograph the St. Peter’s Basilica at sunset and continued to romantically walk through the rain back to our hotel.
Day 28: Rome, Italy by Jared
Our B&B host has been amazing. When we arrived yesterday he sat us down and gave us his tips. This morning he cooked us breakfast, then sat with us again to go over his “local secrets” which SAVED us a two hour wait at the Colosseum and the Roman Forum. He also gave us a great lunch location where we gave his name and we were taken care of immediately by the owner, we just had to follow his advice and say “Livio, friend”. We did an incredible amount of walking today in unbearable heat and humidity, but were able to see: Palentine Hill, the Roman Forum, the Colosseum, the Trevi Fountain, Piazza Mignanelli, and Piazza del Popolo.
Why does every laundromat experience have to be so SKETCHY? We walked into a “self-service” laundromat which was anything but self-service. Upon entering we were immediately approached by three middle eastern men who pointed at our laundry – attempting to grab and load our clothes. They poured soap in without asking, and then stated “27 euro”. Keep in mind we only had two small loads. After a big of arguing, (and I’m still confused), but I handed the main man 30 euro – he reaches in his pocket to dig for some change as his friend pushes start. An odd experience, but in the end have some very expensive clean clothes. Then dinner at one of Livio’s recommendations – and on to night photos at the Coliseum. A long day of walking wore us out, but the plan is to be up at 4 am for some pre-dawn photos without the tourists fighting over my planned shots.
Day 29: Rome, Italy – by Yer
Only the best girlfriends wake up at 4am to encourage the sleepy photographer to get up and get his morning shot. However, I do get to experience some amazing things, for example how peaceful Rome can be at dawn without all the tourists. After an early photo shoot and visit to St. Peter’s Basicili (seriously the most amazing church I’ve ever seen) we had to check into our second hotel on the other side of the city. It was only 10am but it was already “Europe Hot” and by the time we reached our hotel we both needed to shower and change.
In the evening we walked back over to the Colosseum, had gelato for dinner (thanks to some huge tasty pasta dishes for lunch) and spent the rest of the night photographing the Roman Forum. We met some Austrian and Canadian tourists who commented on our California accent and made me pretty proud to be from such a beautiful state. The highlight of our night was our encounter with a Taiwanese tour group model photo shoot. Although NONE of them were models. Yes. The tour guide-photographer stopped, pulled out his camera gear, and proceeded to take photos of each tourist individually while he posed them using his directions and gestures through a microphone and portable speaker. This entire scene went on for an hour and was hilarious.
Day 30: Rome, Italy – by Jared
Our last day in Rome…we felt like we had seen everything we could up to this point with the summer crowds growing exponentially from Thursday to today. The weekend summer crowds are insane. We knew it would be busy and hustled to see all we could the past two days so today was a relaxing day walking through shops, browsing the street markets and finding good local places to eat. Our best tip for any travelers are to get off the tourist track – especially when eating. Our host told us his simple rule: “Look for suits. Suits mean local.” This works perfectly. Walking through the side streets we found some great local shops and even an English bookstore for both of us to pick up a book to read on the beach in Croatia. Then a light evening to prepare for 3 am wakeup call to catch the first flight out of Rome over to Dubrovnik, Croatia.
Day 31: Dubrovnik, Croatia – by Jared
Yer and I have a weight problem. Instead of the standard 50 lb limit each, our limit was actually 40 kg total, (a total of 88lbs combined) . Doing some quick math I recalled our initial flight from SFO where our two checked bags weighed in at 49 lbs and 46 lbs (95 lbs). And calculating the NUMBER of things we have purchased since then I knew we had a problem. Based on reviews, this airline is very strict on carry on bags – 1 item per person, that’s it. Nothing more. So here is the math problem…we had 5 total bags (2 checked bags, 3 carry on bags) and had to combine them to 4 bags (2 checked bags and 2 carry on bags), while staying under a combined 88 lbs. And if you are over it is not a flat fee, they charge you BY THE KILO (approx. $20 per pound you are over).
Let the freakout mode begin. Without a luggage scale we had to do it the ol’ fashion way – guesstimation. We did the only thing we could…we emptied all bags, and creatively repacked everything. If it was heavy it went into a carry-on since carry-ons are not weighed. Then once our carry-ons were full we guesstimated our weight…and began throwing things out. Oldest clothes first. We knew if we kept everything the same and went to the airport with our purchases we would have been probably 15-20 pounds over ($200-400 fees).
After a stressful night (mostly I was stressed – Yer went with the flow) our car picked us up on time and we arrived at the airport at 5 am (7 am international flight out of Rome). We put our bags on the scale, mine first…23 kg. Uh oh. Then Yer’s…total weight: 39.2 kg! We made it! We literally let out a huge sigh of relief at the check in counter. Then the girl points to my backpack and says – “that won’t work”. Uh oh, my backpack at this point probably weighs 50 lbs on its own. She won’t let me carry my tripod (which they always allow me to). She tells me to check with security – they deny me. Ugh. Now I have to pack it in suitcase…and we weigh again…40.6 kg. But a smile and thank you were all it took for her to overlook to .6 kg and we were off to Dubrovnik. I will say because they were so strict on carry on size, and number of carry-ons our flight was extremely smooth. Boarding was quick, as nobody was searching for overhead space – and we were off within 25 minutes of boarding the plane.
Dubrovnik is a popular cruise destination spot – meaning it is crowded. Beautiful, but crowded during the day. We will post more on Dubrovnik over the next few days but I have included some pictures from walking around.
Day 32: Dubrovnik, Croatia – by Jared
When I booked this trip I got a lot of comments asking “Croatia…WHY?” Today Dubrovnik won us over and proved why we made it a part of our trip. The morning started off well when upon checkout our host came in with a gift and said “it’s your birthday, no?” She noticed it on my passport and bought us a bottle of Croatian wine. We made a smooth transition to our second apartment outside of Old Town, which ended up being an excellent move. I wasn’t sold on Dubrovnik yesterday, but once we moved out of Old Town and into the more local scene – the more I fell in love with Dubrovnik. Our host was extremely helpful, she gave us directions on how to get to her favorite beaches, and where to find the best trips to nearby islands.
The beach she recommended ended up being a quick 10 minute walk and was absolutely beautiful. I haven’t been to Hawaii or Cancun, but I can see why Dubrovnik has quickly climbed the top 10 lists for beaches and new destinations to travel to. We decided to “splurge” on my birthday and grabbed two lounge chairs with an umbrella by the water…65 kuna (Kuna is the currency for Croatia). Sounds expensive but that works out to around $10! I swam my heart out while Yer turned another 12 shades darker. We also met a couple from Switzerland who loaned us their goggles – we did some minor snorkeling and lots of fish.
After a hike back we hit a local spot for a nice dinner, then sunset back near Old Town for some evening photos. Old Town Dubrovnik is MUCH more enjoyable if you don’t stay in Old Town. It is a far better experience to take the 5 minute bus ride and only be there from 7 pm – 9pm. After 9 pm it becomes a big nightclub…all of the youth come out and it reminded us a lot of Vegas…seriously. I think I am a bit old for the nightclub scene…so back on the bus and back to our apartment for some sleep.
Day 33: Dubrovnik, Croatia – by Jared
We have finally rounded into our own in Dubrovnik…one thing we have learned, it usually takes 3 days before we have learned the city, the public transportation, and the good places to eat. Today we hit Old Town early in the day before the heat to walk through the streets and browse some of the museums. At around 9 am it gets HOT in Old Town with all of the stone reflecting the sun. And around 9 am is when the tour groups and cruise ships come in. So we found a good restaurant outside Old Town for lunch. Our energy levels were pretty low today…at first we thought from all the traveling, but realized it has to be from the heat.
We waited until 7 pm to do the Dubrovnik city walls walk – where you walk along the walls surrounding the city (like one big castle). It was highly recommended and we can see why. You get the best views of the city and the sea from walking the walls…and doing it at 7 pm we avoided the heat and the tourists. The funny thing about Dubrovnik is it comes alive after 9 pm. But this late night crowd is full of young people (19-25)…it’s like Vegas nightlife without the casinos. They have clubs everywhere, even on the harbor they turn it into a club. We realized we were a little old for this group and opted for a good night’s sleep back at the apartment.
Day 34: Dubrovnik, Croatia – by Jared
After 33 days of traveling you start to run out of things. Not just clothes, but necessities. That’s the only way I can describe a trip this long. Yer and I say we aren’t traveling in Europe…we moved to Europe for the summer. That’s what it feels like. Staying in an apartment in Dubrovnik we have gone grocery shopping and even cooked meals (bacon and eggs of course). Now if only we had an espresso machine here…
Today was much like the previous days, head to the beach in the daytime and spend our evenings looking for photos. Dubrovnik has given us the chance to relax at the end of the trip and just unwind. It slowly crawls up my list of favorite destinations on this adventure. Of course we both snuck in some snorkeling time too – and some time for some fun photos.
Day 35-36: Dubrovnik & Paris – by Jared
This is the end…(reminds me of that song by The Doors) – we have finally hit the last leg of our trip. What a trek. Yesterday we spent our last day in Dubrovnik much like the days before…we rented chairs by the water, ordered a couple pizzas, and RELAXED. We spent sunset down along the rocks near Old Town, but it didn’t yield much color for photography.
Today we were up early to catch the bus over to the second bus which took us straight to the Dubrovnik airport – which is very small. Again we made weight (with ease this time around…coming in at 40.4 kg) and were even early enough to grab a cappuccino. A short flight back over to Paris, a few train connections and we have made it to our final hotel before catching our flight home tomorrow. It is nostalgic and surreal to be back in Paris…it feels like we haven’t been here since last year. Tonight will surely be low key as we walk the streets and try and turn our clocks back to minimize the jet lag. Can’t wait to be home now and see everyone!
In summary as we prep for coming home here is a quick recap…
36 days, 16 major cities, 5 countries, 6 flights, uncountable bus, metro and train rides, 12 hotels, 5 B&B’s, 3 apartments, we leased one car for 24 days, we drove close to 4300 km (2580 miles), well over 2,500 pictures and 1 taxi ride (actually a private car transfer).