ALL THE THINGS
HIRSH AND SARAH'S ADVENTURES THROUGH "GREATER EUROPE"
WHERE WE HOPE TO EAT, SEE, AND DO
ALL THE THINGS THIS BEAUTIFUL LIFE HAS TO OFFER
For our second full day in Monterosso, we had planned to spend half of it on the beach, and the second half exploring the neighboring town of Vernazza. Once we got settled into our beach chairs, those plans changed. We weren't moving!
We read two more books today: The Borgias by Alexandre Dumas and Excellent Daughters by Katherine Zoepf. You can probably figure out who read what.
After a delightful full day of relaxation, we headed to dinner at a place we had found the night before, Ristorante la Lampara Ciak. For our last dinner hurrah in Italy, we had to have more caprese salad, obviously. We then shared a giant vat of risotto with equally giant prawns. Eat all the things!
We chose to stay in the town of Monterosso in the Cinque Terre because it's a beach town with a fun, lively reputation. While it's the largest of the five towns, it's still pretty darn tiny. There's not much to do except enjoy the beach and wander around in search of snacks or tourist trinkets. Active travelers can hike the trail that links the five towns, but we are not those people. Monterosso has been "discovered" and is definitely overrun with tourists, but it's still a worthwhile place to visit and we wished we'd had another day or two to hang out on the beach here. Definitely book your accommodations early because we got what we were told was the very last available room in town! It had that bottom-of-the-barrel essence to it, complete with one full minute of hot water per shower and the owner's personal romantic arousal spray/cream/lotion (tried not to look too closely) in the bathroom.
There's a small free public beach, but most of the strand is private and we paid 23 euros to use the chairs and umbrellas for the day on the privately owned stretch of strand. It was money very well spent. You should try to reserve your spot on the beach in advance, too, because first row chairs sell out months in advance in the high season. We spent the entire day hanging out on the beach, each of us reading a whole book. Sarah read The Girl on the Train and Hirsh read History of the Ancient Romans. Our book choices should come as a surprise to exactly no one who knows us.
Of course, we had to take a dip. Check out that water! It's incredibly beautiful, clean and clear and basically looks like Kool Aid. Unlike Kool Aid, it's extra salty, so we were extra buoyant.
We had dinner in the old town, just steps from our apartment. The food was OK, but the people-watching was great. One of the more fun things about eating in Monterosso's old town is the resident cat that wanders from restaurant to restaurant begging for scraps. As you can imagine, he's pretty chubby, but somehow always managed to sneak away before we could get a picture. If you ever have an occasion to meet him, know that he's especially fond of fish. At one point, he sat in a restaurant kitchen's window and they fed him fish scraps as they cooked our dinner.
Below are some less interesting pictures of what we had for dinner: caprese salad (of course), gnocchi with shrimp, and salmon ravioli.
After dinner, we followed the music to the heart of town - about a 20 second walk away - and enjoyed a live performance of some American classics by this fun band.
Up until this point, we'd had really good luck with our travels. We had made all sorts of complicated transportation arrangements and nothing had been delayed or missed or cancelled. We had taken buses through the fjords of Norway and the cliffsides of Amalfi. We had flown a Spanish airline from Norway to Italy. We had navigated the Tuscan countryside and highways in a stick shift without hitting anything. We thought we were invincible. This was the day we really learned that travel is not all sunshine and rainbows. This was the day we got a flat tire.
The plan was to leave Verona and drive an easy hour or so to the Bergamo airport, return the rental car, catch a bus to the Milan train station, and then take a three hour train to Monterosso, a town in Cinque Terre where we were to stay for three nights. While it sounds complicated, the transport network in Europe is so good that it wasn't really a big deal.
Before leaving Verona, we stopped at the train station to purchase our train tickets from Milan to Monterosso. Some of the other trains that day were already sold out, so we wanted to go ahead and reserve our seats. About 20 minutes after we left Verona, the Smart Car hit something small on the highway which gave us a tire pressure warning. We pulled into a gas station and saw the flat. Typically, we'd just find the spare tire, change it ourselves, and finish the short drive to the airport. But remember, this was a Smart Car. There was barely enough space in the boot for our two backpacks, and there was definitely not a spare tire.
Our one phone capable of making calls was dead, and we tried to ask the men at the service station to call a tow truck for us. They reluctantly did, but we waited for two hours and it never came. These guys eventually decided to stop helping us and when the younger one tried, the older one scolded him. When we desperately tried to explain that our phone was dead and we were stuck, they said the only place they'd let us use a power outlet was in the bathroom, so Hirsh stood in there awkwardly for 30 minutes while it regained enough battery to make a few calls.
We tried to call the rental car company back. No answer. We tried to call the national highway assistance hotline. No answer. We tried to call AAA back home. No answer. We eventually started to get nervous and called the police. They arrived and proceeded to drive slowly past us without stopping. This resulted in Sarah screaming expletives loudly at the patrol car and forcefully throwing an open bag of Italian cheese puffs onto the ground, spilling them. This, more than anything, was the best indicator of our frustration, because those things are delicious.
We walked down the road to another rest stop and again asked if they would call the police for us. They said no and if we wanted the police, we could walk along the highway until we found an SOS call box and call them ourselves. Keep in mind, our cell phone had died again. At this point, we were looking extra pitiful and our guardian angels appeared. A very nice family from Genova had just stopped in to get a snack and thankfully one of them spoke a few words of English. They called a tow truck for us and wished us luck. Twenty minutes later, the truck appeared and we truly felt like we'd been rescued from a deserted island. We waved our arms wildly in the same manner so he wouldn't miss us. The driver, a poor man's version of Billy Bob Thornton (just picture it), had a sour attitude and spoke no more than six words the entire time we were in his presence. He took us to a local mechanic and made us sign something we didn't understand.
We were out in the middle of nowhere with no other options and the mechanic really could have taken advantage of us. He was a cute young guy and honest as the day is long. We communicated entirely through Google translate on the iPhone, and he patched up the tire and charged us a whopping 10 euros! Can you believe it!? We don't think we were charged for the tow truck. Either that or we signed away our firstborn child to Billy Bob.
We were happily back on the road to Bergamo when we received a WhatsApp from our Genova family checking on us. Not only that, but they want to stay in touch. What sweet people! Here's the smiley photo we sent in response.
We eventually got onto a train five hours after initially planned. We had to buy new tickets because ours had expired and despite our best attempt to explain our sob story, Treinitalia could not have cared less. We made it to Monterosso by 12:15am, and the key to our rental apartment was only available until 12:30am. Highly motivated by a desire to avoid sleeping on the street, we ran all the way from the train station to the bar where we were to meet the property manager's friend and pick up the key. All's well that ends well, but it was quite a day!
We learned two valuable lessons:
1) As fun as it is to maneuver a tiny car that basically pivots on its axis, never rent a car without a spare tire; and
2) The Italian police have better things to do than help tourists with a flat tire, so find a nice Italian family instead.
The fact that we awoke to a torrential downpour made it easier to leave Venice. There's also not much to do in Venice, so that helped too. We took the boat back to the car park, collected our trusty Smart Car, and drove over to Verona.
The sole purpose of our visit to Verona was to see an opera in the famed Arena di Verona, a Roman amphitheater dating back to the first century. Not only has this amphitheater more or less stood the test of time (apparently it used to be twice as tall as it is today), but it is known for having outstanding acoustics. We very much wanted to see Carmen, but the timing of the performance didn't work with our schedule. Instead, we saw Aida, which our Italian friends assured us was the right choice. They said it is the favorite show of most Italians. While Carmen is high energy and would have been fun since we'd recognize many of the songs, Aida was appropriately grand and dramatic for the setting.
It. Was. Incredible. We loved every minute of the four hour long performance. To be able to enjoy such a grand spectacle in such a special place where people have been gathering for centuries was something we'll never forget. We both agreed this would always be remembered as one of the best experiences of our lifetime. Put it on your list!
People like to complain that Venice is nothing but a tourist trap. While it's true that there's not much left here but a tourist industry in a shell of a community, it's worth seeing because there's no other place on earth quite like it. Venice is charming and romantic if you allow yourself to have the right mindset.
We started the day off with a visit to Saint Mark's Basilica, and spent the rest of the day wandering, snacking, and doing lots of window shopping.
We had a very average dinner on the waterfront, but the view was what it was all about.
Then we headed back over to Saint Mark's Square for drinks at Caffè Florian. A Venice institution that opened in 1720, Caffè Florian claims to be the oldest restaurant in the world. We listened to the live orchestra, drank delicious red wine, and we danced at midnight in San Marco Square. ❤️
We painfully extricated ourselves from "Like Home" and made our way to Venice, via the Dolomites. The drive was supposed to take between six and seven hours, but we obviously had to stop at a museum along the way. Before getting into the heart of the Dolomites - the high Alps in northern Italy, bordering Austria - we stopped at the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology in Bolzano. This is where "Ötzi the Iceman" now lives.
Ötzi's naturally mummified body was discovered in the alps on the border of Austria and Italy in 1991. He is thought to have lived and been murdered somewhere around the year 3300 BC. The museum is very well done and we thoroughly enjoyed it. Along with his body, most of Ötzi's clothes and tools were also recovered and put on display. It was incredible to see how advanced his tools were from that time period, and how much his chest X-ray looks like that of a modern day body (yes, they ran him through a full CT scan).
Pictures of the actual mummy and artifacts are strictly forbidden, so here's a picture shamelessly stolen from Wikipedia.
Preserving and protecting Ötzi is a BFD. His body is kept in a high tech freezer with a backup generator that switches on after 12 seconds of power loss. Don't even think about trying to kidnap Ötzi (not sure why you would?). The freezer has multiple alarms, all of which are directly linked to the local police and fire departments, which will respond in less than one minute. The local hospital even has a special freezer just for him in case of an emergency.
Although you can't take pictures of the real thing, you can take a picture of Ötzi's reimagined doppelgänger. Hirsh is significantly taller, and carries a decidedly more modern (and less threatening) stick.
After the museum, we drove the scenic route through the Dolomites. The question of whether our Smart Car could make it through the Alps remained an open one until we reached the summit. Truly, there were some nail-biting moments. It was a rainy, cloudy day but the view from the top was still very impressive.
We even found a modern day sheep herder on the way. His herding dog jumped out of the back of the truck to keep a close eye on the flock.
We drove through lots of cute alpine towns as we were descending the mountain, including Cortina d'Ampezzo, where the 1956 Winter Olympics were held. This part of Italy truly feels like Germany, and there's a long, contentious history here over land rights and national identity. It's the first place we've been able to speak German on this trip. In fact, we would've felt out of place speaking Italian. Weird!
We finally made it to Venice, hours after we had originally planned due to the hour-long wait to enter the museum and the fact that we got lost several times. We were so close to being safely inside our Venice Airbnb when we were almost robbed, literally standing outside the door trying to figure out the instructions to enter the place. We attracted the attention of a nearby restaurant waiter and the guy thankfully ran off. Disaster averted!
After a very fun day and night of celebrating Hirsh's birthday with Maurizio, we thought we were ready to check out of our Bergamo B&B and hit the road to Venice. Hirsh had collected our next rental car - a Smart Car! - and we were all set. As we were about to pay our hotel bill, we realized we really hadn't planned our next steps. Other than knowing the route we'd take to Venice, we didn't know where we were going to sleep that night, and we really didn't want to leave this amazing place. So on a whim, we asked the B&B owner if we could stay another night. He said yes, but...the only room available was the suite. He showed us the suite and we hesitated for about half a second before saying "We'll take it!"
We had no idea when we arrived in Bergamo that we'd happen upon the nicest place - all around - either of us has ever stayed. The B&B, called "Like Home," is located close to the airport in a residential neighborhood. It's owned and managed by a lovely couple who couldn't sell their mansion because it's so big, so they decided to renovate the first two floors and turn it into a bed and breakfast with five or six beautifully appointed rooms. They live on the third floor. Everything about this place is perfect. It's so immaculately clean we would not hesitate to actually eat off the floors. It's been professionally decorated in a high-end French country style (Sarah's favorite!, and now maybe Hirsh's too?). The sheets, towels, soap, breakfast buffet, free snack bar in the lounge, warm and friendly staff...everything was superlative.
First night's room...
Even the door stop is adorable. They've thought of everything!
For day and night two, we just hung out all day in this ridiculous room with a private wrap-around balcony, planning our next week of travel. We even caught a bit of the opening of the Democratic National Convention, since they had a few American channels. It was divine!
Second night's dinner, we just ate on site on their beautiful garden terrace. That's how much we didn't want to leave the grounds.
All that, and it was a great value, to boot! If you ever find yourself staying in Bergamo - and you might because it's a big travel hub in Italy - please consider staying here!!!
Happy birthday, Hirsh!!! Hirsh never thought he'd spend his 32nd birthday in Bergamo, Italy, but here we are. We left Varenna and took the train to Bergamo to meet up with our friend, Maurizio. Maurizio is from Bergamo and recently spent a semester at Duke's Fuqua School of Business, where he roomed with Hirsh's co-resident and Sarah's close friend, Lauren. We met Maurizio back in Durham and had planned to meet up with him in Italy, and that time coincidentally turned out to be Hirsh's birthday. Maurizio met us at the train station and volunteered to be our personal tour guide for the day!
He is very proud of his hometown, and it didn't take long for us to understand why. Bergamo is a beautiful, livable city with a perfect balance between old world charm and modern conveniences. Little known on the guidebook/package tour circuit, Bergamo felt like a real town filled with lovely people. We were even luckier that Maurizio is very smart and proud of his city and country's history, so he gave a detailed history lesson - complete with a pop quiz! - as he showed us around.
We had a nice brunch and then embarked on our tour. The Citta Alta ("High Town") is the heart and soul of the city. We spent several hours walking around the city and first visited the impressive church in the town square, the Santa Maria Maggiore.
The most gorgeous and intimidating confessional we've ever seen. We all joked that your confession had better be a juicy one if you're going to do it here!
Bergamo's town square looks much like it probably did back in Medieval Times. Just as it did back then, the clock tower chimes ten times every night at 10:00, followed by 100 smaller chimes to notify the townspeople to get safely back inside the town walls, per curfew. The curfew is no longer in effect, but the tradition remains.
There was even a puppet show for local kids in the main square! Hearing all the sweet children laugh and excitedly yell out in Italian was priceless.
We then toured Maurizio's high school. Can you believe this is a public high school? It's beautiful and looks like Hogwarts.
We rode the funicular back down and had aperitifs of meat and cheese cuts and Aperol Spritzes at a favorite neighborhood hangout.
Then we got cleaned up and headed to dinner at the local favorite restaurant, La Marianna.
Sarah and Maurizio conspired to arrange a little birthday surprise for Hirsh. We asked for a candle on the dessert, and we were all surprised to see an actual firework! Good thing we were eating outside!
And then, because it was Hirsh's birthday (at least that's the excuse we're using) we had a second dessert. This restaurant created the popular gelato flavor of stracciatella, which is vanilla with chunks of dark chocolate. Obviously we had to sample some.
It was a wonderful day, all around, thanks to Maurizio's endless generosity. It was a birthday Hirsh will never forget! ❤️
We woke up to a serious thunderstorm that lasted several hours, so we lounged around the apartment until 2pm. Look who we found on tv, dubbed in Italian! The Property Brothers are always entertaining, but even more so when given emphatic Italian voices.
When the rain eased off a bit, we decided to venture over to Bellagio. The night before, we decided we'd go even if it was raining. We were very lucky that the skies cleared completely by the time we got on the ferry.
We had a fun afternoon in Bellagio window shopping, snacking, and playing our favorite guessing game in fancy towns: father/daughter or rich old dude/pretty young girlfriend?
Of course there was gelato...
Picture perfect B&B's
And wandering back and forth; here, at the top of the Serbelloni steps.
We made it to the lookout point at the edge of town and just sat for awhile on the stone wall over the harbor, watching the boats go by and hoping for a glimpse of George and Amal.
We ferried back to Varenna and had dinner at the exact same spot where we dined the night before. This time, we even sat at the same table.
After two mojitos, Sarah graduated from feeding the small ducks by hand to feeding the huge swans, not unlike a child. A sizable crowd gathered around to watch the spectacle.
We lingered at that table for three and a half hours because we honestly didn't want the night to end. We really loved the vibe of this tiny town. It's nice and quiet and while filled with tourists, somehow manages to feel authentic. People are here not to check sites off their travel list, but to relax and enjoy the natural beauty. Being around people from all over the world in such a compact area makes the world feel small, and Varenna strikes the perfect balance of local and international flavor. Bonus: we've never seen such a high concentration of interracial couples in one place, making us feel right at home!
We had hoped to take a cooking class this morning in Bologna, but quickly discovered that such classes are booked up well in advance and the one remaining available class we found was several hundred euros per person. So, nope.
Instead, we took an earlier train out of the city to get to our next destination of Varenna. A small town on the coast of Lake Como, Varenna was a wonderful surprise. We stayed in a spacious Airbnb apartment which was a quick five minute walk to town.
It was raining when we arrived, so we relaxed and read our books for awhile, then ventured down the hill to dinner. Sarah was distracted by this lovely explosion of hydrangeas (favorite flower!) on the waterfront promenade.
Then we had a very relaxing dinner just steps from the water. Check out the two resident swans! They were a big hit with everyone who walked by and we're pretty sure the town of Varenna bought them and placed them here to enchant the tourists. Brilliant!