Cruisin’ the Amalfi Coast

“No matter how many mistakes you make or how slow you progress, you are still way ahead of those who aren’t even trying.”

With all the running around Valerie and I have been doing on this trip, we wanted to slow things down a bit.  Numerous people had recommended seeing the Amalfi Coast and the surrounding cities on the tip of Italy’s boot, so we headed down there for some sun and relaxation.

We settled down in Sorrento, which had a much bigger city feel than the rest of the towns we visited on the coast.  There were certainly some tourists, but it wasn’t overcrowded.  All of the places we visited are essentially built into the coastline, which was unlike anything I had ever seen.  Here’s a picture of Sorrento, and example of how the houses are nestled into the cliffs.

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If you think that’s beautiful, you haven’t seen anything yet.

We wanted to catch some rays at the beach in Sorrento, so we hoofed down to sea level from our hotel.  Once we got down to the beach area, we quickly realized that the Italians define beach differently than Americans.  There was no sand, it wasn’t big at all, and no place to throw the Frisbee that I brought on the trip.  Kind of a bummer.  At least Valerie got to see a bunch of old Italian guys with saggy skin in tight speedos.

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Random side comment: As you could guess, everything is smaller in Italy except the size of guys’ egos.  This is an actual street where cars drive, but it also contains the front doors to people’s houses.  Dad, there is zero chance you are getting your Ford F250 truck down that sorry excuse for a road.

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The most fun thing we did by far in southern Italy was rent a scooter and cruise the coastline.  I somehow convinced Valerie to ride on the back as I drove.  Don’t worry, helmets were mandatory.  In case you don’t know, the Italians have a reputation for being insane drivers.  But the question is….did I have to worry about the Italian drivers, or did they have to worry about me?

After grabbing a map from the rental place, we were out for the entire day.  About an hour later and seven mentions of the words “heart attack” from Valerie, and we were at Positano, the next town over.  We also ventured to the small cities of Pasiano and Amalfi.  The coastline was the second most beautiful place I’ve ever seen only to Interlaken, Switzerland.  Since my words don’t even begin to describe how breathtaking it was, I’ll let the pictures do the talking.

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If you look closely in some of the pictures, you can see how close the road is to the edge of the cliffs.  Valerie was very thankful that the rental place suggested that we pick the lower power scooter for this excursion.

As a bonus, I’ll leave you with a picture of the Real Housewives of Sorrento that I snapped on a Sunday afternoon.  There were twice as many, but they must have went to drink some Limoncello.

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Now we’re off to Rome, our last stop.  Have a good week!

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Flirting With Florence

“Do not dwell so much on creating your perfect life that you forget to live your life.”

After Paris, Valerie and I really wanted to visit Nice in the South of France.  With the French holiday, all the trains were full for a couple of days, so we decided to head straight to Italy.  First stop: Milan.

Once we set foot on Italian soil, we immediately noticed that people were very willing to help us with directions without any prompting.  This is so helpful to a traveler!  Not that the French were unfriendly, but the people in Milan were noticeably nicer.

We honestly weren’t that impressed with Milan, and it’s probably worth skipping unless you really like shopping.  We looked at the clothes in a bunch of stores, but neither of us found anything we wanted to buy.  The only redeeming thing about our time there was that we got two workouts in.  So long Milan, hello Florence.

Not long after wandering the streets on the first night, Florence had won us over.  The city is a perfect combination of culture, architecture, moderate tourism, and shopping.  Throw in a day trip to Tuscany, and you have the recipe for nearly the perfect city.

A walking tour was the way we started off getting to know the city.  We saw all the major Renaissance architecture, including the Duomo and the Santa Anna church.  Quite impressive!

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After the walking tour concluded, we ventured to the highest spot in the city, which also features Michelangelo’s David statue.  I have to admit that I was pretty disappointed with David because it looks like some of the pigeons ate McDonald’s before flying overhead. The redeeming part of the trek, however, was the spectacular view of the entire city.

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There was a street market literally at the door of our hostel, so we had to walk through that every day.  Then there was another fresh food market inside a nearby building, so we decided to see what that was all about.  Milwaukee Public Market doesn’t have anything on this place.

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On our third day in Florence, we took a tour of Tuscany, which easily ended up being the highlight of our trip so far.  Valerie had booked the excursion to this central region of Italy before we left for Florence, and it was the cheapest one we saw, so I was pretty skeptical. My low expectations were blown away when we had an entire day filled with plenty of culture, excellent food, and copious amounts of wine.

The day started off with a quick jaunt to Monteriggioni, a medieval Renaissance castle in the hills of Tuscany.  Unfortunately the weather wasn’t the greatest, and we got rained on a bit.  That didn’t stop us from doing a small wine tasting inside the castle walls.  The owner of a 55-year-old vineyard educated us on certified Chanti wines while we sampled a few glasses from his collection.  Great start to the day!

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Afterward we ventured to Siena, a small town famous for its twice yearly horse races.  It was a picturesque city, though it rained the entire time that we were there.  Wah wahhhh.

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As our van of nine rolled through the Tuscan countryside, we took in some beautiful landscapes.  I have to mention that our excursion was a blast because three super fun Indian couples from the US joined us.  Niccolo, our Italian tour guide, also provided humor and great conversation the whole trip.

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Our next stop was Sant Agnese Farms, a vineyard in Chanti.  This is the most famous region of Italy for wines.  The owner Carlo was not only extremely passionate about the wine and food that he makes, but he was also hilarious.  I had just met him for two minutes, and of course I already had a question lined up.  Without hesitation, he remarked in a thick Italian accent, “My friend, are you going to destroy me-a?”  He also told the group that his wines are “Soft, but strong like Rob.”  He certainly made this part of the trip very memorable.

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The tour of his vineyard included an explanation of how Carlo also makes his very tasty balsamic vinaigrette.  He has two versions – one aged eight years, and another that takes 30 years to make.  The latter is one of the most incredible things we have ever tasted, so we had to pick up a bottle to bring back home.  Carlo also let us taste samples of his amazing wines, as well as home made honey, garlic, tomato sauce, and olive oil.  I honestly wish I could have brought back all of them.

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After tasting some of Tuscany’s finest wines and food, our tour concluded with a traditional Italian dinner on a farm in the middle of the countryside.  We were greeted by Gianni, a pleasant 67-year-old Italian man who was the owner of the farm.  Although he didn’t speak much English, I could understand his Italian pretty well with my Spanish background.

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Gianni makes his own wine with grapes grown right in front of his house, and there were not limits on how much we could drink during dinner.  Val and I were each on at least glass eight in the picture above.

Dinner started off with a plate that included salumis, bruschetta, a poor man’s salad, and fresh mozzarella cheese.  The salad consisted of cucumber, bread, onions, tomatoes, basil, and olive oil.  This was a traditional meal that Italians in past generations would eat to sustain their energy throughout the day.

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The main course was spaghetti and meat sauce, not surprising.  However, this wasn’t your typical run-of-the-mill Creamette spaghetti out of a green box. Maybe it was the wine convincing me that this was the best spaghetti I’d ever tasted.  The Italians like their noodles a little bit harder than most Americans, so that was a pleasant change to this standard dish.

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After finishing a second helping, we all sat around and shot the s**t for a while.  Gianni talked to us about Italian life and relationships, which turned out to be great perspective. We were supposed to leave the farm at 10:00 pm, but we were having so much fun that we left over an hour after that.  What a fantastic end to a spectacular day!

I’ll leave you with one of my favorite pictures from the trip. This is a picture of Val and I sitting at Gianni’s dinner table overlooking the Tuscan countryside at twilight.  So beautiful!

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Our next destination is the Amalfi Coast in the south of Italy, and then we will end the trip with a visit to Rome.  Enjoy your Sunday!

Storming the Real Bastille

“You are only destined to become one person – the person you decide to be.”

With three full days left in Paris, Valerie and I had plenty of time to get into trouble.  We kicked things off by venturing over to Notre Dame, the church that everyone in the US knows from the Disney movie.  The line was intimidating, but we quickly cruised through it and got into the monument.  We decided not to go up to the top because that line was too long, and we had lots of other things to see on this sunny Parisian day.

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I think Valerie had one shoe off when she took that picture.

Next we moseyed over to the Musee d’Orsay, a museum that is often overshadowed by its much more famous brother, the Louvre.  I can’t say I’m the biggest fan of museums, and thankfully Val isn’t either.  That worked out perfectly because we only waited 10 minutes to gain entrance, and we were in and out of there faster than a Parisian lunch.  I actually think the building itself was the most impressive part of the museum.  The pictures don’t do it justice, but it was one of the most naturally well-lit interior spaces I’ve ever seen.

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We were fortunate enough to be in town when the citizens celebrated the 14th of July, the French equivalent of Independence Day.  Valerie and I decided to take a ride on a ferris wheel, which provided the best view of the city throughout the trip.  And we didn’t even need to wait in line, score!

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We spent the better part of one morning trying to find a market that Valerie wanted to see, only to find out that it wasn’t taking place that day.  Curses.  Nevertheless, we returned the following day to see it.  We got there right as the vendors were starting to close up shop, but I was still able to snap a few pictures.  To be honest, I expected it to be a lot bigger, but I suppose space comes at a premium in Europe.

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You would think that celebrating Bastille Day (Independence Day) in Paris would be a pretty memorable experience, right?  Nope, way overrated.  Not that either of us had heard amazing things about celebrating France’s independence, but it was a pretty big letdown.  We saw a bunch of soldiers and military vehicles in a parade, and there was a small carnival in the center of town.  The city put on a fireworks show just after 11:00 pm on Sunday, which I have to admit rivaled the Big Bang in Milwaukee.  The unfortunate part is that Valerie and I went to a park far away from the Eiffel Tower on a tip from a Parisian, but it turned out to be insanely crowded, and way too far away from the fireworks.  Not worth the trip.

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Dining in Paris is very different compared to the United States.  First off, a lot of places will charge a substantially higher price for food if you are going to eat it at the restaurant instead of ordering it to go.  Since rent is so high, the restaurants pack as many tables as humanly possible in a given space.  In a related note, a lot of restaurants have seats that are arranged side-by-side instead of across from each other.  This is so that both people can have a good view of the street scene.  This is slightly awkward because you are literally knee-to-knee with someone who you don’t know.  I’m disappointed because I didn’t take a picture to capture what I’m explaining, but hopefully you can picture it.

OK, you only have half a second to look at the next picture before you guess which one of these dishes made me sick.  Ready? Go!

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Valerie decided to order a dish with both raw egg and meat.  This is actually very common in France.  I ended up regretting my curiosity to try a bite later when I was woken up to a sick stomach at night.  My partner in crime escaped unscathed though.  Maybe next time we just stick with Burger King?

At least the view from the restaurant was pretty slick.  Yes, we were jammed in between two other tables of locals on that street corner.

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It was great getting Valerie’s perspective on the city and its people.  The first thing she noticed is that almost anything goes in terms of fashion and personal style.  Some people look like they just came off the catwalk, and others might have just stepped off the taping of a Jane Fonda video, and everything in between.  I’m proud to say that I was the only person I saw all week rocking a backwards baseball cap.  Sorry France, I’m not going to adopt your fashion.  You can have your skinny jeans and froofy scarves.

We both noticed how thin people are here.  No, thin doesn’t even begin to accurately describe their body type.  You know when you see some of those runway models and you think to yourself, “Dang girl, how about you just eat a wheelbarrow of Big Macs?” Not only were lots of women that skinny, but a good majority of the men too.  I mean my forearm is bigger than the biggest part of their entire arm.

The thing is that I don’t think the French do this on purpose.  Yes, in urban areas in general people are skinnier than in rural areas because they are more active.  But I also think the incredibly small portion sizes and emphasis on minimally processed food helps a lot.  I would say I almost got annoyed with how small the guys were by the end of the week.  What are you going to do in a fight bro, slap someone with your bourree?

The streets of Paris are very clean given the size of the city.  We thought the abundance of garbage cans on nearly every street probably helps a lot.  The really disappointing thing to see, however, is how practically every neighborhood had an insane amount of graffiti.  It really ruins the aesthetic of the streets.

Crime seems to be relatively prevalent, which isn’t surprising for such a large city.  Within five minutes of getting off the train in one of the main stations, a man approached us offering to help.  The scenario quickly turned into him buying us metro tickets with his own money at an electronic machine.  This smelled way too much like a scam, so Valerie and I just ditched him and bought our own tickets.

Then in the train station on the way out of Paris, a local had fallen asleep in a chair while waiting for his early morning train.  A shifty looking guy sauntered over to the seat next to him while looking around.  Then in a brief instant, he took the sleeping guy’s backpack and walked off like it was his own.  Valerie saw all this go down and said something to the sleeping guy, and he eventually caught up with the thief and recovered his bag.  Holy sketchy Batman!

On the whole, though, Valerie and I felt very safe during our stay in Paris.  I think trusting your instincts and making smart decisions if something doesn’t feel right can go a long way when you are traveling.

We are both very glad to have made it to Paris, and we would both go back in a second.  The combination of culture, food, and sights is unparalleled in Europe!  Our next stop is Milan in Italy.  We will give you another update later this week.  Until then, au revoir from France.

Europe Made Me Do It

“You are what you do today, not what you say you’ll do tomorrow.”

For those of you following the blog for the first time, I always like to start off with an inspirational quote.  I hope they motivate you to make a positive change in your life!

After my seven-week trip to Europe last summer, I was itching to get back to the B.O.-filled subway stations, cramped elevators, and horrific customer service.  Shortcomings aside, I truly wanted to return to an almost magical continent that makes you wonder how we can live in the United States without a solid metro system or countless tiny shops and cafes with character that liven up city streets.  Ahhhhhh Europe, it’s great to be back.

This trip wouldn’t be a solo adventure for me.  My daring partner in crime is Valerie, my new girlfriend.  It just so happened that she had a gap in between jobs, and I was able to cajole her into embarking on this crazy escapade.  So far, she’s been the perfect travel partner, and we’ve even avoided a mid-street meltdown.  As if we needed any more attention other than being American.

Valerie has worked at one of the fanciest hotels in the world, so she’s no stranger to luxurious housing.  She was less than stoked when I insisted on staying in hostels the entire trip. “But Rob, I had a dream that I woke up in a hostel next to a huge naked man in the same bed.”  Um, guess I’ll be sleeping in another room?  It turns out that we actually struck hostel gold, and we ended up in one of the best I’ve ever stayed in.  A decent breakfast and in-room air conditioning were icing on the cake.

The only drawback to the hostel was the smallest bathroom I’ve ever seen in our private room.  Don’t believe me?

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On a positive note, when I’m dropping the Cosby kids off at the pool, I can always take a siperoo from the sink if I’m parched.

Valerie and I didn’t waste any time exploring the city after dropping our bags off at the hostel.  The first day, we went to Sacre Coeur, the highest point in the city.  This church sits atop a hill that provides a breathtaking view of Paris.

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No voyage to Paris would be complete without sampling authentic French pastries.  In the first 48 hours, we tried two crepes with Nutella and fruit, macaroons, caramel eggs, a chocolate éclair, a Belgian waffle with Nutella, chocolate birds’ nests, chocolate truffles, and a stale binet.  We’ll go for another binet at a legit bakery next time instead of a street vendor.  Every one of these delicacies except for the binet was leagues above anything you can image tasting in the States.  Here are some pics of the Nutella and banana crepe, éclair, and macaroons.

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I was super curious how much we would be walking on the trip, so I installed a pedometer on my phone.  On our first full day in Paris, we walked 23,128 steps for a total 10.07 miles.  What this means is that every dessert we eat actually has 0 calories.  Take that French pastries!  I’ll report back at the end of the trip how many steps and miles we walked in our 18 days abroad.

We saw a good chunk of the city on day two.  We recently watched a movie that featured a famous bridge in Paris where couples go to put their name on a lock, fasten it to a bridge, and then throw the key into the river.  That was the thing that Valerie absolutely wanted to do in the city of lights, so we made it happen!

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I told her if we don’t get along the rest of the trip, I’m going to replace it with a combination lock.

In my opinion, a walking tour of each city you visit is a must.  It’s a very inexpensive way to see a lot of sights, get some exercise, and meet cool travelers.  Valerie and I decided to take one in the city, and it turned out to be a good move.  For starters, we saw the outside of the Louvre, the most famous art museum in the world.

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See how I have a new travel v-neck in my repertoire this trip?

We also saw Notre Dame from afar, and got a history lesson on just about every important part of the city.  Afterward, we headed to Champs Elysees, the 5th Avenue of Paris.  On the way, we stopped and took a little siesta in the Jardin des Tuileries while the sun made its way down the sky.

After Valerie rang up the cash registers in a store mobbed with Parisian women in fashionable garb, I decided to try my hand with some French style.  I found a pair of linen shorts one size bigger than my waist size in America, a reasonable assumption given European-cut clothing.  Once I got into the dressing room, I felt like Reese Witherspoon on a fat day because I literally couldn’t pull those shorts up beyond my thighs.  I’m sayin’ not even a basket of lube could help me get those puppies on.  I quickly convinced myself they were a very slim cut, and put them back on the shelf.

The Eiffel Tower was our last stop for the day.  We had grandiose plans of seeing it in the daylight, and then sticking around for the light show that happens at dusk.  We found out that we would have to wait over an hour to see it, so we decided to head back to the hostel since it was getting briskly cold.  No matter, we both remarked that it was a super fun day as we held hands on the metro ride home.

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We will be in Paris through Bastille Days this Sunday, so we’ll give you an update after that.  We hope all is well back home!