Sunday, September 22, 2013

Italy 2013 - General Summary

This is meant as a general summary of my Italy trip, notes and general comments.  The numbering is merely that, it is not a list of based on importance/priority.

1. People told me to watch my wallet but I didn't run into any problems. I have heard a lot of warnings about this though.

2. Overall all the gelato places that we tried we thought were good. No real complaints. We paid usually between 2-3 euros depending on the size. Was told that there are places that ran up to 6 euro but didn't see this.

3. For big attractions it is best to prebook them. I didn't believe this until I saw the lines.

4. Getting around with just English was sufficient for us. 

5. The train system there all have English menus even if their website do not. All tickets can be bought through machines.

6. Local buses may not have a ticket machine. Go to the nearest tabbachi (convenient store) to buy them.

7. Remember to valid your bus/train ticket for the local bus/trains. The fines are quite heavy even for tourists. There is usually a box that will stamp your ticket.

8. There are mosquitoes! You have been warned.

9. Weather during our trip was really nice (Sept 7 - 21). From mid to high 20's. Only one night of rain.

10. Tipping is not required. Everything has tax included. The only surprises we got were cover charges for certain restaurants.

11. There are water fountains located randomly in the cities, bring a bottle to hold water.

12. TripAdvisor has an app called 'TripAdvisor City Guides'.  This is a free app that will download offline popular cities that they have information for.  The offline information allows you to look at reviews, attractions, restaurants, among other things offline.  If your phone has GPS, the app can show you where you are, even direct you as needed.

13. Osmand is a free offline map app for Android (not sure about others) that allows you to download city maps offline on your phone.  I used this for cities that was not on TripAdvisor City Guides and it works very well.  The first 10 downloads are free.  Very useful when I was getting lost.

Italy 2013 - Venice Summary

This is meant to be a summary of Venice, places I went, places I eat at, and recommendations.

Accommodations:
Name: Hotel Ambasciata.
Location: Mestre (one stop from Venice).  5 minute walk from the city's main train/bus terminal.
Cost: 116.50 euro after taxes / 116.50 euro per night.
Wifi: Included.
Breakfast: Included.  Available from 7:30am - 10:00am, located on the first floor.  Includes croissant, bread, cake, juice, yogurt, coffee/tea, fruit, cereal, hard boiled eggs.  No kitchen access, no fridge.
Washroom: Private (shower stall, toilet, european genitals sink).
Payment: Cash or credit at the end of your stay.
Would I go back?: Definitely. Located outside just outside of Venice, cheap bus/train options to get into Venice.
Comments: Great service, allowed us to store our luggage there for the day for free.  Provided a map of the city (Mestre) which includes a map of Venice.  Gave us information on the routes to walk in Venice, where we could go with the little amount of time we had in Venice.

Length of Stay:
Our duration: 1 night
Suggestion duration: Minimum 2 days
Comments: We stayed over for one night, arrived early in the day and left in the afternoon the following day.

Food:
Name: Brothers Fast Food
Would I return?: Yes. The food was really good. Good change from pasta / pizza.

Attractions:
Name: Rialto Bridge (free)
Would I suggest this?: Yes. Famous bridge! One of the few attractions in Venice.

Name: St Mark's Cathedral (free)
Would I suggest this?:  Yes. Try to see this both during the day and night (although I feel it looks nicer during the day).

Name: St Mark's Square (free)
Would I suggest this?: Yes. Try to see this both during the day and night.

Italy 2013 - Florence Summary

This is meant to be a summary of Florence, places I went, places I eat at, and recommendations.

Accommodations:
Name: 1900 Artevita
Location: Florence.  20 minute walk from Firenze S.M.N train station (the main train station of Florence).
Cost: 364 euro after taxes / 91 euro per night.
Wifi: Included.
Breakfast: Included.  Available from 8am-10am, located in the hallway.  Includes croissant, bread, cake, juice, yogurt, coffee/tea, fruit, and cereal.  No kitchen access, use of a mini-fridge for storage is allowed.
Washroom: Private (toilet/shower hybrid, sink).
Payment: Cash or credit at the beginning of stay.
Would I go back?: Maybe, this is a bit of a walk from the main train station.  The shower is really small. The host was great though.
Comments: Host was gracious even though we were very late from the scheduled time of arrival.  Provides a map and detailed information on what to see and do.  Readily available every morning during breakfast time (he is present and there to answer any questions you have or any reservation you need).
Length of Stay:
Our duration: 4 nights
Suggestion duration: Depends on what you want to do.  I'm not sure it is necessary to stay in this city.
Comments: Pisa / Lucca is 1 day. Siena / San Gimignano is 1 day. Florence is 1 day.

Food:
Name: Trattoria BBQ
Would I return?: Yes. The food was good here. There is a coverage charge to eat here though (we did not notice this until Florence).

Name: Madame Butterfly (Lucca)
Would I return?: Yes. Recommended. Good food at a good price.

Name: Del Barone
Would I return?: Yes. Good sandwiches at a good price.

Name: Il Gusto
Would I return?: Yes. Very good food! Expect to pay a bit more though (I believe we spent around 60 between the two of us).

Name: Trattoria Carrozze
Would I return?: Yes. The steak was amazing!

Attractions:
Name: Gallerie dell'Accademia (11 euro)
Would I suggest it?: Michelangelo's David is definitely worth a look if you have the chance.  There is a crazy group of people who want to see this, so prepare to line up or pay to get in.

Name: Pisa (free besides the bus or train ride)
Would I suggest it?: Yes. It is worth it just to see the amount of people posing as they try to prop up the leaning tower.

Name: Lucca (free besides the bus or train ride)
Would I suggest it?: Yes, if you are going to Pisa. Rent a bike and ride along the old walls. It is very nice. There isn't much here in terms of must see attractions. Just go and enjoy this small town.

Name: Opificio delle pietre dure (4 euro)
Would I suggest it?: Yes! Definitely go have a look at this. It is unbelievable.

Name: Siena (free besides the train ride)
Would I suggest it?:

Name: Duomo (free)
Would I suggest it?: Yes. Have a look outside, I feel the interior is skippable.

Name: piazza della signoria (free)
Would I suggest it?: Yes. Go to see the sculptures.

Name: piazza Michelangelo (free)
Would I suggest it?: Yes. Provides a great view of Florence.

Italy 2013 - Sorrento Summary

This is meant to be a summary of Sorrento, places I went, places I eat at, and recommendations.

Accommodations:
Name: Casa Rachele.
Location: Piano di Sorrento.  5 minute walk from Piano metro station.
Cost: 220 euro after taxes / 55 euro per night.
Wifi: Included.
Breakfast: Included.  Needs to be scheduled between 7am - 9am.  The host (Rachel) will prepare everything for you.  Includes croissant, bread, cake, juice, yogurt and coffee/tea.  No access to the kitchen, use of fridge for storage is allowed.
Washroom: Shared.  Two rooms share the one washroom (tub, toilet, sink, weird european genitals sink).
Payment: Cash at end of stay.
Would I go back?: Maybe. This B&B is the hostess' house and she lives there.  The view is very nice if you stay at the ocean view room (which is smaller than the city view room).  Since the host lives there, you are worried about what you can/cannot do.
Comments: Hostess lives there and we felt that when we returned, we would just go straight to our room since the living area is usually occupied by her.  She is a great hostess and goes out of her way to help you out.  When we arrived, she provided us information on all the typical places tourist go, she provides maps, costs, ticket information, schedule, everything you would need.  She even accommodated for guest who normally eat cereal by going out to buy cereal for them.  She also typically joins in for breakfast, and she is quite the talker, so you may need to figure out your exit strategy.

Length of Stay:
Our duration: 4 nights
Suggestion duration: Depends on what you want to do.
Comments: Capri is 1 day, Amalfi Coast/Ravello/Positano is 1 day, Mt. Vesuvius/Pompei/Herculaneum is 1 day.  So, depending on what you want to do, you can allocate how much time you need here.  Sorrento itself doesn't have much, it is really just a hub for your day trips.

Food:
Name: Re Pizza
Would I return?: Yes. Highly recommended. Great pizza, incredible price. We went 3 times during our 4 night stay in Sorrento.

Name: Osteria Arcadia
Would I return?: Yes. Recommended. Very good food at a good price. We only went once due to the hours of operations (open at 8pm for dinner, closed Tuesday/Sunday).

Attractions:
Name: Amalfi Coast / Ravello / Positano
Would I suggest it?: Yes. Take the bus if you can, and if you do, ride on the right-hand side on the way there.  You should be able to do all 3 in one day, we did the first 2.  It will take a day to do all of them, maybe 2 days depending on what you want to do in each place.

Name: Mt. Vesuvius (tour was about 22 euros, about 3 hours total)
Would I suggest it?: Yes. Take the tour right outside Pompei Scavi station. It is awesome. Do note that there is a fair amount of climbing in order to get to the top of Mt. Vesuvius. During clear days, you should have good views of several cities.

Name: Pompei (about 10 euros)
Would I suggest it?: Yes. I know I was a bit hard on this, but if you are interested in ruins, this is a cool place to go to. Do expect a lot of tourists here though.

Italy 2013 - Rome Summary

This is meant to be a summary of Rome, places I went, places I eat at, and recommendations.

Accommodations:
Name: Arches B&B.
Location: Rome. 5 minute walk from Cipro metro station.
Cost: 590 euro after taxes / 114 euro per night.
Wifi: Included.
Breakfast: Included.  Each room (there are 3 rooms) has a cupboard for their breakfast, fridge is available for use (each room has a rack in the fridge) and full kitchen available if you want to cook, breakfast includes a croissant, a dessert pie, bread, something like malba toast, juice, yogurt, and coffee/tea.
Washroom: Private (shower stall, toilet, sink, weird european genitals sink).
Payment: Cash or credit at end of stay.
Would I go back?: Definitely, although maybe to their other location which is closer to the city center.
Comments: We enjoyed this location and the host was great. We were late by an hour for our check in time and he was still there. Provides a map and details on what is available and where. Right outside is quick access to good restaurants, groceries, metro line A, and a 5-10 minute walk to Vatican city. We never saw the host after the first day but readily available if needed.

Length of Stay:
Our duration: 5 nights
Suggestion duration: Minimum 2 days
Comments: We stayed 5 nights and this was probably the right amount of time for us.  If you are a big fan of museums and art, you can stay for much longer.  Vatican City / St. Peter's is 1 day, Colosseum / Palantine Hill / Roman Forums is 1 day, Ostia Antica is 1 day.  The piazzas and churches you can plan as you go along.  There seemed to be no end to my 'that looks neat, let's go see that' in Rome.  You can just walk and stumble onto neat squares/churches.

Food:
Name: La Montecarlo.
Would I return?: No. Food was okay, nothing special.

Name: Pane Vino e San Daniele
Would I return?: Yes. Food was very good. They have specials based on northern Italy.

Name: al Picchio
Would I return?: No. I would avoid this place.  How does a spaghetti alla carbonara look like spaghetti mixed in scrambled eggs?

Name: alle Fratte di Trastevere
Would I return?: Yes. Food was good, nice location.  Good value.

Name: Ciro & Ciro
Would I return?: No. There are nothing special about this restaurant.

Attractions:
Name: Spanish Steps (free)
Would I suggest this?: Maybe. If you can go see this on the way to something, sure, otherwise I think this is skippable.

Name: Trevi Fountain (free)
Would I suggest this?:  Yes. Try to see this both during the day and night (although I feel it looks nicer during the day).

Name: Colosseum (about 10 euro)

Would I suggest this?: Yes. Try to get the guided tour with the third level and underground dungeon. This grants access to 3 areas that are only available to people who take this tour (third level, underground dungeon and a special platform on the main level).

Name: Vatican Museums (about 10 euro)
Would I suggest this?: Yes. Try to prebook this, the lines are long even at 9:00am in the morning.  Lots of tours go through this. Lots of paintings and sculptures.  Even if you don't like these things, when you look at some of them, you will be amazed.  I was slightly disappointed with the Sistine Chapel since it was smaller than I imagined, but it is definitely worth a visit.

Name: St. Peter's Basilica (free, tower climb is around 5 euro)
Would I suggest this?: Yes.  This place is big!  The sculptures, painting, mosaics inside are unbelievable.  If you want a nice view of the city, pay to go up to the top of the Basilica.  You can either take the lift part way up (but you still need to walk) or just walk the entire thing (the lift option is slightly more expensive, but if you can walk, just walk the entire thing).

Name: Piazza Navona (free)
Would I suggest this?: Yes. Worth a visit to see the fountains here. Lots of tourist things which annoy me during the evening (people flinging twirly things and green laser lights), but during the day these don't really exist.

Name: Palantine Hill (included with Colosseum)
Would I suggest this?: Maybe. It is a nice walk to see this area, but I would suggest skipping this if you don't have time (even though it's included in the cost).

Name: Roman Forums (included with Colosseum)
Would I suggest this?: Yes. There are very interesting ruins here. Not a very big area, but one with a lot of different ruins in a small compact area.

Name: Vittorio Emmanuel II Monument (free, panoramic view lift is around 7 euro)
Would I suggest this?: Yes. A very nice building that you cannot miss if you look from the Colosseum. Just a short walk away, there is not much inside, but the exterior is really nice. If you like panoramic views, make sure to take the lift to the top.

Name: Teatro Marcello (free)
Would I suggest this?: No. It is a building that is built on top of a set of ruins. Not really that interesting to see.

Name: Pantheon (free)
Would I suggest this?: Yes. The exterior is really cool looking, although the inside is pretty dull (at least to me).

Name: Castel St. Angelo
Would I suggest this?: Yes (if you are near). The exterior looks really interesting. Inside is a museum which we did not go to. Apparently is in the Angels & Demons movie.

Name: Ostia Antica (about 10 euros + train fare)
Would I suggest this?: Yes (if you like ruins and climbing things). This place has really cool ruins. Many of which still have their upper floors. Some which even have stairs that allow you to climb up them (I couldn't stop saying, let's go climb that as soon as I saw someone on top of another building).  It is not within the city though, about a 30 minute train ride there.

Name: Piramide (free)
Would I suggest this?: No. Only if you are nearby maybe (right outside piramide train station), the pyramid itself is not very big, and it was under restoration when I went.

Name: Piazza del Popolo (free)
Would I suggest this?: Yes. It is a really big circle plaza with two nice fountains and a big monument at the center.  This is just right below the Villa Borghese.

Name: Borghese Villa (free)
Would I suggest this?: Yes. Imagine your city's biggest park and that is probably what this will be like. Now add a big museum, a zoo, and other things we didn't see and you have this park.

Name: Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore (free)
Would I suggest this?: Yes. Probably the nicest church we saw in Rome and the trip. Very bright, not dark like the others and not a lot of emphasis on sculptures and statues.

Name: San Giovanni in Laterano (free)
Would I suggest this?: Yes. The sculptures in this church are unbelievable.  The paintings have this 3d look where you think it may be real until you look closer.

Italy 2013 - Day 15 (Venice/Toronto)

Last day of the trip. Flight out is at 6pm so we have a few hours left in Venice before the trip is done.

The hotel that we are staying at has free of charge baggage keeping services. Otherwise we would have to bring everything to Venice and back to the airport.

As we were checking out, Allison inquired about the cost for breakfast because I didn't think it was included. Turns out it was! Woo included breakfast! A nice breakfast and the first which includes eggs.

We bought dinner last night, we got a kebob but I was too tired to eat it. It was still good in the morning. On the way to Venice on the bus I saw for the first time the ticket enforcers. The bus system works in a trust system where you would tap to pay when you are on board. Someone didn't pay and got caught. Also note that the local buses here in Venice have two entrances, one at the front and the other on the back. The middle is actually the exit.

We spent one last day in Venice. Wandered over the Rialto bridge, went to St. Mark's square and cathedral. St. Mark's is with a visit both during the day and the night if you can. During the day be warned that the crowds are insane. It may have to do with all the cruise ships that were near. I remember counting at least 6 that were docked. Note that St. Mark's cathedral does not allow bags inside. This is our first after seeing so many churches. There is a free baggage check just to the north of the building though.

We stopped by the same kebob place for lunch and headed to the airport. The bus to the airport costs 6 euro and gets to the airport in about 20 minutes. Arrives every 30 minutes on weekends, a bit more frequently during the week.

So ends the trip... Until next time.

Next a summary of my thoughts on what we did and recommendations based on our sights.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Italy 2013 - Day 14 (Venice/Murano/Burano/Torcello)

Venice! 

We took an early train to Venice today because we are only staying there for one night thinking that there may not be much to see here. During the trip there we meet a couple from BC who offered us a place to stay if we were to go there. I guess we have new trip plans!

Once we got to our hotel and got our footings off to Venice we went. We are staying at a hotel in Mestre which is one train station away from Venice. There is also a bus that goes to Venice. Both options are inexpensive at around 1.30 euro. It takes about 15 minutes to get there.

The place is pretty much as I imagined. A semi floating city by the water. We got to the information center and asked for directions. I saw a sign for a tour that goes to Murano, Burano, and Torcello. About 4.5 hours total at a discounted price of 18 euro instead of 20. I said let's do it.

The tour is worth the trip if you have the time. Murano is known in the area for their glass work. The tour includes a demo of how they make glass. One of the masters makes a vase and the other makes a glass horse in what seemed like under one minute. Very impressive stuff.

Torcello is a really small town. Not really worth visiting and was the point of the trip where someone broke someone's camera... I guess a shockproof camera is needed next time.

Burano is really cool. If you don't do a tour spend the money and time to get here. About 40 minutes away from Venice by boat. Known for their lace work which is interesting to see. The main charm of this town is that every house is painted in a different color. I mean every house. You can walk down a street and never see the same color or even the same shade. It is nice just to wander and get lost. We failed to find a house the same color as my shirt though.

Venice is lit up at night and worth a look. There is still no end to the tourist shops though. We took the water bus back from St Mark's square to the bus station. Costs 7 euro. Takes about as long as by foot but gives you a different view of the canal. A nice end to our trip.

Tomorrow we wander Venice a bit more before heading home.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Italy 2013 - Day 13 (Siena/Florence)

This morning we tried to book tickets to the David only to find out that the earliest time available would be at 4:45pm. It wasn't meant to be. Plan B, Siena.

The bus to Siena is located by the main train station. The rapid bus takes about 1 hour 15 minutes at 7.60 euro each way. Buses are about once or twice an hour.

We had lunch in main square of Siena. The latest square in Italy. It is nice. Everything in this town costs money as well. We paid to see the duomo. It has mosaic floors. Quite impressive looking.

We took the bus back to the station and tried to see David one last time. We got there at 5:40pm and they close at 6:20pm. We actually made it inside by 6:00pm. So if you have time, try to go at night. The David is crazy. None of the pictures do it justice. It needs to be seen and is well worth the price of admission.

We had dinner at a well rated restaurant. Finally ordered their steak. I thought we could do 2kg. Good thing the waiter said 1 is enough. It was huge and delicious. Lovely way to end of Florence.

Tomorrow Venice!

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Italy 2013 - Day 12 (Florence)

Today we are off to see the David.

We got there at 9:40am and the couple that was ahead of us had already been there for 1.5 hours. This is going to be a long wait. I made the executive decision to leave and try again later. So we headed to the museum of precious gems which is just a few buildings down. Price of entry is 4 euro. I was expecting to see crazy emeralds and sapphires but what was inside want completely unexpected. Imagine a paint by color but instead of painting they used cut outs of stone (usually marble). Followed by several layers of polish to smooth out the finish. The end result is a piece that looks like a painted piece but is actually constructed out of marble pieces. Some are crazily tiny! One of the best pieces I have visited so far.

We went to the duomo after and it is quite nice on the outside since it was not your usual monotone building. The interior was a little boring though. There was a wait to get in even though it is free. 

Surprisingly little is free in this city. All other churches had a cost attached to it.

After the duomo we tried the David again and saw that the line up had not changed. We will try again tomorrow.

We had gelato at a place recommended by the host called Perche No. It was very good. Lots of Japanese tourists here. The servers even spoke a bit of Japanese.

Stopped by Del Barone for lunch which is a sandwich shop and it was very good. Even got two free glasses of wine.

Visit the piazza della Signoria if you have a chance. Lots of nice sculptures here including a replica of David.

On our way to piazza Michelangelo we stopped by Cantina Del Gelato which has our favorite gelato of the whole trip. Worth a visit if you can. It is just on the other side of Ponte Vecchio, a famous bridge.

Piazza Michelangelo is definitely worth a visit. It gives you a very good view of Florence.
For dinner we ate at Il Gusto. The place is very good and highly recommended. Was on Michelin guide for a few years.

Tomorrow off to try David again!

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Italy 2013 - Day 11 (Pisa/Lucca)

The breakfast included at this B&B has been the most impressive so far in terms of what it is included. There are four types of dessert snacks, three types of individually wrapped snacks, coffee, tea, juice, bread, cereal and even fruit. The weird thing is that it takes place in a communal hallway but I guess it is a good way to get acquainted with your fellow guests. There are six rooms in this B&B.

Today we head for Pisa. Allison spent to morning looking at possible poses to do while there and there are some pretty crazy ones out there. I wonder how busy it will be today. You can buy train tickets to Pisa from the central station of Florence. It takes about one hour to get there and second class seats costs 7.90 euro at this time.

The leaning tower and the cathedral are about a 30 minute walk from the train station. Just follow all the tourist looking people. Once there I was somewhat disappointed by the height. Mind you it is talk just not as tall as expected. There is no lack of people trying to prop up or push over the tower. 

Interesting area. The cathedral is also very nice and free. If you wish to climb to tower it is currently 18 euro with quite a wait depending on what time you arrive. We spent about 2 hours here. You may end up spending more time here if you did ask the other tourist attractions.

Since it was still early we decided to go to Lucca. It is a small town with a big wall around the entire town. From Pisa it is a short 30 minute bus ride which costs 3 euro. You can rent bikes and ride around on the wall in about 30 minutes or walk for about 50. 3 euro to rent a bike for 1 hour.

Thanks Mike for teaching me how to ride a bike. My butt thanks you.

There is nothing that it's a must see here. It is a nice small little town that people visit. There are tours to this town from Florence.

We decided to have dinner in Lucca since it is a 1.5 hour train ride back to Florence from Lucca at Madame Butterfly. We ordered the carbonara, ravioli, and scallopine all of which were good. Dinner was 24.50 euro.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Italy 2013 - Day 10 (Sorrento/Florence)

After breakfast we said our goodbyes, paid and then left. As we were heading to the train station it started to rain. In this country apparently it can pour for ten minutes and be sunny right after.
This will be a long travel day with the local train taking about 1 hour and the train to Florence being 3 hours long.

An interesting note about this local train. There are certain areas where there is only one track even though it goes both ways. This means that there are stops where one train will wait for the other train to cross before it can go. There are even stations with only one track meaning only one train can stop there at a time.  Make sure to validate your ticket at the booth. This entire time we thought it was sufficient to just use the card to get past the electric doors. Luckily we were never caught.
The train that travels longer distance in today's case from Naples to Rome can hit speeds of up to 300 km/h!

I still don't understand why Europe has toilets that you need to pay to use. This includes the McDonald's that we stopped off at for lunch.

We made it to the B&B (1900 artevita) but we informed them of the wrong arrival time (2:30pm). Luckily they had someone coming at 5pm otherwise we would need to look for a phone to call them.
The host was gracious even though we were late with no way to reach us. The room provided has a nice balcony to have breakfast or just relax. We were told that breakfast is in the hall which is strange but we shall see tomorrow.

We had dinner at a place called trattoria bbq. The food there was good. We had a homemade pasta, beef stew and a chicken roulade. All of which were very good. None were overly expensive. 10 pasta and 15 for the meat courses.

Tomorrow, off to try to prop up the leaning tower of Pisa!

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Italy 2013 - Day 9 (Capri)

Capri day!

This morning for breakfast we got a dessert cannoli instead of the usual croissant. It was huge!! Filled with some kind of cheese and chocolate chips and candied orange peel. It is delicious but a bit sweet for breakfast. We chatted with the hostess this morning about Capri and off we went.

We took the train from Piano to Sorrento. But this morning there was no one there to buy our ticket from so we got on for free. I guess it will help fund our day to Capri because it is supposed to be really expensive. We got to the port and there are a few options to go to Capri none of which are cheap. The cheapest option which we went with ended up being about 28 euro per person. The boat goes to Capri at 9:25am and returns at 6:45pm.

This is clearly a place that everyone goes to from the young to the old. There is no shortage of people even at this cost. I was worried about how much the things would cost while there.
Ended up napping on the ferry there. The ferry is about 30 minutes long. The views from here are quite stunning and with the price of admission.

We stopped by the information point to get our bearings. The guide there assist provides information based on how long you have here. Based on our available time frame he suggested that we walk to the villa that was once home to Augustus and then Tiberius. The villa was huge and you could see a steep drop where supposedly they would throw off people they don't like. After that there was a walk to a natural arch which was really nice. From there you would wander the coastline to see Capri. It was a very good suggestion. A note to those that want to do this. This is not for people who don't like to climb up and down stairs. There are a lot!! Roughly 2 hours worth of climbing up and down steps.
After the walk we reached the main part of Capri with the fashion district. Including all major brand names. It was a nice little street.

Once finished we decided to take the bus to Anacapri which is the highest point on Capri. The bus ride is 1.8 euro and the chair lift is 10 euro roundtrip. Both are worth it. The view is superb.
If you go you may want to pack food since it is quite expensive there. Pizza is roughly 10 euro. By comparison Rome is about 7 euro and where we are staying in Piano is 4 euro. A can of coke is 4 euro.

The ship back was on time and we went back to our new favorite pizza one last time before we leave this city for Florence.

Florence tomorrow!

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Italy 2013 - Day 8 (Mt. Vesuvius/Pompei)

Pompei day!!

As a continuation to yesterday's post, shortly after I published the post, there was fireworks going on just outside the B&B window.  Something about Saint Marie which since I'm not religious, I don't quite understand.  All I understood was that it was going on for 30 minutes outside the window from around 10:30pm - 11:00pm.  They were very nice though.  Actually, even the day before, there were fireworks, not quite as crazy as last night's, but still good.  Also just outside the window of our B&B.  Good choice!

Since the day was clear, we decided that we would go to Mount Vesuvius.  In order to get there, you still go to the Pompei Scavi train stop.  When you get there, exit the train station and head left, there should be a bus (unless it has left) and a booth there that sells tickets to Mount Vesuvius.  It costs 22 euros at this time and includes admission as well as a brief explanation of Mount Vesuvius.  By going through this company, you actually go up through a private trail that is really bumpy but provides a great view of the city.  You are carried up the mountain by what looks like a military truck with monster truck sized wheels on it.  It looks pretty cool.  The entire tour is about 3 hours, 1.5 hours of which is just the ride up and down the mountain.  After you reach the parking lot, there is still about a 15 minute trek up to the top of the mountain.  So, 15 minutes up, 15 minutes down means that you have about 1 hour at the top.  I thought it would be enough time, but I think you need a bit more up there, depends on what you want to see and take pictures of.  All in all, a worthwhile experience.

As we were heading up the mountain, I noticed that the top of the mountain was actually covered by clouds, so I thought it would probably mean that we wouldn't have a good view of the city below and I was right.  Once we got to the parking lot, it was still pretty clear where we were, but as we started trekking up the mountain, it was like a scene in Silent Hill.  You can't see very far and suddenly behind you what you remember being a path, it disappears after about 5 meters.  After 15 minutes of me trying to taste what clouds taste like (you could see them moving), we made it to the top (clouds don't taste like anything unfortunately).  We met up with the guide who was to tell us about Mount Vesuvius and made our way around the cater, it was pretty cool.  You are able to see steam still coming out of little pockets of the volcano, although the bottom is completely covered now.  It has not erupted since 1944, meaning that there is now vegetation growing in the crater (even trees!).

We reached the end of the crater and looked at the time, 25 minutes left to wander back to the beginning, so we made a dash for it.  We originally started with 4 couples, and in the end, we made it back with 3.  For some people, I don't think the trek up to the top is possible within the time frame given.  We saw a few groups of people as we were leaving giving up on the trek up.  Since you couldn't see the top, you have this sense of 'have I walked at all'?

So, after the mad dash down to the bus, we made it back to the base and went to visit Pompei.  Pompei is 11 euros at this time for a huge city which was preserved since 79AD after Mount Vesuvius erupted and covered the city with ash.  Apparently they have only uncovered about 60% of the city at this time.

Having gone to Ostia Antica, I'm not sure what to say about Pompei.  It is a nice city, there are a few highlights including the amphitheater (opposite side of the entrance from the train station), the theater (fairly close to the entrance), and the brothel (I don't know if this was real or not, but it was interesting).  The brothel actually has preserved images at the top of the rooms.  These images depict the type of sexual orientation you desire (yes, that is correct).  It is a small but very packed place since there are a lot of people here.  Which reminds me, Ostia Antica is a lot less busy than Pompei.  I would say there is at least a 15-to-1 ratio of people.  The lack of buildings that you could climb atop of in Pompei was discouraging and a lot of the areas were actually under restoration, so you couldn't even see everything.  Whereas in Ostia Antica, there were quite a few buildings that has second, even third floors that you can climb up to and have a look at the city from above.  All-in-all, I would suggest doing one or the other but not both.  We spent about 3.5 hours in Pompei.  If we did not do Ostia Antica, we may have spent more time here.

Afterwards, we headed back to the B&B and took a nap.  After waking up, we showered and heading out for dinner.  There is a restaurant recommended by Rachel that is just across the street so we headed there.  Unfortunately it doesn't open until 8pm (what restaurant opens at 8pm?), so we wandered and hit up the gelato place that Rachel recommended.  It was pretty good, second gelato of the day.  After gelato, we headed back down to the restaurant since it would be open then.

The restaurant was very good.  Fresh ingredients, menu changes daily.  The waiter/chef was telling us about what was on the menu and we basically ordered everything.  Everything was very well done.  We had cannoli, penne with zucchini, fried smelt and some other fish as well as octopus.  Great meal to end the day.

Tomorrow, Capri!

Friday, September 13, 2013

Italy 2013 - Day 7 (Amalfi/Ravello)

So today is the day to do Amalfi coast.  We woke up early to have breakfast at 7:30am so that we could head there as soon as we could.  Staying at Piano meant that we need to take the train from Piano to Sorrento and then from Sorrento, we need to take the bus to Amalfi.  If you plan to do the same thing, go to the train station and ask for a 24 hour pass which is valid for trains as well as the SITA bus which takes you to and from Amalfi/Sorrento.  Currently it costs about 7.60 euro, well worth it.

We met the neighbours this morning (of the B&B), a couple from New Zealand who is also going to Amalfi today, so they took us to where we needed to go and we parted ways once we arrived.  The breakfast at this B&B is similar to Arches, tea/coffee/cappuccino, orange juice, bread with jam, and a croissant.  We all quickly ate our breakfast and dashed out the door since we had about 4 minutes before the train was scheduled to arrive, the next one would be 45 minutes later.  Little did we know that the train would be late.  Once we got to Sorrento, you leave through the main exit and just across the street is the spot to wait for the bus to Amalfi Coast. 

If you are doing this, try to get a seat on the right-hand side of the bus.  The view is amazing.  You will also be able to see how close the bus is to plunging into the ocean is from this vantage point.  The bus ride from Sorrento to Amalfi Coast is about 2 hours, so it is a fairly long drive.  Actually distance-wise, it is only maybe 25km away?  The reason why it takes so long is because the roads are really windy roads.  Some of the roads are actually so narrow that you cannot fit more than one vehicle on the road at once.  During the hairpin turns, if the bus turns, cars need to avoid it or be in a collision.  I was actually really amazed by the bus driver.  The bus is in manual only (I didn't see an automatic), he drives with one hand (I don't know how he is able to make the big turns with one hand), AND he was talking on his cellphone!

Once we made it safely to Amalfi we decided that we should go to Ravello and see what the fuss is all about (actually, the host at the B&B said that we should go).  Right across the plaza from where you are dropped off is the wait for Ravello.  It is about a 30 minute bus ride.  Well worth a visit.  In some ways, even better than Amalfi.  Make sure to visit Villa Cimbrone.  The views from this place are absolutely stunning.  There is a 7 euro charge to visit the Villa, but it is worth it.

After we wandered Ravello, we made it back to Amalfi, took a look at the non-sandy beaches (I don't actually get why it looks so pebbly), and we did some wandering around in the area.  It seems to be known for lemons since we saw lemons that were the size of a 6 inch sub at subway.  It is pretty ridiculous how large they got.

On our way home, we decided to grab some pizza at Re Pizza again since we liked it last night.  Today I got a pizza that only a kid could make.  It had french fries and hot dogs on it.  I blame Google Translate.

Only one big gelato today!

Tomorrow, Pompei!

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Italy 2013 - Day 6 (Rome/Sorrento)

I figured this would be a boring day since we were just travelling from Rome to Sorrento.  It is about 2 hours to get from one to the other if you catch the right train.  If not, it may take you longer since you need to switch at Naples

So we bid farewell to Pablo at Arches Inn and we headed to Vatican City so that we could send some final postcards.  Before Vatican City we stopped at a small pizza shop that was recommended by Anthony Bourdin.  The place is so small, it doesn't have room instead for seating, there is a bench outside and a small counter.  Pizza in this country is typically sold by weight unless you order a whole pizza and it was no different here.  The pizza was outstanding.  We ordered one with potatoes and another with eggplant.  I really liked the potato one whereas the eggplant one was good too but not my favourite of the two.

Afterwards we would take the train to Naples and switch and head to Sorrento.  We were told that Naples it a dangerous area, but based on our train ride, it wasn't too bad.  I wasn't concerned, but the train from Naples to Sorrento was an older one.  You could see the number of tourists going to the same area and most likely for the same reasons.

We are staying at Casa Rachele and the host has been very good.  She provided us with information on all the tourist attractions, how to get to each, with detailed maps for all locations as well as what tickets to buy and how much they would cost.  She also provided us with business cards for restaurants to go to and if we provided them to the waiter, we would get some discount or free items with the meal.

Since we would be doing day trips from here, we decided to go to the local market to buy some items to make sandwiches and snack for the trips planned.  We will be going to Amalfi coast, Pompei and Capri.  With the ingredients bought, we returned to Casa Rachele to drop things off before heading to dinner.

I looked at TripAdvisor before I left to see what was recommended for restaurants to eat at and all the ones suggested were highly recommended on TA.  Mind you, there are only 29 local restaurants here.  So, we head towards Re Pizza.

As we sat down, we were a bit confused since we saw what looked like a buffet style platter full of pizzas with drinks and cups on the side.  Turns out that someone was having a birthday party there.  The lady who was celebrating her birthday was turning 60 today.  Which is also the day Saint Marie is born (or something?) since her husband was talking to us in English.  He was talking about how he used to travel the world for work and has been to every continent but Australia.  So, being the only people not invited to the party, we felt a little odd but we clapped and cheered along as others were singing what we assumed was happy birthday.  They were gracious enough to give us some cake and champagne as well.  The cake was awesome, the champagne was good.  The pizza here was probably the best we have had so far.  Highly recommended.

We took a stroll after dinner and went back to Casa Rachele to call it a night and figure out where to go tomorrow.  While waiting for the shower, there was a fireworks show just outside the hotel.  A lovely finish to the night.

Tomorrow, off to Amalfi coast!

Italy 2013 - Day 5 (Rome)

This day consisted of random wandering around with no real plan since we have covered most of the main tourist attractions at this point.  We did however have the best snack that we have had so far, arancinis.  Think of a rice ball, with stuffing inside, deep fried.  Recommended by a colleague and unfortunately this was the only thing that he recommended for this trip...

- Piazza del Popolo is a nice square (although it is a circle) located just west of the Borghese Villa.  Nice area with two side fountains and a central one with an Egyptian monument in the middle.  Surrounded by what looks like at least two churches (there isn't a lack of these in this country, that's for sure).

- Borghese Villa is a really nice park with a zoo and a museum, both of which you need to pay to enter which we declined to do.  We did find a nice area to take a jog though!

- Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore we stumbled upon by accident and this is our favourite of all the ones that we have seen.  Everything is brighter and has a lovely look to it.  I would actually suggest this over all the other major ones.

- San Giovanni in Laterano is supposedly the church that most churches try to replicate (or so I was told).  This place is crazy!  The sculptures are out of this world.  And more painting that looks like they are real sculptures!

- Ciro & Ciro was where we went for dinner.  It was an average place, nothing special.  Good value though.

Tomorrow should be a dull day since we are packing and leaving Rome for Sorrento!

Italy 2013 - Day 4 (Rome)

Off to Ostia Antica!  Ruins that are supposedly better than Pompeii!  I guess we'll find out!  From what we have seen, do try to make a visit, it is probably about 1 hour out of the city depending on how your transportation goes.  Here's how to get there:

- Get to Piramide station on Metro Line B
- Go up the escalator and turn left when you get to the top and take the train there to Ostia Antica (that is the name of the stop), the train you will be taking is called the Roma Lido.

Entrance I believe was 10 euros.  Well worth it!  We were there from 11:30am until 5:00pm and we didn't see everything there.  Depending on what you like to see you may end up being here for awhile.  Most worth mentioning would probably be the theater.  This isn't a place that most travellers seem to go since it was significantly less busy here than everywhere else that we have been to so far.  But every one there was clearly a tourist (back packs and Rick Steve's books are a good give away and us listening to Rick Steve's audio guide on the speaker phones wasn't helping us pretend not to be a tourist...).

On the way home we go off at Piramide in order to go see the pyramid outside.  Unfortunately it is under restoration at this time and all we saw was scaffolding.  Oh well... so we started to wander back to our B&B by passing through Trastevere which we were told by our host at Arches B&B is a residential place with good food.  We found a place to eat based on TripAdvisor and the food was pretty good.  Service could have been a bit better though.

Tomorrow, random wandering!

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Italy 2013 - Day 2 (Rome)

I will include a summary instead of detailed information on the trip from now on.

- Colosseum we booked tickets for online for 9:40am which includes the third ring and the lower levels.  Well worth the extra money for this.  This includes a 1.5 hour guided tour of the main/lower/upper level.  Very fascinating stuff.  The areas covered with this ticket were restricted to only individuals with these tickets meaning the general public does not have access to these areas, so it is easier to take photos without a lot of people in the background.  Do try to pre-book the tickets because the line ups are pretty bad.  Along with the 1.5 hour guided tour, we also spent about 1.5 hours wandering the main level which the general admission ticket for a total of 3 hours.  There is also a temporary museum in the second level which includes sculptures and historical items.

- Palantine Hill and Roman Forums were included in the entrance ticket to the Colosseum (all three are included regardless of if you get the regular or the guide tour ticket).  If you only have time for one, skip Palantine Hill and go to the Roman Forum.  The Roman Forum has much more variety than Palantine Hill, but they are both interesting nonetheless.  We spent about 3 hours here.

- Victor Emmauelle monument we were told is a famous wedding cake piece.  It can be seen from afar as a big white building with two chariots at the top.  I don't remember much about what was inside, but when you walk upstairs there is an option to take an elevator to the top of the monument for a very nice view of the city (7 euros).

- Teatro Marcello is a building that is built on top of a set of ruins.  Interesting looking building.

- 3 gelatos today!  I don't know what happened...

- lunch was skipped and we had a random snack somewhere instead.  Dinner was okay, the place had good mixed vegetables but my spaghetti alla carbonara has eggs that looked like scrambled eggs in it (unless this is what it should be like).

- Vatican City tomorrow!

Italy 2013 - Day 3 (Rome)

Woke up to be at Vatican City at 10:00am.  I didn't expect it to be so big and crazy.  St Peter's Basilica was pretty overwhelming as well.  Both took us about 3 hours each.  Yes, 3 hours EACH.  We really liked Raphael's work the most (yes, more than Michelangelo).  I would also recommend pre-booking this item if you are going.  You skip the massive line up.  Be aware that there are a lot of tour groups here.

- Vatican Museums (includes Sistine Chapel), spent about 3 hours here.  Very big museum, crazy amount of old sculptures and paintings.  If you are a fan, this may take even longer.  Take a look at the mosaics.  Some are so small, you can't tell they were mosaics.  It is amazing how some of the paintings look like they are real.

- St Peter's Basilica, we spent about 3 hours here as well.  This includes the exterior and interior.  Once you go in, you are just overwhelmed by the amount of things that are inside.  But I kept wondering how much money was spent to make the place.  Lots of things were under restoration outside unfortunately, so a perfect picture was not possible.

- Piazza Navona we saw this time during the day, it looks nicer in the day in my opinion.  Same amount of street vendors though.  People selling you art, photos, caricatures, spray paint art (which is pretty cool).

- Pantheon, when we compared this to what we have seen already, I would suggest seeing this earlier.  The inside doesn't look very impressive.  The outside looks nice though.

- Trevi fountain we saw during the day this time and I think it looks nicer during the day as well.  Still as crazy busy though.  Plenty of Indians (from India) trying to sell you a polaroid of you there.

- Castel St. Angelo, we saw the exterior and it looks pretty nice at night, not sure about the day, nor did we go inside.  Right outside to the east there is a little market we saw at night with shops and live music.  It was a nice change of scenery.

- only 1 gelato today.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Italy 2013 - Day 1 (Toronto/Rome)

Normally you are asked to arrive for international flights at least 3 hours before the flight.  Today I found out that American Express has a priority customs line.  While others who did not have this had to queue into one line, AmEx cardholders get to bypass the line completely.  They still go through the same customs checks, but they don't have to wait.  So I ended up on the other side of customs with 2 hours to spare.

Air Transat's plane looks nice, but it certainly did not feel comfortable to me.  The food wasn't very good (both the dinner and the breakfast were so-so, I wasn't able to finish the dinner).  The movies on the flight were surprisingly recent though.  I saw Oblivion, Monster's University, Star Trek 2 among others.

Upon arrival, there is a mess of a line for going through customs.  Instead of a line with rope to help create a line, there are simply two areas, one for European passport holders, one for non-European passport holders.  The line for the non-European passport holders was enormous.  It took about 30 minutes to go through customs.  The agents didn't even seem to care about us.  When he was given our passports, he just looked at them and handed them back.  There wasn't even a stamp.

The express train from FCO to Roma Termini (Rome's main train terminal) was 14 euro and they did have conductors checking everyone on board.  There wasn't much to see for the trip.  It takes about 30 minutes.  There is an option to take a bus, but we were not sure how long it would take compared to the train so we opted for the train.

We booked Arches Inn B&B which is located just off of Cipro Metro station.  Very convenient and nice location.  The host was nice, he stayed almost 1 hour longer than expected (I said we would be there for 3:30, arrived at 4:30) since we ran into some difficulties with getting a metro ticket.  The metro system works similar to ones I have seen in Boston.  There is a slot to enter your card, it is validated and at the top your card gets returned to you.  1.50 euro for 1 way, 6 euro for 24 unlimited usage and I think there was a 3 day unlimited usage option for 16 euro.  The host provided us with all the details that we needed.  The location actually has 3 rooms, but noone else is expected to join us for a few more days so we have the entire place to ourselves for now.  Kitchen is fully stored, breakfast is included as items in a cupboard, one per room, including danishes, bread, coffee, cookies, milk, juice and yogurt (the last 3 being kept in the fridge in separate levels).

After we settled down and changed (it feels like 35 right now), we were off.  We walked along Vatican City and saw a whole bunch of people selling souvenirs along the way and fake purses and bags.  Overall, I don't feel unsafe in the area like I was told, but we shall see later.  This may be due to the fact that school has just started so there are less people around.  From there we went to the following:

- Piazza Navona (nice little square, lots of small shops trying to sell type souvenirs like keychains, spray paint art, drawings, etc).  The fountain here was beautiful as well as what looks like a church (you run into a lot of things that look like churches)

- Pantheon (it was closed, but the place is huge from the outside)

- Trevi Fountain (WOW, this place is really big, huge tourist attraction, lots of people trying to find a good place to take photos, there are actually people there with polariods offering to take pictures, but everyone there already has a camera or two or three... we paid for one since the fellow did take quite a few pictures for us while we were there and we talked for a bit)

- Spanish Steps (lots of people here, actually saw at least two groups taking wedding photos here, it looks nice, but I liked the other locations better)

- We ate at La Montecresto for dinner, ordered ravoli and a prosciutto pizza, both were good, service needs work though.  Big tourist place, one person brought a big group with him, at least 40 people, price did not seem unfair (pizza was 8 euro, ravoli was 9)

- We ate at a random pizza shop, they have a big pizza and they slice it for you based on how much you want, price by weight (interesting idea).  Pizza was okay.

- Gelato #1 was at a random place we stopped by at.  2 euro for one flavour one a cone, didn't seem unreasonable.  This was very good, mixed berry.

- Gelato #2 was at another random place.  We saw a sign saying 150 flavours so we went in.  I don't know if they had that many, but they did have a lot.  At least 6 sections worth.  All different.  This place was not as good.  May have to do with our choices.  Champagne and Strawberry something.  Champagne is weird, does taste like it though.  Strawberry was interesting, the strawberry pieces are actually chocolate!

Tomorrow's agenda is Colosseum, Roman Forums, Palantine Hill and random walking!  This place is very nice so far I must say.  Looking forward to the rest of the trip!