A Travellerspoint blog

Italy

Cinque Terre

I got on the train in France and got off in HEAVEN -- also know as Monterosso al Mare, one of the five small villages that make up the Cinque Terre region of the Italian Riviera. This place is really incredible. Basically these five small villages are perched between the mountains and the sea and are pretty much isolated from the rest of the world. The train connects all 5 towns, but there are only a few roads in the area and cars and not allowed (or able) to drive in the towns. There are also a lot of hiking trails, and one main coastal trail that connects all 5 towns. It really is amazing that people built towns here. Most of the hills are straight up. The towns are really pretty traditional, despite the amount of tourism that occurs here. The hills are surrounded by terraces filled with olive trees, lemon trees and wine grapes. I don't know how they have managed to farm these hills -- everything is really straight up.
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When I arrived here, I didn't have a room booked yet. This is only the second time I have done that, and again it went unbelievably well. I just stopped in the tourist information office at the train station and was able to get a private room with an incredible view for 50 euros. After staying in hostels for the last week and sleeping in a room with anywhere from 8 to 15 strangers, a private room was so lovely! I could spread out and make noise and not worry about anyone else. And take a much needed shower in a private bathroom! Of course the view meant that I had to walk straight uphill -- it was quite a climb, but worth it. I am staying in a private room at someone's house. Most people here rent rooms to tourists to make some extra money. But it is not quite like a B & B in the states -- it is pretty much like a hotel room with a private entrance and little interaction with the family. The lovely Betta Luisa is the owner of the place and she was very welcoming. Despite her speaking almost no english and me speaking almost no italian, we managed to communicate. She greeted me with a big hug and kisses on both cheeks and I felt like I was really in Italy!

I spent the first evening just walking around Monterosso. It is a lovely small town with a beautiful beach. I sat by the beach and read a little. This is the first place that anyone has seemed concerned that I am alone. I had several men or various ages approach me and want to practice english. They were all quite worried that I was by myself. In the other countries I have been to, no one seemed to have noticed. But in Italy, it is a little different. Everyone was very friendly and not at all threatening and I was happy to chat and have some company. But I am glad that I will be travelling through the rest of Italy with Mel and Jamy and Wendy and Steven.
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Yesterday I hiked the coastal trail through all 5 towns. Some parts of the hike were quite difficult -- up and down and lots of steps. My legs can feel it today! But it was definitely worth it. The views were amazing and it was a great way to see all of the towns. Each town is a little bit different with its own character. Monterosso (where I am staying and the town farthest west) is a little more beachy, since it has the only sand beach of the 5 towns. There are a few more hotels and tourists here, but it still feels like an authentic small town. DSC_0579.jpgVernazza is a beautiful town with a natural harbor. Corniglia is the only town perched high on a hilltop without direct access to the water. Manarola is a little bit smaller and focused more on wine grapes. Riomaggiore is the farthest east and is a little more spread out. It was so nice to spend the day hiking and exploring. It made me remember why I want to move back to the northwest -- mountains, trails and nature!

In Riomaggiore, I decided to stop and get a drink on a beautiful terrace bar overlooking the water. I decided to try Limoncino -- a lemon drink that is a regional specialty. Not quite what I was expecting. It was very potent and very lemony! Much better after diluting it with some ice (it originally came in a shot glass -- also not what I was expecting). While sipping my drink I started talking to Jamie, a girl from Chicago who is travelling in Italy over spring break. She was really fun and we ended up having dinner together. We had a great meal from a local Foccaceria. Tomato bruschetta, pesto foccacia, some spinach pastry thing and topped off with lemon gelato! Yum! The food here is really amazing. I had a great time visiting with Jamie and hopefully we can meet up in Chicago someday for a drink!

I have loved being here so much that I am glad I have something else to look forward to -- Naples with Mel and Jamy! If not, I have a feeling I could spend a week or more here. It is just so beautiful and relaxing. The brilliant sun, the bright blue Mediterranean, the slow pace of life. This has easily been one of my favorite stops so far!

I will try and post some pictures soon!

Posted by jenniesue 01:44 Comments (0)

Cote d'Azur

Sunny Nice!

I arrived in Nice after a very long day of train travel. This is really the first day that I have had any problems travelling. I have been amazed how easy and efficient everything here is. I guess I was thinking back to my time in Asia and expecting that travelling would be similar -- meaning really difficult. It is so easy here -- everything is clean, well marked, people are friendly and helpful. It really makes it easy to get around.

I left Barcelona at 8 a.m. and had a little trouble getting to the train station. I had left myself enough time to take the metro to the station, but it turns out that the train station line is currently under construction. So I had to take a cab (after spending 20 mins figuring out the train wasn't going) and I made it to the station with just 10 mins to spare. Luckily I made the train, but it was a little too close for my comfort.

I had to change trains twice -- once in Montpellier and once in Marseille. My train was late leaving Marseille because someone had jumped in front of the train in front of ours and died. Yikes. So I ended up getting to Nice 2 hours late, around 9 pm, but at least I had a much better day than that guy.
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Nice is a beautiful area -- I can see why celebrities and the rich all flock here. The sun is so bright and warm and the coast line is beautiful. The Mediterranean is so blue! I spent today just hanging out at the beach and soaking it all in. A full day without museums or anything to see or do -- it was a welcome break. The Old City in Nice is a tiny little maze of streets. I spent the morning at the market. I really love going to markets like this. Fresh produce, flower stands, spices, pastries -- all so beautiful and yummy! It must be so great to live in a place where you can shop like this rather than in a big grocery store. Maybe that is just my fruit stand background coming out!DSC_0512.jpgDSC_0515.jpg

I wandered along the Promenade de Anglais -- a wide boardwalk along the sea. The beaches here are rocky -- moderate size smooth pebbles -- which is not what I expected. The water is still a little too cold to swim although there were some brave souls out there. I could see just hanging out here for a week or two. On the train I met a couple from Olympia who rented a condo in Antibes for 4 weeks. They said this is one of their favorite places they have ever travelled and I can see why.
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As much as I would love to stay, I am headed to Italy tomorrow and I am very excited about that! I will be meeting up with my friends Mel and Jamy (and of course Millie too) in a couple of days and I am really looking forward to seeing them. They moved to Naples before Christmas and it will be so good to hang out with them!

I saw coverage of the Italy earthquake today in the paper and pieced together small bits from what I could read. When I first saw the picture I thought it was a bombing. It is a horrible tragedy and I just feel so much for those people. This area of Italy is more on the eastern coast and I will mainly be on the western coast, so it shouldn't affect my travels at all. But it is an awful thing for Italy and the small hills towns in Abruzzo. May they find the strength to recover and rebuild in the face of such adversity.

Posted by jenniesue 07:59 Comments (0)

Spain

Barcelona!

I spent two great days in Barcelona. What a beautiful city! It was such a pleasant place. The historic old city is a wonderful maze of streets and plazas that are so much fun just to wander around in. DSC_0458.jpgDSC_0363.jpgThe Ramblas is a pedestrian street in the middle of town that is filled with activity. There are street performers, shops, restaurants, and lots of people milling around. It was a great atmosphere. My favorite part was the mercado -- a huge open market filled with vendors selling fruit, fresh juices, cheeses, meats, seafood, etc. DSC_0374.jpg

Outside of the historic old center, Barcelona is a very modern thriving city. There are huge tree lined boulevards, beautiful neighborhoods, a great metro system and shopping to rival New York. The city is right on the beach with the hills in the background. Barcelona is totally unique compared to Madrid. They speak Catalan here, which is a language distinct from Spanish. It is basically a mash of Spanish and French with a little Italian thrown in. The culture here is different as well. It seems a little more refined than Madrid. Art and architecture are definitely a big thing here, and the city is best known as the home of Gaudi and Picasso.

My first day in Barcelona I basically wandered the streets. I went to the cathedral, which unfortunately is under restoration so I didn't get a good look at the facade. But the interior was beautiful. I especially loved the cloisters -- an open air courtyard complete with palm trees and geese and surrounding chapels. I went to the Montjuic area and saw the fountain show that night. They do a combo light/water/music show with the fountain. It was a little cheesy, but the setting was beauitful. I went back to the same area the next day and wandered the gardens. This is the area that was the setting for the 1992 Olympics. The stadium is huge and perfectly incorporates the modern day event and the old artistic feeling of Barcelona. I went to the Catalan art museum. The best thing in this museum were the various church frescoes that were rescued from delapidated churches in the Pyrenees. They have basically reconstructed multiple churches within the museum in order to display the Romanesque paintings that were found. Pretty remarkable.

I tried to go to the Picasso museum, but it was free on this sunday, so the line to get in was very long. So I decided to skip it and walk around. A few minutes later, I stumbled upon a plaza filled with people. I hadn't realized that it was Palm Sunday. The plaza was in front of one of the main churches in Barcelona -- Saint Marie del Mar -- and they were having an outdoor service for Palm Sunday. It was fascinating! It was basically like a big party. DSC_0448.jpgFamilies all together, milling around, chatting, meeting friends, laughing, singing. The priests stood on the platform at the front of the church and conducted the service. Everyone in the crowd had bunches of leaves or intricately woven palm sticks. The sticks were really interesting. I had seen several of the flower vendors making these the day before but I didn't realize what they were for. Some had bows or flowers on them, others had small toys or items attached. I saw a couple of sticks that had spiderman and hello kitty on them! When the priest would reach a certain part of the ceremony, everyone would wave their bunches of leaves and pound their sticks on the ground. It was really awesome to see.

I spent the afternoon at the Sagrada Familia -- the famous church that Gaudi designed and is still under construction. It really is amazing and like nothing I have ever seen before. The design is so unique. It really feels like a modern day cathedral, and it is the only one that I can think of that is of our time. It was originally started in the late 1890s and they are predicting it will be another 50 years before it is finished. I can't imagine working on a structure like that. I guess this is what people in the middle ages must have felt like -- building cathedrals like Notre Dame that would take over 200 years. DSC_0500.jpgDSC_0477.jpgDSC_0494.jpg

I spent the evening with two people I met at the hostel I am staying at. I have really enjoyed staying in hostels -- much more than I ever thought I would (It turns out I really can sleep anywhere). I feared that most people would be a lot younger than me (and most have been) but there are a lot of people my age and older that are staying in hostels too. In Madrid I met a Canadian girl who is getting her Masters in Archeaology in London. She was spending one night in the hostel before heading to eastern Spain for a 2 week dig. There were also 6 Greek guys in our room who had come to Madrid for an AC/DC concert. They were crazy but a lot of fun. We ended up all going out for drinks one night and having a great time. In Barcelona, I met an Israeli girl who was in Spain for a vacation. She spent most of last year travelling around South America. There was also a guy from Atlanta who works for Delta Airlines in maintenance and flew to Barcelona for 24 hours just because he could (crazy airline people!). They were great fun and we had a wonderful evening of tapas and conversation. It really is nice to meet so many different people with different perspectives. One of the best parts of travelling is meeting like minded people from all different parts of the world.

Posted by jenniesue 07:52 Comments (2)

Spain

Lively Madrid

After a long (but not too uncomfortable) overnight train from Paris, I arrived mid-day in Madrid. The city is really fascinating. In terms of european cities, it has a somewhat short history, only being the capital of Spain for not quite 500 years. The city has a very young feel to it. Paris felt very classic, like a grand dame. Madrid feels like a teenager. The old city is pretty compact and easy to walk around. The Metro system is well organized and clean. I am amazed that some of my old high school spanish has come back a little. Apparently I was paying attention in Senora Ewart´s class! I can at least communicate a little, which is much better than I could do in France.
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I spent my first afternoon here just walking around and enjoying the streets. Madrid made an unsuccessful bid for the 2012 Olympics, and part of their campaign was sprucing up the city. The center of the city has numerous pedestrian only streets, so it is really comfortable to just walk around. The next morning I went to the Palacio Real (the Royal Palace). It is incredible! Very big, very beautiful. DSC_0336.jpgThe palace still functions as part of the Spanish monarchy, even though the King and Queen don´t live here anymore. It is mainly used for official functions -- state dinners, signing official treaties, etc. I love the fact that it is still a useful government building. For some reason, all I keep picturing is Rafa Nadal being congratulated by the King and Queen after he won the French Open last year. I think that is the only time I have really seen the Spanish monarchy.

After the Palacio Real, I went into the cathedral that is across the Plaza from the Palace. It is fairly nondescript from the outside, a neo-classical style, but the inside was pure Spanish. The ceiling of the nave and the dome are reminescent of Picasso, Miro and Gaudi. Not the traditional cathedral that I saw in France. I will try and post some pictures soon. DSC_0345.jpg

I spent the afternoon at the Prado Museum, considered to be the best museum of paintings in Europe. It was quite impressive, numerous works by master artists, mainly from the middle ages and Renaissance. I loved Fra Angelica´s Annunciation. The also have a huge collection of Spanish artists -- Goya, Velazquez, etc. I also visited the Reina Sofia Museum, the home of modern art, with a huge Picasso collection. I am not a huge fan of modern art, but some of the pieces were remarkable. I honestly don´t know how artists come up with some of this stuff. Brilliant or crazy? Perhaps a little of both.

The weather has been beautiful, warm and sunny spring. I spent a couple of hours today in the Retiro Park, a huge beautiful park in the center of Madrid. The sun was so nice and warm and there were so many people out and about. It reminded me of the first warm day of spring in college when everyone would be outside on Ankeny in shorts and tank tops.
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The best thing about Madrid is the paseo. In the early evenings, everyone goes "strolling." Literally just moseying up and down the streets, chatting with friends and family, stopping for a drink or a tapas here and there. I don´t know who thought of this, but it is brilliant! Why don´t we do this at home? How great to meet up with your friends or family every evening and just spend a couple of hours wandering the streets arm in arm, gossiping and chatting away? You see people of all ages -- kids, teenagers, adults, elderly -- out for an evening stroll. It really is great. It feels like everyone is out on the streets to see and be seen. The tapas are amazing -- little plates of tasty treats that are fairly inexpensive. I have tried several different types -- not really sure what they were when I ordered them (still not sure about a couple of them) -- and they have all been delicious. Being in Madrid has made me miss my friends and family because I would have so much fun hanging out with them here. In Paris it was very easy to be on my own, but Madrid is a really social place. It would be much more fun with everyone around!

Posted by jenniesue 08:51 Comments (0)

Normandy

Medieval cathedrals, tapestry and D-Day

I headed a few hours north of Paris to Normandy for a quick overnight trip. At first I wasn´t sure I was going to go -- I was having such a great time in Paris -- but I am really glad that I did. The french countryside is absolutely beautiful -- everything was a vibrant green and flowers are starting to bloom everywhere. Spring has sprung! I didn´t have a place to stay, just hopped on a train and showed up in Bayeux. It all worked out really well. Bayeux is a great little town that is centered around an amazing cathedral. At one point in time (during the reign of William the Conquerer), Bayeux was the center of everything in Normandy. The famous Bayeux tapestry, describing the conquest of England by William the Conquerer (heretofore known as William the Bastard -- conquer a country and you go from a bastard to a hero) was embroidered here to decorate the cathedral about a thousand years ago. That´s right -- I said a thousand years ago. It really is incredible that we still have works of art around and in good shape that were created so long ago. The tapestry was really great. It tells a very detailed story of the voyages and wars of the time. The artistry is amazing. Even more incredible is how well the colors have survived. Apparently the plants used to dye the wool yarn are pretty resistant to fading. The tapestry used to be displayed in the cathedral for a week or two each year, so it probably helps that the majority of the time it was in storage. The cathedral itself was spectacular. I wonder if people here appreciate worshipping in such amazing surroundings. I think of the majority of churches we have back home -- even the megachurches in Texas -- and it just wouldn´t compare to these works of art.
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The amazing thing about Bayeux is that everything is still relatively intact. This area in Normandy was one of the hardest hit by WWII, especially the german occupation and the allied liberation. Most towns in the area were over 80% destroyed by bombings. Somehow Bayeux came through unscathed and you can tell. The streets are exactly as you would imagine them a thousand years ago -- small narrow passage ways, old cobblestone bridges, waterwheels. It was very relaxing just to wander the streets and to be in a small town where everyone seems to know each other. Of course, Bayeux is very much a tourist town. However since it is the off season, there aren´t many tourists around, making the streets nice and peaceful.

I took a half day D-Day tour to Point-du-hoc, Omaha beach and the American cemetary. It is really powerful to see just exactly what the Allies were up against. Of course I have studied all of this before, read Band of Brothers, etc, but it is much different to see it in person. The French are still incredibly grateful for D-Day and the Battle of Normandy, despite the great civilian losses that happened. They knew (and still know) that this was their only chance to escape German oppression and save Europe. The strategy behind the campaign is just mind-blowing. To be able to mastermind that kind of operation is incredible. Standing over Omaha Beach, I can´t imagine the veterans who return here. DSC_0284.jpgThis year is the 65th anniversary of D-Day. I can´t imagine having survived something like that and choosing to return to the place it all happened. Our guide said that many of the veterans come to see how nice everything looks, to know that their sacrifice was for something, for the freedom of the French. I still don´t think I would be able to go back to a place that had such memories. DSC_0302.jpgDSC_0295.jpgThe American cemetary was incredibly moving -- so well done and taken care of. The land is officially U.S. soil, given by the government of France forever. Over 9,000 graves. So sad to see how much so many gave. And today there are still many who serve willingly. And we should all be grateful for those who do and their families!DSC_0294.jpg

Posted by jenniesue 15:12 Comments (1)

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