Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Eurotrip2011: Day 46

Florence - Lucca

It was a quiet start to our last morning in Florence. We ditched the rather average breakfast spread provided by our B&B and instead headed to a nearby café for a cup of coffee and a savoury pastry. A quick cab ride, followed by a 90 minute train trip transported us to the picturesque town of Lucca. The intact Renaissance era walls that surround the city provide an historic "frame" for a truly beautiful town. 

Once our bags were in the safe hands of hotel staff, we set off to one of the numerous bike rental shops and were thrilled to hire two side-by-side tandem bikes. These rather silly looking contraptions could only be ridden atop the city walls - an activity which we felt could provide us with a good orientation of the town. During our ride, I realised just how charming and peaceful this small Tuscan city is. Take a look for yourself:

Our ride culminated in the procurement of gelati from a bike riding vendor (gotta love a town that gets behind cyclists!). This sweet treat served as an excellent apéritif, as we then headed into town for lunch - a bottle of local wine and pasta (I opted for fusilli with bacon and zucchini flowers), followed by a coffee and tiramisu (with dried fruit...I know - total revelation, right?!).   

As the day continued, I could feel the first symptoms of a cold coming on. As such, my beloved and I headed back to our hotel for a quick afternoon siesta and then enjoyed a two hour stroll around central Lucca. During our walk, we stumbled across a bustling pizza joint, where we later returned to collect dinner. We ordered a couple of large pizzas to take away (and boy, were they large!). Our picnic feast was enjoyed atop the town walls - a delightful (and delicious!) way to end our very short visit to this lovely part of the world.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Eurotrip2011: Day 45


Our travel companions set off early to explore Florence together until we were scheduled to catch up at the Uffizi later in the afternoon. As such, my beloved and I took the opportunity to enjoy a later start to the day, leaving our B&B at 9:30am.

The previous day, I had contacted one of my two best girlfriends who spent some time studying in Italy. She recommended two eateries in Florence and the first seemed like an excellent place for breakfast - Gilli. Having learnt from our experience the previous day, we opted to drink our coffees at the bar (no table service charges, thank you very much!) and ordered our pastries "to go". The service at the café was rather abrasive. There seemed to be about three processes/queues that one had to navigate their way through to order an item - all very confusing. The hostility and lack of patience demonstrated by the staff didn't help either! I have to admit that the coffee was excellent and my doughnut was exceptional. Worth the rudeness though? Hmmm...

While digesting, we wandered around the nearby streets and the leather markets (when in Florence, right?!). My beloved found a great pair of shoes and I walked away with a beautifully soft leather belt. We also picked up a few scarves for our friends and family. As noted in my previous post, I wasn't entirely blown away by the leather markets. Each stall seemed to stock very similar goods (in terms of colours and styles), with no ostensible thought given to design. Being a fairly regular traveller to Asia, I also didn't feel entirely confident that the goods were locally made. Nonetheless, we had a good time shopping.

We continued to wander the streets of Florence, heading across the Ponte Vecchio and towards Piazzale Michelangelo. We trekked up the numerous steps to the lookout (quite exhausting given the hot weather) and rewarded ourselves with a gelato each, while we took in the stunning views.

My beloved and I then headed to my friend's second Florence eating recommendation - I Fratellini.

This charming hole-in-the-wall panini bar was a resounding success - talk about a different experience to breakfast - this was service with a smile! We each grabbed a roll and a glass of wine and sat ourselves down on the curb to devour and watch the world go by. Soon after sitting, we were surprised to see a film crew, along with some *cough* stars *cough* from Jersey Shore pass down the lane way (we were to see them in the same location later in the day also). As someone who has never seen an episode of the show, I had to ask some nearby tourists to explain who these people were and why they were famous (I'm sure my entire generation is cringing at my lack of "cultural" knowledge right now!).

Shortly after devouring my delicious panini, I received a phone call from the parents of my other best girlfriend (i.e. not the one who studied in Italy), who informed me that they were just around the corner, finishing up at the Uffizi. We dashed towards the gallery and had a very surreal reunion. It was lovely to see my "second parents" (who I see nearly weekly in Melbourne), but so odd, given the location!

The timing proved to be perfect, as our tickets for the Uffizi had been booked for mid-afternoon. Accordingly, we said our goodbyes and walked straight into the gallery (ah, the joys of pre-booking at major tourist attractions). The Uffizi was a little too cluttered for my liking (i.e. I felt overwhelmed by the number of paintings hanging on each wall). However I must admit that I was thrilled to finally see many of the illustrious works of Botticelli in the flesh.

After seeing most of the gallery's collection, it was time for another visit to i Fratellini for a light dinner, before wandering back to our B&B for a relatively early night.

Overall, I have to confess that my time in Florence was not what I had anticipated. I think that a number of my friends had, in a sense, over-hyped the city and, consequently, I was expecting more (my soon-to-be brother-in-law had the same experience of Berlin, thanks to my gushing about the city!). I didn't have a bad time in Florence - quite the reverse, but it wasn't quite as special as I thought the experience would be. Would I return to Florence? Maybe. Would I return to Tuscany more broadly? Hell yes! Find out why in my next post.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Eurotrip2011: Day 44

Vernazza - Florence

After a quick breakfast of fruit we caught an early regional train from Vernazza to La Spezia, followed by a longer one to Florence. Once in Florence we walked to our inappropriately named B&B (which was really not particularly "eco-friendly"!). It was, however, located in a quiet, but fairly central area, which worked well for our purposes.

After dropping off our bags, we set out towards the famed Florence leather markets, where my beloved procured a new wallet (I have to say, I wasn't particularly impressed by the quality or design of many of the goods on offer). A sugar fix is always required after shopping - we decided on gelato.

Next on the day's agenda was the Academia. As expected, Michelangelo's David was both imposing and magnificent. In compliance with museum protocols, we didn't take any photos (although many did!), so I unfortunately don't have any images for interested readers. During our visit to the Academia, my beloved and I particularly enjoyed the short documentaries demonstrating how the stone sculptures were made - what fascinating and painstaking work!

After our time getting to know Michelangelo, my beloved and I headed towards the Duomo. Upon seeing the queues to enter, we quickly decided that we'd prefer to gaze at the structure while eating pizza and drinking chianti. Despite being "tourist central" our meal was surprisingly delicious and most definitely satisfying. Our spirits were high!

With a little time to kill before meeting up with our travel companions, we headed towards the Ponte Vecchio - a medieval stone bridge that still has operational shops on either side.

Across the bridge, we stumbled upon a patisserie that looked like a good place to rest our tired legs before our designated meeting time (amusingly, our travel companions turned up about five minutes after us with the same idea). What appeared to be a patisserie, was instead a complete tourist trap rip off! My beloved and I shared a biscuit and ordered a hot drink each. The price? 17. Not happy! Note to all travellers to Florence (and indeed, to any of the tourist hot spots in Italy): one is lumped with numerous service charges when one chooses to "eat in" at a restaurant/cafés. My recommendation would be to confirm these charges before making the decision on where to eat, order food "to go" or stand at the bar (this is an option in many of the cafés in Florence and doesn't incur additional service charges). Lesson learnt!

After resting our weary legs, we headed to Le Volpi E L'Uva - a small wine bar just a stone's throw from the Ponte Vecchio. It was recommended by one of the staff members at our hotel and, after sampling a few of their small dishes, I'm pleased to say that I recommend the eatery also.

As the sun began to set, the four of us commenced the 30 minute walk back to our hotel. En route, we once again passed by the Duomo, which was even more stunning against the deep blue of the sky.

What a busy day!

Friday, August 26, 2011

Eurotrip2011: Day 43


We woke up ready and rearing to hike the Cinque Terre, but knew that in order to make the distance, we'd need to fuel up on a good breakfast. Luckily, one of our travel companions had done her research and found Il Pirata delle Cinque Terre recommended highly on Tripadvisor. The little restaurant was only a short walk from our accommodation and the Sicilian-inspired food on offer was just fantastic!

The owner was a real character, reminding us more than once that his restaurant was consistently booked out ("even though it doesn't have a view"). Some people on Tripadvisor have commented that his nature is abrasive and boastful, I merely found him to be proud...and a little socially awkward. In any case, the food served was so delicious that we decided to secure a dinner reservation post-hike.

With full bellies, we set off on our hike, but were saddened to discover that only two of the four legs of the walk were open, due to some recent rainy weather. The most difficult, narrowest and most slippery leg or the walk between Vernazza and Monterosso was, however, open. We set off on this route, which took us around 3 hours (including very frequent photo stops). We captured hundreds upon hundreds of photos of this stunning part of the world. Here are three of my favourites:

By the time we arrived in Monterosso it was pizza-and-beer-o'clock (otherwise known as lunch time). My beloved and I split our pizzas - one featured local anchovies and olives and the other was topped with grilled vegetables. Both were tasty and definitely filled a hole!

Replete, we caught a local train to the third town of the Cinque Terre - Corniglia. My beloved, who was coming down with a cold, and one of our travel companions opted not to climb the 382 steps to reach the town (yes, I counted), but the remaining two of us, trekked up the steps (I was quite proud of my effort sans ACL!), picked up some fantastic frozen yoghurt topped with fresh lemon juice and honey and bolted back down to deliver our bounty to our other halves before the treats melted entirely. I think we were nearly successful...

We then took a train from Corniglia to Manarolo, where we were able to embark on the second of the available walks to Riomaggiore. This leg is known as the "Lovers Walk" (and we were delighted to witness a proposal (successful, it appeared!) during our stroll). This portion of the Cinque Terre hike is regarded as the easiest. The path is wide and fully concreted. Accordingly, it was a nice way to conclude a busy day.

Shortly after arriving back in Vernazza, it was time to make our ways back to Il Pirata. Our experience at the establishment was, once again, excellent. We started our meal with an abundance of antipasto and bread, as well as a Sicilian "fruit only" granita. It was pastas all round for main...

...followed by delectable desserts - cannoli with freshly piped ricotta for yours truly.

We rounded out the meal with a shot of local liqueur and, with tired legs and contented bellies, soon made our way to bed.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Eurotrip2011: Day 42

La Ciotat - Nice - Vernazza

What a busy 42nd day we had in terms of travel. We were up at the crack of dawn to drive to Nice to return our rental car. It then took four trains (and a number of hours) to reach our final destination - Vernazza - one of the five towns that make up the beautiful Cinque Terre. As we stepped off the very crowded station platform we were thrilled to be treated to this sight:

A quick phone call later and the very enthusiastic owner of our hotel came to meet us and assist in carrying our bags up the numerous steps to our self-contained apartment. Our accommodation was very comfortable, albeit somewhat dated, but who really cares with a view like this?!

Feeling quite exhausted from our long day of travel, we decided to head out for a quick walk to refresh ourselves and to take in Vernazza's beautiful colours.

Dinner soon followed - a nearby restaurant, where we were able to try some food that's local to the region -  specifically, pesto and a baked anchovy dish. Our first night in Italy naturally necessitated the consumption of some tiramisu too!

A limoncello from an excellent vantage point capped off the evening. What a stunning view to end the night on!

Sunday, August 14, 2011

August update

I'm so glad that people have been enjoying my trip report - I've had great feedback via email, TripAdvisor and on this blog itself. Thank you for taking the time to read!

This is just a short post to let people know that the last couple of weeks of our trip might not be posted as frequently as the first 41 days (i.e. not likely to be daily). I have gone back to uni two nights per week, while working full time and trying to focus on my knee rehab. Needless to say, life's busy. Very busy! Accordingly, please excuse the tardiness of some of my posts. 

Stay tuned for some pretty exciting Eurotrip posts coming from the Cinque Terre, Florence, Lucca, Rome, the Italian Riviera and Kuala Lumpur. In addition, inspired by my time in Italy, I've purchased a pasta maker and have been experimenting with all sorts of different pastas. Be prepared for "carb overload" after my Eurotrip posts finish up. There'll also be restaurant reviews galore, for those of you in Melbourne. 
In the interim, thanks a bunch for your understanding!

Friday, August 12, 2011

Eurotrip2011: Day 41

Barcelona - Marseille - La Ciotat

After my beloved extricated our cumbersome automobile from an unbearably tight car park, we were on the road, headed towards the Salvador Dalí museum in Figueres. What a wonderful experience for lovers of surrealist art. Here are some of my favourite artworks/rooms at the museum.

This mechanical, ruby-encrusted beating heart captured my attention at a separate exhibition featuring some of Dalí's jewellery.

After a few hours exploring the museum, it was time for a quick lunch. Our group then hit the road again, this time destined for my beloved's aunt's house in Marseille. We arrived at their stunning home, with a perfectly manicured (yet very functional) French garden.

The hospitality extended to us was simply delightful. A banquet of fresh vegetables (home grown, if you don't mind), home made aioli, beetroot quinoa salad, locally caught fish, cherry pie and much cheese and wine was on offer. The meal really hit the spot and my beloved and I were thrilled to get to know part of our wonderful family!

At night fall, we drove around 20 minutes to the nearby town of La Ciotat, where we tried to get enough sleep for the big day ahead.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Eurotrip2011: Day 40


After another sleep in and rather sizeable buffet breakfast, it was time to explore Barcelona's gothic quarter. We popped into a few of the boutiques (a girl must shop!) before visiting the Cathedral of Santa Eulalia.

The shopping around the cathedral was great. I managed to pick up a pair of funky resin earrings, as well as some Spanish leather shoes, which were almost identical to (the now "made in China") Camper Peu.

We then headed towards Passeig de Gràcia - one of the most famed and beautiful avenues of Barcelona. The street was full of exclusive boutiques, up-market restaurants and some pretty stunning architecture.

After our paella disappointment days earlier in Granada, my beloved and I were eager to try a more authentic and tasty version of the illustrious Spanish dish. This time I did my research and selected Tenorio Braseria (Passeig de Gràcia, 37, 08007 Barcelona). We weren't disappointed! The meal began with some fried Padrón peppers, which were accompanied by rustic slices of sharp cheese.

Next on the menu - the traditional mixed paella. This dish was full of plump, tasty seafood, perfectly cooked rice and had a very distinct saffron flavour. It was, hands down, the best paella I have experienced in my nearly 30 years!

With what I can only imagine were distended bellies, we staggered back down Passeig de Gràcia, popping into to shops intermittently. Back at the hotel, we gathered up all of our warmer clothes and set off towards Barcelona's main post office to lighten our load. The building in which the post office is located is beautiful, historic and free(!) - for the budget-conscious traveller, I recommend a visit.

Parcel posted, we met with our travel companions and headed to Barcelonela metro stop, where we walked towards the beast and settled on a small café, where we feasted on burgers, dips, nachos and beer (a classy lot, we are!) while watching the sun set. A lovely way to end a busy three days in Barcelona!

Twenty bonus points if you can tell me what's wrong with this picture.
Hint: we played a little "Where's Willie" while people watching...teehee!

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Eurotrip2011: Day 39


After a sleep-in, breakfast and a quick chat with my best friend and parents (who, very sweetly, had convened in Melbourne for dinner for the occasion), my beloved and I took the metro to La Sagrada Familia. This Gaudi-designed church seems to grow almost organically from the sidewalk and, to me, conveyed an eerie, foreboding feeling - very cool!

As evidenced by the images above, La Sagrada Familia is still being constructed, some 130 years since work on it began and nearly 90 years since Gaudi's death. The font of all knowledge that is Wikipedia tells me that the anticipated completion date is fifteen years from now - I think a return trip may just be necessary to mark the occasion...

Next on the day's Gaudi-themed agenda was a cab ride to Parc Güell, where we felt as if we'd been transported into a Dr Seuss book. The park conveys a wonderful sense of playfulness and whimsy.

My beloved and I spent a couple of hours enjoying the views of Barcelona, soaking up some of the fantastic jazz performances and ambling along rather mindlessly in Gaudi-wonderland.

Back to reality, we headed to the hotel to quickly freshen up and then set off towards Maremagnum - a shopping/dining/entertainment complex located right on the coast. A late lunch at Tapatapa, a modern-style tapas bar, followed. The food was decent, but not particularly memorable.

Next on the cards was a little retail therapy, which involved the purchase of a little, red Desigual skirt and some black Spanish leather sandals. What do you think?

Dinner was once again a few doors away from our hotel, where we enjoyed chatting with the friendly waiter and downing a couple of tall beers with our steak.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Eurotrip2011: Day 38

Rafelguaraf - Barcelona

After a hearty breakfast, we were on the road headed for Barcelona by 9am. I couldn't resist snapping a shot of this road sign - Peñiscola anyone? 

I have to admit that I was quite nervous as we approached Spain's second largest city, thanks to the numerous media reports of tyre slashings and various other automobile theft schemes in operation. Thankfully, we arrived at our hotel unscathed and managed (with difficulty!) to manoeuver our beast of a vehicle into the secure parking lot.

For a lover of food like yours truly, I made sure our first port of call was Mercat de la Boqueria. This market is pulsating with colour and life and I just wished our accommodation was self-contained so I could purchase every vibrant ingredient in sight and cook up a storm. Instead, we had to settle on lots of fruit.

We managed to secure a seat at one of the many small vendors at the market and employed our now sophisticated mime skills to order a couple of coffees and what appeared to be a sweet pastry. The pastry turned out to be an incredibly delicious accompaniment to our coffees - a sweet pumpkin empanada of sorts.

Okay, one more shot of market "food porn" before I move on.

Our walk back to the hotel along Las Ramblas was full to the brim of character, with street performers, spruikers and beggars sharing the busy promenade.

Opposite our hotel we noticed that the opera Carmen was showing at Theatre Victoria. We investigated and were thrilled that seats were available to the evening's "early" show. Amusingly, what we thought was an opera, was instead a flamenco interpretation of the opera. We realised this about five minutes into the show, after much dancing, trumpeting and guitar playing....but no singing (I know, we're not the brightest pennies in the fountain at times!). Despite being performed in an unexpected artform, the dancing was outstanding and we didn't regret attending for one second.

After the flamenco spectacular, we headed to a local restaurant (oddly packed with police having dinner). A friendly young waiter saw our arrival as a perfect excuse to practise his English skills and recommended we try a basic starter (partially pictured top left, below), involving toasted bread, garlic cloves, fresh tomatoes and olive oil. The garlic and tomato was rubbed on the bread, which was then drizzled in olive oil. What a simple, but tasty meal idea! Our Iberian meat platter, steak and crema catalana weren't too shabby either.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Eurotrip2011: Day 37

Granada - Rafelguaraf

Sick of hotel-style buffet breakfasts, the morning of "Day 37" started out with a local morning meal surrounded by chatty Spanish workers who were fuelling up for the day ahead. Although simple, my tomato purée on toasted bread, with coffee and a freshly squeezed orange juice was magnificent!

Replete, we set off in the direction of Valencia for a more regional Spanish experience, stopping for lunch en route. We arrived in Rafelguaraf (a town of only 2,500 about an hour from Valencia) and checked into our B&B - Casa Sibarita, where we were warmly greeted by its British owners. A walk around town followed. Despite having no Spanish language, my beloved managed to tee up a hair cut, which, according to him, was two days overdue (he was quite keen to have a "Barber of Seville" moment in Seville!).

Our relaxing afternoon was followed by a truly outstanding meal at the B&B, washed down by a couple of bottles of sensational local wine and their homemade limoncello. Sadly, I don't have any photographic evidence of the evening (potentially a good thing given the volume of wine I consumed!), but I cannot endorse our B&B and its owners more highly. The warmth and hospitality extended to us was truly five star and I would be keen to return for a longer retreat (and, let's be honest, a bit of a frolic among the citrus trees!) in the future.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Eurotrip2011: Day 36

Seville - Granada

We were so sad to have to leave Seville after only one night, but had pre-arranged plans in Granada that couldn't be postponed and thus, set off early for the 2.5 hour drive. Upon arrival, we quickly checked into our hotel and immediately called a taxi to drive us up the steep hills surrounding the Alhambra. This 14th century Moorish palace/fortress is so iconic that we devoted the remainder of our day to exploring the numerous buildings, ruins and stunning gardens. For prospective tourists, may I suggest pre-booking tickets, which need to be collected from an almost hidden electronic dispenser near the tourist information area. I believe this really expedited the admission process.

While I could rave about the views, gardens and structures that make up the historic site, I think it may be better to let the photos do the talking.

(I have it on good authority that there's a pair of very nice Ray Ban sunglasses in the pond pictured above. Specifically, they belong to my beloved, who got a little over-enthusiastic snapping photos!)

My favourite part of the Alhambra was the Nasrid Palaces. I was utterly enchanted by the architecture and shapes of the structure.

This kaleidoscopic ceiling was my favourite photo of the day. I could stare at it for hours (yeah, I'm a tad weird like that!).

After a packed day exploring the Alhambra we headed down towards the centre of Granada to refuel. The lush, green path into town was most inviting after a warm day.

Once in town, we realised that we were too early (according to Spanish dining norms, at least!) to eat dinner at many of the more "local", authentic tapas bars and instead settled on a restaurant that we knew catered to tourists (clearly rational thought isn't my forte when I'm hungry!). The result? Some pretty average paella all round.

Thankfully an ice-cream each, followed by churros with thick, chocolate sauce made our evening a whole lot sweeter!

We concluded our night with a port (having all developed a habit taste for the stuff in Porto) and a few games of cards in the hotel bar.

I adored Granada. Mind you, I don't feel I can really pass judgement on the city as a whole after only one day (and a day mainly spent at the Alhambra, at that!). Nonetheless, I really enjoyed my time there and wish to return to explore the city further as soon as the hip pocket allows!