Europe, Iceland, Travel

Traveling to Iceland In the Winter: The Blue Lagoon

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I am so excited to share this post.  While I absolutely loved everything we did in Iceland, The Blue Lagoon was, by far, our favorite.  Think of it as a gigantic geothermal spa, the size of a small lake, without the fear or worry of getting bitten by anything 🙂

We chose to book this on the way to the airport.  Since Keflavik is 20 minutes from the Blue Lagoon and 45 minutes from Reykjavik, this made the most sense.

Since it was my other half’s birthday present, no expense was spared.  At $205pp, we reserved the “Luxury Package”, which included the following:

  • Private luxury changing/showering accommodations, including robe, slippers, towels, and mini facial packs
  • Use of the private lounge facilities with fireplace, beverage service, lounge chairs, and indoor lagoon access to let you swim outside (and not freeze)
  • A reservation at LAVA
  • A complimentary drink in the lagoon
  • A complimentary glass of champagne with lunch
  • A private hostess to help you with all of it
  • Transportation from the hotel and to the airport
  • Free (and secure) luggage storage

The Process

Once we arrived at the Blue Lagoon, we checked our luggage in and then walked the long, lava-lined walkway up to the main facility.  We chose the 9am start time, which meant it was still incredibly dark out.

The lines are kind of chaotic, despite the signage.  Premium and Luxury members are lumped together, which means you are waiting a bit to get in (although it does move fairly quickly).

Our hostess, gave us our magnetic bracelets that are used to unlock our room, the facilities, as well as give us access in and out of the private lagoon entrance. She showed us to our room, which was incredibly comfortable and quite posh.

Heading Into Paradise on a Volcano

Once we were robed and slippered, we headed down to the private lounge to get ready for our dip in the lagoon.  I’m not going to lie, it was a godsend to be able to wade out, via a private door.

 

Once outside, it was a maze of bridges to float under, private lagoon areas, swim-up bars, face mask bars, and other places of exploration.  But the best part of this was the sunrise.  It was so incredible to take it all in, in such a beautiful and serene location.

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Lunch

While we were sad we had to rush this experience (we got about two out of the three hours in the lagoon), we were glad we had a final moment before we flew home, at LAVA.  For about $55pp, we each got to dine on a main dish and a dessert (along with our complimentary glass of champagne), while overlooking the lagoon.  If you’re vegan, I highly recommend the Roasted Celery Root dish and for meat eaters, the Beef Tenderloin.  For dessert, we had the “Ástarpungar” & caramel, as well as vanilla and orange Crème brûlée.

 

Tips for the Blue Lagoon

  • I hear it books quickly.  We booked it in May of 2016 with no problem.
  • If you’re going in the winter, definitely get the morning time (we did 9am).  Or, if you want to see the sunset, book it for 3pm.
  • If you choose to get your hair wet, slather it in the provided conditioner first.  I put mine up in a bun because destroying my hair did not seem like a good idea.
  • Do not take the silica from the bottom of the lagoon (think of how much dead skin is down there)!  The silica mask at the bar is complimentary, the algae mask is not.  However, both are worth it.
  • Do take a waterproof camera with you or, purchase a waterproof phone holder/necklace, to ensure it’s safe.
  • Do NOT wear any jewelry, as if it falls off, it’s gone.
  • If you do not book a luxury package, you will be sharing a communal space to change and shower.  Many people who visit Iceland are European and have no qualms about nudity.

Note that they are building a hotel there that should be open by 2018.  Guess who will be going back and staying a weekend there?

If you need tips on traveling to Iceland, click here.

 

Europe, Iceland, Travel

Traveling to Iceland In the Winter – The Golden Circle

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Pingvellir National Park

There was no way we could leave Iceland without doing the Golden Circle Tour.  Granted, most people go in the summer when they can enjoy a lot more of it but there is something so magical about being in the Arctic Circle in the winter and seeing these sites in some of their fiercest conditions.  We opted for the 8-hour classic tour at $90pp.

Icelandic Horses

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Our first stop was to see the Icelandic horses at Fákasel.  It’s a small farm about an hour away.  The horses are very beautiful and very sweet, except when faced with a mischievous dog (see below).

Gullfoss

Our second stop on the tour was to the infamous Gullfoss, which is often likened to Niagra Falls.  It’s name comes from “Golden Waterfall” as when the sun hits it just right, it shines like gold.  Unfortunately, our weather conditions were so wintery, it looked more like torrents of dangerous icy water, which made it all that more amazing to see.  Being that we were at a high altitude, it was incredibly windy, wet, and freezing (see my first post on layering).  We are definitely doing this tour again in the summer, to compare the scenery 🙂

Geysir

The third stop took us to their infamous Geysir.  Rivaling “Old Faithful” in Yellowstone, the Geysir Hot Springs is a whole park filled with boiling hot pots (at 176-212 degrees Fahrenheit).  It’s truly amazing!

Pingvellir – Thingvellir

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Pingvellir National Park

Our final stop to the UNESCO Heritage Site Pingvellir National Park had me “geeking out” a bit as it is not only home to the first Icelandic settlement village in the 10th century, but also the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates that you can see AND touch, as well as a glacier, and the sighting of the coldest lake in the world.

Check out the slideshow below:

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The next time we do this, we are going to rent a car to be able to truly take our time and explore, as there is so much more along the way, to see and do.

Should you need any tips on traveling to Iceland, click here.

Europe, Iceland, Travel

Traveling to Iceland In the Winter – Touring Reykjavik

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On the first day of the New Year, we took the time to explore Reykjavik.  While not much was open, there was still plenty to do and see!  I highly recommend taking this same path to get to all of the major sights!

We started by heading over to Tjörnin to take pictures by The Sun Voyager.  Walking along the water was freezing but quite beautiful! 

 

Our next stop was to walk across the street and up the hill to Hallgrímskirkja, to get the iconic outdoor and indoor pictures.  We were able to get the outdoor one however, the tower was closed on New Year’s Day.  I highly suggest you get up the tower to see all of downtown Reykjavik.

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We walked down the main street, to head to lunch and do some shopping (we made it to Hard Rock Cafe and The Viking) however, much was closed.  Thus, we carried onto Harpa Concert Hall and Conference Center. This is definitely a MUST SEE!  Both the interior and exterior are exquisite and it’s worth checking out every level.

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“Date Night” at Kaffibarinn and Apotek

After a long “winter’s nap”, we headed out for a “date night” of drinks and dinner!  We started at Kaffibarinn – The most well-known bar in Iceland.  It’s partly owned by a famous British singer and was also the setting for a well-known Icelandic movie.  It’s a cozy and quaint hole-in-the-wall.  From there, we walked back towards our hotel, to head to Grillmarkadurinn – an incredible restaurant we stumbled upon in a charming alleyway, and fell in love with.  A new restaurant for Reykjavik, it features an amazing, mouth-watering menu.  It’s another must-eat-at.  I ordered the peanut steak (vegan dish) and corn on the cob with lava salt (both were unbelievable).  My other half ordered the salmon and loved it.  We shared the Icelandic ice cream assortment for dessert – a must-have! NOTE: Buy their lava salt – they do sell it!

My suggestion is to take one day of your choosing to relax and enjoy the wandering around the city.  With it being highly walkable, there’s really no way to get lost and even if you do, you won’t mind it.

Should you need tips on traveling to Iceland, click here.

 

Europe, Iceland, Travel

Traveling to Iceland In the Winter – New Year’s Eve Festivities

The reason for our journey was to experience the Nordic traditions that Icelanders follow each year.  It starts with a family meal, and then they are off to a bonfire.  These are communal bonfires that Icelanders use to “cleanse” themselves of the year they have had, often burning all that was bad for them, to make way for new beginnings.  They also sing traditional Nordic songs while they do it.  Then it’s back home to watch an annual TV program called, “Ridicule”, where the actors make fun of all of the Icelandic happenings for that year.  At 11:30pm, the show ends and everyone goes outside to light aerial fireworks until a bit after midnight.  For the young people, this also marks the time to go out until 4am, since the bars are open that late.

Our Dinner

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A special view from Saeta Svinid with the moon in the background.

We had dinner at a local Icelandic Pub called, “Saeta Svinid“.  It is this charming little place, right in the middle of the city center. (Initial reservations were at Kopar but we overslept.) I wasn’t very fond of the beef brisket there (ask for medium-well if you’re normally a medium person) but my other half loved the salmon dish.

Note that it’s best to make reservations on New Year’s Eve at least 3-4 months in advance.  Since we waited, only undesirable times were available to us AND, you have to email them to snag a reservation – no one uses an online system.  We were lucky they could fit us in at 5:30pm.

The Northern Lights

Yes, you read that right.  We saw the Northern Lights while getting off our tour bus, towards the bonfire.  While camera phones don’t do well with dark lighting, we were able to snag a few pictures of the dancing green, blue, and purple streaks in the air!  It was absolutely mesmerizing to see!  If you ever need a forecast of when they will appear, click here and bookmark it.  This will help you determine if you even need to book a tour (or even can book one).

The Bonfire

 

To get to the festivities, we booked a tour with Grayline, giving us transportation to everything we wanted to see (it was about $50 a person).

Our first stop was a bonfire, which was much-welcomed with how cold it was outside.  A few thousand of our “friends”, gathered around the two-story flame to drink, sing songs, and cheers each other until 11:30pm.  These bonfires are held all over Iceland.

Mini NYE Party Before the Fireworks

Our second stop was to the Grayline bus terminal for an hour-long welcome party with donuts and coffee, including musical performances.  It was a much-needed place of warmth before proceeding onto our final destination -the fireworks!

The Fireworks 

For our final stop, we were taken to the highest point in Reykjavik by the water towers, in order to see how truly amazing the fireworks displays are.  In Iceland, it’s the one night of the year that Icelanders get to set off aerial fireworks, which they happily do for over an hour.

While it was 23 degrees outside, you couldn’t pull your eyes away from the displays that could be seen for miles.

After the activities were over, we had every intention of going back, changing, and going back out to Loftid, the club we had tickets to.  However, we were so exhausted from our flight delay that we stayed in and went to bed!

Note that if you do go over NYE, tickets to some places are not available until about the week of NYE.  And, not every place will offer tickets to get you in the door faster.  My suggestion is to do your research if you can and try to find something to have as an option. Otherwise, you’re dressed up and waiting in line, in the freezing cold.

For more information on traveling to Iceland, click here.

Europe, Iceland, Travel

Traveling To Iceland In the Winter – The Basics of What You Need to Know

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Tjörnin – the small lake in Reykjavik

My other half and I made a pact that we would go to a different spot in the world for New Year’s, every year. This year, we chose Iceland and we are so glad we did!

We have had many friends go to this beautiful country in the spring/summer but usually not in the winter (one did and she said it was “f*#@ing cold out”).  In doing more research, we realized we had to do it as a winter trip (knowing we’d have to come back in the summer months too), as their NYE traditions are something we wanted to be a part of.

In this post, I’m going to give you the basics of what you need to know, to travel to and from there.  The other posts in this series will give you more about our itinerary for the trip.

The Basics

Iceland is a very clean and VERY SAFE place to be.  Icelanders are respectful of each other, everyone has employment, and generally, everyone is very healthy and happy.  It’s also not as inhabited as many other countries are, which makes it peaceful and enjoyable.

Below are some things to note about Iceland:

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  • They are on the Krohn (ISK).  Right now, it’s $0.88 to 1 ISK.  Everyone expects credit cards to be taken – cash is rarely exchanged there (but can be).
  • They drive on the right side of the road, so driving a rental car shouldn’t be difficult
    • Most of the roadways are made with heating elements, which minimizes the need to plow in the winter.  It’s still icy in the winter though so if you’re not a proficient winter driver, don’t do it.
  • They can have all four seasons in one day (packing can be a pain) – in the winter, we experienced temps from 23-40 degrees Fahrenheit – so we got winter.. and winter 🙂
  • In the winter, they have five hours of daylight – in January, the sun rises at 11:30am and sets at 4:30pm.  In the summer, they have 21 hours of daylight.
  • They have very little wildlife – Reindeer, Icelandic horses, and arctic foxes are about it
  • Food and drink are very expensive (more on that in a bit), as almost everything has to be shipped in (pre-gaming at home is popular there)
  • Bars and restaurants shut down at 1am and 11pm, respectively
  • Restaurants will never ask you how you want your meat cooked – it will be medium unless otherwise specified.  I am a “medium” person but it was too rare for me.  I started asking for medium-well and it turned out much better.
  • There is so much beauty – you could truly spend a month attempting to explore every single part of it and you still wouldn’t get to everything
  • The water might smell funny but it is completely drinkable.  In fact, it’s the first tap water I’ve had that I’ve actually drank a lot of!
  • They are one of the “greenest” countries in the world, given that their water is naturally heated by the volcano.  This means their power is clean.
  • They also get a lot of earthquakes, given they are between two tectonic plates.  Almost all of the buildings can withstand up to a 9 on the Richter scale

Below are some things to know about Reykjavik:

  • Ingólfur Arnarson named Reykjavik in AD 874.  It means “steamy bay” in Icelandic because of the hot springs and lakes in the city.  However, there was no urban development until the 19th century, which makes it a relatively young town.
  • Everyone is young in age there.  The university, telecom jobs, and the Acting Academy are all nearby, which makes up most of the 130,000 inhabitants.
  • You can literally walk everywhere downtown.  We walked about 3-4 miles a day and it felt like nothing.  There is so much to see and do that you don’t even notice.
  • Restaurants and cafes hold odd hours.  Most cafes do not open until 9am or 10am and they shut down by dinner time.  Many of the restaurants do not open until lunch time and stay open until about 11pm.
  • Restaurants do not take online reservations – you must call or email them.
  • Taxis are available but they are expensive.  There’s really no need to get one at all, unless you really are that far away.

Getting To/From Iceland

Flying to/from Iceland isn’t all that bad if you know what to expect.  Below was our journey in getting there and back.

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Stunning views as we flew over Greenland to get home – the white dot is the moon.

Airfare: We chose WOW Air out of cost (it was $400pp roundtrip but I know there are even better last minute deals out there).  It’s a great airline, so long as you understand the additional fees you can incur:

  • $50 per checked bag, per way
  • Beverages and food are at-cost
  • If you choose your seat, as opposed to being randomly assigned one, that will also cost money, depending on what you select

Other than that, the seats were very comfortable and the attendants very helpful and friendly.  I would fly them again, for sure!

Delays: Note that flight delays are high in the winter, due to weather out of Iceland.  We were 5 1/2 hours delayed getting there and we were one-hour delayed getting home. WOW was great and gave us food vouchers to use at any of the restaurants at BWI, or even in-flight

Time: Flight time is also something to think about.  It was 5 hours to get to Iceland (from BWI) but given weather patterns and the jet stream, it took us almost 7 hours to get home.

Keflavik Airport: They do not require a customs form to enter and if you’re a U.S. Citizen, do not need a Visa.  You will need to make sure APIS has your information before you go.

Duty Free: When you get to Iceland, GET DUTY FREE LIQUOR ON THE WAY OUT!  I cannot stress this enough.  Drinks are anywhere from $13 – $25 per drink there.  For $78, we got two splits of Moet, a half liter of Black Label, and a half liter of Icelandic vodka.

Getting to Reykjavik: Like I stated above, taxis are expensive and it’s a one-hour drive to get to Reykjavik.  (You can also rent a car but not entirely recommended in the winter.) We opted to use Grayline, which used large, comfortable tour buses to get us to the bus terminal, transferring onto smaller buses to drop people off at their hotels. It was about $30pp, one-way.

Where We Stayed

There are a decent amount of hotels to stay in, in Reykjavik.  And, it’s one of few places I would absolutely recommend renting from Air BnB, as well.  Again, because everything is so walkable, safe, and clean, there really isn’t a bad spot to stay.  However, since it was our first time there, we opted for the City Center Hotel, which was a great boutique hotel, smack in the middle of the city.  The total paid for four nights was $1000 ($250/night), which included all taxes and other fees.  Note that because it’s in the center of town, it backs up to a lot of the nightlife, which can mean some noise, coming from outside.

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What To Pack

I cannot stress this enough: WARM CLOTHES AND LAYERS ARE YOUR FRIEND!!!  When we did the Golden Circle Trip, I was in yoga pants, long underwear pants, and two pairs of sweatpants (I don’t own snow pants but definitely will if I do this again).  On the top, I was in a long underwear shirt, another long-sleeved shirt, my Lululemon jacket, and my hooded puffer coat.  In addition to this, I wore a pair of boot socks and a pair of knee-high socks, with my Sorel arctic snow boots.  On my head, I had a lined, wool hat and my hood.  On my hands, a thinner pair of gloves under my ski gloves.  Around my neck, a scarf that could wrap around my face if need be. While this sounds ridiculous, that tour takes you to the tundra of no where 🙂

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35 degrees out
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Me in three layers
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Me in four layers

Walking around the city could be just as cold, with me wearing 2-3 layers everywhere. My suggestion, for packing for a 4-day winter trip (guy or girl), is the following:

  • At least two pairs of socks for each day
  • Snow boots and hiking boots
  • If you decide to go to nicer restaurants, bring a pair of nicer boots or shoes that have a tread on them
  • Snow pants (if you have them)
  • A pair of long underwear (top and bottom) for each day
  • A pair of leggings or yoga pants to put over the long underwear each day
  • A pair of sweatpants that can last you 2-3 days
  • A hooded sweatshirt/ regular sweatshirt that can last you 2-3 days
  • A long-sleeved, warm shirt for each day
  • Jeans and a nice, warm sweater for going out in, should you choose to go out to nicer places
  • Lined beanies or other winter hats for each day
  • Two pairs of gloves for each day
  • Three scarves – the backup ones will get wet, trust me
  • A poncho
  • A swimsuit if you go to the Blue Lagoon (which I HIGHLY recommend)

Other Things to Pack

  • A selfie stick.  I would NEVER have thought that to be a good idea, until I realized how much beautiful scenery was going to surround me.  I don’t regret the decision at all (although I’m still against them being used for everything).
  • A real, waterproof, temperature-proof camera.  My little Nikon came in handy a few times, while at the Golden Circle and the Blue Lagoon!

Places to Dine:

Given the time of year we went, we didn’t get to experience a lot of the dining we had wanted to.  Below is a complete list of all the places you should try:

Restaurants

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Icelandic Ice Cream with chocolate “knife” at Grillmarkadurinn
  • Apotek – The food and atmosphere are incredible.  I ordered the small plate of short ribs and a side of garlic and rosemary mashed potatoes.  I also ordered a Vanilla Espresso martini.  Others at our table had the salmon and plaice.  I hear both were very good as well.
  • Grillmarkadurinn – We stumbled upon this down an alleyway and fell in love with it!  A new restaurant for Reykjavik, it features an amazing, mouth-watering menu.  It’s another must-eat-at.  I ordered the peanut steak (vegan dish) and corn on the cob (both were unbelievable).  My other half ordered the salmon and loved it.  We shared the Icelandic ice cream assortment for dessert – a must-have!
  • Osta Budin – The number one place on our list we couldn’t get into
  • Snaps – An award-winning place that I hear serves a great weekend brunch
  • Messinn – Go there for drinks and dessert
  • Kopar – It’s right on the water, in the harbor

Cafes

Bars/Clubs

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  • Kaffibarinn – The most well-known bar in Iceland.  It’s partly owned by a famous British singer and was also the setting for a well-known Icelandic movie.  It’s a cozy and quaint hole-in-the-wall.
  • Tivoli – The upscale, trendier crowd goes here
  • Gallery – Inside Hotel Holt
  • Boston – A place where entertainment professionals go to drink
  • B5 – Lounge/upscale club
  • Loftid – The upscale, trendier crowd goes here

Other Things to Note:

  • The grocery stores are 24/7 there.  10-11 is the most popular one and sells almost every single thing you need.  I highly recommend going there for snacks, lunches, and beverages, such as soda and water.
  • They use the standard Euro plug for their electronics.  Make sure you have a Voltage converter with the two-prong plugs.
  • Most everything is shut down New Year’s Day with the exception of a few restaurants, including the Laundromat Cafe and Hard Rock Cafe.  We learned from a waitress at Hard Rock that everyone orders an additional entree to bring home with them for New Year’s Day, since food is in short supply.  I wish this was something we had known ahead of time.  In addition, only a few shops, such as The Viking, were open as well.
  • Fish (including shark and mink whale), reindeer, lamb, and horse are all staples of Icelandic menus.  They also eat a lot of wheat product and Skyr – high-protein yogurt, made of whey.  Since I’m Celiac, it was somewhat difficult to find gluten-free food.

Check out my other posts on our Icelandic adventure for more information on the tours we took!

Europe, Italy, Travel

Venice (Day Two)

There is nothing more awesome than waking up in an incredible hotel room and realizing that right out your balcony is nothing but water.

For those of us that are used to street noise, it’s so surreal to wake up to the sounds of “waterway noise”.  Instead of car engines, it’s boat engines.  Instead of horns honking, it’s laughter.  Instead of car gridlock and pavement, it’s a parade of boats through a canal.

Our day started with breakfast at Hotel Danieli.  Note that many of the cafes in Venice serve pastries and coffee.  Since I’m allergic to wheat, finding breakfast becomes a bit more difficult.  This hotel’s buffet, although 20 euro, was good enough. And, while already in the 90s outside, the outdoor patio offered us great views of the waterway.

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Since it was so hot out, we had two options for the day: Visit the Murano Glass Factory or head to Hotel Cipriani for use of the beach.  While I was so eager for the latter, the temps were just too much to want to bear for the day.  Instead, we did what we were meant to do: Learn all about how this very expensive glass is made, meet the Master Artisans, and go shopping!

Murano Glass Factory

From our hotel, we were given a free boat ride over to Murano Island.  From there, we were greeted by our tour guide, who is part of the Murano family.  He guided us into the factory to watch the Artisans work.  As you enter into the factory and look up, you can’t help but notice the abundance of glass chandeliers hanging above you in every vibrant color.

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And, you fully appreciate the time it takes to create one of these magnificent pieces, once you watch their demonstration.

It’s amazing to think that these works of art are created from sand and through patience and skill, can emerge something so beautiful.

When the demonstration was over, we were escorted to the beginning of their 12-room gallery, showcasing the absolute genius of these Artisans.  It was seriously like stepping into Willy Wonka’s Factory, except for glass.  Everything from hand railings, to mirrors, to lamps, and candelabras guided our way up the stairs to our first room.

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Each room was just a little bit different from the other.  They ranged from the common Murano glass pieces we see everyday, to absolutely works of art – scenery that requires layers upon layers of different glass to capture something, in what looks frozen in time.  Other rooms offered beverage serving ware, to 24k gold, hand-painted pieces; to Cinderella-inspired mirrors.  In fact, Lebron James had just ordered a $250K mirror that was still on display in the gallery (yes, it’s a proud moment to say I’ve seen it, before it was headed to its new home however, I wasn’t allowed to take any pics of it).

Note that the custom, artisanal work comes straight out the factory we visited and can be shipped, within 4 weeks of order date.  The smaller pieces you see in the U.S. are outsourced to other factories around the world.  It’s genuine but just not straight from Murano Island.

Caffe Florian

My last stop in Venice, which I regret not having spent more time in, was Caffe Florian in St. Mark’s Square. First opened in 1720, this has been the go-to cafe for some of the most famous artists (writers, painters, sculptors, etc.) in the world.  It’s also the only cafe in the 1800s that allowed women, which explains Casanova’s frequenting of it.

But what Caffe Florian is also known for are their macarons, chocolates, teas, and fragrances.  For 21 euro, we were able to sample eight different macarons in flavors, such as: lavender, passion fruit, pear, pistachio, blueberry/vanilla, chocolate/coconut, coffee, and lemon; as well as their milk/dark chocolate – all of which are original recipes.  Nothing disappointed us.

If you go to Venice, this place is an absolute must!  It is the main reason I want to go back to Venice!

Leaving Venice by Airport

Sadly, we had to say goodbye to Venice, to head back to the states.  And, it’s a bit of a trek.  For 150 euro (includes tip), a water taxi took the seven of us (and our luggage) on a one-hour ride to Marco Polo Airport.

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Note that once they drop you off, it’s still a seven-minute walk to departures.  They offer shuttles and/or porter service for your bags. If you’re going in the summer, I suggest springing for this if you don’t want to walk with your luggage.

Once you’re inside the airport and at your ticketing counter for check-in, your passport and itinerary are looked at, they ask you some security questions, and you check in.  If you’re headed back to the states, they will direct you to a special security line, in which you will go through security one at a time.  Once through, I suggest you eat any meals before going through Passport Control – there aren’t a whole lot of options once you’re through.

Suggestions/Tips

  1. If you want to tour anything in Venice that requires tickets, go for later tour times – there are so many tour groups that think the morning is the best time to go. It’s actually the hottest/most humid time of day and the lines can be as long as two hours.
  2. As our guide at the Murano Glass Factory put it, Venice has become “Veniceland”.  There are a TON of tour groups that come through – my suggestion is to visit St. Mark’s square but also do your homework on the best places to eat/snack.  There are so many hidden alleyways with delicious food – the aromas alone will carry you in that direction anyway 🙂
  3. Caffee Florian is a must.  Next time, I’m making a reservation for a tea service!
  4. I also wish I was there on a day when the Opera (Teatro La Fenice) was open.  It’s one of the oldest forms of entertainment in Venice, and would be incredible to experience.  Definitely try to fit that in.  They are open Wednesday – Saturday.
  5. Definitely take the Murano Glass Factory tour – it’s very worth it.  However, if you want to shop there, note that there is nothing available under 100 euros.
  6. Water taxi to the airport is 150 euro (includes tip) and because it takes an hour, make sure to give yourself at least 3 hours from hotel dock to gate.
Europe, Italy, Travel

Venice (Day One)

Venice is unlike any place I’ve ever seen, to-date.  It’s unbelievable to me that there is an entire city “floating” on water.  It definitely does have that “Disneyland-for-adults” vibe to it that brings a smile to even the grumpiest of faces.

My family and I took the three hour train ride from Rome to Venice, via Tren Italia.  It was a beautiful ride that took us through some of the notable countrysides, such as Fierenze and Florence.

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Note, however, that a first class, 100 euro, ticket only gets you a small drink and snack from the attendant; and a comfortable seat.  The cafe car has the common fare you see on most trains but it’s for additional purchase (note they do have gluten-free treats too!).

Upon arriving to the Venizia – St. Lucia stop, we exited right out of the station and down to the water taxis.  For seven people, plus luggage, it was right around 75 euro to take us to our hotel (The Westin Europa and Regina) at San Marco 1259, on the Grand Canale.

Our water taxi ride was our first real taste of Venice – to take in the historic buildings, other water taxis, gondolas, music, and people, created this sort of euphoric sensation a 5 year-old gets when they meet Cinderella for the first time at Disneyland.  Venice just seemed magical.

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When we arrived at the Westin and got to our rooms (my sisters and I were upgraded to a Deluxe suite with a balcony, overlooking the Grand Canale) – I went straight out to the balcony to hear the “authentic sounds of Venice” – singing Gondoliers, accordion players, and the low whirring of the engines of boats, going in every which direction.

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Still, we were eager to get out and see Venice.  We walked to St. Mark’s Square to watch people feed the pigeons (so many pigeons), listen to mini orchestras play music in front of the cafes, and to have dinner in a private room, at a charming little place called Ristorante Falciani.

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From there, we walked around the main shopping street, on our way to the Gondola stands (which are everywhere).  The main shopping street (le Mercerie) almost brought a happy tear to my eye.  The likes of Moncler, Chanel, Prada, Versace, Louis Vuitton, Salvatore Ferragamo, Fendi, Cartier, Hermes, Gucci, Dior, Sisley, and Giuseppe Zanotti, framed both sides of the street, offering everything from handbags and shoes, to the most avant-garde of clothing.  (Note that the shops close down fairly early (around 7pm), so make sure to go before dinner.)

And, if that wasn’t enough to put a smile on my face, the Gondola ride was everything I hoped it would be.

For the next hour, our Gondolier took us down some peaceful and serene alleyways, where every once in a while, you would see a local sipping wine in their window sill, waving down to those of us touring their “home”.  Otherwise, it was nothing but rot iron flower boxes, filled with brightly colored flowers; rustic doors, stucco walls, and remnants of centuries of history and architecture.

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These Gondoliers are incredibly knowledgeable about Venice, so definitely take advantage of that and ask lots of questions.  Ours gave us some interesting historical facts I didn’t know about Venice:

  • Venice was founded 1100 years ago
  • In its heyday, it was home to more than 350,000 people.  Now it’s home to just 57,000.  The main reason for this is the flooding.  The water isn’t clean and also causes a lot of damage.
  • The buildings stay “afloat” on wooden stakes, driving into the sediment, under water. Since oxygen is needed for decay, these stakes can last a very long time.
  • When repairs need to be made to the stakes (which they do over time), they block off and drain the canal to remove sediment build up and repair any stakes that might begin deteriorating.
  • The worst flood they had, rose the water about 5 feet higher than usual in 2012.  The worst ever flood was in 1966 and that was about 6 feet higher than usual.
  • The famous 18th Century opera house (La Fenice) had burned down in 1996 and had to be rebuilt – it’s still a mystery if it was arson by the Mafia.

With one more item checked off my bucket list, I ended our first day in Venice on a great note!

Suggestions/Tips

  1. It’s worth it to stay on the Grand Canale – the view is everything.  It’s a huge bonus if you can nab a suite with a balcony.
  2. If you take the train from Rome, the time on your ticket is boarding time because that’s what time the train arrives.  Still, try to be on the platform at least 15 minutes ahead.
  3. It’s worth it to get a first class train ticket – for a 3 hour train ride, comfort is everything.
  4. You can walk the Grand Canale to get to your hotel but you can end up walking for over an hour.  Water taxis are the best (and fastest) way to go – and offer the best views!
  5. Gondola rides range from 100 euro – 180 euro.  100 euro gets you a basic tour; 120 euro gets you a bit more time, including a ride under the Rialto bridge; more euro gets you an accordion player; even more money gets you an accordion player AND a singer, etc.  Our basic tour was perfect.  We also tipped him another 10 euro.
  6. If going in the summer, choose an evening ride – the best time is 7:30pm.
  7. Go to Venice as a couple – this is an incredibly romantic city with so much love in the air.  Everything you see in movies is true to life there – stolen kisses, long embraces, and lots of hand-holding and smiles.  I’m lucky to be surrounded by family on this trip but it definitely is meant for lovers.
  8. You don’t need more than 2 days there, max.
  9. While it’s fun to watch other people feed the pigeons… you get the idea.
Europe, Italy, Travel

Rome (Day 2)

There’s no way you can leave Rome without seeing some of the greatest architectural wonders of all time.

Pantheon

Within walking distance of Hotel Raphael, we wandered to the Pantheon (hands-down, my favorite historical building of all time).  It was built 1800 years ago to worship every god but since 609 AD, has served as a Christian Church.  It wouldn’t be as impressive of a wonder, if it weren’t for the open dome at the top that brings one, huge ray of light in, to illuminate the entire building.

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Other Points of Interest in the Historical Center

While in the historical center of town, we also took in Piazza Navona, the Trevi Fountain (which was actually closed for restoration), lunch at Hosteria de Pastini (they had gluten-free pasta!), and the Spanish Steps (one of many great places to buy real street art).

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Colosseum

From the Spanish Steps, the easiest way to get to the Colosseum is by taxi – it’s a short 14 euro ride.  They will drop you off at the taxi stand that sits above the Colosseum’s main ticket entrance.

Something to note.. the first Sunday of every month, the historical sites are free for entry.  The best time of day to go (and avoid lines) is around 3pm (it’s only open until 6:30pm). We walked the entire Colosseum and museum in about an hour.  If you go any other time, the wait can be up to 3 hours (ticket line and entry line combined).

Once inside, you begin to get this feeling that you’ve been here before.  Like walking into an abandoned FedEx Field, Nationals Stadium, or even RFK, you realize that modern-day stadiums have most likely taken a cue from the Colosseum.  The rounded structure is the best structure to hold the most people.  In this case, it held 90,000.

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Two of the best things I learned about the Colosseum:

  1. Their version of tailgating was playing games on the floor.  If you walk around and see different marks (squares, x’s, and lines), you will notice that those were meant for games of dominos, backgammon, as well as other betting games.  They would do this, prior to the events starting.
  2. It wasn’t just about Gladiators and lions… events at the Colosseum had a cadence: A naked man (usually a criminal) and a lion (lions usually won); jugglers, magicians, and satirical performers (half time); and then the Gladiator fights (main event).

If you spend enough time, reading the inscriptions around the Colosseum and its museum, you’ll learn a lot of fun facts!

Roman Forum

Across the street from the Colosseum is a long, up-hill path to the Roman Forum and Palantine Hill.  You can spend hours, wandering through the gardens, hidden shrines, and archaeological structures that make up the most awe-inspiring section of the city you could ever see in that part of Europe.

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It will continue to be under archaeological dig for quite some time, so I’m sure the next time I visit there, there will be new things to see!

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Taking in Final Sights of Rome

I’ve already decided I need to come back to take in more of the well-acclaimed restaurants, bars, cafes, and nightlfe, as this trip was far too short, and we were too exhausted.

When we thoroughly explored the ancient city, we decided to be “All-American” for an evening and go to Hard Rock Cafe for dinner.  We then took the mile-long walk back to the hotel.

Rome is incredibly beautiful at night.  And, given how cool and breezy it was, it made for the perfect walking conditions.  If you haven’t fallen in love with Rome yet, you will, just by walking around.  Being Sicilian and Greek, I love large-gathering meals at one, long table.  To see friends and/or families gathering on the sidewalk cafes, or the indoor/outdoor restaurants, laughing and chatting, made me long to come back with friends.

When we got back to Piazza Navona, my level of excitement went up about 12 notches when I saw all the street art vendors – my one goal in Rome was to buy myself art from there, as you never know if that particular artist will become famous later in life, or if his/her work is already worth something much more than what you paid.  It’s also clear I love to haggle.  Most street art goes for 120 – 200 euros.  I was able to get a sizeable oil-on-canvas painting for 102 euros.

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Piazza Navona

Suggestions/Tips

  1. The first Sunday of each month, the historical sites are free.  You still need to obtain a printed ticket from the counter but it’s good for both the Colosseum and the Forum (only on that day).  Make sure to go around 3-4 pm when most of the crowds have died down.
  2. Many shops are still open on Sundays in Italy.  Some of the smaller mom-and-pop shops might not be (old custom).
  3. Wear comfortable walking shoes and bring water!  If you don’t, the peddlers, selling water, will sell it for 1 euro a piece – don’t pay more than that!
  4. Hosteria de Pastini (near Piazza Navona) has gluten-free pasta!  In fact, many of the restaurants do (and some also have pizza).  This ristorante offered large portions for little money.  My gluten-free pasta pomodoro was 6 euro.
  5. Taxis from the Spanish steps to the Colosseum should be no more than 14 euro.
  6. Street art is everywhere.  Make sure to look for the following when haggling/purchasing:
    1. Make sure it’s oil-on-canvas.  Sometimes, vendors will try to sell you a reprint with paint wisps here and there on a print. Ask to check the back of the canvas for authenticity – you will see the different in the pain bleed-through
    2. Try to find pieces that are signed by an artist.  If it does retain a value, it helps to have that signature
    3. Prices on larger pieces vary from 120 – 200.  Haggle 15-30 euro cheaper.  Nine times out of ten, that price will be accepted.
Europe, Italy, Travel

Rome (Day One)

Our trip, so far, had already taken us to four different countries and ten different cities/towns/villages. We had already seen so many different historical buildings, mesmerizing natural terrains, and people from every culture and every religion. And, just when we think we’ve “seen it all”, we get to Rome.

We disembarked our ship in Civitavecchia and took a train to Rome. The train is super inexpensive (about 8 euro) and nice/comfortable enough to get there faster (it took a little over an hour, whereas a cab ride would have taken much longer and have been much more expensive).   It was also a great way to see more of Italy!

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When we got to the train station, we took a 15 euro cab ride to our hotel, Hotel Raphael, in Piazza Navona (historic center of Rome). Our first sights in this cab ride were of Vatican City, the Tiber River, and these charming little alleyways with hidden churches, restaurants, hotels, and boutiques. I knew immediately that I was going to fall in love with Rome, as I love to wander, explore, and come across surprises.

Hotel Raphael

Hotel Raphael is a 5-star, posh hotel just minutes from everything. They blend old world Italian influence with that of modern-day conveniences. Our one-bedroom deluxe suite featured hardwood floors, a large living area, a spa bathroom, and a large bedroom. We were welcomed with complimentary champagne, hors d’ oeuvres, and bottled water.

Note that if you stay there, visit their rooftop, accessible only by stairs, via the 5th floor. It has 360 views of Rome and a lovely bar/cafe.

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In addition to the stellar accommodations, breakfast (included) was an incredible international spread with fresh pressed orange and vegetable juices. We honestly didn’t want to leave!

The Vatican

Once we were settled in, we headed out on our first trek along the Tiber River to grab some food before meeting our tour guide. It was a little over a mile walk around the Vatican wall to get to the restaurant we would be meeting our guide. Caffe Vaticano had great food with sizeable portions however, if you can find something a bit further away from the Vatican, you will pay better prices.

We met our guide, John Tinto, at the Vatican Museum entrance. John has been a tour guide for close to 30 years and has worked with the “who’s who” of the world. He’s extremely knowledgeable and can go in-depth on just about any Italian subject. He’s a great story-teller, which means your tour “comes to life”, helping you to appreciate what you’re seeing. He also helps you to bypass extremely long lines and get you into things you may not have access to otherwise.

In four hours, we saw just a small portion of this country (yep – country number five for us on this trip). He took us to some of the more famous statues around the Vatican, sculpted by Raphael (who is entombed in the Pantheon), and of course, the work done by Michelangelo (also entombed at the Pantheon). We toured courtyards, private Pope chambers, the Sistine Chapel, St. Peters Basilica, and St. Peter’s Square. Although the frescos Michelangelo painted were incredible to see in real life, my favorite parts of the tour were the hall of maps and St. Peter’s Basilica.

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St. Peter’s Basilica is larger than life – they say it is the largest Basilica in the world. If you have been to La Sagrada de Familia, one might argue that that is bigger (in height). However, there are 46 chapels in St. Peter’s, along with a number of staggeringly tall sculptures, columns, and even lettering that make it the biggest in the world. It was pointed out that the lettering around the inside of the Basilica came in at 11 ft. high. From a person’s perspective, standing on the floor, looking up, it looks much smaller.

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(Mass at St. Peter’s)

In addition to this, there are many popes buried here, four of which have large shrines, one of which (John XXIII) can be seen in a glass case.

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St. Peter’s shrine is understated, yet powerful. It is said that many people become emotional when they see it and break down crying.

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If/when you take the tour, also note the doors closest to his shrine are only opened once every 25 years. From the outside, they look like locked doors but from the inside, it is cemented off.

From the outside of the Basilica, overlooking St. Peter’s Square, seeing the Pope’s balcony, also left an impression. To imagine over one million people in the square, waiting to see who the new Pope was going to be, had to have been an incredible experience.

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The Pope’s balcony
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St. Peter’s Square

Tips/Suggestions

  1. Rome Train Station: Do not receive help from anyone, no matter how official they look – they demand money from you.
  2. Taxis – It should be no more than 15 euro from the train station to Piazza Navona
  3. Make sure to have the name of your destination, as well as the address, handy. Almost everyone speaks English but oftentimes, the taxi drivers do not.
  4. Hotel Raphael is one of the best. Nightly rate for a Deluxe, one bedroom suite, is about 500 euro. However, booking.com might have better deals – search around!
  5. There is a biking/running path along the Tiber River, taking you past some amazing architecture. At night, it doubles as the epicentre for nightlife.
  6. Hiring an experienced tour guide to get you through Vatican City is the best way to go. Give yourself about 5-6 hours to really see it, and try to pick a weekday, to lessen the crowds. You can contact John Tinto through Through Eternity Tours.
  7. If you would prefer to see Vatican City on your own, the tickets cost about 16 euro per person (go here to book). Note that wait times can be up to three hours on weekends and up to two hours on weekdays. There are no places to bypass ticket lines and entry lines in this case.
  8. Women’s knees and shoulders must be covered in the Sistine Chapel and St. Peter’s Basilica. No exceptions are made and they will turn you away. I wore a maxi dress and brought a scarf.
  9. Visiting Rome June – September is HOT. Make sure to carry sunscreen and lots of water! October – November are the most preferable months to go.
Europe, Italy, Travel

Naples: Sorrento and Pompeii

Pulling into the port of Naples was a beautiful site – especially at first light.

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Naples is an interesting mix of a city.  Considered the “Crime Capital” of Italy, much of the city looks a bit run down and over-populated (then again, it was founded between 9th and 8th century B.C.).  It reminds me much of downtown Detroit with a whole heck of a lot more people.  However, the further up the coast you go, the more beautiful it becomes.  With each tunnel we went through, the industrial ship yards, urban farms, sky rises, and centuries old apartment buildings, gave way to lush cliff sides with stunning views of Napoli Bay.

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Sorrento

Through winding streets, up the Monte Lattari mountains, we finally made it to Sorrento (about a 1 1/2 hour drive from Naples). The drive up there offered some incredible, sweeping views of Napoli Bay.

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Once in Sorrento, you can’t help but notice the bustle of this town, and how it has more of a city feel.  It was definitely departure from the other Italian towns we had seen so far.

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Sorrento is known mainly for three things: it’s fresh mozzarella, its limoncello, and its woodwork. However, what people don’t realize when they come to other parts of Italy (other than Milan) is that well-made leather goods are everywhere – and for far less.  We found a little shop on Via S. Cesareo which sold every type of handmade leather good available.  I picked up three pairs of well-made leather gloves, two with real fur and one with lace, for a total of 35 euro, or $40 USD!

When we shopped ourselves out, we headed to Fauno Bar for a coffee.  If you ever decide to visit there, it’s one of the oldest (and most important) cafes in Sorrento, and they make an amazing Caffe Freddo.

For lunch, head over to Pizzeria Aurora for lunch and sit outside to take in the sites of Piazza Tazzo (the main square) – I highly recommend the Caprese salad (because how can you not have mozzarella in Sorrento?).

Pompeii

40 minutes from Sorrento, sits Pompeii.  Almost all of you reading this post have undoubtedly learned about this old city in school.  Mt. Vesuvius erupted in 79 A.D. and completely buried the city in ash.  About 3,000 of its inhabitants died, some of which were encased, perfectly in ash, as discovered by archaeologists centuries later.

Our tour guide (an archaeologist) took us through the streets of Pompeii, showing us not just what had been uncovered but also educating us on why buildings and streets were built as they were, as well as the art that adorned this mini city:

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These ceramic pots held food at certain temperatures for people to purchase and eat immediately. Think of it like fast food during that time.

 

These stone streets were actually meant to transport human waste - the three stones sticking out of each section were pedestrian cross areas.
These stone streets were actually meant to transport human waste – the three stones sticking out of each section were pedestrian cross areas.
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Wealthy homes had a receiving atrium that went straight out to a back garden, a large dining room off to the back right, and small bedrooms.

 

Roman spas

There were separate areas (both changing and baths) for men and women.  Off of that were gymnasiums that people would go to first, before going to the baths. People bathed everyday there.

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Amphitheaters

There were two on the side we were visiting – a large one for operas and plays, and one reserved for the wealthy that was much more intimate.

Frescos

Another highly interesting thing I learned (for the art lover in me) was how true frescos are made.  If you have never learned about the actual technique, it involves applying paint to wet cement, so that it seals itself into the wall.

Market Square

When we got to the Market Square (plaza), the scenery became breath taking, as you could almost picture it constructed as a bustling meeting place to do business.

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Also check out how prominent Mt. Vesuvius is, sitting behind this temple to Jupiter as an almost tribute to something that would later destroy their city.

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Artifacts

The final set of pics below will give you a glimpse of the artifacts found on the sites uncovered so far.  Note that there are two “bodies” included as well.  These are plaster casts of perfect human indentations found on the sites.

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Something to note  – The sea used to be 3,000 km closer to Pompeii than it is today.  Ships would sail right up, using Pompeii as a port.  But when Vesuvius erupted time and again, it pushed the sea out, as the lava started to create new land.  Ironically, the people of Pompeii used much of the lava to form their own city.

Suggestions/Tips

  1. Visit Pompeii in the morning – it gets very hot there with little shade.
  2. Bring a bottle of water and sunscreen to Pompeii!
  3. If you can, find an archaeologist to give you a guided tour – ours was booked through Princess Cruises.
  4. Spend a night or two in Sorrento to truly get the full experience
  5. Wander down the side streets in Sorrento for the best deals on handmade goods
  6. Take time to visit the Amalfi Coast, Capri, and Positano – three places I wish we had had had time for.
  7. Skip Naples altogether – rent a car and take it up the coast!

On a separate note, as we were leaving Naples, heading for Civitavecchia, we saw the most big, beautiful blood red moon: