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:

Europe, Italy, Travel

Sicily – Taormina/Mt. Etna

Our ship pulled into the port in Messina – the third largest city in Sicily, which also serves as the tip of the “boot” that forms Italy.

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Much of Sicily is an interesting place, in that it serves as a stark reminder that one volcano eruption can wipe out an entire visual journey through history.


On our way to Taormina, much of the housing we saw along the way were considered “the projects” by U.S. standards, in that when the Mt. Etna erupted in the early 1900s, it took a lot of the housing with it, whether by lava or earthquake.  Thus, there was not enough money to rebuild the housing by the same standards, which meant cheaper construction and poorer people – particularly those that lost their businesses/jobs as a result.


Still, the further up the coast of the Ioanian Sea you go, the more the towns and villages become the quaint/charming architecture one comes to expect – particularly when you you start driving up Mt. Etna.  Regardless of lava flow, inhabitants of the towns (including Milo, where my mother’s family is from) won’t leave their homes for safer areas, as they believe if something should happen, it’s what was meant to be.

Taormina

The first stop on our tour was Taormina – a quaint little village, founded in 5 BC by the Greeks, completely surrounded by fortified walls.  This village is where the likes of Greta Garbo, other celebrities, and many royalty have come (and still come) to vacation in the winter months.

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It’s known for it’s handmade pottery, jewelry, and of course, local fashion designers.  There are cafes on every block and gelato places that stretch as far as the eye can see.  But the best charm are the alleyways with all of the hidden restaurants and bars that line them.  Some of them look like little holes in the wall but definitely offer the best views of the Ioanian Sea and Mt Etna!

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In the center of the village is Duomo where the famous Fontana di Orione is located, right in front of the Cathedral, constructed under the command of Henry VI of Hohenstaufen. While it doesn’t look like much from the outside, it’s definitely breath-taking from the inside!


Past Duomo and right up the first side street holds the second largest Ancient Greek Theater in Sicily, still used today.  Because of its natural acoustics, bands still love to come and perform for typically sold out shows of 4,000 people.

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Mt. Etna

Although I never would have admitted it in my younger years, I’m a huge fan of taking in nature.  After all, it was here long before us. When I found out we’d be hiking part of Mt Etna, I was beyond excited.  It’s thrilling to walk on the same lava flows that once leveled parts of towns and also explore craters that just added to the overall devastation it brought to the people of Sicily, over the centuries.

Our tour took us 6,000 feet (2,000 meters) up the mountain to La Capannina.

This little town of about 1/4 mile long boasts two craters – one of which is Crateri Silvestri, as well as the famous coffee shop that was completely surrounded by lava in 1999, when Mt. Etna blew, but never burned down.  As such, there is a gated natural lava cave that has been turned into a shrine for Mother Mary, as it is said she saved the shop from being destroyed.

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During our time there, I hiked up the side of the crater to take in the views Mt. Etna had to offer.  To the east was the Ioanian Sea, to the west were the laval flows.  To the south and north were nothing but lush, green vegetation that are home to so many different fruit and nut trees, beautiful flowers, and other wildlife.  The views were breathtaking and for the first time on the trip, I felt incredibly free.  Had it not been for the ton of people surrounding me, I seriously considered meditating on the side of the cliff I was standing on, just to further that feeling.  While that sounds completely contradictory, to be in such an expansive atmosphere, brought about a certain elation that I hadn’t had in such a long time – that feeling when you look around you, take in the views, and realize this is your life. 🙂

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After our tour/play time was over, we took our bus back down to Messina – about a two-hour drive.

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As an added bonus – if you’re on a cruise ship, make sure to be outside during sunset.  The sunset happens right next to Mt. Stromboli, which is hands-down, the coolest thing I saw at sea.

Tips/Suggestions:

  1. In the summer, Messina is warm – about 80 degrees but at Mt Etna, it’s about 25-30 degrees less at the 6,000 ft. range.  Wear layers!
  2. Although we didn’t have the time for it, make a day of Mt Etna – take the funicular to the top for lunch
  3. If you’re feeling more adventurous, rent a car.  The hairpin turns are great for driving enthusiasts and of course, the views at every turn get better and better.
  4. When you visit Taormina, I’d advise you to stay at least two nights there – there are so many restaurants, bars, and shops to visit, that one day is definitely not enough!
  5. Pottery is definitely cheaper in the little shops – especially down some of the side streets.  We had our best luck with the shops on the same street as the Greek Theater (find out the name of it).