Photo of the Day: Colosseum from Palatine Hill

Looking down on the Colosseum from the Palatine Hill above the Roman Forum. From here you can get a sense of how much it once towered over the rest of the city (to a large extent it still does).

Date: 10/19/2011
Camera: Panasonic DMC-FZ40
Click for larger view

You can view more featured photos at my Photo of the Day Collection.

Venice in HDR

Venice: The Grand Canal (original)
Venice: The Grand Canal (original)

Lately I’ve been messing around with HDR photography. Normally that involves merging multiple versions of the same photo taken at different exposures, but I’ve also read that you can create a pretty good approximation of an HDR photo from a single RAW image, so I figured I’d experiment with one of my older photos.

I thought the above photo of the Grand Canal in Venice was a good candidate given the contrast between the light and dark areas, so I used Adobe Camera Raw to create three different image files: the original photo, an underexposed version, and an overexposed version. When I merged them in Photoshop, the overexposed photo washed the image out too much, so I only ended up combining the normal and underexposed versions. I then applied a bit more processing to the final image.

I’m still very much a novice at this HDR stuff (and with photo processing in general) and I kind of rushed through it, so the results are not ideal, but I think the final version below is a decent first attempt at a pseudo-HDR photo. You can click on the photos to view larger versions.

Venice: The Grand Canal (HDR)
Venice: The Grand Canal (HDR)

Like many HDR photos, this has a bit of a surreal feel to it, but with a little more time to tweak settings, I probably could have made it look more realistic.

On a side note, this photo was taken with my Panasonic FZ-40, a megazoom point-and-shoot. I am considering upgrading to a DSLR and have been eyeing the Nikon D3100 or D5200. If any photographers out there have any advice about these (or other cameras), I’d love to hear from you. Although I’m never going to be a professional, I feel that I may be outgrowing the limitations of my megazoom, particularly its performance in low light.

Just minutes after posting this to my blog, I saw a deal on eBay for a refurb Nikon D5100 with a kit lens at a price that was just too good to pass up. I normally steer clear of refurbs but the company, Adorama, seems to have a good reputation among the photography community, so I pulled the trigger.

So it’s official, I’m a DSLR guy! Now, to shop for some accessories and a good all-purpose zoom lens…

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Eurotrip 2011, Part 6: Leaning Towers and Haunted Villas

Flash Forward: Back to the Villa

This installment covers Days 14–15 of my 2011 trip to Europe…

At the end of our two-night, ill-fated Cinque Terre stay, we checked out of our hotel early to catch the bus that would take us into La Spezia for the train ride back to Florence. The bus was very late and for a while we thought we had missed it or were in the wrong location. Finally it came and we hopped aboard for a long ride into the city. After arriving we walked down to the harbor in the hope that we might be able to take a boat ride so I could get a closer look at the four Cinque Terre villages that I hadn’t been able to visit, but everything was either grounded or tied up in rescue operations. So we headed to a café for breakfast to kill time until our train left.

On the way back to Florence our train had a stopover in Pisa, so I decided to go see the Leaning Tower. Uncle Kipp had already seen it, so he stayed behind at the train station. It wasn’t a long layover so I had to hustle down to the Piazza dei Miracoli (where the tower is located), which was roughly a 30-minute walk across the River Arno.

River Arno in Pisa

I made it to the square and had just enough time to walk around the grounds, but unfortunately not enough time to tour any of the buildings or climb the tower, so I had to settle for taking some photos.

The Tower

The hardest part about shooting the tower is resisting the urge to tilt the camera and straighten the tower out.

Church and Tower
I love the colors of this walkway.

Rather than share the clichéd photo of myself holding up the tower, I thought I’d share a photo of other people doing their holding-up-the-tower poses:

After taking my photos I rushed back to the train station and we caught the train back to Florence. Before heading back to the villa we did some grocery shopping so I could make dinner the following afternoon. I bought supplies to make pasta with pancetta and braciole. We also picked up more of that awesome Italian prosciutto to snack on that evening–if prosciutto tasted like this in the States I’d buy it all the time.

So we hopped on the bus to take us back up into the hills and to our villa. Unfortunately, we had caught the wrong one—it only went about halfway up and then came back down again to pick up more passengers and then make the drive all the way up the hill, so we wound up riding it twice before finally making it back to the villa.

When we entered the house we discovered that everyone else in our group had already left, so we would be spending the next two nights in the sprawling villa all by ourselves. Walking the long halls and stairways of the 100-year-old building at night with nobody else around was decidedly spooky.

One of the hallways.
The only things missing were some ghostly twins and Danny Torrance riding his big wheel.

It didn’t help that a waitress at the local restaurant told us that the villa was supposedly haunted, or that we had just recently been discussing The Shining. In fact, one night while I was sleeping I thought I heard footsteps around my bed. I’m sure I was just dreaming, but it still creeped me out. 🙂

Here are a few of the interior shots I took to try and capture a bit of that creepiness:

The next day, I decided to stay behind at the villa while Uncle Kipp went into Florence. I needed a day to relax after everything we had crammed into the last two weeks. It was an absolutely gorgeous day, as if we were in the middle of the summer rather than the end of October. I walked around the outside of the villa and took some more pictures of the grounds and the beautiful countryside.

The caretaker’s house next to our villa.
View from my room over the top of the gazebo.
A zoomed in shot of Florence viewed from the hills near our villa.
Outside the Villa
Tuscan countryside viewed from the villa’s gazebo.
Another view of the Tuscan countryside from the gazebo.

That evening I started to make dinner, only to discover that there was no more garlic in the house. We didn’t think to buy any because there had been a lot left the last time we checked. Oh well, I forged ahead, though the lack of garlic made for some pretty bland braciole.

Uncle Kipp returned from his day out, during which he also took care of paying the final bill. To our shock, we got slapped with a heating bill of 800 Euros! The nights were cold and it was a huge building with lots of people requiring different levels of heat to stay comfortable, but we were still stunned. It didn’t help that there was a broken window in one of the rooms that we had to force closed with a rock that the landlords never fixed during our two-week stay. They also failed us in other ways (including shutting off the heat and hot water on our last night) but I don’t want this post to turn into a laundry list of complaints. Suffice it to say that they received a lengthy letter after we returned home.

That night I walked around outside taking some more photos. Here is one of Florence.

Florence at Night

I watched some TV before heading to bed. The Cinque Terre disaster dominated the news channels. The only English-language channel was showing Jersey Shore. Ugh, I hope that’s not how the rest of the world thinks the average American behaves. 😐

The next morning we awoke early so we could close up the villa and head to the bus for our long journey to Switzerland and the beginning of the second half of our trip, which will be covered in the next installment. In the meantime…

See more photos from Tuscany

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My Villa in Tuscany

This video is a tour of the grounds surrounding the villa I lived in for two weeks outside of Florence, Italy in 2011. You may have already seen this if you read Part 1 of my Eurotrip journal, though the video is now much smoother thanks to youtube’s smoothing software (with the minor side effect of wacky looking text at the beginning).

The villa was over 100 years old and full of character. The view of the Tuscan countryside from the gazebo was sublime: the hills, the olive groves, the other villas; very peaceful. And on the other end of the grounds I could see Florence in the valley below—an amazing view at night. It’s not difficult to understand why someone would decide to drop everything and move to Tuscany; it’s such an easy place to fall in love with.

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Eurotrip 2011, Part 5: Dodging a Bullet in Cinque Terre

Cinque Terre

This installment of my travel journal covers Days 11–13 of my 2011 trip to Europe…

After a long, long break, I am finally returning to the journal of my 2011 trip to Europe. When we last left off, I had just spent two days in Venice, my first ever solo trip in a foreign country.  Upon returning to Florence from Venice, I caught the bus back up to the villa, arriving in the early evening, but I was stuck outside the gate for about 15 minutes unsuccessfully trying to get the non-English-speaking caretaker to let me in. There were only a limited number of gate keys, I did not have one of them, and nobody else from our group was home. I thought I was going to be stuck outside for the next few hours until somebody else came back (that’ll teach me to not learn enough of the local language when I travel).

I sat outside the gate with all of my luggage trying to call my uncle (in between curses) to see if he could contact somebody to get the caretaker to let me in. Before the call went through, the caretaker finally realized I wasn’t a criminal and the gate opened at last. I went inside and enjoyed a couple hours of peace and quiet before the rest of the group started filing in. Once again, however, I would not have much time to rest as I needed to pack for a long train ride to Cinque Terre the next morning.

By the time the train was making the final approach to La Spezia, where we would catch a cab to our hotel, it was already dark.  At one point we were confused and got off the train at the wrong stop in a remote area. Something didn’t look right, however, and we jumped back on just before the train left. I can’t recall definitively, but I think that may have been the last train of the night, so if we had missed it, we would have been screwed.

We were checking in a day late because we got our dates wrong, but the hotel was kind enough to move our reservation back a day without penalty. As it turned out, missing our check-in date was the best thing that could have happened because Cinque Terre was ravaged by terrible flooding on the day we were supposed to be there (you may have read about this in the news). It had been raining heavily during the train ride in, but it did not seem extraordinary and we thought nothing of it until we learned of the devastation the next day.

We checked in to our hotel, located high on a cliff outside of the five connected villages that make up Cinque Terre. We had a long climb down the cliff to get to our room (a good fifteen minutes), hauling heavy luggage in the pouring rain. When we finally got down to where the rooms were situated, we walked around and around but could not find our room. We finally gave up, soaking wet and tired from a daylong train ride as well as the climb down. I left Uncle Kipp with the luggage and I ran all the way back up the cliff to the hotel office to ask them how to find our room.  We finally found it, nestled in this little blink-and-you-miss-it nook area that was easy to bypass in the dark.

The room was a little skeevy, but I was tired enough that I didn’t care. If nothing else, we had a great view overlooking the Mediterranean when stepping outside of our room.

The view from outside our hotel room (the next day).

There were no other restaurants in the area because of the middle-of-nowhere location of our hotel, so we went to the hotel restaurant (which meant climbing all the way to the top of the cliff again). I had spaghetti Bolognese with boar meat; it didn’t really taste much different than other types of meat, especially when drowned in pasta sauce. After dinner there was really nothing to do but turn in since it was already pretty late and we were so far outside of the villages.

The next morning we awoke early with the intention of hiking the trail that winds its way among the cliffs and through the five villages—only to discover that the trail was closed. This was when we learned about the massive flooding that had devastated the area and rendered most of the villages inaccessible.

A highly zoomed-in shot of one of the villages we could not reach, possibly Monterosso.

In fact, the only village we were able to access was the first one, Riomaggiore, and that involved about an hour of walking down the main highway and through a dark automobile tunnel.

The end of the tunnel we walked through.
Approaching Riomaggiore

We walked around for a bit when we got there, making our way down to the little harbor, but we didn’t stay very long because there didn’t seem to be a whole lot to do with so much being closed down.


We were bummed that the whole trip out to the coast seemed to be for nothing, but when we later learned of the sheer level of the devastation, we realized how lucky we were to have accidentally checked in a day late. We almost definitely would have been right in the middle of one of the villages when the flooding and mudslides began, needing to be evacuated like so many others, and it could have been even worse—nine people lost their lives.

When we got back to the hotel my uncle spoke to a Spanish couple who had been stuck inside their car in one of the villages during the flooding for hours, thinking that they were going to die. They were eventually evacuated by chopper and ended up at our hotel, but their car and everything in it was lost.

An evacuation chopper.

It was unbelievable to hear stories like this because the previous night’s storm hadn’t seemed like anything out of the ordinary, but the images we would later see on television were shocking. We were truly fortunate to have missed it, just as we had missed the rioting in Rome by one day earlier in the trip.

A capsized boat apparently washed out to sea by the flooding.

It was still fairly early in the afternoon when we got back to the hotel so I decided to hike down a nearby cliff. There was a trail that led all the way down to the beach. My uncle stayed behind so I went by myself.

Part of the trail (more treacherous than it looks).

For late October the weather was as warm as mid-summer, so I was able to wear shorts. There were beautiful views of the Mediterranean on the way down.

View from the trail looking north.
View from the trail looking south.

I also passed by a couple of houses that looked like they had no business being in the middle of a cliff.

One of the houses along the trail.

Along the way, there were some interesting sights, such as this red ant-infested rock that I could easily have leaned against if I hadn’t been paying attention:


However, it was much farther to the bottom than it had appeared when I started, so I only made it about two-thirds of the way down when the sun set.

The setting sun.

I found a place to sit and admire the sunset over the sea. I was the only person on the trail so it felt as if I had the entire Italian coastline to myself. I was amazed at how peaceful the Mediterranean appeared, almost motionless.

Mediterranean Sunset

I climbed down for a while longer but I never made it to the bottom. I didn’t want to hike back up the cliff by myself in the dark, and I was already pretty tired anyway, so I turned back. I made it back to the top by around eight in the evening. That night we had dinner at the hotel again. I ordered shrimp and was very surprised to be served a plate with fully-formed shrimp staring back at me, eyeballs and all. They don’t serve them that way in the states. 🙂

We turned in shortly after dinner. We had to wake up early the next morning to catch a bus into La Spezia, where we would hop on a train back to Florence and the final two days of the Italy leg of our trip, which will be covered in the next installment. Until then…

View More Photos from Cinque Terre

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Eurotrip 2011, Part 4: Ah, Venice

This installment of my travel journal covers Days 9–11 of my 2011 trip to Europe…

After returning to Florence from my three-night trip to Rome, there was little time to rest as I had to turn right around the next morning and hop on a train to Venice.  I was slightly apprehensive about this trip because I was going alone.  It can be nerve-wracking enough traveling in a foreign country whose language you don’t speak when you’re with a group, but going by yourself kicks things up notch.  However, I would have regretted passing up the opportunity to see Venice during what could likely be my only trip to Italy, so I booked a hotel, bought a train ticket, and off I went.  I picked a good day and time to go as the train was not overly crowded, allowing me to have my own section of seats for most of the three-hour trip.

I arrived in Venice that afternoon and stopped by the information area to buy a city map.  I had decided, since it’s not a huge city, that I would walk everywhere rather than dealing with the water taxis.  As I would soon discover, however, Venice is a maze of narrow streets and alleys.  I would get lost or turned around several times during my two-night stay there.

The view from my hotel.
The view from my hotel

I eventually made it to my hotel and, after getting settled in (and getting my room changed because my original room had a strong, strange smell), set out to do some exploring.  I was quite hungry by this point so I stopped for dinner, where I had mediocre lasagna served by a not-quite-pleasant waiter.

After dinner I continued exploring.  I quickly got over my initial apprehension and welcomed the ability to move about at my own pace without worrying about other peoples’ needs or schedules.  Don’t get me wrong, I still prefer to have company when I travel, but my two days alone here—just flowing through the city at my leisure and letting the magic of Venice wash over me—were the most relaxing of the trip.  It helped that I didn’t have to worry about bus or train schedules (or, in this case, boat schedules).  There’s something to be said for just walking everywhere, and Venice is the perfect city for doing that, being entirely pedestrian (e.g., no motor vehicles or bicycles allowed), even if you do get lost occasionally.

A typical canal with multiple bridge crossings.
A typical canal with multiple bridge crossings
The Grand Canal
The Grand Canal

Eventually, I encountered a gondola crossing.  Since I was unlikely to take a full gondola ride by myself, I figured this little crossing would at least give me some of the experience, so I stepped aboard and handed the ferryman a fifty-cent coin as visions entered my head of the dead paying Charon to cross the River Styx.

My Gondola
My Gondola

Later that night I came across a lovely little tea room along a side canal, where I enjoyed some vanilla-scented Darjeeling and warm apple cake while Big Band jazz played in the background—the perfect prescription for a chilly October evening.  On the way back to my hotel, I did some shopping and called my wife (I wish she could have been with me in this romantic city) before calling it a night.

The Tea Room
The Tea Room

The next day I did a good seven hours worth of walking, taking lots of pictures.

The island and church of San Giorgio Maggiore
Looking across the lagoon at the island and church of San Giorgio Maggiore

Part of my day was spent looking for this pizza place called Al Vecio Canton that had been recommended by Wikitravel.  Speaking of which, Wikitravel is a great source for finding good restaurants, things to do/see, and places to stay, and provides valuable advice on how to get around.  I had just discovered the site on this trip and wound up using it a lot.

Anyway, I walked around in circles for about an hour searching for Al Vecio Canton.  At one point I stopped at this café with a similar name thinking it must be the place, but the pizza did not look appetizing so I left.  Just as I was just about to give up, I decided to enter a hotel on the chance that the front desk manager might know the place.  Thankfully, he did, and proceeded to draw a line on my map from the hotel to the restaurant.  His directions were perfect and I finally arrived.  It was basically a hole-in-the-wall pub in a narrow alley, as the picture below shows, the kind of place that the average tourist would likely walk right on past without a second glance.  For me, however, after a long search bordering on obsession, it was like gazing on the Holy Grail.  I sat down and ordered a beer and a pie called the Diavolo, which was topped with spicy salami similar to pepperoni, but with a bit more zing.  It was delicious, the best pizza I had anywhere on the trip, and totally worth the effort to find it.

The Pizza Place -- Go there!
The pizza place—definitely eat here if you go to Venice

After lunch I made my way to St. Mark’s square.  The lines to see the monuments were long so I decided to just walk around and take in the ambience, which included dueling orchestras around the square (and areas crowded with both people and pigeons).

St. Mark's Square
St. Mark’s Square

From there I moved on to other areas of the city.  At one point I encountered a bizarre art exhibit.  Most of the paintings were too risqué to share in mixed company (such as depictions of superheroes having sex with each other), but to give you an idea of the exhibit’s weirdness, here’s a sculpture that sat out front:

Sculpture in front of bizarre art exhibit
Sculpture in front of bizarre art exhibit

I visited some other exhibits around the city and also wandered into an old church where a man was tuning a harpsichord in preparation for a performance that evening of Vivalid’s Four Seasons.  I considered returning for the performance, but more on that later.  I completed my walk around the city and made my way back toward the hotel, visiting the Tea Room again on the way.  I also stopped at the Ponte degli Scalzi bridge to take some night photos of the Grand Canal.

The Grand Canal at night
The Grand Canal at night

When I got back to the hotel I relaxed for a while, decompressing after a long day of walking.  At the last minute I decided I’d try to make the Vivaldi concert.  However, because I was running late, I didn’t have time to properly refer to the map, so I wound up taking some wrong turns.  I finally made it to the church but just missed the beginning of the concert, so I decided to take a nighttime stroll along the shore looking out toward the island of San Giorgio Maggiore.  On the way home I decided to take in a bit of the Venice nightlife with a detour to a square full of restaurants and pubs where the local college students hang out.  I stopped for a drink and some food before heading home again.  It was quite late by this point and the walk home through all of the narrow alleys and empty squares was a bit creepy—perhaps not the best time to be wandering alone with my eyes fixed on a map, but I eventually made it back to the hotel.

The next day I caught an earlier train back to Florence so that I would not miss the last bus up the hills to the villa, but things did not go entirely smoothly.  More on that and my ill-fated trip to Cinque Terre in the next installment.

In the meantime, you can view more photos from Venice or check out some…

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Eurotrip 2011, Part 3: When in Rome

This installment of my travel journal covers Days 5–8 of my 2011 trip to Europe…

Following our adventures in Florence and Lucca, we hopped on a train the next morning for Rome.  We arrived in the afternoon and, after settling in at our hotel, walked straight to the Colosseum, which I had wanted to see since I was a kid.  It’s every bit as magnificent as I had imagined.  Walking around this ancient marvel of engineering, in the very footsteps of the citizens and rulers of the greatest civilization of the ancient world, is an amazing experience.  Pictures can’t really do it justice, but here are a few anyway…

This view of the Colosseum really gives you a sense of how much the structure dominated the cityscape of ancient Rome.
Colosseum Interior Panorama
Colosseum Interior Panorama
The surviving original facade of the Colosseum

In all, I must have taken a good 300 pics of the Colosseum that day alone.  My only regrets were that I neglected to take any video and that I never made it back to the Colosseum at night.  After our tour of the Colosseum, we ate at a nearby café in its shadow, pulled in by one of the aggressive greeters stationed in front of all of the restaurants.  The merchants are very aggressive all over Rome, particularly in the street shops.  If you walk away from them they’ll chase you down the street.  Anyway, we called it an early night as I was still suffering from some jet lag and lack of sleep.  Before bed I took this photo from our balcony:

Rome at Night (long exposure shot)

The next morning we embarked on an all-day walking venture around Rome.  First we stopped at the Basilica of St. John Lateran which, I was interested to learn, is the actual official seat of the Pope, not St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican. We also took another walk around the Colosseum, where we encountered these dudes:

Centurion of Rome anachronistically talking on his cell phone…

When the guys in the photo above flagged us down and offered to pose with us, we said, “what the hell?”  Little did we know that they would wind up charging us 30 Euros (ten for each centurion) for the privilege of taking pictures with our own cameras—no mention had been made of charging us beforehand.  So word to the wise: either avoid these guys or negotiate a fee before letting them take any pictures.

Next, we made our way toward the Roman Forum but we had trouble finding the entrance and wound up walking all over the place, touring some of the other forums and buildings in the area.

Forum of Augustus
Forum of Augustus
Victor Emmanuel II monument
Victor Emmanuel II monument

After stopping at a café for pizza and a beer, we finally found the Forum’s entrance.  The Roman Forum is a sublime experience, especially if you can allow yourself to imagine what it must have been like in its glorious prime: the magnificent buildings, the hustle and bustle of citizens moving to and fro.  The self-guided, recorded tour helps transport you to that era by explaining everything that you are seeing.  I highly recommend the tour, otherwise you’re just walking around looking at a bunch of pieces of marble and stone.

The Roman Forum: Arch of Septimius Severus
The Roman Forum: Arch of Septimius Severus
The Roman Forum: Temples of Saturn and Vespasian and Titus
The Roman Forum: Temples of Saturn and Vespasian and Titus

The tour is so comprehensive that if you actually stopped to listen to every description of every site, you could easily spend an entire day in the Forum and the adjoining Palatine Hill, but we only had the afternoon until they closed, so I had to rush through some things and skip others.  At one point, I made my way to the Temple of Venus and Rome, where I had a spectacular view of the Colosseum.

Rome, Italy: The Colosseum viewed from the Temple of Venus and Rome
The Colosseum viewed from the Temple of Venus and Rome
A closer view of the Colosseum

I don’t think people realized that they could go up there because I was the only person around, so I just sat for a while admiring the view, snapping photos, and appreciating that oasis of tranquility in the middle of Italy’s most famous and heavily visited city.  I walked inside the temple, where, again, I was completely by myself.  It was a nice, quiet place to sit for a few minutes and decompress from the stresses of travel, and would have been a perfect place to eat lunch or do some writing.

The Roman Forum: Temple of Venus and Rome (self-timer photo)
Temple of Venus and Rome (self-timer photo)

Before leaving I grabbed a stone from the ground that was actually a fallen piece of the temple structure and brought it home for my stepfather, who had requested a stone from Italy (I also brought a piece of one of the other forums home for him).  I eventually made my way back to the Palatine Hill, where I rejoined my uncle and we continued our tour, which lasted another couple of hours, including a walk through the very underground corridor where Caligula is thought to have been assassinated.

The Hippodrome of Domitian on the Palatine Hill
The Hippodrome of Domitian on the Palatine Hill
The Roman Forum: wide view from the Palatine Hill
Wide view of the Roman Forum from the Palatine Hill

When the Forum complex was getting ready to close for the day, we rushed back to the entrance to retrieve our collateral for the audio tour listening devices (my uncle had left his passport and I my driver’s license), so we didn’t get to complete the tour (I wasn’t able to see the Circus Maximus, though it is little more than a grooved field now anyway).

That night we headed out for dinner at a restaurant called Zodiac, located high on a hill overlooking the entire city.  On our way there we could not find a cab so we decided to walk, thinking “how bad can it be?”  Well, it turns out that the restaurant is WAY up the hill, and the only way up there is to walk up a steep, dark, winding highway with little-to-no shoulder.  Thankfully, we found a cab at the foot of the hill and avoided this arduous climb.  We were already so wiped out from an entire day’s worth of walking that I don’t think we would have made it, or, if we had decided to push through, it would have taken us most of the night to even get up there.  Even with the cab it took us a long time to get to the top, but we eventually did and, despite feeling somewhat underdressed, we had a great meal while enjoying this spectacular view of The Eternal City:


After dinner we had a cab drop us at the subway stop that would take us back to our hotel only to discover that the subway system had closed at 9pm!  Apparently The Eternal City closes early.  After some walking we eventually found another cab and made it home.

That night and into the morning we had some heavy rain, which resulted in our subway stop being flooded and closed.  We weren’t sure how we were going to get to the Vatican, but we were fortunate to run into some nice Italian men, and a Brazilian woman who spoke both Italian and English, so she was able to translate their instructions for us to find the next subway stop.  She then walked with us to the stop.  A little side note on subways in Rome: you will often encounter people on the trains begging for money, something to consider if that sort of thing makes you uncomfortable.

Thankfully, the weather cleared up when we made it to the Vatican.  Outside the walls I couldn’t help noticing all of the people standing around selling tickets to the museum or offering guided tours.  It reminded me of scalpers outside sports stadiums and I made a comment to that effect.  One of these men overheard me and took great offense, shouting out, “I’m not a scalper, sir, I help people!”  Well okay, then.

Vatican: St. Peter's Basilica viewed from the Via della Conciliazione
St. Peter’s Basilica viewed from the Via della Conciliazione

We entered the grounds with the intention of visiting St. Peter’s Basilica, only to discover a massive line winding all the way around the circular inner courtyard area.  So we went back out to the scalper area and booked one of the Museum/Basilica combo tours that would enable us to bypass most of the lines.  It was worth it as the guide, engaging and knowledgeable, added much to the experience.  I also met another couple on the tour who live right near me in Central Jersey; small world.

Vatican Museum Courtyard
Vatican Museum Courtyard
Vatican Museum Map Room
Vatican Museum Map Room: Can you hear the Indiana Jones theme?

Part of the tour included a visit to the Sistine Chapel, which is kept dark and cold, and where photos are prohibited.  In fact, the guy from the aforementioned couple was kicked out of the chapel when he was caught snapping photos.  I managed to snap a couple of covert photos by holding the camera at my hip and pointing it at the ceiling.  This one didn’t come out too badly considering the lighting conditions and my inability to properly frame the shot:

Sistene Chapel
Sistene Chapel

The chapel was not quite how I’d envisioned it–I had this vision in my head of a tall, grand, domed structure, but it’s actually smaller and more intimate feeling than that.  Still, it’s an amazing site when you consider the work that went into painting it.  Following the chapel we made our way to St. Peter’s Basilica, the interior of which is pretty awe inspiring regardless of your religious leanings.

Vatican: St. Peter's Basilica interior
St. Peter’s Basilica interior

After leaving the Vatican we decided to walk along the Tiber toward the Trastevere district of Rome to eat at this restaurant called Meo Pataca, which had been recommended by a Roman native friend of my department manager at work.  It was a much longer walk than expected but Trastevere is a nice neighborhood to visit, full of character with its narrow cobblestone streets and medieval houses (I later found out that both Sergio Leone and Ennio Morricone grew up in that neighborhood, so it’s pretty cool to know I walked those same streets).

The Tiber
The Tiber

I’m pretty good at reading maps and I have a good sense of direction, but we still had a hard time navigating the maze of streets that make up Trastevere.  At certain points we considered giving up and just eating at one of the other restaurants we passed, but I was determined to find Meo Pataca.  Finally, we did, but we arrived at a locked door and it looked dead inside.  We thought the restaurant no longer existed and almost left, but we decided to walk around the building and look for another entrance.  I’m glad we did because we wound up having a fabulous meal at an authentic restaurant frequented by the locals of Rome rather than tourists, well off the beaten path.  There was one other group of Americans who found the place and we sat next to them and had a good conversation, but most people were Italians, and little English was spoken by anyone, including the restaurant staff.  It was one of the best meals of the trip—and the best atmosphere, complete with a lady singing Italian songs backed by a roving group of acoustic guitarists.

The Trastevere district of Rome
The Trastevere district of Rome was full of narrow cobbled streets and outdoor restaurants, such as the one partially visible to the left.

The next day we decided to fit in a few more sites before our train was scheduled to leave, including the famed Spanish Steps, The Trevi Fountain, and the Pantheon, which is really an amazing building with the way the natural light of the sun illuminates the interior courtesy of a hole in the domed ceiling.

The Pantheon
The Pantheon
Pantheon Interior
Pantheon Interior

After the Pantheon we stopped for some more delicious gelato at a place that had been recommended by the same friend of my manager and then headed back to the train for the long ride back to Florence.  We arrived at the villa that night and had dinner with our housemates—one of the few nights when almost everyone in the villa was together.  I was exhausted after the Rome trip but there was no rest for the weary, for I needed to pack for my solo trip to Venice the next morning, which I will be covering in the next installment.

View More Photos from Rome

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Eurotrip 2011, Part 2: Under The Tuscan Sun

This installment of my travel journal covers Days 2–4 of my 2011 trip to Europe…

Picking up where we left off in Part 1, we finally arrived at our villa in the hills of Tuscany, which would serve as our base of operations for the next two weeks.  There were 15-20 people sharing the sprawling villa, though we would separate into smaller groups for our excursions around Italy.  Most of the rooms had already been claimed but I was able to secure a nice room on the far end of the villa with decent view.

View of a Tuscan sunset from my bedroom window
View of a Tuscan sunset from my bedroom window

That night we all walked up to the only restaurant in the area for dinner, which also served as a meet and greet session since I had not previously met most of my villa mates.   They were all very nice; it was a good group.  Dinner was delicious, a spicy bacon pasta dish.  I also had my first taste of Italian prosciutto that night, and it was amazing, nothing like the overly salty prosciutto we have in America.  I ate a ton of it during our two weeks in Italy.

The restaurant/bus stop where we spent a lot of time
The restaurant/bus stop where we spent a lot of time

I left the restaurant early by myself to go to bed since I had been awake for a good 28 hours by this point.  It was cold and windy during the walk back to the villa and I began to wonder if I had made a mistake by not packing a heavier jacket, but those worries would prove unfounded as the majority of the weather we experienced during the trip was beautiful, even into November.  I got back to the villa grounds, which was surrounded by a wall with a gate that could only be opened by an electronic key.  I had a key, but could not figure out where to use it because it was pitch black, so I wound up having to press the call button to the caretakers, an old couple who spoke no English.  After a few minutes of back and forth talking and not understanding each other, they finally let me in and I went upstairs and collapsed in my bed.

I woke up the next morning at 3:45am and couldn’t get back to sleep, so I decided to catch a Tuscan sunrise.

Tuscany at dawn looking toward Florence in the distance

Later that morning we took a small, rickety bus down the hill into Florence, where we spent the entire day visiting the historic center and the area along the Arno river.  The highlight of the day was our long climb to the top of Giottio’s Tower, affording us views like this:

View from the top of Giotto's Campanile
View from the top of Giotto’s Campanile
Another view from the top of the tower
Another view from the top of the tower

After the tower we walked along the Arno river, had lunch, and crossed the famous Ponte Vecchio, a medieval bridge with shops built along it.

Ponte Vecchio
Ponte Vecchio

After that we did some grocery shopping and headed back home for a dinner cooked by one of our villa mates.  The next day we hopped on a train (the first of many during our stay) for Lucca, a walled, medieval city.

Lucca city wall
Lucca city wall

It took us a while to find the historic center, but we eventually did, and climbed a tower for some amazing views.

View from the top of the tower we climbed in Lucca
View from the top of the tower we climbed in Lucca

We visited a few cathedrals, including one where I gave money to a man who I thought was collecting for entry to the church only to realize later that he was just a beggar.  Oh well, you live and learn.  For dinner we made our way to the circular main plaza at the center of the city where I had a tasty lasagna dish, topping it off with a stop for gelato (we rarely went a day without getting gelato from somewhere).

Panorama of main plaza in Lucca
Panorama of main plaza in Lucca

That evening we returned to Florence too late to catch the bus so we had to take a cab (the last bus for the hills leaves around 6pm, so if you want to stay out later, you’re screwed).  Once again, our driver had no idea how to get to our villa and got lost, so my uncle showed him a picture of the bus stop closest to our villa on his camera, which did the trick.  Unfortunately, the driver forgot to return the camera and my uncle was unable to retrieve it from the cab company after numerous calls.  Fortunately, he had his iPad to tide him over for taking pictures until he could purchase a new camera.

We eventually made it back to the villa and, after some socializing, I began packing for our three-day trip to Rome, which will be covered in Part 3.  In the meantime, you can follow the links below for more pictures from this part of my trip.

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Eurotrip 2011: My Journal

I’ve finally gotten around to writing up the journal of the month-long trip I took with my uncle last fall to Italy, Switzerland, and Croatia. I had intended to keep a journal while I was over there but it didn’t work out, so the following story is based on what I can remember nearly eight months later. This is one case where facebook’s timeline has actually proved useful in allowing me to go back and see what I posted during that time period. I’m going to release the journal in installments so as not to overwhelm you with a month’s worth of info in a single post. Here is Part 1…

Days 1–2: The Flight and Our Arrival at the Villa

Our adventure began on October 14th when we were picked up at my house by the shuttle service that shall not be named (why they remain nameless shall soon become apparent). On our way to the airport we stopped at a hotel to pick up another passenger, and wound up waiting around twenty minutes because he was late. Finally, he showed up and we were on our way. Upon exiting the turnpike we had to wait in a long toll line because the shuttle did not have E-ZPass (you would think an airport shuttle service that uses the turnpike seven days a week and whose business is to get people to their destinations on time would invest in E-ZPass, but that was the least of their faults).

We eventually made it to Newark Airport, where we had to transfer to another shuttle (run by the same nameless company) to take us to JFK, and this is where the fun really began. They overbooked our transfer shuttle and we almost got kicked off and told to wait for the next shuttle, which would likely have caused us to miss our flight. When we tried to discuss this with the driver he very rudely brushed us off—well, let’s be blunt, he yelled at us. Ultimately, we were allowed to stay on the shuttle (another couple got kicked off) and began the long rush-hour drive to JFK. The driver had the heat in the shuttle turned up so high that everyone was dying, especially the people sitting behind us with no windows. I finally asked him to turn it down, which he reluctantly did (previously, he had actually turned the heat even higher after we had turned it down while he was out of the car).

Finally, we arrived at JFK, leaving the driver (and Voldemort Shuttles, Inc.) behind, though we would have to deal with them again upon our return. After boarding the plane, we sat on the tarmac for two hours before finally taking off, causing us to miss our connecting flight in Paris. At this point, between the shuttle debacle, the heavy traffic getting there, and the flight delay, I had already made up my mind that I would never fly out of JFK again (though my bad experience with that airport had only just begun—more on that later). Anyway, lest this journal seem like a total bitch-fest, I think it’s time we moved on. 🙂

During the long overseas flight I managed to fit in three movies: The Hangover 2 (meh), Bridesmaids (very funny), and Cedar Rapids (just okay). I had a comfortable aisle seat with extra leg room, which was nice. When we landed in Paris, we frantically ran to try and catch our flight, but as feared, we missed it. We eventually secured a later flight and were on our way to Florence. I had a window seat for this flight, and the scenery while flying over the mountains in Italy was gorgeous.

The Italian Alps (I think)
The Italian Alps (I think)
Tuscan Apennines (probably)
The Tuscan Apennines (probably)

After landing in Florence we got a taxi and gave the driver the name of the villa. She proceeded to drive us all over the city, winding up at the wrong place (with the same name as our villa). She had no idea where our villa was located (this would turn out to be a recurring theme among cabbies in Florence). After some back and forth on the phone, she eventually took us to the office that managed our property, and from there the property manager drove us to our villa, located in the hills of the Tuscan countryside outside of Florence.

The long ride into the hills was a neat experience: a narrow, winding road surrounded by olive trees, often just wide enough for a single car to pass. When we would encounter another car driving toward us at one of these narrow passes, one of the cars would have to back up until it found a place where it could get over to let the other car pass. Our driver frequently beeped her horn as she approached curves to signal any potential oncoming vehicles. On our way up the hill we occasionally passed through small villages that reminded me of the Sicily scenes from The Godfather.

Even this part of the trip, however, was not without its little side adventure. Some of our villa mates, who we had met up with at the office, were following our car, but the property manager was driving so fast that she lost them at a fork in the road. We pulled over and waited for them, but they never came, so we assumed they took the wrong turn. The manager turned the car around in an effort to catch up with them, driving through the hills on these narrow roads like a bat out of hell. It was a little scary, I must confess. We drove for a long, long time before the manager finally gave up, turning the car back around and taking us to the villa.

At last, after a long, two-day ordeal, we had arrived at our destination: The Villa Belvedere.

The Villa

This seems like a good stopping point, so I’ll close this first journal installment with a video of the villa and the beautiful surrounding grounds. Stay tuned for part two, which will cover our first night at the villa and our trip into Florence the following day.

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