Monday, July 23, 2012

Cinque Terre

Our third stop in our Italian trek was Cinque Terre - a beautiful stretch of coastline in the Italian Riveria. The area is known as the five lands and was historically 5 little fishing villages hanging on the cliffs overlooking the Mediterranean Sea. The Cinque Terra have no automobiles in the towns, but instead are linked by trains and hiking trails (excluding the "new town" in Monterosso - they have cars). The towns used to be a less traveled area of Italy, but thanks to Rick Steves it's now a tourist mecca.

view of Vernazza's harbor (google images)

Coming up from La Spezia (from the South) you first come to Riomaggiore, one of the less notable towns in my opinion...Riomaggiore is connected to Manarola by the via dell' Amore (path of love)...a paved, easily walkable trail that is famous for its locks. Lovers come from all over to stroll across the trail and leave a lock - a symbol of their never-ending love. Locks are EVERYWHERE on this pathway - gates, fences, barbed wire, netting that hold boulders back, sculptures - everywhere! Mark and I, of course, joined in this tradition and planned ahead by purchasing a large heart shaped lock with two skeleton keys. If you forget to purchase your lock ahead of time, you can also buy basic little locks in the gift shop at the Cinque Terre visitor's station in Manarola (just off the train station).

The next town is the town of Manarola. This is where we chose to stay. Manarola is a beautiful little town perched high up on a cliff, but does also have water access (although no beach). Manarola has a very steep vertical rise, so if you choose to stay here make sure you're A) carrying fairly light luggage and B) in pretty good shape. The town is comprised of a church, a central square, several restaurants and cafes, pretty terraced farmland and people's homes (with of course, some small inns and apartments for rent). One of the most notable places in Manarola is Billy's. It's a restaurant that's well known in the Cinque Terre and highly regarded on Trip Advisor. Our apartment - Locanda Giuilana # 2 - was literally right across the calle (tiny narrow street) from Billy's. We'd highly recommend Billy's - they serve extremely fresh fish and are very accommodating - my husband wrote a review of the restaurant'll see why I pointed out how accommodating they are ;) Locanda Giuliana was nice enough - basic necessities were there as well as a nice (but TINY!) balcony that overlooked the town and the ocean. You can read our Trip Advisor review here. We enjoyed Manarola, but decided that Vernazza or Monterosso probably would have fit us better. Manarola is very nice, but basically everything (other than Billy's) closes at around 8pm. It's a very sleepy little town. Monterosso seems to have more action and a little more to do - not that we were looking to go clubbing or anything (not our style!), but we would like to sit at a cafe with a drink and listen to some live music....and that was non-existent in Manarola.

just outside our room in Manarola

The next town you come to is Corniglia. This is the only town in the Cinque Terre without water access - it sits high up on a hill. In fact, there are around 300 steps you have to walk up from the train station in order to get to the town. I don't have much to say about the town itself. It's notable restaurants that I was aware fact, our only reason for visiting the town was 1) to visit all of the town in the Cinque Terre and 2) to start our hike of the Cinque Terre trail here. The Cinque Terre trail is a GORGEOUS  stretch of trails that connects all 5 towns. Portions of the trail are shut down frequently due to mud slides or work on the trails so make sure you check which sections are open before you go. When we visited, the section between Manarola and Corniglia was closed. We chose to hike from Corniglia to Vernazza. This portion of the hike was pretty steep and unpaved, it was hot and pretty tiresome to be honest, but the views were absolutely worth it. One of my favorite parts of visiting Cinque Terre was our hike - by far.

coming into Vernazza after our hike from Corniglia

Vernazza is the next town after Corniglia - it's an extremely picturesque town....and extremely popular as well, thanks in part to Rick Steves, I'm sure. He makes it crystal clear that Vernazza is his favorite town.....and I could see why. The harbor is gorgeous...there are plenty of places to lounge while overlooking it, including a nice little beach (sand/pebble mix, of course). There are also numerous cafes and restaurants at the waterfront and plenty little shops to stop in and purchase some limoncello (or whatever you'd like...but limoncello was our libation of choice!). There's a lovely little stream that runs down the mountain, through town, and out to the ocean as well as a charming Castle at the top of the hill. There's also a gorgeous church that sits on the corner of the square at the harbor. We spent part of an afternoon eating lunch and taking in the sites absolutely perfect way to spend an afternoon.

From Vernazza we took the train to Monterosso, where we decided to have some beach time in "new town" in Monterosso. The largest beach in the Cinque Terre is in new town Monterosso. The beach is a mix of sand and little pebbles, but for around 3 euro you can buy a bamboo beach mat (which we actually bought while we were in Malcesine) and enjoy the beach without sitting on what is essentially rocks (if you're back far enough from the ocean, it's more sandy as well). You can also rent a beach chair and umbrella here from one of the many cabana boys at the "private" beaches (basically, you just had to pay the chair rental fee for entry to the private beach). I'm not sure what that cost, as we decided not to pay extra to sit on the beach. New Town Monterosso is essentially a beach town, complete with a boardwalk and lots and lots and lots of shops, cafes, gelaterie, and restaurants. We chose to eat in old town Monterosso one evening at a lovely little (and I mean tiny) restaurant that was family owned and operated (as in the wife was the chef and the husband was the server - that's it, no more staff...although they could have used at least one more person!) The food was excellent; although I think our meal lasted over 3 hours...but that's basically the way it goes in Italy!

beach in Monterosso

We loved Cinque Terre, but our overall feeling was that it was, unfortunately, quite touristy. Walking around, you would hear English being spoken pretty frequently, which for some, I'm sure, would be great...but for us, it wasn't incredibly desirable. When we travel we really like to immerse ourselves into the culture and try to adapt ourselves to our surroundings....not force our surroundings to adapt to us. So hearing English being spoken so frequently was quite jarring - especially after coming from Lake Garda and Malcesine...where many of the locals we encountered spoke very little English and the tourists, while present, where at a minimum and all very respectful of the Italian culture. 

Cinque Terre is a beautiful area of the country and the small towns are very quaint and lovely, but it definitely is not an undiscovered part of Italy. Visit, but keep your expectations in check. Mark and I were expecting quaint little fishing villages with fresh seafood, lovely scenery and beautiful beaches....which Cinque Terre definitely delivers on. What we were not expecting was a crowded tourist area. We actually chose Cinque Terre over the Amalfi Coast because we believed it would be more "authentic"and less crowded. I would just say:  Don't choose it for the reasons we did. Choose it, instead, for the reasons I listed above that it delivers on in spades. 

Oh - and I should point out that a couple weeks after we arrived home from Italy we heard of the devastating flood that hit the Cinque Terre. Vernazza and Monterosso were hit the hardest and from my understanding, Vernazza is still struggling to recover. Many shops/cafes/restaurants were buried under many feet of mud and the town is still working on cleaning up and digging out. If you'd like to read more about the flood or contribute to the efforts to rebuild, Rick Steves can point you in the right direction: check it out here.

The Indecisive Wife

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Welcome Back

I can't help but think of this when those two words are placed together:

Welcome Back.

Granted, the television series ran before I was born (and probably most anyone reading this), BUT Nick at Nite was totally my generation....hence why the theme song gets stuck in my head.

I digress.

It has been ONE DAY short of a year since I last posted here. Sadness. I'm such a slacker (been said before, check the archives). Although, I'm once again feeling the urge to write. I haven't forgotten about this blog over the past year....I've still been doing projects around the house, decorating, helping with parties/showers, traveling and documenting it all along the way with full intentions of "writing a post" at some point. I just haven't managed to actually follow through on that. On the "glass half full" front though, that means I have lots of material to share with you all! :) (that is IF anyone ever really comes here to read this thing!)

From what I can tell, I still owe you all posts on the rest of our Italy Trip -- I left off detailing our planned trip city by city and I only made it as far as our 2nd stop! So expect details on our other 4 Italian destinations -- Cinque Terre, Tuscany, Florence and Rome -- as well as updates from the actual trip (since we took that trip last Sept/Oct!)  I also have projects galore -- from building a retaining wall, a recycled concrete walkway, and removing wallpaper from our upstairs guest bath to making a Christmas tree skirt and learning to sew....and on, and on, and on. ....I can get a lot accomplished in a year! So stay tuned. ....for real this time!

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Custom Silhouettes

A while back I made custom silhouettes for each member in our family. I know what you're thinking...."So you mean you made silhouettes for you and Mark, right?".....oh no, my dears, the kitties got their own silhouettes too!! (what....they're members of our family too!!) This is a simple little QUICK project that yields an absolutely adorable result.

First up, I took everyone's picture. To keep it simple I just used the Photobooth function on my MacBook. 

So, as you can see, lighting or which direction you're facing doesn't really matter when taking these pictures. The only thing to keep in mind is to make sure that you get the right angle so that you can see the full profile. (Tip - a toy helps to get your pet looking the right direction....the trick is to snap the pic before they start swatting at the toy!)

Next up, I printed these out (directly from the computer onto white printer paper) and then carefully cut them out following all of the lines of our profile. I left most of our body on at this point so that I could decide how I wanted to cut it to give it that classic silhouette look.

I then looked at other silhouettes as a reference to decide how I should trim off each of our bodies around the neck line, taking into consideration how it would best suite the picture. After severing our bodies from our head (har har), I took my custom profile stencil that I had just created and traced each of them onto black cardstock (AKA, scrapbooking paper). Then I carefully cut out the traced profiles from the black cardstock and surveyed the rough draft of the silhouettes.

At this point, I needed to decide how much detail I should keep in each one. I had left my messy hair that was coming out of my bun from my original picture, but in the end I trimmed that hair off of my silhouette. The messy bun just doesn't translate very well into a silhouette picture! (Tip - silhouettes work best for ladies and girls when you have your hair pulled back...I'd suggest either a bun or a ponytail) I also originally left the whiskers on the kitties, but again, that didn't translate into a silhouette very well so those got trimmed off in the end too. I'd suggest leaving more details in when you trace and cut your silhouette and then tweaking it until you're happy with the amount of detail.

All that was left to do now was to "mount" each silhouette onto some colorful paper (again, I used scrapbook paper here) and pop it into a matted frame.  In anticipation of this project, I had previously picked out some cheap frames from Michael's when they were having one of their 50% off sales on frames. I wanted each frame and each colored paper to be unique just like the silhouette of the person (and/or animal) it represented.

These lovely little silhouettes now live in my office area downstairs and I have to say:  Each time I look at one of those little kitty silhouettes I have to smile :)

Monday, July 18, 2011

Lago di Garda

Riva del Garda (google image)

Lake Garda - the largest of the Italian lakes -  lies just a thirty minute train ride from Verona, yet many American tourists overlook it for the more trafficked Lake Como (Como is the one that Rick Steves recommends). This beautiful lake is situated at the base of the Italian Alps and has many lovely lakeside towns. This destination made it on our list thanks to my friend and ex-coworker, Jenny. Jenny spent a summer (plus several other trips) visiting towns throughout Europe and performing with her UAB choral group (Jenny, if you read this...correct me if I'm wrong. I'm a little fuzzy on the details....I just remember you being gone from the office for an ENTIRE summer, galavanting around Europe while I was stuck at my desk!). Out of all of the places Jenny visited she said this was one of her favorites....and when I started looking at possible destinations for our trip, the beauty of the pictures from this area absolutely blew me away. ....Not to mention the fact that Mark and I felt this place was less likely to be overrun by tourists (which is a huge plus in our eyes) it made the list!

I picked the town of Malcesine for us to stay. Malcesine has beautiful medieval streets, nice restaurants and shopping, a beach, a cable car that takes you up to Monte Baldo and even a castle.
Malcesine from the water (google images)

After narrowing down which town we should stay in, picking accommodations was pretty easy. Malcesine is only a town of about 3500 people so accommodations were limited. Our requirements for a hotel here were: a nice view (lake or castle view...or both!), comfortable room, walking distance to restaurants/town, a pleasing aesthetic, less than $150/night and a good TripAdvisor rating.  We found all of these specifications met with a little B&B called Hotel Erika.

Hotel Erika (image from website)

Although it has the word "hotel" in it's name, it's listed as a B&B on TripAdvisor and it claims the Number 1 spot. At just $91/night it definitely met our price requirement....and with a beautiful garden, rooms with views of the castle( ..from private balconies!), and modern, updated rooms & easily won us over as our top choice. 

view of Castle from Balcony! (image from Trip Advisor)

We're spending 3 nights at the Hotel Erika, and during our time there we plan to explore several of the beautiful lake towns of Lago di Garda (Riva, Limone, Gargnano, Tremosine, Salo, and Gardone). We'll take day trips to probably 2-3 towns per day by using the very accessible ferries that traverse up and down the lake. 

Oh - We're also planning to paraglide down Monte Baldo :) 

image from Fly2Fun

Yep.....PARAGLIDE!!! It's gonna be SO freakn' AMAZING!!! I found a company online called Fly2Fun that does tandem flights for 100 euro/person. It's a 20-30 minute flight down from Monte Baldo and you land right beside the lake in a grassy area. The drop from Monte Baldo down to Lake Garda is 1700 meters. .......I can't wait!! 

Also, I should mention transportation in case anyone else is planning to go and is trying to figure this out themselves....We're taking a train from Venice to Desenzano del Garda. From there, we're planning to take a ferry up the lake to Malcesine (2hr trip on the fast ferry). You can also take a bus (1 hr trip on the 62-64 bus line), but on the trip up to our destination we wanted to take the scenic route in order to scope out some of the other lake towns along the way. On the trip back from Malcesine to Cinque Terre (our next destination) we plan to take the bus down to Peschiera del Garda (the OTHER train stop besides Desenzano at the Southern end of Lake Garda) and then hop on a train to Cinque Terre. 

beach/lakeside walk/castle @ Malcesine up, Cinque Terre. 

the indecisive wife

UPDATE POST TRIP:  Lake Garda and Malcesine was absolutely AMAZING! Probably our favorite locale of the entire trip. The scenery is breathtaking, the people are warm and gracious, the food is excellent, the area is affordable, it's easy to visit other towns on the lake via ferry and there's plenty to see and do. The tourists are respectful and are at a minimum compared to other locations we visited in Italy (bonus: the number of American tourists is very limited). The clarity of the lake water is unbelievable - this is not your average North American lake! The color of the water is a crystal clear aqua blue and the villages on the lake are so picturesque, with flowers, olive and lemon trees everywhere and a castle in nearly every town. We visited Limone, Riva del Garda and Malcesine while there (limoncino is produced in Limone) and loved every one of them. The paragliding was also a huge highlight of our trip - to be able to see the lake and mountains from that viewpoint was amazing. And, quite honestly, it wasn't scary at fact, it was quite peaceful. I'd HIGHLY recommend that you paraglide while visiting...Fly2Fun was great (although the guides spoke little English) was very safe and easy. 

Oh - I would be remiss if I didn't mention Hotel Erika. This little inn at the top of hill (coming up from the town center) is the absolute perfect place to stay. Erika runs the inn herself and is SO accommodating and gracious. She serves breakfast herself every morning to the guests and no detail is left unattended. The inn is very clean and modern and Erika treats you as though you're an old friend staying in her home. We stayed in room #16 (at the time it was listed as a Delux Plus with castle view and a/c...although I think the room categories might have been reworked since we've been) - it had the most beautiful view of the castle and the balcony was more private than some of the others. Mark and I both agreed that we thought it was the best room in the entire inn. You can check out the review Mark wrote here and Hotel Erika's website here

the view from our balcony at Hotel Erika (photo has NOT been retouched - at all!)

view of Limone from the ferry

me paragliding (tandem, of course!) over Lake Garda

 view of Malcesine from the air

 castle at Malcesine

 swans on the beach at Malcesine

Friday, July 15, 2011

Venezia - The Floating City

When we began planning our Italy Trip, Venice was not on the list of cities to visit. This may be surprising to some, as when many people picture Italy, Venice -- with it's famous canals and gondolas --is one of the first images that comes to mind.

Well, our reasons for not listing the city once described as the "worlds most beautiful city built by man" as a top city to visit mostly revolved around two reasons: 1 - Venice is a tourist magnet, which is NOT something that Mark and I enjoy. The crowds, the constant awareness that you're likely to be ripped off by vendors/hotel owners/restaurants/taxi drivers, etc and the need to ALWAYS watch your bag and your pockets sends the anxiety level of two worry-warts like us through the roof and 2 - It's expensive. In a city that boasts around 50,000 tourists per day, you can bet you're gonna pay a pretty penny for everything from accommodations to a cappuccino. Plus, Mark had been to Venice before and from what he could recall, he didn't remember it being one of his favorite places (Mark went on a trip to Italy through Birmingham Southern [his college] in 2004). But in the end, we decided to add Venice to our list of destinations - what, with it sinking and all we figured we need to see it while it's still around!

So, we began looking at hotels.....Mark and I pretty much live and die (as far as trip planning goes) by TripAdvisor reviews. We planned our honeymoon hotel (Four Seasons Maui at Wailea), our Mexico hotel (Valentin Imperial Maya) and even small little weekend trip hotels based off of the brutally honest reviews we've found on TripAdvisor....and they've all been great. We've learned to take some reviews in stride, to check to see where the reviewer is from (some people have higher expectations than others), and to email reviewers if you have a question that maybe they didn't answer. We've also learned to check the forums (their search feature is great) for additional information that may not be in the reviews. I also love looking at the candid pictures on really gives you a feel for the hotel moreso than the posed, stylized pictures you'll find on the hotel's website.

We narrowed our search down to two hotels (well, actually B&B's in this case b/c they were a better value [and seemed to be overall cleaner] in Venice). The first option was Plazzo Schaivoni.
...with a wonderful location, just a 5 minute walk from St. Mark's Square. And it has BEAUTIFUL canal views from rooms with balconies:
real picture from a TripAdvisor reviewer

Although, the rooms left a lot to be desired in the decor department:

And our 2nd option was Casa Santa Maria Formosa 

It also has BEAUTIFUL canal views from the room, although their rooms do not have balconies:
...and a very nice location as well - about equal distance to the Rialto Bridge and St. Mark's Square...both a 10 minute walk. Plus with a fairly recent renovation, their room decor was quite nice:

Our hotel requirements included: good location, nice view of canal, good TripAdvisor reviews, $250/night or under, a pleasing aesthetic and, of course, availability for our dates. (Tip - it's good to figure out what your requirements are BEFORE you start looking at'll help you narrow the field)  Sooooooooo.....We ended up choosing.....

Casa Santa Maria Formosa!!! (it's the yellow building with green shutters on the right)

....stay tuned for more accommodation choices for our other Italian destinations....not all choices were this easy or this clear. Trust me. 

The Indecisive Wife