Tag: travel

Italy Suggestions By Request (Long Post)

I was asked by a few people for input on their own upcoming Italy trips so I wrote up a 2100+ word document. Ha. Figured I might as well share here just in case it’s useful for someone else. These are just my opinions. I’m not paid to promote any of the businesses. Seriously, it’s long …

 

Italy in general:

If you have to do the big cities, pick 2 must-sees in each, do them then get out or just pick one city to fully explore. Otherwise stick to smaller towns. Or better yet, stay in a smaller town outside the larger ones and just take the train in for the day to see them. The more I travel the more I realize that travel ADD just leaves you exhausted. We seem to enjoy smaller to medium sized places more than bigger cities. Italy is difficult because there is just so much history and people feel obligated to see it all. Give yourself permission to not cram everything in to one trip. You’re more likely to see the soul of a place not just its major tourist destinations.

Pack light. We didn’t because Clay was being stubborn. Consequently he wrenched his knee dragging a giant suitcase down 4 flights of stairs. It also makes moving hotels and taking trains less of a hassle. If you buy stuff while there and don’t have room in your bags you can always buy a cheap bag there or ship everything home. This is the biggest piece of travel advice I wished we’d followed.

Take cooking classes. We did this one outside of Florence in Certaldo (cute medieval hill town worth an extra couple of hours to explore): http://www.cucinagiuseppina.com/ They also offer truffle tours if weather permits.

Train doors: On regional trains they may not open at smaller stops. You have to be at the door when the train stops and pull towards you and over on the red handle yourself. Trains don’t stay at small stops long, like 1 or 2 minutes max so be ready. If you see someone getting off the train at a stop before yours just wait by the door with them and watch them open it if you are worried about it. We also heard that some doors don’t work so use one of the bigger doors to get on the train and try to use a door you know works. We got stuck and had to double back …

Make reservations ahead of time for any sights you want to see. If you want less of a restrictive schedule you can pay for city passes (Venice doesn’t have one) and that let you skip lines without making reservations. Except for the Duomo in Florence but you can google how that works. We didn’t go this trip.

I have a whole spiel on why I no longer support Air BnB but the even more crushing crowds in the major Italian cities since my last visit is definitely a byproduct. But we were also thankful we had booked mostly hotels because of an accident on the trip. Having a concierge at a nice (by nice I mean friendly) hotel was indispensable. It also saves you from having to make dinner reservations too far in advance, and it’s easier to go with personal recommendations if you have someone that can easily call a restaurant to reserve a table in Italian. Plus you don’t end up with fun surprises like 4 floor walk ups with no elevator …

Rome was the cheapest major city. Florence and Venice are super expensive though you can save by eating at cheap places or buying food at the market.

Yes, have an Aperol Spritz in the evening before you go to dinner.

You can find restaurants to eat at without making dinner reservations but reservations make things much easier. If you will be there over a holiday, I’d do some research and make reservations before you leave so you know you have a place. We witnessed so many people getting turned away on New Year’s Eve. If you know there is some place you want to eat, go ahead and reserve. Otherwise I’d wait until you get to the city to see what the hotel suggests, or your cab driver, or the people you meet along the way.

Take comfy shoes. Cobblestones are murder on your feet. You’ll be impressed by the Italian women navigating them in heels, but they’ve had practice.

Things close after lunch until around 3. Restaurants won’t always be open before 7 or 8 because Italians eat late. It’s great. Go back to the hotel and nap.

Taxis are regulated. You can’t just hail one. You have to have your hotel call one or find a taxi stand. There were numerous signs around saying Uber was illegal and there were large fines if you got caught using them.

Pharmacies have awesome skin products. Their drugstore brands are better. Oh, and the Marvis toothpaste is worth stocking up on.

Food. It’s generally mediocre around large tourist sights. That makes sense but of course there are always exceptions. The less English you see on signage and menus usually the better. More upscale places will still have translations though. More local places will usually not even have a printed menu at all, just list everything on a board in Italian. Don’t be scared.

If you are going to do tours, I like walking tours the best. You get to learn the lay of the land while getting fun bits of info. Personally, I prefer seeing larger sights on my own and either doing research before or after myself. We did do a bus tour on our last full day in Italy. That was … interesting. I can see why people travel that way but I’m still on the fence about ever doing it again. If the group is friendly and you meet people I can see how it would be fun. Unless those people are slightly insane and from South Africa. Long story …

Rome:

Rome was actually a fun city. I wish we had more time to explore it. Easy to get away from tourists yet the crowds weren’t insane except by the obvious places. Cheap, good food can be found easier than in Florence or Venice. The people were also friendlier. But trying to speak Italian does help. So does flattery. One of my favorite things was looking for all the stolen Egyptian obelisks but then I’m weird.

http://www.hotelartemide.it/ The staff was great. They have a €14 breakfast buffet if coffee and a pastry aren’t your idea of breakfast. Also, we apparently should have eaten at the restaurant for dinner because it was always booked up and was rated one of the top 10 in the city. Oops. Also, there is some spectacular gelato right next door to the hotel.

You will take more taxis here than anywhere else unless you are really good at planning your hotel location. Expect at least €10 minimum per trip. We took more than normal because we went in winter and it rained often enough.

Cab drivers in Rome are insane. Just shut your eyes.

Sexy priest calendars! (Venice has sexy gondoliers.)

Avoid the Vatican. It’s a never-ending queue and you are so tired by the time you get to the Sistine Chapel you don’t care. I did it a second time this trip because Clay wanted to. Never again. St Peter’s is awesome though if you can get in line early enough to just do the church. But don’t try on Wednesdays or weekends. There is an early morning tour of some sort. I’m not sure if it’s any better or not.

Quelli della Pizza (behind the Pantheon) Touristy spot but really good pizza. Can’t find that particular location online. Others exist with the same name with questionable reviews. My friends said Dar Poeta in Trastavere was also excellent.

La Prosciutteria: Either in Trastavere or by Piazza Navona. Both good. You order at the counter though they’ll usually tell you that you want a mixed plate for two because they get a lot of tourists and it’s more efficient than watching you stand there trying to figure it out LOL. It’s small and crowded so go at off hours to ensure a table.

http://www.ristorantealduello.com/ Friendly and good. We loved it. By Piazza Navona. They do a deconstructed tiramisu that was pretty much the best dessert the entire trip.

The Colosseum is cool. Almost not necessary to tour. A night tour might be nice though. The Forums are a confusing mess of ruins and are easier to interpret with a tour but the tours are also frustrating because the place is huge and you won’t get to see everything you want and by the end you won’t feel like backtracking. Not sure what my actual advice on this is.

Important point about gelato: Don’t get it from the places with it mounded up high in crazy colors. If they have lids or the pistachio is brown, not green, then it’ll be homemade and good. Don’t trust a place with bright green pistachio gelato! That said, nocciola is my favorite flavor.

Venice:

Venice is super crowded and expensive, yet still manages to be magical. You’ll get lost. Maps aren’t accurate and your phone won’t really know where you are. It’s ok. Follow the endless signs to San Marco/Rialto. Or don’t, if you want to go the other way. We always managed to find what we were looking for, though most of the time it felt like luck. Night time is the best time. The streets can still be crowded with tourists but you’ll see the switch from tourists to locals. Things get quiet and on some streets it’s like the city is all yours. It’s super safe, even at night.

Get a water bus pass in Venice. You can get 1, 2, or 3 day passes. Worth it. And it saves time because you will get lost while walking. Your phone might say it’ll only take 10 minutes but it’ll be more like 30 with all the backtracking. Line 1 stops at every stop on the Grand Canal. The Roma line goes back to the train station, the Lido line heads towards San Marco. Just hold your ticket up to the machine at the gate to open it and get to the stop. I think they run every 12 minutes or so.

Musica A Palazzo https://www.musicapalazzo.com/ Opera in a small venue. Pretty good. Tickets are called a membership fee. You reserve online then pay when you get there. Make sure you check your email a day or two ahead of the show though because they do confirm your booking and might give it away if they don’t hear from you. All the seats are good but you can seriously sit in any of the red chairs (unless they are obviously for the musicians) so don’t be afraid to sit in what looks like the set dressing.

Try to get into La Zucca. Make reservations. We didn’t but once we got to Venice all we heard was how good it was. And they were booked up the entire time.

Osteria da Filo had some of the best wine on the entire trip. Plus, the bartender was awesome. And so were the snacks.

Impronta Café looked almost offputtingly modern from the outside but they had an excellent squid ink pasta in a seafood ragu. I was surprised.  Also, up the street is Enoteca Vinus Venezia. Great wine bar, with many porky treats. We went before and after dinner because we liked it so much.

I have a new favorite mask shop. La Bottega dei Mascareri http://www.mascarer.com/

 

Florence:

Florence is a very walkable city. I was more annoyed at the crowds here than anywhere though. I’d almost suggest staying in Siena and travelling in to Florence as a day trip or two. It’s not the city I remember anymore. Or I was just tired and getting sick by this point in the trip. But the Tuscan landscape is still wonderful and day trips to San Gimignano, Pisa, Lucca, Fiesole or pretty much any other small town should happen. I would also recommend looking into staying in an agroturismo. They are usually wineries or working farms and they can also have tastings and cooking classes in a rural environment. So much more chill than listening to Vespas zipping by your hotel window all night. They are out in the country and you might need to rent a car to get to them. We had lunch at one and there is just no beating the Tuscan landscape.

http://hotelspadai.it/ Not as friendly as their Rome counterpart but far and away better than our next hotel was. The bartender, Martina, was amazing. No restaurant here but they have free snacks at their happy hour and a limited room service menu. They also had a €14 breakfast but we didn’t check it out to see how it compared.

Santa Maria Novella train station – regional vs fast trains: The fast trains between major hubs are on the tracks you first see when you walk in. There is another set of tracks (1, 1A, 2, I think) if you walk to the left if you are facing the trains. The regional trains aren’t up on the big departure and arrival boards so when you buy your tickets pay attention to the train number that flashes on the screen. It isn’t always on the ticket when it prints for some reason. If you are taking a smaller train, check those tracks. There should be a paper schedule tacked up on a board and you can check your train number and departure time to figure out which track you need. For example, we were going to Certaldo but the track info said the train was going to Siena because that was the route, Florence to Siena, with stops at all the smaller towns between. Don’t forget to validate your train ticket. If you aren’t taking a fast train with assigned seats, you have to validate. There are machines all over the station to do so. Also, research taking buses if you are taking a few different side trips. One of our taxi drivers said that taking a bus to Certaldo would have been faster and that sometimes buses drop you closer to the center of town where you want to be as opposed to on the outskirts where you end up needing an expensive taxi ride to get where you want to be.

Mercato Centrale: Upstairs has all the restaurants. Busy, busy, busy. Get food, find a seat. Either get drinks yourself at the central bar or wait for table service but it’s spotty. It’s always busy but there is a large variety of food to try so it’s worth the crowds.

My favorite gelato at the moment: http://www.lastreganocciola.it/

You can get into the Duomo itself for free but if you want to climb the dome, bell tower, or get into the museum you have to schedule a time. You can’t do it online unless you get the Firenze Pass? I’m not 100% so check. If you get the Firenze Pass you can do it when you pick them up I think.

Street art in all the cities is excellent. Look down alleys and side streets. Also, the street signs can be fun.

Don’t forget to explore the rest of Tuscany!

 

If you made it this far in the post I’m surprised! There are an endless number of blog posts and travel sights with information on specific things to see and do. Just remember, all the research in the world tends to get thrown out once you are actually there. Be flexible and enjoy the trip you are on, not the trip you imagine.

NY in a Nutshell

Figured I might as well elaborate a bit on my trip. First off, we knew it was going to be a good trip because the day before was so awful. I was almost late to work because the truck broke down. Turns out the brake lines were bad. Wes had to take me to work on his motorcycle, which proceeded to brake down after he dropped me off. He limped home and got into his car to get parts for the truck and the car broke down, too! We went to NY leaving three broken vehicles to deal with when we got home.

So, I was amazed that our plane was on time. I’d heard many scary things about LaGuardia but everything worked out fine for us this time. Though I think my next trip I’ll fly into Newark or JFK since they both have trains running from them and we won’t have to worry about getting a taxi or paying for a car service. Because LaGuardia doesn’t have a train, we took a car service from the airport to Etsy Labs. I’m not sure if taking a taxi would have been better or not. We should have looked up car services before we ever left Austin but we were so busy getting ready for the trip that adding one more thing to the list would have been painful. So we overpaid for a ride but the driver had GPS in the car and without that I’m not sure we would have found the place. I thought I recognized the building from pictures but it was hard to be sure from where we were sitting. We didn’t know where we were going at all so I guess I’m glad we paid for the car. A taxi driver would have been a crap shoot I think, now that I’ve had a bit more experience with the cabs in NY. They either really know where they are going or they expect you to know.

We got dropped off in front of the building and were buzzed in. The Etsy Labs are on the 6th floor and guess what? The elevator was busted. I laughed. We carried all our bags up the 6 flights of stairs and into Etsy. Oh and let me say that along the way we passed Make and Craft magazines and a very cool looking motorcycle shop or museum. Not sure what that was. All I could think was “of course all my favorite things are here. This is NY, where everything cool lives.” Wes made sure I was ok, rearranged his luggage and took off for his friend’s place in New Jersey. I saw him on and off the next couple of days and was glad he had places he could go. I was so busy I hated to think how bored he would have been if he’d had to stay in Brooklyn with me.

We met Mandi from Scribble Scrabble downstairs then went and had our first experience with street food (well, mine anyway) before heading back over where Becky from Becky Mae Designs and Danielle from Fabfrills met us and we started tackling the mound o’ boxes from the rest of Texas street team. We basically moved them to a better room and started to rearrange the front room a little and set some stuff out for that night. Etsy was hosting an event called Handmade Music Night and invited us to set a few things out that might appeal to musicians. No one sold anything but it was interesting and we were a little ahead for Friday.

Friday was a day of hard work but it was fun. Kaite from Katinka Pinka and Christy from Carolina Bleu joined us and we continued to set up tables and display everyone’s pieces. We all went to have dinner at Junior’s before the show and returned to the labs ready to go. We had quite a few people show up and several people sold items. I sold two, which for me is pretty good. Michelle was entertaining everyone online in the Workshop, showing off everyone’s pieces to the camera. We had some raspberry chipotle sauce over cream cheese, various salsas chips and crackers and plenty of wine to feed the masses. We spent the rest of the evening cleaning up and getting ready for the Brooklyn Indie Market on Saturday.

Saturday was another trial by car service. They were late and we were standing on the sidewalk with everyone’s boxes, a table and a dolly worrying about getting there on time. When the car showed up, the table barely fit and we had to squeeze in best we could but we made it. I really enjoyed that part of Brooklyn. The neighborhoods had people sitting outside their brownstones having stoop sales, there were cute restaurants and shops lining the streets and it was a nice change of pace seeing so many people outside walking from place to place. We set up our tables and took turns manning the cash. A funny little old lady visited us and told us about the vintage bead shop she worked in “just around the corner” so we decided to go see it. Another thing I learned, for New Yorkers, or in this case Brooklyners (?), a little ways or a short walk or just around the corner could mean 10 blocks. We headed off and 6 blocks later found Union Max. It was a great little shop. We bought lots of stuff and then sent the other girls to go see it when we got back. For his part, Wes found a great little Cuban place and a Rolleicord camera at one of the stoop sales. We had a lot of traffic at the market and several people sold quite a few things though we were told it could have been better but Atlantic Antic was the same weekend. We still had fun. And we discovered the best car service. We called and they were there in 5 minutes and they knew where they were going. If you need a Brooklyn car service use Arecibo. We used them again on the way to the airport and they were half what the first service cost and cheaper than a cab.

We got back the labs with all our stuff then proceeded to pack everything up. I think we got back to the labs around 8:30 and weren’t done til after 2 a.m. Most of the girls had early morning flights, as in they had to wake up at 4 or 6 a.m. and were real troopers about getting everything done. I won’t say we weren’t all a little grouchy by the end of it but to be fair we were exhausted. Luckily, I still had several more days and could sleep a little longer. Everything got packed up and labeled and we are still waiting to see if everything gets shipped out ok.

Sunday, we checked into our bed and breakfast. My first view of it was a little sketchy. There is an overgrown lot across the street, trash on the sidewalks and a few of the brownstones were a bit rundown, but it turned out to be a fairly quiet street, especially compared with how noisy it was sleeping at the labs and we were never bothered even when we came home at night off the subway. I do have to laugh a little about the well positioned photographs on their website now. Our room was so cute and the photos actually didn’t do it justice. We had AC, cable and the trim and details in the old house were pleasant. They had a kitchenette upstairs and a common room with a computer. The bathroom was shared and that caused a few uncomfortable moments but it is workable. It isn’t like you are sharing with lots of people or anything. But I think it would help if it weren’t with a French woman who thinks she has to do everything in the bathroom, even things she could have done in her room to be polite. Oh but wait, she’s French. Polite? Ce qui? We stayed in the Franklin room and had plenty of space. Can’t say the others would be the same. The pictures of the two other rooms looked tiny though to be honest, who stays in the hotel, or B&B, when they are visiting a new place? So, we checked in, dropped off our bags and headed into Manhattan.

First stop was Gray’s Papaya for the recession special. Two dogs and a drink for $3.50. Get the onions on it. Then, we headed for the Met. Wes was still re-acclimating himself to subway travel so we ended up a few blocks away and had to walk. Still, it was nice seeing the city and I don’t mind a little walking. Everyone had said that when going there you need at least a couple of days to see everything. Obviously, they don’t have any idea how I see museums. I saw everything I wanted in a couple of hours. The Egyptian section, Asian section and the Arms and Armour. Yes, I’d like to see everything eventually but that won’t take long next time. Maybe Italy ruined me for museums but I can get through even the most massive in a fraction of the time it takes most people. For one, the medieval and Roman art was no where near as impressive as the pieces I saw plenty of in Italy. Seriously, it has been a few years and I still have problems passing by the annunciation paintings. If I never see another one it’ll be too soon. I tend to gravitate toward key pieces, can ignore the similar items and don’t feel compelled to read every piece of material written about the exhibits. I’m a museums ideal customer. Pay to enter and use a minimal of their resources… and still spend money in the gift shop.

We went through Central Park on the way back and decided to eat at Katz’s. Anyone from Austin is thinking of the Katz’s here. Not even remotely similar and in no way related, though I’m sure Marc Katz would love to charge the same prices. I don’t think I’ve ever had pastrami before. Ok, I thought I had but it didn’t taste anything like what I had there in NY. And the knishes with sausage in it. Mmmmm. We made it back to the B&B full and tired.

Monday, we went shopping. H&M, Century 21, Canal Street, Pearl Paint, Pearl River, various shoe stores. It was very damaging to my bank account but worth it. I laughed every time Wes haggled with the street vendors. They would get so angry sounding but if we walked off suddenly the prices dropped. That whole day is a blur of cheap handbags and store clerks looking for our shoe sizes. And Century 21. I wasn’t sure if I was excited to be there or slightly frightened. So many people, so many floors, so many things to buy. As for food, we started the day with lunch at Kelly and Ping and some very productive photos taken of graffiti. Turns out it’s harder to find Graffiti in NY than you would think. Thanks, Guilliani. We ended the night back in Brooklyn eating the best pizza either of us has ever had. Raymond gave us the suggestion. We got there, sat down, ate and when we were leaving the line was around the building. We went across the street to the River Cafe and spent more on drinks and dessert than we did on the pizza, but don’t think either of us cared. It was amazing.

Next day, we were off to see B&H, which of course, was closed for a Jewish holiday. I did get to have my falafel from a street vendor and we made it to the Strand. I think I loved it so much I could set up a shrine in my house to the place. Needless to say, I bought many books with no regard to how I was going to get them home. Also found a little shop that sold Nepalese papers and ended up with a pair of $200 cowboy boots for $30. I love that I bought cowboy boots in NYC. We went to a sandwich place that we suspect is a franchise but the sandwiches were so good I’m still craving them. I had the G4 (Grilled smoked ham and smoked turkey breast with melted Finlandia swiss cheese, romaine lettuce, coleslaw and Russian dressing.) Highly recommended. We then realized we were late meeting some old friends of Wes’s from the exchange floor so we rushed over the financial district to meet them for drinks. We ended up in New Jersey afterwards eating Indian food. By this time I have really fallen in love with public transportation. I can even forgive the slimy feeling you have after traveling on the ferries and subways because of how efficient they are. I think I’ll make sure I take antibacterial gel with me next time.

Wednesday, we met Wes’s friend Dave for a trip upstate. Forgive me for not remembering the places we ate or went but it was a nice change from the city though I would have liked another day to explore Manhattan. We ended up at a winery eating some good bread and honey. We also drove around and I got to see at least the start of the leaf changing season. We ended up eating at a Mexican restaurant in New Jersey. Apparently, finding good Mexican is hard for many transplant Texans. They were ok. Not perfect but as close as you can get, but the prices are much higher than for Mexican food back home. El Bandito’s review in the New York Times is pretty funny to read.

Thursday, we went back to Canal Street to find some of the 6 for $10 I Love NY t-shirts and finish out our gift buying. After that was done we wandered into Little Italy and ate at Amici II. How many times do Texans get to eat Italian at a place where everyone speaks Italian and the food is authentic? Not often unless you go to Italy. Eat here and be fat and happy. We got back to the B&B, called our new favorite car service and made it to LaGuardia ahead of schedule. I was sad to leave but excited about the next trip up. We’ll hit all the places we missed this time: Cooper-Hewitt, MOMA, El Charro for their paella, Peter Lugar for the steaks and everything else I look up between now and whenever I get to go back.

This got longer than I expected, hope I don’t bore everyone silly. Oh wait, if you hate reading it I’m sure you will have clicked somewhere else by now 🙂

Back from NY!


Wow! I don’t even know where to start. I love that city. Yes, it’s dirty, the people are rude, everything costs an arm and a leg, but somehow that only makes me love it more. The show went ok. I didn’t sell much but the experience was worth it. I managed to make it to the Strand, the Met and a few other places. Bought too many clothes and books. Oh and Brooklyn is a very cool place nowadays! Click on the city to see the rest of my flickr set.

Only a Week to Go!

I’m so excited I even bought a New York guide book. Ok, so I’ll have my own personal tour guide but still, I like researching and finding things my self. The show starts Friday at 6 and the second one starts Saturday at 1. That leaves 4 full days and most of Thursday to explore. As far as prep for the show goes, my pieces got shipped today by FedEx and hopefully nothing tragic or weird happens. I don’t think I’ll get to see as much as I want but the Met and Cooper-Hewitt are top on my list, along with plenty of bookstores, Chinatown and at least a couple of nice restaurants. How silly is it to already be dreading the return flight? I love that city and would live there in a heartbeat. Wish me luck at the show. It’ll be worth the trip no matter what happens.