Sunday, October 21, 2012

Cinque Terra, Italy

Tim:  We opted for the scenic route that got off the Autostrada 20km earlier than the suggested route and wound through narrow mountain roads. The roads kept getting narrower and we eventually came to a sign propted up in the middle of the road that said, "strada chuisa." We do not know much Italian, and we were out of cell service for me to look it up on google translate. Turns out "strada chuisa" means "road closed". I kind if thought that is what it meant, but the road was not blocked off at all. We continued down the road for several kilometers then we had to move around some large boulders, then some piles of brush and debris. At one point the road was completely blocked and there was a pull out that enabled us to get around the rocks blocking the road. I kept going even with Amber suggesting otherwise. Then we came to a section of road where the outside edge was washed away and you could see that the erosion had hollowed out some of the underside of the asphalt. I kept going and just hugged the inside of the road closely and sped up a little bit. Then it happened....................! We made it to the other side! Three hundred meters later spelled the end of our driving any further. There we finally some cement barriers hindering further progress. On the other side of the barriers a 20 meter section of the road was missing and fell off into a steep cliff side. We did not go any further because I could not push the barriers out of the way. OK, going any further with the car was impossible. We turned the car around and went back the way we came including the section with the bad erosion underneath the asphalt.
At this point the rain that had already started got worse. Once we got cell service again I chose an alternate route on the GPS. This one took us on another side road higher up in the mountainside. We were going up a very steep hill that went to a turn off that look more like someone's driveway when I had second thoughts about going that direction so I stopped the car on the steep hill. We decided that this was not the best way and I needed to turn around, but in order to turn around on the narrow road, we needed to go forward first. The car would not go forward on the steep hill. The car has about a 1.2 Liter engine and a manual transmission. With our heavy load of four people and all our luggage the car just couldn't do it even with the parking break set on the start out. After burning the clutch a few times and stalling out, Amber and my dad got out of the car and I was able to turn around.
At this point or had started raining heavily. We opted for the original route that we were going to take and got back to the main highway. This route took us past our destination, but took the road most traveled. After six hours on the road, we made it to Volastra which is right above Manarola, one of the Cinque Terre villages. As we pulled into the parking area for the village the rain was torrential. The streets are not wide enough for cars so you have to park your car and walk down the narrow streets. We jumped out of the car in the pouring rain to find our B&B. We were all soaked by the time we got our gear to our rooms.
The next morning after breakfast at our B&B we hiked the 1.2 km on the trail down the mountain to Manarola. The hike was beautiful and we descended about 300 meters of elevation to the coast. It was here that we learned that all of the main coastal trails were closed to hikers due to a few land slides, but mostly because a tourist had gotten hurt so all of the five sections of coastal trail between the villages were closed. This was a bummer, but we made the most of it. Amber and I went for a different hike up the mountains to an old church with wonderful views of the coastline.

Check out more photos on our facebook album.
Amber:  Cinque Terra is a beautiful place.  Just like the pictures; steep mountainside, covered in terraced vineyards, clusters of pink and orange houses on the bluffs, a huge blue sea.  So pretty!  After hiking down the steep face on our first day there, Tim's Mom and Dad decided to take the shuttle down to the train.  All the food and wine we've been enjoying in Italy has been taking its tole, so Tim and I opted to get some exercise and  hiked down again.  We met back up with Tim's folks in Manarola and boarded the train to Corniglia.  The town of Corniglia is much further up the terrace than the other four.  We huffed and puffed up the hill in the hot sun and finally got into the tiny town.  The hike up gave us a great view from the city to view the Mediterranean Sea and the cost line.  Our guest house had horrible coffee, so we stopped for a cappuccino and lunch.  Before heading back to the train, we all got gelato for the hike back down.  It was getting to be mid day, so we headed to Monterosso for a quick dip into the ocean before leaving Tim's folks to enjoy the rest of the sights and Tim and I hiked up one of the few open trails in the area.  It lead up a steep hill to a crumbling down old church.  We hiked for about an hour up, dripping sweat, stopped for a bit to enjoy the view, then headed back to get back into Manarola.  We poached our guest houses kitchen again and drank wine and made pesto and ate cold cuts and cheese.  It's a rough life in Italy!

Check out more photos on our facebook album.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Bra, Italy

Amber:  We left Venice early in the morning to arrive in Milan by 12:00 in the afternoon to pick up Tim's parents.  They were flying in from Hungry, so we found the international airport in Milan, picked them up at the arrivals gate, and headed north towards Bra.  We were going to join Sarah, Jane and Kim for some wine tasting and cheese eating and learn a little more about the Slow Food movement.  Kim had been studying for the last nine months about Slow Food, which had originated in Bra and now is a universal practice celebrating organic, sustainable, fair trade, good food and wine.  While achieving her masters in Bra, she had learned not only a great deal about food and wine, but also the local hot spots and invited Tim, his parents and me to join Sarah and Jane as she showed them around. We were happy to have such a great resource at our fingertips.
    We finally found our hotel for the evening after winding up long roads, going further and further off of the main track and into rolling hills covered in vineyards.  After the hustle and bustle of the heavily touristed Venice, Florence and Verona, it was a welcome reprieve.  Tim's navigation system on his phone  Seri, who had replaced me after I got us lost again, led us down a heavily rutted out road that was over grown with weeds.  Our little car struggled up the hill, only to arrive at a run-down hotel, complete with shattered windows and trash.  Sometime, Seri lies.  We turned around, and drove up the hill a little further, arriving at a hotel surrounded by vineyards and orchards.  Much better!  We were hungry so decided to drive back down into Alba, the nearest town, and get some dinner.  Unfortunately, everything in Italy is closed on Monday, and those places that are open don't open until 7:30.  Finally, a kind local told us of a great place to go to enjoy true Piedmont food.  After a bottle of wine at a small bar next to the restaurant, it finally opened and we were able to enjoy a ridiculous amount of food.  We had raw burger, "crude carne", sardines, a strange minced chicken dish, a mushroom dish, a creamy and cheessy gnocchi  and steak all to be finished with tiramisu and a chocolate fudgy dessert.  And, of course, lots of Vino.

    Check out more photos of Bra at our facebook album
The next day, we met back up with the ladies at Kim's school for Slow Food and she gave us a tour of her beautiful school.  We even got to drink wine and got a tour of the massive wine cellar that has thousands and thousands of bottles of wine.  The school has wine donated to it, half to be sold and half to be put into their wine depository.  it is a great honor to have your wine displayed in the museum.  Afterwards, Kim had arranged for a cheese tasting at one of the Slow Food cheese shops in Bra.  We drank more wine and got a tour of the cheese aging facility before sampling (and smelling) lots of cheese.  We finished off the day by going to Kim's favorite wine bar.  You order a bottle, or so, of wine and they bring you endless pizza for free.  We sat outside and enjoyed a few more bottles of wine and ate our fill before deciding it was time to drive home.
Tim:  The next day we visited the Wine Museum in Barolo. Barolo wine is considered by many to be the "king of wines." The setting for the wine museum was in castle inhabited by the Nobel that made Barolo wine famous. The wine museum was interesting with an exhibit on the history of wine throughout human history and its earliest uses. Afterwards we sat down for lunch at a traditional Italian restaurant. We each had pasta, and for dessert we had a cheese selection that was served with honey.
     Our third day in Bra, we met up again with Sarah, Jane, and Kim later in the afternoon. Our hotel was located near the top of a mountain about a 30 minute windy drive from Bra. We ate lunch at a wonderful restaurant, and afterwards we visited the winery Ascheri right across the street. We toured the whole winery which had been remodeled just last year. They had their own bottling line which was fascinating to see. It labeled, capped, and even put the bottles into boxes automatically. The bottles were filled and corked on a different assembly line.

       Check out more photos of Bra at our facebook album
     We also toured the cellar. It was beautiful and had also just been remodeled. It was the most aesthetically pleasing wine cellar I had ever seen. The put a lot of effort into the lighting and even the stucco walls were painted different colors depending on the soil of the area where a particular grape was grown. After our tour we tasted several wine varieties, our favorite was the 2007 Viognier. It was absolutely delicious. My dad purchased a bottle.

     Later in evening we returned to the same restaurant that we had lunch at and ate dinner. The food was that good. We tried everything on the menu that we had not had for lunch plus more wine. 

Friday, October 19, 2012

Amazing Venice

Tim:  The drive from Florence to Venice was mostly uneventful. We did take a small detour, accidentally, but that seems to happen on almost every drive that we do. Three and a half hours is how long it took us to arrive at our camp ground called Camping Rialto on the mainland near the bridge that crosses over into Venice. We arrived around one PM and opted to relax at the campground and do our first load of laundry since our travels had begun. We also had time to catch up on the internet as it had been a few days since we had had access to WiFi. There was a local supermarket walking distance from the campground that we visited for lunch and dinner.
      Italians have a different idea of camping that we do in the USA. Our camping accommodation included a  single room small cedar cabin about 8x10 feet, with two small beds with white linens, pillows, and blankets. We had to walk 50 meters to the communal bathrooms. There was other accommodation available that included wall tents that also had beds inside.
     Staying inside of Venice is very expensive with hotels averaging around 200 Euro per night. We paid 15 Euro for the cabin and another 4 Euro per night for parking the car. There is a parking garage at the end of the bridge that leads into Venice and we heard from a local that it costs 25 Euro per day to park the car.
     Venice is beautiful, but also crowed with tourists. The walkways between building are very narrow, and the mass of tourist often makes it difficult to walk down the street. Our first morning in Venice we checked out the historical church, Basilica Saint Maria Gloriosa Dei Frari. It was very pretty. We decided on using the audio guide for an extra two euro. Next we visited San Marco Square and the Basilica di San Marco. The exterior is amazing, and the interior is as well. The interior is covered with beautiful mosaics using tiny pieces of painted tile. The church was different that many we had seen because of the Byzantine influence mixed with the Romanesque. The church was originally built to hold the remains of St. Mark after being taken away from Alexandria which was controlled by the Muslim Turks. Much of the fill is colored gold. There had to be tens of millions of pieces of tiles used.

      We visited Murano, another island off of the main Venice area. The ferry ride took almost 45 minutes on the way out there because we got on the ferry that made every stop. Murano is famous for its beautiful glass art. The island had far viewer tourists lining the streets. We stopped in a several of the shops and I bought a piece of glass work for my grandmother. We also had a scoop of gelato which is everywhere over here.
      We  met up again with Sarah, Jane, and Kim (Jane's friend). We took a short gondola ride through the canals.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Florence Part 2 with More Photos

Tim: We have not had much luck with the photo quality through Blogger, so we uploaded some photos to facebook. You can view the album here. Florence Facebook Album .

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Florence with Sarah and Aunt Jane

Amber:  We left Camp Del Garta and headed towards Florence.  The navigating went fairly well as the road from Verona to Florence didn't have too many choices.  We were on the Autostrada (their highway system here that you have to pay an arm and a leg to travel on) and it has only a few exits and therefore only a few on ramps. It took a long time to get back on the Autostrada when we strayed from our course.  A lot of "well, which way should we be going???"  "I don't know, there is no way to turn around as there are no exits from the way we are going" went on, but all in all, we did ok.  We finally made it to Florence.  We were staying at the Sheraton as Tim was able to manipulate credit card sign up point system.  Fancy lodging for free!  We unloaded the car, including our travel towels that Tim had used to wipe out the beer from our 'borrowed for life' beer steins, and attempted to head into Florence.  The hotel supplied complimentary rides to and from Florence, but we had arrived just at the right time to not have any scheduled for the next several hours.
We accidentally road a bus into Florence for free.  We walked a long ways to the nearest bus stop and waited and waited to jump on a bus.  Finally one came, so we climbed on, and had our euro all ready to go.  There was no where to put the euro.  The bus driver just looked at us, said something in Italian, and started driving.  We couldn't pay and we couldn't get off!  We sat down, and waited to see what other passengers would do.  They all had passes.  You apparently can not buy a pass on the bus, they are sold in tobacco shops around town. Who knew? But our driver didn't care.  So, somewhat paranoid about having a cop climb on board and fine us a hefty fee for poaching a bus ride, we guiltily road into Florence. 
Our friend Sarah and her Aunt Jane were traveling through Italy for a few weeks and we were able to join them in Florence.  Because we had taken a small nap in the wonderful king sized bed that the Sheraton had provided for us, it was getting a little late when we found them.  They had been sipping on wine, and we decided that we should do the same.  We sat in a square right next to the Domo, a huge dome on top of an absolutely beautifully facaded building and one of Florence's coolest sights.  We had lots of wine and made our way on to view the oldest bridge into Florence.  During WWII the rest of the bridges had been destroyed, so it was pretty cool to see one, complete with all the shops, that was still functioning and as old as Florence.  We toured around a bit more and saw the replica of David, in a square right where the real David used to stand.  It was a beautiful replica, and there were actually a lot of originals in the same square that were just as impressive, if not more, just not by Michelangelo.  But just as naked. 
We decided on having dinner in a little restaurant across the bridge.  Tim and I soon realized that traveling with Sarah and Jane may be the undoing to our budget.  Drinking wine and eating delicious Italian food with them is just so fun!  Sarah and I shared another bottle of vino, but Tim and Aunt Jane decided to have a beer instead.  We learned later that one must always ask the price of beer before ordering... their 16oz pints ended up costing 10 euro each!  Wine is much more affordable.  We walked around a bit more after dinner, but needed to get back to the bus stop as our shuttle to the Sheraton did it's last run at 7:45.  We made it just in time!  The towels we had set out to "dry" had unfortunately turned our entire room into a putrid beer smell, so we balled them up into a ziplock bag, hid them in the closet, and tried to sleep through the smell. 

Tim:  Our second day in Florence we took the first shuttle from our hotel into the middle of Florence. We met Sarah and Jane at their hotel. We ventured off the the local Mercado Centrale (Central Market) for aged balsamic vinegar and cheese tasting. High quality balsamic vinegar can be really expensive. The stuff that is aged more than 24 years costs around 85 Euro for a 12 oz. bottle. We tried many different varieties of  the vinegar some served on cheese. It was a great experience and we learned a lot about Balsamic vinegar.
    After that we found some lunch. We visited the what is known as the Duomo. It is  a huge 14th century church in the middle of Florence. The Duomo is the tallest building in all of Florence because it is already really tall and there also laws that keep it that way. The outside facade is covered with beautiful white and green marble that was put on in the 19th century. The inside was full of beautiful murals for as early as 1350. Many of the murals are huge, as large as four meters by six meters.
    We visited the Campanile, the tower next to the Duomo. We chose to save the 2 Euro and hike the over 400 stairs to the top. At times the stairs we so narrow that only one person could move past at a time with the other person plastered against the wall so that someone could pass by. The view from the top was beautiful and we were able to look over most of Florence and the Duomo next to us.
     Our third day we visited the Uffizi Museum. It includes one of the world's best collections of Renaissance art with thousands of beautiful sculptures and paintings. We spent almost three hours touring the exhibits.

                                            Ponte Vecchio - Old Bridge

                                          Cheese Plate at a Wine Bar
                                         Florence's Lucky Boar

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

We made it to Italy

Amber: Oktoberfest was quite the introduction to Europe. We had a great time with our friends Lee, Dustin, Rich, Tommy and Jeff! Over the course of our two day stay in Munich, one of them was able to slice his hand on a broken stein and required eight stitches in his palm, another may or may not have pooed in his leder hosen due to too many beers, brawts and too long of a line for the leu, and another one got married to a girl that spoke no English only he lost her when looking for a restroom. Funny group of guys, and all were in good spirits despite some of the... setbacks. On the first night, Tim and I each had four of the liter beers before deciding it would be best for us to take the subway home. On our ride home, we found that we were taking the wrong train. I stepped off the train when it stopped, only to look behind me and see the doors slidding shut, Tim still on board. We both looked wide eyed at each other as the train zoomed away, leaving me behind. Giggling to myself, I boarded a train only a few minutes later and thankfully found Tim at the next train stop. Happily, we were able to make it back to our flat together. Our third morning in Munich we got up and found our rental car to head south to Verona. Tim was able to find someone to join us on Car Pooling that was German. We were so happy to have a local ride with us and guide us out of Munich! And she helped cover the cost of gas, toles and the rental. Tim is so good at finding a bargain! I was feeling the effects of Oktoberfest, so napped a little as we drove through the southern parts of Germany, Austria and into Italy. It was beautiful! Tall mountains with castles perched on top of them at every turn. We got a little off track a few times, but Nadine was able to get us right to her stop at Trento, a town next to Lago Garda. My horrible navigating skills and Tim's endless patients got us the rest of the way in the dark and rain to our new home for three days; Camping del Garda. Camping del Garda was a nice little camp ground just north of Verona. It was right on Lago Garda, and consisted of tent sights or neat little rows of motor homes. We had a motor home, equipped with a nice shower, two bedrooms, stove and pots and pans. It did not come with toilet paper or towels, but we were prepared and had brought some ourselves and were happy to go to the store and got full use out of the pasta strainer and wine key they provided. Camping in Italy involves a lot of pasta and vino. At least for Tim and I. We found a small grocery store and prepared pesto with rotisserie chicken and enjoyed a bottle of Soave with dinner. Delicious! We took a train into Verona and were able to walk through one of the most romantic cities of all times. Romeo and Juliet did 'live' here, after all. We hiked around the city and saw the Arena di Verona, an ancient amphitheater that can hold up to 16,000 people and was built around 110AD. Sant' Anastsia is an absolutely beautiful church built in 1290 and housed amazing artwork. I was surprised that we could freely take pictures inside. We walked across a bridge and visited the Museo Archeologico and Teatro Romano, and Tim forced me to climb up to a bell tower that was terrifying yet beautiful to look down from; Torre dei Lamberti. And of course, we saw "Juliet's House," a two story building with a teny tiny balcony turned into a place where millions of love lorn girls have gone and written love graffiti along the brick walls. For a small fee, you can go inside and get your photo taken on the balcony. We opted to not get the smooching photo. The next day we decided we had seen enough of the sights in Verona and instead drove up Lake Garda in search of a mountain to climb. We ended up taking a tram up Mt Baldo and hiking around for a bit. We watched some para gliders take off from the mountain and drift out over the lake. It is really beautiful on the lake! A large herd of sheep and goats lived on the top of the mountain, and we were able to watch a man and his two dogs herd them along the ridge. A huge rain storm moved in as we were attempting to go a bit farther along the mountain, so we opted to turn around and go wine tasting instead. We thoroughly enjoyed ourselves sipping on Amorone's grown in Italy and wandered around the tasting room, pouring ourselves more wine as we discussed our onward travels to Florence.

Friday, October 5, 2012

We Are Back: Munich and Oktoberfest!

Tim:  We are back! After over four months, Amber and I are back on the traveling road; first stop Oktoberfest! We left our home in Anchorage on a nine hour flight direct to Frankfurt, Germany. Amber and I got a window and isle seat on the right side of the plane. I was surprised at how limited the leg room was. The leg room on this Condor flight in a Boeing 767 was much smaller than the Boeing 737s that we usually fly on Alaska Air. This meant that I had to sit straight up the whole flight and did not get any sleep. I think Amber managed a couple of hours of sleep. Our flight left at 1 Pm Alaska time, and we arrived in Frankfurt at 9 AM Germany time. After a few minute wait in line for passport control we made our way to the subway station at the bottom of the airport. The train ride to Munich was going to take 6 hours and 20 minutes and four different trains because we chose the cheapest option that included only regional trains.
       Richard Shultz, someone we knew from Anchorage was on the plane ride over with his brother, Tommy. Their more direct train took only four hours. The train ride was beautiful. After getting out of Frankfurt the countryside was very pretty. There was lots of farm land with tilled fields and some that still had corn growing. As we got closer to Munich we started to see vineyards and the occasional castle on the hillside.
      By the end of our train ride it was about 6:30 in the morning Alaska time. We had both fallen asleep in our seats on the train. Amber was awoken by a German man telling her that the train was about ready to turn back the other direction. She shook me awake and we stumbled sleepily off the train.
      The next step was to contact our AirBnb host. AirBnB is a worldwide website where private people can rent out there homes, apartments, and private rooms. Oktoberfest is a very busy time in Munich and as such the hostel and hotels are almost sold out and if not very expensive.
There were a total of nine people that we new from Alaska that had come over to visit Oktoberfest. There were all staying in Wombats Hostel, walking distance from the main train station for 70 Euro a night each. That would have been 140 Euro a night for Amber and I or around $181 US dollars a night. I was able to find us a room in someones flat for 60 Euro a night for both of us.
      Our host, Florian, did not get off of work till six o'clock so we waited at the main train station for a few minutes before he arrived. We did not have a working cell phone, and there was no free wifi in the airport, so contacting Florian was a challenge. We ended up using a pay phone that cost about 2 Euro/minute. It took the longest time to figure out how to dial Florian. Turns out I needed two zeros in front of the country code to get it to work.
       We took the bus to Florian's flat. It took about 15 minutes. Florian's apartment was located on the fourth and top floor of his building. The building looked like it was built in the early 1900s and did not have an elevator, so we hike up the old creeking, wooden stairs. By the time we reached his place we were too exhausted to do anything else but sleep.
     The next morning we got up at 10 am, found some quick breakfast at the small grocery store across the street from our  and made our way to the main Oktoberfest area. The subway was easy to navigate and took less than fifteen minutes to get there. Oktoberfest reminded me of the Alaska state fair on steroids. There were food stands everywhere with almost everyone of them selling hot dogs. Apparently, Germans like their hot dogs or Bratwursts, same same. Oh yah, and pretzels. Germans like pretzels too, giant ones. Interspersed between the food stands were fair rides like small roller coasters and Ferris wheels. Then there was the beer tents, huge! There was a tent for every major beer company in Germany most of which I cannot pronounce properly.
        I had reached or friend JD who had told me that the group was headed for the Hofenbrau tent. He was not joining because he was too hungover from the night before. We found the right tent easily enough. I think there are fourteen main beer tents. The Hofenbrau tent was large enough to hold several thousand people and by the time we arrived it was already quite packed. After wondering the crowded isles for a few minutes we spotted our friends. All five of them were dressed in complete leaderhossen outfits holding giant 1 Liter steins of beer. We quickly joined and ordered ourselves beers too. A liter of beer cost 10 Euro or about $13 USD for approximately 32 oz.
     Our friends had bought their lederhosen the night before for 200 Euro ($260 USD) for the whole outfit. The guys did not stand out in their outfits. Close to half of the people there were wearing traditional costumes of some kind. Our waitress brought us steins eight at a time with for steins in each hand. Physically, she could barely lift them. She also had to carry them through the maze of thousands of happy drunk people crowded into the tent.
     There was a band on a raised up platform about 8 feet high playing music. The songs included traditional German drinking songs as well as some American classics like John Denver's "West Virginia" we played several times every evening and the whole tent full of people would join in shouting the lyrics.
      Often you would see someone stand up on their table (always young men) and begin to chug the beer from their Stein. The crowd would cheer him on excitedly until he was finished with the contents. If the man failed to chug his whole beer, the crowd would boo the man down from the table.
     The good times continued until about seven o'clock when we went back to the subway station and our place for the night. We were up again my noon at the Oktoberfest site. It took us longer to find our group of friends. We visited several of the other tents which were just as full of people and almost as rowdy.

     On the morning of our departure from Munich we made our way to our Hertz rental car agency. We rented a car for four weeks. We were a little worried that the car was going to be very small as we did not know what kind of car we were going to get. We ended up with a four door Hyundai hatchback. Although it is small it works fine. We picked up a carpooler from the website to not only help with the cost but also to help us navigate our way out of the city. Our carpooler, Nadine, a German was on her way to Trento just north of where we were going, Verona.