Friday, August 28, 2015

Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo? (Our trip to Verona)

Last weekend we visited Verona, a city made famous in Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet". While much of the city is devoted to milking this famous work, the city itself has 2,000 years of history, enough to make it shine in its own right.

Our trip began with something I've always dreamed of doing, attending an opera! We saw "Romeo and Juliet" at the world-famous Roman Arena. It is the third-largest amphitheater in Italy and dates back to the first century A.D. While once home to bloody gladiator fights, it now houses the popular outdoor summer opera festival. Attending was magical. Your literally watching the opera sitting under the summer night stars. And the singers' voices were amazing! They have no mics, yet you could hear them throughout the entire stadium.

On a funny sidenote, Billy learned the hard way to pay attention to dress codes. Because our seats were in the stall, formal wear was suggested. Billy wore shorts, and we were turned away at the gate. He ended up having to buy a pair of Italian pants at the last-minute to get in. For those of you who don't know, Italians typically like very, um, snug pants. He was a trooper and hung in there the entire four-hour show in pants so tight he could hardly breathe.

I can't really say anything, though. I ended up wearing flip-flops! Yikes! When I went to put on my heels for the opera, which was the first time I've needed them in two months, I discovered something many pregnant women eventually realize; their feet have grown. There was no way my swollen feet were fitting into those cute high-heels. The flip-flops sufficed, and I just tried to hide my feet the best I could. :)

The next day we toured the actual city of Verona, which we feel is pretty under-rated. It's a great Italian city full of beautiful places and a lot less crowds. Of course, we had to check-out the "House of Juliet". This famous courtyard and balcony attract thousands of tourists looking for love. Some believe Shakespeare's love story was actually based on real-life characters, and this was the real Juliet's home; others, not so much. Regardless, it was fun to see. We even got to see a real-life proposal happen!

Some other famous sites we saw included the Porta Bosari, the original main entrance to the city. We also spotted the statue of Dante Alighiere, a famous poet who once resided in the city as well as the tombs of the Scaligeri Family, once powerful rulers of Verona.

The next day we took a side-trip to an area not really mentioned a lot, Cagno. Talk about a gorgeous area! It's full of apple vineyards, pastures, mountains, and lakes. For example, this was the view from our hotel room!

While in the area, we visited a monastery as well as a very authentic castle, complete with its original furniture. Good stuff!

The most unexpected part of the trip, though, was ordering a salad, and getting served, yes, dandelions. And no, I did not eat them.

This weekend we're off to another adventure, and I'll be sure to tell you all about it next week. Until then, Ciao!

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Pink soup and George Clooney??? (Our trip to the World Fair and Lake Como)

Since I'm catching up on lost time, here's another post for your viewing pleasure.

Two weeks ago we had a nice, three-day weekend, (thanks to an Italian holiday) and we took full advantage!

 For the first-half, we visited "The Lakes", Lake Como and Lake Maggiore. This is a popular vacation spot for Italians where people come to just relax. The area is beautiful, surrounded by the Alps. Beautiful, aristocratic villas and resort villages line the shores.

And yes, this is where George Clooney spends much of his time. While we didn't see Clooney, who needs him when ya got the handsome Billy Evans?

Sadly, it rained most of the time we were here, but we did manage to squeeze in a visit to Villa del Balbianello. This dreamy 18th century villa was last owned by explorer Guido Monzino. The home is full of his collections, including his memorabilia from his North Pole and Mount Everest adventures. This is also where movies such as "Casino Royale" and "Star Wars: Episode II" were filmed.

After A LOT of R&R, (thanks to the rain), we ventured off to Milan to attend "2015 Expo Milano".  The World Fair is only held once every five years, and this year it just happens to be in Milan, so we got lucky! More than 140 countries are participating, contributing to the theme, "Feeding the Planet; Energy for Life". Yes, we're talking food!

All in all, and just to keep it real, we were pretty disappointed. The fair was jam-packed with the most popular exhibits having hour-long lines. We managed to see a few, and what we did see, was nothing more than a glorified adult science fair full of advertising. Most exhibits consisted primarily of flat-screen TVs projecting images of food, no real samples to try.

With that being said, we did see a few cool things. For starters, we ate lunch in the Polish exhibit (mainly because it didn't have a line). I about gagged when I realized I had ordered cold, Pepto-Bismol-colored soup. But guess what? It ended up being scrumptious! Apparently, its called Chlodnik and is made-up of beets, giving it that color.

We also saw a beautiful village, made entirely out of chocolate, and Billy finally met his match at the nutella concept store.

And of course, we had to visit the good ol' USA exhibit. Do you know how long its been since I had a BBQ sandwich??  This one, however, ended up costing us $11, and really didn't taste much like the southern BBQ I'm used to.

After a lot of eating, we finally were ready to head home, maybe with no star-sightings to brag about but with plenty of food to tickle us "pink".

Until next time, Ciao!

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Beautiful Bavaria

Ciao! Sorry for the long-delay in posts, but after we moved into our new apartment, we didn't have Internet service. Many Italians take the entire month of August off, making it difficult to get repairs done. The great news is we now have WiFi, and I'm back in business!  (Or maybe that's bad news for those of you reading this...haha.)

Back to our travels... Several weeks ago we ventured much farther down the road to Bavaria, Germany. Talk about incredible beauty! This area is surrounded by the most beautiful mountains, lush pastures, and castles galore! This was the view from our hotel room!

We first visited two famous castles in southwest Bavaria, near the town of Fussen. First, we saw the Hohenschwangau Castle, built on the remains of a fortress dating back to the 12th Century. This is the castle where Ludwig (later King Ludwig II of Bavaria) grew up. While we weren't allowed to take pictures inside, we got some great shots from outside.

Built within sight of Hohenschwangau, The Neuschwanstein Castle, which means "New Swanstone Castle", is the real-life model for the Disney Castle! This is the castle Walt Disney used to design the famous castle seen in so many movies and at Disney World. Ludgwig, very reclusive, wanted a retreat and a way to honor his friend, maybe lover, the famous composer Richard Wagner. Many of the rooms pay homage to Wagner. Sadly, Ludwig only spent half-a-year here before he mysteriously died. Some believe he was assassinated. From what I can gather, he was a gay man who loved and fostered the arts. He hated politics. That combination, at that time in the world, was not accepted. People believed him to be crazy. However, had it not been for his great contributions to the arts, Bavaria would not be what it is today.

The following day we drove to the town of Berchtesgaden and saw the infamous Eagles Nest, or as its called in German, the Kehlsteinhaus. It towers on a ridge more than six-thousand feet into the clouds. Paid for by the Nazi Party, it was presented to Adolf Hitler on his 50th birthday as a retreat. Talk about eerie! This place looks almost exactly like it did decades ago. Its surrounded by incredible geographic beauty. In fact, I find it to be one of the most beautiful spots in the world. How can such beauty be the plotting grounds for Hitler's incredible evil?

Hitler is said to have only visited this retreat 17 times due to his fear of heights. However, his mistress and later wife, Eva Braun, spent months here entertaining.

You can only access this sight by bus. Boy, is it a crazy, thrilling, twisty ride up there! Once you arrive, you walk through the same tunnel, dug out into the mountain Hitler used. The tunnel leads to a polished-brass elevator that shoots you up into the mountain and into the retreat. (The elevator was purposely made reflective to make it appear bigger due to Hitler's fear of small spaces.) Inside the retreat, you'll find the grand fireplace Italian Dictator Benito Mussolini gifted to Hitler as well as several other well-preserved rooms.

Outside, the view will take your breath away. We were very lucky the day went. Often, this area gets very cloudy and foggy blocking the view. However, saw nothing but blue skies and sunshine.

After the war, a cross was erected near the sight as well. A very somber and beautiful sight.

This was, by far, Billy's favorite spot we've visited on our travels. I've never seen one person take so many pictures! It truly is seeing history come alive. I'm still trying to wrap my head around this place as well. It was very surreal to be standing there.

We really hope to get the chance to return, at least one more time, before our European adventures end. Until next time, ciao!

Monday, August 3, 2015

Cinque Terre!

Life is funny the way it surprises us. Last week we visited the Dolomites, an area that shockingly became my favorite spot in Italy. This week we toured the Cinque Terre (CHINK-weh TAY-reh), an area I expected to fall in love with. To put it mildly.... I did not, and neither did Billy.

The Cinque Terre is five small villages located in the Italian Riviera. The towns are built into rugged cliffs, and you'll find very little traffic. The best way to access them is by train or boat. Or, like we did, you can hike between them.

The weekend we visited was very overcast, which actually turned out to be a good thing. While we didn't capture beautiful sunny pictures, the clouds offered protection from the boiling heat, and that was a blessing because our 45-minute hike ended up being, um, four hours!!!!

Before we ventured out, I carefully had chosen an "easy" hike due to being nearly six months pregnant. However, unbeknownst to us, the easy coastal trail was closed due to flooding. We followed the signs and the crowds and got onto another trail, which we thought was the easy one, but ended up being an advanced hiking trail!

Not that I've done a lot of hiking, but this one was, by far, the hardest trail I've ever attempted. It took us from the town of Manarola, up over a mountain to a little village called Volastra, and back down to Corniglia. The trails were extremely narrow, no guard rails (one wrong step and you're falling over a mountain), and very, very steep.

We stopped and rested every 20 feet or so in some spots. Going down was even scarier. You could feel rocks move and your footing slip every step. I seriously was praying the whole time for God to let us both safely get down.

Now, the good part to all of this, is that our hike offered some impressive views, after all, we were literally on top of a mountain cliff.  It's also interesting how the people who live in these villages have somehow surmounted the odds and carved out lives for themselves here. They've turned these wild mountain sides into ravines, producing a lot of wine.

Eventually, we made it down the mountainside unscathed and decided to take a train to the next village, called Vernazza. (No more hiking for us!) Vernazza is the area's crown jewel. She's the only city with a natural harbor, but again, we were pretty disappointed. While the trails were peaceful and quite, Vernazza was extremely hot, overcrowded, and overpriced. The "colorful" villages are pretty....from a distance. Up close, they're very rundown and dirty.

We ended up leaving the Cinque Terre by six p.m., exhausted and disappointed. The best part of our trip was where we stayed. The Cinque Terre was completely booked (August is the busy season), so we found an old farmhouse converted into a bed-and-breakfast in a city named La Spezia, just south of the Cinque Terre. Here's a link to Locanda del Papa.

While it was rustic and offered no frills, it was peaceful and off the beaten path. The place is run by a Fidel Castro-loving communist who actually was extremely nice and hospitable. The views are gorgeous, and he has two very friendly cats. There was also a restaurant nearby that offered, um interesting, food choices, like pizza with french fries. Guess who ordered that? LOL. I got the pizza with pesto, since that's one of the foods this area is famous for.

 I'm glad we ended up seeing the Cinque Terre, at least I know what the area looks like now, and we can cross it off of our list. We also have a new "dirty" word. The next time something goes wrong, and we want to yell a curse word, it's now going to be, yes, "Cinque Terre!" Try it; you'll like the way it feels too. :)

Ciao until next time!