What I Learned This Summer In Europe

What I Learned This Summer In Europe

I’ve been home about a month now and beyond it of course being nice to catch up with friends and family, I do rather miss the streets of Paris, the tastes of Florence, and the sights of Venice. In reflecting back on the trip while going through photos I am reminded of the friends I made and the old ones I got the opportunity to see again. It was truly a once in a lifetime experience. It was more than just a vacation it was a master class in French and Italian culture. I want to share some of the few lessons I learned while away:

1: Paris is Real.
In all the hustle and bustle of sightseeing, tourists, and attractions you forget that Paris is a city like any other. People are born there, they live there, and they die there. They fall in love there, they get married there and they start families there. Paris isn’t a make believe place that only exists in our dreams. It’s a living breathing place. It evolves and changes over time. It is worth spending more than a couple days there. To properly experience Paris you can’t rush it you need the time to take it all in, wander around the city streets and experience all things Parisian.

2: Apartments Are the Way to Go.
If you want a real authentic experience I’d highly recommend renting apartments. Not only does it allow you a home base to unwind and relax after a long day it allows you the luxury and freedom to do your own cooking which helps cut down on costs. We also found that the apartments were much cheaper than hotels and in some cases the same price or cheaper than hostels. We stayed 30 nights in Florence for 600 euros. That was $25/night for a 2 bedroom, with a large living area, full kitchen and a balcony. By staying a 20 minute walk outside the centre it allowed us to live as if we were Italians. We used http://www.airbnb.com, I highly recommend it to anyone looking for a unique experience.

3: Blogging is Hard!!
Blogging is MUCH harder than it appears. It is very time consuming but the final product is absolutely worth it. I started this travel blog as a way to keep people informed about what we were up to, journal our experiences, and to force myself to write. I’ve learned so much and the blog has been a great success. I plan on maintaining this blog going forward focusing on a variety of things so be sure to check back often.

4: Travel with Someone You Love.
Traveling is tough. It’s delays, transfers, waiting, and the unexpected, but it’s because of the unexpected that you want to travel with someone you love. When Rebecca and I boarded that plane I honestly didn’t know what to expect. That thought made it very scary and very attractive all at the same time. The things we did, saw, and experienced are things I will never forget. There is no one else in the world I would have wanted to share them with. When I look back on this trip in 20 years I won’t remember just the things we saw I will remember the person I was with when I was there.

That’s it for now. I hope everyone has a great thanksgiving and is able to spend time with their loved ones. Remember, life is short, we only live once and some people don’t even do that.

PS — Click on the mosaic to check out 500 of my favourite photos from the trip up close.

Island Hoping Around Venice

Island Hoping Around Venice

I hate hate hate traveling days. On this Friday we had to travel from Milan to Venice, which worked out to be about 2 hours and 30 minutes, although you need to look into that number. We rode on a fast train, for 9 euro, and at about 280km/hr. North America is no where near as sophisticated with their public transit as that. We rode the train in peace as I wrote and Rebecca read.

Upon arriving in Venezia Mestre we boarded a train to hop, skip and jump to Venezia St. Lucia, the train station on the Venice Island. We, however, had one small problem. We didn’t have a ticket. We had our ticket that took us to Venezia Mestre and in our opinion decided that for the 10 minute trip there wasn’t much point in rushing to grab a ticket. We thought we were better to board the train and if we had to, buy a ticket on route, but we figured there was little chance a guy would come around checking tickets. We were sadly very wrong on that one. We gambled and we lost, and boy did we loose big. My original idea of pretending I thought my ticket took me to the island didn’t work then he gave us a price for the ticket we were blown away. The train was to cost 2 euro but for us it was 35 because of a penalty/violation. That didn’t make me very happy. After trying to have a reasonable conversation with him it turned into a fight and which point he wrote me up and Rebecca faired better and was able to pay her ticket on the spot while I am now forced to go to a post office to pay my ticket. My only issue with the Italian train system is that when they check tickets if they find one person without one they stop caring about anyone else. You become the only person on the train while the other six guys slipping from car to car get away scot free. Either way, it put a damper on our day but we soldiered on.

Once we left the train station with our luggage we headed to the main station of the Vaporetto, or water bus, to get a ticket so we could make our way to the Rialto Bridge, where our apartment was located. The way the bus works is that you buy a ticket which is good for a specified amount of time, the cheapest you can buy as a tourist is 7 euro for an hour. If you live in the city its a fraction of that. I stand by the statement that Venice is the most expensive place in Italy, however it is justified. It is beautiful. I however wasn’t fully prepared for how busy Venice was going to be this time around. It was packed. The boats were packed, the streets were packed, it was incredible, and I wasn’t ready for it. After our short but expensive bus ride, we had planned to meet up with Niko, the gentleman who was renting the apartment. All that went smoothly and he took us on a deeply confusing route away from, the busy streets to the apartment in the Salizzada San Lio neighbourhood, just a three-minute walk from the Rialto Bridge. We climbed the 4 stories to the apartment, which I will be honest, did suck, but that’s Venice. Venice is stairs. The apartment was very lovely. Our room had a great view over the city. The bell tower at St. Mark’s square in the distance along with the roof tops adorned with the clay shingles was breathtaking.

We quickly settled into the apartment because we had a full day. First off we headed through the confusing streets to make our way to the bus stop Fondamenta Nove as we were heading to the San Michele cemetery. I had never been there before but had heard great things about it and that it is a hidden gem. The cemetery is low on space and years ago they started to stack the graves on top of one another. What this has created is a very cute scene of elderly Italian ladies wheeling these large ladders around to be able to put flowers on the grave. We walked for a short period of time making a stop to find Ezra Pound’s final resting place, it wasn’t until later I found out that beyond being a talented writer Ezra Pound was also a Nazi supporter.

Upon returning to the island we headed on a scenic route towards St Marks square where we were due to meet up with a travel company to take us on a tour of 3 surrounding islands, Murano, Burano, and Torcello, each famous for their own reasons. Murano for its glass factories, Burano for its lace making and fisherman cottages and finally Torcello for being once a large city but now only having a population of 14 people. I had done a similar tour in December with my grandmother and found it to be very interesting so we opted to do it again. We boarded the boat and took a nice ride to the first island, Murano where we had the opportunity to visit a glass blowing factory and watch a master glass blower form two different pieces, a vase and a horse. Watching him work the glass is very very cool. Sadly it’s a short demonstration then they usher you into the gift shop and try and get you to buy overpriced pieces of work.

Next up was Burano which is famous for its lace and we had the chance to watch a old lace maker work but again then slightly pressured to purchase things. We opted to use the little time we had there to find cold water and wonder around them fisherman cottages, all multi coloured.

Finally, we headed to Torcello, where you are given free time and just instructed to return to the boat before it departs. We walked halfway to the centre before deciding we weren’t overly interested in seeing an old church and instead stopped in at the same restaurant where Granny and I stopped for a glass of wine only a few months prior and sat and relaxed and admired the beautiful garden. We spent a little too much time there and had to hustle back to the dock to ensure we didn’t become the next two residents of the island. Our boat ride back took us along a few smaller islands with pleasure boats moored with people swimming off the boats and into the beach.

Once we docked back at Venice instead of walking right back to the apartment we headed towards the park and street in the other end where the tourists rarely travel to and we took in a chance to walk through small outdoor bars and markets. I sat for a while on a bridge where I was able to pick up some free WIFI watching little power boats dock and the people jumping out and grabbing a drink. I wondered to myself how neat it is to boat to a bar and just sit by the water. Rebecca finally caught up with me as she was looking through things for her parents. We walked back through St. Marks back to the apartment as it was late and we found a restaurant which was not a great but still expensive, such is Venice. We enjoyed a pizza and spent the rest of our evening walking around enjoying a gelato on a bridge.

I fell asleep that night to the sound of an old man singing below our window. It was really something else.

One Last Day in Bellano

One Last Day in Bellano

On our last day in Milan we had already decided we wanted to stay at the lakes. We headed back to Bellano. After having such a positive experience we wanted to spend a full day there. Before we left Milan we were worried as the weather report called for rain and clouds at Como. Once we arrived our greatest fears were realized as the weather was terrible, the rain had passed but there wasn’t a single ray of sun to be had. It was rather all and all disappointing.

We grabbed food from the local grocer for lunch and went down to the beach. We were the only ones there. I was less than impressed, and rather grumpy. I sat for awhile playing Angry Birds, getting wet by the occasional drop of water still remaining in the threatening clouds above. Rebecca was determined it would get nicer. As I went off for a walk she must have prayed pretty hard because low and behold the sun broke through and it turned into a beautiful day. We sat at the water for a while catching rays and enjoying lunch; a fresh Caprese sandwich with salami.

We spent the majority of the day on the beach in the sun spending time sun tanning and swimming. There was a fresh food market so we both wandered through that enjoying, for maybe the last time, a real Italian market. When we felt like we had had enough sun we packed up our stuff and headed into the city centre to grab some gelato but not before we visited the local marina and met with some nice people who had been out on the water all day sailing. We watched them lift a large boat out of the water because due to the lack of dock space most boats when not in the water were lifted out, maintained and kept in a boat parking lot.

We savoured our gelato while sitting on a bench overlooking the lake with the mountain in the background. I couldn’t stop thinking to myself, why would anyone ever want to leave a place like this.

The Assumption of Mary Equals Fireworks!

The Assumption of Mary Equals Fireworks!

Wednesday, Rebecca informed me, was the Assumption of Mary. I have no idea what that means, but what I do know is that everything in Italy is closed. This is supposed to kick-start all of the Italian August vacations but as we had already learned many of them were already off and on the summer vacations. We had planned to stay in Milan for the day, opting to head to the park in the afternoon after we packed our bags. We spent a few hours with our feet submerged in the water at the fountain catching some rays and discussing how nice Milan ended up being. While relaxing, we met an interesting sports writer and his young family and both spoke of our dislike for Napoleons. The discussion was spurred on by the entrance of a large bombastic family, looking a little rough, who moved in directly beside us at the fountain, instead of on the completely open side, not making any sense.

That evening we walked to Castello Sforzesco to view fireworks. It was so interesting to sit with all the locals and admire the festival, music and lightshow and just enjoy being in Italy. The fireworks weren’t as brilliant as the ones in Paris but they were largely enjoyed and seemed to go on forever. For what seemed like hours we sat and gazed up into the darkness watching the sky evolve.

A Day Trip to Torino…to Visit an Old FIAT Factory

A Day Trip to Torino...to Visit an Old FIAT Factory

Tuesday was another early day. We had to catch a high-speed train to Torino at 8am. The nice thing at least about this apartment was that it wasn’t more than 15 minutes to the train station so we usually got there with 5 minutes to find our seat and head off.

Neither Rebecca nor I knew much about Torino beyond the fact that the Olympics where once held there. I did a little research and discovered that there is a large old Fiat factory which had been converted into a mall centre. Atop this old 6 floor mammoth facility is the World’s only roof top test track…something I had to see for myself.

Upon arriving in Torino we jumped onto what can only be described as the cleanest subway in Italy and headed down to Lingotto. It was early when we got there, before 10, and most of the shops were not open yet but we walked around for awhile and after the stores started to open we popped into a few before we headed to the top floor to check out the test track. Earlier, before the elevators were working, we had tried to walk to the top through the spiral drive way, similar to that found in parking garages, but reached an unmovable fence which we couldn’t pass. The only way to the top is to head through the gift shop and up the elevators. This elevator will bring you to the entrance to the art gallery and also to the test track. I wasn’t sure what to expect from the track, I had seen a few photos from above but when we stepped out onto it, I was blown away. It was massive, with banked walls on either end. It was a simple loop, but boy was it neat. The factory, when built, was one of the largest in the world. The production line began on the 1st floor where the raw materials would come in and the car would make its way through the floors until arriving on the roof fully finished where it would do its first few miles around the track. We spent a while walking around taking a ton of photos because beyond offering a once in a life time chance to see a roof top test track it offered really nice view of the surrounding area.

We eventually left the roof to grab lunch at the “western pub” which was the worst American food I’ve ever had in my life. In Italy, they don’t have regular vinegar and they use mayonnaise for all their chips. It’s really not that healthy. We debated for a long time about heading just down the street to visit the Torino automobile museum which was due to open at 2 but in the end decided we both felt burned out already and were not up for a museum.

We headed back to the city centre and started our exploration of Torino, we walked up through Via Roma, something similar to the Champs d’Elysees in Paris, with a lot of high end stores. We strolled along the street arriving at the Royal Palace of Turin. We walk through the palace and passed by a beautiful old church where Roman ruins had recently been discovered. Eventually we settled in front of old ruins of the Palatine Towers where we sat for a long time trying to remember which courses we took in university. After our break we headed to a fresh fruit market in Piazza della Repubblica then down along the river as we headed towards Mole Antonelliana. Mole Antonelliana is named after the architect who first undertook the creation of the building for which construction began in 1863. It was originally intended to be a synagogue for the local Jewish population but now houses the Museo Nationale del Cinema. We would take a few neat photos of it before eventually walking along the river to head back to the train station. After a full day in Torino we both agreed that it was a really neat city.

After a long day, Rebecca and I were both ready to crash so once we got off the train and started to head home we were excited to rest, however, we encountered a Ferrari 458 parked out front of our local bar. I, of course, walked over and took a few photos and admired its beauty. The owner happened to notice us and he invited us over for a drink where we ended up sitting for about 2 hours just talking. His name was Franceso, he owned a few different businesses in Milan and had just sold his two older Ferraris, a 360 Modena and a 550 Maranello for this new 458…must be nice.

Lake Maggoire & The Grand Hotel des Iles Borromees

Lake Maggoire & The Grand Hotel des Iles Borromees

Monday we headed to Stresa around noon, to visit Lake Maggoire. We decided to take a little later start to our day so I had the opportunity to get a haircut and we had the chance get the apartment in order making packing later in the week easier. I ended up finding a haircut for 10E for which the price made me happy and the cut made Rebecca happy as I was starting to look a little homeless.
Our train to Stresa was only about an hour. That is the one thing that I can accredit to Milan, it is a great hub. So far everywhere we have wanted to go has been between an hour and an hour and a half away. It is incredibly convenient. Upon arriving in Stresa we made our way to the water initially, to take the view in. We walked along the water for a bit, before getting the urge for food and once again headed towards the local super mercato. We grabbed some paninis, fresh salami, cheese, olives and an antipasto salad for Rebecca and we headed to a little secluded place and ate our lunch while overlooking the lake. At the onset I thought it was nicer than Garda but it was still busy. With the road being right along the water, it was loud with traffic. The view was good despite the overcast foggy weather of the day. While we sat and ate we watched this old man in a banana hammock sailing his little wooden boat. As he got close he dropped his sail and threw his oars out and all of a sudden his sailboat was a row boat, giving his dog the opportunity to jump out and run along the coastline. He also had a small little outboard engine on the back which he later used to help get him back out to the middle of the lake. It was a rather interesting thing to watch. Rebecca and I ended up walking along the coastline before settling on a small little area to sit at the water to read and talk while I enjoyed a Toscano, a traditional Italian cigar, the same type that “The Man with No Name” aka Clint Eastwood smoked in the classic spaghetti western “The Good the Bad and the Ugly” or in Italian “Il buono, il brutto, il cattivo”.

We only had a couple hours before our train was due to leave so before we left we headed over to the Grand Hotel des Iles Borromees. This hotel is famous for being a place Ernst Hemmingway stayed on a number of occasions and where part of his book “A Farwell to Arms” is set. In its own right, the hotel is amazing, large, and elegant. We debated having a glass of wine there until we saw that it was 10 euro a glass. We opted to head down the beach again and have one for 5 instead. I’m really going to miss the affordability of classy alcoholic drinks.