Pompeii, Italy

Pompeii, Italy

I have always loved Greek and Roman history and mythology. I took multiple classes on the subjects in college, have watched almost every TV show and movie released along those themes, and went to Greece a few years back, so now was my time to visit one of the most well-known areas of Italy to see the ruin that Mount Vesuvius caused in Pompeii!

For those of you who don’t know, the volcano Mount Vesuvius erupted and completely destroyed the city of Pompeii in 79 AD. Under 13 – 20 feet of ash, most of the city was preserved and excavated, and you can see plaster moulds of the Pompeii citizens in the ash.

We woke up at 6 AM to have a carb heavy breakfast and hop on the bus for the 5 hour drive to the ruins. We slept, watched the Davinci Code, and observed the view of castles and farms in Limoncello country –  a delicious lemon liquor famous in the region. The lemons in the area were bigger than grapefruits!

Once we arrived at Pompeii, we grabbed some lunch in the market and shopped around before our tour. We were so relieved to find a place that had salads and fruit instead of bread and pasta to help digest everything. There was tons of volcanic rock to buy for souvenirs and pretty jewelry. One of the old gypsy ladies that was selling jewelry to one of my friends while eating rice and the rice was rocketing out of her mount between her missing teeth and hitting my friend. It was so gross but hilarious and I ended up buying a really pretty stone bracelet from her. Make sure you have a personal zone between you and these sweet old ladies just in case!

When the time came for the tour, we met our guide and walked through the turnstiles to the momentous place. I was in awe to finally be walking through a place I have been wanting to visit since my Latin class in 7th grade. There were tons of other people touring and getting around some of the larger tour groups while walking through the houses and bath houses was a little tough. I definitely recommend getting an early tour before the masses get there.

Dating back well before the destruction in 79 A.D., it was amazing to see that some of the frescos in the homes were still preserved and you could even see colors from the paint! There were pots, tables, and other objects preserved in the ash, but the most interesting were the moulds of people who were made during the excavation, Parents holding children, people crouched down, and even dogs… all having almost no time to react to Mount Vesuvius‘s wrath.

The bathhouse’s were also pretty cool. The engineering that went into making the steam rooms and hot baths vs. the cold pools was visible in the ruins and very interesting to learn about.

Pompeii, Italy

We toured up to Pompeii’s city center which had a fantastic view of the volcano. Note: even though other people might be doing it and there are no signs, do not climb on the ruins or else you will be chased down by angry site workers.

Pompeii Tips:

  • Have salads when you seem them on the menu. With carbs for breakfast, lunch, and dinner for the majority of the trip, salad will really help with digestion and bloating.
  • Get an early tour to avoid the crowds.
  • Bring a hat, sun glasses, sun screen, and water. There is almost no shade while touring and the light color of the ruins reflects the sun, making it very bright.
  • Do not climb on the ruins.

 

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Seina, Italy

Seina, Italy

I don’t know what is worse news; waking up to heard that your travel guide is MIA, or waking up to hear that your guide is missing who has the breakfast vouchers! Apparently, our guide was out and about with some of the group until 5 AM and slept through endless knocking and texts until we broke into his room to rouse him! With Dario in tow, we scarfed down some nibbles and took off our Siena.

Siena is just beautiful. Rolling hills, gorgeous old buildings…  stereotypical Italy that any painter would want as their subject. In trend with all of Italy’s other cities, it also has a massive basilica dedicated to St. Catherine, however, it actually had St. Catherine’s remains on display inside which was a little different. The streets in Siena are very hilly and lined with various flowers and flags from all of the different districts that make up the city. Every year, these districts participate in two-horse races in the track in the middle of Siena, called the Palio di Siena, which people from all over the world come to see! Unfortunately, we were not there at the right time of year to watch, but if you visiting Italy between July and August, you should definitely check it out!

We stopped for lunch and sat outside of a little restaurant on random street we wandered down during our free time. As we progressed through our meal, dull thuds reverberating through the streets started getting louder and clearer to hear, and it turned out that the district we were having lunch in was having a parade! There were about 50 people dressed up in their traditional garb with their district flags flying high! It was so neat to see the locals traditions in-person like that.

Eventually, we made our way back to the main square where the horse races take place, the Piazza del Campo, and hopped on the bus for Assisi. About 20 minutes into the bus ride, we realized we were missing to of the more wondering-off types in our tour, and we had to go back to Siena to pick them up. Major bummer from a timing perspective, but at least they were OK.

I took a nap on the bus to Assisi. We arrived and took an escalator up to the top of the steep hill on which Assisi stands, and walked to the Basilica of Saint Francis of Assisi; yet another astonishing catholic building filled with incredible art and sculptures. We quickly toured the church as a darkening sky and the rumbling of distant thunder warned of the impending downpour. All of a sudden, we were in a race against the rain and huge gusts of wind to get to our hotel and unload our bags from the bus before getting soaked! Thankfully, my bag was one of the first to get unloaded, so I was able to remain somewhat dry during the luggage battle up to our room on the 4th floor. What a sight it was watching the rain run over the beautiful view we had from our hotel window!

Once the storm dissipated to an acceptable umbrella level, a few of us ventured off into the streets of Assisi to find a spot for dinner. We ended up finding this French-ish Italian restaurant that was decorated like the inside of a doll house… That should have been our first warning. I got sat in front of some really creepy dolls that wouldn’t stop watching us and a TV near by was playing a very dramatic, old Italian soap opera show. Not only was there a creepy factor, but we could see the waiters SMOKING in the kitchen! Unfortunately, we had already ordered at that point and my scrumptious sounding meal came out as a soggy, truffle, mushroom, and bacon mess. How do you screw those ingredients up so badly?! We paid way to much for our meals, I guess entertainment was included, and left to find a market to buy Pringle’s to fill us up and wine to finish off the night.

Creepy dolls in the French / Italian restaurant in Assisi, Italy

Siena Tips:

  • Watch the Palio di Siena horse races in July & August.
  • Explore the different districts to encounter surprise parades, see the differences in the decorations and flags, eat at hole-in-the-wall restaurants, and stop into enchanting little shops.
  • Take silly pictures with scenic views!

Florence & Pisa, Italy

Florence & Pisa, Italy

I woke up this morning at 7 AM with a purpose. The doors for the Florence Cathedral’s Duomo climb open early and we wanted to be first in line for the 420 step hike to the top! I got dressed via flashlight so I wouldn’t disturb my roommates, and grabbed a quick bite to eat before meeting some of the other girls for our trek to the Duomo. We waited in line for about 30 minutes and watched at least 4 or 5 brides walk by with their groom and photographer in tow to take early morning wedding pictures – hat a great idea to avoid the crowds!

The climb up to the top of the Duomo was like going back in time. The pathway up was narrow and old and you could feel how the stones had worn over hundreds of years to other adventurers. Mid-way up, you walk around the inside top of the Duomo and see the incredible paintings that line the dome. The scale of this Heaven, Earth, and Hell depiction is just mind-blowing. You can see, in the picture below, the 10 foot high fence lining the walking path in relation to how giant the whole place is.

After more stairs an a steep ladder climb, we finally made it to the most breathtaking view in Florence:

On top of the Duomo, Florence Cathedral, Italy

Since we got up so early, there were not that many people, so thankfully, it wasn’t crowded. If you can climb the stairs, and they are challenging, this is a must do in Florence!

After the Duomo, we met back up with the tour group and our Florence guide to learn about the Florence Cathedral itself, walk past the Uffizi Gallery, and continue over the Ponte Vecchio, the oldest bridge in Florence. It had a truly beautiful view of the river. We continued our walk to a local leather factory for a demo! The leather workers showed us how to tell real leather from fake leather and how they make hard boxes completely made out of leather. It was super interesting and I highly recommend watching a demonstration before buying any leather goods from the markets.

By the time we were done with the leather demo, we were starving. We picked up a bag of cherries to snack on on the way back to the hotel where our bus to Pisa was waiting.

A 1.5 hour drive later, we finally arrived at the market around the Piazza dei Miracoli in Pisa for a gnocchi lunch before our next tour. We walked through the gateway to the giant green Piazza where the Leaning Tower of Pisa and cathedral are.

We toured through the cathedral in front of the Leaning Tower first. The catherdal has several huge stone pulpits with intricate engravings that each took 10+ years to carve. The wealth of the church back then is truly astonishing and hard to grasp until you have toured your share of Italy’s cathedrals.

We walked into the Baptistry, the 100% marble Duomo looking building in front of the Cathedral. Every hour, a priest enters the Baptistry to sing for the sole purpose of demonstrating the amazing echo effect that the architecture of the Baptistry creates. It was unlike anything I have ever heard before. A must-do in Pisa!

After our tour, we walked to the Tower, and saw just how far down it has sunk. Apparently, architects have found away to fix the leaning issue, so the Tower will not be sinking or leaning any further.  We took a bunch of pictures (typical tourists) and then soaked up the sun in the lawn. It was amazing to relax in a place with such a view!

We packed up about 45 minutes of free time, headed back to Florence, and took a quick shower before walking to our wine tasting dinner. Our dinner was in the cellar of a wine shop. The cellar was quite large and went under the main road. It used to be a jail with lots of tunnels but, overtime, the some of the tunnels collapsed and this particular one now only takes wine as its captives. It was a very cool vibe for our very Italian, mustached wine instructor to teach us how to pair wines, meats, and cheeses in. We had very generous amounts of wine, a white and two reds, and ate a ton of parmesan cheese, and bread with balsamic vinegar.  Needless to say, it was a tasty and tipsy night!

Florence & Pisa Tips:

  • Climb the Florence Cathedral’s Duomo in the early morning for a quick climb and views without lots of other people.
  • Go to a leather factory and learn all about the leather process. They are mostly free and teach you great tips for spotting fake and real leather throughout the markets.
  • Try the fruit at the local markets. It is so delicious and a great, healthy snack.
  • Listen to the singing in Baptistry in Pisa. The echo in the marble building is not to be missed.
  • Wear sun screen and / or a hat. There is not much shade in Pisa.
  • Visit a local winery in Florence and learn how to pair wines and how experience them.

Florence, Italy

Sometimes when you are on a trip with random people you’ve never met before and you have to share rooms with them, you learn quickly if they have different tendencies than you. One of the girls in our group liked to get up at the crack of dawn, and so, it was another 6:30 AM wake up to embark on our journey to Florence!

We got a later start on the road and hit some traffic, so our journey took 2.5 hours instead of 1.5, but it gave me plenty of time to catch up on sleep and my travel journal. We drove through the spine of the Alps, but it was hard to see through the fog. Finally, we arrived at our hostel in Florence! We stuffed all of our bags into a room, ran to the front door to start our exploration, and was confronted with torrential rain!

We bought some umbrellas at a shop next to our hotel and took off through an alley way to a tiny little deli the size of a closet for a delicious goat cheese, sun-dried tomato, and salami sandwich. It is amazing how every alley in Florence is packed with little gems of stores and restaurants.  After lunch, we walked past the gigantic Cathedral of Saint Mary of the Flowers to the Palazzo Medici.

The Palazzo Medici is a huge palace filled with amazing architecture, views, and art. The ceilings are so ornate with gold lief, intricate carvings, and paintings. We were completely in aw walking through such a place. You can see the scale of the ceiling and how ornate they were in the photos below, plus my favorite painting of the tour.

We also tried to go to the Accademia Gallery to see the Statue of David, however, the line was around the block and we couldn’t get in. I definitely recommend buying tickets to the Florence museums in advance as both the Accademia and the Uffizi (one of the most acclaimed museums in the entire world), were sold out on the days we wanted to go.

Since we couldn’t do any more museums, we went to the market to shop for goodies. Florence is known for its leather and, while there are a lot of faux-leather in the market, you can find some good deals on the real deal. I bought a beautiful leather jacket and haggled my way to a great price! On the way back to the hotel with all of our new stuff, we came across this really interesting building that, starting at about 10 feet up, was completely covered in dollar bills:

Dollar bill building in Florence, Italy

You never know what cool things you will encounter down the non-touristy path.

We walked through the cobbled Florence streets to an adorable little restaurant for a group dinner. The wine, sausage pasta, and bruschetta made for an excellent experience, but the waiters really topped if. They were young men and, with the 40 women in our tour group and our tour guides teasing, their faces were redder than my wine! The waiter’s dad even let them off duty early to lead our group, like parade grand marshals, to the bar. Hilarious!

Dinner in Florence, Italy

We ended up at a space age style club appropriately called “Space” where all of the tourists apparently go. The music was funky and we had a great time people watching the night away on the dance floor!

Florence tips:

  • Bring an umbrella and shoes that can get wet.
  • Buy tickets to the museums and tours you want to take in advance.
  • Wake up and climb the Florence Cathedral’s Duomo as soon as it opens! The stair ways are super narrow so, the less people, the better. Also, the view is so much better without the crowds and the climb will take you half the time.

Venice, Italy

Venice, Italy

Woke up early to my new friend Kaitlyn’s booming laugh. I tried tagging myself in one of her Instagram posts the previous night but accidentally tagged a guy from Hong Kong with a similar user name! He left a very confused comment on her photo and we couldn’t get over it. Oops!

After a very carb-heavy buffet breakfast, we hopped onto the bus heading to the boat yard. The boat ride to Venice was one long, amazing view and I was in sensory overload due to our arrival at the floating city. Tour guides in Italy have to be certified for each place they specialize in, so we acquired a very tall, Venice specific guide who walked us along the coast towards St. Mark’s Basilica.

The square where the Basilica stands is intrinsically gorgeous. Apparently, the entire square floods during heavy rain and the people who live there use planks to get around above the water! As for Basilica itself – I can’t event begin to describe its magnificence (I promise that is not a copout description!). It is covered in 24 carat gold leaf glass murals that portray the various books of the bible. I felt so small inside the Basilica and my neck started to ache from looking up at the art on the ceiling for almost the entirety of the tour.

Inside St. Mark's Basilica

After the Basilica tour, we walked through the narrow streets to the famous Murano Glass Factory which makes Venetian glass. Over thirty years ago, my mother visited this very factory and bought a red and gold wine glass set that we use every Christmas. Needless to say, I was ecstatic to retrace her steps and go to this family famed place. Once we climbed up the old, narrow, wooden steps to the artisans workshop, we watched one of the glass masters make a beautiful glass horse and then toured the gift shop (of course!). I even saw the same glasses my mother owns!

Post glass tour, we had a mandatory gelato break, and then we headed for the gondolas. Our gondola captain was singing Italian hits like a drunken bird throughout our ride and said “spaghetti” when we told him to say “cheese” for the camera! He was great. You could basically describe all of the gondola guys as having the “Jersey Shore Guido” look. Overall, it was a very relaxing and fun experience floating through the canals of Venice.

About an hour of cruising later, we navigated through the maze-like streets of Venice to a restaurant with wifi for lunch. Plus-side to Italy’s tourist area restaurants – lots of them provide free wifi if you eat there. Down-side to Italy’s restaurants – the waiters get very irritated if you ask for tap water. The tap water is perfectly drinkable, but they always want to charge for bottled, so they will tell you they don’t have tap when they do.

After lunch and an agitated waiter later, we did some street vendor shopping and I acquired a beautiful painting of Venice from a local university art professor. It was bursting with color so I had to have it as a souvenir.

We eventually made our way back to Dario (our overall tour guide) and hopped back on the boat to out hotel. Since our dinner experience at the previous night’s restaurant was so excellent, we returned with an even bigger group for some pizza. One of the girls tried the black squid ink pasta and her mouth turned black! We ate and then hurried back to the hotel to subsequently zonk out.

Venice travel tips:

  • Bring a hat and sun screen. All of the outside walking under the sun will catch up to you.
  • Ask for tap water at the restaurants. Why pay for bottled when the tap is just as good?
  • Go to the glass factories for a demonstration. Not only is it an amazing art to watch, but the demonstration is a worth while break off of your feet during a full day of touring.
  • Haggle the street vendors when buying souvenirs. Most of the prices are very negotiable if you are not in an actual shop.