Wednesday, November 23, 2011

onward to italy

Okay, back for more! The last entry began with the most prolific day for pictures; this one begins with the most pathetic.

Saturday, September 24, we left our pensión in San Sebastian before the sun came up. Steve and I rolled our bags over the bridge to the train station in the dark and got on our Renfe train back to Barcelona. Aside from some bereted Basque soldiers walking around on the train, it was a pretty uneventful trip. I only took a couple pictures, leaning over Steve when we were stopped. The shot below was of an old and busted Renfe train. (Thankfully, our train was more modern and not busted.)

When we got back to Barcelona, we took a taxi from Sants Station to our hotel near the airport. There was pretty much nothing else in the area, so the rest of the afternoon was spent either in our smokey smelling room or eating mediocre food at the hotel restaurants. I had written the day off as a traveling day, but it turned out to be exceptionally unpicturesque too.

267/365 renfe

The next morning, we got up early again to catch a shuttle to the airport, where we saw the sunrise from the terminal. We flew Air Berlin to Dusseldorf, got sandwiches in the airport, and then took a tiny plane to Florence. Next, we caught a bus to Santa Maria Novella train station. We had some trouble retrieving our prepurchased train tickets from the ticket machines, but we were more successful at the actual ticket counter. We were also able to buy the rest of the tickets on my list for our time in Italy.

With that done, we still had a while before the first of our trains to Cinque Terre. It was raining, but we went across the street and ate some sandwiches, huddled under the awning of the food stand. When it had stopped raining, it was decided that we should walk around a little, rather than hanging around the sketchy train station. So we walked toward the dome of the Duomo, which we could see over the buildings. If nothing else, I hoped to get a better selection for picture of the day than I had the day before. We soon found ourselves at San Lorenzo, and we walked from there down a little street with touristy restaurants. (See picture below.) We did eventually find the Duomo after reaching the end of that street, and then it was time to drag our bags back to the train station.

It took us three trains to get from Florence to Riomaggiore in Cinque Terre, switching in Pisa and La Spezia. However, we managed to get there at 9:30pm—exactly the time I had promised the hotel. The change of trains in La Spezia was rather hurried, as we hopped on it before the usual double or triple check, but it was the right train.

268/365 florence sneak peek

That brings us to Monday, our first day in Cinque Terre. Cinque Terre is made up of five towns on the Ligurian coast, and we were staying in the southernmost, Riomaggiore. Since there aren't a lot of tourist attractions there, as opposed to the bigger cities, I had left our itinerary pretty vague for those days. Monday's plan was to look around Riomaggiore and the next town, Manarola. If there was time, we could perhaps go to the third town as well. As it turned out, the two towns were enough for one day. We spent the morning just walking around in Riomaggiore. It was small enough that we could wander somewhat aimlessly, following the pretty. And before long, we were at the tower above town, with a nice view. Then, we found the beginning of the Via dell'Amore trail that leads to Manarola.

The trail was pretty and quite easy—a nice paved cliffside path with lots of locks and other tokens of young love. Many pictures later, we had made it to Manarola. Our choices from there were "up" or "down." We went up, since the one restaurant I knew of in town was supposed to be up on a hill somewhere. The road led us to the little square at the back of town, with the church and the bell tower. From there, we found stairs and a narrow street with a sign that said Trattoria dal Billy this way. That was the restaurant I was looking for. We found it and had lunch there, complete with trofie al pesto and some limoncino at the end. Since it was so good, we figured we might as well eat there again. (Several people on Chowhound and TripAdvisor had eaten there multiple times during their visits too.) So we made a reservation for the next night's dinner.

After lunch, we continued to explore Manarola. We found the vineyard walk from the Rick Steves book and followed it around the hill above town. Steve wasn't a big fan of the height, but he did fine. The walk eventually took us to the town's cemetary, which had a fabulous view of Manarola (see below), so it was all worth it. We walked back down to the harbor from there and looked at that part of town before returning to Riomaggiore along the Via dell'Amore again. Once in Riomaggiore, we walked down to the tiny harbor there, which we hadn't seen yet.

For dinner, we entertained the idea of purchasing a few things from the markets and making our own caprese salad or having pesto on bread. Then we realized that although we had a mini-fridge in our room, we had no plates or silverware. We decided to bail on that idea and just go to La Lampara, a restaurant not far from our hotel. It wasn't the most amazing meal ever, but the penne with shrimp and tomato-cream sauce was quite good. I was quickly becoming enamored with the subtle, perfectly balanced pasta in Italy.

269/365 manarola

The next day was supposed to be market day in Vernazza, so we took a train there that morning. (There were a few extra vendors selling things along the main street, but nothing too exciting.) While in Vernazza, we did more uphill climbing to get pictures. First, we walked part of the way up the hill toward Corniglia, practically to the official start of the trail. Then we went back down, walked to the back of town, and climbed up the hill on the other side to their cemetery. Unfortunately, neither of those was quite the iconic view I was looking for. We probably would have had to go up the trail toward Monterosso, and the German tourists were making things pretty crowded by the time we found the start of it. It was also about lunchtime, so I settled for a shot of Vernazza taken from the harbor as my picture of the day. We returned to the back of town and ate at Il Pirata, a place owned by a pair of Sicilian brothers. Gnocchi, risotto, and a good cannoli for dessert.

After lunch, we did one more climbing expedition in Vernazza—up to the castle tower—before taking the train back to Riomaggiore for our afternoon rest (and gelato). That evening, we went back out to the Via dell'Amore and took it to Manarola again for dinner at Trattoria dal Billy. Another great meal of seafood and pasta, including the crazy antipasto sampler with its parade of plates. The walk back to Riomaggiore in the dark was interesting, but there was just enough light that we weren't too scared of falling off the cliff. Of course, guard rails and the wide path helped.

270/365 vernazza

For our last day in Cinque Terre, we had two cities to cover; we still hadn't made it to Corniglia or Monterosso yet. But first, we needed to do laundry. Luckily, there was a small laundromat in Riomaggiore, because we had neither the time nor the space in our room for sink-washed clothes to dry before we had to repack it all.

Once the clothes were washed, we headed to Corniglia by train and proceeded to walk up the 382 steps to town. They just kept going... Finally, we reached the top and found our way to the restaurant I had my eye on for lunch. It was called Osteria A Cantina de Mananan, and it was a little place with the menu charmingly scrawled on a chalkboard. We got some local white wine, Steve had braised rabbit, and I got pasta with porcini sugo. It was all tasty, but the flavors of the things we got were more Steve's style than mine—slow-cooked and hearty. The pesto probably would have been more my style if they hadn't been worried about cross-contamination with walnuts.

There wasn't a ton to see in Corniglia after lunch, so we poked around a bit and then went back down all those stairs to catch the train to Monterosso. Monterosso is the most touristy of the towns, with real beaches and the resorts/hotels to match. We really didn't spend much time there. We saw the Il Gigante statue at the end of the beach, took a random walk up a hill, and then breezed through the old town area. Their old town was kind of like the other towns, but it did feel a bit more touristy. It seemed like there were more shops selling souvenirs there than in the others. After a quick look around, we decided to head back to the train station so we could return to Riomaggiore for dinner. We didn't have a reservation but we got into Dau Cila, a nice restaurant next to the harbor, by going on the early side.

Picture of the day: the beach at Monterosso. True, it wasn't our favorite stop of the day, but I liked that the other four towns were visible down the coast.

271/365 monterosso al mare

On Thursday, it was back on the train(s) for the trip back to Florence. This time, we left the train station, walked by San Lorenzo again, and found our apartment building across the street from the Accademia. We checked in, discovered that not one but two of the restaurants on my list were on theirs as well, and we were able to get our apartment hosts to make the reservations for us. I also noticed that the nearby focaccia place, Pugi, was on their recommended list. So we went and got a couple slices of pizza and brought them back to our apartment for a (rather) late lunch.

The apartment itself was fabulous. It had an actual dining table, a kitchen, and a sitting room with a couch. This was the point in the trip at which I was starting to get tired of doing the tourist thing all day every day, so it was nice to have a couch to come home to. In fact, we chilled for a little while that afternoon before it was time to leave for dinner.

We had a reservation at Trattoria Quattro Leoni in Oltrarno, which meant a nice little walk to get there. I was able to incorporate some of the Rick Steves' Renaissance Walk on the way, not that we listened to the accompanying podcast or read anything from the book while doing it. We went past the Duomo and the Baptistery, down Via dei Calzaiuoli with its many stores, past Orsanmichele Church, detoured into Piazza della Repubblica, continued through Piazza della Signoria with the Palazzo Vecchio, and finally went past the Uffizi Gallery to the river. The Ponte Vecchio (below) was in sight then, so we took some pictures and walked across it to the neighborhood of Oltrarno to find our restaurant.

At dinner, we had the dish I had read about from other travelers: a pear-stuffed pasta with taleggio cream sauce and asparagus. Everyone insisted it was amazing, and indeed it was. Sweet pear with creamy, cheesy taleggio, and asparagus to round it out. For a second course, we shared a kilo of Bistecca alla Fiorentina. (A kilo was the minimum.) It was large chunk of beef, but we did a pretty good job with it. A nice chianti helped too. :) And for dessert, we got our first tiramisu in Italy.

272/365 ponte vecchio

When planning our time in each of these cities, I tried to figured out which were the necessary sites to see. There were many—mainly museums—that we skipped, but we checked off a few of the big Florence must-sees on Friday. We started with the Duomo, waiting in line so we could go in and look around. Then, we went to the Campanile (bell tower). You can climb to the top of the Duomo dome or to the top of the Campanile, and I had decided that I'd rather climb the Campanile so I could get pictures of the Duomo dome from there. (Steve stayed on the first level while I went up three more levels to the top.) After coming back down, we went inside the Baptistery, where I took pictures of the mosaic ceiling.

Next, we walked through the San Lorenzo Market (flea-ish) to the Mercato Centrale (food-ish). My plan was to get food from a popular vendor there, but it turned out to be a little too popular. The line was so long that we decided to just walk around the market and buy some stuff to take home and eat. We ended up at a meat and cheese counter with samples and bought a couple things that we liked: salami finocchiona (Tuscan fennel salami) and a rather tasty pecorino (sheep) cheese. A piece of focaccia from another counter rounded it out, and we had a nice little "picnic" lunch in our apartment. I probably should have taken pictures of that, but I was too hungry at the time.

Back to the sightseeing that afternoon, we headed toward the Uffizi Gallery with a stop at the Straw Market (Mercato Nuovo) to see Porcellino. At our appointed time, we went into the Uffizi and spent a couple hours looking at the art. Luckily, neither of us is more into art and museums than the other, because we both got rather art museumed-out by the end. It was a lot of standing and walking, and that was without lingering much or reading many plaques.

For dinner, we went to a place called Gustavino, recommended by our apartment people and Dan and Carmen. Tasty, interesting food, but I was a little disappointed when my pesto dish apparently had some cross-contamination issues. I had to stop after a bite or two, pop a Benodryl, and trade dishes with Steve. Probably my own fault for not mentioning my nut allergy, but we had been lucky before in Cinque Terre. Other than that, it was an enjoyable meal.

273/365 duomo day

And so ended the month of September! I'm so behind... I'm hoping to catch up by Christmas or maybe New Years, but we'll see. More Florence, Orvieto (our favorite stop!), and the beginning of Rome next time. For now, here is the (very late) September mosaic.

Friday, November 11, 2011

spain week

Not too bad: It only took me about 12 days to post enough trip photos for another weekly post. (Actually writing the post, however, took much longer...) This was the week of Spain—continuing in Barcelona and finishing in San Sebastian.

That Saturday, our second full day in Barcelona, we had a very busy itinerary. I had planned for us to visit all the main Gaudi sites: Casa Batllo, Casa Mila (La Pedrera), Sagrada Familia, and Park Guell. Somehow we managed to get to them all, although our feet were very tired by the end. I also ended up with over 900 pictures—by far the most of any day on this trip.

The first stop after breakfast was Casa Batllo. Of the two Gaudi-designed apartment buildings we visited, this was the one I was most looking forward to seeing, mostly for its whimsy. It's colorful, has a roof that looks like a dragon's back, and the balconies look like skulls. It didn't disappoint, although I did wish that I could have spent more time in there, with a tripod and no other tourists.

From there, we walked over to the other apartment building, Casa Mila. We saw the rooftop with its chimneys and made our way more quickly through the attic's exhibits to the apartment. It was a little different from visiting Casa Batllo, because Casa Mila's exhibited apartment still had its period furnishings. That was cool to see, but I preferred the bright colors and polished wood of Casa Batllo's interior to the more muted, natural palette of La Pedrera.

Next, we took the subway to the Sagrada Familia, Gaudi's grand unfinished church. I wasn't exactly sure what to expect from the interior, having seen video of people walking amongst scaffolding years ago. But the main part of the church is mostly finished now, so it was clean and open inside. It was also huge and quite angular—all sorts of cool. The craziest part was looking at the church from the outside and then seeing the pictures and models of what it's supposed to look like when it's finished. It turns out, those huge towers that have been the focal point for so long are actually going to be the "short" towers. There are even bigger ones being built in the middle.

So once we had seen the big church and gotten some lunch nearby, we took a bus to the side entrance of Park Guell. The park was supposed to be a housing development back in the day, but it never really took off. Now, it's one big photographer magnet. There are several areas, each just begging for pictures. While I had no shortage of images to choose from for the shot of the day, I chose one of the ones that showed both a close up of the mosaic work (of which we saw lots that day) and a bit of one of the gingerbread-like houses (which drew my attention when I first saw pictures of the place). It's also one of the shots that feels less like something I've seen before from every photographer who visits the place.

Oh, and that night we had a fancy tasting menu dinner at Cinc Sentits. Everything was very good, with a couple standouts, but I think the meal got overshadowed by some of our other dining experiences on this trip.

260/365 gaudi day

The weather said rain for Sunday, but we went ahead with our plans for the day anyway. We walked down the Ramblas, took a quick detour to see the Placa Reial, continued down the Rambla del Mar, and walked around the port until we got to the beach in Barceloneta. There was a little extra wandering as we (I) had trouble decifering the map and figuring out which street lunch was on, but we found it eventually. We got a nice table under the awning at Suquet de l'Almirall and proceeded to share a delightful seafood paella.

And then it started raining. Soon, it was pouring, and most of the tables on the patio got rained out. Our table was one of the few that stayed dry, except that the wind started blowing rain onto my back. Steve and I switched places while he had an espresso, and we debated whether it was better to stay put and wait it out or try to walk to the metro station. We decided to walk, and we got drenched. Or rather, Steve got drenched, and I got drenched from the knees down. We had one umbrella, which I carried to keep my camera bag dry. Of course, by the time we came up from the subway by the hotel, it had stopped raining entirely. We could have gone and done more stuff that afternoon, but we decided it was a good day to do our first load of laundry in the hotel sink. (Good thing too, because it took an entire day to dry.) At dinner time, we went out again and got some good food at Paco Meralgo.

261/365 beach day in barceloneta

Monday was our last day in Barcelona, so it became the day to do the things we had missed on previous days. Luckily, I hadn't filled up the day's itinerary very much in advance. We began with a nice little wander around the Barri Gotic, near the cathedral, to catch a couple spots on the Rick Steves walking tour that we hadn't found on Friday morning. After that, it was off to the El Born neighborhood to begin Monday's assigned sights with Santa Maria del Mar, one of the churches that supposedly inspired Gaudi's Sagrada Familia. Lunch came next at La Torna in the Santa Caterina Market, followed by a visit to the Barcelona's museum of chocolate to see the fancy chocolate show pieces. Since we were nearby, the Parc de la Ciutadella and the Arc de Triomf were checked off of the to-do list from Sunday. All we had left then was a mid-afternoon dessert at Bubo, back in El Born. We thought about going to Barceloneta again to look around the streets, which we had missed after the rain on Sunday, but I was ready to go back to the hotel and be finished with the walking for one day. That is, until dinnertime. We went to La Taverna del Clinic and had what was probably our favorite meal of Barcelona. (Thanks to Brett for the recommendation, since we might not have made room in our schedule for it otherwise.) It was a nice little neighborhood restaurant with some interesting twists on the Catalan classics.

262/365 wandering the barri gotic

On Tuesday morning, we got up early, checked out of our hotel, and took the subway to Sants Station to catch our train to San Sebastian. We arrived around 1pm, walked from the train station to our pensión, checked in, and found lunch nearby. Then, we set out towards the beach to explore for a while. The main part of the city is built around a bay, lined with a beach (or two) and a promenade. On each end is a mountain. We walked to the right, past the port/harbor to the foot of Monte Urgull. It was hot, so we didn't want to commit to walking up the trail to the Christ statue at the top. Instead, we went to explore Old Town with its shops and pintxo bars (their version of tapas). 

At the end of the day, we returned for some pintxo hopping. Despite having several bars on my list, our "hop" was pretty stationary. We went to A Fuego Negro, which had rather inventive pintxos, and found that there were several things we wanted to try. The one pintxo per stop rule? Made to be broken, right? We got a spot at the bar and took advantage of it. We did go to La Cuchara de San Telmo after that for a couple things, but it wasn't as exciting as A Fuego Negro.

263/365 san sebastian

Wednesday was the day of our fanciest meal of the vacation. San Sebastian has a few 3-star Michelin restaurants, and after some research on Chowhound, I decided that Akelare would be the best one to visit. It was up on Monte Igueldo—a very reasonable taxi ride away from where we were staying. I had gotten us a 1pm reservation, so we had a nice big lunch, sharing one of each tasting menu. (There were two.) Lots of seafood and some really creative presentations. I probably drank more wine than I needed to, but it was all very good.

When we got back in the late afternoon, we went out for a walk along the beach, to the left this time. We walked toward Monte Igueldo, saw Miramar Palace and the other beach, and eventually reached the Peine del Viento sculptures at the end of the path. I knew that the ironwork of the balustrade in the picture above was one of the city's symbols, but our pensiónkeeper told us that this was another. Sure enough, I saw stylized drawings of it on a sign or two around town. Good enough for the picture of the day.

Later, we went back to A Fuego Negro for a light dinner. We were going to try another pintxo bar from my list, but between them being pretty crowded and the menus not appealing as much, we just went to our favorite again. Totally worth it.

264/365 peine del viento

We took a bus to Bilbao for the day on Thursday. The main draw was the Guggenheim Museum, designed by Frank Gehry. However, we decided not to actually go in the museum... They don't allow pictures inside, or bags as large as either of my camera bag options, and we're not the biggest museum people anyway. I was actually content to walk around the building and take pictures outside. Not visiting the museum also left us time to walk down the river and see Bilbao's Old Town. Despite the drizzly/misty weather, it was a nice walk. The Old Town was somewhat similar to San Sebastian's, but the river and the contemporary architecture along it were an interesting change from San Sebastian.

265/365 bilbao

Another day trip was on my itinerary for Friday, this time to the small town of Hondarribia, but we decided to stay put in San Sebastian instead. We weren't in a big hurry to do more traveling, and we needed to do some laundry that afternoon. That left us the morning to see a little more of our corner of San Sebastian, and we quickly found ourselves at one of the trailheads for Monte Urgull. We had already climbed up one steep set of stairs to get pictures, so why not walk all the way up to the Christ statue? Part of the way up, we got a nice view of Santa Klara Island and Monte Igueldo, which was a pretty easy choice for picture of the day.

For lunch, we found that A Fuego Negro was open, so we went there one last time to get some more of our favorites and try one more new thing. Then, it was laundry time. We packed up our laundry and walked across the river to the neighborhood of Gros. We had to wait a little while for a washer to free up, but we got our load washed and dried. (And we got some ice cream and pictures up the river while we were waiting.)

Dinner that night, and the previous night for that matter, was a bit underwhelming. We went to Ni Neu on Thursday night and Bodegon Alejandro on Friday night. Both seemed like they were trying to be fancy and foodie-friendly, but the quality wasn't consistent enough to justify the relatively high prices, especially at Bodegon Alejandro. I took pictures of both meals, but I'm only posting the pictures from the meals that we liked for this trip.

266/365 little island

That about covers it for Spain. On to Italy in the next post!