Eat, Wander, Love: Our journey through Cinque Terre and Florence

When I look back on our Italian vacation, Cinque Terre and Florence are two highlights that bring back fond memories. A vast contrast from our time in Rome, we experienced a slower pace even amongst the crowds of tourists. Maybe it was the fact that I could sit quietly on the streets without a vendor in my face or the amazing food we enjoyed in both places. Overall, I know that if we ever return to Italy, Cinque Terre and Florence will definitely be on the list.

Riley enjoying a red sunset over Ponte Vecchio

Cinque Terre

I’ve learned that a sign I had a great time is when I barely have any photos. I can easily get caught up in the moment and forget to take my camera out. Cinque Terre was a definite “living in the moment” experience. It’s hard to put into words the magnitude of how amazing this place is so my advice to everyone is, you need to experience it for yourself.

I booked our accommodations in Cinque Terre at the last minute and was unable to find a hotel or Airbnb close to the water. Initially, I was concerned when I looked at Google maps because our spot looked incredibly far from the main towns. Turns out, my procrastination was a blessing in disguise. Located in the Cinque Terre National Park, in the middle of the mountains, the bed and breakfast I booked was a small farmhouse with beautiful views. The cold mountain air and the sound of silence was a familiar feeling of home, and for the first time during our trip, I felt comforted by my surroundings.

After a night of quiet and restful sleep, we found ourselves waking up later than expected and forgoing our plans of hiking through the five towns of Cinque Terre. Luckily, it started raining and we were told that the trails are closed when it rains. Despite not being able to hike, there was so much to see and eat within the five towns that we kept busy the entire time. We purchased an all-day train ticket, hopped around each town, ate seafood, and drank cappuccinos. I walked around with my head looking up the entire time. It’s honestly such a pretty place. I kept mentioning to Clayton that it felt like we were walking around a movie set or Disneyland because the buildings looked surreal. Next trip, I’d like to visit when the weather is warmer. The water looked crystal clear in some parts, I can only imagine how amazing it would be to swim in it!

Calamari at La Scogliera in Manarola
Seafood pasta at La Barcaccia in Monterosso
My way?! It was meant to be, I loved Cinque Terre!

Florence

Prior to writing my post on Rome, I came across discussion boards where people hated Florence and loved Rome. I read through these posts of self-described “Rome girls” and realized it must be a personality difference because I LOVED Florence.

The significant difference between Florence and Rome? For me, it was the obvious cleaner streets and the lack of vendors constantly in my face. Those “skip the line” tours that are so aggressively advertised in Rome are non-existent that I was able to sit on the steps in the middle of the Uffizi Palace and read my Florence guidebook without anyone approaching me. It was also refreshing to see the people of Florence take care of their city.  The amount of garbage in the streets was significantly less, almost non-existent, compared to the streets of Rome. I saw a man who was literally vacuuming the streets! The locals were also much nicer and it was easier to find spots that wouldn’t charge you an arm and a leg for a bottle of water.

In addition to the better ambiance, the restaurants and coffee shops were incredible. It was hard not to find a spot for a delicious meal, a good cappuccino, incredible desserts, or even an IPA American style beer.

Here are some of my favorite spots in Florence:

Venchi: I am well aware that this is a chain, but I was first introduced to Venchi in Florence and I truly miss it. Grab a gelato then buy some souvenirs! We purchased a bottle of the Cuba Rum which is a delicious dessert liqueur and a few pieces of chocolate. I was obsessed with the Chocaviar which is a super dark chocolate and the chocolates with pistachios in it.

Caffe Gilli: I LOVED the cappuccinos at Gilli’s! It was so creamy and made to perfection. I went here twice in one day! Just be aware sitting here is really expensive,  I believe about 7 euros per seat so just stand at the cafe and enjoy.

Ditti Artigianale: Another great cafe with a delicious cappuccino. I don’t remember how much it was to sit, but we sat so it must have been cheap. This place had a young/hipster vibe and service was very friendly. Riley also ordered a tiramisu and loved it!

Osterio Santo Spirito: Great food, friendly service and a really awesome outside seating area. It’s a pretty popular place and quite small, so I suggest making a reservation.

Fishing Lab Alle Murate: The fish and chips were delicious, and they have a take-out option which is great when you’re on the go! It’s really nice inside, plus they had an American IPA which was delicious and made me miss good beer at home.

Caffe Liberta Firenze: Cappuccinos were decent, but what really stood out were the pastries! They were so good!

Gelateria De’Medici: The best gelato we had on our entire trip. Many say that it is the best gelato in Florence. They had some really cool, exotic flavors and it wasn’t expensive!

Dragon Fruit, Chocolate Rum, Rum

 

Cinque Terre and Florence were exactly what I imagined when I pictured our time in Italy. Historical sites, friendly people, amazing food, and lots of coffee and wine! If you’re looking for a great time and plan on eating your way through Italy, I recommend starting in Florence and Cinque Terre. Come hungry and enjoy!

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KOFA

“Do not follow where the path may lead. Go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

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Off-roading to Skull Rock

 We left the bustling area of Joshua Tree and headed east towards Arizona where we decided to spend time in a state that we love and used to call home. When we lived in Phoenix, our many trips west to California had us driving past Quartzsite without any thought as to what this area of the desert had to offer. Before our nomadic streak, we would pass this little town and think of it as a place with many rock shops, clean restrooms and some fast food. Turns out, Quartzsite is a gem (pun intended!) and it gave us one of the most memorable stops of our trip.

 KOFA National Wildlife Refuge is located between Quartszite and Yuma, and camping in this area is primitive and free. The refuge was created to protect bighorn sheep and covers over 600,000 acres of the Sonoran Desert. Kofa comes from King of Arizona, the name of a goldmine that used to be active in the area. This area of public land is filled with rugged rock formations, fascinating hikes, endless opportunities for off-roading, and wildlife sightings that left us in awe during our stay.

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Cholla “jumping cactus” got all of us as we hiked by!
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A coyote’s dinner?

 When we arrived in Quartzsite and headed towards KOFA, I noticed most travelers were camped closest to I-10. We drove out about 18 miles south to our campsite near the Palm Canyon Trail. Our area was empty compared to the hundreds of RVs we saw near the interstate. I wondered if people knew they could camp this way? Or did the inconvenience of the road turn them away? As usual, the road less traveled always leads to the best destinations.

 We set up camp not far from the trail to Queen Palm Canyon. It was midday when we arrived. The blazing desert sun right over us as we unpacked and stared down at the cars who quickly drove past us and blew dust in our direction. We didn’t have any neighbors camped nearby, but the dirt road we parked on had frequent visitors who would drive up to the trailhead and quickly turn around.

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View from our campsite.

 By the time we prepared dinner, the influx of visitors had disappeared. The rising rock formations that stood over us glowed a deep red as the sun began to set. I looked at the valley in front of us, at all the tall cacti casting long shadows along the desert sky. Once again, it was that feeling of freedom, that incredible feeling of being small. We were graced with a vibrant sunset then the winter night sky gave us a clear view of the bright moon and stars.

The entire week we were there, we’d start a fire just after dinner. As the coyotes began to howl, we’d spot Venus in the distance and laugh at how we watched the moon and the stars glide past Queen Palm Canyon. As insane as it sounds, every night we danced with Venus. We’d focus on one part of the canyon and move along with the planet. We’d laugh then look silently, and I’d quietly reflect on how amazing this time was with nature and with my family.

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Getting the cholla out of Jack’s paw!
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Home is where you park it!

Our hike up the Palm Canyon Trail:

 A short walk from our campsite was the trailhead to the Palm Canyon Trail. This trail is very short, only about a half mile. The reviews on TripAdvisor are a bit misleading citing the trail as somewhat difficult. It’s a bit rocky and I can see it being a fall hazard for certain people, but for the average person, it’s literally a small uphill walk to view the palm trees in the canyon.

What’s cool about this hike? These palm trees are native to Arizona. Apparently, the theory is certain animals had eaten the fruit of these trees and brought their droppings into this canyon which in turn planted palm trees.

Once we saw the palm trees, it was an interesting sight, but definitely not enough of a hike for us. We decided to continue on, ultimately bouldering up the mountain until we could no longer safely climb up. We did our best to follow the cairns placed by other hikers, but we eventually hit a dead end. We finally stopped and turned around realizing that every inch of effort in that climb was totally worth it. We had the whole place to ourselves and the view was stunning.

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Our week at KOFA was one of the most spectacular sights we saw on the road. I still dream about our beautiful campsite and the feelings of peace I had during our stay. My advice is, take the road less traveled and stray away from the rest of the visitors. KOFA has so much to offer even though it may not be evident at first sight.  I promise you won’t reget blazing your own trail.

Home Built Teardrop Trailer: Our First Camping Trip With Bear

We’d like to take the opportunity to introduce another member of our family. His name is Bear and he is our home built teardrop trailer. Clayton has been working on Bear off and on since July 2014. The initial plan was to build Bear and take him out on his first road trip through Utah, Colorado and Wyoming. In December of last year, we decided to move to Colorado which in turn halted our road trip plans and the continuation of building Bear. While making our move to Colorado in February of this year,  unfinished Bear made the trip from Arizona and his finishing touches were put on hold due to the cold Colorado winter. When the weather began to warm up, Clayton started slowly working on Bear again. This past weekend, we put Riley’s full size mattress inside, loaded it up with sleeping bags and food, and took Bear on his first camping trip.

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After this camping test run, Clayton fitted Bear with bigger tires and a diamond plated sheet on the front area. Bear looks a bit more aggressive now, but we still have a lot of work to do. The walls need insulation and Clayton is currently working on building cabinets for the kitchen area. Even though Bear is unfinished, we had an amazing time camping and we’re incredibly excited to bring him on more adventures. Here is a look at our camping trip outside Woodland Park, our mini hike to Rampart Reservoir, and our night primitive camping outside of Deckers with Bear!

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We made our way towards Woodland Park Friday night after Clayton got off work. With no plans on where we were going to camp, I figured we’d just wing it once we pulled into town. Since Woodland Park is only 20 minutes up the road, it didn’t seem too difficult to figure out a place to park and camp in the woods nearby. Once we got into town, we turned onto highway 67, headed about 10 miles north to Rainbow Falls Rd and found ourselves among other people who were primitive camping. We maneuvered our way through the dark road and eventually found an open spot not too far away from a small RV. We settled in as quietly as we could and for the first time in our lives, we jumped out of the truck and straight into the trailer. Since we’ve become pros at setting up our tent in the dark, it was kind of cool to just jump in the trailer and go straight to bed!

Before we fell asleep, we talked about how awesome the trailer is and how there was a slight downside to not being able to see the stars like we do from our tent. As I dozed off, I thought about how impressed I was with my husband. What started out as an idea has now become reality, and we were spending the night in something that he worked so hard on. This trailer was built from the ground up and I couldn’t help but be proud of him.

We woke up that morning during golden hour. I’m not sure what time it was exactly, but I can still picture the golden light shining on the pine trees and the mountains. In a nearby field, we saw several deer walking through the grass. We stayed in our sleeping bags while staring at the pine trees and taking in the fresh air. Riley woke up smiling from ear to ear. He told us how happy he was and how much he loved the trailer. We headed back to Woodland Park to grab a quick breakfast then headed to Rampart Reservoir. Rampart Reservoir is one of our favorite places to spend the day since it’s beautiful and so close to home.

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We love bringing the hammock on hikes!

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After relaxing by the lake, we quickly rushed back to Colorado Springs since Clayton had to return to work. After dropping him off, Riley and I headed back home where we showered and grabbed some clothes and food for another night of camping. At around 11, we headed back to Clayton and made our way past Woodland Park. Once again, we had no idea where we were going. We continued to drive on the 67 until we reached the town of Deckers. It was pitch black and there was no one around this tiny town with only one store and one restaurant. We pulled over to the side of the road and looked around for any signs of a campground, but had no luck.

As we continued to drive, we saw a sign for Lone Rock Campground. Thinking we had finally found a place to rest for the night, we were quickly disappointed to find a sign that said “campground full”. Feeling completely exhausted, I suggested we keep driving up the road, and before we knew it, there was a marvelous brown sign on the side of the road with a tent on it.

We turned on a dirt road and saw a sign for Flying G Ranch and several other sites. I honestly can’t remember the names of everything because it was so dark and I started to feel a bit anxious. We slowly made our way up this bumpy dirt road and the pure darkness started to make my imagination run wild. I thought about everything from Big Foot to ghosts to a big cliff waiting to pull us down on my side of the road. My fears started to creep into nagging comments towards Clayton reminding him to drive carefully. Finally, I felt a bit of relief when I saw a campfire in the distance. We eventually reached a fork in the road where we encountered other campers enjoying the night. Once again maneuvering our way through the dark, we found a spot to camp and quickly fell asleep.

I woke up around sunrise to find that Clayton had been up since dawn taking pictures of the view. My most favorite thing about finding a campsite in the dark is not knowing what the view will be like when we wake up! As I expected, the view did not disappoint. After waking up and getting ready, we decided to make our way back to Deckers to check out the little restaurant that we passed the night before. We ended up having breakfast and beer on the patio right by the highway. It was such a cool little town, and the mountain air and scenery was perfect.

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Riley and I are still asleep.

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Breakfast and beer in Deckers.

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We were thrilled with our first camping trip with Bear. This mini camping trip reminded us of how lucky we are to be living in Colorado and how cool it is to have the wilderness so close to home. I was also reminded of how amazing Clayton is and how as a family, whenever we focus on accomplishing something, we’re always able to reach our goals. As I’m typing this right now, we are getting ready to leave for another adventure with Bear. This time we’re going a little further and we’re so excited to leave tonight! I can’t wait to share it with you all on the next post!