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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An introvert in Rome: The 5 realities I wish I knew before I visited.

Our trip to Italy made me realize what kind of traveler I am. I always described myself as budget conscious, slightly adventurous, and down for any destination. I typically like sightseeing and partaking in experiences that are off the beaten path, but I’m also not opposed to the touristy places that other travelers have added to their “must see” list. Ultimately, I thought I was easily adaptable.

The busy city of Rome provided a realization that I was slightly aware of. I’m not a city person, I extremely dislike crowds, and I don’t like people in my face. Unfortunately, Rome was all of those things. It’s a giant city, filled with millions of tourists, and everyone is in your face trying to sell you something.

Trip Highlight: Walking around St Peter’s Square at night

I had romanticized the idea of Rome while failing to realize that it is one of the most visited cities in the world. I put my best attitude on and tried to make light of the situation, but I couldn’t help thinking that I wish I was prepared for this. And I wish social media hadn’t given me unrealistic expectations of what I would encounter.

So here’s my list of the harsh realities of Rome and what I wish I knew before going.

Reality #1: Mass with the Pope was not a spiritual experience.

I’m Catholic (not the best Catholic), but mass with the Pope was at the top of my bucket list. I’ve watched videos of Pope Francis that have made me cry, so I thought he was going to give out this amazing life changing homily and I’d have this crazy spiritual experience.

So what really happened? I had about 50 selfie sticks blocking my view and all the Pope did was give shoutouts to everyone attending. I found a spot with some shade, sat down and felt my eyes get watery with disappointment. I looked around at everyone taking selfies with the Pope in the distance. They looked like they were having a great time. I sat there wishing I could find the same joy in taking a picture of myself.

 

Reality #2: Group tours are a necessary evil.

I’m not a group tour kind of person. I like doing things at my own pace and as an introvert, I find large groups of strangers frightening. In Rome, every five feet you walk, someone will be in your face trying to sell you a “skip the line” tour. Initially, I found it incredibly annoying. It’s an overpriced tour that allows you to skip the line at several sites, and if you ask these guys how to buy a regular ticket, they won’t give you an honest answer.

I yelled at one guy who was in my face at the Colosseum. He claimed we would wait in line for over an hour, but for over double the price of regular admission, we could skip the line. We took our chances and got through the line in 15 minutes. Several Euros were saved!

An educational experience: Riley reading his 100 Facts about Gladiators book

A different story at the Vatican Museum. The Sistine Chapel was number one on my list of things to see and of course, the line was insane. Not sure why, but everyone in the regular line to buy tickets were not being admitted inside. We waited until it started to look grim… it was my last day to see the chapel and I wasn’t getting in through regular admission.

I finally gave in and paid 40 Euros for a “skip the line” tour when admission should have only been 16 Euros. Clayton waited for me outside because it was too expensive for all of us to go. Our tour was the last group admitted, and that ended up being incredibly dramatic as well! With three tour guides yelling at the guards and only part of our group running inside without our guide (I led the way and got reprimanded), it was quite the shit show, but I got in.

The exit of the Vatican Museum. I actually took this photo without looking! Afraid of heights!

Reality #3: Your bucket list item is on everyone’s bucket list. Prepare to push and shove while taking in the sights.

When I finally got into the Vatican Museum, I was so pumped to see the Sistine Chapel at the end of the tour. I pictured myself sitting in the chapel, taking a seat, looking up and admiring that famous ceiling. Here’s what really happened: we got pushed in like a can of sardines and we weren’t allowed to stop and admire anything. A guard is constantly yelling to keep people moving while simultaneously moving everyone towards the exit. I was literally shoulder to shoulder with other people the entire time while slowly moving forward. In addition to being the biggest fire hazard I’ve ever been a part of, I couldn’t even take a moment to take it all in. I looked up, felt extremely claustrophobic and after 5 minutes, I ditched my tour group.

It was the same story at every other famous sight. All I remember from the Trevi Fountain is hoards of people, and the constant sounds of whistles being blown by police because people would stop to take a picture or try to sit at the edge of the fountain. Seriously, as I type right now, all I hear are whistles in my head.

The only photo I captured without someone walking in front of me

Reality #4: Hospitality is nearly nonexistent and you will encounter people who hate tourists.

Don’t even bother asking a bus driver a question. Ours literally told us he had better things to do! I guess he was right, he had a bus to drive. One girl on our bus was from Turkey and couldn’t figure out how to get back to her hotel. The bus driver refused to help. She got off with us and we tried our best to help her find her way.

We had a few unpleasant interactions with locals. One group thought it was funny to mock us as we asked for directions in Italian. Another woman put both of her hands on my back and literally pushed me a few feet forward because I apparently was in her way.

I learned to start asking local Filipinos for directions because they were so helpful and friendly. One Filipino man walked us all the way to the metro station after we missed the right bus stop to catch a train. Another Filipino woman gave me directions to a restaurant. I learned, when in Rome, ask a Filipino!

Lastly, we learned that hotels will try to take advantage of you. At one place, they tried to charge us 210 Euros instead of the listed 105 because we had our 6 year old with us. I told the guy we would pay extra for our kid even though we were all sharing a bed, but there was no way we were paying double. He wouldn’t budge so we didn’t either. Next time, we won’t waste our time at a hotel.

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At this cafe, I paid for food and a seat, yet I wasn’t allowed to drink coffee at my seat because it would be an additional charge…..

Reality #5: Other people will always be in your photos.

Taking a nice family photo became an impossible task. It got to a point where I gave up and stopped caring that people kept walking in front of our camera. I then remembered that several people on Instagram had told me to go out before sunrise to take photos. We were jet lagged the entire time and I wasn’t going to wake up my exhausted 6 year old for a picture at dawn. So if you want a nice photo, you need to literally be out there before the sun.

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Despite all the people, I still like this picture

In the end, I am so thankful that I got to see Rome. I know that I am incredibly privileged to travel and see these amazing places, and even though I was met with some disappointments in this city, I was able to see this as a learning experience.

So what did I learn? My husband and I are a great team. When we realized asking for help was out of the question, we figured things out on our own. From the buses to the metro to the suburban trains, we had it down pretty well. We even jumped on a couple buses without being 100% sure of the destinations and quickly became very familiar with the streets.

I also learned, you don’t have to be completely in love with every place you visit, and there’s nothing wrong with that. We all have our preferences, and an awesome time for me might be completely boring to another person. We’re all different and because of our differences, I now know to choose our future destinations and activities based on our personalities, and not by the suggestion or pictures I see on social media.

We had a great time over all. We made amazing memories and have some funny stories to tell! But I think it will be a while before we go back to Rome… or possibly any city.

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We loved the food and all the desserts!

Rocky Mountain National Park

Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP) covers 415 square miles in northern Colorado. The park has 2 main entrances, one in Estes Park and another in Grand Lake. We took our first trip to this famous park in mid September and our timing was amazing. The weather was warm with a tinge of coolness and the Aspen trees were in full yellow bloom. The scenery was spectacular and if we ever make another visit, we’d prefer to return in the fall.

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Some basic info if you plan a visit:

We entered the park through the Estes Park entrance. From Colorado Springs, drive time is about 2-2 1/2 hours.

There are 5 campgrounds in the park and one campground is for tents only. Make reservations ahead of time!! It fills up fast.

It’s a National Park, therefore dogs are not allowed anywhere. Although I saw many people breaking that rule, we kept our dog in the car when we went outside to take pictures. We were unaware of this rule and decided not to hike within the park because we didn’t want to leave Jack unattended.

Entrance fees are the following:

  • Automobile – $20 and valid for seven consecutive days, including the date of purchase
  • Pedestrians, bicycles, motorcycles and mopeds – $10 per person, not to exceed $20 per vehicle. Valid for seven days including the date of purchase.

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We left Colorado Springs around 6:00 PM on a Friday night. Since we planned our trip last minute, per the reservation site, there was no availability in any of the campgrounds in the park. We decided to take our chances and try the Olive Ridge campground which is about 30 minutes outside of Estes Park and in the Roosevelt National Forest. Olive Ridge is located on Highway 7 along mile marker 14. Reservations are not required, so our tip is to get there early before the weekend campers get in. A camp host is available to pay the $16 fee and several vault toilets are spread out around the campground. It is bear country, so be aware of what you bring and how you are storing your food.

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When we arrived around 9 PM, we drove the loop around the campsite and found that there was no availability. This came as no surprise since it was a Friday night and campsites in Colorado tend to fill up quickly. As we exited, we did not find any signs that indicated parking along the road was prohibited. We didn’t have a tent to set up, so we parked in front of the information sign and quickly jumped inside of Bear. Falling asleep was an easy task and before we knew it, sunlight was beaming through the windows waking us up for the day.

We woke up around 7 AM and opened up the back of the trailer to make breakfast. While we grubbed on freshly made breakfast burritos and hot coffee, a camper on her way out stopped by to let us know that she was leaving for the day and that we should snag her campsite. I grabbed Riley and we quickly ran over to the vacant campsite while Clayton headed over to the camp host to pay for the spot. As soon as we arrived at the site, a car pulled up and asked if we were taking the spot. I apologized to the woman, but I was also thankful we got there a minute before her! Sprinting to the campsite sure paid off!

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Where we parked for the night.
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Breakfast burritos with “meat” and eggs in a spicy tortilla.

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Once we got settled, we met our campsite neighbor who told us there was a back entrance to RMNP that has access to several trails. We decided to head that way and found there was no entrance fee. We found a full parking lot of hikers and tourist, and a couple rangers that welcomed us into the park. When we talked to the rangers, they informed us that dogs are not allowed in the park and that we had to leave Jack in the car. That sure put a damper on our plans.

We decided we didn’t want to leave Jack, so we drove back out to the highway and found a trail just outside of RMNP. The Tahosa Valley Trail followed right along the National Park boundary and unfortunately, the National Park had the better trails and views. As beautiful as the scenery was, the trail followed right along Highway 7 which didn’t make for ideal hiking conditions. The last thing I want to hear while hiking is cars passing by.  As we hiked for about an hour, the trail eventually turned away from the road and began to incline towards the mountains. By this time, I had lost my motivation to continue on and the idea of a nap sounded better. We headed back to Olive Ridge where I immediately headed over to the hammock and fell asleep. By the time I woke up, it was time for dinner and smores by the fire. The day didn’t turn out as we had planned, but it was still a very good day.

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Since we were forced to change our hiking plans because of Jack, we decided the following day would be dedicated to sightseeing through RMNP. We woke up around 9, ran around the campsite and rode our bikes. We left the campground around 11 AM and drove to the Estes Park main entrance into RMNP.

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Some points of interest to look out for when heading towards Estes Park is Chapel on the Rock and The Stanley Hotel. Chapel on the Rock is located in Allenspark right along Highway 7. In 1993, Pope John Paul II visited and blessed the chapel. There were pictures of the Pope located inside and we found that pretty exciting. As we drove through Estes towards RMNP, we passed the famous Stanley Hotel which is known for it’s paranormal activity and inspiring Stephen King to write “The Shining”. Although everyone told us we had to visit The Stanley and do a ghost tour, there were just too many people! I asked Clayton to pull over so that I could take a quick photo of the hotel. A tour of The Stanley would have to wait for another day, preferably on a weekday!

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The Stanley

We spent the next few hours driving through the park on Trail Ridge Road (one of America’s most scenic drives) and stopping at the various pull outs to look at the view and take photos. The park was extremely packed because it was the weekend. We often found ourselves behind a long line of cars and having difficulty finding parking at the pullouts and at the gift shops. As we started to make our descent through the end of the park, we also started getting really hungry. Luckily, we found a large picnic area that was completely empty. Since we had the whole parking lot to ourselves, we parked and set up our chairs. It was so quiet, peaceful, and scenic. Just the perfect place to have lunch.  After about an hour, we packed up and continued our way out of the park. Lucky for us, just as we approached the exit, we saw elk grazing in the field. When we exited, we found ourselves in Grand Lake. We were in complete awe by the lake and the Aspens. How lucky were we to experience the “gold rush”. Fall in Colorado is one of the most beautiful experiences I’ve ever had!

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Grand Lake

Overall, a scenic and relaxing weekend. Although our plans for strenuous hikes and exploration through the forest didn’t go as planned, I actually enjoyed the change of pace. I was grateful for the beautiful views, and the opportunity for quality time and relaxation with the boys. My advice if you plan on visiting RMNP: make camping reservations, visit in the fall, and leave the dogs at home.

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