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Archive for the ‘Italy’ Category

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Our rental house in Soriano nel Cimino circled in white

You’ve probably realized by now how much we loved renting apartments in Europe. I’m going to write a post soon on why and how to find a good one, but this post of our favorites is mostly for us so that we can remember the great times we had in these apartments.

If you click on the city names, you’ll be taken to the current listings with more pictures and information in case you’re interested in staying there too. The prices I list are what we paid at the time, including any service charges and cleaning fees. The prices for some of them, especially the ridiculously cheap ones, have since gone up as they become more established and build up positive reviews, but there are always great deals to be had almost anywhere with some digging and luck. And most offer significant discounts for longer stays, whether a week or a month. These rentals are in no particular order since I found it too hard to rank them.

 

Flinders Chase National Park, Kangaroo Island ($62 USD a night, sleeps 4)

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I’ll start with the Postman’s Cottage, which is where the postman used to stay when he came to the western side of Kangaroo Island to deliver mail. Now it’s part of Flinders Chase National Park and rented out to visitors. I already gushed about the fun old-fashioned wood stove and other appliances here.

Favorite part: the koala we found sleeping in a neighboring tree

 

Budapest, Hungary ($47 a night for 6 nights, sleeps up to 4)

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I had to drag myself outside to go sightseeing because I loved this apartment so much. It was beautifully decorated and the friendly, helpful owner obviously put a lot of thought into making the experience as comfortable as possible for us. She also gave us a free bottle of Hungarian wine. The location right next to St. Stephen’s Cathedral was amazing.

Favorite part: high ceilings and huge old-fashioned European windows provided tons of light

 

Vienna, Austria (well, we booked that studio but the landlord gave us this bigger one for the same price of $63 a night for 2 nights)

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This apartment was spotlessly clean and full of gadgets, like the fancy TV and stereo system and the espresso machine (unfortunately without any espresso included).

Favorite part: The best gadget of all was the shower. Scott and I still talk about that shower. It had a built-in radio that you could tune while taking your shower and all sorts of features with different sprays and even a steam sauna function. Did I mention we loved that shower?

 

Bruges, Belgium ($29 a night for 4 nights, sleeps 2)

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The price we got on this cottage was pretty ridiculous for the area. Technically it was a little outside Bruges and required a car to get to, but even with having to rent a car it was cheaper than it would have been to stay inside Bruges without a car. It felt like our own little cottage out in the countryside with a pretty patio and garden, chickens out back who we fed all our leftover pasta to, friendly neighbors down the road, and big corn fields all around us. The owners even gave us Belgian chocolate, two beers, and a bag of cuberdons (a cone-shaped Belgian candy).

Favorite part: the idyllic setting

 

Paris, France ($53 a night for a week-long stay, sleeps 2)

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This was the first apartment rental of our trip so it holds a special place for us. It was a tiny studio but used its space very efficiently so it felt cozy instead of crowded. It felt like our own Parisian pied-à-terre.

Favorite part: its location in the heart of Latin Quarter on a street surrounded by open-air markets, bakeries, crepe stands, and restaurants

 

Autrans, France near the French Alps ($39 a night for 3 nights, sleeps 4)

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Autrans is a picturesque little village that comes alive during the ski season. We were way too early for snow, but we enjoyed the wooden paneling and rustic ski chalet feel of our cottage (on the far corner with the white car in the picture above). The people there were incredibly friendly, and the owner introduced us to all of his family and eagerly showed us around. He was so excited to give us six fresh eggs from his own chickens that he dropped the egg carton and broke all of them while trying to put them in the fridge. He gave us more, but what a waste of delicious eggs! You can read more about our stay in Autrans and Burgundy here.

Favorite part: proximity to the hikes in Vercors Regional Natural Park

 

St. Boil, France in Burgundy ($63 a night for 4 nights, sleeps 3)

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We rented a cottage in the Burgundy wine region that had been fully renovated but also incorporated details like stonework from the area that was thousands of years old. The owners were a chatty Belgian couple who gave us a couple of Belgian beers when we asked them for recommendations on where to go in Belgium later. They even made a polished YouTube video of their cottage that I’ve included below.

Favorite part: the amazing view of the vineyards for miles around

 

Florence, Italy ($36 a night for a bedroom and breakfast in a shared apartment with the owner)

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We mostly rented private apartments for ourselves, but I wish we had done more shared apartments after meeting our Italian host Daniele. He was incredibly nice and friendly, providing us a giant breakfast every morning (including vegetarian “cold cuts” for us) and making a fantastic dinner one night while we chatted with him and his girlfriend. He normally had free bikes to rent as well, but they had been stolen right before we arrived, so he even gave us a good bottle of wine and a box of Italian cookies as an apology.

Favorite part: getting to know Daniele

 

Soriano nel Cimino, Italy ($100 a night 2 bed/bath for 1 week, sleeps up to 6)

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This was definitely the fanciest place we stayed in as we had planned to share it with Scott’s mother and stepfather, but unfortunately their plans fell through and we ended up there by ourselves. It was beautifully designed by an architect with giant windows and a rooftop terrace. I’ve already talked about it quite a bit here.

Favorite part: the views of the medieval hill town

 

Naples, Italy ($52 a night for one week, sleeps 2)

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Our large apartment on the top floor had a terrace with olives, grapes, sage, and tumbling purple flowers and provided a great view of one of our favorite cities. The terrace was even connected to a cave (although they told us not to go inside because it was dangerous). Our neighbor was a dog we nicknamed “The Scruff” and down the street we could buy the best pizza we’ve ever had for $5. You can read more about our love of Naples here.

Favorite part: everything except the mosquitoes

 

So those were our ten favorite vacation rentals. We enjoyed a lot of others as well, but they didn’t quite make the top ten. Next up: a post on why we chose to rent places so often and how to find a good one.

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Discovering the Beauty of Italy

IMG_5706 Requisite shot in front of the leaning tower of Pisa

If you’ve read my previous posts about Venice and Soriano nel Cimino, you’re probably thinking that it’s a little late for me to be talking about how beautiful Italy is. But whether it was the spectacular artwork or picturesque streets or expansive landscapes, I couldn’t help being mesmerized by the beauty of Italy everywhere I looked.

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Michelangelo’s Pieta (St. Peter’s Basilica) and David (Accademia)

Since Italy was the birthplace of the Renaissance, I really enjoyed visiting some of the incredible art galleries like the Uffizi gallery and Borghese museum. I also waited in a long line and handed over $14 pretty much just to see David, knowing full well that the cost was tourist extortion (for example, the huge Louvre in Paris is the same price), but it was still worth it to see the magnificent 17-foot statue in person.

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Luckily, most of the churches in Italy were free to visit. St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome was particularly impressive – look at the guard in black standing on the left for a sense of scale. And the letters written on gold background across the top are seven feet tall.

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Galla Placidia Mausoleum in Ravenna

Ravenna isn’t a widely known tourist destination, but it has no less than eight 5th and 6th century monuments with detailed mosaics on the UNESCO World Heritage List. My favorite was the Galla Placidia mausoleum because the ceilings are low enough to get a really close view of the mosaics.

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Piazza in Lucca

Aside from the fantastic art, there are so many cities in Italy that are lovely to just walk around in. With only my cheap point and shoot camera, I often wasn’t able to capture the buildings and streets the way I wanted to, but the lighting around sunset in the Tuscan town of Lucca helped some of my (actually, mostly Scott’s) pictures out.

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Many Italian cities had old city walls surrounding them, but Lucca’s are some of the most intact, and walking around on top of them provided nice views.

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Wall surrounding Lucca

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But this pretty street in Lucca was just one of the many pretty streets we saw in Italy (see pictures below).

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Street in Florence

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Near a bridge in Verona

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Nina walking down a street in Bologna

We thought Bologna was especially beautiful from our two short visits there. Its arcades are said to cover almost 40 kilometers of its sidewalks, perfect for when it’s raining.

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Street in Ferrara

Thanks to the bikes our hotel provided for us, we could take advantage of the limited time we had in Ferrara to ride our bikes along its cobblestone lanes, through its central castle, and around its ancient medieval walls.

I’ll finish with San Marino, which is technically an independent republic, but since it’s the third smallest country in Europe at 24 square miles and completely surrounded by Italy, I’m going to throw it in here anyway. It’s known for its three towers built on the three peaks of Monte Titano. The towers are  wonderful to explore, providing great views of the little country, and easy to visit with a trail connecting them all.

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First tower

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Second tower

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Third tower

The third tower is the smallest, but a funny Italian woman insisted on taking a picture of us here. I feel kind of lame for not really touching on any of the Italian castles or churches or other historical buildings, but I can only spend so much time talking about Italy before I finally move on and talk about some of the other countries we visited. Next up: the French Riviera.

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Fresh spinach and ricotta ravioli from a small pasta shop in Soriano nel Cimino

I went to New Zealand for its landscapes and Cambodia for its temples, but what drew me most to Italy was its food. I’ve already mentioned my love of Italian desserts and Neapolitan pizza, but I think it’s time for a more general Italian food post. This is going to be a bit haphazard, though, because there are tons of regional variations and specialties within Italy, and this is just a random sampler of our time there.

 

Rimini

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Rimini is known for its piadina, a kind of unleavened flatbread either eaten plain or used as a sandwich filled with cheese and veggies. Instead of a bread basket, the above basket of piadina seasoned with salt and rosemary accompanied our meal in a Rimini restaurant.

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Nearby, a crowded takeout place offered piadina sandwiches and something similar to calzones, but thinner and grilled (I wish I could remember the name of these, because they were fantastic). About five ladies working in the small room whipped through the orders while the crowd of people waited patiently because they knew it would be awesome.

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I got a piadina sandwich with arugula and squacquerone (a mild, soft and spreadable cheese also common in Rimini) that was pretty good, but I jealously looked over at Scott devouring his stuffed calzone-like object with a thicker dough oozing cheese.

 

Ferrara

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This is the fanciest bread basket I ever got. I think there were six different types of bread, some of them typical ones from Ferrara. A definite improvement over some of the unsalted bread we got in Tuscany (Scott didn’t seem to mind the unsalted bread, but to me it tasted odd and bland unless I was eating it with cheese or olives).

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This dish was called cappellacci di zucca (a kind of pasta similar to ravioli stuffed with pumpkin) with a sage and butter sauce, a regional specialty of Ferrara. A really nice dish for autumn.

 

Verona

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This is bigoli con le sarde (a thick round noodle typical of Verona served with an anchovy sauce). The noodles were wonderfully dense and chewy.

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Scott once ordered polenta (cornmeal made into a thick porridge) topped with mushrooms and a soft cheese, but he was disappointed – I don’t think he was expecting this since polenta can be made in different ways. So I ate all of my pasta dish and then ate half of his polenta too because it was fantastic and he’s crazy. But to be fair, I do love corn and he definitely does not.

 

San Marino

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Technically San Marino is an independent republic (the third smallest country in Europe), but considering that it’s entirely within Italy, I’m going to throw in a picture of strozzapreti (a hand-rolled pasta typical of the region) with eggplant and tomato topped with pieces of ricotta cheese.

 

Wine bars

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We saw quite a few wine bars in Rome and Florence that in the evenings would offer an all-you-can-eat appetizer buffet and a glass of beer or wine for either a small cover charge or the price of a drink. Some of them offered a really nice spread and were a great value. The delicious assortment above is from the vegetarian bar BVeg in Florence, which also offered a good selection of craft beers.

 

Pasta and more pasta

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This tagliatelle (a thick, flat noodle) tossed with a variety of mushrooms in Ravenna seemed pretty simple but ended up being one of my favorite dishes in Italy. I tried to cook it for myself, too, but I didn’t ever find mushrooms that were quite as good (probably because I was too cheap to buy the expensive ones).

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While Scott and I were in a restaurant in Civita di Bagnaregio, we shared two dishes: pasta with black truffle and spaghetti with garlic and olive oil (pictured above). We were surprised by how much we liked the spaghetti, considering how plain it was. Scott even liked it better than the truffle dish. I think it was because the olive oil they used was so good, way more flavorful than a lot of the olive oil sold in the U.S. It really speaks to how much of the good food we had in Italy was because of its wonderful ingredients. I also cooked a fair amount while we were in Italy because the fresh pasta and cheese and vegetables and olives from the local stores and outdoor markets were so good. Both the dense handmade pasta from the pasta shops and the tubs of creamy ricotta and balls of buffalo mozzarella from the cheese shops were often made fresh daily. I ate pasta pretty much every day.

 

Wine

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Scott could tell you a lot more about the different Italian wines he tried, but all I know is that the generic wine “juice boxes” as we called them were perfect for picnics and not nearly as bad as you’d think. Scott also bought plenty of bottles of wine from different regions and vino sfuso from the local wine shops (where they store local wine in kegs and sell them by the liter, filling up plastic bottles for you).

 

Coffee 

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Since we mostly rented apartments in Italy, we often made espresso for ourselves in the morning with the small espresso makers that most places provided. However, if we wanted a little pick-me-up in the afternoons, it was easy to pop into one of the omnipresent cafés and have an espresso at the counter. They often provided a small glass of carbonated water with it for you to rinse your mouth with afterwards.

 

So that’s just a sample of some of the delicious food we had in Italy. On occasion, we did look up and seek out specific restaurants, but it’s hard to go too wrong when eating in Italy.

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A Glimpse of Ancient Rome

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Roman forum in Rome

Scott learned Latin in high school for his foreign language requirement, which hasn’t been very useful on this trip, but he did hear a lot of stories about the Roman empire that made him excited to finally visit Rome fifteen years later. As you might expect, when in Rome we roamed around Rome quite a bit. Ha, I know that was terrible, but when else am I going to take advantage of this blog’s title?

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One of the first things we did was check out Ostia Antica, the ancient Roman port town just outside Rome that was abandoned when the Tiber river changed its course. It’s not quite as big and impressive as Pompeii, but it was much less crowded and easier to explore with fewer restricted areas.

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We had a picnic of bread, cheese, olives, and wine on the steps of the Roman amphitheater.

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We wandered around the old marketplace, whose floors were covered in mosaics that showed what the vendors there used to sell.

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We went to a tavern where Scott tried to order a couple beers.

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And within Rome itself are ruins that they’re still excavating and learning more about (apparently scholars have recently discovered the exact spot where Julius Caesar was killed).

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There’s something about the juxtaposition of old and new in Rome that I love. Sure, there are the deservedly famous huge ancient attractions, but you can often stumble across the remnant of a wall or statue thousands of years old just as you wander the streets of modern Rome.

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Oh, and it’s hard to miss the huge Colosseum.

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I had a strong urge to rewatch the movie Gladiator after visiting the Colosseum. Yes, I realize the movie is not that historically accurate. It probably says something warped about me that I felt the same way after visiting New Zealand (Lord of the Rings) and Sydney, Australia (Finding Nemo).

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My favorite building in Rome is the Pantheon below.

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Built in 126 AD, this Roman-temple-turned-Catholic-church has the world’s largest unreinforced concrete dome, which provided the inspiration for countless other domes we see today. The oculus (hole at the top of the dome) is completely open – when it’s raining, the rain comes in and drains through holes in the floor of the church. I bet it would be neat to see snow coming down through the oculus on the rare occasions that it snows in Rome.

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Palatine Hill at sunset

Having grown up in Los Angeles, I’m constantly amazed by the history of cities like Rome and how old some of the ruins that we can still see are. Rome was one of the first places I ever visited outside of the U.S., and it was just as breathtaking the second time around a decade later.

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Savoring Naples

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Naples with Mt. Vesuvius in the background

Nina: I’m going to ask you a question, and you’ll have five seconds to answer.

Scott: Uh, ok.

Nina: If you had to live abroad, where would you live? 5, 4, 3, 2,–

Scott: Naples!

Nina: Really?

Scott: Nah, probably somewhere in Indonesia.

First of all, don’t worry, mom, we’re not planning to live abroad, at least not anytime soon. Second, we’re obviously running out of interesting things to talk about since that was our conversation a couple of days ago. But the point I’m trying to get to (eventually) is that we loved Naples. After an hour on the high-speed train from Rome, we stepped out onto the streets of Naples and immediately felt like we were in a different country.

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We noticed right away that the prices seemed a lot better. Freshly baked little pizzas for $1.25? Yes, please!

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The little pizzas are good for a snack on the go, but you should probably hold off for the larger regular pizzas (yep, you should eat an entire one by yourself), which are still a great deal for about 3-5 euros. Naples arguably has the best pizza in Italy (and possibly the world). A Neapolitan pizzaiolo (a pizza-maker who has trained for at least 2-3 years) will take a small ball of dough, flatten it out with just his hands, spread a generous amount of tomato sauce on it, throw a few pieces of fresh mozzarella, a dash of olive oil, and a piece of basil on top, stretch the dough with his hands just so to create a thin pizza with a thick outer crust, and then stick it in a crazy hot 900 degree wood-fired oven for about one minute, maybe turning it once. The entire process takes less than two minutes and yet somehow creates the most amazing pizza you’ve ever eaten.

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There are just a few ingredients, but the sweet San Marzano tomatoes grown on the volcanic soil of Mt. Vesuvius, the fresh buffalo mozzarella made with milk from semi-wild Campania water buffalo, and the high-quality extra virgin olive oil found all over Italy lend it something special. A well-cooked Neapolitan pizza has a thin, crispy crust in the center and a thick, chewy crust on the outside. The fresh buffalo mozzarella, unlike the drier aged cow’s milk mozzarella used on pizzas in the U.S., creates chunks of chewy mozzarella amidst the tomato sauce turned creamy from the liquid seeping out of the mozzarella. Of course, this soupy mixture also means you’re likely to make a mess, but just embrace it. We spent eight days in Naples, and before arriving, Scott had said that he wanted to have at least one pizza a day. By the last day, he was disappointed he had only had nine pizzas during our stay (actually more if you count the mini pizzas he also had) because he had changed his goal to ten pizzas! I’m actually not the hugest fan of pizza and didn’t have nearly that many, but I have to admit they were pretty darn good. Our favorite pizzerias were Da Michele (even though they don’t use buffalo mozzarella), Di Matteo, and Starita, but there were a ton of other pizzerias that were also really good – we didn’t get a chance to try Sorbillo but hope to when we visit Naples again.

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And of course there’s more to Naples than just pizza. Scott found us a lovely apartment on the top floor of a building with a balcony overflowing with purple flowers and a garden that included an olive tree, climbing grapes, and sage that I used in my pasta. The picture above is of the view from the inside of the apartment, and the picture below is of the outside of our apartment building (you can barely see the glass window above the huge mass of purple flowers).

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We also made friends with a dog neighbor we nicknamed “The Scruff.”

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He liked to sit on the stoop of his house across the street from our building and look at what was going on in the street. The funny part was that he would start nodding off to sleep in the middle of the day while standing. The first time we saw him do it, we thought he was looking at something on the ground, but then we saw him stumble off the stoop as he fell too deeply asleep to maintain his stance. He looked around bewildered and then went back to his stoop.

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But I can understand why he wanted to stay awake out in the street. One of the things we loved about Naples was how vibrant it felt. The narrow streets were lined with tall, colorful buildings crammed together, with laundry hanging out of the balconies, people yelling up from the streets, and front doors and windows flung wide open in the evenings so that if you were walking by on the sidewalk, you could see right into people’s rooms while they were watching TV or eating dinner. The motorcyclists could drive pretty aggressively, but it was hard to get too upset when you noticed a cute poodle sticking his head out the side of the motorcycle. I asked an older man in Italian if he knew where a restaurant was, and he immediately responded in Italian, “Well, I hope you understand Italian because I don’t speak any English,” and without really waiting for an answer, started a monologue in Italian for several minutes about how wonderful the restaurant was and gesturing wildly, directing most of it to Scott even though Scott had no idea what the guy was saying.

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There are also some nice day trips out of Naples. We rode the bus down the nearby Amalfi coast, which was gorgeous, but the narrow, winding coastal road made us feel a little sick along the way. Once we got off in the town of Amalfi, we went on a pretty hike through lemon groves and forested hills, which felt a lot better than taking the bus.

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Amalfi was packed with tourists, but we walked over to a neighboring town that was a lot less hectic.

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The other popular day trip is Pompeii, which is only a 30-minute train ride from Naples. Pompeii is the ancient Roman city that was engulfed by a volcanic eruption from Mt. Vesuvius (which you can see in the background behind the Roman Forum of Pompeii) in 79 A.D.

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The city is pretty well-preserved, and it was fascinating to wander around some of its old streets and imagine what it was like to live there. Check out the deep grooves in the streets from chariot wheels in the picture below.

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In the changing room of the main bathhouse, these small male statues look like they’re holding up the ceiling, but they’re really marking off the divisions to separate the storage “lockers.”

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Near the bathhouse, fast food joints sold food to the hungry people after their baths, with holes built into the countertops to hold the dishes.

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Naples isn’t a big tourist destination except to pass through briefly on the way to Pompeii or the Amalfi coast, but we ended up thoroughly enjoying our eight days there. The weather was perfect even during the end of October. We loved the energy of the city, and the hills provided some spectacular views of the Bay of Naples and Mt. Vesuvius. I can understand why some people wouldn’t like Naples or find it “gritty,” as Rick Steves puts it, but for us, the noise and weaving motorcycles just reminded us of southeast Asia. Next time we go to Italy, we’d like to keep going further south and make it down to Sicily. That is, at least after Scott has had another pizza from Naples.

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Soriano nel Cimino

I like Paris quite a bit, but what truly amazed me in France was the countryside in Vercors and Burgundy as we drove through an endless string of one ridiculously picturesque village after another. It’s easy to get caught up in visiting just the big-name cities we all recognize when planning a trip to Europe, but not visiting any of the smaller towns is like judging the U.S. only based on New York City and skipping the national parks.

So you’re planning to go to Italy, and you’ve seen the movie Under the Tuscan Sun so you want to visit some cute towns in Tuscany…well, with all the authority that I can muster after spending just a week in Tuscany, may I suggest going somewhere you’ve never heard of instead? Of course there’s nothing wrong with visiting Tuscan cities like Florence to see amazing art and walk through pretty streets, but once you’re ready to go out into the countryside and relax in a peaceful medieval town away from the crowds, don’t choose the same ones that everyone goes to. Sure they’re pretty, but they’re also packed with tourists, with matching English tourist menus with inflated tourist prices. Instead, go somewhere in Tuscany that’s less famous, or visit its less-visited neighboring region Umbria, or even better, Lazio, a little further to the south. The secret is that there are a huge number of pretty medieval towns in Italy, and most of them are far less touristy than the handful that most visitors go to.

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View from our terrace

We didn’t really understand this secret before going to Italy, but we got really lucky that Scott had found an amazing place to rent in Soriano nel Cimino, a medieval town that we (and probably you) had never heard of before in the Lazio region north of Rome.

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The house we rented for a week is underneath the castle and circled in white in the picture above. It was beautifully designed by an architect and filled with sunlight, a huge place with three floors (two bedrooms, two bathrooms, an open kitchen with a dining area and living room, a separate sitting room, and upstairs study) plus a spacious terrace. The dining table alone looked like ten people could easily sit around it. We had hoped to share the house with Scott’s mother and stepfather, but unfortunately they had to cancel their trip at the last minute. We were really disappointed to miss seeing them and sharing this experience with them. It felt outrageously decadent to be in a place like that for just the two of us, kind of like when I eat too much dessert and I’m thinking to myself this-is-amazing-but-is-this-really-good-for-me? Scott and I each took a different bedroom and bathroom (since we normally spend every minute of the day together), and I complained whenever Scott snuck into my bathroom and left the toilet seat up.

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Sitting room with a view (my bedroom also had a similar giant window and view)

The crazy part was that it was only 560 euros for the week, which, especially split among the six people the place can fit, is a great deal. We thought this place was better than staying at the Bali Hyatt or Sheraton Imperial Kuala Lumpur (hotels that normally cost way more but that we stayed in for free on this trip thanks to hotel points that Scott earned as a consultant years ago). In fact, it might even be the best place we’ve stayed in during our entire trip this year, with the possible exception of Postman’s Cottage in Kangaroo Island, Australia, since it is hard to beat having a koala for a neighbor.

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Here’s a snapshot of the view from our terrace, and the video below shows you the panoramic view:

And it wasn’t just the house that we loved; the town itself had all sorts of nooks and crannies to explore.

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I think normally Soriano nel Cimino is pretty quiet, but we happened to stay there during their chestnut festival, the biggest festival of the year. The two-week extravaganza sure seemed to involve a lot more than just chestnuts, including medieval flags lining the streets, performances by people dressed in medieval costumes, big temporary tavernas selling hearty meals, and of course, vendors selling freshly roasted chestnuts. The town had a friendly rivalry among its four districts, which competed in events like jousting and archery.

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Big crowds, made up mostly of Italians from nearby parts of Italy, came into town to watch the performances.

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The San Giorgio district put on a performance where San Giorgio (St. George) slayed a dragon whose eyes lit up and spewed smoke out of its mouth. I didn’t really know what was going on but it was still pretty impressive.

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The festival was fun, but my favorite part was just walking around town during the day when not much was going on – seeing old guys hanging out on the stoop, chatting with our neighbor (that is, only understanding half of what she said since only spoke Italian) while her little dog Paulina jumped up to be petted, and shopping at the open-air market.

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These are some beautiful zucchini blossoms I picked up at a market for less than a euro. Before visiting Italy, I had no idea that zucchinis even had blossoms on their ends. I think the most common way of eating them is to stuff and then deep-fry them, but my Italian neighbor advised me to just toss them in a pan with some vegetables. I ended up sticking them in a pasta dish with other veggies and they were pretty good – they tasted like flowers with a subtle zucchini flavor. Ok, that’s probably not a very helpful description.

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In Italy, not only do their supermarkets generally have a good selection of fresh pasta, but there are also cute little pasta shops where all they sell is the pasta they made by hand fresh that day. The picture above is of bici, big noodles thicker than spaghetti, and below are spinach and ricotta ravioli.

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There also happened to be a Sicilian pastry shop in town. We were surprised not to see any cannoli in the display case, but when we asked the worker behind the counter about them, he filled a couple of cannoli shells with ricotta filling and handed them over. We went back the next day and the same worker immediately greeted us with a smile and asked, “Cannoli?”

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You’re probably thinking that we just got lucky in finding a pretty medieval town without really knowing anything about it (which we were), but we drove to some of the nearby towns, too, and took some pictures there.

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Vitorchiano

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Vitorchiano with castle

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Moai statue near Vitorchiano

We were curious about this statue just standing by the side of the road during one of our drives and snapped a few photos. Later we found out that in 1987, eleven people indigenous to Easter Island went to Italy and carved a 30-ton volcanic stone with hand axes and stones to create this Moai statue.

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View from the top of the castle in Montefiascone overlooking Lake Bolsena

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Eroding town of Civita di Bagnoregio, accessible only by footbridge

I didn’t include pictures of some of the other pretty places we visited like Bagnaia and Viterbo, and many of the towns we loved were unplanned stops along a drive. Plus we didn’t have a chance to make it to a ton of other small, pretty towns we wanted to see within half an hour’s drive, but you get the idea. Italy is packed with beauty and history, and it’s hard to go too wrong when finding a place to stay.

Pick a region in Italy that appeals to you for whatever reason – rolling vineyards, Etruscan ruins, medieval walls, an ocean view – and don’t be afraid to wander off the beaten track a little bit, enjoy a gelato in the piazza, and watch the world (and probably a lot of cute Italian dogs) go by.

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Blueberry and grapefruit sorbetto on a bridge in Florence

As we’ve traveled, I’ve come to appreciate just how good a lot of the ethnic food in the U.S. really is. However, as good as a lot of ice cream is in the U.S., there is no substitute for Italian gelato from a great gelateria (ice cream shop). There are gelaterie here that will make a wide array of gelato fresh daily without any artificial flavorings or colors. The ice cream is incredibly creamy, thanks to the high butterfat content, and full of flavor, with entire hazelnuts to crunch in the hazelnut ice cream and real chunks of pear in the pear ice cream. It may not look like much, but the pistachio ice cream that’s a dull brown-green color is made with real pistachios and much better than the fake bright green stuff you find in the U.S.

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My favorite gelateria was La Sorbetteria Castiglione in Bologna, where I had the gelato pictured above. The bottom flavor is rice, but I forget if the top flavor is Cremino Ludovico (with hazelnut and caramel) or Cremino Guglielmo (mascarpone, coffee, and chocolate chips). I went there a couple of times so I forget which one was in the picture! I’ve enjoyed the huge range of flavors available in Italy, including black sesame, tea, ricotta, coconut, fior di latte (literally “flower of milk,” which tastes like cream) made from buffalo milk, and fruits like apple, blueberry, and grapefruit. Scott doesn’t eat that much gelato, but he had tiramisu-flavored gelato recently that he really liked.

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My weakness is gelato; Scott’s weakness is cannoli, a cylindrical fried pastry shell filled with sweet ricotta filling. This one pictured above from Lucca came with pistachio, chocolate, and orange peel in it. Upon discovering that cannoli is from Sicily (which we didn’t have a chance to visit on this trip), Scott sure seemed to talk a lot more about going to visit Sicily in the future. Look for Italian bakeries that will fill them fresh for you if you want to avoid a soggy shell.

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Speaking of ricotta, I’ve been eating sfogliatelle in Naples, a pastry filled with orange-flavored sweet ricotta. The kind above is riccia (with “curly” layers), unlike the smooth and soft frolla kind below.

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I personally like the riccia better because of its hard crunchy shell.

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So this panna cotta may not look that good after a 20-minute walk inside an aluminum takeout container and covered in a dark fruit sauce, but it was fantastic. Panna cotta is made by simmering together milk, cream, sugar, and gelatin. It looks like flan but tastes less eggy (since it doesn’t have eggs) and more like solid whipped cream. Toppings can include chocolate, caramel, or fruit. Yum.

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Since we were in Italy in October and staying in Soriano nel Cimino (a lovely little medieval village north of Rome) during its big chestnut festival, it was only fitting to try the monte bianco at one of the restaurants there, a chestnut puree with chocolate topped with fresh whipped cream and cinnamon.

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Assortment of pastries from a bakery in Verona

Really you can’t go too wrong with just walking into a bakery and choosing a little bit of this and that of whatever looks good. Oftentimes items are sold by the etto (100 grams) or kilo, but no one’s minded when I only buy one small piece of something. I actually had no idea what the names of the pastries I chose above were, but all of them were delicious.

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