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RTW Trip Summary

Length: 348 days

Continents: Europe, Asia, Australia, and Africa (if you count Egypt)

Number of countries: 25 (28 with Vatican City, Monaco, and San Marino)

Favorite country: Italy

Favorite mode of transport: a scooter in Vietnam and Indonesia

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Favorite food:

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Italy

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Thailand

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India

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France

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Indonesia

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Japan (dishes above from my cooking class)

Best drinks: coffee in Italy and Vietnam, cardamom/masala chai in India, beer in Czech, wine in Australia

Best hike: 12 days on the Annapurna Circuit in Nepal

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Thorong La Pass at 17,769 feet

Worst hike: Mt. Ngauruhoe in New Zealand, aka Mt. Doom from the Lord of the Rings movies

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Really steep, and we stupidly started going up the scree (1 step forward, 2 steps back) instead of along the ridge. Plus we lost each other at the end.

Favorite animal encounters:

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Australia – You won’t find animals like kangaroos, duck-billed platypuses, and echidnas anywhere else in the world. Scott’s favorite Australian animal is the wombat on the left (or else his koala neighbor); mine is the Tasmanian devil on the right.

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Riding camels in India

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Hanging out with penguins in New Zealand

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Caring for elephants in Thailand

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Monkeys galore in Nepal, India, and Indonesia

Most impressive structures:

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Taj Mahal

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Temples in Bagan

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The Parthenon in Athens

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Pyramids of Giza

Favorite museum: Te Papa Tongarewa in New Zealand

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I think the British Museum could have beaten Te Papa if we had had longer to spend there, and the Louvre was a close runner-up.

Prettiest cities:

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Kyoto

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Venice

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Ghent

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Paris

Number of times robbed: 0

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…unless you count the cookie monster in India

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Whoa, We Saw the Pyramids

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Scott and the Sphinx

From Istanbul, we had toyed with visiting other parts of Turkey like Cappadocia, but since it was mid-November we instead decided to buy tickets at the last minute to warmer Egypt. We spent four days in Cairo gawking at the Pyramids of Giza and stuffing ourselves with cheap, delicious food.

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It was pretty darn cool to see the only one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World still remaining. It’s crazy that the Egyptians built these pyramids over 4000 years ago. Or maybe it really was the aliens…

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In front of the Pyramid of Khafre

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Passageways lined by steep ladders led deep underground to the tombs where mummies and treasure used to lie. And I got to say, “I’m in a pyramid!” (We have a weird running joke where I say, “I’m in a fort!” when in a fort)

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We also took a picture of touching the Pyramid of Khufu in the same way that we saw dozens of people do at the Taj Mahal. We told ourselves that we did it ironically, but I think we’re just dorky and found it funny.

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Picture of the street from our hostel window

Scott loved being in Egypt. It had been a long time since we had been in a developing country, and it reminded us a lot of India. Scott enjoyed the vibrancy of life in Egypt, but I quickly grew tired of Cairo’s crowds, traffic, incessant honking past midnight, blow-your-nose-and-it’s-black pollution, and shysters who kept trying to wring Egyptian pounds out of us. I think what Scott especially loved with all his cheapskate frugal heart were the amazing food prices, some of which were on the same level with India (i.e. even cheaper than southeast Asia). The picture above shows the chain restaurant Gad across the street from our hostel, which we must have gone to at least five times.

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There we got falafel sandwiches (pita bread filled with falafel, veggies, and tahini) and fuul sandwiches (with mashed fava beans similar to how Mexicans prepare refried beans) for 1.25 Egyptian pounds each. Considering 1 dollar is worth a little over 6 Egyptian pounds, that meant each sandwich cost 20 cents. And this was at a pretty nice restaurant, so I imagine it’d be even cheaper as street food. Our first night in Cairo, Scott ordered three sandwiches there after already having eaten dinner on the plane, and I tried to stop him from buying so many, but he said he had to order three because they totaled 60 cents, and he just couldn’t pass that up. To his credit, he did manage to finish them, although he was pretty stuffed afterward.

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The fresh pita bread was delicious. We constantly saw people on bicycles carrying large trays of pitas on their heads from the ovens where they had just been baked to the street stands where they would be sold.

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We stuck our heads into one shop where they were churning out fresh, hot pitas hoping to buy a couple. One guy immediately decided to give us a tour around the shop and showed us every step of how they were made. He had pretty decent English, but he used the phrase, “My name is,” to mean “The name of this is,” and so he pointed out different objects in the shop as “My name is oven,” and looked at me and asked Scott, “My name is wife?”

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We were given some tea, too. Afterwards, we were offered pitas at 2 Egyptian pounds per pita, which we knew was at least ten times the normal price (Scott had bought 4 or 5 pitas for 1 pound at a stand the day before), but when a massive overcharge is still 30 cents a pita, we were happy to buy a couple and give the guy a little extra for showing us around.

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Another popular Egyptian dish that we liked was kushari, which is macaroni, rice, lentils, and chickpeas topped with tomato sauce and fried onions with a splash of something spicy. Not terribly exciting, but hearty and filling and a nice vegetarian option – look for big metal vats to find where it’s sold.

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We also loved the mango ice cream from a dessert shop across the street from our hostel. It was chock full of real mango and wonderfully creamy. I have to say that it even rivaled Italian gelato, except that two scoops of this stuff in Egypt cost less than a dollar.

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In addition to food, the huge bazaars sold everything you could possibly want to buy, but I found it a little scary to navigate through the crowds. A lot of people tried to pass through the narrow lanes carrying large loads on their backs or carts, and the way they announced their presence was to hiss like a snake from behind. If I didn’t hear it in time, I could get knocked around by a bunch of bulging blankets.

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But hey, at least I didn’t get run over by a truck full of blankets. Egypt was an exciting way to spend the last week of our trip before we went back to the comforts of home. Since we had such limited time in Cairo, we didn’t have a chance to visit its huge Egyptian Museum, but at least we had an overnight layover in London before going home, and we got to spend a whirlwind hour in the British Museum, which has a completely ridiculous Egyptian collection. Not only did they have a crazy number of mummies and giant Egyptian heads and sculptures, they also had the Rosetta Stone. And seeing the Parthenon sculptures there was pretty neat after visiting Athens. After way too short of a time in London, Scott flew to Grand Rapids to be with his family while I flew to LA to be with mine. I’ll write more soon on what it was like to go on a trip like this and how it feels to be back home.

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Turkish Delights

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Nina in Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar

Istanbul can be a little tough for vegetarians with doner kebab on every corner, but they sure know how to do desserts well.

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My favorite sweet was the Turkish delight, chewy little squares with pistachios in a variety of flavors and colors. I liked the ones made with honey better than the ones with just sugar.

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Scott ate a lot of baklava, thin layers of pastry dough sandwiched between chopped pistachios and soaked in honey. I couldn’t eat that much of it, though, because it’s so sweet.

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Dondurma, or Turkish ice cream, contains orchid root, which is a thickener that gives it a dense, elastic texture and allows it to stiffly hold its shape without melting (see the picture above). Ice cream vendors will often perform little shows with the ice cream that take advantage of its unique properties.

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Even better is dondurma with helva, ice cream covered with a warm, dense confection made with semolina flour, sugar, and pine nuts.

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I loved sutlac, baked rice pudding. I know the top looks a little weird since it’s blackened from being broiled, but I thought it was delicious.

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If you get thirsty from all the street food, you can easily pick up a cup of fresh-squeezed carrot/grapefruit/pomegranate/apple/mixed juice from a juice stand. A small cup goes for 1 Turkish lira, or about 50 cents (pomegranate is more).

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Turkish pizza is pretty popular, too. For meat eaters, it often comes with a spicy minced meat topping. It has a long boat shape with light, crispy dough, especially good when it comes right out of the oven although it’s often sold as street food.

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Cig kofte, or spicy “raw meatballs,” probably wins the award for Most Misleading Name for a Vegetarian Food. It used to be made from raw meat, but when this was banned, most vendors switched to making it out of bulgur instead yet kept the name. Scott likened the taste to Taco Bell meat (I think he meant this positively?) and it’s often sold with veggies in a wrap.

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There are other vegetarian dishes that actually look vegetarian as well. I got a veggie platter with grilled vegetables and yogurt (the oblong shape above is an eggplant), and there are lots of salads and eggplant dishes in Turkish cuisine.

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One of our favorite places to wander was the open-air market near Galata Bridge. Crowded stalls sold tubs of olives, dried fruit (try the huge figs), nuts, dried fruits stuffed with nuts, loose leaf tea, spices, Turkish delights, baklava, gifts, knicknacks, knockoff clothes….pretty much anything you could imagine. Interspersed among the stalls were restaurants and street vendors selling roasted chestnuts, salep (a sweet hot drink made with orchid powder), sesame rings, and Turkish pizza.

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Scott kept returning to the cheese shops there to get what looked like string cheese, a mild and fibrous cheese.

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Oh, and we did do some other things besides just eat. That’s me in front of the impressive Blue Mosque.

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The inside was pretty impressive, too. After visiting a bunch of Christian churches and Buddhist temples on our trip, it was interesting to see the complete lack of sculptures or portraits of people or animals (to avoid idolatry). Instead, the interior was decorated with stained glass and mosaics with intricate geometric designs and Arabic calligraphy quoting from the Koran.

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Istanbul has a rich history as the capital of the Byzantine empire (when it was Constantinople) and then as the capital of the Ottoman empire. When we first got to the old city, we’d come across a large mosque, and I’d ask Scott, “Is that the Blue Mosque or Hagia Sophia?” and he’d answer, “No, that’s not even marked on the map.” The minarets and domes of numerous mosques towered over the landscape of the old city.

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I would recommend visiting the Topkapi Palace, the residence of the Ottoman Sultans for almost 400 years. Packed with relics and treasures, the extensive palace complex houses the Topkapi dagger (with 3 huge emeralds embedded in its hilt) and the 86-carat Spoonmaker’s Diamond. I hardly ever wear jewelry, and I was still captivated by the enormous jewels.

I think Scott was kind of disappointed with Istanbul because of higher prices than he had expected and the lack of vegetarian options, but I had a good time!

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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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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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