Friday, November 19, 2010

Sweet Corsica

After a day of rain and wind in Lucca and Pisa, I awoke to this.  As Candace Olson loves to say on HGTV, "How divine."

Ajaccio, Corsica, has to be one of the most blissful towns on the planet.  Yep, mark it down as another place where I'd be content to settle for several months or even years.  Napoleon Bonaparte, who was born just a few blocks inland from this pier, is known to have said on more than one occasion that he'd know he was on the island of Corsica by the smell alone.  I believe it.  The island is full of rosemary, juniper, heather, thyme, and a variety of other aromatic plants that combine with the ocean air to make each breath intoxicating.  

Since the day we arrived just happened to be Napoleon's birthday, numerous parades and celebrations were scheduled.  A market (yippee!) was also being held near Ajaccio's main square, so I decided to wander through and shop.  I sampled local honey and nougat, perused dozens of tables of fruits, vegetables, spices, locally handcrafted jewelry, and soap.  Doesn't it look fantastic?  I loved the hat on the guy in the second photo.  To me, he looked like he'd walked straight off a postcard.

After spending our Euros in the market, the DH and I walked a few blocks to Napoleon's birthplace for a quick tour.  Quite a bit of the original furniture is in the house, there was a ton of information on how the family lived, and there was also a special, limited-time display of Corsican clothing from the era.  I love seeing historical clothing, so that was a special treat.  Unable to temper my writing research habit, I took copious notes and photographs.  

And check out Napoleon's bedroom.  The bed's original, but my guess is that he didn't have the torchiere lamp.

Once we were back outdoors, we debated going for coffee or walking toward the parade route.  When I saw these two heading toward the parade, though, I decided to follow.  

The closer we got to the beach, the more costumed men we saw.  It felt, for the next few hours, as if we'd truly stepped back in time to Napoleon's Corsica.  After the parade, we grabbed coffee and ice cream at a nearby cafe, went through the Musee Fesch (filled with art at one time owned by Napoleon's uncle, Cardinal Joseph Fesch), then walked along the beach.

After making one last pass through the market so I could purchase some vervain soap I'd seen earlier, we made our way back to the ship for what proved to be a highlight of our trip, a fireworks show to celebrate Napoleon's birthday.  We may have had the best viewing spot on the island.  

Now that I've fallen in love with Corsica, I've decided I must set a book there.  Not sure when it'll happen, but it will.

Next, the final stop:  Villefranche.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Italy, Day Three: Lucca and Pisa

Our third port in Italy was in the beautiful town of La Spezia.  Of course, I'd gotten on an up-before-sunrise schedule, so here's the sunrise shot of the day:

While it doesn't have the charm of some of Italy's more touristy waterfront towns--there was a naval ship in the harbor, and there are high rise apartments all over, rather than cute old homes--La Spezia's waterfront boasts a beautiful garden area.  We booked a private driver to take us to the medieval town of Lucca, rather than joining the ship's tour to Florence (I've been to Florence before, and couldn't envision spending two hours each way on a bus to try to cram the city's sites into one short day.)  Since we made it to the dock well ahead of our scheduled meeting with the driver, we walked around La Spezia and enjoyed the gardens.  It was the last bit of outdoor time we had before it started pouring rain!

I even tortured myself by perusing the town's real estate ads.  Someday...maybe!  Once we met our driver, he took us to the beautiful walled city of Lucca.  I'd never been to Lucca, but being history geek and the House Hunters International geek that I am, I loved the episode that was set in Lucca and looked forward to seeing the town for myself.  On the way, we went through the city of Carrara, famous for its marble, and looked at the hillsides where Michelangelo had selected the blocks he used to make some of his famous statues.  By the time we reached Lucca it was raining, but our driver had us covered (literally...he brought umbrellas for everyone, and he managed to park in a spot that was close to everything we wanted to see, so we'd spend less time hiking around in the rain.)  If you are ever in Florence, or are arriving at the ports of Livorno or La Spezia, and you're considering hiring a driver to take you around the area, consider this an A+ recommendation for Tuscan Sunshine Tours.  I travel a lot, and Franco's one of the best drivers and tour guides I've ever had the joy of meeting.  He has an easygoing personality--just what you want when you're on the go all day--and an amazing knowledge of and love for the region.  He offers a number of tours in and around Florence.  (If I'm back there again, I'm calling Franco!)

We spent the morning walking around Lucca, admiring its many cathedrals.  Even with the rain, the city is breathtaking.  Every time you turned a corner in the alleyways of the walled portion of the city, you saw another cathedral.

We walked through the Piazza Anfiteatro, a restaurant-filled square that used to be a Roman amphitheater.  Over the years, as the ancient amphitheater fell into disrepair, homes and churcheswere built on its stone foundation.  On the exterior of the square (which is actually an oval shape, due to its original construction) you can see some of the ancient stonework from the amphitheater.

My photos of Lucca don't do it justice.  The narrow alleys, beautiful cathedrals, and quaint shops are--to me--Italy at its finest.  I love poking my nose into little shops to see what's for sale.  This was one find, filled with all kinds of olive oils, wines, local mushrooms and tomatoes, and--of course--locally made pasta.  If you click on the photo to see it enlarged, it'll make you hungry!  (You'll just need to click your browser's back button to return to the blog.)

Franco gave us some time to wander on our own, so we explored a few more alleys and shops before making our way back to the car.  He'd staked out a parking spot near the monthly antiques market (we lucked out to be there on the right day) which gave us a bonus spot to explore.

Franco took us through a few of the smaller hill towns, stopping at two overlooks to let us get a sense of the area around Lucca, and giving us the chance to see acres and acres of sunflowers (the area near Lucca is well-known as a supplier to many of Europe's flower markets.)  He answered all of our questions about the farms, and even showed us a spot in a medieval wall where capers were growing (who knew?)

Finally, we made a quick stop in Pisa to see the Field of Miracles.  By this time it was pouring rain--tourists were fighting with collapsed umbrellas--so we ducked into a restaurant for a quick pasta and pizza lunch in hopes of waiting out the storm.  It was still pouring when we finished eating, so I snapped a few quick photos of the tower (yep, it leans!) and Duomo before we hightailed it back to Franco's car.  Since I've been to Pisa before, it wasn't a big loss to give it a quick glance and move on, given the weather. 

Franco took us back to La Spezia along a scenic route through the area's towns, rather than on the crowded highway, which suited us fine.  We made it back to the ship in time to dry off and clean up for dinner.  (Thanks, Franco!)

No sunset pictures this time, since it was getting dark.  But just wait until the next stop:  Corsica!

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Italy, Day Two: Rome

There are two ways you can view the prospect of a day-long trip to Rome. The first way, which we found to be predominant on our cruise ship, is to panic at how much you want to do when you only have twelve hours in the city. The second way, which is my way, is to kick back and see what you can and leave the rest for another visit.

Here's the thing: I've been lucky enough to visit Rome four times in the last six years. On each of the previous three visits, I'd spent several days in Rome. I still haven't seen all there is to see in Rome. So why kill yourself trying to see it all in a day? Realize that you can't do it all, then focus on what you can reasonably do.

If there's one thing you've wanted to see your whole life--say, the Sistine Chapel ceiling, the Colosseum, or the Borghese Museum (I love the Borghese!)--then make that place your priority. If you finish with time to spare, move to the next thing. Or not. Rome is not a hurry-it-up place. I guarantee you, you'll have fun even if you're leisurely and miss most of the touristy sites.

Our cruise ship, like all cruise ships visiting Rome, docked at the port of Civitavecchia, which is about an hour away from the city. Rather than take a tourist bus from there to Rome, we took the port bus from the ship to where the (very long) pier meets land, then hopped off and walked a few blocks to the train station. Everyone in the station speaks English, and they're used to tourists asking how to get to Rome, so nabbing tickets on one of the frequent trains is easy. We got our tickets and were on board, heading into Rome, within forty minutes of getting off the ship. I loved seeing the coast and the villages on the way in--views that I think are better than those you get from a highway.  In many cases, given Roman traffic, the trains are faster than the busses, too.

Once in Rome, we took the Metro to the Colosseum. I've been there before, but I love walking through the Colosseum and looking across at the Roman Forum and Palatine Hill from one of the Colosseum's upper levels.

On this trip, we did a Rick Steves Audio Tour of the Colosseum, which we'd downloaded onto our iPods before leaving home.  The audio tour was easy to follow and worked out fine.

Another option--one I HIGHLY recommend if it's your first time in Rome--is to spend the money and hire a private guide from Rome Walks. We did this on a previous visit and thought it was worth every penny and then some. The guide who met us on that visit was a graduate student from the University of New Hampshire who'd been studying in Rome for nearly a year. He loved the city and its history, and it showed. He answered all our questions (as a history geek, I tend to have a lot of them) and took us to see the Colosseum, the Forum, and Palatine Hill over the course of one beautiful afternoon.  Best of all, he did it in a reasonable amount of time--we saw what we wanted to see, skipped what we didn't--and he was great at ensuring we didn't get caught behind massive crowds. Hiring the guide made the most of our time on that trip.  I've taken some of the company's group walks, too--their Twilight Rome Walk, as well as their Jewish Ghetto and Trastevere Walk--and would book another walk with them in a heartbeat. 

After we finished our tour of the Colosseum, we made our way past the Forum (the entrance has moved since the last time I was there, making it harder to cut through--so we ended up walking past it rather than through it) on our way to the Pantheon.  I adore the Pantheon and the square in front of it, so getting there for lunch was a priority on this trip.  I think it's a fantastic people-watching spot.  We grabbed pizza (not as good as the pizza in Sorrento, sadly), watched the tourists go by as we ate, then walked through the Pantheon itself before making our way to the Piazza Navona.  There was an art market going on, so after watching a group of kids play in the Piazza Navona's Bernini fountain, we spent some time wandering through the market and enjoying the sunshine.

We hadn't made any plans for the afternoon, so we debated going to the Vatican.  However, since the weather was so great and we wanted to spend more time outdoors, we opted to skip it on this trip and make our way to the Spanish Steps and then to the Trevi Fountain, which are also great people-watching spots (and near some good leather shopping, if you like shopping.)

First, however, we made a stop at my favorite gelateria, which isn't far from the Pantheon or Piazza Navona.  If you're ever in Rome, try the Gelateria Della Palma on Via Maddalena.  When you go inside, pay first at the register, then take your ticket to the ice cream counter.  There are more flavors than you could imagine, even some made with soy for those of you whose stomachs can't tolerate the real thing.  This photo shows about a quarter of their selections.  I couldn't fit it all in one shot!

They have some exotic flavors, like chocolate pepperonicini, but I'm partial to simpler ones like the strawberry or the mint chocolate chip.

After visiting the Trevi Fountain to throw in the requisite coinage (thus guaranteeing a return trip to Rome), we walked along the Via Condotti, up the Spanish Steps, then made our way to Termini to catch the train back to Civitavecchia.  We poked our noses inside a few of Rome's many churches (I HIGHLY recommend you do this anywhere you go in Europe, since you never know how beautiful or moving the scene may be inside) before making a pit stop at the Piazza delle Quattro Fontane to refill our water bottles at one of the four fountains so we'd have water for the train ride.  The last time we stayed in Rome, we were in a hotel not far from here, so it was fun to stop here again.

We probably didn't see as much of Rome as some of the other people on our cruise ship did, but we truly enjoyed ourselves and we weren't wiped out at the end of the day by trying to cram in as much as possible.  We even had a little bit of time to explore Civitavecchia before enjoying a late dinner and a phenomenal sunset.

Next on the agenda:  Italy, Day Three:  Lucca and Pisa

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Italy, Day One: Amalfi Coast

Anyone who knows me knows how much I love Italy. The country is drenched in sunlight, boasts skiing AND beaches, and has what's arguably the best food in the world. There are big cities, postage-stamp sized villages, and everything in between. Even if it didn't have all those plusses, the history of the region alone would put it atop my favorite places list. (Then again, I'm a total history geek.) Part of why I chose this cruise was that it made three stops in Italy, one outside Naples, one an hour from Rome, and a third stop just south of the Cinque Terre.

Again, I popped out of bed at dawn to go on my balcony and watch the sun rise. This is just off the coast of Capri. I wanted to bottle it. The sky and water were some of the most beautiful shades I've ever seen.

Once we pulled into the port in Naples, we went through the large port building (all brand-spanking new!) to find our driver. Since I've been to the Amalfi Coast before, I had a pretty good idea of what I wanted to see and thought having a driver for the day would be the way to go. First, we went to Pompeii. I wanted to explore before it got too hot. Even though we arrived before 9 AM, guess what? Still too hot. We were out of there by eleven. The place was jam-packed, so I'm glad this wasn't my first visit there. Still, I enjoy it immensely. There's something new to see in Pompeii on every visit--the place is huge. It's sad to envision such a large city being devastated as Pompeii was.

After Pompeii, we took a leisurely drive along the Amalfi Coast. Though there are other places I'd go if I had more than a day, for our short stop we decided to hit Positano and Sorrento. The views along the Amalfi Coast road are breathtaking--even when there's fog, as there was the day we were there. (Thanks to our driver, who took this photo!)

He also stopped at a roadside stand so I could ogle the food. I love checking out what's for sale in foreign countries (as was probably apparent from my Barcelona blog.)

Most tourists seem to take photos of buildings, landmarks, or (gasp!) their families. Me, I'm all about the markets and food stands. (Though I can't remember ever taking a photo of my plated food in a restaurant, something I saw others doing on my cruise ship the entire week. It's never struck me as a Thing To Do.)

After grabbing some gelati--happy, happy, joy, joy--we made our way to Sorrento. The last time I was on the Amalfi Coast, we stayed in a small hotel here for three days, so I know my way around. We had a fabulous pizza lunch, then walked to the gardens near the main town square. Sorrento is known for its lemons and limoncello liquor. No wonder, when there are spectacular lemon trees absolutely everywhere.

Between the fresh food and the citrus trees, I think Sorrento must be one of the best-smelling towns anywhere.

Instead of having the driver face the crowded road back to Naples, we opted to take the ferry. I'm glad we did--and I'd do it again if I ever need to get from Sorrento to Naples--since the views were amazing. This was from high in Sorrento, walking down to the ferry:

And this was the view from the ferry itself, as we left Sorrento:

You know this setting will end up in a book, right? It's too beautiful not to spend my working hours revisiting in my mind. This is a big reason I love to travel. It's all fodder for the imagination.

Next up, Italy, Day Two: Rome