Emilia-Romagna

I didn’t want to spend my 30th birthday in the U.S., so we booked a last-minute flight to Milan and planned out a brief trip to Emilia-Romagna. While it was my sixth time in Italy (it IS my favorite country, after all!), it was my very first time in this region, the culinary capital of the country.

After an hour train ride from Milan, we arrived in Bologna on a dreary morning and checked into our Airbnb. There was a free walking tour starting in ten minutes, so we rushed to the starting point at Torre degli Asinelli, the iconic twin towers of Bologna. Bologna used to have hundreds of these towers, but only two remain, and one of them is incredibly crooked — Bologna’s own Leaning Tower! Our tour took us to the University of Bologna, the oldest university in continuous operation, and Basilica di San Petronio, a church that is only half covered in marble. Apparently the Pope had gotten jealous of the size of this church, so he ordered marble suppliers in Carrera to stop the shipment of marble to Bologna and it was never completely finished. As we walked around town, we noticed how many porticoes there were. Bologna is a city of porticoes; there is actually a law for each block to have them. Porticoes are fantastic, especially in the rain or snow, and they make the entire city pedestrian-friendly.

 

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Torre degli Asinelli – look how far that left one leans!
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The oldest university in continuous operation
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Basilica di San Petronio – half marble
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Low-key canal
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City of porticoes
We took a cooking class in the cozy apartment of a former chef named Dennis, who hosted us and another couple. We learned how to make five different pastas (tagliatelle, ravioli, tortellini, garganelli, and agnolotti) and five stuffings (different mixtures of ingredients like ricotta, spinach, potatoes, bergamot oil, truffle oil, and Parmigiano-Reggiano), and then topped our creations with a simple butter and sage sauce. I learned that I am absolutely awful at forming garganelli noodles (it kept getting stuck on the rolling stick!) but can make a pretty good tagliatelle, which magically unravels off your knife before being hung on the drying rack. As we drank Chianti and sampled cheeses like Grana Padano, Parmigiano-Reggiano, and Ricotta, Dennis let us design our own fillings using his impressive collection of bottled oils.

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My first time using a pasta maker!
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So many oil options for our pasta stuffings
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Drying our tagliatelle
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A mixture of tortellini and ravioli, topped with a butter and sage sauce
Tagliatelle al ragù and tortellini in brodo are two of the most iconic Bolognese dishes. According to legend, Tagliatelle was created by a chef in love with a noblewoman named Lucrezia Borgia, and the noodles represent her long blonde hair. These flat, thick, ribbon-like noodles are best served with a rich sauce like ragù (also called “bolognese”). Meanwhile, tortellini is a cute little stuffed pasta that represents the navel of Venus and is best served “in brodo” (in a chicken on vegetable broth).

One of my favorite things we did in Bologna was walk the longest portico in the world, which runs from the edge of town up to the Basilica di San Luca, a church sitting up on rolling hills overlooking Bologna. The pilgrimage is a steady uphill walk through ornate covered porticoes – 666 of them in all! – stretching 4 kilometers. This walkway was begun in 1674 as a way to protect the Madonna di San Luca as she was carried on her yearly visit into Bologna. Many use this as a walking path or exercise run.

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This gate marks the beginning of the portico
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If you look closely, you can see a monk is also on our pilgrimage!
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Gorgeous views of the countryside
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One of the 666 arches
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The end!
After our walk, we caught a 51-minute train ride to Parma, an elegant, compact city that’s also part of Emilia-Romagna. It’s famous for Parmigiano-Reggiano and Prosciutto di Parma, being the home of Barilla (the world’s biggest pasta maker), and was the first city in Italy to be named “Creative City for Gastronomy” by UNESCO. Besides food, it’s also famous for its artists, such as opera composer Giuseppi Verdi, Renaissance painter Correggio, and conductor Arturo Toscanini, and is the headquarters of Ferrari, Maserati, and Lamborghini.

 

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Civilized Parma
It was raining hard when we arrived in Parma (too bad Parma doesn’t have sidewalks covered by porticoes like Bologna!), so we didn’t get to explore as comfortably as we would have liked, but we did get to see the stunning Correggio dome in the Parma cathedral. The fresco of the assumption of Mary is bursting with color even today.

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Look at that ceiling!
For lunch, we couldn’t get into the first two restaurants I wanted to try, so we settled for a nondescript cafe called Cardinal Bar, which turned out to be a fantastic meal. When a city is so good at food, you don’t even have to try finding a specific restaurant; you can stumble into anywhere and have the best Prosciutto and tortelli (large tortellini) of your life.

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Eating Prosciutto di Parma in Parma!
Back in Bologna, we had dinner at Osteria del Cappello, a traditional restaurant that has been around since 1375. We tried more Bolognese specialties, such as Tortellini in Brodo, Gramigna alla Salsiccia (our favorite Emilia-Romagna pasta), Squacquerone (a soft, creamy cheese), Tigelle (a flatbread baked in a round electric griddle to be stuffed with cold cuts), Gnocco Fritto (a puffy fried bread), and Mortadella (what Americans call “baloney” but is on a completely different level from what you can get in the U.S.).

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Best charcuterie board I’ve ever had
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Wearing tortellini earrings while eating tortellini
On my actual birthday — the only sunny day of our trip — we woke up early for a ten-hour food tour with Italian Days. This tour was one of the best experiences of my life. It’s up there with riding a camel through the Sahara Desert, waking up in Positano, eating a private meal at our ryokan in Kyoto, and riding on the back of a pickup truck through Wadi Rum.

Ten of us were picked up in two vans and driven for about 40 minutes to the countryside of Modena. Our first stop was a Parmigiano-Reggiano factory, at which we were greeted with espresso and put on disposable robes, hair caps, and shoe covers for sanitation purposes. We learned the painstaking process of making official Parmigiano-Reggiano and the vast differences between Parmesan and Parmigiano-Reggiano DOP, which must be aged for at least 12 months and will have the official branding if it passes inspection. Inspectors come to the factories and tap different sections of the cheese wheel, listening for any flaws. For Parmigiano-Reggiano that doesn’t pass inspection, it is stripped of its rind and sold as grated “Parmesan” — no longer deemed worthy of the name Parmigiano-Reggiano.

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The cheese on the right is perfect, which is why it has the stamp of approval. The bottom left cheese, however, had mold, which was sliced out; soon it will be grated and sold as “parmesan”
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Cheese!
From there, we were driven just down the road to Antica Acetaia Cavedoni, where the Cavedoni family has been producing balsamic vinegar since 1860. This was probably the most fascinating part of our tour. Only 150 families are allowed to produce real balsamic vinegar (aceto balsamico tradizionale), and they all live in this region. Each bottle is made from a set of barrels created specifically for a family member as soon as they are born, which is why these barrels used to be used as a dowry. Traditionally, these bottles would only be sold to the public when that specific family member has passed away. I had no idea balsamic vinegar was so personal!

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Barrels that survived World War II
The highest quality of balsamic vinegar is D.O.P., which is made of 100% cooked grape must and aged for at least 12 years. 10,000 kilos of Trebbiano grapes are used to produce one bottle of this type of balsamic vinegar. Families must send their balsamic vinegar to a consortium and pay €200 for inspection. If it passes, they must pay another fee for the bottle, since D.O.P. balsamic vinegars are allowed to only be in a specific type of bottle, and another fee for the special label (red label for 12-14 years of aging, gold label for over 15 years of aging). After all those fees, families must pay a 54% tax on any sales. Clearly, this is a passion, not for profit.

After our balsamic vinegar tour, we sat around a cozy table, eager to finally try some food. We started with Lambrusco and Parmigiano-Reggiano, and then continued to Prosciutto and Mortadella, and finally the balsamic vinegar. The D.O.P. balsamic vinegars are undeniably sweeter, thicker, and less sour and acidic than the ones most of us are used to, which are a blend of wine vinegar, cooked grape must, and usually caramels and preservatives to fake the fact that the vinegar hasn’t been aged anywhere near long enough. I.G.P. is another level of balsamic vinegar, identifiable by its blue/yellow label. It may have more than just two ingredients and can age for a minimum of 2 months, but the good ones are only cooked grape must and wine vinegar, and aged for at least five years. Condimento is between D.O.P. and I.G.P., using the methods of D.O.P. but the ingredients of I.G.P. Anthony and I ended up purchasing a 3-oz bottle of 15-year-old D.O.P. for $68 and a 3-oz bottle of condimento for $38 — a bargain after learning about this industry, and after comparing the prices we’d be paying in the U.S.

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This is the only bottle real balsamic vinegar is allowed to be in. If you haven’t seen this bottle before, you haven’t had real balsamic vinegar yet.
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Drizzling some over ricotta
Our third stop was a Prosciutto factory hidden in what looked like a normal three-story house. Prosciutto di Parma can only be produced from the hind legs of specially selected heritage breed pigs raised in 11 regions of Italy according to the highest standards, on which they are monitored, inspected, and approved by a consortium. The hind leg is cleaned, salted with only Italian sea salt, and left for about two months. During this time, it’s massaged carefully to drain all the blood left in the meat. Next, it is washed and hung in a dark, well-ventilated environment. The surrounding air is important to the final quality of the Prosciutto. When ready, an inspector comes in and uses a horse bone to poke into the hind leg and sniff it for quality. Only after it passes can it have the D.O.P. stamp. We sampled some Prosciutto with a glass of Lambrusco, and it was easily the best Prosciutto of my life.

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Looks like a normal house…
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… but it’s really a prosciutto factory!
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If it doesn’t have that Parma stamp, it’s not Prosciutto di Parma
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So different from that Prosciutto you find in America
Our last stop on the tour was an agriturismo up on the hills overlooking the Emilia-Romagna countryside. Agriturismi (“farm stays”) are popular in Italy. A nonna prepared our seven-course meal of pastas, veal, beef meatballs, chicken, zucchini, potatoes, and unlimited wine. Since we had been spending the past seven hours together, our tour group felt like a group of old friends by this time. In fact, when our tour guide was asked why she wasn’t counting any of the euros we handed over to pay for the tour, she told us, “If you want to pay me less than you owe, I have failed on my part.” With our bellies and hearts full, Anthony and I were dropped off at the Bologna train station, reluctant to head to Milan. Arrivederci, Emilia-Romagna!

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View from our agriturismo
Tips for future travelers:

If you only have a short time in Emilia-Romagna without a car, stay in Bologna. It is the largest city in this region and is easily connected with other parts by train.

In Bologna, hike the Portico di San Luca (longest portico in the world) and climb the Torre degli Asinelli (twin towers of Bologna). Both offer great views of Bologna.

Eat: Tortellini in Brodo, Tagliatelle al Ragù, green lasagna, Mortadella, Gramigna alla Salsiccia, Prosciutto di Parma, Parmigiano-Reggiano, gnocco fritto, balsamic vinegar, tigelle, gelato (the best gelato of my life is at a gelateria in Bologna called OGGI)

Drink: Lambrusco, Pignoletto (Emilia-Romagna’s Prosecco)

If there’s only one thing you get from this entire post, it’s that you should take the Food & Wine Tour with Italian Days. It is hands down the best food tour I have ever been on — and we’ve gone on food tours everywhere (Rome, Cairo, Sevilla, Mexico City, Palermo…). It’s €150 per person, starts at 7 am and ends around 5:30 pm. There were ten of us in total, and we rode in two comfortable Mercedes vans between each site. Our tour guide Arianna was spectacular. I wish she could narrate my life! She had so much energy throughout the entire day, and taught us so many things we would have never learned on our own. The tour changed the way I eat food, appreciate Italy, and view the world.

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Since it was my birthday, our tour guide let me saber a bottle of Lambrusco. I can’t think of a better way to celebrate my 30th birthday!

Padua

Since we had some extra time in Venice, we decided to take a daytrip to Padua (or “Padova” in Italian), just a 26-minute train ride away. Padua is a picturesque town of about 214,000 residents, many of them students at the University of Padua — the third oldest university in Europe, one of the most prestigious, and definitely one of the most progressive. It was founded by a group of radical professors from the University of Bologna who wanted to teach without restraints from the church. Galileo taught here for thirty years and was so popular that his students saved up money to purchase his own podium, which was necessary since his lectures became too popular for a typical classroom.

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Students call this the Old Courtyard. It’s lined with plaques of every student
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Galileo’s podium
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Imagine defending your dissertation here!
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The “new courtyard”

We took a guided tour, which allowed us to view Galileo’s podium, as well as the Anatomical Theater. This theater, the oldest in the world, was built so the public could study dissections. Viewers would have to stand around in this cramped, candlelit room for hours over multiple days. Because dissections were technically still illegal, whenever someone from the church entered, the professor would flip the bed over quickly to hide the body, and everyone would pretend to be doing something else.

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A model of the Anatomical Theater
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We are inside the real Anatomical Theater, down below where the dissections occurred

In 1678, Elena Cornaro Piscopia, a Venetian noblewoman and mathematician, became the first woman in the world to receive a Ph.D., and unsurprisingly it was here, at the University of Padua. Copernicus, Dante, and Fallopius (yes, the discoverer of the fallopian tube) are some of the university’s other notable alumni.

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Statue dedicated to the first female graduate in the world

Besides the university, Padua is just a lovely place to roam around. It has a dense network of arcaded walkways and cobblestone streets. Its town hall building, the Palazzo della Ragione, has the largest roof unsupported by columns in Europe. Right outside the Palazzo is a huge farmers market, second only to the one in Italy’s gastronomic capital of Bologna. Its Scrovegni Chapel, which must be booked in advance to enter, houses some of the most important frescoes in the world. Prato della Valle is an elliptical square and one of the biggest in Europe. In the center is a garden surrounded by a moat, lined by 78 statues of Padua’s citizens.

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Pretty arcaded streets
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Prato della Valle
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Cobblestone streets
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Palazzo della Ragione

My favorite part of Padua, however, was the lunch we had at Osteria L’Anfora. In fact, it was the best meal of our entire trip. This discrete (no signage in front!) osteria was packed with Paduans, so we were crammed in the corner at a table with a friendly Italian student and his girlfriend visiting from France. He helped us decipher the handwritten menu — written in only Italian, of course — and taught me how to properly pronounce “bigoli” (bi-go-li, not bi-go-li), the pasta typical of this region. I had the perfectly al dente bigoli with rabbit sausage ragù, while Anthony had a tender oxtail stew served with creamy polenta full of flavor. I would return to Padua just for meals like this. I didn’t tear up on this trip — which is slightly concerning because I cry over everything — but if I did, it would have been at Osteria L’Anfora.

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Bigoli and oxtail

After about five and a half hours in Padua, it was time to return to Venice. It was just the right amount of time to do the town justice but crave a little more action in touristy Venice. We caught a northbound tram with the day passes we had bought at the station earlier and returned just in time to make our train back to Venezia Santa Lucia. Arrivederci, Padova!

Venice (Pt. 2)

Venice is stunning in any season, but if you have a choice, visit in the winter. You’ll have to deal with fewer tourists and might see an eerie fog seductively blanketing the canals. Most importantly, you’ll be visiting at a much more ethical time. In the summer, cruise ship passengers flood Venice every day, and the city’s infrastructure suffocates under the hordes of sightseers. Tourists outnumber Venetians by 140 to 1. Souvenir shops have replaced grocery stores, while luxury hotels have replaced medical offices. When I visited Venice for my second time a few summers ago, I was disappointed by how much the whole place felt like Disneyland or Las Vegas — unabashedly fake and crawling with tacky tourists who are there just to check Venice off their lists rather than to actually learn anything. So we returned this winter for my husband’s birthday and experienced the city the way it should be.

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Foggy afternoon in St. Mark’s Square

It happened to be Carnevale when we visited, an incredible time to be in Venice. We were there during the first few days of this multi-week celebration, which began with an opening ceremony of glowing floats at night and a costumed gondola parade the following morning. Carnevale brings out the most decadent side of Venice, with people parading around in extravagant costumes and colorful confetti strewn across the pavement.

The tradition of Carnevale began when the Republic of Venice won a victory in the 12th century. To celebrate, Venetians gathered and danced in St. Mark’s Square. Carnevale was celebrated for centuries, and debaucherous revelers donned masks because anything they did while their faces were covered didn’t count. The Holy Roman Empire banned the festival in 1797, and wearing masks was strictly forbidden. Carnevale gradually reappeared in the 19th century, and finally in 1979, the government decided to officially bring it back completely. What surprised us was how egalitarian Carnevale is. Sure, some people spend thousands of euros on elaborate handmade costumes and attend fancy masquerade balls, but other people just buy cheap masks — most likely made in China instead of Venice — from one of the many stands scattered throughout the city. If you want a nice medium, you can also rent authentic costumes for the day and support Italian craftsmanship at a fraction of the cost of purchasing.

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Matching masks

If you only have one weekend to experience Carnevale, aim for the final weekend. We went on the first weekend, which felt like a low-key introduction to the festivities. The final weekend has the huge costume competition and entertaining historical reenactments.

My favorite part of Carnevale was just hanging out in St. Mark’s Square and seeing all the costumes. St. Mark’s Basilica and Doge’s Palace are the perfect backdrop. Every afternoon of Carnevale, costumed people parade around, waiting for you to take photos of their hard work.

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But why is everyone around us dress like peasants?

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Sisters?
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Who’s that creeper on the left?
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She is wearing a Colombina mask, while he wears a Bauta mask

Tips for future travelers to Venice:

We stayed at 3749 Ponte Chiodo, a charming guest house that we had stayed at four years ago. It’s located in the peaceful neighborhood of Cannaregio, which feels like a world away from the hustle and bustle of St. Mark’s Square but is only a 20-minute walk or leisurely vaporetto ride away. It also has some of the best restaurants in Venice. Our room was on the top floor and had a lovely view of a small canal. The owner Mattias was as helpful as last time, offering restaurant recommendations and encouraging guests to get to know each other during our intimate breakfasts around the dining table each morning. We loved opening up the heavy, dark green front door with our key and walking through a secret garden to reach the entrance of the house, then climbing up a narrow staircase to get to our room after a long day. 3749 Ponte Chiodo was a breath of fresh air — a real home in a city full of monotonous hotel chains.

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Our bedroom at 3749 Ponte Chiodo
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View from our bedroom
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Request the blue room!

We ate fairly well on this trip, which is a bit of a surprise because Venice is infamous for being one of the least pleasant cities to eat in Italy. Typically overpriced and inauthentic, restaurants in this small city feel forced to cater to tourists who visit here once and never return. Fortunately, our research led us to perhaps the best meals possible in Venice.

If you’re not eating cicchetti for lunch every day, you failed at Venice. It’s a Venetian lunch tradition to stand at the bar and order an assortment of toast topped with fresh seafood, and pair it with a glass of Prosecco, the wine specialty of this region. A meal for two will cost you roughly €16. We tried a few places for cicchetti, and All’Arco was by far the best, as evidenced by the stream of locals there throughout the day.

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Cicchetti and fresh octopus with two glasses of prosecco at All’Arco
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A mix of locals and food tours come here
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My 2nd favorite place for cicchetti: Al Portego

Our favorite restaurants for dinner were Osteria Ai Promessi Sposi, Ca D’Oro alla Vedova, and Osteria ai 40 Ladroni, all of which were just a quick walk from our guest house. They’re all osterias, which is my preferred type of eating establishment in Italy. Osterias began as places serving wine and simple food, with concise menus that emphasize local specialties and whatever’s fresh that day. They are cheaper than ristorantes and have that rustic feel you want when you’re in Italy. In Venice, stick to ordering seafood, risotto, squid ink pastas, and tiramisu, paired with a carafe of house wine or Prosecco.

Dal Moro’s Fresh Pasta to Go is a fantastic place for a takeout lunch. It’s essentially fast-casual pasta, but done surprisingly well. Choose your fresh pasta noodles, the sauce, and any toppings. You can watch the pasta being made behind the glass, and when it’s done you just eat it out of a cardboard takeout container. At roughly €7, this is probably the best deal in Venice.

We decided to take a couple of walking tours with a company called La Bussola and were amazed by how many more facts we learned about Venice — and it’s my third time here! Each tour is free, two and a half hours long, and led by passionate graduate students who specialized in some aspect of Venetian culture. We learned that the word “ghetto” comes from Venice, the original Venetians were a bunch of refugees fleeing attack from Germanic tribes, and that Venice was built on wood pilings that have petrified under water without oxygen. One of the tours ended on the rooftop of a fancy department store near the Rialto Bridge that offered a panoramic view of the entire city.

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The Rialto Bridge was the only way to cross the Grand Canal by foot until the Accademia Bridge was built nearly 300 years later. It was burnt down in 1310, collapsed under weight during a wedding in 1444, and collapsed a third time in 1524. It was finally rebuilt with marble and is anchored at each end with no support in the middle – an architectural marvel!
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View from the rooftop of Fondaco dei Tedeschi
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The bottom of Fondaco dei Tedeschi is not so bad either
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Built on wood pilings driven into clay

La Bussola also took us to what looked like a modest church from the outside, but entering completely took my breath away. Chiesa di San Pantaleone Martire houses the biggest canvas painting in the world. When you enter, make sure to look up, because an astonishingly three-dimensional painting depicting the martyrdom and apotheosis of St. Pantalon fills the entire ceiling. It was painted on canvas by Fumiani over 24 years, until he fell to his death from the scaffolding as he was giving his painting the finishing touches. Structural features of the church are continued in the architecture of the painting, creating a magnificent visual illusion. Fumiani was a master of perspective. I have been to the Vatican, and I can honestly say that I was more impressed by this than the Sistine Chapel.

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Photos are not allowed inside, so this photo is from Arttrav

If it’s your first time in Venice, make sure to check out at least these tourist attractions:

  • St. Mark’s Basilica: Book in advance to enter this opulent golden cathedral and symbol of Venetian wealth. 
  • Burano: Take a 45-minute vaporetto ride to this calm, picturesque island of bright colorful homes.
  • Libreria Acqua Alta: This adorable bookstore stuffs its books into waterproof basins to highlight the flooding that Venice must coexist with. There is now a long line to enter because it recently exploded on social media.
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St. Mark’s Basilica is a hodgepodge of styles
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The island of Burano is more relaxed and more colorful than Venice
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Visiting Libreria Acqua Alta four summers ago

One of the best ways to see Venice is by vaporetto. These water buses travel along the Grand Canal, around the lagoon, and even to the other islands. It’s easy to get lost in Venice, so while walking is often quicker, catching a cheap vaporetto is sometimes a preferable mode of transportation. If you’re under 29, you get a discount through Rolling Venice. We purchased unlimited three-day passes and validated each time we entered a station.

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Positano

If you’ve known me for a while, you probably know that I tend to cry when I travel. When I fall in love with a place, I either cry because my heart feels so overwhelmed by happiness, or I cry on our last day because I’m devastated that we have to leave. I’m pretty ridiculous. I’ve shed tears all over the world: Istanbul, Cape Town, Paris, Kyoto, Nuremberg… but the place that started it all is Positano, a popular cliffside town on the Amalfi Coast. My first time visiting was in 2015, and after we left I cried for days.

I was so sure I could keep it together this time; there’s no way Positano could still surpass my impossibly high expectations and idealized memories built up over the years. I was completely wrong. In fact, everything was better than last time, even starting with just our journey to Positano. We finally learned that the best way to reach Positano is to take an express train from Rome to Salerno, then a ferry from Salerno to Positano. It’s less hectic than going through Naples or Sorrento, and more pleasant than riding a bus.

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Leaving Salerno
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Arriving in Positano by ferry

We stayed at the same hotel — in the exact same room, in fact — as last time. So much of my attachment to Positano is due to La Tavolozza, a family-run hotel with only six rooms that cost a fraction of the price of all the hotels surrounding it. Why is it so affordable? There is no pool (why would you swim in a pool when you’re right by the sea?), and the WiFi is only strong out on the balcony. But you feel like you’re staying with family here. We stayed in the Blue Room again, which has high ceilings, blue tiled floors, and, most importantly, a huge balcony that we were reluctant to leave every morning. Every time I woke up at La Tavolozza, on our bed facing the view, I couldn’t help but pity every other person in the world. I am my happiest here, it’s as simple as that.

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View of our balcony
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Buongiorno!
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Fluffy croissants filled with marmalade, orange juice, and cappuccino on our balcony every morning
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This is what 9pm looks like in Positano

Last time, the only pitfall I noticed in Positano was the food. The few restaurants we tried seemed overpriced and touristy, especially after coming from Rome and Florence. This time, however, I did a little more research and took some suggestions from locals, and we ended up having some of the best meals of our trip. I highly recommend Lo Guarracino, a romantic ristorante off the beaten path, with views of Fornillo Beach. We also enjoyed La Cambusa and Da Vincenzo. When eating on the Amalfi Coast, make sure to stuff yourself with seafood, lemons, and candied oranges.

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Our view at Lo Guarracino
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Ready for dinner!
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Spaghetti vongole and local olive oil
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Meeting up with a family from our cooking class at Da Vincenzo

Speaking of food, the highlight of Positano was our cooking class with Marina in Cucina. We always enjoy cooking classes, but Marina’s home and the friendships we formed during class made this night one of the most memorable nights of my life. Marina lives in a stunning villa up in the hills — a former convent with views of the sea below. She’s a chef but also an interior designer, which is apparent in her tastefully-decorated home and enviable kitchen. We made fresh pasta on the patio, kneading dough, cutting it into strips, and drying the strips on a gorgeous ceramic table hand-crafted in Positano. We snacked on olives tossed with delicious lemon rinds and drank “caprese water” (water steeped with whole tomatoes and fresh basil leaves). We watched Marina make mattafama (bread salad), limoncello chicken, and a lemon ricotta dessert. And then the nine of us spent the next few hours dining together on her patio, late into the night. Unlike our other cooking classes abroad, we learned tips that we can actually bring back home, such as tilting the pan when heating oil so that the garlic doesn’t burn, and topping pasta with candied orange instead of cheese for a different flavor. Marina was able to use so many ingredients from her garden; it was inspiring to watch her go outside to collect basil or lemons and incorporate them into the dish we ate just a few minutes later. This is why Italian food is so good.

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Taking in the view from Marina’s patio
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Marina tosses mattafama
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Tilting the pan to concentrate the oil so the garlic doesn’t burn

Besides the cooking class, the other new activity we did on the Amalfi Coast this time was take a daytrip to Capri. We didn’t initially have much interest in Capri, as it’s known as an island for rich vacationers, but we completely underestimated how charming Capri is. We rented a small boat around the island and finally understood the hype. From jagged coastline to dramatic rocks jutting out of the water to grottos that look like vaginas, Capri is just really sexy. After our boat ride, we took a hair-bending bus ride through the town of Anacapri, where we rode a funicular up to the top of Monte Solaro. It’s a single-seat funicular, so it’s pretty funny because you have to ride up by yourself, and then stare awkwardly at the people riding back down on the other side. The views are well worth it, though. There’s a cafe and gardens to explore at the top. After the funicular, we caught another hair-bending bus ride to Capri Town, which is the glitzier part of Capri, with designer shops and famous hotels.

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On our way to Capri
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Rented a little boat to see the island
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Inside a grotto
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Left the boat early because Anthony was feeling sick waiting in line for the Blue Grotto
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View from the top of Monte Solaro
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We were just down there with those boats!

When we returned to Positano after our daytrip, we felt like we had returned home. Positano is such a small town, yet I never felt bored, the way I feel bored in practically every other city that has fewer than 8 million people. There was so much to do. We hired a professional photographer via Flytographer to commemorate our second wedding anniversary. We bought colorful ceramic dishes with lemons on them, an Amalfi Coast specialty. We read books on our balcony. We hung out on the pebbly beach (in the free section because we’re cheap) early in the morning to beat the crowds. We watched the World Cup at a beachfront bar and mourned when Japan lost. We went grocery shopping at Delicatessen, a small grocery shop just down the stairs from our hotel that has fresh meat and huge wheels of cheese. We worked off all our pasta by walking up and down the staircases weaving through Positano — the only way to get around town. I could have done this forever.

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With the cliffs of Positano
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Iconic pastel colors
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By the sea
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Married for two years!
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Would trade the Pacific for the Mediterranean in a heartbeat
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Surrounded by fishing boats
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Very Big Little Lies, in my opinion
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Uphill
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And this is when everyone in Positano noticed my dress is see-through
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Reeks of wedding proposal
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Pure joy
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More fishing boats
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In front of a plaque for Flavio Gioia, who perfected the sailor’s compass and was born on the Amalfi Coast

By the time we had to leave on our fourth day, I had been emotionally preparing and told myself I wouldn’t cry. I was so ready for it — but as we checked out of La Tavolozza, we had a long chat with Paola, my favorite of the family members who runs the hotel. During our stay, we had seen her every day, either on our way out or right before breakfast, when she would bring a tray of cappuccino and croissants to our balcony. She told us such heartwarming things about Positano, how much she enjoys seeing return guests, and why her family loves what they do. So of course I cried like a baby as we hugged her good-bye.

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Saying “arrivederci” to Paola

When I booked this trip, I had assumed it would be our last time in Positano. This was actually the reason we stayed for so long; I was hoping I’d eventually get sick of it. But, turns out, it’s impossible to get sick of Positano. I can still think of more things we need to do here, like take a daytrip to Ravello, go hiking above Amalfi, swim at the Fiordo di Furore, and have drinks at Villa Treville. Just as Francesca (Paola’s mother) told us when we checked out of La Tavolozza three years ago, “There’s something magical about Positano, isn’t there?” We will be back. I don’t know when, and I don’t know how, but it’s going to happen. My happiness depends on it.

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Some simple advice: Find someone you want to see the world with. Then, see the world with that person.

Florence (pt. 2)

Our original plan was to take a daytrip to Civita di Bagnoregio, a small hillside town in Tuscany that we’d never been to, but we decided to revisit Florence instead, for a few of reasons: to see my favorite sunset again, eat at one of our favorite restaurants, and climb the campanile (bell tower) of the Duomo, which we had to skip when we were here three years ago. Looking back now, I’m not sure if this was the best decision – we probably should have explored a new town – but Florence is never a bad idea.

Since we wanted to climb the campanile in the early morning to avoid the summer heat and crowds, we decided to stay overnight and rented an apartment in the neighborhood of Oltrarno (“other side of the Arno River”), similar to Rome’s Trastevere. Our apartment was on the top floor of an 18th-century building that once housed officials of the Grand Duke of Tuscany. It had luxuriously high ceilings, beautiful terracotta floors, and dozens of bookshelves – but no air conditioning, and a bathroom with one of those doorless showers that gets the entire bathroom wet. In other words, we felt like true Florentines.

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Ciao, from the bathroom window!
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Terracotta floors, low bed, and high ceiling
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View of the rooftops from our bedroom

If you only do four things in Florence, do these:

Watch the sunset from Piazzale Michelangelo. This sunset has ruined me for all other sunsets (I’m looking at you, Santorini). There’s something so magical about Florence’s sea of iconic red roofs, massive dome dominating the skyline, the colors of the sunset reflected in the Arno River bisecting the city, and the purple mountains in the background. Get there early to claim a good spot.

 

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Sunset
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Worth the wait

Check out Mercato Centrale, an impressive food hall and gastronomic dream. Designed by the same architect who built the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele in Milan, this huge iron-and-glass complex has two floors: fresh groceries on the bottom floor, and the best food court you’ve ever seen on the top floor. Anthony and I spent a few hours on the top floor, slowly eating our way through various vendors. Each vendor specializes in a type of food (mostly Tuscan). Everything you could ever want is here – a cheese station, a pasta station, a truffle station, a beer station, a gelato station, a seafood station, a burger station, a French fry station, even a dim sum station. Everything is made fresh, and vendors use ingredients from downstairs. Did I mention that workers come around to bring you wine right to your table? Did I also mention that there’s a whole section for a cooking class, where each participant gets their own cooking station?? Next time I’m in Florence, this is going to be the first thing I do.

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Light-filled market with high ceilings and lots of seating
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Bucatini
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Gelato
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Fresh seafood salad with a glass of white wine

Climb the campanile in the morning for a more pleasant experience; climb it in the late afternoon for better photos. Book online and prepare for 414 steps. The climb is pretty easy, since there are several stops along the way. You’ll get to see the dome and all of Florence through a fenced rooftop.

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Short people problems
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View of Florence
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Through the fence
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Duomo
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Come in the afternoon for better lighting. The dome was backlit when we were there

Eat at Osteria Antica Mescita San Niccolò, our favorite restaurant abroad. Last time we were in Florence, we stumbled upon this restaurant and fell in love. Three years later, the menu has changed slightly, and the prices are a bit higher, but the meal was probably even better than our first time here. We shared slices of pecorino and honey, a plate of grilled beef marinated in balsamic vinegar, roasted potatoes, salted spinach, a ricotta cheesecake topped with chocolate shavings, and a half liter of house red wine. All of this was €53.

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Pecorino and honey, salted spinach, roasted potatoes, and a plate of grilled beef marinated in balsamic vinegar
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Ricotta cheesecake topped with chocolate shavings
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Pouring a glass of that 7-euro house wine

If you have extra time in Florence:

Visit the Leonardo da Vinci Museum. Three years ago, we stayed at a hotel located above this museum but were always too busy to visit. Anthony was determined not to make the same mistake. This delightful museum has a spectacular array of da Vinci’s inventions, and you’ll leave with a much better appreciation of his genius.

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Flying machine?
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Workout machine
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Tank (exterior)
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Tank (interior)

Relax in Giardino Bardini, a garden that offers panoramic views of Florence. And nature, if you’re into that. During the spring, it’s particularly lovely because the trellis is filled with wisteria. Be careful of mosquitoes.

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No wisterias in this trellis in the middle of summer 😦
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View from the garden

Check out Palazzo Strozzi, a modern art museum housed in a former palace.  Currently, there’s a huge metal slide that spirals down the inner courtyard.

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You can slide down!

Have breakfast or a coffee at La Ménagère, an adorable restaurant, cafe, cocktail bar, and flower shop. It’s a great place to hang out.

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Feels just like Brooklyn

Visit the Baptistery. This small basilica often gets overlooked — it has to compete with the neighboring Duomo, after all — but inside is a stunning ceiling, inspired by Byzantine mosaics.

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Mosaic ceiling

Florence didn’t hit me quite as hard as it did three years ago. It’s an undeniably beautiful city, but after our 24 hours here, I was ready to return to the chaos and diversity of Rome. Florence has so many of my favorite things – my favorite restaurant, my favorite sunset, my favorite food hall, and my favorite cathedral – it’s odd that it isn’t also my favorite city. But whatever the reason, I’m glad we got to experience it again.

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Rome (Pt. 2)

Rome, like any metropolitan city, deserves multiple trips. This was my third time in Rome (I visited once as a baby to visit my grandparents, and again a few years ago with Anthony), and each time has gotten better and better. We stayed in a more interesting neighborhood, redid our favorite activities, and checked off some bucket-list items that we hadn’t been able to do last time. Here’s some advice for Rome that we learned on this trip:

Stay in Trastevere. This is easily the most charming neighborhood in Rome, with maze-like cobblestone streets that wind past pretty churches and colorful, crumbling buildings. Trastevere means “beyond the Tiber River”, and those who grew up here have a sense of pride similar to those who grew up in Brooklyn — they consider themselves Trasteverini before they consider themselves Romans. Like Brooklyn, Trastevere is also a foodie destination, with some of the best restaurants in Rome right around the corner from our apartment. It’s convenient to most touristy sites, so we were able to walk almost everywhere.

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Across the Tiber River

Although the secret has been out for a while and Trastevere is now packed with tourists and exchange students at night, we still felt like locals staying there as we entered a nondescript door and walked up three narrow flights of stairs to reach our apartment. Our host welcomed us with a bottle of wine and a binder full of recommendations, which I followed diligently. Our apartment had lovely terracotta floors, vaulted ceilings, and a tiny balcony. We took afternoon siestas and cooked pasta leftovers in the compact kitchen.

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View from our balcony

Visit the Colosseum and Roman Forum as early as possible. Last time, we were there midday, and it was awful. The heat was so bad that I was too miserable to appreciate any history and spent the entire time jumping from shady spot to shady spot. This time, we booked tickets for the first entrance of the day, which meant fewer tourists and much cooler temperatures.

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Outside the Colosseum
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Cross-section of the Colosseum
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Inside, before all the tourists arrive

Two other places to visit as early as possible are the Pantheon and Spanish Steps. The Pantheon does not require tickets as it is a public church, so we got there before it opened and were among the first to enter. The Pantheon is one of the best-preserved Ancient Roman buildings in the world, mainly because it has been in continuous use throughout its history, first as a temple and then as a church. The Pantheon is blatant proof that one can only survive if one adapts. Its most famous feature is its huge coffered concrete dome, with an oculus that opens up to the sky and lets rainwater in. Built two thousand years ago, this dome is still the world’s largest unreinforced concrete dome.

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Heading to the Pantheon
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Oculus
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The emptiest the Spanish Steps will ever be

Visit Piazza Navona at dusk. Though inundated with tourists and street performers, this lively square has always been one of my favorite parts of Rome. It is built on the site of a stadium from the 1st century, and was later transformed into a stunning public square filled with Baroque Roman architecture, such as the Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi (Fountain of the Four Rivers). Dusk is the most romantic time to come, when the marble glows a soft rose color, Romans and tourists are relaxed after the hot day, and musicians start playing corny American love songs. I even teared up here on our last night, when some guy played “My Heart Will Go On”, a song that I typically hate — but then again, everything sounds better in Italy.

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Fontana Quattro dei Fiumi

Visit the Trevi Fountain in the morning and in the evening. This fountain is what I was most excited to see in Rome. It was closed for renovation last time, so I made sure it was the first thing we did when we returned. At night, it’s magical, but early in the morning, you can better appreciate all the intricate details of the marble and the crisp blue of the water.

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Romantic at night
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Early morning visit

See Bernini and Caravaggio at the Galleria Borghese. Advanced reservations are required, and each ticket includes a mandatory guided tour, which we enjoyed tremendously. Our quirky guide focused on just a few of the pieces throughout the museum and really helped us appreciate the sculptor Bernini and painter Caravaggio.

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Can you believe that’s marble?
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Bernini’s Apollo and Daphne
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Bernini’s David
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Beautiful fresco ceiiing by Mariano Rossi
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One of Caravaggio’s famous paintings, exemplifying his dark and realistic depictions of religious themes

Take a food tour with Eating Italy. We signed up for a four-hour Twilight in Trastevere tour, which took us to seven different places around our neighborhood, from a secret wine cellar that once housed bronze sculptures from the ancient Roman times, to a 90-year-old cookie shop that’s won dozens of awards yet has no signage in front, to a takeout spot that specializes in Roman street food specialties. As usual, the food tour was my favorite activity of our entire stay. It’s a great way to meet other people, learn about the culture, and be introduced to places we’d never find on our own.

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This wine cellar was an ancient Roman courtyard that had been buried until excavation in the 19th century
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Ready for wine!
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Julius Caesar’s favorite dish: pork stew with fish sauce
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Stefania and Giuliano have been running this biscotteria (cookie shop) for decades
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Trying lemon, chocolate, and hazelnut biscotti
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The porchetta, gorgonzola, prosciutto, and beer were all delicious, but our favorite thing was the owner’s son, who hammed it up for the cameras
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Trying supplì (fried rice balls mixed with tomato sauce and mozzarella)
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Roman-style pizza is thin and crispy, baked in a metal pan, topped with nothing but fresh tomato sauce, and served by the slice
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Trying pasta at a ristorante
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Two of Rome’s most typical pasta dishes: amatriciana (guanciale, pecorino, tomato, onion) and cacio e pepe (cheese and pepper)
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Fior di latte and hazelnut gelato from Fatamorgana

I ate carbonara every day but never got sick of it. Our tour guide explained that there’s a reason you can eat pasta every day in Italy but not feel bad about yourself; it’s just made differently here. Less processed.

Here are some of my favorite eateries we tried:

Osteria Da Zi Umberto: This trattoria, just a couple of blocks from our apartment, was filled with locals. Reservations are a must, though we lucked out with a last-minute table, and the carbonara was the best I had on the trip. Anthony tried (and fell in love with) trippa alla romana (Roman-style tripe!).

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Carbonara, roasted rosemary potatoes, trippa alla Romana, and a half liter of house wine

Trapizzino: This is a new trend in Rome. It takes a traditional street food, pizza bianca (plain pizza dough), creates a pocket with it, and stuffs it with classic Italian dishes, such as rosemary chicken or veal tongue with anchovies. It was my favorite way to eat Roman pizza. Trapizzino has been so successful that it’s expanded to multiple locations across Italy.

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Trapizzino

Da Enzo al 29: This popular restaurant is usually booked weeks in advance, but we were able to try it because our food tour guide is friends with the staff. I had a dish of burrata, prosciutto, and grilled eggplant. Da Enzo deserves the hype!

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Grilled eggplant, burrata, and prosciutto

Gelateria La Romana: We revisited this gelateria after discovering it on our trip last time, and we are happy to say that the gelato is still as delicious, sustainable, and dirt-cheap (2.50 euros for two scoops! You’re not going to find a better deal anywhere else!) as we remembered.

Some other tips for dining in Rome:

  1. Stick to trattorias for your main meals. Trattorias specialize in traditional Italian food and are more casual than ristoranti. Order a carafe of house wine and enjoy incredible food for cheap. It’s the best way to experience Roman cuisine, and the rustic atmosphere is exactly what you came to Rome for.
  2. Eat breakfast the Italian way: standing up at the counter, drinking a cappuccino and eating a pastry. Even if your hotel provides free breakfast, I urge you to skip it and head to the nearest coffee bar instead. Those hotel breakfast buffets usually consist of poor-quality cured meats and cheeses, old pastries, cereal and yogurt options, and coffee that no self-respecting Italian would drink. Trust me, they’re catering to lazy Americans. You’ll have a much better experience waking up early and surrounding yourself with Italians on their way to work.

Though it was not my first time in Rome, it was the first time I fell in love with it. I’d always been somewhat intimidated by it as a city, preferring genteel Florence or glitzy Milan. But this time, we did Rome properly. We felt so at home here; some of our most memorable experiences were just watching the World Cup at a couple of our neighborhood spots, cheering with locals and tourists alike. If we ever decide to live abroad, Rome is Anthony’s first choice — and it’s hard for me not to agree.

Palermo

The second stop on our five-country trip was Palermo, Sicily, and it just confirmed (once again) that Italy is my favorite country. This is actually somewhat ironic because many Sicilians and mainland Italians don’t even consider Sicily part of Italy. Set right in between Europe, Northern Africa, and the Arab world, Sicily has been influenced (and invaded) by many cultures throughout history. To say Sicily is simply Italian is as reductive as saying Hawaii is American. Sicily barely saw the Renaissance that Italy is so famous for, yet its diversity in people, architecture, and cuisine exemplifies a cultural richness that cannot be found anywhere else.

We’d been to southern Italy before, so we prepared ourselves for utter chaos upon arrival, but the transportation from the airport to our apartment couldn’t have been smoother. Right in front of the airport exit was a desk dedicated to the Prestia e Comande bus service, where we bought round-trip tickets and were even given a little postcard with the bus route and timetable on it. After a scenic 45-minute bus ride, we got off outside Politeama theater and walked to our apartment, a penthouse on the ninth floor. The jaw-dropping balcony, which wrapped around almost our entire floor, was larger than our whole apartment back in Brooklyn. We enjoyed many breakfasts and evenings up there.

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View from our balcony
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Enjoying breakast

The highlight of our short time in Palermo was easily a four-hour food tour with Streaty. We met our guide, Salvo, outside the impressive Massimo Theater, which is the third largest opera house in Europe and the setting of that climactic scene in The Godfather Part III. (For those of you who haven’t blocked that movie out from memory, it’s where Sofia Coppola got shot and Al Pacino did his silent scream.)

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Massimo Theater

Salvo was a goofy and passionate art historian who handed each of us a “foodie passport” before we started. Every time we tried one of the dishes in our passport, he gave us a stamp! It was a delicious way to learn about the history, customs, and influences of Sicily.

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My foodie passport
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A close-up at the end. Look at all those stamps!

Our first stop was Capo Market, a daily street market full of locals doing their grocery shopping, as well as tour groups like ours. We found a table and tried three Sicilian specialties: panelle (flat chickpea fritters), cazzilli (potato croquettes with mint), and arancina (fried risotto balls). The chickpeas and mint are obvious signs of Arab influence.

Before we left Capo Market, we passed one of the oldest vendors, a hand-pressed orange juice cart. The owner of the cart went through dozens of oranges to make a glass of fresh orange juice for each of us.

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Fresh OJ from the oldest vendor at Capo Market

For our next stop, Salvo taught us how to order food in Sicilian dialect. We ordered sfincionello, which is Sicilian-style pizza — rectangular, thicker, and cheese-less, topped with fresh tomato, oregano, and chili. We brought sfincionello, olives, cheese, spicy sun-dried tomatoes, and bread to a local bar so we could enjoy our food with some wine. This delightful tradition is known as schiticchio. The bartender poured us some sweet Sicilian wine on tap. When we were done eating, Salvo told us to leave the rest of the food right on the bar; it’s tradition to leave food for locals to enjoy — this is so similar to the “Scrounge Table” at Reed College (except we’re feeding hungry Sicilian locals instead of Portland hipsters too cheap to buy a meal plan).

Anthony’s favorite part of our food tour was when we tried Pani ca’ Meusa (veal spleen and lung sandwich) from a cart. The rich meat is boiled in saltwater, cooked in lard, and stuffed into a bun. The Jewish people in this neighborhood couldn’t eat the spleen of animals due to their religion, so Catholics decided not to let good protein go to waste. These sandwiches were delicious, and we were two of the four people from our group of ten who dared to eat it — the ones who refused to eat it were from North Carolina and Georgia, naturally.

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Pani ca’ Meusa

Our final tasting was what everyone was waiting for: cannoli! We passed a man selling Godfather-themed products, and Salvo explained Sicily’s tempestuous relationship with the franchise. Some Sicilians, such as the man we saw, understandably use it as a way to make money. For others, however, it hits too close to home. While we felt completely safe during our time in Palermo, the Mafia still exists — it’s just hidden. Corruption has moved to the businesses and politicians, which doesn’t sound too different from America. Just think The Godfather Part II (“legitimate” crime) instead of The Godfather Part I (mobsters shooting each other).

As we sat by the stunning Palermo Cathedral, Salvo went to fetch our cannoli and returned with a mouth-watering tray of them. I never particularly enjoyed cannoli back in the U.S., and it’s because they’re often pre-filled, sitting in a case for hours. True Sicilian cannoli should always be freshly filled with whipped ricotta (not that sugary stuff you often find in the U.S.) right when you order, and is often topped with pistachio, candied orange, or chocolate chips.

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Cannoli delivery

The Palermo Cathedral was the perfect venue to end our tour. Salvo concluded with a heartwarming statement about the importance of coexistence, since adapting to the natural shifts in populations is a crucial Sicilian tradition. Palermo Cathedral is Catholic, but it proudly incorporates Islamic art and architecture to honor the large Arab population at the time. Apparently, 12th-century Norman soldiers were more progressive than half of America.

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Palermo Cathedral

Other buildings also reflect the diversity of Sicily, such as San Cataldo and its red Arab-Norman-style bulge domes, as well as Palazzo dei Normanni’s extravagant Byzantine interior.

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San Cataldo
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Palazzo dei Normanni

Sicily is a place that everyone should visit. You can’t just visit the Italian clichés of Venice and Florence. If you enjoyed Rome, head further south because you deserve to experience Sicily, too. Most Italian-Americans hail from Sicily, so it’s even more crucial that Americans visit this island to understand such a large part of our immigrant history. Come for the past, but stay for something that Sicily can really teach us about the present — how to grapple with diversity, with the refugee crisis, and with overcoming the hate and fear that seems so prevalent in the rest of the world.

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Sicilian streets
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Clean, well-fed stray dogs, just like in Istanbul!

Tips for future travelers:

The Prestia e Comande bus is really convenient. It arrives outside the airport every 30 min and brings you to the center of Palermo in about 45 minutes. Buy round-trip bus tickets so you don’t have to worry about buying tickets on your way back. The little postcard they give you with the bus schedule is surprisingly accurate.

Obviously, take the Streaty food tour, but for other meals, try L’Anciova for a nice Italian dinner, Cannoli & Co. for the best cannoli I’ve ever had from a shop that’s been handcrafting them since 1024, and PPP-Burger for an interesting Sicilian take on the humble burger.

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Burger with black Nebrodi pork, buffalo mozzarella, apenera honey, arugula, Mediterranean sauce & extra virgin olive oil
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My favorite cannoli

Check out Quattro Canti, a Baroque square at the intersection of two major streets (Via Maqueda and Corso Vittorio Emanuele). The four nearly-identical facades contain fountains with statues of the four seasons, the for Spanish kings of Sicily, and the patronesses of Palermo. Quattro Canti was one of the first major examples of city planning in Europe.

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Quattro Canti

Have breakfast the Sicilian way, with a cappuccino or granita and a pastry, such as a brioche or ciambella (doughnut). Preferably on a balcony.

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Milan, pt. 2

11742741_10206579756909192_225276506331837487_nReturning to Milan felt like waking up from a lackluster dream and returning to reality. Our time in Paris and England had only made me miss Italy, so I was relieved to be back. For those of you who haven’t been following our journey, Milan was the very first stop on our Euro Trip, and I had surprised myself by immediately falling in love with it. This second chance to explore the city only solidified my ability to see myself living here.

We were able to catch the Malpensa train into the city center like pros this time. Anthony effortlessly led us to Hotel Star without even glancing at Google Maps. And even the receptionist at our hotel remembered us from last time. Who knew how quickly one could become regulars in a foreign country?!

After taking our time to settle into our room, we caught the train to the Expo, about half an hour away from our hotel. Expo Milano 2015 is basically the World’s Fair, taking place for six months in a different city each year, to showcase exhibits from countries around the world. This year’s theme is Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life, which seemed fitting for us. Throughout our entire trip, we hadn’t been able to escape the country’s excitement over the Expo, as there were advertisements for it in every Italian city we visited. It seemed to be perfect planning to end our trip with such an important event.

China's Pavilion
China’s Pavilion

We arrived in the early afternoon, which was probably not the best idea. We had completely forgotten that Italians take afternoon siestas! Many of the Expo workers, clad in colorful Expo t-shirts, were just arriving, and some pavilions weren’t open yet.

Cooling off with some Vietnamese iced coffee
Cooling off with some Vietnamese iced coffee

We started from one end of the Expo and tried to make our way through every pavilion. This turned out to be an impossible feat, as there were way too many pavilions to count. We did make a few observations as we traveled the world through pavilions:

  1. Most Western countries were more focused on sustainability. Belgium was especially proud of its PermaFungi technology.
  2. The poorer countries were clustered together, presumably because they could not afford their own pavilions, and centered around a common theme such as chocolate, rice, or fruit. These pavilions were more dedicated to selling goods than to anything else.
  3. The Muslim countries always outclassed everyone else. Countries like Turkmenistan and Saudi Arabia had incredibly lavish pavilions.

    Typical pavilion for a Muslim country
    Typical pavilion for a Muslim country
  4. Surprisingly, our favorite pavilion belonged to Estonia. Apparently, they invented the swing set and Viks bike, which Anthony had fun riding. The pavilion also showcased a classical concert, restaurant, and mirrored forest. These smaller European countries were definitely trying to lure future tourists.
A couple Italian boys were very impressed by Anthony while he rides a Viks bike through Estonian streets
A couple Italian boys were very impressed by Anthony while he rode a Viks bike through Estonian streets
Walking through Estonia's mirrored forest
Walking through Estonia’s mirrored forest

By the time dusk came around, more and more Italians arrived at the Expo, and everything finally felt more alive. We watched costumed Italian men dance with flags and batons. They were much better than cheerleaders!

Better than cheerleaders!
Better than cheerleaders!

At the end of the night, we gathered around the Tree of Life for an epic light/water/fireworks show. The Tree of Life is a huge lit-up tree in front of the Italian Pavilion. It was during the light show that I started crying. Not again! My emotions were a mix of overwhelming happiness for being in Italy again, and bittersweet envy that all these people around me could live in this extraordinary country while I had to leave tomorrow. My heart ached, just as it did when we were leaving Positano for Paris. Leaving Italy the second time is no easier than the first.11745834_10206576956599186_8156883170233717353_n11694874_10206580259481756_4698845474608685370_nThe next day, we visited Milan’s extravagant Duomo, which took six centuries to complete. The interior is huge — the fifth largest in the world. Even Anthony was impressed by the Gothic architecture. We took the stairs to the ornate rooftop, which was unlike any other roof we’ve ever seen. It was so ostentatious, with flying buttresses, spires, and bronze Baroque sculptures.12032969_10206999683487094_8103639040867713354_n11760218_10206589223185843_3368747990746748853_n12039478_10206999780289514_4461116954378988770_n12032156_10206999737288439_3021593819322654588_nMy favorite part of visiting the Duomo was sharing the roof with three Tibetan monks. They were such an odd sight, wearing bright orange and taking photos of each other. (Monks can own smart phones??)12003244_10207000902797576_8222685746984218862_nAfter the Duomo, we returned to the stunning Vittoria Emanuel Galleria, where I once had the best gelato of my life. We went to the same gelateria and tried a different flavor (fior di latte) to confirm that it was still the best. Was it? Just like the city itself, the gelato was as fantastic as I had remembered.1972244_10206592609470498_193784403652219991_nWe roamed around Brera, an adorable neighborhood full of art galleries and colorful apartments that reminded me of Rome, and watched as chic women in stilettos biked through the cobblestone roads. Milanese women will have my absolute respect for the rest of my not-as-stylish life.

Brera
Brera

After our last Italian meal, we headed to the airport. My heart was heavy as our trip was coming to an end — but it’s not over yet… ¡Hola, Madrid!12037990_10207006470376762_4918714082263676526_nTips for future travelers:

  1. Fly into Europe on a round-trip ticket. Not only are round-trip flights usually cheaper, it’s nice to start and end your trip in the same place. Beginning and ending our trip in Milan helped everything feel complete, like we could tie up the loose ends of our journey.
  2. Stay at the Expo until the very end. The Tree of Life show was the best part of the entire Expo and was one of the most touching spectacles I’ve ever witnessed. It easily topped 4th of July fireworks and Bastille Day in Paris.

Amalfi Coast

Positano was such a dream that my heart still aches as I write this. I had extremely high expectations for Positano, and somehow, the little seaside town on the Amalfi Coast still exceeded them. The Amalfi Coast was the final stop on the Italian leg of our trip before heading to Paris, so there was also that extra pressure on Positano to be a worthy arrivederci to Italy.

It was a trek to get there. As I wrote in my last post, we had to first catch a Trenitalia train to Naples, a Circumvesuviana train to Sorrento, and finally — since we missed the last ferry of the day — a SITA bus to Positano. These infamous bus rides are destinations in themselves, with hair-raising views of the Mediterranean from a winding path along seaside cliffs. Though our bus could barely fit on the narrow roads and had to take turns with oncoming traffic, these bus drivers clearly knew what they’re doing. They were probably as impressive as the 19th century Italian engineers who built these same roads.

Riding a SITA bus
Riding a SITA bus

The journey was complicated, but our efforts were rewarded. We knew immediately when our bus reached Positano; the town spills down the most dramatic stretch of the Amalfi Coast. The skyline looks almost exactly like it did a century ago, as it’s nearly impossible to get a building permit in Positano. The roofs are filled with sand, providing low-tech insulation to stay cool in the summer and warm in the winter.

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According to Greek legend, Poseidon created Positano for Pasitea, a nymph he lusted after. Positano was once a prosperous port village but fell into hardship after a huge tsunami and subsequent pirate raids. In the 20th century, Positano became a haven for artists and writers. In 1953, John Steinbeck wrote an essay in Harper’s Bazaar, turning Positano into a trendy travel destination.

Our hotel, Residence La Tavolozza, was the best hotel experience of our lives — and I’ve stayed at some pretty lavish hotels before. It’s not hard to please tourists here, as Positano is obviously stunning, but La Tavolozza takes advantage of the location and does it for a surprisingly low cost. Run by an adorable matriarchal family, the six-room hotel sits on a cliff and has a breathtaking view below. The service is exactly how it should be — unobtrusive, but always available. In fact, when we returned from the beach one day, we noticed that someone had folded all our clothes and organized our chargers. That’s definitely not something I expected, especially at this price!

In front of our hotel
In front of our hotel

Our room, with high ceilings and ceramic tiled floors, was sparsely decorated, and rightly so — you don’t want to compete with the view. The best part was opening up the French doors to our huge balcony, which included two tables, two dining chairs, and two reclining beach chairs. I must have taken photos every single time I was out on our balcony, still amazed.

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View of our balcony from bed

Eventually, we forced ourselves outside and explored the area. Lemons and colorful ceramics were everywhere. Only one street in the whole town allows motorized vehicles, so staircases are the only way to get around. If only America despised cars as much!

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We went to the main beach, Spiaggia Grande, twice on our trip. We didn’t feel like paying €10 for the use of lounge chairs and umbrellas, so we claimed a spot in the free triangular section near the center. The water was clear and warm, and the smooth black rocks were actually preferable to sand because sand gets everywhere — into bags, into eyes, onto damp bodies. It was so lovely outside that we took our traditional Italian siesta on the beach.

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Just off Spiaggia Grande is a small shooting gallery, wedged between a staircase and a juice bar. Anthony has unsurprisingly good aim and won some kooky stuffed animals for me. The owner seemed to like us, and just after two visits, we already felt like regulars.

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We were reluctant to eat at any restaurants because we would rather eat on our balcony — and this is coming from someone whose main hobby is trying new restaurants. For most of our meals, we picked up snacks from a family-owned grocery store or pastries from a neighborhood bakery. This worked out well, since restaurants in Positano cater to tourists and aren’t as cheap as those in Florence or Rome.

Our first dinner on our balcony included our pizza leftovers all the way from Naples!
Our first dinner on our balcony included our pizza leftovers all the way from Naples!

The view from our balcony was just as stunning at night, as the windows of homes on the opposite cliff turned a golden hue during dusk, then became brightly lit squares after the sun set. We met a couple from Seattle staying in the adjacent room and shared a bottle of nocciola (hazelnut) liqueur that we had bought back in Rome. They, too, were still stunned by the view.

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After a day of exploring, we returned to our hotel that afternoon and found a long candlestick on our desk. That night, we picked up some desserts to enjoy on our balcony and slept outside on the lounge chairs until our candlestick slowly burned out. Any dream that I may have had that night would pale in comparison to my reality.

Dessert by candlelight
Dessert by candlelight

Waking up in Positano had to be one of the highlights of our entire Euro Trip. Each night, we slept with the glass doors closed and white curtains drawn, which provided just enough light and allowed us to still wake up to the view. It’s no wonder that Positano attracted so many artists and writers; the landscape could inspire anyone.

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One day, we walked down to the harbor and caught a ferry to the nearby town of Amalfi, another major town on the Amalfi Coast. Although it seems close on a map, our boat ride was much longer than I expected, taking us past tiny hillside towns. A man sold drinks on the boat, so we bought a can of limonata (a must on the Amalfi Coast!) and enjoyed the breeze. The ferry took us by some interesting sites, such as a huge cliff with a gaping hole right above a hotel, with homes sitting on top of it.

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Limonata on the boat
Limonata on the boat

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We eventually reached Amalfi, which has more shops than Positano but is not quite as picturesque. After Rome fell, the town of Amalfi was one of the first to trade goods, such as coffee, carpets, and paper, to the East. Its heydey was the 10th and 11th centuries, when it was a powerful maritime republic. Amalfi even minted its own coins and established “rules of the sea” that are still used today. Its one main street runs up from the waterfront through a deep valley, with houses on either side. The uphill walk goes over a creek, since the town originally straddled a stream.

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Arrival in Amalfi

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We bought lemon souvenirs and ate gelato, but our most unique snack was from C.I.C.A. Pescheria, where we ate fritti (fried seafood) stuffed into a handheld paper cone. We squeezed some lemon on top and used the long picks to fish out the fritti. It was delightful and perfect for a Mediterranean merenda.

Handheld fritti
Handheld fritti

Amalfi was a quirky little town, with silly advertisements and extravagant fountains. While we had gotten used to seeing artistic fountains during our time in Italy, none could compare to the unconventional ones found in Amalfi.

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This fountain contained a whole nativity scene with little figurines
This fountain contained a whole nativity scene with little figurines
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Male fantasy?
The water drips down from the umbrella
The water drips down from the umbrella

We caught a crowded ferry back to Positano. During the ride, a Japanese man started singing a traditional Neapolitan song called Santa Lucia. At first, most people on the boat rolled their eyes, half wondering if the man was crazy. But eventually, we realized that he’s actually a tour guide and was incredibly good — like, professional opera singer good — and some people joined in the singing and eagerly applauded when he was done. It’s always reassuring when true talent is universally recognized and appreciated.

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Leaving Amalfi
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Back to Positano

Our last day in Positano was a melancholy one. We picked up pastries from Collina Bakery, bought SITA bus tickets from a nearby tabacchi shop, and enjoyed our cornetti (stuffed Italian croissants) on our balcony for the very last time. During our bus ride back to Sorrento, we noticed some chaos outside causing traffic. It turned out to be a funeral procession, as a group of somber people in black followed a priest.  I don’t know if it was the funeral or the fact that we were leaving Italy, but I started crying. Our time in Positano had been overwhelming; my heart had been swelling up with joy and affection for a while. I felt both pity for the deceased’s loved ones and envy that they could live here, while I must leave.

I’ve always been fond of the places I visit, but this was the first time that I was completely devastated by an attachment to Italy. I’m probably the only American who wasn’t looking forward to an upcoming trip to Paris. I never wanted to leave. Even our hotel owner knowingly said as we checked out that morning, “There’s something special about Positano, isn’t there?” I will definitely be back some day — but until then, bonjour, Paris!

Pastries on our balcony for our last breakfast in Positano
Pastries on our balcony for our last breakfast in Positano

Tips for future travelers:

  1. When catching the SITA bus to the Amalfi Coast, sit on the right side of the bus for the best views. Make sure your luggage is well-secured, as the bus makes sudden turns.
  2. If you’re visiting during high season, book your hotel room early, especially if you’re considering a place like La Tavolozza, which has only six rooms. There is simply no room for hideous chain hotels, so don’t expect to find a Hilton or Marriott here; Positano has too much pride for those.
  3. If you’re reluctant to leave your balcony like we were, grocery stores are great for dinners (e.g., Vini e Panini), and bakeries (e.g., La Zagara and Collina Bakery) are perfect for breakfast pastries. Don’t forget some limonata! Bring everything back to your balcony and never leave again.
  4. You can’t stay on the Amalfi Coast without taking a ferry for a day trip to another town. When you arrive at your destination, check the times for returning ferries. Plan around that and make sure you don’t miss the last one.
  5. Don’t visit Positano unless you are prepared for a heartbreaking good-bye.

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Southern Italy

11870681_10206716885657325_2155242181315756671_nI’ve been told that Italy intensifies as you move farther south, and that Naples — the country’s third largest city — is Italy in the extreme. After spending just a few hours in southern Italy, I can pretty much concur. The rest of Italy feels candy-coated compared to the south. If Rome‘s grittiness is too much to handle, Naples probably isn’t the city for you. But for the adventurous traveler, it offers plenty, from archaeological sites to mindblowing pizza. My obsessive planning skills were useless here, but I slowly learned to embrace the chaotic beauty of southern Italy.11200873_10206716892217489_4288174347546131481_nEven our train ride to Naples seemed more disorderly than all our other train rides. When we boarded our final Trenitalia in Rome, we initially couldn’t find our car because the seating assignments were different. Instead of rows throughout the whole car, there were a few enclosed compartments. We were still standing, perplexed, when the train started moving. Eventually, we figured out how to decipher the seating and joined four other people in a compartment.

If you look closely, there are three people on that little moped. Typical transportation in Southern Italy.
If you look closely, there are three people on that little moped. Typical transportation in Southern Italy.

After a few train stops, only a man and a teenager remained in the compartment with us. The man was on his phone the whole time and even fulfilled our Italian stereotype by exclaiming “Mama mia!” at one point in his conversation. The teenager, realizing immediately that we were tourists, excitedly pointed outside to things we should look at, such as a group of kite surfers and the glittering sea in the distance. He couldn’t speak much English, but we attempted to show our appreciation for this free, private tour by “ooh”-ing and “aah”-ing. Little moments like these — the mutual understanding, enthusiasm, and consideration shared despite language and cultural barriers — were some of my favorite experiences in Italy. Even the other man, despite not interacting with anyone during the ride, said “Ciao” to the teenager and “Bye” to us before leaving the train.11822333_10206717241386218_319687858090721026_nNo matter how little time you have in Naples, eating pizza is a must. Neapolitan pizza is indisputably the best in the world. While New York has done a fair job imitating the Neapolitan style, the prices in Naples can’t be beaten (but I encourage you to try, New York!). Unlike pasta, pizza in Italy is really hit-or-miss. We’ve had an awful one in Venice and decent ones in Rome. Fortunately, there is no gamble in Naples. We squeezed through crowded streets to a pizzeria called Trianon. I was surprised by how fancy the restaurant looked, with bright yellow walls, mirrors to open up the space, and marble tables. Nevertheless, the prices were just what we had hoped.

Look at those prices!
Look at those prices!

We each ordered a pizza, which was ambitious, since one pizza could have stuffed both of us. As expected, they were some of the best I’ve ever had. Authentic Neapolitan pizza consists of wheat flour with a high protein content, San Marzano tomatoes, and only a smattering of fresh mozzarella. The dough must be kneaded by hand or with a low-speed mixer, then formed by hand — not with a rolling pin or other tool — into a thin crust. It is baked for about a minute in a stone oven with an oak-wood fire. When served, the pizza should be soft, floppy, and extremely aromatic. My mouth is watering as I type this. We couldn’t leave behind such good leftovers, so we asked for a takeaway box and headed back to the station.11826045_10206718449176412_6681379387640227486_nWe then embarked on the most miserable train ride in recent memory. To go south from Naples, we caught a cheap commuter train called Circumvesuviana. The company gets its name from Mount Vesuvius, the infamous volcano around which it runs — hence, circum-vesuviana. The train station was a mess. There were dozens of tourists trying to get to Pompeii, just like us, but no one seemed to know which train to catch, since signs were confusing and the trains were not labeled. Some local teenagers were waiting at the platform as well, doing typical dumb teenager stuff — shouting, standing at the very edge of the tracks, and sidling up close to certain passengers. You could sense all the American tourists nervously clutching their belongings. We somehow figured out which train was correct and began the sweltering 40-minute ride. The train was packed and had no air conditioning, just some tiny windows at the top. We were crammed into a corner, still holding onto our pizza.

Holding our leftover pizza on our hot, crowded Circumvesuviana train
Holding our leftover pizza on our hot, crowded Circumvesuviana train

About halfway into the ride, however, a little girl started singing a Spanish song that her dad was playing with a guitar. She didn’t have a great voice, but because of the somewhat dire situation, everyone appreciated it. Music lightened up the mood, while the desperation of the performing child pulled our heartstrings and, what a surprise, made me fall in love with southern Italy a little more.

We got off with the other tourists at Pompeii. The “left baggage” department wouldn’t let us leave our pizza with them, so we ended up carrying it around Pompeii, which is a bit ridiculous considering ancient ruins should deserve more protection than a random air conditioned room by the entrance. Nevertheless, we carried that pizza through Pompeii’s basilica, public baths, and one of the first fast food restaurants!

Serving our leftover pizza from an ancient fast food counter.
Serving our leftover pizza from an ancient fast food counter

Pompeii was once a thriving commercial port, but in year 79, Mount Vesuvius erupted and buried the important Roman city under 30 feet of hot volcanic ash. All inhabitants were killed, and the site was lost for thousands of years. Historians love Pompeii because everything has been preserved due to the lack of air and moisture from the ash. These artifacts provide a perfect insight into the daily lives of middle-class Italians.

A dog buried alive
A dog buried alive

Mount Vesuvius looms in the distance and is still regarded as one of the most dangerous volcanoes in the world. When it erupted, Pompeiians had no idea that they were living under a volcano, as Vesuvius hadn’t erupted for thousands of years. It spewed a cloud of ash, dust, and rocks for 18 hours straight, as winds blew the cloud southward, settling on Pompeii and collapsing roofs and floors.

Looming Vesuvius
Looming Vesuvius

The level of engineering and urban planning that we noticed in Pompeii was astounding. Every day, Pompeiians flooded the streets with gushing water to clean them. Stepping stones let pedestrians cross without getting their sandals wet. Chariots were designed to perfectly straddle the stones. A single stepping stone in a road means that it was a one-way street, while a pair indicates an ordinary two-way. Three stepping stones signify a major thoroughfare. The sidewalks were studded with reflective bits of marble that helped people get around after dark.

Crossing major thoroughfare using stepping stones
Crossing major thoroughfare using stepping stones

After Pompeii, we had to rush to Sorrento to catch a ferry, so we hopped onto Circumvesuviana again for a much more pleasant ride, thanks to strategically-placed windows that allowed air to gush in. Once we arrived in Sorrento, we had to climb down a long, zigzagging staircase to get to the port. Poor Anthony had to carry our suitcase down. When we finally got to the port, we were told that the last ferry to Positano was at 3:00, not 6:00 like Rick Steves said! I couldn’t believe that something went wrong in my impeccable itinerary! This had to be the most frustrating experience on our trip, as I hopelessly went to each ferry booth to confirm that there were no more ferries for the rest of the day. Instead of taking a ferry, we’d have to take a winding journey on a SITA bus to our hotel. I refused to make Anthony carry our suitcase up that absurd staircase, so we plopped ourselves onto a nearby city bus that takes people back to the train station. Of course, the bus driver took his time, waiting for more people to board. I was incredibly moody, and I don’t know what I would have done if eternally-calm Anthony hadn’t been with me. The driver finally shut the doors and dropped us off at the train station. We must have looked frantic because a kind Italian man asked if we needed help. A garbled “Dove stazione SITA?” was enough for him to point us to a SITA bus that was just about to leave. He confirmed that we were going to the Amalfi Coast and rushed us to the bus stop. The SITA bus driver must heard the helpful man’s shouts because he waited for us and shut the doors as soon as we scrambled up with our luggage. We made it! Southern Italy, I love you again. Ciao, Positano!

Tips for future travelers:

  1. Go with the flow. I struggled with this, as I couldn’t purchase our Circumvesuviana tickets or ferry rides in advance. But just know that everything is going to work out. You’ll eventually find the right train platform, you’ll eventually get to your destination. No one is in a rush in southern Italy, and, besides getting to Pompeii before it closes, there’s no reason you should be in a rush, either.
  2. One thing you’ll notice as an American traveler is that the worst thing that can happen to you (e.g., getting pickpocketed) is probably your own fault. Southern Italy gets a bad reputation, thanks to its overwhelming poverty and America’s obsession with the Mafia. However, the Italians we came across in Southern Italy were some of the most charming people on our trip, and it’s a shame that such superficial stereotypes discourage many tourists from exploring places like Naples. Southern Italy is real Italy, after all.