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Thursday, August 18, 2016

Venice, Italy

May 1, 2011: Our first and only day in the Sinking City during our first European backpacking adventure.

I remember it clear as day. We arrived in Mestre bright and early after our overnight train from Paris pulled into the station. We wandered around and found our little bed and breakfast before freshening up and jumping across the pond into the actual city. We walked through the streets and canals, burnt our noses during a wonderfully sunny May day, and dined at an exquisite sea-side pasta restaurant. We spent 11 days in Europe in 2011, and our single day in Venice was the day we were most fond of.

This meant it had to be on our itinerary in 2016. One day was clearly not enough to enjoy the Venetian canals. Two days this time, for sure, would continue our love affair with Venice.

In hindsight, we should have skipped over Venice this time around.

The city has been run afoul with tourists, ultra high-end fashion shops, arrogant and stubborn restaurant owners, and endless, useless trinket shops. Jaclyn and I spent six hours walking to, around, and from Piazza San Marco, and we knew we had no passion to return. It’s a giant maze full of hot, sweaty tourists and super-snobby shops only the greatest of us can afford.

To get away from some of the bustle, we walked into the Venetian Ghetto in search of food, (some) peace, and a more natural sense of Venice.

But to really get away from the Venetian crowds, we hopped on the hour-long ferry ride to Burano. We saw photos of the colourful island prior to the trip and knew we needed to shoot our own.

What we discovered was the intricacy and delicacy of Burano’s lace market. Jaclyn came home with a small — and highly expensive — lace doily, and that doily helps to symbolize the once powerful Venetian trading market and highly skilled craftsmen of the region.

Burano’s streets had a feeling of the Venice we visited in 2011. Tourists weren’t as plentiful and the shops felt more genuine. Actual citizens lived within those Buranese homes. Actual citizens flee those homes when storms arise. In the heart of Burano lies a real piece of Venice that Venice itself can no longer boast about.

Skipping over Venice would have been a mistake. The city’s never ending beauty always lies somewhere beneath the hustle of the tourists above. Small moments of silence can still be had, especially if you make a wrong turn. In those moments, the Venice of today feels somewhat like the Venice of yesterday.

But it’s no longer what it was. Venice will slowly be replaced by another, more genuine destination. Wherever that destination, Venice needs to stand as a used, worn out monument in desperate need of revitalization.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Tiny Home Test Drive

I’m looking at a 1300 square foot home and can find a multitude of ways to fill the space. I can’t imagine 260 square feet.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

"They don't pay you for ground balls. They pay you for doubles. They pay you for homers."

Josh Donaldson — the reigning American League MVP — gives some hitting advice to 10 year olds. And if there is only one thing better than Josh Donaldson’s hitting advice, it’s Josh Donaldson’s hair.

Friday, August 05, 2016

Cinque Terre, Italy

This is no longer Italy’s best kept secret.

In fact, if tourists aren’t careful, it’ll become Italy’s worst secret.

The Cinque Terre is a set of five towns on the western coast of Italy. The entire region is a UNESCO World Heritage site, signifying its spot amongst the world’s most treasured sites. Traversing the cliffs and hiking between villages serves to drive this point home. The Italian cliffs rise straight out of the water, while vineyards and Ligurian countryside overlook the Mediterranean. As a whole, the region serves as a reminder of what old Italy used to look like.

Getting to and from Cinque Terre is easy, but traveling within the towns has become a lesson in patience. If you’re in Florence, take a train to La Spezia Centrale and stay in La Spezia for a few nights. If possible, stay close to the train station. You can pick up a Cinque Terre card at any train station (be prepared to stand in line), which allows you to use the train non-stop for your stay and to use the paid hiking trails when the trails are open.

We stayed at Cinque Terre Gateway in La Spezia, just a two minute walk from the station. Cinque Terre Gateway is owned and operated by Michele, the single most hospitable person I’ve ever met. We forgot to notify Michele of our early arrival, but he quickly accommodated our bags, gave us coffee, and gave us a great set of tips for traveling the Cinque Terre region. On top of that, his hotel is absolutely stunning — everything is newly renovated with modern finishes in every corner. To finish off our experience at Cinque Terre Gateway, the hotel room cost about 150€ a night — far less than anything you’ll find in one of the five towns and, considering the modern finishes in the rooms, absolutely worthy of a few nights stay. I haven’t talked about any hotels we visited to this point, but Michele’s Cinque Terre Gateway was absolutely incredible.

As Michele pointed out to us, the train stations in each of the Cinque Terre towns are full of pickpockets. We actually saw one in action. With all the crowds, it’s easy to be budged by anyone. If you get within close quarters, be aware of individuals sticking their hands in your pockets.

We spent our first week in Europe running between cities, so the first thing we did was hop on the train from La Spezia to the northernmost town of Monterosso al Mare.1 The northernmost town of Monterosso al Mare has become reminiscent of a beach resort. Long, stony beaches wrap around the town with touristy beach umbrellas marking the best beaches to visit. There are free and paid beaches in Monterosso, so considering the amount of crowds we battled for the week prior, we chose to pay for an umbrella. This was a great choice, as I could sit in the scorching hot Italian sun and burn my brilliantly white Canadian skin in relative peace.

Ferries travel between the towns and we recommend taking a ferry at some point during your stay. The ferry gets you out onto the water, but most importantly, it gives you that wonderful sea view of the Cinque Terre perched on the cliffs. It’s truly one of the most amazing views I’ve ever seen.

We took a ferry from Monterosso to Vernazza after an afternoon of sitting on the beach. Vernazza is probably the prettiest town in the Cinque Terre and was packed with people swimming in the dock and eating at sea-view restaurants.

We started in Corniglia for our second day in the Cinque Terre. Corniglia is the only town in the Cinque Terre that doesn’t have water access — you have to take a train to Corniglia and then climb 365 steps to get to the town itself. Despite the climb, Corniglia was probably my favourite of the five towns — the town gives uninterrupted views of the Mediterranean and helps you realize the vastness of the Cinque Terre region as a whole.

We climbed back down the 365 steps and took a train to Manarola, the second southernmost town in the Cinque Terre. Manarola is beautiful, with a nice watering hole at its base with many great chances to swim and cool off. Most importantly, Manarola has a nice cliff-winding hiking path that gives absolutely perfect views of the entire town resting on the cliff. Although it was scorching hot, we couldn’t have asked for a better afternoon of visiting — and viewing — the town of Manarola.

Lastly, the town of Riomaggiore is generally the first stop for most tourists and you can tell local business owners have figured this out. Riomaggiore is filled with great restaurants, the best of which is the only restaurant located in the dock. We planned on dining there, but it was booked hours in advance. Be sure to make a reservation at any higher-end restaurant in Riomaggiore, or else you may find issues eating on short notice.

Via dell’Amore is a hiking trail and runs between Riomaggiore and Manarola. It offers the best Mediterranean views in the region and is carved into the cliffs for lovers of a bygone era.

Cinque Terre is a casualty of the internet. The region was considered Italy’s best kept secret, a place for savvy tourists to visit without all the crowds and hullabaloo of bigger tourist destinations. The advent of the internet exposed the Cinque Terre’s natural beauty, bringing with it throngs of tourists who — unknowingly — are slowly destroying the beauty of the region.

The Cinque Terre was never designed to handle thousands of tourists each day. Each walking path is incredibly tight and frustratingly packed with Italian adventurers, while each train station is too small to handle the thousands of tourists visiting each day. Trains are always late in the Cinque Terre — we constantly waited 15 minutes or more past the scheduled arrival time for a train.

But more importantly, the natural landscape of the Cinque Terre has a hard time keeping up to the incredible amounts of tourists. The Cinque Terre has constant rockslide issues, often shutting down the hiking trails and, in extreme circumstances, shutting down villages entirely. In 2011, both Vernazza and Monterosso were entirely washed away, with locals killed in the process. The region is clearly vulnerable, and the shear number of tourists continues to worsen the process.

Even still, nestled inside Cinque Terre is one of the most pure forms of Italy one can find on any trip. Many shop owners don’t speak a word of English. Many businesses take cash only. Many locals still wander down to the market each day to get their bread. Despite the tourists, the Cinque Terre has found a way to stay within itself and close to its roots. This is a region any backpacker has to visit during a trip to Italy, and is worthy of at least two days to get a feeling for the wealth of history and beauty at your feet.

  1. Usually, tourists start at the southernmost town of Riomaggiore and either hike or take the train to Manarola and the other three towns. We decided to work our way backwards.

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Florence, Italy

When we stepped on the plane in the early hours of the morning in Paris, we were hardly prepared for the incoming sun, heat, and dust of Tuscany.

Nor were were we ready for worker strikes. Strikes plagued our trip, and they all began during our time in Florence. It was enjoyable though to see higher end tourists have to wait in the scorching heat like everyone else.

After checking in, we began our trek to the Boboli Gardens. Our prior visit led us to believe the city’s best views were up at Piazzale Michelangelo, but Boboli and Belvedere provide a near tangible view of the Duomo and Palazzo Vecchio. Reach out and the entire city is at your fingertips.

The gardens were scorching, but the fort at Boboli was still worth admission. The simple architecture at Belvedere left me wondering what it would have been like to be Florentine royalty centuries ago.

Of course, the centuries-old architecture is unlike anything else in the world. My younger brother would play the older Assassin’s Creed video games as we grew up, and I remember being wide-eyed with digital Florentine architecture. Actual Firenze is that much better.

I swore this time around we would visit the Uffizi. There are few museums in the world with the Uffizi’s calibre, so I’m an idiot for not wanting to stand in line for three hours to get inside. With near 35 Celsius temperatures, waiting in line appeared to be torture.

Instead, we opted to find a cool bottle of white Tuscan wine along the Arno at Signorvino. If you happen to be in Florence, there may not be a better view than on Signorvino’s terrace, especially in the later evening. With Ponte Vecchio’s dazzling jewelry shops glitzing in the evening sun, our first bottle of Italian wine tasted unimaginably good.

The heat, dust, and crowds prepared us for what was to come in Italy, but it was the wine which helped us relax. After a week of big city touring, Florence was a nice step back into history and into vacation.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Paris, France

We chose an awkward time to visit Paris.

Euro 2016 fans could be found in every corner of the city chanting their country’s football anthems, while soldiers were stationed on every street corner after threats had arisen. The Seine found itself at heights not seen since the 1960s, causing the Louvre to evacuate a large chunk of its collection. The entire city seemed to have a heavy dampness in the air.

And, as we chose to visit in the middle of summer, Parisians had largely vacated the tourist throngs.

In short, Paris felt very un-Parisian.

This was Jaclyn’s second time visiting the City of Light and it was my third visit. This being my third visit, I felt a sense of comfort. The Métro hadn’t changed, so we made sure to keep our tickets on hand until we exited. The same cheap crêperies inhabited the same locations at Trocadéro, so we knew to have a few coins to grab a snack.1 Most importantly, we knew which touristy streets to avoid, allowing us to experience what little Paris there was left to discover.

Of course, we wouldn’t have visited if the plan was to retrace our prior steps. This time, we enjoyed the views from the top of the Arc du Triomphe and wandered the streets of the Latin Quarter, the Marais, Les Halles, and Île Saint Louis. Mid-30 degree weather had us looking for shade and ice cream,2 but it’s hard for the weather to keep you from admiring the beauty of the city.

Place des Vosges was a perfect spot to enjoy a cup of coffee and to people watch for a few hours. The square is just far enough away from the huge crowds to get a breath of fresh air. Aside from the near-perfect porridge in London, Carette kicked off our fooding habit and, after a bit of a walk to Les Halles, an American-styled burger with homemade Roomies sauce really put our tastebuds into action. We can’t recommend either of these places enough.

I’ve long felt Paris’ beauty isn’t as immediately obvious as beauty in other cities. Paris’ streets are an awful mess and the high consumption of nicotine leads to a smokey stench. If I was asked to judge the city based on my first five second impression, I’d say I was horrified.

But look upwards and you’re sure to be mesmerized. Parisian architecture is unlike any other city in the world. Paris’ elegance, to me, is most perfectly reflected in the flowerbeds hanging off window balconies and orange chimneys lining the tips of apartment buildings. Throw in that truly-Parisian black-to-blue top level with open-swinging windows and Parisian architecture becomes second to none.

There’s enough history in this city to satisfy the hungriest of learners. Île de la Cité dates back to BC times, with centuries of catacombs to prove it. The Louvre, of course, houses millenia of artifacts and artwork, and is definitely worth a few euro to visit if you have time to stand in line. And if you want to see the peak of Georgian-era opulence, head just outside the city to visit the Sun King’s quarters.

If, on the other hand, you quickly grow tired of huge masses of European backpackers, make like us and get off the main streets. There are some incredible little treasures to find off the beaten Paris track, and it doesn’t take long to find Parisians who work hard to improve their rude reputation. For the first time, we came away impressed with Paris’ hospitality and we were incredibly grateful for how quickly locals used their English to help us out.

This was set to be our last trip to Paris for many years. But, thanks to the city’s newfound hospitality, and thanks to how little Paris you can experience in the middle of the tourist season, it’s going to be very difficult not to want to visit during a travel downtime.

  1. This was the only good view you could get of Tour Eiffel unfortunately. The Champ de Mars was locked down for Euro 2016 and Trocadéro had a big plywood wall stationed right in the best photography positions. As a whole, the entire city felt shut down and dead. Considering recent events, we came to understand why.

  2. Our luck was running very thin in Paris. The Louvre wasn’t open for business. The Champs de Mars was shut down. And Berthillon Glacier on Île Saint Louis — largely considered the best place to get ice cream in Paris — was closed when we walked by. Pick your visiting times better than we did.