The Trip: {Sicily, Ephesus, Athens & Crete}

After a week of having no power at home, I can say that I am extremely thankful for deodorant, fresh foods, blogging, air conditioning, and not having to fold laundry by candlelight while sitting on a towel because you are sticking to your leather furniture.

True story. Winds 85+ mph aren’t good for power lines, fences and trees, apparently. And, when it’s 90* inside your house, it makes you very hard to live with.

So now, on to the FINAL chapter of this trip thing… I promise!

(Missed part I, II & III? Read ’em!)

After our first 10 days of travel, we needed a break.

As in: If I didn’t get to just sit for several hours at some point (and maybe get a drink with an umbrella in it), I might die. Also, not sweating all day long and walking more than 10 miles in a day would be great, too.

{Read more about the particulars of the cruise below – it was wonderful!}

Enter, The Navigator of the Seas. This beauty was a floating resort, and included multiple pools, restaurants, bars, a theater, a rock climbing wall, putt-putt, sport courts, free frozen yogurt machines and an ice skating rink: H.E.A.V.E.N.

It was also going to carry us – in our well-appointed state room with a balcony view of the Mediterranean – to Sicily, Ephesus, Athens and Crete.

{Mt. Etna’s black lava, landscape, lunch, the terrifically blue sea}

Our first destination was Sicily. We hired a private tour with Sicily Life, and totally enjoyed having our local guide walk us through the sights we had arranged. We saw Mt. Etna, an active volcano; an oil & honey shop; and the pristine village of Taormnia. But – our favorite spot of the day, and arguably the best meal of the trip – was at a little mountain side restaurant. We enjoyed three types of pasta (one with wild mushrooms and a light cream sauce; one with pine nuts, fennel, and raisins; and one with a fresh vegetable primavera) and two fabulous desserts (a sponge cake with icy cream drizzled with chocolate, and small fried pockets of crispy dough filled with mascarpone and chocolate chips. I. die.) with our guide as we spoke in depth about politics, education, marriage & courtship, cooking, the mafia, economics and everything else we could think of! The views were spectacular, and we purchased luscious olive oils, pesto, flavored honey, a painted bowl, and a vintage embroidered handkerchief.

{Fresh pom juice, ancient ruins, rug making, Mary’s House, and a view of our ship}

After a peaceful day at sea spent lounging in the sun by the pool, we arrived in Turkey. Another private guide, booked with Celsus Travel, and a driver awaited us to whisk us off to Mary’s House, Ancient Ephesus and the Terrace Houses, the mountaintop village of Sirince, a rug maker and bazaar. We walked where Paul preached, drank fresh pomegranate juice and Turkish coffee, and picked up a beautiful scarf, Turkish delight (which always makes me think of The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe!) and lovely pottery to take home.

{View from the Acropolis, olive tree, Mars rock, Greek yogurt, new watch}

A quick overnight journey brought us to the shores of Greece, and a short taxi ride brought us to the foot of the Acropolis. We were awed. The ruins were positively majestic, and the clear sunny day allowed us to see the rest of the ancient city sprawled out below us. We visited the Agora, Acropolis museum, walked the streets, browsed the shops, and ate spanakopita, Greek Salad, Baklava, and my favorite (and a MUST on my trip to-do list) authentic Greek ewes milk yogurt… cold, creamy and tangy with a spoon of rose and strawberry preserves. I can taste it now… totally delightful. We took home a lovely gold anchor charm (a Christian symbol used in the catacombs we saw in Rome), and cool watch for the Husband.

{Blue, blue, blue…}

Finally, we reach our final destination: The crystal blue waters of the Greek isle of Crete. We simply hopped on the city bus at Chania to the center of the city, and took an amazing walk to the beach. A shorter excursion day, we lounged in the sun for a few hours, and then wandered back to port, stopping for gyros and an olive wood serving set. This spot was gorgeous – each house was dripping with flowers (no matter how small or dilapidated), and the port (which was designed by Venetians!) looked like something from a painting.

We arrived back in Rome after another delightful day at sea, and took the train to the airport to fly back to our cozy home… We were tired and happy, with minds and hearts and souls expanded to capacity with the joy of discovery, and the richness of fresh knowledge and life lessons.

It had all bee totally worth it… and we were better for it.

{Happy to be home at last!}

Special thanks to all that helped us dream, plan and explore: {Our awesome parents, our “Friends up North”, Hannah & Federico and many, many others…} Missed part I, II & III? Read ’em!

A few notes about the cruise – Just in case you’re planning a trip soon!:

Booking – We booked the trip ourselves over the phone after checking the Royal Caribbean website, and monitoring deals and special offers. A travel agent wasn’t necessary at any point during our trip!

Food & Drinks: Even the somewhat critical foodie that I am, I was surprised at the freshness and variety of the meals offered on board. Partially because the passengers were made up of people from a wide variety of nations, you could find brioche, baked beans, pancakes, curry or muesli for breakfast, and always had a variety of pretty well-prepared dinners in the dining room at night. We purchased a wine package, which was also a great value for us. Bottles were expensive on board, and you (technically) weren’t allowed to bring any on with you. We enjoyed a few drinks around the pool, but mostly stuck to enjoying a bottle at dinner. We also got a water package, but two bottles were provided in the room, and it wasn’t really necessary. Personally, I would steer clear of soft drink packages – pricy and too easy to fill up! Regular coffee was free, specialty drinks from Starbucks had a regular charge.

Room: We were advised to pick a room away from elevators, and close to the upper decks – great advice for a quiet, smooth trip with easy access to amenities. Also, the balcony was a must, as we ate quick room-service breakfasts there at each port before we disembarked (and opening our anniversary champagne would have been difficult without it ;).

Excursions: Don’t. Use. The. Ship’s. Tours. We zoomed passed groups of 50+ that followed rather lame guides through the sights of each stop. They might be a little cheaper than booking private tours like we did in Sicily and Ephesus, but you really miss out! And, if you have a group, or just need a taxi or city bus, you can SAVE by going it alone, like we did in Crete and Athens! Don’t be fooled – it’s easy to find great companies and deals at your port cities. Check Cruise Critic and Trip Advisor to see what other passengers recommend!

Advertisements

The Trip: {Venice & Orvieto}

This post should have read, Venice, PISA and Orvieto…

…but that was before the rail workers went on strike, we skyped with friends in two nations to change plans, I almost died of thirst on a train, I gave a lady from South Africa two granola bars, and we walked over ancient cobblestones with our suitcases a mile out of our way after we got lost (for the first time) on our way to the station.

Oh, Europe. We love you.

{Cancellato, Cancellato, Cancellato… and lots of tourists in line for refunds}

During our stay in Florence, we planned a day trip to Venice, and to Pisa. One of those, as you now know, was cancelled due to unavoidable circumstances. However, the other, along with a gondola ride straight out of a book, or a dream, or a Disney theme park (whatever speaks to you) more than made up for it.

Who needs to see an ‘ol lopsided building anyhow.? That’s what I told myself, anyway… It sort of worked.

Venice:

{Made-on-the-spot espresso on the train, the Tuscan countryside, water taxi ride…}

The train ride to Venice was our first rail experience,  and we navigated it wonderfully. Mind you, this was the day before they were on strike, so we were blissfully unaware of the problems we could have faced… thank goodness! The city itself was packed with crowds. There was a boat race that day, so there were several thousand EXTRA tourists and spectators packed on to the narrow bridges and streets – quite a contrast to the relatively easy to navigate (and breath/have elbow room) Florence.

But, Oh…

…it’s so beautiful.

We purchased the Venice Pass (to bring us to the front of the long lines!) and took the vaporetto (water taxi) to St. Mark’s Square from the train station to see the Doge’s Palace and Basilica of St. Mark. The square was full of people, but the sights were beautiful. The “bridge of sighs” that passed between the palace and its prison (where prisoners would sigh as they took one last look at Venice as they crossed) was one of our favorite spots (top right, above!)…

{Narrow water-streets, our gondola, the Grand Canal… and that blue door}

After touring both the palace and the church, we wanted to get into the city to see the lovely little waterways and more of the Grand Canal – too picturesque for words! We ended a rather warm, crowded day with a cool, peaceful, romantic gondola ride (so, so worth it!), and some local cicchetti at al Pesador – a bar nestled right along the Grand Canal and the Rialto bridge… octopus, yum!

{Flavors, guide book review, the husband trying new things, fresh-water fountains}

We really enjoyed walking the streets, browsing the lovely Murano glass and traditional lace – both made on one of the hundreds of islands that make up this amazing, historic city. As we often felt during the trip, we had to leave too soon… but, more adventures awaited us!

Orvieto:

Because Pisa was a no-go, our next day was spent getting a refund at the train station, then spending some extra time in Florence before departing earlier-than-planned to Orvieto. It turns out, this was a blessing in disguise! We adored every moment we had in this tiny city-on-a-hill in the Umbria region with Hannah!

{Views, our suite of rooms and breakfast… oh, to be sitting there again!}

We stayed at B&B La Magnolia, and it was more perfect than I could have imagined. Serene, the owner, also owns the fun cafe & bar downstairs (where our breakfast was served the first day – above middle), and was wonderful to work with. Our suite was at the tippy-top of the historic building in the center of town, and had a fabulous view of of the city and countryside below. It was also just steps from Orvieto’s fabulous duomo, which was one of our favorite churches we visited on the trip… and that’s saying a lot!

The highlight of this portion of the trip, however, was getting the chance to see Hannah “in her element”! Now fluent in Italian (though she would deny it), seeing the place I’ve heard so much about from her over the last few years was amazing. She works with a college program that she attended while in school, and is getting ready to start her Masters in Fine Arts this summer. Orvieto has inspired her work in so many ways – it was easy to see how she fell in love with the views, the culture, the language and the people…

Speaking of the people, we also had the delightful pleasure of meeting Hannah’s talented, amazing friend – Federico. He is a shoemaker and leather craftsman that learned his art in Rome, and lives in Orvieto where he has a shop. We had a blast getting to know him, seeing his beyond-beautiful work, and taking advantage of his tour guide and pizza ordering skills :)

{The evening streets were dream-like, and the sunsets were not to be missed}

While here, we toured the duomo, visited ancient pre-Roman Etruscan ruins, walked down the St. Patrick’s well, climbed the clock tower and ate the most fabulous pasta alla carbonara and affogato known to man at Mezza Luna Trattoria (the restaurant with the amazing flowers hanging over the door, above). The pizza with spicy sausage and Gorgonzola wasn’t too shabby either… or the wine…

…let’s just say it was a good thing we climbed 10,000 stairs while on this trip.

All to quickly, we said goodbye… and were off to Rome!

…more coming soon!

P.S. On another note – Happy third Anniversary to my brave, strong, smart, Godly, devastatingly handsome husband… We always said we would go on adventures together… I’d say we’re off to a good start ;)

The Trip: {Florence}

We’re home!

Actually, we’ve been home for a week, but today is the first day that my brain is functioning normally enough that it doesn’t feel like work should be over at 11:00a.m. (“it’s 5 o clock somewhere” has never been so true), we don’t flinch every time we hear a motor running behind us (pretty sure we were going to be roadkill on those narrow streets… and those mopeds were vicious!), and our laundry situation is mostly under control.

Also, I’m not violently ill like I was most of our first night home… at least it wasn’t on the cruise ship, but let’s say it didn’t help speed up my post-trip recovery.

Darn circulated airplane air…

Enough about the usual after vacation blues – We are still completely basking in the glow of an amazing, amazing journey. The Trip was everything we had hoped for, and so much more. As anticipated, there were lots of surprises…both the good and bad kind. But, nothing that came close to marring our experience as a whole.

{We were so happy to be there! The view was out of this world…}

There are 1,700 beautiful pictures; dozens of stories; hundreds of suggestions, lessons learned and recommendations that I could share with you, so bear with me as I try to whittle them down to the “best of the best” (and know that you can send me a note for more details any time :)

I’m going to break things up a bit over the next few days, and give you just a taste of our experiences (and try my best not to bore you). I hope you enjoy!

Getting There:

We flew out of Toronto, where we were put up for the night by our WONDERFUL “Friends up North”! We were treated to wonderful wine and snacks upon arrival, a delicious asparagus and brie breakfast bake in the morning, and lettuce wraps after a morning run before we left for the airport. It was the perfect kickoff to our vacation, and a great way to wind down a bit after weeks of packing, planning and list-making, and they had some great parting advice for us that helped make our trip the best it could be… (Thanks, guys!).

We saved a lot of money flying out of Canada, and were on an Indian airline for our 10 hr ride to Brussels, where we changed planes for Florence! The curry we had for dinner was the best plane food I’d ever had, and the chocolate we got during the layover was a great “breakfast”… delish!

Florence:

Landing in Florence was so, so exciting. Though we were exhausted, the adrenaline kept us moving… and the beyond lovely sights. It was about 1:30p.m. local time when we arrived, and the first thing we did was check into our Bed & Breakfast: Casa Dei Tintori. It. Was. Perfect. Just like the photos, and in an amazing location, we settled in right away, and then were off in just a few minutes to spend the rest of our day exploring!

We walked right to the heart of the historic city in just a few minutes, and gazed in awe at the Duomo… soaking it all in was impossible! The massive building, with its bast dome, dominates the landscape. We went inside, and were lucky enough to be one of the last tours of the day to climb to its peak!

We couldn’t wrap up our day without some gelato… it was literally on every corner calling my name! This was our first (of many, many, many) amazing Italian food experiences. You can SEE the bliss on our faces :)

We woke up the next morning to a day full of plans for visits to the Uffizi Gallery and Accademia, but first things first: Breakfast! The owners of Casa dei Tintori,, Valeria and Alfredo, lived in the back portion of the historic (800 years old!) building, and Valeria presented us with this wonderful spread. Her coffee was some of the best I tasted while on the trip – espresso served in a tiny pitcher with a cup of frothed milk and a shaker of chocolate. There was yogurt, granola, fruit, cereal and delightful (nutella – which was in EVERYTHING the entire trip…no complaints here! And fruit-filled) pastries. Heaven.

We saw so much over the next three days: Michelangelo’s David, Botticelli’s Birth of Venus, and many, many sculptures, paintings and architecture from the most famous men of the Renaissance. Its was overwhelming… and wonderful.

Also, as expected, we ate some of the best food I’ve ever taste, and some of our favorite flavors of the trip! The sandwiches from All’antico Vinaio were astounding: Fresh bread and meats were being carted from the bakery and butcher across the street while we waited, and wine was available for two euros a person… just pick a bottle, fill one of the small glasses and sit outside with your (huge!) sandwich!

Funny/not-so-funny story about this place: The first time The Husband ordered here, there was an American girl behind him in line (she’s wearing green in the picture of at the bottom left, above). Well, she ended up passing out while he was ordering, and throwing up on the back of his leg – gross! Apparently she had been drinking the night before (way to represent, U.S.A.), and hadn’t eaten anything yet that day. I, however, was waiting outside and didn’t see this whole drama unfold. So, when the hubby cam out with only ONE sandwich, I was mad! Needless to say, I wasn’t as compassionate to my dear husband as I could have been… but it was a good sandwich ;) We ended up going back (without incident) just a few days later.

We were fortunate enough to be there during the Firenze Gelato Festival. The best gelato makers from around the country were there with special flavors – my favorite was passion fruit dark chocolate… intense and with amazing depth of flavor. We also sampled specialties like meatballs, ravioli, bruschetta, pizza, salads and lasagna (eaten on church steps!) during our stay. Perfection.

In a nutshell:

I adored Florence – probably my favorite leg of our journey because it was busy and bustling with life, but didn’t have the vastness of Rome and the crowds of Venice (pictures and stories from both will be coming soon!).

Note: You will see The Husband’s red shorts very frequently in these shots… because we accidentally only packed him one pair. Oops! He’ll never take clean clothes for granted again ;)

And we’re off…

Little did I know, watching “Mission Impossible” right before I started packing was totally appropriate…

I had to channel my inner Tom Cruise to not only pick what I was going to wear (may or may not have spent 3.75 hours in the closet trying things on), but also get everything into our suitcases.

I tried printing out Rick Steves’ packing list. It included one pair of zip of pants, a polyester shirt and instructions on how to wash socks in a sink. {photo source}.

ZIP. OFF. PANTS.

With all due respect: Stick your ol’ list in your ear, Mr. Steves.

Anyway, mission accomplished.

We will be gone for over two weeks, so there won’t be any regular posts during that time. HOWEVER, please feel free to follow me on twitter for some pictures and little updates as we move through Italy and the Mediterranean… internet access might be spotty at times, but I assure you that you will get lots of photos and details when we return :)

{Testing the merchandise for comfort is important}

Thank you for your sweet comments and lots of love as we have gone through the planning and dreaming process of “The Trip”. Keep us and our journeys in your prayers, if you don’t mind. I don’t want the Husband to wander around and get lost trying to buy “Statue of David” boxers, or to wind up paddling a lifeboat or anything…

THAT would be a bummer.

:)

I will leave you with this:

{An amazing original work by Hannah – who I get to see in less than a week!}

Ciao!

It’s getting {real}…

We had a fun-filled visit to the old homestead over the weekend… It was about time – We hadn’t been back since Christmas!

Our days were filled with wedding festivities (hooray for Mary Beth & Luke!), a spinning class, mildly successful shopping, hang out time with friends, laughs with family, and THIS dinner.

Yes, that is a homemade grilled pizza buffet. Yes, my mom outdid me with my own recipe. Yes, it was heavenly.

My favorite appetizers, great wine, homemade dough, amazing toppings (including Pear & Gorgonzola) and a cozy fire… sigh. No place like home.

There was also BBQ and funfetti cake at the Husband’s parents’ (partially eaten in the basement due to a slight weather emergency) but that was inhaled with such vigor that there is no photographic evidence. The hail and tornado sirens might have been a little distracting as well…

The other fun development over the weekend was “THE TRIP” coming together! Gordon & Selena, our “Friends up North”, were in town and helped us finalize a few more of our plans. I told you we booked our cruise, but now we’ve purchased our plane tickets and have a few more little details to share… It’s getting real!

We leave May 24 and will return June 10. In between we will be here:

Florence, Italy {source}

and here: Venice, Italy {source}

and here: Pisa, Italy {source}

and here: Orvieto, Terni, Italy {source}

and here: Rome, Italy {source}

and here: Messina, Sicily, Italy {source}

and here: Kusadasi, Ephesus, Turkey {source}

and here: Athens, Greece {source}

and here: Chania, Crete, Greece {source}

I can hardly contain myself. I can hardly concentrate on anything else. I can hardly fall asleep. AND we have two months to go…

Oh, well. I need that time to panic over packing and booking hotel rooms and tours anyhow ;)

Any fun weekend adventures or tips planned in your neck of the woods? Do any of you experienced travelers have any advice for us? We need it!