Thursday, August 23, 2012

So begins our Austrian adventure...

Guten tag and hello again everyone! Thanks again for all your patience - you shall now be rewarded with many photos of castles, palaces, and of course, delicious Austrian cuisine!

We were lucky enough to stay with Tom's family near Salzburg for two weeks and they were all kind enough to take us on the "Standard Tour" (with Norbert as tour guide!) to all the local hotspots!

This entry is but the first of many of our fabulous Austrian adventures...
The Kaiservilla, built by Franz Joseph I as his own private hunting lodge - not a bad place to escape to for a weekend of shooting the local fauna.
Located in the town of Bad Ischl, Franz Josef, and his lovely wife Elisabeth, would come hole up here to escape the rigours of court life. Rumour has it that Elisabeth, or Sisi as she came to be affectionately by the Austrian public, hated the smell of cooking so much that the kitchen had to be located at the bottom of the hill. Not that royalty is picky or anything!
 The Kaiser liked to hunt. A lot. This trophy wall is but a tiny portion of the 50 000 animals he killed during his time there. But don't worry all you animal-lovers: he caught many of them in the name of education, to teach his children about the local wildlife.
Sadly, I couldn't take any photos inside the house, as it is still used as a private residence by the Kaiser's great-grandson, so you'll just have to use your imagination when I say that they definitely didn't scrimp on anything! The amount of silverware on the dining room table alone was overwhelming! 

 After leaving the opulence of the Kaiservilla behind us, we headed to the Dachstein mountains. Part of the Alps, these mountains are some of the highest in Upper Austria.
The combination of the mountains, clear water and trees reminded us of the Rockies!
A classic part of the Standard Tour is a day trip into Salzburg, which was only an hour away from where we were staying.
Though not a very large town, what it lacks in size, it makes up for in beauty:
the centuries-old buildings nestled along the river, the formidable castle ruling the
 Another Salzburg claim to fame: Mozart was born here!
The admission to see merely two rooms was 17 euros each, so we opted instead for a photo only!
Mozart has also lent his name to the famous Salzburg chocolate marzipan treat: Mozartkugels! If you ever see these in a store near you, buy them!! Or come over to our house when we get back to Canada, as we have packed our bags full of them!
A more dramatic view of the Festung Hohensalzburg.
With construction beginning in the 1000's, it only reached this shape and size in the 1800's; every different ruling bishop wanted to make it just right for them, resulting in many alterations and various uses, including being a fortress during the Thirty Year's War, a military barracks and a prison for Italian POWs during WWI.

 Most importantly for me, the castle had an amazing view of the city!

After a busy weekend of sight-seeing, Tom and I drove to Attersee, one of Upper Austria's many beautiful lakes, though this one is especially beautiful and clear. I have never seen such clear, turquoise water apart from the caribbean, and never in a lake!
The weather had turned hot, so the cold water was particularly refreshing...!

And that was just the first few days! Much more to come, and don't worry - there will be food!

Friday, August 10, 2012


 Ahh's hard to describe how truly beautiful and breathtaking this city is - it's a place I have always wanted to visit, but never actually thought I'd be standing on one of it's many (MANY) bridges, watching gondolas glide along underneath me. The downside of Venice's infamous beauty is that everyone else in the world also visits in the summer! The number of tourists clogging the narrow streets was incredible, with tour boats unloading their international cargo all day. The best people-watching was always at 5:00PM, when all the tourists head back to their boats, sunburned, covered in gelato, and many sporting their newly purchased Venetian carnival masks!
 Venice, or Venezia, seems like a city that shouldn't really exist: a man-made island with waterways instead of roads, churches with docks instead of parking lots, and the threat of floods everytime it rains. Boats serve as the main mode of trasportation, so everything from groceries to dishwashers to firefighters to newlyweds are transported along the canals, with only one road connecting Venice to the mainland (cars and even bicycles are forbidden in the city). 
Another example of how boats rule the city: a floating grocery store!
 This couldn't be a true Venezia blog without at least one photo of Gondolas!
They really are as beautiful and romantic in real life as they are portrayed in movies and books, though sadly for our budget, they were obscenely expensive! The proces varied, but on average they were around $80 for the half hour traditional tour, and $120 if you wanted to tour the more quiet canals. Needless to say, we skipped on the gondolas, and opted instead for a ride on the 'vaporetto', Venice's answer to public transportation - these long barges are like our normal city buses, so it was a great way to see the city from the water (and at 7 euros, it was much more affordable!)
Though the gondola business is now a ludicrous tourist-trap, the history of these boats spans many centuries. Pictured here is where these renowned are made; tucked away in a quiet corner of the city, this little workshop seems frozen in time, with gonodoliers working on their boats for upwards of two months. Apparently to become a gondolier is quite difficult - the trade is usually passed down from father to son.
We had to try a Bellini, a typical Venetian drink: prosecco mixed with white peach juice. These little bottles were in many ofthe corner stores dotted around the city, and were a perfect respite from the relentless heat - it turns out there isn't much in the way of shade or benches in Venice! (On our second foray to the city we found the Public Gardens, where we blissfully spent the day under the trees!)

The Bridge of Sighs. 
This bridge transported convicted criminals to their final resting place (jail), so the barred windows were their last look at the outside world. As legend has it, Casanova passed along this bridge, though he ended up escaping. 
Around every corner there was yet another beautiful canal lined with beautiful, centuries-old buildings...choosing amongst hundreds of photos is no easy task!
Our last view of Venice before we boarded the night-train to head to Austria...!

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Chioggia: pizza utopia!

When planning our Italy trip, Tom and I didn't know where to go after Florence, so we made a last-minute decision and decided to hang out in Chioggia for a week, a decision that proved to be fantastic!
After a tearful goodbye at the train station, we bid Jodi Ciao-Adieu-Bon voyage, and headed off to an unknown city on the Venetian Lagoon. Only a 1.5 hour boat ride from Venice, Chioggia turned out to be a sleepy fishing village, where tourists were rare (though all Italian), and English-speakers even more scarce - with our very poor Italian, this proved difficult but a real adventure!  
 This was our regional train to Chioggia - I've never seen such a tiny train! We knew we were in for an adventure when we pulled into the Chioggia train 'station', which consisted of a bar, and that's it! We also got quite lost on the way to our hotel, since directions in Italian were not that useful!
After settling into our adorable hotel (family owned and run for 45 years!), we naturally set out to look for sustenance: lucky for us, we stumbled across a hole-in-the-wall pizzeria which was owned and operated by Mauro, a 2-time World Pizza Champ, and 3-time Italian Pizza champ! As you might've guessed, the pizza was DELICIOUS, and we ate it 6/8 nights! Pictured up top was our fave: crema di funghi.
Chioggia, as I said before, is a working fishing village, with a similar set-up to Venice, with canals and bridges criss-crossing the streets. It was a nice change from the various tourist-trap cities, like Paris and Florence, to be in a place where life is much slower and we weren't being hassled to buy faux Chanel bags at every corner.  The city itself is an island, connected to the mainland by bridges; we stayed in Sottomarina, the 'newer' part of the city on the otherside of Chioggia's marina. Sottomarina is essentially a long peninsula with a white sand beach stretching the length of it, all of which is owned in sections by various hotels and campgrounds. The waterfront had a 70s resort feel to it, with Italian tourists walking around in speedos!

Our hotel owned several spots on a beach for its guests, so we didn't have to rent chairs and an umbrella like other visitors, which saved us some serious cash, as we went to the beach everyday! The water was like Sandbanks, with shallow water for long stretches and big waves! There was also GREAT people watching opportunities, with families of all shapes and sizes coming to spend the day at the beach - speedos, topless women, beach aerobics to Italian-dubbed Lady Gaga songs, black market handbags, the list goes on...!
Twice a week there is what's called the 'People's Market', which Tom and I were hoping would be food, but it turned out be stall after endless stall of everything a person could want, non-food wise: pots + pans, hats, underwear, tablecloths, electronics, and of course, the infamous Italian Mama-frocks (pictured above - Jodi this one's for you!) I almost bought one. I guess there aren't too many shopping opportunities nearby, so the market is where everyone goes for their everyday needs.

Though not unique to Chioggia, these three-wheeled trucks made me laugh everytime I saw one - I had to include a photo on the blog!! The cab barely has enough room for one person, but they are all over the place! It's not much bigger than a smartcar!

Here we are on our favourite beach, having a last pizza meal before heading off to Venice, and then Austria!

More to come...Venezia is next!

Monday, August 6, 2012

Florence & Siena

 On the day of our (sad) departure from Cinque Terre, we found out that Trenitalia, (the only train provider in Italy), had decided to go on strike for the weekend, with rotating strikes happening in four hour blocks across the country...great. After many false starts, mystery trains that never showed up, and a diminshing patience for everything Italian, we made it to Florence!! The upside was our hostel had free A/C!
Though crawling with tourists, Florence is still an incredibly beautiful city, with seemingly every building having some major historical significance; I was in awe. Not only is Florence a city of monuments, it's also a city of fashionistas, so Jodi and I put on our best duds and shopped for gold & jewellery on the bridge pictured behind us (Tom wasn't as keen!) Though a major tourist trap, it was still fun to pretend :)
 Thanks to Jodi's travel guidebook, we found a gem of a restaurant tucked away from the typical tourist zones. For 13 euros, we got a 'primo' plate, a 'secondo', 'contodori' (veggies), wine and water. It felt like the real deal, with big tables full to bursting with multi-generational Italian families, and the waiters spoke almost no English. As you can see from the photo, we didn't stray too far from the traditional Italian meal :)primoprimoprim
 After stuffing outrselves with homemade pasta with truffle sauce, we ambled up to the look out, which turned out to be a (not-so) hidden gem! There was a dramatic heat-lightning storm playing out in the clouds behind the Duomo, (Florence's famous cathedral), though it was impossible it capture it in a photo!
After grabbing a delicious gelato (see below), we came across a very Italian scene: a beauitful woman singing Bocelli's 'Con te partiro' accompanied by an accordian player in the middle of an ancient stone 'palazzo'...incredible.
The most delicious gelato can be found at Grom, which uses only the best, and often organic, ingredients for their gelati. Crema di Grom (cookies and cream a la Grom), lampone (raspberry), limone...the list goes on! And apparently, there are Grom locations worldwide - check out the yellowpages and cross your fingers that there's one near you! I wonder if they do franchises...

 How stereotypically Italian is this street?!

 When in Italy...go big or go home!
Here on the left, pecorino & pear gnocchetti, while on the right we have quattro formaggi pizza! I love Italy.
On our last day in Florence, we decided to take a day-trip to Siena, which is only and hour and a half away by train. Siena is, for me, the quintessential Tuscan town, with terracotta tiled roofs and gentle rolling hills in the horizon. Fun Fact: for all you Crayola crayon users out there, the colour 'Burnt Sienna' was inspired by the colour of Siena's buildings! 

 Oh ho hum, just standing in front of Siena's old town hall, birthplace of the Renaissance. 
Siena was originally Italy's hotspot, and Florence's main rival, until the 14th century when the plague wiped out almost half the city's population, making Siena forever the 'weaker' of the two cities. The Black Death aside, Siena was still an incredibly important cultural center, and just walking down the maze of cobbled streets brings you back centuries.
Inside the Cathedral of Siena was the Piccolomini Library, complete with amazingly detailed frescoes, statues, and orignial hymnals dating back several centuries.  
 After all that culture, refreshments were in order! Jodi found a pizzeria specializing in Neapolitan-style pizza: we're talking seriously thin-crust!
 A view of Siena from the top of the museum, a building which was orignially going to be a church built to rival Florence's Duomo, but after the Plague wiped out the workforce, the plan got scraped - now it serves as one of the best vantage points for tourists!
Caffe coretto: the perfect way to end an incredible Italian adventure! Coretto means 'corrected' with alcohol - usually an espresso served with grappa, but after trying it with unsuccessful results, we opted for amaretto, which proved to be a delicious digestif :)

That's all for our whirlwind Cinque Terre-Florence-Siena stop Chioggia and Venice! More to come.....

Sunday, August 5, 2012

We're baaaack!

Corniglia: our Paradise for three days..I understand why it's a World Heritage Site!
Hello again everyone, and sorry for our prolonged absence!! We're now in Austria, but we've had many travels between France and here! So hang on to your hats and welcome to ITALIA!
First stop: the Cinque Terre.
(Disclaimer: please be prepared for an overabundance of ocean photos...I apologize in advance!)
We started our trip in Corniglia, the middle of the five villages (as pictured at the top). According to the guide books, it is the only village without a beach, but the photo above says otherwise. But that untruth, paired with the 400 stairs required to walk up from the train station, has ensured that Corniglia is also one of the quietest of the five, something we all enjoyed! 
Situated on the Ligurian coast, (the birthplace of pesto!), the ocean surrounding CInque Terre was incredible: I've never seen such clear, turquoise water.
This is a place I would DEFINITELY visit again!

For two out of the three nights we stayed in an incredible 2-storey apartment that we rented from a true Italian Mama - when we first met her, she was cooking a tomato sauce in her summer kitchen downstairs, dressed to the nines in the tradtional Mama-frock! The town itself was lovely, with mainly locals, and few tourists - naturally, we came to think of ourselves as part Italian by the end (note Tom's very Italian expression in the photo), also signified by our laundry line over the main street!
Corniglia in the background, surrounded by terraced fields of vineyards.
 The only way to get to most of the villages is to walk, (unless you feel like forking over big bucks for a boat). Due to major flooding last year, the main hiking trail between Corniglia and Manarola, (our neighbour to the east), was closed. This meant the alternative: basically  going straight up the mountain behind Corniglia for about an hour, and then inching our way between vineyards, hoping noone suffers from vertigo! The whining aside, (I'm not sure how Tom and Jodi put up with me!), the views were breathtaking, so in hindsight, it was worth it :)
Surprisingly, the Cinque Terre has a thriving, but localized, wine industry. They specialize in a white (called CInque Terre), and a sweet dessert wine called sciacchetra. The hills around the villages house the vines, but they are so steep that the farmers have installed various funicular-type machines to transport the grapes down to the actual farms.   

Jodi and Tom after the death-defying climb; we were all smiles once we reached the terraces!
Boy were we happy when we finally saw Manarola!! We stopped for a well-deserved pesto pizza and some Italian beer (sorry, no photo of the pizza - we were too hungry!)
Manarola, along with the other four villages, are still working fishing villages, so it was neat to see all the fishing boats lining the harbours and people bringing in the day's catch.

Though there weren't many restaurants to choose from in Corniglia, we did find some gems! We had some incredible tiramisu at one of the cafes, (Anita, I wish you could have been there!), along with their house mojitos another night!

Our hike the next day proved to be pretty easy after our previous trek - we went the other way, direction Vernazza and Monterosso. It proved to be relatively flat, though with a few climbs that had me dreaming of gelato a swim in the tantalizing waters below. 
The photo above was of a picture-perfect beach, but we couldn't figure out how to get down, which was very frustrating, especially when we could vaguely see people lying on the white sand! As it turns out, it is Cinque Terre's only nude beach, and can only be accessed by walking through an old train tunnel a km long, with no lights. So in the end, we were happy with our swimming hole!

Vernazza! (With Monterosso in the distance).
Our fabulous picnic by the sea: fresh foccacia, sundried tomatoes, mozzarella and of course, pesto alla genovese!!

We sadly had to say Ciao to the Cinque Terre, but next stop: Florence & Siena, the next stop for the Italian edition of the blog!