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A Trip

Day 1...and 1/2

5:00PM – Chicago O’Hare Int’l Airport

Haven planned this trip for the past several months; sitting in the international terminal waiting to board a plane to Warsaw (where we would connect to Rome) was a surreal, somewhat unnerving experience. We were finally about to kick this puppy off, and although I was certainly excited about the trip, there was also a bit of apprehension in the air as well.

Would I be able to sleep on the plane? Why didn’t I learn to speak more Italian? Would we really be able to catch our many connecting trains across Italy? What if I get pick-pocketed in Rome? Did I pack my iPhone charger? (the answer to that question was no, but Kerry packed hers so all good) Are they going to translate the Polish airline announcements to English, b/c I can’t understand a GD word anyone is saying over the loudspeaker? (answer was yes)

Needless to say I was a bit anxious, but, we had a 9+ hour flight ahead of us, so this would be a good opportunity to relax and hopefully get some sleep on the plane. We were scheduled to arrive in Warsaw at 9:50AM, which would actually be 2:50AM Chicago time. So even if I did manage to get some sleep, I was still going to be dealing with some nasty jet-lag the next morning. Joy.

Our plane departed on time and we were Warsaw-bound. Within about an hour of traveling due east at around 600mph (according to the LOT Airlines monitor) the sun had set behind us and it was dinner-time: Polish-style. We enjoyed some respectable TV-dinner-esque cuisine (Polish dumplings/chicken & veggies) and a frothy Polish beer to wash it down. Can’t complain.

Now it was time to put the pillow and blanket (courtesy of LOT) to good use and get some sleep. Unfortunately, that didn’t really happen (unless you consider sporadic 10-15 intervals of semi-unconsciousness sleep). All in all, I’d say I was lucky to get maybe 1-2 total hours of sleep the entire flight. Even the Ambien I bummed off a friend couldn’t do the trick. But, for a fellow who has trouble falling to sleep in a quiet dark room in a comfy bed, I can’t say I was surprised. Kerry didn’t have much luck either. Maybe 2-3 hours for her.

About 6 hours into the flight, I could see the glow of the sun in the far-off horizon. I couldn’t help but keep an eye on it until the sun finally rose, and before I knew it, it was morning and we were heading in for landing in Warsaw.

By the time we went through customs (which was very quick & efficient) and had gone back through the security line again (not sure the point of that, but OK) I realized that I felt like death warmed over. Lil tuckered out, and we had a couple of hours to kill before our connecting flight to Rome.

Warsaw’s airport was dull and metallic. Not much to do but try and get some shut-eye while waiting for our Rome flight. Surprise, surprise, that didn’t happen, so I took the opportunity to brush up on my Italiano. Learned a few more useful phrases and it was time to board our flight to Rome.

Miraculously, I actually dosed off about a ½ hour or so on the flight, but when we arrived at Rome’s airport, we were definitely running on fumes, but also excited that our vacation was officially beginning, after a long 15+ hour journey.

There was no customs to go thru in Rome, so once we finally got our bags from baggage claim, we were off to catch the Leonardo express train to the Roma Termini station, which would bring us about a ½ mile from our hotel. The express train leaves every 30 minutes from the airport, and it looked like we had just missed one when we got to the train station area. No worries, as that gave us a chance to get our bearings a little bit. We purchased the train ticket from the vendor and made sure we validated our ticket, which basically involved date-stamping it. If the train conductor asks for your ticket and it’s not “validated” you can get a hefty fine, so we made sure to get that squared away before boarding.

And we were off! The train departed on its 30 minute trip from the airport to the Termini. The Roma airport seemed to be a good 20+ miles outside of the city, so the 1st half of the trip was the surrounding countryside and suburbs. I couldn’t help but think about what the countryside would have looked like 2,000 years ago. It was a lot to wrap my head around.

As we got deeper into the city and closer to the Termini, we were getting more excited, as the train bobbed and weaved through the inner-city. Rome had a very raw, gritty vibe to it, with awesome graffiti murals along the train tracks, modest old apartment buildings with clothes-lines hanging out the windows. It was unique and interesting.

When we arrived at the Termini, I knew exactly where we were going. Well, maybe not, we weren’t sure how to get out of the Termini to the street we were looking for, but after 10-15 minutes of wrong turns and back-tracking, we were out and I knew exactly where we were going. The Termini was like your typical “Union Station” in Chicago, New York, DC, etc. Tons of people rushing to and fro, shops, restaurants, etc. Similar to a big airport. The scene outside the Termini was just as bustling. A nice mix of the old and the new, designer shopping alongside very old stone brick buildings etc. You couldn’t help but feed off the energy and excitement of the city.

We made our way down one of the main drags (Via Cavour) on our way to the Hotel Saturnia. Knowing exactly where I was going, I prematurely made a wrong turn down a side alley where I thought the hotel was. I then suffered from C.O.T.S (Confused Overwhelmed Tourist Syndrome) and began blindly walking around in circles, trying to figure out how I missed our hotel, and where the F it was.

After about 10-15 minutes of aimless searching, I decided to practice a lil Italiano, and get some directions. There was a 40-50 yr old gentleman on the street corner, chilling, watching the world go by, so I went for it:

“Scoozi, Hotel Saturnia?”

He then responded, speaking all-out Italian (not sure why I expected anything different). Because of this, I didn’t understand a word the guy was saying. It’s super to know a handful of Italian phrases, etc, but the problem is when they answer back in Italian and you don’t know what the F he’s saying. He soon realized I didn’t speak Italian, and I was relieved that he changed to English. Unfortunately, he didn’t know where Saturnia was, but I was confident we were close, maybe a block or two, but I didn’t want to keep going in the wrong direction.

So, I decided to leave my bags with Kerry, she could hang out on the street for 10 minutes or so while I circled around a 2-3 block radius looking for our hotel (I could make a lot better time not dragging around a 40lb bag and my heavy-ass backpack)

Within about 10 minutes, I found our hotel.

Turns out if I had just continued going down the main drag just 1 more block, I would have ran into a big-ass sign that says “Hotel Saturnia -à”. Figures.

The hotel was as pictured on the website. No surprises there. They did have a rather odd practice (which apparently is common in Europe) of making us return the hotel key to the front desk every time we left the premises. That seemed weird to us, but you know, when in Rome.

And we were in Rome! Dead-f***ing tired, but we were in Rome! So, once we got situated in our room, we could have stepped out and chose from a few handy restaurants around our hotel, gone back to the room and passed out (i.e. the boring option)

F that. We’re going to the Trevi Fountain and perhaps the Spanish Steps. It was about 5:30 or 6:00 by the time we finally got settled, so we’d make the approximately 1 mile walk to Trevi and grab some dinner in the area. As exhausted as we were, we only had 2 nights in Rome, so we had to make the most of our time there.

As we zigzagged our way through the Roman streets to the Trevi foundation, we were really in awe of our surroundings. Narrow ancient streets, apartments lining them cloaked in ivy. Yep we were definitely in Rome, and it was cool.

But we hadn’t been really wowed yet, but that was just around the corner. As we got closer to the Trevi Fountain, the streets got narrower and narrower. Soon it was apparent that these were only pedestrian streets, no cars could fit through them. They were beautiful.

And then bam. A couple of lefts, a few rights, and another left, another right, and wow: there was the Trevi Fountain. And it was effing huge. Now I’m not normally the type of fellow to get excited about a flipping fountain, but this is not your average fountain. This is the Trevi Fountain, and like we would soon discover about the rest of Rome: it was larger than life.

And bustling with life. Absolutely packed with people, mostly tourists of course, but the excitement and energy in the air that Saturday evening (it was now approaching dusk) was infectious. We may have been awake for 25 of the past 27 hours, but we were now completely encapsulated in the atmosphere and vibe of Roma. It was magic.

We continued down the tangled crowded streets, past numerous restaurants, shops, etc. The thing about Rome is virtually around every corner, there is something to gasp at. The streets are so old and have so much history that they radiate a sense of magic, of mystique. It is truly a beautiful city.

We were riding the wave of excitement that was in the air, eventually coming to our next wow moment: The Spanish Steps. If we thought the Trevi Fountain was crowded, we hadn’t seen shit yet. The Spanish Steps and the surrounding area were absolutely packed. Situated next to more chic shops and restaurants, there were easily 1000s of people, perhaps 10,000+, of all types and from anywhere and everywhere, frolicking around in the sultry Roman night.

Again – magic. That’s the best way to describe the vibe. Magic.

After soaking in that scene for a bit, we made our way back to a restaurant (Picolo Buco) I researched on Tripadvisor that had pasta entrees all around 10 Euros but was actually good. And it was good, and the 3 Euro glasses of wine were even better. My carbonara hit the spot (seemed extra eggy compared to US Carbonara, but it was still good) and Kerry’s veal scaloppini did the trick too. We got out of there for 30 something Euros total.

Not bad for our 1st meal in Roma (and in a prime location to boot).

We staggered back to our hotel that night, weary and worn out. It normally takes me at least 10-15 minutes (if I’m lucky) to slip into unconsciousness when my head hits the pillow, but that night, I think it took about 10-15 seconds.

We were out cold, finished with a long first day and ½ of our vacation. We would need the rest in preparation for the next day, our only full day in Roma, which proved to be one of the most memorable and awe-inspiring days of our entire trip.

 

Day 2 – The Coliseum, The Forum, The Pantheon, Piazza Navona, Campo, and back to Trevi

We awoke the next morning feeling something we hadn’t experienced in quite a while:

Being well rested.

It was a nice feeling. We were energized and excited to hit the pavement and rock Rome.

After a pretty good breakfast at the hotel, we were off to The Coliseum, which was about a ½ mile walk.

We didn’t approach The Coliseum from the standard beaten path. We kind of weaved around some back streets, and just when I was beginning to think I had taken us off track again, we turned the corner, and there it was in the distance. Quite a site.

As we got closer, and approached the hoards of tourists getting in line, I was really transfixed on the building. I really had a hard time wrapping my head around that I was actually standing outside of The Coliseum, where 100,000s of people had died, where gladiators fought, etc. I tried to picture the scene of it in its heyday: 50,000 people, jam-packed into the arena, thumbs-up/thumbs-down. It was incredible.

Almost as incredible was the line to gain entrance into the site. While it looked quite long, we only actually stood in line for about 30 minutes, so not too bad. As you got closer to the ticket booths, you were actually in the Coliseum, not in the seating area, but the underneath/outside area under the seats. You could touch the old rotten walls/columns/etc. It was amazing. I then started picturing what it was like here after Rome fell. I’m sure it was a dark dreadful place, full of homeless druids, scavengers, and other seedy types that probably lurked about during the Dark Ages. So much history to wrap my head around it was kind of intense.

Once we finally got our tickets and got inside, we made the rounds of the interior, snapping pictures, soaking it in. We were probably there for over an hour all told. It was awesome. The views from the Coliseum of the surrounding area, the Roman Forum, where just as impressive. The Forum was the political and economic center of ancient Rome for 100s of years. It was where all the official government business was carried out, where Caesar once lived and was murdered. The history there was overwhelming.

So after we got our fill of the Coliseum, it was time to checkout the Forum, conveniently located next door. On the way to the Forum, a parade of Italian soldiers, etc was coming up the street, so we took that in as well. Gotta love random added bonuses like that.

We spent a considerable amount of time in the Forum and Palatine Hill next door. We saw the Arch of Constantine, the Arch of Titus, the Temple of Caesar, the House of the Vestal Virgins and much much more. We saw a lot. The view of the Forum from atop Palatine Hill was phenomenal, and really gives you the best prospective of the Forum. We roamed and roamed and roamed the entire area. It was awesome, but tiring.

Luckily though, Rome is a city that sports drinking fountains on nearly every corner, so although it was a toasty day (80s) we were always able to keep our water bottles full of fresh Roman water (which comes from an underground spring) on a consistent basis. Those Roman fountains were a godsend.

After spending a good 4+ hours at the Coliseum/Forum combined, it was onto our next destination: The Pantheon. It was about a mile away. As we walked in that direction, we came across an incredibility large building that was not on our radar, but really blew us away with its sheer size: II Vittoriano. Situated by the Piazza Venezia, it’s a rare part of Rome that actually feels wide open and spacious. The pictures simply don’t do it justice (just like most of the other sites). It was huge and impressive. Awesome, what a city.

We pressed on, zigging and zagging around more narrow streets, when we eventually came upon the Pantheon. Yet again, another incredibly impressive site. The Pantheon is definitely the best preserved ancient site in Rome. The Coliseum has experienced a fair share of damage over the millenniums, and the Forum is essentially decomposed ruins for the most part, but the Pantheon is very well preserved and is an active church today. It feels epic from the outside square area, which is an awesome scene in and of itself. All the buildings/restaurants/etc around the Pantheon are very close to it, so the square has an intimate vibe. Great for people watching, and admiring the incredible structure that is the Pantheon.

After a brief walk-thru of the Pantheon, we made our way to the Piazza Navona, which is a huge open square area full of restaurants, artists, and of course: tourists. It’s a trendy area for sure, but we couldn’t resist the urge to wet our whistles at one of the outside seating areas, just for the experience. A couple of beers for me and a couple of glasses of wine for the misses, and we were basking the warm glow of a beautiful Roman afternoon. We were kicking ourselves. This city was unbelievable.

After a few drinks and some appetizers, we wandered to the Campo de Fiori area a few blocks away. If I had to do it over again, I probably would have wanted to have drinks in the Campo as opposed to the Piazza Navona, as it seemed like a less trendy, generally more down to earth area. Nonetheless, we strolled around, and then made our way back to our hotel. Strolling thru Rome is an awesome experience, but it’s even better when you have your buzz on. It was a good 30+ minute walk back to hotel, but we took a different route, so we got to see more of Rome that wasn’t on the typical touristy route.

Like I said before, walking through Rome is an experience in and of itself, with new discoveries around every corner. By this time, I was convinced: Roma was the coolest city I had ever been to (sorry Chi, SF, and NY, you can’t compete with Roma)

After taking a bit of a break at the hotel and freshening up, we were off to the Spanish Steps again for our last night in Roma. We saw a restaurant the prior night that looked good, so we wanted to check it out.

Unfortunately, it was Sunday night, and the restaurant we had in mind was closed. Bummer.

Undeterred, we weaved our way back to the magical Trevi Fountain area, where we picked a restaurant with reasonable prices where we could sit out on the street/alley and people watch. It turned out to be a good choice, great service, good food, and decent prices. We chatted it up with a couple from Cyprus, enjoyed the ambiance, and met Santa Claus. Well, he wasn’t really Santa Claus, he was a fat drunk guy with a big white beard, who the wait-staff affectionately referred to as “Babo” (which is Italian for Santa Claus) We got a kick out of that, and so did the clientele/wait-staff. Babo was a lil drunk, but ultimately friendly and harmless.

Before we went back to our hotel, we had to stop at the Trevi Fountain again. If you throw a coin over your shoulder into the fountain, you are supposed to be guaranteed another trip to Roma someday. We already did that the prior night, but thought we’d do it again for safekeeping.

I didn’t want to leave the Trevi that night. I knew it was our last night in Rome, and I wanted to stay there, basking in the magic. I’ll always remember the 1st time we stumbled upon the Trevi, that 1st night, and I’ll always remember our last night in Roma at the Trevi. It’s seared into my memory. Magic.

 

Day 3 – Subways, Trains, St. Peter’s Basilica, a near miss, and Arrival in the Cinque Terre

The next morning we woke up a tad bit early, as we had a busy day ahead of us. We had a 2:00 train to catch from the Termini bound for the Cinque Terre, but we weren’t quite done with Roma yet.

We had to see St. Peter’s Basilica, widely considered to be the most impressive church on the planet.

Getting there would potentially be a bit of an adventure. It was not walking distance (across the Tiber in Vatican City was a good 3-4 miles away) and we had to check-out of our hotel, which meant we would be lugging our bags around.

But I had researched this and had a plan. We’d check out of the hotel and bring our bags to the Termini station, where we could check-in our luggage in a temporary holding area for a mere 6 Euros/bag. From there, we’d hop on the Roman A-Line subway, get off at the St. Peter’s stop, do the tour, subway-it back to the Termini, pick up our luggage, and we’d be off to Cinque Terre!

Sounded like a plan, and the first part of it worked to perfection. Lil bit of a snag on the way back, but I’ll get to that later.

Once we finally got to the Termini and checked-in our luggage, it was time for the subway. Rome is notorious for their crafty pick-pocketers (they’ve been at it for 1,000s of years, so they’re good). It was morning rush hour, and when our train came, we were lucky to squeeze onto it. I was having Muni flashbacks it was so flipping crowded, but not to worry, I kept a finger or two on my wallet the entire 20 minute train ride to our stop (Ottaviano).

Once out of the subway, we followed the masses of tourists and pilgrims alike to St. Peter’s Square (about a ½ mile walk). Once we arrived, we took in the scene. There were literally 1,000s of people there that morning. The square was huge and the church was beautiful from the outside (but nothing compared to how beautiful it was on the inside)

Then we noticed how long the flipping line was to get into the church. It was sobering. There were literally 100, perhaps over a 1,000 people in the freaking line to get into the church. So, we took the long walk to the back of the line, figuring we were going to be waiting at least an hour to get in, significantly cutting into our time spent inside the actual church.

But, miraculously (pun intended) the line was moving at a steady pace, essentially a slow walk, so we were up to the security area within about a ½ hour. Nice!

As we walked into the church, we were really awestruck. I’m not Catholic, and not a particularly religious fellow, but you can’t help but feel the sense of something greater than yourself when you walk into St. Peter’s Basilica. It was stunning, absolutely beautiful. The paintings and murals throughout the church were larger than life, much like the church itself. We saw Michelangelo’s Pieta, along with several other unbelievable beautiful works of art. We just tried to soak it all in with the limited time we had. We went underneath the Basilica and saw several Papal tombs and other old relics. It was a lot to take in. Truly a special place with a lot of history.

Once we had toured the inside of the church, we weren’t done yet. We had a dome to climb. Not just any dome, the Cupola, which is the top of St. Peter’s. 320 steps according to their website (but I could have swore it was a lot more than that…scratch that I probably shouldn’t swear when referring to St. Peter’s) There were a lot of folks waiting for the elevator at the bottom, but we didn’t have time for that, and we were young and able, so we were taking the stairs.

For a modest fee (I think it was 10 Euros a person) we were allowed to climb up to the top of the Cupola, which all in all, took about 30 minutes. Although quite tiring, it was one of the best times we had our entire trip. It was an adventure and a lot of fun. There were different segments to the climb, the first of which involved going up a winding, revolving staircase, which probably took us ½ the way up. Once halfway up, you come to an outside area where you get a chance to catch your breath, and gage how much further up you have to go.

The 2nd ½ of the climb was where it got even more fun. You enter the bottom of the dome section, which requires you to climb up several very narrow, steep staircases. Folks are jam-packed in the staircases, laughing, joking about being exhausted. Everyone was definitely breathing heavy due to the strenuous climb, but we were all having a lot of fun doing it.

We actually thought the climb was over when we got to the inside of the dome. We could look down far, far below at the people touring the church, and we were close to the top of the dome, but not there yet. We thought it was the end of the line, but then we discovered another staircase that kept ascending upward. Let’s go!

This staircase was even narrower than the last one. So narrow in fact that you kind of had to slouch to the right as it winded it’s way closer to the very top of the dome. We, along with the 10s of other folks climbing the stairs, were having an awesome time.

Finally, we reached the end of the line, as the stairwell opened up to the outside observation deck area. What a view that was, probably one of the best views of Roma in the entire city. It was a small circular observation deck, so it was quite crowded, but we took the opportunity to get as many pictures as possible.

It was the pinnacle of our Rome trip (literally and figuratively). We were so happy, having so much fun, and so was everyone else around us.

But, all good things must come to an end, and it was time for us to make the long trek back down the stairs, walk back to the subway, hop on the train, pick up our luggage, and take off for the next part of our adventure: the Cinque Terre.

We had about 2 hours to catch our train bound for the CT, so generally speaking, we were doing well on time. By the time we left the Basilica, hopped on the subway, and arrived back at the Termini, we had about 1 hour before our train departed. Just needed to pick up our luggage, find our train, and we’d be off!

Turns out it was not as simple as it sounded. The line to pick up checked luggage was fairly long, so it took about 10-15 minutes to get to the window. No prob, that left us with 45 min to catch the train. Unfortunately, they were a cash-only operation, so, we needed to find an ATM. Needed to do that anyway so no big deal, right? Well, you would think that in a major transportation hub like the Roma Termini there would be plenty of ATMs to choose from, right?

We spent damn near a ½ hour just trying to find a flipping ATM. By the time we were back in line to get our luggage, we had about t-minus 20 minutes before our train departed. Cutting it a bit close, too close for comfort.

Fortunately, we got our luggage fairly quickly, but now we had only 15 minutes to find our departing train in a very large station.

It was time to pick up the pace.

I didn’t have time to read the monitors, so I found the nearest information person, and asked where our train was. Fortunately it was close by, and we made it on the train with about 5-10 minutes to spare before takeoff.

Whew. That was a close one.

Our train car was nice. Kerry and I sat opposite each other, with a small pullout table between the two of us. We also noticed we had the entire section to ourselves. We didn’t think that would last, but soon the train slowly pulled away from the station, and we realized we had the whole place to ourselves. There were at least 20+ open seats available in our car, but apparently the Monday 2:00 train to La Spezia was not a particularly popular one. Fine by us.

We had a little snack on the train and went into our own little worlds. Kerry was reading, and I was listening to my music. Both of us were gazing out the window, taking in the scenery as the train wound up the Mediterranean coast on what was a relaxing and beautiful 4 hour train ride to La Spezia.

It gave me a chance to catch my breath for really the first time on the trip, and time to reflect on an incredible past 2 days in Rome. I was convinced Rome was the most beautiful, unbelievably awesome city I had ever had the pleasure of visiting. I was somewhat bummed to be leaving Rome, and had a hard time believing anything next on our itinerary could measure up, but as it turns out I was wrong.

We were headed to the Cinque Terre (the village of Riomaggiore to be exact) a remote area on the coast of the Italian Rivera. The “5 Lands” composed of 5 villages: Monterosso, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola, and Riomaggiore. The coastline, the 5 villages, and the surrounding hillsides are all apart of the Cinque Terre National Park.

So in other words, a completely different world from Rome, and that was the point of visiting the area. After the hustle and bustle of Rome, I wanted to go somewhere completely different, but equally beautiful. More natural beauty than ancient/man-made beauty. Somewhere special.

As we were approaching La Spezia (where we would hop on a quick connecting train to Riomaggiore) the scenery kept getting better and better. The first hour of the trip snaked along the coastline, with great views of the Mediterranean popping up intermittently. The closer we got to La Spezia, the more mountainous the terrain became.

As we passed through a brief rainstorm (which turned out to be the only inclement weather the entire trip) I was listening to Songs of Leonard Cohen on my iPhone, an album I hadn’t listened to since last winter. The mood fit the train ride perfectly. Listening to Songs of Leonard Cohen on the Brown Line in Chicago going to work is a lot different than listening to it on a train ride up the Mediterranean coast in Italy. It sucked me in, and I gained a new appreciation for that album, and I felt totally lost and enchanted in the music. I love it when an album can do that to me.

“Like a bird on the wire/like a drunk in a midnight choir/I have tried in my way to be free”

Cheers to Leonard Cohen.

I had made arrangements to rent an apartment in Riomaggiore for 3 nights from a dude named Emiliano. We had exchanged emails and everything was reserved. He was going to pick us up from the train station and take us up to our apartment by car, since the apartment was located high up on the hillside, overlooking the Mediterranean Sea and the town below.

Although everything was confirmed via email, I still felt a little apprehensive about the unofficial nature of our arrangement. I was sure he would be there to pick us up, but we weren’t staying at a hotel, we were staying at a dude’s apartment. But that’s kind of the spirit of how they do things in Cinque Terre anyway, so I was looking forward to the experience.

When we finally arrived in Riomaggiore, sure enough, there was Emiliano there to pick us up. He was probably my age, scruffy, with his hair pulled back in a ponytail. He was very friendly, helped us with our luggage, and proceeded to give us his recommendations and advice for enjoying our time in the Cinque Terre. As we drove up the winding roads to the apartment, we started to soak in how beautiful the area was. It’s very similar to Big Sur in that the surrounding hillsides abruptly rise from the vast ocean, creating a stunning contrast between land and water. Picture Big Sur, but with vineyards and olive trees lining the steep hillsides, and a warm, aqua ocean below (as opposed to the cold and choppy Pacific). The views are incredible, particularly the higher up you are, and our apartment happened to be very high up (with a large patio area to boot).

The apartment itself was perfect for us. Nice kitchen, fully equipped with a fridge, stove, plates, all that jazz. Nice clean bathroom and a good-sized master bedroom. Throw in the awesome views from the patio and what more could a couple ask for? Oh, and it was also very quiet too, which was nice coming from Rome where our hotel was located right on a loud busy street.

Emiliano’s grandmother lived upstairs and was also quite friendly herself. Unfortunately, she didn’t speak a word of English, and we only had a grasp of approximately .0014% of the Italian language, but it was all good. We had a couple of choppy goofy conversations that consisted entirely of hand-motions, gestures, facial expressions, and laughing. That’s what I like to call the universal language, and for the most part, it worked.

Once we got settled, it was time to head down to the town for a lil dinner. To get down to the actual village required us to go down a long, steep set of stairs that twisted and turned through beautiful gardens and vineyards of the local residents.

As we descended, the gardens that had surrounded us transitioned into old, stucco/adobe bricked apartment buildings, seemingly leaning up against each other. The stairwell narrowed, the apartments increased, and we approached the first street in the town. As we would soon find out, 90% of all the Cinque Terre streets are pedestrian only, not accessible by car, which is certainly part of the appeal. The streets are narrow, usually made of brick or cobblestone, and they are often steep, sometimes more long-stairways than actual streets. They wind and curve through a maze of beautiful old apartment buildings, with occasional restaurants and shops depending where you are. It’s like you are in another world, a timeless Italian village that’s been unchanged for 100s of years, and it’s absolutely beautiful.

We chose Riomaggiore because it seemed like the most substantial non-touristy/resort town of the 5 villages. We wanted to stay in an authentic traditional Italian village and really get lost in the culture and atmosphere of the place. Riomaggiore certainly delivered on all those fronts.

The main drag/road of Riomaggiore was awesome, lined mostly with locals chatting it up in the streets, or shouting conversations to each other across from their apartment windows, clothes dangling from the clotheslines, etc. What a scene, awesome. The further down the main drag you go, more restaurants start to pop up, along with local stores where you can buy fresh fruit and veggies, and other odds and ends. The main road ends at the harbor, which is incredibly picturesque. It’s a quaint, small harbor and it is beautiful. We walked out on a path that hugged along the cliffside of the harbor. From there, you can look back at the village, which is a beautiful site. It seems so small and quaint, yet larger than life due to the vertical nature of the village due to the surrounding hills. Even more beautiful is the view down the rugged coastline, where you can catch a glimpse of some of the other villages dotting the shore.

We hung out by the cliffside at the harbor waiting for the sun to set, along with a fair amount of other couples and the like. It was getting close; we were there about 30 minutes before the sun sank like a ship below the Mediterranean. Beautiful. Once again, we had discovered a little bit of Italy magic, but of an entirely different variety than Roma. This was equally, if not more special. It was beautiful, serene, picturesque, tranquil, amazing.

We grabbed a light dinner after the sunset back on the main drag, made the grueling climb back up to our apartment (we had had enough stairs for 1 day) and called it a night. The next couple of days in the Cinque Terre proved to be just as amazing (in a completely different way) than our time in Rome, and ultimately even more memorable and special for Kerry and I.

 

Day 4 – Hiking, Eating, Drinking, and a Bee Sting

We awoke the next morning to the sounds of church bells ringing and birds singing. Were we dreaming? No, that is how folks wake up in Riomaggiore. We rolled out of bed, Kerry made some coffee, and we walked out onto our nice patio on a beautiful, dewy Tuesday morning. There was not a cloud in the sky, it was in the 60s, and we took in the incredible views of the immense Mediterranean, the beautiful hillsides, and the quaint village of Riomaggiore below us.

I had to pinch myself. It was slightly painful, but confirmed that I was in-fact awake. What an amazing view. If I could wake up every morning to church bells ringing, birds singing, and a cup of coffee overlooking that fantastic view, well, I’d be a pretty happy camper. Not that I’m not a happy camper generally, but, you get the point.

Our legs were rather achy from climbing hundreds of stairs the day prior, but we were not planning on taking it easy that day. The plan was to hike to each of the 4 other villages. There is a trail between each village, with varying degrees of difficulty depending on the segment. All in all it was supposed to take about 5 hours to hike all the way from Riomaggiore (the southernmost village) to Monterosso (the northernmost village).

So, we made our way (slowly and painfully) back down the steep stairs that lead down to Riomaggiore. We had a lil breakfast on the main drag, people-watched, and made our way to the trailhead.

The first leg of the trail is known as the Via del Amore (Pathway of Love) and connects Riomaggiore to Manarola. Long before tourists came flocking to the area; it was simply a connecting trail between two small quaint villages. Over the generations, it developed a reputation as a “lover’s lane” so to speak, where lovers from the two villages would meet up on a little rendezvous along the trail. There’s 1,000s, of “Tony + Suzy’s” or “Renaldo + Clara’s” etc, drawn/graffiti’d all along the path. There’s also a tradition where you can attach a lock to the trail, be it to the railing, a shrub, a fence, cable, wherever. Closing a padlock with your lover acts as a metaphorical “seal” on your relationship.

Romantic shit, huh?

As we walked along the beautiful path, Kerry asked “what’s with all the locks?” So, I gave her the skinny on the history, etc, and she said “oh, is that why you packed a lock in your bag?”

“Yeah, maybe” I said with a smirk. “I also packed my baseball glove (by mistake) but I don’t plan on us playing baseball while we’re here”.

Typical smartass comment out of me. But I said it jokingly, assuring her that before we leave, we should definitely put up our lock somewhere along the trail. You know, when in Rome.

So enough about all that BS, it was time to press onward to Manarola, which we came upon surprisingly quickly (about a 20 minute walk). Manarola seemed much more crowded that Riomaggiore, but generally about the same size. Perhaps a tad larger, but they are both small villages with probably a couple of hundred local residents each.

I wanted to swing by a restaurant I had read about in Manarola which I had in mind for our last dinner in Cinque Terre the next night – Tattoria Dal Billy. I wasn’t exactly sure where it was, but I knew generally that it was near the top of the town. So we started heading up Manarola’s main drag, which was similar to Riomaggiore’s but less narrow. Up and up we went, until we came to an old church square area. From there we got a pretty good view down at the town and the surrounding hillsides, which were more thickly covered with winding, gorgeous vineyards than Riomaggiore. Pretty.

Then, up the road, we saw a sign engraved into the stone wall that said “Tattoria Dal Billyà” Great, so we followed the sign and made a right, up a typical narrow street (which is really a sidewalk) that curved through the residential buildings. It was then I realized that Manarola probably had a slight edge over Riomaggiore in terms of beauty. We were in a quiet, residential section of town, still morning. It was stunning to walk down that path to Billy. So narrow, the apartments so beautiful, so quaint, timeless. Very special place.

We came to Billy a short way down the path, but they were closed, so we couldn’t make reservations (which I had read were highly recommended). No worries, I was glad that we at least knew how to find it for next time.

We decided to continue down the path which was apparently circling back to the shoreline area. We were right, and were treated to some of the most beautiful “streets” (again they’re more like sidewalks) that we would ever see on our entire trip. The street turned into a stairwell, which led down to the next level of the town, to another street/walkway, and then there were more stairs down, so we continued, only to come to another level/walkway/more apartments. It was kind of like a maze. A beautiful, magical maze through a timeless Italian village. It was incredibly quaint and beautiful.

Finally, we made our way down several flights of stairs/streets back to the main drag. We made a left this time and headed for the shoreline, where we came to Manarola’s harbor. Similar to Riomaggiore’s harbor, but Manarola’s felt more wide open, with better access to the sea below. So we made our way down and sat on some rocks on the ocean for a few minutes. Gave us a chance to catch our breath and relax for a bit, take in the scenery. It was really beautiful.

Once we had soaked up the sun for a bit, it was time to press on to the next leg of the trail, destination: Corgnilia. Unfortunately, the leg of the trail connecting Manarola to Corgnilia was closed, thus tarnishing my goal of hiking to each village by foot. Bummer.

Not to worry though, we would simply catch the train and we would be there in a jiffy.

As it turned out, we were not able to get to Corgnilia in a “jiffy” (more like an hour). Since the trail was closed, there were probably close to 100 other hikers, etc waiting for the train. When it finally showed up, we were barely able to get on, and the train was so bogged down, it took it quite a while to get moving.

But, finally, it took off and within 5 minutes or so, we had arrived at the Corgnila train station.

Corgnila, the middle village, is the most isolated, perched high above the ocean on a cliff. It’s the only one of the five villages that doesn’t have a harbor or a beach area. To get to Corgnila from the train station, we had to climb a healthy amount of switchback stairs. Great, more stairs, just what we needed.

But we were excited, and anxious to get moving after the train delay. We made the grueling climb up the stairs with the sun blazing on our backs. Once we got to the top, we were treated to a pretty awesome view. We caught our breath and pressed on through Corgnilia bound for the next village: Vernazza. Corgnilia had a quiet, sleepy vibe about it, almost like a subliminal “do not disturb” vibe going on. There wasn’t a whole lot to see, so we pressed on.

The trail to Vernazza was surprisingly challenging. We were actually hiking now. It went high up the mountainside, providing us with several stunning views. It took us through greener areas, more isolated areas. Really beautiful, but quite a bit of up and down hiking, more than we expected. It took us about 90 minutes to reach Vernazza. The last ½ of the trail was practically straight down, which was pretty tough on the ole knees, but we pressed on to Vernazza. Every time I thought of complaining about the steep climb down, I’d see all the poor people passing us on the left, headed straight up. They definitely got the raw end of that deal. What a climb for them.

By the time we got to Vernazza we were pretty tired, but more hungry than tired. It was time to get our grub on. Vernazza was the largest village we had been to yet, and definitely had a more touristy vibe to it. It was probably the size of the last 3 villages combined, but it was still a village, and felt like a village: quaint (but crowded).

We headed for the harbor/beach area looking for a lil outdoor dining by the sea. We were lucky to snag a table at a very busy pizzeria/restaurant, right by the beach. Sweet. We both ordered pizza, and it really hit the spot. We were hungry. A couple of cold beers to wash it down and we were feeling pretty good, but tired. We overindulged a lil bit, and were in no mood to continue the next leg of the hike to the last village: Monterosso (which was a good 90 minute hike away). We were being a bit lazy I suppose, but the prior leg of the hike had taken a lot out of us, so we planned to catch the train.

As we ate and drank, a couple of friendly bees were buzzing around the surrounding tables. Kerry has a bit of a bee-phobia (there’s probably an official word for that, but I don’t feel like looking it up). She acts like they’re going to kill her, which I’ve always found a bit amusing, probably because I had never been stung by a bee before.

Until then.

I was crumbling my napkin in my hand, when all of a sudden; I felt an intense stinging feeling at the tip of my middle finger.

Ouch!

I’d been stung, and it was quite painful. Apparently the bee was crawling around my napkin/hand, and I gave a squeeze, which he didn’t take kindly to, and bam: I was stung. A simple misunderstanding between the bee and I, but a painful misunderstanding. My finger was throbbing, and I was more impressed than anything at how painful beestings actually are.

How bout that, no wonder people are afraid of bees.

So after that unfortunate and painful incident, we headed for the train station to hitch a ride to the last village: Monterosso. I think they were having train issues that day (rumors of an apparent strike were in the air) because when the train came, not everyone could get on it. Too crowded. This happens occasionally in the city, so I wasn’t too concerned. Would have liked to get on, but wasn’t happening.

Others were not so indifferent. Some folks were running from door to door, desperately trying to squeeze on the train like their lives depended on it, and quite upset that they couldn’t get on. Kerry and I found it somewhat amusing, but also embarrassing because most of the people who were all huffy-puffy were Americans, likely of the “rural” variety. God forbid any of them are inconvenienced on their vacation. Welcome to the real world folks. It’s not always convenient.

Anyway, about 10-15 minutes later, another train arrived, much less full, so we hopped onboard to Monterosso. Monterosso is the most beachy/resorty/touristy of the 5 villages, but that doesn’t make it any less beautiful. Beach umbrellas, restaurants, and shops lining the shoreline. That’s always a pleasant site in my book.

We popped into a restaurant by the beach to have a few more drinks and scope out the beach scene. I wanted to come back up there (by train) the next day and beach it for a few hours. A lil R&R after a long day’s hike sounded like a good way to spend our last day in the Cinque Terre. Everything looked good to us, so we planned to come back the next day. Now that we were officially a lil tipsy, it was time to train it back to Riomaggiore and rest up before dinner.

So we did just that. It was nice to come back to our own quiet apartment after a busy day of hiking…and drinking. Man that place felt like home. It turned out to be the nicest place we stayed during our entire vacation.

When it was time for dinner, we elected to go to the restaurant literally right next door to us, rather than go back down the epic stairwell into town again (which also involved coming back up the epic stairwell on a full stomach). Plus, we read that the restaurant next door was the “local pick for a nice night out”. Sounded like this place kept it real.

And they did keep it real…real good. The food was some of the best we had on our trip, and the restaurant had a nice ambiance about it. After dinner, with our vino-buzz on, we decided to head down into town for a little nightlife. We had a few beers at Bar Centrale, which we had read was owned by Ivo, a fellow from our old city of San Francisco. I noticed a Petaluma license plate hanging on the wall in the bar, so that made me feel a little at home. We didn’t meet Ivo, but we enjoyed the lively atmosphere of the outside bar area, then headed back up the epic stairwell and called it a night.

Another awesome day in the books, but the next day would turn out to be the most special day of our entire trip.

 

Day 5 – Ferry, Cannoli, Beach, Beer, Music, Best Entrée of the trip, and a proposal?

Ring, ring, ring. The church bells had sounded, which meant it was time for another day in the beautiful Cinque Terre. After an intense few days in Rome, and a busy day of hiking/exploring the prior day, we were definitely ready for a lil R&R.

We headed down to the Riomaggiore harbor with the intention of either catching the train back to Monterosso, or preferably the ferry. We weren’t sure how often the ferry came, but by the time we got down to the harbor, it was due to arrive in about 20 minutes.

Perfecto.

Just enough time to grab a couple of croissants for the ride and explore Riomaggiore’s “beach” which is tucked away in a secluded little area around the cliffside from the harbor. It’s a small, private area, but quite rocky, so it has a rugged feel to it. Not your typical sandy beach, but no less beautiful.

Finally our ferry arrived and departed north to Manarola (it would make a stop at each village except Corgnilia). The ferry ride was awesome. Really gives you a fresh prospective on the Cinque Terre. Seeing the villages, trails, and mountainside from the ocean is quite a site, very beautiful. It was a little pricier ride than had we taken the train, but it was worth every Euro.

I started day dreaming about being the ferry boat captain. That was this dude’s job. Boat the ferry up and down the Cinque Terre all day. All things can become monotonous and old if you do them long enough, but I had trouble imagining that gig would ever get old.

When we arrived in Monterosso, I realized there was another part of the town we didn’t even notice the prior day, which is known as the “old town”. It had its own beach too, but the town itself felt more in line with the other Cinque Terre villages: old, quaint, timeless.

We wandered through the streets of the old town and got a whiff of what we thought were the best smelling donuts our nostrils ever had the pleasure of inhaling. We saw a baker walking across the street (sidewalk) with fresh baked pastries, heading to a coffeehouse next door. It looked and smelled so good; it stopped us dead in our tracks. A woman, sitting outside of the coffee house, nodded in approval, saying:

“Get it, swear to God, best cannoli I’ve ever had in my life”

With that enthusiastic endorsement, we said OK, let’s try it.

Now I have had cannoli before. Not much, maybe 2-3 times. It was not high up my list of favorite pastries.

But holy cannoli, this one blew my little Chicago mind. It was flipping awesome, best pastry I’d ever had in my life. Kerry and I were savoring each bite in ecstasy. It was so good in fact that we each had to grab another one for the road.

I still have dreams about that cannoli. It was that effing good. Woot.

So after exploring a bit more of the old town of Monterosso, which was just as gorgeous as the other CT villages, it was time to hit the beach.

In Monterosso, you have to pay to use the beach unfortunately. Nothing outrageous, but I wasn’t a fan of that policy. But I wasn’t complaining. We got two nice beach chairs and an accompanying umbrella so I was a happy camper.

Once I confirmed it was A-OK to drink on the beach, I was good to go, and proceeded to do what I always do when at the beach on vacation: grab a beer, lay back, and play Blood Sugar Sex Magik from start to finish, seeing if I can make it through the entire album before I have to pee (which I rarely do). No day at the beach is complete without Blood Sugar Sex Magik, and usually a little Sublime thrown in for good measure.

And then, when it is time to pee, well, it’s time for a swim, a swim in the beautiful Mediterranean. Drink/music, swim/pee/swim, drink/music…rinse and repeat, you get the picture. I was in pure “beach-zen” mode, that moment when (usually after my 2nd beer) the beach, the ocean, the sun, the sky, the music, and me become one with the universe. It’s a beautiful thing, and only happens to me maybe once or twice a year, so when it hits, in all its glory, I enjoy it.

That’s what I call an effing vacation. Ahhhh.

Kerry and I had our fun on the beach and swimming in the ocean, which was chilly at first, but quickly warms right up once you get in. We had a great time, but swimming and drinking always works up my appetite, so after 2-3 hours, it was lunchtime.

We were trying to get into a particular restaurant (Belvedere) that was supposed to be THE spot for beachside dining, but they were closed for lunch. Bummer.

So we continued up the beach, and found a little restaurant with a nice outdoor seating area. We weren’t expecting anything special for our lunch. To date, all of our food had been good to borderline great in Italy, but we hadn’t had anything yet that had blown us away (except for the cannoli earlier in the day of course)

Kerry ordered the salmon/gnocchi entrée, which turned out to be the best entrée either one of us had the rest of our vacation. We both love salmon, and we both love gnocchi, but putting the two of them together? Turned out to be a delectably tasty combination. Why hadn’t we thought of that before? It was fantastic. I don’t even remember what I had, shrimp I think, but nothing could measure up to the salmon & gnocchi the entire rest of the trip. Cheers to that restaurant.

After that, it was time to train it back to Riomaggiore and get ready for our last night in the Cinque Terre. We had planned to walk the Via del Amore to Manarola and have dinner at Tattoria Dal Billy for our grand finale. At some point along the walk, we would put our lock somewhere along the Via del Amore, where we could come back over the years to come and say: “look, there’s our lock”.

I thought that was a special idea, and I knew that we were in a special place. Kerry and I were having the trip of a lifetime. We hadn’t had this much fun together in quite a while. Not that we normally don’t have fun, but this experience was special.

I thought a lot about that when we got back to our apartment in Riomaggiore. I sat on the patio, thinking about a lot of things. I thought about how long Kerry and I had been together, the fact that we were approaching our 6 year anniversary the next month. I thought about our history together, the fact that we met in San Francisco, a degenerate from Texas and a nice Massachusetts girl meeting in San Fran, the only way that would have ever happened. I thought about all the cool places we had been together over the years: the many Tahoe trips, Yosemite, Hawaii, San Diego, Cabo, Puerto Vallarta, Cancun, etc, and how none of them really compared to this trip. This was a special trip, and I wasn’t sure when we would be able to come back here again. I thought about how perfect the day had been, the ferry ride, the cannoli, the beach, the ocean, the sun, the salmon and gnocchi.

And I thought about what attaching a lock on the Via del Amore meant. It was a special tradition, it didn’t feel cheesy or corny to me, it felt real, and it felt meaningful.

When it was time to head to Manarola along the Via del Amore, I had a lot on my mind. I brought the lock with me, and Kerry and I were scoping out potential locations to put it. I told her let’s keep our eyes peeled, and we can find a spot for it on the way back to Riomaggiore after dinner. Sounded like a plan. We were seeing a lot of locations that were already covered with locks or were just in a bland location. Hadn’t spotted a special area for our lock yet.

I did however see some stairs that led up the cliffside. I made a mental note of those stairs, thinking that if we hadn’t found a place to put the lock along the trail by the time we came back, there might be a place up those stairs.

The walk to Manorola was beautiful. The sun was sinking down, but it wasn’t quite sunset yet when we finally got to Billy’s. Since we didn’t have a reservation, we had to wait about 30 minutes for a table with a few other couples. As we waited, we had a great view of the sunset, as we were high atop Manarola. This was a special sunset, it was beautiful. There was a bright orange color to it, and a beautiful contrast between the clouds, ocean, and a far off island out on the horizon. Even some of the waitstaff at Billy came out to gasp at the sunset. It was really beautiful, and everyone knew it.

Kerry looked beautiful too. She had gotten all dolled up for our last dinner in the Cinque Terre. We were both really happy. Then it occurred to me that it was the fall solstice that day. I’m not a pagan or anything, but there was something about the earth being perfectly aligned on its axis that appealed to me. It only happens twice a year, and I wondered if that had anything to do with how beautiful the sunset was.

Whatever the case, I was feeling the love and the magic in the air. It was a special night.

We finally got to our table, and the restaurant was quite lively. Lively but intimate too, it was a great atmosphere. Upon the waiter’s recommendation, we had the black pasta entrée which featured a wide variety of seafood delicacies. The owner of the restaurant was a retired sea captain, so we were in the right place for fresh seafood. Our entrée was really good, but had a tad too many exoskeleton-esq options (lots of crunching, eyeballs, tails, etc).

Then they started passing around the Grappa for folks to sample, which is Italian whiskey. That’s when the atmosphere got livelier, and all the tables were chatting it up with each other in fun conversation. Strangers from all over the world, eating good food, good drink, chatting it up…now this was Italy at its finest.

We chatted it up with a nice British couple who were sitting beside us, as well as some folks from Canada next to them as well. I think they were from Halifax, but, the Grappa had quite a kick to it so I could be wrong.

Alas, after a long evening, it was time to head back to Riomaggiore, along the Via del Amore, but not before we walked down the narrow and quaint switchback stairs on a quiet, peaceful night through Manarola, probably the most beautiful of all the Cinque Terre villages. We could hear our footsteps echo off the cobblestone streets and surrounding buildings. It was a beautiful night.

Walking back along the Via del Amore it was pitch black. Really dark. We could barely see to walk in front of us, much less find a good area to put our lock of love. But we were looking, just not finding a good spot.

About halfway along the trail is a covered walkway area, where most of the graffiti and locks are located. I noticed a plaque on the wall that I hadn’t noticed the other times we walked through:

“And in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make”

It was a plaque of my favorite Beatles album – Abbey Road. Which also happens to be my personal favorite album of all time.

There was simply too much magic in the air.

We were getting close to Riomaggiore and hadn’t found a place for our lock yet, when we came to the stairwell I had spotted earlier on the way to Manarola. It was pitch black, and the trail was basically empty. Darker still was the way up the stairs, but I wanted to head up. I had a feeling there was going to be a good spot to put the lock up there.

So, Kerry stayed down below on the trail while I climbed up to scope it out. It was pitch dark and I couldn’t see a flipping thing. I came to what appeared to be the end of the stairwell, where there was a pesky wire fence in the way. I stepped around the fence into a small open area surrounded by shrub trees. It seemed like a mini-garden. It was pitch dark and completely private.

This was the spot, so I shouted down the Kerry “Honey! Come on up here!”

Kerry made her way up the stairs and my heart was pounding. I knew this was a special moment for us. She made her way to me, and we placed our lock on a small branch on one of the trees. We took a picture as we closed the lock, and then I turned to her and said:

“You wanna get married?”

She said “Are you joking?!”

I said “No”.

And she said “Yes”.

And that was that.

We carved “Honey + Honey” into one of the cactuses on the hillside, by our lock, strolled back down to the path to Riomaggiore, and up the epic stairwell one last time.

And that was our last night in the Cinque Terre, and the night I proposed to my fiancé.

Queue the romantic music…right about….now.

Screw that, queue “The End” by The Beatles.

 

Day 6 – The Day After: Many Trains, a Surprise Bonus, and Arrival in Venice

RING RING RING. The church bells rang out and it was a new morning, literally and figuratively. After nearly 6 years together, Kerry and I awoke that morning as a newly engaged couple.

It was a good feeling, but truth be told, wasn’t feeling very peachy that morning. I didn’t sleep particularly well the night before. The combination of Grappa, exotic seafood swirling in my stomach, and being newly engaged added up to a tough night’s sleep.

We had a fair amount of traveling to do that day. We’d catch the quick train back to La Spezia, connect in Pisa, then Florence, and end the day in Venice. I didn’t want to leave the Cinque Terre, just like I didn’t want to leave Rome a few days earlier, but leaving a beautiful place is easier when you’re headed for another beautiful place: Venice.

Emiliano’s Mom (who was a sweetheart) drove the two of us to the train station, and we were Venice-bound. Our 1st connection of the day was in Pisa, where we had toyed around with the idea of seeing the famous Leaning Tower, but weren’t sure we would have enough time without missing our connecting train.

As luck would have it, the connecting trains to Florence leave from Pisa every ½ hour, so the Leaning Tower appeared to be in the cards after all! It would be a nice bonus to an already stellar trip.

We checked our bags at the Pisa train station and hopped on a bus that took us to the tower. I was pretty tired that morning, but awake enough to fully appreciate the Leaning Tower in all its flawed glory. It was pretty crowded around the area, but we couldn’t resist getting a few pics of each other “holding up” the tower, or “pushing” it over.

An incredibly predictable and dorky thing to do, but, you know, when in Rome.

After about an hour of goofing around at The Tower, we hopped on the bus back to the train station. We met an older woman on the bus who was originally from the UK, but had moved to Pisa back in the 1970s. She said she visited Pisa back in the day, fell in love with the place, and moved there. I really love meeting random strangers like that, and sharing stories. It was quick little chat, but memorable. Made me think about how big the world is and how so many people have their own little destinies, ambitions, impulses, etc.

Anyway, after collecting our luggage at the train station, we proceeded to hop on the next train to Florence. It was a fairly quick ride (about 1 hour) and once at Florence, we quickly bought our connecting ticket to Venice, and before we knew it, we were off on the final leg of our journey for that day.

As much as I would have liked to have seen Florence, we simply didn’t have time for it on our itinerary. I’d have loved to have seen Naples and Milan too, but we just didn’t have enough time to make it happen. Maybe next time.

About 2 hours later, we arrived at the St. Lucia train station in Venice. The long day of traveling was a bit of a downer, but when we arrived in Venice, we got our 2nd wind and were eager to start the last chapter of our Italian adventure.

Our 1st view of Venice was of the Grand Canal, and it was quite a site. The area around the train station was rather busy and pretty touristy. As we would soon find out, Venice turned out to be the touristiest and most crowded of all our destinations.

We checked into our hotel and quickly headed out, eager to hit the streets of Venice. I wanted to take a cruise down the Grand Canal to St. Mark’s Square as the day was quickly turning to dusk.

Unfortunately, being new in town, we erred, and caught the boat going in the opposite direction we wanted to go, which took us all the way around the outside of Venice, eventually wrapping around to where we thought we wanted to be. I was annoyed we choose the wrong direction, but too tired and relaxed to care much. The boat ride was still beautiful, and we would have plenty of time for the Grand Canal the next day.

When we decided to get off the boat, I’ll admit, we were a little lost. I had done my homework on Rome, but much less on Venice. I figured we could navigate our way around by using the Grand Canal as our reference, but since we took the boat in the wrong direction, I was a bit turned-around.

We meandered around the narrow crooked streets of the Dorsoduro district that evening, eventually getting our bearings when we stumbled upon St. Mark’s Square/Basilica in the San Marco district, which was an awesome site. We were starving that night, but I wanted to find a particular restaurant that I had read was a good “budget option for dining along the canal”.

When we finally found the place, they didn’t have any outside seating available, but we were practically foaming at the mouth we were so hungry, so we gladly took a seat inside of the restaurant. I don’t remember what we had that night, but it hit the spot, and once we were full, we felt like we could finally start to settle in to Venice a bit.

We strolled thru St. Mark’s Square after dinner, it was a beautiful night, the air filled with orchestra music…I felt like we were in Paris or something. Very “elegant” atmosphere.

We then made our way to the Canal to hitch a ride back to our hotel, but we both had to pee pretty badly. For a guy that has a bladder the size of a quarter, Venice is like my worst nightmare in that there are no public bathrooms throughout the city, because apparently, they’ve had a history of people peeing all over their streets for the past 1,000 years or so.

Word of advice to Venice: if you don’t want people to pee all over your beautiful city, make public restrooms more readily available (and don’t charge people to use them).

The upside of no public restrooms is that you have an excuse to pop into a bar for a drink, so Kerry and I did just that. We chatted it up with an amusing bartender by the name of Marco. Dude was a little disgruntled and a lil tipsy himself, awkwardly speaking his mind about everything from the art of wine tasting, annoying tourist stories, and his thoughts on Futbol. Marco had us cracking up that night, but after a couple of drinks, it was time to hit the hay.

We caught the (correct) boat back up the Grand Canal. It was awesome to cruise up the Grand Canal at night. Kind of an eerie feeling, as there are not many walkways along the Grand Canal itself, so the city had a surreal/deserted aura to it that night, but it was really beautiful.

I’ll resist the urge to use the term “magic” this time, but we would get our taste of a little Venetian “magic” before it was all said and done the next night.

 

Day 7 – Exploring Venice: The Grand Canal, mazes, shopping, eating, and a perfect way to end the night.

We woke up the next morning feeling refreshed, ready for our last full day in Italy exploring Venice. We couldn’t help but feel a sense of finality, as we knew the next day we would be leaving Italy for good. We tried not to think about that and instead concentrate on having fun in Venice, and that we did.

After a decent breakfast at the hotel (I almost chipped a tooth biting into the hotel’s courtesy “bread”) we immediately went to catch the #1 Boat up the Grand Canal (in the right direction this time). Our hotel was conveniently located about 10 minutes from the train station, which also happened to be where you catch the #1 up the Grand Canal.

It was a Friday in Venice and it was flipping packed with tourists. I was concerned about getting a good spot on the boat so I could take pictures, so we let a few folks go ahead of us when boarding the 1st boat that came so we would be 1st in line when the next one came. I was willing to sacrifice 7 minutes waiting on the next boat for an optimal spot to take pictures.

When the next boat came, we hopped onboard and got a good spot on the right side of the boat. Cruising up the Grand Canal was awesome. The Canal itself is pretty wide, I’d say maybe ½ a football field wide, so it kind of feels like a big water-freeway snaking through the heart of Venice. It’s usually packed with other large boats, small boats, gondolas, boats shipping in supplies, etc.

We continued up the Grand Canal, soon coming to the famous Rialto Bridge, which is both the midway point of the Canal and the busiest section. Lots of canal traffic, and lots of appealing restaurants packed with tourists lining both sides of the Canal.

We continued down, eventually hopping off at the Salute stop, which is beautiful old church. Its 17th century, so relatively new compared to a lot of other sites we had seen in Italy, but it was no less beautiful. We then started hitting the pavement, exploring the narrow streets of the Academia district.

As epic as Rome was, and as quaint and gorgeous as the Cinque Terre was, Venice offered its own brand of beauty. Similar to the small villages of the Cinque Terre, Venice’s streets are also quite narrow, and they too meander around, like a giant maze. The extra perk in Venice is that you often cross over several narrow canals as you make your way through the backstreets. There are literally hundreds of side-canals, about as narrow as a sidewalk, that snake their way through the city.

It’s really beautiful, but because of the touristy nature of the city, you kind of feel like your in one giant ancient Italian Disneyworld, lined with goofy shops selling souvenirs and other odds and ends. Venice is small enough that you can get lost in the maze of streets, but eventually run into the Grand Canal or the Adriatic if you keep going in the same direction long enough (generally speaking).

We crossed the picturesque Academia Bridge and wandered through the streets of San Marco, which were absolutely jam-packed with tourists and the associated goofy souvenir shops. Although it was really crowded on most of the streets, the energy in the air added a sense of excitement to wandering the tangled maze of narrow streets. Every so often, we’d end up in a quieter area of San Marco, which was a nice change of pace. But generally speaking, you only had to walk around a few corners before you’re back in the pack of tourists again.

We made our way back to St. Mark’s Square again to check out the daytime scene there. It seemed to be the epicenter of the city, really crowded, really big, but really beautiful. Kerry and I chatted it up with an elderly gentleman from Vienna, who as it turned out, used to live in Chicago. Small world. He said the best 2 cities in the US were Chicago and San Francisco.

“Right on!” I said. Those were our 2 cities and my favorite in the good ole US of A as well.

Once we had soaked in the St. Mark’s Square scene for a bit, we zigzagged our way to the Rialto Bridge, which was equally as packed. Great view of the Grand Canal below from the Rialto. We then crossed west and ended up in the San Polo area. We were getting pretty hungry, but couldn’t seem to pull the trigger on the many restaurants we passed.

Finally we ended up on a quiet side-street, and stumbled upon a chill little jazz-club. We plopped down, ate some really good pizza, and drank some wine out of a huge golden cup. It was nice to get out of the Venice rat-race for a bit to relax. I was transfixed on a clothesline hanging from the apartments above us, the sun shining just right on them to create a really beautiful contrast against the buildings. The wine combined with the jazz flowing out from the inside of the restaurant….ah wait…I think it happened….yep: magic. Little taste of Venice magic.

I was also starting to appreciate how beautiful Venice was. Sure it was crowded and excessively touristy, but it was still Venice: unique and beautiful.

And fun to get lost in. It really is like a maze, but you never really feel “lost” because it isn’t that big. For example, after our lunch, we were roaming around the Santa Croce district and stumbled up on our hotel randomly, which was perfect timing as we were looking to take a break before dinner time.

We laid-low for a bit, freshened up, and hit the Grand Canal on our way to dinner. We had made reservations the prior night at a restaurant east of St. Mark’s. We wanted to eat a canal-side dinner before we left Venice. It would also be our last dinner in Italy (bummer) so we wanted it to be nice.

It was nice, dinner was great (although I was kicking myself for ordering octopus instead of the “catch of the day”, which the table beside us ordered and it looked freaking amazingly good).

After dinner, we had to catch a gondola ride. Although a blatant rip-off in my opinion (100 euros by night, 80 by day) no visit to Venice would be complete without a gondola ride.

With a belly full of octopus and vino, I was in a bargaining mood. I didn’t want to approach a gondolaneer (I just made up that word) but I wanted them to come to me, increasing the odds of me chipping them down on the price. It was pushing 9:00 by the time we were done with dinner, which was kind of late for Venice. A lot of their restaurants, etc. start to close down around 10:00. It also seemed that there were much fewer gondolas out than just a couple of hours before.

We kept walking through the streets heading in the general direction of the Rialto. Whenever we’d see a canal or a bridge, we’d head for it, only to find no vacant gondolas. We ended up at the Rialto, which was fairly crowded. We figured we could find a gondola on the Grand Canal, but alas, they were all out cruising around. None available for hire.

Getting tired of walking, we passed a lively bar that seemed to be calling our name. We popped in for a few drinks, met a couple from Jersey, a So-Cal posse, and a couple from the UK who liked Green Day. We chatted it up while folks were dancing and singing to horrible pop songs all around us. It was a fun atmosphere, bras hanging from the ceiling, flamboyant bartenders, etc. We made some bar-friends, and they kept asking, “are you going to be here tomorrow night?” We could have met up the next night for more shenanigans, but unfortunately we would be Germany-bound, so no dice.

Kind of a bummer, but we made the most of our time there that night. Good times.

As we drunkenly zigzagged our way back towards our hotel that night, we were all but resigned to the fact that we weren’t riding a gondola in Venice. We were a little bummed, but having an extra 80-100 Euros in my pocket helped quell my disappointment personally.

Then, as we were literally right around the corner from our hotel, we were approached by a couple of gondolaneers (again, completely made up term, but you know, the people that paddle the gondolas). It was almost midnight, so they offered us a “special price” 30 minute ride for 60 Euros. I said alright, but we had to pee (a common quandary during our stay in Venice). Fortunately our hotel was right around the corner, so I told them to give us 10 minutes and we would be right back.

I wasn’t sure if they would really wait for us, but sure enough, we came back around the corner and there they were. We got in the gondola, kicked back, and enjoyed the ride. We were fairly drunk and pretty tired, but we really dug the ride. The streets were quiet that night, beautiful. Our gondolaneer took us through some back-canals, and we just laid back and enjoyed the ambiance. The gondola-guy brought his scruffy little dog on the ride too, but he mostly kept to himself at the front of the gondola.

It was all good with us. We had gotten our gondola ride after all, the perfect way to end a beautiful night in Venice, and a memorable way to end our last night in Italy in style. Cheers to Venice. Magic.

 

Day 8 – Train Ride through the Beautiful Alps to Munich: co-staring the kid from hell

It was time to bid farewell to Italy. Since Venice was reasonably close to the Alps, and I love mountains, I thought a good way to finish our trip would be a leisurely train ride through the mountains, and then we’d hop off the train on the other side and catch our flight to Chicago. I didn’t really care where we caught our flight, just so long as we got to take a train ride through the Alps.

It was about the journey, not the destination.

Then (back when we were originally planning our trip) I noticed a couple of things. I noticed that Munich was probably the closest destination on the other side of the Alps, and I noticed that there happened to be a rather large and rather famous annual festival going on at the same time we would potentially be rolling into town.

You may have heard of it: Oktoberfest. It’s one of the most famous events in Germany and the world’s largest fair, with more than 5 million people attending every year, and they typically drink close to 2 million gallons of beer by the time the 2 week festival comes to a close.

Gee, I think we should stay a couple of extra nights in Munich. An epic last hoo-rah for an epic vacation, at the biggest party on the planet.

Sounded like a plan to us. We had made arrangements to catch the Bahn (German train) from Venice to Munich that day, leaving around 1:30 for an 8:30 arrival in Munich. I wasn’t as bummed as I thought I’d be about leaving Venice, and I was pretty excited for the train ride through the Alps (again I love mountains) and an epic last day to our vacation in Munich on tap the following day.

But before we left Venice, we had a little bit of business to take care of. When I proposed in Cinque Terre, I didn’t have an engagement ring, being the somewhat spontaneous moment that it was. We wanted to find a ring in Italy, but hadn’t had much luck finding anything the prior day of shopping. We weren’t dead-set on finding a ring in Venice, we could always pick one out back in Chicago, but we thought getting a ring in Italy would be more special, so I was hoping to find one before our train departed.

So, with a few hours to kill, we started roaming around the Cannaregio (Jewish ghetto) district which was closest to the train station, but we weren’t having much luck. Just more BS touristy souvenir stores, selling the same crap store after store. I’d pop into a few of them, hoping to find something respectable to buy my fiancé, but no luck. Just more tacky touristy crapola.

Finally, we stumbled up on a jewelry store, so I popped in while Kerry waited outside. Luckily, my lady isn’t high maintenance, so she wasn’t expecting me to break the bank on an engagement ring (although she probably wouldn’t have minded if I did). I told her I was looking for something old, something timeless looking. She educated me that engagement rings typically have a stone of some kind in them (I don’t know about these things) so that was on my radar as I entered the jewelry store.

The jeweler naturally tried to sell me on some of the “shinier” rings, but I told him what I was looking for, and soon enough I had narrowed it down to 2-3 rings. 1 had a stone in it, and the other was like 3 rings in 1, locked together. I thought it looked cool and unique, but the other one had a stone, which Kerry said was more typical of an engagement ring.

I told the jeweler I’d be right back, and asked Kerry to come in and help me choose her ring. After all she’d have to look at the thing for the rest of her life. Did I mention I’m glad she’s not high-maintenance?

She seemed to take a liking to the one with the stone in it.

“What kind of stone is it?” I asked.

“Sapphire” said the jeweler.

Then Kerry said, “Oh, that’s my birthstone: Sapphire”

And that day happened to be her birthday.

It seemed we had found our ring. It was perfect, finding a ring with her birthstone in it on her birthday.

It was meant to be.

So I bought the ring, placed it on her finger, said Happy Birthday, gave her a kiss, and we were off to the train station.

Arrivederci Venice!

Our train left on time, and we had good window seats, so I was ready to start snapping Alps pictures when we got to them in a couple of hours. It was such a peaceful, calm trip. We had a private train car to ourselves, until we got to Verona.

I noticed a fair amount of people were going to be getting onboard at the Verona stop, so I slid over to the window and stopped using the other vacant seats as my own personal couch. It was likely that we would have company in our train car (which seated 6 total) but you never know, maybe we’d get lucky?

Just as that thought popped into my head, I saw a bunch of balloons coming around the corner (queue Jaws music). Whenever you see balloons, there’s usually children lurking about, and sure enough, into our quiet, peaceful car came a family of 2 and their 2 children, and one of them was not very happy to see that the window seats were already occupied.

This young, blonde haired-blue-eyed German boy, probably 3 years old or so, proceeded to launch into an epic tantrum that would have made Linda Blair looking like the fucking tooth-fairy. The kid lost it, kicking, screaming, yelling, crying, as if his little world was falling apart. His crying and screaming were excruciating, and I looked at Kerry who was sitting across from me, and we both seemed to be telepathically thinking “thank God for birth-control pills”

In actuality, we didn’t need pills, that kid’s exorcism-esq tantrum was all the birth control I needed. I figured he would finally run out of gas, but he kept kicking and screaming at an extraordinary rate for damn near a ½ hour (which seemed like 2 hours). I thought I was going to go deaf.

At one point, I even considered offering to give up our window seats, but then I realized that would not be a good life-lesson for the angry young German boy. You can’t kick and scream and cry and get your way. Life doesn’t work like that, so he would have to deal with reality that we were there before him, and we got the window seats.

Tough shit kid.

Finally, the kid wore down, and slowly resigned himself to the fact that he was not getting a window seat. Around that time, we were starting to enter the foothills of the Alps, so I started snapping a few pictures, ½ of me praying it wouldn’t spark another tantrum and the other ½ thinking it would be pretty funny if it did.

But the kid was out of gas, so no more tantrums. Yeesh.

The scenery of the Alps was really stunning. Elevation-wise, they’re on par with our grand mountain range: the Rockies, but the Alps have a much more significant rise to them. They’re taller from the base up than the Rockies, which is what I really love about mountains anyway: the vertical rise.

I snapped as many good pictures as I could (it’s hard to take good pictures from a 90mph speeding train with a glare coming thru the windows). Every time we’d come into a clearing for a good picture, the next second we’d go through a thickly wooded area or in a tunnel or something, so it was hard to get a lot of quality shots.

But I can tell you the Alps were incredibly beautiful and picturesque. Green as hell too, very lush. If I’m lucky, one day I will have to come back and hike the Alps and truly soak them in, as they seemed like the most beautiful mountains these eyes have ever seen.

Somewhere around Innsbruck, we decided to head to the restaurant car for a little dinner and a few beverages. The restaurant car was really awesome. Nothing particularly special about it, but it was like eating in a restaurant speeding 90 mph thru the Swiss Alps, including a nice waitress, menus, frothy beverages, and pretty good food too for a train car restaurant. I was digging it, and it was cool to eat your dinner and watch the beautiful Alps blowing past your restaurant window. That experience was worth the price of the train ticket alone.

Finally, after a long train ride, we arrived in Munich. It was around 8:30, nighttime, but the train station was alive and kicking that Saturday night. It was a typically large and busy train station, but it had that extra element of hoards of Oktoberfest stragglers stumbling around, singing silly German songs, adding to the energy and atmosphere of the place.

We had brushed up on enough Italiano to get us around Italy, but we hadn’t really taken any time to learn German, other than “Danka” and “Guten-tag”. I had researched our train that would take us to our hotel though, and we managed to find our S-7 line fairly easily. Within probably ½ an hour of arriving at the central station, we were walking up to our hotel for the next 2 nights. We grabbed a light snack and were pretty much ready for bed that night.

We needed to rest up, as our last official vacation day of the trip was upon us, where we would hit Oktoberfest for our epic last hoo-rah! (Or in Kerry’s case: HURL-rah!)

 

Day 9 – The Oktoberfest: The Last Hoo-Rah (Or in Kerry’s case: HURL-rah!) Flems, Brats, Big Red Hats, Mario & Luigi, and Kaput!

We woke up fairly early the next morning, as we had read that the Oktoberfest beer tents fill up rather quickly in the morning, especially on the weekends. Most folks typically get a reservation at one of the beer tents to guarantee a seat, but we were more focused on preparation for Italy so we procrastinated when it came to our Oktoberfest planning. Plus reserving a spot at a beer tent seemed like a pain in the ass (most places didn’t accept email reservations), and we weren’t planning on Oktoberfest being the highlight of our trip, more like the icing on the cake. We could bounce around the beer tents and if we were lucky, perhaps snag a seat.

So around 9:30 or so, we started our trek through a quaint, residential section of Munich on a crisp but sunny autumn morning to Oktoberfest. The grounds were conveniently located about 1 mile from our hotel, so it only took us about 30 minutes to walk to the fairgrounds.

We made a couple of wrong turns, but quickly realized it was best to simply follow the parade of goofy festival-goers, most of which were decked out in their traditional Oktoberfest attire, merrily skipping their way to what promised to be a fun-filled day of singing, dancing, eating, and suds.

I’m a big fan of fairs (brings out the kid in me), and when we arrived at the Oktoberfest, it was clear that this was indeed the mother of all fairs (which I already knew, but being there really drove that point home).

It was not even 10:30, and already it was packed with 1,000s of people. Huge Ferris-wheels, tons of amusement park rides, the aroma of delicious carnival food in the air, and super-sized beer tents lining the main artery of the festival.

We made our way to one of the larger beer tents, and took in the scene. The larger beer tents are huge, big enough to hold 1000s of people, and they are quite a site on the inside. The first tent we toured was not filled to capacity yet, but it was close. We noticed that all the vacant seats had “Reserved” signs on them, which was somewhat disheartening, but can’t say we were surprised.

We had planned to maybe grab a beer and stand around inside the beer tent, but we quickly realized that you had to have a seat in order to get a beer. You can’t go up and order a beer, but if you have a seat there are a plethora of lovely German waitresses happy to keep your beer mugs full.

Once we figured that out, it was time to move on. However, when we got outside we noticed there were a few seats available in the outside seating area, which was also quite crowded, so we scouted out the scene, and quickly plopped down at the end of one of the long bench tables. Almost instantly, a friendly and helpful waiter came up to take our order.

“Beer” we said.

And beer we got, in two very large traditional Oktoberfest mugs. We said “cheers!” and proceeded to order from the menu with a little help from our waiter (it was written in German). We saw a lot of folks enjoying rotisserie chickens (which looked very good), but it was still morning and I thought we would have plenty of time for that later, so we ordered the sausage.

My sausage was fairly typical breakfast-style links (covered in sauerkraut) but Kerry’s was basically a borderline-raw bratwurst floating in hot water. Not particularly appetizing (and the side of horseradish didn’t help).

Hungry as we were, we proceeded to scarf down our breakfast and tilt back our mugs. By the time we were done with our beers, I was feeling pretty good. So was Kerry, she was already up mingling with the other festival-goers, offering to take pictures and the like.

It was going to be an awesome day.

Once done with our food and beers, we decided to head to the upstairs section of the beer tent for some pictures. By this time, the tent was pretty much filled to capacity, and the atmosphere inside was raucous. Awesome scene, loud, packed, full of energy, some folks standing on tables singing. People were having a jolly ole time, and it wasn’t even noon yet.

We then bounced around to a couple of other large tents that were nearby. Each tent had its own little vibe/theme going on, but they all shared the same basic characteristics: huge, crowded, loud, and a rambunctious atmosphere. It was quite a site going into each tent, but we were finding out that there was not a snowball’s chance in hell of us snagging a seat inside of any of these larger tents.

By around noon, most of the outside seating areas surrounding the tents were packed too, and we were having trouble finding anywhere to plop down and enjoy some additional refreshments. As we were combing around, we spotted a fellow who executed an impressive feat:

With a beer in one hand and a cigarette in the other, he paused for a moment, vomited for a few seconds, took a puff of his cigarette, and proceeded to go about his business staggering around the area.

The only thing that stopped me from running over immediately to shake the man’s hand and express my sincere admiration for his drunken-stamina was the fact that he probably had vomit on his hands. Cheers to that fellow.

After another ½ hour or so of wandering the grounds, we finally snagged a couple of seats and quickly proceeded to order our 2nd round of beers for the day. I should probably mention that 1 huge mug of German beer is probably equivalent to at least 2-3 regular beers (as we would soon find out). It’s 1 liter, so slightly more than 2 pints. But Oktoberfest also has strict German purity laws for all beers sold at the festival, so this was top-shelf stuff. And potent stuff to boot.

Soon after we plopped down and started enjoying our beverages, before we knew it we were making friends. Sitting next to us were a group of friendly gents from Belgium, one of which spoke pretty good English (the other 2 were hit and miss). They were jolly fellows sporting big red hats. They explained the hats were part of their strategy to find each other amongst the sea of other disoriented festival-goers. If you’re drunk off your ass and can’t find your friends: just look for the big red hats.

Made sense to me.

We joked, laughed, and talked about this and that. We were certainly starting to get into the spirit of things. Eventually the language barrier started to breakdown, and we were speaking the universal slurred drunken language of smiles, gestures, laughing, etc that kicks in after your 2nd liter of beer at Oktoberfest. Good times.

Then I spotted Mario and Luigi, which I was pretty effing ecstatic about. These two dudes were fully decked out in Mario & Luigi costumes like it was flipping Halloween. That’s a fun site when you’re sober, but when you’re drunk, it’s fucking fantastic. I had to chat it up with those fellows, even if they didn’t speak English, I didn’t care.

Luigi though looked like he was down for the count. He was all but passed out on his bench, with folks messing with him trying to get him to regain consciousness. Ah good ole alcohol.

Suddenly though, Luigi came to. With a 2nd wind, he bounced up and was staggering around, being Luigi again in all his glory. Mario explained to me (he spoke English after all) that Luigi had been at it hard yesterday, and that he was a little tuckered out from the prior day’s festivities. We snapped a few picks and danced around like the rest of the fools in the area, had a great time.

And then Luigi was kaput again! Down for the count on the table. He gave it a good effort. Cheers to Luigi.

Meanwhile, we were having a great time with our new Belgium friends. Such a good time that they felt inclined to buy us another round, which Kerry protested, but my cheap ass said “OK, cheers!”

So we continued to drink….and drink….and drink. Our Belgium friends invited us inside the big tent to meet up with the rest of their posse, so we happily obliged. The scene inside the beer tent was even more rowdy than before. It was packed, and probably 1 out of every 4 people was standing on their tables, joined arm & arm in festive German folk singing. People were chugging beers left and right, pounding on the tables, and dancing to the goofy German band that was rocking it on the stage. A scene that would make Wrigleyville after a Cubs win look tame by comparison (well almost).

We met more Belgium folks in big goofy red hats, and were having a great time, but I was ready to move on to a new tent, meet more people, and keep the party going! But I had to wait until Kerry got back from the restroom, which was taking a long time. It was then I realized how drunk I was, and in turn how drunken Kerry probably was too. I had to pee myself, but I was not going to leave the area I was in until Kerry popped back up (which seemed like forever). Finally she spotted the big red hats, and I was free to go to the bathroom.

When I got back, we bid farewell to our Belgium friends, and were off to whatever was next. Pretty much right after we left the beer tent, Kerry started to feel a little bit sick. Actually, before she got sick, she told me that she was seeing 2 people.

“2 people??” I said. “There’s like fucking 2 zillion people here and you only see 2 people, hah?” I said stupidly and drunkenly.

She said “No, for each person, I see 2 people, like there are 2 of you right now”.

That wasn’t a good sign. I was pretty drunk myself, but I wasn’t seeing double yet. After stumbling around the grounds for a bit, the double-vision was starting to get to Kerry, and we had to plop down on the street for a rest. I figured we’d take a break, collect ourselves, and then we’d be off to maybe grab some food and more suds at the next beer tent we stumbled upon.

Unfortunately, that wasn’t happening. Kerry was sick, and it was time for me to play that consoling role of the loving fiancé that holds your hair back as you puke. So that’s what I did, and that’s what Kerry did…a lot.

HURL! We’ve all been there, and it’s not fun, so I tried to be as supporting and comforting as possible (for a drunk guy)

It was clear our day at Oktoberfest was coming to an end. It was only around 2:00 or 3:00, but the party was over for us. Bummed out as I was, I realized Kerry was not in very good shape, so it was my duty to get us back to our hotel safe and sound.

So we staggered our way back to our hotel on that beautiful, sunny, warm autumn afternoon. I was drunk off my ass, not sick yet, but I realized if I would have had another liter that I might have quickly descended into Kerry’s condition before it was all said and done. In her defense, the bratwurst she had for breakfast was not very appetizing, and probably did not do much to settle her stomach before some heavy drinking.

When we finally got back to our hotel, Kerry was kaput! Out cold, and I wasn’t very far behind her. I thought (for about 2 seconds) about walking my ass all the way back to Oktoberfest to rejoin the party, but by that time I was pretty effing tired, and we had an 8:50AM plane to catch the next morning anyway, so no sense in making the next morning any more painful than it was already going to be.

In a sense, everything had gone according to plan that day. Because we were going to have to wakeup so early the next morning, the plan was to hit Oktoberfest hard and heavy in the AM, and come back and pass out before dark so we could get a decent (albeit drunken) night’s sleep. I probably only had another hour or 2 left in me anyway, so it was all good with me.

So I passed out, and we woke up that evening and headed downstairs to the restaurant in our hotel, and had some of the best Indian food we’d ever had that night. After a week of Italian food, and shitty German food the past 1 and ½ days, we were ready for something spicy, and boy did that Indian food hit the spot that night.

And that was it. The end of our epic vacation, pretty much just as I had imagined it. We had an amazing time, but I think we were both ready to head home. So we did most of our packing that night, and set the alarm for 5 effing 30 AM the next morning, ready to start the long journey home on what would be the longest day of our lives (literally and figuratively).

 

Day 10 – The Loooooong Journey Home/Longest Day Ever, co-staring Iceland? Huh?

The alarm went off promptly at 5:30AM. It was time for the long journey home. Our flight was scheduled to leave Munich at 8:50AM, and we were scheduled to land in Chicago at around 3:30PM (which would be 10:30PM Munich time).

It was going to be a long day, not only because of the flight duration, but also because we’d be chasing the sun all day, so by the time it was all said and done that evening in Chicago, we would have experienced over 18 hours of consecutive daylight.

So literally the longest day of our lives.

When we were walking to the subway to catch our train, it was still dark outside, with just the faintest of glows along the horizon to hint that we were somewhat close to sunrise. Since we had quit drinking by 3:00PM the prior day, I can’t say that I was hungover, but generally speaking, anytime I wake up before the sun comes up, I’m not usually in a peachy mood.

It took about an hour to get to Munich’s airport on the subways, and everything went pretty smoothly regarding check-in and all that jazz. Unfortunately, we were not catching a direct flight back to Chicago (which would have saved us at least a couple of hours). Nope, we were Warsaw-bound once again. Yippee.

The flight to Warsaw was fairly quick, about 90 minutes roughly, and our layover was only about an hour, so before we knew it, we were boarding our mega-jet bound for Chicago. It was supposed to be a 10 hour flight, so I was planning on passing the time by writing about the trip, reading my Bob Dylan book, and perhaps taking a nap.

I accomplished the first 2 ideas, but not the latter. About 4 hours into the flight, just when I was about to doze off, an announcement came over the speaking asking:

“Ladies and gentleman, if there is a doctor onboard, can you please alert one of the flight attendants”.

Great. Someone ate the fish.

We were over the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, so there weren’t a lot of good options for landing with a sick passenger. I mean, what are we going to do, divert the flight up to Greenland, hah?

Close. They ended up diverting the plane to Iceland, making an already excruciatingly long flight that much longer. About an hour or so later, we were heading in for landing in Iceland.

Peachy.

The sick passenger ended up walking off the plane under his own power, escorted by the Icelandic paramedics. I was already a little zapped from the prior day’s festivities/jet lag, so it was hard to wrap my head around the fact that we were in Iceland, somewhere I was pretty sure I would never visit in my entire life.

The view of Iceland from my plane window certainly lacked something to be desired: flat, desolate, very few trees, and um, cold. Pretty much how I imagined Iceland to be. I surveyed the landscape, desperately trying to spot Bjork somewhere along the Iceland prairie, but to no avail.

Oh well.

After sitting on the runway for a very long hour, we were eventually airborne again and Chicago-bound. We were informed that the Iceland detour only added an extra hour to our arrival time (probably because they were stepping on the gas in the cockpit) so it wasn’t as bad as it could have been.

Finally, after over 12 hours of sitting on planes, we touched down in sweet home Chicago at around 4:30PM. It was good to be back. We went through customs, waited forever to get our bags, and hopped on the Blue line to the 80 Irving Park, and eventually, around 6:30PM (1:30AM Munich time), we arrived back at our home.

We were tired, and our long trip was now officially over (but the jet-lag was just beginning unfortunately).

We were back from what could only be described as a trip of a lifetime, which sounds cliché (because it is) but it doesn’t make it any less true. Every place we visited was magic (well except Munich) and we both had an amazing time.

Rome was the most incredible, epic, magic city I had ever been to in my life. Cinque Terre was probably the highlight of the trip, not just because we got engaged there, but the combination of the natural scenery of the sea/mountains combined with the quaintness and timelessness of the 5 villages adds up to one of the most beautiful and magic regions I have ever had the pleasure of visiting. And we’ll always have our lock-of-love to come back to forever, located up those stone steps from the Via Del Amore, perched on a beautiful hillside overlooking the Mediterranean. Venice was beautiful and unique too, and was a lot of fun. I got Kerry’s engagement ring there, her birthstone on her birthday, another endearing memory.

And Munich, well, we both got shitfaced, and Kerry puked, so I can’t speak for her, but I personally had a fantastic time at Oktoberfest.

It was an epic trip with so many memories, and I’ll never forget it (especially since I documented everything). Like any awesome vacation, you come back feeling refreshed, with a fresh prospective on things. I’ve realized that I really love traveling and writing about it. Writing about this trip has reawakened my creative juices that have been basically dormant since my Second City days. I’ll continue to explore the wave of creativity and see where it leads (perhaps back to Second City? Perhaps to a stand-up comedy club? Perhaps nowhere?) We shall see.

I feel incredibly lucky and fortunate to have made such a trip. Over the past 10 years, I’ve come from a long way off and a long way down, but there is still much much more work to be done. For now it’s back to the rat-race, the day-to-day grind, back to reality, but man:

What a trip.

Until next time arrevaderci!

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