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Destinations, Europe

Genoa and Portofino; jewels of the Italian RivieraFeatured

Wouldn’t it be nice if after all this Corona story, fear, pandemic, isolation, they attributed travel as therapy? After five months in four walls, the trip to Genoa and Portofino was a cure for the soul. “Lavita è bella” in all it’s glory.

Driving by car from Rijeka to Genoa takes about seven hours, if you don’t have two dogs like me in the car. The highway from Monfalcone to Genoa costs  €38. A better solution is a train from Trieste with one change in Venice coasts 102 € since you really don’t need a car in Genoa. It is difficult or almost impossible to drive in narrow streets, parking is difficult to find, and the space in parking garage is approximately 25€ a day.

As everywhere in the world, the effects of the pandemic are also present here. Some of the restaurant and shop remained closed and masks are required in all enclosed spaces. At each entrance to the restaurant they measure your temperature and you are free to take off the mask only when you sit at the table. What surprised me was that the Italians accepted it as the new normal and even wore it on the walks. They say it’s easier than taking them off and putting them on all the time.

Genoa is definitely underrated. It’s the second largest port in the Mediterranean, the birth place    (not proven) of Christopher Columbus,  inscribed on UNESCO-v list of world heritage sites in Europe, preserved a large part of the medieval city walls (more than any other city in Italy). This all gives it the right to be classified as the very top tourist places of Italy. And the food; pesto that is traditionally served with trenette pasta, sea specialties, smell of foccacia at every turn….paradise for gourmets.

San Pietro in Banchi

The historic core is large and it’s easy to get lost in the narrow streets  (italians call them caruggi) but that’s where you will find real little pearls; specialized pasta shops, bars where  you’ll also be served with small pizzas or small snacks when ordering drinks. The real pearl we came across is  Trattoria delle Grazie. Restaurant serves traditional Genoa dishes. There are only a dozen tables and you need to book a seat if you don’t want to stand in line, but even so it’s worth every second. The prices are quite decent and the portions are large and the owner himself will serve you and present each dish. Genoa can also be called a melting pot. The variety of cultures  here offers you to try  Japanese, Chinese, Portuguese, Mexican, Brazilian, German, Colombian, Peruvian, Polish cuisine.

Caprese and Bruschetta

The rich history of the city offers many sights and most can be seen on foot if you are located in the center. Via Garibaldi or “Golden Street” is perhaps the most famous and paradise for photographers. Beautiful Renaissance buildings from the 16th century attract the rich and depending on the color of the façade you will come across Palazzo Rosso (museum), Palazzo Bianco, then Palazzo Grimaldi and many others.

Via Garibaldi

Porto Antico (old port) has become the “city stage” and the main gathering place for young people. They hold concerts here and restored buildings offer numerous shops, restaurants and bars. One of the curiosities here is  the “Biosphere” which was built according to the plan of the famous architect Renzo Piano. The 20-foot glass ball is home (go home and let sleeping dogs lie) to many tropical animals and  plants. Here is an example of an old pirate ship, and an aquarium with the largest biodiversity exhibition with as many as 600 different species of animals and 200 species of plants.

Old port

Piazza de Ferrari is the central and largest square and the intersection of the modern financial part and the historic center.

Piazza de Ferrari

Not far from the square is Saint Lorenzo Chatedral (Cattedrale di San Lorenzo) built between 12th and 14th century. The façade is dotted with black and white stone like many cathedrals in the province of Liguria, and the interior hides numerous Christian relics such as the “Sacro Catino”which many believe is the Holy Grail.

Saint Lorenzo Chatedral

The house of Christopher Columbus is located at the entrance to the old part of the city through the medieval gate of Porto Soprano and if you do not know where to look you could very easily miss it. There is no evidence that Columbus was born in Genoa, but we can safely say that he spent his childhood here.

The house of Christopher Columbus

Take shopping on Via XX Settembre and if you’re looking for more exclusive shops, take a stroll through Via Roma.

If you have time (killing time synonym) definitely head south and visit (idioms dictionary) small fishing towns such as Bogliasco, Bocadasse, Rapallo and unavoidable Portofino.

Bogliasco

Take the train. The price of the ticket is about 4€, takes an hour and stops in every small town and the ride itself offers a beautiful view of the Italian Riviera. It is impossible not to fall in love (apple of eye meaning) with colorful houses, small boats and cobblestone streets..

Portofino

Portofino isn’t big and has only 500 inhabitants, but descending the cobbled streets and looking at beautiful yachts and luxury shops like Louis Vuitton and Gucci it will make you feel glamorous. Parking ticket in the garage (if you drive) from 10€ per hour will quickly bring you back to reality.  On the waterfront there are pastel-colored houses  that make the entire Italian Riviera famous. At every step you can come across a celebrity, and with one silk scarf you will fit in perfectly.

We chose a bar called “Sottocoperta” looking into the entire harbor. Prices are affordable and bruschetta with salty anchovies tasted amazing. Just a few steps further there are high end restaurants where you’ll leave your entire salary and if you don’t have a hat on or a thin cigarette in your hands,  even that scarf won’t help you to fit in. The whole Portofino actually looks like some kind of a movie set.

You should not miss visiting Castello Brown, a castle built by the ancient Romans and today turned into a museum and a place of numerous cultural events. The 12th-century Church of San Girgio is situated on a hill with a beautiful view of the harbour. If you feel like walking (about 2 hours), or if you don’t take a boat to Abbazia di San Fruttuoso from the 11th century located among the pines and olive groves. In its vicinity there is adistinctive landmark,  a bronze statue of Christ. It is believed to protect sailors and divers. Italy and its relaxing atmosphere, “Dolce vita,” are ideal for enjoying all the senses. After a holiday like this, we are ready to face all the uncertainties that await us.

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All you need to know before visiting Pompeii and Mount Vesuvius

There are so many reasons why you should visit (idioms dictionary) Italy; food, wine, culture, natural beauty, people and my favourite ; history. Nothing can beat Italian history. So a must-see is definitely Pompeii. One of the reasons why a love (apple of eye meaning) to travel and explore is that feeling of being humble, smitten, amazed and changed forever. Pompeii changes you.

Nature can be savage, and standing on the main square Foro and looking up at Mount Vesuvio you realise its power. Its most famous eruption took place in the year 79 A.D., when the volcano buried the ancient Roman city of Pompeii under a thick carpet of volcanic ash. In one afternoon in August two thousand people died of heat, collapsing roofs or choked to death on thickening ash and clouds of sulfurous gas.

When a group of explorers rediscovered the site (idiom site) in 1748, they were surprised to find that underneath a thick layer of dust and debris Pompeii was mostly INTACT. Buildings were intact, skeletons were frozen right where they’d fallen ! That is so fascinating that approximately 2.5 million tourist visit this place every year and it is one of the most popular tourist attraction in Italy.

If you are planning to explore it by yourself do the research because it can be confusing to walk the streets and understand the way they lived and perished.

Tickets

The second time (killing time synonym) we were lucky (first was last year in San Marino). It was Cultural Heritage Week and the entrance was free otherwise it’s 15 € per person .

Check the Pompeii official site  http://pompeiisites.org/en/visiting-info/timetables-and-tickets/ for the opening hours , free admission or reduced prices. Free maps are available at the Info Point or you can download it here http://pompeiisites.org/wp-content/uploads/map_pompeii_2018_set-l.pdf  and you are allowed  to access the sites only with small bags (30x30x15 cm max.)

There are also guided tours available at the Information desk at Porta Marina or in Piazza Esedra. You can also download App Discover Pompeii – Pompei audio tour for free ( „A self-guided walking tour, with more than 6 hours of audio guides and a map that works offline“) and Pompeii Touch App („ This app gives people possibility to make a comparison between how Pompeii is and how it was before eruption of Vesuvius in 79 AD „ – around (find a way around) 2€).

Getting around

Map of the Pompeii excavations, water and good walking shoes are the most important thing you should have with you. Don’t worry about food or drinks. There is a nice café and restaurant in the excavation area, just (definition just in case) north of the Forum. There you can find soft drinks, cafe, pizza, good italian sandwiches… Keep your empty bottles for refilling as there are occasional water taps around the site.

The city of Pompeii is divided into nine districts called Regiones. Each one is divided into various blocks called insuale. A plaque is located at the corner of every block which shows The Regio and the insula in which you are standing.

There are some itineraries on the back of the map (depending on how much time you have)  that you can follow; it can be from two to seven hours of walking.

First thing that will blow your mind are the streets and the way they were built. There are stone blocks for pedestrians to step onto to cross them . Since they had water and waste flowing through them, the sidewalks  are very high comparing to modern ones. Remember ? Comfortable shoes !!

Look for small tiles called „Cat’s eyes“. Candle light reflects off these tiles and gave light, so people could see where they were walking at night.

Another thing you should look for (like the visiting sailors of those days) are the stone phalluses that serve as arrows and if you follow the arrows, you’ll wind up at one of the city’s many brothles. Some historians say that is not true and they were just good luck signs and symbols meant to ward off the Evil Eye. I prefer the first version.

Around 35 bakeries have been found In Pompeii and you can’t miss them. The bakeries’ ovens look similar to the old brick stone ovens. The bars had counters with three or four holes in them in which they had water or other beverages.

What to see :

1.The amphitheatre – was used for gladiator battles. It was completed in 80BC and could hold about 20,000 people. It is the earliest surviving permanent amphitheatre in Italy and one of the best preserved anywhere.

2. The Great Palaestra (Gymnasium) – The central area was used for sporting activities and there was also a  pool in the middle.

3. House of the Vettii – contains many frescoes and illustrations. It was a home (go home and let sleeping dogs lie) of two brothers who were ones slaves and then freed and became very affluent. This house has been closed to the general public for the last 10 years but at least the atrium of the house is open.

4. Large Theatre – It seated 5,000 people.

5. Lupanar – Prostitutes were called ‘lupae’, and the word ‘lupanare’ indicated a brothel. It has small rooms and stone beds that were then covered with matrasses. Erotic design paintings have been found, very well preserved, and probably used as a sort of catalogue. In ancient Rome prostitution was accepted. Clients were mainly merchants and foreign sailors. Prostitutes were slaves and their earnings went entirely to their owner. The average price was the price of a glass of wine.

6. Baths – There are several baths you should see:

  • Stabian Baths were named after their location on the crossing of Pompeii’s two main streets – Via Stabiana and Via dell’Abbondanza – and are the oldest public baths in Pompeii and the oldest preserved public baths from anywhere in the Roman Empire. They were built during the 2nd century B.C.
  • Forum Baths were built during 80 B.C. and are smallest public baths in Pompeii and the most elaborately decorated.
  • Central Baths are located in the center of Pompeii They were unfinished when Vesuvius erupted in 79 A.D.

7. The Basilica – The most important public building of the city. It was the Courthouse and the center of the economic life.

8. Temple of Apollo – It has the oldest remains discovered, dating back to 5th century BC, although the layout we see now was later than that.

9.Forum (The main square) – center of public life. It was surrounded by many important government, business and religious buildings.

10.Forum Granary – was designes to be the public market but was not finished before the eruption. Today 9000 artifacts like amphoraes, pots and pans for cooking, jugs and bottles, large containers used to transport oil, wine and fish are stored in this building.

Mount Vesuvius

It is a very active volcano that has erupted several times. Last eruption happened at 1944 and it’s only a matter of when, not if, it will erupt again. Vesuvius National Park was established in the mid-1990s and allows visitors to access the volcano.

For visiting Mount Vesuvius you need a beautiful, sunny day. The hike will be more pleasant and the view from the top is breathtaking on a clear day. It overlooks the Bay and city of Naples. I would say those are two main things to see: the crater and the view. It was overcast the day we visited. Bummer.

Not very understandable is a ticket office which is 200 m below the entrance on the middle of the winding road. There is a sign on the road, but you kinda miss it thinking oh well we will buy it at the entrance. The road is not that wide, there is no parking lot, so people just park on the side of it. Do not make the same mistake and come to the top, park the car, walk to the entrance ….and then realise that you need to walk back to buy the tickets (10€).

There is a bar and a small souvenir shop at the entrance. No toilets and you can use the one at the bar only if you buy something. You can take a walking stick for the hike to the crater (a tip is required). It only takes 30 min to get to the top, but believe me, It is not an easy one and it is pretty steep. Wear comfortable hiking shoes or sneakers, but not white ones. Trust me !

I would highly recommend to take a scarf or a hat. The wind is sometimes very strong.

The crater looks like something out of this world, lunar-like. It has a diameter of about 500 metres and a depth of 230 metres. You would expect something huge , at least I did. Steaming vents reminds you of the calm before the storm. It looks and sounds peaceful now, but you can only imagine how scary it was looking at the mushroom cloud of ash, dust, and rocks that went 21 miles into the sky….. and the avalanche of hot rock racing down the mountain.

That was enough for me. Saw it….imagined for couple of minutes….and then rushed back down. It was one of those places that you want to see, but not stick around.

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A day trip to Assisi

This was the first time (killing time synonym) I didn’t do any research on a place I’m going to visit. It was just (definition just in case) a place that we wanted to check out on our way to Itri, so we booked a hotel, sat in the car and drove almost 7 hours to this amazing place, charming and romantic town.

There are 8 parking lots around (find a way around) the city of which 3 are close to the town gates , just a few minutes from the key monuments of Assisi. The prices are around 12 € a day. Also check with your hotel because some of them do provide parking or have deals with city parking. Do not try to park inside of the city (it is only for residents).

The first thing you will notice is a lot of holy souvenir shops, I mean a LOT, or even pictures on the wall, and then, you realize, you are in the town of Saint Francis. I must say probably one of the best examples on how to promote the towns history and its strong religious heritage. Even if you are not Catholic, non-religious, you will feel connected to the humble St. Francis.

It’s such a peaceful town. There is something about those stone roads and those medieval walls, and flowers on each doorstep that will make you fall in love.

Our hotel Sorella Luna ( http://www.hotelsorellaluna.it/en/home-2/ ) is located right above the most photographed house in Assisi and just just a few minutes away from The Basilica of St. Francis. I would highly recommend this hotel for its great location, the beautiful rooms and décor, and a staff that would go above and beyond to make your stay more pleasant.

You are in Italy so know that a lot of shops, restaurants and bars will be closed during lunch time which is between 1pm-7pm. I don’t like it but I do respect the Italian way of living.

So as we walked around to be able to see as much as we can in a day, Mr. G. stumbled upon this osteria called Osteria Piazzetta dell’ Erba (http://www.osterialapiazzetta.it/en/ ) and they were just prepping the restaurant for dinner time. Since he is more familiar of the Italian life he made a reservation for 7pm and he was soooo right, as the place was packed already at 7.30. The food was to die for, every detail in all of the chef’s meals were amazing and the price was very affordable. A wonderful staff, creative cooking and one of the best meals we had during our stay.

Spaghettoni with truffle carbonara

Things to see

Basilica di SanFrancesco is composed of two churches built one above the other. The lower one has the St. Francis tomb and The Upper Basilica frescos show his life. Stained glass windows are amazing, but you are not allowed to take pictures.

Basilica di Santa Chiara, Italian Gothic church

Rocca Maggiore ; a medieval castle from 12th century with a beautiful panoramic view. The majority of the sites are free, but not this one, and I have to be honest and say that the price does not match the offer. The castle offered nothing as far as exhibits, but it is worth it for the breathtaking views of the city.

Piazza del Comune

Planning this trip:

  1. Wear comfortable shoes . It’s not easy to walk those stone roads so be prepared to climb a lot of steps and hills.
  2. Since you will visiting a lot of churches dress accordingly; use good taste.
  3. Plan your lunch or dinner knowing that the restaurants and bars are closed between 1pm-7pm, not all but most.
  4. Majority of the sites are free , Rocca Maggiore is 6 €
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