A Travellerspoint blog

By this Author: madrugada

Ciao Italia!

A week wandering the Bel Paese

sunny 26 °C

Sample One-Week Itinerary
Day 1: Florence – check out the key religious sites (especially the main cathedral – il duomo), visit a museum or art gallery (there are endless options!), and spend the evening piazza-hopping from Piazza della Signoria to Piazza della Repubblica listening to live music
Day 2: Tuscan countryside, Florence – Tuscan daytrip! Although we didn’t have the time to do this, many of my friends have taken daytrips to beautiful surrounding towns and highly recommended it. You can also check out Pisa, if you’re really craving a classic touristy Italian photoshoot
Day 3: Florence – enjoy the area around the mercato centrale, consider a free walking tour like through La Bussola (bring cash tips, of course), visit the sinagoga e museo ebraico (Jewish synagogue and museum), cross any one of the beautiful old bridges (don’t miss ponte vecchio) to get to Villa Bardini and watch sunset from the Piazzale Michelangelo
Day 4: Pompeii, Salerno – spend the morning and/or afternoon at Pompeii (easily accessible by train) before returning to Salerno, shopping and seeing its historical sites
Day 5: Amalfi Coast, Salerno – take the ferry to Maioiri, hike the “Lemon Trail” to Minori, take the ferry to Amalfi, consider bussing to Ravello (beware the crowds), walk over to Atrani, ferry back to Salerno taking in the beautiful Amalfi Coast sunset before strolling its pedestrian thoroughfare and walking by the seaside promenade
Day 6: Rome – spend the day exploring the Vatican City, both the surrounding areas and the museums (make sure to purchase the guided tour in advance!). Make the most of Roman nightlife in Trastevere
Day 7: Rome – cross through Isola Tiberina to explore the former Jewish ghetto and then the many historic sites Rome has to offer: Torre Argentina, Piazza Navona, Pantheon, Trevi Fountain, Spanish Steps, and finally a tour of the Colosseum, Roman Forum and Palatine Hill. Check out what’s happening at Mattatoio, a former industrial complex, and dine at Testaccio Market across the street

Overall Tips
- Carry a pack of Kleenex wherever you go – many restrooms don’t have toilet paper, will charge you (so carry coins too!), and might not have a toilet seat either
- Don’t forget to get a travel charger and also an adaptor (or even a converter depending on the electronics you’re bringing)
- Bring cash and credit card, most places accepted either but it’s helpful to have a back up
- Consider purchasing an anti-theft purse or backpack as certain areas are extremely crowded with tourists and have become hotspots for pickpocketing
- Download a language-learning app like Duolingo in advance so that you can practice some common phrases like “grazie”, “prego”, etc.
- Always make sure you have the medications you’ll need, my seasonal allergies really flared up (for example) so I was glad to already have my pills on hand
- Confirm what Covid restrictions are still in place. As of June 2022, it was necessary to wear a KN95/FFP2 mask on all of the high speed trains and inside the Vatican City museums but no Covid testing was required

Where to Stay
- Florence: B&B Relais Tiffany – roughly $100/night, 10-minute walk to Florence S.M. Novella Train Station
- Salerno: B&B Il Reticolo – roughly $80/night, 10-minute walk to train station
- Rome: B&B Suites Trastevere – roughly $115/night, 10-minute walk to Trastevere train station

Where to Eat
Florence: All’antico Vinaio sandwiches; I Tarocchi pizza; Mercato Centrale for everything
- Gelato, ranked in order of deliciousness: GROM (their signature flavour) then Edoardo’s and finally Venchi (likely wouldn’t go back there)
Amalfi Coast: Divin Baguette in Maioiri for superb sandwiches; Pasticceria Sal de Riso in Minori for treats; Ristorante Cicirinella and Pizzeria Giagiu’ in Salerno (our favourite pizza on the trip!)
- Gelateria Giallo Limone and Zer0ttoNove Bar Caffetteria in Salerno both had fantastic sweets
Rome: Mercato di Testaccio (especially pizzeria Casa Manco); Roscioli Salumeria con Cucina and Pizzeria da Baffetto were both recommended by friends but were totally packed so we couldn’t try them
- Frigidarium (chocolate dipped gelato) and the Pasticceria Boccione (kosher bakery) were both delicious

How to Travel
Trains
- We took high speed Frecciarossa trains between our destinations – they go up to 300 km/hr. I booked all our tickets in advance using Trenitalia. The competitor company, Italo, would have been fine but I found the prices higher or the schedule less convenient for us. I spent some time calculating whether Eurail passes would be helpful, but in our case it was cheaper to buy each individual ticket.
- Always double check the stations you’ll travel to. For example, Pompeii Scavi is the closer train station to the ruins, not Pompeii, but we couldn’t get there (on time) from Salerno so we had to budget additional time.
- When you buy a train ticket you won’t know which direction the seat will face. Since there were two of us, we always bought seats facing each other so I could always take the seat facing forward (to avoid motion sickness). The trains have washrooms, in case of emergency.
- They provide complimentary snacks and drinks depending on the tickets you purchase; otherwise, you can purchase them on board for a small fee. We brought our own snacks.
- KN95 (FFP2) masks are required on board, unlike the American Airlines flight to and from Italy (with more than one maskless, coughing American). The conductors really take masking seriously in Italy as on more than one occasion I saw customers being reminded that cloth masks weren’t good enough and that they had to wear the FFP2 ones.
- The train platforms won’t necessarily show up on the screen until a few moments before departure, but you can ask a staff member where they’re more likely to depart from.

Ferries
- We bought all of our ferry tickets on the spot, rather than in advance. We never had to wait and were able to get on each ferry. That said, the ferry from Amalfi was chaotic and it was unclear where to wait or whether everyone would get on so try to get there early and consider buying those tickets online.
- There were restrooms on board but I saw one restroom out-of-order, so I’d recommend using the toilet while you’re still on land. And if you know you get motion sick, always carry a "barf bag" just in case.

Buses
- In Rome, we took a bus upon arrival. We purchased our tickets from a central booth and then had to validate the tickets once on the bus. I’ve heard stories about travelers not validating their tickets and then getting fined.

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My Travel Diary

Despite visiting all of its neighbours, I had never become acquainted with Italy until this year. When I stumbled across roundtrip tickets for less than $500 each, I knew it was time. The only issue? (Aside from the ongoing pandemic…) We only had one week! For that reason, this blog entry will be more like the antipasti than the main meal – it’ll give you a taste of Italy, while leaving you (and me!) wanting more.

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This was my first trans-Atlantic flight in over three years. Since the pandemic started I’ve become a nervous flyer, feeling uncomfortable with the idea of being trapped in a small space with so many strangers especially since there’s always a chance that my motion sickness may strike. So, even before boarding, I dreaded the thought of having to fly for ten hours each way. It helped me to think about everything I was excited for – the food, the hikes, the history – but, it helped me more to fall asleep after taking motion sickness medication. We arrived at Roma Fiumicino (Leonardo da Vinci) airport and made it to the train station within half an hour or so of landing despite my groggy state. I was shocked by how easy it was! Then I noticed the chaos of the train ticketing area: a couple of long lines, some broken machines, and many confused tourists. We skipped the machines and went straight to the line for ticketing agents. The trains could go to either Roma Tiburtina or Roma Termini – make sure you catch the right one! We headed to Tiburtina and from there we caught a train to Firenze (Florence) Santa Maria Novella train station.

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Upon arrival in Florence, I was instantly impressed. It’s bellisima! Across from the main train station, we stumbled upon the Basilica di Santa Maria Novella which is a Gothic church that’s hundreds of years old (like much of the city). The style, to me, looks similar to the famous Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore, also known as “il duomo”. Seeing Brunelleschi’s amazing approaches to art and architecture (including the world’s biggest masonry dome) made me better understand how Florence was the starting point of the Renaissance. Brunelleschi, Donatello, Da Vinci, and Michelangelo (among many other talented people) all lived in Italy during the 15th century – what a roster of genius.

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To fuel our Florentine expedition, we needed plenty of food. Fortunately, in Italy, there’s never any shortage of gelato – in Florence alone, I tested GROM, Venchi, and Edoardo’s. As I learned in my college statistics classes: sample size matters! On our first day in Florence, after filling up on too many treats, our only meal was sandwiches at the famous All’antico Vinaio – I got vegetarian #2 with Stracciatella, pistachio cream, tomatoes and basil. On the second day, we ate a proper dinner at a nice patio on the other side of the river. The pizza took so long to arrive that I was tempted to offer my assistance in the kitchen, but it turned out to be well worth the wait. My favourite meal in Florence was actually at the Mercato Centrale where Dmitriy and I ate with my friend, Dave. The three of us split everything from liver on toast to pesto pasta. The only thing I didn’t try was the famous Florentine lampredotto (tripe sandwich) – weeks later, I still don’t regret not eating the fourth stomach of a cow. In addition to food, we made sure to quench our thirst with local drinks. Downstairs we purchased cappuccino at the Caffe del Mercato while upstairs we went for an Aperol Spritz, famous in that region. As a side note, you have to pay for water there, but at least, for once, the washrooms were free!

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Florence, like many cities, offers fantastic free walking tours; the only caveat is that you should tip the guide for their expertise and time. Dmitriy, Dave, and I spent a couple of hours wandering the streets of Florence with our guide from La Bussola Tours who gave us a solid foundation in Renaissance architecture and insight into the incredible power of the Medici family in the 1400s. He explained that, in his opinion, the Renaissance started in 1401 and ended in the 1520s. It was the perfect storm: wealth in Florence, competition between rich families, and the prominence of religion and skilled artists. Wealthy people, in those days, would be patrons to artists like Donatello or Michelangelo and insist on religious art being displayed around their palaces to show their virtue. Doing terrible things and then hanging pious paintings sounded like my trick of eating three gelatos but following up with a salad and calling that healthy eating. Everything is a matter of perspective!

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As we looked at the family coats of arms (like the 3 moons of the Strozzi family) on the palaces, we noticed how the buildings were built with bigger windows at the bottom and smaller windows on the highest floor to give the illusion of grandeur. All over Florence, we had to play with the illusion of reality: much of what you see is a replica, not an original. For example, outside of the Orsanmichele Church we saw a statue carved by Donatello… but not actually the one made by Donatello, just a copy. Regardless, the workmanship was incredible and we were fascinated to hear about how the church had been run by trade guilds like bankers, woolworkers, butchers, and sword makers, for example. I particularly liked the image of St. George made by Donatello, although every time I mentioned the artist’s name out loud my childhood obsession with Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles bumped up against my adult art sensibilities.

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The tour ended at the Basilica di Santa Croce, where Michelangelo is buried (another great ninja turtle!). Apparently, it’s the largest Franciscan church in the world but it has a massive Star of David on the front façade in honour of the Jewish architect, Niccolo Matas. We took that as our sign to seek out the Jewish area of town, a short walk away (as most everything is in Florence). Sadly, the imposing Sinagoga e Museo Ebraico was closed by the time we arrived; however, we did bump into a nice American Jewish couple who highly recommend the Ba Ghetto kosher restaurant. Always good to get firsthand recommendations!

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Throughout our trip, Dmitriy and I made time for romance - admittedly, a pretty easy feat in Italy. So, on our last evening in Florence, we crossed the picturesque medieval Ponte Vecchio (where we had seen a proposal the night prior) to climb up to Piazzale Michelangelo and watch the sun set over the city. We had anticipated a serene scene but were met instead with throngs of like-minded tourists and the constant shutter of camera phones.

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So, our next stop, Salerno, came as a welcome respite with its local vibrancy complemented by quiet corners. Although it served as our base for a trip to Pompeii and the Amalfi Coast, Salerno is a beautiful city in its own right. Traces of human settlement in the area go back over 2,500 years and the city’s central cathedral hosts the tomb of St. Matthew. Since Salerno was the only city we visited where my friends and family hadn’t yet traveled, everything felt new to us. We opted to have dinner there both nights, wandering the wide pedestrian thoroughfare, Corso Vittorio Emanuele, to find the hidden restaurant Cicirinella and then the more prominent Pizzeria Giagiu’. In both cases, I enjoyed our dinners and also the subsequent treats at the delicious gelateria Giallo Limone and bar/café Zer0ttoNove Bar Caffetteria respectively. At the latter, Dmitriy ordered crema del nonno, which sounded slightly more questionable when translated into English: “grandfather’s cream”. Dmitriy, as always, was nonplussed and happily enjoyed his creamy iced coffee.

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While Dmitriy is generally a very easy-going person, our afternoon at Pompeii managed to get under his skin. For anyone who’s not been, the site is expansive – we’re talking over 98 acres of potential walking. When we arrived in the town of Pompeii, we weren’t at the train station closest to the ruins (Pompeii Scavi) which meant that even prior to the tour we had already walked half an hour in the heat. It turns out, unsurprisingly, that there’s very little shade, very few restrooms, and a whole lot of space to wander. Our guide, Melania, worked with the company “Enjoy Pompeii” and was full of interesting information. She started by providing us with context and myth-busting facts like how lava wasn’t the killer, but rather asphyxiation from the gas and metres of volcanic dust shrouding the city. These people’s nightmarish deaths were helpful for historians as everything is incredibly well-preserved. That said, during WWII, Pompeii was bombed many times so some areas are more damaged from the recent past than the ancient tragedies.

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Pompeii, like any contemporary city, went through different cultural transformations, but our guide talked to us most about who was living there in the first century AD. She talked to us about the earthquakes people experienced prior to the eruption and how the townspeople believed it was Bacchus (who they thought resided within Mt Vesuvius) sending them messages. Their main deity was Jupiter, and we saw evidence of this. Regardless, because Pompeii used to be a port city with people coming (and being forcefully brought) from all over, there were many languages and belief systems. For that reason, visuals were key to communication. For example, carved penises were used as street signs to advertise the 20+ brothels and within the brothels there were illustrated menus of sex positions with numbers underneath them. In fact, we saw phallic symbols all over the place. Apparently, horizontal penises were directional markers while etchings of vertical penises were actually symbols of prosperity.

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The richer families also had some beautiful frescoes and mosaics with all kinds of vibrant, less sexual images. Melania emphasized that the incredible artwork and advanced systems like windows, geothermal heat, sliding doors, roadways and so on were mainly made by enslaved people. Another disturbing fact that she told us was that life expectancy was very short. Many of the 20,000+ residents would die in their 30s because of improper hygiene, lead pipes, and lack of medicine; even prior to that, babies were often killed if they weren’t considered “perfect”. Melania’s tour certainly wasn’t uplifting, but it was informative.

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Our daytrip to Amalfi was a much gentler experience. We hadn’t bought ferry tickets in advance, so when we arrived at the dock at Salerno, we bought tickets for the next boat (regardless of where it was going!). After a very short 3-euro ferry ride, we got off at Maioiri. Because we knew we would be hiking the Sentiero dei Limone, Lemon Trail, we decided to stop and eat there first.

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We got to Divin Baguette shortly after opening, so the server had lots of time for us. This came in handy not only for my many questions about which sandwich to get (the salmon one was excellent!), but also for the miscommunication surrounding my order of “lemon juice”. In my mind, lemon juice obviously meant lemonade; I couldn’t fathom someone opting to suck on liquid lemons. To the server, lemonade was not “naturale” enough to serve, so his “lemon juice” was obviously just freshly squeezed lemons – nothing more, nothing less. Suffice it to say, the drink left a sour taste in my mouth. We knew that the Amalfi Coast was famous for lemon everything, from alcohol to desserts; however, we weren’t expecting that level of immersion.

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To access the trail, we began by climbing past the supermarket and up to Santuario Santa Maria e Mare with its beautiful green and yellow domes, preparing us for the many lemon orchards to come. The signs for the Lemon Trail were clearly marked, and truth be told it was mainly stair climbing past people’s homes and lemon trees – sometimes overhead, other times below us, but the plentiful lemons were always there. The views were stunning and we took about 45 minutes to walk (and photograph) it.

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This wasn’t exactly wilderness, but we did meet a few stray dogs and some mules on route to Minori. Next time I wouldn’t mind staying at one of the many B&Bs, or stopping for limoncello, but we decided to keep going past the beautiful mosaics down the stairs to Minori and the Basilica I Santa Trofimena. We bought treats and boarded a ferry to Amalfi, savouring the sweet flavours and sights simultaneously.

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Arriving in Amalfi your eyes feast on the cliffs and colours, and it’s clear that this town is much bigger (and busier) than the others along the southern coast.

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The beaches were full of little pebbles, and all privatized so we set off instead for the central square: the Piazza Flavia Gioia. We appreciated the Fontana di Sant’Andrea and Cattedrale di Sant’Andrea, dating back to the 9th century. We then walked past famous fountains like the one devoted to donkeys, the Fontana “de Cape ‘e Ciucci”, built in the 18th century. I’m not sure how donkeys and dolls are connected, but this fountain has been decorated with dolls since the 1970s. Fortunately, they weren’t half as creepy as the dolls littering Xochimilco in Mexico City. Chucky couldn’t hold a candle to them. Following Lorenzo d’Amalfi, we arrived at Dalla Carta alla Cartolina/Scuderia del Duca – a casual postal museum and stationery store. I’m not quite sure what a postal museum is supposed to look like, but this one certainly surprised me. I had very little time to explore its contents before needing a washroom. This was an ongoing challenge in Italy. I’m not asking for a Tim Horton’s on each corner, but at least one public washroom for every few blocks would be helpful. Fortunately, there’s a public washroom near the Museu della Carta uphill from where all the tourism is, so I had access to a free toilet. It turns out there’s also a beautiful waterfall, gorgeous mountain views, and access to a hike up there.

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Eventually, we made our way downhill to walk over to the neighbouring town of Atrani. It’s exceptionally narrow and tall. We didn’t stay long before heading back to Amalfi to catch our ferry. Unfortunately, the ride to Salerno was less than pleasant. Of all three ferries that day it was the ferry from Amalfi to Salerno which was, (1) the longest ride; and, (2) the bumpiest ride. It didn’t help that the washroom was broken. The views were still beautiful but I didn’t appreciate paying 9 euro for nausea. A man behind me paid to vomit. I got the better deal.

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Speaking of transit, the trains were all wonderful – spacious and clean. I felt bad for the tourists with suitcases so large that they could barely fit in the overhead storage areas though. One woman looked about ready to leave the country and go home, cursing and muttering about the weight. The irony is that she wasn’t even doing any manual labour as a young Italian man had lifted her suitcase for her since she was blocking everyone from taking their seats. Because we never knew which direction the train would go, we had purchased seats across from each other. I knew it would be easier that way since my motion sickness won’t let me face backwards on a moving vehicle and I wasn’t sure how accommodating our train companions would be. I found out pretty quickly that not everyone takes the seats they pay for. On our journey from Salerno to Rome, we noticed an elderly Italian couple across the aisle who were seated beside the windows and had pulled out countless snacks. In Naples, a foreign couple got on and tried to kindly inform the old Italians that they were in their seats. After about five minutes of miscommunication and much huffing and puffing, the Italian man pretended to start gathering his goods but his wife stopped him. Dmitriy and I stared out the window, not daring to make eye contact with the naughty nonna. We got off at Roma Termini station and promptly our luck ended. We couldn’t figure out where to buy tickets for the train to Trastevere station which was leaving in a matter of minutes. Instead, we bought bus tickets, which turned out to be a blessing as it helped us situate where we were and how ancient this city really is. When we got to our B&B, we also quickly learned how prehistoric the elevator was. The doors had to be manually shut for it to work. We learned this when, approaching our floor, we excitedly started opening the inner door and the elevator abruptly came to a halt. We were stuck in the elevator a few inches below where the floor should have been. Fortunately, we’re good escape artists and we made our way back to solid ground within a matter of minutes. It’s a good thing too because no one responded to my cries for help; instead, an older Italian woman on the ground floor began yelling for us to hurry because she needed the elevator asap for her groceries. It’s a hectic city and this was just the beginning.

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The day we arrived in Rome I had booked us a Vatican City Museums tour, so we had to hurriedly walk through Trastevere. We stopped along the way very briefly to take in sites like the 15th century Ponte Sisto and Castel Sant’Angelo (built BC by Emperor Hadrian as a mausoleum). It’s impossible to capture just how much life is vibrantly on display in the streets of Rome, and Italy overall. There’s an incredible togetherness when cities are built for people, not cars. Our tour started at 3pm and we arrived early at the Basilica di San Pietro, the world’s largest church and supposedly where Peter the apostle is entombed. We realized fairly late that we were at the wrong spot and we had to rush to the other side of the city where the museums are located. Everywhere was packed, and I’d made the mistake of not eating a proper meal yet – relying on free snacks instead. The lack of sleep, water, and food combined with the heat and crowds wasn’t an ideal combination. I found it hard to take in everything the small guide was loudly lecturing about.

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She started the tour by explaining the symbolism of the Sistine Chapel including the size of the books that captured details of who would go to heaven and who to hell. I found listening to her less important than actually being present in the chapel (after the tour had ended) and taking in the immensity of the artwork: from Jonah and the Whale to Moses parting the sea, I was amazed by the detail and beauty of the tableaus. The chapel itself is also home to many security guards whose job it is to keep the area quiet and keep people from taking photos. They failed over and over again, until finally one of them warmed up a microphone and in a tone and pace like that of a Gregorian chant, he began reciting his prayer for “silenzio” followed by “no fotos” and finishing with “no videos”. I was entranced; Dmitriy was irritated.

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On the museums tour, we just scratched the surface of Vatican City's immeasurable wealth. But the guide never mentioned any of the controversies, like what's covered in articles like this: https://www.cbc.ca/news/politics/metis-researcher-counter-narrative-vatican-indigenous-1.6394948. We started the physical tour by walking through a courtyard with a giant pine cone and peacocks, which were originally built near the pantheon (decidedly not a monotheistic locale). We also saw Pomodoro’s sfera con sfera showing the dynamic and fragile nature of the world. The gravity of the work was lightened by the English translation of the artist’s name: Mr. Tomato. We kept exploring the endless museums like Pio-clementino with sculptures predating Christianity like Laocoon (40 BC) which tells the story of the Trojan War. Our guide talked about how the Romans imitated the Greeks, their styles and stories. She gave us a long lecture about it; my short attention span couldn't keep up.

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One of my favourite rooms was actually the map room, which depicted the many areas of Italy in surprising orientations (by modern cartography standards). We also saw more recent works like in the Sala dell’Immacolata (19th to 21st centuries), the Rooms of Raphael, the Room of Eliodora and other modern art by Dali and Chagall; however, the guide was in such a rush that we couldn’t even stop to see these pieces. In her tour, she shared too many details but not enough foundational information. Bits and pieces stuck with me though like how often faces would be dedications in art. For example, the Pope’s face might be painted on a hero’s body. It was also curious how only living people would be painted looking directly at the audience. She also underscored trivia like how all of the guards in the Vatican City are Swiss, which dates back to the reputation of the Swiss as killer mercenaries. Apparently, it had nothing to do with their chocolate-making abilities or purported neutrality – I guess those aren’t skills you look for when hiring people to save your life. Overall, I felt destroyed by the time we finally entered the Sistine Chapel at the end. We took our time sitting on a bench staring up at the glorious artwork, but it was hard to fully absorb the magnitude of the magnificence. Regardless, my feet welcomed the rest. On our way out, we still had to pass by multiple stores, cafeterias, and myriad other museum exhibits about topics like coins and stamps. In fact, they have a Vatican post office where you can buy a special stamp and send your mail. Whether the secular system will deliver the holy mail is another story. Right before exiting the Vatican City, we saw a small stand with photos and quotes about Indigenous people like “Your culture… must not be allowed to disappear”. The irony was not lost on me.

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Hungry and tired, Dmitriy and I wandered in circles until he found a restaurant he was confident in. I’m less bothered by reviews when hungry, but Dmitriy is a stickler for stars. We ordered immediately and were promptly brought a multitude of antipasti. My fried tempura zucchini tasted mediocre at first bite, but it was the second that surprised me. It turns out that the cook had run out of the cheese advertised in the menu so had substituted… anchovies! Suffice it to say I’d rather sip pure lemon juice than bite into something so fishy. Sadly, “Claps” is not a restaurant I’d recommend if you have dietary allergies, or preferences. Anyway, we made up for it later. After wandering the Mattatoio area, which used to be a slaughterhouse and industrial complex, we came across the open-air Mercato di Testaccio. It had live music, dancing, and (most importantly) tons of great food stalls. We tried four different types of pizza at Casa Manco before waddling our bloated bodies to the dance floor. They played English, Spanish and Italian music… and hosted a Zumba class! We had a great time and I loved that everywhere we went felt so safe, even in a big city like Rome. It was a welcome change. That said, it’s a fairly dirty city – there’s litter and graffiti all over!

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Speaking of safety, a trend on this trip was people trying to enter our hotel rooms. In Rome, this meant that at 1 am we suddenly heard jangling on the door handle, while in Salerno it was the housekeeper entering before 9 am every day (which somehow felt less reasonable). Our first morning in Rome, we were awoken to knocking on the door because it turned out (for once) breakfast was included but we hadn’t indicated what we wanted to eat. We weren’t thrilled about being woken up like that, but the delicious breakfast in bed was worth it.

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We still opted for a second breakfast – we didn’t want to repeat the mistake of undereating. I had read about Rome’s Jewish quarter and wanted to experience it for myself, whether we attended services at the synagogue, visited the museum or just ate some tasty kosher treats. In the end, we opted to pick up sour cherry ricotta cheesecake (crostata di ricotta e visciole) from Pasticceria Boccione – it was soft on the inside and perfectly crispy on the outside. Dmitriy and I shared a slice, but secretly wished we’d bought at least two.

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We also wandered past the impressive Tempio Maggiore di Roma, built in the early 1900s after centuries of Jewish people being contained within the Jewish ghetto. The Jewish Museum is located within the temple building, while the powerful Fondazione Museo della Shoah, Holocaust Museum, can be found beside it. We wandered through the latter and learned more about the resilient Roman Jewish community. In fact, Italian Jewry date back over 2,000 years. A couple of friends had recommended going on one of the Jewish tours in Rome and Florence (the food tours looked especially great!), but we never found the time. As a side note, one of the companies that came recommended was: https://www.florence-jewish-tours.com.

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The famous Arch of Titus tells some of the story of Jewish enslaved people being brought to Rome. With its implicit and explicit depictions of the Roman attack on Jerusalem, destruction of the sacred temple, murder and enslavement of Jews and pillaging of their treasures (like the famous menorah), it’s a harsh reminder of how Jewish life in Israel was drastically altered leading to thousands of years of diaspora living for so many Jews. I hated how this was being celebrated in this arch, which is, to so many tourists, seen as just another unique piece of ancient art on their trip to the imposing Colosseum. There's always a juxtaposition between recognizing the beauty of a place and reflecting on its bloody past, I suppose.

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Before leaving for Italy, I was really torn about whether we should take tours at Pompeii and the Colosseum but after speaking to friends about it, it became clear that if you aren’t a historian or archeologist, you should probably take a tour. Our Roman guide was incredibly enthusiastic even when recounting gruesome details of the Colosseum’s construction. He discussed how macabre the Colosseum was: from the enslaved people who were made to fight (and die) as gladiators to how Romans killed so many lions that they became extinct in North Africa. The amphitheatre, though it may not look like it, was the largest ever built, yet it was built in eight years (in the first century AD). The guide facetiously pointed out that the metro stop there has been in a state of renovations and upgrades for over ten years already. He should try visiting cities like Toronto or Chicago where extreme weather means that transit expansion, let alone maintenance, feels like it takes millennia. Anyway, at its peak, the Colosseum could hold 50-80,000 people who were able to watch the performances free of charge. Apparently, this was (and still is) a popular political strategy: distract the populace with free entertainment so they won’t fight back against the squalor.

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A lot of innovations went into making the Colosseum: they would flood the stage and host water shows or have set changes with exotic plants they’d pull up and down using lifts and underground tunnels. The roof itself was even retractable! I made a joke about the Toronto Skydome, but I think the guide’s laughter was an automatic response rather than actual acknowledgement. He lectured us about the many uses of the Colosseum: entertainment, housing, and even prayer. On site we saw a lot of original relics like graffiti from the stadium, seats, and mosaics. While wandering, we were fortunate enough to hear an Italian singer taking advantage of the acoustics – her striking sounds wafted up through the air lending us an impression of how exciting it must have been to see a performance of any kind in a structure so intentionally built to bring together tens of thousands. We also watched our guide’s flirting in action as he complimented the singer and invited her to join our group... as long as her boyfriend wouldn’t mind.

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The Roman Forum was literal layers of history. Once again, it felt overwhelming trying to catch all the details spilling out. The guide picked ancient artefacts up off the ground and reminded us never to think of the past as just one static point in time because it’s a mishmash of so many cultures and civilizations coexisting, killing, and conquering. There are so many distinct periods of time with so many unique customs that he could never answer a question like “what was marriage like for the Romans?” without specifying which century he was considering for his response. He hurried us past the crowds and into a church that was unearthed after destroying the one on top of it – frescoes of sullen faces were still fresh after 1400 years. I can only imagine how humans would be perceived if the images unearthed thousands of years from now were of botox-infused duckfaces. The guide pointed out Basilica Giulia, the temple of Rumulus and other places frequented by emperors like Caesar. The Roman Forum was always a gathering area while the Palatine Hill was for the emperors. We were forced to explore that area ourselves as the tour abruptly ended after two hours (I thought it would last three). Based on the signage, we learned about the ruins of Temple of Vesta where the Vestal Virgins kept the flame burning to signify Rome as an eternal city – no men were allowed except one, and the women would be buried alive if they made a mistake. Linkedin would have trouble advertising that one. Meanwhile, the Imperial Palace took up the whole hill above and was split into three parts. We were exhausted by the time we made it up the hill so we quickly looked around the Farnese Gardens (named after the family that bought this land in the 16th century), took photos for a tall tourist and then headed to get our Covid testing done. At this point, the US was still requiring negative antigen or PCR tests for re-entry. I found it odd that people were forced to test before entering the country, but they weren’t required to wear masks on the 10+ hour flights. I’m not the one making the rules though, just abiding by them (with negative test in hand).

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While in Rome it felt inappropriate not to visit the key tourist spots, so we made sure to snack in Piazza Navona, pose on the Spanish Steps (not sit though – that’s prohibited!), fill our water bottles outside the Pantheon, throw coins into the Trevi Fountain and stare in awe at the Piazza Venezia. I was most impressed by Trevi Fountain, much to my surprise. I couldn’t believe how huge it was! Neptune is incredibly detailed for his size and I can only imagine that even in the 18th century the crowds must have been huge. It’s an interesting spot too because on the one corner you have this fountain which is hundreds of years old and the other is a Benetton.

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One of the older customs that some restaurants still honour is being closed on a Sunday. So, when it came time for our last supper we made our way to Roscioli Salumeria con Cucina, a place my friend Adrian had recommended, only to learn that it was not accepting new patrons and that many of the surrounding restaurants were closed. While frantically searching for an open, tasty restaurant, the tall red-headed man from the Colosseum strolled up. It turned out that he was from Amsterdam and was equally surprised by the coincidence of us running into each other again in such a large city. Fortunately for us he recommended Pizzeria da Baffetto and the Gelataria Frigidarium next door to it. We chose to eat at a restaurant in Piazza Camp de’ Fiori instead because of its phenomenal people-watching, including a very dramatic fight wherein a woman angrily crossed her arms, turned around, and then stormed off from a friend who promptly burst into tears. We couldn’t hear what transpired, but the stereotype was proven true: Italians really do talk with their hands.

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Our last night ended with my sticky gelato hands meeting Dmitriy’s for a sweet slow dance on the Ponte Sisto footbridge to acoustic guitar music. We pulled ourselves away from the moonlit river and our private concert to wander the winding alleys of Trastevere, full of fun and mischief. Although it was hard to say "ciao Italia", I’m looking forward to sampling many more of its flavours in the future...

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Posted by madrugada 19:11 Archived in Italy Tagged mountains beaches churches buildings food architecture hiking italy florence paradise rome beauty ancient eating amalfi tuscany cafes minori pandemic salerno amalfi_coast romantic_getaway bilingual_travel atrani maiori Comments (0)

Heading South to Explore North Carolina

Visiting the (Actual) Cubs

sunny 25 °C

Sample Itinerary
- Day 1: Biltmore, sunset dinner in Asheville
- Day 2: Great Smoky Mountains hiking, dinner in Waynesville
 --> Clingmans Dome (loved these views): 1 mile starting from the parking area at the end of Clingmans Dome Road, fully paved, but extremely steep (well worth it for the views) – there are restrooms available, but no water
 --> Laurel Falls: 2.6 miles roundtrip starting between the Sugarlands Visitor Center and Elkmont Campground, very popular since you can swim at the base of the falls – no restrooms or water available aside from at the visitor center
 --> Cataract Falls: starts near the Sugarlands Visitor Center, mainly flat
- Day 3: Blue Ridge Parkway hiking, dinner in Marshall
 --> Craggy Gardens and Craggy Pinnacle (loved these views): Roughly 2 miles roundtrip and 1.4 miles roundtrip respectively, both are fairly steep, forested, and lead to beautiful views (watch out for roots, and bugs) – we parked in the picnic area and hiked up then returned to our car and drove to the Craggy Pinnacle designated parking lot. The Craggy Gardens visitor center and picnic center both have restrooms.
 --> Mt. Mitchell Summit: 1 mile roundtrip starting from the highest parking lot which takes you to the highest peak east of the Mississippi; it’s very steep but paved the whole way and there are porta potties and water fountains for public use
 --> Crabtree Falls (my favourite waterfalls): about 3 miles roundtrip; you can either go back the way you came, or take a different, slightly longer more scenic route back following the river; it starts off easy but becomes increasingly difficult with uneven paths and the need to hold on to a railing to find your footing on a crumbled staircase on the return; no facilities along the trail, but there is a campground about a mile from the parking lot, en route to the trailhead
- Day 4: Asheville (try Urban Trails self-guided tour), including the North Carolina (NC) Arboretum
Optional: Drive from Asheville to Chicago through North Carolina, Tennessee, Kentucky, Indiana, and Illinois

Where to Stay
- Best Western Smoky Mountain Inn, Waynesville ($100 USD)
- Marshall House Inn (B&B), Marshall ($150 USD)
- Wingate by Wyndham Fletcher at Asheville Airport ($80 USD)

Where to Eat
- Asheville: Tupelo Honey Café, The Chocolate Fetish, Well-Bred Bakery and Café
- Marshall: Zuma Coffee, Star Diner
- Waynesville: Los Amigos Mexican Restaurant, Kanini’s Restaurant, Third Bay – Filling Station
- Louisville, Kentucky: Martin’s Bar-B-Que Joint

My Travel Diary
North Carolina clearly hasn’t had the same publicists as Florida or California because growing up it wasn’t really on people's radar where I lived. There was no Disneyworld or Disneyland to dream of, and I’d never heard of the Great Smoky Mountains – only Smoky the Bear! But over the last few years Asheville has increasingly been the topic of travel talk; I’ve heard a lot about it being an open-minded oasis full of delicious local fare and surrounded by incredible mountain ranges. So, when deciding where to go on a five-day July getaway, my partner and I agreed on North Carolina. Full disclosure: it helped that the plane ticket prices were about $125 USD each roundtrip.

Before traveling anywhere, I always make sure to check the forecast. Once I’ve arrived, I always remember that meteorologists are fallible human beings. We were expecting three straight days of rain, including thunderstorms, so we planned accordingly; however, we only got sporadic showers. Regardless, we planned to spend our first day at Biltmore Estate because we could have a few hours indoors exploring the largest private residence in the U.S. We approached the house from the Diana Fountain at the top of a hill, such that we saw it increasing in size in contrast to the fading mountains behind it. The home, with its French Renaissance style, covers roughly four acres with 35 bedrooms, 43 washrooms, a bowling alley, and library with its own secret passageways.

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We spent roughly an hour and a half exploring the house, feeling more and more thankful by the minute that I’d never have the means to live in such a preposterously imposing house: there was a four-storey chandelier, a 90-foot room devoted entirely to tapestries (including one from the 1500s), and a 70 000-gallon indoor pool in the basement complete with underwater lighting at a time when many homes didn’t even have electricity yet. It’s well worth a visit not only to examine the architectural features (thanks to Richard Morris Hunt) and the landscape architecture (thanks to Frederick Law Olmsted), but also to reflect on the vast wealth disparity in the U.S. On the self-guided audio tour they made sure to emphasize that the estate was opened up to the public in the 1930s to try to increase tourism in the region and boost the local economy, while also being a major source of ongoing employment for locals.

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Although you could spend multiple days exploring the grounds at Biltmore, we booked our tickets for just one day and reserved a 3pm entry to the house. We started off by walking through the outdoor Library and South Terraces, savouring the shade and soaking up the stunning views of the mountains. We also happened to overhear an engagement proposal, although we were both so groggy from our flight that it didn’t register at first. The woman kept looking down at her hand and making an astonished face, so it finally clicked and I bluntly asked: “Did you just get engaged?” She shyly said yes, huge smile creeping across her face. I gushed over her ring and wished them all the best in their life ahead and then gave them some privacy.

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We strolled through the Shrub Garden, the Walled Garden, and the Rose Garden on our way to the Conservatory. I appreciated the diversity of plant life: from a bamboo forest to azalea gardens; and was incredibly impressed with the botanical model train display, fully functioning trains composed entirely of plant matter! We kept walking behind the conservatory, continuing on to the Bass Pond and Boat House with its own hidden waterfall – another prime proposal spot.

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Completed in 1895, the property included thousands of acres so it’s no surprise that the Vanderbilt family ultimately decided to start a dairy farm, winery, and now also own multiple hotels in the Antler Hill Village area. We didn't have time to hike or bike the many acres, but we did drive by the sunflower field and take in the art displays along with the educational exhibits. There’s also the adjacent Biltmore Village, which has historic cottages full of restaurants, cafes, and event spaces. We stopped there to fuel up at the Well-Bred Bakery and Café.

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We should have been more cognizant of our potential hanger when we packed for our hiking trips in Great Smoky Mountains National Park and along the Blue Ridge Parkway. We also hadn’t realized that it may be difficult to refuel, even with water, along the way. Driving to Great Smoky Mountains National Park, I also regretted not budgeting time to explore Cherokee – a town governed by the Cherokee Nation with a nice river, cute restaurants, and the Museum of the Cherokee Indian. Instead, we ventured on to the Oconaluftee Visitor Center to get hiking early. While there, I was able to purchase water from a vending machine and use their restroom, while also picking up two paper guides: one devoted to day hikes and a Great Smoky Mountains trail map. It was only $2 for 2 of them! I’d highly recommend coming in with paper maps and guides because the internet was unsurprisingly unreliable. From there we stopped at a few of the overlooks like Morton and Carlos Campbell before doing our first hike at the Clingman’s Dome (steep but stunning!).

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I’d recommend wearing a hat, taking sunscreen, and going at your own pace – we saw a few people overheating on the way up, so it’s always important to stop when needed. We ended up spending roughly an hour there, really taking in the sights. We also had a strange delay in that we had to step in and distract some bees that were terrorizing a young girl whose mother was clearly also afraid and keeping her distance. Once the bees had buzzed off and the family had fled, we were able to continue on our way. Our eyes loved every twist and turnoff the drive (although my motion sickness definitely didn’t) and it’s clear why they’re called the Great Smoky Mountains given the clouds so stoically seated atop the summits. Our next stop was at the Newfound Gap where we learned more about the history of the national park, the region, and got to officially stand half in Tennessee and half in North Carolina.

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We couldn’t find water anywhere and the washroom had signage indicating its water wasn’t potable, so we stopped at the Sugarlands Visitor Center where they had water fountains as well as vending machines, but no food unfortunately. So that my belly growls didn’t get confused with bear growls, we diverted into Gatlinburg and grabbed lunch from Five Guys - mainly because it was cheap and easy protein. Gatlinburg itself is a tourist trap, overpriced with far too many neon signs, and I’m glad we didn’t stay there. We quickly headed back to the hills to hike more. We rounded off our day by hiking Laurel Falls, which took us roughly 90 minutes – my partner actually climbed down into the pool at the bottom for a quick dip. We found out that we had bearly missed a cub who had been spotted on the path; probably for the best because I’m sure a mama bear wouldn’t be too welcoming to tourists like us. Before leaving the park, we decided to walk the Cataract Falls trail from the Sugarlands Visitor Center, quick and easy but really pretty. If we were to do it all again, I’m not sure that I’d hike Laurel Falls – I’d consider trying Chimney Tops Trail instead, which is also popular but likely has better vantage points.

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In contrast, I’d love to revisit everything we did in the Blue Ridge Parkway. To begin with, we had the good fortune of seeing two bear cubs cross our path within about ten minutes of each other. We were in our car both times, otherwise I would have felt more like a not-so-happy meal and less like a happy observer. Fortunately, when we arrived at the Craggy Gardens Picnic Parking Lot no one was eating – bears or humans – so it was nice and quiet. We started our hike there so that we could get the ascent out of the way and have a breezier finish. The Craggy Gardens hike wasn’t overly challenging because the path was generally clear, but because it was steep at times, I took it slow. There was enough space to step to the side at times, but unfortunately, we still encountered some rude individuals. Maybe their attitude was a result of their hanger, we’ll never know. The hike itself was mainly through the forest without vantage points, but we did enjoy the rhododendrons and rock formations along the way. Once you arrive at the visitor center, the views are spectacular. Even more incredible are the views from the Craggy Pinnacle; however, I wouldn’t recommend walking to the trailhead from the visitor center – it’s much better to drive down the road, through the tunnel, and park in the Craggy Pinnacle hike parking lot.

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The highest peak we reached was Mt. Mitchell. Although it’d be more impressive to say that we hiked the tallest mountain east of the Mississippi, the truth is that we drove as far as we could in our rental car before begrudgingly huffing and puffing our way up to the 6684 ft. summit. It was a short climb, but a very, very steep one – more so than Clingmans Dome, and that’s saying something!

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A last-minute addition to our hiking agenda was Crabtree Falls. I hadn’t read about it in my research for the trip, but because I befriended a man on a motorcycle who recommended we visit Little Switzerland (long story) we changed our route and hiking plans. It turned out to be a blessing and a curse: Crabtree Falls were the most beautiful waterfalls on our trip by far, but Little Switzerland was about as authentic as Swiss Miss.

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In booking our accommodation, I chose to stay only in small towns rather than in Asheville proper. After two nights in Waynesville, about half an hour west of Asheville, we moved half an hour north of Asheville to Marshall. Between the two, I preferred Waynesville. It helped that there were more restaurants, cafes, and impressive views of the mountains. As with most small towns, we had to work around limited hours of service, which were greatly exacerbated by a labour shortage due to Covid-19. We felt that more acutely in Marshall, which only had two restaurants open for dinner when we stayed. The views from our incredible B&B (cannot recommend it highly enough) were far more appealing to us than sitting on a busy patio so we ordered take-out. We made the right decision because another guest at the B&B performed a live concert for us while we dined at dusk on the vast veranda.

Marshall:
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Waynesville:
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Surrounded by thriving small town life, we expected Asheville to be a more booming metropolis. In fact, it was bustling with tourists but had a fairly small, very walkable downtown. If you’re not in the mood to take a formal tour, then I highly recommend Asheville Urban Trail (https://www.exploreasheville.com/urban-trail/) because it outlines options for exploring Asheville with resources like a printable map, audio guide and even a scavenger hunt. I didn’t follow my own advice (typical teacher), so we ended up haphazardly wandering the town enjoying the architecture of the St. Lawrence Basilica and the Grove Arcade, chocolates at Chocolate Fetish, books at Malaprop Bookstore, vibe of Wall St. (couldn’t be more different to New York), and finally the Center for Craft on Broadway where we learned about women’s furniture and Asian-American artists (while basking in the glory of air conditioning).

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The highlight of our time in Asheville was actually meeting some of the incredible artists in the River Arts District like Andrea Kulish who makes Ukrainian pysanky eggs and Nadine Charlsen who shares my fascination with trains. There was something inspiring about not only seeing the artists at work, but also being able to safely interact with them (and Nadine’s adorable dog) at a time when connection can be harder to come by due to the pandemic. Sadly, we weren’t able to meet some of the other incredible artists whose work spoke to me like Kris Morgan for their light-hearted faraway scenes from Paris, Portugal and many other locales; and Angela Alexander, with her colourful portraits of animal life.

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Likely the safest social activity we engaged in was the socially-distant outdoor concert at the North Carolina Arboretum featuring Laura Thurston and Steve Newbrough. There was no additional cost for the live music, beyond the $16 entry fee to the arboretum. Sadly, we arrived too late to really hike the extensive grounds. But we had plenty of room to enjoy the acoustic guitar and unique vocals, and because the sound traveled so well, we were even able to walk through multiple gardens while still enjoying the sound. The Quilt Garden was an homage to the handiwork of the people in Appalachia, incorporating designs and bold colours into a patchwork garden. Nearby, a statue of the famous Frederick Law Olmsted stands approvingly.

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By the time we left Asheville we felt like we’d packed as much as possible into a very short time; we were satiated, but also excited to return in a different season for new perspectives and to learn more about the regional cultures: Appalachian and Indigenous. It turned out that it would be harder than we thought to go home. We arrived at the airport in advance of our 7 am flight only to learn that our flight was departing from Gate A12, yet the airport only held gates 1-7. Once we solved the mystery of translating North Carolina gates into Midwestern ones, we safely boarded the flight. Soon after, there was a ruckus beside us because Allegiant had overbooked and multiple people were assigned to the exact same seat. Next step? Mechanical failure. So, as quickly as we had boarded, we were told to disembark. I was drugged by this point, partially to lessen my motion sickness and partially to help my newfound anxiety, so I barely understood what was happening. All I knew was that I had taken medication to help with movement and I was suddenly shockingly still and stranded. My partner had set off to find reliable internet and search for new flights, while I tried to decipher what the airport attendant’s announcements actually meant. She had, at first, indicated that the next flight wasn’t until Monday (this was Friday) and had then listed the nearest airports in case we could find (1) private transit there; and (2) flights from there back to the Midwest. She then changed course and clarified that there was a slight possibility that the mechanical failure could be resolved by a system reset, in which case we may be able to fly out within a few hours. Unwilling to wait, I started looking for rental cars. There were none. Given that my partner had work the next day, we didn’t have much room for failure so I proposed that we go back in person to the rental car agency we had just returned a car to and see if they’d take pity on us and let us re-rent our beloved Kia. It worked.

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And thus began our unexpected thirteen-hour drive from Asheville to Chicago. Well, to be honest, our first stop was returning to our hotel for our complimentary continental breakfast. Fueled up (on multiple counts), we then set off. The mountain drives were stunning, including the Daniel Boone Forest. My favourite stops were: Berea, Kentucky which has a booming folk art culture including a visitor center right near the highway (buy the bourbon balls!) and Martin’s Bar-B-Que in Louisville, Kentucky (highly recommend the brisket tacos!). Driving through North Carolina, Tennessee, Kentucky, Indiana and then Illinois was not how we planned to end our “relaxing” getaway, but it was worthwhile. I learned about Kentucky’s art and that for just $50 you can board a five-storey replica of Noah’s Ark. Personally, I’d rather spend the money on chocolate-covered bourbon, but to each their own. While driving through the region, we also saw plenty of ads for Jesus and guns (sometimes on the same billboard), but one really stood out: “gun control: buying one when you want two”. We couldn’t very well leave the South without at least a couple of stereotypes being reinforced, could we? On that note, I’ll mention too that we passed by Colonel Sander’s original Kentucky Fried Chicken Restaurant in North Corbin, Kentucky. It turns out that he was a real man, not just a cartoon conspiracy!

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We traveled with ease through the region and really enjoyed the solid infrastructure, well-maintained roads, and friendly faces we encountered along the way. Even our unexpected thirteen-hour drive home ended up being a welcome opportunity to see more of the South – especially the bumpy landscape and delicious food!

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Posted by madrugada 00:26 Archived in USA Tagged mountains churches art buildings animals chocolate rain architecture cities nature hiking vacation scenery summer rural usa tennessee forest beauty bbq eating cafes gatlinburg botanical_gardens kentucky blue_ridge_parkway american_history indiana arboretum north_carolina asheville marshall safe_travel waynesville scenic_road_trip coronavirus lush_greenery social_distance great_smoky_mountains illinoiswaterfalls Comments (0)

Back to Beautiful B.C.

Wandering Western Canada

sunny 28 °C

Sample Itinerary (Vancouver and Vancouver Island)
- Day 1: Vancouver
- Day 2: Vancouver Island: Sidney, Island View Beach, Victoria (downtown and Cook St. Village/Beacon Hill Park)
- Day 3: Vancouver Island: Juan de Fuca Beach Trail (French Beach, China Beach, and Sombrio Beach)
- Day 4: Vancouver Island: Sooke Potholes, Victoria (Dallas Rd. circuit including Cadboro Bay)
- Day 5: Vancouver: Granville Island, picnic dinner at Kitsilano Beach
- Day 6: Vancouver: English Bay Beach, Stanley Park, Downtown dinner
- Day 7: Vancouver: Van Dusen Botanical Gardens and Queen Elizabeth Park, picnic dinner at Spanish Banks
- Day 8: Pacific Spirit Park and UBC campus
Optional: daytrip to Whistler or Squamish from Vancouver; visit other islands, e.g., Salt Spring or Quadra; travel further north up Vancouver Island to Cathedral Grove and Tofino/Ucluelet (surfing and storm-watching capital)

Where to Stay
- East Sooke, Vancouver Island: SookePoint Ocean Cottage Resort Rentals (~$400 CAD)
- Victoria, Vancouver Island: Helm’s Inn (~$150 CAD)
- Vancouver: Hotel or Airbnb in Gastown, Yaletown, or Kitsilano

Where to Eat
- Victoria, Vancouver Island: Rebar (vegetarian cuisine), Red Fish Blue Fish (seafood take-out), Pagliacci’s (upscale Italian), Blue Fox Café (brunch), Moka House Coffee in Cook St. Village (snacks and coffee), Little June in Fernwood (snacks and coffee), Fernwood Inn (casual pub fare), and the Empress Hotel for high tea
- Shirley, Vancouver Island: Stoked Wood Fired Pizzeria and Market (delicious pizza near French Beach)
- Vancouver: Arbutus Coffee (Kitsilano), Siegel’s Bagels on Granville Island (rosemary rocksalt with lox and cream cheese!), Petit Ami (great caffeinated drinks on Granville Island), Bella Gelateria (award-winning flavours located near Canada Place), Japadog (chain of gourmet Japanese hot dogs), Terra Breads (chain of tasty baked goods – especially the scones!), Aphrodite’s Organic Pie Shop (surprisingly tasty focaccia too!), Maria’s Taverna (affordable, delicious Greek food in Kitsilano)

Covid-19 Policies
- As a Canadian, I didn’t have to take a test or quarantine since I was flying from another Canadian province and am double vaccinated but I did have to pay $100 for a rapid viral antigen test to fly back into the U.S.
- As of August 9, 2021, fully-vaccinated U.S. citizens and permanent residents are able to fly into Canada as long as they’ve had a negative test within 72 hours of entering the country, and take one more test upon entry
- Be mindful of changing travel policies at both the federal and provincial level in Canada, and then your local pandemic travel policies too

My Travel Diary

Vancouver

There was a reflective feeling to this trip, partially because I was journeying to the past by visiting a city I had lived in years ago but mainly because I arrived in Vancouver, B.C. shortly after the discovery of hundreds of unmarked graves near former residential schools across Canada. There was nothing surprising about the announcement because it’s well known that a number of children died or were killed at these sites, but it was horrific nevertheless. There is so much work that Canada, the church, and individuals still need to do not only to address the past, but also to improve the present. There’s a lot of talk about “allyship” nowadays, but it misses the mark if we’re not looking at our own lives, workplaces, and social interactions to make positive changes. In Vancouver, this took the form of protests in front of the Vancouver Art Gallery to “Cancel Canada Day”, which also included placing hundreds of children’s shoes on the steps, and showcasing a plethora of signs encouraging people to take a moment of silence amid other concrete actions. It was a strange Canada Day all around because there were so many competing (and very visible, vocal) viewpoints: people wanting to celebrate Canada Day, others advocating for its cancelation, and others still fixated on rallying against Covid-19 vaccinations. We stayed publicly-apolitical in our celebrations because we wanted to maintain distance and chose to reflect amongst ourselves instead. I visited the protest in front of the Vancouver Art Gallery days later where any bystander could still feel the raw pain palpating through the air.

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Vancouver isn’t a large city, mainly because of its topographical constraints. For that reason, it’s easier to find a few neighbourhoods of interest and explore them in-depth. On this trip, I made Kitsilano my base, so I spent a good deal of time at Granville Island: trying to eat my food in between aggressive, coordinated seagull attacks. Obviously this is where Hitchcock found his inspiration for "The Birds".

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If you’re an old soul and fear that Kitsilano will be too loud and hip with its ironically named boutiques (looking at you, Spank) and Instagrammable bars, restaurants, and cafes, I can safely say you’ll be fine. Although it has a few bustling strips, its overall vibe is more like an island beach town. Ultimately, in most place, nobody notices you since they’re so caught up in their own worlds anyway. Mostly I appreciated Kitsilano’s proximity to beaches, which, I should admit, isn’t hard to accomplish anywhere in Vancouver. As a tourist in Vancouver, there’s almost no need to eat in a restaurant when you can just order take-out and sit on the beach instead. This lends itself well to a safer pandemic social outing too. So, wearing our uniform of bathing suits and flip flops we enjoyed sunset picnics at Kitsilano Beach and also nature’s even more stunning angles from Spanish Banks and Jericho Beach. A definite highlight was when my sister and I ventured out in low tide at Spanish Banks one morning. There was an illusion of so much exposed sand to the point where it felt like we’d be able to walk out to the tankers (we definitely couldn’t!).

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Any visit to Vancouver will likely include a trip to Stanley Park. Unwilling to buck the trend, my sister and I spent a few hours wandering the paths, admiring the Totem poles, and smelling the flowers. Although the views are beautiful in Stanley Park, I was more surprised by the biodiversity at Van Dusen Botanical Gardens and the sights at Queen Elizabeth Park. The Botanical Gardens were reasonably priced at just under $12 (CAD) each, and we spent two hours wandering through the grounds following the map and creating our own self-guided tour. The redwoods were a treasure, and a reminder of our responsibility to protect the planet in the face of human destruction, pollution, wildfires and deforestation. In fact, even flying into Vancouver, the air was hazy as a result of all of the smoke. I also happened to arrive at the tail-end of the worst heatwave they’ve ever experienced: hundreds of people died, and a town literally burned to the ground. Climate change is very real, and devastatingly efficient.

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Queen Elizabeth Park is just over 50 hectares and is actually the highest point in the city of Vancouver, so from the elegant Seasons in the Park restaurant you can take in the city skyline against the many mountains. It just so happened that while I was in Vancouver, a number of friends from across Canada were also visiting B.C. So, I was fortunate enough to have really fun group outings with friends. At Seasons, two friends from grad school and I reunited for the first time in about seven years: one visiting from the east coast, and the other living in Vancouver permanently. On another occasion, I met two friends from Toronto who both happened to be visiting this western paradise too. One brought his young son to our adventure outing, so we bore witness to the realness of a sugar high and its subsequent crash. Another friend has temporarily created an island escape for himself, so we also spent time lazily soaking up the sun with him. It was really rejuvenating seeing so many people from such disparate points in my life. It just so happened that I had arrived shortly after the pandemic policies had loosened, so I was legally able to enjoy the company of others. My cousin also hosted us in her beautiful backyard, so I got to hear about her kids’ pandemic education experiences and how she and her husband had been coping work-wise. As an epidemiologist, I suppose society finally understands the value in what she does! Had I visited a month before even these outdoor encounters may have been trickier, but as it stood, I had the chance to see familiar faces and also work on my own anxieties transitioning away from being a recluse hiding out under my mask like Zorro or the Phantom.

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Although visiting a university campus may not be a top priority for a tourist, I highly recommend visiting the University of British Columbia (UBC). On the way there, you pass through Pacific Spirit Regional Park where you can spend hours hiking the 750 hectares of forest. The smells and sounds of the cedars, maples, and other gentle giants were so reassuring. It felt like one of the calmest points on my trip. It helped that my sister and I were hiking with our mom’s best friend who is like a walking meditation app – she’s got the most peaceful presence, and reminded us to just take deep breaths while setting a tone that feels good for everyone. Afterwards, the three of us took the chance to explore the UBC campus with my sister playing tour guide. The most important features were likely the water fountains and washrooms since it was a hot day, and fortunately they were plentiful. The most scenic spot was definitely the rose garden. From right above the gardens, you can look out at the ocean and overlapping mountains. If I hadn’t injured my knee, we likely would have also climbed down the 500 steps to clothing-optional Wreck Beach on campus but alas we had to forgo the naked beachgoers and just head back to the crop tops of Kits instead.

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Throughout my time in Vancouver, I noticed a lot of charming community initiatives. The Arbutus Greenway in Kitsilano stands out: it provided a green walkway, full of community gardens, back to my accommodation from my frequent visits to Granville Island. Even the island felt like its own inclusive community with its friendly shop owners like at Granville Island Treasures. The more I enjoyed Vancouver the more I wondered why I’d ever left B.C. But a visit to Vancouver or Vancouver Island in June or July is very different than time spent there in October or November – I enjoyed the colourful landscape without the gray filter. There are countless other questions of fit (apart from probability of precipitation) when determining where to move, so for now a visitation will definitely suffice.

Vancouver Island

Driving to Vancouver Island was a first for me. Not that we literally drove on water (although I’m sure that’ll be viable in a few years thanks to Mr. Musk), but I don’t think I’ve ever boarded the ferry by car before. It definitely saved us time because we didn’t have to coordinate our public transit from Vancouver to Tsawwassen or from Schwarz Bay to Victoria (which takes hours, cumulatively). Although I haven’t really felt increased anxiety on buses, it has worsened on planes so I half-expected to feel a pounding heart on the ferry but to my delight that never happened. My sea legs were shaky at times, but my motion sickness never materialized either. It really helped that we were able to sit outside and observe spectacular scenery, and that the whole trip was only about an hour and a half.

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Arriving on the island, we stopped by Sidney to take in all of its book shops. Even if you’re not a Belle (i.e., a bookworm), you can still enjoy the views and dining options. Views were clearly better from Island View Beach though, which we walked along en route to Victoria. On a clear day, you have some incredible vistas, although I don’t think anything compares to the views from Victoria’s Dallas Rd.

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My priority every time I’ve been back to Victoria has been to retrace my past: eat at my favourite restaurant (Rebar), spot the peacocks in my favourite park (Beacon Hill), grab a drink at my favourite café (Moka House in Cook St. Village), and visit my old neighbourhoods. This time I donned my tourist guide cap so that my sister’s boyfriend could soak in more of the Victorian vibe. We wandered Fan Tan Alley, which is actually the narrowest street in Canada’s oldest Chinatown, so that they could get an idea of the invaluable impact that Chinese-Canadians have had on B.C.’s culture. We also strolled past the Empress Hotel, which is over 100 years old, a popular site for tourists to take photos, have high tea, or use the restrooms (the latter being especially important if you opt-in to tea time). I showed them the museums from the outside, but none of us were interested in entering buildings unnecessarily in spite of the island having low case counts.

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This was my first time visiting, let alone staying in, East Sooke, so it really felt like an adventure for all of us. The rustic location of our resort meant that we truly felt isolated from the world but wholly one with nature. It helped that our main source of entertainment was watching the ocean’s waves and finding new incredible vantage points for watching the sunset. On one sunset stroll, we interrupted a romantic embrace atop a hill, a.k.a., a new construction mound. As it happens, my sister had competed against one of the lovers in Ontario-wide sporting events years ago. We all cheerfully reminisced about the olden days when everyone knew someone on Degrassi and MuchMusic actually played music videos.

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We took in plenty of incredible views while hiking (or “walking” according to my sister’s boyfriend) around the west side of the island: from Sombrio to China to French Beach – listed in order of ease. We spent the most time at Sombrio Beach, which makes sense because it’s the most challenging to reach! My sister and her boyfriend took a quasi-hidden path to beautiful waterfalls in a cave, but I opted to relax on the beach instead. Along the way I met a nice German tourist who gave me toilet tips (avoid the outhouse by the waterfall path, if possible) – it still feels unnatural engaging in casual conversation, and I prefer it to be outdoors. I could never have imagined that meeting strangers would be nerve-wracking, but a full pandemic later here we are. On this trip, I actually ended up talking to a few people about newfound social anxieties. In a boutique shop, a salesperson and I commiserated about how hard it can be to get out of our heads. Closing time passed and we kept chatting. Maybe the key to vanquishing pandemic-induced anxieties is forgetting they exist.

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Overall, aside from more deforestation and newer developments (neither ideal), the areas of the island that were familiar to me in the past still felt recognizable to me now. There’s something comforting about stepping into your old grocery store and still seeing the same specialty items available, or walking through your favourite park and stopping at the cutest turtle pond to throw stones. No matter where you move, you can’t escape the past you’ve created. Not that I’d ever want to forget the beauty of B.C., even if the sun has set on that chapter of my life.

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Posted by madrugada 21:06 Archived in Canada Tagged waterfalls sunsets_and_sunrises beaches people food victoria ocean wildlife nature hiking restaurants ferries scenery summer paradise wilderness canada vancouver british_columbia vancouver_island protest forests roses cafes indigenous environment picnics granville_island safe_travel western_canada island_time scenic_road_trip sand_and_sea return_to_canada reentry social_distance east_sooke sooke u_b_c Comments (0)

Weird, Wacky Wisconsin

semi-overcast 15 °C

Sample Itinerary (from Chicago)
- Day 1: Rockford (Illinois), Madison, Baraboo
- Day 2: Devil’s Lake, Wisconsin Dells, Baraboo
- Day 3: House on the Rock, Mt. Horeb, Madison
- Day 4: Madison, Milwaukee
Optional: Pewits Nest Gorge, Parfrey’s Glen, Cave of the Mounds, Lake Geneva, Mars Cheese Castle

Where to Stay
- Ringling House B&B in Baraboo ($115 USD)
- Hotel Indigo in Madison ($170 USD)

Where to Eat
- Baraboo: Tumbled Rock Brewery (perfect place to visit after hiking Devil’s Lake), Baraboo Burger Company (open late serving up tasty burgers and salads), Coffee Bean Connection (cute place with flavourful lattes, mochas, and bagels), Driftless Glen Distillery (fancier dining)
- Madison: Chocolate Shoppe, Madison Sourdough, Glass Nickel Pizza Company

My Travel Diary
As an “alien” – yes, that’s the actual term used – there’s still a lot that I don’t know, and am curious to learn about the U.S. Enter Wisconsin. One of my closest friends had told me that while living in Chicago I had to visit Wisconsin, especially the Devil’s Lake hiking area, House on the Rock, and Madison. His spouse had lived in Madison temporarily and the two of them had explored the area to the fullest extent possible, so I trusted their judgment. Due to scheduling conflicts, I had to delay the trip until April, 2021. As it happens, spring is an excellent time to visit Wisconsin. Leaving Chicago, my travel partner (i.e., real life partner) and I decided to stop at Rockford, Illinois to check out the arboretum and Anderson Japanese Gardens. I found the Japanese garden really well-manicured and very peaceful, particularly appreciating the waterfalls and traditional Japanese zigzag bridge. We spent so long at the Anderson Japanese Gardens that we never saw the nearby botanical gardens or arboretum.

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The whole area was fairly residential, which made the search for Frank Lloyd Wright’s Laurent House a bit tricky. This house has the distinction of being the only Wright house designed for a client with a physical disability. Built in the 1950s, this house was referred to as Ken and Phyllis Laurent’s “little gem” although its grounds are surprisingly large. We parked on a side street and just wandered the exterior as it was officially closed and undergoing maintenance when we came; normally, it would cost $5 for students to enter and $25 for others. It may have been Wright, but we were probably wrong to just snoop around without paying – the consolation is that we never entered the building, or even the backyard. In a similarly creepy manner, we drove by Taliesin (also by Wright) but didn’t enter. It spans 800 acres, including the 37 000 square foot home, and is actually a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site. There are a number of tours available, including a two-hour highlights tour that is $65. Hopefully next time I’m in the area I’ll actually explore it in greater depth, not just do a drive-by.

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On the theme of architecture, I would be remiss not to devote time to the House on the Rock. The question is: how do you begin to describe the strangest place you’ve ever visited (excluding a robot café in Japan, naturally)? Here goes. Once upon a time there was a man, a very strange man, named Alex Jordan. With the heart of a dreamer and the mind of an engineer, he bought land in the 1940s overlooking a valley and began building a home into the huge rocks that dotted the landscape. The house grew and by the 1960s he was charging admission to tourists who flocked to the site to see the stained glass, low ceilings, and music machines. As time passed, his interests expanded: he assembled the largest indoor carousel in the world, he built a 218-foot scenic overhang (which shakes with the wind), and he curated wings of his house devoted to topics as divergent as aviation, doll houses, and musical organs (for starters). Nowadays, it takes hours to tour the house in its entirety. We opted for the “ultimate experience” and spent four hours exploring all three sections. It was musty, I had to duck at times, I felt watched by all the dolls and strange animatronics, but I can safely say that I never saw terrifying twins. Or Jack Nicholson, for that matter. Although I wouldn’t even be surprised if someone told me he’d made a cameo at one of Alex Jordan’s wild 1960s parties.

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Mt. Horeb, Baraboo, and Wisconsin Dells were also strange but combined they still wouldn’t even register on a scale measured against House on the Rock. To begin with, Baraboo is a circus city in every sense: from the Circus World Museum to all the businesses named after the Ringling brothers to the statues of elephants all over town. We spent two nights there, but in retrospect I would have rather stayed there one night and spent two nights in Madison instead. Briefly, our bright yellow B&B in Baraboo was actually built in 1901 by one of the famous Ringling brothers – hence the name, “Ringling House B&B”. I had been hoping for a tour of the home, but it never came. Regardless, it served as a good enough base for our regional exploring because it was well-located, clean, and fairly private. Surprisingly, our “modern” Indigo Hotel in Madison was actually a highly-renovated building from the early 1900s as well. Due to its former identity as a paint headquarters and manufacturing plant, the hotel has splashes of colour all over, which really added to its charm.

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Baraboo also has its own charm, but unfortunately it was fairly deserted while we were there which meant that a number of the businesses and attractions were closed. For entertainment, we walked the Riverwalk and watched a local baseball game. It felt wholesome, yet incomplete – mainly because I had no hot dog or peanuts in hand. In fact, the restaurants in Baraboo closed really early, so we faced a quandary after becoming so invested in the baseball game that we missed closing time for almost all of the local eateries! We strolled restaurant to restaurant hoping that one would still be open. We entered one and promptly left after receiving an intimidating stare down from the server and other patrons; the next one we entered, Baraboo Burger Company, was a much more welcoming environment (with delicious results!). It was eerie walking around at night, but at least there were no Galena-styled sirens.

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Mt. Horeb may have a few thousand less human residents than Baraboo, but it makes up for that with its outsized troll population. In fact, Mt. Horeb is known as “the troll capital of the world” and I took it upon myself to meet as many of the trolls as I could. I started by picking up my “trollway” map at the visitor center, heartily announcing myself with a vibrato “velkommen”. It turns out you don’t need to speak Norwegian to go troll hunting, which is helpful since in reality I don’t speak Norwegian. It turns out the area has had a strong Norwegian presence since the late 1800s, and Scandinavian culture has helped shape Wisconsin in ways that I hadn’t realized. Although I learned more than I’ll ever need to know about trolls, it was harder to find information about the Indigenous people who had lived there prior to the European settlers. Instead, I had to fall back on my old friend the internet. Search results told me that the area was part of the Ho-Chunk territory, which was “ceded” to the U.S. government over the course of a number of treaties signed in the early 19th century. So far wherever I’ve traveled in the U.S., I’ve seen little to no offerings for tourists (or locals) that incorporate or highlight the history and contemporary cultures of Indigenous people. It’s erasure and it’s disappointing, to say the least.

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While looking for more information about Indigenous cultures around what’s now known as Wisconsin, I learned that “Today, the Ho-Chunk Nation is the largest employer in Sauk and Jackson counties” (https://wisconsinfirstnations.org/ho-chunk-nation/). Part of the Wisconsin Dells is in Sauk county, so that was a helpful fact to keep in mind while visiting. That being said, I stayed as short a time as possible because it felt like it was trying to be Niagara Falls trying to be Las Vegas: funnel cakes, old timey photo studios, overpriced wax museums and all. After a quick drive through town, we felt in need of the purifying power of nature so we hiked the Chapel Gorge Trail. It’s fine if you’re looking for a simple stroll in the woods, but if you’re craving more excitement then Devil’s Lake is the place for you.

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We drove to the Devil’s Lake State Park fairly early by our standards, but nowhere near its opening time of 6 am. It was straightforward to pay the $16 admission fee, park, and then set off on our hike. The helpful attendant advised that we try the East Bluff Trail for the best views, as well as the chance to see Elephant Rock and Devil’s Doorway. Truthfully, Elephant Rock looked more like a giant brain to me; at least House on the Rock was clearly a house… on a rock.

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In any case, I found the hike challenging. It’s steep at times, but the real issue was the fact that you’re walking on stone steps that are significantly spaced at times and I actually cut my knee trying to scramble from one to another. It’s officially labeled as “moderate”, but for me it was difficult, and I doubt it would be easy for anyone aside from maybe mountain goats.

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On our way back to the car we followed the Tumbled Rock Path, which was a walk in the park (literally and figuratively). Tumbled Rock is a very easy and fairly quick walk whereas East Bluff Trail is far from accessible and would require at least two hours (at least).

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The views are spectacular though – especially from the Devil’s Doorway. Looking down you’ll see the green trees jutting out from purple rocks above the turquoise lake and under the cerulean sky, and wonder how you could be so lucky as to stand surrounded by such beauty. And yes, I said purple rocks. It turns out that Devil’s Lake State Park is the most commonly visited park in Wisconsin partially because of its Baraboo Quartzite: pink and purple exposed rocks that date back 1.5 billion years. I may not be a geologist (or a dad), but I can officially say that this place rocks.

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Now let’s talk Madison, the progressive gem of Wisconsin. Apart from it being a wonderful place to visit, I kept reflecting on how much I’d like to live there: from its multiple lakes (sunrise picnic at one, sunset picnic at another!) to its seemingly endless biking/walking trails (including an arboretum in the middle of the city with yet another lake inside of it!) coupled with its emphasis on respecting nature and humanity, I just felt so enamoured with everything I experienced. Maybe instead of just admiring the imposing Wisconsin State Capitol building from the outside, I should have been networking inside of it!

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As Madison is the capital of Wisconsin, it’s inherently political. The writing was on the walls all over the city, so to speak: protest slogans and inspirational images like a collage from May 30, 2020. We didn’t see any protests while we were there, but there was plenty of proof that it’s a civically-active city. It gives me hope when I see people actively engaging in democratic processes, and even more so when they’re creating those processes themselves. Policy changes culture, and policy needs to be responsive to local culture too.

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I’ll finish this blog post by focusing on my one true love: food. And the food all over Wisconsin, but especially in Madison, was phenomenal. We tried multiple restaurants, but our favourite had to be a pizza joint. It was so good that we ate Glass Nickel pizza at Olbrich Beach one day and then at Marshall Park the next (I highly recommend their chicken alfredo pizza!). Thankfully neither of us is lactose-intolerant, so we completed our first meal with tasty treats from Madison Chocolate Shoppe. Milkshake in hand, gloves on hand (it got chilly at night), we walked through the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus at sunset enjoying the reflections on the lake. Well, one of the many lakes.

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Upon leaving Madison, we decided to make one more stop in Milwaukee so that my partner could visit a friend and I could eat more dairy. The Milwaukee Public Market was the perfect pit stop: you can find anything from spices to smoothies. Now that I’ve had a taste of Wisconsin, I’m definitely craving more – as cheesy as that may sound.

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Posted by madrugada 20:19 Archived in USA Tagged lakes food architecture nature hiking elephants rocks university circus forests pizza geology arboretum weird picnics frank_lloyd_wright dairy illinois milwaukee madison wisconsin house_on_the_rock carousels baraboo rockford devil's_lake wisconsin_dells mt.horeb trolls wacky quartzite milwaukee_public_market laurent_house taliesin milkshakes japanese_gardens Comments (0)

Galena, Illinois: The Perfect Weekend Getaway from Chicago

Historically-significant, and contemporarily cool

snow -5 °C

Sample Itinerary (from Chicago)
- Day 1: Elgin’s Walton Island, Stockton murals, Galena
- Day 2: Explore Galena including the Galena River Trail, Ulysses S. Grant home, and Historic Galena; Chestnut Mountain Resort, and Casper Bluff
- Day 3: Thunder Bay Falls, Apple River Canyon State Park
Optional: drive over the Mississippi River to Dubuque, Iowa or over the border into Wisconsin

Where to Stay
- The Steamboat House B&B (roughly $220/night)

Where to Eat
- Green Street Tavern in the historic DeSoto House Hotel
- Treats from Elle & Becks and/or Chocolat‘ 229

My Travel Diary
Craving a quick trip outside of the city limits, I started researching the best weekend getaways within a three-hour drive of Chicago. Consistently seeing the same results, it was a no-brainer: it had to be Galena, Illinois. The town is named after a rare mineral that was mined there for hundreds of years by local Indigenous tribes before European-American colonizers settled in the area in the early 1800s. The population quickly exploded and by the 1860s it even served as the headquarters for Ulysses S. Grant’s presidential campaign – the DeSoto House has painstakingly preserved many mementos that are worth seeing. The Ulysses S. Grant Home State Historic Site is also a must-see if you're interested in learning more about the man and his family. Nowadays, Galena is decidedly less populated, but far more tourist-friendly. From our comfortable B&B to the incredible architecture and delicious food, it's an easy and enjoyable time.

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We spent our time there shopping, admiring the architecture, eating, and wandering the river walk. People were generally friendly and we chatted with many locals (masked, and at a distance). At the time, the pandemic was still raging and vaccinations weren’t yet ubiquitous. Unfortunately, these are political times: from the pandemic to the recent election, and some people were hiding their faces but wearing their opinions on their sleeves. I entered one business and casually made small-talk while the woman working there rang up my purchases, asking how they’d been faring in light of the travel restrictions, mask restrictions, etc. She told me that they hadn’t had many issues with people refusing to wear masks or protesting in Galena. “That’s fantastic. Everything’s so political these days, but I think most people just want everyone to be healthy and happy” I naively responded. She then launched into an angry diatribe about why Biden was destroying the U.S. and her thoughts on the insurrection (among other things). So, I firmly told her that this conversation was over and I was leaving her store. When you travel, there’s always the good and the bad, but sometimes there’s also the ugly: in this case it was political polarization popping up seemingly out of nowhere.

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Aside from that unpleasant encounter, everyone was respectful – not trying to proselytize or pressure in any way. Yes, I set a low bar. I particularly enjoyed chatting with the owner of Elle & Becks, and the woman working in Chocolat’ 229: friendly, laid-back, flowing conversations, exactly what I’d expect on a small-town getaway. What I didn’t expect was a nice evening stroll being blaringly interrupted by a siren straight out of the movie “The Purge”. My instinct? Powerwalk toward the nearest open restaurant as quickly as possible. My partner’s response? Abruptly stop and check his phone. Guess who’s still alive? Both of us, thankfully! It turns out that some small towns have volunteer fire departments, which summon their firefighters through the use of a painfully loud siren. And apparently said siren must be tested daily to ensure it’s still functional. It was. In comparison, our B&B was located just off the main drag, so it felt like a really calm retreat. We were the only guests staying there at the time, which magnified the sense of healthy isolation that I had craved. The breakfasts were delicious, the décor was still Christmas-oriented, and we spent a good amount of time just relaxing in the various rooms throughout the historic home. I even had the opportunity to play piano to my adoring fans. Well, my one and only fan – but he really enjoyed it!

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We also made sure to take in the nearby sites like Chestnut Mountain Resort, which would be a good place to learn how to ski or snowboard. Sadly, I wasn’t interested in either, but I did appreciate the view!

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We continued on to the local Thunder Bay Falls, which were very different from the Canadian version. This was an odd stop because you have to park by the road and then walk over to see them, yet it’s hard to get a nice view of them without the surrounding developments that have sprung up.

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Casper Bluff, in contrast, was much more rural and a really peaceful place to walk and appreciate the wide-open skies. It’s also a perfect spot for birdwatchers, even the kind who might usually only watch the blue jays and cardinals on TV.

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Farther from Galena is Apple River Canyon State Park, which is worth a visit. We didn’t hike so much as casually walk through the park for about an hour before deciding to move on to our next destination. The highlight for us was playing in the snow: it felt like our own little winter wonderland.

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Finally, I’ll just mention some of our stops on the way to and from Galena. We really liked Walton Island Park in Elgin, just outside of Chicago. It was very slippery, but it also had a Narnia-esque vibe to it.

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Stockton was a sweet little town full of pretty murals, well worth a stop.

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And although we didn’t spend much time in Dubuque, we were glad to have crossed the bridge into Iowa just to see the power of the Mississippi and remember how far it travels across the U.S. Maybe in the future, our travels will take us further afield but for now we’re happy just enjoying the local terrain.

Posted by madrugada 22:01 Archived in USA Tagged food architecture local hiking history shopping murals dubuque mississippi_river riverfront roadtrip illinois political stockton galena elgin apple_river_canyon_state_park thunder_bay_falls casper_bluff polarization Comments (0)

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