Savona weekend

I thought one trip to Italy while living here would be enough, but I was wrong! It’s so easy to get there, it might become a dangerously regular activity around here.

Only a few weeks after we had our Tuscany Tour 2016, we went on a spur-of-the-moment long weekend trip to Savona with some friends. Savona is on the north coast of the Mediterranean (actually the Ligurian Sea at that point), just 5h or so from our house. Spring was in full bloom by that time, so we had no snowstorms through the Alps, and enjoyed a beautiful drive down through Italy.

We rented an apartment right on the harbor, a modern place overlooking the whole marina. And it turns out that Savona is a major stop for cruise ships – so we had a great view of these huge floating apartments coming into dock. It was very cool.

We met up with our friends who had rented an apartment nearby and spent the afternoon on the beach, having a few drinks, walking around the city, and settling in for a pizza dinner, before heading home around 9 pm or so. But when we arrived at the apartment building, we discovered that there was an outer building door that had been open all day and was now closed (so we didn’t realize it was there) – and we didn’t know the code or have the right key to open it! And since it was late at night, no one seemed to be coming or going, and no concierge was on duty. I tried calling the apartment owner without any luck. We waited for over an hour before the kids got too cold and tired to hang around out front. What to do??

We thought about sleeping in the car, but that was too pathetic. We couldn’t figure out if there was another hotel nearby without internet access, and it seemed so crazy to double pay for accommodation. Luckily, we got hold of our friends and they very generously let us come to their place – even if they really didn’t have enough room for us!

And that, folks, is how we found ourselves sleeping on a tiny kitchen floor, on a piece of foam, with only a tablecloth for a blanket, while all our stuff enjoyed the night in a swanky modern apartment. We did eventually get the code and made our way into the apartment the next day.

But it didn’t ruin our good time. There was still a street food festival to taste, an ancient fort to explore, a beach to enjoy, and plenty of limoncello to drink. We saw Christopher Columbus’ house, which was pretty cool, regardless of how I feel about his claim to fame, and I also found Dante Alighieri street, which made my day.

Writing this, it might be time to go back to Italy again!


Florence: Art pilgrimage for all

Florence. I spent years studying the art, architecture, religion and philosophy coming out of the Renaissance and beyond. And going to see it all in Florence was a literal pilgrimage. A boon for the soul.

Of course, it would have been soooo much better if I actually remembered anything about that art, architecture, religion and philosophy – but it was an amazing place nonetheless.

We saw all the top sites you can imagine:

  • Santa Maria Novella church, one of the first major basilicas in the city, filled with art from many famous painters
  • The Florence Cathedral and Brunellschi’s dome, an engineering feat that is even more breathtaking in person
  • Uffizi gallery, housing the most important Rennaissance art collection in the world
  • Ponte Vecchio over the Arno, particularly close to my heart from my opera singing days.

I’ll let the art below speak for itself. But what about some of the other highlights from our Florentine adventure?

  • When we stopped to eat some gelato on the shores of the Arno, we saw a guy cycling down the road, and his paper liquor bag broke, shattering what seemed to be a nice bottle of champagne in the street. I said ‘Aw, that really sucks’ a little too loud, but he heard and agreed ‘Yes, it does really suck,’ and proceeded to pick up all the broken glass. I thought that was nice.
  • BigB wanted some authentic biscotti, so we stopped at a market stall where he asked for ‘one of each flavor’, which the girl interpreted as ‘one of each flavor for everyone in the family’, meaning we got about 2 kg of biscotti. Which seemed like too much at first, but we managed to eat it all within a couple of days anyway, so I guess she knew what she was doing.
  • J was really into the art at Uffizi. She stood and stared at nearly every painting for the first hour, it was amazing. Until it turned out she was actually just trying to process all the Jesus paintings from the early periods, and finally said ‘Why are they just painting the same thing over and over?? I’m tired of Baby Jesus and dead Jesus.’ I think that sentiment is actually what started the Renaissance in the first place, so… hooray for that lesson?
  • BigB was also really into the art at Uffizi, but his interest took the form of photographing close-ups of every single marble bust in the whole place. I mean, I like marble busts too, but this was unhealthy. How many statues of Sophocles does one museum really need, and why do we need photos of each of them? The answer is ‘Probably 3, just in case’.

Too soon, it was time to go. I feel like we could have spent weeks wandering the city, but we had to get home and start eating biscotti. Don’t worry, Florence, we’ll be back.

Italy: From the Alps for a piece of Pisa pizza

Over the Easter holidays, we took a trip to Italy with my parents. We piled into our rented van and headed out, destination: the west coast of the boot, where we had rented a little villa for the week.

It’s easy to misjudge how close Switzerland and Italy really are. I think we might actually be able to see Italy from our house… Even moreso, it’s surprising how much a change in temperature and terrain you can see in just a few hours. We drove up around Lac Léman and through the Saint Bernard tunnel (we didn’t see any real Saint-Bernards, but we did see a few statues, with the brandy barrels and everything!). Traffic was good, and we made good time. And before we knew it, suddenly we had climbed over snowy alpine peaks, through dry Italian savannas and arrived at a rocky coastline peppered with tunnels. Italy really likes its tunnels. It seems like the entire coast is tunneled straight through rock.

We spent the night in Arenzano, just next to Genoa, and enjoyed an evening walking the coast and breathing the Mediterranean sea air. However, we quickly discovered that when you take 4 adults and 2 children with picky eating habits and all with a tendency to not make decisions, you run into issues of finding and acquiring dinner. We wandered around town for a while, and most places were either not open yet or unsuitable for one reason or another, until we finally settled on Lebanese take-out. In Italy. And then LittleB almost threw up in the park. So we spent the rest of the night in our hotel room, watching the live-action Scooby Doo movie (the sequel) dubbed into Italian. In other words, it was a classic TheCayas vacation evening.

The next day we made a quick stop in Genoa and ate probably the best gelato ever. Then we spent some time overlooking the city from the Spianata Castelletto, until we were almost literally mobbed by several tour groups and swarms of tiny flies. We also managed to nearly get our rental van stuck in the parking area, when the corners of the narrow Italian streets were too small for us – but with some careful spotting, my dad managed to climb the wheels over several large curbs and get us free. On to Viareggio.

The villa we rented was in Torre del Lago, which turned out to be quite a sleepy little village but we discovered it is famous for two things: 1) It was the summer home of Puccini, who would write his operas in a little tower beside the lake, and continues to be celebrated with a huge opera festival each summer. But we missed it, being there too early. And, 2) Torre del Lago is apparently a famous gay beach, with huge crowds coming in the summer to enjoy all the bars and shows along the coast. We missed this too, being too early. We only saw a couple of mostly naked Italians on the beach and what could have been a few trans ladies, but otherwise it was pretty deserted.

We had picked the area since it was a good home base for visiting the rest of Tuscany. In particular, it was only about half an hour from Pisa – which was on our must-do list, so we checked it out on our first day. As it turns out, Pisa is quite small, and there’s not a lot there except for that crazy tower. And it is seriously leaning, folks. I mean, I knew it was leaning but it really defies sense. But we had a good time wandering around, taking pictures of all the tourists trying to take one of those “holding up the tower” photos and all the pigeons that sit on statues’ heads (that makes me giggle every time). We tried to find lunch, but as usual, our family herd is not good at that sort of decision making. We ended up eating at a generic fast-food kind of pizza place, BUT it was called “Pisa Pizza”, which you can imagine, led to many jokes about “eating a piece of pisa pizza”. It continues to this day. Worth it.

Rome: the friends

Rome was a whirlwind of amazing sightseeing, delicious food, plentiful drinks, wonderful friends and of course a bit of work thrown in. I was attending a conference with other technical representatives from our partner organizations around the world. There’s something special about the common experience, knowledge and natural disposition of folk in the same types of jobs that makes it easy to get along instantly – really, I guess it’s just nice to be among your own people!

A colleague from work and I arrived early Sunday morning after a grueling 16-hr flight. Nevertheless, we managed to meet up with half a dozen others at the hotel and we headed off for a tour of Rome proper. It was a lovely, sunny day, although not as warm as spring should be. Ok for me though! That day we saw many famous places – Spanish Steps, Trevi Fountain, Piazza Novana, Sant’Angelo Bridge, St. Peter’s Square. It was also just a great time wandering around with new friends.

The rest of the week consisted of long days in our conference sessions followed by many late nights trying to make the most of the eternal city. On Monday, one friend and I missed the train home from the conference (mostly due to the free-flowing wine at the kick-off cocktail party after the session); we just owned it – drank the rest of the wine while waiting for the next train, headed into the city center, had dinner at a little pasta place steps from the Pantheon, and wandered back to the Trevi fountain to snap some evening pictures. I thought maybe there would be fewer tourists at midnight, but I was wrong!

The hotel organized by the conference was not near the city center, rather it was in the suburbs and, as we found out, not very close to many good restaurants. We had seen one pizza place nearby, so on Tuesday we thought we could grab a few pizzas and bottles of wine and hole up in one of our hotel rooms. About 7 or 8 of us headed out on the hunt, only to discover that the pizza place was out of pizza. I don’t know how that is even possible… in Italy. Anyway, we spent the next hour wandering around trying to find a suitable replacement. Eventually we split up to divide and conquer: one group looked for pizza and the other was in charge of wine and accessories. I was team wine. We arrived at the wine store (re: grocery store) 5 minutes to close and they had already locked the doors, alas! The game was afoot. Luckily, further down the street we ran into a few other friends who had seen a restaurant/deli around the corner. We bought a few dusty bottles from the top shelf, and with our wine in hand, we met up with the pizza crew back at the hotel and piled into Codrin’s room for a raucous evening.

Wednesday night, we were determined to have better luck. First of all, we wanted to bring a UK friend into the fold, so we figured a beer night was in order. One of the local attendees volunteered to take us to some of her favorite places in town. She found a fantastic pizza place, where I ordered the most delicious pizza known to man: it involved truffle paste. Then we spent the rest of the night drinking beer in an “Irish pub” down the way.

The conference organizers put together an official group dinner on Thursday. By now, a core group of us (the “back of the bus gang”) had become very good at drinking and causing ruckus together, so this was bound to be a fantastic night. Sure enough, as 25 of us (and one misplaced Italian family) piled into a tiny Sardinian restaurant, good fun ensued. Several rounds of wine, many speeches and an impromptu talent show later, we brought down the house. The remaining group who could keep up headed out for a nightcap at a nearby bar. More fun ensued.

Friday night, after stopping for some goods at Eataly, four of us took a tour of the Vatican museum. Incredible. Unfortunately, we got split up in the crowds and two of us spent half an hour waiting for the others in the Sistine Chapel. I’m not complaining – if you’re going to spend half an hour waiting somewhere, it should be there. But it was getting late so we abandoned them and headed back to the hotel. The others made it back eventually as well, so no harm done. They did miss the Raphael Rooms, though!

All good things come to end… On Saturday, a few of us headed back downtown before our flight to stock up on food and gifts. It was a rainy, blah day, mirroring how I felt about leaving. But at least I managed to pack about half of Italy into my suitcase to enjoy back home (including 2 jars of truffle paste!).


Vatican tour

We took advantage of a late-night Friday tour of the Vatican museums. They were enormous in both scope and beauty. I couldn’t possibly take enough pictures to do it justice. Also, we were not allowed to photograph within the Sistine Chapel, but we did spend at least 30 minutes enjoying the view in there. And for my HUMS folks, I met some of our old friends in the Raphael Rooms!



La bella Roma

Sightseeing in Rome!