Category Archives: Trips

Descriptions and comments regarding my travels.

Budapest: Ruin Bars and Creepy Hat Children

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Budapest was recommended to me by a Swedish girl that I met in Croatia, and after copious amounts of research (and confirmation of the low cost of a visit, let’s be honest) I was seriously considering adding it to my birthday trip. On a whim I searched through the Hostelworld monthly deals, and lo and behold, there was an offer from HomePlus Hostel in Budapest for a minimum of three nights at €7 each. Since I’m not one to argue with destiny, I began booking like crazy (€21 flight with Ryanair from Dublin to Budapest, what what) and asked my friend for advice since she’s Hungarian. Davi’s Pro Tip #1: it’s actually pronounced Budapesht, and while you might feel like a pretentious wanker at first, Hungarians really appreciate the effort of saying it correctly. Davi’s Pro Tip #2: visit the House of Terror. And finally, Davi’s Pro Tip #3: Ruin bars. As a bonus, Davi’s wife Kitty threw in her own Pro Tip: DUDE THERE’S A CAT CAFE! So right on the heels of my Irish adventures, I arrived in Budapest. It was far too late to take public transportation, but thankfully there’s a cheap minibus service that you can organize from the airport. Basically, the drivers ask for people with destinations in the same area and then drop them off. It’s possible to walk up and get transport right then, but I recommend booking in advance through this site: http://www.airportshuttle.hu/en/.

My favorite way to get to know a new city is through a free walking tour. Sandeman’s New Europe (http://www.neweuropetours.eu) offers tours in a bunch of different cities, and a lot of hostels will offer to put you in contact with free tours. It’s a good way to get a brief history of the place that you’re visiting, it lets you get your bearings, and it can be an excellent way to make friends. I went to breakfast at my hostel and got invited to a local tour by some people who were staying there as well, and within half an hour we were gathered in a square with other travelers. As the guide explained, Budapest is divided by the Danube into two parts: Buda, where the gentry lived and ruled; and Pest, the commoner’s side. We walked along the Pest side for a bit, getting the early history of Hungary and visiting some of Budapest’s statues. Seriously, I have never seen a city with stranger or more creative monuments, including a bronze painter working on an easel and a creepy child in a long pointed hat sitting on a railing. One great memorial commemorates a shooting near the Parliament building with large metal balls embedded in the walls for each bullet hole.

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When it came time to visit Buda, we crossed the Chain Bridge and walked up Castle Hill to the old Buda Castle. The views were amazing, but the best part for me was the Matthias Church and the surrounding Fisherman’s Bastion. The tile roof of the church completely entranced me, and the views from the white “huts” on the Bastion were unparalleled. This is where the tour eventually ended, and my two hostel friends (Gabriel and Mel) agreed that we should stop by the city’s oldest bakery, which just happened to be two minutes away, for a lunch of delicious cake. We drifted back towards the Fisherman’s Bastion and spent forever taking pictures, because frankly it looked like something that a kingdom of gnomes might construct and I adored it. A walkway ran along the top of the huts, and for a fee you could climb up there. The attendant was gone, so my new friend Gabriel shrugged at me and tried to lead the way up (in his defense, I totally followed), but we got caught and mildly scolded. Thus rebuffed, we made our way down Castle Hill and crossed the Chain Bridge again to explore Pest. We found many more curious memorials and a lovely little square with crafts and local food, and I tried mulled wine for the first time (delightful!) and took pictures of Mel and Gabriel in silly hats. There was a massive booth with food, but it was ruinously expensive. While we’re on the subject of money, I do want to add that Hungary doesn’t really use the euro yet (though my hostel did accept them). Instead they use the forint; €1 is equal to 320 forints as of right now, and $1 is equal to 269 forints, so don’t be shocked at the “high” prices.

After exploring for a while, Mel and I separated from Gabriel and struck out on our own. We found the Cat Cafe, and while the cats were pretty aloof until we had their official treats, it was still a great experience. I had a cat-puccino, which is a regular cappuccino with cinnamon paw prints on the top. Their biggest rule is to avoid feeding the cats anything but the snacks that they provide, and I’d like to make my stance clear: eating people food is detrimental to a cat’s health, whether through an allergy or the increased calories, so pretty-please-with-sugar-on-top, DON’T DO IT. Giving them the little beef sticks that the cafe sells is totally fine, and it’s guaranteed to get you a lot of attention. Mel and I hung out there for a while, chatting and trying to make the cats love us (cats are a-holes, in case anyone is wondering) and then we headed out for dinner. After a minor conflict in which everyone wanted to eat at this Italian restaurant (keep in mind that I’d been in Italy for five months at this point) and I was placated with goulash, we returned to the hostel and joined their ruin bar crawl. I’m not one to join official crawls, but I had heard a lot about the ruin bars and I wanted to visit a few.

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The quality of this picture isn’t great, but it’s the best visual example of a ruin bar that I have. So the story behind these uniquely Hungarian features is that a couple of decades ago, a lot of property went up for sale: old apartments, warehouses, storefronts, etc. Rather than tear them down, a group of businessmen bought the properties and fitted them with bar accoutrements, but left the rest of the individual structures intact. A lot of them have dirt floors and open roofs like the one above, and they’re filled with strange art and crumbling doorways. We went to four different ruin bars that night, and each one was incredibly unique. The first was a bit expensive (and by that I mean normally-priced) but the other three were ludicrously cheap. We’re talking the equivalent of full pints of local beer for €2. During the course of the night I made a lot of friends from the hostel, along with one lone traveler who happened to be in Budapest for business and hooked up with our group for the night. Together we drank and danced and generally made adorable fools of ourselves, and when it came time to leave our new American friend invited us to continue partying in his hotel suite. Apparently he had to catch a taxi to the airport at 4:00 am, and he wanted to stay up for a couple more hours. Under normal circumstances I would obviously never do something that screamed please murder me quite so loudly, but there were six of us, including a burly Brazilian who was over six feet tall (drool). Suffice to say that it was a surreal but tame experience.

The next day I went wandering on my own, which, as most travelers will tell you, is essential at one point or another. There are many joys associated with traveling as part of a duo or team, but it can be just as rewarding to strike out alone. I walked along the river to the Parliament building, which is honestly one of the most gorgeous structures that I’ve ever seen. If Morticia Addams were an architect with a deep love of London (think of how dreary and full of ghosts it must be; can you see it?) then I could see her designing the Hungarian Parliament building.

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Instagram drama aside, this is actually an accurate photo. I arrived just in time to witness a ceremonial changing of the guard, and then spent some more time staring in adoration. So it turns out that I just need to marry an eccentric millionaire who will love me passionately and let me build an exact replica for our home, and really, this is just further proof that I’m waiting for Gomez Addams.

During my wandering I found myself on the same street as the House of Terror, so I paid a visit. Two things should be said immediately about this building: It is one of the most effective and beautifully designed museums that I’ve ever seen, and it’s not for the faint of heart. You begin your visit with an elevator ride up to the top floor and then work your way through each level, where you will learn the bloody history behind the fascist and Communist regimes that controlled the city for decades. The House of Terror was basically where people were taken to give “information,” and from which they rarely returned unscathed. Throughout the course of the museum you will come across video interviews with survivors, and the horrors that they recount are nearly on par with those found in camps like Auschwitz. An upper-level room that stuck out for me was the one dedicated to a highly-publicized trial from the Communist era; the entire room, chairs, walls, tables, everything was covered in transcripts and testimonies, and the recorded parts were on a loop. It made you feel submersed in the facts, which was how the citizens of Hungary must have felt because of the extremely public nature of the trial. Directly after that was a room plastered in brightly-colored propaganda posters with cheerful 50’s music playing, and after the grim nature of the previous rooms it was incredibly jarring. At first it seemed benign, but the longer you looked, the more insidious and horrifying it became because so many people believed in that portrayal. It was the candy coating over the razor blade.

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All of this was merely the build-up to the Basement, where thousands of people were tortured, imprisoned, and “interrogated.” When I realized that it was where the museum’s path culminated I nearly begged a guard to let me get off the elevator at the ground floor, but ignoring a horrible truth doesn’t make it any less real, so I swallowed my dread and went down into the darkness. I read the stories, and I visited the cramped cells where they were kept and the drain-bottomed rooms where they were tortured. At one point I even rounded a corner and came face-to-face with a row of gallows that had seen hundreds of executions, but the room that hit the hardest was the very last: the Hall of Tears. It’s a small room lit only by a couple dozen light bulbs on bare metal stakes that float like tiny golden suns, and there are hundreds of victims’ names backlit on the walls. I’m very thankful that I was alone, because as I stood in the entryway I began to cry.

Feeling spent but grateful, I made it back to the river in time to watch the sunset from Margaret Bridge, and I can’t recommend the experience enough. There is a great little part of the wall that you can climb on, and that was my perch for almost an hour. Once the sun set I crossed over to Margaret Island, which is apparently a great park to explore during the day. My attention was caught by a fountain that constantly changed colors, and I spent far too much time being amused by the rainbow water before heading back up. Both the Buda and Pest sides of the river are beautiful at night, and Margaret Bridge is covered in globes of light. It’s a super romantic spot, so keep that in mind if you’re in the mood.

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That night my hostel mates and I decided to strike out on our own, and we ended up on the battered second floor of a ruin bar, laughing and drinking until late. Another benefit to solo travel is that it awards you the opportunity to meet new people rather than cling to your traveling companion, and that can be extremely rewarding.

My last full day in Budapest began with another easy stroll along the river with my new friends Steph and Katie, where we visited a few street markets and discovered one of Budapest’s most evocative memorials. Along the Pest riverbank, close to Parliament, there is a line of metal shoes filled with flowers and candles. This is to pay tribute to all of the Hungarian Jews murdered by the Nazis, especially those who were lined up on that spot and shot so that their bodies fell into the Danube. Like the Hall of Tears, it uses stark, heartbreaking beauty to remind us that in the wake of the horrors that we have inflicted on each other, there is always the potential to heal.

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My last major stop was at the Széchenyi Baths, the city’s most popular Turkish bath house. You can find all the basic information at http://www.szechenyibath.hu , or check out http://visitbudapest.travel/activities/budapest-baths/ for a comparison of the city’s best bath houses. If you do choose to visit Széchenyi, I highly recommend spending the extra €2 or so (a pittance) for a “cabin” instead of just a locker. For one thing, you are required to purchase a locker no matter what (it’s included in your ticket price) and a lot of people go with just the bare minimum, so the lockers go quickly if it’s later in the day. Another benefit is the additional privacy; the cabin is basically a tiny changing room, but it’s better than stripping in public. Since this particular bath house is for unisex use, bathing suits are required but shoes like flip-flops are optional. After you purchase the wristband that acts like your ticket from a desk in the gorgeously decorated front room, head into the changing area by scanning it on a sensor. Consider scheduling a massage beforehand (more on that later) but keep in mind that the massage rooms are outside of the baths themselves, and once you leave the baths you have to turn your wristband in.

The inside is incredibly extensive, and Steph and I had an amazing time wandering from pool to pool while admiring the architecture. We soaked in different thermal pools and had a brief session in their herbal-infused sauna, after which you’re required to take a brief shower. If you’re feeling adventurous, take alternating dips in the tiny immersion pools that are 18 and 40 degrees Celsius (that’s 64 degrees and 104 degrees in Fahrenheit, in case you were wondering). I started in the cold pool and gave the required internal shriek, much to the amusement of several older Hungarian men who were casually lounging in the icy water. One of them helpfully splashed my bare back as I came further into the pool, and they all giggled at my gasps. When I became “accustomed” to the temperature, I traded it in for the 40 degree pool, which was like heaven. I’m extremely fond of hot showers, and so my bones melted when I hit that water. Somehow I found the inner fortitude to switch between the immersion pools twice more, which did super interesting things to my pores (i.e. they opened like Godzilla’s maw and then shrank tighter than a Baptist’s butt hole). Steph’s massage was a half hour before mine so I spent some alone time in the massive outdoor thermal pool, watching old men play water chess and enjoying the sight of the yellow and white buildings. I felt quite fancy, like a rich 1950’s expat, and this was helped along by the sublime massage that I received after retrieving my clothes and leaving the main pool areas. It was an indulgence, yes, and not a cheap one, but after my riding accident in 2013 the small of my back is often tight and sensitive. Between the thermal pools and the massage, I was practically purring.

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All that was left of this latest adventure was one more night out with my new hostel friends. I’ve had a couple of amazing birthdays, but this year I turned 25 in a ruin bar in Budapest, drinking local beer and eating carrots with an international cast. That’s going to be pretty hard to top this year, but let’s see what we can do, eh?

Pasta Kisses,

Kelsey

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Northern Ireland: Here There Be Giants

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When I first expressed interest in seeing Belfast back in July, Douglas the Leprechaun (who hails from said city) made a face and asked me why. After spending a few days there I’ve come to the conclusion that, compared with an outsider, we really have no idea how incredible our stomping grounds can be. From the moment I arrived in the city center—and even through the rain and various frustrations with the bus system and a currency change (remember, Northern Ireland is part of the UK and therefore uses the pound)—I was enchanted. Maybe it was the travel endorphins talking, but Belfast seemed like a fantastic city. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to do a lot of intentional exploring that first evening because of said troubles, but I did see a good chunk of the city while stubbornly wandering around in search of my hostel. The problem was not with Vagabond’s directions; these were flawless. It was my inability to find their starting point that was the problem. Eventually I gave up and overcame my bus prejudice long enough to make it to their door, and it felt like coming home immediately. The converted house is cozy and the atmosphere is incredibly warm, and the hostel workers go out of their way to make you feel included and comfortable. They took everyone out to a local club and partied with us until it shut down (at a tame 2:00 a.m.), and even though the music was questionable for dancing, we all bonded and had a great time.

The next day I caught a bus for the Giant’s Causeway with McCombs Tours (only $31!) and we headed up the Coastal Route, which is on more than a few suggested Bucket Lists. I was expecting cold grey water and stormy skies, but what I saw was closer to a tropical island. I mean, it was still cold as balls, but it was almost as blue as the Adriatic. I was like a giant owl, just spinning my head around and around, trying to take everything in. We made a few quick stops for pictures at Carrickfergus Castle and Dunluce Castle, but the first main port of call was the Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge about an hour north of Belfast. It’s an old bridge linking the mainland to a tiny island where fishermen used to cast their nets, and you can cross it for a small fee (five pounds or so, maybe less). By this point I had made an American travel buddy named Sherman, and when we arrived we took our bus driver’s advice and immediately went for the bridge itself instead of taking pictures of the scenery. This turned out to be an excellent idea, because only ten people are allowed to cross at a time, and the sides have to take turns because the bridge is so narrow. There was a brisk wind, but I still felt extremely safe crossing (though it should be mentioned that people with a fear of heights or a nervous disposition should probably avoid the bridge entirely), and I even made the return trip with no hands so that I could film! DSC_0445This part of the coast is gorgeous, and we had a great time exploring every inch of the little island before waiting our turn to come back. On the way over we saw several members of our tour group who hadn’t even made it to the front of the line yet because they took pictures on the way there. Hint: the pics are just as spectacular when you take them on the return hike. It’s definitely a bit of a climb up and down the hillside, but if you’re reasonably fit then it’s probably well within your abilities. I won’t be winning any marathons in this lifetime, and I managed it just fine.

The drive north continued to be breathtaking. Our driver told us all about the history of the area, and he slowed down over bridges and through incredible glens so that we could take pictures. By far my favorite story was the true tale of the Giant’s Causeway, which you can read at this link: http://www.causewaycoastandglens.com/Folklore-and-Legend.T1153.aspx. Our next major stop was the Bushmills Distillery, where we had a delicious lunch break. If you ever visit, I highly recommend their steak-and-Guinness pie and a delicious hot Toddy. You’re supposed to order all alcohol from the restaurant portion and not the bar area (weird, I know) but most of the bartenders seem more than happy to give you a small sample of one of their whiskeys. I myself had the 16 year reserve, and let me tell you: that b*tch has a bite.

Finally, finally we arrived at the Causeway. The entry is free unless you want to go into the visitor’s center and read about the “real” history (or you can visit http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/233107/Giants-Causeway and save some silver). There’s a bus that will take you all the way down to the Causeway itself (possibly for a small fee), but the downhill walk is gorgeous if a bit long. Sherman and I elected to walk, and when we came to the coastline there was a promontory of land that extended into the water. I pointed to the top and asked, “How ambitious are you feeling?”

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She spent about a second checking it out and then said, “Let’s do it.” So we climbed up to the dip (which was honestly the hardest part because of the long, slick grass and the high angle of the rock face), and kept going until we reached the cluster of rocks at the peak. The fruits of our success were pretty amazing: gorgeous 360 degree views of the coastline, including a dark grey haze in an otherwise clear sky. After exploring and relaxing for a few minutes, I looked down the far side of the cliff face and noticed that it seemed to connect quite easily to the dip in the middle, so naturally I tapped Sherman on the shoulder and said, “I bet we can make it down there,” and she agreed. Is anybody else sensing a pattern?

For a fit hiker like Sherman it was an easy climb down, but after a few seconds it became obvious to me that I was in trouble of slipping on that grass, which was easily as long as my forearm and full of sea spray. My solution was to sit down and just slide down to the bottom, giggling the whole way. It was totally worth the wet jeans. As we continued exploring, I felt the first drops of water hit my face. The grey haze that we had spotted earlier had made its way over, and for a minute it poured on us as we shrieked and tried to run along the side of the promontory. Soon enough it cleared away, and from the top of the dip Sherman called down to me, saying that there was a rainbow. I thought that it was like the small ones we had seen a few times on the drive up, but when I stood beside her and looked down I was completely floored by the sight of a full, glorious rainbow over the beach not 500 meters away. Actually, my reaction involved a lot of four letter words that I shan’t be repeating here. After all the requisite pictures, we sat down on the edge of the cliff and dangled our feet over just to enjoy the view.

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I don’t really have the proper words to describe the Giant’s Causeway itself. Being there was a deeply spiritual experience for me, and even though I initially laughed when the bus driver said that we had three hours, I used every second of it. The hypnotic sound of the waves lulls you into a state of perfect peace while the rich visual landscape fires up your imagination like rocket fuel. If the weather permits, I highly recommend taking your shoes off and exploring the stones with your bare feet. It’s actually very comfortable; the “steps” are large and smooth, allowing for easy walking unless you have to cross the patches of smaller rocks. Be careful where you sit though, because I chose a spot a little too close to the waves and got my feet just a bit wet.

It feels like I have less to say about the Causeway, but the truth is that I simply did a lot of sitting, a lot of exploring, and a lot of looking. It’s anti-climatic compared with our earlier adventures, and that’s okay; it certainly doesn’t mean we were any less affected. Being on that incredible coastline made me feel strong and clean, like all the little rough parts of me were being smoothed away by the waves. How’s that for dramatic?

The return trip to Belfast was quiet, and my night was filled with easy conversations and games of pool at the hostel. Seriously, Vagabonds is a fantastic place: the atmosphere is warm, it has common areas like a living room and beer garden, and plenty of bathrooms/showers. The next morning, Sherman and I set out to explore the city. We walked by the Grand Opera House and the beautiful city hall, stopping at the Titanic memorial and even popping in to a coffee festival. The St. George Street Sunday market was unbelievable; it had homemade soaps and candles, antiques, jewelry, clothes, cupcakes, paella—just rows and rows of booths waiting to be discovered. If you visit Belfast on a Sunday, I highly recommend it.

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All in all, Belfast was definitely worth the visit. The city itself has recovered well from the violence and conflict of the last few decades, and until my trip I thought that nothing could beat the west coast for sheer wild beauty, but I was wrong. So travel often and travel well, my dears, and give Belfast the chance it deserves.

Pasta kisses,

Kelsey

Five Tuscan Hill Towns Too Beautiful To Be Believed

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Good evening, everyone! This week’s post is all about a handful of Tuscan hill towns that are way too gorgeous for their own good. Since I’ve already written about Siena and Cinque Terre they will not be included in this list, but just remember that I still carry a torch in my heart for each of them. And to be honest, they’re well-known enough on their own. If you’re staying in Florence for more than a few days, I highly recommend making a day trip out to one or two of these towns, especially since the regional trains are so ridiculously cheap (we’re talking 7-10 euros depending on the destination). I do want to make it clear that there isn’t “much” to do in any of these towns, so if you’re the kind of person who absolutely must have every moment taken up with activity then you should give them a pass. If you’re a born wanderer like me,  these towns will resonate in your soul long after you’ve left.

1. Cortona

I haven’t been to Cortona in three years, but it was one of my favorite parts about my second trip to Tuscany. I don’t even remember where I first heard its name, but it immediately caught my attention because it sounds like a destination in a pirate-themed movie or a video game. Say it with me: Uncharted 5, the Treasure of Cortona. Copyright Kelsey Clifton. Anyway, to get to Cortona you travel by train, and then you have to take a bus to the town because it’s at the top of a large hill. I mean, walk it if you want, but the bus is only a few euros. If I remember correctly, the correct bus stop is out of the station and to the left, but use your brain and look around. Better yet, if a bus does come, just point to the town up high and ask, “Cortona?” Add in a smile and you’ll be irresistible.

Once you get off the bus, immediately run over to the walls and check out that incredible view. Takes your breath away, right? I was drawn equally to the view and the steep, winding streets full of discoveries. Oh, and the nutella and orange gelato; I was also definitely drawn to that. There’s a central piazza with a clock tower and a church, and on that particular day I witnessed the tail-end of a Scottish wedding. I had no plan and was in no hurry, so I spent the next few hours pleasantly absorbing the beauty around me.

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2. San Gimignano

Pronounced “jim-ih-nya-noh,” the Town of Fourteen Towers is a well-known sight in Tuscany. The towers were originally created as a way for the wealthy families in town to one-up each other; at one time there were 72 of them, each taller than the one before until the town council put an end to their shenanigans. Just over a dozen remain, but they’re incredibly well-preserved and I believe that you can go inside a few. I was there on a tour, so unfortunately I didn’t have enough free time to wander and wait in line. We came in on a tour bus, but a bit of research revealed that you need to go to Siena first and then take a bus to San Gimignano. More information (actually a whole frickin’ lot of information) can be found at http://www.sangimignano.com. There’s also an amazing free app for iPhones and Androids.

San Gimignano’s main square is the gorgeous Piazza della Cisterna, which centers around the well that used to be the town’s primary water source. It’s surrounded by buildings from a variety of periods, including one that houses the world gelato champions from 2006-2009. If they’re still around, you should definitely stop in for a scoop or three. Or four, no one’s judging. My activity in the town was limited that day by time and the rain pouring down on us, but it certainly didn’t stop me altogether. The biggest lesson I learned that day is that sometimes life is going to rain on you, and when it does you have two choices: you can either huddle under a shelter with everyone else, or you can go eat gelato in the rain. Guess which one I chose? And no, you don’t get a prize for guessing right, because come on. Gelato.

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3. Lucca

I missed Lucca on my first two trips to Tuscany, but I got to visit back in June and it’s absolutely delightful. While still considered a hill town, it was the flattest of any of the ones that I visited and therefore easy on the legs. It’s a short train ride from Florence to Lucca, and once you exit the station just keep heading straight until you see the almost perfectly intact medieval walls. One of my favorite activities was exploring these walls in depth; there are so many great old nooks and crannies to discover, and the combination of old stone and greenery made for a fun time. The buildings inside the old town are just as lovely, and I recommend stopping by Chiesa di San Michele in the piazza that shares its name. Out of all the places on this list, Lucca might have been my objective favorite (objective because other towns hold certain memories that give them unfair advantages).

Another thing that you absolutely have to do is go to the top of Torre Guinigi. It’s this amazing tower with a rooftop grove of olive trees and incredible views of the town. It’s a fairly long climb up to the top, but so very, very worth it! For the full impact, keep your eyes down until you reach the railing. From the roof you’ll have an unobstructed view of the surrounding countryside as well as Lucca itself.

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4. Arezzo

If you arrive in Arezzo by train, you can exit the station and walk straight ahead to make it into the main part of town, or take an immediate right on Via Roma once you reach the equilateral green space (Piazza Monaco) if you’d like to swing by the Roman Amphitheater. When I visited, there were several modern art displays around town, including white figures climbing the walls and mannequins with umbrellas hanging from cords. While the entire city is gorgeous, the diva of Arezzo would have to be Piazza Grande—it’s one of the loveliest medieval squares that I’ve ever seen. The steps of Chiesa S. Maria della Pieve create a grand stage from which to observe the colorful piazza and its beautiful residents.

Situated behind Arezzo’s Duomo is my favorite part of the city: il “Prato,” the gardens beneath the Medici Fortress. This incredible green space is a fantastic step back from streets and buildings, and it has three distinct styles within the same area. An open, well-maintained middle lawn gives plenty of room for games and picnics; the lower end is romantic with its windswept pines and views of the Tuscan countryside; and the end closest to the Medici Fortress is like a traditional park that’s been allowed to grow wild.

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5. Campiglia Marittima

I have less information about arriving in Campiglia Marittima than the other towns because I visited by car with friends, but apparently there are frequent trains from Florence as well as buses. It might be in your best interest to travel by car, or at least to rent one while you’re in town, because one of the best draws is the seaside less than twenty minutes away. We visited two beaches in as many days, and though they weren’t as stunning as those you can find in the south, they’re definitely worth a visit. The first beach had extremely sparkly sand and a snack shack with alcohol, ice cream, and absolutely incredible Mediterranean Cous-Cous (PRO TIP: Get it with the tuna). Beach #2 lacked the fun sand, but more than made up for it with an incredible picnic area in the shade of the pine trees, where we drank beer and danced to a reggae band.

The town itself is ridiculously steep, but gorgeous. We spent most of our time down at the beach or up in our rented house, but we did wander down into town for dinner one night and breakfast our last morning. There are a few tiny piazzas and plenty of winding streets for wandering, not to mention an unparalleled view of the the countryside and the water. During August there’s Apriti Borgo, a medieval festival that goes on in the town center; while I arrived the day that it ended, I’ve been told that it’s a lot of fun to attend. Be aware that during this time it will cost money to enter the limits of the festival unless you’re staying in that area.

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Pasta kisses,

Kelsey

 

 

The Dalmatian Coast: Dubrovnik

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Despite Hvar’s orgasmically gorgeous beaches, Dubrovnik was really more my style. Old Town is brimming with history, and as the King’s Landing filming site for Game of Thrones it’s also a bit of a nerd mini-mecca. You can fly in directly, or catch a bus down from Split. PRO TIP: Always, always check how long your bus ride is supposed to take. I caught one from Split to Dubrovnik that was four hours long, but the return trip stopped in every little backwater town and gave me heart palpitations because I was trying to catch a flight back to Rome. Another PRO TIP is to have your passport handy, because you will pass very briefly through Bosnia on the way up and down. I didn’t mind the ride at all, mostly due to the countryside that we passed through, but also because I’m from Texas and we measure distance in hours.

My original hostel was in one of Dubrovnik’s northern bays, and after a good hour and a half of searching for it I was getting really pissed off. I literally walked the same three blocks about five times, desperately trying to make sense of their directions. I even called the hostel but the guy who answered was spectacularly unhelpful, so I took a deep breath, found a place with WiFi and Karlovačko (the only beer that I have ever genuinely enjoyed), and sat my happy butt down to find a new place to stay. Hostel Marker Dubrovnik Old Town was more expensive than my old place, but it was worth every penny and then some. It’s located less than a five minute walk from the Pile Gate, which is one of the main entrances into the Old Town, and it has fantastic access to the site where they filmed the Battle of Blackwater Bay as well as a great beach. The owner is an absolute dream and he will enthusiastically write suggestions for food and sightseeing all over your map. I really can’t say it enough: stay in this hostel.

My first afternoon in Dubrovnik was pretty relaxed; I thoroughly examined Blackwater Bay, including Fort Lovrijenac, which has spectacular views of both that bay and the one next door. I’m actually fairly certain that I would like to eventually be proposed to up there.

Future suitors, take note

Future suitors, kindly take note

I won’t bore you with the two hours that I spent making goo-goo eyes at the water. I met some hostel people and tagged along to the Argentina vs. Netherlands football game that night, because Europe. On the up side, I did get to geek out over Game of Thrones with Lena and the angry Canadian lobster whose name I have forgotten.

My favorite part of my stay was the next morning, and the weather had a hand in it. Great storm clouds were constantly circling, and when combined with the old stone battlements and the pounding sea below they made for some fantastic pictures, even if it did rain on me a few times. The one thing that you have to do in Dubrovnik is walk around the city walls. It’s a decently physical activity, and it’ll take about two hours, but it’s worth every minute. When you enter the Pile Gate, you’ll see a large fountain on your right; turn immediately to the left and follow the signs to the ticket office, and then head up the stairs to reach the top of the wall.  On the low end of the city you get fantastic views of the water, and as you move uphill all of Old Town is spread beneath you. From that vantage point, it’s easy to see more than a few broken buildings left over from the Siege of Dubrovnik in October of 1991. Most of the Old Town has been rebuilt, but at least half a dozen ruins were left standing as a sobering reminder of the war. Near the end of the walk along the walls, you have an opportunity to climb up to the top of an old fort on the walls, and I highly recommend it even though you’ll be exhausted.

As soon as you come off the walls, refill your water bottle at Big Onofrio’s fountain and then stop by the Franciscan Monastery on the left. It has a stunning central cloister and the world’s oldest still-operating pharmacy, not to mention murals on the inner walls. There’s a Dominican Monastery in the northeast corner of the city too, and they’re both fantastic places to slow down for a minute and just sit beneath the trees, listening to sounds echo off the cool white marble. I wandered down the Placa-Stradun, which is like Dubrovnik’s main boulevard, until I came to St. Blaise’s Church and the bell tower. If you turn left you’ll find the Dominican Monastery and a gate leading out of Old Town, and if you go right you’ll pass by the Rector’s Palace, which definitely deserves a look. It’s a beautiful historical building complete with prison cells and magistrate’s chambers. My favorite part was a photography exhibit from the Siege, located in the cells below the palace. One of the coolest things is that your ticket to the Rector’s Palace includes entry into a whole bunch of other places like the Maritime Museum on top of the city walls and the Ethnographic Museum.

Placa-Stradun

Placa-Stradun

For lunch, I kept going around the Rector’s Palace until I was in the old harbor, where I found Lokanda Peskarija, or Seafood Lokanda. It’s a fantastic restaurant with great views of the harbor and delicious seafood risotto, and the portions are huge! I could have easily split lunch with someone. About the time that I finished the rain really started to pour, so I just ordered a cappuccino and stayed put. A sweet French couple came under the awnings and tried to find a table nearby, and I invited them to sit with me since everywhere else was full. They were halfway into their meal when the rain suddenly stopped, so I grabbed my stuff and said goodbye before it could come back. Like in Split, the wet ground was appallingly slippery, so I walked around barefoot until it dried out.

By coincidence, my wandering took me right by Lena and her trio of six foot tall Swedish Vikings. They called each other the Tractor, the Waffle, and the Oracle, and I’m so glad that I’m not kidding about that last part; apparently the nicknames are similar to their real names, and I feel like I can’t stress enough that these are their names for each other. We walked back to the hostel together to collect James, the only living example of a cocaine-fueled monkey that I have ever had the pleasure to meet. James was wonderful, generous, and friendly, but he was also a force of nature. You just didn’t say “no” to James, and that’s how a few of us ended up drunk before 9 pm. We actually met one of the coolest cats in Dubrovnik because James liked his hair. I kid you not, this poor guy was sitting peacefully in a restaurant and James just sat down and started talking to him. Lena, the Vikings and I kept walking, and when we came back James had ordered dinner for himself and a beer for Cool Hair Guy. We joined them rather than fight the inevitable, and that’s how we met Andrej.

Dubrovnik’s cultural festival started that night, so after dinner (during which James threw his pizza over the restaurant’s balcony and the Tractor lost his water gun privileges) Rachel and I headed back into Old Town in time to catch an amazing Croatian band. Even though I couldn’t understand a word they were saying, the quality of the music was so high that it transcended language. I’m actually a bit desperate to learn the name of the band, because I can’t find their information on the festival’s website or Facebook page.

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Day Two in Dubrovnik was dedicated to wandering. Old Town is small enough that you can see most of it in a couple of days, and it’s more or less on a grid pattern so it’s pretty damn hard to get lost. I had passed by Gundulic’s Square several times, but that morning they had a farmer’s and artisan’s market. Since covered markets are high on my list of weaknesses, I took the time to walk through it and drool over the things that I wanted but shouldn’t buy. Behind the square is a large staircase that leads up to St. Ignatius Church, which has the oldest grotto in Europe. It’s gorgeously decorated anyway, but the grotto definitely makes it worth the short climb. There’s also a way up to Buza, a bar that’s situated on the Old Town wall; it’s a great place to watch the sunset, and a welcome relief if you’re walking the walls without water.

I stopped at Taj Mahal for lunch, which, in spite of its name, does not exclusively serve Indian food. This was the scene of one of the best meals that I have ever tasted: Ćevapi (or ćevapčići), a Balkan dish of minced sausages grilled and served in a flatbread taco with sides that can include onions and cottage cheese. I’ve had cheaper versions of this dish and they were okay, but Taj Mahal’s was heavenly. Like, I definitely heard a choir of angels each time I took a bite. My instinct was to fill my flatbread taco with the sausage and smother it in cheese and onions before eating it like a burger, but I thought that was just my barbarian side talking (seriously, take me to Medieval Times and watch the civilization flee from my eyes), so I cut the flatbread into strips and rolled the sausage in it. According to Lena, my barbarian instincts were correct and you are supposed to fill it up and mash it into your piehole; fine by me, I look forward to devouring Ćevapi the right way.

I visited the Ethnographic Museum for a while, and if you like mythology it’s worth a look, but the displays are mostly low-quality and the presentation was a bit sloppy. Don’t pay for it, but if you have a ticket from the Rector’s Palace and time to kill, go ahead and stop by. I thought about catching a boat to Lokrum Island, which came highly recommended by our hostel owner, but the weather was still touch-and-go. Since I was already in the harbor, I took a walk along the inside of the walls and noticed that people were disappearing around a corner. Being a curious sort, I followed them and discovered an area between the city walls and the sea where you could sit on the rocks, so I claimed the largest one for myself and relaxed there for a while before going back to the small bay near my hostel for a long swim. Lena and I had dinner in Gundulic’s Square, and then we met the Vikings at an amazing place called Art Bar where they use bathtubs for couches and the metal spinners from washing machines for tables. To get to Art Bar, leave Old Town via the Pile Gate and keep going straight for about ten minutes. Between the weird decorations and the bright lights, it’s kinda impossible to miss.

One of Kelsey's happy places

One of Kelsey’s happy places

That’s about it for Dubrovnik! Ever since my visit I have been plugging Croatia like crazy, so hit me up if you have any questions or comments. There were so many places that I wanted to visit, and I would not hesitate to go again.

Ćevapi kisses,

Kelsey

The Dalmatian Coast: Split and Hvar

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You could make a pretty strong case that Croatia’s Dalmatian Coast is paradise, and you’d get no argument from me. A thousand thanks to the beautiful Croatian friend I made here in Florence who convinced me to visit her country, because I had an incredible time! Croatia is outside of the Schengen Territories, so it’s a good stop if you’re worried about overstaying your welcome. American citizens can stay for 90 days without a visa; I was there for a week, and I sincerely wish that I could have made it two.

My first stop was in Split. If you’re arriving by plane, just head out of the airport and you’ll see signs for the city buses. They’ll take you to the main bus station, and there’s a tourist office in the same strip that can help you find your way. Be ready for crowds because Split a big party city with a gorgeous seaside promenade called the Riva, and in the summer it definitely caters to young beachgoers. I stayed in Hostel Ana, which is right next door to Diocletian’s Palace and less than a ten minute walk from the ferry port. It was perfect for my needs, but if you prefer to stay in fancy hotels or luxurious hostels, it’s not for you. It’s cheap, cozy, and ideally situated with a fantastic open-air sitting area where you can lounge and meet other travelers. Next door is Split’s main attraction: Diocletian’s Palace, a sprawling complex full of shops, restaurants, squares, and ruins. It was originally the retirement home of Diocletian, a Roman Emperor who was in power from 284 to 305. I had a great time wandering around the streets, and I discovered little gems like an older couple dancing to live music in the middle of a square, and a guitar player camped out in a particularly beautiful area full of toppled pillars. In fact, I ate my first Croatian meal against one of those pillars, just listening to him play in the soft evening air. I fell in love with almost everything that I ate in Croatia, but that first night I had hot and simple street food in the form of a crocup, this gorgeous creation that consisted of a bread bowl filled with garlic sauce, the meat of my choice, and vegetables, which was then covered in cheese and baked to perfection. While we’re on the subject of food, I also highly recommend a really cool restaurant in the palace complex called Figa. It has indoor and outdoor seating options and sports a colorful vibe, friendly staff, and the best shrimp risotto I have ever eaten.

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Inside Diocletian’s Palace

A quick word on currency: some places do accept euros, but the kuna is the national currency of Croatia. The exchange rate for the American dollar right now is 5.68 kuna for $1; for example, my crocup cost 40 kuna, which only comes to about $7. I like to keep my calculations simple, so I just mentally divided everything by five. It’s easier, and you’re actually paying less than your original estimate. Win-win, in my book.

Anyway, Diocletian’s Palace was wonderful. I really enjoyed exploring it in depth, especially the parts that haven’t been as well maintained because I’m weird like that. I love the sight of all that crumbling white marble, though walking on it is seriously a chore. I don’t know if I just picked the two most slippery cities in Croatia, but any time it rained I took my shoes off and walked barefoot because my feet had better traction, so keep that in mind when picking shoes for this location. One of the best things about Split this time of year is that there are constantly festivals. The cultural music festival was going on when I visited, and the day I came home Ultra started. That means live music every night on the Riva, and I had a great time relaxing on a bench with the sea at my back and a fun band rocking out onstage. If you’re not a fan of big crowds and crazy parties, however, I would avoid Split during Ultra because it’s one of the biggest house music festivals in the world. Honestly, if I had to do it over again, I would stay in Split for one night and then go to Hvar Island for the rest of the time because I personally wasn’t there to party.

Hvar Island is one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen. I ended up spending most of my time there, which cost me quite a chunk in ferry tickets. Another quick word: the fastest way from Split to Hvar is by catamaran (http://www.hvarinfo.com/travel-to-island-hvar/), and while they’re usually pretty easy to use from the mainland, the ones leaving Hvar are infrequent and often sell out. The second option is the car ferry, which leaves from Stari Grad on the other side of the island. Here’s how you catch it:

  • Go to the main ticket office in Hvar Town, which is very close to where the catamaran dropped you off, and buy a ticket for the car ferry. You have to take a bus to reach Stari Grad, and there will be a list of bus times that match the ferry you need.
  • Once you have your ticket, leave the office and turn right. Go towards the main square in front of the church, and keep walking to the left of the church (there’s a public bathroom right there if you need it). You’ll see taxi stands by a building, and if you go towards that building on your left you’ll see the buses. You want the one that says “Stari Grad” in the front window.
  • Buy a ticket for Stari Grad, but you’re not actually getting off there. The bus may stop a few times on the way to pick up people, but the first major stop will be the ferry port, and that’s where you’ll get off. The car ferry should be the giant ship on the left side of the port, and while the ride is exceedingly smooth, it will take about two hours to get back to Split. The absolute best thing about the car ferry is that it runs late; the last one leaves some time after 11:00 pm.

Hvar Island just….defies words. If you walk around the port and keep going, you’ll find all sorts of public beaches. Walk far enough and there are resort-style places with sand and drinks and fancy changing areas, but the first ones you come to are rocky, free, and much more interesting in my opinion. Navigating them is a little tricky, but slow going should see you through. I lucked out and found a perfect spot that was tucked into the rock face a bit, so I could lay my things out and gently make my way into the water. There are plenty of sunbathers around, but since I am a delicate British flower (and I’m secretly ten years old, don’t let me tell you any differently), I went straight for the water.

The Adriatic Sea is absolutely ridiculous. That water is the most incredibly clear shade of blue, and it’s so salty that if you let it dry on your skin, you can actually brush the residual salt off. I highly recommend taking goggles, and if you elect not to, at least take a lesson from me and don’t grab sh*t off the seabed that you can’t see clearly. I saw what looked like a white seashell below me and I wanted it, but my contacts made the water blurry. I dove down anyway and reached for it and, as you can probably guess, it definitely was not a seashell. It was a hollowed out sea urchin. WHICH REMINDS ME: Sea urchins. Sea urchins everywhere, so watch out. They’re pretty easy to see, but be careful. I ended up stepping on one as well the next day while walking in the water. But I digress; I survived the sea urchins and frolicked sufficiently in that ridiculous water, and then I thought it would be a good idea to sit up on the rocks, half in and half out of the water. As with the “seashell,” I was sorely mistaken because the water entranced me so much that I sat there for an hour without applying more sunscreen, just staring out at the waves like a dodo. And then I decided to rinse and repeat. I mean, come on; can you blame me?

View of the Adriatic Sea

This view is directly responsible for my lobster legs.

Hvar Town itself is gorgeous, and definitely worth exploring. It’s a party place like Split, but there’s so much more to do in addition to drinking and dancing. Hvar is famous for its lavendar fields, and you can hire all sorts of excursions to take you across the island or, even better, to entirely different islands. On Vis, there is a magical place called the Blue Grotto, not to be confused with a place of the same name in Capri. If you walk around the harbor in Hvar Town, you’ll find loads of tours available. I found one such tour that promised the Blue Grotto, the Green Grotto, and a few private beaches on Vis, so I booked it for the next day. Unfortunately the sea was too rough to visit the grottos, but we made for Vis anyway on a small sailboat crewed by two very attractive Croatian sailors whose names I never caught. I’d like to dub the beefcake with long curly hair Tarzan, and the slimmer blond Terk because he was the one scrambling all over the boat like a monkey (yes, I’m aware that Terk is a gorilla, hush). The trip to Vis wasn’t that bouncy, but by the end most of us landlubbers were queasy to one degree or another, especially the poor Malaysian girls. PRO TIP: if you get seasick, stare at something steady like the horizon or an approaching island, and whatever you do, DO NOT go belowdeck.

We pulled in to this tiny cove full of moored boats and dropped anchor, and then most of us proceeded to jump right off the boat and into that glorious water. I’m not going to lie to you, I hesitated for about twenty seconds. The water was so clear that I could see all the way to the bottom, but something about taking that plunge gave me pause. In the end, I screwed my courage to the sticking place and just—stepped off. It really was as easy as all that. Except then I hit the water and came up cursing a blue streak because it was so cold, thereby cementing my status as a true Southern lady to all my nice new foreign friends. Someone tossed goggles down, and I had a fantastic time snorkeling along the edge of the bay. The middle parts were sandy and boring, but the edges held reefs. They weren’t tropical by any means, but it was amazing to explore such a diverse ecosystem filled with fish, crabs, sea slugs, and plantlife. That’s how I amused myself while most of the others were sunbathing and napping on the boat. Eventually Tarzan and Terk brought out lunch, most of which was delicious (tuna and corn, who wouldda thunk?), though the sardines were a mistake on my part. After lunch the boys seriously tossed all of the plates overboard, explaining that the fish would eat the leftovers and all they would need afterwards would be a swish under fresh water. It was a lot of fun to watch Tarzan and Janja dive for them, especially when they told the British tourist to throw some of the silverware in as well and he threw all of it, so they had to dive down at least twenty feet to pick two dozen forks and knifes off the seabed.

Vis

Vis

Our next stop was at the Laganini Lounge Bar on a different part of Hvar Island. It wasn’t as much fun as the cove on Vis, but it seems like a fantastic place to relax with friends or a loved one. It’s basically a private bay with different levels cut into the rockface, and all of the furniture is made of white driftwood and softened burlap. There are several bars, and a few perches in the trees that you can reserve. As my family can tell you, I don’t do “relaxation” very well when I’m in a new place, so I preferred the journey across the water to sitting still. I let my legs dangle over the side of the boat and watched the sapphire water pass underneath me, and I had a lot of deep thoughts about the open sea and how amazing/terrifying it would be to swim in it. Thankfully, my higher brain functions prevented me from toppling overboard, no matter how curious I was. A stunning sunset was the perfect cherry on the decadent sundae that was my day on the water.

That’s it for my island adventures; tune in next time to read all about the real King’s Landing and how I dodged a surprise wedding. There will also be guest appearances by the Storm God, three Vikings and their boss, a metric sh*t ton of cats, and James.

Pasta kisses,

Kelsey

Il Palio: Sweat and Glory

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Ciao my pets! Today I want to talk about an event that I attended at the beginning of this month, one that I have wanted to be a part of for over three years: Il Palio. For those of you who don’t know, Il Palio is a crazy-as-balls 350 year-old horse race that takes place in Siena twice during the summer, once on July 2nd and again on August 16th. For lots of detailed information about the race and ways to witness the madness, visit this website: http://www.ilpalio.org/palioenglish.htm

The very basic version is as follows: Siena is a medieval hill town located in the Tuscany region. It grew up about the same time as Florence, but since the latter had access to the Arno River it prospered quickly and overpowered its hilly neighbor. Siena is divided into seventeen districts called “contradas” which are represented by certain symbols like the dragon, the she-wolf, and the snail. At each Palio, ten districts compete in a mad dash three times around a dirt track that has been laid down in their largest piazza, Il Campo. As if it’s not insane enough to gallop around those hairpin turns, the entire race is completely bareback. For the uninitiated, this means no saddle and no stirrups. For the truly uninitiated, I’ll just say this: you try holding on to 1500 lbs of galloping horse with nothing but the strength of your legs and maybe a hand in the mane.

When I visited Siena three years ago and heard about the race, I knew that I wanted to come back and witness it for myself, and once I got really involved with horses the following year I became even more determined. So when I finished the new book and had some free time on my hands, I realized that I could very easily take a few day trips down to Siena for Il Palio. From Florence, it’s usually about an hour and a half by train, thought that does vary. To check local times, I like to use virail.com, but I recommend just buying the tickets in the station since the website usually overcharges by a pinch. WARNING: the last train from Siena back to Florence leaves at 21:20 (or 9:20 pm), and you can easily make this train after the race if you don’t lollygag.

The events of the race actually begin June 29th with the selection of the horses that will compete in the race. They start with about thirty and have mini races to test them out, often choosing the most trustworthy horses rather than the fastest ones. I missed all of that because it started very early and I got a little sidetracked when trying to reach the city center. So you won’t make my mistakes, here’s how to get there from the train station:

  1. Cross the street to the mall and start taking escalators once you’re inside, you should use a total of eight. This’ll get you up the hillside.
  2. After the last escalator, exit the glass doors and turn left. You’ll start seeing signs with a bulls-eye on them, but these will abandon you soon enough so don’t get too comfortable.
  3. The street you’re on will connect with the city walls; go right and keep following the bulls-eyes. You can go in the walls themselves if you’d like to explore. You’ll flirt with the walls off and on for several minutes.
  4. You’ll come to this weird intersection thing that sort of switchbacks up a very mild hill; ignore it and go around the corner of the old walls. You should start seeing pretty trees lining the paths in front of you. You’ll pass a big fountain and a decent-sized parking lot. Pay attention for the merchant stalls, and take the very next big street that goes right.
  5. You’ll come to the church of the dragon contrada; you can pop in if you want, it’s quite lovely. Keep following the main road in, and you’ll start seeing signs for “Piazza Il Campo.” Easy as that! When all else fails, follow a tour group or ask directions.

Around lunch time they select the ten horses who will be racing, and then each participating contrada draws lots. Jockeys can be changed up until the day of the race, but once a horse has been matched with a contrada it’s a done deal. Neighborhoods follow their horse through the streets of Siena, cheering and singing songs with scarves tied around their shoulders like capes. I witnessed these parades more than once, and they were inspiring. Siena takes its horses seriously; if a jockey is thrown and the horse keeps racing and takes first place, that contrada still wins. When I was here three years ago in late May (which was nearly ten months after the last race) we visited the stall of the previous winner, and there were still flowers hanging on the door. Oh, and on the day of the race each horse is blessed by a priest in the contrada’s local church. If the horse poops in the church, it’s supposed to be a sign of good luck.

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That afternoon, the first of six trial runs begins. The track is cleared, and the horses are cantered around the track three times to help them get used to it (a canter is a three-beat gait that is usually very fast, but not as fast as a gallop) and to help the jockeys bond with their horses. A ridiculous amount of people attend the trial runs, nearly as many as on race day. While we’re on the subject, you can stand in the middle of the piazza for free (there really isn’t a bad spot since it’s a bit sunken in), or you can pay money to sit on the wooden bleachers or in someone’s window. Being a poor traveler and action-lover, I stuck it out in the piazza and I’m glad I did. When I want to, I can possess the patience of the ages, so I camped out right by the railing on the downward slope, and the pictures are pretty fantastic. It’s a great atmosphere and a bit more relaxed than the actual race, so if you’re in a position to take multiple trips to Siena or you can stay for a few days, I recommend checking out one of the trial runs.

On the day of the actual race, I took my temporary flatmate Douglas with me because I was an idiot and bought a ticket for two adults rather than two individual adult tickets (since I would be making two separate trips). I will forever be in his debt, both for making the trip much more enjoyable and for letting me make back my €17. We arrived in the city center around 3:00 pm and wandered for a bit, eating gelato and dodging all of the crazy people. Since he’d never been to Siena, I suggested that he go visit the Duomo while I camped out in the piazza again. By the way, if you ever visit Siena (which you should do), go to the Duomo. The entire inside is done in stripes of black and white marble and it is to die for.

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Some general tips for race day:

  • Don’t touch the horses. Don’t ever, ever touch the horses.
  • If you want to lean against the barrier in the middle of the piazza, get there by 3:00 at the latest and be ready to wait.
  • Don’t forget water and sun screen, as most of the piazza is in direct sunlight until right before the race, but don’t overdo it because once they close the piazza to clear the track you’re stuck there. You can fill water bottles at the Fountain of Joy, which is at the top of the piazza.
  • Don’t be frustrated when it takes a while for the race to start. You might notice most of the horses gathered in a line, moving and nipping at each other, with one rider pacing back and forth behind them. That last rider is actually the one who decides when the race starts; the moment he crosses the line the race begins, so he’ll wait until his opponents are at a disadvantage.
  • The race only lasts about 70 seconds, so don’t blink or fiddle around for your camera; BE PREPAAAAAAAARED. Sorry.
  • Once the race is over, it’s time to leave unless you’re planning to stay overnight. If you’re facing the large building with the tower at the bottom of the piazza, DO NOT take the exit to your left. This is where the victorious contrada is heading and you can’t beat them. Either take a different path to the right, or wait until the parade  has already passed. Douglas and I thought we had plenty of time, and we ended up being caught right in their path as the horse was coming up, and he was not a happy camper. Between an upset stallion and hundreds of screaming, shoving Italians, things got dicey for a bit.
  • If you do get caught up in the parade, don’t fight it. Just walk along, and you’ll actually make it through the crowd a lot faster.

On the way out, you can pick up a scarf from the winning contrada for about €8, which I think makes a super cool souvenir. To make an awesome day even better, the contrada of the dragon won! DRAGOOOOOOOOO!!

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Pasta kisses,

Kelsey

Cinque Terre

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Apparently I’m awful at this whole blogging thing, since I’ve gone nearly three weeks without a new post. If my previous attempts at journaling are any indication, this won’t be the first time I disappear off the face of the Interwebs. In my defense, I’ve been working like crazy on the new book and I’ve written nearly 180 NeoOffice pages in the past two weeks, so first the fantastic news: the first draft of Burning Dusk is done! I swore to myself that I wouldn’t open the document at all today, and so far I’ve been successful at keeping that promise. It still needs a lot of work, but the bones of the story have been laid out and that’s a great feeling, even if there are a few extra fingers and potentially no right foot. I’ll set it to rights soon, never fear.

But I digress; this is primarily a post about my day trip to Cinque Terre. Long story short, those towns are absolutely amazing, but they very nearly murdered me in the most beautiful way possible.

     Cinque Terre, or “Five Lands,” is a stretch of the coast with five towns all connected by paths: Monterosso, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola, and Riomaggiore. There are some paths that go up into the hills and pass through other towns, but the coastal path is the most direct route, so that’s the one I decided to take. The plan was to walk all the way from the northernmost town to the bottom one over the course of two days.
     I started in Monterosso. It seems to be mostly a beach town, and that water was ridiculously blue. Like, tropical blue. I went wandering for a bit and then found the beginning of the coastal path, which snaked around the cliffside. It looked easy, and I thought the entire thing would be like that. “No problem,” I thought, “I can walk like that all day.” It took about a quarter of a mile before the “coastal path” left the coast, never to be seen again. We totally went up into the hills, and it was insane. So many stairs. So, so many stairs. In a lot of places, even when it was a straight path, it was only about two feet across with nothing between you and the drop down the hillside. Don’t get me wrong, it was totally worth it for the views, but I will never be doing it again. By the time I got to the top and started to generally go downhill, I was the kind of exhausted that makes you nauseous and lightheaded even with frequent breaks and plenty of water. And lightheaded is one thing you can’t be, because the path is so narrow and rocky that if you’re not focused on your feet, there’s a real good chance that you’ll trip. If you’re in relatively good shape, then to you it’s probably just a brisk climb. To heavier individuals like myself, it’s thinly veiled heat exhaustion. Don’t underestimate the coastal path, because it can be brutal.
     Now that my very long disclaimer is out of the way, I can say that the hike itself was gorgeous as long as you’re not afraid of heights. The views of the coast and the ocean are stunning, and the path takes you up through hillside vineyards and past little streams. As an aside, it is my sincere belief that the Italian people can grow anything. Turn them loose in the Sahara and give it five years, and they’ll be exporting world-class wines. They certainly succeeded in turning the ragged hillsides into lush gardens. In fact, it is so beautiful up there that the official name of the coastal path is Via dell’ Amore. Because nothing says “love” like dragging your insensible partner down from those ridiculous stairs.
     Okay, okay. Now I’m done ragging on the coastal path.
     The sight of Vernazza, the second city, was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen. It’s considered the most charming of the cities by a lot of tourists, but I’ll admit that my love for it had everything to do with resting. That being said, it is an absolutely gorgeous town. I picked my way down to it with three goals in mind: more water, a bathroom, and a place to lie down. Thanks to chance I turned down a random street and found a cave built into the hillside. My curiosity was buzzing, but my legs were very nearly about to rebel, so I stretched out beside the entrance and lay down for about half an hour, honestly not giving a flying fart what I looked like. When my head wasn’t pounding quite so much, I went through the cave and found that it led to a secret beach! It was gorgeous, and I wished that I had brought my swimsuit. Instead I took my shoes off and stood in the cold water for a long time, just soaking it up. This beach in particular is rocks, so it’s a little more painful than sand, but so worth the experience. My mother would be very proud of me for not taking a rock from said beach, even though I really wanted to. Instead I took a piece of sea glass, which is an improvement, right?
     I explored Vernazza for a bit, and then took the train to Corniglia because there was no way in hell I was getting back on that path—I mean, because the path was closed and that was the only reason I didn’t take it all the way. Seriously though, the only part of the coastal path that is currently open is the stretch between Monterosso and Vernazza because the cliffside is unstable. Oh, and be prepared to pay to use the path. Ironically, it cost €7.50 for the privilege of sweating on the hillsides and only about €1.10 to take the train between the towns. Yes, Life, you’re hilarious. Anyway, I didn’t see much of Corniglia because when I got there and saw that you had to climb a lot of stairs to reach the town, I promptly turned around and put my happy little ass right back on the train to Manarola. Sorry not sorry.
     Manarola might have been my favorite town. It was gorgeous, with this great little harbor where you could swim, and part of the coastal path ran beside it so I got a great view as I ate takeaway pizza. Going up to Hostel 5 Terre was interesting because it was pretty high up, but thankfully it was an incline with no steps so I mostly survived. At the top was a church and a beautiful courtyard, and you could see the ocean easily. The sound of rushing water followed me all the way up, and when I looked down into a basement level I realized that there must be a bunch of sea caves running underneath the town, because I could see cascading water. When I reached the hostel, the wonderful girl at the front desk pointed me in the direction of the lift, and I almost hugged her, but that would probably have freaked her out just a bit. The dorm rooms were comfy and cheap, though the church bells were a bit loud.
     The next morning I got up and took one more train to Riomaggiore. It might be the steepest of the towns, but the path I took happened to lead me to their main church, and when I walked along that road I had some stunning views of the town and the hills behind it. It’s sad to admit, but this adventure has made me mistrustful. Several times that morning I saw people climbing up staircases, and my first thought was always, “Is whatever’s up there worth the effort?” I know my mother has waited two decades for this to happen, but a good part of my climbing curiosity has been dispensed with. Anyway, Riomaggiore is split into two halves bisected by a cliff, so I followed the higher path around and descended into the second half, which wasn’t quite as dramatic. Riomaggiore probably had my favorite views out of all the towns.
     In summary: Cinque Terre is a must-see. Apparently in high summer (July and August) it’s so packed that you can hardly move, so if you find yourself easily irritated by crowds or heat and you don’t intend to commit homicide on your vacation, you might want to give these months a pass. This is why I’ve recommended that my mother either visit me in the next two weeks, or wait until September.
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Pasta kisses!
Kelsey