Friday, December 30, 2011

The Road to the Amalfi Coast

You ever feel in your bones that certain locales are literally beckoning you from afar, continually whispering all of the enticing things they have to offer into your subconscious?  If your answer is yes and you also find yourself jumping to answer these calls, then I'm afraid you officially have The Travel Affliction.

I've happily come to terms with the fact that I've got this bug.  My wallet may be lighter but, without it, I doubt Dave and I would have been able to say goodbye to our normal day-to-days for a full 2 week trip to glorious Italy this past fall.  After I'm finished reviewing the vacation in full, you'll see that this trip, in particular, will always have a tremendously special place in my heart.  As you may recall, Rome was up first.  After immersing ourselves in its vast history for a week, I really didn't think the trip could get much better.  Clearly, I was naive.  

On Day 7, we packed up our bags and headed over to Roma Termini Station to begin our journey to the highly renowned Amalfi Coast.  No one ever truly looooooves the actual act of traveling (except for maybe Daisy), so I wasn't giddy at the thought of the train - I was just eager to get there.  However, I was surprised by the ease of the train system between Roma Termini and Napoli Centrale.  There are simply a lot of options (always a good thing when on the road).  If you prefer the get-me-there-faster train option, you'll pay a bit more for it.  Having read that the slower, less expensive trains were overcrowded and had no assigned seats, we decided to go for the medium-speed train, either the IC or ICplus.  The journey took us about 1 hr and 45 minutes and cost us about $75 (after the conversion to USD) for the one-way fare for the 2 of us.
Once off the train, you have a few options to get to the towns within the Amalfi Coast.  I won't speak to renting a car yourself, because I would not recommend it.  
Courtesy of Rick Steves, whose books I read vigilantly before and throughout the trip
One option would be to take a taxi (although not generally recommended as they tend to gauge us poor, unsuspecting tourists).  Nonetheless, if you feel compelled to take a taxi, make sure it's a fix price.  For instance, when we eventually left the coast and headed back to Naples, we opted for a flat 90 Euro taxi that the hotel set up for us.  

If you're not intimidated by public transportation, a decent option is to take the Circumvesuviana commuter train.  The stop is in the basement of Centrale station.  Sorrento is the last stop on the line (note that you'll pass by Pompeii along the way).  Once you leave the Sorrento station, you'll see a series of SITA bus stops directly outside.  You can't miss these buses approaching, as they catch your eye with their bright blue color (although sometimes they are white/green).  Make sure to check the schedule ahead of time, and do pay attention to the F, H, G, S designations (which will tell you which run daily).
A few words of caution for you regarding the SITA buses:  
  • You need your tickets before you board!  You can generally buy them at a nearby tabacchi shop.  Sorrento to Positano will cost you about 4 euro, while Amalfi will run about 8 euro.
  • They tend to be really crowded in the high-season.  As long as you're early in Sorrento, I suspect you'd find a spot.  The trickier part is coming back to Sorrento from Amalfi and Positano.  For instance, if you get picked up at the 2nd stop in Positano, a lot of passengers have already loaded in from Amalfi and the 1st Positano stop.  Thus, you may find that the bus is completely full.  Make sure to have a Plan B!
  • If you're not known for your speed & strength, just be prepared that you will be expected to load your suitcases in the undercarriage of the bus and jump on the bus quickly. 
  • The buses often times run ahead of schedule and do not wait.  Make sure to get there early!
Another option would be to take a ferry from Naples to (i) Sorrento or to (ii) the island of Capri.  If you opt for the Sorrento ferry route, then you could continue your journey by hopping on the SITA bus as I described above.  If you go for the ferry to Capri, there are ferries from Capri's main port to Positano and Amalfi multiple times a day (even in the low season which starts at the end of Sept).
Our transportation choice from Naples was a private driver, an upgrade option offered by our hotel. After navigating substantial pedestrian and auto traffic within Naples and then traveling about an hour south, we got closer to Sorrento, the official "start" of the Amalfi Coast.  At first, I thought the quickening of my heartbeat was a result of pure excitement over the views, but then I quickly realized that I was also in slight panic mode.  Why you might ask? The roads were insane.  Picture a narrow one-way road in the U.S.  Then picture that same road being opened to two-way traffic, primarily dominated by large buses.  Then add in extreme curves overlooking sheer vertical cliffs into the Mediterranean.  Thankfully, these locals are pros and they maneuver their vehicles almost with ease, certainly without breaking into a cold sweat like me :P
After passing through the equally if not more beautiful panoramic views of Positano and Amalfi, it was all "up" from there on out.  Beautiful Ravello was our first destination, serenely perched up above Amalfi at a cool ~1,200 ft above sea level (abbreviated as "Rav." in Rick Steve's earlier map).
When we pulled up to Hotel Caruso at what seemed like the highest point in Ravello, my excitement level was off the charts.  This was a splurge hotel for us (justified by the fact that I was able to use miles for our airfare).  To describe our time here as anything more than a dream would be an understatement, but I will attempt to give you all the specific details in my next Amalfi Coast post ...

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

My Attempt at an "Intro" to Rome

Although I haven't blogged about it yet, I just got back from the self-proclaimed "historic" Charlotte, North Carolina.  I won't deny lovely Charlotte its "historic" title per US standards, but I can only chuckle at how infinitesimally small it's history is compared to another city Dave and I just visited: Rome, Italy.  It was our first time out of the country together since our trip to Ireland in 2007, and we couldn't have been more thrilled to spend our first week exploring the ancient city.
Timeframe: We had been warned that you need to take Rome in stride by avoiding burying yourself with a laundry list of "must-do's" during your visit.  That advice could not have been more spot-on.  If you are operating within a "typical" vacation timeframe (i.e. 1 week or less), there is just TOO much to see in Rome.  Period.  My suggestion is to read about the city as much as possible before you head out (try Rick Steves for instance) and make a priority list of places to visit.  You don't want to get too hung up on seeing every possible place mentioned, because (a) you'll be too rushed to appreciate the beauty/history of what you do make it to see and (b) you'll have trouble immersing yourself in what makes Italy truly great: sumptuous, multi-course meals and leisurely, gelato-filled strolls!
Flight options: If you're flying from the US, you'll be headed to Leonardo da Vinci-Fiumicino Airport (FCO).  If you are traveling from an European city, you might be able to find a flight to Rome's less congested Ciampino Airport (CIA).  For instance, discount carriers Ryanair and easyJet both fly to CIA.  Nonetheless, most of us will find ourselves at FCO, which means you've got to make some plans on how you want to get to the city center.  We enjoyed taking the "Leonardo Express" train directly to Rome's Termini train station.  It leaves every 30 minutes and costs EUR15.  If you wanted to make a reservation in advance, you could also arrange for a shuttle to your hotel.  Lastly, you could take a Rome city taxi, which would probably take you about 45 minutes and will cost you an even EUR 45.

Hotel options: My best advice is to get on TripAdvisor and read, read and read some more.  You obviously have to balance your desire to be in a certain neighborhood with what you can afford.  However, I would suggest that you try to stay within East Rome if you can help it.  This would mean you'd be north of "ancient" Rome (i.e. Roman Forum, Colosseum, etc.), east of the Tiber River, west of Termini Station and south of the Borghese Gardens.  East Rome may look like a big area on the map, but, as long as you've packed comfy shoes, you should be able to walk or take short, inexpensive taxis to everywhere you'd like to visit.  We chose to stay at a fairly reasonably priced 4-star hotel on Via Nazionale, Hotel Artemide.  We were quite pleased with it for a number of reasons (e.g., size and cleanliness of the room, quality of the bathroom amenities, good air conditioning, flat screen tv, etc).  It also has a lovely rooftop restaurant and bar that overlooks the city.

Must-sees: I can't cover this topic in the detail that it deserves solely in my intro post, but I'll go ahead and tell you in summary form what I wouldn't miss.

  • Vatican Museum:  How could you pass up the papal palace lined with the masterpieces of Michelangelo and Raphael?  The answer is you cant.  Buy your ticket in advance online but still be prepared for intense crowds.  It is all worth it once you set eyes on the Sistine Chapel.

  • St Peter's Basilica: Neighbors with the Vatican Museum, this is the grandest, most significant church in the Christian world.  You can visit the chapel and crypt for free, but the view from the top of the dome is worth the EUR5-7 cost.

  • Colosseum: Home to the notoriously gruesome gladiator battles, don't miss this truly unbelievable structure.  A clear architectural wonder, especially considering it's 80 A.D. construction.

  • Roman Forum (& Palantine Hill): Ruins of the center of the ancient city.  Imagine the commerce, politics and religion that took center stage in these ruins.  Don't miss the Arch of Titus that marked the old entrance to the city on the Via Sacra, as well as the large Senate House.  You can also find the ashes of Julius Caesar as well.

  • Borghese Gallery & Surrounding Gardens: Former Cardinal Scipione Borghese's villa, used to showcase the fine art of his age.  Many precious Bernini sculptures are contained within its walls.  

  • Pantheon: Dedicated to all gods, it is the most well-preserved monument in the city.  Inside you can find the tomb of Raphael as well as the tombs of the country's 1st two kings.

  • Spanish Steps: Named for the Spanish Embassy, it is a hangout spot for many (particularly a popular night-time hot spot).

  • Trevi Fountain: A Baroque fountain completed in 1762 by Nicola Salvi, which brings an "Ocean" scene to life.  Particularly gorgeous at night.

  • Night walks through Campo de' Fiori and Piazza Navona: Bustling plazas with outdoor wining & dining ideal for people watching.  Bernini fountains to top off the experience.

Restaurants:  You really have to overtly try NOT to have a good meal in this city.  There's essenitally just one rule... steer clear of restaurants that are directly outside of main tourist attractions.  You know you're in a tourist trap when you see blatant advertisements of menus in multiple languages.  There will also be asterisks next to a lot of antipasto and entree options, which is a signal that the food is frozen and will only be heated up.  If you can manage to stay away from these places, you will not be disappointed!  I would specifically recommend walking southwest and across the river to the Trastevere neighborhood for dinner one night.  It has a really unique feel and is overrun with highly praised trattorias.
For those of you itching to go to Rome, I hope this was a decent introduction to what you might expect.  There will be more to come from me, which will cover the must-sees in much more detail.

My last recommendation is a fun, superstitious one:  don't forget to throw a coin over your shoulder into the Trevi Fountain!  If the legend is true, it will ensure your safe return to Rome.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Chicago in a Day

Another plus of living in Milwaukee is it's close proximity to Chicago.  Either by car or by train, the trip will take you about an hour and 15 minutes.  The train line, Amtrak Hiawatha, departs from both the Milwaukee Intermodal Station (MKE) and the Milwaukee Airport Railroad Station (MKA).  For those of you air travelers, the MKA station has connections to Milwaukee's General Mitchell International Airport.

A few Saturdays ago, my friend Mike was visiting and, along with Dave, we headed over to the Hiawatha at the MKA station at the brisk hour of 8am.  After seeing that parking was only $5 for the day, we happily printed our $40 roundtrip tickets at the self service stand and waited a few short minutes to board.  We ended up on the quiet car, which was vigilantly upheld.  The quiet car ride allowed for a pleasant nap for Dave and undisturbed scenery gazing for Mike and me.
We arrived at Union Station a little before 9:30am and, even though we had a lot to see in our ~11 hr day in the city, we decided our first order of business was breakfast.  We cut up Jackson St (all of these street names seem to be President's names) and headed for the Magnificent Mile on Michigan Avenue.  Known for it's shopping and dining, we were aiming for a place that had an outside patio.  We had luck with The Gage and enjoyed a reasonably priced brunch before we headed out on our sightseeing adventures.

Fueled up from brunch, we meandered across Michigan and Columbus and headed south through Grant Park to see the renown Buckingham Fountain in the center of the park.  The 84 year-old fountain, said to be inspired by the Latona Fountain in Versailles, is quite the sight with its large center display and numerous jets. The backdrop of the city isn't too shabby either.  The fountain is meant to represent Lake Michigan, with each seahorse representing a bordering state (Illinois, Michigan, Indiana and Wisconsin). You can catch a water show every hour from mid-April through mid-October.  If you wait until after dusk, you can see the same show but with the addition of choreographed lights and music.  Unfortunately, we did not stick around for the show, but I have it on my to-do list next time for sure.
Turning north, we walked back through Grant Park and made our way to Millenium Park.  Technically an extension of Grant Park, Millenium is a public art venue at its core.  One of its highlights is the Jay Pritzker Pavillion, which is home to the Grant Park Symphony Orchestra, Grant Park Music Festival and many other musical acts.
Not far from the pavillion is Cloud Gate or "The Bean".  We weren't the only tourists interested in a closer look and feel of this 3-story steel sculpture.  Created by Anish Kapoor, the sculpture is undoubtedly captivating.  As you get closer, you're immediately drawn in by the unique, distorted reflections of the city and sky.  When you're within striking distance, it then becomes quite fun to see your own distorted reflection and make your way through its curved archway.  The only real downfall to this attraction is its popularity! Don't count on getting any amazing non-people filled pictures while you're there...unless of course you get there extremely early.
Feeling oh-so-done with the swarms of tourists at The Bean, we started our many mile walk to the Navy Pier right on Lake Michigan.  On our way, I was noticing the lovely Riverwalk area.
Although Navy Pier was also crowded, I immediately got a great vibe as we approached.
We found many Mid-Westerners happily drinking with friends either out on restaurant patios or simply walking around (open containers allowed once inside).  It was more than easy to join in the merriment, as we decided to rest our feet and grab some beverages at Harry Caray's outdoor patio.
After our refreshments, we walked the rest of the length of the pier and noted all of the activities.  There were numerous boat launches for guided tours of the city from the lake, the Childrens' Museum, carnival games & fun-houses, and tons of restaurants & bars.  There is also a fireworks display every Saturday at 9pm (ending Oct 29).  
At this point in the afternoon, really interesting low-lying clouds set over the city.  I loved the photo ops they created but it was nice that they didn't stay and block out the August sun for too long.
Knowing that we also had other attractions to hit, we headed out from the pier and walked north along the shoreline towards the John Hancock Observatory.  Eager to see the city from 1,100 ft up, we paid our $15 admission and headed up almost 100 stories.  Note: you can also buy a CityPass for $76, which gains you access to your choice of 5 attractions including the J.H. Observatory, Willis (previously Sears) Tower's competing SkyDeck, the planetarium, the aquarium, the Field Museum or the Art Institute of Chicago.

The J.H. Observatory offers the city's only open air SkyWalk and also provides a multimedia tour free of charge to all patrons (narrated by David Schwimmer for any of you Friends fans).  It also provides an interesting overview of Chicago's storied history, with particular attention to The Great Chicago Fire of 1871 where the city had to literally build itself back up from the rubble.  Then there is of course the amazing views...which is not lost in translation on anyone.  Lake Michigan's vibrant shade of blue never looked so beautiful in my opinion and I was entranced by the full 360 views of greater Chicago.
We finished up our Chicago-in-a-Day experience with dinner closer to the downtown Loop area.  Upon recommendation from my friend Eden, we shuffled into avec on Randolph Street.  Careful though... the restaurant is about the size of a narrow hallway and it does not take reservations.  Hence, make sure to get there early or be prepared to be tremendously patient while waiting for a table.  At least there is a long bar that can help you pass the time.  Our experience at avec was tremendous.  Small plates is the name of the game here and we couldn't get enough.  My favorite was the stuffed dates :)
After dinner, we squeezed in one more drink at the Elephant Walk in the financial district and then scooted back over to Union Station to catch our train.  Unfortunately, the last train back to Milwaukee leaves around 8pm.  Even though we had planned ahead and got into the city early, it would be nicer if there was a later option.  Although, in our case, we had jammed so much sightseeing into our day that we were completely exhausted and ultimately appreciative of getting back on the train to rest!

As we reflected on our day during the ride back, we all agreed that, for such a large city, Chicago was extremely well organized and impeccably maintained.  We're all excited for trip #2 to discover more of Chi-Town, now my neighbor to the south!