The hardest part of visiting Europe is deciding which cities to visit in a finite amount of time. Even though we are spending nearly a month traveling, we are seeing just five countries. After quick hellos to Paris, Ireland, and London, we decided to take a week-long cruise to hopscotch along some Riveria ports. Below is a quick overview of each of the fair cities.
Naples was our first cruise stop (see previous blog) and the city was a welcome entrée into Italy. Our guide Daniele talked about Naples as though he was describing his mistress. “Look at this,” he’d point. “And this! Ah, bellissimo!”
Although Italy boasts thousands of years of history, it was only unified into the country we know today in 1861. As home of the ancient Roman empire, Italy has always occupied a critical place in geographical history yet is, technically, younger than the United States. But that’s a mere formality. Take any turn in any town and you will be greeted with reminders of the impact that Italy has had – from art to science to exploration.Naples is also the birthplace of pizza. For that alone, we owe it a proper grazie mille. Food is a cultural currency here. Fresh and simple, it’s as authentic as the people – and both are a smidge salty.
It was in Naples that I saw how the Italians make their own way. There’s no waiting at crosswalks or for a lighted stick figure to coax you across a street. You go.
And if there isn’t a break in whizzing cars and motorcycles (which is often), you make one. Daniele would simply walk into the street, hold out his arms both ways and walk across. You’re expected to be bold and get yourself where you need to go.
The old joke should be re-written: “Why did the chicken cross the road? Because it’s Italian. Arrivederci!”
Nestled between the sea and the mountains, Barcelona has flair to spare. It’s full of color and great design, from architecture to food to fashion. And then there’s soccer – the original football. Part religion, part performance and all parts passion, it’s the city’s north star and Camp Nou is the stadium where the devoted come to pay homage.
After so many museums and churches in the last two weeks, a visit to the FC Barcelona field was a welcome adventure for the kids. My newly-turned 12 year old, Zack, objected when we wanted to move on from a room showing videos of the team over the years.
“It’s history here, guys!” he said. Well, sorta.
Speaking of history, we were awed by the Sagrada Familia church. Its first brick was laid in 1882 and the architect/artist Antoni Gaudi took over the design a year later. It was his labor of love until his death 43 years later.
Work is still being done and will likely take another couple of decades. History aside, it’s the design that is so captivating. In addition to being a religious temple, the heavy elements of nature make it so unique. Pillars stretch and twist upwards like trees, stained glass paints the air with blues, greens, yellows. It feels like standing in a sacred forest where whimsy and piety come to play. After seeing so any monuments during our travels, it was telling when the two kids and my Jewish husband all declared the Sagrada as their favorite.
I wish we had more time to sample the fantastic Spanish food but we made the most of our tapas lunch with crisp potatoes dipped in a creamy sauce, plump sausages, and a plate of fresh shrimp, which arrived with legs, antennas and heads still attached. Wiggling them out while drenched in garlic butter was a culinary tango.
Palma de Mallorca, SpainThis bright island is part of Spain and a great place to dock your yacht while you sip sangria, shop along tree-lined streets, or frolic on the beach. Time slows down to allow you to enjoy the sunshine.
As soon as we step off the shuttle, vendors quickly offer hats, sunglasses, scarves – all vacation decorations. Come this way to browse the quaint shops, come over here to see a historic church and, please, sit, sit, and relax.
So we did. With only a few hours to soak it in, we wandered along the alleys, sat amid sun-drenched trees, and smiled at allthe Coca-Cola signs beckoning the tourists. At some point, Europe decided that a red & white can symbolizes “We speak English!” or “American credit cards happily accepted.”
Mallorca also gave us a chance to polish our fashion. Before we left on our trip, the kids wanted to get “top hats” to be “fancy” as they tried on their gentlemen manners. The city was just the place to pluck a couple of accessories and the kids strolled along with a little more swagger.
Aix en Provence, FranceFor our time in southern France, we wanted to go away from the port city so we headed to the university town of Aix en Provence. The streets were bustling with an outdoor market and we walked through the town as it settled into a Tuesday morning.
We visited a musty cathedral, peeked into government meeting rooms, and stretched out into courtyards once built by the very rich who didn’t want any neighbors too close to their sprawling stone houses.
Then we were off to the countryside where the roads rose and bent. Acres of orchards carried olive trees, grapes, lemons. The air was dry and the red dirt along the high cliffs reminded me of northern Arizona. Crickets sang out a summer tune and donkeys meandered in a field.
This was a different view of France from the bustle of Paris. You’re surrounded by land versus landmarks and the homes take second place to ample orchards. The sunny day lulled us happily into a slower pace as we made our way back to our ship.
Cinque Terre & Pisa, Italy
Tucked along cliffs on the rugged coast of the Italian Riviera, five colorful towns operate autonomously away from their more boisterous relatives across the country. Their isolated location made them relatively unknown for centuries until they were discovered by hikers in the 1970s and word spread about their secluded beauty.
We started in a port town and climbed up to a stone church on top of the hill to admire the sea. We took a ferry boat to Vernazza and settled there for a couple hours. Bright colors are everywhere, beach umbrellas, boats snoozing in the water, and gelato tubs. The town was both enriched and swallowed by the tourists.As we sat for lunch, I watched as the ferry arrival would bring a swell of chatter to the streets. People came in their beach wear ready to wade into the water, sit upon the rocks, and eat al fresco. Speaking of eating, this is where we discovered pane e coperto – a per-person cover charge just to sit and eat – and the lovely glass bottles of house wine in various sizes.
Cinque Terre deserves more than a few hours to really experience it and it’s on my future to-go-back-to list. We left it reluctantly in order to take a quick stop in Pisa. The leaning tower and her equally impressive friends are the stars of the city but, by a summer afternoon, tourists blanket almost every part of the area.To help manage the crowds, a ticket is required to go into any building (even for free admission) and the wait was hours. The only other entertainment option appeared to be a flash mob of selfies. The hot sun and our short patience made this a quick visit but I’m glad to have seen the tilted wonder.
After a week of cruise hopping, we disembarked in Rome for nine days of Italian exploration. Good thing we had all that practice eating, walking, eating, and touring. And eating.
Stay tuned for American Travel Nerds, Italiano Edition…