Lazy Days in Vernazza

The journey to Vernazza started in chaos, as many Italian journeys seem wont to do. I took the train from Bologna to Florence, and in Florence I was to change to a train bound for La Spezia. Predictably, my train from Bologna was delayed, and I found myself rolling into Florence’s Santa Maria Novella much later than planned.

Not keen to wait around in the crowded train station until the next La Spezia train departed, I jumped off my train from Bologna and began my mad dash to catch the train I wanted. It felt like one of those slapstick scenes from a movie, weaving in and out of packs of people, dodging errant rollerbags, frantically trying to figure out which platform my intended train was departing from.

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I made it just in time, and even managed to score a good seat (something of a victory for me on this trip). In La Spezia, I disembarked with a horde of other travelers, all of us trying to figure out which train to take to get to the particular Cinque Terre town we were aiming for. Few of the information screens seemed to be working, and the line to talk to an agent was insanely long, so instead, I spent a fair bit of time wandering from platform to platform, searching for a clue.

I prevailed eventually, and made my way to Vernazza. By the time I climbed the several sets of steep stairs to the apartment I was renting in town, I was exhausted, cranky, and more than a little sweaty.

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But here’s what’s great about Vernazza: it’s a tiny town, and not ten minutes after that initial low point, I was sitting at a table overlooking the water, sipping on a white wine, and feeling the cool breeze from the sea. My whole time in the Cinque Terre was like that: one moment I was pushing through a crowd of fellow travelers, frustrated as hell, and the next I was walking along the shore, admiring a sunset straight out of a watercolor painting over the Ligurian Sea, and completely at peace.

Save for a bit of hiking, my time in Cinque Terre was blissfully low key. I poked around a lot, in and out of shops, up and down teeny tiny alleyways. I ate gelato by the water. I took one thousand photographs of the sun setting. I dangled my toes in the sea and people watched, squinting in the impossibly bright sun all the while. It was wonderful.

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If I did one thing really right this trip to Italy it was this, this mixture of go, go, go and relaxation. I took it easy in Varenna…then I braved the tourist gauntlet in Venice. I relaxed in Vernazza…then I visited all the museums in Florence. I lazed around the Amalfi coast…then I walked all over Rome. It was the perfect balance.

A Magnificent Morning in Cinque Terre

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If there’s one thing I hate, it is getting up early. But if there’s one thing I hate even more, it is crowds. And the unfortunate thing about Italy’s Cinque Terre being so beautiful is that everyone and their mother wants to visit, making the crowds pretty crushing at times.

During my visit, I knew I wanted to do a bit of hiking. Since the devastating floods and mudslides hit the area in 2011, some trails have been closed on and off for repairs, meaning that a few of the routes I wanted to hike were not open during my visit. Luckily, the hike I most wanted to make – the one with the iconic view of Vernazza’s harbor – was up and running. And I knew two things: I wanted to make the journey before the crushing midday heat, and before the equally crushing throng of hikers descended on the trail.

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I woke to a beeping alarm clock at 7am and…got out of bed somewhat begrudgingly, albeit less begrudgingly than usual. After a quick breakfast, I set out, taking the trail out of Vernazza and upward.

Along the way, I encountered almost nobody, just as I had hoped. The trails were blissfully empty, save a few ambitious early morning joggers and a handful of locals, puttering around in their hillside gardens and terraced fields. And the views…the views were spectacular.

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I have this memory, from the first time I hiked the Cinque Terre in 2005, of utter exhaustion mixed with exhilaration. Every time I found myself getting annoyed at the endless climb – up, up, and up – I would catch a glimpse of something spectacular: the blue sea sparkling below, the colorful houses dotting each town, the wild flowers growing along the path.

It was a lot like that this time around, though a bit less stressful given the cooler temps and empty trails. Sometimes I felt tired, but getting to the top, getting to the point where I could look down and see Vernazza’s jewel of a harbor below, splendid as ever in the soft morning light, made me remember that any weariness was temporary. I felt like I could have stayed at the top forever, content to admire the world below in tranquil silence. It was well worth rising early.

 

April in New York: A Few Favorites

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Maybe it’s down to the spring weather – finally! – but April felt like the month where I did…everything, basically. Saw all the plays, ate all the food, and took ALL the flower pictures (that last point cannot be emphasized enough). Oh, and logged all the hours at work, but we won’t get into that one here.

When the weather is great, one of my favorite things to do is walk the High Line (see: exhibit one, exhibit two, and exhibit three). I had a friend visiting from DC, and she had never visited the High Line, so I knew it was a must-do. Even though it was crowded on our visit – hell, it’s always crowded – it was a great afternoon and a beautiful day to visit one of my favorite spaces in Manhattan.

View from the High Line

In other spring news, the windows at Macy’s were in full bloom for the Macy’s Flower Show. I cannot adequately explain how I adored these window displays – I think coming back to admire them will become a new yearly tradition, even more so than the Macy’s Christmas windows.

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Speaking of flowers, they were everywhere this month. Walking through Central Park was a real treat; I feel so lucky that I live just five minutes from all this.

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I didn’t have to go to the park to find flowers, though – they started popping up on every corner of the city this month, or so it seemed. The tarps are off the bodega flower stands now, and it is glorious.

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This month, I was lucky enough to score two free tickets to a Yankees game. We had great seats, and I was pumped because I had never been to a Yankees game before. There was just one problem: it was freezing. Like 30 degrees, with a light mist falling on us the entire game. Hooray!

Yankee Stadium

One of my favorite things about living in New York is the abundance of shows playing at any given moment. This month, I was lucky to see a bunch of good ones. First – and best – was The Audience with Helen Mirren. I’m so excited I got to see Mirren perform in person; she was, of course, impeccable as Queen Elizabeth, as were the actors playing each Prime Minister.

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Another show I had wanted to see for a while was Beautiful, the Carole King musical. This one was staged so well – I loved all the colorful set pieces, and hearing all the old, familiar 60s-era songs was a treat.

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And, after a lifetime of listening to the Phantom of the Opera soundtrack, I know basically every word to every song – yet I had never seen it performed live. Now, I have.

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I also saw the Radio City Spring Spectacular with my family, who were in town visiting. Though they may be cheesy, I’ve always wanted to see the Rockettes perform, so this was fun. I do need to get back at Christmastime, though.

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On Easter, I grabbed brunch with my BFF at Piquant in Brooklyn. The food – I had steak and eggs – was alright, but the bottomless drinks were better.

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We continued our Easter Sunday across the street at Woodland. With more mimosas, but of course:

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In other Brooklyn dining news, I visited Smorgasburg – twice. Favorites included a hotdog topped with Thai mango relish at Asia Dog and the ice cream sandwich from Good Batch.

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Along with my family, I went on a pizza tour in Cobble Hill with Scott’s Pizza Tours. We sampled three slices and learned a lot about the Brooklyn pizza scene.

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Back in Manhattan, I grabbed brunch with my sister and a friend at Parker & Quinn after seeing Age of Adaline one Saturday. The steak frites were pretty on point:

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At Babbo, my family tried the pasta tasting menu: seven courses of pure carbohydrate bliss. More on this later, but for now, a little teaser:

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We also had dinner at Parm, which is my number one Upper West Side staple at this point. The entrees were good, as they always are, but the Neapolitan ice cream cake was what I was most looking forward to. Not only was it beautiful to look at, it was incredibly tasty.

Parm UWS Ice Cream Cake

The Tipsy Parson is also becoming another NYC staple for me. It is southern comfort food done right, and I love its location in Chelsea (perhaps because it’s right by Maison 140, one of my favorite little home décor shops).

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And finally, I grabbed a chocolate chip cookie at Levain, which is one of the few places in the city that I think is 100% deserving of the hype it gets. The lines here are always well out the door, and often way down the block, but the cookies are worth it. The chocolate chip with walnut never, ever disappoints – eat it warm for maximum gooey awesomeness.

Levain Bakery

In summary: April was awesome, and flowers are my favorite (Levain chocolate chip cookies kind of are too). May, you are on notice.

Bologna: Postcard from the Red City

Everyone who travels, I’m sure, has his or her own “go-to” resources, those places one looks when deciding what to eat, do, and see. For me, there are a handful of blogs I always turn to for food recommendations, certain search engines I always use for flight booking, and – when it comes to Europe – a guidebook that I always find myself referencing. I write of course, of Rick Steves, whose guidebooks are particularly great at laying out all the practical information: finding hotels, planning itineraries, and learning about nitty gritty details like opening hours and cost.

But nobody is infallible, not even good old Rick, and there was one time when he could not have been more wrong: Bologna.

I had read a fair bit about Bologna, Italy’s culinary Mecca and capital of the Emilia Romagna region. Lured by the promise of “the best food in Italy,” I knew I wanted to go. There was just one thing: Rick Steves said to skip Bologna. Here’s the excerpt from his guidebook: “Though well-preserved, Bologna is also huge, congested, and relatively charmless.” Relatively charmless?!

To that, I must say: what the hell, Rick? Because I loved Bologna, I really did, and I am so glad I made the trip.

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Bologna is decidedly un-touristy – note the lack of crowds and the dearth of menus written in anything other than Italian – and I suppose I can understand why many people feel compelled to skip it. It is a low-key place without any blockbuster sights. It also doesn’t have that picture perfect, storybook that many Italian cities have; instead, it feels grittier, more ordinary, more relaxed. Walking through Venice, I found myself wondering where the hell all the Italians were. Well, they were right here: living, working, and eating (oh the eating!) in Bologna.

I said Bologna does not have “picture perfect” charm, but that’s not to say it is not visually appealing. In fact, one of the city’s nicknames is la rossa – the red – and it does not take a genius to see why. Walking around Bologna, I was greeted by buildings hued in rich, warm tones at every corner. The city is striking.

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Another visual treat? Bologna is a city of porticoed walkways, which are not only practical (providing respite from the hot midday sun) but are also beautiful to admire. I loved the symmetry and the elegance and, as a terribly fair-skinned person, the shade they added to Bologna’s streets.

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Walking through Bologna’s streets, another detail kept catching my eye: graffiti and murals everywhere. Some of them seemed to have a political edge to them while other pieces – like those pictured below – just appeared to be good fun, a whimsical way to enliven the city streets.

Bologna Graffiti

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My chief pastime in Bologna was – let’s be real here – trying its delicious cuisine, but I also did a fair bit of walking to counteract the decadent calorie consumption. One spot I passed again and again was Bologna’s Two Towers, which dominate the landscape.

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Another oft-visited spot was Piazza Maggiore, which was the center of town and usually buzzing with activity. Here, I found St. Peter’s, a church with a gorgeous facade and…a not that exciting interior.

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As far as churches went, Santo Stefano was much more captivating. This church had a shabby, crumbling, ramshackle feel to it, but was utterly charming in its own way. There were all sorts of little nooks and crannies to explore, naves and rooms and courtyards scattered around haphazardly. There was a small cloisters, too (and we all know I adore a good cloisters). As I wound my way through the church’s many rooms, I heard the sounds of a choir wafting through the building, adding a serene, lovely feeling to my visit.

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And when I needed to relax, I found refuge atop my hotel’s terrace, which boasted wonderful views of the city skyline (Best Western Bologna, who knew you had it in you!?!). Morning, midday, or night, it was a treat to unwind and recharge in this spot.

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Bologna Terrace

After a short two days in Bologna, here is what I know. Is it my favorite city in Italy? Nope, not by a long shot. Was it worth the trip? Yes, absolutely. It may not be Italy at its most glamorous, but it did feel incredibly authentic, and there’s something to be said for that. Plus, I cannot emphasize enough how thoroughly I enjoyed being in a place where Italians far, far outnumbered the tourists. I’m glad I gave Bologna a try – it was well worth my time.

I Came to Bologna to Eat, and Eat Well

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Thinking about all the places on my Italian itinerary, I can articulate a specific reason or two that made me add each stop to my trip: I wanted to relax in Lake Como, I wanted to explore the tiny, winding streets of Venice, I wanted to revisit places I hold near and dear in Florence, and so forth.

Why did I come to Bologna, then? I came to eat.

Bologna, you see, is known as the gastronomic capital of Italy – and in a country with so much good food, that is saying something. Food is celebrated in Bologna, plain and simple. To some extent, that’s true wherever you go in Italy – but I could not help but feel that there was something particularly special here. Perhaps it was this: Bolognese cuisine is simple, unpretentious comfort food (like your nonna might cook), but it is incredibly flavorful, and perfect in its very simplicity.

To start, then, a few dishes that exemplified this simplistic perfection. I stopped at Osteria dell’Orsa for lunch, and right away I noticed one thing: the place was packed, and pretty much with all Italians. Until midway through my meal – when a few Brits sat down next to me – I did not hear one lick of English. The menu too was all in Italian, which was a refreshing change after touristy Venice, where menus often come printed super-sized, with pages and pages of different languages.

At that first lunch, I was itching to try the classic Bolognese dish, tagliatelle ragu, which is basically noodles, sauce, and beef (plus a sprinkling of cheese, if you so desire). In keeping with the Bolognese theme, this was a simple dish but packed with flavor. Another plus? It was cheap! The dish was only 6 euro, making it by far the cheapest pasta I ate in Italy (and perhaps the best tasting too!)

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At Trattoria Anna Maria, I found another dish perfect in its simplicity: tortellini en brodo, or tortellini in broth. Here, the name says it all: this was nothing more than a completely unpretentious, ungarnished bowl of noodles in broth. There might not have been anything fancy about it, but it was so, so satisfying. If I lived in Bologna, this would be my go-to comfort food for the winter months.

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I headed to La Mela for another dish that initially appeared unassuming: lasagna. I must ask: is there any food that photographs uglier than lasagna? I’m hard-pressed to name one if there is, but don’t be fooled by its appearance. This slice of lasagna was damn good; it was perfectly cooked and flavorful.

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Another favorite Bologna find was Marsalino. Here, I wanted to order the 15 euro meat and cheese plate, but my server warned me about its large size, so he gave me the “small” version for 8 euro. As it turns out, the small version was still HUGE; I didn’t even eat a fraction of it, much as I enjoyed the prosciutto di parma, the parmigiano reggiano, and the like (and I enjoyed them a lot). Marsalino also gives out tons of free snacks during happy hour – they gave me chips, two types of flatbread (spinach and mushroom), and bread – and they did something that I have rarely seen in Europe: they give out water for free (and they proudly advertise this fact on their menu). I adored Marsalino for its amazing combination of high quality and high value.

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Bologna’s Quadrilatero neighborhood is a must for any foodie (or anyone with taste buds at all, really). It’s home to Mercato di Mezzo, which was filled with stalls selling foods I was dying to try. When I visited, I was pretty full and only in the market for a snack: I grabbed a spritz Aperol and perfectly salted calamari.

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After my snack, I set out to explore more of the Quadrilatero. Every shop I poked into was filled with treasures – colorful produce, fresh fish, gigantic blocks of parmigiana reggiano, chunks of meat hanging from the ceilings, pasta sold in all shapes and sizes, and chocolates shaped like tortellini. It was a mark of the area’s quality that Bologna’s own Eataly outpost – a place I generally consider foodie heaven in New York – was the least exciting shop here!

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With all these amazing savory options, it was no surprise that Bologna killed it in the gelato arena as well. Though there was no shortage of options, I found one place so excellent that I stuck with it for the duration of my stay in Bologna: Gelateria Gianni. This shop was incredible: unique flavors and some of the thickest, richest, and creamiest gelato I had ever tasted. Heaven in a cone.

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Bologna is known for its three nicknames: la dotta (the learned one, for its university), la grassa (the fat one, for its cuisine), and la rossa (the red one, for the color of its buildings). And while I could see where la dotta and la rossa came from during my time in the city, it was la grassa that seemed most fitting. The food in Bologna was truly something to savor. La grassa, indeed.

Central Park in Bloom

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I always thought I was more of an autumn person, but this spring has me reconsidering my stance. Seemingly overnight, blossoms sprung up all around the city, and though I know they won’t last for long, I cannot help but admire them.

While spring flowers are on what feels like every corner, the best place by far to admire them is Central Park. Last weekend, I went for a long, rambling walk around the park on what was basically the perfect day: warm but not hot, and sunny with bright blue skies. The Park whistled with activity: folks picnicking on the lawns, couples posing for engagement photos, kids toting around ice cream bars, and people, people everywhere, walking and smiling and enjoying the spring sunshine.

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I was delighted by all the cherry blossoms and other signs of spring I encountered. I thought my favorite season in Central Park was fall, but this walk – and this entire season – has me seriously reconsidering.

Venice: A Few Parting Thoughts

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Travel for me is like a seesaw: sometimes I’m on top of the world, smack dab in the middle of one of those magical moments that makes me want to travel forever, and other times I’m overwhelmed by all the various frustrations anyone encounters when traveling in an unfamiliar place. Venice was, for me, a place where the seesaw swung back and forth rather dramatically.

My trip to Venice began with a definite low point: stranded at the Verona train station – hot, sweaty, and starving – for hours, then, upon my arrival in Venice, crammed onto a vaporetto packed wall-to-wall with people. I was in such a cranky headspace that I barely even had the wherewithal to appreciate the sights that greeted me on that first boat ride:

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Once I disembarked, things got…even worse. The thing about Venice is, of course, that it is a maze. And despite the fact that I had written down what I felt were very excellent directions, I found myself wandering around, exhausted and without a clue about where exactly my hotel was. By the time I weaved my way through the crush of people and finally found my damn hotel (hidden down a tiny lane I must have walked by at least three times), I was tempted just to curl up in bed and call it a night.

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Luckily, I didn’t give up that easily. Once I finally found my hotel, calmed down, and grabbed a bite to eat, things got a lot better. Sure, the crush of tourists was ever-present, both that day and throughout my time in Venice but, minus that annoyance, I found a lot to love about the city.

Chief among those things – and somewhat paradoxical, given my initial frustration with finding my hotel – was simply getting lost in Venice’s tiny back streets. It is no exaggeration to say I never took the same route twice in Venice; in fact, it almost would have been impossible to do so. I was never time-pressured during my visit, so I would try to aim myself in the general direction of where I hoped to go and then would let the streets take me where they would.

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And it wasn’t just the streets of Venice I adored, it was the water everywhere, from the canals weaving through the city to the gorgeous waterfront vistas of the lagoon to the exuberant children splashing around in a flooded St. Mark’s Square. How many times did I smile over the way the clouds looked or the sun was setting over the open water? How many times did I pause on a bridge to snap a photograph? More times than I can count, and yet I never tired of doing so.

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The other thing that enchants me about Venice is how the city itself is the main attraction. Yes, there are museums and churches (and I am sure all of these are wonderful), but I never felt much compelled to visit them, with one exception: St. Mark’s. During my first visit to Venice almost a decade (!!!) ago, I had worn a tank top and wasn’t allowed inside the church (rookie mistake). This time around, I knew I had to catch a glimpse, and the vast, gilded interior did not disappoint. The exterior, the centerpiece of Venice, was not too shabby either.

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The first time I visited Venice, I didn’t even linger for an entire day: we took the train from Florence in the morning, hung out in town for a few hours, and then left in the early evening. It was thrilling and exhilarating, but I didn’t get to “know” the city in any way. This time, I am so glad I gave myself several days to explore; I loved (for the most part) everything I saw. Even so, I know all the twisting, turning streets of the city contain a million additional details I have yet to explore. Until next time, Venice.