Wednesday, May 16, 2018

1 Week in Southern Italy

So - when I was in college, I spent a term abroad in a small town in Tuscany learning Italian. We travelled every weekend, but the farthest south I ever made it was to Rome. I loved Italy, and Rome especially, so I was eager to return and show the Spouso around. Rick Steves says that if you love Rome, you should go further south, but if you don't- you should stop there because everything about Italy just gets more so the further south you go. So - I initially really wanted to do a Sicily trip, but couldn't get that to work out - so instead I booked a trip into Rome and out of Naples a few days later. This is considered southern Italy, even though I realize now it's only like halfway down the boot.

The Itinerary
Day 0: Fly out of London around 6pm, arrive Rome around 9pm
Day 1: Explore Rome and the Vatican
Day 2: Breakfast in Rome, check out of hotel, train to Naples, boat to Sorrento
Day 3: Explore Capri
Day 4: Check out of hotel, boat back to Naples, explore Naples
Day 5: Train to Pompeii and back, explore Naples
Day 6: Fly back to London

map of the trip - the Shin of Italy?

In Chronological Order:

This wasn't really meant to be a Rome trip, but because the plane tickets had us landing there pretty late at night, it made sense to stay over another day and see the sites quickly. It ended up being a jam-packed sightseeing day and a half. We started in the Piazza Navona for breakfast, then took a bus over to the Coliseum, which I had seen from afar but never been inside- it was very cool to explore. Then onto the Forum (also never actually been inside), which is the ancient part of Rome, a larger area with theaters and temples, etc. We stopped for a great lunch on top of the hill overlooking the city. At that point, we were running behind schedule and had to skip nap time and head straight for the Vatican, where we had tickets to get into the Sistine Chapel. This was crazy - we got soaked on the way, and then the crowds were massive despite having timed tickets. At some point, the boy fell asleep, so we took turns carrying him and trying to not get him crushed - but the chapel is still amazing. We went back to the Airbnb for a quick break, and then out for the best meal of the trip - simply amazing pasta and some gelato after. The next morning, we woke up early (thanks to the little guy), and ran over to the Trevi fountain and Pantheon, before catching our train down to Naples, and the boat down to Sorrento.

Piazza Navona

water fountain in Piazza Navona

in the colosseum

at the forum


forum is hilarious

lunch with a view

the vatican

heading towards the sistine chapel

sneaky picture of the sistine chapel 

trevi fountain


pantheon- searching for the next coffee shop

Sorrento/Amalfi Coast:
Next up was supposed to be the beachy, relaxing part of the trip - but didn't really turn out that way. The weather was a little too cool for going in the water. I had planned for us to take an early ferry to Capri, then an afternoon ferry on to Positano so that we could see more of the coast and beaches - but it didn't work out. Because our hotel was so far out of town, we had to take the tour set up by the hotel - which was only for a full day on Capri.

So, the next morning, we caught a boat to the island and spent the whole day there - playing on the beach, and boating around the island. The sun was out and it felt great to walk around. Again, we messed up nap time, so the boy eventually fell asleep on the boat for a while, but was pretty cranky the whole time. That night we just ate leftovers in the room so everyone could crash early, and watched The Talented Mr. Ripley, which was filmed on a nearby island. The next morning we caught a cab back to the port to catch a boat back to Naples.

happy hour at the hotel

view of capri

on the boat - heading to capri

capri is lovely

wandering around capri

so many stairs to get down to the beach

beach is nice

scooping up rocks is the best!

back on the boat- touring around the island

about to sail right through the rocks

We had a rough arrival in Naples, dragging our suitcases over the cobblestones to an airbnb that was really hard to find, while carrying a very tired and cranky boy while everyone was starving - and unfortunately, the first impression kind of stuck. I thought Napoli would be dirty in a gritty and charming way, but it was mostly just dirty in a dirty kind of way. We never really warmed up to Naples.

We went out that night to the restaurant that claims to have the best pizza, in the city that invented it. Then we wandered through the old part of town for a bit, picking up desserts on the way. The next day we took the train to nearby Pompeii - which turned out to be much cooler than I expected, even though it was raining and we arrived exactly at nap time so the kiddo was a mess. We didn't splurge on a tour guide or anything - and got a bit lost and missed a lot of the sites - but it was still very cool to imagine what it all would've looked like. That night we went back into Naples for some pasta, which was good, even though everyone was tired. We didn't really get to see any of the sites there - but did get a sense of the city and certainly sampled its food. That night we watched Pompeii, which is horrible, but has Kit Harrington, so that's at least something. The next morning we caught an early cab (which was terrifying) back to the airport to head back home.

so much pizza!!

swinging through the market on the way to get the train


streets of Pompeii

climbing on the rocks on the sidewalks

very impressive mosaics in the House of the Faun

wandering the old market in Pompeii

a much-needed canoli break back in Naples

By Topic:

So this was definitely a food trip - we ate a lot and we ate well. Breakfast was espresso and pastries each day - with a different local pastry each morning. Every meal was good. Lunch was usually a panino, with fresh bread and cheese or prosciutto. There was often an afternoon coffee break with more pastries. And then dinner was usually in a osteria (less fancy than a restaurant), to try the local specialty. Rome is famous for its pasta, and carbonara in particular, so we had excellent pasta there. Sorrento and the Amalfi coast are known for seafood - but we didn't really get to try any, mostly because we were eating at our hotel restaurant.  Capri is the home of the Caprese salad - but it's too early for tomatoes - so we had some not great caprese sandwiches, unfortunately.  Naples is known for creating pizza - and in particular making pizza that can be folded in fourths and carried as a street snack (which is ridiculous, of course). Unfortunately, that means that the pizza is purposefully soggy so that it can be folded up - so we weren't hugely impressed. The deserts were spectacular - gelato is always amazing, so we had some almost every night. We also picked up sfogliatella in Napoli - which is a lemon-filled pastry that's amazing. I also insisted on finding canoli - which were spectacular. Naples is also known for its street food - so there was a late night trip for a meatball sandwich - that turned out to be pretty amazing. All in all - pretty good - we all came back a few pounds heavier for sure and never once had to negotiate with the kiddo to eat his dinner.

a standard coffee and pastry breakfast at the espresso bar

pizza in Napoli

everyone loves gelato

evening cookie break

late night meatball sandwich "snack"

We again relied on Airbnb and Homeaway to rent apartments at each stop, and it generally worked out. In Rome, we had a small one-bedroom apartment with a fold-out couch in the living room that was in a very central location in the old part of town. In Sorrento, unfortunately the only apartment I could find that would have a separate bedroom for the kiddo was pretty far out of town, so it wasn't as easy to get around as I would've liked, but he had his own bedroom which was great. In Naples, we again were in a great location in the old part of town, and he had a foldout couch in a room to himself.

I feel like we're getting a little better at traveling with a toddler, but still making big mistakes. The food was an easy win for him - so that was nice. The problem was that Italians eat late, so most restaurants didn't even open until 8pm - long after he was already falling apart and needing to be in bed. Sights of course involve lots of walking - and can be crowded - so he needed to be carried a lot - which is back-breaking. We did try to schedule sights that he would enjoy - avoiding museums and churches and focusing on outside places where he could run around, and building in things he would like, like time to dig in the sand at the beach or a funicular ride to the top of the island. We also kept arriving to the morning sites later than planned, which delayed or skipped nap time almost every day- creating more problems. I can never seem to estimate correctly just how slowly we will move between places, so I always seem to get this wrong. I had also planned on the travel between locations occurring at naptime, but he was so excited by the travel that he didn't pass out until just before we would arrive - so that didn't work at all.

napping at the Sistine Chapel

napping on the boat

napping on the train

napping on the plane

Too Much Movement
So this trip ended up being 3 different stops over 6 days - so each hotel was just for 2 nights. Each travel day involved a train or boat and some cabs, and then each sightseeing day involved more cabs, trains, boats, and buses - so there was just a lot of transit. I think that was too much movement in the end. I seem to really struggle to find the right balance of squeezing in as much as possible, without making a trip feel like a death march. The travel days were hard, even though we weren't traveling very far, and everyone arrived in a bad mood. Dragging the rolling suitcases over cobblestone streets while dodging scooters was just awful - and should be avoided at all costs.  Maybe this trip was just slightly too much.

on a train

So - the movie. 

Conclusions and Next Trips
What I really struggled with in planning this trip was that there were so many things I wanted to see that were so close to each other - it felt like such a shame not to swing over to see something when you're so close. Rome is only an hour train from Naples, which is only an hour from Pompeii and Sorrento, which is less than an hour from Capri, Positano, and the rest of the Amalfi Coast. The issue is that I wasn't considering all the time it takes to get to the train or boat and back - turning an hour train into a three-hour trek - which is a lot when you're also schlepping bags and a boy. In the end - if there's too much of that stuff, it's the part that people remember, not the thing you wanted to see. I think next time I have to do a better job of just focusing on a few sites, with plans to come back in the future.

This was just meant to be a sampler tour of Italy - and I think it was successful at that. I still love Italy and wanted to introduce Spouso to it - and I think he generally was a fan too. We both were happy with the Rome part of the trip and would like to return again sometime to see more.  Sorrento was also really nice, so I would love to come back and explore more of the Amalfi coast sometime in the future, maybe when it's a bit warmer. I'm happy to have seen Pompeii, but probably wouldn't go back to Naples anytime soon, but happy to have checked it off my list.

Generally, I feel like we still haven't mastered traveling with a toddler yet. It was too much travel - probably staying only 2 nights in each hotels wasn't enough, so next time we should shoot for a minimum of 3 nights in each location. I probably also need to dial back the sightseeing - with just one plan for each day instead of both the AM and PM itinerary (that seems obvious now that I've typed it). We clearly need to try harder to make nap time happen, in a bed at the right time - instead of having him collapse in random places at the end of the day.  I'm also slowly learning the importance of getting a good place to stay - not only does he need his own room, but it needs to be very central to minimize travel as much as possible. We do already have our next trip booked - so I think I'll make an effort for it to be a bit more relaxed in general.

Friday, May 11, 2018

Sightseeing in London's South Bank

So for my next solo sightseeing trip - I decided to focus on the London neighborhood just south of the river, known as the South Bank. This is an extremely central location in town, so it's easy to get to - but there aren't nearly as many sites as north of the river. I decided to focus on 3: the Tate Modern Art Museum, Borough Market, and Shakespeare's Globe Theater. This could easily have been done in a single day, but I spread it out over two.

London's Southbank 

Tate Modern
The Tate Modern was one of the museums I took the kiddo to when we first started exploring the city because it's free. I believe we had a total of maybe 45 minutes to run around the exhibits before he crashed, so I wanted to come back by myself and spend more time. There's also currently a Picasso exhibit, so I definitely wanted to go back by myself. You don't need tickets to get into the museum in general, but you do need to buy tickets for special exhibits - and it's best to get them in advance.

the Tate Modern

So the Picasso exhibit was very cool. It was all about just one year of his life - 1932 - when he was extremely productive. He was beginning to embrace surrealism and the concept of images turning into other things if you look at it from a different perspective. It was a year where he produced a lot of paintings and sculptures of his mistress - a blonde woman with quite a nose - which I would think would've tipped off his wife. It was really interesting to see multiple works on a theme - an entire room full of dozens of similar pieces, as he worked out a concept.

a sculpture of the mistress

a series of 5 pictures of the same theme - the crucifixion

another of the mistress sleeping

one of the mistress reclining - inspired by a documentary of an octopus

I also breezed through the rest of the museum again - which was much more interesting because I could take the time to read the placards in each room explaining what was going on. I still don't get it mostly - but it was interesting to try to understand. 

a huge work made by squeegeing the paint off- letting it dry - and then painting over it again

Monet's waterlilies 

a whole room installation - something about apartheid. definitely didn't get this one. 

All in all - I don't think modern art makes a whole lot of sense to me - but it was a nice stop. I'm definitely glad i went back by myself - this is a good museum to be able to explore at your own pace, slowing down to see the things that are interesting and freely skipping over the stuff that seems just weird.

Borough Market
Next up, a short walk over to Borough Market for lunch. The market is a great mix of permanent market stands selling fabulous cheese, wine, produce, etc - (normal market fare) - and of more temporary street vendors. Where the market stands are, it's lovely and packed full of tourists also trying to take pictures of food. The street vendors are where the locals go, and it's especially packed around lunch when a number of the local big office buildings pour over. It's a great place to grab a bite and also just wander around for a bit.


Shakespeare's Globe Theatre
After lunch, it was a quick walk along the river to the Globe. I booked tickets just the night before to see Hamlet on a midweek, matinee show. I still had pretty terrible seats - on the way top, far to the side, with a column blocking my view. Still - I was really glad I had a seat, since the large throng of people in the standing area below were clearly miserable. It's a long time to have to stand (several people fainted during the show), and it's also exposed, so when it started raining - they all just got soaked. Even in a seat, it's not a comfortable affair. Because the roof is open - the whole theatre is open to the elements. So on a cold, windy day, everyone was freezing. Also - just a note - the chairs are just shallow wooden benches, no backs, so I would recommend anyone who wants to come to rent one of the cushions. With all that in mind - it still was pretty amazing. I made it through the first half of Hamlet and then snuck out. I would love to go back and see something else, now that I'm better prepared.

hard benches for seats

very excited! 

Walking on the River
Almost a site in and of itself - the walk along the south bank of the river is pretty cool. It's covered in street performers, musicians, poets for hire, and almost always a bubble guy - driving kids crazy.

a bubble guy

Other Sites in the Area
So there are a couple other sites in this neighborhood that I skipped. The London Eye is the massive ferris wheel that was built for the millennium and is still around. I thought about going up - but just getting close to it is a tourist madhouse - so I quickly ran off. In the same area are a bunch of hokey tourist traps like the Shrek Experience and the Clink/London Dungeon museum. They look awful to me so I haven't been to them and can't say much about them.

All in all - this is nice part of town and I'm glad I stopped by. After seeing lots of museums, getting to sit in the theatre or sample lovely things at the market is a nice break. If I had booked better seats at the Globe (earlier in advance) and gotten warmer weather, this would've been a perfect expedition. Next up - we have another international trip, and then I have a few more solo London trips in mind.