Big Announcement Fri-Yay!

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I haven’t been very active on this page lately, and that’s because I’ve been working on something big!

I’m transferring all of my travel-related blog posts (as well as my new ones), to my new business’ website, Your Well-Traveled Friend!  We officially opened shop a few months ago, and I just made my first NEW blog posting there, about my latest adventure in Croatia.

I haven’t decided the fate of Amanda’s Abroad, especially as we look to move back to the US in the next few months.  Perhaps I will keep it for more personal posts.  Is anyone listening, anyway?

Please let me know your feedback, and otherwise I do hope you’ll join me over at

Your Well-Traveled Friend

-Amanda

Oh, the Places I’ve Missed (Writing About): Part 2

The continuation of my 2015 travel round up.  To start with Part 1 of this series, go here.

Brugge, Belgium

I’m not a big fan of Brussels.  I didn’t get to spend a lot of time there when I visited years ago,  but from a jaunting tourist’s perspective, the city didn’t give me much that any other area of Belgium couldn’t.  My version of seeing that city was chasing photos with three peeing statues (Manneken, Jeanneke, and Zinneke) after having the requisite chocolate, waffles, and moules frites.

So, when friends were visiting us in the spring and wanted to check out other areas within driving distance of Amsterdam, we suggested Brugge as a good way to experience Belgium.  We hadn’t been, and although warned it was overwhelmingly touristy, we had heard it was beautiful and a generally better place to tick off all of the requisite culinary Belgian delights.

The city was exactly as expected–full of older-skewing, very large tourist groups following the colorful umbrella raised in their tour guides’ hands.  However, it was still very pretty and deserving of its rising status in the mainstream track of places to visit.  We didn’t do much; just took a lovely canal boat ride, strolled around the streets and parks, ate, and drank with friends in the sun.  I’m probably partial to our time in Brugge because of the surreal moments of getting to travel with my best friends and also run into others while in town 🙂

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New York City in Brugge!


Milan, Italy

Milan was hosting the 2015 World Expo, so for that reason we chose the city as the place to visit for my birthday weekend, and also so Uri could reminisce about his last World Expo experience of Brisbane ‘88. 😉

The Expo experience was marred by its crowds.  The entry limit was non-existent, and the day’s tickets were disgracefully oversold.  Arriving well before the doors opened, we still waited hours to enter, an hour to see the first welcome exhibit, and then by that time each country’s exhibit hall waiting line was a two hour minimum.  We ended up standing in line for the Chile exhibit for 2.5 hours, only to see a 5 minute video and walk through a quick hall about the country.  After standing in lines for the bathrooms and for a bottle of water,  the day was almost over, and we were exhausted by standing in lines in the heat.  We were able to enjoy a few alternate areas where we could find shorter lines and some food (Mediterranean pavilion!), but overall it was impossible to get anything out of the experience outside of frustration.

A standout in Milan was seeing the Last Supper fresco mural at the Museo del Cenacolo Vinciano. No photos are allowed inside, and viewing tickets must be bought in advance.  This actually made the experience quite organized and peaceful.  Only 30 of us or so were allowed into the 1-room hall where da Vinci’s Last Supper painting stood.  You could really focus for that 30 minutes on your guidebook, or the placards, or just stare up at the painting before you that is so well-known. Before entering, you can also learn about the damage and restorations to the mural throughout history.

While in Milan we also enjoyed the classic gothic Duomo di Milano, the Sforza Castle, and a pretty awesome art exhibition at the Triennale Design Museum called “Kitchen and Invaders.”

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Berlin, Germany

We decided to visit Berlin during Christmas Market time.  We had a lot to cover in a long weekend–Christmassy stuff, history, culture, and seeing some of Uri’s friends and extended family.  We sort of knew that the best part of Berlin–just hanging out and absorbing the goings-on–would not really be done well my first time around.

We spent the first half of our four day trip in Mitte, or the central area, so we could have access to all of the key historic sites.  I started off taking a five mile running tour of Mitte’s major sites–Brandenburg Gate, the Reichstag, Museum Island, the Berlin Wall.  My running guide, Beate, refreshed my memory on the rich history of Berlin from World War II to the Cold War.  It fascinated me. I wished 100 times that my dad was around so I could talk to him at length about it all.  My first impression of Berlin’s center is that it was much more modernized than I envisioned.  I guess I had pictured more of a Munich, with quaint colored buildings and more cobblestone and walkable alleys, but the center is essentially completely modernized and felt more like New York City’s Museum Mile and Fifth Avenue.

After getting familiar with my surroundings, I ventured back out for an audio walking tour I downloaded, that took me back more thoroughly to the famous sites, plus the sobering Memorial for Murdered Jews, the Hotel Adlon (where Michael Jackson famously hung Blanket out the window), and down the Unter den Linden.  One standout tidbit I learned was how, when East and West Germany were divided, that the West U-Bahn trains would pass through East Berlin stations, which were closed down and henceforth came to be “ghost” stations.

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Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe


After getting the historic basics under my belt, we went a bit deeper by touring the Topography of Terror (a well-done, if just a bit long, pictorial museum outlining the rise and fall of the Nazis), the East Side Gallery, and the Berlin Wall Memorial. We also took a tour in the parliament’s Reichstag building, and got a closer look inside that architecturally significant dome.

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East Side Gallery



We also experienced Christmastime in Berlin.  We discovered two markets — the overcrowded and fancy Gendarmenmarkt and a much more enjoyable one by the Rotes Rathaus (Red Town Hall). The markets were comparable to the Prague markets we visited last year, but I’d take the Prague ones over Berlin, for the thinner crowds and the delicious Prague ham-on-a-spit.

Finally, in the last half of our trip, we got to know some boroughs a bit better, staying with Uri’s cousins in Schöneberg, visiting friends in Prenzlauer Berg, and seeing the memorial Stolperstein plaques of Uri’s family members. We also spend an evening in Kreuzberg.  As a former New Yorker, I have an appreciation for Brookyn and the value of its now-mainstream hipster Williamsburg, and its constant rotation of up-and-coming periphery neighborhoods that are still raw, sorting themselves out, and influenced by artists, graffiti, diversity, and so on.  In other words, I get it.  But I didn’t really get Kreuzberg.  I felt extremely unsafe in areas, and it was later validated to us by locals that there are areas that are fine but still some areas you simply do not go to.  It did get better for us, though.  We started off unknowingly on the more sketchy side, and once we righted ourselves it was more enjoyable.  The jury is still out for me on this famously trendy area.  It has a lot to live up to for everything I’ve heard about it… but I’m willing to give it another chance on another trip.

So, that takes me to the end of the 2015 End of Year Round Up… a little late now that its February and I’m already on my next trip. Speaking of which: Coming soon! The story of our Amsterdam-to-Austria road trip through Germany!

Oh, the Places I’ve Missed (Writing About)

We’re approaching the end of the year, and as one often does at this time, I want to reflect backwards and evaluate how I’ve moved forward.  I’ve certainly posted enough lately about personal changes and growth, so I want to focus a bit more on the living-abroad side of my experiences.  After all, the end of my second year in Amsterdam is in February, and living in Europe for two years is quite an accomplishment in itself.

The first part of looking back is about places I’ve been, particularly those I didn’t write about.  I realize that of the 17 trips I took in 2015 (18, if we count next week’s trip back for Christmas), I wrote about only two (Norway, and my Italian Heritage Trip).  Bear with me, so I can reflect on the changes that have taken place even in travel patterns.  This is not to boast.  Mostly it has been quite exhausting and it has helped me realize that bouncing around from place to place wanderlustfully is great, but also having a sense of home and order (as I get older? as I realize the relative importance of things when losing loved ones?) also has a valued place in my life.

Of the 17 trips, let’s take away the 4 times (5, if we count next week’s trip) that I went back home to the US for planned visits and unplanned funerals, support for family, and support for myself. That leaves 13. Repeat visits to the Lorraine region of France, twice back again to Paris, once again to Barcelona, once again to London, and once again to Chamonix. And two trips about which I’ve already written.

So… 6 new places: The Italian Dolomites/ Venice, Stockholm, Brugge, Milan, and Berlin.  I’ll touch on each of these in a series of postings and then come back for a final posting on some cultural observations from my second year living among the Dutch.

The Italian Dolomites (Cortina D’Ampezzo) and Venice

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In January, Uri and I took a week for what you do in Europe in the winter — a snow holiday.  We originally booked so Uri could get a taste for his love of snowboarding, but as he then also booked a trip with people more apt to snowboard than me, we then planned to indulge in lots of different winter activities instead, and the snowboard stayed at home.  We chose the Italian Dolomites mainly because it was less expensive than the ritzier large locations in France and Switzerland.  We chose Cortina D’Ampezzo for its size, access to Venice, number of bunny slopes for me, and non-ski/snowboard related activities available.

First things first, Uri proposed to me on our first night in Cortina. 🙂 Resolute on avoiding a proposal in Venice (how overdone!), he popped the question on our first night, so we could have a full week of enjoying our “fidanzanmento!” in Italy.  We drank many Aperol Spritz’ in celebration.

This trip was almost a year ago, and there are a few things that stand out in my memory outside of our engagement. First, eating canaderli (also called Knodeln in German), which are dumplings made of bread chunks and ham, served in a soup broth or with butter and cheese. The area of Cortina, being so close to the German border, has many crossovers in Italian and German cultures, with canaderli being one of the culinary similarities. My second clear memory is of how much I love the mountains and their views, fresh air, and ability to give perspective, despite my aversion to downhill skiing and to being out in the damp cold for hours a day, and days at a time.  Third, how much I love Italian food (PIZZA!  PASTA! BREAD! CHEESE! WINE!) but how after a week of it at three meals a day, you just would die for clean cooked chicken, or fresh veggies not soaked in oil.  I’m sure my ancestors are turning in their graves, but I remember one night of deciding to go to a fruit stand and eat two bananas for dinner, after a huge pizza lunch and previous days of carbs left me begging for anything I could find otherwise. And there was another night with me requesting plain chicken and a side of whatever the shop had that was green in the kitchen.

Cortina was also a week of experimenting with new sporty activities.  In addition to Uri taking one day to downhill ski with me (instead of his usual requisite snowboarding), we tried alpine/ cross country skiing for the first time, which for us, was swishing our legs back and forth in a preset track with absolutely no control over our speed or direction. Despite our “noviceness”, we had a blast and look forward to trying it again in a few months.  We also went snowshoeing, which must now be my favorite snow-related activity.  I’ve found I just do not get a thrill from careening downhill on skis, nor do I enjoy high speeds, having a fear of falling, or actually falling.  Snowshoeing for me was fantastic, because I was up in the mountain for a long time, enjoying gorgeous views that are really missed in those few moments you get off the ski lift before you head down the mountain. We walked high-kneed over and through the mountain with our guide, and he even brought us to an old bunker that was previously used in fighting the Austrians on the other side of the Dolomites during WWI.  Truly riveting!

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After five days in Cortina, we took the bus back to Venice and spent two days exploring the city. Not surprisingly, Venice was overwhelmingly touristy (gahhhhh the selfie sticks!), but we had some really good meals there (particularly, I had the best Pasta Fagioli I’ve ever had in my life at a place called Osteria Ae Cravate). We walked the old Jewish Ghetto, drank bombardinos and prosecco (Venuto is the home of prosecco!), and reached our breaking point for mass tourism on the island of Murano and its blown-glass sculptures.  Venice was undeniably beautiful, but perhaps its touristic hysteria and hyperbolized greatness left us feeling a bit underwhelmed overall.  It’s a wonderful city to visit, and I’m glad I saw the blue canals in person, but given the opportunity to go back again, I would probably pass.

Stockholm

In February, Uri had a work trip in Stockholm so I tagged along and we stayed the weekend.  Even though we visited in the dreary winter, I LOVED Stockholm.  It is such a livable city with a great combination of charm and modern living, with trendy and artsy-bohemian areas, without being too gritty.  There is a livable combination of Swedish and English infused in the city, and people are notably friendly and welcoming.  That said, I may have formed my bias solely from my experience at one fantastic restaurant we fell upon for brunch.  Again, without hyperbole, I had one of the best sandwiches of my life at Nybrogatan 38.

Another standout during our short time in Stockholm was the Vasa Museum. In the 1600’s, a ship experienced the biggest fail possible by sinking in her maiden voyage only after traveling 1300m in the Stockholm Harbor.  It was salvaged in 1961 as one of the best preserved and historically important shipwrecks ever. The museum, in my opinion, is a must-see.

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Traveling in winter in Europe outside of Christmas market season can be a bit discouraging.  Days are extremely short, sometimes with sun setting as early as 3:30, and sometimes it seems the sun never really rises at all. At least in the north, what makes the best of cities is often lost in the rainy dreariness.  The best things a traveler can do, I think we did well, and that is to be one with the snow and to eat good food.

 

Up next: Brugge, Milan, and Berlin.

Little Italy’s Heritage Trip- Part 3 — Capri, Sorrento, Positano, Naples

Little Italy’s Heritage Trip- Part 3 — Capri, Sorrento, Positano, Naples

Little Italy’s Heritage Trip- Part 3 — Capri, Sorrento, Positano, Naples

The third and final part of the trip took us to southern Italy to the Campania region, encompassing our visits to Capri, Sorrento, Positano, and Naples. You can also read Part 1 and Part 2 of our trip if you haven’t yet.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015 (Continued)

Following our time in Rome, we arrived at the Naples Termini station via the Italo train.  We were forewarned about this train station so, as in any larger city in Italy, we held our bags close and were smart enough to ignore any gypsies asking to “help” us with directions. By the way, these gypsies often appear like like regular teenagers. They weren’t old stooped ladies swathed in clothes and head scarves (although we saw them, too).  My advice is just to say “no” if someone approaches to help you in any major train station in Italy.

We had the expected Neapolitan ado at the taxi stand, including two drivers literally fighting over our fare by pulling on my suitcase between them and yelling at each other heatedly in Italian. One driver eventually won and we were off on our death-defying ride to the marina where we would catch our ferry to Capri.  Everything you hear about these rides is true and possibly even more so. Every move was at full throttle and every brake was at the last moment. We cut off and were cut off by Vespa drivers, and we missed pedestrians, scooters, and other cars by mere millimeters. We did, however, arrive on time at the marina for our 50 minute ferry ride to Capri.

Overall, Capri was kind of a disappointment for me. There’s a tradeoff when coming to areas like this in Italy or many places in Europe: tourists. Now, I know I’m a tourist as well, and I’m sure we all think the same thing–that we aren’t THOSE people– but I know I’m not THOSE people. THOSE people come in all sorts. These particular “those people” in Capri ranged in age from late 40’s to late 60’s, dawned their best white and pastel summering prep gear, traveled in large packs, and sought to holiday with groups of people just like themselves. They seem to travel all the way to Capri to shop in the same luxury brand stores that they shop in at home. They want food from their home country, delivered to them by wait staff who understand their English. Capri is built to cater to those people so we were definitely out of our element.

Capri Town is set up so that you have two major places to stay- at the marina level (where we chose for easy-on and -off the island) and on the cliff level, accessed by bus, taxi, funicular, or long uphill walk. Our little hotel– Belvedere & Tre Re– was modestly accommodated, but the bed was comfy, the host was so helpful and sweet, and the view off our balcony was unbeatable. We spent our evening up on the cliff town amongst the throngs of older rich people in their shoulder-tied sweaters. After taking the funicular to the top, we did find a nice oasis of a  restaurant called Pulia (at the top of the clock tower right at the funicular) and had a lovely, albeit slightly overpriced meal. It was overpriced by European standards but no doubt a steal in Capri. We took the long stairwell climb back down to the marina at the end of the evening.

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Thursday, May 21, 2015

We woke up on Thursday to rain and choppy waters which caused a cancellation of our private  boat tour around the island, including a visit to the Blue Grotto (waaah!).  Instead we shared a taxi with two other nice couples up to Anacapri, the other town on the island. Anacapri is slightly less annoying than Capri town, but not by much. There is not much we discovered to do there except to shop, window shop, and eat overpriced low quality food. At least the tourist shops here were selling the Italian tourist ware of the area– dishes and kitchen items decorated with lemons– and other porcelain house items, old people’s clothes of flowing linen (not hating… I would have bought some if it wasn’t made in one size fits most…not me). After a few hours, we grabbed our bags from our hotel and jumped on our ferry to Sorrento, which is about a 30 minute ride from Capri.

At the Sorrento marina we grabbed a taxi to drive us up the cliff. We stayed at a Bed & Breakfast located halfway between Sorrento and neighboring Sant’Agnello. Sorrento is a very convenient town to stay in as a base for the area. It has easy access to all of the major sites, and while all these towns are touristy, there is still a heavy local flavor, especially if you stay closer to Sant’Agnello.

During our first afternoon we had lunch at a great pizza place in Sant’Agnello called “Il Buon Boccone” and befriended the local owner named Franco. We laughed about our matching hats and enjoyed the low key environment that felt miles away from the tourism of Capri.  That evening we stayed in the area had dinner at Ristorante Moonlight. This place was a nice palate cleanser from all of the pizza and pasta we had been having all week. We actually had fresh avocado along with the requisite pasta primi and I also had a great veal filet for the secondi. The restaurant also had an adorable cat named Nono that was so precious… She stole many bunts and pets from me throughout the meal.

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Friday, May 22, 2015

On Friday morning, we were off to Pompeii by way of the Circumvesuvia local train, which is about a 30 minute ride from the Sant’Agnello train station. Pompeii is a place that has been on my unofficial bucket list for years. I’ve always been interested in the wonder of the occurrences there in 79AD, when Mount Vesuvius exploded sending plumes of smoke and ash for days over Pompeii and neighboring towns. There were actually subsequent explosions over a matter of days and the result was a town and its people buried in ash. Disappointingly, my most anticipated sighting– the plaster casts of the actual bodies caught unawares and then frozen in time– were nowhere to be found. Apparently they were being restored. That said, the site was still a highlight of the trip to see after years and years of anticipation.

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After the morning in Pompeii, we returned to Sorrento and took the local bus–Sita– from Sorrento station to Positano. It was just under an hour ride and it took us through neighboring towns and along the infamous cliffside roads. I was prepared for a terrifying trip but it was actually not frightening at all. We sat on the side of the bus opposite the driver, so we could look straight down the cliffside into oblivion during our trip. It was a gorgeous ride and quite enjoyable. Sure there were some questionable turns, but the more frightening was fear of our running over a scooter than anything else…

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Positano is a beautiful town–another trip highlight just to see it.  Sure it’s full of tourists, but it carried with it a charm as well that prevented the stripping of its authenticity. It’s a famously vertically set town, where each store and hotel is tucked along the switchbacked and stairwelled walkways. In most cases, your only choices are to go up or down. Arriving too late for lunch and too early for dinner, we ducked into a pizzeria just as the rain began to pour down. After it passed, we window browsed a bit, and then we headed back to Sorrento.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

On our final full day of our holiday, which was also Uri’s birthday, the morning rain prevented us from visiting Amalfi as was our plan. Plan B was a train trip to Naples (via the same Circumvesuvia train) which took over an hour. We found our way in Naples to the Museo Archaelogico Nazionale, in hopes to discover more Pompeiian treats. With all due respect to anyone with love for Naples, it was not for me. Of all the cities of the world I’ve ever visited, it was the dirtiest, smelliest, and least charming place. Even the museum was tired and rundown.. It seemed an afterthought, which is surprising considering its nationally-renowned status. We did at least find the “Secret Room” at the museum which housed various ancient erotic paintings and sculptures– many of which were discovered at Pompeii. The exaggerated size and nature of the penises was pretty hilarious.

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Our final event in Naples was to sample the authentic Neapolitan pizza. Armed with an article touting the 10 best pizzas in Naples, we found one and were nothing but disappointed. Maybe we got a bad pizza, but it was undercooked, runny, full of overly sweet sauce, and generally untasty. I’m glad we had the experience, but I’ll take Lombardi’s in NYC anyday instead!

We couldn’t leave Naples fast enough, and landed back in Sorrento at the waterfront, watching British weddings while having a drink. For dinner that evening, we had the most amazing meal at a steak Restaurant called Il Marzialino. We shared a great bottle of wine and a buffalo mozzerella and proscuitto appetizer, and we each had a delicious main course — a cheeseburger to DIE for, and a short loin filet that was perfectly cooked to melt in your mouth.

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Southern Coast Travel Tips:

—  Buy Italo train tickets in advance of your trip from Rome to Naples

— You can buy ferry tickets (to Sorrento, Capri, and lots of other ports in the area) right at the ferry terminals but it helps to know the ferry company you are going for in advance as it’s not easily laid out to understand

— Use Sorrento as a base for visiting Positano, Amalfi, Capri, or Pompeii/ Vesuvius, if you don’t want to sleep over in those towns and you want to see lots of things. It was such an easy and central jumping off point for us

Trip Highlights

And with that, our Italy trip was over.  Across the entirety of the trip (from Abruzzo to Rome to the Southern Coast), here were the highlights for me:

— The Abruzzo region in its entirety. We will be back for sure to discover much more and revisit our friends again at La Grande Quercia B&B. We still need to see the beaches and the wineries, and to of course revisit my newfound family members!

— Villa d’Este in Tivoli. This was more impressive to me than Versailles in Paris, especially given the comparison that Versailles is world-renowned and I had never previously heard of Villa d’Este.

— Roman Forum, the understated but much more impressive sister site to the Coliseum

— The Sistene Chapel and all of its 3D grandeur and beauty. The chapel alone is worth the ticket to the entire Vatican Museum

— Positano’s views, charm, and cliffside drive. I wouldn’t necessarily stay in that city overnight for fear of straining myself carrying bags up and down the hills, but given the chance I would visit again and stay longer

— Our meal at Il Marzialino. If ever in Sorrento again, I will be back for that cheeseburger.