Thursday, May 26, 2016

Italy: Milan (+bonus)

On the way home Friday, we stopped in Milan for a quick lunch. 

The Milan Cathedral is gorgeous, but we didn't have time to tour the inside.
Milan is a fashion and design capital. Shops representing most of the Italian brands you'd recognize are contained inside the Galleria Vittorio Emmanuel II next to the cathedral. Versace, Prada, Louis Vuitton, Armani, Gucci, and the like are all lined up side-by-side in this covered shopping mall built in the 1800s.

not your average mall
Pete and the kids in front of Versace
True to fashion-capital form, we were even ushered out of the way for a photo shoot in progress...
bridal dresses perhaps?
the photographer mostly took photos of the trains against the lovely tile floors
We hunted down lunch, even though the gelato was tempting as always...
extra fancy
Although we originally headed for McDonalds rather than brace ourselves for a full European style event-meal, we ended up at a super cheap but yummy fast food pizza joint called Spontini.
standing room only inside the restaurant, so a windowsill will do
And with that, we were headed back toward Luxembourg.

A fun side-note before leaving Italy, though: Pete and Daphne were reading through the Percy Jackson book series before and during our trip. They read independently but check in with each other to discuss and keep on approximately the same pace. Apparently in one of the books, a character becomes addicted to an Italian snack food called Fonzies while the demigods are all in Italy, and even manages to pay road toll with them at one point. Pete stumbled across some in a grocery store and it immediately became our snack of choice for the road. They're basically a less orange, slightly more natural-tasting Cheeto.

On the way home, we stopped in Germany overnight under the guise of needing a break from driving, and then announced Saturday morning that we'd be spending the day Europa Park. This was actually our second attempt at surprising the kids with a trip to Europa Park (you can read about the first time here). This time went better, although they were still mostly just confused.

So here are a few photos quick of that to close out the post:

fittingly, we got the Italia car of the bobsled ride :)

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Italy: Cinque Terre

Hey, is that a little village on a cliff down there?
Why yes, yes it is!  Welcome to the Cinque Terre!
Pronounced "cheen-kwuh teh-reh" and meaning "five lands," the Cinque Terre is a series of five picturesque villages built directly into the steep rocky coastline. The area surrounding the villages is a national park. It's is one of those spots that Rick Steves--and apparently the equivalent travel guru from every other country--loves and made famous the world over, so it's pretty overrun with tourists. But as we were a short train ride away in Moneglia, we decided to spend one day exploring the area.

We rode to the nearby town of Levanto from Moneglia and then purhcased the Cinque Terre Family Card, which gives you unlimited access to all trains and trails in the region for the day.

Moneglia to Levanto, and then the Cinque Terre are Monterosso al Mare, Vernazza (not picutred), Corneglia, Manarola, and Riomaggiore.
A train ride from one end of the Cinque Terre to the other only takes about 15 minutes (mostly through tunnels inside the cliffs), with a stop in each town along the way, and there are hiking trails of varying difficulty between each village. Driving's a big no-no, so people end up doing some combination doing of walking and train-ing during their visit. Boats and apparently buses are also a possibility.

From Levanto, we took the Cinque Terre Express all the way to the farthest village, Riomaggiore, and figured we'd make our way back toward the other end by whatever method felt right at the moment.

As Pete always says, the best thing to do when you arrive in a town jam-packed with tourists is to immediately head up the nearest hill, path, steps, etc before claustrophobia/panic/indecision set in. Logic dictates that generally speaking, the higher you go, the more tourists are eliminated by the difficulty of doing so. So we walked up to an overlook in Riomaggiore straight away.

The main and easiest trail right along the coastline is the SVA (a.k.a the blue trail). This trail was damaged by storms and flooding back in 2011, and the two sections connecting Riomaggiore to Manarola to Corneglia have been mostly closed since then as far as I can tell.

closed SVA leading out of Riomaggiore
Anxious to make a little bit of progress right out of the gate, we took the train straight to the next village of Manarola.

Manarola.  Even going slightly up this road cleared us away from the throng.
From here we decided it was time to hike. We made a basic plan to head up the hill and over to the next village of Corneglia via the 506, 586, and 587 trails, bypassing the last closed section of the SVA. Then, once we got to Corneglia, we thought might try the open SVA trail to Vernazza if we were feeling up for it.
The red section of the SVA coastal trail is the closed part between Riomaggiore, Manarola, and Corneglia. Then it opens up and is shown in green from Corneglia to Vernazza, and continues into Monterosso. So we went up the hill on 506 from Manarola, northwest on the 586, and down to Cornelia on the 587.
here we go up 506

The trail got pretty tough for awhile - seemingly endless steps up a mountain. We were thankful to be hiking in the spring rather than the middle of summer.

Break time. But they did really well!
But soon the view starts getting amazing, and you wonder if maybe the SVA trail wouldn't be as cool anyway with its lower vantage point.
There was a little pit-stop town at the top of the hill called Volastra, where we refueled on focaccia and restocked on water, and continued on the 586.

continuing to Corneglia
Corneglia down on the cliff below

approaching Corneglia
lunch and well-deserved gelato in Corneglia
It took about 2 and a half hours or so to hike between Manarola and Corneglia. By the time we had a rest and some food, we felt ready to tackle the first open section of the SVA to Vernazza - the green section in the trail map above.

leaving Corneglia

This part of the trail was definitely easier and took us about an hour and a half.
approaching Vernazza
coming into Vernazza
By the time we reached the Vernazza train station we were pretty Cinque-Terrr-ed-out and decided we'd better head back to home base on the train. We skipped Monterosso altogether, since it seemed quite similar to Moneglia except more touristy. But I'm sure it's beautiful!

Although we didn't spend much time in the villages themselves except for snacks and a quick break, we were satisfied with our literal "overview" of the Cinque Terre.

One more Italy post coming up!

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Italy: Moneglia

Italy was on our short list of countries to visit before we move back to the US this summer. James has never been, and Daphne was only there in utero when Pete and I visited on a church choir trip in 2005. So for the week of mid-term/Pentecost school break in May, we drove down through France and Switzerland and all the way to the Italian coast near Genoa. 

Side note: to tell a friend or family member back in the US that you're driving to Italy for the week makes you feel a bit sheepish. It sounds exotic, fancy, indulgent, spoiled, bragging, etc. However, to tell a fellow Luxembourg resident also makes you feel a bit sheepish but for a completely different reason. You know they're thinking, "So you've been here four years and you're just now getting around to that, eh? Poor you!" Well, either way, and especially now that our time here is limited, rest assured we're not taking these privileges for granted! 

Anyway, our destination was the small town of Moneglia, only because we'd found an inexpensive Airbnb overlooking the Mediterranean Sea.

We absolutely loved the place we stayed, although the finding it for the first time in the dark proved difficult.  To get from one end of Moneglia to the other, you must navigate through a system of narrow, one-way tunnels (galleria) that are set on a traffic signal system that alternates several times an hour for each direction.

When will this one end? Are we driving fast enough to make it out in time??
Our turnoff was between two tunnels on the far end of town. This also meant that each time we wanted to walk into town or back to our place, we had to get the timing just right and then make a run for it. Technically you're not supposed to walk through these but people do it anyway.
made it!
But it was all worth it for the amazing spot!

we had the bottom floor of this villa, our host was upstairs

The view!
not bad for 80 Euros per night!

climbing the steps
one big storm came through, which was cool!

rocky area directly below apartment
Here are a few shots of the inside of the flat, stollen from the Airbnb page:

kids slept on the sofa bed

Moneglia itself was a great little village, separated away from the crazy tourist bustle of the famous Cinque Terre, which we visited later in the week (post forthcoming). I suppose the town proper is a bit boring, which fortunately is just right for us Ts. Best of all, there was a sandy and sheltered beach in town - quite rare along this rockier section of Italian coastline.

here you can see the beach from our hike on the opposite side of the bay from where we stayed
Daphne and Pete made it to to the top!
We spent most of our week at the apartment or at the beach, so here are a bunch more beachy photos!

The kids played in a mixture of Luxembourgish and American English, which I'm sure confused the heck out of the Germans, French, and Italians on the beach.
improvised volleyball net

And here are a few more non-beachy shots from around town:

Well, we give five stars to Moneglia, and bonus points for its general lack of other Americans or mass groups of tourists.  Maybe they all come in the summer and we just got lucky.