Category Archives: Italy

On my 1,000th Geocache

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A little over four years ago, while killing time before class in my M.Sc. days in Cleveland, I was looking around for new apps for my iPhone and remembered a thing I’d heard about called geocaching.  It was the idea that a person would hide a box somewhere (the geocache) and upload the GPS coordinates to the Internet, and then other people would find them in a bit of a scavenger hunt.  It was an idea that I found interesting when I first heard of it in college, but a GPS was too pricey for me as a student (and I had no car, making me a lot less mobile) so I promptly forgot about it.  But a search that day revealed that in the smartphone era one could go geocaching via a smartphone’s GPS, and there was even a free app, and hey there are a lot of these things around Cleveland!

I promptly went out that weekend to start finding a few of these things and the rest is history, as it turns out geocaching is a great thing to do when searching for an adventure.  The thrill of the hunt aside (and occasional swag to trade), they tend to be hidden in interesting locations that someone wants to bring you to, so a little research before traveling to an area on popular geocaches there rarely disappoints.  So far geocaching has taken me to extraordinary viewpoints from Italy to Tanzania…


Re Teodorico, Verona and NgoroNgoro- A Big African Caldera Continue reading

Photo: Gelato on the Spanish Steps, Rome

spanish-steps-romeSomewhere back in March or April when I was dreary and depressed that Dutch winter refused to release its hold on the country I bought a cheap weekend ticket to Rome in June, on the grounds that even if the weather not better I at least had a weekend of warmth and sunshine to look forward to.  And I’m pleased to report that the plan worked perfectly- the sun was hot, the food delicious, and I got to break out my summer dresses for the first time this year!

It’s really hard to describe time in Rome without falling into a corny saying, but anyway, when in Rome one thing that is fairly mandatory is gelato on the Spanish Steps.  Sure there are probably a hundred tourists for every local, but the people watching is fantastic!  My favorites, for the record, were all the peddlers selling knockoff illegal designer handbags and the like: if you stand at the top of the steps every once in awhile you’d see them scramble up their wares in an instant and run up the steps (making you realize why the handbags are always displayed on a sheet- easy to grab and run!), leaving you to wonder why until you saw policemen walking up.  All the peddlers would then wait a reasonable distance away with one keeping watch, and when the policemen left they’d all trot back to resume their sales.  For some reason this was rather entertaining to watch, and the one time I saw the police actually catch someone who was too slow they just had a conversation and let the guy go.

Clearly, they were already familiar with each other…


Mantua, Italy- A City with No Tourists

Like in any sport or hobby you play against yourself, after a certain point a person engaged in it begins to seek handicaps in order to keep the game interesting.  For most travelers that involves going to adventurous and far-flung locations (“you mean you’ve never been skydiving in South Sudan?!”), but when you’re in a place like Italy where one often sees more tourists than locals it can be a little difficult to get off the beaten path and keep things interesting.

All in all, my solution to this was to head to Verona, already a less-touristy sort of town, and head to Mantua (Mantova) for a day trip for no real reason except the B&B owner where I was staying suggested I should.  I didn’t know a thing about Mantua except that it was where Romeo gets banish-ed to (written like that because I’ve never seen a Romeo & Juliet production where it’s not pronounced like that), and that it was a 40 minute train ride from Verona.  No map either- I just started heading towards the interesting-looking spires one could see from the train station, and when I arrived was pleasantly surprised.  Mantua is gorgeous! Continue reading

In Fair Verona, Where We Lay Our Scene

Earlier this month I happened to spot and snag cheap budget ticket for a long weekend in Verona.  I’d never been to Verona before, but love Italy and knew it would be warmer there than Amsterdam, and honestly I’ve been to stranger places for less reason so why not go?

Anyway, it turns out if you’re interested in spending a nice weekend somewhere you will be hard-pressed to beat Verona-

Continue reading

Photo: The Coolest Street Act Ever

I was in Italy for a long weekend this past weekend, but until I get around to the lovely pictures of architecture and what not I thought I’d post a photo of a super neat street act I spotted in Verona.  Now over the years I’ve seen a lot of acts to the point where yet another Darth Vader or street statue doesn’t get a second glance, but I loved this one as I’d never seen anything like it.  Took a few minutes to work out the trick too- I’ll put the answer under the fold for those who want to figure it out on their own… Continue reading

Photo: View from Capri

Taken March 2009

Because it is snowy and ugly outside right now and pictures like this make me feel a lot better.

Photo: Capri, Italy

Taken March 2009

This helpful advice is brought to you by the port authority on the island of Capri in Italy, proving that Engrish is not an exclusively Asian commodity.  Though I won’t make much fun of them because c’mon, it’s sensible advice!

Summary of Italy

Italy is the first country on my travels where I genuinely felt like I could happily settle and live a few very happy years.  Before someone jumps ahead of me this isn’t to say it’s my favorite- I don’t have a favorite, and while I’m very found of Laos for example I couldn’t live there a long stretch- but rather everything was pretty, my personal philosophy meshes well with an Italian lifestyle, and I was pretty good at Italian considering I’d never specifically studied it.


– To elaborate on the last point, I got to the point where I could order food and ask for directions in Italian.  It should be noted, however, that asking directions isn’t the difficult part so much as understanding the answer you’re given.


– Aniko and Massimo’s kind hospitality to me while staying with them in Urbino.  Koszi megegyszer!


– Due to the fact that I liked everywhere I went it seems silly to just list all the locations I visited, but the favorites are between Capri and Florence.  If I didn’t promise my Hungarian grandmother I would visit her for Easter, there is a good chance I would still be sitting in Florence.

– Shout out to the two microstates I visited that are completely enclosed by Italian soil, San Marino and Vatican City!

– I loved having all the Roman history right there.  There is something about thinking of how you are walking where Caesar and Brutus and Marcus Aurelius and whoever else did thousands of years past that never completely leaves you.


– The food- Italy was, after all, the  first country where I could happily eat pizza without missing out on the local fare!   And then the pasta, the cutlets, the house wine, and desert at the end.   Particularly the gelato such as the type pictured above.   It was a tough job thoroughly investigating that facet of culinary culture, but someone has to do it.

– As a final point I want a Vespa, followed second by a three wheeled car and third by one of those smaller than a Smartcar cars.   Does anyone know of a good place to pick one up in the USA?


– Dear Europeans, you do not need to always drink bottled water!  It’s usually 4 Euro for bottled water in a restaurant, and they never have tap water available.  And it’s not like the water is bad or anything- in Rome the water is from a spring, and is freely available in the streets- but rather everyone is snobbish about this point.  Why you want to spend nearly six bucks to cart water hundreds of miles and generate plastic waste after is just beyond my comprehension.


– It sounds weird to complain about tourists as a tourist, but my goodness there are a lot of people here.  I don’t think I’d want to come in the summer… The picture above is from Pisa, one of the worst tourist spots around its famous tower.  Second  only to getting into the Uffizi museum in Florence, where you stand in line for several hours if you don’t have a prior reservation.

– It snowed when I first showed up in Italy.   What?  To be fair, it got nice and skirt-weathery afterwards.


The first sign that Milan is not quite like other places in Italy is that only Eurostar, the most posh and expensive type of train, goes there, and even second class is filled with businessmen a hell of a lot better dressed than I am (as opposed to  the rest of Italy, where everyone is just a lot better dressed).   The city itself is also twice as expensive as anywhere else in Italy as the business capital of the nation, which is why I only spent a day there before catching a budget flight.


When looking for a hotel to stay at near the train station (there is no such thing as a hostel in ritzy Milan) my eye caught this place and immediately knew I needed to stay here.  If you don’t know why a place called the Hotel Monopole receives such a distinction, then you are obviously not geeky enough.


The number one tourist attraction in Milan is the magnificent cathedral- I’ve seen more cathedrals in the past few weeks than most people do in a lifetime, but I still liked this one!   Just the outside alone was great, here is a close-up of the spires-image5391

The inside was worth a look as well, and frankly felt like a forest of stone columns was growing in there-image537

You can also  go down below the cathedral to view the tombs of various saints, including what are claimed to be their remaining body parts if you’re into that kind of voyeurism.   After I was done with that, though, it was time for a bit of walking about in the bright sunshine.image540

A typical view on Via Dante, one of the main shopping streets in Milan.   I could so happily spend the rest of my trip budget while in Italy on all the lovely clothes I see, until I remember I don’t have anyplace to wear them when I get back  home. (Too much distraction in a physics department; I’m not sure how Lisa Randall does it.)image541And because it was too nice a day to do much else I ended up getting a nice gelato (dark chocolate, mango, and tiramisu) and wandering through one of Milan’s parks to eat it.  Because if you’re lucky enough to spend a lovely spring afternoon walking in Milan eating a gelato, you’re lucky enough.

After cursory inspection, I’ve decided Milan is the sort of city that would probably be nice to live in if you were to stick around long enough to get under its skin.  Provided you had a nice job that brought in twice as many Euros as working elsewhere in the country, of course, as you’d be declaring bankruptcy pretty quickly if  you didn’t.

Pisa, with an inclined tower

I’ve had a few people tell me that going to Pisa isn’t quite worth it because all it is is a leaning tower.  Which seems a little silly to me- how many leaning towers have you ever seen in your life anyway?


To be fair, yeah, it’s a  little touristy and I doubt Pisa would get half as many visitors if they didn’t have such a famous landmark.   The church behind the tower is quite nice though, for which the leaning tower is the bell tower-


There is also a baptistery on the other side of the church which I stared at not quite believing my eyes, because it is leaning too! Is this the reward we give for bad engineering, that the town gets tourists flocking from all corners of the globe?  Great carrot and stick approach to get people to abide by building codes, people!


And because Mark Twain said it better than I ever could, the following quote is from The Innocents Abroad

The Baptistry, which is a few years older than the Leaning Tower, is a stately rotunda, of huge dimensions, and was a costly structure.  In it hangs the lamp whose measured swing suggested to Galileo the pendulum.  It looked an insignificant thing to have conferred upon the world of science and mechanics such a mighty extension of their dominions as it has.  Pondering, in its suggestive presence, I seemed to see a crazy universe of swinging disks, the toiling children of this sedate parent.  He appeared to have an intelligent expression about him of knowing that he was not a lamp at all; that he was a Pendulum; a pendulum disguised, for prodigious and inscrutable purposes of his own deep devising, and not a common pendulum either, but the old original patriarchal Pendulum- the Abraham Pendulum of the world.


Because there was little else to do in Pisa, I shelled out the 15 Euro to climb the tower.  I wouldn’t recommend it for people who are at all tall and/or claustrophobic though, because as you can see the steps are quite narrow… What is also interesting whilst climbing, of course, is how you can tell what side of the tower you are on based on what side of the steps you’re climbing on.  This is a bit interesting while climbing up but  a bit more unnerving while climbing down the stairs pitched forward- you can’t help but feel like you need to be careful lest you fall down…


Chilling at the top of the tower with Pisa in the background.  It was fun to walk around the top and entertain yourself with the jarring sight of having a building angled wrong when you looked down, but the effect for me was wrecked by a kid brought up by his parents who freaked out and began screaming.  And was promptly teased by his siblings and ignored by his parents, which exasperated the situation further.  Sigh…

image5101For fun, a view down towards the church with the waiting crowds and trinket stalls.  In this picture  I would bet that 50% are killing time until they can climb the tower as they only let people up every twenty minutes, 20% are taking “leaning against the tower” pictures like the one I have above, 20% are in some stage of purchasing an overpriced trinket, and 10% are pretending to check out the church with interest even though they really belong in the fiirst category.

And that is Pisa.  If it wasn’t really close to Florence it wouldn’t have been worth checking out, but if you’re in the area and have a spare afternoon it’s worth checking out.  My two cents on the matter anyway.