A Travellerspoint blog

January 2015

Circling the Adriatic Slovenia: Predjama and Piran



In the mid afternoon we arrived at Predjama Castle. When I had first started researching Slovenia, pictures of this castle came up frequently and I had marked it as a must see. Apparently, no one knows when the first structure was built in the Predjama cave but the current castle was constructed more than 400 years ago. The castle is kept in excellent condition and looks as though it is growing out of the mouth of the cave. The cave and huge cliff behind the castle provide for security against a sneak attack as well as a last resort of escape. We strapped the kids into the carriers and clambered up steep flights of stairs to the highest level of the castle, and into the cave behind it.
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After Predjama I briefly considered trying to get to the other major cave system, Skocjan, but we would have had a tough time making the 4PM tour and I didn't want to be late getting into our next accommodation so I nixed the idea. I had some regrets about it though, since the Skocjan caves seemed to be more impressive than Postojna in the pictures. I consoled myself by resolving to come back to Slovenia when the kids are older to do more cave explorations, hang out in Ljubljana, and discover other areas of Slovenia such as Lake Bled and Ptuj. Overall, my experience with Slovenia led me to conclude that it is one of the great undiscovered treasures of Europe (at least by Americans). Anyone looking for a vacation filled with beautiful countryside, caves, castles, postcard-perfect cities, and delicious food at half the cost of staying in Rome or Paris would do well to consider Slovenia. I would be thrilled to spend another three weeks in Vicenza, Padua, Venice, and Slovenia when my youngest kid is old enough to enjoy and remember the trip.

We returned to the Adriatic to explore the Istrian peninsula, which is mostly Croatian except for a little strip of Slovenia that separates Italy from Croatia and gives Slovenia a short coastline. At the westernmost part of this strip is a peninsula that looks like a hand giving a thumbs up. Piran is the thumb, and our Airbnb was close to the thumbnail. Outsiders' cars are only allowed inside the old town for 15 minutes to drop bags and passengers, but there's a large parking garage and a shuttle bus not far from the gate. I located our landmarks and met our host's Mom, who opened the apartment for us so I could drop off Mei Ling, the kids, and the bags. I rushed back to the car and barely made it out under the 15 minute wire. I parked and took the shuttle back into town. After unpacking and stretching our legs a little in the narrow pedestrian streets, we made a list of restaurant candidates and headed for the closest. We couldn't find the first, and the second had an unimpressive look and menu, so we ended up walking almost all the way back to the town gate to Pri Mari, the Lonely Planet's top choice. The inside was full, but there were tables in an adjacent breezeway that were comfortable and atmospheric. The food made us glad that we hadn't found an acceptable restaurant closer, as the seafood was outstanding and the truffles of high quality. It ended up being one of the ten best meals of our entire trip. On the way home, we stopped to admire the well-lit main square Tartinijev trg.
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The next day we visited the small town market to self-cater lunch, which we ate on the steps outside of the butcher shop.
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We made a valiant attempt to explore the old town with the gondola, but eventually the irregular ground and frequent staircases proved too much for us, so we followed a road back down to sea level.
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We spent another pleasant hour around Tartinijev trg and the harbor area before I collected the car and we embarked for Croatia, the fourth country of our trip.
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Posted by zzlangerhans 07:02 Archived in Slovenia Tagged castle piran predjama Comments (1)

Circling the Adriatic Slovenia: Postojna and Ljubljana

After crossing into Slovenia, we still had time to go to the Postojna cave before rolling into Ljubljana. I made sure the course was set in the Google Maps navigation while we were still in Italy because I wasn't sure how data roaming would work in Slovenia with my Italian SIM. It was a pleasant highway drive from Trieste, and I enjoyed the rolling green scenery and the anticipation of discovering a new European country for the first time since Portugal eight months previously (sorry, San Marino). When we arrived in Postojna we had to rush a little bit in order to make the last cave train of the afternoon.

That's right, cave train. The first part of the Postojna cave tour is on an open train that whizzes through the narrow passages at surprising speed. In my rush to reach the cave on time, I had forgotten the advice to wear warm clothing. Fortunately I was wearing jeans and long sleeves because of the cool weather outside and we had warm clothes and scarves for the kids. Only Mei Ling was exposed to the cold wind that blasted in our faces as the train roared down the tunnel, but her subarctic upbringing seemed to have immunized her to the chill.

Eventually we disembarked and reassembled the baby gondola. The pathways inside the cave were a little steep but negotiable, although I felt a little nervous on the downhills as I felt the gondola trying to follow the pull of gravity.
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I couldn't resist a photo of this natural formation.
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Once we left Postojna I couldn't navigate to our next accommodation because I didn't seem to have any data roaming. However I still had GPS and a crude Google map so I felt pretty comfortable I could make it to the city center. Getting back on the highway, there was a tollbooth but no gate and nowhere to pay. Instead there was a sign with a little highway logo and the word "Vignette". I slowed down entering the lane worried that I might be activating some kind of license plate camera but the girl in the booth vigorously waved me through. I saw more signs with those same logos on the highway, which made me wonder if I was going to find myself with some outrageous bill from the car rental company at the end of the trip.

Outside of Ljubljana, we reached the worst traffic jam we had encountered for the entire trip. Eventually traffic came to a complete standstill and people started to get out of their cars and walk around. Once again, we found ourselves calling an Airbnb host to tell her we'd be late. Half an hour later, I got out myself and started walking to the front of the jam. Just a hundred meters ahead, police had closed off the entire highway to clear an accident, although there only seemed to be debris in one lane. I don't know if they had just cleared the other two lanes or if they were too apathetic to care about the hundreds of cars trapped on the highway. Just a few minutes after that, the cars finally started to move and we made our way to central Ljubljana with a combination of the directions our host had given us and pure instinct. As I was driving slowly scanning our surroundings for a familiar word I saw an underground parking garage with the sign "Kongresni trg". We had reached our destination, Congress Square, without a single wrong turn since coming off the highway.

We'd finally learned from Venice that we didn't need to lug our big bag with us every time we checked in or out of an accommodation. All we had to do was make sure everything we needed for the next stop was in the two small rolling suitcases. Once we checked out and got back to the car, we'd transfer fresh clothes out of the big bag into a small suitcase and put dirty clothes in a plastic bag. I really wish we'd figured out that simple technique earlier. We emerged from the garage and found ourselves in a very pretty little park surrounded by ornate buildings. We quickly found our Airbnb host waiting for us and I took the opportunity to practice the few Slovenian phrases I had learned as she led us across a bridge and into the Old Town. We had previously enjoyed good success with our Airbnb locales but our apartment in Ljubljana was the best yet, in a beautiful building directly off the main pedestrian street Mestni trg. The apartment itself was comfortable and very spacious, although we had to walk up several flights of stairs. We dropped off our bags and took the recommendation of our host for a restaurant that specialized in game meat. The restaurant served venison and wild boar, but the preparation was uninspired.

I had practically fallen in love with Ljubljana from reading about it and looking at pictures before our trip. In the morning, I quickly realized that Ljubljana was everything I had imagined it to be. The old town is at the western edge of a large island created by a split in the River Ljubljanica. A street parallel to the river that changes names several times forms the heart of the old town. Stari trg becomes Mestni trg which becomes Ciril-Metodov trg and eventually Vodnikov trg. Trg means square in Slovenian but these are more like wide pedestrian streets lined with cafes and beautiful old buildings. On the eastern side of this curving street the ground rises steeply behind the buildings to form Castle Hill, which is topped by Ljubljana Castle. To the west of Mestni trg, several bridges cross the Ljubljanica to another busy pedestrian area on the western bank. Also here is Presernov trg, a true open square and a focal point of old Ljubljana. Slovenians love their beautiful river and it is lined with buildings and cafes, in sharp contrast to the rivers of Rome and Verona which seemed to be mostly ignored.
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At Vodnikov trg the farmer's market occupies a large square, with over a hundred stalls of fruits and other fresh produce. Berries are always a big hit with the kids. On the north side of the square were several food trucks, most of which seemed to be specializing in grilled and fried seafood. We got on line at the busiest truck and weren't disappointed. The feast of fish, shrimp, and squid was the best meal we had had in days. The Slovenian beer Lasko Zlatorog was also excellent. I made sure to get a picture of the can but I haven't been able to find the brew since I got back to the US.
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After lunch we made our way to the cable car that travels up Castle Hill to Ljubljana Castle. At the castle, I left Mei Ling and the babies to play in the grass while I climbed the tower for some aerial pictures of Ljubljana.
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We descended and crossed the Ljubljanica to Presernov trg. I got a Slovenian SIM and we did some shopping, and we explored the surrounding pedestrian streets.
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From here, it was just a short hop back to Kongresni trg. The park in the square was full of people bicycling, strolling, and lying out in the sun. In the background the castle on the hill resided like a friendly master of ceremonies over the festivities.
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We were on top of the parking garage at this point so we decided to take a road trip to Sneznik Castle in Cerknica instead of doing more walking in Ljubljana. Sneznik is the setting for the annual dormouse hunting contest and feast, which unfortunately had taken place just two days before our arrival. However, we were hopeful we would find someone there who could tell us where we could sample the rodent delicacy. Driving through the rolling green hills and bucolic towns of the Cerknica area was fun, and Snedzik Castle was pretty but deserted. We had arrived too late to take the last tour, and there wasn't anyone in sight to ask about dormice.
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I decided to look for a game restaurant that was highly recommended by the Lonely Planet, thinking we'd have a better chance of finding well-prepared meats there than in Ljubljana. Sadly, I once again fell prey to the error of inputting the name of the restaurant into Google Maps rather than the address. Forty-five minutes later on a dirt road in the middle of the forest, I knew I'd been had again. Despite the fact that my iPhone power was verging on the red zone, we renewed our efforts and eventually found the place deeply ensconced in a different part of the forest. Tragically, the parking area was empty and the restaurant was obviously closed, although I have no idea why. As I climbed back into the car to begin the return trip to Ljubljana, my iPhone shut down and we were without GPS. Through a combination of luck and having paid close attention to the road in the forest, we were able to reverse our tracks to the main road without becoming lost amidst the dirt lanes that snaked through the trees. Getting back to Ljubljana was a protracted effort as it seemed like every time we intersected with another highway we would see signs that indicated Ljubljana was both straight ahead and to the right. After driving twice as far as I had expected, I grew tired of this game and stopped for directions. It turned out we had been driving around Ljubljana on the ring road and the signs to the right were to the highway that we had taken the first night. We got back on the highway, where I remembered I had forgotten to look up that "Vignette" sign. We soon came to the exit we had used the previous night and followed our original path back to Kongresni trg. I quickly found a restaurant in Stari trg that was highly recommended on TripAdvisor and we got a decent meal there, although not particularly memorable. It was funny that one of the highlights of the day was not getting lost in a Slovenian forest and having to sleep in the car overnight.

The next morning we couldn't resist going back to the market for more seafood from the trucks. This time, we complemented it with some succulent broiled meatballs from another vendor. Heavenly. We stocked up on diapers and milk and bid farewell to Ljubljana.

Posted by zzlangerhans 05:18 Archived in Slovenia Tagged ljubljana postijna cerknica Comments (1)

Circling the Adriatic Italy: Venice and Trieste

Naturally, we were as excited about Venice as any other part of the trip before we left. Few cities in the world have a reputation of being as beautiful or unique. I had been there before with my parents when I was eight, but naturally my memories were scant and fuzzy. I was looking forward to renewing my experience with the city, and of course to introducing Mei Ling to this extraordinary place in the world.

Venice isn't difficult to find. A long causeway extends across the Laguna Veneta from Mestre on the mainland, affording expansive views over the blue water dotted with islands. At the end of the causeway, well-marked signs direct traffic to the Tronchetto car park. Once parked, we made sure we had all necessities for two days in our two small rolling suitcases and backpack. Ironically, Venice was the first city where we left the gondola in the car. We strapped the kids into the carriers and made our way to the Vaporetto. We chose to buy unlimited 48 hour passes for the Vaporetto, figuring that we had to use it at least twice and the pass would pay for itself after four trips. The vaporetto was crowded and smelled of diesel, so it turned out not to be the most pleasant mode of travel although Cleo found herself a friend.
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We had chosen an Airbnb in Dorsoduro, the belly of fish-shaped Venice, not far from the Academia Bridge. We had saved enormous amounts of money by using Airbnb instead of staying at a hotel. Even though the apartment was more expensive than any of our previous accommodations, it was far below the $400-500/night that seemed to be required at even the least expensive hotels. We lugged our bags and the kids through a couple of narrow alleys, over a small bridge, and into a quiet street where we found our apartment.
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The apartment was on three one-room levels with the kitchen and toilet on the bottom and the shower at the top level. Mei Ling and Ian took the second floor bedroom and Cleo and I took the top floor. We unpacked and baby-proofed the bedroom areas, and then set off over the Academia Bridge to explore and find dinner. With respect to visuals and atmosphere, Venice was everything we had imagined it to be. I don't think my photographs can do justice to the otherworldly beauty of the Renaissance era palaces and residences lining the bluish-green canals, illuminated at night by the lamps of the ubiquitous waterside cafes.
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When researching Venice before the trip, I noted there seemed to be a debate among families between carriers or strollers in Venice. Having a twin stroller, of course, carriers were the only option for us. I did see plenty of families pushing strollers and carrying them up and down the bridges. Ultimately I think it's an individual decision based on whether one finds walking with a baby on one's back or lifting a stroller more onerous. I much prefer the carrier since I can carry a baby for hours without much discomfort, although after the four hour mark I start to feel the wear on my neck and upper back. Also, we covered a lot of ground which meant a lot of bridges. Having to carry a stroller up and down so many stairs would have been a serious buzzkill. So I'm firmly in the carrier camp for Venice.

After the bridge, we made our way eastward through the irregular grid of canals and alleys to the Piazza San Marco, one of Venice's major tourist attractions. Aside from being home to the largest church in Venice, the Basilica di San Marco. as well as the Palazzo Ducale, the Piazza is ringed with overpriced tourist restaurants and the open spaces are filled with South Asian vendors selling sparkly crap for kids. In keeping with our philosophy, we refrained from entering any of the popular sights, stayed out of lines and crowds, and reveled in our anti-cultural ignorance.
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We knew it was going to be tough finding decent food in Venice on a Saturday night without a reservation and we weren't wrong. We found a mostly empty restaurant, ordered some drinks, and borrowed their wifi for a while. I made a few calls to the top-rated restaurants on TripAdvisor but no one was taking walk-ins. Mei Ling had the presence of mind to remind me to book a table for the following night, but things were not looking good for that evening. At one point we nearly decided to order at the place we were sitting in, but fortunately I remembered to check it as well and discovered it was fourth from last out of more than a thousand Venice restaurants. Even we're not that brave. We started moving away from Piazza San Marco as every restaurant we checked in the area seemed to be in the worst of the worst category. Finally we found a small place with a couple of open tables that was rated somewhere in the middle and squeezed everyone in there. As I expected, the food was edible but forgettable. At least we still had Sunday night. On the way back, I saw the waterside cafe just a few yards from our apartment had open tables and looked it up. Ranked 23. Damn it.

We dedicated the next day to an exploration of Venice. We took the vaporetto from Academia to Rialto, mainly because I wanted to use our passes. The crowds and the fumes made us wish we had walked instead. The Rialto Bridge area is probably the most crowded in Venice, probably because it's central and there isn't a lot of open space. The bridge itself was perpetually carpeted in tourists, even though it was nearly October. Of course, we stopped to take our own photos as we crossed the bridge.
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We explored central Venice for a while. My targeted restaurant for lunch turned out to be a tiny sandwich counter so I reluctantly agreed to eat at a Chinese restaurant. At least the food was familiar which meant Cleo ate more than her usual hummingbird lunch.
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We moved away from the crowds in the center and eventually came to a bridge where some of Venice's famed gondoliers were waiting for business. I hesitated to take the bait because it just seemed like such a touristy thing to do, but I've been married long enough to sense when Mei Ling wants to do something and doesn't want to say it. Fortunately, the prices of rides are set by the city so I didn't have to do any bargaining, which I hate. The gondolier helped Mei Ling into the boat and I handed down the two kids. I didn't want to ask for a hand so I jumped three feet down from the walkway onto the deck with an enormous bang. I was probably lucky I didn't go right through the bottom of the boat. Touristy or not, the gondola ride was well worth the 80 Euros (it's 100 in the evening/night). Being in the middle of the canal provides a completely different perspective than one gets from the shore, and the experience is overall very enjoyable. The kids seemed to love it as well.
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After the gondola ride, we walked back through the central San Polo area to Cannaregio, the back of the Venice fish. Eventually we reached the northern shoreline from which vaporettos leave to the island of Murano and the Marco Polo airport.
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We decided to take the vaporetto back to the San Marco area, thereby justifying our purchase of the unlimited ticket. Keeping an eye on the clock, we passed an hour in another attractive piazza while Cleo joined some little kids who were kicking around soccer balls. I know every dad thinks his daughter is the most wonderful little girl on Earth, but Cleo is the most wonderful little girl on Earth. She has an energy and zest for life that are boundless. Ever since she's been a few months old, she's been wanting to do everything that she's seen other kids doing, even if they're years older than her. Everywhere that she goes, she brings along a special radiance and people love her. One of the most fun things on our trips is to see her make new friends from other countries and join in their games, so I uploaded a video of her playing in that Venetian square whose name I cannot remember.
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According to Google maps, we were just a few minutes away from Ristorante Alle Corone, the top-rated restaurant I had made a reservation at the night before. We eventually dragged Cleo away from her soccer game and found the street Campo Fava, but were completely unable to locate the address or the restaurant. The street seemed to change names before arriving at the number we needed, and none of the locals had heard of the restaurant. Suddenly my heart sank. The restaurant was on Campo delle Fava. We were at Campo Fava. I must have somehow navigated to the wrong street and blown up our only chance to get a decent meal in Venice. But as the minutes to our reservation ticked down and all hope seemed lost we found someone who recognized the restaurant as belonging to the Ai Reali hotel and directed us around a tight corner to our destination.

When I realized I had booked a meal in a luxurious hotel restaurant with the two babies I immediately had a mental image of the kids screaming and throwing spoons while other diners begged for their checks. Fortunately, I had made the reservation as early as possible so we were the only diners when they led us into a semi-secluded room with two high chairs already set up. They were obviously prepared. The staff was extremely pleasant and friendly as well, rather unusual for Italy. I wish I could say that the food lived up to the setting and the professionalism of the staff, but it was once again unmemorable. Cleo did enjoy conducting an imaginary orchestra with the breadsticks. We escaped just as other diners were beginning to filter into the restaurant, casting wary looks in our direction. After this undistinguished meal at a top TripAdvisor choice in an exclusive hotel, we concluded that it was virtually impossible to find excellent food in Venice.
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The next morning we found a decent panini breakfast at a cafe close by the apartment. With full stomachs, there was nothing left to do but make our way back to the vaporetto station and wave arrivederci to Venice.
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On the way from Venice to Slovenia, the obvious stop was Trieste. I was curious to see the intermingling of Latin and Slavic cultures that the city was famous for. While scenic, the city seemed strangely empty on a Monday around lunchtime. This did allow for some uninterrupted views of the central Piazza dell'Unita d'Italia.
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From the Piazza we moved to the water's edge, where rolling hills dotted with picturesque houses provided a backdrop to the deep blue Adriatic.
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We wandered back through the center and with growling bellies found ourselves in front of the famous Buffet da Pepi, where we partook of various porcine delicacies such as tongue and brisket.
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At Trieste we were on the threshold of Slovenia, and so it was only moments after our departure that we found ourselves in the third country of our journey.

Posted by zzlangerhans 14:15 Archived in Italy Tagged venice trieste veneto Comments (0)

Circling the Adriatic Italy: The Veneto

Verona and Padua

Mei Ling was at the wheel as we rolled into Verona an hour or so after leaving Ferrara. Like many of Italy's famously picturesque cities, Verona was pleasant but nondescript outside of the center. We decided to switch positions as we approached the chaos of Centro and Mei Ling pulled off the busy parkway onto a narrow driveway leading into a fenced parking lot. She stopped in the driveway just before the open gate. I looked up and saw the lot was nearly empty and told her to pull into the lot so we wouldn't block someone coming up behind us in the driveway. "Are you sure?" she asked. "Yeah, why not? The gate's open, " I answered. She pulled into the lot and five seconds later the metal gate slid closed behind us. This did not seem like a reason to panic. From the lot we could see cars whizzing by on the busy parkway we had just left. We changed positions and I drove back towards the gate, trying to activate a motion sensor or camera. Nothing happened. I reversed and pulled forward a couple more times. Nothing. I got out of the car and looked for any kind of button or sensor I could activate to get the gate to open. Nothing. I looked around for a phone or intercom and likewise saw nothing.

The lot was fairly small with just a few cars parked inside. The outer perimeter of the lot, facing the driveway and parkway, was ringed with an eight foot tall iron fence. The inner perimeter was blocked off by tall concrete walls that appeared to surround some kind of industrial complex. I found a double metal door in the wall that was chained closed. I could look through and see a rather decrepit courtyard and a large building behind it that had a few lights on, but otherwise appeared abandoned. I looked for an intercom and banged on the gate but no one showed up. I went back to the car, and called our Airbnb host and told her our situation. Of course, she had no idea where we were or what kind of place we were trapped in. I let her know we'd be later than expected and made a mental note that I might have to call her back to call the police for us. My next move was to climb over the gate at the driveway, which I accomplished with moderate difficulty. I set off down the sidewalk to try and find a way around to the front of the building. I had no luck in the first direction, where apartment buildings came right up to the edge of the gated complex, so I reversed tracks and went around the building from the other side. I had a little better luck here, as I was able to get to the more presentable facade of the building I had seen through the gate, but everything was locked tight and no one answered when I knocked on doors. There weren't even any stores or restaurants to inquire about the nature of the building. Some passers by hurried past with lowered heads, and it seemed highly unlikely any of them could have offered assistance. Eventually I decided to return to the car to attempt to contact the police.

When I was about 100 yards away from the gate, I heard Mei Ling calling and looked up so see her waving at me. The car was back in the driveway with another car beside it. Someone had finally arrived to get his car and had opened the gate. With enormous relief, we jumped back in the car and resumed our navigation towards the center. It had only been an hour and a half but it felt like an eternity. Moral of the story? Either "don't drive into private parking lots with open gates", or "listen to your wife." I'm pretty sure I know what Mei Ling would say. Fortunately, this was our closest brush with disaster for the duration of the trip.

The old town of Verona is packed into a small tongue of land created by a loop in the River Adige. The entire old town is a no go for the cars of non-residents. We lost a little more time searching for the underground garage in Piazza Isolo on the opposite bank of the river, and then set off for our Airbnb accommodation. It was a long walk with all our bags and the gondola but the location was perfect, a wide open square adjacent to the Piazza delle Erbe and the Torrei dei Lamberti. We checked in and then immediately set off to find dinner. It was a Friday night so the first couple of restaurants we tried weren't taking walk-ins, even though they looked half empty. We eventually found an attractive place with al fresco seating but unfortunately the meal was forgettable, except for a creme brulee with a live flame that impressed Cleo no end.
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The next morning we strolled around the small market in the Piazza delle Erbe and admired the tall Torrei dei Lamberti from the outside.
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Outside of our Airbnb
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We were a little pressed for time so we decided to walk around the tip of the "tongue". Verona has beautiful streets and great views from the numerous bridges that span the Adige.
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Our last stop was the ancient Roman gate of Porta Borsari, appearing somewhat incongruous yet majestic spanning the cobblestone street.
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When planning this leg of the trip, I had to make a decision between stopping in Padua or seeing the famous fish market in Venice. Since it was Saturday, missing the fish market that day meant missing it entirely as it was closed Sunday and Monday. In the end, I chose Padua because I knew we'd be going back to Venice one day when the kids were older but I couldn't be sure we'd make it back to Padua. It proved to be an excellent decision. The food markets at Padua were absolutely spectacular and one of the best culinary experiences of the entire journey. Aside from an enormous number of stalls selling produce, there were arcades around the piazzas containing dozens of specialty foods such as cheeses, meats, and dried goods.
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One of the specialties in Padua is horsemeat, which pleased Mei Ling no end. Along with some bread, parmesan, pasta, fruit, and olives we bought some strips of horsemeat in oil and settled down at an ice cream shop to eat lunch. Mei Ling took one bite of horse and determined that it was not carpaccio after all, but intended for cooking. Even without the horse piece de resistance, our self-catered lunch was outstanding. Cleo was the happiest of all since she got her favorite strawberry ice cream.
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After a pleasant hour strolling along the arcades and negotiating with vendors, we explored the surrounding piazzas and cobblestone streets. After Perugia, Padua was the second Italian city that I felt would make a great base for a return visit, especially since we were missing the city of Vicenza and surrounding countryside on this trip. I could have eaten in the Padua market every day for a week. We made sure to wash our hands in a street fountain before returning to the car to head to our much-anticipated exploration of Venice.
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Posted by zzlangerhans 14:14 Archived in Italy Tagged verona veneto padua Comments (0)

Circling the Adriatic Italy: Emilia-Romagna

Ravenna, Bologna, and Ferrara


For the rest of the first leg of our trip in Italy, we settled into a pattern of using the morning and early afternoon to walk around the city in which we had spent the night, then stopping in another city for a couple of hours, and then arriving at the next overnight destination at about dinner time. I had originally planned to stay in Ravenna, but instead made it a stopover city once I decided we should visit Bologna. Ravenna is best known to travelers for a large collection of intricate Byzantine mosaics that can be seen in churches and museums around the city. Again, this wasn't exactly our thing but it was the largest city on the way to Bologna and also was supposed to have a fairly substantial market in the city center. I found my way to the center with some difficulty and eventually parked in an inexpensive lot, unsure if my car had crossed into the forbidden central zone. We spent the first half hour hunting for the market, only to learn that it had been discontinued two years earlier. However, Ravenna was a colorful and pleasant town and we walked through the wide streets and piazzas for about an hour.
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We eventually found ourselves following a stream of pedestrians towards a large structure which turned out to be the Basilica di San Vitale, home of some of the most famous mosaics. The church itself was an enormous and beautiful structure, and Cleo stretched her legs on the grassy lawn outside.
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Inside were the mosaics, of course. Even without knowing much about art, it was clear that assembling the tiny pieces into such intricate images must have been a Herculean task.
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Bologna wasn't on our original itinerary, as I had heard that it was more industrial and functional than its romantic neighbors. Stopping there turned out to be a great decision, as Bologna proved to be one of our favorite large cities in Italy. As usual, I had some difficulty navigating our arrival and once again entered a forbidden area with the car. I initially passed by our street because it seemed so narrow that I wasn't sure the car could turn into it. It took about half an hour to sort things out and chart a course back to that point via the maze of one way streets, and we had to race to unload the car before we became an obstruction to traffic. Our accommodation was very unique, a two-level apartment inside of a cavernous building with a central atrium. On the second floor of the apartment was a bedroom with a balcony that looked down into a large room that was a combined living room, dining room, and study. The ceiling was covered with a beautiful hand-painted fresco.
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By the time we had unpacked and cleaned up, it was dark and time to get dinner. We pushed the gondola through the rather grotty University Quarter to Osteria dell'Orsa, which seemed like a good choice from the Lonely Planet because it was casual and open late. The place turned out not to be a great choice for a family with two babies as it had a raucous atmosphere filled with students drinking liter-sized beers. They fit us in on the lower level, meaning we had to disassemble the gondola and lug the parts as well as the kids down the stairs and find space under the table to stash everything. Cleo got caught up in the energy of the place and wouldn't sit on the bench, but she learned her lesson when a waiter came galloping down the stairs and literally knocked her flying through the air. Fortunately, the only thing hurt was her dignity. We ate the Bolognese specialty of pasta with ragu (meat sauce) that was filling if not subtle.
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On the way back to the apartment we passed through many of Bologna's famed porticos. These covered walkways supported by long series of arches were originally built to allow homeowners to build out the upper stories over the sidewalks. Apparently this allowed the homeowners to generate more rental income from the university students flooding the city, although I am unsure if this is actually an urban myth. Regardless, it creates a beautiful effect in the streets and provided welcome protection from the occasional rain showers.
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The next day we set out to find the Mercato delle Erbe, a covered produce market not too far from our apartment. Par for the course we had some trouble locating it, but just when we were about to give up we found it somewhat recessed from the sidewalk on a block we had already crossed several times. Inside, the market was clean and pleasant with numerous stalls containing the usual fruit and vegetable standbys as well as a number of interesting specialty stores. A common sight was large, lobulated hunks of mozzarella in both fresh and smoked forms.
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For lunch, we found a Japanese store in the market and we combined some of their delicacies with mozzarella and other goodies we had bought elsewhere in the market.
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We next made our way to Piazza Maggiore, the center of the old town and home of its most famous landmarks including Fontana del Nettuno and the Basilica di San Petronio. The unique feature of this basilica is that the marble facade only extends halfway up the front of the building due to the sudden half in construction before the church was completed. When Cleo is on a roll, she doesn't feel like stopping for pictures.
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Adjacent to Piazza Maggiore is an area known as Il Quadrilatero for the four streets that define it. Besides being crammed with food markets, delicatessens, and cafes the neighborhood is also a center for craftsmen and jewelers. We found some snacks in a crowded food court but we were already too full from lunch to take full advantage of the area.
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On the way back to the apartment we stopped to admire Le Due Torri, two improbably rickety towers dating from the 12th century. Apparently well over a hundred towers were originally built and many of them survive to this day, but these two in central Bologna are the best known. The reasons for the construction of the towers are not well understood, but they may have had military uses or may simply have been status symbols. As can be seen in the pictures, they lean to such an extent that the shorter tower is closed to the public. The other can be climbed, but not with a squirming 30 pound child strapped to one's back.
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To many travelers, spending less than 24 hours in a city such as Bologna might seem a sacrilege. Keep in mind though that we are mostly unencumbered by the desire to see the insides of museums, churches, and palaces which allows us to cover much more ground in a short period of time. Twenty-four hours is actually quite a reasonable period of time to absorb the ambience of a city and the nature of its denizens, and to decide if it merits a return visit at some time in the future. In the case of Bologna, I have no doubt that one day we'll return.

Our last city in Emilia-Romagna was Ferrara, a mid-sized city best known for its attractive Duomo and an enormous medieval castle, Castello Estense. We dutifully admired these structures from the outside but probably our most memorable experience in Ferrara was buying walking shoes to replace my tattered sneakers.
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After Ferrara, we had plenty of time to get to Verona and check into our next accommodation in Verona. As it turned out, we were going to need it.

Posted by zzlangerhans 21:27 Archived in Italy Tagged bologna ravenna ferrara emilia-romagna Comments (0)

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