These writings began as stitched together thoughts written at various points throughout the trip. Written mostly between cities in the downtime. [If you can deem that downtime...] Organized and built on only afterward. These are our travel stitches if you will.
After weeks traveling through Italy, London, and Iceland, we returned home. It was a bit of a whirlwind, but after a couple weeks sleeping in my own bed, feeling refreshed, and reflective, I've decided it's time for a post about the experience. An attempt of sorts to help you get to know us better as your photographers, while maybe providing some travel insights for those looking for such things.
When it comes to travel, I’m a believer that you get what you put into it. All inclusive “vacations” might be relaxing and have a rather easy going feel sure, but they lack specific elements. Rewarding is not an adjective I would use to describe them. Rewarding for us is planning a 16 day excursion through Italy, London, and Iceland and executing it. It is neither a quick or easy feat. It can be tiresome, trying, educational, embarrassing [nearly walking into lamp posts while gawking in the opposite direction], and absolutely amazing all at the same time. I’ve given second thoughts to allocating money for certain things from time to time, but experience and travel I’ve never regretted. We'll have that forever. Or at least as long as we're cognizant in this world. Until then, I’ll document through photographs as best I can for myself, Britney, the ones I care about, and for those that care to know.
The week before our departure, parts of Italy flooded. Venice on the whole was underwater, and the rest of Italy was under warning. Now Venice wasn't part of our itinerary, but we discussed switching our flights because of this. The next seven days in most of the places we were set to visit had rain in the forecast. Perfect...
In the end decided to take the risk and leave plans as they were. We first touched ground in London for the afternoon, but with jetlag set in, it was strictly coffee, sustenance, and a quick trip to The Great Frog to scout rings before heading to the hotel. So we'll begin with Pisa. Our first stop in Italy. More on London later.
The following is a post of experience. A post of advice, some tips, places to eat... things to see. All that may [or may not] pop up on the regular radar for travelers. These are the highlights, successes, and failures of our travels.
Step one, learn some basics
First of all, I would just like to advocate for traveling solely with a backpack. The time and effort having to retrieve luggage after your flight is reason enough. Also, lost or delayed luggage is more common than you think, and who wants to deal with that?
Pisa to me [in autumn] felt like a small, sleepy, Italian town. As my introduction to Italy, I enjoyed that aspect very much. In research, many note to skip this place, but I fully disagree, and was happy to begin the journey through Tuscany here.
As you might suspect, Piazza del Duomo and the Leaning Tower of Pisa were the focal point for visitors, but in November crowds were not at there peak as you might encounter in summer months.
Our Airbnb host Shay was extremely friendly and helpful. He let us bag drop early as the apartment was being detailed, gave us local insights, stocked some beer in the fridge, and took us to the train station upon our departure from Pisa. His apartment he mentioned, was essentially a converted garage, but you would never guess it, as the place was modern, and well designed with everything you could want in a stay. Here’s a link to his Airbnb.
During the evening we made our way into one of Pisa's many shop filled alleyways and found a lively courtyard with a few bars and restaurants. We sat ourselves at a picnic table after ordering a glass of wine which was recommended by a nice fella' working the shop. After some time had passed, he brought us some complimentary tapas including some fresh bread and cheese. The scenery, a lively atmosphere, and kindness from the locals made for a great time. The name of this place is called SUD or SOD. I can't recall exactly. Research is sort of futile now given that not every place has its own website. I've linked to a google street view of the place above. It looks pretty rough, in the photo, but imagine it free of receptacles, more lively, and well lit for the evening. If all else fails, Orzo Bruno in that same courtyard looked enticing with all its beer taps, and just so happens to have pretty solid reviews. You'll find a link to their beer menu above.
Afterward, we made our way to Lungarno Antonio Pacinotti street which parallels the river, to a craft beer bar called La Staffetta. They had some interesting local offerings, and tapas out to enjoy. The outside terrace seating was taken up, so we sat inside and conversed with the guy as best we could. Afterwards, we roamed the streets and took in the nighttime sights before retiring to the Airbnb.
The next day for lunch we began with takeaway pasta at We Love Pasta. A box full of delicious, homemade pasta at a good price. I recommend the egg noodles... Unfortunately, the gluten free pasta is boxed and thus not made in house at this time, but Britney fully enjoyed it. The GF pasta took longer to prep, however was made in a dedicated pot free from any contamination. We sat outside, enjoyed the beautiful day, and scarfed it before heading to the wall.
Pisa has recently opened the old wall up for pedestrian walking. It circles around the city offering alternate viewpoints of the Leaning Tower, Piazza dei Miracoli, and the whole city in general. You will also see a nice overview of local residential buildings and how residents live. Just be courteous, and try not to invade their privacy by staring into their homes, or taking photographs of them. The wall will run you [as of 2018] 3 Euros per person.
Cautious, chaotic mobility in the streets
Keep your eyes on the streets and off your phone screen. You’ll need to be on alert to dodge cyclists and motor vehicles. Lucca is a dream for the wandering type folk. Especially once you're inside the walls of the old city. Every alley, every corner you might think takes you into a dark oblivion, leads but to more charming little shops, bistros, artwork, and architecture.
You’ll be offered after dinner cafe [espresso] no matter what time your eating dinner in this country. I mean, you can of course politely decline to take part in the Italian ritual, but why not engage, and accept. You may find yourself earning some respect in the process. The price of full alertness at 2:00 am is a cost of admittance...
I must admit, I disliked espresso entirely before visiting Italy. Now, I enjoy it, but fear "Americanos" have been ruined for me... on that note, ordering anything with milk such as a cappuccino after 11:00 am may garner you some eye rolls or a snicker, especially if your visiting a more authentic Italian cafe, so choose your drink accordingly.
Ideal, authentic gelato is generally found in metallic canisters sunken into cold refrigeration. For the most part, avoid open faced stands attempting to entice you in with visual alone. If you’re dishing out 4+ Euros for the stuff, you’re probably getting taken. You should be coming in under 3 Euros for some quality stuff. Get away from the main streets and you won’t have trouble. Try Chiardicrema. Its located off the main street, tucked into a square with a few other shops around. This was Britney's first real gelato, and as a woman with Italian roots, I was quite proud of her holding off until we visited Italy to try the stuff for the first time. They also have Gluten free cones in addition to regular. She still deems it the best gelato of the entire trip.
Lucca is another city with a stone wall surrounding it. This one feels more like a hilltop with a path compared to the one in Pisa. You admire the architecture, see some of the interesting terraces locals have set up for themselves, and snap some great overview photos along the way. As you walk, you will notice at certain points you can detour down and back into the city again if a shop or something intriguing catches your eye. The entire wall is about 4KM, which should be walkable in about an hour's time. There is a particularly nice stretch that is tree lined that makes for some nicely composed photographs.
Wine by the glass can be found for less cost than some bottled water if you keep you’re eyes peeled. Beer however, is quite the opposite. Hops are pricey, and given that we were in Italy, I opted most of the time to stick to wine. Regardless of price, I just can't help but visit the local breweries when I've got the chance. Check out De Cervesia Pub. A local beer shop dedicated to craft beer with local Italian offerings.
Italians eat late. Somewhere around 9:00pm or even 10:00pm it seems. Some restaurants will also be closed for periods of the day before re-opening for dinner, so try and adjust accordingly. If your searching for pizza, try Pizzeria Mara Meo. The location in San Francesco area was filled with locals. [Which is generally a good sign] You can get by with English, but do yourself a favor and learn some basics of the language. The effort goes a long way with the locals. This holds true for any place we've visited.
We were on the hunt for a unique ring during this trip. As we detoured down one of the alleyways, we came across an unlikely shop. More of an apparel shop rather than a jeweler or artist studio, but on the second floor, encased in glass we spotted one. A square ring with flat edges, and an anchor.
Unchanged hillside architecture
If arriving by train or bus, you’ll find yourself in a mall type building. If your hungry, resist the urge to eat here and hold out for the city center. It’s not far, and you won’t find yourself in beautiful Siena Italy, eating mall food...
take a few sets of escalators to the top and you’ll find yourself out on the street. Take a quick left and check out your first view of the hillside city. It’s a straight shot to get into the city from here, and will only take a few minutes.
My recommendation in Siena for a bistro type restaurant with excellent dishes would be Osteria Boccon del Prete. We came across this place while walking the old city, and decided to give it a try. When traveling, be open to taking a chance on a meal. You may miss a fantastic experience playing things safe. This place paid off for me as one of my favorite pasta dishes during my time in Italy.
Wandering these cities can be an all day engagement if you choose it to be. Often running into what you hoped to see in your planning anyway. We came across Siena Duomo and decided to get the required tickets to enter the cathedral. Be advised, flash photography is not permitted, so have your low light gear ready. The architecture [inside and out] is unbelievable. Even if you are somewhat used to the old brilliance of the European style. Truly, you wonder how this kind of thing was done, before coming to the realization it took a very, very long time.
There's plenty of intriguing places to eat in Siena, alternatively however, get a bottle of wine and some takeaway dinner, scout out a spot in the main square, and enjoy. The sights of Piazza del Campo are quite unique, and if weather permits, I suggest taking advantage. The square hosts bi annual horse races during the summer which as you would expect, get quite busy. We weren’t around for them at this time of year, but we were happy to trade the grand event for quieter streets this time.
For accommodation we stayed outside of the walls in a small countryside hotel named Coroncina Lodging. The place had its own kitchen, separate bedroom, and full updated washroom. In addition to this, it had its own private garden view facing the countryside. It is specifically noted by the hotel that you’ll need to take a short bus ride from the city to arrive, but our maps showed it was around the two km mark by walk. The first evening we decided to try and just walk. We even confirmed with an Italian man and his wife that the area could in fact be reached on foot. "A young couple like us wont have any trouble" he said. As we walked on, the "sidewalks" narrowed to inches... The semi-busy road turned into a very busy highway...We climbed a wall and walked along the top with our backpacks until that too ran out. Needless to say, we didn't re-attempt this on night number two as we barely escaped with our lives.
The hotel offered breakfast at a very reasonable price [8 Euros each] which was brought to our room in a picnic basket with what we had selected on the checklist the day prior. We opened the french doors to the garden and had a great breakfast, including espresso, fresh orange juice, bread [traditional & the gluten free kind], yogurt, scrambled eggs and bacon, cheeses...
Our remaining time in Siena was spent street wandering, trying other restaurants, drinking wine, and chatting with locals.
Finding our way out of the main squares
Alright...At least a little of the main, popular squares. Florence was one of the larger places we stopped, although to most, it is considered smaller. Rightfully so in comparison to places like Rome and Milan.
First things first. Wait in line for an authentic salami sandwich with truffle cream at All'Antico Vinaio. A "La Favolosa" you will ask for. [Unless one of the other creations speaks to your belly]. 5 Euros, and one of the best bites I had on the whole trip.
Visit the local artist studios such as Clet Abraham who modifies local street signs in different ways, and make your way to another local artist Christian Fenzi's shop who designs and creates some pretty great rings and other interesting jewelry.
Mornings are meant for coffee. Where we're from anyhow. Italy is another animal as I've touched on earlier. Skip the North American sit down coffee experience, and opt for the standing Italian espresso bar. Any one will do. Good espresso can be found for 1 euro in most of Italy and basically every place you enter has an espresso machine. While searching for your morning cafe, [in your hazy morning state of mind] as always keep your head up, and be alert. Cars, motorcycles, bicycles, and people come at you from all directions just as in Lucca. These cities are an attack on your senses. Florence ups the anti with more art, architecture, food, and visitors then previous places, so it's easy to get caught up and bump into others, or be taken out altogether by someones mode of transport.
I should also point out, that Italy's gluten free game is far ahead of ours in not only availability, but taste as well. There were a number of times that I sampled some of regular flour's counterparts, and for one, I could not recognize it from our North American GF offerings, and two, it often tasted better than what I had ordered myself. The real kicker was that most times, the GF plate or dish was bigger in portion too. Anyhow, right outside our Airbnb was Trattoria Da Garibardi. The entire menu was available in gluten free if required, including home made in house pasta. The wild boar pasta was so great, we visited twice. We also heard great things about the neighboring Zaza's and their steak Florentine, but alas, we didn't make it. As steak is somewhat of a specialty of mine, we did however visit a market to get one cut. This was disastrous as the salt, pepper, and general cookware in our place was less than ideal. Lesson learned. Be better prepared!
If you’re traveling by train through Italy like us, do your research and book tickets early online, as prices tend to climb as dates get closer. You may read about required ticket validation once you arrive, however [as of November 2018] if you have purchased online tickets, you will not need to validate. Just be prepared to show them if ticket checkers come through your train car. [Which only seemed to occur on longer journeys] The train ride itself, through Pisa, Lucca, Florence, Siena, and Bologna, wasn’t all that scenic in my opinion. Expect to pass by a lot of lesser maintained houses and such. You’ll see the odd hillside, and pass by towns, but it’s more just a means of getting from one place to another at a reasonable price and time frame. Maybe I'm just jaded by the beautiful western landscape of Canada, with drives like the Sea to Sky Highway, the Okanagan Valley, and the mountains of Alberta so close by.
A last note on Florence. Fermento was likely my favorite pizza in the city. The naturally fermented, slow rise crust was right up my alley. Also check out Archea Brewery who offer craft beer at around 5 Euros.
Painted visuals from feisty locals
Wait, are students considered locals if they're not actually from the place where they're attending school...?
Oh Bologna. You sure do have a lot of leaning shit to see. I thought we'd left the leaning towers and building malfunction marvels back in Pisa. I had no idea and was surprised to see such things here. Neat stuff. Our final Italian stop would be here. Most opinions and conceptions on Italy would be formed at this point, but Bologna swings hard with it's own unique characteristics.
We paid admission and climbed the Torre degli Asinelli [also known as the Two Towers] The 5 Euro per person tickets must be purchased online to enter and climb the 97 meter tower which once atop, will show off the rooftops of Bologna and display the city in a 360 degree panoramic view. I remember being in Budapest and climbing St Stephen's Basilica to one of the best views of a city I've seen to date. Given the tower being centered in the city in a similar manner, I hoped for a similar view. On this particular day however, there was a dense fog which caused visibility to be minimal. It should have, and would have been a fantastic view. You should do it.
Bologna is a university city, and thus, seems politically charged with opinions, and general go-getters when it comes to personal views. It's reflected in the plentiful street art you see. Even sometimes damning the tourists who visit. [Don't worry, everyone is quite friendly] Unlike Florence, Bologna boasts a fair amount of tagging in addition to the artful works. Often overlapping one another. While walking the streets and taking this all in, you will often find yourself under the covered walkways or porticos as they're called. These were built to allow more housing during the middle ages as the the university flourished and demanded more room without being intrusive to public spaces.
After a semi-unsuccessful attempt at a city view earlier in the visit, we headed for a overlook we had heard about located at what is now one of the best orthopedic hospitals in the world. San Michele in Bosco. Once you've successfully found it, you can see a panoramic view of Bologna. It is a walkable distance from the city center. You'll just need to pay attention to the GPS maps once you get closer. Keep toward the hospital and once at the building you should see the opening to your right.
It was another view hindered by weather, but still worthwhile. I've given some thought on these two view points [Asinelli Tower and San Michele in Bosco], and despite the lack of visibility, the views were pretty unique and we were able to capture some interesting, photographs. The moody day left a lot to the imagination for future visits.
Bologna feels like the everyday city to me. Less tourists crowd the streets than in Florence or other Italian cities, and you can see people just living and carrying on with their day. It's an incredible city from a visual and historic standpoint.
By the end of our Italy journey, we had learned to speak a little of the Italian language. How to ask for a cafe in a bistro... What a restaurant recommends on the menu. How to say "olive oil please!" Although we have now traveled to a number of places, we are still finding the style of travel that works best for us. This is sort of difficult to nail down as it is constantly in flux. This trip required a lot of moving around, and for the next journey, we want to limit our destinations in terms of numbers. We also would like to experience more of mother nature's offerings. At this point in the trip, and with these things now in mind, we are about to realize where we aim to go next...
A foreign, but familiar normalcy
We flew back to London... Slightly worn out, and in a half zombie-like state. Days on foot, hours on trains / aircrafts, and a general sense of "must keep going" will do that to a person. We were greeted by our friends Becki and Bruno at the airport gate, and those feelings of "are we finished yet" left immediately. Upon seeing our pals, we were back to feelings of excitement, and in the land of full English. [Both the language and breakfast kind] The four of us loaded into the car and headed directly for London City Center. There, we bunked down for evening drinks and some catching up. It was at this point we pledged to go 100% vegan with our friends for our time in London together.
After a nights rest, our day of vegan food began at Love Shack. A little eatery off a busy street. They produce some nice sourdough with 100% vegan plates. They also achieve a zero waste kitchen. The chef himself brought us our dishes out in the front terrace where we fueled up before our near 10K walk to Camden.
Along the way you should consider a detour through Paddington Basin. A scenic walk alongside a canal. Beyond the functional canal and it's houseboats, you will see some interesting architecture and shops along the way. It was autumn [November] and the seasonal colours in my opinion were in full swing. Just before Camden Market itself, you can stop at Kings Cross Railway Station and have a snack, get some shopping in, take a restroom break, or just revel in the grandness of the thing. This place was abandoned 20 years ago. In shambles I'm told, but has since been rejuvenated and restored, filled with new life. Active trains arriving and departing with wayward travelers. The nearby St. Pancras Renaissance Hotel shouldn’t be missed either. Its sheer size and construction will have you snapping photos for your Instagram page.
Not much further is Camden Market. An vendor market with handmade materials like jewelry, clothing, and interesting food choices. In the spirit of a full vegan day, we stopped at Young Vegans. A pie and mash shop with appealing choices like steak & ale pies, and a gluten free option in sweet potato pie & mash. Tasty stuff and recommend most definitely. They also utilize bio degradable take away containers which was really nice to see.
This will have been our third time in London, and there's so much to do, that we'll likely always count it into our travel itinerary if not make it a main destination. Our travel aims are pretty straight forward. Eat local food, wander around with or without objective, talk with the locals, and get some unique experiences in. All while generally trying to avoid being a tourist and getting in the way. Traveling is a good way to learn about yourself. What you can handle. It's not all fun and games. Bad things do occur, and it's interesting to see how we come out of that. It's safe to stay home where things are comfortable. Where you take things for granted such as knowing the language, where the decent places to eat are, what parts the city to stay out of... All you've really got at the end of all this is experience. For better or worse, that's what you'll get.
The way home was a pub crawl of sorts. with a stop at a notable place in particular called The Eagle. It included a nice gin list, a lively crowd, but enough space to find a seat and relax after a full days walk.
The remainder of the walk home was spent unsuccessfully hunting for food. For a large city, many places in London seem to close early. Plan accordingly. Especially if you have dietary restrictions requiring gluten free, or being vegan for a day...
An exciting last stop in more ways than one
After a rough landing due to intense winds, [Thank goodness for the experienced Iceland Air pilots] we waited to exit the swaying aircraft we had thought we might not make it off. Howling winds greeted us and stayed with us for the duration of our stopover in Iceland.
We chose Hotel Berg in Keflavik as the place to lay our heads for the night. Despite the intense winds, and blowing rain, we were able to use the geothermal rooftop pool with full privacy. How surprising... Maybe the front desk thought we were a little crazy, but being Canadian a little wind and rain didn't seem to warrant skipping the experience. We are happy we didn't, and it was enjoyable. Maybe more so than if it had been clear weather. Granted, we had hoped for sightings of the Northern Lights, but chances of that were smashed given the weather. Earlier, I touched on where we aim to visit next that offers the nature element. We decided Iceland was that spot. Being here sparked an immediate desire to return for a proper visit.
A couple of 1800 ISK beers, and a double shot of gin at 2200 ISK later, [currently about $19 and $23 CAD] we realized the closest place to the hotel for dinner would be out of reach given the weather. Listen, I'm not an advocate for eating Domino's Pizza while traveling, [hardly ever in fact] as homemade, from scratch pizza is another specialty of mine, but we were hungry and in a pinch so we placed an order. The choice was justified as we had decided that during the next visit, we would be eating much better local sustenance, and they were the only place that delivered to the off the path boutique hotel.
The next afternoon we were shuttled off the KEF Airport to catch our flight home. We caught up with another Hotel Berg guest doomed to Dominoes Pizza, who had his flight home cancelled as winds, and weather were grounding planes left and right. We had a beer together and talked travel, before parting ways and wishing each other well.
My best advice when traveling is simple. Never refuse an invitation, and be open minded.
Lastly, regarding the weather... The forecast changed completely. Of the 16 days, I believe we had two rainy days and experienced zero effects of flooding. If we had played it safe, we would have never made this trip. Who knows if we would have ever re-planned it.