It’s been a full week now since I arrived in Europe.
We’re on a bit of a sampler tour, staying only a few nights in each city. So far we’ve been to Venice, Cinque Terre, Florence, Madrid, and now Valencia. I’ll try to split things up by country so I don’t ramble on too long.
Not really sure what to write about so I’ll just talk about the people, the food, the atmosphere on the streets. What it’s like to be there, even if for only a short while.
We got to Venice in the evening and took a waterbus from the airport to the Rialto bridge stop near our B&B. Our boat was like one of those World War II troop convoys with the passengers sitting facing each other beneath deck. But, there were windows all around and room above to watch the sunset. Really picturesque and we didn’t even need to go on a gondola ride.
I will say though that at night, every other street seemed like a potential murder location. Barely any lighting and super narrow and windy. And then during the day, they’re packed with tourists and unfortunately they don’t get any wider. If you’re like me and hate crowds, stay away from the main tourist areas (basically both ends of the Rialto bridge). Instead, go wander around the south of the city. It’s much quieter and I had the most fun just walking by the water, feeling the wind, and watching the boats go by. Food was generally meh (we paid too much for some very underwhelming meals) but you will find excellent tiramisu at a place called I Tre Mercanti. We tried the traditional and the pistachio tiramisu and both were delicious (I didn’t even know tiramisu came in different flavors until then).
Cinque Terre is a series of small coastal villages by the sea. Also very picturesque, though I recommend you don’t look at too many pictures before arriving since that kinda ruined much of the surprise for me. It was also around this point in the trip that we learned that a good way to save money on food is to get takeaway (what Americans call to-go). Unfortunately, it’s very touristy, especially during the day. Giant Chinese tour groups of sixty people people will clog the train stations and crowd local fishermen by the water. Not fun. Much better at night once they leave though — I really enjoyed just watching the sun set and then all the stars come out.
In terms of food, get some pasta with pesto (takeaway or sit-down, doesn’t matter), fresh mussels in marinara sauce, and the local white wine (just ask for the table wine — it’s only a few Euros for a half liter carafe). For coffee, during the day there’s nothing better than a shakerato — coffee chilled with ice in a cocktail shaker — from a cafe. I got one for 2 EUR from La Aristide right outside the Manarola train station tunnel.
Florence is the size of a large city but has the feel of a place a lot homier. If you go up to Giotto’s Campanile and look around, the city stretches on and on. But there’s no skyscrapers. Only traditional buildings and churches. The streets are all cobblestone and though there are cars, the streets are filled with people. You just walk where you want to go. It makes exploring easy and enjoyable (no winding and confusing passages like Venice) and every street has its own Gelateria and cafe selling inexpensive, yet delicious, gelato and coffee for when you want some Wi-Fi or a break. I’d begin each morning by walking to a new cafe for a chocolate croissant and cappuccino for 2.5 EUR together. It’s barely any money for how good the food and drink are. You’ll be impressed by most any cafe, but ones I particularly enjoyed were Chiaroscuro and La Loggia degli Albizi (mainly because both were close to where I stayed).
Definitely go to the Mercardo Centrale de San Lorenzo in the Northwest of the city. We didn’t plan on it originally, but another traveler we set next to at dinner the first night recommended it. The first floor is more traditional — butchers, fruit vendors, etc. but the best parts were the food stands. There was a pasta place where one side sold fresh uncooked pasta by the kilo and the other side cooked it for you with whatever sauce you want for 5 EUR. There’s also Nerbone that serves 3.5 EUR bollito (beef) or lampredotto (beef tripe) sandwiches. One of the best things I’ve had so far. If you grew up in the Chicago suburbs like I did, you eat a lot of Italian beef sandwiches (from Portillo’s of course, where else?) But it was something else entirely to taste that sandwich from a market stall. The beef was shaved in front of me and the hot peppers were the best I’ve ever had. I think that’s the cool thing about Europe. You find where things come from—and even if you’re not that big on history, you can still appreciate the food.
It’s funny — I was telling my friend Austin earlier that the only thing missing from Florence was bubble tea. And on the way back from the market we found a shop. Maybe I’ll move here one day.