Benjamin Kovach

Italy Travel Log

12/12/2016 (Venice)

Today we finished up the longest flight of our lives! 12 hours to Paris, then 2 more into Venice with hardly any rest. We made our way to the hotel via a bus ride and a water bus (vaporetto) ride through the Grand Canal. Fewer people speak English than we expected, but we’re getting by. Thanks Duolingo! Our B&B hosts at Dimora Marciana are all really nice, and gave us food recommendations and a walking route to get a feel for the city. After crashing for about an hour in the hotel room, we ate at one of the recommended restaurants. I accidentally ordered something with nuts, so Amanda and I ended up having to switch dishes, leaving her with a sad couscous salad, and I ate the delicious cannelloni she ordered. Oops! Otherwise, it was pretty good! After lunch, we set off on the recommended walking route, which took us through San Marco, the Accademia district, Dorsoduro, over the Rialto bridge and back to our hotel. Very pretty and maze-like with lots of interesting shops along the way. Amanda remembers nothing from that walk, since she was a sleep-deprived zombie. Thank goodness for pictures! We stopped briefly for some cappuccinos at a cafe (which we later learned was a faux pas- no milk after breakfast!). We were hungry for dinner around 5:30, but no restaurants are open between 2:30 and 6:30… so we ate gelato for dinner! Heading in for an early bedtime (like 6:00 PM) because we are both exhausted.

12/13/2016 (Venice)

We slept like babies! And breakfast at Dimora Marciana was so good! Excellent cappuccinos and a variety of pastries, meats, cheeses and croissants. Every espresso drink here is perfect! How do they do it?? After breakfast, we set out for Piazza San Marco with an audio tour we’d downloaded onto our phones. This was a good idea, because it pointed out a lot of interesting subtle details about the piazza that we wouldn’t have noticed otherwise. For example, the surrounding buildings are built with three completely separate styles of column, because the floors were built in different eras. Visual stories are also told on the columns beneath Doge’s Palace (the dwelling place of the historic ruler of Venice) - very cool. We saw a carving story of a couple meeting, courting, marrying, conceiving a child, hugging their child, finding out the child is sick, and then burying their child…Poor little statue family :( After the audio tour, we went into Doge’s Palace, which has been turned into a museum. Every ceiling is painted beautifully; it’s incredible. The transition from the palace to the jails (over the Bridge of Sighs) is a surreal experience. It’s a weird couple of steps from gilded halls to drab, thick stone walls and plain prison cells. When we were done, we walked around town a little and found a place to eat. I had seafood risotto (with lots of seafood I’d never seen before!) and Amanda had some salmon pasta. Both were delicious. We took an afternoon break and waited for a vegetarian place to open for dinner. We wandered around for an hour and a half through the rainy alleyways, dodging beggar ladies and getting chased by a man who wanted to sell us a rose. It was really dark and creepy, and the restaurant was hard to find. When we finally found it and then waited for them to open, they were completely booked! Huge bummer, but we went to a place called Tuttinpietti instead for some pasta, which we ate in our room. It was great anyway, so whatever. Afterwards, we set back out for a gelato place called SuSo, determined to mark off a win for the night. We got super lost, and by the time we found it, it had just closed! Agh! We went back to our rooms, tired and gelato-less, ate some chocolate raisins that we had brought on the plane for dessert and went to bed. Oh well! Dessert before dinner tomorrow! Eventually we’ll figure out this meal thing…

12/14/2016 (Venice)

We had planned to tour the islands (Murano and Burano) today, but we woke up groggy and postponed. Instead, we looked into touring Peggy Guggenheim’s old house-turned-museum. It was a very interesting place with exciting exhibits of modern art. Also, Gwendoline Christie (Brienne of Tarth from Game of Thrones) was there with us! Crazy! After the tour, we wandered around the Accademia district and made our way all the way to “the point” at the end of the island. It was a foggy, chilly day, but it was still very beautiful and peaceful. After a mediocre lunch at a touristy place, we rested for a bit. A little later on, we went to a place called I Tre Mercanti for some tiramisu (dessert before dinner!). It was so good that we inhaled it (literally…it was hard not to choke on all the cocoa powder on top)! Acqua Alta Libraria was in the same part of town, so we checked it out. This place must have been the coolest bookstore on the planet. The building is full of books from floor to ceiling, piled on tables and old gondolas. We grabbed a couple of Christmas gifts here and headed back to the hotel room, still very tired from jet lag and the last few days. Looking forward to the Murano/Burano trip tomorrow!

12/15/2016 (Murano, Burano)

We got a good night’s rest last night and headed out to get on a boat to Burano island late in the morning. The walk was nice - the area near Fondamente Nove (the water bus station) was relaxed. We hopped on a water bus and passed a few islands - a walled city, and Murano, the glass blowing island. The travel time to Burano was pretty long (about 50 minutes) but we eventually made it to the island of lace and colorful houses! It was kind of like a very-tiny Venice with a small fraction of the population. We sought out the lace museum, which was a disappointment, but only 5 euros each, so whatever. It turns out that the history of lace is super boring! But there were old women from Burano making lace there, which was a fascinating process! We expected to spend more time there, so we had some downtime for a coffee (coffee in Italy means a single shot of espresso) at a local bar before our lunch reservation. We also walked around the island for a while, saw the leaning clock tower, and relaxed by the seaside. Lunch was intense. We went to a place called Gatto Nero and both had a portion of seafood spaghetti; it was the most involved meal I’ve ever eaten, with several shellfish and other seafood. It was super tasty. The second course was a plate of seafood fritto misto. Some of that was good and some of it wasn’t. I liked this part a lot more than Amanda did. The best part of the plate was fried salted cod. We split a bottle of tasty white wine with this meal, too, then capped off the 2 hour long lunch with a shot of espresso. It was getting late in the day at this point, but we wanted to see Murano, so we got on the next water taxi and headed that way. We browsed a couple of shops here and picked up some glass creations. The glass here was stunning; I wish we’d been able to stay a bit longer, but it was getting late and dark. For the first time, we understood why dinner here is served so late- after that huge, long lunch, we were not expecting to be hungry until at least 8:00! When we got back to mainland Venice, we stopped by a shop for a hot chocolate, which is more like a shot of warm chocolate than the kind we’re used to. Something from the day ended up making Amanda sick that night, unfortunately. :( Her sickness was so rough, that she got actual whiplash from throwing up so hard. She keeps calling it “power puking”…gross.

12/16/2016 (Venice)

A day of rest! Mandy needed some recovery time from last night, so we didn’t do a whole lot. We did get some delicious fresh pasta from a place called Dal Moro’s for lunch, though. I spent a bit of the day planning for what to do in Florence. We rallied a little later to go grab a slice of pizza for dinner at Antico Forno. Venice was much busier on a Friday night, and there was even a (very good!) violinist playing music in one of the squares. The pizza, the walk, and the sparkling Christmas lights strung all around were really nice. A magical way to end our time in Venice!

12/17/2016 (Venice/Florence)

This was the day we left Venice. We walked up to Rialto Bridge with our packed luggage and took a water bus to the train station. It was a beautiful day, so we sat in front, on the exterior of the boat. This is maybe my favorite part about Venice -boating down the Grand Canal is absolutely stunning! Once we made it to the train station, we had to gather our bearings. Neither of us had ever ridden on an EU train (or any passenger train?) before, so we weren’t sure of what to do. We eventually found our train and our seats and settled in. Well, so we thought - we were wrong! At the second stop, some Italian women kicked us out of our seats and we moved to the proper section of the train. After that minor speed bump, the ride was comfortable and quick. The destination train station in Florence was really overwhelming, though. The largest crowds we encountered in Venice were miniscule compared to the ones we found in Florence! We searched around everywhere for a bathroom in a huge crowd and had to ask a few people how to find the bus we were looking for. It all worked out, but there were thousands of people in the station and our bus came really late. Eventually it did come, and after a 20 minute bus ride, we arrived at our destination - the base of the hil our hotel sat on. Trudging up the hill with our heavy luggage on our backs was so hard after such an exhausting day, but finally arriving at the hotel in the Tuscan hills was a huge relief. We got a brief tour of the grounds at Villa Agape and crashed for a little while. We had booked a wine tour for that night, though, so we couldn’t relax for too long! We were also starving after traveling with no lunch and were desperate to eat. So, we had our hotel’s shuttle drive us into Florence and we found a place to eat (hot pots with dumplings for a little variety; not that good!) and then made our way to Ponte Vecchio afterwards. Ponte Vecchio is the oldest bridge in Florence, and the meetup point for the start of our wine tour. Turns out, we were the only ones who booked the tour, so we got a surprise private tour of the city! We got some little wine glasses to carry around town and were shown some interesting landmarks (mostly little historic things about the city). As for wine, we tasted 5 kinds and ate some crostini. Amanda was still queasy about drinking white wine, but I enjoyed all of it! The most interesting story was the one about the “black rooster” emblem on Chianti wine bottles. We ended the tour at the duomo - a huge, beautiful, green and white church that took 150 years to complete! Then we got picked up by our hotel shuttle and crashed hard.

12/18/2016 (Florence)

This was our food tour day, so we woke up extra early to meet with the tour guide at 9:30! We ate a tiny bite to eat at the hotel so we would be hungry for the tour and got the earliest shuttle ride possible to meet up in time. We told the shuttle driver to pick us up at 6:30 that evening, since we anticipated doing some museum tours and shopping after the 4-hour food tour. Sadly, once we rushed across town to get there in time, we suddenly realized…nobody else was there. We had done all that and we had shown up for the tour on the wrong day! Major oops! After kicking ourselves (and laughing a lot) for messing up so badly, we decided to make the most of the day anyway. We headed to the Uffizi gallery first. Wow, that museum is huge! There were a ton of paintings and statues - just the amount of art in one place was impressive. The most popular parts were the few Da Vinci and Michelangelo paintings. I didn’t get a picture, but I also loved the shield with medusa’s head painted on it. We found a little sandwich shop called Antico Noe and had some roast beef paninis on a little back road afterwards (we were starving! We were expecting a food tour!). Afterwards, we found a little pastry shop and split a chocolate ganache tart with some coffee. Oooh yummy! The never-ending bakery options were heaven to Amanda! Then we wandered around looking for the Christmas market. We thought we found it, but what we found was actually a tiny little market square, with some church bake sale going on. Eventually, we wandered into the real Christmas market, which is significantly bigger and in a large square. It’s mostly German food and imported things. A little underwhelming.

We still had half a day left before the shuttle was coming back, so we decided to visit the Boboli Gardens. These are the expansive sculpture gardens behind the Pitti Palace, which was home to Cosimo I of the Medici family. Holy cow, that place is massive! And beautiful, too! We saw a man feeding some ducks and pigeons in a pond, and a happy kid playing with the pigeons - a couple of nice, memorable moments. Along with the Boboli Gardens ticket, we got access to a costume museum, which we visited after exhausting ourselves in the gardens. The old clothing was neat, especially the clothes that the royal family (Cosimo I and Eleanora) had been buried in, although it was a bit morbid. Afterwards, we popped into a pastry shop for a cannoli - Amanda had been looking for a good one. We split it and it was really yummy! I wish we had gotten two. For dinner, Mandy was feeling a little homesick and found some American place called The Diner. It was weird to see a depiction of US culture in Italy - they had paintings of historical desegregation moments and fat people on the walls! I had some particularly odd pureed chicken soup, and Amanda ate a burger and fries. The burger wasn’t bad! Not long after we ate, we got picked up and went to bed around 8 PM. This was one of the most exhausting days of my life. We walked a total of 10 miles, and boy were our legs sore!

12/19/2016 (Florence)

We slept well last night. We had to get up early today to catch the real food tour, which was rough but we managed. We ate a little more this morning than yesterday, because it was painful to deprive ourselves of delicious free breakfast two days in a row, and we headed out to our first stop - a butcher shop! There were wild boar heads on the wall, sausages hanging from the ceiling, and tons of prosciuttos curing on the walls. It was like nothing I’ve ever seen before. There were seven of us on the tour - four from Wisconson and one other guy from Suwanee, GA (where I grew up)! Small world! Everyone was really nice, including our amazing tour guide, Martina. We started off by tasting a few prosciuttos, one cured with only salt and one with black pepper added. We went to a bakery next. We had some coccoli (a savory fried bread donut thing) with mozzarella and tomato inside. The next stop was the big one - the central market - a giant, two story farmer’s market. We ate some sandwiches with boiled brisket on the bottom floor and took a short break for some coffee and shopping upstairs. After the break, we hit up a pastry shop for some cream pasteries (very big buttery custard danish-type things) and headed to an enoteca - a wine bar - to have some crostini and wine. This place was small but packed full of wine, oil, balsamic vinegar and a variety of cheeses for sale. Here I learned that real balsamic vinegar is incredible, but expensive. It costs 90 euros for a small bottle, fermented and bottled by the Modena government. Olive oil in Italy also has a much stronger flavor, which is quite nice. All of the crostini and appetizer-type things we ate were good as well, except the “special treat” of a liver-based topping, Crostini Toscani, which we didn’t like. The wines we tasted here were good, but the real stars of this stop were the oil and vinegar, surprisingly! The last stop on the tour was a chocolate shop called Vestri. The family who owns this place controls every step of the chocolate production, from the cacao farm to finished chocolate. The chocolate was some of the best we’ve ever had; I tried a sipping chocolate “shot” with some anice liqueur. Yum. We then parted ways. I highly recommend doing one of these food tours in Florence; it was probably our favorite part of the whole trip.

We had two hours before our shuttle was scheduled to pick us up, so we decided to check out the Museo Galilei before heading back to the hotel. This was a very interesting museum, containing lots of old scientific tools. One of the most impressive was a three dimensional “map of the universe” that took 5 years to complete. Lots of other hidden treasures in here as well. I’m glad we went; it was a nice break from art museums, but it was torture that we couldn’t play with the amazing tools and devices! Afterwards, we waited for our shuttle for 15 minutes before realizing…they weren’t coming. We had to find a phone to use to call the hotel. We walked and walked, looking for pay phones, which were all BROKEN, or tourism offices, which were completely unhelpful! Eventually, we came across another hotel and asked the concierge (named Eliza - We’ll never forget her because it felt like she was saving our lives!!) to help us out. She got a hold of the shuttle and we were able to finally get picked up soon after. We were stranded for a minute, though, after an extremely long day! I was getting very cranky. We rested for a few hours before heading down to San Miniaio Square for dinner. We ate pizza with delicious Italian toppings like truffles and prosciutto. It was lovely. It’s supposed to rain tomorrow but we’re going to try to see David and finish our Christmas shopping. Other than that, we’ll try to relax and get ready for the trip home. Amanda has been nocturnal since her night up with food poisoning, and her neck still can’t turn, so we will try visiting a pharmacy tomorrow.

12/20/2016 (Florence)

We did get some relaxation in today! Breakfast was good, but Amanda tried to get by on cheese and honey (a weird choice). We slept in a bit and headed out of the hotel around 10:00. We immediately headed towards the Accademia Gallery, where David is located. After waiting in a line for about 20 minutes, we made it in. Everyone and their mother told us to pre-purchase a ticket online to skip the waiting part. We should have listened, but it could have been much worse! The museum isn’t very big; it’s just a single corridor and a few rooms. The main attraction really is David. It is hugely impressive, though. We both found the full-size statue remarkable. We spent probably 20 minutes there, staring at the giant statue and browsing some of Michelangelo’s unfinished sculptures. Afterwards, it was shopping day! First, we found a reputable leather shop and got Amanda a new purse. This place was in the market square, so we picked up some veggie samosas from a hole in the wall Indian restaurant for lunch while we were in the area. The next stop was the huge central market for food-related gifts! Here, we got some cheese, oil, vinegar and coffee for our friends and family. We also caved and bought some traditional balsamic vinegar for ourselves. The last stop we made was at Massimo Ravinale for some silk; the man who helped us out was notably very helpful. After a quick last-minute cannoli (we can’t stop eating dessert in between every meal!), we went back to the hotel and packed some stuff up in preparation for tomorrow. And we binge watched Please Like Me (it’s an Australian show on European Netflix here). It was a nice stretch of relaxation we’d been needing. At 7:30, we went to dinner at a place called Zeb, which was recommended by our food tour guide. We had two types of ravioli (pear-peccorino and yellow pumpkin with butter sauce), a peppery beef stew called peposo, a few glasses of wine and a salted chocolate torte. It was the best meal we had in Italy. A perfect way to end our trip to Florence! We leave in the morning (at 5:00 AM) and will really miss it here. The whole experience was unforgettable!