Finally! After saving up all our vacation time all year, our big annual trip to Italy has arrived. The plan is a 23-day trip that will be based in Tuscany as our home base with a 5-night jaunt to Berlin for some proper techno and our first visitors at the house. Day 1 is spent flying to JFK in NYC with a ridiculously overpriced dinner at The Palm Steakhouse during our 4 hour layover. The end of the first day and the beginning of the second is spent on our favorite flight, Emirates A380 to Milan. We are pretty much pro’s at this transition point now as we clear immigration, grab our bags and take off in our Hertz rental car in about 30 minutes. Aleth loves Milan for shopping so we decide to spend a night. During our flight I booked a room in Milan using the HotelTonight app and now things start happening.
After completing the hotel booking we are provided the address of the place and when I check Google Maps it is located like 1-block from the Duomo. The roads in this part of Milan are very narrow and don’t get much traffic as there are tourists everywhere! We navigate to the address but realize the entrance is on the street parallel to the provided address. I need to turn the car around without hitting any of the tourists and it is now when I realize that I don’t know how to put the car in reverse.
Oh yes, despite renting an automatic car it wasn’t until we were 15 miles or so away from the airport that I realized they gave me a manual transmission. So now we are stuck on this tiny street, needing to turn around and for the life of me cannot figure out how to get the car in reverse. Thank God for YouTube as Aleth and I are both searching for a video that explains how to put this car in reverse. Tensions are rising as quickly as the level of embarrassment. Viola, you pull UP on the stick shift when putting the car in reverse and not the usual push down movement. Lesson learned and we are back at it. Given the one-way tangle of tiny roads it takes about a mile of driving to go around the block to arrive at the hotel entrance. When we arrive we are told this is the rental company’s office and not the location of the apartment so another 15 minute drive to the correct location and we realize we stayed here last time in Milan.
Now things get real as this is the entrance to the car park at our apartment for the night. I am not joking when I tell you there isn’t more than 10 centimeters (yes, we are on metric) side clearance to get into the parking area. I am tired, frustrated and dealing with what feels like an impossible task and then CRUNCH…I scrape the heck out of the front left bumper. It is bad, really bad and I am beyond depressed expecting a $1,000+ damage bill for my haste to park. More to come on this later. The rest of our day in Milan is restful with naps, Aperol Spritzes and Veal Milanese dinner.
The next morning we fuel up on some cappuccinos, carefully get out of the parking spot and make the 3 hour drive to our house in Cortila.
There is always a bit of anxiety when returning to the house after a year away. Is anything broken, how many spiders have moved in and how do the new things we ordered look? We are very happy and relieved to find everything in good shape, no visible problems. We immediately go into hospitality mode as our first visitor (Kenny) will be arriving in Pisa in 2 days. Unpacking new bedding, making the bed, laying out towels, sweeping, vacuuming, dusting and we are ready for our first guest. Time to reward ourselves with some pizza and pasta over the next couple of days, yum!
We pick Kenny up at Galileo Galilei Airport in Pisa and decide to spend two nights in Florence at an Airbnb that I arranged beforehand. Our Airbnb apartment in Florence was ideal with 2 bedrooms and 2 bathrooms. We pretty much spend the next few days eating and drinking our way through Florence. The big plan was to visit museums, but they are closed on Mondays and we figured that out on Sunday night. So back to eating and drinking. I cannot express enough the endless number of options for eating in any Italian city, so we do quite a bit of research using TripAdvisor and local blogs. Below are a few of our favorite dishes.
One of the highlights of our time in Florence was discovering our friend Clark from San Francisco was also in Florence celebrating his honeymoon so we shared some time at the Westin Excelsior lounge, Crafted. Sorry about the poor photo quality, maybe it was the lighting or the strong drinks. Good times!
The next morning we head back to Cortila for some quiet time at the house. My big project over the winter/spring was to remove this really old/ugly green fencing from our outdoor patio and replace it with a wall, not in the Trump sense. I think the masons did a spectacular job, I love the new wall! Final project outside will be a wooden pergola because it is very hot in the summer sunshine…next spring’s project.
Our next visitor, Angie, is due to arrive today so back to Pisa airport to pick her up and we decide to check out Viareggio, a really neat seaside town that really reminds me of the boardwalk in Santa Monica. The sunset was beautiful on this evening.
The next day we took a ferry from Lerici to Cinque Terre, in particular Vernazza. I would highly recommend the ferry ride as you get to see all the small towns from the water that make up Cinque Terre. It was a very hot day and we arrived around Noon so straight to lunch for some food, wine and shade. We went to Al Castello restaurant which you can find after climbing 150 or so steps towards the castle that dominates the picturesque views of the Ligurian Sea. We enjoy the food and grumpy servers, but online reviews suggest you can find much better places to eat here.
By the time lunch ended it was at least 90 degrees so Kenny and I decided to go for a swim. The water was cool and quite refreshing. I recommend you plan ahead for a swim in Cinque Terre if the weather is hot. To quote Kenny “highlight of the trip.” We take the ferry back to Lerici and more food on the way home. The next morning we are back at the airport in Pisa to return the damaged rental car. We have an early flight so I leave the car in the returns lot, drop the keys in the drop box and pray. Before our flight departs an email from Hertz has arrived, the verdict is in. What’s the damage? Nothing, no additional fees. I am shocked and very happy. How did they miss it? I wish I took a photo, but it was ridiculously bad. Angie had some Magic Eraser sponge thingy that Kenny used on the scratches and it seems to clean them up a bit but the damage was still there. Maybe it masked it a bit better? Whatever the case, thanks to Kenny/Angie for the effort…lets go to Berlin.
We are heading to Berlin to check out the world famous techno nightclubs. This has been on Aleth’s bucket list forever and it is finally happening. A quick 60 minute $100 flight on Ryanair and we are in Berlin. We love the ability and freedom to be in another European city in under 60 minutes on reasonably priced flights as Europe offers many low cost airlines. We check into the funky, cantilevered nhow Hotel situated on the Spree River. We really liked the hotel’s architectural feature and wild interior design, but our in-room WiFi was terrible and you needed to stand near the door to pick up the signal. We called the front desk and their questions insinuated we don’t know how to use WiFi. Oh well, time for some Korean food for lunch, a disco nap and then we head out to meet Kenny, Angie and Emma for cocktails before going to Kater Blau nightclub. Emma is Angie’s friend from New York who has joined the crew. Allow me to explain that Berlin takes their nightclubs quite seriously and that means you need to appear “worthy” to be allowed admission. When we arrive a Kater Blau there are about 100 people lined up awaiting their moment of judgement. Another note, drinking beer in public is permitted as every 3rd or 4th person walking around is carrying an open beer at all times of the day and night. It looks like we have a bit of a wait ahead so Angie and Emma go beer shopping so we remain refreshed while in line. Thirty minutes later and it is our turn, Aleth and I stand waiting as the woman at the door examines us and barks out something in German. We have no idea what she is saying so Aleth offers her passport and with that our dreams of Kater Blau are over as the door host stands up, says something to a massive bouncer and then she walks away. The burly bouncer announces “Sorry, not tonight.” Huh, what just happened? Denied!
Was it our clothes, maybe it was the passport, perhaps our lack of German language? Angie, Emma and Kenny waltz right in. Aleth and I decide to check out another club called Watergate which is nearby our hotel just in case we go 0-2 on the admission process. Things at Watergate go much better and we get a taste of what proper techno in Berlin is all about. Our favorite DJ for the night was Gabriel Serrasqueiro from Argentina and now we understand why everyone makes such a big deal about music in Berlin…it’s damn good. The sun is coming up and we decide it’s time for some sleep so we can enjoy day ahead.
While Berlin offers good public transportation and awesome bike lanes on most sidewalks, we decide to walk and check out the East Side Gallery (Berlin Wall), which is a wild mix of commissioned artists along side very talented street graffiti artists.
We walked about 14 miles while exploring coffee shops, restaurants and even a shopping mall (forgot my belt at home). Another disco nap and the moment has arrived, tonight we attempt to gain admission to what is known as “the toughest door in the world”, Berghain nightclub. We have read all the stories of advice on what to do and what not to do. Berghain is a an old railway warehouse that has been converted to Mecca for techno fans and it is guarded by this guy, Sven Marquardt.
We arrived just as they were opening at Midnight on Saturday evening and will remain opened until mid-day Monday. The line was beyond ridiculous with no less than 800 people awaiting Sven’s judgement. We decided to check out a few other clubs and return when the line isn’t so bad. We went to Salon and About Blank, both were very cool and as someone who owned/operated nightclubs for some time in San Francisco it is amazing what is allowed in Berlin versus the US. We have to deal with ADA compliant bathrooms, sprinkler systems, proper walkway lighting while Berlin venues are built in abandoned factories/houses where patrons are allowed to smoke indoors, climb old narrow staircases and get lost in what feels like a catacomb of random dark rooms. I loved the gritty, anti-Vegas style of Berlin nightclubs where everything is focused on the music. It is time to return to Berghain to see if we have what it takes. Sven has departed his nightshift, the previous 800 anxious folks waiting in line have been judged and we approach the front door wearing the recommended black clothing.
There are no questions, the door host smiles/waves “come in” and with that we have accomplished the forbidden, Berghain! This place is vast, the techno is loud and superb, the crowd is diverse and it is now that I realize Sven isn’t being a jerk when he rejects 2/3rds of the hopeful people at the door but instead he is creating a diverse, eclectic crowd. Of course, it is easy to offer this analysis once you are inside. We listened to great techno for 4-5 hours and explored this industrial shrine to music. I won’t get into it here but you will see a bit of everything and it somehow perfectly fit this venue. Well done DJ’s, Sven and Berghain staff!
The next two days in Berlin are for eating pork schnitzel, drinking craft coffee/beer and lots of walking (10 miles/day). We’d recommend Happy Baristas as the best coffee spot with Tres Cabezas as a close second. They are 600 meters apart so give them both a try. The weather most of our time in Berlin was 60-70 and overcast. Overall, my impression of Berlin was somewhat neutral. The nightclubs were great, the restaurants and bar were good but the people, architecture and general vibe were somewhat drab. Everyone in Berlin wears black or some variation of dark grey and this uniformity or lack of creativity seems reflected in so much of their environment. Much of Berlin was destroyed in World War II, so I guess I expected more zest and style in their recent building. Instead, Berlin felt like one developer built all the houses and office buildings with the same bricks. Maybe I’m spoiled by the buildings of Florence, Milan, Rome and Venice. Speaking of which, the next day we fly back to Pisa for some well earned rest.
For the sake of this post not continuing for another ten thousand words, I will provide a fast forward version on the remaining 10 days in Italy. We must have been inspired by our discovery the seaside town, Viareggio as we unknowingly focused most of our final days exploring more small towns along the Lugarian coast. Our friend Paul formerly of California, now NYC happened to be in Italy taking care of some work on the home they just purchased in the Piemonte area so we decided to split the distance and meet in Santa Margherita Lugire for lunch.
Aleth and I instantly fell in love with this town. It’s really hard to describe but winding roads filled with small shops for clothing, kitchen gadgets, shoes, food, restaurants and wine bars. We liked it so much so that we had to return two days later to spend a night at Hotel Tigullio, which is centrally located allowing you to follow the red carpet path that runs endlessly from this town all the way to Portofino. We had a great seafood lunch with Paul at Antonio’s and lucky for us Paul broke out a delicious bottle of Barolo after we polished of a bottle of Prosecco. The night we stayed in SML, we had dinner at Angolo 48 and we’d highly recommend this place for a great meal in a fun, outdoor setting. A few days later we continue down the coast and arrive at Portofino. While very similar to SML, but Portofino offers luxurious retail stores like Louis Vuitton, Celine, Bottega Veneta and Cartier…I was scared of the damage Aleth could do in this designer-filled seaside village. Portofino is quite small so we walked down from the central car park, had a great lunch at Ristorante da I Gemelli, browsed the stores and then the 90-minute drive back home. As we get home this evening, it start to sink in that the end of our vacation is approaching.
We decided to spend our last few days around the house being lazy with one last trip to Viareggio for some beach time and a fancy pants dinner at Ristorante Piccolo Principe. Piccolo is a 2-star Michelin rated restaurant so we wanted to see what that would be like in a place like Italy where the smallest places pump out high quality food. We went big and ordered the Tasting Menu, one seafood and one meat. They say it is 6 courses with a few treats from the chef, it ended up being about 13 courses and we were beyond stuffed at the end. I would say the food and service were on par with 1-Michelin star, but the desserts were 5-star and absolutely out of this world. Here is a slideshow of some of the dishes we remembered to photograph before diving in.
Time has flown by and it is time to make the long, painful journey home. Three-hour drive to Milan, nine-hour flight to JFK, six-hour flight to SFO and our bags are lost on the final leg. Luckily, 3 days later Jetblue delivers the bags, whew! It was another spectacular trip to Europe, really fun sharing with friends and already planning our flights back for next year. Ciao!