Italy, Switzerland and Captiva Island: Homemade pasta, amazing wine, Swiss chocolate, and turquoise water
Hello from Captiva Island, Florida! Clay and I safely returned to the States last Friday night (June 24th) after a whirlwind of traveling on trains, planes, and cars. We must admit — there is nothing quite like home.
Italy offered the perfect combination of boisterous, kind-hearted people, scrumptious food, to-die-for wine, and hilly, green landscapes, which met all of our idealistic, romantic expectations for it. After overnight flights from Mumbai to Zurich to Rome, we were thrilled to arrive in a lively city with so much history. With an intent to return to Rome, we knew we could only fit so much in our less-than-24-hour stay. We took a rather expensive taxi from the airport to our beautiful hotel (Hotel Villa Duse) in the north side of Rome. After showering off our travel dirt, we headed out for a quick pizza lunch, a visit to the truly colossal Colosseum and a tour of the Roman Forum. Clay and I soaked in the views and history while we listened to Rick Steve’s free “tour” on my iPhone. (From my perspective, this is a great way to save money, yet learn some of the history. I am sure there are also other similar options available.) After the Roman Forum area, we booked it over to the Pantheon, grabbed our first taste of gelato, which quickly got us addicted… yes, addicted! We didn’t go another day without it while in Italy. Then, we taxied across the city to the Borghese Gallery. The Gallery was our first formal view of paintings and statues in Italy. After starting our walk through the Gallery, we soon realized we should have invested in the 5 euro audio tour. Nonetheless, we tried to appreciate the art as much as possible with the minimal knowledge provided by brief handouts in each room. Afterward, we walked through the gardens nearby, saw the Spanish Steps, then ate dinner at a local place on a side street. Dinner seemed touristy and mainstream. Next time we decided we would search harder for a “ma and pa” place on a side street. Homemade pasta and tiramisu? Mmm.
The next morning we took a train to Florence. We loved seeing the countryside on the 3-hour ride and were delighted when we arrived in the smaller, more walkable town of Florence. We stayed at a “hotel” called Casa Rabatti — it’s actually the home of a woman, Marcella, about my grandmother’s age who spoke minimal English but managed to thoroughly communicate all her excitement and joy about our arrival and stay. I didn’t do quite as good of a job at communicating my thoughts. She asked if we were on our honeymoon, and I smiled and slowly said, “Actually, we have been married 1 year, but this is like my second honeymoon!” She looked at me confused and said,”Oh, complicado.” So… I think she thinks I have been married twice, or am married to two people, or something. Ahh, if only I could remember all that Italian I learned in high school! Anyhow, we loved Florence. We soaked in all the art, architecture, and lovely culture. We enjoyed being next to the central market where we got breakfast and lunch one day. We shopped and explored and ate tons of gelato. It was fabulous.
The next day we rented a car in Florence to drive to Montepulciano, a small town in the south of Tuscany. Let’s just say renting a car and driving in Florence is not nearly as simple as one might assume. They have these things called, “Z.T.L’s” — zone traffico limitado, or something like that. Anyhow, you are not supposed to enter these zones because they are private or historical areas. There are discrete cameras situated just right to photograph your license plate if you enter the zones. Apparently, you get a 90 euro ticket if you enter them. Well, somehow, we kept getting stuck on one-way streets or roundabouts that forced us to enter these zones. At one point, we found ourselves circling a roundabout over and over trying to decide what to do because all the exits had Z.T.L. signs. Ahh! Anyhow, hopefully we don’t receive too many tickets in the mail. Oh dear. Aside from that, it was fun driving our small Citroen through Tuscany to the town. We arrived at our agriturismo, Le Caggliole, and quickly fell in love with Montepulciano. It is exactly what you picture when you think of Tuscany — or at least what I have always imagined. Narrow, cobblestone streets. Vineyards everywhere. Local shops and old buildings. Kind, bubbly people. Gorgeous sunsets. Ah! The next day, we rented bikes and road through the hilly countryside to Pienza where we grabbed lunch. So fun. Other than realizing that 12 km seems much farther when there are constant hills, no road shoulders, and speeding cars and you’re on a 7-speed hybrid bike… we thought the ride was perfect. Highly recommended. We participated in Montepulciano’s wine festival that night (5 glasses of local Vino Nobile, a yummy red wine + 5 glasses of local Prosecco — like Champagne or bubbly wine) and had a great Italian pizza dinner!
After Montepulciano, we drove to La Spezia to grab the train to Cinque Terre (Vernazza, the fourth town, in particular). The drive took a few hours longer than expected when we realized that we had no GPS and our Google Map-printed directions were less than adequate. And so the adventures continued… Cinque Terre provided another much appreciated relaxing, quaint stay. Our hotel (L’Eremo) sat on a hill above Vernazza. It overlooked the town, and we arrived just in time to see the sun setting over the sea and mountains. Gorgeous. The next day we hiked through the 5 (cinque) towns stopping along the way to tour the streets, grab lunch and enjoy the beaches. I had one of my most memorable meals in Riomaggiore — sauteed swordfish, salad and wine. In Monterosso, we sunbathed for two hours on the beach and found ourselves next to French, topless teenage girls! Oh, Italian beaches. Clay and I look forward to returning to Cinque Terre someday (soon, hopefully). Our time was far too short.
From Cinque Terre, we took the train to La Spezia, the nearby “metropolitan” town. While we had reservations at a hotel, somehow the sketchy reception office was closed. Later attempts to call the hotel on a pay phone also proved fruitless. So, we found ourselves roaming through the town with all our luggage and, after 30-minutes or so, we saw our first hotel where we bargained for a room. The next morning we took the 5:02am train from La Spezia to Milan to Zurich. We arrived in Zurich around 1:30pm and quickly began exploring the city. We discovered that Zurich is perhaps the most expensive place we have ever been (let’s just say lunch at a casual cafe, which included a salad, a sandwich, and 2 drinks, was $70 USD…). We shopped a little for Swiss chocolate, wandered the streets, people watched, and enjoyed a fabulous dinner. At around 11pm, we took the train to the Zurich airport, found a couch at the closed Starbucks in the airport, and “slept” until we had to board our plane at 5am. While we saved money, sleeping in the airport was quite memorable. We were serenaded all night by music artists including Justin Bieber, Nora Jones and Jack Johnson through the speakers that rested directly above our heads. We were accompanied by homeless men on the neighboring couches. We were awakened by loud machines cleaning the tile floors for about 2 hours. And we were constantly keeping a peeping eye to make sure our luggage remained untouched and safe. Boarding that plane felt good, and thoughts of home seemed even better!
After making it through customs in Miami and after traveling for over 45 hours, we soon discovered our flight out of Miami to Fort Myers had been canceled — and apparently it had been canceled for 3 months, yet we did not know. Strange. It was 1:30 pm in Miami, and the next flight out wasn’t until 9 pm. So, with adrenaline inspiring us to get to Captiva Island as quickly as possible, we rented a car and drove across the state of Florida along Alligator Ally. It was a gorgeous drive through the Everglades, and in a state of tired delirium all we could do was laugh. We arrived at 7:30 pm in Captiva and were welcomed by a beautiful sunset, loving family and relaxation. It has been amazing.
Thanks for reading the blog during our trip! I apologize we did not have the opportunity to update it as often as we had anticipated. Look for more posts. Now that we are in the States, we hope to post more pictures and add some videos of our excursions. Thanks for all your comments. We have appreciated them so much.
Guest writer: Clay Cowherd
Well, here we are in beautiful Italy enjoying great food and wine and Cinque Terre’s wonderful, hillside scenery. God has continually blessed us on our adventures abroad, and each day has been phenomenal from the day we set sail. The task of the moment is to catch you up on our whirlwind tour of India. A country approximately one-third the land mass of the U.S., we miraculously managed to see many of the sites and cities of the northern half. After arriving in New Delhi, we met up with our Australian friends, Nick and Ashlea, and tasted India’s best in a high-rise rotating restaurant. Our first meal was phenomenal, one of the best (naan, veg and lamb curries, “cottage cheese”, etc.). The Hotel Palace Heights was also amazing, but we only slept a bit before waking up early to catch a train to Agra to visit the shockingly large Taj Mahal. A tomb for an emperor’s wife, the structure is hard to describe in words – see pictures!!
It rained lightly while we visited to the Taj, which made for some relatively gross puddles outside the palace, but the grounds of the Taj were immaculate and the drizzle helped cool us off – far better than 115 degrees! One surprising experience that began in Agra, but was pervasive throughout our time in India, was being asked to be in photos with the locals and Indian tourists. Sure, it feels good to be a celebrity, but it is a curious thing to be on the mantles of random families across the world – simply for accomplishing our birth from european descent. There were so few western tourists, and SO many Indians, that we stood out like 9-foot tall Ewoks from the planet Endor.
In addition to the spectacular Taj, we visited two forts, centuries old and unique to the region – our first days in India were delivering heavy doses of history. The train station, however, delivered a dose of nausea. Rats are not cool. Flying ants, also uncool. Cows eating trash on train platforms, just weird. Feces drained from train cars directly onto the tracks, unpleasant. Thousands of strange people (95% middle-aged men), walking and pushing as if they were driving rickshaws in a crowded round-a-bout… overwhelming. Nonetheless, we survived our first train, with first class providing an acceptable ride.
Another wonderful night in Delhi preceded our 24-hour stint in Varanasi – an over-the-top cultural experience that rivaled any of my life here before. We flew in to this small, east-central city that serves as one of the, if not the most important, Hindu holy cities. Thousands upon thousands of Indian tourists arrive by over-capacity greyhound buses (with luggage strapped on top) for a stay in Varanasi. Due to the holy nature of this city on the shore of the Ganges River, many deceased Hindus are brought to Varanasi (atop vehicles) for proper burning\burial in the sacred river. At both sunrise and sunset, we witnessed many rituals first-hand as we coasted along the slowly moving river in a 14′ boat with Nick & Ashlea, our guide and a boatman. This river amazingly serves many purposes – a burial site, a holy bathing place and a water source, among others. Varanasi was, in a word, extraordinary – while I hope the pictures explain, I know they cannot begin to describe the true scene, spectacle and emotions within.
A long flight to the west led us to Jaipur, the Gem town of north India. With only a day and a half to explore it, we did not give Jaipur a fair chance to share its glory. We did however, visit another colorful fort and nearly caught an elephant ride – if not for the heat (the animals were overheating and needed a bath…for the rest of the day). We also took a “walking tour” per Nick’s Lonely Planet book, which was more of a dusty meandering, heat-stroke inducing, dehydration tour of an inland Indian hub (read – traffic, markets, bazaars, and thousands of salesman encouraging you to buy at least a scarf, 2 pairs of shoes and a musical instrument).
Udaipur, an overnight train south of Jaipur, was phenomenal. One of only a few spots where we planned 2 or more nights, we could have stayed longer. The Venice of the East (as referenced by Lonely Planet), is on the steep banks of Lake Pichola and overlooks the Lake Palace – made famous by James Bond and Octopussy. We planned on dinner at the palace, but it has become an exclusive 5-star resort and does not allow visitors to set foot on the island without a 400-dollar reservation. Sad. Regardless, we had spectacular waterfront breezes and views, great Indian food and memorable encounters with friendly locals. On our second day, we enjoyed a 5-hour cooking class, followed by a feast of Rachael’s labors. 12 dishes were taught by Shashi, a widow turned capitalist who charges what seems like a meager 10 dollar/person fee (includes food), but is a local fortune, and she is always jam-packed.
On our way to Italy, we wanted a day in Mumbai to finish off the tour of our newfound head-waggling friend named India. Arriving at the airport, we were surprised to learn that the domestic strip was about 20 miles from the international terminal. A chaotic taxi-ride later, we were also a bit surprised that we were not allowed to enter the international terminal to leave our bags for the day, despite the “left luggage” counter being in eye-sight of the machine-gun guarded entryway. An hour later and some dread about our baggage security, we took a cab into the Colaba district known for the Gateway of India and the nearby 5-star Taj Mahal Hotel. A bit of rain and many more perky shoulder-tapping salesman nearly pushed us over the edge, but we loved our trip too much to change attitude now. We enjoyed Mumbai mostly from the luxurious safe haven of the Taj Hotel. Milkshakes in the afternoon and world-class Sushi in the evening, prepared by an Iron Chef apprentice, were truly amazing.
This glimpse into the 8-day adventure couldn’t possibly describe the Indian experience – incredible as it was, it is truly one that must be seen, heard, felt and smelled first-hand. Italy to come….