The beginning ....

The beginning ....
our engagement night!

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

The Trip of a Lifetime

“We must go beyond textbooks, go out into the bypaths and untrodden depths of the wilderness and travel and explore and tell the world the glories of our journey.” –John Hope

It took us 103 days and we set foot on five different continents. We visited 12 different countries and explored 52 cities. We traveled on big planes and puddle jumpers, cruise ships and ferries. We took trains and buses, and even rented a car, scooter and ATV to get around. But most of the time, once we were in a city, we simply walked.

We were able to see some of the most coveted treasures that our world boasts; the Pyramids, the Sistine Chapel, the Pantheon, Ephesus, the Sea of Galilee, etc….. We walked on beaches in Brazil, Turkey, Barcelona, Cinque Terre, the Amalfi Coast, and so many more. We tried new and interesting foods in most countries and we almost always indulged in their local wines as well. We met new friends along the way, but we continually missed ours back home.

We fell in love with many places like Tuscany, Bodrum, Barcelona and Buenos Aries. Others, like Cairo, Casablanca and Lisbon, are places that we were happy to leave behind.

This trip took a lot of planning, but we were also spontaneous when we could be. We hit a few snags along the way and the path wasn’t always easy. The language barrier and way of life was an eye opener, as was the poverty in many countries. One of the main lessons we learned from this adventure was to never take the US for granted again. Our quality of life is so far above the rest of the world that we sometimes don’t realize just how lucky we are. I can see why other countries think we are all wealthy here; we have a roof over our head to keep us safe from the elements, a car to get us around, food to eat, drinkable water from our faucets, a warm shower, movies to watch and fancy coffee houses on every corner. I will never again feel entitled to these basic comforts after seeing how others struggle so hard for such rudimentary things.

Yet, for every story of poverty or pollution, we have two that show the beauty of God’s creations and the compassion of mankind. We have posted some of our favorite pictures from the journey to prove just this point.

Although we wouldn’t do an expedition like this ever again, it was indeed the trip of a lifetime….and we feel so blessed to have been able to take it. We have truly created memories that will last a lifetime. And after spending 24/7 with my new wife for over 100 days, living out of small carry on suitcases, I feel certain that we will too!

In closing, we want to thank you for reading each week and for keeping us in your prayers. I hope you were able to live vicariously through us as we explored a good portion of our planet. Perhaps we have given you some ideas for your future travels, or maybe you just got a good laugh or two? Either way, blogging about our escapades and knowing that those closest to us would be following along helped us stay connected with what really matters in life, friends and family…..and for that, we are sincerely grateful.

Bon voyage and bona fortuna!

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Buenos Aries

The exhausted curmudgeon that wrote the last two blogs is now gone, thanks to Buenos Aries.
After the trials on the ship and the letdowns in Brazil, we really needed a great city to pick up our battered and downtrodden spirits. We weren’t asking for much, just a clean, safe, enjoyable city. This town has not only met our expectations, but has also moved up the ranks to one of our favorite cities of the entire trip. Let me tell you what has made Buenos Aries so magical…..

First of all, our hotel was exactly as it was advertised. This alone was a victory. The website stated that the hotel was directly in front of the Recoleta Cemetery, one of the most relevant historical and artistic monuments in the country. When we checked into our room, we were treated to an amazing view of the entire cemetery and surrounding park from our top floor balcony. We ended up spending a lot of time on that balcony over the next days. We would pick out interesting gravestones from our perched view that we wanted to find when we explored the hallowed grounds. The cemetery was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. The seemingly endless rows of individualized mausoleums were both exquisite and eerie at the same time. Some graves dated backed to the early 1800’s while others were only a decade old. We even found the resting place of the famous Evita. After viewing it from above and then exploring its grounds, I can see why this cemetery is one of the most noteworthy sights in all of Buenos Aries.

On our first full day here, it just so happens that in was a national holiday, The Feast of the Immaculate Conception. We strolled through the Palermo district and caught the beginning of a marathon in the Jorge Newberry Park. This was just one of many beautiful recreational areas in Palermo. After a quick jaunt through the Soho neighborhood, we headed back to our lodging and discovered that the park beside our hotel had been converted into a festival. We spent the next few hours exploring the local shops, watching tango dancers, listening to local musicians, and enjoying the numerous street performers (including a unique type of tightrope walking). We capped off the day by eating at a little restaurant close by called, “Clarks.” We decided to be brave and tried a blood sausage along with a few appetizers. This was exactly the type of day we needed to reenergize our mental state and lift our spirits.

On our second day, we decided to explore the downtown and port districts. We started out by heading toward Puerto Madero, the newest and most modern part of the city. Once we hit the water, we had to cross a bridge to get to the area. As we sauntered along the boardwalk, we realized that this was indeed more modern than any place we had seen in the last month. Our homesick hearts were warmed by the sight of a Starbucks and a convenience store that sold the cheap, sugary cappuccinos that we both love so much and had been craving. They weren’t quite as good as back in the States, but it was still a welcomed taste of home.

From the port, we crossed back through the San Telmo borough and the Plaza de Mayo on our way to the center of town. This part reminded us of a mini New York. Ancient churches were scattered among modern skyscrapers and endless shops. Historical monuments were blanketed with street vendors selling everything from silly puddy to street meat. It was an entertaining hike through this part of the city, and we were amazed at how different each district in Buenos Aries is from one another.

We wrapped up the day by trying some authentic Argentinean meat dishes. Aside from the entrails and a steak, I don’t know what all the meat we ate actually was, nor am I sure I want to know. We weren’t very impressed, but then again we aren’t big meat eaters, so maybe it’s just our inexperienced palates. That said, we both had a few GI issues that kept us in for the rest of the night.

Just when we thought that BA couldn’t get any better, the weekend arrived. There are so many markets and festivities that take place every weekend, that we won’t be able to explore them all. We went to the one in Palermo, in the Serrano Plaza on Saturday, and also hit the one in our neighborhood as well. We will try for San Telmo tomorrow. All the vendors have amazing prices for their authentic works. There’s jewelry, clothing, artwork, leather products, etc… name it and it’s probably available.

Tomorrow night, we are supposed to meet our friend Tam, from Las Vegas, for dinner. We can’t wait to see her and hear all about here adventures here, as she has been in Buenos Aries for weeks!

Unlike Brazil, we have felt completely safe and at ease. No one has tried to hustle us out of money, nobody we know has been mugged, and the tap water is drinkable. If expecting these basic modern conveniences and experiences while traveling make us the typical American snobs, then that’s a title I will proudly wear for the rest of my life. Buenos Aries, you have revived us……

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

The beaches of Brazil

I will apologize in advance for the brevity of this blog and for not writing more during the cruise. During the boat, it was simply a question of money, but now, I am having computer problems. As I’m writing this, I can only open the laptop to a 45 degree angle, which makes it very uncomfortable to see and thus to write. If only the TSA agents hadn’t confiscated my mini scissors, I might be able to fix it!

Without further ado, here’s our Brazilian beach story……

Our first stop was Fortaleza. We were taken by cab to an amazing beach bar, where we sat in comfortable chairs in the sun while we were served liquid refreshments. Vendors were constantly stopping by in an attempt to peddle their products to all the eager tourists. They offered everything from DVD’s to table cloths. We only opted for some fresh lobster (that was fantastic, by the way) and some cheese on a stick that was cooked right in front of us on metal pot with hot coals. There wasn’t a bit of trash or a single shell in sight, for as far as the eye could see, in each direction. The waves were rough which made for good surfing, as we witnessed. After this wonderful experience, we were extremely excited for the next stop.

Stop two; Recife. This beach didn’t quite live up to our expectations. The drive to get there went by a few too many favelas, and the beach was littered with signs that warned, “Danger! Bathers in this area are at a greater than average risk of shark attack!” Needless to say, neither of us ventured in that day. We capped off the evening by trying some authentic food with our friends, Oline and Francesco. It’s a good thing that Francesco is a chef and likes to try new dishes and always feels obligated to eat all of it, so as to not offend the kitchen. We had some mushy brown goo, stuffed inside crab shells for starters. That was followed up by two massive trays consisting of black-eyed peas, onions, some bread-crumb potato dish and ten massive chunks of salty meat. I suffered through some of it, but Megan opted to eat crackers later.

Maceio was the stop that was rumored to have the best beaches in all of the country. If they did, we sure didn’t find any of them. The first cab tried to drop us off in a shady part of town, telling us we needed to take a boat to the beach. None of us felt comfortable getting out there, so we instructed him to take us to a “nice” beach. We were let out at an empty shoreline that stretched for miles. Upon further inspection, the plethora of trash littering the sand was probably the reason. At long last, we finally found a decent beach that turned out to be a five minute walk from the ship! The water was a little smelly, and our moods were starting to sour.

We were hoping that Salvador Bahia would redeem the last two stops, but it didn’t. This time we asked people who had been before to recommend a beach to visit. After a 45 minute cab ride, we were dumped at what smelled like a actual dump. It was so bad that we couldn’t even stop to ponder our next move. We simple headed for the road and flagged down another taxi. This time, we were actually taken to a beautiful stretch of beach. We were given the table and umbrella, and a perfect spot to people watch. This was reminiscent of the service we received in Fortaleza. We were starting to think that the day would end up all right after all. The water was wonderful and we were entertained by a local beach soccer match while we sipped our drinks and enjoyed the sun. Megan got a beautiful necklace and wrap (that she shrewdly bargained for via drawing prices in the sand). It wasn’t until we were ready to leave that the day really turned bad. Upon receiving the check, we expected it to be similar to the one we received in Fortaleza, if not less. When I saw it, I flipped out! It was four times the other bill. They tried to charges us a table fee of $50 and other underhanded expenses. Of course I refused to pay it and started arguing with the guy whose English was not all that good. It got to the point where I had to threaten to get the Police involved, to which he said, “No, no….no Policia!” I gave him what I thought was fair and walked off. Our friend Francesco added some more that brought it to about half of what he originally asked for.

Rio de Janeiro was our last hope. We started out by visiting the statue of Christ the Redeemer on Corcovado Mountain. Up until just a month ago, this was the tallest statue in the world of Jesus (thanks Poland for ruining the record). It was very foggy when we arrived, and for a minute, I didn’t think it would clear enough for us to see the sculpture, much less the views of the entire city. Just as I was thinking this, a breeze blew in and slowly revealed a massive replica of our Savior, as if he had descended directly from Heaven. It was an amazing sight to behold. This was definitely an exceptional experience. From there we sunk, both literally and ethically, off the mountain to the famous Copacabana. To be honest, I don’t know what the big fuss is all about. It was another long stretch of an average looking shore, lined with drink stands and sand volleyball courts. There was a nice sidewalk and jogging track, but the fumes from the six lane roadway would probably dampen the experience. We explored around for a few hours, probably just because we felt like we had traveled so far that we owed it to ourselves and the town to hang on for as long as we possibly could.

Getting off a boat had never felt as good as it did the next morning (albeit with an hour delay due to some glitch in the immigration process). We hailed a cab to take us to Sao Paulo, which was surprisingly a beautiful drive. We felt like a weight had lifted off of us once we stepped in the airport, knowing we were hours away from leaving Brazil. Of course our flight was delayed, but we finally made it to Buenos Aries around midnight.

As Christ redeems mans’ soul, we can only hope that Buenos Aries will do the same for our opinion of South America.

Monday, November 29, 2010

The Crossing

I have never prayed so hard for patience before in my entire life. It’s bad enough that we had the Visa issues and that the ship was totally unhelpful; if anything they were counterproductive. But what has actually been the worst part of the cruise has been the rude Italians. It is amazing that a country can have such beautiful places, yet such impolite people. Now, I’m sure this isn’t the rule for every Italian, (like our friend Francesco) but there is definitely a truth to the discourteous stereotype.

It all starts with the ship, which is Italian run. After working out the Visa issues, we were excited to kick back and relax, but we started having numerous cabin problems, namely that we didn’t have any hot water. This went on for the next six days. Each day, they would come and look at it, and proclaim it fixed…..only it wasn’t. Finally, they actually shut off the entire water supply one night from 11:00 to 6:00 to work on, “unrelated,” water problems. After that, it finally functioned like a normal shower for the most part.

Now, up until this point, we had been extremely patient, yet insistent that it get fixed and they make us whole, as this was a major issue that has been a thorn in our side for almost a full week. In our last cruise, on Holland America, we had an issue with the air conditioning, which resulted in a quick fix and a $275 ship credit. So naturally, for six days without hot water, we were expecting to get something really nice…….not a shabby fruit plate that appeared the next day! After complaining, I was told that it’s the ships policy to not give any credit or refund no matter what. What a huge difference from the American run ship to the Italian one. I guess it is true; you get what you pay for.

Then, there are the other Italian passengers to deal with. I’ve never had so many people cut right in front of me in a buffet line (or any line for that matter). They act like everyone else is invisible, and they are the only one in the world. It is a snobbish, entitlement mentality that is on my very last nerve.

So, as I said, I’m praying for patience. I’ve started to make sort of a game out if it. For instance, the other night was a formal dinner night in which many people were completely decked out; some even wore tuxedos. Normally, we would have passed on this dinner, as we’ve been traveling for a few months and my tux didn’t quite fit in the carry-on luggage. But, the dinner buffet upstairs was closed, so this was our only option if we wanted any meal other than pizza. So, we planned to apologize to our table for our lack of suit and tie, but we weren’t too concerned because our group was comprised of Canadians and British couples, not Italians.

As we were standing in front of the dining room, waiting for the doors to open, Megan noticed a woman checking us out. When I turned to see what she meant, I was furious to witness a snooty looking elderly lady in a long sequence dress clearly giving us a disgusted look from top to bottom. She then said something to her male companion in Italian and proceeded to repeat the process of judgment and disdain. As my temper instantly rose in my throat, I was a split second from walking over there and giving her a piece of my mind, but then I remembered my earnest prayer, and I instead settled for the puerile act of sticking my tongue out at her…..which turned out to be the correct move, because based on the shocked look on her face, that was the last thing she expected. She looked away and never even glanced back.

I could go on and on about the insolence of most of the Italians on the ship, but you get the point. Luckily we’ve met a wonderful American couple from Miami, a German man who has traveled the world, and even a group of friendly Mormons coming back from a mission.

Since Casablanca, we’ve stopped at two additional ports, Tenerife and Mindelo. Tenerife is actually one of the Canary Islands, and we got to visit the city of Santa Cruz (where we spent our first Thanksgiving as a married couple). It was a nice and modern Spanish city with big beautiful parks and free Wi-Fi everywhere. We used this port to stock up on supplies as we were about to set off across the Atlantic with only a quick stop in the small island of St. Vincent, in Capo Verde, a developing country that only survives due to support from other nations.

The port city was Mindelo, which was apparently a fishing hub and refueling spot for transatlantic travelers. We used the time to stroll through the streets, visit the market, and take in some people watching. Without getting to into details, as I don’t want to spoil anyone’s dinner, I can honestly say that this stop made us realize how good we have it in the U.S…….and also how much we missed home.

We are now on our second straight sea day, with one more to go before hitting Brazil. Our first stop is in Fortaleza, which is famous for its beautiful beaches. This will be a welcome stop and reprieve from the ship…….and its inhabitants.

Hopefully on our next blog, we will have better stories and happier memories to share with you.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Mayhem in Morocco

Our guts were telling us that to get into the insistently boisterous Moroccans’ car was a mistake, but it was the only chance we had to make it to the Brazilian Embassy. Taxi cabs weren’t allowed to leave the city and Rabat was well over 70 kilometers away. As Francesco attempted to negotiate the fare in French, we, along with Oline, another blond haired American girl, waited nervously as the situation seemed to intensify.

After extinguishing all other options, short of ending our trip here and now, we reluctantly got in and sped off. Seconds later we all gasped as the sound of a Muslim prayer chant echoed throughout the car. It took a split second to realize that it was only Abdel’s cell phone. I didn’t realize that those types of ringtones were available to download?!? He seemed to be shouting in an anxious tone at the person on the other line, in a language none of us, including Francesco, understood… for two words; “three Americans!”

Of course, my mind flashed to the numerous movies where wayward Americans unsuspectingly hop into the wrong car and end up in some radical Muslim terror camp.

As if on cue from the director, Abdel quickly pulled over, leapt from the car, spitting out something in French to our friend in the front, and a harsh statement to us in broken English, “We switch cars!”

I could visualize the police report reading, “Three Americans and one Italian, were last seen leaving in a white, late model sedan, with a dented back and excess rust on the right rear door.” An accurate and precise description, but utterly worthless now.

We were in a precarious situation, and I could tell Megan was terrified……

So, how did the Clarks' get themselves into this one? Well, it’s a really long story, but I’ll give you the abridged version.

After leaving Cinque Terre, we took a train north to Genoa to kill a couple days before our transatlantic cruise. Genoa wasn’t anything special, just your typical big Italian city loaded with palazzos and plazas. The best thing about it was that the room had Wi-Fi, so we used our time to plan out the South American leg of our journey.

Two days later, we took another train to the port of Savona to hop on the Costa Fortuna, with our full South American itinerary booked and paid for. It was time to kick back, relax and enjoy the pampering.

As we are checking in, the person in charge of immigration asks for our Visa’s for Brazil. I knew that Visa’s were required for extended stays, but we had checked on-line and discovered that with the cruise ship, as long as we aren’t staying overnight in the country, we wouldn’t need them. That, coupled with the fact that we didn’t receive any information from Costa stating we needed one, nor was there any indication on their website, made us feel 100 percent confident. So, when we were confronted, it was an utter shock.

We were pulled aside and forced to talk to the head immigration officer on the ship, Jose, from Peru. He had both the appearance and demeanor of your typical Central American dictator. I thought he could have easily been a second cousin to Chavez. He advised us to go and find the Visa somewhere in Italy, like Milan, and then fly and catch up with the ship later; knowing full well that few people actually do this once they walk away. He said that there was no way to get one once we were on board. In fact, according to him, there were no Brazilian embassies near any port we stopped at.

After going round and round with him (and getting on the internet and consulting other passengers), we were finally allowed to get on the ship only if we signed a form that required us to get off the ship in Tenerife (the stop after Casablanca) if we didn’t get the proper Visa. I know this must happen all the time, because he pulled out our preprinted forms from a stack that was a few inches thick. For a cruise with only 200 some Americans, the pile would have easily covered them all.

We spent the next two cruise days on-line filling out and printing all the required documents that we would need to take to the embassy in Morocco. It made for a stressful few days. We know of at least six other Americans who just didn’t get on the ship, as the evil Jose advised us to do as well. Of course, there were no refunds at all. I think there might have been more, but I believe that I, Megan and Oline were the only ones who hopped on and chose to risk it. Her boyfriend, Francesco, is Italian and thus doesn’t need a Visa, but he was still in the same literal and proverbial, “boat,” as we were.

We tried to relax a bit in our first port, Malaga. This was a beautiful Spanish town that is probably best known for being the birth place of Picasso. We strolled around town and took in a nice lunch of their local tapas and wine; all the time trying not to think about what might occur the next day in Casablanca…..

As Abdel jumped out of the car to get the new one, I was ready to grab Megan and make a run for it until Francesco explained that this car couldn’t handle the long trip, so he was getting a better car…a Mercedes. We were still a little leery, but decided to stay put.

Once in the newer, and much faster car, we were whisked through town and onto the highway heading toward our only chance to stay on the ship.

Five hours later, we were all safely back on the ship, much to the chagrin on Jose. I guess despots hate to be wrong…..especially when a few young Americans are the ones to prove him so.

Looking back on the entire day, there were definitely some stories that will remain with us forever. Whether it’s Megan getting a massage from Abdel, the embassy representative not knowing how to use the computer, the filthy city of Casablanca, or even Abdel trying to swindle more money out of us in the end (which I refused to pay, by the way), we will forever be grateful that we made it out alive and with our Brazilin Visa’s!

Now, we really can relax……

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Cinque Terre Adventures

We were sad to be heading to La Spezia, where we were dropping off our rental car. It was as if we were inadvertently relinquishing a bit of our newly found freedom along with it. In an effort to delay the inevitable, we decided to stop by the famous “Leaning Tower of Pisa.” I am glad it was on the way, because if we had wasted excess gas on this tourist trap, I would have been sorely disappointed. It’s not that the tower wasn’t cool, it just that it was the only attraction of the entire city, and the “tourist mongers” were in full force for three square blocks; eager to sell you anything from a fake watch to overpriced postcards.

When we reached our room in La Spezia, the launching point for Cinque Terre, we almost yearned to be back in Pisa. Our room had the worst plug in air freshener that either one of us had ever smelled. Even after we unplugged it and placed it outside, the odor lingered like an evil, unstoppable entity. It forced us to quickly pack a make-shift picnic and head for the pier. Megan used the bathroom towels as our table cloth and napkins (see picture), as there was no way we were going to use the shower……the room was far from accommodating. Good thing we had only one night there before heading north to the five villages.

Luckily, our next three nights were spent in a four star luxury hotel that, due to the offseason, was only slightly more expensive than the malodorous room in La Spezia.

Our first day consisted of getting our bearings and exploring our town; which was full of the friendliest people in all of Italy. It was a refreshing change from the past two days. We even stumbled upon a beach fire that we used to warm ourselves as we searched for beach glass and tiles.

Eager to explore the miles and miles of trails, we set off early the next morning. We were equipped with rain gear, as there was a slight chance of showers. The trail from our town to the next one, Monterosso, was supposedly closed due to the weather, but we didn’t see any gates or warning signs, so we happily continued. We did see an old worn out sign, at the actual trailhead, that said, “Monterosso, 2.5” For us, two and a half miles should take an hour at most. As we were trekking through the mountains, with the sea roaring hundreds of feet below, the sky slowly began to turn dark and ominous. As the rain started to fall, we had been hiking over 45 minutes, so we knew we had to be close to the town, and more importantly, shelter. As the weather worsened, our pace was dawdling as the trail slowly evolved into an ever increasing river. We tried to keep a steady tempo as the temperature dropped and the thunder clapped above us. After an hour and a half, we had the scary realization that the sign that read, “2.5” meant hours, not miles!

At this point we weighed our options; try to find shelter on the edge of the cliff and hope ride it out, or continue forward and hope we’re not too far away from town. The flash of lighting that cracked through the black sky at that very moment made the decision for us, and we moved as quickly as the terrain and our soaked clothing would allow.

At long last, as we finally started heading down hill into the town, the trail was nearly flooded. If we had been 15 minutes slower, we would have been in a very precarious situation, as I don’t know if the trail would have been passable. Luckily, we made it to the town and found refuge in a Pizza Café. We took turns going into the restroom to ring out our clothing, and ordered some wine and pizza, for nothing else but the warmth they were sure to provide.

As we were shivering and eating, a group of Americans came in and sat beside us. We quickly struck up a conversation with them and learned that that they lived outside of Palm Springs and were on a “retired group” vacation. As we chatted with our sociable newfound friends, they noticed that we were both still shivering. After I gave Megan my only dry garment, one of them shed his jacket and insisted that I put it on. They even offered to let us use their hotel room to clean up and get warm…… and we had only known them less than an hour. People like this restore our faith in humanity.

We finally thawed out enough to catch the train back to our city, and warmed ourselves in the hotel spa until our core body temperature finally returned to normal.

Ironically, our next day was total sunshine, even though it called for showers. We took advantage of the favorable conditions and explored three of the five villages. We even did some hiking on the open trails…..granted, we had to wear our flip flops because our shoes were still wet, but it was definitely worth it.

We ended the our final day in Cinque Terre by having a lovely lunch on the beach, listening to the waves, enjoying the scenery and the famous pesto; all while the Giant of Neptune was watching our backs (see picture). It was a wonderful way to end our time here.

We both decided that we would come back here before we did the Amalfi Coast again. This region is more appropriate for the type of person who would rather have on hiking shoes than loafers……..Cinque Terre was definitely suited for the Clark’s!

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Tuscany, part 2..... "In Vino Veritas!"

Our next few days in the Tuscan region were spent mostly in San Gimignano and the Chianti region. We started off by getting lost, yet again, despite the fact that we had a Garmin. If I hear the words, “recalculating, recalculating” one more time, I might go mad!

However, once we found our room, we quickly unpacked and set off to see the sights of the city.
We started with the local town, San Gimignano, taking its name from the Holy Bishop of Modena, St. Gimignano, who is said to have saved the village from the barbarian hordes. The uniqueness of the village was its towers. The town is known for its ancient towers, dating from the 11th century, that clearly distinguish this village from all others in Tuscany. We enjoyed the views from atop one of them, where we could actually see the city which we planned to visit the next day; Volterra.

There were three things that distinctly stand out about Volterra.

First of all, it was the first time I actually had to pay for parking. All the other days, when visiting villages, we always hunted for little nooks or crannies in which to fit our tiny car. However, in Volterra, I could feel Megan getting frustrated as I continued to drive around and around the town. Finally, I reluctantly broke down and paid to park. It was a bit deflating to be honest…..but at least we were ready to explore the ancient city.

The next item that stands out about the town is the Parcheggio. We were looking for a unique enoteca that Rick Steve recommended, at the edge of town. When we finally found it, we were sorely disappointed that it was closed for the season. Not to be discouraged, I opened the map and noticed a structure that looked interesting; the Parcheggio. This village had Roman Ruins, rock formations and all sorts of unique history. So although I didn’t know what it was, it looked like a massive structure not too far away, so we headed off. A few minutes later, we left the walls of the city and came upon a half empty parking lot. Bewildered, I consulted the map again to make sure we didn’t wander astray on the curving streets. After I confirmed that we were at the exact spot that the map indicated, I became increasingly agitated until Megan looked at it and started to squint. She suddenly burst out laughing hysterically. Evidentially, I didn’t see the miniscule number “2” beside the Parcheggio. What I had hunted for was actually, “Parking Lot 2.” I was thoroughly embarrassed, and after a quick scan, also ticked off as I noticed that there were available spots…..I shouldn’t have paid for parking!!!!

The final item that stands out from Volterra was the state prison. As you walk along the scenic streets at the east end of the city, you enter a lovely park with a castle looking structure at the end of it. As it turns out, this is a tiny, but high maximum security prison that houses roughly 60 of the worst criminals in Italy. The rationale is that this village is in the middle of nowhere, hours from the nearest airport. If the mafia wanted to make a visit or break-out, it would be a long trek on tiny winding roads. It was an interesting addition to such a historic and now infamous city, due to the Twilight series.

The next day, we set off for a tour of the Castle Verrazzano. This came highly recommended for both its beauty and wine. We signed up for the complete tour and showed up just as it was starting. Luckily, there were only two other people on this Friday morning tour, and we were welcomed right in. Our guide was Gino, a passionate wine enthusiast. He spoke of wine as if it were the lifeblood of their existence. He explained with fervor how wine was an integral part of everyday existence; it isn’t about alcohol, it’s about life.

We then went into a room that had actual grapes hanging to dry, before being pressed into a liquid form. This is something that can only be seen in the fall. Gino went on to explain how the grapes were hung with such care and in a specific place so that they could continue to grow. He pointed out that the morning sun comes through the window and gently illuminates the grapes, revealing a slight outline of the seed within. He compared it to the first moment that he saw the sonogram of his child. It was at that point that the real significance of the wine hit home for me. This wasn’t simply a job; it was an infatuation that happened to provide an income. I wonder how many American could say the same about their profession.

After the tour, we headed down to restaurant to sample the fruits of their labors, and a little food. We had a raging fire that warmed us up as we tried the fantastic wines. In addition to the vines, the castle also had amazing oil and vinegar. Gino taught us how to make “real” bruchetta, which consisted of fire roasted bread, rubbed garlic, fresh olive oil and light salt. I can honestly say that it was some of the best bruchetta I’ve ever had……except for the piece that Megan rubbed excessive garlic on!

We wrapped up with 20 year old balsamic vinegar that was thicker and sweeter than any I’ve ever tasted. The Olive Garden should be shut down for what they pass off as vinegar. The difference is enormous.

As we enjoyed the tour and treats, we started to chat with the two girls who were privy to this experience we were on. It turns out that they were on “extended” travel as well….one was even from Minnesota! We discovered that they had taken a bus from Florence and were planning to walk all the way down the hill and wait for the next bus after the tour. We let them know that were planning to explore a few local wineries and they were welcome to tag along if they wanted? We were pleased when they readily accepted, and we packed up and headed off to search the region. Over the next seven hours, we hit four additional wineries, had a wonderful dinner and made two new friends. Meeting them was truly a highlight of our Tuscan experience. They are heading on a Mediterranean cruise a few days after we hop on ours……We hope to reconnect with them in the future!

On our final day in the Chianti region, we went to the oldest winery in Italy, Castle di Brolio. It was over a thousand years old, set atop another hill, overlooking the vineyards below. The walls were over 50 feet high, which were used to fend off centuries of attacks, as it was a constant battle ground between Florence and Sienna. The wine was as amazing as the scenery.

We next stopped at Castle di Meleto, which was probably the perfect blend between the ancient and modern world. It was a castle on the outside all 21 century on the inside…… definitely one of our favorites! From there we hit a few more wineries along our hour long scenic drive. It wasn’t until the final stop of the day that we found some oils that were worthy of buying. It was at a totally organic, small family run winery. There we found balsamic vinegar that was 30 years old and truffle oil that was so potent that three drops would flavor an entire dish. The owner let us sample the goods, and 70 Euros’s later we left happy…..and with a few new recipes!

The Tuscany experience has been the highlight of our trip. Maybe it’s because we had a car and could go at our own pace, or perhaps it’s because the wine region forced us to live at theirs……either way, we have found a new appreciation for wine, love and life…… In Vino Veritas!

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Tuscany, Part 1

We started off our Tuscan trip by picking up a rental car. Luckily they drive on the right side of the road, but it’s still a tricky feat to accomplish, especially in the bigger cities. Within five minutes of having the car, I came to a three way intersections of major roads without any discernable lanes or markings. I somehow ended up in the wrong spot/lane and had angry drivers honking at me as I tried to correct my mistake. This was the first thing that “gave me away” as an American driver. The other was the fact that I actually use my turn signal; they should just stop including them in European cars, because their used about as often as the AM radio stations.

Once we got a hang of the Auto Strata’s, we made great time, probably since spped limits are just feable suggestions.

Our first night we stayed in Montalcino, the village famous for Brunello wine. We did a tasting at a dungeon wine bar, below the city’s ancient fort. We made it out just in time to catch a glimpse of a magnificent sunset. Our room had a beautiful view of the valley below, especially in the morning when it was covered with fog. It was a great way to start the Tuscany experience.

Over the next few days, we travelled to Pienza, Montepulciano and Cortona, staying overnight in the latter two. Most of the towns were similar in the fact that they sat atop hills, were surrounded by massive walls and had narrow stone streets with breathtaking views.

In Pienza, we were able to taste their famous Peccorino cheese which was both pungent and fantastic. We went through the small vendors and Megan was able to see her first actual truffle.
In Cortona, where the movie Under the Tuscan Sun was filmed, we were able to have a wonderful meal at a small restaurant, but didn’t do much exploring due to the inclement weather. Luckily, we were staying at a nice hotel, so a little down time was OK with us. We hit the ground running the next day with a trip to Montepulciano where we stayed at the same hotel that the cast of Twilight stayed while filming the scenes that were supposed to have taken place in Volterra…..just a little movie trivia for you!

As wonderful as the villages were, our favorite parts were simply driving around the countryside and stopping at wineries. It’s spectacular to see the multi-colored trees, yellow vines, and green hillsides, all meshing into a picturesque scene that is without a doubt one of the most gorgeous places on the entire planet.

From all the wineries we’ve stopped at, two really standout.

The first is Ciacci Piccolomini d’ Aragona. We had just left the Bonfi Winery and were heading toward Cortona, when Megan decided that we should take a shortcut across the map, and possibly find some other places to stop. When we finally found the turn-off, it was nothing more than a tiny dirt road. Since it had stopped raining and the sign was pointing that way, we decided to be adventurous. After about 30 minutes, in which we only saw one other car who coincidentally looked just as surprised to see us as we were to see him, I was starting to get a bit concerned. Luckily we came across a place that had its gates open, so we decided to stop and ask for directions. As it turned out, it was indeed a winery that had free tastings.
We were greeted by Angela, who was extremely friendly (probably because she seldom had any visitors way out here) and her English was great. We chatted about wine, the United States, hiking, etc….as we sampled some terrific wine from the estate. She went on to explain that the estate used to be owned by a Countess before it was passed down to her heir, and then turned into a winery. In the Countesses time, she grew many crops, olive trees and even voulves. I wasn’t quite sure what voulves were, but I didn’t want to sound ignorant, so I simply replied, “that’s fascinating.” To which she followed up with, “and we still have over forty voulves today.”

The topic quickly turned back to the Countess and the wine, and I had almost forgotten about the voulves until we were pulling away and I noticed something to my left. I quickly stopped the car and stared in astonishment as I realized what voulves were……Wolves!
A Countess who raised wolves in the in the early 1900’s, living in a castle in the middle of nowhere…..sounds like a M. Night Shyamalan movie!

The other winery that was exceptional was Villa St. Anna. Megan had looked it up on-line and emailed to see if we could have a tour and tasting. We weren’t sure what to expect when we arrived, but we quickly realized that we were in for a true treat. The owner was a fourth generation lady (actually all of them were females) who has been running the estate. Her daughter was active in the management, and her granddaughter (who was probably only seven) was sure to follow in their footsteps as well. We were taken on an hour long tour of the grounds during which we learned all about the process from harvest to distribution. We even got to see a bottle from the first ever harvest of the estate. It was surreal to hear the history of a family run business that is older than our country. When she spoke of her wine, the passion and love was undeniable. Finally, it was time to taste her creation….and the devotion definitely came through.

She opened four bottles and sat down with three glasses; two for us and one for her. Over the next hour, we all sampled the wine as she explained the complexities of each type, and even gave us cheese and meats that brought out certain flavors. When she spoke, it was with the assurance and ardor that comes from a life spent perfecting an art form. She was without a doubt the most knowledgeable person on the subject of wine that I’ve ever met.

Until you experience it for yourself, you simply can’t fully understand the allure of Tuscany. We are eager to explore the rest of it……

Saturday, November 6, 2010

The Town of Lucca

Some people might think us odd, and rightly so, but as we continue to go from bigger cities to smaller ones, we continue to enjoy ourselves even more. Lucca is a perfect example of this.

We had gone from Florence to Sienna, and finally to Lucca. The population dropped at each stop as the charm increased. Perhaps we like the almost empty enoteca’s or the tranquil streets, or maybe it’s simply the slower pace that permeates throughout these tiny Italian cities, that make us love them so?

To arrive at this little gem, we took a one 90 minute train ride that cost only 12 Euro’s, even though nobody ever asked us for a ticket, which we discovered was commonplace in Italy. We pondered how often people rode for free? The one annoying part of the ride was the gypsies that constantly begged for money ….I’m absolutely sure that they didn’t pay for a ticket!

Upon arriving, we found our room on the outskirts of the city’s wall. Lucca is a small town surrounded by an enormous wall that protected the city during medieval times, but is now one of the main tourist attractions. In fact, the two and a half mile wall was our favorite part of the whole stop. There’s a large walking and biking (and even horse and buggy accessible) path on top that provides amazing views of both the city and the surrounding landscape. At periodic points along the path there are spacious parks, quaint picnic tables, and ancient ruins. Over the course of two days, we looped the scenic route over three times. After living in Vegas for so long, it was refreshing to finally see the fall season again! The colors of the leaves were utterly amazing.

We spent the rest of our time strolling through the old city and the narrow streets, stopping at small restaurants and wine bars. It was a beautiful city that we were grateful to have visited.

The only potential problem in our stay happened one evening when we both got hungry later at night. I ventured out from our room in search of a salad for my bride and absolutely anything for me. What I quickly learned was that almost everything was either closed or only for “eat-in.” After a few blocks and multiple inquiries, I finally found a spot that let me order take-out. However, they didn’t have plastic silverware, which was going to be a problem based on what I ordered. So, when I got back to the hotel, I decided to “pry” open the breakfast area and “borrow” some utensils for the evening……my wife was both delighted and impressed with my modern day hunting skills. I was the personification of Captain Caveman!

Lucca was without a doubt a great stop on our journey. We picked up a car this morning and headed to the heart of Tuscany……which turned out to be quite the adventure in and of itself….but that’s for our next blog.

Stay tuned……

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Florence and Sienna

After leaving Portugal we were eager to get back to Italy, and what a better place to start than Florence, where the Renaissance originally began? Our spirits were strained in Lisbon, so we were excited for a city that exudes creativity and encourages rebirth. We were not disappointed.
We started out the day by exploring the numerous and incredible Palazzo’s. We strolled through all the major ones, including the famous Palazzo del Duomo, which looks like it belongs at the end of a magical fairy tale. We rounded out the evening by eating dinner in the illustrious Piazza Della Replbblica while listening to the piano man stroke his melodies, and watching the merry-go-round all lit up with smiling tourists.

On our next day, we were treated to a real Italian tradition by attending a private cooking class. We were one of three couples that attended the intimate and informative course. We actually had to make our own pasta from scratch! I thought that I would be a bit out of my element as Megan is the real chef, but I actually had a blast and ended up with a new appreciation for the art….and what my wife is able to create in the kitchen!

The next day we continued to explore the vibrant town and ended up venturing across the Fiume Arno (Golden River), via the famous Ponte Vecchio Bridge. We had a wonderful meal at the Golden View Restaurant, thanks to a recommendation from Rick Steve’s book. Later, we checked out the Mercato Centrale where the locals get their groceries fresh every day. We strolled through the many shops and sampled the cheeses and olive oils; Megan even tried to sample some prosciutto that was out on a counter, only to have the owner yell, “No, no,” and quickly swipe the ham out of her clutches……I tried to explain that we saw someone else sampling it, but I to was met with a stern, “no!” I guess he could tell we were tourists and weren’t planning to buy his meat.

On the third day, we took a bus ride to Sienna. It is considered Florence’s little sister, but at one point, it rivaled for superiority in Italy until the Black Plague wiped out over a third of its population in the 14th century. It never recovered, and still maintains roughly the same population that it had back then, at 60,000 residents. We really enjoyed the smaller town and narrower streets that Sienna offered. We ate at a lovely little café in the center of the Il Campo square and later enjoyed a wine tasting at an enoteca where we met another American who had been living in Monaco for two years, but hailed from Los Angeles. We chatted about politics, investments, and life in general, as we sampled four fabulous wines. Afterwards, we strolled through the streets again and walked around the markets where Megan came across the largest mushrooms either one of us had ever seen. Some were actually as big as my forearm! We can only hope that one of them makes its way onto our dinner plates……It was truly a great trip to an old-world and picturesque town.

We are off to Lucca where we will rent a car to tour around Tuscany for a week or so.
Wine country, get ready for the Clark’s!

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Perils in Portugal

After four days in Lisbon, not only are we ready to leave, but we were debating coming home all together!

Allow me to explain the circumstance that led to our frustration…..

First of all, after leaving the fantastic country of Spain, almost anything was likely going to be a disappointment. Upon arriving in Lisbon, we were treated to a lovely room that ironically, didn’t have such a lovely smell. In fact our entire floor smelled like a backed up sewage system, which we later deduced was the odor emitted from their disinfectant sprays. Clean but smelly…..a bit of a paradox.

Not wanting to spend any more time than necessary in our room, we headed out to explore the city. Lisbon is definitely a different place. If I were forced to describe her, I would use a callous reference to Tara Reid; from a distance she’s attractive, but up close, she’s a little trashy. Almost immediately, we were starting to wish we hadn’t booked four days here….

After exploring for a few hours, we stopped for a bite to eat in one of the most popular spots in the entire town, just off of La Liberdale Street in the hip Baixa district. Some authentic Portuguese food and wine was certain to improve our moods. However, within five minutes of being seated at an outside patio, a passer-by propositioned me to buy drugs. When I told Megan that we were just offered some “smack” she gave me one of those, “sure you were baby” looks, which are supportive in the way a wife should be, but are ultimately skeptical. Obviously, she thought that the likelihood of a drug dealer randomly coming up to us at a café in the middle of the day was absurd, and I evidently must have imagined or misinterpreted it. Well, less than ten minutes later, a guy walked directly up to our table and blatantly, in a clear voice that could not be misunderstood, offered us, “pot, cocaine, hashish?”…..I tried not to gloat as I nonchalantly murmured, “Told you so.”

Throughout the hour long dinner (which, by the way, did nothing for our mood or taste buds) we were solicited one additional time. From that point on, our guards were on high alert every time we left our room. Any town that has such brazen dealers is a town that demands your full attention while wandering the streets.

We settled back into our urine smelling room and decided to check our email and possibly hit the gym. However, the Wi-Fi was on the fritz and kept kicking us off after a few minutes, which made it impossible to complete even one email. To add insult to injury, the “fitness center” that was advertised in the website turned out to be a farce. The hotel actually had listed in its directory, “fitness center.” But when you turned to page 19, it stated that there were two facilities within walking distance from the hotel. What a total jip…… Portugal was really starting to wear on us.

We hoped that our luck would change the next day as we set out to explore an area that was listed as, “one of the most popular and visited area’s in all of Lisbon.” On the map, it looked just a mile or two away, based on the dimensions of our walk the previous evening. We quickly found out that the scale of this map was drastically different than what we had witnessed before. A few hours and roughly seven miles later, we finally arrived at our destination. To our disappointment, there were only three or four cool monuments to visit. Aside from a nice lunch by the river (which suspiciously smelled just like our room) the rest of the day was a bust. On the walk back, we tried to meander through the, “most visited area,” thinking that it would be filled with lush apartments, swanky café’s and gorgeous parks. What we found instead were graffiti ridden buildings, dilapidated homes, and an unending supply of questionable looking individuals. At one point, as we were walking through a particular unkempt area, Megan jumped in surprise as something splashed on the sidewalk beside her, seemingly coming from nowhere. Luckily she moved with cat-like reflexes and missed the rest of the fluids coming from an apartment above. I quickly realized what had happened and proceeded to yell at the man above, who had dumped a liquid, that we are still not willing to speculate as to its content, onto the sidewalk below. I don’t think he spoke English, but I’m hoping that “jackass” is a universal word!

After a long and tiresome day of walking, we retired early with hopes of taking a train to a nearby beach the next morning. Surely, Lisbon would be better tomorrow. We awoke to a torrential downpour that pretty much lasted for the next 48 hours……so much for the beach, and for that matter, Lisbon all together.

We spent the next two days watching English TV, which was a surprising treat, and even got our hair cut at a salon next door. If you’ve never had your hair cut by someone that doesn’t speak your language, trust me, it’s a frightening experience……luckily they had pictures to point at, so it was close to what I wanted. Megan fared much better, as her girl was fluent in English. She finished off the spa with a conditioner treatment and a pedicure. Not a bad way to spend a rainy day after all.

Perhaps the beaches here are really fantastic and other cities are ripe with energy and charm…..but I doubt we’ll ever find out. From our travels, we’re starting to view places as we would people; we have first impressions that tend to shape our views. Maybe we are being hasty in our assessment, but when you have to travel halfway around the world just to get there, it’s not a place we’re willing to give another chance.

Goodbye Portugal……welcome back Italy!

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Barcelona and Madrid

Off all the cities that we have had the pleasure of visiting on this amazing journey, Barcelona just might take the cake. It’s one of those unique cities that are able to perfectly blend old world charm with a healthy dose of modern swagger and stylish appeal.

When we arrived and checked into our hotel, we immediately set out to explore. After a two block stroll, we turned down one of the most famous streets in all of Spain. As we walked down La Rambla, we were entertained by multiple street performers and statues, a plethora of upscale shops and café’s; all surrounded by baroque architecture and tree-lined streets. At night, the wrought iron street lamps gently lit up the salient Spanish avenue and gave it an almost magical glow. It’s easy to imaging the famous poet, Frederico Garcia Lorca, describing it as, “the only street in the world which I wish would never end.

Well, it finally did end, and to our surprise and elation, there lied one of the most beautiful stretches of beach we’ve ever seen. Not in a pure aesthetic sense, mind you, but due to the fact that it too was surrounded by restaurants and café’s, shops and performers, and runners and bikers everywhere.

We decided the best way to explore the miles and miles of beach, was by bike. The city has over 100 miles of dedicated bike paths, 10 or so that run directly along the port and beach. We glided along, taking in all the scenes; a rock climbing competition, a sand carving display, and of course a healthy dose of people watching.

Since we had been riding for a few hours, we decided to lock up the bikes and stroll along the boardwalk. It was there that we found Ice Barcelona. This bar has the distinction of being the only “ice bar” located on a beach. For those of you who don’t know what an ice bar is, it’s pretty much what it sounds like…..everything is made out of ice! The glasses, the bar, the walls, the seats….everything! In order to keep it from melting, they hold the temperature at a steady -5 Celsius. Luckily they gave us special thermal clothing before we entered. Megan commented that we were getting a taste of what Minnesota would be like in the winter!

After the chilling experience in sub terrain conditions, we hit the warmth of the sun and continued to explore. After a few more miles of biking, we accidently stumbled onto Ciutadella Park and Zoo. This former military fortress has since been turned into a green respite in the middle of a bustling city. As we rode around the luscious park, we couldn’t help but notice the pleasant multicultural feel it possessed. Our favorite moment came unexpectedly by way of a hippie performer. We were entertained by his snake like dance as he elegantly moved a crystal ball around his yoga sculpted body, while his companion kept the beat via a makeshift steel drum. It was a true treat and evidentially a staple of Ciutadella Park.

After more than seven hours on bikes, we finally called it quits. We dropped them off and headed into the Gothic District, Barcelona’s oldest and most historic part of the city. The buildings looked as if they all, at one point in time, had contained a dungeon or two. The medieval feel permeated through the labyrinth of narrow corridors that sporadically opened to squares, markets, and designer shops. This just solidified our original supposition of Barcelona as a city with two beautiful yet very different faces. Before leaving, we agreed that we must gaze upon her face again, as her splendor and allure is irrefutable and utterly irresistible.

The next morning, we reluctantly left for Madrid. Here we encountered our first bit of inclement weather. Exploring the streets would require additional clothing and a beanie for Megan. Having only two days here and absolutely no idea of what to do, I turned to the one fail-safe….Google. After five minutes of research, I had uncovered a list of the “Top 10 Sites to See in Madrid.” So, armed with a map and walking shoes, we ventured into the frigid air in search of Plaza’s, Squares, Cathedrals, etc….. With no public transportation and no common language, we managed to hit nine out of ten!

We still need to do the research on the history behind all of them, but regardless, we genuinely loved three spots; the Parque Del Buen Retrio, Plaza Del Oriente and Plaza Mayor.

The Parque (park) was the biggest we’ve ever, save for Central Park in New York. It was adorned with a lovely rose garden, a lake with canoes, multiple restaurants, miles and miles of jogging paths, fountains spouting everywhere, and musicians spaced just far enough so as to not drown out the others while providing a constant melody to our ears. It was a place where you could just as easily lose yourself for hours in a novel or on a leisurely stroll.

At the Plaza Del Oriente, we simply sat down and took in the scenery of the Royal Palace, Opera house and Cathedral, while listening to a trumpet player elicit melodies that belonged on a CD. We watched a couple snuggle, an artist sketch, and on elderly mad read the paper. We were content to become part of the scenery as we sat on the steps and simply people watched.

We entered the Plaza Mayor, which is an enormous square, surrounded by historical three story buildings. There we had lunch while being serenaded by musicians and entertained by street performers. We sat for hours enjoying the experience as we researched Tuscany and Florence.
Tomorrow we leave to Portugal for a few days and then head back to Italy to explore the wine country.

We are so thankful that we got the opportunity to visit Spain, as it has been become one of our favorite countries on our journey. If the food was only more to our liking, we might never leave!

I’m optimistic that Lisbon can rival Barcelona……but I’m not holding my breath. I’ll let you know our thoughts in a few days!