Monday, June 17, 2013

Mediterranean to the Alps '13

So here I am again.... another trip to Europe. I would say that I don't know what it is that keeps me coming back again and again, except I do. It's the wealth of culture and history europe has, it's the people, the food, and the unique and pristine landscape that each region offers.

So this time, I came to Europe, specifically to go to Austria to visit Peter. Before I came, we mapped out a road trip that covered nearly only the best Europe had to offer - Venice, Cinque Terre, Nice, Marseille, Chamonix, Murren, and Innsbruck.

Here are just some of the best and most funny times on our trip :D....

So in the early morning of April 22, we packed up the car and headed for Venice from Peter's house in Schladming. Our hotel - Hotel Alveri - was in Mestre, just outside of Venice, and turned out to be a hidden gem! The hotel was so modern, clean, quiet, and spacious... not to mention the hospitable staff . So our first day we arrived it was mid-afternoon and we wanted to venture the island for the rest of the day. The moment we stepped out of the bus and were finally on the island, it was mayhem, in terms of a literal torrential downpour of rain. Every single person was taking cover under any inch of roof or tarp possible. Even ourselves were a bit unsure about stepping out from under our protective arch.... but, we didn't want to waste our day and we wanted to put our 'waterproof' Arc'teryx jackets to the test :D. So we started walking down the canals (having not a clue where we were heading) ... and surely enough our jackets had kept us dry ... however, we ran into a slight issue in that we had nothing 'waterproof' on our lower-halfs ... hence my jeans were soaking wet and Peter ended up with what he described as "see-through pants" due to them being white. Nonetheless, it was hilarious. So after some time, the rain did die down but by that time, we were still walking down canals... until we came to the edge of the island, and looking around we had no idea where we were - there was no St. Marks tower in sight, no Rialto Bridge, no gondoliers, nothing.... I highly recommend people get a map before deciding to wander Venice ... there is a good possibility you will never find your way back! (There were actually a few times we had walked for an hour, to find ourselves in the same spot we started in... we found this hilarious!) ... We eventually found that we were in fact just on the other side from the Grand Canal. The rest of our day consisted of wandering aimlessly, drying off, and then deciding to eat dinner at one of the biggest 'tourist trap' restaurants in Venice, which thankfully now we find humour in. We ended up taking the bus back to the hotel's area quite late one night, and due to my genius idea, we decided it would be easiest to get off the bus that was directly in front of our hotel... minus the fact there were 14 sets of train tracks and a massive chain fence between the bus stop and the hotel (no big deal). I just figured there must be a set of pedestrian stairs or something to get over to the other side ... boy was I wrong. So once we figured out there were no stairs or sidewalk for pedestrians, we contemplated crossing the train tracks (14 sets) in the pitch black, until we realized that was not the smartest. Our next option was to walk all the way up the highway to the next exit, take the overpass over the tracks, and walk all the way back to the hotel (that was directly across from the bus stop we just got off at). Well, we started walking, kept walking, and kept on walking some more.... until a couple blocks from our hotel we hear a car slow down and roll down his window and hear him say "hey guys, get in!" ... it ended up being the night auditor at our hotel that had shuttled us to the bus station earlier that day. What a pleasant surprise it was to see him, haha! We were so thankful for him stopping to pick up us that we tipped him 10euros... he was a sweetheart. Venice all together, was an awesome experience ... it's totally one of a kind and has such a unique pace ... I found it to be very beautiful and rich city!

After several attempts asking different gas stations directions for getting out of Venice and then ending up going in circles around the same roundabout multiple times, we went on to Riomaggiore, Cinque Terre - the italian riveria. The 15 minutes leading up to our arrival into Riomaggiore, we could immediately tell that this region was going to be like anything else we'd ever experienced or imagined... we were winding in and out of the coastline atop a mountainside, it literally took our breaths away. Our first day we checked in with our host, and went down to the mini harbour of Riomaggiore. We were stunned by the vastness of the coastline and beauty and bright colors of the village. That night we made a reservation at a restaurant directly at the harbour recommended by our host... and it was in no way a disappointment... the freshest seafood you could imagine. In fact, as we were eating the local fisherman were bringing in the day's catch right in front of us. Before we arrived, we were set on hiking the Cinque Terre trail that links all 5 villages along the coast and takes about 5 hours to complete... So our second day, we took a morning ferry (not by my choice.... Peter :P) over to the farthest village Monterosso, to be able to hike our way back to Riomaggiore. Monterosso introduced Peter and I to the 'squat' toilet system ... it was quite an experience for us both (eeek). From Monterosso, we took the trail onwards to Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarolo, and then back to Riomaggiore. We were told at the beginning of the trail that from Corniglia to Riomaggiore was closed due to rock slides and trail maintenance... but Peter and I were determined and we opted to give it a try anyways, because the views from the trail were just too good to pass up. It turns out we weren't the only ones, and it was totally hike-able, however there was clearly some trail damage. Peter and I would have missed out on a seriously amazing experience and hike had we not actually gone ahead and continued on the trail... the views were incredible and the hike allowed us to enjoy a variety of wildflowers, lemon and orange trees, and birds-eye-views of each village. As Peter and I passed Vernazza on the ferry earlier in the am, we noticed one particular restaurant at the top of a massive rock-face over looking the sea... so when we descended into Vernazza we were determined to make a reservation for dinner later that evening at that particularly 'awesome location' restaurant. We came back for dinner later that evening and ordered one of the most delicious meals we both have ever tasted. It was (as stated on the menu) "a pasta dish for 2, served Vernazza style" ... what arrived in front of us was one heaping dish of pasta with a variety of fresh seafood mixed in a rich tomato sauce. We paired it with a bottle of local Cinque Terre, white wine :D. Together, they were hands down - amazing. It was totally by luck and to our delight that the restaurant's quality was as good as the views from the restaurant... a double win. Even to this day when we reminisce of this dinner, we can't help but to lick our lips and close our eyes remembering all the flavours of the dish. Of course, the icing on the cake was that our table granted us an ocean and sunset view. It was beautiful. The Cinque Terre has got to be one of the most tranquil and extraordinary places on our planet.

Next, we were off to Nice, France with a quick stop in Monaco seeing all there really is to see - the Monte Carlo casino, the Grand Prix track, and the harbour. After we checked into our hotel in Nice, which was 1 block from the beach, we obviously headed straight for it. Miles and miles of ocean stretched as far as we could see in nearly all directions ... and the most crystal turquoise waters we both agreed we'd ever seen. Our entire time there, we didn't run short of things to take pictures of ... as Peter says again and again "Nice was such a positive experience!" ... Nice has the convenience and beauty of the ocean and a little mountain called Castle Hill along the coast that overlooks all of nice and the port. We enjoyed fantastic dinners both eve's complete with chocolate mousse, seafood, steaks, and apple pie. Overall, Nice was really nice!!

Our drive from Nice to Marseille was short but rewarding as it gave us beautiful views driving parallel to the sea, then past the 'grand canyon' of europe - The Verdon Gorge, and finally into Marseille. Coming into Marseille, I didn't know what to expect.... Now being there, I would describe it as a place that lacks a lot of energy and life. All the buildings are very monotone, and this really in a way 'sucks the life out of the city' - which is the total opposite of Nice, just 2 hrs away. The streets were quite dirty and every single car on them seemed to have been in a serious accident having numerous scratches and dents in them. Then there were the buildings which were old and looked as though they were going to fall apart any minute (worrisome). Despite this, and the fact that Peter and I had some rather disturbing encounters with some odd locals, as well as having horrible luck trying to find a restaurant open on a Monday evening ... there were some positive and unique things to see and do as a tourist. First off, the harbour is spectacular... so vast and filled with hundreds of different types and styles of cool boats. Secondly, our hotel - Residhome Saint Charles Marseille - was an absolute 180 experience from what we expected to encounter based on previous reviews from travellers online, it was seriously such a great find... i think it was even the cheapest hotel out of our whole trip and yet we had a suite with all the amenities needed, a king sized bed, and only 15min from the Old Port! Lastly, this was our first stop where were privileged enough to find our first Starbucks on the trip on a scorchingly hot day that was forecasted to have rain and where we dressed accordingly for that! As sad as this may be, this was one of the highlights of our time spent in Marseille... long live Starbucks' cold beverages!

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