Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Prague, Czech Republic: Part I

Oh Prague... how we love thee! Prague has to be one of the most beautiful cities we've ever seen and is definitely included in our top five places in Europe. The city boasts an assortment of remarkable architecture, ranging from Renaissance, Gothic, and baroque, to neoclassical, cubism, and art nouveau. Looking out over the city we noticed that many spires dot the city in what seem to go on forever. All of these magnificent buildings tell the history of Prague throughout the centuries and made an imprint on us as we visited.

View of the palace from the Charles Bridge.
St. Nicholas Church
One of the many streets with beautiful buildings.
I think the red gives it some pop!

We walked (more like pushed) our way across Prague's famous Charles Bridge. It is a very touristy and crowded spot, and from what I've heard it's like that year round. As we made our way across, dodging other tourists trying to get their pictures and presents from venders, we took notice of the different statues that line the unique bridge.

View from the Charles Bridge
One of the entrances to the Charles Bridge
Statue of John of Nepomuk

You're supposed to rub this for good luck!
View of the Charles Bridge 
We made our way to the Old Town Square where we saw the 500 year old Astronomical Clock and the rest of the Old Town. The streets were filled with sounds of men playing accordions and women singing opera. It's quite a lively place!

Astronomical Clock

Tyn Church
Jan Jus Memorial Statue
Our second day in Prague is what we've termed our "Jewish Day". The Jewish Quarter consists of many historic Jewish buildings and synagogues that have been preserved throughout the years. This includes the Prague Jewish Museum, whose collection only exists because the Nazis gathered objects from 153 Jewish communities in Bohemia and Moravia in order to plan a "museum of an extinct race". We weren't allowed to take pictures in all but one of the synagogues. The Pinkas Synagogue is a memorial to the Holocaust and its walls are inscribed with the names of 77,297 Czech Jews. Next to this synagogue is the Old Jewish Cemetery, which holds 12,000 visible tombstones with as many as 100,000 people buried there (12 layers deep!) dating back to 1439. The cemetery is full to the brim with tombstones, with some right on top of each other, showing partially erased Hebrew inscriptions.

Rabbi Loew's tombstone (Golem legend)
We saw many more synagogues within the Jewish Quarter of Prague. The Old New Synagogue is the oldest still-functioning synagogue in Europe dating back to 1270. We saw the Klaus Synagogue, which contains many items pertaining to the everyday life and customs of Jews. The Maisel Synagogue exhibits old Jewish items. Finally, the Spanish Synagogue, which was built in 1868, is very ornate with old Moorish architecture. We've never seen a synagogue with decor quite like this one and spent a lot of time gazing up at the intricacies and detail. 

Old New Synagogue

The Spanish Synagogue. Taken from The Jewish Museum
Our last stop was the Jerusalem Synagogue, also known as the Jubilee Synagogue, which was built in 1906. While this isn't located within the Jewish Quarter, we're glad that we spent the extra time finding it. Sandwiched between two buildings, the synagogue is very unique with Moorish influences and a variety of patterns and colors.

The Jerusalem Synagogue

To end our stay in Prague we stopped by the John Lennon wall. After his murder, Lennon became a pacifist hero for many Czechs. An image of him was painted on this wall along with Beatles lyrics and political graffiti. The police tried to paint over the wall numerous times, but it became a focus for the youth of Prague who weren't allowed to listen to Western pop music. After 1989 with the fall of communism in the country, visiting tourists began to make their own contributions. It was only a few years ago that the city gave into the inevitable and "allowed" tourists and locals to leave their mark on the wall. Locals state that it never stays the same for long and you should leave your mark while you can.

Within every light colored spot are hundreds of pen written signatures.
Leaving our mark.
We saw and did so much on our trip to Prague that we found it impossible to put it all in one post. Our next post will talk about the Prague Castle, cathedral, and gardens.  Stay tuned!

Monday, August 13, 2012

One Year in Italy! Un anno in Italia!

This post is dedicated to Jon's grandfather, Donald Litt, who passed away on Friday. Don was a world traveler and was very excited about our adventures. Every time he read a new post of ours he would tell us his own story of his travels to the same place. No matter where we went he had already been there, most places several times! Grandpa, we love you and you will be missed!
October 28, 1924 - August 10, 2012
May 2011
August 10th marked our one year anniversary of moving to Italy. Can you believe it? Each day passes with new adventures and challenges, and while there is still a lot to learn and see, we have made a nice life for ourselves here. Travel-wise, we've been to seven other countries including France, England, Germany, Switzerland, Belgium, Croatia, and Montenegro, with Czech Republic, more of France, Monaco, more of Germany, and Spain planned through October. We've seen numerous cities within Italy, some that we didn't even know existed and some that we have always wanted to go to. We have also done three trips (four for Jon) back to the U.S., for Dan and Rachel's wedding and interviews for Jon.

We feel like we've integrated pretty well into our Italian neighborhood (though we are the americani).  We shop at the fruit and vegetable market, buy our meats from the butcher down the street, buy our cheese from our "cheese guy", get fresh fish at the port or mussels from our "seafood guy", and have a regular pizza place that we frequent once a week. We've made friends with both Americans and Italians, get together for dinners with our Italian neighbors, and have a beautiful house overlooking Lago D'Averno and Capri.

From our yard, Capri in the back.
A zoomed in shot on another day.
But it hasn't been easy. Learning a new language is a very humbling experience. It takes time, patience, and work, and it doesn't happen overnight. It's a big ego stomper to say the least!  There are some people that come here for a few years and move back to the U.S. only knowing the words vino, grazie, and ciao... and that's okay. We set out to learn Italian, and to learn it as best we could with our short stay here. We meet with our tutor, get together with Italian friends, speak Italian when we're out (even if they start speaking in English to us) and practice on our own. It has added a new dimension to our lives and I think we can say we are grateful for that. In no way do we speak the language well; in fact, it's pretty bad and we still have a long way to go. We can definitely understand more than we speak. During our second week here I couldn't get back to our hotel because of construction and while people did try to help me, I couldn't understand them, nor could I relay what I needed. Out of frustration I started crying much to their confusion. Now, we can hold a conversation (for over 4 hours at dinner!), take tours of vineyards in Italian, and survive out in town. A long way from my crying breakdown a year ago!

Yes, trash is a problem in Naples especially in the summer. We are lucky to live in an area where we don't see a lot of the problem, but we still have to bring our trashbag in our car to try and find a nearby dumpster (which seem to move around a lot). Local Italians don't make the situation much better by littering out of their cars, or throwing trash right next to a trashcan instead of inside of it. If you drive just an hour outside of Naples you can see a tremendous difference in the cleanliness of towns. Speaking of driving... it's lawless, the craziest in Italy and Europe. Northern Italians say that they are afraid to drive down here and wonder how we do it. We find it hard to walk Maya outside because of stray dogs and random garbage. While violence seems to be a non-issue here, theft is rampant in Italy and especially in Naples. I feel like we are always living under a cloud of thievery, especially since our house was robbed over New Years. You always have to watch your back(pack). They do not make life easy for themselves in Naples and frustration levels seem to rise every time we head back into the area from being somewhere else. But, if you can look past all of these things (and at times it is very hard) you will see a family-oriented culture filled with tradition, history, and delicious food :) Most of the people are very welcoming and patient with us. They will help you if you're in need, apologize for their "bad" English (if you're fluent it's not bad!), and drop everything to look at a baby.

We're often asked by our friends and family back home what we miss about the United States and what is a welcoming change. So in no particular order here are our top lists:

Things we miss about the United States:

1) A variety of food. Don't get us wrong, the food here is spectacular. But Naples doesn't provide much variety in the food department. It would be nice to have a great sushi dinner or a big burrito once in a while without having to drive forever in search of one.

2) A dryer. Hanging clothes outside to dry every time we do a wash gets old fast. Italians just don't have functioning dryers (or dryers at all). The Italian dryer's purpose is to "fluff" the clothes after they've already dried outside... and that's all it's good for. And while we're at it, a washer that actually cleans the clothes.

3) Central air conditioning. No explanation needed.

4) Stores that are open from 1-4pm. Or at least stores with hours posted. I've seen the meat place open at 11pm, but closed at 4pm.

5) Dinner at 7. Sometimes you just want to go out to dinner before 8:30.

6) Fast meals. A 2+ plus hour meal where the only diners are me and Jon can feel like an eternity. If we wanted to sit, drink wine, and stare at each other, we could sit on our comfy couch.

7) Trust. Brings us back to the whole thievery issue. It takes us 15 minutes just to lock up our house and shutters, and another five to leave the three gates out to the main street. Not that we ever kept our doors unlocked in the U.S., but with the security features that we're required to have on our house here one would think they would be impenetrable. But then again some local Neapolitans have been learning how to break through layers of security since they were five...

8) Personal Space. No concept here whatsoever. The line will not move any faster if you are stepping on my heels.  And if you're just hanging out in a doorway, move out of the way!!!

9) Reliable internet. It's not terrible, but it's not great.  Scratch that, it is terrible.

10) Doggie day care and proper boarding facilities.We're fortunate to have found a couple of people to watch our furry child when we go away, but there's no substitute for a good doggie day care to get the crazies out of Maya!

Things we enjoy here more than the United States:

1) No people of Walmart sightings. We're not saying Neapolitans are the best dressers, but people in Europe at least remember to put on pants in the morning. If you don't know what I'm talking about then go here and click on photos.

2) The country (and Europe) is environmentally conscious. They do not waste electricity or gas here and use only what they need. They charge for plastic bags at stores. The electricity in hotel rooms shut off when you leave them. Their cars are manual and many take diesel gas.

3) Fresh and local produce.  Having a vegetable stand every block loaded with what's fresh that season or a fish guy that is selling what he caught that morning is refreshing.

4) The proximity of so many different countries. It's amazing that we can go away for a quick weekend to Paris or London.

5) The variety of things to do in the area. From the historical sites to the beautiful islands and beaches, there is always something to do!

6) Restaurants. Many restaurants will just make whatever fish they caught that day, or whatever they find is the freshest to make. It's fun going into a restaurant, not looking at a menu, and having them serve whatever their specialty is.

7) The wine. Not only does Italy make some of the best wine in the world, but where else can you go and get a 4 euro bottle of wine that would normally be at least 30 dollars in the States?

8) On-time plane arrivals. Every plane, every time.

9) Time to learn new trades. Jon isn't very busy at this hospital and since I'm not working while we're here we've picked up a few things. For one, my cooking skills have definitely improved since being here. Jon has gotten into woodworking and I'm starting to "can" and make jams from the fresh produce. We've also gained somewhat of a green thumb.

Checking on some of our veggies. 

So there you have it. With a year under our belts we're wondering where the time has gone. This year has given us so much, but has also made us realize how much we miss the everyday comforts of living in the U.S.  Maybe our lists will change next summer... we'll just have to wait and see.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Turin and touring the Piedmont area

I think we're in love. Is it possible that we have found a more beautiful and serene part of Italy than we have seen so far??

The Piedmont region (Piemonte, meaning "at the foot of the mountain" in Italian) is set in a gorgeous location surrounded by vineyards, rolling countryside, and framed by the Alps in the distance. It lies in northwest Italy and the region borders France and Switzerland. Most tourists don't bother too much with this region, instead opting for the more popular Tuscany, and that's one of the things we thoroughly enjoyed about it. Aside from the very small towns there is just farm country, home to vineyards, truffles, and family run inns. This is a place to come to relax and gaze out at the beautiful scenery with a glass of wine in hand.

Our first stop in this region was Turin (Torino). Turin is the capital of the Piedmont region and is Italy's fourth largest city. It was also home to the 2006 winter Olympics. As we drove from the airport into the city we noticed a tremendous difference right away... people here follow the rules of the road! They stop at traffic lights, stop signs, and yielded at circles and pedestrians! We actually got honked when we went into a circle without stopping, which is an everyday part of Naples life.

Turin has a cultured and educated vibe to its city. Around every corner are theaters, beautiful French influenced style buildings, and festivals geared towards the arts. It's a very clean city and the streets are free of beggars. We wish we could have spent more time here, but we had a weekend in the wine country ahead of us.


For the next couple of days we drove to different wineries in the Barolo and Barbaresco regions. In total we visited eight wineries, with four of them giving us tours and tastings completely in Italian. Our favorites happened to be the very small family run wineries where the families actually live on site. They were so welcoming, didn't charge us for tastings (though we did buy a ton), fed us snacks, and let us try as much as we wanted. It seemed like they were in it for the pure joy of making wines, rather than mass producing bottles for the public. We'd say we were productive during our two wine tasting days: 46 bottles and a magnum.  Had we driven back and not taken the train it probably would have been more.

An old cellar
Town of Barolo.
Town of La Morra.

Our small bed and breakfast was situated just outside of the small town of Barbaresco. High up on a hill we had a lovely view of the town of Alba and some of the region. We were within walking distance to a few restaurants that served typical Piedmont food consisting of pasta with butter and sage, truffles, and meats. Soft cheeses and fig jam were a staple at breakfast, which was reminiscent of our time in Switzerland.

Our bed and breakfast.
View from the bed and breakfast
Church in Barbaresco.
On our way back to the airport to return the rental car we stopped in the town of Asti. It's primarily known as the home of Asti Spumante, which is a sweet fizzy wine, and Barbera d'Asti, a nice red. We didn't have much time, but we were able to walk along the narrow streets and gaze upon the medieval towers and churches.

Our little FIAT

The Duomo in Asti

Small, quiet street
We would have loved to have stayed longer here and the trip left us wondering and asking each other often, "Why can't we live here"? The beauty, tranquility, and hospitality make this a must go to destination for anyone wanting to get away.