Inside a secret garden in Florence

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The morning after I arrived in Florence, I ran down Porta Romana for my morning espresso at Bar d’Angelo and then on to Italia Power Yoga for my DIY yoga retreat week (meaningly 2-3 classes a week, scattered around my eating, reading and relaxing time in the city). I pulled myself to a halt as I passed number 144, via dei Serragli. The drive way is of grande size, lined with big beautiful trees on both side. The name on the small door was written in perfect illuminati style – Giardino Torrigiani (Torrigini Garden). I have not heard of it in any travel sites, especially when in Oltrarno, Bogoli Garden took the crown jewel.

After blissful yoga, I went home and started my digging. Do you know Giardino Torrigiani is Europe largest private garden? 17 acres of lush English style garden is solely own and managed by the Torrigiani family since 16 century. The catch to visit it – an invitation from of the 2 owners who would then accompany you around. That’s what it said on the website.

I went on to send a nice admiring email to the property hoping to arrange a visit within my time in the city. And so I waited. 10 hour later, the reply came with details of the visit which worked really well. They typically hosting a party of minimum 4 people but lucky me, Mr Torrigiani agreed to host myself and 2 other fellow traveller, on Thursday afternoon, at 5.30pm. Great time to finish with an aperitif afterwards.

The family has owned this garden all along and it was near the very first fortification of the city, built by Cosimo I de Medici in early 16 century to defend the city from Siena’s attack.. I did recommend anyone who want to visit Italy to read a bit about the Medici family – fascinating bit of history! In side the garden now stay 3 residence – one of the Vieri, one of his sister and the other of his cousin, making it 2 branches of the family that own the garden together – the Torrigiani Malaspina and Torrigiani di Santa Cristina.

As Vieri shared, the name Torrigiarni meant “the man at the tower”. Pietro Torrigiani inheritted the small botanical garden in 18 century from his mother’s brother, Cardinal Torrigiani,  as well as the Torrigiani name.  He started acquiring the neighbouring lands to build up from the famous botanical garden. Within his property he built a 3 tier tower (square, hexagon and cylinder shapes) for his astronomical observation.

The garden boasts some wonderful architecture with statues, artificial river, bridges, arch, grotto, temple,  tower, etc. The botanical collection ranges from the Far East to the Americas. This used to be a famous botanical garden of Italy due to its owner’s passion for plants. Till now, Vieri and his son still provide many plants for the city from their own plant nursery and greenhouse within the garden. They also host events at their wonderful home.

After the long walk, Vieri invited us in for some refreshing white wine, a perfect end for a hot summer afternoon.

I wish the Torrigiani many good years ahead to maintain this wonderful oasis inside wall of Florence.

Maybe next time you are in Florence, take a chance to visit!

Love,

Kate

 

 

 

 

Capri out of hour

I heard of Capri. I wanted to visit Capri. I knew it would be expensive as everyone seemed to pour into this tiny little island off the gulf of Sorrento. It is the crown jewelry  of the Tyrrhenian sea.

There are 2 sides – Capri and Anacapri. Capri, closer to Sorrento, is the port, with many restaurants, hotels on top of hotels, boutiques inside boutiques. It’s the land of 15 euro pizza and overpriced pasta. Anacapri is the sister village, only 20′ on bus from Capri yet hold some of the island main attractions – mount Solaro and its famously scary chairlift , Grotta Azzurra (Blue Grotto), Villa San Michelle and a few more. I opted to stay in Anacapri to soothe my funemployment pocket.

So at first I booked in one of the cheapest airbnb but has great view and a pool in Anacapri. Then I decided against it to spend more time in Almafi Coast. Then I was convinced by Isabella to just go there even to stay only 1 night and make some nice pretty sandals there. Using up my hotels.com award, I managed to get a hotel in Anacapri just the day before getting to Capri.  The ferry took me from Ischia to Capri port in less than an hour, where the hotel manager greeted me at gate 21 in a tiny van. There were another English lady on solo trip and a young couple. As we squeezed our way out of the packed marina, we started climbing up the mountain road between the 2 villages. I was relieved I did not plan to ride a scooter here. I would freak! The driver skillfully took us through the smallest alley that somehow still fit the car and arrived at Hotel Il Girasole (which means Sunflower).

The hotel is a little run down, 1980 styles, yet it has a pool and a large veranda with impeccable views of the ocean and Ischia island. That’s a nice surprise! I asked the hotel manager about a nearby restaurant called Da Gelsomina and got his approval. He also offered to help me arrange for the pick up service. Hospitality at its grandeur!

After arranging my little things and taking many good photos of the view, I headed down to the main square for a walk and some  late lunch. Anacapri around 12-2pm is nice and quiet as all the day-trippers are now flocking down Grotto Azzurra to catch the best time of the light. There were an ongoing Pizza festival that weekend I learnt as I saw random colorful pizza ovens were set up on the street. In front of the big cathedral, a small stage was being prepared for the yearly outdoor concert. A few people sat down for the rehearsal performance. The streets are small and clean and crammed with restaurants, bars and boutiques. Handmade leather sandals, linen fashions, ceramics, Italian condiments, lemon and all its products – to name a few. I found Antonia Viva shop as from Isabella’s recommendation. In total honesty, I was not crazy about the all complicated dedicated strappy look of the sandals here – I had become way too practical and minimalist in my attire for the last 2 years. I tried them on and made my final no as the soles were so stiff and slippery. Really just for show sandals.  I settled at a small cafe with a humble 4 star on Google review and order just a seafood pasta. I really wanted to save myself for dinner (I did had a massive dinner at Ischia’s Nano Cantino the night before and still stuffed!). Here even in the cheaper side of the island, you still expect to pay 25 euro for a very average lunch.

The island was baked under the sun. 39*C is not my forte. A lot of A/C and some swimming later, I sat on the porch watching out to the sunset, the best I had ever seen. The sun was glowing like a fireball falling down casting its dark shadow on the calm sea. Far away is the symmetrical cone shape of Ischia. The sky changed its coat from blue to orange to red to mulberry. Everything was still, so still at that moment, wondering what an incredible chore that universe had done. Even my mind was calm.

At 8.30, a tiny van from Da Gelsomina picked me up and climbed up the hill. In the car there were 2 more ladies from the accent of whom I knew they were American. The restaurant lied on the hill top, even higher than hotel Il Girasole with its outdoor pool and al fresco dining room. As I waited to be seated, the host come and took a couple, then the 2 ladies BEHIND me. I looked at him and said politely “Excuse me, would you ask if I need a table please?”. He looked at me in dismay like the first time in his life he was asked to wait on a customer. “Only you?”. I didn’t say anything. The 2 blonde yelled “Oh you can sit with us if you want”. I turned around eyes in a bullet shape “Thank you, but no thank you”.

Then I was seated in a corner of the restaurant, the darkest corner where mosquitoes were await for their Asian dinner. And I seated. I finished 2 glasses of wine and I was still seated, the idiot waiter was still busy serving the blonde. After much of a hassle, I wandered to the fish tank, counting fish to take attention from the CHEF. Then finally I was served. Food was delicious and expensive (very) and I shall not return.

The next day I aimed to explore the Capri side in the early morning before the 10am mark of day-tripper arrival. Taking a small local bus to the other side, at some point, i thought i was thrown out to the seas and at another point, i thought we had crashed a scooter to the rock! From the bus station I started walking toward Faraglioni passing many fancy boutiques. I wondered what a boring holiday it would be – trapped in a beautiful and expensive island with very limited beach time, tiny hotels, drink limoncello, and do nothing but shop at Versace, Prada, Misoni, etc.

 

The rain started as i reached the beach club down the cliff, stormy to be true. I looked out to the sea to all those tiny dingy boat and it scared the s*** out of me. I have always been scared of open water, especially choppy open water.

On the way back to the main square to visit Via Krupp, I heard a shiny voice singing O Sole Mio – it’s the lemonade seller. Her Granitta di Lemone is the most expensive  as well as the most disgusting in town. I forked out 3 euro just to hear her sing. And guess who else? Everyone.

The famous Via Krupp was one of the most beautiful road in the world zigzaging from the cliff down the water toward Marino Picolo. The view from the top down the silk like road to the turquoise water is very charming. I was rather disappointed the Via Krupp was no longer accessible and will never be completed due to  falling rocks. It would have been amazing to walk all the way to Marina Picolo listening to the ocean waves.  And you paid a fine 5 euro just to get in the tiny Augustus garden to look at the walkway.

By the time I left Augustus garden it’s around noon and the town is so so crowded. I wandered around checked out a few restaurant and get into one with many celebrity review. 25 euro later, I had a pizza and a glass of wine. Pick up a pretty leather sandal (not strappy!) on my way back to the bus stop, i squeezed myself in a full of teenagers ride back to anacapri, ready for a good nap. Should i go to the blue grotto? Should I stayed in this heat for an hour and then pay silly money to get in a cave? Lucky me, as the sea was rough, the cave was closed that day. A perfect afternoon to chill on the porch!

On my last day in Capri, I decided to take the famous chairlift to mount Solaro instead of 2 hour hiking up. It’s scary as f***. just a chair, with a handle across your front, and off you go, all airy up the mountain. You can walk around and take in the entire island in your eyes. So so beautiful! This is definitely the best 11 euro I had spent on the island.

My verdict – if you have money to splash, go to Capri and stay a few night. The island is way better at night, before 10 and after 5.30pm as only the true holiday makers are left behind. Calmer and quieter.

 

 

 

 

When in Rome, eat like the Romans

Let’s talk about how Italian eat.

img_2070As I observed, Italian did not seem to think “Breakfast is the most important meal” of the day. It’s normal to skip breakfast (Colazione)  and only have a quick caffe (simply espresso). Having an espresso at a bar in Italy took less than 5 minutes. Order, coffee out, drink and pay. The coffee is not scorching hot and an Italian would just down a whole espresso right when it touches his/her hands. When they have the chance, it’s still rather a quick affair. Simple caffe or milky drink (cappuccino, latte, macchiato) and some pastries. In my post “Forgetting the checklist in Italy”, I noted my wonderful experience at those little bars, where you could brush shoulder with the locals over a a an espresso, breakfast or had some wine after work. It’s a social place, not a drinking place. In fact I opine it’s all go down to socialization for Italians.

Italian also have meranda (afternoon snack) like kids in all school. They eat meranda similar to breakfast.

Then we have Pranzo (Lunch) and Cena (Dinner), the main meals. First you have il primo (first course), typically involving carb (rice, pasta). Then you have your Il secondi (the main course), with meat or fish and a side dish (“contorno” – typically salad – this can be a a separate dish as well). Then you can choose to have dolce (dessert). Then absolutely an espresso to finish. Wine is optional too. This is a normal meal structure.

In a more formal way, you will have Aperitivo (light appetizer) and Antipasto (heavier appetizer) before Il primo and also Insalata (salad, can be skipped if contorno is a salad) and Fromaggi e Frutta (cheese and fruit – easily skipped) after il secondi and prior to dessert and caffe. . Aperitivo is some simple stuff like olives, sauces, cheese, nuts, tiny little quiche. Antipasto is my favourite – it has antipasti! Prosciutto, salami, ham, charcuterie, cheese, bread-base dish (think Bruscheta – which pronounce brus-ket-ta not brus-Shet-a), vegie, salmon or prawn. I like this so much that so often I fill up myself with this. All these would end with a digestivo (grappa, limoncello, etc) to ease your digestion of  an absolute feast!

Pranzo is seen as the most important meals of the day for Italian. These days, it often comes down to pizza and panini with the young due to the work hours. Talking of pizza, you eat a pizza freshly made at a pizzeria, full stop. Only a few restaurants offer pizzas. A fancy pizzeria in Florence cost you 10-12euro each. A top pizzeria in Salerno cost you 4-5 euro (the southern region of Italy is poorer than the north, hence the price). An average pizza in Capri would cost you 15-20 euro. A slide of pizza can cost as little as 50 cents. If you have the whole pizza, you eat with fork and knife and you can excuse that and use hands with a slide of pizza.

Do you know pizza is NOT originally from Italy? The flat bread was brought first to Napoli (a main port) by Greek merchants. The locals , mostly poor workers, then added tomato sauce on top. Gradually, more delicacies are added and the dishes become popular in all classes!

So that’s how you eat in Italy, in theory. I really don’t understand how Italian and eat all that and still look so doped! during my few weeks in Italy, as i must have dessert (such sweet tooth!), I normally have either il primo or il secondi. When I can resist to order both, I would skip the next meal. In fact, toward the last week in Capri and Salerno, I have dinner every other day!

So how do Italian eat at home? If you have guests, all hells break loose! At my airbnb experience in San Miniato, we started with champagne (to celebrate a newly wed couple), aperitivo, MANY antipasti (a few dishes), pasta, 2 desserts, endless wine and limoncello! In a normal day, as Gabriele showed me, just simple pasta would do for dinner.

And at last, Italian are very proud of their seasons local products. Cinque Terre for the pesto, San Miniato for white truffle, campania for lemons, Tuscany for its wine and wild boar, Napoli for pizza, Ischia for rabbits and biancoella, Bologna for bolognese sauce, Capri for caprese (both salad and pasta!) and the list go on. Everywhere you find incredible olive oil, tomatoes and GELATO!

There, that’s how Italian eat. Remember when in Rome, act like the Romans.

Love,

Kate

 

 

 

Ischia, as reality sinked in

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Ischia in sunset from Capri

Talking about islands in Italy, the first name that comes up would be Capri, the second being Sicily. The former is famous for its beautiful turquoise sea and the latter for its incredible cuisines and endless story of the mafia world. I’d save Sicily for a long trip next time.

Little did I know about the Tyrrhenian sea and only after a quick google search, I found out besides the lux and fabulous Capri which is near the gulf of Sorrento, there are also Ischia and Procida which sit north-west of Capri, closer to Napoli. I know Capri is for the kind of luxury experience and a “must do” day trip for many visitor to the south of Italy. The island is known to be flocked with dozen of thousand visitors everyday from 9.30am till 5pm, not to mention the inflated cost for everything. This turned me off. I’m on my sabbatical and wanted somewhere relaxed, local, fewer people. I found a few article on Ischia, a volcanic island with nice beaches, some thermal beach and a not so crazy road for scooter ride. I made up my mind and made some arrangement to visit this unpolished pearl of the Tyrrhenian.

I booked an airbnb in Casamicciola, one of the 2 ports of the islands, with a hill-top location, pool & ocean view for 60 Euro a night, one of the top options. I’m so very pleased when I got the approval from my Firenze host Gabriele as well as Francesco and Isabella (who also convinced me to still visit the “magical Capri”). 3 trendy Italian, it must be good!

As I got off the ferry from Napoli after a long day of traveling from Florence including lugging my suitcase from Napoli Centrale to the ferry terminal in the 39*C heatwave as the city metro went on strike, I saw clear water right my the marina and a sheepish town in my view. At the marina grande piazza, there are a few restaurants and bars, some convenient shops, a few people sitting at the park benches, chatting. after 30′ I found the house, at the top of a very steep slope, outlooking to the port. I instantly went for a swim and dozed off on the sun-bed for a large part of the afternoon. Julio woke me up around 4.30pm to say hi and let me know stuff around the house. I envied his living quarter on the top floor, open veranda with an unblocked view.

I was in Ischia at the midst of July, right during the World Cup final . The day i arrived was the boring match between England and Belgium. I had been great support for England team till their odd performance at semi-final. They could not break the circle! There wasn’t much action on the island for this match, either. I had a sundowner down the piazza and then head east toward the end of  Casamicciola, passing a local beach club and many souvenir shop, up the hill to find a restaurant called Le Stufe, known for its view. Hadn’t I been eaten up by mosquitos, I would have loved it more. A kind French couple loaned me their spray, bless them! The fish and desert were delicious, so was the local wine. I watched the sun go down and shut its door to the island. Under this heat wave, the sky were cloudless, turning from a whitish blue to a fierce orange-red on top of mulberry blue and it got darker and darker by the minutes. The night went down quickly in this part of the world and everywhere you see a clear deep blue colour, which of the sky overlapped the ocean. The light came back from the ships or the stars I wouldn’t know. 

I slept soundly that night.

The next day was spent rather chilled with a short walk around Casamicciola, a hideout in an A/c restaurant, some planning, lots of pool time and then the World Cup Final – French vs Croatia. I shared a table with some Swiss people, next to some Croatia people, cheering for both teams. the atmosphere was calm and friendly, a degree from the crazy crowd I joined in Florence for England vs Croatia match. I did some digging that day with google map and head to Nando Cantino for dinner. “A water hole restaurant with only 5 tables but serve some of the best Italian food” – said some reviewer. Nando’s wife was kind enough of offer me a table that would be free for an hour and a half. Food was delicious. Local Pino Grigio was refreshing. Service was spectacular and honest. At the end of my meal, I booked a table for the next day.

Initially I wanted to do some hiking in the island. The longest route took me to one of the view-point took like 8 hours return. Judging the killing heat wave from the day before, I decided to get a scooter! I could easy do the whole island with a few stop in a day. The next day started with a slight panic as the scooter shop down the marina ran out of scooters. It’s 8.30am, opening time! I really didn’t want to sit by the pool for the whole day. Lucky me Julio came to the rescue and guided me toward the uphill square – “I think there is a shop there”. I climbed my way up hill, found the life savior shop and finally set off for the day at past 10, counter-clockwise from the marina following SP270 route.  I hadn’t rode a scooter for a while and the hilly road scared me a little. I stopped a million time to check on the direction for the first 10km, which irritated myself so badly. looking back now I was surprised on how “scared” I was. 5 years ago I took a scooter and go around Kos island in fairly bad wind conditions around some edgy cliff without any worry. What happened to me? Age? Insecurity? Mental exhaustion? I still don’t know. I do know for a large part of this year, I had been very doubtful of myself.

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walking down to Via Sorgeto

I stopped at a local beach just pass Florio to beat the late morning heat. The water was so pleasant – cool, clear,  salty and full of pebbles. I love pebble beach. No sand, no sand! The beach scattered with local and tourists lazily swimming, sunbathing. I found a spot and dived in. With my wet butt and sticky salty body, I gathered my stuff and continue to Panza to check out Ischia Via Sorgeto, where there was a natural thermal bath, avoiding to pay premium at some of the fancy thermal spa. I wasn’t disappointed. After quite a ride and climbed down many many stairs, I reached the bottom, hooked my bag on a fence like the local did and jumped in one of those natural pebble bathtub. The hot stream coming out from the mountain and was met with the cool wave from the ocean. At a corner I could feel the gentle warmth of the water.  It’s one of the popular spot in Ischia and in this weather, the small bay flocked with people. Old people were soaking and the young and happening were swimming & sunbathing. I moved my location gradually toward the young and happening for a good swim before heading up the only bar here for quick lunch. There I met the couple from Rome I met at Nando’s the night before. I felt like we were in an escape room! The rest of the afternoon I raced on the SP270, passing Punta Saint Angelo and end at Ischia, the main port, having a cappuccino looking up to Castello Aragonese d’Ischia. It’s 4pm and I’m long for some air-conditioning! After the dreadful winter in New York, this Italy summer was too hot for me. I quickly retreated to my room, icy cold shower and dozed off till sunset. That night, I thought I had the best meal in Italy ever. And I ate rabbit (a local special) for the first time. My my!

At this point, I was a month and a half into my career break and a week into my 4 week trip in Europe. The last year had been a roller coaster – moved to New York, started from ground 0 with work there, started from almost ground 0 with social life there, nurtured a distance relationship, took care of an ill relative, my mum got really sick. For the first time I said I wanted to move home.  My bf said for the many years he knew me, this was the first time I had ever said this. I had hit a rock then and learnt my lesson- setting up at a new place at the point of your life when you wanted to settle down wasn’t a breeze. It took tenacity. It took faith. I knew my “battery” wasn’t charging very well for a while. I knew I wasn’t moving to New York all excitedly (which I thought I would as finally after 5 years, I realized my relocation desire). Both tenacity and faith were bring used without proper charging. Ironically, I took a leap of faith (all the remaining) to go on this journey hoping to give my mind a proper rest to recreate some thinking energy in me. I wanted to be able to accept myself as I was to be honest. As reality sinked in,  I was still not 100% convinced with my decision to quit my job in New York, drop everything and take a break.  But I had no way back. So I kept on going with my choice, with a little faith.

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pool time

 

Consciously forgetting the checklist in Italy

I know most people go to Italy with checklist ( I did on my first trip to Italy and I checked every single things off!). Here is probably the most popular-

  1. Roma – visting Christine Chapel, wandering Colosseum, people watching at Spanish Steps, testing Mouth of Truth (thank to the classic and graceful Audrey Hepburn), throwing a coin at Trevi fountains and making too many wishes, checking out Pantheons, walking Castello Angelo and putting a damn lock on the bridge).
  2. Venezia (Venice) – taking the overpriced romantic boat ride admiring and speculating stories about the Ponte dei Sospiri, visiting the basillica and bell tower, getting lost in the city (you don’t need to try, you will!), hopping on a river taxi to Murano and Burano, hoping to see wonderful yachts.
  3. Firenze (Florence) – seeing all legacy of the Medici family (Literally the entire city!), walking across Ponte Vecchio and admiring the local vendor, climb up the hill to see David and watch the sun setting over the city, etc. These plus day trip to Cinque terra, seeing Pisa leaning tower, tasting wine. Some people expressed to do Florence and Chianti in a day.
  4. Capri – I actually not sure about this one.

All the above are wonderful things and you need to know you are fortunate enough to see them, however, you can enjoy all that if you have at least a week in each city. And Italy is not just Rome – Venice – Florence. Also, mind you all these beautiful cities and sites are carefully preserved so that 10, 20, 50, 100 years from now, they still look great (and pretty much the same). For me, the entire city of Florence is a museum itself. So calm the h*** down!

Having been to Italy numerous times (I love it!), I’m speaking this from my own experience.

My first time in Italy back in 2009, I spent 10 days in the 3 cities above and crossed around 50% of the above. My 2nd time in 2013, I spent a week only in Chianti region (still didn’t do a vineyard visit!). The most recent, this summer, i spent 2 weeks. the first half lazing in Florence (My favourite city) and then a bit of running around south Ischia – Capri – Salerno. I didn’t cross many “must do”, but I collected some very fond memories and some good friends.

So here is 10 bullet buttons:

  • ARRIVAL – Try to arrive between 4pm and 7pm to ensure the best greetings at hotels or especially homestay/airbnb. Italians doesn’t really work in the morning, go on lunch break between 12-4pm and then off to fiesta at 7pm. It’s like God’s times to them so be respectful and don’t expect too much. People give you the most attention and most helpful from 4-7pm I found.
  • ATTENTIOn – If you want your host or the hotel to pick you up, call them the day before and as you arrive (even if you have told them through the booking, on messages, all black and white in writing). Italians love attention but they will leave you alone after check in. Love it!
  • BAR – If you are paying more than 1 euro for an espresso, you’re in a very touristy area. Try to look for though small local water holes which are cafe by day and bar by night. It’s the same word in Italians’ world – BAR. Go there in the morning and see those Italian order an espresso, talking to a stranger while waiting, drinking the coffee straight away, leaving a coin and off on his vespa. Those with mostly local are the best!
  • ROAM – Walk around, a lot, and try things out – whether its pizza, spaghetti, local beer, another Aperol spritz or some local made leather sandals. Some of these are at the bottom of Trip Advisor list because the shopkeeper don’t speak English or maybe only boring people leave reviews. Don’t bother to call taxi (and there is no Uber!).
  • LOST. Seriously get lost. Google Map doesn’t show little alleys in Italy so well and there are many walking/running trail that only the local knows. On a random turn during my morning run in Oltrano, I passed Galileo’s house and a small fort where you can have some very good sunset cocktails! I found the best restaurant i have ever been to in Ischia just by playing with my google map and roam around.
  • LOCALS – buy from them, I meant the street vendors who sell freshly picked fruits and vegetable, the local vineyard who only make a thousand bottles a years, the one at the corner with no sign.
  • WINE – Make time for wine tasting at a vineyard. Italian in the countryside exude this fountain of hospitality and share with you their most incredible wine and salami and olives and bruschettas.
  • TRAIN – don’t bother anything else – this is the one thing that is efficient in Italy. Go everywhere, on time, affordable.
  • MEDICI – Read about the Medici family. I was amazed at the rise and fall of this family and how far their power and money had stretched in the past.
  • EAT ALL YOU CAN. – amazing gelato, pizzas to die for, fresh pasta, so many condiments and cold cuts, cheese, sweet desserts ….

I have come to Italy to consciously see why Italians are being the way they are – fun, exuberant, talkative, gossipy, proud, trendy and very particular about coffee.

I hope you can start planning a fun trip.

Love,

Kate

Georgian Military Road – Mountain’s Calling

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The road that took me from Tbilisi to Kazbergi followed an old connection used by invaders and traders to the kingdom of Georgia for eons. Till late 18th century, with Russian firmly ankled in Georgia as protectorate of the country east side while the west was still under the Persian empire (Iran)’s suzerain, they started to enhance the known path that linked Tbilisi to Vladikavkaz, North Ossetia, Russia. Over the course of 70 years, they would build a miracle in the Russian empire that time – spending 4 millions euro of then money to construct a straight north-south road cutting across the Caucasus mountain range, stretching over 200km with sprawling tunnels at 2000m above the sea level. It’s heavily used during its construction to aid a number of military actions by the Empire, and so it is named Georgian Military Road.

We set off fresh in the morning from Tbilisi with a new driver, this one with very good English and full of stories. We headed north to Mtskheta direction. I heard this old capital was really charming and hard to miss, especially to see the precious relics of St Nino’s grapevine cross. I missed it. That’s me traveling without a very good plan as you might have noticed by now. Just north of Mtskheta, we entered the Georgian Military Road. The road is crowded and winding. As Georgians said hey didn’t produce many good drivers, I glued my eyes to the road as we ascended. 40’ outside of Tbilisi and you started seeing mountains and mountains, all so lush in the midst of summer.

IMG_4922We passed Zhinvali dam and it instantly reminded me of the Vietnamese’s Hoa Binh Hydropower Dam. The massive Agragvi river was stopped and tamed to served mankind. During the low season, you could still see the roof of the old village church. As we followed the  road up, we reached Ananuri fort, a beautiful Orthodox Church reaching out and overlooking the reservoir. It’s certainly one of the famous attractions on this road. Here I thought I saw some cat-woman! A beautiful alone Russian in her lycra suits is climbing up the watch tower. A few more followed suit.

A little more up hill, we passed just another “tourist attraction” where the Black and White Agragvi merged. Once upon a time, there were 2 beautiful sisters, one with white hair and one with black hair. They both fell in love for one man. The lucky chap thought carefully himself and chose the white hair sister. The other sister, heart-broken, took her life to the east branch of the river. The river cried over her death and turned black. Knowing her sister’s death, the white hair lady sobbed, running to the west branch of the river and let herself in. The river cried and turn white. Then on, the 2 branches of Agravi River kept their color till they met. They would go side by side for a while before fully merging into each other. Somehow on the day that I visited, the 2 sisters intertwined fairly early and all I can see is a grayish fiery river.  You can google it to see some impressive scene.

IMG_5043By then, I started getting more interest in some friendly companies along the road than the scenary itself. Moo Moo, beeee beee. Cutest craps on the road that couldn’t be bother about our presence (I meant big fast car). Then something appeared – the half-moon shape cast in-situ Russian tunnels. These tunnel are for used in winter when the main road are covered in snow and ice. Before we reached the highest point of the road -almost 2400 m above sea level Jvari pass – there is another massive tourist attraction that I was told to stop and see. The Friendship Monument, build in the late 80s to commemorate 200 years Russia – Georgian ‘friendship’, filled with mosaic-style propaganda painting of the history between the 2 countries. It covered a nice square where the best view of the valley can be attained. I was convinced to fly over the valley so I took my breath and  jumped off the hill…. On a paraglide. As we glided up and down the hill-side, I saw lots of mountains, a too perfect looking pond with turquoise color water, roads, tunnels, people, etc. We glided down and  waved at the Ukraine competitor paragliding company. At the end, I was glad it only lasted like 20’.

My driver woke me up as we passed Jvari and headed down to Gudauri, the famous ski resort of the country. European has started to go to Gudauri for skiing – imagine Alp – like conditions and Georgian price. I’d go back here for skiing. Maybe take a helicopter ride to save the 3 hour drive. We kept heading north and north and north and finally reach Stepantsminda, the trekking centre! Think of it like Kathmandu for those who wanted to see the Himalaya, this place is for people who wanted to scale Mount Kazbek, 5,047m above sea level, a mere 3,300m ascend from Stepantminsda. The town was busy at mid-day as day trippers like me made our lunch stop before checking out the area. I opted for the Rooms Hotel Kazbegi, a rustic looking boutique hotel on top of the hill which apparently served very very good khachapuri. The hotel is gorgeous (I’d stay here next time) and has the unblock view of Gergetti Trinity Church with Mount Kazbek at its background. It has an indoor heated pools and all room facing mountain. Top notch Georgian and international wine and well, very good food. The view is to die for! I thought maybe I wouldn’t need to get on those mad old Lady car to get up to the Church in the afternoon, this view (with a glass of wine) was sufficiently good. After 2 glasses of wine and to avoid all hells break loose too early in the day, I climbed on a ,million year-old Lada machine and climbed 500m off-road to the church. I recalled the mirror of its were broken and one door was broken. We saw people pushing a car on the way. We saw some fiery muddy river flushing down (Flash flood danger!!!!!!). It was steamy hot inside but I dare not open the window. Dirt and mud splattered to the window as I held über tight to the side handle to avoid banging my head to the roof. At some point, it was so steep I couldn’t see the road. And yet, moo moo cows were wondering around laughing at us humans. All these, in addition to 75$, saved me from at least an hour and a half treacherous trek up.

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Gergetti Church is middle left – tiny!

The church, built in 14th century (its bell tower built later), was tiny and as beautiful as any Eastern Orthodox churches I have seen in this country, much older though. Adorned cupola, Nicholas-Cage-like St Nino with her make-shift cross, St George on his horse slaying a dragon/serpent with his long spear.

I sat there for a little, taking in the blaring sun and feeling humble to Mother Nature.

Batumi by the Black Sea

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Batumi wasn’t in my initial rough plan. I wanted to spend some quality time in Tbilisi and surrounding area and then leave enough time to go all the way to Svaneti, the highest habitat in the world.

Batumi is a casino and resort town, once an important port by the Black Sea. The city has risen to be the 2nd biggest city in the country in the last few year, surpassing old capital Kutaisi. I heard Batumi was lively and the ocean breath will ease the humidity and heat in the midst of summer. So still with much reluctance, I took the very modern train from Tbilisi to Batumi and arrived in a place that looked and felt like Vung Tau of Vietnam 5 hours later. Big crowded city filled with Russian tourists, incomplete road works, millions ongoing hotels and casino projects, messy traffic and that smell, the particular smell when you are so closed to the sea yet have so much concrete in your centre. It is the mix of salty wind and sun-dried fresh fish, of vehicle fumes and people, of sweat and food. I wasn’t sure I liked what I saw that much.

I got to my airbnb with not much difficulty with the help of a taxi driver. The apartment block is just next to the coming Courtyard Marriott hotel, the next tallest building in Batumi. By the time I figured out the location of the lift, I saw a big crowd cramming in front of the lift doors. Apparently they were broken. So I took the stair to the 3rd floor (thank god! It’d be hell if it’s on the 6th floor like in Tbilisi!). My host’s cleaner’s husband was waiting for me at the small studio with a glimpse of Black Sea from a far. I would be here for 2 nights, with a slight regret.

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Street art by Gagosh, a famous artist

I rushed back to the cable car station to catch the 5pm walking tour (similar to the one I took in Tbilisi). There were a much smaller group and we took a stroll around the city centre. The city centre consisted of a number of areas based on the ethnicity of the residents – the Turkish town, the Armenian town, The European town. You know you can smell a Turkish town! The same smell I was overwhelmed with in Istanbul a few years back. Rows and rows of kebabs and Turkish grilled sausages, men with big bellies and little curly hairs, ladies with their stern faces and aprons arounds their waists. We visited an old bath house where the renovation was on-going, like any part of this town. We walked pass the Italian square where you could see incredible mosaic works from Venice, a beautiful astronomical clock and lines of average but fancy Italian restaurant are around.

Then here it is the open secret of this city – the European square where European style building lined up the street and surrounded a spacious bazaar. Our tour guide told us most of these building are only occupied on the first floor, the 2nd and 3rd floor are all vacant and no-one would use them. The youngster here are illegally using some of the empty buildings are underground party at night. So the story goes … During his reign, Mikheil Sakashvili (Misha) gathered his comrades and collected ideas from all the great nations with a fantasy to build an European city in Batumi. So he built this square and all the building arounds. He also built a massive skyscraper for the Technology Institute. When he lost power, the communism mindset of Georgians didn’t want to associate with him anymore, so they abandoned his buildings. I saw Raffles Hotel, The Metropole Hanoi Legend, The Shangri-la in those beautiful building. Misha even got closed to Donald Trump and guess what, there is a Trump Tower in the water front, closest to the statue of Ali and Nino (of which I wasn’t so impressed). Misha started the building with Trump intention to invest in Batumi. They stopped it when he went on exile, then started off again in god speed when Trump ran for office 2 years ago. The building is completed but unfortunately Trump, after his inauguration, wanted nothing to do with Georgia. So the government sold the building to a hotel group, who underestimated the cost of turning it into a hotel. Years after years, it’s currently the tallest building in Batumi and it is empty

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Neptune’s ladies

We also passed the national theatre which is under renovation (yes the whole city is under renovation!) and was introduced to the Neptune Fountain – an Italian-inspired fountain (with many goddesses around the feet of Neptune, they all holding out their full breasts and water would come out of their tits. I have seen this before at a small drinking fountain in Amalfi. Misha built this. He was known for his love for lust.

The statue of Ilia Chavchavadze, a writer and a political figure in a noble family was also nearby. He was known to flag the national movement in late 19th century and Misha has used his figure to spearhead the rose revolution in 2003, which led to his presidential election the year after.

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Georgian’s Cola

At the end of the tour we got to try something i really like – Georgian “coca cola”. Its flavoured soda water. Georgian put syrup of different flavour in their sweet soda and it reminded me of the sparkling water I love as a kid in Vietnam. It’s sweet and gasy, but not too much. When i first drank the real sparkling water I thought it’s yuck! the shop we got our soda has been in business since the first day of this beverage. By now you can guess whose idea that led to this national drink. Of course, Misha!

I woke up the next day bracing myself to check out the city myself so I walked along the beach to the famous breakfast place for a nice pancake plate. Then the fish market, which including me walking on an under construction bridge and sidewalk. Odd! The market was small and full of fish :)). I got a lift back to the city centre on my way back. I decided to myself people of Georgia is the main attraction in Batumi, so lovely. Then I head to the beach, THE BEACH! it’s my kind of beach, full of round pebbles. It’s like having a gentle massage without having it. The water looked rather uninvitingly black, even when the sun was out. An unapologetic color of black!

At the end, I was glad my time in Batumi was over. It’s towards the end of my trip so my physical tiredness and certainly some emotional matters arisen didn’t make a high note for me to leave Batumi.

But would I come back to Batumi?

I doubt so.

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