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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Georgia – I came for the wine

England, 17 August 2018,


After a month of lugging my suitcase around Italy, Croatia, a bit of Serbia and Georgia, i got back to England. I told my neighbour J that Georgia had great wine and so did Croatia. “Kate, you have gone to Champagne, Croatia, Italy and Georgia this summer…. I see a pattern here”, J joked on my alcoholic behaviour. I do have a sincere love for good wine.

And so below are some of my wine stories in Georgia


– Kate, so what brings you to Georgia?

– I came for the wine.

We were at Divino, into our third glass of wine or so.  The bartender kept pouring one type after another and we wouldn’t care much. We, me and an Italian couple, had been on this physically challenged walking tour of 4 hours around the city, we deserved this. The Italian moaned about the  American girl trying to inflict so much of her daily life into the tour. I moaned about the weirdly long stop at the bakery where I had to get myself a mojito (and who ate cheese bread at 5pm?).

This is the start – my first day in Georgia.

I didn’t even know there was such a country till about 2 years ago when I watched a random documentary on Food Network about the birth of Shiraz. Yes,I like wine so much I watched documentary about it. As it turned out, the wine is one of the oldest and was “invented” on the area of Caucasus mountain, in between Iran and Georgia. Nowadays there is no wine making in Iran for religious reason but Georgian people still ferment and bury their wine in big ceramic churns  Everyday. That afternoon the name Georgia registered in my head. I did some research and figured the country situated at the end of Silk Road, bordering Russia and share Black Sea with Turkey. I wanted to go there to drink wine one day.

End of June, about 3 days before my month-long trip in Europe, I booked my ticket to Georgia, heading east instead of west from Croatia after much of the plans were changed. “I like your style”, bf remarked when that destination came up.

Throughout my stay in Georgia I have tasted so many type of wine and visit the wine region Kakheti. I visited Khareba winery, one of the biggest, where I met Eka, a smart beautiful young Georgian woman who is now my 3rd friend in Georgia!

There are about 500 types of grapes and in Georgia along there is about 250 types. So the wine are of great variety, and lucky me, of great quality. The Georgian way of making wine keep the skin and stem in the juice for the entire period of fermentation, which result in darker color and stronger wine. The thing they use to keep wine is called “Qveri”. The wine is typically quite young but certainly ha reached a good level of complexity. 2 excellent examples are the Amber Wine and Sarapevi.

Amber wine – You don’t see this anywhere- the grape is from Georgia and with the increase skin contact, a luminous color of amber liquid with strong full taste. This is definitely my favourite among all.

Saparevi is deep red grape, which after the prolonged skin contact produced the Black Wine. I personally like full body red (like Burgundy) so this won me completely.

But here is the most exciting part, a definite pleasant surprise to me – sweet wine! Before this trip I hated sweet wine and considered Moscato the most disgusting wine Human beings had ever invented. So sweet my throat hurt. However, I was made to taste Georgian semi-sweet wine. It’s delightful! Light hint of sweetness, smooth, ruby red and light. I never thought of the day I’d buy a bottle of semi-sweet wine. I did! So I recommend you to try the sweet wine in Georgia as It may well be the best you have ever tasted.

With the great wine, Georgian drink and feast a lot. In fact the Guardian of Tbilisi Kartlis Deda holds a glass of wine as a symbol of hospitality. In a Georgian feast, 1 man will be designated “tamada” (literally toast master). He certainly speaks well and initiates a lot of toasts. He would drink from a goat horn which can hold up to 2l of wine. He would drink it in one go before it got filled up again. The use of the horn is because of it shape, it can’t be put down. One told me she knew someone who did 19 toasts and the only way to avoid drinking in Georgia is to have a doctor’s order. Pregnancy does not count!

Georgian has also made many wonderful things out of grape juice:

  • Chacha – it’s similar to Raki/Rakia and lethal! The homemade chacha can be up to 70deg.
  • Bvac – delicious thirst wrenching light flavoured soda without crazy amount of gas. I saw this first sold at the train station and was slight taken a back my this nation’s alcoholism thinking to myself “Man, they drink a pint of wine in the sun!”.
  • Churchella – the wonderful sweet made of string of nuts (typically walnut as this is very popular in Georgia) cover in grapevine paste (grape juice and flour). It can be in sheet type as well.
  • Bread is not from grape juice but is baked in big bell ovens (like Indian making naan) which is fuelled by grapevine and leaves. Smell delicious, taste Devine!

As said, I came to Georgia for the wine, I got that, together with other things came my way unexpectedly!

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Visa requirement

This is for people from the like of Vietnam who have much restricted on traveling. Americans, you don’t need visa to enter, please stop asking Google.

Georgia is now petitioning to join the EU (target 2019) and currently  you can enter Georgia with valid multiple entry tourist Schengen (like the Balkan countries), US or British visa. There are 14 countries outside the Schengen Agreement that you can enter with Schengen visa. Please make sure you triple-check before you go as things may change fast and tell airline staffs because they DO NOT know and will take about 20’ trying to agree among themselves before giving you the boarding pass. Been there, done that.