Money and RTW Travel

Greetings from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.  In the next few days you can expect an update on our transatlantic cruise from Europe back to the Americas, but first let’s take a pause from our regularly scheduled programming to address an important topic:  Money and RTW Travel.

This blog post is inspired by some of the comments on CNN.com in reaction to last Tuesday’s article ‘Summer chasers’ keep sun in their sights which features our Chasing Summer adventure along with a couple others.   The article was a huge success, drawing close to 200,000 readers from around the world and over 150 website comments.  It also drew over 8,000 new visitors to this blog.  Thanks CNN!

Reading through the comments on the CNN website, I noticed that a lot of readers were skeptical about whether “regular folks” can afford to travel around the world like we’re doing.  There seems to be a common misconception, at least in the United States, that international travel is a luxury that only the rich can afford.  I’d like to put that misconception to rest.

Let me start by dispelling the myth that “only trust fund babies can travel the world.”  The style of travel that Lauren and I have chosen certainly requires some cash in the bank, though it’s probably not as much as you think, and if either of us have trust funds nobody has told us about them yet!

As the CNN.com article mentioned, our trip is financed by cash I’ve saved up over the years, mostly profits from my company, Infosurv.  I started Infosurv in college with no outside capital and spent the last 12 years working hard to grow it, with the help of course of dozens of incredibly dedicated and talented employees.

We realize how fortunate we are to be able to travel in the style that we’ve chosen.  That said, I believe strongly that anyone can travel internationally if they have an able body and the discipline to work within a budget that suits them. It all comes down to the style of travel that they choose.

To illustrate, here are a few anonymous profiles of other travelers that I’ve met along the way:

The French Migrant Worker

On a bus to Arlie Beach, Australia, I met a pretty French girl who told me that she’s traveling though Australia and New Zealand as a migrant worker.  She picks fruits and berries on organic farms, alongside other migrant workers from Thailand and Indonesia (she admitted they are far more productive than she is.)   She enjoys working the fields and meeting other travelers along the way.  She saves up money as she goes, taking a few weeks off here and there to sightsee or chill at a hostel by the beach.  I’m guessing that she started her trip with just enough money for a cheap flight from France to Australia.

The British Retailer

At a hostel in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, I met a 23-year old British girl who was traveling though Australia, Southeast Asia, the South Pacific, and South America for 10 months.  After graduating from university she worked for 6 months as a front-line employee at an H&M clothing store in Liverpool, living inexpensively at her parents’ house to save up as much money as possible.  Her self-funded trip cost around £8,000 pounds (or about $16,000.)

The Australian Software Engineer

At a bar in Thailand I met an Aussie software engineer who funds his travels as he goes by working on software projects remotely for clients back home.  Since the cost of living in Thailand is just a fraction of that in Australia, he doesn’t need to work on nearly as many projects to support himself as he did at home.  This leaves him lots of extra time and money for sightseeing, transportation and recreation.

You may notice that none of the people profiled above would be considered ‘wealthy’ by Western standards. Yet, they’ve all found a way travel internationally for extensive periods of time.

You may also notice that none of the people that I profiled are American… I hate to admit this, but Americans are vastly under-represented amongst RTW travelers.  For every 1 fellow American that I’ve met traveling aboard, I’ve met 10 Australians, 8 Brits, and 3 Canadians.  Since our population is more than 10x each of theirs, this is a shameful state of affairs.

Admittedly, there are plenty of real-world constraints that make extensive travel more difficult.  For example, those with physical disabilities will find that other countries don’t typically have the same accessibility infrastructure that we enjoy in the States (although low-cost international cruise ships usually do.)

Those traveling with small children will find it more challenging than traveling alone, with older children or other adults, but it can be done.  Most of the people I’ve met traveling with children are living abroad more so than just traveling abroad, usually renting a house in a foreign country for several months or a year.  Though this kind of traveler isn’t quite as mobile as the single young backpacker, they still enjoy a similar sense of freedom, adventure, and cultural immersion.

For Americans, the most commonly cited impediment to long-term travel is our jobs  — or more specifically, the country’s relatively tight vacation policies.   In Europe, it’s not uncommon for employees to enjoy 6-8 weeks of paid vacation each year.  In the US, many employees get only 2 weeks.  This is a cultural problem, and unfortunately not much can be done about it at this point short of government intervention, as any American company that offers more paid vacation than its peers would find itself at a competitive disadvantage.

However, even the most workaholic American will find himself between jobs from time to time, especially in today’s economic environment, and these career breaks are the perfect time to knock the dust off one’s passport.

I believe that many of the reasons Americans cite for not traveling are intellectual covers for what’s really a cultural hesitancy.  The United States is very isolated by world standards.  We’re physically isolated by two vast oceans, politically isolated by the strongest military in the world, financially isolated by economic self-sufficiency (oil excepted), and culturally isolated as the world’s best exporter and worst importer of music, film, and media.  Americans have grown so accustomed to the bubble in which we live that most of us don’t even realize how much exists beyond it.  What little we do know about the outside world often comes from our sensationalizing media, thus giving us fears of other countries in vast disproportion to the dangers that actually exist there.

In the end, I believe than all Americans should travel the world, and than almost all of us can afford to if we have the courage, the desire, and the discipline to make it happen.

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Lauren is going to Arequipa, Peru to volunteer with children

Jared and I are changing continents and heading to South America!  I will begin a 4 week volunteer teaching program in Arequipa, Peru on November 13, 2010.  We both thought it would be a great time to travel solo for a little while and I wanted to use my skills as an Occupational Therapist to work with children in another country.

I will be a volunteer with GVI (Global Vision International) and be working with children ages 4 and up.  I will also be living with a local family and learning Spanish so I can communicate with my host family and all the children I will be working with in the schools.  These schools are located in the ‘pueblos jovenes’ or the ‘young towns’ which are more rural and benefit greatly from the extra help.  There are too few teachers in the area so we are able to lend a hand and spend one on one time with the children who may need extra attention. We also concentrate on fine motor skills, and classroom basics such as letters and numbers with the younger children. Along with donating school supplies, GVI hopes to promote literacy and education reinforcement.

You can find out more about GVI at http://www.gviusa.com/about-us.

You can also find out more about my specific trip at http://www.gviusa.com/projects/south-america/peru/volunteer-project-peru/home.

These days you pay to volunteer and I am trying to raise money to cover the cost of this 4 week program.  My goal is to raise $3000.00 to cover the cost of the trip (flight, stay with family, all meals, Spanish lessons, and donations to the schools).  GVI is not a non-profit organization and therefore the donation is not tax deductible.  If you feel inclined, you can help sponsor my trip at https://www.donate.net/splash.asp?dept_id=1203

I will try to update the blog as often as possible with pictures and stories from my adventure! Thanks for your help.

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Hopping the Greek Isles

Forgive us Father, for it has been over two weeks since our last blog post.  Something about spending a few weeks in the Greek Isles can make you lazy.  It’s been a nice change of pace from Italy, which is so packed with art, culture, and history that you just can’t sit idle.  The islands of Greece are a different story.  Aside from a few ancient Greek ruins there isn’t much to see here, which leaves plenty of time for relaxing on the beach, from which there are plenty to chose.

We started our travels through Greece over 3 weeks ago on the island of Mykonos.  It’s a touristy spot typically visited by young Europeans looking for a party.  Though it’s a hedonistic free-for-all in July and August (or so we hear), by the time we arrived in late September it was quite relaxed.  The Greek islands are very seasonal and we only caught the tail end of the season.  Almost every day we saw another bar, restaurant or hotel shut down for the winter.

Mykonos is favored by tourists for its beautiful beaches, picturesque “little Venice” village, and hot night clubs.  You’ll see plenty of photos of the first two in our video… the clubs were dead this time of year.   It was a great place to visit but different than we expected.  Being from the southeast United States, the islands to which we’re most accustomed are the Caribbean type – lush, green, and tropical.  The Greek Isles, especially those in the Cyclades where Mykonos is found, are much different – dry, barren, and very windy.  They have a rugged feel that we weren’t expecting, but still came to love.

Little Venice

After 4 days in Mykonos, Jared headed off to Ios for a few days to learn windsurfing while Lauren luxuriated on the beach in Mykonos a bit longer.  Ios was similar to Mykonos in size, but even more laid back and less developed.  The crowd there was mostly backpackers from Australia and the UK.  There were very few Americans to be found, which is a common trend we’ve noticed during our travels.  It’s interesting that the US has about 10x the population of Australia, and yet there seem to be 10x more Aussies than Americans traveling abroad.

Ios

Next came Santorini.  Our Lonely Planet guidebook starts its Santorini chapter with the sentence, “Santorini will take your breath away.”  That pretty much sums it up.

Santorini is a volcanic island, which bestows it with a much different character from its neighbors and impressive beauty.  It forms part of a caldera, which is essentially a giant hole in the water left by an erupted volcano.   The part of Santorini that faces the volcano that birthed it is a sheer cliff rising hundreds of meters above the water.  There is a plateau atop the cliff that hosts Thira, the island’s main village.  One couldn’t imagine a more beautiful place to build a Greek village.

Santorini (Thira)

Though we visited Thira a few times on our rented scooter, we stayed on the other side of the island which tapers gently into the sea.  All the best beaches were on our side, one of which was a convenient 50 meters from our hotel.  The sand was black since it formed from volcanic rock, which made it pleasing to the eye but very hot on the feet!

Perivolos, our beach in Santorini

Santorini has a lot to offer a tourist beyond just its beaches.  One day we took an evening boat cruise to visit the volcano, some hot springs, and watch the sunset off the coast of Oia, a town on the northwestern tip Santorini.  Ioa is known for its sunsets and we saw why – the view of the sun setting is obstructed only by the bend of the Earth.  Watching it seem to sink slowly into the water was an unforgettable experience.

Sunset at Oia

We also watched the sunset one evening from the Santos Winery that sits atop a cliff, nibbling on cheese and wine samples of course.  Some of our best photos were taken there.

Sunset at Santos Winery

We intended to stay in Santorini for less than a week but it turned into 10 days, partially because we loved it so much and partially because Jared was waiting on a package from home that got stuck in customs.  A word of advice to anyone sending items from the US to the European Union:  no matter what the contents, only write on the customs form “Personal Effects, Clothing.  Value $20.”  Trust us on this one.

In Santorini we were fortunate to find a special place to stay, the tiny Honeymoon Beach Hotel.  The hotel itself was quite basic, but the woman who ran it, Julia, made it feel like a second home.  She has a “restaurant” downstairs that is really just an extension to her family’s kitchen (the “waiters” are her son and husband, and sometimes other guests!)   Her homemade Greek food was delicious and you can’t beat the convenience.   If you’re ever in Santorini it’s a great place to stay.

Some of Julia's yummy food

From Santorini our trek continued in Rhodes, where we are currently, an eastern Greek island just a stone’s throw from Turkey.  Rhodes is much larger and more developed than the other islands we visited.  In fact, it’s the first one we’ve seen where a majority of the locals work outside of the tourism industry! Rhodes is a popular stop for cruise ships, partly because of its deep-water harbor and partly because of its unique medieval Old Town.

"Doorway to the Sea" in the Rhodes Old Town

Lauren was most excited about Rhodes because two of her great-grandparents were from here, making her ¼ “local” by blood.  She thus feels a special connection to the island and is excited to visit the house where her great-grandmother lived and the synagogue where she worshipped.  Lauren is fortunate that her family left the island before the Second World War, as nearly all of the 1500 Jews who still lived here were killed at Auschwitz.

The island of Rhodes has a long and checkered history.  It’s been controlled at various times by the ancient Greeks, Romans, Turks and Italians, and each has left its mark.   The medieval Old Town is the work of the Knights Hospitallers, who took over in the early 1300’s and stuck around for a couple hundred years.   It looks like a medieval Italian village, complete with a stone castle wall surrounding the city.  It’s a bit surreal to see that style of architecture on a Greek island.

We’re writing this blog post from Lindos, another town on the isle of Rhodes about 45km south of the Old Town.  It’s centered around a quant old village that now seems to exist just for tourists.  It’s a gorgeous place to visit though, flanked by two beaches known as “the main beach” and St. Paul’s Bay (our favorite) with views of the very blue Aegean Sea.

St. Paul's Bay in Lindos

The main attraction in Lindos is the ruins of the ancient Acropolis of Lindos, built nearly 4,000 years ago atop in impossibly steep cliff.  One can climb to the site of the Acropolis on foot, as we did, or via donkey-taxi.   Most tourists only visit Lindos by day, but we had the luxury of spending 3 nights here.  It’s amazing to see how differently a place feels once the busloads of day-trippers have moved out.

Acropolis at Lindos

It’s been wonderful and relaxing spending these weeks in the Greek Isles, but now we’re both ready for a new experience. In a few days we fly to Rome, Italy, to board a 16 day transatlantic cruise with stops in Livorno, Monte Carlo, Barcelona, Cartagena, Malaga, Cadiz, and Funchal, with a final destination of Ft. Lauderdale, Florida.  The last 7 days will be spent at sea crossing the Atlantic!  Even though the cruise terminates in the US, we don’t intend to stay there for long.

Lauren is planning to volunteer for a month helping rural children in Peru while Jared heads to Brazil to learn Portuguese and work on his windsurfing, kiteboarding, and maybe even capoira skills.  We’ve both enjoyed being tourists for a couple of months, but now we’re seeking something a bit more meaningful (in Lauren’s case) and culturally immersive (in Jared’s case.)

Until next time, please enjoy our video “Hopping the Greek Isles.”  Sorry about the video length — in hindsight we probably should have broken up Greece into segments as we did Italy.  There are lots of really beautiful pics though, so we think you’ll still like it.

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What to Pack for RTW Travel (for women)

Some would be surprised to know that I am using the exact same bag as Jared, an Osprey Meridian 22. We researched a lot of bags and thought this was the best because it was carry-on size for most major airlines so we don’t have to check luggage. There are also wheels to use when in an urban area (I have not had to convert it to a backpack yet).

You will see that I have a lot more stuff than Jared, but somehow I fit it all into the same size bag. I like to have options, and I have been wearing everything I brought. I did ship back a few items from Italy that I found I was not wearing…regular jeans, Chaco sandals, and a black pashmina.

Clothing:

• Pants:

o Skinny jeans – J Brand

o Khaki pants that are convertible to shorts – North Face

o Khaki Capri pants – very old and I have no idea where I bought them

o Black yoga pants from Victoria secret – great for travel and pajamas

o Black harem pants (purchased in Italy for 10 euro)

o One pair of gray khaki shorts

• Skirts/Dresses:

o Long navy blue cotton dress

o Short tube top dress (great for beach and extremely hot weather) by LA Made

o Cotton gray skirt

• Shirts:

o 2 wool icebreaker short-sleeve shirts

o 2 bamboo cotton shirts (one short sleeve, one long sleeve) by Avani

o 1 long sleeve Columbia button down shirt

o 1 white cotton tank top

o 1 gray Rese workout tank top

o 1 nice dressy shirt (tank top)

o 1 Gap hoodie

o 1 North Face shell for rain and wind

o 1 gray wool wrap sweater from Banana Republic

• Shoes:

o Havianas flip flops

o Puma tennis shoes

o Tory Burch ballet flats

o Stylish Birkenstocks (purchased in Italy after my Chaco’s were bothering me)

• Other:

o 1 set of pajamas – shorts and tank top (purchased in Italy when I realized I didn’t have pajamas and we had been staying in dorm rooms with other people in hostels)

o 2 bikinis

o 7 pair of underwear

o 2 bras, 1 sports bra

o 3 pair of socks

o Bandana

o Baseball cap, ski cap, and safari type hat

o 1 pashmina (a must for religious places, can also be used as a blanket or pillow while traveling)

o Quick dry camping towel

o Silk sleep sack

o Small purse for everyday (cross body)

o Extra bag – flip and tumble for the beach, groceries, etc

o LL bean toiletry bag with toiletries – yes, I did bring a couple of items of makeup in case I feel like getting pretty

o Extra bag of medications (prescription and over the counter) – I brought Prednisone and Cipro with me in case we needed antibiotics and were somewhere we couldn’t get them right away and the prednisone is for me because I get horrible reactions to bug bites. I also have emergency migraine medication with me including an injection

o Ray ban polarized sunglasses

o 2 combination locks

o Platypus ½ Liter water sleeve

o Headlamp

o A variety of Ziploc bags (this is a must!)

• Electronics:

o Sony W series mini notebook (has held up really well and has about a 7 hour battery life)

o Jared’s hand-me-down iPhone 3GS – I use this to read books, check email, etc.

o Canon PowerShot SD880IS – camera I bought Jared a couple of years ago and works great. We discussed buying a nice SLR and decided it was too much weight and bulk to carry and everyone we found traveling extensively with a nice camera, had it stolen or were targeted for a crime.

o Universal power adapters from The Container Store

I think Jared explained in his post that most of our clothes are quick drying which is essential because it seems no one abroad uses dryers. Two of my shirts are made from bamboo and two are wool which makes them all quick drying and anti-microbial (they don’t smell bad!).

I could probably get by with less stuff, but I like the fact that I do not have to wear the same thing every day and I am able to fit it all into my bag so it’s not a problem. I did consciously bring items that can all be interchanged fairly easily. Most of my clothes are khaki, navy, gray, white, black and all go together. One the other hand, I did make sure that I had some bright colored shirts and my one sweatshirt is a bright purple so it makes the wardrobe not as boring. Some guys would not understand this, but I think I would get depressed wearing the same clothes for a year if they were all drab colors. I also know that when I get tired of something, I can give it away or send it home especially because I enjoy taking part in the local fashion style of where ever we are at the time.

We had done some research on a packing list from another couples RTW trip blog. I took her list and then tweaked it to what I needed. I think a female has to be more strategic with packing especially because we plan to be in urban and rural areas. I need to look appropriate when walking into a church in Italy, into a club in Buenos Aires, on the beach in the Greek islands, and on safari!

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What to Pack for RTW Travel (for men)

It’s our hope that this blog will serve as not only a chronicle of our Chasing Summer adventure, but also an inspiration and resource for those considering a similar experience. So to supplement our regular posts about what we’re seeing and doing, we’ll also include posts from time-to-time with travel advice, lessons learned, and other stuff that may be useful to the world.  In this post, we’ll focus on what we learned about how to pack for a round-the-world (RTW) trip.

This post is written by Jared and targeted at the male perspective.  Lauren will write another post soon for the female perspective.

I’ve learned that you should bring half as much stuff and twice as much money as you think you’ll need. Even before this trip I was a fairly seasoned international traveler, having visited close to 40 countries and hundreds of cities in my life.  I knew that to travel for a year I’d need to pack light, but I still underestimated how light would be light enough.  I limited myself to one carry-on sized backpack, the awesome Osprey Meridian 22, for everything I’d bring (clothes, electronics, toiletries, exercise equipment, etc.) and still managed to pack more than I’ve actually needed.  In terms of clothes, here’s what I packed and have actually used:

– One pair of nice jeans for going out (I like 7 For All ManKind)

– One pair of travel khakis (the Arc’teryx Palisades which have been great)

– Two pairs of colored t-shirts (the Icebreaker Superfine 150‘s which are also great)

– Two pairs of white ExOfficio t-shirts (for working out or the beach)

– Three pairs of ExOfficio underwear (these are a “must have” for long-term travel)

– One nice button-down long-sleeve cotton shirt

– One pair of mesh shorts (for working out)

– Two pairs of shorts (one casual cotton pair and one nice linen pair)

– One Patagonia lightweight long-sleeve shirt (for chilly nights)

– One wool pullover (for even chiller nights)

– One Arc’teryx Beta SL rain jacket (which I also use a wind-breaker sometimes)

– One bathing suit

– One pair of black Prada sneakers (for nice bars and restaurants)

– One pair of black Vibram KSO Trek shoes (for jogging and long walks around cities, plus getting lots of stares from Greeks and Italians)

– One pair of Havaiana flip flops (for the beach)

– Two pairs of black dress socks for the Prada sneakers

– Two pairs of Injinji socks for the Vibram’s

– One wide-brimmed travel hat (looks dorky but great for blocking sun)

That’s it for clothes, and it has easily been enough. Note that nearly everything that gets daily wear is made from a quick-dry material, which allows me to wash it in the sink and lay it out to dry overnight.

In terms of general travel accessories, I packed:

– One pair of sunglasses (I like these Maui Jim’s)

– One hanging toiletry bag (plus assorted toiletries, of course)

– Earplugs and an eye mask (great for hostels, planes, and just sleeping late)

– A travel luggage lock (mine has been discontinued but it’s similar to this one)

– A thin silk sleeping sack (for rough or questionably clean sheets)

Don’t sweat it if you under-pack when it comes to toiletries or travel accessories, as these kinds of things can be easily bought on the road.

I’m a bit of a workout freak and knew that gyms would be hard to come by in many places that we’d visit, so before the trip I started getting into P90X because it requires such minimal space and equipment.  It has proven perfect for travel because all I need is the P90X videos on my laptop, a 5 x 10 foot floor space, a towel to put on the ground, some resistance bands, and my Lifeline chin-up handles (or I use the occasional ceiling beam, tree branch, etc.)  I’ve also found that yoga and running are great for working out on the road — you can do either just about anywhere.

In terms of electronics, my iPhone 4 has been a lifesaver.  I use it everyday for just about everything imaginable… it’s my camera, video camera, email device, GPS, ebook reader, MP3 player, movie viewer, Web surfing device, weather aid, notepad, calculator, Skype device, and sometimes even phone.  I’d be totally lost without it.

I also brought both my iPad and Macbook Air laptop.  I know that’s a lot of technology for someone “traveling light” but I wasn’t sure what I’d end up needing.  As it turns out, I’ve used the laptop daily and the iPad almost ever.  I ended up selling the iPad and bought the new Kindle 3 instead.  I don’t really need the Kindle, but it will be nice for reading ebooks on the beach and my PDF format Lonely Planet guidebooks (the iPhone 4 works for this too).

As for the Macbook Air, it’s a much nicer computer than one really needs for emails, Web surfing, blog updates, and playing P90X videos.  However it packs small and I already owned it, so that’s what I brought.  For most travelers a cheap netbook will do just fine.

While traveling, I also bought a universal electrical plug adapter (nearly all electronics these days accept either 120 or 240 volt current, which means you don’t need a converter, just a plug adapter) and some travel walkie talkies to avoid using our cell phones to coordinate when we’re running around separately in the same city.

Now, regarding money… We’ve been trying to travel frugally, but we’re still spending nearly twice as much in the average day as I’d budgeted.  Part of the problem is that we’re traveling in Europe at the moment and the dollar isn’t very strong against the euro, and the other part is that we’re not making the day-to-day sacrifices that “true backpackers” tend to make.  For example, we’ve spent much more time in private hotel rooms than dorm-style hostels, we eat nearly every meal in a restaurant, and we haven’t hesitated to rent a car, scooter, or ATV when it adds convenience, even when buses or trains would have sufficed.

My advice to other world travelers is simply “know thyself” and budget according to the level of comfort and convenience that you need (or want) and not that of others.

I really hope that this post has been helpful to folks.  If you have any questions, just ask!

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Bella Italia, Act 2

After our intermezzo in Sardinia, the Chasing Summer Italy adventure continued in Napoli (Naples) in the southern part of the country.

It’s said that Italy can really be divided into two countries – southern Italy and northern Italy.  If you talk with a northern Italian, you’ll get the impression that all southerners are rude, crude and anarchistic.   If you talk with a southern Italian, you’d think that all northerners are pompous, arrogant and elitist.  Naturally, the truth is somewhere in-between.

Naples is certainly a bit rough around the edges.  Cars and scooters zip through the narrow cobblestone alleyways so fast that you’re sure the driver is running late for something (perhaps his 2 hour lunch break.)  The smell of exhaust is inescapable.  If you don’t watch where you step there will be dog poo on your shoes.

All that said, there is much to see in Naples and the 1 day that most travelers give the city isn’t nearly enough.  We were fortunate to find the world’s foremost authority on the city in the form of our hostel-keeper, Giovanni.   He has lived his whole life in Naples and is passionate about assuring that all travelers who find their way to his hostel have a positive experience there.

On our first night in his city, Giovanni marked up a black-and-white photocopied city map with various colors of highlighter.  The green marked the mafia-controlled areas… stay out of those.  The red marked the poor areas… stay out of those too.  The yellow line marked his recommended path through the city, with all the most important sites marked in pen.

Giovanni also showed us a video on his laptop containing security camera footage of pickpockets in action.  We thought that he was trying to warn us to be vigilant in Naples, as it does have a reputation for crime.  After exposing us to the videos he said with a twinkle in his eye, “All of these were filmed in Milano.”

We followed Giovanni’s walking tour of the city to the tee, which included various churches, museums, castles, and shopping areas.  It was all interesting to see, but what made the biggest impression on me (Jared) was the famous “Veiled Christ” sculpture by Giuseppe Sanmartino, which Giovanni said is the second-most important sculpture in the world behind Michelangelo’s “Pieta.”  We’ll include a photo of it below, but you really have to see it in-person to appreciate its sorrow, delicacy and strength.

Our walking tour also included Napoli Subterraneo, or the Naples Underground.  These were a serious of tunnels first dug by the Greeks and then expanded by the Romans, used as ancient underground aquifers and cisterns.  They were mostly abandoned with the advent of modern plumbing, except during WWII when they were used as bomb shelters (Naples endured heavy Allied bombing.)

Of course, no blog post on Naples would be complete without mentioning its pizza. The pizza was invented in Naples and nowhere is it better made.  I’m not sure how they do it, but the worst pizza we had in Naples was better then the best pizza we’ve had in the States.  Soft crust just barely charred around the edges, sweet fresh tomato sauce, perfected melted buffalo mozzarella…  ah, what deliciousness.

Naples lives the shadow of majestic Mt. Vesuvius, a volcano most famous for destroying the Roman city of Pompeii under millions of tons of superheated pyroclastic material in 79AD.  We visited the site of Pompeii’s excavation, along with that of Herculaneum, a less famous city that met its demise contemporarily with Pompeii.  Herculaneum was a much smaller and less important city than Pompeii, but because Vesuvius didn’t hit it quite as hard with the eruption, its remains are much better preserved.

What stuck with us most from both sites were the amazing well-preserved frescoes.  Ancient Romans didn’t care much for bare walls, so every home had floor-to-ceiling frescoes, usually painted by Greek artists and depicting everything from mythological stories to hunting scenes to whatever fruits and vegetables the homeowner preferred.  It’s a shame that we don’t decorate our modern walls with such richness.

In the video, you may notice some frescos painted with some slightly more, um, erotic scenes.  These photos were taken at the most-visited site in all of Pompeii, during both modern and ancient times:  it’s brothel.   Archeologists suspect that the frescoes served as a menu of sorts for customers…

You’ll also notice some plaster molds of a few Pompeii residents in their final repose.  In the mid-1800’s, an archeologist figured out that if he poured plaster in the cavity left by a decayed body, he could uncover the form of the victim at the moment that he became covered with volcanic ash.  The result is some haunting shapes.

After visiting Naples, Pompeii and Herculaneum, we worked our way to Sorrento on the Amalfi coast.  Sorrento is a beautiful town hugging a cliff overlooking the Bay of Naples.  It’s quite picturesque although there isn’t much to do there except take a day ferry to Capri, so that’s what we did.  Sorrento was still a nice place to relax for a couple of nights while Jared fought off a cold, probably induced by the stress of navigating Naples.

The tiny island of Capri is one of the more famous tourist destinations in Italy and there were hoards of tourists there to prove it.   We overheard our first American accents there since arriving in Italy.  Despite its high prices and crowds, a day trip to Capri is still well deserved just because it’s so damn beautiful.  There are plenty of pics in the video below, some taken from the kayak that Jared rented for the afternoon.

Next on our itinerary was the small village of Castello delle Forme in the beautiful rural region of Umbria. Tourists don’t usually find themselves in Castello (population: ~80) and we wouldn’t have either if not for the hospitality of family friends Marty and Terri Lang.  The Lang’s, who live most of the year in Wisconsin, bought a second home in Castello and visit it twice annually for 10 weeks at a time.

They didn’t just buy a home though – they bought into a community.  The Umbrian people are famous for their warmth and generosity, which is especially acute in a village as small as Castello (which, as the name implies, was built within the walls of a castle.)

In our few days there, we saw neighbors gift to Marty and Terri several fresh vegetables, some watermelon, some coffee, and an invitation to a Sunday family dinner.  The guy who brought the watermelon asked Marty how he liked it, and Marty made the mistake of replying, “It was delicious.”  Several more watermelon arrived the next day.

Part of the reason that the Lang’s have been welcomed so warmly into the village is that they decided to live within the local language and culture, not above it.  They’ve taken enough Italian lessons to become conversational, they worked hard to learn the name of everyone in their village, and when they are in Italy they adopt the Italian pace of life.  We greatly admire their approach to living abroad, as Americans often tend to adopt a snobbish attitude to foreign languages and cultures.

We made a day trip from the Lang’s home to Assissi, a medieval Roman town most famous for being the hometown of Saint Francis, one of the most important men in Christian history, who literally changed the course of the religion by revolting against the then-decadence of the Catholic church by adopting a simple ascetic lifestyle focused on prayer and meditation.  He had many followers both in his own time and today.

After Umbria we made our way to Tuscany, a region famous for its food, wine, cheese, and its stunningly gorgeous countryside.  We weren’t sure if Tuscany would live up to its hype, but it did.

We based out of Volterra, an ancient city originally founded by Etruscans and sitting within a walled fortress atop a steep mountain.  Volterra is much better preserved than most Etruscan settlements, partly because they avoided Roman invasion for longer than their neighbors and partly because once Roman influence was inevitable, they made a special deal with their captors that allowed them to retain home-rule for several hundred more years.

We stayed at a convent in Volterra housed within a stoned medieval church, which was actually a great way to do it. It was safe, quiet and inexpensive.  We were just a bit bummed that the nuns didn’t have wifi.

One day we visited San Gimignano, which is arguably the most beautiful of all the medieval towns in Tuscany, due to both its views and its towers. While in other Tuscan cities, such as Bologna or Florence, most or all of their towers have been brought down due to wars, catastrophes, or urban renewal, San Gimignano has managed to conserve fourteen towers of varying height which have become its international symbol.

Wealthy residents built the towers in the 13th and 14th centuries, we’re told as both status symbols and for protection from invading armies.  The towers are mostly just hollow space with small living quarters towards the top, accessible only by rope ladder with a narrow doorway at the top (so an attacker would have to remove his armor before entering.)

After seeing a bit of Tuscany, we started making our way back to Milan to catch a flight the next day to Mykonos, Greece.   What should have been a 4 hour drive took closer to 8 hours, as our rented Fiat Panda was missing one of its cheap plastic hubcaps due to an ill-advised drive down a dirt road in Umbria.  To avoid an astronomical damage fee from the rental agency, we drove to just about every Fiat dealership in northern Italy to find a replacement.  After trying 4 different dealerships we finally found what we needed.  The final picture in the video is Jared in his moment of final victory.  Enjoy!

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Bella Italia, Intermezzo

All great Italian operas must have an intermezzo, or intermission, to allow the audience to catch their breath.  We therefore scheduled an intermezzo into our Italian adventure in the form of a week of relaxation on the stunning Mediterranean island of Sardinia.  Few American tourists find their way to Sardinia, and we probably never would have included it on our itinerary if not for the advice of Jared’s good friend Alessandro (aka, Alex.)

Alex has been visiting Porto Cervo, a port town on the northeast coast of the island, just about every summer since he was a small child.  In recent years this town and the waters that surround it have become popular with world’s wealthiest yachters.   The downside of this is that prices have skyrocketed (everything costs 2x what it would elsewhere in Italy) but the upside is that glistening hundred-million-dollar yachts are around every corner.  Since Jared is obsessed with yachts, especially those with sails on them, he was like a kid in a candy store the entire week.

Not-so-coincidentally we found ourselves in Sardinia the same week as the Rolex Cup Maxi Yacht sailing race.  This famous annual race attracts the world’s largest and most advanced sailing yachts.  We rented a motorboat one day with a nice German couple that we met at our resort, Jan and Melanie, and perched ourselves near the starting line for the race.  Since Jared is a lifelong sailor, watching the race kick off from just a few meters leeward of the starting buoys was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

After watching the first couple hours of the yacht race, we piloted our little motorboat to some beaches that Alex had encouraged us to visit (Alex had previously marked their location on a Google Map and Jared programmed the coordinates into his handheld GPS.)  Our favorite was definitely Isola Mortorio, also known as “Tahiti Beach.”   There are pictures of it in the video… you’ll know it when you see it.

We also enjoyed spending some time with Alex’s mother and grandmother, who have a beautiful home near Porto Cervo where they spend a few months every year.  They were like the Italian mama and nonna that we never had!  Alex’s mom cooked us some paradello (basically an Italian version of French toast) which we enjoyed eating while nonna knitted.  We were welcomed like family, which felt so wonderful being so far away from our own families.

Of course, we ate plenty of good food in Sardinia… the usual staples of pizza, pasta, and panini, plus some great local seafood, although it was so damn expensive that we tried to eat-in whenever possible.  Lauren managed to whip together some delicious insalata caprese , melon con prosciutto, pasta con pesto Genovese, and sautéed fish.

All-in-all it was a relaxing week and nice change of pace from the usual hustle of around the world travel.  We needed to rest to prepare for the next 10 days of our Chasing Summer Italy itinerary, a whirlwind tour through Naples, Sorrento, Capri, the Amalfi coast, and the Umbria and Tuscany regions, that is currently underway.  Details to come in our next post.  In the meantime, enjoy this video, “Bella Italia, Intermezzo”

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