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Walking towards the Old Town

Walking towards the Old Town

In front of the Charles Bridge

In front of the Charles Bridge

Astronomical clock

Astronomical clock

Chasing bubbles in the Old Town Square

Chasing bubbles in the Old Town Square

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Red rooftops

Red rooftops

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View from the Bell Tower at Prague Castle

View from the Bell Tower at Prague Castle

No explanation required!

No explanation required!

Contributing to the Art Brick wall

Contributing to the Art Brick wall

Bucket List

Bucket List

A new friend!

A new friend!

Zara's contribution to the John Lennon Wall

Zara’s contribution to the John Lennon Wall

Exploring on Segways

Exploring on Segways

Chicken Joe

Chicken Joe

We spent a wonderful five days in Prague, in which I rediscovered a city I’d first become acquainted with in college and Zara discovered Chicken Joe.

I turned 21 in Prague, exactly half my lifetime ago, in an apartment rented for three days, an act that felt so decadent in the decades before Airbnb.  I still remember it cost only $20/night for 2 bedrooms and a full kitchen.  In 1992, only three years after the Velvet Revolution, Prague was still emerging onto the global travel scene.  Returning after two decades, I was relieved to see that although it has long since transformed into a tourist mecca, it hasn’t lost its ability to enchant.  There are more street performers, kitschy museums, tourist restaurants offering mediocre fare and crowds (and a hotel room is 10x what it was on my first visit), but its red rooftops, cobbled streets, fascinating history, gorgeous architecture and  music make it a place where I could easily imagine staying.  We’d originally booked only three nights in Prague, but extended for two more days.

The first night we soaked in the views as the sun set over the Charles Bridge with drinks at one of the several restaurants now sitting on the banks of the Vltava River.  The setting was perfect and something I could have happily done every evening.

We spent another day exploring Prague Castle, an impressive complex set on a hill across the river looking back over the city. The views are magnificent from almost anywhere on the grounds, but seeking out even a better bird’s eye view, we climbed to the top of the Bell Tower.  The tower houses Prague’s largest bell, named Zikmund, and legend has it that the bell breaking portends bad news.  (The most recent example of this was in 2002, when the bell broke and Prague suffered its worst flooding ever.)  Zara concluded that this was just a coincidence.

What else did we do…

Franz Kafka Museum:  An oddly affecting museum, its dimly-lit rooms presumably are designed to evoke Kafka’s depression and personal struggles.  At times, however, it was too dark to even read the exhibit explanations.  Not sure if that was be design or due to burnt out bulbs!  Not the most kiddy-friendly place to visit, however.

The Chocolate Museum: Just because…it was a toss up between this and the adjacent Torture Museum.

The Toy Museum: We have a 6-year old… But, this would also be a must for Barbie fans (and a must-not for those who think Barbie is evil).

The Globe:  Feeling a bit burnt out by the crowds and the heat, we passed a very relaxing afternoon at this bookstore/cafe.  It’s been a fixture on the Prague expat scene since opening in 1993 and I can see why.  With its delicious Western fare, a full bar, tasty coffee,  pleasant courtyard and strong wifi, its easy to wile away the hours here.  While Zara devoured countless books in the kiddie section, we enjoyed some much needed peace and quiet.  We’ve been moving at too fast a pace since arriving in Europe mid-June–we all are feeling it.

Mozart’s Requiem:  We enjoyed a lovely performance of one of Jonathan’s favorite musical pieces at  St. Nicholas Church off the Old Town Square.  The city lives and breathes music and if we’d had more time, there were countless other concerts on offer.

Segway: One of the highlights of our time in Prague happened the last evening. We’d been on our way to dinner and the next thing we knew we were on Segways when they informed us that Zara was old enough.  (In comparison, one of SF’s Segway tour companies requires kids to be at least 12 years old and 100 pounds and requires all riders to take a 45-50 minute on board training session, watch a 9 minute safety video and wear reflective safety vest.  My impression is that the Czech Republic doesn’t share the US lawsuit culture!)  Zara took to the Segway immediately, leaving me in the dust, and our tour guide, Ondřej, was wonderfully fun and informative and took us through neighborhoods we had previously missed, including past the John Lennon Wall, where Zara wrote her own message of peace.

And because we are always on the hunt for tasty Indian fare (especially after an involuntary hiatus for several weeks in Italy), we were thrilled to discover Indian Jewel, a lovely restaurant with seating in a small courtyard in the Old Town.  We went back for seconds two nights later (and overheard another touring English family mentioning how they were there for the 5th time)!   It’s a relief to know that some curry lovers are even more fanatical than we are.

Still, there was a lot we left unexplored…another excuse for a visit!

And you may be wondering about this Chicken Joe?  He’s a Belfast-born street performer whose act includes reclining on a bunch of crushed beer bottles while an audience member stands on top of him and he makes off-color jokes.  He made quite an impression on our 6-year old who insisted on watching his performance in the Old Town Square at least five times…travel, the best education.

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Portofino

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From atop Castello Brown

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Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous

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View from Rapallo Promenade

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Boat to Portofino

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Tigullio Gulf

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Portofino – in front of whimsical sculpture garden

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Climb to Castello Brown–seeking temporary relief in the shade

View of Portofino from Castello Brown

View of Portofino from Castello Brown

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Panorama from above Portofino

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Zara in private reverie (singing to Bailey)

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On pebbly beach near Abbey of San Fruttuoso

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Abbey of San Fruttuoso

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Waiting for a boat

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Aperol Spritz and tower of delicious, complimentary appetizers

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Rapallo – at night

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Cinque Terra

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Zara’s favorite spot

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Soaking in the view

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Vernazzo beach – Cinque Terra

As we approached the coastal town of Rapallo on the Italian Riviera, I could already sense that I was going to like it here.  The scenery resonated with me in a way that the more dramatic but dry and precipitous cliffs of Amalfi had not.

We had booked a couple of nights at Il Gatto, a charming but reasonably priced boutique hotel within a 5 minute walk of Rapallo’s promenade.  Zara adored the hotel’s cat theme (and the actual cat roaming the lobby) and we felt so comfortable in the hotel (and in Rapallo) that we extended our stay by another night.

Rapallo is a town of about 35,000 people and is located a few kilometers west of the much more ritzy Portofino (just a 20 minute boat ride away).   It feels like a regular town, not one only targeted towards tourists or the mega rich, and I could easily imagine living here for a few months, unlike Portofino where owning a luxury yacht seems a requisite to residency.  (Portofino IS just as attractive as you’ve heard though–I can understand why it has long been a haunt of the rich and famous.)

Rapallo had a lovely promenade where the vacationing crowds strolled late into the evenings.  It was on this promenade that we were introduced to our first (but not last) Aperol Spritzes, a delicious aperitif with an appealing orange hue that perfectly befits a warm summer night.   And we were delighted to discover that when ordering drinks in Rapallo’s restaurants during cocktail hour, you’re treated to a tower of free and delicious appetizers, enough to suffice for dinner if you aren’t ravenous.  (Of course, we still always also ordered dinner!)

On our final day in the area we took a 1-hour journey on a packed train (without AC) to Riomaggiore, the southernmost town of Cinque Terra.  I’d always dreamed of visiting Cinque Terra, but July may not be the best time to do it if you dislike crowds.   We’d all donned our hiking boots with the expectation of walking on at least a portion of the hiking trail linking the five villages, but learned upon arrival that the section we’d planned on hiking was closed due to some landslides from 2012’s torrential rains.  In a way, I was relieved to get out of hiking in the heat.  Instead, we spent about an hour exploring Riomaggiore and then hopped on a boat which took us to Vernazzo where we stayed for a few hours, ate lunch, relaxed on the pebbly beach and swam in the sparkling sea.  We caught the train back to Rapallo from the most northern (and largest) village of Monterosso.  This time it was an express train that thankfully was air-conditioned.

Three days here wasn’t enough.  Trails in the green hills still beckoned, countless beaches were left unexplored and more evenings spent sipping Aperol Spritz’s tempted us.

I know we’ll return to the Italian Riviera some day–just maybe not in July.

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Elba in the distance

We headed north after departing the Amalfi Coast, our ultimate destination being the Italian Riviera, but we broke up the drive with a stay in Tarquinia.  I’ve rarely been as happy to leave a place as I was the Amalfi Coast.  What a relief to be on level ground again!

I’d never heard of Tarquinia, but I was eager for a place off the beaten tourist path but with some interesting history.  Tarquinia was a big win on both fronts.

It’s the site of an Etruscan Necropolis, with tombs dating back almost 2500 years.  They are located under a large grassy field on a hilltop just outside of town and at first sight are unassuming mounds of the earth.  However, each tomb is reached by entering a shelter adjacent to the mound and descending a staircase about 30 feet, where the burial chambers are carved into rock and brightly colored paintings depicting Etruscan life still adorn the chambers.  The entire site was very quiet–just a few other visitors–which was such a welcome change after the crowds of the prior weeks.

Etruscan tomb mounds in Tarquinia

Etruscan tomb mounds in Tarquinia

Etruscan tomb paintings over 2000 years old

Etruscan tomb paintings over 2000 years old

The town itself was also lovely and populated primarily with Italian tourists.  A perfect place to while away a few hours in one of the town squares cooling off with some of the local frizzante.  It’s the type of town that it is easy to imagine spending a few relaxing weeks (or months) in.   On the way home from dinner, we met a Swedish woman and her teenage daughter (out walking their cats on leashes (!)) who have lived a nomadic life for years, but are currently calling Tarquinia “home” (a cave in Spain was another recent abode).

Pisa

As we headed north the next morning, we stopped for coffee in the seaside town of Piombino, where we could see Elba in the “not far enough” distance. (I hadn’t appreciated how close to shore Elba is and it clearly wasn’t remote enough for Napoleon’s exile.)  After we fueled up, our next stop was Pisa and its leaning tower.  The contrast to the Etruscan Necropolis couldn’t have been greater, with busloads of tourists and day-trippers from Rome.  Still, it was surprisingly cool to see in person.  Interestingly, we learned that when Jonathan visited in 1988, it had leaned nearly twice as much as it does now, as they closed it in 1991 for about eight years to stabilize the tower after another one nearby unexpectedly toppled and the stabilization included some necessary straightening but not enough to take away the tourism appeal!

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