Goodbye to the Apartment on the Corner

I am standing on the corner of 4th Avenue in Brooklyn as cars and bikes fly by in both directions. My eyes are focused on the three-story brick walk-up on the far side of the road—that building is my current home.

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601 Baltic Street is the only stand-alone, pre-war apartment complex left on our block—besides an abandoned building that has been “FOR SALE” for four years. Each unit in 601 has a wood-burning stove, brick walls, and squeaky wooden floors. Ours also came with the occasional mouse and seven glorious windows. Government housing is on the far end of our street, as well as a huge generator-powered floodlight that beams onto a concrete playground, complete with a plastic seal that shoots water in the air during summertime. In between our building and the projects is a luxury high rise—a studio apartment in this shiny castle will cost you $4,250 a month.

But soon, 601 Baltic will be ground up into brick dust and splinters. The landlord of our property is selling it to developers, and within a few years another costly condominium will be planted in the grave of our first home as a married couple.

Ryan and I do not make nearly enough money to rent one of the luxury apartments on our street—or even a regular unit within our ever-pricier neighborhood of Park Slope. And we make about $500 too much a year to qualify for the affordable housing units developers are required to include in their luxury buildings. So we started the housing hunt, seeking another walk-up with character, no doorman, and some proper graffiti on the block to make us feel right back at home.

Now, I am standing near the kitchen table in 601 Baltic.  

It’s May 2016 and we’ve just gotten back from an incredible three-hour dinner date in the city, complete with king crab and caviar. I look around the large room and think about how the studio apartment is (surprisingly) clean just as Ryan says something behind me. I turn, and he’s on one knee.

“Britney, you’re my best friend…”
“Is this HAPPENING?!”
“Yes,” he smiled. “You’re my best friend and I love you.”

Then I dropped to my knees, too. Both of us sat on the squeaky wooden floor of what was just his apartment at the time. He slipped a family heirloom ring on my finger—we laughed and cried and danced around the living room in glee. Not long after that, both of our families snuck up the stairs to #2F, truly surprising me to tears. We were engaged, and 601 Baltic was about to become my new home.

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I am perched on the roof.

Looking at the water towers in the distance and soaking in the pink summer sky, I sip on a glass of cheap white wine and think, “what’s next?” It’s July 2017 and the advertising agency I work for has just closed its New York City office. The wedding and our honeymoon are beautiful, recent memories. But without a job, I’ve turned into a person who is permanently lost in thought. I want to do, make, create—and I’m not very good at sitting still. Each day I take a five-mile funemployment walk around the neighborhood, trying to move my legs and my brain. 601 Baltic has become both my prison and my haven. I walk away from its brick walls in the morning, only to return to its shelter by the afternoon with some new idea, exhausted albeit motivated.

The truth is, I can’t not talk to anyone for a whole day. I’m too extroverted and a sinking depression overtakes me around 3 p.m. But sometimes, I’d find a neighbor on the roof, or drink a cup of coffee and chat with a barista at the nearby café.  

And then, quite suddenly, I had a job. For the first few months, I happily worked long hours on the Upper West Side, throwing my once bored brain into a spasm of activity. But it surprised me that I missed my little apartment—and the ragtag community I’d created out of loneliness. 

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I am opening the awkward metal door to our apartment and smiling.

People are always popping by for a nightcap or quick “hello.” We live down the road from our friends on Douglass Street, and we have visitors who stop in before heading farther out to Brooklyn’s Sunset Park neighborhood. Ryan keeps our bar stacked with whiskies, gins, tequilas, and other mysterious bottles. In the winter time, you’d find a fire roaring in our wood-burning stove. In summer, we’d take snacks up to the roof and watch the sky explode with color.   

Of all my memories of 601 Baltic, this is one I hope we get to replicate in our next home. We may not be off the prime subway stop anymore, but we deeply love our community and feed off of its energy.

Now, I am sitting on couch, typing.
I look up.
And I really look.  

I see visions of myself, Ryan, and our guests floating around the apartment. A spat near the kitchen counter when his alarm clock went off for an hour and a half. Laughter near the bar when a friend and I tried to replicate Ryan’s perfect Manhattans—with limited success. A kiss on my cheek near the door. An “I love you!” from the closed bathroom, shouted over the hair dryer. A debate about the metaphors of “Lolita” around the coffee table. And a cozy nap with my husband while it snowed in the spot where I’m currently reminiscing.

Homes change, and neighborhoods morph.
But I like to say goodbye to the places that I’ve loved.
So this is my farewell—and sincere thank you—to little 601 Baltic.


You had to keep on walking until you got home, and if your home is like mine—two rooms in which I could not seem to find a place for myself—you had to go out and start walking all over again. You had to walk and walk and walk until exhaustion set in, and once it did, home.
— Mary Cantwell, "Manhattan, When I was Young"


9-Day Italy Trip—Part 3: Cinque Terre

Welcome to Part 3 of our digital journey through Italy! This post will focus on our one-night stay in Cinque Terre. If you’re planning your own trip, be sure to check out my family’s Venice itineraryDuomo experience, and Florence tips. A guide for Tuscany and Rome will be published soon.  

CINQUE TERRE

This picturesque portion of Italy is comprised of five villages on the Italian Riviera: Monterosso al Mare, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola, and Riomaggiore. Paths connect these villages, and one of the prime attractions of this region is hiking between the quaint and colorful towns. While once an isolated area that was difficult to access via most forms of transportation, trains now connect the villages to each other and to more central locations. Cinque Terre, which literally means “Five Lands,” didn’t become a popular tourism spot until the 1970s and has since been dubbed a UNESCO World Heritage Site and national park.

 The village of Vernazza.

The village of Vernazza.

WHERE TO STAY

My family opted to hop a train from Florence to the largest of these villages, Monterosso al Mare, where we spent one night at La Cabana Hotel before heading to Rome. The quaint, family-run inn has gorgeous views of the Mediterranean, and the room price includes a sizable breakfast. My husband and I splurged on one of the “Junior Suites,” which included a terrace and hot tub. We liked the idea of having a place where the family could relax together. Monterosso also doesn’t have the same night life scene as some of the larger cities we were visiting, so the hot tub provided us a fun evening activity.

The hotel is situated above the main town and is about a five-minute drive from the train station. Free shuttle service to and from La Cabana are available via the front desk. You should coordinate with the staff before arrival to ensure a smooth check-in process—we had no issues scheduling an early morning car through the hotel. You’re also able to walk down to Monterosso’s main street thanks to a paved path through olive trees, but I wouldn’t recommend it with luggage. The walk takes approximately 10 minutes.

We really enjoyed our stay in Cinque Terre—it was a relaxing portion of our journey placed strategically between the busy days spent in Florence and Rome. While we loved our large and affordable Airbnbs, it was also enjoyable to have a somewhat luxurious night in a proper hotel—we didn’t have to take the trash out or strip the sheets before leaving!  

THINGS TO DO

BOAT TOUR

There are ferries and boats galore in Cinque Terre, and if the weather holds, I’d highly recommend seeing the five towns from the water. The Fitzgerald family hired Captain Stefano for a three-hour private boat tour—and it was such a success!

 Just three sisters, exploring Cinque Terre by boat!

Just three sisters, exploring Cinque Terre by boat!

After checking into our hotel, we picked up (delicious) pasta to-go and a bottle of wine for our tour. Stefano met us at the main port—his boats always leave from Monterosso, which was the main reason we opted to stay in this village. He doesn’t mind if you bring snacks and beverages on his vessel, though we double-checked with him via email to be polite. 

It was slightly too cold to swim in mid-May, but we managed to see all of Cinque Terre’s five towns, explore two of them by foot, and learn about the history of the area. (If you opt to walk around a few of the villages, just know Stefano stays with the boat while you’re out and about.) 

 The view from the village of Manarola.

The view from the village of Manarola.

The cost of our excursion was €100.00 x hour x boat and had to be paid in cash. This was very reasonable when divided between my party of seven (the max for one boat). We left a 20% tip, meaning each of us paid about $50 for a memorable afternoon with a hilarious, Italian captain.  

Lastly, some of my best pictures from Italy were snapped on the boat! The pastel-painted villages change colors in the setting sun, and the Mediterranean makes for a beautiful backdrop. Stefano explained to us that he has taken thousands of photos of Cinque Terre, but it never feels like quite enough.    

HIKING

As mentioned above, the main attraction of Cinque Terre are the hikes between villages. Four of us opted to hike from the neighboring town of Vernazza back to Monterosso. (The other three were dropped off by our boat captain directly to the port of Monterosso.) The Blue Trail hike took us about 1 hour and 45 minutes, and was a little over 2 miles long.  

To enter the trail, look for signs to Monterosso and an ascending path along an alley above the church of Saint Margaret of Antioch. You’ll continue to climb up through olive trees and vineyards before the terrain levels out a third of the way through your journey. Be sure to turn around and snap a few shots of Vernazza before getting too deep into the forest!

The path can be somewhat uneven and a few spots are narrow. As your hike comes to an end and you begin to descend into town, you’ll see lemon trees and the roofs of Monterosso. 

Tips: Landslides shuttered some of the trails several years ago, and current weather can close certain paths. Be sure to check the status of your hike before taking off. This website and this website helped keep us up to date. I would also not suggest wearing flip-flops on the trail; I was very comfortable in these lightweight tennis shoes.   

LONGER HIKE

We didn’t have time to complete the longer hike between Vernazza and Monterosso before sunset (you do not want to be on these old paths at night). But there is another trail option that will take you past two sanctuaries toward the top of the park. This hike is supposed to be around 3 hours and 30 minutes.

CASTELLO DORIA

Looking for a historical spot to visit while in the town of Vernazza? Check out Castello Doria, the oldest surviving tower in Cinque Terre. It dates back to about the year 1000, and it offers up a beautiful 360-degree view of this Mediterranean village. The short but steep hike to Castello Doria will take you through winding paths of quaint, old houses. Once at the top, there is a 1.50 Euro entrance fee—be sure to have cash! Take the narrow staircase to the very top of the tower for one of the tallest views in town.   

OTHER THINGS TO DO:

  • Go to the beach in Monterosso—it’s the “beachiest” of the villages

  • Visit one of the nearby vineyards

  • Take a pesto-making class—this region is known for this sauce!

  • Go cliff jumping in Riomaggiore

  • Pick up regional goodies at Cantina du Sciacchetra in Monterosso

  • Check out views of Manarola while sipping wine at Nessun Dorma

  • Walk around the village cemeteries

Where to Eat

GASTRONOMIA SAN MARTINO

Don’t let the buffet-style counter and plastic dishes fool you—this place whipped up some of the creamiest pesto pasta I’ve ever eaten! There was no need for more toppings or salt; the regional pesto was perfection and the trofie pasta (a Northern Italy style-pasta that is twisted and made with a little potato) melted in my hungry mouth. We took our lunch to-go, and devoured it on our boat tour of Cinque Terre.  

DA ERALDO

After our hike back to Monterosso, we were famished and seeking another regional dish: seafood! So we went to Da Eraldo, and sat outside at a classic, Italian red and white checkered cloth table. We munched on cheese appetizers, sipped white wine, and ordered incredible seafood pasta dishes filled with prawns, squid, mussels, and salty garlic sauce. I also sampled Cinque Terre’s famous sardines, served with hunks of butter, slices of bread, prosciutto, pesto, and olive oil. This was one of our favorite meals of the trip.  

TIPS:

  • The weather is always changing here. In May, we wore jeans, short sleeves, and rain jackets.

  • As mentioned above, be sure to check which trails are open before starting your hiking journey.

  • Sometimes, when the trails are “closed” it really means the checkpoint isn’t open. Tourist information centers in the towns will have more information.

  • If you plan on hiking multiple trails and using public transportation, look into purchasing the Cinque Terre Card. It was unnecessary for us because we took a boat tour, but it could be useful if that’s not in your budget.

  • I love all of Rick Steves’ guide books—this pocket-sized one is for all of Cinque Terre.

And here’s a few more photos from our trip!


Who that has ever visited the borders of this classic sea, has not felt at the first sight of its waters a glow of reverent rapture akin to devotion, and an instinctive sensation of thanksgiving at being permitted to stand before these hallowed waves?
— Edward Forbes, The Natural History of the European Seas

The Nature of Home

There’s something special about getting off a plane in your hometown.

I traveled quite a bit this summer (at least, for someone who maintains a 9 to 5 job). The month of May kicked off with a 9-day family trip through the highlights of Italy: We took a gondola through Venice, tasted homegrown olive oil in Tuscany, and sat silent under the beauty of the Sistine Chapel.

There were also quick trips. We traveled to Wisconsin’s Door County with my husband’s family for a long weekend in August. The bunch of us snacked on cheese curds and explored quaint towns along Lake Michigan’s coast. The water comes right up to the Nugent’s cottage, so we grilled steaks and sipped whiskey while listening to the waves crash on the shore. My personal highlight? One morning, we went to a Swedish restaurant that employs four (live!) goats to sit on their sod roof and chew grass all day.

But as I said, there’s something special about getting off a plane in your hometown. And that’s what I did this past weekend.

As a child, the smell of Virginia must have been engrained into my mind. When the plane door opens, and I step foot into the makeshift walkway leading us to the airport gate, something deeply innate is always triggered. I am home, and there is no escaping the word.

New York is also my home.
Yes, you may have more than one.

After eight years of subway navigating, and hustling for a paycheck, and finding secret bars, and sucking up every culture and every type of food there is imaginable—I know where I find joy. It’s on a deserted street with a group of friends while we scream the lyrics to our favorite songs. It’s in a dark hotel bar. It’s on the rooftops of a Brooklyn apartment. It’s in one of the world’s top museums, or in the belly of the Broadway district on a Tuesday night when the rest of the world is thinking about work the next day, but we’re sneaking into a show and then hitting up the piano bar downtown. My New York Neverland is a bustling paradise that cannot be untangled from my city-loving soul.

But sometimes, I want to walk through grass without wearing shoes.
Or ride bikes to the river during golden hour.
Or not wear makeup—and let the salty, humid air style my unruly hair.  

“Dad, I need another bowl of butter!” We were cracking a bushel of 84 crabs in the backyard of my parent’s river house. Newspapers had been laid out over the table, and citronella candles burned as Mom dispersed Old Bay-doused shrimp to a dozen of us. The cicadas were making their summertime noise, and our dogs circled around the table looking for scraps. I’d already dissected six crustaceans and was about to smash the seventh to pieces. This task demands a knife, melted butter, a bowl of water to wash the “dead man” off, and some well-trained hands.

In this moment, it was my hands that struck me.

They moved quickly and without thought: Pull off the crab legs. Open the top shell and remove all the junk. Dunk ‘em in water; split him into two pieces and pick, pick, pick…

Inherent motions.
Hand movements that wait in the back of my brain to occasionally be released.
And then there’s that sweet smell of summer in Virginia, and the sounds of my family laughing around a table full of food.
Home.

I know I am lucky to have a place where I come from—and to have a growing list of "homes," including my husband’s childhood towns.

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It is New York City that never ceases to make me feel like I’m always on the cusp of the next, great anything. I feed off of its collective energy, like a true extrovert. But, we all have nostalgic places that let us slip into our most comfortable “at ease” selves. And something inside of us yearns for a visit to those sacred locations every now and again—perhaps to "reboot," or to seek a peaceful moment.

Virginia is one of those places for me. 


We should come home from adventures, and perils, and discoveries every day with new experience and character.
— Henry David Thoreau

A Midsummer Night's Nostalgia

I am running. 

We’re in a field and the sunlight sprinkles my auburn hair, lighting it on fire. The neighbor’s unkempt flowers are crushed beneath our feet and dust gets kicked up from your bike. We’re about to go—I don’t remember where—but it doesn’t matter because going anywhere is enough and the thought of it all makes me giddy. 

I am climbing. 

Up the electrical box, over the old bowling alley’s wall, and onto the roof where our small view of our small town is all we could know or want. And it’s perfect when it begins to rain. The humid mist makes the empty parking lot look like a scene from a movie. We all scream in delight as water rushes over our dirty feet. But getting off the roof is hard. I fall from the sky to the ground and it hurts. You try to catch me, which is kind. (You always try to catch me.) Maybe we’re not invincible—but then again, that theory still needs testing. 

I am dancing. 

We’re in a backyard somewhere near the beach—the air tastes salty, like the sweat dripping off of all of us. There is music, and laughter, and a late, loud night that leads to a quiet sunrise. You hold my hand for longer than you should, but I don’t mind. We always love the people that will leap with us—to where, it doesn’t matter because, as I’ve already told you, anywhere is enough. 

I am walking. 

I love meandering through the East Village, and you don’t mind because it makes me smile. We get an egg cream from the old bodega on St. Marks and eat oysters for dinner. It’s humid and the apartment doesn’t have AC but you sit with me anyways because it feels nice to be still with somebody. I stare at your eyelashes while you take a nap, and I smile at the little golden strands that catch the light. 

I am crying. 

It’s early in the season but too warm, so my hair is pulled into a ponytail. I walk on 7th Street, unaware of what is lurking. The darkness suddenly grabs at my cotton dress and I scream over and over again. Police lights come twelve minutes later, and then I see the cold face that felt nothing. You comfort me as I sip on a soda at 3 am, and I hold your pinky finger while the detective asks questions about that walk home. It seems we are not invincible, after all. 

I am smiling.

I am walking toward you; you’re the one that I adore. It smells like roses, and there’s a line of mud on the hem of my dress. The air is heavy with Virginia's humidity. My spirit leaves my body for a moment and dances in the summer air, like a lightning bug in June. I am jealous of my own joy; I want to keep the moment in my pocket and pull it out to watch it again, and again, and again. But the sun sets, and we must move forward, forever altered. Where we go, it’s unknown, but going anywhere is enough.

I am summer. 

There’s a shade of pink only New York summers know. The color illuminates the countless brick buildings of our city, turning even a dingy facade into something briefly ethereal. Rose-tinted hues reflect off of thousands of glass windows in a display of blinding brilliance, right at the cusp of darkness. But even the light is not invincible to the night that swallows it. Still, each morning, she persists.

I am old. 

I don’t know if I’m alone—or maybe I’m with you? The end feels very much like the beginning, so I’m told. Ah, but it’s all the little bits in between... the dirty feet, the lightning bugs, the anywhere we went—the anywhere we’re going. 

And that vibrant shade of pink. 

summer new york britney fitzgerald

And so with the sunshine and the great bursts of leaves growing on the trees, just as things grow in fast movies, I had that familiar conviction that life was beginning over again with the summer.
— F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby

9-Day Italy Trip—Part 2: Florence

Welcome to Part 2 of our digital trip through Italy! This post will focus on Florence—if you’re planning your own trip, be sure to check out my family’s Venice itinerary and Duomo experience. Guides to Tuscany, Cinque Terre, and Rome will be published soon.

FLORENCE

I wasn’t sure what I’d think about Rome or Venice, but I knew I’d love Florence before even leaving Brooklyn. A town that birthed the Renaissance and is surrounded by the green hills of Tuscany is all too easy to adore.

 A view of Florence, Italy from Piazza Michelangelo

A view of Florence, Italy from Piazza Michelangelo

WHERE TO STAY 

“Should I look up a Marriott in Florence?” my dad asked from the couch of our Venice apartment. The whole family wore matching expressions of exhaustion and frustration.  

About two minutes prior, Mom had checked her email for the first time since landing in Italy. It was the end of an eventful day, and we were taking a few minutes to plan the next afternoon’s key swap with the Airbnb host in Florence.

But instead of details about how to access the apartment, the host had sent us a long message. The first sentence started with an apology, and then something along the lines of “the apartment you were going to stay in has flooded.” Mom and I both gasped out loud.

Luckily, after some frantic Whatsapp messages, we were able to contact the host—he had another apartment for us that would work. My sister Grace would no longer get her own room; instead, she’d have to board with me and my husband. But it was certainly a better option than spending hours looking for an affordable hotel in a foreign city.

I’d give our Airbnb mixed reviews: the owner was able to resolve the situation, however, he wasn’t very friendly or helpful. The apartment, located in Piazza dei Ciompi, suited our needs and had a fabulous garden where we drink wine every evening. My husband didn’t enjoy the mattress on our bed, but the AC worked well and the natural sunlight in the back two rooms made for a lovely wake up call. 

And if you’re traveling with a smaller group, this Airbnb was highly recommended to me. It didn’t work for our numbers—but the view looked incredible. 

THINGS TO DO

STATUE OF DAVID
Seeing David in person is vastly different that looking at a picture of Michelangelo’s marble masterpiece. Don’t like museums? This one has about three rooms—you can handle it. Don’t understand the importance? Download Rick Steves' podcast and listen while you walk around the gallery. It’s like having a free, personal tour!

Tips: Purchase tickets ahead of time to skip the line. Use this link for the official ticket website. Allow at least 45 minutes to an hour at this museum. Note that it’s closed on Mondays.

 The Statue of David in the Galleria dell'Accademia

The Statue of David in the Galleria dell'Accademia

DUOMO
The cathedral, the baptistry, and the climb to the top of this building’s iconic dome were memorable moments of our Florence experience. We ran out of time—but there’s even more to see, including a bell tower and an ancient crypt. For more on our Duomo climbing experience, check out this blog post.

Tips: Buy tickets ahead of time to skip some lines. We purchased the 18 Euro passes for access to all the monuments for 72 hours. A separate (free) reservation must be made if you’d like to climb up the dome.

 The Duomo's ornate cathedral. 

The Duomo's ornate cathedral. 

PIAZZALE MICHELANGELO
This was one of my favorite adventures in Florence. After lunch and a little rainstorm, we walked from the Uffizi Gallery over the Ponte Vecchio Bridge and through the quaint neighborhood of San Niccolò. Our destination was Piazzale Michelangelo, a hill that offers stunning views of Florence.

Tips: If you are visiting in spring, don’t go straight to the top! We stopped at a rose garden on the way up to the lookout point. It was nearly deserted and offered beautiful vistas. Once you’ve snapped a few photos, continue your journey to the peak of the hill. Grab a beer, take more pictures, go to the bathroom (for a Euro), and enjoy Florence’s Duomo-dominated skyline.

 Piazzale Michelangelo's rose garden.

Piazzale Michelangelo's rose garden.

PALAZZO MEDICI RICCARDI
My husband, my brother-in-law, and I stopped into this Renaissance palace that was once owned by the infamous Medici banking family. Built in the mid-1400s, this stone structure holds a wealth of frescoes, tapestries, Venetian chandeliers, and government history—including artifacts, like a bed that Neapolitan slept in! One of its rooms is still used today by state agencies.

Tips: It’s worth mentioning that this is one of the only museums open on a Monday in Florence. We arrived around 4pm and experienced no line. Tickets cost 7 Euro.

 One of the (casual) parlors at the Medici Palace 

One of the (casual) parlors at the Medici Palace 

MERCATO CENTRALE
Stop by this large market and food hall to sample everything from buffalo mozzarella to wine. This is one of those places to go if everyone in your group wants to eat something different and you’re all traveling on a range of budgets. Full disclosure: We walked around and did some shopping, but didn’t eat much here as it was around dinnertime, and we had made reservations at La Giostra!

 Truffles at the Mercato Centrale

Truffles at the Mercato Centrale

PASTA CLASS
While some of us were exploring the Medici palace and the Duomo’s baptistry, my mother and sisters opted to take a pasta making class. They learned how to roll several different types of pasta with a small group of people during a three-hour session. If you’re looking for a deeper dive into Italian food, three of my friends who traveled to Florence in 2017 also highly recommend this course.

OTHER THINGS TO DO:

  • Uffizi Gallery – It’s one of my big regrets that we couldn’t fit this in—but our free day in Florence was on a Monday, when the famous Uffizi is closed!
  • Boboli Gardens
  • Bargello
  • Museo dell'Opera del Duomo
  • Giardino Bardini
  • Forte di Belvedere
  • Santa Croce
  • Palazzo Vecchio
  • Vasari Corridor

WHERE TO EAT

TRATTORIA ZAZA
This restaurant was a pure delight. We made reservations several weeks in advance, and my husband told the staff we were celebrating a special event (Mother’s Day in Europe!). We were lucky enough to be escorted to a private dining room, complete with antique furniture, a large wooden table, and candle-lit walls.

Of the restaurants in Italy that we visited, this was one of the only places that served me a truly excellent cocktail. The Negroni was spot on, and the 10 Euro jug of house wine for the table was an excellent follow up. Food highlights included the gorgonzola and truffle gnocchi, the famous Florentine T-bone steak that I split with my husband, and the seafood risotto that my sister wouldn't share. 

GUSTA PIZZA
Unsure when we’d get home from a full-day tour in Tuscany, we decided to order in food one night. Family-run Gusta Pizza had been recommended to us by a slew of people—and it didn’t disappoint. We each ordered our own pizza (they’re slightly larger than a personal pizza in the USA) and chowed down on crispy dough loaded with fresh basil, mozzarella, and olive oil. Gusta uses a wood fire stove, which makes each pie slightly different. I remember telling my sister that I “wasn’t very hungry,” and then promptly devoured my whole pizza and all of her leftovers. 

Tip: Don’t want to wait in line? Order from your hotel or Airbnb with this website

ALL'ANTICO VINAIO
This no-frills sandwich shop is famous for its fresh ingredients and sizable portions. It’s a tasty lunch option that usually has a line—but it moves quickly, and if you visit after 1:30 pm you’ll have missed most of the rush. There are no tables and chairs, so we sat underneath the nearby Uffizi Gallery’s awning. Tip: The Dante sandwich’s truffle cream is fantastic!

 All'Antico Vinaio's Dante sandwich.

All'Antico Vinaio's Dante sandwich.

LA GIOSTRA
My husband’s cousin recommended this spot to us, so we made reservations two weeks before our trip. The review? Dad claims his seafood pasta at La Giostra was probably his favorite dish in Italy! Our meal began with a glass of Champagne and a sampling of appetizers, on the house. We then ordered the famous pear ravioli, a creamy plate of burrata, and several other tasty dishes, followed by the tiramisu. Sips of limoncello were served with our check. This experience was one of our pricier meals—but the service, samples, and Tuscan-inspired food made it well worth the extra Euros.

 One of the tasty pear and gorganzolla dishes at La Giostra.

One of the tasty pear and gorganzolla dishes at La Giostra.

TIPS:

  • Download Rick Steves' podcasts for the museums that you’re interested in visiting—you’ll have more context and can skip the audio guide fees. (We really enjoyed listening to his episode about the Statue of David!)
  • If you're moving around town all day, consider getting a portable battery for your phone. Traveling alone? Here's a great high-speed option for less than $20. If you're visiting as a couple or with a group, we enjoyed using this external battery pack—it has two charging ports!
  • The Firenze Card didn't work for us because we were only going to be in Florence proper for two days. But if you're visiting multiple museums, it may be a good option for you! The three-day pass lets you skip lines to many of the top tourists attractions—however, you'd have to go to quite a few museums for the card to pay for itself. 
  • If you're near the Duomo and looking for a sweet treat, we loved the gelato at Edoardo. They had both basic flavors and bizarre ones—like toasted sesame!
  • Taking cabs? Unlike in NYC, you can't just stick your hand up in the air to hail a cab. Instead you should look for taxi stands. Some locations to find a cab are shown in the map below; use the button in the top left to see the full list.  


You will begin to wonder that human daring ever achieved anything so magnificent.
— John Ruskin, "Mornings in Florence," 1875

Climbing the Florence Duomo: Claustrophobia and Joy

“Mom, you’re doing great.”

She looked at me with a strained smile and latched her hands onto the walls around her. We were in a dark circular stairway, narrow enough for only one person to pass at a time.

My family was climbing the 463 steps of the Florence Duomo, an iconic pink and green cathedral in the city’s center. The old stone hallways surrounding us were constructed in the 1400s, and the prominent dome (pictured below) was designed by one of the “fathers of the Renaissance,” Filippo Brunelleschi. The tip-top of the dome was our destination.

 The view of the Florence Duomo from Piazzale Michelangelo

The view of the Florence Duomo from Piazzale Michelangelo

Part one of our climb was relatively easy. Space was tight, but the line was moving quickly. I ran my fingers over smooth, worn stone and thought of the people who had walked through this building over the centuries. Which clergymen had access to these stairs? Could the public of Florence visit the top of the dome in the 1700s—or even in the 1970s?

My mother doesn’t like small spaces that have minimal exits; she likes a getaway plan, and I don’t blame her. This tiny passageway wasn’t ideal for her anxieties, but she pressed on. We all wanted to see 360-degree views of Florence from one of the tallest buildings in town.  

 My sister Kathryn snapped this photo—do you see the fear in our faces yet? 

My sister Kathryn snapped this photo—do you see the fear in our faces yet? 

My family had now reached the second part of our climb: we walked through a door and onto a 3-foot wide ledge, lining the inside of the dome. The ledge sits 130+ feet in the air and has a plexiglass wall, giving visitors a chance to admire the cathedral below and a ceiling of frescoes depicting the Last Judgement, above. The paintings were so close, you could almost touch them.

However, I can’t say that I truly got a chance to study these works of art.

I wouldn’t consider myself terrified of heights—I stand on roofs, hike up hills, and love a good Empire State Building view. But something about that 3-foot ledge constructed in the 1400s made me squirm. Why had it not already broken away and fallen to the ground!?

As we walked onto the ledge, my mother said, “I thought the top would be more open than this,” in a nervous voice.

“We’re not at the top yet, Mom” I replied, trying not to look green. I swiveled my head around. Was anyone else in full panic mood? No, no… all seemed calm.  

And then I saw my sister, Grace.

“Keep moving, people!” she shouted to a crowd of tourists snapping photos of frescoes. She power walked, not glancing at the cathedral below or the works of art above. I giggled as she practically pushed the woman in front of her through the next door, away from the plexiglass ledge. I had a momentary flashback of her panic attack in Scotland when I’d made her climb a steep hill in the rain. Poor sister. Would she ever travel with me again?

 The ledge, the plexiglass, the frescoes, and Ryan's head.  

The ledge, the plexiglass, the frescoes, and Ryan's head.  

Part three of the climb consisted of more circular stairs up, up, up to the top. But the line wasn’t moving very quickly, and suddenly the small stairway high in the sky seemed like a stone prison to at least half of our group. Dad’s knee was bothering him, Mom was closing her eyes, and my sisters were glancing worriedly at our parents. Even my husband and brother-in-law looked ill at ease.

The Fitzgeralds (in particular, Mom) get chatty when we’re nervous, so we began joking with the British tourists in front of us.

“Hear there’s a Starbucks at the top,” the Brit said, obviously trying to lighten the mood. I laughed and shifted my weight onto the other foot. How long had we been standing here? “I’ll get myself a Venti,” he said. “We all deserve Ventis!”

A few silent moments went by. 

“You’re wicked for making me do this,” the Brit’s wife said. We were still standing in the same spot of the narrow stairwell. He turned to me. “Now, look! Your family’s given my wife the anxiety.” We all laughed—and after what felt like 20 minutes but was probably 5— the line began to move once more.

The final phase of the climb consisted of steep, curved stairs with metal hand railings. There was a tour guide in front of us who shouted down to her group, “You are now scaling the inside of the dome,” to which my mother yelled back up, “No sh*t!”

And then, right at the breaking point—when I truly didn’t know if my family or the British couple were going to make it—we crawled through a portal onto the roof of the iconic Duomo.

And what a sight we saw.

 Terracotta roofs for miles

Terracotta roofs for miles

 On the hill is Piazzale Michelangelo, a great place to get a view of Florence. See those stairs near the parking lot in the center? We grabbed a beer and sat there post-Duomo climb. 

On the hill is Piazzale Michelangelo, a great place to get a view of Florence. See those stairs near the parking lot in the center? We grabbed a beer and sat there post-Duomo climb. 

 The Duomo's bell tower, officially called Giotto's Campanile—which you can also climb. 

The Duomo's bell tower, officially called Giotto's Campanile—which you can also climb. 

The rain held off as we explored every angle of Florence and marveled at this romantic city on the cusp of Tuscany's hills. Our journey up to the top was well worth the effort. A least... for me. You'd have to ask my parents their thoughts ;)

Tips for Climbing the Duomo:

  • You must reserve a ticket in advance to go to the top of the Duomo. We purchased 18 Euro 72-hour pass so we could come back and see the Baptistry, and booked a 10:30am time slot for the climb. Click here for tickets
  • Consider your tolerance for tight spaces and heights. My mom made it, so you probably will too! But if you have an extreme phobia, this adventure may not be your cup of tea. 
  • Do not wait in the ticket line when you arrive at the Duomo if you have already purchased passes online. The entrance for climbing the Dome is via the Porta della Mandorla (north side of the cathedral). 

To see the sun sink down, drowned on his pink and purple and golden floods, and overwhelm Florence with tides of color that make all the sharp lines dim and faint and turn the solid city to a city of dreams, is a sight to stir the coldest nature.
— Mark Twain

9-Day Italy Trip—Part 1: Venice

My sisters and I have traveled to Europe several times, both for adventure and for work. In 2009, I interned at a local newspaper in Ireland for credit during a summer in college—and after that? Hopping on an eight-hour flight and crossing the vast Atlantic Ocean didn’t seem so daunting.

Our parents are a different story: they didn’t grow up in a community where a quick trip to Spain was the norm. They got jobs, had babies, and remained happily vacationing in the USA. But last year, they expressed interest in a family trip abroad—and Italy was their dream destination!

Never been to the land of wine and pasta? Here’s our nine-day itinerary (created in May 2018), with a focus on the big hits: Venice, Florence, Tuscany, Cinque Terre, and Rome. This post will center around Venice—stay tuned for more!

 The Grand Canal in Venice

The Grand Canal in Venice

Itinerary

Day 1: Fly from USA -> Venice
Day 2: Venice -> Florence
Day 3: Florence
Day 4: Florence and Tuscany
Day 5: Florence -> Cinque Terre
Day 6: Cinque Terre -> Rome
Day 7: Rome
Day 8: Rome
Day 9: Rome -> Fly to USA

Notes

Traveling as a group of seven meant some extra planning was required. We made dinner reservations two or three weeks in advance, booked Airbnbs several months ahead of our trip, and requested two private tours about five months out. We also bought train tickets and museum entrance passes a month before our adventure. Italy is one of the more tourist-heavy countries I’ve traveled through (similar to my home in NYC!), so extra planning only means less time standing in line.

 The Rialto Bridge, as seen from our gondola on the Grand Canal. 

The Rialto Bridge, as seen from our gondola on the Grand Canal. 

Venice

This little town on the water surprised us. My husband and I weren’t prepared to enjoy Venice as much as we did, based off recommendations and travel guides. But despite the slight Disney World feel around the Rialto Bridge, my family was glad to see the colorful canals of Venice—before they crumble into the sea! Grabbing a spritz in the quieter neighborhoods and strolling through Doge’s Palace afterhours were both highlights of our trip.

Where to Stay

We opted for an Airbnb on the cusp of the Cannaregio and Castello neighborhoods, near the Ospedale (in English, “hospital”) water bus stop. This was one of our favorite Airbnbs throughout the trip. The AC and Wi-Fi worked well, and the outdoor roof decks provided a perfect place for my family to rest with a bottle of wine. They also let us leave our luggage in the downstairs foyer after checkout, which allowed us to explore sans suitcases.

Tip: If you’re hoping to stay in iconic Venice, don’t book a hotel or Airbnb in Mastre (Venezia Mestre). This is the mainland part of the city, so you would need to hop on a train or bus to access the Venice pictured in this post. That said, cheaper housing options are readily available in the Mastre district. Figure out which is more important to you: the price or the location?

 Shot from the sundeck of our Airbnb in Venice

Shot from the sundeck of our Airbnb in Venice

Getting to Venice from the Airport

We could easily access our apartment from an Alilaguna boat, which is the public airport transportation in Venice. Tickets cost 15 Euro per person one way, and 27 Euro for a roundtrip ticket. Expect to stand in line for 10 – 40 minutes depending on the time of day.

You can also hire a private water taxi, but it’s quite a bit more expensive. Rates seem to hover around 107 Euro for four people, plus an additional 10 Euro charge per passenger. You can book these boats once you've landed. If you schedule one through a hotel concierge, be sure to get a quote, as markups can be high. 

Things to Do

Weave Through Waterways

Yes, we took a gondola ride—and we didn’t regret it! Rates are 80 Euro per boat during the day, and each boat fits about 5-6 people. Our party split into two groups and spent less than what an Uber costs from Downtown Brooklyn to JFK Airport. If you can’t find a gondolier on the quieter streets, head to the Grand Canal near the Rialto Bridge.

Doge’s Palace

The grand and gothic Palazzo Ducale maintains extended summer hours, so we skipped the line and entered this museum at 10 pm (post-dinner, pre-gelato). We wandered the halls of Venice’s landmark building for an hour with only a handful of other tourists. The palace was built in 1340, and was the residence of the Doge, or elected ruler, of the former Republic of Venice.

St. Mark’s Bell Tower

This was a last-minute addition to our itinerary: My husband, my sister, and I ran over to Piazza San Marco early on our final morning in Venice and rode the elevator to the top of the iconic belfry. The views of city's blue-green canals and terracotta skyline were stunning. We waited in line for 30 minutes, hung out in the tower for about 8 minutes, and then rushed back to the Airbnb in order to catch our vaporetto (water bus) to the train station. Spoiler alert: we made it. And tip: Skip-the-line tickets are available if you plan in advance—whoops!

venice st marks bell tower view

San Giorgio Maggiore Bell Tower

I landed a day later than the rest of the family, so they explored this one on their own. Everyone seemed to really enjoy the less-trafficked bell tower and its panoramic views of Venice. The church of San Giorgio Maggiore is free to explore, and the trip up to the belfry is 5 Euro. My family used a vaporetto to reach the island where the church and tower are located.

Other Options

  • Hop over to the island of Murano to see glass blowers at work, or Burano to see where lace is made.
  • Visit the famous opera house, La Fenice
  • Walk through the Gallerie dell'Accademia 
  • Tour St. Marks Basilica

Where to Eat

Happy Hour

Venice is known for the Prosecco-based Aperol spritz, but we ended up sipping on these aperitifs all over Italy! The cicchetti tradition is also popular: cicchetti (pronounced chee-KET-eeh) are small snacks served with your early evening drinks in bàcari (cicchetti bars). My husband and I broke away from the group and strolled over to Osteria Ai Do Pozzi—pictured on the right—for a little happy hour sampling. We found ourselves surrounded by Italians, sipping wine on an outdoor patio in a quiet square. Venice’s calm Castello neighborhood was charming, and this little pub in the center of it was a nice place to rest for an hour before dinner. 

Dinner

Breakfast and lunch were typically small affairs—but our family wanted to do dinners right. So we made a reservation at Osteria Oliva Nera, also located in the Castella neighborhood. The owner of the “ristorante” had a fantastic dry wit and served our party delicious dishes of seafood. We also tasted the in-season fried zucchini flowers, which are not to be missed! Before heading over to Doge’s Palace for the rest of our evening, the owner gifted us with boxed samples of olive oil.  

osteria oliva nera venice zucchini flowers

Last-Minute Tips

  • Download the Vaporetto app to learn more about the water bus system.
  • We couldn’t find SIM cards at the Venice airport. You can, however, find a TIM store with international SIM cards available on the San Polo side of the Rialto Bridge, past all the market booths. Here is the exact location on Google Maps: http://goo.gl/maps/GdWcQ
  • Simply wander Venice’s small and winding streets at dusk to enjoy the magic of this city.

Venice is like eating an entire box of chocolate liqueurs in one go.
— Truman Capote

5-Day Scotland Road Trip: The Highlands + Isle of Skye

In March 2016, I went on a five-day road trip with a close friend and my youngest sister through Glasgow and the Scottish Highlands. We hiked the Isle of Skye, rode horses around Loch Ness, and stumbled upon traditional folk music in small pubs. Planning a trip through the Highlands? Here’s our day-by-day itinerary and map.

5-Day Road Trip Map 

5 day road trip map scotland highlands

Itinerary Overview

Our destinations were based on the fact that we were all flying into Glasgow, and that we wanted to see the Highlands—more specifically, the remote Isle of Skye. With that in mind, here’s where we chose to venture:

Day 1: Glasgow > Glencoe > Fort William
Day 2: Fort William --> Glenfinnan Viaduct --> Fairy Pools --> Portree
Day 3: Portree --> Quiraing --> Kilt Rock --> Lock Ness --> Inverness
Day 4: Inverness --> Aviemore --> Dalwhinnie Distillery --> Glasgow
Day 5: Back to the airport

It was a jam-packed experience, but we wouldn’t have changed much. One possible alteration? Spend more time in Inverness or on the Isle of Skye than in Aviemore. It’s a cute vacation town, and we were there to have lunch on an old-fashion steam train that goes through the countryside. But if you’ve ridden a train before or don’t have children, it’s not a must-see. Still, the experience was nice for breaking up our long journey back to Glasgow.

Below is a breakdown of what we did and where we stayed, along with a brief history of each town. Enjoy your digital journey through Scotland!

Glencoe

Things to Do:
We simply pulled over on the side of the road and starting walking through the picturesque fields. It was a pretty gloomy day, so we didn’t stray too far from the car. But if you’re looking for more guidance, here are some hiking trails in the area.

Two-Sentence History:
This lush glen has a sordid past: Thirty-eight unarmed people from the MacDonald Clan were slaughtered by troops in 1692 because the MacDonald’s had not quickly pledged allegiance to the new English monarchs, William and Mary. You’ve also seen these memorable vistas in several movies including, "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban," "Skyfall," and "Braveheart."

 Glencoe, Scotland

Glencoe, Scotland

Fort William

Things to Do:
The next morning happened to be Easter Sunday. We were greeted with a momentary lapse in rain, a perfectly arched rainbow, and hot breakfast from our hosts. That day we explored the Glenfinnan viaduct and monument—another location that would be recognizable to any Harry Potter fan, as the Jacobite Steam train that blows above this field is also known as the Hogwarts Express. Other options: Ben Nevis mountain is one of the main attractions in this area. If we’d had time, we would have enjoyed the gondola ride that goes up nearby peak, Aonach Mor 

Where We Stayed:
We lodged at St. Andrews Guest House near Fort William’s city center. Once an old 1880s choir school, this stone mansion has been converted into a family-run, six-room bed and breakfast. During the evening, we dined at one pub and drank at another just a few blocks from this cozy castle—no driving needed. We met a group of nearly incomprehensible Scottish blokes, sampled some local beers, and slept off our jet lag.

Two-Sentence History:
While this small town is now a popular place for tourist to pass through, it was once where Jacobite’s fought (and failed) to take control in the 18th Century. Fort William and its surrounding areas have also been featured in “Outlander,” “Braveheart,” and “Harry Potter.”

 Glenfinnan Viaduct, where the Hogwarts Express flies by. 

Glenfinnan Viaduct, where the Hogwarts Express flies by. 

Isle of Skye

Things to Do:
We took a boat to the Isle of Skye on Day 2, and drove directly to the Fairy Pools. (By “directly,” I mean we missed the small sign, got lost, and had to ask an old Scottish man on the side of the road where to go.) The pools are beautiful crystal blue watering holes and waterfalls surrounded by ice-capped mountains. That evening, we had fresh seafood and cheap Talisker whiskey at a restaurant in Portree. On Day 3 we drove by the Old Man of Storr, took pictures of Kilt Rock, and did a 6-hour hike through the Quiraing. This was by far one of the most beautiful places I’ve seen on earth—but we got quite lost when the fog rolled in. I would suggest purchasing a map since there’s almost no cell service on the island. Read more about the Quiraing walk here. 

Where We Stayed:
Our Airbnb was located outside of Portree at this contemporary Scottish cottage. The house was beautiful, had strong wifi, and would have fit up to six travelers. However, you are out in the middle of nowhere, so prepare for the night before leaving town!

Two-Sentence History:
The island has strong Gaelic roots and ties to prominent Scottish clans, with the population peaking in the 1840s at over 23,000 inhabitants. But famine and Highland Clearances—or the eviction of tenants from common lands—during the 19th Century left the island’s population at about 7,000 by 1971. However, Skye and Scottish islands on the whole, are slowly growing in numbers again via a 2011 census. (Editor's note: I'd move to Scotland.)

 Taking the (unexpected) ferry to the Isle of Skye in the Scottish Highlands. 

Taking the (unexpected) ferry to the Isle of Skye in the Scottish Highlands. 

Inverness

Things to Do:
After our long Quiraing hike, we hopped in the car and drove toward Inverness, a town near the famous Loch Ness. On the way we took pictures of Skye’s incredible views and Eilean Donan Castle. Before heading to our B&B for the night, we stopped at the Highland Riding Centre and took a quick horseback ride to a viewpoint of Loch Ness and Urquhart Castle. That evening we found traditional live music at a pub, and enjoyed walking through the city streets.

Where We Stayed:
We stayed at Glendoune B&B. There was free parking available, and the house was a short walk from city centre. Our hosts were very kind and knowledge. They also tricked my sister into trying black pudding for the first time, much to the amusement of everyone in the dining room ;)

Two-Sentence History: 
Inverness has been dubbed the capital of the Highlands, and still maintains strong connections to the Gaelic language. It's also well-known in pop culture: Inverness has ties to Shakespeare's famous tragedy, "Macbeth," and is featured in "Outlander," a popular book series by Diana Gabaldon.

Highland Riding Centre in Scotland

Aviemore + Dalwhinnie + Glasgow

Things to Do:
On Day 4, we drove back to Loch Ness so we could explore Urquhart Castle on foot (and look for the infamous monster lurking in the deep lake). Then we headed south toward the vacation town of Aviemore where we boarded an old steam train for lunch and tea. After our meal, we drove to Dalwhinnie Distillery for an excellent Single Malt Scotch Whiskey tour and tasting. Finally, we continued on to Glasgow where we would spend our last evening in Scotland.

Buchanan Street, Argyle Street, and the boho West End are all popular destinations within this bustling city. We walked through the University of Glasgow over to Ashton Lane for dinner and cocktails. If you are looking for traditional live music, check out Ben Nevis, the Lismore, or Wintersgills depending on the night. When we were in town on a Tuesday, Wintersgills was hosting a live folk music session in their back room—and it was a highlight of our trip. We were the only tourists in the pub, and heard some fascinating songs and stories. 

Where We Stayed:
We opted for the Argyll Hotel, a family-run lodging in a traditional Georgian building near city centre. Parking was a bit difficult because we arrived during rush hour, but since we were so close to busy streets full of cafes and shops, we didn’t need to use the car again until it was time to go to the airport. We also got an upgraded room when we arrived due to a cancellation.

Two-Sentence History:
Glasgow is Scotland’s largest city and cultural hub: The national opera, ballet, theatre, and orchestra are all based here, as well as a large selection of museums and libraries. Artists like Belle and Sebastian, Camera Obscura, Franz Ferdinand, Mogwai, and Chvrches have also boosted the active Glasgow music scene.

On Day 5, we had a quick breakfast and headed to the airport. All of us were bummed to leave this beautiful country and swore to return to see the Eastern portion of Scotland soon. I hope this guide helps you plan your own journey—if you have any questions, feel free to sound off below!

 Urquhart Castle ruins on Loch Ness

Urquhart Castle ruins on Loch Ness

Here are a few more pictures from our Scotland road trip: