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:



The Coats We Wear

I walk through the bone-chilling cold with a gray scarf tied around my neck and two layers of sweaters under a green, puffy coat that comes down nearly to the knees. My feet are wrapped in Merino wool socks, but they never seem to retain the right amount of heat during the morning commute. A faux-fur hood covers my hair, and the only thing truly left to the elements are my madly blinking eyes.

 Circa 2014

Circa 2014

These eyes have grown accustomed to New York City’s frigid months. But not all winters are created equal: some years it rarely dips below 25F during the day; other seasons the wind chill is documented in Central Park at a numbing -11F.

The last time I remember the weather being so unbearable for long stretches of time was in 2014. I’d just met the boy I was going to marry. We were planning romantic dates throughout the city—walks on the Highline, cocktails at fancy bars, first kisses in smoky, old lounges. The whole bit. But much to my dismay, the temperature hovered around 5 degrees for portions of that January. So I was stuck in my shapeless, fluffy parka. Bits of feathers would fall out of the sleeves if I sat down too quickly.

Like I said, romantic.

This year is proving to be another cold winter. I loosen my scarf as I approach the museum, and swipe a key card. My office is through the chilly Grand Gallery, where a massive canoe and a large amethyst geode greet me every morning. As does a security guard, who over the last few days has given up on decorum and dons full winter gear. “Hello, there,” he says while rubbing together his hands.

I walk up a large set of stairs and turn into one of the cultural halls that focuses on the people of Mexico and Central America. I’m the only person in the gallery, and my heels click loudly on the stone floor.

Throughout the museum, hidden doors and subtle staircases house secret passages to the hundreds of employees working on a spectrum of tasks, from discovering new species, to vacuuming the dust off of specimen. On the staff-only fifth floor, there’s a hallway said to be six city blocks long. It’s filled with artifacts in wooden cabinets, bones in large lockers, classrooms, and laboratories. It makes me think back to every New York institution I’ve visited—where does the MOMA keep their artwork? What hidden room does the MET use to refurbish its collection of Colonial furniture?

There is one downside to working in an architecturally fascinating building from the 1800s: That brisk winter wind loves seeping in through invisible means. I’m lucky to be in a turret office, surrounded by massive windows that fill the room with natural sunlight. Because of this, complaining is not an option (but it should be noted that “drafty” is a common adjective from visitors to my work space).  

I wrap a shawl around my shoulders, and keep the gray scarf on for most of the day as heavy winds beat into my glass tower. Later that afternoon, I glance out the window and see a girl lose her knit cap to the wind as she crosses Columbus.

She looks so cold as she chases after it, hands outstretched and gloveless.  

This visual takes me back to another winter. In 2011, I was working as an unpaid intern at Martha Stewart Living magazine. Her offices were off 11th Avenue, and just about as close as you could get to the Hudson River without jumping in. I remember the icy wind that would smack me in the face as I ran by the just-opened art galleries of Chelsea, and the old warehouses with their mysterious stories. It was my first winter in New York, and I was still learning how to layer. My face was often red for at least 30 minutes after I’d arrived to work, and small blood vessels had popped on my cheeks.

It was a hungry and lonely season. My grad school friends and I were trying to figure out what we wanted to be when we grew up—which, was supposed to be happening soon. We would be magazine writers, and journalists, and book editors… and literary agents? And…

And we did just fine. I’m not sure we actually grew up—but we’re all at least pretending to know what the next season will bring. Ivy is working as a digital editor at everyone’s favorite bridal magazine, and Clare has consistently worked up the ranks of one of the largest publishing companies in the world.

And me? I’ve worked in e-books, magazines, advertising, and now at a museum. My words are still my meal ticket, and there is something humbling about that.

So, I’ll cozy up in my drafty old office, and look out the big windows to the New York City that I adore. I get the honor of waking up every day, and observing people from hundreds of countries exploring our town. They come in droves, seeking the best hotdog, the best cocktail—the “best” and most authentic anything! It’s true that many of them never know which way is uptown or downtown on the subway, and that groups of tourists often cause pileups on the sidewalk—but most arrive with stars in their eyes. I admire this vulnerable traveler.

It reminds me of myself, from a New York past.

image1 (1).JPG

London is satisfied, Paris is resigned, but New York is always hopeful. Always it believes that something good is about to come off, and it must hurry to meet it.
— Dorothy Parker

The (Infamous) Quiraing Walk in Scotland

“We’ve been on this freakin’ mountain for hours... Hours! HOURS!!”

My sister was sitting on a steep slope in Scotland and having a full-blown panic attack. There were tears streaming down her muddy face. The fog surrounding us was so thick that all I could see was Grace, our travel companion, Alice, and my dirty, bloody hands.

Let me explain how we got here.

The three of us booked a five-day trip to Scotland specifically to drive through the Highlands and visit the remote Isle of Skye. The Quiraing is a massive landslip on said isle that includes high cliffs, plateaus, peaks of rocks, and small ponds. There’s a popular “Quiraing Walk,” as United Kindomers say, that begins at the car park and loops through scenic views. After looking at ethereal photos of Lord of the Rings-esque mountains, all of us were excited to spend a morning hiking through this epic landscape.  

 The Quiraing, Isle of Skye, Scotland

The Quiraing, Isle of Skye, Scotland

We started researching our adventure. The Quiraing was classified as a medium-level hike. According to one website, “It covers a distance of 6.8km, with the average time to complete the walk being 2 hours (with no stops).” Assuming we would take photos and pause along the way, we allotted three to four hours for the loop.

Our journey began with exactly what was promised: beautiful views of sharp cliffs and rolling green fields. The slope was gradual, but the edge of the path was somewhat steep—not enough to harm you, but maybe enough to roll your ankle. About ten minutes in, we reached what our travel website said was “one of the more difficult parts of the walk.” After scrambling over a rock gorge to cross a stream, we relaxed. That hadn’t been so bad.

 The Quiraing walking path at the beginning of our hike. 

The Quiraing walking path at the beginning of our hike. 

“Man, those people have some legit gear,” I noted to my fellow adventures as we passed a group of English hikers. They had metal walking poles, some rope, and were chowing down on protein bars.

We were now wandering through a valley of strange vegetation, and awed by its otherworldly appearance. The murky ponds looked like black craters on an unknown planet. It was a lighthearted hour: We screamed “Sound of Music” lyrics into a rock formation that produced echoes over the canyons around us, and laughed at our ridiculousness.

Then, we made a mistake.

The term “cairn” is Scottish Gaelic for a human-made stack of stones. These are often used as trail markers. After leaving the Valley of Happiness, we walked up a Rock Bed of Doom and came across a cairn that highlighted a split in our path. To continue our journey up the mountain, we knew we needed to take the gravel road to the left. However, we did not foresee the turn in Scotland’s moody weather that would make this trek immensely more difficult. 

 Example of a cairn on our hike.

Example of a cairn on our hike.

Our first sign of danger was when I slipped on fresh mud, and nearly took a bad tumble. I caught myself on a barbed wire fence, which promptly sliced my hand open. It wasn’t a terrible cut—but our overall mood shifted.

We had now been traveling through the Quiraing for three some hours. After consulting a sweet (lost) British man and his son, we determined that we were only at the halfway point. Both parties decided it was best to continue on rather than turn back and see repeated views.

I snapped some photos as we continued up the mountain, but suddenly a wave a fog washed over our unsure group. Visibility was next to nothing, and the slope got much steeper. A smattering of rain intensified the situation. Grace and I began climbing like four-legged animals with our hands and feet both touching slippery surfaces. We looked like little monsters, with mud on our fingers and faces. 

 The beginning of the end. 

The beginning of the end. 

Suddenly, disaster struck. Grace put her foot into a cutout groove of earth, but the ground gave way and she momentarily slid toward the edge. While none of us were in true danger of falling to our deaths (I think?), there was a moment of panic as we assessed our mud-soaked situation. And that is when my youngest sibling began to sob.

“Put your butt on the ground,” I said repeatedly. “Sit down!”
“It’s wet! It’s freakin’ all mud!” she said, near hysterical.
“Grace, we’re already covered in mud. Sit down. You don’t like heights, and this is more difficult than we thought. You need to connect with the ground for a second.” I peered over the edge and got my own wave of vertigo.

She listened, and we both sunk into the mud while rain freckled our faces. The group of hikers with their damn metal poles stepped around us, and I almost laughed.

 The panic-inducing path (and Ledge of Death).

The panic-inducing path (and Ledge of Death).

“We only have a little further to go. I’m sorry... just up a few more steps,” I pleaded. Grace reluctantly agreed to move and we made our ascent to the flat peak. We saw Alice and our (lost) English friends. We saw a lone sheep. We saw another man who had guided us at the basin of the Quiraing—everyone seemed a little out of breath. But most importantly, we saw the car park. The end was in sight, and a wave of fresh motivation fell upon our hodge-podge group.

Fickle sunshine appeared as we made our way down the mountain. Alice was much quicker than us sisters, and hopped toward the finish line like a billy goat. But my ankles give out and Grace’s knees pop. The journey down this blasted slope was taking an insufferably long time.

“Grace.”
“Yeah?” she called from up above me.
“I'm sliding down the rest of the way.”
“What? Sliding?”
“Yep. The rain has already turned this path into a stream and I’m tired of trying to keep my balance.”

We were now on hour six of this adventure.

I sat on my butt and pushed into the ground. I bumped my way down the Quiraing at a pleasant speed, then turned around and shouted at Grace. “It’s so much easier!” She, too, plopped onto her bottom and began a quick descent.

Now, I am aware that we looked like idiots: two Americans in puffy coats, smiling and sliding down a slope of wet grass. But one does not simply “walk” the Quiraing. In our case, this full-on hike was more of a beautiful slip-n-slide, with moments of exhaustion, awe, and terror.

“Yer doin’ alright there, then?” a Scottish man asked as we Mud Monsters passed him and his child (his child!) walking up the mountain.
“Absolutely!” I responded.

“Ah, bit muddy s’it?” another woman asked us as she ascended. 
“Yes, indeed!” I smiled.  

Grace and I were now deliriously laughing. We arrived at the bottom of the Quiraing with muddy butts, happy hearts, and hungry stomachs—which, are all the ingredients of a perfect adventure.

Later that evening I looked up the Quiraing Walk to see how the heck it was classified as “medium level.” Upon further research, we discovered that the loop is “medium level” in length, “hard” in difficulty, and “not recommended” in misty conditions. 

Well.
We made it. 


Tips for the Quiraing Walk 

  • Do your research, and invest in a walking map. Cell service isn't great on the Isle of Skye, so our digital guide didn't help much.  
  • Pack snacks. We were starving after our six-hour adventure and consumed an unhealthy amount of burgers, hotdogs, and fries post-walk.
  • If you choose to take the left path at the cairn, be watchful of the weather. Remember: when the fog rolls in you won't be able to see anything from the top of the mountain. 
  • If you're uncomfortable with heights, take the right path. We were told there are spectacular views of lochs and hills of Heather. 
  • Here are decent step-by-step directions for what to expect on your hike. 
  • Bring a camera, a rain jacket, some Band-Aids, and wear proper shoes. 
  • Despite how long the hike took us, the Quiraing was a highlight of our trip. 

Travel makes one modest. You see what a tiny place you occupy in the world.
— Gustave Flaubert

New York Tip #6: Know Your (Good) Neighbors

"Where are you looking next?" 

My husband, our neighbor, and a friend who lives down the road are all perched on a corner of our apartment's roof sipping wine and whiskey. It's a clear night, but a storm front is making its way through NYC. We have about 30 minutes left before the rain will interrupt our evening. 

new-york-tips

City dwellers have several types of neighbors. And in New York, since we live right on top of each other, these strangers intrinsically become a part of our lives—whether we like it, or not.

In Astoria, I had both pesky and enjoyable neighbors. Sabina and I shared a kitchen wall on the top floor of a three-story walkup. She lived next to me for a solid year before we developed any sort of relationship beyond, "Hi, how are you." By the time she gave birth to her first child, I was close enough to be invited to the baby shower. Our relationship was pleasant; we weren't in each other's business, but we liked to gab in the hallway about rent hikes and the delayed N train. 

One apartment building over was my slightly terrifying neighbor. Meet Payasito, a Latin American clown with a motorcycle and a painted van, complete with several circus-themed mannequins that sat in the passenger seat. This odd man walked around in a wife-beater with half a painted face on Saturdays, yelling at his yappy, little poodle while he loaded props into his decked-out vehicles. 

Payasito installed cameras all over the outside of his home, most likely because local teens messed with his clown paraphernalia. He also had the annoying habit of trying to flirt with anything in a skirt, so I avoided conversation when possible. His redeeming trait? One night my roommate and I had captured a giant cockroach about the size of my pointer finger with a folder and a glass cup. The bug hissed and whirled about, popping up its wings as if to say, "I dare you to try and flush me!" So we took it outside. Good ol' Payasito heard the commotion, swiftly picked up the glass, flipped over the folder, and repeatedly smashed the ill-fated insect to pieces. Turns out clowns with probable anger issues are good for something. 

In the East Village, I didn't know many of my immediate neighbors. The apartment complex was more transient and nearly triple the size of my place in Queens. But 7th Street was far from lonely. I had playmates scattered throughout the entire neighborhood, and my roomy was an old family friend. 

Our Super, Igor, greeted us every morning in his Ukrainian accent and tossed out gems like, "Don't work too hard!" or "Where are you going? Work? Ehh." On 2nd Avenue an old Polish immigrant sat outside of his bakery, rain or shine. If he was in a good mood, he'd nod in your direction. And in the little park by the F train was a man who collected compost for some NYC program. He would say "good morning" to commuters whether they had eggshells or not. I loved this strange community of familiar faces. 

Brooklyn has been my home for a little over a year. Just now am I starting to recognize my neighbors on the street—but I know their movements and preferences quite well. Our current apartment isn't insulated, so every sound is prevalent. For example, I know my upstairs neighbor watches "Game of Thrones" and plays video games after dinner. 

A few of our close friends live two blocks over, and another collection of our community lives one subway stop away. In New York, it's rare and yet so important to know people nearby. Want to go brunch? No Uber needed. Running some errands? Maybe your friends will, too. Nightcap on a Tuesday? Sure, why not. It's like college living, without the homework. 

"Where are we looking next? Mostly nearby in Brooklyn," my husband answers. I'm jolted back to our conversation on the roof. A few raindrops are making their presence known. 

Ryan and I will most likely have to move apartments in Spring. Our building has been sold and will either be torn down or converted into pricey condos we can't afford.

Wherever we end up next, I hope I get to know my neighbors.
And I hope my current community is nearby.
And I hope my friends in Queens will still come visit. 

New York City is a much more enjoyable town when you can share your sometimes strange and difficult urban world with other humans who understand it. So have a glass of whiskey with a stranger on a roof, and work to live near those you adore. 

 The view from our Brooklyn rooftop. 

The view from our Brooklyn rooftop. 

I have an affection for a great city. I feel safe in the neighborhood of man, and enjoy the sweet security of the streets.
— Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

What to Wear in Iceland: 15 Essentials for Cold Weather

I traveled to Reykjavik and through the south of Iceland in April of 2016 with two good friends. We hiked, we swam in hot springs, and we watched as Icelanders spoke out against their government during the Panama Papers protests. It was an incredible experience.  

Since then, I've had several people ask me what they should wear while visiting this Nordic country. First, travels should know the year is divided into three loose categories based off of tourism and temperature: Low Season (Oct - Apr), Shoulder Season (May & Sep), and High Season (Jun - Aug). Here's a graph of the average highs and lows by month:

 Source: Wikipedia 

Source: Wikipedia 

I went in between Low and Shoulder Season to avoid high prices and crowed attractions, so the below list is more tailored to those months. If you plan on traveling during High Season, just remember you'll still need a decent jacket and some of these essentials. Nights can be in the low 40s—plus, the weather is quite unpredictable! 

Merino Wool Socks

Hate having cold feet? Socks with a high percentage of Merino Wool are known for absorbing moisture—which means, your sweaty toes stay dry (and warmer). This fabric is also much finer than other types of wool, so it's not itchy.

Find these socks at DSW, or order them on Amazon Prime. This was one of those small, but essential purchases that made hiking for several hours more enjoyable. (And as a New Yorker, I now wear them in winter.)

Fleece-Lined Tights/Long Johns

During April, I actually didn't need to use my fleece-lined tights or Long Johns. But I packed them to wear under my pants, just in case jeans weren't enough to keep my legs warm. Layering is key when you're traveling to a place where the temperature can change by 20 degrees in a few hours.  

Waterproof Boots

You're going to walk through sand, slush, snow, and puddles while adventuring around Iceland. So don't mess when it comes to investing in some solid waterproof boots. I wore my L.L. Bean Duck Boots everywhere, and they did their job well. But, since this particular shoe is often backordered, here are a few other options from legit brands like Salomon and Sorel.

Down Winter Coat

Headed to Iceland during the frigid months? A long, down coat is pretty necessary for keeping you warm and for fighting off gusts of wind. I recommend both Michael Kors and Eddie Bauer's knee-length jackets—these were by far my best purchases after moving to NYC. Both coats have also kept me warm during my travels to Iceland, Scotland, Montreal, and London—and I've been wearing them for over 5 years. 

Lined Windbreaker

When you're hiking for a longer amount of time, you might appreciate a more breathable coat. North Face's Inlux Insulated Jacket was my go-to when the temperature rose to the high 40s. It's water-proof, lightweight, and has a warm liner—plus, it's easy to tie around your waste if you get too hot. 

Heattech Shirts

what-to-wear-iceland-undershirt

Under all of my sweaters and flannels, I wore a short-sleeved Heatteach shirt from Uniqlo. This article of clothing is supposed to absorb your body's moisture and convert it into heat.

Whether it works or not, I enjoyed being sweat-free and having an extra layer. On our road trip days, I'd also get hot in the car and just wear this teeshirt until the next destination. 

Other Considerations

Now let's get down to the basics: Here's a checklist of other items to pack for your Iceland adventure. Most of these are obvious, but it's easy to forget something!

  • Several sweaters or flannels 
  • Touchscreen gloves or waterproof gloves
  • Scarf + a hat that covers your ears
  • Microfiber towel for quick drying after hot spring swims
  • Outdoor pants if you're glacier walking or heavy-duty hiking
  • One "un-sporty" outfit for nightlife in Reykjavik 
  • Bathing suit and flip flops for the Blue Lagoon
  • Water-resistant backpack

I hope this quick guide helps you on your journey toward visiting the "land of ice and fire." Leave a message in the comments section if you have any questions. Happy travels!

 Oh hey, glacier. 

Oh hey, glacier. 

Iceland Guesthouse - Hv�t�

Where to stay: Iceland Guesthouse - Hvita

Situated on the riverwalk, this guesthouse is within 12 mi (20 km) of Deildartunguhver Hot Springs, Ullarselid -The Wool Hut, and Agricultural Museum of Iceland. High-speed Internet


The Wedding Video

It's here! Josh from WhiteFlair Productions just sent us our finished wedding film. I so enjoyed reliving this incredible day and listening to my dad's loving speech. Also, the dance party: I hope you find your sweating, happy faces in the crowd! ;) 

Thank you again to everyone who helped make this day possible. We love our wonderful community to the moon and back.