The pretentious eating-in-restaurants-while-traveling post

I really did try to avoid doing this one, but I couldn’t help myself.

My personal rules for eating (dinner) out abroad:

  • Never the same place twice.  Exceptions being very small towns, or extended stays. Too often, folks stick to the first “low stress” restaurant they find (the one where everyone spoke English or whatever), declare it the absolute best, and just go back every night.  I need a much larger set of data points from a new place before I can decide whether food is good or not.
  • Use the foreign language menu.  Not to look cool, but because it makes you more likely to get a surprise, or to try something you’ve never had before.  Back in Madonna di Campiglio, I had some very delicious meat in a balsamic reduction.  What animal was it from?  No idea.
  • Handwritten menus are a red herring.  In a tourist-heavy city, the folks serving you are far more savvy than you are about all the “tricks” (not a fair word to use really).  Just because the menu is handwritten, it doesn’t mean the food will be any more fresh or exciting than a place with a printed menu (it’s handwritten, is it ever changed?).  I tend to look for a small menu, with only a few options instead, though again, that’s not guarantee.
  • Don’t eat at places recommended by your guidebook.  Not because they’re all in cahoots, or because it makes restaurants lazy, but because it’s too easy to pick a place from the guidebook.  Boring.  You can’t actually avoid guidebook-recommended places (too many guidebooks!) but you can at least avoid your guidebook.
  • If you’re really looking for a special place, try toggling a review site into the local language and browsing reviews.  Yelp isn’t as entrenched in Europe, but Tripadvisor generally has a lot of local-language reviews for restaurants.

So yeah, just my own biases.

The end of the affair

I’ll save fabricated emotional rambling for my 8 hour layover in schiphol tomorrow.

Today was another day without a plan.  I hit the central market one last time, to get a few more gifts, plus fruit and supplies for one more sandwich.

It was really toasty in Florence today, so after a bit of aimless wandering, I hopped the bus up to Settignano, then hiked over to Fiesole.  I’ve never done the hike that direction before, and found the actual hiking trail for the first time – in the past, I’ve just walked on the road.  The trail is a real ankle-beater, with lots of awkward rocks and angles.  But it has some seriously nice views and very Tuscan, so I’ll take the tradeoff.

As I entered Fiesole, I stopped to assemble my sandwich – some salame tuscano, pecorino fresco, tomato, basil, focaccia.  Delicious.  Or, it would have been, had a gust of wind not sent it all onto the ground.


Plan B – lunch in Fiesole.  Nice enough.

Fiesole is basically closed on Mondays, but I wandered up to San Francesco, which has some great views, and is a gorgeous little place on its own as well.  There’s a little path in back which wanders down the hill, with great tree cover.  Stopped there to read and zone out for a while.

Eventually caught the bus back down to Florence, did a few final bits of shopping, and grabbed dinner at Trattoria Nella – Melanzane alla griglia, Gnocchi al gorgonzola, Tegamino di trippa alla Fiorentina.  Yum.

A final gelato, and we’re up to the moment.  Procrastinating packing.  The usual.

Bumming around Firenze

Haven’t posted as much from Florence, as I’m not doing as much – I’m just taking a few days to chill out, sit around, people watch.

Saturday, I checked out the Sant’Ambrogio market. It’s an indoor/outdoor market, with lots more produce than the Mercato Centrale, and seemingly a lot more farm-fresh stuff – honey, young cheeses, eggs, and so on. Not massively different from the other markets though.

From there, I made the hike up to San Miniato and Piazza Michaelangelo. San Miniato is always a calming place – I sat for a while, enjoying organ music and appreciating the darkness. Did some shopping at their little store, and then had my lunch in one of the parks. Had the obligatory gelato in Piazza Michaelangelo (note for connoisseurs: it’s not actually very good gelato up there, it just seems that way because you have to work to get it).

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After that, a new (for me) museum – La Specola, a museum of taxidermy. It came highly recommended by @macreal, and didn’t disappoint. What a weird space. The animals are either posed in menacing or terrified positions. And then there’s all the wax models of dissected people – it verges on creepy.

It was really, really hot in Florence, so I spent a good chunk of the afternoon reading or spacing out in the Boboli gardens. It’s a bit of a scam that they don’t allow you to buy a ticket to just the garden – oh yes, I really was interested in looking at the collection of 18th century doll clothing, good thing my ticket covers that!

Dinner at Trattoria Cibreo and a lap of the city.

Today, more wandering – walked down to the Certosa di Firenze, because I failed to read that they were closed Sunday mornings (duh). Oh well, a pleasant enough ~7 miles. The most amazing part was when a pre-war Alfa 8C 2X00 drove past, totally out of the blue. Exciting, and rather surprising.

From the Certosa, a swing north to the Giardino Della Fortezza for more reading and people watching, plus more wandering, and so on.

As I say, I really haven’t been up to much – enjoying the city and the food. Definitely in the “wind down” portion of the trip though. The last few times I’ve been in Florence, I’ve had an apartment for a couple weeks, and punctuated it with day trips or overnight trips to other cities. This case has been different, obviously, and I think I’m experiencing the city a bit differently as well.

I hope things work out to get the whole family back to Italy at some point. Or, perhaps I’ll develop a good “travel buddy” – one way or another, I’m starting to get pretty good at Italy, and I’d like to start sharing the experience.

I bet Disney can be fun too

The trek from Madonna di Campiglio to Florence went smoothly – drive to Milan MXP, subway to Garibaldi, fancy new Italo train to Firenze.

I’ve got to say – being in Madonna di Campiglio in the off season was kind of interesting.  I don’t normally visit “resort” or “vacation” towns – I imagine Madonna isn’t dissimilar from ski-centric towns in the US.  My experience of it was as a beautiful little town, nestled in amazing scenery, where I got a good room with nice amenities for around $50.  It was very pleasant to wander around town, doing laundry, popping into shops.  The only odd bit was going out for dinner, and finding most of the restaurants closed for the season.  In the end, I found some nice local food.  Side note: I’m tempted to do a post about eating out while traveling, but I can’t think of a way to do it that’s not unstomachably (huh?) pretentious.  Might not stop me.

Anywho.  Florence.  Got in to town, went out for a wander.  It’s been a couple years since I’ve been here, but pretty much everything is still where I left it.  They’ve got a new style of municipal trash bin in some places.  So that’s cool.

I’m staying at Hotel Bodoni, a completely fine little place in a good-enough (but not too good) part of town, just outside the center.  I’ve got a little balcony with a view of Santa Croce, and there’s a minifridge, I don’t really need anything else.

First priority this morning was a trip to San Marco.  Museo San Marco is my favorite spot in Florence – the calm of the courtyard, the amazing Fra’Angelico paintings in the rooms – it’s a space that conveys a real sense of its history and the people who inhabited it.  The trick is to be among the first people there in the morning, and then immediately go upstairs.  Walk all the way to the end of the hall, and work your way back.  If you’re lucky (as I was today) you can have almost all of the upstairs to yourself.  Being in those small chambers, with just you and the solitary piece of art, you really get a chance to reflect.  By 9:00, the tour groups start rolling in, and it becomes an exercise in people-watching.

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From there, it was a trip to the Mercato Centrale.  Loaded up on delicious items for lunches and snacks, plus far, far too much balsamic vinegar and olive oil.

A side note here – while my conversational Italian is still pretty poor, I’m getting pretty comfortable chatting with the folks in markets and stores – asking their advice, telling them my preferences, etc.  In part, it’s because everything happens in the present tense – in normal conversation, everything falls apart when I need to talk about going to do something / having done something, etc.  Then the Spanish starts coming out and everything goes off the rails.

After dropping off supplies in the aforementioned minifridge, I made a trek to Stefan’s, a household goods store.  Mom and Kate had both hinted pretty strongly that they’d like new tablecloths, having each purchased one at a different Stefan’s during our family trip in 2006.  I hope I came through for them.  I also got some shoes – they’re not Italian, but they look Italian, and they were €`14 – quite a bit better than the driving shoes I was lusting over in Milan.

From there – picnic lunch, people watching, and wandering the city.  Picked up a few more gifts.  Popped into some churches I hadn’t visited before.  Basic Florence stuff.

It’s interesting to experience the stark contrast between Milan and Florence.  Milan, in almost every way, is a much more “real” city.  It’s easier to eat well in Milan, to have authentic interactions with people, and to experience Italian life.  Florence, while not fake in the Disney papier-mâché sense, is a city built around tourism.  In parts of the city, there’s more English being spoken than Italian.  This isn’t a surprise of course, but the contrast is interesting.

That said, I think you can still have authentic Italian experiences in Florence (in addition to the equally valuable authentic-tourist experiences – seeing amazing art, trying new foods, wandering little alleys).  It just takes a bit more work.  Tomorrow, I’m going to head a little ways outside of the city center to try a different market – just to see what the vibe is like.

In any case, just like the folks who love Las Vegas or Disney, I love Florence, no apologies.

Via Ferrawesome

Down from the mountains now, and catching up on the world.

The last couple days of climbing / hiking have been pretty incredible.  The via ferrata concept is an amazing way to gain a perspective on a landscape that would otherwise be impossible without serious technical climbing, inaccessible to all but the most serious climber (and that’s not me).  Instead, the routes I was climbing were populated (though far from crowded) by everyone from the very young (perhaps 8 or 9 years old, with parents obviously) to the rather old.  In addition to the heavy German (Austrian, etc) population, there were plenty of Italians, a few French, and a handful of colonials (Aussies, Americans, Canadians).

On Monday, I started with the “Bocchette Centrale” route, which many describe as the “typical” via ferrata route.  You start the route with a serious of ladders – a nice chance to get comfortable clipping and unclipping.  Ladders are actually probably the riskiest type of obstacle you encounter.  The ladders themselves have cold, wet, circular rungs, and are often rather wobbly.  There’s a steel cable next to the ladder, running vertically, that you clip your harness to.  At each point where the cable is bolted, you need to unclip and reclip on the other side of the bolt.  This means hanging on to the ladder with one hand, while manipulating your binners with the other.  When the ladder is overhung or tilted, that gets a little scary and requires some strength.  A fall on a ladder means falling all the way down to the previous bolt – potentially 10 feet – plus the length of your ferrata rig.  Something to be avoided.

From there, the route transitions into protected ledges.  Horizontal cabling, wide enough ledges that you can walk, but very, very big drops.  If you do the full double-clip thing on these, it’ll take you forever – just walking carefully, with a hand on the cable, was good enough for me – most of the time.  Sometimes you run into situations where you’re crawling or ducking, or where the ledge gets down to only a few inches wide – at that point, clipping becomes a bit more important.

As you continue on, you cross a variety of passes, some flatter sections, and some vertical bouldering sections.  Basically, a taste of everything.  The sights are constantly amazing – whether completely shrouded in fog, or gloriously clear skies.  The situation changes second to second – often by the time I’d unclipped my camera bag, the shot I’d been hoping for was gone.

After Centrale, I paused for a bite at Rifugio Tosa, and then took Sentiro Orsi back the other direction.  This is a slightly lower route, with relatively little via ferrata, but plenty of sketchy sections – big snow / glacier crossings, etc.  It all ends with a massive scramble up a rock fall – at one point, there was cabling, but erosion and continued rock slides means the cabling is well out of reach.  Once you’ve finished that climb, you immediately descend the other side, which is completely snow covered.  It’s a slip / slide / fall sort of descent – too step in some places for much control, at least without crampons.

I spent the night at Rifugio Tuckett, which is perched right on the edge of a pretty stunning drop.

The next morning, I did the SOSAT route – another slightly lower altitude route, but with plenty of via ferrata and some big ladders.  About an hour in came the first clap of thunder.  Within minutes, it was raining.  Rain makes things a lot less fun, lightning makes it potentially far more dangerous.  The rain was moderate for a while, but right as I reached the end, the skies opened up a bit more.  The final 400m ascent up to Rifugio Alimonta was very, very unpleasant.  I gather other people were having similar issues with the sudden weather – from what I could understand listening in at Alimonta, a helicopter was stranded somewhere, trying to figure out what to do.

I spent a while warming up at Alimonta, enjoying some cake and a coffee by the fire, drying out a bit.  As quickly as the rain came, it left, and the skies were gloriously clear.  So, I set out for the Detassis route.  I hadn’t really understood in advance that this is considered one of the more difficult via ferrata routes in the region.  And I hadn’t expected that I wouldn’t see a single other person the whole time.  Had I known these things, I might have made another choice.  Oh well, needs must.

Detassis begins with a scramble up another big rock fall, with snow on either side.  Finding the start of the route is a bit tricky – there’s not any real marking, and if the sun is in the wrong place, it can be hard to see the first ladder.  Eventually I found it though, and started the climb.  Detassis is almost entirely ladders – straight up, or even overhung.  Climb, clip, climb, clip.  For more than an hour.  We’re talking big, big height here.

When you reach the top, you have two choices – you can go north on the Bochette Alte, another very difficult route, or go south, complete the last of Bochette Alte, and end up back at Bochette Centrale.  I chose the latter.  That involved doing a very dangerous free climb traversal, which was probably not the smartest thing I’d ever done.  But heading up Bochette Alte would have meant another 6 hours of hiking – not an option given the time of day.  And descending all those ladders didn’t seem much safer.

Finally, after reaching the end, I finished the day with another run at Bochette Centrale, to wind up back at Tosa for the night.

In the morning, a long hike back down the mountain, and we’re all caught up to right now – chilling in a hotel room in Madonna Di Campiglio.

Overall thoughts?  Via Ferrata is amazing.  I’d do it again in a heartbeat.

I was surprised that there wasn’t more social interaction.  Obviously, I’m not a particularly social animal, but the fact that most people climb in groups (anywhere from two to seven or eight) keeps much serious interaction (between strangers) from happening at the rifugios.  I thought it would be a bit more like the camino in that regard.  I did enjoy getting to meet a few folks, but certainly not the way I expected.

In terms of difficulty, the most physically strenuous part was just the hike up to the start of the routes.  You can avoid that if you want by taking a gondola out of Madonna di Campiglio.

You find your own comfort level in terms of safety.  The Via Ferrata approach to placing cables seems a little like the way Upper Michigan decides whether a portion of highway allows passing or not – somewhat random.  On the most dangerous parts, there’d always be a cable (or at least, there was once a cable).  On more intermediary bits, it’s a bit of a crapshoot.  The most important thing you can do is take things slow and focus on each foot placement.  I think that’s where rock climbing helped me the most – I feel I’ve developed a pretty solid sense for when a foot is safety planted on a somewhat questionable surface, or when a quick movement is warranted.

In any case, it was a great adventure, and now I can start thinking about what’s next.  Anybody know how to get started BASE jumping?


Via Ferrata tips and thoughts

I’ll do a post on the last couple days of climbing later today.  For now, I thought I’d write up some of the Via Ferrata basics that I wasn’t able to discover before heading out, in case Google helps someone else find this info in the future.

This is all based on my climbing in the Brenta range, around Madonna di Campiglio.


Since I’ve got normal touristy stuff before and after the climbing portion of this trip, I chose not to bring too much gear from home.  Instead, I rented a harness, via ferrata rig and helmet from Olympionico Sport in Madonna di Campiglio.  It was €15 per day for that rig.  While in there, ask them for a good map – one with topo data.

I brought my own belay gloves – some folks will say gloves are optional on via ferrata, but I think they’re mandatory.  Looking at the beating my gloves took, my hands agree.  I’d recommend sticking with some sort of belay glove or ferrata glove – leather, with the finger tips removed.  Just like with normal climbing, having your finger tips covered seriously reduces your ability to sense the security of a hold.

I also brought a long a couple quickdraws.  If you’ve got them, it couldn’t hurt to bring them – I’ve rarely been in a situation where I wished I hadn’t brought the quickdraws.  If nothing else, they’re useful for securing gear.

Many folks seemed to lean towards a more traditional hiking boot.  I went with more of a hiking sneaker – fairly robust sole, but no ankle protection, etc.  This worked for me, but you’ll be doing lots of scrambling over everything from scree to boulders, so if you’re prone to ankle injuries, choose appropriately.

Because you’ll be carry little-to-no food (more later), no tent, and no sleeping bag, you can get away with a day-pack sized bag, even for long outings.  Do this if at all possible.  Especially on the more intense routes, reducing the amount of weight and the bulk hanging off your back is very helpful.


Weather changes frequently and rapidly, as in any alpine environment.  You will get drenched at least once.  Plan accordingly.  All of the clothing you bring should be made out of fabrics that didn’t exist 20 years ago.  During the time I was climbing, in early July, temperatures ranged from low-30s to high-60s.  I really appreciated having a wide-brim (Tilley) hat as well, for sun and rain protection.

Personally, I don’t like climbing in shorts, just due to the extra skin exposure, but zip-off pants which allow you to open the knees for ventilation are a nice in-between.

A small backpacking towel would be handy if you’re going to be doing more than a couple days.  Most of the rifugios have showers (for a fee), but only one had towels available.


All of the rifugios I visited had wifi via the Trentino network.  Free (or near-free) access is available via the Free Luna system – register before you leave, registering on your phone is a pain.  The wifi signal tends to be very weak and localized – at some rifugios, it’s only available outdoors, at some only in a specific room.  Keep in mind, these are stone buildings with 2 foot thick walls.  Just ask someone for the best spot to stand in.

Power is at a premium at most rifugios – they run the generators as little as possible, so otherwise it’s battery and solar power only.  For that reason, many limit charging to specific times of day, and don’t have power outlets readily accessible.  Ask politely, and they’ll likely help you get recharged at some point.

Camera choice is a bit tricky – I brought a dSLR, and got some great photos, but there were plenty of situations in which I didn’t feel safe enough to pull it out for a shot.  A small pocket camera, which could be easily secured to a piece of gear, would allow more flexibility in that regard.

Remember to think through how you’re going to protect all your tech from the inevitable drenching.

Guides and Route Finding

I brought along the Cicerone guidebook.  It turned out to not be that helpful (though reading it beforehand was helpful) – routes change a lot from season to season, as time and weather move or obscure markers, cables get rerouted, etc.  Luckily, route marking is generally very good.  When in doubt, just pause and do a slow scan of the landscape to look for red or red and white markers.

A good map is very helpful.  Some sort of compass wouldn’t hurt either, as it’s very easy to lose your sense of direction in the fog.


Rifugios are the mountain huts you’ll be staying in.  They range from relatively antiquated to relatively modern.  They all work essentially the same way – there’s a bar / restaurant, rooms with bunks, and a shared bathroom.  You’ll be able to choose room-only, or half board.  Half board runs around €50 per day – tack on another €10/day for extra coffees, water and lunch, and it’s still a pretty reasonable European outing.

Reservations are recommended – even though it wasn’t the peak season while I was there, space got tight a few times.  It’s easy enough to call ahead, even a day or two, to reduce that stress.

Breakfast will be pretty much the same everywhere – bread, various jams, butter, and coffee or tea.  Dinner is more varied, reflecting the different national backgrounds of rifugio owners.  Things mostly trend germanic, but there’s a range.  It’s typical primi/secondi service, with amazing efficiency.

Otherwise, rifugio living is pretty much like any other hosteling / shared housing experience.  Be polite, respectful, and don’t make a mess.


I mostly covered food above.  One note – it doesn’t hurt to bring along a few snacks (there are a couple large supermarkets in Madonna di Campiglio), and a liter of water.  You’ll need to buy more water from the rifugios as you go (the water from the taps isn’t drinkable, or so they say) but starting out with a bottle can’t hurt.  If your day pack is equipped to take a camelbak-style system, that’s great, but far from necessary.

You can stop in at a rifugio any time of day for a coffee, a snack, lunch, or just a break from the rain and wind.  You can also ask them to wrap up a sandwich for you to take along.  Pricing is reasonable – not the sort of gouging you might expect, given that everything must be transported up many thousands of meters via cable line.

Other Stuff

I can’t think of other big topics at the moment, but will update this post as necessary.

So. Many. Germans.

First real day of via ferrata. It’s kind of unreal!

Kicked things off with breakfast at the rifugio, then set out for what’s called a “definitive” ferrata route. First, another half kilometer climb. Then you hit the first ladder and start to get nervous.

In reality, there were very few scary moments on the morning route – plenty of protection available (cables) but in many places I didn’t feel the need to clip in.

Rick climbing experience benefits in a few ways. First, being handy with a binner is nice. Second, having the confidence to rely on a pinch of a rock lip makes things much faster. Finally, a general sense of moment when stemming out to other rocks, etc, helps save energy.

The route was lots of narrow paths over “it doesn’t matter how far down” drops. Figure a 500m drop straight down, then another 1500m slightly less straight down.

Occasionally you cross glacial flows, with protection – that’s a little hairy, as you’re balancing on snow over a similar drop – it might only be 15m of that, but you’re thinking through every foot placement.

Made it to the lunch stop in about 3 hours. Took what was supposedly an easier route towards the overnight. While perhaps the drops were not as steep, there were many more glacial crossings, washouts, rockfalls, etc. Also some very narrow overhung ledges. Eek!

The final ascent was a 400m climb up very lose scree, at a very steep angle, followed by a similar descent on snow.

So yeah, it’s bloody awesome.

Many Germans, some Italians. At one point, a guided group came the other direction – one said “buon giorno” as only an American can, so I asked. Turns out they’re from Minnesota of all places! Crazy.