Florence: The City of Careless Exploration

Ahhh Florence, the city of careless exploration. Wandering around Florence, or shall I say Firenze, is the best way to experience the rich culture this beautiful city has to offer.

Wandering around Florence (or shall I say Firenze) aimlessly is the best way to experience the rich culture this beautiful city has to offer.  You’ll discover something impressive around every corner; whether it be mouthwatering menus, romantic alleyways, intricate sculptures or carousels smack dab in the center of a plaza.

Where we stayed:

Only stopping once in Verona to stretch our legs, we drove 6 hours from Zadar, Croatia to Florence, Italy.  We arrived at our Airbnb around 8 p.m. and were happily surprised that it was located in the very central Piazza Santa Croce, walking distance from basically everything.  We could see Basilica di Santa Croce from our room! We felt that choosing an Airbnb over a hotel gave us an authentic local experience.

Check out our Airbnb here.

Florence 2017-2071.jpgThis was 10 steps from our front door!

What we did:

Speaking of plazas, Piazza della Signoria and Palazzo Vecchio are both must sees.  Even if you’re not planning on going to these plazas, you’ll eventually end wandering through anyway.  Piazza della Signoria was my favorite because of the stunning open-air sculpture exhibit.

I love a good panoramic view: when I find myself in a new city I’m always in search for the best location to marvel at a city skyline from above.  So if heights don’t make you nauseous and you are in moderately good shape, make your way to the top if Giotto’s Campanile. It will certainty make a memorable experience. But be prepared to sweat a bit though. The 463 steps to the top definitely gets the heart pumping.   There are floors which you can take breaks on along the way, but beware, the walkways are ridiculously small.  Once you get to the top of the tower you get the most beautiful, panoramic view of Florence.

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We decided to go to the Boboli Gardens an hour before closing.  The lady at the front desk was applaud we waited so late in the day to go; she almost convinced us to skip it!  Luckily a local overheard our conversation and assured us that we had enough time. She told us to start from the top of the gardens and make our way down as the gardens at the top are the most beautiful.  So we bought tickets, started from the top and took our time. We even had enough time for glass of wine and a chat with another traveling couple at the restaurant overlooking the gardens.  It was perfect because we were able to admire the views with almost no people around.   The Boboli Gardens are absolutely magical, but you don’t need longer than an two hours to admire the scenery (they kicked us out an hour after closing).  I STRONGLY recommend going here.

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Where we ate:

As you can imagine, driving for 6 hours from Zadar worked us up an appetite.  We stumbled upon a romantic outdoor patio restaurant in the semi-hidden Plazza Della Passera called 4 Leoni.  They serve artisan food, fresh pasta and delicious wine.  We had to wait for a table because the restaurant was jam packed but it was well worth it.  We shared a mouth- watering Ravioli and a bottle of their house wine, which was surprisingly really tasty.  We weren’t expecting much as we didn’t plan this meal but WOW WAS IT GOOD.

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You have to have at least one white tablecloth, candle lit dinner in Florence.   Ristorante Sant’ Ambrogio  is located in a quiet neighbourhood 7 minutes away from the Il Duomo area and was perfect for this kind of romantic meal.  This restaurant was elegant yet unpretentious and had a great ambiance.  We shared a beef tartare, risotto, tagliatelle pasta, and of course, a bottle of red wine.  It was a true Italian dining experience.

As you walk around Florence, you will eventually run into a street with line-ups down two adjacent sidewalks.  Yup, both line-ups are for sandwiches.  I thought this was hilarious until Leon insisted we try one. So, we lined up for the infamous All’antico Vinaio for half an hour.  It was actually a nice break from walking.  The people watching was pretty good too.  We decided on getting two sandwiches, the L’Inferno and the La Schiacciata Del Boss.  The L’Inferno was hands down the best.

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Located inside Piazza della Repubblica (this is the plaza with the carousel) you will find a very posh coffee shop/ bakery called Caffé Gilli.   We stood at the bar to watch the Italians work their magic behind the espresso machine. There is a 5€ price difference if you sit on the patio versus stand at the bar.  In general we found that throughout Croatia and Italy, many places charge you a “cover charge” for sitting and eating at their establishment. Usually it’s 1 – 2€.

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If you’re looking for a trendy coffee shop, head over to Ditta Artigianale.  It’s very modern despite the surrounding rustic and historic landscape.  This coffee shop was bustling the entire time we spent trying to figuring out our route from Florence to Rome.

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OH MY GOSH THE GELATO IN FLORENCE WAS AMAZING.  Yes I had two a day (for only 1 or 2 Euros each, so why the heck not?!).

A very noteworthy gelato spot was La Carraia, which is located by the river.  There was a little lineup but it went quickly. We had a scoop of the dark chocolate and the strawberry gelato.  They were unbelievably flavorful.  They have tons of flavors to choose from so you might have to go back a couple times.

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Careful – they melt quick 😉

Zadar, Zrče Beach and Plitvice Lakes

A couple days of a lot of ocean and the most beautiful Lakes I have ever seen.

This trek of the journey was eventful, to say the least.

Where we stayed

We stayed in MY FAVORITE Airbnb of the trip right in the center of the city.  However, It was pretty loud in the room at night (until about 1am) because of an open-air bar right outside the windows.  Luckily we didn’t get home much sooner than 1 a.m each night!

Parking can be tricky, but luckily our Airbnb host showed us where there was free parking right outside the city (about a 7 minute walk away from our Airbnb).  The free parking was at the back of a paid parking lot on a gravel area, so it was a little tricky to find.

this was our Airbnb.

Zadar

Zadar has some “must see’s”.  The infamous Sea Organ is one of them.  You can sit on long broad steps that descend into the ocean, watch the sunset, and listen to the Sea Organ.   The Sea Organ is powered by the waves. The stronger the waves, the louder the Sea Organ is.  I suggest you go half an hour before the sunset to grab a spot.

Another must see in this area is “The Greeting to the Sun”.  It’s an outdoor light-up dance floor which is located steps away from the Sea Organ  (you can kill two birds with one stone).  Please don’t do as the tourists do and lay on the dance floor, that’s gross :).

We had drinks and breakfast smoothies (on different days) at The Garden; an outdoor garden club on top of the city walls.  At night it has a really cool relaxed slightly bourgeois vibe; they have beds in the center of the lounge and white couches surrounding the bar area.  During the day you can sit in a airy white cabana to eat your healthy meal.  They have fresh squeezed juice, fruit smoothies and healthy breakfasts.  It’s really stunning.  I don’t have any photos because I forgot to put the battery in my camera that day (this was the day after Zrče beach, you’ll put the pieces together shortly).

Zadar The Garden Lounge Menu

We went for dinner on the patio of Restaurant Bruschetta for a nibble to eat. We ended up getting a bottle of wine and a couple appetizers and only really liked the truffle bruschetta.  The pizza looked really good though (yes we messed up).  We sat beside a table of around 10 local women and watched them chain-smoke for 2 hours. HOW DO YOU EVEN TASTE YOUR FOOD.  I was almost impressed.

We rented a boat and it may have been the best decision we made our whole trip Well, other than bringing a ton of booze and one small container of warm yogurt.  Yes I did lose an entire toenail that day… luckily this mishap happened after the alcohol consumption..

Boating cost around 170 Euro for the whole day, including the gas.  Leon got his boat license the week before just in case he would need to rent one of the boats. According to the boat rental website they do require a boat license if you’re renting a bigger boat, but, no one asked to see it the day of.

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Views from our boat in Zadar Croatia

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Plitvice Lakes National Park

We actually stopped at the Plitvice Lakes on our way to Zadar from Zagrab and JUST barley got in before they stopped letting people through.  I recommend planning on spending at least 4 hours there (before 7pm) and wear your walking shoes because that’s what you’ll be doing the entire time.  This national park was magical and there is a lot to see.

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Plitvice Lakes National Park

Plitvice Lakes National Park

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Zrče Beach for the day..

Getting to the island of Pag is really quite beautiful.  As you drive upwards the land gets very brown and desert-like until you eventually start descending back down to lush landscape and civilization.  Zrče is a party beach on the island of Pag with a bunch of massive day clubs where people quite literally get obliterated and make out with each other.  BUT, we were a teeny bit early in the season for all of the inappropriate festivities (the clubs weren’t packed to the brim).  We started off at Euphoria Club which was my favorite; we sat in nice loungers, jumped off of the club deck into the ocean when we got too hot and sipped on (really strong) drinks.  Somewhere between this club and our 3rd? I got tipsy and lost both of our drivers licenses and Leon’s Visa (Okay fine, I was wasted out of my little tree).  To be fair, this one club, Aquarius, was promoting a buy one JUG of mojito, get one JUG free. Anyway, Zrče is really cool and the beaches are beautiful and sandy.  Expect to see some boobs.

Here’s a sober video of myself dancing in a “pool” about 2 feet deep…

If you do go in July or August, please please please be safe. It’s surprisingly easy for things to get out of hand due to the scorching sun and the aggressively strong drinks. Things can get unsafe very quickly If you don’t have a 200 pound boyfriend following you around everywhere.  Also note that the ratio from guys to girls was 5:1 – ladies watch  yo-selves.

Don’t skip Zagreb!

I’ve come across some travel blogs telling people to skip Zagreb which BOGGLES MY MIND.  One person even said it lacked History… sorry, what?

Where we stayed

We stayed at Leon’s parents cute little apartment just outside of the old town and drove into the old city center.  side note –  There are blue and white and yellow lined parking spots on the street, only park within the white lines with the big ‘P’ sign above – yes I know this because we got a parking ticket.

What we Did

We got the heck out of the new city (yes, yes it’s not very pretty – i can agree with that), parked, and then walked to the breathtaking Zagreb Cathedral of Assumption.  Remember, like most churches, if you want to be able to step inside, you must have something to cover your shoulders.  Me being “scantily” clad, I could only poke my head in.

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A 10 minutes walk away from the Cathedral you will find Strossmayer Promenade.  Here you get great views of the multicoloured rooftops of the Old Town (also known as Gornji Grad). The surrounding area is adorable too; we even happened upon a interesting festival while we were soaking in the scenery.

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Also located in Upper Town is the unique St. Mark’s Church.  This church is distinctive because of it’s vibrantly colored tile roof which bears the coats of arms of Croatia, Dalmatia, Slavonia, and Zagreb.  This area is the oldest in the city and possesses countless stunning historic buildings and museums.

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I had an extremely interesting experience while walking to our dinner spot in the center of the city.  Before I explain, a little history – Back in 1731, legend has it that all of the houses and surrounding area around the eastern wooden gate, Kamenita Vrata or also known as Stone Gate, were burnt to the ground.  However Stone Gate, which was embedded with a painting of Jesus and Mary inexplicably remained untouched.  Today you can find the painting  in a shrine, protected by a metal enclosure.

Unbeknownst to us at the time, around dusk people gather in and around the tunnel to light candles and pray.  We’re talking hundreds of people crammed around this tunnel.  I was very inclined to find a way around, BUT, nothing gets in the way of Leon and his dinner so he grabbed my hand and we started walking down tiny center isle.  The sea of people split down the middle as we slowly made our way through the crowd and I could feel everyone’s gaze on us as they loudly chanted their prayers.

This all lasted for about 2 minutes (felt like an eternity) and I definitely felt like I was about to be sacrificed.

We came back later to take a look at the religious site and noticed the dozens of marble bricks surrounding the shrine.   The small bricks generally say “Thank you Mother”.

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Not too far from the Stone Gate is the pedestrian-only Tkalciceva StreetThis is a must see in Zagreb.  Not only is this street full of history and beauty as you will find old houses that are now turned into cafés; Tkalciceva Street is quite lively at night because of the bars and restaurants with outdoor seating.  This long street screams people watching potential and is probably so popular because of it.  Croatians love to see and be seen.

We settled on a cozy spot on the patio of Pivnica Mali Medo to have some Istrian beer.  Their lager was very large, very tasty and reasonably priced.

Going along with our ever prevalent patio theme, we ate dinner on the terrace at  Restaurant Agava located on Tkalciceva Street.  I suggest making a reservation if you are planning on dining during the weekend because this spot was very busy.  To eat, we opted to share a salad and the entrée chicken (which was phenomenal).  Dinner was scrumptious and the venue is extremely romantic (if you’re looking to go on a hot date).

All in all I really enjoyed Zagreb.  Don’t skip it, visit and form your own opinion about it (and learn about the history)!

A stop-over in Opatija

This is the shortest blog post of all time but I felt that Opatija needed a shout out because it’s so darn cute! Opatija looks like a little romantic Italian city and as soon as I laid eyes on this gem I instantly regretted not spending a night.

What we did

First thing we did was grab a gelato and walk down the stunning seaside promenade.  We noticed that there are no real beaches in Opatija but little sheltered bays that you can walk down a couple steps to go for a dip.

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P.S. Croatians love their speedos 

We found the stunning patio at  Restaurant Argonauli which overlooks the promenade. We had most amazing lunch ever.  It was absolutely delicious and the service was the best we received in Croatia.

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Truffles are a culinary highlight of north-western Istria.  Personally I don’t even like mushrooms and I love anything to do with Truffles.  So you can’t use that excuse not to try it!

Okay done! Told you it was short!

 

Why you MUST visit Rovinj

Rovinj a 40 Minute drive from Pula and MUST be on your list.  Rovinj is full of old-world charm with its cobblestone alleyways, local sidewalk singers, amazing gelato and the most dreamy harbor (especially when the sun is setting).

What we did:

As soon as we got there we bought a gelato from one of the many little gelato stores that line the boardwalk and made our way down the pier that is located in the center of Rovinj.  There is usually someone singing in that square so if you get lost, just follow the music!

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my iPhone photo doesn’t do it justice

We ate on the patio at Maestral, which is on the harbor located across the water from the old town.  You get a spectacular view of the town which is perched on a hill at the edge of a peninsula.  At the very top is the Church of St. Euphemia. IT IS SO PICTURESQUE. The restaurant was great too – the truffle pasta is delicious.

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here’s an unattractive photo of my half eaten ravioli

Our second night we ate at  Pian del Forno (it was average).  We chose this place because we were super hangry and in a hurry to get something to eat before the sunset.  It also was nice to sit outside.  The jumbo pizza is very jumbo indeed.

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We made our way to Valentino Cocktail and Champagne bar for a little late night bevy.  This is probably the most romantic lounge in Rovinj as you can catch a sunset as you literally sit on the waters edge. There are pretty blue lights illuminating the water from below so you can sip on your drink and catch a glance at an occasional fish swimming by.

You can walk right up to the Church of St. Euphemia. It has been notably overlooking the town since 1754 and is beautifully illuminated at night. It looks so amazing and grand it was basically life changing.

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If you don’t believe me that this place is magical yet, Rovinj has the most beautiful sunsets I have ever seen. The sun sets right over the water and lights up the whole sky. We literally drove back to Rovinj a second time so we could buy a delish bottle of Istrian wine and sit on the waters edge to soak it all in. [Side note], the wine in Istra is not commonly exported and even the most inexpensive bottle is absolutely delicious.

This place is an absolute gem.

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Exploring Pula

We toured around Pula with our little Fiat van but once you are in the center of Pula you can walk across the entire city in about 45 minutes.

What we did:

Our first stop was the Market Hall.  We literally bought the best cherries I have ever tasted IN MY LIFE (for really cheap too). We also stocked up on fresh vegetables. Has anyone ever noticed that local European tomatoes are way more vibrant red than the ones in North America and taste WAY better?  Oh, and There are also pastry shops everywhere. Don’t leave Pula without heavily indulging. Seriously.

In the main square of old town you will find the Temple of Augustus. There are a few ancient ruins littered around Pula, but this one was my favorite. There are a ton of little coffee shops to choose from in this square but go to Cvajner café! You get an unrestricted view of the Temple AND it’s super cute inside.

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The Pula Arena  is one of the most well preserved Roman amphitheaters in the world. Entrance fee is 40 Kuna but you can see everything you need to see from the street. Personally, I recommend enjoying the Arena views at Caffe Bar Scala and have a nice 9 a.m. beer (hey, the locals were doing it).

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One of the afternoons we lunched at Ambrela Lounge & Restaurant, which is about 2 km from the city.  We felt no need to venture down to the popular and sandy Ambrela Beach as we could easily people watch from the balcony above…with our bottle of wine.

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Istrian wine isn’t typically sold in Canada so Leon and I went to a local winery in Pula to try it out. We ended up choosing to go to Trapan Winery.  You really get a local feel here as the winery tasting is literally in someone’s house. It was a tad expensive at 150,000 kn for tasting five wines plus some cheese and crackers. But, that being said, I loved most of the wine and the young lady that was conducting the tasting was absolutely amazing! Not only was she extremely knowledgeable about the wine, she was extremely personable.

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Out of the City:

Our last day in Pula we decided to try and find the hidden Blue Caves at Grotte von Pula.  At first we were hoping to rent some kayaks. When we realized there were no kayaks for rent, we bought a hot pink floaty.  There’s a trail just right of the dirt parking lot that takes you to flat-ish rocks with amazing views of the crystal clear blue water.  If you keep walking you’ll see a bunch of people cliff jumping.  This is where we decided to float.  Under where people are jumping (yes, watch for falling bodies) you can take your floaty into a cave!! It is VERY dark and kind of scary, but if you go during tourist season, there is bound to be someone with a light also going in. Very cool!

Check out this handy map here!

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I had to do a separate blog post of Rovinj because I got too excited and wrote too much. View it here – seriously go, it’s only 40 minutes away from Pula.