For those who personally know me, the next sentence won’t come as a surprise, but for everyone else… I am fortunate to have been born and raised (for the first 7 years or so) just outside of Florence. My dad has been living here for several years now, and since it has been 4 years since I’ve been back to Italy, why not #1 spend some time with my dad, #2 use our home in Italy as a base to explore other European countries and #3 make the eventual trip to Thailand not such a painful one from a flight perspective:)
I know, I know, I sound totally spoiled. But I can’t help where I was born, I can only recognize how fortunate I am in many ways and most importantly to be thankful for what I am able to do and to have such an international family!!
Now that that is cleared up, I am currently still in Italy writing furiously to catch up on this blog from the years past travels so that I can write about more recent adventures and ones that are still to come:) I arrived here in Italy at the end of August (2014- I know, I’m reallyalmost caught up with blogging about my travels to present day!!!) at the Florence airport and was greeted by my dad at the airport with one of his famous “daddy” pick-ups, as we call it in my family. That is simply where he insists on parking the car so he can go into the airport and greet the new arrival from the gate, instead of waiting outside in the car for the new arrival to walk out of the airport:)
We had a lovely dinner at a pizzeria near where my dad grew up and has been going for over 40 years!! Let me just say, for the record that, in my opinion, there is no better pizza IN THE WORLD than the pizza in Italy, and more specifically the pizza in Tuscany!!! The thin crust is to die for!! Now the further South you go in Italy, the thicker the crust gets… Just a warning for those going South wondering why I’ve described the pizzas as being thin-crusted:) Oh and the ham too… I’ve never tasted better ham either (on my pizza of course!!) than in Italy!! Ok, I better stop talking about food for now… I’m making myself hungry!!
We headed to the house (about 40 Km outside of Florence) after dinner and turned in for the night. The next few months were spent catching up, hanging out, hiking in the National Park that we back onto, exploring several surrounding cities, reconnecting with Florence, a trip to the Island of Elba, going to Salzburg, Austria for a few days together (then I left to explore more of Europe on my own), entertaining some friends from Scotland, blogging (for me:)) and now we are getting ready to head out on a cruise that the family organized for my dad’s 75th birthday present!!
It’s been a busy few months for sure!! Not to mention that while I’ve been here I’ve been making sure that my dad has stayed busy making me homemade lasagna, limoncello, meat sauce, arista, crostate di more, pasta with the favorite sauce (can’t tell you the recipe it’s a family secret:)) focaccia, pasta fagioli, and on and on!! It’s a miracle I’m not obese!! Lol!! Actually, it’s not a miracle… I workout vigorously everyday to counter the calories I indulge in while here:)
Oh… I should mention I’ve cheated a teeny bit on the pictures… All are current except for the Florence pictures… They are ones from winter 2010… But in coming posts of Florence I will have pictures from this trip, I promise!! Just wanted to give you a little teaser to start;)
As my time in Glasgow was coming to an end, and since again Anna and I do enjoy a good hike, we asked Anna’s dad if we could stay a few days in his cottage in Lochgoilhead. Thankfully he said yes, and was even kind enough to let us use his truck to get there!! He and his wife also happened to be going when we were planning to go, so we got to spend one of the nights with them:)
Her dad and step-mom were already at the cottage by the time we were able to go, so we took a cab to his house, picked up the truck and headed on out. The drive there was all along normal 2-way lane roads, but just before we got to the turn-off where the road was only 1 lane (for 2 way traffic!!) with the little side pull-offs for people to pass, we stopped for a little lunch… There at the “Rest and be Thankful” landmark we had a bite to eat and I had my first taste of black pudding… Also known as blood sausage… Ick!!! Is all I have to say about that!!! I really didn’t like it at all!! Perhaps it was mainly due to me knowing what it was to begin with, I don’t know… I think it’s just one of those things you have to grow up with to actually like…!!! Anyway the “Rest and be Thankful” stop goes back from quite a long time ago! Those words are inscribed on a stone (see the pictures) placed there by soldiers who built the original military road in 1753. Apparently the original stone was destroyed and replaced by a commemorative stone instead… This point marked the turning point to get to Lochgoilhead. And after our nibble, we headed on to the village where the cottage resided.
Once we arrived and settled in for a bit, we headed off for our first hike! Again, we aren’t really the kind that prepare the way we should prepare for hikes… Honestly though we didn’t really expect the hike we ended up doing! We simply set out just behind the cottage on a trail that led to some lovely waterfalls! From there we saw some signs pointing this way and that, and thought, why not? So we headed uphill, and up and up… Eventually we came to an area that looked like it could be a good place for a ski slope in the winter! Two older people were coming down the way fully geared in proper hiking attire including ski poles, proper wind pants and hiking boots. As we passed them we stopped them and asked how long to the top? We didn’t get an exact time, but they did warn us about how wet and mucky the way up was and how windy it was at the top, and they further warned us not to go past the stile! We thanked them for their input and headed on our way, figuring that if/when it got too tough for us and our completely inept sneakers/clothing for us to continue, we would turn back!
Up and up we climbed! The slope was pretty decent, nothing really to laugh at by any means and while the land did slosh under our feet (sometimes water did sneak into the sides of my sneakers from the amount of water that pooled from some of the steps) we made it to the stile (don’t cross it!!) in good condition and basically dry.
Once at the stile there really were only two ways to go… Back down or up past the stile… Neither of us was terribly tired at this point and though the view from the stile was nice, you really couldn’t see all the way around because we were surrounded by dense forest on both sides. And since what appeared to be the top of the hill/mountain was just a little ways beyond the stile we thought, heck, why not?? So past the stile we went!
Up and up and up we climbed!! And it was during this hike that I was properly introduced to Scottish hills!!!! You see, what appears to be the top of any hill/mountain in Scotland isn’t at all the top once you actually reach it… For once you get to what you thought was the top, you realize that the top is actually just a wee bit further on… And again just a wee bit further on… And again!!! So literally we went from one “top” to another and another and another until finally what looked like would be the actual top appeared, but by that point it would probably take another hour to get to it and as it was starting to get late in the day (sun was getting lower on the horizon) we opted to give up that mountain top and do the sane and safe thing- turn back toward town! First we had to take some picts of the surroundings and later estimated that we had probably walked about 20-25 kilometers on that hike! We never could actually see on a map where the heck we went, but isn’t that part of the fun?? However, from the position that we made it to, you could see the town below, so we had at least some perspective of where we were!
We made it back to town just as the sun was setting, and after a pint in town we headed back to the cottage for a homemade meal! We watched a YES!/No Thanks debate on the tv, then headed to bed (after Anna’s step-mom cleared a rather large spider from our room!!!). The next day we rose at the rear-crack of… about 11am, lol!! Anna’s dad and Step-mom were downstairs with trail maps/paths of the area and they gave input on where we should probably go. We took their advice and around one or so (after packing something to nibble on- how sensible we became!!) headed out again for a hike. Her dad and step-mom joined us for the first half-hour or so of the hike, then headed back while we headed up the trail to the steep/climbing bits.
After the hike from the day before both Anna and I were interested and pumped to climb a hill/mountain once again!! And we thought that this particular trail would allow us to do just that… However, the trail never really led to any mountain base. It simply wound around the base of several mountains. Each time we tried to get to a base we were cut off by marshes or terrain so thick with heather/brush that who knew what was under! Finally we did come to the end of the trail that basically dead-ended on the tip of a kind of peninsula. Yet we were still quite determined to get up a hill!! The end of the trail happened to end at the base of a mountain, but the way up was quite steep! Did that stop us?? No, not really… We scaled part of some sheer rock on the side of the mountain up a little way… Then we came to our senses… That we were probably being really daft!! So we gingerly made our way back down. Seriously, the only real way to get up that particular mountain was with proper mountain climbing gear! But again, once at the base we thought surly there MUST be a way up! Anna happened to find a little sheep path, which we followed for several yards until it literally dead-ended at a drop hundreds of feet below us!! Yup, we were being daft in trying to follow the sheep path…
Again we had to give up our quest for the day and headed back. All the while that we headed back we kept looking for ways to get up a dang mountain to no avail! It was probably best though that we didn’t find one… By the time we got back (after a brief scare with some hairy coos- well I wasn’t scared but they are known to be aggressive when babies are around, and as we walked through the field one of the coos spotted us, turned and started walking toward us. I thought it odd behavior and then spotted some baby coos to the right… yea… we hustled a little bit out of that field!) it was almost dark again. We had some drinks and dinner in town then wandered back to the cottage in pitch beautiful darkness!! The kind of darkness where you can see every star!! Just wonderful!! Though Anna was scared out of her wits over walking in the dark and barely let me a few feet away from her, especially when it came time to cross the river, lol!! All in all that day, we estimated we walked about 30-35 kilometers that day! We left the next day and headed back to town (with a brief stop in the lovely town of Luss) where we had a lovely and delicious curry dinner with Anna’s mum! Good times!! 🙂
I almost forgot about the ticks!!! While at the Cottage, Anna’s step-mom left us an article about ticks… Beware the ticks when you hike!! You can get Lyme disease from them!! We laughed it off and didn’t really get bothered by the potential for ticks, though we did check ourselves for the potential of some… I never found any until a few days later when I was in Gatwick!! 4 on my arm!! Ewww… I know!! But they were babies and I plucked them out, watched for signs of Lyme disease, and luckily I can report I’m Lyme disease free!! Yay!!
Though there was lots of drinking throughout my trip to Scotland (and Glasgow was no exception) I was at least countering some of the calories I was ingesting via beer in the form of hikes! As Anna is also a big fan of hiking, we set off for Loch Lomond to take on Conic Hill!!! Markie also joined us for the day of fun!! 🙂
Now, while we are fans of hiking and walking in general, we aren’t necessarily the most organized of people… Real hard-core hikers are prepared in advance. They pack the necessities, make sure they have the right shoes, get up at the rear of dawn to make it to their destination so they can get in a good hike before lunch. Yea…. this was not us at all!! We woke around 10, made our way out of the house maybe around noon?? Left in jeans and random everyday-use sneakers. Then went to get Markie, headed to Conic Hill to climb the “mountain” (it’s really just a hill!!) got some candy bars and some water at the little store at the base of the hill, then headed on up! Actually, had it been completely up to Markie, we would have just stayed at the base where there was a little restaurant and had some whiskey and beer instead of climbing at all (he was like “you were serious about hiking??” lol!!). So after convincing him that yes, we really were going for a hike, we headed off!
Though again we kept calling our hike “a hike up a mountain” it literally was just a hill. The climb was not tough or really that steep, just cold and quite windy at the top!! The more movement we made though the warmer I felt (of course from circulating the blood) but the second we would stop, I would freeze!! It only took about 45 minutes to get to the top at a very leisurely and relaxed pace. The view from the top was splendid as you could see all across the Loch and each of the little islands in the Loch. Sadly, that particular Loch is quite popular for parties in the summer and such… I say sadly because apparently there are a lot of deaths that occur in that Loch due to people getting too drunk, then getting on their boats or trying to swim or what have you… And because of the currents/depth/clarity/size of the Loch, it’s more like people just go missing… The bodies aren’t always found:( In fact, not that long before we were there, a news report had come out that a foot had washed ashore on one of the beaches on the Loch… Joy!! It was thought to be from a case years before of a child that had apparently drown, but the body was never found…
Another interesting thing to note about Loch Lomond for those seriously into hiking and camping out during hikes… It is the start of the West Highlandway which is a 4-5 day walking camp route!! It is quite a popular route and in fact even as we were coming down off the Hill, we passed several younger people with their backpacks, yoga mats and wee tents strapped to them. Obviously they were off to tackle the West Highlandway!
For sure had it been actually warm weather I could see being interested in doing something like that… But you all already know how much of a complete wimp I am in the cold!! Good times! In any event, once we made it back down, to reward ourselves we just had to stop in for a pint and some whiskey to warm up!! Since Anna was driving though, she could only have coffee… poor thing!! Don’t worry though, she caught up to us later that evening once we ditched the car! 🙂 We hung out for a couple of hours enjoying our beverages then headed back to town for the evening festivities!
Almost forgot! On the way back we actually stopped in to visit with Anna’s dad for a few moments where we were scoffed at each time we called “Conic Hill” a “mountain” 😉 Obviously we were trying to sound tougher than we actually were and her dad knew better!! Lol!!!
The next morning thankfully turned out to be a sunny one and we prepped ourselves for the Park. As mentioned in the last post, the walk to the National Park was only about 300 meters from our hostel. As we walked toward the Park up ahead in the Park trees a bunch of the tree tops began to rustle and a deep, penetrating roar could be heard coming from the rustle… It literally reminded me of a scene from Jurassic Park with a T-Rex about to emerge from the dense forest, roaring as it did!! It was a little unnerving until I was informed that it was only a Howler Monkeys making the noise and that there was nothing to fear. When we arrived at the entrance (about 8am) there were already a ton of tourist groups lined up in various places getting their troops together to enter the Park. B, A and I purchased our tickets (again $10 for tourists though this time I paid with colones and paid less than $10… perhaps it was because of the current daily exchange rate that the Parks do pay attention to) and entered the Park.
A few things we were told through the grape-vine about the Park prior to entering was #1 do not hire a private tour guide as many other tourists do this so you can always “bum” in their tours by simply looking where their tour guide is pointing to find something interesting and #2 go off the beaten path when possible away from the rest of the tourists and you will be guaranteed to see much more!
Keeping that information in mind we set in our walk without a guide. Both pieces of advice above came in great handy as alone the main path of the Park several tour guides had already set up shop with their binoculars on tripods pointing out insects and crabs to their hired tourists or pointing high in the trees sharing interesting information on a particular plant or tree. Luckily for us, B was a botanist (there is actually a more accurate name for his title, I just can’t recall what it is… Sorry B!! But I do know that his work involves cataloging every species of plant and tree!) and he knew just about everything there was to know about every plant so in a sense we already had a fabulous guide for that portion.
We made our way along the path sighting many spiders, a scorpion eating a wasp, a variety of crabs hidden in a variety of clever places, a toucan (YAY!!!) and lizards!!
At a certain point we came across a point of crossroads where we could either go straight, right or scootch our way around the “closed” sign of a path to our left… Well of course we chose the path to our left!! 😉 The path was closed because it hadn’t been groomed recently, but it didn’t bother us at all. We made our way up the path to a quiet area where no sounds except that of nature could be heard. It was amazingly blissful!! So quiet with only the sound of the wind rustling gently through the trees. It is quite an amazing thing to stop and just listen to the beauty of nature!! We stayed there for a bit taking in the sounds until some new sound caught my attention high in the trees. Of course curiosity took over good sense as I followed the noise only to spot my first Howler Monkey!!!!!
Such amazing creatures!! These small, black monkeys with faces so familiar in human features and hands even more so familiar are just an incredible sight to take in!! They travel in troops usually anywhere from about a dozen to a dozen and a half! There is only one alpha male of the group and the rest are females or young males and it’s also pretty common to find a new mom in the troop as well. Their hands and feet, as well as the underside of about the last 6 inches of their tail do not have any fur on them so they can easily grip surfaces. The roar of the alpha male can be heard from great distances around! I have since found out that they only roar early in the morning or to announce to another approaching troop that they are coming too close to their territory, or if rain is approaching!
As I gazed above me in wonder, they simply gazed right back wondering what it was I was up to! I of course took a few photos and kept my voice low as I called my friends over to see them as well and then we continued up and up and up the path again passing many other lizards and even an Agouti or a Tapir that ran off too fast to take pictures of (hence why I’m not entirely sure which it was exactly… but it was definitely a land mammal). The path ended on a platform at what seemed like the top of the world!! Though it wasn’t a 360 degree view, it was still magnificent!! You could clearly see the bay below and the jutting rocks that formed it, as well as a little cave carved into the rock, as well as the land clear south of us all the way to what we speculated to be the Oso Peninsula!!
After several pictures we headed back down the path to the main portion passing many other tourists who had also opted to take the “unbeaten” path. Now sadly, it was about this time that the batteries in my camera started to fail… I was able to get a picture or two in, but then would have to shut the camera down, take the batteries out to rest for several minutes then reload them and pray they would work again for a few more pictures!!
There are about 5 walking trails in the Manuel Antonio National Park and we ended up taking each of them to their various destinations. Along another path of interest, we came across a tourist and his young son. They were surrounded by a large troop of Capuchin Monkeys!! The Capuchin monkeys are most famously recognized from their white faces and black bodies, as well as their “star” quality. They can be seen in movies such as Outbreak and the Hangover Part II, as well as in the TV show Friends. Now I don’t advocate the use of wild animals for our entertainment, nor was I thrilled about the scene we had encountered. Despite the Park rules that warned to NOT FEED THE ANIMALS this father was blatantly ignoring them as he and his young son continued to offer the monkeys a variety of fruits. While it was quite an amazing feeling to have so many monkeys coming at you and around you in every direction all trying to get their piece of fruit, I opted to remove myself from the center as I do not agree with feeding wild animals, and this next bit is part of the reason why: At one point the young son was trying to offer one of the monkeys a piece of fruit. The monkey was quite reluctant to simply take the piece of fruit from the boy’s hand, so it didn’t. The boy, probably too young to understand the wrong in his behavior and not being told otherwise from his dad, continued to push his arm forward toward the monkey, trying to entice it to take the fruit. A few moments later, the monkey had had enough and literally slapped the outstretched hand of the boy away and screeched!! The father finally stepped in and told the boy to no longer feed the monkeys and they headed away.
Wild animals are wild folks, and should remain that way!! We have no business interfering with their nature and even less business trying to tame them. Ok, I’ve said my peace on that topic for now… moving on!
This particular path ended at a magnificent lagoon-like beach!! Unlike the black sands of Manuel Antonio beaches in the “city”, this beach had white powdered sand!! Hermit crabs were everywhere by the hundreds as well as a variety of crabs once again. Sadly, myself nor my two companions had realized there were beaches in the Park to swim in, so none of us had our suits on to be able to swim!! So for all of you out there who are planning to visit the Park, please take that bit of advice as your #3 lesson:)
We hung around this beach for a bit wading around the water and taking pictures (camera battery pending) and then started to head toward the exit. The exit path went right along another large and lengthy beach portion that once again made me “tisk” at myself for not thinking to bring a suit. Many tourists were lined on the beach taking in the sun and enjoying the water. We even spotted some caper bandits (i.e. raccoons) going through some tourist bags that were left on the beach for some goodies they could eat.
All in all we had already spent about 4 hours walking around the Park, so each of us were ready at this point to exit and get something to eat and of course a cold brew.
When we reached the exit, we were greeted by a few men with little row boats. Indeed the only way to exit the Park (unless you were willing to walk ALL the way back to the main entrance) was to cross a little river, too deep to wade through (another reason the suit would have come in handy!!) for $1.00 a piece! With no other real choice we all paid and took the maybe 15 meter boat ride back to the “main land” and headed back to the hostel.
The rest of this day was spent simply relaxing, enjoying good food and of course some good beer on the beach!! It was quite a nice ending to a fantastic Park day! It was during this afternoon that B, A and I shared our plans for the next day. “A” had only a few more days in Costa Rica and planned to spend them in Montezuma (on the tip of the Nicoyo Peninsula). “B” opted to spend his remaining days in Costa Rica in Manuel Antonio, and I planned to continue heading South to Uvita.
Dropped off at the airport around 3am, my journey was about to begin. I hadn’t slept entirely well the night before due to many factors really- nerves, had I packed enough?, ideas of what may lay ahead, but most of all fear that I wouldn’t be allowed in the Country to begin with…
Let me explain: all the online posts I had read pertaining to traveling to Costa Rica stated that you had to have proof of leaving the Country prior to entering. In other words a bus ticket or a return plane ticket showing that you were going to be leaving within 90 days of arrival. I had no such proof. I had only purchased a one-way ticket there.
What I had later learned is that many airlines- Spirit, Air Mexico, etc will not allow you to purchase a one-way ticket online. Or if they do, once you arrive at the airport you get slapped with the happy news that you have to pony up some more money for a return ticket… kinda sneaky if you ask me, but the good news or best advice rather if you find yourself in that scenario is to simply buy a refundable ticket and cancel it after printing your proof of a return flight.
One example of the kind of trouble one may run into without a return ticket from CR was of a couple who flew in to Miami (as part of the journey to CR) then were denied bording access to the plane to CR because they didn’t have a return flight! They ended up having to get back to the ticket sales desk, only to find one airline open, purchase a ticket, haul back through security and get on the plane in the nick of time!
Though I was nervous about not having a return flight, I said to myself that if I wasn’t meant to go to Costa Rica, then I would have complications getting in. If not, well then that was just one more sign that I was supposed to go.
The flight was quite pleasant as I slept for most of the time. I traveled on US Air and made one of the best last minute travel purchases while on a flight: a sleep pack that included a little blanket, air pillow, eye mask and ear plugs all condensed in the size of… well frankly this little 10″ netbook I’m currently working on:) It has come in handy time and time again!
My most nerve-wracking moment was when I arrived at the San Jose airport (which btw folks isn’t actually located in San Jose, but rather Alajuela- but I will speak more about that later). Would I get past Immegration with only a one-way ticket??? Indeed I did:)