Lisbon, Portugal

August 12-13:

On the way back to the United States in between Venice and New York City, we had an overnight layover in Lisbon, Portugal. We deliberately chose the flight that had the longest layover (just about 24 hours) so that we could get out of the airport and stay overnight in the city for a tiny taste of Portugal!

Lisbon from the air at sunset

Food in Lisbon

After a quick stop at our hotel, we were excited to get out into the city and check out the local food and drink! Portugal in general is well-known for its seafood – particularly the region where Lisbon is located as it’s so close to the Atlantic ocean. As such, we walked down the street to a restaurant near our hotel and grabbed some seafood!

Local-caught cod fish – a Lisbon specialty
Delicious orange soda!

We were also able to find a breakfast restaurant nearby the next morning that seems to be a favorite with both the locals as well as with the travelers passing through.

A breakfast restaurant!
Delicious breakfast in Lisbon

Being in Portugal for such a short time, we weren’t able to check out the local sights and sounds as much as we wanted to. We’d love to come back one day and check out more of this beautiful country. Portugal is a hot-spot for American expats these days, and with good reason. It’s beautiful, safe, and relatively cheap! Hoping to one day be able to visit longer!

Sights around Lisbon

Lisbon is hilly! This is a public-transportation elevator to help you get up the San-Francisco-esque hills
These trolleys were everywhere! Graham was in paradise, and we bought a tiny replica trolley to bring home as a souvenir.
Lisbon at night

A couple of interesting things that stand out in Lisbon: First, the 25 de Abril Bridge. It looks just like the Golden Gate bridge in San Francisco! Interestingly, it’s known as the “sister bridge” to the Golden Gate, and was even built by the same company. Check out the picture below to see what I mean. Also in the picture below, notice the statue rising above the trees just to the left of the bridge. It was inspired by the “Christ the Redeemer” statue in Portugese-colonized Brazil. It was built overlooking the city after World War 2 to express gratitude from being spared from any direct impact from the war. Things like this make the city of Lisbon a gem hidden in plain sight.

Next stop – home!

Venice, Italy

August 8-12:

Buckle in – our stay in Venice was the longest segment of our trip, and as such this is our longest post. That’s probably why it’s taken us so long to finish writing!

Venice – our final destination of our summer 2021 travels (not counting a short layover in Portugal!). We were able to stay in Venice longer than any other location of this trip for a total of 5 days. This was by design, for it was here that we decompressed and began to process all that we were able to see and experience through the duration of the summer.

We caught a high-speed train from Rome up through Bologna to the ultimate destination of Venice. I specifically chose a train that had a 15 minute layover in Bologna with the goal of slipping out of the station and grabbing some Bolognese food to-go to enjoy on the rest of the journey. We couldn’t travel through the food-capital of the world without stopping for a quick bite! Unfortunately, 15 minutes isn’t enough time for a typical Italian restaurant to prepare food. So around 45 minutes away from Bologna, we hopped on the Doordash app and ordered Bolognese food with delivery to just outside of the train station. Delivering to the train station itself would have been madness as it was so large – finding the driver would have been too much of a challenge. So instead, we delivered to a random person’s house just outside of the station and kindly requested that our Doordash driver not ring their doorbell, but just wait outside instead. We have no idea if they actually rang the doorbell, but we could tell that they were quite surprised to see 2 Americans who couldn’t speak Italian frantically running from across the street instead of from inside the house! Despite the crazy circumstances and almost missing our train, we were able to chow down on some delicious Bolognese food in the train as we settled in for the trip to Venice – and we only had a couple of people in the city of Bologna think we were crazy (a record-low compared to the rest of our trip!).

Graham’s “no doorbell” request 🙂

We arrived in Venice just in time to catch the sun set over the canals.

Sunset over Venice canals


We stayed in an AirBnB studio in a quieter section of Venice, away from much of the tourist hubbub. It had a giant window that opened up to a quiet canal that branched off of one of the main thoroughfares. The AirBnB was a small studio-style apartment with a window-sill wide enough for us to sit on and watch the boats go by every few minutes while sipping coffee or enjoying a good book.

Canal-side window that could open up!
A window-sill just big enough to sit on and enjoy watching the boats float by.
View from the window-sill

As picturesque as this view was, along with the majority of the sights you commonly see around Venice in photos/videos, it was here that we learned a dirty little secret about Venice that you don’t commonly hear about. Since the founding of Venice as a city up until the current day, it has always struggled with the problem of what to do with sewage. Where should it go? These buildings were build on swampy marshland hundreds of years ago. To build a modern sewage system now would require the destruction of historic buildings and would likely cost billions of dollars.

Because of this issue, most buildings in Venice pipe their sewage directly into the canals! As the tide washes in and out of the lagoon twice per day, it effectively “flushes out” the canals. The city has tried band-aiding the problem by installing septic tanks here and there, but the vast majority of the city doesn’t use this system, and still dumps directly into the canals. As a result of this, there are what are known as “canal bugs” all over the sides of the canals. We noticed these little bugs after just a few minutes of sitting out on our AirBnB’s windowsill as they crawled up to give us a proper welcome to Venice. We didn’t spend too much time out there afterwards.

After we learned about this, a tiny piece of us died inside whenever we saw a tourist wading or putting their feet in the canal water.

Sites Around Venice

Despite this crazy fact, Venice is truly a lovely city. We absolutely loved the romantic strolls along the canal-side paths, ducking into shops or simply sitting in squares to people-watch.

Wandering through the maze of canals
The small alleyway next to our AirBnB
Lizzie making a new friend!
Walkways at dusk. Even at night, it’s a super safe city to walk through even if you’re alone!
Lizzie enjoying the view from the main island
Canals everywhere!

Even though it’s such a touristy city, there were still quiet parts that were purely residential. It was amazing how the city holds on to its traditional charm even in the midst of so many crowds of tourists.

Residential streets
A mask shop!

Masks are a huge part of the traditional culture of Venice. Every year there is a huge festival where everyone dons masks. To help supply the city, nearly every corner had a mask shop full of creative handmade masks!

Inside a local mask shop

As with any city in Italy, the food scene was remarkable in Venice. While we didn’t get too many pictures of the food here, the majority of the local dishes consist of fish! And as with any city in Italy, Lizzie had to sample the local gelato scene as well.

Some local gelato!
Canals of Venice
Canals of Venice
Canals of Venice
Canals of Venice
Canals of Venice
Canals of Venice
Canals of Venice

St Mark’s Square

This way to St Mark’s Square!

One of the most famous plazas in Venice is St. Mark’s Square. If you’ve ever been to Las Vegas, it’s what the Venetian/Palazzo hotels are themed after. It was nice not having slot machines and cigarette smoke in this version of St Mark’s Square though!

St Mark’s Square
St Mark’s Square
St Mark’s Square
St Mark’s Square

The square is surrounded by beautiful architecture, a church, a clock tower, and numerous cafes – nearly each of them pitching to passersby with live music. It was the perfect place to sit for a while and do what Lizzie and I love to do – people watch, talk, and reflect.

Our cafe of choice!

We decided to pick a cafe and get something small to share to just sit and enjoy the square for a bit. Knowing that most folks do this, the cafe owners in St Mark’s Square charge huge amounts ($15-20 USD) for bottles of water and cups of coffee. So we opted for a cheaper (roughly $5) plate of tiramisu to share together.

View from the cafe in St Mark’s Square
Our tiramisu and (free) water! Totally worth it to sit and enjoy the atmosphere for a bit.

The Boats of Venice

Venice doesn’t have any cars – just boats. In fact, even if there were cars on the islands, there would be no place for them to go! Every “street” is made of water. The delivery trucks, ambulances, and garbage trucks were all boats. There aren’t even any bikes on the islands! Your options for commuting are walking, or riding/piloting a boat. If you needed to haul anything such as groceries, you’d use a little hand cart and maneuver it up and over the canal bridges to get from point A to point B.

The garbage truck boat motoring by our AirBnB
Water bus in the middle, gondolas docked on the left.

Everything in Venice was masterfully built for boats. Even the modern airport on the mainland had a huge docking area for the water buses and taxis to ship passengers back and forth to the islands.

A resident commuting

The water-based public transportation system is actually super efficient and a great way to get around. It’s comprised of “water buses” that travel from island to island, or inter-island down some of the larger canals. If you wanted to get somewhere specific, you could call one of the water taxis.

Riding on a public water bus through one of the main thoroughfares

The water taxi’s were one of my favorite parts of Venice. These are absolutely beautiful boats! I later learned that they were made of African mahogany that was polished to a reflective shine, and the engines were made by Rolls Royce. Each boat costs over $200K, which helps explain why the taxi operators charge what they do for a taxi ride. We were content to just stand on the shore and admire from afar!

Venice water taxi
Venice water taxi – beautiful!
Venice water taxi

Gondolas are not widely used for transportation in Venice. In fact, they’re primarily used for tourists to see Venice from a different perspective. It’s also not very common to have gondola operators sing to you as you float through the canals. Now that we’ve got those Hollywood lies out of the way, I have to say that it was awesome seeing these beautiful boats everywhere we went in Venice.

Each gondola is unique. The operator often spends their entire working lives as gondola operators. As such, when it’s time for them to buy their boat early in their career, they get the opportunity to make sure it has unique carvings/paintings to make it their own. Even the oar that they use is custom-made for their body size.

Our gondola!

Lizzie and I decided to spend one of our final evenings in Venice together on a gondola ride. We really enjoyed it – it was so special to be in a city like Venice on a gondola that we felt like we were dreaming the whole time. Our gondola operator had been doing this for 20 years and happily showed us different restaurants and shops that he grew up going to and highly recommended.

Riding on a gondola
Riding on a gondola
Riding past St Mark’s Square!
Falling in love with each other all over again, while the gondola guy third-wheeled!


The metro-area of Venice is made up of quite a few different islands. Aside from Venice proper, two of the more popular ones are Murano and Burano. You can easily get to both islands via public transportation (water buses), and both islands have similar canal-heavy layouts as the island of Venice.

Murano has been known for centuries to be one of the glass-making hubs of the world. The folks on this island are proud of this fact. We learned that some of the most popular chandeliers in the Palace of Versailles in France were made here in Murano! Today, walking through its canal-side streets, you’d think the city never changed from those origins. Nearly every shop had something to do with brilliant craftsmanship in glass – whether that was glass blowing, painting, sculpting, or anything in between.

Murano glass shop
Murano canals
Glass mosaic craft shop in Murano
Handmade glass mosaics in Murano


The nearby island of Burano is also known for a specific type of craft: Lace! While Burano was a bit smaller than Murano, and quite a bit further from Venice, it’s still a great place to walk around and duck into local shops. Each shop had something to do with locally made lace. Lizzie got a runner for our dining room table here – something small enough to fit in our backpacks for the final days of our trip.

Welcome to Burano!
Burano handmade lace
Burano lace shop
Burano lace shop

In addition to the lacemaking, Burano is also known for its colorful buildings. Legend has it that the fishermen in Burano painted their houses such bright colors to help them see the island on misty days. Today, the colorful hues are a huge draw for tourists like us. We loved walking through the quiet canal-side streets admiring the brightly colored homes.

Colorful homes in Burano
Colorful homes in Burano
Colorful houses in Burano
Colorful houses in Burano

Final Thoughts

Venice was much bigger than we originally thought it would be. Originally, we thought it would take just a few minutes to walk from one side of the island to another. In reality, it often took more than an hour of walking to get to the end of the island. We didn’t even know there were other islands such as Murano and Burano that were a part of the city as well.

The system of boats and canals actually works really well. I’d love to see this type of infrastructure adopted in other seaside places. It was so interesting – the folks who lived in Venice and boated everywhere they went just looked at that as a normal way of life. To us, it seems so novel. To them, it’s business as usual – driving a car everywhere you go is what’s novel to them!

We absolutely loved Venice. It was romantic, relaxing, and refreshing to spend so much time there together at the very end of our trip. We can’t wait to hopefully go back together again one day soon. Until then, ciao venezia!

Farewell Italy!
Off to Lisbon for a brief layover before the transatlantic flight back home

Rome, Italy

August 5-8:

Our second-to-last stop in Italy was Rome! We were lucky enough to have found a wonderful AirBnB near many of the major sights and sounds of Rome. The AirBnB was nestled in a tiny space, but the layout felt like something straight out of an architectural magazine. Even though it was small, it felt huge and was perfect for relaxing in after nearly 2 months of travel and long walks through Rome during the day.

Our AirBnB base of operations in Rome
Our AirBnB base of operations in Rome

Trevi Fountain

In reading about Rome before arriving, we had read that the Trevi Fountain was best seen at nighttime, both to beat (some of) the crowds as well as to see the fountain fully lit up. To our surprise, our AirBnB was only a 7 minute walk from the fountain! After we arrived, we quickly dropped off our bags at our AirBnB and went out for an evening stroll to see the fountain.

Trevi Fountain at night – no crowds, right!?
Zoomed out a bit – oh there are the crowds!
Trevi Fountain

According to popular Roman legend, tossing a coin into this fountain means that you will return to Rome at some point in your life. We couldn’t pass up an opportunity as great as that!


One of the stops that we were most excited for in Rome was the mighty Coliseum. This was technically Lizzie’s second time seeing the Coliseum after her high school choir trip, but she loved seeing it again. We hopped on some Lime bikes and made our 15 minute bike ride from our AirBnB over to the site of the Coliseum. As with most cities in Europe, the streets of Rome seemed to be set up well for bike riders. It felt both safe and was just a lot of fun watching the city blur by from the seat of a bike – although for future reference, standard rentable scooters/bike don’t fare too well over the rough cobblestone streets of old cities such as Rome!

The scale of the Coliseum is impressive even for today’s standards. We tried picturing ourselves in ancient Rome, perhaps being from the countryside and traveling to the city of Rome for the first time. How absolutely in awe we would have been at buildings such as the Coliseum. It must have truly been a marvel in its day! The might of the Roman Empire illustrated by one structure.

We opted for the Rick Steve’s self-guided tour here again, and were humbled as we read about the histories of the Coliseum as we walked through. This place was a graveyard for so many unwilling souls and as much as it illustrated the might of the Roman Empire, it also showed just how brutal it was as well.

Inside the Coliseum
Inside the Coliseum

After our trip to the Coliseum, we went back to our AirBnB and watched the movie The Gladiator. It was Lizzie’s first time seeing it, and we loved seeing the same sights in the movie that we just saw in real life. It was a great reminder too of how many lives were lost here – historic brutality that we don’t want to forget as time continues barreling forward lest history repeat itself again someday.

Roman Forum

Right next to the Coliseum, and with entry included in the same tickets that we used for the Coliseum, the Roman Forum ruins stood in all of their former glory. These now-ruins were the heartbeat of the Roman Empire, with emperor’s residences, areas of political discourse, and temples all in one central area. Today, there are excavated ruins that you can walk through. We continued our trusty Rick Steve’s self-guided tour through the ruins.

Ruins in the Roman Forum with Latin engraving
Ancient Roman Forum ruins

While we were here, we ran into a family where one person was wearing an App State University t-shirt! We stopped to talk with them, and we learned that it just so happened that they lived no more than 15 minutes down the road from us in Harrisburg, NC. What are the odds of that!? We bonded over how much we all missed Chickfila right there in the middle of the Roman Forum.

Sites around Rome

The Pantheon! We couldn’t go inside due to COVID restrictions (we had to reserve a spot several days in advance)
Arch of Constantine
“Altar of the Fatherland” – an Italian World War 1 monument
The modern mixed with the ancient
A Rome specialty and one of our favorite meals of the trip – Carbonara
Lizzie’s Crema Di Caffè and Graham’s Tartufo!

Vatican City

St Peter’s Square, Vatican City

During our time in Rome, we decided to stop through the Vatican City! Technically its own micro-country, Vatican City sits right in the middle of the city of Rome. It is one of the top pilgrimage sites for Catholic church members, and is a huge tourist destination for tourists like us as well.

My original rather-naive thoughts were that the city just held offices for the Catholic church, and the residence for the pope, and not much else. To my surprise, there was quite a bit to see here.

Vatican City holds one of the largest art and history collections in the world, and its museums are sprawling. In addition to these museums, there is the St Peter’s Basilica, a few restaurants, and St Peter’s Square. We loved walking around and seeing all there was to see!

Inside the Vatican City

The museums here contained so many artifacts from all over the world. The example in the picture below is a bronze pot over 3000 years old…BC! Something that was 5000 years old, right there in front of us. Wow!

5000 years old! Wild!
A hallway full of ancient tapestries
Overlooking Rome from the museums of Vatican City
Stairs leading out of the museums

St Peters Basilica

Next to the museums, and still within the bounds of the Vatican City was St Peter’s Basilica. To this day, this is still the largest church in the world. And it’s also home to the Sistine Chapel!

Inside St Peter’s Basilica

To give you an idea of the scale of this building, check out the gold lettering at the top of the perimeter of the picture above, near the ceiling. That banner of lettering was over 7 feet tall!

St Peters Basilica

Most buildings like this use smaller bricks/statues/etc near the top of the walls and ceiling to give you the perspective that the building is larger than it actually is. In this case however, the builders made everything larger the higher up on the walls you went, to give you the perspective that this huge and intimidating building was actually quite snug and intimate! The statues on the top of the picture above are several feet taller than the statues on the bottom of the picture. Crazy!

They say that Peter, the disciple of Jesus, who brought Christianity to Rome-has his remains buried in this church 23 feet under the marble floor. A gold banner above reads in Latin, “You are Peter and upon this rock I will build my church, and to you I will give the keys of the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 16:18).

Also according to tradition, the Basilica is over the exact spot that Peter was killed 1,900 years ago. Emperor Nero had him arrested and killed. Peter was going to be crucified like Jesus, but Peter did not feel worthy to die like his Lord- so he was nailed on a cross upside down. The exact spot is roped off for prayer. So we did some praying and were able to see it.

St Peters Basilica
St Peters Basilica – absolutely massive!

Unfortunately we weren’t allowed to take any pictures or videos inside of the Sistine Chapel which was connected to St Peters Basilica. We spent a solid 20 minutes there though staring up at Michelangelo’s handiwork, listening to the loudspeaker bellow every few minutes, “No photo! No video!” We begrudgingly complied.

Visiting Rome has always been on my bucket list, and Lizzie was thrilled to have a second opportunity to see this city again. Rome reminded us of how finite and fleeting life is as we saw the ruins of the Roman Empire around us at every turn – what is here today will not always be. In this spirit of the shortness of life, we hope that the legend of the Trevi Fountain is true and that we find ourselves back in the streets of Rome again one day in the future together!

Pompeii and the Amalfi Coast, Italy

August 2-5:

After the simple pleasures of the Italian countryside, we caught a train from Spello to the Naples metropolitan region – the highest populated in all of Italy. We stayed on the other side of the mountain range bordering Naples in a fast-growing city called Salerno.


Salerno is a coastal town that sits just southeast of Naples. In between Salerno and Naples is the famous Amalfi Coast, so we thought this would be a great base of operations for us to explore the area. Salerno itself seems to have become a wonderful area to visit in its own right over the years, however. We found the city to be bustling with the international life you normally find only in large cities (we grabbed a snack at an Irish pub, and picked up some groceries at a Chinese grocery store).

While most of Salerno seems to be new and growing quickly, we set up camp in an AirBnB in the “Old Town” district of the city, about a 15 minute walk from the coast. We were fortunate enough to have a wonderful balcony overlooking Old Town and the broad sea in the distance – it was mesmerizing watching the giant cargo ships come and go into the city port at all hours of the day.

From our AirBnB looking over “Old Town” with the Mediterranean sea on the horizon
The streets of Salerno with the coast in the distance
Artwork on the walls of Old Town in Salerno

As with most parts of Italy, echoes of the Roman Empire are everywhere. On Atlas Obscura (a fun website that helps you find quirky/unique things in locations around the world), we discovered that there was an ancient Roman aqueduct just steps away from our AirBnB in Salerno!

An ancient Roman empire-era aqueduct
An ancient Roman empire-era aqueduct
An ancient Roman empire-era aqueduct – right in the middle of the city!


One of the sites that we were most excited to see in all of Italy were the ruins of the city of Pompeii. From Salerno, it was only a quick 20 minute train through the mountains to the main entrance of this ancient city.

Pompeii is what’s currently known as a typical middle-class city of the ancient Roman Empire. It was covered in hot ash from the volcanic eruption of Mt Vesuvius in 79 A.D. As such, the city was perfectly preserved for thousands of years until it was excavated. There are parts of the city that are still being excavated to this day!

A partial map of the giant ruins of Pompeii. We used this Rick Steve’s walking tour to guide us!

One of the things we quickly discovered about Pompeii is just how huge it is! I was expecting a few ruins here and there, but as we walked in we saw the sheer scale of the parts of the city that had been excavated. Grids, boulevards, homes, restaurants. Perfectly preserved as it was that fateful day in 79 A.D.

The main gate into the city.
The original street stones – the same ones that chariots rolled over and Roman citizens also walked!
2,000 year-old painted plaster on the walls of shops and homes

We were also struck by just how far ahead of the time the Roman Empire was during this era. The technology they created, the ideas they manifested, and the inventions that were thought up still impact our daily life today 2,000 years into the future. Pictures below document some of these things, including how the Romans used reflective material to see the sidewalk while carrying torches at night:

Reflective stones to see the sidewalk when walking with torches at night

This is a fast food shop – one of many throughout the city. Yes, you read that right – fast food! The shopkeepers would put big vats of food in the openings in the counter that you see below, and customers would be quickly served a bowlful while they stood and scarfed down the food so as to not be late to meetings or ceremonies. At night, a garage-door style grate would roll down and the shop would be closed, something you still see in shops and restaurants to this day.

This little groove in front of the fast food joint was where the gate would close at night – identical to shops that we have in today’s day and age.

Something we found absolutely fascinating was that they figured out traffic flow systems for their busy streets. In the below picture, you notice a few things. First, the crosswalk of 3 stones. This gave a way for pedestrians to walk across the street without getting their feet wet if it rained. It also created a 2-way traffic flow for chariots as they bustled through the city. The wheels would go on either side of the stones. As you can tell in the screenshot below, heavy loads could also be dragged through and take up the whole lane – in this case leaving 2,000 year old indentions in the stone!

With these stones however, the Romans were able to designate which streets were pedestrian-only, one-way traffic, two-way traffic, or open boulevards. On the sides of the road the pedestrian sidewalks were raised up to hide the plumbing as well. Yes – plumbing in the first century. So cool!

This crosswalk designated a two-way street! Imagine chariots rolling over the stone on the far right and far left in either direction.
A one-way street – notice the stone in the middle for the chariots to roll over?

Additional Pompeii Pictures

Some more pictures of our walking tour below. We followed along with the Rick Steve’s self-guided tour, and eavesdropped here and there on passing tour groups.

The ruins of an old temple
This was the cavernous hall of a church at one point (see the remnants of the pillars lining the outside walls?)
How some of the pillars were made – brick covered in a marble mixture. Others were carved from pure marble.
The entryway to someone’s house
Another beautiful entryway to someone’s house!
This was the final moment of a real human caught in the eruption.
That mountain the background is Mt Vesuvius ominously appearing over the entire city
An old mural of Alexander the Great in the ruins of a rich family’s house
A well-preserved mural in a family house
A theater where philosophy was discussed, plays were conducted, and where the city generally came together

The Amalfi Coast

After Pompeii, we took a ferry from Salerno up the beautiful Amalfi coast to Positano, a picturesque town sitting directly on the coast.

The ferry ride up the Amalfi coast
The city of Amalfi from the water!
The Amalfi coast

This entire region of Italy was gorgeous. The homes, roads, and shops were built directly into the mountains overlooking the Mediterranean. The buildings were often painted a bright color, and it was common to see lemon trees full of lemons.

Positano, Italy

We loved strolling through the streets and looking out over the colorful houses into the bay where sailboats and luxury yachts were moored. We were reminded here just how far we had traveled in this trip. From the frigid below-freezing temperatures of Iceland to the humid warmth of the Italian coastline. What a journey! And how in the world can you pack for those temperature differences in one single backpack!? It was certainly a struggle, but we somehow managed to make it!

It was on the way back to Salerno from Positano that we decided to take a regional bus, thinking it would be a quick and easy way to hop back to our AirBnB. It’s here that I’ll break from my perspective and call in Lizzie to share her point of view on how that bus ride went:

Lizzie here! It was dark now and no more boats were running, so we couldn’t go back the way we came. We found a bus route and bought some bus tickets at a local tobacco shop. We took one bus from Positano to Amalfi. This bus was slammed and had people packed in like sardines. The bus driver almost didn’t let us on, but opened the side door where we had just enough space to step on the first step where the door could just close and we stood there for the duration of the drive smashed up against the glass door with little to hold onto as the bus driver zoomed around every twist and turn. We then transferred to yet another bus from Amalfi up to Maiori (another small town along the coast).

This bus did have enough seats for us, but the ride was equally as miserable. The roads were so curvy and I should also add that the bus drivers run a tight schedule and rarely slow down. It felt like we were on a fair ride. Now unfortunately, we don’t enjoy fair rides all too well. To set the scene, we were sitting close to the back, not much air flow, I was hunched over with my hands over my eyes as I tried not to throw up. We miraculously make it to Maiori without throwing up and spent about an hour there where we enjoyed the solid ground, the breeze, dipped our feet in the water and watched the sunset.

It was about 9:30pm now and we still had one more bus to take. Unfortunately, there was no other option but to take the bus back. I didn’t want to get back on that miserable twisty “ride”, but I also wanted to get back to our Airbnb and sleep. The bus only comes every hour and was scheduled to arrive soon. We stood at the bus stop as we saw it approach. The bus slowed down just enough for the bus driver to gesture “no” as he continued to drive on. The bus was full and refused to stop and pick up anymore passengers. We stood there with our tickets in hand shocked. There was only one more bus scheduled for that night at 10:30.

Disappointed, we sat back down on the bench and prayed the next one would let us on. We called a couple taxi drivers as a backup and got an 80€ quote vs a 4€ bus ticket. We would do that if we absolutely had to, but we decided to wait for an hour and take the chance the last bus would let us on.

There was a group of college girls from Ireland that also tried to get on the 9:30 bus. They sat at the stop with us waiting for the next bus to arrive. We had a great conversation with them as we waited. It turned out one of the girls from Dublin had some connections to North Carolina. Her mom went to Duke and her dad used to own an Irish pub in Charlotte. What a small world!

Finally, the 10:30 bus arrived and had enough room for all of us to get on! We were so glad the bus stopped, but now we had another hour and a half of misery. One of the Irish girls got sick and threw up. Luckily she came prepared with a brown bag and threw it away at the next stop before hopping back on.

I didn’t think I would make it. It was the most miserable ride I have ever been on! The original plan was to come back to Maiori the next day via bus and do a hike along some lemon groves. How wonderful that would have been, I told Graham there was no way I would ever get on another Amalfi coast bus.

We finally made it back to our Salerno AirBnB around midnight and fell fast asleep almost as soon as we walked in!

Salerno, Pompeii, and the Amalfi coasts were certainly highlights of our trip. We would definitely love to come back to this beautiful part of the Italian country one day, except next time we may just pass on the city bus!

Spello, Italy

July 31-August 2:

After Assisi, we took a train just 20 minutes south to Spello.

Waiting at train stations – our view for most of the trip!

Spello is a village of roughly 8,000 people, and is too small to be known as either a “town” or “city”. It sits atop a mountain with amazing views of one of the best wine and olive growing regions in the world.

Spello is famous for an annual festival that has happened every year for nearly 1,000 years known as “Infiorate di Spello”. It’s a village-wide flower festival! Every family decks out the patios and entryways of their homes with flowers of every color. The winners get plaques that they can display with pride on the walls of their home facing the street for all passers-by to see.

A house that has won awards for their flowers every year. Notice all of the plaques they’re proudly displaying on the side of the staircase?
A 2021 winner!
Flower delivery truck in Spello
The quiet streets of Spello
The quiet streets of Spello
The streets of Spello overlooking the vineyards and olive groves

Our Spello AirBnB Gatti

We were able to stay in a quiet AirBnB owned by a family where the grandma still lives full-time on the other side of the shared courtyard. To Graham’s delight, there was a little family of cats that also lived in this courtyard.

Lizzie eventually came around and fell in love as well. Unfortunately, being that we only had backpacks, we weren’t able to take them home with us.

After attempting to eat our dinner in the courtyard and having all four cats essentially beg for our food during the entire meal, we finally broke and decided to make the cats some food as well. What a couple of pushovers! All we had from a recent grocery visit were a dozen eggs, and what do you know? Kittens love scrambled eggs! We served their gourmet meal on a premium cutting board. Only the finest.

Slowing down, enjoying Spello

One of the things that we learned from the French culture before even entering Italy was to simply slow down and not always be in a rush. We learned that it’s a part of their culture to sit and enjoy a meal for hours and take pleasure in each bite; watch the sun slowly set with friends or family; to simply sit in a park and enjoy the simple taste of a glass of wine. We saw that same exact dynamic in the Italian culture, specifically in these smaller Italian towns. It was here in Spello that, like clockwork, every evening folks (especially those who were older) would don their best outfits and simply walk aimlessly through the city, enjoying the weather as it cooled off and giving their regards to everyone they saw. We loved participating in this trend, aimlessly wandering and exploring the city, often exchanging a friendly “Ciao” to other wanderers we passed along the way.

On our evening stroll through Spello (this was the entryway to our AirBnB!)
The view from Spello on top of the mountain during an early-evening stroll

Sentient dell’Aquedotto Romano

It was on one of these evening strolls that we discovered an old Roman Empire aqueduct! There was a beautiful trail that went alongside the aqueduct, threading through beautiful olive tree groves. One of my fondest memories from our time in Spello was in walking this dusty trail with Lizzie as the reddened sun set through the olive trees.

An ancient Roman aqueduct!
Inside the aqueduct
Covered aqueduct on the left, Graham’s right
Lizzie enjoying some water from the ancient aqueduct! People brought jugs of what looked like their week’s supply of drinking water here and waited in line to fill up.
The trail wove through groves of olive trees!
Olives! Don’t tell the farmer, but we snuck a few. We quickly found out that they weren’t ripe…
Enjoying the trail, enjoying the sunset, and most of all enjoying each other.

Ristorante La Cantina Di Spello

One of our favorite meals from Spello was at a restaurant that called their style of food “home cooking” from this region of Italy. That’s all it took for us to decide to go there for dinner, and boy it did not disappoint! We unfortunately didn’t grab a picture of the interior, so we snagged this shot from their Google Maps listing:

Photo of the inside taken from their website.

We shared a homemade pasta with tomato sauce – even the spaghetti noodles were homemade. We also shared some lamb chops which were cooked over a charcoal grill! One of the things we noticed about this restaurant was how the owner was a servant-leader. The entire staff clearly showed him respect as he walked through the restaurant and they tried to achieve perfection in everything they did (something he may have instilled in them), but he was also in the trenches with them – bussing tables, sweeping the kitchen floor, helping carry dishes. It was clear that it was a well-run restaurant in part because of this leadership, and it was so cool to have a mini lesson in leadership on display as we ate.

Homemade pasta, lamb chops, and a salad
Tiramisu for desert

So long, Spello!

As our time in Spello wound down, we knew it would be our last small-city visit in our Europe trip. Or, excuse me if anyone from Italy is reading… Small village. Ahead of us, we had the metropolises of Naples, Rome, and Venice. We wanted to soak in the quiet simple life of Spello as much as we could. And thankfully, we didn’t have to look far to achieve this. The polite grandma that shared a courtyard with us gifted Lizzie a hand-knit doily, and graciously invited us into her home. We couldn’t speak Italian, and she couldn’t speak English. We used Google Translate’s “conversation” feature to communicate with her in real-time. She asked us if we wanted to see the best view in Spello, and of course we said yes. She led us up the stairs in her home, and out onto a secluded balcony overlooking the entirety of the city and the valley below. It was breathtaking. She had lived here the majority of her life, and said she never tired of the view after so many years. We loved the view, but above all, we loved that she offered to share in this special spot of her life for a few minutes together. It’s something we will never forget.

We wanted to take a picture with the three of us, but she said absolutely not since she hadn’t put on makeup yet that day. After much insisting that it didn’t matter, she compromised by snapping this picture of just the two of us.
The view from our “Italian grandmother’s” beautiful hidden balcony

Siena and Assisi, Italy

July 28-31


After Florence, we used one of our few remaining Eurail Pass tickets to hop down to the city of Siena.

Siena is a smaller city than Florence, also located in the Tuscany region of Italy. We were so excited to stay in this region for a little longer to keep trying the incredible food!

Siena sits on a hill. Upon exiting the train station, we followed others to what seemed like a mall across the street. The building did have stores and restaurants, but most importantly, it had 10+ escalators up the big mountain. We were expecting to climb a million steps and were so relieved to see the alternate route. After scaling the hill via ingenious technology, we walked through the charming town of Siena to our little Airbnb.

Porta Romana. The gate into the city.

Siena along with most of the Italian peninsula (and Europe at large!) is steeped in history of both the might of the Roman Empire, and the reach of the Roman Catholic Church that came after. For example, the gate in the picture above that cars are just casually driving through was built by the ancient Romans during the time of the empire! And everywhere you go both in Siena and elsewhere in Italy, you hear a myriad of church bells ringing out every hour. It’s such a fascinating history to step into.

The view from a city park we visited a couple of times during our time in Siena
Lizzie sitting in the Piazza del Campo, the city’s giant main square.
Piazza del Campo

The city is centered around the giant Piazza del Campo square, with outdoor restaurants on the perimeter and families enjoying the outdoors in the middle. It was so much fun just sitting in the square and people-watching! Not too far from this square is the Siena Cathedral seen below.

Siena Cathedral completed between 1215-1263.
Streets of Siena
Streets of Siena

The food in Tuscany is outstanding! We tried quite a few unique things here. One unfortunately that we didn’t snap a photo of was an appetizer that looked like a big round slightly-melted block of cheese smothered in Alfredo sauce. And that’s pretty much exactly what it was. It tasted almost sweet at first, but the more we ate it the more it grew on us until by the time it was gone we were ready to have an entire meal of just that one appetizer!

Some other favorites were an Italian cheesecake with cherries on top, and a traditional Tuscan steak.

Cheesecake with cherries
A HUGE Tuscan steak

This steak was a misteak. Did it taste amazing? Of course! But unfortunately I misread the price on the menu, and it ended up being the single most expensive dish I’ve ever bought. You can’t quite tell from the picture above, but it felt like it was just about half a cow. People at the table across from us gave us an impressed thumbs up as they dropped it on our table. The waiter graciously gave me a second glass of wine for free after I read the bill.


Next up was the small town of Assisi! Assisi is on the border of the regions of Tuscany and Umbria and has a population of just 28,000 people on a good day.

We took this small train from Siena to Assisi.

Our train from Siena to Assisi was literally just one train car. No train engine pulling from the front or pushing from behind – just one single train car with a few seats on the inside.

Assisi is a gorgeous city on the top of a hill surrounded by olive tree groves and vineyards. Florence earlier in the week was a bit too touristy for our tastes. We loved the stark difference we saw in Assisi where there were few tourists and even fewer English speakers. It was a town that was more of our speed.

The streets of Assisi
Lizzie and I enjoying the sunset!
View of the sunset from the city on top of a hill
Beautiful pastel street art in a city square
A city square in Assisi at dusk
Assisi at night

Basilica of San Francesco d’Assisi

The crown jewel of Assisi is the Basilica of San Francesco d’Assisi. Construction on the basilica first started in the 1200s, and was built into the hillside at the top of the slight mountain range. Over time, it became an important pilgrimage site for Catholics and today the basilica is a UNESCO world heritage site because of its fascinating history.

Basilica of St Francis at Assisi
Sunset at Basilica of St Francis at Assisi
Basilica of St Francis at Assisi

The Catholic Church canonized the figure of St Francis in 1228, and today his tomb can still be visited underneath the basilica. We went in and observed Catholic pilgrims from all over the world who entered the tomb to quietly pray, likely traveling a great distance just to be in this one room.

The church above the crypt is famous for the frescoes adorning the ceilings and walls, painted by the very best fresco artists of the time.

The scenes showed a mixture of visual representations of bible stories, tales from Catholic Church history, and local events in Assisi. The paintings were remarkably well preserved in this ancient church, and Liz and I enjoyed walking around and peering into a different era.

As mentioned in a previous post, Lizzie has been to Assisi before. We had a great time finding all of the old spots she had previously seen, and in some cases even recreating old photos.

Photo above is when Lizzie was in Assisi, Italy in 2011. Photo below is 2021 in the same spot!

Florence, Italy

July 25-28:

We have arrived in our final country of the trip! Italy is country number 10! Technically we are laying-over one night in one more country before heading home, but this is our last country to fully explore.

This is my second time in Italy. In 2011, my all-girls high school choir (Capital City Girls Choir in Raleigh) took a big trip to Italy where we performed a couple concerts. We toured Florence, Rome, Sansepolcro, and Assisi. It was a wonderful experience in high school, but I am so glad to be back as an adult! This was Graham’s first time in Italy and it was so fun to see it fresh through his eyes.

The view from our Airbnb window

We had a wonderful Airbnb in Florence with a very kind host (Mario and his son Dario). The host’s son picked us up from the train station platform with a hand-drawn sign reading “Bargeron” the night we got in. We had a great conversation with him while he drove through the city streets towards our “home” for the next few days.

The Duomo – Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore

The Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore is the centerpiece of Florence. It towers over all the other buildings in the city with its gothic style architecture, the first of its kind after the long Dark Ages in the 1500s. The original designs for the cathedral had a dome, but no one knew how to construct one so they left that part of the cathedral unfinished and covered. The city then announced an architectural contest. Brunelleschi won the contest and came up with the innovative idea to put two domes on top of each other to help with the weight distribution. It was a huge architectural achievement for the Renaissance period, particularly imagining how this was built as the world was just beginning to exit the Dark Ages.

The Duomo looming above as we walked towards it

It is free to visit the cathedral, but due to covid, they regulate how many people can enter at once. We grabbed some nearby gelato and stood in line for about 20 minutes. You also have to pass through a metal detector and walk past the wardrobe police. They do not allow any bare shoulders, shorts, or too short skirts/dresses. The street vendors take full advantage of this fact and walk up and down the line waiting outside with scarves to sell.

The cathedral (in front of the duomo)
The duomo behind the cathedral

The inside is just as breathtaking as the outside. The inside of the magnificent dome is painted to represent the last judgement.

Looking up at the giant duomo
A 24 hour clock inside the cathedral!
The Gates of Paradise. Located just across from the Duomo. It is the main gate to the Baptistery of Florence – these doors were also built just after the Dark Ages and are seen as a major achievement in 3D art!

Ponte Vecchio

Ponte Vecchio is a popular arched bridge over the river. The bridge is lined with jewelry shops on both sides with only the very center opened up to walk. We learned that the bridge used to have butchers and farmers in the stores, but the smell got too bad and a decree was made in 1595 that only allowed jewelers to occupy the space. That is still the case today!

Graham and I loved looking over into the Arno River and just people watching. The sidewalks were bustling with tourists and there were a few children rowing up and down the river.

Ponte Vecchio
Ponte Vecchio

Accademia Gallery – Michelangelo’s David

One of our highlights in Florence was visiting the Accademia Museum and seeing Michelangelo’s David sculpture. I remember coming here in high school with my choir group on a tour, but it was so nice to come back as an adult with a new appreciation for artwork. With our trusty Rick Steves book in hand, we walked to each sculpture eager to read the commentary.

Along the first hallway, you have some of Michelangelo’s “unfinished” work with David at the very end of the hall. These were Graham’s favorite! Michelangelo believed he was simply revealing the figures trapped in the marble – chiseling away at what was not the figure. There is a debate about these figures in the first hall. Are they actually unfinished and forgotten or did Michelangelo purposefully leave them that way? They were said to be originally sculpted for the tomb of Pope Julies 2, but the project fell through. Art scholars have named these statues “the prisoners” as though seem to be stuck in the marble and in the process of being set free. You can almost feel the claustrophobia of the figures inside the rock as they’re wrestling to get out.

These sculptures are probably some of my absolute favorites of Michelangelo as well. The raw stone around the figure gives you a sense of the art process going from a block of marble to detailed masterpiece. Michelangelo always worked freehand, starting from the front and working his way to the back. You could still see his chisel-marks!

Michelangelo’s “prisoners”
Michelangelo’s “prisoners”
Michelangelo’s “prisoners”
Michelangelo’s “prisoners”

The main event of the museum is of course, the 14-foot tall David. Originally commissioned for the Duomo, Michelangelo was given a huge piece of marble that other sculptors in the area thought was just too tall and flawed to be useful. At 26 years old in 1501, Michelangelo took the unwanted slab of marble and created the iconic and breathtaking David. Some scholars debate whether the sculpture depicts David about to fight Goliath or if it is after as he stands in victory.

It’s hard not to sit here (knowing how young he was when he completed it) and look at this masterpiece and wonder what in the world have I done with my life?!

It was so cool reading about the statue as we stood there. One of the things we read was that Michelangelo studied the human body more than some doctors/surgeons at the time. For example, on his right forearm, there’s a tiny muscle/ligament that you can see rippling out of the marble that is only activated when your hand and fingers are positioned exactly how David’s are in the statue. Amazing!

Michelangelo’s David
Michelangelo’s David

Food in Florence

Of course, now that we are in Italy, we must enjoy ALL the Italian food and desserts!

Gelato is one of my absolute favorite desserts! I always get mint and coffee flavors. Graham usually gets pistachio (which I initially thought would be gross, but my eyes have recently been opened).

We have also found one of our new favorite drinks – lemon soda! We always keep our airbnb fridge stocked with them, stopping at local grocery stores to refuel when we’re running low. Hopefully we will find them in the states when we return.

Gelato! Lizzie’s favorite!
Gelato from Perche no!
Sandwiches for lunch with cheese and salami at Fratellini.
Restaurant Trattoria
Roasted tomatoes at Restaurant Trattoria
Homemade spaghetti (homemade noodles + sauce!) at Restaurant Trattoria. It was spicy!
Tuscan pork chop and potatoes at Restaurant Trattoria
Our new favorite drink – lemon soda! Basically just carbonated lemonade, with a tiny bit of lemon pulp.
Panzanella – Popular Tuscan cold salad with soaked stale bread, onions, and tomatoes. Once you get past the soggy bread texture, its not so bad!
Homemade tortellini

Sights Around Florence

Piazzale Michelangelo – overlooking the city of Florence
Piazza della Signoria
Piazza della Signoria – a free outdoor space to walk around and enjoy old Florence sculptures
Nighttime view of Arno river
Street vendors

Nice, France

July 23-25:

Graham riding an e-bike!

Biking Along the French Riviera

When we arrived in Nice, we were greeted by our wonderful Airbnb host. He showed us around the apartment (located in Old Nice) and gave us some local recommendations. One thing he recommended was renting e-bikes (bikes with a battery-powered motor) and take it up the French Rivera. The next day we got up and went to Bicicletta Shop to rent some bikes! We are so glad we chose to do this instead of going to some other popular attractions. We had a wonderful four hour bike ride and enjoyed such fantastic views. We wore our bathing suits on the ride knowing we would want to stop for a quick swim in the ocean.

Our biking route

Motorized e-bikes are amazing! This was the first time we ever rode them and we were very impressed. I can’t imagine biking the road we did using regular bikes. We effortlessly rode up huge hills and still enjoyed the oh-so-satisfying cruise going down. One older woman that we passed gave me an odd look as I peddled slowly, still seated, continuing at a fast speed up this steep hill that she herself was struggling to walk up. She gave a look and then as though a light went off, she saw the battery and said in broken English “ohh… motor.”

As you will see in the photos below, the views were spectacular! We stopped about halfway and found a public beach to go swimming in. We locked our bikes up and headed down to the Mediterranean shore. We found some huge rocks away from the crowds to set our things on and went for a dip. The water felt so refreshing and was so clear! After our short beach stop, we got back on our bikes and continued along our route.

I wore my favorite $10 skirt from Aldi over my bathing suit. Unfortunately, being the inexperienced biker that I am, I thought my skirt would just effortlessly flow away from the wheels – wrong. About halfway down a hill, my skirt caught my tire. After a couple tugs the skirt came free from the tire to reveal the newly made tear on the side of my skirt. Lesson learned and now I am in need of a new skirt.

When we just picked up our e-bikes
Graham biking along the French Riviera
The French Riviera!

Exploring the City

Upon returning to the city area, we realized we had biked right into a protest. There were at least a hundred people chanting loudly and holding up signs. From what we could understand, they were protesting against President Macron’s recent announcement mandating that all French citizens must get vaccinated. It was a pretty peaceful protest as we watched from across the street, but it was growing in both size and volume as time progressed. We quickly rerouted to a quieter street and returned our bike rentals.

French protestors
Old Nice

One thing that we have come to fully appreciate about France is their incredible food selection. Each meal we have had in France has been so delicious! Graham’s favorite dessert is Creme Brûlée so he was certainly in heaven.

Taking our Airbnb host’s food recommendation, we ate dinner at Le Safari. It was a long wait, but ended up being so worth it! The restaurant was a part of a big square filled with all different types of restaurants with outdoor seating. Many street performers traveled along the sidewalk performing for each restaurant. After their short routine of singing a couple songs or doing some acrobatic moves, they would walk around the tables with a hat to collect money. It was the perfect spot for dinner and a show!

Dinner at Le Safari
Dinner at Le Safari
Desert at Le Safari
Creme Brûlée at Le Safari
Our breakfast one morning. Everything was put in mason jars. We got coffee, scrambled eggs, yogurt parfait, and lemon pudding.

Final Thoughts

The city of Nice was beautiful and we are so glad we stopped here before heading to Italy. Inside the city was a bit crowded and we have realized for us we enjoy getting off the beaten path, which is why we so enjoyed getting out of the city on our full day of bike riding along the coast. We will miss the fresh Creme brûlée, but we are sure to be back!

Along our bike ride

Marseilles, France

After Mont St-Michel, Lizzie and I were able to drive our rental car back to Paris. It was on this journey that we looked back at our paperwork to confirm the location of where to drop off the car that we realized that the rental company gave us the wrong rental! We had specifically rented a tiny electric car (cheapest option) for two nights, picking up and dropping off the car in Paris. When we picked up the car, we realized it was a somewhat nice car – and it wasn’t electric… But we figured perhaps something got lost in translation and we just rolled with the punches. However, upon closer inspection of the paperwork on the way back to Paris, we realized the rental company gave us a rental that was supposed to be dropped off 9 hours away from Paris! Oh – and it was a 4 day rental… My only guess is that the rental company mixed up our order with someone else’s, so somewhere in Paris, some poor chap drove off the lot with the cheapest car available (think: a little bubble-type car, smaller than a Smart Car) for an overnight rental thinking it was actually for a 4 day cross-country trek. Thankfully, when we brought the car back to Paris, the company was super apologetic and worked everything out.

From Paris, we caught a high-speed train southbound to Marseilles on the southern coast of France for our first experience of the French Riviera.

The train systems across Europe are incredible! The stations largely resemble airport terminals with restaurants, multiple waiting areas, and incredible architecture. Nearly every country has its own set of high-speed trains, and France is no exception. In the screenshot above, you can see our car-driving route from Mont Saint-Michel in the top left to Paris. This little route took us close to 6 hours! Now check out that giant route from Paris straight down to Marseilles on the Southern shore. That entire route took 2.5 hours on one of France’s high-speed trains. Each train is equipped with a fair-priced cafe car, outlets at each seat, and typically free wifi as well.

Walking through Marseilles at night

We arrived in Marseilles after a full day of travel ready to crash in bed. We were only staying in Marseilles for one night, and we came in pretty late (around midnight). Even though we were so late, the city was alive. There were families walking around, people playing soccer in the public squares, and restaurants were still open.

Streets of Marseilles at night

We arrived at our AirBnB to find that it was in a good central location of town. The only problem? We couldn’t get in! The check-in instructions were completely in French which normally isn’t a problem for us with Google Translate. But this time, something was lost in translation and we were stuck in the stuffy stairwell trying to figure out what the lockbox combination was. With it being so late, our AirBnB host was already asleep at their own apartment and wasn’t answering their phone. After 30 minutes of trying different combinations (close to 1AM now), we called an audible and got the last room in a hotel just down the street. It was a bit more expensive, but at least we had a place to call home for the night.

Our impulse-purchase hotel room

The next morning, we woke up to discover a completely different Marseilles than what we saw the night before. The streets from the train station to our failed AirBnB experience were very vandalized, dirty, and run down. There was also a low fog that rolled in from the Mediterranean that blanketed the city in an ominous haze. In the morning light however, the city took on a completely different meaning.

Public Saturday morning market
Selling fresh fish in the market

There is a beautiful cathedral overlooking Marseilles called Basilique Notre-Dame de la Garde. From the center of Marseilles, it was a quick 10 minute bus ride to the top of the hill where incredible views were waiting for us to enjoy.

Overlooking the city + the Mediterranean!
Inside Basilique Notre-Dame de la Garde

One of the highlights of our time in Marseilles was stopping in for a quick coffee and bite to eat at 7VB Cafe. When ordering our coffee, we asked the barista in French if they spoke English. He responded, “Sure do!” in a suspiciously American-sounding accent. We ordered our coffee, and I asked him, “Are you from America?” He said, “Yeah man I’m from Houston!”

It turns out this coffee shop was a part of the only Protestant church in Marseilles, and the barista was the son of a missionary family that was serving the church. He sat with us and ate lunch with us before we caught a train. We learned he was an aspiring short filmmaker (what better part of the world to live in for short film producers, right next to the Cannes Film Festival!?). He made a short film illustrating how the church was founded back in the 90s – we’ll embed the English-subtitle version below if you want to take a look.

Normandy, France

July 20-22:

From Paris, we rented a car and drove 3 hours north to the region of Normandy. After growing up watching World War 2 documentaries, reading books, and seeing movies about this region, it was humbling to physically be at the site of the biggest military operation in human history – one of the last-ditch efforts of the free world to determine the future course of humanity.

Omaha Beach (drone camera)

D-day happened in the early hours of June 6th, 1944. 156,000 Allied troops invaded Normandy, shelling the beaches from battleships, storming the beaches from transporters, and parachuting deeper into enemy territory from planes above. My Great Uncle Danny was among the groups of paratroopers during this operation, getting injured from anti-aircraft shrapnel as he jumped from the plane, but continuing the fight through the Battle of the Bulge and eventually on to march victoriously into Paris later. He earned a Purple Heart!

Omaha Beach

Taken from a field above Omaha beach. In the distance, families enjoying the beach. Between us, an old German bunker.

Today, the beaches of Normandy just look like normal beaches. It was surreal walking up and down the sandy beaches seeing children playing in the water, families making sand castles, and swimmers swimming laps. A part of me was disappointed that the people here were treating these beaches as if they were any other beaches, as if nothing significant happened here. This same part of me felt that somehow this carefree attitude was disrespectful of the many lives that were lost on these very beaches so that they (and we) could live freely. But the more I thought about it, the more I thought – isn’t this what the allied soldiers were fighting for? Were they not fighting for freedom, for simple family vacations, for carefree attitudes that didn’t have to worry about being controlled by dictatorships like Nazi Germany? With this realization, it became a beautiful picture in our minds to see these beaches treated so “normally”. Normalcy purchased by the bravery of so many Allied soldiers.

There were 2 stark differences that we noticed between Omaha beach and other less historically-significant beaches around the world. For starters, there were memorials and plaques everywhere. Different divisions of Allied soldiers erected monuments to their company’s/platoon’s bravery – some of the monuments were jutting out of the surf, some were further inland. But everywhere the memories of their lives and sacrifice were memorialized. The second difference was that there were old German bunkers still standing on the very edges of Omaha beach. There were no plaques for these bunkers, they were just there. You could freely explore each of them. A humbling reminder of how difficult these beaches were to secure.

Inside a bunker – a stand for an anti-aircraft gun
Evidence of a grenade blast on the interior of a bunker
What used to be a direct line-of-sight to the beach
An old storeroom inside a bunker

Normandy American Cemetery

Overlooking the now-peaceful beaches of Normandy are several cemeteries for the Allied soldiers. We chose to visit the Normandy American Cemetery overlooking Omaha beach, the primary site of the American invasion.

Over 10,000 American soldiers found their final resting place in this cemetery. Lizzie and I were humbled seeing the dizzying number of headstones, imagining what each person was like. Fortunately, we didn’t have to work our imaginations too hard – there are so many organizations who have made it their aim to collect photos and stories of the soldiers buried here and in other American cemeteries around the world. We chose a few headstones and went deep on their stories, reflecting on their sacrifice and remembering their stories with gratitude in our hearts.

Merrill LeRoy Funk from Minnesota, killed in action 6 days after the invasion began, earned a Purple Heart

This cemetery is technically owned by France. They help secure it and maintain it to this day. This includes keeping the lawns and gardens pristine and keeping the gravestones clean. We sat and watched how local Normandy workers paid so much respect and care to each gravestone as they washed them, spending perhaps 20-30 seconds on each one. They said they clean all 10K gravestones every day.

Workers cleaning all 10K gravestones spending time on each one

Mont Saint-Michel

After spending the night in Villedieu-les-Poêles, we drove west through the countryside to Mont Saint-Michel.

Mont Saint-Michel

Built in the 800-900s on a tiny island in the English Channel, Mont Saint-Michel floats like a mirage on the horizon. This island is host to an historical abbey that has been the center for Catholic pilgrimages for centuries. Today, there are only 30 permanent residents on the island. The rest of the hordes are tourists like us!

In front of the island while the tide is fully out!
At high tide, the ocean waters go right up to the city walls
Approaching the drawbridge to the city (beyond all of the tourists)
Inside the Medieval portions of the city
The abbey crowning the top of the island
Looking down over the city back to mainland France at low tide

As you can tell from some of the pictures, Mont Saint-Michel is a big attractor for tourists. There are portions of the city streets where it feels like you are shoulder to shoulder with other tourists, and that can be pretty overwhelming – especially for Lizzie and I who like to find ways to get off the beaten path where possible. Towards the top of the island the crowds thin out a bit and we were able to enjoy reading about the history of Mont Saint-Michel in a quiet park which we loved. Tourists aside, the island is truly breathtaking. But next time we might just enjoy it from the less crowded beaches instead!