26 and A Weekend on the Rhine

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So, I turned 26 last week.  I guess time just really flies as you get older because it feels like I just turned 22 last year.

Fun fact:  I am exactly 15 days older than my husband, which means I get to tout my extra wisdom for a couple of weeks every year.  It also means that we normally try to do something extra fun together to celebrate.

This year, we decided to spend the weekend in Switzerland and France because who doesn’t love croissants and chocolate!  I also scored a sweet birthday discount from Pegasus and I never turn down a cheap flight.

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It just so happened that last Friday was a holiday in Turkey, so we had an extra day to explore!  We landed in Basel, Switzerland Friday morning and hit the streets right away. Even though the forecast had shown three days of rain, we completely lucked out and had nothing but dry, sunny weather!  We had the best time walking through the city and admiring the architecture.

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Now that I’m 26, my sense of humor is vastly more sophisticated.

We also couldn’t help but notice all of the playful sculptures and parks all over the city. We may or may not have spent a lot of time on playground equipment.

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Of course, we couldn’t leave without sampling tons of Swiss chocolate, but I ate it all before the thought of taking a photo of it even crossed my mind.  Just take my word for it…or go check it out for yourself!

The next morning, we got up bright and early to catch the train to Colmar, France -an adorable little village that has been on my radar for a few years.  I also had the good fortune of experiencing my first “cougar” moment, when my husband was able to buy a youth ticket and I had to pay full price for the regular “adult” ticket.  I guess this makes up for taunting him with all of my brand new freedoms on both my 18th and 21st birthdays.

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Although it’s only 45 minutes away from the Swiss border, Colmar is distinctly French. My heart leapt at the sight of all the colorful buildings and pâtisseries and at the sound of French being spoken all around me.  Though I studied French through part of high school and all of university, I’ve rarely had the chance to use it since graduating and moving to Turkey.  It made me so happy to jump back into that world.

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Seriously though, how stunning is this place!?  Each twist and turn of an alley led to even more beautiful, colorful houses.  I was in heaven, eating my weight in croissants and sipping on Alsatian wine.  I loved each and every second of our time there and felt so sad when it was time to leave.  I have such great love for all things Francophone and it is still a dream of mine to live in France someday.

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Lovely little nod to Magritte

Even though we only had three days, it was a pretty damn incredible three days.  26 is feeling alright so far!

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Pretty please take me back?

The Sri Lankan Jungle: Habarana, Sigiriya, and Dambulla

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After a brief night in Colombo, we started our Sri Lankan adventure with a 6 hour bus ride on a packed bus (without air conditioning!) to the tiny city of Habarana.  I was immediately taken aback by how lush and green everything around us was, mostly due to the plentiful rain.

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Exhausted and starving, we immediately asked where we could find food and the hotel owner whipped up a delicious plate of fried rice (with spicy chicken gravy!) and brought us a couple of Sri Lankan Lion beers.  As fate would have it, a Slovakian guy who was also starving joined us at the table, and after chatting over drinks for a few hours, we decided to travel together the following day.

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Habarana is small, but is a very convenient location for several of Sri Lanka’s highlights. There are a ton of day trips that can be done from that area, and out of all the places we traveled to in Sri Lanka, this is where I wish we had budgeted more time.

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One thing that blew me away was how cheap it is to hire a driver for a whole day.  The three of us split a “tuk tuk”- a tiny, three-wheeled vehicle- for less than $10 each.  Our first stop was Sigiriya.

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The crowds were a little crazy, but since we weren’t traveling with a tour group, we blew through the mobs pretty quickly.  The view was incredible, surrounded by jungle, mist, and tons of tiny monkeys.

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It took about an hour to reach the top – and we got there just in time.  Just as we started our descent, we were pelted with a torrential downpour, which somehow blew horizontally and destroyed our umbrella.  I’m normally not a big fan of rain, but it actually made the view even more spectacular, cascading off of the rock into tiny waterfalls.

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When we finally made it back to our tuk tuk soaking wet, it was about time for lunch.  We stopped a little diner and discovered Sri Lankan cutlets; spicy, deep-fried balls of tuna and potato.  I’m going to have to attempt to recreate them in Turkey.  They are delicious.

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Next on our agenda was the Dambulla Temple.  As we climbed up towards the caves, we were once again greeted with the sight of little monkeys scampering along the path.  There were also vendors selling fresh, ripe mangoes spiced with chili pepper…a snack I could not resist.  I had forgotten how much I love mangoes.

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 We finally made it to the entrance, where we dropped off our shoes so we could go into the temple.  I was stunned by how beautiful it was.  The temple – built into the side of a cave circa 4th Century AD- was incredibly intricate.  The ceilings and walls were covered with detailed paintings and the walls were lined with countless golden Buddhas.  Of all the churches, mosques, synagogues, and temples I have visited, this one certainly stands out.

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After a good hour of exploring, we decided to go out for a cup of coffee before saying goodbye to our fellow traveler.  On the way home, our tuk tuk driver pulled over to get us some fresh grilled corn…a perfect end to a perfect day, in spite of (and perhaps even because of) the rain.

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Maafushi Island: A Few Days in Paradise

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Can we all just agree that this winter has been absolute shit? Cold, miserable, and full of vomit-worthy headlines.  I knew early on that I needed to feel far away from everything on this vacation.

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The Maldives had been on my radar for a few years, having seen a slew of impossibly beautiful photos from all over the internet.  When I did my usual Skyscanner search for flights, I decided to turn a blind eye to Europe and really seek out Asia for the first time. As fate would have it, the cheapest flights into Asia from Istanbul were to Male.  A few days on the beach with my love, sans stress and schedules (and with an extra dose of sunshine) sounded perfect to me.

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We landed in Male early in the morning, greeted by the sight of sparkling turquoise waters that were somehow ten different shades of blue at the same time.  We decided to head to one of the closest islands – Maafushi- to make the most of our limited time there.  It was only a 30 minute journey by speedboat and we enjoyed every second of the warm weather and sea breeze.

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An employee from our hotel was waiting by the docks to greet us and then walk us over to where we would be staying for the next few days.  As soon as we set down our bags, he rushed to the kitchen and came back clutching two glasses of fresh mango juice.  We knew right then that we’d made the right choice.  We spent our first day getting to know the island (you can walk from end to end in about 10 minutes), playing in the sand, and consuming papaya milkshakes.

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Day two was beach day (actually, every day was beach day…but especially day two).  After a fabulous breakfast of pineapple juice next to the Indian Ocean, we walked over to the bikini beach for a morning of swimming in the most beautiful water I have ever seen in my life.  This was also the day that I got the most epic sunburn I have ever had in my life, despite liberally applying sunscreen all over my entire body three times.  That equatorial sun is no joke.  After a few hours, we headed back to our hotel so I could nurse my wounds and only reemerged after the sun had set to spy on baby sharks and sting rays by torchlight.

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Day three was the indisputable highlight:  the snorkeling tour.  Keep in mind that my husband and I are certified land creatures, born and raised in the landlocked Land of Oz…this was a big deal!  Neither of us had ever been on a proper water tour and we were super stoked to see the coral reefs and some tropical creatures.

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Photo c/o Naabe @ KSAEYS

The tour did not disappoint in the slightest.  After a breezy ride on a speedboat to what seemed like the middle of nowhere, we jumped into the mouthwash-colored water (I’m not kidding) to see what we could see.  At the first point, we saw several large mantas.  I wanted so badly to swim down and touch one, but I couldn’t hold my breath long enough; I guess I need to take some diving lessons.  At the second point, we saw turtles, eels, more sting rays, and all kinds of incredible tropical fish…it was hard to breathe, and not because I was underwater.  Point number three was the fish feeding and my personal favorite.  It was so fun to toss the crumbs into the water and see all the fish suddenly swarming around me!

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Photo c/o Naabe @ KSAEYS

After the snorkeling, they took us out to a sand bank for a picnic lunch of tuna fried rice and oranges.  The views were truly surreal.

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When it was time for us to go on day four, we packed our bags with heavy hearts.  We were excited for our next destination, but also sad to leave the beautiful island behind.

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In his natural state

Some things to know about the Maldives:

  1. It is a conservative Muslim country.  Most of the islands do not allow alcohol (outside of the super expensive private resorts) and many of the beaches do not allow men or women to enter without at least a t-shirt and shorts.  If you want to go to the beach to party, this is not the place.  Personally, I kind of appreciated being able to enjoy the beach without a bunch of obnoxious drunk people around.  It was not terribly crowded and very relaxing.
  2. Despite its reputation for being super expensive, it can be done on a budget.  If you stay away from the pricey luxury resorts, you can find good accommodation (even right on the beach!) for $30-40 a night.  Food is not very expensive and some of the tours are as low as $10 and are well worth what they cost.
  3. It is extremely safe and friendly.  It seemed like everyone was ready to greet us with a smile!  One of the most eye-opening moments of the trip was when we were on the ferry to head back to the airport and the captain noticed a stray swimmer struggling in a current  well past the swimming area.  He turned the boat around and saved her and then took her back to shore.  Needless to say, my faith in humanity was temporarily restored.

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I can fully recommend the Maldives as a fantastic beach destination.  Despite its recent notoriety, it is much less touristy than I was expecting (even in high season) and comes with a much different flavor than a lot of other islands.  Both of us fell head over heels with this tiny island nation and have already daydreamed about going back someday.  At least now I have some photos of that beautiful blue water to help me escape on difficult days.

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A Georgian Christmas

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We had a few days off for Christmas this year and decided to spend them in Georgia, a tiny country neighboring Turkey to the Northeast.  We had been meaning to visit for the longest time and Christmas seemed like the perfect opportunity.

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One interesting thing about Georgia is that they celebrate Christmas on January 7th rather than December 25th since the majority of the population is Orthodox Christian.  It kind of made it the perfect destination since the city was filled with the anticipation of Christmas, but everything was still open since it wasn’t officially the holiday yet for them.

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We knew we’d made the right choice as soon as we marched up to Passport Control AND WERE EACH HANDED FREE BOTTLES OF WINE.  No, I am not kidding.  What a welcome.  We were also struck by all of the beautiful Christmas lights throughout the city.

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Tbilisi is a remarkably eclectic city that is constantly juxtaposing the old with the new. Modernity effortlessly mingles with ancient traditions, something that can’t be said for many places.  There is an air of seediness as the streets are filled with beggars, casinos, and strip clubs, but there is also an air of welcome and safety.  The people are very friendly and happy to help strangers.  People look out for each other.

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I was totally charmed by this mysterious city and determined to learn more.  I signed up for the Free Walking Tour and it did not disappoint!  Nothing beats walking around the city for a few hours with a local, learning about history, culture, and all the best places to eat.  It is a must for anyone visiting the city.

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One of the most interesting parts of the tour for me was going inside an Orthodox church.  Instead of the rows of seats and stained glass windows, there is almost no lighting and absolutely no seating.  The walls are painted with religious scenes and dimly lit by candlelight.

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The country is one of the most religious in the world, with over 90% of the population identifying as believers according to our guide.  It’s an interesting statistic when you consider that the country was once part of the Soviet Union, which banned religion entirely.  Tbilisi was very fortunate, however, that when the Soviets took power, none of their churches were destroyed, which was not always the case.  Instead, they were preserved and put to use as storage buildings until the USSR collapsed in 1991.

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I was also stunned by our next stop, the beautiful Peace Bridge, which represents the peaceful connection between the past and the future.  It serves a symbol of hope for people that have endured a lot of war.

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Once across the bridge, you can take the cable car up to Narikala Fortress, which offers stunning views of the old part of the city.

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At the top of the fortress stands Kartlis Deda, The Mother of Georgia, watching over the city.  In one hand she holds a glass of wine; in the other, she holds a sword.  This is meant as both an invitation to strangers who come in peace and a warning for their enemies.
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Fun fact:  there are absolutely no guards or safety regulations at the fortress, so you can climb all the way up to the top at your own peril!

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The bent Georgian cross, representing Saint Nino

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One of our final stops on the tour took us back down and through the historic district to a hidden waterfall, which is often frozen in winter!

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In addition to a fascinating history and culture, Georgia is also home to some spectacular food and wine.  After trying it, I really don’t know why it isn’t a bigger speck on the foodie radar.  Everything I ate there was delicious, from spicy herbed potatoes to a variety of savory breads and pastries.  My personal favorite was a dish called khinkali, which consisted of big, delicious dumplings with various soupy fillings.  They were seriously incredible.  I need the recipe ASAP.

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Now about the wine.  I don’t even know if I can properly describe it.  Georgia has a vibrant wine culture that has been around for centuries, as the region is abundant with grapes. Interestingly, the Georgians have their own method for making wine, which is quite different than that of the Europeans.  The grapes are put in a giant clay pot, buried underground, and then fermented and filtered.

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It’s sweet, smooth, cheap, delicious, and EVERYWHERE.  Nearly every Georgian has their own family wine recipe and makes it themselves.  Needless to say, we got to sample several varieties and tried to take advantage of the good prices and generous baggage allowance we had (thanks, Turkish Airlines!).

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Even Wendy’s sells wine in Georgia.  Also, Bailey’s Frosties.

Even as I’m sitting back home writing this, I can’t fully wrap my head around Georgia.  It’s so curious, confusing, and alluring all at the same time.  As is often the case when I’m traveling these days, I feel the need to go back to get a better feel for the place.  I would love to see more of the Caucasus Mountains and the Georgian countryside.  Perhaps in warmer weather.

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If nothing else, I hope I can give a voice to this overlooked little country.  It’s affordable, beautiful, interesting, and there’s plenty of wine to go around.  It’s perfect for those who want something a little off the beaten path.

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Nothing in the world can replace Christmas at home with family, but when that’s thousands of miles away, Georgia is a pretty good alternative.

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Day 1: Edinburgh

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We landed in Edinburgh very late Saturday night, ready to begin our epic road trip.  We got totally lost on the way to our apartment and our gracious friend (who volunteered to drive the whole trip because the rest of us are wimps!) had a bit of a learning curve trying to drive on the opposite side of the road.  We finally made it around midnight and proceeded to collapse in our beds immediately.  It’s not a real road trip if you don’t get lost at least once, right?

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We woke up to the most epic sunrise!!  I can’t remember the last time I actually saw a sunrise before this.  I am very much not a morning person and avoid any reason to be up while it’s still dark, but in the colder months, there are very few hours of daylight in Scotland.  The whole time we were there, the sun rose at about 8:00 and had set by 4:30.

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We walked to the city center and found a cute little breakfast cafe, where my husband was brave enough to try a haggis breakfast roll.  I opted for some sausage and a huge cup of coffee instead.

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After stuffing our faces, we walked over to Edinburgh Castle and made it just in time to see the changing of the guards.  There was plaid everywhere and I loved it!  I was also struck by  how green everything was, despite the cold.

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The castle proved to be quite interesting, especially in the scope of information and activities offered.  I scoffed at the high admission price in the beginning, but really enjoyed myself once I got in there.  Scotland has a fascinating history and culture that seems to be too often overlooked.  For me, the highlight of the visit was the medieval music lecture by Mr. Tribble.  It was a very unique perspective of Scottish history and I really enjoyed seeing and listening to all of the different instruments.

DSC_0032.JPG In addition to the music lecture and the usual tour, the castle also had several cafes full of delicious food,  whiskey tasting, and interesting shops.  It’s not cheap to get in, but it’s definitely worth seeing if you’re in Edinburgh.

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On the way out of the castle, I stumbled upon what is now one of the new highlights of my life.  There was a small owlery that was letting people hold and pet the owls for a small price.  Anyone who knows me knows that I’m a huge Harry Potter fan, and so I could not pass this up, even though it was pouring down rain.  This little guy’s name is Ragnar.  For a brief moment in time, I felt like a real witch.

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The last item on our agenda was to hike Arthur’s Seat, but due to the very unfortunate weather, we pretty much just walked up to it and turned back to civilization because it was dark, freezing, and wet.  We had to settle for a night at the pub.

DSC_0006.JPG  All the same, we fell in love with this magical medieval city and would not hesitate to go back.  It was very charming and full of cozy and friendly vibes…and it was only the beginning!

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Autumn in Oslo

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My soul has finally been fed with the kind of fall beauty I’ve been missing.  I knew I wanted to take at least one trip into Europe for some lovely fall foliage this year, so we consulted Skyscanner to see what we could find and scored some cheap to tickets to Oslo for a weekend.  What a beautiful city!

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We couldn’t have picked a better time or place for colorful leaves.  Oslo is absolutely bursting with trees!  Everywhere!  I loved being in a city that was so intertwined with nature and managed to feel both full of life and cozy at the same time.

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We knew we would only be there for a short time, so rather than try to plan a packed itinerary, we decided to wing it and simply get a taste for the city.  This was honestly the way to go because Oslo can be hella expensive!

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I was so grateful for all of the big, beautiful parks they had everywhere!  We walked around playing in the leaves like kids for hours and it was wonderful!  The colors, the smell, the crunch under our feet…it was all so perfect.

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I got a kick out of this nose-less FDR.  Also, we witnessed that couple behind him get engaged a few minutes after this photo was taken!  It made me feel all warm and fuzzy remembering the day my husband proposed (feels like a lifetime ago already!).  Also, what a place for a proposal!

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Pretty much every nook and cranny of the city was gorgeous.

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Oh, and I definitely wasn’t kidding about everything being expensive.  On top of that, we had a really hard time finding a place to exchange our cash and got down to the last bit of our NOK after paying for our hotel.  We had to do a college throwback and scrape together our last few coins to see how we could get the most bang for our buck for our last meal there.

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Besides the little cash mishap, Oslo restored me in the best way possible.  It was such a friendly and relaxing place.  I’d love to return to Norway, although next time, I’ve got my eyes on exploring the fjords!

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An Evening in Milano

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After a lovely few days in Cinque Terre, we spent one day in Milan before catching our flight back to Turkey.  The visit was quite short, so we didn’t do too much, but we had a great time walking around the main squares and getting our last few bites of Italian food.

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The architecture in Milan is stunning and it’s crowning jewel is the Duomo Cathedral.  It was enormous and beautiful, as was the whole of Piazza Duomo!

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I absolutely loved listening to this man play music on the bottles!  He was brilliant!

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We were both starving after the long stint on the train, but we were having trouble finding something that wasn’t ridiculously overpriced in the main square.  We stumbled upon a little cart selling gelato popsicles and the rest is history.  This almond was superb.

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Our “Last Supper” involved two very large and very delicious pizzas.  Speaking of which…

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…we missed out on seeing the original Last Supper, which is housed in Milan.  It was a bummer because I find Leonardo da Vinci very fascinating and would have loved to see some of his work while we were there.  We did, however, manage to see this statue of him.  I guess that just  means we’ll have to go back to Milan to do it properly…

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We loved you, Italy!  Italy is one of those places I know in my heart that I’ll see again.  I went into it with a mix of expectations based on differing opinions and was pleasantly surprised by how laid back, relaxing, and beautiful it was.  Until next time!