Like everyone else in the world, we love Harry Potter. (Honestly, I don't know anyone who dislikes the series but there may be naysayers out there.) Yes, the books are better than the movies but the movies do an amazing job of capturing Rowling's magical world. So, when we found out that Warner Brothers opened its Harry Potter backlot to the public last year, we had to go. The tour took us through the most impressive of the backlot stages at Hogwarts, including the Great Hall, the Gryffindor common room and boys' dormitory, Dumbledore's office, and the Potions classroom. We walked through the the lifesize Diagon Alley, replete with Weasley's Wizarding Wheezes and Ollivander's wand shop. We gawked at every tiny detail on display --- most of which we would never even notice when watching the movies --- from the type of dishes used in the Great Hall to the substances found in the potions jars. We tried Butterbeer which, frankly, I found to taste a lot like a super sweet cream soda (yuck) but Patrick liked it. We stood beneath the rainbow array of wand boxes and we walked across the bridge that Harry frequented. We wandered around the amazing model of Hogwarts used to film most of the movie scenes and watched it light up inside as "night" stole over the set.
Did we love the studio tour? Of course. It was magical.
This year, I'm sitting in my own house in Atlanta, watching the last of the cherry blossoms fall from the trees in our backyard. Last year, at this time, we were in Bulgaria, watching the cherry blossoms bloom.
View of Svirachi village (our house is the one in the very center with the white walls around it)
Bulgaria was a choice of necessity. We had to find a country that would accept Chewy and Abby without additional paperwork that was also outside of the Schengen zone since we had already used up our days within the Schengen countries and acceptable to our car insurance (Serbia, as it turns out, is not European car insurance-friendly). So, we ended up taking the long way from Budapest to Turkey, via Romania and Bulgaria.
Views of Svirachi village
Bulgaria has some big tourist attractions but our timing was off: March was too early to enjoy the Black Sea beaches and too late to enjoy the ski resorts. Instead, we decided to hunker down and get some work done in an out-of-the-way spot and found a Flipkey rental house deep in southern Bulgaria, close to the Greek and Turkish borders.
Views of Sofia, including guards, Hagia Sofia, and wishes for babies and fertility tied on trees in the springtime
We spent a night in Sofia, the capital city of Bulgaria, in a high rise Hilton (because Chewy and Abby only stay at the best), next to an American-sized mall with a McDonalds across the street. Eighty miles past Sofia, we jumped from the trappings of the 21st century to the 19th century . . . or Amish country.
Cart and horse
We wound off the nicely paved interstate into pockmarked two-lane streets where the Bulgarian cars zoomed around us, gleefully missing the trucks bound for Turkey by just a hair, while we screwed our lips tight. Road eventually became a condition meant for dreamers as we exited the asphalt lanes onto dirt and sand pathways with human-sized potholes and rocks jutting through the bare earth. We soon realized that these roads were not meant for such modern inventions as automobiles; no, in this region, the primary means of transport is horse-drawn, or more likely, donkey-drawn cart.
I am not ready for the summer to be gone. I haven't fully accepted that we are in autumn, though the leaves are changing and dropping, and I've reluctantly traded in my sandals for shoes. Patrick always talks about how he loves autumn crisp weather, apple cider, and Thanksgiving . . . but I start to get blue, realizing that winter is just around the corner. Hurricane Sandy is bringing winter even sooner this year and temperatures in the South have precipitously dipped into the 50s, something that usually happens only in December (though we are very fortunate compared to the rest of the East Coast which is dealing with battering rains and snow.)
Abby and Chewy with sunflowers
I also feel like we are halfway still in summer because the last six months have flown. We have been back in the United States for just over a month but, in many ways, we both are still in travel mode. We are hanging out at my parents' house until the closing of our new house and then we've got some renovation work planned, meaning that we're driving to Atlanta every weekend to deal with all of the house stuff. I still carry my water bottle with me everywhere, Patrick's wearing his convertible pants, and our toiletries kits are always pre-packed, in case we need to make a rush trip out of town. In the meantime, Baby M is growing like a weed and the baby that I unknowingly carried in Vienna has fast made his/her presence known in the last four months.
Let's get the obvious out of the way: Venice is gorgeous. Medieval and Renaissance facades crumble into narrow canals, bridges appear out of seemingly nowhere as if they were dreamed up by a manic architect, and shoulder-width streets face that majestic Grand Canal where candy cane striped gondoliers row their black boats.
That being said, we have to admit that we were underwhelmed by the city on our first visit in 2007. Mainly, there were too many people everywhere. We were constantly bumping shoulders against tourists, eating pseudo-Italian fare, and wandering the streets searching for a tiny bit of authenticity among the legions of visitors and disgruntled locals. (Even this time around, every time we made our way into the main tourist zones, we found the locals acting very hostile toward tourists: someone screamed at Patrick on the vaporetto when Patrick bumped him with his backpack and then tried to apologize. We chalked it up to the overwhelming heat and general grumpiness that usually results in hot, crowded places.)
This time, we decided to do Venice differently and experience Venice like a local.
Go With Oh apartment in Venice
First off, we avoided hotels. We stayed in an apartment in the Cannaregio area, hosted by the lovely folks at Go With Oh, The Armonia apartment: wow. We were impressed by the photos and especially the cool floor plan (seriously, if you've never checked out the Oh Apartment sites, you definitely should, because they use pro photos and floor plans which is SO helpful when choosing an accommodation online). But, the apartment was even better than expected with a huge ground floor, cute kitchen area, outdoor space, and a bedroom upstairs with remote controlled window shades. Swanky!
Us in the Cannaregio area
We avoided the main tourist neighborhoods. The apartment's location in the Cannaregio area (see the video above for more about this area) was ideal. Cannaregio is the northernmost district in Venice and the home of the St. Lucia train station and the old Jewish ghetto. From the 15th to 18th centuries, Venetian Jews were forced to live within the walls of the Jewish ghetto and were locked into the area at night. Today, the Jewish ghetto still has Jewish vestiges, with Kosher restaurants and temples scattered through the canals.
Gondolas hanging out in Venice
But, the Cannaregio is also a neighborhood, filled with local Venetians trying to escape the madness of the San Marco and Dorsoduro areas. Within a five minute walk of our apartment, we found three different green parks (one with a children's playground), hidden away from tourists but filled with locals soaking up the sun and green grass.
Piazza San Marco and buildings on the Grand Canal
We avoided the main tourist sites. We walked through Piazza San Marco but didn't go inside the famous cathedral and never took a gondola cruise, either.
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