Bella Siena!

IMG_5976

Il Campo

Florence. Venice. Rome. The normal Italy itinerary ticks off those cities and skips over the rest that the country has to offer. If your lucky enough to be traveling to Italy, make sure to spend at least a day exploring what was once Florence’s rival city: Siena.

Best known in popular culture as the Crayola color “burnt Siena” (check out the buildings pictured above for the inspiration for that crayon), Siena may be my favorite city in Italy. It has all the history, beauty, and culture of Florence-minus the claustrophobic summer crowds.

IMG_5984

View from the top of the tallest bell tower in Italy

The city’s concentric circle design makes it perfect for wandering. It’s easy to get lost but you won’t mind the confusion! Interesting shops and cute cafes are your reward for straying off the tourist path. If you take a taxi into the city, ask your driver to take you to some secret photo spots and you’ll gain access to views that aren’t listed in the guidebooks.

IMG_5936

When your feet are sore from exploring, post up at Bar Il Palio on the famous traffic free town square, Il Campo. Twice a year, the plaza hosts the centuries old Palio horse race where members of the city’s 17 contradas (neighborhoods) compete in a 90 second bareback race for glory…and bragging rights. If you’re in town on a normal day, the main spectacle is people watching. So grab an aperol spritz and admire the the unchanged beauty of Siena.

IMG_6028

Advertisements

Zion National Park

image

If the photo above doesn’t get you excited about Zion, I don’t know what  will! The park is a magical place where red cliffs soar above a lush green valley and hidden waterfalls offer respite from the desert heat. The fact that you can pretend you’re in the movie Avatar is a bonus!

image

Hike this: Angel’s Landing
Don’t let the chains intimidate you from completing this stunning hike! Approximately 5 miles round trip, most of the steep trail is paved and offers amazing views from every turn. Zigzag  your way up to Refrigerator Alley, where temperatures remain cool even in the summer. Past that spot is a half mile scramble over rocks, with thousand foot drops on either side. There are chains to calm any fear of heights but the trail is so well maintained that chances of slipping off are minimal. As fellow hikers will advise you, “…the view from the top is worth it!”

image

John cheesing before the storm rolled in!

Backpack this: West Rim Trail
If you’re looking for a moderately strenuous two day backpack trip, the West Rim Trail is perfect! About 16 miles long, you could do it as a day hike if you’re faster than my snail pace but camping overnight gives you time to soak in the views. In our case, the word “soak” was all too literal because it was pouring rain and hail for a good part of the hike.  Despite the weather, this sometimes steep hike winds around huge rock faces with magnificent views of the surrounding cliffs and valleys. Multiple freshwater springs along the trail eliminate water worries. Be sure to book your campsite in advance since they fill up quick!

image

Weathervane Cafe, Denver

ext

Always on the hunt for a new coffee haunt? Weathervane Cafe in Uptown might just be the coolest coffee shop in town. Decorated with antiques and comfy furniture, it feels like hanging out at your hippy friend’s house. The eclectic menu has everything from coconut chia pudding to a sriacha beef sandwich.Their coffee drinks are just as unique, like a lavender latte with homemade syrup. As if great food and drinks aren’t enough, there’s a vintage clothing shop upstairs! Grab a book and spend a lazy day at Weathervane.

inside

Crested Butte

Processed with VSCOcam with c1 preset

Izzy’s! Delicious breakfast stop

Crested Butte is the quintessential ski town. Legendary for its steep terrain, quirky character, and plentiful powder, it’s well worth the four hour drive from Denver .

ice

Ice bar at Ute’s Cabin

 Ski This: Teocali 2 Bowl was just added this season as part of a 40 acre expansion of expert terrain. This past weekend the snow pack was finally stable enough to open it, so my boyfriend and I were among the first people to ski it. The new area located skier’s right from Teocali Bowl offers steep trees and wide open bowls of untouched powder. As the ski patrollers posted at every gate will tell you, there is no easy way down. The mandatory 30 minute hike out will make après-ski nachos at Avalanche Bar even more delicious!

Teo2

View on the traverse to Teo 2

Eat This: Latkes at Izzy’s

218 Maroon Ave

Whether or not you know the difference between a latte and a latke, Izzy’s has the perfect pre-ski breakfast for you. The menu consists of homemade latkes (potato pancakes) served with apple sauce, classic bagel sandwiches, and savory breakfast wraps.  The homey décor is filled with postcards from customers and old National Geographic magazines, ,making Izzy’s the perfect ski town bagel shop.

Three Perfect Days In Paris

Three Perfect Days In Paris

eiffel

Planning a trip to Paris is no walk in the jardin. The sheer number of attractions that Paris has to offer would intimidate even the most seasoned of travelers. While it would be ideal to spend months strolling around the city and stopping at every patisserie along the way, work or school may prevent a long sojourn in the city of lights. Visiting all the main attractions in three days  must  be impossible, right? Au contraire! As I discovered on my trip, three days is ample time to visit Paris’ highlights, from  Versailles to the Louvre. The following itinerary is based on staying in the Marais district, where we stayed in a beautiful two bedroom apartment I found on http://www.holidaylettings.co.uk/. With prices of around $150 a night, staying in a rental apartment is much more affordable than a hotel and you get to be fully immersed in the Parisian lifestyle. Le Marais is the bohemian part of Paris, filled with art galleries and wine bars in every nook and cranny. The culture and location make it a prime jumping off point for exploring the rest of the city.

versailles

One of the 700 rooms at Versailles

Day One: Chateau de Versailles and the Eiffel Tower

After enjoying a traditional French breakfast of orange juice, coffee, and a croissant, jump on the RER train for the thirty minute ride to Versailles. Constructed in 1664 by Louis XIV, the palace was built to display his wealth and power. Louis proclaimed himself as the Sun King, second only to God,  and the sheer size of Versailles is testament to his hubris. The palace and grounds are stunning, especially the grandeur of the famed Hall of Mirrors. You don’t have to be an expert in Baroque architecture to appreciate the lavishly decorated chateau. After the audio guide tour of the palace, spend a few hours roaming some of the 1,800 acres of perfectly manicured parkland. You’ll soon stumble upon the Grand and Petit Trianons, which were the “country retreats” for the royal family. Yes, they had vacation houses on the grounds of their main house. One of the most interesting features of the Versailles parkland is the Petit Hameau, or “little hamlet”, an idyllic  village built for Marie Antoinette. Marie and her ladies would pretend to be dairy maids and shepherdesses, making a mockery of the difficult country life French peasants led. The extravagant display of wealth at Versailles is testament to the disconnect between the royal family and the peasantry. After visiting the palace, it  is no wonder that anger over the king’s opulence was one of the main causes of the French Revolution.

hameau

Le Petit Hameau

Make your way back to the city to spend the rest of the afternoon at the Eiffel Tower. No matter how many photos you’ve seen of the famous structure, nothing can prepare you for its sheer size. Depending on the season, there may be a huge line to climb it but the view from the top is worth waiting for. The 1,700 steps to the top will also burn off any pastries you’ve undoubtedly indulged in! Sunset from the top is magnificent, with the sun casting an orange glow over the River Seine and the distant countryside.

susnet

Sunset from the top of the Eiffel Tower

After taking a million photos, head back down to find dinner. I try to avoid restaurants aimed at tourists, which often have giant menus in English posted outside. Wander off the main streets to quieter residential areas to find the culinary gems. Using the aimless-wandering method, we found La Poul au Pout , a charming restaurant serving up delicious French staples . The menu was only in French, which can be intimidating but as long as you remember that “poule” means chicken you’ll be fine! After dinner, grab a bottle of wine and some chocolate for an evening picnic on the lawn in front of the sparkling Eiffel Tower.

pantheon

View of the Pantheon from the Jardin de Luxembourg

 Day Two: Notre Dame, Latin Quarter, Pantheon, Arc de Triomphe, Champs-Elysses, Louvre Museum

arc

Make sure to wear comfortable shoes because you’re going to cover many miles today! Spend the morning exploring the cafes and shops of the Marais before walking across the bridge to Notre Dame cathedral. Admission is free and the towering Gothic architecture is hauntingly beautiful. I half expected the famous hunchback Quasimodo to poke his head above the gargoyles at any minute.

Next stop is the picturesque Latin Quarter. A perfect place for people watching, the narrow streets wind through old buildings housing dozens of shops and warmly lit cafes. If you see a crepe shop selling banana-Nutella crepes, grab one immediately! While still in the Latin Quarter, walk over to the Pantheon mausoleum. Another architecturally stunning building, it serves as the final resting place for noteworthy Frenchman like Voltaire, Rousseau, and Victor Hugo.

If the weather’s nice, stop at the beautiful Jardin de Luxembourg to relax. After snapping some photos of old men playing chess, continue your walking tour of massive monuments at the Arc de Triomphe. Built by Napoleon in 1806, the arc honors soldiers that fought and died in the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars. You can buy tickets to climb the 234 stairs to the top, which offers another great view of the city. If you’re under 25 years old, make sure to ask for the child’s ticket or else you’ll have to pay the €9.50 adult fee.

Next, continue down the Champs-Elysses, possibly the most famous outdoor shopping mall in the world. A mile long, the wide avenue is lined with luxurious designer stores making it a window shopper’s paradise. If you love macarons, wait in line at the gorgeous Laduree flagship store to snag a box of the most delicious pastries in Paris. The Champs-Elysses ends at the Place de La Concorde, a large public square. This was the location of the infamous guillotine that was used in the French Revoltuion to behead thousands of people. Over 1,300 heads went rolling here in just one month in 1794. Execution devices have thankfully been replaced by beautiful fountains and a gold topped obelisk from the Egyptian government. Nearby is a glass pyramid that can mean only one thing, the Louvre museum! Spend the rest of your afternoon with the Mona Lisa before calling it a day.

louvre

Another arc, and the Louvre in the background

Bonus : If you want to experience Parisian nightlife, I recommend the area near the Pantheon on Rue Mouffetard. Due to the nearby university, the place buzzes with young people happily spilling out of hole-in-the-wall pubs and bistros.

Day Three

sacre

Sacre Coeur cathedral

Give your aching feet a break today by taking the metro to the Montmarte district in northern Paris. The Butte of Montmarte is the highest point in Paris and the hilltop is crowded with a village filled with tourist shops lining the steep, picturesque streets. Crowning the hill is the famous Sacre-Coeur cathedral, whose Byzantine-esque white dome is a dominant feature of the Paris skyline. Entrance to the cathedral is free and the ornate fresco on the inside of the dome is well worth a look. Outside, dodge the peddlers offering to draw your portrait for “only” €25 and head to the Montmarte Cemetery, which is a small city of fancy tombstones and mausoleums. Very haunting, and very cool. If you’re a musical fan, you’re next stop should be the Moulin Rouge. Located in the red light district of Paris, the cabaret is famous as the birthplace of can-can dancing, which inspired the hit movie. Depending on your tastes, spend the rest of the day exploring the Eglise de la Madeleine (huge church), Musee des Beaux Arts (free art museum on Champs-Elysses) or go shopping at the vintage stores in the Marais.

poulbot

Restaurant in the Montmarte

Just like that you’ve managed to pack in all the highlights of Paris in three days! Obviously there’s tons more to see, but I hope that my itinerary is helpful for planning a short trip. Bon voyage!

My First Fourteeners

handies

Approaching Handies Peak

If there was a dictionary for Colorado lingo, Fourteener would be one of the first entries. Phrases like, “bagged two fourteeners last weekend,” are commonplace in social gatherings, and would leave most out of staters utterly confused. Simply enough, the term refers to a mountain that is taller than 14,000 feet. Colorado boasts 53 of these beauties, and until this past summer I’d climbed zero of them. I’ve lived in Colorado since 2010, but have always felt daunted by the prospect of hiking such a tall mountain. I imagined that climbing a 14er involved navigating treacherous, technical routes rife with rockslides and unexplainable mid-summer avalanches. Reality was much less terrifying. While some of the peaks do require technical climbing skills, the 14ers I’ve hiked required nothing more than vigorous walking and some scrambling. To inundate me to the world of fourteeners, my boyfriend carefully selected hikes that wouldn’t scare me off. Sure enough, the bait caught and I can’t wait to knock a few more off the list this summer! Over the course of a few months, we hiked a total of six, (Handies, Sunshine, Redcloud, Massive, Shavano, and Mt. of the Holy Cross) and summited all but one.  Here’s a trip report of the first three fourteeners we climbed, which are perfect for beginners while still fun for more experienced hikers!

Wildflowers at Handies

Wildflowers at Handies

Handies Peak- 14,048 ft

Last July 4th weekend we took advantage of the extra day off work to drive to the San Juans. These mountains are visually stunning, with a ruggedness reminiscent of the Alps. You can set up your tent at the Grizzly Gulch Trailhead (which has bathrooms, woohoo!) and jump right on the trail. At 5.5  miles roundtrip and a Class 1 difficulty rating, Handies was a perfect first fourteener. The trail starts in a beautiful pine forest and slowly opens into meadows of wildflowers, then lastly you reach a high alpine landscape. The last stretch to the peak is very exposed with no shelter, so make sure to be off the mountain well before the afternoon storms roll in. We made good time and though the skies were gray, it did not start to rain till we were well below tree line. I had no idea what to expect upon summiting a fourteener, but a great feeling of accomplishment washed over me as I stood on top Handies. Hiking down, with raindrops softly pinging on my hood, I couldn’t wait to climb another. Luckily we had two peaks planned for the next day, Redcloud and Sunshine.

Redcloud trail

Gorgeous scenery heading up to Redcloud

Recloud and Sunshine Peaks – (14,034ft and 14,001ft)

Encouraged by our success on Handies, the following morning we woke before dawn to tackle two more. Redcloud and Sunshine can both be accessed from the same campground as Handies, Grizzly Gulch trailhead. An early start is crucial to bag both peaks since the trail is about 12 miles roundtrip. We should have started even earlier than we did, a mistake we’d realize hours later. The beautiful trail stays below tree line for a while with a river raging along next to it. Even in July we had to traverse a hard packed snow field, the terrain of which looked like another planet. Otherworldly is a fitting description for this hike, because the terrain at Redcloud looks like Mars.

Mars? Or Redcloud Peak?

Mars? Or Redcloud Peak?

This is a long hike, and we had to stop to refuel a few times before summiting Redcloud. At the top, we gazed across the saddle at Sunshine which looked close enough to touch. Conditions were great, sunny with  blue skies and rain clouds way off in the distance. Or so we thought. The connecting trail on the ridge is just about a mile long, but deceivingly tiring. From Redcloud you descend a few hundred feet to the flat saddle, with many switchbacks along the way. We expected the saddle to take about 30 minutes to traverse, a time frame we should have doubled. As we started regaining elevation on the trail up to Sunshine, small hail stoned began pinging off the rocks around us. My boyfriend likened the sound to a xylophone being played. Light gray clouds had rolled in, depositing the hail, but we were intent on summiting. We scrambled up some rocks to the summit and I snapped a quick photo of John before we turned right back around. Not lingering at the top may have saved our lives. As I picked my way back down to the ridge, I noticed a tingling on top of my head. It felt like Pop Rocks candy were popping under my hat, which I quickly tore off. Every inch of my long hair was standing on end. I suddenly remembered that this is one of the only signs of an imminent lighting strike. I yelled down to my boyfriend who told me to stay calm and get down fast. Terrified, I ran down the rocks with my hair still straight up, expecting to be zapped any second. We needed to get off the mountain, quickly. Nearly an hour of traversing and re-summiting Redcloud stood between us and the safety of lower elevation. I’m normally a very slow hiker, but the for the first time my boyfriend had to keep up with my panic-stricken pace. While the static in the air remained, no lightning cracked near us. I was unable to relax till we got to tree line, and by then it was raining hard. For the rest of the afternoon, as we cooked dinner in the trunk of John’s SUV, lightning struck the peaks around us. In retrospect, we should have turned around after summiting Redcloud. Sunshine Peak had looked so close, however,  that we just couldn’t resist it. The best way to summit both without turning yourself into a human lightning rod would be to start very early in the morning, around 4am. Overall the hike was a great adventure and taught me the most important lesson of all, to respect the weather.

John on top of Sunshine moments before static electricity filled the air

John on top of Sunshine

Conundrum Hot Springs

csprings1

After a long day of hiking, nothing is better than resting your aching feet in a hot tub while sipping a cold beer.  Now imagine a place where you could have that same experience without leaving the mountain.  That fantasy becomes reality at Conundrum Hot Springs, a natural wonderland easily accessible from Aspen, Colorado. The stunning scenery, well maintained trail, and fun loving people at the Springs made this my favorite hike of last summer.

csprings2

John, my adventure addicted boyfriend, and I drove from Denver to Aspen on a crisp Friday evening last September. The parking lot at the trailhead on Castle Creek Road was already quite full, which made us concerned about the availability of camp spots at the hot springs. There are only 16 sanctioned camp sites at the springs and the Forest Service has been known to enforce the limit by kicking people out. We pushed those thoughts aside and slept in the car to get an early start the next morning. On the trail in the blackness of dawn, our headlamps bobbed along the easy trail through a dense forest. Regardless of the convenience of being the first people on the trail, hiking in the dark is always a bit scary. Every rustle of a bush is a mountain lion, every pair of eyes a coyote ready to pounce. With great relief, the sun slowly illuminated the trail and I could finally see the magnificent landscape we were traversing. To reach the hot springs, you hike 8.5 miles across meadows of wildflowers and through lush forests.  The term Middle Earth repeatedly came to mind while we stopped to appreciate our surroundings and snack on thick cuts of hard cheese.  I’m quite a slow hiker, (blame it on my little elgs!) but we made it to the hot springs in under five hours. Groups of hikers descending from the campsites told us which sites were open, which eliminated our fear of not getting a spot. We had our choice of locations and chose a cozy tree ensconced site on a buff overlooking the springs. Realizing we’d forgotten the tent poles, we macgyvered a tent frame out of sticks and branches which worked surprisingly well! Camp set, we changed into our swimsuits and meandered down the trail to join the other backpackers relaxing in the springs. The main “pool” is naturally warmed to near 100 degrees and can easily fit a dozen people. Clothing is very optional, even in the middle of the day which gives credence to its reputation as a “hippie hangout”. September turned out to be the perfect time to go as there were only a few other groups up there. Everyone was excited to be there and happy to chat and drink in the warm water while gazing out at the valley below.

csprings3

After another dip in the springs the following morning, we packed up camp and headed back down the trail. There are trails that utilize the springs as a jumping off point for extended backcountry trips, but our work schedules only allowed for a weekend getaway. Resigned to leaving, we took as many photos on the way down on the way up since the scenery was spectacular from every new angle. The trail is of moderate difficulty and free of obstacles so we were back at the parking lot before we knew it. Sixteen miles down in less than two days, our legs were ready for a break. And a hot tub, and a beer. Luckily we knew just where to go.