Tourists in Tuscany

Hello All!

I am currently on a train, heading from Naples to Rome, where I will board my flight allll the way to Amman, Jordan. I haven’t spent the last few weeks writing as much, because I’ve finally had company! I already told you all about my nefarious weekend in Rome with Sarah, but shortly after she left, my step-mom, Joni, arrived.

Now, I don’t know if you guys know this, but we’re the kind of family that spends 13 hours at Disneyland and rides all the rides in one day. Since Joni was only going to be around for five days each in Roma and Napoli, we went full out.

Which I will tell you all about, in great detail!

But today I’m going to start with our trip to Tuscany. Now, Joni had never been to Italy before, so I wanted to make sure we had the best time possible. I booked us a one day trip through Tuscany using viator, which started at 07:30am and ended at around 9pm back in Rome.

This was the first large tour group I’d been in since coming to Europe, and about 70 of us climbed into a bus, where we received headphone sets and walkmans. We were basically just missing the fanny packs. Our tour guide was an Italian woman with a British accent, which sounded probably as weird as you’re thinking.

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Note the headphones and lanyards

Our bus stopped for a coffee break about an hour into the drive, at a location clearly designed for us tourists. They had free samples of about….oh, 50 types of chocolate, as well as olive oil, limoncello, wine, champagne, and more. I mean I think they thought we would try only one or two, but come on, it’s me. I tried every single one. (Free!)

Breakfast accomplished, we climbed back into the bus and finished our drive through the Tuscan countryside.

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On the steps of the church

Arriving at the city of Montepulciano at around 0930, we walked through the ancient village, with a guide telling us all about its history. Like how people rolls barrels full of nails up the mountain for…fun? It was absolutely beautiful, and I wish we were able to spend more time there.

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From the top of Montepulciano

Alas! Our time there ended, and we were whisked away to an ancient monastery, where we took several scenic photos and thought ravenously about lunch, which was forthcoming.

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Scenic.

I have to say, one of the best things about being on a tour like this is the ease of it. You know how people go on cruises because all the entertainment is there, in front of you, and you hardly have to think of anything? The tour was like this. They took us from place to place, fed us amazing Tuscan food and wine, and taught us all about the history of the area. So relaxing, but also so much fun. (Especially the wine!)

To that end, we ate this crazy lunch, with approximately 1000 different kinds of cheese and wine tastings from all around the Tuscan region. And we had this…dessert wine? With a biscotti? I mean I was thinking something like moscato when I dipped my biscotti in it and took a bite…but it was more like Crown Royal. Or jet fuel. Just awful.

Afterwards, we headed to the city of Piensa, a picturesque little town famous for cheese. (according to me). We walked around the whole city, got some souvenirs, and then boarded the bus back home for another drive through the winding Tuscan countryside. There’s something just absolutely peaceful about the golden rolling hills, and it reminded me a lot of home. *tear*

Ah, well, one day I’ll go back!

Anyway, the day ended late and we were all tuckered out after the trip, so we returned to our super luxurious hotel (did I mention that? They upgraded our room for free!) and crashed out for the night.

Don’t worry though, I’ve got plenty more stories about the days ahead.

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-Carissa

Amor in Roma

Well hello! Long time no talk! That’s because I’ve been busy making memories. And guys, do I have some stories to tell you. But! First things first. I’ve spent the last 9 days in Rome, where I’ve made new friends, spent time with old ones, and got to show an Italy noob around. (As if I’m not one)

Let’s begin from the beginning, shall we?

I previously told you guys that I was staying in an ancient farmhouse in Tuscany, with no wifi and lots of animals. Well, my day to leave came around and I packed everything up, dragged my suitcase to the car, and let the farmer’s son drive me the half hour to the train station. I was waiting on the platform with Nala, barely five minutes before leaving, when I realized that I had forgotten my wallet. You will recognize this as something that I absolutely cannot lose. Luckily, the farmer’s son had gone to the market and hadn’t left the village yet. I caught him as he got to his car, and he escorted me back to the farm, where my wallet sat waiting. D’oh. Unfortunately, this also meant I missed my train, and my connecting one, which put me in Rome at 4pm rather than 12pm. This sucks all by itself, but my friend Sarah (hi Sarah!) had come down from Germany for the weekend and landed at 9am. She was forced to wander alone while I languished in the Tuscan countryside. Such is life.

Pause here for a moment while I tell you guys about this game that my mom got me. It’s called Anywhere, and can be found on Amazon.

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Sarah working hard during the game

I hadn’t played it before, since I didn’t want to be a lonely loser, but Sarah and I spent the entire weekend playing and had an absolute blast. It features such cards as “make up a silly walk,” and “pick someone to follow around. Follow them for as long as possible.” You better believe we followed a man wearing incredibly tight pants all throughout the city.

Our second night in the city was amazing and ridiculous and just…well let me tell you. We made the bus ride to the Coliseum, during which an incredibly drunk man sat thirteen inches away from us and made awkward, unending, eye contact for half an hour. He was undoubtedly fascinated by us, to the point where he attempted to read our cards and even check out the pictures I was showing Sarah on my phone. After an understandably creepy amount of time had passed, we finally managed to hop off the bus and make a run for it before he realized we were gone. Upon reaching the Coliseum, however, we found out it was closed. Staring at it, and the various people milling around inside, Sarah turned to me and said, “I think I need a drink.”

And thus began our adventures.

 

We started first at a hipster bar, where the bartender did his best to impress Sarah and accidentally threw an entire bottle of liquor on the floor. Then they gave us free shots because they forgot to give us our bruschetta.

Suitably tipsy, we made our way to a highly recommended pizza shop, where we told the wait would be a half hour and finally got a table two hours later. In the meantime, we wandered the streets and even managed a few words with a Syrian shopkeeper, who was very impressed by us.

Finally sitting down, we ordered an entire liter of red wine and devoured a whole pizza each. We closed the shop down at midnight, after the exasperated waitress asked us for the third time whether we wanted to order any more food.

Then, because I had told Sarah I’d always wanted to go to an Ice Bar, she looked one up and we made our way over there. We arrived at 12:30, and the guy at the entrance paused, my credit card in his hand, before telling me to look up at the live feed inside the bar. It. Was. Empty. I mean literally not a single person was inside. Having saved us 30 Euros (for a cover fee), we thanked him profusely and asked for bar recommendations. He directed us to the Nag’s Head, a Scottish pub which he promised would have people in it.

Also, I just need to tell you guys what we looked like at this point. Sarah was dressed all in black, from head to toe, and I was wearing sky blue leggings with a hot pink workout shirt that read “After this…pizza.” Oh, and my red Gryffindor sweater. So basically we were hot babes and everyone knew it.

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Goddesses of the Night

In contrast, the pub was full of middle-aged women in club attire, with full face makeup. Seeing we were completely out-dressed, we hurriedly redid our hair from ‘ponytail’ to ‘inside-out ponytail.’ Very effective.

We then continued to play Anywhere, enjoying glasses of Guinness and dancing around awkwardly at our very own table. At one point, Sarah walked into the kitchen (on purpose) before hurriedly being shoved out by a very distressed waiter and waved in the direction of the bathrooms.

It was at this point, after having been alone for approximately 30 seconds, that an Indian man named Tareq came over and made himself comfortable at our table. Now, it was very loud in the bar, and I had a really hard time hearing him. So every time he spoke, I would turn to Sarah (who had come back from the bathroom) and ask her what he said.

It was because of this that I thought he was a writer. For the Vatican. After asking a million questions about what he wrote, he exasperatedly told us that he was a waiter and that he served people food for a living. Oops.

I mean seriously, this guy would not leave our table. So in desperation, I stood up, eyed the bar, and beckoned a different table full of men over in order to get him to leave. And, I mean, it worked. He did leave. But then we were stuck with this other table full of men. So…it was better?

We ended up spending the rest of the night hanging out with these guys, before they tried really hard to get us to go home with them. I mean, come on guys, we’re not fourteen. We know what you’re trying here.

So it was with great enjoyment that I watched Sarah break down into full hysterics over her lost necklace, fabricating a hilarious and semi-realistic excuse to leave. And let me tell you- she didn’t half-ass it here. She went all out, sobbing, tearing at her hair, looking all over the floor, etc. etc. I even made up a nice backstory, telling the guys with us that it was from her dead mother and literally irreplaceable.

Since she was just *so* upset, we had to make a quick break for it. Running off down the road, I called an Uber, which was just minutes away when the guys from the bar caught up to us. I’m fairly certain they saw us chit-chatting, with Sarah perfectly fine, before she broke down again, RAN TO THE NEAREST CAB, and climbed in, screaming for me to join her. I, being the good friend that I was, couldn’t just leave her, and shrugged woefully at the poor bar guys before joining her in the cab.

And thus we made our escape.

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-Carissa “Tight Pants” Rawson

Tuscany: Romancing my Dog

Hello All!

Today I am sitting here in my very own farmhouse, deep within the rolling hills of Tuscany. It’s as nice as it sounds. The weather up here is gorgeous and the house is 500 years old (as told to me by the incredibly nice owners staying next door). I’m here for a total of four nights, and I have to admit, when I first got here, I was…sad. Because this place is beautiful, and romantic, and so very clearly a honeymoon-esque place to be.

And I’m here alone. Ah well, such is life.

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At least I have my dog?

I’ve cheered myself right up by finally having no plans at all. There’s not even wifi here, and my phone signal is straight out of 2006. This means I’ve spent a lot of time staring into the middle distance with the sun on my face and the goats baaing behind me.

Did I mention this was a working farm? The people who own it have everything- goats, pigs, rabbits, horses, sheep, chickens- even their own vineyard! They own the entire mountain we’re sitting on, as well as the one next to it. Of course, this means we’re approximately 20 minutes from any sort of store. Obviously I didn’t think this through, because I realized very quickly I had no food and no means of retrieving any (most people drive themselves here). However, the first night I was here, they cooked me a fantastic meal (of all homegrown foods) and even gave me a bottle of their own homemade wine. Ah-mazing.

The next morning, they even took me down to the village supermarket so I could get groceries for the next few days. Pro tip here guys: don’t ever attempt to use the self-checkout in a foreign country. Everything is different. When I first started scanning my items, the woman manning the self-checkouts pointed to the sign above me, saying “10 items maximum,” which I very obviously missed. (I had like 25). Then, when I went to ring in some bananas, she literally shouted “stop!” ran over, and showed me that you have to pre-price all your produce before getting to the checkout stand. Of course I had like…10 items of produce, which I shamefully went back and priced out while leaving my basket hogging an entire checkout stand.

Then she had to come over to verify my age for my wine.

Then I accidentally took an item out of the bagging area and she had to unlock the register so I could continue.

At this point she just gave up and scanned all my groceries for me.

She left me to pay and I thanked her profusely while I finished up.

Then I couldn’t figure out how to get out. I was locked in the grocery store.

Finally, I walked up to her, as shamefully as you could possibly imagine, said “scusi,” and then gestured helplessly at the locked doors.

I think she probably wanted to fall off her chair in laughter, but she was very graceful, scanned her badge at a kiosk (you’re supposed to scan your receipt) and let me out.

My embarrassment was palpable.

Next time I’ll just starve.

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My farmhouse in the upper left

-Carissa “what’s Italian?” Rawson

Friends in Firenze

Hello!

I am in great spirits today, despite missing literally everything I had planned in Florence. First, some backstory:

Yesterday I had planned a half day tour through Tuscany, since I figured “why not?” Well, my shuttle bus from the hotel was late, which meant my tour left without me and I was stuck in the dripping rain with nothing to do. It was a mess.

However! The other girl riding the shuttle bus with me happened to speak English and overhear all of my awful problems. She then offered to show me around a bit.

At the risk of sounding fangirl-y, she was pretty great. We had an awesome day wandering around the shops and landmarks, and at the end of it we (and her husband) ended up going out to dinner.

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So fancy

We drove all the way to Baberino (in the middle of a thunderstorm!) in order to enjoy a huge Florentine steak and delicious wine. Probably the coolest part was that her husband didn’t speak a ton of English, but he did speak Spanish, and both she and I spoke Arabic. So around the table, we had conversations going in Spanish, English, Italian, and Arabic. I felt so cool. (Though I speak like 3 words of Italian)

Chalk one up for amazing experiences. I’m now in the process of trying to convince them to come to Jordan. (Do it!)

So, today I’m back in the club lounge, in high spirits and totally stoked about having met some great people. Nala and I are relaxing before we head off to our next Airbnb, which I booked solely on the basis of its pictures. See for yourself:

Ciao!

-Carissa “I finally met people!” Ragland

Weekly Inspiration: Hawaii on Points and Miles

I mentioned a few weeks ago that I’d start posting different examples for vacations that you can take using points and miles, so I thought I’d finally make good on the offer. Now in the past I’ve posted up my own trips, but since I’m only one person and I can’t possibly take every trip in the world, let’s start working on some hypothetical ones.

First up: Hawaii!

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I know for a lot of people Hawaii is a bucket list item (I still haven’t been…yet), and unfortunately, it always seems to cost a ton of money. Now, there are loads of options for using points and miles to get to Hawaii, but I’m just going to highlight one really easy one, for people who are just getting started. Ready?

How to Get There: Airfare

While round-trip flights from the mainland can usually cost more than $400/person, snagging flights on award availability isn’t all that hard. British Airways, which offers a co-branded Chase credit card, will give you 50,000 points after spending $2,000 in the first three months. Thanks to British Airways’ award chart (it’s distance based, rather than based on the cost of the ticket) this means that you can score a round-trip flight to Hawaii for just 25,000 points. (This is using its award partner, American Airlines) That means that you and someone you really like can fly to Hawaii for free!

Where to Stay: Hotels

There are tons of hotels in Hawaii. For the most part, they’re all ridiculously overpriced. While there are again many hotels that can be redeemed for award points, here we’re going for longevity. What’s the use of spending 50,000 points to stay one night at the fanciest hotel, when you can spend the same for 4 nights elsewhere?

To that end, I recommend the Hyatt Place Waikiki Beach. It’s a category three Hyatt hotel, which means it will cost you just 12,000 points/ night to stay there. In July, the cost to stay there is $270/night, plus taxes and resort fees.

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Chase has both the Sapphire Reserve and Sapphire Preferred cards, which each offer a sign-up bonus of 50,000 points. (After 4k in spend in the first 3 months). You can transfer Chase reward points to Hyatt at a 1:1 ratio, meaning you can spend a whopping 8 nights in Hawaii for free if you get both cards. That same stay would cost you almost $2500 out of pocket. (The Chase Sapphire Reserve even has a 100k sign up bonus available until March 12th if you apply in-branch)

What About the Rest of It?

I know that airfare and hotels are often the two most costly portions of a vacation. But what if you wanted a truly free vacation?

The Barclaycard Arrival Plus World Elite MasterCard offers a sign-up bonus of 50,000 points after 3k spend in 3 months, and you can use its redemptions to erase travel charges at a rate of 1 cent/mile. That’s another $500 worth of stuff you can have for free. What’s not to like about that?

All in all, the travel game isn’t too difficult. Once you get your head wrapped around the different points and their possibilities, almost nowhere is off limits.

Now here’s a solicitation: does anyone have any requests for places to go? Let me know in the comments if you’d like me to do some research and come up with a point plan for you.

Cheers!

-Carissa

Florence, Dog Pee, and a Vacation from a Vacation

Hello All,

I’m writing to you from my hotel in Florence, where I am taking a vacation from my vacation. God, how spoiled do I sound? The truth is, it’s pretty tiring getting up and getting out all day, every day. Combined with the care of a tiny needy dog who sometimes pees on things like your bed, it can be downright exhausting!

So! Like I mentioned previously, I’m completing a status challenge in order to get Hilton Diamond status for the next few years. That meant canceling a few of my Airbnbs and switching to hotels.

And boy, is it worth it. I took off yesterday from Nice, where it had kindly decided to start storming exactly as I ran for the train station. Soggy and freezing, Nala and I climbed onto the train, where we sat, delayed, for two hours. Like, I mean, we hadn’t even left the station yet.

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But look at that tongue.

Anyway, I had a connection in Milan, which I ended up missing. Knowing this, I went down to customer service, where I waited for an hour for help and ended up missing another train. Oh! And someone tried to pickpocket me! Never underestimate the excitement of travel, guys.

Long story short, I ended up in Florence 4 hours late and tired of hauling all my (Nala’s) stuff through train stations. Luckily, upon arrival at the Hilton, (almost) everything got immediately better. Seeing as how I’m currently a top-tier elite, my room was upgraded, and, of course, I got executive lounge access, which means free food and drinks all day long. The point I’m making here is: get status! It makes everything 1000% nicer.

I’m now freshly showered, fed, and watered, and spent a lovely morning in a whirlpool spa area doing absolutely nothing. It was glorious.

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From the rooftop terrace at the executive lounge.

Now, a final story to send you guys off before I spend some more time relaxing and chilling out.

So, last night, like I mentioned, I was pretty tired. Nala too, since she had been traveling with me all day. Well, she had already pooped in the train terminal, but luckily the Italians love dogs so everyone just chuckled and shook their heads.

After arriving to the hotel, I spent a few minutes in my room before heading to the club lounge to grab a few drinks and snacks. When I came back, Nala was waiting for me at the door, frantically greeting me and jumping around. Well…I soon found out why, when I encountered my plush, amazing, king-size bed covered in pee. This means my dog, who I had just left, (and who was just outside!) found herself alone, jumped up onto the bed (because the floor wasn’t good enough?) and decided to relieve herself. All. Over. It.

I mean come on! Shamefully, I called down to the front desk and asked them for a new bedspread, because my dog has no manners. They were very kind and sent up housekeeping with a new one, who remade my bed while I awkwardly watched and tried to ignore the wet pile of dog pee bedding right next to us.

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I am a shameful pee dog.

Good times.

Ciao!

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Selfie Queens

-Carissa “Under the Tuscan Sun” Rawson

The Incredible Côte D’Azur

Ok!

I promised a happy post and here it is. Guys, Nice is beautiful. There is a reason that the rich and famous come to play here, and that’s because this city is basically paradise. I’m sat here, on the beach, just watching the waves roll in and wondering how I got to be so lucky. In short, you need to visit. Spend some points (there’s a Hyatt here!) or get an Airbnb and just let yourself rejuvenate in this fresh French air.

Plus, a bottle of wine is only 2 bucks! I mean, that makes this place at least 1000% better.

Ok pause right now. My waiter just came over and was starstruck to learn that I write a travel blog, and that I was in fact writing about Nice at this very moment. Does that make me famous? Anyway, since he was so kind, I’ll go ahead and plug his restaurant. Everyone, go to the Neptune Plage on the beach because the wine is cheap and the view is gorgeous (and I don’t just mean the waiters).

So, what about Nice is nice? Apart from the water, there’s a lot to do. My first day here, I wandered the fresh market, picking up some of the plushest produce I’ve ever seen and enjoying it while sipping a cappuccino on an outside terrace.

Today, I gave in to my baser instincts and headed to Blast: An American Bar, where I stereotypically ate French Toast and loved every minute of it. The service was some of the bet I’ve ever gotten, so I left a 2 Euro tip (See? See how tipping is done?)

Nala and I have wandered the streets, eyeing the luxury shopping (Chanel? Gucci? Please.) and every so often visited something historic. That’s the beauty of Europe, you see. Everything is old, and oftentimes, beautifully preserved. We can find things here that predate the US by hundreds of years, still in use, and still gorgeous.

I’ve gone on a tour to see the rich and famous in Monaco. Along the way, I stopped in the medical village of Eze, which houses 40 people and a huge cactus garden because…France?

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I even went to the Le Casino Monte Carlo, where I paid 10 Euro for entry and got stared at because perhaps my leggings weren’t quite in the dress code.

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Le Casino Monte Carlo

In short, the French Riviera is everything you’ve heard it is and more. It is elegant, grand and rich, welcoming, humble and affordable.

Come visit.

-Carissa

The Tipping Point: What not to Do

Bonjour!

I am writing to you today from the beach of Nice, where I have sat myself with a glass of wine and the most incredible view.

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Seriously

 

But! Enough about the view. Today I’d like to talk about what happened yesterday, a ridiculous fiasco in the Principality of Monaco that has taught me, more than anything, to stick to my guns.

So let me lay the scene out for you here. Yesterday I took a tour to the village of Eze and to Monaco, an all day affair that showed us around some really beautiful places. I happened to be with three fantastic women from Philly, who ended up adopting me into their group and spending the day with me.

We had a great time wandering throughout Monaco (which I will write about later), minus this one, ridiculous, affair. You see, we stopped off for lunch at a nice, touristy, restaurant, where an insistent waiter urged our group inside. (He actually thought we were French at first, and spent several minutes coaxing us in with French, which obviously failed). I ordered the pumpkin soup, which was ah-mazing, and everything generally went over really well until the bill came.

We were mid-conversation, the women having asked me about tipping in Europe, when the waiter arrived with the bill and presented it with a flourish to one of the women (she had offered to pay for me, as thanks for my military service. Generosity is found everywhere!)

Upon presenting, he told her, “the service is not included in the bill.”

Now, I don’t know how much you guys know about tipping in Europe. I know for us, in the US, tipping is essentially required and at a minimum of 15%. This isn’t so in the EU. Here, tipping is not only optional, the amount you tip (if you do) generally spans from a few Euro onwards.

At this point, the woman told him to add five Euro extra onto the bill, to which he repeated “the service is not included in the bill.”

Ok, so maybe he was confused? Could he not do math? I myself turned around and explained to him that there was additional already added into the amount to be charged….at which point he emphasized, again, that service was not already included.

He emphasized insistently and very, very, rudely. At this point my jaw was hanging open, wondering what sort of waiter would address patrons like this. (Obviously the kind that preys on tourists).

Upon being asked, he told our party that tipping was generally at 15%-20%, at which point we folded and added a full 15 Euro to the bill, an altogether ridiculous amount in a society that doesn’t ever rely on tipping.

Now this is the first time I’ve ever been harassed for a tip, and I think it had a lot to do with the company I was in. I myself look vaguely like a down-on-her-luck college student (ok, high school), an image I have carefully cultivated so as not to be robbed of my earthly possessions. But the rest of us, who were obviously well-off enough to travel all the way to Monaco, weren’t quite as shabby as me. Thus, the waiter felt entitled to ask for, nay, demand, more money.

When we told our guide later what had happened, her jaw also dropped.

“This,” she declared in her amazing French accent, “is absurd. If someone spoke to me like this I would give them nothing.”

So. Lesson learned. All the things people tell you about tipping in Europe are true. Don’t overpay just because some pushy asshole is lying to you about how things work in their country. What a poor ambassador for Monaco, and most especially, what a terrible impression to leave on people who are naturally very generous. Tipping in the future? I think not.

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Here’s a tip: try looking at the camera.

-Carissa