The Roman World Beyond Italy

Traveling has brought us to many corners of the world — and one group of people keep popping up: the Romans. At its height, the Roman Empire was the most extensive political and social structure in western civilization. Subscribe to our Big & Small Travel Youtube to watch our adventures in Rome and more.

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A Day Trip to the Artsy Tuscan Town of Pietrasanta, Italy

Roberto Barni Exhibition in Sant'Agostino, December 2017

Big & Small took the train up from Lucca to the chic Tuscan town of Pietrasanta to enjoy an artisanal chocolate festival and the opening of the stunning Roberto Barni exhibition. The Italian sculptor’s works were scattered around the main square (Piazza del Duomo) and the former 14th-century church of Sant’Agostino. To be honest, our main mission of the day was to snatch up a whole lot of handmade chocolate, but we were pleasantly surprised to discover such a charming artistic enclave full of trendy boutiques, galleries, and restaurants.

Here’s a look at our day and night (when the town really comes alive) in Pietrasanta.

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VIDEO: See the Best of Rome in Just 3 Minutes!

There are few places left in this world where you can casually walk through 2,000 years of history. Wandering through Rome, Italy, you are constantly reminded of a storied empire that laid the foundation for Western civilization. Around every corner, you’ll run into a formidable ancient monument, grandly gilded cathedral, or priceless piece of Renaissance art. But behind all that outward splendor and beauty are tragic tales of power, religion, death, and destruction – this is history served up in all its brutal rawness.

To capture Rome in every bit of its glory, Big & Small Travel present this quick video of its highlights.

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72 Hours in Budapest, Hungary

72 Hours in Budapest
Ruin Pubs, Thermal Baths, the House of Terror, and the World’s First Rock Star

*DOWNLOAD A FREE 16-PAGE PDF OF THIS 3-DAY ITINERARY!*

This is a city that shines brilliantly through the darkness. It especially shimmers at night, with golden rays of light bouncing off the opulent palace in Buda and the commanding Parliament in Pest, setting the Danube River ablaze. The iconic Szechenyi Chain Bridge is in the center of it all, a symbol of both the union between Buda and Pest (the two cities were unified in 1873) and of the Hungarians’ determined resiliency (the bridge was rebuilt and reopened just four years after being destroyed in World War II).

But it’s not just this physical radiance that gives Budapest its distinctive glow. This is a city that doesn’t hide from its harrowing history; instead, it shines a big spotlight on it. And it’s a history so recent you can step right into its still smoldering remains, from the aptly named House of Terror to the many inventive ruin pubs dominating the nightlife. Everywhere you walk, there are constant reminders of a not-so-distant past, when the city lay in turmoil, and a secret police tormented citizens and tortured and killed any suspected anti-communist dissident.

Budapest Highlights

Yet for every commemorative statue, museum, and remembrance plaque, there’s now a hip new club, a hot new restaurant (paleo and vegan options abound), or a chic new boutique quickly transforming Budapest into a city for the young, the vibrant, and the hopeful. It’s a fascinating juxtaposition, between a dark history and a luminous present, and it makes for a visit that is chock full of history, music, food, drinks, thermal waters, and riverfront strolls.

Here’s a loose itinerary for three action-packed days in the gorgeous capital of Hungary.


 

DAY 1: Heroes, Horrors, and The World’s First Rock Star

Andrassy Avenue, Franz Liszt, Sziget Eye
Andrassy Avenue, Franz Liszt, Sziget Eye
  • Pop into the New York Café… then get your coffee across the street

The New York Café is a richly ornate spot built in Italian Renaissance style in 1894. It once served as a popular meeting place for the literary crowd; it’s now a tourist hotspot for cake and espresso, and the prices match the demand. We recommend taking a look around, then heading across the street to the more modern café, Hirado Kavezo, which serves a heartwarming cappuccino for half the price.

Heroes' Square: Celebrating 1,000 Years
Heroes’ Square: Celebrating 1,000 Years
  • Walk or take the metro to Heroes’ Square at the end of Andrassy Avenue

Surrounded by the Museum of Fine Arts and the Palace of Art, Heroes Square’ is a spacious public area next to City Park (Varosliget). At the center is the grand Millennium Monument, featuring a colonnade with statues symbolizing War, Peace, Work and Welfare, and Knowledge and Glory. See Big explain more, straight from the square:

It may sound like a kitschy Halloween attraction, but the     House of Terror is the real, terrifying deal. Previously the headquarters of the Nazi secret police, then Hungary’s communist secret police, this building holds the ghosts of countless atrocities. Several informative and interactive exhibits take you through the years and the lives of Hungarians under the Soviet regime, but it’s after entering an elevator that slowly leads you to the building’s innards that the terror truly sinks in. When the door opens, you’re led directly into the heart of the terror, including a water torture chamber, a tiny cell for solitary confinement, and an execution room fit with a noose—ominously swaying, of course. You’ll never quite be the same after visiting—and that’s exactly the point.

The Terror House
The Terror House

Step into the home of the world’s first rock star. This is where influential Hungarian composer Franz Liszt lived. It’s a small museum, but a fascinating one, too, with photographs, memorabilia, and (of course) Liszt’s pianos, and you’ll learn about his travels, his performances, and his ability to make women faint from admiration—Listzomania, indeed! If you’re not a fan of classical music, this may just change that. (Note: Beware of a (kind of) steep photography fee.)

Liszt Ferenc Museum
Liszt Ferenc Museum

Say hello to the Liszt statue awaiting you out front, then pop inside to take in the beautifully ornate architecture, the Greek fresco, and a sparkling bronze chandelier. For more of this type of design and architecture, head to the Alexandra Bookstore and its second-floor Book Café. 

Strolling Down Andrassy
Strolling Down Andrassy
  • Walk to the end of Andrassy Avenue and take a right toward St. Stephen’s Basilica 

Here’s another spot to see classical music (particularly involving organ), or to just gawk at more opulent neo-classical architecture.

Sziget Eye and a view of St. Stephen's Basilica from the top
Sziget Eye and a view of St. Stephen’s Basilica from the top
  • Walk back down Bajcsy-Zsilinszky to Erzsebet Square and take a ride on the Sziget Eye

Make sure to do this in the evening, when Budapest shines in all directions (you can’t miss it—it’s that sparkling sphere hypnotizing you from all over town). The price is a bit hefty, but the 10-minute ride is romantic and intimate, giving you incredible 360 views of one of Europe’s most beautiful cities. (Note: As of this writing, the Sziget Eye is closed between January 3 and April 15.)


 

DAY 2: Buda’s Castle District and a Tranquil Riverside Stroll

Széchenyi Chain Bridge, Buda Castle, Parliament, & Buda Viewpoint
Széchenyi Chain Bridge, Buda Castle, Parliament, & Buda Viewpoint
  • If you’re staying in Pest (recommended), today, you’ll cross the Szechenyi Chain Bridge

This may be one of Budapest’s most iconic symbols, a stately suspension bridge connecting Buda and Pest. Don’t miss the bridge’s guards: formidable stone lions which even survived WWII.

Breathtaking view from Castle Hill in Buda
Breathtaking view from Castle Hill in Buda
  • Stepping onto the Buda side, make your way up to Castle Hill

There are two main ways to climb the 170 meters to this UNESCO World Heritage site: From Adam Clark Square, hop onto the Sikló, a funicular railway originally built in 1870 (it was also destroyed in WWII), or simply walk up the Kiraly lipsco or “Royal Steps” (it’s not too bad of an ascent, we promise).

Buda Castle
Buda Castle
  • Explore Budapest’s Old Town and the Buda Castle/Royal Palace

This World Heritage Site was home to both royalty (since the 13th century) and destruction. The Royal Palace was destroyed after being controlled by the Turks, rebuilt by the Habsburgs, and then ruined again in WWII. The Palace now houses the Budapest History Museum, the Hungarian National Gallery, and the Hungarian National Library. In general, it’s a beautiful area to walk around and enjoy spectacular views of both Buda and Pest.

Mathias Church & Fisherman's Bastion
Mathias Church & Fisherman’s Bastion
  • Head over to Trinity Square to visit Mathias Church and the Fishermen’s Bastion

The Neo-Gothic style Mathias Church, with its diamond-patterned tiles, is one of Buda’s most resplendent attractions. (Fascinating fact: It was actually turned into a mosque during the Turkish occupation.) It can be seen from many different angles throughout the city, while the nearby Fishermen’s Bastion towers majestically over the Danube, offering one of Budapest’s best (and most popular) viewpoints.

  • Walk or take the tram across the Danube, via Margaret Bridge, to start your Riverfront Walk in Pest, with a quick stop at the House of Parliament (Tip: Best done after sundown!)

If you have time (we didn’t, but wish we did!), make a stop at Margaret Island, a leafy and popular recreation area in the middle of the Danube. Then, make it back to the riverfront in Pest and take a leisurely stroll toward your starting point, the Chain Bridge. We highly recommend this to be an evening activity. As mentioned in my intro, this city is one of Europe’s most beautiful—particularly at night, with Buda and Pest’s golden lights colliding and reflecting off the river. Along the way, spot the Olympic rings, take a tour around the stately Neo-Gothic House of Parliament, and check out nearby memorials to learn more about the 1956 Hungarian Revolution.

Protest in front of the Parliament
Protest in front of the Parliament

DAY 3: Enjoy a Bath and Party at a Ruin Pub (or Two)

Szechenyi Thermal Baths, City Park, Szimpla Kert Ruin Pub
Szechenyi Thermal Baths, City Park, Szimpla Kert Ruin Pub

Yes, you were near here on Day 1, at Heroes’ Square. Now, venture inward and check out sites like the Time Wheel (essentially a giant hourglass—or “year”-glass to be more accurate), the Budapest Zoo and Botanical Garden, and the Vajdahunyad Castle, situated along the lake.

The Vajdahunyad Castle in City Park was built in 1896 as part of the Millennial Exhibition to celebrate Hungary's 1,000th year.
The Vajdahunyad Castle in City Park was built in 1896 as part of the Millennial Exhibition to celebrate Hungary’s 1,000th year.

Bust out the bathing suit and dip into the healing waters of one of the biggest bath complexes in Europe. There are several other baths to visit in Budapest—of varying sizes, prices, and cleanliness—so it’s definitely worth researching more if you’d like a more traditional (or cheaper) experience. This one in particular has 18 indoor and outdoor pools, steam rooms, saunas, and massage and other wellness treatments. We stuck to the outdoor pools, and particularly enjoyed jumping into the whirlpool, which spins you around with water jets—seriously some of the best time you’ll have with strangers in swimsuits. You could easily spend all day here exploring the complex and simply soaking—you may need it after all that walking from Days 1 & 2. You can keep your belongings in lockers secured with your own wristband (similar to the Blue Lagoon).

One of three outdoor pools at Szechenyi Thermal Baths
One of three outdoor pools at Szechenyi Thermal Baths
  • Take the metro and head over to the Seventh District (the old Jewish Quarter) for eats and drinks

This area is home to the Jewish quarter, and the Great Synagogue (the second largest in the world). It’s also the hottest spot in Budapest, with its thriving cultural and culinary scene. There’s an eclectic mix of restaurants—where you can get some of Europe’s finest cheap eats, from hummus to goulash—as well as interactive entertainment in the form of escape rooms (in which you actually pay to get locked into a cell?!).

Szimpla Kert Ruin Pub
Szimpla Kert Ruin Pub
  • Go ruin pub-hopping

Do not miss out on one of the area’s famous “ruin pubs,” large, funky, often multi-room bars built in the area’s abandoned buildings. It’s like jumping into a surreal bazaar, with odd antiques glued to the wall, flea-market furniture and empty bathtubs strewn about, creepy toys and teddy bears mingling on tables, and other sundry pieces of trashy art and zany treasures. Reasonably priced alcohol and an eccentric mix of live bands and DJs round out the ruin pub experience. We recommend getting lost in Szimpla Kert, one of the first and largest ruin pubs in Budapest, where you can even throw back a beer in an old Trabant (an East German-made car).

Now, book that trip and enjoy your time in Budapest! We sure did.
~Big & Small

48 Hours in Lyon, France

Rich Food, Playful Puppets, River Walks & Hidden Passageways

Chilling by the Saone River after a filling, deliciously fatty lunch.
Chilling by the Saone River after a filling, deliciously fatty lunch.

The third largest city in France, Lyon is constantly in the shadows of big sister Paris, 300 miles to the northwest. In recent years, however, its gained notable attention as the “gastronomic capital of the world,” home to a number of Michelin star establishments. The city seems to throb to the pulse of the pig (or the duck), the main source material for its rich, fatty cuisine. While Lyon is modern in its hectic traffic and its hefty prices (which rival Paris, at least for food), it also feels a bit stuck in time, resolute in keeping the proud traditions of the French—which seem to revolve almost exclusively around food—completely unchanged and continually revered.

We spent about 48 hours in Lyon and packed quite a bit in. We stayed near Place Saint Vincent in the 1st arrondissement, an ideal spot, in my opinion. It’s a neighborhood of AirBnBs and local residents that is also a quick walk to the touristy Vieux Lyon (the old town). Here are some highlights from our quick trip, from belly-filling delights (and disappointments) to numerous ways to walk them all off… oh, and a puppet show!

EAT YOUR HEART OUT: Bouchons, Boulangeries, and a Biocoop

Duck salad at Cafe de la Place & Chocolate-Making from Guillaume Daix
Duck salad at Cafe de la Place & chocolate-making by Guillaume Daix

Admittedly, traditional French food is not my favorite cuisine. I cannot deny, however, that the ingredients and quality are unmatched. I had not had one bad meal in my two weeks in France—that is, until we sought out one of Lyon’s famed bouchons. This type of restaurant serves traditional Lyonnaise cuisine in all of its carnivorous glory (there’s even calf’s head for the more adventurous bellies).

There are some 20 “officially certified” bouchons in the city, denoted by a Les Bouchons Lyonnais symbol, and they are determined by such key factors as “products, dishes, décor, architecture, ambiance, customer welcome, etc.” We found one of these stamped-with-approval establishments in Vieux Lyon, called Le Laurencin, where the prices were incredibly reasonable (about 15 euros for entrée, main plate, and dessert)—and we soon discovered why. The salad greens withered in a bath of watery dressing. The main plates were filled with a mound of potatoes, and a pile of animal parts of your choosing. The praline tart (another Lyon specialty) was the best part, if not just because the sweetness danced nicely on the tongue after all the flesh and intestines.

La Fresque des Lyonnais (Fresco of the People of Lyon)
La Fresque des Lyonnais (Fresco of the People of Lyon)

That said, Lyon is packed with top-notch charcuteries, patisseries, fromageries, and poissoneries. The first day, we stumbled across Les Halles de Lyon Market – Paul Bocuse, near the Part Dieu train station, a must-stop for any aspiring foodie. Rue Merciere is another hot spot, lined with numerous restaurants, as well as Place Sathonay, where I enjoyed a salad topped with duck (the parts of which I’m not entirely sure of!) at Café de la Place. Our favorite boulangerie, Saint Vincent, was right around the corner from our AirBnB, in perfect view of the cool Lyon frescoes.

We also found the excellent chocolate shop, Guillaume Daix, on the edge of the old town, where we came across chocolates flavored with such ingredients as dill, rosemary, and sweet pepper. Our choice was the dark chocolate pieces generously dusted in hibiscus. For the organically minded, head to the natural-food store Biocoop near Place Bellecour—one of the few refuges for vegans and vegetarians.

WALK IT ALL OFF: Riverfront Paths, Traboules, and a Hill Climb 

Handstand on the Pedi Bridge to Vieux Lyon
Handstand on the Pedi Bridge to Vieux Lyon

Lyon is a fairly walkable city, which is great news after all of that… sustenance. Two rivers, the Saône and Rhône, divide the city into three segments, and converge at the southern tip. There are pedestrian bridges that connect the city, as well as great walking and running paths along both rivers.

Lyon, along the Saone River
Lyon, along the Saone River

Another great way to get some mileage around the city is to do a traboule hunt. Traboules are covered passageways throughout the city. They were used to transport products, particularly silk and textiles, throughout the city. You’ll find most of them in the old town, but there are a few in the La Croix-Rousse area as well. Pick up a map from the tourist office, which marks where each traboule is located. Most of them are actually closed, and are used as apartment entrances. We did find an open one on the southern edge of the old town—I won’t tell you where; that’s the fun!

Theatres Romains, built around 15 BC by the Romans
Theatres Romains, built around 15 BC by the Romans

For a true calorie-burner, though, I highly recommend bypassing the funicular ride up Fourvière hill to climb the stairs from St-Paul station to the top. It’s a great workout, and you’ll pass the Tour métallique de Fourvière, a TV tower that attempts to be a mini Eiffel Tower, before reaching the 19th century Basilique Notre-Dame de Fourviere and getting an incredible panoramic view of Lyon. From there, you can easily reach the grand Theatres Romains, built around 15 BC by the Romans, before circling back to the windy, narrow streets of the old town.

TAKE IN A PUPPET SHOW: GUIGNOL!

Once you reach the old town, the walk is best capped off with a puppet show! Guignol is the witty main character of this Lyon tradition; he represents the workers in the silk industry. Though the shows are all in French, and the audience is dominated by giddy kids, it’s a treat to see. We arrived late to the show, but were allowed to take the last two seats in the back for free. Check out this quick snippet we caught:

While Lyon is a fairly big city, it’s totally doable to see the highlights in just 48 hours. Be prepared to stuff yourself and get in a good hill climb or two, too. And do catch a Guignol show, no matter what age you are (and what language you speak)! Bon voyage!

European Yoga Adventures: Yoga Shala Reykjavik, Iceland

Handstand at Jokulsarlon, South Iceland
Handstand at Jokulsarlon, South Iceland

Travel is the best way to get out of your comfort zone, and yoga is the best way to get out of your head. So, why not combine the two? Follow my journeys as I attempt to do yoga across Europe. I’ll be getting lost in non-English classes, discovering new forms and philosophies, and hopefully offering some useful tips and valuable insights along the way. First stop: Iceland!

 

With my “nomad mat” in tow, I set off for my first yoga class in which I would understood absolutely nothing. Driving up to Yoga Shala Reykjavik means coming across a rather faceless windowed office building, something straight out of any American suburb. I saw no signs for the shala, and so simply followed a few mat-toting girls up the stairs. Inside, the place was much more inviting, with a rainbow of beanbags and a shrine of various yoga books and knick-knacks.

Photo Credit: Yoga Shala Reykjavik
Photo Credit: Yoga Shala Reykjavik

Still fighting jet lag and a lack of greens in the diet (fresh produce is a rare commodity in Iceland), I was feeling a little rundown, hesitant, and a bit nervous to enter the class, but I felt at ease upon meeting the sweet girl at the front desk (who I would in minutes learn was also the teacher), who greeted me in crystal-clear English and told me my first class was free (yay!). I still wasn’t sure what language I would be hearing for the next 90 minutes, but this was also an Ashtanga class, a form of yoga I was pretty familiar with, so I went in with head held high.

Post-Class Glow

I quickly realized this class was filled with all Reykjavik residents. The teacher then entered, and the Icelandic soon began. It seemed everyone knew what the hell she was talking about…

Eventually, though, the choppy consonant-driven language seemed to meld gracefully with Sanskrit. My ears started to excitedly perk up when hearing “asana,” and I slowly started to recognize the 3-2-1 countdowns. This was exhilarating in itself, even though I still felt like a beginner, lifting my head and peeking around, getting scared when we turned to the back (which meant I was now in the front!).

Love for Yoga Journal on the bathroom floor...
Love for Yoga Journal on the bathroom floor…

I certainly wasn’t letting my mind go, though; in fact, I kept thinking about thinking too much. But once I started getting more comfortable—and remembering that everyone is really just focused on their own practice, not on dumb old me—the more I took in the calming energy of the class. I noticed a great focus on deep and detoxifying breathing, something I don’t get enough of in my classes at home in San Francisco, which tend to be way more rigorous. The breathing among this small group overtook and warmed the room. It felt like a natural force much bigger than the sum of its parts; it felt very Icelandic in a way—this small room, like the island it rested upon, could create some real fire and noise.

Speaking of noise, I only realized the lack of music about an hour into the class—a stark difference from the techno-blasting class of home. I thought no music would drive me mad, but I didn’t even notice it. It was refreshing, actually, to hear nothing but syllables, inhales, exhales, and the occasional squeak of a mat. Yoga is not about comprehending the external anyway—realizing this can be pretty liberating.

Next up: Paris, France!