Hi, I’m Benjamin Chait. After backpacking around the world, I spent six years in PDX before moving to SF. Say hello @benjaminchait (or email) and let’s grab coffee?

Venice

An art exists to wandering lost. In a city with no cars—only water—my brother Tye and I constantly find ourselves facing canals, our paths often and irrationally concluding with a dead-end. Three days exploring Venice; its beauty complicated by a sense of abandonment.

Gondolier during day

If cities are themed, Venice owns water. Even before arriving, stunning views of the Venetian Lagoon separate the city from the mainland. Upon arrival, Tye and I opt to walk rather than pay for a water taxi; two minutes later and we had grab our cameras while standing atop Ponte degli Scalzi over the Grand Canal. The sound of water permeates, a serene reminder of what lies as the foundation to the city. Boats buzz past in all directions. Gondoliers sit beside canals throughout the city, always eager to provide a ride for the many visitors. Venetian masks line shop walls, Murano glass crafted into goods of all forms—the Rialto Bridge has all of these plus great views. The palace and Saint Mark’s Square are iconic. Yes, Venice is gorgeous.

Tye in a small alleyway Venetian masks

Yet for all its beauty, I felt the city itself wears a mask. The main paths are a constant bustle of activity yet one block away feels empty, abandoned. Shops are closed, buildings look forgotten—or at the very least ignored. The constant presence of water is taking its toll. I wonder how true the claims are that the city has more visitors than residents; then again, if the city truly is sinking, I probably wouldn’t choose to live here myself. In some sense, the more we explore, everything we find makes the city feel more and more superficial, a theater for tourists.

Grand Canal from Rialto Bridge Gondolier during night

Even with such tensions, we meet some lovely fellow travelers and explore some amazing history. Instead of people-watching, Venice has boat-watching. Grabbing snacks and a Bellini and enjoying musical performances makes for some lovely summer evenings. Despite Venice appearing in an incredible number of films, nothing quite compares to the experience of standing in the center of Piazza San Marco or merely enjoying an afternoon sitting beside the Grand Canal watching boats pass.

Sorrento

Along the southern coast, Sorrento offers clear, blue water as it meets black-sand beaches among the many hillsides and cliffs. Lemon groves exist in troves surrounding this 16,000-person town. Beautiful, quiet and relaxing, our one-day visit concluded with a delightful meal—at a small, family-run trattoria—and was capped with the town’s specialty, limoncello.

Steep hill People on piers

Naples

Naples was not my favorite place but I got to eat pizza margarita where the dish was invented. The parents departed for home and Tye stayed to travel for the next few weeks. Our first stop in southern Italy includes beautiful coastal waters, views of Mount Vesuvius and a dirty, graffiti-laden city—I’m glad to depart.

Tye, Mount Vesuvius in background

Rome

I realize it’s impossible to see everything. But we tried. Even now I find myself in awe of the grandeur and spectacle of this 2,500 year-old city—can it really be that I am inside the House of Augustus or standing beside the very plaza in which Caesar was killed? Each morning begins with a rooftop breakfast at our rented apartment, St. Peter’s Basilica to the north as it rises above the walls of Vatican City. Wandering east across the Tiber, we find ourselves downtown—a fascinating mix of excavation sites scattered among the modern city. Buildings literally built around—even over—what remnants still exist. Small alleys connecting the major streets are filled with history and give us chances to explore neighborhoods like the Jewish “ghetto” or Trastevere (literally, “beyond the Tiber”). No matter how early we wake up nor how late we stay out, we only scratch the surface of this place.

House of Augustus, Palantine Hill Family Colosseum

Of course we visited the major sites. Ancient Rome is breathtaking. Exploring Palatine Hill and the Roman Forum displayed the wealth and grandeur of the world some thousands of years ago. And stepping into the Colosseum brought to life so many stories; oddly, I found it was smaller than I anticipated. Sitting on the Spanish Steps, people-watching at the Trevi Fountain and looking up in awe at the Pantheon’s architecture more than filled our days. We spent a full day exploring Vatican City. Having reserved tickets for the Vatican Museum, we skipped the enormous line and succeeded in visiting a good portion of the 1,440 rooms containing historical Catholic artwork, Egyptian hieroglyphics, beautiful mosaics and frescos covering rooms from floor to ceiling, old maps of the world, stonework depicting images from “The Odyssey” and many, many other marvels. We also spent plenty of time admiring Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel. Beyond the museum, returning to our apartment from the city-centre took us past St. Peter’s Square, itself another impressive sight. And of course, good food and great company were always to be found.

Trevi Fountain Pantheon Ceiling somewhere in the Vatican Museum Pizza

I cannot remember another time eating so well. Wandering about town, pizzerias line the streets offering quick and simple meals—margarita and rossa (red) being the two offerings. Gelato of seemingly endless varieties provided a reprieve from the warm days. Coffee was always easy to find—I enjoyed more than my share of espressos! Afternoons were often spent back in our apartment, relaxing with cheese, crackers, chocolate and a bottle of wine; naps often accompanied our siestas. Dinners offered the choice of another pizza or one of the many delicious pastas—cachio e pepe (“cheese and pepper”) being my favorite. Roman delicacies like pasta carbonara or carciofi romaneschi (artichokes) were delightfully filling. Most important, this time was all spent with family.

Goodbyes are never easy. Saying farewell to my parents was harder than when departing last fall; I miss having them nearby. Italy was celebrating milestones—my brother Tye graduated university and turned 22 while my own birthday comes at the end of this month. More than that, I have been abroad for eight months, so this was our chance to spend time together. And finally, it was a family trip; my mother noted that we chose Italy because my father “loves Italian food.” While we rarely traveled abroad when I was younger, we began exploring farther away in the past few years—and I cannot imagine a better place than Italy to have spent the past two weeks together. With any luck, we’ll find just as lovely a spot for our next trip.

Thanks, Mom and Dad.

Florence

Five days exploring Florence was lovely. My family—whom I have not seen since departing last fall—landed Monday morning as Sarah and I trained down from Bergamo. And while our time here was short, it was a great slowdown in the run-around-Europe phase of my travels.

Parents The Duomo (Florence Cathedral), from Uffizi The Duomo (Florence Cathedral)

Florence is beautiful. Small streets with cobblestone and shops along the alleyways. Stunning architecture hidden behind massive doorways. Artwork like Michaelangeo’s “David” and other wonders line the city—once you get past the museums ticket counters, of course. Pizzerias and cafés fill the open spaces between shops selling souvenirs, Italian leather or fine stationaries. A walking city, it’s truly delightful. It also helped the building in which we stayed—a truly incredible apartment in the Piazza Santa Croce—was 500-years-old and gorgeous.

Trattoria Street

Between wandering plazas, the streets surrounding the Duomo, the Accademie dell’Arte or the Uffizi gallery, the days were full with family and good food and finally, a vacation.

Bergamo

A long weekend visiting my friend Benthai in his hometown of Bergamo was lovely. We ate pizza every day, finished many delicious—and inexpensive—bottles of wine, savored pastas, cooled off with gelato and caffeinated with plenty of espresso. Milan was a short drive away allowing us to explore the neighboring city by day while spending evenings out with friends in a quieter town. Walking up the hill to the Città Alta (“upper city”) provided some gorgeous views of the northern, mountain town. Really, enjoying days with good food and lovely company made for a delightful vacation.

Pizza, homemade Bergamo hillside

I thoroughly enjoy this lifestyle. Mornings begin with a coffee—espresso based, not drip!—and a brioche (what we Americans describe as a croissant and filled with creme or chocolate). More delicious food at lunch. We hop from café to café in search of cappuccino and gelato for most of the afternoon. Aperitifs (happy hour, anyone?) and snacks around 6 pm. Pizza and more for a late dinner. A short walk downtown with friends for drinks after 10 pm. And crashing in bed sometime after midnight to get some sleep before another day!

Benthai Lasagne, homemade

Prague

A Czech bartender approaches and begins to rattle off what I can only imagine are the evening’s offerings only to pause some five seconds into his speech when he looks at us and—having now switched to English—asks, “You don’t speak Czech, do you?” Returning a few minutes later, he placed before us half-liter glasses with draught beer as we enjoyed the rainy evening indoors.

Saint Vitus Cathedral Stained glass Prague

Three days in Prague were filled with good food, great beer, new friends, exploring castles, amazing architecture, cobblestone streets, relaxing in parks, misty mornings and beautiful riverside walks.

Budapest

Our order is taken, a set menu of three traditional Hungarian courses our final night in Budapest. A gaggle of languages surrounds us from Hungarian to French to English, not counting the various Eastern European tongues spoken at each table. I empathize with the waitress who struggles to find understanding with prospective patrons who arrive not recognizing the set menu written on the wall outside is the entire menu. But my focus is directed to the table before me once our food arrives, a warm goulash and simple, varied appetizers as the starter.

Parliament Building

Our main course appears, chicken covered in paprika with fresh pasta and duck served with an arugula salad; simple yet decadent. It feels the same rule applies to European cities which I always imagine with wide boulevards and stunning architecture. Budapest excels at this. Years of varying empires and influences have left marks ranging from memorials and statues to castles and bridges. And of course, churches abound. The Danube separates Buda, the hills and Castle to the west, from Pest, the downtown areas including the basilica and Parliament. A few short days wandering and I feel I have only barely scratched the surface. Again, simple yet rich.

Danube, from Castle Hill St. Stephen’s Basilica

We share some laughs and brief conversation with the table beside us; they having just arrived, we already on our desserts. Our time in the city has been incredibly short, just over 36 hours to explore and enjoy. We sneak into cafés to escape the occasional light rain then enjoy beautiful waterfront strolls during sunset. It’s definitely spring but chilly when compared to the past week. Finishing our homemade ice cream and pavlova, we enjoy the walk back to our hostel; though relatively quiet with only four of the maybe 25 beds occupied, we still find kind, engaging travelers with whom to chat late at night. And being Europe, we find a 599 HUF (about $2.70) bottle of wine to enjoy before retiring for the night.

Bucharest

One day in Bucharest and I am saddened to depart. By way of train from Istanbul and through Bulgaria, Sarah and I had a brief Romanian stopover. Arriving late in the day, we checked into our hostel and immediately sought food; our dinner of goulash, potatoes and spiced meats was delicious and filling before a good night’s rest. Today was wandering, exploring by foot and admiring the juxtaposition between gorgeous, ominous medieval buildings and their blocky, Soviet-era counterparts. The Old City had more fabulous foods—and drinks!—for us to enjoy on a perfect spring day. We began visiting some of Europe’s many churches. Ice cream in the park capped a simple afternoon. And less than 24 hours after arriving, it was time for us to depart on a sleeper-train bound for Hungary.

Sarah peering out at Romanian countryside Bucharesti, park bench Architecture in the Old City

Istanbul

Straddling both Asia and Europe, the largest city in Turkey is full of history and a diversity in cultures I have not yet seen. (I ought have paid more attention during AP European History.)

Following a day of travel—including a stopover in Doha where Sarah and I rejoined—good food and wandering European streets comprised a delightful first evening. Our trip has become an attempt to eat our way through each day, tasting and seeking what each place offers. Every morning, pastries from street vendors filled our stomachs for the affordable cost of a single Turkish lira (about $0.50). Lunches included the same but added boreks filled with meat or potatoes, plus whatever snacks we could find nearby as we wandered about. Döner kebabs and hummus were our dinners, simple and delicious. Of course, baklava and Turkish delight made great desserts; the countless varieties are staggering yet each piece seemingly more delicious than the last. And of course, enjoying spiced tea or strong Turkish coffee along cobblestone streets made for perfect evenings.

Sultan Ahmet Mosque (Blue Mosque) Ayasofya

Wandering the Old City had me in awe. Our hostel was a nearby to Çemberlitaş, a column brought from the Temple of Apollo in Greece some 1,500 years prior. The Hippodrome and its many relics were a short walk further, including an Egyptian obelisk, the Temple of Apollo’s Serpentine Column, the Million Stone (measuring distances to all places in the Byzantine Empire) and more. I immediately admired the stunning architecture of Sultan Ahmet Mosque, known also as the Blue Mosque. Across the plaza stands Ayasofya (Hagia Sofya), one of Europe’s most famous churches until the Ottomans arrived and declared it an Islamic mosque. Unparalleled architecture, incredible attention to detail, intricate tiles and geometric shapes come together and craft beautiful, immense spaces of worship. (And while Ayasofya is no longer a religious institution, mosques exist everywhere in the city, five reminders each day with the call to prayers.) Standing at the spot where emperors were coronated gave goosebumps, a reminder of the annals of history from Romans to Byzantine and Ottomans. Exploring Topkopi Palace reminded me the grandeur and spectacle of the sultans, their riches and influences. Walking through the surrounding park, I tried to imagine the world some hundreds of years ago. We made visits to both the Grand Bazaar and Spice Bazaar, full of everything I might desire and shopkeepers kindly inviting us to sample their goods. Simply wandering the narrow streets by foot, enjoying paths along the waterfront, even sitting on a bench in the midst of the city—Istanbul was an incredible city in which to find ourselves.

Turkish coffee Istanbul skyline

I am reminded that travel is just as much about the people you meet as the places you visit. From our hostel, lovely conversations and kindred spirits shared the excitement of exploring new cities and new delights. And our new friend, Ali, shared a memorable afternoon following a happenstance meeting in a café. Climbing the stairs of a somewhat random apartment building, we reached the rooftop view looking out across Istanbul’s Golden Horn. The city is incredible. Directly in front of me, Europe; across the water, Asia. Beautiful mosques dot the skyline. The smell of saltwater is present permeates. Drinks, good food and sharing stories of life and travel made such a short stay bittersweet; I am eager to return again soon.