Through all the other travel, I didn't think I'd get here. But today I'm finally into double-digits in the countdown. Flights were booked in April (BA this time, after KLM price gouged me repeatedly at the payment screen...how exactly does a fare get $800 higher between seat selection and "enter your payment details"?) and trip insurance procured.
Today I visited the Travel Medicine Clinic, was deemed fit to travel. Never when I got my first vaccines for Russia, then China, then safaris 1 and 2 did I think I'd need boosters of something like Typhoid. But there you go. Anti-malarial and Cipro prescriptions in hand, I walked out ready to roll.
And then the final payment was made today. So I'm all paid up, drugged up and revved up. February cannot get here fast enough. The holidays and two more trips involving long-distance travel will happen first and I imagine that will help make November and December fly by, but January could be a challenge. Maybe I can spend that month figuring out how I can fly carry-on only to Africa, which I've managed to do on all of our other trips this year. It's so liberating, but is it possible on a trip that requires a little more "stuff" than usual?
Whatever the case, I'm locked and loaded for Kenya. Phew.
Friday, November 6, 2015
After an embarrassing amount of time away from this blog, it's time to update it. It has an embarrassment of riches on the travel front this year.
Italy wrapped up in early April and I actually stayed home for a while. That was a novel feeling but I knew the summer was shaping up to be a busy one. Morrissey announced another tour and we had tickets to quite a few shows.
June started with three concerts pretty close to home: Billy Idol in Portland, Noel Gallagher in Boston and David Gray back in Portland. All were driveable and didn't require any overnights. My sister made the trek to Atlanta for Morrissey the night I was with friends in Portland for David Gray.
Mid-June we drove to Philly for a weekend for a Morrissey show, which was my 15th and just perfect, as expected. So good to see him back out and what a perfect gig. We turned around pretty quickly and drove home, as we'd be seeing him on the Wednesday that week in Worcester, only an hour from home. Then the fun began. That Saturday it was a drive back to NYC for a show at Madison Square Garden, a quick return the next day, only to pack and fly out at 5 a.m. on Monday for a show in Akron, OH that night. So four shows in 9 days. WOOT!
We managed to work in a fair amount of fine dining and museums along the way. My latest rave is Morimoto, both in Philly and NYC. Service and food are exceptional. We saw Frederick Leighton's Flaming June at the Frick in NYC and that was exquisite, just took my breath away.
A break of a few weeks and then we headed out to LA to celebrate my birthday, with a David Gray show at the famous Hollywood Bowl, dinner at our favorite Nobu in Malibu, Spago in Beverly Hills and fine vegetarian cuisine at Gracias Madre in WeHo.
Early August saw us making two trips to NYC for the annual Mike Peters residency at the Iridium. Never disappointing, always a crowd pleaser, these shows were no exception. And they'd become even more important to us as the year wore on.
And then we thought we were done for a while.
Except not. I managed to get really good tickets for a somewhat unplanned Morrissey show in Visalia, CA, so at the end of August we were headed back out that way. Literally a week before we needed to be there, I booked air, car and hotel. We flew out to LA for two nights. Landed in LA, went to bed in Culver City, woke up and drove 3 hours to Visalia, saw an awesome show in one of the hottest places I've ever been, woke up again, drove back to LA to the airport and then home. PHEW.
September saw us at two Mike Peters shows in Boston and Londonderry, NH. They were stellar, Mike is the consummate performer. We found out not a month later that Mike's leukemia had relapsed (and actually had been all summer) and he was back into treatment in October. We have love, hope and strength for him that he's over it and back on the road in 2016. We'll plan to be at the Iridium in August when he is.
Surely, we were done now? Not in the least... but I'll have to update on that after it's happened.
Friday, April 3, 2015
Thursday, April 2
It appears that I've recovered from Daylight Savings and was back to being wide awake at 6 a.m. Ah well, we had nothing really to do except get home today. After another good breakfast (the person who makes the cappuccino would draw a smilie face in cocoa powder on the foam, you have to love that) we had three hours to kill anyway before we had to leave for the airport. So I'd kept a trip up to Piazzale Michelangelolo in my back pocket and today it seemed like a good thing to do to say goodbye to Florence.
It is no easy feat to find a taxi in Florence and it's an even more challenging feat to climb up to Pizzale Michelangelolo after the two weeks of walking and hiking that we've done. It's not allowed to flag a taxi down on the street, and taxi stands are few and far between. After stumbling around a bit trying to find one, I finally found a stand at Piazza Republica. The driver got us up to the Piazzale in about 10 minutes. This piazza overlooks Florence so that you can see the immense beauty of the dome along with the Palazzo Vecchio and its tower and the Ponte Vecchio. All in all a perfect view of the city and a beautiful morning for it.
Getting back wasn't quite so easy. We waited at the taxi stand up there and none showed or slowed as they passed. I used my iPhone and rang the taxi company but no taxis were available. So we did what we know best and walked down. At least it was all downhill and not terribly warm. Conveniently we had to cross the Ponte Vecchio one more time to get back to our hotel. I hadn't stopped thinking about one more bracelet I'd seen last night when DS was buying her necklace. It was a combination of white, yellow, rose and black gold and I was fixated on it. Remembering that my mother would say "you'd be silly if you didn't, I did." It's now part of my jewelry collection.
We picked our luggage up at the hotel and they called a cab for us. It took about a half hour to get to the airport. Florence's airport is actually smaller than Rejkyavic, if that is at all possible. Our first order of business though was to hand in our VAT refund forms. First they had to be stamped by Customs and then we handed them in to the Tax Back desk. What was hilarious though was taking out all the items purchased that we were claiming tax back on (22%, which is significant). The way it works is we charged our items on credit card, and the shop deducts the 22% from what we pay. If we don't submit the VAT forms, that 22% will end up back on our credit cards at some point down the road. Having it taken off on the spot is an attractive sales approach. Giving us a discount for shopping with them multiple times in our 5 days there is an even better one. For the record, I have three bracelets (THREE???), two rings and a pendant. All are in classic Florentine style and with combinations of gold that I cannot find at home. I don't regret the investment, but it was more than I expected to buy. I just didn't want to get home and regret any of it.
Our timing was fortuitous in that a group of Asian students showed up at the customs desk just as we were finished. I would not have wanted to be behind them!!
A quick couple of slices of pizza before our flight and we were off to Zurich for the flight home.
Wednesday, April 1, 2015
Wednesday, April 1
I'll admit it now but last night I felt like hell. I hit the wall in a big way in Siena and I wasn't sure I'd bounce back. But three bottles of spring water, 2 Nuun tablets and an Emergen-C along with 9 hours of sleep does wonders. I think we are both still somewhat sore and muscularly tired from all the walking, but good thing we only had to motor through today.
We both slept well and were up around 8:00. After another good breakfast (I went for whole wheat toast rather than croissants) we were off around 9:30. This was the day we did everything we hadn't yet in Florence, and miraculously, we did.
Off first to the Bargello Museum which has Italy's finest sculpture collection. I'd been here before but since it's laden with Michelangelos I was more than eager to return. Here they had Michelangelo's Bacchus, a Madonna and child, Brutus and another David. The Madonna and child was absolutely beautiful, and he showed that he was well ahead of his time with the three dimensional tondo that reached even beyond the edges of the frame. If that were not enough, upstairs there were three MORE Davids: Verrochio's (Leonardo da Vinci's teacher), and two by Donatello. So now we've seen a whole lot of Renaissance artists' take on David. Donatello's most famous one is just so effeminate, it's hard to believe he got away with it at that time. Hell, in parts of our country he wouldn't have gotten away with that now! We have both found ourselves struck by Giambologna on this trip, with one gorgeous one in the loggia at Piazza della Signoria, one in the Accademia and now quite a few in the Bargello. All it takes is a little exposure to make an impression, I guess.
Next up we took a walk to the Oltrarno to visit the Brancacci Chapel. I'd been here before as well but thought it was important for DS to see. Masaccio was known for his realism and that he got to paint an entire chapel (with some help from Fillipino Lippi) is pretty significant, more so that he was only in his 20s at the time. I just like to see art in churches, and almost all of the art we've seen so far has been in currently active churches. I can't imagine what it must be like to sit there every week for a sermon and see Bernini or Masaccio or Michelangelo looking out over you. The frescoes in this chapel told the story of the life of Peter. It is interesting to see how frescoes, just like stained glass, could tell the bible stories for the illiterate in those days.
Not far from here is the Pitti Palace, where the Medici lived after the Pitti were driven out. It is similar to Versailles in that it was a royal palace, but different in that it's pretty plain and non-descript on the outside, but quite elaborate on the inside. What is striking is that the interior is just stacked chock a block with paintings by notable artists at almost every turn. There were no names left off the list, everyone from Raphael to our Vanni, Titian, Tintoretto, Veronese, Atremisia Ghentileschi and many, many more. We were both quite taken by many of them and it was sort of neat to see how they were hung when they were the personal collection of the inhabitants.
Behind the Pitti Palace is the Boboli Garden, which DS wanted to see badly as it features to heavily in many other artists' works. Despite yet another gorgeous, warm spring day, I think she was somewhat disappointed. It was nice to be out and about and there is a nice view of the city from up there. It is also really good to see grass, flowers in bloom and trees blooming, after the winter we've had especially.
On the way to lunch we made yet another pass over the Ponte Vecchio where we both made another gold purchase. I have a feeling I'll be opening boxes I've forgotten I've bought when I get home...
Lunch was bruschetta and pappa al pomodoro at a cafe in Piazza della Signoria, right on the main square of the city. It was light enough that I didn't think it would ruin dinner as we were eating so late. To cap it off though we did have a bowl of strawberries soaking in vodka with lemon gelato on top. What a jolt to the system, until it was time for a nap!!
I had never toured the Palazzo Vecchio (town hall) in my many times here so I had that on the list for this trip. I was particularly interested to see the Great Hall as I'd just read a few books on Michelangelo and Leonardo and wanted to see where they had allegedly had a showdown between them as the two best painters of their time. As excited when I became when I read that, I was just as deflated when I learned that Vasari painted over them. Sigh. Nevertheless there was a never before seen (to me) Michelangelo in there that was worth the price of admission. We also toured the rest of the apartments in the building and came across a Botticelli or two as well as some great views over the city.
Our last stop was a hop back into the present, well, sort of. We'd both read of this multimedia presentation being done on Van Gogh here in Florence. In essence, a few dozen projectors are set up in an unused church space and many of Van Gogh's works are projected on the walls, floor and ceiling to classical music. It's captioned with Van Gogh's own words from letters he wrote. It was actually really well done and a cool use of space.
We popped back to the hotel so I could check us in for our flights tomorrow and we took a breather for an hour before we headed out again.
I had made reservations earlier in the day for La Giostra, the same restaurant we ate at our first night here in Florence. The thought being that we didn't' want to be disappointed with our last meal. Suffice to say we weren't. We had the same antipasti and main course as last time and we added the fried artichoke hearts which were stellar. I did not have dessert here but we did have a decanter of Limoncello on our table for longer than should be allowed, I think.
We headed back to the hotel, stopping at Vivoli for gelato on the way. I had strawberry, lemon and cherry and it was a perfect ending to a perfect couple of weeks.
I got us back to Piazza della Signoria for some night photography and we came back to the hotel to pack and get ready to head home. I can't believe we're at this point. As much as I don't want it to end, I miss my cats and my own bed, in that order, and I don't think I could eat any more pasta or pizza if I tried.
Tuesday, March 31, 2015
Tuesday, March 31
Of all the days I was looking forward to, I think I was anticipating the trip to Siena more than anything. For whatever reason, and I can't necessarily put it into words, I love Siena and its cathedral (Duomo) is my favorite church anywhere I've been anywhere in my travels.
We both slept extremely well last night, although I did wake for a rather rambunctious round of DS snoring (she was out cold) but that quickly passed and we both woke around 8. I managed to burn out the hair dryer unit on the wall. Let's discuss the hair dryer situation here. It seems that even the smaller family run hotels have done away with hair dryers that we would plug into a wall and use like we would at home. Instead, they are hair dryer units, and not all are created equal. Most of them involve a hose and some very, very weak air pressure. This morning as I was drying my (thick but short) hair, I had to keep leaving the bathroom because it was so hot in there. I was essentially drying my hair in phases, which wasn't helping the effort to get out of here as DS still had to shower and dry her hair as well. Then the smell of burning plastic started and the weaker air pressure kicked in. I decided not to create a four alarm fire and went to ask for a replacement hair dryer. Andrea, the ace front desk guy (and owner, I believe) had a mobile replacement in about 5 minutes. It was the BEST hair dryer of the trip so far. Both of us actually had good hair days finally. We returned tonight though to find that mobile unit gone and a replacement dryer unit back on the wall. Fingers crossed for tomorrow. Props to Andrea for his fast response time.
Anyway, we had our breakfast, which was pretty much the same as all trip, although not as extravagant as Carlo's mega feast, and off we went. We walked back down through via Tournabuoni, through Piazza Santa Maria Novella and instead of over to the train station, hopped into the bus station and bought a round trip ticket to Siena. The bus left at 10:10 and we were walking the streets of Siena by 11:30 after a quick cappuccino stop.
Back about a year ago, DS and I had seen an exhibition at Yale University by the Sienese Renaissance painter Francesco Vanni. We both thought he was pretty good and now that we were going to be here, hoped to see some of his works in situ, as in researching him we found out that he had painted for a few churches in Siena. So our first couple stops were to the Dominican Church and the Sanctuary of St. Catherine. She is Siena's favorite daughter and also the patron saint of Italy. The Dominican Church is known for having three relics of hers, her head, her thumb and the chains she flagellated herself with. We saw them all and I have to say her head hasn't done well over time (a cool six or seven hundred years, but still...) Relics continue to baffle me, but DS seems to enjoy seeing them. It's interesting that the church feels the need to present a card along the altar in three languages stressing that extensive testing has proven that that head is really hers. Ok then.
Anyway, as nothing in churches seems to be labeled with "who did it" we were sort of at a loss over what was Vanni's and what wasn't. My research said one thing, the map with "you are here" and various letters indicating objects around the church said another. A textual explanation positively identified still another painting of his. Finally we went into the bookshop, bought up all the postcards that said they were Vanni's works and went back in to find them. Only to find the church had closed for lunch. Ah well. In St. Catherine's sanctuary, we had a little better luck as we went for the postcards first, and found two works of Vanni's right off the bat. I think we have about a dozen postcards of his works, but only found 3. Hey, we tried and it was fun. In the sacristy of the church, we were both quite taken by a pastel on brown paper that seemed to us to be like the cartoons we've seen by Raphael, Michelangelo and da Vinci in our travels. Of course there was no label, but the postcard in the bookshop said it was by Sodoma. I've heard the name before, but never really paid much attention. It's funny how piece work can turn you on to someone.
From here we walked downhill and then up (Siena is on three hills, the Dominican church on one, what we were going to see next on another) and because it was so gorgeous, we had already shed our coats. It was about 70 degrees, with crystal blue skies and bright sun. Had we sat in the sun for any period of time we definitely would have been too hot, but it was nice for the walking we did. We snuck up on the Campo (main square) in Siena and took in the view of it from the ramp heading into it (one of my favorite views) before walking down. By this point it was time for lunch so we had a pizza and glass of lemon soda at one of the tourist traps there. So much for being speedy, as it took nearly an hour to get served. Oh well, it was a great day for people watching and we were safely under a canopy out of the sun.
From there we walked up to the Duomo and Duomo museum. I bought the combo ticket that got us admitted into the two sites plus the Baptistry for a discounted rate. We started in the Duomo museum, which has a wonderful Duccio on exhibit, what used to be the altarpiece in the Duomo. DS was over the moon about that. Then we waited in line about 20 minutes to climb the facade of the unfinished wing of the church to look out over Tuscany, Siena and the Duomo from on high. With it being such a spectacular weather day, this was more than worth the wait. We could see forever in all directions and got some great photos. It was absolutely dreamy how perfect it was from that panoramic lookout. I only wish we could have stayed up there longer.
We still had the Duomo itself to explore, so we moved on to that next. This is my favorite church not just for the ornate facade and black and white marble striped sides but also for the incredible black and white interior. I just find it so attractive and mesmerizing, I can't help but smile when I walk in. We followed the guidebook tour around it, hunting out the Michelangelo on a pope's tomb, a Bernini chapel and of course the Piccolomini Library, with it's incredible wall and ceiling murals. All too quickly, our visit was over. I think we both hit the wall mid-afternoon today and were having trouble putting one foot in front of the other. As much as I wanted to stroll some more and see the baptistry, I sort of felt like I was running on an empty tank. So we made a 5:00 bus back and were in Florence by 6:30.
Tonight we ate at another restaurant on our street at the corner of Tournabuoni called Le Antiche Carrozze. A quick search on Google showed that it got fairly good reviews, so in we went. We started with a caprese salad, with a big ball mozzarella that leaked milk everywhere when we cut into it. Then we shared a tuscan white bean and sausage casserole and an eggplant and zucchini over pasta with red sauce and pesto. Both were pretty good, but I have to admit to being half asleep when I ate. We had vin santo with almond cookies for dessert, and were back in the hotel a little after 8.
The good news of the day is that both of my newly purchased bags fit in my carryon. Not much else does, but that's all that counts. I think I can get everything else in my suitcase but I need to be really good about not buying anything else tomorrow. Ha.
Last full day tomorrow...we have an itinerary which I think is reasonable, as long as we stay away from jewelry and leather shops.
Monday, March 30, 2015
Monday, March 30
Despite, or maybe because of, the fact that dinner went so late last night (nearly 11 by the time we got back to the hotel!) we both slept the sleep of the road weary. I fully expected to hear our next door neighbors leave at 5:00 a.m. for their early flight and never did. I first awoke when it was already light out, which I think is a first this whole trip. We were ready to abandon any hard and fast schedule and just go out on our own. I felt good when Abby said at the end of the day "I like doing this, just seeing something, walking a bit, eating something, doing some shopping, and repeat". It was nice and relaxing to just wander a bit.
What I had on the agenda for today was to change hotels and go to Pisa. We did both by about 11 am. Changing hotels was a breeze, very quickly got a cab to here (moving from San Lorenzo to Ponte Vecchio neighborhood) and our room was already available. I'd hoped to have the room I had with Mom way back in 2004, which had a sneak peek out over the Arno, but we are a few down from that. This, I think, is the best hotel we've had all trip, although I liked the one in Volterra.
We headed right out for the train station, which was about a 15 minute walk and easily bought tickets at the automated ticket machine. We were on the train and in Pisa around 11:30. Pisa doesn't have too much to recommend it, other than the glorious Campo dei Miracoli (Field of Miracles) which houses its tower, cathedral and baptistry. The walk from the train station to there takes you through the main shopping street and across a bridge over the Arno. On this trip more than ever before, I'm really noticing the color palette here in Tuscany, the warm oranges, yellows and browns. I'd just never really taken note, I guess.
I'd been to the Leaning Tower before so knew what to expect, but it was so funny to see DS take it all in. It baffled her brain, made her laugh and was quite unbelievable. She thinks, and I agree, that whomever was responsible would have been fired today. But not just one, but three people, were involved in making the tower what it is today. One who got it wrong to start with, and two who tried to "correct" it when adding on additional floors. It is more curved than leaning, when you see it in person. Photos don't catch the "adjustments" like the naked eye does.
The baptistry and cathedral have beautiful exteriors and gorgeous interiors, including Galileo's lamp in the cathedral. It was neat to see again.
We grabbed a focaccai caprese and headed back for the 1:30 train to Florence (yes, we were really only there about 2 hours tops). We still have a lot to cover in Florence so we wanted to get back and not waste an entire day in transit. On arrival back here, we went to Santa Maria Novella church, which had some unbelievable frescoes by Masaccio.
Then we stopped in a leather shop off San Lorenzo that our guide recommended. She said she'd long known the owners and to mention her name if we went. Well...let this trip become known as the "how much can you get in a 21" suitcase anyway?" trip. Because we both got ANOTHER bag. The discount was significant so hard to refuse. I have no idea how I'll get this one home, but I'll figure it out on Thursday. The problem comes when we visit the New Market outdoors near our hotel and I find two other bags that I want (and buy two wallets to match the bags I already have). Oy. And I did actually research how much it would cost to take an extra piece of luggage home (which I would still have to buy here) and the cost is too exorbitant to be worth it. I do not need any more bags. Repeat after me.
We did pop into the Duomo in Florence, which, as I remembered, is not nearly as intricate or attractive as the exterior.
DS had to pick up the two rings she bought yesterday and had sized overnight. And while she was at it she bought yet another pair of earrings. The shop gave her a fairly good discount on the rose gold, which is pretty unique to this region.
We tried to take in the Van Gogh multi-media exhibit and the Bargello today, but both closed randomly early on a whim and we missed them.
Tonight for dinner we tried Ristorante Toto, which is just down from our hotel. The menu was irresistible, as I'd been trying to find pappa al pomodoro for DS so she could try it (a thick bread-based tomato soup) and two restaurants on our street have it. It would be nice to eat so close by and just hop right into the hotel, so we did. We started with the pappa al pomodoro and a plate of pecorino cheese with honey on bread. All were wonderful. DS had pesto gnocchi which she was was good, certainly better than last night's but not as good as the ricotta gnocchi I had in Volterra. I had tagliatelli with a cream sauce and white truffles and I thought it was excellent pasta but I couldn't really taste the truffles, which was a disappointment. I washed it all down with a half bottle of Brunello de Montalcino. Our server seemed to disappear so we didn't have dessert there. Instead, we stopped at the mini market next to the hotel and I bought limoncello and a white chocolate bar. Just as good.
Planning a day trip to Siena for tomorrow. Hopefully tomorrow the sun will return sometime before mid-afternoon. It was warmer today for sure, even a bit muggy especially in Pisa, but we saw no sun until late in the day. Ah well...
Sunday, March 29, 2015
Sunday, March 29
Europe springing forward meant that the night was ridiculously short. The alarm went off at 6 (5:00 to our body clocks) and we were up and out and heading toward the Uffizi by 7:45.
I can't say that this was the most comfortable sleep I've ever had. The bed was very bouncy, more narrow than I remember a twin being and rolled around as I moved, so I awoke about three feet away from the wall. Oh well, we're only here two nights. Breakfast was ok, it had pretty standard offerings, except no eggs at all, not even the hard boiled type, so we were without protein in any sort to start the day. But motor on we did.
Both of us are suffering pretty severely from calf cramping. I'm taking a prescription anti inflammatory prescribed for me for other things and using a topical formula we got at a pharmacy here. DS is also doping up on what the pharmacist gave her, to little or no effect in either case. It's not crippling but does make us think twice every time we go near stairs, as that's when it's worse. We know this is from the hiking Friday and I'm hoping it's better by Tuesday when we head to Siena. Additionally, it's probably a good thing we are breaking from the group after tonight because they are starting to fall prey to colds left and right. What I don't want is that to fly home with, so fingers crossed we can dodge it.
The day dawned bright and sunny although in the low 40s with wind. By late afternoon it was close to 70, so I'm glad I suffered with just my windbreaker early on.
Anyway, off we went at what felt like the crack of dawn to the Uffizi, which is the granddaddy of Italian painting galleries, particularly the Renaissance artists. Our group met up with a an American tour guide who took us through the Uffizi highlights. Cynthia was a great presenter and I learned a lot from her. We saw the Botticellis, Raphaels, Titians, the one Michelangelo tondo and a handful of other significant woks she thought important. After a quick second breakfast in which we took in some much needed protein (tuna and buffalo mozzarella panini), we went off on our own to seek out the four Carravaggios they have here and then looked at the foreign artists, including Rembrandt (3 self portraits and one of Luke?) an El Greco, a few Goyas (including one that was just in the Boston MFA show) and two Metsus. Also on our we took in the exhibition on Gerritt Von Honthurst, a Dutch painter known for how he portrayed darkness in a Carravaggist style. I enjoyed this a lot as it seemed to me like we'd not been exposed to him much at home. There was also another Carravaggio in this exhibit. Unexpected bonus.
One of the pretty neat things in the von Honthurst exhibit was a very large painting of his that was owned by the Uffizi but in 1993 it was heavily damaged in a Mafia car bombing which rendered it unrecoverable. This exhibition did a nice job of using projections over the damaged canvas to recreate what it looked like, highlighting the characters in it, and bringing it back to life even if just in facsimile. It was a nice testament to the work.
We had a quick but overpriced gelato at the head of the Ponte Vecchio overlooking the Arno in the warm bright sunshine. To think, at about the same time on this Sunday morning at home, I'd be brushing another 1-3 inches of snow off my car and heading to the gym.
Thus began the gold shopping in earnest. We covered the first half of the Ponte Vecchio, with me falling victim to a bracelet and two rings and DS finding two rings she liked that they'll size on the spot for her. We made sure to buy classic Florentine pieces that we'd never find at home so as to make a wise investment. We took a much needed break for lunch at Open View Golden Bar, which has a nice view of the Ponte Vecchio from the Oltrarno side. We shared a crostini misto plate and a buffalo mozzarella pizza with a ricotta-stuffed crust and a bottle of rose wine. We could not resist the dessert of a mascarpone-stuffed calzone smothered in dark chocolate. Yeah, that was pretty deadly. I got a complimentary limoncello there too, which is always a nice touch.
Recharged a bit to carry on through the rest of the afternoon, we window shopped the other half of the Ponte Vecchio -- I think our work there is still not done -- and then walked to Santa Croce church, but not without at least four stops to seriously consider still more bags in leather shops that happened across our path.
Santa Croce is a nice church, with a facade somewhat similar to the Duomo, but its main draw is the graves of famous Italians, like Michelangelo, Donatello, Dante, Rossini and Macchiavelli. It was sort of sad to see Michelangelo's tomb now and how not up to snuff the sculptures on it are; Vasari did the best he could, I'm sure but it just wasn't up to caliber of the man inside the tomb.
We made a quick stop at the Hard Rock Cafe for the usual collectors' items. The HRC is new here since the last time I was here. It's funny how so much has changed yet so much has stayed the same over time. Then we crashed for a bit before dinner.
Our final group dinner was at a restaurant owned by the folks who own this restaurant. Like the non-Carlo meals on this tour, it was pretty standard. We started with ribollita soup which was actually pretty good. We then had ziti in tomato sauce and gnocchi alfredo. We both agreed that we'd had better gnocchi on our own, for sure. The main course was roasted potatoes, roast beef (which the chef came out to flambee and carve) and salad. That was all pretty mediocre. Dessert however was looking up. It was a dessert cart with all sorts of offerings, but the one that caught my eye was a tiramisu with strawberry and orange rather than coffee. That was really delicious.
Dinner ended pretty abruptly when the first person decided to leave. We made it back to our room and started to pack when we heard voices of the family we like who came here to say goodbye. We did have a nice time with them, and I'm glad I went out to say bye to them. They said "you two were the funnest part of the trip"...oh my!
Saturday, March 28, 2015
Saturday, March 28
For whatever reason I have been religiously awake at 5:15 every day here. Granted, I was out cold at 9:00 last night, but still. I am up just before the birds and then once they get going I can't get back to sleep. There was one overzealous dove who greeted the day both mornings in Levanto right outside my window.
Carlo the Second (he of the food chef fame, not the city guide fame) put on yet another immense spread at breakfast this morning. Instead of the wonderful tropical salad yesterday, I had a gorgeous baked pear. No sugar, no brown sugar, nothing artificial, just a perfectly baked pear. I will dream of that, and Carlo's skills in the kitchen, for a long time to come.
We got on the bus at 8:30 after a group photo by the shoreline in Levanto and had about a 5 hour drive to Florence. Ordinarily I would think that's a waste of a day, but my calves are absolutely screaming from yesterday's hike and I think they are enjoying the break.
I had to remind the guides that we are springing forward here tonight, as Europe goes to Daylight Savings time a few weeks after we do. That means we lose an hour and will make our already early rise and shine tomorrow for the Uffizi even earlier. I doubt I'll be up at 4:15 but you never know.
I am beyond excited to get back to Florence. Our guide had a sort of surprise stop for us en route to Florence, which at first I was hesitant about. It is the US WWII Cemetery. They have about 440 US service men and women interred there. It ended up being a very emotional stop and one I felt glad about doing. It was still a beautiful day out so the white crosses (like at Arlington National Cemetery) against the green, green grass and bright blue sky were something. But also to learn about the men who died here during the war, and how the veterans service is attempting to reinterpret their story now that most who were alive then are passing on. It was all very interesting and touching. The American who gave us the tour said if we were only to just pass a cross and read the name on it aloud because they may not have been said or visited for many years. That was the least we could do, I felt.
We arrived here about 12:40 and got our rooms. The hotel here is right off Piazza San Lorenzo. Our room is number 6, which is up, down, up again, and up further still twice to reach. The benefit to it, other than the cardiovascular workout to get to, is that there is absolutely no street noise, which is good, since it's on a fairly busy pedestrian area, even at a later hour. The room is obviously a family room, as it has four beds in it. The bathroom is up three little steps and is ridiculously cavernous, about the size of my kitchen at home. We'll be fine here for just two nights.
As soon as we dropped our bags, we headed out since we had two hours before our orientation walk. It didn't take me long to get oriented and I realized we are right off Piazza San Lorenzo where the Medici Chapel is. We arrived about 1:10 and were told they were closing at 1:45. We managed to get through the Chapel of Princes and then to Michelangelo's New Sacristy with ample time. With a stroke of luck, we ended up being the last two people in the room with nine Michelangelo sculptures, it was just just heavenly. On top of that, I finally, after a few trips here, got to see the drawings on the wall behind the altar that Michelangelo did. Those were fabulous. He was ticking the days off as he worked, with the hashmarks that we'd use today. There were some sketches of a window for the Laurentian Library, a female body with a dog, a soldier, a comic. That was unreal for me to FINALLY get to see, as usually it is closed off.
After that, we stopped at a pizzeria and I we shared a vegetarian and a four cheese pizza and a bottle of red wine. Then we met up with the tour and did a very cursory orientation walk just of the immediate neighborhood, which ended at the Accademia to see Michelangelo's David. That is always a great stop for me, as I think nothing beats looking at that amazing sculpture. We stayed there until the Accademia closed and managed to be one of the few left there as well. The Art Gods were on our side for sure today.
I'd done some research before we left home and reserved a restaurant tonight called La Giostra. It was about four blocks behind the Duomo. I think this one just might go down in history as a top 5 meal. We started with a glass of Prosecco and a plate of amuse bouche including (hold on to your hats here): bruschetta with tomato and olive oil, eggplant in balsamic, red pepper in balsamic, potato dumpling and celery root in a creamy mayo type sauce. For antipasti we had carpaccio of eggplant, zucchini and pecorino, which was to die for, just so simple but great flavors. Our main course was gnocchi with pistachios and pears in a gorgonzola sauce, which had me over the moon. It was absolutely perfect. We had all that with a bottle of sangiovese-cabernet which was a nice pairing. (For those keeping score, yes, that was two bottles of wine today, but hell we are on vacation!) For dessert we shared a semifreddo with strawberries and raspberries, and the house gave us a limoncello. All in all, an excellent meal. I hope I can manage good choices the rest of the week!
It is so good to be back here. It's been almost 10 years, believe it or not. It's nice to see how constant it is, with David and the Duomo remaining unchanged as they did for hundreds of years before I was ever here. I'm anxious to see more...
Europe springs ahead tonight so we lose an hour. We have to leave at the ungodly hour of 7:45 so we're up at 6. Off to bed now.
Friday, March 27
For the last six months or so, I've been making a deal with the Travel Gods. I've been bartering with them, agreeing to take whatever weather they throw at us on this trip, if only they would give us the stereotypical blue skies and bright sun on our one full day in the Cinque Terre. And all my bartering paid off.
But a word first about breakfast. Last night, we met another Carlo, who was not nearly as attractive as the Lucchese Carlo, but this Carlo could cook. He made a feast for us last night that was more like a wedding reception on steroids, the really good, make you happy, make you bloated type of steroids. We both dreamt of and articulated our hopes for breakfast. Could he be as good for breakfast? Oh, indeed he was.
The breakfast buffet, served with Carlo at the helm, was everything from scrambled eggs (HALLELUJAH!!) and fried prosciutto (oh bacon, you are SO yesterday) to a gorgeous tropical fruit salad, poached pears, croissants with three kinds of jelly and Nutella, toast, a full antipasto table, buffalo mozzarella and hard boiled eggs. With fresh juice and cappuccino, it was a dream.
So then, sitting at the train station waiting for the train to our first stop of the day, Abby and I discussed the worth of Lucca's Carlo vs. Levanto's Carlo, and we decided we'd both take Levanto's Carlo home in a heartbeat. Yes, what we're saying is the food was THAT good. Better than....well, you know.
We decided last night that we'd head to Monterosso, the next town over and first town south of us in the five connected villages known as the Cinque Terre. Monterosso is the largest of the five towns and has the most to see. Also, at this time of year, pre-Easter and pre-tourist season, it has the most open. We followed the walking tour in our guidebook which took us to a church that was completely ravaged by the floods in 2011. There were photos hanging nearby which showed the utter devastation and explained how quickly the town mobilized to save the church and the store owners most important to the town's livelihood. Tourism is really it here, and without it, they'd have not much. The fact that they got things cleaned up so fast and back to normal is not only a testament to their hard work but also an indicator to how they rely on the tourism dollar.
From the outset I realized how incredibly vivid the colors are here. Of course it helps to have a beautifully dry, crisp blue morning sky and bright early spring sun (that fortunately lasted all day) but even the colors of the buildings along the water felt like they were popping against the coastline. It really is picture postcard beautiful. No wonder why it is so touristed.
We followed not only the sea level tour but also the walk that wound its way up and around the cliff overlooking Monterosso to a former convent that is kept by a capuchin monk. I walked into it by myself and was relieved to escape the warmth and brightness of the day and just relax in the quiet stillness of the church. I was met with the sound of a handful of monks chanting behind the choir. It was just beautiful. I sat there for a bit before DS joined me, and we admired the handsome Van Dyck of The Crucifixion that was hanging in there too (apparently Van Dyck spent some time in Levanto) before we headed back out to start our hike.
There are four "official" hikes that connect the five Cinque Terre towns right along the coast. But due to mudslides, rockslides and a lot of winter rain, only one was open and that was the one that connected Monterosso with Vernazza. I'd done a bit of research last night on the routes and learned that this was the most challenging of the four coastal hikes and would take about two hours. And it did. But it was worth it.
After one last cappuccino in the town square in Monterosso, we started off with a flat steep section, which then led to about 20 minutes of nothing but stairs going up and up and up. It became rolling hills for a bit, with varying terrain of uneven rock, uneven cement, mud and a bit of solid dirt. It was narrow at times, felt unsafe at times, was hard to pass others or required that we stopped to let them pass. It was trying as it got hotter higher, harder, and seemingly endless. Finally though, I caught a peek of Vernazza through the trees and it was all worth it. I'm not sure if I liked Vernazza so much because of how hard we worked to get there, but it was just as I imagined, both from on high and once we hit the town at sea level. In the end it took us about 2 hours and 20 minutes but we made it. And immediately hit a restaurant for food and a bathroom!
Lunch was at Trattoria da Sandro, on the main street running through Vernazza. I had triofe pasta in a pesto sauce and a lemon soda. DS had vegetarian ravioli in a walnut sauce and it was just as good. Refueled we struck back out. But not without a gelato first. We found an artisanal gelateria on the main drag and I had cherry, chocolate and a combination of white chocolate chip that was quite good. With that we did a quick pass around Vernazza (these towns are all of a few hundred people and filled with nothing but shops and restaurants, so there isn't too much to "see"; I found that once we got the postcard shots, it was ok to move on) and then bought train tickets ($1.80 each hop) to Corniglia.
Corniglia is the only town not on the harbor. The train arrives at sea level and you have the option of either climbing the 385 steps to the town or take a shuttle bus up to this tiny clifftop town. We opted for the bus. We were there not more than 20 minutes and we'd covered the handful of lanes that make up the town. One odd thing is that you can't see Corniglia from the towns on either side of it, so I have no real photographic evidence I was even there.
We walked down the 385 steps (no easy feat on tired legs) and caught the very next train to Manarola. This is a cute little town that sticks its foot out into the sea. By this point we were sufficiently tired that we sort of gave up on doing the walking tours of the villages no matter how short they were. We stopped, got the photos we wanted, saw the sights described in the books that we wanted to see, and moved on to the next city. It is somewhat unfortunate that the same reliance on tourism that I mention above lends itself to what I didn't really care for in the towns. They were really commercial. They were lots of shops and restaurants that cater to tourists, I just can't really imagine any locals hanging out near them, which is unfortunate.
Our last stop was Riomaggiore, which has a very narrow little inlet to the sea, and not much else to mention it. Just about everything there was still closed up pre-Easter so we couldn't even find a place to eat dinner. So we headed back to Levanto.
I'm so glad we had a most excellent day for the hike. We had light sweatshirts on for part of the morning but the rest of the day was in short sleeves and capri running pants and sneakers. It was casual, comfortable and we got a hell of a workout in (almost 23,000 steps, 153 flights of steps and over 10 miles). But I don't know that I'd return here unless I knew other trails were open. I felt like I saw what I needed to and don't need to revisit it, but I also enjoyed the day immensely.
After cleaning the grime and sweat off ourselves, we had dinner at Risorante Moresco, near our hotel in Levanto. We started with Insalata Caprese (mozzarella and tomato) which was melt in our mouths wonderful. I had the gnocchi with crabmeat in a red sauce, which was really good. And we split a frito misto, which we ate the calamari and shrimp on, and not much else. I tried a couple sardines, but that was it. We split a bottle of Cinque Terre (bottled in Monterosso) white wine. With a limoncino dessert, it was a nice way to end an epic day. In bed early, off to Florence at 8:15 tomorrow! So excited, but it is our last stop...
Thursday, March 26, 2015
Thursday, March 26
I think we both slept much better last night now that we figured out how to shut the heat off and leave the windows open. Nevertheless, I was still up about 5:15, ahead of the alarm. We had to eat at 7 in order to be on the bus by 8:15. I think it's a drawback of being on a tour, having to factor in how slowly and amorphous a group moves. I certainly wouldn't have gotten us up that early if we were on our own.
Breakfast was the same as yesterday. Enough to get us out the door but not necessarily anything to write home about. Overall I liked the hotel. It was in an excellent location and well appointed, comfortable once we figured out the heat and friendly staff.
We left Volterra for Lucca at 8:15 and arrived there at about 10:40. We had one stop en route at yet another rest stop where I picked up a cappuccino in a bottle, a tube of Smarties and a bag of Fonzies (think white cheese curls). By the looks of what everyone else bought, we all needed something salty.
Lucca was different from Volterra in that it seemed bigger, is definitely more commercial and is not on a hilltop isolated from its surroundings. It's a walled city but the walls just let you out into the city around it.
Our guide for the morning was the very dashing Carlo. What he was lacking for in palpable excitement he made up for in the visuals. He led us through Lucca, showing us various churches, squares and towers and explained to us the history of Lucca. It is both Renaissance and Medieval, and you can see that as you walk around. From one corner to the next, you can be crossing through a couple hundred years.
The cathedral was interesting in that it held a cross that Nicodermis (took Christ down off the cross) claimed in a letter was THE cross, however Carlo felt it was somewhat too Middle Eastern to be that. In any event, that cross, and the story of how it somehow wandered on its own by boat and donkey cart without drivers to Lucca, was the reason why Lucca became a major pilgrimage destination, right up there with Rome and Santiago de Compestella. Who knew.
Also in the same cathedral was a Tintoretto that was pretty stunning (The Last Supper) as well as a tomb made of marble of a young girl who died. The tomb was one that Michelangelo studied for its beauty.
We left the handsome Carlo and went off on our own for lunch. We found a pizza shop that also makes Cecini, which is a garbanzo bean flatbread. It was tasty but not necessarily a meal, so we also had a slice of margherita pizza.
After lunch we strolled a bit, bought some Laudree macarons (only $16, which is down from $25 in NYC!) and I climbed the tower with a garden on the roof for a nice view of the city.
I think as a whole, it was a good experience to see Lucca, but we both definitely like Volterra better, as it was a lot less commercial and more "doable" in the time we had.
We took off on our bus at about 2:45 and arrived in Levanto at about 4:00. Passing near Carrara on the way, we saw lots of large lots full of enormous blocks of marble just waiting for something to be done with them. Although our guide says that what usually happens now is that the Carrara marble ends up in the Middle East, and not Europe or even the United States. Depressing.
Once we got here and checked in, we went out on an orientation walk. I really only wanted to see how to get to the train station to get to the other towns. Once we found that out, we bailed, and just in time too as it became a heavy mist and better to spend in our room with a bottle of limoncino that we'd just picked up at the market.
I spent the hour before dinner dissecting the trail maps between the five trails and deciding how we are going to tackle the five towns tomorrow. The sad truth is that only one of the four coastal routes between the towns is open. Mudslides and flooding in recent years have washed out routes that they can't safely reopen. But within each town there is enough hiking to panoramic overlooks and promontories that I think we'll get to see what we came here for and get the workout that we've been training for/toward all winter. Still hoping for the best for weather. That light rain seems to have stopped tonight. Fingers crossed.
Tonight we had a pesto making demonstration by the hotel chef that as just amazing. He told us that you never should use a food processor to make pesto because the basil leaves need to be ground and not cut and burnt like they get in a food processor. After tasting the fruits of his labors, I'd agree. Good glory was it amazing.
We had an apertif and snacks and then a glorious buffet put on by this same chef Carlo (yes, another Carlo). It was predominantly seafood, pesto and veggies: fish soup (9 kinds of fish), seafood salad, pesto lasagna, artichoke risotto, fried crab claws, stuffed sardines, fried veggies (like tempura style), fried calamari and roast beef and rabbit. I tried everything but the meats, and it was all wonderful. This could go down as an epic meal. There was local white and red wine, both of which were really good, and for dessert profiteroles with chocolate sauce and homemade limoncino (as the Ligurian limoncello is called). I wonder if it's unreasonable to have extremely high expectations for breakfast tomorrow if Carlo's in charge of it....
At some point toward the end, someone put the Village People on the PA in the hotel restaurant and we were doing a conga line to YMCA. I will deny it when I'm sober again, but it was fun. We sat with still another group of folks and found them great to talk to.
This hotel feels like your typical beach resort city hotel. There are actually three beds in our room and we have a balcony that, when you look hard right, you can see the sea. We are maybe four hotels in from the water. We have lost a towel warmer in the transition to Liguria, though. That's tough as I think we've both grown to rely on it!
Early to bed, we're hoping to be on the 8:40 train to the next town to start our hike!
Wednesday, March 25, 2015
Wednesday, March 25
It was somewhat difficult sleeping last night until we regulated the room temperature. We couldn't seem to get the room cool enough to sleep (which is a rarity for me) and instead just shut the vents off and opened both windows, sleeping with them wide open from 12:30 onward.
It was fairly quiet most of the night, despite our room being on the front of the building. There is next to no automobile traffic in Volterra, but what there is inevitably goes past the hotel, since it's the "main street" of the town. Still, I slept pretty solidly until 6:25.
The breakfast here isn't as extensive as what we had in Rome. A few pastries, a little cereal, some cold cuts and cheese and bread. No cappuccino, which I sorely missed. We had to meet our guide at 9, so we squeezed ourselves into a table with others on the trip. It's a very small breakfast room not capable of handling all 29 of us plus other guests at once, so we ate in shifts.
It was raining and somewhat damp feeling today. Not heavily raining, but enough to be a nuisance. During our first break in the tour, we zipped back to the hotel to put another layer on as we weren't warm enough in the jackets that were too warm for us yesterday in the Forum.
I've been watching the weather for the end of this week since we left home. I will give up any decent weather any other day of this trip, but for the day we hike Cinque Terre, I want beautiful blue skies and sun, and it looks like we might just get that. So I'll shut up and suffer through this and hope travel karma pays off.
Our guide Annie took us through the main sights here in Volterra. We started at the city hall, which was the model for other city halls like those in Siena and Florence. Then the Duomo, which, oddly, used to front the square until the locals built the city hall and built that right in front of the Duomo, showing that city government came before religion.
We then walked on to a panoramic overlook which on a clear day I'm sure would reveal a splendid view of the Pisan countryside. Right under that overlook though is one of the only remaining Roman theaters built from stone. Even though building the theater out of stone was illegal at the time, they got around it by building a temple to Jupiter there, which using stone was allowed for. So even then, finding loopholes was ok.
The history of the Etruscans is incredibly interesting, and while I can't give particulars of time and date based on a limited lesson this morning, it seems to me that they were different for their time, perhaps ahead of their time, and that perhaps they were seen as odd, especially by the Romans who of course tried to invade. Volterra was a powerhouse in its day, with a population of over 25,000 at one point (right now it's about 12,000). They weren't afraid of defying current fashion or social mores, like letting women read and write as well as teach. Hey, they weren't half bad.
Our next stop was an alabaster workshop where we watched a craftsman make a bowl from scratch. That was really interesting and a memorable experience, especially for DS, who teaches a section on alabaster at the museum at home and who was lucky enough to be able to buy the bowl from the craftsman.
The Etruscan Museum here is really the big draw, and I found the highlights that Annie took us through to be interesting enough but I grew weary of urn lids and pitchers pretty quickly. Annie was a wonderful guide, who is very passionate and excited about her subject matter, so it was easy to get pulled along in her presentation, which was great.
We did a bit more window shopping on the way to finding lunch. We stopped in the alabaster shop run by the two craftsmen we saw this morning, and bought some trinkets (fortunately small enough to squeeze into my wee suitcase) and then at an Etruscan jewelry shop where I bought still more trinkets in the form of jewelry.
Lunch on our own was at a little pizza place near the Etruscan museum. I had a goronzola and sausage pizza and a glass of orange Fanta. It really hit the spot. We had a limoncino shot for dessert.
We are trying to strategically plan our clothes for the rest of the trip and decided with the rainy and now windy weather we'd try to do laundry here rather than waste precious time in Cinque Terre or Florence. That was certainly an experience! Our guidebook mentioned a self service laundry near the main square so we went to that and I managed to navigate the menus on the washing machine and dryer to completely restock us for the days to come.
So now that we had a full week's worth of clean laundry to get by on, we set out on still more shopping. We both stumbled upon gorgeous Italian leather handbags that caught our eyes, so we bought them, vowing to find a way to get them home even with our restricted luggage capacity. I also found a ring and a Tuscan ceramic tile that says "Attenti al gatti" (beware the cats) which will go nicely with my "beware the cat" that I got for Morley.
There is an exhibition on here at the Pinacoteca of a painting by an artist from 1540 of Christ's descent from the cross. It is notable because the artist, at the time, was considered mentally unstable and painting way beyond the style of the day. The thing is, the way he painted then, nearly 500 years ago, was a style that is very much in fashion today (and very out of the ordinary then). In all seriousness, he could have been any of the contemporary artists we see at home now. This particular exhibition included that one painting of his, and then at various other locations in the city, there were other artists' interpretations of that piece. It was really very cool to walk around and see how others saw it. And it was another exhibition for our list this year.
We met back up with most of the group at 6:00 for a wine tasting with Francesco, who is Annie's (from this morning) husband. He was fabulous, and I've taken wine classes before. I still learned a lot. We sampled four wines, a San Gimignano white, a Chianti Classico, a supertuscan and a Brunello di Montalcino. They had antipasti there to go with the tasting and to show how the wines changed taste as we ate. It was a great hour and a half. So glad that was included as part of the tour.
Dinner was on our own so we went to Ristorante Enoteca del Duca, which I had researched but not reserved ahead of time. This was meant to be one of those white table-clothed, romantic, well-dressed restaurants but we went in our tour garb and were served a fabulous meal. We both started with the pecorino souffle with black truffles, and I had the ricotta and spinach gnocchi with gorgonzola and black truffle sauce. Yes, there is a theme here, but I can't shake it. I figure we'll be eating seafood up in Cinque Terre so I have to get my pasta and my truffles while I can. The waiters gave us prosecco to start and their own homemade limoncello at the end as a courtesy. The service was outstanding and it was one of the best meals I've had, easily in the top 5. The souffle was simple and lightly seasoned, so it was a great, light starter. The gnocchi were unreal. They were like gumball sized bubbles that just melted in my mouth into ricotta goodness. I can't even explain how delicate they were. It was just perfect. We both finished with a chocolate mousse that was a nice way to end. Well, that and the limoncello.
I've managed to pack all of my clothes and all my purchases, so we're in good shape. Moving on to Lucca and then Levanto tomorrow. Weather improving once we leave here.