Friday, June 04, 2010

Italy, Day 8: Tuscany

After breakfast in a detached sunroom at the inn, we took a suggestion from Heidi to drive up the mountain to another village. I believe we were at around 350 meters and drove up to a town about 1000 meters elevation. It was a very winding drive up and around hairpin curves. Made one of my passengers a little carsick, hopefully not from my driving! It took an hour or two to drive up there. Can you tell this is where my note taking stopped? Hopefully Jennifer will provide the name of the town in the comments below.

Finally, a really pretty sunny day! The town had a little stream running through the middle.

We parked the car and went to wander around. There was a little flea market going on, but most of the shops seemed to be closed, maybe just for the middle of the day. We had a hard time finding a place to have a lunch. We peeked in a couple of places, but they seemed to be just selling gelato or snacks and no tables. We found an empty restaurant where the owner was engrossed in a car race on TV (Formula One?), but was happy enough to let us come in and order. I think we shared some grilled vegetables, caprese salad, something else?

Not too much to say, it was a nice relaxing day. It was Mother's day in the US, but not in Italy. I was a little sad about not talking to my kids, but I did get a couple of texts.
I must have been more impressed with my vino bianco del casa than I was with my meal that night!
We stopped at a pizzeria, but this looks like the remains of risotto quattro formaggi -- sleeping pill in a bowl!

That was our last night in Tuscany. Tomorrow, the drive to Roma with a stop in Siena...

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Thursday, June 03, 2010

Italy, Day 7: Tuscany

We started the day with breakfast at the hotel (croissant, nutella, fruit, caffe latte), then checked out and took a bus to the airport to pick up a rental car. We decided (I begged) to pick up the car at the airport so that I wouldn't have to drive in the city center. The streets were so narrow in Florence and pedestrians everywhere, it just seemed like a good idea for my sanity. I was the driver for the three days we had the rental because it cost about $350 less to rent a standard transmission than an automatic. I loved the tiny Fiat Punto with it's switchblade-style key! Never made it to 6th gear though.
We plugged in the GPS and headed out to the Tuscan countryside. We did stop at a McDonald's first! International McDonald's are interesting and it was a little break from the pasta/pizza. I only forgot to engage the clutch a time or two (at a toll booth, oops!). The GPS plus passenger navigators got us to the Bed and Breakfast without any trouble. It was a really steep rutted-out dirt road climb at the end though! I learned over the two days there how to maneuver just right up and down that hill.
Jennifer had been emailing with Heidi, the owner of the inn and she'd suggested we arrive between 5 and 7PM to enjoy a drink on the terrace, but I think it was a little after 3 when we found ourselves there -- with a closed gate and no call button. We thought about it for a while and Jennifer went out to check the gate, but didn't see any opening. So we tried calling the number from the email, but the calls didn't go through. Finally, Jennifer and Rich decided to take a nap while we waited for someone to notice us sitting out there. I tried to wait patiently, but I just couldn't so I got out of the car and climbed over the gate. I knocked on the first door I found... no answer. I wandered around and finally found a crazy old spirally bell attached to a long chain so I yanked it. I heard, "Hallo??" from somewhere above me and down came Heidi. Turns out the gate wasn't locked after all!
So we drove in and came out to look around.

The inn is called Le Due Volpi (The Two Foxes), and has beautiful gardens, stone paths, amazing views!

What a cute key!

We carried our bags up to the room, had a lesson from Heidi on how to make espresso, then went for a walk to take a look around. There was a farm up the hill from the inn.

So beautiful!

Back at the inn, we were served a bottle of local wine, some olives and crackers by Lorenzo, Heidi's husband. Lorenzo spoke no English, but he loved to talk anyway! We were never really sure if he was kidding and did understand us or if he just couldn't stop himself from explaining things in Italian even though we couldn't understand. We saw pictures later of his early years as an Italian cycling champion in the 1960's.

Sunset in Tuscany, sigh.
We got a dinner recommendation from Lorenzo (translated by Heidi) and went into Vicchio to look for the restaurant. It took a little searching on foot after parking on the square, but we finally found it. We were definitely the only Americans there. We had a nice meal, I think I had a pappardelle pasta with sausage -- delish but no photo this time. We learned about Tuscan bread (it has no salt), and even though one of the Italian phrases we "mastered" was "Il conto, per favore" (Check please) we waited over an hour. No rushing the dinner experience in Italy!

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Tuesday, June 01, 2010

Italy, Day 6: Florence

Rich left for a cooking class, so Jennifer and I were on our own to explore Florence. We decided to take one of the tour buses to get an overview of the city. For I think €10, we got tickets for the Hop On Hop Off (Big Red Bus). I've done similar tours in London and Savannah. We climbed up to the top level so we'd get good views even though it was another chilly day! We plugged in our little red headphones and tuned into English on the menu of language choices. It was an interesting tour, but I had a really hard time understanding which building was being described on the recorded guide.

This is the Arno River that flows through Florence.

Lots of scooters and motorcycles... Hmmm, this looks like something important....?
We didn't hop off until the end, just took the ride and decided if we wanted to we'd come back and ride it to some of the more interesting spots later. It was cold up there!

We went to get a coffee, then decided to go hit the markets that were right outside our hotel.These stalls had the basic souvenirs, but also tons of leather and pashminas! The prices were great, but we attempted to haggle a little. I managed to get €1 or €2 knocked off the prices of a couple of things, but I think they were just humoring me. Looking between some of the stalls, I saw a doorway that led into a big beautiful indoor food market, so we went to check that out too. I wish I could have brought home some of this! One stall just had dozens of different kinds of dried mushrooms, and of course there were wine stalls and flowers....

We also found a really cute stationery shop and asked the girl there to recommend a good place to get a panini for lunch. She sent us to a place a couple of doors down, delicious!

Then it was time to head towards the Uffizi Gallery to meet back up with Rich. I was excited to see Botticelli's Birth of Venus. By the way, neither of my cotravelers had heard of the Masterpiece game, tell me I'm not the only one that loved that game growing up?
On the way there, we passed Florence's Duomo.

These are the golden doors of the Baptistry, the Door to Paradise.The details on the building are unbelievable and it's hard to take it all in. It's hard to show the scale of it.

This is near the Uffizi. Notice the hazy looking building on the right. We saw this alot -- it's actually just a facade hiding the scaffolding while the building is being restored. Much nicer to look at than exposed construction!

No photos allowed inside the Uffizi. Afterwards we walked toward the Arno River.
This is the Ponte Vecchio Bridge -- home to lots of jewelry shops! I did a little more shopping here.
Then to dinner. I believe this was a restaurant recommended by our hotel called Trattoria ZaZa
I had a risotto al funghi (mushroom), fabulous!

When we first got to Florence, I was a little overwhelmed. It seemed like such a busy city and we hadn't really been around all the buses and traffic before this. But after the tour and wandering around the city on foot, I really liked it. This is definitely somewhere I'd like to return and spend more time. It's also in a great location to take day trips by train to other cities, or drive out to experience Tuscany. I'll show you that next...

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Thursday, May 27, 2010

Italy, Day 5: Travel day to Florence

Here's another travel day, so a little lighter on the pictures.

This is the door to our hotel. During the day, the shop immediately on the right has souvenir Tshirts, umbrellas etc pretty much blocking the door. That's where I got my (lousy) umbrella.

We went across the street and into an alley to get to our breakfast spot (part of the same hotel).

After breakfast, we did some laundry. While it was going, I went for a walk around to the harbor.

This may give more of a sense of the climbing I've been talking about. Everything is built on the side of the mountains.

When the laundry was done, we packed up and walked back to the train station. We caught a local back to La Spezia, then to Florence via Pisa. We didn't get to look for the leaning tower, just grabbed a slice of pizza at the station and jumped on the train. We checked into Hotel Globus, then went out to explore a little. Practically right outside our door was an outdoor market with stalls full of pashminas and leather bags! But more about that tomorrow.
We stopped for a gelato...

I loved this fountain...
We puttered around until about 6:30 or 7:00 when the restaurants open for dinner. We crazy Americans eat SO early! We found a great restaurant, but I didn't keep the name! Co-travelers,
do you remember? Very eccentric decor, colorful paint. I think we had some kind of little rocking horse statue on our table.

Spaghetti al Carbonara, mmmm.
More about Florence tomorrow!
Lessons learned:
Why didn't we take a cab to go see the leaning tower of Pisa? I don't think it ever even occured to us to do that. Or maybe it was the train schedules. Yeah, I guess we had booked in La Spezia and didn't have time between trains in Pisa. Guess I'll have to go back for that!
UPDATE: Totally forgot to add that this was the day we went to the Accademia to see (the) David!
They didn't allow photos inside, but lots of people were ignoring the rule. I wasn't brave enough to do that.

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Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Italy, Day 4: Cinque Terre

Oh yeah, the blog!

Cinque Terre is a group of villages along the Italian Riviera. We stayed in Riomaggiore, and took the train to the other 4 villages (Monterosso al Mare, Vernazza, Corniglia and Manarola). In good weather, there are trails open between the villages and it's possible to hike from one to the next. We heard that two of the trails are pretty easy and the others are really challenging. On our day, only one trail was open, the one between our village and Manarola.
As you can see, not such a beautiful day. But who cares?? We were still in Italy, and it was still beautiful.
Waiting for the train with a few other people in Riomaggiore.

In Vernazza

In Monterosso al Mare:

Not sure which village this was!

I think this one is Corniglia. We decided that we just had to get this shot, so popped off the train thinking we'd be able to pop back on in 5 minutes or so. Nope, we had to wait over an hour for the next train. It's a good picture though, right?

The sun came out! So we took the trail back from Manarola to Riomaggiore.

All these locks were along the trail (Via dell 'Amore). There is a tradition there that when you make a commitment with your sweetheart, you come seal it with a lock.

And write a message about it apparently. Lots of graffiti in Italy, and it seemed more like art than anything and is also traditional.

We had dinner that night at one of my favorite restaurants on the trip: Ristorante la Lampara. We had a charming waiter and there was a little black and white cat wandering around under the tables. Then we stopped off again at Bar Centrale for a limoncello before climbing the hill and stairs back to the hotel, Locanda Ca' dei Duxi.
Lessons learned:
No problems here. My 5 Euro umbrella didn't last 24 hours, but in Monterosso I bought a rain jacket for 15 Euros and it worked well enough for the rest of the day.
Thanks for helping jog my memory Jennifer!

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