Friday, September 30, 2016

Honeymoon: Florence Part II, Orvieto, Rome

Florence Part II

Monday. September 26

Our last morning in Vernazza was pretty as a picture: blue sky, light breeze, no crowds. It was a good day for a train journey. We had breakfast on our patio, then packed up our bags. We invested in the 3€ for someone to carry our bags to the station. Though, it's hard not to feel guilty when he is carrying them both right behind you...

We met the loud group of Aussies at the station, and we found out they were all over for one of their daughter's wedding. They were off hiking and asked what we had done. Well, we saw the towns from the water! Heck, we were overachieving it on the art museums and Vernazza was our chill space. No guilt on our end!

Our train from Vernazza was late, as was our train from La Spezia, which made for a very mad dash for our Pisa train. We barely had time to get our seats before it left the station. So we arrived in Florence on time at noon.

There's something so comforting and stress free about returning to a city. You know how to navigate the train station, how to get to your hotel, where some restaurants and gelato places are. It takes away so much of the travel stress. We stayed in our same hotel, and while we were given another room, we still had a Duomo view, a big tub, etc.

Today was church day. Almost all the museums are closed on Mondays, so it was our chance to see the Duomo and Santa Croce. We also saw that a museum in town had an Ai Weiwei retrospective that we wanted to do. So it was a slightly packed afternoon.

We found a restaurant recommended by Rick Steves for lunch, which was near Santa Croce. We both had traditional Tuscan soups, and Todd had some meatballs and sautéed spinach. It was a light but hearty meal at a local place.

I've been reading EM Forster's "A Room with a View," so Santa Croce has been on my mind. I remember seeing it 22 years ago and being blown away by it. This second visit was just as rewarding. The large tombs, beautiful floors, and seemingly endless little chapels. The cloisters attached were quiet and simple in their beauty with the green trees and grass contrasted with the bright blue sky and the humble brick.

We then made our way to the Duomo. We thought the line would be long to get in, so Todd went to the line and I bought gelato. They had vegan hazelnut, chocolate, and mango, so we had a wonderful variety. I walked to find Todd near the front of the line. It was actually moving fast, so we had to get out of line three times until our gelato was finished and we could go in.

Last week we had visited the Duomo museum, so we saw many of the original pieces that were once inside and outside. The outside facade is so beautiful and complex, that you expect to see the same inside. When you first walk in, it's surprisingly sparse. There isn't much going on. Beautiful marble floors, huge vaulted ceilings. You make your way up the nave to the dome, and then you are struck speechless. It reaches higher and higher with Brunelleschi's amazing layers of frescoes.

But there is no rest for the art bound! We did the Duomo (that's what you do after all), and Todd was like "come on! Ai Weiwei!!" So we headed to Palazzo Strozzi where we saw his exhibit "Libero" spread throughout the whole palace. We got the audio guides, which were very helpful in deciphering the multiple meanings behind each piece. He is so political and provocative in both the objects, the materials used to make them, and the histori-political context. He touches on migration, pollution, violence, censorship.

We then carried ourselves home to rest our weary feet. They really are getting weary. Thank goodness we had a hotel with a tub in Florence. After dinner we had individual bath soaks planned. We went on the hunt for a nearby restaurant mentioned in the guidebook but passed a Chinese restaurant. I realized when Todd pointed it out to me that I just couldn't do spaghetti marinara again. That Chinese food was so good. Sometimes when I find tofu in the middle of a trip, I get overly excited. (Once in Cape Town, I came across a health food store with a sign saying fresh tofu. I hadn't had it in two months. I'm not going to lie to you, I took it and went back to my friends' house and ate it as it came.) we stopped by another gelato restaurant that had vegan flavors on the way home. Vegan pistachio ice cream. Yum.

Tuesday, September 27

We woke up in Florence to our last breakfast in our room. We didn't sleep too well, and it must be because we are getting to the end of our trip. Things are speeding up again.

We had a 9am train to Orvieto, and it was miraculously on time. Through the course of the trip, it only got delayed 10min. We passed through the pretty Tuscan countryside, making our way to Umbria. We arrived around 11:30, bought our Carta Unica tickets, which covered all the sights, and took the funicular up to the top of town. We squished in a bus to the Duomo square with a tour group, which was thankfully only a 5 minute ride.

We stepped off into the Duomo square and were faced with the bright wonder of the facade. Beautiful white, pink, blue/green, gold. Even after the Florence Duomo, we were awestruck. We ambled down to our b & b, but it was a little early to check in. She directed us to a restaurant for lunch, which was just what we needed. We ordered bread with olive oil tasting, which consisted of her just dumping two kinds of oil over slices of bread. It was delicious though! Todd had pasta with boar, and I had pasta with veggies in a nice sauce. We ambled around and went back to our hotel to check in.

After getting settled, we started our sightseeing. With the Orvieto card, everything was covered. First, the Duomo. The outside is a spectacularly busy wonder. We found out later that it was thanks to the local Bishop who brokered a deal in WWII between the Nazis and Allies that the Duomo was not bombed. At the same time that the altar and chapels are rich in detail and art, the rest of the church is simple with its striped stone walls and alabaster Windows. I admit that I took more photos of the pillars and wall textures than all the illustrious art.

After the Duomo, we decided to see some caves, which is what Orvieto is known for. There was a Roman cave that we could see and a formal underground Etruscan cave. When we asked the woman at the tourist desk what the difference was between them, as we were trying to decide if we should see both, she just looked at us and said they were very different. By the end of the day, we would know what she meant.

We took the short trek to the Pozzo della Cava, well of the cave. This Roman cave highlighted various pottery that was found there, how olive oil was made and stored, and how Romans got their water. While I wouldn't say I'm scared of heights, there's something very nerve wracking looking down a 30m well. Besides the Sistine chapel, it is one thing on this trip I don't have a photo of. We meandered through the caves a little awestruck by the sizes of them.

As we were exiting, Todd went ahead of me and the older man who worked there (he was at least 8O I'd say), came up to me, took my hand, and with a smile I can only call the "dirty old man smile", he led me to the back room of the restaurant saying, "venga, venga" (come, come). I mean, I know he didn't mean me any harm,  but my woman alone prickles were standing up on my neck (what does his wife in the next room think he's doing? I mean really he must be harmless.) He led me to a space between two tables, still pulling on my hand, smiling, and saying "venga." He then pointed downwards and I jumped with fright. He'd led me to the plexiglass covered floor that looked deep into a lower cave. And then he jumped on the glass. Twice. By his time I was giggling helplessly and stepping away from the plexiglass, refusing his encouragement to jump. My knees were a little wobbly. I said goodbye and thank you to the man and found Todd waiting for me outside with a slight smirk on his face. It's always the old guys that he's got to watch out for.

We power walked to the Tourist office to get on the 4:15pm underground tour, but it was already sold out. So we booked the 5:30 tour and went to the archaeology museum to kill time. It was a cool
Museum with Roman urns, busts, and other chipped pieces of history. But it didn't take long because it was small and no signs were in English. So some time was killed but not much. we went to the  little cafe and got a snack and watched the people outside.

Finally, we took the underground tour that led us outside the city and deep into two public caves below. Back in Etruscan times, the people (and one especially forward thinking Ruler person) knew that if the city was under siege, the only way it would survive would be if it had water. So they started digging wells. In fact several wells were dug, and Orvieto wasn't really ever sacked. In addition, there were city laws that said you could dig vertically within the same dimensions of your house. So people dug themselves wine and food cellars that kept everything at 15c all year round. Almost every house and business has its own cave.

Those with more money had a house along the city wall and they carved themselves pigeon rooms. They had discovered that pigeons were far easier to keep than chickens. They carved out a window so the pigeons could fly out, and they dug roosting holes for them. The pigeons would go out and feed themselves, come back and roost and have babies, and the family would have lots of easy meat. So pigeon became a local culinary specialty. Especially the baby pigeons. Poor piccolo Picciones.

Anyways, it was a fascinating tour that also included rooms were stone was quarried (until the city stopped it under fear that the city would literally cave in) and olives pressed. There were small little passageways and spectacular views of the countryside. As the woman had said earlier, they were indeed two very different cave experiences, both of them interesting in their own way (venga, venga).

We took our now sore feet back to our B&B to figure out dinner plans. There was no shortage of restaurants, and I walked us to one that had a good review only to find it closed. So we went to the second one. Everything there is homemade, so it wasn't a surprise what happened when I said "sono vegana" to the owner. He literally stepped away from me and started flailing his hands around saying "no, no, no." He motioned for us to go down the street and take the second left. We just chuckled as we wandered away, not finding the restaurant. So we went to our third choice, which was absolutely fantastic. I had pasta  with veggies, Todd had rabbit and veggies, and we had some amazing bruschetta with shaved truffles. I also ordered a glass of the Orvieto white wine. While Todd dug into his decadent tiramisu,  I drank my vin santo for dessert. It was a great meal.

We stopped by to see the Duomo all lit up at night, meandered into a store to buy some ceramics, and went home to crash for the night in our cute little room.

Wednesday, September 28

We didn't have an early start (our train was at 11:20am), but we didn't sleep very well. We got up early and had breakfast at the family bar/cafe downstairs. Clearly there is an artist in the family who did pieces in our room and in the restaurant. Todd went up to take a nice long shower, and I went on a morning photo shoot through two of the churches we'd been passing. On the way, I stopped and bought more ceramics. I mean, you buy glass in Venice, paper in Florence, and ceramics in Orvieto.

It was a good stay in Orvieto, and I could certainly see us returning. I think both of us would take a writing retreat in a Tuscan/Umbrian town (anybody want to recommend a writing residency for us???). But, with our flight going out of Rome Friday morning, it was time to get there.

It was a fast train to Rome and only mildly late. We had no interest in navigating a bus, so we took a cab to our hotel. To say that Rome was a shock to our system would be an understatement. Rome is manic. It makes Chicago traffic and cab drivers seem like passive little kittens. We were jostled past all the big monuments (oh, there is the coliseum, there is the "wedding cake") until we gleefully got out of the taxi and into our cosy little hotel room.

There was never any doubt that we would only see a handful of things in Rome, if that. We only had a half day and one full day, and it was at the end of our trip, so we hadn't booked anything. Yet, when we were in our hotel room, we were possessed by the tourist devil to try the Vatican museums. I got online and booked us a 3pm entry with an audio guide. We took a taxi to save our feet for the museums. The taxi to the museum was even more manic than our earlier one. Traffic was crazy, we saw a taxi try to get around a bus only to have misjudged the distance and to have his front crushed into the back side of the bus. Even in front of the museum, it was so packed with people that we knew we were heading into an Uffizi experience on steroids. (We have decided that one of Dante's modern levels of hell would be tour groups in a museum. Omg they incite evil thoughts and make the experience a difficult one to enjoy.)

I will say from the start that the Vatican museum has some absolutely amazing art, ceilings, and sculpture. The problem is that it's so darn crowded that you find yourself eager to move quickly to the next room to avoid the tour that is about to shift. We still spent three hours walking from room to room, ogling the ceilings, admiring wonderful pieces of history. I just wish it had been an experience like the San Marco museum in Florence, where you had space to be contemplative about the art. 22 years ago, I visited the museum and had a very different experience. Perhaps it was because I was starting to really question my Catholic faith, but back then, I felt quite negative about all the wealth in the Vatican. Perhaps I am more worldly, less judgmental, and non-Catholic now, but I could appreciate the art and architecture more (when I could really enjoy them).

One of the funny small world things that happened was in one of the early rooms of the museum, I was looking around and did a double take. There, sitting on a bench was Bob, one of the Victories board members where I work. There were hugs all around, and we found out they had just landed that day. Todd and I could not imagine doing the Vatican after the long haul flight. It was hard enough spending an hour in Westminster Abbey when we arrived. Throughout the museum, we kept bumping into them. Towards the end of our visit as Todd and I were heading to the Sistine chapel, we saw a bunch of guards close off the  stairs leading to the chapel. They just ushered us the other direction. But all the signs no longer said the chapel.  I asked a guard the way to the chapel and we told him the other way was closed. We ran into Bob and crowd and they followed us. The guard sent us down a very narrow hallway, confirming with another guard that it was okay. We got to the side door of the chapel, and the guard there wasn't going to let us in. "I said no! Why are you still here," he shouted at us. Between the bunch of us, we managed to convince him that we were coming in, and he caved.

Once we were in, Todd and I made full use of the audio guide. In other areas of the museum we didn't listen to the full pieces because you just had to keep moving (almost like the way the Tower of London puts you on a conveyor belt as you pass the Crown Jewels). The guide gave us great detail about the frescoes, and I really didn't remember anything from 22 years ago). We found seats along the edge and took it all in at a leisurely pace. Eventually, we were tired of hearing the guard occasionally shout "silencio! Silence! No photo! No video!" (Interesting fact that Todd discovered: there is so much CO2 from visitors in the Sistine chapel that they may have to start limiting people who visit because it is damaging the paintings. Millions of people visit a year, so no wonder.)

Rick Steves mentions that you should try to get out the back entrance because it will lead you to St Peters Basilica. It is the exit for groups, so we put our heads down and just tried to look like we were with any of the groups that were there. Not a problem really as the guards weren't policing it, but in the Catholic house, I felt so guilty!!! We made our way out of the chapel and into the Basilica. I knew that this church would trump (this word is so icky now) the other churches we'd seen, and Todd was as awestruck as I'd expect. We saw Michelangelo's Pieta and wandered around the various tombs of popes. A mass was being said in the apse, so there were some areas we couldn't see. We could see the one tomb that has stayed with me the past 22 years. The tomb with the skeleton coming out from under the marble robe. Still so creepy. Todd pointed out that several of the paintings were actually mosaics. Indeed, they are mosaic copies of originals that are now in the museum.

After three hours in the belly of the tourist beast, we ambled out into the square and tracked down a taxi stand to head back to our hotel. At this point in the trip, saving our feet, especially Todd's, is more important than money or time. And in traffic, it's slow going despite their manic driving. Todd had spotted an organic restaurant near our hotel when we arrived (he really looks out for my vegan needs!), so we went and had an amazing meal. Absolutely delicious. Four types of bruschetta, fried onion rings, good fish for Todd, a stack of veggies layered with pesto for me, and a vegan apple cake for dessert. Soooo good.

Thursday, September 29

Our last day of vacation. We had made a tentative plan of seeing the Pantheon followed by a small trek to Ostia Antica, the old port. We stuck to the plan.

After a nice hotel breakfast (eggs for Todd in Italy finally!), we took the short walk to the pantheon. It was nice and quiet and empty of tourists. It's such a strange thing to see a Roman building repurposed as a Catholic church, but it is also what has helped the building survive. You have a core structure of brick, stone, and marble with more baroque touches inside. The pillars are carved from single slabs of Egyptian granite that were shipped up the Nile back around 120AD. Seems like such an amazing feat, and this is just one building.

After a brief visit, we started our trek to Ostia Antica. Our hotel concierge had given us the wrong bus number to the station, but luckily we city slickers figured it out and got on the right one. We took a bus to the metro train to the suburban train. It only took an hour door to door, and while we were exhausted after the day, it was so very cool.

Ostia Antica is the old Roman port. Because the Tiber river is too narrow at points for large trading ships, they would dock at the port and load their materials on a river barge for delivery. Unlike the Forum and other inner-city Rome ruins, this site is relatively preserved. There are full and half structures of buildings. There are large columns. There is an amphitheater. There are mosaics in all sorts of hidden and non-hidden places. It's a large, large site, and even after four hours of walking (and 20,000 steps later), we still did not see more than a third of it. The guide and signs weren't super helpful, but they did give us a nice basic starting point.

It's so fascinating to think that you are
Walking along paths made by people 2,500 years ago. The remnants of their lives still exist. Pompeii may have tragedy, mummified remains, and rude graffiti, but this felt like a living city. One of the reasons I love (LOVE) historical dramas is the way they help you visualize a time in history. HBO's "Rome" did help me visualize this place in a living way. Come to think of it, Ostia Antica could do with some actors in costumes walking around. A roman centurion, a wench, a merchant, etc. I do love me some living history!

Finally, our feet were finished. We made our way through the labyrinth of ruins and back to the train station. We got on the right bus and back to our hotel. After a long day on our last day, it's hard to figure out what to do, how much you can take. We sat in our hotels rooftop patio, playing cards, resting our feet, trying to decide. Todd wanted to see a fountain but couldn't take a long walk. So we walked the 5-10 minutes to Piazza Navona, found a great restaurant on the piazza, and enjoyed our final meal. We wandered the square and saw the fountains, especially the Bernini centerpiece "The Four Rivers." In a moment of naïveté, we decided to walk to the Trevi fountain. First off, it was further than we thought based on the map. Secondly, there were way too many people and way too many annoying vendors trying to sell you things. It was just too much. So when we got to the throng at Trevi fountain (I'm guessing it's always madness there), it was just exhausting, and we promptly caught a cab home. We didn't throw coins. We didn't collect $200 as we passed go. Just thankful for fountain to hotel taxi service.

Friday, September 30

We once again took pity on ourselves and opted for hotel to airport car service. Cheaper than a cab and in a Mercedes, we were only mildly jostled to the airport for our 11:30am flight. There was no mad dash to the gate like in Gatwick. Just a herding of cattle through security, on to shuttle buses, and through fairly nonexistent customs. I bought the most expensive average salad ever, and we waited to board the plane.

Final Thoughts

We are currently over north Canada with still 4 hours to go until we land in Chicago. It has been a romantic, fun, and exhausting honeymoon. It's both just what we needed and yet still not enough (can we go sit somewhere remote with no people for a week???). It's been our first real vacation as a couple, except our two week writing residency in Vermont in 2013.

This honeymoon took a village of generous gifts from so many friends and family. It's been fun to tell people what we've seen and done thanks to them. It's been fun writing this blog so that everyone could read it. Most importantly,
Todd and I have had the time together to explore, experience, and relax (we did relax some I think). Anybody who knows me knows how much I've wanted to travel with Todd. I'm so grateful that we had this opportunity, and after our feet and bodies recover, I can't wait to do it again somewhere else. But perhaps slower and quieter.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Honeymoon: Vernazza

Cinque Terra

When we were deciding what type of non-city, small town, by water perhaps, place to visit on our honeymoon, we found ourselves needing to choose between the Amalfi Coast and the Cinque Terra. It didn't take us long today to fully appreciate how right our choice was for us.

We had a chill start to the morning. I had the impulse to see if I could take the stairs up to the Duomo before we caught the train. Todd helped to talk some sense in to me, so I just chilled in the morning, finished my blog, and enjoyed the awesome in-our-room breakfast.

Getting to the station was easy, and the train left on time. Most of the people on the train were clearly going to the Cinque Terra for a day trip or longer visit. We had a five minute layover to find out next train. So, we along with a hundred or more other people filed into the tunnel and out onto the platform and on the next train. We sat there for about 20 minutes with the train not moving. Finally, an announcement came on that the train was only going to Corniglia now, and we needed Vernazza. So, off we went and found another train on another platform and squished in with others already on it. We made friends with the older couple next to us who were from the Toronto area. When we got off the train, they reminded us to vote for Clinton. I said they might see us in Canada if she didn't win.

We stepped off into a busy platform and made our way down the stairs and down the main street of Vernazza. The only way to really get lost is in the small side streets. There is really only one street in town that leads from the train station to the Harbor. Rick Steves and his guides are not happy about the traffic of people that come into the Cinque Terra, and I can see why. It was crowded on the street and there were so many touristy shops in between restaurants. I was excited to see the town when the last day trippers and cruise ship tours were gone.

We checked in at the restaurant on the main square that runs the hotel. She said it was 100 steps up to our hotel and did we want a luggage for 3€ a piece? Oh, absolutely. Our bags aren't too heavy but after 100 steps we might throw them over a ledge. We chose this hotel because of the views. We have a town view the first two nights and a sea view our third night. The trade off is that we have a private bathroom now and a shared one on the last night. The breakfast is served on a patio overlooking the sea, and there are common areas built on terraces along the sea. The perfect way to spend a few hours or days, I'm thinking.

We dropped off our stuff and meandered down to find some lunch, find the post office and laundry, and get a feel for the town. It is small, so it didn't take long. We had a simple meal at the harbor, and I ordered a vegan burger, which was a nice change of pace. Todd had seafood lasagna. We also ordered a spinach, carrot, and fennel salad, which was just right. We meandered to the harbor, where people were lining up to catch the boat to the next town. We booked lunch at the restaurant atop the harbor (can you eat next to the water too often? We don't think so). Todd found a hat, which he has wanted since Venice. We picked up a few snacks, and we meandered up to our room for a mid afternoon nap, followed by a game cards on the communal deck by the sea.

Dinner we booked up at the restaurant by the castle for 7pm. It was mentioned in Rick Steves book as a good view of the sea. It seemed the perfect place for our first night. We arrived about 15 minutes before the beautiful sunset and it was a perfect place to be. The food and service were lackluster, and we probably won't eat there again, but I'm glad we did once.

 The strangest thing was how we paid. It was cash only, and we were instructed to bring it into the back room. It looked like the kitchen, so I came back out and looked quizzically at the waiter. He clarified and said "second door on the left." I went back in and through the second door. There sat the grandma with a metal tin in front of her and the daughter and granddaughter watching tv and eating. The daughter welcomed me in and the grandma took the bill from me, opened up her tin, and gave me change. This is a small town, and this is a family run affair.

We decided to see if we could find dessert, so we ambled back down into town. It's so quiet up top, and you couldn't hear any town noise. As we emptied on to the main plaza, it was clear that the town was still hooping. All the restaurants seemed full, especially on the harbor. We couldn't find a place to sit, so we went to the gelateria. Todd bought a cannoli, and we sat on the bench and people watched.

We closed off the day in the communal area of our hotel, with everyone else who needed wifi. We played cards and chilled.

Saturday, September 24

We slept fairly well and slept in, which is always a perk of vacation. We ambled down the 20 meters to the balcony where breakfast was being served. It was just as perfect as we had hoped. Not a cloud in the sky and a beautiful gleam off the sea. The hotel had bought rice milk for me, as well as a bowl of amazing fruit. The peach was ripe to perfection. (So many seaside views cause me to overuse the word perfect.) we had two espressos because we could, and we just enjoyed taking our time.

Not much to do today except do some laundry, see the castle and churches, buy some postcard stamps, wander around the town, and eat. We slow down. It feels strange after days of city walking and museums.

Laundry takes an hour and a half, and we take turns meandering the town. I sit at a cafe and order a tea, which wasn't the smartest idea I've ever had. We finish laundry just in time for our 12:30 lunch reservation at Ristorante Belaforte atop the harbor. It's one Rick Steves mentions, and we couldn't get a dinner reservation.

We sat in the little turret up top, away from the sun, but in full view of the water and town. It was an epic long lunch. What we have noticed here is that everything centers around seafood (obviously), but little thought is given to variety. For example, it's fish salad, fish spaghetti, mixed seafood platter, fried seafood, risotto with seafood. For non fish eaters, there is some spaghetti bolognese or spaghetti pomodoro. The pesto here is made with cheese, so I stick to the spaghetti pomodoro. I've had it three times out of the four meals I've had here. I look forward to the variety again in Florence.

For Todd, it's a bit more of a culinary adventure. This lunch he had breaded calamari as a starter. I ate my spaghetti and very nice roasted vegetables slowly. We ordered some olives to go with the bread. His main course of fish was made to order, so it took a little longer. Finally, the waiter brought up a beautiful platter with roasted potatoes on one side, roasted tomatoes on the other, and a beautiful (in presentation anyway, not in its deadness) filleted whole fish in the center. He showed it to Todd, I photographed it, and he took it to a side table to debone it for him. I have to say, it was a gourmet meal. He was one happy, contented eater. He has come to th inclusion that this is how he likes fish, done right by real chefs.

I decided I might as well order dessert while he ate his second course. There was lemon sorbet on the menu, which they said had no milk. So I ordered that and a glass of Vin Santo dessert wine. I first had this wine back in 2004 when friends and I were on our 30th birthday trip to Tuscany. At a little enoteca at the top of the town, we were introduced to this amazing wine. What the waiter brought was a glass of the vin santo and another glass with a white drink in it with a straw. I asked the waiter if this was the lemon sorbet, and he said yes, it was made of lemon, sparkling water, and prosecco. So I had two drinks to finish. This time Todd had to wait for me, so he ordered tiramisu. We finished lunch almost two hours later.

We weren't feeling much like walking around, but we did go to the church and explore the harbor a bit before heading back to our place. The church is a small, simple village church with yellow paned Windows and a great view of the harbor.

We returned to our room and packed up patio stuff and sat under the pergola for two hours. We napped, we read, we played some cards. Todd spotted schools of anchovies breaking the surface of the water.  Due to the stone cliffs, wifi doesn't travel very far, so we were happily disconnected until we meandered through the common room.

Around 5:30 we decided to freshen up and meander through town for an appetizer (we were feeling nibbly if you can believe it). We had seen a little take out bar where you could get fried veggie tempura and fried fish pieces in a little brown cone with a lemon on a stick. So we ate our fried stuff and sat in the harbor to wait for sunset. It was another beauty. The sailboats out on the water added gorgeous texture to the shots, and between photos (with my manager pointing out I should switch lenses and take certain angles), we snuggled up and watch the orange turn to pink, spreading across the sky.

We had 8pm dinner reservations at a restaurant at the harbor that rents our rooms, Gianni Franzi. Todd decided he wasn't super hungry for a big pasta meal, so he ordered the fried mixed fish. It included shrimp, calamari, anchovies, and something rather indistinguishable that he decided wasn't fully to his taste. But now he can say he had anchovies, which is a specialty here. I had spaghetti pomodoro. We'll leave it at that.

After dinner, we meandered through town, looking at little souvenir shops along the way. Mostly tacky things, but it seemed the thing to do. Todd got some gelato, and we sat on a bench, watching the people go back and forth, including a woman who seemed to be walking various dogs, one at a time. It was a peaceful way to end our day, and our doing not-much-of-anything had made is quite tired.

Sunday, September 25

After a somewhat restless sleep for us both, we were up and at breakfast earlier than expected. There was a slight chill as the sun hasn't come up past the outcrop, so we ate out yummy breakfast with jackets on. Until, suddenly, it was full sun and the water sparkled all around us. We were mesmerized by the sole fisherman in the water below us; he let out his net, reeled it back in, repeated it again and again. He was just far enough away that it was hard to see if he was catching anything.

We have to switch rooms today, so we packed things up and left them in our room to switch after lunch. We went up to the castle for great views of the town. 600 years ago, this town needed a tower to protect itself from the marauding Pirates, or at least warn people that they were coming. The tower was bombed in WWII and rebuilt. It certainly satisfied my castle fix, even if you could do it all in 15 minutes and nobody was in costume.

After an hour camped out on the patio, we got the key to our new room. We couldn't get a room with a view for three nights, but we have it for the final night. It's just the right size for us and a great little patio with two chairs if we wanted to sit on our mini balcony.

We went to find lunch at the harbor and hop the boat to Riomaggiore. The plan was to take the boat there to see two other towns (Rio..., Manarola) and train it back. The boat was crowded but fast. We walked up into Riomaggioreand through the town. The sun was beating just a little too hot today. We were going to take the path from Rio to Manarola, aka the Lovers Way, but it was closed. The heat was feeling a bit much and a train was coming to Vernazza, so we said to hell with it, and went back to our home town. We stepped off into a very busy town and went back towards our house, stopping to buy some souvenirs and snacks.

We hiked up to our room and took a break on the benches to eat our snacks by the sea. It really is a good place for us. There are lots of food options in town, but our place is just far away from town that we feel like we also have quiet space on our private and communal patios.

Tonight we meandered back after a chill early evening on our balcony. We had amazingly good pizzas and onion focaccia at a small takeaway place on the strip. It was quieter in town tonight and it was before the 7pm opening hour of other restaurants. We went to he harbor and caught the last light of sunset into dusk, but a terrible electric guitar player started in the square. It was time to head up.

As I type this in the communal lounge, I am surrounded by some very boisterous Australians in their 50s and 60s, drinking wine and pizza. Good to see people having  fun, but quiet is golden.

We are up early and on the train back to Florence tomorrow. I've been daydreaming about the vegan chocolate gelato next to the duomo.

Friday, September 23, 2016

Honeymoon: Florence Part I


Wednesday, September 21

We had an early morning in Venice, catching the Vaporetto to the train station. It was our one and only trip up the Grand Canal, so we got to enjoy it with al the children and their parents heading to school. Our train was at 9am to Venice, and it turned out we had plenty of time because our train was an hour late. It was a fast train once we were on it, but it meant we arrived in Florence an hour and a half late.

We had a museum gauntlet planned, since we basically had 42 hours to see the museums. When we come back on Monday for the afternoon, many of them are closed. So we had decided to save the churches til Monday.

Our hotel was easy to find, and it was just as perfect as the photos on the website indicated. We got the best room: facing the Duomo, double paned glass, four poster bed, a bathtub with jets, a table for our morning breakfast, and room to breathe and walk around. London and Venice had been good rooms, but teeny tiny.

We dropped off stuff, settled in, and then went to hunt down lunch. We found a great restaurant right near our place, and came back online after our travel morning.

The original plan for Full Florence Art Immersion was to buy the Florence pass at the Bargello and see it, followed by the Uffizi. But the Bargello credit card machine didn't work, so we went to the Palazzo Vecchio to buy it instead, thinking the line to buy it would be quicker. But their credit card machine was slow, i.e. Dial up slow, so it took 20 minutes for us to get through the short line.

Finally, Florence card in hand, we hit our first stop, the Uffizi. We might not have spent so much time in there, but it was impossible to get around the large tour groups that would crowd around one piece and then move like an amorphous blob down the hallway. So we ambled around, took breaks, and tried to find humor in art pieces. I remembered how after my year in Europe in 1994-1995, I knew all the saints by their art iconography. Now I mostly pass by all that early church art with glazed eyes.

Don't get me wrong, we have seen some beautiful church art. Michelangelo's Holy Family in the Uffizi, and many of the photos with angels that have gorgeous colorful and textured wings. Amazing.

We made our way to the Botticelli and enjoyed the various works in that room. We saw the Ponte Vecchio from the Windows, and we were dumped in the cafe terrace. I like me a good drink with a view, so we sat on the terrace with views of the Duomo and Palazzo, giving our feet a break. We met a chatty American woman who was enjoying a glass of red while her husband took in the art at a slower pace (he take a photo of every.single.piece, she said, so I told him I'd meet him here.

We were ready to exit, so we meandered down what we thought what was the exit staircase. But noooo, it was the exit via another 20 rooms. Oh, we closed down the museum with all the tour groups heading out. Todd aptly pronounced that another level of Dante's hell could be through the Uffizi with tour groups.

We finally detangled ourselves from the Uffizi and scampered back to our four poster bed and tub. We bought some fuzzy bath bombs at a natural store on our way and took turns soaking our slightly achy bodies. Then, Todd was on a mission to take me to a vegan restaurant mentioned in the guidebook, so off we went. It turned into an unexpected culinary adventure since that restaurant was closed.

We found a nearby hopping square and menu hopped around the restaurants, none of them floating out boats. We saw a small restaurant with a few tables under an arch that seemed pretty busy. They had a menu of the day handwritten in the menu. This just had to be a good sign. In my mangy Italian I asked a waitress if they could do Vegan. I understood about half of what she said, but she knew what pasta didn't have eggs and rattled off a host of veggies they could use. That was good enough for me. Todd was also happy to have an adventure, so we sat.

The restaurant was a delicious surprise. First, the older cook brought us an unordered surprise, a thick wheat pancake made out of water and pepper. We ordered bruschetta and fried zucchini blossoms for appetizers. Both were miraculous. Yes, you can say this when both are melt in your mouth good. I could have ordered a whole second plate of blossoms. I ordered pasta with artichokes and lemon, and Todd ordered pasta with duck. Mine was delicious. The artichokes were chopped finely with red onion and maybe some garlic and sautéed to perfection and doused with pasta and olive oil. Todd's pasta was like a bolognese  and in his words: scrumptious! Best meal of the trip so far.

We meandered home, stopped for a gelato and a spin around the Duomo, before heading home to crash.

Thursday, September 22

We ordered our breakfast in our room for 7:30 just in case we were feeling ambitious to get to the Accademia and its David when it opened at 8:15. We slept really well, so we were up early before the cart rumbled down the hall to our room. Nothing says honeymoon like breakfast in your room. This was the only hotel that said they could do a vegan breakfast. There were little vegan pastries, soy milk, and for Todd a huge croissant with Nutella.  Two espressos, of course, followed up by our own tea. It was blissful and a perfect start to the day.

We then began Art Immersion Day 2. We arrived at the Accademia at 8:30 to already long lines. There were signs everywhere that the museum didn't open until 10am due to a staff meeting, so we didn't bother waiting in line.

Instead, we went to the Museum of San Marco to see the Fra Angelico paintings, frescoes, and other art works. What a beautiful and quiet way to start the day. There was hardly anyone there, so we could meander through easily, actually enjoying the church art and appreciating the detail. The best part about them museum is the area upstairs where all the monks once slept. Each cell has a Fra Angelico mural on the wall, and even the spurting blood crucifixes are interesting in their own way. Todd was especially curious about the surrealist like nature of many of them, complete with floating heads and objects. We truly enjoyed it.

We then headed back to the Accademia, where the line was much longer, but we had the Florence card to speed up the process. We still had to wait an hour to get in, so I can only imagine how long the wait was if you didn't have tickets or the Florence card.

I remember being very moved by Michelangelo's David when I first saw it in 2004. The museum first places you in a room with a few other paintings to enjoy, and then you enter the hallway where He awaits under the big dome, all lit up with natural light. But before you get there, you walk through Michelangelo's "Prisoners," a set of rough statues with figures straining to break free from the stone.

Then, you are in front of David with a few hundred other people. He's gorgeous, and not because he is naked. His muscles are taut, his gaze both confident and wary, and it's the perfect moment before he beats Goliath. I took a ton of photos around him, as did Todd. We didn't rush ourselves, but eventually we felt done and made our way out through three final rooms.

When we were in the gift shop, Todd asked me if I had taken any black and whites, which I hadn't. In true bossy husband mode, he told me to get back in there and take some. So I did. A lot. He found some good spots and bossed me around some more. He has a good eye, which I appreciate. He never seems to tire of me taking photos.

We left the Accademia and found a quick falafel place. It was a nice easy meal before we hit museum #3: the Medici chapels. There is a fairly ostentatious dark marble room full of large monuments, with a few rooms of reliquaries (which I find so creepy). The main jewel is the Michelangelo room, where he sculpted the Medici tombs. Having spent much of his life with he family, they commissioned him to do many things for them. It's a simply colored room with a bright dome lighting up the gorgeous white statues.

Our feet needed a rest, so we made our way back home, past the Duomo and the hoards of people. We took a nap and enjoyed the vacation moment when we didn't have to push ourselves too hard.

I had hoped we would get to the Pitti Palace, as I'd never been, but the trek across the river seemed too much walking.  I was definitely feeling the push to get the most out of our Florence card, so we compromised by visiting the Duomo museum just a half a block from our room.

This museum has the original doors from the Baptistry, the famous Donatello Mary Magdalene, and Michelangelo's final Pieta. In addition, they have pieces of the original facade of the Duomo before it was redone to look like it does today. The created a large fake facade and placed the statues where they would have been. It was pretty cool.

Our stomachs were pronouncing it was time for dinner, so we made our way home, dressed for dinner, and chose a restaurant from our guidebook. It was a great meal with a new dish for both of us. It didn't rival our dinner from last night, but it was very good and very affordable.

After dinner, we meandered to the Palazzo Vecchio to look through the Loggia of statues, and went to the Arno river to see the Ponte Vecchio. It was a busy night in Florence, so we just enjoyed the beautiful weather and meandered our way back. We will be back Monday night for a night.

Next stop: Vernazza in the Cinque Terra!

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Honeymoon: Venice


It's been five years since I've been to Venice. I was last here in 2011 with my Dad and Margaret for a few days. I had just stated dating Todd, and I so wanted him to be there with me. Here we are, on our honeymoon.

Sunday, September 18

Our journey to visit was a long day. Train at 8:30am to the airport, 11am flight, 2:30pm land, 3:30pm boat from Venice, 5pm land at Zattere stop and walk the block to the hotel. Needless to say, we were tired when we arrived.

Little things on the journey tire you out. Carting your luggage a few blocks, up escalators, down escalators, on trains, off trains. Waiting in line to check your bags at the airport. Waiting for your gate to be listed on the monitors. Shopping for last minute souvenirs. Buying food for the flight. A mad dash to the gate when you realize you have 10 minutes but the gate seems to be through never ending looooong hallways. Then waiting for your bags to arrive on the carousel, and they are really at the end. Then walking a few blocks to catch the water taxi, only to wait for 15-30 minutes for enough people to come that they decide to leave. Then being the last stop (almost) on the route.

But then you disembark at your stop, the weather is perfect, the sky a pretty blue, the buildings just the kind of rustic worn out that you love, and an accordion playing a love song in the distance. And you are exhausted, but you step off the boat with your equally exhausted husband, which seems the fulfillment of a wish. Your hotel is a block away and there's the most wonderful outdoor seating areas. The room key is heavy, feels like old world. The room you have is very small, even smaller than London.

Okay, enough of the "you." We check in, drop off our bags, don't even change out of our travel clothes because we are so hungry. Thanks to Rick Steves, we try a restaurant on the water where we got off the boat. It's a gorgeous place to sit and let the day come off us. I ordered a salad and roast veggies, and Todd orders pasta with mushrooms and shrimp. We have bruschetta, and we watch the colors of the  sky begin to change into the sunset. It's a gorgeous sunset. We totally ignore the smoke stacks in the distance that are right in front of the setting sun. Thankfully, the large cruise ship waits until after the sunset to move across our view.

After dinner, we take a very leisurely stroll along the Accademia Bridge and meander towards San Marco. We walk slowly and let ourselves take in the scenery, the people, the window displays. Todd eyes a white hat in a window. We both eye the glass jewelry and ornaments. I find al fruit Popsicles and enjoy. We arrive in San Marco and enjoy the views of the Square, Basilica, and the Doge's Palace. There are vendors out in droves, trying to sell us red roses are flying colored objects you can sore into the sky.

We return to our hotel the way we came and light seal our room with the electric metal shade.

Monday, September 19

We set our alarms but let ourselves sleep past them. There is no big rush to get up. We feel on casual Venice time, as last night's walk out us in the space. When we do, it's just to amble downstairs for breakfast. It's a beautiful day, and I definitely want to eat outside in the garden. So, we get our bread, fruit, and espressos, and camp out under an umbrella.

We then ambled over to the Guggenheim Museum just a few blocks from our hotel. Visiting this museum in December 1994, when I spent the last few days of the year here (ringing it in in San Marco Square), was a highlight of my trip. As Todd loves Modern art, I knew he would love it. We walked into the courtyard to buy our tickets and right there was an Andy Goldsworthy piece, "Snowball." A good omen since he is one of Todd's recent favorite artists.

The museum is in the former home of Peggy Guggenheim, who was an avid collector and patron of artists in the 30s, 40s, and through the rest of her life. The collection is astounding: Ernst, Tanguy, Pollack, Magritte, Picasso, Conrad,  Calder, Miro. The best part of the museum for me is that it's small and in her first home. Many of the pieces are in the room where they initially hung when she was alive. There are photos of her in each room so that you can see what they looked like. You can wander on to her patio on the Grand Canal and have a spectacular view, listening to the gondoliers singing to their customers. You can wander through the sculpture garden.

One paragraph hardly seems enough to do it justice. It was even better 22 years after my first visit. I know so much more about art than I did then. Still, looking at Magritte's "Empire of Light" again made me emotional. A special kind of travel and life nostalgia. As Todd said, "My Facebook post should say, 'I've died and gone to Venice.'"

After the museum, we ambled back home for our pre-lunch mission: find the laundrette. We are in need of clean clothes sooner than expected because Lindon was so sweltering. Our hotel told us about a place (hindsight: we should have looked up Rick Steves laundry info in the book), so we trudged off with our laundry in two small bags, with other bags for gallivanting after the laundry. Unfortunately, our hotel out it on the wrong place on the map, so we couldn't find it. So we asked in a hotel, and they pointed us in the right direction. Alas, it was closed. If we would have looked up our Rick Steves handy guide, we would have known it closed at 12:30 but there was a do it yourself laundry a few blocks away. Travel learning curve. It's our first big trip together, so still finding kinks in our system!

Instead, we started the trudge back to our hotel, laundry still in tow. We stopped at the place where we had seen a vegan sandwich advertised in the window. Good sandwich, but zilch of protein, but it helped. Back at our hotel, we washed some urgent clothes in the sink and hung some of them discreetly on our balcony to dry in the sun.

We hadn't over planned our day, so the only other thing on our list was the Frari church. It isn't too far from our hotel, so we took a relaxed pace to get there. The nice thing about Venice is that when you walk somewhere, you walk along canals and small side streets full of cute shops, restaurants, and endless photogenic views.

The Frari church is about 600 years old, and it is a beauty of the simpler kind. Not a lot of ornate ceilings, but many beautiful altars, paintings, and sculpture. The artist of renown for this church is Titian, who did the high altar painting and one other large one. He is also buried here in a beautiful tomb built in the 1800s. I had downloaded a Rick Steves audio guide which talked us through the key highlights, including the side chapels built by "rich people."

After the church, we were both hungry. The hard part was that all the good looking restaurants were closed for another hour. It was pre-dinner drink hour, and the plazas were busy with people drinking and socializing until restaurants opened. We made our way to San Stefani Square, just over the Accademia bridge, where we knew many restaurants would be open. By his time we were exhausted and so ready for food. Seafood pasta for Todd, pasta fagioli (soup) and spaghetti pomodoro (red sauce) for me. I had a glass of white wine, and it was tiramisu for Todd and fruit for me.

We took the short walk home and sat outside at our hotel, Waiting for there to be a little room left for Todd to get some gelato.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Mission Laundry Part 2 started our day. An early wake up and breakfast in order to get to the Lavanderia when it opened at 8am. It was a quiet amble, the streets not yet flooded with tourists. We were there when she opened the metal doors, and she took our bags off us, ready at noon.

We walked towards St Mark's, and it was still a light crowd. There were several brides out this morning with their photographers. I couldn't tell if they were brides or models on a photo shoot. We had an hour before our tour, so we went to a cafe on the water and had our second espresso of the day. We wrote in our journals, people watched, and relaxed.

At 9:15am we went over to the Doge's palace for our 9:55am Secret Itineraries tour. The inside courtyard is just as fabulous as I remember it. The different facades of the building revealing what century it was built or redone. Two sides are simple brick and stone. Two sides are elegant carved marble. We wandered the courtyard taking photos and noticing all the details.

The tour takes you through the prisons, offices, and court rooms. Our guide was fantastic, as I'm sure they all are, telling us about the history of Venice, the way the government worked, the importance of each room. The heart of the tour is Casanova's story of his arrest, imprisonment, and escape. His experience makes the perfect story for taking about how the prisons worked and how rare it is for someone to have escaped. The prison cells and even the offices are small. The tour ends in two very pretty decorated rooms. You feel impressed.

The tour ends in the Golden Staircase, and from that point on your mind begins to get scrambled. room after room is bigger, more stately, more frescoes, larger reliefs. It's a barrage to the senses after being in the small rooms with short doors (so the prisoners would have to bow and be humbled).

The one down side was that we had a half hour to do the endless maze of rooms. We had been walking for three hours already and we're getting tired, so it didn't matter in a way. There were rooms for the senate, council of 10, the Great Chamber, and many others. There were rooms just for armor, swords, and other battle gear. Then more jail cells that kept coming and coming. Some of these cells are at water level, and since Venice does flood every day, you can imagine how sucky it would be as a prisoner in one of those. Finally, we made it back to the great courtyard.

We scampered off to get out laundry as the clock struck 12. They closed at 12:30 for the day, so we didn't have much time. San Marco was transformed into a tourist mob. People everywhere, tour groups all over, and barely space to squeeze through. We made it in enough time for Todd to have his pants and shirt pressed, too.

Then, it was time to eat. We didn't want to push ourselves too much without food. We tried the restaurant near the laundry, but when I said I was vegan and tried to Dominicans what that meant, the waiter, said "pasta with fish." Maybe not. We  found a busy restaurant and asked the hostess outside if they had vegan options. She rambled off such a list of delicious options that we couldn't resist. Suitably, the restaurant was called Trattoria Casanova. When I told the waiter I was vegan, he suggested an appetizer plate with bruschetta, olives, grilled veggies, and melon. It was delicious. The flavors just made me moan with culinary happiness. I ordered pesto pasta with veggies, and Todd ordered pizza with ham, olives, artichokes, and mushrooms. Both of our dishes were decadent. So far, my favorite meal.

Instead of dealing with the crowds, we went on a shopping excursion. Todd wanted to check out the hat store, and there were many little shops we had been noticing. It was a pleasant afternoon as we headed towards the Accademia bridge and back home.

We packed up out suitcases for tomorrow's departure and decided to head out for more window shopping. Then, it was time to spiffy up for the gondola ride and our final Venice dinner. The wedding dress and suit made a Venice appearance!

We are right near the Accademia Gondola station, so we stood in line to wait for the next one to arrive. It's hard not to get sentimental in a gondola, especially since I've never had a romantic partner to do these sorts of touristy things with. Our very friendly gondolier took us through our own Dorsoduro area, where he said most local Venetians live. The canals were so quiet, and the sun was starting to set. It was simply contentment. Our gondolier was not overly chatty, but he did talk to us about Venice, talk a bit about what we were passing, and he ended the ride by taking us on to the Grand Canal.

He dropped us off not far from the Rialto because that's where we thought we'd head for dinner. I thought Todd should see it before we left. As we made our way on the streets, we had our eyes out for a restaurant for dinner. I heard the noise of diners and plates before we hit the restaurant. It was packed full and didn't look like many tourists. We asked about vegan options and again got great options, so we sat down. It was a great meal in an eclectic and fun restaurant. Todd had caprese salad followed by a Venetian special dish of polenta with a creamed white fish and roasted veggies. I had vegetable soup followed by spaghetti with olive oil, garlic, and chili. Delicious.

We then made our way to the Rialto. Nothing says romance like men trying to force roses in you or massive construction jackhammer on the bridge. So the Rialto was a dud. We took the vaparetto back to the Accademia and headed home to finish the packing for tomorrow.

Next stop: Florence!