Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Italy - Tuscany Region

September 24 (Wednesday) Today, we took a high-speed train from Venice to Florence. Why is it called a high-speed train? Because it travels at a higher speed than the regular trains and arrives ten minutes earlier. The bathroom on the train was high tech. I was challenged to find a way to flush the toilet, dispense the soap, turn on the water and the hand dryer.

The toilet on the high-speed train wasn’t my only challenge. On the train to Lucca, I got stuck between two cars and couldn't figure out how to open door. I frantically pounded on the door and, luckily, Ken heard me and told me to push a button. Whew!

Even with the GPS on Ken’s phone, we took the long way from the train station into the city of Lucca. Ken wanted to go through the medieval wall surrounding the city, but I took him up and over. This wouldn’t have been so bad except Ken had to lift and carry the two large, heavy suitcases. He was not a happy Italian tourist!

A portion of the Lucca wall

Our apartment was on the fourth floor. To get to it, we took the elevator to the third floor, walked up ½ a flight of steps and had to go through a gate and then go up the last ½ flight. There were many security measures to get in and out. On our first time trying to get out, we forgot how to open the gate so we could go downstairs to the elevator. Fortunately, some other guests were coming up and showed us.

The view from our apartment

September 25 (Thursday) – The bakery chimney was only 50 feet away from the apartment. We could look out our kitchen window and see the smoke. But best of all, we could smell the bread baking. Yummy!

The bakery is making bread!

Narrow roads provided a maze throughout the old city, shared by cars, pedestrians, cyclists, and motorcycle riders. It could get a little tight sometimes but everybody seemed to make it through – or did they? We heard the ambulance and police sirens all day long and often wondered if some cyclist got side-swiped. (Click here to play sound). They were the same everywhere. They made me think of the Keystone Cops.

A street in Lucca

September 26 (Friday) – The top of the wall surrounding Lucca was a beautiful relaxing place to walk, bike, or sit and enjoy the views. On one of our walks, we stopped half way around and exited back down into the city to enjoy lunch at the #2 place on TripAdvisor in Lucca, La Tana del Boia. At the shop owner’s suggestion we tried a fresh raw pork sausage with smoked ricotta sandwich. It was different and we did not get sick! I would not try this in the US.

A portion of the path atop the wall
La Tana del Boia

September 27 (Saturday) – Sometimes an organized tour is the best way to go. We opted for one to visit Cinque Terre (five lands) where all towns slope down to sea-level except for one. Rio Maggiore was first, the southern-most of the five towns. Our van let us out at the top of town and we meandered down the steep hill, stopping for a coffee so we could utilize the free toilette. From here, we boarded a ferry to our next stops. Of the five villages, we were only able to visit four. Corniglia was perched on top of a tall cliff, not accessible by ferry.

Rio Maggiore

Manarola was the smallest village and had only one street. The street was lined with boats, at least on the lower part of it. I would hate to have to move those boats up and down the street to the sea and back.


Vernazza was also a one-street town with a church by the water, remains of the old wall which protected them from pirates, and a castle.

Monterosso al Mare was the most northern village and was actually two towns, an old town and a newer one, connected by a short road tunnel, for pedestrians only. This town was not as steep as the others. Because of their close proximity to the sea, fresh anchovies were a must to eat! For lunch, we enjoyed anchovies Laguria style with tomato sauce and anchovies marinated in lemon. This was also white wine country and they grew lemons and small black olives used for olive oil.

Lunch of anchovies & wine in Monterosso al Mare

September 29 (Monday) - To get to Siena we had to change trains in Pisa & Empoli. Less English was spoken here than Venice. When Ken asked a girl if this was the Pisa stop, she said yes. It was one of them but not the one we wanted. Luckily, we were able to get on the next train to Pisa Centrale and then to Empoli and then to Siena.

A view of the countryside surrounding Siena

The heart of Siena was its central piazza, Il Campo, where a Roman forum used to be. Il Campo is known worldwide for the famous Palio run, a horse race run around the piazza twice every summer. Watch the James Bond movie, Quantum of Solace, to see Siena and the Palio.

Il Campo in Siena
Siena's Duomo (Cathedral)

Siena is said to have been founded by Senius, son of Remus, one of the two legendary founders of Rome. You could see Siena’s emblem, the she-wolf suckling Remus and Romulus, throughout the city.

Siena's emblem

September 30 (Tuesday) – Venturing outside the walled city of Lucca, we walked around. That evening, back inside the walls, we had dinner at Trattoria Ubaldo, a funky place to eat. This was our first non-pasta, pizza, or antipasto meal. Walking home after dinner, we stopped at the store and bought food and wine for Wednesday. It was predicted to be a rainy day and we wanted to be prepared.

Piazza Anfiteatro at dusk

October 1 (Wednesday) – Sure enough, we awoke to thunder, lightning and rain. This was a stay-in day. I read and got two loads of laundry washed. Ken had cabin fever by the afternoon so he went out and got a haircut.

Thursday was another day of rest.

October 3 (Friday) - Today we visited Florence. Because Florence is a large city with so many historical sites, we opted for a walking tour. Our guide was great. She was young and definitely knew her history. She spoke excellent English (she grew up in FL). When not leading tours, she did some acting and this just added to the flair of her tour presentation. After the tour, we found the central market and walked around. It was similar to others we had visited in Latin American countries, but it was much cleaner. We walked along the Arno River and crossed the Ponte Vecchio. There was so much art outside that we did not have to venture into museums and pay the high admission fees.

There are many scooters in Florence!
One of the many statues in Florence
The magnificent Florence Duomo
Florence's Ponte Vecchio (old bridge)

October 4 (Saturday) – Today was a beautiful day. We took a morning walk to the Lucca Wednesday/Saturday market for photos and bought a roasted chicken and potatoes for dinner. Then we walked again in the afternoon before coming home for dinner. Ken was able to get the TN/FL football game on his tablet.

October 5 (Sunday) - I washed a load of clothes in the morning and we went out for a walk. We bought a sandwich and took it to the top of the wall for a picnic. We had dinner at Restaurante Antica Drogheria, well-known for their pizza.

October 6 (Monday) – It was almost time to leave this wonderful area of Tuscany, and we still had more to see. We took the train to Pisa which was not very crowded at all. It seemed we took a zillion photos of the leaning tower. It leaned in all of them.

Pisa's Duomo and leaning tower
The Arno river in Pisa

Having had a good dinner at Ubaldo's in Lucca, we decided to dine there again. Yummy!

October 7 (Tuesday) – How many people get to go to Italy and celebrate their birthday? I did! Today was my birthday. We began the day packing because we were moving on tomorrow. During our Italian language classes prior to our trip, our instructor had mentioned a must-have steak while in Tuscany. This is what I chose for us to eat for my birthday. Every picture we saw and every description we had read described the Bisteca alla Fiorentina as being a 3-inch thick T-bone steak served rare and ordered by weight. Sharing was a must! We found a restaurant, Baralla, that served it. These steaks must come from the Chianina or Maremmana cattle raised in the Tuscany area. We ordered 800kg, the minimum weight, which, according to our waitress, would be enough to share. What a disappointing meal after all the hype. When we were served, the steak was thin, rare at the bone and medium toward the outside. But my birthday was still a happy one.

Happy birthday, Jamey!

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Italy - Veneto Region

After a 5-hour layover in Dusseldorf, we had less than a 90-minute flight to Venice and, again, no customs to go through. Out of the airport, we turned left and walked, pulling our luggage behind us, to the dock to board the orange-line vaporetto (water taxi). The taxi took us to our stop to meet the manager of our apartment in the Dorsoduro sestiere (neighborhood), a quiet area except when the bells from the church tower, close (really close) by the apartment, rang.

Arriving in Venice
Waiting at Ca' Rezzonico vaporetto stop
The view from our apartment in Venice

September 11 (Thursday) - We slept well after our long journey. The morning was cool and drizzly but the sun came out and it was a gorgeous day. We went out for breakfast, coffee and croissants. (The Italians do not eat large breakfasts. No eggs, bacon and toast!) Then, we walked around, taking pictures and seeing the sights. We had to go to a cell phone store to get a SIM card for the phone we were going to use in Italy. We had lunch at a cicchetti (pronounced chikettee and means small plates) with an ombra (small glass of local wine) standing outside by the canal. Then we went to the grocery store to get tortellini with prosciutto crudo and fresh pesto and salad, to prepare for our dinner, as well as orange juice, milk, cereal, rolls, soap and paper products.

A lunch of cicchetti and wine

Venice was a maze of canals. No roads entered or ran through this historical city of waterways. Everything moved on the water – deliveries of produce, beer, ice cream, packages/mail, construction materials, even cement mixers; ambulances, police, fire boats; taxis. You name it, it moved via the water – unless you were on pedi power. We walked miles and miles up and over bridges and back and forth on the stone paths – sometimes running alongside the canals and sometimes squeezed between buildings.
The Grand Canal
A smaller canal

September 12 (Friday) – Ken discovered the telephone forwarding he had set up from home to our Italian cell phone was not working which kept him occupied last night and this morning.

We finally got out, wanting soup for lunch but couldn't find any at a reasonable price. We went to a Mediterranean place and had a late lunch, staying close to the apartment because of the weather. After lunch, we stopped for lattes and came home for a while. About 7:00 PM we went out for dinner (Italians don’t come out for dinner until 8:00 or 9:00 PM) and shared a meat/cheese antipasto plate. It was cool and misty all day.

September 13 (Saturday) – Italy has a fantastic rail system. There were five cruise ships scheduled to come into Venice today so we took the regular 2nd-class train from the Santa Lucia station to Bologna, passing through agricultural land.

Bolonga Flower festival

In Bologna, we took a city bus tour, walked through the food market, and stopped at a street-side cafe for a 'spritz', the Italian national drink. Strolling around the city, we came upon a beautiful flower festival. Later, we ate pasta with, what else, Bolognese sauce then caught the last train home.

Our introduction to the "Spritz"
Tagliatelle pasta with Bolognese sauce

September 14 (Sunday) – This was a very special day and we were in very special place to celebrate our 30th wedding anniversary. It’s amore! We took a gondola ride in the evening during sunset. Our gondolier did not sing, but we passed by others who were serenading their passengers. There are 433 gondolas in Venice.

Celebrating our 30th anniversary

Dinner at Locanda Montin

There are 118 islands and 421 bridges in Venice and I think we walked over and through most of them!

Italians drink a lot of wine because: 1) It's good for you, and 2) it's inexpensive! In Venice, there are wine shops that sell locally-produced wines, in bulk. They sell you a refillable glass or plastic bottle and when you finish the contents, you return to the store and they will refill it! Did I mention that it's inexpensive?

Wine store in Venice

September 15 (Monday) – Venice is also divided into districts. Today, we walked to Cannaregio, the Jewish district and toured three of the five synagogues – built by the Germans, French, and Italian. There were reported to have been 1000 Jews in Venice. Most escaped during the Nazi invasion; however 485+/- were taken to concentration camps. Only 8 returned. No one knows what happened to the remaining people.

One of the synagogues in the Jewish Ghetto

During the occupation, Jews were actually needed. They were the only ones who could lend money, be doctors or sell second-hand clothes. Christians were not allowed to do these things.

Did you know that it was actually a Pope who decreed the Jews had to wear the yellow star? Also, at first, the word ghetto was pronounced jetto? Because the Germans could not say the 'j' sound, the term ghetto was used.

Because we were in the Jewish district, we had lunch at a kosher Jewish restaurant. Jamey had Masabacha (hummus) with eggplant.

September 16 (Tuesday) – We took a boat tour to some of the islands - Murano, Burano, and Torcello. Murano was famous for its glass and we saw some beautiful and very expensive pieces and a demonstration of glass blowing. Torcello was known for an old church built in the 15th century. Burano women made beautiful lace and there are tablecloths, clothing and many other items available made with their interesting handiwork; Burano was a fishing village with many colorful houses and a leaning bell tower. The Bussola Butanello cookies come from here. We couldn’t leave without buying some.

Sculpting glass in Murano
Lacemaker in Burano
The colorful town of Burano
Pomegranate tree in Torcello

September 17 (Wednesday) - We have been in Venice one week. We walked to the Rialto Market and back this morning and then went out for lunch.

Rialto Market

All types of fresh produce

September 18 (Thursday) Once again, we took the train. This time to Verona, site of many Roman ruins. We found a restaurant for lunch and made use of the free toilet. This was a surprise! The toilet was unisex, which wasn’t unusual in Italy, but instead of a bowl you would sit on, there was a porcelain bowl set flush in the floor with a place on each side for your feet. Women had to squat. Thank goodness for strong quads!

Roman amphitheatre built in 1st century

September 19 (Friday) – Planning ahead for relocation to Lucca next Wednesday, we walked to the train station to buy tickets. Then we walked through the maze of paths (getting lost even though we had a map and were using GPS on Ken's phone) to a mask-maker's shop to purchase our souvenir - a mask replicating the one's doctor’s wore during the plague. The doctor would stuff the long beak with herbs and straw to filter out the bad air.

Maskmaker at La Bottega dei Mascareri

September 20 (Saturday) – To get to the train station next Wednesday with all our luggage, we opted to take a Vaporetto (water taxi). We had to go to the train station to purchase the Vaporetto tickets. Then we walked around a part of Venice where we had not been and which was much quieter.
Clotheslines are everywhere in Venice

September 21 (Sunday) - B86, I107, B92. No, we were not playing bingo. These were ticket numbers to get Information and buy train tickets from an agent. First, you get a ticket and wait until you’re called to get information on trains available. Then you get another ticket and wait on the agent to call your number to purchase your ticket. Ticket, ticket, who has the ticket? You can also buy your train tickets from a vending machine if you have cash or a 'chip and pin' credit card. Our chipped card required a signature so it could not be used.

We got an early morning start to the train station to buy tickets to Bassano del Grappa. After wading through the mass of walkers in Venice for the Nordic Walk, we went in the station, but our number, B86, was way down the list. Ken purchased our tickets with cash (Euros) from a vending machine. Looking at the electronic sign, track-side, for which platform to board our train, we saw that it was canceled. Oh smack! We had to go back inside the station and get another ticket and wait once again for an agent. Due to a scheduled strike, there were no regular trains running today. We were able to get our money back and would have to start all over again tomorrow.

The day was not wasted though. We actually found Sant' Elena Park at the far eastern end of Venice, a beautiful place with grass and trees and very few people.
Sant' Elena Park
Enjoying an afternoon break in a quiet area of Venice

September 22 (Monday) – Today was our lucky day. There were no scheduled strikes so we took the train to Bassano del Grappa and ate a typical pasta for lunch, Bogli with (duck) Anitra sauce and later tried grappa which is distilled there. We walked across the Ponte Vecchio, a wooden bridge dating back to the 12th century which was the only bridge not destroyed during WWII bombings.

Bassano del Grappa
View from the Ponte degli Alpini

Luckily, we made it home in time to miss a torrential hail storm. We had to close the shutters because the hail was blowing against the windows so hard we were afraid the glass would shatter. In the shady areas of the walkways, piles of hail (the size of marbles) lingered for a couple of days.