Saturday, May 31, 2008

Friday (Orvieto to Rome)...

The overnight rain brought with it a pleasant chill. Perfect sleeping weather. Breakfast was out on the terrace...although an approaching storm was preceeded by strong breezes that tugged on linens.

Dropped ye olde Kia off at Avis. Crossed to the train station to wait for the 11:58 train to Roma Termini...delayed by 25min...and a bit confusing without seat reservations. But no worse for the wear, we made our way (finally) to Rome by around 1:30pm.

Taxi from the train station. Our first real problem. Even though we got an officially marked taxi from an official taxi stand, the driver still gorged us. Jeff berated him to reduce the price and we got a small reduction, but the 1 mile ride still cost us 30 euro...the hotel told us it should be 10-15 euro. Live and learn, I guess...still, it gives me that feeling in the pit of your stomach that you've been taken.

The Hotel 47 staff was helpful and the room spacious and comfortable. We're located near the end of the Roman Circus Maximus behind the Palantine Hill...which we set out to see after dropping off our bags.

In Roman times, the Palatino Hill was THE place to build your palace. Today, its a fun maze of ruins...arched brick walls, marble columns, scattered masaic floors, hidden passages. Our first and favorite sight was the newly-restored rooms in the Casa Augusto. These four tiny rooms were painted almost 2000 years ago, and yet the pigments have been amazingly preserved. Augustus must have loved brilliant red.

Finished the Palatino Hill and exited to the Forum below. The afternoon light made this open-air playground of Roman artifacts come alive. Exited the Forum at Capitolino Hill and the piazza designed by Michelangelo. Returned to the hotel to shower and relax before dinner.

Crossed the Tiber River into the Travastevere area...this is the heart of Medieval Rome...with narrow, winding, and slightly seedy streets. Found an outdoor restaurant on the Piazza Santa Maria en Travatereve. Ate a hearty meal while watching the colorful activities of the piazza...a comical mime, roving bands of salesmen hawking cheap plastic toys that light up, a gang of children mocking the roving salemen, a spray paint artist, and a rousing troubador.

Took a long walk into the wee hours. Historic Rome at night is just fun. The Jewish Getto and the Area Sacra...with its tribe of wild cats. The Campo di Fior with drunken/festive revelry. The race-track-shaped Piazza Navona. The simply breathtaking Pantheon. And every few blocks...a random patch of ruins.

Tired feet but an overwhelming sense of history.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Thursday (Orvieto and Umbria)...

Awoke to the sound of birds...happy birds. Birds feeding or nesting or courting or whatever birds do as the sun rises. Certainly our most peaceful wake up call. The scents of honeysuckle, lavendar, and roses mingled in the air.

A light, fruity breakfast in the hotel Enotecca--their event wine bar. Local preserves. Fresh strawberries and cherries. Three flakey fruit tarts. Yogurt. And cappuccini...oh yes!

Swung into Orvieto to buy tomorrow's train tickets to Rome and to locate the Avis drop-off. Success.

A short but scenic drive to postcard perfect Civita di Bagnoregio...but first a stop in sleepy Lubriano who's claim to fame seems to be the perfect overlook of Civita. It began to rain steadily. Drove to the larger town of Bagnoregio with its own to-see's, but for us just the entry point to Civita. Unfortunately, the rain picked up, and we were without rain gear. So, another picturesque vista of Civita...perched high atop its mound of tufa...the town's single connection to the world a narrow foot bridge.

Returned to the Locanda for rain garb for the afternoon.

Into central Orvieto for a couple of underground sights. First stop, a recently re-discovered network of Etruscan wells, tunnels, garbage pits carved into the tufa dating 25 centuries ago. These ancient sites were intermixed with more recent modifications by the Romans and again in the Middle Ages.

Grabbed lunch at a creative (looking) place we had passed yesterday. Unfortunately, only the decor made us chuckle...the food was mediocre and the service was horriffic. Maybe the pan-flute CD playing covers of Guns and Roses and Celine Dion should have warned us. Rain blew through and left behind high humidity...ugh.

Walked across Orvieto for our next stop...the engineering marvel that is Pozzo di San Patrizio...aka, St. Patrick's Well. Built at the orders of a Pope to ensure a sustainable water source in case of the town being beseiged, this 16th-century well is notable for its double-helix stairwells, decending 496 steps to the bottom with a half-turn separated route back up. Nice and cool below. Shopped for some of Orvieto's famous ceramics. A breeze picked up and lowered the humidity.

With the rain gone, decided to take the short drive back to tempting Civita. Much better vistas :) This time, we were able to walk the long foot bridge into Civita, up the steep approach, and through the old Etruscan tufa gate. The town is tiny and desolate...but the Medieval buildings are worth the trip.

It was getting late as we left Civita so we rushed back to Orvieto to try and grab dinner. Long story short...we left thwarted...Italy does not make eating lite and quickly simple. So we returned to the hotel to sample a local wine in our room minibar...only to find that there was no cork screw. Want a beer or Coke? No bottle opener. And no way to contact the innkeeper, because we are the only two people in the hotel. It wasn't meant to be.

We can see lightening on the horizon from our bed. There is a cool breeze and the humidity is low.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Wednesday (Siena to Orvieto)...

Another sunny morning in Siena. Said our goodbyes to Daniella. (She informed us that her contrada/neighborhood was one of the ones selected for the Palio in the ceremony the evening we arrived...hoorah!) Shut the heavy door of the Palazzo Masi and headed for the car.

Took a winding path south and east. Crossed from Tuscany to Umbria. Emily got confused finding our destination...but then that is becoming a familiar theme...Italy clearly isn't her home turf. In fairness, our destination was on a dirt road in the middle of a field. And is it all that bad to take an extra road or two in Italy?

Arrived at the picturesque Locanda "agriturismo" style of hotel. The Locanda is a small boutique hotel located on a working vineyard. Situated high on a hillside outside of Orvieto with sweeping views of the grape vines, grassy hills, outcroppings of ancient tufa, and of course, majestic Orvieto perched 1000 feet above the valley floor.

Drove into Orvieto for an afternoon walk. Visited its grand Duomo, similar in exterior style to Siena's Duomo. Inside, a choir was rehearsing a capella. A very beautiful cathedral indeed. Later we heard evening vesper chants in the side chapel.

Peeked into several of Orvieto's ceramic shops. Colorful designs of bright yellows and blues. Walked along the high city perch to a commanding medieval fortress ruin and an ancient Etruscan temple ruin (from around 500 B.C. if I read the sign right). In fact, the soft volcanic tufu beneath Orvieto is riddled with Etruscan tombs and tunnels...hopefully we'll see those tomorrow.

The sun was low when we returned to the hotel. Everything looked extra green. Jeff took an early evening dip in a VERY cold pool...I dangled my feet in. An amazingly fresh and flavorful dinner on the hotel terrace overlooking the valley and Orvieto. Just us and a French felt like we had the world to ourselves. Our host (also the "innkeeper") recommended a white wine from the Palazzone vinyard...2002 Campo del Guardiana very rich golden color and a flavor to match. Dinner was a fixed menu...which meant we could sit back and relax. Flan di piselli al profumo di maggiorana...a warm flan made from peas (perhaps?) with fresh salad greens. Umbrichelli all'orvietana...a super-flavorful, thick tomato and herb sauce over a long lumpy pasta...amazing. Bascala pomodorini e olive con spinaci e patate arrosto...a light white fish with a delightful seasoning and sides of potatoes and spinach...both wonderful. Muosse al cioccolato...uh...chocolate mousse :)

We finished the meal with espressos. A kitten named Daphne wanted to play as the warm evening breeze turned the table cloth into a tempting cat toy. Darkness settled around us. We could see Orvieto's Duomo lit up hovering in the sky.

Something tells me we will sleep well tonight.

Tuesday (Siena and Tuscany)...

There is no better way to work off an illness than to have a full day of sunshine, fresh air, and walking :)

Started the day with a visit to the awe-inspiring Duomo a few blocks from our B&B. This cathedral is by far our favorite in Italy. Its green and white marble exterior is peppered with elaborate marble sculptures. The signature black and white marble interior (the colors of Siena) provide the backdrop for a rich tapestry of paintings, sculptures, and mosaics. The ceilings are painted a deep blue with gold stars. Any one of the side chapels would itself make for a spectacular church. The Duomo is renowned for its intricate in-laid marble mosaic floors. Jeff's favorite room: the Piccolomini Library, with its colorful 500-year-old frescoes.

Grabbed a make-shift breakfast from a market on the way to the car: bananas, juices, peanut M&Ms :). Grabbed water for the hot day ahead. Already in the lower 80s. Near 90 as we neared our first destination.
The drive to San Galgano Monastery took a bit longer than planned because Emily kept trying to route us through the heart of Siena...which only permits authorized vehicles. Funny if it wasn't so frustrating. Finally, we defeated her, and headed out into the rolling hills.

At San Galgano, parked in a huge paid parking lot in the middle of nowhere...with literally three cars in it. A 15-min walk in the sun to the ruins of an 13th century abbey. Impressive, but no interpretive assistance. Another 15-min walk up a rocky path to the tiny, round 12th-century Chapel of San Galgano.

Wound through Tuscany on the way back making a small pit stop at Chiusidino for some photos from the dramatic heights. Picked destinations along the way by spotting appealing towers or towns on nearby hills. Made our way to a second abbey south of Siena in the Crete Senese or "Sienese Crests"...this one a working abbey. Monte Oliveto Maggiore with a small but beautiful church and a complex of sunlit rooms and a cloister courtyard with famous Renaissance frescoes depicting the life of St. Benedict. Greggorian chants in the abbey as we were leaving.

Returned to Siena for dinner. Got some of my appetite back...enough for a wonderful pasta dish outdoors at Trattoria Papei...simple and classic spaghetti al ragu...I wanted rabbit, but I was worried about keeping food down. Jeff had paparadelle al ragu di carne, petti di pollo, and Tuscan white beans. Ricciarelli and cappuccini to finish.

We walked one last time through the Campo and up to the Duomo taking some final nightime photos. By midnight, the young folks were just beginning to emerge. Jeff woke at 3:15am and could still here revelry in the streets...definitely a university least at night.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Monday (Siena and Voltere)...

Awoke to a white noise of street sounds on the old cobbled streets below our room: Vespas and small trucks transporting locals and their delieveries; pedestrians in search of capuccini; a rollie bag coming or going; a swarm of swallows feasting above.

Off into the Tuscan hills today. First stop was hilly Volterra...famous for its alabaster. Parking was scarce (but free), so we ended up at a dusty lot down the hill a bit. Turns out our lot was near an old town fountain and one of the old city gates. Steep stairway to start our visit. 80 degree temps and sun. A rooster was crowing along the city wall.

In spite of it's must-see status, Volterra was a bit on the unimpressive side...but we made the most of it. The ancient Roman theatre and an ancient Etruscan site were the towns crown jewels. The imposing fortress was was made into a it is off limits including signs to not photograph it! We did anyway. Its a fortress. A Palazzo, a variety of churches, and alabaster shops rounded out the visit. Lunch was pizza on a breezy terrace looking out over Tuscany below.

Drove to Impruneta via San Gimignano...famous for its tower-filled skyline. We had been in SG before with Cheryl and Curt, so we didn't stop on this visit, but the vista as we passed around the town. Wound our way back to Impruneta to find the elusive terra cotta products the town is known. Still nothing open in the sleepy city center, but we found success on the way out of town. An artisan terra cotta maker with an enormous array. Found a terra cotta lion head we liked.

Returned to Siena for dinner. Discovered that on Monday night...lots closed. Tried to eat at Osteria Nonna Gina (thanks for the recommendation, Sarah)...but it was closed :( Tried another favorite...also closed. Took a chance at an outdoor spot on the Piazza del Mercato: Cafe Finistra. Jeff had dishes he raved about (ravioli al ragu, chicken with rosemary, and Tuscan beans 'faigoli bianche'). Unfortunately, I had to eat lite due to the onset of something icky. Either food poinoning or a 24-hour virus. A cold shower followed by restless sleep. I will live :)

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Sunday (Florence to Siena)...

Met a couple from Greensboro, North Carolina (two NC duos in our short stay) over our final breakfast at the Badia B&B. Packed and said our goodbyes to our fine hosts Bruno and Frank. A short walk through quiet Sunday-morning streets to pick up our car from Avis. Royal blue diesel Kia Cee'd...not at all sure what this car is named for.

Emily got a new memory card and is now "aware" of Italy. She did a great job guiding us thru the many winding roads and confusing signage. We reprogrammed her voice to Italian for kicks...much better than her British pronunciations of Italian roads.

The weather was beautiful for our drive south into Chianti. Stayed clear of the autostatas and twisted through the countryside. Stopped for a quick walk in tiny Inprutetta... famous around the world for its terra cotta creations...but not on Sunday. Not a single shop open.

Moved on to the town of Greve in the heart of the Chianti wine region. Still very sedated, but enough people for restaurants to be open in the central square. Ate on the square...pastas that hit the spot. Jeff had a celebratory glass of Chianti.

Emily's alter ego Patrizia guided us south past vineyards and olive trees. Long wide valleys...lush green dotted with red poppies in every nook. Hilltops capped by old towns. Swung around Siena and arrived via a southern entry...the Porta Tufi. Parked at one of the large city garages that sit at the old walled city edges.

Walked the last 15min to our little B&B...the cozy Palazzo Masi situated right in the heart of medieval Siena. Greeted by grinning Daniela and her husband, who wlecomed us back for our second visit.

At 7pm, Daniela directed us to a special treat, a colorful celebration in advance of the city's signature festival...the Palio in July. Today, the city announced which of the city's neighborhoods would compete in the Palio. At the Campo, last year's victors marched in with drums and flags and uniforms of green and red...their neighborhood colors. Brass trumpeters played from above, and neighborhood flags were hung in a ritual we only vaguely followed. Rival neighborhoods chanted and sang. A lucky glimpse of Siena's rich history.

Dinner at our favorite Sienese restaurant...Trattoria Papei...which seems to draw locals and visitors alike. Tuscan fare is very meat-centric (yay for me :) Jeff's spaghetti al ragu di carne and my wide noodles with wild boar were both amazing. Our main dishes were equally flavorful: a rich chicken cacciatore and a tender beef fillet. ( would have loved the beef...VERY rare in the middle.) Finished the meal with capuccini and a decadent lemon cream torte topped with almonds and powdered sugar...YUM!

A long after-dinner walk up to the Duomo...our favorite church in Italy. Winding streets. Unexpected whimsical fountains.

As I write this entry with weary eyes, we can still hear the revelry on the Campo.

Saturday (Florence)...

The Tuscan sun shined brightly this morning, when we ventured out after breakfast. Began our day at the 14th-century Basilica of San Lorenzo. Although lacking a finished facade, the church's interior is bright and full of famous treasures commissioned by the ruling Medicis. Brunelleschi, Donatello, and Michelangelo contributed. Also visited the quiet adjoining cloister.

The nearby streets were lined with the leather and garment stands leading to the Central Market. Il Mercato Centrale is full of food stands of all types: meats, seafood, cheeses, pastas, and produce. The "mystery meats" tested our fortitude...huge folded piles of tripe, stacked cow hooves, and pale pig snouts. Yum!

The image of the snouts faded and we grabbed lunch at Trattoria Anita. Spaghetti ragu, tagliatelle with porchini mushroom, and a creamy asparagus-topped chicken.

Dessert across the Ponte Vecchio at our (current) favorite gelateria...Santa Trinita. Visited the Chisea di Santa Maria del Carmine, with its famous Branacci Chapel. This frescoed chapel contains the iconic scene of Adam and Eve being cast from the Garden of Eden.

As the afternoon grew late, we headed through one of the old City walls, headed up a long, STEEP set of stairs, and arrived at the Chisea di San Miniato al Monte. A large beautiful church with almost no interior lighting...leaving the interior detials to be revealed slowly as eyes adjust to the darkness. An emerging scene of lovely frescoes, a painted beam ceiling, and gold-clad altars. At 5:30, the local monks begin to chant, filling the halls with a magical, soothing sound that surrounds you. Early evening views of city below. Returned with a short walk through a hillside rose garden full of amore. A peaceful stroll along the Arno.

Returned to Coquinarius for dinner. Fantastic Chianti and bruchetta to start. Two wondeful first courses: cheese and pear ravioli, gorganzola and bacon gnocci. Two hearty salads as our entrees. The only downside to dinner was watching the last two pieces of dreamy cheesecake go to another table while we sat and sat waiting for our waitress :( We had revenge gelato from nearby Grano, famous for its artisan flavors...very good, but we enjoyed Santa Trinita better.

Too tired to go our, we strolled the city. Discovered a dual-guitar concerto echoing through the Piazza della Signora.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Friday (Florence)...

Awoke to a brilliant sunny day. Met a charming British couple over breakfast...the husband a stone mason in London with a unique appreciation for the amazing stonework in Florence.

To get ahead of the surge of midday tourists, began our day with a climb to the top of the Duomo's signature dome...the very first Renaissance dome. Scaled 463 steps to the summit of Brunelleschi's masterpiece. Winding staircase straight up the walls of the Duomo, then along the inside rim of the dome past amazing stained glass windows and fantastic frescoes, and finally up narrow, slanting staircases until you're actually walking on top of the interior walls. Popped up (finally) through a floor panel. Met by cool breezes in the face and sweeping panoramas of Florence and the surrounding hills. Passed crowds on the way down...we chose the right time.

Simple pizza for lunch, then off to walk the gardens south of the Arno. Our first visit to the Giardino Bardini...with numerous flower gardends, winding hillside walkways, and high views of the river and the historic center beyond. A simple 17th-century villa sat perched at the top. The Duomo was warmly lit in the distance.

Our entrance ticket allowed us to continue into the adjoining Boboli Gardens...the famous gardens behind the grand Pitti Palace. Entered the Bobili after a quick tour of Forte Belvedere, an imposing fortification on the hilltop. The fort's ramparts and "ratholes" reminded of our trip to Germany...we know Keegan would have enjoyed this part.

Wound our way through the Boboli Gardens...tree lined paths leading to garden rooms with flowers or statues or fountains. At the rose garden at the top of the Boboli, we drank water from one of several continuous drinking fountains...this one saved us from dehydration on our last visit, a.k.a., the death march. Watched a heron fish for its dinner. Returned to the Pitti Palace to visit two galleries: the Galleria del Costume (our first visit to these ornate state apartments) and the Galleria d'Arte Moderna.

Dinner after a shower and much-needed respite. In the mood for pasta, so we returned to Baldovino. Fresh caprese and warm focaccia rabie. Two fine pasta dishes: spaghetti alla carbonara and gnocci with asparagus and bacon. Friday night drinks nearby. In one bar, watched the final 15 minutes of an American Idol type show but with Italian opera hopefulls. The Friday night crowds were out in force, and bars were full by 11. Pleasant temps outside; very warm inside...curiously, saw three people with heavy scarves...inside!! Cool Italian beers kept us refreshed.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Thursday (Florence)...

Cool temps and a soft pillow made for a restful night. The slight overnight rain was finishing up as we awoke. Had a light breakfast of cereal and pastries at the B&B communal table. Met fellow travelers from Southern California and North Carolina. Shared tales of "where from's" and "where to's".

First stop of the day was the Museo della Casa Fiorentina Antica. The historic home is being restored and transformed into a museum. For now, only two floors are open...but its complaints :) The heavy stone architecture and wall mosaics are notable.

Walked past a who's who of Italian designers on our way to our next stop...the Basilica di Santa Maria Novella. The bulding's facade was done in iconic white and green marble, like the nearby Duomo. The interior was impressive but restrained...with some very beautiful frescoes. Around the corner, visited the Farmacia di S.Maria Novella..."the oldest pharmacy in Florence" (maybe in all of Italy? I can't remember). The pharmacy had its roots from 1381 when Dominican friars made rose-scented water (supposedly to ward off the plague). The pharmacy itself opened in 1612 in its current location. The rooms smelled of roses.

Time for lunch. Tattoria Anita (another Suzanne recommendation) hit the spot with hearty Tuscan cuisine at reasonable prices. Our pasta dishes were simple and delicious. Jeff enjoyed his breaded chicken cutlet. My "mixed meat" platter was a bit more...adventurous? Tuscan style roasted potatoes on the side of both dishes. Due cappuccini, per favore.

Visted an underwhelming museum highlighting Leonardo Da Vinci"s scentific inventions. A couple of the video presentations were very well done, but the overall "museum" was poor...definitely overpriced at 5€.

In striking comparison, our next two stops cost nothing and were rich and captivating...two lesser known churches full of history.

First, the (relatively) small Basilica di San Lorezo, situated on a busy public square towards the Mercate Centrale. The church is in mid-renovation...more like interior scaffolding obscured much of the ceiling. But the front altar and visible ceiling were colorful and grand. A gentle, elderly priest dressed in white greeted us, asked us where we were from, and told us about his travels to the U.S. before he was so gray (as he tugged on his short gray hair to accentuate the point). He said goodbye with a heartfelt "Viva America!". We gave a few euros towards the renovations.

Wandered next to the tucked-away Basilica della Santos Annunziata behind the Accademia. Entered through a glass-covered inner courtyard and then into an unexpectedly enormous church. In addition to the usual elaborate main altar, this church had more than a dozen side chapels...each one crammed full of shiny and/or colorful and/or chiseled object d'art. A secondary altar at the rear, was decked out in towering silver pillars and candles. Breathtaking.

Finished the daylight hours with a stroll along the Arno with the sun setting. Skullers practiced on the calm river. Sidewalks were full of fellow sun-worshipers.

Dinner was at yet another Suzanne recommendation...and a third winner in a row. The Coquinarius wine bar served up mouth-wathering, creative fare. Our pastas were our best yet: a rich tagliatelli with a meaty rabbit sauce; large raviolli pillows of cheese and spinach topped with a ham sauce and stringed zuccinni. Two fresh salads followed for the entrees. A bottle of Chianti Classico. Deserts of warm chocolate souffle and creamy cheesecake. Best meal so far.
Finished the evening with late drinks and music in the Santa Croce area which seems to be the young, hip place to be. Overall, Florence has a lot of late night energy to soak in.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Wednesday (Venice to Florence)...

The streets were wet after light overnight rain, but the clouds were breaking. Packed quickly. One last breakfast in the hotel. One final walk to S.Maria Della Salute.

A pleasant walk to the train station via Campo S.Margarita. Passed produce-laden boats and carts with fresh seafood. Naturally, the sun came out to warm...downright sweaty as we reached the station.

Boarded the 10:43 Eurostar train bound for Florence. Binaro 3. Carrozza 6. Posti 55/56. Waved Arrivederci to Venice as the train slipped across the lagoon.

In Mestre, a mother and child boarded and sat next to us for the duration of our trip. I'd say it took us about 5-minutes to name this hyperactive child...Luigi il Menace...or Devil choose.

Bright red poppies lined the tracks as we passed through Padua. Puffy clouds and filtered sun set off brilliant green fields of grapevines. Lush valleys between Bologna and scenes divided by blacked-out tunnels. Hillside groves of olive trees. Secluded towns with signature church towers.

Arrived into Firenze Santa Maria Novella. A short 15-minute walk to our B&B via the sunny Piazza del Duomo.

We're staying at our old favorite B&B...the Dei Mori...and its downstairs neighbor, the Badia Guest House where our room is actually located. The Dei Mori hostess, Suzzanne, is the quintessential B&B greeter. She is an American married to an Italian, and takes great pride in her adopted home. She oriented us to new or lesser known highlights, since we have been to Florence before. She also pointed us to four of her favorite local restaurants.

Grabbed a quick pair of wonderful, warmed sandwiches at nearby Cucciolo Pasticceria. Took a long re-orientation walk past a few of our favorites...Piazza della Signoria and the Uffiza Gallery. Walked along the Arno River to grab some warm afternoon sun photo of the Ponte Vecchio. Had a quick gellato stop at an amazing artisan spot, Gelateria Santa Trinita...Jeff declared this his favorite gelato in Italy! Passed the Pitti Palace. Turned around at the Porta Romana and the edge of the old city. Returned via the Ponte Vecchio...sadly where locks have aparrently been banned since none were insight.

Ventured into the Baptistry of San Giovanni...the jewel box in front of the Duomo. The golden mosaic ceiling was breathtaking.

Dinner at one of Suzzane's recommendations: Trattoria Baldovino, behing the Basilica di Santa Croce. The food was wonderful, creative Tuscan flavors. The colorful bruschetta. Jeff's amazing tortallacci di patate--oversized tortallinis with a hearty meat sauce--and his petto di pollo--juicy chicken witha rich sauce of tomato and olive. My filetto di manzo all' aceto--a marbled beef filet in a dark, sweet basalmic reduction. Etc. Etc. All the dishes were mouth-watering. (Did I mention our dessert? Crostata con creme arance.)

Wandered back through Piazza Santa Croce and Piazza della Signora to finally shower and sleep :). What a VERY long day!

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Tuesday (Venice and Verona)...

A light, but persistent rain joined us for the walk to the train station this morning. Bought tickets for a day trip to historic Verona. Also made reservations for our trip to Florence tomorrow. Unlike our frustrating train experience on our last European vacation, these purchases were simple and clear and involved no lines or humans. (Fingers crossed.)

The 10:04 Trenitalia service departed promptly at 10:24 from Bin 10. Rain? Cappuccino break? The slow regional train took about 2 hours till we arrived at the Verona Porta Nuova station. Bought a one-day Verona Pass. Grabbed a quick burger. Hopped a crowded #11 bus to the historic center of town.

Began our walk at the ancient Roman Arena...the third largest in the ancient Roman world. A simple-yet-massive structure. Best of all, you can walk up and down and all over the arena, unlike the Colliseum in Rome.

After gazing at mural-painted buildings and snapping a few people shots in the narrow Piazza Erbe, checked off another stop on the Verona Card at the towering Torre dei Lamberti. A uniqe perspective revealing tall churches and bell towers rising above the squat old city. The Dolomites stood grey and ominous in the distance.

Returned to earth. Walked to the impressive Chiesa di Santa Anastasia. Started in the late 13th century...continued through the 14th and 15th centuries...and completed in the early 16th century. This church has everything...everywhere. Beautiful painted ceilings. Ornate chapels and altars. Vibrant frescoes in every nook. Stone sculptures, terra cotta reliefs, and lofty stained glass. Something to see in every direction.

The distinctive Duomo was next on the list, and far more restrained than the previous S.Anastasia church. The current cathedral building dates to the 8th and 9th centuries, with the current interior dating from the 15th and 16th centuries. Many impressive chapels and amazing paintings. The architectural remains (e.g., mosaics, columns) of two previous basillica (early 1st century, and pre-7th century) are visible under the floors of adjacent cloister buildings.

Crossed the water-logged Adige River via the Ponte ancient Roman bridge. Climbed and explored the Roman Theatre, its multiple terraced vistas of the city, and its architectural museum.

Re-crossed the Adige. Wound through narrow, shop-lined streets. Wandered into the courtyard with the "famous" House of Juliet...of Romeo and Juliet fame. Tons of people rubbing the right breast of Juliet's statue...for true love? Intricate graffitti on most surfaces of the narrow entryway. .

Bought an umbrella. The rain stopped. Returned to the Arena. Caught the #11 bus back to the train station. Bin 4. The 7:15 intercity train back to Venizia Santa Lucia...arrived about 8:45.

Oh look. Rain. Well...just a drizzle. Broke in my umbrella...its orange. Warded off the cool rain with food and drink. Two more fantastic pizzas from the Trattoria Da Silvio...Jeff tried the "Capricciosa" with ham, artichoke, and mushrooms. My Divola was top-notch. Two more cool refreshing beers.

In spite of travel-weary feet, we headed back out to wander the peaceful evening streets. As we hit Piazza San Marco we were immediately reminded of its late night beauty. Large puddles doubled the points of light. A quartet entertained a dessert audience and sent chords echoing across the Piazza. At midnight, the bell tower signalled the end of the day. And an unexpected surprise: the newly refurbished clock tower quietly added its chimes to the chorus above. And then the sounds stopped and the Piazza was silent.

Our last night in Venice, and we can't seem to say goodbye.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Monday (Venice)...

A convenient way to chart a day in Venice is to pick a church in the distance and wind your way towards it. today, we visited eight. A historical game of connect the dots.

Set off after breakfast under a blue sky. First stop was the nearby Santa Maria del Rosario..."a Rennaisance masterpiece"...on the Giudecca Canal. We had passed this collumned facade many times in previous visits, but never ventured inside. A pleasant stroll down the canal fondamente and a quick jog to the right brought us to the church of San Sebastian..

Two off-the-map churches on the way to our next stop: Chiesa di Santa Maria della Visitazione (from the 15th century) and Chiesa di San Raffele Arcangelo (from the 12th century). One of the nice things of these hidden spots is that they allow photographs.

Lunch of hearty pastas at the Impronto Cafe. My tagliatele with mushrooms was wonderful.

Window-shopped to our next destination: San Polo, an ancient church from the 9th century. Another 9th century church followed...the beautiful San Giacomo dall'Orio. The non-descript San Stae was next...our least favorite of the trip.

Our last stop was the hidden gem, San Giovanni Elemosinario. Tucked away in the market approaching the Rialto Bridge. The church was built to blend in with the neighboring merchant buildings, and yet the interior was elaborate and peaceful. A highlight of the church was the faded frescos in a tomb beneath the floor.

Finished the day looking at paper mache masks, handmade marionnetes, and Murano glass. Jeff found a magnificent oil painting from a favorite shop...Scriba, along the walls of the Friari. We have stopped into this shop on every visit.

Relaxed with a beer before dinner. Watched dozens of swallows flitting back and forth above the courtyard gathering THEIR evening meal.

Took a recommendation from a local shopkeeper and ate at the tucked-away, bustling Ristorante San Trovasco, owned by four brothers. My penne alla putanesca was divine. After-dinner drinks (mojitos and bellinis) and tirimisu at Impronto Cafe.

Serene, late night photos of the desolate Monday night city. The Grand Canal was silent except the occasional vaporetto.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Sunday (Venice)...

There is probably an old Venetian saying that goes something like: "On a rainy day in Venice, at least I'm in Venice." (They probably accompany that with a bottle of red wine :)

Awoke this morning to loud, rolling thunder followed by a soothing, steady rain. The rain never really let up all day, except to pause long enough to build up strength for a downpour.

Undaunted, clad in raingear and armed with an umbrella, we headed out to our first indoor stop: the Palazzo Grassi museum. A large single exhibit--Roma e i Barbari--exploring the relationship of the Romans and the barbarians at the edges of the Empire. Ultimately, these barbarians would weaken and undermine the Empire.

Grabbed a quick bite at a tiny cafe in the Dorsoduro. Simple-but-filling sandwiches chased by Coke Lite and a cappuccino.

Fittingly, sought shelter from the increasing showers in one of the grandest of Venetian basilica--Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari--built by followers of Francis of Assisi--the Franciscan order. Left the Frari as the skies continued to unload. Made our way to two other churches--San Polo and San Stae--but both were closed contrary to our guide map. Back into the rain.

The umbrella and coats became useless at this point as we trudged back across three sestieri to return to our hotel. An evening drink--Nastro Azzurro...birra Italiana--on the hotel loggia as the rain broke, the late sun shone warmly, and a rainbow appeared. Rainbows can't dry our shoes...but this one did make us smile. The air cooled noticeably. The bells of nearby Santa Maria del Rosario heralded the end of the day.

Dinner at a promising new find--Da Silvio--which had a warm glow, a chatty clientelle, and a creative menu. Finding a dinner spot is tricky for us. Once a trust is formed either through a past experience or a referral, then we are more adventurous in ordering. But tonight, for example, with no prior knowledge, we stuck to a pizza and a calzone to test the flavors. Fantastic! My pizze carbonara was rich and flavorful all the way to the crispy crust. Jeff's calzone had layers of mushrooms and ham. Yumminess :). We will definitely return to sample their pastas!

Walked off dinner by taking side routes...popping out at random points on the Grand Canal, which glistened in a near-full moon. Along the way, puddles in the uneven Venetian streets played tricks on our eyes. A quiet end to a moist day.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Saturday (Venice)...

Our first full day in Venice was like getting reacquainted with an old friend.

After a light breakfast in the hotel, began the day with a slow stroll through the Dorsoduro. Window browsed tiny shops full of local, paper, fine prints...all too tempting. Visited our favorite church...Santa Maria della Salute...her dome clad in scaffolding...her interior always grand. A familiar waterfront return route...the Guidecca looking picturesqe across a choppy channel. A Greek cruise ship passed...reminding us to stick to paths less traveled today.

Lunch at an outdoor cafe at the foot of the Accademia bridge. The sights and sounds of the Grand Canal accompanied our simple meal.

Spent the afternoon winding through the sestieri of Cannaregio, Castello, and San Marco. Light drizzle sent us into tiny shops. Visited several churches spanning the centuries. Standouts included the Gothic church of Santo Stefano and the marble-clad jewel box Santa Maria dei Miracoli (home to a bona fide miracle painting). Our favorite new site: the church of San Zaccaria...a 14th or 15th-century church with a fantastic 10th-century crypt beneath glimpses of a former 9th-century church. Layers and layers of history...such is Venice.

Returned to the hotel past dozens of wiley fake handbag scalpers. A quiet drink on the loggia before dinner.

Caprese di Bufula and simple pastas for dinner at a popular spot in the Campo de Santa Margarita. After dinner gelatos from Il Doge...still our favorite gelato in Italy. Late night mojitos and a fantastic tiramisu from Impronta Cafe.

A pleasant drizzly walk back to the hotel. Sleepy.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Thursday/Friday (SFO to Venice)...

And we're off.

The theme for the day was sweat...a sweaty journey full of hot planes, hot terminals, a hot bus, and a hot boat. Neverthelss, at the end of this tale, we ended up in Venice.

No complaints...just a story :)

We left SF on a record, high-90s day. After a 30+ minute delay out on the tarmac, UA flight 900 was bound for Eupope. Somehow, only ONE upgrade came through--how does THAT happen--so we grabbed what we could and Jeff sat up front. (Jeff snuck me snacks and sent the flight attendant back with a surprise glass of red wine :)

Once in Frankfurt, we made our way to our connecting flight like two seasoned travelers. A sweaty bus from gate to plane, and a quick flight across the Alps to Venice. (Our first time at this airport.)

We caught an airport-based water bus...Alilaguna...which got VERY warm when everyone closed their windows to keep the splashes out. We hopped (slowly) across the Murano, the Lido (our first glimpse of this popular, car-ridden beach destination), and a couple stops in Venice before reaching the last stop in Venice--our stop--Zattere in the Dorsodoro. Our hotel--the Hotel Belle Arte--was only a short walk away.

A quick shower to de-sweat, and then off for a short welcome-walk and then dinner. After a long day, we went straight for the reliable Rosa Rossa. Pizzeria. Pizze Diavola and Pizze Funghi. Tiramisu to finish.

We ended the evening on the hotel's loggia overlooking their compact garden. Oversized cushioned chairs and a cool breeze coaxed us toward sleep, which was soon to follow.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Last to first...

Today, I'm happy to report that Chicago O'Hare didn't suck.

I actually arrived 30 minutes EARLY from San Francisco, had plenty of time to find a Starbucks, AND got upgraded to first class. Aside from the brief confusion with poor Pickles, we left pretty much on time bound for rainy BWI.

I'm in Annapolis for a few days this week for work. Staying at the comfy Lowes hotel in the historic downtown. Low brick buildings everywhere, with the picturesque Maryland statehouse in the center. Hopefully, I'll get outside tomorrow for some photos. In the meantime...its just the normal hotel window shot :)

I did grab a nice shot of Chicago and the Lake Michigan shoreline as we took off from O'Hare. The water was a brilliant aqua, which is only hinted at in this shot.

Pickles update...

Well, first off...Pickles is a cat.

Second, it seems that after all of those threats to remove Pickles from the cargo hold...that removal process did not in fact take place.

We found out mid-taxi from gate to runway. The captain pulled us over, while a cargo loader drove out to us and extracted the tiny feline from the hold.

Surprisingly efficient! Bravo United...and thank goodness. You may recall my delayed flight a few weeks ago when some missing paperwork caused us to return to the gate.

Safe returns, Pickles.

Poor Pickles...

After a half dozen loud requests for a dog's owner to ring their call button, a poor pooch named Pickles was taken off the plane :(

Is it wrong... dream of jabbing a plastic fork into the arm of the inconsiderate guy next to me who is stretched out beyond the arm rest?


A 100% full flight this morning to Chicago. Last row. No hope of an upgrade.

Heh...and then the flight attendant spotted me blogging this: "Not my best side." Awkward.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Visitors and my spring photo show...

What a busy weekend...full of friends! Curt, Cheryl, and Loren wrapped up their west coast vacation with a couple of nights at our house. Matthew arrived from Michigan to stay with us for the summer. Chris shared dinner with us on Friday night, and Brad and Brian joined us for dinner (and Mexican Train) on Saturday night.

My spring photo show with my fellow Fort Mason Photographers went well, as usual. We had a rousing opening on Friday night, and a steady stream of visitors all weekend. I sold two prints, including one to dear Michele (THANK YOU :)

I had five new images in my spring series (four on the wall...the final shot below is a bonus shot in my bin). These images are from an airplane series I've assembled through my travels.

Virtual flowers for Mom...

Happy Mother's Day, Mom. Unfortunately, you will have to imagine the virtual hug accompanying these Santa Barbara daisies.

Love you.

Monday, May 05, 2008

On the road...again...

This week, I'm spending a few days working in Denver. I'm staying at a Hyatt Place...a simple-but-hip entry into the business class of hotels. The rooms are as if a W Hotel and a Courtyard by Marriott had a tawdry fling.

Today being Cinco de Mayo, my coworkers and I had dinner at a popular Tex-Mex joint downtown. The margaritas did not disappoint :)

But the true highlight of the evening was an amazing desert--Sticky Toffee Pudding--from the cozy Vesta Dipping Grill. The photo below doesn't do the dish justice. It was warm and gooey and rich, with a complex flavor...I swore I could taste layers of fig and butter...but nobody was telling. Big kudos to my dear friend Sarah for letting us in on her little secret.


We took a 15 minute tour of the SFO tarmac this morning. It seems that we have something "special" in the cargo hold that requires "special" paperwork that must be held in the cockpit. That paperwork was left at the gate, so we had to turn around.

They have computers and printers and data connections up there...can't someone send an email or a fax?

Makes you wonder what's down in cargo!

Sunday, May 04, 2008

Bare-naked Barbie...

I stopped at a Chevron this afternoon for my bi-weekly charitable donation to OPEC. At my feet when I stepped up to the gas pump? Barbie...naked...with her head in a plastic bag. SOMEONE had quite the party with Ken last night!!

Friday, May 02, 2008

I'm full...

This week finished with a few meeting-packed days and team-filled evenings in Seattle...all glued together by conference calls in the free moments. Certainly a good visit...but it felt incomplete without a visit with dear ol' time I promise. (Photos are from my room in the Seattle Grand first stay.)

Still, no worries about good food and great espresso. Wednesday lunch at the hidden Dish Cafe in the Nordstrom corporate HQ building. Dinner at a Brazilian steakhouse with my team...a never-ending flow of meat on skewers...the name escapes me. Thursday morning...a meeting at local-favorite Top Pot donuts...a rich latte on the side. Lunch at the downtown Icon Grill. An afternoon latte near the office. Dinner at the cozy, flavorful Dhalia Lounge. Breakfast pastries from the simply amazing Belle Epicurean...those to-die-for pecan buns and spicy corn fritters. Lunch with the team at Two Bells Tavern...a Jeff classic that kept running on about...a toast to Jeff for introducing me to this gem.

I swear, we also got work done on this trip as well.