Our Maple Tree

Keeping up with The Maples


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Passport to Italy: Siena Day Eight

After our long and tiring day in Florence, we really needed a day to rest. So that is exactly what we did. We slept in a little and took our time at breakfast. We decided not to wonder far from the B&B, so we went back to Siena. We didn’t have a lot of time to explore the city last time because of our tour and our cooking class. So we spent the afternoon just walking around.

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Look! No people! 🙂

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View from the only playground we saw in Italy! I am sure there are more, we just didn’t see them.

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Pretty rooftop garden.

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Fruit stand. Aren’t those grapes gorgeous? We bought some for our lunch later that day.

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This was a very unique looking shop. It is obviously a meat shop; all their meat was hanging in the window. It is hard to make out, but it was really neat.

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Chocolate store, yum!

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One of the prettiest gelato shops we saw in Italy. Gelato is amazing, by the way! Tiramisu was my favorite flavor!

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Randy with his gelato. He looks like a little boy, to me, in this picture. So adorkable!

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These rings were all over the city. This is where they tied up their horses back in the day. See how over the many, many years the ring as worn into the stone wall?

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We took this picture to give you an idea how steep some of the hills are in this city. Siena is a very hilly city but not too bad. All those years walking around Appalachian State University paid off! 😉

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Here is the baptistery. It is on the back side of the cathedral.

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Pretty fountain in the main square, Il Campo.

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A neat little street.

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Another local peeking her head out the window, watching the world go by.

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After exploring Siena, we picked up some more mozzarella cheese and deli meat and had another picnic in our room.

For dinner we had Franco and Frances (the B&B owners) make a dinner, al fresco, for us. They have several gazebos around the property and they all have spectacular views. Ours was a view of Siena and their olive trees.

They gave us complimentary champagne for our anniversary. Isn’t that sweet? We saved it for this night.

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To start, they served their own sun dried tomatoes, olives and tuscan bread covered in garlic and their homemade olive oil. Also, the same platter of different cheeses that they serve at breakfast. And a platter of different meats; ham, boar, prosciutto etc.

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Next, a bowl of homemade pasta and sauce. This was my absolute favorite pasta I had anywhere in Italy! It was fantastic!

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For dessert, we had biscotti cookies and Franco’s homemade vin santo. We called his vin santo “liquid gold” because of it’s beautiful color and it tasted awesome!

Enjoying our champagne.

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Our view.

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Siena at night. Isn’t it beautiful?

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Well, this was, sadly, our last day in Tuscany. We really didn’t want to leave. We just loved Tuscany and we absolutely loved Frances’ Lodge. We will definitely be back just because of their hospitality, their food and their views! If you ever plan to visit Tuscany, stay here. You will not regret it!


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Passport to Italy: Florence Day Seven

After our amazing breakfast we made our way to Florence.

Florence was busy, hot and frankly, unfriendly.

The buildings are beautiful and the collection of art is what makes Florence worth a visit. But my experiences there were not my favorite. I think mostly because of the crowds. There were so many people, all pushing and shoving. I felt like a pinball in a pinball machine.

Our first visit was to the Uffizi Gallery; which requires a reservation about a month in advance. Frances’ Lodge helped us require said reservation. The Uffizi gallery was built in 1581, under the request of Granduca Francisco de’ Medici. The Medici family was a very powerful, very wealthy family in Florence. So wealthy that they built their own walk way over the Ponte Vecchio bridge so they didn’t have to walk in the crowds with the peasants.

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The Uffizi Gallery contains some of the greatest works of art in all of art history. Paintings from Filippo Lippi with “Madonna with Child“, Sandro Botticelli with “The Birth of Venus“, Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Raphael and Titan. The list goes on. The pictures below are the only pictures we could take at the Uffizi Gallery (stairs leading up to the gallery and the outside view of the gallery). 

Even if we could take pictures they wouldn’t have been any good. There were tons of people in this gallery. I remember standing in front of a picture and a tour guide would come stand in front of me. Next thing I know I am being pushed out of the way by the tourists. It happened more than once too! It was very frustrating! We felt rushed because we were trying to keep ahead of the tour guides. I don’t know if there is a good time to visit the Uffizi Gallery, I pretty sure it is packed all the time.

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After the Uffizzi Gallery we made our way to Castello di Verrazzano’s cafe; because we didn’t get enough the day before! Frances from our B&B told us about this restaurant before we left for Florence. The restaurant was long and skinny, with a lot of customers standing around eating their lunches. The counter was full of freshly made bread and pastries.

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We ordered their focaccia sampler and of course their chianti classico.

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After lunch we went to Florence’s cathedral. The cathedral we see today is the result of 170 years of work and is the 4th largest cathedral in the world. The first stone was laid in 1296, under the direction of Arnolfo di Cambio. The gigantic dome, or Il Duomo, was designed by Filippo Brunelleschi and was completed in just 16 years, from 1418 to 1434. The bell tower was begun by Giotto in 1334, carried on after his death by Andrea Pisano and then finished in 1359 by Francesco Talenti.

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As you can see, the exterior is very ornate while the interior is rather simple.

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The interior of the dome on the other hand was very ornate. The dome was painted between 1572 and 1579 by Giorgio Vasari and Frederico Zuccari. The fresco depicts the Last Judgment.

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Next I wanted to climb the stairs to the top of the dome. We asked several people where to go to buy tickets to get to the top. They all pointed us to this line beside the cathedral. So we waited there for about an hour (this was the only place I did not reserve tickets because I was informed that I did not need to). When we got to the end of the line, there was nowhere to buy tickets and the guy monitoring people going in was not helpful at all. I was so frustrated that we wasted an hour for nothing, that we no longer pursued the dome. So unfortunately, we never made it to the top of that magnificent dome. I was very disappointed, but maybe next time.

So after that we strolled around the city. Just taking in the sights. See what I mean about the crowds? And this is supposed to be the off-season!

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Getting off the main streets was helpful.

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We stopped at this square to rest because it had a nice view of a church. Turns out we stumbled upon Basilica of Santa Croce. It is important because it is the burial-place of some of the most famous Italians, such as Michelangelo, Galileo and Machiavelli. Pretty cool, uh?

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After our little rest we continued our sightseeing.

Had to stop by Chanel!

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Florence was littered with these “do not enter” signs where people had added their own flair.

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We stopped by this shop because it smelled wonderful. It was full of oils, perfumes and soaps that smelled out of this world good!

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Next we went to see the statue of David in the Accademia. No pictures were allowed. I know everyone has seen pictures of David, but let me tell you, he is much more impressive in person. He is just beautiful, I can’t even describe how wonderful this statue is. And my favorite part in the Accademia was Michelangelo’s unfinished works. They all line up on both sides of the gallery that lead you to David. They were just very interesting sculptures because you could see Michelangelo’s chisel marks. Very cool to see.

After David, we went to the leather market. This was a shock to me because there were so many vendors in the street selling leather products. And they were all yelling at me, grabbing me by the arm to bring me into their stall and forcing leather jackets across my shoulders. I was very uncomfortable. I did not like being in the leather market. So we were not there very long, luckily we found leather jackets we both liked quickly. Afterall, that is why we were there!

Here is the leather market. Lots of people and lots of vendors.

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Up ahead is the leather market. So this is how it works – store owners set up stalls in the main street not far from their stores. If you see something you like in the stall they lead you off the street to their store.

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Here is the store where we purchased our jackets.

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Here are the store owners. They were a brother and sister team. The sister worked the stall in the main street and the brother worked the store.

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After this we were spent. We had been walking around the city and fighting crowds all day long. Before we left for our B&B we stopped by Piazzale Michelangelo. Here you will have the best view of Florence. It was the best part of our trip to Florence. Side note: the parking lot is very crowded and the parking spaces are extremely tiny. We were barely able to get out of the car once we parked. So if you rent a car, make sure you get the smallest one possible! 😉 Our timing was perfect. We got there at dusk and the city is gorgeous all lit up at night.

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Then we made our way back to our B&B. We were so tired that we didn’t really feel like sitting down at a restaurant to eat dinner. So we found a market near by and bought some deli meat, mozzarella and a bottle of wine. Plus, it was a lot of fun to go grocery shopping in a foreign country. We enjoyed this so much that we did it again for lunch the next day! Italy’s mozzarella is out of this world awesome! It does not taste anything like our mozzarella here in the States, it actually has tons of flavor! It was probably my most favorite food I ate in Italy. Also, we got potato chips (I know! We are terrible for getting them!) but they were so good!

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So that concludes our seventh day in Italy. Florence really was a beautiful city. I know I did a lot of complaining about this city. It was just so crowded and the locals were really not that friendly. Also, I think we were just so tired from all the walking we had done so far on our trip that we were wearing ourselves out. We averaged 10 to 15 miles a day everyday! I would like to visit Florence again when I am not so exhausted and maybe try to find a time when it isn’t so crowded (if that exist).

Stay tune for more Italy awesomeness!


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Passport to Italy: Greve Day Six

This day was dedicated to the beautiful country side of Tuscany. I reserved a wine tasting at Castello di Verrazzano in Greve. It was called “The Wine and Food Experience”  –  a tour of the winery and a 5 course meal with wine pairings for each.

The drive to the winery was great, just breathtakingly beautiful. And Randy loved driving the winding country roads.

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Panzano – according to guidebooks, the prettiest view in Tuscany. I think I agree.

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The Castle of Verrazzano is located on a hilltop in the Chianti Classico area, the first grape growing and wine producing area in the world, according to the grand Duke Cosimo III de’ Medici in 1716. Giovanni da Verrazzano, celebrated navigator and discoverer of the bay of New York and the majority of the east coast of America, was born here in 1485. The famous bridge in New York was named after him in 1964. 

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Meet Gino; our tour guide for the afternoon. Gino has been working here practically his entire life. He grew up on the grounds and is now the most popular tour guide at Castello di Verrazzano. He was very charismatic and charming.

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He gave long speeches about how we would not tell him about wine but he would tell us about his wine. 🙂 It was important to him that we understood how important wine is in the Italian culture. Wine isn’t a drink to be graded or tested. Wine is meant to be enjoyed, to be savored, to be shared.

“Wine with food, food with wine.”

Gino guided us through the winery and the castle.

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The view was spectacular! I could sit here all day looking at this view with a glass wine. Talk about heaven!

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In this room the grapes are being obviously dried. These grapes here are dried then pressed to make their Vin Santo. Vin Santo is a finishing wine that Italians consume at the end of their meal. Usually they soak a biscotti cookie in the Vin Santo. It is a very tasty dessert.

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You can tell who was the photographer on this trip!

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See the glass bottles on top of the barrels? These bottles were invented by Leonard da Vinci. I know, right? They were designed to vent gas in the barrels while keeping outside elements for coming in. Isn’t it so cool that they are still using Leonard da Vinci’s invention? Hold still my little nerd heart!

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Here is where their OMG Balsamic Vinegar is made. It takes over two years to make this balsamic. The reason why it is called OMG Balsamic Vinegar is because a lady who came to visit the winery, tasted this balsamic and kept saying, “Oh My God! Oh My God! Honey, buy me some of this balsamic.” So the husband went to the counter and said,” I’ll take a couple of bottles of the balsamic.” The cashier said, “Ok, but do you see how much it is?” The husband looks at the price then exclaims, “Oh my God!” 🙂

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After the tour we were then taken to the restaurant. This was my most favorite room. The walls were nothing but huge windows and doors that lead out to their wrap around patio with a panoramic view of Tuscany and their vineyard. On the opposite wall is a huge wood burning fireplace, which was lit when we arrived.

Here we enjoyed the 5 course meal with wine pairings for each. The food here was absolutely delicious! I loved everything we had!

First, was meat and bread – ham, wild boar salmi, head cheese and crostini with lard.

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Second, was homemade pasta with sauce and herbs.

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Third, was grilled sausages, roasted pork, salad and white beans.

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Fourth, was percorino cheese and a small teaspoon of “OMG Balsamic Vinegar”. To eat this, they instructed us to take a bite of cheese, chew it up a little bit, then take a small amount of the balsamic. It really was an OMG moment!

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Fifth, our last course, was vin santo with biscotti cookies. Vin santo tasted like a sweet, strong wine. I don’t think I could drink it by itself, but with a cookie, it was pretty awesome! Also, in this course, was espresso and a shot of grappa. Grappa (for those of you who don’t know) is basically moonshine made from grapes. This stuff was very strong. Wow! Some Italians put their grappa into their espressos.

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This tour and tasting is suppose to last 3 hours. We were there for 4.5 hours! We just could not drive home after drinking 5 glasses of wine, vin santo and grappa! I think everyone at our table was like us too! So we stayed and talked to everyone.

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The gentleman who sat across from Randy and I was named Doug. He is an American but has been living in Tuscany for 12 years with his family. His wife is in real estate, so we got her card. You never know when you might need something like that! 🙂

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Love this view!

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To settle up our bill for the tour they lead you to the gift shop – very strategic if you ask me. You drink a lot wine, eat good food, have a good time then you go to their shop and buy wine! It worked! We brought back two bottles of wine! But it was worth it. Their wine was fantastic and the memories we made are priceless. Now we have a piece of our time there at home!

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As you leave the property there is a perfect turn off with the best view of the castle and winery. Our last view of the castle 🙁 I hope we return some day!

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I highly suggest going to this winery and doing their “Wine and Food Experience”. That is what you are getting, an experience. We learned so much about Italian culture here – how wine is a very important part of their culture and their lifestyle.

Like Gino said, “The wine should never miss the table.”


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Passport to Italy: Siena Day Five

Our fifth day in Italy was October 17th – Our 4 Year Wedding Anniversary!

We had a wonderful night’s sleep and got up bright and early.

The first thing we did was look at our view. Isn’t the fog so beautiful?

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Their garden.

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At Frances’ Lodge you fill out a form every night on what you want for breakfast the next morning and slide it under your door. When you get to the breakfast room, your breakfast is waiting for you.

Now their breakfast was amazing! I mean, the best breakfast ever! You could get just about anything you wanted for breakfast. Eggs (any way you liked them), fried bacon (which was the best bacon I have ever put in my mouth), fruit, different cheeses, slices of meat, all their homemade jams, local honeys, homemade yogurt and granola. The list goes on! Everything we ordered was fantastic! We filled ourselves up to the brim every morning here!

This was our view every morning. You can see Siena in the distance.

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My sweet hubby!

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The innkeepers here at Frances’ Lodge were a husband and wife team that lived here in the farm villa. They were the nicest people ever. They made you feel so comfortable there in their home. Even though there were other guests, we felt like we were the only ones there. Every morning they asked us where we were going and they would give us hand drawn maps and give us turn by turn directions. We never got lost when we used a map from them. I was so thankful for their maps and directions since I was the navigator! 🙂

This day we went to Siena. Siena was about a 5 minute drive from the B&B. Siena, according to travel guides, is the best preserved medieval city in Tuscany. The square or Il Campo, is beautiful and unique in its shape. It has a fan-shaped square instead of the standard square or rectangle shape. Il Campo is known worldwide for the famous Palio run here, a horse race run around the piazza two times every summer.

If you look at the pavement in the square you can see nine sections. The nine sections of the fan-like brick pavement of the piazza represent the council and symbolizes the Madonna’s cloak which shelters Siena. The square is dominated by it bell tower.

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People come here and just lounge around the square. It was a very calming atmosphere. No one really rushed around you or pushed you out of the way. They just strolled around the city and mingled with others.

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Siena’s cathedral, in my opinion, was the prettiest of all the churches we visited. I have never seen so much detail in one place. Built between 1215 and 1263 on the site of an earlier structure, the cathedral is in the form of a Latin cross with a slight projecting dome and bell tower. The exterior and interiors are decorated in white and greenish-black marble in alternating stripes, black and white being the symbolic colors of Siena.

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This day we reserved a tour to take inside Siena’s cathedral. I reserved this tour months in advanced and got one of the last slots. Unfortunately, the only thing left was a tour in Italian. But the tour guide was very friendly and did her best to translate for us in english. We still learned a lot and had a great time with other people in the tour group.

We took the Gate of Heaven Tour because the mosaic floors in this cathedral are only unveiled for two months out of the year; September and October. I wanted to do this tour because they take you up in the cathedral to see the floors from up above.

The 56 etched and inlaid marble panels were designed by 40 of leading artists between 1369 and 1547. Completion of the designs took six centuries, the last ones finished in the 1800s.

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The oldest designs are those in the center near the entrance – the Wheel of Fortune and the Sienese Wolf Surrounded by Symbols of Allied Cities, which dates back to 1369, but they have been maintained and redone throughout the centuries when it wasn’t customary to protect them. Some of them have parts that are pretty worn out. Each panel has its own story.

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Beautiful city of Siena.

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I love how the ceilings have stars on them.

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The greatest sculptors of every epoch worked in the Cathedral of Siena: Nicola Pisano executed the Pulpit from 1265 to 1268; his son Giovanni authored the sculptures on the facade; Donatello created the statute of John the Baptist, Michelangelo sculpted Saint Peter and Saint Paul, Saint Pius and Saint Augustine for the Piccolomini altar, and the art of Gian Lorenzo Bernini is represented by the Mary Magdalene and Saint Jerome in the Cappella del Voto.

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The front of the facade contains a stained-glass depiction of the Last Supper, executed in 1549 by Pastorino de’ Pastorini, a student of Guillaume de Marcillat.

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After touring Siena’s cathedral, we had to leave quickly because we needed time to get to our cooking class. I reserved a cooking class through Jul’s Kitchen. I stumbled across her blog about 2 years ago and I have been following her ever since. I told Randy two years ago that if we ever go to Tuscany, I wanted to take her cooking class. Wish granted! 🙂

The cooking class took place in Jul’s house. The same house her grandmother grew up in, her father and now her. She emailed me her address and we mapped it out in mapquest. Directions were easy enough, or so we thought. (This is where a GPS would have come in handy!)

We left 45 minutes early to give us plenty of time to find her. Finding a city in Italy is easy, it is finding a house or building that is difficult. Mostly because once you get into the city, there are no road signs to be found. We spent 1.5 hours trying to find Jul’s house! We stopped 3 times to ask for directions. No one really spoke english so all our directions were in Italian. It wasn’t so bad, you can understand a lot by watching hand gestures. After driving around for 1.5 hours I started to cry. We were 45 minutes late to our cooking class. Finally we drove by a house and I recognized Giulia and her dog walking around outside.

I yelled to Randy stop the car, that is Giulia! I rolled down the window and said, “Giulia?” She smiled and said yes. I can not described how relived I was at that moment. I apologized profusely and explained that we go so lost. I was terrified that we would not be able to do the class because we were so late. But she laughed and said, ” No, no! We will cook fast!”

Giulia lives in the most picturesque house. It is surrounded by rolling hills and cypress trees. This is the view that everyone envisions when they think of Tuscany. Her house was just as perfect as the view. Her kitchen was perfect with a large wooden table in the center to work on, mason jars lined her shelves full of spices and flour and a large window overlooking her garden and the rollings hills. *Sigh*

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We started cooking right away. We put on our Jul’s Kitchen aprons (which is included in your cooking class) and started slicing up apples. We first made our dessert, which was apple cake. Kind of like an apple upside down cake. Then we diced up some root vegetables for roasting, sliced more apples and onions for our meat and then we started making our pasta. We made pici, which is like a thick spaghetti. Very easy to make and taste so good! I don’t think I will ever buy dry pasta again!

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While cooking we talked, laughed and learned about our different cultures. We learned about Tuscan cooking; like, Tuscan cooking is about the quality of food. They use very simple, fresh ingredients that they grow themselves. Also, taking time to cook their food, building up the flavors and enjoying the aromas. No microwave food here!

After cooking, we all sat together at her farm-house wooden table. We ate family style, passing the food around and pouring the local red wine. In her dining room was a bookshelf full of cook books. For the longest time we talked about our favorite cook books, our favorite foods and cities we visited and what foods we ate there. Giulia has an obvious passion for food, as do Randy and I. It was so nice to talk to someone from another country who enjoys and loves food as much as we do. The food was so delicious and Giulia was an absolute delight.

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After stuffing ourselves it was time for our time to end. 🙁 Giulia hugged us both and sent us off with her cook book, filled with her recipes that she has been around all her life. It was so much fun to learn how to cook from a real Tuscan native. But the best part was making a friend while we there. If you ever go to Tuscany and want to take a cooking class, go to Giulia. It will be the highlight of your trip, just like it was for ours!

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Passport to Italy: Siena Day Four

The morning of this day was a rough one. If you recall, the night before was the night we stayed out late and attempted to drink with Europeans. So we woke up exhausted and had headaches; but nothing that two cups of espresso couldn’t fix!

After drinking our last cup of espresso and eating our fantastic breakfast, we said goodbye to Davide. 🙁

We got onto the vaporetto back to the airport on mainland Italy. Here we picked up our rental car. We got a Fiat 500. It was adorable and just big enough for our backpacks and ourselves!

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Now lucky us, Hertz did not have any GPSs for us to use. So all our navigation was up to me… using a gazetteer. I know! I have a horrible sense of direction so you can only imagine how tough it was for me to navigate in a foreign country. So all I can say is that the only time Randy and I argued on this trip was when we had to drive somewhere. Just like back home! Haha! 😉

Our arguments went something like this: Randy is driving down the road and I am frantic trying to figure out where we are. I am scrambling through piles of maps and trying to decipher the road signs. Then we pass a road sign.

Randy: “What did that sign say?”

Jama: “I don’t know you were driving too fast.

Randy: “I am trying to keep up with traffic!”

Jama: “You are not Italian! Stop driving like one!”

Randy: “Its your job to navigate and mine to drive!”

Jama: “I would if I could read the signs! How can I when you are zooming pass them oh and to top it all off they are all in Italian!”

So yeah, this was our conversation almost every time we got into the car.

But when we knew where we were going the drive was quite nice.

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One thing that kind of surprised us was how many tunnels there were on the autostrade (which is basically an interstate). We probably drove through about 20 tunnels on the way to Siena.

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The autostrade was a very rough road with lots of potholes and construction. Which is interesting in a small car with hardly any suspension going about 80 to 100 miles an hour! But we had a good time, mostly. 🙂

After driving for about 4 hours we finally made it to Siena. We stayed in a bed and breakfast right outside of Siena called Frances’ Lodge.

Frances’ Lodge is on top of a hill with the best view of Siena anywhere. It is a farm villa that has been in Franco’s family (the husband/owner) for generations. It is a rock house surrounded by lemon trees, fig trees, pomegranate trees, olive trees and more! Not to mention all the beautiful roses! They are everywhere! Unforunately, most were not in bloom but the gardens were still beautiful.

As soon as we arrived Franco was at our car greeting us and gathering our luggage. He showed us to our room and explained everything we needed to know about the hotel. As soon as we dropped off our luggage we ran outside to see the view. The sun was setting when we arrived.

Our view from our room. That tree to the right is over 100 years old. Just amazing!

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Coolest window ever. It was double hinged so it opened like a door and it titled in from the top. It is really hard to explain but it was really cool.

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Our room.

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View from our other window.

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Our double-headed shower. Amazing! Because of this shower we want to redo our entire bathroom!

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View from the gardens.

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Siena is out in the distance with the sun setting. So romantic and just beautiful!

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One of Frances’ beautiful roses.

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And another.

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As you can see our view from this B&B was spectacular.

For dinner we went to a restaurant on the innkeepers’ recommendation. The restaurant was in an old wine cellar.

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I loved the lace doilies in the plate!

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Good wine! And I loved the walls! Mixture of wall, brick and rock!

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We got the grilled pork. Very delicious! It also came with something similar to collard greens. They were seasoned very well and a piece of boar sausage. It was all awesome!

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Tired from a day of travel and fighting (haha), we went straight to bed after dinner.

That concludes our fourth day in Italy. Stay tuned for day five!


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Passport to Italy: Venice Day Three

Our last day in Venice…. 🙁

This day was probably our most memorable.

Since we did the touristy stuff the day before, this day was more of a chill day to do whatever we wanted.

We got up a little bit earlier than usual and walked around the city. The fog was still settled on top of the water, stores were just opening up, and the only people walking the main streets were locals on their way to work.

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No boats or gondolas on the canals yet.

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No tourists… well, besides us! 😉

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Working locals. 🙂

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We then went back to our B&B and had our wonderful breakfast and two espresso! Back into the city more people were out and about. We stopped by this market. The fruits and vegetables looked so colorful!

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This guy on the end here was cutting out all the hearts out of the artichokes.

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Next, we just walked around. We loved this tunnel!

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My first purchase in Italy! Shoes! I bet you couldn’t guess that one! 😉 This little shoe shop was on the corner and it was just a tiny little store! The owner was very nice and helpful. The shoes are adorable and very comfortable!

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We stumbled upon this street. Yes, this is an actual street!

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I love how all the buildings look here. So old and layers and layers of different colors and materials.

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Awesome corner balcony!

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We toured the Frari Church, on Rick Steves recommendation. It is the only gothic church in Venice. Not as grand as St. Mark’s, but this one was beautiful too. No pictures were allowed inside. The section in the church were the choir sits was spectacular. I have never seen such detailed wood work.

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This picture here is probably my most favorite picture Randy took in Venice. This describes Venice in a nutshell.

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I love Randy’s face in this picture! Zoolander anyone?

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Next we went to a pretty, quaint pastry shop. It is the oldest pastry shop in Venice with a bar that dates back to the 17th century. So cool!

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Love the ceilings!

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I ordered tiramisu. Now I do not really care for tiramisu here in the States, but this dessert was created here in Venice, so I wanted to try it. Let me tell you, it is delicious! Just wow! I can not describe how good it was! You will just have to go to Venice and try it! I wish that I had gotten more while I was there!

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Some of their goodies!

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Lunch was at a pizzeria.

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Pretty little courtyard we walked by.

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I absolutely loved this square. No tourists around, just locals sitting around watching the world go by. If you look closely, there are two old women sitting at the base of this church. Just sitting there all bundled up, not talking to each other, just watching others come and go.

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We were walking down the street and all of a sudden the shutters opened in one of the buildings and this sweet little old lady poked her head out and started talking/yelling to people as they were walking by. I kid you not! That really happened! It not only happens in the movies! It happens in real life! So I got caught taking a picture of her in action! Oops! Totally worth it! 😉

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We came across this trash boat barely fitting under a bridge. They were just millimeters from hitting the bridge. Talk about pros! Once they cleared the bridge everyone clapped and shouted, “Bravo!”

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After a day of exploring the city we decided to take a gondola ride. When in Venice, right? On our way there, we were stopped by an older couple at the Rialto bridge. The first thing they said was, “Where are you from?” We answered America. Then the older gentleman said, “Good, you can take our picture then!” They were visiting from Canada and they returned the favor and took a picture of us too!

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I was in a hurry to get a gondola ride because I wanted to go at dusk. So the first one we could find was this grumpy old man who has been a gondolier for 40 years. His name was Roberto. The first half of our ride I tried to get Roberto to warm up to us. It wasn’t until that I mentioned that I spoke spanish that he started really talking to us; in spanish of course! But it was nice once he started talking.

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He was pretty handy with a camera!

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And we’re off!

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The city is beautiful at night!

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I love the lights on the water here in this picture!

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For dinner we spent about an hour trying to find a restaurant that our gondolier, Roberto, suggested to us. We were all over the piazza he told us to go to. We never found it. Exhausted and hungry we settled for this restaurant tucked away from the main street.

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We were the only people there. It was nice, just being us. We ordered a pizza and their house wine. All was pretty good.

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Our server was very sweet. Once we finished eating and paid for our meal, we started talking to him. His name was Marik. He was from Prague and working in Venice on a work visa. We talked to Marik for about two hours. He had gone to school for hotel management and now he is working on his portfolio working for the greatest restaurants in Venice.

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Little did we know but we were eating in a sister restaurant. The restaurant beside us (the original restaurant) was called, Al Colombo, it is the third oldest restaurant in Venice! According to Marik, it is extremely expensive and has served the rich and famous for years!

Now while talking to Marik, he kept pouring us drinks (all for free of course) and calling us his friends. He was pouring the restaurant’s “punch” which was a liquor/wine that was about 80 proof and tasted like licorice. We kept telling him that we shouldn’t drink any more and he replied, “Well, we need to finish the bottle.” So we finished the bottle.

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While drinking this punch we learned a new word. Marik says that when you drink too much it is called kaput! Which means no longer operative. He was a lot of fun! 🙂

Marik also showed us the cheese that Al Colombo sells. They sell a cheese called casu marzu. Now according to Marik this cheese has vorms in it (he was saying worms, but pronouned it with a v!) People pay $1000s to eat this cheese! All I can say is, eww!

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On our way out we ran into a couple coming into the restaurant. They stopped us and asked us if we liked the restaurant. We said yes and that the service was excellent. Then they asked us to join them for a glass of wine. So we ended up splitting a bottle of wine with them.

They were from Germany and their names were Helmult and Krista. They were very nice. Helmult was a Ph. D psychologist and Krista taught english and french. They were in Venice for the art festival. We talked to this couple for about an hour while we drank our wine.

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Finally, we started to head back to our hotel. It was about midnight at this point. Trying to find your hotel at night in a foregin city after trying to keep up with Czech Republicans and Germans drinking wise, their is a pretty good chance you are going to get lost. And that is what happend to us!

Instead of getting back to our hotel, we found St. Mark’s Square. But I am glad we did because it is beatuiful at night. The crowds are gone, live bands are playing, and the lights look like something out of a fairytale.

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I love the old fashion street lamps! *sigh*

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We finally found our hotel and got into bed about 1:00 am. We walked over 32,000 steps this day! Needless to say, we were exhausted or should I say kaput! But it was worth every step. Seeing the beauty that is Venice and meeting people from all over the world, it was a day we will always remember!


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Passport to Italy: Venice Day Two

First thing this morning, we had breakfast at our B&B. All the guests ate here in this room:

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On the menu was homemade croissants, pastries with chocolate filling, Tuscan bread, honey/jams, slices of cheese and slices of ham.

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Now the best thing on the menu was the coffee; espresso actually. I hate espresso here in the States, but in Italy… I loved it! It is so creamy and smooth and not at all bitter. Just a nice strong coffee flavor. Davide (the owner) would give us two cups of espresso every morning because of how much we loved it!

This day was dedicated to exploring the city and doing the touristy things.

We first went to St. Mark’s square and visited St. Mark’s Basilica. Venice brought Byzantium art to the West. The architectural idea of St. Mark’s Basilica is from Constantinople. The present day church started to be built in the 11th century! Now this is an old church!

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The mosaics in this church are gorgeous! More than 8000 square meters of mosaics cover this church. It took 8 centuries to complete them. These people had some patience! The floors, walls and ceiling are covered in mosaics. The floor was very interesting because it looked like waves. It was not flat at all! This is because of all the earthquakes and Venice sinking.

We were very lucky in our timing of our visit because we went when they turn on the flood lights. Without these flood lights, the church is very dark and you can’t really see the mosaics that well. But when these lights come on… the mosaics just shine.

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The Pala d’Oro, the high altar piece, is recognized as one of the most refined and accomplished works of Byzantine craftsmanship. You can see why. This piece has almost 2,000 precious gems!

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One of the most impressive things we saw in the basilica was the sculpture of 4 bronze horses. They were really beautiful. They looked very real; you can even see the veins. But the coolest part was that the carbon dating on these horses places their construction in the second century BC! Isn’t that amazing?! Historians believe that the horses made their way to St. Mark’s somewhere in the 1200s as spoils of war when Constantinople was conquered.

After looking around inside the church we were able to go onto the church’s balcony. From here we had a lovely view of the square, clock tower, bell tower and the Doge’s Palace (a doge was Venice’s version of an emperor).

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In this picture you can kind of see their glass windows. They were so old!

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Very dangerous roof. An older gentleman fell on this roof. 🙁

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After exploring the church we went next door to the bell tower. There has been a tower (watch tower/lighthouse) since the 12th century. Although the tower has been reconstructed several times because of earthquakes and fire damage, the present form is from 1912. From this tower is a spectacular view of Venice and the surrounding islands. It was a bit foggy and cloudy the day we went, but the view is still awesome.

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St. Mark’s Square. See how it is narrower at one end? That is so that the square looks longer than it actually is.

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The city of Venice.

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One of the surrounding islands.

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Fun fact that us nerds loved was that the Galileo Galilei demonstrated his telescope to the Doge of Venice in 1609. There is a plaque commemorating this event pictured here. So cool!

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For lunch we went to another wine bar, but this one was so amazingly cool! This wine bar is the oldest wine bar in Venice – Cantine del Vino Gia Schiavi. It is off the beaten path and full of locals.

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All the locals order wine and sandwiches to go and stand along the canal and eat their lunch.

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We sat down at a well to finish drinking our wine. Venice had these wells all over the city. For centuries they have been an essential element of Venetian daily life. Usually located in the middle of squares and courtyards, on higher ground, the wells supplied the population’s freshwater. The wells collect rain water and filter it. They are still used today! Amazing!

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And of course our traditional feet picture!

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After lunch we did a grand canal tour via the vaporetto. We downloaded Rick Steves’ App before we left so we had audio tours for all the big attractions in Italy. Rick Steves is awesome!

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The vaporetto is an easy and cheap way of seeing the palaces on the grand canal.

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Here you can see a dilapidated palace thats has been abandoned. Many Venetians can not afford to buy these palaces and fix them up. There are extremely strict rules regarding remodeling all the buildings in Venice. It is just too expensive. A 1,000 Venetians leave Venice every year because life here is just too expensive and difficult. Soon the only people left in Venice will be tourists. 🙁

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The tour ended at St. Mark’s square. Here is a good view of the Doge’s Palace.

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After the tour we strolled around Venice – getting lost in the city. Getting lost isn’t too big of a deal. Venice is small and you are on an island! 😉

This is the walkway going around the Doge’s Palace.

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Strolling along you can see gondoliers floating under these beautiful bridges. Here is the Bridge of Sighs.

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We saw laundry being hung across alley ways and streets. These streets are the ones you want to walk down because they smell so clean and fresh!

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We stopped by their arsenal. This was Venice’s shipyard. Here they mass-produced ships on a grand scale. It was one of the earliest large-scale industrial enterprises in history. Venetians could build 3 large naval ships a day! Wow!

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For dinner we found a restaurant far off the tourist track near our hotel. It was called, Ristorante Il Migliore. Here we had the best risotto we have ever eaten in  our lives! Risotto Primavera.

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As we were eating our dinner, two guys came by and starting playing music. It was quite romantic! (Sorry it is so blurry! They were quite enthusiastic!)

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This is what the restaurant looked like. We ate at that little table set for two to the left of the photo.

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And this concludes our second day in Venice!