Our Maple Tree

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Passport to Italy: Advice and Tidbits

Now that the holidays are over, I finally had the time to write this! And it helps that I am snowed in with nothing to do!

After almost two years of planning our Italy trip, it was done and over with in a blink of an eye. Now I am dreaming of going back. But while I am dreaming and scheming on how to get back, I thought I would put together a post on things I learned from Italy.

1. Planning two years in advance was a wise thing to do. Lots of museums and sightseeing sites tickets sell out quickly. I advise (and so do lots of guidebooks) to buy your tickets a least a month in advance. I also advise to buy your tickets through your hotel, if all possible. Otherwise, when you buy online, you can sometimes pay a hefty reservation/conversion rate. I advise to start planning your trip at least 8 months to year in advance. Especially if you are going during the high season.

2. Guidebooks are essential, at least in my opinion. They helped me plan out our itineraries and they were very helpful for picking out restaurants. Also, I read a lot of forums – Rick Steves and Trip Advisor are the two I referred to the most. Maps are important too, they helped me plan our days efficiently. Most guidebooks come with maps – we also bought a gazetteer, which saved us more than once.

3. If you rent a car, rent the smallest car possible. There is a reason why cars are smaller there than here in the states. Because all the roads and parking lots are tiny! You will be grateful for a small car when you are trying to fit the car into a three foot by three foot parking spot! ūüėČ

4. Learn a little bit of the language. You don’t need to be fluent, just learn key phrases. We learned Italian through Rosetta Stone and Rick Steve’s phrase book. Pretty much everywhere we went, people spoke English. But they appreciate it if you try to speak Italian first, they like for you to try to make an effort. (Just like with our gondolier, he was unfriendly to us until we starting talking in Spanish.)

5. When it comes to packing, pack as little as possible. I am glad I didn’t pack much because the things we brought back took up a lot of room! Also, I am glad I had a back pack. It was a lot easier to move around in the cities and trains. I used an Osprey pack from REI. Much easier than toting a wheeled bag on those uneven cobbled streets. We packed a lot of clothing made up of wicking material and SmartWool socks. And this is a given, but pack comfortable shoes. We walked over 110 miles in Italy, an average of 10 to 15 miles a day!

6. Italy is known for pickpockets. I read some terrible stories about people getting pick pocketed and it scared me a little. So to ease my mind, I ordered a pac safe purse. This purse is amazing! It was large enough to carry all our maps, tickets, passports, water bottles, etc. And it was safe, which made me feel better. Now we didn’t have any problems, no one bothered us. But you do need to be aware of your surroundings. Just watch people and don’t let your guard down and you will be fine. But if you want a little peace of mind then I suggest getting one of pac safe’s purses or bags.

7. Download Rick Steve’s App. This app saved us a ton of money! We downloaded all the tours that he had regarding Italy. By doing this, we were able to have audio tours for free for most places. Most sightseeing places offer an audio tour for an additional fee, they ranged from 10 to 20 euros per person. Plus, Rick Steves’s audio tours are very entertaining. I found myself smiling or laughing through most of his tours. They also come with handy maps, which you will need to download before leaving your free wi-fi at your hotel. (Unless you can afford an international data plan!)

8. Most restaurants/cafes in Italy charge a cover charge to use a table. If you want to save some money, just order your food to go or drink your espresso at the bar. Most Italians do this. One of my favorite lunches in Italy was in Venice. We ordered some sandwiches and wine to go and we ate along the canal. We sat on a low wall – along with all the locals. It was so much fun! But there were times we were so tired that we just had to sit down and recoup. Sitting at a table costs about 5 euros, which when you are exhausted, isn’t so bad.

9. Some advice on restrooms. In a lot of cities in Italy, they do not have public restrooms and if they do, you have to pay to use them. Try to use the restroom before you leave your hotel. But since you are out all day, drinking wine… you will need to go. So you can use the restroom for free at museums and restaurants (as long as you are a customer). Sometimes, in some restaurants, there is only one unisex restroom, but most places have separate restrooms.

10. Hotels, as you know, are different in Europe than they are here in the states. Most of them are very small and do not have some of the accommodations that we are use to. But I feel like we were very lucky in our hotels. I did a lot of researching on hotels and found some of the best places. We chose to stay in B&Bs, which were about the same price as a normal hotel. Rome was a normal hotel but it did offer a continental breakfast (which was croissants, meats and cheese). So all of our breakfasts were already taken care of (one less thing to worry about). But you will have to find hotels that suit you and your personal tastes. B&Bs are more of what we enjoy and we loved everywhere we stayed.

11. Espresso is amazing in Italy! I do not like espresso normally, but now I am in love with it now! It is so smooth and not at all bitter. In Venice, our B&B had the best espresso! Davide (the owner) showed us how he made it and what kind of beans he used. He used a mocha pot and lavazza ground coffee. Randy ordered both of these on amazon during our trip so it was waiting for us when we returned home. If you want to make some espresso at home, get these two things! It makes some pretty good espresso! Oh, do not order American coffee! It is not good! It is basically watered down espresso!

12. And my final bit of advice, don’t be shy. Get out there, meet people and make some new friends! You will find that most people are more than willing to help you or just talk to you. We met some of the most interesting, nicest people on this trip. The people we met were the highlight of our trip – they made the beautiful culture of Italy come alive.

I know this is a lot of information at once, but it was stuff that we learned before and during our trip. I hope it will help you in planning your next adventure! If you have any questions or want to share your experiences, please feel free to do so! Any advice will be helpful for the future!

I would love to return to Italy someday… *sigh*. It was the best trip I have ever taken. Italy is beautiful, filled with beautiful scenery and people. I sometimes day dream about our trip and going back. But next time we go to Europe, it would be nice to visit another country. I was thinking London would be fun or maybe Paris or Belgium! Anyone been to any of those places?


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Passport to Italy: Rome Day Twelve

Our last full day in Italy. ūüôĀ

Being the end of our trip and after our exciting day yesterday, Randy and I were reaching our physical limits. So this day, we couldn’t push ourselves very hard.

We visited the Borghese Gallery this day, which was of course reserved a month in advance. I am glad we did because when we picked up our tickets, they were sold out for a week! The Borghese park was nice. There were people riding bicycles, others sitting on benches eating their lunches and you could hear saxophones playing in the distance. 

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The Borghese Gallery houses most of the Borghese collection of paintings, sculptures and antiquities. It begun by Cardinal Scipione Borghese between 1613 and 1615. Scipione Borghese was an early patron of Bernini and an avid collector of Caravaggio’s works. (no pictures allowed)

The best part, in my opinion, of the gallery were all the Bernini sculptures.¬†The Bernini sculptures that are in the Museo Borghese collection are some of his best works.They include “Apollo and Daphne,”¬†“The Rape of Proserpina,” and his version of¬†“David.” What Bernini does in his sculptures seem physically impossible: the way they move and show action. There is a reason why stone sculpture figures from previous times are stoic and still and it is because stone can’t be manipulated like that, to tell a story. And yet, that is exactly what he does.

We stood looking at his sculptures for some time. Another unique thing about Bernini’s work is that they were meant to be viewed from all directions. That is why they are showcased alone, away from any obstruction.¬†

One of my favorite sculptures is here in the gallery,which is the¬†reclining statue of Paolina Borghese by Antonio Canova. It was a very scandalous statue for its time, even for our time. But I think it is beautiful. And I kind of admire Paolina for her boldness. According to Rick Steves, when the statue was presented to the public, Paolina was asked, “How could you have done such a thing?” She replied, “The room wasn’t cold.”

After a few hours in the gallery we went back to the Roman Forum.

“It was for centuries the center of Roman public life: the site of¬†triumphal processions¬†and elections; the venue for public speeches,¬†criminal trials, and¬†gladiatorial matches; and the nucleus of commercial affairs.”

The Arch of Titus – “it was constructed in 82 AD,¬†to commemorate Titus’ victories, including the¬†Siege of Jerusalem in 70 AD.”

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Basilica of Constantine – “construction began¬†under the emperor¬†Maxentius¬†in 308, and was completed in 312 by¬†Constantine I.”

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Temple of Antoninus & Faustina – “The temple was begun in 141 AD by the Emperor¬†Antoninus Pius¬†and was initially dedicated to his deceased and deified wife,¬†Faustina the Elder. When Antoninus Pius was deified after his death in 161 AD, the temple was re-dedicated jointly to Antoninus and Faustina at the instigation of his successor,¬†Marcus Aurelius.”

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Here is the burial place of Julius Caesar.

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People still place flowers and burn candles here.

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Arch of Septimius Severus – “a¬†triumphal arch¬†dedicated in AD 203 to commemorate the¬†Parthian victories¬†of Emperor¬†Septimius Severus¬†and his two sons,¬†Caracalla¬†and¬†Geta, in the two campaigns against the¬†Parthians¬†of 194/195 and 197-199.”

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Temple of Castor – “It was originally built in gratitude for victory at the¬†Battle of Lake Regillus¬†in 495 BC.”

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Temple of Vesta – “All temples to Vesta were round, and had entrances facing east to symbolize connection between Vesta‚Äôs fire and the sun as sources of life. The Temple of Vesta represents the site of ancient cult activity as far back as 7th century BCE.”

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House of the Vestals –¬†the residence of¬†Vestal Virgins

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Today, remains of the statues of the Vestals can be seen in the Atrium Vestae.

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Temple of Saturn –¬†“a¬†temple¬†to the¬†god¬†Saturn¬†in¬†ancient Rome. The original dedication of a temple to Saturn was traditionally dated to 497 BC.”

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Walking around these ruins was a humbling experience. This was the seat of Roman’s power, where people met to shop and get news, where senators and caesars met to discuss politics and where people came to worship. It was amazing to think that I was walking around on the same stones as Julius Caesar and Constantine.


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Passport to Italy: Rome Day Eleven

Our second day in Rome was for the Vatican City.

I made reservations for the Vatican Museums two months in advanced, it is recommended to reserve in advanced; otherwise, you will be waiting in line for a long time.

The Vactican Museums are vast, to say the least. The Vatican Museums originated as a group of sculptures collected by Pope Julius II (1503-1513). As the decades passed, more popes added to the already impressive collection of diverse artworks owned and displayed by the Vatican. Today, there are thirteen museums in the Vatican Museum complex. The building complex is worth a visit in itself as all rooms and hallways are lavishly decorated with marble and frescoes.

The view of St. Peter’s dome from the museum.

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Yay! More scaffolding! ūüėČ

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Randy said that this was one bust-y room! Haha! He is so adorkable!

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View of the Vatican city and Rome.

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The famous statue of Laoco√∂n and His Sons also called the Laoco√∂n Group, has been one of the most famous ancient sculptures ever since it was excavated in Rome in 1506 and placed on public display in the Vatican. Finding this statue was a defining moment in art history. Michelangelo and his protege/friend Guilio Romano where two of the first people to see the statue and it was one of the defining influences of Michelangelo’s life.

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The circumference of this basin is 13 meters. Historians believe that this basin had once embellished one of the large public spaces of imperial Rome.

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There in the distance, the Vatican Observatory, one of the oldest astronomical research institutions in the world! I was in nerd heaven!

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There are four rooms known as the Stanze of Raphael, once the residence of Pope Julius II, feature the works of Raphael and his assistants.

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The most famous fresco in these rooms is the “School of Athens”, a masterwork of perspective painting.

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After the Raphael rooms, you are then lead to the most anticipated room of all the Vatican, the Sistine Chapel!

My first thought when we entered the chapel was, “This is it? It is so much smaller than I imagined!” But it was still amazing.

The chapel is long, skinny, poorly lit and packed full of people. We fought our way to the center of the room and started our Rick Steves audio tour.

No pictures are allowed of the chapel and they are Nazis about it! There are cameras located throughout the chapel watching for tourists taking photos. If they catch you sneaking in a photo, uniformed officers come to you and watch you delete pictures of the chapel. If you refuse to cooperate, you will get a one way ticket out of the Vatican city! One italian was escorted off the premises screaming at the officers in italian. That was exciting! ūüėČ

Standing in the middle of the chapel; my shoulders and back touching strangers; it was easy to forget where I was as a feeling of quiet respect wash over me. Standing here you know that you are standing in a place of unquestionable significance.

I leaned my head back and lost myself in the swirls of color. Michaelangelo painted this chapel between 1508 and 1512 under the orders from the Pope to tell the story of the “creation, downfall and salvation of humankind.”

After spending over an hour standing still ,on marble flooring with our heads leaned back as far as they could go; we were sore and exhausted. So we made our way to the exit of the museums.

The way out is by this beautiful staircase. The Vatican commissioned Giuseppe Momo to create this staircase.

The Spiral Staircase, also called the Momo Staircase, is made up of two wrought iron stairways ‚Äď one going up, one going down ‚Äď that curve in a double helix. Ironically it was created in a time before the double helix became a symbol for science, DNA and subsequently, all human life.

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We had lunch after this tour in a small, hole in the wall pizzeria. After lunch we started towards St. Pete’s Square. We noticed that as we made our way to the square that the crowds were getting heavier. Little did we know what was awaiting for us at the square.

The square was packed full of people of all ages. Tour buses, policemen, camera crews, barricades – all of this with people pushing and tugging and yelling in Italian.

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We finally made our way up to a barricade to get a glimpse of St. Peter’s basilica.

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And we saw a bride.

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I told Randy that this didn’t seem like a normal day for the Vatican. He didn’t believe me at first until he zoomed in with his camera and he saw a podium, lights and large TVs. We were tired, hot and nervous with all the people around us. So we left the Vatican City planning on returning the next day.

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Little did we know, two hours after we left the Vatican City, the Pope came out and gave a speech. It would have been really neat to hear it and see it, but there was no way we would have lasted another 2 hours waiting for the pope in that blazing sun. We were just too exhausted.

We had intentions on returning to the Vatican City to properly see St. Peter’s basilica. But we just never made it back.

For next time we return to Rome, (since we threw coins into the Trevi Fountain), I would like to tour St Peter’s basilica and climb to the top of the dome. Also, I would love to get a private tour of the Sistine Chapel. I think it would be worth every penny to see the chapel again after-hours.

After a quick rest we explored Rome by night. This city is beautiful at night. It is a total different atmosphere at night. It feels calmer and tranquil. People leisurely walk around the city, take their time eating dinner and drinking wine and watch the world go by.

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For dinner we stopped by a restaurant that Rick Steves went to in his show called,  Il Gabriello. It was a neat place. The entrance is at street level, but you climbed down some stairs to get to the restaurant, just like a wine cellar.

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Our appetizer was mozzarella cheese. We were addicted to this stuff! The best cheese ever!

 

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We each ordered filet mignon, cooked, of course! It had peppercorns, arugula, shaved cheese and drizzled with balsamic. It was delicious!

 

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For dessert we had strawberries and cream crepes. Man, they were out of this world! My mouth is watering just thinking about them!

 

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After dinner, we joined the crowds strolling around Rome. Here is the Trevi Fountain at night.

 

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And the Pantheon.

 

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It was so romantic walking around the city at night, with all the beautiful fountains and buildings all lit up and people playing music. *sigh* I miss it already!

 

 


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Passport to Italy: Rome Day Ten

Our first day in Rome was dedicated to ancient Rome. We used Rick Steves, of course, to help us map out our day and used his audio guides. We started at the Colosseum.

To get to the Colosseum, we took the subway. We bought Roma Passes early this morning. Rick Steves suggests to buy these if you are going to stay in Rome for three days or more. You get unlimited rides on public transportation, two admissions tickets to your first two sites, and discounted rates on sites after your first two. Roma Passes costs us 30 euros a piece and they can be found at any IT center or train station.

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Very dark, kind of creepy subway!

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In our guide books that we I read, it goes into great detail about all the pickpockets. They are very bad in touristy areas, especially public transportation areas. So we were a little apprehensive using the subway at first. There were times when people would eye us and follow us around. But no one actually bothered us. I carried a pacsafe purse, which is awesome for travel. I don’t see how a pickpocket could take anything from this purse. It is like Fort Knox with all its security features! But I am sure that there are some people out there that can pickpocket this purse. I just didn’t encounter them. You just need to be smart when you are traveling in these areas and be mindful of your surroundings.

Moving on! The Colosseum! This is the one place I was so excited to see. It really is spectacular!

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The construction of the Colosseum began under the emperor Vespasian in 70 AD, and was completed in 80 AD under his successor, Titus.

It is amazing how large this structure is, especially considering when it was built. It is 615 ft long, and 510 ft wide, with a base area of 6 acres. The height of the outer wall is 157 ft. It could hold 50,000 spectators which could be filled and emptied in 15 minutes. That is better than our modern day arenas!

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The arena itself was 272 ft by 157 ft. It comprised a wooden floor covered by sand covering an elaborate underground structure of tunnels and cages. Little now remains of the original arena floor, but the tunnels are still clearly visible. 

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Walking around the Colosseum, I couldn’t help but think about a book that I adore called, “A Voice in the Wind“, by Francine Rivers. She is a Christian-fiction author who can write like no other. Now historians say that Christians were not martyred in this particular Colosseum, but there was a time when Christians were fed to the lions and killed for entertainment. This book takes place in a time like that. The story follows a young woman who is sold into slavery and sold to a wealthy Roman family. She never once mentions she is a Christian, but they figured it out because of the way she lives. It is a very inspiring story, one that changed my life. And it does have a happy ending and of course, a love story! It is a wonderful book that I highly suggest.

But I kept thinking about this story the entire time I was there. I always loved that book but it felt more real there, in that Colosseum.

Archaeologists and historians have estimated that the human death count within the Colosseum reached 500,000. Can you imagine? That is so many!

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After the fall of ancient Rome, the Colosseum was pretty much forgotten. It was many things over the years, a market place, a sanctuary for the homeless and a fort in times of distress. It has been pillaged and plundered and parts of it used for St. Peter’s cathedral. Earthquakes and fires have damaged it, but this structure still stands.

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In 16 AD the Roman Catholic Church took pity on this ancient artifact and decided to save it. They erected a cross in remembrance of those who died for their faith.

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On the second story, is a wonderful view of the Colosseum and of the ancient ruins of Rome.

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Here is the Temple of Venus and Roma. Many Romans from ancient times and today have gotten married here.

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The Arch of Constantine… I guess during the so-called slow season, they maintain all the sites. We saw scaffolding everywhere! ūüôĀ

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As we left the Colosseum, we took a look back and got some of the best views.

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This one is my favorite.

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It is said, that as long as the Colosseum stands, so shall Rome.

After the Colosseum we tried to go see the Forum, but the lines were long and it was so hot. So we went to eat lunch instead! ūüôā

We stopped by a restaurant suggested by Rick Steves called Cavour 313. It was a wine bar type restaurant with an enormous wine list and a menu of just raw meats. Randy was in heaven! He order raw filet mignon this day (eww)!

The ceiling was lined with wood beams with wine bottles across the beams.

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Our appetizer was some kind of boar meat stuffed with goat cheese and drizzled with balsamic and olive oil.

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Randy’s raw filet mignon! It had shaved cheese, arugula¬†and balsamic vinegar.

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I had a spring salad with tuscan toast with slices of goat cheese and drizzled with olive oil. I was so excited to see a salad on the menu! It was the first time I had seen a salad on a menu since I had been in Italy!

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And for dessert we ordered a chocolate mousse. Please excuse how I look in this photo. I was exhausted from all the walking, fighting the crowds and from the heat. And I had helped Randy with a bottle of wine! ūüėČ

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And we almost licked this cup cleaned!

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After our wonderful, long lunch we felt rejuvenated. We really didn’t want to go back to the Forum in the heat of the day. So we did a Rick Steves audio walking tour called the “Heart of Rome Walk”. It started at the Campo di Fiori and ended at the Spanish Steps.

Campo de Fiori translates to “field of flowers”, in ancient times this square was an open meadow. It is now a bohemian piazza that hosts a flower and vegetable market.

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The colors in this piazza were beautiful.

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Next stop was Piazza Navona. This square has retain its shape of the original racetrack that was built around 80 AD by emperor Domitian. This piazza was my favorite of all the piazzas in Rome. The people watching, the painters, the live music – it was just so lively and colorful.

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In the center of the piazza is the Four Rivers Fountain, built by Bernini. Bernini was a genius when it came to stone! His sculptures are so life like; they all just take my breath away.

The four river gods, of this fountain, represent the 4 known continents that were known in 1650.

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In the center of the fountain stands an Egyptian obelisk. Rome has 13 obelisks, more than any other city in the world. Romans brought the obelisks to Rome and set them up in key public places as evidence of their occupation of Egypt.

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Behind the fountain is the Church of St. Agnes, built by Bernini’s rivalry, Borromini.

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After the Piazza Navona, we walked to the Pantheon. The Pantheon is one of the best preserved buildings in Rome. It was built by emperor Hadrian around 120 AD. And it is one of the only ancient buildings of Rome that is still used today, as a place of worship.

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The 40 ft single-piece granite columns of the entrance, shows the scale on which the ancient Romans built on .

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The greatest wonder of this building is the dome which inspired later domes, including Michelangelo’s St. Peter’s and Brunelleschi’s dome.¬†Almost two thousand years after it was built, the Pantheon’s dome is still the world’s largest unreinforced concrete dome.¬†The height and the diameter of the dome are the same, 142¬†ft.

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The burial site of Raphael Sanzio, famous Renaissance painter.

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From the Pantheon, we made our way to the Trevi Fountain. Interesting fact about the Trevi Fountain is that no streets directly approach it. One minute you are walking along the streets and then the next minute, bam! you are there!

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The fountain was built by Nicola Salvi in 1762. Salvi used the palace behind the fountain as a theatrical background. I think he got what he wanted, it is very dramatic!

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The fountain represents “Ocean” who represents water in all its forms. There are 24 water spouts and over 30 different kinds of plants. The amazing part is that this fountain is still powered by Rome’s ancient aqueducts! Man, they really made things to last forever!

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They say if you throw a coin over your shoulder into the fountain that it will assure you a return trip to Rome. Randy and I definitely went through this ritual! Couldn’t hurt, right?

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It was so very crowded, no matter when you came by! It is a little less crowded on the sides though.

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And then, last but not least, the Spanish Steps at Piazza di Spagna. It is named for the Spanish Embassy to the Vatican, which has been here for 300 years!

There were so many people here at the steps. And the guys trying to sell roses were annoying as all get out. One of those guys almost got punched by me when he wouldn’t leave me alone. But I refrained myself! ūüėČ

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Another couple was kind enough to take our picture, after yelling at one of those guys trying to sell us a rose. (He is the guy to the right of this picture in the white and red shirt.)

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See the pink building to the left in this photo? This is where John Keats died of tuberculosis at age 25 and fellow romantic Lord Byron lived across the square at #66. Pretty neat, uh?

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The street ahead is the street for shopping – Gucci, Prada, Versache – you name it, its there.

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After this tour, needless to say, we were exhausted.

Stay tuned for day two in Rome!


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Passport to Italy: Travel to Rome Day Nine

We got up and had our last breakfast at Frances’ Lodge. ūüôĀ

I ordered pancakes and received crepes! They were delicious! No surprise there!

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We said our goodbyes to the other guests we had breakfast with and packed our things.

After settling our bill with Franco, he gave us two little cloth balls filled with home-grown lavender. He said it was a memento of our time spent with them at their lodge. It was so sweet and they smell marvelous! I keep it by my bed side table now so I can smell it while I sleep.

Frances said she would not say goodbye to us because she wanted to see us again. So she hugged and kissed each of our cheeks and said, “Till we meet again.”

We reluctantly left Frances’ Lodge and drove to Chiusi. I did a lot of research before we left for Italy on how to get from Siena to Rome. Driving to Rome was not an option. I decided to take the train since our hotel is a 5 minute walk to the train station. Chiusi was the closest town that offered a straight shot to Rome.

Again, getting to a city was easy, navigating in the city was another thing entirely. Chiusi is a very small town, but not one that is easy to navigate. We spent about an hour driving around this town to find the train station. You would think there would be signs or an obvious station. It took us forever to find it and almost just as long to find the Hertz office to drop off the car. Needless to say, we missed the train we intended to be on. Luckily, they had another one (the last one) later in the day.

The train ride was completely different than what I expected. It was tiny, crowded and old. There was only one walkway and that walkway was full of luggage and people. The people in the walkway were actually sitting on these little seats that were bolted into the floor. They actually sold tickets for these little aisle seats! I guess that is the norm but it was not what I expected.

We finally found our seats, after swimming through luggage and people. I felt bad for the people sitting in these seats because I kept accidently hitting them with my bag! I am so thankful that we had actual seats in a cabin and not those little seats in the aisle. The train ride lasted about 1.5 hours.

Here we are settled in our train cabin. They are terrible pictures of us because we were exhausted and stressed out to the max trying to get to this darn train! ūüėČ

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We arrived in Rome and jumped out of that cramped train with earnestness. Rome was so much hotter than expected. It was suppose to be about 72 and cloudy. It was more like 80, sunny and 96% humidity! We were soaked by the time we found our hotel. We didn’t pack for this kind of weather. We had long sleeves and boots! We were hot the entire time we were in Rome. But all the Romans were wearing scarfs, hats and puffy jackets!

When we arrived at our hotel the porter did not want us to take the stairs. He was insistent that we take the one and only elevator, which could hold one person comfortably. Randy could barely fit into the elevator with his pack on and the porter shoved me into the elevator with my pack on as well. We tried to tell him that we could take the stairs but he pushed us into the elevator. Now when I say pushed, I literally mean pushed. He had his hands on my pack and pushed me into that tiny elevator till he could close the door. I felt like those officers in the movie, “The Fifth Element”, when Bruce Willis squeezes the officers into his fridge. This scene here.

After falling out of the elevator we finally get to our room. We immediately freshen up and change clothes.

After resting we went out to find a place for dinner. We didn’t take that many pictures of this day. Travel days are not all that exciting. They are stressful and exhausting.

Again, navigating in a foreign country is strenuous. I am glad that we rented a car. It was worth it when exploring Tuscany and the train was a unique experience. But I think if we ever go to Europe again, it will probably be with a  tour that gets you to all the places you need to go. All the fun of exploring without the stress of finding your places of interest.


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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! ūüôā

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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! ūüėČ

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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! ūüėȬ†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. ūüôā 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!” ūüôā

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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! ūüôā

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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 ūüôĀ 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! ūüôā

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! ūüôā

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. ūüôĀ 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. ūüôĀ

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! ūüėČ

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. ūüôā

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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randy

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!

grilled pork

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!