A Travellerspoint blog

A sunny spot for our final stop!

Sitges, Spain

sunny 92 °F
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We decided to modify the final leg of our return trip due to the train schedules which would not allow us to travel from Italy through France and end up in Spain all on the same day. It would actually take almost two full days of travel. Sometimes being at the mercy of train schedules just doesn't work. So we decided to return the rental car in Nice and fly to Barcelona. Not too much more money, and it saved at least a full day of travel.

At the Nice airport, we were reminded of two things: first, the number of private jets at the airport is only outnumbered by the number of mega yachts lining the French Riviera. Sheeesh! That's a lot of jets! Second, the budget airline we were flying, Vueling (a subsidiary of Spain's "Iberia Air"), has a lot to learn about efficiency (as does most of Spain). The line to check-in luggage could have been the subject of a comedy routine, except it's not very funny when you're standing there for 40 minutes. Likewise, the line to board the aircraft. How hard is it to check passengers' boarding passes? It was the first time that the security line was quicker and easier than the check-in and boarding lines. No wonder Spain's economy is in the tank... between late breakfasts, long siestas, late night dining and revelry, and this example of complete inefficiency, Spain could learn a thing or two from America or Germany. Likewise, we could learn a thing or two about enjoying life and taking it a little easier. It's all about balance.

Our final stop of our journey was the lovely seaside town of Sitges, just 15 miles south of Barcelona. I had only heard of this town in passing and from friends; one in particular said that we must go and that it was his favorite vacation spot in Europe. It sounded the perfect place to relax after our hectic travel pace, with absolutely no sites to see and nothing to do but to lie on the beach. Now that's a vacation!

Our hotel was right on the beach, and our room had a nice balcony from which we could survey the whole coastline. The weather was perfect, much cooler than Rome at about 92 F, and the water was perfect as well, with light waves crashing onto the shore. It turns out that this weekend was the end of their "Fiesta Mayor" (or Major Festival), and the beaches and streets were packed. In the evening we strolled along the beachfront which were lined with vendor stalls filled with arts and crafts, jewelry, toys, foods, sausages, cheeses, fresh baked bread, chocolates, etc. Tons of people strolled along with us. Live music filled the air.

We were looking forward to some nightlife, but most of the bars and clubs did not open until 10:00 or 11:00 pm, or even 1:00am. A little too late for us after a full day of travel. However, the city would not sleep. I don't know if it's like that every Saturday night, or if it was just because of the festival, but people were up and loud walking the beachfront all night long until 6:00 am. Music continued well into the night. While it made for a festive atmosphere, it did not make for a good night's sleep.

The next day shone bright and beautiful and it was time to hit the beach. The beach chairs and umbrellas were quickly reserved as the crowds rolled in. Turns out, Sitges is the Provincetown/Key West of Spain, and the beach quickly filled in with bikini clad bronzed bodies -- both men and topless women. The water felt great and the waves were just right for some body surfing. A little too much fun resulted in a bit of a sunburn, but it was a price willfully paid. Thankfully, also, the evening revelry over the next two nights was much quieter, and we had a restful last few days.

A wonderfull relaxing couple of days was the perfect ending to an epic adventure. While we were a little sad that our "Awesome Epic Endless Summer" was indeed coming to an end, we were also ready to be back home. It had been the trip of a lifetime -- three weeks on a 4500 mile New England road trip, plus three weeks exploring the Mediterranean coastline through Spain, France and Italy. We saw a lot and learned a lot - about cities, towns and sites; about history; about wine; about different cultures and people; and about ourselves. We were lucky indeed, and thankful. But it was time to say Adios, Au Revoir, and Arrivederci, and time to say hello to home. Our own bed never looked so good!

Thanks to all who joined us on this trip via this blog. We hope you enjoyed our rambling and our observations. We certainly enjoyed the trip and regaling our stories. Till our next travel adventure...

Posted by jim-n-mark 06:39 Archived in Spain Tagged sitges Comments (1)

Rescued at Sea!  (and a culinary faux pas)

The Five Lands of La Cinque Terre

sunny 92 °F
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After leaving Rome, our first scheduled stop on our return leg back to Spain was along the Italian Riviera.  But our route first took us directly by the town of Pisa.  Of course, we had to stop for the obvious reason.  The thing about the famous Leaning Tower is that it almost looks fake.  It looks exactly like every replica or image you have seen of it, except it really stands out because it is in a field by itself, unlike most other Italian buildings which are wedged in next to each other.  It is shiny and white from a newer restoration, and looks like it was built by the same people who built the upside down building in Orlando, FL as a tourist attraction.  It is a little shocking when you come across it and everyone has the same reaction:  "Wow!  That's REALLY leaning!" It looks much worse in person than in pictures.  All the tourists taking pictures with their subjects doing the exact same pose, propping up the tower, contributes to its "fake tourist attraction" impression.  But then you realize it's been leaning like this since Galileo's time, so it is genuine.  After our 15 minute Griswold moment, it was back on the road.  Why did I put 2 hours in the parking meter?  I have no idea.


Our real destination was an area called "La Cinque Terra", or The Five Lands.  It is a secluded area of the Italian Riviera made up of 5 small villages:  Monterosso al Mare, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola, and Riomaggiore.  These small villages are perched either on cliffs or in ravines created by the mountainous coastline as the high hills plunge into the sea.  There is no car traffic within these towns, and in fact, no roads that connect them directly to each other.  You can only get between the towns by train, by boat, or by hiking the trails between them - about a 4-5 hour hike to walk the whole chain.

As we left the Autostrada highway, we climbed up and down hills on tiny, twisty roads, sometimes not wide enough for two cars.  The roads kept going and going, round and round the twisties, and up and down the mountains.  Finally we could see the sea and the first town that would be our home port, Monterosso.  You have to park high on the outskirts of town and walk down into the town streets.


I will admit our first impression of the town, and even our hotel, was a bit cautious.  Here we had heard these amazing stories of how charming these towns were, and what a must see they are.  One well-travelled Australian guy we met (the same guy who said not to miss the Palio in Sienna) even said it was among the top place he had visited in the world.  High praise indeed, and it was reiterated by many, many people.

Perhaps it had been so built up in our minds that we were expecting too much.  Or maybe we were just approaching through the "back door".  It wasn't exactly this picture-perfect little town, but rather a work-a-day town, with residents and tourists mingling in the little tangle of streets and alleys.  When we booked our hotel, 2 months prior, most of the hotels were booked, so our pickings were a little slim, but we found our little Albergo Degli Amici down a little alley peaking out from under an arch.  It was simple accommodations, but clean and had a small terrace that looked out over... absolutely nothing but the walls and roofs of other buildings crowding in around us.  Oh well.  We would make due.

We decided to explore our little town and walk down to the waterfront to see what all the fuss was really about.  The seafront was much better, with a small beach (the only one of the 5 towns that really has a beach), with small boats pulled up on shore via an interesting set of tracks and pulleys, and a few small cafes.
This town is actually divided into 2:  the old town where we were with it's little alleys running higgledy-piggeldy in each direction, and the new town -- just around a rocky point, but only accessible via a pedestrian tunnel -


- with a long waterfront promenade lined with sidewalk cafes.  For some reason, before arriving I was under the impression that the old town offered charm, while the new town would be modern and commercial, and so did not even consider a hotel in this area.  My mistake.  Other than the parking lot directly on the water, filled with cars and RV's (which really did detract markedly from the quaintness of the town), I would say the new town has just as much charm to offer, with the bonus of more cafes and hotels.  


We had a lovely sunset dinner and met two friendly Australian women who had just participated in the Tour de France and done lots of cycling throughout Europe.

The next day was our only full day here so it was time to explore the Five Lands.  So which would it be?  Hike, train or boat?  I'll let you take one wild guess.  The hiking trail from our town to the next one was described as the steepest and most challenging of all the sections and takes about 1.5 hours.  The train seems to spend a lot of time in tunnels as it cuts through the mountains that fall into the sea.  So, of course, boat it was!  Offering the best views, a sea breeze and a trip over the azure blue waters of the Med.  What could be more perfect?  Due to boating timetables, we decided to go all the way to the farthest town and then work our way back.

We pulled away from the dock and really got a good look at our town:  the only town of the 5 that is on relatively flat land, it sprawls out between the encircling mountains.  From here it really is picture-perfect.  Until we approached the next town, Vernazza, which was even more picture perfect.  Vernazza is much more compact than Monterosso.  Caught in a ravine, its candy colored buildings are stacked on top of one another, all tumbling down to the waterfront.  The water of the Med is a particularly deep blue and really sets off the colors of the surrounding mountains and the buildings.

We approached the town to "dock", which is really nothing of the sort.  Instead, what it really means is we get close to the concrete pier bow first, and then they tie a bowline or two, deploy the front mounted passarelle, and the captain uses the engines to keep the boat relatively in place, while people walk across the passarelle as it swings about 5 ft. in each direction due to the wave action.  Amazing and scary.  As we get about 100-200 yards from the pier, however, the captain suddenly does a U-turn and heads back out to sea.  About a mile offshore, the captain cuts the engines.  WTF?   There are other ferries about and we saw one just leave our intended destination, so it doesn't appear there's a problem there.  We notice another ferry headed directly towards us, and an announcement comes on saying there is, indeed, a problem -- with our boat.  But don't worry, we just need to transfer boats!  In the middle of the sea!  WTF?  What, is it the captain's coffee break?  Nothing surprises us anymore.

The other boat pulls up alongside us; the crew throws lines and pulls us tight.  A crew member climbs onto our boat then lowers himself over the side of the bow stepping onto the bow line connecting our boats.  This doesn't look safe.  A second bow line is thrown and he looks caught between the two lines as if his legs might be cut-off as the boats heave up and down in the seas.  Definitely not safe.

But they throw a small side passarelle between the two boats, and all the passengers clamber onto the new boat.  Off we go to our destination port, and after we leave, the captain of the first boat fires up his engines, brings his boat up on plane, and speeds off into the distance.  Was it a drill?  Was the captain called home urgently?  We have no idea.


We continue on our voyage to the last town, Riomaggiore, passing the cliff top town of Corniglia (a long hike uphill from the water), and Manarola, which we'll visit in a moment.  Riomaggiore is a bit similar to Vernazza in that it is a "stacked" town, with pastel colored buildings rising quickly from the waterfront up steep cliffsides.  People sun themselves on rock outcroppings ringing the little harbor with small fishing boats bobbing up and down in the water.


It is very picturesque. Climbing (for that is the right word -- the alleys are made up more of stairs than straightaways) through the town, until we were breathless, we found our way to a cliff top restaurant at the trail head for some refreshments.  Three large bottles of homemade 8.4% alcohol citrus-flavored beer and some antipasti, and we were ready to tackle a short hike.


The trail between Riomaggiore and Manarola is the easiest and shortest (at only 20 minutes) section to hike with wide paved lanes on a fairly level surface.  It is called the "Via del'Amore" (the walk of love), and all along the trail couples have placed locks -- padlocks, combination locks, keyed locks, locks in the shape of hearts -- thousands of them, tens of thousands, attached to railings, fences, anything and everything -- to mark the couples' unending love.  Al overlooking dramatic scenery of the hillsides plunging into the sea.


At the end of the Via dell' Amore, we reached the town of Manarola.  We had heard that the trail which normally continued to the next town, Corniglia, was still washed out and unpassable.  In October 2011, terrible mudslides wreaked havoc in this area, filling the towns with 4-6 ft. of mud and debris including wrecked cars.  You could easily see the damaged walls and deep scratches lining the narrow streets where cars piled up.  Most businesses were open, though, by the time of our visit, having completely cleaned up the towns and rebuilt many businesses' and homes' first floors.

So we had an excuse not to continue on foot, but rather returned to our boating voyage.  On to Vernazza, bypassing again the cliff-top town of Corniglia.  (Poor Corniglia... nobody seemsto visit her.) Once in Vernazza, we decided to join the rest of the tourists swimming in the Med.  It was a hot day, and the water felt wonderful!  Unfortunately, we couldn't stay too long, or else we would miss the last boat home and have to make that arduous 1.5 hr. hike.


After having experienced the Five Lands (well, 4 out of 5, anyways), we decided we really liked this little slice of simple Italian family life.  There's not much here, except the cute towns, the sun and the sea.  It is similar to the much swankier Portofino, but without the yachts and movie stars and high price tags.  It is simple and rustic.  But it is great for families, and offers a taste of everyday living.  The little square right by our hotel was lined with a small market, a butcher shop, baker, wine stores, and they were filled with elderly local women doing their shopping.  It was real and genuine, and although lots of tourists were there, it didn't feel touristy.

OK, time for another confession (remember my "donut whore" incident?).  I do have to admit to committing possibly my stupidest act of all time.  When we got off the boat back in our town of Monterosso, I did something I would soon deeply regret.  Before coming here, I watched a video of the area, and in one segment, the people were walking along the trails through the vineyards, when an obviously local guy picks a purple fruit off of one of the many cactus plants that line the cliffs, cuts it open and offers it to the host, who enjoys tasting it.  Well, I figured if he did it, I can do it.  I want to try a purple cactus fruit!  After a day enjoying the sun and several refreshments, my judgment may have been a little impaired as I unabashedly jumped up to the nearest cactus, pulled off a piece of purple fruit and proceeded to eat it.  My first clue should have been the two older local guys hanging out right there who stared and laughed at me.  I thought they were laughing with me for my exuberant enthusiasm.  Clearly they were laughing at me for my extreme stupidity and naïveté.  At first the fruit tasted sweet and delicious, with little crunchy seeds inside, kind of like a pomegranate.  But then I felt something else.  My fingers were starting to feel pain and I realized they were covered with fine hair-like cactus thorns.  Then I realized it wasn't just my fingers, but my tongue was now perforated with the same fine, irritating hairs.  Jim, who had wisely scolded me when I first jumped up to the cactus, now just shook his head with a combination of embarrassment and an "I told you so" look.  I sadly could not really reply with my tongue feeling like a pincushion.  When we got back to the hotel, I spent about 30 minutes trying to tweeze the almost invisible hairs out of my fingers and tongue.  It took about 2 days before they were completely gone.  Go ahead -- laugh.  If I can take on a cactus with my tongue, I can take a little ridicule.


Alas, it was time to say "Ciao, Italia", as we made a mad dash across the French Riviera and on to our final destination of our not-so Endless Summer.

Posted by jim-n-mark 02:32 Archived in Italy Tagged tower cactus leaning pisa a la al terre eating riomaggiore monterosso vernazza manarola corniglia cinque mare Comments (0)

The Eternal City - a mix of modern and ancient in Rome

sunny 98 °F
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While Rome is a huge city, most of the ancient sites, many attractions and Vatican City are pretty centrally located; and perfectly situated smack dab in the middle of this was our hotel:  the Hotel Campo De Fiori.  But first we had to get there.  We had heard horror stories of the drivers in Rome, and I recalled my own experiences from years earlier.  Scooters pay absolutely no attention to lane lines or traffic signals.  Cars are barely better, considering all traffic rules to be mere suggestions.  Everyone goes wherever and whenever they want.  A tourist's biggest danger is in crossing the street.  Not to mention lack of public parking and roads restricted to residents only.  So it was with this information that we decided to park our car at an outlying train station, and take a bus into the heart of the city.

And so began our introduction to the very confusing bus system of Rome.  Throughout our stay in this city we were confounded by which bus went where and what the schedule was.  We couldn't find a decent bus map, just lists of bus stops and bus numbers, which you had to cross-reference to figure out how to get where you wanted to go.  It was only on our last day that we discovered a very useful website, the official Rome bus site, where you enter where you are and where you want to go, and it lists the busses, trams, the little eletricco mini-busses, transfers, etc. that you need to take.  That would have been useful earlier on.  Lesson learned.

Our hotel was charmingly old-fashioned, had a very friendly and helpful front desk man, Gabrielle (yes, that's a man's name in Italy), and as mentioned, was centrally located and had a wonderful roof top terrace where we sat at sunset each evening with a glass of wine watching the church domes turn golden, and listening to the church bells go off all around the city.  With over 350 churches, that's a lot of bells!  And with the rule that no building in Rome can be built higher than the dome of St. Peter's, we could easily see the huge dome of the Vatican just across the river Tiber.


Our first full day of sightseeing was centered on "Ancient" Rome. Our time machine whisked us away to learn about the rise of Rome, lasting about 500 years from 500BC to 1 AD; the peak of Rome lasting about 200 years, from about 1 AD to 200AD, and seeing the transition from a republic to an imperial empire with the rise of the Caesars; and then the transition from a pagan empire to a Christian one (about 300AD), and the long slow decline of Rome for 300 years to the ultimate fall of Rome about 500AD.  We toured the Colosseum, imagining the "entertainment" of the day with gladiator battles, mock wars, plays, wild animal battles, the deaths of Christians (before it became the official religion of Rome), etc.  We toured Palatine Hill (where we get the word "palace" from, it was the original Caesar's Palace -- no slot machines here, though) with its ruins overlooking Circus Maximus, a huge chariot racetrack that once held 250,000 people.  We walked the streets of the Roman Forum, the political center of ancient Rome, seeing the huge ruins of the Basilica of Constantine (the mammoth halls of justice -- even then, the lawyers had lavish digs); the temple of Julius Caesar (the only thing left really is a monument to his death, still with flowers left on it by modern visitors - "Et tu, Brute?"); another surprisingly well preserved temple; the temple and house of the 6 Vestal Virgins, where they served their 30 year term if they could maintain their vow of chastity -- if not, they were given a loaf of bread and a lamp, led to a crypt and buried alive - a fate many of them suffered;  the Senate building (also surprisingly well preserved); and several other ruins and monumental arches. As we walked it helped to imagine the other tourists walking about as if they were wearing togas, and to "fill in" the missing parts of the buildings.  You could imagine Roman generals returning from their conquests, riding their chariots through the streets, listening to the cheering crowds as they delivered their spoils of war to the steps of the Treasury.


By the end of the very, very hot day we were absolutely exhausted and "ruined" out.  As we continued through the more modern sections of Rome, we would come across towering columns or an ancient building's facade, and just say: "more ruins",  "oh, more ruins", "oh, look, more ruins".  Rome is basically a layer cake, with layers of civilizations built on layers of previous civilizations.  Everywhere you look is evidence of its ancient history, and why it has truly earned its moniker: the Eternal City.

One modern monument that looks ancient, except that it is shiny, white and not falling apart, is the Victor Emmanuelle Monument, erected to celebrate the unification of Italy as one nation around 1880.  It actually helps you envision what ancient Rome looked like, as all the buildings back then, including the enormous Colisseum, were faced with the same shiny white marble (which has long since been looted, much for Christian churches).


The next day started with a short walk to the Pantheon, the best preserved building from the time of ancient Rome.  It has a huge dome, that was the inspiration a thousand years later for the Duomo in Florence, the dome of St. Peters in Vatican City, and even our own U.S. Capitol building.  It is incredible to think how they achieved such mathematically perfect dimensions without computers or CAD design or modern building techniques and materials.  Even while contemplating the perfection of the dome, it was interesting to note that the  outside columns making up the portico which were quarried in Egypt, were made too short, and they had to redesign the front facade because of this error.  So much for mathematical perfection.  We commented that we would love to be there during a torrential rain storm, and watch the rain pour in through the central open "oculus", a circular opening in the top of the dome, 30 ft. across, and watch the column of water crash onto the 1800 year old marble floor, and run outwards to the built-in drain holes circling the round temple.  That would be cool!


The afternoon was devoted to Vatican City, starting with it's huge St. Peter's square (which is actually elliptical) surrounded by 284 columns, topped with statues of 140 saints, and centered with an ancient Egyptian obelisk.  At the end of this open-armed arcade sits St. Peter's Basilica.  But first we had to make our appointment time to see the Vatican Museum lying at the other end of this tiniest of independent countries.


The Museum recapitulates about 5,000 years of history, starting in ancient Egypt with mummies and and stiff-armed statues of pharaohs and animal gods, working its way through Etruscan times and the Greek and Roman worlds with beautiful sculptures of the human form, then showing lots of "flat" Middle Age religious art, and into the Renaissance and the rebirth of humanism.  There is a long hallway (1/4 mile long) filled with statues, showing the naked human form in all it's glory.  Well, it's supposed to... except during the counter-reformation (1550-1800), the church discovered that man has genitals (who knew?), and that his privates should remain so.  So, they created little plaster fig leaves, and covered up all the shiny marble penises with rough, matte, ill-fitting fig leaves.  Truly horrible and tasteless.  At least they left most of the male parts intact, unlike in Florence, where most of the members were knocked off.  They really need to remove the tacky plaster pasties and return the statues to their original, noble artistic form.


The culmination of the Vatican Museum tour ends in the newly restored Sistine Chapel, where Michelangelo's amazing vision now appears almost as if painted yesterday.  Having visited this same place 25 years ago, when the restoration was barely getting started, and it was either dull and soot covered or hidden by scaffolding, this site was a new revelation!  Holy crap!  The colors are so vivid and bright.  You are totally amazed and overcome by both the sheer size of the ceiling and end wall, and the execution of the work.  Michelangelo managed to tell the whole Bible story from Genesis to the final Judgment through multiple panels.  It is impossible to describe.  You just have to see it to believe it!

After finishing gawking at the amazing Sistine Chapel, we took a short cut into St. Peter's Basilica, and we're once again amazed at the sheer size and majesty of it.  It is built to make it look it smaller than it actually is, but it still looks immense.  Cherubs adorning columns are 10' tall.  Two statues of Mary appear one over the top of the other.  The top one is actually twice as high as the bottom one, but appear to be the same size due to the distance from eye level.  The central altar with black corkscrew columns with gilded ornamentation are 40' tall topped with a canopy (some call it God's canopy bed), and was made to reduce the appearance of the height to the top of the central dome, which looms overhead so high you can barely make out the painting of God at the top.

While we were there, a mass was being held, which allowed the beautiful church music to enhance our visit, but did cut off the front 1/2 of the church from visitors.  Worshippers were allowed in to the front, but then are expected to stay for the entire mass.  We declined.  Instead we toured all the little side chapels where various popes are buried, including the recently beatified John Paul II, and where Michelangelo's hauntingly beautiful, yet emotionally wrenching, "Pieta" stands.  You can really feel Mary's pain and utter acceptance, as the body of Christ is falling from her lap.  Capturing that much movement and emotion in a statue is truly phenomenal.


As we were leaving the church, light was streaming in through the stained glass windows in sharp slanting columns of light.  One particularly bright column rested its brilliance directly on a statue of Mary.  It was almost enough to make you convert.  Almost.


That evening we took a stroll through the city, seeing some remaining sights.  The famous Trevi Fountain was gorgeous, with it's rushing waters and dramatic uplighting, although the crowds of people did detract from its beauty.  We joined the throngs of people and each threw in a coin to ensure our return to Rome.  The Spanish Steps were popular, too (even though we got a little lost on the trek there from the Trevi).  We had dinner on Piazza Navona at a lovely outdoor sidewalk cafe overlooking more statues and fountains.  It was a lovely end to our trip to Rome.


It was time to end our big city tours, and to start our return trip back through Italy, across the French Riviera, and back to the Barcelona area.  After our exhausting but fun treks through big cities and eons of time, our last few stops were quiet little villages for some true R & R.  For now, it was time to say to the Eternal City....  Arrivederci, Roma!

Posted by jim-n-mark 02:27 Archived in Italy Tagged st. city museum spanish steps hill circus rome roman de peters vatican pantheon colosseum piazza forum palatine campo navona maximus fiori Comments (0)

Once Again, Observations from the Unworldly

From the simple mind of Jim

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Alright I am still unworldly, but I am getting better.  As week 3 progresses I am way more comfortable than I was at the start of week 1.  I took the rental car in Italy alone, without Mark, on some tiny twisting roads in the Italian hillsides and manage to return with the car and its mirrors still attached.  I walk into places and can speak to people although not in their native tongue but in English, as everyone can speak it.  Meals are long ordeals, and that is the European way.....sit back and relax.  They are in no rush and neither should you.  I am in no way worldly and won't be anytime soon.  I still have my unworldly observations....and here are the latest

Bunny rabbits vs teddy bears - I have observed that all European children carry stuffed rabbits instead of Teddy Bears like children in the US.  Mind you the rabbits are very cute and the children that carry them sometimes look like a scene from a fairy tale.  But the thought came to me that how do Mom and Dad explain that rabbit is a regularly served food here?????  The children must have that moment of terror when they put two and two together.  When I explained my thinking to Mark he had a valid observation.  At least rabbits are cute and huggable but envision a child encountering a real life bear......now that is terror.

The streets of Florence - 2 rules...don't drive on them and don't breathe on them.  I don't get when you walk around the corner on many streets there is a waft of sewage smell that over powers you. Its the home of Michelangelo and Galileo, some of mankind's most talented that have walked this earth......but they can't eliminate the sewage smell?  Driving, forget about it.  They take pictures of every car entering the city and if that car is not registered in a parking garage they start fines automatically and they are huge.  You can only drive in the city center if you are a registered resident.  Mind we did not know this on arrival, drove to our hotel down some harrowing streets.  The hotel front desk clerk on check-in was alarmed we did drive in and cautioned there is only 1 street we can leave the city on.  Our only saving grace was we arrived on an Italian holiday, Ascension Day, the day Mary ascended to heaven, so there are no fines.  Based on our driving into Florence Mark and I are not going to heaven. 

People smell and don't care - it is over powering and it comes in all ages, races, and sexes.  It makes one think...how can the person(s) they are traveling with not say "you might want a spot of deodorant"....I don't get it.

Naked men with no penis....strange topic huh?  Italy is full of statues with fully naked men.  The statues are everywhere in sizes small and large. In the 1500's they celebrated the naked form.  They seem to focus way more on men and less on women.  On 80% of the statues the penis is gone, clearly broken off.  Turns out when the church rose in dominance after the Renaissance period they went around town and cut them off.  Any man visiting Italy feels a little shudder when they see the results. 

Russians and Japanese have no volume control - they just talk loud everywhere, all the time.  It is amazing how they are oblivious to all around them.  You find yourself staying far away from any bus tours of these groups.  Italians are just as loud and they usually have phones permanently attached to the ear and they are talking (which where I come from is yelling) at whoever is on the other end.  I am finding that Americans are some of the quietest in public spaces.  And we are the rude ones?????

Paper Maps Vs Google Maps - I have always found Google Maps to be the bomb.  Always knew where I was and alway knew were I wanted to go.  That was until Italy.  The streets are so small and the buildings surrounding them are all 5 stories attached to each other you are in a cavern with spotty reception.  In Florence and in Rome it was back to paper maps.  Mark had an inclination to pinch and swipe the paper map.  It had no effect.
Every bathroom has a bidet and emergency pull string in the shower.  Does anyone really use a bidet anymore?  And does everyone fall in the shower and can't get up?

Posted by jim-n-mark 05:13 Archived in Italy Tagged observations unworldly Comments (0)

Under the Tuscan Sun

Hot! Hot! Hot!

sunny 104 °F
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After leaving Florence, we headed to the hills of Tuscany.  We debated which towns we should see and how many:  Sienna, San Gimagnano, Volterra, Montelcino, Montepulciano, Cortona, or even on into Umbria with cities like Orvieto or Assissi?  Too much to see and too little time.  We decided that we had been on the go and tried to squeeze so much into so little time, that we would pick just one quintessential Tuscan hill town.  It had to have vineyards and wineries and a hotel with a pool.  The town of Montelcino fit the bill perfectly.  The home to the famous wine: Brunello de Montelcino, it is surrounded by vineyards and situated neatly within old city walls atop a Tuscan hill.

On our way there, we drove on little two lane roads up and down the hills of Tuscany.  I had always pictured these hills as covered with green and lush farmland dotted with farm houses and villas punctuated with tall cypress(?) trees, but it was the middle of August, a blistering 104 F, and they hadn't had rain there since March. The once proudly waving fields of hay had recently been harvested, leaving little more than golden nubs.  And the patchwork fields had recently been tilled, leaving clods of taupe colored dirt.  "Under the Tuscan Sun" took on new meaning as we surveyed the cracked, sun-baked earth.  Still, the hills did have a certain beauty to them, even in their late summer livery of gold and taupe.  We could easily imagine how vibrant this area must look in spring, when things are growing and blooming.  As we continued further south, vineyards started to appear, and more trees, giving the hills a much greener look.  And, of course, the typical tall, skinny trees lined the long driveways to the farmhouses and hilltop villas.

Approaching Montelcino, the vineyards started in earnest, with almost every hill covered in vines, until the little town appeared on top of a hill ensconced within its surrounding town walls.  After parking, we walked down into the town, and found it to be a ghost town.  After the hordes in Florence, it was a bit of a shock to find nobody about.  It took us a little while to find the town center square, where we did encounter some people, but it was still eerily, but nicely, quiet.  The pool at the hotel was wonderfully chilly and refreshing. It was the first time we actually felt cool/cold on pretty much the whole trip.

Side note:  Air conditioning, while present in every hotel and most museums we went to, simply does not work like we are used to in Florida.  In most hotels, there is a thermostat in your room, but it must be there just for looks, because it's setting bears no resemblance to the actual temperature, you set it to anywhere from 14-21 C, it never gets cooler than 28.4 C (83 F) during the day and 24.8 C (77 F) at night.  Once, we went to complain that it wasn't working at all, and the front desk woman checked a console and said, oh I'm showing that you must have opened a window.  We said we had just for a brief look out.  She said we mustn't have closed it properly.  So we went up, and sure enough the latch was not closed just right.  Once closed, the A/C came on.  While ensuring energy efficiency, it was a little disconcerting that they can monitor your window and door usage from the front desk, and obvious that they certainly control your thermostat centrally as well.  We found these window and door sensors present everywhere.  Once, a curtain got caught at the top of the door, blocking the sensor.  Sure enough, no A/C.  Oh, and they have these little boxes just inside the hotel room door.  When you enter you have to put your key card into a slot on the box to turn the lights and A/C on.  When you leave, you take your key and the electric goes out.  This can be terribly irritating when you get back later and realize that the room is unbearably hot and that all of your electronic devices that you left to recharge are in fact not charged at all.  We quickly learned to ask for two key cards, leaving one in the electric nanny box while we were out.

Also, museums are a little perplexing as well.  They have these great, centuries-old, priceless masterpieces, and quite often, the windows are wide open allowing the heat and humidity in.  That can't be good for the art.

In Montelcino, we went to the town fortress, not for the fortress itself, but for the wine tasting they have there.  But we got much more than wine.  We got an education about the history of Brunello, how it had grown from one vintner, Bondi Santi, in about 1880 to about 70 vintners when the giant, Banfi, came in 1976, and now has over 200 vintners just in the hills surrounding this little town.  We learned the importance of "terroir", which side of the hill the vines are in, how much sun it gets, the different soils now filled with seashells from a great sea that covered this area millennia ago, how close to a nearby volcano the vines are, imparting a more mineral rich soil, etc.  Just as important, are the traditions or intentions of the vintner.  There are strict rules for this area as to how a vintner can craft his wine.  For example, Brunello must be made from 100% Sangiovese grapes, and aged for at least 4 1/2 years.  But the combination of French Oak barrels, the size of the barrels, steel tanks, or bottle aging is up to the vintner.  Tasting various samples, we were surprised at the differences location, vintage and aging made in the wines.  We tended to like wines from closer to the volcano, and with a more modern approach to winemaking.  We were becoming wine snobs!  ;)

The next day we went to the giant vintner of the area, Banfi, and learned more and sampled more.  We liked their "Super Tuscans" best, a blend of various grape varietals, including Sangiovese, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, etc.  Banfi has a few thousand acres, compared to some other wineries that have maybe a hundred acres.  They have a beautiful old restored castle, hence their label:  Castello Banfi.

It was nice to get out of the hub-bub of big cities like Florence, and experience small town Italian life.  It felt more authentic.  I would love to spend more time in Tuscany, perhaps in the spring, and enjoy more food and wine, and a more relaxing pace.  But for now, it was time to get back into our time machine and zip back to the period of 500BC to 500AD and into the Eternal City, Roma!

Posted by jim-n-mark 01:21 Archived in Italy Tagged bondi tuscany santi brunello montelcino banfi Comments (0)

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