Category Archives: Europe

Travel stories/tips from European destinations

Rome Wasn’t Seen in a Day

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**Note to my readers:  Sorry it has been months since I have posted anything.  My beloved dog passed away earlier this year and I wasn’t feeling up to doing any writing.  Thank you for your patience during my hiatus.**

And now…back to Italy!

On paper, it looked like we spent three nights in Rome, but between an afternoon arrival, a morning departure, and over a day spent in Vatican City, we were probably left with the time equivalent of one day to see this great city.  We obviously knew we could only tackle so much, so we zeroed in on the Coliseum, a tourist bus circle of the city, lots of walking, and of course the very easy task of finding great food.

Exiting the train station, the first thing we noticed was the insanity of the traffic in Rome.  We were definitely not used to this coming from the towns of Tuscany and Umbria.  What a relief it was to hop into a cab with an elderly lady who talked on her cell phone in that traffic all the way to our hotel. Ha.P1050984 By the grace of God  we arrived at the Hotel Smeraldo http://www.smeraldoroma.com/en/ .  This place had a perfect location for walking to many areas—between the Piazza Venezia P1050999and the touristy market square of Campo De Fiori.  What our room lacked in size, it more than made up with its rooftop terraces, the small one just down the hall from our room becoming our own private wine terrace every night.P1050994

One of the things that we noticed after our first stroll in Rome was that our timing for seeing some of its most famous sites was not the best.  As we turned into the piazza of the Trevi Fountain, we were greeted by a construction site fence and zero water.  P1060009The statues surrounding the fountain are still beautiful but the chain link fence sucked away all the romantic ambience.

A few blocks away our arrival to the Spanish Steps was also slightly disappointing with the Trinità dei Monti church at the top of the steps hidden behind a construction screen.  img_1598The people-watching from the steps was still a nice break after all that walking beneath the Roman sun.

The construction zone didn’t just stop there—it also continued in the Coliseum.  P1060133I guess even an ancient ruin needs updates once in a while!  Thankfully the scaffolding on the outside did not diminish the awe we felt once we got inside.  I say “once we got inside” because I believe we had to wait in line two hours to get in.  If at all possible, make a reservation or sign up for a tour so you can avoid this line!  The visit of the Coliseum was so amazing and it made you feel small and insignificant being inside.  P1060139P1060150You know, like a building almost 2,000 years old should.

Following the Coliseum visit, we enjoyed a cruise around Rome on the top of a tourist bus.  It was a very welcome break from all the walking.  As we knew our time was limited we were at least able to view sites like the Castel Sant’Angelo, P1060115Pantheon, and Piazza Navona from the street.

Rome obviously had a much different feel than all of the other Italian cities we had visited.  While Russell couldn’t stand the traffic and the insanity of the city, I thrived on so much chaos.  One particularly enjoyable part of this chaos was eating at Ristorante Santa Anna http://www.ristorantesantanna.it/index.php?lang=en just down the street from our hotel.  While we dined on fantastic mussels and clams P1060020and risotto with shrimp and cream P1050990at the table just outside the door, cars whizzed by us on the narrow street as if we were not just two feet from them.  Fine cuisine AND adventure!  What’s not to like?

And speaking of food, this tale of Rome would not be complete without a nod to the best dining experience we had in the Eternal City.  Directly outside the entrance to Hotel Smeraldo is the Tratorria Moderna http://www.trattoriamodernaroma.com/ .  They say sometimes the best things are right under your nose, and this was no exception!  It is here that Russell began his “bromance” with our waiter, Daniel. P1060199 In fact we were so impressed with the place and Daniel’s service that we ate here two nights in a row!

On the first night as we perused the extensive menu and eyed up the entrees of surrounding diners, Daniel suggested to us a seafood appetizer feast that was not on the menu for 15 euro a person.   I am usually suspect of these type of “deals” because they never are.  But we decided to go for it and were glad we did!  Out came a plate of raw oysters, steamed mussels and clams, sea bass ceviche, octopus salad, P1060189sea bass tartare with couscous, smoked salmon with melon, goat cheese and arugula, P1060192and crostini with shrimp and balsamic vinegar.  W.O.W.  One of the best meals I have ever had.  And to top that off, Daniel presented us with complimentary tiramisu at the end!  Needless to say, this is why we returned again 24 hours later, this time ending our meal with complimentary limoncello.  What a place–definitely at the top of my list of recommendations in a city teeming with great food.

So, would I recommend more time in Rome?  Of course.  But when you’ve already been in Italy for two weeks, spending a day or two here is a nice way to scratch the surface and let you know what you really want to see the next time you return.  I think the city will be around a while longer!

 

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She-Devil in Vatican City

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The entire trip to Italy came about with the arrival of Jorge Bergoglio, aka Pope Francis, the first Latino to hold the papal office.  Considering my obsession with all things Spanish-related and my Catholic faith, P1060071I knew this was a sign to head to Vatican City.  And so we planned our Italy trip around the Papal Audience, a year in advance, banking on the fact that the Pope would not be out of town on that particular Wednesday toward the end of June.  As luck had it, it turned out to be his final Audience of the summer.  And as if this bit of good fortune were not enough to remind us we made the right decision, another divine intervention was awaiting us in Rome.  Months earlier when I contacted my church about getting tickets for the Papal Audience, I received an email with information on picking up the tickets the evening before the event.  From skimming the email, I saw the office was near the Trevi Fountain, so directions in hand, we navigated the streets of Rome in that direction.  As we got closer, I abandoned the paper, thinking it a better idea to follow the signs to the Trevi Fountain and then look at the directions from there.  Strolling down an alleyway, I happened to look up and there was the sign I’d been looking for, just by chance.  P1060004One might say this was not much of a divine intervention, but as we were looking at the sign, a nun opened the door saying “I think this is the place you are looking for,” in English–I mean, come on!  And so we had our golden (actually blue) ticket to the Pope. P1060029

The next morning we were off early heading to the Holy See.  We had many differing pieces of advice about when and even where to get in line.  Our taxi dropped us off directly in front of St. Peter’s and lines were already forming.  After asking several people where the line went into the square, we discovered that chaos was the norm at these events.  It seems they change where the lines go in (huh?) so we took a chance and got in line behind a group of about 30 nuns—I figured we had had good luck with the nun the day before, so why not go with that theme.

Well, unfortunately these nuns were not part of my divine intervention theory as about 45 minutes later everyone in our line starting moving to a side entrance.  When we arrived there amid much commotion, we found ourselves much further back in line than we had hoped with such an early arrival time.  P1060027And so we waited another 45 minutes and the gates opened.  Much to our surprise we were able to find seats four rows back from the main aisle and right next to a side aisle.  P1060043Not really knowing where the Popemobile would go, I began to imagine him passing down the side aisle where I would hug the railing, reaching out to try to touch him.  It brought back memories of me in the front row at an MC Hammer concert in 1992…but I digress.

The next hour spent in our seats waiting for the Pontiff’s arrival brought entertainment I never planned on.  A large group of elderly Portuguese women occupied the rows in front of us.  They seemed sweet enough with their matching shirts and local priest in tow.  And they were sweet, except for the She-Devil in front of me.  She first began with a game of chair moving that greatly resembled a chess match.  We watched in amusement as she re-positioned her chair from row three to row two.  P1060040A little while later, the sky turned dark and soon we were the recipients of a light rain.  The whole crowd was a sea of umbrellas until the showers let up and the sun came out.  All umbrellas in the square were lowered.  All but one.  P1060051Ah…She-Devil, why must you make me angry?  This act of passive aggression was not well received by anyone in our section.  Not only was her parasol blocking the main aisle, it was also blocking the Jumbo-tron where we could see the Pope.  I’d like to say that I let the people around me yell at her while I said a rosary, but that was not the case.  In a combination of my Spanish and English and terrible attempts at the little Portuguese I know, I tried to get her to relent.  I even called upon the assistance of crowd security officers and a Swiss guard, but to no avail.  I sat down and steamed, thinking less than Christian thoughts while I sat in front of St. Peter’s Cathedral when a cheer erupted and the Pope appeared on the scene.  As if by divine intervention, the umbrella went down!  Hallelujah!

The Pope weaved through the aisles and it soon became clear that my fantasy of him coming down the side aisle would not come to fruition.  Instead he was slowly making his way across the main aisle directly in front of us.  With everyone on their feet, the rows of chairs were a jumbled mess with many in our section easing their way toward the front partition.  Do I sound innocent when I say that I was shocked to find myself standing in front of She-Devil when the Pope passed by?  Only God knows how that happened.  But not only did I get a great picture of Francis, Pope Francis Ibut the She-Devil as well as I was returning to my seat.P1060064

The Audience was a beautiful mix of prayers and homily translated into many languages, the Pope addressing the public in Italian and Spanish, culminating in the entire square reciting the Our Father in Latin.  The whole event was one of the most moving things I have ever experienced.  Pope Francis is truly a beautiful human being.

Later we toured the Vatican Museum for a few hours where my husband Russell showed his appreciation of the arts.  P1060097Unfortunately no photos of the Sistine Chapel are allowed although we did see some violators of this rule, followed by the confiscation of their cameras by security.  We Catholics are all about the rules!  Exiting the museum via the Michelangelo designed staircase, P1060111we went outside and headed back to St. Peter’s but after seeing the long line, we decided to return the following day when there was no line and we walked right into the cathedral, behind nuns of course, as that is the theme of this trip. P1060168

Standing in front of Michelangelo’s Pieta P1060174was breathtaking and just taking in the light of the cathedral P1060179was a truly religious experience.  I could have sat in there all day, but while sitting in the pew gazing upon all of its magnificence, I noticed confessional booths to my right.  Deciding there was no better place to take in this sacrament, I found a booth with an English speaking priest.  And just what did I get off my conscience, you’re wondering?  Nothing that exciting–there’s only one She-Devil in Vatican City.

Orvieto After Hours

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Many say the Umbria region of Italy is what Tuscany was 30 years ago, but when we arrived midmorning in Orvieto, it felt like a crowded town of daytrippers from Rome.  That’s because that’s exactly what it was, until about 5 pm P1050898when the city became ours.  Orvieto, famous for its ceramics and its Duomo, P1050944is about an hour from Rome but worlds away come evening.  During our two nights here, we stayed at the wonderful B&B La Magnolia http://www.bblamagnolia.it/ with a perfect location on a pedestrian street just off the main piazza.  We had a huge, fabulous room with frescoed ceilingP1050882 and a bathroom as big as our whole room back in Siena.  Serena is a wonderful host and breakfast was at the family café on the ground floor, where we sat on the sidewalk and took in the namesake magnolia tree and views of the Duomo.P1050908

Orvieto is perched atop a large butte of volcanic tuff.  On the first day here, we explored the town on foot and at the end of town we saw a sign for a walking trail that rings the butte know as Anello della Rupe, or simply The Rupe.  This trail offers spectacular views of the countryside. P1050901

The guidebook said the entire trail was three miles around, but after walking on this strenuous trail for an hour, we were only about a third of the way around.  Whoever posted the distance must have also been in charge of the signage along the trail as there was little to none and only by sheer luck did we stumble onto a path that led us back up into the town.  With Russell’s knee still healing from his injury, he was not in the best of spirits when we returned to our B&B, so to cheer him up, the rest of our group headed to the Enoteca Barberani , facing the Duomo, and educated ourselves on the local libation of choice, Orvieto Classico.  Needless to say after we returned with a few bottles, Russell’s knee felt much better and we were ready for venture out for an amazing dinner at Antico Bucchero http://www.ristoranteorvietoanticobucchero.com/ where we feasted on a farro salad with fresh mozzarella P1050910and a roll of rabbit with fennel, potato, raisin, and spinach.  P1050915Divine!

The following day we opted to do some sightseeing of the monuments. We had purchased a Carta Orvieto Unica which included admission at all of the important sites in Orvieto—a great deal.  We started inside of the Duomo P1050925where we saw the famous corporal stained from the blood of the communion in the Eucharistic Miracle (origin of the Feast of Corpus Christi) of 1263.  From there we crossed the piazza and checked out the Civic Museum where I came out onto the balcony and had my Evita Peron moment.  P1050946Then it was on to the MODO Museum and the National Archeology Museum, which paid homage to the Etruscans, and finally the Pozzo della Cava (Well of the Cave) where the octogenarian docent took a fancy to me.  Ciao, Giovanni!

After some more Orvieto Classico back at the B&B, it was time to once again enjoy some evening strolling in post-daytrip Orvieto.  As we waited for Trattoria del Moro Aronne http://www.trattoriadelmoro.info/en to open with many other visitors with the same idea, we must have disrupted the otherwise tranquil alley as this woman same to her window and starred at all of us with disdain. P1050962 Adorable.  Enduring her scorn was worth it though after the doors opened and we scored one of the few unreserved tables.  The specialty here is the nidi, P1050966homemade pasta with warm pecorino cheese and honey.  This is a culinary creation like no other and cannot be missed!  The evening concluded with a final stroll in the piazza and some step sitting in front of the Duomo to watch all the play of the local children and enjoy the nighttime calm of this great Umbrian hill town.   Our morning train the next day would bring us to Rome and all of its frenzy, so this experience on the steps was the calm before the storm.  We were thankful to have stayed a few days here as those who do just daytrip here miss out on the real Orvieto, which I guess you could call the “Orvieto Classico”.P1050981

Siena: Tuscan Hills, A Preserved Head, and Cyndi Lauper

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Nothing screams, “I’m in Tuscany!” like the city of Siena.  The scene that came into view from our room at Albergo Bernini http://www.albergobernini.com/ really brought us back in time.  P1050781This inn is a real find with a homey feel and two great terraces for the evening wine ritual. P1050826 Although there’s plenty to do in Siena, part of the magic is just being on the streets and becoming part of the daily life.  A must is the nightly passeggiata, when locals and visitors alike do the slow stroll through the winding city streets. P1050830 My favorite part of this ritual was watching a group of elderly men leaning on “their window”.  This cast of extras from the Sopranos oversaw all of the goings on of the intersection.  And the stunt double for Paulie Walnuts was less than amused when Russell moseyed over and took his place leaning next to one of the guys.  img_1466Talk about upsetting the pecking order, but a great way to weave yourself into the fabric of the city.

Some highlights of a trip to Siena include the food, the Duomo, and Il Campo.  We ate so well in Siena that months later I am still trying to shed those pounds!  From the incredible salad and pizza (with my new favorite topping: porcini mushrooms) from Il Pomodorino http://www.ilpomodorino.it/en/index.html to the “epic” (my waiter’s words) osso buco P1050860and bistecca alla Fiorentina P1050861from Antica Trattoria Papei, there is no shortage of impressive eateries with food as awe-inspiring as the views.

Once your taste buds are satisfied, head over to the Duomo, P1050820one of the most ornate in Italy.  In fact, the level of décor inside this cathedral could almost trigger a seizure.  There is no area left untouched.  P1050842During your visit you may even be witness to a local procession passing through from one of the 17 districts of Siena. P1050852 And don’t forget the gift shop with a setting that would be a museum itself in any other city!P1050857

On a side note, don’t end your church visit with the Duomo—be sure to check out San Domenico which houses the relics of Saint Catherine of Siena.  On the right side of the nave you can see not only her thumb, but her entire head!  You’ll thank me later.

The final part of Siena that will suck you in is Il Campo, the piazzaP1050803This landmark slopes downward, amphitheater-style toward the city hall and its beautiful, and unreinforced, tower reaching almost 300 feet.  Great people-watching abounds here.  On our last evening we saw a band setting up there and after seeing a musician tuning his bass, I was looking forward to returning later and hearing what I assumed might be jazz.  You know what they say about the word “assume”…

After dinner as we strolled back into the piazza, I was shocked to hear the band belting out the Cyndi Lauper classic “Time After Time”.  This tune was followed by “Ironic” by Alanis Morissette and “With or Without You” by U2.  It wasn’t the perfect ending to our day that I was imagining, but as I looked around at all the Italians singing along to these English songs, I had to chuckle.  All of the past efforts of walled cities like Siena to keep out invaders and now international influence had surged all the way to the center of the city.  Isn’t it ironic…

Five Reasons to Love the Cinque Terre

And the countdown begins of my cinque favorite things!

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5. The Water. Exiting the Monterosso al Mare train station, the sound of crashing waves is enough to lift the stress of even the worst day of travel. These Mediterranean waters IMG_0391are the star of all five villages: Monterosso, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola, and Riomaggiore.  The ferry connecting four of these villages is a great way to get around.  Side note—when waiting in line for a ferry, no matter how hot it is, please do not put your shirt like this! P1050746 It is the best way to NOT look like a local.  If you need to cool off in the water, the best spots are the lagoon at Manarola and the beautiful beach of Monterosso.  When we left the ferry in Manarola and headed into the town, we stopped to watch the divers from the rocks and as we stood there sweating and filled with water envy, my sister-in-law suggested, “Why don’t we just go back to the beach at Monterosso?”  It was the declaration of what we all must have been thinking and without a word, we ran back toward the ferry we had just left.  It was already starting to pull away, but we were able to jump on and within 25 minutes we were swimming and lying on the gravelly shore.  Whatever your preference, there are two beaches in Monterosso—the “free” beach where people’s towels are scattered right on the pebbles and the private beach where 25 euro will rent you two beach loungers and an umbrella until 7 pm.  I know this because on our first day there, we spent nine hours in these chairs, after which we made the beautiful walk back to the hotel through…

4.The Streets. P1050688Coming to the Cinque Terre from the hustle and bustle of the larger Italian cities, it doesn’t take long to appreciate all of the pedestrian alleys and lanes. P1050691Around every corner is another picturesque street begging to be photographed.  It’s also great for strolling, as the coast forces a person to slow down, and the lack of Fiats makes this lot easier.  Many of these streets snake through residences with doorsteps and balconies filled with flowers.  P1050689Other streets in the town centers are livelier with a mix of locals and visitors.  It doesn’t hurt that many of these streets are dotted with cute shops like the Pesto Lab and great restaurants, which brings me to…

3. The Food! It’s no secret this is a highlight of most of my trips and the Cinque Terre with its fresh seafood is no exception. As with many meals on our Italy trip, we loved to start off with a tureen of mussels and those at La Grotta in Riomaggiore were some of the best.  I think I soaked an entire baguette in the sauce.  Food coma!  If you find yourself in Riomaggiore, you will be surrounded by passersby eating some of the greatest street food since gelato.  I can only refer to this as a seafood snocone!  P1050736It seems like every other person we passed was eating one of these creations.  However, I prefer my calamari to be eaten at a table with a nice bottle of Dolcetto like we did at La Grotta.  Another standout restaurant was Ciak http://www.ristoranteciak.net/ in Monterosso.  Always packed, it is a great idea to make a reservation, or like us, luck out and snag the only unreserved table outside.  Our group started with a fantastic seafood antipasto and then my brother-in-law and I shared the seafood ravioliP1050763served tableside in a steaming clay pot.  After our waiter served us our first helping, my brother-in-law stepped in and dished out our seconds, looking like the owner of the place in his all black attire.  P1050772I don’t think our waiter shared his tip with him.  Another food experience that bears mentioning is our hotel, Hotel Marina http://www.hotelmarina5terre.com/ . Most Italian breakfasts consist of some coffee and a croissant, but this place owned by chef Eraldo sees to it that all guests start the day with an extravaganza.  Besides a layout of pastries, fruits, juices, and coffee, guests have their choice of an enormous cooked to order omelet or fruit or chocolate crepe.  P1050777Starting the day on the breakfast terrace with this feast and then letting it settle by relaxing up on the lemon tree terrace overlooking the sea is my idea of heaven. P1050572 But after thinking about all of the food consumed in the last 24 hours, a person starts to think about taking…

2. The Hike. All five villages are linked by a hiking trail that was previously a goat path. P1050606Be advised that some sections of the trail may be closed due to conditions and some sections are much more strenuous than others.  My poor husband Russell had hurt his knee the night before we left on our trip so hiking the whole stretch was out of the question.  We did, however, tackle the most difficult leg between Monterosso and Vernazza.  Most of this stretch consists of uneven stone steps that never seem to stop ascending finally followed by the descent into Vernazza,P1050662 all of these steps like a bad dream to someone with a knee injury.  P1050626As for me, a person with no ailments, the hike was no easy task.  Even though we left at 8 am, about two hours later as we walked into Vernazza, I was a sweaty mess.  Some advice—bring water, a handkerchief, and a bathing suit because you will want to jump in the water when you are done.  This section is best avoided if it is wet or rainy as the steps can get very slippery and the trail is very narrow in places. P1050624 The hike is an excellent way to burn off some of those calories, but the greatest thing about it is…

1. The Views. It doesn’t matter whether you are walking the trails, sitting on the ferry or the beach, or just enjoying your evening wine on the lemon terrace, magical views are everywhere. The colors are just exploding whether it is the sea, the vineyards, P1050614

the flowers,P1050680

or the rainbow of buildingsP1050724 that make up these towns.  The Cinque Terre is a photographer’s dream, with every click a work of art.  Visiting here is like being inside of a painting you never want to leave. P1050667 In fact, the only negative thing I can think of about the Cinque Terre is when you have to get back on that train and leave.

Fine Art and Feasting in Florence

Many people dream of visiting the Renaissance capital of Florence (Firenze), Italy.

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Where else can you spend days seeing art from Michelangelo, Da Vinci, and Botticelli and taking afternoon gelato strolls beneath the Duomo and across Ponte Vecchio?P1050491

Our two week trip to Italy began in Florence, but not before that long, miserable flight to Europe.  I know they have sedatives they give animals on airplanes—why not humans?  I want to give a shout out to the Vienna, Austria airport where we had a four hour layover.  Whereas most airports do not know the meaning of comfortable seating, Vienna has nailed it!  Not only do they have rows of seats without armrests so people could actually lie down, each gate also contained the most amazing piece of furniture I have ever seen—I call it Layover Heaven Sofa.  P1050423

Thanks to this sweetheart, we arrived in Florence later that day not totally exhausted.

While in Italy we were interested in doing a convent or monastery stay for some of the time and Sanctuary B&B Firenze http://www.sanctuarybbfirenze.com/ worked perfectly for us.  An excellent location a few blocks behind the Duomo was accompanied by a beautiful courtyard gardenP1050424 and attentive service by a group of adorable nuns.  Spartan rooms and breakfasts were easily overlooked because 1. Why are you spending much time in your room in Florence? and 2. With all of the food you will be eating, do you really need an excessive breakfast?  What’s wrong with some Nutella-covered biscotti with Tang-esque juice?

The highlights of Florence for me can be broken into three categories: art, food, and views.  With only three days to spend in Florence, we purchased the Firenze Card, which gives admission into several museums, but more importantly, lets you skip the line!  A visit to the Academia to see Michelangelo’s famous David is a requirement for a visit here.  Get a load of his huge hands! P1050447

Outside the museum you can buy a variety of David-themed gifts, some more tasteless than others, but all in good fun.  I liked the aprons with the body of David on them…maybe not the most appropriate for Thanksgiving dinner with Grandma.

Also, the visit to the Uffizi Gallery with its overwhelming collection including Birth of Venus P1050481and more works by Michelangelo,P1050492 Da Vinci, and other Renaissance masters left us in a constant state of awe.  The artistic interiors of other Florence attractions like the Medici Chapels and the Duomo and even Ghiberti’s Gates of Paradise P1050516outside the Baptistery left my head spinning.

Another work of literary art celebrated in Florence was Dante’s The Divine Comedy and his famed Inferno.  After reading the Dan Brown book Inferno, a must read before and after a trip to Florence, we paid a visit to the House of Dante where I found the best books:  a series that is a children’s illustrated version of The Divine Comedy.  You can’t make these titles up: Dante for Fun– Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise.  P1050547

Greatest. Collection. Ever.

All of this museum time and walking around Florence gave us a healthy appetite.  On a trip like this, the Rick Steves’ Italy book became our bible, but we also had amazing meals at non-Steves restaurants, including pecorino and pear ravioli P1050466 at Coquinarius http://www.coquinarius.it/  and spaghetti frutta di mareP1050431 at Ristorante Zio Gigi, both located near the Duomo.  Make sure you eat lunch around 1:00 so you are hungry for the mandatory gelato hour at 5:00!  I got really good at my Italian during our daily gelato runs: Un cono piccolo di stracciatella, per favore.  Never mind that most people in the service industry speak great English, I was bound and determined to awe the local people with my mad pronunciation skills.  At least that is what I will keep telling myself…

The final category of views could go on and on.  Everywhere you look is beautiful, whether it is gazing up at the Duomo or Palazzo Vecchio, looking down the Arno River at all the bridges, or overlooking the town from the Boboli Gardens.P1050528P1050537

One afternoon we tried to go up to the Piazza Michelangelo, but the bus stop we were directed to did not have a stop on Sunday, which we discovered after a very long walk and failed Italian conversation with an elderly couple.  Oh well, the climb to the top of the Campanile next to the Duomo during an afternoon rainstorm made up for any sweeping views we may have missed.

Is three days in Florence enough?  If you run from sight to sight, yes.  But it is important to take a bit more time to sit in different piazzas, lingering over a Chianti or a gelato.  Sure we missed quite a few museums and churches we would have liked to visit, but we did take time to sit, people watch, and soak up the ambiance of this great Tuscan city.  And if we had not done that, we would have missed out on the Grease flash mob on the Piazza della RepubblicaP1050509 An homage to Travolta—how much more Italian can you get?

There’s at Least ONE Jerk in France

Of course we picked the summer of 2003 and the record European heat wave to spend a week in the Basque Country of northern Spain.  Had we been smarter, we would have spent every minute on the beaches of San Sebastián Biarritz 4instead of traipsing off to France for a day of golf.  It sounded like a great idea: crossing into France, our first time there, and playing nine holes overlooking the Bay of Biscay.  As avid golfers, how could we pass up the chance to golf the beautiful Golf de Biarritz course? http://www.golfbiarritz.com/en/ Biarritz 2

And so we paid for the excursion and a driver picked us up at our hotel and we headed north to Biarritz.  Neither Russell nor I speak any French, unless you count me singing Voulez-vous coucher avec moi? (probably not golf etiquette to say on the course), so we were thrilled when our driver set everything up in the pro shop.  He arranged for us to get rental clubs, we bought a dozen balls, and were quickly escorted to the first tee.  It was all so rushed that I never had a chance to buy any water.  Oh well, I thought, there will be a beverage cart on a day like this or at least a fountain along the way.  As the temperature approached 100 degrees for the fifth day in a row, we were thankful for the sea breezes as we walked down the fairways.  The course is unbelievably beautiful and as we played holes near the cliffs,Biarritz 3 began to reconsider only buying a dozen balls.  We also began to question why we had not seen a beverage cart.  Is that just an American thing??  With three holes left in our steamy round, we looked at our course map and saw that the next two holes were on the other side of a “mountain” with switchbacks and all.  Luckily, there were power carts parked at the base of the hill to transport golfers to the other side.  With all of its might, our little cart made it up the hill, and then down the switchback trail on the other side.  Here at the bottom, all of the carts were parked in a little gravel area, waiting for the golfers while they golfed the two holes.

We trudged onward down these holes, keeping our eyes open for a fountain.  We had not had any water since leaving Spain that morning and we had been walking and carrying our clubs for almost two hours.  Did I mention we were golfing terribly? Biarritz 1 I was down to taking half swings just so I would not end up down to my last ball.  Between the heat, the thirst, and an unknown course, let’s just say I stopped keeping score.  Anyways, between the two holes I spotted a small building with bathrooms.  I was so excited!  Finally—some water!  Not so lucky, unless I was planning to drink another French phrase I know: eau de toilette

Upon finishing the second hole we headed toward the gravel lot to the carts and noticed that all of the carts sitting there were without keys.  We had left our key in the cart.  WE HAD LEFT OUR KEY IN THE CART!!  And there our cart wasn’t!  Who would steal our cart??  Clearly all of the golfers had come across the “mountain” with carts.  We stood there in disbelief looking at each other, our clubs, and the mountain in front of us.  And so, in 100+ degrees we walked with our clubs up and down that mountain and then across the last hole (angrily and without playing it) and dragged ourselves finally into the clubhouse.  Had I been able to rant and curse in French, I would have expressed my outrage to the pro shop attendant, but he looked uninterested anyway and repulsed by our sweatiness.

And so I uttered my best attempt at deux Evians si vous plait, and we quickly downed our waters and ordered deux more.  Now that we had calmed down a little, it occurred to us that we had been dropped off in France and had no contact information for our driver.  We had been operating on trust that day, but when Le Jerk stole our cart, I began to question everything.  Luckily, he did show up about a half hour later, and we practically ran to the van.  I couldn’t wait to get back to Spain.

And as for the guy who stole our golf cart, I have a word for you and it isn’t “Fore!”, but it’s pretty close…