Aubrey and Eden’s Great Canadian Adventure! Toronto

The return train ride from Montreal to Toronto was made much more enjoyable by green slime, which provided hour of entertainment!

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This trip was shorter than the other one, but still ran late. We always try to be right downtown when we visit a city, but the downtown hotels in Toronto are peericeee! So, instead we looked for a condo. Sure enough, we found a few available that we could swing. One was right down on the waterfront, so we booked it.

Although I had been in touch with the owners to discuss arrival times and so on, as our departure approached I recognized that a few details were missing. Like, our suite number and how to get into the place. So I contacted the owners and they replied with their standard documents which read, in part:

“As this is a high-end condo we must ask that our guests take the utmost care in respecting our property, our neighbors and the building in general. There has been some negative vacation rental stories that have made the news as of late, which is causing property management to be very sensitive to the short term rentals…We kindly ask that you do not speak to front desk staff and if anyone asks, just tell them you are a friend of ours and you are simply visiting us.”

As one who has spent much of his career dealing with local pissing contests, I can assure you that had this info been provided to us earlier I would have booked elsewhere. It was too late to change now and, since we are not all that rowdy any more, I figured we had a pretty good chance of flying under the radar for two nights.

So, you wanna see what a half million (CAD) Toronto condo looks like?:

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The reason it looks like a construction zone is that apparently it has been so successful they are building another one next door. We were on the 9th floor close to the top. The view was not too shabby.

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Grandma and Grandpa had our own private room and the girls shared the expandable sofa, which worked out fine.

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There was a nice little balcony

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With a fine view of Toronto Island.

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As well as the outdoor pool.

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As soon as the girls saw the pool, that had to become top priority. This complex featured both an indoor pool and the one outside. Since it was just a bit nippy, they opted for the inside.

So, they changed and we headed down. We had been given a pass key to let us into these areas and as Eden and I headed in we passed a gentleman wrapped in a towel. He did not smile as he passed and then turned around a followed us in.

He said, “Excuse me. Do you live here?”

As per instructions I said were were friends of the owners and were staying here a couple of days.

He said that there had been a meeting of the owners and they decreed that rental people (we didn’t even bother with that part of the conversation) could not have use of the “amenities” because they were not insured. He said he would have to report me.

I just shrugged my shoulders and proceeded in. Eden asked if we could swim here. I said of course you can. I said, although that gentlemen seemed unhappy he and I have one thing in common. We both know the meaning of a contract. No one ever came down to question us.

After a nice swim we decided to head up to Chinatown for a dinner. We called a cab and soon we were splashing about in the rain in some of our old Toronto stomping grounds.

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I had not done my Tripadvisor due diligence for Chinatown, so we relied on Yelp. Highest rated in the area was the Yummy Yummy Dumpling, so down we went!

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And, they were yummy!

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Since the arrival of Eden’s adopted sister from China, the whole family has been trying to learn a little Chinese. This restaurant is overseen by a woman, no doubt the owner, who greets each guest and takes them to an available table. Her English was very good, but clearly Chinese is her home language. After she had seated us and left, Eden started with a few Chinese words. She asked if we thought she should try them and we said, of course. So, when the lady returned to take our order, Eden said “Me How” which, apparently, means hello. Well, the lady’s eyes got wide and she stopped what she was doing. “How you know Chinese Me How.” Eden explained the whole story. From that point on, she was in love with Eden. She gave her some other phrases and helped with pronunciation. Clearly, we made her day. It was far better than one of my previous visits to Chinatown when I bought a Chinese newspaper to impress the locals and discovered later that I had been holding it upside down.

After a fine dinner, we went on a shopping spree at one of the area markets.

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Although my supply of white fungus at home is running a little low, I didn’t see how I was going to get 500 grams into the old carry-on. Maybe next time.

Same story on the leechees.-

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Aubrey loved the bracelets and would happily have bought them all. We suggested paring down the quantity to about 3, which she did.

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The next morning we had a fine breakfast and then it was time for their last Big Adventure. It took us a while to locate it, but pretty soon we saw the unmistakable skull and crossbones of a returning pirate ship!

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Once secured to port, about 15 middle schoolers got off, collected their backpacks and boarded a school bus. No one else arrived.

I had purchased tickets long ago for Aubrey and Eden thinking they would be part of a larger group of kids. Not so. We were then advised that at least one adult would have to accompany them. Though I offered the opportunity several times, Dianne declined. It was left up to me to join the girls for a little plundering.

First we had to get into costume.

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Then, some very nicely done tattoos:

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Then a group photo op:

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Soon we weighed anchor for our great adventure!

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It is said there are no small parts, only small actors. And, I was afraid that since it was just the three of us that performance might be a little less than spirited. Not so! These people put their hearts and souls into their roles and gave the girls the show of a lifetime!

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First we had to be made into pirates at a christening ceremony

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Then, the best safety instructions ever!

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Then, through a series of clues, which involved one the pirates being taken over by the ghost of a fallen comrade, we had to solve the mystery of the lost treasure. When we booked this trip we were a little concerned it might be a little juvenile for these girls, but the bought in entirely.

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After many adventures, we solved the mystery and retrieved the lost jewels!

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We arrived back at port victorious!

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Thanks to the spirited crew of Pirate Life Toronto we had a great time!

After this, we decided to hike up to the St. Lawrence Market for lunch and a little shopping:DSCF9554

What better place than Crepe it Up!

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We bought the last of our souvenirs and called it a day.

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Rather than see more sights, we and the girls were ready to chill. We went back to the condo, enjoyed a few more amenities, including the outdoor pool. Then strolled the downtown looking for  dinner.

Of course, we had to sample the offerings of each vendor:

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And pet the numerous dogs:

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Until, finally, on the waterfront, we enjoyed our last poutine.

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It was time to say goodbye to Toronto, at least for now:

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And, to the glorious view from our condo:

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The next morning I picked up the car, drove to the condo to pick up the girls and the bags, and we were soon on the QEW headed west.

Aubrey and I got out at the Buffalo airport and she and I flew back to Virginia. Dianne drove Eden home to Rossford. The next day, Dianne picked me up at the Columbus airport. And that was the end our great adventure.

What charming companions these girls were! They were at an age where they could appreciate what they were seeing and doing and they were such good friends, each looking after the other. They have both traveled with their parents and now they’ve traveled with us. They’ve had a little taste of this big ol’ world. Who knows what adventures lie ahead?

 

 

Aubrey and Eden’s Great Canadian Adventure! Part 2

Our last full day in Montreal began as same as the one before, at Universel for breakfast!

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Just a block away from the restaurant they were setting up for a comedy festival, so we strolled the grounds.

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Montreal is a feast for the eyes. Art is everywhere! All this was a few blocks from our hotel:

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The subway entrance is a small park

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Then we were back on the subway for a trip to the Olympic Park!

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Eden is a big fan of the Olympics. She loved everything about this place.

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Our first stop was to ride to the top of the tower that extends over the Olympic Stadium. To get up there you ride a funicular.

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The view is spectacular!

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You may recall that the pyramid shaped complex is the Olympic Village.

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Here are a couple of Olympic athletes posing for a photo op. We were glad to get their autographs, too.

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The whole park is beautifully landscaped.

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The girls raced each other at every opportunity. Aubrey’s cross-country experience payed off big.

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After spending the morning at the Olympic Park we headed back to the subway for a trip to the site of the Expo 67. The girls thought it would be good to wave at the passing train passengers:

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There is not much left of the original Expo. The Geodesic Dome has become a Biosphere with different exhibits of various ecosystems.

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From here we headed back to Old Montreal, this time with a camera. On the way, we spied a building that Aubrey immediately fell in love with, The Rainbow Building! She wanted a picture taken in front of it. Eden was very cooperative.

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Next we came upon the Notre Dame Cathedral. The girls didn’t know that their surprise for this night would be right here.

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Throughout the Old Town there are buskers and street performers. The girls loved it!

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Sometimes they got into the act!

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Very European!

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Dianne had her heart set on fondue. It didn’t take long to find a place:

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The festivities started with cheese.

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Then the main course

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Finally a chocolate dessert, featuring the queen of chocolate vampires!

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Following dinner, it was time for the next surprise, so we headed back to the cathedral. By the time we got there the line stretched around the block.

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But, once the doors opened we were quickly inside, with a choice of good seats in this massive cathedral

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The event we took them to see is called the Aura. It is an incredible show of light and sound with amazing computer generated graphics. Just when you think your mind is already blown, they start the laser lights. Very well done, and the girls loved it! Here is a sample that by no means, represents the actual experience:

After the show, we headed back to the hotel and said goodnight to a great city.

Along the way Aubrey’s rainbow building was ablaze with color. Time for another pose, without Eden’s assistance!

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Near our hotel was a fountain which featured just water by day, but at night they light the gas jets:

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We capped off the evening perfectly when the girls stopped a lady to ask if they could pet her dog. She was very willing to oblige. We were impressed throughout our trip with how friendly the people here were.

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We definitely will not wait fifty years till our next visit!

 

Aubrey and Eden’s Great Canadian Adventure! Part 1

One of Dianne’s favorite childhood memories is when her grandparent took her and her sister on vacation to eastern Pennsylvania. And now, as two of our own grandchildren have matured the time seemed right to create a similar experience with them.

Some time ago I asked Eden, if she could to anywhere on vacation, where would she choose? She said Paris. Well, that wasn’t going to happen, but it did start the wheels turning. In 1967, yes, centuries ago, Dianne and I attended the Expo ’67 in Montreal. This was our first adventure in another country and, while we didn’t know each other then, we came away very favorably impressed. So, we began kicking around the idea of taking the girls to Montreal, where they would hear plenty of French and see a city with sections as close the European experience as you could get. We ran the idea past both Eden and Aubrey and they were fully on board. And that’s how our great Canadian adventure began.

About the time we began planning, we received an invitation to my cousin, Bill Lafe’s 80th birthday party in Pittsburgh, to be held July 22nd. Since both of our daughters were invited as well, it seemed a perfect opportunity to meet the girls there and then head north. So, that became the plan. Our daughters would then spend a sister’s weekend in Pittsburgh as well. It all came together very nicely.

Seemingly, in no time were were at the Hotel Indigo in downtown Pittsburgh:

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Here is Emily taking pictures of two very excited girls.

And, of course, we greeted Cousin BIll:

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The party ended mid-afternoon. The plan was to drive to Toronto and then take a train to Montreal since the girls had never ridden a passenger train and we wanted to make the experience more European. We didn’t want to go all the way to Toronto from Pittsburgh, so we decided a good stopping place would be Niagara Falls. We arrived in time to catch one of the last voyages of The Maid of the Mist for that day.

We were careful to only let the girls know the basics. They knew we were going to Niagara Falls, but not that we were riding The Maid of the Mist, something we had done with their mothers many years ago. There were lots of questions as we got closer, but we let the details unfold slowly.   IMG_4481

We descended the big elevator, put on our rain gear and headed for the falls:

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Was it fun?

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Because we had gotten there late we still had to cross the border and get to our hotel which was on the Canadian side. Fortunately, the lines at the crossing weren’t too long. However, when it was our turn, it quickly became apparent that the girl’s shiny new passports were not going to be enough. The customs officer made sure our windows were rolled down, so they could see the girls, who, of course, have different last names from ours. Then he wanted to see permission letters written by their parents. We did not have both of them, but in its place we had a medical form of some kind. With that we were admitted grudgingly. The girls got what, unfortunately, was a good lesson that border crossings are no longer the casual events they used to be. We assured them that since we were now in Canada there would be no further questions. Which there were not.

It was now about nine at night and we were all hungry. Fortunately, the hotel had several restaurants  at the ground level, including a pizza place. That was a huge hit.

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Here is what we learned from Eden on the ride to Niagara Falls:

Girls go to collegeTo get more knowledge
Boys go to JupiterTo get more stupider!

Long Train Runnin’

Our train to Montreal was scheduled to leave Toronto at 11:30 am. I takes a little over an hour to drive from Niagara Falls to Toronto, so we were able to have a leisurely breakfast and then head into town.

I didn’t really want to drive into Toronto, even on a Sunday morning. I had hoped we could park in the suburbs and take the metro into Union Station to catch our train. But the metro system only allows 48 hour parking and there were no other parking options available, so we decided to drive into the city and park at one of the “Green P” garages near the train station.

You drive into Toronto on an eight lane highway called the QEW (Queen Elizabeth Way) and then, as you get closer to downtown you split off from the QEW onto the Gardiner Expressway. Everything was going smoothly and we expected to arrive at the train station with over an hour to spare, when suddenly we saw the signs: “Gardiner Expressway Closed”! Apparently, this Sunday was the day of some huge triathlon, so they closed the whole thing! Instead we were re-routed onto side streets with lots of stoplights and heavy traffic. We plodded along at a snail’s pace and now the clock was becoming a factor. In what seemed like forever, we finally found the garage we were looking for. We unloaded our luggage and headed for the station at as high a rate of speed as we could.

At last we found Union Station, but it is a big place that serves not only the rail system, but also the metro and the bus system. We had a fair amount of trouble finding the right entrance, but with the help of many people we finally found it. We arrived at the line for our train with fifteen minutes to spare.

All of our bags were carry-ons and we had hoped to store them overhead, but we were greeted by a guy with a cart who collected them and told us where we could find them when we got to Montreal.

I had pre-printed all of our tickets at home so we quickly found the right car and the right seats. It was a perfect set-up for us: four seats facing each other and a table in between. DSCF9265

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The car showed some age, but was comfortable and the best part was that we could all get up and walk around if we wanted to.

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The girls were very excited to be on the train and there were lots of giggles as we settled in. VIA rail is much like Amtrack. Rather than have dedicated passenger rails like they do in Europe, VIA shares the same tracks with freight trains. So, not only does this make for a bumpy ride, it also results in numerous delays. The trip to Montreal was supposed to last four hours. Instead it lasted five. But, it was still fun. The food was sold from carts, like on airplanes, but it was good and not hugely expensive. Just being able to get up and move around made it a far better way to travel than a car or a plane. And, it didn’t really cost that much.

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At last, the Montreal skyline came into view. It appeared that they have added a few buildings since 1967.

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Soon we pulled into Central Station. We re-united with our bags and headed for our hotel, which was only about four blocks away. We were soon checked in and ready for action.

The main shopping street in Montreal is Rue Sainte-Catherine, which is only a block away from our hotel. I had hoped to spend some time there on our first night and then go to the top of Au Sommet Place for one of the panoramic views of the city, but it was becoming overcast and we had arrived too late to do much, so we scrapped that plan. Here is what the girls wanted to do first:

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So, after a nice swim we decided that we wanted to try the main delicacy of Montreal cuisine, called poutine. The concierge directed us to a restaurant in Old Town that he said served it. So, off we went. We did not take any pictures on this trip, since we knew we would be coming back. You will see some pictures from Old Town a little later.

We did find some excellent poutine, however, and the girls agreed that it lived up to the hype. By the time dinner was over, it was time to hit the hay.

There were some nice views out of our window:

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The next morning it was raining. We talked over the many things we could do in this city, and we told the girls we had one big event planned for each of the next two days we would be here. Aubrey said the main thing she wanted to do was shop. Eden was on board with that also, but the main thing she wanted to do was go to the Olympic Park. She is a huge fan of the Olympics.

Since is was raining we decided that our shopping adventures would best be experienced underground. Like Toronto, Montreal has a vast network of underground shops, suitable for the coldest winters. This is what we would do. But first, it was time for breakfast. The concierge recommended a restaurant called Universel, up on Rue Sainte-Catherine. It was only a short walk away.

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Art is everywhere in this city:

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The floor had a 3-D effect:

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Even the chocolate milk was classy:

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The best eggs Benedict ever!

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After a fabulous breakfast, it was time to shop till we dropped. But the first order of business was to hit the money exchange:

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The banks would only exchange currency for customers, so we were sent to a nearby exchange house. The rates were reasonable, so each of the girls ponied up their cash. It was a great experience for them.

Now, with their very pretty currency burning a hole in their pockets, it was time to finally get some shopping in. We headed up Rue Sainte-Catherine looking for an access to the underground:

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The first major department store we found had an access point, so down we went:

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Well, the whole place was store after endless store. Surprisingly, the girls proved to be quite thrifty with their new currency. Primarily they shopped for things to bring back to their sisters and their parents. While the girls shopped I was able to get Metro passes for us all for the next two days.

After a fun day of shopping we went back to the hotel to get ready for the first surprise in Montreal.

To get to their first surprise, we had to get on the Metro to go to the section of the city called Griffintown. The map showed about a six block walk from the Metro to the location we were going, plus we needed to find a place for dinner. Fortunately, Yelp made the decision easy. We settled on the Lord William Pub, which was right next to our destination!

Unfortunately, by now it was pouring rain and even though it was a relatively short walk, it was no fun. The staff of Lord Williams made us feel welcome. The pub is famous for two things. Mac and cheese AND poutine.

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The french fries were nice and crisp, the gravy was rich and flavorful and the cheddar cheese curds were soft and creamy. We thought the poutine of the night before was tops, but this was even better!

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After stuffing ourselves at Lord Williams we headed next door to Escape Masters!

Dianne had heard about the popularity of escape rooms while we were planning this trip. We decided it was something the girls would really enjoy. So we looked over TripAdvisor reviews to find one that could both be solved by children and at which they spoke English. This led us to Escape Masters! We had our choice of three mysteries to solve: one involved spies, one involved zombies, and the third was hidden mafia treasure. I called the lady who runs the place and she recommended the Italian restaurant with Mafia treasure as the easiest to solve. We booked it.

On the way down we had to explain to the girls, and not too graphically, who the mafia is and what they do. Now it was time to solve a mafia mystery.

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The lady in charge told us that two mafia families had used the Italian restaurant as a hang-out and trouble had developed between the families. Not wanting to risk their loot, they hid it somewhere inside. We were given an envelope with the starting clues and told we had an hour to escape from the room. We were shown inside the door where the timer had just started clicking. We were told that we could knock on the door three times if we got stuck and they would give us additional clues.

Inside, the room was made up like a restaurant with four tables awaiting guests. There were four hats hung from hooks on one of the walls. There was a bar with four beer taps and other items stored underneath, including a padlocked briefcase. Behind the bar was a wall with an opening concealed by two small sliding doors. The opening would typically be used to pass food from a kitchen to the restaurant. Around the corner from this wall was a padlocked door that led to the the room on the other side of the wall. There was another door perpendicular to that one, also locked.

The first clue had to do with the numbered taps. I started on that one. The girls went after the hats and quickly found that they contained numbered tags, which they pulled out and began to arrange to find the sequence for a pad lock. Dianne found numbered bottle corks. All these discoveries led us to the combination for the brief case which contained a large flexible dentist mirror with and extension on the shaft, another chromed extender which looked like a broken off radio antenna, and a few other items.

We called for our first set of clues about ten minutes in. Eventually we were able to open the sliding doors in the wall, which revealed a kitchen on the other side. Some utensils hanging on the wall of the kitchen were tagged with three numbers. We needed four for the lock to the room. I took the dentist mirror and looked at parts of the kitchen that might have the fourth number. I could not find anything. We asked for our second clue. It turned out that I had not been looking at the right place with the mirror. The staff showed me where to aim it and sure enough, there was the fourth number.

These numbers unlocked a lock box. Dianne remembered instructions in the brief case about the lock. We soon had the door opened to the kitchen. But inside we couldn’t find any clue. So we contacted the staff for our third and final time. Turned out there was a key at the bottom the the drain. The thing from the briefcase that looked like an antenna was actually a magnet. Eden was able to extend the magnet to the bottom of the drain and pull out the key.

The key opened the other door which contained three lock boxes. By now we were out of time and out of helpful assists. But they let us continue and gave us more clues. The first lock box contained the severed arm of one of the mobsters who had tried to steal the loot. The other boxes contained diamonds and similar treasure.

Throughout the game we accumulated masks that the gang wore over their faces while doing “jobs”. As we collected these masks we found that each was numbered and the numbers were in several colors. Eventually the combination of numbers and colors led to the combination of the lock to get our out of the escape room. We took almost an extra hour and a bazillion additional clues but we got it. The girls absolutely loved it! The staff of Escape Masters saved the day. Both Aubrey and Eden solved some pretty difficult puzzles and made major contributions to the solution. What a great time.!

Since it was still pouring outside, I asked the staff to call a cab. That was plenty for one day!

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The Siena Cathedral

Well people, it has taken me so long to write up our trip to Italy that some of you think that either we’ve gone back or we never left. We are, in fact, home. At least for now. As far as these seemingly endless blogs are concerned, we are at about the halfway point of our Italian adventures. If you find the pace tedious, (as does the author) my advice would be to wait a year and read the whole thing at once. Good luck!–MS

On our first full day in Siena we headed for the Siena Cathedral. By the time we got there, a line had already formed and ticket sales were brisk. These were not tour tickets, they were just to get into the place. Groups of, say, 50 were let in at fifteen minute intervals.

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Of course, as we waited at the entrance, it’s not like there was nothing to see:

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At last it was our turn. And, just like so many cathedral visits before, from the first step inside, our minds were immediately blown:

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The entire cathedral inside and out is made up of alternating layers of white and black (or dark green) marble, symbolizing Siena’s color scheme.

Construction of the cathedral began in the 1100’s with much of the artwork being added in the following two centuries. What incredible engineering!

There’s no point in me yammering on. I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves:

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The pulpit:

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This is the view looking back toward the entrance:

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As if the place needed more art, in the 1200’s they started to lay mosaics into the floor:

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Then, of course, there is the regular artwork. This is Michelangelo’s Saint Paul:

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And, just as you being to recover your senses, you join a line to get into what looks like a side room. Turns out it leads to the Piccolomini Library:

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The principle purpose of this room is to house rare medieval choir books. Feel free to sing along:

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At last it was time to head out the door:

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We spent one last evening in the piazza, then it was time to head to wine country!

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What an incredibly beautiful city!

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Well, we wound our way our of the hills of San Gimignano and eventually found a four-lane divided highway with a sign pointing south to Siena. Siena is also a walled city, but this one is huge, home to 55,000 people. And, there are only eight places you can get in, called “Portas”. To get to our B&B, which was inside the walls, we had to find Porta Romana, on the south side. Once again the Google blue dot was a little tardy when it came to suggesting an exit and we were soon well past Siena before we figured that out. So, in a few miles we found a way to get back and the exit that looked promising. Sure enough, there was a sign for Porta Romano, which led us to a matrix of interconnecting highways, that once again had us heading south. But this time, it was only a two-lane road so turning around was quicker and easier. On our third try we spotted a tower that a sign confirmed was Porta Roma.

Here is the layout of Siena. The green area is the part that is inside the walls:

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This is where we stayed. The blue X marks the spot:

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Here is Porta Romana:

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Our B&B is called Palazzo Bulgarini, located on Via Pantaneto. When we booked it, months before, the manager said to be sure to let her know the license number of our car so she could notify the police. Well, of course, I didn’t have that number at the time of booking, so on our way out of  San Gimignano I called her first to tell her we were running late, and also to give her the number. Mastery of the English language, however was not her strong suit, but after repeated attempts I discerned this bit of info: Once we got through the Porta Romana we only had to continue straight in and look for number 93. She would call the police and give them my plate number. Then, we would have a half hour to unload, turn around, and get the hell out. After 30 minutes, a ticket and/or towing might be in my future.

So, in through the tower we went. Just as she described, we saw door after door with descending numbers until, at last, we were in front of number 93:

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We rang the bell, the buzzer buzzed and in we went with our bags. In and up:

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Until a door opened onto a rather compact hallway:

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We were a little winded, having dragged our stuff up here, but realizing time was of the essence I was ready to head back down at a moment’s notice. The manager gave us a warm welcome and began checking us in. One of the first things she asked for was my license number. I told I had already given her that info on the phone. Clearly she had not called the police, which substantially increased my interest in getting back to the car. I asked her where I could park. She said to continue in the direction I had come until I came to a street on the left. Turn there and take another quick left. That would put me on the street heading back out of town. Once I got out the gate there was plenty of parking around. We finished the paperwork, Dianne started moving the bags into the room, and I beat feet back to the car.

Her directions were perfect and soon I found myself headed through the Porta and out into the civilized world. Not far from the gate, to my surprise, was a parking place with a number on it. I pulled in. But already my mind started working. Surely this could not be a free space. What was that number for? I looked around. No machine.No sign. I got out and looked at the cars behind me. They seemed to have some kind of sticker that might be a parking sticker. I didn’t like the look of things. I pulled out and kept moving.

Soon I was at an intersection, no parking space in sight. I turned left and ran parallel to the wall. Soon I was driving downhill past Porta Pispini. Not good. A few blocks from there, however, the street widened and became a road. And, not far down that road I found a bunch of cars parked along the side and one free space. I took it.

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Once again, I looked at the other cars. No stickers, no nothing. I decided this was the place I would make my stand. Then I began the roughly mile and  a half uphill climb back to our room. At least it was scenic.

After an extended period of time, I made it to our room. I was eager to tell the manager exactly what I had done and to hear her say, “Good parking place”. But, by the time I got back, in the fine Italian B&B tradition, she was long gone.

I will say this, though, the room was nice:

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And the view out the window was quite pleasant:

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Once I regained my composure, we decided it was time to do a little exploring. We headed down Via Pantaneto. After only a few blocks we found ourselves in a huge piazza called Il Campo, the heart of the city:

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The Piazza del Campo is simply breathtaking, just like stepping back into Medieval times.

The first order of business was to get a little dinner, and, as you can see by the awnings, there is no shortage of places from which to choose. We settled on one nearby:

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The lady in black, with the menu, is the head of sales. You encounter about 15 of them as you stroll around Il Campo. They are happy to invite you in. I won’t go into a meal by meal account of this place, but I would draw your attention to this little delight:

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It is simply melon with a shaving of prosciutto. The two together make for a salty/sweet explosion of flavor. A little mozzarella smooths things out nicely. When we got back from Italy we served up many a helping of this over the summer. Can’t wait for melons to come back!

But, I digress. The Piazza del Campo was laid out in the fourteenth century and, in 1348 it was paved with these:

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From the center, nine lines of marble radiate across the piazza signifying the families in charge at the time. .

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Relations between families in Siena were not so contentious as they were in San Gimignano, so nobody felt the need to build defensive towers. Instead, they chose to compete in a much classier way: The Palio de Siena.

OK, so here is how the piazza looked at the time of our visit:

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Now picture it slightly more populated:

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Every July 2nd and August 16th, people from all over the area and all over the world come to Siena for the Palio, which is a ten-horse race that has been run in this piazza since 1633. In Siena there are 17 Contrades, or city wards. Not surprisingly, given the history of Europe, they are bitter rivals. But, rather than kill each other, long the custom elsewhere, they settle their grievances with this horse race. Because the piazza is limited in size, they only race 10 horses, so they have developed a system for which contrades get to race at any particular Pialo. The race is run for three laps around the piazza, which takes about 90 seconds. It begins with the dropping of a rope:

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For this race, the city, at considerable expense, hauls in tons of special dirt to place around the perimeter of the piazza. The riders ride bareback and the only thing they carry with them is small whip, which serves two purposes: 1) to move their horse along, but more importantly, 2) to whip the hell out of opposing jockeys and their horses, too. This is not intended to be a friendly race and there are plenty of euros being exchanged behind the scenes with race officials to get an advantage in position of whatever.

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Because some of the turns are sharp and because the jockeys are wailing hell out of each other, it is not uncommon for a rider to be ejected from his mount. And some have been seriously injured. Horses have been injured as well, so recently padding, as you see on the left below, has been added to soften the blow. As you might imagine, animal rights people take a very dim view of these proceedings.

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Interestingly, some horses have won the race without their rider attached, which is allowed.

We were not altogether sorry to have missed this event, given our lack of fondness for big crowds. After a very nice dinner we continued our stroll through the streets. Next, we’ll show you what we saw.

Toolin’ Around Tuscany

After returning to our room from our day in Cinque Terre, we were pleased to find that, true to her word, our laundry was waiting for us, clean and neatly folded or hung on hangers. The next morning, when it was time to settle up, the young lady who ran the place would not take payment for her mother’s work. OK. So, we left a tip that far exceeded what a laundromat would have cost, sneaked down the stairs, and we were out.

Thankfully, our car had no tickets waiting for us. We hopped in and made our way out of La Spezia. It was one of those places where, when you leave, you hope to return to some day.

Our next destination was the medieval city of Siena. Typically it would be about a 3 hour trip, if you knew where you were and what you were doing. Unfortunately, we often didn’t know either of these things for most of the trip. Accordingly, it took substantially longer. Here is our route as it may, or may not have been: The red line is to San Gimignano. The blue is from there to Siena.

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At some point in the planning process for this trip I happened to see a Rick Steves video which talked up the romantic qualities of some of the historic Tuscan hill towns. Of these, the one that stood out above all others was the village of San Gimignano (pronounced gym-in-NYAN-o). What made it appealing is that many of the old towers associated with the powerful families of the area, were still visible. It looked like a beautiful place for a stroll, overlooking the Tuscan hillside. So, off we went.

Well, here is what I do know: We took the right exit off SS67 which heads back to Florence. But not long after taking said exit we found ourselves at various intersections that Google Maps had a hard time keeping up with. And, at many of these, decisions had to be made quickly. The net effect was, that we were generally headed in the right direction, South, but certain villages did not appear when they were supposed to. So, when a rare sign came up that would take us to a village we could find on Google, we followed the sign which soon had us winding our way down numerous dirt roads through a large provincial park.

Since we had plenty of time and since it was one beautiful pastoral scene after another we were perfectly happy to be where we were and spent some time slowly enjoying the countryside. Along the way we encountered hikers, bikers (of the bicycle persuasion) and various other outdoor types. Clearly many people were enjoying the first days of Spring. What we did not encounter in our journey was either gas stations or bathrooms. Just when the need for both was no longer amusing, we found a town. And, as it turned out, San Gimignano was not all that far away. Here is a look at some the countryside:

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Now, those of you who have been over the good ol’ USA will recognize from your travels scenery that is just as beautiful. What sets Tuscany apart is the charming and picturesque Italian villas dotting the countryside, with the white stucco and the red-tiled roofs where the grounds are meticulously maintained and where peace and tranquility reign. And, of course, there is the wine.

Well, we continued happily along, once again on a secondary road, and then we came around a corner and there it was, off in the distance: San Gimignano

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Not too hard on the eyes

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San Gimignano has been occupied in one form or another since Roman days. In boom times there were as many as sixty towers like those you see here. Now there are only a dozen. For around a thousand years San Gimignano was a favorite stopping point for pilgrims on their way to Rome and it long flourished as a trade center as well. But, it is a walled city and here was a big problem with walled cities in those times: The Black Death. By the end of  1348 over half the city’s population was dead or dying. San Gimignano never recovered.

In time the town leaders gave themselves over to Florence for governance. To be accepted they were required to tear down their towers, which most did. But, Florence had other issues to deal with and San Gimignano was never developed. Instead, all but abandoned,  it remained in its medieval state until the 19th century when scholars began to realized what a treasure it was. Now, it is given over to the tourist trade.

We arrived there around noon and the first thing we discovered was that the place was packed with tourists. Parking lots are arranged in tiers going up the face of the hill to the outer walls of the city. The first tier, closest to the walls, was full. So was the second. And, the third, no wait, some guy is pulling out. He went out, we went in.

It was quite a hike getting up that hill. But, it was also pretty scenic:

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As we looked out over the countryside, we couldn’t help but note that the sky was getting quite dark. And, the frequent thunder was another clue that there could be problems. We had rain gear in the car, but were in no mood to hike back down to get it. And, my meteorological savvy told me the storm was moving away.

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We continued to the wall:

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Thankfully, there is an elevator that takes you up to this level. From there it is a quick hike to the city, where the first order of business was lunch.

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By this point in our travels we had become fond of meat and cheese plates for lunch. They are flavorful and light, except for the bazillion calories served with each dish.

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We had just finished the last bite when the rains hit:

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They started out light at first and we were able to pass by some nice shops:

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Olive wood is all the rage in the tourist world, as are ceramics.

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But the time for window shopping soon passed:

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Without the benefit of so much as an umbrella, we made a mad dash for one of the piazzas:

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We, and about fifty other tourists were able to find shelter in the alcove below:

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Not only was it pouring, it had turned quite cold. And, while we enjoyed the beautiful view, after about a half hour of this we were ready to abandon ship. One item of note: in the picture below, above the pointy hood of the lady in pink you will see a stone structure with steps on the piazza. It is a cistern. At one time, all the rain water from the roofs of the towers was collected here and provided drinking water for the whole town for a thousand years. See, I did learn something. Two things, actually. I also learned that I do, indeed, have enough sense to come in out of the rain.

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Clearly this was not going to be the occasion for a romantic stroll through the towered city. When the rain let up we made a mad dash for the car. By the time we made it we were plenty damp, but not soaked.

To get out of San Gimignano, the parking tiers all empty out onto a two-lane road. There is a gate at the end of each lane where you pay to exit. I had both credit card and euros in hand, but as we approached the gate I noticed that a woman a few cars ahead, who was actually at the gate, suddenly opened her door and made a mad dash down the parking lot. She returned in a few minutes, fed the machine, the gate opened and off she went. Of course, my comment to Dianne was something to the effect of, what kind of dumbass would approach a gate, with cars backed up to Rome, and not have any change with her?

After what seemed like an eternity it was finally my turn. I approached the machine, rolled down my window, and quickly observed two things: there was not place to put money and there was no place to put a credit card. There was a little slot, so i tried to jamb my credit car into it, but I discerned  from the get-go that this was not going to work. I was absolutely baffled. And, there was no way to back up; no way to turn off.

Suddenly someone came to my window, probably the person behind me. She said, in very broken English, something to the effect of, “Buy ticket”. “Where!!!” She pointed down the parking lot from which my predecessor had made her panicked run. I was off like a shot. And, I must confess to the use of certain colorful language that required no translation whatsoever. Soon I found a bank of machines, slammed in some euro, and grabbed the ticket. Usain Bolt himself would have applauded. In a twinkling I was back in the car, the ticket was consumed by the monster and the gate opened up. Once again the question came to mind: Why did I rent a car?

 

Cinque Terre

Cinque Terre is a series of five villages along a coastline known as the Italian Riviera. They are now encapsulated into a national park. Here is the layout. The blue box down at the bottom is roughly the location of La Spezia:

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We decided that the best approach to visiting five villages in one day would be to go to the farthest one and work our way back. So, early in the morning we were on the train for the 50 minute ride to Monterosso. Even at that early hour, seats were hard to come by:

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It was a pleasant enough ride, though, and soon we found ourselves in this beautiful village by the sea.

Monterosso

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Monterosso is a summer resort, not only for tourists, but also day-trippers and weekenders from Florence and other nearby cities. Of the five villages this is the only one with an extended beach area. It also has the most hotels. It didn’t take long to appreciate the beauty of the place.

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Of course, this time of year it’s a little nippy to be taking advantage of the beach. The first order of business was breakfast.

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It was warm enough to sit outside, so we did. Next to us were four American students who spent the morning arguing about where to go next. Some wanted to go to Venice, others to Florence. And, of course, much of the discussion focused on the cost of going to each location, an expense which increased dramatically due to the fact that they had no plan. But, that’s the joy of being young!

Well, rather than listen to more of that, we had a fine breakfast and then headed to the beach.

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Dianne took the opportunity to dip her finger into the Mediterranean for the first time. That was the extent of our swimming.

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Looking down the coast we could see our next destination, Vernazza.

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Soon we were leaving the fishing boats behind and heading for the train.

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Vernazza

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Vernazza is one quaint and gorgeous little town. It is a simple hike to edge of the sea.

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Of the five villages, only Monterosso was ever a fishing village. The others relied principally on growing olives and grapes. To do that they had to terrace the hillsides. More about that later.

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If you like a hike before breakfast, here’s your spot.

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Here is the lower level

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Even on a relatively calm day, the surf is up.

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Everywhere there is radiant color.

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The Church of Santa Margherita d’Antiochia, built around 1318, oversees the harbor:

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One thing about Italy, love is always in the air, and often on the street:

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Here is a young tourist making a beeline for one of the gift shops:

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And returning, remembering how much room there is in her suitcase:

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Vernazza is a place that deserves more than a visit of a few hours. But, that’s all we had, so on to Corniglia

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Unlike the previous two villages, this one sits on a cliff. To get there you can either hike up that cliff, or, you can wait for a bus to pick you up.

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The bus drops you off at a nice little central piazza:

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But, if you think that by taking the bus, you have avoided hiking, well, not so:

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Everything is up in this place, which means if you look down you get some fabulous views:

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Here is a view of our next stop, Manarola:

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It was time for a lunch break. We found a nice little spot overlooking the valley:

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Below is the terrace where we were seated:

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Farms on the hillside:

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Here is the story of the terraced farms:

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Just a beautiful place to be:

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Equally charming is the village itself:

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Lemons are grown in many places on the coast.

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You never know what else you may find growing here as well:

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Another incredibly beautiful village. But, time to move on:

Manarola

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To get to this town from the train you have to walk through a long tunnel carved into the cliff. When you finally come out, here is what you see:

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The one feature that is outstanding about Manarola, is that there is a walkway that takes you along the cliff face so you can look back over the village:

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Not too hard on the eyes, that’s for sure.

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Time to move on to our last stop.

Riomaggiore:

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You may recall from my last post that we went here the day before. Unfortunately, since it was a spur of the moment decision, I didn’t have my camera with me. Dianne took a few pictures with her phone. I mixed in a couple from Google to give you the lay of the land.

I can tell you that it is much like the other villages, except that it is built on a hill, so the shops and restaurants sit at an angle. It would not be hard for, say, a beer bottle, accidentally knocked off a table to roll several hundred kilometers before it found its way to the sea.

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Cinque Terre, as you have seen, could easily be a destination on its own and you could spend weeks there and not see it all. I would add this caution, though. Last summer Italy was overwhelmed with tourists. Places like Rome and Florence were better able to handle it than islands like Venice, or small towns in the Cinque Terre. Things got so bad that certain of these places,  Cinque Terre included, began restricting the number of people they would let in. All the more reason to go in the shoulder seasons rather than fight the heat and the crowds.

Next up: A Leisurely Drive Through Tuscany.