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.



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



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




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:







The pulpit:


This is the view looking back toward the entrance:


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




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


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:






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



At last it was time to head out the door:


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





What an incredibly beautiful city!


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:


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


Here is Porta Romana:



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:


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


Until a door opened onto a rather compact hallway:


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.


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:


And the view out the window was quite pleasant:



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:


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:


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:


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:


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


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:


Now picture it slightly more populated:

siena_piazza_del_campo_20030815-375Photos of Pialo courtesy of Wickipedia

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:


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.


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.

Trecciolino alla curva di San Martini

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.

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:


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:


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



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.


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.


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.



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


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


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







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


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.


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


Here is the lower level


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


Everywhere there is radiant color.


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


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


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


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


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


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.


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


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



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



Here is a view of our next stop, Manarola:



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


Below is the terrace where we were seated:


Farms on the hillside:


Here is the story of the terraced farms:


Just a beautiful place to be:


Equally charming is the village itself:


Lemons are grown in many places on the coast.


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



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



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:





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:


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





Time to move on to our last stop.



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.









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.












The Bay of Poets

My apologies to all my Italian readers. My little side trip to Cuba and other adventures have, no doubt, broken the spell. So, pour yourself a glass of Chianti Classico and think Italian thoughts. When last we visited Italy, we had gotten our rental car, managed to drive through Florence without getting killed, visited Pisa where I manged to drive straight through the pedestrian piazza, failed to get back onto the Autostrade and instead found ourselves in Carraara, the marble capital of the world. Eventually we arrived at our actual destination, La Spezia, the gateway to Cinque Terre.

La Spezia is a city larger than Canton, OH and it is nestled inside a very beautiful bay on the Italian Riviera.The reason we stayed there is that it is not a tourist town primarily and because it gave us a place to keep the car while we explored Cinque Terre. We’ll get into that stuff later, but since I know there are numerous English majors and/or enthusiasts who sometimes look at this blog I thought I would share with you a story that I sure never heard as an English major at BGSU.

The bay of La Spezia is called the Bay of Poets because it was a popular getaway for the likes, of Dante and Petrarch, then later, Lord Byron, and not least, Percy Byshee Shelley.

 Picture from some travel site.

Not least, because for a time Shelley had a place just up the bay a little bit, in the town of Lerici. One day in 1856 Shelly sailed off with a couple other guys in his new sailboat to meet with a collaborator on one of his projects. On the way back a storm came up and  the boat was swamped and sank. Shelly, age 29, and his two shipmates all drowned.

A day or so later, Shelly’s body washed up on the beach near Viareggio. The sanitary custom of time required on-the-spot cremation.

Painting by Louis Edouard Fournier

So, a ceremony was hurriedly put together. In attendance were Byron, Edward Trelawney and Leigh Hunt, Shelly’s close friends. There are varying accounts of how this happened, but they all lead to the same outcome: Shelly’s heart did not burn. Trelawney fished it out with a stick, wrapped it in a silk handkerchief, and gave it to Shelly’s wife, Mary, the future author of Frankenstein. It is said she kept it in her desk drawer and, years later,  it was buried with the remains of their son.

Sorry to open with this grisly little tale, but it just goes to show that a tourist can happen by here 160 years later, look out over the bay and have no idea of the things that went on.

We arrived in La Spezia with only a general plan on visiting Cinque Terre. Turns out, this is a pretty big city so it took some driving around to get the lay of the land.

Some street scenes:



Eventually we found the train station, but had much more difficulty finding a place to park. After driving up and down the hills we were able to locate a spot in front of a coffee house, so we stopped in and got our bearings using our phones. We had some time kill before our B&B would be expecting us, so we decided to walk down to the train station, just to plan for the next day.

To get to the train station you enter below and climb stairs to get the the actual entrance:


A nice station


Cinque Terre, interpreted literally, is the “Five Lands”, which they no doubt were when they were built hundreds of years ago. But now they are five villages, one more picturesque than the other. The train connects them all, but many people come here for the hiking. Cinque Terre is actually a national park. Hiking, however, was not on our agenda.

We had originally planned to stop in and buy a day pass for tomorrow. But, the guy at the window told us that the first village, Riomaggiore, was only ten minutes away and the train would be leaving soon. Well, why not? So, we jumped on the train and had a very pleasant afternoon there.

In the next post I’ll show you Riomaggiore, along with the other four villages, but instead we’ll keep it in La Spezia for now. By the time we returned our room was ready.

As it turned out, our room was located in a building that might have been a bank or an old hotel. Lots of marble inside. There were steel gates at the entrance. But we rang the bell and were soon greeted by a pleasant young lady, who helped us up the considerable stairs.




All the climbing led us to a very nice room, one of about four or five on that floor. The lady of the house showed us around and gave us our set of keys. The only slight inconvenience was that our bathroom was down the hall and around the corner. It was not shared by the other guests, so that was good.

The first order of business in La Spezia was to find a laundromat. But, when we asked for a recommendation, our host said that her mother would do it. What? How much would she charge?. “She LOVES to do laundry.”, we were told. She will not charge. Well, we could hardly pass up that deal. So, later that night we treated her mama to a heaping pile of duds.

We then asked if she could recommend any nearby restaurants. She said, absolutely. There is a place called Trattoria Nuova Spezia about a fifteen minute walk away. She made reservations for us for 8:30 and gave us simple directions for finding the place.

Last order of  business, where to park the car. She told us that there is a city lot, about five blocks away. She said be sure to pay the meter and get a time-stamped ticket to put on the dash. Otherwise, we could look forward to paying a huge fine. So, soon I was out the door and retrieving the car from its temporary location. I had no problem finding the lot, but when I stuck some euros in the ticket machine, they came spilling right back out. After several attempts at this I started looking for another machine. I found one come distance away. Same problem. I started looking on the cars and many had tickets, but some did not. I pictured myself throwing myself on the mercy of the traffic court, telling them in English that I had really tried to buy a ticket, but their stupid machines didn’t work. I then pictured myself getting twenty years to life. I searched for yet another machine.

I finally found one, across the street from the parking lot. I prayerfully slammed in my euros for the maximum amount of time. It worked! Out came the ticket. I raced back across the street and carefully placed my ticket for maximum visibility. In the meantime, a lady behind me had observed my success and quickly slammed her euros into the same machine. Out they came. Clearly, the city had performed zero maintenance on these things for some long time. I doubted that they even bothered to check the tickets.

When I got back to our room I was about to raise that question with our hostess, but Dianne advised me she was gone for the day. And so began our first experience with what would be a recurring issue: the absentee host at our B&B’s. Apparently the custom now is, check ’em in and get the hell out. We had an emergency contact number. That was it.

It was now time for dinner, so we headed up the street. I had already gotten a preview of the neighborhood in my walk back from the parking lot. We headed down Via Amendola. It was clean, and there wee people around, but you see graffiti, even though it is everywhere in Europe, and you think gangs. If there are any, we didn’t see them, and we always felt safe.




When we arrived at the front entrance we pulled on the door and it didn’t open. Another couple was standing nearby and one of them said, “It’s locked!”. Well, that seemed odd. “There are people in there, but they haven’t opened the doors yet,” they told us. So, glad to hear a little English we talked to them for a while. But, no luck on getting in. Finally I peered once more into the window on the door. A waiter happened to be walking by. I knocked. He looked at my haggard, starving face and opened the door right away. “Come in!” he said in English. As it turned out, the door opened to the inside, not outside, so it was open all this time. Once again. I can’t overstate the importance of making a good first impression. Apparently the fire codes in Italy are a little lax.

We told the people at the desk that we had reservations made by our hostess, who they indicated that they knew. We were promptly seated at a nice little table for two. In just a few minutes our waiter arrived. He welcomed us and asked where we were from. When we said America his eyes opened wide. “America!”, he said, “I LOVE America!” He went on to talk about all the things he loved about our country, but it seems he had never been there. From that point on, our names were “America”. He started us off with a small pitcher of house wine, which was excellent, then he came back to take our order. We picked a couple items  from the menu and then he said. “You don’t want that. You want THIS!” he pointed to several options. “THIS is excellent!” Well, his recommendations did sound good, so we went with the program.


Our waiter, Luciano. That was not our meal. This is from the La Nuova Spezia Facebook page.

Well, in Italy you go through several courses and while, previously, we only picked a couple, here, we went full out. This is a small sampling:

Antipasta, with real anchovy.



The creature on the left is a lobster.


Fried seafood with more anchovies and a few tiny octopi in there as well. They were tasty, but, although I had the opportunity for more elsewhere in Italy, this was enough. Anchovies are more like smelt. Very yummy.



Luciano took our picture before we exploded:


Well, that was some dinner! While we were sampling away, a large family of about twelve occupied a big round table close by. They all knew the staff and were in an out of the kitchen. Dianne had a clear view into the kitchen, or as clear as you could get through clouds of steam. Carts, with four or five dishes each, were continuously streaming out. Empty carts were streaming in.

Since La Spezia is not principally  a tourist town, a restaurant like this is the real deal. Everybody knows everybody. The energy and noise level are high and the whole experience is an event. Luciano frequently returned and when he came to take our dessert order we said we were too stuffed. But, Luciano would have none of it. Just like the old Monty Python “One thin mint” routine, he offered us dessert on the house. OK. We shared a tiramisu:


Fabulous! Then Luciano came back with a limoncello, the lemon flavored liqueur and an orange liqueur as well. “On the house!”, he said. We had originally planned to have dinner the next night in one of the five villages, but this place was so good and so fun and so reasonably priced, we made reservations for the next night. When we showed up, the hostess looked at the reservation book, turned it toward me, and asked, “Is this you?” Luciano had written “Captain America.”

On The Road

If you looked at the video from my last post you no doubt observed that traffic is a little heavy at times. But what really adds spice to the Italian driving meatball, is mopeds. Regardless of how many lane shifts there might be in any rotary you will find mopeds winding though rows of vehicles with only centimeters to spare. And, they will come at your from both the left and the right. Once you understand that driving is really just a high-stakes video game, then you are ready for the Italian highways.

Our goal was to pick up the A-11 Autostrada heading out of Florence. Autostradas are like our turnpikes. By some miracle, and by following the somewhat shaky blue dot on Google Maps, we suddenly found ourselves at the Autostrada on-ramp. We got our ticket and off we went! We were pleased to find what turned out to be a very well-maintained modern highway. Even better, most drivers behaved themselves quite nicely. The speed limit was around 60 mph, so everybody kept it at about 70, just like here. Occasionally someone would roar up behind us and then tailgate, but our years on I75 have well prepared us for that kind of stuff.

We decided that, since we would be close, we would visit Pisa and check out the tower. It’s about an hour and a half ride to Pisa and, unfortunately there are several exits into the city. A sign with, say, a picture of a leaning tower at any one of those exits would have been helpful. We realized there was not going to be one when we were about 10 miles north of town. So, we turned around, always fun on a turnpike, and found the exit that seemed most likely to get us there. After a considerable number of missed turns and other mishaps, we eventually found a very small sign with the tower and an arrow.

When you need to make a lot of turns in a very small area, the Google Maps blue dot arrives a little late to the party. So, suddenly, and without explanation, we found ourselves driving straight down the center of a designated tourist pedestrian area with diners on either side looking up from their pasta wondering who the hell had authorized that car to be here. And, with an equal degree of curiosity, we were wondering how to get the hell out.


This is the street where, minutes before, I found myself to be a hazard to pedestrian navigation.

Finally, when all hope seemed to be lost, Dianne spotted a side street, upon which we quickly turned. Even better, within a block someone pulled out of their parking space and left it for us! Even better than that, our little faux pas went entirely unobserved by local law enforcement!. Still, as I pulled into our little space, I wondered for the second time this morning if renting a car was such a good idea.

So we headed down the street, turned a corner, and there it was!


Now, I have to admit that my expectations were a little low for this visit. I mean, it is an image that has been around since even my childhood, and I remember when it appeared that a few more millimeters of subsidence would bring it down, the government jumped in and ran some kind of steel shaft through it so it would stay put. I was not all that excited.

But, when you actually see it, well, it is impressive. For one thing, it is immaculately clean, the marble is gorgeous, and the building itself is massive.


You do have to wonder, steel shafts notwithstanding, how it has survived though the centuries.


True of everywhere we went in Italy, Pisa was packed with visitors. Here, for example, is some dumbass tourist pretending to hold up the tower.


Uh, wait a minute. I mean some people were clever enough to create the illusion that they were holding the tower up! Yes, Italy brings out the creative genius in us all!

So, after a pleasant visit in Pisa, which, by the way is very beautiful city worth visiting even if the tower falls over, we headed for the coast. Except, we could not find our way back onto the Autostrada. Instead we took a road similar to our state highways for the trip up north. By taking the state route we accidentally ended up going though this town:


The marble that Michelangelo turned into masterpieces came from here. In fact, Michelangelo himself came here to select marble.

And to this day, it is still being quarried.



What a great side trip that turned out to be!

Not long after leaving Carrara we found our way back onto the Autostrada and soon we were in La Spezia heading for the Cinque Terre.

In reviewing my recent posts about Florence I see that I neglected to comment on the very fine shopping available in that city. Jewelry, of course, was abundant, along with clothes, shoes, food, and all the other stuff you would expect. We, sadly, had little room in our luggage to bring back much, so I was often in a quandary about what to bring back for my friends. Fortunately, a little gift shop on the Piazza Michelangelo solved the problem:


Leaving Florence

I forget exactly how it happened, but many years ago I learned this trick: Extend the fingers of your right hand. Then bend down your index finger so that from above it looks like half your index finger is missing. Then bend the thumb on your left hand and place the back of your thumb joint against the bent index finger of your right hand. Cover the space where they come together with the index finger of your left hand. then slide the bent thumb of your left hand along the middle finger of your right hand. The effect is that it looks like you are pulling off half of the index finger of your right hand.

I was blessed, if that’s the word, to have fingers and thumbs of the same width, so I can play this trick to absolute perfection. I first started by amusing our kids with it. I would, say, be slicing something with a big knife in the kitchen, then I would let out a loud yell. The kids would look up and I’d tell them that I just cut off my finger. Then I would pull half of it off using the above trick. What fun! Over the years I would do this for the benefit of our kids, their cousins, their friends, and, later, our grand kids. Endless hours of entertainment! Often kids who had seen it would ask to see it again the next time they came because they simply couldn’t believe it was possible!. To this day it still gets lots of laughs.

Our hotel in Florence is located across the river from the city center on the edge of a residential area consisting of apartments and mid-size homes. And, while Florence is home to many fine, upscale restaurants we were never sure enough of our schedule to make reservations at any of them. A couple times we made it back to the hotel just in time for their Manager’s Reception, an event like no other. To begin with, wine and beer were free with no limits on quantity. Then, on top of that, they put out tray after tray of tasty snacks.


The Reception was held in this nice little garden.


After spending time here the idea of a big dinner was not all that appealing. So we asked at the desk if there were any, say, pizza places or small restaurants nearby. Turns out there were several. We settled on a place called La Piperna.



This is a classic neighborhood restaurant where everybody knows everybody, but when the occasional tourist stops in, they are greeted by friendly staff with English that is plenty good enough. Dianne got a pizza,


And I got a pasta dish with, yes, real, genuine anchovies!


Well, at La Piperna, the tables are fairly close together and the waitress seated us at one near a family of three which included a little girl, probably five of six years old. The girl was a little antsy and from time to time she would get up on her knees and turn around on her chair and look the place over. Unfortunately, about all there was to look as was Dianne and me. Her mother would tell her the Italian equivalent, I suppose, of “Turn around and sit down!”, which she would do, but then soon she would be back up again looking around.

It didn’t take long for her to catch my eye and I would smile at her and she would smile back. Then her mother would tell her to sit down again. We repeated this cycle a few times. Pretty soon she was back up looking at me. I thought to myself, I bet she would enjoy my famous finger trick!

So, up goes my hand, and off goes my finger. Well, that little girls eyes grew as big as saucers and all of a sudden, she starts to cry! Loudly! Now, my eyes are as big as saucers. I won’t say this is the first time I have ever gotten that reaction, but it doesn’t happen often. Thankfully the girl’s father saw the whole thing and understood that this was an attempt at humor and I was not trying to traumatize the kid. So he said something to her which must have been, “It’s only a trick.”

That did not exactly calm her down. Then the waitress shows up at their table with a cake. Turns out they were there celebrating the mother’s birthday. Which was now not much of a celebration with the kid wailing away. I was mortified. Thankfully, when the girl saw the cake, my abuse was quickly forgotten. Eventually the mother gave me a half-hearted smile so I was reasonably confident I would not have to call the US embassy to seek shelter. I was, however, glad to settle up and get the hell out of there.

That will probably be my last finger trick on foreign soil.

On our last day in Florence we agreed that if we saw any more art our heads might explode. Instead, we turned our attention to the sciences with a visit to the Galileo Museum. This museum, of course, is dedicated to the man himself, but also contains an extraordinary collection of scientific instruments now centuries old.

At the entrance is a bust of Galileo,


Clearly, this is no shrinking violet.

While Galileo is credited with a number of inventions and his use of scientific method, he is best remembered for his work in astronomy and his discovery of the phases of Venus and of four of the moons of Jupiter. Where he ran into trouble was with the publication of his “Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems”. In this work he offered astronomical and observational support to the Copernican theory that the Earth revolves around the sun. In the course of this presentation he appeared to attack the Pope, who took a very dim view of this theory. He was tried by the Roman Inquisition in 1633. Galileo was found “vehemently suspect of heresy”, forced to recant, and his book was banned. He spent the rest of his life under house arrest.

In the museum you will find some of his early telescopes


Then later improvements


And even later improvements.


Among other scientific items on display, not having to do with Galileo, are these:


These models apparently were used to train the physicians of the day. There is another far more graphic set which I’ll keep in the vault.

One of the first things you see when you come into the museum is this incredible machine:


This is the Armillary Sphere of Antonio Santucci. What you cannot see in this picture is, at the very center is a globe of the Earth. All these gears, when set in motion, replicate the orbit of the planets and the sun around the earth. This was built before elliptical orbits were discovered also. It no longer works.

When Galileo died, he requested to be buried in the cathedral of Santa Croce. However, because he was still considered a heretic, the best he could get was to be stuck off in some side room. By 1737 the Church had to recognize that Galileo was right all along and so, that year he was re-buried in the main cathedral as he had requested and a statue was placed there in his honor. During the re-burial, three fingers and a tooth were removed from the body as relics. Not inappropriately, his middle finger is on display at the museum:


Now, for eternity, he is able to send one last message to his detractors.

Well, people, we could do on and on about Florence and we only saw a fraction of it in 3 days. But at last, it was time to leave. Which meant, it was also time to get behind the wheel and actually drive in the crazy country.

Our next destination was the Mediterranean coast, which meant that we would have to go through town on this side of the river and pick up their equivalent of an interstate. I will leave you with just a small sampling of what that was like:

The Art of Florence (At Least Some of It)

There is so much fine art in Florence that even if you lived here you probably wouldn’t see it all. And, while there is art in this blog, this is not an art blog. So, while we have hundreds of photos of works by the masters, there is no way to do them justice without spending the next year or so on nothing but art. Since this info is already readily available on the internet, you can easily call up just about every painting and sculpture in the city, if you want. Good luck.

So, what we will do instead is to give you sample of some of the works that, even weeks after returning to the US, continue to leave an impression on us and no doubt always will. You’ve already seen the David and his friends. Now we’ll head down the street to the Ufizzi Gallery, one of the largest in the world.

Once again, we took the advice of Rick Steves and hired a guide. So instead of waiting in this line


we got right in! Not only that, but she actually slowed us down and explained stuff that we otherwise would have blown on by. Money well spent indeed!

First of all, this place is HUGE. Not as big as the Louvre, but close enough. And, even the ceilings are works of art.


So we go into one of the first rooms, and here is this lovely couple:


Allow me to introduce you to Frederico II do Montefeltro and his wife Battista Sforza.


It doesn’t take long before you begin to notice that something ab0ut these people is a little odd. Take Frederico, for example:


Sure, the hat’s a little funny, but mostly it’s hard to ignore that schnoz. Our guide, who seemed to have a little flair for the dramatic in her own right, told us that, in his younger days, Frederico was a valiant soldier. He was leading his troops into battle against some other city state, when he took a blow to the right side of his face that not only removed a good portion of it, but also his right eye as well. In spite of these VERY severe injuries, he found that he could still function and he wanted to go back into battle. Problem was, he couldn’t see anything coming at him from his right. To fix that he called in the company surgeon and had him remove enough of his nose that he could see past it with his left eye. And back into battle he went.

Now that is one fine story, and it appears that it is mostly true. Only the timing is slightly off. Frederico, as it turns out, lost the right side of his face, eye included, in a jousting tournament. Later, contemplating going into battle, and being constantly annoyed by that obstructive proboscis, he brought in the surgeon. As it turns out, he was a very successful warrior and leader and later became the Duke of Urbino

Along the way, he married the beautiful Battista Sforza

Picture credit Wikipedia

Two things you will notice about Battista. First, she has quite the high forehead. Apparently women with high foreheads were considered to be more intelligent and desirable, so it was the custom to pluck away a few rows to boost the perceived IQ.

In addition, she has quite the hairdo and is dressed to the nines with pearls and so on. But the second most striking thing about her is that she is so pale. The reason for this is that, at the time this painting was made, she had already been dead for two years. Sadly, she died at age 25, having just given birth to her seventh child.

Frederico was crushed by her loss. He carried these paintings, bound in an ornate gilded folder,  with him wherever he went. He never remarried and lived out his life as a highly regarded statesman.

Below is a painting that might otherwise be unremarkable compared to the others in this place, except that it is the only known panel painting attributed to Michelangelo. The principle characters are Joseph, Mary and St. John and the  naked people in the background apparently symbolized humanity before the Law as given to Moses.


Now here’s one you’ve seen before, Sandro Boticelli’s Birth of Venus:


So the basic story line is goddesses are born in the sea foam. Then the winds blow them ashore


and the nymphs arise from the ground to welcome them home


But the real story of this painting and several others is Venus herself.Simonetta Cattaneo was born into a noble family in the Genoa area. When she was fifteen (or maybe sixteen) she married a nobleman named Marco Vespucci. They promptly moved to Florence. It took no time whatsoever for Simonetta Vespucci to catch the eye of every lecherous gentleman in the city. This included the Medici. At the time Lorenzo and his brother, Guiliano Medici, were jointly ruling the city. When Lorenzo was busy with affairs of state,  Guiliano apparently was interested in affairs of another type. In addition, every painter and poet in town were similarly smitten. Maybe none more so than Sandro Botticelli. Here is another of his masterpieces, La Primavera:


Does the lady in the middle look familiar?


She shows up in other Botticelli works also as well as the works of other painters. Simonetta Vespucci was the “it” girl of the renaissance. But, at age 22, she contracted tuberculosis and died. It is said that thousands accompanied her coffin to the Church of Ognissanti. There is no evidence that she ever had so much as an affair. Botticelli finished The Birth of Venus nine years later. He requested that when he died, that he be interred at Simonetta’s feet. Thirty-four years later, he was.

So here is another tale told by our guide. This painting is called Baptism of Christ and is attributed to the “workshop” of Andrea del Verrocchio. Verrocchio was apparently primarily a sculptor, but he maintained a school of promising young artists and when a painting would be commissioned he would have his students do most of the work.


One of those students was Leonardo di Vinci, who painted the angel on the left. He used a brush with a single hair to paint the hair on the angel.


The guide said that the envious Verrachio painted the angel on the right and then, in awe of Leonardo, put away his brushes and never painted again. Good story.

OK people, that is just a few of the bazillion paintings in the Ufizzi, but now you know why we won’t be doing more. As the great Rod Stewart once said,”Every Picture Tells a Story”. I would certainly suggest you go on line and see the rest.

Like just about every Italian city, art is everywhere. This is the Palazzo Veccio, home to the Medici Palace. If you look to the far right you will see a statue by the doorway. That is where The David originally stood. An imposter stands there now.

As you can see, a number of other statues are there as well.


And then there is this:


Now that is one big-ass golden turtle! Now he might look fine in an American city, but here? On the same square where Savanarola and his followers were burned to death for heresy? Let’s just say, he seemed a little out of place. Even Hercules had to look away.


Well, we’re going to do one more museum, then we must move on to other topics. Our next stop:


Picture Credit Wikipedia

The Bargello, built in 1255 was once a barracks and a jail. Now it is an outstanding art museum. Let’s take a look:

Talk about tipsy! This is Michelangelo’s Bacchus, an early masterpiece.


I hate when those crazy satyrs show up.



If ever the colors in the marble made the piece, this is it.


But once again, where is the joy in the creator? This Daniele da Volterra‘s bust of Michelangelo.


Here is Michelangelo’s Brutus. No regrets. He killed a tyrant.


Then, in very stark contrast to the one we saw earlier, this is Donatello’s David.




And now Verrocchio’s David:



You can choose between the three, but before you do, the best one may be in Rome, as you will see.

Here is a work by various artist who contributed from 1387 to 1483.

Image result for altare d'argento

Picture Credit Wikipedia

The incredible detail is beyond words to describe.


Yes, we could on and on, but we will close with one final work by Donatello, Santa Maria Maddalena Penitente. Mary Magdalene, at one time a beautiful harlot, became a follower of Jesus. After the crucifixion she went off to live in a cave as a penitent. Now thirty years later, the toll has been taken, but the prayers continue.




There is nothing else to say.

The Duomo


When you walk down the streets of cities in Italy you are often hemmed in by buildings two or three stories high on either side. That, in part, is why it is so easy to get lost. You have no landmarks and no horizon. Imagine your surprise, then, when you come around a corner and find this:


This is the Florence Cathedral, the centerpiece of which is the Duomo.It takes a while to walk around it. Here are some of the details:











Pictures do not do this place justice.

Well, as we strolled around we saw that there were several lines formed. As we later learned, some of the lines were to tour the inside of the Cathedral. One line was to climb to the top of the Duomo, a total of 636 steps. I did some quick mental math. Last year, when we were in Costa Rica we climbed down to, and back up from, the falls at La Fortuna, a total, I seemed to recall, of 730 steps (actually it was 550 plus or minus). Some of those steps were barely steps at all and, although it damn near killed us and we took beaucoup breaks, we made it due, in large part, to the patience of our guide. So, I reasoned, certainly I could handle this!


See that little cupola on top? That’s where you come out.

So, I bought my ticket and stood in the very long line. Dianne declined and said she would prefer to see the inside of the Cathedral. She encouraged me to call her on the cell phone once I got up there so she could be assured I hadn’t had The Big One on the way up.

Well, the line moved right along. They were letting in about 20 people at a time, and this is where things started to go south. Rather than letting me be the last person in the group now entering, the ticket taker decided to make be the first person in the next group which was made up of a bunch of hard-bodied millennials. When the gate opened it was like being in a 5K.

At first, we climbed a few sets of modest stairs that led led us up into the Cathedral. We were moving at a pace that was less than ideal for photos, but here are a couple taken from that level:




So far, I was holding my own. Then we went into a very narrow entrance. Immediately it was much darker, much cooler, and only single file with not so much as an alcove to tuck your weary carcass into. Oh, and did I mention, it was also much steeper.



I was good for a while, but it did not take long before I was sucking wind and starting to get a bit wobbly. The prospect of having The Big One was no longer just amusing hyperbole. Then, thankfully, there was a shift in the staircase, no doubt to accommodate the shape of the dome. At the point of the shift was a place to pull off and catch a breather. The rest of my group bounded on by, but they were feeling it too. Our starting pace had slowed dramatically.

Once my heart rate slowed down to a more reasonable 700 beats per minute, I started off again. With each opportunity I stopped. At one point some guy with a gray beard stopped next to me and in broken English asked something to the effect of “What the hell are you doing up here? Man, you’ve got to slow down. That’s the key” I didn’t really need that advice, but I was encouraged, not by what he said, but by the fact that a guy with a gray beard had made it this far.

In time, I made it, but not without a pretty good case of the heebie-jeebies. Here is the entrance and exit:


After I finally got up there I took a moment to collect myself and was good from that point on.

There isn’t a whole lot of room up there and you have to work around the crowds. Here is the principle route:



Naturally the first thing I did was take a peek over the edge:



Then, a much broader vista, starting with the Basilica of Santa Croce:


The church of San Lorenzo:


A glimpse of Tuscany:


The campanile, which you can also climb. You can, I’m not:


What a beautiful city!


Well, the trip back down was much better, but by no means easy. Arriving at the ground floor is much like making it into port after a storm on the lake. You don’t actually want to kiss the ground, but you are glad to bounce up and down on it a few times.

Here are some pictures of the inside taken by Dianne:





What an incredible creation.

The David

We had already decided that our first full day in Florence was going to be Art Day. The two prime stops for this purpose are the Galleria dell Accademia which houses Michaelangelo’s David and the Galleria degli Uffizi, one of the great art museums in the world. the Accademia is fairly small and easy to navigate, so we bought tickets online for the morning. The Uffizi, though, is huge, so for that one we arranged a tour for the afternoon.

So, off we went from our hotel to the 23 bus which stops right around the corner and then winds its way through the heart of Florence. After a very scenic ride we were soon deposited in front of the Accademia. After they take your tickets you just follow the arrows, or the crowd, if you prefer. Soon you end up in a large room at the center of which is a plaster reproduction of Giambologns’s Rape of the Sabine Women. Since you’ll see the original in a later post, we’ll move on.

So, you leave this room and enter the Hall of the Captives. You enter at one end and at the other is this guy:


But not so fast, my friends. As you head for the David you can’t help but notice some other statues, or blocks of marble along the walls. These are the Captives. Michelangelo was once hired to create statues for the tomb of Pope Julius II. Well, it wasn’t long till the Pope became a little strapped for funds. First he reduced the scale of the project, then later he dropped it altogether. Michelangelo went on to work on other projects and these guys were never finished. They were found after his death and eventually made their way back to Florence.

So, we have figures trying to make their way out of the marble, but now forever captive. Let me introduce you!

The Atlas


The Bearded Slave



The Young Slave



The Awakening Slave


In addition to being eerie, the value of the Captives is to show how Michelangelo worked. Most sculptors, apparently, work from a plaster models and match points on the model to points on the marble. Michelangelo, however, worked free-hand with no model. Somehow he knew where to stop taking out big chunks and what to leave in to make veins, tendons, and so on. The whole process is a mystery to me. So, let’s take a look at a finished product:


Not only is he perfectly sculpted, he stands fourteen feet tall. You can look at picture after picture of this guy, but nothing prepares you for the real thing.

When he was first commissioned by the Vestry Board, the idea was that he would be one of a series of statues hoisted up into niches of the  Florence Cathedral. You may recall the story of how Michelangelo was given a marble block to work with that had been previously rejected by other sculptors as too imperfect. Michelangelo, though, saw the potential. He was only 24 years old when he began the project. Working in seclusion for several years, at long last one January day in 1504 he invited he invited the Vestry board in to see the finished product. You can only imagine how they must have felt when they saw it for the first time.

Immediately they realized that they couldn’t just stick this guy up on a niche. Instead they commissioned a panel, which included Leonardo Di Vinci, Sandro Botticelli and Giuliano da Sangalloand along with 27 other prominent Florentines. Eventually they decided to place it outdoors in the Piazza della Signoria, the heart of Florence. It took 40 men four days to move it from  Michelangelo’s workshop to the new location. There it remained from 1504 to 1893, when somebody finally realized that the weather was doing some real damage. It was then moved to the Accademia.and restored.

Rick Steves says when you look in the eyes of David you see the face of the Renaissance man:



And there is discussion about his large right hand.



Talk about fine work! David’s sling is cardboard thin. After the statue was moved to its permanent home, Michelangelo came back and did some finish work on it. One thing he did was to gild the sling. He also added a gilded crown, all of which was lost over time.





What else is there to say?

Most of the rest of the Accademia is a collection of plaster models of other works of art:



At the other end of the Hall of Captives is this, a bust of Michelangelo:


This bust was the work of Daniele Ricciarelli, who was a friend and student of the sculptor. Michelangelo lived to the age of 88 and obviously this is in his later years. You will see other works depicting Michelangelo in future posts, always with the same sad expression.

Ricciarell, by the way, became famous in his own right as the painter who covered up the genitals of the figures in Michelangelo’s “Last Judgement” in the Sistine Chapel at the request of one of the more conservative Popes. He painted a tasteful selection of breeches and loin cloths.








When our train pulled out of Venice we asked ourselves what could possibly compare to this fabulous city? Two hours later we found out.


The skyline of Florence is dominated to three massive structures:

The Basilica Santa Croce:


The Duomo:


And, the the Palazzo Vecchio, former palace of the Medici:


And, snaking its way through the city is the Arno river:


Spanning that river, near the heart of Florence is the famous Ponte Vecchio and its many shops:


Yet another feast for the eyes! Speaking of which, Florence, of course, is also home to some of the greatest art ever created. Later we’ll take a look at some of it.

In addition to all of the above, Florence is also the gateway to the region of Tuscany. So, picture this, as I did many times: You spend a wonderful day looking at art and other stuff. Then, you hop in your car, head off into the Tuscan hills, pull up in front of a beautiful vineyard where you sample fine wines with your sweetie while gazing at the villa-dotted horizon. Well, to make that dream come true one thing in that picture was clearly missing: the car to hop into.

So, for the week we would be in Tuscany we decided to rent a car. Most of the car rental places in Florence are near the train station, which would normally be a good thing. However, comment after comment after comment on Trip Advisor and other places suggested two problems: 1) That area is reputed to be the craziest of all crazy places in a city that you have to be crazy to drive in, and, 2) if you find yourself somehow missing turns (my specialty) and all of a sudden driving the streets of the historic center, your fine will be several times the purchase price of The David.

For those two reasons we decided to rent with Hertz, which has an office on the other side of the Arno, far from the madding crowd. Another important consideration was that our hotel was on the other side of the Arno as well. We called a cab at the train station and soon we were off to meet our rental! It took only a few blocks to realize we had made a good choice. This was a driving experience like no other. Clearly, in Florence (and elsewhere in Italy we later discovered), you want a cab driver who is 1) aggressive and 2) has no fear of death. In no time we pulled up at the Hertz office. With shaky hands I tipped heavily.

Hertz did indeed have our rental. Only one problem. We had requested (no, demanded) a GPS and they didn’t have a car that had one. Well, I was beyond disappointed, but before I could launch into my customary string of profane words, gestures, and deeds, the clerk said, “But wait! I have something better!”  What that turned out to be was a portable WiFi that we could plug into the lighter and then we could navigate with our cell phones. Well, after much discussion, gnashing of teeth and rending of garments,  and considering our bleak options, we decided to go for it. So armed with Google Maps and hand-puppet directions from the Hertz staff we were off for the Hotel David.

Thankfully, this was indeed a quieter part of town, but there was still plenty of traffic. And, as we anticipated from previous experience, street names changed about every other block. That said, only once did we find ourselves driving out into the Tuscan countryside instead of where our hotel was supposed to be. About an hour into what should have been a twenty minute trip we found ourselves to really, truly and actually be on Viale Michelangiolo, the location of our hotel.

Well, said viale winds through a pretty large part of the west bank of the Arno. We made the trip from one end to the other umpteen times in heavy traffic and could not find our hotel. We finally called the place and the clerk was very helpful, spoke excellent English, but could not describe any landmarks in our recent experience. Finally he said he would go out the side of the street and wave! While that was a very heroic gesture, if we were on the wrong end of the viale we couldn’t have seen him if he had grown to the size of Godzilla. Then, all of a sudden, there it was! Of course, by the time we saw it I had already driven past, but in no time, we were safely parked in the Hotel David parking lot, where parking is free. I handed the keys to the valet and did not touch them again for three days. Here is what we had been looking for all along. How could we have missed that sign?:


Arrivederci Venezia

Venice began its existence as a hideout for people following the collapse of the Western Roman empire. Barbarians would come down from the north and those who occupied nearby villages would head out to the islands to escape. Then the barbarians would leave and the islanders would go back to their homes. This went on for a while, then Atilla the Hun shows up. Unlike his lightweight predecessors, Attila was all business. He burned every village and everything else in sight. However, even he didn’t feel like slogging out to the islands.

This time the islanders were fed up. Rather than going back to the mainland and re-building for the umpteenth time, they decided to stay. Only problem was, the islands were mostly marshes and the people quickly got tired of sinking into the mud every time they tried to go someplace. Then, somebody hit on the idea of driving stakes into the muck for people to walk on. Brilliant!

Many of these people were fishermen so they knew that the best, most water resistant boats were made of alder wo0d. Soon they were sending barge after barge across the Adriatic to bring back alder logs. They would then trim them to roughly fifteen feet in length and start driving them in. After they finished this they would build wooden (later stone) platforms on top and build buildings. When one of the large churches was built in the 1600’s it was recorded that it took 1,106,657 wooden stakes and two years and two months of pile driving just to build the base. Along the way, the Venetians managed to wipe out the forests of Croatia and Slovenia.

I am telling this story only because today, much of Venice is still supported by those very same stakes, now hundreds of years old. Apparently, the muck does not allow wood-eating creatures to survive.  Problem is, muck is still muck and little by little Venice is sinking. Not much. Maybe a millimeter per year. But over time it still adds up. Is that the biggest problem Venice faces? Not hardly. What is the biggest problem? Guess.



Typically Venice floods about a hundred times a year, usually from October through winter. This phenomena is called the acqua alta and is generally more of a nuisance than anything more serious. If you decided to go to Venice then, you might encounter this:

Acqua Alta, St. Mark's Square, Venice, Italy

Photo from Rick Steves

or this:

Photo from Rick Steves.

It has long been understood that Venice is a city living on borrowed time. But given the current climate it is not hard to imagine that time is running out. I suggest you move this city to the top of your wish list. Now, to change the subject.

After going through my bazillion photos I realized that I had left out of few from Saint Mark’s basilica, actually some details you see in the picture above,


If you are considering marble counter tops, what better place to look at samples?



The replica horses:



DSCF9565 edit



I really can’t get enough of this place.

Often we would be late getting back to the hotel and just as often we would fail to make reservations at any restaurant. Fortunately the hotel staff would bail us out by contacting their friends to let us in. This generally led to evening strolls through the neighborhood. There are always people out, though, so safety is not a concern.

Although this street looks a little foreboding, there were lots of people behind us when I took this.


It led us to this place:


If you order meat for your pizza, sandwich or salad, they cut it fresh!




The big thing in Venice is Murano glass, which, not surprisingly, I’d never heard of. Murano is an island near Venice and tourists flock there like pigeons in a peanut factory. While we did not have time to join them, plenty of glass was available in the city proper. Here is the result of Dianne’s very deliberate and well-done shopping,


Plenty of room for these in the carry-ons!

Earlier I had mentioned the Correr Museum, which is on the opposite end of Piazza San Marco from the basilica. Here a few highlights;

This is the Doges library, all the books being leather bound.


A very fine coin collection. Each Doge, apparently, felt the need to have their reign memorialized on coins. Some obviously preferred gold.



Later in Venetian history the city became famous for the Masked Ball. Young upper-crust gentlemen would descend on the city each year from other city states with the idea of engaging in a little hanky-panky with young ladies of the area. Some of these ladies apparently were troubled by matters of stature. Well, problem solved!


And so, people, it was time to say goodbye to Venice. We were trapped like all the other tourists, but we were enchanted as well. We would gladly return. One last look out the room of our hotel,


before we made a mad dash for the front desk so they could call us a guy to move our now heavier bags across that bridge. Soon he shows up, possibly a member of the WHHS Class of ’56.


But, not only did he take all this stuff across the bridge, he took us to a secret entrance to the train station which led directly to the trains! Well worth the 20 euro!

We were sittin; at the railway station, had a ticket for our destination.Florence!


But this pretty well sums up our feeling about Venice:



The Rialto Bridge

If you’re in Venice and you long to see the faces of your fellow tourists, well typically all you have to do is turn around,  if there aren’t already several hundred in front of you. But if you want to see even more of them, head for the Rialto bridge.

File:Venezia - Ponte di Rialto.jpg

(This is not my picture, since apparently it is the one thing in this town I didn’t photograph. Credit goes to Wikimedia)

The bridge in its current form dates to 1591 and was designed, even then, to include shops on either side. They are well occupied to this day. So, ready for a leisurely stroll through the shops? Well, so is most of the civilized world.

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If you can’t find enough shops on the bridge…

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there are plenty more on the other side.

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And, there are more on virtually every side street.

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So, what is it we think we need? How about some hand-made shoes?



What! You say you don’t have gloves to match the shoes? Mama mia!


Perhaps some nice baubles to complete the look.


Going retro?


Want to enhance the decor?


Ready to bring the old man in line with your new fashion sense?



Wait! Don’t have time to dock the gondola for a little shopping? Problem solved!


Now, let’s pick up  a little something for the maid!


Well, all this shopping can wear a body out. Time to hit the gelato stand!


Then, it’s time to hit the sauce!


Now a quick bite for those on the go!

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And, perhaps, a little dessert!





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One thing about shopping, it should make you happy!

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Next, we will take one last look and Venice, then we’re off to Florence!





The Gondolier

Perhaps, when you think of romance, you conjure up a vision of you and your sweetie on a classic gold-trimmed gondola  slowly winding through the narrow canals of Venice, while your gondolier, in his best tenor, passionately, tearfully, renders his best “O Solo Mio”. Well, you must have seen it in a movie, because in the real Venice, things are strictly business.

There are 425 gondolas scattered throughout Venice. Did we count them? No need. Gondoliers are part of a guild (like a union) and the guild only allows 425 licenses. The guild also controls the cost of the trip, although some bargaining is possible. If you want to know the cost, you can, of course, look it up on the internet. Or, you can just ask the gondolier.

As we noted in earlier posts, there were a number of gondolas moored right outside our hotel. But, the Grand Canal is much like an interstate, with lots of cargo traffic and, of course, the vaporettos all over the place. Hardly very romantic.

Since Dianne and I had spent so much time on the Piazza San Marco and since the idea of riding under the Bridge of Sighs actually did seem romantic, we decided to ship out of there. To refresh you memory, here is the layout:


The red tent in the distance, between the columns, is the headquarters. When you go there you will see many gondoliers, in their striped shirts, standing around shooting the breeze. If you approach them, they will be sure to ignore you. Eventually you will discover that one of them is sitting on a chair. He is the next on call. When you approach him he will be friendlier and will give you the price for his services. If you want about a 20 minute spin around the block, long enough to say you did it and take some selfies, it will cost about 80 euro. If you want to actually wind through the canals for about 45 minutes, then 120 euro would be just right. If you want to go all the way across town to the Grand Canal, an hour plus trip, then figure on 200 plus. By the way, gondoliers don’t sing. If you want to hear “O Solo Mio” the guy who will sing it to you costs an extra 120 euro plus. He’ll ride in the front of the boat.

Having already been warned by Rick Steves, we had budgeted for the middle option. Soon we were on our way!

First the cover comes off…


Seats are arranged…


The passengers are seated…


And we head into the canals.


I will say one thing about the gondolas: They are absolutely beautiful and actually works of art! Some of them should be in museums.

Well, be began our journey going under the Ponte della Paglia, the main north-south tourist route. Then under the Bridge of Sighs. The gondolier told us if you kiss under the bridge it is supposed to bring good luck. So…


This is certainly not the only bridge we would find on our journey.


What we should have expected, and did not, was traffic jams.


No collisions, but not particularly romantic either.


Eventually the worst of the traffic cleared and things began to quiet down


It is truly beautiful going down these canals. It is an incredible city. Our gondolier, who pointed out a few sights along the way, was mostly quiet. All of a sudden he starts speaking in Italian. My first thought was, surely he doesn’t think we understand the language? Turns out he was talking on his cell phone! That’s him in the background.


Well, the conversation didn’t last long, but it was hardly a magical moment. Then he was back to business. Along the way we passed some beautiful boats:


This one was docked outside a church.


Some sights along the way:



You get a sense that it would not take much to flood the whole town, which does happen from time to time:


In addition to all the gondolas, we also make room for cargo boats:


Now, if these pictures didn’t quite take you there, here is a video of the last six minutes of our cruise where things got a little crazy again. There were many quieter moments as well:

Soon we were back to the piazza:


So, if you are looking for a storybook romantic experience, this is probably not it. The gondola is where the magical Venice and the tourist-trap Venice come to meet.  Is it worth it? Absolutely. Would we do it again? In a heartbeat. We might start from a different location. Maybe Tripadvisor has some suggestions. But all things considered, there is no better way to see one of the great cities of the world.

Next, we’ll go on a little shopping spree! Well, at least we’ll look in the windows.





The Bridge of Sighs

Faced with power struggles inside Venice and threats from invaders outside, you can forgive a Doge for being a little paranoid. Accordingly they were not bashful about disposing of anyone who was, or was rumored to be, interested in taking over.

Originally, the palace dungeons and torture chambers were housed in the basement. But, due to overflow crowds down there a new, connecting building was created to give prisoners more room to stretch, or be stretched, depending on the nature of their crime. To connect the buildings a bridge was built with two lanes of traffic, one inbound and the other outbound. It is not hard to imagine which was more heavily traveled. This is the bridge:


A close-up:


This became known as the Bridge of Sighs because prisoners would look out the window at their last breath of fresh air and last glimpse of sunlight, possibly ever, and sigh. Or, so the story goes.

This, minus the gondola, was their view:


As it so happens, we encountered a young prisoner sighing on that very bridge. Although she was told a thousand times not to mess with politics the message never got through. Now she must pay the price.


After crossing the bridge, things take a downhill turn:


Early on, you get the idea that the government plans for you to stay a while:


Here is our prisoner searching for a cell that meets her requirements for comfort and the proper amenities:


Yes! Perfect!


Nicely appointed and lots of companionship for those lonesome hours:


Fortunately she likes her mattress extra firm! So do her roomies!


Even better, the cell next door is occupied by a community of artists!


Let’s see what works they left that have survived the ages:


Hard to imagine what they must have been thinking about.


There are a lot of recurring themes, no doubt after hours of artistic discussion.


At least, if you were a prisoner in Venice, you found comfort knowing you weren’t alone:


Next, we’ll take you for a ride on one of those gondolas and we’ll see what’s down the canal!



It Isn’t Easy Bein’ a Doge!

Vienna was a republic, so the Doges (long “o”, soft “g”) were elected, not by the common folk, but by the representatives of the wealthy families of the city. In all there were 117 Doges through the history of Venice, the first being elected in 697 and the last, being advised by Napoleon to take a hike, left in 1797.

So, for 1,100 years there was more or less of a struggle between the Doge and the electorate to wield power. The first one had to serve under the rule of another city. He left and the next guy was elected by people who wanted out from under the thumb of the Byzantines. Well, he was assassinated. For a while after that some other guys filled in. In 742 they elected a guy name Theodato Ipato. He served for 13 years till somebody else, Galla Gaulo, thought he could do a better job. So, with some of his friends, he arranged to have poor Theodato deposed, blinded, and exiled. Galla didn’t last more than a year until another guy, Domenico Monegario, had him deposed, blinded, and exiled. Domenico ruled for 8 years, then the same thing happened to him!.

The next in line, no doubt wearing protective eyeware, served without being deposed, but he, too, made a big mistake. When it was time to take his leave, he put his son in his place. Well, one of the big no, no’s of being a Doge is nepotism. The electorate gave the son and his family a one way ticket to Mantua, and made it clear that returning would be a VERY bad idea. Apparently they all died in Mantua.

So, on and on it went for centuries. The Doge would try to get away with something and the Council would say, “No, no, no!”

It is pretty clear, though, that these guys were not shrinking violets. Here are a few portraits.

Around 1150, the current Doge had a palace built in its present location, connected to Saint Mark’s Basilica, which at that time was a private chapel for the Doge. From that point on, the Doges were required to live at the Palace, mostly so the Council could keep an eye on them. At one point, the council required one of its members to be present before the Doge could even open correspondence from a foreign power.

The original palace did not last, so around 1340 the construction of the current palace began. Over time, there were fires and modifications, but the existing palace is close to the original. So, let’s take a look!

Here is the outside:


The view from above:


Inside the courtyard, which contains two wells:


A close-up of the link to St. Mark’s


Inside the courtyard:

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The floor plan:Doges Palace

OK, let’s say you are, oh, the King of Naples, in town to discuss business with the Doge. Your ship pulls up to the harbor, but you’re lucky if anyone comes to meet you. You get off the ship and arrive at the entrance to the Palace.


The first thing the Doge liked to do was to make sure you had to climb to meet him. Your journey started here.

Then, once inside, you found this:


Up we go! To the landing where there is another set of stairs like this one. By the time you get to the Doge, who is on an elevated stage, you are more than just breathless in anticipation!

You observe that the Doge spared no expense on decor:








One of the things Doges loved to do was to have themselves painted into biblical scenes:


Why not?

Well, we could go on and on to room after room, but there are two you should definitely see: First, the Room of the Great Council!

Sometimes, if the Doge was planning something really big, like a war, he would convene the Great Council, which consisted of males 25 and over from the proper families. This could be up to 2,000 people. Where are you going to put them? Right here!


At the far end, where the Doge sat,  you’ll notice a rather large painting:

DSCF9852 Edit

The artist Tintoretto was a favorite of the Doges and they were always bugging him to put out more work. Finally, he hired a workshop of apprentices, fine artists in their own right, including three of his children. It was the Tintoretto Workshop, and the man himself, who produced this painting, called Paradise. It is reputed to be the largest painting on canvas in existence. It is the size of a tennis court. Tintoretto was 70 at the time. This was his last major work.

Here are some details:


Everything builds to Christ crowning the Virgin Mary:


Over the thousand or so years, Venice played around with different ways to set up government around the Doge. Predictably, the larger the council the more unwieldy it became. At one point somebody came up with the idea of taking the top ten most influential guys and making them a separate council to deal with issues in a hurry. They became the Council of Ten and one thing they did was to decide the guilt or innocence of various alleged offenders. Here is a detail of where they met:


As you might imagine, some of the cases heard by the council were of a delicate political nature. And, if they decided that some guy was guilty of, say, treason, and a lot of his supporters were out in the hall, it would not do to parade him through the palace. If you look closely at the wood panels you will note, in spite of the glare, that one panel, almost in the center, seems to stand out from the others. That is because it is a secret door which leads directly to the dungeon below. No muss. No fuss.

In our next post we will take you to the dungeon for a nice visit. I will leave you, though, with a small sampling of treasures from the war room where you can take a look at some of the brotherly love displayed on the Medieval battlefield:










Nice guys!





Piazza San Marco!

In the year 828 a couple of merchants of Venice happened to be in Alexandria, Egypt, which, at that time was under control of the Muslim Saracens. It just so happened that the Apostle Mark had established a Christian Church in Alexandria years before and when the merchants visited that church they came across some monks who were very concerned that Mark’s church might well be attacked and plundered. Their principle concern was that Mark himself was buried there and the monks had no interest in seeing his bones paraded down the street. So, the merchants and the monks hit upon a plan to get Mark out of town. They exhumed him, stuffed another lesser saint into his sarcophagus and, loaded him on the next ship bound for Venice. To make sure he was not discovered they hid his remains under a load of pork and cabbages, which the Muslims would not go near. Sure enough, they quickly passed inspection and off to Venice they went. Numerous miracles are said to have occurred on this voyage, which brought everyone back home safely.

At that time Venice was ruled by “Doges” (DOUGH-jis), or, “Dukes”. When the Doge heard that Saint Mark was in town he immediately ordered the construction of a cathedral right next to his palace. Well, it was a beautiful cathedral no doubt, but unfortunately it burned to the ground some years later and it was assumed that Mark’s remains went up with it.

However, as a new, larger cathedral was being constructed an apparition appeared one night and pointed to one of the pillars left from the old church. Sure enough, upon inspection, it was discovered that Mark himself had been tucked inside the pillar! So, as the new cathedral was completed a much more suitable and secure final resting place was created. Where is it? Nobody is saying. All we know is, he’s somewhere in here:


The basilica is now part of the complex known as the Piazza San Marco which is the crown jewel of Venice. If you stand at the west end of the Piazza the basilica is at the east end:


Along the north sides, to your left and right, are the offices of the Procuratie Vecchie, the people who administer the affairs of the Basilica. The tower is the Campanile di San Marco, or, bell tower.

Here is a better view of the Procuratie Vecchie:


If you stand at the cathedral end and look west you will see this:


At the far end is the Correr Museum, which we will visit later.

If you are at the cathedral looking south, toward the canals, this is the view:


To the left is the Doges Palace, still connected to the basilica. There are two columns also, the one on the left being a winged lion, the symbol of Mark and of the city itself.


So, let’s take a look at Saint Mark’s Basilica. First the outside. The columns at each entrance are of different colored marble. Above are mosaics depicting scenes from Mark’s life and of his rescue from the Muslims:




Such a huge cathedral and yet the attention to detail is incomprehensible:







What incredible art! But wait! Let’s take a look inside:


Yes, people. That is gold! It is gold leaf embedded in the glass chips!







I could show you every picture in our collection or you could find more on the internet but nothing takes the place of just being there. We have been in many great cathedrals, but this is an absolute mind blower! And yet, there’s more!

Inside the basilica is a museum which mostly features mosaics and other art that was salvaged from the earlier church or otherwise removed for display, like this one:DSCF0075

But, by far, the stars of the show are the Horses of Saint Mark:


These horses date back to the first or second century and were probably part of some Roman garden. Apparently they were gifted to the Byzantines and for many years were displayed at the Hippodrome of Constantinople. Well, in 1204, they became part of the loot plundered from that city during the Fourth Crusade. They were brought back to Venice and displayed above the entrance to the basilica where they remained until Napoleon captured Venice in 1797. He removed them by force and had them placed on top of the Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel in Paris.

Following the Battle of Waterloo, however, the Emperor of Austria gave the horses back to the Venetians who, once again placed them on basilica. In 1980, people began to notice that pollution was taking its toll on them. They were taken down, restored, and moved inside to protect them. Are they happy?


Here are the copies:


Next, we’ll head up the Campanile and take a look around.





Venice is a city like no other! Of course, you already know that. But, to actually be there is also an experience like no other. It was a two and a half hour train ride from Milan (38 euro for the two of us) and to get to the city you have to go over a causeway.


So, over we go! We arrive at the Santa Lucia station and it’s an easy departure right out the main gate and there, in front of us is the Grand Canal! Across the canal we can actually see our hotel. This is the one town we decided to upgrade our hotel so we could be on the canal. All we had to do is simply cross over the Scalzi Bridge, turn right and we would be there less than a minute. There is only one detail that even Rick Steves left out: here is the Scalzi Bridge:


Even our light luggage dreaded this one. Almost instantly we were besieged by guys with carts offering to transport our luggage. Now every tour guide we read had one piece of advice in common: Do not allow yourself to be approached by strangers selling stuff and, if you are, ignore them. So, this is what we did. Instead we lugged everything up each of these steps and down the other side. It was awful. And, these guys followed us right up the steps to make matters worse. But we persevered and finally got everything over. So, here is an addendum to any tour book you read. If you are approached by a stranger wanting to carry your bags over the Ponte Scalzi, pay them!

OK, so here is Venice, famously shaped like a fish:


The train station is at the upper left. Our hotel was across the Grand Canal, the omega shaped ribbon that runs through the city, and, as you can see, most of the streets are water. To get around the city you take a water taxi called a vaperetto, which is this:


They make routine stops up and down the Grand Canal and out to the nearby islands if you take the right one. They are numbered so you know which one to get on. To go the entire length of the canal takes about an hour if you get on one that makes all the stops. They can be incredibly crowded. Would you like to go for a ride? No problem! This is the part of the journey that takes you under the Rialto Bridge:

This is the way to see Venice! Here are some more sights along the way:












The real charm of Venice, though, is the side streets:






So, we took the vaporetto the length of the canal and planned our time here. Then it was back to the hotel. Here is the view out our window:


As it turns out, there was a gondola station right in front of us! In the next chapter we will go on a gondola ride and visit Piazza San Marco. Plenty to see and do! In the mean time I’ll leave you with a view from the room at night:




Lake Como! Varenna!

So, we have found our seats on the huge Airbus 380 and, miraculously, the third (aisle) seat remains unoccupied. Soon a flight attendant stands near us waiting to direct people to their seats. No one else comes, so she starts up a conversation with Dianne. It is the usual, “Where are you from?”


She seems interested. “What part of Ohio?”

“Findlay, south of Toledo”

She seems even more interested. “Really? My grandmother lives in Rossford! Have you heard of it?”

“Our daughter and her family live in Rossford!”

Well, from that point on we had new friend on the flight crew. Her name is Jessica and she lived for many years in Texas. With her new job at Emirates she has moved to Dubai. But, she misses her family, so we said we would be happy to take a note to her grandma. She said she had a better idea. In a while she came back with one of those red hats the flight attendants wear and put it on Dianne. It was a perfect fit! Then she invited us up to the crew quarters for a photo op. We took many.


She had a Polaroid and soon she had mounted the picture into a card holder and dated it for her grandma, who is 96 years old. We promised to hand deliver it in about a month when we got back.

Last Thursday, we made good on our promise. Jessica’s grandma is the classic sweet, old lady. She has lived in her house in Rossford for 80 years!


She was very glad to get the picture.

Well, as I mentioned in the previous post, it was a wonderful flight to Milan. Malpensa Airport, however, is not in Milan. It is 30 miles away. Our travels in Italy were to begin at Milan Central Station. In order to get the the Central Station, you take a train called the Malpensa Express. And, it is possible to buy tickets on line for that train. We were supposed to arrive in Milan at 12:15, local time. Our train to Varenna was to leave at 2:20 pm. This seemed like plenty of time, so I booked the Malpensa Express for the 12:45 run, which seemed like more than enough time to cover 30 miles. When I booked the train, though, I found that the Express is not really an express at all. It is a commuter train with a number of stops. The entire run takes about 50 minutes and only leaves at hour intervals. So, if we missed the 12:45, we could jump on the next train, but it would be a miracle if we caught the Varenna train.

As it happened, however,  our plane arrived early. It was a quick process to get our luggage,  go through Passport Control, find the train and get on board. When we arrived at Milan Central Station we found that the Express stopped at a track some distance from the others, so we engaged in an orderly sprint to get to the main tracks.

Here is one thing VERY cool about Milan Central Station. They have an app! One thing we learned from our previous travels in Europe is, just because you buy a ticket to Varenna, doesn’t mean you will see Varenna on the Board that shows arrivals and departures. What you will see instead is the name of the last stop that train makes. In our case, the last stop was Tirano. That is good to know, but actually, since we had our tickets already all we really needed was the train number. So, you look on the board, find your train number and wait for the track to be assigned. When it is, off you go! But, on the app not only do you get the train number, is you click on a little track icon it will show you every stop that train makes on its way to Tirano. Believe me, that adds considerably to the peace of mind of the guy who buys the tickets!

In no time at all we were on the regional train to Varenna! I should point out, that on none of the regional trains (operated by Trennord) did anyone ever so much as look at our tickets. On the high speed trains, they always did.

If you talk to someone who has been to Italy, most of them will talk about Lake Como with that far-away look of dreamers. They loved the place! So, this seemed like the perfect location to unwind and get used to the time difference. The village of Varenna was recommended by Rick Steves and when he does tours, they go there. I don’t remember exactly how we settled on the B&B “…Il Giardino Sul Lago”, but the reviews on TripAdvisor made it sound like just the place we were looking for, even if the name doesn’t exactly work the magic. The manager is Julie and when I told her what time our train would arrive, she said she would meet us at the station. Which is a good thing, because here is the entrance to the B&B:


 See the sign? Well, there isn’t any. But here is the room:
Down the hallway is he boudoir, to the left is the very spacious bath. The place was spotlessly clean, but the best was outside:
It didn’t take long to settle in.
Our room was to the right of the last palm tree.
The Alps were just a short distance away.
The village of Menaggio is directly across the lake. The other side of the mountains is Switzerland. DSCF9339
This B&B was originally owned by the Pirelli family of tire fame. One of the Pirelli’s to whom it was handed down, apparently got religion and decided to give it to the Catholic Church. The Church, however, had all the properties it could handle already, so they, in turn, decided to sell it. No rich buyers, it seems, came forward, so it was sold in sections. Julie, our excellent host, at the time was living with her husband elsewhere in Italy. Her husband heard about the sale and pressured her into agreeing to sell their current home and buying part of this one. Then he ran off with some floozy, leaving Julie to manage this place. Fortunately their piece included the basement, which she turned into a B&B. And that brings us to today.
Julie is very outgoing and extremely funny. She is British by birth and still maintains a distinct British accent. She joined us on the patio from time to time and was very helpful explaining the ways of the area.
After shaking off most of the cobwebs in our brains, we decided to go for a walk and check the place out. From our room there is a gradual climb which takes you to the public square, Piazza San GiorgioDSCF9225
The centerpiece of the piazza is the Church of San Giorgio, but, as you enter you pass by an even older church, the San Giorgio Battista (Saint John the Baptist).
This church dates back to the eleventh century. Records show that it was extended in 1151.
The frescos on the walls date back to the 14th century the one below is a couple hundred years younger. DSCF9222
After stopping in here, we decided to stroll along the lake shore. The main street out of town was decorated with pennants to celebrate a bicycle race that had been held the day before. DSCF9226
Soon we were in the country
Below is the beautiful Villa Monastero, now a convention center. Each year a physics conference is held here. Years ago, Enrico Fermi was the presenter.
Another shack we passed along the way.DSCF9236
I think it’s safe to say that money has found its way to Varenna.DSCF9232
In time we found our way back to the piazza and decided to stop in at the main church, San Giorgino:
This church was consecrated in 1313, which was a year that spelled trouble for all of Europe, the beginning the the Little Ice Age. The result was steady rains and a four year famine. But the worst was yet to come. Thirty-four years later was the beginning of the Black Death. Before it was over, 35 million people, a third of the population of Europe, would be gone. Just to give you some historical perspective.
Today, however, it is simply a beautiful little church. So, we went in to rest our bones and noticed there were others doing much the same. Before long a lady came up to us and handed us a small piece of paper which announced, in Italian, of course, that there was going to be a concert by the organist Ennio Cominetti, who apparently was in Varenna as part of a circuit tour of organists sponsored by the region of Lombardy, which includes our town. Sure enough, in about 5 minutes a guy comes in, sits down at the organ and starts playing. Want to hear some of it?
After the concert we thought it would be a good idea to buy a bottle of wine to take back to the room. Across the the church was this little market,
I opened the door to go in, though, and found that it would only open part way. Why?
This lady parks herself behind the door! It appears she has no other function. We came back to the store a few hours later and she was still there! Maybe this is an Italian version of Eldercare.
This is a store where every square inch is occupied by something. Generally, something yummy!
If one of Varenna’s citizens wants to actually go shopping in a supermarket, they have to take the ferry over to Menaggio.
Well, that’s enough for now. Next we will visit Bellagio.


Fourteen trains, five flights, and numerous white-knuckle rented car miles later, not to mention 115 miles walked (according to Dianne’s FitBit), we have finally returned from Italy. Now, as promised (or forewarned, depending on your perspective) the blog begins! Rather than boring you immediately with a rundown of sites visited and adventures experienced as is my custom, this blog will start a little differently. As we prepared for this trip and began to tell people about it, with real, actual dates, we realized that there are many people who really want to go there. Some have already been there, some have actual plans underway, some are seriously thinking about it and some have but a far-away look when the subject comes up. So, since the summer is young, and plans can still be made, I decided to begin, rather than end, this blog with our general travel planning process, which, hopefully some of you may find beneficial. If you’ve already been there or have no interest in going, you might want to skip this chapter. The next one will be coming soon, with a lot more pictures and much less blathering.

Why Go?

Well, what do you want in a vacation? Breathtaking scenery? Beautiful cities? Warm and engaging people? Incredible food, wine, etc? Some of the best art ever created? Beautiful beaches? Rich heritage and history? Are you an archeologist? Do you want easy planning? Reasonable prices (generally)? Romance? To throw coins in the Trevi Fountain? Shopping? To climb the Spanish Steps? To be a gladiator (yes, there are schools)? To learn to cook Italian food (yes, there are schools for that, too)? To ride a gondola?  Did I mention wine? Well, it’s all there. And much more. Let me just say that all the good thing you have heard about Italy are true, and often understated. Certainly if you include among your hobbies the study of genitalia, then Italy is the country for you. Specimens carved in stone can be found around virtually every street corner.


We began to rough out the itinerary for this trip back in 2014, but with uncertainty about the date our new granddaughter would arrive we put it on the shelf. When that date became certain we chose other destinations before, and well after her arrival. Last fall, however, the Italy folder was re-opened and we began to get serious.

For this kind of planning, we rely on two main sources: Rick Steves to lay out and make cases for his itinerary and Trip Advisor to get additional feedback and very up-to-date recommendations. We also watch a ton of videos on You Tube. Here are two other sites I found to be helpful and informative:

10 Best Places to Visit in Italy


The last one has some great videos. There are many, many other helpful sites as well.

So you look all this stuff over, decide what you really want to see and do, and what you can afford in cash and time. Then you simply connect the dots with transportation and lodging. Because the transportation system in Italy is so good, and because there is an abundance of relatively inexpensive and good, clean, highly rated places to stay, planning this trip was in many respects the easiest we have done. Here are some additional considerations:

If we’ve learned one thing it is this: Travel is hard work. Sure, you get to be in some of the best locations on the planet, but to get the most out of them will be simply very physically demanding. For example, according to Dianne’s FitBit, over the four days we spent in Rome we walked more than 39 miles. (I understand there is some reason to doubt FitBit accuracy and I agree it may be somewhat off. To me, that figure seems a little low.) I should add that this is not 39 miles on the WHHS track. This is 39 miles of cobblestones, flagstones, no stones, and sidewalks sometimes all of 18 inches wide, while mostly going up or down hills.

And remember, even though you are traveling light, with small luggage, “light” is still a relative term. By the time day four rolls around and you hoist those things up on the luggage rack. you will think those carry-ons are full of neutron stars.

So, when you plan, give yourself a break! The reason we started out on Lake Como for three days was to simply adjust to the six-hour time difference, something that has always been hard for us. In Italy your day begins at 1 or 2am Eastern Time. At our age, that takes some real getting used to.

Many of our stops were for 3 days, Rome was 4, and we had a some 2 days as well at places in close proximity to our previous location. Every place has so much to offer you can stay very busy without having to pack your bags all the time. Generally, we would much rather visit fewer places and stay longer that a lot of places and be constantly on the move. Unless you just up and decide to live there, you can never see it all.

Here is something else extremely important about visiting Italy: In the summer it can be unbearably hot. Our Colosseum tour guide told us that in the summer he will start with a group of 20 people and end with 2 because of the heat. Many of our friends who have been to Italy have said the same thing. When we went in May the temperature only exceeded 80 one day and was generally mid-60’s to 70’s. Perfect! April and October, they say are generally ideal as well. Need further proof of how important this is:


Here is a bus in Rome before another 6,000 people got on. It is about 75 degrees and the A/C is already a non factor. Fortunately, everyone is up to globally accepted hygienic standards. Add another 20 degrees, however, and those standards, like your last gasp of oxygen, go straight out the window.

Getting There

Throughout the year, airfares are all over the place. In spite of the plethora of advice on how to get the absolute lowest fare, my personal experience is, it’s a crap shoot. So, instead, I settle on a price I’m willing to pay and when it appears some place, and I have stashed away the funds,  I pull the trigger. On this trip, I got the price I was looking for back in October. Turns out that, had I waited I could have done better, but not much better. I didn’t feel cheated.

One good way to go, if you have the time, is to subscribe to a price-alert from Kayak or Expedia or one of those sites. They will e-mail to you the latest fares for your destination. Still, you will never know till boarding day that you got the best deal.

The lowest fare, however, is not the only consideration. It is an 8 hour flight from JFK to Milan. That can either be 8 hours of relaxation, or 8 hours of misery, which will mostly depend on the plane and its seating arrangements as well as your ability to select seats. This is not a minor issue. When you hit the ground at your destination a lot of things will happen very quickly: passport control, baggage claim, train connections and so on. If you are dead tired when you get there, it just may not go too smoothly. At best it will not feel like a vacation.

So, when you book your plane, they will tell you the kind of plane you are flying. If they don’t let you select your seats, or if they charge an unreasonable fee to do it, cancel and look elsewhere.

On this trip, we found the best rate on Emirates Air. This is a modern, relatively new, airline. Recently they have been running ads with Jennifer Aniston talking about missing the shower and lounge areas that she has become accustomed to with Emirates. Well, as it turns out, these things do exist.

Now, understand, we fly economy class only. But with Emirates, that takes on a whole new meaning. The plane they fly is an Airbus 380. It is a huge 4-engine jet with an oval shaped fuselage. The oval shape makes two things possible: It creates room for a second floor. On the second floor you will find Jennifer showering with her very rich friends. But for those of us below it allows standing head room even on the window seat! That means on your 8 hour trip you can stand and stretch as often as you want and disturb no one. And, the seats are wide and comfortable. Not only that, there is a screen built into the seat in front of you that has an entertainment system with hundreds of movies, TV shows, radio, and even video games with a pop-out controller. And, they come around a pass out head phones. Not ear buds, but actual headphones. And, the food service is fabulous. We not only were served a large, very tasty meal, they came around later with very nice snacks. By the time we landed we were stuffed!

Here is another thing that sets Emirates apart from other airlines: The staff. OK, so you’re sitting at the airport waiting for your flight. As you wait there is a smattering of baggy-eyed flight crew people dragging their well-worn luggage behind them on their way to their umpteenth destination. On and on. Then, all of a sudden here comes a team of thirty or more which includes pilots, flight attendants, and others. They are sharply dressed, they move with a purpose and they act like a real team. That’s YOUR flight crew heading for YOUR plane. You feel like you are part of something big. You feel like these people will get you safely across the Atlantic! Hallelujah!


And that’s exactly how it was. Both coming and going we have never had better flights. It would take some serious price drops from others to make us even think about changing airlines again. I would even consider them for a trip to Australia, something I swore I would never do on a plane without multiple lay-overs.

Where to Stay

The one thing that made Italy stand out compared to other places we’ve been is the availability of clean, low-cost, well-located places to stay. This is the thing, above all others, that makes and extended stay possible. To take full advantage, however, you have to think beyond the traditional hotel room. Apartments and B&B’s are also an important part of the mix. Fortunately, ratings and up-to-date comments are available for all these places, so the probability of unpleasant surprises, although possible, is very low.

Once again, Trip Advisor, guides the way. But any time you Google a place you will find commentary from many sources, including Google itself.

As an example, over half of our vacation we stayed in properties that cost around $100 or less, and, as you will see, they were very nice. In Rome we rented an apartment for $127 per night that was a 10 minute walk from the Colosseum, if you know how to get there. It was beautiful!

Getting Around

Your success in getting around Italy, or anywhere else abroad, for that matter, begins at home. If you are the kind of person who feels that you have to have multiple changes of clothes to look your best and so on, my advice is, stay home. Because what you will experience overseas will not be a vacation. At least not for the poor SOB that has to lug all your stuff around. In one carry-on size piece of luggage you should be able to fit clothes for 10 days, basic hygienic supplies and necessary documents. Rick Steves, among others, tell you how to do it. Follow their advise.

Here was our basic rig for traveling:


Our basic rig: carry-ons with clothes, my bag (The Right Thing, (thanks, Terry!) with camera gear plus a small computer and other electronics, and Dianne’s bag with her extra stuff, plus room for a few souvenirs.

One carry-on plus one other bag to store under the seat in front of you. (OK we cheated already by checking the luggage and carrying on the bags only.) The reason being, the airlines, with their in-humane checked bag fees, have never provided enough space for carry-ons. We knew, going in, we could not get away with this. Checking the small bags was never a problem.

So, you may ask, since you checked your carry-on luggage, why not bring a bigger bag with more stuff? The simple answer is, what I described above applies to planes. You will probably not be doing much flying once you get overseas. Most of the time you will be taking trains.

Often, in our case, the trains didn’t pull up to the station till a few minutes before boarding. On the high-speed trains, when you buy your ticket you are assigned to seats in a particular car. Some of these trains can be as long as several football fields, so if your track is assigned only minutes before boarding and your car is two or three hundred yards away, you better be movin’ your ass down the line. THEN, when you get to your car, you have to hoist those bags up several steps to even get on board (usually with people crowding behind you, just as desperate). THEN, you have to find a place to store them. On some cars you can’t even fit a purse on the overhead racks, much less your luggage. So, you have to find a place between seats, or, some cars have a small, overwhelmed, luggage area. The problem with that is, luggage has been known do disappear from those areas in a twinkling. I cannot overstate: travel light.

OK, so here is the next thing you can do before ever setting foot on Italian soil: Buy your train tickets! Yes people, what an age we live in! Of the fourteen trains we took on this adventure, eleven of them were in Italy. When we touched down in Milan I already had tickets printed for every one of them. That’s right: no standing in ticket lines, no messing around with ticket machines and the all-too-helpful people that show up to “help” figure them out. Not only that, purchasing tickets early often led to huge savings. And, every single train we booked was on time and every single ticket was honored. And, every ticket you print is pre-validated, so you don’t have to fool with that crazy process.  What an incredibly efficient system! And, what this means is, lets say you decide to stay in just one location, say, Florence or Rome. With the train system, virtually the entire country, every destination we visited plus many more, is available to you as day trips typically from 10-30 euro per person, each way. Here is where to get started:

Since the topic of this chapter is “Getting Around” I should mention the cities. First, be aware that, regardless of what city you are in, the public transportation system will be overwhelmed. The term “crush of humanity” will be more than an abstract phrase by the time you get out of these places. If the vehicle you are riding seems filled beyond capacity, you will find, as we did in every city, that it can always take a few hundred more.

In Venice the streets are canals, so the way to get around is the Vaparetto, or water taxi.


Does this look crowded? Well, it’s one of the early stops.

In Florence, it’s the bus system. Starts out quiet and soon seats become only a dream. In Rome, well, that is a whole other story, which I will save for later.

All things said, however, this is the easiest country to travel in that we have experienced. Unless, of course, you decide to rent a car. I’ll save that subject for later, too.


The guide books will tell you that Italians appreciate even a feeble attempt to speak their language and you will be even more warmly greeted if you give it a try. So, months before our departure I did my best to memorize a few phrases I considered to be key, the most important by far being: “Questo e’ il treno per (your destination)”? (Is this the train to….). As it turned out, however, the one used the most was “Dov’e’ l'(what you are looking for)” Dov’e’ (pronounced DOH-vay) means “where is”…. , a phrase we used almost constantly.

When we got over there, we found that particularly in the tourist areas, almost everyone spoke tourist English, that is, they can answer in English the questions most tourists ask. Even in non-tourist areas we could always find a way to communicate. Language was almost never a problem. In fact, here is something we did not expect: Many Italians take considerable pride in their English phrases. So, we would saunter into some new place, like, say, a hotel lobby, armed with our poor excuse for an Italian phrase and before I could even open my mouth the person I approached would say, “Good morning!” or some other English phrase. Apparently, neither Dianne nor I will ever be mistaken for Italians. And, if I would say “Buena sera” (good evening) to someone they would reply with “Good evening”.  Sometimes we would compliment someone on their good English and they would get all sad-faced and apologize that their English wasn’t very good. And I’m like, Dude, it’s YOUR country. I’m the one who should be apologizing to YOU! (Which, of course, I couldn’t since I don’t know the words).

One thing that took a little getting used to, language-wise, was, a common exchange is, when someone does something for you, you say “Grazie” and they reply “Prego”, which means “you’re welcome”. But, when we would go into restaurants, the waiter or owner would say “Prego”, which we took to simply mean “Welcome” and we would reply “Grazie”. So, things got a little turned around. No big deal.

Here is one thing, though, that Italians do appear to be sticklers for: place names. If you tell somebody you are going to, say, Florence, they will look at you like you just said Mars. Both at the train stations and in polite conversation know that Venice is Venezia, Florence is Firenze, Tuscany is Tuscano, Rome is Roma and so on.

The point is, you don’t have to delay your trip to bone up on Italian phrases. It’s more fun to live them.


Here is a true confession: We carry cash. I try to figure out how much we are going to need and then go to Huntington and convert dollars to euro. Unless the exchange rate is really bad, in which case we use ATM’s over there. Right now the dollar is fairly strong, so the rate is, at least, tolerable. You will never get the market exchange rate here and you won’t get it over there either unless you are moving huge sums. If you are, you will not relate very well to this blog. Quit reading and go elsewhere.

I should note that since we carry cash we take many extra steps to protect it. Italy is the land of pickpockets and you will be constantly warned. I won’t go into what we do, but it works. One thing, I never carry a wallet. I leave it at home. My back pockets are for train tickets and hotel reservations. Cash for the day I carry in either hidden money pouch or my front pocket, which is usually so full of other crap that even I can’t find the money half the time.

But, if you prefer ATM’s or going to banks, by all means have at it.

All this said, we use cash mostly for incidentals. We run restaurants and hotels through a credit card. Why? Double points so we can afford our next trip. Be mindful, however, that a euro is not the same as a dollar, Right now it is about 12% more, so try to avoid sticker shock when you get home and find the dollar equivalent of those euro on your next statement.

Enough Already!

I agree! Now the tale begins…