Leah Driscoll - If This is Love
August 9th, 2012

hhhhhhh AC! :-)
Last night I slept so much better. I had the AC on full blast. When I woke up I really didn’t want to get up and have to face the heat.
I went down around 7:30am for breakfast. Each day, the sisters have had fresh peaches. In fact, there have been a lot of peaches throughout this trip. So am I correct in assuming that this area is near the same latitudinal line as, say, Georgia? Because I’d never go to Georgia in the summer… So what the hell am I doing HERE in the summer?!
I walked to Vatican City, which was only about a 15 minute walk for me. The location of the convent has been extremely convenient. I haven’t walked more than 30 minutes to get anywhere.
I knew I definitely wanted to do a tour. I ended up getting a guide who was very knowledgable… But pretty damn snappy. The tour was scheduled to begin at 9:30. She stood in front of the Basilica/museum from about 9:15 giving historical information. At about 9:35, one of the men in the group tapped on his watch, indicating it was past 9:30. She gave him the most disgusted look and said, “what are you, German?” in a thick Italian accent. We all laughed but I think he actually was!!! He could have been Dutch, I suppose. Anyway, so she said, “don’t you want to know the history of this place? Don’t you think what I’m telling you is important? I don’t understand why you wouldn’t want to know.” Then she walked off towards the building where the tour company is located to see if there were more people… WITH her microphone still on she said in English, “how am I supposed to work like this?!?” then came back and said, ” ok, can I finish what I was going to say? It’ll only take 5 minutes. Can you spare that?” This was of course all said in a pretty condescending/pissed off tone. I loved every minute of it. For some reason she decided of the 30 people She liked me best and made sure I got all the inside info. Cranky people often like me — I think it’s because I refuse to be cranky back. Little do they know I’m playing some Jedi mind trick on them to get them to soften the hell up.
My feet and back were killing me. Too much standing/walking in unsupportive shoes. And the museum was MOBBED, more so than any place I’ve been on this trip. Everything the guide was saying was really, really interesting but I was dying in there with all those other people. I’d have rather been out in the blazing sun… All their smells and sweat were making me nauseous. Ugh. Actually, I’d have rather been in a coffin. At least then I’d have my own space. I guess you could say my phobia of being in an enclosed space with people kicked in.  I started feeling like I was losing my mind!
Once inside the Sistine Chapel… Well, what can you say? It’s Michelangelo at his finest. To see it in person is a gift… And I was bound and determined to take that gift home. No, I didn’t gouge out a piece of the wall. But I risked being tossed from the place by taking a picture, despite the yells from the guards: “NO FOTO!!!” My feet hurt, I was thirsty, and I had the body odor of hundreds of tourists all over me. I was like a crazy woman at that point. It was worth the risk to get what I wanted!
Eh, so the photo is blurry… It’s what I went through to get it that matters.
The tour ended at St. Peter’s Basilica. Despite the fact that there are many decisions and stances issued by the Vatican that I don’t agree with, it is still the center of the faith in which I’ve practiced my whole life. For that reason, I do see it as an important spiritual moment in my life. I took time to go into one of the wings reserved for prayer and meditated for a little bit. In my head, I was reciting the words to one of my favorite songs we used to sing at the church I attended in LA, St. Monica. Before I left on my trip, one purchase I knew I wanted to make for certain was a set of rosary beads from the Vatican. I bought a set made of jade. They’re beautiful and something I think will be special to hand down to another generation.
After there, I headed back near the convent and had lunch (which was thankfully not as bad as yesterday). Then I took a good 2-hour siesta. It would have been a 4 or 5 hour one had I not forced myself to get out of bed. I got a gelato at some very local looking place (not a chain). There was a line out the door so I knew it must be good. It was. Although, I  didn’t appreciate the Asian tourist literally breathing down my neck behind me… Who also tried to butt in front of me. Yes, I know it’s a cultural difference, but (oh my god I can’t believe I get to actually use this) WHEN IN ROME…
Everyone waits in an organized, civilized line. So chill out! You’ll get your damn gelato eventually. Grrrrr
Yes, yes, YES I am getting sick of crowds! And let’s just call a spade a spade: I have PMS. Why, hello Captain Obvious! 
Ahhhhhhh so anyway… (tirade: done)
I decided to walk up to the Villa Borghese even though it was a big hike in the heat. Scarfing down that gelato made me feel guilty. I got up there, and saw where the wealthier people must stay/live (I’m assuming this is the area where my parents probably stayed… Very nice). After walking around an hour, I knew I wanted to eat up here so I could avoid the tourist hoards. That was a good call. I ended up at a decently priced place with decent-tasting pizza, then very slowly made the walk home. 
When I came back, I checked out with one of the sisters, since I have to leave very early tomorrow. All these women are SO nice. I guess if you’re a servant of the lord, you should probably have good customer service skills. This particular sister told me about an easy and cheap airport shuttle to grab in the morning.
So yep, this is it! Tomorrow I fly home. Despite the last 2 days, I have thoroughly enjoyed my trip. I’ll write one last blog tomorrow to wrap it all up.

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August 8th, 2012

uuuuugggghhhhh it’s HOT! Last night I just about died in my room. One window that faces an alley… No breeze inside… And there’s AC but it costs an extra €10 a day, and there isn’t a way to turn it on because the nuns have taken the knobs off. I woke up in the middle of the night and dragged my bed to right in front of the window to get SOME air, but the flipside is that there is a bar or club that blasts music until late at night. I was having these dreams throughout the night that I turned the AC on, and the nuns kept catching me and telling me I was going to hell (no joke). Needless to say… I’m forking over the extra €10 tonight for AC.
When I woke up, my entire room smelled like exhaust because apparently they were doing work in the alley this morning. It was just a really, really crappy night/morning
I headed downstairs early for breakfast as the sisters only serve it from 7:30-8:30. Breakfast was of course not as good as yesterday, but surprisingly better than expected. While I was eating, the sisters were doing their prayers next door. Something about that calmed me down because I was in a pretty foul mood.
I headed out at 8:30 for the Roman Forum, the Palatine, and the Colosseum. There is one ticket for all 3, and the guy at the tourism booth advised me to get it at the forum as the line is always shorter. Excellent advice. There was no one there. I also bought the audioguide… And I don’t know if I’m just stupid but I had the hardest time following the map and knowing what number to press. 
Anyway… The forum is truly, truly amazing. It’s crazy that ruins like that are still intact, and right in the middle of a city! I loved hearing about all of the constructions pre-dating Christianity. I kept visualizing what it would look like full of people “doing business.” It was also cool to hear about what different emperors did to alter constructions.
After the Palatine and the forum… It was absolutely unbearably hot. Truthfully I would have liked to have stayed longer and looked at more. I’m actually really disappointed about that. But between not enough rest and being hot all night, and it being 90 degrees by 11, I just couldn’t stay. Next door is the Colosseum. I got the coolest shot with the late morning sun hitting it. Going inside, I believe I may have cut the line… I pretended to be a part of a tour group and went in a special entrance. Desperate times call for desperate measures. There’s no way I could have waited in the regular line. I got a guided tour of this one, though it was somewhat brief but it was all anyone could take in that heat, including the guide. Despite the heat… It was so worth it. That place is quite possibly the most impressive thing I’ve seen in my life. Thank god Pope whoever (I think it was a Benedict????) saved it. One of the younger guys on the tour was sure to ask where the corpses went (they were dragged out through a set of doors near where they believe the emperor might have set). What was also cool to see is the work that’s been done to reconstruct these ruins in drawings, so we know what they might have looked like. I hope I get another chance to come back here… When it’s 30degrees cooler.
After that i was starving and ate nearby. I didn’t want to. I’d heard food around the colosseum wasn’t good… And what I heard was right. Horrible pizza, sub par service. I was exhausted, but since I was already out I felt like I should try to see more. So I walked to Piazza Venezia, where the capital buildings/national museum are. I hiked all around that damn thing in the heat. I have to give it to the government though. They had workers out there giving people water. 
After getting a little lost and heading into some area that I’m pretty sure was only for government officials, I walked back to my hotel. I got in and told one of the sisters I want AC tonight. I spoke to her in Spanish since she and the other sisters don’t seen to know much English. Italians are quite impressive in their ability to speak multiple languages. I can’t believe how just an average person, not even someone who works in tourism, is multilingual. I really wish the US would restructure the way children are taught languages. Anyway, many times I have found myself actually speaking in Spanish because it sounds so close to Italian. Sometimes I surprise myself by how much I remember, because I have no occasion to use it, and I’ve never lived in a Spanish-speaking country (though California was close…). I just totally took to that language — it’s beautiful and I think really easy to learn (besides getting down the rules for conjugating 5 billion tenses of verbs). It’d be nice to really get my Spanish cleaned up so I could take on another romance language.
So yeah… Got back to the convent late afternoon and took a nap. I then walked to the tomb of Augustus (which is closed for renovations), the Spanish Steps, and the Trevi Fountain. I had done all kinds of research about getting a good meal in the touristy area… Found a restaurant, got there, and it was closed for the August holiday. Ugh. So I ended up at this place near the Pantheon that was bloody awful (I swear the food was microwaved), followed by a slice of pizza that was also gross, which I tossed, followed by the worst gelato I’ve had, which melted so quickly I didn’t even need to toss it. Needless to say, this day has been a challenge. 
I was determined to turn it around somehow, so I ran into a gelato shop chain I’d seen before called Flor. I got a coconut milk and cream gelato… Oh my. The coconut milk was the best gelato I’ve had yet. I couldn’t believe how good it was.
So I just got back 30 minutes ago. Tomorrow is the Vatican, then that’s it! I think the vacation has been just long enough… The heat is getting to me, as is the spending of money. Generally speaking, I feel like I was able to do so much more in a short amount of time because I was by myself. 
I don’t have the mental capacity for any more commentary tonight. So. Tired.

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August 7th, 2012

hat can I say, except that I wish I could have stayed a whole week. 
I arrived yesterday evening around 6:30. The only one home was the “lady of the house” — the mother of the man, Nicola, who runs the B&B. Since she’s quite elderly, I had to hike the bags up into the castle myself… Which was no easy feat. When we got to my room, in the tower, there were two narrow, winding staircases. I opted to only bring my carry-on up and leave my suitcase on the first level. The second level is where the bathroom and living room are, and above that (up another winding staircase), is the loft in the tippy-top of the tower, where the bedroom is located. Unbelievable. After a brief nap, I took a walk around the castle grounds (this is when I wrote yesterday’s blog). I got some beautiful pictures at sunset. I slept like a “bambino.”
Since of the four towers I was in the one that faces east, I got lots of bright morning sun today. I left all the windows open so that there was a cool breeze coming through. Needless to say, I didn’t want to get out of bed.
I came down for breakfast and met Nicola, who gave me a brief history of Quattro Torra while we were waiting for the coffee to brew. The castle dates back to the 14th century (!!!) and was built as a fortress during the war between Florence and Sienna (which is why Florence is now known as the seat of Tuscany and is much larger and more known……. Though nowhere near as charming and beautiful in my opinion). Nicola’s mother’s family has owned the castle since 1850. His mother owns 50% of the castle, and his aunt owns the other 50% (so they each get “due torra”). Nicola lives there with his mother, wife, and 3 small children.
Breakfast was incredible and hands down the best breakfast I’ve had here. Cappuccino (NOT regular “tar” coffee), melon, yogurt, sliced cheese and ham, and the best part, freshly made pastries with homemade marmalade. The croissant was sooooo damn good! And the room I ate all this in was totally adorable with a gorgeous view. I definitely felt like queen of the castle! I was joined for breakfast by the same talkative gray cat who accompanied me on my walk last night. I learned from Nicola that her name is Mini and she’s the mother of most of the other “castle cats.” Figures — she totally acted like she ran that place. She’s probably the REAL queen of the castle.
I took another walk around the grounds after breakfast and took some photos during daylight. Nicola also let me go up into one of the other towers that had a fantastic view of Siena. I left so reluctantly… I loved it and would say anyone who goes to Tuscany needs to stay at Castello Quattro Torra.
I took a taxi to the bus station. I just missed the earlier bus to Rome… I couldn’t find the damn ticket booth and in usual Italian fashion, nothing is clearly marked. 
The bus ride to Rome is 3 hours, because it makes several stops (it’s shorter by car… But much longer and inconvenient by train). But the bus stops in little towns throughout Tuscany so it’ll be fun to get a look at other places.
Oh my god that bus ride was so NOT fun. About an hour into the ride the bus got hot… It was blowing air, but it was lukewarm at best. The driver made some announcement, but it was in Italian and apparently I was the only non-Italian on the bus. There was a digital display on the front of the bus showing the outside temperature. As we got closer to Rome, it was well up over 90 if my Celsius to fahrenheit conversion is correct. I couldn’t wait to get the hell off that bus.
When we got there, I took a taxi to the hotel and surprisingly it wasn’t that expensive. In Rome, I’m staying in a convent. Yep — from castle to convent! It is quite austere, as one might expect, but it is extremely clean AND it’s the first place I’ve stayed that had a hair dryer (probably because it’s run by women and they know the importance of a hair dryer). 
First impressions: I like Rome WAY more than Florence. It’s less congested, cleaner, and I feel safer here (perhaps that’s due to the large police presence). It’s hard to compare it to Venice. I tend to think Venice is hard to compare to anywhere else because it’s SO unique.
When I got here, I immediately went out in search of 3 things: a map, an ATM, and WATER. I found all 3, in addition to the tourist info booth, where I got some details on touring the Colosseum.
I’m staying in Piazza Navona, which is pretty centrally located. I looked at the map and saw I was very close to the Pantheon, so I headed over. I’d just stepped out of the ATM, and boom! There it was. And it was ASTOUNDING. This thing pre-dates Christ by a looooooong time and was originally built as a temple for all the Greek gods (that’s the translation of Pantheon: “all the gods”). Then the Christians came in and converted it to a Christian place of worship. There’s an open dome at the top, so I immediately thought about what must happen when it rains. I listened to the audioguide, and it said it was built so the floor dips in slightly, and there are little hidden drainage points. But I kept thinking how unbelievably cool it would be to be in church when it starts raining inside. Imagine if you could hook up the rain for your kid’s baptism. That’s like straight off a movie set!
ALSO, Raphael’s  remains are in there… The place has an insane amount of history. If I pass by it again tomorrow, I’ll probably pop in (especially since it’s one of the only free places). 
After that, I got a gelato at Grom, the place I went to in Florence. It’s kind of like Cold Stone Creamery — probably 5 thousand calories. I got chocolate for the first time but I actually prefer the “lighter” flavors in terms of gelato… Ice cream is another story.
I went back to the convent (that sounds so funny), and took a muuuuuuch needed shower and rest. Then I was out again for dinner and to check out Campo de’ Fiori. I ended up at Piazza Navona where I’m having dinner now. The tables on either side of me are smoking. Sigh… I’d like to stay I’m adjusting to it, but my eyes have been bloodshot every day I’ve been here. This would be a serious issue if I were to move to Italy or any other European country for that matter.
A man just came over singing Green Day in a really, really thick Italian accent. Awesome.
Anyway, tomorrow it’s the Colosseum!

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August 6th, 2012

his morning was a tad stressful. I had to get up early because I had a 7:30am pick-up for my tour today. I was running totally on schedule… At 7:15, I was just about to put on my make-up and put away my toiletries when I heard the hotel door buzz (the hotel is on the second floor). No one attends the desk until 7:30, so no one answered. I started panicking that that was my ride and I’d missed it. I quickly tossed everything into my bag, fumbled with the damn keys/lock (the locks here somehow seem different… That’s my story and I’m sticking to it), and ran downstairs. No one was there. I immediately called the tour company to make sure I didn’t have the time wrong. I didn’t. And 5 minutes later the driver pulled up. Phew.
So now I’m on the bus on the way to Pisa (followed by San Gimignano and the much-anticipated Siena). 
On a separate note… I’ve become very much offended that everyone seems to know I’m an American. I have made painstaking efforts in my dress and general attitude/appearance to “blend in.” I suppose they might also think I’m British or Irish… I mean, it’s not like I could pass for anything other than what my ethnic heritage actually is anyway. I’m going to assume they think I’m from Ireland. That makes me feel better.
There is one thing that I can’t seem to change that may give away my Americanism… From my experience, Americans are definitely friendlier and more polite than everyone else. I can’t believe I’m saying that because it sounds like “American arrogance” but it’s true (I’m lumping Canadians into Americans, by the way). The most irritating/offensive behavior I’ve witnessed on this trip has certainly not been by Americans. It may be that only a certain “type” of American can afford to come to Europe right now, too. 
Pisa is not only hot, it’s also humid. Yuck. 10am and I already feel like I haven’t taken a shower today. 
We only have an hour here, and I’m glad it’s not any more. I took the requisite pictures of myself in front of the Leaning Tower (p.s. I’m totally loving the self-photo option on the iPhone). It costs money to go inside the tower, church, baptistery, etc. I’m all good with that. I really just wanted to see the tower and take a picture of myself.
I’m sitting in McDonald’s… I know, sacrilege. It’s actually the first one I’ve seen on my trip. I’m drinking a cappuccino and it’s actually quite good. It’s funny/equally awesome how much smaller the portions are here. Why can’t the McDonald’s in the US just do the same?!?!
On another note, my tour guide is the exact same size and color of Snooki.
Today was a long day. I’ve done enough different types of excursions on this one trip to Italy to know what I do and don’t like. I don’t like feeling “trapped” in a city… I don’t like crowds… I do NOT like sitting on a bus. I do love the countryside… I do love doing something physically active… And I most definitely do like sweets. I could probably do an entire week just in the Tuscan countryside, with only going into a small village then and again. 
So back to today’s activities… After Pisa was lunch at a winery. The wine tasted good to my novice palate and the oil was excellent. I met this couple from the Pacific northwest… The guy was an ultra conservative so that was interesting. He was determined we wouldn’t get along. I was determined otherwise. I won (though I had to be very patient many times and now have a splitting headache). I mean… I absolutely accept that everyone has different life experiences that shape their worldview… Difference is what gives life its flavor. But there comes a certain point on both political ends of the spectrum where you just sound like……. A totally unfeeling, selfish human being. THAT I don’t understand. The social worker in me wants to call that some kind of symptom of a psychological problem, not a political view (note: I’m finding it funny that at the beginning of this blog I wrote about how polite Americans are. Ha!).
Anyway, enough of that…
So after the winery I had a nice little headache… Probably a combination of too much wine and coffee and not enough water. The next stop was San Gimignano which is a small walled city, and absolutely adorable. 
Next was Siena, another walled city but larger. I was happy that FINALLY I got to take pictures inside a church on this trip! It had works by Donatello AND Michelangelo inside. ASTOUNDING.
At the end of the tour, while everyone else went back to Florence, I grabbed a cab to my hotel, excuse me, my CASTLE. I’m staying at the the Castle of the Four Towers (Quattro Torra). I’m literally staying IN one of the towers. I’m totally in love with the room and the space. I can’t wait to take more pictures in the morning light. 
Well, I’m outside and the Tuscan sun has set on me. I should go inside, even though the breeze feels so good out here after a hot day. I’m going to go back inside with this cute little gray “castle cat” who accompanied me out here. I don’t think he knows English… His purr sounded Italian to me.

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August 5th, 2012

am exhausted but feeling great. Today was my bike tour through Chianti (approximately a 20 mile ride). I lucked out and our group was small – one couple from San Francisco and another single female traveler from Toronto. The tour company also simultaneously runs a tour on Vespas……… While that probably sounds easier to most people, it sounds terrifying to me. I’d much rather sweat it out on a bike. 
We were taken by bus from the city center of Florence to the outskirts, where the bikes were located at a camp ground. Upon arrival, we met our guide, Giacobbe (the Italian version of “Jacob”). He’s pretty much the picture perfect image of an Italian. He has long thick curly hair, is about 6’2″ and looks like something off the cover of a romance novel. He had less of the “Guido” look and looked more traditionally Mediterranean… Kind of like Jesus actually. Ha! We’d later come to find out that he had been working as an actor in the Florence Opera until a few months ago, but left that to complete architecture school. And he’s a cyclist who was raised in the hills of Chianti. So he was pretty much THE quintessentially “Italian” tour guide as far as having all of the “key” Italian requirements.
He warned us that the first couple of hills were the toughest……. And he wasn’t kidding. The VERY start of the ride was at the base of a loooooooong series of steep hills, so basically we were in the lowest gears the whole way up. The level of each riders’ cycling experience was clearly established during this grueling first “test” — and yours truly was at the head of the pack. When I got to the top, right on the guide’s heels, he said, “you-uh must-uh riiide-uh at-uh home, si?” It feels good to feel, well, physically “capable.” I don’t consider myself an especially coordinated person, and most of my life I was pretty physically lazy, but I’ve discovered in the last few years that I have a very strong mind for doing activities that require a lot of “mental toughness.” I WILL NOT give up. It is rare, even when I’m on my own, that I’ll walk up a hill. Sometimes I annoy myself.  Why can’t I just walk up the damn hill?! It’s like with grad school… I say I don’t care much about grades, but I do. I want to be the best. More importantly, I need to KNOW I DID my best. I truly love biking, and even though I’m constantly fighting the size of my “gut,” I’ve always had strong, muscular legs (I got the nickname “lead legs” in my family because they apparently weigh a ton. Nice huh? Heh!). Anyway, it’s become a great sport for me and I love the satisfaction I get out of it.
We stopped several times to enjoy the vistas and take water breaks (it was EXTREMELY hot – I think like 33 celsius). 
First, we stopped in front an olive grove where Giacobbe explained the pressing process. I learned that the olives in Tuscany are only good for oil, not eating. Then we went up the road a piece and he explained what makes a true Chianti wine.
Our second stop was at a public fountain where the bikers stop to get water. I got a great picture of our guide and other bikers in all their garb talking. So Italy!
We next stopped at the last house Machiavelli lived in, after he was ousted from Florence by the Medici family. The Medici told him he couldn’t stay, so he was “sentenced” to a life in the hills of Chianti. Giacobbe told us a series of letters Machiavelli wrote to his friends in Florence still exists. In them, he complains that the “country people” aren’t intellectual, and he feels bored… And lonely. He also expresses his despair that there are no women, and so he must sleep with a prostitute, but the only prostitute around is “old and ugly.” I thoroughly enjoy those types of anecdotes.
We made a brief stop at a local store where I made my first purchase that cost under €1 — it was an espresso for €.95! 
After a couple more quick stops, we arrived at the winery (BEFORE those lazy-butts on the Vespas, I must note!). We went to the Corti winery, owned by Principe Corsini (who was on holiday with his family). The lunch was outstanding — almost all the food came from the gardens and groves right there on the premises. We tasted two of their wines — it wasn’t a huge tasting but I don’t even like alcohol, so what the hell did I care? Plus we had to ride our bikes back…… Downhill and drunk sounds like a very, very bad idea.
Afterwards, Giacobbe and the Vespa tour guide (also named Giacobbe, oddly enough) gave us a tour of the cellars and the property. It was of course gorgeous and I loved every second of it. 
On the way back, we stopped at a gelateria. Of course, both Giacobbes know the guy… He had the shop closed up and was just hanging out outside… Very Italian. I had lemon and grapefruit gelato — both very tart, and both very good. We let the Vespas go ahead of us. As they were leaving, Giacobbe said that at least once a week on their tours someone falls off one… Then he started to laugh and said, “oh just-uh yeeesterday-uh, somezing really-uh funny happen… Well-uh, wuz-uh funny to-uh me-uh but probably not-uh to-uh her.” basically this chick hit the accelerator when she meant to hit the break, ran into a wall, and just kept pressing the accelerator, so she was essentially bouncing off the wall.  That would so be me, no doubt.
On the way back, we stopped to take a group picture, then ended back at the camp ground. Giacobbe was an awesome tour guide (I forgot to mention that the 5 of us had a great conversation about the US, the EU, taxes, gun control, crime, and healthcare — I thoroughly enjoyed the conversation. Translation: they were all definitely fellow liberals). It was everything I wanted for a day in Tuscany. I’m so glad I took the plunge yesterday and signed up!
When I got back, I was beyond exhausted and in need of a shower and a good meal. First, I stopped by the reception desk to pay my bill. The man who runs it was there, as was his father who covers the desk when he’s not there. His father is probably 80 years old, speaks no English, and is totally adorable. The two of them look like twins.
I took a shower then left on a mission… A lasagna mission. I found a fairly cheap place that had it, and of my god was it good. Later I had a gelato from a place called Grom’s that’s supposed to have the best gelato in Florence. That was no lie. It was by far the best gelato I’ve had.
Tomorrow is a looooong day of touring — Pisa, San Gimignano, and Siena, where I’m staying just outside the city walls in a castle!

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August 4th, 2012

got up early because I wanted to get the outside stuff out of the way before it got hot. So I dragged my butt out of bed way earlier than it wanted to be. I’m sooooooo stiff from all the walking and standing too. I felt 100 years old this morning!! 
Breakfast was another typical “blah” European one, but it was served in cute dishes and the coffee was good. I headed out immediately to the Pitti Palace and Boboli Gardens. 
The palace was great, but I loooooved the gardens. They run up a steep hill (so yep, had to do a little hiking today), and have really impressive views of Florence and other parts of Tuscany. It’s probably my favorite part of Florence. I could have stayed up there all day, were it not already hot as Hades, and if I didn’t have a 10:45 reservation at the Uffizi museum. A couple of the larger museums in Florence take reservations. These ones are quite popular as they contain well-known pieces of artwork. Uffizi is known for its Botticellis.. Most importantly, his “Venus.” it was craaaaazy being there as I absolutely remember analyzing that painting in art history class. It’s one of those situations where you have to do a double-take because it seems unbelievable that you’re right there in front of the real deal.
Once I left I was starving, so I had lunch at a restaurant close to the Uffizi. I got spaghetti carbonara for the first course, and beef tenderloins covered in pecorino cheese with roasted potatoes for the second. Both were sooooooo good… Especially the pork in the carbonara.
Afterwards… I admit I was feeling a little down. Besides plans to see one other museum, I had nothing left to do in Florence, and quite frankly I felt “done” with Florence. My allergies seem to be worse here, which is definitely tiring, quite literally. I think a combination of Florence’s inland location and all of the cigarette smoke are what’s getting me. So I went to a tourism booth I noticed yesterday to talk to the guy about booking a tour. 
My mood totally turned around at that point. He hooked me up with the student rate for a bike tour of Chianti tomorrow, then gave me the number of a tour company to book a tour of Pisa, San Gimignano, and Siena for Monday. That last part was key, as I’m spending that night in Siena (at a castle!!!!!) and needed to find a way to get to Siena, and have some place to store my luggage while I tour the famous medieval walled city. I was really excited because I’m going to check off so many things on my “bucket list,” I resolved a “logistics” problem, AND I don’t have to spend another day and a half in Florence.
After all that, it was time for me to make my way to the Accademia Gallery for my 3:30 reservation. It is the location of Michelangelo’s “David.” On the way there, I stumbled across Florence’s Saturday market where tooooooons of Italian leather goods were on sale. I stopped to look at some wallets. I wanted to buy one for my friend Gary who ALWAYS gets me a gift when he travels, and I knew he’d love some bona fide Italian leather. The man at the booth I stopped at was really nice and helpful. He hooked me up with a deal for paying cash (who knows if it was actually a deal, but it was a good price regardless), then I bought a wallet for myself. I originally planned to get a purse in Italy, but I’ve spent extra $$ on tours, so I decided to just get a wallet instead…… Plus I’m much more likely to use a wallet for a longer amount of time. 
When I finished my purchase, I asked the man to point me in the direction of the Accademia. 
He said (in a very thick Italian accent): why-uh you-uh want-uh pay-uh money to see-uh ‘David”? Therez-uh one-uh for free-uh een-uh the square-uh.”
I said: “yes, but I heard that’s not the real one. The one in the Accademia is supposed to be the real one.”
He shrugs his shoulders and says: “eh! The REAL-uh one-uh ees-uh dead.”
That struck me as absolutely hilarious. A definite favorite moment of the trip.
So anyway, I headed off to see the real “dead” “David.” I had noooooo idea how HUGE it would be. It’s absolutely astounding. I can’t even fathom how someone without all our modern technologies was able to create something so colossal and flawless.
There are other works of art in the museum, but at that point, I was totally museumed out… And tired and thirsty. So I took a quick walk around, checked out the musical instrument exhibit (they had a Stradivarius violin, of course), and left.
When I got back to the hotel, I started looking up mass times, since I can’t go in the morning and I absolutely wanted to make sure I experienced mass in Italy. So I found a church that has multiple masses every day — La Basilica della Santissima Annunziata (they’re the mother church of the Servite order). One of the priests (who looked just like Anthony Quinn) walked up to me right before mass started and said something in Italian I couldn’t understand… Then when he saw the puzzled look on my face, he said “do you-uh speek-uh Eenglish?” to which I nodded “yes.” He smiled then walked off. I couldn’t tell then whether or not he was politely annoyed, or amused. 
The church was beautiful — gorgeous renaissance artwork. Mass was all in Italian. Thankfully , there was a “script” at the entrance. Because I have the spoken parts of the mass forever ingrained in my mind, I was able to translate a lot of the Italian as I went, which was cool. Obviously, many of the words are very close to, if not in some cases, the same, as Latin words, and most Catholics know at least a little but of the Latin mass. There was no music, which was a little disappointing (although, I forgot to mention that last night, I stopped into a small chapel that was having an organ concert. AMAZING. I recorded like 30 seconds of it… And when I stopped the recording it started playing back in the middle of the concert! Thank god that organ was DAMN loud). I was a little worried about taking communion… I thought, “what if they take it differently??? Or what if I don’t know what to say in Italian???” well, on the second account: DUH! “Amen” is “amen” no matter what country you’re in, and they take the communion same as we do in the states.
Afterwards, I spoke briefly to the priest from when I first came in. I said, “thank you for the opportunity to attend mass here. I think I understood at least some of it!” he smiled and said, “you-uh MUST-uh learn Ee-talian. I have-uh no-uh other advice-uh than-uh that-uh!” He pinched my cheek and said a quick blessing. It was very sweet and a really special experience.
On the walk home, I grabbed a cheap sandwich…….. And a cannoli. :-) I have to say though… Mike’s Pastries in Boston has better cannolis. However, it may be because it was made early in the day and the shell got soggy. Plus cannolis are actually Sicilian anyway. It sounds like Sicilians have the best food…. Gotta get there someday.
So to tonight will be an early night, as I start biking early tomorrow morning. Can’t wait!

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August 3rd, 2012

y last night in Venice was pretty perfect… With a few moments of comedy. I was determined to eat a real Venetian meal, not just pizza and gelato. So I did a quick internet search of “cheap eats” in Venice. I found a place in Dorsoduro (the cheaper, quieter area I discovered earlier in the week). The name of the restaurant is Al Nono Risorto. I googled the directions before I left the hotel………… But googling directions is pretty much a waste of time in Venice. Every street is more what we would call an alley in the states, and a lot of the names on google don’t seem to match the real street names. So of course, I got lost, and I PRIDE myself on my sense of direction. I had to turn on 3G twice, which was a last resort as I’ve only got the smallest international data package… But I was determined to find this place. And I was STARVING. Finally I found it, JUST as the doors for dinner were opening. There were 3 other groups there waiting, so I’m thinking they googled the same thing I did. The ambiance was wonderful — it was outdoors in the middle of a small garden.  I got 2 courses for €16 which was an incredible deal. I also got wine, my first in Italy. I ate spaghetti with seafood, and squid in its own ink. Seafood is very big in Venice since it is surrounded by water. I ended my meal with the most delicious, perfect tiramisu I’ve ever had. Everything about the meal was excellent.
On the way home, I walked past a square where the Venice Jazz festival was happening. I’m assuming it’s a very new festival because it was quite small, but the music was awesome.
Continuing on my walk, I did one last stroll through St. Mark’s Square, just before sunset. I checked out the line for the tower, called Campanile, and since it was minimal I decided to go up. The elevator is small……. And I was in there with a bunch of Europeans at the end of a long, sweaty day — you can figure the rest out.
From the tower, I could see all of Venice. It was truly the best way to end my time there.
Oh! Before descending the tower, I got a “pleasant” little surprise. I was standing directly under the bell at 8:30 when it started ringing… It was loud. VERY loud. I jumped about a foot. The other tourists got quite a kick out of it.
Now I’m on the train to Florence where I’m bracing myself for some extreme heat. I looooove trains, especially in Europe because you get a chance to check out the beautiful countryside. 
I was in Florence only about 5 minutes before I decided to cram all the museums into a day and a half and do side trips to other parts of Tuscany my third day. Florence is dirty, and in my opinion lacks all of Venice’s charm. Maybe it’s just where I am, which is centrally located among all the museums and important landmarks.
HOWEVER, already I’ve seen one of Michelangelo’s greatest sculptures, “Pieta,” so I’ll give Florence that.
I’ll also say that I’ve had pizza twice (yep, lunch and dinner) and the pizza is far superior here. In fact, it might be the best pizza I’ve ever had, and that’s saying a lot since I grew up in an area with a decently sized Italian population. 
AND it is also waaaaaaay cheaper here… As it probably should be. You’re not getting charged extra for ambiance here.
The people at the hotel where I’m staying are really nice. The man at the desk immediately took out a map and showed me all the places I needed to go. Stuff like that goes a long way with me. Even though my room in Venice was huuuuge, I was not very impressed with the customer service, with the exception of one really sweet filipino man I met there the last day. So far, this place in Florence gets a major thumbs up.
Tomorrow, I’ll go to the Uffizi gallery, which contains some of the best renaissance art in the world, and La Accademia, which houses the famous “David” statue. I’m also going to the Pitti Palace and Boboli Gardens, which I’m thinking (hoping) is what I’ve seen in pictures of Florence… Because what I’ve seen thus far isn’t exactly what I imagined.
At dinner tonight, I took the recommendation of my friends and former employers in LA, Manuel and Gyllian Lozano, and ate at La Bussola — excellent recommendation. While there, I struck up conversation with a couple next to me. They’re from Virginia, and had JUST come from a wedding in Maine before the start of their trip. Oddly enough, their niece works at Northeastern in student services — it’s possible I’ll run into her at my internship next year. Small world.
Well, off to bed it is… zzzzzz

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August 2nd, 2012

oday I’m writing from a bench overlooking the Grand Canal, where I just finished eating some delicious fresh fruit from the street vendor downstairs from my flat (she’s right next to the gelato guy……. Thank goodness he doesn’t open up until later or I’d have probably just polished off another gelato… Speaking of which I’ve now also had caffe and nicciola… Not sure what that is but it was damn tasty). I had the “buffet” breakfast at my hotel…….. But as many of you probably already know, the Europeans aren’t big on breakfast, with the exception of the people of the British Isles. Breakfast here in Italy was just like it was when I visited Spain: cornflakes, powdered milk, and a hard roll. However, I still go because it’s free and they have the all-important morning coffee.

Last night I ended up getting a salad at one of the restaurants nearby. I have to say it felt damn good to eat vegetables, and please excuse me for the personal information, but my intestinal tract thanked me this morning. While there, I struck up conversation with the girl next to me. She’s Chinese, but did her undergrad in Canada and is doing graduate studies at U Michigan. She’s studying abroad right now in Barcelona, one of my faaaaaaaavorite cities, so of course we chatted quite a bit about that. She’d just arrived from Rome by way of Florence, so she gave me the lowdown there: don’t buy anything near the Colosseum, and Florence will be HOT. We also talked about tourists from other countries, and did a fair bit of complaining about our respective countrymen (her rant about the Chinese and their “umbrellas in the sun” was particularly hilarious). 
I went back to my flat, and because I’m nuts, I did a full work-out in my room while watching a documentary on some Arab station about the Wesleyans (yes… Bizarre). Afterwards, I was flicking through the stations and got to about 10 stations that were the equivalent of 1-900 number advertisements in the US… But the hilarious part is that these girls were dancing in slow-mo to “Love Shack.”  You know, because “Love Shack” is a super-sexy song. It was the most ridiculous thing and I couldn’t stop laughing. 
I also saw a commercial for Pampers that would be considered quite graphic in the US… The mother was openly breast feeding. For shame!

So skip back to this morning… After I ate breakfast, I ran back to my room to make reservations for the Uffizi and La Accademia museums in Florence (without a reservation you have to wait in what’s usually a long line……. In the heat). As I was leaving, I walked past the apartment of the proprietor, and “Wake Me Up Before You Go Go” was blasting. This was amusing because 1, I JUST mentioned George Michael in a previous post, and 2, as I said yesterday, he reminds me of Sacha Baron Cohen, and the thought of SBC dancing around to Wham is just too awesome.

So now I’m about to get on a ferry to head to some of the other islands around Venice — Murano (where the famous glass is made), Burano, and Torcello.

The island tour was fantastic. First was Murano where I visited a glass factory. Second was Burano, which is probably one of my favorite stops thus far this vacation. All the houses are painted different bright colors — it made me think of the Italian section of Buenos Aires. Burano is known for their lace and the Burano cookie.. I didn’t buy any lace, but I sure did buy a cookie!
The final stop was Torcello. It is extremely rural compared to both Murano and Burano, and especially so to Venice. All that’s there is a beautiful country church that I believe also housed a monastery on its grounds at one point. It was really peaceful and more of what I expect to see in Tuscany. I’m glad I had time to do this “side trip” as I think it was not to be missed. AND, now I can officially say I’ve been on the Adriatic Sea!
I’m not sure what this evening will hold. I may take one last big walk around to make sure I haven’t missed anything major (according to Rick Steves’ itinerary I have not… Besides going up the tower in St. Mark’s Square which all depends on the line today). I need to pack up…….. My flat looks like a bomb went off — clothes everywhere. Tomorrow I take the train to Florence. I have loved Venice, even with its crazy tourist congestion, kinda stinky streets, and expensive prices. I highly highly highly recommend it… But not to anyone with children who need a stroller, or for those in wheel chairs for that matter. The bridges are beautiful and charming, but I’m sure they grow old after the second one you have to haul a kid and a stroller up over.
Anyway, onward and upward to Firenze!!
Ci vediamo dopo, Venezia!
(that means, “see you later, Venice!”)

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August 1st, 2012

hat was the first, clear thought i had this morning… Besides vowing to eat vegetables today no matter how much they cost (I was feeling a tad bloated…….. Ok, more than a tad). I decided to do yoga in my room for an hour after I woke up. My hope was not only to detoxify my body, but also to work out the kinks from yesterday’s long walk in not-so-broken in sandals. The yoga definitely helped… But I still feel tired. I drank a VERY black cup of coffee at the hotel… Not that you can get coffee that isn’t very dark here. Despite attempts to be really chic, I just can’t get into espresso. Coffee, in my opinion, should be slowly sipped and enjoyed… And not the color of tar. So yesterday I switched to cappuccinos.

Right now I’m in St. Mark’s Square, waiting for my tour of the basilica. Amaaaaaazing people watching here. The city feels like it’s been invaded with Asian tourists today (or maybe it’s that the Euros are still in bed). It confounds me what people will wear to go sight seeing. High heels????? Insane.
As I was writing the above, I was interrupted by some “guard of St. Mark’s Square” who informed me you’re not supposed to sit in the square. Oops. Stupid American! :-)
Today I saw St. Mark’s Basilica and the Doge’s Palace. I had an excellent tour guide named Alessandra. There are no pictures allowed inside the basilica and a lot of the palace, and since I’m a “rule follower” for the most part, I have no pictures……. Except for one I was brave enough to take on the sly in the palace. Both structures were amazing. It was great to hear the story of St. Mark in Venice. It was also neat to hear what Venice was like pre-Napoleon……. And to see the dungeon where the aristocracy threw badly behaving Venetians.
Afterwards, I went to find the ATM I unsuccessfully sought the previous day. If I’d taken just one turn around another corner, I would have found it. That’s a nice metaphor for life… I think George Michael wrote a song about that called “A Different Corner.” I love George Michael. But I digress…
So I found the ATM and then searched for a cheap place to eat. I was in an area (called a “sestiere” here) named  Dorsoduru, where the university in Venice is. If I were to come back to Venice, I’d stay here. It’s quiet, quaint, and quintessentially Venice. Plus, a group of Italian water boat drivers hit on me.
On that note, not that I came to Italy just to be hit on, but I am growing tired of being almost exclusively around tourists. I have never been into “tourist destinations” with the one big exception being Disney World. For this reason, I am very much looking forward to my time in Tuscany. I have a feeling it will be more my cup of “the” ( or “te”… I learned from a package of crackers on my Alitalia flight that it can be spelled both ways in Italian).
In the afternoon, after finding s cheap lunch and fantastic gelato, i did what I consider the apex of any trip to Venice — a gondola ride. It was part of the  tour I purchased, which was good because a ride for one is like €80! A family from Moscow was nice enough to take the requisite picture of me on the gondola. I got some of my favorite Venice shots today on the ride… Including a video of a gondolier singing. I also didn’t miss the opportunity to take shots of cute gondoliers.
Afterwards, I went to the Correr Museum (it was free with my ticket to the Doge’s Palace… And when something is free in Venice, you damn well better take it.) Incredible sculptures — it’s astounding how many have remained intact. It’s also awesome to see Italian art IN Italy, as opposed to at an American art museum.
I came back to my hotel… A little tired but not nearly as run-down feeling as yesterday. I realized part of my sinus issue is the cigarette smoke here. Now I know the US isn’t perfect or the best at many things (despite whatever GWB “Amurica” propaganda you may still believe) but boy do i love my non-smoking laws.  Anyway, in St. Mark’s Square, I couldn’t seem to get away from this old Chinese man who was smoking THE nastiest cigarette I’ve ever smelt in my life. Literally I would go in the opposite direction of him and somehow he’d end up in front of me again. I had a flash where I almost screamed “get away from me with your disgusting cigarette!!!!” but just at that moment I became distracted by an older British lady wearing the trashiest, most inappropriate outfit for visiting churches…. So of course I had to snap a picture of her for posterity. By the time I snapped the picture the man with the cig was gone, and I was happy because I knew I had a hilarious pic to share when I get back.
Back at my hotel, I wasn’t sure what to do next. Venice really doesn’t have much nightlife. The lady from Rome that I sat next to on the plane warned me of that. Anyway, I got distracted with attempting to take artsy photos of myself on the balcony of my flat. That’s a pretty good way to spend a night in my opinion.
Tomorrow, my last day in Venice, I’ll spend on an excursion off the main island of Venice. I’m going to visit the islands of Murano, Burano , and Torcello.  I’m looking forward to seeing something new and getting a break from the tourist insanity in St. Mark’s Square!

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July 31st, 2012

nd I’m pretty flippin’ tired.

Day 1 of European travel is always challenging, even under the best of circumstances. Most of the time , you’ve taken an overnight flight and can’t check-in to your hotel until the afternoon… Such was my case.

However, the flight itself was pretty awesome. My expectations of Alitalia were quite low based on pretty unfavorable reviews from multiple sources, but it appears they’ve begun stepping up their game. Despite the “technical delays,” the flight was easy and smooth. I was assigned to the middle row, middle seat (yuck) two aisles behind first class. But, no one was assigned to the seat next to me. So a nice lady from Rome and I got extra space in our row and slept most of the flight. 

I have to say, that is one of the things I enjoy most about my “old age” — I could never sleep ANYWHERE as a kid but now in my 30s I can fall asleep much easier. I also tend to drool during naps though…… Oh well. You get the good with the bad! 

So because the flight was delayed, I almost didn’t make my flight to Venice. When I booked it, I didn’t consider the fact that I would have to go through customs AND security in Rome. Luckily, when the flight arrived, a rep from Alitalia was there to short-cut 2 other passengers and me through the security line. That couple was… Interesting. They looked like something off of The Real Housewives of New Jersey… They seemed like the types who have “mysterious money” — you know the guys on those shows that have a “business” in retail or some other product/service, but the reality of said business is highly suspect? That was these two.  I hooked them up by hauling arse to the customs line, and letting them cut into the line with me.  (I started “fist pumping” to get their attention… Hehehe). Jersey Shore-ish or not, Americans should always help their fellow countrymen.

Anyway, we made it. I was starting to feel unclean at that point……. Then I had to get on a bus to get to my hotel and it was downhill from there. The transportation was slow as hell… Not that it mattered because when I got there at 1, I couldn’t check in… So I had lunch at a cafe, where I ate a caprese salad that had the best mozzarella I’ve ever had.. Came back at 2:15… Room still wasn’t ready… I literally sat outside the hotel and took a nap leaning up against a building. And it was HOT late afternoon in Venice, so I was sweaty, to boot.

I went back at 3:30 and was taken to my room, which is essentially a flat around the corner from the main part of the hotel. It is HUGE and overlooks a canal. I can hear the gondoliers singing at night. *swoon*

After a shower and a nap, I walked to the Rialto Bridge in search of views, food, and an ATM. I found the first but not the later two. I mean, there is plenty of food in Venice but this place is EXPENSIVE. I’m happy now that I snagged such a good deal on my hotel room. 

I ended up eating dinner near where I had lunch, right on the water. I admit… Last night I had some pangs of loneliness, followed by, “what made me think I could do this on my own and have fun?” But then, as if on cue, a family sitting next to me started to fight… Kids crying… Parents ticked.. And suddenly I felt good again. Thanks, Universe!

I of course had gelato last night. You can get it in quite literally every corner, and people consume it in tons as it’s pretty much the only food you can get under 5 euro. And the only meal you can get under 10 is pizza. So I guess it’ll be all pizza and gelato in Venice for me. Soooooooo sad. :-)

Today I didn’t wake up until 10 and felt like I could have slept another 3 hours.  I went to St. Mark’s Square and had some more gelato, then sat at one of the cafes and had a cappuccino while listening to the orchestra play. One thing I love about dining here is that I’m always waited on by a man. I don’t know about other women, but I find something hugely satisfying about that.

I took a huge walk after… Got pretty lost, which was fine by me as I don’t really believe you’re ever lost; just taking a sidetrip.  I took a tour of the Grand Canal and have 3 more tours lined up for tomorrow, including of course the requisite Gondola ride. I thought I’d do most of the touring around on my own… But I realized that requires doing a lot of research on your own, and this is vacation not work! Plus I want to meet people and it’s easier on these short tours.
Venice generally speaking is everything I thought it would be and more. The pictures say it all (p.s. I will post a full album of my trip when I return… It’s proving too challenging/time-consuming on the iPhone). I had this moment of what I thought was déjà vu when I first arrived, as if I’d been here before. But then I realized it was a combination of memories from EPCOT and the Venetian in Las Vegas, and not déjà vu after all. :-)

The San Marco area where I am is right in the middle of it all, which is convenient, but also hectic. It’s congested, but almost entirely with tourists.  (I could write a whole separate blog about the tourists from varying countries… I’ll only say that the Brits are beginning to rival the Americans for the loudest, brashest, and white-trashiest. Ayaya!) I found out from the guide on my Grand Canal tour that most Italians can’t afford to live here, and so they live on the mainland. This part I find disappointing… I hope to have more interaction with native Italians in the other places I visit.
(Oh yeah — there are no cars here, just boats. Took me an entire day here to realize that).
This evening I’m staying in. I have been fighting off something since the day I left the US… Some kind of sinus thing, which always makes me feel rundown. So I got a pizza a couple doors down from my flat (got a huuuuuuge pizza for only €12! A great deal for here). I found one TV station here that’s in English… Unfortunately, it’s some all sports station from Dubai. Last night I fell asleep to a documentary about Muhammad Ali…… It wasn’t until this morning that i figured out why the hell an Arab station would be doing a show on him… Genius, I am!

I hope I wake up tomorrow symptom free, as it’s a big tour day. Ciao!

*** I’m keeping a gelato count. So far I’ve eaten it 3 times: Tiramisu, pistachio, and Stracciatella (sp??? It’s vanilla chocolate chip).

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