Tuesday, June 26, 2012

How to See Venice: Above, Below and By Foot

Venice is the city of water. Throughout the day, the absence of car motors and vespas are replaced by the splashing and trickling of water in the canals. To fully experience this sinking city, you must see it in all perspectives.

Tiny, narrow alleyways and bridges that leap over canals are the only avenues to get around this town without hopping in a boat. The passageway between buildings and a majority of the views from the canal bridges will only give you a glimpse of what’s down a narrow path.
Think up. The Campanile bell tower in San Marco will give you new insight. Luckily, this Venetian skyscraper has an elevator to help you reach the top. From 323 feet, the rust-colored tiled roofs against the emerald green water makes for a pretty picture and a better understanding of the city’s layout.
It might sound corny, but while in Venice, take the gondola. Imagine sitting on a red velvet cushion, with contrasting green water rushing by, a knowledgeable, passionate gondolier rowing steadily while you enjoy the tranquility and beauty of Venice.

The view from below the street level is different from the pavement. Look up, and all around you the buildings have grown even taller. Look down, and you see the forest green moss lining the tan pavement of the canals. Bridges that connect the island hover over you and reflect the water on their ceilings, and you’ll likely hear the echo of fellow gondoliers conversing or singing.

Whether or not you opt to take a water taxi to your next stop, walking around Venice is necessary to see it all. Many sights beg you pay a visit. San Marco church, the Doge Palace and the Rialto Bridge are all musts. San Marco is stunning with mosaics and gold leaf encrusted walls. The Doge Palace includes historical paintings and dungeons with a view of the famous bridge of sighs.
San Marco Church
Doge Palace
The lion is one of the prominent symbols of Venice.
View from inside the Doge Palace
San Marco square
Excellent shopping opportunities are not hard to come by either. The Rialto Bridge is lined with fun shops where you can find a souvenir or some Venetian glass.

Of course, if you’re in the market for glass, go to Murano. This glass is world-class. A 10-minute water taxi ride will take you there from the mainland. Bright-colored designer glass lines the shelves of all of the shops and factories, so you’re sure to find a piece you like.
Murano glass balloons
Murano chandeliers
Murano chandeliers
By bell tower, by gondola or by walking around and seeing the sights — you must see Venice. From its unique vantage point on the ocean, to its history and its shopping, this city built on water has a lot to offer. To experience it fully, see Venice from above, below and by foot.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

The Best of Tuscany

The second day of our free weekend Catherine, Meagan and I experienced the Best of Tuscany Tour with Walk About. We met at 8 a.m. to hop on a bus full of strangers who were ready to see the sites.

Our first stop was Sienna. We toured an old hospital and saw the world's oldest working bank, as well as the square where the famous horse races take place every year.

World's oldest working bank

The square

We also saw the tail-end of a medieval-fashioned parade. The tour guide said we were lucky to have seen a glimpse of the parade. Each neighborhood has a mascot and competes with each other. The turtles were celebrating their victory.

This rivalry ties into the horse races where only a select number of the neighborhoods get to compete each year. It's a mix of religious and cultural activities occurring twice a year.

The neighborhoods' representative flags

After Sienna, we stopped at an organic farm, which was probably the highlight of my trip. Rolling hills filled with vineyards surrounded us and filled the landscape. We could even see our next stop on a hill in the distance. We got a complete tour of the farm.

We saw the vineyards, the winery and some of the farm animals, including albino cows native to the region.

Don't ask how, but Catherine and I got a little off track. We accidentally started following another tour, so we saw the animals twice and had to run in the winery really quickly.

Funny story, though: The guy working at the place was fixing to close the door on me. I stopped him before he shut the door and apologized for taking so long. Then to my surprise, English came out of his mouth. Not just English. English with a thick southern accent. I haven't heard that in a while. He asked where I was from. He was from a small Texas town. When I said I was from Arkansas, he said, "Oh...so like north Texas?" Oh my, that's the first. I couldn't help but laugh.

After visiting the animals again, it was time for a home grown organic lunch and wine tasting. I thoroughly enjoyed the experience. We had wheat pasta, cold cuts and cheese, salad, toast and four wines.

I liked some of the wines, but only in sips. Dipping biscotti into dessert wine was probably my favorite. I learned how to properly taste wine: swirl in cup for oxidation, then smell and taste.


After our lovely lunch we headed to San Gimignano, a small, quaint medieval town with excellent artisan shopping. I purchased hand woven towels and ceramic salad tossers, with a matching spoon rest.

More importantly, I tasted champion gelato.

Who would have thought this little village would have the best gelato? Our tour guide told us to make sure we tried it. We were warned there were two who claimed the title. One displayed the sign "World's Best Gelato," but the real victor was the shop with the "World's Champion Gelato" award.

It was delicious, creamy, cold goodness on a cone. I got mango, lemon and grapefruit sparkling champagne (yes that's a flavor.)

Our last stop was Pisa. We didn't have much time in Pisa, so Catherine and I decided to take the cheesy leaning tower pics and then climb the tower. It was almost 400 steps.

The journey to the top was crooked, slanted and jagged, not to mention slippery. The stairs were dented in the center, and the passageway was so narrow that you couldn't even fit a backpack through.

We made it to the top and took in the gorgeous view of Pisa. We saw the Duomo and the Tuscan landscape. I highly recommend climbing the tower if you get the chance.

Sic 'em Pisa!

After Pisa, our journey ended as we headed back to Florence. We rode a "choo choo train" to the bus (yes that's what the tour guide called it) and took in the beautiful scenery back home to Firenze.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Cinque Terre--Details, Details!

My Cinque Terra experiences were memorable to say the least. I can't say or write enough about them...plus I kind of took 700 pictures in the span of 14 hours.

Cinque terre consists of 5 small villages all on the coast: Monterroso, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola and Riomaggiore. Each one is a little different but the fishing community, the locals and the beauty all tie it together.

What made my trip so wonderful?

First off, cinque terre is by far the most gorgeous place I've ever seen--hands down, no questions asked. The combination of the rugged landscape, deep blue ocean and mountain tops literally took my breath away. It was so beautiful to me.

The things I experienced there were so cool too:
We first arrived in Monterroso. Our tour guide said this was probably the best place for beach time, so we went on the hunt for a changing room and chairs. We found Bagni Eden and spent about an hour there.

This beach was completely different from any other beach I've gone to. The sand was composed of rocks, big and small. In fact, it was really hard to walk. In the end though, Catherine and I decided that we probably got a nice sea exfoliation pedicure out of the experience because the strong current pushed the rocks under and around our feet.

I didn't make it very far in the ocean because it was chilly and the current was really strong, plus it was hard to keep your balance. We saw swimmers and paddle boarders off in the distance, though. I was jealous, but also mystified at how they were managing to do be out that far in such a strong current with surrounding jagged rocks on the coast.

To my left, I saw a big black rock and a bright orange life preserver, followed by a long row of assorted colored beach chairs. To the right, a big mountain hovered over the blue ocean, a sail boat could be seen out in the deep, and people were swimming in the lagoon. I did not want to leave.

Our next town was waiting for us, though. When we got to Vernazza, we saw a compelling picture of muddy damage and litter. A year ago this place suffered a flood. There was an illustration on the wall showing the after math, and the locals talked about it to us. You could still see the line where the water rose in some places. I wouldn't have known though if it weren't for the picture because the town has recovered remarkably in just a year.

We scoped out the place and found a nice little spot for lunch...probably one of the best meals I've had in Italia: stuffed mussels. Our waiter was really nice too and let me take his picture. I looked around while eating and took in the scenery: colored umbrellas, boats and a lagoon.

After 2 hours we caught the train and arrived at Corniglia. Here's the deal: Corniglia is actually at the very tip top of the mountain. A group was going to hike through there and two other towns in order to meet us at the last town. We didn't know there was a bus that drove up to the town in shifts, so we opted not to hike the hill.

Instead Catherine, Meagan, and I explored what was under and around the train station. At first it looked like nothing but pretty scenery, but that was misleading because under a tunnel we discovered a small mountain of sea rocks that led straight into the ocean!

Well we weren't just going to stare at the rocks. We climbed them. This was literally one of the coolest things I've ever done. The rocks were slippery and sharp and led into the ocean, yet I managed not to fall and got some pictures. There's something about the ocean that brings out the best in me. I always feel so happy, joyful, and adventurous!

We chilled there for an hour or so and then took the train to the fourth city: Manarola. This colorful town was filled with fishing boats on the sides of the street with lots of little artisan shops. I bought a beautiful ceramic plate. I'm assuming it's authentic enough because the owner of the shop didn't even speak English. That's when I decided I had a good find and also made the decision not to ship it because I couldn't understand what she was saying when I asked her about it.

At the end of the street there was a huge rock where people were free jumping into the ocean.

The whole group reunited in Manarola, and we walked through the last city together. Riomaggiore was actually the National Park of Cinque Terre. It included Lovers' Lane and a small town with some shops and restaurants. I had never seen anything like Lovers' Lane. People come and put locks on gates and fences and throw the keys away. When we made it to the town, we walked around I grabbed a chicken kabob that was comparable to a gyro. It was delicious.

That concludes the trip! We took the train back to the bus and left for Florence. 
When I left, I said a little prayer that I would be able to come back to this magical place one day.