Begin blogging here
We’ve arrived in our final destination, the breathtaking “floating city” of Venice! Venice is a twisting maze of Gothic alleys and charming waterways as Tuscany is to breathtaking panoramic vistas. Consisting of 118 islands and 400 bridges, if you want to master the art of navigation, this is your place! We’ve never seen anything quite like it.
While many of the islands are just a few feet apart and connected by the series of 400 walking bridges, the outer islands are only accessible by boat. The canals that wind in between the islands can be as shallow as three feet deep and are dotted by beautiful bright flowers in the windows and colorfully-painted poles.
Due to its location as the crossroads for many of the medieval trade routes, Venice developed as a seat of power and finance. At each turn, the grandeur of this rich history is still apparent in the ancient buildings and structures.
There are two modes of transportation—you go by boat or by foot. We arrived in the Port of Venice, where we said goodbye to our talented coach driver Antonio, and transferred to water taxi for a ride to our hotel.
After settling in we took a private water taxi to a Guidecca Island to visit the Arti Veneziane alla Guidecca glass factory. Here we watched one of the master craftsmen transform hot molten glass into art before our eyes, making it look so easy. This skill, passed down from father to son, is a dying art as the younger generation searches out more lucrative careers. The hand-blown glass artwork at the factory literally shines over the inexpensive mass-produced work you see in all the markets. Worth buying it here!
Heading back to Piazza San Marco (St. Mark’s Square), our Travel Director Giuseppe skillfully guided us through this maze of streets, providing historical insights and local tips along the way. Standing in St. Mark’s Square we are struck by the size of this plaza. It is a huge rectangle of Gothic arches consisting of many buildings which were built and rebuilt over a period of several centuries.
Turning in a 360-degree circle you will see St. Mark’s Basilica, Biblioteca Marciana (the library), the Campanile (bell tower) and Doge’s Palace. The ground level is home to exclusive shops and some of Italy’s oldest outdoor cafes (and most expensive cups of coffee!) with the upper floors housing offices. You can hear live music drifting from the cafes while you rub shoulders with the masses and try to absorb the historical perspective, scale and cultural diversity of all who come to be a part of it.
During our free time we set off to explore (and shop of course). Admittedly it was a little intimidating as initially there doesn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason to the streets, many of which are not even on the local map and lead to dead ends. We finally got our bearing by using the curve of the Grand Canal, the Rialto (the oldest of four bridges that span the Grand Canal) and the ocean as points of reference.
Of course we have to admit we learned this by getting quite lost and walking about five miles to get back to start…St. Mark’s Square. (Hey, at least we walked off some of our gelato, pizza and pasta indulgences along the way! We know how those Italians stay slender.) Helpful tip: follow the yellow signs on the buildings which have arrows pointing you towards San Marco or The Rialto. It really was like a scavenger hunt.
A few favorite memories include the optional excursion to the quaint Burano Island, one of the outer islands. Burano is a photographers paradise known for its colorfully painted homes which line the streets.
A fun group toast with a refreshing spritz Giuseppe treated us all to outside a local bar behind St. Mark’s Square. This is a popular orange-colored ‘aperitivo’ in northern Italy consisting of aperol, prosecco (or white wine) and club soda, topped with an olive or orange slice. A cheers to our new friends and a great trip!
The city sightseeing with our Local Guide, where we soaked up more of Italy’s culinary delights at the farmers market amidst the locals shopping for fresh produce, breads, cheeses, meat and fish.
And, where our Local Guide shared yet another Hidden Treasure – the centuries-old fish and clam measure carved into this column (right). We never would have noticed or known what that was otherwise!
And last but not least, our favorite view of Venice via a quiet gondola ride through the canals, complete with champagne and a serenade adding to the festivity.
After a whirlwind couple of days in Venice our trip was coming to an end. We celebrated our new found friends, wonderful experiences and memories at a delicious Farewell Dinner. Where we toasted to our adventures and of course to Travel Director extraordinaire, Giuseppe, whose watchful eye and gracious smile guided us through The Flavors of Italy.
Up bright and early to water taxi to the Venice Airport…Arrividerchi Italia…la vita e Bella.
This is Lauren and Linda signing out…Ciao Baby!
(OK, we are getting caught up on posts after some technical difficulties!)
Bags are packed and we are on our way again to the city of Bologna, home to Ducati motorcycles which we know the guys in our family would love. (Did we mention our luggage is always taken care of for us and waiting in our rooms at the next hotel? Good thing too, as our suitcases are surely topping 60 lbs each after all the shopping…) Happy as always to be in the very capable hands of our talented driver, Antonio.
We arrive in Bologna to meet a new Local Guide, Tamera, for a city sightseeing tour. We started in the main square where we learned about one of the three symbols of Bologna—the first, this statue of Neptune, the Pope’s way to tell the Bolognese that he was in charge.
Bologna is known for its high student populations, the second symbol of the city. We toured the university, Biblioteca communal dell’ Archiginnasio and its Teatro Anatomico where students were taught anatomy in the 1800’s. Here students would sit and learn for up to 20 hours a day on hard wooden benches to prevent them from falling asleep.
The third and final symbol of Bologna—the food! Once again we are enamored with the Italian food markets as we walk the bustling alleys, filled with fresh food stalls, bakeries and butcher shops all filled with locals picking up their fresh produce for today’s meals.
What to do with our free couple of hours? You guessed it; we forced ourselves to do more shopping and more eating with lunch and great people-watching at an outdoor café.
After a few hours of free time, we headed out for another culinary adventure—an optional gourmet dinner excursion. En route we made a brief stop at the Mausoleum of one of the great inventors Marconi, who at the age of 25 was credited for developing the telegraph. Side note: Marconi’s mother was the granddaughter of the Irish Jameson Whiskey founder.
We were welcomed with a glass of champagne on the patio for our dinner at Locanda del Castello. The surrounding property was originally built in the 1500’s as a rest stop for the Pope. Over the years it has hosted several popes, famous artisans, and most recently in 1997, British Prime Minister Tony Blair.
Our gracious host, Marcello Dall’Aglio, patron and chef of Locanda del Castello, gave us an overview of our five-course dinner of all traditional area dishes made from fresh local produce.
First up, mozzarella flan on a raw zucchini salad and appetizers of morel mushroom quiche, salad with rucola cheese, zucchini flower fritters and ham with pine nuts and balsamic vinaigrette. The second course was tortellini filled with ricotta cheese and green asparagus lasagna (we got the last asparagus of the season!). Then on to guinea fowl stuffed with tomato au gratin and beef fillet strips with parmesan, balsamic and grilled vegetables. The finale was a wild berry iced mouse with strawberry and grape sauce reduction. We didn’t think it possible, but we left more full than ever!
The drive back to our hotel offered beautiful sunset views…and some fun Italian music, courtesy of Giuseppe who is not only a first-rate Travel Director, but our new favorite DJ as well.
One of the nice surprises from our trip has been the wonderful people from around the world we’ve gotten to know. We closed out the evening back at the hotel lounge celebrating the 30th wedding anniversary of some fellow travelers, sharing local wines and lots of laughs. Congrats to Dennis and Cindy!
Lauren & Linda signing out…Ciao baby!
As we say arrivederci to the beautiful Firenze countryside (family note: we understand the love of Firenze, saluté, GPEV!) we soak up the scenery en route to the Leaning Tower of Pisa. Boy, are we glad not to be driving! It’s great to relax and write our blog on the coach knowing our driver Antonio will glide us safely through the corkscrews of tiny alleys and huge highways alike.
Giuseppe leads us via small tram ride and short walk around the walled grounds to an arched entry way—and suddenly, voila! We see our first view of the Leaning Tower and from there set off on our own to explore.
Admiring the Baptista, we walked around the backside of the property for full views, attempting to join the rest of the crowd trying to take the classic tourist picture holding up the tower.
We think the tower might have collapsed as a result of our efforts but enjoyed watching some of the other visitors do a much better job!
Holding up that Tower in every angle possible is hard work, so we just had to stop in a cute street-side café where we could enjoy the views and have a leisurely lunch of, what else, pizza!
We then left the hilly countryside headed for Parma, crossing over the Apennine Mountains and into the agriculturally-oriented Po Valley (known for grain, wheat, rice, sugar and corn). After settling in our new hotel, Giuseppe led a group of us through the park and into the town, surprising us with the best fresh, local parmesan and prosciutto we have ever tasted! He’s the best.
In town, we soaked up all the sights of Parma, from the river to the fresh street market food to the cathedral.
The influence of the Hapsburg dynasty is clearly seen in the architecture here, a result of Austria’s control of the Northern Italy region in the 1800’s.
Finally, we finished our day with…more fabulous food! We enjoyed privately dining amidst modern décor for a wonderful three-course Highlight Dinner at the popular Euridice restaurant (worth the 15-minute drive!). Being a Friday night, the local Italians were just arriving for dinner around 9:30 p.m. as we were leaving.
This is Lauren and Linda signing out…ciao baby!
After earning our chefs’ certificates at the cooking lesson (followed by a quick nap at the hotel to recover from our food comas!) we took an optional excursion to San Gimignano, a stunning UNESCO World Heritage site and one of Italy’s oldest and most well-preserved medieval towns.
Perched atop the rolling Tuscan hillsides, San Gimignano is a charming village originally built before Christ, with cobblestone streets that twist and turn, each lined with little shops and eateries leading to the town square.
Here our Travel Director Giuseppe treated us all to gelato at Gelateria Dondoli which has been awarded “world’s best gelato.” On the wall is a picture of actress Maggie Smith with the shop owner from her time there filming ‘Tea with Mussolini’. The exclusive saffron cream gelato is simply heavenly!
Continuing upward we climbed to the top of one of the remaining towers. It was well worth the hike, for at the top we were rewarded with the most incredible 360° views of the village below and surrounding Tuscan countryside. Our best view of Tuscany yet!
Giuseppe pointed out a hidden doorway which hides another beautiful view down onto the village and sweeping vistas of countryside beyond. Stunning! Another treasure we may not have stumbled upon without the help of our TD.
Back at our hotel in the little medieval village, Colle Di Val D’Elsa, we set off on our own for a sunset walk, exploring its ancient winding alleyways and enjoying aromas of garlic and tomatoes wafting from the apartments above. Did we just walk back in time?
Colle Di Val D’Elsa was built as a fortress to protect the territories of Siena from rivalries between the surrounding cities but today, with almost no one on the streets but us, offers a quiet respite.
Off to bed to be on the road tomorrow.
Lauren & Linda signing out…Ciao baby!
Today was one of the true highlights of our trip–our cooking class. (But then again, we think every day is a highlight, don’t we?) We cooked our own gourmet Italian lunch and really had fun! Hopping aboard our coach in the morning, we took a quick 15 minute ride to one of Firenze’s outdoor markets frequented by locals (as in no tourists, except us of course). En route, Giuseppe, our wonderful Travel Director, gave us a quick study on how to navigate the market and the English/Italian words for various vegetables.
Liberio Saraceni, owner of Ristorante I Tre Pini, and our host for the day, met us there, and quickly gave us our marching orders. Splitting us into small groups, he gave us each 10 euros and a list of 2 ingredients that we had to go find and buy (in Italian of course).
The fact that it was in Italian made it all the more fun as we went to explore the various vendor booths loaded with fresh fruits, vegetables, meats and cheeses. The large steaming loaf of freshly baked bread we all eagerly tore into almost made us forget it was raining today.
Ingredients in hand, off to the restaurant we went, where we were ushered into a room set with up with food prep tables and greeted by a knowledgeable chefs’ staff waiting to oversee our education in making fresh pasta and ravioli. But first we were sent off to thoroughly wash our hands and were then suitably garbed in aprons and head gear.
Prior to jumping in we were served bubbly glass of Blumond to fortify our nerves and off we went. (This, their Chianti and the strawberry Splendia sparkling wine were so tasty, we had to order a case to be sent home.)
We rolled up our sleeves and went to work at the various tables mixing and kneading the dough by hand. Then rolling it very thin using a rolling pin (no cheating and using the pasta machine). Some of the pasta was made into tagliolini and much was cut into raviolis which we stuffed with a mixture of fresh Parmesan, olive oil and parsley.
Some of the men were secreted off to the kitchen where they were put to work making making traditional Tuscan soups, La Ribollita, la pappa al promo door, and la panzanella. We learned that nothing is ever wasted as these soups all incorporate old bread….it never tasted so good. A few of the ladies were whisked away to make almond biscotti for dessert. All throughout the knowledgeable staff patiently guided us through the process encouraging us all the way.
At the end we had an entire table full of pasta trays we had all made.
Our very “difficult day” continued as we then moved onto wine tasting sampling a variety of reds and a white from Loma Brands Srl.
The staff then brought out platters of fried battered zucchini flowers, deep fried polenta strips, and garlic bread.
The owner of the restaurant (below on right with our Travel Director Giuseppe on left) was the consummate host.
Then the formal part of the meal began. The delightful staff served huge platters of the soups, pastas, raviolis, salad and ending with the biscotti and amoretti to dip them in.
We almost forgot to mention delightfully entertaining local singer, Gino and guitarist Rocco, serenaded us throughout lunch and afterward. Gino has a beautiful Italian voice and was also very funny, and Rocco played songs on request–even “Stairway to Heaven” and some Eric Clapton. So talented!
The food was heavenly, the day was magical and we all floated toward home feeling like we are now accomplished Italian chefs singing as we went…”when the moon hits your eye like a big pizza pie…that’s Amore!” La vita é bella!
This is Lauren and Linda signing out…ciao baby!
Off bright and early to head into Firenze (Florence) with our first stop to see Michelangelo’s masterpiece the statue of David, housed at the Galleria Della Accademia. Once again we were able to get quickly into the museum in front of the lines and our local guide, Elisabetta, gave us a wonderful overview of the development of art styles leading into the Renaissance. A picture may tell a thousand words, but no picture taking was allowed, and we don’t think it really matters because even a photo can’t begin to capture begin the magnificence of this four-meter tall sculpture of David before battle with Goliath.
The gallery leading into the hall where David stands houses four of six of Michelangelo’s unfinished piece ‘Slaves’ (the other two are in France) which are sculptures in various stages of development clearly demonstrating the process of turning a block of marble into a finished piece. Or better stated by Michelangelo, “I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.”
Michelangelo’s gift was his extraordinary ability to take a piece of stone and carve it until the perfectly proportioned muscles and veins of David’s body emerge showing the tension not only in his body but also in the pensive, thoughtful expression on his face as he faces battle with Goliath. OK, we could go on and on but these were a few facts we learned today from Elisabetta. Michelangelo was twenty five years old when he started this four year endeavor and studied by working with cadavers to study musculature and physiology of the human form.
Off into the streets for a walking tour including the Baptistry Cathedral and Tower, a marble masterpiece, and Dante’s residence. It was at Dante’s home that our local guide pointed out a “hidden treasure”…..a bust of Dante’s face that had been carved into one of the large stones comprising the street. I think she secretly found pleasure in the fact this was walked on as she assured us that all Italian high school students were tortured by Dante. We never would have spotted this on our own!
We were then turned loose into the throngs of international tourists to spend a few hours exploring , eating and of course shopping. Our local guide once again provided good counsel advising us how to cross a street in Italy. Have you ever ridden bumper cars at the fair? Well, that is the closest approximation to Italian driving I can give. There are street signs and lane lines but no one seems to pay a whole lot of attention. According to our guide,”getting a drivers license is like getting a license to kill.” So from us to you for future visits…start moving with confidence and don’t stop or look them in the eye…..you rule the road!
If it sounds a little harrowing, it can be but nothing that can’t be soothed with some gelato and shopping therapy. There are tons of boutiques and street vendors selling all kinds of luscious leather goods, scarves and jewelry. We had a great time and I know that somewhere out there, Lauren’s grandmother Betty,a champion shopper, is smiling down on her proudly thinking, “that’s my girl!”
Finally time to head home, stopping for photos of the breathtaking Firenze countryside then continuing on to close out our journey with a visit to the American cemetery to pay our respects to the WWII soldiers.
The Florence American Cemetery and Memorial includes over 4,300 headstones and also has a wall listing the names of 1,409 missing persons. A very impactful reminder of our history and members of our own family who served in WWII.
Back to our city of Colle Di Val D’Elsa to stay at the lovely and modern Palazzo San Lorenzo hotel.
Back to the hotel where we had another great three-course meal with local Chianti wine (labeled with the Black Rooster of the region, of course) in the hotel dining room with our group. The perfect end to the day.
This is Lauren and Linda signing out…ciao baby!
Today provided a nice respite which our feet sorely needed. We departed the urban Roman landscape and headed north, appreciating the beautiful views of the countryside as it evolved into rolling hills, fields of poppies, rows of Cyprus and Tuscan shades of umber.
Stopping for lunch in the quaint village of Greve in Chianti, we discovered an incredible local shop our Travel Director Giuseppe recommended, Macelleria Falorni.
Here we joined some of our new Australian friends from our travel group on the patio for a wonderful lunch of fresh cheeses, salamis and french bread topped off with a delicious Chianti.
We then headed to a nearby wine and olive oil producer, Castello Vicchiomaggio where they explained their process for making their Chianti followed up of course by tastings of two of their varieties of each wine and olive oil.
Back to our very comfy coach where our driver continued to skillfully navigate the narrow winding roads to the hilltop village Colle Val D’Elsa. Our hotel is lovely and a good place to use as home base for the next couple of days. But the best was yet to come…
Tonight we had a fabulous evening on one of the trip highlights, the Be My Guest dinner. Again continuing our climb up some winding roads, we were dropped off at the end of a cypress-lined drive marking the entrance to Fatoria Di Petroio.
Owner Pamela Lenzi greeted us warmly with a gracious welcome providing us with a history of this vineyard which has been in the family for many generations. We were joined by her daughter Diana, a professionally trained chef and owner /manager of the vineyard. We were given a tour of their production facilities along with explanations of their efforts to establish themselves as a leading maker of fine Chiantis.
We were then led through heavy wooden arched doors into a charming stone and brick wine cellar with heavy wooden beams supporting the roof. The end of the room was lined with several large oak casks and the center was set with a table where we experienced Tuscan hospitality, food and wines at their finest.
Diana by this time had retreated to the kitchen where she worked her culinary magic producing a sophisticated and flavorful four-course meal.
Dinner began with a first course of fresh ricotta and chives flan on top of a bed of fresh baby lettuce lightly drizzled with balsamic vinaigrette and a few golden raisins. A basket of freshly baked French and focaccia breads. A small flask of their own olive oil was provided. A plate Ofchianti Classico salami and pecorino cheese was passed around. A Igt Rosso Toscano Poggio al Mandorlo wine was a delightful wine to accompany this first course.
We were then presented with a beautiful plate of Matriciana Chiantigiana, freshly made pasta, mixed with pancetta cooked with balsamic vinaigrette, oven roasted cherry tomato slices dressed with a warm olive oil dressing sprinkled with fresh pecorino cheese. Chianti Classico docg, balanced the flavors of this dish.
The main course was a Sage Chicken Stew with Lemon Potato Gateau and Wild Greens….this richly flavored dish delicately blended a variety of subtle flavors to a mouthwatering conclusion. Chianti Classico Reserva docg accompanied this course providing it’s own wonderful blend of subtle but palate pleasing tastes. (oops, it was so good we forgot to take a picture before we ate it all!)
Finally we ended the evening with a delightful dessert of Panna Cotta with Hot Chocolate&Wine accompanied by Vinsanto for our final drink. The panna cotta was simply heavenly. The hot chocolate and wine was developed by an area chocolate specialist and very sadly we were not able to get any to take home.
There will be sweet dreams in Tuscany tonight….this is Lauren and Linda signing out….Ciao Baby!
They say a picture is worth 1,000 words. Well, for the things we saw today, 1,000 words wouldn’t begin to do it justice. As one of our fellow Trafalgar travelers said in the Sistine Chapel, “today we became a part of history.”
From the Vatican Museum to St. Peter’s Basilica, the Colosseum, Roman Forum, Pantheon, Plaza Novana, Trevi Fountain and some incredible local eateries, our tired feet covered all the best of Rome and more! And on our first full day with the Trafalgar Travel Director and Local Guide, it brought to life all the sights we’ve seen in the past few days but didn’t know the story to.
We’ll let our photos tell the story today…
We started our day bright and early at the Vatican Museum, where we met our Rome Local Guide, Fabiola. Her name serves her well – she was fabulous! Charming and very knowledgeable, she passionately shared the historical details behind everything we saw.
Above is the staircase that the Pope takes to get up to the Sistine Chapel. In the Chapel itself there are no photos allowed. Fabiola shared that Michelangelo took 4 years to complete the artwork, telling the stories of Jesus and Moses, covering the ceiling and the walls at the ripe old age of 35. When commissioned for the job, he was actually just a sculptor! He hired apprentices to teach him the Fresco painting technique, then dismissed them to do the whole job alone.
Here we are in the entryway of the incredible St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican City.
Inside St. Peter’s Basilica they are working on restoration projects like the one above.
The massive St. Peter’s Basilica is the burial site of St. Peter and many popes.
St. Peter’s square is where Pope Francis gave his opening address on the balcony of St Peter’s Basilica, greeted by cheers from tens of thousands of Roman Catholic pilgrims. As some of our fellow Trafalgar guests saw, he also makes an appearance every Sunday.
Vatican City gets over 17,000 visitors per day! The benefit of sightseeing in Rome with Trafalgar – we got to skip all the lines at every major site, which surely saved us hours upon hours. We couldn’t believe we just got to walk right past all those crowds.
Beautiful weather in St. Peter’s square (you can see the entrance line wraps all the way around the perimeter – but no waiting for us, we felt like VIP!).
Next stop, back to the Colosseum. We were glad to be riding the Trafalgar coach after walking all the way from the Vatican City the previous day on our own. Our Travel Director, Giuseppe, filled us in on all the sites along the route.
We were still with our Local Guide Fabiola, who again led us around a line of hundreds of people lined up both inside and outside the Colosseum to get right inside. She told us all about the history, including that it was originally built as an amphitheater and later named the Colosseum for it’s colossal size.
Here’s a view of the original underground structure of the Colosseum (which as you can see from the back, was covered by the main arena floor). There were trap doors that lead animals and gladiators up to the surface, keeping the 50,000 spectators surprised as to what was coming next.
You really feel the immensity of the Colosseum inside, especially when you image the whole thing was once covered in marble. There were originally 5 decks, women and slaves had to sit at the top. Some 2,000 gladiators died in this arena – many slaves or war prisoners, some volunteers looking for their chance at fame.
After a short Italian afternoon nap back at the hotel, we ventured out on our own during our free evening. With our trusty hotel map in-hand, we made it to the Pantheon, one of the best-preserved original Roman buildings.
Almost two thousand years after it was built, the Pantheon’s dome is still the world’s largest un-reinforced concrete dome.
Then, time for a gelato break! We got an amazing local tip from our Travel Director and embarked on adventure to find Giolitti’s, the oldest ice cream parlor in Rome, founded in 1890.
After waiting our turn in the busy parlor and choosing from dozens of flavors from the Giolitti family secret recipes, we both tried the Nutella and Amaretto gelato – almost too rich to finish! (Almost).
Armed with a gelato sugar rush, we were off again to find the famous Trevi Fountain and throw in a coin ensuring that we’ll come back again to Rome someday!
We were both awestruck by the size and beauty of the Trevi Fountain – a favorite sight to see for us in Rome. Just as with the Spanish Steps, the day before we were just a few streets aware and didn’t realize this icon was nearby.
Dinner was at Pizzeria Baffetto, a long-time local hot spot serving up traditional thin-crust Roman pizza. Delish! Good thing we went a little early (7-ish, they don’t open until 6:30p.m.) as there was a line out the door when we left.
Our closing view of Rome was back at the Vatican City entrance, overlooking St. Peter’s Basilica at night. What an incredible few days in Rome…we think we came, we saw, and we conquered the best of this amazing city. On to Tuscany tomorrow….Andiamo!
Arriving in short order, you can see from the pic (below), the Spanish Steps are a popular hot spot for both Italians and global travelers to spend some leisure time. We think they were probably debating who was going to win the inner-city Rome playoff tonight for the Italian soccer cup…Roma vs Lazio (two fierce Rome home-town rivals).