Monthly Archives: December 2014

Wrapping It Up

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It was unexpected trip, a surprisingly affordable week, and one we couldn’t resist.  Gate 1 Travel, you rock !! The flight, the car, the accommodations. . All terrific.  And now, it’s time for a few outtakes which didn’t make it into other blogs:

What we'll-dressed little girls are wearing. . .

What we’ll-dressed little girls are wearing. . .

And little boys, too!

And little boys, too!

The windows at Giovanini Pasticceria, across the piazza from us in Montecatini.  Dangerous!!

The windows at Giovanini Pasticceria, across the piazza from us in Montecatini. Dangerous!!

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Nose growing??

Nose growing??

A favorite of ours, a vintage Fiat Cinquecento--500

A favorite of ours, a vintage Fiat Cinquecento–500

Chandelier in a coffee house in Milan.

Chandelier in a coffee house in Milan.

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Ancient door--Oleggio

Ancient door–Oleggio

Door detail

Door detail

Flute and piano duo in our departure lounge. . Milan

Flute and piano duo in our departure lounge. . Milan

Over the Alps, enroute to USA

Over the Alps, enroute to USA

Yet One More Treat!

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Our flight home left at 3:40, thus giving us a few hours on Thursday morning with our car and the opportunity to go out and about for a few hours.  With the map, the GPS, and an eye on the clock, we decided to head to the small town of Oleggio, just 20 minutes north of the airport.  It was not a good choice. . . It was a GREAT choice!

on yet another sunny, dry day ( our 6th in a row) we pulled into town, parked free, and walked arm in arm through an honest-to-goodness, all Italian town.  The biggest takeaway from our few hours there can be captured in one word. . Friendly!!  We went in gift shops, a coffee shop, a deli, and were always greeted warmly and with great patience for my Italian language skills.  The “Chiesa” (church) was magnificent, as they often are in small villages.

One thing that struck me in the church was that the brass was all polished and sparkly.  I extrapolated this to mean proud and caring people who love their town.

One thing that struck me in the church was that the brass was all polished and sparkly. I extrapolated this to mean proud and caring people who love their town.

The “commessa” (shopkeeper ) could not have been kinder or more helpful, and I found my set of “tazzini” ( espresso cups) which was one item I’d wanted to go home with.  And how I love that every item one buys in Italy gets wrapped up “per regalo” (like a gift ).

imageWe strolled back streets, main streets, stopped for a cappuccino, bought sandwiches for lunch, pulled a few more Euros out of our bank account to take to the US to start us off on our next trip.

I'm always curious about who maintains these icons, leaves flowers, and what their life story is.  This one was on a building in a back alley.

I’m always curious about who maintains these icons, leaves flowers, and what their life story is. This one was on a building in a back alley.

L'albero di Natale. . .the Christmas tree nella panetteria. . .. In the bread shop.

L’albero di Natale. . .the Christmas tree nella panetteria. . .. In the bread shop.

The vibe in the town was happy and sweet.  I felt like I wanted to go home and write to the town council to tell them how much we enjoyed their town.  There was just something very special going on there!

Milano

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There should be some famous quotation about travel stereotype-busting.  Where was it that I heard “Milan is just a big industrial town and if you have to avoid one city, it should be Milan.”  Who the heck ever told me that?  .  I owe that person a huge kick in the butt.

Im sorry, Milan.  I apologize.  I was wrong, wrong, wrong to avoid you.  I’m here to make amends.

First magnificent site of the day :  Chiesa di San Maurizio, one of the hidden gems in Milan.

Frescoes looked as if they'd been painted last week.

Frescoes looked as if they’d been painted last week.

The church was originally one of the most important female convents in the north of Italy.  The structure is interesting and unusual, being divided into two sections.  The front one looks like this :

imageA wonderfully helpful guided showed us how to get into the back part of the church, where the nuns worshipped.  Don discovered a small box through which nuns were given communion.

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I'm picturing nuns sitting in these stalls singing, praying, or reading.  I cynically said to the guide that it felt to me like they were second class citizens.  He chuckled.

I’m picturing nuns sitting in these stalls singing, praying, or reading. I cynically said to the guide that it felt to me like they were second class citizens. He chuckled.

we headed toward the historical center, discovering Castello Sforzo along the way.  Later in the day we learned the long history of the fort and its current use as a place for classes, library, and museums.  A huge market and festival concluded a few days before we got there.  It celebrated St. Ambrose, the patron saint of Milan.

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 Strolling along we marveled at the amazing architecture,  the trolleys, the shop windows, the wide pedestrian walkways. . .

Strolling along we marveled at the amazing architecture, the trolleys, the shop windows, the wide pedestrian walkways. . .

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There’s an Old World charm about Milan with the clanging of the trolley bells, the maze of steel tracks underfoot when you cross the street.  The oldest wooden trolleys feature dinners each night at 8 pm. . .65€ a person.  Maybe next time. . .

The sight of the duomo was an all-time, suck-your-breath-in moment.image

The duomo comfortably seats 40,000 people.  Imagine that.  The inside is large, cold, and dark.  My next trip to Milan will include a 150step walk to the roof to look up close at the 135 statues.

And then. . .and then. .. We discovered the largest Christmas mArket ever around the outside of the duomo. It went on and on  and was filled with every good thing imagineable.imageimageimageimageimageimage

We had booked a tour in the afternoon, so it was off to La Scala.  The glamour and charm . . . And oh, the chandeliers.

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The main he main chandelier has 365 lights, one for each day of the year.

the tour included the museum with costumes from Cinderella.imageimageimage

A visit to the famous galleria was next, and the world-famous bull.  Three counter-clockwise turns assures good luck and a return to Milan.

Guess we'll be back!

Guess we’ll be back!

Our tour concluded at The Last Supper. . L’ultima Cena.  I didn’t know it would be so big.  There’s actually only about 25% of the original remaining and the rest has been filled in with water colors or other media.  Our guide shared much history about the building and the sketches.  Earlier that day there had been one of the frequent Italian strikes and tours were not allowed in the building.  Fortunately that had ended by the time we arrived.

Jet lag is catching up with me so that’s it for now.

Evaluate and Adjust, Italian style

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Three full days of exploring bits of western Tuscany is certainly not enough and way too short.  But we knew that before we booked this aborto fly’n’drive.  Late last night we discussed options and decided to leave Montecatini this afternoon, a day darle, so that we could settle into the hotel near the airport, then spend a long day tomorrow in Milan, a city we’ve never experienced.  But before we left our thermal spa town, we thought it best to immerse ourselves in some of the famous healing waters.  Off we went to Termale Redi.

imageNow I was thinking we’d have an experience like T and I have had at Fonteverde. . . An assortment of healing aqua jets, waterfalls, and pools, accompanied with lush towels, robes, slippers and the like.  Well, we did have two jets and warm mineral rich waters, but that’s about all.  The attendants managed to scrounge up two towels for us and we were given the requisite bathing caps.   However, we enjoyed a leisurely hour of immersion before we pulled ourselves out.  Walking back to our hotel we stopped in a small shop for two sandwiches “da sporta” to go for our 3.5 hour trip to Milan.

Not too much to report from the trip, although I will say that it was relatively effortless.  However, I wasn’t doing the driving!  We passed through the final edges of Toscana, into Liguria, through Piemonte, and then into Lombardia.  I managed to catch a good photo of the Carrara marble mountains. ..

imageSo today we said “arriverderci” to The Grand Hotel of Giuseppe Verde, and we’ve checked into an IKEA-clad traveler hotel right off the motorway.  Domani .. Milano.image

The Manhattan of Toscana

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imageManhattan in Tuscany?  Yep, that’s San Gimignano, known for its amazing skyline and Tuscan charm. Of its original 72 towers, built as symbols of power and wealth, 14 remain.  The town was an important stop for pilgrims on the Via Francingena, the route from England to Rome.  In fact, we learned today that the entrance to the cathedral was moved to better accommodate the route of pilgrims.

we didn’t expect to be going here today.  Over the years we’ve been asked by many, “What??  You’ve never been to San Gimignano?”  Although it held some interest for me, mainly for the vernaccia wine, we had tended to avoid it because it felt “touristy.”

i stand corrected and humbled.  After a brief discussion with our waiter Mauriano this morning, we decided to get out of town (which we learned had attracted 60,000 visitors during the weekend due to the Santa village) and just go somewhere with no strollers and over -tired kids.

so off we went on yet another beautiful, clear, sunny day.

admittedly, the view of the town upon approach is stunning and unlike other Tuscan hill towns.  The towers today rose into the clear blue sky, and if I were a good photographer, this would have been a good day for many views.

First stop was the duomo.  We spent a good hour listening to our audio guides with a perfect description of the frescoes which remain virtually intact .  There was no photography allowed, but here’s a picture of a picture on the brochure:imageOne side of the duomo depicted stories of the Old Testament, the other side the stories of the New Testament.  I was interested in the chapel of Saint Fina, with a glass coffin containing her remains.  The stories of these young, virginal saints leave me with many questions. .  .

Once again we enjoyed lunch outside and we estimated the temperatures to be in the high 60's to low 70's in the sun!  Amazing!

Once again we enjoyed lunch outside and we estimated the temperatures to be in the high 60’s to low 70’s in the sun! Amazing!

Awww. . .a sweet heart for two sweethearts!

Awww. . .a sweet heart for two sweethearts!

We were content to browse, eat gelato, and browse some more.  Here are a few photos to enjoy the ambience of the day. . .

La cisterna in the piazza

La cisterna in the piazza

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Santa and reindeer giving out candy to kids.

Santa and reindeer giving out candy to kids.

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We found the shopping in San Gimignano quite good, and staggered back to the car with wine, cheese, and assorted goodies.  I liked the town for a number of reasons, including its gentle hills, not too steep, with easy walking.  I would most certainly return, although there are so many wonderful hill towns yet to discover. I would like to explore the towers and walk more of the streets.  The vernaccia was tasty, the pecorino is coming home with me “sottovuoto”and I finally found my “papavero e fico” products at a handsome discount.

Its been another good day.

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What a beautiful town!  Enclosed within an ancient wall, this town has it all. . Charm, shopping, history, good food.  We only scratched the surface today.

imageA browse around the Sunday market revealed the usual. . .food stalls and imported goods.  Ho-hum.  But as we strolled the crowded streets (holiday weekend, remember), we noticed a plethora of upscale shops and folks riding bikes.  Never have I seen bike-rising in a Tuscan town, but this one is flat.  Easy walking.

We happened into the Chiesa di San Michelle, where a mass was crowded with the faithful.  A short moment to sit, then realizing we had taken someone’s seat while they were taking communion, and then we skeedaddled out of there.image

I must research why these columns are each different,  there's sure to be a story.

I must research why these columns are each different, there’s sure to be a story.

Further along we discovered a medieval faire in a small piazza.imageimage

I discussed dishcloths with a lovely woman.  Most were hand-woven of linen and were quite pricey.

I discussed dishcloths with a lovely woman. Most were hand-woven of linen and were quite pricey.

In another piazza we found children making cheese!

Gemma would love this!

Gemma would love this!

A Sunday in Italy is a day out, and this one was even more special due to the Feast of the Immaculate Conception.  We found “un affollata delle gente”… A crowd of people wherever we went.  A kind person gave us an extra map when I asked (yes, in Italian ) where to get a map.  We made our way to the ancient amphitheater, now home to restaurants and specialty shops.  We loved standing in the middle and imagining life in the circular village around us.  When we chose one exit we were happy to discover Osteria Baralla, recommended by Telma.  Without a second thought we asked for a table ( yes, in Italian) and we’re seated.

Chianina beef carpaccio with slices of Grana (cheese).   Heaven on a fork!

Chianina beef carpaccio with slices of Grana (cheese). Heaven on a fork!

our map was heading us toward the castle, and upon entering were surprised to find…

. . A food exhibition

. . A food exhibition

The halls were crowded with one exhibitor after another selling every kind of food and drink imagine able. . Oil, wine, cider, baked goods, cheese. . . On and on. . imageimageimage

And a silly favorite at the salumeria. .  imageWe we soon found ourselves walking on the wall above the town, commenting that we could easily “Facciamo un passiegatta” take a walk here daily.  The total distance is 4 miles, and we probably only walked one.imageUh-oh, where’s the car?   We THOUGHT we knew which gate we entered through, and we didn’t exit through that one.  But it’s an easy town to traverse.  A brief half mile onward and we were in our red sleigh, ready to seek out the Santuario di Gemma, the saint of Lucca.

Just a short drive outside of Lucca we found the saint with the same name as "I nostri nipotina"...our granddaughter.

Just a short drive outside of Lucca we found the saint with the same name as “I nostri nipotina”…our granddaughte

once again we found the faithful gathering for mass, and after a brief, respectful stay we exited into the bookstore where a very kind bookseller was happy to share a few words with us (yes, in Italian) and he gave us a photo of St. Gemma at age 7 as a gift for our Gemma.

I’ll leave you with a photo of Gemma which we found outside the Santuario.  I’ve seen it before, and am struck by her eyebrows, which bear a striking similarity to someone near and dear to us!image

I’m actually a day behind in blogging, so that’s it for now.