Friday, August 28, 2009
Since our plane didn’t leave until 2:00, we decided to stroll about the pedestrian zone off O’Connell Street. Shoppers were already out and we stopped to admire a department store window display with handmade stuffed animals. “It’s lovely, isn’t it,” said the woman beside us and it truly was. Stopping at one of my favorite stores, Boots, we bought several bottles of coconut-almond soap which I wrapped carefully and stuffed in my carryon bag.
At the airport, it was a routine check-in until we passed through baggage control. I had forgotten about the liquid regulations and my prize soaps were confiscated. Once on the plane, we were delighted to find we had bulkhead seats and settled in for the long trip home. With a new book in hand, “New Europe” by Michael Palin, I spent most of the trip immersed in his travel journal, only occasionally being interrupted by a father who decided to entertain his two year old daughter less than two feet in front of us by jumping up and down and tossing her in the air. It was quite annoying and he didn’t seem to care.
Looking back on our vacation, some of the highlights include:
• Watching children play in the bubbling fountains in Dijon which seem to magically appear out of the sidewalk
• Touring the now elegant Hotel Dieu, a hospice built in the 15th century in Beaune
• The dreamy view of the snow covered Mt. Blanc from our hotel room with the observation tower glistening in the sun
• Relaxing on our lemon grove terrace at the Villa Steno in Monterosso with a glass of Limoncino
• Riding the ferry to each of the five small towns in the Cinque Terre that rise from the sea like steps
• Sitting in the shade of an old oak tree on top of Torre Guinigi, a 130 foot ancient tower in Lucca
• Feeling a sense of peace in the candlelit Basilica of St. Francis where people whisper their hopes beside his tomb
• Exploring an Etruscan cave under the streets of Orvieto
• Strolling along the Tiber River at night with our friend, Monika, to see the illuminated dome at St. Peter’s in Vatican City
• Hearing the magnificent organ at St. Peters
• Admiring a staggering collection of masterpieces at the Borghese Gallery
• Visiting the Temple Bar district in Dublin to feel the energy of the city’s nightlife
It’s always hard coming home, but the memories will live on and as Rick Steves always says, “Assume you will return!”
Thursday, August 27, 2009
Every year starting in February I spend weeks looking for the best airfares with reasonable connections to Europe. This year Aer Lingus had the best price for our trip to Italy and France. Having traveled with them for years, we felt very confident about booking the trip, and added an overnight in Dublin to the itinerary.
The crowds were already out touring the Pantheon the morning we left Rome and the Gladiators wearing their feather covered helmets were busy posing with tourists for money. For us, the easiest way to Fiumicino Airport was by taxi and by law, costs 40 euro. The airport is unremarkable and needs updating, but fortunately was easy to navigate. Once we arrived in Dublin, an airport transfer bus whisked us directly to our hotel, Best Western Academy Plaza Hotel, right off O’Connell Street. Although it lacks the charm of a traditional old-world Irish hotel, it is clean, modern, comfortable, and right in the heart of the city.
Not wasting any time, we headed right out into the city where a light rain was falling. This was our first true shopping excursion of the entire trip and we found gifts for family and friends at Avoca where we bought lovely woven blankets, and at Eason Bookshop, which is a reader’s delight. Three floors are filled with books on a variety of topics including schoolbooks for children.
After dinner in the hotel, we wandered over to the Temple Bar area and stopped briefly at a pub to listen to some music. Each pub was so crowded people were practically bursting out the door, but that just makes it an interesting challenge. Inside, the bartenders worked nonstop pouring rich creamy glasses of Guinness or some other libation. Finding a seat was next to impossible. One couple even sat in the phone booth just to hear the live music.
On our way back to the hotel we discovered the funniest store ever: Carroll’s Gifts & Souvenirs. We have spent many summers in the countryside of Ireland and know the difference between fine Irish handmade gifts and trinkets, but this place was just outright fun on a cool rainy evening. Inside is floor after floor and aisle after aisle of every leprechaun, sheep, and Guinness souvenir you could possibly ever imagine. They even had their own radio station advertising their own goods.
Crossing the Ha’penny Bridge, the River Liffey looked beautiful at night. Heading back down O’Connell Street past the 390 foot silver Millennium Spire, we agreed that we missed Ireland and will make sure that next year, our trip includes a longer stay.
Wednesday, August 26, 2009
The temperature in Italy this past week has been unusually high and a heat wave warning has been issued. Visitors in some of the hill towns report they get some relief from a light breeze, but here in Rome it’s brutal. People gather around fountains to fill their water bottles, which many dump on their head. Others sit in the shade of cafes even if it means they pay a premium for bottled water. We, however, felt fortunate because today was the day to visit one of Rome’s most delightful spots: The Borghese Gallery.
In the 17th century, Cardinal Scipione Borghese created a place to showcase art. He was particularly interested in ancient, Renaissance and contemporary art as well as sculptures. Today you can visit this amazing collection located in the villa where he lived. Only 350 visitors are permitted in the museum every two hours. Reservations are a must and when we arrived for our 11:00 appointment, a sign had already been posted saying no more time slots were available that day. We were quite concerned when it appeared that our online reservation had not gone through as we thought, but the receptionist recognized our disappointment and granted us tickets. Following our Rick Steves’ guided tour, we passed effortlessly from room to room to admire the staggering collection of paintings and statues. Most impressive to me was a statue of David, and another of Apollo and Daphne, both by Bernini. They featured delicately carved leaves that looked almost real. Antonio Canova’s Pauline Bonaparte as Venus statue had been polished by the sculptor to perfection so that the marble mattress and cushion she was sitting on looked as soft as cotton and silk.
Outside the gallery are lush gardens with shaded gravel paths. Visitors amused themselves with what looked like antique open air cars operated by pedaling. Walking back into the city we discovered an underground pedestrian passageway that wound its way under the city streets and miraculously popped out at the Spanish steps where a huge crowd huddled in a shaded spot for a picnic.
On our way back to the hotel we came upon two churches, which contain world-class art including paintings by Caravaggio from the early 17th century. One of them, the Church of San Luigi dei Francesi had an exquisite painting, “The Calling of St. Mathew.” It’s fascinating that sometimes you’ll see churches that aren’t remarkable on the outside, but inside are art treasures.
Once the sun set we visited Piazza Navarone and watched artists paint portraits of tourists, and street entertainers enchant the crowds. Back at our hotel we had a farewell to Rome glass of wine on the rooftop garden of our hotel, Albergo Senato. With the Victor Emmanuel Monument lit up like a birthday cake in one direction, and the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica illuminated in front of us, we agreed that Rome is a place we will always remember and hope to return to again and again.
Tomorrow we’re off to Dublin!
The Vatican Museums were founded by Pope Julius II in the 16th century. It is the largest museum in the world and houses a staggering collection of art including Egyptian mummies, Greek and Roman statues, and paintings by the masters of the art world. Many of these pieces of art are housed in rooms that are almost as stunning as the masterpiece itself and everything is beautifully displayed. We always knew if we were entering a room with a valuable masterpiece because people would stand before it like the paparazzi shooting photos. Some memorable rooms for me included a hallway which extends for a quarter mile with Roman busts, and a gallery that housed enough animal statues to stand by itself as a museum. Following our self-guided Rick Steves’ tour I found one room that was a highlight for me because I am interested in geography. It was a hallway of beautifully painted maps in intricate detail that showed all of Italy and it’s churches. Large globes from the 15th and 16th century stood proudly beneath glass.
The grand finale of the museum is the Sistine Chapel. Being a chapel, I thought it would be a place of silence and contemplation, but instead the atmosphere inside was a free for all. We were fortunate enough to be able to sit on a marble bench on the side to take in all the intricate details of each painting, but others simply stood in the middle flashing their cameras left and right even though the guards repeatedly clapped their hands ordering silence and no photos. Looking frustrated they would target one visitor wearing a hat and taking pictures, but as soon as they were preoccupied speaking to them, cameras would go off somewhere else.
Our visit to St. Peter’s Basilica was after 5:00 when the church was less crowded with no lines. Passing through the security check, our clothing was examined to make sure no one was wearing shorts above the knee or bare shoulders. It seemed somewhat disrespectful to me to see someone wearing a t-shirt that said “Joe’s Steak House-It’s Mouthwatering Good” but this all seemed unimportant as soon as we entered the door. Walking inside literally takes your breath away. Everywhere you look is art of staggering purport ions. Markers on the floor show the relationship of size of some of the largest cathedrals in the world compared to St Peters. In the center is the tomb of St. Peter with tiny candles lit all around its perimeter. Evening mass took place while we were there at the main altar and we were delighted to be able to hear the magnificent organ. Michelangelo’s Pieta is housed behind glass to protect it due to an attack by a madman with a hammer in the 1970s, but is truly a magnificent sight to see.
Feeling energized we decided to visit the dome. Fortunately there is an elevator which will whisk you most of the way, but once there after a quick peek way down into the sanctuary, you must climb over 300 stairs to the top. It’s a little claustrophobic because it winds almost leaning against the dome itself, but once at the top, the views are breathtaking. All of Rome lies before you surrounded by hazy mountains in the distance. Vatican City looks like an oasis with palm trees, elegant buildings with stucco roofs, lush green grass, and tiny waterfalls. A group of students felt so inspired by it all that they broke into song.
Knowing that if we could make it to the top of St. Peters that we could survive a 20 minute walk back to our hotel, we strolled back feeling very pleased with all we had seen during the day. Dinner was at Ristorante Maccheroni which is right down the street from our accommodation. The waiter told us that Michelle Obama and her daughters had dined there this summer. This was surprising to us because it’s a modest inexpensive restaurant with an outdoor café. Later on, I learned that the waiter was indeed right as there was a news story with photos in an Italian newspaper.
Hoping to keep cool and enjoy the ambiance of the city, we revisited Piazza Navona with, the Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi, a masterpiece built by Bernini in 1651. In the evening it looks spectacular all lit up. We arrived back at our hotel after midnight feeling tired, but knowing this would be a day we would long remember.
We started our day yesterday with breakfast here in the hotel, Albergo Senato, which is included in the price. The crispy chocolate croissants with the flaky crust were served hot out of the oven. After breakfast with our map in hand, we set about to explore the city. Our first stop was Gesu Church. It is a Baroque church with incredible frescoes on the ceiling. Intending them to be a vision of heaven, the artist painted them with a 3D effect. A large mirror was placed in the nave to give a better view of the ceiling art.
Continuing our walk, I was surprised to learn how easy Rome is to get around in with a map as long as you are careful when crossing streets. Cars and motorcycles speed very quickly by and if you don’t establish eye contact with them or use a crosswalk, it can be quite scary.
The Victor Emmanuel Monument is magnificent. Located on Capitoline Hill, it is a recognizable site with enormous statues. It stands at 443 feet wide and 230 feet high.
A visit to the Capitoline Museum provided a great escape from the heat and was very educational. Some of the highlights are the She-Wolf statue, The Dying Gaul, and a statue of a boy removing a thorn from his foot. Housed in the museum are also some wonderful statues that had been removed from the Roman Forum to protect them from acid rain. The upper floors of the museum provide expansive views of the Roman Forum. We felt so privileged to be inside enjoying the stunning pillars from a balcony window rather than outside in the scorching heat.
Dinner tonight was in Trastevere which is on the west bank of the Tiber River south of Vatican City. It has a charming neighborhood feel with narrow cobblestone streets and medieval houses. On our way we stopped at Santa Maria in Trastevere Church where there were gorgeous mosaics that looked as fine as woven silk. At the tables beside us at Osteria Ponte Sisto, we spoke with an American couple who had also found the restaurant in their Rick Steves’ Rome guide. When we mentioned it, two other couples piped up behind them and announced they too had chosen the restaurant out of their Rick Steves’ guide too. Suddenly we did not feel as if we were dining with the locals anymore, but the food was very good. During dinner, we were interrupted several times by varying salesman selling their wares. We were offered roses, fans, and cigarette lighters with flashlights shining spider, cat or “sexy” pictures on the table. The latter was a bit too racy for the woman dining beside us and she turned her head away in embarrassment. We were also serenaded by an accordion player whom our friend, Monika, from Germany pointed out played Spanish, not Italian songs.
After dinner we went on a scenic walk back to the hotel, thanks to our friend, Monika, who is energetic and familiar with the area. Walking along the banks of the Tiber we came upon what appeared to be a small international festival. A sushi bar was set up in one tent with an assembly line of available food. In another, people were dancing the tango.
The highlight of our walk was Vatican City. At night, the streets are quiet and Saint Peter’s square is dark, but the dome of the church is illuminated which is an incredible sight at night. Gates are placed around the square to keep night visitors at a distance, but we look forward to exploring it tomorrow. On our way back to the hotel, we passed Castel Sant’ Angelo where the atmosphere was festive with children on carousels and people admiring the view from the top. Rome seems so large on a map, but after only 20 minutes, we were finally back at our hotel. It was past midnight, but the square was alive with people watching a mime. Rome is a magical place to be and we are thankful we still have more time to discover its treasures.
Our trip to Rome was a short 90 minutes by train, but unlike our other journeys by rail here, this train was crowded and we were forced to stand in the aisle until a kind conductor showed us to some seats in an adjacent car. Upon our arrival in Rome, it was just a quick trip to our hotel, Albergo Senato, which is right next to the Pantheon. Our room is on an upper floor and for us the view seems very familiar as we have been studying the hotel’s webcam for quite some time before arriving here. With our map in hand, we quickly set out to explore the area. Near our hotel is the church Santa Maria Sopra Minerva where we saw a wonderful Michelangelo sculpture which is often missed by many visitors.
For Europeans, a quick trip to Rome is easy and inexpensive on many of their smaller airlines. We are delighted that one of our friends, Monika, has been able to join us here in Rome for several days to set about the city like explorers. We started our visit with her right in the piazza by the Pantheon with some refreshments, but we should have known better. Just for the privilege of sitting in a historic piazza with a great view cost just over $40 even though two of the drinks were nonalcoholic. But when it’s a special time with friends, it’s all worthwhile.
After sunset, all of the piazzas come alive with outdoor cafes lit with tiny votive candles. The piazzas look almost magical and Piazza Navona is no exception. In the center, the Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi is a masterpiece built by Bernini in 1651. Beautifully illuminated, people are drawn to sit by the refreshing water. The cafes all looked like a very appealing place to spend an evening, but knowing that the best food is often found down a hidden cobblestone lane, we were able to avoid the temptation. We were glad we did when one young man assigned to bring in customers informed us, “Good food here and not microwaved!” Unfortunately the two restaurants we had in mind from our Rick Steves guide were booked so we chose a little café frequented by locals. It was not gourmet, but our pasta was tasty and fresh.
Strolling back from dinner we couldn’t resist the temptation to visit Fontana di Trevi. Rounding a corner to discover it right there is an amazing sight. Tourists happily stand with their backs to it and gleefully toss coins which we learned are gathered at the end of the day and given to the poor. With our cameras, we of course were targeted as tourists, and there was an attempt to present me with a rose “as a present” but we knew better and watched with amusement as two college age girls received their roses. They had huge smiles on their faces until they realized they must pay and with that, the roses were snatched out of their hands.
We ended the evening with a stop at Giolitti which has a long standing tradition of being Rome’s top purveyors of gelati. I asked for a scoop of Baileys and crema, but something must have gone wrong in the translation because I received a Baileys with a huge dollop of whipped cream. It was delicious though, and came in a cone dipped in chocolate. One girl received a cone with a big 16 candle on top all lit. She looked very pleased when everyone sang “Happy Birthday.” Back at the Pantheon, the cafes were winding down for the night. We headed into our cool room with ac feeling very pleased about our first night in Rome.
Lunch was a Montannucci where you can choose from delicious salads and eat them in their tiny garden. In the heat of the day people are taking refuge in the cathedral, in the shade of buildings, or in their air conditioned hotels. People look positively wilted in the heat here which we have learned is record temperatures. They trudge across the piazzas and slump down on the nearest shaded bench. This heat has not stopped a young accordion player and his wife begging for handouts. It seems as if every time we go out, there they are putting a plastic empty gelati cup in our face while being serenaded.
Right across from the cathedral is the Museo Claudio Faina and Museo Civico. It has a great collection of Etruscan pottery all excavated in this area. Touring the museum provides up close and impressive views of the Duomo.
Orvieto is an interesting town to window shop. Shops vary from colorful ceramic displays for the tourists to fashionable clothing. Here and there are tiny trattorias or cafes. Some have attempted English translations which are very helpful until I read "Buns to stuff pizza." I think it's best though to be prepared with a dictionary and the locals appreciate one's efforts.
After a light dinner of pizza and tomatoes with mozzarella, we attended a magnificent concert in the Duomo performed by a choir from Cambridge, England. Much to our surprise there was no charge. With a setting with perfect acoustics, it was a festive ending to our day.
The train ride here to Orvieto was a quick two hours. We spent some of the time talking to an American who is in Italy selling her car after a four year position teaching English to Italian students.
Arriving in Orvieto, we rode the funnicular to the top of the town where a cool air conditioned bus dropped us off at the Duomo. Our hotel, the Hotel Duomo, is modern and spacious. Our room may lack views, but we are right in the heart of the old town. Feeling hungry, we discovered a cafe serving hearty salads. One of them insalata di riso, was made with rice and fresh vegetables.
Our main tourist attraction was Pozzo Della Cava. In the 1980s while renovating a trattoria, the owners discovered the remains of an Etruscan kiln and well. The museum did a great job of explaining on sign boards each section as you toured like an explorer down below.
Some say Orvieto is well known for three things: Classico white wine, the cathedral, and ceramic shops. The shops tastefully display their wares decorated with colorful vines, farm animals, and sunflowers.
By early evening, many of of the daytrippers have left and it is easier to get around. We discovered a wonderful store on an alley with craft workshops that was dedicated to tin wind up toys from yesteryear and replicas of amusement park rides such as the parachute ride at Coney Island. Every nook and cranny of the store was covered with antique toys.
Dinner tonight was at Re Artu, an enjoyable and very reasonably priced restaurant that specializes in pizza. We dined in the outside garden and enjoyed a nice family atmosphere. Tonight we are headed towards the Duomo where there will be a live folk singer in front of the Duomo.
The sun was beating down of the pavement today, but it is so pretty here that it is all worthwhile because at every turn is another discovery: a winding lane leading up to a small stone house with flower boxes, or a small courtyard overlooking the Umbrian countryside. By 10:00 it was already a lively town and we followed the crowd to the Basilica of St. Francis.
The Lower Basilica which has the tomb of St. Francis is a moving and memorable experience. People make an offering of a single white candle which is lit late in the day. Near the tomb many people sit in the chapel to pray while others file around it. Upon closer examination, there are tiny pictures of people of all ages in need of prayer which have been placed around the tomb. A young teenage girl sat in the corner fervently writing a prayer request which she carefully placed in the tomb as she knelt before it. On the altar before St. Francis, two young children knelt in prayer with looks of pure joy on their faces.
Upstairs in the Upper Basilica, the energy is high. A voice over the intercom pleads silenzio and no photos, but the silence lasts only for a moment, but the silence lasts only for a moment because people are so in awe of the frescoes painted by Giotto.
Another large church was the Basilica of St. Clare. As you tour the tomb, you can read the story of her life. She was a follower of St. Francis and like him, left a life of privilege for one of humble living and service to God. Her body is on view at the Basilica.
Surprisingly a cool breeze blew through town late in the day offering welcome relief from the heat. Dinner tonight was at Taverna Dei Consoli where we enjoyed chicken and rosemary, and homemade noodles with truffles.
As cicadas chirped in the distance we took one final stroll around town to enjoy the view. Back at our hotel a fireworks show lit up the sky, a perfect way to end the day.
Riding on trains you always encounter unusual characters. We had the train car all to ourselves and were drifting off to sleep when we were suddenly snapped awake from our dream state by accordion music. I’m afraid our donation wasn’t good enough because the young musician accepted our coin and scurried off into the next car. At another station, a young woman boarded a train passing out notes seeking donations for a baby we never saw. We have seen this scene again and again in Italy.
The train pulled into Assisi right on time, but when the door opened, it was like stepping into an oven. In the distance Assisi looked magnificent with the church at the edge of the hill and a castle at the summit. Our taxi wove at top speed around the narrow streets causing people to jump aside or simply flatten themselves against the stone buildings. Arriving at the Hotel Umbra, we were thrilled with our room. Decorated in an old world style, we feel like royalty. Our room has a balcony with a view of the countryside which will be great to enjoy in the evenings.
Dinner tonight was at Locanda Del Pobesta. It has wonderful stone walls and the doors were left open to let in the fresh air. We had bruschetta with wafer thin truffles that tasted as fresh as the earth after a rain shower in the spring. Our main entrée was a filet of beef in Sagrantino wine. It was the most tender and tasty steak we have ever had. Potatoes roasted with rosemary were served on the side.
After dinner we walked around the old town and were amazed at the number of families out too. Children of all nationalities played soccer in front of the church while their parents sat on the old city walls admiring the city twinkling city lights of Umbria that spread for miles below us. What a breathtaking sight for a summer evening.
Breakfast this morning at La Romea was a pleasant surprise. A delightful buffet was prepared with sliced vine ripe tomatoes, cheese and sausages, a fresh fruit salad, scrambled eggs, croissants, and piping hot cappuccino served in pottery mugs.
We decided to explore the town on foot and stopped at a café for some almond cookies. Visiting old churches is a great way to cool off and get out of the sun. At the archaeology museum we explored Roman ruins under the main sanctuary. Excavation is still in progress, but has revealed floors of tiny mosaics. Unfortunately there is also some evidence of plant life growing on the stones due to dampness.
The streets of Lucca were alive today with tourists from all over. A street market with long tables was set up under umbrellas or hidden in the shade cast from the buildings featured antiques, many which were unusual. One table had WWII memorabilia while another had an ornate gold porcelain shell with porcelain fish inside, I thought it was ugly, but somehow in this ancient city it caught my eye. A Pinnochio doll clanging cymbals amused many shoppers who were admonished by the owner for touching his wares.
The Torre Guingi is a symbol of Lucca and is easily recognized by its old oak trees on top. At 130 feet high it is an easy climb up a wide staircase with windows offering a cool breeze at every landing. From the top we had an expansive view of Lucca which once had 146 towers.
Dinner was at Bella M’Briana. The pesto pizza with tomatoes hot out of the oven was the best pizza I have ever had and only cost 6 euro. Out dessert was at Gelateria Veneta which has been in the same family since 1927. Their peach, apricot, and raspberry gelati was so tasty you would think you were eating the fruit right off the tree.
An evening is never complete in Lucca without a stroll around the ramparts that ring the old town. Their well shaded dimly lit walkways were the perfect ending for a hot, but enjoyable stay.
Old trees atop the tower
Decades of growth
reach for the sky
changing with each season
Silently we rest beneath the branches
Grateful for the shade
of old trees
The train to Lucca took less than two hours. Most of the way we talked with two medical students from Canada who were spending three weeks in Europe. They were very articulate, well read, and enjoyed talking about travels, politics, and the Canadian health care system.
Arriving in the walled in city of Lucca, even the cab driver needed directions to our accommodation B&B La Romea which is tucked into an alley. We are very pleased with our spacious room in this 14th century house which includes air conditioning.
Walking around town we commented on how old it felt. The narrow cobblestone streets wind through the town with a church in almost every piazza. Down the street from our B&B is the Torre Guinigi, a 130 foot tower with an ancient tree on top. The Pizza Anfiteatro was once a 10,000 seat Roman Ampitheater, but today it is 9 feet above the original theater and houses cafes, private residences, and shops. We noticed a tour group from Holland America cruises following their guide who was strutting in front like a peacock holding a flag. Wearing their blud and yellow headphones in a tiny area, they looked disconnected as if they weren't close enough to the people to experience it all up close and personl. Snapping obligatory photos, they obediently followed their guide as if they feared they might get lost. It was like a scene from the book Make Way for Ducklings.
Dinner tonight was at Trattoria de Leo which is highly recommended. We enjoyed a steak and Tordelli, a local speciality which is similar to ravioli. After dinner we walked around town to enjoy the ambiance. Heading back to our accommodation, we took on e last glance at the tower with the oak tree on top. Tomorrow we will climb it.
Another hot and sunny day here in Monterosso. Heading out for a stroll this morning to the beach, we passed two instrumentalists in the shade. It's amazing how pleasant it is to sit on the seawall listening to the song Memories, a song neither of us would ever have on our ipods, yet somehow it fits the scenery here.
On our way back to lunch we checked out the weekly outdoor market. The contrast between this market and the affluent one in Beaune and Dijon was striking. Whereas in Beaune and Dijon, garden fresh vegetables were displayed like a work of art, here in Monterosso the outdoor market is like one big Euro Store, but still fun to visit.
Lunch today was at Il Pizzaria la Simorfia. We grabbed a wooden stool at an outdoor table for the crispiest pizza we've had yet. Looking inside I saw a clever display of pizza boxes dating back to the opening of their restaurant.
People watching here is fascinating. From our balcony we can see an italian couple with their adult children enjoying their lunch on their balcony. Grandpa's t-shirts flap in the breeze with Mama's housedress. The family is the same family we saw last year. They play cards, squabble enthusiasticaly, or simply relax in the sun while the son in law looks at his netbook.
To escape the heat we spent much of the afternoon people watching from our lemon garden terrace and took the ferry to Riomaggiore. Stepping off the ferry we saw many people sunning on the rocks who will probably regret it later because they were so sunburned. Following our guide we took an elevator to the top of the town with amazing expansive views.. A small Cinque Terre museum was hidden on the main street and featured a film explaining the history of the area. The woman behind the desk seemed bored and almost aspleep in the small room lacking air conditioning. I learned that many of the Italian immigrants from the 1800s were from Liguria.
Dinner tonight was at L'Alta Maria, an outside cafe where we dined on mussels fresh from the sea, juicy melon, and homemade pesto pasta. A rare people watching observation was a man and his wife who looked as if they had too much wine. The man stopped at a table and begged for a shrimp in a shell from a customer who gave him a mussel instead. He ate it and tossed the shell in the street.
Our evening ended with a stroll to the new town where again a humorous people watching sight took place- a young woman was photographing her boyfriend buying a water from a vending machine. People watching is fun and we look forward to enjoyig it in our next stop-Lucca.
Thursday, August 13, 2009
Walking to the new town today we passed hundreds of people headed for the beach. It's scorching hot so we decided to enjoy the view from il'Casello, an outdoor cafe overlooking the water. On our way back to our accommodation we discovered il Frantoio Focacceria where freshly baked focaccia was sold right out of the oven. The olive oil was so fresh the chef was probably in the back room pressing the olives. We enjoyed it on our terrace in the lemon grove with a glass of Limoncino. Limoncino is made with wafer thin lemon skins peeled by hand.
Because of the intense sun, we waited until 3:30 and took the ferry to Riomaggiore. The boat ride takes less than 30 minutes and the view as the ferry approaches each town is amazing. The Cinque Terre was once known as 5 sleepy pirate towns, but today they are lively coastal towns in the summer, each with its own unique personality.
From the sea, Riomaggiore's characteristic yellow, orange, and pink houses all with green shutters rise up the hillside like a series of steps. Towels and t-shirts hang over the balconies drying in the warm breeze.
We walked the Via del Amore coastal path and stopped at a cafe perched on a cliff with a straw thatched roof and water misters giving cool relief to anyone stopping by. Continuing on the path we couldn't help but notice netting carefully placed on the cliffs to protect hikers from falling rocks. Tiny salamanders scurry across the path and disappear into the natural cactus gardens.
Stopping in Manarola we recalled a town wide water balloon fight there last year and to our surprise, when we rounded a corner, there were children gleefully filling balloons to toss at friends.
Last night we had a table at il' Casello right over the water. Across the beach, tucked into a small cove under the cliff, people waltzed under the stars. I could have watched them for hours.
From Chamonix we rode a bus with panoramic windows through the Mont Blan tunnel. It is an incredible feat of engineering costing a staggering 31 euro per car, but is the quickest route into Italy. After one quick change in Courmeyer, Italy, we arrived in Aosta for our train ride to the Cinque Terre.
The train rider here is long and requires two changes on trains varying from swift and modern to speedy yet pitiful, but when you arrive in Monterosso with its aquamarine waters lined with sandy beaches and palm trees, it makes the whole experience worthwhile. We really love it here. This is our third trip to the Villa Steno. Our room has a balcony and garden overlooking the town and the sea. This resort town feels very authentic. From our balcony, we can see happy Italian holidaymakers enjoying their dinner on outside balconies with a bottle of wine while their hanging beach towels flap in the breeze. It is now time for us to get into the slow rhythm of life here and enjoy a warm summer evering with dinner by the sea.
Leaving Mont Blanc
The snowy peak of Mont Blanc rises high above the valley floor
beaconing us to visit
To stay or to go?
Slowly our bus pulls away
The timeless mountain will wait for our return
Chamonix has a lot of activities for all types of weather. Since the sun was shining, we boarded a small cog wheel train for a steep ascent through the forest to Mer de Glace. The view from Mer de Glace is staggering. From the outdoor observation platform and café, an enormous glacial river of ice seems to be running down the mountain, but it is actually receding. The enormity of the glacier was somewhat deceiving. What appeared to be tiny moving dots were actually groups of hikers with ice shoes and picks.
From the station, gondolas take visitors down to an ice cave below. Astonishingly, whereas the gondola may have once ended at the glacier, today you must walk down an additional 300 steps to a steep pathway to the entrance of the ice cave. Along the way, markers show where the glacier had been as little as 20 years ago. The ice inside the cave is a transparent blue. As we wound our way through it, we couldn’t help but stop for a souvenir photo with a Saint Bernard.
Back on the train, we passed many hikers making their way to the valley floor. Huge glacial streams flow down the cliffs, feeding the torrential river below. The valley looks so pretty with wildflowers blooming everywhere. Back in town we strolled about until suddenly the skies opened up into a total down -pour. It might seem as if that would be disappointing, but the mountains covered with mist take on a whole different character. Looking up toward Mont Blanc, a single gondola dangles in place as if waiting for better weather.
Dinner tonight was at La Caleche. This restaurant has been in the same family since 1946. Eating inside is like eating in a museum. Antiques fill ever nook and cranny and include a bobsled , ice skates, and geographical survey map from the 1924 Winter Olympics held in Chamonix.
We started our meal with a warm ham and cheese tart served with a fresh green salad. The roast chicken with sage and herb ravioli which followed were delicious, but when the dessert was served, it was like a piece of art. Layers of crispy meringue surrounded vanilla and strawberry ice cream.
Tonight the rain pours on, but that doesn’t dampen our spirits. Tomorrow we are headed to Italy.
Sunday, August 9, 2009
French trains are clean, modern, and swift. Our seats were perched on a raised platform and were very comfortable. Unfortunately, the woman across from us did not secure her steel sided suitcases and early on it came tumbling down slightly injuring my toe It was not a good way to start a three hour train ride, but it will be okay. Passing through the countryside, the peaks of distant mountains soon became visible and added a beautiful backdrop to fields of sunflowers. Tiny alpine style houses with stucco roofs and window boxes bursting with flowers surrounded us on both sides.
Our final connection to Chamonix had huge panoramic windows. As we ascended up the mountains, torrential streams roared beneath the bridges and tiny paragliders soared high above catching the wind in their parachutes.. What an amazing view they must have.
Chamonix is so picturesque. Tall mountain peaks loom above the town with a breathtaking view of the snowcapped Mont Blanc. Gondolas in all directions whisk people to the top for dreamy views. Our hotel, Oustalet, looks like an Alpine chalet. Our room is decorated in natural pine and has a balcony overlooking the town and the mountains. We sat in the garden by the pool and had a chopped chicken and bacon, sandwich served between two buckwheat pancakes. Locals call it a blini. Delicious!
A light rain is falling tonight, but from our room we can still see the lights of the town with the glacier still visible on Mont. Blanc.
Saturday, August 8, 2009
Right across from the market is Hotel Dieu. Built in 1443, this former hospital with a multi colored tiled roof, houses some 5,000 items. In the largest room is what looks like an elegant hospital inside the sanctuary of a church where all patients can view Mass, but it was actually a hospice. A river runs under the town and we could see it through a glassed in area on the floor where the nurses once used it as a disposal. Large cases in another room displayed antique syringes. The masterpiece of the complex is a magnificent alter piece showing the Last Judgement. It is kept in a dimly lit room where visitors are advised to whisper only. As you look at the painting, a huge magnifying glass moves about it highlighting each section which made the people look so real you felt you could reach out and touch them.
To save euro, we always try to eat at least one picnic lunch per day and it really pays off. All around us in the park were other families doing the same thing. We then took the Visiotrain for a one hour tour through Beaune and out into the vineyards. The information given in English is sparse, but it's a nice overview to give you a taste of the town. Once back in town, we visited the Alain Hesse Fromagerie where over 60 different types of cheeses are stored in a cave. We learned that in the French tradition, cheese should be enjoyed with red wine and bread, not crackers.
After a delicious dinner at the same restaurant as last night, we went to an interesting festival: Cine-Retro featured three silent films from the 1920s with a live pianist. We were treated to Charlie Chaplin, Laurel and Hardy, and to a funny Max Linder French film. The movies were shown on a reel to reel projector which made it feel very authentic. Inbetween each movie, a female singer sang French love songs which was an unusual contrast to the films. On the way back to our hotel, the moon was shining high above, hopefully signally a good day for tomorrow when we will journey to Chamonix.
Friday, August 7, 2009
The train ride to Beaune was under 30 minutes long and once we arrived, it was less than a 15 minute walk to our accommodation, Hotel la Villa Fleurie. We are very pleased with our room which overlooks a small garden patio. This town is famous for wine and our first stop today was Marche Aux Vins, right in the heart of town. It was built between the 13th and 15th century as a Cordelier's church. Today their vineyards are in the exact same spot where Franciscans grew their grapes to make wine for church service.
The winery tour was self guided. As part of the entry fee, you receive commemorative wine tasting metal cups engraved with the name of the winery. You are then guided down the stairs to the wine cellar. At first the cellar seems dark and eerie, but when our eyes adjusted, we noticed that each of the wines were presented on an old wooden wine barrel with a single lit candle. There were 12-15 wines to taste at your leisure and we brought our own loaf of French bread to cleanse our palates. We couldn't help but notice a French family in front of us. Their elementary school age children proudly uncorked the bottles and served their parents a sip in a very dignified way.
Another section of the winery was inside the ancient church which has retained much of the original stone and features wooden beams on the ceiling and wrought iron candle holders. As a special treat, we purchased a small bottle of wine for later.
A late lunch was at Palais des Gourmets' Salon de The where we tried a crepe smothered with homemade strawberry jam. Across the street in a small park is a little carousel of old-fashioned animals such as a duck, cow, swan, and horses. What a pleasant place for children to play.
Feeling invigorated after lunch, we visited the Basillica of Notre Dame. Inside were beautiful stained glass windows and an old delicately woven tapestry on display depicting the life of Mary.
Dinner tonight was at Brasserie le Carnot. We ate outside and dined on crispy pizza with peppers, onions, cheese, olives, mushrooms, and artichoke hearts, as well as a salad with garden fresh greens, tomatoes, mozarella balls, thinly shaved ham, and juicy melon slices. Tomorrow is a huge farmer's market and we can't wait to visit it.
Thursday, August 6, 2009
Breakfast this morning was right here at our flat thanks to the owner, Coco (myhomeindijon.com), who thoughtfully stocked our kitchen with a fresh loaf of bread, eggs, milk, fruit, and coffee. We started our day with a visit to Le Grand Optical. Unfortunately David misplaced his prescription sunglasses between Dublin and Dijon and Coco graciously called an optical shop for us with same day service, and also emailed us the French translation for us to copy so that we could explain our situation. Thankfully the optician was able to read his prescription from his current lenses and we picked up a stylish pair of Hugo Boss sunglasses at the end of the day.
The owl is the symbol of Dijon and it is a an engaging and lighthearted ambassador. Visitors can pick up a map of the town with a small booklet of 22 special destinations in Dijon. To find them, all you need to do is follow the small brass triangle owl symbols embedded in the sidewalk. With our map in hand, we set off at once and discovered many fascinating places including a local covered market which comes alive four days a week with colorful flowers, seafood, and an array of fresh fruits and vegetables. At the Tour Phillippe le Bon, a 15th century tower, we joined other enthusiastic visitors to climb to the top for a staggering view of the town. At the top, we noted several buildings with colorful tiled roofs. Dijon's owl is also a symbol of good luck. At one of the stops, we followed tradition by rubbing our left hand (the one closest to your heart) over the image of the owl and made a wish.
The temperature has been close to 90 degrees today so as an interesting diversion from the heat, we spent some time enjoying the art work at Musee des Beaux-Arts where the old blended in with the new to display an extensive array of sculptures, paintings, and Egyptian artifacts. It should be noted that the museums in Dijon are free.
Dinner tonight was at Version Latine, a small restaurant with outdoor tables directly across from the market. We enjoyed a pizza smothered with fresh mushrooms, and a green salad with tomatoes, basil, and mozzarella. Walking around town after dinner, we admired the illuminated historic buildings and stopped at the Place del la Liberation the to watch children run through the water fountains that seem to magically spout out of the pavement. While the children played, their parents could be seen enjoying their dinner at the many candelit outdoor cafes. We wish we were staying longer in Dijon, but as Rick Steves says, "Assume you will return."
Wednesday, August 5, 2009
We began our journey at Logan Airport in Boston where we were able to experience a special treat: a relaxing visit to Lufthansa’s Senator Club lounge where we were able to enjoy a small light buffet of sandwiches, salads, fruit, pastries, and freshly brewed coffee. All this as a result of winning an online contest sponsored by Lufthansa in the spring.
Our flight across the North Atlantic was in record time according to the pilot due to weather patterns. As a result, we arrived in Dublin at 4:30 am. I imagined that the airport terminal would be barely awake, but surprisingly, it was a beehive of activity. Shoppers busily took advantage of sales of sundresses, watches, cameras, and books. Fortunately for us, we only had a 2 hour layover before our direct flight to Paris.
Once in Paris, we took the TVG bullet train to Dijon. We are saying in a wonderful flat right in the historic district owned by Coco at myhomeindijon.com. She met us at the train station and gave us an orientation of the town. Our flat is spacious and beautifully decorated. Inside is every amenity imaginable including a stocked refrigerator, a loaf of French bread, freshly baked chocolate cake, a computer with wifi, flat screen TV and a washer dryer. We feel so fortunate to be able to stay here.
After a short nap, we walked around the town. The town has a mix of Romanesque and Gothic architecture along with half-timbered buildings. Late at night they are beautifully illuminated and we stopped at the Place de la Liberation, known as one of the most beautiful royal squares in France, and watched children gleefully play in some of the fountains which playfully shot spouts of water in the air. It is time for bed now, but we look forward to a full day tomorrow exploring this delightful town.
Our Adventure Begins
Soaring high above the North Atlantic
Beams of moonlight dance on the sea
Reaching distant shores in record time
Our summer adventure awaits!