Venice: Stores, Basilica, Gondolas

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3 days in Venice
Monday, October 23, 2017

Our last full day in Venice, last day in Italy, last day in Europe… we got up early to walk around the city before the crowds arrived. Luckily the stores were all closed, or we may have been tempted to make additional contributions to Italy’s economy. We booked a guided tour to see some of the “hidden gems” of the city, as well as to get some additional information on the Basilica. Our guide walked away from us when we wanted to take a few shots of the inside of the Basilica (because photos are not allowed). The “Pala d’Oro”, or “Golden Cloth” is not usually displayed except for special days (Easter, Christmas, the Feast day of St. Mark). You have to walk behind the wood panels that face the congregation to see the ornate panels made of gold and silver, and embellished with jewels. There are 60 pounds of gold on the ceilings!

We walked through small alleys to avoid some of the crowds, saw a few more churches and Cathedrals, an exterior staircase that is known as the Caterpillar Staircase, found another gelato place…. Learned that there are large drainage spots throughout the Piazza San Marco to help drain the water. I don’t think they work very well. We also went under and onto the Rialto Bridge, and took pictures of the Bridge of Sighs. And we finally went on a gondola ride. Our gondolier, Alberto, was a terrific guide!

Then we went to the “original” Harry’s Bar, very close to our hotel. I had the famous Bellini before going back to start packing for our journey home. We were too tired to do the museums in this history-filled city. Walking was fun when we got out of the touristy sections, or early in the morning. I think that next time we’d start in Venice and end in Positano, regardless of which stops we make in between.

Venice: Mass, Marathon, Murano, Gelato

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3 days in Venice
Sunday, October 22, 2017

We started our day at Mass in the Basilica di San Marco (St. Mark’s Basilica), a stunning example of Italo-Byzantine architecture. We enjoyed the beautiful gold mosaics throughout the Basilica during the sermon, since we don’t understand Italian. After Mass, we took some pictures of the interior; glad we did, because during tours to the public they don’t allow photos. The ceiling is beautiful, as is the floor. The floor is extremely uneven, and one woman almost fell as she was going to communion. We’ll post the interior shots on Facebook ~ we didn’t want to be disrespectful by bringing the camera to Mass, so we limited the pictures to our cell phones.

During Mass we could hear the cheering outside; after taking in the beauty of the Basilica we joined the throngs of people welcoming the runners who were finishing up the 10K in Piazza San Marco. We continued to see runners and walkers throughout the day, doing half or full marathons. Between the rain the night before and the high tide, the square was a little flooded. The solution? They put up planks for people to walk on. Since we had changed into our waterproof trail runners, the same kind that we wore on our Camino de Santiago, we just walked through the water. The more elevated section of the square was where the runners finished their races. I’m sure they appreciated not having to slosh through 6 inches of water to get to the finish line!

The concierge at our hotel highly recommended a “complimentary” boat trip to Murano Island where the glass is made, since the weather was still not great. Given the crowds of people in the city between 3 huge cruise ships and the marathon, we decided to take a tour of one of the Murano glass studios. A very charming man, Nicola, met us at the boat, and took us for a private tour of Linea Murano Art Glassworks (“when the sand turns into glass, and the glass becomes art”). Then he brought us up to the 2nd floor to see the beautiful glass art. Note: the 1st floor has “less expensive”, hand-made, every-day glassware (drinking and wine glasses, plates, bowls, vases, etc.). Naturally we fell in love with a few pieces on the 2nd floor. The tall blue and orange vase is the one that will be shipped in a crate to California. I loved the glass pyramid, but that was entirely outside of our budget. Mike loved the gorgeous plate, which was maybe the most expensive piece in the studio. We took pictures of the pieces that we didn’t buy, and joked that we’d make prints of the photos and hang them up.

When we got back to Venice we went on a hunt for a gelataria that was recommended: La Meda Verde. Our guide in Florence practically swooned when we told her that our last stop was in Venice. She advised us just to “get lost in the city”. And that we did! Looking for one very small place with very delicious gelato! It was well worth it! Mike had pistachio; I had cherry vanilla. As far as we can tell, people usually get more than one flavor of gelato. I tried that when I got the crème caramel and dark chocolate in Florence; I decided that I prefer just one flavor at a time. The guy who was serving the gelato was confused when I asked for 2 scoops of cherry vanilla; he was waiting to see what my next flavor would be.

We continued our walk, over to the Cruise Ship port, and when we finally meandered back to what we thought was Piazza San Marco, we realized that we were on the wrong side of the Grand Canal. Well, at least we “walked off” our gelato!

Last Stop: Venice

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3 days in Venice
Saturday, October 21, 2017

We still had the car, and we drove from Portofino to Venice, almost entirely in a light fog. The start of the drive was a little stressful, lots of twists and turns. I was glad that Mike was driving! We hadn’t planned ahead to do any side trips (I kind of wanted to go to Parma, Bologna, and/or Verona), and we toyed with the idea of stopping, but decided to just get to Venice.

Dropping the car off at the airport was very easy, and the signs to get the water taxi were clear. This was the most unusual approach to any city that we’ve ever been to. Seeing pictures of the “highway” on the water doesn’t capture being on a boat that is hauling people all over the place. It was a pretty amazing “drive” over to the city of Venice. The taxis are cash only, and we needed to stop at an ATM, so the driver pulled over on a canal once we got to the city, and Mike hopped out, got some cash, and we continued on our way to our hotel.

The city is amazing! Our water taxi driver gave us a tour of the city on our way in. Mike took a ton of pictures, but we can’t remember the importance of some of the buildings. We saw the Aman Canal Grande Hotel where Amal Alamuddin married some American actor (George Clooney), a huge sculpture of hands rising from the water, called “Support”, by Lorenzo Quinn (to bring attention to the climate change that is threatening this beautiful city), a golden tower (named “Golden Tower”), and of course plenty of gondolas.

The view from our balcony at the Hotel Bauer Palazzo included the Grand Canal, and the Santa Maria della Salute Basilica. We were a short walk from St. Mark’s Square (Piazza San Marco), which is almost always bustling. We did a little shopping (more wine en route…) and went to dinner at Club Doge in the Hotel Gritti Palace (inside, because it was raining).

“I Found My Love in Portofino”

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3 days in Portofino
Wednesday & Thursday, October 18-19, 2017

Beautiful Portofino

It’s been almost 7 weeks since we’ve driven a car. We did ask for advice on the best way to get around Italy. (“Don’t drive in Positano. Take a train from Naples to Florence. Drive from Florence to Portofino, and ditch the car before you get to Venice.”) Renting the car and driving to Rapallo: painless. Making it up to the Belmond Hotel Splendido was another story. We were about one mile from the hotel, according to Google Maps. Half an hour later, after making a few U-Turns and driving around in circles, we made it to what has to be one of the most beautiful hotels in the world. Not kidding.

After enjoying a light lunch and some Champagne, I took a nap and Mike went for a walk down to the small town of Portofino. He mapped out a walk for us to take on Thursday, checked out the shops, and asked for advice on restaurants from the concierge. We stayed at the hotel for dinner since it was our first night here, and we enjoyed a lovely dinner and the twinkling lights below us.

We woke up to the most beautiful sunrise! I opened the outer doors and I couldn’t believe my eyes. Having an early breakfast on the terrace downstairs was a special treat, followed by a hike (walk, really) down to the town, and up to the Castle and Lighthouse directly across from our hotel. As we have found in most places in Italy, nothing opens until at least 10:00, so we were able to enjoy the tranquility and beauty on our own.

Built in the 15th Century, Castello Brown was a fortress that was purchased by Montague Yeats Brown in 1867. He transformed it into a stunning villa. Subsequent owners sold the villa back to the city of Portofino in 1961. The top floor of the villa has a film set to music, the first time I’ve heard the song “I Found My Love in Portofino”. Mike and I loved the song; I hope you do, too!

The lighthouse (Il Faro) is a short walk from Castello Brown: more beautiful views of the turquoise water below. We saw some S.C.U.B.A. divers ready for a dive just below the lighthouse as we were leaving.

This is a place to totally relax, maybe do a little shopping. Not a lot going on, unless you want to go to Genova or Cinque Terra for a day trip. It sure is beautiful here on the Italian Riviera!

Historical Florence and Uffizi Gallery

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5 days in Florence
Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Tour of Historical Florence and Uffizi Gallery

Our guided tour of Historical Florence started at the Piazza del Duomo in front of the Cathedral. We learned about the history of each of the buildings (Baptistry, Cathedral, Dome, Bell Tower), and then our guide, Ulisse, pointed out many of the towers that made up the old city, the city “gates”, and the piazzas. We spent some time on the Ponte Vecchio Bridge, continued under the arches that lead to the Uffizi, and eventually went through the Gallery itself.

The story about the Ponte Vecchio Bridge, Palazzo Pritti, the Uffizi and the Medici dynasty was fascinating. Ulisse tied everything together, and seeing all of the buildings while hearing the history was very interesting. I must not have been paying attention in World History class….

It was worthwhile to take a tour with a knowledgeable guide; she pointed out details that we would have definitely missed, and she made sure that we saw the “important” paintings and sculptures in the museum. Definitely a worthwhile afternoon!!

We ended our day taking a few more photos at sunset, getting huge cones of gelato (dark chocolate and crème caramel for me, coffee for Mike), and charging all of our electronic devices in preparation for our trip up the coast to Portofino tomorrow.

Florence: Duomo, Bell Tower, Chianti

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5 days in Florence
Monday, October 16, 2017

Piazza San Giovanni (Piazza del Duomo), Chianti Classico Wine Tasting

We woke up very early to get pictures of this beautiful city before too many people were out and about. It was 45 degrees! We had the 15€ ticket to enter all of the Piazza del Duomo buildings, but we didn’t realize that there is a secondary process to get into the dome itself. We figured it out, and then went into the Baptistry of San Giovanni, and then the Cathedral Santa Maria del Fiore. A stairway leads down to the excavations of the ancient Cathedral Santa Reparata, where you can see the remains of Roman houses on which Santa Reparata was erected in the 5th Century AD, and portions of early-Christian mosaic pavement.

We then decided to go into Giotto’s Bell Tower. There are no signs at all telling you what to expect. Nothing in the brochure. As we started ascending stairs, we figured it out. They sell a T-shirt (after you climb back down) that says “414 steps. No Lift”. The steps weren’t so bad, except for the triangular-shaped spiral section toward the top. It made the climb pretty treacherous for Mike and his size 12 feet. But it was worth it, and we had some pretty spectacular views of the city.

We bought a sketch of the Piazza from an artist named “Dorotea”. When I told her my mom’s name is Dorothy, she told me that it means “Gift of God”. It seems I’ve heard that before.

It was nice being in the city before everything was open. When we got to the square behind the Uffizi (Piazza Signoria), it was clear that they were preparing to film something there. We didn’t ask, but there was some guy dressed in gladiator garb, a carpet that was covered with sand, lettuce strewn near a wagon, and people sweeping the sand. (When we had a guided tour of the Uffizi the next day, our guide said that they were filming ‘Michelangelo’, which she said promises to be “Fantastic”.)

Afterwards we changed into lighter clothing and got ready for a tour of Chianti Classico wine and EVOO (Extra Virgin Olive Oil). We made 2 stops; our favorite was a very small winery, Casa Sola, where we tasted two Chianti Classicos and one “Super-Tuscan”, a blend of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Sangiovese. Our shipment should arrive in Manhattan Beach after we’ve returned home.

Firenze: Piazzale Michelangelo, Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore

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5 days in Florence
Friday~Saturday~Sunday, October 13-14-15, 2017

Arrivederci Positano, Ciao Firenze

After a tearful good-bye at Le Sirenuse with Leonardo, we left for the train station in Naples, and on to Florence for the next 5 days. We’ll do a little more research on the process next time…. When we arrived at the train station, we were looking at the reader board, trying to figure out where to go. Some random guy practically ripped the tickets out of my hand to see our itinerary, and then motioned for us to follow him. He showed us where the large schedule was, and the track where our train would arrive. Mind you, we had our very heavy backpack, a carry-on sized suitcase, a large suitcase, and wine that we schlepped from Spain. This guy didn’t lift a finger, but he did get us to the right track…. Where we waited for about half an hour before our train arrived. As we were sprinting to keep up, I asked Mike if he had some money for a tip. He handed the guy 5€, but he was saying that we owed him 10€. Mike asked if he had change of a 20. He handed us our 5€ back, and took off. Rookie mistake! Later, I did a little research where we found that we could get help from a porter for 5€, which included help with our luggage. Or “check” our luggage and have the employees deliver it to the right car for a little more. Anyway, we were happy to get on the right train.

Now that we’re in Florence, we’ve been walking. A LOT! Not Camino-walking, but enough to feel it in our legs and feet at night. We started out by climbing to Piazzale Michelangelo for an amazing view of the entire city. The morning was foggy, which made the short walk nice and cool, and the crowds non-existent. The pictures look almost mystical due to the fog. We also discovered Giardino delle Rose, a wonderful rose garden on the way up the hill.

This city is beautiful, filled with art and history. We went to the Galleria dell’Accademia di Firenze, walked all around the Duomo complex where the Santa Maria del Fiore Cathedral (usually just referred to as the Duomo) is, as well as Giotto’s Bell Tower and the Cathedral Museum.

We also set out to find some very comfortable walking shoes (for me). What better place than Italy, right? I googled “shoe stores in Florence”, and we ended up at a shoe store that specializes in custom-made shoes. Not for women. For men. Mike’s shoes will be arriving in 5 to 6 weeks. We went to a few more places with no luck until we found a great store where I bought MY shoes. During this search we saw a lot of the city, going from Piazza Pritti to Piazza Duomo to Piazza della Repubblica and back again. Ate pizza, drank wine, disagreed about the crowds here vs in NYC…. My theory is that the streets and alleys are much narrower, and the people “stroll”, so if you want to get someplace in a hurry, it takes twice a as long. But the density of people in New York is much higher.

Michelangelo’s “David” was the highlight of our self-guided tour of the Accademia Gallery. It was the most crowded, as you would expect. I also enjoyed the Musical Instruments exhibit at the Gallery:

“One of the most precious works exhibited at the Accademia is the one-of-a-kind tenor viola made by Antonio Stradivari in 1690. The viola is built in red spruce and maple wood of exceptional quality, decorated with the Medici crest in mother of pearl, ivory and ebony inlays. The tenor viola was part of the top five instruments used by the “Medici quintet”, a unique group of five string elements exclusively built for the Grand Prince Ferdinand and dated 1690. The Viola is an outstanding masterpiece, the only one entirely conserved in its original splendor.”

We’ve crossed the Ponte Vecchio Bridge, filled with jewelry stores, several times (haven’t bought any jewelry yet), went to Mass (in English) at the Church of Santi Apostoli, and then went to The Leather School (thanks, Patty!). Scored some purses, a few wallets, and some belts. We stumbled upon Martelli’s, which is a fabulous glove store recommended by my friend Claudia. And ~ finally ~ we went for Gelato at Gelateria La Carraia. It was worth the wait!!

Positano, Boat Trip to Nerano Bay

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5 days in Positano
Day 4
Thursday, October 12, 2017

Positano, Boat Trip to Nerano Bay

We decided to spend a few hours on the water, taking a boat trip on the Mediterranean to Nerano Bay on the hotel’s boat SantAntonio, an old, glorious, and very comfortable wooden fishing boat. The weather was perfect, sunny and probably about 75 degrees on the water. And, as luck would have it, we were the only two people that booked the trip!

Lunch at Da Tommaso Allo Scoglio in Nerano was delicious; their specialty is spaghetti with zucchini. Both the captain and first mate told us that we “must” have it, and we’re glad that we did.

On our way back we slowly circled the archipelago of three atolls called Li Galli, owned by Rudolf Nureyev owned until he died in 1992. Check it out. For a mere 55€ – 150€ per week, you can stay there… Personally, I prefer Le Sirenuse in Positano!

Mike and I can’t decide which of our days we loved the most: hiking the path of the gods, taking a cooking class at Ristorante Max, or our afternoon on the Mediterranean on Sant’Antonio. One thing I do know: we’ll be back.

Positano – Cooking with Chef Salvatore

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5 days in Positano
Day 3
Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Positano, Cooking Class at Ristorante Max

We haven’t had to cook for ourselves in almost 6 weeks, so we decided to take a hands-on cooking class at the restaurant where we ate dinner on Monday night, Ristorante Max, just down the hill from our hotel. Turns out we were the only 2 people there!! The menu included some items that were unexpected:

  • Calzones and Deep-fried Pizza appetizers
  • Ricotta-and-Salami-stuffed Zucchini Flowers
  • Eggplant Parmesan
  • Pizza Pomodoro
  • Gnocchi with Fresh Cherry Tomatoes & Mozzarella
  • Foccacia
  • Tiramisu

Mike took over 350 pictures. Chef Salvatore never did invite him to help cook…. Must be an Italian thing? So Mike handled the camera while I had a fun time learning how to make some of the most amazing food I’ve ever eaten. We started cooking at 9:30, finished eating at 12:30, and promptly walked down to the beach and back up, hoping to walk off at least a little of the food that we consumed. No need for dinner! Still full 8 hours later.

The most fun: making indentations in the focaccia dough. Most frustrating: getting the technique for making the gnocchi dough “just right”. I was excited to try the zucchini flowers; that was Mike’s biggest surprise (that he liked them). He’s also not a huge fan of eggplant, but we both loved the eggplant parmesan (not breaded).

Mike says that I was “giddy”. I DO love learning to make new things, and having a private cooking lesson was really fun. It was also nice to be local, not traveling to take a tour. We’ve gotten a lot of advice to be sure to see Ravello, Amalfi, Capri, etc. We tried to take a sunset cruise, but it was fully booked… turns out that the water was too choppy, so the cruise was canceled anyway. We’ve already decided to come back here, and we’ll get to those other bucket list items next time around.

Our wish list for when we get home: a large and decent food mill (versus the used-to-be-fine potato ricer that we have), and Organic “00” Flour that I’ll order from Italy (I’m going to give it a shot). My recipe for Tiramisu is overly complicated, so I’ll make the recipe that we learned at Ristorante Max. Glad we decided to do this!!

Positano, The Path of the Gods

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5 days in Positano
Day 2
Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Positano, and the Path of the gods

It is hard to describe the beauty of the Amalfi coast. The views from our hotel balcony alone are spectacular. We decided, after a 400-mile trek in Spain, to go for a half-day hike on the “path of the gods” with a guide, Franco De Simone. First we drove ~ or rather, we were driven ~ up a very long and narrow road of switchback turns for about an hour. We passed terraces of (Marisa Cuomo) vineyards along the way, and marveled at the views from the car.

Upon reaching Agerola, we began a wonderful 3-hour hike across the top of the mountain, and down toward Nocelle. Franco has guided people along this hike for 20 years, and he is very passionate and knowledgeable about the plants, history, and geology of the entire region. Thankfully Franco had trekking poles for us to use, since we had shipped ours back to the US before leaving Santiago on Sunday. The path was relatively easy, with a few parts that were very rocky. Several times, Franco said, “prepare your eyes”… which meant that we were about to see yet another unbelievably beautiful sight. The views took our breath away. The terraces reminded us of Machu Picchu. Add the ocean below us, and the cloud formations, and it really is indescribable.

After hiking for 3 hours, we had the choice of climbing down almost 2000 steps from Nocelle to Positano. Mike opted to take the steps with Franco; I took a taxi down to our hotel. My knees have pretty much recovered from our Camino, but I’m aiming for a pain-free time in Italy. Franco gave us some great advice about a restaurant that is in his village of Montepertuso, La Terra. On the La Terra web site it says: The goodness of our dishes is the result of wise culinary and gastronomic passion combined with the careful selection of ingredients, fresh and of the highest quality, at km zero.” We had a delicious salad of arugula, cherry tomatoes, and sautéed calamari; then I had branzino (a local white sea bass) and Mike had swordfish, both delicious!

During our first few days here in Italy, we have met some very religious Catholics, all passionate about their faith, but also very kind and compassionate. Franco is an example of the kind of Christian that I aspire to be. I am grateful to have met him.

Mike and I were wondering about the percentage of people who are Catholic in Spain and Italy (and because we were also talking about Machu Picchu, Peru). Here are some “fun facts” (click on the links for the information): The percentage of Catholics by Country, and a bit of a different view of Italy’s religions. Regardless of whether it’s 88% or 96%, there is no mistaking that we are in a Catholic country.