Rome Is Alright

The Tiber River, from about two-thirds of the way up the Castel Sant’Angelo. The Ponte Sant’Angelo is on the left, Ponte Victor Emmanuel is on the right.

Today is Day Five of our six-day stay in Rome. We have tried to feel excited about being here, but both Brett and I currently have mixed feelings about our stay so far.

Overcast, rainy weather has stalked us the past few days making everything feel a bit more gloomy.

Rome was an add-on when we created our itinerary for the Big Adventure – we figured since we were in Italy we really should go and visit for a few days. So, we tacked on a week’s visit at the end of our month in Florence. Also, we knew that it would be easier to get to Lisbon from Rome than it would be from Florence, and cost considerably less, so that factored in as well.

Some of what we don’t like so far is not Rome’s fault. Brett has been miserable with a bad head cold since we arrived. My hip finally decided it had enough of cobblestones. Other than our first day it’s been overcast and rainy. There are crowds everywhere. I have torn two pairs of my pants on hidden sharp objects. Our apartment is almost too big, more than twice the size of our house back on Kaua’i, with a foyer as big as our living room there, and with marble everywhere it feels a bit cold, even with the heat on. There’s been annoying construction going on at times too. The bed is comfortable though, and the apartment is in a good location, especially for visiting the Vatican and getting to the Metro. There’s a nice grocery store and affordable pizza restaurant nearby. Our host has been helpful and responsive.

The architecture of the Colosseum was astounding.

We’ve been thrilled by what we’ve seen so far. Walking through the Colosseum, Palantine Hill and Roman Forum was a dream come true for me. St. Peter’s Basilica was breathtaking; and we thought the nearby Castel Sant’Angelo was fascinating with its interesting history and incredible views of the city from the top of the castle. Still, it mostly feels like all we’re doing is checking things off a list. We’ve been unable to get any sort of feel for the city unlike we did in Florence.

St. Peter’s Square and the Basilica

Two putti hold a basin of holy water.

Interior of the domes over the Bapistry Chapel.

Hopefully things will go better today. We took the day off yesterday to give both of us time to rest and recover, and because the weather was flat-out miserable. It also gave us time to talk about what we really wanted to see and do before we leave on Wednesday. Today we are heading out to check out the Pyramid of Cestius, the non-Catholic/foreigner’s cemetery where the poets Keats and Shelley are buried, the Aventine Keyhole (fingers crossed for this) and the Mouth of Truth. We’ll take it slow and stop when we need to. After that we’ll walk across the Tiber and stroll around Trastavere for a little bit if we feel up to it. We’d like to enjoy dinner there before taking a taxi back to our apartment.

The stairs and paths through Castel Sant’Angelo were almost like a maze, but offered wonderful views along the way. The wall on the right is part of the Emperor Hadrian’s tomb, from the second century C.E.

The original angel to top Castel Sant’Angelo, with his prosthetic wings, now stands watch over one of the interior courtyards in the castle.

On Tuesday morning we’ll once again pack up our suitcases, and then head over in the afternoon to tour the Vatican Museums, including the Sistine Chapel. We’ll enjoy pizza one last time for lunch and then finish up our leftovers for dinner. I think we’re going to make it out of Rome without eating any gelato – we’ve stopped and looked at it several times, but the flavors don’t excite us like they did in Florence, and the cold, rainy weather has been a deterrent as well.

Overall we’re glad we came to Rome but the city hasn’t won us over yet. It’s still just alright. Both Brett and I have remarked that we’re seeing things here we only dreamed of seeing in our lifetimes, but we’re missing a connection that we’ve experienced in other places. Hopefully the next couple of days will change that.

Take It To the Limit

We all have our limits. While several things we’ve run across on our adventure have been annoying at times there are other things that have passed beyond merely annoying to outright frustrating or “avoid if at all possible.”

While this path may look somewhat smooth I can assure you it’s not. I have to be careful with every step I take so I don’t fall, creating extra work and strain on my muscles and joints. Smaller cobblestones are even worse.

For example, I have reached my limit with walking on stones or cobblestones, or at least my right hip has. Our wonderful Thanksgiving Day tour of the Colosseum, Palantine Hill, and the Roman Forum had us walking on ancient stone roads for nearly five hours, and the bursitis in my right hip has finally screamed “enough!”

Stones or smaller cobblestones have become the one thing I have come to dread. Because of a past left knee fracture I have to be especially careful about falling again, and in being careful on stone streets I’ve ended up putting lots of extra strain on my right hip. I did fall while I was in Florence because of a cobblestone (thankfully without injury), and while stone streets couldn’t be avoided there I learned which streets or sidewalks were the smoothest, and had the time to rest between outings so as not to aggravate my hip. I left Florence in good shape. All that went out the window on our Colosseum tour, and the bursitis is now at a near-crippling level. We have another two weeks to go in Europe too, so I see a big, fat cortisone shot in my future upon our return to the U.S., but in the meantime it is affecting how much and how long I can walk and what we can see and do in Rome. If I can be grateful for anything it’s that I am not suffering from arthritis, and won’t need a hip replacement. Bursitis is pretty awful though.

A huge tour group of more than 50 in Strasbourg (from a Viking cruise).

Both Brett and I have reached our limit with large tour groups. We have met many wonderful travelers from all over on our adventure and had some great conversations as well as picked up some good tips, and for the most part people from all over are considerate and accommodating, but tour groups have been something else to behold at times no matter their nationality. We’ve run into some with up to 50 people who can fill a square or take over a prime viewing spot in a matter of moments. Since a tour group’s time in any one location is usually quite limited, some members feel no compunction about pushing others out of their way or going in front of even though other visitors have been patiently waiting their turn to view a painting or take in a view. Brett has had his fill with some of the leaders of these large groups too, who are usually polite but then make sure to position their group right where he’s been waiting to take a photo or view something up close. According to him, it’s happened one too many times, most recently yesterday in St. Peter’s Basilica. Mostly though our experience with other tourists and visitors has been very positive, but these big groups have been another thing entirely. (Full disclosure: we were in one big group ourselves, on the wine tour to St. Emilion in France. There were around 40 in our group and while the guide was delightful we were miserable being part of a crowd, and were happiest when the guide let us wander off on our own and gave us a time to meet back at the bus.)

We entered the “time for a haircut” stage soon after we left Switzerland.

Finally, both Brett and I are in desperate need of a haircut, and are way past our limit of where we like to be with this. Brett’s hair is downright shaggy now, and I once again am sporting what I call my “old lady pouf” and want to scream every time I look in the mirror or try to do something with it especially since I am also down to my last drops of styling cream. We both regret not getting our hair cut when we were in Florence, but neither of us could pull the trigger – there was something a bit frightening about not being able to communicate with a barber or stylist in English.

All in all though everything is continuing to go well and we are having a good time, hip pain, head colds and all. But we do have our limits and in a few cases we have reached them. It feels like it’s time to go “home” for a while and we will be doing just that in another two weeks.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Happy Thanksgiving! I spotted this big guy back on one of the wine estates we visited when we were in Bordeaux. Wonder if he is still strutting his stuff, or if life had other plans for him?

Happy Thanksgiving from Rome!

Although today is not a holiday in Italy, we have been blasted with Black Friday ads, from big electric signs in Roma Termini, on the radio in the taxi on our way over to our apartment, and on billboards down the street. Yes, they apparently celebrate Black Friday in Rome, crowds, sales and all. All I can think is we didn’t send our best.

This afternoon, we’re visiting the Colosseum, Roman Forum, and Palantine Hill. We signed up to take a small group tour, with no more than 18 people allowed in the group. We had a wonderful welcome yesterday from our host when we arrived at our HUGE apartment (after an easy train journey from Florence and quick taxi ride with a charming driver). We chatted for nearly an hour while he went over a map of Rome with us and suggested places we should visit and what times we should go to miss the lines. We made French toast this morning with panettone for a special breakfast – we used the traditional version of panettone, with dried fruit, but discovered there were over a dozen different varieties to choose from in the market including chocolate chip, chocolate marble, tiramisu and zuppa inglese flavors. Instead of going out to dinner like we thought, I’m going to fix chicken cordon bleu, roasted mixed vegetables, and pasta with olive oil, garlic and cheese for our Thanksgiving dinner, and instead of pie we’ll probably just enjoy another slice of panettone along with coffee for our dessert.

How thankful we are this year! While we are missing our family, we are feeling exceptionally blessed, and are so grateful for the opportunities we’ve been given, for the things we’ve been able to see and do, for our continuing good health, and for our family and friends who have supported us along the way. I’m also grateful for all of my readers, for your sticking with me through it all, and I wish you and yours the happiest of Thanksgivings!

Arrivederci, Florence

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We’ll miss Florence’s sense of humor, and searching for these creative No Entry signs all over town. There are more than 40 different creative designs, and this past weekend we discovered a shop where you can buy them as stickers!

Our suitcases are packed, we’ve finished up all the food in the refrigerator, and tomorrow morning we will turn over the keys to our wonderful apartment and walk over to the train station to depart for Rome. When we arrived in Florence a month ago it was fall, with the leaves just beginning to turn, and we barely needed a sweater, but the weather now is cold, the leaves are gone, and we bundle up every time we leave the house.

Il Campo, Sienna

We loved exploring the street of Siena. Florence is an old city, but it’s a baby compared to Siena.

Our month here has proved to be everything we hoped for and more. We’ve seen and done almost everything on our list, made some discoveries, and we ended our stay on a high note, with a wonderful day trip out to Siena last week, and a fun, informative and absolutely delicious pizza class on Sunday evening. Best of all, in spite of all the things we’ve seen, done and eaten we’ve stayed under-budget for our time here, with a daily average of $46.85.

Brett and I are ready to enjoy a slice of the maestro’s Napoli-style pizza before making our own custom pies.

Here are some of the things we’ve seen and done in Florence this past month:

  • Walked all over the city, and through its enchanting streets and alleyways. We loved hearing the various church bells ring every day.
  • Visited the Uffizi, Accademia, Palazzo Pitti, and Bargello museums and viewed an amazing amount of beautiful art.
  • Viewed the Brancacci Chapel frescoes.
  • Visited Santa Croce, Spirito Santo and the Florence Duomo. Brett climbed to the top of the Brunelleschi dome at the Duomo while I toured the Interior.
  • Walked through the Mercado Centrale and enjoyed a roast beef sandwich at da Nerbone.
  • Enjoyed gelato in a variety of flavors every day (I think we might have missed one day).
  • Drank some great Tuscan wines (both red and white) as well as some tasty limoncello.
  • Took a day trip to Siena where we walked through the city, toured the Siena Duomo, and enjoyed a wonderful four-course traditional Tuscan meal.
  • Took an overnight trip to the Cinque Terre and ate delicious Ligurian cuisine in Riomaggiore.
  • Learned to make authentic Napoli-style pizza and ate a couple of good pizzas out in town as well.
  • Bought beautiful leather gloves at Madova, a stovetop espresso maker in my favorite color, and a marbled paper phone case.
  • And, we’re finishing our stay tonight with bistecca fiorentina at Trattoria I’raddy, located just around the corner and recommended by our host.

Bistecca Fiorentina

We’ve also been able to rest and relax as needed, and bought ourselves some souvenirs. We’ve never felt like our time here was speeding by, nor that it was dragging either – the pace has been perfect. The only thing we especially wanted to do that didn’t happen was a visit to the Piazzale Michelangelo. We had wanted to do it this past week, but time and weather have not cooperated.

However, all good things must come to an end, and it’s time for the Occasional Nomads to move on to our next destination: the Eternal City of Rome. Our stay there will be short compared to our time here, just seven nights, and I think we’re going to probably feel a bit rushed after the luxury of time we’ve enjoyed in Florence. We’ve already booked a small-group tour through the Colosseum, the Forum and Palantine Hill, but other than enjoying a special dinner out for Thanksgiving the only “must do’s” are walks through a couple of neighborhoods (i.e. Trastavere) and a visit to the Vatican and its museums and cathedral.

Grazie mille, Flrenze, for a fabulous time and more memories than we can count.

Gelato Every Day: Week 4

Our first stop this past week was Gelateria dei Neri. Both Brett and I chose the Sacher torte flavor which was filled with actual pieces of cake and apricot jam, and he added a scoop of cherry cheesecake while I tried the rice pudding flavor (which was amazing!).

I have good news and bad news this week about our daily gelato tastings.

Back for a second time at Perche no? I ordered the offbeat but wonderfully delicious curry with mango and pear gelato along with a scoop of honey sesame crunch. Brett chose coffee and chestnut flavors.

Bad news first: Winter has arrived in Florence and it has gotten quite cold, especially for us former tropical island dwellers. Because of the cold our desire for gelato has dropped way, way down on the scale of enjoyable pastimes. We’ve had a couple of days where almost didn’t stop for our daily treat, but in the end we got out there and did – yeah us (and, of course it was wonderful)!

We had spotted the La Strega Nocciola gelateria on an earlier walk but had already had gelato that day so we went back this week to give it a try. I chose Azteca (white chocolate & cinnamon) and lavender flavors, and Brett had buontalenti (vanilla custard made with mascarpone cheese) and orange cream gelatos. Although our cones were kind of sloppy, the gelato was very, very good.

The good news is that in spite of the cold we were able to experience some very exciting flavors of gelato this week, up to and including curry! Who would have guessed that one? It has been a genuine taster’s market this week, so we feel like we’re leaving Florence on a high note when it comes to gelato.

At our first stop at Sbrinno for the week I chose quince and red grape flavors, and Brett decided on mulberry and walnut.

We made a second stop at Sbrinno the next day for some of their chocolate flavors: Brett enjoyed chocolate hazelnut with raspberry and chestnut cake while I tried white chocolate and Sbrinno’s Sacher torte (which I preferred to dei Neri’s).

After four weeks, both Brett and I unanimously agree that our neighborhood gelateria, Sbrinno Gelatifacio Contadino, is our hands down favorite in Florence. Other places have been very good but Sbrinno has always had interesting and on-point flavors, their gelato is made by hand in the shop (we’ve gotten to watch them make it) and they use natural ingredients sourced from local farms. It hasn’t hurt either that they’re also conveniently located near to our apartment and are open every day, making it easy to stop by the shop on our way home.

We were not particularly hungry following our pizza class on Sunday evening, but we noticed Cantina di Gelato was open on our walk home so we stopped in for a small cone: I had a scoop of peanut butter, and Brett again chose creamy buontalenti.

While we are not exactly tired of gelato and have had a lot of fun searching out different gelateria, both Brett and I feel like we need a break, so are not sure how much gelato we will eat while we’re in Rome. We’ve been warned though that the gelato there is quite delicious, so we may not be able to resist! Brett may not be ready to give up his hand model gig either.

We went back today to La Carraia today but none of their flavors appealed to us, so we walked back once more to Sbrinno where I discovered they had licorice gelato (and licorice is one of my favorite things)! After some discussion with the server and a few tastings I paired it fresh pear, which contrasted nicely with the strong licorice flavor. Brett chose dark Sicilian chocolate and added a scoop of strawberry. We will miss this gelateria – their gelato and flavors have never disappointed!

Liar, Liar, Pants On Fire

I need to vent a little.

As many of you might remember, last summer when we moved out of our house on Kaua’i, our landlord stood us up for the move-out inspection. And, although he had 14 days from the day we turned over the keys (July 29) to return our security deposit, either by mail or in person, along with written evidence if necessary for why he was keeping some or all of it, we have never received anything from him.

Up until a few days ago we hadn’t communicated with our former landlord since August, when he claimed he had mailed a check to us, but refused to say how much or if there was other paperwork. We had given him our mailing address (Brett’s sister) but whatever he sent turned out to be addressed to a completely different city in Texas. When we informed him and again gave him the correct address, the landlord claimed he would have the mis-addressed mail forwarded to the correct address but of course nothing ever showed up. That was the last we heard from him before heading to Buenos Aires.

Our former landlord is incapable of opening his mouth without lying. And once he starts he can’t stop, and the stories get bigger and better each time he tells them. Over the nearly three years we rented from him, for example, Brett listened to numerous tales of the landlord’s two years of military service. Brett still doesn’t know whether he served in the marines or the navy because his story changed every single time about what branch of the service he was in and what he did. And, his experiences in the military grew every time as well to the point where he apparently did every job short of commanding an aircraft carrier, and he was promoted at least four times over a period of six months because of his amazing skills and leadership ability (the last time was to the highest enlisted rank, E-9, at age 19)! We were always a bit weirded out that he would tell Brett these whoppers because the landlord knew Brett was a career sailor and had been in the service at the same time and knew a few things. Brett tried to call him on his tall tales a few times, but that never slowed him down.

Our landlord lied and exaggerated about everything. Constantly. We knew when we moved in that along with maintaining a good relationship with him we were going to have to keep track of him and keep records to protect ourselves. We stayed friendly, paid our rent on time every month, took good care of the house, and worried when he was diagnosed with cancer. In return he treated us fairly for the most part. But, the lies, crazy stories, excuses, etc. never stopped or let up, so Brett saved every message from him, a good thing because it turns out the man incriminated himself almost every time he wrote something to Brett concerning the house.

When we messaged him the morning of the inspection to ask if and when he intended to come, his first reply was he had forgotten. From there we started getting excuse after excuse after excuse for why he failed to show up until it finally got to the point it was our fault he didn’t come. This was in spite of him telling us at the same time we were his best tenants ever and he had planned to give us back our entire deposit (without ever making any arrangements to do so). Of course, in the next couple of days we were informed that following HIS solo inspection we had actually trashed his property and it was going to cost him a small fortune to fix everything we had damaged. He also made several flat-out crazy claims with no relation to reality. For example, at one point he wanted to know if we had we forgotten about our arrangement to swap our house in Texas with his on Kaua’i – ????? It was exhausting dealing with all the lies and stories over and over.

Last week Brett accidentally dialed the landlord’s number. Much to our surprise, the landlord actually messaged Brett back to say the check he sent last August had been returned to him in October (but of course he never contacted us about it). He asked for our mailing address for the third time and said he was going to resend the check and would send Brett the tracking number. That was a week ago and as expected we’ve heard nothing further from him. We still believe he has no intention whatsoever of giving us any of our deposit, and it would be the shock of a lifetime for us at this point if he follows through on his latest claim. We’re sure he’s convinced himself that we’re never coming back to Kaua’i so who’s going to care if he doesn’t return our deposit? What are we going to do about it?

Well, for one, we care. And, there is plenty we can do. We are fine with one of us (me) going back to Kaua’i to collect our deposit through small claims – it’s a considerable amount and worth making the trip. And, we know our former landlord does not want to appear in court – we saw last summer that the mere mention of a court appearance completely unnerved him, especially since there’s a very good chance he’s a tax cheat. Hawai’i places very strict limits on how long and for what reasons a landlord can retain some or all of a security deposit. They are required to provide loads of documentation to back up any claims they make for keeping any part of the deposit, and can be required to pay as much as three times the original deposit to their former renter if they fail to do so or make false claims.

The next time our landlord hears from us it will be with a summons. We have a full calendar year from our move-out date to file in small claims, and we plan to do so as soon as we return to Portland next May. We are going to sue for a full return of our security deposit along with the cost of my travel to Kaua’i. I will be bringing along the many photos we took of the very clean house, all the receipts and incriminating messaging from him. We also have witnesses ready to show that the house was well-cared for and left in spotless and move-in-ready condition, and that the landlord has never made any genuine effort to return the deposit or any part of it at all.

Tick tock, Mr. Landlord.

Art Overload: The Uffizi and Palazzo Pitti

Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus is perhaps the most famous painting in the Uffizi. It is exquisitely beautiful, and has been expertly restored.

We spent the last two days immersed in art, almost to the point of being overloaded. We spent nearly two hours touring the Uffizi, and the following day we finally got around to visiting the Pitti Palace (which is just a few minutes from our apartment – we’ve passed it more times than I can count). Because we timed both the visits to the late afternoon there were no lines and no crowds, and we were able to take our time viewing the art in both places.

Our time in the Uffizi was almost overwhelming though. There were of course many wonderful and famous pieces to see, from Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus to Michelangelo’s Holy Family to Rembrandt’s and Rubens’ self portraits, but just as many lesser-known works that caught our attention and interest as well. One of the biggest thrills for me was coming around a corner to find Artemisia Gentileschi’s Judith Slaying Holofernes. I had just been reading about her and the painting a couple of days earlier, and hadn’t realized it was in the Uffizi. Gentileschi was one of the very few female painters of the Baroque era, and this painting is now considered one of the premier feminist paintings of all time: to get back at a man who had assaulted her she painted his face on Holofernes’ body. Her own fury can be seen in her visualization of Judith.

Gentileschi’s Judith Slaying Holofernes. Gentileschi specialized in painting strong, suffering women from myths, legends and the Bible.

That face!

I also fell in love with a small bust of a satyr’s head, carved in the 3rd century. Although the piece is nearly two thousand years old, the little head has a very contemporary feel to it. He reminded me of someone I’ve met or know, although I can’t remember who, and I’ve heard the same from a friend after I posted the picture on Facebook. The detail in the little lambskin hanging around his shoulders is also exquisite.

After our nearly two hours in the museum though we felt exhausted and completely overwhelmed, like we had been eating rich food and hadn’t known when to stop.

A view of the Boboli Gardens seen from the Pitti Palace. The Gardens were created on the land left after stone was quarried to build the palace.

The visit to Palazzo Pitti the next day turned out to be an entirely different experience, and in the end one we enjoyed more. I grew up in the same town as the Huntington Library & Art Gallery (San Marino, California) and visited there many, many times, and our time in the Pitti reminded me of my visits to the Huntington, although the Pitti is like the Huntington on steroids times 100. The Pitti experience felt like an intensive art history course (but without an exam), where we viewed numerous pieces by Rubens, Raphael, Caravaggio, Bartolomeo, Botticelli, Titian, Tintoretto, VanDyck, Vasquez, and many other luminaries of the Renaissance and Baroque periods. The only artists that seemed to be missing were Michelangelo and DaVinci. In comparison to the Uffizi, there was no explicit organization of the works or artists in the Pitti, so walking through the rooms of the palace was like a treasure hunt – we never knew what we would find to admire. Each room of the palace was almost a work of art as well, filled with frescoes and other amazing decoration. We left the Palazzo Pitti feeling relaxed and excited by what we had seen, versus overwhelmed.

Madonna and Child by Raphael. Look at those sweet chubby legs! The paintings’ frames throughout the museum were almost works of art in themselves.

Sleeping Cupid by Caravaggio.

A ceiling fresco in the Palazzo Pitti showing the Roman god Juno with all the other gods and goddesses gathered at his feet.

Two different museums, two very different experiences. I’m thrilled we had the opportunity to visit both.

A Month In Place

One week from today, Brett and I will board a train and head for a week’s stay in Rome. We will have been in Florence for a month, in hindsight one of the best decisions we made when planning our itinerary.

A month in place, we’ve discovered, has had an amazing number of benefits:

  • We’ve saved quite a bit more than expected. We received a very large monthly discount for our stay in our wonderful Airbnb rental (38% over the daily rate). It’s less expensive for owners to have someone stay for a full month than having someone in and out in a few days, and discounts can range from 10% or more (there are usually discounts as well for weekly rentals). Also, because we’re in the apartment long term, we’ve been able to shop at local grocery stores, and eat most of our meals at home which has saved quite a bit as well.
  • We’ve been able to unpack our suitcases and set them aside. It’s been wonderful to live as residents rather than as travelers.
  • We’ve had the time to take some great side trips. The same was true when we stayed for three weeks in Strasbourg. Going away for a couple of days didn’t take away from our time where we were staying nor did we feel rushed or worn out on our visits.
  • We’ve gotten to know our neighborhood more in depth. This is one of the greatest benefits of staying in place for a while. We’ve learn all sorts of shortcuts and the best or better ways to get from Point A to Point B, depending on the weather or time of day. We’ve also found the best or better places to shop, and had a chance to interact with local businesses versus those geared more toward tourists. We’ve gotten a feel for our neighbors, through music, arguments, noise, and their comings and going.
  • We’ve had the time to do some fun, off-beat things, like searching for different gelato shops. We could of course do these things in a shorter visit, but it would have the potential to detract from other “must see” or “must do” activities.
  • We’ve had time to relax and recharge. This honestly has been the best benefit of all. By staying in place a month there’s been no pressure to get out and do something every day (although we usually do) so that we don’t miss out. If we want to take the morning off and sleep in it’s not a problem, the same for taking an entire day off. We’ve had the time to take care of personal business (FAFSAs and insurance changes) that would have otherwise impacted a shorter stay somewhere.

One month in place definitely isn’t always possible, and we know there are places where we wouldn’t want to stay a month! Family obligations, housing issues, or having a pet can make such a long stay difficult or impossible as well. However, our month in Florence, and our longer time in Strasbourg, have given us some solid reasons for how we might want to travel in the future, especially as we get older. Instead of quick visits or trips where we’re having to pack and unpack over and over and deal with transportation issues or live out of a suitcase, we’ve come to appreciate having the time to get to know a place more deeply, adequate time to rest when needed, and the time to settle in.

Gelato Every Day: Week 3

Day #1: We tried Cantina di Gelato, recommended by the ticket seller at the Palazzo Pitti, and it had some interesting and unusual flavors. I had (roasted) pumpkin and turmeric with fig; Brett chose rum with chocolate chips and hazelnut. The flavor cards were written in Italian, English and Russian (and the gelato was delicious)!

We have learned a lot these past few weeks about gelato. For example, this past week we found out that gelato was most likely invented in Florence – who knew? We’ve also learned several tips on how to choose true artisanal gelato. We’ve been on a hunt ever since to eat the best and avoid the worst . . . and mostly succeeded, I think.

Day #2: Vivoli, near Santa Croce, has been making gelato for 80 years! They only serve their product in cups. My flavors were rum with candied nuts and orange cream, and Brett had blueberry and Japanese persimmon.

Day #3: On our way to visit L’Accademia and after my fall, we stopped in at My Sugar. I chose rose (so good!) and matcha latte flavors while Brett had black sesame and hazelnut.

The ticket seller at the Pitti Palace that we chatted with last week, a local, told us that one way to find quality gelato is to look for small, covered containers. Or, look for small rectangular containers where the gelato inside does not come up to the rim (small batch). Also, make sure the flavor is written first in Italian. Finally, look for muted colors that are found in nature, and not bright “Pokémon colors.” He said if we see gelato in mounds we should run away as quickly as possible, same if we see the flavor cards written primarily in English as it means the gelato is industrially produced and pumped full of fat and made for tourists.

We also found a list of recommended gelateria written by a food writer and sommelier in Florence who leads culinary tours in the city – her site provided us with several new places to try. We were pleased to find our neighborhood gelateria, Sbino Gelatificio Contadino, made her list as we stop by frequently.

Day #4: We stopped at small gelateria in Vernazza. Their selection wasn’t great and definitely non-artisanal. I opted for sorbetto instead of gelato for a change, choosing passionfruit and strawberry flavors. Brett decided on cherry cream and fiori di latte.

There were a few gelateria open in the Cinque Terre, but we ordered ours in Vernazza, where flavors were limited. Just to show how seriously gelato can be taken though, apparently a gelato war is going on between two shops in the village of Corniglia, with each claiming to be the best. Apparently the whole village has taken sides in the dispute.

Day #5: Back in Florence we were tired so walked down to Gelateficio Contradina and they did not disappoint: We both chose the egg cream with sweet marsala flavor, but I chose orange and ginger (very yummy!) for my second flavor, and Brett had coffee.

Sunday in Florence was cold and drizzly, but Brett took one for the team and went out in the late afternoon for takeout from our neighborhood shop. They didn’t have much left to choose from, but he put together chestnut and Speculoos cookie flavors – delicious!

Brett’s hand work continues to get better every week. I don’t even have to ask any more – we buy gelato and he’s ready to pose! He’s glad though that we have just one more week to go (maybe two if we continue our quest in Rome).

We finished the week back where we started, at Cantina di Gelato because it was one of the few gelateria open on Monday. I got rum with chocolate chips and hazelnut with Nutella swirl and chopped hazelnuts; Brett got passionfruit and ricotta and fig.

Cinque Terre Getaway: A Dream Come True

Manarola behind us – the hotel we stayed in is to the left, in the very topmost row of buildings! I almost can’t believe we hiked all the way up there!

A visit to the Cinque Terre had been on my bucket list for years. I’m not entirely sure when I first learned about these five small villages on the Ligurian coast of Italy – maybe a Rick Steves show? – but from that first moment I wanted to go.

These past two days my dream came true.

We were originally scheduled to go to the Cinque Terre last week, but after some bad storms and flooding we were warned to wait and go a bit later. After looking at the weather forecast we picked November 9 & 10 as the two days with the best weather we could hope for, and were thankfully allowed to change our train tickets for free to the new date. There was still a possibility of rain showers on the new dates, but nothing we felt we couldn’t deal with.

The train ride from Florence yesterday morning took around three hours because it turned out the train stopped at literally every station on the way to the Cinque Terre. One of the stops though was Carrara, where the fine, pure white marble that Michelangelo used came from, and is still being quarried today. We at first thought the white on the side of the mountains was snow until we realized that what we were seeing was marble.

Our first view of the Mediterranean Sea, from the Riomaggiore Station.

Both Brett and I gasped like children when we finally stopped in Riomaggiore and got our first glimpse of the Mediterranean Sea. We hadn’t realized until then how much we had missed seeing the ocean. Even with cloudy skies the water was a beautiful shade of blue that reminded us of Hawai’i.

The dangerous condition of the trail between Manarola and Corniglia is visible; a short way along to the north the entire trail was missing. We were happy to use the trains on our visit.

We purchased our Cinque Terre park passes in Riomaggiore, the southernmost of the five villages, and then hopped on the next train for Monterosso, the most northern village of the five. The passes allowed us to get off and on the trains at our own pace, a good thing as all the hiking trails through the Cinque Terre were closed due to storm damage. Our plan was to grab some lunch in Monterosso and then walk around for a bit, then go to the next village, Vernazza, and finally head to Manarola, where we we had a hotel reservation for the night.

The beach at Monterosso, like everything else, was deserted. In spite of the clouds, the sea was still a beautiful shade of turquoise.

Entering Monterosso was like entering a ghost town. It’s a true beach town, and the season had officially ended on November 1, so houses and stores were shuttered, restaurants were closed, and there were almost no people anywhere. We were hungry and eventually found one open restaurant and had a pretty nice lunch – fish-stuffed squid ink ravioli with shrimp for Brett, and a grilled vegetable pizza for me. It was also kind of sad though because we were the only diners in the restaurant.

Vernazza’s main street


Fishing boats were pulled up onto the streets

After lunch we walked back along the beach to the train station to go to Vernazza. The train arrived and we climbed on and took our seats but then noticed that almost no one else had gotten on. Hmmm. As the train picked up speed we discovered that we had accidentally gotten on an express train which had been delayed by storm damage further north, and had ended up arriving at the Monterosso station at the same time as the scheduled local down to Vernazza. There had been an announcement, but as it was all in Italian we had no idea about the change in the train schedule. We watched forlornly out the window as we sped through the Cinque Terre and finally stopped at La Spezia, where after a short wait we caught the train back and eventually got off at Vernazza.

It was getting close to sunset when we arrived in Vernazza.

The beautiful sunset made up for the mix-up with the trains.

The little village of Vernazza was lovely and picturesque. We wandered around for a while, had some gelato, walked to the harbor to watch the sun set, and then hiked back up the hill to the station and headed for Manarola, where we had a hotel reservation for the night.

Dark was coming on fast when we arrived in Manarola.

It was nearly dark when we got off the train in Manarola, and we were a little frightened when we realized we had absolutely no idea where the hotel was. We punched it in on our GPS, and headed off in what we thought was the right direction, but after walking down a street for a while and climbing several flights of stairs up the side of the hill we looked again at the GPS and discovered we were nowhere near the hotel! We climbed back down into town and asked at one of the restaurants for directions and got ourselves headed in the right way. We eventually found the hotel – the owner was looking for us out the window! We were the only guests that night, and were given an absolutely lovely room with a private terrace. To say we were exhausted at that point from all the train rides, hiking and climbing we had done that day would have been an understatement. We both quickly changed and climbed into bed and were asleep in moments!

One of the morning views from our hotel terrace. The hotel’s owner also owns and works daily in the terraces across the way.

The winding street to our hotel that we had to maneuver in the dark – I was using the flashlight feature on my phone to help us find our way! The stairway in back goes up to the hotel.

One of the spectacular views on our way back down into the village.

Cafe latte for me, an Americano for Brett! Coffee in Italy is beyond delicious.

We woke up this morning to sunshine and stunning views from our terrace, which made all that climbing in the dark the night before worthwhile. The hotel provided coffee and some biscotti in our room for breakfast, so we had those, then got dressed and headed back down the hill for some more coffee. The walk down was much nicer in the light and provided some stunning views. After our coffee we wandered through the village for awhile and walked along a path around one of the cliffs. We were able to see from the path how thoroughly damaged and in what dangerous condition the trail was in and why it had been closed.

The north side of Riomaggiore.

We would have completely missed this view of Riomaggiore if we had turned right instead of left to head up the hill into the village.

Brett and I had originally planned to first visit the village of Corniglia, which sits between Vernazza and Manarola and then go to Riomaggiore. However, we realized neither of us wanted to do the 30-minute Stairmaster climb from the station up to Corniglia, nor did we want to wait anywhere from an hour to an hour and a half for a bus to take us up (and then wait as long for the bus to take us back down). So, it was straight on to Riomaggiore from Manarola. Since we never seem to do things the easy way, instead of turning to the right  from the Riomaggiore station and walking through the tunnel over to the harbor and village center, we instead turned to the left and headed up a steep hill that wove through the village but eventually brought us down to the village center. We rewarded ourselves with a wonderful lunch of traditional Ligurian pasta (Brett’s with mixed seafood, mine with fresh pesto) and then wisely took the tunnel back to the Riomaggiore station where we caught the train back to Florence.

I did not want to leave Liguria without eating pesto. This traditional dish of linguine with fresh pesto, potatoes and green beans was perfect; Brett had traditional spaghetti with assorted seafood.

Although our first day turned out to be kind of crazy (and exhausting), the morning walks/hikes through Manarola and Riomaggiore were wonderful and both of us left Liguria feeling like our visit had been a success. It didn’t rain, we saw all the villages (if only from afar in the case of Corniglia), and we got to eat traditional Ligurian cuisine. Dreams really can come true!