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  • Alley Lacasse

102 Meals: Florence, 2013

For the summer of 2013, I decided to book plane tickets to florence for a trip that would last five weeks. This is what happened.

Sunday, June 9, 2013: Waiting Patiently

Ciao, ragazzi!

This blog is my first ever, and I am excited to announce that I will be reporting from Florence, Italy for five weeks this summer. It is going to be an adventure! The wonderfully amazing Michael J. Raymond will be accompanying me for the first two weeks, and I absolutely cannot wait to show him around Florence!

I "lived" in Florence for four weeks while studying in the summer of 2004. I was staying in an apartment on Via Pietro Colletta, just east of the center of the city. This time, I will be staying in an apartment in Piazza Santa Croce, right down the road from where Rossini, Dante Alighieri, and Galileo were buried. Crazy! One of my favorite restaurants, Baldovino, is right up the road. To be honest, I fell in love with the city completely, and it was so difficult to leave it knowing how long it would probably be before I could go back. I am excited to be able to see Florence all over again; visiting churches, museums, gardens, vineyards, and just soaking in the immense culture the city has to offer. I'm definitely bringing my flute in hopes of the opportunity to play. After almost ten years, my life has changed a lot, and it will be very cool to return to the place that helped me grow up and open my eyes so much.

I will be in Italy for a total of 34 nights, which means roughly around 102 incredible Italian meals. So, my goal is to write about each day. Please feel free to email or comment, as I'd love to keep in touch during the trip. More to come soon!

Friday, June 28, 2013: Siena, Assisi, Naples, Oh My!

I heard from my pal Derek last night. I say that he's one of my Italian friends, but the truth is, he is an attorney in Pittsburgh. I met him in 2004 on my first trip to Florence. We have stayed good friends ever since, and have even met in NYC a few times for reunions. He will be in Italy at the same time this summer, and we finalized plans for going to a wedding together in Gamberale, a small mountain town northeast of Rome. This is going to be a little tricky because the wedding date is close to Mike's departure, but we will figure it out. As they say in Italy, "normale."

I am in a state of nervousness and excitement at this point. It's really one week away from today. I feel as though this trip was totally meant to be, as this was the most exhausted I have ever been at the end of the school year.

I'm flying away from my new condo (side note: I closed on my condo on June 29th, 2012- one year ago tomorrow), family, and summer lifestyle in New England. I'm going to live in another country. It's only five weeks, but that's a long time to be away from everyone and everything!

I emailed the apartmentsflorence.it people today to let them know when we are arriving so someone can meet us at the apartment. We will be arriving at 2:05pm in Florence. Then, we'll get our walking shoes on and hit the town! Some of our first spots will of course be Piazzale Michelangelo, give Porcellino a nice rub on the nose, the Ponte Vecchio, and the best gelato spot in Firenze, Vivoli (or so they say). I'm going to cry actual tears when I see everything again.

Derek is going to guide us through Roma and Napoli. After Mike goes back to the States (sad!), we are thinking of going to visit the island of Capri. Derek is also hoping to visit in Florence, which will make my trip so complete. We're also hoping to see Cinque Terre, Siena, Pisa, Fiesole, Assisi, and Perugia.

My amazingly lovely second cousin Dawn (and Luke, her husband) live in Umbria, not too far from Firenze. We are planning to see each other in Umbria, and then hopefully she will come up to Firenze and stay with me.

Right now, I'm just trying to hold in the excitement of this trip. I had a great New Bedford night tonight: dinner at Davy's, and soft serve down by the dike in the South End. I had fun with the fam (minus Jeffah), and will miss them.

I should get started with my packing. Ciao for now!

Friday, July 5, 2013: We're leaving...tonight!

Today feels so weird! We have all day to just finish up our packing and planning, and then it feels like hours of waiting until we have to be at the airport. I'm doing well with not overpacking, just because I'm sure that we'll do some shopping in Florence!

Mike and I booked our Rome hotel. We were sitting in a sketchy South Providence hood on our iPhones, whipping out credit cards and surfing hotels.com. We'll be in Rome for three nights, and one of the days we are probably going to visit Naples and Capri with my friend Derek. Can't even believe that we are spending our days booking weekend trips to Rome!

The family had an Italian-themed July 4th cookout for me yesterday. It was a lot of fun, and it was great to spend my last day with them.

So...don't know what to do with myself today. Guess ill get a pedicure and eat lunch with Kerry and Greg! Countdown to Florence: 5 hours!

Saturday, July 6, 2013: 1 Meal Down...101 to Go!

Today was a crazy day, although it's tough to tell where yesterday ended and today began. I guess it was somewhere up around 40,000 feet in the air. We had two successful flights. Boston to Zurich was uneventful and kind of relaxing, and then we had about a two hour layover in Switzerland. That's the problem with layovers in cool places- you can't leave the airport and explore! The flight from Zurich was just about an hour hop to Florence. After crossing my fingers for the entire flight, ALL of our luggage showed up right away. This was an unbelievable experience compared to the last time I was in Italy with the URI Concert Choir, and not having luggage for three days!

We took a "death cab" ride over to our apartment, and Cesare (from the apartment management company) was here to meet us. He showed us around, explained everything, and helped us get acclimated. Once he left, Mike and I just looked at each other and laughed. "This is where we live now" was a thought that just couldn't take the smiles off our faces. We quickly unpacked, showered, and hit the streets.

I immediately was overjoyed to see gorgeous Piazza Santa Croce. It looks exactly the same, and feels the same. Although, it's different to walk these streets without the NECA students who I bonded with on my first trip out here. Mike and I hiked up the (long) trail to Piazzale Michelangiolo, and he kept his promise to not look north until I told him so. The sight is breathtaking, and almost makes your heart stop. We then walked up even more to one of the oldest churches in Tuscany that dates back to the 13th century, San Miniato al Monte. Oh, we even crashed a gorgeous wedding there today. :-)

We then walked west, down to the river, and headed over to Piazza Santo Spirito. It's a simple, quiet, lovely square with a lot of restaurants and beautiful sights. We ate dinner at Ristorante I Ricchi. We split a Caprese salad, and dove into the bread, salt, and olive oil. I had Tartelli de Ricchi, and Mike ordered a veggie Margherita pizza. On our way over to Santo Spirito, we just happened to walk by a restaurant that was recommended by Pete Sexauer called Casalinga. I was so surprised to just see it right in front of us. We were sad to see that it was closed on Saturdays and Sundays, but it's definitely a spot that will be prioritized next week. We were stuffed, but that didn't stop us from ordering gelato cones from Bar Ponte Vecchio, which houses some of the most photographable ice cream I've ever seen in the world. We walked along the Ponte Vecchio and noticed that a crowd had gathered in the center of the bridge. A guitarist was singing a mini concert, and it just set the mood for a perfect first night in bella Firenze. Mike was glad to know that the inside of the Ponte Vecchio is incredibly beautiful, because he noted that the outside isn't something extremely special. I pointed out that you fall in love with the outside of the bridge after you see what is inside.

I hope that you enjoy the pictures! Check back tomorrow, as we're going to be exploring Florence much more. I'll be starting my day off with a nice long run on the Arno River (Fiume Arno).

SUNDAY, July 7, 2013: "Someone just threw garbage at me. This is a two-thousand-year-old Providence."

If you had to guess, which one of us said that tonight? ;-)

Today was an absolutely jam-packed day. We are certainly not slowing things down like we said that we would, but the city has taken hold of us and it's almost difficult to NOT walk down one more side street and explore.

We started out the day by waking up at 11am, which is about 5-6 hours later than we normally get up for work. Shocked, looking at the clock, we both decided that we absolutely needed the sleep from our long travel day. I got in my running gear and took to the streets. This is something I will not do again at noon, as it is just way too hot in the sun to be doing heavy cardio. But, it was fun rocking out to Bruno Mars and running two minutes to the Arno River. The thought "this is my life now" kept running through my head as I crossed the river and stared at the Ponte Vecchio. I came up west on the river, crossed over the Ponte Vecchio, and proceeded to run in a direction that I didn't really know and got totally lost. Loved it.

Got home, showered, and Mike and I had lunch at my favorite lunch spot, Baldovino. I've talked about it before. The pictures of his hummus and Arabic bread and my bruschetta should make your mouth water.

Of course, I couldn't deal without having gelato after lunch. I brought Mike to one of the most famous gellaterias in Florence called Vivoli. He ordered melone and I ordered fragola. I usually don't go for the fruity flavors, but it was early in the day. I'm planning on having it twice a day anyway, so the chocolate can be for after dinner.

Then, we started walking. We had absolutely no idea where we were going, except that Mike had to see the Duomo close up. We ended up walking over towards the Duomo and shopped for our friends (no spoilers here!). However, we'll update you with my pashmina count on the blog. Ready for it?

Uno.

We shopped in Piazza San Lorenzo, a huge open market with a lot of the same stuff. Firenze shirts, Firenze bags, Firenze key chains, and so forth. It smells of leather like you wouldn't believe. I love the market, but it gets very overwhelming to go to cart after cart, just trying to browse. The vendors are very persistent, and if you break your focus, you're in a power struggle between your good sense and your urge to buy everything for the price that keeps getting lowered by the second. Mike will back me up when I say that I was under control.

We then walked over to Santa Maria Novella, where the big train station/bus station is in Florence. We needed to figure out how to get the Number 7 bus to Fiesole, a hill town north of Firenze that has a beautiful view of the city. It took almost two hours to figure out, and about 3 miles of extra walking, but we made it there and it was beautiful. We ate dinner at Cafe al Numero 5, outside in the little square. Mike ordered Ravioli al Pomodoro, and I ordered Tagliatelle al Bolognese. Both plates are pictured, and they were absolutely delicious. We joked that the blog should show the pictures of the food and immediately the empty plates. We won't bore you with that.

Speaking of extra walking, Mike and I are logging how many steps we're taking in Italy by using his pedometer. Yesterday was only 3,135. Today's tally is 16,906.

After taking the 7 back to San Marco, we started to walk home. It wasn't a direct walk home, as we were just exploring different squares and taking in Florence by night. As we were walking, I remembered that Nick Zammarelli gave me a project to work on for him in Firenze. He asked me to create an Italy soundscape by voice memos on my phone. Because Nick is visually impaired, he will not be able to see my pictures. He will learn about our trip to Italy aurally, and I have to say that this is going to be one of my favorite things that I will do in Italy. It's because of Nick's request that the end of our night totally changed.

I opened up my voice memos to record a flutist playing Christmas carols on a quiet little street. Yes, Christmas carols. In July. Whatever. We stayed on the street for a bit and walked slowly so I could record the flutist. As we were about to leave, a (somewhat drunken) man walks up to us and asks us where he can find the bar Colle Bereto in Piazza Strozzi. We had no idea. He was speaking Italian to us, but I asked him if he spoke English. Of course, he was from Atlanta. We started walking for about ten steps, and then we see the bar! So funny. Anyway, he hung with us and we all became friends. As good friends as two sober people and one drunkard could be. I thought he was hilarious, and Mike was cracking up at our entire conversation. We were talking, and I stopped our convo because the flutist around the corner (remember him?) started playing "We Wish You a Merry Christmas." I commented on the carol in the middle of July. Jason Elsky, our new friend, said that there was no way we were hearing Christmas songs in July, and that our ears were messed up. He also bet us 120 Euro that we were wrong. I didn't take the bet, just because I knew that we were totally going to win and I couldn't ever take someone's money like that.

Once we walked over and proved him wrong, a man sitting on a bench spoke up, talking about how he hears that same flute player twice a year, in the same spot, whenever he visits Florence. Blog followers, meet Bob Goodman. Bob is married with a 12 year old daughter whom he just dropped off at summer camp. The four of us sat together and talked for about an hour. This was now at about midnight. Bob mentions this literary bar Giubbe Rosse Bar Cafe Firenze that he loves to go to and convinces us to walk over for a drink. We pulled Jason away from the club-like vibe of Colle Bereto and we all sat outside in the square until 2am, when we closed out the place. The joke of the night was that Jason was sick and tired of the men coming around with roses to buy. This wouldn't have been a problem for him or anyone else if I wasn't sitting with them. As we left our seats, another man came up to us with a bunch of roses. Before Jason could loudly turn him away, Mike gives the guy one Euro and gives Jason the rose. We took pictures of the rose in my hair, and me with the Pakistani rose salesman, but those are on Jason's camera! We're supposed to become Facebook friends, so hopefully I'll get the pictures from him soon.

Bob invited us up to the medieval town of Lucca tomorrow. We're going to go with him! This is the nice thing about Italy. We had plans to get up at 6:30 and take the train to Sienna. Plans can change when you're on vacation, and now we're going to see a town 40 minutes away from Firenze that we had no plan to visit. There is supposedly a forty foot deep stone wall surrounding the city that used to have a moat around it. Bob says that it's the most well-preserved medieval walled cities in Europe. Can't wait to see it. The only thing I know about Lucca is that it's a nice Italian restaurant in Boston's North End and Back Bay. I think this is going to change that.

Monday, July 8, 2013: The Jewel on the Crown of Tuscany

After the bakers started working next door (4am this morning), Mike and I just sat in our living room thinking about the fate of our evening. We made two new friends, and one of them (Bob) was taking us to Lucca.

Lucca (the jewel in the crown of Tuscany) is the best preserved medieval walled town in Europe. It dates back to Roman times, and became a Roman colony in 180 BC. As we drove up to the porto, I couldn't believe the feeling that came over us. This is pure magic. This was one of the most beautiful places I've ever seen. The city walls date back to the 12th century. The one that we see today dates back to the 17th century, and is filled in with grass and trees, perfect for running/walking/biking. We walked around in the town, and Bob showed us this little shop called La Cacioteca. He said it was known for the best olive oil in Lucca. It was really described as: "the best olive oil, in the best shop, in the best city, in all of Italy, which means it's the best in the world." He showed us a bottle and put his hand up to it. It was so thick that you couldn't even see his hand through the oil. After buying four bottles of it, we were done.

Lucca was land that Napoleon won and handed over to his sister. When the plague came over the area, she became ill and was tossed over the wall, just like everyone else. Amazing to think that we were walking the streets of Napoleon's little sis, the Duchess of Lucca.

We then walked over to Piazza dell'Anfiteatro. The amphitheatre, built as the centre of entertainment outside the Roman town, is today the center of town life and the very symbol of Lucca. This amphitheater is the epitome of Italian cliche. Kids running around after pigeons, accordion players honking out the same opera overtures over and over again, and laundry hanging out of the windows. I had a glass of Brunotto colline Lucchesi, which was local to the hills of Lucca. If anyone can find it at home, you've got my Christmas and birthday present list all in one.

We walked through the square and Bob gave us the tour of where he, his wife Michelle, and daughter Hannah normally go. It was amazing to be in his routine, and he had a great time giving us the tour.

We were in Puccini country. Just hanging out in his old 'hood. Everyone loves Puccini here and is very serious about claiming him as "theirs." As musicians, walking around bars called Turandot was pretty cool, and not just because WE were geeks about it. That's the thing about Europe. Music and art geeks dominate the population.

After a wonderful dinner at Osteria Baralla, we had to hit the road. Our train left at 10:30, and with an hour and twenty minute ride home to Florence, we couldn't be late. I'm on the train home as I write this, going through the country and ready for gelato and bed.

Arriverdici amici!

Alley

Tuesday, July 9, 2013: "Wine = 2 EUR. Acqua = 2.50 EUR."

We proved it tonight- water is more expensive than wine in some restaurants.

Today was a "bang-around" day in Firenze. We started out the day by taking a short walk to a cafe around the corner. We then separated (I went on a run in the southern hills near the Boboli Gardens, and Mike took a walk looking around for paper stores). We met after a while at the apartment and decided to visit the museum of Santa Croce. It's steps from our apartment, so it was an easy choice. It also happens to be one of the most important museums in Florence, as Michelangelo, Dante, Galileo, and Rossini rest there. The church's first stone was set in 1294 by the architect, Arnolfo di Cambio. It turned out to be one of the world's biggest masterpieces in Gothic art.

The basilica is in the shape of an Egyptian cross (letter T), and divided into three naves and a series of chapels. The walls of the chapel and the entire church were covered in frescoes by Giotto and his school. The basilica also boasts a great deal of typical and very famous Renaissance sculpture, especially among the tombs of the people who have been buried inside. 276 tombs can be seen on the floor inside, and the basilica has become known as the city Pantheon, the burial place of Italy's most illustrious citizens.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013: Thunder, Hail, and Frescoes

Today we woke up to an alarming sight: It was past noon on our watch. We have been staying up really late, so our internal clocks are wicked messed up. We're fixing that tomorrow, though. No excuses!

We decided to get lunch (or breakfast?) at All'Antico Vinaio, a smalle hole-in-the-wall but famous little sandwich shop. We've walked by it for the past few days, and it's no exaggeration that the sandwiches, which are made to order, are the size of my face. Unbelievable. I had a delish sandwich on foccacia bread, chock full of fresh cheese, mozzarella di bufala, Salame Toscana, and fresh tomatoes.

We then walked over to Palazzo Vecchio (the old palace). Bought our tickets, bought our tablets/headphones for the tour, and headed inside. It was completed in 1302 by Arnolfo di Cambio. The palace still transports you to medieval times, although a lot of the interior of the palazzo was remodeled when Duke Cosimo I de'Medici moved in in 1540. This transferred the ruling family from its old home near San Lorenzo. It became known as Palazzo Vecchio when Cosimo transferred his court to Palazzo Pitti (the Pitti Palace). During the small period that Florence was the capital of Italy (1865-71), it housed the Parliament and Foreign Ministry.

The first floor is the Salone dei Cinquecento, a huge room full of frescoes and an intricately carved and painted ceiling. The frescoes tell stories of battles between Firenze/Siena and Firenze/Pisa. The frescoes in this room should really be by Michelangelo and Da Vinci, but the ones that we see are the work of Vasari. Michelangelo's "Genius of Victory" is in this grand salon.

All in all, it's an incredible building, full of history and decorative style of the Medici family. While we were up on the second floor terrace, a HUGE thunder storm rolled in and produced a ton of hail. It was a magical place to experience this storm in, and you could see the hail sweeping through Piazza Della Signoria from the windows, as poor umbrellas were no match for the winds or torrential rain. You could see the hot steam from the buildings rising up, creating a layer of smoke between where we were and the dome of the Duomo (easily seen from the second floor of the palace).

Our favorite room was the last room that we visited, called Sala delle Carte (Map Room). It has 57 maps painted on leather, showing the world as it was known in 1563. The maps were actually on the outside of huge closet doors, where the family kept valuables in.

We left Palazzo Vecchio and went to "Circus," which I describe as a Firenze "Starbucks." Pricey, but good. I wrote a postcard and we were on our way to nowhere. Just another aimless stroll through the city.

After a little bit of shopping, we ended up back in the Oltrarno neighborhood and had dinner at Osteria Santo Spirito, where I had my first group dinner in Florence with the NECA students in 2004. There's something special about this piazza, and dinner never disappoints. I had gnocchi, and Mike had ravioli with creme. The bread, wine, and olive oil were also delicious. Again, the vino was cheaper than Mike's acqua.

We capped off the night with gelato from Gelateria Santa Trinita, cousin Dawn's recommendation. I had Buontalenti e Marscapone with Santa Trinita, and Mike had Pistacchio and Buontalenti e Marscapone. Ended the evening while sitting on the Ponte Santa Trinita, eating ice cream.

Buonanotte, amici.

Thursday, July 11, 2013: Tower, Street Dancing, JALC

Today started off with a walk up to the tower of the Palazzo Vecchio. It's a little over 200 steep steps, but the view is so worth the wait. It offers a 360 panoramic view of Florence and the surrounding hills. We were able to see and hear the bells ringing across town and even took a short video of the bells in the tower of the Duomo. There was a group of about 20 people that started dancing in the street while playing drums, tambourines, and guitars. It was very cool to see it from atop the tower, and I got a great video of the performance.

After that, we just strolled around. We wanted to get to Accademia to see David, but the line was impossible. I bought an Amici degli Uffizi card, which will help me skip the line a little bit, and we're working on getting Mike a Firenze card, which will do the same for him. My card is a multi-use entrance card for all the museums and can be used from now until December, but Mike's will only be able to be used once per museum in 72 hours. Our plan is to finish all of the museums tomorrow, after I get back from Perugia.

That's right, I'm going on an adventure to Perugia! Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra are performing at Umbria Jazz tonight. Mike isn't too interested in going, so at the last minute, my cousin Dawn is going to pick me up from the train and drive over to the festival. The weather is looking a little scary with more thunder, so hopefully the concert won't be canceled tonight. Either way, it'll be an adventure. I am friends with Carlos Henriquez (bassist) and Ali Jackson (drummer), so Carlos comped us the tickets. It will be fun to hang with them in Europe, and it's a once in a while chance to get to hear them play out here. I'll be back online tonight to tell you how the night goes!

Thursday and Friday, July 11-12, 2013: Jazz, David, Dancing at Pitti Palace

Because I wasn't "home" at the apartment last night, this post is for yesterday and today.

Thursday Night, July 11, 2013:

We made it! Beautiful cool mountain air, a blue Fiat, cousin Dawn, and a new friend Jessica were driving through Tuscany on our way to Perugia. Jessica and I were on the same train from Florence to Arezzo, where Dawn picked us up. We headed over to Umbria, specifically Perugia, to hear Wynton and the guys play at Umbria Jazz (celebrating its 40th anniversary).

Perugia is absolutely gorgeous. The winding streets up the mountain curved endlessly, giving us a very beautiful panoramic view of the country. You know the rows and rows of sunflower fields that you see in the movies? It's even more breathtaking in person. I stopped by (on Friday) to take some pictures on the way home to Firenze.

My man Carlos comped us three tickets, so after we picked them up, we went out for pizza (the BEST pizza I've had yet) in one of Dawn's favorite restaurants. We finished dinner and went down to the main stage to find our seats. Second row, near center. Unbelievable. I have really cool friends. :-) The band was swingin', and they played a lot of blues and swing. It was great to sit under the stars with a bottle of wine and watch some of the world's top jazz artists do their thing. Unfortunately, I couldn't hang with Carlos and Ali after. Our phones weren't working, so it was impossible to get in touch and get through the stage door. I was really looking forward to seeing them in Italy, but it'll have to wait until NYC.

Saturday, July 13, 2013: I rubbed a big old boar's wet nose today.

It's been a long day of walking and soaking in the art history in this city. We started off the day by having breakfast at Cafe Mario, which was a NECA hangout for my group in 2004. I had something very caffeinated and very sugary, which set me straight for the morning.

The Uffizi is overwhelming. It doesn't seem possible that this very, very large collection of some of the most important art in the world is inside these walls. We saw Michelangelo & Botticelli. Masterpieces that we see on posters, postcards, and TV, just staring at us. It's very difficult to absorb the fact that we were looking at the real deal.

I "stole" another group tour while in the Botticelli room. I learned a little bit about The Birth of Venus (illegally pictured below). The painting depicts Venus, blown ashore on a seashell, arriving as a grown woman. Lorenzo de'Medici was having an affair with Simonetta C. Vespucci, and the Venus is supposedly a portrait of her. The tour guide also discussed her poor proportions, such as her left arm being waaaay too long, and her feet weren't standing properly on the shell. Some schools of thought think that it's just a suggestion of the surreal and mythological attitude of the painting, and other schools think it's because Sandro Botticelli never saw a naked woman. Either way, it's amazing that a non-perfect painting is one of the most recognized and famous in the world.

Mike visited the Galileo gallery after that, and I just shopped around the Pitti Palace and took a walk. We ended our day of tours in the royal apartments in Palazzo Pitti, each room growing more and more ridiculously ornate and artful.

This is actually our last night in Florence together. We are heading to Rome tomorrow, so when Mike comes back to Florence to pick up his things and travel back to the US, I'll already be with Derek at the wedding festivities. We celebrated by visiting Porcellino. Giving a rub to his nose ensures you a trip back to Florence. We took one more walk up to the Piazza Michelangelo, took some pictures, and heading down to the Arno for dinner. We both realized that it was super late (almost 11pm), so we just ended up getting pizza in Piazza della Signoria.

Hope you're all enjoying the blog! Our pedometer count for today is: 14,101 steps. Whoah!

Sunday, July 14, 2013: When in Rome

This morning, Mike and I left Florence together and headed to Rome. After a three hour train ride, we arrived to the train station and walked over to our hotel. We weren't sure what to think of our decision that we had made back at the Thai restaurant in Providence a few weeks ago. Upon our arrival, we were pleasantly surprised.

We are staying at Hotel Des Artistes, right near the Roma Termini. We would highly recommend this hotel to anyone coming to Rome. The hotel staff is very accommodating and kind, and all of the front desk people speak English. The room is small but nice and clean, and it doesn't have the stench of our apartment in Florence that we have been getting used to! The apartment is not that bad, but it's not my condo, where everything smells like lilac and perfume. :-)

We had plans to meet up with our friend Bob and his family. After a short bus ride to Piazza Navona, we found the first restaurant we could sit at and ate ourselves silly. Today was the first day that was not centered around eating, and our stomachs were growling. While waiting for Bob, we walked over to the Pantheon and admired it from the outside. It was too late to go in, but there's plenty to look at around it. I've been reminiscing about my Latin classes in high school, and wished that I had been on the Rome trip with them to see our teacher experience this place for the first time.

Piazza Navona is really cool. The big fountain in the middle is the fountain that Dan Brown used as one of the settings in his book, Angels and Demons. After loving the book and the movie, it was very cool to return here and see it. We found Bob, Michele, and Hannah, and ended up walking over to the Jewish Ghetto for dinner at an Italian kosher restaurant called La Taverna. We had a great meal together and had wonderful conversation. We might meet up with them a little bit later in the trip and possibly do an open bus tour together.

I don't have any pictures in this post, just because I didn't bring my computer with me. I'll post all the pictures from Rome a bit later on, so hold tight! It's time for bed now. We've got a three hour tour of the Vatican city tomorrow. Thumbs up, Michelangelo.

Today's pedometer count: 5,447steps.

Buonnanote!

Monday, July 15, 2013 : I don't know how those Gladiators did it.

I'm writing to you as I relax in my hotel bed- this city is a LOT of walking!

Started off the day by having breakfast near the Spanish Steps. Not a bad hang at all. Then Derek met us and took us over to the Villa Borghese- I had Respighi on my mind as we walked through the park and admired the greenery! This view is also gorgeous, and it looked right over Piazza del Popolo, another interesting square that was a major scene for the movie Angels and Demons. Tom Hanks wasn't around...

We had a great tour of Musei Vaticani this afternoon. Camilla, our tour guide, was so educated on the place and her passion for the history of Rome was very apparent throughout the tour. The company is called Walks of Italy, and we would highly recommend them as well! very professional and top class company.

Vatican City is an overwhelming place, and its almost too difficult to describe in words. We were looking at Roman baths that stood in the middle of the city, before records of Christ's birth. Thousands of years old! And, they're in perfect condition, as if they were built yesterday. It's astounding, and it almost makes you dizzy thinking about how old this city is.

We learned a lot about past Popes, and their desire for decadence and collecting famous art pieces. Art by the masters themselves- Michelangelo, Bernini, Raphael, and the list goes on. We were standing in the same spot as Michelangelo, looking at the same work. Again, hard to put the feeling into words.

We ended the tour in Cappella Sistina, where we couldn't talk or take pictures. The chapel had been restored by the Japanese years ago, and they own copyrights for the artwork. So, until the copyright expires, all photos belong to them. There are so many stories, funny and terrifying, about the frescoes in this humbling room. I can't even begin to describe them here, so I urge all of you to google the Sistine Chapel and read about how the work started and learn about the secrets behind the frescoes.

After the tour, we hooked up with Derek and took a long journey up to one of the highest hills in Rome, overlooking the city as the sun went down. Breathtaking views and great people watching. We had dinner in one of his favorite off-the-beaten-path restaurants, and the meal was filling and delish. Couldn't have asked for more.

Now, our feet hurt and our bellies are full. We have a long tour of the Colosseo and Ancient City tomorrow, as well as an open bus ride around the city in the evening. Also, we cannot forget gelato at the Fontana di Trevi to end our Roma adventure.

Total steps taken today: 12,862. In wedge sandals and dress shoes.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013: Rome Wasn't Built in a Day

...and the same goes for this blog.

Because it is 1:40 AM, and we are both leaving Rome very early tomorrow, this is going to be brief!

Today was our favorite day in Rome. We took a VIP restricted access tour of the Colosseum, Forum, and the Palatine Hill. We walked on original roads that are over two thousand years old. Boston roads can't uphold one winter without people falling in potholes! It's because their main roads were made of volcanic rock. Our tour guide was fun, educational, smart, and very witty. He made it seem like an adventure, bringing us through ancient ruins that have been preserved underground for generations.

We walked down into the Forum, through chunks of rock and marble, and learned about the political and judicial buildings that once stood on the foundation that we could see today. We stood in the same spot where Julius Caesar's funeral took place. Again, hard to imagine these stories that we have been told our whole lives actually took place on the very ground we were walking in.

Rome is incredible because so much of it is still underground. Throughout the centuries, the Romans built their modern city on top of the old one, using the buildings and marble as foundation. Jon, our guide, told us that they have been working for twenty years to build a third metro line through the city. Rome has 3 million residents and only two metro lines underground, creating major traffic above ground. However, as soon as they start to dig more tunnels, they run into ruins and must begin excavating. So much of the city will not be discovered just because the metropolitan city above ground must continue to function as a normal city.

The Colosseum, really named the Flavian Amphitheater, is a wonder of the world. We were brought onto the main stage floor, where lions, tigers, and other exotic animals were hunted for the people's entertainment. We walked through tunnels that gladiators came through before they fought to the death for an audience of 55,000 Romans. We were in the back stage area, where the slaves were wheeling conveyor belts of props out to the main arena to decorate for the different events and games. The first event was the hunting of the exotic animals. The second event were the public executions of Roman criminals, to show the people what happens when you break the law. The third event was the gladiator fight. They would start with 8 gladiators, working in pairs. They'd narrow it down to 4 men, and they would pair up. Those 4 men would die off down to 2. The two would fight, but not necessarily to the death. Once the winner is determined, the crowd cheers in one of two directions. For mercy, or no mercy. The emperor listens to the crowd and decides what the people want most. Usually, they want the losing gladiator dead. The winning gladiator would look towards the emperor, and he would give him a sign to either kill him or spare him. Then, the winner would be handed his cash reward, get patched up at the hospital, and wait for the next battle.

Romans were not charged to enter the Colosseum, ever. They were given terra cotta tablets with Roman numerals on them (1-80) directing them to one of the 80 entrances to the arena. Jon joked that for the actual games, there were 80 open and free entrances. Today, there is one entrance and it will cost you 13 Euro to get in. Progress!

Today was very educational and interesting. The history we were standing around was incredible and humbling. This was my favorite tour of the Ancient City, and I've been on three!

Tonight ended with one more dinner with Bob, Michele, and Hannah. We went to a life changing gelateria, and walked over to Fontana di Trevi to throw our three coins in.

Ciao, Roma! Off to Gamberale in the morning!

Wednesday-Friday, July 17-19, 2013: The Wedding

Where to begin? On the 17th, I said goodbye to Mike, which was really hard! We only had two weeks together (not even, really), and the time completely flew. It was sad to see him go, but it made me happy to know that we did so much and got through the two weeks with a lot of laughs, food, teamwork, and fun!

I met Derek in Rome and headed up to the mountains of Abruzzo on a bus with many other guests of the wedding. About four hours outside of Rome, the countryside was amazing. The air was about 30 degrees cooler and fresher, and the mountains rose so high that you couldn't even see the peaks because of the fog and clouds. We got to the quaint hotel that would be hosting the wedding reception, and I began to meet everyone. Derek's friends from Italy are wonderful people. Right away, I felt welcomed and at home, and even made some new friends that I know I'll keep in touch with after this trip.

We had a big dinner, at a really long table- the kind that you see in movies about Italian weddings. The food was delicious and the conversation was great. The wedding was a marriage of an American and an Italian, so many of the guests were English-speaking, which was helpful!

The next day (July 18th) was the wedding. Italian weddings are NO JOKE. It was awesome! The bus picked us up from our hotel at 9:30am and the entire group drove up to Gamberale (aka, the most beautiful middle-of-nowhere). The bride's grandfather had grown up there and donated money to keep the church thriving, so they were married in the piazza outside the church. The town of Gamberale has under 50 residents, which meant that our wedding of 60 guests more than doubled the population of the town that day! Unreal.

After the wedding, we want back to the hotel (Villa Danilo) and ate. And ate, and ate, and ate. I have never in my life seen so much food. We had appetizers around the pool at 2. We had a five course dinner at 4. Buffet dessert at 8. I couldn't believe how much was served, and we ate all of it!

I am so happy to have had this experience, and grateful to the family and Derek for being so welcoming this week. Enjoy the pictures of Rome and Abruzzo (uploading overnight, will be posted tomorrow)!

Saturday, July 20, 2013: A Shopper's Guide to Firenze

Okay, here are my directions for successful bargain shopping in Florence. Some of it is obvious, but some points are real lessons I've learned.

When in the market a la Sant'Ambrogio:

Do your best to make friends, and speak as much Italian as you can. Even if it's bad, the locals really appreciate it when you try to speak their language. Many of them know English, so you can at least communicate between your broken Italian and their broken English.

Shop at the same stand for at least one item, such as fruit or meats. Bonding with the people is part of the experience, and trust me, when you're vacationing alone, it's nice to see a familiar smiling face.

Sample as much food as you can. Duh!

Don't over-buy- the market is open every day, and you want your food fresh! They don't do grocery shopping like I do at home (Peapod by Stop & Shop) and buy a week's worth at once. Going to the market is a daily ritual!

When in the market a la San Lorenzo:

You might hate to read this, but if you're a woman, go talk to the men. They love the attention, and usually will give you a cheaper price if you smile at them. Don't judge me.

ONLY carry a limited amount of cash on you. This is for a couple of reasons: Number 1, pick-pockets. Number 2, if you can prove that you don't have enough cash to pay 30E for a cheaper leather purse, they will be so desperate to keep your business that suddenly, that bag is now worth 20E. Happened to me today (I keep 20E in the main part of my wallet, and stash the rest in the change purse part. Get's 'em every time).

Shop the ENTIRE market. Write down prices that other vendors have quoted you on the same items, and use that information while you're shopping at the stand that you really want to buy from. I had three different quotes for a small leather handbag today. 35, 20, and 13. Seriously! All I had to do was tell the 35E guy that someone down the street offered me 13, and I had 'em.

Most important: When they tell you the price, frown, shake your head, and start to walk away. They'll literally run after you and ask you YOUR price. Always give them the lowball answer and you'll end up paying a fair price for it.

Scarves and little things: buy multiples from the same person. They will reduce the price for each if you buy a few!

Jewelry: It's junk here. Go to the Ponte Vecchio for the real stuff that will last forever! You'll spend more, but they're real metals that will always be a keepsake of your trip.

Always know you can get the same product from another vendor (possibly next door), so don't get your heart set on one thing, thinking you'll never be able to purchase it after the guy gives up trying.

Have fun! It's a game.

Sunday, July 21, 2013: Snoozin' in the Gardens

Today was the hottest day so far in Italy. I know it's bad back at home, but when you're walking uphill in the direct Tuscan sunlight for 30 minutes, it's tough!

I started the day late, and headed over to All'Antico Vinaio, my favorite sandwich spot in Florence. I could eat there every day, and I'm going to have trouble finding a replacement for it once I'm back in B-town. The ingredients are so fresh, and you can see the men delivering the freshly baked focaccia from their shop across the street. Today, I had fresh focaccia, cheese spread, eggplant spread, salame Toscana, fresh tomatoes, and olive oil. Warmed up, this sandwich is pure heaven!

I then headed across the Arno (stopping for frutti di bosco gelato of course) and walked up to the Pitti Palace. I have an Amici Degli Uffizi card, so I can get free tickets for all of the state museums and gardens for the whole year. I walked up to the Boboli gardens and took some pictures. There were a lot of people walking around, laying in the sun, or picnicking in the shade. It was too crowded and noisy for me to sit and read Frances Mayes', so I made the trek over to the Bardini Gardens, which is much harder to find and further away from Boboli. These gardens are serene, and they offer really comfy wooden benches that boast a gorgeous view of the city. I found a bench overlooking Florence, saw Piazzale Michelangiolo to my right, and ended up falling asleep for about an hour. I must have looked like a sight, lying sideways on the bench and sleeping when I could have been marveling at the breathtaking view! I stayed here for about 3 hours, reading, napping, reading, and more napping. The bells of Santa Croce woke me up, and I caught a short video of them ringing toward the end of their "concert." The dissonance and rhythm of those bells is something that literally slows down my pulse and helps me realize that I'm in a very, very special place.

Monday, July 22, 2013: "Your Eyes Are Beautiful."

If you read on through this post, you'll "get" the title.

This morning started off pretty slow. I woke up, went to Sant'Ambrogio, and got some fresh fruit and focaccia for Madelyn, who was coming in from a 12 hour night train ride from Germany. She arrived, we ate, visited, and planned our day. Madelyn is a great clarinetist that I had met at the Imani Winds Chamber Music Festival last summer, and she is traveling through Europe, doing research and attending a clarinet conference in Assisi. She is with me for three days, and it's my job to be the tour guide!

We headed over to the Duomo, formally known as Santa Maria del Fiore, which is a breathtaking sight. We walked in and took in the art, sculpture, and simplicity/splendor of the inside. Looking up into the dome is overwhelming. First off, it's extremely high, so it's almost difficult to even focus on one thing. (Stolen from Wikipedia:) It was suggested that the interior of the 45m wide dome should be covered with a mosaic decoration to make the most of the available light coming through the circular windows of the drum and through the lantern. Brunelleschi had proposed the vault to glimmer with resplendent gold, but his death in 1446 put an end to this project, and the walls of the dome were whitewashed. Grand Duke Cosimo I de' Medici decided to have the dome painted with a representation of The Last Judgment. This enormous work, 3,600 metres² (38 750 ft²) of painted surface, was started in 1568 by Giorgio Vasari and Federico Zuccari and would last till 1579. The upper portion, near the lantern, representing The 24 Elders of Apoc. 4 was finished by Vasari before his death in 1574. Federico Zuccari and a number of collaborators, such as Domenico Cresti, finished the other portions: (from top to bottom) Choirs of Angels; Christ, Mary and Saints; Virtues, Gifts of the Holy Spirit and Beatitudes; and at the bottom of the cuppola: Capital Sins and Hell. These frescoes are considered Zuccari's greatest work.

Then, we decided to walk up the 414 steps in the bell tower. It was hard! The stairs were steep, narrow, and never-ending. It was so worth the view! We imagined what it was like in the 1700's, building this with no modern technology. Hauling stone up 300 feet in the air- we had trouble just hauling ourselves.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013: "You-Feet-See"

Today was Madelyn's first full day in Florence. After breakfast (fresh fruit from the market and croissants from Cafe Verdi), we headed over to the Uffizi for a day of marveling at works of art.

Because this was my second time through this trip, I did not feel like purchasing an audioguide. I bought the thing I should have purchased the first time around, the Uffizi Gallery Official Guide, translated into English. It outlines all of the rooms and mentions what each piece is in the museum, complete with maps and indexes. If you're coming to Florence, you should definitely purchase this, as it will be a great book for your coffee table when you get home.

We spent about 4-5 hours in the museum, looking through all of our favorite rooms. We then shopped around Florence, and bought some special items for ourselves. I bought a charm of the Ponte Vecchio on the Ponte Vecchio, and a charm of Santa Croce. Madelyn bought a gorgeous blue leather briefcase. Love the life here!

We then took a walk through the Boboli Gardens and relaxed a bit. It was HOT here today, so any relaxing outside was not as relaxing as it could have been.

We ended up eating dinner in the center of town. Madelyn ordered pappardelle with wild boar, and I had gnocchi in butter with asparagus. Delish!

Tonight's entertainment was brought to us by Orchestra da Camera Fiorentina. They played a beautiful chamber music program of Vivaldi, Bach, and Respighi. It was really lovely music, and the acoustics in the square, stone courtyard of the Bargello Museum were actually pretty amazing. Perfect setting for chamber music!

Tonight ended with chocolate-orange gelato from Vivoli, followed by Campari and Sodas at a little bar near Santa Croce.

All in all, a spectacular Florentine day.

Thursday, July 25, 2013: David...we meet again.

Madelyn of course had to visit the Accademia Gallery to see the David, and its prized collection of expensive and rare musical instruments. Because we purchased the Amici Degli Uffizi card, we were able to skip the wicked long line and get in after waiting about 20 minutes. Not bad!

We toured the gallery quickly and spent most of our time in the musical instruments room and Michelangelo's gallery of unfinished works, and of course, at his sculpture of David. I've seen it a few times by now, and it doesn't become less impressive ever. I was almost laughing at myself, thinking that I could just walk in here every day and see it for a few minutes, and then leave. I'm very lucky!

We spent our afternoon shopping San Lorenzo and some leather stores around the Duomo. I purchased some gifts for family and friends and some for myself as well. I think I'm done with the shopping, though! I'll have to buy another suitcase...

We had dinner at Osteria Santo Spirito (remember, the one with the bubbling gnocchi?). We each got decadent pasta dishes and drank some white wine, compliments of the restaurant for having us wait so long for a table. After dinner, we got gelato from my favorite place (Santa Trinita) and walked up the hill to Piazzale Michelangiolo. Seeing this view never gets old, either.

Tomorrow is a day for sleeping in, reading, and maybe taking the train to a neighboring town. Why not?

Thursday, July 25, 2013: The Sweetness of Doing Nothing

Today was...weird.

I woke up at 11am. Ate some fresh fruit for breakfast, and decided to shower and get ready for the day. I had no plans, and no real desire to do much of anything. It's strange to be on a "vacation" for five weeks, because if you go hard every day for five weeks, it's going to take a toll on your body for sure. So, I left the apartment, walked over to Oltrarno, and ate some pizza. And it was delicious!

Thanks to Caroline, I found Gusta Pizza, one of the more busy and yummy pizzerias in Florence. The city really isn't known for their pizza here. I ate an entire margherita pizza, read a few pages of my book, and then headed out around town. I suddenly became exhausted and just walked home for a nap. It was almost laughable. I did absolutely nothing today, but was completely wiped out.

In Boston, I'd have days like this where I wouldn't feel guilty about doing nothing. It's home there. For me to be in Florence and doing absolutely nothing is hard, but necessary. So, I have no pictures for you today, and no interesting adventures to read, and that's okay!

I simply ate a pizza, read a chapter, and napped.

Goodnight! :)

Friday, July 26, 2013: Cooking in the Countryside

Today was, to say the least, a dream come to life. I had booked a "Tuscan Farmhouse Experience" tour with the company that we used for our Rome Tours (Walks of Italy), and could not have been more pleased with my afternoon.

I took the train from Firenze SMN to Chiusi-Chianciano, which is on the border of Tuscany and Umbria. This was about two hours away by regional train. The station in Chiusi is wicked tiny, so finding my "person" wasn't too difficult. Alina Pinelli, the daughter of the owner of the farmhouse, was there to pick me up and drive me to the villa. She warmly greeted me and before I knew it, we were zipping through the country to end up at the most beautiful farm I've ever seen. The name of the villa is Il Fontanaro, and it is in the town of Paciano. If you are looking for a villa to rent on a Tuscan vacation, you'd be crazy to go anywhere but here.

As it turned out, I was the only person signed up for the cooking portion of the tour, so I got a one-on-one lesson in organic Italian cooking! Not being a cook AT ALL (just ask anyone who has lived with me), this was an amazing experience and it actually took away a lot of the "fear" that I have of cooking. Lucia, the owner of the farm and villa, made me feel comfortable and at home right away. She introduced me to some of her other guests (very nice people from LA and Boston) and brought us to the olive oil and honey mill, where the farm actually makes their own products, bottles, and sells it. She was smiling the whole time, and so passionately talking about what she and her family do at the farm. She says that they work extremely hard, doing a LOT of manual labor, but enjoy every moment about it. They only put out the best product possible, even if it means losing a little bit of oil in the process. She showed us pictures of her family in the olive groves and beehives, smiling as they were working.

Then, it was me-time in the kitchen with Lucia. First, we made the traditional Italian fruitcake. She had picked about 10 fresh apricots from her farm, and told me how happy she was that I was there today because the apricots only last for about fifteen days of the whole entire season. I tried one, and it was better than any candy I've ever had. Sweet is not even the word for it. She pitted the apricots, splashed olive oil in the pan, and sprinkled brown sugar all over. We let it sit for later, because we had to make the batter for the top. Then, it was time to make the lunch. She was amazing- just picked a handful of fresh tomatoes, eggplant, onion, and basil for the fresh sauce. She had me chopping onions and sampling everything as we went through. We made ravioli from scratch, and filled them with fresh ricotta and mozzarella cheeses, along with fresh herbs. Lucia was extremely helpful and complimented my "work" very much as we cooked together. The smells, tastes, and good company were exactly what I needed today. She made an incredibly tasty filet on a bed of rosemary, thyme, bay leaves, and basil, and it came out bursting with flavor. We all sat down to lunch together and had a wonderful time. I felt like I had known them for years.

I had just enough time to go in the infinity pool for a while, where I spent some time soaking in the sun (without sweating through my clothes) and visiting with her other guests. I met someone who lives on the Back Bay/South End line, so it was totally awesome talking to him about Boston and our favorite haunts.

I finished my swim, and we ended our visit by eating our amazing apricot fruitcake with some vanilla gelato. I couldn't have been happier with my day, and for sure, this will be one of my favorite memories of this trip. Lucia is a lover of opera, and she may even give me some information as to how to see a performance or two. She even offered to pick me up from the train and go along with me. That, my friends, is true Italian hospitality.

Saturday, July 27, 2013: 100 Degrees in Firenze? Poolside for this ragazza.

It's getting wicked hot in Firenze. The days in the beginning of the trip were in the low 80's, with low humidity, making the weather enjoyable and the shade refreshing. Now, it's jumped almost 15 degrees since then, with no indication that it will drop. After yesterday's pool experience at the villa, I decided to beat the heat here in Firenze.

I looked up where to find public pools. I figured that there HAD to be some in a city like this. The one most recommended was called Parco Piscina Le Pavoniere at Cascine Park. It is in a beautiful park on the southeastern side of the city. It was nearly impossible to find, because the bus system here is quite confusing. I don't know about the Florentines. If a tourist in Boston needed help in finding directions about public transportation, I think that by the third person they talked to, they'd get a solid and friendly answer and know exactly what to do. I went to the TI (Tourist Information, that's right!) and got poor directions!

Anyway....I finally got there, and it was worth it. It cost 9 Euro to get in, which was reasonable. Somewhat crowded, but I had expected that because it was a Saturday. There was a big pool, and a small, kidney bean shaped pool for the bambini. The pool "house" looked like a villa, but inside were locker rooms, restaurants, and bar/pizzeria. Supposedly at night, the whole place transforms into a club-like vibe with a DJ. I spent about 5-6 hours at the pool, dipping in and out while reading. I was also checking out what everyone else was reading. Almost every book I saw was Dan Brown's "Inferno," his latest book which takes place in Florence. I was kicking myself for forgetting mine on the dresser in Boston. It's kind of cool, though. I think the author would like to know that Florentines are all into it.

Once the DJ showed up, I left. There's just something funny about feeling like I'm in a Forever 21 while I'm at a pool in Italy. All the DJ's play here is American pop music! All set.

After a lot of sun, swimming, and relaxing, I'm back at the apartment and ready to go walking around. Florence is really most beautiful at night, so it's a nice long stroll, window shopping, and of course a big gelato on this hot night.

Monday, July 29, 2013: Barga Blog Post: Under Construction!

Dear Friends,

I am looking forward to writing my Barga blog, but I am saving that task for the 2 hour train ride home (after the pool!) tomorrow. Bob, Michele, and Hannah have been amazing hosts and I am so blessed to have met them.

We are all missing our Mike, so if you're reading this, mi manchi!

A domani, baci baci,

Alley

Tuesday, July 30, 2013
July 28, 29, and 30, 2013: Barga!

As I’m writing this post, I am on the train from Lucca to Firenze. I am realizing how lucky I have been on this vacation. I just spent two nights and almost three days with the Goodman family. They are just wonderful, generous, and kind people that I really loved to get to know over this trip. For those of you just tuning in, Mike and I met Bob about three weeks ago in Florence. We were going to be in Rome on the same weekend, and decided to meet up with Bob again, along with his wife Michele and daughter Hannah. We had two great dinners in Rome, and the Goodmans invited me to visit them at their second home in Barga later on during my trip (which was now!).

They welcomed me to their Barga home. It is up in the mountains, northwest of Lucca. The town is stunning, with mountain and river views almost everywhere you look. The first day I arrived, the whole family was at the train station waiting for me. They picked me up and brought me to their little town, where we ate at a great pizza restaurant called Capretz (Bob, correct me on any wrong spellings of restaurants!). We then toured the town a bit and hiked up to the stone duomo overlooking gorgeous Tuscan hills. After looking at some amazing artwork on display at the duomo museum, we decided that it was gelato-time, which is me and Hannah’s favorite time of the day.

Their house is incredible, and it was just as Bob described to Mike and I when we first met up. It’s a stone house, three stories, with beautiful rooms overlooking the mountains. Going to sleep in the guest room was like turning on one of those nature clocks with a babbling brook to try to get you to sleep, only the babbling brook was the river rolling right outside their yard. Because their river is drainage from the mountaintops, there was very little water due to us being there so late in the summer.

The next day, July 29th, was a great time. We started off by going into town for coffee and meeting up with some of their friends. Everyone in Barga knows each other, waves to each other as their driving by or walking by. They actually know their neighbors and everyone takes care of each other. Their friends (Ed and Anna) were a pleasure to meet and we all sat together and made good conversation. It was raining on this day, so we decided against going to the pool and just got in the car and explored a little neighboring town. Before getting to the town, we stopped at an amazing seafood restaurant along the highway and just ate ourselves silly. One of the most delicious lunches I’ve had in Italy, actually! Once we got to the town, we did some sightseeing, exploring, and had some fun photo shoots. They drove me over to “Devil’s Bridge,” which is this medieval stone bridge that boasts very distinct architecture. The story of the bridge is: in Medieval times, the town needed a bridge to be built so people could transverse the river. They had no money, so they asked the devil to come and build it for them. The devil agreed, but in return, said that the first soul to walk over the bridge would be his forever. The people agreed, and the devil built the bridge. Once he asked for his end of the bargain, the people sent a dog over the bridge first, so that was his first soul. It’s a cool story and an even cooler sight to see.

We had dinner at a wonderful restaurant (a favorite of Hannah’s) in town called L’Altana. We again ate so much delicious fresh food: fresh pasta with truffle sauce, chicken and vegetables, potatoes, green beans, vegetable soup, veal with ham and melted cheese, and of course delicious house red. We ended the night back at the same gelato place that we stopped at on the first day and treated ourselves to yet another delish ice cream.

Today (July 30) was a great day. We had a lazy morning and were treated to a great American breakfast by Michele. I was especially appreciative of that! Italians do not eat eggs and toast for breakfast here. It’s a sugary cakey pastry and an espresso (un caffe) and off they go. I can’t do the sugary mix in the morning, so this was wonderful! We got our bathing suits on and went to a local pool that overlooked the mountains.

I can’t say enough how happy I am that I met the Goodman family. They are from Chicago, so we are planning a fun weekend sometime in the Fall to all meet and go to a CSO concert together. These are friends that we will definitely keep in touch with for years to come, and how special is it that we met in Italy? Thanks to Bob, Michele, and the lovely Hannah for a fun-filled three days in Barga!

After I got back to Florence, I was hungry for a good dinner. Because (UGH) Roberto Benigni is still performing in Piazza Santa Croce, I had to walk all around the square to get home. I knew that I needed something really good, so I went to Baldovino. The waiter immediately recognized me from three weeks ago (when I first took Mike there). His name is Stefano, and he is adorable and really nice. We talked for a little bit about my long trip here, and he said that he was so jealous that I was going to Cinque Terre tomorrow. He brought over a complimentary glass of Prosecco, just because I was a returning customer. Moral of the story = Baldovino is amazing.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

July 31, August 1, 2, 3, & 4, 2013: Cinque Terre with Cousin Dawn!

I am so lucky to have had this weekend with my cousin! Dawn and I started off our 5Terre adventure by meeting in the Florence train station (Santa Maria Novella) at about 11am on Wednesday the 31st. We took a series of trains and ended up in Levanto, a little village right outside the five villages of the Cinque Terre.

The Cinque Terre (5 lands) is composed of 5 small villages: Monterosso, Vernazza, Manarola, Corniglia, Riomaggiore. Over the centuries, people have built terraces on the rugged and steep landscape right up to the cliffs that overlook the Mediterranean Sea. Part of its charm is the lack of corporate development. It feels like old beach towns, everyone walking around in their bathing suits, taking in some sun, or drinking by the water. Paths, trains and boats connect the villages, and cars cannot reach them from the outside. The first historical documents of the Cinque Terre date back to the 11th century. I don't think I've ever seen such beautiful and clear water in my life. My pictures are actually hard to believe, and I'm the one that took them!

We stayed at a little hotel in Levanto. Our first day was spent going in the water there, where it was VERY rocky and the current was high. I got a few bruises (battle wounds), but that's okay. I also got slightly stung by a little jellyfish, I think, but the rash went down in about an hour after I got out of the water. We decided to eat at a little hotel that Dawn had been to before (she's been to SO many of these restaurants before, as she is a tour guide in Italy), and of course it was delicious. Our favorite part of the meal was the baby octopus potato salad- amazing! We both split a big dish of spaghetti di mare, a mixed seafood spaghetti with clams, shellfish, baby octopus, and shrimp. A nice cold bottle of white wine topped off the night, and we had a great visit together and talked about our awesome family, who we miss!

The next day was a whirlwind! We woke up early and took the boat around the five villages so I could see them from the water. They are so quaint, beautiful, and beautifully situated on the water. Each town has a different feel and vibe. We got off at the last one first, which was Riomaggiore. We shopped a lot- we realized this trip that an addiction of shopping must be in our family's genes! We both loved all of the same things and helped each other purchase beautiful jewelry and accessories. We then went on to Manarola, where we swam in water that you could see through completely. We were enclosed by cliffs around us, and people were having fun jumping off of the rocks into the cold salty water. I commented that this water looked like a "water park," set up perfectly for people to enjoy. The pastel colored buildings were overlooking the cliffs as we swam, and I just couldn't believe that I was there!

We then headed over to Corniglia, where you cannot swim because the town is so high off of the water. It's actually quite a hike up the zigzagging steps to get there, but the views were worth it. This was definitely the most quiet town in my opinion. We got some cappuccini and hung around the small piazza.

We only had two more villages to go, but decided to skip Vernazza and save it for the next day. We ended our afternooon/evening in Monterosso, the most popular of the five villages. We shopped some more, and ate the most delicious dinner I think I've had on this trip. We ate at Ciak, a restaurant that came highly recommended by the Goodman family. To start, a bottle of white wine, and their antipasti- about 8 plates of sample size seafood dishes (anchovies, snails, shrimp, stuffed anchovies, mussels, and more!). We ordered the seafood risotto, that came out in a GIANT sizzling pot. I have a great picture of it below! The evening ended with us going back to Levanto and listening to a live Italian band in the piazza. Great day!

Friday was another early morning, and we headed over to Vernazza on the train. This town is absolutely adorable, with great restaurants, cafes, and shops. We had a nice long cappuccino break on the water and took some fun pictures. Since we were getting the train back to Florence today, we needed one more swim because Florence is an oven lately! We jumped in the water one more time, and had fish swimming all around us in the little beach area. This was such a beautiful weekend and I cannot believe I was there!

Back to Florence on Friday night. After our costly dinner the night before, we decided to get 5 Euro paninis at All'Antico Vinaio (remember, the sandwich place that served sandwiches the size of your face?). It was delicious, and we topped the night off with window shopping, gelato, and listening to music on the Ponte Vecchio.

Saturday was the day we were heading down to Umbria to spend some time at Dawn & Luke's house. I hadn't seen Luke that much, so it was going to be good to have some family time! We met up with Luke and Jess (the lovely girl that went to the JALC concert with us about a month ago) and had a great dinner at Da Noi in their town (Citta di Castello). It's a gorgeous medieval walled town with a lot of charm, beautiful churches, and a very nice small-town vibe. We ended our night with listening to a jazz band in the piazza. I am so thankful to have spent the time I had with Dawn and Luke. We had a lot of laughs, especially while we were telling Odie's New Bedford Police Dept. stories to Jess, who was kind of horrified. That's a whole different blog for a different day. :)

Now, I'm back in Florence. I'm doing some laundry to get prepared to pack for the end of the week. Tonight will be a quiet night. Small dinner, gelato, and a walk up to San Miniato, because I've heard that the monks chant on Sunday nights.

Thanks to Dawn and Luke for a wonderful weekend! Love you.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

August 5, 2013: Renaissance Bling

Today turned out to be a fabulous day! I met a new friend, and it was really meaningful because this is the person who had recommended the company to rent apartments from in Florence. My friend's mother, Pam, is the reason I am staying on Via Delle Pinzochere! Pam decided to come to Florence in August and we just had to meet up.

We started the morning by going to the Sant'Ambrogio Market, where Pam has all of these amazing friends that are vendors. It was so fun to see her interacting with her old pals and buying the food that she needed for her amazing cooking in Firenze! We then walked over to San Marco, which was a church that I have always walked by but never went in. What a mistake it was to pass by such an amazing church, which is really a museum.

The museum occupies a vast area of the Dominican convent of San Marco and preserves much of its original atmosphere. Founded in 1436 and designed by the architect Michelozzo, the convent played an important role in the cultural and religious life of Florence, especially at the time of Savonarola.

The museum boasts many paintings of Fra Angelico, one of the great artists of the Renaissance, who frescoed extensive parts of the convent. Other works by Fra Angelico were assembled here in the 20th century, resulting in a remarkable collection of the artist's works.

There is also an important collection of 16th-century paintings including numerous works by Fra Bartolomeo. The museum has a section devoted to fragments of sculpture and architecture from buildings of the city centre which were demolished in the 19th century.

We were amazed at the large number of monks' cells, and each one had a different fresco painted inside. Some were quite disturbing, strange, and some were quite beautiful. We noticed that in the paint, there seemed to be a kind of shimmer, especially on important parts of the pieces such as angels' wings. We joked that even the Renaissance liked their bling!

We then shopped around, and I purchased a much too expensive but amazing jewelry set of Murano glass. This store quickly became my favorite in Florence! Armando Poggi

After a little break during siesta time, we met up again and ate a great dinner at Cinghiale Bianco, a restaurant across the river. I've been wanting to try it ever since we walked by it a few weeks ago, and Pam was interested in going because her kids ate there on a previous trip to Florence. It was yummy! Cinghiale, in Italian, means wild boar, so much of the menu featured items with wild boar in it. Delish!

We had the essential gelato from Santa Trinita and had a nice walk home. We are planning to meet again for drinks or dinner, and I am so happy that I made yet another friend in Florence!

For the next three days, I will be savoring every moment. It's time to go home, and I am ready. I am starting an amazing job in the Fall and am itching to get to work. This has been going on for the past two weeks, and I can finally announce that I will be a Co-Band Director with Sean at McCarthy Middle School, teaching 5-8 Band and 5th Grade General Music. This has been a dream for a while, and I'm thrilled to be joining the band faculty in Chelmsford full time. I did a lot of soul searching, and went through some very heavy emotions while I was making the decision to leave South Row. After some tears and tough emails that I had to write, I made my choice and I am ultimately happy with it. I found out about the job opening two weeks ago, and when I read the text, my white wine spilled everywhere and I was pretty much a hot mess! This is going to be a great job and I can't wait to start teaching instrumental music with one of my close friends. This certainly made my trip much more memorable!

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

August 6, 2013: Guardaaaaaaah!

First time I've heard an Italian say a word, and it reminded me of the Boston accent. I'll start this story at the end. Tonight, Pam and I decided to eat a late dinner. We ended up at Osteria Santo Spirito, the same restaurant that I took Mike to in the beginning (with the amazing gnocchi!) and where I took Madelyn to the night I found out about the job opening. We had a delicious dinner, which ended with the most annoying street magician coming up to the restaurant, chanting "guarda! guarda!" over and over again. This translates to "see" or "watch." He was super annoying and loud, and it actually cleared some of us out of the restaurant. Oh well...just a man doing his...job.

Today was a lazy day. I think I'm officially all shopped out. I have finished up my shopping for people, and I've had a lot of fun doing so. I walked through San Lorenzo and didn't even have one urge to buy anything for myself, which is a sign that this vacation was productive! I'm happy to be coming home and sharing a piece of Italy with my loved ones.

I took some pictures around town, and otherwise, I just walked and let the city guide me wherever I was going. I ended up on the other side of the river, and passed by the same shop with the sleeping dog from yesterday. He was in the same spot, sound asleep! The sun was really hot today, so seeing him made me walk back to my place, where I proceeded to take a three hour nap. After the nap was dinner, so you've just read a blog post about a "day of nothing" in Florence.

It was really nice to just be able to Facebook Pam today and say, "Let's go get a drink! Meet in Piazza Signoria?" What a blessing to be able to casually make dinner plans in Florence on the spot.

Tomorrow is my last outing of the vacation. I'm going on a wine tasting tour of Chianti, where we will be eating lunch in a medieval castle and visiting the town of San Gimgnano. Excited!

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

August 7, 2013: Finally kissed by an Italian...

Today was my last "outing" in Tuscany. I had booked a tour with a company called "Fun in Tuscany," and it really was a perfect title for the business! Christian, our tour guide, picked a group of us up at Santa Maria Novella at 9:30am. There were only five of us on the tour, and it was two very nice young couples and myself. I sat up front with Christian in the van, and we all had a nice ride out to wine country.

The tour started at a villa overlooking the medieval town of San Gimignano. The winery was beautiful, and we had a tour of the vineyards and the lab where they make the wine. The people there were very nice and set us up at a table outside, overlooking the country and skyline of SG. We tried three different wines: Vernaccia, Chianti Classico, and their Merlot. Vernaccia is a white wine made by the green grapes (without skins) grown in the San Gimignano region. It was delicious! Their Chianti Classico was the best that I had ever tasted, and I picked up a bottle (for 5.50 Euro!) to take home. We learned that for a wine to be considered real chianti, it must be made up of at least 80% Sangiovese grapes. The merlot was quite good as well!

Friday, August 9, 2013

August 8, 2013: Marathon in Florence

Today was my last day to get everything (well, not EVERYthing) done in town. Pam and I started out early, at around 8:30, at met up for cappuccino outside of the Bargello museum. The word "bargello" means "castle" or "fortified tower". During the Italian Middle Ages it was the name given to a military captain in charge of keeping peace and justice (hence "Captain of justice") during riots and uproars. The bargello was usually hired from another country to prevent any suggestion of favoritism. It could be compared with today's version of Chief of police. The museum is full of Michelangelo, Donatello, and Della Robbia. I loved this museum, and the fact that we had it basically to ourselves was awesome.

After that, we ended up crossing the river and going over to La Specola, which is the museum of Zoology and Natural History. This place was crazy, but really cool! The Medici family collected a huge number of animals and had them on display. You can even see the hippo that was a family pet and used to live in the Boboli Gardens. There were also many wax anatomical models from the 18th century. If you aren't a fan of taxidermy, this place is probably not for you. I thought it was amazing to see the thorough collection of exotic animals that were preserved so well for so many years! Very cool place, and again, we had it all to ourselves.

After La Specola, we went to the AMAZING Brancacci Chapel. Information taken from internet: The Brancacci Chapel (in Italian, "Cappella dei Brancacci") is a chapel in the Church of Santa Maria del Carmine in Florence, central Italy. It is sometimes called the "Sistine Chapel of the early Renaissance"for its painting cycle, among the most famous and influential of the period. Construction of the chapel was commissioned by Pietro Brancacci and begun in 1386.

I was amazed at how beautiful the chapel was. It is very small, but overwhelming. More wiki info: The patron of the pictorial decoration was Felice Brancacci, descendant of Pietro, who had served as the Florentine ambassador to Cairo until 1423. Upon his return to Florence, he hired Masolino da Panicale to paint his chapel. Masolino's associate, 21-year-old Masaccio, 18 years younger than Masolino, assisted, but during painting Masolino left to Hungary, where he was painter to the king, and the commission was given to Masaccio. By the time Masolino returned he was learning from his talented former student. However, Masaccio was called to Rome before he could finish the chapel, and died in Rome at the age of 27. Portions of the chapel were completed later by Filippino Lippi. Unfortunately during the Baroque period some of the paintings were seen as unfashionable and a tomb was placed in front of them.

My two favorite frescoes were the Temptation of Adam and Eve, and the Expulsion of Adam and Eve. Very powerful works, and amazing to see in person.

The simple facade of Church of Santa Maria del Carmine

Inside the church. Overwhelmingly beautiful!

Brancacci Chapel

After the Brancacci, we started to walk towards the north side of the river. We realized that the door to Santo Spirito was open, so of course we had to go inside. This is my favorite church, I think! It is so simple on the outside, but massive and beautiful on the inside. It was designed by Brunelleschi, the same person who designed the dome on the Duomo. We were very lucky to catch only a couple of minutes of Michelangelo's crucifix, a very important and powerful work. We couldn't believe we had seen it, after seeing its model as a tribute in the Bargello this morning. We didn't even know it was in Santo Spirito! Lucky.

An earlier picture of Santo Spirito from this trip.

After Santo Spirito, we were starving. We ended up going to a little panini shop right near Orsanmichele, which was actually a place that we had been looking for quite extensively the other day during one of our "walkabouts." This was the place that Dawn had taken me right before we went to SMN to get to Umbria. I had a salami and goat cheese sandwich, and I really could have eaten three or four of them- delish! And for 2.50 Euro each, it's a deal! The place is called I Fratellini.

We then were able to walk into Orsanmichele, an amazingly beautiful church in the center of Florence. We explored a bit and just sat down to take it all in. It's crazy how many times I walked by this place and didn't even think to go in. You don't know how beautiful these churches are until you walk in, and suddenly you can feel hundreds of years of people and history within the walls. It's a special place, and if you travel to Florence, you really need to just walk in the open doors and see what the museums, gardens, and churches have to offer. You won't regret it.

After Orsanmichele, we were hot, exhausted, and needed a nap. We decided to back to our own apartments and rest for a bit. I had a bunch of organizing and packing to do, so this was a good break for me.

We met up at a new jewelry shop for me, but an old one for Pam. I bought an embarrassing amount of jewelry from this place. It was my style completely- handmade silver/copper jewelry in funky designs, with colorful glass and stone. I couldn't stop shopping, so luckily we only had 30 minutes before the place closed. If you see me in Boston with great jewelry, you'll know it's from this place! It's on Via Ghibellina, across from the Bargello. The name of the place is Stilelibero- go there, with a lot of cash!

For my last night in Florence, Pam and I decided to get a cocktail over by the Pitti Palace. I of course had my Italian "usual," Campari and soda, while we looked around the piazza and talked about how much we both love Florence, the life you live in Florence, and how lucky we were to be spending so much time there. We had dinner at Baldovino, and each had a very tasty pizza and ate a LOT. I am so grateful to Lydia for connecting her mother and I, and this week truly would not have been the same without her. We enjoyed our conversations, laughs, art, and made the week memorable.

Pam and I at Pitti Palace

This is my last blog post, as my long travel day is tomorrow. I am grateful to the city for being such a warm, rich, and historical beautiful place. I cherished every day, and I can easily say that I did not have one bad day in Firenze. The friends I met, family I saw, and culture I took in will be in my memories forever, and I am looking forward to re-reading this blog in the future and thinking back to my 34 nights in bella Italia. Thanks to all of you for reading- I hope that it inspires you to consider visiting the Renaissance City. It's a life-changing place!

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