Monday, May 30, 2011

April 14th: Fabulous Firenze

Our day in Florence dawned cool and cloudy, and stayed that way for most of the day. We even had a little sprinkle of rain that evening...a rare occurence on this tour...we had such amazing weather for most of it. Warm and sunny with temperatures in the 20-25 degree Celsius range...lovely!

First thing in the morning we drove up to Piazzale Michelangelo for a group photograph. From there we had an absolutely amazing view of the city and the River Arno.

There was this high stone wall around the edge of the lookout which some of the group hoisted themselves up onto. Admittedly, it did look like an excellent seat...wide and flat with a great view...until you looked down on the other side. Way down. To the street below. Visions of slamming into the pavement had me changing my mind, so I contented myself with taking pictures instead.

You can see the huge dome on the Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore, or the Duomo, which is so much shorter to say! The slightly smaller dome to the left is the Baptistery and the light coloured tower is Giotto's Campanile, the bell tower. The tall brown stone tower on the left is part of Palazzo Vecchio, the town hall of Florence.

The main bridge below is the Ponte Vecchio. It has many little shops built along it's length, originally occupied by butcher's, but now filled with shops selling gold and jewelry.

If you look closely, you can see the cream section that spans the entire width of the bridge and is studded with square windows. That is the Vasari Corridor which connects Palazzo Vecchio (the town hall in the picure above) with Palazzo Pitti, the main residence of the ruling families. The corridor was built at the order of the Grand Duke Cosimo I de Medici so that the Duke could travel in safety and privacy from the town hall to his residence. You can see it through much of the old city, this covered passage high above the ground, connecting buildings and bridging above the streets. The passageway was built tall enough that Cosimo could ride his horse up the steps in the town hall, into the passage, and out across the river to his home. Oh to have that much power and time on your hands!

It's very amusing, but didn't he have better things to be doing with his money? :)

We began our day at this church here, Santa Croce. 

 Just down one of the streets/alleyways was our first stops, the Leonardo Leather Works. We were given a small demonstration and informative talk about the history of leather in Florence and an explanation of how to look for real leather. Basically, look for suede, it's hard to fake! And don't listen to the labelling, it isn't always honest. I'm shocked. Really. :) 

Across the street was this cute little Pinocchio and wood toy shop:

We had this little, local Italian lady lead a walking tour for us. In Italy, they have strict regulations over who can lead a tour group, so our tour manager wasn't able to do so.

Piazza della Signoria, the large square in front of Palazzo Vecchio, was the first place our tour guide almost lost us. She had this pink umbrella that she was holding up as she wound through the crowds (and it was crowded!), supposedly to help us keep track of her. It's lucky that she did have the umbrella, because at times we would have lost her within seconds if she hadn't had it. She sure could move fast!

Piazza della Signoria was full of sculptures both marble and bronze. The large white marble aboe is the Neptune fountain. Nearby was a replicate of the statue of David.

Below is Perseus, holding up the head of Medusa. In the background is Palazzo Vecchio.

We went through the front entrance to the Palazzo, and into this interior courtyard. The covered areas of the courtyard were painted in incredible detail.

We walked along outside the Uffizi gallery. I had considered going inside after the walking tour ended, but it was Cultural Week in Italy, so the museums were all free. And the lineup! Yikes!

Luckily, what I really wanted to see was David, and he was in another smaller museum. With a much shorter line. Yay!

You can see in the picture above a few of the statues that were placed along the outside of the gallery. I especially like the one of Machiavelli below. It's the expression on his face, and the way you can almost see his hand stroke his chin as he makes me smile. :)

Near Ponte Vecchio, we came across more of these lovers' locks. Apparently the trend is spreading...

A close-up of the bridge with the little shops below and the Vasari corridor above...

This next one is taken on the bridge itself with the gold and jewelry shops. Everything glistened here, and if you had the money, could have spent a lot of it, that's for sure.

This covered market was much more my style...

 We didn't see many cars in the city of Florence, but this was probably the smallest one we found...not much bigger than the bikes it's parked next too!

A random carousel...

This 3D map of Florence was really neat, and your fingers itched to touch it. The popular spots are obvious to see, just look at where the patina was rubbed away. There were braille markings on the buildings and streets, so that anyone who was visually impaired could decipher it as well.

Our last destination on the walking tour was the Duomo. This is the front entrance to the Basilica. The sliver of building you can see on the left side of the photo is the edge of the Baptistery, and the sliver on the right is the bell tower.

This next photo shows a better view of the dome on the Basilica. There are actually two domes, one built inside the other, and a staircase winding up to the top between the two layers. You could walk up to the small balcony at the very top if you wanted.

But considering that meant 460-plus steps one way, only a couple of people were brave (or crazy) enough to do it.

All of the coloured portions on the exterior were created using white, pink and green marble.

I`m alway amazed going inside these massive churches. Not only by the size and height and beautiful interiors, but also by how old they are, and how incredibly difficult it must have been to create such a thing so many years ago without the benefits of modern technology and tools. The dedication of people to begin such a project and to continue on with it over what often turned into hundreds of years....well, it`s mind-boggling and awe inspiring all at once.

From the Basilica, I headed for the Accademia Gallery, home of David. No pictures were allowed, but I`ve since discovered that someone else on the tour did manage to get a decent picture, which is who I`ve stolen this one off of...

Now, I`ve looked at a lot of marble statues so far on this trip. And taken quite a few pictures of them. You`d think that I`d be sick of them by now. Plus, there`s all this hype about David, and quite often I find that reality just doesn`t live up.

This was one occasion where I was pleasantly surprised. I was really quite in awe of the statue of David. For one, it`s way larger than you`re expecting, and two, the detail is just phenomenal. Pictures don`t do it justice. :) 

From the Accademia Gallery, I spent the rest of the afternoon wandering and poking in and out of shops. I do enjoy doing the touristy sights and activities, but on the other hand, I also really enjoy just wandering in a city. When you`re not in a hurry to get somewhere at a certain time and then be somewhere else right after, you get to relax and just soak things in. Maybe get lost. Find a neat little shop or an amazing restaurant. People watch.

(Or find that pharmacy you`ve been looking for to get sore throat medication...yes, it`s about this point that I succumbed to the same lovely sore throat and cough that the rest of the tour group was developing.)

At the end of the day we all met up back at the plaza in front of Sante Croce and then were headed for a special Tuscan dinner in a Florentine restaurant. I have never seen so much food at one meal in my life.

There was wine and bread. Appetizers. Salad and three kinds of pasta...and the ravioli was the best I`ve ever had. And then when we thought we were done, out came the roasted chicken. And the mashed potatoes and meatballs. And then dessert and limoncello shots. 

Seriously, after the delicious pizza I`d had for lunch and then this food. I felt like I`d never have to eat again. And I felt like I hardly touched any of it. People can`t seriously eat like that on a regular basis, must be a special occasion kind of thing!

It was late by the time we left the restaurant. I had to option of heading for a club or getting back on the bus to go to the cabins to sleep. And I chose the option to sleep. Mostly to rest and try get rid of my cold (I wouldn` lasted over three weeks), but also being so full was making me sleepy! The rain was actually falling by this time, but being a good west coast girl I was well prepared with my rain jacket...and happy that it was getting some use and having packing it be a waste.

It really was a great day in Florence. For my first real experience in Italy it couldn`t be beat. I`m already planning on going back some day to spend some more time. There is so much history and art and culture to soak up, I just couldn`t get to it all!

Sounds horrible right? Having to go back to Italy?

Life is so hard.


Monday, May 23, 2011

April 13th: Ciao Bella

So we got to see a little of Nice in the morning as the next day's drive began. The road ran along the sea for a good portion of our drive so we had an excellent view of the beach. With the sun was just starting to come through the clouds and the waves crashing on the beach, it was a very peaceful scene. You can just see the shadows of a couple of people out for an early morning walk.

 The water is very grey in this photo, and so is the sky. It's hard to tell where one ends and the other begins.

We drove past several more marinas where these massive yachts were moored. It became a running (and tired) joke about that being so-and-so's boat and we were all invited for a party later...or even that it was so-and-so's future husbands boat, once, you know, said future husband realized who he was missing out on. :)

Our last stop before leaving France was at the Fragonard perfumery. It sits high on a hill over looking the water, with one of those twisty little entrance roads that are so fun/worrying to watch our coach driver negotiate.

A pretty display in the entryway...

We had a tour of the factory and then were funneled into the shop (surprising, I know) where we were given samples to smell. It's very flamboyant, the way they describe the scents of each perfume, going on about the scent "notes" in each one...I usually have a hard time picking things out, I just know which ones I like. :)

They import ingredients from all over the world. Why am I not surprised that Canada is their source for pine. Of course it is. :)

Our destination for this night was Florence, Italy. At some point in the next part of our drive we crossed over the French-Italian border, although I'm not sure exactly where. With the European Union agreement in place there are no border crossings between those countries, and the signs upon reaching the border were often small and out of the way. I original had planned to try get a photo of each as we passed into the new country, but I usually missed seeing the sign altogether!

It was a gorgeous drive down the coast for the most part. Luckily, I was sitting on the coastal side of the bus so I had a decent view. There were all these gorgeous seaside towns with tidy little harbours. I could have happily picked one and settled in for a week or two....or three.

When we crossed into Italy there wasn't much of a change in the surroundings. You kind of expect it to be "Oh, this is definitely Italy," but the changes are slower as one type of landscape and architecture blends into another. I did notice though, that Italians were a lot fonder of these terraces on the hillsides in this area. Which makes sense considering it provides them with so much more useful land.

I like the little archway in the building's like they wanted to build this massive house, but it blocked the way to the water, so they built passage underneath. I wish I could have gone closer, it would have made for some neat pictures. :)

We were making one major pit stop on this day before heading to Florence, and that was in Pisa.

For the Leaning Tower of Pisa, of course.

The picture above shows the Baptistery (with the brown domed roof), the Cathedral and the Tower in the background. The Tower was originally built as a bell tower, and was completed in only 177 years. That's some quick work there, hey?

The tower began to sink when the second level was under construction due to an insufficient foundation and unstable subsoil. Construction stopped for about a hundred years at this point, as Pisa was involved in continuous battles with surrounding states. Once construction began again, the builders tried to compensate for the tilt by building each level a little taller on one side. Smart thinking, until you realize that creates extra weight on the sinking side, which causes it to sink faster. Oops?

Recently, the tower has been slightly straightened by the removal of soil underneath the higher side, and the bells have been removed from the tower as well to decrease the weight. The tower was closed to the public for a time, as it was considered unsafe, but is now open again. I didn't take the time to climb the steps...because really, who needs to pay to climb stairs? And when I really just wanted gelato? :)

And, in case anyone really needs to know, lemon gelato is amazing! :)

Guards. To keep you off the grass around the cathedral. It was very nice looking grass to be sure. :)

I took my requisite holding-up-the-tower-with-one-hand-photo, but it's not that great, so instead I'll show you some of the same photos....just taken completely out of context.

Hilarious to watch.

We had a contest going, to see who could get the most creative Leaning Tower of Pisa photo. The first two posing photos and Handstand Guy above were all part of my tour group. The handstand photo won hands down. (Haha.)

I need to see if I can track down a copy of it...but instead I have the photo below, which was one of the runner-ups.

Look Ma! No hands!

We spent the night in another site with little cabins, just outside of Florence. That night, after dinner, we were supposed to be heading into the city for karaoke (not that I would have the nerve to get up on stage!), but my roommate and I were running late getting ready, and the door would just not lock. Worst lock ever. By the time we did manage to lock it, I realized that I'd left my purse on the other side, and then there was getting the lock open, and then locking it AGAIN, and then we were just out of time...the bus ended up leaving without us.

On the plus side, this meant I didn't have to sing on the bus. I can't remember if I've mentioned it before, but the penalty for being late to the bus was iPodoke. Like karaoke (which I've already mentioned is not my thing!), but done to a song on your (or someone's) iPod, sung into the microphone over the bus's sound system. Yikes. We had a few rounds of the trip.

I just bought a watch and made sure I wasn't late. (Well, except for this night obviously.)

On the plus side, there were about seven of us who stayed behind, and we sat up at the restaurant/bar/general store until late at night, just hanging out and talking, which was a lot of fun. And I got my laundry done too. Without out fighting for one of the two machines. Bonus.

The only downside to the day: it was a really cold night, and damp (probably not helped by the wet laundry hanging all over the cabin, stuff we didn't want going in the dryer), and the heater wasn't really working... At the time, I thought I would freeze to death before morning.

But obviously I've lived to laugh about it. :)


Sunday, May 22, 2011

April 12th: Putting on the Ritz

We left Chateau de Cruix bright and early this morning and headed south once again.

We drove past many castles. Some in excellent shape...some not so much...

I don't seem to have many pictures from this day. We spent a lot of it driving, and I've probably mentioned before, but it's really hard to take pictures through the window of a moving bus. :)

Plus, the countryside was a lot of the same on this stretch.

Our stop for the night was in the French Riviera, near the city of Nice, in a site with a series of little cabins.

Cabins with very thin walls.

One of the girls and I shared one side of the cabin, on the other side of the dividing was a room full of guys. Who happened to be talking (nicely, at least) about my roommate. I don't think they knew we were there....and that we were listening to every word. We found it hilarious to say the least!

After unpacking, showering, etc., we got back on the bus for a short drive into Monaco. The second smallest country in the world, at about 2 square kilometers, and the most densely populated county in the world, Monaco sits right along the ocean on the hillside. Buildings have been built in every conceivable spot, and not a single road is wider than it absolutely has to be.

Watching two buses trying to pass each other on the road leading to the underground parking (one leaving, one entering the parking) was highly entertaining as they jockeyed back and forth on this tiny, curving street. I'm sure many a coach has lost part of its paint job in this city!

We walked through part of the city, past the church where Prince Rainier and Grace Kelly were married...

...And up to the castle on the cliff side.

The castle overlooks the harbour, with some pretty impressive boats. The Monte Carlo casino is on the distant promontory, on the other side of the harbour.

The weather is looking a little misty at this point in the evening, but it certainly wasn't cold! Even at the end of the night the temperature was still high enough to be outside without a sweater of any sort.

Here's some of the group taking in the view...

For dinner, the tour group scattered into the narrow streets. The smaller group that I was with found this tiny little restaurant with a covered patio out behind it. It was so relaxing to sit outside with some amazing food and a glass of wine, in this beautiful city.

I have to admit, I'm not much of a wine drinker at home, I probably had more wine altogether on this trip than before it combined. Maybe it's growing on me. :)

Once again, a picture of my food...

After our leisurely dinner, we hopped back on the bus for a (very!) short drive to the other side of the harbour.

In the picture above, you can see the part of Monaco where I was taking pictures from earlier. The church is somewhere in the area to the left of the crane. The castle to the right, where the brightest lights on the hilltop are. We had dinner in the streets in between those two spots.

The lights on the buildings at night were really beautiful...

As I'm sure you may have guessed, our destination for the last part of the evening was the Monte Carlo casino...the main entrance is in the picture above. Sadly, we weren't allowed to take pictures inside, as the interior was absolutely gorgeous. Such detail!

I did feel a little out of place in the casino....I'm not one to gamble my money away....but I did put 10 Euro in a slot machine and promptly lose it all. But at least I can say that I've gambled in the actual Monte Carlo if anyone asked. :)

Most people played either the slots or roulette for a bit. One of the guys ventured into the blackjack room and managed to leave with at least 100 Euro more than he entered fact, after a recap on the bus, several people did really well for themselves. I think our tour overall may have left with more money than we went in with!

It was obviously a very posh place. But even if you didn't know that to start with, those are certainly not cheap cars parked out front!

To complete our evening, we walked down the hill, past the hairpin turn of the Monaco Grand Prix, and down to the promenade along the ocean, with the waves crashing below. I took some pictures, but in the dark, well, they look like black nothing-ness with the odd pin-prick of light. Not much to show. :)

And as a last little bonus, that pesky Canadian flag, I can't leave it behind. :)