Sunday, June 24, 2012


Downtown Fort Worth

Tuesday, June 12, 2012


We've been planning to go to Italy for years, and we had this trip on the books almost a year in advance, but it still sort of snuck up on us. In the midst of every day life, with work and house and other travels, we realized a few months ago we'd better start planning. We roughed out an itinerary, and then scratched it at the last minute to pare down our trip to just 3 areas (read: just 3 hotels;) so we could actually RELAX on our 10-day vacation. We cut out the riviera and Rome, and decided to focus on 1) Venice; 2) Cinque Terre (with a side trip to Vignolo) and 3) Tuscany. We're so glad we did. We had the time of our lives on this trip. Every single minute was absolutely amazing. It's a beautiful country and everything and everyone we encountered was just wonderful.  

We left Atlanta on a direct flight on June 1 and were lucky enough to get first class on the way over - not too shabby. In between being pampered and fed, we chatted excitedly and tried to nap, and then before we knew it, we were there! Shannon was in charge of transportation, and did a great job getting us everywhere we needed to be. We took buses, trains, planes and automobiles - and of course our four feet - and we didn't get lost a single time. Amazing. Mary was in charge of hotels, and that worked out really well too. We were very fortunate this trip, and all 3 places we stayed were lovely. The full recap is below, videos are here and pictures are here.  Enjoy!

Rialto Bridge
Days 1-2 Venice
After a warm welcome to Venice by our hostess Enrica, we settled into our hotel and napped and rested for a few hours before hitting the streets, er, canals of Venice. Our afternoon stroll was an adventure, but we were well-rewarded with arancini, foccacia, and of course gelato! We wandered the romantic streets, bridges and canals for hours, and eventually found ourselves at the Rialto bridge. After crossing, we made our way to Piazza San Marco - the heart of Venice. We walked through an archway promising the piazza and walked out into the huge open square. There were people and pigeons EVERYWHERE. It was quite a scene. As we passed by the famous Caffe Florian, the band played 'Moon River' as we took in our gorgeous surroundings. Our eyes followed the perfect symmetry of the Procuratie Vecchie, which seemed to go on forever, leading up to the clock tower crowned by the moors, and of course the towering campanile, and finally - the crown jewel of the piazza- St. Mark's Basilica, gold and glittering and adorned with statuettes and bronzed figures from top to bottom. As we made our way to the Basilica, we were surrounded by crowds of tourists and pigeons. A popular photo opp in the piazza is to stand with arms spread and allow pigeons to roost on your outstretched arms. No thank you, signore.  As we stood in front of the Basilica, the Doge's Palace and the Piazzetta came into view on our right. Just past the Doge's Palace in all its coral and white glory, the piazzetta opened before us to a wide view of the lagoon, guarded by statues of St. Theodore and St. Mark (represented by the winged lion, the symbol of Venice) high atop their marble columns. Heading left at the promenade, we crossed an adjacent bridge crowded with tourists snapping photos of the Bridge of Sighs (so named for capturing the last sighs of the poor souls crossing the bridge to face their fate at the hands of the infamous 'terrible ten'). We crossed and found a great seat away from the hustle and bustle with an even better view of the bridge for a quick break. As we sat with our feet dangling above the canal, we were treated to an up-close show by the passing gondoliers serenading their passengers. Rested up and ready to keep walking, we slowly made our way back across the grand canal via the Accademia bridge, encountering numerous cathedrals and campos along the way. We ended the day with a sunset stroll along the Sestiere Dorsoduro, where we enjoyed the view with our dinner of fresh seafood pasta and frosty glasses or prosecco.

Heart marks the spot!
After a good night's sleep, we got up and did it all again... After breakfast on the lovely terrace at our hotel, we headed to the Piazzale Roma and caught the Vaporetto (water bus) for a cruise down the Grand Canal while we listened to our Rick Steves audio tour, pointing out the landmarks along the way. It was really neat to see all the buildings and palaces from a different point of view after our extensive walking tour the day before. Our tour ended at San Marco, and we headed east to further explore the island. We wandered into the Castello neighborhood, stopping for a quick bite at a quiet cafe, and made our way past the arsenal. As we meandered along, we crossed the Rio Retto at Calle de la Pieta, and found the most magical place for our 'lock of love.' Marking the map and stopping for a few photos, we continued on to re-visit Piazza San Marco, this time entering from the northeastern corner. We took our time in the piazza, catching the tolling of the four o'clock hour rung by the moors high atop the 15th century clock tower, which was very special. We stopped for picnic supplies and partook in the Italian custom 'il pisolino' (mid-afternoon nap;) after enjoying our late lunch on the terrace. (We learned on our first day that almost everything closes between noon and four so that Italians can have their siesta time. Definitely think we should adopt that tradition in the states ;)

When the sun went down, we were greeted with a beautiful full moon and prosecco in hand, we went for a magical moonlit stroll. Venice was beautiful by night, and even more romantic. We made our way to San Marco once again to pay our respects and bid this magical city farewell. We encountered a flooded piazza and handfuls of visitors here and there, splashing about like children. The band at Caffe Florian played Strangers in the Night, and we danced our way across the piazza to St. Mark's and said arrividerci to Venezia.

Day 3 Vignolo / Piedmont Region
We took the train from the island inland to pick up our rental car, and then took a slight detour on our way to Cinque Terre to visit the village of Vignolo, where Mary's family is from. Thanks to our trusty tom-tom, we found it with no problem. It was really cool to see the family name plastered about - it will take a little more research to learn more about the area, but since we were somewhat nearby we wanted to at least see the place, and so we did! We don't know much about Virginio's parents or lineage, but short of being featured on an episode of Who do you think you are (please, Ms. Kudrow?), we're not sure how to find more info just yet.  

Shannon handled the autostrada like a pro, and says it's just like MarioKart ;) We drove through the beautiful Italian countryside and saw lots of castles and towers, vineyards and farms, fields of beautiful golden wheat and plenty of livestock. Closer to Cuneo and Vignolo, the Alps came into view, and it was amazing driving through such a scenic area. After visiting Vignolo, we twisted and turned our way through smaller mountain regions and made it to Sestri Levante as the sun went down.

Day 4 Cinque Terre
After breakfast, we walked just down the hill from our hotel and caught the train from Rivo Trigase to Riomaggiore, the southernmost village of Cinque Terre (which means, the five villages). We took the paved cliffside trail from there to Manarola, and it was gorgeous. The first portion between these two villages was an easy troll and only took about 20 minutes. We were almost disappointed how easy it was because after our reading we were prepared for a HIKE. Well, we got it. After exploring Manarola for a bit and walking the cliffside trail as far as we could (the portion on both sides of the middle village - Corniglia - is closed due to severe damage from a major mudslide), we took a boat from Manarola to Vernazza. We then got what we were looking for. Wandering off the paved trail, and onto a marked hiking trail (for those who are interested: we did 8 straight up to trail 1 and then over to 9 and back down) we made our way up the mountain and took on a strenuous 4-hour hike. It was well worth it because the views along the way were AMAZING. The sun came out half way through though and it was HOT. Storm clouds came in toward the end offering some relief, and we ended in a forested area with plenty of shade. When we made it to Monterosso, we treated ourselves with a half liter of the local vino, as well as a feast of bruschetta, pizza and lasagna with pesto. Whew! We took in the sunset from some rocks on the water and then took the train back to our home for the night.  

Days 5 - 10 Tuscany
We got up early on Wednesday and drove 3 hours to our Tuscan villa where we spent the remainder of our time in Italy. It was a lovely place between the historic villages of Laterina and Arezzo. Our hosts, Anna and Giorgio made us feel very welcome and greeted us with chianti and olive oil and directions to the market. We made good use of all three. After settling in, we walked up the hill to take in the view of our surroundings. Absolutely gorgeous. After a short drive to Arezzo, where we stocked up on groceries for the next 5 days, Mary made our favorite apertivo, caprese, which we enjoyed with a delicious tuscan vino on our patio overlooking a historic church, Santa Maria en valle. Mary cooked a delicious dinner of sausage ragu with fresh made tagliatelle to celebrate our first night in Tuscany. It was the perfect evening, and we slept like babies in our new home away from home. The next day we relaxed all day, reading by the pool, swimming and snacking on delicious local fare. Shannon even set up his hammock on our patio!   

   Day 7 Siena
   On Friday, we ventured out to Siena, which was less than an hour away by car. We took our time strolling through the gorgeous streets within the ancient walled city and took in the sights - The Duomo, the Piazza del Campo, and my personal favorite, the Enoteca Italiano, which houses over 1,600 different Italian wines, and offers tastings and bottles for purchase. It was amazing to tour their cellar and sip delicious Italian wine on their gorgeous terrace. We had the place all to ourselves, and it was lovely.

   Day 8 Florence
   On Saturday, we took the train from Laterina to Florence - it was about an hour long ride stopping at 12 villages along the way - but we had gorgeous scenery and good company and it certainly beat driving in Florence and trying to find parking! Anna had made arrangements for us to go the Uffizi Gallery, so that was our first stop. We had our trusty Rick Steves audio tour, and while in line we met a family from Sandy Springs on vacation - small world! It was hot as a mother inside, but after about an hour we finally cooled off. We took our time inside, savoring each room filled with classic works by the masters of the Renaissance. There are over dozens of rooms filled with out of this world collections compiled by the infamous Medicis. It was amazing. Next, we did our Rick Steves audio tour entitled 'Renaissance Walk,' which took us from the Duomo to the Piazza della Signoria, among other sights of note. We walked along the Arno and crossed the Ponte Vecchio, which was filled to the max with tourists. We had an authentic Tuscan meal of peposo and ossobuco, and about a half a liter of chianti of course! We enjoyed Florence, and the history was amazing, but I think we both preferred Siena. Less crowds, great history and much more approachable. We were exhausted by the time we left Florence, but it was definitely worth it.       

We spent our last day in Tuscany relaxing, reading, cooking and eating, drinking chianti and proseco, and taking a scenic drive. It was HEAVEN.