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Northern Italy Road Trip Part II

Author: Jim and Donna C.
Date of Trip: October 2010

Wednesday, October 13, 2010 — Overcast, cool — light fog

We both woke up near 0800; guess we were tired.  It’s overcast with light fog.  Not sure what the weather is going to do this morning.  We went downstairs and enjoyed breakfast.  There were the usual pastries, yogurt, cereals and then hot eggs, sausage and bacon.  It was nice to have a hot breakfast for a change.

We decided to stay at the Holiday Inn another night so that we wouldn’t find ourselves in the same hotel-seeking situation as last night.  We can also take our time seeing Milan.  The desk clerk didn’t like the idea of us driving into Milan.  He said that the parking was terrible.  He offered that we take the hotel shuttle to the airport and take the city bus (an express) into town.  So, that’s what we did.

We got off the bus, checked Rick Steve’s book to see what direction we should go to see the Duomo Cathedral and off we headed through the shopping mall area.  This cathedral is supposed to have one of the nails from Jesus’ cross.  It is also supposed to have hair, fingernails and bone fragments from each of the apostles.  Sounds kind of cool to check out.

We turned the corner and there stood the cathedral. It is magnificent!  Of all the cathedrals in all the countries we’ve been in, this is the most ornate one I’ve ever seen.  We walked around it and took lots and lots of pictures.  Scaffolding covers much of the top steeple.  It’s being cleaned.  We then went inside, got a couple of audio tour things and set off following the map of the audio tour.  It is pretty awesome inside.

One wall has a small opening where the sun shines down on the floor to tell what time of the year it is…an indoor sundial.  There is a red dot behind the alter and near the ceiling.  This is the supposed to contain the nail from the cross, encased in a crystal.

The treasury is where the apostle pieces are located.  Unfortunately it was closed for renovation.  We did see a statue of St. Bartholomew.  He was another apostle that was killed for his beliefs.  Apparently he was flayed, i.e. skinned.  The statue is of him carrying his skin like a shawl – very gruesome.

We then took an elevator up to the roof of the cathedral.  We got out and were right on the roof shingles.  We were able to walk around the top, where there are several terraces.  We had a great view of the city from up there.  We took a stroll among the gargoyles and went up to the large stained glass windows and looked down onto the cathedral floor several stories below.  What a kick!

After the cathedral we sat down at one of the cafes for a cappuccino.  We decided to try Panini for lunch.  Basically it’s just a sandwich.  We then walked through town to the Sforza Castle.  We’ve been seeing castles all over Italy, which surprised me.  This castle is HUGE.  We walked around inside the courtyards.  Not much here.  They have brought in some architectural pieces found around the city.  Milan, at one time, had a wall around it.

The Sforza Castle was the main entrance into the city.  It’s quite a fortress.  There was a museum within a part of the castle.  It held an uncompleted statue by Michelangelo, the Rondanini Pieta.  We wanted to see that, so we paid our three Euros each and went in.  The museum kept going and going.  It was much larger than we thought.  At the end was the Michelangelo statue.  It was really cool.  The legs looked completed, the torsos chiseled out and the backs just rough cut.

The painting of the Last Supper is in Milan.  However, you need to make reservations to tour it months in advance.  We didn’t know that, so we didn’t get to see it.  The Cathedral and the Castle took all day for us.

We headed back towards the cathedral, tried to find the shopping area we came through.  Found the Galleria, which is a glass domed covered shopping “mall” that was way cool.  In the center you could stand and see Louie Viton on one corner and McDonalds on the other – something wrong with this picture.  We got lost trying to find the bus stop.  It couldn’t be too far away; it was near the cathedral and another church.  How many cathedrals and churches can there be in Milan / Italy?.

We finally asked a policeman, and kept walking.  Jim found an electronics store where we stopped and bought an external hard drive.  We’ve only been on our trip for a week and have about 1000 pictures between the two of us…four more weeks to go.  Now we can download our pictures to our net book and then back them up to an external hard drive.  Jim is such a geek!

We eventually found the bus stop.  The bus was sitting there and we hopped on.  We got to the airport around 1900.  Trying to think of what to do for dinner.  Eating at the hotel was going to be too expensive.  Jim suggested driving around trying to find a restaurant, but it isn’t like doing that around home.  Seemed too hard.  So we ate at McDonalds in the airport.

Jim called the hotel and they sent the shuttle to pick us up.  We’re in early tonight so we can get caught up on the log, check out the Internet and get ready for bed early.  We’d like to have an early start tomorrow morning.

Thursday, October 14, 2010 — light fog, cool

We woke up just before 0600.  We saw on CNN that all the miners were rescued from the mine in Chile.  We went down for some breakfast.  Jim tried to call the Marriott in Rome to see if our cruise luggage made it there.  After eating up 10 minutes of cell phone time, we gave up.

We checked the tracking on it and saw that it was delivered on Oct. 8th.  It wasn’t supposed to arrive until the 13th.  Pretty amazing that it arrived in four days.  Now if the Marriott just holds it till we get there next week.  We loaded up the car and hit the road towards Genova.

Around 1000 we found a service area where we bought some stuff for a picnic lunch (not very good stuff as it turned out).  We looked in a book we bought in Seattle that had agritourismos (farm house B&B’s).  We found one near La Spezia and the Cinque Terra called Casa Villa.  We called and made a reservation.

We were going to take the back roads thinking that there would be some quaint little Italian homes and villages.  So we switched off toll roads on Lola to see where she took us.

We went through a lot of farmland, mostly wheat, hay and corn.  Next came the factory areas.  The towns were small, but certainly nothing special.  We turned the Toll Roads back on Lola.  She got us back on the Autostrada.  I saw a cute little town up in the hills.  It looked like you could get off, drive through the town and get easily back on the main road.  Looks can be deceiving.

We got off the main road, Jim saw a sign for a castle and wanted to follow it.  We wound up a very, very narrow road high into the hills.  We were watching both sides of the road trying to make sure we wouldn’t go over the hillside.  We finally reached the end.  Had to rest.  No castle in sight.  Got turned around and headed back down.  We tried several roads and never did find one that went through town.  Gave up and went back on the main road.  Jim says that road was a real heart stopper.  Now he tells me!

Around 1330 we found a little parking area we could pull over and have our lunch.  It overlooked a valley and some small villages.  A couple of other people had stopped and were doing what we did, just sitting on the curb eating enjoying life.

Our lunch was not very good, but I did remember a couple of apples I had been carrying around since Venice.  We finished up and hit the road again.  The scenery just what you would think of when you think of the Riviera.  There are small towns and villages nestled in the green valleys.

We started our search for our farmhouse.  We’re spending two nights there thinking that we could see Cinque Terra and La Spezia in one day.  By 1530 we found the place.  It’s up one of these tiny one-lane roads, winding up the hillside.

Lola got us to address number 7, but we were looking for number 8.  A lady pointed us further up the hill.  Found it.  The lady that owns the place does not speak English.  She has a farm hand, Pepe that does…mostly.

She showed us our room, or at least the ladder/stair case to our room.  It was an adventure getting our bags up to the room.  It’s small but quaint.  Looks like our room was originally part of the attic.  The ceiling was tall with exposed log beams and wooden trusses.  The walls were lightly color washed with a pinkish/coral color.  We did have a bathroom in our room with a queen bed.  Very, very quiet.

This is an organic farm that overlooks the valley.  Beautiful country.  We sure are seeing many different sides of Italy.  Because we are out in the middle of nowhere, we asked if we could eat dinner here.  Dinner is at 2000 pm.  It is now 1700 and Jim is finally getting a chance to relax and read while I catch up on the log.

Dinner was great!  We ate with farm’s owner, Giovanni.  First, she gave us a plate of pasta, cut into one inch squares, with pesto.  Next came vegetables — tomatoes with balsamic vinegar (yum) and something like chard but not quite.  She showed us what it looked like uncooked, but still didn’t recognize it.  It was good.

Next was thinly sliced roasted beef.  For dessert we had gelato.  Between Italian, Spanish, English, a little French and being very animated, we were able to communicate.  Giovanni and I were even picking on Jim and he knew it.   Good home cooking.  We discovered that she makes her own olive oil, wine and honey.  She had a whole table behind us filled with jars of marmalade that she had put up.

We were upstairs and in bed by 2115.  It’s so dark and quiet here, not much else to do.

Friday, October 15, 2010 — cold, lightly foggy

Sometime last night our heat was turned off. This morning was cold and the bed was so warm. We set the alarm for 0600 so we could be down for breakfast by 0730 and out the door to see the Cinque Terre. Neither of us wanted to get up, but Jim sacrificed and got up to take his shower first. What a guy.

Breakfast consisted of wonderful bread, butter and her homemade jams, marmalade and honeys five different things in all. Of course we had to try each one. All were fantastic. We finished getting ourselves ready for the day. Had to stop and get loved on by one of the two St. Bernard’s here. They are very loving and leaning monster of love. One of them uses the back of the owner’s pickup as a doghouse.

Jim drove through La Spezia and on to Porto Venere. Pepe told us that Porto Venere was much better than La Spezia. He was right. It’s much smaller and easier to get around. We found a parking spot, went to pay and a couple of ladies from Switzerland were having a difficult time getting the machine to work right. Jim gave them change for a 50 Euro note.

We talked with them for a while. Eventually we all got our parking passes and headed for the marina. We decided that we were going to concentrate on 3 of the 5 towns of the Cinque Terre. You can get to the towns via train, boat or driving and parking out of town and walking in. We opted for the boat so that we could get a better view of the towns.

The ticket for a round trip cost 22 Euros each, not inexpensive, especially at today’s exchange rate. However, we had a pleasant boat ride, taking lots of pictures as we went by the towns. These cities are built on the cliffs. All vineyards and farming are terraced. Anywhere you want to go is up hill. We got off at Vernazza.

The first thing we did was have a cappuccino and walnut cake. We then checked out a little church that was behind us at the cafe. After that we walked around town. We found a little shop with paintings that we fell in love with. We purchased a print of a painting of Vernazza for 10 Euros.

Then of course we found a tower that Donna wanted to go visit. We started up the narrow stair ways, sat on the steps, rested half way up, and finished our climb. We were rewarded by a beautiful view over the town. The tower itself had a very narrow spiral staircase. We opted not to go up it with all our stuff. The view we had was enough.

We had to wait for some time to get the next boat, so we had a Panini of ham, mozzarella and tomato, while we waited. We got on the next boat, an adventure in its self. The boat docks with its bow into the landing. A very narrow metal walkway on wheels is set from the bow of the boat to the landing. The wheels allow the walkway to move up and down with the boat. They also allow it to move from side to side with the waves. It is almost like a carnival ride.

Our next stopping point was Manarola. This was a larger town and not as pretty or easy to get around as Vernazza. What we wanted to do, however, was to walk the cliff side from Manarola to the town of Riomaggiore. This walk is called Via Dell Amore (The Lover’s Walk). We found our way to the entry point and saw that this is considered a National Park.

The walk cost us five Euros each, we had to get a pin and Jim bought a lock so we could “lock our love” on the path. We started the walk. Not very far down was a fence with a lot of locks. The idea is to put your lock along the walkway and throw the key into the water. This ensures your love is locked forever.

We added our lock to the fence after writing our names on it, and threw the key into the water below. As you continue down the path, you can see locks everywhere. The walk is only 1 kilometer (less than a mile).

We reached Riomaggiore and realized that we were going to be about 1/2 hour late in getting back to our car. Oh well, if we get a ticket, we get a ticket. We really didn’t walk around Riomaggiore, but we did have to walk through town to get to the marina. Getting to the marina is another adventure.

First you climb up narrow stairs, down winding paths with only a rope to hang onto and then venture out onto the rocks to get on the carnival ride of the walkway. We made it back to Portovenere one piece. Got to the car…no ticket, yeah!

While we didn’t get a ticket, Jim found a 20 Lire coin tightly stuck between the driver’s window and the weather stripping. Have no idea how it got there, but it certainly was no accident. Curious….

When we left this morning, we didn’t know how to tell Giovanni that we wouldn’t need dinner, so we weren’t sure if she was going to try and feed us or not. Because of that we decided to try and find someplace in town to eat something light. If we’re hungry later we have turkey jerky and cookies. Most places weren’t open yet (only 1800), but we found a snack bar that had pizza. We both had a couple of pieces of pizza and then headed back to the farm.

Glad we headed back when we did, it’s getting dusk. With the roads to the farm, we want to be able to see. We had an uneventful drive back, until we turned down the dirt road to the farm. We were partially down this single lane, when we came face to face with another car.

She tried to pull over as far as she could, but we still couldn’t get by. I got out of the car to see if I could direct Jim through. Partially through I told him no way. I was sure he was going to side down the side of the hill. We finally backed all the way down the road and let the lady pass. Made it back in one piece.

Looks like we aren’t going to get dinner, so it’s jerky and cookies tonight. Another adventure. The remainder of the evening will be going over tomorrow’s plans as we will be heading to Florence, catching up on the log and doing some reading. Probably another early night. That’s OK.

Saturday, October 16, 2010 — rain

Funny, both Jim and I woke up around 0300 this morning, don’t know why. We tried to go back to sleep, only to wake up around 0700 am…breakfast is at 0730. Jim got a quick shower in while I packed one of my suit cases and got dressed. We got downstairs at 0735. We had bread with jams and honeys again, yum.

After breakfast I got my shower in while Jim did his packing. It’s raining pretty good this morning. We got the car packed up and went to find Giovanni. She had her niece over, must be about 11 or 12 years old. While we were paying for our stay, we wanted to buy some of her honey and marmalade. Jim was busy trying to get the message across with his electronic translator…not very successfully.

I walked over and picked up what we wanted. She understood that. We had to pick on Jim a little. I got a picture of Giovanni, her niece and Jim. Off we went to our next destination. Driving down the road, Pepe was waving to us from the field.

We’re now on our way to Pisa. I’ve always wanted to see the leaning tower of Pisa. Everybody has said that we should see it, take pictures and then leave as the tower is the main thing to see in the town.

It took us about an hour to get to Pisa. Then the fun began. We drove around and around the city, first trying to find the tower, then trying to find a parking spot. I’m surprised that Lola didn’t give up on us. Jim finally turned her off because all she would say is “recalculating”. I was ready to give up. I just wanted out of Pisa. We thought if we got close to where we thought it might be, find a place to park, we would have better luck finding it.

We found a place to park and then had to ask a shop owner where to pay for parking as we couldn’t find it. Supposedly the tower was about a 15 minute walk. We walked for some time, decided we were probably going the wrong way, turned around and entered a pedestrian area.

After walking a bit we asked another shop owner where the tower was, we were on the wrong side of the river. After crossing the river, it was about another 15 — 20 minute walk. Success, we finally found it! Jim checked his Garmin and discovered that we were 1 mile from the car. We must have walked four or five miles to find the leaning tower of Pisa.

Like all good tourists, we took our pictures of the tower with each of us pushing it over, holding it up, etc. It was kind of fun to see some of the positions that people put themselves into. After resting on the steps of the Duomo for a while we started back to the car.

On the way Jim bought a small statue of the tower for his collection. There were several street vendors. We did buy a pottery spoon rest. We can at least get that home easily. Looks like our box to ship home from Florida is getting bigger and bigger.  Finally out of Pisa and on the way to Florence.

The Tuscany area is supposed to be some of the most beautiful in Italy. So far, to me at least, it all looks the same as everywhere else we’ve been.

We reached Florence quickly. Florence is a huge city.  There were throngs of people walking in the streets, make driving difficult. Bicycles are dodging in and out of traffic, scooters are everywhere and drivers are getting frustrated and honking horns if you wouldn’t move out of their way.

Seems like motorcycles and scooters, all through Italy, have very different rules than cars. They split lanes, swerve around and through cars and always make their way to the front of the line at a red light. It was all getting very overwhelming for me very quickly. We were trying find our hotel.

After passing it a couple of times, I finally saw it down a little alcove. Of course there was no parking around the area. We found a small lot down the street, pulled in and called the hotel to find out where to park. She kept telling us to come up the reception and she could show us where to park.

She wasn’t quite understanding that we weren’t finding anywhere to stop to get to the reception desk. After driving around a couple more times, Jim finally found a spot near the hotel where we could park for 15 minutes. We parked and found reception. We had to use an elevator meant for two people, we barely fit in (glad we’ve both lost weight). The gal at the desk started giving us options for parking.

The first option was that we could unload our luggage and she could have someone park our car in the garage. It would cost us an additional 30 Euros. She never got a chance to give us the other options because we jumped at the first one. We went back down and pulled everything out of the car. A guy met us to take our keys. We gladly gave him the keys to our car…hope he was the guy from the hotel J. We were assured he was.

Our room is nice. It’s a king size bed. About 20 foot ceiling. We have a TV. We’re even able to close our shutters on the windows for a darker and quieter sleep, we hope. We set our luggage in the room and went down to the street to find something to eat for dinner.

Most of the people are gone, guess they don’t like being out in the rain (we’ve had off and on showers all day). We found a place across the street. I had ravioli with pumpkin and duck while Jim had cannelloni. A guy at the table next to us was from Idaho. He’s a counselor here in Italy for military families. We visited for some time.

After dinner we walked down the street doing some window shopping. Most places were closed. We did find a pottery shop that was open. I could get myself into real trouble with all the beautiful pottery. We did get out of there without buying anything.

Back to the room, I’m catching up on the log while Jim is looking for what to do while we’re here. We are going to try and take the Hop-on Hop-off bus tomorrow to see what there is to see.

Sunday, October 17, 2010 — cold, partly cloudy

We have shutters on our hotel room window. Since we closed them last night, our room stayed nice and dark and quiet. We slept till around 0700. We got up slowly and made our way to the breakfast buffet. We can’t figure out if breakfast is included with the room or not. At worst, we think it’s no more than six Euros each.

We ended up talking with a couple from Florida. After breakfast we made our way up to the outdoor bar. This is a 360 degree view of the area. Got to remember to bring the camera up for some pictures, the view is fantastic.

Up the street is one of the stops for the Hop-on Hop-off bus. We’re making our way there. On the way, some local artists are setting up their wares along the sidewalk. We were looking at a painting of a basilica and sunflowers…what both Jim and I think of when we think of Tuscany. We haven’t seen any sunflowers yet. Probably the wrong time of year? We decided to think about it.

We got on the bus and paid for our tickets. We went up top and found a couple seats that were dry. It’s cold this morning, but dry. We rode the entire route (an hour and a half) and made marks on the map where we wanted to get off. We rode around again until we got to a stop near the Cathedral of Santa Maria Di Fiore. This cathedral is beautiful! It is made from lots of different colors of marble primarily green and white.

Walking up to the cathedral, we stopped to get a waffle. We both had a waffle with Nutela. I ended up wearing most of mine. I had Nutela on my camera, camera straps, coat, you name it, I had Nutela on it. In front of the cathedral a group of young people were singing. We stopped to listen for a while, they were a lot of fun. We walked around the cathedral taking lots of pictures.

We continued down the street to Basilica San Lorenzo. It wasn’t nearly as beautiful, but picturesque still the same. Along the streets were stalls of leather goods. This is called the Leather Market.

Jim found a belt; he’s shrinking out of the one he brought. Problem with pants falling down or something like that. We got talking with the vendor. He was telling us how bad the pick pockets are in Florence. We knew it was bad, but when the locals are warning you…We picked up some Pinocchio dolls for Jimmy and Anthony for Christmas. Jim found a couple ties he liked as well.

We walked down to the next bus stop and caught the bus. We rode it to another stop called Piazzale Michelangelo. This is an outlook area that looks out over Florence. Fantastic views of the city. It is a very sprawled out city.

We ended up talking with a couple from Chicago for some time. I bought a nice light scarf as the sun makes it a bit warm to wear my wool one. We had lunch. We shared a calzone. Caught the next bus. We wanted to go to the Academia to see Michelangelo’s David, but you’re supposed to make reservation, which we didn’t. Tomorrow it’s closed.

Jim wanted to stop back by the hotel to see if the guy with the painting we like was still there…he was and it was. He was so excited to sell us the painting, he gave me an additional small painting in appreciation. He had remembered us from the morning.

He had to take it out of a frame and off the stretcher frames so it could be rolled up. He was prying the staples and Jim was pulling them out. They got it. Jim got a big handshake and I got a kiss good bye. I think we made him happy. We took our stuff back to our room. We have now bought three paintings this trip.

We weren’t ready to stop for the night. We went back out and walked down to river. We crossed a bridge that is full of shops with gold. All these shops gives a very unique look to the bridge. We walked along the river to the next bridge so that we could get some pictures of the bridge we were just on.

We started walking back towards the hotel. We stopped at a little café for dinner. I had a vegetable, pasta soup and Jim had fettuccini with mushroom sauce, chicken and spinach. We stopped at a little market to pick up some cookies and went back to the room. We see on the news that the Dolomites got snow, pretty good snow too. We missed that by two days.

Monday October 18, 2010 — 19th Wedding anniversary — Another Donna day — sunny and cool

Today is Fresco painting day. We set this up from home and it was the last thing to be confirmed. We meet the docent at 1500 so until then we plan to do a little touring and laundry if we can get to it. Stopped at the front desk to ask about the heat in the room as I wasn’t able to figure out how to turn it on. We were told the heat isn’t turned on until November 1. They offered a space heater but we decided to tough it out.

Had breakfast down stairs in the pastry and lunch shop. I had bacon and eggs for a change. Bacon was very salty and eggs overcooked but it was a bit like home anyway.

We decided to catch the hop on hop off bus up to the Duomo and check out the museum behind the cathedral. Needless to say it was fantastic. We were able to see a Michelangelo Pieta, another one of the incomplete versions. This one had a flaw in the marble and cracked when he was working on it. Still very beautiful.

The other sculptures were fascinating, various saints, popes and patrons. Most were pieces of the cathedral or baptistery at one time. We spent an hour but needed to move on.

Upon leaving we decided we didn’t have time to do laundry so we continued our tour by catching the bus again around to the church of St. Croce. It is a big church with a beautiful marble front, but the rest of it is brick. Both Michelangelo and Galileo are buried here. Couldn’t go in, so we walked around a bit then headed back for the bus and the hotel, some lunch and our class.

Had lunch where we had breakfast. Pretty good. The pastries looked wonderful but we resisted. Got up to the room around 1400. Jim rested a bit and Donna cleaned up the room a little. At 1430 we headed over to the Docent’s workshop a few blocks away. We picked the hotel to be close and we were there in a few minutes. We found his place, number 6 blue, and rang the buzzer. He answered and buzzed us in.

We went up to the third floor to his small apartment. He showed us in and invited us to the rooftop for a view. It was really nice. He told us he was expecting another couple and two women from California showed up, one older one younger. They were both staying in Italy for three months on a art history foray from school. Fresco art was part of their final assignment.

We sat around his dining room table. The docent was originally from Scotland, but had been in Florence for 15 years, specializing in Fresco painting and teaching. He began with a talk on what Fresco painting, its history and science.

Fresco painting is putting color on wet plaster. As the plaster dries the color carbonizes into the plaster and becomes part of the plaster. We were then give an eight by four inch tile with wet plaster on it, and shown some pictures we could copy. We had to take the pictures and draw them as we saw them on a piece of paper. This is called a cartoon.

After completing the cartoon, we take a tool with what looks like a nail in the end of a stick then proceeded to punch holes around our design. We then lay this on the wet plaster and dab color onto the cartoon creating an outline.

Then we take the paint pigment which is basically colored dirt, place it on a piece of tile, put water on a brush and dap into the paint. We then go over the dotted outline and created the cartoon outline on the plaster. We begin to paint and color — washing lightly layer by layer.

He helped us with the colors but basically it is our art. The session lasted about 3.5 hours or so. At the end we had a great appreciation of Fresco painting and a piece of art to take home. It was a lot of fun. We walked back to the hotel with our treasures.

Since it was only about 1900 we decided to do laundry. We loaded up one of the carry on bags with laundry and set off to find the Laundromat. Took us 15 minutes to walk, and 60 minutes or so to wash and dry.

We headed back to the hotel, looking for a place to eat dinner. Finding nothing open we ate at the hotel. Not too bad. Back down to the room to fold laundry, hang some to finish drying and off to bed. A very satisfying day.

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