Last Days in Italy

On Monday, Maria and I went on a 15-mile bike tour through the hills of the Chianti wine region in Tuscany.  It was by far one of my favorite days of the trip!  We went through an organization called I Bike Italy.  They said it was “moderately difficult,” and that is no joke!  Killer hills!  We met the tour at the bridge at Pointe Grazie, got on 21-speed-bikes, strapped on helmets, and were led out on the tour.  The first part was grueling–supersteep hills, but I led the group!  Yeah I did! 🙂  It felt so good to bike again.  There were ten of us altogether, and four couldn’t keep up and had to have a van come pick them up.  The guide stopped us at various points and taught us things about the region and famous people (Michelangelo, Da Vinci, the Ferragamos) who lived in that area.  We finally got to the winery and had a picnic lunch of paninis with prosciutto and mozzarella, to which we added olive oil that was made at the vineyard where we were, fresh tomatoes, and fresh basil.  So good!  Then we ate a lot of fresh fruit, picked right off the trees in the orchard where we lunched–white peaches, white plums, apricots, pears, and grapes.  Delicious!  After a tour of the wine cellar and the cellar where they store the olive oil, we biked back to Florence.  Maria and I had a pretty long walk back to the hostel, so we treated ourselves to our last gelati in Italy–pistachio, hazelnut, and chocolate rum–it was so good we couldn’t even talk!  And we were so tired from the day!  Later that night, we all went out for our last night in Florence.  Two guys we befriended at the hostel drove us out to a restaurant called Flo, which overlooked the city.  It was lovely!  We had an amazing time!  I miss the girls so much, especially now that I am home.  Maria is in Poland and Allison and Rosiemara are in Greece.  I wish I was with them!  But it does feel good to be home where I can make phone calls again, text message for free, not have to pay for water or internet, and easily communicate in my native language.  However, that said, I can’t wait to go back to Europe and see more of the world…a lifelong traveller is born!

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A Venetian Day

Yesterday Allison and I ventured to Venice for the day while Maria and Rosiemara went to the beach.  We decided that we didn’t want to  leave Italy without having seen Venice…and we made the right decision!  We took the 8:23 train and arrived in Venice at 11:30 or so.  While on the train, Allison and I put our feet up on the seats facing us.  A few minutes later, we were getting yelled at in Italian by an old man and his wife who were sitting across the aisle from us.  We couldn’t understand a word he was saying, but it was obvious that he wanted our feets off the seats, even though they were nowhere near him.  I put mine down, but Allison got a little testy with him…who was he to tell us what to do, anyhow?!  Then the train guy was coming around to stamp tickets, and the old man TOLD ON US!  I mean, a true tattletale!  Are you kidding me?!  Our feet weren’t even on the seat anymore!  Anyway, we got a good laugh out of that later…and when he got off the train in Bologna, he looked at us all smirky and said, “Ciao!  Ciao!”  About an hour later, when we got off the train, we decided to go ahead and get our return ticket home…so glad we did because that was when we saw that the last train left at 6:36!  Boo!  We really wanted to be there in the evening, but there was no train to take us back to Florence.  We immediately got onto the water ferry to take a tour of the Grand Canal, which is also called Venice’s Main Street.  Well, something went wrong and we ended up in Lido, a beach outside of Venice!  We still don’t know what happened, but after some very confusing Italian directions, we ended up back in Venice.  We wondered the streets until we found a good lunch option, and oh was it good!  I had seafood pasta that included whole-bodied shrimp, eyes and all, along with mussels, squid, and octopus.  The seafood was so fresh and whatever sauce was over it and the pasta was so tasty…a lovely lunch!  Then we got lost in Venice, which everyone says you will do and they’re not kidding, but finally found our way back to the Canal, where we met a gondolier who developed quite a crush on Allison.  Crush or not, he would not come down on the price of a gondola ride, so we kept walking and found some gelati, which is not hard to do in Italy.  What will I do without my daily gelati when I get back to the States?!  I keep trying a different flavor every time–so far I’ve had pistacchio, chocolate chip, chocolate, Nutella, melon, strawberry, lemon, raspberry, mint chocolate chip, and others I can’t even remember!  It’s so good!!!  Ok, back to Venice…after more wondering through the city, it was time for the train ride back to Florence.  We were walking to the train and realized there was no “carrozzo” number, which has been on every other train ticket we have had.  We asked the guy and he said that we had “posto non garantito” which means you are not guaranteed a seat on the train.  How did that happen?!  No idea.  We didn’t think it would be a big deal, but we ended up sitting on the floor for three hours after getting kicked out of every seat we tried.  How did THEY get tickets with seats and we didn’t?!  Anyway, it ended up being a blast because we met a lady and her daughter–Mary Rossi–who is from Ohio and she was a blast.  We had our own little party in the luggage area on the floor of a train!  She had a little “goodie bag” of wine, so we partook and enjoyed ourselves tremendously, talking like old friends.  I love when things like that happen…divine moments with strangers!  Anyway, we arrived back at the hostel around 10pm, went to bed around midnight, and now I’m off with Maria to bike through the hills of Chianti for my last day in Italy!

Ciao, bellas…

Viva Italia!

Oh wow, I have had such a lovely time in this city…it’s my favorite so far!  I met the girls yesterday afternoon and we hit the ground running.  We went to the market for a little shopping…so much fun to have some company!  I bought a custom-made leather belt for 20Euro…are you kidding me?!  How fabulous!  I also bought a dress and some random bracelets and things…cheap and so cute!  After the market, we went to Piazzale Michelangelo to watch the sun set…gorgeous but it was a bit cloudy.  We came back to the hostel, changed clothes, and went out dancing at the disco in our hostel…fun fun!

Hostels are completely new to me, but it’s been really fun!  There are six beds in our room, so the four of us have two other random roommates.  It feels like camp!  The hostel is crawling with backpackers and travelers, but it’s nice to be around people like us.  This place has everything–internet cafe, bar, dancing, breakfast, tours, spa, you name it!  Allison and Maria said this is not exactly typical of all hostels, so I think I may be spoiled to hostels in the future!

This morning we met a tour group through the hostel and went to the fresh food market in Florence.  Our guide was an Australian culinary student here in Italy, so he was very knowledgeable about foods and cooking, etc.  We got to taste green olives, marinated garlic, sun dried tomatoes, formaggio with pear mustard (my favorite!), parmiaggiano reggiano with berry jam, Tuscan bread with olive oil, salami, and 15 year old balsamic vinegar.  They were all so delicious…we couldn’t get enough!  I have never tasted antipasti like that before.  We spent two and a half hours there, then went for a cappuccino before sightseeing the rest of the day.  We saw Giotto’s Tower, Santa Maria di Fiore Cathedral, the Duomo, and my favorite, the statue of David at the Accademia Gallery.  He literally took my breath away…such perfection!  I must study Michelangelo when I get home…I have seen so much of his art while in Italy and it moves me each time.  After seeing those sights, we walked to Ponte Vecchio where I sat on the bridge overlooking the river and had some gelati with Allison while Maria and Rosiemara shopped.  After that, we went to the Piazzale Michelangelo again to see the sunset with no clouds…this was a perfect day!  It rained last night, so the weather today was cool and windy…such a nice change from the hot sweaty weather I have had every other day of this trip.  The sunset was lovely…we watched the mountains swallow up the sun in a matter of moments.  As soon as it slipped away, everyone on the piazza applauded!  So much fun!  We caught the bus back to town and enjoyed a dinner outside before heading back in to the hostel.  We all have early mornings tomorrow:  Allison and I are going to Venice–yay!–and Maria and Rosiemara are going to the beach.  I have come alive again with these girls…I was having a difficult time just before I met back up with them.  Six solid days was a long time to spend in a foreign country by myself.  It’s amazing how these things work out!  I didn’t even know these girls three weeks ago!  That is where there is so much organic beauty in travelling alone…no set agenda, and flexibility and spontaneity reign supreme!

Buon giorno, Toscana!

I took the train to Siena this morning…Tuscany is quite a change from Rome!  I am enjoying the slower pace already.  Siena does not have much to see or do, but I have been quietly wondering the streets and eating delicious food.  For lunch I had a caprese salad that will put all future caprese salads to shame…oh, the mozzarella!  The tomatoes!  The olive oil!  Then I had a primi (first course) of tortellini that was stuffed with cheese and spinach and topped with fresh tomatoes, nuts, and some kind of buttery sauce that was to-die-for.  It was the best meal I have had yet!  Afterwards, I climbed to the top of the city tower–400 steps!–and the view was absolutely incredible.  The city of Siena is tiny (60000 pop) and then all you can see are rolling hills and mountains in the distance.  Gorgeous!  I have to admit that I am ready for some company…I’m a bit over myself!  🙂  Tomorrow I take the bus from Siena to Florence to meet Allison and Maria, so that’s perfect timing!  We will spend four nights in Florence, and then I will go to Milan to take a short flight back to Madrid, and I will fly home on Wednesday, July 22.  I really do not want to go back to Madrid–not very good memories of my last few hours there!–but it’s really difficult to change the flight, so I am just going to go with it and hang tight(er) to my bags this time!  Perhaps I can meet up with some of my Pueblo Ingles friends who live in the city…

Less than one week until I am home–I can’t believe it!

Ciao ciao…

Ciao, Roma!

Ok, I have had an amazing last few days here in Rome, but I admit that I am ready for a change of pace!  I have been walking all over this city…I know it pretty well by now!  On Monday, I went to all over the city, but my favorite thing was St. Peter’s Basilica.  The church literally takes your breath away.  I gasped when I walked in, truly.  I also paid to do the climb to the top of the dome, which was worth every penny and every step.  I met a lovely couple from Salt Lake City, and together we met Michael Bolton…how funny is that!  He was very gracious to take pics with us, and he even asked me how the drought was going in Atlanta!  The view from the dome will stay in my memory.  I can’t get over it.

Yesterday was an awesome day in Pompeii and at Mt. Vesuvius.  I took one of the superfast trains to Naples–what would take three hours by car took 1 hr and 15 min!  The tour group was lots of fun and the guide, Andrei, was awesome.  He was very smart, but also made the tour entertaining.  Pompeii is incredible–covered in lava from an eruption of Vesuvius in 79AD, and excavated in the 1930s.  It is like a snapshot into life centuries ago!  We had pizza in Naples (which is where pizza was invented!) and then hiked up Vesuvius.  I am SO GLAD I added that to the tour…it was amazing!  I met the nicest people in my group and on the hike…it’s amazing how quickly people will talk to you when they can tell you’re alone!  In my group was a couple from the UK, a lady from Greece, a couple of South Africa, and two women from the States.  We had a lovely time.

Today I went to the Vatican…unbelievable!   There truly are no words for such gradeur.  I also went into the Pantheon, which I had not done yet, and it was stunning.  Everything here is so HUGE!  After that, I decided to treat myself to a massage…my muscles ached all over from the carrying of my bags, all the walking, and sleeping on not-so-comfy beds for two weeks.  The massage was awesome!  Funny thing, though…they’re not so private like masseurs are in the states.  You are all out there!  HA!  I am not too bashful with these things, especially when dealing with a professional, so it was ok…but I am sure that a lot of others would have freaked out!

I am going to spend my last night in Rome enjoying a pizza from a neighborhood restaurant, a glass of wine at Piazza Navona, and then packing my things.  I am going to take the train to Siena tomorrow morning and stay there (at Hotel Italia) for one night before going to Florence to meet the girls.  I only have one more week of my trip…it’s gone by so fast!  I hate to say it, but I am not ready to come home!  I love you all–truly truly truly–but Europe is blowing my mind!

Organic Roma

Yesterday was one of the most amazing days of my life!  I got a full night’s sleep, showered, dressed, and had coffee and a pastry at the cafe across from my hotel, and then headed to the Forum and the Coliseum.  Those are breathtaking sites that I can’t even begin to describe.  It is so amazing that Julius Caesar walked those streets.  I saw his tomb, and there are fresh flowers on it.  I can’t get over the history.  The Coliseum was dedicated in 80AD, and yesterday it was covered in tourists admiring its grandeur.  I listened to Rick Steves’s free podcasts and he walked me through both sites.  I learned so much!  After I finished with those, I decided to rent a bike and go to Appia Antica, which is one of the earliest and most important Roman roads. As I approached the bike rental location across from the Coliseum, there was a backpacker there inquiring about a bike for himself.  I heard him speaking English, so we started talking.  He had no plan on where to go on his bike, and when I said that I was going to Appia Antica, he asked if he could join me.  We spent hours biking down the road and then back.  We stopped on the way back for a cold beverage, and decided we weren’t ready for the day to be over.  We went exploring around the old cobblestone streets, and while crossing an intersection, my bike got a flat tire and I was thrown from it–in the middle of the sidewalk!  I only have a scratched up foot and a wounded pride, thankfully.  We walked the bikes back to the rental place, and decided to go for a walk along the Tiber River.  It was an amazing site.  When it got dark, we saw St. Peter’s Basilica and Castle Sant’Angelo glowing in the Roman sky.  Breathtaking.  We dined at a restaurant recommended to us by two old Italian women, and we were the only English speakers in the restaurant–no other tourists!  Yes!  I had canneloni and he had spaghetti carbonara–both were divine.  After dinner we went back to the river and shared a bottle of wine with a lovely view of Ponte Sant’Angelo…while we were talking, an impromptu fireworks show took place over the river! Unbelievable!  I was so excited to have someone to share these experiences with…I took very few pictures because my camera battery was dead, but it was kind of nice to just experience the day instead of photographing it.  I hope that I have made  a true friend in Arturo, who is originally from Brazil but now lives in London, where he had to return today.  I was so very thankful for his company and the organic progression of the day.  That day was how I hoped this trip would be…I can’t wait to have more experiences like those!

Today I hope to visit the Vatican and St. Peter’s Basilica.  Crossing my fingers for a manageable queue!

Love to you all…

Italia!

Oh what a time I have had the last couple of days!  I hesitate to even write about it because I know it will upset a few of you at home who are checking in on me.  Yesterday after we returned to Madrid from Cazorla, I was pickpocketed on the Metro.  My wallet was stolen, containing my credit cards, driver’s license, and about 70 Euro, which equals about $110.  It has been a 24-hour mess that I have had to deal with, calling all the companies, cancelling the cards (the asshole went to an ATM right away and tried to withdraw 300Euro), getting emergency cards sent to Italy, not Spain, which was from where I was calling.  MESS MESS MESS.  But I think it’s all working out now…my emergency card arrived today at my hotel in Rome, which is pretty amazing considering I was robbed at 8pm last night.  Now I can access my checking account, and on Monday the AmEx office in Piazza di Spagna (Spanish Steps) will give me an emergency credit card so that I will have access to that account as well.  After it happened in Madrid, thankfully I was with my wonderful new friends from PI, so I had a tremendous network of support.  If I had been alone, I can’t imagine how much worse the situation would have been for me.  Maria and I went out last night after I got everything situated (three hours on the phone!) and met up with our companions from PI…how lovely to meet up with friends in Madrid, Spain!  Some of the Spaniards came with their families and then there were several of us Anglos as well…we had a blast!  Fernando Purple may be one of my favorite people I have ever met.  He cracks me up!  I taught him to say YIKES, and he says it all the time…so funny!  We taught the Spaniards a lot of funny expressions:  going commando, laugh my ass off, holla, I’m done!, sign me up, and other various and sundry curse words, random idioms, and silly things.  They taught us a few Spanish expressions of their own…hilarious!  I hope that was my first of several Pueblo Ingles experiences…

Now on to Italy!  I’m in Italy!  AAAHHH!  I have wanted to visit this country for as long as I can remember.  I landed at 9:30 this morning from Spain and even though I was completely exhuasted (Maria and I got back from being out in Plaza del Sol at 3:15…I had to catch my taxi at 4:45 to the airport…) I made a pretty good day out of it.  I saw Plaza Venezia, had a lvoely sandwich of prosciutto and mozarella, and then walked from my hotel to Campo di Fiori, Piazza Navona, the Pantheon, the Trevi Fountain, and finally to the Spanish Steps…then I walked back.  I want to do it again in the evening to see this amazing sites lit up!  I asked my front desk friends to recommend a restaurant for dinner,a nd he sent me to Trattoria Masquerada, right aroudnt he corner.  OH WOW…it was delicious!  I had gnocchi in tomato sauce with slices of veal.  It was my first meal alone, and the restaurant was adorable with its outdoor seating, so I made the most of it.  I read Mark Twain’s travel journal that he wrote when he was in Europe about a hundred years ago, sipped delicious wine, enjoyed my dinner, and even ordered tiramisu for dessert.  I met a lovely old man who was also eating alone who shared with me his wine with peaches, and it was very tasty.  Just be prepared for me to be a little thicker coming home than I was when I left…I can’t so no to the food here!

My only apprehension (now that the money ordeal is passed…) is getting a bit lonesome.  When you round a corner and stumble upon an ancient beautiful monument, you tend to want to have someone to whom you can exclaim, “OH WOW!”  But I did fine today, so hopefully tomorrow and the following days will be the same.  I am so excited that Allison and Maria are meeting me in Florence in a few days…we’re going to have so much fun and it’s good for me to know that I will have them for company in case I do get lonesome.

I think of you all the time…thank you so much for being prayerful and supportive of me as I embark upon the most challenging but most exciting thing I have ever done in my life!

Ciao Bella!