top of page
Search
  • Writer's pictureTim Madison

EUROPE 2023 - Part 2

Updated: May 26, 2023




London – May 1


The locks at Camden Town

Our last real day in London and we don't really have a plan. I suggest maybe train out to Hampton Court to spy on the Tudor ghosties but instead we go to discover the edginess of Camden Town. It isn’t far by way of tube from our digs in Bloomsbury. Camden has been reinvented several times, the most profound being during the industrial revolution when it ceased being a baronial estate and became a terminal for the railroad. Carts would gather here to take goods off the trains then move them into London. Later, a canal system added to the transport options. It was then an unfashionable collection of rough business and tough characters. Today we see this as a portion of London captured by counter-culture factions. There's a jazz club that features top talent as well as punkish dance clubs. There's also a private fight club dedicated to boxing with gourmet coffee and cakes. There's a kind of permanent street market full of trinkets, souvenirs, and counterfeit copies of fashion items. Scads of booths offering street food, most of it looking mildly suspicious. I did spot two that were hawking health food. They looked alien, out of their element. Even though we didn't indulge, the aromatic sensations from these street vendors was kind of seductive. Amy Winehouse lived here once upon a time. She hung out at Hawley Arms, her fave pub. There's a life sized bronze of her somewhere though we failed to run across it. We didn't have much of a reason to be in Camden except to satisfy some curiosity. We walked about, pushed through another crush of people, snapped some photos, then hopped the tube back to Bloomsbury where we had a bite of lunch at The Marquis of Granby, a very tidy pub, in the Bedford Square zone.



I should comment on our experience with the Underground, the Tube. It's an amazing wonder of transport to move people around the city in this way. It gets constant use, therefore shows a fair amount of wear and tear. It isn’t exactly a smooth ride. I most notice it in the crazy noises these trains make. Sometimes I imagine a gigantic cheese grater is grinding the cars like a wedge of Parmigiano. Then there's the low lonesome howl of a dozen Banshees being strangled with an anchor chain. In what sounds like the whole train is derailing, there's the noise of 1000 empty trash cans being crushed beneath the wheels. If I had to ride routinely, I would use hearing protection because it really is deafening enough to be dangerous at times.

A food display in Camden Town

Our evening meal is back in Covent Garden at Giovanni's. It's expensive but we love it. Last Thursday, when we were there, we asked for a reservation for Monday, today, thinking it would be no sweat. But no, May 1 is part of the 3 day Bank Holiday so we have to take a late seating. When we were here in 2019, I don't think we experienced the effects of a Bank Holiday. People really take advantage of it. Pino seats us immediately as the restaurant is not full. CK has an orange salad again with Ravioli. I go for the pasta e fagioli followed by penne pasta with wild boar ragu. Next to us are three folks from Canada, Ibrahim, Jaime, and Masa. We spend an excellent evening chatting them up and trading pleasantries. We mention to Pino that we’re going to Italy tomorrow, so he gives us some connections to make in Venice. One of them is a restaurant and we’ll simply have to get reservations for it.

Our plane is at 10:35 am which means we’ll get to Rome at a decent hour to have a rest before an evening walk out into the city. Meanwhile in London, the news informs us that there are 3 bank holidays in May plus coronation, of course. We're getting gone just in time.


Back at Giovanni's




London to Rome - May 2



Goodbye Tavistock Hotel. We may not be back. Your rooms are too small and stuffy. British Air promises to carry us to Rome. But first we need to find the plane. We're up early to grab the Tube to Heathrow. There's a start. One hour on the Piccadilly Line gets us to Heathrow. The train dumps us out in the deepest pit beneath the terminal. We seem to ascend for 15 minutes through this towering monument to transportation before we reach departure check-in level. There's time for a coffee and a whisky before going to the gate. I indulge. 11:02 am wheels are up and off of British soil. I try my usual thing when in flight mode, to fall into semi-consciousness. I would sleep if I could but without serious drugs I can't seem to manage it. The crew brings the drink cart so I have a rum instead.


This must be Switzerland

Rain in Rome

Wheels down in Rome, 2:02 pm. Now that Brexit is a thing, we have to go through a passport check. No big deal this time because there was no queue. But I can see how this can be annoying if there is one. The hotel is sending a driver for us! Yay! We find him easily and soon we're off hurtling down the highway toward downtown Rome. The sky is getting dark at 2:45 pm. Looks like something is gonna happen and it will probably be wet. Clouds begin to open up on us a few minutes later. We slosh into town amidst a downpour. Our car, gliding past cold, wet tourists lends us even more appreciation for having a driver today.


Our room at the hotel is nice. Much larger than the London joint. Much more modern, more comfy bed, excellent bath. The downer is that we cannot see out. There is a window but it is 9 ft above the floor. A remote control moves the shade up and down. Zero view whatsoever. And the elevator is absolutely microscopic. 1 person with two bags would fill it. I think we'll be using the stairs.


The Pantheon


Piazza del Popolo

This hotel is the Antica Albergo del Sole Al Pantheon. The Pantheon is literally right outside the front door. After a short rest we peek out to be sure the rain had passed. No more rain so off we stumble to explore a bit. With puddles everywhere we must watch for scooters and taxis aiming to splash us. We have to be at the Piazza del Popolo early tomorrow morning for a tour. We decide to scout it out. Between Google and our paper tourist map we find it easily. This plaza features an Egyptian Obelisk created under the reign of Ramses II. It was brought to Rome by Augustus after defeating Marc Antony and Cleopatra.


A baroque church along Via del Corso


Along the way there are half a dozen churches. CK wants to visit all of them but actually invades only two. "You're going to be busy," smirks I, "Rome has more than 900 churches." She doesn't laugh. I am alarmed. Along the line of more earthly ambitions we look into half a dozen gelato shops. All but one is selling crap gelato. I saw better quality gelato in London, so far that is. This is not right. I suspect this is the work of the Prince of Darkness.


Flooring detail

It’s been a long travel day. I gotta crash. We’re doing Pompeii tomorrow.



Rome / Pompeii – May 3



Up early and out in the street to walk 1.3 miles to the Piazza del Popolo where we are to meet our tour group. We are so early that no coffee shops are open yet, a fact we discover on our way there. All we have is the tea pot in our hotel room. The army has taken over the plaza preparing celebrations for the 162nd anniversary of its existence. Who commemorates a date like that? 100, 125, 150 ,yeah maybe, but 162? Any excuse for a party? This is Italy so I shouldn’t be surprised?

Piazza del Popolo

Eventually we are assigned our group and bus. Bus seats are made for midgets and children, of course. We both feel overly folded and squeezed. 1 hour 20 minutes highway time to the first rest stop: Cassino, site of some miserable WWII battles. We still have another hour plus of driving to get to Pompeii. This thing is a 3 hour bus ride from Rome, but no surprise.

Our guide

Pompeii has been excavated to a considerable degree but much of it remains buried. Excavation began 1748, they say, but this was not a scientific dig. It was really a process of looting. Actual archeological work began at the end of 19th century. Every year they discover new time capsule items from 2,000 years ago. We discover something else: massive crowds. We had faint hope that tourist pressure would be somewhat tame, this being shoulder season. Not so, sadly.

The scene at the ruins is chaotic with several buses and tour groups dodging, passing, and merging with each other. Our tour guide is dressed in beige. Can't keep an eye on him in the crowd. When he arrives at a point of interest he stops, gives a short explanation, invites everyone to 'enjoy' and 'take your time to take pictures'. 30 seconds later he's hoofing it to the next POI. If I “ take my time” to examine a ruin or take a photo he's a nightmare to find again as he disappears into the flowing humanity. I make two hurried shots then I'm hustling to catch up.




The amphitheater is beyond the wall to the right

We are shown some ancient fountains, stepping stones, graffiti, amphitheater, carvings, a plaster cast of an unfortunate teenage girl who worked in a massage parlor, a brothel, a temple to Jupiter, and a modern bronze statue. This is about a two hour, very superficial skimming of Pompeii. It is quite a large site, much of it is still buried so I didn’t expect to see all of it. But I was expecting to see the best mosaics, private gardens, and painted interiors just like the guide books show, right? We saw some of Pompeii but we didn't see the spectacular things.




An ancient restaurant


The crush of tourists is again something to note in that I feel I'm spending as much or more time dodging people as I am actually being a tourist. Ironically, or not, the biggest traffic jam is in front of Pompeii’s brothel. What people want to see are the drawings on the wall, depictions of available activities that served as a kind of menu for the foreign visitors of the time who did not speak the local language. The queue to get into this space is at least 20 minutes. Time spent inside, 2 minutes, max. We feel like cattle pushed through a chute. I’m afraid the photos aren’t so good.






One of many public water fountains


Vesuvius in the background

The Lady of the Massage Parlor

I keep imagining that the tour will fan out, that we’ll be moving out to less crowded areas of the ruins but this is not to be. Our guide announces that the tour is over and we are hustled out to the exit. We're back on the bus about 2 pm but they propose to drive us up the side of the volcano. It's only 4,200 feet to the top of Vesuvius. The bus stops short of the summit where we get out to make a short, steep walk to the edge of the crater. It costs 10 euro to get on the path. Tickets are not sold on the mountain. So, we see some folks milling about, frustrated having driven up the mountain only to discover they can't continue on foot. The trail is wide and fairly firm. There is a steady breeze. As we ascend we can easily see the zone where the mountain collapsed in 79 CE and spread out to create new coastline. I made some photos but I think they will be for evidence only. There wasn't much about it that was photogenic. There were eagle level views of Naples but the haze obscures much of it. Fireworks are being launched over one of the ridges producing multiple explosions. The pyrotechs are practicing ahead of a celebration in honor of the local futbol team which seems to be winning and the townsfolk are fizzy about it. Wind is blowing a steady 25 knots at the top. We get a peek inside the crater and observe some steam vents. There are also remains of the funicular railway that ran up to the crater from 1903 to 1944 when an eruption destroyed it. We cannot stay long at the top as it is feeling quite icy in the wind. We didn’t bring any winter clothing for this.



Vesuvius Crater

Hopping around an active volcano was not on the bucket list but we're glad we did it. Now when we need a conversation starter we can bring it up. Conversely, if we need to put our guests to sleep we'll bring out the Vesuvius photos.


Back on the bus about 4 pm. Back in Rome 7:30. We grab a bite and soak up a bottle of wine at Trattoria Gran Sasso, a nice place with linen napkins. Curiously the pasta was far more al dente than Pino would serve in Covent Garden. CK’s carbonara is too rico and she cannot finish it. On the walk home we search again for a decent gelato but fail. There are 4 shops but all feature the fake stuff. The only good one closed early.


Tomorrow we get a later start. I think it’s a tour of the Colosseum.

Rome – May 4


This hotel bears away the prize for best breakfast

We have a 10 am meeting this morning for a tour through the Colosseum. We have about a 30 minute walk. It’s nice to walk in Rome before the tourists are awake and the businesses are still closed. Closed like all the coffee shops at this hour. You know Rome doesn’t even have Starbucks yet. Actually Starbucks IS planning to open its first shop soon. The locals think this is a travesty. We arrive way too early. Our group doesn’t move for an hour.


Colosseum underground


Inga is our guide for the first 30 minutes. She is from Estonia but has been in Italy for many years. Our “underground” tour features the labyrinth of passages and chambers beneath the arena level. This area was only opened two years ago. She congratulates us on getting in. "These tickets sell out 1 minute after they appear on the website." I suspect the travel agents and tour companies of snapping them up. That's how we got them.


X-ray security scans our bags twice. Twice we walk through metal detectors. Twice my knees set them off however they don’t frisk me. There’s even a passport check by a bored looking policeman. I mean the look on his face was probably boredom but it could have been plain old garden variety contempt. No Buongiorno from this guy. The security guys decide we’re harmless so we part with Inga and she hands us off to another guide, whose name I don’t recall at the moment. She takes us down into the inner workings of the old Colosseum.


Our guide is working hard

The "underground" area is restricted to minimal traffic. While we're there we aren't fighting mobs. We have plenty of opportunity to look around and make photos. We are told much more about this ruin than we'll ever remember. For instance, it was originally named Flavius Double Theater. It was financed by Vespasian's plundering of Jerusalem, by a fee he placed on using the public toilets, and by selling the urine thereof which was used in making soap. Slaves provided the manpower and much of the engineering. They finished in in 10 years. The performances and executions were free to the public. This was the concept of 'bread and circuses'; maintenance of political peace through entertainment. It works today just like it did 2000 years ago except that our 'games' aren't free.



Our “underground” guide hands us back to Inga. I was curious about how they managed naval battles so I asked her. I got a detailed answer in the form of a reasoned hypothesis, something I've been unable to find elsewhere. But I won't bore you, kind reader, with the answer unless you ask for it! Inga gives us a brief tour of the Roman Forum.






I learned why some Roman buildings survived the centuries more intact than others. It is because they were chosen for re-purposing as a Christian church. Such is the case with the Old Roman Forum and the Pantheon. They are in pretty good shape considering their age. Wait. That sounds very much like Senior Citizen Speak. Inga has general advice for travelers in Italy: Make the taxi driver start the meter! Driver may insist he will charge a flat rate. The only flat rate is back and forth to airport. Don’t accept any trinket that anyone hands you. That is the beginning of a scam that involves bullying. Inga informs us about low tourist season. It doesn't exist in Italy. This agrees with our experience. Oddly there seems to be plenty of tables available in restaurants. This is probably because there are so many of them. There are dozens of bars and restaurants with in 1 mile of our hotel.

The Spanish Steps

We leave the Roman Forum with the idea to hike over to see what the Spanish Steps are all about. After about 25 minutes walking we arrive at a charming plaza or, more accurately, it would be a charming plaza if it weren’t packed with humanity cheek by jowel. There’s a large fountain here but we literally cannot see it for the people. The staircase is adorned with fancy monkeys with cellphones and azaleas. Oceans of azaleas. This is early May and the blooms are in peak glory. We are seeing the Spanish Steps on it’s best day of the year. It is a zoo. We see faces here from all over the globe. Some are in flashy clothes and makeup to do fashion photo shoots. This is a mob scene but nothing like our next stop.


Trevi Fountain

The Mob at Trevi Fountain

Graffiti at Trevi Fountain

From the Spanish Steps it's about 15 minutes of walking to the Trevi Fountain. This is an enormous water feature placed here in the 18th century to mark the spot where the Main Aqueduct terminated in the city. People sit and watch this thing like they do when their at home watching TV. Oh, that can’t be right but that’s what it looks like. This is a prime spot to watch other people in my opinion, and that might be what they’re doing. In our case, the crowd is too much. We can say we’ve been to Trevi Fountain and punch that box on the list but we can’t say we had a wistful romantic moment there. Not gonna happen. I take that back. If you’re in Rome and you want a peaceful, intimate experience with the Trevi Fountain, pick a day when it is pouring rain. Grab some large, sturdy umbrellas, some towels to sit on, and a bottle of wine. Then you can probably have a nice, quiet time there.

Back at our hotel we pass the lineup for The Pantheon which we have yet to visit even though it is right outside our hotel’s front door. There are a thousand people in that line. I think the trouble is that the Pantheon is a church and the entrance is free. Free means a queue from here to Munich. Gah.


For the evening meal we walk a mile out to the Trastevere neighborhood. We select a likely spot and order some food. It is very good. I deem it better than The Gran Sasso last night. We got chatty with some ladies from Switzerland seated next to us. They were very pleasant company and made for a lovely evening. We hit some worthy gelato shops on the mile walk back to the hotel. All told, a terrific day in Rome.


Street art in Trastevere

Rome – May 5


Romantic glamour at the Pantheon

We're up with the crows this morning to grab a taxi at 6:15 am. The driver is working early hoping to get a fare to the airport. Poor fellow only gets an 8 euro trip to the Vatican from us. But he makes it as exciting as possible with high speed antics through streets of medieval width, his proximity alarm beeping continuously. We presume he wants to live to see tomorrow so we have some trust in his skills.

Rome has many fountains, including trash fountains

At the meeting point we find our tour guide as planned. This is another pre-booked group tour with 'skip-the-line' features and other faint expressions of exclusivity. For instance, we are promised a sumptuous and peaceful breakfast in the Vatican Garden. We are presented with a paper plate of cold eggs, cold sausage, cold potatoes, and day old croissant while a tractor provides the ambiance of heavy equipment as the lawn is mowed behind us. Only the coffee is warm. This is a breakfast fit for a monk, which is appropriate, I suppose. We left most of it for the pigeons who were on the attack. These birds were bold and determined. They would not wait for people to leave a table before snatching food from a plate. The gulls had slightly more couth. They waited until everyone had left the breakfast area before making their run.

Get your Vatican tickets here

Our guide for the day

Our guide attempts to describe the vastness of the Vatican Museum; if one were spend 60 seconds gazing at each item it would add up to 12 years of art appreciation. Yeah, I don't think we'll be seeing everything today. We are ordered to be silent in the Sistine Chapel so the guide does the show & tell explanation of this in the garden next to the museum of paintings.

Before we enter the museum we are processed through the x-ray security / weapons detectors. I can't help noticing the enormous ticket hall we are in. Multiple windows looking like bank tellers are prepared to do some serious credit card scanning. I don't know how much they haul in but the Vatican budget in 2022 was 823 million euro. They already have our money. No, they’ve had it since 2019. That’s when we reserved this ticket. Covid didn’t kill us so we’re taking revenge! Once we get into the galleries we are herded again at a steady pace but probably slower than our minders would like because of traffic. The crowd of people here is often shoulder to shoulder. Clearly there are so many skip-the-line tix that this is now forming its own queue which will require an even steeper fee to avoid. The experience we get is the experience of being here. We cannot contemplate artistic beauty in the normal way. Instead we meditate upon being immersed in the titanic enormity of unthinkable quantities of priceless art and allow the symbolic tidal wave of Papal Loot to wash over our heathen souls or what blackened bits are left of them. The Popes undoubtedly inspired the Ferenghi Culture of Acquisition and spawned countless Nifflers if you follow my meaning, you readers of JK Rowling.

We are being herded again



Laocoon

One of the most remarkable pieces in possession of the Vatican is the Greek marble ‘Laocoön’ from the 1st century BC. It really is stunning. We are funneled, yes funneled is the perfect word, into the Sistine Chapel. It's actually bigger than I imagined. No photos. Women must cover their shoulders and knees. Silence!! This is a Holy Place!! But there's a lot of talking going on in here. 2500 people or more are being pushed through this room every 5 minutes. Expecting them to be quiet is kinda silly. Then a guy on an amplified public address system tells us to stop talking and be quiet. About half obey for about 30 seconds before resuming their non-silence. The no-photos thing is being monitored more closely by stern looking guys in suits. If anyone pulls out a cellphone one or more of them move in. We are being watched. Regarding the painted ceiling: I wonder how one was supposed to view it? Were couches provided for the Popes so they could lie back and look at it because simply cranking your neck to look up is not very comfortable or practical. I should have asked the guide about this but didn’t.

The tour ends at the entrance to St Peter's Basilica. CK has arrived at the world's biggest church! All others must now recede into pale obscurity when compared to this titanic temple of modern mythology. We're surrounded by corpses of popes and saints whose effigies in stone float above the floor as giants, many times life size. Except St Jerome. He's dressed up in nice clothing as he lies in a glass box. He's wearing a mask that gives him the appearance of sculpted Marzipan. I'm certain that the Vatican could make tons more cash with a Chamber of Horrors Tour. You know they have more corpses like St Jerry hidden somewhere who could be put to work.


Bernini's altar

St. Jerome

We leave the Vatican behind. It is good to say that we’ve been there, done that. It isn’t far back to the Pantheon and this afternoon is our last chance to get inside.


The Pantheon, being free, has a long line but it seems to move fast. We're seeing it midday so it is well lit by sunlight through the oculus. The sun throws a glorious beam squarely on a painting of some saint or other. I'm on a mission to spot the tomb of Rafael and Queen Margherita. Queen M is a particular culinary pilgrimage since it was she who lent her name to the Pizza inspired by the Italian flag: red (sauce), white (mozzarella), and green (basil leaves). Rafael was the brilliant innovative painter of the Renaissance period who died in 1520 at the age of 37.

The Pantheon



Queen Margherita will always be associated with pizza

Next lunch with beer and, of course, a Margherita Pizza. The beer was good. The salad was fresh with excellent tomatoes. The pizza was sadly a masterpiece of indifference.

Later that evening our meal fortunes improved at the Buca di Ripetta. We soaked up a bottle of white wine from Tuscany. CK had a ravioli with orange sauce. I sampled another version of pasta e fagioli and a plate of fresh gnocchi in cream sauce. Afterward we enjoyed a moonlight stroll on our last night in Rome. Of course I had to stop for a gelato!

Roma to Firenze – May 6


Florence Main Station

Old Italian stones New paths to be walked upon This Roman world Curiosity Punching box on bucket list We move to Florence

We enjoyed our time in Rome. It was amazing to appear in places we've only seen in books and classrooms. We didn't toss the one coin into the Trevi Fountain, the one that insures a return to Rome. That doesn't mean we won't. We just don't have foreseeable plans to do it. In my opinion, if we do return we will need the guidance of a person who knows Rome's secrets, the fascinating bits that hide from the average tourist like us, the things that travel agents and Rick Steves doesn't know.

Ponte Vecchio

We're taking a train to Tuscany this morning. We should arrive by early afternoon. We wish. Rome's Tiburtina rail station, platform 6. There is chaos. "Guasto alla linea elletrica." This means "Electrical line breakdown". People are being dumped out of their trains here. Everyone is chattering in worried tones. Our bubble of ignorance is annoying at this moment. On the schedule board our train keeps adding delay time. Result: we wait. We become very familiar with the cracked concrete, pigeons, and petrified chewing gum blobs on platform 6. Long story short, our train arrives 3 hours and 20 minutes late. We are scheduled to meet a tour guide in the lobby of our hotel at 3 pm. That is not going to happen. Next paragraph I shall report our progress upon arrival in Florence.

The Duomo

The main station in Firenze is another mob scene. This looks like we are here in high season. Things cannot get crazier than this. We find the taxi stand after 10 minutes searching. There are 60 people in line ahead of us. This looks bad but the line moves quickly. 15 minutes later we're loaded up and off through town to Hotel degli Orafi, right next to the Arno River a block away from Ponte Vecchio. And the tour guide we had scheduled is still there waiting for us. After tossing the bags in the room we're off down the street for a very personal guided walk around town. He points out several things I promptly forget except for the bronze of Perseus and Medusa, the Duomo, and the Academia Galeria where we get to view Michelangelo's Prisoners and "The" David up close and personal. I'm too beat to give this the write up it deserves but I will mention some things I learned about the David sculpture. His hands appear large and out of proportion because of where it was originally planned to be placed, in an elevated position in the big church, the Duomo. It was meant to be seen from a low angle. When viewed in this way the hands appear more proportional. Secondly, behind his left foot is a tree stump which is actually part of the leg. This is there to provide strength to the structure. If the statue were to be supported only by the ankle shapes it would collapse.


"Prisoner"

"Prisoner"


Leonardo is our guide's name. He's friendly and knowledgeable. There are only 3 of us which is a refreshing change from the groups we had in Rome. He tells us to visit the Duomo's museum instead of the church itself because that's where all the good stuff is. Also tells us where to find tombs of Galileo, Michelangelo, Machiavelli, and the opera maestro Rossini: all in the Balsilica of Santa Croce. We're also told of an old apothecary full of treasures and where to find it. He even shows us where the best gelato shop is. Great tour. 5 stars.

Leonardo


Trattoria Casalinga

Our evening meal is at Trattoria La Casalinga. We soak up a fine bottle of Pino Grigio and eat too much. I think we're in love with Florence.




Florence - May 7


We have to catch the tour bus at 8 am but it is across town, too far to walk at that hour. After a quick plunge into the sumptuous Hotel Orfali breakfast a cab flicks us across the cobbles to the meeting place. It's good that we're getting out of Florence given that this is the day of The Florence Marathon. The downtown area will be disrupted with crowd control, closed streets, and general chaos. Taxis will be tough to get after 9 am. That's what the hotel tells us. If all goes to plan we won't care because we'll be in Siena and San Gimignano.

Hotel degli Orfali breakfast room. I'm about to be interrogated.

We're loaded into bus seats made for pygmies and the otherwise vertically challenged just as we were for each one of these guided tours except for Leonardo's yesterday. After an hour plus we arrive in Siena. Lorenzo, our guide, gives a detailed description of the rivalry between Siena and Florence in the middle ages. Suffice it to say there were several nasty battles but Florence couldn't conquer Siena outright.

Lorenzo, our guide today

Siena, main square


Siena's Duomo






At the time of this rivalry Siena was poised to be one of the grandest cities in Europe comparable to Paris, Rome, and London, that is, until the plague took out 2/3rds of its population in the 14th century. It was left without builders, workers, and architects and so lost its power. This presented an opportunity for the Medici from Florence to move in and take over. They did so with help from Spanish allies. Siena retained many buildings from the 12th - 15th centuries because of the lack of population after the plague years. There simply wasn't the manpower to tear the old structures down.


Siena's biggest event is The Palio, a horse race happening July 2 and again August 16. Riders representing each of Siena's 9 neighborhoods compete for bragging rights in a race around the main square. Our guide explains that cheating in every conceivable way is the name of the game. The shenanigans include bribing jockeys to throw the race or switch teams. We won't be here for it, thank you very much.



Like Florence, this is another tidy town full of charming streets, bars, and ice cream shops. There's a considerable church here but we can't see inside because of Sunday services. We have a café and gelato on the square and a pleasant stroll through town. In the main square we meet, by purest chance, two people we know from our summer visits to Yellow Point Lodge in British Columbia, Lynn and Ray. What are the chances of that? It's crazy.


We are back on the bus for a short ride to a quintessentially cute Tuscan winery where we are served a delicious lunch and given a flight of wine samples. This lunch is excellent, much better than we expected. I mean to say, after our 'Breakfast in the Vatican Garden' I was prepared to abandon any expectations of adequacy for the remainder of the trip. This experience brought us back from the precipice of despair. We even bought some wine. At our table we meet two ladies from Leipzig! And we were just there 3 week ago.




San Gimignano




There's another stop on the tour, San Gimignano. This is a Tuscan town known for good medieval buildings, some of which are towers 130-170 ft tall. These towers were built to display wealth and power, also as defense against freelance bands of raiders who roamed the zone at the time. Once there were 72 of them. These days only 14 remain. The main streets of its town center are devoted to tourist shopping almost exclusively and there is every kind of shop imaginable. It is busy but in a pleasant way. More than one shop offers wild boar prosciutto & pecorino. I almost investigated the idea of sending home a cured boar ham. Gah. Maybe I should have. In the main square I discover a truly celestial flavor of gelato in a shop called Dondoli, which owns bragging rights as the World Champion Gelateria. I'm referring to an ice cream featuring flavors of pink grapefruit and sparkling wine. I think this is now my favorite ice cream.






Our evening meal is back in Florence at Osteria del Pavone (Peacock). Excellent cuisine and atmosphere. The staff is very welcoming and friendly. We made another rez for Monday night.



Party on the Ponte Vecchio


Florence - May 8

We have a schedule today. Time for a bullet list:

[] Sleep in [] Have a lazy breakfast [] Wander around Florence [] Find a café worthy of a mystery novel [] Go back to Osteria del Pavone for an evening gnosh


Perseus and Medusa



The Doors of Paradise on the Baptistry


Duomo front gate

Spoiler alert: We accomplished all of that. Strolling around Florence is very easy and pleasant. Florence is far more relaxing and accommodating than Rome but to be fair, Florence is far smaller. Florence has 400K population plus a massive tourist flow so there's nothing that cannot be had here. Not even Google can count the number bars, wine bars, bistros, cafés, and restaurants. The choices are bewildering. And every one of them seems to offer quality food, drink, and service.

There is a gelateria every 50 meters

The Florentine Bistecce is a thing

Candy shops? This is where sugar comes to die.

As we stroll about, we are consulting some pages torn out of a Rick Steves guide. The unhurried pace that goes with not being in a tour group is a welcome change. We really only have one goal today, and this is to locate the site of a medieval pharmacy or apothecary, the Officina Profumo-Farmaceutica di Santa Maria Novella. It once dispensed medicines and herbs under the guidance of the church but these days it features perfume, cologne, scented soaps, and other olfactory delights. It wasn't exactly easy to find. Our guidebook didn't mention it and Google was very secretive. We wandered toward its general location based on remembered comments from our first day with Leonardo, but we were missing the details. At the church of Santa Maria Novella a ticket seller gave us another direction to follow but we were still a bit fuzzy about it. I tried different words in Google search and this time it responded. A few minutes later we are standing in the most fragrant space in Florence or maybe anywhere. Liveried salespersons are standing by looking like Gucci ads. We're surrounded by tikkity-boo displays, floral arrangements very tre, and expert lighting, all in 18th century rooms. CK bought a bar of soap. I spied a well-heeled customer watching her order going into a spacious crate. She wasn't going to carry it away in a bag, no no no. This will be delivered! Si! We seriously don't belong here but the same is true for 90% of the people we see.

Entrance to the Farmaceutica





Perfumed soap-like objects that hang in the closet

We spotted a likely café, the kind in which James Bond could be found schmoozing his latest starlet. Bah. There was a big wait list so we went next door. CK ordered pizza which, again, was a bit disappointing. We are certain there is great pizza in Italy but we haven't found it yet. The more experiences we have like this gives me to think that the pizza I make at home is not bad at all. After a brief rest back at the Hotel we're out for another skip around the neighborhood before our dinner at 7. We spend the time investigating the outrageous bling shops on the Ponte Vecchio. I don't know what to say about it since I'm not a bling person. It seems like every store window is a sparkling cascade of gold, diamonds, and colored stones in every shape imaginable. What is it like to have the scratch to shop here? Who knows? We don't.


Enormous quantities of leather goods

Does anyone know what this does?


A closed jewelry shop on the Ponte Vecchio

Buskers on the Ponte Vecchio

Our restaurant is a few blocks away and we're a hair early. The maître d remembers us from last night. He snaps his heels as he welcomes us to our table. We soak up a bottle of Chianti. CK orders linguine with wild boar ragu. I have gnocchi with shrimp. Outstanding stuff. After dinner we stroll up to the Pitti Palace, grab a gelato and call it a day. Back at the Hotel Orfali we're planning another lazy morning tomorrow followed by an ambitious attempt at the Uffizi Gallery. Later in the afternoon we're meeting David & Alex, friends from Lopez Island who happen to be in Florence when we are!!


This is not the fashion in Florence



Florence - May 9


The Pitti Palace

The Green Room, Pitti Palace

Ceiling detail, Pitti Palace


This is our last full day in Firenze and we have a lot to do. We don't have much to complain about. After the scratchiness of Rome, Florence is a silky spa day by comparison. This city is like many others with streets made for horse-drawn carts. Motorcyclists and vespa type scooters whiz through them faster than they should, their side mirrors missing our elbows by mere inches. Taxi drivers roll up behind pedestrians, inching through crowds muttering to themselves, sometimes shouting out the window at a deaf old man who doesn't move quickly enough. In Rome we saw these things with more aggression than in Florence. Here there seem to be more pedestrian only zones and the principle streets for autos are several blocks away from the city center. Therefore the hotel, shopping, bar, restaurant, and museum zones are quiet, well swept, and superbly accessible on foot. That said, we can't say it's a good idea to drag luggage from the train station to the hotel. Rough stone streets and narrow sidewalks will test the engineering of the luggage wheels and physically wear you out with the bouncing friction of it all. Should one of the wheels fail on the cobbles you will be carrying your case. Cabbies cannot usually be hailed along any street. To get a taxi one must find a 'taxi stand', a designated place where cabs are allowed to gather. So, if you are caught in a downpour or your luggage wheel breaks, a taxi stand is unlikely to be convenient. Be prepared, o intrepid traveler!


Garden sculpture, Pitti Palace

Pitti Palace. This is a museum. The Palatine Gallery is the main reason to visit. We can see more Raphael and Titian here. The Boboli garden maintains its shape but mostly features pools, fountains, and hedges. We have to search for the Rose Garden. We found it. It isn’t very big. The garden obviously isn't the big draw.


Santa Croce


We plan to investigate the church Santa Croce so we bail from the Pitti Palace. The walk is 25 minutes, no problem. We need to find the ticket office first. This is where many of the most famous Florentines left their bones: Dante, Michaelangelo, Machiavelli, Galileo, Rossini, and others we've never heard of. We pay the fee to support the preservation of it and also to walk alongside the dust of the immortals.





At 3 pm we have a reserved time to enter the Uffizi Gallery (so named because it was originally an office building in the 16th century) is up today. They only allow 600 people inside at a time so it's a good idea to select your time online in advance. This is another museum that cannot be covered in one day so we'll have to drink in what we can and call it good. This is where we will find "The Birth of Venus", various portraits of Medici bosses and Popes, lots of Da Vinci things, Botticelli, Raphael, Caravaggio among other priceless treasures.










After a 2.5 hour walk through it we are stunned and partially in mental paralysis. Here is a question Google cannot answer and shall remain beyond the scope of any AI bot: "How many baby Jesus' are depicted in the Uffizi?" There must be thousands. There should be an equal number of Mary's but I can't be certain. There's literally a parade of them. Lots of marble sculpture of Roman and Greek gods, Roman Emperors, Greek philosophers, mythical scenes. Our heads were swimming toward the end. All the religious paintings ask me to send my imagination back to a time when these images were considered vitally important. Of course that is impossible so I end up giving myself a headache trying. I snap too many pix which creates another problem in selecting which ones go in the blog.


There's a lot of sub-standard gelato in Florence!

David and Alex, our neighbors from Lopez Island were planning to join us later in the day for wining, dining, and a cheerful visit. However this was canceled due to some complications involving their tour company. CK and I settle for meeting David and his cousin Evan in the middle of the Ponte Vecchio for a brief chat. We leave them with wishes for a super trip.


Evan, Tim, CK, David

For our last dinner in Florence we grabbed a table at Antico Trattoria Fattore. The pasta e fagioli was very good. CK's pasta was good. The wine was good. The beef I ordered turned out to be well done, quite dead. Bah. And I repeatedly read that Florentines always serve beef rare. I'll have to hope for redemption in Venice, our next stop.


Florence to Venice – May 10


Rain is the thing, now

We wake up in Florence but won't sleep here tonight. We have a morning train to Venice after we plunder the breakfast at Hotel Orfali one last-ah time-ah. CK says we will go from the Venice train station to a boat which takes us to the hotel. Cool! Also wet. The weather today is rain, 100%. The forecast is for more wet weather the next several days. No worries. We have umbrellas. If they fail we can snag new ones.

Language hasn't been an issue in Italy so far. On the other hand we experience far fewer people who speak more than a few words of English. I know a bit of Spanish which helps me learn a few words and phrases of Italian but there's significant differences between them. "Do you have a table for two?" In Italian, "Avete un tavolo per due?" In Spanish, "Tiene usted una mesa para dos?" So, you see, they aren't that interchangeable. Nevertheless, when I'm having difficulty communicating in English, I apologize with "Mi despiace, non parlo Italiano," then try it in Spanish. Often they will understand me right away. It's kinda fun trying to decipher the lingo. The Italians use the word "prego" a lot. It's most common meaning is "you're welcome" as a response to "grazie," thank you. But they also use it in other ways which is a bit confusing. Other meanings are, "please", "after you," "not at all," or "don't mention it," depending on the context. Maybe I'll get a better grip on this just before we fly home where I will forget it all.