Friday, June 28, 2013

{European Travels} Florence Days 4&5

We finally made it -
the last {European Travels} post.
You are probably jumping for joy, as these went on for quite some time.
But I'm kinda sad. It went by way too quickly, just like the trip. 
Now lets continue...

During this entire trip I kept a journal to document all the fun and interesting details of our days; that is how, over a month later, I have been able to recall everything in these posts. I was very proud of myself for recording diligently each day, until the last day where I completely slacked. I didn't write one thing about our last day and a half in Florence and it makes me so sad. So now I just give you general information and lots of pictures:

The night before, we decided at the last minute to go on a wine tasting tour. We were in Tuscany for heavens sake. Of course we had to go on at least one wine tasting adventure (even though we had done plenty of wine tasting at lunch and dinner times)! We randomly found Tuscan Wine Tours and quickly signed up. The tour group was small, just us and another family of five. The tour was informative, yet quite personal. We learned, in detail, how each owner made their wines, but in meeting and visiting with the vineyard owners we got to see their love and passion for each bottle. It made each wine that much better, knowing the intentional love behind it. We were simply fascinated.

The first winery we visited was Solatione Winery, a small, family owned vineyard. The owner, Francesca, was full of information and passion for her wines. We loved the wines at this vineyard, buying three to take home with us and having six more shipped once we returned home.
 Learning about the production of wine.
 Enjoying the wonderful Vin Santo, the most heavenly stuff that I've ever had. No lie.
 The Tuscany region is so beautiful!

After saying goodbye to Francesca we traveled further into Tuscany, stopping in a tiny medieval village. It took about three minutes to walk the entire town. I can't imagine living in a place so historic. However, since I didn't write down the town's name or any of it's interesting history, we only have pictures to remember it by.

Next stop: another town. Again, I don't know the name, but the square was adorable and the specialty shops were inviting! This is the kind of place I would love to stay in next trip- small and no tourists (besides us). This is were we had a wonderful three course meal with lots of amazing wine!
All the meat you could want!
 I love cheese!
 Group lunch.

Our last stop on the tour was the Fattoria di Bagnolo with good 'ole Marco as our host. Marco is actually an Italian noblemen and was quite the character. Being your typical Italian man he was loud, eccentric, and full of tales. He shared with us stories of his family, which date back to the 11th century, and this vineyard which was passed down from generation to generation. Marco also pointed out that Sting lived close by and Gerard Butler comes by to buy wine; too bad neither were stopping by for a visit that day.

Our time with Marco was filled with laughing, eating, and enjoying his great wine and olive oil. From here we bought a bottle of wine and the best olive oil we have ever tasted. I must say, we Americans do not even know what olive oil is!  
 Us with our amazing guide Olivia and best friend Marco.

The wine tour was probably my favorite thing that we did on the entire trip. If you go to Tuscany, you MUST treat yourself to this! 

On the next day, our last day, we had to catch a 2:00 plane back to London (which they almost didn't let me on - stupid passport). We made reservations at 9am to see David at the Accademia, which was extremely impressive and was definitely worth the last minute trip. We then had a quick lunch, grabbed our bags and headed to the airport. 

We arrived in London by 4:00 and got a hotel room next to the airport. We had dinner in the city then caught the morning plane back to the United States. Sunday, May 19th we arrived in good old Northwest Arkansas. Our trip was officially over and we just had the time of our lives!

Thanks for sticking around for all these posts.
I hope it has inspired you go create your own traveling adventures!

Thursday, June 27, 2013

{European Travels} Florence Day 2 & 3

After getting familiar with the beautiful city of Florence, we decided we would spend our second day in Cinque Terra. Unlike Paris and London, our time in Florence wasn't jammed with things to do and see. Of course we wanted to see David, climb the Duomo, and eat our weight in pasta, but there was no timeline that we set (this is very unusual for me). We knew we wanted to visit Cinque Terra but weren't sure when; we realized the weather was suppose to get rainy on our second day, so we figured getting out of the city would be the best way use of our time.

We caught the train to La Spezia at 10 am and then the regional train to Monterrosso, the northern most town of the five hill towns. During our train ride we began talking to two other couples who were staying in Cinque Terra. Judy and Alex, the older couple celebrating their 40th anniversary, were from Canada, and the Judy and Steven were traveling spontaneously around Italy and France for a few weeks. We talked the whole train ride about families back home, places we have visited, and cities to see next. It was wonderful meeting fellow travelers so friendly and welcoming. Of course we had to snap a corny group photo.

Cinque Terra, or Five Lands, is located a little over two hours by train from Florence. It is on the western coast along the Italian Rivera and is composed of five small villages virtually untouched by tourism (however, now that the word is getting out this is becoming slightly less true).

The series of villages are connected by a beautiful trail, which locals have used for years to visit their neighbors. Like I said, we took the train to the northern most city, with plans of hiking all five towns. However, due to land slides, the three southern most trails were closed. That left us with only the option of hiking between Monterrosso and Vernazza, which is known to be a little more rugged and hilly.
 First views of Vernazza

The hike between towns were absolutely beautiful, with views of the ocean, olive and grape vineyards, and fragrant flowers lining the path. While good 'ole Rick Steves said the hike would only take 90 minutes, it took us 2.5 hours due to Josh's side adventures along the way. 

The weather had been warm and breezy along the hike, but once we arrived at Vernazza it began to sprinkle. We found cover under an umbrella at a cafe and ordered drinks and gelato. I had my first taste of pistachio gelato and fell in love. Don't knock it until you try it!

After refreshments and our daily gelato we caught the 5:30 train back to Florence. We had another late and fabulous dinner, along with a bottle of the house wine, and hit the sack by 11pm.

Our third day in Florence was a bit laid back. Besides eating gelato multiple times, having some of the best pizza ever, and an even better dinner, we didn't do much. This is one reason why I loved Florence so much - laid back and lots of eating/drinking.

Between gelato stops, we went back to the Duomo to climb the famous dome. It was a long and narrow climb, but we were awarded with unobstructed views of Florence, making me fall in love with this city even more.
 Inside the Duomo

Then, tired from walking and eating, we dropped into the Da Vinci Science Museum, where we got a lot smarter just by looking at the stuff. (Isn't that how it works?)

And that concludes day 3 in Florence. To sum it up so far: lots of eating, lots of drinking, and lots of loving Italy!

Come back tomorrow for the last {European Travels} post!

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

{European Travels} Florence Day 1

After spending the last two days galavanting around Switzerland, we spent the morning of May 14, our three year anniversary, traveling by train to Florence- our final destination on this 17 day adventure. Unlike London and Paris, Florence doesn't have a metro system. So we hailed a cab which took us to our adorable apartment.

The weather was a nice change from what we had experienced in Switzerland and Paris, so we quickly changed clothes to accommodate the hot and sunny Florence day. Of course our first priority was getting our hands on the country's finest delicacy: gelato! Gelato is made with less milk fat than American ice cream, so the natural flavors come through. We were told to think of the treat is edible art; we appreciated this art twice a day!

With Florence's famous gelato in our bellies we headed to Piazza Michelangelo to get our first panoramic view of Florence with glasses of vino blanco in hand. We took in all of Florence and relaxed for a bit before we headed off to explore this historic city.

In the 1300s, most of Europe was dirty and poverty-stricken, but Florence shined with power and wealth, standardizing the art of refined living. After the bubonic plague in 1348 killed nearly half the city's population, Florence rose better than ever with the leadership of the aggressive and art-crazy Medici family. That is when the Renaissance erupted out of Florence and spread throughout Europe. We can thank the Florentines for the evolution of democracy, science, and the art we see today.

The Duomo- a medieval church topped with a Renaissance dome is a perfect example of how medieval Florence became the birthplace of the Renaissance.

The Baptistery, located across from the church, in nearly a thousand years old, Florence's oldest building.

On the east side of the Baptistery are the famous Ghiberti's Bronze Doors (actually replicas) which make up ten scenes from the Bible. It took Ghiberti 27 years to finish these panels, the work inspiring the next generation of artists to create 3D paintings on a 2D surface.

From the Duomo square we walked along the pedestrian only street, Via Dei Calzai, stopping for our second round of gelato. Two blocks down was the Piazza Repubblica and an arch, Florence's "Belly Button" that marks the old Roman center.

Making our way to the end of Via Dei Calzai, we poured in the Piazza Signoria which is a square dominated by the towering Palazzo Vecchio. Florence prided itself on being a Republic with independence from Rome, and this was it's political center.

The Palazzo Vecchio was a fortess-like City Hall, but eventually became the Medici family's personal place.

We then continued walking south, passing the famous Uffizi Gallery, to see our first up-close glimpse at the Arno River and Ponte Vecchio. The old Roman bridge here was washed away in a flood, but was rebuilt out of stone in 1345. Originally, the bridge was lined with butcher stores, but is now home to expensive jewelry shops.

After watching the sun set, we returned to our apartment which was just two blocks south of the famous bridge. Knowing that the locals eat late, we took our time resting and getting ready for our anniversary dinner. We found a beautiful, hole-in-the-wall Italian restaurant where we ate the best food we've ever tasted (until the next day, then the next....).

With our first day in Florence behind us, this was our best anniversary to date! What on earth are we going to do for our fourth year anniversary!?