Surprised At Last (milan day thirty seven)

Many Italians and non-Italians alike have told me not to expect much from Milan. Some have spoken of Milan with disdain, others without much thought and many have merely argued the merits of other cities. As a result I was surprised to like it so much; perhaps because it was not possible for my opinion to go anywhere but up.

I enjoy how Milan has managed to join obvious history and art with the modern pace of transit and a lively night life. The city itself is very beautiful and green! Flowers, large public parks and a cheap citywide bike rental program make me smile each time we pass by. Food prices are average, not as obnoxious as Venice but not as cheap as Genova.

It has been relaxing to slowly explore the city with its unique Duomo, large castle, shopping district and much more. All in all, I think Milan is worth the visit and I am very happy to end our trip here.

The church across the canal.20130821-112648.jpg

Walking past a painter. 20130821-112717.jpg

Remnants of an old building somewhat unobtrusively still part of the cityscape.20130821-112734.jpg

Hidden church tucked into a corner. You can see it until you are right next to it. 20130821-112748.jpg

The beautiful Duomo.20130821-112757.jpg

We had coffee at this bar, it’s been around since 1921. 20130821-112804.jpg

The flags of countries participating in an expo to be held in 2015 line the streets leading away from the Duomo to this. 20130821-112827.jpg

Castle. 20130821-112833.jpg

Shopping center. It’s very pretty to walk through as the light hits the signs of various designer stores. 20130821-112812.jpg

I found another Scripps-like courtyard! This one was in the castle, just outside an inner courtyard that could be fortified from within the castle. 20130821-112939.jpg

Mermaid bridge inside the park extending from the castle grounds. Just before we had walked by a tent with free music and lots of dancing. We danced some bachata, cha cha, swing… Eventually I got pulled onto the dance floor by an octogenarian who was quite a string lead despite look frail. So much fun! 20130821-113054.jpg

Fountain in front of the castle. It was nice to see families enjoying the warm evening while their children raced around. 20130821-113707.jpg

Beautiful arch. The horses up top are really amazing, very detailed and expressive.20130821-113715.jpg

Our neighborhood is pretty dull during the day, but it has a wonderful nightlife. This street performer danced to music while a glass sphere moved across his body. His ability to move is one of the most beautiful, graceful things I have seen someone do with their body. Movement flowed out of his finger tips as natural as breathing… We watched from this side of the canal while enjoying gelato.20130821-113138.jpg


Exploring Cinque Terre (genova day thirty six)

When we missed our train we gained a night in Pisa but lost a whole day in Genova. So I didn’t mind that our hotel was so far from the center because we don’t know what we missed. We arrived early in the morning, in time to watch the sun rise. After checking in to our hotel, Ben went to get some breakfast while I took an extra long shower trying to scrub off the grime from an overnight train upon train experience.

Feeling clean but lacking sleep I tried to delude myself that a two hour nap would be sufficient, instead I slept for six. The modern decor and room service met my need for cleanliness and simplicity perfectly. We attempted to catch the twelve o’clock train but somehow misunderstood which trains were going in our direction. While convenient for a local, the regional train tickets are not ascribed to a particular train rather just to the route. The ticket is good for several months and thus not helpful in deciding which train you should take in the present moment.

Somehow we made it to the Cinque Terre, arriving much later than we planned. Cinque means five and it refers to the five coastal towns along the Italian Riviera. Somewhat like the Amalfi Coast but farther north. The towns are small and have a lovely combination of hiking trails between them. In total it is a five hour hike from the first to the fifth town but it’s manageable when you split it into one hour chunks stopping to explore each town.

We arrived in Riomaggiore, the farthest town from Genova, and realized it wouldn’t take very long to walk the interesting parts of the very small town. We ate some fried seafood in a cone, ate fresh figs and attempted to catch a boat to the next town, Manarola. Unfortunately by the time Ben ran down with the boat ticket it had left and we had an hour and a half before the next one. So we did what everyone else was doing, we went swimming.

The boat ride to Manaorla was short but pleasant, in many ways the towns are most beautiful when seen from the water. We explored for a bit, bought some tasty pears, and found a local gelateria. Afterwards we caught a train to the next town, Corneglia.

Corneglia is situated up high on a cliff overlooking the sea. Making our way to the bus, we didn’t want to walk up the hill, we realized it was about to rain and that our original plan to hike only one fifth of the trail would not work. We followed other tourists into the center of town and eventually found a beautiful viewpoint looking out to the sea and the hills nearby. After a failed attempt to locate affordable local wine we ran to the train station to catch the next train to the last town, Monterosso.

As we walked out of the station we noticed the next train to Genova was in an hour after which the trains would be less regular. Preferring not to risk being stranded or rushing dinner we decided to go home early and catch up on sleep. We strolled the waterfront, bought some gelato and snacks, and waited for our train.

And that was our day. We picked up some pizza on our way back to the hotel, showered, packed and slept in. Next we go to Milan our final destination.

Sunrise just before we got to the hotel.

Prosciutto ad, I also like the green color of the building. We haven’t seen many of those, most building have been in the yellow-orange-red range.20130821-111207.jpg

“Do not cross the railway lines. Use the subway.” Sometimes literal translations make me laugh. 20130821-111257.jpg

Underground passage to Riomaggiore from the train. 20130821-111343.jpg

Fried fish. Yes that is an entire little fishy and I ate it. Several of them in fact.20130821-111922.jpg

House on a cliff. Would this even be allowed in the US?20130821-111929.jpg

Italian Riviera.20130821-111936.jpg

The boat to Manarola that we missed. 20130821-111941.jpg

We did as the locals do, we swam. The water is full of giant mossy rocks but it is also very clear and you can’t touch most of them. Love the slightly emerald color. 20130821-111947.jpg

Church in Corneglia. 20130821-112015.jpg

This reminds me of the Amalfi coast, except it’s missing the lemon trees. 20130821-112021.jpg

Dear Tourist note. 20130821-111952.jpg

Corneglia. 20130821-112239.jpg

Monterosso waterfront. The water is a beautiful blue, very different from Amalfi, Capri and even Riomaggiore. 20130821-112246.jpg

Pisa at Twilight


By sheer accident we made it to Pisa. Since we had to go back for Ben’s iPad we missed the last set of consecutive train transfers. As our second connection, we ended up in Pisa a little after ten in the evening and our next train would depart at three thirty in the morning.

I wanted to see the leaning tower of Pisa. Thankfully there was a giant city map just outside the train station. Before we set off for our adventure we attempted to stow our luggage at several hotels by the station, when that failed we set off to the tower with our luggage in tow.

Pisa is not very big so it didn’t take long to get to the tower. Seeing as it was past nine thirty most kitchen were closed, and so were many restaurants. I started to worry that we wouldn’t find a place to eat, but our patience paid off when we turned a corner and unexpectedly saw the tower. As we got closer we walked past several trattorias and pizzerias.

After a leisurely meal, which was very cheap but tasty, we were the last guests to leave. We walked the rest of the way to the tower and were happy to find that the grounds were still open. We explored a bit and then headed back to the train station.

Since we had booked our tickets last minute we were not sitting next to each other. In fact we weren’t even in the same car. My cabin had a family and a creepy Italian guy who was two shades tanner, in the dark no less, than anyone should be. He practically glowed orange. But exhausted as I was, I tried to ignore him and managed to drift off into a fitful sleep.

Unfortunately iPhones are not great at taking nighttime images so I only included a few. You will have to wait for the real photos, which I will post after we return to New York.

A church we passed on the main strip through Pisa. 20130820-081211.jpg

Lovely doorway, the detail above the door caught my eye.20130820-081220.jpg

The baptistery, evidently it has a unique ability to echo sound beautifully. 20130820-081238.jpg

Campo Santo. Before World War II people came to Pisa to see the 20,000 square feet of frescos in this building rather than the tower. That is 3,000 square feet more than the Sistine Chapel. A fire caused by bombings caused the iron roof to melt and the molten iron dripped down to cover the frescos. Restoration work still continues. 20130820-081244.jpg

Tuscany by Vespa (Chianti day thirty five)

As Thomas opened the door, I turned to Ben and asked “where is your iPad?” He responded with a groaning “Oh, no” …

Nine hours earlier…

Originally we had planned to take a bus back to Florence and then take a train to Genova, as a result I hadn’t booked our train tickets since I couldn’t find a reliable bus schedule for Siena. This allowed us to throw our loosely constructed plans out the window and sign up for a Vespa wine tour on a whim.

I got up at 7:30 am to call the office and confirm our booking since I had submitted it last minute the day before. With pickup confirmed, I finished packing. We went downstairs a little early to wait for our driver. Since he hadn’t arrived yet I ran to the supermarket around the corner and picked up two nutella filled croissants to complete our breakfast. The ride to the Vespa tour compound was pleasant. Our driver was enthusiastic and shared some Palio knowledge and tradition with us. Before we even had a chance to really enjoy the twisting roads between major Tuscan cities we arrived at the My Tour SRL facility.

Thomas, our amazing guide, quickly took care of a few logistical matters and began to prepare us for our Vespa adventure. Just as Ben’s training finished, the rest of our group joined us from Florence. Including Thomas there were six of us.

Before I continue, I cannot recommend My Tour SRL strongly enough. Thomas was great. Patient as a teacher, knowledgable as a guide, hospitable and funny to boot. You can book the “Siena Vespa Tour Including Lunch at a Chianti Winery” through discover Tuscany or by calling My Tour SRL directly at 0039 0577 236330.

Once the five of us had proven that we could start, break, go up and down minor inclines, and turn on our Vespas we set out to our first destination. Fifteen minutes into our ride we stopped at a viewpoint overlooking vineyards and the rolling Tuscan hills. Ben and I would be switching who drove throughout the day and I got to drive us into our first town. Unfortunately I didn’t write down the name. Thomas gave us a brief tour of the small town and allotted us forty minutes to explore.

Hours had gone by since our nutella croissants, so the first thing we did was find a grocery store. While looking for the bread aisle, hoping to find some focaccia, I bumped into a free wine tasting. (I bumped figuratively, but throughout our tasting many people literally bumped the table). I had expected to receive little cups with just enough to get the taste of the three wines on display. Instead the gentlemen pulled out a full sized plastic cup and proceeded to pour generous amounts of each wine into a different cup for both Ben and I. Our eyes widened with surprise and slight dismay as we attempted to calculate how much of this wine we could actually drink on a near empty stomach. With my limited Italian I didn’t know how to refuse or protest that it was too much. Needless to say Ben and I couldn’t drink it all, but we did buy a 5€ bottle of the white wine we tried.

From the town I drove us to the vineyard. We parked our Vespas in a neat little row and headed up to the winery passing grasshoppers and butterflies amidst the endless rows of grapes. After a brief tour we sat down to a delicious and very filling lunch while sampling and tasting different wines, olive oils and a balsamic vinegar. Even though the wine portions were “small” it was still more than any of us could drink, so much of it was tasted and poured out. But I still think we got our money’s worth and managed to stay sober for the road, which ultimately is more important.

After the winery we visited a fortified town with some great views, ate gelato and spent an hour exploring before it was time to return to the compound. Eventually we found a shady bench where we met a couple traveling from Calgary. After they left we played scrabble, ate green grapes and read books until it was time to meet up with our group.

In the movies they always make riding a Vespa look so romantic, and it is. If cabbies weren’t so crazy in New York I would get one. Still there is something utterly natural about riding a Vespa through Tuscany. I loved feeling the change in the wind, from hot breezes under the sun and cool ones in the shade. I loved whisking past rows of sunflowers, grapes and olives. I loved alternating who drove because part of the time I got to enjoy being a spectator with my arms wrapped around the love of my life and part of the time I got to drive a Vespa through the endlessly beautiful rolling hills of Tuscany.

The seven hours of the tour went by fast, too fast. We returned the vespas, collected our belongings and got a ride back to Siena with Thomas. After dropping off our new friends from Florence in Siena, we asked Thomas if it would drive us to the station once we grabbed our bags. Thomas generously agreed to drive us to the train (which was a huge relief since we didn’t realize how far it was from the center).

Siena was the first city to reduce the number of cars allowed into the city center. As a result, Thomas had to park a ways down the street from our apartment. We ran up Via Roma to get our luggage, hoping to prevent Thomas from having to wait too long. Ben got the luggage while I refilled our water bottle and took the last bag. On the way to the station Thomas and Ben played songs from bands they thought the other would enjoy. We made good time and got to the train station just before our intended train.

As we pulled up I gather my things and realized that my purse was too light to be holding both iPads. I turned to Ben and asked “where is your iPad?” He responded with a groaning “Oh, no.” Turns out he had left it charging, in the kitchen, behind the couch so no one would take it. Unfortunately that also meant we didn’t take it.

It took me a moment to process what this meant. Ben’s face was turning green while I frantically searched my phone for our host’s phone number. Thomas immediately noticed something was wrong. We asked him what the fastest way back was. He point to his car. We both stared at Thomas, not comprehending what he meant. After all, this was a man who had just generously driven us to the train which was above and beyond what his contract called for in the first place. Although this was the best scenario we could have asked for, I had shut down that hope before it even fully formed.

And that is when we fully experienced the hospitality of the Sienese.

Thomas drove us back to the apartment, walked with us, and even took us to coffee after we picked up the iPad. On the way back to the center we had offered to pay for the coffee but Thomas shut us down. We attempted to thank him, but he just nonchalantly explained that he was glad he had nothing to interfere with helping us out.

Thomas turned what could have been a stressful, unpleasant situation into just another part of the already amazing day. And for that, Ben and I are eternally grateful. I hope to learn from him, because after all life happens, plans fall through but life goes on. Yes we missed our train, but instead we got to experience the kindness, generosity and hospitality of an incredible human being.

Ben and his Vespa.

All our vespas in a neat row in the first town we visited. 20130819-005613.jpg

Small local market, still affected by tourism in the special herb selection they carry. 20130819-005621.jpg

Rebuilt 70 years ago after WWII. 20130819-010252.jpg

First close up sighting of grapes. 20130819-005635.jpg

The wine cellar. 20130819-005654.jpg

The vineyard we visited.20130819-005628.jpg

Notice our scooters all in a row. 20130819-005644.jpg

Our amazing guide, Thomas. 20130819-005707.jpg

Very tasty bruschetta. 20130819-005715.jpg

The selection of wines, olive oils and balsamic vinegar we had with our meal. 20130819-005725.jpg

Drinkable products of the vineyard. 20130819-005732.jpg

This clay jug, for lack of a better word, is bigger than me. 20130819-005739.jpg

I found the way the stone was raised to be interesting. Helps with grin seeing as the stone is almost as slippery as dusty marble. .20130819-005758.jpg

This is the entrance to the fortified town we visited. I don’t have a photograph of wall, but it only took two years to build.20130819-005749.jpg

We sat across from this church playing scrabble and conversing with the Canadian couple. 20130819-005805.jpg

(siena day thirty four)

Although no one has forgotten that Onda won last night, they have paraded through town all day. I’m not sure if they do it in shifts, but at this point I am sure they have gone through every street in Siena at least three times and they did not stop until well into the evening. 20130819-001419.jpg

Although you can’t see it clearly, some of the drummers in the back are sucking on pacifiers, this is to represent the rebirth of the contrada. Having won they are the bambinos of the city. Contrada Lupa, is the Nonna (grandmother) for they have gone the longest, and thus are the oldest, since winning a Palio. Throughout the day we have seen Onda members, both you and old, sucking on pacifiers. 20130819-001429.jpg

Il Palio photos have spring up everywhere. 20130819-001437.jpg

A view of one of the many churches in Siena. This one is in the Dragon district and has my favorite viewpoint of the city.


Three Minutes Can Change Your Life (siena day thirty three)

I can only think of one other experience in Italy that compares to the production of the Palio, and that would be the awe inspiring combination of seeing the Sistine Chapel and then walking into St. Peter’s Basilica.

As our host explained, the Palio is Siena. The lotteries, trials and race itself last a week and then the rest of the year is spent looking forward to the next Palio. For the winners, the year is spent celebrating their victory and repeating lots of good luck. Siena is divided up into seventeen districts, ten of which race in the Palio twice a year, on July second and August sixteenth. The seven that don’t race are automatically included in the lineup for next years race, the last three are chosen via a lottery. The horses and race order are then also chosen by a lottery.

We watched the morning trials, grabbed a bite to eat, picked up some groceries for our stakeout and then headed over to Il Campo to mark our spot next to the start line fence for ten hours. Having watched two trials we decided it was worth it the wait to have front row seats to the event. Mostly the waiting was uneventful, though we were surprised by how slowly time passed. Having waited for Shakespeare in the Park tickets every year we thought this would be easy, but we hadn’t accounted for the nearly unbearable Tuscan sun. Equipped with our books, food and sunscreen we enjoyed the afternoon.

Just before five o’clock, the parade of all the contradas began. Imagine a giant two hour long parade of intricate period pieces, horses dressed for battle, armored knights, heralds in bright tights, and flag boys performing routines… An amazing display of history, family and tradition. Although quite long, it was a treat to see the effect of so much history still relevant to the people of Siena.

The race itself lasted a little more than a minute, three if you considering the tension building experience of the horses lining up, but for a moment all of Siena was one. It was as if the world was lived in slow motion, everyone in the piazza breathing in unison, our hearts collectively beating faster as we waited for the tenth horseman to join the lineup and thereby start the race… for a moment all you hear is the thundering boom of twenty pairs of hooves pounding away at the clay track, and then the exhilarated screams of each contrada encouraging their jockey.

I remember wishing I could be an owl so that my head could swivel and not lose eye contact with the race… I remembering registering with some shock that the horse running into second place was riderless … I remember fans jumping the fence to run across the finish line with their contrada’s horse… I remember the four booms of the canon announcing the end of the race… I remember the swell of Onda fans, screaming and crying, running down the track in a victory ritual beyond the scope of anything I have ever seen before.

For a moment we collectively experienced the heart and history of Siena, for a moment we became Sienese… It is a moment I hope to never forget, and one I hope to repeat in the future.

They sprayed down the clay track to harden it two hours before the parade, the people got sprayed too.







The tower in the campo.

Onda contrada (which means the wave) celebrating, free wine, good food, family and friends come together to celebrate their rebirth late into the night.


Palio Fever (siena day thirty two)

We left Bologna early on a train back to Florence where we took then next express bus to Siena. And hour later we were in Siena, horribly lost and somewhat short tempered (missing breakfast seems to do that to us). But we finally made it to our apartment and left our baggage. Needing a break from each others tempers, we split up and agreed to meet up before the evening horse trials (which have been going on for several days allowing the jockeys to get to know the horse they drew in the lottery).

The Palio has done amazing things to Siena. The energy is almost palpable. You walk down the streets hearing drummer boys practicing, stumbling on flag bearers perfecting their routines and fans singing their local district anthem. Occasionally you can observe little boys with mini drums imitating their favorite drummers all throughout the city. I have to say I was quite surprised by how talented some of these five year old drummers are.

And even though the city is filled to the brim with tourists, many of them are Italian and so far I haven’t see any giant tour groups. Siena is everything I hoped Italy would be. Granted we have an explosion of Italian culture, history, people and food that is not a daily occurance but it is making up for the lack of Italy-ness of other cities. On top of that you keep seeing horses walk the streets with an entourage that only sporting events can accommodate, singing the district anthem.

Even without the Palio Siena is beautiful. Full of brick homes, orange hues, lots of churches and plenty of cheap Italian food. I also love that it isn’t a flat city, although the hills are not even close to being as steep as San Francisco, it’s the hilliest city we have see so far. Enjoy the photos, I got a bit carried away.

Train view of Tuscany.


We are staying in the Ram district this is their flag. Last August they won the Palio. The Shell district is right behind us and we hope they won’t win otherwise even earplugs won’t help us as they celebrate for forty days. Our host likened the district kinship to the old Scottish clans that live in boundaries created by the city.


Ram flag bearers practicing for the parade tomorrow. I was lured to this shady corner by the incredibly loud drums which echo as the sound is funneled through the narrow streets. Notice the shirtless man, I can’t get over how unmanly his pose is.




The hills of Siena.


Visiting family, from Holland I think, have adopted contradas of their own. The districts are called contradas. I would say seventy five percent of the people in town are walking around, driving in their cars or just doing chores with their contrada scarves on.


Arched alley. I really enjoy discovered the nooks and crannies in Siena.


During the day you can buy flags inside the piazza de campo where the Palio and the trials are held.


Il Campo.


Clock tower, just before the race the horses are brought underneath it and to the right.


Fountain in the campo piazza.


This family was just strolling through town when they ran into friends. Notice the plethora of scarves.


Rhino flag, it’s right at the top and you can barely see it.




Another church.


“Free” automated store. Everything from coffee to sandwiches to condoms to cigarettes. No nutella this time though.


This little drummer boy was quite good but unwilling to share. The man and boy walking away were just rejected in their attempt to convince him to share the drum.


Another church.


Stairs next to the church leading down to the hills. Next to this spot is a great view of the Tuscan hills, but my phone wasn’t able to capture it.


Another church.


View of the Duomo and Il Campo.


Couldn’t tell this was a garage until after I walked past it.


Red roof tops.


A well.


This glass ceiling is part of an internal courtyard of a church.


Another alley.


Porticos of the church with the glass ceiling.


The back of the Duomo.


Side entrance to the Duomo piazza.


Front side of the Duomo.


One contrada is preparing a first for after the trial the night before the Palio. All these flags add a burst of color to all the streets.


No wonder the mosquitoes are biting me, Siena seems to love them so much they have a giant art exhibit honoring them.


Each district also decorated the street lamps.


Turtle fountain in the turtle district.


Panther fountain that is no longer working.


Italy is really welcome to children and families traveling with them. It’s fun to see kids traveling outside a Disneyland context.




The fountain near our apartment.


Ceiling in a church converted into a music store, currently there is a lot of opera being played.




Horse being taken to the trial race.


The crowds gather for the last significant trial before the Palio. There will be one more in the morning but it’s not as serious.


The Shell contrada heading to the Campo behind their horse. Along the way they sing their anthem.


Children of each district.


More people.


Some people buy seats for an elevated view, or in this case a window looking into the square.


The parade to get the crowds to pay attention.


Jockeys watching the parade. Note the lack of riding boots.


Jockeys on their horses heading to the start line.


More of the parade.


Elephant contrada screaming for their jockey. Flags, madly waving, to cheer on their hero.


And the race begins.


After the race, the Elephant contrada is leading their horse back to the stables. Again he has a crowd that walks him home while singing the anthem.


More racing.


last trial race shot.


After the trial all these horse balloons popped up. I get the kids wanting one, but this gave me a chuckle. Even grown men love balloons.


Just like New York! Granny carts are all the rage.


Contrada captains leaving before the parade.