Europe Vacation: Florence/Milan (final day)

I'm done with the Europe pics!! YAAAAY!! Here are a few from our last day there...

Thursday, February 9
We decided to try and sleep in a bit this morning, knowing it was our last chance to do so. What a luxury! At home we're always up by 7 at the latest, so I treasured the mornings when we could sleep in! We had just a little time to walk around in Florence before leaving for Milan, and I was thrilled that a children's clothing store I had seen on a night stroll (TAF) was open. In the window they had beautiful smocked dresses far out of our price range, but I spotted sweet, monogrammed handkerchiefs. What a sweet keepsake those could be for our girls (and from Florence, too!). I chose the white ones thinking that they might someday be used in wedding bouquets. Maybe I'll frame them until then. :) We strolled along the Ponte Vecchio, and I snapped some final shots of Florence.

We made our way to the train station and nearly missed our train to Milan. We had to run all the way down the platform to the LAST car. We were seated all of 1 minute before the train pulled out! 


The afternoon was spent in Milan. We saw their duomo with many spires and over the top architecture commissioned by Mussolini. We went from there to find the location for our reservation to see The Last Supper and on the way found a place called "Shockolat," a gelato and chocolate shop. We ran in for a quick gelato (we hadn't had any lunch), and coffee. I, of course, ordered a cappuccino (which pegs you as a tourist when you order it after breakfast time), but I ordered it all the same, and got some funny smiles and smirks! What do I care? It tasted great!! The dark chocolate gelato was definitely my fave of the trip - I wished we had had time to really stop and enjoy it (and maybe get another cup!!), but we had to get to our reserved showing of The Last Supper.

It wasn't far. We waited our turn, listening to the audio guide recount the history of the art and artist. We were called up with a group of 15 or 20 - they keep groups small and visits brief to help with preservation - and walked through 2 rooms to be de-humidified. The art is not a painting on a canvas, nor is it a fresco. It was painted on the wall of the chapel after the paint was dry, so it has been restored several times. It's amazing, though, that has survived bombings and pillaging through the centuries. It was incredible to be so close, to see it span the length of that wall - to study the light, the hands, the gestures, the scene as a whole.

We were beat and enjoyed some down time (and free Internet) at the hotel for a bit before going to dinner at another Rick Steves suggested place (Ristorante da Bruno). It just so happened that it was super close to our hotel! We enjoyed a bottle of Chianti Classico, spaghetti carbonara (for me) and oso buco (for Nick), and FINALLY got my first and only tiramisu of the trip! I was so glad they had it!


Whew! It feels so good to finally have all of those done!

Europe Vacation: Florence Day 2

I'm almost embarrassed to keep posting these pictures from Europe. I'm SOOO close to finishing the edits, though, so bear with me! Once I get these done, I'll be on to edits for photos from May (like Caroline's birthday). Sheesh.

Since our trip was 6 months ago, I had to refer back to my travel journal to help with the details! This was one of our favorite days of the trip - a tour of Tuscany with a private driver! We used Verbena Blu Viaggi Travel Agency and went on the "Chianti Classico Wine Tour, Tuscan Delights, San Gimignano and Siena" excursion.

Wednesday, February 8
At 9am, our driver, Carlotta, picked us up at our hotel for our day trip around Tuscany. This was a neat experience! We first stopped at San Gimignano where we toured the medieval city's gates, walls, and towers. Carlotta explained a lot of history, and while Nick paid attention, I took pictures. :) It was quite icy as we made our way up, and the views were far reaching. Unfortunately, they just weren't the traditional Tuscan views I'd hoped to capture; instead, I caught a much rarer landcape - Tuscany loaded down with snow! 


After San Gimignano, we drove to the Castello Monsanto Winery. The history was interesting: the original owner had seen the property (with castle!) as a young man, saw its beauty, and he purchased it soon after. He gave it to his son who started producing more grape varieties. Or maybe I'm getting all of this wrong. I'll have to just read Nick's account (or Google it!). Anyhow, the son was quite a pioneer, his becoming the first winery in the area to produce a white wine. We toured the cellars, learning all about their barrels and aging process for each wine. They had a tunnel dug under the winery to the castle, and they made it look beautiful! In one special stretch, they carved out niches to commemorate a birth or special event, like a marriage. The wrought iron spelled out the year and the name of the honoree, and bottles of the special reserve wine were (are) stored in the niches for 25 years. After seeing the storage, we walked back through the castle garden to go do our tasting. Unfortunately, we didn't get to tour the castle since it's the family's private residence. The tasting was fun. They had appetizers and 3 wines for us to try: the Chardonnay, their Chianti Classico, and the "Nemo" Cabernet. We liked them all, but the Nemo was our favorite. Loading back into Carlotta's car, I wondered how I'd be able to eat any lunch after that!


Lunch was our next stop, and we went to the medieval village of Certaldo for lunch. We took a gondola ride up to the top of the hill to "A Casa Tua Ristorante." Carlotta ordered some fried foods sampler as an appetizer, and then my meal came (pasta w/ ragu), and even though it was amazing, it was so rich that I couldn't even eat half of it. We each signed our name to the wall on our way out.


After lunch we drove to Siena, Carlotta's home town, where we toured the main square and saw the outside of their duomo. It was interesting to hear of the medieval rivalry between Florence and Siena, but the plague had hit Siena hard, and so Florence won out over them. Their rivalry showed in their buildings as they always tried to one-up each other.


Carlotta drove us back to Florence, dropping us back around 7:30pm, a 10.5 hour day! We mapped out directions to our restaurant, "Antico Ristoro di Cambi" and walked along the river to it. We were, by now, figuring out how to order; splitting antipasti and ordering just a main dish (usually pasta for me and meat for Nick) was all we could manage. We wondered how it would be possible to eat all of the courses you were supposed to!


Hope to get pictures of our last day (Florence morning, Milan afternoon) done and posted soon. What a triumph it will be to finally have all of them finished! 

Europe Vacation: Florence Day 1

Maybe I'll get through all of these vacation pictures by the end of the year! They have definitely been put on the back burner.

Florence was our favorite. We just loved how the city was smaller and more pedestrian friendly. And although it was lightly snowing on this day, it had not accumulated on the streets.

We stayed at the Hotel Brunelleschi, and we had a great view of the duomo.

Florence Day 1 Strybd 1

First stop... climbing to the top of the duomo's dome. 463 steps.
We were SO glad to be there in the off-season when there are fewer people there. I think I would have felt extremely claustrophobic if that tiny stairway had been filled with people going both directions. As it was, we pretty much had the staircase to ourselves. Nick was sweet and took over camera backpack duty while I huffed and puffed my way up. :) The picture on the bottom right of this board shows the last stretch up... and it looked almost like a straight slope. You couldn't even see the steps for how steep they were.

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We made it!! It was FREEZING cold up there. I already mentioned that it was lightly snowing, and the wind that high up was pretty fierce. The views made up for it though! I was disappointed that the skies were so cloudy, but just before we left, the sun started shining through.

Bottom-left you see Nick going back down the steps, and on the right is the view of the dome ceiling (with the plexi-glass in the way of the shot).

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After our hike, we walked around the marketplace, then went to the Accademia to see the statue of David. We marveled at yet another of Michelangelo's masterpieces and wondered if he ever slept! No photography was allowed there.

Dinner at Trattoria Sostanza was our favorite of the trip, I think. This was another recommendation from my friend, Melissa, who sent us there with notes on what to order! Butter chicken for me, Florentine steak (of course!) for Nick.

I asked if they minded if I take pictures. They said no, they didn't mind, then invited me INTO the kitchen to shoot in there. Please stop and look at those steaks. They pulled that rack of meat out and hacked the steak off right when ordered.

If you're ever in Florence, please go here.

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Then we walked back. And no freezing Italian night is complete without gelato!

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It may be another month before you get to see day 2 of Florence/Tuscany, but it'll be worth it! (I think... I haven't really looked through all those pictures yet!!)

Bringing you up to speed: Europe by Instagram, Europe by HolgaParis Day 1Paris Day 2Rome Day 1, Rome Day 2

holga film, european edition

In addition to taking pics with my "real" camera and my iPhone, I also dragged my Holga to Europe. This is only my second roll of film on the Holga, and something went wrong when I loaded it. Some of the roll ended up getting exposed, while the ones that did come out have these black specks on them. I was just thrilled to have any come out! I guess that's what you get for using a "toy" camera. I starred my favorites. Which ones do you like?

Kodak Tri-X 400 B&W 120mm film

1. Paris. Eiffel tower.

2. Rome. View from our balcony at the Waldorf.

*3. Florence. View of the duomo from our room.

*4. Florence. Top of the duomo.

*5. Florence. View from the top of the duomo (2).

6. Tuscany somewhere. Monsanto Winery.

7. Milan. Duomo. (This obviously just barely made it! Interesting all the same.)

*8. Milan. Glass covered shopping area adjacent to the duomo.

*9. Milan. View of the duomo through the shopping area arches. (This one's my favorite. I love the birds in flight. Can you see them?)

Here was my first Holga roll if you want to look back!
I think next time I'll try color. It's fun, even if my results are pretty sloppy!

Europe Vacation: Rome Day 2

I'm making my way through these pictures slowly but surely!

First up on Rome Day 2 was the Vatican Museum. It took us three hours to walk through it, and we felt like we weren't giving everything the time it deserved. We rented the audio guide and got so much more out of it that way than we would have on our own.

Of course, the major site is the Sistine Chapel, but no photography is allowed in there. What an amazing experience it was to be in that room; the ceiling was, of course, breathtaking, as was "The Last Judgment." The Raphael Rooms were another favorite of ours. (Look for the sign in the collage below to indicate those 3 pics.)


After the Vatican we trekked to Bonci Pizzarium for some amazing pizza. This was a place we heard about on the Travel Channel's "The Layover: Rome" w/ Anthony Bourdain. (I can't stand that guy, but the show did give a few helpful tips including the great review of this place!) I loved that they cut the slices with scissors. Creative combos, fresh ingredients...YUM.


After lunch we walked back around the Vatican to St. Peter's Basilica. Michelangelo's "Pieta" was my favorite thing there.


We were so tired of all the walking that Nick consented to take a taxi over to the Parthenon. It was closed, though, so I just took a couple of shots of the exterior. After that we rounded the corner to Giolitti to get our first gelato of the trip. (It was freezing outside, but you have to get gelato in Italy. Am I right??)


We used a ton of the Hilton points Nick has accrued for a night at the Waldorf. What a treat! The Rome view was amazing, and they upgraded us to have Imperial Club access, where they had free drinks and food. The first thing I did was take a LONG soak in that amazing tub to get the chill out of my bones! Normally I'm grossed out by hotel bathtubs, but I felt like if any hotel kept their tubs clean, it was probably the Waldorf. At least, that's what I told myself.  :)


Florence is next!

so far... Europe by InstagramParis Day 1Paris Day 2, Rome Day 1

Europe Vacation: Rome Day 1

We woke up early on the morning of Sunday, February 5 and flew from Paris to Rome.

Rome was not immune to the cold snap across Europe. In fact, it snowed in Rome the day before we got there. It was the first substantial snowfall in nearly THIRTY YEARS. We sure timed it right, didn't we?? They did a pretty good job of clearing the streets and piazzas, but most of the hilly sidewalks were still snowy and frozen over. When you're doing a whole lot of walking and sightseeing, the snow and ice make things a little tricky! The worst news, though, was that the Colosseum and the Forum were closed due to the snow and ice. Here are a couple of news stories/videos about the crazy weather - here and here.

First up was St. Paul's Basilica...


We stopped for lunch at La Taverna dei Forum Imperiali. I can't remember now if that was in the Rick Steves book or if we read about it on Trip Advisor. Either way, the food there was amazing! We may or may not have eaten so much we ruined our appetites for dinner. Even all the walking that followed didn't make us hungry again!

Since the Colosseum and Forum were closed, I only got pictures of the outside. Bummer! That was really our plan for the whole afternoon was to see those two things, so we ended up just doing a ton of walking around. So disappointing!


We went to dinner at Ad Hoc, another Trip Advisor recommendation. It was wonderful. We were wishing the whole time that we were hungrier! You could tell they really took pride in their dishes. The meal took THREE hours. It was so nice to just sit down for that long, but I'm afraid I wasn't a very chatty date. I was pretty worn out from our day of walking Rome! (So much so that I even forgot to take a picture of our restaurant!)

We didn't expect dinner to take quite that long, and it was so cold that we decided not to do the full Rick Steves Rome night walk like we had planned. We walked to the Spanish Steps (which apparently is normally quite the hub, but no one was there in this cold) and to the Trevi Fountain. We threw our coins in and called it quits for this very full sightseeing day.


Rome Day 2 including the Vatican, some yummy pizza, and our stay at the Waldorf coming up next!

And here are the first few Europe posts in case you missed them: Europe by InstagramParis Day 1, and Paris Day 2

Europe Vacation: Paris Day 2

We started Paris day 2 by walking by the Louvre and the pyramid, but we skipped that museum since we've both been before. Instead, we went to the Orsay Museum. The works there date from the 1800s (I think) where the Louvre's collection stops. Unfortunately, no photography was allowed, so I only got a picture of the outside (bottom left). We saw the art of Monet, Degas, Renoir, Van Gogh, and on and on. For lunch we went to Les Deux Magots (I kept laughing at the name!), but it was a favorite spot of Hemingway's to sit and write.


Next we stumbled upon this chocolate shop, and like a magnet force, I was drawn in. There was gold leaf on our little trio of desserts, and the hot chocolate was so thick I didn't think there was even any milk in it. That's why they give you such a tiny cup, I guess. Powerful stuff!


Next we went to Notre Dame. I loved the pictures I got in here. It was so fun to look for interesting light and try to capture it. The architecture was just amazing.


We ducked into a couple of shops. First we stopped in the L'Arche de Noe ("Noah's Ark") toy store to get some gifts for the girls. We got a little stuffed rabbit and mouse with French writing on their clothes. And I had to take a picture of Sophie the giraffe in her homeland. :) We also visited the Shakespeare and Company book shop (an American owned place).

We stopped in a neighborhood bar for a coffee while we waited for the dinner hour. We loved the atmosphere of the place - the girl behind the bar was so sweet as a little boy kept riding his scooter back behind the counter. Too funny!

Dinner was another restaurant listed in the Rick Steves book. It was very good, but I liked the first night's meal better.


It was another very full, fun day.

Next up... Rome!

Europe Vacation: Intro & Paris Day 1

Posting pictures from our trip is going to take me a while. I took more than 2000! It takes time to cull, edit, and prepare them for blogging, so I'll just post them in groups as I finish them.

If you just want to see pictures, scroll right on down. If you're interested in my photography thoughts, read on!

It's no surprise that one of the most exciting parts of the trip for me was the photography aspect. I knew I needed a wide-angle lens to be able to capture sprawling landscapes and tall buildings, so I rented a Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8 lens. I also wanted to be able to have something that could get in a little closer for detail shots and for pictures of us, so I also rented the Tamron 28-75mm f/2.8 mid-range zoom. I went with the off-brand because it was cheaper than renting the Nikon (my bill added up fast for a 10 day rental), and I was curious to try the Tamron to see how sharp of a lens it was. (A mid-range zoom would be a nice lens to have for my arsenal, but the Nikon version costs about $1800 while the Tamron is just about $500, so I thought I should give it a test run!) Finally, I rented a Lowepro SlingShot 200 camera backpack. It was perfect. Even with a heavy camera and multiple lenses tucked inside, I barely felt anything on my back throughout most of the trip.

With the wide-angle zoom lens, mid-range zoom lens, my 50, 35, Holga film camera, and iPhone, I was ready for almost anything! Turned out that the wide-angle stayed on my camera for 95% of the trip. It wasn't easy (or safe) to stop and change lenses, and the wide-angle helped me to capture a larger view without having to stand too far back.

You know that most of my photography is portrait work. When it comes to using a wide angle lens and capturing architecture and landscapes, I really don't know much. I definitely learned as I was going! Here are the thoughts I jotted down when we were there:

  • Add interest. Frame with a door, window, or arch; place something in the foreground; try for sun flare.
  • It's difficult to expose properly; I take several shots at different exposures to have choices later (guess I should bracket); snow also makes exposure difficult.
  • My light's flat. Just lots of snow clouds and dull skies.
  • I get so excited to see the sun, and I watch carefully for where to stand to get flare. I started noticing  that the line on the ground where the shade started is where I should stand to find the sun just peeking out from behind a building; however, the wide-angle lens doesn't capture the flare well in every instance. Maybe there's a trick to it.

After I uploaded my pictures and started editing, I quickly saw a few mistakes I made with the wide-angle lens. First off, you have to be directly centered (I mean dead on centered) in front of a building or for architecture shots that you want lined up. It's not something that can be straightened later if you're angled even slightly. Of course, there were other times that I meant to be angled, and that was fine. I was just disappointed on a few where I wanted symmetry and didn't get it straight. The other thing I dealt with was the lens distortion you get at such wide angles. For instance, while I really like shot of the clouds and the sky with the tiny Eiffel Tower in the bottom left, the tower looks like it's leaning! Not much you can do about that I guess.

Okay, enough chit chat... on to the pictures!

First up is Paris!
I arrived in Paris around 10am on February 3. It was COLD. After a little nap to help ease the jet lag, Nick and I set out to the Arc de Triomphe first. Nick almost always stays at the Hotel Ceramic when he's in Paris, and it's just a stone's throw from the Arc. It was quite a hike to the top, and the black and white picture is of Nick climbing the spiral staircase. Obviously, I didn't take time to fix my settings, but I liked it for the spooky feel! Below that you'll see the pictures I took from the top of the Arc.


After the Arc de Triomphe, we took the metro over to the Eiffel Tower. The sky was dull and gray by this point.


We walked around for a bit, and as the sun went down it got unbearably cold! We ducked inside a corner bar to bide our time until the restaurant opened. Dinner was a Rick Steves recommendation, and it was divine! We walked back by the Eiffel Tower all lit up (we had just missed the sparkles) and called it a night!