Monday, April 23, 2018

Italy 3/19-4/3 2018

Hello all,
It’s been a while since we posted anything in the blog and we just got back from a trip to Italy, so I thought we’d update everyone on the trip and post some photos in the photo gallery photo gallery. As we didn’t post anything on a daily basis, this is a fairly long post covering two weeks traveling through Italy. I apologize in advance for the length of the post.

The itinerary for the trip was to fly to Florence, spend a couple of days there, take a train to Venice, spend a few days there, then take a train to the Cinque Terre.  Finally, rent a car in Cinque Terre, drive to Umbertide for a few more nights, then back to Florence, and then home.

Our good friend Jody joined us on this trip.  We hadn’t traveled with her for a few years and it was great that she was able to join us again for this trip.

Florence 3/20 – 3/22
Our trip began with the three of us flying to Florence.  Our flights took us through Frankfurt Germany, so for our trip to Italy, we all got a German passport stamp.  I think Jody was a bit disappointed she didn’t get a stamp for Italy.  We realized we weren’t in the desert anymore when it started snowing at the airport while we were waiting for our flight to Florence.  When we arrived in Florence, we very quickly realized that we had underdressed for this trip.  Temperatures were running in the mid 40s with winds of about 20 mph (which felt like they were coming off the polar ice cap).  Personally, I was wearing about three shirts and two jackets plus long-johns, pants and gloves just to keep warm.   In fact, we stopped at a local vendor and all bought scarves to help stay warm. They weren’t the highest of quality but they really helped us keep warm.  Jody and Sheila eventually noticed that their scarves were shedding all over on their clothes.  Being covered in fuzz was a small price to pay to stay warm.

Frankfurt Airport
Dressed up to explore Florence
We stayed in an Airbnb apartment during our time in Florence, (Florence Airbnb)

On our day in Florence we started out by visiting the famed Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore or Duomo.   Sheila had made a reservation for 8:30 a.m. for us to climb the Duomo’s 460+ stairs to the top, which was the first group of the day to go up to the top.   The view from the top was spectacular and a great opportunity to see the Florence skyline with all of its varied rooftops.  Once we made it back down to the ground floor, Sheila and I decided to also climb up to the top of the bell tower at the Duomo.  This was another 400+ stairs to reach the top.   One of the coolest things on this bell tower is as you climb up the stairs you can look through the small openings and see the views of the Duomo and the Florence skyline.

Florence roofs

 After lunch we all took a bus to Fiesole, which is just outside of Florence.   The town was really cool and a nice change from all the tourists in Florence.  While there we checked out a nice Franciscan monastery.  

Courtyard in Franciscan Monastery
After dinner, Sheila and I walked out to Ponte Vecchio to take some pictures of the famed bridge there.  We got back late and were ready to go to bed.  The next morning, we had to get ready for our train ride to Venice.

Ponte Vecchio
Venice 3/22 – 3/24
To quote Indiana Jones from the Last Crusades “Ahh Venice” but just as appropriately “Uh Venice.” Venice is a city that is both beautiful and ugly at the same time.  The beauty of the old architecture and design of the city along with the history is amazing, but at the same time the hordes of tourist ruin the charm of the city they came to see.  Seriously, when we got off the water bus (vaporetti) it was so crowded that you could hardly move through the narrow street, and it wasn’t even high season. To really see the beauty of Venice, you need to go out early in the morning or late at night when the crowds of tourist are not out.  These are the times when you can walk through Saint Marks Square and only see one or two other people.  Don’t get me wrong, Venice is beautiful and well worth visiting--just be ready to have lots of people around.

Traffic jam in the canals
Saint Mark's Square
Canal at night
We rented an apartment through Airbnb and it was great.  I think the apartment was bigger than our condo at home and it was right over one of the canals.  I would highly recommend it, Venice Airbnb.

Airbnb in Venice
During our time in Venice we visited all of the major sites and did the quintessential Venice thing--went for a gondola ride.  It was pretty cool and the gondolier pointed out several of the historical sites including Marco Polo’s house.  

Grand Canal in Venice
Riding in a gondola
In Venice we also crossed over to another island and visited the Church of San Giorgio Maggiore where we went up to the top of the bell tower.  I was hoping we could climb the stairs to the top, but much to Sheila and Jody’s delight the only way to the top was via an elevator.  While we were at the top, the bells started ring and they were really loud.

Sheila in the bell tower
Cinque Terre 3/24 – 3/29
The Cinque Terre is one of the coolest places I have ever been.  The area consists of five (Cinque) villages on the sea and is a national park and UNESCO world heritage site.  There are no cars in most of the cities with the exception of Monterosso, which has some cars and scooters.  To travel between the towns, you can either hike or take the 3-5 minute train ride. Unfortunately, the trail was closed while we were there. In fact, parts of the trail have been closed for years due to landslides, so we rode the train.  I think Sheila and Jody where glad we weren’t walking between towns!

For our home base, we rented an apartment through VRBO in Riomaggiore (Riomaggiore Apartment).  Riomaggiore is the first of the five towns you reach as you are traveling from Florence.  Once again, this place worked out great.  From our balcony we could see the whole town and watch the waves break over the sea wall in the harbor.

Lunch in our apartment in Riomaggiore
The view from our balcony
During our time in the Cinque Terre we visited all five towns and each one had a different feel to it. Another thing about this area is it is incredibly photogenic.  I spent most of my time, especially around sunrise and sunset, running around taking photos.  It’s hard to point out anything specific that we did.  The whole vibe of the area takes over and life slows down and gets simpler. If you want to visit another town, you just hop on the train and you are there in about 5-15 minutes.  All of the towns are so small, you can walk the entire main street in about five minutes.  You think you have seen the whole town, but in reality it would take you days to explore all of the little walkways and passages within each town to really get to know them. 

Drinking Limoncello
Eating focaccia in Cornigila
Sheila trying to pet a goat
The weather was still quite cold but a bit warmer than in Florence and Venice, although stormy weather did start to roll in on our last day in the Cinque Terre.  This made for some rough seas, which in turn made for some really cool long-exposure photo opportunities.

Long exposure photo of seawall in Riomaggiore
If you are thinking of visiting the Cinque Terre I recommend viewing:

Brendan’s video has some really good information in it and if you’re into photography, I consider it to be essential viewing before visiting.

Umbria 3/29-4/2
We took the train from Riomaggiore to La Spezia where we picked up our rental car, a Fiat 500 (what else would we drive in Italy?), and drove to Umbertide.  We stayed at Farmhouse Casale degli Olmi which is an Agriturismo owned by a friend of ours, Fabrizio Ramaccioni.  We met Fabrizio and his girlfriend, Barbara, while scuba diving in Palau in 2014.  His B&B is beautiful and very quiet. Fabrizio is an excellent host and I would highly recommend staying at the Casale degli Olmi.  Being a bed and breakfast, Fabrizio would make breakfast every morning consisting of fresh bread, homemade pastries, various homemade jams and honey along with juices and coffee.  Most everything was homemade and we never went hungry at breakfast.

Farmhouse Casale degli Olmi
Breakfast in the farmhouse
Our first night in Umbertide, at the recommendation of Fabrizio, we had dinner at a restaurant in Montone called Tipico.  This place was really great and the food was spectacular.  Dining in Italy is such a treat.  First of all, the food and wine is amazing.  When you visit these small family run restaurants, you can see the pride they put into everything they do.  Secondly, you are never rushed.  If you want to spend 3 hours at dinner, they are more than happy to accommodate you. At Tipico they are particularly proud of their collection of olive oils.  They claim to have over 20 different types.  They offered us a couple of different ones to try with our bread. They also boast that everything they sell/serve is from the Umbria region.  

Dinner at Tipico
On our first full day in Umbria, we drove to Assisi and visited the Basilica di Santa Maria degli Angeli which is a large church that houses a small church from the 4thcentury that Saint Francis of Assisi restored in the 13thcentury (more details here).  It is also where Saint Francis died in 1226.  We visited on good Friday and there was a large group of young people visiting to receive a blessing in the little chapel.

For lunch we stop at a local sandwich shop that Fabrizio recommended and had another great meal.  Just five euros for a large sandwich and a beer, not a bad deal.

From there we drove up the hill towards Assisi, which is quite a popular tourist destination, especially on Easter weekend.  Once again, at the suggestion of Fabrizio, we drove past Assisi and up to the top of a hill via a dirt road.  It was quite high up in the hills as there was still snow in areas and the views were awesome. From there we dropped down into the small town of Spello.  Spello is a cool little hill top town that isn’t too touristy.  We walked around town for about an hour and then headed back to the farmhouse as the clouds began to move in.

Our Fiat 500 on the dirt road
Jody trying to stay warm on the mountain
The next day the weather called for rain so we all decided to stay at the farmhouse and relax.  I worked on pictures and Sheila and Jody got massages.  I guess we all have our own way of relaxing.

Talking cameras with Fabrizio
On Sunday we headed to Gubbio, another neat hilltop medieval town and home to a Roman amphitheater, Teatro Romano.  The amphitheater was nice to see, but the town was worth the visit. It was Easter Sunday so everyone was out.  At noon all of the church bells started ringing and as there is a church on just about every corner in Italy, there were a lot of bells ringing.  At the main church bell tower in town, you could see half a dozen men in red shirts staged in various positions within the tower to ring the bells—what a job.

Ringing the church bells
We walked through the winding streets of the town, made our way to the highest point, and then followed a dirt road up to a church at the top of the hill.  About half way up the hill, it started raining, but we persevered and made it all the way to the top.  Our goal was to get to the top and take the gondola back down to the bottom. The gondola was just a very small open air basket and could only hold two people standing upright.  Sheila and Jody took one and I followed in the next. The ride was very steep but afforded some great views of Gubbio on the way down.

Checking out an original Fiat 500
Hiking to the hilltop church
The gondola ride down
On the drive back to the farmhouse we stopped at another church, Abbazia Camaldolese di San Salvatorewhich Fabrizio recommended we visit.  It is actually two churches, a newer one built on top an older one.  The older church is over 1000 years old.  When you look at the columns in the old church, you see that none are the same height and all of them are ornamented differently.

1000+ year old church
For our final dinner in Umbria, we decided to go back to Montone and dine at Tipico again.  The plan was to get to Montone before sunset and take some photos of the sunset from the monastery at the top of the town. Of course, this was one of the few cloudless evenings during the whole trip.  Nevertheless, I got some cool night photos of the town before we went to dinner.

I decided because it was so clear out, I would try and do a star trails photo at the farmhouse.  It was going to be a bit tricky because it was also a full moon and I had to wait until the moon was behind me to take the photo. So I planned out the shot, set the alarm, and went to bed.  At about 1:00 in the morning I got up, setup the camera, and started shooting.  It took about one and a half hours to take the shots, during which time I sat in the main room staying warm by the fire. Once the shots were done, I packed up the camera gear and went back to bed for a few more hours of sleep.

In case you don’t know, a star trails shot is made by taking many photos over a series of time.  The images are then layered to show the stars moving across the sky.  It is a really cool effect but one of the most important tools is a very good, steady tripod.  Unfortunately, the head on my tripod started dying on the trip and by this time it wouldn’t lock in position very well.  As a result, the foreground of the image is a bit blurry due to the camera moving slightly. Anyway, the final image still looks good.

Startrails at the farmhouse
Florence and home 4/2-4/3
On Monday we drove back to Florence and returned the rental car.  While we were in Florence at the beginning of the trip, Sheila and I had dinner at a nice restaurant called Coquinarius and had made a reservation for the three of us for our last dinner in Italy.  Sheila and I had a pear and pecorino raviollini and Jody had a chestnut crepe pasta with spinach and ricotta.  A great way to finish off a great trip.

The next morning we reluctantly made our way downstairs to catch the taxi and head to the airport for our flights back home.

Jody ready to fly home

Monday, October 16, 2017

Germany Days 8-13

Day 8

We woke up today around 7 a.m.  It was another rather dreary, cloudy day, but there was no prediction for rain.  Eric had his breakfast and headed off to the convention center and I lazed around for a while before getting moving. 

I made my way down to the bakery near the hauptmarkt and bought some muffins for Eric for the next few days and again perused the stalls in the market.  I then took my purchases back to the apartment, ate my breakfast, and then set out for my afternoon of wandering.  I wanted to try and get some more of the old city covered, as so far I seem to keep wandering the same areas.

I discovered there was a gate that was accessible in the old wall right near the apartment.  So I decided to go through there and see what I could discover.  The wall is much larger and wider than it looks.  There is actually a garden and park with a path atop the wall as well as a path which runs below in what would have been the moat that encircles the entire wall/city.  This was like a hidden oasis away from all the crowds of tourists.  I only ran into a few people as I got closer to the actual castle. 

There were some really pretty sections of the garden with plantings of many beautiful flowers and of course all the trees around are changing color and dropping their fall leaves.  I followed this path for quite a way until it reached the castle.  I then hiked the steep cobblestone road up into the castle courtyard.  You have to pay to enter the castle itself but it is free to wander around outside and take pictures from the wall which overlooks the city. 

I then made my way around the back of the castle and down to Konigstrasse which is a pedestrian walkway (large cobblestone street) which bisects almost the entire old walled city from one side to the other.  It is lined with shops (mostly high-end) and is pretty much a really large, long, open-air mall.  I walked all the way to the other end to Frauentor, which is one of the four medieval entrances to Nuremberg’s old town.  Just adjacent to this large tower is the handwerkerhof (craftsman’s courtyard) where I wandered through some of the shops.

After looking at all the neat stuff I didn’t need, I headed back down Konigstrasse for a way before cutting off on a side street.  It is really hard to get lost in the old city.  You just keep going until you hit the old wall and then follow that around or keep going until you hit the river which cuts the city in half.  I kept going down the side street until I came to the wall and then followed it around until it took me back to the apartment.  All in all, I did about 6 miles of walking. 

At one point I had figured I would wind my way around the entire city by going up and down various streets, but being such an old medieval city layout, nothing runs in a straight line.  It would be very hard to zigzag back and forth on the streets. 

Eric got done at the show around 6 and got back to the apartment around 6:30.  We decided for dinner we would try the one restaurant near the Hauptmarkt that apparently had the best s spätzle in town—according to TripAdvisor.  Spätzle is basically the German version of macaroni and cheese but with onions added.

It was very good spätzle and there was so much we ended up taking half of it back to the apartment.  Luckily we had an oven to heat the leftovers up.  The one thing our apartment doesn’t have is a microwave, so you have to go old school.  You just have to make sure you have about 30 minutes to heat up your meal…

After dinner we wandered around a bit and then headed back to the apartment.  Eric was obviously tired after working the show all day. 

Day 9

After Eric had left for the show and I had a bite to eat for breakfast, I headed out in search of a couple essentials.  We needed more toilet paper (very important) and I wanted to buy a wash rag.  I now understand why Rick Steves mentioned a wash cloth on his packing list.  So far none of the places we have stayed has offered a wash cloth.  You get bath towels and hand towels, but no wash cloth. 

So I first checked the discount grocery store for toilet paper.  They had a good price of 1,95 for 8 rolls of recycled toilet paper, but I didn’t need 8 rolls.  I didn’t see any bath scrunchies or wash cloths either, so off I went to the next store.  Next, I went into a small shop that had a little bit of everything and they had some wash mits for 1,99 (not bad).  They are big on wash mits here instead of wash cloths.  A wash mit is basically a washcloth that it stitched over so you just put your hand in one side.

I decided to explore a couple more stores before I made my final decision.  I went in what ended up being a higher-end department store.  They had a lot of nice stuff and had some wash mits on clearance for 1,99 but they were some really wild colors, so I decided to keep looking.  The last store I went in was Muller’s and they had a two-pack of toilet paper (which was a much better size) and also had wash mits for 1,00.  So I made my 1,99 purchase of a wash mit and toilet paper and headed back to the apartment. 

I ended up heating up half of the leftover spätzle for lunch and by that time it was close to 1:30 p.m.  Today was the final day of the convention.  Eric had asked if I could come down to the convention center around 2 o’clock to help them tear down the booth and get everything packed back up for shipping.  So he bought me a ticket for the U-bahn and I managed to make my way down to the convention center, walked over the pedestrian bridge and then caught the bus around to the hall where the European Microwave show was being held. 

The convention center here is huge.  It would be a loooong walk from the train, so thankfully they offer the bus to shuttle people around.  I met Eric at the front of the convention hall and he took me to their booth.  The show was supposed to be over at 4:30 today and he figured most of the booths would probably be packing up early (like the show in Hawaii).  However, most actually waited to pack up until close to 4:30.  So around 4:30 we finally started tearing down the booth.  It didn’t take too long and we had everything put back into the large box on the shipping pallet. 

We had made reservations for four at an Italian restaurant down by the Hauptmarkt for Tim (Radar Systems) who had let Eric (Signal Microwave) share his booth along with Greg (CMC) who was also sharing the booth.  We were cutting it short on time by the time we got done packing up the booth, so we all caught a cab to the restaurant. 

We had a very nice dinner and some good conversation.  After dinner, we treated everyone to gelato at the gelateria near the restaurant.  There are so many restaurants and cafes in the old town area that you could easily eat somewhere different for six months and probably still not have tried every place.  There is no shortage of shopping in the old town either.   Everywhere you look there are shops. 

By the time we got done with our gelato it was nearing 10:30 and Eric needed to get back to the apartment to get ready for his trip to Stuttgart tomorrow.  He had booked himself on the early train to Stuttgart to go visit a customer there for the day to see their plant and talk with their engineers, etc.   So we got back to the apartment and he got all his stuff packed up for the next day.

Day 10

Eric got up early, had a quick breakfast, and headed out to the train station.  It was a beautiful sunny day today.  I did not feel very good and could tell I had a headache coming on, so I had some breakfast and crawled back into bed for a while. 

Later, I managed to get up and take a hot bath, but spent the entire day in the apartment.  A pity too, as the weather was really nice.  Oh well, my feet probably needed a rest.  The day before the callus on the bottom of my right foot was getting really sore from all the walking.  On most days I have probably easily done at least 10 miles of walking. 

Eric made it back around 6:30 p.m. and picked us up falafel wraps for dinner and brought them back to the apartment.  Needless to say, he was beat and we were both ready for bed.

Day 11

It was a beautiful sunny day today.  This was the first full free day Eric would have in Nuremberg, so we got up and headed out first thing to find breakfast.  We went to the bakery down by the Hauptmarkt and Eric got to look around at the stalls in the market.  There are obviously many more stalls set up on the weekend as they get a lot more business then.  We bought a couple things at the Hauptmarkt as well as the bakery and then made our way back to the apartment to eat our breakfast.

After breakfast, we decided to do a little shopping.  We had seen a leather store along the river that had some very nice belts.  Eric decided he could use a new belt since he only has one belt that he has had for 15+ years.  I had also scoped out another leather store in the craft market that had some nice belts. 

On the way to the first leather store, we stopped into the health food store and I bought my souvenir, some German-made essential oils.  It is apparently very hard to get this brand in the United States and they are supposed to be really good. 

Then we made our way to the first leather store and looked at their belts.  We then walked all the way to the other side of town to check out the belts at the craft market.  Eric ended up liking one of the belts at the craft market, so he bought one there.  Of course, he is so skinny they had to cut it down and add about three holes to make it fit him. 

We trekked back across town, back to the Hauptmarkt and bought some flatbread and fresh cheese spreads to have for a late lunch back at the apartment.  We had made reservations for a late dinner at 8:45 at one of the Italian restaurants we could not get into a couple nights ago, which is apparently very good.  So we needed to have something for a couple snacks this afternoon. 

After we made it back to the apartment and Eric had a breather, we packed up some of our stuff (in preparation for our early departure on the train tomorrow morning to Rothenberg).  After we got some of our stuff packed, we ventured out again so I could show Eric the garden park that runs all along the old town wall just outside our apartment and all the way to the castle. 

We made our way along the wall to the castle and then down to the Hauptmarkt and over to the other side of the old city and then back to the apartment.  I think we have done about three laps of the old town today so far.  Then, later for dinner we get to walk almost all the way across town again.  We will easily probably have 15+ miles of walking in today.  I think I have just about worn Eric out…

Around 7 p.m. we decided to head out to see what kind of night photos we could get from the few vantage points we had scoped out.  We headed toward the castle and took a few photos there and then down toward the Hauptmarkt area.  By that time it was getting close to our dinner reservation time of 8:45 so we high-tailed it to the restaurant.  We tried a new Italian restaurant that was very popular and rated very highly on TripAdvisor.  Since it was a rather late dinner, we split a pasta dish that was fabulous—the ratings were correct. 

After dinner we made our way back to a couple other spots we had wanted to try taking some night photos.  After we had exhausted about all the photo spots, we made our way back to the apartment.  By that time I think it was close to 11 o’clock.  We probably made it to bed around midnight. 

Day 12

We got up early, had a little breakfast, took the trash out and cleaned up the dishes in the apartment before trekking our way down the moat path with our luggage all the way to the main train station.  We thought that taking the 9:05 a.m. train on a Sunday would be a good choice.  We didn’t think it would be very busy.  We were wrong—the train was packed.  Luckily there was a very small first-class section which had space available.  The people in coach were packed in and were standing in the aisles. 

We had a very short time to change to our next train at the designated stop.  Like the majority of the trains on our trip so far, our current train was running late.  So we did not think we were going to make our next train which meant we would be sitting at the station for about an hour.  So Eric looked up an alternate route on his phone.  As it turned out, if we stayed on the train we were on and changed to a different train at another station further down the line, it would take a little longer to get there, but it would get us to Rothenburg.  That train also had a first-class car, so we would have a better chance finding someplace to sit if it was busy.  So that is what we did. 

We finally arrived in Rothenberg around 12 p.m. and took a taxi to the hotel.  Eric didn’t feel like hauling the 50-pound bag all the way through town, up and down hills over cobblestones.  It was a good choice after we saw the route to our hotel.  It was super busy in town as well.  I’ve never seen so many tourists wandering everywhere.  You would think it was Disneyland.

We got checked into our hotel and then went out in search of food as we hadn’t had anything of substance since breakfast.  There was an Italian restaurant a very short walk from our hotel, so we decided to try that.  It was very, very good.  After filling our bellies, we decided to walk around town and see if we could get any good photos and scope out any possible night time photos spots.  We had plans to attend the night watchman’s tour at 8 p.m.  It is very well known and very popular.

It got dark around 7 p.m. so Eric got his camera ready and we headed out to see if we could get any good night shots around town before the night watchman’s tour.  We found a few really good spots and managed to get some photos without people in them, which after seeing the crowds earlier, we thought would have been impossible.

At around 8 p.m. we made our way to the town hall to catch the tour which took about an hour.  The guy who leads the tour has been doing it for 20 years and does a really good job and is both entertaining and educational. 

After the tour, we took a few more photos before heading back to the hotel room to get to bed so we could get up early the next morning and attempt to get some morning photos before the crowds overtook the town.

Day 13

We got up around 6:30 and decided we would walk the entire wall around the town.  The majority of the wall is originally, but there are several sections that were rebuilt by donations from all over the world after parts of the wall were bombed in 1945. 

It was a lovely morning walk.  The sun was shining and there was a light fog hanging over the valley as the sun rose.  We only ran into one other person on the wall for the entire 3-miles.

We made it back to our hotel room around 9 a.m. and got cleaned up and finished packing so we could get checked out by 11 a.m.  We were told we could leave our bags at the front desk while we wandered around town until our 3 p.m. train.

By the time we got checked out, we were hungry, so we decided to go to the bakery then to Medieval Crime and Punishment Museum.  It was very interesting seeing all of the way that they got confessions from accused people and what happened to you after you confessed to a crime.  Many of the items on display like shame masks, thumb and leg screws, and documents were originals, several of which were from Rothenburg.

 After the museum we decided to go back to the Italian restaurant we had eaten at yesterday as it was so good.  The weather was beautiful, so we sat outside on the sidewalk as we watched all the other tourists walk by.  There were much smaller crowds today than yesterday.  Obviously, in addition to the usual tour groups, they must get a lot of locals doing daytrips on the weekend.

After having lunch and walking around town a bit and we made our way back to our hotel to catch the cab we had reserved for 2:30.  We wanted to make sure we got to the train station in plenty of time.  It is only a short ride to the train station, but if you miss the train you have to wait an hour for the next one. 

When our train arrived, we climbed aboard to start the couple hour journey through various towns on our way to Frankfurt.  We made all our transfers okay and arrived at the Frankfurt airport station around 6 p.m.  We had a reservation for tonight at the Sheraton which is actually attached to the airport.  Needless to say, we don’t have to worry about getting to the airport tomorrow, as we are already here.