A Travellerspoint blog

March 2008

Up-Tempo Waltz

A Few Days in Vienna

all seasons in one day 6 °C

All in the Family: Hapsburg digs in Vienna

March 21


After a month in Italy, we slipped into Austria today. There was the usual missing of our exit and backtracking, asking for directions, but, considering we didn´t have a Vienna map, we miraculously found the right house out of a million. It´s a cute attic apartment, with skylights, light-coloured wooden panelling with darker crossbeams, in a "studio" layout, a curtain separating our bedroom from Anica´s bed and the rest is. There was some snow still lurking on the lawns! Today, however, it was 11 degrees when we arrived. We´re at the far west end of Vienna, looking out across a field, to some hills across a river. It´s hardly like being in a city at all.

German is a shock to read and attempt to speak, after three months of French-Spanish-Italian. German has some words in common, but many seem to be just like three or four words strung together. There´s probably a German term to explain that, such as "weputzdeesvurdztagever." Makes reading signs and labels difficult, though. As usual, we´re spoiled by the many people we´ve encountered who speak English, and do so pleasantly at the first sign you´re struggling with their language.

March 22


OK, after a day in Vienna, I´m ready to say it´s one of my favourite cities in the world. It´s just so monumental, and yet so inviting. The public transport is great; our bus ride plus underground ride was no hassle at all. There´s all sorts of pedestrian streets, and the combination of architecture, art and music - especially music - make "Wien" wonderful.

The Spanish Riding School

We had some luck early in the day when we went to the world-famous Spanish Riding School of the Lipanazzer stallions. Hoping just to see their museum, and maybe a practice session, there was a performance scheduled and we were able to get standing room tickets. Despite my mild asthma attack, and the discomfort of standing (before the show, too) it was an impressive thing to witness.

Then we had a great lunch, involving schnitzel, doner, lamb kebab, lots of extra spices for me...very tasty. It was a restaurant called "Levant," so that suits our experienced taste-buds just fine.

Taking advantage of our day-passes, although public transport is all on the honour system here, we took the #2 Tram ride, which follows a ring-road route tracing where the medieval walls once were. We saw all sorts of interesting buildings on this ride.

The afternoon was mainly devoted to the Haus Der Musik. No translation of that needed, right? Jenn had seen this recommended for kids, and it was indeed a huge hit with Anica, but really with all three of us. The core of the "kid" appeal was in the hands-on, science-of-music exhibits that let you play with sound waves, your own voice, pretend to conduct an orchestra, etc. There´s also a series of rooms devoted to famous composers who lived in Vienna: Mozart, Beethoven, Strauss, Mahler, Schubert, etc. Each one is decorated with materials that evoke the time period and personality of the composer. Very well-done.

Dinner was a stand-up affair! We ate at a "Weinerstanzel," or hot dog stand, we´d say in North America. Very yummy! All of us enjoyed it, and I particularly liked how they served their draft beer in a real glass. Like the transit system, very trusting of their patrons.

Anica, with hot dog, triumphant

To cap off the day, when I asked the bus driver if he stopped at our street, he merely said "yup," so we got on, knowing it was the right route. However, when we came to our street, he called out to us "76?" guessing our number, and stopped the bus right in front of it. To Anica, it was magical. How did he know? I guess that house is known as a tourist guest house, the only one on the block.

March 23


Easter Sunday! And the Easter Bunny found Anica in Vienna. What a relief! As for the rest of the day, mostly it was a case of the Hapsburgs getting our money. Just like in the good old days of the Hapsburg Empire. We went to Schonnbrun Palace, the "summer palace" of the Austrian ruling dynasty. There were all sorts of things going on for kids. First, we did the "Kindermuseum," which is always for kids, but they had a little egg hunt added in. In this museum, Anica got to dress up in replica princess clothing, petticoats, wigs, and all. Then we explored how the royal children lived, including some of their actual apartments in the palace. In each room, an interlocking pair of wheels could be turned revealing pictures of how peasant children spent their days as compared to the Imperial offspring. A simple, but sobering visual tool.

We ate at the Palace Cafe, which (surprise) wasn´t all that cheap. The food was good, though. Rain scared a few people off, so we were able to get in a shortened lineup, and go on the "Grand Tour" of the palace itself after lunch. Even the grand tour only takes you through 40 rooms....out of 1,441. There´s some amazing moments, as the audioguide tells you, "in this very room..." ...Mozart performed for the royal family at age 6, or ...the last Emperor signed his empire away on Nov 11, 1918; or ...Kennedy met with Kruschev in 1961...(bet you didn´t see that last one coming!). Aspects of the Hapsburgs being in-bred and foolish are mostly ignored, of course, although for anecdotal interest much is now made of Empress Elizabeth, aka "Sisi," who lived a life that has some parallels to Princess Diana.

Easter at the "Summer Palace"

The other kid-focused thing going on was the Easter Market. The rain had stopped when we came out of the palace, so we looked through this, buying oversized pretzels and admiring the crafts. Giant, colourfully-painted eggs decorated the rows of temporary stalls, all set up in the square outside the palace.

Definitely an Easter to remember!

March 24


When we woke this morning, we were in for a shock...snow! Foolish Canadians are we, thinking we could go a full winter without seeing snow. It blanketed the three skylights of our attic apartment, covered our car, parked outside in the street, and whitened the hills all around us. Anica was excited about it. Snow!

An OBWT first: snowfall!

Soon, it was melting again, but Jenn had already declared she was staying home for the day to avoid the cold. She got some valuable peace and quiet, too, because Anica and I went out. Anica was going to stay home until I said, "there´s a great Natural History Museum" in Vienna. Then she couldn´t wait to go.

It was pretty good, too. Hundreds of stuffed specimens, of course, similarly exhaustive cabinets of rocks and meteorites, plus some great prehistoric objects, including the famous "Venus of Willendorf." That was housed in a spooky little "cabin" of its own, with horror-movie music playing in the near-dark. Not sure why!

Anica: behind you!

The Natural History Museum has a "twin," across the courtyard, called the "Kuntshistoriches Museum." The KHM. Normally, it´s closed on Mondays, but it was open today. Although not initially good news for Anica, who´d just put in three very enthusiastic museum hours (including a lunch break), but, again, when she heard they had an Egyptian gallery, we bought our tickets and made a beeline for it. Their Egyptian collection is good, but is a tiny fraction of what we saw in Egypt itself. Anica just likes spotting her favourite gods and goddesses and Pharaohs. Egypt has really made an impression on her.

The KHM is best-known as an art gallery. We saw a special exhibit of Arcimboldo, the 16th century artist who did the composite portraits using fruit, etc. Especially cool were the still lifes that only looked like portraits when viewed upside down. The gallery had mirrors angled below the paintings so you could see them like this.

Anica was going from room to room, looking for Brueghel. Ever since she saw his "Triumph of Death" at the Prado, she´s been fascinated by Pieter Bruehgel´s art. In our flat here in Vienna, there´s a big oversize art book of Bruegel. Eventually we got a room that was all his, and we saw many of his most famous works, like his Tower of Babel, the peasant wedding, Carnival vs. Lent, and his series on the seasons. I love it too, because there´s just so much detail you could look at one of his paintings for an hour. The one with the "230 children" playing "83 games" is like a visual record of 17th century Northern European childhood.

We got home easily, on what I think must be the best public transportation system we´ve been on anywhere in the world.

March 22


"Vienna, Austria...and a horse show"

Today we did a lot of stuff. First we went on an amazinly not busy bus, and a same-thing-as-the-bus metro. As we arrived at Karlsplaz we said: "do we want to just go to the Lipizzaner stallion museum?" So lucky! Even though the museum was closed we came up to the ticket desk and said: "Exersise?" "No, performence only." We got to go see a performance. Hmmm, it was, though, 80 inutes with 20 second peeks because of people in front of the boxs. They prance! They dance! They jump up from standing! They do anything! We had lunch, went to the Haus der musik. Can anybody guess what it means?! House of Music! We spent 3 hours! Some of the things you could do were: "Light wall: six terminals to the left invite zou to walk through various possible and impossible acoustic rooms"...so on and so on...My 2 favs were Harmonic driving. a sort of musical stay-on-the-path roller-coaster thing, and conducting with a baton, my own orchestra! I also liked the exibit on Franz Schubert! Guess what we had for dinner!? Stand-up German/Austrian sauseges! Amayingly good! So ate there, went home, G.N.

Electronic orchestra conductor simulation at "Haus der Musik"

March 23


"Easter Day!"

Today I woke up, felt around and went "The Easter Bunny came!" Yay! I got 28 miny choco eggs, 1 Pez, a giant suprise Barbie Egg with a miny Barbie doll, a dog, a leash, and a purse! We road the metro to Schönbrun Palace stop and when we got off we went to the Kids Mueseum. I dressed up as a Princess with a white/gray wig, a fan, and coulered gloves. I found the nest I wanted and got a toy. I got to play with imperial toys and layed a table where King Daddy sat. Had lunch and went inside the Palace where we went on a free audio guide tour through 40 intresting, decresptive rooms. Went home, had a lovely dinner home-cooked by Chef Mummy! G.N.!

Princess Anica of Wien

March 24


We woke up and it was snowing! Neat, neat, neat and neat. Actual snow! Me and Daddy decided to go to the natrul history mueseum. Without Mummy! We saw: jewelarry from prehistory, skealtons, aquariums, but stil the meany people stuffed the animals! Boooo! We liked it though and we had lunch on are own. Without Mummy! I think it's neat seeing the jewlarry because they didne't have to stuff them! Daddy was so suprised that its twin museum was open. we saw a whole room of Brugel with 4 pics I knew. Also had an Egyptian collectin. Went home, had dinner, G.N.!

Detail from Brueghel' "Peasant Wedding"

Posted by jennrob 11:47 Archived in Austria Comments (8)

"Ah, Venice!"

...as they say in the movies

semi-overcast 12 °C

The Grand Canal, Venice, with Rialto Bridge in the background

March 14


We drove from Tuscany to Venice today, through wildly fluctuating temperatures, to arrive in the suburb of Favoro Veneto in 20 degree sunshine with nary a wrong turn. Good directions from these people! Venice, unlike Rome with its spacious greenbelt, seems to have a belt of ugliness around it. Factories and highways. Trucks. Drivers with a pathological need to merge poorly. It was the most harrowing of the European driving I've done. But, it should balance out because nobody can drive inside Venice proper.

Our flat is in a "plex" of some sort...duplex, triplex, quadplex. Bright colours, a weird layout, but really cute. So is the town. It's seems "new," but maybe that's just in comparison to medieval Castiglion Fiorentino. To get into the heart of Venice, we just take one bus for about 20 minutes. We'll try it tomorrow.

March 15


Yup, one bus. Worked well, although it's crowded. When we got out at the bus depot, we saw a bridge from there into "the" Venice. It was like stepping into a magical kingdom. Venice really is different from all the over places we've been. The striped poles, the canals, the decaying lower parts of the palazzos, it's like a run-down seaside amusement park. Tourist visitors far outnumber residents, which heightens that impression.

We walked the more or less main drag of sidewalks and bridges, over the Rialto bridge, to San Marco square. Benches were put out that become sidewalks in case of flood. We admired the clock tower, with its two figures striking, its digital readout, its 24-hour readout, etc. We admired the Campanile from a seat in the square. Jenn and I fed the pigeons, and since nobody else was feeding them, we got a lot of pigeon attention!

Rob with feathered friends

Detail of the 24-hour clock

We looked at San Marco basilica from the outside, with its Byzantine onion domes. San Marco square may be my favourite piazza in all of Italy. Then we took a tour of the Doge's Palace.

It was the "secret itineraries" tour, which meant no lining up, and getting to see way more than the regular tour. It was guided, which Anica doesn't usually like, but we don't overdose on those, so she was okay. The theme of the tour was how great and progressive Venice was in the past (first to abolish slavery, to eliminate torture, to deny nepotism, a republic longer than most, etc.). There's a lot of truth in it, relative to the time, although it was always elitist. We saw the spartan offices of the council of ten, working behind the scenes, and saw how the Doge was practically a prisoner in exchange for his title.

Speaking of prisoners, the Doge's Palace also housed the prison, and we saw where its most famous inmate, Casanova, had his cell at first, then another, which he broke out of. The whole "behind the scenes" secret tour was great, better than the grandeur of the big staterooms we saw on our own. Towards the end of the general tour, we got to walk across the Bridge of Sighs, and peek out through the stone-latticed window.


March 17


After our typical quiet Sunday, it was back into the lagoon today. Instead of walking, we bought a transit pass for the day, which includes the Vaporettos (motorized ferry boats). In the morning we took the #2 vaporetto, which goes around the outside of Venice, in the big water, past towering cruise ships, and low, tiny boats unloading everything from vegetables to Xerox machines (actual examples). We got off at San Marco square and toured the basilica first, with its beautiful marble floors and gold-backed mosaic ceilings. The story of how the gospel-writer's bones ended up in Venice is a marvellous one. Then we went up the Camanile, the 60 metre bell-tower, for the best views over Venice.

View of San Marco Square from the Bell-Tower

Also from Bell-Tower, view of the Basilica

At lunch, we gave up scrimping and purposely sought out a "menu touristique" place. Jenn and I had a lunch that was almost too much food and Anica had a huge pizza of her own. Venice certainly is expensive, but at least today we were full for 17 Euros instead of still hungry after paying 12 Euros.

We made use of our Vaporetto day pass to get to the Peggy Guggenheim museum. She had quite the life! We saw her grave, and that of many of her dogs, out in the sculpture garden, and then went though each room of her former residence, looking at her modern art collection. It sure was a change from the art we've been seeing lately, which has all been religious, and medieval-to-renaissance in period. It was interesting to hear Anica's comments on this. Some of it she just laughed at!

Another Grand Canal View

March 18


For the record, we took another stroll around Venice today and saw a couple of sights. We saw Tintoretto's masterpiece work in the Scuola, where they give you mirrors so you can admire the ceiling without hurting your neck. Except it made Anica dizzy! They're canvas, not fresco, so it's an unbelievably huge undertaking - several times more space than the Sistine Chapel. I also loved the wood carvings, various allegorical figures, that were done about 100 years later by another artist.

The other sight was the Friar's church, pardon the anglicized name. It had a fascinating collection of tombs, including Titian, whose altarpiece adorns this church. Canova's tomb is a pyramid shape, with a mysteriously inviting half-open door. Darn those tomb raiders!

The rest of our rambles featured Anica wearing her new Venetian mask, the kind with the stick that you use to hold it up to your face. We took pictures of her all over Venice sporting it. Since it was Venice, nobody was too startled.

We can't reveal who this is, sorry!

March 19


Our driving day-trip for this locale: Padua. We were there to see Giotto's famous frescoes in the Scrovegni chapel. But it's also just a really nice town, and it was a really nice, sunny day. The grounds all around the chapel are parkland now, since the Scrovegni family palace is long-gone. There was even a big playground with some pretty cool stuff to do. Anica and I also played on the barely detectable ruins of the Roman amphitheatre (does that count as another one in her total? That might make 14...)

The chapel, with its 14th century Giotto frescoes, is indeed beautiful. But what makes it a must-see attraction is the job they've done with it. Only 25 people can enter at a time, only with advance tickets, and you settle in with a movie about the family, artist, and chapel. During this time, the group's humidity level is measured. No joke! Then you enter the actual chapel via an airlock. Simple, right? You have 15 minutes to ooh and aah, and then a tone sounds and out you go. That's fine, though, because the attached museum has a multimedia centre that lets you dissect and view the chapel and learn more about Giotto and Padua. It's an exceptional experience on beautiful grounds.

The modest exterior of the Scrovegni Chapel

The experience of parking in Padua is worth noting. They've come up with such an unusual way of paying for the parking lot that the town drunks gather by the pay machines, hoping to instruct you, and thus earn a tip. We figured out that a camera took our license plate on the way in, and that we didn't pay then (since one woman kept saying "dopo" over and over - i.e. "after"). It seemed really complicated, especially since it really didn't cost that much to park there (a Euro an hour).

March 20


We spent a luminous day in Murano. This is an island, also part of Venice, that has been known for centuries for its glass-blowing. To my eyes, and perhaps it was just the sunny skies, it was even prettier than Venice itself. Murano has wide canals, and almost every sidewalk runs along a canal. From its shores, you can see a huge swath of snowcapped mountains in the distance.

Murano "street"

You're hard-pressed in Murano to find a store that is NOT devoted to glass. We looked in many, and also went to the Glass Museum, which Anica was very interested in seeing. Especially when she realized that some of the glass pieces there date to the 1st century AD. They've survived where huge marble buildings have crumbled! It is amazing.

Huge Murano glass sculpture in public square

We did the trip by Vaporetto again. The first boat was through Venice's main, Grand Canal, and we sat at the very back, outside. Then we had two other long Vaporetto rides getting to Murano and back, including a tour through the whole island on the way back. Joy-riding around in the Vaporettos is a wonderful experience, especially with a window or outside seat on a beautiful, clear day like today.

March 15


"Venice: also known as Venizia"

Today we went to Benizia. We took bus #19 to Venice instead of take bus number 4 through Mestre (pronounced Mess-tra), back out and there: Venezian bus terminal. It started and went like this: we got up early so we could go to Venice early, to skip the crowds, BUT we did not do the line-up at the Doges Palace because we went on the secret itenires tour! SO, what was the point of getting up early? We walked over a bridge and boom! never-ending canals, Murano glass stores, bridges...all resembling Venice. IN S.Marks square we found out the benches we were sitting on were sidewalks for then it floods, let Dad and Mum (not me) feed the pigeons, find our really, how beautiful the Basilica was, saw people up at the Campanile and gaze at the bridge of sighs. "Sigh." On are secret itineraries tour we saw: Casanova's prison where he asked "I want my bed, I want food..." torture section, armours, offices...GREAT TOUR! Went over the bridge of sighs, luckily, had lunch, went home, had dinner, (want to guess) G.N.!

San Marco Basilica

March 17


"Venice canals and a fallen-out tooth"

Today we went again to Venizia. When we got to the bus terminal we got on a Vapporetto to go to S.Marks Square which was beautiful and had a basilica built for a saint. The Vapporetto was brilliant - we got front seats "outside" overlooking the water. Man, did he (St. Mark) have an interesting life! Count how many people have been dragged around the streets till they die?! We went inside the basilica where the shiny golden mosaics made it beautiful and where S.Marks stone coffin lay. We went out (theres the Muslim guys who ring the bell every hour, and they're fake. Under the world's first digital clock!) Went up the Campanile on the elevator and went "wheee!," Peggy Guggenheim! Mysterious, some un-named art! Oooo-aaah. My favourite was the boy who looked like his penis was electrified! ha-ha! We took the Vapporetto back, went home, had dinner, had a blood-mass coloured chocolate spitted out of my mouth as my tooth came out, G.N.!

Does this explain the "electrified" comment? Sculpture at the Peggy Guggenheim

March 19


Today we went on a 40 minute drive to Padua. We went on the SR11 to it. The SR11 took us through Mira, a town we might of stayed in it hadne't been for Simonetta and Bruno. When we got to Padua we got lost (again) looking for the place that we wanted. A church. Actully not just a regular church! A church that somebody built to save his father's soul. Beatifull! Also, images of Mary's father! And the mothers in the slaughter of the innocents were really crying! Vices and virtues (bad=vices and good=virtues) were displayed opesite each other! e.g. angryness was on one side...happyness/kindess was on the other wall! Then me and Mummy did some "is-the-baby-looking-alright" comparing of Jesus in different pictures and went to the multi-media room. Had lunch, went home, had dinner, G.N.!

March 20



Today we went to Murano. We took a 45 minute boat ride to Murano - actully the boat ride was 80 minutes. With a lighthouse greeting us at our stop, we went to the Murano glass museum where we saw stuff from 1st century BC to 18th century AD. Amazing sparkiling glass! Wow! Sighs! Went home, had dinner, G.N.!

Posted by jennrob 09:12 Archived in Italy Comments (4)

Umbrian Umbrellas

Our Second Week Based in "Cast F.no"

rain 10 °C

Anica, with an umbrella in Umbria, outside St. Francis' basilica in Assisi

March 7


Despite the rain, stronger than yesterday, we decided to take a car trip down to Orvieto, just to "do" something. Even in the fog and rain, we could see it was a beautiful drive. From our town, we just take the SS71 "straight" down into Umbria to get to Orvieto. On the way, we passed by Cortona yet again, with the fields of olive trees flashing their silver backs leaves like endless groves of tinsel. Poetic, eh? But much of the drive was interesting today for the road itself, with the climbs up and down valleys, and the countless twists. Keep me awake! Anica enjoyed herself more than ever, because she wasn't carsick (even without Gravol) and we didn't get lost.

Orvieto is a towering hilltop town. About 30 years ago, it suffered a severe landslide, and the Italian government set about to save the town. It's basically just ash stone. Now there's no heavy or non-local traffic up, and part of the fun for the visitor is taking the funicaular railroad up. That was fine in the rain, and so was the fact that the bus (same ticket) was waiting to take us to the Piazza Duomo.

Heavy rain then made it harder to enjoy the square. It's a beautiful little area, with a uniquely'facaded cathedral (Duomo), with striped sides. It looked like a zebra wearing a Carnivale head-dress. Well, not really. But the front was quite colourful.

Orvieto's colourful cathedral

The real attraction of the town, for us, was the Etruscan Underground tour. Orvieto has about 1,200 man-made caves, built starting in the 6th century BCE, and continuing to just before 1900 CE, when they banned any more. Many are now wine cellars. We got a tour of two large caves, built orginally by the Etruscans. It was amazing to look down a perfectly-dug rectangular well, 90 metres down, made 2,600 years ago. More than a dozen such wells existed, and enabled the Etruscans to withstand siege. The tour also took us through part of the medieval pigeonholes. There's a kilometre of them! The pigeons were raised to be food. Another siege survival tactic. Anica said, hey, I've had pigeon in Egypt! There was also a medieval olive press and mill, a WWII bomb shelter, and an underground quarry. We also liked the fact that it was dry, and 15 degrees inside the caves, whereas outside it was 5 degrees and raining heavily.

After lunch in Orvieto, we drove back and did a little grocery shopping before going home to dry off.

March 7


Miserable again. 3 days that could of been bright and shiny, 3 days that we could of gone to Florence/Firenze. We headed on the SSR71 to Orveito, in 3, 2, 4, 6 degree wheather! Even some snow! When we got to Orveato we found the parking lot for the Finncular up to the town. There's 1 difference! Plus, there tram was even faster! Especially on going down. I don't know why, but it seemed like a quarter less faster then a 6-9 age rollercoaster. We hopped on a bus going to the Duomo, which was across from the Etruscan Underground which after going in the (inside, construction - outside, pretty) Duomo. We went to the Etruscan Underground which wasen't as good as the Cattacombs. Went home, had dinner and tomorrow was...

March 8


Finally, we took the train and went to "Florence." Your know, Firenze. The weather was better today, so it was worth the wait. The most amazing thing about the day was that I once again (see Malacca blog entry) ran into a teacher I know. Elizabeth was there with her school tour group. It's March Break in Ontario. Still, an amazing coincidence: we were both coming out of the Duomo at the same time! I heard a voice say, "Oh my God, Rob!"

The Duomo here is magnificent, with its different coloured marble on the outside, like it's been painted. We did the 436 steps up to see the dome from the catwalk, then step outside for the 360 degree view of Florence.

The campinile in Firenze

Next we happened upon the Accademia and saw there was no lineup. This is not a huge gallery, but it does have Michelangelo's "David." That's enough! We sat on a bench right in front of it, with an unobstructed view, and marvelled. It was a real treat to see like this. Anica noticed how he seems to be swallowing nervously, and perhaps he's not as relaxed as the slingshot-over-the-shoulder pose indicates at first. She also said it's funny that David slew the giant Goliath and now it's David who's 17 feet tall!

We had a great lunch today, maybe the best meal out we've had in Italy. Just great anitipasti and pasta dishes. We also stocked up on books since Florence has several English-language bookshops. Jenn and I picked the biggest, thickest novels we could find so they'd last.

Late afternoon, we walked through Piazza Della Signoria, with its great sculptures and loggia, then past the street performers (and the Uffizi, that will have to wait for another trip to Florence) to the road that looked out over the Ponte Vecchia. Across the famous bridge, and, eventually, back to the train.

Buildings on the Ponte Vecchia

March 8


...Firenze. We got up at 6:30 am to get to the 7:51 train to Firenze. We got second class which looked to me like it was better than first class! We talked to a family of 3 who, like us, were going to Florence. Except, not sightseeing, taking there kid to the hospital (even though she was bouncing around). When we got to Firenze train station the 1st thing we did ws called: find a washroom. We headed towards the Duomo, watching it peaking in and out of tall and small buildings. When we got to the Duomo I gasped excitedtetly at the mixture of coluers and the dome. We walked inside and I noticed the mazelike marble floor and I played get to the end! We climbed the 463 steps to the dome where we got magnifacent views (again!) and we were coming out when Daddy met a teacher! Saw the real, no neat, amazing famous (again barenaked) David. Had lunch, crossed the bridge with shops, had a bottle of water at a hot internet place, got on a train, went home, had dinner, G.N.

March 10


Sometimes, life's little stresses catch up with you. At other times, I might give the impression that it's all sightseeing and skittles on this trip. Well, today was, if not the day from hell, at least the day from heck. Jenn's sick, although functioning. She's still on her feet, but she's clearly picked up some sort of bug. Our computer is sick, too. We're having trouble loading pictures, and with the back-up. So even plan B isn't working right now. That could be devastating in the long run, although if Jenn can get on-line, she'd probably find a way to fix it. The weather continues to be cold, dreary, and rainy. And everywhere we went today, our Mastercard was declined. So we spent about 20 minutes on the phone (costly!) verifying that our card was not running around Florence on Saturday without us. Life gets a lot worse, but for those that want a realistic account of long-term travel, there are days like this.

Remember the Mrs. Lincoln joke? As in, other than that, how did we like Siena today? We didn't see too much of it. Anica did enjoy several runs around the Campo, with its distinctive slope. And we didn't get lost. We had a decent meal, where I finally got to try a Tuscan sausage and white bean dish. Really, it's better than it might sound! But, basically, today was a write-off, and we scurried home out of the rain well before sunset.

Room to run in the distinctive sloped campo of Siena

March 11


For some reason, we all had a really good time today. Jenn was feeling a little better, for part of the day, so that was good. Everything went wrong today, but it was a fun mess. It was "Umbria" day today, which meant we headed south by car. The first stop was Perugia. We had a hard time finding parking, but soon we'd hit on the escalators. One of the definite attractions, I'd heard about this from my parents. Anica loved riding the escalators, which go from the lower town, at the base of the hill/cliff, to the upper town. On the way, you pass by Etruscan ruins discovered when they dug the escalators, then Medieval and Renaissance vaulted tunnels, closer to the surface. Anica took all sorts of pictures, and we went up and down every tunnel. When we got to the top, we admired the view, and after a brief debate, decided to move on. That was it for Perguia!

In Umbria, as in most of Italy, the food is part of the attraction, You must linger over lunch, and sample all the local cuisine you can. Driving into Assisi, we chose to eat at...McDonald's. Oh, the shame. Can I explain? It's not the first time in Italy, we've resorted to Mickey D's. It's like this: we're starving, but it's not yet lunch time, according to Italy. We're in the car, we need to pee. We see the golden arches. They have: free parking, a bathroom, seats, and we can afford it. Jenn calls it the path of least resistance.

Assisi. Wow! This must be the most beautiful, dramatic and memorable of all the Italian hilltop towns we've visited. The cathedral, of Saint Francis, naturally, juts way out the cliffside, with an impressive gleaming white colonnade. The monastery looms highest of all over everything else. The stone is luminous throughout the town. Rich but light colours, like gold and white, and sometimes even pink. It's a little touristy, with all the souvenir shops, but it's always been for tourists...they just used to be called pilgrims.

Approaching Assisi by car

We drove up and up, round and round, and parked as close as we could to the Basilica. It was so wet, and just then it started raining again. Jenn, especially with still not feeling well, was content to sit in the car. Anica and I set out to see what we could find. We ran into a group of tourists who also had no idea where they were in relation to the church. Then Anica directed all of us by finding the sign and the right path. One of the women said, "I don't know about you, but I'm just going to follow the little girl!" And it worked. There was the Basilica. Then came the heavy rain. Even hail. Did God not want us to visit? As if in answer, a lightning bolt hit the top of the church just as we were about to enter. Anica and I dashed through it, fearing our path back to the car, and maybe the road itself would soon be flooded. We took quick looks at the fresco of Saint Francis' life, and at his tomb.

By the time we made it back to the car, the skies were already clearing. We'd ventured out in the very stormiest 30 minutes of the day. In order to show Jenn the Basilica, we drove into the town, interpreting all the "no entro excepto" Italian street signs to mean "except wet tourists from Canada." Eventually, we got out of Assisi without being ticketed. Laughing all the way, ha ha ha...

Umbria, specifically Perugia, is famous for chocolate, and there's a chocolate factory you can tour "just outside" Perugia. We had the name of which exit to take, and that's it. Pushing our luck, we decided to find it. There's only four ways out of Perugia, and we'd just come from one of them, so how hard could it be? We found it, on the third try, of course. We'd go down the highway for a while, say "nope," turn around and try another direction.

When we finally got to the Perugina factory, they said we could join the final tour of the day, but it would be in Italian. Fine, we said. We had a great time, because the group was a grade 7 school field trip. We were the only other people there. I got talking with one of the teachers, who told me they were from Rimini, on the east coast of Italy. We saw the educational video, in Italian. We heard about the process, in Italian. We heard all about the making of the largest chocolate in the world, a 5000 kg Baci. We were laughing the whole time at becoming part of their field trip. The tour guide, who wore a white lab-coat, sometimes translated into English. It was one of those times, however, when we felt we understood Italian somehow.

March 11


Today we went to Perugia, and the rest. We went on a pretty big highway (1 down from the Autostrada) which took us to Perugia, Assis, and (sort of) S.Sisto. When we got to Perugia we parked in a place with 5 escalators! We loved them, and lucikly we enjoyed the veiw - and the escalators so we could go on lots. We finally got up and decided "Hmmm should we go to the choclate factory in S. Sisto?" "No." Ha-ha! That's why we went to Assisi and had a yummy lunch at Md-D. We went up to a Basilica and Mummy stayed in the car. Pouring rain! AND a lightning bolt hit the church! Um, is it safe? We went to S. Sisto where we jumped into a Italian teenage tour group! They had a gueniss world record size peice of choclate! 1000 hours to make and 5 hours to eat! We bought a box of 1 choclate bar, 1 pear choclate bar, a mix and choclate with nuts, cherry peices of choco. with liqer and a choc. bar. Went home, had dinner, G.N.!

March 12


Back to Fienze! We'd booked in advance for the Uffizi, with a 1:30 entrance time. In the morning we toured the Palazzo Vecchio, the "old palace" of the city's rulers. We liked Elenora's apartments, and the map room best. Anica amused herself by counting nude figures in each room. The record was 130, I think.

After lunch, the Uffizi, one of the world's great art galleries. We got Anica an "Art Smart" workbook, which she completed as we toured the gallery. We were there close to four hours! Exhausting for all of us, but lots of highlights. It's best-known for its Botticellis. "The Birth of Venus" and "Primavera" are there. I like Rembrandt's young and old self-portraits, Caravaggio's Medusa shield, Artemsia Gentilelishi's gruesome "Judith" painting, and the Duke and Duchess of Urbino diptych (his profile is famous!). Most of all, Jenn and I both loved Lippi's "Madonna with Child and two Angels." Serenely, supremely beautiful. The building wasn't as badly run or organized as I'd heard, although some of the lighting combined with plexiglass displays the art poorly. The octagonal Tribune room, though, representing the four elements, is itself memorable. Then there's the view of Ponte Vecchio from above. Great place! Tonight at dinner in Florence, I had "wild boar," indulging my love of oxymoronic food.

Looking down on the "old bridge" from the "old palace," Florence

March 13


A quiet day in Castiglion Fiorentino for us. Wouldn't you know it, it's 20 degrees and sunny out at noon. We are getting out and enjoying this town for one last day. Anica and I played on the mini soccer field (a game of kick it off the medieval wall), and I've had a rambling, scrambling walk all over town. Jenn prefers to just fling the shutters open and "enjoy" a day of repacking and organizing and not HAVING to go out unless she feels like it. So long "Cast. f'no." (actual road sign).

Medieval soccer, anyone? The "court" where we played in Castiglion Fiorentino

Posted by jennrob 09:11 Archived in Italy Comments (5)

Thankful for the Tuscan Sun

The first week in Castiglion Fiorentino

sunny 21 °C

Follow the arrow to our place in Castiglion Fiorentino!

Feb 29


On "leap day," we drove to the Tuscan town where we have rented a flat with a fair bit of anxiety. This was for two weeks. What would it be like? We had made the booking so long ago, and now all we had was a cell phone conversation where the owner directed us to "go to Castiglion Fiorentino, meet my father, in Piazza Garibaldi, right by the obilesk." Obilesk? But I had heard right, and soon after we found the spot and the "father" pulled up. He did not speak a word of English, not even hello. But we all managed to communicate through single words of Italian and gestures. Parking's no problem here, there's a large, free public lot, overlooking a valley. In between sections of the lot, there's a shaded playground. Great little area. He then took us to the flat, and wow, what a relief. It's a beautiful apartment, in a house dating to the 1700s inside the medieval city walls of CF. Halfway between Arezzo and Cortona, it's a classic, hilltop Tuscan town. Gorgeous.

The hill-top keep

Our second (i.e. third) floor flat is on the corner, and both sides look out on a church's belltower. One bedroom has a balcony. All the tile and paint and woodwork are interesting, especially the centuries-old looking exposed beams in the ceilings of the bedrooms. After signalling our satisfaction with the place, the father even took us out for coffee, where our awkward but warm "conversation" continued.

March 1


We drove to Arezzo today, about 20 km, despite a bleak-looking sky. Today, a Saturday, there was an antiques market on there, which meant with the streets were lined with tables of antiques dealers. Not our thing, especially when travelling with backpacks, but it added some interest. When we saw a Blockbuster video, we actually bought some bargain-bin used DVDs to have something to watch on those quiet evenings. We even got Anica Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoneix, which we watched (already) tonight.

Arezzo also has the 13th century church of San Francesco, where the inside walls and apse are decorated by frescos done by Piero della Francesca. Normally, you have to reserve in advance to see the "Legend of the True Cross" section in the apse, but this is the off-season! We just bought our ticket and walked in right away. Jenn said to Anica, "do you want to look at the brochure," but Anica surprised us by already knowing the story. She pointed out each panel, explaining "that's Constantine dreaming of the cross," etc. Apparently she'd read that section of our guidebook in the morning, not even knowing she'd see it today! And remembered it! Anyway, it's a beautiful, haunting cycle. The most famous panel is of the Queen of Sheba kneeling in recognition of the true cross.

March 2


Sunday: day of rest. When in Tuscany, do as the Tuscans do. Everything's closed anyway. Anica and I did go to the little soccer-field just down the street. Sorry, "football." I've never seen anything like this. It's an artificial turf, fully-lined, one-third sized field, with one whole side of the field bounded by the medieval city wall, and the rest netted. Open for anyone to use! We have that crazy inflatable ball that's served so many purposes, so we had fun using the field.

March 3


The big Tuscan drive today! We had a couple places in mind, but generally were heading west to the Siena area. Anica gets pretty anxious about whether we know the way or not. I guess we traumatized her that first night with the car in Madrid. We're trying to reassure her that you can't get too lost in Tuscany, and they'll always be signs to find our way back "home." We both remember our parents arguing over maps and directions. I guess it's our turn!

After a nice scenic stretch of driving, we saw what looked like a perfectly maintained fort of a hilltop. Let's go there! It turned out to be a little town inside those walls, called Monteriggioni. Maybe 700 people live there. We had a picnic in a garden/park. Perfect spot, right at noon, with the temperature up over 20 degrees now. The weather has been unseasonably warm ever since we were in Rome.

Monteriggioni's perfectly outlined town walls

The next stop was San Gimignano, known for its medieval towers. My parents always said it was the "Manhattan of Tuscany." We saw the towers from a distance, more than 10 km away, and just knew: that's San Gimignano. Anica said "from here, it looks like another world. Like the city in The Golden Compass.

Unfortunately, we ended up "torturing" Anica there, by taking her to the Museum of Torture, which one of the "kid's" guides had recommended. Anica may like some "gross" stuff, but not where people are getting hurt. Suddenly, Jenn recalled the "Unicorn Palace" music from Vietnam. Anica felt all woozy and sick and we took her out. The staff there quickly produced sugar cubes and water, saying even adults need that sometime. Whoops! So I won't get into the details of this expertly-done, very serious museum. We looked around the town of San Gimignano some more, recovering by sitting in the square of the town's well, and with a dose of gelato.

One of the medieval towers in San Gimignano

The final stop of the day was Vinci. As in "da." As in "Leonardo." They have a museum there (MUCH more kid-appropriate) where they've built some of his machines based on his sketchbook. The best part was the flying machine, displayed in an old castle, and the water-related inventions, such as his diving suit, planks for walking on water, and paddleboat.

Well-proportioned people in Vinci

The drive back, in the dark, involved a few more wrong turns, worries, and arguing about who was right or not listening. I think I was wrong, and I was not listening, if memory serves. But we made it! We were about 200 km from CF, so that's not bad for night driving. Most of the time it's too dark to check the map, and there's hardly any room to pull over.

March 4


Just down the road from CF is the much-better known town of Cortona, thanks to "Under the Tuscan Sun." We found it a very fun drive, twisting up the hillside on a nice sunny day. Then we found the internet point where I'm writing this now. We looked around some of the main squares of the town, and (this was Jenn's idea not mine this time) walked up the really long, steep hill to the top of the hill (or am I allowed to say mountain?) that overlooks even the town itself. On the way up, the path is lined with a series of mosiacs displaying the Passion of Christ, done in modernist/Futurist style. The path back down is part of the original Roman road, and at the top is a church and monastery. We ran into a retired Canadian couple from Ottawa and talked about each others' travels. "Did you walk up too?" they asked. "It must only be the crazy Canucks who will do this!"

Cortona is all about stairs and hills!

March 5


We got up early to take the train to Florence (sorry, Firenze) today, but then looked outside. The Tuscan sun was gone! So were the warm temperatures. Today it poured rain and dropped to about 4 degrees. When we did venture outside we saw snow (which we vaguely recalled the look of from our distant past) on the hilltops all around our town. A couple of hundred metres higher and the rain was hitting the ground as snow! So now, we're even more appreciative of the weather we WERE having.

Loggia and church in Castiglion Fiorentino, on a sunnier day

Feb 29


"Tuscany: Castiglion F'no. What?"

Back on the road again. The old, think-it's-the-best Austostrada. Like it was a boring drive! We stopped for lunch, and when we got to Tuscany and the road to C.F. (Casteglion Fiorentino) was in a continuing valley with montins in the distance! Our town was only 15 km away! We found the place where we were supposed to meet the guy and because early got to play. The guy who met us spoke no English but we had engouh Italian to say Cappicino, Hot Choclate and a bottle of water. He treated us out to that but I think the guys (Frans and Nutty) in Nerja were nicer and our place was by a playground and a short drive to a pretty big supermarket. Went home, had dinner (our place is 8 stars nice), G.N.!

March 3


"The Other World Town and a TORTURING Museum"

Today, luckily was a good day even though we basicaly just drove. Though we did stop at lots of places! We passed by Arezzo (a city smaller then Siena) and went through Siena before getting out of the car to have a lovely, quiet and betuifull lunch at the (prettily) walled town of Monteriggioni. And THEN we finally went to San Gimiango, which, from far away looks like the world in the Golden Compass, the different world, not ours. We first went to the torturing Torture Museum which (accroding) to a guidebook equals enough things to make kids squeal with delight. WHAT?! I couldent even make it on to the second floor! I -was-so-sick! I was going to throw up if Mum and Dad haden't sat me outside and looked sepratly.

March 4


"Cortona: The Hillside Town"

Yay! Hip-hip! Out again but not a very long drive. We parked quickly in Cortona and me and Dad did a quick run up this big rock and don. Who knows? It could of been a ruin. Probaly not though! We entered the city wall and in less then a second I knew we were in the land of hills. It, or the streets were so UPHILL! There, there was only 1 straight road! We hiked up a road with images of Jesus, Mary, etc etc...They were mosiacs, with gold. Talked to a Canadian couple, checked if the church was open, went down, went back, rested, had dinner, G.N.!

Posted by jennrob 03:32 Archived in Italy Comments (3)

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