Sunday, December 11, 2011

Our Friend Firenze

Florence was the next stop on our European Tour.  We spent four days here, so I will try not to bore everyone with the day to day details; instead, I'll just hit the highlights!  Conor picked out our hotel, which was absolutely wonderful, but had a couple of quirks!  We had a great view of Florence and the Duomo from our patio, where we had many many glasses of wine.  The lobby of the hotel had a bar, which we visited frequently!  Especially when we needed that extra bottle of wine after dinner.  :-)  The only real downside to our hotel room:  the shower was so tiny, it was nearly impossible to wash your hair in there!  Also, we were on on the top floor, so we had to go up six flights of stairs every time...ooh the legs were burning after a long day of sight seeing!

We had plenty of time to enjoy Florence, so we relaxed a little bit more and weren't in a rush to see everything as quick as possible.  We had great weather in Florence (only one day of rain), so we spent as much time outside as possible.  Our first night there, we went to dinner at Buca Lapi (a recommendation from my friend Christy Bloom).  This meal was such a treat, but you definitely paid for it!  It was probably the most expensive meal we had in Europe, but it was so worth it.  Not only was every thing absolutely delicious, but the ambiance was enjoyable as well!

We spent almost an entire day at the street market trying to make some deals, which started out as fun...but then I got a little antsy (read: I needed a glass of wine ASAP if we were going to continue shopping for one item all day!)  Conor really wanted to buy a leather bag, but it took a long long time to get the price down as he wasn't buying it without a deal.  I get so awkward in these situations; I just don't understand why they can't put a reasonable price on things!  To take a break from all the street fair mayhem, we went to the Mercado Central to search for some lunch!  This market was incredible, but also a little disturbing as people were selling cuts of meat that I couldn't even look at, let alone imagine eating!  However, we avoided all the raw pig & cow and decided on a Rick Steve's recommendation, a great sandwich spot.  We then found a wine store, got two plastic cups, and were ready to find some Church steps to enjoy our lunch on!

One of my favorite things that we did in Florence was climb the Duomo.  Conor's brother, Kyle, told us to do this at sunset (about an hour before they close) to avoid the lines.  This was the best piece of advice!  Usually there was a huge line to do the climb, and a very slow process as not everyone is in as good of shape as us! ;-)  Luckily neither of us are claustrophobic because the staircase was steep and very very narrow!  The view at the top was absolutely spectacular!  Such a wonderful view of the city; you are really missing out if you don't climb the Duomo.

My parents recommended that we take a day trip to Siena since it's so close to Florence.  Siena wasn't quite as busy as Florence, so it was nice to get away from the crowds of people.  We walked around for a bit to work up an appetite, and then found a deli that, yet again, Rick Steves recommended.  This was the most simple, yet best lunch we had!  The shop was very authentic, with an Italian man sporting an awesome handlebar mustache helping us.  Unfortunately he is not a fan of tourists, so no cameras are allowed inside.  At this deli you pay by the weight of your sandwich, so this guy loaded up some baguettes with salami, prosciutto, and pecorino fresco.  That's it!  Washed down with some red wine, it was perfect!  We enjoyed our lunch in the sunny Piazza del Campo.  There was such great people watching we could have spent the whole day there; but alas, there was more exploring to do!

Our last day in Florence was the only day of rain.  This worked out perfectly, since we planned on spending the day in museums.  First, we went to la Academia to see the David.  I was moderately excited about this activity, since I think it's absolutely ridiculous to pay a bunch of money to see something that you used to be displayed in public for free!  However, it was well worth it; I was completely blown away by how magnificent the statue is in person!  There are many other great things to see inside as well, but the David is definitely the highlight.  Our next stop was supposed to be the Uffizi Gallery, but we decided that neither of us were actually all that interested in the we skipped it!

We had a much better time hiking up to Piazzale Michaelangelo!  This is where the original David used to be; there's a replica there now that is just terrible looking once you've seen the real thing!  Here you get another great view of the city, which never gets old!  We left the square and went to Ponte Vecchio where we strolled with more gelato!  I got black cherry this time and it was to-die-for!!!

The next day we hauled all our luggage back to the train station and had a little time to kill.  So of course we had the last glass of wine from a bottle from the night before.  I know what you're thinking: "We had leftover wine?!"  This time we couldn't find cups anywhere...oh well!  Roma is next!

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Our Introduction to the Spritz

Our European Vacation: Part II

Ah Venice, what a magical place!  We arrived around 10am, absolutely exhausted, and with no real plans.  First step, finding a water taxi and then our hotel.  This was the beginning of numerous wrong turns and many miles of hauling luggage, but we loved every minute of it!  With our Rick Steves Italy book in hand, we rather easily bought tickets for the water taxi and were on our way.  Venice was more beautiful than I had even imagined!  It was a wonderfully sunny day and we were ready to explore...after a brief nap of course.  Luckily, Conor's blackberry worked in all of Europe so we could use GPS and not have to rely solely on maps.  This made finding our hotel much easier.  Although I thought we had packed "rather" light, considering our three week trip in three different countries, I was very wrong.  Venice is full of steps!  We had plenty of canals to walk over to get to our hotel and my bag was a little too big & heavy for all that lifting!  (Just for a mental picture, we each had a shoulder bag and piece of rolling luggage, and then there was an extra duffel bag.)  But just so you know, I hauled my monster of a bag all over Europe with no complaints!
We stayed at a small bed & breakfast which was just perfect for us!  The owner was so nice and helpful which made our entire Venice experience wonderful.  After touring through Europe, I now have a definite preference for small, boutique hotels.  They are just so much more personal!  We took a nice long nap, and then finally began exploring the many streets and canals of Venice!  First things first, we found the nearest campo to get a glass of vino and make some plans for the day.  Refreshed, we made our way to San Marco Square to take in all the action.  Wow, there were tons of people...or I should say tourists! 

Venice was such an incredible place, the pictures don't even do it justice.  Sometimes, I even think it looks like we're standing in front of a green just can't believe it's real!  After walking around and getting our bearings, we got ready for dinner with Claire and Alberto who soon became great friends!  Claire is (get ready for this): Conor's, sister's, study-abroad-roommate-in-Spain, who visited Conor's family in Montana once years ago...  She is from France but currently lives on the mainland near Venice with her boyfriend Alberto who grew up there in the town of Maestra.  Conor had met her once we quickly got past introductions and into one of our favorite nights of the entire trip!  It was such a fun evening!  Claire and her boyfriend, Alberto, picked us up and took us to the mainland for aperitifs and dinner.

This entire night was quite the experience!  First, we went to a bar where Alberto ordered everyone a Spritz...I was a little skeptical of whatever this "Spritz" was going to be, so I opted for a glass of processco instead.  However, I really missed out!  The Spritz was delicious!  Alberto told us it was processco, Aperol (or Campari), and a little bit of club soda.  Add an orange slice and an olive, cin cin (cheers)!  We have since made many of these at home!  Mmm, so delicious and refreshing.

We had originally decided to have pizza for dinner, but after they got two drinks in me they pursuaded me into switching to "crudo" (raw) seafood, eek!  I had been warned about seafood in Venice, and how everything would come with their heads still on, scary!  Conor was super excited. I, of course, did not want to be a downer that evening, so I figured I would give it a try.  I had no idea what I was in for.  Alberto took us to a restaurant owned by their neighbor.  We were greated right away by this neighbor, his mother, and brother the chef.  We smiled and waved since no one was speaking English.  In fact, they were speaking an Italian dialect that even Claire had a hard time understanding.  No menus; Alberto chatted with the mother about what was currently fresh and made selections for the table based on that.  I had no idea what I was gonna get and was very nervous about it.  Not to mention the fact that I was starving!  The Italians eat late, and I was not prepared for this! 

Course 1: Polenta with fried baby shrimp...interesting.  Conor finished the last third of mine. :-)  Course 2: Various unidentifyable pieces of seafood, except for some shrimp (thank the lord ;0) ).  Conor's was raw, but I had my plate cooked.  I thought this was the main course and only plate of food I would at this point I was a little nervous that I would leave a little hungry... boy was I mistaken!  This picture shows my, "I'm not so sure about what I'm about to eat, face!"

I have to say, I really opened my mind to this meal and ate most of what was put on my plate...but no heads :-). I let Conor have those.  And lots of it was actually quite delicious.  I was pleasantly surprised!  Conor loved everything and was in complete heaven.  However, he was a little worried about me and not sure how I was handling the food.  I think I even surprised him a little.  After the first massive plate of seafood was finished they brought another!  Course 3: More seafood.  This time mostly shellfish.  There was lots of razor clams that I had never had before, but I loved them!  I finally starting thinking that just maybe, this meal would fill me up.

Course 4 (the best course): Porchini mushroom risotto.  Oh my goodness, this was the best thing ever!  I was already feeling full, but then they brought out a massive seashell of risotto.  And then filled an entire dinner plate with it!  Talk about a big dinner!  I thoroughly enjoyed this portion of the meal as we dove into our second bottle of wine.  By this point, you'd think the four of us were old friends!

Next, we were brought sorbetto al limone to cleanse our palates before dessert.  The sorbetto was a dessert all on its own.  After this dinner, no meal on our trip was complete without sorbetto.  And I like how you drink it out of a champagne glass, so fun!  Lastly, we had a wonderful chocolate dessert and after dinner drinks.  Conor was introduced to grappa, which he loved!  The grappa was way to strong for me, so I had some liquor similar to Sambucca.  The whole meal lasted about three hours, but felt like it just flew by.  We didn't want the night to end.  Sadly, we left Claire & Alberto at the train station and began the long walk through Venice, over the Realto Bridge, and back to our hotel. They were both such incredible hosts and we hope they will come visit us in Seattle so we can return the hospitality!

Our second (and last day) in Venice was a Sunday, so not much was open.  However, we did go to mass at Saint Mark's Basilica.  This was one of my favorite experiences in Italy.  Obviously, the mass was in we didn't understand a word, but it gave us an opportunity to pay closer attention and not just go through the motions.  It also gave us plenty of time to really take in the inside of the church.  It was incredible and unlike any other church I've been too.  I was so happy we took the time to do this.

Afterwards, we sampled our first bit of gelato.  I was in love!  I wanted gelato at all times of the day, and it was hard to limit myself during our tour through Italy.  First flavors sampled: hazelnut & pear.  Hazelnut was the best!

The rest of the day we ate & explored.  What could be better than that?!  We never took a gondola ride...they are so expensive, besides we enjoyed walking around just fine.

If you're a fan on seafood, Venice is for you. If you're looking for pizza and pasta, Florence & Rome probalby have it beat but it was still delicious. In Venice, many of the restaurants really cater to the tourists and you can definitely get ripped off so you have to do a little research and find the good spots.  We used recommendations as much as possible to tried and avoid this problem.  The vino rosso della casa was never a disppointment however!

Monday morning came, we packed our things, and headed to the train station for our trip to Florence!  Another great sunny day in Italy....whoever said it was the rainy season was sorely mistaken this week!

We had some time to kill before our train left, so we bought a few bottles of processco & red wine to enjoy as we sat outside the train station watching people and killing time.  Thank you for no open container laws!  There's nothing like sitting in the sunshine and enjoying some wine at 10am. :)  The train ride sure flew by!

Next up: Four days in Florence!