Thinking warm thoughts of Florence

It’s still a little cold here in NYC — we’re no longer shivering in the twenties, and we’ve even made it up to fifty degrees, but thirties and low forties are still on the table for us. It means that if you don’t check the weather before you leave, stepping outside can turn into an unexpected adventure. I’m still congratulating myself on going back for my umbrella on Tuesday morning, because it was pouring on the way home that night.

But spring is on the way! At least that’s what we’re hearing. And so in honor of the warm weather we might see soon, I figured it was time to flash back once more to the last time I spent time outside without a jacket on: my trip to Italy back in October. It feels like a dream because I got back right about five months ago.


Florence was both a really lovely part of the trip and a not so lovely part. The not so lovely happened at the beginning, when my mom lost her camera. It put a bit of a pall over our arrival in Florence, and then I managed to turn my ankle on our way to the Uffizi. Let’s just say we were both very glad to get back to our hotel that night and relax. Also we maybe didn’t appreciate the art as much as we could have.

But we had a lovely time the next day. We went to the Accademia bright and early to see the David. Our hotel that first night was just blocks away from the museum, and our early ticket time meant the crowds weren’t that bad. We got a great view of the David before too many other tourists arrived.


From there we saw the window at the Museo degli Innocenti, which for hundreds of years was an orphanage. Newborn babies used to be passed through the window’s grill to be taken care of at the orphanage. It was both really sad to see, and also very hopeful to think of babies being given a chance at life.


We had to see the Duomo, of course, also known as the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore. I didn’t make my mom climb to the top, like I did on choir tour in college, but we did stop at a kiosk and pay a few euros to listen to some bits of history. It’s such a beautiful church, and so unique.


One of my favorite parts of the Duomo is the gorgeous 16th century fresco that covers the inside of dome. It depicts the Last Judgement, but it’s so bright and beautiful, it’s easy to forget it depicts such a solemn topic. My camera couldn’t quite do it justice, but I tried!


We wandered for a bit after the Duomo, and of course stopped for lunch. We also went in another church, Santa Maria Novella, which for me was interesting because it houses Masaccio’s painting of the Holy Trinity, which I remembered from my college art history class as being an important work because its three dimensional qualities. My photo isn’t great, but it was neat to see it in person.


One of the highlights of Florence was having dinner with two of my best friends from college, who are both in graduate school in Italy. We had dinner at a lovely restaurant in Otranto, a neighborhood south of the Arno River, called Il Guscio. It was delicious. Another of my best friends from college was in Italy this week and was not only going to see both of those friends, but also was going to get to eat at Il Guscio. (This post is maybe possibly inspired by jealousy after following her photos on Facebook all week. :))

My mom and I took a quick trip OUT of Florence the next day, to see the walled city of Lucca. We didn’t spend a ton of time there, but it was nice to be in a town, instead of a city, since so much of our trip (with the exception of our lovely overnight in Assisi) was spent in cities. We got to see a bit more of the Tuscan countryside from the train, and we spent a few hours walking in the sunshine.


Back in Florence, I spent the next morning with one of my friends. We met outside the Pitti Palace and went directly into the gardens to get a view of Florence from above. It was a gorgeous place — quiet, with fewer tourists. The perfect place to have a real catch up conversations, since this visit was the first time we’d seen each other in over four years.


We had pizza in a square and got some gelato to eat before I went back to meet my mom at the hotel. We had a train to catch to Venice. After a rough start to our Florence leg of the trip, I wasn’t sure how I’d feel when it was time to leave. I had loved Florence on my first visit in college, and at first it didn’t quite live up to my memory of it. It’s easy to walk around the main tourist sites in the city, but it meant the city felt like one big attraction to me on our first day or so there. But with our dinner in Otranto, and with our second hotel (the first one was more expensive and only available the one night), which was a little farther from the center of things, and right by the river, I started to feel like there was more to Florence than we’d been seeing.


I could’ve stood by the river in the sunshine all day long — but I had places to go.

I can’t wait to go back someday soon and look for all the bits of the city I missed — I know there’s more to see. In the meantime, this New York winter HAS to be on its way out, and once it is, I’ll be more than ready to spend time enjoying the sunshine and beauty in my own city. Where are you taking a mental vacation right now, and what can’t you wait to do once it’s spring?


Hints of Rome

With Christmas fast approaching, I’m having a hard time believing it was just two months ago that I was in Italy, where fall weather meant lows of 65 in Venice and highs around 90 in Rome. It’s been cold and wet in NYC, so to brighten your (and my!) week, here are a few images and stories from sunny Rome.

When I traveled to Italy in college, I made a quick visit to the Circus Maximus, now just a grassy field with runners and ball players and readers. From it, I could see the palace on Palatine Hill, and I was fascinated by the extensive ruins. On this recent trip, I took a quick walk around Palatine Hill, and this time I was fascinated by this view of the city, including the dome of St. Peter’s.


Here’s a nice view across the Circus Maximus to Palatine Hill, with a sign saying “Belvedere Romulus e Remus”. “Bel” means beautiful, of course, and “vedere” means to see, so it’s not surprising that “belvedere” means scenic overlook. This particular overlook is named for Romulus and Remus, the two brothers who founded the city of Rome. It was the perfect place to rest our feet and eat some gelato.


The famous “Bocca della Verità” or “Mouth of Truth” from the movie Roman Holiday is in a church near the Circus Maximus. You can stand in line to take a picture, or sneak one through the bars like my mom and I did. Somehow it’s not as exciting without beautiful Gregory Peck there hoping to scare you!


After we saw the Pope give his address and got our free Italian Bibles, we took a walk away from St. Peter’s toward the river. Along the way I stopped to take a picture of this public fountain which sported a dragon.


One of my favorite parts of our tour of the Vatican Museums (booked through the Vatican itself) was seeing this tapestry version of Da Vinci’s The Last Supper. I’m sure the fresco is impressive, but this tapestry is huge.


All of St. Peter’s is gorgeous, but I was especially struck by this little golden window. It’s hard to see, but at the center is a dove, symbolizing the Holy Spirit, a source of inspiration.


The famous Trevi Fountain is under construction, but we visited it anyway and tossed in coins since, according to legend, doing so ensures you’ll come back to Rome.


Hey, it worked for me the first time!

A visit to Assisi, part 2

Earlier in the week I wrote about Assisi, and I wanted to come back to it. Here’s the thing about my last post: It wasn’t my best. The photos tell the story, and while they do a pretty good job of it, I wanted to tell you a little more about my love for this beautiful town.


I mentioned that I went to Assisi on choir tour in college, and that it was one of my favorite places we saw in Italy. What I remember most from that visit is that we had a little bit of free time and I spent some of it on my own, wandering up and down tiny, steep streets, taking photos. I’ve mixed some of my favorites from that visit into this post, because on that trip I was able to get away from the main, commercial streets and see a bit more of the town.


After that trip I printed some photos from Assisi, including the one with a cat, for my mom for her birthday. I think that’s part of why she was as excited as I was to go to Assisi – the photos had given her a taste of what it was like. That summer I was home with my family and went to an arts show where we saw a photographer displaying photos from Italy. I recognized the ones from Assisi just from looking at them – the town is that distinctive.


It’s a town for tourists, for certain; most of the shops we saw on our walk to visit the Basilica of San Francesco were stores for tourists, not grocery stores or laundromats or anything useful. But because of the Basilica and the draw of St. Francis, those tourists might be better called pilgrims, which feels a little nicer somehow. And if the tourism is what keeps the town bright and clean and sunny, with its window boxes and curved, steep streets, then I’m okay with that. One of the guidebooks said something about how the town’s prosperity makes it clear that St. Francis is still protecting Assisi, some eight hundred years later.


The Upper Basilica of San Francesco

St. Francis is known for being a friend to animals, for preaching and practicing simplicity. One of my favorite church songs is based on his prayer: “Make Me a Channel of Your Peace”.  When I went to visit the first time, I brought my dad back a little icon of St. Francis with that prayer printed next to it in Italian. Regardless of your belief system, there’s something nice about a prayer that reminds us that it’s more important to do for others than for ourselves and asks for help in bringing peace and love to the world.


If you have a chance to visit Assisi, wander the streets away from the main squares. Look for flowers in window boxes, cats on staircases, laundry hanging on lines – all the signs that this is a place where people live. Walk the twisty streets and look for those unexpected spots where you can suddenly see the countryside spread out in front of you. Visit at twilight and watch the sky turn a deep blue. Stay until it’s dark and see the Basilica lit up.


It’s not a big town – you can walk from one end to the other in half an hour, at least if you’re walking downhill. But there’s more to see than I can tell you about – beautiful moments just around a corner or up a staircase. Go visit, and then tell me all about it!  

A visit to Assisi, Italy

I’m slowly making my way through my Italy photos, cropping and fixing contrast. It’s taking a little longer than I’d like it to, but I’ve made it to nearly the halfway point of the trip. That means I can tell you all about Assisi! Our overnight in Assisi was one of my favorite parts of the entire trip. I had been there before, on my choir tour to Italy in college, when we’d stopped in town for a day before staying at a country house about forty-five minutes away.


For this visit, we took the train from Rome to Assisi (with a quick train change near the end of the journey) and then took the bus up to the top of the hill to our hotel. Hotel Ideale was highly rated on TripAdvisor and conveniently located right near the bus stop. There’s a parking lot there, too, if you’re ever nearby with a car.

Hotel Ideale is a small hotel. The rooms are neat and simply furnished, which highlights the most important feature: the view. Our room was on the third floor, which was a little annoying when we were carrying bags up and down the stairs, but totally worth it once we stepped out onto the balcony.


We arrived early in the afternoon and it took a little prodding to get us to leave the hotel room. I mean, a visit to Assisi and a stay at this hotel would be worth it for the view alone! But finally we did meander downhill, stopping in La Cattedrale di San Rufino before continuing down to the Piazza Comune to have a late lunch.



From there we followed the signs across town, still downhill, to the Basilica di San Francesco. It was a lovely walk, and the Basilica – both the upper and lower – were lovely, too. The frescoes are stunning and tell stories from the lives of St. Francis and Jesus. In the lower basilica, you can visit the crypt where St. Francis is buried. A little creepy, but the history is fascinating since it was only excavated in the last hundred or so years to prove he was actually buried there.



After we visited the Basilica, we got some gelato and caught a bus back up the hill to our hotel. The next morning we ate breakfast on the hotel’s patio, enjoying the view, before heading back to the train station. I’m so glad we got to visit, and I hope I get to go back soon and explore more!


Framework of a Trip

I’m still recovering from my trip to Italy (tonight that means watching episodes of Grey’s Anatomy when I should be blogging – I know, I’m a decade late on this, but it’s fun). I can’t quite believe that just over three days ago I was in Italy. While I was on the trip, it seemed inevitable: Of course I was in Italy. Now that I’m back, normal life (plus a little extra tiredness) is inevitable and Italy seems a bit like a dream.

What’s not a dream is the amount of planning we put into the trip. I’m a bit of a control freak when it comes to travel; I need to have the details mapped out, or at least sketched out, before I get on the road. I don’t want to worry about finding a place to stay or a train to take when I’m traveling. I don’t want to have to stand in long lines for museum tickets, either. But it’s important to build some flexibility in, too.

Planned flexibility. About as absurd as it sounds, but helpful if you can make it work.

Before leaving for Italy, my mom and I booked five hotels and bought two of the six train tickets we’d ultimately use. We booked a tour of the Vatican Museum and timed tickets to the Uffizi and Academia galleries. And besides our plane tickets and plans to meet up with some friends of mine, that was it for planning.

Well, sort of. That was it for formal planning. I had vague (though written down!) ideas of what we should do each day, and we did several of the things I suggested, some even on the days I’d suggested. But not having a tour guide to follow or a group itinerary meant we could take more time or less for something based on how tired we were.

It’s not a perfect system, especially when you’re traveling with someone, since your tolerance for activity is likely somewhat different from theirs, but building travel around a framework gives you fixed points of interest to hold up the trip and then some wiggle room to add in extra sights (or just some extra sleep!). I’m never going to be a truly spontaneous traveler, but having time to say, “Hey, let’s take the train to Lucca for the afternoon!” is important.

What about you guys, what kind of travel style do you prefer?DSC01987

Adventures in Italy

Last night I slept for twelve hours. It sounds like a lot, but it will sound like less when I tell you that earlier yesterday I spent almost nine hours on an airplane, on my way back from a trip to Italy with my mom. Between jetlag and just genuine exhaustion after about ten days of traveling, those twelve hours of sleep were well-earned. I worked from home today and am headed back to work tomorrow, hoping not too yawn my way through the rest of the week!

But enough about sleeping! ITALY! We’d been trying to plan a trip for years, but this summer my mom and I finally got serious and booked some flights and from there came up with an itinerary of hotels and trains and museums and churches.  I brushed up on my Italian and we flew off to the country all of my mother’s grandparents came from for ten days. I hope to write a few in-depth looks at each of the places we visited (Rome, Assisi, Florence, Lucca for an afternoon, and Venice) but for now, some quick highlights.

A trip to the Vatican was of course in order, but alongside a stellar art historian-led tour of the Vatican Museums, Sistine Chapel, and St. Peter’s, we also saw – the Pope! Pope Francis comes to a window every Sunday at noon to address the crowds in St. Peter’s Square. We were there as he spoke about a two-week meeting on the family (from which came some really interesting news this week!), some of which I even understood despite the fact that it was in Italian. After he spoke, a new translation of the Bible was given out in the Square and we managed to get two copies – a pretty neat souvenir! We’ll see if my skills are up to actually reading it.

Pope Francis! ...I didn't say we aw him UP CLOSE, guys.

Pope Francis! …I didn’t say we saw him UP CLOSE, guys.

In Assisi, the star was the view from our hotel balcony. Do I need to say more?

This view made it hard to make ourselves actually leave the room to explore, but we did! Assisi is gorgeous.

This view made it hard to make ourselves actually leave the room to explore, but we did! Assisi is gorgeous.

In Florence, I got to see two dear friends from college, one of whom I hadn’t seen since graduation! Definitely my favorite part of visiting Florence – though this random deer sculpture on the Arno is clearly a close second.


We were only in Lucca for a few hours, but it was neat to walk around and window-shop. I was disappointed that this chocolate shop was closed – but since I’d just had a Laduree macaroon, it’s probably for the best.


And in Venice, the star of the show was our evening vaporetto ride. Most of my pictures were pretty blurry, but this one gives you an idea of how beautiful it was!


We had a lovely time, and I can’t wait to share more! Have you been to Italy, and if so, what’s your favorite memory?