To Paris… and beyond!

Saturday morning I headed out for a few hours of solo exploration, starting at the giant shopping center at Les Halles and then wandering happily back toward our apartment in the 11th.   Don’t tell Jeremy or Penelope, but I *might* have also wandered into an Amorino gelato shop…

In the mid-afternoon, Jeremy and Penelope met me at the Bastille metro stop, and we followed the walking tour of the Marais from our guidebook, from the new Opera house to the Place du Vosges and beyond.  A lovely afternoon for a family walk!

Penelope was enthralled by our historical walking tour, as you can see.

Sunday morning Penelope and I decided to celebrate American Mother’s Day with a girls’ trip to our local pastisserie and then a walk over to the Bastille Market.  We’ve tried a few different patisseries in our neighborhood (as one does), and decided that Cyril Lignac is hands down the best.  We were delighted to later discover that this particular patisserie is actually on lots of top ten lists for baked delights in Paris.  We have good taste, evidently.  🙂

My absolute favorite continues to be the kouign amman, and this pastisserie makes—I have to say it—the best I’ve ever had.  I ordered one for me, Penelope opted for the pain au chocolat, and we split a small bag of choquettes as well (my second favorite sweet treat).  Munching happily, we walked about fifteen minutes or so over to the Bastille Market.  At ten in the morning, the streets were largely deserted, and it was lovely to explore together.

When we arrived, the market was in full swing, from fish stalls to fruits and veg.  Penelope ordered her weekend fruits with confidence, and we took a break mid-way through the market to nosh on a saucisson fromage crepe (Penelope’s current favorite). 

Our last stop at the market was the French maritime clothing stall, where we considered a variety of striped options.

Ultimately, however, I decided on a lovely blue with white stripes—and Penelope chose one to match, since it was (as she said) Mother’s Day!  🙂

We walked back from the market to meet Jeremy, and after lunch headed back out to my favorite church: Sainte Chapelle.  I think I would love Sainte Chapelle even if it only had the lower level—I love the painted ceiling and the human scale of the place.  But then you walk up that small spiral staircase, and you are positively dazzled by the light from all of the stained glass.  No place like it.

Looking up into all that light!

To cap the day, we decided to take the metro over to the Pere Lachaise Cemetery, where we took the Rick Steves walking tour via his terrific audioguide.  This one was perhaps one of the best we’ve listened to, as it incorporated music throughout.   Approaching Edith Piaf’s grave, we heard her wonderful warbling—then Jim Morrison and The Doors, followed by Chopin.  Even some excerpts of poetry from Oscar Wilde and Gertrude Stein.  It was a terrific tour, and we very much enjoyed the quiet beauty of this enormous cemetery.  (And when I say enormous… it really is.  Bigger than Disneyland Paris, according to Monsieur Steves.)

Midway through the walk, Penelope decided she wanted to add memorial flowers to particular graves. Here, her offering at Chopin’s grave.

And then it was back home for dinner and to put our feet up… in preparation for what the next day would bring.

Monday was our eagerly anticipated trip to see La Grande Souris at Disneyland Paris.  My absolute favorite Pixar movie is Ratatouille, and I’d booked us a lunch at Bistro Chez Remy.  They’ve recreated the rat restaurant from the final scenes of the film, so that diners are ostensibly rat-sized, and all of the details from the human world are gigantic.  It was every bit as charming as I imagined it would be… and we had the best time!

The rest of the day was spent in a happy haze, first exploring Walt Disney Studios Park, then, in mid-afternoon we walked over to Disneyland Park.  Lines were relatively low, since school is still in session here in France, and we were able to ride everything we wanted—both familiar favorites and rides that were completely new to us.

Penelope and I agreed that Crush’s Coaster was the best ride of the day, we all loved the many wonderful details throughout both parks, and Jeremy, as always, made us spin like crazy on the Mad Hatter’s Teacups.  A wonderful, wonderful day.  We can’t wait to go back in June with the grandparents!

On Tuesday, tuckered out from our Disney adventure, we relaxed at home in the morning.  But the gorgeous weather (combined with Penelope’s interest in “doing something!”) led us out to the Parc Floral de Paris, a beautiful park southeast of us, part of the Bois de Vincennes. 

We appreciated too all of the outdoor art, from the flamingo car doors to a line of enormous ants marching up a tree.

Needless to say, Penelope had a wonderful time—and Jeremy and I enjoyed both strolling in the sunshine and reading our books on a bench near the playgrounds.

On Wednesday we had another day trip planned—this time farther away, to the lovely town of Chartres.  The main lure of Chartres is, of course, the cathedral—but it was also nice to see a smaller French town, as a respite from Paris’ size and pace.

We took an RER train out to Chartres and began walking through the town toward the cathedral—easy to spot, as it dominates the town skyline.  Once again, we turned to our guidebook for a tour, starting outside with the untwinned towers and then inside, with the cathedral’s gorgeous stained glass—especially the rose windows.

A restoration and cleaning is well underway, both inside and out, and it was fascinating to see the difference that cleaning made.  Here are two pics—you can see the difference vertically on the left, and horizontally on the right—it was really quite amazing. 

Penelope’s favorite pastime during our church visits: making an offering and lighting a candle.

As we finished the tour, we were stunned to see what appeared to be two mountain climbers aloft one of the towers… and then quickly realized that they were cleaning the outside of the cathedral, lifting free debris and moss from the nooks and crannies of the tower.

By this point it was late afternoon, and Penelope was (as usual) plaintively complaining about her hunger.  A few blocks from the cathedral, she spotted a nearby establishment, and we decided… why not try “the original French tacos”? 

Yes, reader, we tried them.  Imagine, if you will, a burrito-like wrap filled with diced cordon bleu, béchamel sauce, and french fries.  It was… interesting? Try as I might, I just can’t see the appeal of french fries inside other items.  Especially sandwiches.  But it was a fun culinary adventure—if perhaps less haute cuisine, more hot mess. 

After our repast, we continued through the town, enjoying a walk along the river, spotting a half-timbered spiral staircase, and taking a traditional family selfie.

Our day concluded, we hopped on the evening train back to Paris—a most enjoyable field trip!

Paris, Part Deux

On Friday we decided to head to a smaller museum, the Musee des Arts Decoratifs.  I’d become interested in this museum after reading that they had arranged much of their collection into rooms decorated in period styles, like the V & A Museum, one of my favorite museums in London. 

But before we even entered that part of the museum, we were sidetracked by the most absolutely charming exhibit: Droles de Petites Betes d’Antoon Krings.  This wonderful exhibit showcased the art of children’s author and illustrator Antoon Krings.  Penelope recognized his work at once as we were entering the museum, so we added the exhibition to our tickets and headed upstairs.  She’d brought home some of his charming books (Benjamin le Lutin, Mireille l’Abeille) from school, so I had some sense of his work—and the exhibition itself was wonderful.  Cleverly designed and charmingly presented, the exhibit was hands down one of the best we’ve seen in our travels.  Krings’ art was presented alongside other illustrations, paintings, and historical context—and, at the same time, the galleries were peppered with child-size wonders, like tiny doors that opened into miniature windows on imaginary gardens, small arches into the next rooms, perfectly sized for children, and best of all, a small house in one room, complete with all of Krings’ books.  Many families could be found there, reading the books to one another as they paused in their tour of the galleries.

Krings’ work was absolutely wonderful—it was hard to narrow my photos down to my favorites—but here are a few.

As you can see, completely charming.  My favorite was the Ant with the Pearl Earring, but there were many I simply adored. 

After finishing the Krings exhibition, we headed into the main galleries of the museum.  The collections there are wonderful, arranged both thematically and chronologically.  So in one room, a focus on chair styles of the 18th and 19th centuries (with all the chairs arranged in rows along the wall)—and nearby, a fully furnished drawing room from the Napoleonic Era.  Rooms of jewelry, pottery, and mirrors rounded out the collection.  I especially appreciated the Art Deco bathroom—complete with leopard spotted toilet covers.  Quite something!  And from many of the rooms, wonderful views over the Tuileries Gardens and even across to the Eiffel Tower.

Several hours later, we finished our tour of the museum and headed outside to the Tuileries Gardens and their large playground.  Penelope was delighted, and we all blithely ignored the massing storm clouds overhead.

But sure enough, an hour after we arrived, the heavens opened and we scurried under nearby trees for cover.  Alas, Penelope and I had left home without umbrellas or rain jackets… dismissing the 10% rain in the afternoon forecast.  Lesson learned.

We walked through the Gardens to the Metro, missed the entrance, crossed the Place de la Concorde with dozens of other hapless tourists, retraced our steps, and finally found the Metro stop.  

Then it was home to movie night.  Penelope had voiced a desire to see an “action” movie—but she’s still a bit nervous about real blood or violence, so Jeremy suggested Errol Flynn.  Perfect!  We settled in to watch The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), which she declared “super exciting” and “the best movie ever!”  I have many happy childhood memories of watching Robin Hood and The Sea Hawk with my father, so it was a lovely tradition to pass down to Penelope.  We’re saving The Sea Hawk to watch with Grandpa when he arrives in a few weeks.

Saturday the forecasted high was… 52.  And I finally caved and said we should buy a few items to supplement our wardrobes.  The cold and rain is really taking its toll on us—we just didn’t bring enough warm clothes!  Thinking of spring/summer, I packed shorts and dresses for both Penelope and me… and very few of those clothes have emerged from their packing cubes.  So Penelope and I headed off to the grand shopping avenues, to inspect the wares at Galeries Lafayette, Printemps, and Uniqlo.   A few hours later, we emerged with a new outfit for each of us—and that’ll help get us through the next few weeks!  Hopefully soon the spring will arrive in earnest, and we’ll have more sunshine as well. 

Unpurchased: this charming pencil bag at the Galeries Lafayette. Ha!

On Sunday we headed to the Arc de Triomphe to start our day, but elected not to visit the top, as the lines were already quite long. 

After roaming around the base for a bit, we headed down the Champs Elysee, following the walking tour in our guidebook.  On the first Sunday of each month, the Champs Elysee is closed to traffic, and after a literal pat-down and bag inspection by the Paris gendarmerie, we joined the hundreds of other Parisians and tourists strolling along the enormous boulevard. 

 For lunch we opted for a very American meal… Five Guys!  The food was just as delicious as at home in California, and we were all delighted to indulge in burgers and fries for a meal.   After lunch we headed over to the Grand Palais, a museum which hosts temporary exhibitions.  We’d read about the thematic exhibition there entitled La Lune, which showcased the variety of ways humanity has interacted with the moon.  And a very interesting exhibit it was!  The show began with artifacts from the first lunar landing, then offered snippets of early sci-fi films based on imagined aliens and moonscapes, then turned to Galileo and other early Western astronomers, then moved to art that contained the moon as an element (from many eras and cultures), then considered the varied depictions of the moon as a person or deity, and finally ended with gorgeous landscape paintings at night, with the moon as the light source. An utterly charming exhibit, and certainly unusual in its variety and approach.  We really enjoyed it! 

On Monday we had a very special lunch planned, with a Casti (and ISTP!) alum.  Penelope and I walked over to a restaurant near the Place de Vosges to meet Pauline, ate a delicious lunch, and caught up on all of her gap year adventures.  And I completely forgot to take a picture—will definitely grab one next time!  After lunch we all three strolled for a bit, found an Amorino shop, and shared some delicious ice cream.

Then Pauline and Penelope headed off to explore the Luxembourg Gardens, while I wandered around the Marais.  They soon discovered that the playground was under renovation, but they still had fun riding the carousel and browsing nearby patisseries.   A few hours later, we met up at Shakespeare & Co across the river.  Pauline headed off to her grandmother’s house and Penelope and I spent a happy hour browsing in the bookstore. 

We’re planning to see Pauline again soon—and hopefully some other Casti alums who will be visiting her in Paris!  🙂

On Tuesday we headed to another special exhibit, this one at the Atelier Lumieres right here in the 11th.  Billed as an immersive experience, the exhibit allows you to “walk inside” Van Gogh paintings.   Sounded interesting, so we booked tickets and walked over on a drizzly morning. 

The Van Gogh turned out to be three shows in one.  Imagine an enormous industrial warehouse with projections on every surface—walls, floors, ceiling, a pool in the middle, balconies.  Some walls curved, others straight—and people walking around or sitting down to enjoy the spectacle.  Music playing throughout, while the painting swirled around you—sometimes static, sometimes brought to life by animation. 

After Van Gogh, we saw two other pieces: Dreams of Japan and Verse.  Both were excellent as well!  Penelope’s favorite was the Japanese one—and I might have to agree, though seeing a few of my favorite Van Gogh pieces on such a grand scale was wonderful.

Afterwards, we headed to a nearby park to bask in the rarest of Parisian sights: sunshine!  The rain had ended, and a local school was having recess at the playground—and Penelope delightedly joined in.

Then it was off to stroll through some of central Paris on our guidebook’s Historic Paris Walk, which began at Notre Dame and ended near Sainte Chapelle.  Because of the terrible fire a few weeks ago, much of the island around Notre Dame is still closed—and the cathedral as well, of course. 

But we all enjoyed the walking tour… until hunger struck around 4pm.  The obvious solution: crepes!  We all ordered our favorites—jambon fromage for the ladies, while Jeremy tried the smoked salmon and Boursin.  All excellent.  But the piece de resistance was surely the sweet crepes that soon followed…

We finished our walk and headed home—another lovely day in Paris!

Wednesday was another national holiday in France, so we declared a PJ Day and spent the day (mostly) at home.  One downside to staying in a single place for more than a week: we actually need to clean!  So it was a day of reading, schoolwork, laundry, and cleaning—all of the usual mundane occupations. 

After a day at home, we decided we were ready to tackle… the Louvre.  So Thursday morning we set off to this positively enormous museum, and began our day with a first sighting of the pyramid.  Inside, Penelope showed a glimpse of the tween she will soon be, flashing a saucy pose for the camera.

We started with the ancient Greeks in the Denon wing.  Much of the early work (Greek, Roman) seemed quite familiar after a month of Italian museums… and Penelope was Not. Having. It.

Fortunately, we’d brought along her Kindle, so she read during much of the day… but the parental experience in dealing with her mood was well-captured by these two lovely ladies:

Nevertheless, we preserved, as Jeremy and I were definitely enjoying the art.

I didn’t snap too many pics of the sculptures or paintings, as I’ve been to the Louvre many times—but lots of old favorites were seen.  And I was positively charmed by this most recent addition:

After a day of Penelope dragging her heels through the Louvre, Friday was designated as a kids’ museum day.  We took the metro all the way up to the Parc de Villette, in the far north of Paris, to visit the Cite des Sciences et de l’Industrie.  Similar to the Tech in San Jose, this wonderful science museum is full of hands-on, interactive exhibits.  And best of all, there are two spaces especially for kids: Cite des Enfants.  We booked a timed ticket for the one aged 7-12, and Penelope raced around and had a ball—especially since there were many other kids there.  And Jeremy and I sat and read our Kindles.  🙂

A much happier kiddo.

The best news of all: the forecast for next week includes much less rain and much more sun. Temperatures in the 60s! So we’ll be heading on some day trips soon.

Paris en Famille

After a very early alarm clock, a vaporetto, a bus, and two planes, we arrived in Paris around 3pm on Thursday.  Our luggage, alas, did not.  We’d had a very short connection in Zurich, and we barely made our flight to Paris, so I wasn’t surprised when our baggage didn’t make the transfer.  We took a taxi from Charles de Gaulle to our new (and last) home-away-from-home, in the 11th arrondissement.  The apartment is on the 4th floor of a Haussmann building—I’m loving the view from the living room!

We spent the rest of the day in the usual way: finding our nearest grocery store, learning how the appliances work, and locating outlets to charge our phones.  Our bags were scheduled to arrive by 10pm—but we gave up around 11pm and went to bed. 

On Friday, buoyed by the knowledge that our credit card had delayed baggage insurance, we spent a couple of hours buying socks and underwear and pajamas and toiletries down the street at our local Monoprix.  When we were in Italy, I was really looking forward to France because I wouldn’t need to use Google Translate as much in stores… but it took me at least thirty minutes to google all of our sizes into their French equivalents… who knew that Penelope wears a size 32 sock???

The rest of the day was spent walking around our new neighborhood, hanging out at the neighborhood park, and watching French cartoons.  Les Pyjamasques translates pretty well, actually.   And best of all, most of our luggage arrived that night… at 10pm. 

The forecast Saturday was for rain, and rain it did.  At home in our apartment, we did laundry, played Uno, read, and unpacked.  It’s quite lovely to really unpack—I am so delighted to be living in the same place for two months.   And around lunchtime our last checked bag was delivered—phew! 

In the afternoon there was a brief break in the clouds, so we headed to our local Tati, where we’d read online we could buy home goods.  Although our apartment has most everything we need, we’d decided a few more pillows, an ice tray, and more hangers would make life more comfortable.  And of course we already needed more groceries, so we also tried another neighborhood grocery store.  There we were delighted to find pre-made buckwheat crepes for savory dishes, so it was jambon fromage crepes for dinner.  And for dessert, chef Penelope concocted a delicious treat: whipped cream, berries, and chocolate crumbles on top.

Sunday: more of the same!  Another cold and rainy day meant schoolwork, balloon volleyball in the living room, art projects, and reading.  And Elena d’Avalor (en francais, bien sur).  We noted with interest that the TV guide suggests Le Livre de Jungle will play on TV tonight, though it starts at 9pm.  Do French children really stay up so late??

Other accomplishments: figuring out how to order from Amazon.fr (with delivery to a local store, who holds it for the purchaser); planning our activities for the weeks ahead; and catching up on the blog.  Our stay in Paris is off to a riveting start!  🙂

Done with her own schoolwork, Penelope prepared lessons for her classmates.

Monday we had a meeting scheduled with the AirBnB host, to figure out a few items in the house (how to control the heat, have some missing lightbulbs replaced, what to do with the trash, etc.).  This is one of the few places we’ve stayed in which there hasn’t been a welcome book of instructions.  Once that was sorted, we headed out for a walk around our neighborhood—and to visit the Marks & Spencer Food Hall a few blocks away.  In addition to various British sausages and clotted cream, I was delighted to find my favorite cheese puffs. 

Really, one of the most challenging elements of travel is finding your favorite snacks in different countries and then only having them once every few years or so.  🙂 

Also on the agenda: stocking our freezer at Picard.  Penelope was positively astounded to be in a grocery store that only sold frozen goods.  It is quite something, I agree. 

On Tuesday we decided to finally venture beyond the 11th arrondissement!  We headed all the way over to the Bois de Boulogne for a visit to the Louis Vuitton Foundation, designed by Frank Gehry.  The building is quite extraordinary, and it was great fun to explore—both for the art inside and for the architecture itself.

We started with the current exhibition, the Courtauld Collection, which was an incredible gathering of Impressionist art: Manet, Gauguin, Modigliani, Cezanne, Van Gogh, Seurat, Monet, Pisarro, Renoir and many more.

Then we moved through the other floors, some quickly, some more leisurely, as our interest took us.  We did, however, particular enjoy some of the immersive and/or interactive art installations.

And when we explored the roof-top terraces, we spotted our very first glimpse of the Eiffel Tower!

After the museum, it was time for Le Jardin d’Acclimatation, an enormous playground and amusement park.  Founded in 1860, it is one of the anchors of the Bois de Boulogne.  Fortunately, the rides themselves do not date from the 19th century. 

Penelope had actually been here once before, in 2014, as a wee three-year-old with her grandparents (see her grandfather’s blog for details!).  But (not unexpectedly) she didn’t remember that visit, so we were all neophytes as we explored the grounds.  Playgrounds, camel rides, zip lines, paddleboats, and roller coasters all vied for our attention.  After some consideration, Penelope settled on some of the biggest of the rides to start: L’Astrolabe, Le Souris Mecaniques, Les Chaises Volantes, and Les Speed Rockets.  Jeremy spent most of this time reading on nearby benches, while Penelope and I were whirled about at high speeds.  Most enjoyable! 

We headed to a few of playgrounds next, then a few more rides, the petting zoo, and a final stroll around the grounds before deciding to save the rest of our tickets for another day.  We’ll definitely be back—what a terrific park for families!

We capped our day with a sweet treat from a local pastisserie.  Penelope selected the citron macaron as big as her head.  It was, predictably, delicious.

Wednesday was a Labour Day, a national holiday here in France.  A major protest was planned by the yellow jackets—and Paris police responded with the closure of 18 Metro stops, more than 7000 gendarmes, 200 arrests, tear gas, etc. etc. 

In light of all of that… we decided to stick to the 11th once again.  Penelope tried out the Jacuzzi tub in the apartment (which is actually quite enormous—she called it her personal swimming pool), I read through a Paris guidebook and continued planning, and Jeremy enjoyed some reading time on his Kindle.  In the afternoon, we walked around the neighborhood, finding a new park to explore and then heading back to our local playground.  We ended the day at a Thai restaurant just down the street, Mme. Shawn. 

Words cannot express how delighted I was to have Thai food for dinner.  At home in California, we have Indian or Thai or Japanese at least once a week.  Since leaving on our European travels in late March, all of our eating out has been Italian—and though excellent, I’ve been really missing those other flavors.  After savoring my Tom Kha Gai and Panang curry—plus bites of Jeremy’s beef and duck and Penelope’s chicken satay—I was a happy short-term Parisian indeed.

Thursday we’d planned another double-header: the Musee d’Orsay and Oya, Jeux a Jouer.  The d’Orsay was, as always, quite wonderful.  It might be my favorite museum in terms of content and architecture—but it’s also a madhouse on the Impressionist floors, and yesterday was no exception.  We persevered nevertheless, spotting both long-time favorites and new-to-us pieces.

Penelope enjoyed the 3-D transformation of the building from train station to art museum, took a picture next to the statue of Homer’s Penelope, and asked me to capture this portrait of a girl and her cat, by Renoir.

Some of my favorites, old and new:

But this was probably my best photo from our afternoon at the museum.  🙂

Penelope has been a trooper over the past five weeks, seeing more museums and churches in that time-span than she has in her entire life heretofore.  But her enthusiasm is now waning a bit, so we’ve decided (when possible) to pair museum outings with a more interactive, kid-focused activity (as we did earlier in the week with Louis Vuitton and the Jardin d’Acclimatation).  On today’s agenda: Oya, Jeux a Jouer—a game parlor/store.  Upon arrival, we met with the store owner (and game inventor!) and he asked us a few questions about what kind of games we liked, how many players, etc.  Then he set us up with a few options—and asked a family member (a little boy about Penelope’s age) to play with us to further explain the rules of each game as we played.   It was a terrific afternoon activity! 

We started with a board game—but deemed the action a bit too slow.  Second, a card game—not enough interaction (as it was meant to be played in silence).  Third, another card game—and this was one was definitely the best.  We were initially hesitant to play it, since it’s based on football (soccer, to us Americans) and we know absolutely nothing about that sport.  But we were coaxed into a game—and loved it.  A fast, energetic card game—and, importantly for travelers, it comes in a relatively small box.  We played several rounds, declared the game the winner, and left the store with a new copy of our own. 

Dinner at home ended the day—and so too ended our first full week in Paris. We didn’t see many tourist spots, but it’s been lovely to slow down from our pace in Italy.  And that’s the real luxury of having so much time here in Paris—there’s no rush to experience as much as possible in a week.

Still ahead: day trips to Versailles, Chartres, and Disneyland Paris (when the weather cooperates), more museums, and hopefully a cooking class!

Holidays in Venice

Friday morning we had a very early wake-up, as we wanted to be on the road by 8am.  We were driving the rental car from Tuscany to Venice, with a stop in Ravenna along the way.  Originally we’d planned to travel to Ravenna from Venice as a day trip, but a bit more research revealed that the train trip was about three hours each way… so we decided a stop en route to Venice would make more sense.

With only about three hours in our stop-over, we hit the ground running in Ravenna—heading straight for the two major sights: the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia and the Basilica di San Vitale.  The former building, completed in the 5th century, when Ravenna was one of the capitals of a declining Roman empire, has been described by UNESCO as “the earliest and best preserved of all mosaic monuments, and at the same time one of the most artistically perfect.”  The mosaics are extraordinary—even having seen pictures online, I was bowled over when we entered the small space. 

The small curved dome of the ceiling, the side panels, the lintels—every space is covered in images that seem to glow.  The windows themselves are alabaster, like the cathedral in Orvieto—but much darker, more opaque slices.  Visitors are allowed only five minutes inside the building, both to accommodate the number of visitors and to preserve the mosaics themselves (95% of which are original). 

One of the most famous repeating patterns—gold stars against a lapis lazuli background—is repeated throughout the ceiling.  Later in the day, I would find a small version of one of these gorgeous stars in a mosaicist’s studio… and that one is now safely stowed in my suitcase.  🙂

After spending our allotted time inside the Mausoleum, we walked over to the Basilica di San Vitale.  The size and splendor—the sheer volume of the Byzantine mosaics inside—are difficult to describe.  It’s simply amazing.  I spent my first few minutes inside admiring the floors: done in a style that echoes the mosaics we saw in Rome and Naples.

Having postponed the walls and ceilings, I now turned my attention to this delayed gratification.  What a riot of color and symbols. 

Apostles, birds, Jesus, flowers, an emperor, and angels—all vie for your attention.  I was particularly struck by the portraits of Emperor Justinian and the Empress Theodora—note that Justinian has both the worldly crown of the emperor and the halo of a saint—an interesting pair of symbols for one man (and of course very much on purpose, as he wished to consolidate power by this conjunction).

Our guidebook noted that “San Vitale can be seen as the last of the ancient Roman art and the first of the Christian era”—and that change can be clearly seen in the two versions of Jesus on this same ceiling—the beardless shepherd and the bearded Christ, just across from one another.

The rest of our time in Ravenna was divided between finding lunch, ducking into several small mosaic studios, and seeing a few more churches, each decorated with mosaic (though none as lavishly as the two described above).  But I was a happy traveler indeed—Ravenna was definitely the crown jewel in my tour of Italy’s mosaics.

And so we returned to our Fiat, ready to drive the final two and half hours to Venice.  We arrived just in time to return our car to Europcar… but none of the garages were clearly marked—and we had no directives from the rental company about where to go.  After making several wrong turns, we wound up re-crossing the bridge back to the mainland, then coming back to Venice and parking the car on the tenth floor of the first garage in the Piazzale Roma (which is as far as wheeled traffic can go in this lagoon town).  By this time, the rental agency had closed, but we gathered our luggage and dropped the keys in the overnight slot.  Fortunately, no penalties seem to have applied.  Phew!

Since we had wheeled luggage, our AirBnB host had recommended taking a vaporetto (the city water bus) from the Piazzale Roma to the stop nearest our apartment.  While bridges connect all of the city’s many islands, most of the bridges have steps (and no ramps).  So we wheeled our bags aboard a city boat and off we went (with me half-enjoying the initial sights of the Grand Canal and half-wondering how many tourists fall in every year). 

Our apartment in Venice was one of the very best we’ve had so far—it was newly renovated, with wonderfully thoughtful touches throughout.  And the location was terrific—just steps away from lots of restaurants and a grocery store in a converted theater—but very quiet, since it was tucked away down a little side street.  

We spent the rest of the evening settling in to our final Italian home.  Venice is our last stop in Italy, and we are looking forward to spending the Easter holidays here (along with Penelope’s birthday!).

On Saturday morning we were up early, heading back to Piazzale Roma to meet with my dad and Penelope.  Handoff complete, my dad headed back to the Venice campground so that my folks could drive to Croatia later that day.  We’ll be seeing them again in a few weeks—in Paris!  Until then, they will be on the move: Croatia, northern Italy, and southern France.

We walked back to our apartment, hearing from Penelope about her week away with the grandparents, eating lunch, and settling in a bit more.  After lunch, we decided on the tour of Venice via the Grand Canal cruise.  So we boarded vaporetto #1 back at Piazzale Roma, and listened to Rick Steves’ audio tour as we cruised from the beginning of the Grand Canal all the way down to St. Mark’s Square.  A gorgeous day on the water!

Upon arrival, we opted to tour the Correr Museum and tool around St. Mark’s Square.  The Correr is a great, underrated museum—which also means it’s much quieter and more sparsely populated by tourists than the Doge’s Palace or St. Mark’s itself.  We wandered happily around the rooms of art, artillery, and archeological finds for a few hours, then took a break in the museum café, which had a wonderful view of the cathedral across the square.

When Penelope realizes she’s in a ballroom…
…continuing her dance moves in the Square…
…ending up on the back of a giant lion.
The Bridge of Sighs.
The golden hour in Venice… a beautiful end to our first full day.

By 6pm or so, we decided we ought to head to the grocery store to fully stock our larder for the next few days… most grocery stores would be closed for Easter Sunday and Easter Monday, as both are national holidays here in Italy.  All of Venice had the same idea, so the store was, not surprisingly, a madhouse.  But we made it out in one piece, heading home for some well-earned rest.

Easter Sunday was a lovely day!  Penelope was especially excited to celebrate in an Italian fashion—instead of baskets, children here receive absolutely enormous chocolate eggs (often with toys inside) and share in a Colomba, a dove shaped cake.  While Penelope was with her grandparents, we’d secured both of these items and stowed them away to surprise her.  And delighted she was!

After a delicious brunch, we decided we’d tour the Doge’s Palace and then walk back to our apartment—seeing a bit more of Venice on land this time.  I’d expected the streets to be, if not empty, perhaps more sparsely populated, given that the day was a religious holiday in a very Catholic country.  But in fact, the opposite was true.  St. Mark’s Square was even more crowded than on Saturday, with masses of people everywhere you looked.  Almost all of the tourist stores were open, the restaurants, and many of the tourist sites as well.  So we dove into the crowds and made our way to the Doge’s Palace.

Inside wasn’t nearly as crowded, and our pace slowed as we explored the many rooms therein.  Beautiful frescoes, paintings, and architecture abounded. 

We particularly enjoyed crossing over the Bridge of Sighs, which we’d seen from the outside the day before, and exploring the dungeons.

Penelope lets loose a wistful sigh…
Artsy shot from the Bridge.

We ended our visit in the gift shop, where Penelope decided (once again) to enlarge her jewelry collection.  Fortunately, her savings have kept pace with her acquisitions… and she reminded me that every piece will have a “memory of these wonderful places, Mama!”  A fair point.  🙂

We walked home the long way, getting enjoyably lost a few times, finding our way again, and savoring all of the sights and sounds of this city in the lagoon.

Monday was Pasquetta, Easter Monday.  A day of museums for us: both the Accademia and the Guggenheim were on the agenda, along with some mask shopping and a gondola ride.

We began the day at the Accademia, home to Venetian Renaissance painting.  It’s a relatively small museum, and undergoing some renovation, so we spent relatively little time there—though the small temporary exhibit on Bosch and da Vinci was a lovely surprise. 

Afterwards, we decided on lunch at nearby Al Vecio Marangon, a small neighborhood restaurant.  There we relaxed and enjoyed a delightful meal of small plates (known in Venice as cicchetti), all freshly prepared and wonderfully seasoned.   Thus fortified, we now prepared ourselves for an essential Venetian outing: mask shopping. 

Since Penelope’s birthday is on the road this year, she’s received a few monetary gifts in lieu of the usual books or toys.  Bolstered by this unusual largesse, she decided that she would buy a mask here in Venice with some of that birthday money.  We’ve been stopping in and out of various mask stores over the past few days, but today was the day.  At Ca’Macana, one of Venice’s most well-known mask stores, she narrowed her choices from the delightful myriad to some final contenders.

Her parents also joined in the dress-up—though, alas, their choices were not purchased.  Though I do think the pirate hat really suited Jeremy. 

Ca’Macana is one of the few mask shops that allows photos, which is lovely.  I think it encourages people to stay longer (and makes the shop owners seem less forbidding).  But I can understand why others prefer not to have their wares used but not purchased.  After quite some time, Penelope settled on her final choice…

…and we’ll figure out how to get it home somehow!

Next it was off to the Guggenheim, where we spent the first forty-five minutes in the gardens.

Initially we circulated, admiring the sculptures, but soon Penelope was deeply engrossed in games of tag and red light/green light with a French girl just her age.  She had, as always, a delightful time playing—and was hard-pressed to enter the museum and start looking at the art.  But eventually we coaxed her inside, where from time to time we ran into her new friend again.

We finished our time at the museum (having very much enjoyed the eclectic modern collection after weeks of ancient, medieval, and Renaissance art), and set out on our final adventure of the day: a gondola ride!

We’d promised Penelope a gondola ride in Venice for her birthday, but since the forecast promised rain on her actual birthday, we’d decided to go today instead.  As we left the Guggenheim, we peered down several side canals, and spotted a likely looking gondolier.  As we stepped down into the boat, it shifted ominously… but we were quickly and professionally ushered to our seats and were soon afloat. 

As you can, I was initially in the so-called “love seat” with Jeremy, but Penelope hastened to point out that the ride was for her birthday, so she asked for a spot in the primo viewing area… and I ceded my claim.

We started on the Grand Canal, then drifted down some smaller lanes, and emerged into a much larger body of water—the Giudecca Canal.  Here much larger boats were creating substantial waves, and the lighter gondola was sent into a series of tumultuous moves—and Penelope loved every minute. 

It was a lovely half an hour floating around the canals, and we were so glad to share this experience with our birthday girl.  As soon as we disembarked, she asked when we could go again.  A happy kiddo indeed.

Tuesday was our second major holiday in Venice: Penelope’s 8th birthday!  After a breakfast celebration and a few small gifts at home, we headed out into the rain to do some exploring.  Penelope had requested no museums for her birthday, but she wanted to show us St. Mark’s cathedral (which she had seen earlier in the week with her grandparents).  When we emerged into the streets near our apartment, she was over the moon to realize that the canal waters were splashing over the edge of the embankments.  While it wasn’t Aqua Alta, there was definitely some flooding—and all day long, Penelope proclaimed, “It’s flooding!  For my birthday!” in tones of delighted triumph.  But before we headed for the Cathedral, we first stopped at a gelateria for a birthday treat.

When we reached St. Mark’s Square and joined the queue for the cathedral, we found that we were indeed on the elevated walkways Venice keeps handy for just this occasion.  While we weren’t in any danger of real flooding, it was still quite interesting to see this dynamic evidence of the ways in which Venice is sinking (and the sea is rising), year by year.

You’ll have to imagine Penelope exclaiming, “It’s flooding!! This is amazing!” while jumping up and down on the elevated walkway.

The cathedral itself was lovely, if very dark on this rainy day.  But what we could see of the mosaics was quite wonderful.  The best part was perhaps the museum upstairs, which offers great views from the balconies (where the women worshipped in the earliest days of this Church), a chance to see the famous horses up close, and many other original statues and mosaics.

After our rainy afternoon, we headed to dinner at a nearby pizzeria, as Penelope had asked for a pizza dinner to celebrate.  We happily obliged.

While we might have wished for better weather for Penelope’s birthday, she was radiant with happiness all day long.   It was a joy to see her so delighted with this traveling birthday—I hope it’s one she’ll remember for a long time.

Wednesday, our last day in Venice, dawned bright and sunny.  We’d decided to head over to another island, Murano, to see a glassblowing demonstration and the various glass shops there.  After a quick ferry ride across the lagoon, we soon arrived.

As we were browsing the shops, one of the shopkeeps in a particularly fine gallery suggested we might enjoy touring a glass factory nearby.  After exchanging a few words about timing and location, she offered to walk us over—and so, to our surprise, she locked up the shop and we were off.  We’d had the good fortune to be offered a tour of the Massimiliano Schiavon Art Team’s factory—and it was amazing to see the artwork being created there.  The family there is the sixth-generation of glassblowers, and their work was astonishing in its color and variety.  We watched a few of the artists at work, while our guide offered explanations.

Then we toured the seemingly endless galleries, gazing in awe at the chandeliers, vases, frames, and mosaic art.

After an hour at the factory, we wandered back to the main square, enjoying the sights—from a giant glass tree in the piazza to tiny glass gnomes in windows.

At one store we passed, Penelope noted that the artist inside made glass necklaces to order.  She decided then and there that she would purchase one, and stepped right up to discuss her ideas with the artist.  She asked for the letter P, made of blue and purple glass, in a fancy style—all of this delivered in a no-nonsense, authoritative tone.  She may be only newly eight years old, but she negotiates and orders like nobody’s business.  (side note: I don’t even like making phone calls.  Clearly, this skill isn’t an inherited one.)

Watching the artist at work… then realizing I was snapping an unauthorized photo. Ha!
Modeling her new necklace on a nearby bridge.

In the late afternoon, we headed back to Venice and toward the Rialto Bridge to explore a bit more before heading home to pack.  We wandered down main streets and side alleys, taking in the final sights of Venice. 

What a wonderful stay we’ve had in this waterlogged town—despite the occasional rain, it was a lovely place to end our time in Italy.  And now—on to Paris!

Tuscany for Two

On Sunday, my dad arrived at our Florence apartment early in the morning to pick up Penelope for her solo vacation with grandparents.  Penelope was quite excited for this side trip, and her parents were also looking forward to a few days together in Tuscany.  🙂

So Penelope headed off to the grandparents’ camper… and on to Lucca, Pisa, Padua, and Venice, while we finished packing up the rest of the baggage and went to pick up our rental car.  We’d reserved an adorable Fiat 500L, which was surprisingly roomy.  After securing our bags in the trunk, adjusting all the mirrors, and reviewing the directions, we were off!  From Florence to San Gimignano, our first stop.  It took several tries to leave Florence though—we kept taking slightly wrong turns and heading back into the city instead of out to the countryside.  But eventually we made it to the open landscapes around the city. 

Unfortunately, by the time we arrived in San Gimignano, it was pouring rain and the normally beautiful views from the hilltop were obscured by clouds.  We pulled into the parking lot anyway, to decide what to do next, and as we attempted to park, the car started sliding… and sliding… and would.not.stop.  Finally, about two feet away from a parked BMW, we came to a stop—but only with both the parking brake engaged AND Jeremy’s foot on the brake.  The combination of rain, slick cobblestones, and grass underneath had combined to make the situation somewhat… difficult.  I didn’t start really panicking until Jeremy said we’d have to call for a tow.  Given his normally optimistic approach to problem-solving, this statement felt particularly ominous.  I got out of the car and walked over to stand under a nearby olive tree, scanning our rental agreement for the right number to call. 

At that point, the family who owned the BMW suddenly appeared, and were, quite fortunately, both English and incredibly helpful.  The dad ushered his kids into the car, the mom came to stand with me, and then he somehow managed to squeeze past our precariously balanced vehicle to put their car at a safe remove.  Then he encouraged Jeremy to try reversing again—and our Fiat rolled forward once more.  By now another party of locals had stopped to help, and with three men pushing the Fiat uphill while Jeremy floored the car, they managed to get the car on safer ground.  Then they all quickly and quietly dispersed, while I (now soaking wet) rejoined Jeremy in the car.  We parked nearby on more level ground, gathered our wits, and decided it might be best to tour San Gimignano another day. 

We drove onward to our next AirBnB, west of Asciano.  En route, we stopped at one of the few grocery stores open on Palm Sunday, just outside of Siena.  The store was located inside a small mall, and it was fun to see this slice of suburban life.  I was particularly impressed by the escalators in the mall, which had been designed to hold grocery carts at an angle.

We finally arrived to the top of a hillside in Tuscany, up a cypress-lined drive, to our new temporary home.  And what a view.  The rain had cleared, and the birds were singing, and it was just perfectly beautiful.

We spent the rest of the afternoon and evening settling in and enjoying long stretches of companionable silence.  And then went outside to the patio at sunset…

Ahhhh, Tuscany.

On Monday, the weather was clearer, but still cold, so we opted to take The Heart of Tuscany driving tour outlined by Rick Steves (forever our trusty tour guide).  On the way toward our first small town, we stopped to take a picture of our Tuscan home. Pretty amazing.

We spent about four hours on the road, soaking in the gorgeous views near and far, and stopping in different hill towns during the day.  Our longest stop was a good long wander around Montepulciano, which was a lovely hill town, complete with fortifications, huge cliffs and walls, and gorgeous views around every corner.

That evening we relaxed at home—and I even watched a movie! without interruptions! I’m pleased to report I very much enjoyed Bohemian Rhapsody, and I’ve had Queen songs running through my mind in the days since.

Meanwhile in Pisa… Penelope and my folks had arrived to see (and climb!) the famous Leaning Tower.  My mother stayed on the ground, since her knee has been more painful than usual of late.  They sent along these great pics.

Tuesday morning dawned sunny and gorgeous—look at these flowers in the garden!  I don’t think I captured any of the enormous bees swarming around the blossoms, and you can’t hear the ever-present birdsong, but trust me when I say the scene was positively pastoral.

With such gorgeous weather, we decided to tempt fate and return to San Gimignano (stopping en route at a pharmacie in a nearby town to find some allergy meds for Jeremy, who appears to be somewhat allergic to Italian pollen).  There we spotted one of the strangest public murals I’ve ever seen.

Hmmmmm…. not sure what the message is here.

After about an hour’s drive, we arrived back at the very same parking lot—but the skies were sunny and we had no trouble at all this time.  Climbing the hill up to the center of town, we soon spotted the towers for which San Gimignano is justly famous.  We spent the next few hours walking around, turning down side streets, enjoying both city sights and sweeping views from the overlooks.

Note the obviously quite necessary stoplight.

Inside one shop, we found a wonderful scale model of San Gimignano, circa 1300—along with the interior architecture of one of the towers.  Loved this idea—and it was a great aid in thinking about how these towers were actually used.

At the top of the hill, we spotted Dante himself, reciting the first lines of the Inferno from memory.  My Italian is almost non-existent, but I immediately recognized those first lines: “Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita / mi ritrovai per una selva oscura, / ché la diritta via era smarrita.”   A wonderful performance! 

After we finished our afternoon in San Gimignano, we headed back home to our little home on the hillside, just in time to enjoy another beautiful sunset.

On Wednesday we were off to Orvieto.  Realizing our tank was getting low, we stopped for diesel somewhere between Asciano and Orvieto. 

Deep thoughts while fueling small vehicles.

About an hour and a half later, we arrived in Orvieto and bought our tickets to ride our funicular up to the historic town centre.  Orvieto, like so many of the hill towns in Tuscany, is a fortified town on an actual hill.  In this case, Orvieto was built at the top of a nearly 1000ft outcropping of tufa.  So most tourists park at the large parking lot at the base and take the charming three-car funicular to the top.  As we waited to depart, I asked Jeremy to snap a selfie together.  Results were not quite what I planned… but still true to form.

We reached the top and then boarded the city shuttle for just a few minutes, arriving at the cathedral and the heart of town.  And the cathedral was simply gorgeous.  Like nearby Florence, Orvieto chose to decorate the outside of the Duomo with lively marbles and mosaic, and the effect is quite stunning.  But even more impressive is in the inside.  The windows are a combination of stained glass and alabaster, and the latter bathes the church interior with a warm glow.  The effect is one of soothing welcome, and that feeling is bolstered by the bright frescoes and golden glow from mosaics and painted ceiling stars.

We spent an hour wandering around the interior, marveling in particular at the Chapel of San Brizio, painted by Luca Signorelli.  The frescoes contain scenes from the Last Judgment, beginning with the preaching of the Antichrist (often thought to portray Savonarola) and ending with the Damned being tortured in Hell while the Elect enjoy Paradise.  While it’s a familiar series of scenes, the paintings themselves are gorgeous—and quite realistically painted.  And just below these larger frescoes, portraits of Italian artists and writers—these were two of my favorites.

Love the way he’s leaning out to see the ceiling frescoes!

Next, we toured the nearby museums, including a bit of the open vaults under the cathedral, a modern Italian sculptor’s work, and some of the original frescoes and statues from the church. 

Paul has some serious side-eye for rock’n’roll Jesus.

My favorite spot in the museum was definitely the Libreria Alberi, the beautifully decorated room that housed the personal library of Archbishop Antonio Alberi.  The frescoes are from the same time period as the Chapel of San Brizio, so they are mostly like by Signorelli and his assistants—but here the subjects are secular.  Around the walls are portraits of authors who were contained in this library, in the fields of law, philosophy, history, poetry, and more.  But best of all was the creature perched on a window nook: a reading monkey, complete with glasses. 

The rest of the afternoon was spent strolling through the streets of the town, from the center to the cliffs, enjoying the sunny day. 

And that same day, in a campground near Venice, Penelope celebrated her upcoming birthday with her grandparents—and they gifted her with a beautiful charm bracelet, with charms for this amazing adventure we’re on: the Colosseum, the Leaning Tower, and a gondola.  They’ve promised to add an Eiffel Tower when we’re in Paris.  We’ll have to find a Kiwi bird when we get home!  As you can see, she was positively thrilled with this wonderful present.  🙂

On Thursday we were off to our final Tuscan hilltown, Siena—just twenty minutes from our rental home.  We spent a lazy morning at home, arriving in town in time for our noon reservation at La Taverna di San Giuseppe.  The restaurant—in a 3rd century BC Etruscan home (!!)—is also Michelin recommended, so we knew were in for a treat.  And what a meal it was—eggplant starter, beef pappardelle, steak and duck entrees, and finally, the hazelnut soufflé for dessert.  Delizioso! 

Don’t miss the generous bowl of ice provided for American clientele… and the tiny chairs next to each table, for one’s purse or bag. 🙂

After lunch, we turned to Rick Steves for our walking tour of Siena, exploring the central piazzas, side streets, and cathedral along the way. 

And finally, back home to our own Tuscan hilltop, for our last sunset.  It’s been a wonderful vacation-within-our trip!

F

Florentine Adventures, Part Two

On Thursday we had reservations for an afternoon at the Uffizi.  My folks—who enjoy spending all day at museums—were planning to arrive at 10am.  Since we have Penelope in tow, we usually aim for around four hours… maximum.  But the Uffizi is enormous, and more crowded than others in Florence, so we reserved at 12:15pm timeslot, hoping we’d find ourselves with plenty of time.  And despite the crowds at the outset, we enjoyed our visit very much.  The stars here are Fra Angelico, Botticelli, Raphael, da Vinci, and Caravaggio—plus, of course, the building itself, and the beautiful views of the Arno out of the windows.

Gorgeous view of the Ponte Vecchio from inside the Uffizi.

By the end of the afternoon, Penelope was getting a bit punchy, and, accordingly, amped up her art imitations.  This one was perhaps my favorite.  🙂

After we finished our time at the museum, we emerged into a rainy afternoon.  Jeremy headed back to the apartment, while Penelope and I walked over to the paper marbling/book binding shop I’d seen on my artisans’ tour, Alberto Cozzi.  There we found ourselves some wonderful souvenirs: a picture frame, stationary, and tiny pill box for Penelope, and a journal and some stationary for me.  Their wares are simply extraordinary, and it was difficult choosing just a few!  They wrapped our purchases well against the still drizzling rain, and we walked back home.

My parents soon joined us at our apartment, and we all relaxed a bit before a family dinner at Trattoria Bordino. 

My truffle steak was quite excellent, and Penelope and Jeremy both enjoyed the salmon.  My folks shared the bistecca alla fiorentina, which they enjoyed (but said their favorite restaurant in Florence did it better).  We had reservations later in the week, so time would tell!  After dinner, we walked back over the Ponte Vecchio, admiring the wooden security barriers of the gold shops and pausing for a family photo. 

We then continued toward the main pedestrian drag in town, Via dei Calzaiuoli, stopping en route at Il Porcellino to rub his nose and wish for a return to Florence. 

To cap the night, we indulged in a delicious round of gelato at Venchi.  Though it’s a chain, it’s also pretty dang good!  Penelope and I were happy girls as we ended another day in beautiful (if rainy) Florence.

Friday morning dawned sunny once again—overall, we’ve been so lucky with the weather!  After visiting the workshop of the mosaicists, I’d decided we should make a quick stop at Florence’s museum of that art, the Opfcio Pietra Dura.  En route, Penelope spotted a positively dizzying window display of hair decorations, and we nipped inside to survey the options and select a new headband.  She opted for one encrusted with both pearls and crystals.  #allthesparkles

On we continued, to the Opfcio Pietra Dura.  It’s a small museum—just a dozen or so rooms—but so many masterworks on display!  A definite recommendation if you enjoy this kind of art.

It’s hard to capture, but the artist here chose a semi-translucent pale white stone for each grape–so they both seem to glow and have depth in this piece. Amazing.

As we were leaving the museum, Penelope spotted an art supply store just across the street.  Inspired by all of the art she’s been seeing, she decided to use some of her savings to purchase watercolor pencils, a brush, and a watercolor art pad.

Two petite masterpieces painted later that day.

We then walked across town to another beautiful church, Santa Croce, and spent some time admiring its sculptural masterpieces and quiet cloister. (I also admit that, like any child of the 90s, I immediately started hearing an Indigo Girls song in my head while in front of Galileo’s tomb.)

Realizing we were close to the mosaic workshop I’d visited on Tuesday, I brought Penelope and Jeremy to see Mosaico Lastrucci, and they enjoyed the same interactions with the artisans at work there. 

After a few hours at home—reading, art, and schoolwork—it was time for our final Florence workshop: a cooking class featuring pizza and gelato!  Jeremy had again opted for a quiet evening at home (are we sensing a pattern?), so Penelope and I walked over to the Piazza della Repubblica to meet our chef.  As we waited, it became clear that this class was especially popular with families—by the time we’d all gathered, I’d counted 25 participants, 14 of whom were under the age of ten!  Penelope was in heaven, especially since most of the children spoke either English or French.  With the chef in the lead, we walked about ten minutes to the kitchens. 

What a fun evening!  We made the dough from scratch, learning how to mix and knead and stretch—then we chose our toppings from a dizzying array of choices. 

While the dough was resting, we gathered round and watched as the children combined the gelato ingredients into the delicious chocolate gelato we’d eat later.  Before the mixture went into the machine, we each had a spoonful of the hot gelato.  Equally tasty, I must say.

And at the end of the night, we were rewarded with two tasty pizza pies, followed by equally scrumptious gelato.       

Saturday was our final day in Florence, so we’d planned to visit as many places as we could!  We started with the Medici Chapel… where the lines stretched (I kid you not) two blocks long.  We decided we’d have to save the Chapel for our next trip to Florence, and continued walking toward the Santa Maria Novella, which my father had declared one of his very favorite churches.  And I could see why he appreciated it—the cathedral is chock-full of beautiful pieces of art, and especially vivid frescoes.  Given how many of the frescoes we’ve seen have been weathered and aged, these were a delight. 

After the church, we walked back toward the Palazzo Vecchio, where we thoroughly enjoyed even more glorious frescoes throughout the palace.  At this point, however, Penelope was reaching the end of her interest—so she could often be spotted reading her Kindle on any convenient steps in the room.

Or we’d play I Spy with the frescoes… can you spot the giraffe, the man with open-toe boots, and the pooping dog?  🙂

Her interest was momentarily revived in the Penelope room, however.  A gorgeous ceiling indeed!

It was now nearing mid-afternoon, and Penelope and Jeremy headed home for an afternoon of relaxation at our apartment… while I returned to the now-open gold merchants of the Ponte Vecchio, toured the San Lorenzo leather market, and finally visited a well-reviewed leather shop.  A lovely afternoon of solo shopping!

Our last evening in Florence was definitely our best meal (though we’d also really enjoyed the overflowing panini at All’Antico Vinaio, thanks to the recommendation of another former student—thanks, Gabby!!).  We met up with my folks at All’Antico Ristoro di Cambi, where they’ve been feasting on bistecca alla fiorentina for something like 20 years.  And it was just as good as they’d said.  We had delicious antipasti, shared more than two kilo of amazing steak, and ended the meal with cheesecake, crème brulee, lemon gelato, and an espresso for my dad.  You know it’s a great meal when you forget to take pictures!  Simply amazing—one of the best steaks I’ve ever had.

And so ended our wonderful week in Florence… but I can’t end this post without sharing some of the other art we saw during our time here.  The street art here is terrific: inventive, colorful, and—most of all—playful.  Here are a just a few of my favorites. 

Up next: the beautiful hills of Tuscany!

Florentine Adventures

On Sunday we once again boarded the Circumvesuviana train to Naples, this time to catch our connecting train to Florence.  Both of our longer trips (Rome-Naples and Naples-Florence) have been on the Italo trains, and we’d definitely use them again.  Comfortable, spacious seats—and on each of our trips we somehow ended up in very quiet cars. 

On our arrival in Florence, we took a taxi to our new apartment… and met with the host/owner, who let us in…. and up and up and up.  Somehow I’d managed to book us into a 6th floor apartment with no elevator.  (Later I’d look at my email exchange with the owner, who’d claimed it was on the 3rd floor.  This seems… a stretch.)  But once we were inside, we found a spacious layout and a lovely Florentine house-top view out of our kitchen window.

Our apartment is in a neighborhood with many churches, and the church bells are curiously unsynced… causing sequential rather than simultaneous hourly bells.  A fun experience at 4pm.  We were less enthusiastic later that night at 11pm and midnight.  I suppose locals just tune them out altogether?  The rest of the travel day was spent in the usual way: finding our nearest grocery store and laying in supplies for the next week. 

Monday, after a schoolwork morning and an early lunch at home, we set out on Rick Steves’ Renaissance walk, as a way to cover ground and introduce ourselves to the various wonders of Florence.  We turned the first corner and stumbled upon the Dante museum, with a curious sculpture outside.  Was it made of… ice?  It was!  A very cool installation.

We made another detour at the Bargello Museum, just a few minutes’ walk from our apartment.  The Bargello was wonderful, filled with all sorts of sculpture—both small and enormous—and all historically and artistically significant.

After an hour or two at the Bargello, we resumed our walk through the city, leading us from the Duomo to the Piazza della Reppublica, where we indulged Penelope with several rides on the lively carousel.

From there it was on to the Palazzo Vecchio, to stand in the very spot Savonarola was burned, to the Uffizi and then ending on the amazing Ponte Vecchio.  Except for the Bargello, we didn’t go in to any of the sights—but the walk was, as usual, a wonderful way to get our bearings in a new city.

Tuesday morning I had booked a special treat for myself: a walking tour of artisan workshops with a local guide.  Jeremy and Penelope spent the morning at home, while I met with Maria, who led me to half a dozen wonderful workshops.  Maria has lived in Florence for more than 20 years, but she’s originally from Sweden.  After years as a graphic designer, she recently started her own business as a tour guide and personal shopper (I found her tour via AirBnB Experiences).  When I showed up at 9:30am, I found that I was the only person to have booked the tour, so it was a private outing—lucky me!  We started with a mosaic workshop—in the Florentine style of pietre dure—and I was immediately blown away by the experience.  We chatted with the various artists, including the maestro himself, Bruno Lastrucci, as Maria showed me around the workshop and translated my questions for the artists. 

After spending nearly thirty minutes in the small workshop and gallery, it was time to move on.  We visited a custom shoemaker, a goldsmith, a woodworker who specializes in wood inlay, two different leather shops, and ended the tour at a bookbinders/paper shop. 

At each stop, the artisans were friendly, engaging, and happy to spare a few minutes to show us their current projects—and it was so wonderful to see these artists at work!  I can’t recommend Maria’s tour highly enough—and I’m so glad I decided to go early in our stay in Florence, as now I have a chance to return later in the week for potential purchases.  🙂

After the tour ended, I returned home to our apartment to have lunch with Jeremy and Penelope, then we all headed out to meet with my folks, who’d arrived in Florence the evening before.  We met them for an early afternoon drink at a café near the Duomo, catching up on news from the week before, when we’d been traveling in different areas.  They left to walk around the city a bit while Jeremy, Penelope, and I headed into the Duomo museum.

After touring the museum, we walked over to the Baptistry—wonderful mosaics on the ceiling.  I loved all of the gold especially—and Penelope was keen to point out scenes she recognized from the Old Testament. 

By then it was almost time to queue for the climbing of the Dome.  Leery of heights, Jeremy had happily surrendered his spot to my dad, so my mom headed back to their camper and Jeremy and Penelope went home to our apartment while my father and I waited in line for our turn to climb the 463 steps to the top of the Dome.  Just inside the cathedral, I spotted Dante.

In preparation for our Florence travel, I’ve been reading Brunelleschi’s Dome by Ross King.  It’s quite a wonderful book, but I have to say that King’s portrayal of Brunelleschi as a temperamental and all-too-human architect made me rather less confident than I might have otherwise been in climbing to this dizzying height.  But we set off nevertheless, climbing first into a very narrow ledge inside the Dome itself.

And then after quite a few more flights, each narrower and more canted than the previous…

…we emerged, blinking in the sunlight, to the topmost perch.  It really was quite something—coming up that final ladder and seeing all of Florence and the hills around spread out beneath me.  We circled round, taking in all of the views—and taking a few selfies too, of course.

A lovely end to a wonderful second day in Florence!

But Wednesday had something even more fabulous in store… a paper marbling workshop!  I’ve been wanting to try my hand at this ancient art for years—really ever since my first trip to Florence when I was in high school.  The paper in Florence is simply exquisite, and Penelope and I were delighted to join a workshop to make our own.  🙂

We met our teacher, Francesca Vannini, in her art studio in the Santa Croce neighborhood, just a ten minute walk from our apartment.  Francesca is a wonderful, patient, and super organized teacher—and within a few minutes of her demonstration, Penelope and I were already making our own papers! 

Everything we needed was at hand, and we each created ten different designs.  At the very end of our time, once the papers had dried (helped along by a hair dryer), we learned how to make bookmarks and pencils out of the paper too.  I can’t say enough about how wonderful this experience was!  And it was so fun to make art with Penelope.  She’s been such a trooper during all of our museum and church visits in Italy, and I think she’s genuinely enjoying those sights… but it was terrific to indulge in something hands-on for both of us.

After lunch at home with Jeremy—and the chance to show him all of our gorgeous creations—the three of us walked over to the Accademia.  Timed tickets are recommended/required for many sights in Florence, and this time of year there are positively dozens of high school field trip tour groups at each sight.  But once you move beyond whatever the main attraction is, the museums aren’t too terribly crowded.  At the Accademia, David is the star (and was, predictably, a mob scene)—but nearby galleries had more breathing room, and we thoroughly enjoyed our visit.  I especially enjoyed Michelangelo’s Prisoners, and Penelope spotted a few fabulous instruments in the Musical Instruments Museum, attached to the Accademia.

After a stop at a local grocery store, we were on our way home to cook dinner and plan the second half of our stay in Florence… the Uffizi, Santa Croce, bistecca alla fiorentina—and, of course, more gelato!