BC: Ciao Bella! | Ciao Bella!
FC: Heart of Italy 2010 | Rick Steves Tour | Heather Graham Sandy Spieker | H | Heart of Italy October 12-22, 2010 Heather Graham Sandy Spieker
1: “Hey Heather, want to go to Europe with me?” And so began our European experience. We settled on Italy, and found Rick Steves' Heart of Italy tour. That is how two college friends embarked on an Italian adventure!
2: Florence One of the first things we did once we arrived in Florence was sample some of the food! It was magnificent! We ordered a sampler of primo piatto, which included an omelette with truffle creme sauce. It may not look or sound like much, but I swear angels sang when we took the first bite. Try everything on your trip! We also had a sample of salami and prosciutto and washed down it all down with a glass of wine. It almost cured us of the jet lag!
3: The view from the top was breathtaking! No picture or video can truly do it justice. The church bells started tolling just as we reached the top and dusk started to settle in. It was so peaceful and refreshing – absolutely worth each of the 380 steps to the top! See the tiny people in the top right picture? We were there! | Strengthened by native cuisine, we tackled the climb to the top of the dome of the cathedral in Florence, known as the Duomo. It is the defining structure in the city – absolutely beautiful and wondrously ornate. Climbing the narrow stone stairs, I kept thinking how medieval monks had climbed these very same steps. It was consecrated in 1436 – Columbus hadn’t even sailed the ocean blue!
4: One of the things we loved about Florence was the beautiful statues, including the magnificent David by Michelangelo. The first picture isn’t the original, but a copy. The original is in the Accedemia, and no photography is allowed.
5: The Ponte Vecchio is one of the most famous bridges in the city. It was originally where the butchers lived and worked, throwing their garbage in the river below. It has since been claimed as the home of the city’s jewelers, and is still the place for fine jewelry. During the Nazi occupation, many of the city’s bridges were blown up to slow the Ally advancement, but Hitler had only the ends of the Ponte Vecchio destroyed, leaving this historical structure largely intact. We were lucky enough to see it one evening at sunset.
6: On our third day in Florence we met Massimo, our new best friend. He showed us the difference between good leather and bad leather, and my oh my, did he have good leather. We each tried on a leather jacket, just for fun. Needless to say, Massimo gave us “good price” on our piu bel ricordo, which is Italian for most beautiful souvenir! | Why is Heather touching the nose of a pig statue? It is Porcellino, and touching its snout is supposed to ensure your return to Florence. Sandy touched it twice!
8: Cinque Terre | Ah, the Cinque Terre. It is the collective name of five lovely little towns: Monterosso al Mare, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola and Riomaggiore. This is one of the reasons I’m glad we took a Rick Steves' tour. This jewel on the Mediterranean is just starting to be discovered as a tourist destination, so it still has plenty of old world charm. The locals were very welcoming and happy to see us. We even had a pesto making demonstration from a local woman and had dinner together one night at her family’s restaurant.
10: Via della Amore For a long time, each of the towns were isolated in their own little valleys. Then a path was built between Riamaggore and Manarola. The young men and women from the two towns would meet on this path, lending it the name Path of Love, or Via della Amore. The tradition is for lovers to inscribe their names on a lock and lock it on the Via della Amore to “seal their love.” It is also full of love poems and graffiti. Some who have forgotten a pen or paint have even resorted to inscribing their names on the plants! It doesn’t hurt that the views are gorgeous.
11: Walking in a postcard from a fairy tale | The aloe plants were huge! This picture is to document the crazy, amusingly huge aloe plants. | One of our adventures in Cinque Terre was hiking between Corniglia and Vernazza. I knew it would be beautiful when the bridge to start the path looked like something out of a fairy tale. The path is marked occasionally with a white stripe above a red stripe. We found this funny, because our options were A) Climb up impossibly sheer cliff B) Fall down impossibly sheer cliff or C) Continue forward along the path.
12: The “steps” on the path were slabs of stone with broken chunks of rock behind. They were also apparently constructed by giants, or at least someone with far longer legs then us. We used nicknames like “Path of Peril.” Meanwhile, Germans practically skipped past us. Perhaps they are part mountain goat? Okay, it wasn’t that bad, and the view was unquestionably worth it.
13: There are 64,873 steps in the Cinque Terre, and you have to climb half of them to get anywhere. The phrase “Look, more steps!” became a running joke. We bought walking shoes and started going on four mile walks up steep hills in our new shoes in the weeks leading up to our trip. That was possibly one of the best decisions we ever made. But when you get to see and experience a place as beautiful as Cinque Terre, and Italy in general, every step is worth it!
14: Lucca After a short bus ride, we stopped in the walled city of Lucca. After a brief tour of the city and its towers, we grabbed a brief lunch on a sunny hill and felt very Italian. Heather climbed to the top of the remaining tower, which had basically a park on top to help keep the guards cool while on patrol. Then we made the most of the perfectly lovely autumn day by renting bikes and riding around the path on top of the wall. It was perfect bliss!ful!
16: From Lucca we traveled on to Volterra, which sits on top of a hill overlooking the surrounding valley. In addition to being lovely, it is also full of history, having been continuously occupied for 3,500 years. The occupants negotiated their surrender to Rome instead of being conquered, so more of their history and culture survived. | Volterra
17: Volterra is also known for its alabaster, and we were fortunate enough to have a demonstration from a master craftsman. Alabaster looks a lot like marble, but it’s translucent, which is incredible. It’s also soft and easy to carve – and perfect for bringing home a little piece of Volterra!
18: During WWII, the Nazi posted notice that the arch would be demolished to slow the Ally advancement. The remaining residents – woman, children and elderly – worked all night to tear up the stones from the street by hand and fill in the arch. Their efforts were successful and they saved this piece of town history. | One of the coolest things in the city is the Etruscan gate, which is the oldest example of a rounded arch in the world. Rounded arches are important because they make it possible to build up, making tall buildings feasible. This arch dates back to the 4th century B.C. The sculptures on the other side are believed to be of a father god and the twins from the Gemini constellation.
19: One of the aspects I really appreciated about the tour was the blend between guided tours and “choose your own adventure” time. I really appreciated having time to explore Italy at our own pace. We found this lovely park that offered spectacular views of the surrounding valley.
20: Rome We were struck with absolute awe so many times in Rome, it was almost too much for our brain to process. | The Coliseum is absolutely a sight to behold. Our guide kept telling us that we are looking at a black and white skeleton of what had been full of color. After Rome fell, people tore off the colored marble, some of it to decorate St. Peter’s Cathedral. Other people carved out the iron pins that held the blocks together. As beautiful as the Coliseum is, it was also a bit humbling. Roughly half a million people died in the Coliseum. Entire populations of animals went extinct to provide entertainment. As beautiful as the Coliseum is, it was also a bit humbling. Roughly half a million people died in the Coliseum. Entire populations of animals went extinct to provide entertainment.
22: Near the Coliseum is the Roman Forum. In the 1800s, the surrounding space was a cow pasture. They built a church inside and used chains to try and pull the columns down, not realizing they went 20 feet down into the ground. | Rome is also full of valuable lessons. For example, don’t anger your brother, or he’ll scrape your face off all of the monuments when you die.
23: Night walk through Rome As lovely as Rome is during the day, it is even more lovely in the evening. | The famous Trevi fountain is something better experienced at night. It isn’t a fountain you walk around – it covers the side of a building! It is tradition to throw a coin over your shoulder into the fountain to guarantee you’ll return to Rome.
25: St. Peter’s Cathedral After a sample of the wonders contained in the Vatican Museum and seeing the beautiful Sistine Chapel, we entered St. Peter’s, the largest church in the world. | Climbing the Dome Heather loves climbing to the top of tall things and looking down. Sandy? Not so much; especially when she's been standing and walking for six hours. But she loves her friend, so up 323 steps they went.
26: In the footsteps of Angels and Demons In our free afternoon, we decided to find the Santa Maria della Vittoria, which is the home of St. Theresa in Ecstasy. It is featured in Dan Brown’s book Angels and Demons, a prequel to the Da Vinci Code. The church, designed by Bernini, is an extravagant homage to baroque style.
27: On an amusing note, upon arriving at our hotel in Rome, Kurt from our tour calls out, “Hey look, it’s David’s cousin Bruce!” So on the left is a picture of Bruce, David’s cousin.
30: The trip was as much a gustatory adventure as a sightseeing tour. | We often had a tray of assorted salamis and cheeses for lunch, complete with a loaf of crusty bread and a glass of Italian wine. | And of course, we can't forget the cappuccino! One day, it even came with a heart! | Gnocchi al quattro a formaggio It is potato dumplings with a four cheese sauce, but to us it was transcendent!
31: Each of our hotels captured the flavor of life in Italy.
32: It was the people who really made the trip special. We laughed, we cried, we shared life together for two weeks. The tour had a “no grumps” policy, and there were no violators! Our tour guide Lisa was delightful, sharing stories and anecdotes about life in Italy during dinners and bus rides. Our local guides made the destinations come to life with colorful stories and personal experiences.