Monday, April 20, 2009

Under the Tuscan Sun

Ciao...Buonasera! So, Shea and I celebrated 4 years of wedded bliss on April 9th with a trip to Florence, Italy. It was a wonderful trip that included amazing food, Chianti wine, beautiful weather, and historical sites. Known as the birthplace of the Renaissance, Florence was home to all those famous artists we have all heard so much about (before they were ninja turtles) Leonardo, Donetello, and Michelangelo. It is also known for the Uffizi art gallery, the statute of "David", the Duomo cathedral, and the Ponte Vecchio bridge.
We left Frankfurt on an 8:30 flight direct to Florence and arrived there around 10:30. We took a bus to our hotel, which sat about 100 feet from the Arno River and only a 20-minute walk from the Duomo (their famous cathedral which dominates the city). We were a bit early for check-in, so we dropped off our bags and headed toward the city center to do a bit of sightseeing (via every gelato stand we could find). We strolled along the Ponte Vecchio, which was built in 1345 and was the only bridge spared in Florence in WWII. It is lined with jewelry shops built out over the bridge and is packed with people taking photographs. We then visited the Palazzo Vecchio, which is a fortress turned town hall and in its courtyard stands numerous marble statues and a copy of Michelangelo's "David". Adjacent to the Vecchio hall is the Loggia dei Lanzi, which has a gallery of even more statues. Needless to say, there were marble willies everywhere, and I had a hard time covering Shea's eyes and taking pictures for all of you! Behind the Loggia stands the Galleria degli Uffizi, or Uffizi museum. We waited to tour it until Sunday when we were able to get reservations rather than having to wait then in long lines. We visited the Plazza Repubblica and all its trendy shops and headed to see the Duomo cathedral and its baptismal building. We checked on mass times for Easter and decided we would tour the inside after mass. The cathedral was huge and was unlike any other cathedral we have seen. Florence is close to Italy's marble mines, so everything is constructed out of the stuff. The church gleamed with all its intricate detail and seemed to glow white and green.
We started getting pretty hungry so we ended up in a little side street restaurant that served delicious salads, pizzas, and wine. It was next to the Basilica di Santa Croce, which also has a beautiful marble exterior, library, and plaza. It was great place to watch the world go by. The restaurant had the Father in kitchen, the Mother waiting on the guests, and their little daughter playing around outside entertaining the patrons with her dark curls and pick-a-boo games. We sat at our outside table and enjoyed the slow pace of the city that you can't help but come to adopt. After soaking it up for a while, we headed south of the Arno River to the Piazza (Plaza) Michelangelo, which sits on a hill just east of the center of Florence. From there you get an amazing view of the Florence skyline and the surrounding landscape. Florence is nestled in the river valley but immediately outside starts the Apennines Mountains that run down the spine of Italy. We took way too many photos but couldn't help ourselves!
We bought a beer from a vendor and lounged on some steps cut into the side of the hill. There, we and about 100 of our new closest Italian friends enjoyed a concert by some musicians playing their guitars and flutes through sunset. Great afternoon!
We left there and headed back to the hotel to freshen up for dinner. We had received a recommendation from Shea's colleague that this restaurant served the best meal she had ever eaten...a place called Il Latini.
We arrived at our reservation encounter a swarm of people outside this place trying to get in. Seriously, it was like a preppy mosh pit outside the front door, so we knew at that point it had to be good. We did out best Posh Spice and David Beckham impersonations and luckily they let us through to our table. This place was great. There are no such things as menus. The waiter brings stuff to you and you eat it. Wine is on the table and you serve yourself. He asks what type of entree you want (...we went with the veal) and they bring you a mountain of it. Each course seems to be followed by different glasses of wine the waiter keeps bringing by. The place was lively and the food was incredible...we had an absolute blast!
We had noticed throughout the night that when it was time settle up the waiters bring the owner of the restaurant to greet the patrons and then the owner himself delivers each bill. So, now it is our turn (mind you it is now getting close to 12:00, we have been indulging at every turn, and we are a bit afraid of what our tally is going to be). The waiter tells the owner what we had...and that it is our anniversary. The owner slaps me on the back and tells me what a lucky man I am to be with such a Bella, and he pulls a number out of his head and hands us a bottle of wine. Simply amazing! We ate like kings for the price of paupers and left with a parting gift to boot. Great anniversary day that we won't soon forget!
Friday, we slept in a bit and decided we wanted to check out some other areas of Tuscany. We took a bus to the train station and hopped on a train to Siena about an hour's ride away. The trip showed us countless vineyards, hilltop towns, forests, and grassland before we arrived in Siena.
Siena is quite a bit smaller than Florence, but every bit as charming (if not more so). The old city sits atop a hill and is surrounded by a great wall. It is one of Italy's best-preserved Renaissance cities and is beautiful in its small, quaint way. You walk down narrow streets and discover amazing views and buildings at every bend. The shell-shaped Piazza del Campo (or town square) houses the Palazzo Pubblico and is known as one of the most beautiful public spaces in Europe. It is also famous for hosting the Palio horse race twice a year. (If you saw the James Bond movie "Quantum Of Solace" it is the horse race Daniel Craig interrupts in the middle of the big chase scene). We took our shoes off and sat around in the Campo with all the locals, licking our gelato, and loving every minute of it. We visited the city's beautiful cathedral and then slowly walked back through the streets doing a little window-shopping. Shea says that Siena may be her favorite place we have been in all our time here!
On Friday night we decided to lay low a bit, so we took our free bottle of wine and went across the street from our hotel to a little cafe that has nothing but outdoor seating on the Arno. We ordered some pizzas and enjoyed a night by the river and our wine. Ahhh Tuscany.
Before we had left Frankfurt, we knew we wanted to do a wine tour. So, on Saturday, we had a little breakfast and then met our tour from at 10:15. It was us and 2 other couples on an 8-hour tour of the countryside that included two vineyard tours and tastings. Our tour guide was a woman from California who knew way too much about wine and olive oil, but had a great sense of humor and showed us all a wonderful time. We really enjoyed that day as the weather was perfect and the views and countryside were incredible. We bought two bottles of Chianti and learned how to categorize Italian wines...and yes, we did come home with red stained teeth. A little more pizza and opening up one of our bottles from earlier in the day and we had a wonderful night to polish off a wonderful day.
On Sunday, we woke up early to go to 9 am mass at the Duomo for Easter. When we got there, the police had guardrails up all around the exterior of the church. We finally found our way in and were treated to Easter mass in Italian. The church's dome was elaborately painted depicting God ruling over all creation, and it reminded us a bit of the Sistine Chapel.
We walked outside around 10:00 am and immediately heard the pounding of drums. We looked up a few blocks and found a parade headed straight for us. Men and women dressed in impressive period costume carrying flags and centuries old weaponry. We were soon flooded with onlookers as the parade ended between the front entrance of the Duomo and the baptistery. Come to find out, we had stumbled upon a tradition dating back to the Crusades where soldiers march and have a chariot pulled by two white oxen to the steps of the Church. They then proceed to blow up the cart with fireworks or as it is known in Italian..."Scoppio del Carro". A white dove (read firework) is shot out of the front doors of the church and the chariot starts a firework display. It was pretty incredible and just dumb luck that we ended up with the great spot to see it all. Here is a link to a videotaping of a past event just so you can get a better idea of what went down:
After the excitement of the fireworks, we headed over to the Uffizi museum for or 11:30 reservation. We toured it and saw works by all the masters. We were impressed with the work, but unfortunately a lot of the museum was shut down for construction, so we saw what we wanted and hightailed it.
We still had one more bottle of wine from our wine tour to finish and we had enjoyed the view from the Piazza Michelangelo so much that we headed back over.
We relaxed, laughed, and enjoyed another sunset from there. We left and had a bite to eat and then called it an early night for our early morning wake up call the next day to catch our flight.
All in all Florence was a great trip, and we really had a nice relaxing time for our anniversary!
Ciao for now- next stop in May...the South of France and then in June- Barcelona!
Bring on the beaches!

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Das Feuerwerk

So, Shea and I are just chillin' in the apartment over the weekend, and all of a sudden we start hearing these popping sounds.
"Shea, you making popcorn?"
"Nope...Geoff, you sitting on bubble wrap?"
We look out our window and bamm...German fireworks display.
There is a small carnival that set-up shop last week in the parking lot of an arena near our apartment. It must have been opening night because they put on a pretty impressive display to kick it off.
We sat outside and watched for a while and thought about good times on the 4th of July. So, here are some firework photos because, hey, who doesn’t like fireworks.