Final stop on the “Best of Italy Tour” with Trafalger (and a bit of Rick Steves’ thrown in) was Siena. We knew nothing about this city except that St. Catherine of Siena was my Patron Saint. It brought back childhood memories at the parochial school I attended and all the kids talked about who they were named after. I had no idea where Italy was or why my parents chose that particular saint. It is too bad that as an adult I never thought to ask, because it would have added meaning to this stop.
Once in Siena the four of us broke off from the group and headed down three terraced streets to the site where Catherine had a room and worshiped. Pretty much all I knew about her was that she played a role in moving the Popes Palace from Avignon, France back to Rome.
Today the church, named for St. Catherine, serves as a local parish. There was a statue of her inside the courtyard and I couldn’t resist posing for a picture. I managed to buy a thimble with her name and picture on it to add to my thimble collection.
Our last dinner with the big group was
a wonderful family style Italian meal. As usual we sat with new and old friends and shared favorite memories from the trip.
Here are some cool facts about our trip. We drove over 1,183 miles over 12 days. We walked approximately 185, 680 steps which meant we walked about 82 miles! No wonder we ate like kings and queens, had gelato everyday and didn’t gain any weight. What a wonderful trip. Sure hope we can travel with our dear friends again and share new travel adventures! We are so blessed to be able to take the time to see the world. Retirement is wonderful!
We hopped on the bus bright and early as we had several places to see. Our first stop was Pisa. It was not what we expected; it was better! It really was leaning at a pretty steep pitch and neither of us wanted to hike up (or pay the Euro’s). The tower has 7 tiers. The first 3 floors began to sink shortly after being built because they were so heavy. In the early days Pisa was an important port city, so the surrounding soil tended to be soft and not the best for supporting a marble structure such as a tall tower. Building stopped for a while until another architect came along and added 3 more marble stories. You can imagine that it began to tilt even more! By the time the bell tower was added a total of 300 years had gone by since the original building began. We could not believe the detail and ornateness of the tower. You needed to see it up close to appreciate its true beauty. They say it is structurally safe now, but we figured we’d pass despite the amazing views there must have been from the top. Walking the perimeter was fine for us!
Off in the distance we could see mountains that looked to be snow-covered, but in reality they were huge marble mountains! No wonder Italy has magnificent marble structures everywhere.
From Pisa we headed to the great city of Florence. The drive was so pretty as we passed green rolling hills with rows and rows of vineyards. Florence was the birthplace of the Renaissance and home to many famous artists, scientists, poets, and of course, Pinocchio! During the Renaissance it was the wealthiest and most politically influential city of the region.
Walking the streets was a wonderful treat. These pictures were taken inside one of the famous shopping areas. Museums, cathedrals, fountains, and monuments were in abundance. So much culture and history everywhere we looked!
Since Florence is also known for its leather we went to a leather factory. I will admit, we purchased a few little leather items. We had no intention of making such purchases, but when in Italy… Too bad leather goods aren’t as inexpensive as all the gelato we consumed!
We also went to Santa Croce, the church where Michelangelo, da Vinci, Marconi, and dozens other famous men were buried. It was almost like an indoor cemetery. What a beautiful church. Simple compared with other Duomo’s we’d seen, and almost like another museum. The marble carvings and tributes to the deceased were tasteful and very elegant.
Our final stop in the city was Galleria dell ‘Accademia where the famous statue of David was on display. It was incredible to think that Michelangelo created such a magnificent statue out of one huge slab of marble. Can you imagine what thoughts must have gone through his mind each time he struck his chisel on the brick of marble? Like the Pieta in Rome, the statue of David was something I never thought I would get to see in person. What an amazing site!
We ended the evening with a magnificent prime rib dinner at a local restaurant. We had some great wine and champagne along with a brief tour of the underground wine seller of years gone by. We brought some wine home so we can continue to enjoy Tuscan wines. Exhausted by yet another long day of walking and overloading of the senses, we fell asleep the minute we hit the pillows. According to my Fitbit, we managed to put in exactly 19,000 steps that day! It felt like it too!!
We arrived late on October 9th just in time to see the magic of dusk settling over the city below. Our room was quaint with a view of Lake Maggiore that was spectacular. We ate a quick dinner and headed to bed after an exhausting day.
October 10th, we woke up early and set out for an excursion to Isle Isabela where the Borromeo family have their home or rather, Palace. The 18-year-old princess still lives here. Most impressive were the terraced gardens. Besides incredible topiaries, flowers, and fountains, there were a dozen or more white peacocks roaming around!
Besides the lake, we could see the Swiss Alps off in the distance. Dan and I have been to the Alps for skiing, so it made this stay that much more memorable.
From Isle Isabela we headed for Lake Como. This area was very slow-paced, tastefully built, and clean. Seriously, no trash anywhere!
We saw another beautiful church dedicated to Mary the Immaculate. I would love to live here! If only I spoke Italian…
In the evening we attended a very special dinner on Isle Madre. It was a good thing we walked over 15,00 steps that day, because dinner was delicious and served family style, which meant a never ending bowl coming our way!
We had no idea what to expect in Verona or Milan, so we were pleasantly surprised with both. As we drove to Verona, we passed many vineyards and green hilly areas that once upon a time supplied Venice with all its wood and building materials. We learned that Moscato wine is local to the region and had an opportunity to taste some in the coming days. Verona is also known for musical theater and opera in both indoor and outdoor settings.
Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet is set in Verona. We walked into a courtyard where Juliet leaned out her balcony window to hear her beloved Romeo below. There was even a bronze statue of her in the courtyard. There are specialty candies named after the famous couple: Romeo’s Kiss which was made of chocolate and
almonds and Juliet’s Kiss which was made of vanilla and almonds. Our guide was kind enough to purchase each of us one! Next stop, Milan
Milan is where today’s stock market is located and money is minted for Italy. It is also known as the fashion center of the country. We walked through a huge indoor mall/shopping district that was built about the time our country was born! Beautiful arches with glass panels adorned the ceiling. All the shops were high-end, designer boutiques like Versace, Luis Vuitton, Prada, Armani, Farragamo, etc. It was exceptionally crowded and filled with lots of energy. We’ve never seen such expensive stores all in one place before.
The next stop on the tour was to a neo-gothic Duomo name in honor of Mary. Hanging inside was supposedly a nail used to crucify Christ. It was one of the most ornate churches Dan and I had ever been in. Outside the Duomo were dozens of 3D marble scenes depicting stories from the Bible. We made a game of walking the perimeter of this massive building trying to figure out what Biblical story was being told. It was sort of our own little scavenger hunt and Biblical knowledge game rolled into one. Our friends we traveled with from home brought Milano cookies and we ate them as we walked. Seemed quite appropriate!
The day was coming to a close after 12,037 steps and we loaded onto the bus once more to travel to the Lake District to explore Lake Maggorio and Lake Como. Here we come, George Clooney!
We began the day by taking a walking tour of St. Mark’s Basilica. It was designed to incorporate a combination of both Roman Catholic and Orthodox Greek traditions. St. Mark’s relics are buried in the Basilica. In many ways it was as elegant as the Sistine Chapel. It was interesting to note that the artwork was not hand painted, but rather intricate mosaic tiles and 24-carat gold leaf tiles. Could have spent a great deal of time here, but there was so much to see, that we had to move along.
Venice is known for its delicate glass beads and lace work. They were traded for goods back in the 1500’s when Venice was a huge trading port. We had the opportunity to go into a Murano glass factory, which was a real treat.
A master glass blower worked his magic and created a bowl as well as a beautiful horse sculpture. I am a thimble collector and I was determined to find a Murano thimble on this adventure to Italy. Sure enough they had one! Cost a pretty penny or should I say Euro, but well worth it.
From here we boarded another boat and headed for the island of Burano, known for its lace. This island was much different than the larger Venice, as it was tranquil and very colorful. Each house was painted a different color with a cloth over the front door to let air in. Many connecting bridges and leaning towers completed the experience. We purchased some beautiful lace bookmarks.
Our day ended with an amazing sunset and 12, 704 step.
What a city! No movie, book, painting, or even picture can prepare you for this magical adventure. And to think we had two days here! This was truly a top highlight of the trip. Venice is the source of the Tiber River and it runs all the way down to Rome. Venice is really a group of over 100 islands. Many are connected by bridges and transportation is by water taxi or the touristy gondola. We did lots of walking along narrow paths and over walking bridges.
We began our journey via water taxi to get a feel for the big island of Venice then took a gondola ride through several smaller streets. You were able to see the decay and sinking of homes up close. As many as 3 and 4 steps to front doors were underwater. Building foundations themselves sit atop thousands of narrow poles set close together and sunk into the water. The mud settles around the poles thus ‘cementing’ them in place on the murky bottom.
Gondoliers used long poles and their bodies to guide the long boats through the narrow canals/streets. Did you know that gondolas cannot roll? Comforting thought! We were serenaded by a wonderful singer and accordionist. Trafalger did a nice job of preparing this part of the tour. We would be on our own the next day, so the overview was nice.
Cruising along the Grand Canal and going under the famous Rialto Bridge was an adventure in itself. The Canal is lined with upscale eateries and grand palaces. Rick Steves’ says in his Pocket Travel book that Venice is “Europe’s best preserved medieval city–slowly rotting.
A funny site we saw was that church towers were all leaning because of their weight. A silt bottom isn’t exactly a sturdy foundation for a tall narrow tower! This brought us to the end of Day 1 in Venice and we couldn’t wait for the next morning to take off on our own and explore these amazing islands.
Our trip is half over, but there is much more to share with you. Finish the series; you won’t be disappointed!
Assisi is in the Umbria region of Italy, which is lush and full of green vegetation. This is where St. Francis lived and died. In this little town there is a chapel within a Basilica which has three levels. Unfortunately, we couldn’t take any pictures inside. St. Francis is actually buried there. Inside the chapel are original frescoes which tell the story of his life. The property itself is quite large and houses many priests. The Basilica was set among the medieval town complete with old cobblestoned and curved, narrow streets. Brick and stone buildings housed shops and private residences. Tragically while looking out at the city, I dropped my new camera and jarred the regular lens so that it didn’t work. I was able to still use the camera with the zoom lens, but had to revert to the iPhone camera for the last half of the trip.
As a side note, we took out an extended warranty on the camera when we bought it, so I was able to get it fixed with no problems. 🙂
As we traveled on we went to a museum where they had a robe and belt worn by St. Francis. I thought it was a neat thing so I took a picture. Well, this isn’t a great picture but it was incased in glass, behind more class, so a bit of a living challenge for an amateur photographer using an iPhone for a camera.
We never imagined we would be in Italy, much less on the
Isle of Capri! This spectacular island was so picturesque. We took a hydrofoil from Sorrento to the island and began our tour of the tiny town. Once docked we needed to take a funnicular up to the center of town. It wasn’t just a tourist town, as locals live here year round although many of the shops close for the winter. The streets were narrow and winding and painted in white. Houses are wedged into the mountainside. Capri is known for its lemon production. They sell everything you can think of with a lemon design on it. You can find lemon pottery, thimbles, clothing, Limoncello, glassware, pastries, etc. There is even a perfume factory! Views are seen from every point of the island.
It was our plan to take a boat around the island, but the seas were too rough, so we chose to take a gondola all the way up to the tiny town of Anacapri. I am not a fan of heights, but I figured I would only be here once, so I had to buck up and take the ride. It was a single seat gondola and it was a LONG, high ride. Amazingly though it was a smooth ride and once I opened my eyes, the view was once again spectacular.
So glad we took this adventure!
As the day came to a close, we wandered the evening streets back in Sorrento using our Rick Steves’ book to guide us. At the center square where we ended up, cars could not be on the street after about 7 and the town seemed to come to life with locals and tourists alike. Street-side ristorantes began to fill up and shops were all open for business. We used our guidebook as we began the hunt for supposedly the best gelato in Sorrento. It took us forever to find and once we did, the joke was on us…it was closed that evening! No worries though, we found more gelato along our walk home. Only 13, 984 steps this day. Keep reading, more of Italy is on its way to you!
The drive to the Amalfi Coast took us into the region known as Sorrento. Refreshed from the bus nap, we were ready to begin our view along the Amalfi Coast. It was spectacular! Our pictures really couldn’t do justice to the sight we were seeing. The sky was clear now and we got our first good look at Mt. Vesuvius. The narrow two lane road hugged the seaside cliffs
with shear drop-offs. Scary when you consider we were doing it in a HUGE touring bus! Makes you wonder what those tiny Fiats thought as we came looming around the curves! Our late afternoon arrival gave us time to walk along the seashore, looking for sea glass and interesting rocks.
Sorrento is famous for its intricate use of wood inlay products. We visited one of the few factories still in existence in Italy and saw how the thinest pieces of wood are cut in a pattern and then set into a larger piece of wood. Very few woodworkers still produce products today with such delicate designs. After seeing how the process worked, we went into the showroom to see pieces ranging from formal dining tables and chairs that a seated 12 to small music boxes and coasters. I noted the design of a particular music box and I was sure it matched one I inherited from my Aunt. Sure enough it was a piece she had picked up when she was there years ago! It has even more meaning now. As the day was ending we enjoyed strolling along the coastline of Sorrento, before walking back to the hotel for a late buffet dinner.
I use to teach my students about Pompeii, so this was a dream come true to actually visit this ancient site. It was an overcast, drizzly day and we couldn’t see the top of Mt. Vesuvius. Makes you wonder if that was what the sky was like as the mighty volcano awoke. As we began our tour, the air around us was heavy and a bit eerie. A perfect day for archaeological exploration! We were able to climb ancient stone stairs in the Large Theater and have a splendid view of the city of Pompeii. The Theater was built in the 3rd Century B.C. during the Augustan era. It held over 5000 guests and was a cultural center as opposed to a common sporting venue.
The landscape around us was lush and green, including what we could see of Mt. Vesuvius. It was a wealthy resort area for the Roman Neapolitan’s. The fertile land, and close location to the sea made it a perfect destination city. Well, until the top of the volcano blew off!
Along with our guide and hundreds of other tourists, we walked along a 2,000- year old cobbled stone street, complete with ruts for ancient carts to move through. We could see remains of brick and stone structures, complete with still standing fireplaces, and multiple rooms. Based upon pottery remains, archaeologists have determined where homes were verses shops. It was easy to imagine this as a wealthy, advanced city complete with government buildings.
Much of the ancient city was not available to us because we were there for such a short time. It would easily have taken a full day or more to do justice to this site. We did see some beautiful frescoes in a bath house.
The human cast seen below was made from impressions by archaeologists as they dug beneath layers of ash. This filling of the negative space allowed scientists to further study what happened when Vesuvius blew. There is a large museum in the city of Naples where most of the artifacts can be seen.
Unfortunately, we had to “rush” to get on the bus to make the long trek from Pompeii, which is near Naples, northward up to the Amalfi Coast. Before leaving we purchased a Pompeii “coffee table” book, so we could read more at home. Our time there was just too short for this incredible site.
It was a LONG bus ride to reach the Amalfi coast, but it enabled many of us to catch up on sleep. By this point, Dan and I realized that the pace of the trip is nothing like the relaxing cruises of other adventures we’ve taken. Two nights in a hotel – pack up and repeat. Travel expert, Rick Steves is right – travel light! This was definitely shaping up to be a trip for hearty, active, and adventurous retired folks.