Monday, July 27, 2015

The hills are alive with the sound of music! (Our visit to the Dolomites)

Well, this one totally took me by surprise. I would've thought Rome or Venice would be my favorite spot in Italy. (After all, I consider myself somewhat of a city girl.) But nooo, the Dolomites take top spot! Wow, I am completely blown away. I think I walked around the entire weekend with my mouth hanging open, snapping pictures every other second. Seriously, I had a serious urge to yodel. I felt like I was on the set of "The Sound of Music".

The Dolomites are a mountain range located in northeastern Italy, and are by far, the most dramatic and beautiful mountains I have ever seen.  They're made of dolomite, a rock similar to limestone, and are light gray and very jagged. Lush, green meadows with grazing cows, horses, and sheep dot the meadow below them.

The Dolomites, while technically in Italy, make you feel like you're in Germany. At the end of WWI, the region was ceded by Austria to Italy, but the residents here have never really embraced the Italian way of life. Their primary language is German (which was confusing. Do I speak English, Italian, or German? Hmmm, well since I can really only speak one of those languages, I guess the choice was easy.) The towns have a heavy Bavarian influence, and the people look German (fair-skinned and blue-eyed). And forget about finding gelato here. It's mostly dumplings and strudel.

Our "home base" and a typical town, Castelrotto
For someone who's pregnant and often hot, boy, was this an amazing temperature relief! When we left Ferrara, it was 120 degrees (and I'm not talking about the heat index). In the Dolomites, the high was in the upper 70s, and it got into the 50s at night! They don't even have AC here; it's not needed. We just slept with our windows open. And we didn't even have to travel that far. We stayed in a town called Castelrotto, just about 3.5 hours away from Ferrara.

Castelrotto is adorable. It's how you would imagine a German town, very beautiful and well-kept. Here's a link to our hotel, Hotel Wolf or "al Lupo" in Italian. Hotel Wolf

The only issue... our hotel is located next to the town's proud and joy, a 250-foot bell tower. It chimes every 15 minutes. And remember how I mentioned we slept with our windows open?  Yeah, you get the idea.... Not a lot of sleep.

The people here are very nice, but it's amazing. Everywhere we go in Italy, there's a heavy American influence on culture. While the people here rarely speak English, they wear clothing with American logos and listen and play American songs. We came across a great band in the town square, singing yes, American songs.

We chose to hike Europe's largest high-alpine meadow, called Alpe di Siusi. It was classified as "moderately-strenuous" and should have taken about four hours. It's around five or six miles, but ended up taking us about six hours. (I move a little slower these days.) The hike was great. We had 360-degree views everywhere we looked and traveled through some cute German towns.

Mooo've out of our way please!

Some of the hike was flat or downhill, and a lot of it was uphill. That was tough, but once you got to the top, boy, the views were worth it!  The other challenge, getting some of the animals to move. LOL. We saw some horses, and lots of cows. The cows summer here in the meadow and occasionally would block our path.

We always knew where they were though. They wear those old-fashioned cow-bells. You'd hear the sound everywhere!

We can't wait to come back; just gotta practice my yodeling first! Ciao!

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

The best Big Mac ever! (Our trip to Rome)

As the popular travel author Rick Steves describes it, "Rome is a magnificent tangled forest." Rome is beautiful and brutal, all at the same time. It is Italy's political capital, the capital of Catholicism, and despite being 2,000 years old, still littered with historical remains.

We did Rome in two days, barely scratching the surface, but here's a look at some of the amazing places we explored.

First up, Vatican City, the world's smallest country.

Vatican City is home to St. Peter's Basilica as well as the Vatican Museum, which contains Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel.

The Sistine Chapel is the pope's personal chapel as well as the place where a new pope is elected. It was stunning, but sorry, no pictures were allowed. We did, however, snap a shot of the balcony on the outside of the museum where the pope sometimes makes an appearance.

St. Peter's Basilica was next, the world's richest and grandest church. The main altar sits directly above the tomb of St. Peter, Jesus' disciple. It was very surreal to be that close!

Michelangelo's dome, his last work, is also here. It's the tallest dome anywhere, taller than a football field is long. No building in Rome is allowed to exceed St. Peter's height. We went just half-way up and still had an incredible view! That's because after half-way, the elevator tops, and you must take the stairs. (After the stairs in Florence, I was ready for a break!)

You'll also find the Swiss Guard in Vatican City. They wear very, um, "colorful" uniforms. Not only do they stand guard, they also carefully monitor your wardrobe. Even though it was well over 100 degrees the day we visited, a strict dress code is always enforced. No exposed shoulders or knees! Hello sweaters, pants, and heatstrokes!

After all of that, we ended our first day at the Spanish Steps. It's one of Rome's most iconic sites and a very popular gathering spot, especially in the evening. Many famous romantic writers used to hang out here. That includes John Keats who died in this building right next to the steps.

Day two began at the Pantheon, Billy's favorite spot. This 2,000 year-old structure is the only building that's been in continuous use. It began as a place to worship all of the gods. (Pan means "all", and theo translates to "gods".) After the fall of Rome, it turned into a Christian house of worship. 
Some call the Pantheon the most influential building in art history due to its dome. The dome was the model for the Florence cathedral dome, Michelangelo's dome of St. Peter's, and our own US Capitol in Washington DC.  It's as tall as it is wide (142 feet) and the building's only light source.

Following the Pantheon, we ventured on to the Roman Forum. Wow! This is ancient Rome's birthplace. Since everything of any real importance happened here, experts call this the most important piece of real estate in Western civilization.  Palatine Hill overlooks the Forum, and it's a pretty cool view.                                                                              

Arch of Titus
The Forum itself includes the place where Julius Caesar was burned after being assassinated as well as the Arch of Titus and the Basilica of Constantine. The Romans built the Arch to commemorate their victory over Israel. The Basilica was a HUGE hall of justice and even though it looks massive today, the arches only represent a-third of the original building.

My favorite spot, by far, was the Colosseum. Wow, this place is mind blowing! This 2,000-year-old building represents Rome at its grandest. Amazingly, large parts of it still remain intact today. Towering 150-feet-high, it could hold up to 75,000 people. The Colosseum entertained the masses, for free, with gory, often deadly, battles. The fights would pit beasts (starving animals such as bears, elephants, and tigers) against each other or even man. War captives, slaves, and criminals would also be forced to fight, or sometimes, just executed on the spot. The gladiators, very highly-trained, would fight later in the day. Despite not having computers or modern-day technology, the Romans were able to build this monstrosity complete with trap doors, an underground network to transport the fighters and animals, and even the ability to flood the arena for staged "marine" battles. Your imagination runs wild just being there, imagining what took place in the exact spot you're standing.

After two exhilarating, but exhausting days, we were ready to head home, but not so fast! Guess who looked at our train ticket wrong for the departure time? Yep, me.  We missed it by six lousy minutes. That mistake ended up costing us some money, a lot of stress trying to rebook, and about six hours of time.  By the time we made it to our final stop before getting home (well after midnight), we were starving! We had an hour to spare. We got off the train, and shining in the night, a McDonald's! I've never been a fan. Maybe it was the hunger; maybe it was weeks of eating pasta every day, I'm not sure, but those golden arches never looked better. I ordered a Big Mac ($7), some fries, and got two ketchups (50 cents a piece), waited about 20 minutes for them to cook it (not like at home), and finally chowed down! A Big Mac never tasted so good!

Ciao until next time!

Monday, July 13, 2015


From here on out, when I think of Florence, I will think about great art, beautiful fashion, and stairs.....lots of stairs.

Florence, called Firenze in Italian, is home of the Renaissance and basically the birthplace of today's modern world.

We started out visiting the Duomo, Florence's Gothic cathedral. It boasts the third-longest nave in Christendom.

 However, its real claim to fame is Brunelleschi's dome, the first dome of the Renaissance and the model for hundreds of domes to follow.

The fun part is climbing up inside this massive structure, all 463 narrow concrete steps. Thankfully, Billy insisted I take lots of rest breaks, or I really don't believe I would've made it. However, once you get to the top, wow! It offers a stunning view of Florence.

You can also see inside the beautiful cathedral from the dome as well as marvel at The Last Judgement by Giorgio Vasari and Federico Zuccari painted inside the dome itself.

Next to the Duomo is the Campanile or Giotto's Tower. The 270-foot bell tower only has a mere 414 steps, (hint the sarcasm), but again, the views are fantastic. (And get this.... the only way down both attractions is the exact same set of narrow stairs you took to go up, which makes for hot, grouchy fellow tourist meet-and-greets when you encounter someone going the opposite direction, which happens about every other step.)


After all of that walking, we stopped for lunch. We weren't too impressed with the food, maybe we just picked bad spots, but most everything we had for our meals was bland. However, we did enjoy snapping a picture outside of a chocolate store with a chocolate fountain (would love to dive into that).

And Billy took this picture of "typical" fast-food for Italy, still beats American fast-food any day!

In the afternoon, we ventured to the Uffizi Gallery, the greatest collection of Italian paintings anywhere. The museum features works by Giotto, Leonardo, Raphael, Caravaggio, Titian, and Michelangelo. The most famous work here is Botticelli's Birth of Venus.

Finally, we wrapped up our day at the Accademia. This houses Michelangelo's "David". It is amazing to actually see this 14-foot statue in person, a work you've seen in countless books your entire life! Did you know Michelangelo was only 26-years-old when he was commissioned to carve this sculpture?  Since seeing "David" and Michelangelo's other works, including "Prisoners", I've become a new fan of his. His work is not only beautiful, but deeply inspired by his faith in God.

Florence was great, but we're already planning our next trip, Rome! Until next time, ciao!

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Hello Venice!

Ciao! As an American living in Italy for the next few months, (and preggers to boot), I wanted to invite all of you along for the ride as well. I'm not a world-traveler, or a blogger, so this is all a very new experience for me too. My husband and I are making the most of our weekends, traveling Europe every free hour we get.

First up, Venice!

Talk about bellisimo, or beautiful! Venice is Europe's best-preserved large city. It was established 1500 years ago by the Venetians fleeing attacks from barbarians. The city is comprised of 100 islands connected by bridges and canals. Cars are not allowed. All travel is done by water. That includes the police, garbage pick-up, and food deliveries. To get around, you either walk, take a vaporetto (water bus), a water taxi, or the romantic gondola (see below for more on that).

The Grand Canal, Venice's main travel artery

Sadly, the city is also sinking due to the buildings being constructed on muddy sediment. Scientists estimate it's sunk some two feet and continues to go under a few millimeters a year. Many of the buildings, especially the towers, are visibly leaning, and you can see where the water has slowly risen on the older buildings, covering once-majestic staircases.

We visited on the Fourth of July weekend (very weird not being in America for the traditional fireworks). It was extremely hot and crowded, but we managed to hit the major tourist spots, starting with St. Mark's Square.

The Doge's Place was the seat of the Venetian government and its ruling duke, or doge, for 400 years. It was built primarily to show-off the area's power and wealth. Our tour included a look at majestic artwork, the prisons, and and the infamous "Bridge of Sighs" where prisoners being lead away to jail would take one last look at Venice from the bridge and sigh.

Next to the palace is St. Mark's Basilica. The goal of this 11th century church was to house the body of St. Mark, stolen by several Venetians from the "infidels". It was Venice's attempt to get the world's attention and show it was a true player on the world stage, and it worked! The church, itself, is beyond words. So elaborate and detailed. Pictures just don't do it justice.

Going to the top of the Campanile, a dramatic bell tower, was very cool! We rode 325 feet to the top and saw the most incredible views!

We also went to a few museums, ate a some decent places (Venice is not known for its food despite its reputation AND you have to pay just to sit down), and wandered around. However, for me, the gondola ride was the best! (My husband and his wallet will sharply disagree.) It is technically a rip-off (about 100 Euros for 30 minutes), but you can't go to Venice without doing it at least once! Very romantic.

Finally, despite our maps, GPSs, and best-made plans, we got lost... a lot. It's impossible to go to Venice and not get lost. And you know what? That's the most fun. Venice is at its best when you're wandering around some long-lost alley and discover some incredible shop or beautiful corner. Until next time, I leave you with some of my favorite shots!