A Travellerspoint blog

July 2016

Cuisine de Provence with Old & New Friends

Day 65 to 68 Aix-en-Provence

sunny 38 °C

In 2008, I cycled through the south of France, Provence district, following the Le Tour de France and loved the place with its scenery, weather, lifestyle, cycling and above all its food.

Of all the cooking styles, I prefer Provençal for its rustic elements, simple quality ingredients, well rounded flavours and great for home cooking. We also quickly learned that, contrary to the perception that French cooking is full of butter, butter and more butter, Provençal cooking uses almost exclusively Olive Oil - a much healthier option so my esteem for this style has only improved.

So what better opportunity than to skip across from Italy on our way to Spain and arrange cooking classes in Provence - as one does!

We found the perfect town, Aix-en-Provence, about 1 hour north of Marseilles. Time to expand our culinary skills. Also we planned to catch up with friends, Grant and Katya, who are now living in Grenoble. They'd visited Aix before and it took very little persuasion to convince them to come down to meet us.

This town is renowned for its produce, cuisine and a touch of Paris, often referred to as the 21st district of Paris, although Parisians are definitely considered foreigners by the proud locals. Its a 2000 year old town, settled by the Romans during conquests East. "Aix" means water and this town has a number of (still operational) roman baths and hot springs so it was the perfect spot to establish an outpost for the Roman Legions to stop and replenish before continuing their marauding.

The town lives only for the seasons and seasonal produce. They shop every day for what they need and what you see in the markets and restaurants is only in what is season. Its a nice way to live, they don't expect produce out of season and plan a menu around what is in season, guaranteeing freshness and food at its best which, as we are reminded, in order to get produce out of season, it is often picked green for durability during transportation, held in cold storage and artificially ripened, compromising flavour, vitamins and all the good stuff.

Aix has a reputation for great restaurants with high quality food and is a hub for Cooking Classes.

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The town is also famous for a special sweet candy almond shaped biscuit called Calissons, translated means cuddles. It was developed in the 15th century by the royal kitchens as a wedding present from the last Baron of Provence, King Rene of Anjou, to his young bride and the town to celebrate their wedding (the King's second). Today, Calissons are proudly sold in Aix and we understand that once a year there is a festival where there is a blind tasting of makers to determine who makes the best. The right to make Calissons is also regulated and only certified bakeries are licensed to make them.

Provence is a dry weather region so no green pastures for grazing cows. With terrain more suited to sheep and goats, it has become famous for its sheep and goat cheese as well as wines, particularly, Rośe.

Our Provençal Education kicks off with a full day cooking class with Giles. The day begins with a tour to the local market which has been operating in the same square for decades where Giles explains a lot about the produce and the producers and buys our ingredients.

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The market was full of the atmosphere, aromas, colour and freshness we were hoping for. This lady is an icon of the market, selling her own produce, picked late the evening before, or very early each morning to be on display hours later.
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We were dazzled with the variety of produce we just don't see in Oz. Heritage Tomatoes that are glorious
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and we fell in love with Peche Plates a type of flat peach, that is sweet with beautiful crunchy juicy texture, perfectly engineered for easy eating as we wandered the market...
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...in addition to learning about and sampling the local olives (green through black), dried fruits, honey (including lavender and other flavours) and other delicious products offered by the stall holders. Jen could not stop swooning over the intoxicating aromas from the fresh bread, cheese, olives, herbs and cured meats.
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We knew straight away the food we were about to cook would be a taste sensation. Jen and I could not get enough of this market - visiting it many times throughout our days in Aix.

Next stop was to an exclusive vineyard, Château Simone, famous for its Rośe.

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Located four kilometres from Aix, originally it was the bastide of the Grands Carmes d'Aix Monks, but has been in the hands of the intensely private Rougier family since 1830. Old documents bear witness to the fact that vines have been cultivated here from time immemorial. They normally don't allow visitors so the opportunity to visit this most private family vineyard was unique. From the beautifully cool cellar with barrels about 20 years old, tasting room and gardens all oozed history, everything about French culture and a sense of refined serenity and peacefulness.

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We then arrived at Giles' nearby property, put on our aprons and we're ready to learn. We were set up outside on a large table in a wonderful garden setting, selecting herbs we would need straight from the garden. And we're immediately put to work.
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It was the perfect way for a bunch of strangers from around the world to learn about food and cooking whilst enjoying good company.
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Giles is a wealth of information, answering all our questions and patiently guiding us through the cooking tasks assigned to each of us.

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Jen got a little reminder of home as one of Giles' very friendly cats is a perfect (although a little chubbier) clone of Tzara - so cuddles were in order between tasks in the kitchen.

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After a few hours of chopping, dicing, mixing and numerous stories told by the group we eventually sat down to a five course late lunch:
1. Tapenades of green and black olives with anchovies, capers, olive oil and pine nuts
2. Onion tart with anchovies
3. Petits Farcis - Nice style - paying homage to Nice despite the horrific events a few days earlier. It is fitting to celebrate something so great about Nice amid so much pain. Ham, pork and beef mince stuffed into hollowed out onions, eggplant, peppers and zucchini.
4. Three different kinds of goats cheese, oozy and pungent
5. White nectarines and yellow peaches with mint syrup, and pine nuts.

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All washed down with special Château Simone wine.
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The day was a huge success: we learnt cooking skills, made traditional Provençal food, enjoyed the scenery of the hills of Aix-en-Provence, drank beautiful wine, sampled fresh produce in a local market and met wonderful people. This is what travelling is all about.

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The next day was simple. We met up with my wonderful friend Grant and the radiant Katya to catch up over the past few years. Breakfast, walk around the shops and markets, lunch, home for a siesta, back out for dinner and drinks. That's it.

The following day, after Le Petit Déjeuner (breakfast) in the Hotel de Ville (Town Square) surrounded by centuries old buildings, our Provençal Education continues with a half day cooking class.
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We again tour the Market with Mathilde, a Parisian living in Aix running cooking classes at her wonderful L'Atelier Cuisine de Mathilde.

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The menu this time was:

1. Figs with goat cheese, pine nuts, honey and mint wrapped up in pastry parcels and baked.
2. A slightly different version of Petits Farcis Provençaux - veal and pork mince stuffed into onions, peppers and zucchini with tomato sauce on a bed of rice. True to the commitment to the season, in July, Petits Farcis is the only plat du jour .
3. Dessert was an opportunity to learn the classic Creme Brûlée infused with vanilla. Its amazing how everyone gets a devilish look and a sparkle in their eyes when handed the blow torch - fire it up and watch it BURN!

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The whole lunch was delicious and very filling and so a siesta was needed, not before a palate cleanser on the way back.

Again out for dinner with the weather still mid twenties and still lots to talk about.

Next morning we all met at the market for a brunch and to say our farewells. Thank you to Grant and Katya for making the effort to come down to Aix-en-Provence and have the opportunity to catch up. Jen and I will remember the town in many special ways. We're also inspired by our cooking adventures and excited to get home and cook for family and friends.

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The rest of the day was just a typical travel day you take each time you move on. Pack up, checkout, walk to the bus or train station terminal, catch a bus to the airport and get through customs, plane to another city, fingers crossed your bags arrive, find the airport city bus, bus into the city centre and then hike to your apartment. Before you do all this you have to work out all the logistics but for someone who used to be called Tommy Trip Planner its a piece of cake especially as we now have the iPad and everything readily accessible on the Internet. In the mean time, Jen checks out the things to do in the next town, edits what I write and finalises the photos for the blog. By now we know what each other strengths are, perfect foundation for a happy marriage!

Posted by tszeitli 09:10 Archived in France Tagged food scenery friends wine cooking provence Comments (1)

Pisa & Rome - Tourism on Steroids, but it has to be done

Day 61, 62, 63, and 64 - Pisa, Rome and getting to Aix-en-Provence

sunny 35 °C

We leave Toscana with sadness as we know we were leaving tranquillity and launching ourselves into two of the most tourist visited cities in the world.

The first part was a flying stop off in Pisa which is exactly what I did last time. Luke and Eleanor did us a huge favour by dropping us off at Pisa train station saving us heaps of time and hassles. We made our way down the main mall with the hordes of locals and tourists and after about a 2 km walk, the suburban streets opened up to a huge lawn area. The area was surrounded by museums and there in the middle is the Duomo and the monument to stuffed up civil engineering, the Leaning Tower of Pisa. This is basically what everyone comes to see in Pisa and they get in and get out! That is exactly what we did. You can't appreciate the lean on the tower unless you see it with your own eyes (we calculated about 6 degrees).

Jen quickly took some photos, we walked around and then had our snack on the lawns. Just as fun was watching everyone at some point in time get a Pisa photo pushing it over, leaning, holding up, finger on top and numerous other ways. So what did we do? - exactly the same!

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Surprisingly, Pisa actually has some nice architecture and buildings, but sadly most don't get much of a look in.
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Once done it was the walk back to the train station which did have a seedy feel about it so we were glad to catch our train to Rome. Italian train schedules lived up to their reputation and we had about a 1 1/2 delay, Eventually we arrived at our apartment, approximately 200 m from the Spanish Steps. The apartment was lovely, tucked in a tiny lane and close to most things including an ice cream shop 100 m away. That night we decided to cook for ourselves and enjoy the beautiful apartment. Jen whipped up a spaghetti pesto washed down with some Chianti.

Day 1 was a full on self managed walking tour of Rome combined with a 4 hour tour of the Colosseo and the Roman Forum. First stop was the Fontana do Trevi with the mass of tourists.
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Fortunately Jen's camera is very good and it can get all of the fountain and hide the fact that there were over a thousand of other tourists there. Do not ask Jen about what she thinks about people taking photos with their phone or iPad at tourist locales...

From there we walked to see a number of tourists spots:
St. Ignazio di Loyola,
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the very unique Pantheon,
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down along the Fume Tevere,
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stop off at Ponte Fabricio,
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top end of the Roman Forum,
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down along Via del Fori, Imperiali,
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and finally we made it to the Colosseo. All in one morning!
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The Colosseo stands majestically amongst all the other ruins, very well preserved and about double the size of the one we saw in Pula.
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For the history buffs, some really interesting facts about the whole gladiator thing and the Colosseo:

  1. The Colosseo operated with games for about 500 years from the first to the sixth century.
  2. In that time it saw about 500,000 people killed and 1,000,000 animals of which a significant number were lions, to the point where they were almost extinct
  3. It was built on the site of a park where Nero had a massive statue of himself. Nero was not popular, so the locals were happy to pull that down.
  4. I assume most of you have watched the movie Gladiator and it happens to be quite accurate especially how the Colosseo looked and how the gladiators, animals and the like, were kept underneath the timber floored arena.
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  1. The arena was covered in sand to absorb all the blood - which is understood to have been in its day quite horrific. Part of the floor of the arena has been reinstated to show the magnitude of the theatre but also the extent of underground facilities.
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  1. It held 70,000 people and had seating up to top where there were sails for sun protection. Every person was given free entry and a cup of wine. Every citizen was issued a bone tablet with a number to show gate entry and seating area. Let's call them corporate boxes for the senators, the emperor right up front and the poor supporters had the nose bleed sections. Nothing has changed, right?

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The Colosseo walls are covered with pock marks which are holes remaining after all the iron was pulled out when the Roman Empire began to crumble and residents and trades of Rome collected what they needed.
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The steel was needed for making cannon balls, horseshoes and other military stuff. Portions were also restored in 19th Century, and the contrast is clear.

The whole structure also originally featured a façade of Travertine and marble - the majority of which is now gone. Apparently, the steps of St Peters at the Vatican are built from Colosseo Travertine and much of the finery and marble now adorns the Vatican buildings. Italians have a saying that they don't steal, they 'recycle'. Our Vatican guide informed us that there are more Egyptian Obelisks in Rome than in Egypt, so many of them were "recycled"!

A 19th century earthquake caused a portion of the structure to collapse and it was repaired, hence the unique line we know today.
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The Games would be held irregularly, at the discretion of the Emperor as a "gift" to the people for entertainment, but normally after a battle had been won, food harvests or other significant celebration days. The rough schedule comprised: in the morning, animals would be forced to fight other animals and next it was animals fighting humans. Next, mythical theatre plays during lunch which included the real death of "the actor" who would be a convicted criminal condemned to execution. For example, the fable of Icarus was recreated with the condemned, launched by catapult, all during lunch for the spectators.

Finally, the day's main event would be Gladiator vs. Gladiator. This was much like our current UFC. It was not normal for a gladiator to die, they were to valuable to their owners due to the gambling that went on the side. The Gladiators would fight just enough to have one be over powered. If he fought well, with bravery and honour, the crowd would show a thumb down to indicate put your sword away and he fights another day. If the crowd thought it was a poor fight and the gladiator do not put up a worthy show then the crowd would pull their thumb across their throat meaning kill him.

After the Colasseo it was down to the Roman Forum and I must say this was very impressive.
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The condition of the ruins, the history of the area, the massive buildings built during the Roman Empire and just the sheer magnitude of how big this city would have been. We learned much about the chronological timing post the Roman Empire, which declined in from about the sixth century.

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The Roman Forum was taken over by other eras, built over the top. The church we dubbed the Lasagna Church has distinct layers of roman foundations, medieval footings, then middle ages below an 18th / 19th Century building.
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Our guide also explained to us how much of the finery during the height of the Roman Empire was pinched from Jerusalem, including a mythical Menorah, the actual is long gone, but records of it remain.
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Eventually, the site was abandoned and eventually sediments filled it in and it became a paddock with cows and livestock. It was not until 1899 the area started to be excavated and unearthed this amazing area. We went down along the Fori imperiali, Fori de Cesar and through the arc di Constantino. There is a Basilica in ruins, identified by three large arches, which is bigger than any Basilica we still have today, which is impressive.

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A great lookout of the area - Palentine Hill - is called the Palantino, the actually birthplace of Rome and the basis for the word "palace". Unbelievable in its size and remnants of grandeur, including yellow marble shipped whole from Africa.

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Behind the Palantino was the original emperors' palaces. This place in its time would easily rival any palace in the world but now lays in ruins.

Final walk was along the Circo Massimo (being set up for a Bruce Springsteen concert), back along the Fiume Tevere, Piazza Navona
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and eventually home. Those of you who have been to Rome know that's a big walk and that's only 2/3 of Rome excluding the Vatican.

The next day was the big one, "The Vaticano". Jen did well and got special early start with tour guide and headphones. On arrival at the Vatican we quickly appreciated getting these special tickets, as the queue was 200m long at 8.30am. The tour was made up of 4 sections: the museum, the Sistine Chapel, St Peters Basilica and the front area of St Peters Basilica, including the Pieta. The first part was a corridor of over 100m with the walls covered in massive tapestries depicting the life of Jesus. Their quality is amazing, and the eyes seem to follow you around the room. They are cleaned on a rolling basis, exclusively by a sect of nuns, and only them.

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The second corridor was even more impressive being 170 m long and the walls covered with accurately surveyed geographical cartography frescos of Italy.

Now it was into the Sistine Chapel. This was a shuffle one by one along a corridor and steps and then into the chapel. No talking, and no photos although there was still some idiot tourists who disrespectfully took photos, despite being told not too, playing cat and mouse with security. Simply because they could sneak a photo, didn't mean that they should - especially in the crypts. There's something icky about taking photos of a coffin. Makes for a most disrespectful experience. I won't go into historical detail other than it took 3 years to paint and 10 years to clean. The chapel has only been recently cleaned and a couple of uncleaned patches have been left to appreciate the task. The pre-cleaned state was almost black! To be fair to the Vatican, the whole process went pretty smoothly and yes it was crowded but nothing we did not expect. You have to keep moving and not linger. It is a very impressive piece of art work.

Next into the Basilica, the biggest in the world standing at 150 m high and 250m long.
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It is impressive, ornate, historical, massive in size, fascinating, renaissance art and tourism at its peak. All the art work on the walls are mosaics, the frescos disappearing a long time ago. The mosaics however have faithfully replicated the original art and are magnificent. Because the tiles are immune to fading, flash photography is allowed - again, just because one can photograph something, doesn't mean you should. Flashes going off everywhere makes for a different experience and not one that is ideal for appreciating the space.

The theme of today is Michelango's first, last and greatest works. The Dome was his last work (finished after his death) and the Pieta, his first at the age of 23, and of course the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel is his most magnificent undertaking. Looking at the Pieta, you just marvel at how can somebody convert a single block of marble and make something so detailed, folds of fabric, body details and emotion in a face. This is very much like his statue of "David" in its lifelike quality.

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After this it was a wander around the front courtyard which you all know is where the pope stands to give his services. Witness the Vatican Guards change.
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The funny side of things was entering the religious tourist shop where you can buy all forms of stuff including a calendar of the pope or the top 12 hottest priests.

Phew we got through that without totally being overwhelmed other than a little churched out. Home was another walk along the Via Cola di Rienzo, Ponte Margherita and the Piazza del Popolo. We stayed in and again cooked a delicious pasta but the night was not finished.

Jen wanted to get some night photos of the Trevi fountain thinking its 10 pm and crowds must have gone by now. We ventured off, and as we passed the last corner into the square, we were met with a couple thousand people all gathered around the fountain.

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In fact there was more people at night then there is during the day.
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This kind of summed things up: you will have thousands of tourists in Rome, Florence and Pisa in what ever you do but "you just have to see it".

Arrivederci Italy.....now onto Aix-en-Provence.

Our transfer from Rome, Italy to Aix en Provence, France was all straight forward and our bags arrived this time. The weather has cranked itself up again and now we are in the south of France and we are back up to the low 30's and dry heat. Another AirBNB and settled into an apartment about 50 m of the main drag.

Posted by tszeitli 10:32 Archived in Italy Tagged churches history church italy crowds rome photos tourists vatican michelangelo roman_ruins trevi_fountain pieta Comments (1)

Giro d'Toscana (sponsored by Chianti Classico)

Day 54 to 60 Cycling through Tuscany

sunny 35 °C

We have left the art world and museums of Firenze and started our cycle tour through the hills of Toscana.

We caught the bus from Florence to Colle val d'Elsa, were collected by our hosts, Eleanor and Luke, and deposited at our first hotel, kitted out with bikes and instructions. We're in heaven - Tuscany really is this beautiful!
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This was our opportunity to get away from the crowds, eat local delicacies, enjoy bike riding in spectacular surrounds and maybe loose some weight after weeks of great food.

Our starting location, Volterra, whets our appetite for the scenery, food and accommodation of the next 10 days.
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We did months of training back home and our concern was whether we still had our bike legs. It can't be that hard, it's only 40 km per day.

How wrong we were!

We set off from our hotel on the first morning, excited but a little naive about the hard slog ahead of us - particularly after the 5 course dinner the night before!

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Overall we covered around 150 km, did climbs of 5-10 km at times with gradients between of 7% to even 11% and the weather most of the time was an energy zapping 35 deg Celsius. Portions of the ride were on strata bianca , a rough white quartz gravel road, which can be tricky.

I have to hand it to Italian drivers in how polite and careful they were when ever driving near us. Our drivers back home could take a leaf out of how to deal with bike riders - particularly as roads rarely have much shoulder and are often narrow / single lane. Not once were we hassled, tooted or fists raised in anger during our ride.

The towns we stayed in were Volterra, Pancole, Colle Val d'Elsa and Pescille on the outskirts of San Gimignano, the town that was on our horizon for most of the trip, our ultimate goal, getting a little closer each day, and is the heart of Tuscany.

Well, what's the best things about riding a bike in Tuscany?

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1 - The Magnificent Scenery

As you ride along you just lose yourself in the vineyards, olive groves, little Italian villages going about their daily routine, oblivious to us and the goings-on in the rest of world, rolling hills, farming lands and the peacefulness.
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Day 2 of the ride, from Pancole to Ulignano featured riding along a ridge with beautiful views of valley and hillsides on both sides.

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We had superb views of the major medieval town of San Gimignano and full 360 deg perspective of Toscana.

2 - Medieval Towns 500 to 600 years old

The smaller ones we visited were:

  • Gambasi Termi on the first day, arriving at lunch time, parched and a little shell shocked after a tough morning climbing strata bianca through oppressive heat. The waitress at the little family restaurant understood we needed water and giant bowls of pasta - STAT! After consuming three litres during lunch, we continued on.
  • We took a day trip riding into Certaldo, and up to the Medieval tower, Certaldo Alto. Dating from the 1400s, the old castle is partially original and partly restored and has an interesting history, including time as a court, gaol and executioners locale.

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Inside had been re-purposed into an art gallery. It was quite an interesting setting for modern art against the backdrop of Medieval and Renaissance frescos.
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Certaldo Alto is a quaint hilltop town that seems to have been overlooked by tourists so it is nice to wander the cobbled streets admiring the curiosities and laid back atmosphere.

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And the views are majestic!
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  • Casole d'Elsa. Very few tourists but so much charm and a glimpse of how the locals still live. A most arty little town, with two streets, a water fountain for drinking water, where locals go about the daily ritual of taking their caddy of bottles down for filling. We climbed the tower, which is above the government offices, so it felt like we were interloping as we walked through their offices, past the tea room, and out onto a ledge, up a ladder, onto the roof, and a short skip onto the top.

And again, well worth it for the views.
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  • Poggibonsi where we bought water in Lidl (Aldi in Oz) and felt like we'd stumbled through a portal to an alternate reality - eerily identical to Aldi at home. We stopped for an icy pole before joining the Pista Ciclo Touristico bike trail, a delightful trail through woodlands and meadows.

We took a day trip to Siena, San Gimignano and finished in Volterra.

San Gimignano is a world of its own, perched high on a hill with its 11 towers, cobblestone roads, views of Toscana, local food smells and local food that made you feel hungry all the time. They also conveniently have half bottles of Chianti (very reasonably priced) perfect for having with lunch while wandering around this darling town.
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The Towers of San Gimignano are iconic and are constant feature of Tuscany. We loved having the towers on our horizon, dawn to dusk.
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3 - Food, Food, Food oh, and Chianti, of course!

What can I say! There is never a shortage of places to eat and we did our best to try local produce as much as possible. Outstanding meals were as simple as fresh pesto linguine in the square at Colle val d'Elsa - a mountain of pasta that magically disappeared in the blink of an eye, a pizza in a little village to a traditional family restaurant in a grotto on the side of San Gimignano serving guineafowl, rabbit and wild boar.
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We felt privileged to enjoy two meals in the courtyard of the 200 year old monastery where we had the restaurant almost to ourselves, beautiful food and the whole atmosphere was serene.
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Whilst we wholly support screw tops on wine, it is nice to enjoy the ceremony of the waiter preparing and opening the wine with a cork. Champagne is also opened in the traditional manner with a sabre and cheers of "Bravo!"

Dinner each night is a treat - especially because we've earned it! And the wine selection is all local.

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And all have the most beautiful views.

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The food has been amazing. One thing Jen and I are determined to do when we get home is to eat fresh pasta. It is a totally different experience. Fully recommend it.
Each town also was never short of "fagy" shops and each day, no fixed time a "fagy" was always on the menu.

4 - The Hotels and their amazing Swimming Pools

After riding 5 to 7 hours a day, up and down hills and in 35 deg heat, the sight of our hotel and their sparkling swimming pool was a welcome relief for our aching bodies. The views from all were spectacular and each one had their own unique little bit of magic. The hotel in Colle Val d'Elsa was a converted 200 year old monastery with a divine travertine swimming pool.
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Rolling into the cool grapevine covered courtyard of Pescille, after a long hard slog in 35+ heat, we rejoice!
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and then head for the pool to cool off.

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Enjoying a beer in the hydrangea garden of Pancole. The owner's wife had the greenest thumbs.
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Sunset over the horizon pool in Volterra, against a backdrop of the Tuscan hills made us appreciate how lucky we are, and soaking in the pools at the end of the day helped us to forget about the soreness of our bums after each day's ride.
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5 - Yes we did it!

It is always satisfying that at the end of the day we had achieved something special. Knowing that we were getting away from the crowds, being alone on the roads and being able to stop whenever we wanted was the real reason why we chose to ride around Toscana. You ride along and you see so much more, smell the olive groves, go from town to town and say "Buongiorno!" to the locals as you roll through villages. Our trip notes made us feel a little like we were in a game, giving ourselves a little cheer when we find something we're supposed to. The notes said we would see a "small shrine", La Madonnina. We were on the lookout for a small building, so we had to chuckle when we found it.
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Before we arrived we thought that 40 km a day is going to be easy! We were very wrong. The climbs were tough especially the first day. As we climbed and climbed in the heat on the first afternoon, desperately wanting to reach the illusive "Villa del Monte" to signify achieving a milestone that would mean we were closer to the finish - it felt like every large house HAD to be "Villa del Monte", but alas, it was just another lovely Tuscan home, and on we rolled! We made it though, each day, enjoying a fine dinner, glass of wine and a beautiful sunset to reflect on the day's achievement.
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(sunset in Pancole)

It took us probably about 1 1/2 days to get our cycle legs back but still we needed to be careful in the heat and make sure we drank water. I have to say Jen did an absolute fantastic job on just rolling along with what ever Toscano threw at her. By the last day she was powering up hills and not even using the granny gear!

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6 - Siena and the Tower

On one of our days off we caught a bus into Siena thinking a quick wander around and just chill out. Well, Siena is something quite different, even if there were hundreds of tourists in town.
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Siena is the town where they have horse race in the middle of the Piazza Del Campo which was a little bigger than a bike velodrome but on a slope. It is enclosed with all your typical Italian buildings and restaurants but it has a charm all of its own. We loved it! At the bottom corner of the square is the Torre del Mangia, a tower that requires climbing up 400 steps and at the top is a 360 deg view of Siena and its surroundings.

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The view is spectacular!

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7 - Lunches

Before we left for our trip, our plan for Tuscany lunches was to buy in the morning our bread, cold cuts of meat, local cheese, some tomatoes and a bottle of Chianti and pick a spot along our travels. Well that's pretty well what we did! From sitting in an olive grove next to a villa overlooking a valley to sitting beside a creek near a field of sunflowers or stopping off at a local pizzeria in a little village.

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Lunch of a Tagliere and Insalata (not to be confused with Tagliatelle pasta) in Certaldo.
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8- Opera, yes opera!

To add a bit of culture and a surprise to Jen, I organised tickets to a 1 hr opera concert in the Chiesa a di San Jacopo church in San Gimignano. This church only held about 50 people who all came to see tenor Jan Lund and piano forte Giacomo Benedetti. For you who know opera, (not sure who that is) the songs played were by Handel, Bach, Mozart, Chopin, Faure, Tosti, and Marchesi. The music, the power of the tenor's voice and the single piano all filled the tiny church - no microphones, and overwhelmed us. You sit there lost in the music even though you don't understand a word. This was an opportunity to do something very local and unique and whenever hear opera I will think of San Gimignano.

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Overall a great experience, lots of laughs, lots of pedalling and all made better to having done it with Jen.
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It was something I always wanted to do and to have Jen with me is something I will cherish and will have great memories.

The climb for the last 5kms up to Volterra was the toughest challenge on the last day.
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We made it!
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I can fully recommend if you are into cycling then go do Giro d'Toscana!
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Also a special thanks to Luke and Eleanor from Headwater for helping us with all the logistics especially getting us to Pisa.

Posted by tszeitli 14:37 Archived in Italy Tagged food hills scenery country wine cycling tuscany Comments (6)

Galileo, the Renaissance and the Ponte Vecchio

Day 50 to 52 Florence

sunny 35 °C

Whilst I received a text informing me that my bag had been found, phew, I was not reunited with it until a day and a half later. But, we're in Florence with the Renaissance on our front door step!
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We are in a great location and its wonderful watching the hustle and bustle of Florence below.
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Even the view out the back window is great. Our building is almost adjoining the back of the Uffizi.
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After luxuriating in our fantastic apartment with birthday breakfast from the gourmet supermarket across the bridge, we headed out.
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I had visited Florence 30 years ago and had wonderful memories. This time with Jen and our first day was my birthday. Down to the Piazza di San Giovanni and Piazza del Duomo to see the Baptistry and the Duomo.
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My birthday dinner was especially memorable - with the backdrop of the Piazza Della Signoria, next to the Loggia dei Lanzi with copies of the Rape of the Sabines, Cellini’s Perseus with the Head of Medusa,
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a copy of David,
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and with fun friendly waiters - a great night!
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We're not sure what Neptune would have thought about a gold Elvis riding a turtle in the centre of the Square...
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The evenings are balmy and wonderful for wandering the streets. The Ponte alla Grazie is the perfect spot for admiring the magic Ponte Vecchio. Jen's eye for photos is improving all the time and no better place to go nuts than in Florence.
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The next morning, our first stop is the Duomo - Cattedrale Di Santa Maria Del Fiore, third largest in the world behind St Peter's in Rome, St Paul's in London. Forget going up the Duomo as the queue stretches for at least 150 m, and for some poor sightseers, its in the sun. We got in and our first reaction was inside it was very plain and nothing compared to the the St Isaac's in St Petersburg. The amazing part of the Duomo and the Baptistry is its size and the distinctively decorated outside.
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We visited the Basilica di San Lorenzo, private church of the Medici family. Lovely, quiet simple church, which just happens to have a Pulpit by Donatello, frescos by the Renaissance masters and a Michelangelo out the back. As we were nearly done, we got the phone that delivery of my bag was 10 minutes away. Imagine the image of me, sprinting down the historic streets of Florence to get my long lost bag! After a long overdue change of clothes, we're back in business.

Adjoining San Lorenzo, is the Laurentian Library or Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, designed by Michelangelo for Pope Clement VII de' Medici to house the family's valuable collection of manuscripts. Whilst the Medicis weren't royalty, their power, wealth and connections certainly rivalled the various royal houses in their day. Pope Clement was the illegitimate nephew of Lorenzo Medici, a one time head of the powerful family. A beautiful library, reading room with magnificent flooring and stained glass around a courtyard that got us away from the crowds for a bit of peace and quiet.
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Lunch was at the Mercato Centre, with a forecourt completely filled by leather stalls - Italian leather avalanche. The ground floor is like Victoria Markets in the good old days where fruit, veggies, butchers and numerous delicatessens sell artisan produce. Fresh, local and mouth watering.
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The second floor was a food court, but not the type you see at shopping centres. Italians do it right. Food being prepared front of you based on ingredients from the floor below. The smells, the chatter and atmosphere was great to experience.

We were able to avert a near gastronomical catastrophe as we parked at a kiosk dispensing what looked to be juicy pulled pork on fresh bread rolls from bubbling cauldrons - but was actually tripe. We politely declined and elected for a safer option. It was curious however watching the faces of people who ordered the tripe. Usually alone or abandoned by their family - with a misty eyed look and a compelling expression - as the unctuous portions are fished out of the broth, sliced and diced and then sandwiched between the bread roll dunked in the cooking liquor. I think it takes a special type of person to seek out tripe.

After lunch we seek out the famous S.Bianchi cycle shop and invest in some very cool cycling shirts and caps. Very happy and looking forward to our Tuscany tour in a few days.
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On the way back from figuring out our bus tickets to get to Tuscany, we swing by the magnificent façade and gardens of Santa Maria Novella.
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So, in Italy there's cars....
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And there's cars...
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with Horse Power and Horsepower!
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Jeremy Clarkson and James May rolled into town in a DB-9 and a Bentley Convertible - about a million dollars worth. They stopped at the end of the Ponte Vecchio all rigged up with cameras and entourage for filming.

The walk back to our apartment also featured our customary, now almost a necessity, "fagy" [prounounced fod-gee]. In Hungarian the word for ice cream is "fagylalt" but shortened to "fagy". As its such a great word, from now on ice-cream will be known as "fagy" in our house. Jen has developed a sophisticated system, Fagy Logic, for justification or determining when its Fogy Time! Value can often be determined in terms of the cost of Fagy, or indeed, effort levels and days without Fagy, justifying the quality or quantity of Fagy required. Fortunately, in Florence there is a "fagy" shop almost on every corner. Ordering also takes time as when Jen is faced with all the flavours her head goes into total confusion. This one she ordered was a super sized one and I had my "very happy wife" back.
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As we will visit the Uffizi and Accademia tomorrow, and because its about 4 doors down, We visit the Galileo Museum. From an engineering perspective it's was absolutely fascinating. What was more impressive was discovering how amazing Galileo was and his impact on physics, astronomy, development of the theodolite, clocks, machinery, telescopes and numerous other discoveries.
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The displays were first class and instead of a set of headphones that explained things, you down loaded an app onto your phone that explained things and even had videos of how the items he invented worked. Definitely the future way for all museums. In today's era we take for granted that we can measure distance, height, time, temperature and navigate our way around the world with apparent ease. Without Galileo and his peers including those that came after (especially DaVinci), none of this would have been possible.

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A couple of the great mans fingers are also on display. Taken from his coffin when his remains were relocated historically.

The sunsets in Florence are divine so we packed wine, bread and cheese and hiked up to the Piazzale Michelangelo which is the customary lookout to view the sunset. Its lovely atmosphere, plenty of people but peaceful as the sun sets on a great day.
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Amidst the chaos of camera lenses, it was cool to see this young lady furiously working with her paints to capture the moment.
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The night finished with delicious dinner at a small restaurant that had a diverse, unique and mouth watering menu of Italian pasta but not anything like the Spag Bol, Carbonara, Lasagne or the usual fare served up in Australian Italian restaurants. This was proper Italian, hand made pasta, prepared simply with quality ingredients, we were in heaven and washed down with a bottle of prosecco.

Our last day was a planned Renaissance Tsunami. Jen secured "Skip the Line" tickets to the Uffizi Gallery, which are gold, given the queue for non-reserved tickets.
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In by 9:15, the Uffizi Gallery is spectacular, with all the well known masters and works of art, plus the building itself is magnificent - the Medici Family's quarters for administering the family business.
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To keep you art lovers happy;
Duke and Duchess of Urbino,
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Tucci's Allegory of Justice
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Cosimo's Incarnation of Christ and Perseus freeing Andromeda
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The Doryphoros Torso
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Spectacular Roman Art including Socrates, moments frozen in centuries.
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Michaelangelo's the Holy Family
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Looking at Fontainbleu's Portrait of Gabrielle d'Estrees and one of her sisters (of which there were many sisters and portraits) one can't help but think that the Kardashians are not new or unique.
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Botticelli's Spring
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and
Calumny of Apelles
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And of course, the main event, The Birth of Venus was truly breathtaking
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Just a few of the magnificent works we spent half a day meandering the impressive halls admiring art from 14th to 19th century. The vibrant colours in paintings over 600 years old,
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the lifelike statues carved from solid marble with hand tools
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and the very best of Renaissance art.
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For good measure, after the Renaissance, there's Rembrandt and Rubens if you haven't had your fill...
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We saw paintings of of Judith & Holofernes a number of times. In the story, Judith, a beautiful widow, is able to enter the tent of Holofernes because of his desire for her. Holofernes was an Assyrian general who was about to destroy Judith's home, the city of Bethulia. Overcome with drink, he passes out and is decapitated by Judith; his head is taken away in a basket (often depicted as carried by an elderly female servant).
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We say hello to Zeus and Hercules
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admire the Raffaello
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before the Grandmaster da Vinci
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Caravaggio's classic Baccus
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Venus of Urbino by Tiziano Vecellio is an interesting story and caused quite a stir in its day. Originally a portrait of a real lady but as it was nude, it was named after the Godess, Venus and apparently that made it okay. It is said to depict a most racy scene of the unmarried lady "enjoying" some time to herself. There is some suggestion she was a "courtesan" in the oldest profession in the world. For many years this picture was hidden behind a screen in the Uffizi for only certain Medici's to visit in "private moments".
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Compare with Tiziano's other work "Venere della Pernice" [Venice of the Partridge] showing a similar pose but the woman is deemed married because she is wearing pearls, the dog barking at the partridge, signifying loyalty and faithfulness. Cupid is gently embracing the Lady, having discarded his arrows meaning someone has made an honest woman of this lady, compared with the Lush Lady in "Venus of Urbano".
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I think I overheard that this "proper" work was hung in front of the Venus of Urbano back in the day, and would be slid out of the way for private viewings.
Next onto the Accademia, the home of Michaelangelo's "David", still one of the best pieces of art work I have ever seen. Again Jen arranged "skip the line" tickets and again, absolutely essential. We made a plan to get to the Accademia, pick up our tickets and then have lunch. We got there at 1.15pm, 2 hours before our time to go in. Its chaos. The reserved tickets queue was over 50 m long and the non reserved queue was even longer, not moving and the sun was gradually stealing the available shade - the poor sad faces. After successfully navigating to a hole in the wall to retrieve our tickets, we decided to join the queue and have lunch while we waited, which was the perfect plan. Whilst our entry time was 3:15, we reached the front of the line by about 1:30pm. With our best "play it cool" faces, and taking advantage of Italians' organisation skills, we're in about an hour and a half early, sweet!
Passing the original of Rape of the Sabines
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Again words can't describe the statues and photos don't do them justice. Jen had a field day at taking photos as the light was perfect for casting shadows cross the near translucent marble. If you are interested just google "statue of David" and do a quick read, it's fascinating the story of how Michelangelo did the statue.
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I was glad to visit David again, but also to see Michelangelo's "Prisoners or Slaves" - I was fascinated last time, and they are just as fascinating 30 years later, seemingly awakening from their solid marble state, coming alive.
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Accademia is small in comparision to Uffizzi but some truly spectacular art. We've encountered a few instances however where beautiful art is not able to be viewed properly. In room where the only access is a view at the doorway which is usually gridlock.
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We did a quick stop into the DaVinci Museum, continuing our dialogue with engineering.
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This was a kid friendly interactive exhibition which had taken a many of his sketches and built wooden replicas so kids and big kids ( like me) could play with them. DaVinci was prolific and fascinated with so many things in the world - birds and dragonflies trying to figure out flight. His books filled with small even script and drawings are the foundations for so many devices we take for granted.
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Machinery, cranes, the human body, physics, flight, clocks, hydraulics and pumps are just some of the things he developed.
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Inspired by our dinner the previous night and by Florence itself, we decided to cook our own dinner to eat with one of the best views in Florence - our or apartment window. We had fun procuring the ingredients from our now favourite deli and Jen made a delicious pasta meal with fresh pasta, olive oil, pancetta, lots (and lots) of garlic, porcini, sun dried tomatoes, courgettes and liberal amounts of Parmesan. All this washed down with prosseco and local Chianti Classico.
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Sadly we are leaving Florence tomorrow but a highlight has been the stay in our apartment right next door to the Ponte Vecchio.
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It's been fantastic to come back here and enjoy it with Jen during a very special time of our lives. We have seen the bridge in all its glory and in all its phases Dawn to Dusk. Fortunately for me, Jen has been able to capture this so beautifully in her photography.
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Posted by tszeitli 22:05 Archived in Italy Tagged florence birthday david michelangelo ponte_vecchio galileo da_vinci renaissance_art lost_baggage Comments (6)

Swiss Cheese Day

Day 49 Zagreb to Florence

sunny 35 °C

After fuelling up the car the night before, packing and arranging an early breakfast at our Airport Hotel so we could drop the car off at the airport when the place opened at 7am for our 9am flight from Zagreb to Florence, we thought we had it all planned out.

Well, we came to a screeching halt. The day didn't start or end well - all the holes in the Swiss Cheese lined up today.

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By 6:45am, we're on track. Then, when doing that final check before driving off, couldn't find my phone. Race back inside, check lobby, breakfast place and room. Rush back and discover it was in my back pack all along. Plug "Zagreb International Airport" into the SatNav and we're away. 9 minutes and about 6kms. As we dutifully followed the instructions, the streets of the sleepy town didn't feel right but we pressed on, focused on getting to the airport. As we rounded a narrow corner and hit gravel and a 8' wire fence, we realised we were on the airside of the airport - nice view of the runway, but not ideal for our present needs. SatNav was right, we were technically at the airport, the Terminal however, was way over the other side. We lost 15 minutes, rally cross driving back to where we needed to drop the car off. We do a couple of loops trying to find the allocated place, then there's no parks. A guy in a blue shirt seemingly affiliated with the Hire Company obliged and took the keys from us and we headed for the Terminal. Fortunately he wasn't some random guy who we'd just handed the keys to a new Festiva, never to be seen again. Check in at Zagreb Airport was painful as its an old crappy airport, overdue for expansion. The airlines have added extra flights (we guess to gauge demand and raise revenue for the upgrade) but the facilities are stretched to the limit. Phew, we make it to the gate with time to spare, including enough time to offload our unused Croatian Kuna for Biotherme Spray Sunscreen which we have discovered is EXCELLENT. Highly recommend.

We arrive in Paris - a teaser for our visit in August. We think, right, we're back on track only to sit on the tarmac waiting for passengers from a connecting flight. Finally, we're here!

As we enter the doors to the Baggage Hall, we are immediately assaulted by Italians - its chaos, loud debating and much hand gesturing! Amid the chaos, the carousel springs to life and Jen's bag is first off the conveyor! Sadly, as we watch the belt go 'round and 'round with the number of bags dwindling and the Baggage Hall emptying, the realisation that my bag got left behind is sinking in. There are about a dozen others also waylaid. Whilst it was inevitable that this might happen, it's still a terrible feeling.

I join the queue at Lost Baggage to go through the process with smirking Italian airport staff. Word had gotten around that the next flight from Paris was due in about an hour and the mislaid bags might be on it, so we park ourselves to wait. The next flight arrived, and the travellers from late Los Angeles connection gleefully collected their bags. But alas, mind did not arrive. It must be back in Zagreb.

We had to laugh though, as each flight landed in the hour we waited, the queue in front of Lost Baggage continued to grow. Must be a normal day in Florence airport and the Italian airport staff laughed their way through the whole situation.

With no knowing where my bag could be and limited information from the Airline, we made our way into Florence and checked into our first Airbnb, an absolutely gorgeous apartment adjoining Ponte Vecchio Bridge and minutes walk to all the attractions.

Whilst distracted as to whereabouts of my bag and only the clothes I was wearing, the night it did end on a high note as Italy got knocked out of the European Cup by Germany. We watched the game, on a stinking hot night, from the big screen on the banks of the Arno with thousands of Italians occupying every vantage point. One of my long time dislikes is Italian soccer, how they play and how they overact at the merest of touches.

There was plenty of Karma today!

Posted by tszeitli 08:29 Archived in Italy Tagged florence airports chaos rush ponte_vecchio italians lost_baggage swiss_cheese Comments (4)

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