Sunday, May 19, 2013

Under the Tuscan Sun Part 1: Florence

“We’ve found heaven, and it’s Italian.” -Kyle

That pretty much sums up our amazing trip to Florence and Tuscany. I think we’re both in love with la dolce vita. The natural landscape is captivating with its hills, cypress trees, olive groves, and vineyards. To that add warm, friendly people (although they’re awful drivers!), incredible food and wine, a relaxing atmosphere and you have a perfect Tuscan holiday.

It seems like for one reason or another, people seem to be drawn to certain countries or regions. I’ve always been attracted to Italy. I have a soft spot for Florence and Tuscany in particular. For a summer in college between my sophomore and junior year, I took art and art history classes there. We stayed in Florence, and ventured out on the weekends. It was such a great experience, and I was so excited to go back and share some of those treasures with Kyle. That summer, while I was in Italy, Kyle was in China learning the language. It seems like with everything I saw, I thought to myself, “I wish Kyle could see this!”

Our road trip started early in the morning. From Stuttgart, it’s about seven hours and forty five minutes to Florence. That seems like a long drive, but we’re so used to it from driving back and forth between Baltimore and Indianapolis, which was a 9-10 hour drive. The difference is our drive was straight through the Black Forest, the Swiss Alps and northern Italy to get there, rather than West Virginia and Ohio! We drove through a little bit of rain, but when we arrived in Florence about 4, it started clearing up and turned into a beautiful evening.

Our hotel was just about 100 meters from the Duomo, the huge cathedral in the center of the city, so we had a great central location. Florence is a small and very walkable city. As usual on our first evening, we walked wherever we felt like it, with no destination in mind. We covered a lot of ground that evening, seeing a lot of the well known sites from the outside. One of our first priorities though was getting some gelato, and I knew exactly where to go and even how to get there! In case you’re ever there, the best gelato in town is Remember, not all gelato is created equal!

Santa Maria del Fiore aka the Duomo

The famous Ponte Vecchio bridge

Only the best!
We stayed on the top floor in college. Looks the same!

Peaceful and non-touristy Santo Spirito
Palazzo Vecchio

Giambologna's Rape of the Sabine

The next day after our croissants and cappuccinos, we headed to the Accademia Gallery where we had a tour booked. The Accademia is a wonderful, small gallery with a great collection where students used to study art. The most notable work there, which is also one of my favorites, is Michelangelo’s David. On this trip I wanted to tour this gallery instead of the better known and larger Uffizi since we weren’t spending much time in Florence. (We’ll definitely be going back and we’ll see it then!) Our tour and tour guide were wonderful. There was only one other person in our group. Our guide was very knowledgeable and gave us an overview of the highlights of the gallery. It’s always more interesting coming from a real person rather than a book! You’re not allowed to take pictures in the gallery, but trust me, it’s very impressive!

 After our tour, we headed over to check out the Duomo again and to see the inside. Construction on the Duomo began in 1296, but wasn’t completed until 1436 with the addition of Brunelleschi’s famous dome, which is still the largest brick dome ever constructed. The inside of the dome is an impressive fresco of the Last Judgement. 

The baptistry, the cathedral, and the campanile, or bell tower

From the Duomo, we headed across the Ponte Vecchio to the Palazzo Pitti where we toured the Boboli gardens. The gardens are massive and very hilly! The beauty of the gardens makes the hills worth it!

Looking back at the Palazzo Pitti where the Medici's lived

Beautiful views from the top!

After recharging with delicious caffeine, we walked from the Boboli Gardens up to a great lookout point at the Piazzale Michelangelo. From there we had an incredible view of the entire city.

We walked back down, crossed back over the river to see the Basilica di Santa Croce. It is the largest Franciscan church in the world. Legend says that it was started by St. Francis himself. Construction on the current church to replace an older one began in 1294. Many incredible people are buried there, such as Michelangelo, Galileo, Machiavelli, Foscolo, Gentile and Rossini. It also has some notable art work, such as a Raphael fresco and Cimabue’s Crucifix. We enjoyed happy hour and a great dinner that evening before heading back to the hotel.

Santa Croce

A robe worn by St. Francis

The tomb of Michelangelo

Admiring the cloisters

Cimabue's Crucifix 1287-1288

Tired puppy!

Florence is one of my all time favorite cities.  It's not too big, and it's so full of incredible art and history, not to mention how beautiful it is! 

The following three days we spent in a villa in Tuscany.  It was incredible and Kyle took a lot of great photos, so we'll be posting about it soon!  Ciao!

Sunday, May 12, 2013


What an amazing city! There is something for everyone in Barcelona, whether your thing is sun, art, architecture, food, the beach, history...I could go on! My thing happens to be all of the above mentioned, so needless to say that I am in love with Barcleona!

Kyle had a four day weekend, so we headed to Barcelona to escape our drabby weather. It was a short one hour and 45 minute flight; not bad at all! When we arrived in the late afternoon the weather was sunny and perfect! We checked into our very nice, centrally located apartment and headed out to explore. We started walking towards the old Gothic Quarter and walked in whichever direction looked interesting (which was every direction). While walking we came across the Roman Gates into the old town, the Barcelona Cathedral, and plenty of unique shops and tapas restaurants! We found a tapas restaurant in a nice square where we could sit outside and people watch while we ate. It was a wonderful first evening in the city!

New art mixed in with the old

Our first full day in Barcelona was very busy!  We started the day with delicious chocolate croissants and cafe con leche at the bakery by our apartment.  (The ladies knew us there by the end of our weekend!)

Then we headed out for our four hour bike tour of the city with Fat Tire Bike Tours.  I think bike tours are a great way to cover a lot of ground in a short amount of time.  We had a great tour guide that showed us some of the highlights of the city.  One of our first stops in the Gothic Quarter was at the palace of Ferdinand and Isabella.  We were so impressed to see the stairs that Christopher Columbus climbed to tell them the news of the new world that he discovered.

The palace of Ferdinand and Isabella

Palau de la Música Catalana

We saw the beautiful Arc de Triomf which is at the entrance of the gorgeous, green and lush Parc de la Ciutadella.  They built the Arc for an exposition in 1888.  The design of the arc was actually the second design choice of the committee that chose it.  The first choice was rejected by the people of Barcelona.  Since the first choice was rejected, the designer of the first choice (you may have heard of him, Gustave Eiffel) went to Paris to build his Eiffel Tower instead.

This might have been the Eiffel Tower!

Another of our favorite sites was the Sagrada Familia.  It's a massive cathedral designed by one of my favorite architects, Antoni Gaudí. His designs have helped shape Barcelona into what it is today.  Construction on the cathedral began in 1882 and it is still not complete.  They are trying to finish it by 2026 for the 100 year anniversary of Gaudí's death, but we'll see if that happens.  There is so much to the history of the cathedral and Gaudí, so I won't bore you with all of the details, but it's definitely worth reading about!  I remember being so impressed by the cathedral in art history, and it was so amazing to see in person!  We didn't have time to go in this time, but it's on our list for next time!

At the end of our bike tour, we had lunch at a nice cafe by the beach.  It had clouded up when we first got to the beach, but by the time we sat down the sun was back and making the Mediterranean shine in brilliant blues and emerald green.  It was fun to be able to hang out and chat with people from all over the world.  It was a great end to the tour!

That evening we had a tapas tour booked.  After showering and resting up a bit from the bike tour, we headed back out for tour number two!  The tapas tour was a lot of fun.  It was kind of like going out with friends!  There were about 10 other people on our tour, most of which were German!  We went to four different tapas bars where we had different regional specialties like chorizo, manchego cheese, fish, cava (Spanish champagne) and a delicious tomato bread.  Two of the bars we went to were some of the oldest in the city.  It was a lot of fun!

Drinking wine the Catalan way
Here fishy, fishy, fishy!

Mmmm, chorizo!

Enjoying some cava!
After the tour, we walked around the marina and then found a nice cafe in a beautiful courtyard where we enjoyed some Sangria.  It was a perfect end to our busy day!

I still had plenty of things on my list that I still wanted to see the next day!  We headed up a beautiful, wide boulevard to see two famous apartment buildings designed by Gaudí.  They are both built in the Modernista style, which is like Spanish Art Nouveau.  They both have very organic, curving shapes which make them really beautiful and unique.

Casa Batlló

Casa Milà or La Pedrera

From there we took the metro to Gaudí's famous Park Guell.  Gaudí originally intended the park to be a neighborhood.  Among the beautiful trees and flowers are awesome buildings and structures.  There's a school, and market place, aqueducts,  a few houses including his own, and all sorts of random really cool looking stuff!

Hello there, parrot!

From there we headed to another park in a different part of town, so we hopped back on the metro where we saw the biggest vending machine of our lives!  The park Montjuïc is on a mountain/big hill on the coast right at the edge of town.  It's a beautiful area that's home to a lot of gardens, an Olympic stadium, and a couple of art museums.  The Palau Nacional is a very grand building at the base of the hill that is now home to an art museum.  We had a great lunch there before walking around the rest of the park.  We really could have spent all day there.  At the top of Montjuïc is a castle, which was our destination.  There are a couple of trams that go up to the castle, and we meant to take one of them...but we kind of missed where you load the tram and ended up climbing to the top ourselves.  We were greeted with gorgeous views of the city and the Mediterranean at the top.  I was very happy to take the tram back down because my feet were killing me!  (When I decided to wear ballet flats that morning, I did not know that we'd be climbing a mountain!)

Palau Nacional

We headed back to the apartment to rest a bit before heading out for the evening.  We headed to the EL Born neighborhood, which is is in the old town center.  It's an awesome neighborhood with narrow alleyways that hide boutiques, galleries, and tapas bars.  It has a great atmosphere.  At the center of El Born is Santa Maria del Mar; a very pretty cathedral built in the 1300's.  We sat at a nice outdoor cafe in the square in front of the cathedral for some tapas and sangria.  From there we wandered around some more, just enjoying the evening.

Our flight was about noon the next day, so we didn't have time to do any sightseeing on our last day. We had our usual breakfast at the bakery before heading to the airport.  Most of the time at the end of a trip, I'm ready to go home.  This time, I was not ready!  I was loving the city! I didn't get to see everything I wanted to see, and I didn't get to eat everything I wanted to eat!  It is definitely a place we will be revisiting.  It is a unique city and has a lot to offer!