Thursday, October 25, 2012

Our first few days in Prague

We are currently in Prague, we arrived on Monday and have taken our time exploring the city.  It is a beautiful city.  The number one priority for us when we got here was finding a place to do laundry.  We lucked out and found a laundry service across the street from our hotel.  After solving the laundry dilemma, we decided to do a little exploring.  We walked across the Charles Bridge and back, found a great little place for dinner that was much cheaper than anywhere we ate in Italy, then wandered around the shops in Old Town Square.  All in all, a good first day in Prague.

The company that I used to book our shuttle from the airport to the hotel offered a free tour of the city and so I decided to go on Tuesday morning, while Charles painted.  So, I met the group at the Astronomical Clock at 11:00 a.m. and we set off on the 4 hour tour.  Our tour guide Monika was wonderful!  I really enjoyed her information on the places we visited and loved her humor throughout the tour.  I took lots of photos, I'll post them on SmugMug soon.

Charles met me at the back of St. Vitus Cathedral after the tour and we walked down the hill back to the center of town together.  We picked up our laundry on our way back to our hotel and were both way too excited about our clean clothes!

Fall afternoon in Prague

Clean Laundry!!
That evening we went to find a small pivovar (brewery) that Charles read about in a list of things to do in Prague put out by Time Magazine.  The pivovar is in a small hotel and they have a brew that they have been making since 1466.  The beer is aptly named 1466 and so we went to try it.  Charles had a 1466 and I tried another of their beers, the Oldgott.  The beer was very good, but unfortunately they still allow smoking in most bars and restaurants here, so we didn't stay very long.  

Charles at U Medvidku trying the 1466
Yesterday we decided to go to the Museum of Communism, which we had seen recommended on a couple of tour guide websites.  So, we set off in the morning, with one important stop along the way - the Nike Store.  Why, would we want to go to the Nike Store you might wonder, well it's because it is where the tickets to the Sparta Prague vs. H. Kiryat Shmona F.C. Europa League game are sold.  So, we went in and bought our two tickets to the game this evening.  The Museum of Communism was worth a visit, it's small and the actual artifacts and items displayed are not overly impressive, but it contains a very informative presentation of Prague's struggle under the communist regime from WWI through the present.  There is also a documentary shown that includes video of Prague in the time leading up to the Velvet Revolution.  We left the museum very glad we had visited, but feeling very somber.
Museum of Communism
After lunch we went to the House of the Black Madonna, which is a building built in the Cubist style.  We could not figure out what the significance of the Black Madonna was, other than that there is a statue of a Black Madonna on the corner of the building.  So, if anyone knows the significance or story behind her, please email us.

Last night we had dinner at the Strahov Monastery Brewery, which I learned about from my tour with Monika.  The beer is brewed and sold only at the monastery.  We had great beer and great food and enjoyed the views from above the city.

Park near the Strahov Monastery

Monastery Brewery

Strahov Pivovar - Monastery Brewery


Getting lost in Venice and a day trip to Udine

Venice is all about getting lost and getting away from the crowds.  Yes, Piazza San Marco is beautiful, but it's crowded and full of tourists and vendors peddling flying glow sticks and green flashy lasers.  Venice is much better if you wander down side streets until you don't know where you are.  Luckily since Venice is a maze of canals and bridges it's very easy to do.  We managed to get lost a few times and others we purposefully made our way to the quieter pockets of the city. 

When we got off the train in Venice we knew we had to take a vaporetto to San Marco, so we stood in line with all of the other tourists to buy our tickets.  Once we arrived on the street where our hotel was we walked down until we found the door, we rang the buzzer and heard a click and pushed open the door.  We found an empty room with stone walls...hmm.  There was a sign indicating the hotel was two floors up, so we walked up the stairs past a broken window and scraped up walls.  I was a little worried about this hotel.  We waited to book our hotels until the last minute and it was more expensive than I had hoped, but we went ahead based on good reviews on Tripadvisor.  Luckily the reception desk seemed fine.  We were taken up to our room and it was fine, good even.  The only downside, our bathroom was outside our room across the hall, but it was only ours, so I was thrilled that at least it was a private bathroom even if we did have to walk across the hall to use it.  The best part of the hotel was the balcony and the free breakfast, which included really good chocolate croissants.

On the Vaporetto

Almost to San Marco

View from hotel cafe
Our first evening in Venice we wandered around and had dinner.  Charles ordered a beer from the waiter and was asked if he wanted a small or a large, he answered large and this is what he got:

Charles' large beer
We met a lovely British couple from Birmingham sitting next to us and had a great time visiting with them.  Hi, Graham and Val, it was great to meet you!  After our evening of hanging out in a Venice cafe we walked the long way back to our hotel and snapped a few pictures along the way.

Venice at night

Bridge of Sighs

Piazza San Marco
Saturday our plan was to explore the city a little more and find a place where Charles could do a painting.  He set up his easel in a piazza not far from our hotel and I decided to go do some wandering and find the famous fish market.  That afternoon we went to the Academia to see the art collection before finding a non-tourist spot for dinner, which proved to be a little difficult.  After dinner we headed home to prepare for our adventure the next day.

Sunday morning we woke up and walked to the train station, we were going to a small town called Udine to see a Serie A soccer match.  We got on the train and slowly made our way, passing through several tiny towns along the way.  We arrived in Udine with plenty of time to find the stadium and purchase tickets.  We were pleasantly surprised to find a bus that was running directly from the train station to the stadium, we purchased our tickets and hopped on board.  Once at the stadium we were relieved to find that the girl at the ticket booth spoke English.  We purchased our tickets and asked her where we should go to get some lunch before the game.  She directed us to the neighborhood near the stadium, which was about a 10 minute walk.  We stopped into the first cafe we saw and found several fans taking part in game day festivities.  After a quick lunch we walked back to the stadium to take our seats.  The game started off in true Italian style, with a lot of drama, two yellow cards in the first 15 minutes and a red card for Udinese followed shortly thereafter.  Despite the officiating and the overly dramatic flopping of some of the players, I really enjoyed going to a Serie A game, and Udinese won despite being down a man, which made it even better. 

Getting lunch before the game with other supporters

The fans

After the game
Once the game ended we took the bus back into Udine and had a couple of hours before our train back to Venice, so we decided to walk to the city center.  We found the cathedral and then wandered to the main shopping area of town and found a beer festival going on.  It was beautiful up on top of the hill in the center of town.
Beer festival in Udine


We stopped and got a slice of pizza on our way back to the train station and then settled in for the two hour ride back to Venice.  Unfortunately, our train was late....but we made it back to our hotel in Venice eventually, tired but happy we went on our day trip to Udine.  The next morning we said goodbye to Italy and headed to colder fall weather in Prague.

Waiting for the vaporetto to the airport

Saying farewell to Italy

Tuesday, October 23, 2012


We arrived in Florence on a rainy Monday afternoon.  I had looked up the best way to get from the train station to our hotel and it looked like taking the bus would be the quickest option.  So, we purchased two tickets for the city bus from a vendor in the train station and went out to find the bus stop.  We got lucky, one came along pretty quickly and we were only left standing in the rain for a few minutes.  When we got to Piazza San Marco we got off and easily found our hotel.  After dropping off our things we headed toward the Duomo to find some lunch.

Since I studied abroad in Florence in 1999 I was curious to see how well I remembered the city, I am happy to say that I still felt pretty familiar with the place.  We picked up some sandwiches at a café on Via Cavour and then walked down the street to the Duomo.  The Duomo in Florence is one of those things that I will never tire of seeing, it will always be beautiful and wonderful and amazing to me, every time I see it.  I walked past it every day on my way to class while I was a student, and seeing it again on this trip brought a huge smile to my face.  Since Charles has never been to Florence, I was excited to see his reaction to seeing the Duomo for the first time.  We decided to go in and explore a little, since we didn’t really have anything planned for the remainder of the afternoon.  After being in the churches in Rome, the simple interior of the Duomo was calming and refreshing.  When we went back outside it was starting to rain a little, so we continued down the street toward Piazza Signoria.  Then, the sky opened up and it started pouring and thundering.  We found a little side street with some construction scaffolding that provided a little shelter and waited there for the rain to let up.  Once the rain seemed to subside a little, we walked on to Piazza Signoria and into Palazzo Vecchio.  We weren’t planning to go to the museum, but since it was still raining, we decided that was the best plan.  

Duomo in Florence

Waiting out the rain
When we emerged from Palazzo Vecchio with a good dose of architecture and Renaissance frescos behind us we were happy to see the rain had stopped.  We found a little café on the piazza where we could sit and have a drink and Charles could work on a painting.  Unfortunately the place we chose was closing early, and so with only half a painting completed we had to move on.  We found a place for dinner on our way back to our hotel and settled in to get some sleep before Charles’ parents arrived in Florence the next morning. Unfortunately, our hotel had a bit of a mosquito problem, which made it somewhat difficult to sleep.  The room was hot, but opening the window let in more blood thirsty bugs, so we had a dilemma.  Luckily, Charles is pretty good at mosquito swatting while we were there.  

Charles the mosquito killer
Tuesday morning we had plans to meet Charles’ parents, Tom and Gwen, who were on a Mediterranean cruise and were stopping through Florence for the day.  We met them at Santa Croce and, since we were already there, decided to stop in the church and see the graves of Michelangelo, Alberti, and Dante.  Next we headed to the Piazza Signoria to see the replica statue of David in front of the Palazzo Vecchio.  After all that sight seeing we decided we needed some coffee and a snack before seeing the Ponte Vecchio, so we stopped into a cafe before continuing on.  After the Ponte Vecchio we went to the Duomo to see the Baptistery doors.  Then we went to see the Laurentian Library, which was designed by Michelangelo, where we saw the Magnificent Manuscripts, where are the original books belonging to the three daughters of Lorenzo di Medici.  Charles was especially excited to see the steps up to the library, which he taught about in his art history class.  On our way back to Santa Croce we meandered past Dante Aligheri's house and snapped a few photos.  We made it back to Santa Croce with enough time for a late lunch before Tom and Gwen had to head back to their ship.  The lunch was delicious and made even better followed by gelato!

Santa Croce with Tom and Gwen

Laurentian Library

 After saying farewell to Tom and Gwen we decided to take advantage of the wonderful weather and headed to Boboli Gardens.  After a long day of being tourists we decided to try a place recommended by Meredith, Charles' sister-in-law, called Ciro and Sons.  The lasagna was wonderful (thanks for the tip Meredith) and we were able to meet one of the owners, Enzo.  

Dinner at Ciro & Sons with Enzo
Our third day in Florence we started our day at the Bargello museum, which holds sculptures by Michelangelo and Donatello.  Since we hadn't yet visited the Uffizi we went there next, ready to battle our way through crowds and tons of Renaissance art.  Surprisingly the crowds weren't too bad and we made our way through pretty quickly, while still appreciating the amazing collection.  Next we decided to walk across the river to Santa Maria del Carmine to see the Brancacci Chapel, another of the highlights from Charles' art history curriculum that he was looking forward to seeing in person.  After seeing the chapel we decided to see another famous work by Masaccio, the Holy Trinity, which is in Santa Maria Novella on the other side of Florence.  We returned to our hotel on museum overload.  We spent the late afternoon taking care of some logistical stuff (trains to Venice, flight to Prague, and hotel reservations).  Charles wanted to paint and I was still working on things online, so we decided on a meeting point and he set off on his own.  Up to this point we have really spent very little time apart, we usually are together at all times and haven't done much venturing out on our own since we don't have cell phones and are in unfamiliar cities.  But, we felt comfortable in Florence, so I met Charles about an hour later at the Mayday Bar.  The Mayday Bar is owned by an Italian man and his American wife, we had a chance to talk with them and really enjoyed our visit.  If you are reading - thank you for the wonderful evening!  

Santa Maria Novella
Painting at Mayday Bar
On our last full day in Florence we started our day at the Academia Museum, which holds the David and other famous works by Michelangelo.  There was also a wonderful exhibit of modern art mixed in, which we really enjoyed.  Afterwards we walked up all the stairs to the top of the Duomo to take in the beautiful view of the city.  We had seen several signs all over the city for an exhibit in the Palazzo Strozzi for an exhibition o Fascist art from the 1930s and since our museum pass got us in free, we decided why not go.  To finish out our day we walked to Piazza Michelangelo, which is across the river on a hill and provides a great place to watch the sunset.  Charles worked on a painting and I enjoyed hanging out and watching the other tourists and the sun sink behind the Boboli Gardens.  

Top of the Duomo

Painting in Piazza Michelangelo

Sunset at Piazza Michelangelo

Sunset behind Boboli Gardens
Friday we had a reservation on the 12:00 train to Venice.  We wanted to go to the Michelangelo museum before we left, so we decided to go right after breakfast.  The website said they opened at 9:30 a.m., it was wrong.  They opened the doors at 10:00 a.m. and we quickly went through and then headed back to collect our bags and walk to the train station.  We arrived at the train station with plenty of time and decided to get a coffee at the cafe while we waited.  Once on the train we settled into our seat for the short 2 hour ride to Venice.  We were hoping for an uneventful train ride, but we weren't so lucky, our train was late, really late...  We were a little over an hour behind schedule.  My favorite part of the train ride was when a phone went off across the aisle from us and the ringtone played Michael Jackson's "Don't Stop Til You Get Enough," we looked over and it was an old Italian man who acted as if nothing had happened and proceeded to answer the call and start yelling into the phone complaining about the train being late.  We did eventually arrive in Venice and other than being really late and hot and tired, we were happy to have arrived in our next destination.  

Obligatory train station backpack picture

Obligatory train station backpack picture.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Art History Overload

It has been ten days since we arrived in Italy and we are definitely on art history overload.  Since arriving in Italy on October 11th we have crammed in a short trip to Milan, three days in Rome, and five in Florence.  Right now we are on a train to Venice.  I have loved being back in Italy.  I studied abroad in Florence in 1999, and have really enjoyed discovering Italy again. 

Here are some of the highlights…


  • Lunch at Luini (fried dough sandwiches stuffed with ham and mozzarella) – Charles’ brother Paul recommended this place to us, it was delicious!
  • Walk through the famous Galleria de Vittorio Emanuel II – we sat and watched the shoppers and tourists and enjoyed a cup of coffee in front of Gucci
  • Spin on the Bull’s balls – there is a tradition in Milan to spin around on the balls of the bull inside the Galleria for good luck, so of course we had to take part. 
  • Walk through the Milan Cathedral
  • Climb to the top of the Milan Cathedral – we loved the views of the city from the roof of the cathedral
  • Hanging out in Piazza Leonardo – a statue of Leonardo Da Vinci is in the center of the square, we enjoyed sitting and listening to the old men argue in Italian
  • Drinks in a Milan Bar – we stopped in a small bar on a corner to have a glass of wine and a beer and enjoyed talking with a local, luckily he spoke pretty good English
  • Primi Piatti – we had dinner at another place recommended to us by Charles’ brother Paul, the pasta was so delicious, but I think our waiter was disappointed we didn’t order more food.
  • Cab to the train station – our cab driver explained there were some student protests going on, so we had to take a roundabout route to the airport, on our way we learned he lived in Venezuela for 14 years near where Charles lived as a child.
  • Train to Rome – unfortunately this train ride is memorable because I got sick and nearly had to tackle a few other passengers in order to get to the bathroom in time. 
Galleria Milan

Spinning for luck

Roof of the Duomo in Milan


Day One:

  • Rain and relaxing – our first afternoon in Rome I was still feeling a little sick (I caught a 12 hour stomach bug in Milan) and since it was raining, we just hung out in our room for a couple hours
  • Walk to the Colosseum – since our hotel wasn’t far from the Colosseum we decided to go see it and find a place to have dinner.  The Colosseum is so pretty at night!
Rainy Rome


Day Two:

  • Vatican Museum – we took the metro to the Vatican and went straight to the museum with hopes that the line would not be too long.  We were in luck!  We waited in line for about 20 minutes and we were in.  The museum was more crowded than I remember it being many years ago, but the contents are still just as incredible.  Highlights in the museum were the Raphael's Rooms, the Sistine Chapel, and the Transfiguration by Raphael. 
  • Lunch in Vatican City – we had pizza and pasta for lunch at a café just outside the Vatican museum.  We needed to refuel before going into Saint Peter’s Cathedral.
  • Saint Peter’s Cathedral – Michelangelo's Pieta and the Bernini's Baldacchino still invoke awe every time I see them.  Amazing.  It was really cool to spend the afternoon sitting in front of Saint Peter’s while Charles did a painting of the church. 
  • Spanish Steps – we took the metro to the Spanish Steps and arrived just before sunset.  We fell into place with all of the other tourists to enjoy the beautiful view and the lively atmosphere of the piazza. 
  • Pantheon – we made our way over to the Pantheon and were just in time to go inside before dark.  After walking through, we found a small trattoria with tables facing the Pantheon and sat for a while and enjoyed the street performances of a mime and accordion. 
  • Trevi Fountain – we walked by the Trevi fountain before making our way to the metro station.
  • San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane – a Baroque style church in Rome, we stumbled upon this building by chance while making our way to the metro station.  It was on our list of architecture to see we just got lucky and were able to fit it in on our way back to our hotel. 
Vatican Museum

Charles in St. Peter's with Baldacchino

Sunset at the Piazza di Spagna

Pantheon drinks

Day Three:

  • South American Soccer Tournament – we were walking to the Colosseum and came across a soccer tournament that was just beginning.  The Bolivian team was about to play the Peruvian team, there were tents set up with food, dancers in traditional costume dancing in the park, fans gathering to watch the game.  We sat and took part in the morning activities for about 20 minutes before continuing on to tackle the art and architecture of Rome. 
  • The Roman Forum – the line was shorter for the Forum than the Colosseum, so we decided to make that our first stop.  When we purchased our tickets we realized we lucked out, because they were good for the Colosseum too, and would allow us to skip the line – jackpot!  We found the Arch of Titus and walked through the ruins of the ancient Rome.  While Charles did a painting I spent the afternoon people watching and enjoying the beautiful view of Rome we had from within the Forum. 
  • The Colosseum – as was the case with much of Rome, the Colosseum was much more crowded than I remembered it.  It was great to walk through it with Charles and experience the size and talk about the events that took place there. 
  • Big Ugly White Thing – when I spent a semester in Florence my roommate Lex and I nicknamed the Monument to Vittorio Emmanuel II, the big ugly white thing.  I explained this to Charles and because at the time I couldn’t remember the real name, that is what we referred to it as the remainder of our time in Rome.
  • Temple of Portunus – as art history dorks there were several things on our list that might not have made it on to most people’s list of things to do in Rome.  This is one of those things.  It was well worth seeking out, and the best part, we were the only tourists around. 
  • The Calling of Saint Matthew by Caravaggio – we accidentally found this church on our way to Piazza Navona and were so happy we did.  The paintings by Caravaggio are incredible. 
  • Piazza Navona – by the time we got here our feet were tired, so we sat and took in the activity, wandered and looked at art by local artists, and decided that the only thing left on our agenda was dinner.   
Waiting in Line for the Roman Forum

Charles in the Roman Forum


Temple of Portunus

BUWT (my own acronym) or Monument to Vittorio Emanuel II
Day Four:

  • Ecstasy of SaintTeresa  - this statue by Bernini is located in Santa Maria della Vittoria, it’s not high on most people’s sightseeing list, but it was a must for us.  I remember going to see it 13 years ago during my first visit to Rome, and I was excited to see it again.  We walked over to the church on our last morning in Rome and spent a while enjoying and studying the statue and the church where it is placed. 
  • Train to Florence – luckily this was an uneventful train ride where I worked on writing some long overdue blog posts.

Enough for now, next up Florence…