Italy & Lebanon Trip, 2011

In August 2011, one of my best friends from high school, Alessandro, got married in his hometown of Ancona, Italy. He invited Jackie and I to the wedding and also asked me to be one of the groomsmen so, of course, we decided to go. Now as per normal for Jackie and I, we never go on a trip with a single destination in mind, especially when the destination was somewhere like Italy. So, like any normal, adventure loving couple, we made a big trip out of it hitting some wonderful highlights. With my usual orientation to detail, I will be putting together some posts highlighting the places we visited, people we met, food we ate, wine we drank, and all that good stuff that happens when you go traveling:

Quite a few stops, a total of 23 days traveling so I hope you enjoy our tales and most importantly, the photos!!

August 19, 2011 rolled around and Jackie and I were off to our Italian adventure with a brief side-trip to Beirut. We were living in Toronto at the time and booked a direct flight from Toronto to Rome on a Sunwing Airlines flight. We had found an extremely good deal and had paid a little extra due to the good deal to have the economy plus seats which gave us more legroom. Unfortunately for me, these were the seats that had the solid sides and the overall seat was narrower than my hips and so I was squeezed in there the whole flight, quite uncomfortable. But no matter, we made it to Rome’s Leonardo da Vinci Fiumicino Airport.

We quickly got our bearings, took the train to Termini station which is the central station and bought our tickets for the express train to Florence. After grabbing some sandwiches and almost getting on the wrong train, we got settled into our seats for the 1.5 hour ride to Florence. Across the aisle from us there were 2 Japanese gentlemen who were having a blast. They took their time getting some wine, cheese, and proscuito out of their bags and sat down to enjoy the train ride. All seemed to be going well until the ticket checker came by to check everyone’s tickets.

The conductor spoke English but it was Italian-English; the Japenese guys spoke English but it was Japanese-English. Basically each of them spoke English but they had such heavy accents that they weren’t understanding each other so since I understood both of them, I decided to play interpreter; go figure! As it turns out, the Japanese guys were supposed to be headed south to Salermo but got on the wrong train. They took it in stride since they’d already had a few glasses of wine but unfortunately they each ended up having to purchase an on-board ticket for the current train for 50 euros and then after getting to Florence they would have to purchase yet another ticket to go back to Rome then to Salermo. Just bad luck I guess. We got to Florence in good time, got our bearings again, and made the brief walk to the Il Giglio GuestHouse B&B where we were spending the next 4 nights.

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Italy 2011, Rome

We arrived in Rome mid-morning and after checking into our hotel, made a bee-line to the Trevi fountain. I’ve seen this fountain over the years in various famous movies, photography blogs, and various other websites, but nothing compares to being there in person and seeing the scale and detail of the sculptures. Calling the area packed is an understatement and we were lucky enough to be able to get a few photos without having to show the masses of people that were present. Historically the fountain was the meeting point of 3 roads, trevi. The scene on the façade of the fountain is the depiction of Roman technicians from 19 BC locating a pure source of water about 13 km outside the city, supposedly with the help of a virgin girl.

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Trevi fountain selfie

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Best travel buddy ever!

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Trevi fountain in all its glory

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Trevi fountain

The next logical touristy spot to move to after the Trevi fountatin were the Spanish steps. So we took out the map, oriented ourselves, and started the short walk over to the famous steps. Historically these steps were built to connect the Piazza di Spagna to the French church at the top of the hill. The steps were beautifully crafted with lots of people there to enjoy them, however I personally didn’t feel like they were anything special… but that’s just my opinion, and since this is my blog, I’m entitled to that! 🙂

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The Spanish Steps

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Yup, the two of us were both there, at the Spanish Steps

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Further up on the Spanish Steps

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Random shot of a street at the top of the Spanish Steps

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Looking back down towards the piazza near the top of the Spanish Steps

From the top of the Spanish steps, we started our walk to Borghese Gallery and Museum which Jackie had found in the guide books and discovered that it had quite a lot of sculptures. We misread the map and so we took a longer route than first expected but that allowed us to have a longer walk through the beautiful park surrounding the gallery (our route). After spending a few hours going around the museum which was stuffed with sculptures, we made it back to our hostel for a well deserved rest.

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Musée Borghese

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Our hostel building

As a little boy, I vividly remember watching a classic movie with my dad called Demetrius and the Gladiators and seeing the Colosseum for the first time. That movie imprinted in me a desire not only to see modern day Rome, but specifically to visit the Colosseum in Rome. On September 8, 2011, that dream was in our plan and I was excited that it would soon become a reality. You can imagine my disappointment as I awoke that morning with a fever, sweats, and diarrhea. I suffered most of the morning in bed, with frequent trips back and forth to the bathroom, while poor Jackie sat around, browsed the internet, and tried to be supportive. However, even her patience started to wear thin and she took a walk to the train station that had some shops to pass some time.

Finally, after what seemed like an eternity of feverish dreams and bodily discomfort, I popped 3 Imodium pills into my mouth, let them settle for an hour or so, and then we were off…. to the Colosseo!! As we made our way to the Colosseum stop on the Rome metro I started to get giddy, excited, and nervous that it wouldn’t live up to my expectations. Jackie had read that it was a better idea to pre-purchase the tickets online to avoid the lines and so we likely saved ourselves a few hours of wait and pretty much walked right in.

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The Colosseum

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The Colosseum

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Us at the Colosseum

Even though I had really high expectations for the Colosseum, I also knew that I had to temper those expectations because most of what I’d seen on TV, especially any recent movies featuring ancient Rome, had the Colosseum in computer generated graphics which made it look fantastic. Obviously we were about to enter a ruin rather than how it was portrayed in those movies and so once I got that expectation amended in my mind, I was ready. All that being said, I was totally blown away when I walked in there. My brain was simultaneously able to see what was in front of me and then vividly imagine what it might have looked like in all its glory.  The amazing feat of engineering that it took to build the place still gives me goosebumps. All the interconnecting tunnels underneath to move gladiators, animals, etc, was just amazing and, like I said, my imaginations was going 1000 kph trying to keep up!

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The interior of the Colosseum

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The interior of the Colosseum… simply amazing!

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Us in the interior of the Colosseum

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The interior of the Colosseum from the “floor” level

So we walked around for a good long while, snapping photos, just standing there and staring out at the fighting arena. Jackie had been working out quite a bit before our trip, I guess in preparation for Alessandro & Heather’s wedding, but below are a few shots of her in badass poses, getting ready to take on some gladiators.

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Jackie’s ready to challenge the gladiators

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Obviously someone has climbed on the ruins before

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Part of the back side of the Colosseum

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I keep trying to get rid of her and she keeps following me… weird

As we finished up a fantastic visit to the Colosseum, and I was able to check off one of the items on my bucket list, we had some dinner and made our way back to the hostel to relax for our next day of adventure and exploration.

Next on the list was the tour of the Vatican. Once again we had planned on a tour and pre-booked it so that we would not be stuck in the ridiculous lineups that we were seeing everywhere. Although I was still not feeling 100% from the issues I had the day before, I sucked it up and we made it to our tour’s meeting location in good time. Our tour guide was quite hilarious in that she would give us facts about the Vatican but then throw in a one-liner that was borderline sacrilegious about the facts that she had just informed us of.

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A glimpse of St Peter’s Basilica

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Funky rotating sphere within a rotating sphere in the Vatican

Upon entering the Vatican we were immediately able to a get a view of St Peter’s Basilica which was quite impressive considering the other duomos we had seen throughout our Italy trip so far. We took a few minutes sitting around a courtyard in the middle of the Vatican where there was a very interesting rotating sphere on display; gotta love those Italian artists! We went through various rooms with wondrous murals and finally came to the Sistine Chapel. Over the years I have seen dozens of photos of the ceiling of the chapel and had an idea of what to expect. However, reality was a bit of a surprise.

Firstly the chapel was a lot smaller than I was expecting but what really amazed me was the shear mass of humanity that was in there. There was almost no room to move around and people had their eyes pinned to the ceilings. The mural on the ceilings was, of course, fantastic to see in real life, but I found myself thinking back to when I saw the Mona Lisa at the Louvre in Paris and how underwhelmed I felt. The underwhelming feeling was further exacerbated by hearing the security guards yelling “No Photos” as they routinely walked around; of course, as I’ve come to expect, people don’t want to follow rules and there were many people ignoring the guards and taking photos.

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Inside St Peter’s Basilica

Next we moved into St Peter’s Basilica where the first carving we were presented with was the breathtaking Pietà by Michaelangelo which was a Renaissance piece carved by the famous artist to depict Mary cradling Jesus after the crucifixion. Words cannot describe the emotions you feel when standing there looking at this wonderful piece of art and once again I am reminded by the awesome power of art.

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Inside St Peter’s Basilica

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Inside St Peter’s Basilica

We spent some time wandering through the basilica admiring the amazing and intricate artwork in one alcove and then moving on to the next alcove to see something more beautiful and brilliantly preserved.

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Inside St Peter’s Basilica

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Inside St Peter’s Basilica

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Inside St Peter’s Basilica

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Inside St Peter’s Basilica

As we made our way to the altar at the front of the basilica, I took a moment to contemplate how much gold was actually present in the structure. Although the basilica is quite beautiful and a great focus for the Catholic religion, it saddened me when I heard that they had to tear away pieces of structures like the Colosseum so that they could use the gold and or valuable gems/stones for the decor inside the basilica. All in all the Vatican was a beautiful place to visit and I’m glad we were able to fit it into our trip.

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Inside St Peter’s Basilica

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Inside St Peter’s Basilica

To round off our final day in Rome we took the metro back to the Colosseum stop since our destination, the Roman Forum, was adjacent to the Colosseum. The Roman Forum is a rectangular forum, or plaza, surrounded by the ruins of several important ancient government buildings at the center of the city of Rome. Citizens of the ancient city referred to this space, originally a marketplace, as the Forum Magnum, or simply the Forum.

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The Roman Forum

We took an hour or so going around the Forum, taking photos, and trying to imagine what the hustle & bustle of ancient Roman life was like. In the forum there’s the Arch of Constantine which is very similar in construction to the Arc de Triomphe in Paris even though their construction start dates differed by nearly 1500 years. The Arch of Constantineis a triumphal arch in Rome, situated between the Colosseum and the Palatine Hill (center-most of the 7 hills Rome is built on). It was erected by the Roman Senate to commemorate Constantine I’s victory over Maxentius at the Battle of Milvian Bridge on October 28, 312.

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Arch of Constantine in the Roman Forum

The next stop we had in mind on our last day was the Pantheon. As we were walking from the Forum towards the Pantheon, we passed in front of the national monument to Victor Emmanuel II at the Alter of the Fatherland. The monument was built in honour of Victor Emmanuel, who was the first king of a unified Italy.

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In front of the National Monument to Victor Emmanuel II at Altare della Patria (Altar of the Fatherland)

As we meandered the streets of modern day Rome, it’s amazing to see the contrast of the ancient monuments that are still intact, surrounded by more modern buildings. It’s truly amazing that humanity has chosen to preserve such beautiful buildings over 2000 years after they were built!

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Entrance to the Pantheon

As we finally made our way to the Pantheon, I was getting excited again because the Pantheon was another one of the remnants of ancient Rome that I’d always wanted to see. It always amazed me that over 2000 years ago they were able to build an un-reinforced concrete dome that, to this day, is still the world’s largest. Not only is it the largest, but it also has a central opening, known as an oculus, that allows sunlight in. The dome is just over 43 meters in diameter and the peak of the oculus is also the same distance off the ground… good work architects!!

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Looking up at the Pantheon’s dome

After the Pantheon as the sun was starting to wane in the sky, we took a short walk to Piazza Novono. There were performers and musicians everywhere so we just sat and enjoyed the sights and sounds of tourists, performers, and the fountain’s water before heading back to our hostel for our last night in Italy.

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Piazza Novono

The full set of photos can be found in this album on my Flickr page

Italy 2011, Farm Stay

Our flight from Beirut to Rome was uneventful and none of our luggage was lost. We headed to the metro again which took us to a bus station and finally we got on a bus to the town of Sora. Once arrived, we found a phone booth and called our host, Anna, as per the instructions on the booking website for the farm stay. The actual location we were sleeping in wasn’t on the farm itself but in a quiet little village in the hills. It was very rustic compared to what we generally stay in but it was clean, and most importantly, quiet. This was a good thing because the point of this stop for us was to have a couple of days to rest and relax before finishing off our trip in Rome.

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Entrance to our room

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Yup, that was the key!

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The view from our room

We spent the rest of the first day taking a nap, relaxing, reading, playing cards, finishing it off with a lovely dinner at the farm itself. The next day was much of the same. We took our time getting up, had our breakfast, played cards, and relaxed. One of the main things Jackie wanted to do at this stop was go horseback riding and so we arranged for it in the early afternoon and enjoyed a few hours on horseback through the calm countryside. Once again we finished the day with dinner at the farm and then off we went to bed and headed for Rome tomorrow!

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View of the surroundings

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Jackie ready to go

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Lil buddy that ran beside us the whole time, even when we waded the stream

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View of the surrounds on our horse ride

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Another view of the surroundings

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Taking a break

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Post ride, saying bye to our horses

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Jacq and her horse

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We butted heads through the ride, but got through it!

Beirut 2011, Arrival

In the morning we boarded the MEA flight from Rome to Beirut. An uneventful flight landed us at the airport and hugs & kisses from my dad who was there to pick us up. My mom wasn’t there because, as was customary with her, she was literally cooking up a storm. She had invited both sides of the family, aunts, uncles, cousins, etc, for “drinks”. That just means that she cooked about 10 different kinds of finger food and 3 or 4 different kinds of desert and so enough food to be stuffed and then have enough leftovers for lunch the next day!

Regardless, it’s always such a treat to see all the family that I haven’t seen in years and catching up with stories, travels, and life in general. Topping it all off was the fantastic array of food that my mom had prepared, and the usual comments/questions of “have you lost weight?” from one uncle to “you’ve lost weight” from an aunt. Regardless, it was a fantastic time with my family after way too many years away!

 

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Group family photos with my mom’s fantastic dessert spread

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My cousin and her husband

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My uncle

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My cousin, his wife, and Jackie

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My favorite dessert of my mom’s (mmmmm!!!)

My parents moved back to Beirut after being away since 1987 when my dad retired. in 2010. They had bought an apartment in 1997 which had been a new construction but whenever we visited Beirut since then, we had always stayed with my aunt. So, the apartment had stayed in its post-construction state, with some cleanup, until they moved back to Beirut. My parents had big plans for the place they would be retiring to and so they went through several months of renovations, moving walls, closing off a door, opening up another door, raising door frames, and basically making it so that it fit their taste and needs.

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Entrance foyer

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Formal living room

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Looking towards the foyer from the formal living room

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Looking into the dining room from the formal living room

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Dining room

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Guest bathroom

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The view from the main balcony

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View from the kitchen’s balcony

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Kitchen

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Kitchen

Italy 2011, Ancona – Alex & Heather’s Wedding!

A little history first. Alex has been one of my best friends since 1995, the summer we both moved to Dubai, UAE. We were both about to start 9th grade at the International School of Choueifat in Dubai and I guess it was determined that we needed to attend summer school to get us up to speed with the curriculum. He arrived at summer school late, a couple days after it started, and the desk next to me was the only empty one. So in walks in this awkward looking guy with his pants pulled up and belted on tight and wearing these dorky huge glasses and sits down next to me, takes out his notebook and pencils, and starts scribbling down notes in an awful, illegible scrawl handwriting. Over the next few days we started chatting and got to know each other more. We came to realize that we both came from expat families and had been traveling most of our lives, both had annoying younger siblings, both had a love for sci-fi and other such geeky interests, both had been quite adept at swimming since a young age, and we would be living 3 houses apart (us in #89, them in #86) in Al-Nakheel Villas which was a 10 minute walk from the school.

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Random family BBQ (we both had hair back then!) and one of my birthdays (anyone spot the annoying younger sibling?)

So as the high school years rolled on, our friendship continued to grow. We went to swim meets, tennis lessons, basketball games in front of our house, played waaay too many hours of video games, birthday parties, and sleepovers where no one ever got any sleep… a few of the things we did together. High school culminated with a trip to Ayia Napa in Cyprus at the end of 12th grade where myself, Alex, my cousin Alex, and our friend Adam spent 2 weeks on the island. At the end of the 2 weeks, as Alex was boarding the bus that would take him to the airport, he turned back to say goodbye and I knew that from then on things would never be the same because, as expats do, his family was moving away. Actually his dad was retiring and he was going to go to boarding school in England to finish 13th grade.

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Dinner my parents were hosting and stuffing our faces with unlimited Mövenpick icecream

But of course, as good friends tend to do, we kept in touch, as much as possible, but it would be a full 4 years before we would see each other again when Jackie and I went to visit him in New York City and he proceeded to get us lost in the middle of the night. He also tried to light an electric stove with a gas lighter but that’s a story for a different time. When Jackie and I got married in 2007, Alex & Heather flew out and were in Vancouver for a total of 36 hours, but had made the effort to come out for our big day which meant so much to me. When he called me up and told me the big news the he’d proposed and wanted me to be there as one of his groomsmen, I of course said yes and so began the plans for our trip to Italy.

And so here we are, headed towards the city that was our primary destination for this trip to Italy, Ancona, for Alex & Heather’s wedding. We had to get up at a ridiculous hour to catch the ferry taxi to the train station to get to our 07:15 train to Ancona. We checked into our hotel shortly after 13:00 where we found a note from Alex & Heather informing us they would stop by in the mid afternoon. So we dropped off our bags and went for a walk around downtown, finding ourselves at a pizza place for some lunch. We met up with Alex, Heather, Giusi (Alex’s mom), and Elena (Alex’s sister) at the appointed time and walked down to the church to meet with the priest and have a little rehearsal of tomorrow’s events after which I joined Alex in picking up the rings from the jeweler, meanwhile telling him that he still had time to make a run for it if he chose!

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Elena & I in front of the church. I hadn’t seen her in 12 years since they left Dubai!

Alex’s dad, Paolo, picked us and another couple up in the evening to head to the rehearsal dinner. Paolo is an avid fan of sailing and when he retired he bought a beautiful boat that he spends a lot of time on. So, in his excitement in having not seen me in over a decade, and his son’s upcoming nuptuals, he took us to the boat first to open a bubbly bottle of Riesling and enjoy the sunset. Of course this made us late for the dinner and he got into a bit of trouble, but he shrugged it off with his usual casual manner and we all sat down to enjoy a fantastic Ancona style fish dinner.

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Beautiful sunset from the docked boat

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Hanging out on the boat

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Paolo and I in front of his boat

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Dinner time, fading sunset in the background

As expected, the wedding day was an early morning start, making my way over to Alex’s parents’ place after my morning shower. The boys got dressed and goofed around, teasing Alex, and getting some good shots for the photographer. Once dressed and photographed, we hung around there just chatting and eating some pastries until it was time to make our way to the church. When Heather and her bridesmaids finally made it to the church, 30 minutes late, the priest started the wedding ceremony. As usual there were quite a few teary eyes in the crowd, lots of would-be photographers, and a cheer went up as the priest pronounced them man and wife! The wedding party posed for a few photos with the newly married couple in the church, a few more with the parents, and then we headed to the front of the church where we were able to throw confetti at them, wishing them all the luck in their new adventure.

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Boys are ready to go! (courtesy of Luigi Sauro Photography)

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My lovely wife and date to the wedding

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Smile everyone; they’re married!! (courtesy of Luigi Sauro Photography)

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Alex commenting on how small my camera was since he had just bought the Nikon D700 with a few huge lenses for their African safari honeymoon (photography people will understand)

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Woohoo, we get to throw confetti at them!! (courtesy of Luigi Sauro Photography)

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Alex’s expression after I reached in and flipped a handful of confetti right in his face… call my camera small will you?

The reception was being held in a villa about an hour’s drive away and there was a bus organized for the guests. The wedding party got split up into cars and we headed over to Villa Boccabianca while Alex & Heather went around Ancona with the photographer for their photos. Upon arriving at the villa, which was gorgeous, we tried to cool down a bit and enjoyed some appetizers until the married couple showed up after which we took a few more photos and then headed inside for a fantastic dinner, wine, and live music.

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Photo op with the happy couple (courtesy of Luigi Sauro Photography)

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And the groomsmen together with the groom (courtesy of Luigi Sauro Photography)

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Once again, the full wedding party (courtesy of Luigi Sauro Photography)

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Head table

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What a lucky guy; 2 beautiful women sitting next to me! (courtesy of Luigi Sauro Photography)

After dinner we headed outside again for the cutting of the cake and further eating of dessert… as if we had any room left after that meal! We were told there was some time before Alex & Heather had their first dance so we decided to take a walk to the tower on the property and climbed to the top to admire the view of the Italian countryside and coastline. We got back just in time to watch Alex and Heather dance. Now let me preface this by saying that Heather grew up dancing whereas Alex, not so much. Apparently he had made the effort and they had gone to ballroom dancing classes because he totally killed it in the first dance which can see seen here. After the dances with the parents and all the mandatory dances, we were invited to dance and so we got up there and busted a move or three.

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Cake cutting time!

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1st dance… I was impressed Alex, totally!

Soon after the dance there were the bouquet and corset tosses, some ridiculously funny incidents with Ricardo (groomsmen) misunderstanding what the corset toss actually meant, and the “fountain incident”. What was this fountain incident you may ask? Well let me explain.

Alex decided to take his shoes off, roll up his pants, and step into the fountain to cool off a bit; all makes sense. In his eternal wisdom, he decided to send a few splashes of water my way and seeing this, I of course proceeded to take my shoes off, roll up my pants, and start to get into the fountain to go after him. He managed to convince me not to wrestle him fully into the water and being his wedding, I conceded not to dunk him. A few minutes go by as Jackie and I are chatting with other guests near the fountain, and I notice that Alex has proceeded to splash other people and has made it out of the fountain but is on the ground with 3 people trying to lift him and drag him back in for having splashed them. He’s wriggling around and nobody can get a grip on him and so I decided that he now deserved to get dunked, walked over to the four of them, latched onto one of his bony, wriggly arms, and the four of us hauled him and dunked him in the fountain.

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It was August in Italy and too damn hot… there’s a fountain with cool water coming out of it… what did you expect to happen?

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Hehehe, you know he deserved it!

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He knows he deserved it

After the glorious fountain incident, we sat around and chatted with the remaining out-of-town guests until the late bus arrived and they left the beautiful villa setting. The wedding party and spouses/girlfriends as well as a few other people were spending the night at the villa so once the last bus left we all said our good nights, went up to our rooms, and I quickly passed out into dreamy-land.

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What a great location for the reception

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Hello fountain!

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Tower a little walk from the villa

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View from the tower

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View from the tower

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Beautiful interior of the villa

The morning after the wedding  we went down for breakfast with everyone, had a quick walk around the villa’s grounds again, and headed back to the hotel in Ancona. We packed up all our bags and headed over to Giusi’s place where she had some lovely tiramisu laid out for us as well as pastries and watermelon while we waited for Heather & Alex to finish packing. Both couples were headed to Rome on the same train since they were heading to their honeymoon and we were spending a night in Rome before heading to Beirut the following day to visit my family. So we got to sit together and enjoy each other’s company for the 4 hour train ride, mostly teasing Alex of course, and said our goodbyes as we went our separate ways at the main train terminal in Rome. We found our hostel without any issues and hung out there for a quiet evening. Tomorrow we’re off to Lebanon!

Italy 2011, Venice

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Enjoying being in Venice

We were headed to Venice on a train so we got ourselves started early the next morning and headed to the train station. The ride to Venice was very comfortable and so it was quite a shock to be hit with the wave of Venetian humidity as soon as we got off the train. We proceeded to the water bus terminal, as per our hostel’s directions, and waited for the water bus after purchasing our tickets. I must have perspired at least 10 pounds from my body weight by the time the water bus picked us up but we were able to take it to the correct stop and found our hostel without any complications.

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Look who I have the pleasure of traveling with

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Gotta get that shot!

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That’s the shot… not THE shot I was taking from the previos photo since that one was in portrait, but the same view

The hostel employee checking us in was a bit of a jerk but once we got checked in, the housekeeper who showed us to our room was very nice. Unfortunately the room did not have an air conditioner as was advertised which was disappointing but at least it had a large and strong ceiling fan. There was also the issue that the private room we had booked was in a different building from the main hostel and their WiFi signal did not reach which was a bit of an annoyance, but we managed. After all, we were there to explore Venice and not play around on the internet!!

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Hole in the wall pizza place; Awesome pizza!

We dropped off our bags, checked our map to get our bearing, and headed off to explore the city. On our way to our first stop, we ran across a literal hole in the wall pizza place that had a line-up around the corner. We were feeling hungry and felt like pizza (go figure!) and so I stood in line and got us a couple slices. We continued on to our first stop was the Peggy Guggenheim museum which was fantastic. We were able to see some Pollock, Kandinsky, and Picasso paintings and I actually enjoyed it more than the Solomon Guggenheim museum in New York City which we went to on our first big trip together in 2003. The terrace looked onto the Grand Canal and so it was a great photo opportunity that I took advantage of as always.

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Entrance to the Peggy Guggenheim museum

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Peggy Guggenheim’s grave, buried next to her beloved dogs

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Grand Canal photo, Realto bridge in the background

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Replicating a similar photo from our visit to the Guggenheim in New York City

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Grand Canal & gondolas

Next on our plan was to visit Piazza San Marco which I was quite disappointed in because most of it was under construction and that just the effect for me. I remember seeing the piazza in various movies and was excited to see it but it was nothing as I had imagined. Onward we walked and decided to just “get lost” in the city. If we came to a dead end, we would turn around and try another way and so we continued like this until we started to get hungry. We pulled out the map and got our bearings, found ourselves a pub, and enjoyed a light dinner. After a tasty meal, we wandered to the Realto bridge and made our way back to the hostel for a good night’s rest.

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Enjoying being “lost” in Venice

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Realto bridge

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Realto bridge

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Market near Realto bridge

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Market near Realto bridge

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Sundried tomatoes at the market near Realto bridge

The next morning we took our time getting up, having breakfast at the hostel, and making our way to Piazza San Marco. This time we wanted to go inside St. Mark’s Basilica and although it was nice, my favorite so far was still the duomo in Siena. We wandered around the area for a while, going from canal to canal, enjoying the ambiance of the ancient city, looking through the open air market near the Realto bridge. We decided to take a reprieve from the scorching mid-day heat and so we went back to the hostel for a nap after which we had dinner plans at a fancy restaurant on the Grand Canal at the Rialto bridge.

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“I swear it said to turn left…”

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“No, no, my map said we had to go straight and then take a right…”

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Such good pizza!

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Grand Canal getting ready for sunset

With our bellies full of pasta and wine, we went looking for a gelateria called Alaska that Jackie had found in the guide book. With a gelato in one hand, a bottle of water in the other, we found a secluded section on the grand canal and sat down to enjoy our dessert while dangling our feet over the canal. We had done quite a bit of walking so we decided to take the water bus back. When we bought our tickets, we also bought the ones we would need early in the morning when we were scheduled to take the train to Ancona for the pre-wedding festivities!

 The full set of photos can be found in this set on my Flickr page.

Italy 2011, Florence

Our last full day in Florence began with beautiful blue skies. Jackie and I had brought our running attire and decided to go for a run first thing in the morning before going out and exploring the city one last time. Jackie had a longer distance to run than I did so we planned our route with the map, each took a copy, and headed out for our runs. As you can see with the GPS tracked run details below, I ended up getting a little lost and stopped my run to ask for directions. As it turns out Jackie also got lost in the winding streets of Florence but managed to make it back to the train station where we said we would meet at the end of our runs.

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Training Run in Florence. Click to see details

After taking quick showers we headed out into the city. We had pre-booked tickets to the Uffizi and Academia galleries so we made our way to the Uffizi, stopping for some espresso and breakfast on the way. Walking through the Uffizi gallery we went through rooms and halls filled with paintings and sculptures from the renaissance era. Jackie is more of an art buff than I am but I always appreciate this era of art and so walking through the rooms and halls of this amazing gallery was pretty amazing.

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View of Ponte Vecchio from the Uffizi

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Jacq & I in the Uffizi

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Replica of the David sculpture outside the Uffizi

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Poseiden and his minions

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A random door near the Uffizi

As we finished up at the Uffizi gallery, we still had a bit of time before or reservation at the Academia gallery and we were pretty hungry. We walked across Ponte Vecchio to find a quiet place for lunch and according to our guidebook, that would be towards Piazza Santo Spirito. We found a fantastic little restaurant called Gusta Osteria where I have to admit that I ate one of the best pieces of lasagna I have had in my life. If it hadn’t been for the bread before the meal arrived, I very much would have enjoyed eating a second serving of the deliciousness!

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A view of Ponte Vecchio as we were walking towards it

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What a good looking couple!

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A vine covered building we found as we were exploring the streets

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Best. Lasagna, EVER!

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Gusta Osteria, great food!

The hour was quickly approaching for our ticket reservations at the Academia gallery so we walked back towards Academia for our ticket. Along the way we stopped in the Piazza di Sante Croce for some gelato and water and enjoyed admiring the basilica at the end of the square while we finished our dessert.

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Basilica Santa Croce on our walk to the Academia

We finally made it inside the Academia and walked to the statue of David. Words escape me in trying to describe this magnificent sculpture. The replicas all around the city were nice, but the real statue of David blew me away. I don’t have any of my own photos of the statue because you weren’t allowed to take any and I simply didn’t feel right trying to sneak a photo of it. I did, however, sit down on the marble flooring and admire this work of art. I move around to different locations in the hall and just took it all in. It is, by far, my favourite part of our adventure in Florence.

After the Academia we went back to the hostel, did some laundry, had dinner, and went to bed early to get a good night’s rest. Tomorrow, off to Venice we go!!

 The full set of photos can be found in this set on my Flickr page

Italy 2011, Tour of Tuscany

So we started off our visit to Italy with a bang with our visit to Cinque Terre which I wrote about in my last post on Italy. Our next full day in Italy took us to the Tuscany region on semi-private tour, aptly named The Best of Tuscany Tour. We woke up and took our time getting ready, figured out where we were going to go to meet up with the tour group, and started on our way. The tour’s office was really easy to find and after a brief introduction, we headed out. This tour was a little more expensive than some of the others we had seen but we liked the idea of it being a semi-private tour. What this meant was that there were 7 of us on the tour plus the tour guide and the driver and we were driven around in an air-conditioned mini-van. There wasn’t a massive bus where you and 40 other people were trying to get window seats; it was probably one of the most relaxing tours I’ve been on.

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A view from San Gimignano

 

Enjoy the original Best of Tuscany Tour with a great tour guide to bring the past to life. Have free time to explore three fabulous hilltop towns of Siena, San Gimignano and Monteriggione. Visit a a stunning historic Tuscan estate for a wine tasting and cellar visit. Taste top-quality olive oil and see the shimmering olive groves and glorious vineyards. Dine on a traditional Tuscan lunch with wine, surrounded by classic Tuscan countryside views on the very best one-day Tuscany tour!

Referenced from: http://www.italy.artviva.com/tours/13/best_of_tuscany

Our driver made his way to the medieval hilltop town of San Gimignano. It’s s small, walled town that is known for its many towers. The tower-houses were built by families in the medieval days who would try and build their tower as the tallest one in the town. And so, of course, this caused their neighbours to build their towers higher and higher, and so the story goes. For us, we spent the couple hours we had walking around and enjoying the little alleyways, cobblestone pathways, and gelato! As it turns out, the big gelato shop in town had been the winner for the international best gelato competition for 2 years in a row; of course we couldn’t pass up the opportunity to try it out!! 🙂

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Main road leading into the town from the gate

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Looking back at the main gate

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A random side street

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Another random side street

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Looking up at one of the remaining towers

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Fountain at the town square

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Fountain at the town square

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Green vines growing up the sides of the buildings

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One of the many towers in San Gimignano

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Wall textures

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Ahh, the scenery, and yes, another selfie, I’m good at those!!

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View of the Tuscan countryside

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Trying to climb the wall. I didn’t get very far

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Old mail slots

Our next stop on the tour was a wonderful wine estate owned by the Palagetto family; we were told they were one of the biggest wine making families in Italy. We started the tour with a brief walk through some of the grape vines and descriptions of the different types of grapes that were used. Next we went inside to see that large vats where all the wine making magic happens. We continued on to the large rooms where they house the aging casks and finally made our way to the tasting room. This is where they had our gourmet lunch with some lovely, local meats, pasta (of course!), and various tastings of wine that the winery produced. After the very satisfying luncheon, we did some quick wine shopping from their store and headed back to the van to carry on with our tour. Next stop, Monteriggioni.

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White wine grapes

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Stainless steel wine making vats

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More wine making vats

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Aging casks

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Aging casks

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Pile of corks from wine tastings

The small, walled town of Monteriggioni sits at the top of a natural hill. It was built on this location as a strategic defense town by the Sienese during the Florence/Siena war in the 13th century. The town boasts 14 towers giving them a panoramic view of the countryside they were defending. The most significant feature, and my favourite, of this town is the shear thickness of the defense wall. It is over 2m thick at some places making it almost impossible to break through if the town were ever attacked. We spent about an hour walking around the town and climbing up on the walls since there was really not much else to see apart from that. Even so, it was worth seeing it.

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Beautiful vineyards on our drive to Monteriggioni

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Piazza Roma, the main piazza of Monteriggioni

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View into Monteriggioni from on top of the wall

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Towers & wall of Monteriggioni

Last, but definitely not least on our tour of Tuscany was Siena. Like most of the other Tuscan hill towns, Siena was settled by the Etruscans circa 900-400 BC and inhabited by a  tribe called the Saina. Over the centuries there were many wars and attempts at taking over the city whose major rival was Firenze (Florence). We spent another couple hours wandering around the city but there was simply too much to see in the little time we had. We decided to stop for a cappuccino, grab a quick gelato, and headed towards the duomo.

 

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Ring of buildings surrounding the Piazza del Campo in Siena

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Piazza del Campo in Siena, the historic centre of the city

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We HAD to stop for a cappuccino!

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Random door while walking around Siena

The duomo in Siena was unlike any of the other duomos we had seen until now or we saw on the rest of our trip. This duomo had a unique black and white design that started on the outside of the building but was most prevalent in the tower columns inside the cathedral. The black & white, as expected, were quite contrasting of each other and I found that distinct cut of colours to be quite beautiful.

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Siena Duomo

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Siena Duomo

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Siena Duomo

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According to the sign, no photos, but everyone was taking them so…

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Beautiful floor in the Siena Duomo

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I loved the alternating black and white in the Siena Duomo

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Looking up at the tip of the cathedral

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Artwork on the walls of the cathedral

Easy to say that we did not have enough time in Siena to see everything but it is definitely on our list to spend more time there when we go back to Italy in the future.

Thus ended our day and our brief, yet invigorating tour of Tuscany. We were driven back to Florence where we slowly made a tired walk back to our hostel to shower, eat, and rest up for our next day of adventuring!

The full set of photos can be found in this set on my Flickr page

Italy 2011, Cinque Terre

Our first full day in Italy started pretty early at round 06:00 so we could catch the 07:45 train from Firenze to Riomaggiore which is the most south-eastern town of the five towns making up Cinque Terre and is just west of La Spezia. It took us the better part of 4 hours to get there on an extremely long and slow train but we got there and bought our passes that would allow us unlimited access across the villages.

The Cinque Terre is a rugged portion of coast on the Italian Riviera. It is in the Liguria region of Italy, to the west of the city of La Spezia. “The Five Lands” is composed of five villages: Monterosso al Mare, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola, and Riomaggiore. The coastline, the five villages, and the surrounding hillsides are all part of the Cinque Terre National Park and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Over the centuries, people have carefully built terraces on the rugged, steep landscape right up to the cliffs that overlook the sea. Part of its charm is the lack of visible corporate development. Paths, trains and boats connect the villages, and cars cannot reach them from the outside. The Cinque Terre area is a very popular tourist destination.

Reference: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cinque_Terre

cinque-terre-map

We started off on the trail to Manarola with subdued excitement. As expected there were beautiful vistas and a large amount of birghtly painted buildings in the town. The hike allowed us to view the villages from afar and see them in blazing colour in the beautiful sunshine.

When we got to Manarola, we walked around the town for a while, hiking up to the bell-tower and then down to the beach where we went into a multitude of shops selling everything from pesto and dried pasta to beautiful pottery. They had a beautiful beach where a lot of people were swimming and having a jolly old time. I now understand why, when Italians come to Canada, they think our beaches are terrible; their beaches there were simply stunning.

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Heart-shaped locks on the way out of Riomaggiore

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Looking north-west with Riomaggiore to our backs and headed towards Manarola

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Peek-a-boo!

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I enjoy stone!

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Manarola

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Looking out to sea in Manarola

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Enjoying a morning espresso in Manarola

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Heading towards the beach at Manarola

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Manarola; what? weren’t you expecting selfies?

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Manarola

When we started down the path from Manarola to Corniglia, we saw that the path was closed for renovations so we took a few of the gorgeous photos above and went back to Manarola to catch the train. After a hike up to the village itself from the train station, we decided to take a break for lunch. We a really nice chat with a Canadian couple who were in Italy & Croatia for their 3 week honeymoon and then parted ways to continue on.

We headed out for what was to be the toughest hike of all of the hikes between villages. The total hike from the first village to the fifth is around 10km and up to this point we had come a measly 2km. This next hike was 4km on its own and this is where we started the uphills and downhills. Luckily there was a bar/resto at roughly the 2km mark so we got a few minutes to rest, a biology break, and bought some more ice-cold water.

By this point I was completely soaked through most of my clothing with sweat. Since we were rushed in the morning, I forgot to wear my proper, breathable hiking shorts as well as my breathable t-shirt. So here I am hiking in a sweat-laden pair of jeans shorts and a cotton shirt. Obviously not ideal, but I ignored the dripping sweat and we continued on our way.

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Corniglia on top of the hill with Manarola seen in the background

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Another view of Corniglia on top of the hill with Manarola seen in the background, and the beautiful blue waters

When we finally made it to Vernazza, we needed a slightly longer break so we had a seat and enjoyed some gelato. We also walked around looking at the lucky people who had their swim suits and were swimming around in the azure blue waters. Since I was completely soaked and perpetually sweating, I was getting a bit grumpy about it and wasn’t really keen to continue on to the fifth and final village, Monterosso. My lovely wife, Jackie, knows that I can also get grumpy when I’m hungry so we shared a chocolate chip and peanut butter crunch Cliff bar that she’d brought along and set out on the last hike.

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Taking a gelato break in Vernazza

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Vernazza from above

This last hike of another 4km was particularly challenging as well and my right knee had started to get a bit achy. Once again there were the stunning vistas and I was able to put aside the pain and soldier through the rest of the hike. At one point we could see 3 out of the 4 previous villages and the sun was starting to come down so it cast a different set of colours on the scene.

There were some narrow pathways along the hike so I took a brief video along the way to show everybody at home what it was like:
http://youtu.be/LngFAlZ22Zc

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Vernazza peaking just out of full view and Manarola in the background

I really can’t say enough good things about this hike. Although it was exhausting, it was one of the most beautiful hikes I’ve been on. Next time we come back, I think we will definitely make a multiple day trip out of it and try a different path between the villages since there are different sets of hikes, some higher up through the hills.

Until then, I’m going to sit back and enjoy my beer!

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A well deserved beer after a full day of hiking

The full set of photos can be found in this set on my Flickr page

Scotland, UK – Part 2

Our second day in Scotland started off early yet again and after having a quick breakfast we headed to Edinburgh where our main target was to tour the Edinburgh castle, go on the Scotch tour, and squeeze in whatever else we could squeeze in. The route that Jon drove took us through some nice hay fields with a nice view of the Forth Rail Bridge. Apparently the story with this bridge is that it takes 7 years to paint it from one end to the other and by the time they’re done, it’s time to start over again and so it’s constantly in a “construction” zone. It was a little drizzly so I had my helpers holding the umbrella to prevent my precious camera from getting wet.

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Forth Rail Bridge

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My very talented and encouraging helper

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And the peanut gallery

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Old cobble­stoned streets

We made it into the city and made our way up to the castle at the top of the hill. We spent a bit of time climbing around on the various levels on the inside of the walls in the courtyard to see the various views that were presented from various points on the wall. It came as no surprise to me that the castle was never successfully sacked based on the view you get from the top and the fact that it’s near the top of the hill. As we made our way through to the main hall, there was someone dressed as a knight explaining how knights did battle back in the day. First he demonstrated how the pike could be used to stab an enemy in the gut and rip them open by jabbing it towards Jackie’s stomach since she was in the front and making her squeak and jump from the surprise. Next he dropped the pike and proceeded to draw his broadsword, showing us that if the sharp end didn’t work out for some reason, you could swing the pommel to smash someone’s head in… lovely!

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Panoramic view of Edinburgh

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Old cannons aimed at attacking ships

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Pikeman actor giving us a description of the weapons wielded in the old days

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Stabbing at Jackie’s tummy… never seen her jump so high!

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Demonstrating how to head­bash with the hilt of the sword. Seems it would have been very effective

 

After the head-bashing demo, we thought we’d go check out the head-covering next and so we made our way to the Scottish crown jewel display room. There were “no photo” signs everywhere and so I grudgingly put the lens cap on my lens and walked through the jewel room. As expected, there were some supremely gaudy and crazy jewels in there, very similar to the British crown jewels, so I didn’t spend too much time in there. When I exited the room, Jon and I stood just outside the exit doorway waiting for the girls and so I took off my lens cover and thought I’d take a photo of the room from outside. Well no sooner had I put the camera to my eye and pointed it that way than a red-headed, butch, beefeating Scottsman almost ran me down and yelled at me “What the hell are you doing? Get the hell out of here!!!”. I have to admit that I very nearly crapped my pants but more with the surprise of him literally jumping out of nowhere than anything else although he was a pretty big guy. We quickly proceeded to exit the crown jewel area.

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Entrance to the crown jewels

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Crest on the wall in the courtyard after I got chased out of the crown jewels area

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More pretty cobble stones

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Little chapel inside the walls of the castle

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By this point we had seen as much of the castle as we’d wanted to and started to make our way down the streets of the Royal Mile. Along the way we went on a wonderful scotch tour, had a tasty stop at the fudge shop before it closed, and finally made it to the Christmas store Jackie was going on about so we could buy some ornaments and such for us as well as gifts for friends and family. As we were finishing up, it was getting dark and had started to rain pretty heavily so we ran down the street and took refuge in a bookstore for a few minutes while we gathered our thoughts and figured out a place to eat. Since Jon is a big fan of it, we decided to go to the Hard Rock Cafe (yes, very Scottish I know!) and stuffed ourselves with some tasty Western style food.

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View of Edinburgh

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Jackie & Jon enjoying the view from the back side of the castle

As we were finishing up dinner the rain had stopped so we made our way back to a spot below the castle that would give us a night-time view of it with all the lights on. We spent a bit of time taking some photos one of which you can see below which was a random flash going off from Karen’s camera while I was jumping in front of my long-exposed camera being a goof :). We headed back to Jon & Karen’s flat and the girls quickly passed out while Jon & I stayed up until around 3am chatting.

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Night view of Edinburgh castle

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Floating Berge head appears when Karen’s flash triggers at the exact right time

And here we were, the morning of day 22 of our trip, having visited 5 cities in that time and having had a blast in all of them. We quickly packed the few things we’d left out and headed to the airport for our flight to London among teary goodbyes and promises to visit soon. Our flight to London Stansted airport went well and we had to rush to catch the express train to Liverpool Street, then the Tube to St. Pancras to pick up our bags that we’d left, and finally the tube back to Heathrow to catch our flight home. Our flight left on time and although it was a long one to Saskatoon, we arrived there safe and sound, and exhausted, around 10pm after a fantastic vacation!