Europe Trip: GReCAM in Vasanello

Europe Trip: GReCAM in Vasanello

Today is National Coffee Day so in honor of that I bring you a little story about an international coffee experience.

The morning that we left Florence en route to Rome, we didn’t want to get stuck in rush hour traffic so we set off early without stopping for breakfast and, more importantly, coffee. We decided that it would be fun to stop in a random small village along the way and get breakfast there which is how we came to be in the town of Orte.

Orte: The town on top of a hill

Orte: The town on top of a hill

Orte is a small town about sixty kilometers north of Rome most noted for being an important rail hub. It is located on top of a high cliff which was our primary reason for wanting to get off of the highway – It just looked too cool to not investigate. After attempting to go up the very steep hill to get to the center of town in our not so smallish vehicle was proving to be very ill advised, we decided that visiting Orte was not in the cards on this trip but maybe there would be something in the general vicinity where we could find a bite to eat (we were famished at this point).

The sign outside of GReCAM

The sign outside of GReCAM

We continued on a winding road toward Vasanello and upon entering the commune di Vasanello we stumbled upon a small pasticceria called GReCAM. It isn’t in any guide books and there was nothing particularly remarkable about the street we were on or the façade of the shop, but we knew that they would have coffee and we were holding to firm to our belief that it was impossible to have bad coffee in Italy (which we were never able to refute, by the way). While there was nothing notable about the exterior of the shop, the interior was charming. It had a very old world meets new feel intermingling modern architecture, furniture and displays with traditional decorations and accessories. There is something delightfully appealing about freshly baked bread on display in rustic wicker baskets. And then there were the pastries! We had a terrible time choosing because they all looked exquisite.

The freshly baked bread.

The freshly baked bread.

 

These were the BEST cannolies (the other pastries were good too)

These were the BEST cannolies (the other pastries were good too)

When we would go places and ask, “Capisce l’inglese?” (do you speak English?)most people would smile and confirm that they did and we didn’t not have to use much more of the Italian that we studied leading up to this trip. This, however, was one of the few times that not one person in the vicinity spoke any English whatsoever. This was also when the boys became quite impressed that their mother was more proficient in a language than their father. Let me just clarify that I am in no way skilled or even competent in Italian, but between everything I studied about the language leading up to the trip and the French that I learned in high school and college I was able to communicate enough to get by. I believe that if you master your numbers, directions, pleasantries (good morning/afternoon/evening/please/thank you/ etc.) and are able to ask “how much do I owe you?” you will be able to get by most places and anything else that you know will be an added bonus. My speaking Italian to the locals impressed the boys not because I was very good at it but because they are used to seeing their more outgoing daddy speaking and translating both Hungarian and Spanish on a regular basis while mommy rarely ever speaks anything but English to anyone outside of our immediate family. In my defense, I don’t exactly have a lot of opportunities to speak French (and now Italian) where we live and I only ever speak Hungarian to David, the boys, Dédi and my in-laws because I don’t feel comfortable enough in my ability to speak to anyone else (What can I say? I’m shy). I really didn’t feel confident enough in my Italian on this trip either, but when your options are communicating in poor Italian or not communicating at all, it is better to at least try your hand at what you do know. Plus, most people are pretty sympathetic and as long as you’ve made an effort, they will go out of their way to help you. And really, the worst that can happen is that they won’t help. Not exactly the end of the world. Moral of the story? Try.

Mat attempting to read the morning paper and the boys hanging out by the sign of their new favorite bakery.

Mat attempting to read the morning paper and the boys hanging out by the sign of their new favorite bakery.

Anyway, back to our coffee… We had the best cannolies I have ever tasted (Mat agreed and he is a bit of a cannoli connoisseur), creampuffs that were the perfect mix of light, airy pastry and rich Bavarian cream, and they served delectable Italian milk chocolate alongside their (full-fat) cappuccinos. We were obviously not counting calories at this meal (or during the entire course of our trip for that matter). This stop was just added proof that sometimes the best things are hidden away in unknown corners and only those willing to get off the beaten path will find them.

Cappuccino and chocolate may be the best combination ever.

Cappuccino and chocolate may be the best combination ever.

Look at that cream puff! Perfection!

Look at that cream puff! Perfection!

And now that I’ve made myself hungry, I’ll be off in search of decent coffee. Happy National Coffee Day!

Europe Trip: Florence Part 3

Europe Trip: Florence Part 3

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Welcome to the third (and final) installment of the Florence leg of our trip. Like I said before, Florence was my favorite city in Italy, so I had a hard time whittling down all of the pictures. Today’s set is going to be just as jam-packed with photos as the last two so if you’re not big on excessive shots of Florence, you might want to skip this post. For the rest of you, here are some more snippets of our trip.

I seriously took hundreds of pictures of door knobs. Here are some of my favorites.

I seriously took hundreds of pictures of door knobs. These are some of my favorites.

Sometimes being jet-lagged can be advantageous because you’ll find yourself awake long before anything major is open and that will give you the opportunity to go exploring. On one such morning we discovered Badìa Fiorentina, a Monastic Community of Jerusalem on the Via del Proconsolo that is home to a congregation of monks and nuns. Here’s a fun fact: Dante Alighieri supposedly grew up across the street (this was very exciting to Mat since he was the only one of us that had actually read Dante’s The Divine Comedy – it’s on my list… I just haven’t gotten to it yet). That was one of the cool things about Florence; you get to walk down the same streets traversed by some of the most important masters of art and literature!

Bell tower of the Badia Fiorentina from the street.

Bell tower of the Badia Fiorentina from the street.

Inside the monastery courtyard.

Inside the monastery courtyard.

The sign for the store (unfortunately it wasn't open yet)

The sign for the store (unfortunately it wasn’t open yet)

The boys waiting patiently against some gorgeous doors and a view of the bell tower from the courtyard.

The boys waiting patiently against some gorgeous doors and a view of the bell tower from the courtyard.

The Galleria dell’Accademia di Firenze or simply, The Accademia is a must see in Florence. The museum houses Michelangelo’s famed statue of David (or as my younger son calls it, “The Statue of the naked Dave”) as well as several other prominent works of art. I didn’t think I would be all that impressed with the statue as I had seen replicas everywhere from London to Vegas and even Forrest Lawn Cemetery but seeing the actual statue in person is unbelievably surreal. It is far superior to any of the replicas (and I honestly didn’t think it would be but I’m the first to admit it when I’m wrong). We had a reservation to get into the museum and we were so thankful because it allowed us to bypass the line that was wrapped all the way around the building. Unfortunately you are not allowed to take pictures but we did take a photo of a street artist’s artistic interpretation of the statue.

Scuba Dave plastered to the wall outside of Galleria dell'Accademia

Scuba Dave plastered to the wall outside of Galleria dell’Accademia

You can, however, take pictures of the replica statue of David found in front of the entrance of the Palazzo Vecchio in the Piazza della Signoria where the original stood until 1873. On the other side of the entrance stands Hercules and Cacus by Bandinelli (the original). The Palazzo Vecchio, which means Old Palace, is the town hall of Florence and it was one of my favorite places in Florence. It is truly a sight to behold. Above the massive entry doors is a marble ornamental frontispiece with a center medallion of the Monogram of Christ flanked by two lions above text that reads: “Rex Regum et Dominus Dominantium” which was placed there by order of Cosimo I in 1551. It translates from Latin to “King of Kings and Lord of Lords.”

Palazzo Vecchio

Palazzo Vecchio

Replica of the statue of David and the original "Hercules and Cacus"

Replica of the statue of David and the original “Hercules and Cacus”

The frontispiece which reads King of Kings and Lord of Lords in Latin

The frontispiece which reads “King of Kings and Lord of Lords” in Latin

The statue of David and my David

The statue of David and my David

The interior courtyard contains gorgeous frescoes by Giorgio Vasari of Austrian Hapsburg estates and a copy of the fountain “The Putto with Dolphin” Andrea del Verrocchio.
Exiting the Palazzo you get a great view of Benvenuto Cellini’s Perseus with the Head of Medusa which stands in front of the Loggia dei Lanzi (there are so many cool statues in the Loggia and it has a great view of the entire Piazza della Signoria so it is a great spot to sit and people watch). Just outside of the Palazzo is another great piece: The fountain of Neptune by Bartolomeo Ammannati.

The interior courtyard with "The Putto with Dolphin" fountain

The interior courtyard with “The Putto with Dolphin” fountain

My favorite fresco inside the courtyard

My favorite fresco inside the courtyard

Posing with two of my favorite guys in the courtyard

Posing with two of my favorite guys in the courtyard

Looking back toward the Loggia dei Lanzi - The bronze sculpture in the center is of Perseus with the head of Medusa

Looking back toward the Loggia dei Lanzi – The bronze sculpture in the center is of Perseus with the head of Medusa

The fountain of Neptune

The fountain of Neptune

Mat and me in the Piazza della Signoria and another view of the Neptune fountain

Mat and me in the Piazza della Signoria and another view of the Neptune fountain

Walking through the Piazza

Walking through the Piazza

Not far from the Palazzo Vecchio is Ponte Vecchio, or “Old Bridge” which is a medieval stone arch bridge that runs over the Arno River. The bridge is full of shops and kind of reminded me of Venice’s Rialto Bridge. While touring the shops, we encountered an opera singer performing for the crowd. Close to the bridge, we found an awesome 16th century Fountain by Bountalenti in the Piazza de’ Frescobaldi that caught David’s eye (he managed to get a great shot of it).

Opera singer on Ponte Veccio

Opera singer on Ponte Veccio

Ponte Vecchio gelateria selling "tourist" gelato and Dédi posing on the bridge.

a Ponte Vecchio gelateria selling “tourist” gelato and Dédi posing on the bridge.

Me and Big Guy walking down Ponte Vecchio and Mat in front of the bust of famed sculptor Benvenuto Cellini

Me and Big Guy walking down Ponte Vecchio and Mat in front of the bust of famed sculptor Benvenuto Cellini

The Arno River

The Arno River

16th century Fountain by Bountalenti in the Piazza de’ Frescobaldi

16th century Fountain by Bountalenti in the Piazza de’ Frescobaldi

Big guy posing across from the Arno River

Big guy posing across from the Arno River

Seriously, every time we rounded a corner we found something spectacular. We weren’t looking for the Piazza della Repubblica when we stumbled upon it late one afternoon. The Piazza marks the forum, or the center of the Roman city. The most noted features of the Piazza are the large Arch of Triumph and the carousel. The piazza is also filled with street artists, souvenir vendors and great cafés. Another great spot to watch people! While Mat, David and I were visiting we found some very flustered American tourists who were lost and had apparently not been able to find a single person who spoke English (we were hard pressed to find anyone who did not speak English, but maybe that is because we always tried to speak Italian to them first). We showed them where we were on the map and gave them directions to several points of interest, for which they seemed quite thankful.

The Arch of Triumph leading to Piazza della Repubblica

The Arch of Triumph leading to Piazza della Repubblica

A closer look at the arch

A closer look at the arch

The carousel

The carousel

Another gem that we found while on an evening stroll was the Piazza Santissima Annunziata. It is one of the most beautiful squares in Florence (I know, I keep saying that but they are all so darn pretty!). It is home to both Basilica della Santissima Annunziata (Basilica of the Most Holy Annunciation) and Spedale degli Innocenti (Hospital of the innocents – Europe’s oldest orphanage – today it serves as a museum). A statue of Ferdinando I de’ Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany by Giambologna stands at the center of the square next to fountains featuring monstrous mythical creatures that were created by Pietro Tacca.

Mat in front of Basilica della Santissima Annunziata

Mat in front of Basilica della Santissima Annunziata

Me in front of the Spedale degli Innocenti and the boys posing by the statue of Ferdinando I de' Medici

Me in front of the Spedale degli Innocenti and the boys posing by the statue of Ferdinando I de’ Medici

David takes a picture of the fountain by Pietro Tacca

David takes a picture of the fountain by Pietro Tacca

A closer look at the fountain and statue

A closer look at the fountain and statue

Mat, who is a history buff (he is especially well-versed in all things Italian/Roman history), was excited to find the Palazzo Medici Riccardi (the Medici Palace near the Duomo). He gave us all an education in everything Medici and by the end of our time in Florence none of us had any trouble identifying the Medici crest.

Palazzo Medici Riccardi and the Medici family crest

Palazzo Medici Riccardi and the Medici family crest

One of the best highlights of Florence (for me and David anyway) was meeting a lovely woodworker who gave us a tour of his workroom and showed off his handiwork. Seriously, as someone in the design field, this was an amazing behind the scene look at the work of a great artisan.

Our meeting with the Florentine woodworker.

Our meeting with the Florentine woodworker.

And finally… what fun is it to go to a new place without doing something a little silly? When we were walking down the street our last afternoon in Florence, we saw a sign for something called the “Florence Fish Kiss.” Intrigued by the name, Mat and David decided to peek inside where an Australian couple was having a treatment. So, just what is a fish kiss treatment? Well, you stick your feet into a small aquarium where little tiny toothless fish called Garra Rufa nibble on your feet, eating dead skin as they go. David and Mat were really into doing it and while I was a bit hesitant I didn’t want to be the only one not to participate, so I joined in. Our feet were almost unbearably ticklish at the beginning but once we got used to the little fish nibbling on our toes, it actually felt pretty good. I don’t know if it is something I would actively seek out, but it was a fun little experience.

Florence Fish Kiss

Florence Fish Kiss

Florence Fish Kiss

I still can’t believe we did this!

Europe Trip: Florence Part 2

Europe Trip: Florence Part 2

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When my oldest was small, one of the bestselling video games on the market was Assassin’s Creed II. David played it all the time and my son would often watch (the video game isn’t exactly kid friendly, so David often replayed “safe” parts of the game so our son could watch). During this time, I would take my son to the park and he would run around with his t-shirt pulled up over his head to look like he had a hood (if you watched Bevis and Butthead, he wore it like they do when they did their whole “Great Cornholio” number). When people asked why he wore his shirt like that, he would say “because I’m Ezio from the daddy game.” The daddy game, of course, being Assassin’s Creed II.

I know that right about now you’re asking yourself what in the world this video game could possibly have to do with Florence – A lot actually. You see, a good portion of Assassin’s Creed II takes place in Florence and the surrounding area. You play as Ezio Auditore da Firenze and, through his Renaissance era quests, you explore the city (as well as many others) and you learn quite a bit about Italian history and historical figures (my son could tell you all about the Medici family, Leonardo da Vinci, Machiavelli and the Borgia family to name a few). The game developers did an excellent job of not only accurately portraying major tourist landmarks, but of representing the city as a whole. There is actually a cool Buzzfeed article on the historically accurate aspects of the game. As a huge fan of the game, you can imagine my son’s awe and wonder as we meandered down the actual streets that he had roamed virtually so many times before. I think that the game played a huge role in his desire to visit Italy in the first place and while I do try to limit his video game intake, I think that it is really cool that a game can spur such a keen interest in history.

Anyway, back to Florence…

One of the key landmarks in the game is the Duomo or Il Duomo di Firenze, which is what everyone calls the city’s famed Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore. It is by far Florence’s most prominent landmark and is considered one of Italy’s “big three” (the other two being the Leaning Tower of Pisa and Rome’s Coliseum). I don’t even know where to begin. We have hundreds of pictures of the exterior of the Duomo alone. I am not exaggerating when I say that we were completely amazed by this building, both inside and out. We saw some pretty impressive landmarks on this trip and the Duomo certainly holds a place at the top of that list.

Il Duomo di Firenze

Il Duomo di Firenze

The face of Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore and Giotto's bell tower

The face of Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore and Giotto’s Campanile

Giotto Campanile and main portal

Giotto Campanile and main portal

With the boys in front of Il Duomo

With the boys in front of Il Duomo

And again with Dédi

And again with Dédi

The exterior of the Duomo is a wonder! I have seen a lot of beautiful things in my lifetime but very few of them have truly taken my breath away. This was definitely one of them. I don’t even know where to begin. The detailing in everything from the doors to the statues or even the placement of tiles and the masonry and engineering involved in creating the dome is absolutely astonishing. The amount of work that had to go into building a structure of this magnitude is mind boggling! This building is remarkable from every single angle. We would be walking down the street and come around a corner revealing a new view of Il Douomo and we would be awestruck all over again.

View of the Rose window and the Statue of Mary and Eight of the Apostles

View of the Rose window and the Statue of Mary and Eight of the Apostles

A closer look at the Rose window and the statue of Mary and another posed shot in front of the Basilica.

A closer look at the Rose window and the statue of Mary and another posed shot in front of the Basilica.

The statue on the right is of St. Antoninus (Antonio Pierozzi, Archbishop of Florence)

The statue on the right is of St. Antoninus (Antonio Pierozzi, Archbishop of Florence)

Another view of Il Duomo

Another view of Il Duomo

More angles. See? Not a bad angle!

More angles. See? Not a bad angle!

And one more shot of the church.

And one more shot of the church.

And this one is for scale. Look how tiny David looks next to the huge building!

And this one is for scale. Look how tiny David looks next to the huge building!

The gothic interior of the cathedral is quite stark when compared to many of the other churches we visited (and from what you would expect after seeing the exterior). It is actually the simplicity of the walls and ceilings that allows you to really appreciate the works of art that they do have on display; especially the fresco adorning the underside of the dome and the forty-four stained glass windows throughout the cathedral. I honestly could have spent all day in this church. It was lovely.

The interior of the cathedral

The interior of the cathedral

Vasari's fresco

Vasari’s fresco

A closer look at Vasari's fresco

A closer look at Vasari’s fresco

Votive candles being lit

Votive candles being lit

Of course, I was with a bunch of restless boys, so instead of sitting and taking in the beauty around us for hours on end, we were off to do some more exploring. As much as David hates heights, he was not about to miss out on climbing to the top of the dome and seeing the 360 degree views of the city. Getting to the top of the dome requires that you take a narrow spiraling staircase containing between 414 and 463 steps (depending on where you check on the internet). The stairs are not in any way uniform and some of the passageways are so narrow that you have to turn sideways to fit. There are also sections that serve people traveling both up to the dome and back down and those spots can get a little tricky (especially since there are no railings and the incline is fairly steep). Thankfully no one fell while we were there, but there were a couple of stumbles and close calls and we were very thankful that none of us is overly claustrophobic because we were in some seriously tight situations. Climbing the dome is exhausting any time of year but we were doing it in the middle of a heatwave so the air was dense and at times almost unbearable. In the end, the view was well worth the climb. After looking down on the city from above I have come to the conclusion that Florence does not have a bad angle.

Looking down on the interior of the church while climbing the dome

Looking down on the interior of the church while climbing the dome

Me, Mat, David and Big Guy climbing the dome. We went even higher.

Me, Mat, David and Big Guy climbing the dome. We went even higher.

View from one of the "windows" on the way to the top.

View from one of the “windows” on the way to the top.

View from the top.

View from the top.

Mat. David and Big Guy

Mat. David and Big Guy

Looking out over all of Florence

Looking out over all of Florence

Detailing at the top of the Duomo and a view of the Giotto Campanile from the Duomo

Detailing at the top of the Duomo and a view of the Giotto Campanile from the Duomo

With my sweetie on top of the world.

With my sweetie on top of the world.

Another huge draw of the Duomo is what lies beneath. In the 1960s excavations beneath the cathedral uncovered the remains of Santa Reparata, an early Christian cathedral built in the fifth and sixth centuries soon after Christianity was accepted as the official religion of the Roman Empire. Everything about the church was fascinating – the ancient relics, the mosaic floors, ancient tombs, and the overall architecture. It was also extremely interesting to watch a group of archeologists as they continue in their excavation and restoration of the church.

Sitting in the pews of Santa Maria Reparata

Sitting in the pews of Santa Maria Reparata

Posing in part of the original church.

Posing in part of the original church.

Here is a shot of some tombstones being restored.

Here is a shot of some tombstones being restored.

A closer look at the restoration

A closer look at the restoration

Il Duomo isn’t the only interesting church in Florence. San Marco is a religious complex in Florence consisting of a church and a convent, the latter of which now serves as a museum. Located in Piazza San Marco, not far from the Galleria dell’Accademia, or simply the Accademia (where you’ll want to go to see the Statue of David), San Marco was well worth a visit to see all of the artwork as well as the church’s overall design and detailing. The Piazza San Marco is a lovely square and home not only to the church and museum but also the statue of Manfredo Fanti, a freedom fighter and a hero of the Italian Resurgence.

The Church at San Marco

The Church at San Marco

Inside of the church

Inside of the church

Another look inside

Another look inside

the boys and Dédi sit in Piazza San Marco and me taking a picture in front of the statue of Manfredo Fanti

the boys and Dédi sit in Piazza San Marco and me taking a picture in front of the statue of Manfredo Fanti

Me and David in Piazza San Marco

Me and David in Piazza San Marco

After having lunch one afternoon we were wandering through the city when my son exclaimed, “That’s the other church in Assassins Creed!” The church he was referring to was Basilica di Santa Maria Novella. It really stuck out because the façade has such a different style than the rest of the church. A fun fact about the façade is that itnwas created by Leon Battista Alberti in 1470, which I found interesting because Leon Battista Alberti is referenced in Renaissance Man, one of my all-time favorite movies. It was the first great basilica in all of Florence and it is especially famous for its gothic and renaissance frescoes. I wish that we would have had more time in Florence to properly tour the church. Oh well, I’ll just have to do it next time.

Basilica di Santa Maria Novella

Basilica di Santa Maria Novella aka “The other Assassin’s Creed Church”

Basilica di Santa Maria Novella from the front and from the side.

Basilica di Santa Maria Novella from the front and from the side.

There were so many churches in Florence, that we could have spent all of our time doing nothing but church tours, but alas, little boys can only visit so many churches before they become irritable (and we didn’t want to burn them out before we made it to the Vatican on the Rome leg of our trip). Plus, if you spend too much time in the churches, you’ll run out of time for all of the other museums, squares and landmarks in this gorgeous city. There was another church that caught our eye when David, Mat and I went out alone one afternoon. Santi Michele e Gaetano, which is located in the Piazza Antinori, is absolutely beautiful and was built with support of several noble families including the Medicis. Cardinal Carlo de’Medici’s name is inscribed on the façade.

Santi Michele e Gaetano

Santi Michele e Gaetano

Balthasar Permoser’s Hope and Poverty flanking the coat of arms of the Theatines

Balthasar Permoser’s Hope and Poverty flanking the coat of arms of the Theatines

Europe Trip: Florence, Part One

Europe Trip: Florence, Part One

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Florence, or Firenze if you’re Italian (or Hungarian for that matter), is often considered to be the birthplace of the Renaissance. It just so happens that it is also my favorite of the big Italian cities (that we visited anyway). I’m not even sure where to begin. I have wanted to visit Florence since I first saw While You Were Sleeping. In the film, Sandra Bullock’s character says that if she could go anywhere in the world, it would be Florence and the more I learned about it, the more I wanted to visit Florence as well. I was not disappointed (except that we didn’t get to stay longer). We took hundreds of photos of the Duomo alone so narrowing down which to share with you has been a bit daunting to say the least. Two days was not enough time in Florence, but I don’t know that two months would have been enough time either. Every corner you turn reveals something new and exciting. There are far too many pictures for one post so I’ve split them into a few. Today I’ll start with food and accommodations.

David is the king of hotel accommodations and our hotel in Florence was no exception. We stayed at Palazzo dei Ciompi which is located in Piazza dei Ciompi in Florence’s Centro Storico. The hotel is literally just a few blocks from Piazza del Duomo so it is in a prime location. Just outside of the hotel stands Vasari’s Loggia del Pesce and beyond that is the Piazza dei Ciompi Flea Market. The market is open daily and while the stalls are a bit run down it almost adds to their appeal. The shop keepers are also very friendly and even attempting to speak Italian will endear you to them. David, Mat and I spent a good deal of time perusing the little shops but unfortunately we didn’t come away with anything as everything we wanted was either too large, too breakable or too heavy to return in our suitcases.

Vasari’s Loggia del Pesce in the Piazza dei Ciompi

Vasari’s Loggia del Pesce in the Piazza dei Ciompi

Piazza dei Ciompi Flea Market looking back toward our hotel.

Piazza dei Ciompi Flea Market looking back toward our hotel.

Our hotel suite was huge. I was expecting a small suite with tiny rooms but was greeted with a sprawling apartment that was much larger than my first apartment (like at least three times the size). We had three bedrooms , two bathrooms, a living room/dining room (that also had two sleeper sofas), an eat-in kitchen and a large storage room. Dédi loved it and even made us dinner in the kitchen our first night in Florence.

Hotel Suite: Bedrooms and eat-in kitchen dining.

Hotel Suite: Bedrooms and eat-in kitchen dining.

Living room, kitchen, bathrooms and dining area #2.

Living room, kitchen, bathrooms and dining area #2.

Even the stairwell was cool.

Even the stairwell was cool.

As far as food is concerned, I don’t think we had one bad meal in Italy. The little restaurant attached to our hotel was great for pizza and snacks so we ended up eating there a lot. Our favorite restaurant in Florence was Trattoria Vecchio Mercato which is located in the heart of the San Lorenzo district. We enjoyed our lunch on the terrace (because it was far too hot to eat inside) and had the pleasure of being serenated by a troupe of street musicians. The food was excellent and we had the most charming waiter who advised us on everything from souvenir and antique shopping to where to find the best gelato in the city (more on that in a bit).

The sign outside Trattoria Vecchio Mercato

The sign outside Trattoria Vecchio Mercato

Dédi and Mat enjoying the music.

Dédi and Mat enjoying the music.

Little man getting his hands wet in the misters and Mat getting ready to pour some wine.

Little man getting his hands wet in the misters and Mat getting ready to pour some wine.

We enjoyed breakfast at an adorable little café and bakery called Caffe Pasticeria La Loggia Degli Albizi where they had delicious cappuccinos and delightful little pastries. We had cappuccinos every morning for breakfast because in Italy cappuccino is a breakfast only drink and Italians strongly look down on having it after eleven o’clock. In almost all Italian coffee shops the patrons crowd around and drink their coffee while standing at the bar, leaving virtually all of the tables are empty. This is because in Italy there is a price for coffee at the bar and another for coffee at a table. The table price is much higher and as a result there are not a bunch of guys hanging out and taking up whole café tables while surfing the internet on their laptops. We did pay extra to sit at the table at Caffe Pasticeria La Loggia Degli Albizi because it was busy and made for great people watching (plus, I’m not good with crowds).

Our favorite breakfast spot.

Our favorite breakfast spot.

The pastries and cappuccinos were delicious!

The pastries and cappuccinos were delicious!

Enjoying our breakfast at a little table in the corner.

Enjoying our breakfast at a little table in the corner.

The boys (big and small) all agreed that one of the best foods in Italy is Gelato and we spent a great deal of times hunting down gelaterias. Some were good, some were great and all were worth trying. We knew some gelato basics before arriving in Italy like you should never get the stuff that is piled sky high because it is full of fillers and binders and only made to look pretty for the tourists. It is far inferior to true Italian gelato. Also, never go for the bright colors not found in nature because it is probably filled with artificial colors and ingredients. Real Italian Gelato is fresh, natural and absolutely divine. These were our three favorite places for gelato in Florence:

Amalo: This was right by the hotel and I must say it was the cutest of the gelato shops we went inside. It was okay, but there was nothing that stood out about their gelato but they were extremely friendly and since they were so close to our hotel they were very convenient.

This was right net to our hotel so we had to check it out.

This was right net to our hotel so we had to check it out.

Waiting at the counter.

Waiting at the counter.

Behind the counter.

Behind the counter.

Grom: Everyone we know that has been to Italy told us that Grom had the best gelato in all of Florence and that as far as food was concerned, this was the one place that we had to go. It was good. Very good. And I get what all of the fuss is about, but it wasn’t quite my favorite. If you go be ready to wait in line. This place is packed.

Grom was a zoo so we only took pictures outside.

Grom was a zoo so we only took pictures outside.

Goofing off with our gelato cones.

Goofing off with our gelato cones (well, I’m goofing… Mat’s just being cute)

Gelateria La Carraia: This was our hands down favorite in all of Italy (yes, ALL of Italy). This is the one that our waiter at Trattoria Vecchio Mercato insisted we try. When we told him that we were going to Grom he said that that Grom was overrated and popular because it is in all of the guides but that if we really wanted the best of the best we needed to head over to Gelateria La Carraia. He was right. It was amazing and they had a huge selection of flavors. I could have made myself sick trying all of them!

The best gelato in Florence.

The best gelato in Florence.

My boys

My boys

Look at all those choices!

Look at all those choices!

And then they have all of these lovely cone options!

And then they have all of these lovely cone options!

And finally, to wrap up the food portion of our Florence trip… There are adorable little fruit and vegetable stands all over the city selling gorgeous fresh produce that makes for the perfect mid-afternoon snack.

Look at all the beautiful produce!

Look at all the beautiful produce!

 

Europe Trip: Republic of San Marino

Europe Trip: Republic of San Marino

After we programmed the GPS to take us to the actual Republic of San Marino and not just San Marino Avenue, we finally arrived at our destination, and what a destination it was! Something I have discovered while traveling is that the world has a seemingly endless supply of beautiful locales. I find myself thinking, “this is the most perfect place ever,” and while everywhere I go can’t possibly be the most perfect place ever, I suppose it is (at least to me) in that given moment.

Looking out from atop Mount Titano

Looking out from atop Mount Titano

Wikipedia describes The Republic of San Marino as an “enclave microstate surrounded by Italy.” What is doesn’t say is that the Most Serene Republic of San Marino (this is how it is actually known. In Italian it is “Serenissima Repubblica di San Marino”-also via Wikipedia) looks like it waltzed straight out of a book of fairy tales and set up shop right smack in the middle of one of the loveliest parts of Italy.

With my boys in San Marino.

With my boys in San Marino.

Well, on this particular day in San Marino it was exceptionally beautiful in every direction. In the center of San Marino lies Mount Titano, which has three peaks with ancient towers atop each one: Guaita, Cesta (also known as De La Fratta) , and Montale. We visited Castello Della Guaita (the Fortress of Guaita) which is the oldest and most famous of the three towers. I’m not one to be afraid of heights, but when we climbed to the top of the fortress there were times that I actually became weak in the knees at the thought of how far off of the ground we were. I mean, not only were we up high in the castle, but the castle was literally on the edge of a cliff, so when you looked down, you were looking way down. If you were to say, fall out of a window your chances of survival weren’t slim, they were none. My new fear of heights was only intensified when David asked Mat if he thought anyone had ever inspected the safety of the masonry at the castle (this was compounded by the fact that the place where we were standing may have had a few missing stones which meant that you could look through the gaps in the floor and see all the way down to the bottom of the cliff).

Mat contemplating if anyone had checked the masonry.

Mat contemplating if anyone had checked the masonry.

While we were in San Marino we were also introduced to the fact that you can buy a five kilogram jar of Nutella (that is 11 pounds of delicious chocolate hazelnut spread)! We thought that the giant Nutella container at the restaurant where we were having lunch was merely for decoration but it turns out that not only were they were completely full, they were also for sale. I commented that no one could ever possibly eat five kilograms of Nutella to which David and Mat simultaneously replied, “I would love to try.”

The sign when entering Castello Della Guaita

The sign when entering Castello Della Guaita

Posing outside the gates.

Posing outside the gates.

And once more just inside.

And once more just inside.

The boys looking out one of the windows and me after expressing that I was feeling weak in the knees.

The boys looking out one of the windows and me after expressing that I was feeling weak in the knees.

Giving Dédi a kiss.

Giving Dédi a kiss.

Looking down through one of the windows.

Looking down through one of the windows.

Another view from the tower.

Another view from the tower.

The side of the fortress.

The side of the fortress.

You can see all the way to the Adriatic!

You can see all the way to the Adriatic Sea!

Looking out toward De La Fratta (Cesta) from the top of Castello Della Guaita

Looking out toward De La Fratta (Cesta) from the top of Castello Della Guaita

Another view of De La Fratta

Another view of De La Fratta – It seriously looks like it’s straight out of a fairy tale!

And one final shot!

And one final shot!

Things I Love: September

Things I Love: September

I love the fall. I know autumn doesn’t officially begin until the end of the month, but as soon as I flip my calendar over to September, I can almost feel the seasons changing. The smell of pumpkin spice lattes is in the air and people of all ages have dusted off their football jerseys to show support for their favorite teams (Go Broncos!). So, since it’s (almost) fall, here are a few of the things I love for September.

septemberpicks

1.  Hart of Dixie – I am totally late jumping on the Hart of Dixie bandwagon, but I finally understand what all the fuss is about. I just recently discovered this little gem on Netflix and I am slowly catching up on everything I’ve missed. It is a classic fish out of water tale about Zoe Hart, a New York doctor trying to forge a new life for herself in the “Heart of Dixie,” aka Alabama. It is actually very reminiscent of the 90s hit show Northern Exposure. The first couple of episodes were a little bit campy, but as the show has progressed, the characters have become more and more three-dimensional. I am completely hooked.

2.  The Honest Company Shampoo & Body Wash – I have been following the Honest Company since it first hit the market. One of their founders, Christopher Gavigan wrote the fantastic book Healthy Child Healthy World (their other founder is actress Jessica Alba who also wrote a great book – The Honest Life). I love that they use environmentally friendly (not to mention people friendly) ingredients in all of their products. Everyone in our little family has sensitive skin so I am very careful about all of the lotions, soaps and shampoos that I buy for the boys. The Honest Company Shampoo & Body Wash gets the kids clean while still being gentle on their skin. The fact that it smells great is an added bonus.

3.  How To Be A Lady by Alexandra Parsons: I am quite partial to etiquette books (and manners in general). One of the first books I bought for my children was Manners Can Be Fun (followed shortly by How to Behave and Why and How to Speak Politely and Why). I have read all the experts from Emily Post to Miss Manners to Debrett’s and I cannot seem to pass up a new book on the subject no matter how hard I try. There are a lot of great etiquette books out there and even more that are subpar. This one is definitely belongs to the former category. It is a wonderful concise handbook for young women (and men) everywhere. It may not be as comprehensive as Miss Manners or Debrett’s but with its whimsical illustrations (you can see some on the publisher’s website) and concise guidance it is much less daunting to read.

4.  Mighty Leaf Tea Marrakesh Mint: Years ago I discovered Moroccan Mint Tea Lattes at one of my favorite coffee shops and ever since I have been making my own at home. You simply brew a strong cup of Moroccan Mint green tea, add milk and stir in a spoonful (or two) of your favorite hot chocolate mix. It is a delicious fall pick-me-up and I probably drink them far more often than I should. I have professed my love for Mighty Leaf Tea in the past in this post and I think that their Marrakesh Mint tea is absolutely perfect for my tea latte. I can’t get enough of it!

5.  Santa Barbara Bar: So many first-rate products have come out of Santa Barbara and Santa Barbara Bars are no exception. I’m always on the lookout for healthy options for when I’m on the run and these Coconut Almond Santa Barbara Bars have become my go-to snack. They are certified gluten free, non-GMO and contain no refined sugars. Not only that, they are packed with 8 grams of protein, so you won’t get hungry within two minutes of eating them. Most importantly though, they are delicious and I honestly feel like I’m eating a treat every time I have one.

Throwback Thursday: Bronco Fever

Throwback Thursday: Bronco Fever

superbowl32

Are you ready for some football? Tonight marks the official kickoff of the NFL season so I thought I would throw it all the way back to January 1998 and Super Bowl XXXII (32). This is a shot of David and me getting ready to watch the John Elway and the Denver Broncos defeat the Green Bay Packers. Hopefully we’ll get to see the Broncos in another Super Bowl this year. Happy football season!

Europe Trip: Lost Along the Adriatic

Europe Trip: Lost Along the Adriatic

J.R.R. Tolkien famously wrote in The Fellowship of the Ring, “Not all those who wander are lost.” The truth of the matter is that sometimes when you wander you do get lost, but if you have an adventurous spirit getting lost can be exactly where you want to be.

The morning that we left Venice en route to Florence we decided to take a side trip to the Republic of San Marino. We came to this decision after literally Googling “Things to do between Venice and Florence.” When San Marino was suggested on one of the sites, I put my full support behind it because it sounded fascinating AND it was another country that the boys (and I) could add to our list of countries visited. Okay, I’m not going to lie here… in Father of the Bride (the new one with Steve Martin) they live in San Marino, California and that may have had a lot to do with why I thought San Marino sounded so cool, but I digress.

Anyway, due to a miscommunication with the GPS on our phone we ended up at the beach. David and Mat looked back at me, clearly mystified and said, “I thought you said San Marino is on top of a hill.”

“It is.” I insisted, “A big one.”

There were absolutely no hills (not even small ones) in the immediate vicinity and the GPS was insisting that we had arrived at our destination.

Apparently when we typed in “San Marino” the GPS thought we wanted to go to “Viale San Marino” (San Marino Avenue) which is how we ended up in the town of Commachio on the Adriatic Sea and not in the hilltop Republic of San Marino. Since we were on an adventure, we decided to roll with it. We pulled up to the beach and took a long walk down the shore collecting sea shells and wading into the warm waters of the Adriatic Sea. Mat laughed because he had secretly wanted to see the Adriatic all along and because we had gotten lost, he was able to see it. Sometimes getting lost will take you exactly where you were meant to be or as David said, “That was the best kind of mistake.”

Dédi, Me, David and the boys at the Adriatic Sea

Dédi, Me, David and the boys at the Adriatic Sea

Mat and David laughing about their good fortune in getting lost.

Mat and David laughing about their good fortune in getting lost. (those are not their shoes by the way)

The boys and David testing the waters

The boys and David testing the waters

Despite going into the water, we managed to convince them to keep their clothes dry.

Despite going into the water, we managed to convince them to keep their clothes dry.

Looking back toward the resort area.

Looking back toward the resort area.

 

Europe Trip: A Day in Venice

Europe Trip: A Day in Venice

Italian journalist Luigi Barzini Jr. once described Venice as “undoubtedly the most beautiful city built by man.” While beauty is subjective, there is no doubt that Venice is one of the world’s most unique cities.

View of the Grand Canal

View of the Grand Canal

After getting off to a bit of a rocky start (meaning that we got lost… twice) we made it to Venice, or Venezia as it is known to the locals. Venice is the world’s only pedestrian city, which meant that we had to leave our car behind. The lack of vehicles is a huge part of Venice’s appeal. There is something inherently romantic about being forced to walk everywhere (especially when everyone else is forced to do the same).

Walking through Venice with Mat

Walking through Venice with Mat

We hitched a ride on an (extremely) overcrowded Vaparetto (water bus) that took us down the Grand Canal to Piazza San Marco (Saint Mark’s Square). If we thought the Vaparetto was crowded, we were in for quite a shock upon reaching the square, where it was so congested you could hardly move. I have a slight (read: huge) crowd aversion and I could feel my chest tightening in the onset of a panic attack. David, knowing how I react in this sort of situation, led the way out of the throngs of people where we could regroup and decide where we wanted to go. We expected Venice to be busy, but we hadn’t anticipated that we would be there on a national holiday which would render the city much more congested than usual.

The Crowded Piazza San Marco

The Crowded Piazza San Marco

Me (trying to stay calm in the crowd) with Dédi in Piazza San Marco

Me (trying to stay calm in the crowd) with Dédi in Piazza San Marco

A shot of our group (minus my oldest who was taking the picture)

A shot of our group (minus my oldest who was taking the picture)

We were tired, hungry and weary of the throngs of people descending upon the streets of the “Floating City.” We knew that our best option would be to get away from the main thoroughfare and find somewhere quiet to grab a bite to eat. David started wandering down some alleyways until he came upon a local gentleman out for a stroll. David asked (in very broken Italian) if there were any restaurants nearby and the man directed us further down the alley to Bar Trattoria A Le Colonete. Away from the masses, we started to really appreciate the city. Our restaurant was quite popular with the locals and many gondoliers stopped by for a quick bite before making their way back to their gondolas. We had a lovely lunch followed by a delicious gelato at a local gelateria that had been recommended by our waiter. It was one of the best gelatos we had on our entire Italian trip and we seriously consumed an unreasonable amount of gelato on this journey – I’m actually amazed my pants still fit.

Wandering down an alley in search of food.

Wandering down an alley in search of food.

Bar Trattoria A Le Colonete

Bar Trattoria A Le Colonete

Dédi with her lunch and a shot of our wine

Dédi with her lunch and a shot of our wine

Our lunch

Our lunch

After experiencing the crowds in Piazza San Marco, we were a little leery of hitting up another tourist hotspot, but there was no way I was going to Venice without seeing the famed Rialto Bridge, so we made our way down alleyways and passages to our destination. Walking through Venice seems a bit daunting at first because the streets all look very similar, but with the assistance of a map, it is actually very easy to navigate. We took our requisite Rialto Bridge photos and then spent a while perusing the Rialto Market before deciding to return to exploring the lesser known passages of Venice.

The view from the Rialto Bridge

The view from the Rialto Bridge

Dédi and the boys on the Rialto Bridge

Dédi and the boys on the Rialto Bridge

More shots on the Rialto Bridge

More shots on the Rialto Bridge

The boys were especially enamored with all of the narrow pathways littered with freshly washed linens hanging from clotheslines and shuttered windows overflowing with potted flowers. We discovered hidden courtyards and fountains and more churches than we could count. Our youngest made a game of spotting cats (they are everywhere) and our oldest made friends with several small dogs he found wandering on the streets (there was one small white dog in particular that he spent a great deal of time trying to convince us to take home). I shocked David when I not only gave my permission to the boys to drink from one of the fountains but actually joined them (I had done my research and knew that it was perfectly safe). Since I had given it my blessing, everyone else joined in as well. You know what? The water coming out of the fountains tastes better than anything you can buy in a bottle.

The boys drinking from the fountain.

The boys drinking from the fountain.

Mat's turn. "It's actually really good!"

Mat’s turn. “It’s actually really good!”

The boys enjoying Venice

The boys enjoying Venice

The boys were also quite enamored with the pigeons that are all over Venice. They fed them and chased them and it was clear that they do not share their grandmother’s (my mother’s) fear of birds. Mat and I did our best to avoid the birds but we were strafed more than a few times.

Feeding the birds.

Feeding the birds.

The pigeons were everywhere.

The pigeons were everywhere.

As the afternoon sun was beating down on our backs, our early morning was starting to catch up with us. Not wanting to face the crowded Vaparetto again, Mat suggested that we hail a water taxi. It was one of the best parts of our Venice tour. The taxi transported us through the narrow waterways of Venice and down the Grand Canal to our parking structure. Or at least, we thought that was where we were going. Our taxi driver ended up dropping us off at an entirely different parking structure than where we had parked. We were forced to walk quite a long distance with little boys too tired to walk any further and who suddenly had full bladders that were in desperate need of being emptied (and of course, there were absolutely no bathrooms nearby). We walked (and walked, and walked and walked) back to our car and drove away from Venice to our hotel. We stayed at the Grande Plaza Venice East which is located just outside of Venice in the town of Mestre and which I cannot recommend highly enough. The staff is friendly and efficient and the hotel is clean and comfortable. We arrived at the hotel just as rain started pouring from the sky (it had been an otherwise clear day) and we were all in bed and asleep before the sun went down.

David and our oldest on the water taxi.

David and our oldest on the water taxi.

Me on the water taxi and the view from the back of the boat.

Me on the water taxi and the view from the back of the boat.

Here are a few more shots from our day:

Bells in a church tower

Bells in a church tower

Walking through Venice

Walking through Venice

My boys found a nice resting spot on a dock.

My boys found a nice resting spot on a dock.

View from the dock

View from the dock

More Venice Views

More Venice Views

Clotheslines and gondolas are everywhere

Clotheslines and gondolas are everywhere

Mat and David taking a quick break

Mat and David taking a quick break

One final shot

One final shot

I hope that you’re having a happy Tuesday!

Europe Trip: Driving through Slovenia

Europe Trip: Driving through Slovenia

When we went to bed the night before our road trip, David and Mat agreed that since we were all still pretty jet lagged, we should just get up and go whenever we all woke up. I don’t think either of them had any idea just how early that would be. At two-thirty in the morning when David heard movement in the room where Mat and our oldest were sleeping so he got up to investigate and found that they were both wide awake. Our little guy was starting to toss and turn as well, so we decided that we might as well get an early start. We woke Dédi up, packed our bags, loaded the car and we were on the road by 3:30 in the morning. David’s aunt and uncle thought we were insane to be up so early but we felt like it was better to be up and driving while we were all wide awake.

In order to get to Italy from Hungary by car you can either drive through Slovenia or Austria. We chose to go through Slovenia because it was the quickest route to Venice. Had we done a little more research into just how beautiful Slovenia is, we might not have ever made it to Italy. It has jumped to the very top of my list of places to visit. I swear every village we passed was more picturesque than the last. I cannot even tell you how many times one of us pointed out the window exclaiming, “Look at that!” Our little guy even proclaimed Slovenia to be the “best place ever,” after discovering a Mario Pez dispenser while making a pit stop at a filling station. We did pull off into one of the villages for a quick stretch and photo op, which is where all of these pictures are from. After taking a couple of posed shots, we heard barnyard noises coming from a building across the street. When we went to investigate we found cows happily munching on some hay.

Posing in picturesque Slovenia

Posing in picturesque Slovenia

Had to get one with Mat

Had to get one with Mat

Investigating the "barnyard sounds"

Investigating the “barnyard sounds”

A shot of the street and the cows.

A shot of the street and the cows.

Another street shot

Another street shot

Happy Friday!