Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Day 18: Florence #2

Saturday July 27, 2013

Today's highlights:
   -The David!!
   -The Duomo
   -Our living quarters

Today we saw The David sculpture, by Michelangelo. While I fully admit that I am no art historian and know very little about art and sculpture, I was speechless. It is literally one of the most beautiful man-made things I have ever seen. When we entered the Accademia (museum), no one even warns you. You just turn a corner and BAM, there it is, in all it's glory. It stands about 20 feet high (14 feet of statue on a 5-foot pedestal) in its own dome, and it was HUGE! So much bigger than I was expecting. It seems impossible that it was carved from marble, it is so smooth and perfect. It all came from one solid piece of stone.

We learned something cool about Michelangelo too. He said that when he carves, he is not the one creating, but is instead a tool in the hands of God. He is simply helping that stone to become what it was meant to be in the first place. What God wanted it to be. In fact, most sculptors begin by mapping out their plan and drawing marks in the rocks, but Michelangelo sculpts freehand, feeling every movement and cut is inspired. The artist's job, he says, is just to clear away the excess stone until the intended sculpture emerges. That's pretty miraculous. And I think has a lot of parallels to our lives if you really think about it. 

The David is of course referring to the story of David and Goliath. It is believed that this sculpture shows David before he faces the giant, as if saying, "Let's do this." It became so widely respected first for its beauty and second, because it was a symbol to the Florentines of the power of the underdog when you have God on your side. Seriously incredible.

Along the hallway, there are several other "unfinished" statues by Michelangelo called "Prisoners." These look almost like a visual manifestation of Michelangelo's claim that he was just helping the intended statue emerge. These are big muscular people who look like they are fighting their way out of the stone to become what they were meant to be. Some have almost emerged while others are still trapped by the stone. They were really moving (you know, emotionally. Not physically).

So now for Florence's other grand masterpiece: The Duomo (domed cathedral). Holy. Cannoli. This thing is unreal. It is huge and you would not believe how detailed the outside of the whole church is. There are LIFE-SIZE statues all over it, and intricate paintings and marble carvings. It's cray-cray!

So the story is that the cathedral structure was built with the plan to put a dome on top before anyone even knew how to build it. Then the funds ran low and for almost a century, it was left unfinished. There it was, a big eye-sore in the middle of the city, a symbol to the Florentines of their own failure (or so I'm told). And then, the Medici family (basically the family that sparked the whole renaissance) hired a guy named Brunelleschi to finish it. He came up with a design totally unique and seemingly impossible. Though a lot of people doubted him, a few years later the dome was finished, making it a symbol of Florentine pride, culture and talent. Today it stands as literally a grand centerpiece of Florence and it is a sight to behold. We first saw this when we arrived yesterday but today finally got time to look around it a little more. So beautiful. 

We continued with another museum, the Bargello, but pretty soon after starting decided that even though we'd loved everything we had seen so far, the average man can only take so much art. We were kind of art-ed out. So what did we do, you ask? Why, the only thing you can do in that scenario. We got some gelato. (How many times have we gotten gelato already? I swear I write that everyday. I'll mail a scoop to whoever can count how many times I have said that). Then we took a little nap break before heading back to our favorite adorable old Italian man for dinner. We repeated the ravioli (we tried not to but it was just SO good) but also tried some pumpkin risotto this time. Mmmm... Delish. (I realize that you probably don't care what we ate for every meal, but I don't want to forget. Who knows, maybe I'll even be inspired to cook when we get home).

So no cliff-hangs today, but still a pretty cool day. We feel very cultured :). 

Also, it's our Anniversary Eve! One year ago we were at our wedding dinner! We are so good at being married now.....

Also, this is on the wall of the house we are staying in. Crazily enough, this was not the weirdest wall decoration in that place. Not by a long shot. Inquire for more details. 

Day 22: Rome #3 (Vatican City)

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Today's highlights:

-Climbing the dome of St. Peter's Basilica
-St. Peter's Basilica (inside)
-Vatican Museum
-Sistene Chapel!

One short day in the Vatican City! 
One short day, full of so much to do!

Yes, we were really singing this on our way to the Vatican City at 7:30 in the am, right up until Robbie shouted, "The Pope will see you now!" Then we were laughing too hard to keep going. 

Today we went to the Vatican and it was AWESOME! As in "made us feel awe." It blew our minds. We saw St. Peter's, and the Vatican Museum, and the Sistene Chapel, and just, Wow. 

We heard it's best to go super early, so even though Robbie was resistant at first, I promised him that if he'd wake up early with me, I would give him a nap-break later (we often disagree about the validity of nap-times, since I can't ever fall asleep during the day, and Robbie can be asleep in within .7 seconds of laying down). But, we compromised, made the deal, and I am SO glad we got there early. When we showed up to St. Peter's Square (the open public area right in front of the church where people gather to see and hear the pope), it was almost completely empty. It was awesome! (By the time we came down from the dome, the line spanned St. Peter's square and was still growing by the second). We kept walking around and finding things from the "Angels and Demons" book, getting as excited as if they were stories from real, actual history. We then headed up to the church to climb the dome. 

There are 554 stairs to climb to get to the top of St. Peter's dome. FIVE HUNDRED AND FIFTY-FOUR. I don't care who you are, that is a lot of stairs. This is #1. I didn't know yet... I couldn't have known...

And the further you walk, the more narrow and slanted the way becomes (slanted because it gets more dome-like the higher you go). It was a claustrophobic's worst nightmare. I started getting a little anxiety and I am not claustrophobic! But we kept going and going and did not even stop once before making it to the top! My face was dripping like you would not believe, but we made it!

The view from the top of the dome is incredible! You can see the entire Vatican, and all the surrounding area. There is a law that no building can be built taller than St. Peter's Basilica, so you can see everything around, with nothing blocking your view. It's incredible!

We finally climbed back down the dome (and I started sweating again! Going down! I swear sweat shows up when I peel an orange here). Then we explored the inside of St. Peter's Basilica. And WOW! Just.....WOW!

You walk in, and two words hit you right away: BIG and GOLD. St. Peter's is HUGE!!! Two football fields long. As far as I know, the biggest church in the world. They even have markers in the ground to show you where other famous churches would end if you put them inside of St. Peter's (even the Duomo in Florence, which we thought was gargantuan). The dome was originally designed by Michelangelo, but then the church was made even bigger than he had imagined. And it is GOLD everywhere! The entire thing just glows. Which would be awesome if it weren't for the fact that the funding of all that gold came from the selling of indulgences (or buying forgiveness with money, the very thing that caused Martin Luther to start the reformation). Regardless, no one can argue that it is beautiful. Here are some cool things we learned:

- This is believed to be THE spot where Peter was killed. Apparently, long before there was a church here, it was Emperor Nero's racetrack for chariot races. In fact, the obelisk (looks like the Washington Monument) that now stands in the middle of St. Peter's Square used to be the centerpiece of that racetrack. At halftime or breaks in the races, the entertainment for the crowd would be public executions of Christians or Jews, either by gladiator fights or crucifixions. Peter was one of those executions, sentenced to be crucified, (but asked to be crucified upside down because he didn't feel worthy of dying the way Christ did). He was buried there and that's where the church stands today. 

-Peter's remains are believed to be in the crypt 20 feet below the church, but when asked if those are really Peter's bones, the papacy has only said, "Definitely maybe." So I guess it can be a powerful place just for the idea of what it represents even if its not 100% accurate (like us and the Garden Tomb I suppose).

-One of the most famous works in all of the Renaissance is there: Michelangelo's "Pieta" which is a sculpture of Mary holding the limp body of her son after he is taken down from the cross. "Pieta" means "pity" or more specifically, "I suffer with you." The sculpture has so much feeling and emotion in it. You can feel Mary's grief and sadness. I think in this more than any other work of art I've ever seen, I see and feel Mary as a mother. It's beautiful. It's also behind bullet-proof glass because I guess in 1972, some wacko broke in with a hammer and went to town trying to smash it. Luckily, the damage was repaired.

-There is a central canopy over the altar, and on the bases of the pillars of the canopy, you see the face of a woman going through the various stages of childbirth. What?! Crazy, right? But it's real! You have to walk all the way around it to see the final piece: a bubbly baby boy. 

There were so many other amazing things we saw in the church, and thanks to our Rick Steve's Audioguide app (cue the infomercial), we got to learn cool facts as we walked around. Again, cheesy, but informative. (When am I gonna start getting kickbacks from all this publicity?)

Wow! This is so long already and this was all before 10:30 in the morning! So sorry, hopefully you don't get bored. If you do, skip what you like. 

So THEN we finally got to go to the Vatican Museum. (PS, they tell you that you need a reservation beforehand, but it did not make it any faster for us and it cost 8 euro. Could have just been a fluke, but just sayin). This museum is full of history from Ancient Egypt (with some artifacts from 2,000 BC!), Ancient Greece, the Renaissance, Mama! It's a lot of stuff. We got to walk down the hall showing "The Great Castration," when one of the popes (I think) decided it was too suggestive and inappropriate for statues to show the male genitalia. So he had all the ancient statues castrated, and then had their manhood covered up with marble fig leaves, Adam and Eve style. Very sad from a historian's perspective. 

We also got to see some really famous works of art by Raphael (red ninja turtle). 
-The "School of Athens" is a painting showing all the great minds of Ancient Greece gathered together teaching and learning from each other. 
-"The Immaculate Conception" is a work illustrating the moment when the pope made this idea part of Catholic doctrine, and Mary smiling down from above. 
-There was a bunch honoring Constantine, the Christian emperor who changed the tide of Christianity in Rome. Because of him, in just a century Christians went from being executed in gladiator arenas to being part of the official religion of all of Rome. What a guy. 

It was all cool, and was all leading us to the Grand Finale: 

The Sistene Chapel. 

I say "Wow" a lot because I don't know very many ways of expressing awe and wonder. But if you can think of a better way to describe being speechless in awe and wonder, please insert that word or phrase here. This was one of the most amazing things I have ever seen. I know I have said that a lot too, but it's really true! If it weren't for the neck pain from staring up at that ceiling, I would have been content to stay there for the rest of the day and study it and figure it all out. And I'm not even art-smart! I can't imagine what art historians feel in that room. It is AMAZING. 

Looking up, you see a lot of stuff going on, but thanks to Ricky (that's what we call Rick Steves' these days, we feel like we know him so well), we were able to break it down a little. 

Down the middle are 9 major scenes from Christian theology, starting with the creation of the world and ending with Noah. The most famous of these is the centerpiece of the entire ceiling. God, surrounded by his concourses of angels, reaching out to touch the finger of Adam, breathing life into him. I don't even know how to describe this. It made me feel things. Lots of things. I felt this overpowering realization that God is reaching for Adam. Not idly waiting. Not busy doing other things. Not angry at Adam for just sitting there. He is actively reaching for him, his face clearly yearning to touch him. That is the God I know. That is the God that created us. Reaching for us, constantly. Never angry. Never busy. Just wanting more than anything to touch us, so that we will feel something. Something  different and strangely familiar. Something that will infuse us with love and understanding and life. Real life. 
I just stared at that part alone for a long time. And then moved down and studied each of the others, each so moving in its own way. I will spare you another one of those novels, by suffice it to say, seeing this was more an experience than a viewing. Wow. 

Besides the ceiling, Michelangelo also painted the altar wall, in a painting known as, "The Last Judgment." He actually painted this 20-something years after the ceiling was done. It has a VERY different feel from the ceiling. As happy and hopeful and light the ceiling is, the wall is just as strongly the other direction. There is a lot of damnation, and terror and fear. It's powerful in a completely different way. There are just hundreds of people, all experiencing something different on that final day. That's a lesson in a painting if ever I saw one. 

Lastly, here are some fun facts we learned about the chapel: 

-Michelangelo never even wanted the job of painting this place. He considered himself a sculptor, not a painter. But a persistent pope finally talked him into it.

-Michelangelo did actually paint standing up, reaching above him (not lying down like some think). That would seriously be the worst. I hate changing light bulbs. 

-He had to paint on wet plaster, which means he had to work quickly, before the plaster dried. So he's uncomfortable and stressed. 

Wow. Are you still here? Did you make it through all that? If so, I am very impressed. Sometimes when I start going, I forget to stop. 

So the rest of the day included a nap (my debt is repaid), some wandering around on our last night in Rome aaaaaaaaand..........McDonald's. I know, I know! How could we?! We are in Italy! But sometimes when all you have eaten for two weeks is pizza and pasta, you just want some French fries. We fought it, we did. Out of sheer guilt, we almost turned away and found something else. But we were so hungry and it was right in front of us. And then we realized, who are we afraid of? We are grown-ups! If we both want McDonald's, we can eat McDonald's! That's what we told ourselves to justify it anyway, but we still felt a little guilty. But let's be real, McDonald's fries are worth it sometimes.

Day 21: Rome #2

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Today's highlights:

   -Colosseum (with a little history)
   -Forum (Old City)
   -Spanish steps 
   -Flower scam guy

Holy cow, today was awesome!!! I mean, I knew Ancient Rome sights would be cool but DANG! I was the happiest little Ancient History teacher in the land. 

First off, let's talk about how PHENOMENAL the Colosseum is. Again, no warning. You just come out of the metro station and all of a sudden, there it is. 10 FEET IN FRONT OF YOU. Towering over you like some Fraggle Rock giant. It is seriously amazing. Definitely weathered (even from the outside) but still amazing, especially when you visualize what it would have looked like in its prime. 

So we heard mixed things about going inside. We actually can't even remember who, but a few different people told us not to bother paying to go inside because its not as cool as the outside. 

I am here to tell you, PAY THE MONEY TO SEE IT!

 We were in awe walking around the whole time. It is well worth the money. Plus, the ticket is a package deal with this and the forum (old city). But you can save money by skipping out on a guided tour and just getting the free Rick Steves' app that walks you through it. Super cheesy, but teaches you cool things. But also, walking whilst sharing headphones is trickier than it looks, so we take shade breaks as often as we can :)

So most of you already know what the Colosseum is. Ancient architects (geniuses of their time) stuck two theaters together to create one big, massive amphitheater, and in this amphitheater they would entertain the masses with bloodshed. It was basically an ancient sports arena or movie theater showing battle and action scenes. Except the violence for them was very real and very live and very right in front of them. This place would draw roaring crowds of 50,000. That's huge!

Here are some of the crazy things we learned:

-Most of the time, the events would start off "less exciting" in the morning, with animal fights and such (poor dogs would be forced to fight porcupines!). As the day went on, the events would get bigger and bigger (where men would have to battle animals) leading up to the end where professional gladiators would fight, sometimes "recreating" famous battles from Rome's history.  But of course, there was no acting. They actually battled it out and actually died in the fight. Sometimes the emperor would let the crowd decide whether a warrior should live or die with the thumbs up/down sign.We obviously show no mercy. 

-In this picture, the arena floor is missing (you can see where it would have been at the far end). But this is actually kind of better because you can see what was underneath it back then. There was a whole series of tunnels and passageways under the arena where the animals were kept or the gladiators had their last moments (kind of a "backstage" area). Then they would be brought up on elevators to the arena floor. The animals would be released onto the arena floor from any one of EIGHTY different trap doors. So gladiators seriously never knew where their next attack was coming from. EIGHTY! That's crazy. 

-During it's inaugural 100-day festival, the colosseum saw an average of one death every 5 minutes (either animals or people). For 100 days straight. That is a lot of death. So much, in fact, that employees had to spray perfume around the arena to mask the stench.

It's just crazy to me to think that Romans not only tolerated this, they LOVED it. They ate it up, every single day. That's just crazy. But I read something by our friend Ricky (Steves) that helps me remember it was a different world back then. Not that this kind of violence is ever acceptable, but it was just a different world:

"To modern eyes, the games may seem barbaric, but it suited Roman society. Rome was a nation of warriors that built an empire by conquest. Consider the value of these games in placating and controlling the huge Roman populace. On an everyday basis, city-slicker bureaucrats could come here and personally witness the conquest that generated their wealth. Seeing the king of beasts — a lion — slain by a gladiator reminded the masses of man’s triumph over nature. Seeing exotic animals from Africa heralded their conquest of distant lands. The battles fought against Germans, Egyptians, and other barbarians were played out daily here. And having the thumbs-up or thumbs-down authority over another person’s life gave them a real sense of power. Imagine the psychological boost the otherwise downtrodden masses felt when the emperor granted them this thrilling decision."

So, sorry about all the history info. Hopefully you guys find it as interesting as I did. If not, I hope you skipped it. 

Besides the Colosseum, we also saw the Roman Forum, which is basically the Old City of Rome (as in, we walked on stones that Julius Caesar and Augustus could have walked on! Whaaaaaa?!). In fact, we even stood where Julius Caesar's body was burned after he was murdered by the senators. THE VERY SPOT. And we also walked the path Caesar walked on the day of his death when the old man warned him, "Beware the Ides of March!" It's so crazy how all of a sudden these stories seem more real when you think, "Man, if I could rewind some kind of eternal video tape on THIS SPOT 2,000 years, I would see some cah-razy stuff."

One other thing from the forum that was super interesting was the House of the Vestal Virgins. Long before there were convents (or even Christianity at all), there were 6 virgin women living in this house in Ancient Rome. Their job was to tend to the eternal flame of the goddess Vesta (a literal flame). As long as Vesta's flame continued to burn, Rome would still stand. So these girls were chosen at the age of 10 to live this sacred (and celibate) life, and if they lived faithfully for 30 years in this way, they would be released at the age of 40, given a huge dowry, and allowed to marry, with a new 10-year old taking their place. (The downer is that life expectancy was only to about 45). Even though it was a big sacrifice to live this way, it was also considered a very honorable and coveted position. These 6 women had more power than even some men in Roman society. They even had their own box seats at the Colosseum! And a fancy house! And the power to pardon a criminal if they wanted! It was kind of the life in some ways. HOWEVER, if you were not faithful to the vow you had made, you were given a stash of bread and water and then BURIED ALIVE. Until you died. The supplies were just to add to the torture. Bleh. Freaky. Anyway, this was the first (intense) convent, but to honor a "pagan" goddess rather than Christ. 

Okay, enough history for today! There were millions more interesting things we learned but I will spare you for now. After seeing all that (and fitting a few good meals in, of course) we decided to climb the Spanish Steps to see the sunset. I have no idea what the history of the Spanish Steps is. (You may now breathe a sigh of relief.) However, it brings me to another subject I'd like to mention: The Flower Men we encountered there. 

So we are tourists. And that means fresh meat to the scammers that prowl every tourist attraction. But none of them gets under my skin like The Flower Men do.

The Flower Men are guys that walk around with an entire bouquet of beautiful red roses, and then, targetting couples, SHOVE them into the woman's hands. This is not an exaggeration. They walk up, say, "For you! Please! You are beautiful!" And shove their roses into your hands. Then, if you actually take it from them, they proceed to go after the poor unsuspecting man at your side to give them money for the rose. We watched it happen again and again at every romantic sight we've been to in almost every country. The woman, thinking the Flower Man was being sweet, would take it and within one minute would be shoving the flower back at the man trying to get away from him. We never fell for it. We were too smart for those Flower Men. I would throw both hands up as soon as they approached us, (like a convict being arrested) and say, "No!" We originally started with "No thank you," but they took the "thank you" part to mean that we really wanted it. So I would clearly say, "No!" with my hands in the air (so he couldn't shove it into my hands, smart, eh?). If he tucked it into my purse (which they usually tried) I would take it out, hold it out to them and let it drop on the ground, and then walk away. We do not mess around with these guys. They will NOT force us to be romantic! Haha. So this tactic has worked probably dozens of times. That is...until today.

At the top of the Spanish Steps, we were watching the sunset when we saw him coming. Just another Flower Man, and I was ready. I even had my hands in the air as he walked up. But he didn't force it on me. He started talking to us! Asking where we were from, what brought us there, etc. Even though we knew his end-game, we couldn't just be rude so we talked back. Well, when someone is nice and friendly, it's harder to reject a flower from their hands when they are insisting it is free. And he knew that. So, like rookies, we took his flower (KNOWING it was a bad idea, mind you) and then we couldn't get rid of the guy for like 10 minutes as he followed us around asking for money (even after we gave the flowers back). Somehow he even managed to put a bracelet on me too! Dark magic, I tell you.... We finally got away, and then I snapped this picture of our dear friend. 

Man, I can't believe we fell for it. Right into his trap. 

We headed home, laughing at our failure, some gelato :)

Day 20: On the road to Rome

Monday, July 29, 2013

Today's highlights

Super hot bus
New digs
Trevi fountain 
Biggest gelato in the world

*** Robbie here ***

Well today started with a little disappointment. Since we were unable to rent the scooters yesterday, we thought we would give it a shot today before we headed to Rome. We were told by our B&B lady that the rentals would cost €26 for the whole day. We were excited as we entered the rental agency only to find out that the rental costed much more than that. Unfortunately, we only had a couple hours before we had to leave for Rome, so we decided it wasn't worth the money just for a few hours.

For those of you who know Angie, you know she is a planner. She is adventurous and has had incredible experiences in her life because she plans them. However, nothing brings Angie down more than when she makes a plan and it falls through. She was so excited to do something romantic in the Tuscan countryside on our anniversary that it broke her heart to not be able to do it. Our walk to the train station felt like the sad walk with sad music on Charlie Brown (and more famously known on Arrested Development). At the train station she was expressing to me that she really wanted to have that experience with me. As I was listening to her, I just melted and felt an overwhelming feeling of compassion and love for Angie. I love her so much! She is always pushing us to have great experiences, step out of our bubble, and be romantic, and I love her for it. I just always go with the flow, taking things as they come and not actively seeking them. I feel like I did a poor job of handling her sadness over the Vespa rental debacle, so maybe in some way, writing this story is part of my penance. I am one lucky man to be married to such an incredible, beautiful, kind woman. 

 Anyway, moving on. 

We made it to Rome! What a cool, cool city. We made our way to our B&B in a neighborhood just a couple metro stops away from the Vatican. When we arrived outside the gate, we rang the bell to the apartment, but Giovanni (our host) didn't answer. We sat around for a while but he didn't come home. So Angie decided to hop the fence and see if she could knock on the apartment door. A neighbor spotted her and eyed her suspiciously. Angie had no luck with breaking in so the neighbor guy confronted us as she hopped back over the fence. We tried to explain what we were doing but it took some serious convincing for him to trust us. He was nice and let us use his cell phone. No answer. And even though there was no answer, it made us realize that cell phones are so great. We haven't been able to use our phones as real cell phones (just for photos, blogging, and reading) and we are reminded all the time how much easier traveling would be if our we could use our cell phones all the time. But maybe it's good--it forces us to ask natives how to get to places or where to eat. We get some good, honest opinions and funny experiences because of it. Giovanni eventually showed up, apologized profusely, we dumped our bags and hit the town!

The first thing we saw was the Pantheon. Whoa mama, it was amazing. This building was enormous, and it seemed even bigger by the fact that it was built in 27 BC, then rebuilt in 120 AD.  That's old. The columns were huge and we learned about how inspired the ancient Romans were when they successfully built the dome ceiling. A dome of that scale was unheard of in that time. We learned that Bruneleschi, a Renaissance artist and architect, cut a rectangular cross section out of the roof in order to understand how it was built. What he learned from the Pantheon he used in creating the dome atop the Duomo church in Florence; an amazing thing, due to the fact that the Pantheon was built 1500 years previous. The ancient Romans were extremely advanced in architecture and technology. Anyway, as we walked into the enormous doorway, we were struck by the big open space inside. There were thousands of tourists, but it wasn't too crowded because of the building's design. Beautiful. 

Another beautiful spot we visited was the Trevi fountain. We don't know too much about this fountain, just that it is awesome. 

Remember gelato? How it's delicious? Well be jealous because Angie and went to the most famous gelateria in Rome! Our gelatos were huge, but we saw one family split a gelato cone that was as big as a birthday party cone hat! It could've doubled as one of those vuvuzelas from the World Cup. Insane, and insanely delicious. But really, they are all good, every gelato we have had. 

Just because the fountain and the pantheon were so beautiful, we went to see them again at night. Take a gander.

Tomorrow we visit the old city!

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Day 16: Cinque Terre #2

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Today's highlights:
   - Hike to Corniglia
   - Beach day #2 (better)
   - Another casualty
   - First experience with Anchovies

***Robbie writing, what up Internet?***

Cinque Terre has been so great. Just chillin' in these little villages, swimming at the beach, and eating at delicious seafood restaurants has been the life!

Today was a lot like yesterday in that we started in Vernazza and traveled to another village. We hiked to the middle of the 5 villages, Corniglia. Look at this beauty on the cliff's edge! 

We actually had a plan to do a lot more hiking today, to get some good use out of our pass, but didn't realize until we started that two of the hiking trails were closed because of a flood, so we could only hike to one more village. 

We got a late start because we had to do our laundry this morning. This delayed hike cost us big time! It was BLAZING hot. So hot that I had to wear a du-rag (sp?). Yeah, I know. I felt ashamed to wear it because I looked like a total nerd. I'm turning into my dad, though he totally pulls off the du-rag look, hah! I gotta protect my ever revealing scalp from the elements. I only wore it on the way to Corniglia, but not on the way back (story to come).

At Corniglia, we scaled down the cliffs by hiking down a steep staircase, and when we arrived at the lagoon, we noticed two things: no crowds and no sand. No crowds, kachow!  So great. At first we were sad about swimming around and not having a beach to play on, but I dare say that I prefer the big boulder beach to the fine sandy one. There, I said it. When we got out of the water, we didn't need to worry about getting sand everywhere and drying off was easy. 

We swam to these little caves at the base of the cliffs and you wouldn't believe what were in these caves--are you ready? Well, let me tell you... thousands of the most perfect, polished, skipping rocks you have ever seen.  Almost every rock was amazing, one was so perfect that I couldn't bear to throw it. So I kept it and I am bringing it home to frame or, I dunno, cover in gold? I skipped rocks for at least an hour while Angie entertained herself in the sea. Even in the ocean, with good sized waves I was getting up to 7-8 skips. I can only imagine what it would be like if it were on a calm lake or something.

Anyway, it was great. On the hike back I had a little incident. Angie and I were trying to remember and sing all of the Hercules songs as we hiked, and while we were singing one of them I jammed my head into a big, knotted, poky tree branch. It gave me a nasty cut. I used Angie's red bandana to put pressure on it, and man it stung. After waiting until it wouldn't seem insensitive, Angie told me that I should've been wearing my du-rag on the way back and maybe I could've avoided this catastrophe. Stylish and practical, now I know why my dad wears them.

This is just after it happened, before it had time to start bleeding.

Back at Vernazza we ate at a cool little place on the main road. We have been told that Cinque Terre is famous for two things as far as food goes: anchovies and pesto. I ordered a dish with anchovies, potatoes, and seasoned tomatoes. Angie ordered a pasta dish, trofie with pesto. I know what you're thinking, anchovies?! But fresh, it is a whole different food my friends. It was the first time I had eaten them, and they were good. Angie thought they were great, I felt they were just good. But the pesto? Mmmm, mmm, MMMMM! Delish. It was a great end to a great day. 

Tomorrow is Pisa and Florence!

Oh yeah. Also, here is your moment of zen (we saw this outside of a restaurant and, while I want to wholeheartedly endorse this message, I can't. I would be a hypocrite. I love technology, but I also love nature, that is all.): 

Also, this:

Day 15: Cinque Terre

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Today's highlights:
   -Left Venice, fleas?
   -Beach Day in Monterosso
   -Pear and cheese pasta for dinner

Happy Pioneer Day everyone! We made it to the Cinque Terre today! And it was awesome! Even if it was super hot and crazy crowded (more crowded, I dare say, than anywhere we have been so far), it was still so beautiful! 

We woke up in Venice to something slightly alarming. Because our hotel had no AC, we had to sleep with the windows open and the fan on all night. Throughout the night, I vaguely remember having dreams of scratching my legs furiously. When I awoke, I realized it was no dream. I was COVERED in little red bites all over me. Now, this would be an annoyance to anyone, probably just stupid mosquitos since we left the window open. But to one who had been hit by the flea train a few too many times (10 separate times on the mish, to be exact), it was terrifying. Yes, fleas. I had fleas 10 times. Even though in my mind, I am SURE this time it is probably just mosquito bites, I can't help but have flash backs of being in the middle of the discussion about Joseph Smith, while intensely scratching the back of my leg with my other foot, wishing it would all go away, only to wake up the next morning and find even MORE bites on my flesh. So only time will tell, but maybe if we all cross our fingers together, I somehow won't have fleas and these bites will go away. 

So we made it to Cinque Terre, to the town of Vernazza, which will be our home base. It is beautiful, and what's more important, the AIR CONDITIONER in our apartment is beautiful! We just laid for like 20 minutes to stop sweating for the first time in awhile, and it felt marvelous.

Then we immediately hopped on the train to the next town, Monterosso (since we were already using our Eurail pass that day, it was free! Plus, we saved money on the hiking pass you have to buy by making it for just one day instead of two). At Monterosso, we hit the beach and WOW, it was crowded! I have never seen a beach like that in all my life. Of course, Robbie and I were still in what I like to call "honeymoon beach denial" meaning that for the rest of our lives we will hold beaches to the standard of that amazing honeymoon beach in Cancun. I mean, why shouldn't you have a whole white, sandy beach to yourself while people follow you around with a big umbrella, ice cold waters, and fresh smoothies? But really, even crowded, Monterosso was a beautiful place!

Here are the lessons I have learned from spending a day on a European beach: 

1) Swimsuits for little girls under age 10 apparently don't come with tops. It was a sea of little girls in underwear and floaty wings.

2) One-piece swimsuits for women DO NOT EXIST. (Unless you are under 10, and your one-piece is your underwear.) I felt like a nun wearing my tankini amidst all those string bikinis. On 80-year old women. 

3) Speedos for men are not only common, but respected. And if you have the nerve to wear a suit that is NOT a speedo, the length had better be NO LONGER than six inches above the knee. If you have any self-respect at all, that is. 

4) Sometimes adult women follow the example of the young girls and decide tops are not necessary. And what's more, they don't warn you! There should be some kind of public service announcement, with lights flashing, "Do not look this way. I am now going for an even, line-less tan!"

Valuable life lessons, no? Well it was fun anyway, and we swam in that ocean like crazy. We'd come back in and lay on the beach for about 10 minutes before we'd be sweating like crazy again and need to take nother dip in the ocean. It felt AMAZING!  We also rented kayaks for the first time! And man, they are way more fun and way easier to row than a row boat. We rowed out as deep as we dared, and then jumped out. We just floated there, feeling good until I started talking about the movie Jaws, which Robbie has never seen, and we both started getting freaked out. All of a sudden it was a rush to get back in our boats. One of us had no trouble. One of us did. I thought I was going to die. Luckily, Robbie helped me back into my kayak (without punching me in the face this time) and we rowed on. It was so peaceful and relaxing. I am now a fan of kayaking!

So we grabbed dinner in Monterosso before heading back to Vernazza and discovered this amazing pasta. It was filled with pears and cheese and covered in this amazing white sauce. Mmm, it was delicious. Unfortunately, it was a tiny portion, just enough to make us crave it for the rest of the night. So so good!

So we made it back to Vernazza, enjoyed some gelato as we perched on a big boulder and watched the sunset, and I just couldn't help but think about how awesome this whole experience is. 

So we got back to our ice cold room, excited to sleep without  sweating. And wouldn't you know it, the cold kept me awake! Why can't this body of mine ever be happy? I was freezing all night to where I had to put on the warmest clothes I brought, get an extra blanket, and constantly change whatever side of me was snuggling Robbie so I could use his body heat to warm me up. What a night. But we made it through, excited to do some hiking tomorrow!

Day 17: Florence

Friday, July 26, 2013

Today's highlights:
   -Leaning Tower of Pisa
   -Uffizi Gallery
   -Best Italian dinner so far
   -Sunset on Piazza Michelangiolo

Ever since we arrived in Italy, we have been searching for, how do I say this, "The Perfect Italian Dining Experience." Unfortunately, we have been a little disappointed. All our food has been good, of course, but just hasn't had that X-factor, you know? Something always tainted it somehow, like one of our dishes was awesome and one just okay, or they were tiny portions, or our waiter maybe wasn't the nicest. Since we only eat out one meal per day, we just keep waiting for that perfect place that has us raving and drooling from the first bite to well after the last. Well, my friends, I am thrilled to announce that today, we found that place.

Florence has been incredible in just about every way today, but ESPECIALLY in the food department. But we'll get there. Also, we didn't get a lot of pictures with our phones so today doesn't have too many photos. We will post them when we get home!

We caught a train this morning from Vernazza in the Cinque Terre to Pisa, with just enough time to run and see the leaning tower and then run back to the train station. Even though we were only there for a out 10-15 minutes, it is still a sight to see. I mean, I expected it to lean, but man, it really....LEANS. I seriously don't know how it hasn't fallen over yet. For all you Goofy Movie fans, I think between the two of us, Robbie and I quoted that line, "It's the leaning tower of Cheesa!" about 6 times. Pretty cool.

So we got to Florence, found our apartment (and found out we had no AC, and it was a million degrees in there) and accidentally broke our kindle. All in a matter of about 10 minutes. It was a rough start in Florence. But after a time of mourning for the kindle (Robbie was grieving), we picked ourselves up and decided to rock Florence. And that is exactly what we did! From that point, everything turned around and we ended up having an amazing day.

The first place we went was the Uffizi Gallery, home to tons of really famous Renaissance paintings. Now, for those of you that don't know (I didn't until about a year ago), Florence is where the Renaissance began and then spread through all of Europe from the 1400-1600's. So basically, this city is a breeding pool of CRAZY TALENT. Seriously, they had more than their fair share of talented artists, including our dear Michelangelo, Donatello, Raphael, (most of the ninja turtle clan), Botticelli, Filippo Lippi, Albrecht Durer, just so many. So we got to see works by all these men and it was crazy cool.

Let me begin by giving a disclaimer. Neither Robbie nor I are especially educated in art history. He remembered a couple things from a college history class, and I remembered the basics of what I taught about the Renaissance last year (which is really the bare-boned basics). So we almost felt a little guilty walking through, looking at these masterpieces, and definitely admiring their beauty, but also not really being able to fully articulate what makes them so unique. So at the risk of sounding like a phony, I will try to describe what made this so cool. Disclaimer done.

The gallery was set up in chronological order, beginning with late Medieval paintings (1300's). As we walked through, you could see the shift in style and new methods being used as the years went by. All of a sudden, there was depth and vibrant color, and more detail. People, instead of looking almost animated like they used to, started to take on really realistic human features. It was beautiful. 

For those of you who do know things about art history, some of the big name original paintings we saw were "The Birth of Venus" and "Allegory of Spring" both by Boticelli, and "The Holy Family" by Michelangelo. It was pretty awesome. We spent about 3 hours in there, and then felt like we had art-ed enough that day (my apologies if I have disrespected any serious art-lovers).

This was when we had......drumroll......"The Perfect Italian Dining Experience." We have followed some of Rick Steves' suggestions in the past, and since we had both good and bleh experiences with them, we decided to roll the dice and just find a place on our own. We happened upon Trattoria il Bargetto, a little tiny Tuscan restaurant. First of all, they serve tap water, which immediately made me like them (I refuse to buy bottled water if I don't have to, so when places don't serve it free, I have to sneak sips from my own water bottle when they're not looking, and that's unpleasant for everyone). Second, the owner/waiter was the sweetest old man with a happy face that didn't seem to speak any English but was the loveable-est little thing. And last but not least, the food was incredible! We never order appetizers and dessert, but everything was so good here, we really splurged for the first time.

Appetizer: Bruschetta toasted to perfection with the perfect balance of crispness and chewiness covered in the most flavorful olive oil, tomatoes, and basil I have ever tasted. 

Main dishes: 1) Ravioli stuffed with tons of yummy cheeses and smothered in heaven sauce, covered in more yummy cheeses. 2) Eggplant with pasta cooked just the right amount, covered in red sauce.

Dessert: Cannoli, a crispy, deep fried shell filled with sweet cheese and candied fruit. 

I wish I was a food critic so I could think of a better way to describe something than "heaven sauce" but that is really the only phrase that seems appropriate from my limited food vocabulary. It was amazing! We couldn't stop talking about that ravioli all night. It was SO good that we already decided we are going back again tomorrow night :).

After dinner, we walked up to Piazza Michelangiolo, which overlooks the entire city, to watch the sunset. This was far and away one of our favorite Florence experiences. The lighting was perfect, a DJ at a restaurant nearby was playing Andrea Bocelli, and we could see everything! It was beautiful and romantic and perfect. The perfect way to end the day. 

Day 14: Venice

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Today's highlights: 
   -Why Venice is so beautiful 
   -Sights we saw
   -Our Hunger Walk
   -The birds!

Two things were overwhelming to me today. 
1) I am 100% in love with Venice.
2) Venice is bloody HOT!!
We had heard mixed things about Venice. Some people don't like it because its a dying city and all that. Now I am not naive enough to think I would want to live there. It's totally a tourist trap, claiming to be the most "romantic city in the world." But I admit, I got caught up in it. It is SO beautiful and (from my one-day exposure as a foreigner) so magical. You could just get lost there for hours (and we did, though I wouldn't recommend it on an empty stomach). It is so incredible to listen to the dueling orchestras play in St' Mark's Square as the sun goes down. Or to just stand on a bridge overlooking the Grand Canal, and watch the gondoliers maneuver these ENORMOUS boats around each other using nothing but a single weird-shaped oar. 

We decided not to splurge the 80 euro (nearly $100) to take a gondola ride ourselves, and while initially I had mixed feelings about that, I think that was definitely the right decision, because you can experience the magic of it just standing there watching them all. 

So first impressions: 
The entire city is literally on water. I think in my mind, I imagined you would have to take a ferry to get to it, but then there would be cars and traffic over there. No no, we never saw a single car. You literally walk or take a boat everywhere in the city. Right up to your front porch if you want. How amazing is that?! And we totes happened upon a bunch of spots that were in the movie, "Italian Job," so that was a fun surprise. Any Marky Mark lovers recognize this spot?

Second impression, I have never been so hot in all my life. I am coming to accept the fact that I am going to be wet from sweat every moment of the day, and be sticky from previous sweat every moment of the night for the rest of this trip. There's no escaping it. I was dripping for most of the day. But despite the heat, I loved (almost) every minute of it. (Story to come).

One of my favorite things was watching street artists create works of art right in front of you. It is AMAZING! So amazing that I might have splurged on a painting...

Also, all the Carnevale masks everywhere. It was cool and a little creepy at the same time.

We saw so many beautiful things. We got to wander into the Frari church, a huge cathedral that is considered one of the best places for art-lovers to go in Venice. 
We walked around pretending that we understood things like, "depth" and "lines" and "baroque" and "high renaissance" vs. "early renaissance." Despite our ignorance, it really was beautiful and super interesting. We also got to wander around St. Mark's Basilica and see other beautiful paintings. Right next to St. Mark's is "The Doge's Palace." The doge was ruler of Venice, and his place was spectacular from the outside, but because we are cheap (and hoping we don't run out of money), we didn't pay to go inside. But there is a bridge from the doge's palace, connecting it to the prison just across the canal. It's called "The Bridge of Sighs" because when prisoners were given their sentence, they would pass through that bridge on their way to the prison. The view of Venice they saw through the windows of that bridge was often the last view they ever had. Sad story. Cool bridge. 

So after seeing that, we wandered a little more. But then our stomachs growled, and this where things started gettin sketch. 

We had left Menaggio so early that morning that we weren't able to eat breakfast. So at one of our train layovers on the way to Venice, we bought some bread. That is what we had had to eat that day. A little chunk of bread, each. When we first arrived in Venice around lunchtime, we didn't even think about lunch, we were so caught up in the magic we saw and making sure we could find a hotel (sidenote: this was the first time we just showed up to a city without having a reservation somewhere and just found a place when we arrived. It totally works! No more panic for future places we haven't reserved). Anyway, we had wandered for hours on empty stomachs, fueled only by our curiosity and wonder. But those things only fuel you if you don't realize you're hungry. Once you realize you haven't eaten in 8 hours and you are sweating your brains out and you are out of water, nothing else matters but finding sustenance. The problem is, we were so famished by this point that we wanted really good food (I mean come on, we earned it!). The problem is that we were lost somewhere around the Accademia. We saw some sketch places and some expensive places but didn't want either. You would think our hunger would have just made us pick the first thing we saw, but it was the weirdest thing. It's like our brains were so fuzzy, we were both slurring our speech, and we had to find "good, cheap food." And every place we turned down, made it that much more important to find a place that would make all this effort worth it. It was the worst.

We wandered in the heat, delirious from hunger until we finally chose a nicer, more expensive place and drank all the water we could while sharing the cheapest thing on their menu (I think they were unhappy with us). Regardless, we made it, and afterwards, we got gelato. And then all was right with the world again. 

We were in no state for a before picture so I'm sorry you can't compare. Trust me, it was rough.

After dinner, we had a renewed sense of strength, so we hung out in St. Mark's Square. Every night, the square is dotted with "dueling orchestras" that rotate playing their music all night to the crowd seated at the cafes in front. It turns out, if you sit down at one of those cafes, the owner can charge you 20 euro for listening to the music. But if you stay standing, you can listen all you want. Luckily we were warned about this, so we walked around to whatever orchestra was playing and shamelessly danced to that particular kind of music, until they stopped and a new one started. Then we'd move too. It was so great, dancing to a live orchestra in Venice as the sun went down. 

It was then that we noticed the birds. 

St. Mark's Square is COVERED in pigeons. Like, they're everywhere. And they don't fly away. If you stand there long enough, holding your arms out like a scarecrow, they will come and land on you thinking you have food. We know this because  we saw two 8-year old boys doing it and Robbie was convinced if they could do it, so could he. So I laughed and laughed as he stood there in the middle of all these birds and tons of people holdin his arms out like a goober. Until it worked. Then all laughter was gone, and I was right there with him, like a Mrs. Scarecrow, willing them to come to me too. When they did, it was so crazy. I was elated and terrified at the same time.

 Unfortunately, we didn't really think about how unsanitary those pigeons were until after we did it. Then we were worried all night that we were going to catch some crazy disease. Still cool though. 

We finally took a water bus back to our hotel and we were SO exhausted. Seriously, as disgusting as I knew I was from the heat, I could not stand up off the bed to take a shower. It took Robbie five minutes of persuading (and he even had to bribe me with a foot massage) for me to finally get clean. 

Long, long day. But I would not have changed a thing. We loved Venice so much!

Friday, July 26, 2013

Day 13: Menaggio, Italy

Monday, July 22, 2013

Today's highlights:
   -Cooking Class! 
   -Life lesson learned
   -Relaxed night

Oh man, today was so great! Today, we took a cooking class with a real Italian chef. And THEN we got to eat what he made! So so so delicious! 

As soon as we woke up, we took a ferry across the lake to Varenna where his wife picked us up and drove us up to his restaurant on top of the mountain. And let me begin by saying, I never ever want to drive in Italy. The roads are tiny and winding and only wide enough for one car. Around every corner, you just lay on the horn to warn anyone coming from the opposite direction that you are there. It is insane and terrifying. But we made it up there!

We were with a fun group too. There were 10 of us. A retired American couple, a 30's couple with two young kids back home, two middle-aged, hilarious Canadian couples, and us. We especially connected with the other younger couple. Super friendly and as excited to be there as we were :).

Our Chef's name was Chef Moreno, and he was awesome. We made not one but THREE main courses. He taught us to make homemade pasta in tomato-based sauce, gnocchi in a white sauce, and risotto! And holy Hannah, they were unreal! We were there for like 6 hours so I will spare you all the details. But I will include some of my favorite lines from Chef Moreno:

"It is one of the most easier fings to do wit your life." (Referring to cooking)

"Show the garlic who is boss in the kitchen!"

"All you need is passion and that is all. It does not matter how many recipes you know. Just how many passion you put in."

"Think of cooking as a way to relax yourself."

"Here is Mr. Basil. Thisa mean 'summer.'"

"All things in moderation. Right quantity in food, right quantity in wine. Only one wife."

"I started learning English to know what Led Zeppelin was saying. Now I know I choose the most bad teacher in the whole world."

(When we had to roll the gnocchis off of a fork), "It make it easier to say 'Shuuuuuuut up!' while you flick it."

He was hilarious, but in a really subtle way. He doesn't laugh at his own jokes, but you can't help but laugh. Here are the only decent pics we got on our phones. The rest are on our camera:

So not only did we (really he) make all this food and get to eat it at the end, he gave us like 2 or 3 rounds of snack time in between (including all the wine you want. Our Canadian friends were swaying by the end of the day). Oy. We ate so much, and it was all SO good! 

First we ate the risotto, and it was this delicious mushroom and apple concoction. Sounds crazy, right? So savory, so good. 

Then we ate the gnocchi, which actually tasted really fresh because the sauce is mostly zucchini and ricotta cheese (which was so fresh, it looked like whipped cream). Of course, the 3 gallons of olive oil did weigh it down a bit. This was the only dish that we got to help make. He called us up to roll out the dough in long sticks (and Mom, I was the fastest, all because of those years of breadstick rolling. I have you to thank for helping me get here). Then we cut them into little pillows, and then rolled them off the edge of a fork to give them little ridges (while saying in a thick Italian accent, "Shuuuuuut up."). Super good, but I might try to make the gnocchi again in a different sauce. Still, amazing. I love gnocchi so much, this was the one I was most excited to learn.

And lastly, we ate the homemade linguini in a red sauce. This was AMAZING but since we had already eaten so much, I could only get in a couple bites before I felt like I might asplode. He does this crazy thing where he puts whole cherry tomatoes into the sauce. That way, when you bite into one, it is so juicy that it cleanses your mouth, making you more prepared to savor every bite you take afterwards. 

And at the end, he gave us the recipes AND a certificate for finishing the course. Woot! We are graduates!

It was an awesome experience, only slightly tainted by some CRAZY drama. So whenever Chef Moreno wasn't explaining things, we were all just chatting and making conversation (everyone except the retired couple. They were pretty quiet). Well the young mom, I will call her Deborah, made a comment about how she wished the American education system emphasized learning a foreign language at a younger age. She mentioned that learning a language really gives kids a broader world view and helps them learn that we are not the only ones here, but that we can learn from all cultures and people. Then she said, "Sometimes when I travel, I'm ashamed of being an American." What she had meant was that Americans have a bad reputation for being really egotistical and self-important in Europe, and often unappreciative of the beauty of other cultures. She doesn't like being associated with THAT reputation. But she didn't say it quite right. Just then, the retired gentleman, I shall call him Dave, who hadn't spoken a word in the big group, suddenly sprung to life, and was infuriated that this woman would say she was ashamed of being American, especially in a foreign country. Mind you, we were all strangers to each other making polite conversation, but then in a matter of seconds, it turned into a very intense, angry atmosphere. We were all so shocked at Dave's outburst, that no one knew how to react, including Deborah. She finally tried to explain what she had meant and that she loves America, but Dave would not hear it. He just kept saying, "No! You are ashamed of being an American! And that is just disgraceful!" It was crazy. He finally stood up and asked to be taken back down the mountain, as he didn't want to be there anymore. After he and his wife left, we were just flabbergasted. Poor Deborah was so upset, since she had just been yelled at by a complete stranger. But as we were all trying to comfort her, she actually brought up a good point (which I think was very big of her), that Dave comes from a generation of men who watched their brothers and best friends die in the name of this country. To hear another person say they are ashamed of that country might feel to him like the sacrifices made were made in vain and were completely unappreciated. Even though that is not what she had meant at all, it does make his outburst have some kind of backing, although it was very sad and unfortunate to see it happen. It was just a bummer of a situation. Super crazy. It was definitely a reminder to me that we do not always understand what past has led each of us to where we are in life. You can't possibly understand why someone is the way they are, you have not lived their life. But above all, no matter who you are or where you come from, treating each other with respect is the only way we can peacefully combine all those different lives and histories. Love first. Learn from each other. Be kind. It makes the world a happier place.

So that was pretty much most of our day. Besides the drama, the cooking class was AWESOME! And did I mention delicious? 

That night, after we had time to digest just enough to have a little bit of room in our stomachs, of course we rushed to the gelaterie to get our gelato on. We walked up and down the lake shore, eating our gelato and playing the movie quote game (which I totally won) and then the theme music game (which I pathetically lost) and ended up back at our hostel where we had a nice game of ping pong before hittin the sac. All in all, it was a great day. 

Tomorrow, we hit Venice! Can't wait!!!!!