The Unexpected Experiences

We had arrived in Florence, AL, the previous evening for a weekend event, and had spent the night in a hotel room beside the highway.  We woke up early (considering the local time) because of the difference in longitude between the place we were visiting and our home (which we had departed the previous morning).  We had traveled in a south westerly direction the previous day.   I raised the shades covering the window pane just to take a look outside. This is what I saw. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe sky was an optimal mix of purple and orange and shades in-between, with the clouds at different locations in the sky passing through different frequencies of the color spectrum.   I quickly pulled up a pair of pants, grabbed my camera, and dashed out of the front door of the hotel to get another view that would hopefully not be blocked by something in front of me.  By the time I got to a clear location, the moment was gone.  This was what I saw.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAConsider the different elements that came together for me to have this experience.  First of all, I had to open up the shades of the window at the proper moment in time when the sun was at the position that it was in relative to that location on the planet.  Secondly, the window to the room that we were staying in had to be facing east so that I would indeed see the event. (Being on the third floor of the hotel also helped.)  Thirdly, the cloud formation had to be right for me to get a glimpse of all those colors.  I would probably have not enjoyed this experience if any one of the three elements had been out of place.

Some may be tempted to invoke divine intervention as the cause for the circumstances of this experience. But if this had indeed  been a set up, I would consider it a partial screw-up – at the moment when the sunrise was at its best, I could only view it through the branches of a tree, and by the time I got to a location where I could get a better view,  that moment was over.  But perhaps the screw-up was also purposeful, eh?!  We can go on and on…

Best to take it as it comes and try to be prepared for the unexpected experiences, both good and bad.

Our Italian Holiday – The Dinner in Florence

Now may be a good time to mention our bus driver Aldo who drove us all the way from Venice to Sorrento.   Aldo did not speak English well enough to try to talk to us, and that might be the reason he seemed to be very quiet on the bus. But if you sat in the front of the bus you could hear the conversations he was having with Alessandro, our tour manager, in Italian.  Aldo had that calm air about him that made our bus-rides all the more relaxed and enjoyable.  He drove the huge bus in all kinds of situations, including the drives on the highways, and the twists and turns of the narrow streets that had to be negotiated to get to out-of-the-way places.   He drove day and night and in different kinds of weather conditions without any change in the handling of the bus. He was a master of the road.  We were all appreciative, and so was Alessandro our tour manager.  He even made up a ditty for us to sing to him as a token of our appreciation (“Oh Aldo..”).

I will also preface this particular blog with a note that the experience that we had that night which I am going to write about was totally unexpected.  After all, we had all paid what we thought was a reasonable amount of money for what we presumed would be a simple tour with a focus on sightseeing.  Although a few dinners were included, we were thinking of them as additions to the package to make our life easier during the tour.  The lunch the previous day had been a pleasant surprise in this regard.  But the experience of the dinner that night really blew away expectations!

Folks might have been looking for a little bit of relaxation after a long day of walking around Florence, but there was more to come that evening.  Dinner was happening in a restaurant called “I Tre Peni” in the hills of Tuscany on the outskirts of the city.  Aldo was there promptly at our hotel with his bus to get us to our destination.  It was not an easy drive through the narrow winding roads where there was barely enough place for automobiles , let alone an automobile and a bus, to pass each other.  I think there was a little bit of blind faith, and perhaps a short prayer or two, involved in negotiating the blind corners, hoping nothing was coming the other way.  But Aldo got us there with aplomb.

We were greeted at the entrance with glasses of a blue wine courtesy of the owners to the restaurant, a family that own a winery called Fratelli Saraceni.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThere were a couple of musicians there to entertain us, a guitar player and a singer.  There were more bottles of different kinds of wine awaiting us at our dining table.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe dinner started out with a wonderful spread of vegetables laid out on a central table for all to share.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIt is quite the sight, and a nice surprise.  We had been missing out on the usual vegetable intake that we were used to at home.

The singer walked around the restaurant singing to the ladies and inviting them for a dance or two.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe merriment continued through the items that we were served before the main course, and indeed all of this food was polished off.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe musicians would take breaks from their efforts every once in a while and then come back to sing some more songs for us.  At some point one of our fellow travelers was invited up to sing an Italian song with the musicians.   And then the folks at our table convinced me in my inebriated state to join the guitar player to sing a song that I did not know the words to.  I survived, and fortunately others were in the same state of mind as I was so that it did not matter that I was probably making a fool of myself.  By this time the guitar player was playing more and more riffs from songs in English that I could recognize, and so some of us joined in the background singing from our table.

The main course consisted of a serving of different kinds of meats on a big dish, to be shared around the table.PB104452.jpgIt was all quite tasty.  And the wine kept flowing.  After dinner Alessandro joined in some of the singing and noted that it was time for some dancing.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAldo was also invited to join the musicians.  He watched the rest of us with a somewhat bemused look on his face.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAFolks boogied while the musicians did their thing.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA Alessandro then introduced a newlywed couple who were a part of our group and brought out a cake for them.  A song was sung for them.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWhen informed that there were other couples who were celebrating their anniversaries during the trip, he invited them all up.  The musicians sang a song to all of them,OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAand they then all together blew out the candle on the cake.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA Finally it was time for dessert and a shot of limoncello to close out the festivities at the restaurant.

On our way out of the restaurant we stopped at the front desk to jointly order a few bottles of different varieties of wine to be shipped home for us.  (This is something we may not have done if we had been in a different state of mind!)  The bottles of wine have just arrived.

Folks were in a great mood on the drive back.  There was music and singing, and even an attempt at trying to dance,OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAas Aldo drove the winding roads carefully, on his mission to deliver us safely back to our hotel.  But he was also part of the fun. At some point he had us going around in circles in a roundabout.   There had been some talk before we set out for the restaurant about walking to a good gelato place near the hotel after dinner for more dessert.  But some of us had had enough fun for the day.  We retired to our rooms in a tired and tipsy state of mind ready to fall asleep.  We had the drive to Rome ahead to us the next day to consider.

Read the next entry in this series of blogs on our trip to Italy here.

Our Italian Holiday – The Day in Florence

After a day of travel, this particular day was devoted to taking in the sights of the city of Florence (Firenze).  Florence, the capital of Tuscany, is considered the birthplace of the Renaissance, and is well known for its art and architecture. The city has an important place in the history of Italy.  This was the land of the famous  Medici Family in the middle ages.

This was a view of the Arno river early in the morning near our hotel.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe were taken on a bus from our hotel to the Accademia Gallery, where the primary attraction is Michelangelo’s statue of David.Bus being loaded for ride into the middle of Florence.jpgThe lines to enter the gallery were long but things were moving since it was still early in the morning.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe statue of David is indeed stunning in its setting, and it gets your attention from many different locations in the gallery.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAMichelangelo was also a  anatomist. He understood the muscle and bone structure of a human being very well and was a master at recreating this in his work.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe other interesting room was the collection of sculptures made by students at the Academy in the past as a part of their studies.  These were not necessarily meant for  public viewing.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe holes in the sculptures were meant to be peg-points so that anybody making a copy could get the correct proportions for the piece they were sculpting.

After we were done with the academy we walked down to The Dome of Florence Cathedral.  You could see the bell tower in the distance as we approached the piazza where the church is located.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA The church is huge.  In fact it is so big and is in such a location that I found it impossible to capture the entire building in a single picture.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe Piazza del Duomo where the church is locatedOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAalso includes the Florence BaptistryOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA and the bell tower for the church called Giotto’s campanile.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA The architecture of this huge church is amazing. The dome of the cathedral dominates the city’s skyline and is a symbol of Florence. It is massive and an amazing piece of engineering whose architecture and construction is still discussed by the experts.  Nobody had built a dome of that size at that time. It is actually a double dome (designed this way to try to lighten the weight) and the inner one is apparently 5 to 7 feet thick and is considered safe in spite of cracks which you can see from the ground.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAfter the visit to the cathedral we walked the narrow streets  OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAto the Piazza della Signoria.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERATwo landmarks of Florence that are around this plaza are the Palazzo Vecchio and the Loggia dei Lanzi.  The plaza also includes a water fountain with a  massive statue of Neptune.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA This was the end of the morning tour.

We then walked on our own down to the  Ponte Vecchio, a bridge over the the Arno river.  The bridge has high-end jewelry stores on both sides of the walkway.  While others indulged in shopping we took the views of the Arno river from the bridgeOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA and got an opportunity to take pictures of the bridge itself and the buildings on the river bank.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe passage-way on the left of the panoramic pictures was part of the Vasari Corridor built between two palaces in the middle ages.

After lunch it was time to visit the Uffizi (it is to the left of the dark brown building in the pictures above). Folks in Italy say that the Uffizi is to Florence what the Louvre is to Paris.  It is something that you should not miss if you go to the city.  (This was all news to me since I am not a real connoisseur of art.)  It is a massive gallery and it would take a few days to go though it diligently.  Our tour guide just walked us through a few of the rooms.  Here are some of the sights (click through to see individual pictures).

After the tour we headed for the Piazza di Santa Croce.  This is the location of the Basilica of Santa Croce.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAFrorence is known for its leather work.  Alessandro had set up a tour of a leather shop for us.  We learned how to identify real leather!OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe hung out in the plaza for a short while.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAfter this stop, the others in our group decided to take a taxi back to the hotel while the two of us decided to take a walk along the Arno to our hotel. The sun was beginning to set. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe got to our hotel room without any issues.  It was time to relax for a short while. There was more fun being planned for that evening as a part of the tour,  a subject for the next blog in this series.

Our Italian Holiday – Getting to Florence

We had a very nice time in Venice in spite of the short stay there.  It was now time to set out on the next leg of our Italian vacation. We were heading to Florence (Firenze).

It was early in the morning when we started our walk towards the location where our bus was waiting for us.  We got our last sight of the Grand Canal partially lit up by the morning sun as we crossed over a bridge on our way on foot.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe passed the bus stand for commuter buses from the mainland.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe caught the Venice People Mover train from a building close to the bus stand for a short ride to the  Tronchetto parking lot where our bus was waiting.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASoon we were headed off the island over the bridge paralleling the bridge for the railway line. The Ponte della Libertà (or Bridge of Liberty) was built by Mussolini in the 1930s.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA On the mainland we followed the railway tracks for a short while.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA We passed a stationary Frecciargento high-speed train. This one can get you from Venice to Roma in less than four hours. (BTW, there are faster train lines in Italy!)OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThen we were in the countryside and on the highway passing Padua and Bologna.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAfter a few hours, including a couple of “il bagno” stops along the way,OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAwe entered a stretch of highway cutting through the Apennine mountain range, crossing from the eastern side of Italy to the western side.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThere were several impressive tunnels that the highway went through while crossing this range.  This highway is also a part of the European Union highway system with a European highway designation E35.  We saw European Union license plates on trucks from different parts of the continent.

We reached our destination for the afternoon, the province of Lucca in the Tuscany region soon after.  We stopped at the Fattoria Il Pogio vineyard just outside of the town of Lucca for lunch.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA We had lunch at the restaurant after an tour of the farm led by a rather enthusiastic lady. The last picture in this set is of an olive tree.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThere were other tour groups at lunch, which was accompanied by a few different bottles of wine produced at the estate.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe were offered a formal meal, something typical of many of the dinners we had in Italy.  We ate and drank heartily, and people were in a great mood after all was said and done.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe rain had started to come down heavily by the time we reached Pisa for our next stop.  At the bus  stop in Pisa, we were surrounded by a number of people of African descent selling small items, including cheap umbrellas.  We bought one. It had a minor design issue but proved to be adequate for the task. There was also a minor emergency when getting people off the bus because many of them had make use of “el bagno” in a hurry, no doubt an aftereffect of the merrymaking that had accompanied lunch.  There was also the thought that crossed the mind that the impact of the leaning tower of Pisa would be enhanced by the state of mind that people were in.

The leaning tower, called the Torre de Pisa in Italian, is the bell tower for  a cathedral called the Duomo di Pisa. There is also a baptistry next to the church. The place itself is called the Piazza dei Miracoli (which translates to Square of Miracles) or the Piazza del Duomo. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIt was obvious from initial observations that the tower was really leaning (apparently about 4° at this time),OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAbut I got to thinking that, without a context, one could even make an upright tower look like it was leaning, depending on how one took a picture of the structure, or one could even take the picture of a leaning tower from a direction from which it might look upright.  Here it is being pushed upright with some effort.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe also spent some time in the cathedral.PB094050.jpgThe area at the entrance to the piazza was  filled with little shops selling knick-knacks and food and drink.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe visited some of the stores and had drinks to warm us up before heading back to the  trolley that was to take us to the bus that was waiting at the bus stand.

The drive from Pisa to Florence was relatively short.  We got to our hotel with sufficient time left for us to go out to get some dinner.  We found a nice place within walking distance.  The menu at the restaurant showed that one could order three courses for dinner, but they did not object to each of us buying only a single item on the menu from any of the course selections.  We could see that the meals were being freshly cooked in the the kitchen that we had passed to get to our seating towards the back of the restaurant. We retired back to the hotel after some good food and wine.

It had been a relatively long and wet day and we were tired.  It was time to crash out.

Read the next entry in this series of blogs on our trip to Italy here.