Florence Italy

Our last stop in Tuscany was the city of Florence. Called “Firenze” in Italian, it is famous for its history and was one of the wealthiest medieval cities of its time. Florence is considered the birthplace of the Renaissance.
All accommodations for our Tuscany trip were taken from the world traveler and guide- book author Rick Steves, except in Florence. My travel agent/ wife booked a lovely hotel in the middle of the older part of town through initaly.com, near the train station and walking distance to major sites of interest (La Residenza dell’Orafo, laresidenzadellorafo.it).
The manager, Raffaella, and her assistant Adriana were more than helpful in assisting us with just about anything we needed to know about Florence. They both spoke perfect English, which was a big plus — we actually arrived where we had intended.
There’s so much to see in this consumers’ paradise. Shops with the high-end names such as Armani, Gucci and Dior tempted the locals and visitors alike. This was the source, not a satellite bureau. The mothership of shopping for stuff no man would ever need, or want. As my wife walked mindlessly into the shops like a moth to a flame, I took in the scenery and people watching outside.
After what I hoped was her fill, she enlisted the service of a burro (me) to drag said merchandise through the rest of the city. We strolled by a street artist
named Matteo Appignani, who was literally drawing on the street renditions of Michelangelo’s paintings with colored chalk. His work was beautiful.
We found ourselves exploring deeper and deeper into the streets and alleys.
A young woman looked out from a doorway down a small, cobblestone, alley-like passage.
We were intrigued, and hungry. I asked if this was a restaurant and if they were open, as there were no other customers.
The restaurant, Ristorante Dante e Beatrice (dante beatrice.com) appeared to be quite small from the outside and entry, however, upon inspection, we discovered it was actually very large and could seat about 100 diners. At this time of day they were short about 98 customers, so we had the full attention of a vigilant staff.
Our friendly server, Hisham, suggested the spaghetti bolognese (red meat sauce). He said he had been eating this dish when we came in,  I ordered, and it was excellent!
The spaghetti bolognese was brought out on a large plate, and stacked like a small mountain. It looked like the monolith Richard Dreyfuss was building in his living room in the movie “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.”
I think it was molded with a bucket. Big and Tall Spaghetti! It was magnificent! Never have I seen the like of this, nor expect to again.
I immediately thought that this would be a major “to go” order, but the flavor was so good that I finished off the whole plate. A meal to remember for sure!
We took the “hop on-hop off” double-decker bus for a city tour. This method of transportation is recommended
by Steves, as well as my travel agent/wife. A day pass will enable you to see the city, get off where you want, wander around and shop and dine, then get on the next bus to see another site, or return to your original location. Our bus arrived at Piazzale Michelangelo overlooking Florence with a splendid view. As there was only one bus after ours, it was a good decision to stay and enjoy the scene. (We did make the next bus.)
Next to the wall of the overlook was parked an Italian taco-truck. No tacos, only Italian fare: pizza, panini (delicious hot cheese and meat sandwich), and bless them, bottled wine. We watched the sun set while drinking local Chianti.
A perfect end to a self-guided tour of Tuscany, and Florence Italy.

Under the Tuscan Sun and Rain

Our first stop after leaving San Gimignano was the medieval town of Montepulciano to the south. The walled fortress-like town featured shops and restaurants open in the daytime, but they rolled up the sidewalk at night. Just kidding; there is no sidewalk. As this is a medieval town, there are only small cobblestone streets. As a note of interest, there are public wash rooms, with no public toilet paper. Bring your own; you will thank me later.
We walked the length of the town, downhill thank goodness, and returned to our hotel by shuttle bus filled with locals coming back from shopping in the lower part of town. A tourist, busy photographing some quaint artifact, was too close to the street, and the bus mirror missed him by inches. This delighted the passengers to no end. Everyone had a good laugh on that one.
Adjacent to one of the town squares (Piazza Grande) is the winery Contucci (contucci.it). They feature free tours of the barrel rooms and tasting of their local wines. Most wineries I have been to in California charge a fee to taste, and give you a thimbleful of each wine, and you may or may not buy one bottle. The world famous Adamo (head wine man on the property featured in magazines and on PBS, as well as a Rick Steves program on the area) has a different take on this. He gives you half a glass, and if you are not drinking it fast enough, he encourages you to drink faster, as there are many more bottles to taste. As a result, you leave smiling a lot, and with four or five bottles in hand. As the tasting room was next to the hotel Meuble il Riccio (ilriccio.net) and there was no driving involved, we totally enjoyed what we remembered of our experience. And the wine was great!
The next day we drove through the countryside, enjoying the view, when we happened on the town of Pienza. In Rick Steves’ guide, it was described as a tourist-orientated (trap) medieval village. Parking again was sketchy at best, and while looking for a spot, we passed right through the place with the non-help of a navigational device manufactured by Satan, installed by the rental agency. (My wife, Carrie, has many pet names for the GPS, none of which can be printed in a family paper.) This modern inconvenience can make you cry.
I kept driving for about a half-mile when we came across a scene that begged to be photographed. It was a small Tuscan home, with the skinny Tuscan trees in front, with a small Tuscan unpaved road leading up to the house. This was as pretty as a postcard! After photographing from a few different angles, we drove back to Pienza, found a parking spot and started to explore the town. At one shop, I noticed a rack with postcards from the area. There, on two cards, was MY little Tuscan home. Not enough to be as pretty as a postcard, it was as pretty as TWO postcards! (I will add that there was a little Photoshop help on those cards, and as art, that made the scene extra attractive. Take note that the power line is still in my photo.)
Night of terror!
On our last night in Montepulciano, the wind and rain really picked up. In fact, it picked up part of the hotel and slammed it on our wall throughout the night. In the wee hours of the morning, when I heard the final crescendo with a sonic boom-like crash, I knew that finally the wind had won! The next morning I looked out our window to see a 20-foot section of substantial rain gutter lay dead in the garden. Good! I had a nap that afternoon to make up for quality time spent awake. Carrie slept through the apocalypse, but I think she could sleep in an active battlefield. All the years of conditioning by my snoring had paid off. She should thank me later. All in all, a great time in Montepulciano and this part of Tuscany, and being under the Tuscan sun and rain


We landed on Venetian Sovereignty by boat taxi after landing by plane at the nearby airport. We disembarked about one block from out hotel, a converted monastery located near the train station. Everything is within walking distance, as that is the only mode of transportation besides the boats
Venice was built before the dark ages, in a swamp to discourage local and foreign invaders. The only way to and from there was by water. Early Venetians drove wooden poles below the waterline to support the buildings. Through the centuries the town morphed into what we see today, a city totally intertwined with various sizes of canals. Horses and autos were never allowed on the island. All goods and fuel was transported to the city by water, as it is today. The city became rich trading to nearby city-states, and eventually to far away countries.

After securing lodging for our allotted stay, we walked around in a light rain, more like a mist. Residents and tourists alike donned umbrellas, and took up a swift pace to avoid the weather. We embraced it. The sunlight broke through the foreboding sky onto the multicolored pastel buildings, making the afternoon take on a magical quality. We proceeded to explore the labyrinth of back streets, open markets and hidden restaurants. Once again my geographically challenged family attempted to “guide” us on our way. After numerous course changes, we arrived back at our hotel as the sun was setting. They could get lost on an island, not I.

We found out the next day where all the main tourist attractions (shopping) were, and I vowed to avoid them. Carrie and Katie vowed to spend everything they had. We did find a great restaurant deep into the maze. It featured some of the best street food (pizza like material, covered with meats and cheese) in all of Europe, or at least that street. We enjoyed a light meal and a glass of wine while people watching from the outdoor dining tables. It was a very nice way to pass the time.

The next day while exploring, a hard rain was upon us. This was like walking in a waterfall. We took refuge in the lobby of a hotel along our route, and were welcomed by the staff to say while the monsoon had passed. Katie stood in the doorway and invited everyone within shouting range to join us in the dry lobby. Some took her up on her offer, and the staff never complained. A very hospitable city.

After buying supplies (wine) at a local Co-op, we embarked upon our journey. We boarded the Princess Cruise ship “Behemoth”. A slightly smaller version of  a nuclear aircraft carrier, but not by much. We would spend days finding our way through the bowels of the beast

As we left Venice, the ships giant movie screen and speakers played the opera piece by Sarah Brightman & Andrea Bocelli “Time to say goodbye”. It seemed so perfect as we cruised by Piazza San Marco, far below and filled with people, on such a beautiful day. It had rained earlier that morning, and now the sky was clear except for clouds on the horizon. Venice seemed to glow in the late spring air.
The ships staff had heard the music, probably every time they set sail, and a few stopped to join in the song, even the hand gestures. With such a diverse crew from countries all over the world, it was really quit a sight.