Sunday, March 30, 2014

Our Honeymoon: Second Day in Rome

After some much needed rest, we were up early again to head to the Vatican for our tour.  This was another one we had scheduled in advance as we knew the lines for the general public entrance would be hours long.  We would have a guide for 4.5 hours and also see a few areas that you couldn't normally go.

We hoped on the metro and easily found our meeting point.

We knew well in advance that this was one of the places where we had to have shoulders, knees, etc. covered.  We had done some shopping before the trip, mostly because Adam needed some new shorts.. and I made a point to find a lightweight skirt and thin, linen top just for this day (although both are cute and can be worn again!)

Soon after meeting up with the group, we headed into Vatican City. We had to go through security, and it was really neat knowing we were technically walking into another country.

There was a pretty impressive model of the entire city just inside that we got to check out first to get the lay of the land.

We were soon heading outside to a courtyard where we got our fist glimpse of St. Peter's Basilica.

Fortunately, it wasn't as hot on this day... it helped that when we were outside we were in shade, and much of the tour was inside the buildings.

Despite neither of us being overly enthralled by history and art, we ended up really enjoying everything we learned.  Our guide was excellent in sharing stories and telling us all about the things we were looking at throughout the tour.

Our favorite part was when we stood in front of a board showing the Sistine Chapel and all of the artwork.  Tour guides aren't allowed to share in the Sistine Chapel, so they use these boards to explain what we would be seeing once inside.  It was SO neat to learn all about this famous place.

After this, we started exploring some of the buildings.  Our tour got us access to a tower that was used in the past to take the pope to his apartment a long time ago.  We also got to see some great views of Rome from there.  And then we moved on to seeing a LOT of art and artifacts as well as some former pope apartments and other such areas of the buildings.

Before long, we finally made our way into the Sistine Chapel.  We were surprised at how small it was inside.  It was also SO crowded. They're constantly running a recording saying that you can't talk or take pictures... which we felt like sorted of contradicted the purpose.  I still took some pictures anyways because come on, it's the Sistine Chapel.  And everyone else was doing it, so when in Rome, right?!

The pictures don't really show how gorgeous the place is! It was really cool to realize we were standing in the Sistine Chapel and looking at this famous work of Michelangelo.

From there, we ended out tour at St. Peter's.  It's ginormous and there's no way to show how big it is in any of the pictures I took. It was really impressive.  After our tour ended, we wandered around a bit more and took a few more pictures in the plaza out front.

We grabbed a bite of lunch and a gelato (of course).  We went on and found the Spanish Steps so that we could mark it off our list as seen.  It was definitely a "now we've seen it" sort of stop, haha.

Then we headed back to our hotel for our afternoon shower and nap.  Seriously. Loved our naps.

We headed over to Piazza Navona to check the area out for the evening.  We wandered around and found the Pantheon.  We checked out the street artists and street vendors. And then we had one of the best meals we had while in Italy at a little cafe.  We had good dinners most nights, but only because we spent a bit more than usual (it was our honeymoon after all!).  Past that, we found the food in Italy to be pretty bland and just... not good.

After dinner, we wandered around the plaza a bit more before hopping in a cab back to our hotel.  It had been another draining day so we were content to crash and get some more rest before leaving Rome in the morning for our last stop of the trip.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Our Honeymoon: First Day in Rome

We had an early morning train ride from Florence to Rome, so we hopped in our ride and made our way to the train station.  We felt like we saw and did everything we wanted in the Florence area, and we were excited to move on to something new.

For whatever reason, the travel agency couldn't schedule transfer for us in Rome.  So when we arrived, we hopped in a cab to our hotel.  It was too early to check in, but we dropped off our bags and got the info on how to take the metro to the Colosseum as we had a tour booked.

Months before the trip, we knew that when it came to some of these famous tourist sites that we wanted to book ours in advance.  We did some research and scheduled a walking tour of the Roman Forum, Palatine Hill and the Colosseum for our first day in Rome.  I am SO glad we did because the lines to get in to these places on your own were nuts.

The metro took us right to the Colosseum... as in, we walked out of the station and there it was!  Those first views of something so iconic were really fun.

We had a little time to kill, so we grabbed some quick snacks and hung out for a bit.

There's a new thing that tour companies are doing since the last time I took a trip where there was some kind of tour.  You wear a little headset and the tour guide talks into a microphone as you walk along. It's pretty smart albeit a bit cumbersome.  Nonetheless, before long we were off to the Roman Forum.

Let me preface all of this by saying that we were in the direct sunlight for the entire 4-hour walking tour.  On a HOT day in August. In Rome.  We expected this to a degree, but I don't think we were prepared for just how hot we would be.  At some points, it made it a little less fun... our tour guide on the bike tour had said something about taking his parents on one of these tours here and how after a while all you hear is "lions... Christian... gladiators."  We soon knew what he meant.

At first, everything was interesting.  But after a while, I sort of wasn't paying attention to the history. Nonetheless, it was still incredible to see all of these amazing places and imagine what they were like in their glory days!

Our tour ended with the Colosseum portion, and part of why we booked it was because it went to sections that are not open to the general public.

We got to walk out on the main floor as well as go underground to see the parts down there.  We also got to go up to the very top.  It was incredibly impressive to see how massive this place was, and it's sad to know that it was quarried for marble and that's led to it falling apart.

When the tour wrapped up, we were free to explore the public areas.  We wandered a bit, but then we decided we were hot and it was crowded and we felt like we had sufficiently seen it, haha!

We made our way back to our hotel for a shower and a nap! (Seriously... afternoon naps were an important part of our whole trip!)

When we woke up, we decided to ask the hotel concierge for a dinner recommendation.  He sent us right around the corner to a little restaurant where we had a tasty dinner (and wine! and cheese! and dessert!).  We really took our time and ended up chatting with our waiter.  I think as he realized we weren't obnoxious Americans in a rush to get in and get out, he started making jokes.

Heat is draining, and despite the nap we still felt worn out.  (And I was sunburned because I didn't think and bring my sunscreen along with me to the Colosseum so I never reapplied.)  So we just went back to the hotel and crashed.  We knew we had another big day ahead of us at the Vatican along with other sites we wanted to see in Rome!

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Our Honeymoon: Last Day in Florence, Italy

We woke up on our last day in Florence feeling refreshed and ready to explore.  The thing about Florence is that it's bigger than Venice, but it still wasn't so big that we couldn't easily get around on foot.

And boy did we! We walked all over the city throughout the day.  We started our morning by making our way over to the Academia to see about getting inside to see the Michelangelo.  Full disclaimer here - Adam and I are not big museum people.  Don't get me wrong, we appreciate history, good art, etc... but we'd so rather be outside than looking at stuff on display inside.  Nonetheless, we figured we should see the famous stuff while we were there.

However, turns out that the lines were nuts.  We didn't need to see it THAT bad, so we opted to get a ticket to go to the Uffizi Gallery later in the day.

Next, we stopped by the main market to check it out.  There were lots of souvenir kiosks (for lack of a better word) outside, and then inside was full of meats, cheeses, herbs, alcohol and other such items.  I feel like if you lived there, it would be really fun to grocery shop each day and buy fresh items for dinner!

After this, we wandered back to the center of town.  We knew you could go inside the Duomo for free... but oh my goodness, the lines.  I'm sure it was beautiful inside, but after a few minutes of debating we decided we wouldn't regret it if we didn't go in.  We much preferred to not stand in line for a few hours.

So we popped in some shops and picked out a magnet as well as a postcard to get in the mail to Connor (we wanted to send him one from each city we visited!)  We walked around for a bit, and we stopped at some point for some lunch that was unmemorable.  We also grabbed some to-go sweets at Cafe Rivoire. :)

Before long, it was time for our entrance to the Uffizi Gallery.  We wandered around in there for about an hour.  Ultimately, we thought the building itself was more impressive than the Renaissance art on display.  We're glad we went in at least one museum, but at the same time I think we would have been ok if we had skipped it.  And it didn't help that it was hot and stuffy inside. I did snap this great picture looking out one of the windows.

After this, we decided to head back to the hotel for a nap and shower.  We hadn't really done that much in the hours we wandered around, but the heat is draining and we decided we'd rather relax a bit.

After the nap and cleaning up, we decided to do as the italians do... Over there, you can buy bottles of beer, wine or other drinks off of street vendors and walk around with it openly.  That still felt a bit extreme to us, so we opted to pour ours into the water bottles we got on the bike ride.  We wandered around for a bit, and stopped for a cheese plate and assortment of spreads as an early dinner/snack.  

And yes, I wore my sneakers with a dress.  With no shame.  

We knew we wanted to walk up this big hill to the Piazzale Micelangelo.  I had read that the views of the sunset from there looking back down on the city are amazing, and it did not disappoint.

We ended up hanging out up there for a while, just taking it all in.  We got to chatting with a brother and sister who were traveling together, too.  They were about our age and from Alabama, so it was fun to chat with some other folks for a bit.

Eventually, it got dark and we wandered back down to the city.  We were pretty full from our appetizer meal earlier, so we decided there was no need to grab dinner.  Instead, we headed back to the Cafe Rivoire and enjoyed a few sweet treats and the ambiance of the night on the plaza.

After walking around the city for a bit on an evening stroll, we went back to our hotel.  We got everything packed up as we'd be heading to the train station bright and early to make our way down to Rome!

We really enjoyed Florence.  It was so completely different from Venice, but we still really liked how it felt like a small town with a lot to do and see. I loved our time there.  Had we not gone to Pisa and done the bike tour, I think we would have run out of things to do in the 3 nights there... but since we added all of that in, it was the perfect amount of time to be there!

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Our Honeymoon: Bike Tour through Tuscany, Italy

After an early morning wake up call, we got dressed and had breakfast at our hotel.  We were pretty excited about our plans for today.  Some friends of ours had come to Italy last summer, and they told us the best day of their trip was the one they spent on a bike tour through Tuscany.  Not afraid to take them up on their recommendation, we looked into it and decided to book one ourselves.

We had a shirt walk to the bike tour office.

Once we were checked in, we had some time to kill while they waited on everyone else to show up. We got to chatting with another couple that was doing the vespa tour instead, and in no time the four of us were quietly making fun of these other two guys who were stretching and warming up like they were about to compete in the Olympics.  What made it even funnier was that we weren't going to actually be on the bicycles for another 2 hours!

Once everyone was checked in, we were loaded in vans to make the 45 minute drive to the countryside.  The drive was hilly and beautiful! Our tour guide/driver was a British guy, and he was hilarious and so much fun to chat with as we rode up into the mountains.

The morning started with a tour of a castle where both wine and olive oil are made to this day.  It was pretty cool seeing all of the old barrels along with the new ones and more modern equipment that they use today.

We also went up to the top and had beautiful views of both the vineyards and the olive trees.

After that part of the tour, we tasted the chianti and the olive oil that are made there.

Adam is not big on red wine, but even he said this chianti was quite tasty!

After the tasting, they got us situated on either bicycles or vespas, depending on which tour you were taking.  We even got water bottles - which was great since it was August and well over 90 degrees without a cloud in the sky!

For this part of the tour, we were with the Italian guy - who also was hilarious and so much fun.  I feel like tour guides can really make or break this kind of experience, and they did not disappoint!

We made several stops at places that he knew were good for photos, and he shared tidbits of information about the area with us.

It was amazing.  Words just can't even do it justice.  It was just so beautiful to be riding along the hills of Tuscany and taking in these incredible views.  For us, it was the perfect way to experience this part of the country.

Before long, it was time for lunch.  Both groups met up at this little ristorante where we had more chianti, salad, bread and oil, pasta, dessert and coffee.  We definitely did not go hungry with the included lunch!

After lunch, we still had to bike back to the castle.  They warned us there would be one large hill in particular where the vans would meet us with a trailer in case we wanted a ride up.  The first part after lunch was pretty flat, and we took it at an easy pace so that we did not see our lunch a second time. :)

When we arrived at the hill, Adam and I decided that even if we had to push the bikes up the thing we were going to at least attempt it. The hill had a 17% grade... and it was early afternoon on an italian August day.  You can imagine how this went.

We made it a little ways, but before long we were rotating between riding for a minute and then walking/pushing the bike for a minute.  I don't think I have ever felt my heart rate get up as high as it was when I was trying to pedal, and my quads really couldn't take it.

When we finally got to the top, it felt like a huge accomplishment even with the walking!  There was a place to sit and rest for a bit and refill water bottles, so we were thankful for that! (In case you're curious, the "serious bikers" who were stretching and everything that morning - who also turned out to bit know-it-alls about biking - did not make it up the hill any better than we did.)

We had a much easier ride the rest of the way back to the castle.  I am SO glad we spent the day and the funds doing this.  It really was such an amazing experience.

We rode in the vans back down to the city where we thanked our tour guides for a memorable day.

If you'll remember, we didn't get a lot of sleep the night before thanks to jet lag. Because of this, we decided to embrace the Italian concept of the afternoon nap.  We got a gelato (which really hit the spot in the heat and after the biking), and then we went back to the hotel and showered and took a much needed nap.

After our nap, we wandered around and explored the Piazza del Signoria and saw one of the Michelangelo statues that is on display.  You can sort of see it in this picture near the entrance of this building.

We started getting hungry, and we stumbled upon the Ristorante Buca Poldo down an alley off the square.  We chose to sit at an outdoor table since there wasn't anyone else around, and it ended up being sort of intimate.

We had a pretty amazing meal here... great house white wine, tasty cheese plate, and probably the best pesto sauce I have ever tasted.

Adam opted to get a pork chop that was also really good.  By the time we finished eating, some other folks started sitting down at other tables... which meant we were soon surrounded by cigarette smoke since EVERYONE in Italy smokes.

We asked our waiter if we could move around to sit on some steps in the alley to finish our wine so that we didn't have to smell it. It took a minute to get him to understand we didn't want to smoke ourselves (he kept saying it was ok to smoke) and that we just wanted to drink our wine smoke free.  Once he did, he apologized profusely and brought us some complimentary lemoncello.  It was our first time to try it - and boy was it strong! But we appreciated him being so nice.

We ended the evening getting some desserts and sitting on the square at Cafe Rivoire.  It was all so tasty and made for a lovely way to end a fabulous day.

We made our way back to our hotel and called it a night, excited for our last day in Florence.  We hadn't really had a chance yet to truly explore the city, and we had a whole list of things we wanted to see.