Culture Vultures in Florence

After several days on the Cinque Terre coast, our next stop was Florence. We were ready for history, art and architecture. When we arrived mid-afternoon, it was sweltering hot — felt like 100 degrees. We walked from the train station (Santa Maria Novella), with one rolling luggage each in tow, to Giglio Bianco Bed and Breakfast, across the River Arno.

Gourmet dinner made by Vary, owner of Giglio Bianco Bed and Breakfast.

Gourmet dinner made by Vary, owner of Giglio Bianco Bed and Breakfast.

We were dripping from sweat. We could have taken the air-conditioned taxi, but decided we might as well from the get-go get a flavor of the city, since 3 days would go by so quickly. We dodged throngs of tourists and passed by many fashionable clothing shops (lots on sale), pizzerias, gelaterias, Ponte Vecchio and the Pitti Palace. We did not stop because our first priority was to get rid of our load and to cool off in our air-conditioned rooms. Eduardo and Vary, the friendly, gracious owners, welcomed us with ice-cold bottles of water. Ahhh! Water never tasted so good! After the 2 1/2-hour train ride, heat and crowded streets from the Cinque Terre coast, we plopped ourselves on the beds and expressed a sigh of relief, savoring the cool air. Our next thought was, wow, we have arrived in the historical city of Florence, the cultural center of Italy.

Here are the highlights of an amazing 3 days:

– the River Arno

florenceriver

– Pitti Palace (former home of the Pitti and Medici families)

– Piazza Signora (grand statues)

piazzasignora

– Uffizi Gallery (the Botticelli paintings were our favorites). I would highly recommend getting a private tour guide to take you through the gallery. We appreciated the history and background he shared in front of selected paintings. Otherwise, the Gallery becomes overwhelming if you tried to look at everything.

– Palazzo Vecchio (with the massive and artful Salone dei 500)

sala2

– La Accademia (with the original David statue)

The "pink" David in the outside courtyard.

The “pink” David in the outside courtyard.

– the Duomo

duomo

– the Baptistery (with Ghiberti’s door)

baptistery

Siena’s il Palio — short, thrilling horse race

While in Florence, we took a day trip by bus to the medieval town of Siena. On a previous visit, my husband and I remember it as having the most picturesque piazza — the Piazza del Campo.

The highlight of our day was watching the preliminary events of il Palio, a popular horse race in which jockeys ride bareback, circle del Campo 3 times, lasting less than 2 minutes. It is held twice a year, July 2 and August 16. This is the most celebrated event in Siena and we were part of the thousands gathered in del Campo on the day of the lottery, which determines which of the 10 horses will run for each contrada (district). (Seventeen contrade in all, but only 10 are selected to race each year.) Originating in 1656, il Palio continues to be one of pageantry, allegiance, competition, celebration, and pride. The winner of the July 2nd race is onda (wave).

Bugles announce the start of the lottery

Horses are paraded in del Campo

Jockeys await to hear which horse they will ride

The pageantry…

The crowds…

The winner…onda

The onda contrada decorates its streets

Sample Itineraries

I’ve taken many trips over the years (U.S. and overseas), quite a few with my family. Each trip has had its own unique experiences, like riding an elephant or renting an RV. Here is a sampling of itineraries including the U.S., Europe, and Asia, from as few as 5 days to as long as 4 weeks. If you are inspired to take any of them, or have other destinations in mind, please contact me and I can plan an itinerary to suit your preferences.

EUROPE

Spain, Italy, Croatia (4 weeks), Madrid, Santa Margherita Ligure, Cinque Terre, Florence, Siena, Verona, Lake Garda, Venice, Rovinj, Opatija, Plitvice Lakes, Zagreb

Italy (10 days), Milan, Venice, Florence, Siena, Rome

Switzerland (1 week), Zurich, Andermatt, Bellinzona, Ascona, Lake Lugano

Tenerife, Canary Islands (1 – 2 weeks), Puerto de la Cruz, Santa Cruz, La Laguna, Los Gigantes, Icod, Garachico, Costa Adeje

Barcelona (9 days), Barri Gotic, Tibidabo, Las Ramblas, Sagrada Familia and other Gaudi buidlings, Parc Guell, Montjuic, seafront, Picasso museum,

London and Paris (via Chunnel) (7 days), London Eye, Houses of Parliament, St. Paul’s Cathedral, Westminster Abbey, the Louvre, Jardin des Tuileries, Champs Elysees, Eiffel Tower, Musee D’Orsay

ASIA

Thailand and Cambodia (4 weeks), Bangkok, Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai, Ko Samui, Ko Tao, Siem Reap

Bali, Lombok, Gili Air (2 weeks)

U.S.A.

U.S. History, plus outdoor adventures (2 weeks), Washington D.C., Virginia (Charlottesville, Shenandoah Valley, Winchester), Pennsylvania (Hershey, Philadelphia), New Jersey Shore

Glacier National Park with an RV (2 weeks), Washington (Spokane, Seattle, Anacortes Island), Montana (Glacier National Park), Idaho (Coeur d’Alene, Route of the Hiawatha Rail-Trail)

Anza-Borrego Desert with an RV (5 days), San Diego, Anza-Borrego, La Jolla

California Coast (5 days), Monterey, San Simeon, Cambria, San Luis Obispo, Pismo Beach

Kauai (1 to 4 weeks), Hanalei, Haena, Poipu Beach, Waimea Canyon, Princeville, Kapaa, Kilauea, Hanapepe

San Francisco and the Bay Area (5 to 10 days), Nob Hill, Golden Gate Park, Union Square, Fisherman’s Wharf, Chinatown, Angel Island, Tiburon, Marin Headlands, Point Bonita Lighthouse, Golden Gate Bridge, Point Reyes National Seashore, Palo Alto, Apple headquarters, Napa Valley

Some Enchanted Evening

(Post originally submitted to AFAR magazine.)

Shakespeare’s tragic love story, Romeo and Juliet, will forever immortalize the words, “in fair Verona”. The town where these two lovers met is not just for the romantic, but also for the history and opera aficionado. I am not an expert in either subject, but was determined that my family would take part in this town’s summer tradition — an evening of opera in a 2,000-year old Roman amphitheater. I really didn’t care which opera we were seeing, but was relieved that it was Carmen, since I would at least recognize some of the music.

The scene was breathtaking. Close your eyes and imagine. Sitting where Roman spectators gathered as early as AD 30; as the sun dips behind the theater, lighting each other’s tiny candle (thousands) to welcome the opening act; gazing at the twinkly stars; listening to beautiful voices magnified naturally by the theater’s outstanding acoustics; and oohing at the colorful pageantry of costumes and stage sets. I still get goosebumps whenever I remember this enchanted evening.

Need help with an upcoming vacation? Contact me.

An Italian Kaleidoscope of Color

(Post originally submitted to AFAR magazine.)

My family was in Venice for just 2 nights, so I squeezed in one island to visit just to get away from the crowds. I decided on Burano because I wanted to see the multi-colored houses I had seen in so many travel magazines. And, I knew that the farther away it was from Venice, the fewer the tourists.

We took a 45-minute vaporetto ride from Fondamenta Nove station in Venice and arrived at about 6:30 in the evening. What a treat! Burano definitely has character and charm. By the time we got there, tourists had come and gone earlier in the day, so it was very quiet. We walked up and down the streets, which were lined with brightly painted houses. The people are certainly not timid about their colors. Each house color contrasting perfectly to the next. Every street was like this. Certainly a feast for the eyes. No cars, but motor boats lining the canals. We caught glimpses of the lagoon from so many different spots. Senior residents pulled chairs out of their houses to sit outdoors and enjoy the refreshing breeze and evening conversation. The quaint piazza centrale has a small church and no more than a dozen restaurants and stores.

The vaporetto ride back to Venice at night could have been romantic, if my husband and I were not traveling with our three kids. Nonetheless, it was wonderful seeing the lagoon lit up by lamps, and the glow of Venice.

Need help with an upcoming vacation? Contact me.

Picturesque Portofino

Portofino was just a pit stop for us on our hike fom Santa Margherita to San Fruttuoso Abbey. I can describe it in three words: small, crowded and yachts. Very picturesque, though, with colorful buildings fronting a very narrow harbor, and flanked by villa-studded hills. I suppose this view is what gives Portofino its charm. Our first order of business was to find a gelato shop to cool us from the heat. Licking our gelatos, we walked along the harbor gawking at the fancy yachts, peaking inside as if we would see anyone famous! One set of lounge chairs was done up in leopard print! We didn’t linger. After 30 minutes of soaking in the scene, we continued our trek to the abbey.

Santa Margherita Ligure, Charming Town on Italian Coast

We arrived in Santa Margherita after a long, full day of traveling from Madrid. A 2-hour flight into Milan Malpensa, 1-hour train ride from airport to Milan Centrale station, then 2-hour train ride to Santa Margherita. After the heat and crowds in a big city, we were happy to be in this coastal town where you could feel the breeze coming from the vast ocean. I made the right choice in selecting this town as our anchor for the next 4 nights. 

Santa Margherita Ligure lies along the Ligurian coast just south of the popular Portofino and quick train ride to the northern most village of the Cinque Terre, Monterosso. Colorful villas, hotels and restaurants line the picturesque harbor. At the harbor is a small plaza with shady trees, colorful flowers and benches perfect for a rest stop and for viewing the fishing boats and ferries coming in and out of the docks. The green, surrounding hills, dotted with more colorful villas, provide a nice backdrop.

The highlights of our stay include:
1. Delicious gelatos, and with a view. Gelaterie Lato G, across the harbor, was our favorite gelateria in this town. We savored the passion fruit, mango and hazelnut flavors.
2. The afternoon fish market, authentic local experience. I love food markets because you can really be part of the local scene. The fish market is in a perfect, convenient location — right across the small street from the harbor. It is open every day starting at around 5:00 pm. We got there early enough to witness the fishing boats motoring in with their catch, already sorted by fish type in wooden bins, then loaded into carts which were quickly pushed across the street to the market, then placed onto metal racks ready for weighing and selling. There were bins of all kinds — fish, crabs, squid and octopus. The first hour of sales is, we guessed, for commercial sellers or restaurant owners buying in bulk, then the next hour is for the selective chef wanting to make something fresh and delicious for their family dinner.
3. Hotel Villa Anita, 2-star rating, but really 4-star accommodations and service. How do hotels get their ratings? This boggled my mind. I would stay there again in a heartbeat. The hotel is pleasantly located away from the busy, coastal strip. It does have a few peaks of the ocean from some of the rooms. It shares a street with other gorgeous villas, is a quick walk to the center of action — harbor, restaurants and shops — and clean and comfortable. The breakfast buffet is something to look forward to every morning, and you can sit on the outside deck and view the lush landscaping. The pool is small, yet new and comes equipped with several massage jets and a rain shower.
4. The hike to San Fruttuoso Abbey, with a quick gelato stop along the way in Portofino. It was really hot on the almost 4-hour hike from our hotel. We were so happy to have packed water bottles. We hiked up and down steep terrain, went in and out of the forest and always rewarded with gorgeous views of the coast. The descent into San Fruttuoso was exciting. The abbey became more immense as we approached and we paused to take in the scene — a lone, impressive structure; gorgeous water; and crowds suntanning on the small beach, while others enjoyed a swim. I took a dip in with my daughter. The water was so refreshing!
5. The hike through Cinque Terre. We visited Riomaggiore, Manarola, Vernazza and Monterosso. We skipped Corniglia because the trail was still closed from last fall’s mudslide. The towns are fun to visit for a few hours, but not to stay in, especially with my adventurous family. (Best for romantic couples, I’m told.) For our hike through the villages, we took the one-hour train ride to the southern most town of Riomaggiore, then started our walk from there.
I am still working on a separate blog for our visit through the Cinque Terre. Come back soon.

How To Do a 4-Week Summer Trip in Europe with Kids

We were in Europe for about four weeks this summer — Madrid, Northern Italy and Croatia. Our family of five includes three kids ages 11, 12 and 15. We’ve taken long trips before and I have learned that the key to an enjoyable and memorable trip is to balance the needs and wants of everyone in the family, even if it means skipping that one important activity, or place, in your itinerary. Here are some tried and true strategies for long trips that work for our family. (Although I’m writing this after our trip in Europe, these strategies also worked for us in Asia a few years ago.)

1. Europe is hot in the summer. When booking accommodations, make sure you stay in a few places with a swimming pool. Pools might be scarce in big cities, but they are available in other towns and you don’t have to always select 5-star hotels. They will provide a place to refresh and reenergize everyone after a good day’s worth of walking and sightseeing in the heat.The kids, especially, have something to look forward to after you’ve dragged them to yet another tourist site. Our small, 2-star hotel in Santa Margherita Ligure (Hotel Villa Anita) had a new, small pool with several jets that entertained the kids endlessly. Although we stayed just one night at the small Hotel Kapetanovic in Opatija, Croatia, the pool was just what the kids needed after a long drive through the country. After two weeks of culture in Northern Italy, we were ready to unwind in Rovinj, Croatia. We spent three days splashing and swimming in the pools of the 5-star Monte Mulini, our favorite hotel during our 4-week trip.
2. Give the kids ice cream or a cold drink as often as they want. Forget the calories, forget how much sugar they’re taking in. You will have quieter, happier kids. After all, you do want them to come along with you to visit museums, churches, towers and look at all the interesting architecture, right? Besides, this gives all of you a chance to sit down, talk and cool off. Better yet, find an air-conditioned gelateria or heladeria.
3. Be flexible. It’s okay to not do everything you planned to do. When planning our 3-day stay in Verona, Italy, I had the idea of renting bikes to see the town and surrounding area. Bike tours were certainly promoted as one of the things to do in the city and its outskirts. The weather was so hot and humid (it was 103 F one day!) that there was no way I would be able to convince my family to do a bike tour. No big loss, especially since I didn’t book anything in advance. We walked around instead and came back to our air-conditioned b&b when we got too hot. Another example, prior to our trip, I had reserved a car for our third day in Rovinj, so that we could do some sightseeing to neighboring towns. When we got to the hotel, all we wanted to do was hang out and not leave. We had already been traveling three weeks and we needed some R&R. So, we postponed the car for the next day and relaxed for three days.
4. Schedule a few guided tours. I selected Context Travel for Segovia, Florence and Venice. You can sign up for an already-scheduled tour (10+ people), or decide to take a private tour for up to 6 people. The private tours, though I thought pricey, was well worth the money. The online registration form asked me to give the company a brief description about our family (ages, interests, etc.), so that they could match us with an appropriate guide. Of course, I asked to have young, energetic guides to capture (and maintain) our children’s attention. We were very happy with our guides. They were knowledgeable, service-oriented and personable. Especially nice was the boat tour through Venice — we were happy to not do a walking tour in the heat. We had our own guide, water taxi and driver and this allowed us to photograph the not-so touristy highlights of the city.
5. Get out after breakfast, rest in the afternoon, be reenergized for the evening. After breakfast, our routine would be to walk around a neighborhood, stop for ice cream, visit a church, museum, or other historical site, then stop for another ice cream or snack. At about 3:00 pm, we would be exhausted. We would head back for the hotel or b&b and rest and enjoy the air-conditioning. The kids occupied that time with their books, electronic gadgets, or swam in the pool. My husband and I read, checked email, and occasionally had a siesta. At around 6:00 pm, we were ready to explore again and slowly make our way to dinner at the restaurant of choice.
6. Do not overdose the kids on big cities with too many museums and churches. Europe is full of these, but DO plan to visit towns that are along the coast or near lakes. This will give everyone a much-needed change of pace. You will enjoy refreshing breezes, cooler temperatures, and wide open spaces. Also, we established a rule of one museum and one church per town. Better to get an in-depth understanding of a few, rather than an overload from too many. Of course, this might not be possible in Florence.

Cheap (or Free) Thrills

After many years of traveling with my family, I’ve decided that many of our most memorable moments have come from what I call “cheap thrills”. Of course, we’ll never forget our pampered vacation at the lakeside resort of Parco San Marco (Lake Lugano). Booking a room that overlooked the sparkling lake and renting a speedboat — to satisfy my then 8-year old son’s wish of driving one — were not cheap. But, nothing compares to the deep feeling of satisfaction and elation from an activity that is free, or costs little, yet provides memories that will last a lifetime.

Gelato everywhere you go in Italy. Go ahead and spoil your kids — let them have a gelato anytime of day. Cheap thrill all day long. We’ll never forget the delicious, refreshing gelatos we bought from a little shop in Menaggio, and licking them as we sat at the edge of Lake Como.

Golf cart rental during the last 2 hours of the day. We didn’t use it for golfing (pricey activity), but drove it around to photograph the gorgeous landscaping and views from the Princeville Golf Course. (The golf course makes extra money because early morning golfers have returned their carts by this time.) We actually rented two. My husband and I each drove one with one child, so that they could experience the fun of riding on a golf course in a buggy equipped with a fancy GPS navigation system!

Biking in Bali. Bike rentals are really cheap and the stops you make along the way are free. My husband and I parked our bikes to follow the crowds swarming to a festival — we guessed it was a festival because of the colorful banners waving high in the breeze. It was a festival for the traditional tooth-filing ceremony. Wow!

Kauai’s canoe club annual fair in Hanalei. Many community fairs do not charge an entrance fee, and you get to hang out with the locals to get that authentic experience. You can watch the races for a bit, go swimming when you’re ready to cool off, and the kids can even participate in a keiki (means child in Hawaiian) obstacle race on shore.

Watching elephant seals in San Simeon, California. Just pull your car over along Highway 1 and park for free. These mammals are HUMUNGOUS and hilarious to watch. Very comical as they clumsily maneuver their 3,000- to 5,000-pound, 15-foot long bodies across the sand, often bulldozing over another one! Every member of our family was so entranced and amused the first time that we went back a second time. Best time to see them is between November and March.

Reply to this post and share your cheap thrill on your last vacation.