• Pisa, Vinci, San Gimignano, Siena and Florence (Part 4 of 5)

    6/25/2019 12:43:28 PM Link 0 comments | Add comment

    florence, italy, pisa, siena, trafalgar

    photo by Hilda Spillers of CTC Travel

    Pisa, Italy is famous for the Leaning Tower. For years, it has gone through renovations to keep it stabilized. These days, people can go up the tower if they choose. Most visitors enjoy taking creative photographs with one “propping up” the leaning tower or “pushing” the leaning tower. It is comical to observe people working on all types of creative poses!
    The Leaning Tower is the bell tower for the beautiful large Cathedral of Pisa that is worth walking in to explore. The Astronomer and Physicist, Galileo Galilei, grew up in Pisa. During the Renaissance period (rebirth from the Middle Ages), Galileo sat in this Cathedral. Our local specialist informed us that Galileo would observe the large chandelier move back and forth from the breezes. He experimented and over time, the Pendulum Law was declared.  It was fantastic to reflect on what took place here. Imagine Galileo conducting other experiments such as dropping objectsfrom the Tower to document the rate they would fall. The result was the Law of Gravity.

    We had plenty of time on our own to shop the local vendors and either dine at one of the many outdoor cafés or stop in a local deli for a RosemaryFocaccia sandwich.We then met up with our group to move on to our next visit to the charming Tuscan town of Vinci. 

    Vinci is where Leonardo da Vinci was born in 1452. “He was the most diversified Renaissance Man,” to quote our Trafalgar Tour Director. We walked the through the same streets as this amazing inventor,scientist, artist, engineer and architect.There are several Leonardo da Vinci museums in Italy. Next to this small museum, we walked right into the very Baptistry where he was baptized.I learned so much detail about this man and his thinking processes. What affected me the most, was that he put all these thoughts into action to improve production and the future of medicine. 

    That evening, our group had dinner at a larger farm house that offered terrific authentic Italian cuisine with family style service amongst barrels of wine and lively music. What is nice about traveling in Tuscany is that the drives are relatively short distances between many of these key places. The next day we visit San Gimignano and Siena.

    San Gimignano dates back to the 13th century and is one of the oldest and most preserved medieval towns in Italy. It is known for the many stone towers that were used for grain storage within the surrounding high stone walls. For generations, the height of the towers became somewhat of a competition amongst the families. We each received a treat of their famous gelato that was included in our tour. I had chocolate gelato and of course it was delicious! It was a pleasure to walk along the streets and imagine what it was like to live during medieval times here.  The shopping was delightful with colorful pottery, leather purses and shoes.

    We had a scenic drive in the Tuscan hills to a “Be My Guest” experience where we had a lovely lunch at a farm house hosted by a family where the adult daughter has become a talented Chef. We were presented with gourmet type cuisine in a wine cellar. To describe the garden like environment, we approached this place by walking up a lane that was lined with giant Italian Cypress trees. One could tell that this grand home had such history.The Wisteria and flowers were beautiful. The owner couple were genuine in wanting to share their stories of life in the peaceful Tuscan hills. There have been references of World War II throughout our trip regarding what buildings were respected and NOT bombed, like the Vatican and the Colosseum in Rome, for example. Here at the farm house, the owner pointed out the indentation in the stonewall on the side of the house from a bomb shell. In Europe, there is such history. Survivors moved on from the war and here we were enjoying the result of working from the farm to the kitchen to the table to create an experience for travelers. Trafalgar tours gives back to the hosts where they visit. This helps support them and to motivate the younger generation to stay and to help preserve this way of life.

    A reminder that you can see my photos on the CTC Travel (Dallas) face book page. Just look for about 10 posts in April of 2019. Next, we took a 45 minute drive to the popular city of Siena.

    Siena dates back to the medieval 14th century and over time, it became a strong business center. It is famous for the horse races, Corsa del Palio, that take place twice per year around the Piazza del Campo which is the town square. Large festivities surround the races of the 17 competing districts. This city is vibrant with terrific shopping and restaurants all around.

    The next day we went Firenze, Florence! It is the capital of the Tuscany region and it is known as the Merchant City. The Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore is magnificent. We walked all through Florence with the guidance of our wonderful Tour Director. Afterwards, we had flexibility to explore on our own. There are many museums and one must make choices of what to see in the allotted time. Michelangelo’s famous marble sculpture of DAVID is a popular choice. You must purchase tickets for the museums and pay attention to the length of time it takes to visit. If you are ok with seeing a smaller copy of DAVID, there is one in Piazza dellaSignoria (Signoria Square).Even the outdoor copy was amazing. Shopping for leather goods such as jackets, purses and shoes was a popular choice. There is also fine jewelry and art. Many choose to visit the famous Ponte Vecchiobridge where there are many local venders selling their goods. I enjoyed Florence so much!

    Read along for the last part of my journey as our group circled back to Rome to see more popular sights.

  • Rome and Tuscan Highlights (Part 3 of 5)

    6/13/2019 7:05:09 PM Link 0 comments | Add comment

    italy, rome, trafalgar, tuscany

    photo by Hilda Spillers of CTC Travel

    Cinque Terre is a string of five villages that are located northwest of Tuscany in a region called Liguria. These are coastal fishing villages dotted with pastel colored houses that are in bedded in the rugged cliffs. We drove through the town of La Spezia to drive up into the mountains where we had views of the city down below.  As we continued to climb, all of us were amazed by the stone terrace vineyards. Our Tour Director informed us that these villages had many challenges with survival in the past because of the difficult terrain. The people had to come up with a way to use the land to produce a product for trade as fishing was not enough. The vineyards became important. These terraced vineyards go from sea level up 4,000 feet. We tried to imagine from generation to generation the work that continues on these steep terraces. Amazing. This region is also known for producing it’s own unique Pesto.

    We visited two of the five charming villages. Each had quaint shops, restaurants and colorful fishing boats. It was fascinating to see how these houses were built along the challenging terrain. I found the local people to be hard working, humble and friendly.  After many years of enjoying professional photographer’s beautiful photos of this region, I was here. I was here in person to see this scenery with my own eyes. It was a thrill to take my own photos of this very special place. We walked up a walkway that hugged the edge of a cliffside. Often, I stopped to look back to see the view that so many would say is awesome. And it was awesome! It was a misty and cloudy day. And it was still a beautiful experience with the smell of the Mediterranean Sea and the waves crashing against the rocky shore and the spectacular view of the colorful village.

    From this small village of Manarola, we walked through a long tunnel to arrive at the train station. It was a short ride to the next village of Monterosso. This village is the largest of the five villages and it has a nice beach.  We had plenty of time to lunch at Ristorante da Ely and enjoy the local shops. Our group met back at the train station for about a 25 minute train ride to La Spezia to meet our trusty motor coach driver. We learned where many tourists take the ferry over to the villages from La Spezia during the peak tourist season, “next time,” I thought with a smile.

    Tomorrow, we visit Pisa and Vinci (as in Leonardo Da Vinci).  Looking forward to another great day! Join me! 

    My trip is posted on CTC Travel’s face book page. Take a look! And maybe you will want to take the same itinerary or something similar with Trafalgar Tours. Give me a call and I can help you plan your trip.

  • Rome & Tuscan Highlights (Part 2 of 5)

    6/3/2019 6:21:31 PM Link 0 comments | Add comment

    italy, rome, trafalgar, tuscany

    St Peter's Basilica Tours (Viator)

    The walk from the Sistine Chapel to St. Peter’s Basilica brought forth feelings of eagerness and anticipation. We slowly walked by THE HOLY DOOR. We learned that it is only opened every 25 years. All the faithful who walk through it during that year are in expiation of their sins.

    Entering St. Peter’s Basilica one is struck by the grandeur. It is the largest church in the world. It is not only the architecture and decorative elements that are so impressive, it contains some of the most solemn and sacred items in the Temple of Christianity.  I leave those details to experts. I will point out a few that stood out for me. The Chapel of “La Pieta” contains the famous marble statue of the Virgin Mary holding the dead body of Christ. Michelangelo’s work during the 1400’s depicted such a moving scene so beautifully.  Many, including myself, stood in line to wait for a turn to stand up close to The Statue of St. Peter. It is a bronze statue that is believed to be dated back to 1200’s. Many choose to touch his right foot along with a prayer or with a photograph. Moving forward in the immense church, there is so much to see and take in including the chair of St. Peter (the first Pope) and the spectacular dome of St. Peter’s Basilica. We had plenty of time to meander through the church and our guide moved us outside to St. Peter’s Square to the area where the Pope speaks to the public. Last time I visited Rome, I did not have a guide and I must say that having a local specialist on this tour was very valuable.

    We moved on to the Colosseum! It held about 50,000 people and it was used for centuries. There is a long history of uses one of which were for Gladiator battles in order to fight for their chance of freedom.  There is so much more to see in Rome and we visited more of those sights at the end of our tour.

    The next day we began our Tuscany segment of the trip. After just 30 minutes of leaving Rome, the terrain began to change to the rolling hills with tiled rooftop farm houses. We drove 4 hours north on a spacious motor coach to a town west of Florence called Montecatini. Our wonderful Tour Director and Driver always made stops where appropriate throughout the drive times. We stayed here for 6 nights and went on day trips in the beautiful Tuscany region. We really enjoyed Monetecatini for our home base with it’s pleasant town square and quaint restaurants, bakeries and chocolate shops.  Our 4 star hotel was located just 2 short blocks from the square and it included a spa with all the services. Every morning we enjoyed a wonderful buffet breakfast 5 stories up with a wide view of the town and with mountains as the backdrop. 

    Our first day in Tuscany, we were set to visit an old market in Florence. We met Chef Libero and his assistant. We were divided into groups where each group had a short shopping list and some money. Libero asked us to go into the market and bring back the fresh ingredients where we would then travel to his place to prepare a meal for all 32 of us. We all had a great time using our broken Italian to purchase the fresh fruits and vegetables etc. Going to the market and cooking is one of Trafalgar’s Lifestyle Experiences that is included in the tour. Chef Libero’s Ristorante is located on his family estate where we would learn to make our own pasta and enjoy the wine and olive oil that they produce. We were greeted in such a genuine way, complete with a music trio playing guitar and a welcome toast. Then on we went “to work,” said Libero with Italian gusto. Many of us gathered around several long tables where pasta stations were set for us to participate in making our own pasta dough, then to shape and cut and fill our Ravioli. It was work and we had a lot of laughs working together. Other groups gathered in the kitchen preparing sauces and soup and salad. After the preparing phase, the staff switched us in to the wine tasting phase of the day along with hors d’oeuvres. Then on to our meal that was served family style by Chef Libero’s friendly staff. The music continued with some singing and dancing that brought us all closer as we became a traveling family. Join along with me for the next day which was to visit the rugged coast of Cinque Terre, Italy. 

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