Wednesday, August 31, 2011

A Day Trip to Florence

Living on Reputation

I've visited Florence many times over the past 30 plus years. It has always been an essential stop on any itinerary to Europe.

Florence The Gothic and Renaissance Treasure Chest

Today we had a day trip planned where some of the group would go to the Uffizi, some the Accademia (David), and some both. Since I had just been to the Uffizi two years ago, I passed on the Uffizi and limited my culture stop to the Accademia.

We parked at the incredibly convenient lot at Porta Romana. It is just behind the Roman wall. Here, you can park all day and pay at departure with a credit card. From this lot the Palazzo Pitti, Boboli Gardens and the Ponte Vecchio are a remarkably easy walk.

The Uffizi Gallery and The Arno
Note The Little Square Windows Above the Arcade 
They Identify the Vassari Corridor 
(The Medici's Secure Link Between Palazzo Pitti and Palazzo Vecchio)

Florence is filled with Gothic and Renaissance treasures. It is home to Michelangelo's David, Botticelli's Birth of Venus, Brunelleschi's engineering masterpiece Il Duomo, Palazzo Pitti, and Ghiberti's incredible bronze baptistery doors (which took 27 years to cast and Michelangelo proclaimed "The Gates of Paradise".)

These are amazing sights found nowhere else on earth. Florence's crowds provide some of the finest people watching anywhere.

Clowning Around at the Pitti Palace

Nonetheless, two years ago in a visit here I found myself having to make excuses for Florence. I'd explain "Oh, it used to be much cleaner." Or "It didn't use to to be such a tourist trap". or, "They used to take such good care of the Duomo and the Uffizi". And finally "Oh it sure has been getting more and more crowded".

Sadly, my visit today simply confirmed my impressions of two years ago. While I know Florence is (and always will be) the favorite destination for many (and used to be for me as well,) much of Florence today is just inexcusably dirty, poorly maintained, increasingly rude, and wildly expensive. Some examples: The Boboli Gardens - just a hillside of raked rocks and dead plants. The Uffizi - Ill kept, poorly lit, and hot. The food - had restaurants charge $6 for a can of coke and $10 for a cup of gelato.

 A Classic Cappucino Bar

 The Ponte Vecchio
Former Home to Butcher Shops 
Now Home to Gold and Jewelry Shopss

A Glimpse Into One of Florence's Private Garden

Perseus Slays Medusa
(What is With The "Holding Up A Head I Chopped Off" Statuary?)   

So, in sum, plan a day trip. Come, sample Florence's incredible treasures. Then leave it.

Stay in Siena or somewhere in the peaceful Tuscan countryside.

Roadboys Travel © 2011  

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Pienza and Montepulciano

Extraordinary Tuscan Hilltowns

Monday was unbelievably special. I was lucky enough to visit two of the most incredibly beautiful city's in the Val d'Orcia.

The drive to each was also breathtaking. The hills of Tuscany are incredibly layered with agriculture Typically there will hills filled with vineyards bordered by the precise edges formed by tall slender cypress trees. Other places there will be rows of stalks of corn or sunflowers.

Pope Pius decided to rebuild his hill hugging hometown Corsignano. To undertake the effort he commissioned Bernardo Gambrelli to transform the little village into an ideal Rennaisance city. The finished product would have a main square, cathedral, and pallazzo's. It turned out to be a masterpiece and was renamed Pienza as a tribute to Pius II.

The City has been designated a Unesco World Heritage site and is now equally famous for its peccorino cheese (Sheeps milk.) The wheels of cheese are found in many of the stores throughout the village. I also found exceptional leatherwork and linens.

The View From Pienza

Pienza's Famous Cheese

The Duomo

An Old Bicycle in Pienza

Some of Pienza's Leather Handiworks

After a light lunch and a gelato stop (or two) we went on to Montepulciano. This city is justifiably famous for its magnficent architecture, stunning views and smooth Vino Nobile wines. Similar to Siena Montepulciano is laid out with various neighborhhods called contrade. Where Siena's contrades compete each year in its Il Palio horse race, in Montepulciano residents from each contrade compete the last sunday in August in an annual ritual of racing wine casks uphill.

 A View Looking Up to Montepulciano

The Cask races had just taken place so the City was festooned with contrade flags and a party atmosphere. We stopped for vino and basked in the unbelievable views.

 A Contrade Flag Holder in Montepulciano

A Classic Hilltown

The View from the City 

So there you have it, this is just about the most beautiful place Roadboy has ever visited. Tuesday has been set aside for a hike and a swim. Wednesday it is off for a day trip to Florence.

Roadboy's Travels © 2011

Saturday, August 27, 2011


Living in Villa Donati

This week I am a resident of Italy. For the next 7 days and 6 nights I have a real address living in the Villa Donati on the Montestgiliano estate in Central Tuscany.

Before arriving in the Villa I spent another morning in the historic inner wall area of Siena examining its beautiful Duomo and enjoying a "Gelato for breakfast" day.

It rained a bit

I then went to a huge local supermarket. I can't tell you how wonderful it was to peer into coolers filled with dozens of brands of fresh prosciutto. Then I moved on into the produce aisle and cried at the sight of piles of fresh soft fragrant peaches and nectarines. Nearby there were mountains of plump grapes with seeds. I came to realize that nobody touches produce until they carefully put on gloves. Then there was the cheese (tubs and tubs of fresh mozzarella) and the seafood...... 

I would have been quite happy to spend a couple of very happy hours in that supermarket....

But we had friends to meet and traveled the 12 km from Siena to the Montestigliano estate. This is a working farm in a region that grows sunflowers, olives, corn and grains. On the estate they bottle their own olive oil. 

Sitting on the top of the hill was the oldest of the houses; Villa Donati. Built in the 1700's this home dates back to the days of George Washington and Benjamin Franklin.

Villa Donati

The villa has 6 bedrooms and has been upgraded to five bathrooms. It has a modern kitchen and a big dining room with a lovely back yard with grape arbors with a western view looking west over the rolling hills and rows of cypress trees.

Tuscan Hill Country Views From The Estate

Huge Grapes on Arbors
Just Out the Back Door 

 There are two lovely swimming pools and the doors and windows of the villa have been left wide open all day to harvest the fresh air after a rain this morning.   

One of Two Swimming Pools At Montestigliano

I settled in, grabbed my camera and took a easy walk down the long rows of cypress tree. It was quiet and lovely.
The Trademark Italian Cypress Trees
Seemingly Define Every Ancient and Current Roadway

I'm never going to want to leave.....

Roadboy's Travels © 2011

Friday, August 26, 2011

Ahh Siena!

Italy's Hilltop Treasure

This isn't my first trip to Siena. And, God willing, it won't be my last. It is a complete delight. The summer edition of the famous Il Palio was run a week or so ago, and the streets and Campo still bear the trappings of the world's only true horse race. No offense meant to Santa Anita or Churchill Downs, but in those venues for a horse to win there has to be a rider on it's back. 

In Il Palio the first horse to cross the line - with or without a rider - wins.

Now that is truly a "horse" race!

I arrived into Siena by train from Venice (via Florence.) The 1 hour 28 minute trip from Florence costs all of 6.3 euros. But, unless you know this medieval town like the back of your hand, flag down a cab between the train station and your hotel.  

I then met up with old friends to enjoy a Bellini al fresco on the Campo before dinner. From there we watched a recently wed emerge from City Hall and get showered in rice (nice to know that there is a place where you can still throw rice!)

A Wedding Party in Siena

There was a free band concert on the Campo featuring a well volumed and eclectic mix of music.

From dinner we descended into the ancient brick basement of Guidoriccio for an amazing dinner. Since we were early, the owner fawned on us. He started us out with pureed veggies and bruschetta (I’m serious the bread was part of the puree). He then poured the best chianti I have ever tasted (a 2007 Rietine). That was followed with prosciutto and melon, risotto with saffron, pappardelle with wild boar, and pork tenderloins marinated in balsamic vinegar (I know it sounds odd, but was great). Desert was fig, raspberry, and blueberry (the best ever) sorbet from Grom. I loved it so much I did a total face plant in my blueberry sorbet. Took numerous napkins to fix that.

Siena's Center of Community Life
The Campo

And Home to A Magnificent City Hall!

Rant Warning!

I came away realizing that Siena offers a timeless lesson to elected officials and city planners. Yet, it is a lesson completely ignored in virtually all modern North American car centric cities.

Any real city needs some sort of vibrant center of community life. Sorry, shopping malls rarely suffice. 

And vibrant centers of community life should include fine, timeless, durable public buildings that a community can point to as a source of pride for the ages.

After sitting though endless City Council meetings all over North America - I can tell you in most places any decision where to locate a new public building will almost always descend to selecting land that is cheap, poisoned, behind something, hard to build on, and incapable of ever providing any tax revenue. 

Our priorities have become fiscal and strictly short term. 

Siena elegantly proves the deep flaw in embracing short term goals, rather than a more timeless vision. 

Conversely, could it be that we have unconsciously come to view our modern cities as disposable?

Roadboy's Travels © 2011

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Venice My Way

A Day for Meandering

Well despite a long day of flying from Arizona to Venice, I arrived feeling pretty darned good. So I checked into my hotel, showered, took a couple hours of nap and then bought my 1.20 Euro ticket from the (exceptionally nice) Hilton Garden Inn to Venice.

Despite waiting for the mid-day sun to subside I still wound up walking for almost 5 hours. Bliss....

The Grand Canal Looking Towards The Rialto Bridge

I had only one firm destination and that was Ottica Carraro; Venice's home for one-of-kind, yet affordable, eyeglass frames. They aren't for everyone, but I love 'em.

The Glasses from Ottica Carrraro

Sooo Italian

The rest of the time I only had a general inclination where I was. Which, for Roadboy, is heaven. Cause thats when I stumble on stuff.

First off the Bridge of Sighs is in the middle of refurbishment and has been wrapped up in clouds. So, at least for now, it sort of has a Disneyland feel.

The Bridge of Sighs Has Been Seemingly Set Adrift

I then spent lots of time people watching, especially the kids (of all ages) feeding the pigeons on Piazza San Marco. Piazza San Marco joins Trafalgar Square in London and Plaza Catalunya in Barcelona as premiere pigeon / human play venues.

A Lot of The Best Stuff in Travel is Free

Like all Italian cities there were folks that were dressed like supermodels, mixed in with pure elegance, and a whole bunch of "What Not To Wear". 



The Music

The Food

The Art

David Slays......

Some Street Art

I can now verify that the Love Locks Craze I saw in Paris last winter has reached Venice. At least on the Accademia Bridge!

A Kiss, A Lock, A Key Is Tossed in The Canal

I finished off my movable feast with street food. A magnificent fresh mozzarella panini, a tall bottle of beer, and some cool mojito sorbet. 

Time for bed!

Tomorrow it is all day on the train to Florence and on to Siena, but I'll spend a couple of more days in Venice before I leave. 

Roadboy's Travels © 2011

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Off To Tuscany

Gonna Live In A Villa

Next week I'm doing something I rarely do, travel relatively unplanned.

A few weeks back a friend from college called to let me know a trip he was planning with about 15 friends had an extra slot. When he explained that he rented a villa about 12 km from Siena, and I found out mountain bikes were available, I decided I wanted to go. 

After a little checking I found out that (amazingly) this late in the summer there was still a reduced point frequent flier business class seat to Venice available a day or two either side of when I'd need to be there. Total price (incl. taxes) $49!

I'm oughta here. 

Not totally sure what the internet situation will be each night, but I'll post when I can.


Roadboy's Travels © 2011

Monday, August 15, 2011

Roadboy's Santa Fe

Pure Bliss

Anyone that knows Roadboy is well aware of my penchant for one-of-a-kind places. I despise modern American cities carefully designed by sadistic civil engineers to maximize pavement. While great for cars, 6 lane wide streets, divided by huge medians are completely anti-pedestrain and efficient in the destruction of anyone who dares to ride a bicycle. These are roads bordered by the urban vomit of cookie cutter Applebee's, Burger Kings, Starbucks, or Panera's.

To me there is nothing more heartbreaking than the slow "Strip Malling" of America. 

So, lets just put it out there that I prefer places with history. Places that embrace art. Places with distinctive architecture. Places that serve up unique food. Place's that are unabashedly spiritual. Places with narrow streets. Places with distinctive colors and smells.

This weekend I had the good fortune to revisit one of those special places - Santa Fe. 

So here is a quick post to throw a little happy on a place that leaves no doubt why New Mexico truly is America's "Land of Enchantment".   

Moonrise Over Santa Fe

Santa Fe is the oldest capital city in North America. It is also the site of the oldest public building in North America - the 401 year old Santa Fe Palace of Governor's.

Indian Artisan's at the Palace of the Governor's

Coming from a typical Phoenix summer day of 108° F, the weather in Santa Fe was a delight; bright sunshine followed by big splashes of cool drops of rain!

Man's Best Friend Carry's the Umbrella

This is a city where there is seemingly a church and three art galleries on every corner. The art varies from traditional to cutting edge. The church's are sublime, with perhaps the Loretto Chapel and it's miraculous staircase being my favorite.

The Stairs of Loretto
To this day there is no record of the mysterious craftsman who came, built the stair tower in the Loretto Chapel, and then was never seen again. The stair has two complete 360° coils and was built solely using wooden pegs. There is no glue, nails, or steel in its construction. It rises without any center support. It was originally built without handrails. It is quite simply a marvel.

Contemporary Native Art 
At the Institute of the American Indian

Santa Fe inspired luminaries like Gerogia O'Keefe and is home to the renowned Santa Fe Opera Company.

If you need lodging consider the funky El Rey Motel. For Dinner Lan's Vietnamese was tasty. Oh, but for Breakfast go early and grab a table at The Pantry where (since 1948) portions and flavors have been  big, rich, and spicy and the staff and clientele ever friendly.

And if you come or go via the Albuquerque Sunport, plan to stop long enough to enjoy an amazing meal at The Standard Diner on Central SE. It began life as a gas station, but now it deliver's creative cuisine with flair and finesse.

Albuquerque's Standard Diner - Nothin Standard About it!

For my money, a visit to Santa Fe is pure magic any time of the year.

Roadboy's Travel's © 2011