AYDU 2007/04/03 – The Way We Were

As Michael diligently, painstakingly, nostalgically revisits all the images from our year down under, he is discovering many photos which were not originally posted. As he updates the photo galleries, I have been updating the posts with the new content.

And this is a new post with a couple of people shots which don’t belong in the other posts – so I am adding this new post in the correct timeline. For anyone interested, you can go back and check out the updated photo galleries… Use the ‘Past Posts’ section – down on the right hand navigation, under 2007. I am working chronologically and at this point I have made it to April 3 with my updates, and I will keep ticking along…. anything renamed as ‘AYDU…’ (A Year Down Under) has been updated.

Cheers – and here we are…. or here we were!

Our Travel Renaissance in Italy – Day 25, The End, eh Daddy

After a full 3 + weeks of Italy, we were about to head home. But not before we took out the garbage πŸ™‚ ! Between different types of recycle, green bin, and regular garbage, every day something is collected. Or you can take your waste to the local drop off place at your own discretion – which is what we chose to do. So I made the trip down to the local repository with our various types of rubbish.

We had time for a coffee and croissant one last time and then headed back to collect all our bags. We were on the 3rd floor with no elevator, so a couple of trips down the stairs was required. And that’s when we made the big faux pas!!!! Sometimes life happens in slow motion – and it did then. Michael had a set of bags down the stairs and I was bringing out the next set so that he didn’t leave the others unattended too long. And that’s when we both saw the door close behind me…. and of course it automatically locked. I missed grabbing it by the tiniest margin – but that was too much. Luckily Michael had his phone with him. We called Derek in a panic and he was able to connect with the owner. We were very fortunate that she was in town that morning and she was able to come over and rescue us. And that is why we always we plan on leaving early for important flights!

We caught the ferry no problem, although one departure later than first planned. We had one last view of the Rialto bridge and the canals of Venice as we took the trip around the island and into the airport. A very unique way to depart from a very unique place.

The flight home was much calmer than the flight over, although the plane was full of coughing people – especially the woman behind us. We masked up whenever we weren’t eating, but the mandate had just dropped and many were without masks, including our backdoor hacking neighbour. Back home Freda had made great friends with Picasso, well as much as anyone can make friends with a feral princess cat. The next morning Freda headed back on the road home to Winnipeg and county life resumed. But two days later neither of us were surprised when both Michael and I tested positive for covid. It is now December and we are well over it, but I do seem to have a touch of ‘long covid’ as I find I am needing my inhaler a couple times a day – something I haven’t needed in years. All part of our new normal I suppose.

And so our Travel Renaissance was complete.

Our Travel Renaissance in Italy – Day 24, Just You and Me Babe

On Sunday October 9, our last full day of vacation, we had most of the day to ourselves. Michael rose early again to venture out for photo ops before the city awoke. On his return we caught the local church procession down the street before we saw Derek & Marketa off with coffee and croissants. We passed on the sit down coffee shop and visited our local standup bar where we got fantastic coffee and pastry at a fraction of the price, and we were able to enjoy quickly as D&M had a long day of driving ahead of them. By 10 am it was just Michael & I for the first time on the entire vacation. As a note to ourselves, on future trips we should plan for a couple of ‘down days’ on our own between transitions. The 3 back to back sets of travel was a bit overwhelming without a break between.

Our first matter of business was to purchase our ferry ticket to get to the airport the next morning. The ferry went from right near our BnB at the Rialto Bridge into the airport; so convenient, and at 15 Euro each a real deal. Then on to more exploring. We walked to the Ponte dell’Accademia (Accadamie Bridge) and then on to Basilica di Santa Maria della Salute at the tip of the island. There was a higher end artists neighbourhood surrounding the chapel.

We came across an incredible art exhibit by a Korean paper artist. He makes 3D sculptures and wall pieces using pages from old (~100year) notebooks. He disassembles them and then folds and ties them into small triangular packages which he then builds into art. Fantastic, and soooo time consuming. We also checked out a wonderful exhibit of glass pieces of art – the butterfly one in the photos was exquisite. From the end of the peninsula we took the 2E gondola ferry back to the main square.

Around 2pm we headed for lunch. It was a very nice meal despite my having to send my first dish back due to a silverfish on the plate! I had shrimp stuffed seabass in veg. broth and Michael had anchovy pasta. Both were excellent. We had a very nice bottle of Valpolicella – properly priced this time. Then off to find a gondolier – you cannot visit Venice and not take a gondolier ride! We decided to walk away from the main / busy waterways and headed to the Jewish sector, but we ended up half way back before finding one on the quieter canals. But not before catching the classic Venetian sight of fashion photography! We ended up with a wonderful 62 year old who had 3 daughters aged 31, 28, and 7 (surprise!). He once played for the Venice football club as goalkeeper. His English was very good – as were his Brazilian Portuguese (wife is 1/2 Brazilian), French, and Spanish in addition to his Italian. His 3 years of school then 4 years of training before getting his gondolier designation did not include language training – that was all hobby!

Having had our main meal mid day, we picked up a chicken, salad and beer at the grocery store for our last dinner. We had lots of packing to do, so no cicchetti that night!

Our Travel Renaissance in Italy – Day 23, Very Vibrant Venice

As Michael often does, especially in tourist crowded destinations, he woke early and headed out to get some photos before the crowds set in. The rest of us finally got going and were out by about 9am. And then we walked.

As our time in Italy was winding down, we made sure to start off with the new tradition of cappuccino and pastry. Our first journey was to the market. We bought some plums for snacking, but hoping to head out for dinner, we resisted the plethora of fish on offer, as well as the marvelously fresh produce. Not so hard to resist was the butchers where horsemeat was on offer. Most stall keepers were pleasant, except for one…. Derek attempted to buy some reasonably rare ‘Caesar’ mushrooms. The woman was not a fan of tourists as was apparent by her perpetual ‘no capiche’ thrown at Derek as an insult. Derek attempted to hand pick some mushrooms, for which he was promptly scolded. So instead he tried to point to which mushrooms he would like, at which point the ‘helper’ guy threw all the mushrooms back in the pile and turned his back on us. Despite the very nice looking caqui (persimmons), we refused to give them any business.

From the market we walked to the main square, then looped around to the east along the southern edge. Every turn was full of new sights and sounds. Venice is truly one of the most unique cities in the world. We find that as we have gotten older, and have travelled rather extensively, we are no longer as attracted to the ‘#1’ sites. We are generally happier to see the ‘#2’ sites where the crowds are much less, and that while the location may not have everything to offer that the premium site has, it is much more enjoyable. But I doubt there is anywhere you could go to that is a substitute for Venice. Where else do people have private bridges into their front door. Or a front door that opens directly onto the canal. Or where can you watch gondoliers navigate seamlessly around sharp corners lined with parked boats without a touch. It is truly a distinctive gem.

While out walking, we came across a police boat disembarking a squad of riot police. Eventually we discovered that no, there were no protests or current riots, but rather they were on the ready for the 2pm football match. At our selected lunch spot, the fan contingent, replete with plastic billy clubs, chanted and set off smoke bombs before marching off to the game en masse. We ate in peace and likely due to the surrounds, lunch was very affordable.

And then we walked more. We continued to meander towards the gardens. They were currently home to a massive exhibit, so we passed on beyond the gardens into the local neighbourhoods which were full of character, and void of tourists. As we continued our walk heading back in a wide loop, we caught a couple of art exhibits. One was a Chinese photo artist who used fisheye lenses. Another exhibit depicted important world events in multi media onto plates. We walked past the convent, the cemetery, church and the armories. At our afternoon coffee stop I opted for a barley coffee in place of an espresso. Can’t say I’ll be doing that again; it was okay but no substitute for a coffee!

More walking, and by 5pm I crashed back at our abode, Michael did some photo maintenance chores, and Derek & Marketa stayed out, pushing through on their last full day here. By 7:30 we were planning our dinner venture – which ended up being another search for ciccheti. We found another hopping area with bars across the Rialto bridge, although the age of the crowds there did make me feel older. Weekends in Venice seem to be well enjoyed by the youth here.

Our Travel Renaissance in Italy – Day 22, Motoring through Modena

On Friday we headed out, planning to stop to do some souvenir/gift shopping at a mall in Bologna en route to Venice. Derek had been checking in with his office everyday and it turned out that he had an opportunity to meet with a potential business partner in nearby Modena, so we detoured there instead. Derek dropped us 3 at a shopping mall and went off for his meeting. Michael and I had made a very compressed pack on the trip here and had not used our allocation, so we could check one more bag on the trip home. We managed to pick up a new suitcase, some gifts, and a pair of pants for Michael while Marketa went off and did her own shopping. Derek rejoined us, and we all had a quick lunch at the mall and then off to Venice!

We took the toll highways which wasn’t cheap, about 20Euro, but still cheaper than the 407 in Toronto! Cars are not allowed in Venice, so we parked easily in the massive Tronchetto parking structure. The easiest affordable route to our accommodation was via water bus which dropped us at the Rialto bridge stop close to our BnB. The owner was lovely and gave us good info on where to eat. Cicchetti are a great way to go – small bites like tapas. After settling in to our rooms we headed out to the crowds – it is crazy here! And despite the multiple locks on the door, she assured us it was a safe neighbourhood.

We headed for the main drag in search for cicchetti. As it was Friday evening the streets were jam packed. We had a few bites as well as prosecco and I tried out a drink with Cynar. The Italian artichoke and herb liqueur had a very distinctive taste, quite herbal and bitter, which grew on me. It was difficult to get a table, or even food as much was sold out, so we decided to pick up a pizza and returned to have pizza and wine at our place. It may be mostly due to the weekend crowds, but boy is Venice busy…. can’t imagine what it is like during the peak season!!!

Our Travel Renaissance in Italy – Day 21, Vegging out in Viareggio

October 6 was our last full day in Montecatini Terme and we woke with no planned agenda for the day. Over a leisurely breakfast we decided to go ocean side to Viareggio, just a 45 minute drive to the coast. But before leaving we decided it was time to check out all the grounds here at Borgo della Limonaia. We found the pool, the ping-pong table, the spa area and the small chapel on the grounds. Michael had found these places on his photo walks around the property, but the rest of us had not experienced them until then. We wish we had known about them sooner!

This traverse we took the toll road to save time. With the summer season over, the beach resort area had free parking. At first we parked in the main parking area, but after starting the walk along ‘the strip’, we realized how far it was to get to the free beach area and that we could park right near our destination. So Derek and Marketa returned to move the car while Mike and I walked ahead.

It was noonish by the time we arrived at the beach area, so we decided to lunch it before heading to the water. Most places were closed, but we found a nice restaurant right at the parking area. A fungi/seafood/cream sauced lasagna pasta made for a nice start to our beach day.

We all got lots of sun dozing on the Mediterranean beach with the Carrera mountains in the background. Viareggio was a high-end town with yachts everywhere, and they even build them here. The public beach was lovely; a very deep beach of soft fine sand. The weather was very summery so there were more people than usual for the time of year, but we still had an easy time picking a prime spot. I ventured into the water only to my knees to cool off, but Derek & Marketa went for legit swims on a couple of occasions. Michael chatted with the locals who were fishing in the shallow water. We think they were fishing for ‘blue fish’, little fish, larger than anchovies, maybe smelt size but looked oilier.

We headed back for 5pm to check out the pool, shower and pack in preparation for departure the next day. But not before our 8pm Florentine Steak dinner at the ‘Steak Home’ – not just a steak house, it’s a home! We were the first to arrive and the place was empty, so we weren’t sure about the reputation as a local favourite. But it filled up during our meal and we were the last to leave.

We had a starter plate, 2 huge Florence style T-bones (aged 3 weeks) with blue cheese and funghi sauces, roast potatoes, breaded/fried porcini mushrooms, 2 bottles of water, nice wine, mixed pastries for dessert, and biscotti with sherry for dipping, 4 espressos – all for 68Euro/couple. Back home we were totally tired but not feeling like we should go to sleep given the huge meal we had just consumed…. how do the locals do it???

Our Travel Renaissance in Italy – Day 20, San Gimignano, Siena and Surprises

We started with a leisurely morning at the farm, doing some routine chores such as laundry and paying bills – even on vacation some mundane tasks continue. Michael took a few more photos around the complex, including the pool and small chapel. After a small breakfast we headed out by about 10:30 to explore two more towns .

Our drive to San Gimignano took us through classic Tuscan countryside. The weather was perfect with the sun shining on earthy toned homes, olive groves, vineyards, sunflower fields (already harvested), and cyprus tree lined driveways filling the scene. Unfortunately no photo stops as we had a long drive.

San Gimignano was an interesting medieval town where the towers and cathedral had not been refaced as they have in Florence, Siena and most other towns. The town is recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its medieval architecture and fine towers which have been preserved, unlike most other towns. Part of the reason for the continued existence of the towers is due to the plagues which went through the town. The town never repopulated after the wave in the 1400’s and as such there was little development in the area and importantly, there were no battles to destroy the towers. In the 19th century it was recognized by the artistic communities for its authenticity and the town began to prosper again. We had lunch in town with the strong medieval essence surrounding us. After lunch we treated ourselves to the best ice cream in the world…. at least according to themselves. The chef had indeed won many contests and the flavours were outstanding and unique. Michaels canelle (cinnamon) was a winner and my herb flavoured was excellent. Derek and Marketa tried a couple of flavours each and Derek picked the grapefruit as his favourite. And as the line up attested to, we were not the only ones to think so.

Next off to Siena where parking outside the town walls was a challenge as there was something going on at the stadium nearby. So Derek dropped us and we all went searching for spots. And walking along the street I found Mick and Sue! They were just getting in to town on their cycling tour. We knew they would be in the vicinity but it was quite a surprise to encounter them walking down the road. So they went off to check in and we made plans to hook up later.

Once again the local Cathedral was a highlight. Unlike Florence, we had a magnificent view of the city from a distance with the Terra Mater (Heaven and Earth) Statue in the foreground. And again we skipped the 20Euro entrance fees to the cathedral / baptismal/ museum/ cupola and chose to head to a Salvador Dali private collection exhibit. It was interesting to compare to the one in Figueres, Spain which had been to back in 2013. Many of the bronze sculptures here were post his death, or created from his concept drawings. The snail with wings was perhaps my favourite, however the long-legged elephants are fantastic also.

Next off to the ‘square’, which is actually a huge semi-circular amphitheater with a large clock wall on the long flat side. Horse races are run here twice a year in July & August – it must be spectacular with such sharp corners! We met up with Mick and Sue and had drinks and snacks around the square and got caught up on adventures. So nice to see them again before another 2 year hiatus.

Then the long drive back home with extra cudos to Derek for chauffeuring in the dark. Then even with no real dinner we were ready for bed!

Our Travel Renaissance in Italy – Day 19, Fabulous Firenze

Tuesday October 4 we had a long full day in Florence. We caught the 8:30am train from Montecatini Terme-Monsanto, the same station Michael and I had arrived in. There was a very large group with signs crowding onto the train with us, and we would see them again later in the day.

In Florence we started with the Basilica of Santa Maria Novella and the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore – aka the Duomo. The greatest highlight and the dominant feature in Florence was the Duomo, also known as the Medici Cathedral. It is the largest masonry dome in the world and took almost a century and a half to build. It is a symbol of the Renaissance in Florence. The lineups were horrendous, and none of us cared to wait in line, so we passed on entering the Duomo and all its accompanying venues.

The streets were packed with tourists and cart-based shops. The street sellers were relentless and hounded you if you even slowed down. It wasn’t possible to stop and look without being accosted… so I didn’t even look. I’m not sure they realize how much their tactics backfire as I would quite likely have considered one of the beautiful leather purses or gloves, or intricate scarves. We also saw several unlicensed street sellers scrambling to collect their wares from the piazza floor and quickly disappear into the crowd before the police could catch them. They were very adept at melting into the masses.

Outside of a political headquarters there was a group of picketing protestors who were on a rotating strike. The group from the train were among them – Marketa even recognized one of women from our visit at the Redi spa the day before. Luckily we had completed our spa visit already as we were not sure what job action was to follow.

Next we ventured over to the central market, where the ground floor was a traditional market and the second floor offered a variety of food and beverage options. We lunched there after much deliberation on what to eat. We, especially lifelong fan Derek, had wanted to see the Galileo museum but it closed at 2pm and we had missed it. Several other museums also closed early or were totally closed on Tuesdays. So having missed the Galileo museum, we headed over the Arno River and up the steep hill climb to check out the House of Galileo. Crossing the river we checked out the Ponte Vecchio. The medieval, arched bridge was the only one to survive WWII and today the enclosed shops are no longer butchers and farmers but jewelers and art dealers. The House of Galileo was a quaint, but non-descript home and apart from us mapping it, you would easily miss it. We continued on to the Bardini Gardens to get a view over the city, but unfortunately the only access was via an exhibit and we could not justify the cost for a quick vista shot.

We headed back to the cathedral for drinks, Aperol spritz for the others and I chose to have a prosecco. After complaining that my bubbly was flat, I managed to get a replacement glass by listening to a lecture that not everyone gets the first glass of a new bottle! But I got a glass from a new bottle πŸ™‚ While there we met a family from Sao Paulo sitting at the next table. When the conversation drifted to politics, we learned they were keen Bolsonaro fans, so we quickly changed the subject and spoke only of touring Italy.

The one museum of interest that we found open was the DaVinci Museum where many of his inventions/ creations had been built and demonstrated. There was also an interactive section in the basement where you could turn cranks etc. to try them out. I especially liked his cooking invention that used heated air currents to turn the spit; the hotter the fire the faster it turned. I had not realized how extensive his war inventions were…

After a gelato, Derek & Marketa headed back to pick up some special salami and Michael and I revisited the Ponte Vecchio for some golden hour photos. Then we all made a mad dash to catch the 7pm train and managed to make it, perhaps because it left a few minutes late. Back at our abode, we had a dinner of charcuterie and Tuscan soup (from the grocery store – ok, but not the best). Derek enticed us all by making a dinner reservation for Thursday at a local restaurant known for its Florentine Steak – so needed to save our appetite for that!

Our Travel Renaissance in Italy – Day 18, a Look at Lovely Lucca

It seems to have become a bit of a tradition when travelling with Derek & Marketa that we work in a spa visit at some point during our travels. So we started the day by heading to Redi Spa in town to book an appointment for 5pm. Then off to check out Lucca nearer the coast via the toll-free scenic route.

We passed through ‘Pinocchio Town’ as we called it, or more correctly Collodi, the birthplace of Pinocchio. We skipped a visit to the nearby theme park and continued on to Lucca.

At Lucca we parked outside the wall of the town and picnicked on a bench in the park surrounding the old town. Having subsequently watched the Netflix series on the Medici’s we can confirm that this exact area was used for several of the scenes. Lucca is a beautiful, well maintained Tuscan town and it’s wealth was clear. The stonework of the St. Martin Cathedral was magnificent and like all of Tuscany, the stone (aka umbrella) pines majestically provide a lovely overhead canopy.

As usual, Michael had done some research into what to photograph in town. The Chiesa di San Michele in Foro was on his list as it has a very unique front. When we entered the walled city and came across St Martin Cathedral, Michael thought it was Foro as it had similar black and white strips and Arabic arches. We stopped for a coffee and pastry at a coffee house near the cathedral. While Derek, Marketa and I were ordering, Michael chatted with a women at the table next to us. She was French and as a remote worker, had lived in Prague and for several years now has chose to stay in Lucca. She had a host of suggestions on what to see including St. Martin Cathedral and Foro (already done!). She also mentioned free Puccini concerts nightly at San Giovanni Church (Lucca is the home of Puccini). Unfortunately we could not attend due to our spa booking. She also recommended Piazza dell’Anfiteatro, an oval plaza built on a Roman amphitheater site, ringed by medieval houses and now home to cafes and a market. Our impromptu guide / resident expert also suggested going up the tower in St Martin for spectacular views of the city.

So after checking out the piazza with its curved buildings, we headed back to St. Martin. Time had passed, so Derek needed to return to the car to feed the parking meter. While he did that, Michael headed for a photo excursion and found that the top of the city walls had been converted into a beautiful park full of interesting sculptures, with locals out running along the top of the wall. Marketa and I did some touristy shopping picking up a couple of gifts in the many artisan shops in the town. We all then reconvened, bought our tickets and headed up the 200+ steps of the tower to check out the view.

From Lucca we headed back to Montecatini Terme for our spa visit. The spa had a few pools; a cool, salty jet pool; a warm jet pool; and a ‘floating’ calm warm pool with giant spouts for some serious shoulder / neck massaging. So for an hour we moved between the three and soothed our muscles in the magic thermal waters.

Back at the BnB Derek cooked us a lovely dinner of spaghetti with cured ham, garlic, tomato, parmesan, olive oil and green beans. We had sparkling wine as a starter and a nice red chianti followed. All very yummy. We tried out a few open hands of briscola cards to expose Marketa to the game. Not sure she was overly keen, but she was definitely a good sport about it!

Our Travel Renaissance in Italy – Day 17, the Ultimate Alto

On Sunday we started our Tuscany adventures locally from our home base at Borgo della limonaia Agriturismo.

First off we decided to hit the local grocery store where we managed to spend 42Euro per couple to last us a few meals. Filling up the gas tank came in at 92Euro and that full tank would get us through the remainder of the trip…. Derek’s tank was clearly much larger than the rentals was!

We filled up with coffee and pastries before errands and then a charcuterie lunch including some amazing cheeses and olives back at the BnB. Fueled up we were ready to explore Montecatini Alto (M.A.), the medieval hilltop town above Montecatini Terme (M.T.). Rushing to catch the last morning funicular to the top, Michael failed to realize that he had actually navigated us to the top tram station, not the one at the base. So we parked up top with plans to funicular down and back up rather than vice versa!

M.A. is built on a saddle, so has two minor peaks – the church at one end of town, the tower at the other. Unfortunately the tower was locked and the church was very dark. Originally the town was a walled fortress with 25 doors / towers surrounding the town, but only one of the one tall towers survives. At one end of town was a massive development complex which was clearly abandoned. The ‘Paradiso Hotel’ complex was confiscated from the Magliana gang and the abandoned eco-monster from the seventies is still tied up in bureaucracy with the Italian parliament. Otherwise, inside the walls the charming town was full of shops and restaurants around the town square.

One local legend is that a Bishop (future pope) was visiting Montecatini Alto and he got very sick. He went down to the valley below and the thermal waters healed him. So he mandated that a town be built, hence the origins of Montecatini Terme. The wealthy Florentine based Medici family were also strongly associated with the town and its waters, including being responsible for the demolition of the towers.

At 2:30pm the funicular started back up after the midday break, so we took it down into M.T. taking in the spectacular views over the valley. The funicular was built in 1898 and the two trolley cars, passing each other at the halfway point layby, still make the trip up and down regularly. At the bottom we went to find a cafe and in our search found the oldest of the existing Thermal Spas. As it was closed until 4pm, we ventured around and Marketa found us a great little spot hidden behind a nondescript gate. Behind the gates unfolded a tree canopied garden surrounded by a decrepit older spa with several styles of architecture all blended together – a very fun spot for a drink! Returning to Terme Tettuccio we sampled the waters (drinking them) surrounded by spectacular art and buildings. Clearly the location is a local favourite as we were accompanied by a wedding taking place in the central plaza of the spa. Apparently you can book a wedding there, but you don’t get exclusive access to the grounds.

Back up the funicular we had dinner in M.A.; an excellent meal! The starter was a bruschetta plate with various options, the highlight was with white beans, bacon, olive oil and duck. I had gnocchi with seafood and Michael had meat ravioli. Both were superb, everything accompanied with great local wine.

It was another day when we hit our pillows ready for sleep, although feeling more justified this time!