While chaperoning the college group in Florence, one of my favorite activities we did was to take a cooking class. One morning, we got up early, met at Piazza della Repubblica and then walked over to Oltrarno to In Tavola Cooking Academy.

Located on Via dei Velluti behind a non-descript door, the friendly chef met us and put us right to work! Most of the students had very little cooking experience (thank you campus dining hall!) so they were first learning some kitchen basics–peeling potatoes, pressing garlic, knife skills–along with some background information on Italian cuisine.

making pasta

We prepared three dishes. The first course was a Tuscan classic: pappa al pomodoro–a very thick stew-like dish made with old crusty bread, fresh tomatoes, garlic, olive oil, and basil.

pappa al pomodoro

The main course was pasta: a potato-filled tortelli (hello, carbs!). This tortelli reminded me of a larger, rectangular ravioli. The students made the pasta from scratch–nothing canned or packaged here!

potato-filled tortelli

Of course, you can’t wrap up dinner without a little dolce–dessert. For this, the students made panna cotta with a strawberry sauce.

panna cotta

The students got their hands dirty–literally–but had a blast. The best part? After a hard morning’s work of cooking, we got to sit down and eat what we made for lunch! We were lead down to the old wine cellar where In Tavola has set up a dining room and we got to sample our efforts with a little bit of vino too. They even gave us a little menu booklet so we could re-create what we did at home.

For more Florence and Italy pics, check out my Flickr album.

 

I will admit to being a total tourist the first time I saw Florence’s Duomo. I walked around the whole thing just looking up. Walk and gawk…walk and gawk. It’s simply massive whether you are at street level or at the very top on the cupola.

If you’re in Florence, be sure to take in the Duomo at various times of the day. Morning breakfast in Piazza del Duomo, or how about lunch, or a late dinner? Hey, nothing better than food + sightseeing! Depending on the time of day, the sunlight can illuminate the red tile roof or the white, green, and pink marble of the facade. Night is underrated (it’s also when the tourists clear out)–the Duomo’s fine lines stand against the dark sky. You don’t have to be an architecture nut or a history buff to appreciate it. It’s all simply breathtaking!

Florence Duomo

But enough about the outside. You should go inside. You can get your Duomo tickets in advance for a specific day and time. Plan ahead and do it. One ticket can get you in to the Duomo’s sites: the main church floor and crypt, the cupola, Giotto’s Campanile, the Baptistery, and the Duomo museum. The ticket is good for 48 hours.

Now one warning: The intricately decorated facade leaves a somewhat spartan interior. Of course, the big draw is Brunelleschi’s dome which does feature some beautiful frescos. The unadorned interior does give you the chance to contemplate the vast and empty space that is the Duomo. On the main floor of the church, you’ll see the entrance to the crypt. Make sure and take a visit down there. Back in the day, things were just built on the remains of other things and you can see that down there in the form of an earlier church.

View from the Duomo

Of course, the Duomo’s big draw is cupola – the top of the dome. It’s a must do, but not for the claustrophobic or people with bad knees! Another word of caution: It’s 463 steps up to the top in two-way traffic (same way up, same way down). But the reward? Picture postcard views of Florence and the surrounding countryside.

So that’s the Duomo…but you’re not done yet! There’s more to see in Piazza del Duomo. To get the classic shot of the Duomo cupola, you need to make your way over to Giotto’s Campanile – the bell tower – and climb some more steps – 414 steps to be exact. From there, you can get some close-up shots of the Duomo, including all of the people who made it to the top of the cupola!

Florence Duomo, view from Giotto’s Campanile

After the bell tower, wrap up your time in Piazza del Duomo with a visit to the Baptistery, with its octagonal facade and golden mosaic ceiling. Then head over to the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo (the Duomo museum) to see priceless works of art, statues, and artifacts relating to the Duomo.

If you’re only able to do one thing in Florence, the Duomo needs to be at the top of your list!

For more Florence and Italy pics, check out my Flickr album.

A perfect ending to a perfect day in Florence is capturing the sunset.

Piazzale Michalangelo, located in the Oltrarno (“beyond the Arno”) neighborhood of Florence – is the prime viewing spot. Located on a hill south of the historic center of Florence, you can take a taxi or drive up to Piazzale Michelangelo. However, the better way is to hike up! Start along the Arno River. You can walk from either Piazza Giuseppe Poggi or the steps off of Via del Monte alle Croce.

At sunset, it gets crowded. Why not pack a picnic dinner, head up about two hours before sunset, and scope out a good spot? Then relax and enjoy the views! You’ll be able to get some amazing shots of the Duomo and Florence skyline, including the bridges along the Arno River.

If Piazzale Michelangelo is a little too packed with people, you can walk just a little bit further…and higher. Near Piazzale Michelangelo is the San Miniato al Monte church–from there you have another breathtaking vista of Florence, minus the Arno. Its steps overlook a cemetery – those buried there must have the best view for eternity!

Both sites are free. You will not regret the breathtaking views of the Duomo, Palazzo Vecchio, Santa Croce, and more!

For more Florence and Italy pics, check out my Flickr album.

The birthplace of the Renaissance in one day? I’m going to be honest here…this premise is crazy. I had three weeks to savor Florence. It at least deserves an overnight. But hey, I did Venice in one day, which now seems laughable.

So, maybe this is your only option. So, do it right! Here are some suggestions for Florence in a day.

Tip #1: Narrow it Down to Two Major Tourist Sites
Choose to do one “famous” site in the morning and then another one in the afternoon. Perhaps the inimitable Duomo in the morning and the fabulous Uffizi art museum in the afternoon (note: the Uffizi is closed on Mondays at time of writing). You can purchase tickets for a specific day and time for both the Duomo and the Uffizi. The Duomo itself is a series of attractions: the main church floor, the crypt, the cupola, Giotto’s Campanile (bell tower), the Baptistery, and the Duomo museum.

Or how about the Duomo and the Palazzo Vecchio to get your fill of Renaissance architecture and history? Or maybe the Duomo, followed by the sumptuous Pitti Palace Boboli Gardens (again: Pitti Palace is closed on Mondays). Are you seeing a theme? The Duomo is a must-do, if nothing else.

And about the Duomo…the trip is not complete unless you climb the 463 steps to the cupola for breathtaking views of Florence. However, to get this shot below, you need to climb another series of steps: the 414 steps of Giotto’s Campanile. Well worth it!

View of the Duomo

Tip #2: Art Lovers, You Need to Choose
It’s a lot to do both the Uffizi and the Accademia art museums in one day. Michelangelo’s David statue is at the Accademia, while the Uffizi houses countless masterpieces by Botticelli, Raphael, and more. I’ll probably get hate mail, but the only real draw at the Accademia is the David statue. With that said, David is amazing. But after gawking at all angles for about 15 minutes, you’re ready to go. Plus, there is a David statue replica outside of its original location — the Palazzo Vecchio. The Uffizi has a much broader selection so that’s the one I would pick.

The Birth of Venus by Botticelli, at the Uffizi

Tip #3: Cheap & Quick Eats
You only have one day in Florence, so save yourself some time by having a quick lunch. Here are three of my favorite spots for a quick, delicious, but affordable meal:

  • Gusta Pizza, near Piazza Santo Spirito. My favorite pizza here is the appropriately titled “Gustapizza” — cherry tomatoes, arugula (rocket salad), mozzarella, and fresh slices of parmesan.
  • Mercato Centrale, the Central Market (aka San Lorenzo Market) features a food court with local vendors. You can sample fresh made pasta, pizza, cheese, wine, sweets, and more. It’s also a great place to grab picnic items.
  • All’antico Vinaoi, on via dei Neri, near Palazzo Vecchio. Great sandwiches, great prices, piled high with meats! This is how fast food should be.
  • Gelato: when in…Rome Florence. My picks for gelato are La Carraia, Dei Neri, and La Strega Nocciola. For flavors, try frutti di bosco (wildberry).

The “gustapizza” from Gusta Pizza

Tip #4: Self-Guided Walking Tour
Florence is a walking city. It’s compact and you can get to most things on foot. Here’s the perfect walking route starting from the Santa Maria Novella train station/bus depot:

  1. Make your way over to the Santa Maria Novella Church – one of the historic churches of Florence.
  2. Then go to the Mercato Centrale, San Lorenzo street market, and the San Lorenzo Basilica – burial place to the Medici family.
  3. After that, head towards Piazza del Duomo and tour the Duomo, Baptistery, and Giotto’s Campanile.
  4. Next, go to Piazza della Signoria, home to the Palazzo Vecchio – the Florence city hall and the center of Renaissance Florence.
  5. From there, it’s a short walk to the Uffizi Gallery.
  6. After getting your fill of art, head to Santa Croce Basilica, another one of Florence’s historic churches and burial place of da Vinci, Galileo, and Machiavelli.
  7. Head back in the direction of the Duomo. Stop at Piazza della Repubblica with its colorful carousel.
  8. Then head down via Calimala towards the Arno River. Stop at Il Porcellino – the bronze boar on the side of the Mercato Nuovo and drop a coin in and rub its nose for good luck!
  9. Keep heading down the street and you’ll come to the Ponte Vecchio – Florence’s most famous bridge. Allegedly, Hitler ordered that it be preserved during WWII.
  10. After crossing the Ponte Vecchio, you’re now in the Oltrarno – “beyond the Arno.”
  11. If you stay on the street that the bridge is on you’ll come to the Pitti Palace and Boboli Gardens.
  12. While in Oltrarno, consider visiting Piazza Santo Spirito–home to one of Florence’s historic churches, with a square filled with many nice restaurants.
  13. Lastly, walk along the river and then make the hike up to Piazzale Michelangelo for some skyline views of Florence. Not to be missed!

Florence walking map – click for full-size

Tip #5: You Must Stay for Sunset
If you’re only giving Florence one day, then staying for sunset should be a requirement–plus, it’s free.

Hike up (or taxi) to Piazzale Michelangelo for sweeping views of Florence and the Duomo–along with a view of the Arno River and bridges. It’s picture postcard perfect! However, it can get crowded. If you’re not willing to brave the crowds, hike just a bit further up to San Miniato al Monte for an even higher view of Florence–only downside: no Arno River or bridges at this higher vista, but the sunset will be just as gorgeous.

Florence – sunset

If you only have one day…make the most of it! Start early and end late. You won’t regret it!

For more Florence and Italy pics, check out my Flickr album.

Hello, Firenze!

Summer has flown by! Part of the reason it went so fast is that I spent most of June in Florence, Italy.

It wasn’t a vacation per se. It was work. I spent three weeks chaperoning a group of college students for the university where I work. Managing twenty college students–yep, that’s work all right!

Students were taking their required cultural experience course. They had a lot of options and places to choose from, but how could you not resist this one?: Italy and Travel Writing.

IMG_8809

Arno River

I met the group of students at O’Hare airport. We flew Swiss International Air Lines to Zurich and then caught a flight to Florence where the professor was waiting to meet us.

As a cultural experience course, we got to the survey the best of Florence and the surrounding areas–soaking up the culture, the food, and yes…the wine!

Florence is an amazing city, from the magnificent Duomo, to the world renowned galleries like the Uffizi and Accademia, to fun squares and markets.

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View of the Duomo

Over the next few blog posts, I’ll share some info and tips from our travels–food tips, customs and norms, must visit sites and a few off-the-beaten path things!

For now, here are a few pics from beautiful Firenze (Florence).

In June I’ll be traveling to Italy for three weeks. Except it’s not a vacation. It’s work. Really.

Well kinda. I was invited to chaperone a group of college students for a study abroad class that the university I work at was offering. Of course I said yes! I’m helping out the professor with the administrative tasks and will be the keeper-of-time, stipend distributor, and chief head-counter, etc.

The course is a great one: all about travel writing! We will primarily be based in Florence, but will have daytrips to:

Also on the itinerary is a two-night stay in the Cinque Terre–something that’s always been on my bucket list.

While in Florence, we will do guided tours of Palazzo Vecchio, Galleria dell’Accademia, the Uffizi, the Duomo, and cooking class will be added to the mix, too. Our schedule over the 21 days is fairly jam-packed, but the students (and I) have three days to explore on our own. The only rule: you must remain in Italy.

I’m not sure where to go during this free time. Some of the students are renting an Airbnb in Rome. I’ve been to Rome before–had a wonderful time–but think I should go somewhere new. I might take the train up to Milan to see the Duomo and walk on the roof. I’m also interested in doing a Tuscany daytrip in the Val d’Orcia region. Maybe even a trip to San Marino to cross another country off my list?

In the meantime, I’ve been religiously reading my Lonely Planet Italy guide, my Rick Steves’ Florence guide, and I’ve re-read Under the Tuscan Sun. The Visit Tuscany and Visit Florence Instagram feeds have given me my daily inspiration! Also to prepare, I’ve downloaded all of the delightful (and free!) Rick Steves’ Italy podcasts and having been brushing up on my Italian with the free Duolingo app on my phone.

If you have any travel suggestions, especially for the Tuscany area of Italy, let me know–I’d love to hear it!

Ciao!

I’ve now lived in Wisconsin for almost 7 years. I grew up in the Midwest, so it’s not a huge change, but thing I hate is winter. Yep, I know I’m in the wrong state. But here I am.

For the past few years we’ve taken a warm-weather vacation when it gets colder here. Last year, we went to Orlando–and managed to miss the first big snow storm of the season! In 2014, we did Key West and had a blast.

After our first-time cruise experience to Alaska last year, we thought a warm-weather cruise in the winter should be next on our cruising list. We’re using it as a little thank you gift to me for completing my master’s degree!

I looked at itineraries on Princess, Celebrity, Holland America, Norwegian, Royal Caribbean, and MSC. I was tempted to do Princess again because we sailed with them to Alaska and loved the experience, but decided to focus more on itinerary and price, as opposed to loyalty.

We knew we could swing 7 days, but no longer–and the shorter 3-4 day “booze cruises” don’t really appeal to us.

In the end, we selected Celebrity Cruises. It’s similar in profile to Princess and they happened to be offering a good deal for December. When we cruise we don’t need water slides or rock walls. We just want to relax and explore the ports–so Celebrity is a good match for us.

Celebrity Cruises

We choose an eastern Caribbean itinerary on the Celebrity Equinox out of Miami calling at:

Eastern Caribbean cruise

We’ll spend a couple days pre-cruise in Miami Beach. I’m still thinking about shore excursions. In San Juan, we’ll be happy just strolling through Old San Juan. I’m an airplane enthusiast, so St. Maarten will probably include a trip to Maho Beach to watch the planes come in. I’m not really familiar enough with St. Kitts yet, but the volcano hike sounds like a challenge worth taking!

If you’ve been to any of these locales and have suggestions, please let me know! I’d love to hear about your experiences. But for now, I’m just going to enjoy summer here!

Happy New Year! I realized that from this past summer, I did a day-by-day account of our Alaskan cruise, but I never wrapped it up with a trip review. Since this was our first cruise and first time to Alaska, I thought I’d write a little bit about the experience.

I’ll be honest, up until now, I never had a strong desire to go on a cruise. Some of it was bad PR (like the Carnival Triumph “poop cruise”), some of it was outdated thinking on my part (like doing “forced” activities–hey, no one is actually forcing you to do anything!).

But Alaska was on the travel bucket list and we thought doing a cruise sounded like a good way to go!

Selecting our cruise
We ended up choosing Princess Cruises’ round trip from Seattle, primarily for their expertise in Alaska–and Glacier Bay National Park was on the itinerary we selected. I would have loved to have done a land tour too (like Denali) but we couldn’t spare the extra time (hey that gives me an excuse to go again!). Plus, I’d rather do Denali on my own and really spend some time there.

So we opted for the round trip so we could fly into and out of the same place. We chose Seattle as opposed to Vancouver for cheaper air fares. It’s easier for us to get to and we have family in the area.

We booked last Fall and then I spent the rest of the time eagerly reading the Cruise Critic forums and Alaska travel books. It seemed such a long stretch until June. But then, it was time to sail!

Crown Princess itinerary, R/T to Alaska from Seattle

Crown Princess itinerary, R/T to Alaska from Seattle

Cruise Ship Experience

We were on the Crown Princess, round-trip from Seattle from June 4-11, 2016. The itinerary included Juneau, Skagway, Ketchikan, Victoria BC, plus scenic cruising through Glacier Bay. We spent 3 nights pre-cruise in the Seattle area exploring around.

Embarkation: Pier 91 at Seattle (Smith Cove Cruise Terminal). A smooth experience! Arrived around 12:30pm. Line always kept moving–no more than 30 minutes to get from drop-off to on board the ship. Our room was ready when we got there.

Leaving Seattle on the Crown Princess

Leaving Seattle on the Crown Princess

Stateroom: Inside cabin, Riviera 724. We saved money by booking an inside cabin and have no regrets–we spent most of our time exploring the ship anyway! Great location — aft of the ship. Just a few steps and we were at the Terrace pool and bar which was rarely crowded. The room was situated immediately below the buffet—only the occasional minor noise, but nothing that ever caused us to lose sleep. The room itself was more than adequate for the two of us. I thought I might feel claustrophobic, but no worries.

Service: Exceptional. I’m not one who usually goes for being “pampered,” but I felt like a king (or a prince since this is Princess Cruises?). Our steward was helpful and always seemed to be around…but never hovered. Wait staff was amiable and professional. Top notch all around.

Food: Ranged from average to excellent. Two great meals in the Crown Grill (loved the filet mignon!) and had good food in the MDR (hello salmon! And I’m still having dreams about you, Fettuccine Alfredo!). The buffet was fairly standard and what I expect when you try to institutionally service food to 3,000 people. We did Anytime Dining because we didn’t want to stick to a rigid schedule. Well, we learned it really should be called “Anytime Dining but reservations highly encouraged!” So, we decided what time we wanted eat dinner in the morning and made a quick call to the Dine line for reservations.

Dessert in the Crown Grill

Dessert in the Crown Grill

Facilities: Loved all the open areas, walking around the Promenade Deck, Skywalkers Lounge, Terrace pool area. The piazza (central atrium) is beautiful. Most of the time, the ship never felt crowded (and that’s good because I’m not a “crowds” person). Some issues finding seating in buffet at peak times (mainly from people taking up tables who weren’t actually eating).

Crown Princess piazza

Crown Princess piazza

Onboard Activities: Alaska is so port-intensive, we were sometimes too tired. But we did go to several performances (“Magic to Do” musical and 70’s music show) and liked them. Tried our hand at trivia…fun, but wow we felt dumb! Did the “treasure hunt” as a first timer…I won something! Went to one of the naturalist presentations about Alaska and a photo presentation on Alaska…both good!Attended the culinary demo and galley tour…fascinating. Watched the finale of “Voice of the Ocean”—some talented passengers on board!

Disembarkation: A bit of zoo, but I guess that’s usual? We did Express Walk Off and would do it again.

Ports

Juneau: Ate at Tracy’s King Crab Shack…loved it! Did Harv & Marv’s whale watching…good time. Went to Mendenhall Glacier: Would have liked to have spent more time there.

Mendenhall Glacier

Mendenhall Glacier

Skagway: Walked around town. Did Frontier Excursion’s Yukon Discovery Tour (about 6.5 hrs)—awesome scenery and didn’t have to do any of the driving!

Yukon - Large than Life

Yukon – Large than Life

Glacier Bay scenic cruising: One word: AMAZING! Remember to get a good spot out on one the high decks then go down to the Promenade Deck to get a change in perspective.

Margerie Glacier, Glacier Bay scenic cruising

Margerie Glacier, Glacier Bay scenic cruising

Ketchikan: Wish we had more time here. Did Island Wings floatplane sightseeing over Misty Fjords—an experience I’ll never forget.

Nooya Lake. Misty Fjords

Nooya Lake. Misty Fjords

Victoria BC: Again, wish we had more time here. Lovely city. Walked around downtown. Great meal and friendly service at a restaurant called The Docks.

BC Parliament Buildings

BC Parliament Buildings

Post-Cruise Thoughts

What I learned as a first-time cruiser is that it’s all about options. Don’t like formal night? Don’t have to do it (just stay out of the main dining room). Hungry at 11pm? No problem: Go to the 24 hour cafe. Want to learn something?: Go listen to the naturalist talk. Want to party? Go to the late night DJ. There really is something for everyone!

So, we’re hooked! Doesn’t mean we’ll be cruising multiple times a year, but as soon as we got off the ship, we both agreed: Let’s go somewhere warm next! So, if you have suggestions, let me know!

If you have questions about my trip, don’t hesitate to ask!

Crown Princess

Crown Princess

 

Back in Indiana over the holidays visiting my mom. I grew up in the Fort Wayne area, but had never been to the local art museum. I decided to rectify that and visit the Fort Wayne Museum of Art.

Located downtown, the FWMoA features several nice galleries. When I visited, they were showcasing two exhibitions that I really found interesting.

The first was by Oakland-based artist Brett Amory entitled “Fort Wayne, American Monologue.” Growing up in the midwest, I’m always attuned to people that make simplistic assumptions about the midwest (aka “flyover country”), so I was interested in seeing this artist’s perspective. The story told about Fort Wayne was realistic: its successes and failures, the good and bad, the past and future. I appreciated this multi-dimensional perspective.

My favorite piece was a worked titled “Internet Archive.” As a librarian, I noticed the information and literary component to the piece. I also spotted the old library catalog cards decorating the frame.

Brett Amory, FWMoA

Brett Amory, FWMoA

The second exhibit was by artist and printmaker Robert Kipniss. His works featured many tree scenes in dark greens, grays, and almost black. A quote from the artist struck me:

No matter what you do some people will like it, some people will hate it, and most people won’t care. Do the work you believe in, the work you have to do, and let that be enough.

Robert Kipniss, FWMoA

Robert Kipniss, FWMoA

I also enjoyed a third gallery: various pieces acquired by the museum in 2016.

FWMoA

FWMoA

Because the museum is small, they rotate artwork for display. So I’ll definitely be stopping in the next time I’m in Fort Wayne. You’ll see something new!

 

Orlando: Trip in Review

Ahh, the beautiful sunshine and warm weather of Florida was a brief respite from December in Wisconsin.

We stayed four nights in Orlando at Disney’s Caribbean Beach Resort. Below are some notes on our trip: