We decided to make the most of our first day in Montreal. After making our way from the airport on the convenient STM 747 bus and Metro, we checked into the Hilton Garden Inn Montreal Centre-Ville on Rue Sherbrooke.
From the hotel it was a few blocks walk down Rue Sherbrooke and through the campus of McGill University to one of the entrances for Mount Royal Park – the namesake of Montreal and one of its largest urban parks. It was designed by the same architect of New York’s Central Park.
The highlight of the park is the chalet with its sweeping views of Montreal.
We walked through the park and then made our way over to Saint Joseph’s Oratory. This large basilica features the third largest church dome in the world. The steps leading up are occasionally filled with pilgrims walking on their knees to the top.
After touring the basilica, it was time to eat. Nearby, in the Côte-des-Neiges neighborhood, we had a delicious dinner and dessert at Duc de Lorraine.
Here are some pics from Mount Royal Park, Saint Joseph’s Oratory, and the nearby area:
For more photos, check out my Montreal Flickr album.
At the end of July, we made a quick jaunt to Montreal – our first visit there. It’s a lovely city with friendly people, good food, and lots of sightseeing and entertainment options. We were there for Montreal’s Just for Laughs (Juste pour rire) comedy festival.
I’ll blog a little bit over the next week about some of the major highlights. We stayed for three nights.
From our home base near Milwaukee, we flew Air Canada to Toronto, then changed planes and flew into Montreal.
Airport to Downtown
After landing at the Montreal airport, we followed the signage for the STM 747 bus which has convenient (and cheap–$10 CDN) service. Your ticket gets you 24 hours on Montreal’s bus and metro (subway) network. During our stay, some of the city centre was closed for an auto race, so we hopped off the 747 bus at the Lionel-Groulx metro station and then made our way to hotel via the metro. Super easy!
So what should you do in Montreal?
Here’s what we did:
- Walk up to the top of Mount Royal Park (Parc du Mont-Royal)
- Tour Notre-Dame Basilica (Basilique Notre-Dame de Montréal)
- Get acquainted with Montreal through a local food tour
- Take a cruise on the Saint Lawrence River
- Visit Saint Joseph’s Oratory (Oratoire Saint-Joseph)
- Learn about Olympic history at Montreal’s Olympic Park (Parc olympique)
- Go to the Montreal Biosphere to learn about the environment
- Stroll through the Montreal Botanical Garden (Jardin botanique de Montréal)
- Visit fun and funky neighborhoods like the Gay Village
- Visit a museum like the Montreal Contemporary Art Museum (Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal)
- See a show! The Just for Laughs comedy festival was going on when we were there.
A Bilingual City
So you’ve probably heard about things like the French-language “police” in Quebec? I was curious how things would go. I can speak a bit of Spanish and a tiny bit of Italian. But French? It’s a big, fat no–or non!
You need not be worried though. Simply sprinkling in a few French phrases (bonjour, oui, non, s’il vous plaît, merci, parlez-vous anglais) helps.
During most of our restaurant and shopping situations, we encountered English-speaking staff. However, most the metro stations will not have English-speaking staff. Once when we asked for help, we mimed our way through a transaction–and everything worked out OK.
If you’re used to English-only when traveling the US and Canada–Montreal is a good experience for stepping outside your comfort zone.
Montreal has a lot of bang for its buck. It’s cheaper (and closer) than Paris–and easier to get to. But you still have that distinct feeling of being in a “foreign” culture and experience things as an outsider. Late summer was a beautiful time to visit, too. Our trip focused on food and entertainment and were not disappointed. We would return to Montreal any time.
After three weeks of touring Italy, I decided to jot some notes down on the things I learned. Some of these are tips, some are surprises. I’ve broken it down into daily life, transport, food/dining, and comments about the U.S. that we heard from Italian friends and co-workers.
- How many things can the word “prego” mean? It’s so much more than just “you’re welcome.”
- The acceptance that daily Italian life will have its hiccups (like a train strike). You should just go with the flow.
- Air conditioning: What’s that? Italy is a very energy-conscious country. And many Italians just don’t like air conditioning. Many smaller hotels will not have A/C and it’s actually against the law to use the A/C outside of peak summer. Same goes for heating in the winter. Either dress light or bundle up (depending on time of year)!
- No screens in windows. Open them up and let the fresh air (and bugs!) in. Which brings me to my next point…
- Vape: No, not like smoking. It’s pronounced with the accent on the e at the end: va-PAY. It’s kind of like a Glade plug-in freshener that has a scent to repel mosquitos and bugs when you have the windows open. Works some (or most) of the time.
- How Italians perceive each of the regions. Sort of like how we make stereotypes in the U.S. of people from California, Texas, etc.: “Florentines are stuck up” or “No one knows how to run anything in Rome!” or “The Milanese are only concerned about money.” These are some of the comments I heard (or overheard!).
- Public restrooms: Sometimes there is no lid on the toilet seat. The first time it happened I was in Boboli Gardens and I thought it was a one-off. But then again at the the train station, a museum, even a restaurant or two.
- Clothing/Fashion: Everyone dresses up. Even in 90 Fahrenheit summer heat in Florence, there were guys in business suits pacing the streets and women dressed to the nines riding their bicycles.
- Italians want to help you. They are friendly. But YOU need to at least make an effort to use some Italian words. Respect their culture.
- Yes, everyone says “allora” (used as a filler during conversation, like the word well).
- Trains usually do run on time (that was one of Mussolini’s things). There are occasional train strikes, but they are usually published ahead of time and you can often at least catch a train headed in the direction you need to go.
- I love the fast trains! Florence to Milan in 2 hrs at 186mph (300km/h). Yes, please! Imagine if we had hi-speed rail between Milwaukee and Chicago.
- Touring Tuscan hillside wineries? Venturing into the Dolomites? OK, rent a car. In a city center? Ditch the car…it’s a hassle. Walk!
- It’s not other pedestrians you have to watch out for–It’s dodging scooters and bicycles that can be dangerous! Look all ways before crossing the street as direction of the traffic often changes.
- Traffic lights merely seem to be a suggestion.
- Gelato: Avoid places where you can see the gelato from the store front window. Especially if the gelato is molded into a mountain-like form. Although eye-appealing, it’s usually old. Go to a place where you have to step inside to see the gelato. My favorite flavor? I love frutti di bosco (literally “fruit of the forest”)—it’s mixed berry.
- Spaghetti with meatballs doesn’t exist. If it’s on a menu, it’s to appeal to American tastes. Avoid.
- Alfredo sauce doesn’t exist. Don’t ask for it. One of the American students asked about it and one of the Italian educators had no idea what the student was talking about.
- Spaghetti Bolognese: Nope. There is a Bolognese sauce – ragu alla Bolognese – but it would never be served with spaghetti, but a broader pasta like tagliatelle or pappardelle.
- Breadsticks on every table? Nope. In Florence, I wasn’t served breadsticks even once. You will however, be served fresh Italian bread which you can drizzle with olive oil and/or balsalmic.
- Menus will often be divided into “primi” (pasta, gnochi, risotto) and “secondi” (main meat dishes). You don’t have to order both. You can pick one. I often did so I could save room for gelato!
- Granita: Everyone talks about gelato, but since it was above 90F almost every day while I was in Italy, I preferred a granita—it’s kind of like an Italian slushie.
- Coperto: Often added to a bill when you sit at a table at a restaurant. It’s a cover charge.
- Slow service in restaurants. It’s the Italian way. You should be conversing with your friends and family anyway!
- No tipping. Yeah!
- Wait staff in restaurants – my experience only: A few nice service workers, but mostly indifferent.
- When you are ready to leave the restaurant, just say “il conto, per favore” (the bill, please) and you can settle. Otherwise you will wait…and wait…and wait.
- Each region will have its favorite pasta shapes. Ask the staff what they would eat!
About the U.S.
- Comment from an Italian we were working with: “Why do Americans drink so much?”
- “Why do you work so much?“
- They think everyone in the U.S. owns guns.
- They were hesitant to ask about Trump because they knew we would bring up their man Berlusconi (Trump Italian-style).
- For some reason, Italian TV channels seem to carry nothing bus NCIS, Rizzoli & Isles, The Bold and the Beautiful, and CSI…often dubbed into Italian!
But how could I neglect Siena? I need to add it to the top of my list of favorite places. Its lovely traffic-free center is filled with quaint shops, good restaurants, stunning architecture, and friendly folks.
Just over an hour by car from Florence, it makes a nice day trip. Our shuttle bus dropped us off in a car park and we walked into the historic center. First we stopped at Basilica of San Domenico which houses relics of Saint Catherine of Siena, including her head!
Then we walked into the pedestrian zone of central Siena–a nice welcome change from dodging cars and scooters in Florence! Feeling a bit hungry, we stopped in the Nannini cafe for some pastries.
The Siena Duomo is beautiful both inside and out. We also had skyline views of Siena and the surrounding Tuscan countryside from Panorama del Facciatone.
Following lunch, we had time to explore independently. I wandered the narrow alleyways and winding streets, taking it all in. As with most day trips, it was too short! I could have stayed in Siena for hours.
Here are some pics from Siena:
For more Italy pics, check out my Flickr album.
A short 35 minute train ride from Florence and we were in Bologna. I think tourists are just starting to discover the charms of Bologna. Of all the well-known places we visited, this was the most low-key and we liked it. No tour guides with their flags leading hordes of tourists. Just every day Italians going to work or university.
In Piazza Maggiore, we met up with a local actress dressed as a classic Bologna housewife from back in the day. She led us on a walking tour to get a flavor of Bologna.
Unfortunately, the famous Neptune fountain was under renovation, so we “acted out” the fountain instead!
Today I was in for a special treat: This librarian got to visit two libraries. First we went to Biblioteca Salaborsa, housed in the former stock exchange, that is a busy town library. After that, we went to the Archiginassio, once home to the University of Bologna. It hosts another library full of rare books, along with a fascinating Anatomical Theatre that was used for medical training.
Following our tour, we had the rest of the time at leisure. I scouted out some good places to eat and then took a walk in a park before boarding the train back to Florence.
Here are a few pics from Bologna:
For more Italy pics, check out my Flickr album.
OK, maybe the title of this post is a bit over the top, but it fully encapsulates my view on Pisa.
I had a free afternoon in Florence, so I decided to take the 50 minute train ride over to Pisa to explore. Hopping off the train at Pisa Centrale, I followed the tourist markers to the torre.
And there they were, loads of tourists trying to get that classic holding-up-the-leaning-tower pose. The place was packed. Perhaps a cruise ship had docked at Livorno?
I walked around the Leaning Tower of Pisa – which is the campanile – the bell tower for Pisa Cathedral, and Piazza dei Miracoli. Having had my fill, I bought a souvenir magnet, walked back to the train station, and took the next train back to Florence.
Maybe in my mind Pisa was made to be something more than it was? I checked it off my list, but don’t consider it a must-do. I would recommend spending more time in Florence or Cinque Terre instead.
Here are a few pics from Pisa:
For more Italy pics, check out my Flickr album.
To me, Milan is a bit like the Chicago of Italy. It has the skyscrapers, wide streets, and industry. It’s underrated, or maybe understated? I dunno.
Sometimes in Florence I felt hemmed in by the buildings and the medieval alleyways–and of course, the hordes of tourists. In Milan, I had space and it was welcomed change.
Milan can be done as a day trip, although overnight would be OK too. We had a free Saturday so several of the students and I took the fast train from Florence up to Milan.
The major goal was to see the Milan Cathedral and walk on its famous roof. We had wanted to see the Last Supper, but you need to reserve tickets months in advance or book an expensive combo tour. Basically, we decided to do Milan on the cheap.
After arriving at the imposing Milano Centrale railway station, we decided to walk towards the cathedral. It takes around 35 minutes.
After walking through the mall, we entered the Piazza del Duomo, gawking at the cathedral. We had the reserved “Duomo Pass by Stairs” tickets – entry to the main floor, and then up to the roof (terraces) by stairs. You can pay extra to take the lift (elevator), but the stairs are a classic Milan Cathedral experience.
Absolutely massive, the cathedral is one of the largest churches in the world. Surprisingly, for a Sunday morning in June, the line to enter the cathedral floor moved fairly quickly. We were in no rush, admiring the Gothic exterior.
Inside, people shuffled around in hushed tones admiring the architecture and beautiful stained glass.
The popularity of the Milan Duomo is no doubt tied to the fact that you can walk on its roof.
The roof (or, excuse me, the terraces) is simply a marvel with its postcard perfect pics of Milan. You have great views of the skyscrapers and the Alps off in the distance. In terms of architecture, I liked the stone saints perched on each of the spires. Breathtaking!
Well, we had to come down from a high…literally. But we weren’t done with Milan just yet.
We ventured past the Borsa Italiana (stock exchange) where there’s a big statue of a middle finger. The finger is pointing out from the stock exchange, not at it. So we’re thinking the artistic meaning is that the bankers are giving a big F-U to the average Italian. Their actions may wreck the economy and the middle class, but they don’t care. There are no repercussions for them.
Following that brief side trip, we headed down Via Dante – a large boulevard – to Sforza Castle. This was a surprising find for us!
Sforza Castle is a large citadel built in the 1400s. Today you can tour it. It a series of city museums dedicated to art and culture. The museums hosts Michelangelo’s last sculpture, unfinished due to his death.
After getting our fill of Milan, we headed back to the train station to take the fast train back to Florence.
If you’re considering spending a chunk of time in Italy, perhaps fly into Milan and spend a day. From there, you have easy access by train to Venice and Florence.
Here are some pics from Milan:
For more Italy pics, check out my Flickr album.
You can’t go to Italy without sampling some wine, right?
Here we toured a beautiful old castle – home to the wealthy Pazzi family during Renaissance Florence times. The Pazzi family were rivals to the well-known Medici family and hatched a plot with the Pope to assassinate them. The Medicis were tipped off…and things did not go so well for the Pazzi family!
Today, Castello del Trebbio is a successful vineyard, winery, and farm.
We toured the cellars and had a beautiful lunch and wine tasting, sampling three wines:
- Lastricato Chianti Rufina
- Chianti Superiore
- Vin Santo, a dessert wine
Castello del Trebbio also makes its own olive oil too. I easily shipped back 4 bottles of wine and 2 bottles of olive oil..all arrived safe and sound!
After 90 Fahrenheit days in the hustle and bustle of Florence, it was nice to escape for a bit to a calmer and cooler place, learn about winemaking, and Tuscan history.
If you’re going to be based in Florence for a few days, consider a wine tasting day trip. Castello del Trebbio is hard to beat for a relaxing, scenic, and informative experience.
Here are some pics from Castello del Trebbio:
For more Italy pics, check out my Flickr album.
On our first day trip from Florence, we ventured off to enchanting Venice.
Chaperoning students can be a bit like herding cats, but by hook or by crook we all made it to the Firenze S.M.N. station in time to catch our train. And this is one of the (many) things I loved about Italy: high-speed train service. We were whisked away from Florence to Venice, going around 200km/hr. Travel time is around two hours.
Dropped off at Venice’s Santa Lucia train station, we walked along the Grand Canal and met up with our tour guide. He escorted us through the winding pedestrian streets and alleyways of Venice, stopping to tell stories of Venetian history.
Following the tour we had time to explore Venice independently. Even with a paper map and Google Maps on my phone, I kept getting lost…and I’m usually someone who is good with navigation. But I didn’t care. I was in Venice, and every corner I turned had something to see.
Feeling hungry, I ended up at the Grand Canal. After crossing the Rialto Bridge, I picked a restaurant. The food was OK–I had cuttlefish with squid ink spaghetti–but the view was marvelous and I knew that was really what I was paying for. I just sat for awhile taking it all in.
After lunch, I explored (and got lost) in Venice some more, before making it back to the train station. All students accounted for, we boarded our train and made our way back to Florence.
Here are some pics from Venice:
For more Venice and Italy pics, check out my Flickr album.
So for all of June, Florence was hot…usually 90 Fahrenheit or above. Abundant sunshine and blue skies every day. And dry. Not a drop of rain…until my second to last night there.
Rain moved in during the afternoon and all of the sudden the tourists were nowhere to be seen. It was weird. After three weeks of battling the streets and sidewalks of tourists and tour groups, they had disappeared.
Piazza del Duomo? Practically empty. It was a nice change. It was comical to see how all the street vendors rapidly switched from selling sunglasses and hats to umbrellas!
For one night I had Florence to myself. I loved the reflection of the rain water on the cobblestones. After a dusty and dry three weeks, it was a nice change.
For more Florence and Italy pics, check out my Flickr album.