Saturday, August 25, 2012

Sunrise In Tuscany

It was something I wished I had done in Paris and was determined not to miss this time in the sunrise in a foreign land. I didn't say anything to anyone about it because I was also afraid that it would be one of those things that we say we want to do and never do it.

I awoke in the early morning hour of the 13th, to quiet. Checked my phone, it was exactly 4am. I lay there praying, thinking, dreaming. I was in a Tuscany. I could feel anticipation, not in an anxious, unrelenting way, but in one full of hopeful promise. I was happy, content. I was in a Tuscany with my daughter and my best friend.

Sleep drifted over me in little spurts until I heard distinctly, the first morning chirp of a bird. The room up until then had been quiet and dark, just the light of the moon coming in from the open window. It started with just one lonely song. And within moments others began to join in. First one by one and then a symphony. Inside our little villa everyone else slept while outside the world was coming to life. This would be the morning I watch my sunrise.

I waited until 5:15 and then quietly arose. The room was still dark, but not pitch black. I could see without having turn on the light. Hesitating, I debated on whether I should wake Liz and see if she wanted to go. I took a chance and woke her from a deep sleep. Yes, she was game.

We got dressed, quickly, quietly, in the dark, trying not to wake the girls and made our way out the door. The air was still cool, filled with the songs of hundreds of birds, happy to start their day. Jasmine scented our path as we walked from our little villa to the pool which overlooked the valley.

Out in the distance, the sun sat behind a ridge. It was interesting how clouds seemed to have molded themselves to the hills so that they were a mirror image of the ridges.

We sat at the edge of the chairs by the pool, watching the sky change moment by moment as the sun slowly, but steadily made its grand appearance.

If we had been little kids, we may have wanted to pinch each other to make sure it wasn't all a dream.

I was reminded once again of the glory and awesome power of God. And how his mercies are new every morning. I thanked him over and over again in my mind for being able to be there and witness such a sight.

Liz and I talked in hushed voices, giddy with excitement. I was thankful I had woken her up for to share this with my best friend made it even more special.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Fab Florence Part Due

After climbing the Duomo, the gelato was wearing off and we were ready for lunch. Around the Cathedral were various restaurants, a few which obviously catered to Americans. I'm ashamed to admit that we selected one of these, but I felt it was important to get a meal that Brie would eat.

There were chicken sandwiches, hamburgers, even cheese sticks on the menu. It was as American as you could get. And it was surprisingly good. Reenergized, we headed back to the Piazza della Repubblica for a spin on the carousel.

I can never turn down a carousel ride.

Luckily for me, Acki was game or I may not have gotten Liz and Brie on it.

By this time, evening was drawing near and we weren't sure what we wanted to do next. I read that one of the museums had The David by Michelangelo which was on my list of things to see so we wandered in the direction of the Palazzo Vecchio. Similar to the walk to the Duomo, there were countless stops along the way.

Did I say, countless?

We were like children in an ice cream factory.

I was beginning to think we were never going to get there.

When we finally came to the square.

It did not disappoint.

It was a wonderful experience. The wind strangely kicked up and I felt like I was living in a story book. I loved, loved, loved Florence. More than I would have imagined.

We knew we had a bit of a hike back to the car so we headed back as the sun was coming down which was already after 8pm. By the time we arrived back to the villa, we were tired, but happy and ready for our next adventure.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Fabulous Florence

After a simple, but delicious breakfast, we were ready to get going. Our choices were simple, we could either take it easy for the day and explore the countryside of Tuscany or we could dig right in and head for Florence. I held my breath as I gave everyone the two options. I was ready to rock and roll, but I had originally agreed that since this was our vacation, I would be fine with taking it easy. Now that we were here, I wanted to make the most of it.

I was happy when Acki spoke up, voting for going to Florence. Although I was a bit nervous about driving to a new place, I was encouraged by the events of the morning which gave me all the confidence I needed to feel like I could do it. As the girls finished getting ready, Liz and I went to the reception office to ask for directions.

We were provided a print out of step by steps instructions which seemed easy, but had enough vagueness to them, such as "you'll come to a row of gas stations, turn left on the second light after you pass the gas stations. that I was more than a little unsettled. I mean, what can be considered a "row" of gas stations?

Turns out these were the best directions we had for the whole trip. Before we knew it, we were arriving at the vicinity of the city and heading into a parking lot. It was rather a strange parking lot, just one long narrow strip of parking spaces, all of which were taken. The ones that weren't appeared to be reserved so we kept driving up the one way path. Finally we came upon a few empty spaces and grabbed one of them.

We began to walk in the direction of which we believed the heart of the city would be located. I don't know why we were relatively confident we were walking in the right direction when we had never been there before, but we were having fun taking pictures of our surroundings along the way.

It took us much longer to find the city centre than it should have mostly because we kept stopping to take it all in and to document it all with our cameras.

It's a funny experience asking for directions in northern Italy. Most of the Italians act as though they've never heard of the places for which you're looking. Perhaps they refer to their landmarks differently, but we managed to find the Arno River without too much trouble. Here, we were just a hop, skip and a jump from the sights we wanted to see.

Once we got to this area, the scenery changed. It was a bustling little city with a lot of signage which was helpful to four woman from the US who hadn't a clue as to what we were doing.

First up, was a stop for gelato, after all, it was after noon by the time we had arrived and it was time to reward ourselves for making it this far.

After our tummies were filled with our first taste of genuine, authentic Italian gelato, we continued to walked to the Duomo. Like our walk to the city centre, our journey was interrupted by stops along the way.

There were countless souvenir stands.

Photo opportunities around every corner.

And at the Piazza della Repubblica sat a carousel calling to the child in me.

But none of that compared to the first moment I set my eyes upon the Florence Cathedral. It was truly a magical moment stepping into the area in which the Duomo sat. The moment my eyes came upon it, I stopped in my steps and literally gasped at its beauty.

The facade was whiter than I imagined and was a stark contrast to the beige buildings that surrounded it. And somehow it's hidden from sight so that when you come upon it, it takes you by surprise.

Which is impossible to imagine because the cathedral is quite large. It's surrounded by ordinary buildings, which I thought were mainly apartments, which added to its grandeur.

Could you imagine looking out your window every morning to this view?

I wondered if those who live in this city realized how special it is and how lucky they are.

We decided to throw caution to the wind and attempt to climb the Duomo.

I had read that the lines could be several hours long, but after less than 30 minutes, we were entering the building to begin our ascent.

The climb up was quite a work out. It's the type of steps that I hate with a passion. Steep, endless, often without any handrail. I kept my head down, concentrating on one step at a time, telling myself if I could climb to the top of the Notre Dame, surely I could climb to the top of this Duomo. My steps were slow and I told the girls to go ahead and not to wait for me. 

I don't know why I let my fear creep in, but it did. And at the very last section, I gave in to the pesky enemy. Here was the extent of my view as I waited for Liz to finish the climb and tell the girls I chickened out.

I felt it apropos that the window had bars making me feel like a prisoner to my fears as I watched others pass me up without a care in the world.

After waiting for what seemed like hours, I finally saw Liz coming down the stairs from top. 

Liz was beaming as she told me that it was just a beautiful as one would have thought. The only thing was, the girls were nowhere to be found which was a little alarming being as I found it difficult to believe they could have passed me by without me knowing it. 

The descent was double nerve-wracking for me as going down steps is even more frightening to me as going up. Added to that, was my concern about the girls. When we finally reached the last step and walked out into the fresh air, I was anxious to see their faces. But they were nowhere in sight. Scenes from Taken flashed my mind. Acki's mom would take me down and I wouldn't blame her a bit. 

Just about the time I thought I was going to start crying, the girls walked up full of smiles. They had been waiting for what seemed like forever so they did a little shopping. Turns out they didn't go all the way to the top, somehow missing the last passage. They were exceedingly disappointed when they realized what they had missed, but I told them they could try again if we decided to come back to Florence another day.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

The Coop

I awoke in our upstairs bedroom the first morning to the light streaming in from the open window. I lay there, taking in the sounds, the view, the aroma of the fields. I was in a Italy. It was a dream come true. After little to no sleep over the past few days, I had slept soundly our first night in Italy. I was ready for whatever adventure lie ahead.

Since we had planned to go to the supermarket the evening before, we turned down the 10 euro per person breakfast that was offered to us upon check in. With the exchange rate sitting at roughly $0.70 to the euro, $13.00 each seemed rather steep for what we expected to be a continental breakfast. This meant we would have to get up and find The Coop in the morning before we did anything else if we wanted to eat.

By 9am, Liz and I were out the door with our little map back in hand, the girls still sound asleep. This time we were able to successfully negotiate our way to San Casciano, figuring out our mistake. What we thought was the first roundabout, was for some reason, not on the map. Since the instructions were to to veer to the left on the second roundabout, it was a big mistake to make. 

As we curved around the road after the "second" roundabout, we could see our destination to our left, just where the map said it would be. Score! 

From the moment we walked in the little supermarket, I was enthralled. I felt I had stepped back into the 60’s and 70’s and was at the corner market by my grandmother’s. 

Don’t misunderstand, there were plenty of reminders that we were in the 2010’s, such as the need to pay the use of a shopping cart, the little do-it-yourself weight/barcode machine for the produce. The place, however, was hopping with shoppers, even for a weekday morning. 

It took us a while to maneuver through the store, and go through our mental shopping list. Fruit, check. Baked goods, check. Instant coffee, check. Milk check. Lunch meat, check. Bottled water, check. 

A little over 50 euros later, we were wheeling our cart out of there, quite happy with ourselves. For just 10 euros more than what we were originally quoted for breakfast, we had not only breakfast secured for almost the whole week, but lunch or dinner too!

We were happy as we headed back to the villa, feeling good about our bounty and that we were able navigate our way there and back without getting lost or going the wrong way once. It was just the boost I needed. Next up, deciding how to spend our first full day in Italy!

Friday, August 17, 2012

Welcome to San Casciano

By the time Liz and the girls had gone to sleep, it was probably close to three or four in the afternoon. They were understandably exhausted, I was too wound up to sleep so I quietly left our apartment and wandered around taking in my surroundings.

After exploring the grounds for over an hour, I was keenly aware that it was already evening. We still needed to eat a good meal and go to the grocery store, not necessarily in that order. While I felt bad about waking everyone from their sleep, I didn’t want jet lag to set in. It would be better to have them tired still that way we would get a good night’s sleep and be ready for the next day. No one, including Brie, protested too much when I woke them up. I think they were hungry and anxious to see more of the area, too.

Armed with a little map and directions to San Casciano where the grocery store was located, we got back into our car and headed out. Even though we were provided very specific directions, it was French to us....and we were in Italia. As I turned right onto the main road, the uncertainty took over. Driving through the hills, I took note of landmarks and would call certain ones out to everyone in the car. I was afraid that it would be dark when we returned which would make the drive home harder.

The plan was to find the supermarket, shop, come back home and make a light meal for dinner. What we didn't plan for was having such a hard time finding the place. The little map we had made finding "The Coop" look easy peasy. It wasn't as we travelled back and forth, back and forth trying to figure out what we were doing wrong, we finally gave up and decided to just park the car and eat dinner. 

The little town of San Casciano reminded us a bit of Bayeux. We managed to find a parking lot, but could not figure how in the world to get the little parking machine to take our money so we could park without getting a ticket. Finally, I went over to a little gelato store and the kind shopkeeper came to our rescue. She dropped the Euro coins into the machine just as we had done and lightly swiped her fingers across a little button and voila! The ticket magically appeared.

Tired, hungry and verging on grumpiness, the four of us walked up the street to the area in which we were told we could find someplace to eat. Quaint and picturesque, I felt at home the moment we walked up the main street. I immediately fell in love with the little town and our mood lightening immediately. There was a little meat shop with cuts of meat hanging from the ceiling, several restaurants and various stores lined the street. 

Loved the laundry hanging out the window, this was the first of many of these types of shots.

Loved how shopkeepers and restaurant owners would stand outside waiting for business to come in. This was also the first of many of this type of shot.

This was not an area which catered to American's so all the menu's were in Italian. We finally selected a restaurant which boasted a pizzeria and hoped for the best. 

It was our first real meal out of the trip and Brie's first taste of Spaghetti "al dente". It was definitely authentic Italian food. It was a good start to our trip. By the time we finished up dinner, night was falling and so was our energy.  There would be no grocery shopping that night.

We got back into the car and made it back to the villa without having to turn around once. It definitely helped that we had selected some landmarks by which to track our way home. It gave me the confidence I needed to drive along the curvy hills with a sense of accomplishment. I announced in the car that within the next day or two, we would "own" this way of saying that we would be able to travel the streets of San Casciano as though we truly belonged there.

We arrived back to our little villa without any incident full, happy and tired. All in all it was a good day. After all, we were in Tuscany and our adventure was just beginning.