Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Italy Day 4 (First Day in Florence)

Horse and carriage in the Piazza della Signoria 
(notice the David replica behind the horse)

The Duomo's facade

View of the Arno River in Florence 
(taken from the Ponte Vecchio)

Street performer in the 
Piazza della Signoria

We caught our 8:30ish AM train from Rome to Florence with relative ease. The cities were clearly listed on a board and we saw the train parked and ready. 

What wasn't quite so clear, however, was our assigned seat. The ticket stub, logically in Italian, didn't seem to have assigned seats. We picked out a train car that struck our fancy (somewhere in the middle of the train), stowed our baggage and took a seat. Then we started noticing other passengers glancing at their tickets and then at the seats. Dan said he would jump off board for a moment and ask someone "official" if we had assigned seats. While he was gone, the true "owners" of the seats we were occupying showed up, so I struggled to grab our two suitcases, tote bag, backpacks and my purse. Luckily Dan hopped back on board in time to help me grab our things and get off the train.

Whoever "official" Dan found pointed out our seats on the ticket. We felt a lot better about our second resting place, on car number 12. The approximately two-hour train ride had few stops and great scenery. We passed the time by looking through our travel guide books and refreshing ourselves on what tours we planned to do and attractions we planned to see. The time flew by — and before we knew it — we were gathering our things again and getting off the train.

Dan's TomTom GPS device assured us our bed and breakfast was within walking distance of the train station. We took a few minor wrong turns but the route was filled with high end shops (think Gucci, Prada, Escada, Coach, etc.) and delicious-looking ristorantes. We walked through an open market square just before find the street our bed and breakfast was located on. 

Olga's House was located across the street from Chanel and a small grocery store — and just a few steps from the city's biggest plaza — the Piazza della Signoria. This is the same plaza that the actual David stood on for hundreds of years (now replaced by a replica). It's perimeter is filled with shops and restaurants, statues and street vendors hawking water color paintings.

Seeing in that we had a few minutes before we could check in, we grabbed some espressos and split a piece of pizza at a nearby cafe. 

We had a much easier time checking into Olga's House than with our Rome experience. We buzzed upstairs and were quickly and easily let in by Roberto, Olga's House's owner and operator. There was a bit of commotion with a couple on their way out, which I'll talk more about in a moment. Roberto was a kind-hearted, chatty and high spirited Italian with a Russian wife. He met his now-wife on a long flight — and the rest was history. He named the bed and breakfast after his wife's daughter, Olga. Roberto told us how the travel company we booked the room through, Cross Pollinate, had the best rates of all the companies he worked with (115 euro per night).

After showing us the room, Roberto explained he was a bit frazzled because he had just had to kick a couple out of his inn. The day before, Roberto fielded a call from Italian officials that the couple tried to steal a history book from a museum's book shop. The museum's officials took note of each person's passport and escorted them off the premises. During the couple's brief stay, Roberto explained, they had been nothing but rude complainers. He was happy to hear he had a reason to remove them from his property. We were sad to hear of Roberto's trouble but what a story about the "crazy people."

We situated our belongings in the modern IKEA-inspired room and decided to go explore the city. Roberto also gave us three business cards each, redeemable for breakfast (a croissant of our choosing and an espresso or cappuccino) at one of three restaurants on the square.

Our first stop: the Ponte Vecchio. It's famous for it's shopping and picturesque views. We strolled by jewelry artisans, leather shops, gelaterias, pizzerias, high-end clothing shops and more. We made a mental note to stop by a leather store and look for boots on our way back through.

Walking past the Ponte Vecchio brought us to the Pitti Palace, once occupied by the famous Medici family (specifically Cosimo the Great). The now-museum looked like it had a lot to offer, so we decided to purchase tickets. We spent nearly an hour navigating the many gardens on the property and admiring the amazing views — likely three hours at the palace overall. We could see landmarks like the Duomo from the gardens' highest terraces. The traveling exhibitions had something for him and something for her. I very much enjoyed the costume gallery, which featured everything from 17th and 18th century Medici family gowns and shoes to 1960's Versace and Armani worn by celebrities from all over the Western World. Dan really enjoyed a gallery of architectural tools and instruments. We walked by maps (watching them become more detailed and accurate as time went on), replicas of pulleys and levers constructed by DaVinci and drawings (not unlike blue prints) of large structures. Each room of the palace was impeccably painted, decorated and preserved. What fun to imagine the galas thrown by Italian "royalty" here. The silver gallery (dishes and silverware, etc.) was interesting but not quite as fun as the two galleries aforementioned. 

Upon our departure from Pitti Palace, our mission was boots for Katy. We found a nice store called Casini that carried a variety of tall, Italian leather boots. I was set on black with a small-to-medium heel, so I didn't want to be talked into a pair that didn't fit my expectations. I probably tried on 20 pairs before we found the perfect ones — black with just a little strap across the back, nearly to the knee, small heel, 100 percent genuine Italian leather. So in love, I even wore the boots out of the store. Thank you, Dan, for that "splurge" item. I also picked up a pink "Ciao Bella" t-shirt (your typical tourist t-shirt) from a street vendor on our walk back.

A small snack of sliced cheese and a beer sustained us until dinner.

Back at Olga's House, we climbed the 80 or so stairs yet again back up to our room. I joked with Dan that one souvenir of the trip would be a toned rear. We showered and dressed for dinner and headed toward Roberto's recommendation for the evening — La Grotta Guelfa Ristorante. We chose an outdoor seat and started with chianti, bread and a "shepherd's plate" (sausages, tomatoes, mushrooms, aubergines, cheese and artichoke hearts). Yum! I ordered the specialty taggliatelle with mushrooms, bacon and tomatoes then a veal marsala (sorry, Pete!). Dan went with a salad caprese and the ravioli "Guelfa style." I would say this was one of the best meals we had in Italy.

Not surprisingly, I insisted on grabbing some gelato on our way back to the B&B. [Also] not surprisingly, Dan said he didn't want any gelato but proceeded to eat half of mine. When we reached the piazza, we found an interesting and loud scene. Parents and students of Florence's public schools were protesting a new private school, claiming the new school has taken away teachers and lowered the caliber of education at the city's public schools. The non-violent protest included chants, banners, drums and marching. What an interesting moment in time to observe.

Day one in Florence was a great success. Overall, Florence felt very romantic and approachable. We went to sleep excited for the days to come... Next on our list: a walking tour of the city, a bicycle tour through Tuscany, wonderful quality time with my husband and more delicious food and wine. What a dream honeymoon.

Thank you again, Steffi, for the photos.

Monday, December 29, 2008


Do women not often wear slips under their dresses and skirts any more? 

One item on my Target shopping list yesterday was a black slip skirt. I've acquired a few black dresses this year that are slightly see through during the day (both are made of knit/woven material). My solution was to buy a black slip like the white one I already have in my undies drawer.

To my amazement, I found only ONE slip in all of Target. It was a full body slip, similar to this one. I suppose I should be grateful it was both in my size and on sale though.

My Target online search yielded a few more results, but I'm still baffled. Why wouldn't Target carry more of an in-store selection? Or are people now turning to a different solution than slips? I must be behind the times.

This one is from Bare Necessities

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Today I Love...

  • Thinking of great gift ideas and executing them
  • Wrapping presents (most specifically using fun sticky to/from labels)
  • Graciously treating retail employees while out and about (they're likely overworked, underpaid and annoyed by some less-than-nice customers so I feel they deserve kind words and smiles)
  • Shopping at the DeKalb Farmer's Market (see post I wrote back in January about the place and all its fabulousness); wow that seared ahi tuna steak was delicious!
  • Target
  • Family (all of them)
  • Friends (all of them)
  • Christmas ornaments that invite fond memories and story-telling
  • Good movies (lately Once and Rescue Dawn... will be watching Volver shortly)
  • My husbands (all of them*)

Martha Stewart ornament I gifted
 this year (from here)

Festive, printable gift giving labels 
from Land O' Lakes (from here

*okay, there's officially just one but I love him quite a bit.  And I also am a big fan of my former work husband, Gregory.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

New Office Accessories

I have a few new office accessories as of today!

My secret Santa (Devon!) made me little magnets decorated with the colors and emblems of my favorite football teams (Green Bay and The University of Georgia) and Dan's favorite teams (Dallas and The University of Tennessee). I think these would look great on the metal border of my dry erase board. (You can learn to make similar marble magnets by visiting this fun site).

Thanks for the groovy magnets, Devon!

Recipient of my secret santa gift (Christmas tree skirt not pictured), with Olive

My SS, Devon (left), with Dawn

Also, I decided today to bring in a framed photo of Dan for my desk. I think it looks quite nice if I can say so myself!

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Cookie Swap

Yesterday was my office's 2nd Annual Cookie Swap—but my first. 

Each employee was asked to bring at least four dozen cookies (preferably more) with two dozen for swapping and two dozen for sampling.

I tried to impress the creative crowd with Heidi's banana chip cookies, which also included roasted walnuts and chocolate chunks. They were tasty but not quite the decadent and indulgent taste of their cookie swap peers. 

Our "cookies" ranged from old fashioned maypos, traditional Greek Easter cookies and iced sugar cookies to chocolate covered pretzels, oatmeal/cranberry/macadamia nut cookies and coconut macaroons. I went home with a box of at least 20 kinds of cookies that probably weighed five pounds. Let's just hope that's not how much I gain as a result of this cookie tradition madness. Can you say diabetes?

Photos care of Julie S's camera

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

A Little Holiday Humor

(From via Holy Taco, via my friend James K's google reader)

I thought this was witty and fun—and a little naughty...thanks for the laugh, James! I wonder how long it took someone to put all this together.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Italia: Day 3

Dan reminded me this weekend that I ought to recap the rest of our honeymoon before the events become uncommitted to memory. He has a good point, especially since we have no photos to remember our trip by. The trouble has been that I need to dedicate a solid amount of time to a quality posting.

So here we go again.

Our breakfast on Sunday, our third "full" day in Rome, we had a similar spread as the morning before. We loaded up on eggs, cereal and toast at our somewhat meager (but perfectly suitable) bed and breakfast then stopped for a cappuccino (enjoyed standing up, of course) on our way to the day's big events—the Roman Forum and the Colosseum. 

We were eager to spend some more time with our lovable, Liverpool accent-laden tour guide Ian but knew we needed some cash to pay him with. So we used Dan's TomTom, which he loaded with European maps prior to our trip, to find a few ATMs that might dispense us some benjamins. Our commute (on foot) from our lodging to the historic sites was quick; we could actually see the Colosseum through the alleyways from our B&B.

As I recall approaching the Roman Forum, all I can muster up to type is "WOW." Being there—and reflecting upon it—conjures up feelings of respect, reverence, awe and mystique. It's the place where Roman civilization developed! To think about setting foot in the very places where Caesar rallied his troops (and eventually fell to the sword of Casca and Brutus), it's unreal. Just think about Marc Antony and Cleopatra's lover's quarrels on this very land. Our guide, Ian, recounted the Ides of March (Caesar's doom day) with dramatics and fervor. I suppose political underminings and backstabbing aren't modern day things in the slightest.

Our tour group size was similar to the day before at about ten to 12. We were led from monument to monument, hearing about everything from erecting the city center to excavating it hundreds of years later. The Senate's meeting place is located among the Forum's buildings, as are a multitude of temples (Saturn, Concord, Vesta, Venus and Roma, etc.). Ian told us how some of the structures (and beliefs) are a mix of Greek and Roman beliefs. Did you, by the way, know that the Romans invented modern plumbing? I didn't.

The Colosseum, just a few steps from the ruins of Rome's ancestors, was host to blood baths via gladiator fights. Sure, we've all seen Russell Crowe's Ridley Scott-directed Gladiator movie, so we know at least a little about how this would play out. Prisoners of war and criminals were pitted against one another and against animals in the most grueling of fights. It's debatable how many people the Colosseum could hold (Wikipedia says 80,000), but I'm sure it was incredible to observe the crowds there—with the poorest of the spectators viewing the carnage from the top levels. Our tour guide told us that some say nearly 500,000 people and animals were slain in the famed (or infamous) arena. The arena's floor, no longer there from years of wear, once sat above a series of cells, basically. Through a system of pulleys and levers, event orchestrators could lift gladiators and animals up from the "basement" and allow them to enter the arena via secret stage doors. 

One tourist tip related to the Colosseum: it's free to enter with your Roman Forum pass unless you appear to be with a group of 10 or more (if that's the case, there's something like a 2 euro/person charge). So if you're with a guide and a group, act like you're minding your own business until you're past the security checks.

Since Ian did such a great job the night before with a restaurant recommendation, we listened attentively as he told another couple of a good restaurant near our present location. After the group parted ways, we looked for the orange-ish building with a ship out front that Ian described but to no avail. We settled on a large, probably rather touristy lunch spot called Antica Trattoria Pasqualino al Colosseo. The outdoor seating seemed to be calling our name.

Another pair from the tour happened to be seated at the table next to ours, so we had a lovely conversation with the native New Zealanders. It was also their first trip to Italy. Our food was tasty (ricotta and spinach ravioli with red sauce and lasagna, accompanied by a Peroni birra) but it did take a solid 20 minutes to get our check.

A perk to the random way we chose to navigate home was passing by San Clemente, the small church Ian mentioned was probably his favorite in town. We just happened to stumble upon the place of worship. Not that I have photos from the trip, but no photography is allowed in the building. Slightly underground, the basilica seemed to be preserved from it's 12th-century roots (though it was built atop a 4th century church). Frescos and mosaics galore were sights to behold.

While walking around, we also decided to pick up a few friend souvenirs. We found a few shops that weren't closed for the Italian equivalent of a siesta and picked out a fun few items. We particularly enjoyed the coziness of Arrivederci e Grazie and the nice old man and younger boy who helped us with our selections. There was something endearing about the way the old man spoke to us in quick Italian despite realizing we could understand him. There were, of course, a few universal words we could mumble back and forth—words like "vino" (wine) and chocolate. We grabbed some lemoncello, olive oil and tiramisu chocolates for dear friends in Atlanta.

Of course I couldn't help but suggest we grab some gelato on our final stretch back home. And by "we," I really mean "I" with Dan stealing little bites. This time, I opted for two flavors: after eight (kind of a mint flavor) and an old standard, pistachio. I thought two euros wasn't bad for my sweet afternoon snack. 

We had intended to visit the Pantheon, one of man's greatest architectural accomplishments. It's dome is one of the top tourist attractions in Italy. Unfortunately, the Pantheon closes early on Sundays (5pm) so we missed our window of opportunity. 

We rested as quickly as we could before deciding on a dinner plan. Since we'd traveled some distance from the B&B the night previous, we decided we'd wander the nearby streets for dinner on this night. We meandered along larger and more off-the-beaten-path streets, taking note of menu offerings and prices. If a restaurant had employees staked outside, calling you to come in, we decided they must be desperate for customers. Begging musicians (accordions, etc.), asking for tips, also led us away from certain restaurants.

Chico di Grano was our final dinner destination. Our Nigerian waiter was not exactly your authentic Italian, but the food served was overall good. We enjoyed a half liter of house (red) wine, bruschetta with green pesto and tomato pulp, grilled veggies, shrimp risotto and a margherita pizza. The pizza was incredible, while the risotto was a little more disappointing (slightly underdone and using tiny popcorn shrimps instead of substantially-sized prawns). Some Americans have complained about sitting fees, but since theirs was prominently displayed before we even entered the restaurant, we found no objection.

With a relatively early train to catch, we skipped any after dinner drinks for a few minutes of talking and preparing for our next day. We both REALLY enjoyed Rome though. The area where we stayed was great—and seeing one of the cruxes of humanity (second to Greece) was unforgettable. Everyone has their opinion, but I very much disagree that "you really one need one day in Rome." There's so much to take in and we could have even stretched out our Rome visit one or two more days.

Miscellaneous thoughts on Rome: 
  • Geez, a lot of people smoke. I mean, a lot
  • The city is more diverse than I would have guessed (we noticed this especially after walking through the predominantly Indian/Asian/African neighborhoods near the train station)
  • Graffiti is everywhere, though I hear this is the case throughout Europe
  • Coffee isn't sized "venti" or "grande;" it's quick espresso that's enjoyed standing up
  • Gelato stands are on every corner, even more prominent than I would have guessed
  • Apartments are small yet offer everything you would need in a bustling, metropolitan city
  • Streets feel like alleys because they weren't built for cars—and road rules really need not apply
  • In general, people were helpful and had nice attitudes toward tourists (I'm not sure if it helped, but we tried to reciprocate kindness at every opportunity possible)
  • There are two types of train tickets: one more luxurious and direct, another with multiple stops but about 40% more affordable (whoops... we bought the more expensive ones to travel from Rome to Florence)
  • Tips are optional (at least we heard that tips aren't expected or necessary); we still chose to tip a little when we felt like we had quality service