Posts Tagged With: travel

A Tower with a View: Giotto’s Campanile

I struck out on my own to climb Giotto’s Campanile, the tower right next to Florence’s Duomo.

Of course, I meandered around at first and found a bar to grab a quick espresso. (Buongiorno! Vorrei un caffe, per favore. At this point rolling my R’s was getting easier.) I watched a few street vendors painting in the piazza, and heard several fellow Americans attempting their Italian. When I felt I had given the espresso enough time to energize me for the climb, I got in the ticket line for the Campanile.

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413 steps up. 413 steps down.

Luckily there were a few floors between the ground and the very top so I could stop and catch my breath. The stairs were very narrow and winding – if you’re any more claustrophobic than I am it might get uncomfortable when you’re halfway up. But in my opinion, the view was definitely worth it. Each of the five levels had an even more fantastic view.

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Tuscan Vineyard Trailride

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I don’t think I can count the number of hours I’ve spent in the saddle. I can, however, remember every single destination trail ride. Riding a few miles up from our starting point at a barn in Colorado comes to mind. This trail ride kinda tops them all in terms of scenery.

I booked Kate and I a ride through Fun in Tuscany. It included pick up and drop off in the center of Florence, as well as a wine tasting/food pairing lunch (after the ride, of course).

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Our trail guide

The stable was located a little over 30 minutes from our pickup point and surrounded by some of the most breathtaking countryside I’ve ever seen. We drank a few cappuccini as we waited on a patio, and sampled different kinds of honey. I never thought a honey tasting could be all that interesting… but the group we were with discussed in-depth the differences in each type… the hazelnut honey was my favorite. yum.

The previous tour was late getting back, so we hung out in the barn area, saying hi to the old goat. Just from the barn, the view was amazing. The tour guide helped the less experienced people up into their saddles first, and gave them brief instructions on steering, stopping, going, etc.

Kate and I, as we had the most experience, were at the back of the line. When I mounted from the ground and comfortably picked up my reins, he just blinked at me and said, “You’re good.”

Even though I was slightly bummed I wouldn’t be close enough to the tour guide to test 20160614_122018any of my Italian horse-related vocabulary… there’s something to be said for being at the back of the line on a trail ride. You don’t have to be nose-to-tail. We got to walk around a farm, through a slightly wooded area, and right down into a vineyard, going between rows of grapevines. It was sunny with a slight mist, which made the temperature PERFECT.

Of course, Kate and I would have been happy with a 5-hour trail ride, but it was so relaxing to sit in a saddle, in a quiet vineyard, after we’d been averaging 7 miles of walking a day through crowds of tourists. Instead of our feet being sore, now it was our riding muscles.

I’ve never spent this much time in a vineyard, but I definitely didn’t get tired of our tranquil surroundings! By the end, Kate and I were scheming of ways to get hired as the next trail guides. I wouldn’t mind riding that trail every day.

The wine-pairing lunch was just icing on the cake at the end. I now know how to look like a snob at my next wine tasting, as well… And I’m still dreaming about the lasagne they served us. Overall? On a scale of 1 to 10, the day was about a 15. Definitely recommended!

 

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Holy vineyard view, Batman!

 

 

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Florence First Impressions

I’ve trained myself to sleep on public transportation now, so I had to struggle to keep my eyes open on our way in from Pisa. It started raining before our train pulled into the station in Florence, which made it even more difficult to stay awake. (Those 4:30 am wake up calls are always brutal.)

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view from the train

Just as we were a few blocks from our Airbnb, the light rain became a downpour. We managed to find some shelter under an overhang and waited out the worst of it before we rang the bell. Our host had a friend with him and introduced us. He made some tea and we sat and chatted.

He remembered I had used a little bit of Italian when I booked the room and asked me about it. I was excited to have an interested audience to practice my Italian on. He actually used to ride horses and we had a half English-half Italian discussion about it – if he didn’t know the English word, or I didn’t know the Italian, we would switch languages and figure it out.

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After the storm passed

After Kate and I rested and changed, we went out to pizza with our host and his friend. They took us to a local place with absolutely delicious pizza. As soon as we were seated I just had to sit back and listen to all the fast-paced Italian flying by me. Occasionally our host would laugh, look at me, and ask, “How much of that did you understand?” I’d repeat back to him the 5 words out of the last 3 minutes I had picked out. He’d nod and say, “Not too bad. That was fast.”

I was getting my bearings as our host led us back to his flat. So far, Florence seemed pretty easy to navigate. The buildings and streets were sparkling and clean after the rain, and tourists and locals alike were back out on the streets. The restaurants and bars were beginning to overflow with people spilling out onto the pavement. As we said goodbye and piacere to our host’s friend, I decided I liked Florence a lot. The people we had met so far were friendly and very patient with my language attempts, and the city’s vibes were much more small-town than the vast London we had just left.

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(This is why I enjoy using Airbnb. Here’s my AirBnB referral code. You get $35 off your first booking!)

 

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Bucket List Pit Stop: Pisa

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London gave us a rainy send-off, which somehow made my excitement for Italy a bit more bitter-sweet. We were landing in Pisa before taking a train to Florence, the city that was ultimately our destination for the next few days. But who doesn’t have “take touristy photo with the leaning tower” on their bucket list? So I built in some extra time between our train to Florence and when we landed in Pisa… because sometimes you just need to get the iconic photo.

 

It was noticeably hotter than London (of course), so our 15-minute walk in the sun from the train station was a bit sweaty. But it was pretty much a straight shot, and I was glad to stretch my legs after being on the plane. And once we made it through the swarm of people, we had 20 or 30 minutes to admire il Torre di Pisa.

 

Then, it was back to the train and on to Firenze! I was eager to meet our Airbnb host and test out the small bit of Italian I had in my head. (Which, after the Add1Challenge, was certainly more than the ciao! and grazie! I had my first time in Italy.)

 

 

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Rainy Days, St. Paul’s, and Good Timing

Pleasantly overcast turned into a steady rain during our last full day in London, so we broke out our umbrellas and went used book shopping. I can never resist a good used bookshop on Charing Cross Road. (Or anywhere, really. Especially if there’s a basement that smells like old leather and paper with floor-to-ceiling bookcases.)

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Seven Dials in the rain

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Possibly the best free flower crowns I’ve ever seen

 

Then I wanted to show Kate Neil’s Yard, because even though it’s all over Pinterest it still needs to be seen in person. On our way, we passed the Seven Dials area, where a pop-up event was going on. Colorful bunting was strung up, shops were having sales, and there were some freebies floating around, like custom flower crowns, strawberries and creme, and mint juleps.

 

We purposefully avoided the crowds for the Queen’s birthday celebration earlier in the week but decided a rainy afternoon would have dispelled most of the people around St. Paul’s. So we made our way over and had some excellent timing as we stumbled upon the Evensong service.

 

I love Evensong services. They’re so peaceful and calming. (I’ve actually found one back home I’ve gone to a few times now.) So we listened to the choir, I got in line to take communion at the appropriate time, and we emerged from the gorgeous church a little lighter on our feet.

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St. Paul’s after Evensong

 

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Brighton, Round 3

The first time I went to Brighton I was by myself, had missed breakfast, and so happily stumbled on a lovely little privately owned coffee shop… And that is now my Brighton “tradition.” Get off train. Walk past hipster secondhand shops. Get coffee.

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Kate and I both knew our limits at this point in the week. No sightseeing without being sufficiently caffeinated or we will lose steam quickly. It doesn’t hurt when the coffee is also amazing. So we relaxed for a minute with our lattes.

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Looking inland from our spot on the beach.

But I was ready for some (British) sun, so we walked down towards the pebble beach to relax soon after that. You would think it might be difficult to get comfortable on a pebble beach, but it is surprisingly nice… Especially since I had my cardigan for a pillow.

I was disappointed to discover the Ferris Wheel had come down just one month previous. I had been wanting to ride it for awhile and decided this would be the trip for it…. Until it was mysteriously not on the shore.

At least Brighton has some of the most interesting people-watching I’ve ever seen. So we leisurely walked around The Lanes and had some (more) salmon sandwiches and tea in my favorite spot. One of the staff asked if we were locals, so we must have started sufficiently blending in… Or they hadn’t heard us talk too loudly. haha.

Brighton was my much-needed relaxation day for our week in London. We did nothing but wander aimlessly through bookshops, side streets, the pier, and some pubs. For someone who has dipped her toes in the sea in Florida, Mexico, and some Caribbean islands… It isn’t the best choice for a swim. (Maybe you can handle ice cold water better than I. And I’ve never been in Brighton during July/August, so maybe then it’s better?) But the beach and pier are perfect for getting some sun and fresh air after being surrounded by the concrete and stone in London.

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A Week in Notting Hill

notting-hillWhen I booked our Notting Hill AirBnB, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. I had been tempted to spend a little extra to go back to the Pimlico area, which I missed living in. But it turns out that exploring new neighborhoods can pay off. (Who knew?)

Notting Hill – at the risk of being cliche – was picturesque and quirky in the most vintage-hipster of ways. It also didn’t hurt that the weather was perfectly overcast and in the 70’s and 80’s (Fahrenheit!) for most of the week.

Kate and I spent a few hours getting lost, found, and lost again in the neighborhood. As soon as we left the busy main roads, everything was residential and quiet. Of course, we were on the edge of Zone 2 which will usually decrease the noise and activity level of a general area. I decided that the facades in Notting Hill were my favorite when it came to London residences. The side streets were narrow and full of crooked cobblestones, and the main roads were lined with sidewalks wide enough for pram-pushing mothers to pass each other going opposite directions. But even with the tranquility, the buildings were impressive enough to keep reminding you that you were in London.

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Afternoon Tea Splurge

After all our running around for the first few days, Kate and I splurged a little with a posh Fortnum & Mason afternoon tea. Their Diamond Jubilee Tea Salon is decked out in one of my favorite colors – mint – so of course this is where I got a reservation. As soon as you step into the tea salon on an upper floor of Fortnum & Mason, the atmosphere completely changes. With a tranquil color scheme and music playing, you feel as if you can comfortably linger awhile – and we did.

20160608_124303The staff turn the tea into a bit of a formal affair, as I was helped into my seat by the host and given two weighty, bound menus. One for the meal, and one for tea blends. We both ordered the traditional afternoon tea, although there were savory and vegetarian afternoon teas available. I opted for the Royal Blend tea, and Kate opted for the Jubilee Blend. They were both excellent! We had to try a sip of each other’s tea for comparison’s sake – while we each preferred my own choices by a thin margin, they were each delicious.

Speaking of delicious – the whole afternoon tea was amazing. The little tower of delicate plates may not look intimidating, but by the end we were so full we could only eat half of the sweets and cake – and I always finish dessert.

(We did, however, order extra salmon tea sandwiches. Those things were impossible to put down.)

I started with my scones, clotted cream, and jam before moving on to the tea sandwiches. I think one of the things I missed most about the UK was clotted cream and salmon on everything. (Other sandwich flavors were Coronation chicken, ham, and cucumber. All good.) We hadn’t even eaten breakfast and those two courses alone would have been able to tide me over until a late dinner. But we didn’t want anything to go to waste, so after another round of salmon finger sandwiches, we tasted each of the sweets and an amazingly rich chocolate mousse cake.

It was raining outside pretty heavily after our 1.5 hour lunch was over, so we browsed through the rest of the department store for awhile. I decided that if I ever have the funds, I’m stocking my future kitchen with china sets from Fortnum & Mason. (I also wouldn’t say no to an endorsement deal, if any F&M employees come across this! ha.) Eventually, we had enough space in our stomachs again to hit the tea tasting counters… But not enough to visit the ice cream parlour. All in all… it was a very delicious afternoon.

 

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I won’t even deny that over 50% of the reason I wanted to eat here was the table setting. Look at my teapot! 

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Picnics in Parks

One of my favorite things to do in London is to have a picnic. When the weather is nice, why would you want to eat indoors? It’s always great to see the locals working on their next sunburn during the (slightly) rare sunny and warm weekend afternoon. And I’m (almost) always down for some Pret take away.

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Kensington Palace/Gardens

London parks are the best for people-watching. There are people of all ages, accents, and nationalities riding bikes, walking their dogs, and talking. And there are always so many parks to choose from – you can be in the middle of high rise office buildings and stumble upon a half-acre of grass with a few benches, or you could turn off a busy street and find Regent’s Park.

Since we were based in Notting Hill, Kensington Gardens was our go-to picnic spot this time around. Back in 2014 there was a little green space I loved, right along the Thames near my flat that had a few benches. I would cool off there after a run, or take a book just to enjoy the fresh air. And London weather is very rarely so hot as to make bench-sitting un-enjoyable.

 

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Evening picnics near Kensington

This time around I took my travel journal out, and took the time to have some solid introverted introspection while we people-watched. We must have done a good job of blending in with the locals since I was asked for directions by a few other tourists walking past. And after my Italian studying, I paid more attention to the languages I was hearing… It makes the world feel large and small at the same time. The diversity is one of the things I miss about living in London. But a lunch or evening picnic in a London park with my journal in hand goes a long way towards making me feel at home again.

 

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The Most Magical Place on Earth: WB’s Potter Studio Tour

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Butterbeer mustaches = a must.

Forget Disney. I could visit the WB studio tour over and over and over and over and over…
Along with the theme parks, of course. My second visit to the studio tour was no less magical than my first. We got tickets that included the audio guides and souvenir guide books. I absolutely love the audio guides. Sitting on the overground to Watford Junction, we saw a few other families who were also on their way to the tour. And I was just as ecstatic as the first time around.

The experience itself was also just as brilliant the second time around. They estimate that visitors will spend an average of 2.5 hours inside the tour, but Kate and I were there for 4 whole hours. We didn’t get bored at all. 13522840_10206721511943588_4997574288365891661_o (1)

The newest exhibit I hadn’t seen yet was the Hogwarts Express. They had it set up
perfectly, with smoke billowing around the red train. You get to walk through the carriages, with each compartment set up as they had been in different scenes. This section of the sound stage is why you definitely want to book an early entry time – the earlier you get in, the less people there will be. I wouldn’t want to be standing in a late afternoon line to get through the Hogwarts Express…. or to get on the brooms!

IMG_2864It might just be impossible (for me, anyway) to resist the green screen brooms. As cheesy as they are, I had regretted not getting the mp4 of my broom flight the first time around… so this time I sprung for it, along with two other pictures. Don’t we look happy? Who wouldn’t? We were in a flying Ford Anglia!

Another new addition to the studio tour was BUTTERBEER ICE CREAM. Yes, you saw that correctly: butterbeer ice cream. It may just have been the best ice cream I’ve ever tasted, and if I hadn’t already downed so much sugar between that and my glass of butterbeer, I would have gone for a second cone. If you even remotely like ice cream and you are in the studio tour: get it. You won’t regret it. IMG_2866

The actual butterbeer is still great, of course. Even if I prefer the frozen version of the theme parks. (Some pumpkin juice for sale also wouldn’t be amiss. Something to think about, maybe, Leavesden?)

We also happened to get tickets for the last few days of the Privet Drive exhibit. We were able to walk through the entry way of that perfectly normal Number 4 house… And it looked as if the post had just arrived via fireplace. Dudley had his many awards hung on the walls, and it was very Dursley-ish. (But what else would you expect?)

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No post on Sundays! 

And, of course, the behind the scenes info is always fascinating. The detailed paper models, full-scale sets, and costumes all show just how much effort it took to pull off an 8-movie franchise. But my favorite room is still the gigantic Hogwarts model, under dramatic lighting, with a ramp all the way around.

I still say that the studio tour is a must-see for any Harry Potter fan who happens to travel to London. It’s definitely worth the cost of the ticket.

 

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