Part VII : Tuscany on a Motorbike

UPDATE: See video to accompany this post here.

 

Since leaving his corporate job to pursue a creative, entrepreneurial lifestyle, Jeff has been smitten with the prospect of having the freedom to be his own boss, to travel, and to ride motorcycles. This freelance life isn’t as glamorous as that makes it sound. The financial strain, the instability, the pressure, and the late nights are commonplace for us now. In fact as I write this, right now it’s way past 3 a.m., and he’s still hard at work making improvements and additions to our business website, Vagabond Original.

But the good far outweighs those negatives. The day that we traveled through Tuscany on a motorbike was the realization of all those dreams beginning to come to fruition.

The morning started out overcast, gloomy, and with the promise of showers, but we were hopeful that it would soon clear up.

Jeff did a lot of research before we left to plan our route through the Tuscan countryside. The guy who got us set up with the motorbike rental was a kind, slightly-rough looking 40-something. His name was Ricardo. Before we left the rental shop, Jeff asked the guy to take a look at our route and see if he had any recommendations on other good routes we should know about.

Motorcycle guys all have the same look in their eyes when you ask that question. As he drew an alternate plan on our map, he highlighted a long stretch of road and said, “This? This is the Jewel of Tuscany.” With a knowing smile, he described it as only a motorcyclist would. We would be fools to miss it.

We’d head south from Florence, through vineyard country, and down to Siena. Then across the green hills from Asciano to Buonconvento and back again.

Before we headed out of town, we double checked out directions and then set up the GoPro on the bike. Speaking of the bike, meet Sophia.

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The day before, Jeff and I were in a shop near the Ponte Vecchio when he said, “This looks like you,” pointing to a curvy brunette on a vintage postcard.

“You think I look like Sophia Loren?

Aren’t I a lucky girl? Anyway, I always help Jeff continue his tradition of naming his motorcycles. I commemorated that self-esteem-boosting moment by naming this bike Sophia.

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The ride to Siena was a little rainy, but the sunshine finally broke through and it was a lovely day for a ride.

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When we pulled off the main road and headed toward the center of Siena, we were met with an amazing view.

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Since it was still early Spring and with the late-ish opening time of the rental shop, we were worried about the early sunset and that we wouldn’t be able to see all that we had planned. We decided just to have lunch in Siena instead of walking all around the beautiful town.

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We chose a restaurant close to the nearby basilica where we parked. Jeff got his usual lasagna and I ordered the risotto.

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I’d never had risotto before, but I’d seen someone order it earlier in the week and thought it looked like creamy rice, so I decided to give it a try. Unfortunately, mine was made with radicchio (also called Italian chicory), a leafy vegetable that looks very much like a red cabbage. And apparently tastes just like hairspray.

I tried. Really I did. But it was inedible. It was the first time I’ve ever sent anything back to the kitchen – well technically it was Jeff that kindly told the waiter that I wasn’t enjoying it. He as very understanding and accommodating. In a few minutes more, our waiter brought me a plate of spaghetti and bland marinara that I smothered in Parmesan. Even though I left a bit hungry and disappointed in our lunch, I was reminded how grateful I was for the amazing food and deserts we’d had so far on our trip. And even if I had to have Risotto al a Aqua Net, at least I was eating it with this vista in the background.

And imagine if I never ordered the risotto, but went straight for the boring spaghetti. I would have always wondered, and that would have been worse than the taste of the radicchio.

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The ride to Asciano was lovely. The landscape was speckled with white blossoms on the trees and we’ve never seen anything in nature so vividly green.

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For miles and miles, we rode through the vibrant green hills dotted with olive and cypress trees. There were villas, vineyards, and farms with sheep grazing the hilly pastures.

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We don’t actually have a ton of photographs from this day. That was partly because we wanted to be present in what we were experiencing, not just seeing it all through a viewfinder. Still, we made an effort to balance that with having some valuable video memories to help us share and look back on this adventure. So when we did use the camera, it was mostly for video. Jeff is working on editing the hours and hours of footage, and he assures me he’ll have the video uploaded soon. In the meantime, we took a few screen captures.

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Ricardo wasn’t kidding when he said, “The Jewel of Tuscany.” The views from Asciano to Buonconvento were breathtaking. Jeff and I yelled our praises at each other above the sound of the engine and the wind.

I don’t know if I could ever pick just one place that would top my list as the most beautiful. The volcanic mountains and rain forests in Rwanda, the Alpine Loop in Utah, Victoria Falls in Zambia, the city scapes of Paris, the green hills of Tuscany? I’m glad I don’t have to choose and that I’ve had the great privilege to visit such amazing places around the world.

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One of my favorite things about this route is that the road runs along the top of the hills, not in the valleys or along the rivers. It makes it so you can see huge, sweeping vistas instead of just what’s close around you.

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Just a few hours before sunset, we rounded a corner and caught site of a beautiful abbey across a ravine.

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You know when your pictures don’t do any justice to how you actually experienced a moment? This photo would be a good example of that.

Founded in 1313, the Abbey of Monte Oliveto is a large Benedictine monastery with expansive grounds. The chiming bells and red brick buildings nestled in the trees made it one of my favorite stop along our ride.

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Another one of my favorite parts of this trip has been collecting small mementos. The idea was inspired by my sister when I asked what she wanted me to bring back for her. She told me that she and her boys collect rocks or pressed leaves to remind them of the time they went on a trip.

I like to document the finding of my mementos for the nephews. This one is Jeff’s favorite.

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The ride back to Florence was just as beautiful. We stopped in front of this huge estate. I googled it later. Borgo Beccanella, once a tiny borough outside of Asciano, that has been converted into a destination of lavish apartments and suites. It’s beautiful, but I could do without the €710/night price tag.

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Soon the bright blues and greens shifted to golden orange as the sun neared the horizon.

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The setting sun brought back the clouds and a few minutes of cold showers. We were losing light, and the already-cool day was getting downright cold at these speeds. Rather than risk being cold and lost in the dark, we opted to get home faster by looping to the main highway (a painful decision for motorcycle enthusiasts, who have a somehow religious/romantic relationship with country roads).

Even though the scenery wasn’t as charming and our teeth were chattering, we still ended the day with cotton candy colored clouds and caught glimpses of an incredible sunset as the sunbeams burst through the clouds.

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In order to beat the rain and the setting sun, we rode a little too long without breaks. We were rather cold and sore when we got back to the hotel. Luckily we got back with just enough time to head down to relax in the warm whirlpool.

A perfect end to a perfect day.

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Stay tuned for our next update: Rome by Night

To see more photos:

Wander the Wild on Facebook  |  Jeff’s Instagram  |  Allison’s Instagram

 

 

Part VI : Florence, Day No. 3

There were a few things on our to-do list left undone on this trip. Some of those were hiking to the top of the Duomo and Giotto’s Bell Tower. With such limited time, we had to be strategic about our priorities, and conceded that our time was better spent exploring and not waiting in hours-long cues. Next time.

We took one last stroll around the cathedral and basked in its sunlit glory.

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Our ticket also included the Baptistry, located just opposite the front of the cathedral. As luck would have it, the outside of the building was undergoing renovations, so it was wrapped in a plastic shell that vaguely had the semblance of the real design and architecture printed on it. We didn’t even think to take a picture of the outside of it.

But the inside was magnificent. It was oddly very cool inside. It’s difficult to tell from the photos, but the yellow colors you see in the ceiling mosaics, are actually quite golden and glittery. And its effect is quite impressive. I was amazed how well-preserved the intricate and ornate mosaics are as it is one of the oldest buildings still standing in Florence.

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Surprisingly, in the 45 minutes we were in there, of the hundreds and hundreds of people clamoring to get into the Duomo, there were only about 25 people who came in and out of the Baptistery. It was nice to feel like we had the place to ourselves.

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As we exited the Baptistry, we headed south toward the last of the sites on my must-see list. In just a few blocks we arrived at Piazza della Repubblica.

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We watched the children on the carousel for a few minutes and then continued our walk. But we were quickly interrupted by the discovery of a store that I’ve always wanted to visit, Zara. And it did not disappoint. I walked out with not one, but two new most-favorites.

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As we continued down the street, we came upon some incredible chalk artists. Their work was worth far more than the few coins left in their collection plates.

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One of my favorite parts of walking through Florence was peering down side streets and alleyways, catching a glimpse of what life is like here. Laundry on the balcony hung out to dry. Hunched old women beating the carpets or shooing the pigeons. Life seems very picturesque beyond those green shutters.

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Before long, we could begin to see the tower of Palazzo Vecchio peeking through the alleyways and above buildings.

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The fortressed palace makes up one side of the Piazza della Signoria. Out from its side, the Vasari Corridor floats high above. Built in 1564 by Giorgio Vasari, the enclosed passageway was constructed to keep the peasants away from the Medicis as they walked from home to work. For nearly a kilometer, it cuts through existing buildings and snakes across the Arno River to Pitti Palace.

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Beneath the corridor are the curved arches of the Loggia dei Lanzi. Once a raised terrace from which the Medicis could watch ceremonies in the piazza, it is now home to a dozen beautiful sculptures.

One of the Medici lions, and the counterpart to the David we saw earlier in London.

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Pio Fedi’s Rape of Polyxena. While it makes me a little nervous posting images of abduction and nudity (sorry, Momma), I have such an appreciation for the level of creativity and artistry that went into creating these masterpieces. This was one of the highlights for me, and I didn’t want to censor it.

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As you may have gathered from my previous post about the David, I have a great love for sculpture. I love the details. Look at the way his fingers press into her side. Amazing. It’s hard to fathom how something so life-like was chisled from a chunk of marble so long ago.

But my favorite is Giambologna’s Rape of the Sabine Women. This striking work was made from the largest block of marble ever transported to Florence. Giambologna was the first to create a multi-figure composition with the figura serpentina, an upward, snakelike, spiral movement without a dominant viewpoint.  It can be equally admired from all sides.

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Again, the details. Just stunning.

It was difficult to draw myself away, but the allure of the Ponte Vecchio urged us on southward through more of Florence’s lovely neighborhoods.

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As we came to the banks of the Arno, we rested near the great sundial outside the Museo Galileo.

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This spot near the museum is a great vantage point to see the sites along the river. Remember the church with the great views we went to our first night? It’s the small white church up on the hill.

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In the other direction, you see the buildings propped up to avoid crumbling into the river, and the goldsmith shops along the Ponte Vecchio.

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It was also a really great backdrop for portraits. Jeff and I had made plans to update our business website, Vagabond Original, once we arrived in Athens, and this seemed a fitting setting for some photos to include in the “We Are Vagabond” section. The website revamp is now complete and you should check it out if you haven’t in a while.

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We were almost to the bridge when Jeff noticed a charming, little shop and suggested we go in. I noticed all the calligraphy supplies and could have easily walked away with the entire store, but settled on a very handsome Art Deco pen holder. Here it is in action from last week’s post when I used it to create an Easter printable.

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I’ve been planning my eventual trip to visit the Ponte Vecchio ever since I was little. I’m not sure why I’ve always had such a fascination with this colorful bridge. It probably started upon seeing it in a piece from my National Geographic collection.

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Along the Ponte Vecchio, there are many padlocks affixed in various places, and most especially to the railing around the statue of goldsmith and sculptor, Benvenuto Cellini. It’s become a recent and popular tradition for couples. By locking the padlock and then throwing the key into the river, the lovers become eternally bonded.

As romantic as that idea is, the heavy weight of all the padlocks has frequently damaged the centuries-old bridge and have to be removed frequently.

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The bridge was quite crowded, but for a few minutes, we had an unobstructed view and took advantage of the moment to capture the beautiful views from the center of the bridge.

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We made our way across, and headed to the next bridge just down the river for another view of the Ponte Vecchio.

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We had been walking all day and decided to take a much-needed break in the Oltrarno, ‘the other side of the river.’

As the sun began to set, we made our way back to our shuttle bus stop. It was a little bittersweet as we knew this was the last time we’d stroll the streets of a city we’d come to love so much, but also excited for our motorcycle trip through Tuscany the following day.

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Earlier in the day, I wasn’t sure that we’d see the Duomo again. It seemed fitting that we’d catch a peek of it to say our goodbyes.DSC_0354 (2)

 


 

Stay tuned for our next update: Tuscany on a Motorbike

To see more photos:

Wander the Wild on Facebook  |  Jeff’s Instagram  |  Allison’s Instagram

Part V : Florence, Day No. 2

Our day started with hunting for picnic supplies in the Mercato Centrale. After a few trips walking around each vendor’s stall, I just couldn’t bring myself to order food from a place with a sheep’s head in it. For all my moxie and well-traveled experience, I’m pretty squeamish when it comes to hunks of meat. Compared to Jeff, I’m practically a vegetarian.

Fortunately, the recently renovated upstairs of the market is a contemporary, gourmet food court. We saw plenty of both locals and tourists come for the quality, artisan-made food.  It had a great atmosphere and the whole place was decorated for Easter.

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We had panini and finished with cookies, biscotti, and drinking chocolate.

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This is not your ordinary hot chocolate. Think melted chocolate with a little milk added.

It was excellent.

Untitled-1_0018_Layer 2After lunch, we strolled through the rest of San Lorenzo Market. We were tempted by the leather bags and jackets, scoffed at the endless ways to make a joke and a profit from Michaelangelo’s David’s unmentionables, and finally caved into buying some scarfs.

I bought one for my sister, and Jeff got one for himself for the chilly Florentine nights and for our upcoming motorcycle trip.

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We continued to walk the neighborhood until we came to Piazza San Lorenzo.

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I noticed an artist at work and stopped to admire some of his watercolors and etchings. When I saw what he was working on, it really caught my attention.

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I found a watercolor of the Ponte Vecchio that I loved and it was such a good price, so I looked through his collection for one of the Duomo to match. We weren’t seeing any, so we asked if he had one.

“10 minutes,” was his reply.

We couldn’t believe how quickly he sketched and began to paint. All from memory.

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His quick, but steady hand made it look so easy.

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Even the way he packaged our prints was done with some artistic panache.

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He was smiley and friendly and it was such a pleasure to watch him create. If you go to Florence, do yourself a favor and buy a few custom paintings from Almas. You won’t be sorry.

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Today, our favorite souvenirs have a prominent place by our bedside in Athens.

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As the sky turned pink and golden, we walked a few blocks to see the Duomo again. And have gelato. Again.

Is there a more fitting way to end the day?

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Stay tuned for our next update: Florence, Day No. 3

To see more photos:

Wander the Wild on Facebook  |  Jeff’s Instagram  |  Allison’s Instagram

An Orthodox Easter + Freebie Easter Printable

This past weekend we celebrated Easter with our Greek Orthodox hosts. (The Greek Orthodox Church calculates its feast days by the old Julian calendar, a calendar that was replaced by our now standard Gregorian calendar that saw the addition of leap days. Because of this, Orthodox celebrations typically fall on different dates than the rest of the Christian world.)

In the States, the celebration of Easter seems rather low-key compared to how the Greeks observe it. Weeks of fasting, daily services, a national day of mourning, and hours-long feasts are just some of the differences.

For 5 days, the region of nearly 4 million seemed practically deserted as Athenians traveled to their family’s villages.

For Jeff and I, that meant it was a great time to see some more of the neighborhoods and coastline without the usual crowds. (More to come on that, but in the meantime, here’s a sneak peek photo.)

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It was also a great to spend time with our lovely hosts and to take part in their celebrations. Cookies were made and hard-boiled eggs were dyed red, symbolizing the Atonement.

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The Easter Sunday lunch was very traditional with roasted lamb with garlic and lemon, potatoes, cabbage and carrot salad, and the hard-boiled eggs and cookies.

It was very delicious and a wonderful way to spend the Sabbath. To show our gratitude, we got chocolate covered almonds and I made this hand-lettered card.

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I realize it’s now after the Easter season, but luckily celebrating Christ’s sacrifice and Resurrection can be done year round, so I thought I would share this free printable with all of you. Mail it to a loved one, take it with you on your Visiting Teaching outings, or just save it for next year. Enjoy!

Printable Freebies:

He Is Risen 4.25 x 5.5 Cards

He Is Risen 5 x 7 Print

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Part IV : An Afternoon in Florence

The slow train to Florence was a great way to see the Tuscan countryside and allowed for some extra rest for my feet. The three hour ride also left plenty of time for some naps and time lapse GoPro footage taken from our traincar window. Here’s a 6-second loop of a 60-second stretch of track, at 10 times speed:

When we arrived in town, we took a bus to our hotel that was about a 10 minute drive away from the city center. Our amazing friend had arranged our room as a wedding present, and we felt a little spoiled with the plush robes, slippers, complimentary food and beverages in the lounge, and mostly the spectacular views from our hotel room.

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On the shuttle ride back to town, it was pretty clear just how different Florence is from Rome. Cleaner, slower, accessible. More intimate, elegant, and refined. It seems obvious that this was the perfect birthplace for the Renaissance.

We hopped off the shuttle near the Basilica di Santa Maria Novella.

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We could see the top of the Duomo peeking out from behind the buildings and made our way down the cobbled lanes toward it.

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I’m sure so many others have shared my lifelong dream to visit Florence. The food, the lifestyle, the art, the architecture make it an obvious destination point for millions of people every year. But gazing up at the Duomo as the setting sun turned everything golden, I felt like we were the only ones around.

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The Duomo at sunset was the perfect introduction to Florence.

We lingered for ages in the piazza, eating pizza and gelato while continuously gazing at the Duomo like it was our long, lost love. It was dark by the time we figured we should head back to our hotel. But in a stroke of spontaneity, we boarded the bus that takes you to the hills above the city.

San Miniato al Monte is often overlooked by tourists. It’s twilight chanting monks, gardens, and cemetery (author of Pinnochio, Carlo Collodi, is buried here) shouldn’t be missed.

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Plus I think it might just have the best views of the city. Props to Jeff for knowing how to change the ISO settings for these breathtaking photos.

We got those stunning images just before the monks came out to lock up the gates for the night, but snuck in a few more shots before leaving.

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We strolled down the hill to the Piazzale Michelangelo for some more views of the city and my favorite, Ponte Vecchio.

An absolutely perfect first day in Florence.

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“You may have the universe if I may have Italy.”  –  Giuseppe Verdi

 


Stay tuned for our next update: Florence, Day No. 2

To see more photos:

Wander the Wild on Facebook  |  Jeff’s Instagram  |  Allison’s Instagram