Two Days in London: Art and Markets

This is a rare moment for me: I’m admitting defeat. I ended my afternoon early and I’m in the hotel room bed, chilled to the bone. Oh, and my left pinky toe sliced open his brother, which is fun. Did you know that band-aids (is there a hyphen?) are called “plasters” over here? Well now you know. You’re welcome.

Anyways. We are in London until tomorrow morning; Connor is in the middle of busy-season and has a client in the city. I tagged along because, free hotel. Duh. I spent the entire day in the National Gallery yesterday, which was definitely not the plan. But every time I turned the corner there was another hotshot flaunting his* talent in new and unfamiliar (to me) ways. For example, there was a magnificent painting of two lively crabs by Van Gogh. They also have his Sunflowers piece, which is the definition of butt.  
What is even happening here? Sunflowers are decidedly not brown. Are they dying? The crabs are way better.

*Yes, ladies, we are severely underrepresented in the masterpiece art world. 

The National Gallery Has a great section of impressionists and post-impressionists, always my favorite. This part of the collection seemed smaller than its counterpart at the Art Institute of Chicago, but it was so fun seeing a new set of work by artists that I really love. I often think that I could look at this stuff all day, and since the weather was crappy,  and I was alone, that’s exactly what I did. And I bought a print by Degas, one of my favorite dudes, from the gift shop. You can see a picture on my Instagram.

Connor and I did happy hour at BrewDog, a must-try brewery if you’re in the UK. It tasted like home!! We ended Dry January early, sorry fellow abstainers. Dinner was at Bull in a China Shop, mostly because of its name and proximity to BrewDog. Food was excellent (quinoa salad and ribs). The place was weird though… We thought it was a pub, but it was actually a high-end Japanese whiskey bar. Oops.

After breakfast this morning I walked down to the Thames to enjoy the sunshine while I waited for all of the shops to open. Visiting London in January mid-week is fabulous. There are no crowds, no lines. You might even get by without a dinner reservation. If it rains there are plenty of things to do inside, and many of the main attractions are free. If the sun is out like today, it could be in the 50s in the sun! The wind will ruin you, though.

Tower Bridge

 

Tower of London

 

Tower of London

 

The Shard and HMS Belfast WWII Warship

Notice there are no people in any of these pictures! It was very peaceful.

I checked out Leadenhall Market a bit later, where a few scenes from Harry Potter were filmed. There’s supposed to be great food in this area but it was too early for lunch, so I continued on to Spitalfields Market.

Spitalfields Market

 

Leadenhall Market

I finally bought myself a black wool hat at Spitalfields. I’d been eyeing all these hat shops since we moved here and I’m very excited to jump on this British bandwagon. I’ve always had a thing for hats, and I’ve had some terrible ones in my day (pink velvety cowboy hat anyone?) The jury’s still out on this new addition. I may or may not look like Carmen Sandiego. Connor will tell me. At least it’s black, the right size, and I know the whole history of the classic style from the Chatty Kathy Salesman. He was wearing a cream suit with tails and a matching top hat. Obviously I trust his judgment.

I shopped around Spitafields – Thursday is antique day – and bough some lunch from one of the many food trucks. There’s a whole section of the market devoted to independent artists, so fun!!! Later in the afternoon I tried to covertly snap some shots of the ubiquitous, colorful street art in Shoreditch. I discovered (a bit too late for this trip) that there are guided street art tours in this neighborhood. I’d love to do this on a future London outing! The only street artist I can be counted on to recognize is Stik. Maybe some Banksy, but not always.  

werk

 

Stik!

 Up next: dinner. I’m still in a food coma from my falafel so not sure what we’ll do.
Disclaimer: I’m having issues formatting this post the way I would like since I’m on my phone, so when I push “post” in two seconds I have no idea what this is going to look like. 

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Two Days in London: Art and Markets

A Hot Second in Milan

I completely forgot to mention that we also visited Milan. Direct flights back to Birmingham were much cheaper out of Milan than Rome, so we hopped a train from Florence and used Milan’s underground transit to head into the city for a couple hours. Trenitalia trains link all the major cities in Italy and it was such a great option for us. Much quicker than driving, and definitely more relaxing. We packed a lunch and a small bottle of vino and sat in the piazza near the Duomo. It was a miracle we didn’t get pooped on by a pigeon.

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I restrained myself and didn’t kick any of the pigeons. Don’t act all shocked – I know you city dwellers have experienced that urge.

Milan’s Christmas market was still in full swing, and we feasted on cheese samples, arancini, gigantic cannoli, and calzone type sandwiches. (Second lunch is the best meal of the day). The cannoli were about 5 times the size you would expect, and even more delicious. I almost went back for a second, but decided I’d OD’d on enough Italian desserts for one week.

We didn’t make it into any of the shopping areas (probably a good thing) or venture very far from the Duomo since we had limited time. But it was still worth the detour to check out another city!

A Hot Second in Milan

Florence

Brunelleschi's Dome

Ah, Firenze. How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth of the Arno,
The breadth of thy hills,
The height of thy Duomo…
And simply for your abundance of gelato and stunning Renaissance gems.

If you ever have the chance to visit Florence, GO!!! I have a fabulous Airbnb recommendation for you.

For two months leading up to this trip, I immersed myself in the history of the city (of which I knew absolutely nothing), the Renaissance, Michelangelo, the Medici family… anything I could get my hands on, and it made all the difference. I fell in love before we even arrived. The Agony and the Ecstasy by Irving Stone hooked me, and I came close to reading Blue Guide Florence cover to cover. More history book than guide book, this was my secret weapon to discovering the many treasures of Florence. There’s nothing worse than standing in front of a building and having no clue what you’re looking at. Amiright??

The award for most stunning goes to Santa Maria del Fiore, the cathedral church of Florence also known as the Duomo. Brunelleschi’s dome is still the largest brick dome ever constructed. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site along with Giotto’s Campanile and the Baptistry, which are on church grounds. I mean look at this thing.

Santa Maria del FioreInside Santa Maria del Fiore and Giotto's Campanile Looming Dome 2

It’s just massive. It looms over the city and is visible from almost everywhere. The entire exterior is marble, and the sculptures on the Campanile were by Donatello (originals have been moved to a museum). The interior could use some jazzing up… it’s alarmingly empty when you step inside.

Other favorites:

River Arno

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Ponte Vecchio

Ponte Vecchio

Santa Croce

Santa Croce

Santa Croce is a Renaissance goldmine. They charge an entrance fee, which you can avoid by going to mass. For over 500 years, monuments were erected in Santa Croce in honor of notable Florentines. Michelangelo, Lorenzo Ghiberti, Machiavelli, and Galileo are buried here. The frescoes on the altar wall and in the side chapels are remarkable – the most famous are by Giotto and his pupil Taddeo Gaddi. Donatello’s famous crucifix is tucked away in a dark side chapel, and the stained glass windows are from the 14th century. A statue of Dante stands directly outside. It took 15 pages for my trusty Blue Guide to spell out the wonders of this church.

We had plans to see Michelangelo’s David, but the line for the Galleria dell’Accademia was ridiculous and there are a few replicas positioned throughout the city. We visited the Uffizi Gallery, a must-do, and well worth the price of admission and skip-the-line fee. I’m not even going to try to list what’s included in their collection. My head is still spinning. I couldn’t resist documenting a few things (*cough* DaVinci) so if you’re curious head over to my Flickr album.

Other highlights from this trip:

  • Chianti
  • Walking up to Piazzale Michelangelo and San Miniato for city views.
  • Wandering the streets, visiting tiny street markets, practicing our rudimentary Italian with the friendly locals, soaking up the sun.
  • The wine shop on our street selling liters of wine out of their giant vats for 3 euro.
  • More affordable and better tasting food than Rome. Also, less aggressive selfie-stick salesmen.
  • Overdosing on gelato… I honestly didn’t see this coming. I didn’t know it was possible. I’m SERIOUS. No puke, though, Mom and Dad! Best gelato EVER can be found at Gelateria la Carraia, not far from Ponte Vecchio. This is an official endorsement by someone who knows these things.
  • Sparkling water from a fountain hidden away in Piazza della Signoria. Why is this not a thing in America?? Oh yeah, because people bathe their dogs in public water fountains (or at least they do in Chicago). Maybe I can install one of these in my house?
  • Walking through the Holy Door in Santissima Annunziata.
  • Google Translate fails.
  • Stumbling upon a small, rarely open museum above Orsanmichele containing original sculptures by Donatello, Ghiberti, and others.

Jackpot in Museo di Orsanmichele

My pictures may be a bit church-heavy for some of you. I can’t resist the architecture, marble, sculpture, frescoes… but even you non-religious readers would catch your breath when bumping into the Duomo.

Ok lovelies. Ciao for now. We’re headed to London for a couple days next week and again the following weekend for a friend’s engagement party.

Florence

Christmas in Rome

Picture this: your wonderful vacation ends, you return home, walk into work, and try to answer the enthusiastic “how was your trip!??” question with some semblance of honesty, accuracy, and humility. All you can muster is a lame “It was so great! We had a great time!” Actually sharing all the details could compromise your commitments to maintaining humility and not not flaunting your fabulousness. Consider this your official warning. As this is a blog, failing to share details defeats the purpose.

Italy remains my favorite vacation destination and it was really difficult to narrow down an entire weeks worth of fab pictures, stories, and blunders, hence my significant delay getting a post up!

Let’s start with the blunders, shall we? The cheapest flights to Rome when we booked had a connection through Brussels. Our plane from Birmingham was VERY late taking off and so we spent a good amount of time worrying about missing our connection and ruining Christmas. When we finally landed, we RAN through the airport, only to run smack into a line for customs. WHAT!? Isn’t this supposed to happen at your final destination? I was not about to spend the night in a sicko hotel in Brussels, which the BBC tells me is the hotbed of all European terror activity, and RUIN CHRISTMAS. All pride abandoned, I begged my way to the front of the line, sweating and gasping, and then spent a good 5 minutes talking like a normal nice lady to the customs guy who just wanted to talk about how hot Adele is. And then we were RUNNING through the airport again only to run smack into another security line. WHYYY!??? I had to throw away my full water bottle. In hindsight, I should have just dumped it over my head NFL style since I was so sweaty. Please note the plane was scheduled to depart 10 minutes ago. We made it through security, Connor’s pants were falling off since he had to take off his belt, but we were running again nonetheless. To one of the last gates. And we made it! They held the plane! I’m sure everyone else was annoyed, but whatever, Christmas was saved. It was with both triumph and humiliation that we walked to our seats in the very.last.row. past all the other people now looking at a 30+ minute delay.

Oh, and water wasn’t free on that flight, so there’s that.

We landed in Rome, and the last train leaves Fiumicino airport for the city at 11:37pm. We had about 15 minutes from the time we landed to get to the train and buy tickets. And so, we RAN. AGAIN. Got to the machine, bought the tickets, and then like the fool that I am, I turned my back on the waiting trains right in front of my face and RAN IN THE OTHER DIRECTION. Connor, like the sweet husband that he is, followed me. Then he noticed that all the signs for trains were pointing back the way we came. And so, we turned and ran back the way we came only to watch the train pulling away.

Whatever, it’s Christmas and we were in Rome, and so we took a taxi. The kind man hosting us through Airbnb talked to the cab driver over the phone to make sure he didn’t rip us off (pretty sure we still got ripped off) and day 1 ended in a comfortable bed with a bottle of water on the nightstand.

Travel tip: always fly direct.

We used up our blunder allotment in the first day so we had only good things to look forward to.

We stopped in St. Peter’s Square first thing, which always takes my breath away. The basilica is just magnificent.

St. Peter's Basilica 

We checked out the usual sites and visited some churches, picked mainly for their works of art or relevance to our lives. I love seeing art in its native habitat; museums are wonderful, but this is much more intimate. We saw pieces by Caravaggio, Michelangelo and countless others in just as many churches, including the Jesuit St. Ignatius and Gesu. Santa Maria Sopra Minerva has the most stunning blue ceiling. You can check it out on Flickr along with all the other church and art pics that I won’t be posting on the blog. PSA: there are a lot of pictures on Flickr now, but I promise I cut the Italy pics down to a third of what I actually captured. Below are a couple pictures of Sant’Ignazio di Loyola. The beautiful ceiling frescoes are by Andrea Pozzo, who also painted the illusion of a dome on a circular portion of the ceiling. The third picture is of the Pantheon – great people watching spot!

Frescoes by Andrea Pozzo on the ceiling of St. Ignatius Church St. Ignatius Church  Pantheon Castel Sant'Angelo from Ponte Sant'Angelo

On Christmas Eve we packed a dinner and went to line up for midnight mass with Pope Francis. Yes, we had tickets, but they don’t guarantee you a seat inside the basilica, and we were determined to have two good seats. There was no sign of a line when we arrived in the square, or any indication where the line would form. We asked some Vatican volunteers, security people, police… no one knew where to go. We were too… early?

Please. I waited in freezing cold weather for almost every single Marquette basketball game to make sure I had a good seat. Including one 19 hour overnight stint for ESPN College Game Day. And this was 100x cooler than Marquette basketball. There’s no such thing as too early.

We teamed up with some other Americans wandering around the square looking for the same thing and eventually we were in a “line.” More like a crowded hot mess of passive aggressive cutting. People were singing. The sun was shining. I could see the gigantic Christmas tree. Nuns were scalping tickets. We were going to see the Pope up close and in person. Just a typical day. The “line” rushed forward and Connor and I were once again running. This happened a handful of times as security moved the line closer and closer to the basilica. All of a sudden all those nuns who were scalping tickets just hours ago were at the front of the “line!”

For those of you who don’t know, nuns are a serious threat to your carefully laid plans to nab a good spot at a papal event. They’re a sneaky, smiling, singing little army that think they can ignore the rules of orderliness. Do not ever get between a nun and her chance to see the Pope. She will throw elbows. She will duck under your elbow and the elbows of everyone else because she is 3.5 feet tall. She will win and you will lose, so instead of fighting it, stick to her heels and go wherever she goes. Do not let her tiny figure out of your sight. The nuns will lead you straight to the front of the “line” and to the fastest security lines because somehow THEY KNOW THESE THINGS. This was my third papal event and the nuns have meant serious business every.single.time. And I love them for it. See below. They are at the front. And so are we. Mwhahaha.

All of those nuns cut in front of us

So Mass was pretty great. We had seats on the aisle and were as close as you could possibly get to the Pope. Another secret about these Vatican events – if you sit in the front, you will have wasted your time waiting in line for hours. There are always between 5 and 40 rows at the front saved for fancy Italians/priests/people more important than you and they will block your view. Just sit somewhere along the main walking route.

 Swiss guards doing their job

The choir was beautiful, everyone said the rosary together before mass, and one of the readings was actually in English. We read the translation of the Pope’s homily when we got back to the Airbnb that night. Such a special treat! It was also incredible to see that huge basilica full of people and functioning more like a church than a museum. Only the Holy Father can say mass at that main altar, and I just felt tingly and giddy the whole time.

The next day was Christmas and we used some hotel points to stay at a fancy schmancy place by the Spanish Steps that night. We checked in, saw that they gave us fresh oranges, sparkling water (I’m still an addict), and 2 bottles of free champagne! Bonus! Can you see Connor at the bottom of this? Poor guy – I kept running off to take pictures and he’d turn around to find his wife missing.

Hotel de la Ville

Then we went to the Pope’s Christmas day blessing called Urbi et Orbi (for the city and the world) which he gives twice a year. We wandered for the rest of the day and enjoyed the Borghese Gardens, Piazza del Popolo, and sunny Piazza di Spagna before ordering truffle fettucine and pizza takeout for dinner.

Shopping in Rome at Christmas  Italian streets at Christmas

We walked around 15 miles or more each day, and I think we still hit 10 miles on Christmas Eve despite being stationary in line for hours. We had plenty of gelato and vino, although we seem to have bad luck buying wine in Rome. We finally asked for help and spent way too much, but at least got a good bottle of Chianti. One night we went out for aperitivos in Trestevere. For the price of an aperitif we had “access” to the aperitivo buffet and called it dinner. It was quite tasty, and the place was very hipster, and in such a fun neighborhood. After four days in Rome we hopped a train at Termini Station and headed North to Florence, which bumped Rome down to #2 on my favorites list. If you’ve read to the end of this very long post, thank you. Florence will be less wordy – we didn’t run into any blunders or nuns.

 

Christmas in Rome

The English Riviera 

After a sunny and fabulous week in Italy, we’ve been cooped up in the house avoiding the endless rain. I’m pretty sure this is normal for England in the winter, but then again, the northern half of the UK is struggling with widespread flooding. So maybe this is considered extreme? Our yard is a sloppy mess. Penny has been sick for over a month, probably because she has to swim through the yard every time she needs to pee. We needed a holiday from our holiday. So yesterday we packed up the car and drove south to what the English call their Riviera. May as well swap the sloppy boggy city for the sea!

We drove along the coast south of Exeter and stopped in Torquay and Brixham, two beautiful beach towns known for their fresh seafood and pastel buildings. I had the best crab cakes of my life at a place called Rockfish. And it was takeout! Fresh crab takeout!!! Does it get any better?! YES! It was so cheap it felt like I was stealing. Rockfish’s tag line is something like “tomorrow’s meal is still in the sea.” My kinda’ place. Fancier restaurants all boast that their chefs hand pick the day’s offerings each morning at the big fish market.

Brixham hauls in more fresh fish daily than any other town in the area. We’ll definitely be back.

The sun came out (miracle) and we walked along the red rocky cliffs and attempted to walk down to a beach. These beaches are small, at the bottom of steep roads or long flights of stairs, and are covered in red rocks. I think Torquay has around 20 different beaches that are popular in warmer weather.

We had packed pillows and blankets in case we decided to “car camp” (God help me) and extend this trip, but you know, when the sun sets at 4pm you have nothing to do save sit in a pub. Or your car. Like a creepo. So we drove home and decided to save the rest of the coast for when we have more time.  Here are some pictures!

Going on a boondoggle. Terrible selfie. You’re welcome.
Red cliffs and bay in Torquay
Colorful beach huts
Romping in Brixham
Torquay as a storm rolls in
Pretty pastel buildings in Brixham (taken from inside a moving car, sorry)
Under wraps in a pub
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Rocky shore

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Another view

I went picture crazy in Italy so as soon as I finish sorting through everything I’ll have some fun things to share!

The English Riviera