Claire Came to Visit!

Claire, my wonderful sister-in-law, came to visit the week after Thanksgiving and we had such a blast introducing her to England! It’s been so long since I’ve seen my siblings or siblings-in-law, and it was so nice to spend a week with Claire. We visited York, the Yorkshire Dales National Park, Birmingham, and London. Continue reading “Claire Came to Visit!”

Advertisements
Claire Came to Visit!

Spain Part IV: Seville

View from the Tower

Happy Thanksgiving week everyone! It’s about time I finish up the Spain posts. Lotssssss of pictures from Seville so let’s dig in. Seville is much larger than Avila or Toledo and we walked a ton over our three day stay. We saw and ate quite a bit. Here are three highlights and some recommendations: Continue reading “Spain Part IV: Seville”

Spain Part IV: Seville

Spain Part III: Toledo

DSC_0118
View of Toledo from across the Tagus River. The Cathedral and Alcazar tower over the city.

I wonder if UNESCO’s World Heritage Site office needs a brand ambassador… I’m quickly becoming one of their biggest fans. If you’re traveling or planning a trip and something is listed on the world heritage register, do yourself a favor and make sure you check it out. Like Ávila, the whole city of Toledo is on the list, and this was my favorite stop on our Spanish roadtrip. Also, FYI, it is not pronounced like Toledo, Ohio. The vowels and the “d” are all very soft – good luck.

Streets of Toledo

The drive from Ávila to Toledo was gorgeous. Tell me this doesn’t make you question the point of leveling the land and cramming millions of people together in relatively small spaces. I prefer the below.

Driving Avila -> Toledo

Driving Avila -> Toledo

Anyway, Toledo is known as the city of three cultures thanks to the history of Muslim, Jewish, and Christian coexistence (and rivalry). The churches, synagogues, and Mudejar architecture are gorgeous and the city is very well cared for. It is larger than Ávila with more to see and do, very hilly, and very walkable. The Spanish painter El Greco lived here and his pieces pepper the churches and museums. If you’re a fan of his this is a great city to visit.

We visited the 13th century cathedral, 14th century El Transito Synagogue and Sephardic Museum, 16th century Museo-Hospital de Santa Cruz (free in the evening for the last hour or so), 14th century and Mudejar style Iglesia de Santo Tome which contains El Greco’s famous painting Burial of Count Orgaz, and wandered and wandered and wandered. If the weather is nice, losing yourself in the tiny streets is such fun.

Cathedral
Cathedral of Saint Mary of Toledo. One of three Gothic cathedrals in Spain, also featuring Mudejar and Spanish Renaissance styles.
Synagogue El Transito
Synagogue El Transito with its rich stucco and elaborate Mudejar ceiling
Toledo and Merida iPhone
Courtyard with olive trees at the Museo de Santa Cruz

Due to the constant need to navigate through the twisty streets, I didn’t use our camera as frequently so some of these pictures are from my phone. Sorry about the quality!!

Toledo and Merida iPhone

Everything in Toledo seems so ancient. In fact, our Airbnb was one of six “modern” buildings in the city. Meaning it was built in the late 1800s! I love the grandness and detail of the doors, the cobblestone streets hardly wide enough for a Vespa, and all the efforts to preserve the past. Many shops sell traditional Toledo steel knives, swords, and collectors’ items. The steel-working trade has been a major part of life in Toledo since 500BC. You can also watch damasquinado artists at work, decorating steel with threads of gold and silver. I picked up a pair of damasquinado earrings and had to force myself not to buy more. You don’t have to own to appreciate has become one of my mini-mantras as we travel. So much pretty around every corner and as much as I want to take a piece of every place home with me, I can’t fit it all in my carry-on only life!

DSC_0797

Toledo and Merida iPhone

Plaza de Zocodover
Plaza de Zocodover, the main square. Site of former markets, bullfights, and public burnings

Exploring Toledo with parents!

We bought a box of marzipan de Toledo (some sort of special recipe) and had some wonderful food and wine here. If you’re eating out often, learn how to ask if the bread is free with dinner, because it usually is not, and unless you can eat a whole bread basket, it’s a total waste.

One final observation: attending mass in Spain will not give you free access to the cathedrals. We tried in every city except Madrid where the cathedral is free. This trick works really well in Italy and in England. Attend a service or an “evensong” (St. Paul’s… Westminster Abbey…) and you’re good. In Spain, you enter a small chapel through a separate door, say your prayers, and out you go.

We spent 2 nights in Toledo and then drove south to Seville, stopping briefly in Mérida to see some Roman ruins and have lunch.

Mérida Aqueduct
Acueducto de los Milagros

Mérida Aqueduct

Mérida contains Spain’s largest collection of Roman ruins. Scattered throughout the town are the remains of a 6,000 seat amphitheater, the longest of all existing Roman bridges, the Forum, Temple to Diana, Trajan’s Arch, Circus Maximus, an aqueduct, and more. We only had time for the aqueduct and it was seriously impressive. The arches are sprinkled with giant storks’ nests. This was not part of our itinerary but was worth the stop. Mérida is only a couple minutes off the motorway and we had no trouble parking in the neighborhood for 30 minutes while we wandered.

One more post coming soon about Seville and then I’ll be bombarding you all with pictures of glorious England once again!

Save

Save

Spain Part III: Toledo

Spain Part II: Ávila

Ávila is a tiny town only an hour or so from Madrid that was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1985. Famous for its towering medieval stone walls, 12th century cathedral, and ties to St. Teresa of Ávila, this was a wonderful place to stay for a night. After massive amounts of walking and exploring in Madrid, I was immediately charmed by the size of the city and solitude of the surrounding countryside.

DSC_0608

View from the walls
Cathedral in the distance

Murallas

Gorgeous countryside
Countryside on the way to Ávila

Even though our visit corresponded with one of the busiest times of the year, the feast day of St. Teresa, I would hardly describe the place as crowded. St. Teresa is one of the Doctors of the Catholic Church and she lived much of her life here. We visited her convent, church, and a mini-museum containing her diary, many original writings, the rosary and crucifix that she carried everywhere, and one of her fingers. We also saw her gigantic statue that is brought out on a “float” for processions. These are very common in Spain and they are carried through the streets during festivals and celebrations and then displayed for a few weeks before being tucked safely away. We saw them in each of the cities we visited, and I have to say they’re quite impressive and such a fun tradition. The one in Ávila was covered in flowers.

A visit to Ávila isn’t complete without touring the old city walls, or murallas. They date from the 12th century and are remarkably well preserved, standing atop old Muslim battlements. Stones dating to Roman times were also reused in the construction of the murallas, so the massive fortress is a kind of testament to the multiple civilizations that have occupied this hilltop. We climbed up and walked the perimeter of the city and I absolutely loved the views! Mountains in the far distance, little cottages and farms, and the red roofs of the town.

DSC_0661

DSC_0668

DSC_0638

Walking on the walls

We spent about 24 hours in Ávila and then drove south to Toledo. Exploring smaller towns and off-the-beaten-track areas has quickly become my favorite way to travel! If you’re spending a few days in Madrid, I highly recommend adding a day to see Ávila or Toledo so you can experience Spanish life outside the capitol.

Basílica de San Vicente
Basilica de San Vicente

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Spain Part II: Ávila

Quick Trip to Amsterdam

We spent less than 36 hours in Amsterdam and that was all it took for me to fall in love. Such an underrated city!! We didn’t visit the Red Light District nor did we smoke any weed, so let’s just get that out of the way. But while we’re on the topic, why do we only talk about Amsterdam’s Red Light District? That’s like ignoring the Rocky Mountains and judging the merits of Colorado solely on it’s marijuana laws. Crazy.

There is so much more to Amsterdam! I left feeling like I had found my peeps and that I would love to live there. Maybe my subconscious was picking up faint similarities between locals in Amsterdam and the Dutch back home in West Michigan. Entirely possible. I have no idea. Everyone was very friendly, English was widely spoken (without an ounce of resentment), and we never really found ourselves in a crowd of tourists. It felt very residential and neighborhoody, very relaxed. There is a casual atmosphere, but you also pick up on an entrepreneurial vibe. Streets are full of quirky independent shops, and the owners/makers staffing the store are the farthest thing from haughty. The women were stylish yet undoubtedly comfortable, and I envied them as I silently cursed my skinny jeans. Another bonus: with so many canals and houseboats, it seems like the majority of residents have waterfront property.

Connor and I spent a great afternoon wandering the old Jordaan neighborhood, popping in and out of little shops, visiting the cheese museum, and eating far too many delicious samples (truffle cheese omg). We sat outside on a canal patio at ‘t Smalle Café and later visited Café Gollum, two small places that we loved and wholeheartedly recommend. These “bruin cafés” or “brown cafés” are old, traditional, Dutch pubs named for the cozy wooden interiors. They’re the best places to go if you’re looking for a local crowd rather than other tourists. We walked by the beautiful Rijksmuseum, saw the IAmsterdam letters, and ordered a delicious takeout pizza before calling it a night.

Amsterdam
Exploring Amsterdam
t'Smalle Bruin Bar
‘t Smalle Café
Rijksmuseum
Rijksmuseum
I Amsterdam letters
E for Erin

The next day Connor had to work so I spent the morning visiting Rembrandt’s former home and studio, now the Rembrandthuis Museum. Seriously cool. Rembrandt lived and worked in this building from 1639-1656 and you can tour all the rooms, including his multiple studios. I knew very little about the famous painter, and had no idea he was known during his lifetime for his etchings rather than his paintings. Today it’s the opposite, and this museum has the largest collection of his etchings in the world. I watched a few demonstrations and learned about etching, which was used as a kind of print making process in the 17th century. They also had a really cool demonstration on pigments and the process of making oil paint during Rembrandt’s time. The museum has a sizable room devoted to Rembrandt’s collection: skulls, Greek and Roman busts, turtle shells, seashells, bones, feathers, coins, pottery, giant books, statues, weapons. Super cool. However, if you want to see more of his paintings you’re better off visiting the Rijksmuseum.

Rembrandt's Collection
Part of Rembrandt’s collection
Shelves in Rembrandt's House
Shelves in Rembrandthuis
Rembrandt's Large Studio
Rembrandt’s painting studio

That afternoon I wandered around the city checking out more shops and enjoying the canals before heading to the airport around dinner time.

Amsterdam iPhone
Beautiful buildings
Amsterdam
Sitting on the canal watching the boats go by
Amsterdam iPhone
Super cute shops
Amsterdam
Canals!

Not too shabby for only a day and a half! Things we pointedly skipped that we didn’t regret: big museums, canal cruise (since we did that in Bruges), walking tour (we didn’t want to go to the Red Light District), Dutch food (not that different from Belgium). If we had more time we would have rented bikes and seen more of the neighborhoods outside the central canal ring. Go to Amsterdam! Great place to spend a weekend!

 

Save

Save

Quick Trip to Amsterdam

Doyles Take England: Bath and Stratford-Upon-Avon

After leaving the Cotswolds, we made a quick stop in Bath to stretch our legs, have lunch, and check out the ancient city. We barely scratched the surface and I hope we make it back to Bath sometime soon. The highlight of this visit was simply enjoying the gorgeous 18th century Georgian architecture, the Bath Abbey, and the river. We had another gorgeous day so we were able to wander the little streets without needing to worry about ducking inside.

Next time, I would love to tour the old Roman bathhouse – the best preserved in the world – and have tea at the Pump Room. Also, Jane Austen lived in the city for a few years and as her biggest fan, it would be irresponsible not to visit some of her old stomping grounds and the Jane Austen Centre!

DSC_0808
The Bath Abbey and Park
DSC_0834
Roman Baths on the left
DSC_0803
The River Avon, St. Michael’s Steeple, Pulteney Bridge, and the Guildhall Dome
DSC_0810
Picnic lunch under this tree
Dave and Penny

From Bath, we continued south to the county of Devon and the little town, Lynton, that would be our base for the next three nights. However, I’m skipping ahead to the 4th leg of our trip since three days in Devon warrants a separate post. After Devon, we stopped in Shakespeare’s hometown for dinner and a play before continuing on to Birmingham. Stratford-Upon-Avon is such a cute town and the Royal Shakespeare Company is absolutely phenomenal. Connor and I saw a play in Stratford last autumn, and we were anxious to see this year’s production of Hamlet that had received glowing reviews.

If you are in England and you haven’t had a chance to see this show, do yourself a favor and GO BUY TICKETS! It is such a fresh and modern take on the classic, and so much more enjoyable than you can even imagine. Graffiti, African drums, a helicopter entrance… this is FUN Shakespeare! A quick glance around the theatre proves this better than any glowing review — students pack the upper levels, all on the edge of their seats, no one is texting or goofing around. I’m jealous that these kids are growing up in an environment that makes Shakespeare so fun and accessible. The lines aren’t changed, by the way. You still need to pay attention so you don’t miss anything. Finally, I can’t say enough about Paapa Essiedu as Hamlet… he was exceptional. Energetic, charismatic, and convincing. Just fabulous. I don’t envy the next Hamlet who has to follow Essiedu’s performance.

Technically, you’re not supposed to take pictures, but here you go.

Seeing Hamlet at RSC in Stratford Upon Avon

Before the play, we took a boat ride down the River Avon – a nice way to escape the crowds.

Seeing Hamlet at RSC in Stratford Upon Avon

Check back tomorrow for our hiking adventures in Devon!

Doyles Take England: Bath and Stratford-Upon-Avon

Weekend on England’s Jurassic Coast

White cliffs on the Jurassic Coast

June 24-July 1 was one of those weeks. Nothing goes right and all commitments and sanity go out the window. For one, the weather in Birmingham BLOWS and I do not understand how people live here full-time. Do not let the above picture deceive you. That was not taken in Birmingham. Secondly, I received 2 parking tickets because I’m a total idiot. Third, Penny suddenly became very ill with alarming symptoms and we had a very expensive week in and out of the vet’s office. As a result, I spent my week reading about dog illnesses and medicines and remedies and food. Now, I’m going to share trip reports out of chronological order because I feel like it and I’m the boss. Thankfully, the dog is doing much better and we were able to get away for the weekend to celebrate the 4th of July.

One bucket list item that we’ve been dying to check off our list this summer is a visit to the Jurassic Coast on the English Channel. This part of the coast is England’s only natural World Heritage Site, which places it in the same category as the Great Barrier Reef, Grand Canyon, and Yellowstone. Of the 1,000 or so World Heritage Sites, less than 200 are naturally occurring, and England’s Jurassic Coast looked positively dreamy in pictures. 95 miles of rock formations, cliffs, and beaches cover 185 million years of Earth’s history: the Triassic, Jurassic and Cretaceous periods.

Man of War Bay
Man of War Cove, on the other side of Durdle Door

As you can imagine, fossil hunting is a popular activity. When I visited London’s Natural History Museum a couple months ago I was surprised at the number of whole, intact fossils on display that were discovered along the Jurassic Coast, many by an impoverished woman named Mary Anning. Mary was a sort of Princess of Paleontology, and her numerous discoveries not only pulled her family out of poverty but also ended up in museums around the country. Her lizard/fish/dinosaur/turtle-like creatures of all sizes are in London’s Natural History Museum, and I highly recommend a visit. It’s the only non-creepy natural history museum I’ve ever seen (due to its emphasis on dinosaurs and fossils over taxidermy). The building itself is also stunning.

Jurassic Coast fossils at London’s Natural History Museum
London’s Natural History Museum

Moving on… We decided the 4th of July just wasn’t the 4th of July without a little sun and beach time, and since it’s persistently grim in Brum, we headed south to the county of Dorset, starting in Weymouth. The city is a great launching point for exploring the Jurassic Coast, and it supposedly tallies up more hours of sunshine than anywhere else in England. Fine with me. We walked along the harbor and the beach, explored the tiny side streets and shops, and bought some goodies for our campsite that evening. We met a chatty and very kind man from Wales who was visiting for the weekend with his children and grandchildren. As usual, Brexit and Donald Trump came up, but for the first time, so did Taylor Swift and Beyonce. He asked me if I was from Northern Ireland. You guys – this question marks a triumphant moment in my quest to appear as close to invisible as possible! My accent and adorable puppy-like dog draw attention everywhere I go, and sometimes I just don’t want to answer questions. Sometimes I don’t want to explain why I’m here and what I think about Donald Trump. If the small talk topics would vary, maybe I wouldn’t feel this way. At this point, I have picked up enough British lingo that I can utter short phrases or noncommittal sounds without sounding American. But this guy totally made my day when he incorrectly guessed my nationality.

Weymouth
Picturesque buildings along Weymouth’s Harbor
Fishing town

Fishing boats and gear were everywhere. This could be a good spot for a fishing charter!
Weymouth
Approaching the beach
Weymouth
Weymouth Beach and Bay

After Weymouth we drove a few miles east and saw Chesil Beach, a 15 mile long pebble wonderland formed by the remains of a landslide that occurred 100 million years ago. Its vastness was surprising, but other than that, it was just a pebble beach, so we moved on to our campsite. This place in Osmington was a serious find and I think we’ll return if we ever decide to camp again. It had great views, coastal access, and was within walking distance of a 14th century thatched roof pub.
Campsite in Osmington

Campsite

Camping Attempt #2 was much more successful than #1. We packed food, our grill, wood, and 2 down blankets. We planned to encase ourselves in feathers so we couldn’t feel the hard ground or the cold night air. This seemed entirely necessary; you can still see your breath when the sun sets. Talk about overkill. I woke up sweating to death, claustrophobic, convinced I was being smothered by an evil cloud.

The following day we drove a bit further east to Durdle Door, Man of War Beach, and Lulworth Cove, three of the more popular stopping points along the Jurassic Coast. There were more people than we expected, many from other countries, and many very overdressed. I don’t know if its an American thing or just a personal preference, but I don’t see the point of wearing anything other than gym/outdoor clothing if I know I’m going to be exerting myself and sweating. Perhaps I’ve just totally let myself go in the last year.

Durdle Door
Durdle Door
Durdle Door
Durdle Door from the beach
Cold water and more pebbles
pebbly beach
Enjoying the sun!
Lulworth Cove
Walking to Lulworth Cove, 3/4 mile east
YUM!

Michelin rated restaurant and their genius Fish Exchange for Food and Drink
Jurassic Coast
Walking back from Lulworth Cove, the view overlooks Man of War Bay, Durdle Door, the Southwest Coast Path, and Weymouth in the distance

Lulworth Cove had a small visitor’s center, shops, fishing huts, and everyone was serving seafood. We were so tempted to try the Michelin restaurant offering fishermen pints of beer in exchange for their daily catch, as long as the fish passed inspection by “Philip or the chef.” Instead, we opted for a stand at the seaside selling fresh fish so we could continue enjoying the sunshine. Connor had fish and chips and I had a crab sandwich. Both were delicious.

It was a gorgeous weekend and we’ll definitely be back to the Jurassic Coast to keep exploring the bays, cliffs, and paths. And I don’t think I’ll ever have my fill of seafood, so even if we end up with a rainy day I think I’ll be a happy camper. As long as we aren’t camping in the rain…

Weekend on England’s Jurassic Coast

2 Days in Bruges

Bruges is a magnificently preserved Medieval town in Northern Belgium, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and a fabulous place to spend a long weekend. One of the first things we noticed was that Bruges is incredibly clean. No pigeons, which means no poop riddled buildings and nothing to trip over in the main squares, no garbage on the streets, no graffiti, impeccably maintained buildings, and very fresh air. We’ve become accustomed to the smokey atmosphere of Europe, the garage door-like shop fronts usually covered in graffiti, and some element of crumbling buildings since everything is just so old. Those things are part of the charm of Europe, but Bruges seems like a fairy tale in comparison.

St. Janshospitaal & Memlingmuseum
St-Janshospitaal and the Memlingmuseum

Markt
The Markt, center of Bruges

The wealth of Bruges came from their position as an important trading center and manufacturer of textiles, especially wool and eventually lace, and was a thriving market city until the 1400s. The city was constantly at odds with their overlords, especially the French, and continually fought for independence. In the 1300s, Jan Breydel (a local butcher, how fitting) and a friend led an uprising against the French remembered today as the Bruges Matins. Their group of guildsmen knocked on doors all around the city, and if the inhabitants were unable to correctly pronounce a national phrase “shield and friend” they were murdered. Basically, if you had a French accent, it was over. A statue of Jan Breydel and his buddy holds a prominent place in Bruges’ Markt square, and the Bruges football stadium is named after Jan.

Markt Statue and the Belfort
Left: Statue of Jan Breydel and Pieter de Coninck. Right: The Belfort, or belfry. One of the city’s most prominent buildings in the Markt

Some time later in the 1400s, the people of Bruges were fed up with the Hapsburg empire so they kidnapped the heir and imprisoned him for 4 months. Pretty bold move for such a small city. The angry Hapsburgs ordered Bruges to tear down their city walls, and today, the only part of the walls that remain are 4 gate houses. They also ordered the city to keep and take care of swans… something about “long necks” translating to the same word as the last name of a friend of the Hapsburgs who was executed by men from Bruges. This was the beginning of the end for the city, and because it fell in prominence, it was left untouched by both world wars. Tourism picked up again as people visiting Waterloo passed by the town, and today the city seems to have a love/hate relationship with tourists. Day-trippers from Brussels are insufferable and they crowd the tiny streets, so staying overnight is essential if you want to soak up the magic of the canals without selfie stick people all up in your business.

Ezelpoort Gate
Ezelpoort gate/bridge near our Airbnb

We joined the Bruges free walking tour on Saturday morning and it was excellent, as usual. At the end of the tour our guide handed out coupons for free beers at a Trappist bar, a discount on waffles, and I made sure to ask for advice on buying chocolate. We took all his suggestions and they did not disappoint.

Onze-Lieve-Vrouwekerk, Church of Our Lady

Onze-Lieve-Vrouwekerk, Church of Our Lady. Its tower is the 2nd tallest brick tower in the world
Begijnhof
The Begijnhof. Former home of a women’s lay religious community.
Minnewater, or the Lake of Love
Minnewater Lake, the lake of love

The tour ended in the Burg, the square adjacent to the main Markt center. We went inside the Stadhuis (City Hall) and checked out its Gothic Hall, which is gorgeous. The Burg is the administrative center of Bruges and the Heilig-Bloedbasiliek (Basilica) is tucked away in one of the corners. The chocolate shop recommended by our guide was here (Chocolaterie de Burg), as well as the most amazing waffle truck in the history of the world. We had waffles covered in chocolate sauce for lunch.

Stadhuis
Stadhuis
Gotische Zaal, or Gothic Hall
Gothic Hall in the Stadhuis

Happy girl with her waffle

In the evening we tried the house beers at Cambrinus bar and then went to Le Trappiste Bruges and redeemed our drink coupons. There is such ceremony in the presentation of Belgian beers! They scrape the foam off the top with a tool that looks like a letter opener, and there’s usually a snack to compliment the drink. I tried a lambic at Le Trappiste and the bottle was served in its own little basket. We had a fun time chatting with the bartenders at Le Trappiste and taking their advice. There are a few cellar bars around Bruges and Le Trappiste was one of them. Really really cool.

Cambrinus
Cambrinus bar, my lambic in a basket, the giant book of beers at Cambrinus, and the house brews
Cellar bars
Left: Connor by the tiny door into ‘t Poatersgat. Right: Inside Le Trappiste Bruges cellar bar

On Sunday we went to mass at the Basilica which is a lot smaller than I was expecting. It was a bit unusual in that the wall frescoes were very patriotic. The repeating pattern on the walls featured swans, a symbol of the city since the 1400s, and there was a giant fresco of the man who brought a relic of the Blood of Christ back to Bruges after the Crusades.

Basilica of the Holy Blood in Bruges
Heilig-Bloedbasiliek

After mass we had some more waffles since they were sooo good and then took a boat tour through the canals. We learned about the stepped gables of the houses – the more steps you had, the richer you were. The number of windows on your house also indicated your level of wealth. At one time there was a window tax, and many people filled in some of the windows on their homes to reduce the tax they had to pay. Only the wealthy were able to afford to keep all their windows. 

Notice all the filled in windows and the number of steps on the roof
Neighbors would try to outdo each other in the stepped gables game
Church of Our Lady seen from the boat tour
Church of Our Lady seen from the canals

After the boat tour we checked out a brewery that recently opened along a canal, but they wouldn’t let us sit outside unless we ate lunch, and we had already eaten waffles, so that was not a good plan. It was warm and sunny so we walked east to see the old windmills in the St-Anna district. They are still used to grind grain but I don’t believe they are in their original locations. There used to be quite a few of these in Bruges, but I believe there are only 4 or so left.

St-Janshospitaal. Look at all those small panes of glass! Beautiful!
Molen, Windmills
Windmill/Molen

We walked past Jeruzalemkerk, a church that was built to imitate the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, and went inside a stunning old church with massive framed paintings on the walls. Our canal guide said there are 22 churches in Bruges and 21 are Catholic. I didn’t fact check that, but it’s a lot of churches for a small place.

That evening, we visited Connor’s favorite bar of the trip. De Garre is tucked into an alley off one of the main streets full of chocolate shops; one of those streets where your eyes can’t help but jump from one tempting chocolate display to the next, glazing over whatever may fall between.

De Garre. Thanks for the cheese!!

Dinner was outside at a little cafe, followed by a brief visit to ‘t Poatersgat cellar bar, which means Monk Hole. ‘t Poatersgat was cute, mostly because of its teeny door half submerged below ground, but I preferred Le Trappiste Bruges. Better service and beer presentation.

And that’s that! The trip back to England on Monday morning was uneventful, and we stopped in Dover to see the cliffs and break up the drive. I’ll post cliff pics next week! Happy Fri-yay peeps!

2 Days in Bruges

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

DSC_0553

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