Monday, October 10, 2011

La Dolce Vita

Sun. Good Food. Hospitality. Passion. The Sweet Life.

I Love Tuscany and I'm pretty sure it defines "la dolce vita."

Columbus Day weekend = "96" = Time to indulge in the sweet life!

James' cousin and his wife are in Italy for vacation so we planned to meet them on their most free day, Sunday, in Florence. Since we had three other days to spare that weekend, we decided to spend time in Lucca, which is an hour and 20 minutes away from Florence.

FYI- Tuscany is not a city. Lucca and Florence (among other cities) are IN the state of Tuscany. I didn't know that until I moved here, and I've learned I'm not alone, so I thought I'd share...

Day One

If you know anything about Italian transportation it's this - they are always late. Oh wait, that is just Italians in general. So, we got to Lucca (via train) a few hours later than planned. By the time we arrived we were worn out and hungry. Conveniently (or unfortunately) there was a McDonald's next to our hotel (Eurostars Toscana Lucca), so we checked in, got some McNuggets and french fries (just enough to hold us over until dinner) and brought them back to the room, where we relaxed for an hour or two.

Once we were reenergized, we walked to the city. Our hotel was a 10-15 minute easy walk from the city walls. And by walls, I mean old school city-wall walls. So cool. We had all the major sites planned out for the next day, so that night was all about walking around and just experiencing the city. It is the cutest little city (only 2.5 miles around), and very close to the "Italy" I would picture before moving here and having the Naples experience. It is quite an experience... Back to My Italy - old beautiful structures, clock towers, churches with bell towers, piazzas, few cars, lots of people on bikes, and lots of loud, happy people.

Oh Italia. I've found you at last!

That night we walked down random streets and stopped in cute stores along the way until finally picking our spot for dinner. James had Roast Beef with Potatoes and I had the Lucchesi specialty of Tordelli (homemade raviolli stuffed with meat and covered in a meat sauce). To start us off they brought out Tuscan bread, which is bread with a hint of breadstick-ish flavor and texture without the loads of butter. Delicious!

On our walk back to the hotel we decided that we were already in love with Lucca.

Day two (Part one)

We walked to the city walls:

...and immediately found a bike rental shop.
Biking is a big thing here. People bike everywhere, and tourists rent bikes to ride around the wall, and/or in the city (if they're feeling risky- the city is small with lots of people walking around).

We decided to rent a Tandam bike!
Just kidding...
I wanted to have fun, not irritate my husband!
Believe it or not, this was James' idea.
Oh and my steering wheel was fake. I think James might have worked something out with the bike rental guy...

The wall was awesome.See it behind us?

The wall is really thick (to stop intruders, cannon balls, etc) with great views on top (to see attackers coming in the distance). And there were no railings or gates, so it was a bit of a thrill to walk on the edge of the wall- Which we stopped and did every fews minutes, hah!

Yet another beautiful site (looking into the city):

This is what the path looked like most of the ride:
And we were biking on top of the wall, so that shows you how wide the wall is!

People walking in and out of one of the entrances.
You can get an idea of how tall the wall is too.

For lunch we stopped at a cafe where we had caprese sandwiches (buffalo mozzarella, tomato and arugula) and cappuccinos.

I can't get enough of these:
Cappuccinos definitely deserve their own picture.

On to the site seeing!

First we climbed the clock tower:

207 steps of pure... well, I'll let James show you how it was:

But the view didn't dissappoint!

View of Guinigi Tower with the roof top garden- that's our next stop:

This clock tower has been around since the 1700s- with the original wood stairs...
You could feel the wood shift under your feet... let's get outta here!

Phew! Back on the solid streets.

As if 207 steps weren't enough, we went on to climb Guinigi Tower's 227...

Again, wonderful views.
Apparently this little cloud didn't get the memo...

View of Piazza Anfiteatro.
There was once a Roman Amphitheater and when it was out of use and torn down, they kept the round shape that once was. They also kept the arches where you would enter the amphitheater, only now you enter a cute little piazza through those arches.

Us at the top of the tower:

One side of San Martino Cathedral:
I thought it was beautiful and picture-worthy...

Us in the front of the church.
This one was very different from most that we've seen with all those different pillars.

Neat labyrinth on a piller in the front of the church:

It represents the struggle and challenge our souls face in finding salvation.

And that was all for our Lucca visit...
We'll miss you Lucca!

Day Two (Part Two!)
Cinque Terra

Our friend Shelly from back home has an internship in Germany for the next few months and earlier that week she told us that she would be in Cinque Terra (CT) for the weekend. So since we were finished in Lucca early, we hopped on the next train CT bound!
Graffiti is huge here. From what I've been told, kids (not hoodlums or gangsters) see it in American movies... and well, this is what happens.

A few hours later- paradise!
Hello Italian Riviera...

Oh, Hello Shelly...

We walked up and down Monterosso (one of the five cities of CT)...

Found some fun...

... and a cool (I guess?) statue...

...then had dinner and headed back to Lucca.

Or so we thought.

There aren't very many trains from Monterosso to Lucca so we were trying our luck on the very last one.

Bad idea.

We were waiting at platform 1, when 10 minutes early the train pulls up on the platform (3) that we were supposed to catch our train on. After no more than one minute the train workers blew the whistle, which means they are about to leave. The doors shut just as James and I are running up, so he releases the door and lets us on.

Phew! We thought it was crazy that it came and left early because that never happens in Italy, but were just glad we caught it. Until about 3 stops later when we realized...


We were on a train bound for Parma. Yeah. That's not by Lucca. At all.

So we hopped off and planned to catch the next train going back two stops to La Spezia, the stop just outside of CT- this would allow us to get back on track (track. hah...). At this point it was 10:45pm and the next train was coming in 45 minutes. Doesn't sound too bad, except when I tell you we were dressed for 65 degree weather waiting outside at a stop where we could see our breath. It was not 65 degrees. 45 minutes.

Once thawed off on the train and back on track in La Spezia, we learned that the next train getting us closer to Lucca was at 1:27am AND that would only take us to Pisa. From Pisa we would have to take another train that would depart at 6am. So, basically we would be awake and waiting in train stations all night.


We considered a taxi - 240 Euro.

We considered local hotels - 100 - 140 Euro.

And we considered going to Pisa, then taking a taxi, but that was more of a risk than I was willing to take because Pisa train station is 30km from our hotel. It was kind of the half way point from La Spezia, so I just halved the taxi price we were given in La Spezia- I didn't like that number.

All the meanwhile our luggage was all cozy in our hotel room and my phone on the verge of death.

Fortunately, we met a really nice hotel concierge who took pity on us and let us sleep on the couches in the internet den.
Doesn't he just look so comfy and cozy!


Day three
La Spezia, Lucca, Florence...

Five hours later we got up, headed for the train and got to Lucca. That part was smooth. Thankfully!

Once back to our hotel (7am), we showered, relaxed, ate breakfast, drank a latte AND a cappuccino (each) and then headed back to the train station to Florence to hang out with our cousins for the day!

That morning was really working with us as that ride went smooth and we were with Kevin and Emily enjoying Florence at 11am.
Us at the Duomo.

The whole day was pretty relaxed. We walked around the town taking in the beautiful buildings and enjoying bella Firenze.

I had really been wanting a new leather purse lately, so that was pretty much the mission of my day. There were two "leather market" spots, and once I found the purse I wanted, we set out to find the best price!

Kevin and Emily were key in this. They play the bargain game well and keep their game faces on- something I'm not good at. We got my purse down to E35 from E55- and I just love it!

At Ponte Vecchio:
This is probably my favorite area in Florence, it's just so cute!

All of us on "old bridge:"

After a few hours, we were back on our way to Naples.

Our train was exactly on time to Naples. Impressive.

It was a great trip- FULL of madness, but I wouldn't take it back!
And we will ride on the train again. Even with all it's flaws and our errors- it's just too convenient!

Amo Toscana!


Two years later...

Well, I was stuck in Spain for our actual Two Year Anniversary, so we didn't get to take a major vacation as hoped for. Instead we took a weekend getaway to Capri to celebrate two whole years happily married!

...Did I say stuck in Spain like it was a bad thing?!? While that's how I felt at the time, please excuse my spoiled-ness...

Back to Capri.
In Italy it's pronounced CAH-pree... not Cuh-PREE like the pants

Capri is an island in the Bay of Naples that is simply gorgeous. Many celebrities come here for little get-a-ways as well.
So as you can imagine, it's also pricey. Minor detail.

We stayed one night in Anacapri. The first evening, our wonderful bed and breakfast (Da Carlo a Veterino - 08-837-2505) owner, Carlo, gave us several suggestions. The one we took him up on was to swim into the Blue Grotto (see my original CAPRI blog).

During the day it's run by a company who puts you on a boat and takes you into the cave. Once the sun starts setting, the grotto isn't as well lit, so they stop running for the day. That's when the locals swim in for their free Blue Grotto experience. As much as we wanted to do this, we got bored of waiting for the company to leave, so we took a swim at another local's spot and enjoyed a few moments of the super salty and clear water.
And that's when we learned that James and I are kind of chickens when it comes to the open water. We were a little freaked out by what we couldn't see. While the water is clear, you can't tell just how far the rocks are on the bottom... and it's not like looking through a glass.

Afterwards we headed back to our B&B to freshen up and continue on with our adventure. We had dinner and dessert at a cute pizzeria in the downtown area...

Then walked around taking in the city- and eventually headed back to our room.
Gorgeous sunset and view at our B&B!

The second day, we took the chair lift to the very top of the island.

We didn't know this until we got to the top, but the only thing to do up there is see the view (and get a caffe of course).

...and it was cloudy at the very top that morning.

So after about 10 minutes, back down we went.

James getting ready to hop off...

The first time we went to Capri we saw these boats that you could rent. I picked up a pamphlet that time just to have as FYI in case we ever wanted to rent one. This time we wanted to. After lunch, we rented a "CapriBoat" (081-837-5188, 80E/2 hours).

It was just the two of us on the open waters!

It was a blast and we can't wait to do it again!

Ciao Capri!

In honor of our anniversary...
While I was in the states, my uncle gave me some wedding pictures that he took and we never saw... this one makes me laugh:
Why does it looks like Tony's boys and a bodyguard?
Who's wedding was it?

I just love this one of the Keaton guys:


Sunday, October 9, 2011

Operation Mac Flight...

It was August and I was on my way back to Maryland... Yes, again.

One of my childhood and best friends, Nicole, was engaged and getting married at the end of August. There was NO way I was going to miss it!

Since the summer is "PCS season" (Permanent Change of Station = relocation time) in the military and a major travel season internationally, I knew it would be quite a task getting home for free, but I left early and managed to make it home with time to spare.

Let's begin the operation.

How military flights work are; when there is a mission (flight), every time they land (to refuel, load cargo, unload cargo, whatever) they will take as many "space a" (a = available) passengers as they can (or want to) where ever they are headed at NO cost! Then there are contracted flights, which are commercial airlines contracted to fly regularly scheduled flights and carry mostly PSC-ers or people on "official orders." These serve food and are not free for Space-A travelers, but it less than $50. Steep, huh?

It all started two weeks before Nicole's wedding.

My first "try" to get back to the states was was the commercial flight. It made the most sense because it would land only four hours away from my parents. It would play movies, have food, and be like any other commercial airline I've ever taken. Also my good friend Rosanna was on it, as she was PCS-ing back to the states at that time. It would have been perfect. Too perfect. So, as fate would have it - Denied!

Flying Space-A is like flying on stand-by, so having been denied, we gathered up my stuff and back home we went.

I found out there was a military flight (free, but no food) homeward bound in two days, so again, I tried. And again - denied. I've flown Space-A a few times and I've never been denied twice in a row!!! I was taking it a little personal, but I still had just under two weeks to work with, so I wasn't too concerned.

When traveling Space-A, you always meet other Space-A travelers in the same or similar situations. In this case I met about ten. Through working together and an hour of weighing our options, we decided our best option was to get to Germany where the stateside flights are in abundance.

So, seven of us hoped into a van and headed to Germany- five adults and two kids.
After 14 hours of overnight travel, we arrived. Immediately upon checking into that terminal we realized we were way out of our league.

Another thing to know about the Military flights is that everyone is placed in one of six categories. I will not bore you with all the details, but Active Duty (AD) gets priority, then dependents, then retirees. The day you signed up to be put on the Space-A list sets the order for the people in your category. James was not with me, so any and all AD travelers AND their dependents were ahead of me- even if they just signed up that day, and I signed up a month ago. Not to mention, if you know military families they are usually not very small! This is a problem because when there are six seats available, and there's a family of six traveling with their AD member guess who's not going. Yep. That would be me.

Oh, and with a large base comes lots of AD to run the base and with August comes lots of those same people traveling. Not good for me. There were about 100 AD members ahead of me. Plus their families. Plus daily walk-ins. You do the math.

After three days in Germany, we realized we were not going anywhere until the summer was over, and that didn't work for any of us. So we brainstormed and called all the other bases until finally we found another (smaller) base close by with several flights going stateside.

The next day we were on our way to the East Coast- six days after my initial try.

And that's actually the cliff notes of the six days- but I was homeward bound for free (minus gas, food and lodging, but hey, still cheaper than a commercial flight)!

Home Sweet Home.

The reason for my return:

The happy couple on their way out:
Everything was gorgeous!
I was so happy to be a part.

For the rest of my month-long visit, I got to spend LOTS of time with my nephews. Which is all I pretty much talked about before I left Naples.
Logan turns ONE this month!!!


Forbes (My brother Tony's other son) is too little, so he didn't quite make it on this adventure. But I did get to spend a little time with that cutie too and I love him the same!
Those boys make my heart smile!

My parents are Ethan and Logan's "nannies," so I saw the kiddos almost everyday!

I also gave my parents a hand and watched the boys for a few days so they could do other things.
...Like sleep. Hah! Shh, don't tell Dad...

One day it was raining and the boys LOVE being outside, so I though- "let's go play in the rain!" I remember loving that as a kid, so I knew I'd win some brownie points with that one.
...sadly playtime was quickly over...

I should have seen it coming...
Oh wait, I did... Sigh.

Other random Nephew moments:
Sweet Boy!

I have no idea why Ethan looks so scared of his little brother here, but I just love this, hah!

When living abroad you realize the things you miss, so by the time you go home, you have a list! On my list, other than visiting with friends, family and my home church (and of course smothering those little boys with kisses), were- Chipotle, Red Robin, Panera, Starbucks, TJMaxx, Target and outlet shopping!

I hit all of those and was able to get to the Eastern market in DC with Rosanna.

Rosanna is my "Naples BFF." We loved to go to markets whenever time allowed! She is now in VA (about an hour from my parents!) so, we just had to keep the market tradition alive!
We were joined by my good friend from high school, Janelle.

Love these girls!
Ethiopian food at Ethiopic in DC. Mmmmm.

Janelle is the type of friend that certain things only happen when they are (she is, in this case) around:
This random truck was for sale. And this random dude happened to be looking to buy it.
I personally think they were a perfect match.
Good luck my friend.

And that about wraps up my visit... til next time Maryland!

...Oh, but the adventure doesn't end here.

Back to the Operation.

Mac Flights.

Remember how I told you the most ideal flight is the commercial flight that lands and leaves four hours from my parents. Well, we were off to try that one. And, as luck was on a roll - denied. I guess that's the lack of luck.

I was in MD for another four days, calling all the military terminals East of the Mississippi (ok, so maybe just in the DC area. Regardless...), my next chance was on Saturday from Delaware. Random. I know. Michelle and Jon (my sister and brother-in-law) so graciously packed up their family and me in their car and off we were. They dropped me off at the terminal and headed out for a family day at the beach. Win - win.


Next stop Spain for a few hours, and from there I would sit only for four hours and then catch the MAC flight to Naples. I was sure of it!

If you've been paying attention, you know what happened next.

I think I left Lady Luck in Delaware.

As I was checking in, I was informed that the mission to Naples was delayed for two days.

I was stuck in Spain. Could be worse.

After two days of wandering the base and enjoying the sun (and missing our two year Anniversary!!!) I returned to the terminal, only to be informed that my luck hadn't changed. The Naples flight was cancelled. Not delayed.

Enter extreme stress... and maybe a few tears. Maybe.

The next day there was a flight to Sicily. I actually caught that one, then took a taxi to catch the overnight train to Naples.

(If your wondering why I didn't just buy a flight, it's because I was way over the luggage weight limit and that cost was way over my forget-it-I'll-just-buy-a-flight budget.)


5:45am - Home Sweet Home.
Yep. I was calling Naples "sweet" at this point.

*Note* NEVER go Space-A in the summer. Or even remotely close to the summer.