Category Archives: Travel

Our Visit to Florence

Michelangelo’s “David” at the Galleria dell’Accademia di Firenze (Academy Of Florence Art Gallery)

I would suppose that for most visitors, the focus in Florence is on art and architecture.  That was certainly the focus on our tour there.  And why not?  In a city that houses the most famous statue in the world, several of the most famous paintings in the world, and one of the most important architectural achievements in the world, a visit would not be complete without paying one’s respects to these things.

Aboard the train from Venice to Florence in Italy

Our tour group arrived in Florence in late morning, after taking the Alta Velocità (AV, or high speed,) train) from Venice.  That in itself was a wonder, with a comfortable, on-time and efficient train taking us at speeds up to 250km/hour through the Italian countryside to our destination.  We should be able to do half as well in this country, but I digress….

Michelangelo’s “David” at the Galleria dell’Accademia di Firenze (Academy Of Florence Art Gallery)
Our visit to the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, Italy
Botticelli’s “La Primavera” during our visit to the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, Italy
Botticelli’s “Birth of Venus” during our visit to the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, Italy

At our hotel in Florence, we were met by an art historian who essentially explained the Renaissance in about 45 minutes!  It was a great introduction to the things we would see while we were in Florence.  And see we did!  Visits to the Uffizi Gallery and the Academy of Florence Art Gallery (Galleria dell’ Accademia di Firenze) were definitely highlights, as were just walking around and absorbing the sights.  The Duomo (Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore) is magnificent, and although we chose not to climb the 463 steps to the top (would have taken too much time…yeah, that’s it 😉 ) we were able to admire its beauty from the ground.

Motor scooters everywhere in Florence
Guided walking tour of Florence, Italy
Walking around Florence Italy
Walking around Florence Italy

Walking around Florence was a bit confounding, as all of the streets around the cathedral tend to veer off into unexpected directions.  You wouldn’t think so from looking at a map, but Kathy & I got lost one night when we decided to take the long way back from dinner.  Of course we had very confidently left the hotel without a phone or a map!  We did eventually stumble our way back “home” but that was one of the days I recorded over 14,000 steps!  We made sure to have some kind of navigation aid with us from then on.  Oops.

Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence
Walking around Florence Italy in the evening
Walking around Florence Italy in the evening

I had recently read Walter Isaacson’s biography of Da Vinci, and the idea of Leonardo, Michelangelo, Bernini, Brunelleschi and others walking around Florence at about the same time had me fascinated.  I even imagined the group of them holed up in a bar somewhere, drinking mead and talking about sports.  The reality though is that these geniuses were all in fierce competition, especially for Medici money.  Although I think they harbored a certain amount of respect for each other, I don’t know that they would have had each other on their Christmas card lists.  Hard to say for sure!

Ponte Vecchio bridge over the Arno River in Florence

One of our days included a bus tour into the Tuscan countryside to visit and have lunch at one of the Antinori wineries.  It was set in an old monastery and was very interesting, not to mention delicious food and great Italian wines!  I’ll talk about that visit in a separate post.

“Rape of The Sabines” by Giambologna at the Galleria dell’Accademia di Firenze
Guided walking tour of Florence, Italy

In addition to the planned highlights, we had several opportunities to explore the city on our own.  One of the places I had wanted to visit was the Galileo museum.  While it doesn’t contain a lot of actual Galileo artifacts, it does contain a display with one of his teeth and a finger.  Really!  Otherwise it is a very nice collection of artifacts from the 15th & 16th centuries, with very well-done exhibits of scientific instruments & personal items from the history of science.  Kathy had an opportunity to sample the famous leather shops and brought home some souvenirs, and of course I was able to have the famous Florentine T-bone steak I posted about previously!

Our visit to the Galileo Museum in Florence, Italy
Galileo’s tooth and finger at the Galileo Museum in Florence, Italy

We saw only a small slice of Florence, and it is the kind of place where you could spend weeks or months and not see it all.  But we saw most of the highlights, and certainly saw enough to convince us that we could probably come back in the future and spend extended time there.  Hopefully with a map!

Florentine T-Bone aka Bistecca Alla Fiorentina

Bistecca alla fiorentina at Buca Mario Restaurant in Florence

To paraphrase a T-shirt I saw recently, “Steak is the reason I’m not a vegetarian.” 🙂

One of the “must-do” things for me during our visit to Florence was to have the Florentine T-Bone.  According to the all-knowing Wikipedia:

“Bistecca alla fiorentina, or ‘beefsteak Florentine style’, consists of a T-bone traditionally sourced from either the Chianina or Maremmana breeds of cattle. A favorite of Tuscan cuisine, the steak is grilled over a wood or charcoal fire, seasoned with salt, sometimes with black pepper, and olive oil, applied immediately after the meat is retired from the heat. Thickly cut and very large, “Bistecca” are often shared between two or more persons, and traditionally served very rare, sometimes garnished with lemon wedges, if not accompanied by red wine, and accompanied by Tuscan beans as a side dish.”

Florentine steaks ready for cooking in Florence, Italy

We told our tour director that we wanted to have dinner at a place that is known for their Bistecca alla fiorentina, and he recommended Ristorante Buca Mario, which was a short walk from our hotel.  We went with friends who, while not looking for the B-A (big a$$) steak, were looking for a nice meal with top service and good wine at a locally-owned restaurant.

BEFORE – Bistecca alla fiorentina at Buca Mario Restaurant in Florence
THE AFTERMATH – Bistecca alla fiorentina at Buca Mario Restaurant in Florence

Mine was fortunately cut for a “single serving” which, as you can see from the photo, would likely feed a family of 4 (except my family, who loves steak!).  Italians put olive oil on everything, and mine was served the traditional way with Tuscan beans.  Of course we had red wine and finished our meal off with an outstanding tiramisu.  It’s not something I will likely get to do again, so I’m glad I did it right when I did it.

Osso buco (knuckle of veal ) florentine style (with beans in tomato and sage sauce) at Buca Mario Restaurant in Florence

Our Visit to Venice

St. Mark’s Square in Venice, Italy

Venice is a beautiful city, with incredible culture, art and architecture, a colorful history and a thriving tourism industry with plentiful & eclectic restaurants.  Unfortunately, Venice is in some ways a victim of its own success, as the positives are somewhat offset by the sheer number of people that visit daily.

Gondolas along the Grand Canal in Venice, Italy
View of the Church of San Giorgio Maggiore across the Grand Canal in Venice, Italy

On the day of our arrival there were 4 cruise ships in port, adding more than 10,000 “Barbarians” to the thousands of land-based tourists crowding the already busy bridges and walkways.  And I have never seen more selfie sticks in one place in my entire life!  St. Mark’s Square is the Center of the Universe in Venice, so that is where everyone heads.  And since there are only so many ways to get from one part of the city to another, things could get pretty hectic at times.

Photo from somewhere in Venice, Italy
Photo from somewhere in Venice, Italy

Kathy & I arrived the day before our organized tour, so we had almost two full days to explore on our own.  We took advantage of that time by getting up and out early, so we could enjoy some of the more popular sites and sights before they became overcrowded.  That proved to be a good strategy, then we moved to the less-populated areas during the middle of the day.  We spent an enormous amount of time walking and logged many miles!

Photo from somewhere in Venice, Italy
Photo from somewhere in Venice, Italy

St. Mark’s Basilica was a highlight of Venice.  We knew that we wanted to spend time beyond the limited time we would have on our organized tour, so we attended Mass on Sunday morning in order to sit and enjoy the service in the midst of all that beautiful art and architecture.  The mass we attended included music, which not all of them do.  It was done in Italian and Latin, and there was a visiting children’s choir that performed, making the whole event one to remember.  Photography was not allowed in the church, so we will suffice with our memories of the place.

View of St. Mark’s Basilica and the Doge’s Palace from across the Grand Canal in Venice, Italy
Photo from somewhere in Venice, Italy

Photographically, Venice is a treasure trove of little scenes, with leading lines and angles everywhere.  I had to take the “cliché” shot of the moving gondolas with the Church of San Giorgio Maggiore in the background across the water.  But there was much more than the cliché to be found there.  The canals and alleyways, especially in the mornings, were great places to explore and photograph.  During the day, it was all about the people, so that’s what I photographed – pictures of people taking pictures!

St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice, Italy
Photo from somewhere in Venice, Italy
St. Mark’s Square in Venice, Italy
Photo from somewhere in Venice, Italy

The food in Venice was very good, and we did our best to sample a cross section of the offerings!  One has to be a little careful to identify the authentic, locally-owned Italian restaurants s opposed to the “tourist trap” restaurants, but our Tauck tour director did a good job with recommendations and suggestions which helped a lot.  With Venice being on the water, there is plenty of seafood and lots of places served very good pizza.  Wine was plentiful and very inexpensive, so that even the “house” wines in most places were very good.  Kathy discovered the Aperol Spritz, which is a combination of Aperol (an Italian apéritif made of gentian, rhubarb, and cinchona, among other ingredients) and Prosecco, a sparkling wine.  Our home liquor cabinet is now stocked with Aperol, plus Campari and Vermouth Rosso for making Negronis, my new favorite!

Photo from somewhere in Venice, Italy
Gondola ride in Venice, Italy

Our hotel in Venice was the Baglioni Hotel Luna, which is situated literally steps from St. Mark’s Square.  I could be out the door and into the square in less than 30 seconds, so it turned out to be an excellent location for early morning and evening photographic excursions.  Venice turned out to be the only city that I was able to spend much time doing “serious” photography, although my future posts will show that I did quite a lot more photography in other locations as well!

Touring the Doge’s Palace in Venice, Italy

Thoughts on our Tauck tour – Venice, Florence & Rome

St. Mark’s Square in Venice, Italy

This is the text from a write-up I did for our travel agent and tour company describing our experiences with the tour we did our first week in Italy.

When Kathy & I decided to visit Italy, we elected to use a tour company primarily due to the logistics involved with driving there and because of the need to tour the major sights with some kind of group in order to avoid spending valuable vacation time waiting in lines.  We chose to tour with Tauck on the recommendation of our travel agent because of Tauck’s reputation and expertise in Italy.  Our travel agent indicated that Tauck provided a good mix of quality accommodations in good locations, a high level of food and service, with knowledgeable and expert local guides and a good mix of organized activities and flexible time.  We found all those things to be very much the case.

From the time we stepped out of baggage claim at the airport in Venice, to the time we joined the line for check-in at the Rome airport, we felt like we were traveling with people and a company that cared for us and looked out for us every step of the way to make sure we had an excellent vacation.

Gondolas along the Grand Canal in Venice, Italy

Tour Director

Our Tauck Tour Director was Andrea Orri, an Italy native and obviously a seasoned travel professional.  Andrea consistently amazed us with his ability to communicate details, answer countless questions and essentially herd 40 distinct personalities around without even a hint of difficulty.  All we had to do was show up at the appointed time and everything just “happened” as promised.  His descriptions and explanations were communicated accurately, clearly and with a fantastic sense of humor.  We learned a number of “Andrea-isms” that we will remember and use for years!

We don’t have a lot of special needs or unusual requests, but I have an occasional problem with claustrophobia, especially in tight spaces.  When we mentioned this to Andrea he very quietly and professionally made sure I had a comfortable location on the bus and in the van.  It was great and I never had a problem.

Andrea was always available to answer questions or give input.  He freely provided ideas and directions for places to visit and restaurants to go for lunch or dinner.  He often would make our reservations and provide directions to the places for us.  We know that a lot happened behind the scenes, but what we observed was nothing less than amazing.  If Andrea is representative of the quality of people who work for Tauck – and we have no reason to expect otherwise – there is no question that we would make Tauck our first choice for future travel of that type.

St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice, Italy

Accommodations

We found the hotel accommodations to be outstanding.  The hotels themselves are centrally located with good amenities, we could not have asked for better.  Our hotel in Venice was literally steps from St. Mark’s Square.  In Florence, we were an easy walk from the Uffizi Gallery, the Duomo and other sights.  We could have used taxis but decided to enjoy the walking.  Our hotel in Rome was centrally located, with a number of sights, restaurants and shopping within easy walking distance.  Because of the sheer size of Rome, we used buses a lot more there than anywhere else.

Michelangelo’s “David” at the Galleria dell’Accademia di Firenze (Academy Of Florence Art Gallery)

Itinerary

We knew going in that this was a “hit the highlights” tour, and that there would be a lot of things we would skim over or simply miss.  It’s just not possible to see “all” of the things in any one city in an entire lifetime, but we saw all of the “important” things with ample free time for the things that we wanted to see on our own.  In Venice, I wanted to get out early and photograph the canals before the tourists arrived.  In Florence we wanted to visit the Galileo Museum, and in Rome we wanted to walk to the Pantheon, Trevi Fountain and the Spanish Steps.  We did all of those things and more during the plenty of flexible time we had.

The after-hours visit to the Sistine Chapel was itself worth the price of taking the Tauck tour.  To be able to spend 30+ minutes in that space with a group of only 100 people, fully narrated by our guides, was truly a special experience.  To my knowledge Tauck is the only company with that kind of access, and knowing how the usual tours are herded through quickly and without any narration, I would not have wanted to do it any other way.  To have that amazing visit capped off with a dinner on the grounds of The Vatican, the evening could not have been more special.

Overall, we felt that the pace of the tour was just right.  It would have been nice to have more time in the places we visited, but by missing all the lines we actually had more time in each of the places we did visit than most people would have had.  The only thing we really weren’t prepared for was the amount of walking we would do, and we thought we had prepared!  There were just a lot of things to do and places to see.  It was no problem to exceed 10,000 steps per day on a regular basis!

Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence

Local Guides

Every tour group has a guide, and most of them are good.  But we were especially impressed with the local guides that Tauck used in each city.  They weren’t just locals who speak English, but were degreed art professionals who knew and could explain in intricate detail the history and importance of the places and pieces we visited.  Being able to learn about those things was an added detail that we hadn’t expected but were happy to have been able to experience.

Our visit to the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, Italy

Logistics

I mentioned earlier that things “just happened.”  We never had to wonder about where to go, what to bring or what we were doing.  On transfer days our luggage “disappeared” then “reappeared” at our destination.  Transportation was always on time, restaurants were always ready for us and things were just right.  I can’t imagine a more flawless experience.

Our visit to the Colosseum in Rome

Fellow Travelers

Most of our fellow travelers were similar in age and demographics to us – 50’s to 70’s, with a few older and some teen and 20-year old kids and grandkids.  It was a group of seasoned travelers with an appreciation for the food, culture and experience.  We were surprised at the number of first timers – both to Italy as well as with Tauck.  As an introductory tour to both that was understandable.

Our visit to The Vatican and St. Peter’s Basilica

Value

The perception of value is a very individual thing.  Our Tauck tour appeared to be quite expensive, and it was, and many people would question whether it was worth the price.  But when we consider all the things that were included, plus all of the advantages we gained in terms of time, access and experience,  I personally would not have wanted to give up all of the positives to save a few dollars.  I will say that the Tauck tour was an excellent product and that the quality lives up to the promise.  Sometimes we pay more than we’d like for the experience we want.  The “worth-it” decision is a personal one but one that we feel was appropriate for this vacation.

Other Considerations

While this tour is not billed as “all-inclusive” it does include a lot.  But it is important to be aware of and understand the cost of things that are not included.  All of that free time and meals “on your own” come with a cost, and while each traveler has a certain amount of control over their spending, these are not inexpensive cities and everyone should plan, and budget, accordingly.  And that doesn’t take into account the SHOPPING!

It is possible to do A LOT of walking, with a lot of steps, bridges and cobblestone streets.  Be sure you know what you are getting into before you book.

In summary, we had a fantastic week and look forward to an opportunity to tour with Tauck again!

Our visit to The Vatican and St. Peter’s Basilica

Galley Tour on Celebrity Summit

Galley tour on Celebrity Summit

Another highlight of our recent cruise and part of our chef tour was a tour of the galley.  We have done galley tours before on numerous cruises, but ordinarily they are held in the morning, and the most exciting thing you see is someone making gravy!  For this tour we were taken through the galley during dinner service, and it was quite an experience!

Chef Stephen on Celebrity Summit
Galley tour on Celebrity Summit

It’s been a long time since I worked in any kind of restaurant environment, and I’m not sure I actually qualify to say that I worked in any kind of restaurant!  But the things we found most impressive were how clean and organized things were, and how friendly everyone was, especially while they were busy.  I took a lot of photos on this tour, and these are just a few, to give you a “taste” of the experience!

Escalator from the dining room to the galley
Executive Chef Kuldeep Singh on Celebrity Summit
Dessert station!
Dessert station!
Dessert station!
Galley tour on Celebrity Summit
Galley tour on Celebrity Summit
Galley tour on Celebrity Summit
Galley tour on Celebrity Summit
Galley tour on Celebrity Summit
Galley tour on Celebrity Summit

Chef Tour in Nassau

Chef Stephen

In my earlier post about the Conch Guy I mentioned that we had taken a tour in Nassau with one of the chefs from our ship.  In addition to the fish market, we visited a roadside vegetable stand, a couple of guys cutting up coconuts for juice and meat, as well as a distillery.  Here are a few more photos from that trip.

Chef Stephen at a roadside fish market

Our guide was Chef Stephen from Jamaica, and he explained a lot about the different things we saw and how they were used in island cooking.  While we or the chef weren’t permitted to bring anything back to the ship due to health regulations and ship policy, Stephen used many of these same ingredients and themes when preparing the meal that we had back on the ship that evening.

Roadside produce stand
Roadside fish market
Roadside produce stand
Roadside produce stand
Roadside produce stand

In a separate post I’ll share photos from our galley tour.  But unfortunately I was too busy enjoying the food to take any photos at dinner!

Sampling fresh coconut and coconut water
Sampling fresh coconut and coconut water
Sampling fresh coconut and coconut water
John Watling’s Distillery
John Watling’s Distillery
John Watling’s Distillery
John Watling’s Distillery

The Conch Guy

The Conch Guy

One of the ports on our recent cruise was Nassau, in the Bahamas.  We did a shore excursion there that involved touring some of the island’s fish and produce markets with one of the chefs from the ship.  One of the stops on our tour was at a roadside fish market where fishermen brought in their fresh catch.  Coolers after coolers with fish of all types – including snapper, grouper, mahi and lobster.

Roadside fish market stand during our Chef’s Market Tour shore excursion in Nassau, Bahamas
Roadside fish market stand during our Chef’s Market Tour shore excursion in Nassau, Bahamas

Also at this stop was a tent where a man was shelling conch for conch salad.  If you aren’t familiar, a conch is a sea creature that grows in those beautiful pink shells that everyone likes to collect.  He used an ax to punch a hole in the shell in just the right spot, then dug the conch out of the shell with a knife.  The conch was then chopped up, marinated and mixed with veggies for a salad.  Delicious!

The Conch Guy
The Conch Guy
The Conch Guy
The Conch Guy

Watching the conch man work the shells was as interesting as eating the conch.  Kathy asked him if he ever cut himself.  He just smiled and said, “sometime, mon, but not in a long time!”

Conch salad!

Oh, There Were People in San Juan, Too!

Trio On A Bench

Cedric commented on my last post about how the lack of people contributed to the “Tranquilidad” of the scenes.  Of course not all of my photos were devoid of people, as the people are a large part of what makes San Juan special.  Here are a few photos “with” people as a counterpoint against those without.

Painting a Fine Line
Afternoon Walk
Three Dimensional
Wrong Way
Random street scenes in San Juan, Puerto Rico during our cruise on Celebrity Summit
Scenery near El Morro Fortress in San Juan, Puerto Rico during our cruise on Celebrity Summit
Lunch at Barrachina, allegedly the birthplace of the Pina Colada. In San Juan, Puerto Rico during our cruise on Celebrity Summit