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A night in Florence; or, all roads lead to Rome.

After a gigantic seafood lunch on the island of Burano, we departed for Florence, our shortest stop of the tour. We arrived at dinnertime, and ate another big meal at our hotel. After that lunch, I didn’t think I was in the mood for a big meal, but that’s what you do in Italy. We had more delicious crusty bread with olive oil. Our waiter, a prodigious sweater with a long, gray pony-tail (side note, the European service industry seems to be male-dominated — we had almost all male servers in the restaurants we ate at, which is not the case in the US) brought out all the penne with tomato sauce we could eat (literally, he brought seconds) as an appetizer.

Then we had another delicious roasted pork loin with vegetables (pork is huge in Italy).

Dessert was a nice fig tart with a latticed top-crust.

Although there’s no picture, after dessert we had a final cheese course. In the course of the meal, shared with our new tour friends, we noticed some platters of cheese at some of the other tables. We had not been presented with a cheese platter. So, in the spirit of experiencing everything Europe had to offer, we swiped a cheese plate from another table and tore that bad boy up. The best was the wedged Parmesan. With bellies full of stolen cheese, we went to bed.

The next morning we had a pretty typical hotel breakfast. One interesting thing. As we moved through Italy, every hotel breakfast featured nutella. You don’t see this chocolate-hazelnut spread in the US very often, but it’s delicious. It’s perfect spread on a croissant or piece of crusty bread. Then, in the streets of Florence, I had my first taste of gelato. It was lemon, and the most refreshing ice cream I’ve ever eaten. Shan had one that was flavored like tiramisu, which was rich and decadent. Then it was off to Rome.

On the way to Rome, we stopped for lunch at an Autogrill. Imagine a small American truck stop: gross facilities, McDonalds, other gross stuff. In Italy, they have Autogrill…surprisingly not gross. They have pizza, homemade salads and meat plates, grilled panini sandwiches with Italian meats and cheeses, even espresso bars. They are, however, intimidating. There is a very specific method for ordering, and you can only get certain items in certain lines. You can also only eat in certain areas, depending on which line you ordered from. And, naturally, all of this is accomplished in Italian. Very confusing, and made more so because our tour guide tried to explain it to us before our first stop, and confused us (mostly me) even more. At our first Autogrill stop, before Venice, I was so intimidated stepping in that I didn’t eat lunch. On this stop, I was determined to find success. We managed to order sandwiches and, much to our surprise and pleasure, they came out grilled and steaming. Amazing.

Then it was back on the road for our last stretch of driving on the tour.

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Europe Day 1&2Day 3Day 4Day 5Day 6, Day 7, Day 8, Day 9, Day 10

We were sad to end our amazing trip, but as at the end of any good trip, we were ready to get home. Unfortunately we had to get up god awful early to get to the airport. We took the coach, which left at two designated times from the hotel, along with some of our fellow travelers, to the airport. The hotel provided a boxed breakfast, but it was pretty awful: a ham (one thin slice) and cheese (spread?) sandwich on white bread, an orange (which I took with me), a chocolate tarte (which I just couldn’t eat that early in the morning) and a nectar (it wasn’t juice, it was nectar) box.

Anyway, I already wrote about our pretty horrible experience getting home, so I won’t rehash all that. Instead I’ll leave you with this thought:

GO TO EUROPE!

And this one last photo:

Vacation Mike! Isn’t he adorable, folks?

Also, in case you’re interested, I’ll be sharing some thoughts on the tour company travel experience soon.

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Europe Day 1&2Day 3Day 4Day 5Day 6, Day 7, Day 8, Day 9

Ah, our last day in Europe. So sad. We spent it with our trip friends (Ty and Richie again, but also Natalie and Eric) exploring as much of Rome as we could. Actually, we started out on an optional tour with the whole group that got us into the Colosseum and the Vatican.

So first, the Colosseum. Wow, it was just as cool as I had imagined! What a crazy experience to see this thing in real life – this thing that I’ve seen in pictures a million times, this thing that has been around for thousands of years. It really is impressive, and I’m glad we got admission with the tour because the lines were long. Our local tour guide gave us an audio tour, and then we were given time to explore on our own.

From there we took the coach to the Vatican where, again, we skipped past the lines. First, we had an audio tour through the gardens and museums.

Then we crowded down this tiny little hallway and staircase to get to the Sistine Chapel. It’s funny because the chapel was not originally intended to be a hoppin’ tourist attraction, so you take a narrow hallway and stairwell to get there, then everyone enters through one small door. And the room itself is overflowing with people. It’s not at all convenient, but I appreciate that they haven’t changed things just to accommodate people.

Technically you can’t take photos in the Sistine Chapel, but I snuck a couple because I’m a rebel like that.

Next we visited St Peter’s Basilica, part of Vatican City. It is huge! We strolled around for awhile, listening to the tour guide, and then exploring on our own.

Dead Saint!

Just outside the basilica we saw some Swiss Guards and they were pretty awesome. I even got a photo of one of them smiling at me.

(Funny story about this guy: His girlfriend (supposedly) found my photos of him on my Flickr stream and contacted me. His name is Lambert!)

After our time at the Vatican, our group of six split off, grabbed some lunch and set off to explore. Unfortunately the map didn’t show that a certain road we were on was blocked off from the rest of the city by a giant unscaleable wall. We ended up walking forever before we got to a place we could turn toward the place we were trying to reach. Much of the time we walked in single file like this:

The rest of the group was behind me. That’s Richie leading the way.

Eventually we got ourselves to Piazza Garibaldi which provided an incredible view of Rome. And it was a gorgeous day! So despite the little map-reading mishap (maps should show giant walls yo!), it was well worth it.

We continued to walk around, using a city map to visit random things that looked interesting, and we ended up in this quaint part of town that was just adorable.

We were all wishing we were hungry because it seemed like such a nice place to stop for dinner. Instead, we ate gelato on some steps before pressing on.

The coolest thing about this city is that you’ll just be walking around, and hello! Ancient ruins!

After a lot more walking, we were ready to eat. We had hoped to find a place off the beaten path for a more authentic feel, but instead we found an adorable spot that had an incredible view of the Colosseum.

(We were actually on the other side of the table looking at the Colosseum, but we had to stage this photo of course.)

This meal was the perfect way to end the trip. We ate with our new friends, we looked upon a spectacular ancient building, and we enjoyed three courses of delicious Italian food. After our meal, we took the Metro back to the shuttle stop and took the shuttle back to the hotel.

We were all leaving for home early in the morning, so we exchanged email addresses before heading to our separate rooms and spending our last nights in Europe.

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Europe Day 1&2Day 3Day 4Day 5Day 6, Day 7, Day 8

We woke up early in Florence and headed to Piazzale Michelangelo with the tour group. We were given about 30 minutes to get out and take photos of the view and the fake David (we didn’t bother waiting and paying to see the real deal).

Then we hopped back in the bus and drove to Santa Croce. From there were given time to explore the city before we had to head out for Rome.

Basilica of Santa Croce

Another fake David

Ponte Vecchio

Another pretty building..

We grabbed some gelato, paid to pee and boarded the bus for Rome.

In Rome we checked into our hotel, then joined up with our new friends Ty and Richie to head into town. It took us awhile to figure out the city bus and metro systems, but eventually we got ourselves where we wanted to be. First we walked to the Spanish Steps.

Can you spot Mike?

On our way to the next tourist spot, we got sucked into a very touristy restaurant. We tried to resist, but we were starving and the menu looked good. After dinner, we found the Trevi Fountain.

We each threw a coin in and a made a wish, but realized too late that you’re supposed to toss it in backward. See? Fail:

So those wishes won’t come true. But we did a little fake backwards toss (sans coins) to try to make up for it. From here, we walked around the city and saw a bunch of other awesome Roman things.

The Pantheon

The Tiber at dusk

The Vatican

We sat in the Vatican’s square for awhile and then figured out where to catch the hotel shuttle to go back and settle in for the night.

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Venice, as you’ve seen, was amazing. And oh the food!

I’ve been excited about eating in Italy since I started learning about food. Italians love food, and eating is an event. This was evident shortly after we arrived in Venice.

After our gondola ride and water taxi ride, we checked into our hotel and headed right down for dinner. We sat with a couple new friends, and ordered up a bottle of red wine. It was a bit sweet for me, but we all liked it, and it paired pretty well with the event to come.

Of course there was bread on the table, and a little olive oil, salt and pepper were all that were needed to make it a course in itself. Soon, however, came the “appetizer.” I use quotes because I’m not sure what the actual course was called–there are so many different classical menus that call different courses by different names. I also use quotes because our “appetizer” was a significant portion of traditional lasagna. It was easily 3 inches squared, and a couple inches tall. It was wonderful. Shan doesn’t generally like lasagna and she ate hers right up. The marinara sauce was sweet, bold, just the slightest bit spicy. It was full of seasoned ground beef and enough cheese to top a pizza with. And this was the appetizer.

The next course was a fresh green salad with several toppings and olive oil and vinegar for dressing. Not much compared to the cinder block of lasagna, but it was a good buffer between the “appetizer” and the main course.

After salad, we were presented with slices of delicious roasted pork loin served with potatoes roasted with rosemary and oil.

Finally, we were served cake and strong coffee for a sweet finish.

The next morning, after sightseeing and a boat ride to Burano, we sat down for a lunch that our tour guide had been praising for days. The local seafood was incredible. If you don’t like seafood, you need to eat fresher seafood, because this stuff was outstanding. We started with crusty bread smeared with a local delicacy of flaked fish and fresh lemon juice. It was like the best tuna salad sandwich ever.

This was followed in quick succession by a risotto with fish and shellfish in a white sauce, another green salad as well as a delicious caprese salad with heirloom tomatoes and fresh mozzarella, more pasta, more lasagna, broiled fresh fillets of fish, and endless platters of fried calamari and prawns.

The fish was mild, flaky, tender, and delicately sweet. I regret not asking what kind it was, but I doubt it would be the same in the States even if I could find it. I’ve no doubt it was caught and brought directly to the restaurant…maybe even alive. Everything was succulent, salty, and tasted like the ocean.

After all of this, we were presented with a variety of pastries and cookies for dessert, many of which featured almonds, along with more strong coffee (and tea for Shan). This time, our coffee even came with little bottles of amaretto to settle us after lunch.

It was almost laughable to think of walking around Burano after this lunch, but, surprisingly, we were able to walk easily. The breeze and the smell of the ocean finished our lunch perfectly. And don’t forget our cannoli by the water.

After a meal like that, a little dodo (our tour guide’s term for a nap – also French slang) on the way to Florence was just the thing.

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Lucerne (I prefer the American spelling, because I feel like it might annoy Shan), Switzerland was our first 1-night stay featuring an included dinner. I must confess, I don’t know much about Swiss cuisine beyond chocolate and cheese.

After consulting some culinary resources (not Wikipedia…I swear) I’m actually a little disappointed in our Swiss dinner. Switzerland is actually known for a few dishes.

One, rosti, is a potato favorite that Shan and I have prepared at home several times, without knowing the origin. It’s like a big hash brown potato casserole with cheese and goodness in it. We got mashed potatoes. Another, Zurcher Geschnetzeltes–it’s from the German region of Switzerland…can you tell?–is a thin-sliced tender veal dish with mushrooms and cream sauce. We got beef stroganoff.

I’m not complaining. Our meal was delicious. I just loved trying the traditional regional foods in England and France so much. I guess I was happier not knowing about the Swiss favorites that I missed out on. Damn you Wikipedia…I mean trusted culinary reference materials that are not a website.

Anyway, we had a delicious vegetable soup to start our meal, served with the biggest silver spoon I’ve ever seen. It was rich, well seasoned, and got our appetites in gear quite nicely. Then we were presented with the stroganoff. It was not, as many Americans think of it, ground beef in a cream gravy. It was, in fact, a more traditional stroganoff of sliced, stewed beef in a rich, dark brown demi-glace that was earthy and quite tasty. The stroganoff was served with piped mashed potatoes and a nice vegetable blend. It hit the spot, but was not quite enough food.

Luckily, we had dessert coming. It turned out to be a cute little ice cream dish, apparently hand-crafted for artful presentation to the tourists. It was refreshing, but only made us long for the Italian gelato that was to come.

All in all it was a nice meal, presented in a friendly, comfortable hall. I imagine the weary travelers of days gone by would have appreciated the comfort of a hot, hearty meal at the foot of the alps.

The next morning, we had a pretty simple buffet breakfast at the hotel, and then struck out on our own. After walking a bit, and heading back to the bus, we decided a little caffeine was in order. We stopped into Starbucks (I know…lame, but we didn’t have time to figure anything out) and ordered up some drinks. Just so you all know, Starbucks is expensive in Europe. A small Chai Latte and a small brewed coffee ran us about 8 Swiss Francs, which is like 10 bucks. Ridiculous. But man, did we need that jolt. Next stop…Venice!

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Europe Day 1&2Day 3Day 4Day 5Day 6, Day 7

For our morning in Venice, the whole group took a short walking tour through the streets and into a glass-blowing factory. As you may know, Venice is famous for its murano glass. First we watched this cutie (and veteran glass blower) create a simple masterpiece.

Then we got a little sales pitch and looked around the store awhile. The stuff is impressive, no doubt, but way beyond anything we wanted to spend. Instead, we left the glass factory and headed for St Mark’s Square where we decided to split ways for a bit.

Mike wanted to ascend St Mark’s clock tower and I wanted to shop. Besides, it cost money and it wasn’t worth it for both us to go up.

He took lots of pictures so I could imagine the view, and while he did that I had myself some lemon and strawberry gelato and bought a fun necklace. Then it was time to leave for the optional tour we had paid for. It was a ride to the island of Burano where we explored and had a delicious billion-course lunch.

On the water taxi to the island.

Burano is a really cool and really colorful island. We didn’t have a lot of time to explore, but enough to buy Mike’s mom a scarf made of the lace the island is famous for (his mom cat-sat the whole time we were gone – bless her!) and snap lots of pictures.

I’m on my tip toes and I still barely reach his shoulders.

After seeing what there was to see, we bought ourselves a couple cannoli (completely unnecessary after our billion courses, but it’s cannoli!) and sat under a tree to wait for departure time.

We rode the water taxi back to the bus and departed for Florence. We rolled into town in the early evening and basically went straight to dinner (this meal was included). All of our real Florence experience happened the next day.

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