Foto Friday #52

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These are the rooftops of Cesky Krumlov, a captivating little medieval village in the Czech Republic. You enter through the arches of an ancient city wall to discover a maze of cobblestone streets, a meandering river, and one of the finest castle complexes in the world. The castle is uniquely surrounded by a moat filled with bears instead of water! Cesky Krumlov is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is easily loved by all who visit.

For Cee’s Fun Foto Challenge: Roofs

Beauty on the Rhine Day Five – Strasbourg

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I’d never been to France before our Rhine River cruise, and if Strasbourg is any indication, I believe I’ll need to go again!

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It was an early morning aboard the Viking Lofn. By 8:30, our shore excursion for the day was underway. In the heart of the Alsace region is Strasbourg, the largest port on the Upper Rhine. Because it sits on the border between Germany and France, Strasbourg is a cultural mix – a pleasant blend of old and new, beer and wine, cheese and chocolate. The border is in the middle of the river so in the photo below, the ship where I’m standing is in Germany and the other is in France.

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Our bus tour included a drive through the German Imperial District and the European Quarter, but what I found most interesting was the hundreds of stork nests we saw in the trees on our way to the historic district. Storks migrate here in the spring from as far away as Africa. Storks are said to bring good luck, fertility… and babies! Symbols of them are prevalent throughout the city.

The bus dropped us off in the enchanting neighborhood of Petite France, my favorite part of Strasbourg. Charming on a beautiful day were the scenic canals displaying the reflection of colorful, timber-framed houses and flower-boxed windows. In the Middle Ages this area was home to the tanners, millers and fishermen.

Over cobblestone streets and pretty little bridges, we crossed the Ill River which surrounds the old town and forms an island. The entire “island” is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and includes the Strasbourg Cathedral of Notre Dame, Rohan Palace and Museums, courtyards, squares, shopping and the popular Christmas market.

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Strasbourg’s soaring cathedral is the sixth-tallest church in the world and the highest surviving structure built entirely in the Middle Ages. It sits on the sight of an old Roman basilica destroyed by fire 100 years after it was built in 1176. Construction of the current cathedral began at the end of the 12th century.

The stunning pink sandstone makes it one of the most magnificent examples of Gothic architecture in the world, featuring a remarkable Rosette and stained-glass windows. The interior includes a suspended pipe organ, intricate carvings and an original astronomical clock built in 1842.

We went back to the ship after the walking tour and stayed for lunch (because lunch on the ship was ALWAYS so good). Viking provided shuttle bus services all afternoon long, so of course we went back to see more of amazing Strasbourg on our own.

We were treated to a “Taste of Germany” that evening… a hearty German buffet and rousing music; and as always, a nice assortment of wine and beer from the region. And for dessert – on this night, anyway – a rainbow!

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During and after dinner, the Viking Lofn navigated through the Grand Canal d’Alsace, a system of locks necessary to ensure ship safety on the river. There is a total of 12 locks on the Rhine upstream from Basel. We went through most of them at night, but not this one. I found it an interesting process to watch. Because river cruise ships utilize as much square footage as possible, there is about a one foot gap between the width of the lock and most ships. I could reach out and touch the cold, damp lock walls from the balcony of our room.

Watching the progression of the sunset was fascinating as well! I had worried that sunsets on a river cruise would not compare in beauty to those on an ocean cruise. Fortunately, I was wrong!

Coming up, the final post! Beauty on the Rhine Conclusion – Breisach, Colmar, and the Black Forest.

Beauty on the Rhine Day Four – Heidelberg & Speyer

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A ruined castle intrigues me. History can tell us when it was built, how it was used, and by what means it was destroyed, but its mysteries will never  be fully known. What stories lie buried in the rubble? What scandal? What heartbreak? My imagination was working overtime as I regarded the red sandstone ruins of Heidelberg Castle.

We had a leisurely morning on day four of our Rhine River cruise, but by 10:00 AM we were traveling by bus along the Neckar River to romantic Heidelberg… and to the skeleton of Heidelberg Castle! The amazing thing about Heidelberg is this: the view of the castle from the city is as breathtaking as the city is from the castle! American forces thought the city was so beautiful they chose not to bomb it during WWII.

Our Viking tour guide was a student of European History at Heidelberg University, so he was knowledgeable and passionate about our tour. We started at the castle, originally built in the early 13th century as home to the Palatinate monarchy. By 1294, it had expanded into two castles. A lightning bolt destroyed the upper castle in 1537, while the remaining structure was later damaged by wars and fires. In 1764, another lightning bolt left the castle permanently uninhabitable. For me, the castle was a highlight of the trip!

The City of Heidelberg was totally rebuilt during the 18th century after the French troops of Louis XIV left it in ruin. The result is an interesting combination of baroque buildings and half-timbered houses mixed together with the towering turrets of Heidelberg University, Germany’s oldest university.

In the heart of Old Town is Market Square, the Church of the Holy Spirit, the Friedrich Memorial, the Palatinate Museum, the Statue of Madonna at Kornmarkt and the Old Bridge, along with shops, bars and restaurants. Our serious, scholarly, college-student-tour-guide had a grin on his face as we passed a well-known pub. Turns out he is also a DJ and bartender there. Oh, the versatile lives of college kids!

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We spent our free time visiting the famous Kathe Wohlfahrt Christmas Store and enjoying a handcrafted beer at Vetter’s brewery – popular with university students and tourists alike. We walked across the Old Bridge for a dramatic view of the castle before heading back to the bus.

At 2:00 PM, our ship arrived in Speyer, one of the oldest towns in Germany, where we were free to explore on our own.

Attractions include a 12th– century subterranean bath, a 13th-century tower gate, a Baroque Trinity Church, and a Romanesque imperial cathedral. The Speyer Cathedral is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It contains the remains of eight Holy Roman Emperors, German kings and empresses. The town was once a major Celtic hub, but now has approximately 50,000 inhabitants.

Onboard the Lofn, a relaxing dinner and entertainment rounded out our day. Only two more left!  Next up: Beauty on the Rhine Day Five: Strasbourg, France.

Beauty on the Rhine Day Three – Marksburg Castle, Scenic Sailing and Rudesheim

Our third day of sailing the Rhine was one of my favorites! What’s not to love about Marksburg Castle, an afternoon on the scenic Middle Rhine and a fun night in Rudesheim?

DSC05057 (2)We spent the morning at Marksburg, the only castle in the Rhine River Valley that was never in some way destroyed. Because it was built with such strong fortification in 1117, this stately structure has been watching over the region as a fortress since the 13th century. It has survived many ancient conquests, the 30 Years War, Louis XIV’s campaigns, Napoleon’s rule, two world wars and decades of erosion; yet firmly it stands 550-feet over the tiny town of Braubach.

DSC04878 (2)We seemed to have stepped back in time as we toured the mighty castle! Although it was used for protection rather than a royal residence, it had typical rooms such as a kitchen, a dining hall and bedchambers, plus a chapel, an armory, a wine cellar and battlements with slots built-in for bow and arrows. It also had a torture chamber with gruesome instruments from the middle-ages on display.

One of the most impressive things about the castle is the incredible view! Its lofty perch is the reason it withstood attack – you can see for miles and miles in all directions.

The Rhine River at its best is the stretch through the heart of Germany known as the “UNESCO World Heritage Site of the Middle Rhine”. We spent a beautiful, sunny afternoon on the deck of the Viking Lofn watching castles, forests, vineyards and storybook villages come and go. A truly remarkable experience!

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DSC04831By 5:00 PM we had docked in Rudesheim, a charming river-side town with a medieval feel in Germany’s Rheingau wine region. We spent the evening in town instead of onboard, and I’m so glad we did. Locals and tourists alike flock to the Drosselgasse, a narrow cobblestone street lined with shops, wine bars and taverns. Our optional tour group enjoyed a festive full-course dinner served with unlimited local wine and lively oom-pah-pah music. There was singing and dancing and a hearty “Prost” (Cheers) all around!

We cast-off at midnight, leaving Rudesheim for Mannheim where we would take a bus to Heidelberg and Speyer the following day – so stay tuned! Beauty on the Rhine Day Four is coming up next!

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Beauty on the Rhine Day Two – Cologne

DSC04625 (3)We were busy, busy, busy in Cologne – the largest city on the Rhine! The second day of our river cruise started shortly after breakfast which was always delicious, by the way.  (My favorite: made-to-order omelets, home-made yogurt and fresh fruit!) It was a gorgeous morning for our walking tour, the highlight of which was Cologne’s magnificent 14th-century Gothic cathedral, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. With twin spires and beautiful stained-glass windows, this impressive church received little damage from Allied bombs during WWII while the rest of the city was hit hard.

The cathedral has a rather dark outward appearance, but the interior is welcoming and is laid out in the shape of a Latin Cross. Two aisles on either side help support one of the highest vaulted ceilings in the world. At the end of the gigantic naïve is a shrine to the Three Wise Men whose relics were brought to the city in 1164. The cathedral is Germany’s most visited landmark.

After the cathedral tour we continued our walk, learning about the city’s Roman heritage and the ancient ruins scattered throughout. The Old Town area was painstakingly rebuilt after the war and is now quite charming with rustic alleys, famous pubs, museums, fountains, monuments and boutiques filled with chocolate and yes – cologne!

DSC04687 (2)DSC04671 (2)DSC04717 (3)DSC04682 (2)Cologne City Hall is known by art historians all over the world for its Renaissance facade built by Wilhelm Vernikken, but most tourists know it as the place where a grotesque wooden face sticks out its tongue when the tower clock strikes the hour.

On our way back to the ship for lunch, we crossed the Hohenzollern Bridge where tradition prompts couples to attach padlocks to the railing and then throw the key into the Rhine River. The “love locks” ritual is supposed to ensure their love will last forever. Isn’t that sweet?

DSC04719 (2)DSC04709 (2)DSC04712 (2)DSC04728 (2)After a quick lunch on the ship (which had a perfect docking location) we were off for our afternoon excursion to the Bruhl UNESCO Palaces. We toured Augustusburg Castle and Falkenlust Hunting Lodge, both lavish 18th-century residences which were extravagantly decorated and beautifully landscaped.  Having already seen several of Europe’s finest castles, we were only mildly impressed.

DSC04764 (2)We got back to the ship with just enough time to freshen up before our evening out in “Beer City”. We wanted to experience the Brauhaus culture and sample the Kolsch – a light, crisp beer brewed only in Cologne. Our fun Viking guide led us to three different brewhouses where we sipped Kolsch poured fresh from the barrel into 7-ounce glasses, small enough to finish the beer while it was still cold. Of course, the moment the glass was empty, it was quickly refilled unless you placed a coaster on top of your glass to signify you’d had enough.

We had traditional German food for dinner at Brauhaus zur Malzmuhle, popular in the Kolsch culture since 1858. It was easy to have a good time that night in Old Town… not only was it full of happy beer drinkers, but there was a wine festival going on as well! It was definitely Party City!

We cast-off from Cologne around 10:30 PM, shortly after our beer group returned to the ship. The stunning view of the city as we sailed up the Rhine – its churches and bridges drenched in night lights – is one of my favorite memories of the trip.

DSC04796 (2)IMG_3360 (2)Next post: Beauty on the Rhine Day Three – Marksburg Castle, Scenic Sailing and Rudesheim

Beauty on the Rhine – Day One

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The Viking Lofn cast-off at 11:30 PM, leaving Amsterdam for our first port in Kinderdijk, home to 19 remarkable windmills built around 1738. We arrived in Kinderdijk at 10:00 AM and set out to explore these technological marvels which were declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997.

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The windmills were originally erected here to drain the wetlands which sit below sea level and have been prone to flooding since the 13th century. A great flood in 1421 is the source of the fairy tale “The Cat and the Cradle”. Legend has it that a wooden cradle washed ashore here containing a cat sitting on top of a baby to keep them both from falling out. The name Kinderdijk means “children’s dike” in Dutch.

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Today, pumping stations run by diesel fuel are used for pumping water in low-lying areas, but the windmills are kept in working order for backup and for tourism. The windmills at Kinderdijk were completely operational during World War II when fuel was too scarce to be used in the stations.

Our tour took us through the windmill workshop where a guide explained the details of their operation and maintenance. We also went inside a working windmill – all the way to the top – to see up close not only the mechanics, but the living quarters of the family who keeps it running. A stop at the windmill museum concluded our tour and we hiked back across the dike and returned to the ship.

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We left Kinderdijk at 12:30 PM through a network of canals which eventually led us to the Rhine River. The afternoon was spent meeting our 188 fellow passengers and familiarizing ourselves with the ship, including a required safety drill, lunch, an excursion briefing and a chance to visit the First Officer in the wheelhouse of this lovely Viking Longship. With numerous ocean cruises on mega ships under our belt, we found the simple elegance and quieter atmosphere here an invitation to kick back and relax, and the scenery made that easy to do!

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Our reward at the end of day one? An unforgettable sunset!

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Next up:  Beauty on the Rhine – Day Two – Cologne, Germany

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Impressions of Italy – Part Five

DSC02856 (4)When we left for our tour of Italy, I knew I’d fall in love with Venice, and I was sure I’d like Florence and Rome; but I was not prepared for Assisi! I knew nothing about the place before our trip, so the peaceful charm of it took me completely by surprise! Assisi is the most picturesque little town I’ve ever seen and comes in at number two on my list of favorite places in all of Italy!

Assisi is another UNESCO World Heritage Site, and I don’t just mean the Basilicas, or the castles, or the tombs – I mean the whole TOWN is a UNESCO site! It is the birthplace of St. Francis, Italy’s patron saint. I was not aware of just how important St. Francis is to the Catholic Church. According to our local expert, Maura, he is second only to Jesus. He renounced all his possessions and devoted his life to helping the needy and he founded the Franciscan Order. For centuries, his followers have come to Assisi to visit the Basilica where he is buried. It was over-cast and extremely windy the day we were here – perhaps St. Francis had something to say! I was listening and I could feel his presence!

St. Francis’s Basilica consists of two churches, one on top of the other, with a crypt below containing the sacred tomb of the Saint. Construction of the Basilica began immediately after St. Francis’ death in 1228 and was officially completed after the addition of the upper church in 1253. It is a massive structure with the upper church being a celebration of life and beauty while the lower portion reflects the simple spirit of St. Francis and his Franciscan order. Both sections have incredible frescoed walls.

We were cautious of cars as Maura lead us down the narrow streets to the Basilica of Santa Chiara (St. Clare). This church was built in the Romanesque style and is dedicated to (and contains the remains of) Saint Clare,  another figure who deeply influenced this hallowed town. She was a follower of Saint Francis and the founder of the Order of Poor Ladies.

The Piazza in front of this church offers sweeping views of the Umbrian Valley… no doubt lovely at all times, but especially gorgeous at sunset!

You don’t have to be religious to enjoy the beauty of this captivating town. If you’re tired of visiting churches, you can always explore the medieval castles that preside over the valley, or simply stroll the cobblestone streets and admire the soft pink and yellow hues of the best-preserved medieval town in the world!

Even though Assisi has its share of touristy souvenir shops and a few hotels (ours was the Windsor Savoia), they each conform to existing urban design, leaving the entire village virtually untouched by modern architecture. Every turn of the head is a picture begging to be taken—and I took plenty!

Note to self: don’t research every little place before traveling. A surprise or two along the way can be oh, so nice; like Assisi was!

IMG_0855 (3)Because of a late start the next morning, tour director Anna and bus driver Giorgio were concerned about the traffic; but we arrived in Sorrento with enough time to drop off those not going on to Positano, then we set out for the Amalfi coast. The Amalfi coast was another agenda item I specifically looked for when choosing our tour, so of course we took the drive down the coast which Globus gave us an opportunity to do.

am10The road between Sorrento and Positano follows the physical coastline of the Mediterranean Sea and has mountain walls on one side and sea cliffs on the other. It is very narrow and full of hairpin turns, so instead of our regular tour bus, we rode in passenger vans operated by drivers with experience on this stretch of the road. The challenging route made it difficult to stop along the way, but we were able to pull over at the Madonnina photo stop for breathtaking views of the coast.

The landscape here blends impressive engineering with the stunning natural terrain. Throw in some vineyards, lemon groves and vibrant blue water—and you have all the splendor of the Amalfi Coast!

Quaint and famous Positano is known for its terraced Mediterranean-style architecture, vertical staircases, and regional products like limoncello, painted pottery and lace. It’s a fun town to walk around in if you don’t mind an incline. We took a steep pedestrian-friendly street from the parking lot down to the beach, past unique little shops, restaurants, monuments and churches.

At the base of town is the Marina Grande beach which has unusually dark sand – a striking contrast to the deep blue water. Looking toward the mountain from the beach, the tiled dome of the Church of Santa Maria Assunta prominently stands against a backdrop of colorful houses clinging to the cliffs above the sea. Just amazing!

DSC03170 (2)DSC03164 (2)We left Positano for another nail-biting drive along the coast back to Sorrento. More about that in Part Six – Sorrento, Isle of Capri, Pompeii and conclusion. Arrivederci for now!

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Impressions of Italy – Part Four

IMG_E0565Venice is old and decaying, has major pollution problems, is prone to flooding and is crowded with tourists brought in on cruise ships that sail dangerously close to the banks, but I love it anyway! I love it because Venice is also a city of canals and bridges, palaces and cathedrals with little piazzas tucked in here and there simply for show. It is a unique place filled with history, captivating scenery, priceless art and impressive architecture; and it’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It sits on over 100 small islands in a lagoon in the Adriatic Sea. It has no streets—just a maze of canals filled with boats and barges and the sleek black gondolas that have become a symbol of the city.

DSC02446 (2)We arrived by boat, of course, and checked into our hotel, the SHG Hotel Salute Palace. It is located on a canal in a picturesque neighborhood where you can easily walk to many enjoyable sights. Our only problem here was not resisting the temptation to throw open the shutters and windows in our postage-stamp sized room for an unobscured view of the famous roof-tops of Venice. I suspect we let in a half-dozen mosquitoes. When I got warm in the middle of the night, I refused to kick off the covers for fear the mosquitoes would attack me while I slept!

The only way to get around in the city is by water or on foot, so on our first evening out in Venice, we traveled by water taxi along the Grand Canal to a chic Venetian restaurant for a fabulous dinner.

We walked back in the romantic atmosphere of Venice at night. It was an evening to remember… peaceful, luminous and a little chilly.

The next day, our tour included Piazza San Marco (St. Mark’s Square),

St. Mark’s Basilica,

the Gothic masterpiece known as Doge’s Palace,

and a glass blowing demonstration by a skilled Murano Glass artist. We opted to include a gondola ride because, seriously—why go to Venice and not experience that?

During our free time we had lunch at a lovely sidewalk café. To our credit, we did not get lost! We panicked briefly until we noticed that at each crossroads, painted or etched in stone was always an arrow pointing the way to St. Mark’s Square.

Another optional tour was a lagoon cruise from Venice to Burano Island. Burano is a cross between Cinque Terre, Venice and Pisa. It has brightly painted houses like Cinque Terre, but instead of being stacked on hillsides, they are built along canals like in Venice; and the ancient Church of San Martino has a leaning bell tower just like Pisa.

Lace-making is popular here, so the shops offer lace products like linens and clothes. We had dinner (my least favorite dinner of the trip) then sailed back to Venice as the sun was setting. When we got off the boat, the moon over the lagoon was pure magic!

Venice is a city like no other, and in case you hadn’t guessed, it was my favorite city on the tour. I’d like to go back for just a day and be the only one there; to hear the sounds that were muffled in the crowds. Surely, I’d hear water lapping at the foundation of centuries-old buildings, I’d hear the gulls and pigeons cry as they fly from piling posts to roof tops and back again, I’d hear classical music from Vivaldi and Puccini, and I’d hear the echo of fisherman, artists, famous Italians and common residents who – over the last two thousand years – once called this city “home”.

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Next up is Part Five in this series – Assisi, Positano and the Amalfi Coast. Arrivederci for now!

Impressions of Italy – Part One

Rome wasn’t built in a day, they say, and it can’t be seen in one either – but we did our best! Because of a lengthy flight delay, our first day in Rome consisted of a very late dinner and much-needed sleep. Our sightseeing had to be crammed into the next day, the second of a 13-day Globus tour. We started in Vatican City, an independent country inside the city boundaries of Rome, and the spiritual and physical seat of the Roman Catholic Church.

DSC00542 (3)Our local tour guide Marco was a wealth of knowledge. He guided us expertly through throngs of antiquity and splendor, not to mention crowds. The crowds were just something we had to accept; they were present everywhere we went! We toured the Vatican Museums, Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel (no photos allowed!), and St. Peter’s Square and Basilica.

We rode the bus from Vatican City to the Roman Forum for a close-up look at the Colosseum and Arch of Constantine. The scale and design of the Colosseum is impressive, but sadly the 50,000-seat structure was witness to many a bloody battle!

Some people think of the Eternal City as filthy and congested, and while it is that, Rome is also an enchanting place to admire the one-of-a-kind treasures it has to offer. We wanted to see as much as possible, so we stuck with Marco for the optional afternoon tour.

aWe had a few minutes of free time for lunch near the Trevi Fountain, so we chose quick Italian favorites: Pizza and Gelato! Then we turned our attention back to Trevi, the largest Baroque fountain in the city and one of the most famous fountains in the world. It is so huge it was impossible to photograph!

From the fountain, we walked passed ancient columns and on toward the church of Chiesa di Sant Ignazio di Loyola. The interior of this church includes a fresco by Andrea Pozzo, who cleverly painted the ceiling in 1685 depicting a fake dome, but actually it’s a flat canvas.

Not far from the church is the best-preserved temple in Rome: The Pantheon! Upon entering the doors, you find yourself in a huge, empty space that makes you feel small and insignificant –  but isn’t that how you’re supposed to feel in front of the Gods? The single source of natural light comes from the “eye”, a 9-meter open hole in the center of the dome. Almost two thousand years after it was built, the Pantheon’s dome is still the world’s largest unreinforced concrete dome.

We ended our afternoon in the lively surroundings of Navona Square. The most beautiful parts of Piazza Navona are its three fountains, designed during the papacy of Gregory XIII.

After we returned to our hotel, The Romanico Palace, we were on our own for the rest of the evening. The Spanish Steps were only a 20-minute walk, so we headed in that direction. As we passed the American Embassy, men in uniform yelled at me for taking a picture. Apparently, that’s a no-no! At the Spanish Steps (or Piazza di Spagna) I could take all the photos I wanted! With its characteristic butterfly plan, the famous steps are recognized the world over and are a popular place for people to gather. At the foot of the stairs is the Barcaccia Fountain, the work of Pietro Bernini and his son, Gian Lorenzo.

On the stroll back to the hotel, we were on the look-out for a place to eat dinner. We stopped at a lovely little restaurant, but it had no air-conditioning. It had been an un-seasonably warm day and we didn’t think we could bear the heat, so we left and settled for a sandwich and cold drink in the comfort of the hotel bar. Back in the room, our luggage still hadn’t arrived, so we washed our underwear in the sink and dried them by hand with the hotel-provided hair dryer. Good times!

The next morning, we were off to Pisa, home of astronomer Galileo Galilei. Fresh off the bus, Anna lead us through a jungle of alleys filled with assorted markets, gelato stands and cheap souvenirs.

DSC00922 (2) It was like arriving in another world when we emerged through the city gates onto the Piazza dei Miracoli (Square of Miracles), a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The (Leaning) Tower of Pisa, a cathedral and the baptistery, along with a cemetery and museums are all located within the square. The ornate 14th century tower was already tilting when it was completed in 1372.

We took photos and had lunch, then hopped back on the bus with Giorgio and headed to fabulous Florence – which is part two in this series. Arrivederci for now!

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