Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Montepulciano

My very generous friend with a car offered to take me wherever I wanted to go in Italy in the limited time I have left in order to help me finish my Italy bucket list.  While there are TONS of beautiful towns and whole regions I haven't visited, I really wanted to see a bit more of Tuscany since it's so close and densely packed with picturesque hill towns.  We ended up making a day of it - drving to Montepulciano for lunch, shopping, wine tasting and just generally touristing.  

The day was lovely and we seemed to have magical timing - got a great parking spot, the perfect lunch table overlooking the valley, and missing out on the big tourist crowds.  I'd certainly recommend a visit if you have a car. Otherwise it's a bit challenging to reach.











Finally, two local crafsmen I thought deserved a shoutout. Both were kind enough to let us watch them work and explained a bit about the artistic processes they use - in case the pictures aren't super clear one makes wood collages, the other makes mosaics. A piece from either artist would be a great souvenir but I passed up the chance so I could spend all that hard earned money on gelato - priorities! 











Baths of Caracalla

Yikes! I'm falling behind when it comes to documenting all my adventures. Just a quick one this time with my Tuscan hill town and beach adventures saved for later.

A couple of weeks ago I went with a friend to see Carmen performed at the Baths of Caracalla.  It was a lovely setting, though I didn't have time to look around much since I arrived just minutes before the start.  And this was a great chance to see the Baths, which otherwise are kind of a second tier sight that takes some extra effort to visit.

As for the opera itself it was fun.  They did a modern take on the story, set in a Mexican border town in fact. While I enjoyed it I do tend to prefer the elaborate costumes and sets from traditional opera. But I did get this great shot to make all the DHS colleagues at the Embassy smile. (Isn't that sign in some way proprietary?)



(Also, please appreciate the stuffed figures who are supposed to be trying to climb the border wall.)


Another check off my to-do list in Rome. I'd highly recommend a visit if you get the chance. This summer they're also featuring Nabucco and Tosca.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Dog days of summer

These are, quite literally, the dog days for me. Not only is it incredibly hot but I've been dogsitting lately, which has me out and about all the time.

All those 6am walks have renewed my appreciation for my neighborhood (thanks housing board!) - one that will be hard to top again in my career. It's just so effortlessly beautiful (an Italian ideal) and incredibly livable (also very Italian). Why can't we do apartments this way back home? There are little coffee  shops every block or so, and cafes with covered tables on the sidewalk.  There are little details on every building - random sculpture, wrought-iron railings, functioning shutters, immaculate balconies. There are little courtyards with fountains for every building and streets lined with flowering trees. Friendly doormen and little old ladies. Gelato shops, fruit vendors, even a Vespa dealership. Sigh.

I really am going to miss it here.


Below : a photographic ode to my 'hood









And of course, the dog himself, pictured here with real milk delivery. See what I mean? My neighborhood is the best.



Sunday, July 2, 2017

Sweden

Ok, this is probably - almost definitely - my last international trip for this tour so enjoy!

There are a number of countries I thought I would visit while posted to Rome, but the reality of leave schedules, savings goals and simple travel fatigue made me cut back quite a bit.  This year I knew I wanted to go somewhere though - Spain, Portugal, Sweden, Iceland, Malta, Greece and a smattering of Eastern European countries were all in the 'maybe' box, just waiting for the right circumstances.  Obviously, Spain came through a few months ago and this month with less than a hundred days left at post,  Ryanair offered a flight to Stockholm for the price of a couple meals out in Rome and I just couldn't resist. Knowing my own tendency to put things off and pay the price I snatched up the flight and booked a micro hotel before I could change my mind and I'm so glad I did.*

Stockholm was colder (and rainier) than I like - and that was with my winter coat! - but I loved getting out in nature a bit and seeing something new.


I basically hit the standard tourist sites, starting in Gamla Stan (the old city), touring three different museums - the Nobel museum (informative), the Vasa museum (about an old ship - meh) and the ABBA museum (surprisingly fun).  All in all I'd recommend skipping Vasa - if you're headed to Norway they have a similar museum with more, and more interactive, exhibits - but suggest the other two.  If I had more time I would have checked out Nordiska - about Nordic culture - and the Photography museum. They also have some open-air "living museums" if it's a nice day.  I really, really had my heart set on a boat trip in the archipelago - thank goodness I didn't book a sailing trip as intended since it was freezing and rainy off and on all weekend - but in the end I found a great 2.5 hour archipelago tour that fit the bill. Had I been in town another full day I would have signed up for the full day tour but this was just right given my timeline. 

Gamla Stan! The Nobel museum is just off to the right in this shot.

Vasa museum - mostly just this one boat with a smattering of exhibits on the boat and its passengers. You aren't allowed to go inside the Vasa unfortunately.

The Vasa was a ship that capsized on it's maiden voyage and was salvaged in the 1960s.

Here's the Nordiska museum on the island if Djurgarden - highly recommend a whole day there, especially if the weather cooperates.

The ABBA museum is just up the street. In fact all three museums are an easy stroll from each other and the below amusement park.

One site I didn't make time for was this adorable amusement park. It didn't sound so fun for a solo traveller but especially if you have kids it seems worth a shot.

The boat tour in a rare moment of sunshine.

There's no better way to see Stockholm and get a feel for the culture than to get out on the water.

I also just enjoyed getting lost in the quieter streets - Stockholm was remarkably empty compared to Rome, especially considering that the tourist season here must be so short.

Finally, if you visit, check out the neighborhood of Ostermalm and its food market.  I sampled some local delicacies (elk, cloudberries, and reindeer) and purchased some chocolates for the ride home. Oh, and one last note about food - make sure to eat the cinnamon rolls/buns - they're a national specialty and available just about everywhere at any time.  It's a good thing for my waistline that I had to get back to work! A cinnamon roll every day might be a bit much even for a sweet tooth like mine.

Ciao Sweden, thanks for the hospitality!


*A note about being cheap in Europe.  First off, my micro hotel (I think it was just called Hotel Micro)  turned out to be more of a hostel. But unlike other hostels I've visited it was full of travellers of all ages and felt a lot more civilized. There were private rooms with key cards and shared (but clean) bathroom facilities. Honestly it was as comfortable as some of the very expensive places I've stayed in the past few years and put me close enough to walk to the attractions. Eating out in Sweden was very expensive so if you go it might be worth booking a place where you can make a few basic meals in the room.

As for Ryanair - I have a love/hate relationship with them - love the prices but hate everything else from the constant tricks to try to make you spend more (forgot to print your boarding pass? That'll be €50 euros!) to the fact that the advertised fare into Stockholm actually lands at an airport an hour and a half away.  In the end I still think I saved money but next time I will have to calculate out the added cost of transportation to and from these out of the way airports. For Rome's Ciampino, for instance, unless you leave yourself TONS of spare time to catch the bus from Termini you'll waste more than the cost of your flight on a taxi. On the Stockholm end I think the bus fare was 14 euro each way. So beware!




Bologna

Well, what have we all been up to since my last post? It feels like forever but probably just since I've been busy.

Immediately following my trip to Milan (in fact, during a five hour 'layover' on my way home) I stopped to see a city that's been on my list for awhile.

Recognize this?

I'll give you a hint - it isn't Pisa. ;) While one of these towers does in fact appear to be listing to one side this is actually the culinary mecca of Bologna, once known for the dozens of towers (maybe as many as 180) used by wealthy families to protect themselves from attack (only about 20 remain). I ended up really enjoying the town and I found it pleasantly 'undiscovered' compared with the rest of Italy. What a nice change of pace!

While there are some canals the city reminded me much more of Florence with the architectural style and slower pace.

I ended up leaving my bags at the train station in the luggage deposit - a fantastic deal for day trippers - at a cost of 4-5 euros, I can't quite remember. Then I followed around a walking tour from here: https://fulbrightyearitaly.com/2014/11/11/self-guided-walking-tour-bologna/

I toured the inside of this historic building, used as the city hall...

...and this church - the Basilica of San Petronio - notable for it's half-finished facade...


...then I made my way to the world's oldest university to see the famous surgical theater where they taught anatomy with cadavers. It's been rebuilt after being heavily damaged in World War II but it's still an impressive space.


Then I mostly just walked around - hoping to climb one of the towers, which I was disappointed to discover were closed. Oh well! Maybe next time.  In the meantime, if you want a quiet Italian city to explore without a few thousand of your closest tourist friends, this is the place. I hearby declare Bologna 'undiscovered Florence'.


I did find time before leaving town to have an excellent aperitivo and buy two traditional high quality Bolognese specialties - first, fresh pasta which managed the trip to Rome in excellent shape- 

And Balsamic vinegar - the real stuff from Modena.  It costs a mint but after two years of indoctination into Italian food culture I really couldn't resist. Saving this little vial to enjoy with my family in September. 


If you have a full day I'd recommend also checking out the Portico of San Luca - a 4km long portico leading to a basilica overlooking the city. I didn't have time but maybe when I come back some day!



Sunday, June 11, 2017

Milan (again)

If you're keeping track this should be my fourth trip to Milan so far this tour, and probably it will be my last (though you never know with TDYs).  I visited Expo, toured the Duomo and saw the Galleria, eaten aperitivos all over town, and had a great walking tour of all the fancy modern architecture.  This time I didn't do a lot of touristing but I made it a priority to at least hit the art museum.

The Pinacoteca di Brera is Milan's most famous art museum and it was really lovely. I saw works by Raphael (this time around I wasn't a huge fan), Modigliani, Picasso, Caravaggio and plenty of other artists whose works I was familiar with, even if I couldn't name them directly.  I'm getting familiar enough with their styles now that I even recognized the Caravaggio as one of his works from a room away. I guess that's how you know you're ready to PCS.

Some of my favorites were:


It looks SO MUCH like she's texting in this painting - and do you notice the painting on the wall?


Turns out the collection has this one too! The Kiss, by Hayez. Zoom in to see how amazingly real the fabric appears.


Severini - I think this was my favorite in the museum. I'm really starting to enjoy modern art. Must be the influence of all that modern architecture.


Reminds me of one of my favorite artists, Miguel Covarrubias


The Modigliani


Many of the works were on a truly massive scale and as they were originally commissioned for churches.  This also meant that the subjext matter here tended very heavily (except in the modern art section) to religious subject matter.


And of course, our old favorite, St. Sebastian. This time in Venice!