A (half) day in Bari, Italy

The port in Bari. You can see the Lungomare and walkable city wall above.

“Get in, get a meal, and get out.” Is what we heard about this port city, university town and Capital of the Apulia (or Puglia in English) region of Italy. For those who say Italy looks like a boot, this is the capital of the “heel” region. We were pleasantly surprised by Bari when we arrived and spent a half day exploring. The Adriatic waterfront area is beautiful, the weaving streets of the old city were jam packed with historic appeal while still being manageable in a short amount of time. Puglia was once a part of mankind’s first democracy as part of Magna Grecia (ancient Greece), and the region is seeping in history. Do spend the half day recovering from your travels by exploring this transit hub before spending quality time in the picturesque whitewashed mountain top villages, rolling countryside and seaside towns in the Puglia region.

Arrive into Bari and get settled into your accommodation. Bari, with a large train station for the trek West to East and also a large port offering many ferries on the Adriatic Sea, most tourists stop here as a point of transit onto other destinations. For us, we had international flights from the USA to Rome, and then took the train to Bari. From Bari we were renting a car and exploring the Puglia region and Matera in Basilicata. With all the travel we spent a night in Bari to calibrate to the timezone and get over some jetlag.

The two areas of Bari to explore in this half day are the Murat area, which is the modern and mostly shopping district and the old town, Bari Vecchia, which includes historical sights such as churches, a castle and the old city walls. 

Start your day by walking down the main pedestrian shopping street Via Sparano da Bari. Bari is the city where locals go to get their shopping done and the main pedestrian shopping street Via Sparano da Bari, offers many brands in case you forgot any items. They have Zara, H&M, and Sephora. Windowshop or pickup any forgotten items that you may need for your trip. Take a side track down Via Nicolò Putignani to look at the architecture on Teatro Petruzzelli (Corso Cavour, 12).

Making your way into the previously walled city or Bari Vecchia, the true highlight for me was walking the maze-like streets of the old town. Walk along the former walls of the city, Via Venezia, which overlooks the Adriatic Sea.  Do not miss the 11th century Basilica San Nicolas (Largo Abate Elia, 13). Some of the remains of St. Nick or the original Santa Claus are in the crypt, which makes this a pilgrimage destination for many Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Christians. The Bari Cathedral or Cathedral of San Sabino (Piazza dell’Odegitria) and Castello Normanno-Svevo (Via Pier l’Eremita, 25/b) originally built in 1132 are both worth a peek inside while exploring. Walk by the iconic pink Museo Teatro Margherita (Teatro Margherita, Piazza IV Novembre) which is situated on the waterfront.

 While we did not get a walking tour, there are many free (or on tip basis) walking tours of the city that may be worth your while to get an understanding of the history of the region. For those who are interested in art and have more time, the Pinacoteca Provinciale di Bari or Painting Gallery of Metropolitan City of Bari (Via Spalato, 19) provides a scenic respite from the hot sun.

Get some dinner at La Tana del Polpo (Strada Vallisa, 50), it has an iconic giant plastic octopus on the ceiling like spiderman. The local restaurant has great service, local wines and fabulous seafood. The great thing about this region is that it is large in agriculture and you can eat fresh local produce in all your meals.

 If interested in the region, here are some itineraries for Matera (in the neighboring Basilicata region), Locorotondo, and Martina Franca

A (half) day in…Locorotondo, Italy

The raised terraced gardens provide the support to the town of Locorotondo (“round place”), which seems to levitate above the flat countryside dappled with wild red and yellow flowers and trullis as you enter the area. Locorotondo, known nationally as one of the “Borghi più belli d’Italia” (one of the most beautiful villages), is a charming town that provides a wonderful site for a leisurely day in the Puglian sun.

Located in the Valle d’Itria (the Trulli Valley) or the ‘top of the heel’ of Italy, Locorotondo is conspicuously charming, with winding roads of white washed houses decorated with bright-red pots of geraniums and wisteria cascading over stone walls.The green and blue shutters provide a contrast to the white marbles and tanned buildings.

Start your day with a coffee from Caffe della Villa in the center of ‘Centro Storico’ and Piazza Vittorio Emanuele. See locals get their coffee while standing. 

The real joy of Locorotondo is leisurely wandering the streets. Take the afternoon exploring the alleyways in the center of town and take in the beautifully curated window boxes and terrace gardens. As a hilltop village, many of the streets offer panoramic vistas of the Trulli speckled countryside. Two such views are seen at gardens of Villa Comunale Giuseppe Garibaldi and also ironically named “Lungomare” (a road next to the sea..) on the adjacent Via Nardelli. 

Via C. Battisti offers one of the most beautiful (and photographed) views in the village

In the ‘Centro Storico’, don’t miss the chance to peek into three churches: Chiesa Madre di San Giorgio, Chiesa San Rocco and the Chiesa della Madonna della Greca. 

We had a lovely local menu of the day dinner at La Taverna del Du (Via Papatodero 3), which is tucked away in one of the side streets. The region is known for orecchiette, which was part of the pre-fix menu. Other fine dinner option are Bina Ristorante Di Puglia (via Dottor Recchia, 44-50) and U’Curdunn (Vía Dura 19) which were both recommended while we were traveling but we were unable to try. 

Cheers to a leisurely day in Locorotondo! 

If you are exploring the Southern region of Italy, check out my itineraries for the Martina Franca and Matera.

Featured

A weekend in Matera, Italy

‘Tragically beautiful’ Matera has gone from rags to riches over the past century.  Evacuated in the 1950’s for rampant poverty and disease; Matera was awarded the UNESCO World Heritage Site status in 1993 and 2019 as the European Cultural Capital. 

While other cliffside towns are built on top of the deep ravine, the houses and entire sassi is built into and complementary to the preexisting caves.  With hundreds of years of layers placed in one building it is hard to differentiate when different additions were added. 

Matera has been inhabited since the Paleolithic time. In ancient times, cave-dwelling (not to be confused with cavemen) settlers moved into the tofu rock caverns of the steep ravine. During the Neolithic Revolution these early dwellers learned to breed animals and eventually became herders and farmers, which they remained until the 20th century. Eventually more people moved in and the community of cave-like dwellings became known as the Sassi (Italian for “the stones”). You may recognize it as the backdrop for Jesus walking with the cross in Mel Gibson’s 2004 movie, The Passion of the Christ

Having never had a ‘golden era’ for art and culture, Matera’s development has never been preserved in a time period. History has not been destroyed to glorify ornate palaces and city buildings stuck in time when the city flourished (such as Florence during the Renaissance and Venice in the Middle Ages). Therefore each house, or one could even say the city as a whole, has been continuously developed in a way mirroring the continuous human development. 

In the 1940’s Carlos Levy, physician, painter and author was sent to exile in the south of Italy for anti-Fascist sentiments. Shocked by the rampant malaria and cholera he described the region as “a schoolboy’s idea of Dante’s Inferno” in a book about his year in exile. This propelled Matera into the public eye as Italy’s “la vergogna nazionale” (‘Shame of the Nation’). Levy’s book can be compared to Jacob Riis’ How the Other Half Lives: Studies among the Tenements of New York which propelled the United States to create social reform nearly a half century before. 

Accommodation: We stayed in a carefully renovated, beautiful cave hotel called Corte San Pietro. I would recommend this distinct experience. If you want to read about a few of the other unique accommodation experiences in the south of Italy I wrote about it here: A Trulli, a Cave, and a Masseria oh my!

Getting there: this is the hardest part. Matera was a part of a week-long vacation in the Puglia region of Italy. We chose to take a train to Bari (so that we didn’t have to drive from Rome) and then rent a car. Renting a car is the easiest way to get around this region of Italy. There is a regional train that services Matera from Bari and runs everyday except Sundays. 

I would recommend reading Carlos Levy’s book ‘Cristo si è fermato a Eboli’ or Christ Stopped at Eboli, about his year in exile in the Basilicata region of Italy. 

My friend, Jen, from World On a Whim, recommended a ten day vacation to the Puglia region and Matera. We spent two nights and two days in Matera, and we felt that was the perfect amount of time. 

Friday: 

Arrive into Matera. No amount of scrolling through photos prepared me for the utter awe that I felt when I arrived at the top of the sassi and was blasted with 180 degree falling views of the ancient ravine. Definitely take some time to let it sink in. In our case, we were in a car and that minute went on too long and we were quickly interrupted with honking from a car behind us! Nothing like modern traffic to bring you back to present. Get settled into your accommodation and get dinner in the sassi for your first night. 

Saturday:

Start your morning in the new town at no frills Caffè Schiuma di Rocco Luigi Schiuma (Via T. Stigliani, 92). Spend a little bit of time walking around the Civic Center of the new town of Matera. I am recommending this, because I personally think it is interesting to see the more modern developed sections as a comparison to the Sassi. 

The Sassi is best explored on foot. The whole city is walkable, so definitely pack good shoes because the incline and roads have been smothered over from so many pedestrians. I would recommend starting at Casa Noha (Recinto Cavone, 9) for a foundation of the history of Matera. They have multimedia displays, large video projections on the walls, and you move from different rooms to make the exhibit a little more interactive. Spend a few hours walking around the two Sasso Barisano and the Sassi Caveoso. Sassi Brisano is where all the shops and hotels are, whereas Sassi Caveoso is mostly caves. Briefly check out the Church of Saint Mary of Idris (Via Madonna dell’Idris). Make your way to Cathedral of Saint Mary ‘della Bruna’ and Saint Eustace in the Piazza Duomo. This cathedral is the highest point in Matera and is the middle point between the two Sassis.

In the early evening, get into your car and head to sunset at Asceterio di Sant’Agnese (Contrada Murgia Timone, 75100) or Belvedere di Murgia Timone. We plugged this address into the GPS, but had to park a little away in a parking lot. Make sure to leave to get settled before sunset and explore the green area and the isolated caves in the area. 

Your accommodation should be able to recommend some restaurants based on your preferences. We ate at Da Zero (Via Madonna delle Virtù, 13) and loved the pizza. I would recommend getting an evening glass of wine at Enoteca Dai Tosi (Via Bruno Buozzi, 12) in one of the cozy alcoves. To enter you take a steep set of stairs into a cavernous interior that was a former cistern for drinking water. 

Sunday:

Get a coffee and pastry at Caffè Vergnano 1882 (Via del Corso, 78) then ONLY if you are as big of a nerd as I am, I would recommend going to Museo di Palazzo Lanfranchi (Piazetta Pascoli 1). The Palazzo itself is intriguing architecturally speaking. Yet, I truly went just to see Carlos Levy’s moving large installation portraying the poverty in the 20th century that led to his book. 

The museum is located in Belvedere di Piazza Giovanni Pascoli (Piazzetta Pascoli) which offers a wonderful view of the Sassi from the new town and should not be missed. Again, spend your day walking around the Sassi. I went to the La Casa Grotta di Vico Solitario (Vico Solitario, 11), which I realize is the 3rd museum in two days but I truly wanted to see what it would actually feel like to live here back in the 20th century.

Get a cocktail at Area 8 (Via Casalnuovo, 15) this area, which encompasses Enoteca Dai Tosi, can be very lively at night with college students and it’s great for people watching. 

Cheers to a great weekend in Matera!

If you are exploring the Southern region of Italy, check out my itineraries for the Locorotondo and Martina Franca.

Thank you to my friends Jen and Allison for being my travel companions! Check out Jen’s blog at worldonawhim.com

A weekend in Charlottesville, VA

Charlottesville, VA is a quaint college town (actually a city) surrounded by rural Virginia. Considered the Gateway to the Shenandoah National Park, Charlottesville has a beautiful mountain backdrop and much of the city is centered around the flagship University of Virginia. Having historic roots in early colonial days, the area boasts home to the estates of Founding Fathers (and early American Presidents) James Monroe, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison. 2.5 hours south of Washington D.C, Charlottesville is a fun country getaway and as the slogan Virginia is for Lovers gives way, the people are warm and welcoming.  

Timing: Charlottesville is best visited in the Fall and Spring for the weather. Both in the spring and the fall are Foxfield Races, or steeple races which has become a University of Virginia tradition. You can coordinate with the time of the race if you wish to attend, if you do not wish to attend, I would recommend avoiding this weekend since everything will be far more crowded.

Friday Night:

Arrive into Virginia and get settled into your accommodation. Charlottesville is easily accessible by train, but for many of the sites you do need a car to get around. I had a couple of friends who were either going to school at UVA or working at the hospital and were great hosts when I visited! Get some dinner and explore the Downtown Mall. Centered around Main street, the Downtown Mall is an 8 block pedestrian mall with a number of restaurants, bars and shops. 

Saturday: 

Before leaving grab some grub and coffee to go from Paradox Pastry (313 2nd St SE #103). Then start your morning off by visiting Thomas Jefferson’s plantation, Monticello (931 Thomas Jefferson Parkway, Charlottesville, VA). Ironically, the same man who wrote the Declaration of Independence (“All men are created equal”) was also a slave owner. The museum is not skittish of Jefferson’s controversial past. Historic Michie Tavern (683 Thomas Jefferson Pkwy) is a five minute drive from Monticello, for those who may be interested in a glass of wine.  Fun fact: the current Nickel depicts Monticello on the back of it. 

Both James Monroe’s Highland (2050 James Monroe Pkwy) and James Madison’s Montpelier house museums are local, too. If you have a preference as to which early president’s home you are most interested in! Maybe I should give my home a name and I will become a president!

After getting your fix of history, get your wine tasting on. My favorite vineyard is Pippin Hill Farm and Vineyard (1616, 5022 Plank Rd, North Garden, VA 22959). It is great to sit outside and enjoy wine tasting with a few snacks. If you want to continue, I would recommend Blenheim Vineyards (31 Blenheim Farm, Charlottesville, VA 22902). For those who wish to pack a sandwich for picnic at the vineyards, Ivy Provisions (2206 Ivy Rd) is an upscale deli offering many options. 

Come back to town and refresh before going out to dinner at the Ivy Inn Restaurant (2244 Old Ivy Rd), The restaurant serves elevated American food in a charming 19th century home, and I recommend sitting on the patio. The Belmont Neighborhood of Charlottesville also offers many culinary delights. Local (824 Hinton Ave) is another favorite restaurant where you can get great mac and cheese and malbec! You can get a slop bucket from Belmont BBQ (816 Hinton Ave) or Mas (904 Monticello Rd) for some great tapas.

Sunday:

For those who want to get outdoors, grab a coffee from Mudhouse Coffee or Shenandoah Joe Ivy before heading to Humpback Rocks Hike (Milepost 5.8 Blue Ridge Parkway, Lyndhurst, VA 22952). This hike on the Blue Ridge Mountains offers splendid views and can be really magnificent in the Fall. 


After returning to Charlottesville, get some well-deserved New York style bagels at Bodo Bagels (505 Preston Ave). Reserve a guided historical tour of the University of Virginia (sign up here). The University was founded in 1819 by Thomas Jefferson, and the original Board of Visitors included Jefferson, James Monroe (who was the sitting President at the time) and James Madison. Do not miss the iconic and Jefferson designed Rotunda. Head back to your accommodation and off back home.

Cheers to a relaxing weekend getaway in Charlottesville, VA!

A weekend in St. Augustine, FL

Palm trees and sunset in St. Augustine.

St. Augustine, the oldest European settlement in the United States, was founded by the Spanish explorer Pedro Menendez de Aviles in 1565. It was originally called La Florida (“Land of Flowers”) by Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de Leon, who claimed the land in the name of Spain on March 27, 1513. The Land of Flowers still seems to fit this beautiful old area of Florida.

Growing up in America’s northeastern seaboard, I recall someone jokingly referring to Florida as “a sunny place for shady people”and I avoided the state for other southern destinations such as New Orleans, Savannah or Charleston, with rich culture and history and comparably warm climates. Yet, St. Augustine, Florida has been on my American bucket list for a number of years and now I finally got to see it. It was worth the wait as I found the city to be charming, historic, full of good restaurants and genuinely friendly, welcoming people.  Here is a brief weekend itinerary for anyone interested in visiting.

When to go: 

Living in New York City, I would highly recommend going during our cold months (January, February, or March) when you want to get out. The summers in Florida are too hot and humid for me. So anytime from December-March is ideal.  I had the luck of visiting during a festival called “Lincolnville Porchfest” which is a grassroots neighborhood festival featuring local artists at different porches in the Lincolnville section of St. Augustine over President’s Day weekend.

Friday:

Get settled into your accommodations and go out for dinner either at one of the many seafood places along Avenida Menendez with views of the Matanzas River, or go over the Bridge of Lions and try one of the popular restaurants on A1A Beach Boulevard. Having just arrived in St. Augustine, I chose Sunset Grille, arriving at the peak of Friday Night Happy Hour.  I admit that I chose the Sunset Grille based solely on the name and the proximity to St. Augustine Beach, which is across the street. Unfortunately, there are no ocean views due to tall buildings and a berm being in the way. While the Sunset Grille had no romantic sunset views, it had a really lively Happy Hour attended by friendly, ebullient locals who were celebrating the end of the work week and the beginning of the weekend. In sum, while the food was okay, and there are no sunset views, the Sunset Grille is a fun place to kick off the weekend.

Saturday:

Grab some fresh,local produce and rub elbows with the locals at the St. Augustine’s Farmers Market.

Drive over to the St. Augustine’s Amphitheater Farmer’s Market (1340C A1A S). Open Saturday 8:30-12:30pm.

Late morning: Window shopping Aviles St and St Georges St (both of which cater to tourism), check out the Cathedral, the main square, and the gardens at the LIghtner Museum.

Try to get a table outdoors and enjoy a healthy brunch at the Floridian Restaurant.

Afternoon: take a tour of Flagler College (74 King St, historical tours are offered at 10:00AM and 2:00PM and last about an hour).  This elegant college campus was formerly the Ponce De Leon Hotel, built in the late 1800s as a winter resort by Henry Morrison Flagler with the interior designed by Louis C. Tiffany. Flagler was an industrialist, railroad pioneer and oil magnate. The school store doubles as the ticket office and the college students who run the store also serve as the tour guides, so the school store/ticket office is closed from 10-11 AM and 2-3 PM while the tours are going on. Try to get tickets ahead of time because in high season they sell out. The engaging tour guides are very knowledgeable and humorous.

An artist at Lincolnville’s Porchfest.

We stayed at an airbnb in the historic Lincolnville neighborhood near downtown St. Augustine during porchfest, so we walked around Lincolnville and enjoyed the music and banter with the neighbors. Lincolnville is an historic black neighborhood where Martin Luther King, Jr., spoke and stayed over during the Civil Rights Movement.

Evening:

Rose on the rooftop of San Sebastian Winery after the end of a “long” day of window shopping.

Get a happy hour drink  at San Sebastian Winery (157 King St, Monday-Saturday, 10 AM – 6PM and Sunday, 11 AM – 6PM). San Sebastian Winery is in Henry Flagler’s East Coast Railway Building. They have complimentary tours and wine-tasting starting every 20 to 25 minutes. The highlight was making it to the rooftop bar that offers live music most nights.

The charming restaurant called Preserved (102 Bridge St) is housed in a renovated Victorian house. If possible try to get seating outside on the patio. They serve locally sourced ingredients at this southern restaurant.

Sunday

Brunch at Maple Street Biscuit Company or Blue Hen Cafe.

 Spend an hour checking out the beautiful Mission of Nombre de Dios (Saturday 9:00AM- 5:00PM, Sunday 12-4:00PM) and the great cross. The beautiful mission and its grounds present a nice place to enjoy a morning stroll.

A few blocks from the Mission of Nombre de Dios is the beautiful Magnolia Avenue. Definitely worth the two block hiatus from the Mission to drive, bike, or walk down.

Get a coffee fix from Crucial Coffee Cafe before heading to the Castillo de San Marcos National Monument (9:00 AM – 5:00 PM) They do cannon reenactments on the top level. Try to sit close to where the cannon, so you can hear the history lesson, but you may want to block your ears for a moment as the cannon is fired.

For Sunday night dinner, I highly recommend that you try the large Columbia Restaurant. Call ahead for reservations.  This old-time restaurant has been in the same family for over 100 years. The wait-staff, ambiance and food are phenomenal. I recommend the sangria, paella and the salad.  In my group, we ordered varied entrees, did some sharing and found the food to be consistently excellent.

If you are based on the east coast and are looking for a weekend getaway consider looking at my Barcelona, Cotswolds, Mexico City, or San Diego itineraries.

A leisurely day in…Martina Franca, Italy!

Walking around the center of town in Martina Franca. Take in the beautifully crumbling baroque facades.

Located in the Puglia region of Italy, at the top of the heel, Martina Franca is an ancient town known for its fine food, home-grown wine, textiles, soccer and opera music. The white sandstone buildings are tanned with age and rooftop crevices provide space for wildflowers to grow. The green and blue shutters provide a contrast to the white and tan marble  buildings. Where some see signs of decay and decadence, most tourists will enjoy the genuineness of Martina Franca. This beautiful town provides a wonderful site for a leisurely day in the Puglian sun. 

Start your morning at Bar Adua for a coffee and pastry. The family owned business has been around since 1936. If you have the chance, try capocollo, a kind of cured ham that is the pride of the town.

Walk along the alleyways in the center of town and take in the beautifully crumbling Baroque buildings. In the ‘Centro Storico’, don’t miss the Palazzo Ducale, Piazza XX Settembre, Piazza Maria Immacolata, and Basilica di San Martino, a church built in the 18th century in the Late Baroque style.

Afternoon:

Visit the I Pastini winery. Out in the rolling hills of the Valle d’Itria, I Pastini offers tours and wine tasting at reasonable prices and sells wine to take home or to be shipped. Take the tour and learn how the farming community has lived in Southern Italy for thousands of years, and how wine is made. This region is known for red-wine grapes called “Susumaniello,” which is one of the world’s rarest wine grapes. The vineyard uses the region’s iconic truli in its original capacity, as a farm shed.

Similar to the Italians, take a siesta before the evening. 

Take a passagiata, or evening stroll to Cafe Tripoli. Enjoy an ice cream, coffee, or pastry (or all three!). Cafe Tripoli is the oldest cafe in Martina Franca.  It is the most bustling, and is very popular with the locals, which is always reassuring to tourists. I visited during Easter week, and enjoyed a zeppole, fried dough Easter pastry that is filled with custard and topped with confections and jams. Get a seat outside to soak in the ambiance and watch the locals on their passagata.

End your evening wining and dining at Ristorante Torre di Angelucco. Angela the chef and owner will take pride in explaining the whole menu to tourists, and she will make recommendations based on each diner’s desires. This quaint place will not disappoint you! The wine was inexpensive and the food was fabulous and reasonably priced. All of the fish entrees are great, along with the seasonal local vegetables.

If you are exploring the Southern region of Italy, check out my itineraries for the Locorotondo and Matera.

A day in…Cambridge, MA!

The view of the Charles River (with the iconic Citgo sign in the background) from the MIT Sailing Pavilion.

Located just across the Charles River from Boston, Cambridge is easily accessible by public transit, with multiple stations on the MBTA’s red line and one station on the green line. As the home to Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (M.I.T.), Cambridge attracts many academics and hosts many high-tech companies.  It is the “City of Squares,” with cerebral Harvard Square, techie Kendall Square, yuppie Porter Square, eclectic Central Square, and trendy Inman Square. These are a few of the urban centers that encompass Cambridge’s bustling food and drink scene, not to mention small businesses, independent bookstores, and boutique shopping. Cambridge is a bastion of progressive politics and is very pedestrian and bicycle-friendly.  The city has become so popular, and the real estate so expensive, that it overflows into neighboring Somerville, and can be confusing at times when streets have the same names. Somerville offers a vibrant scene in its own Davis Square with restaurants and bars, live music, and independent movie houses. 

Morning: 

Breakfast: You may want to start your morning off with a quick stopover in Central Square. The area is gentrifying, as startups move into the square, and it has some interesting shops and ethnic restaurants along with stately City Hall and Post Office buildings.  An option for morning coffee would be a coffee to-go from the 1369 Coffee House at 757 Mass Ave and then walk down Mass Ave toward Flour Bakery at 190 Mass Ave, to get some delicious French pastries. If you would rather sit down for brunch I would recommend Cafe Luna at 612 Mass Ave, or try Zoe’s, a classic fifties diner, located at 1105 Mass Ave,  which offers a great, reasonably priced brunch. 

(c) Boston Globe’s 2019 photo of the Captain America Great Dome!

After breakfast, take a tour of the MIT campus, which is famous for its brainy students and also its daring architecture. The iconic Great Dome is reminiscent of the Pantheon in Rome. It is known as “the center of the universe” by MIT students, and has been the site of many MIT student pranks over the years: http://hacks.mit.edu/Hacks/by_location/great_dome.html

Do not miss the audacious Stata Center building designed by world-renowned architect Frank Gehry and located at 32 Vassar St.

Afternoon:

Continue your day along the north bank of the Charles River to Harvard’s campus. Keep in mind that Cambridge is a very walkable city, and also has ample public transit. For those who enjoy a morning run, I would say this is one of the best routes in the Boston/Cambridge area, as you can enjoy the views of the river, the bridges and the boat houses along the way.

Photo of the John Weeks Footbridge during the Head of the Charles Regatta. The bridge connects Cambridge to Allston. Annually in October, the Charles River hosts the Head of the Charles Regatta for rowing, the largest two-day regatta in the world.

Upon your arrival in Harvard Square, grab a hot chocolate from L.A. Burdick at 52 Brattle St. and window-shop the boutiques in Harvard Square. There are many independent bookstores but my favorite is the Harvard Book Store at 1256 Mass Ave. Directly behind it is the quaint, Grolier Poetry Book Shop. As you enter the Harvard campus, you may want to join in a tourist tradition of rubbing the left show of the statue of John Harvard.  Harvard offers free student-led tours  from the Harvard University Visitor Center, in the Smith Campus Center.  See website:  https://www.harvard.edu/on-campus/visit-harvard/tours.  You can do a self-guided tour in which case you should buy a Harvard tour booklet for $3.00. Also available are privately-run guided tours with positive reviews: https://www.trademarktours.com/harvard-tour/

Evening:

For dinner there are many options. I will separate the restaurants by location. Mr. Bartley’s in Harvard Square is a casual and fun burger place. The walls are plastered with posters from college concerts and photos of celebrities who have dined there. The menu in this bustling restaurant is a political satire with such items as Brexit, Trump Tower, and Taxachusetts.  PARK Restaurant & Bar, Alden & Harlow, the Russell House Tavern, and Forage all provide good service and ambiance with a broad menu. Grendel’s Den is a student bar that offers half priced food for Happy Hour. (Massachusetts has some Puritanical laws that do not allow happy hour prices on alcohol.)

Inman Square and Kendall Square offer a variety of restaurants with good vibes and great cocktails. Inman Square has a Tiki-themed BBQ place, Highland Fried (1271 Cambridge St) or if you are craving upscale Mediterranean, Oleana (134 Hampshire St) is great!  To cap off the night with a sweet treat, I recommend going to Christina’s (1255 Cambridge St) for an ice cream and an evening stroll.  A personal favorite is the burlesque-themed tapas restaurant, Cuchi Cuchi, in Kendall Square.

Thank you to: Eli, Olga, Hannah and Chris for all your great suggestions. Especially Olga for taste testing our way through Cambridge starting with the bread at Bertucci’s back in 2005.

A day in…Crown Heights, BK

Crown Heights hosts the annual Labor Day Carnival celebrating Caribbean culture. I would recommend going during the day, because the evening can often get rowdy. Above: a fiery female dressed in the traditional Carribean Day clothing.

The neighborhood that made national news during the three-day racially charged Crown Heights Riot in 1991 is undergoing gentrification.  Historically, Crown Heights has been the home to a large population of Jewish residents, and the headquarters of the Lubavitch movement is located on Eastern Parkway.  Crown Heights also has a large population of African Americans and people from the West Indies, and it hosts the annual Labor Day Carnival celebrating Caribbean culture. 

The area is forever evolving and is becoming one of the hippest neighborhoods in Brooklyn. With gentrification, Crown Heights has seen much change over the last decade, including a thriving foodie scene on Franklin Avenue.  However, Crown Heights still has great spots that showcase its roots as a split community of African- and Carribean-American and Jewish cultures. 

If you like exploring different neighborhoods in NYC, check out my day itinerary in Red Hook.

Without further adieu here is your one day tour of Crown Heights: 

The tree-lined Eastern Parkway, is a great location for biking, walking, or running.

Start your morning off with a bagel from Bagel Pub at 775 Franklin Avenue. Then grab a coffee from either Breukelen Coffee House at 764 Franklin Avenue or Little Zelda’s at 728 Franklin Avenue. 

Spend the early morning checking out the Hunterfly Road Historic District in Weeksville Heritage Center. Weeksville was one of the largest free black communities. Slavery was abolished in NYC in 1827 but not nationally until 1865, so this enclave became a safe haven for freed men and runaway slaves. It is one of the few historically preserved areas for the African-American community from that time period. 

Beautiful Brooklyn Museum at 200 Eastern Parkway.

Continue your tour by taking a leisurely stroll among the Cherry trees and through the Japanese Hill-and-Pond Garden within the Brooklyn Botanic Gardens at 990 Washington Avenue at the edge of Prospect Park.  You may also enjoy a visit to the nearby Brooklyn Museum. Both of these call for a paid admission.

For lunch, try the tacos and a Margarita from Gueros at 605 Prospect Place. They also have great lemonade! 

The area became the outpost for Brooklyn architects such as Cohn Brothers, Parfitt Brothers, and Montrose Morris who designed many mega-houses. Don’t be surprised to see Tzitzits (Jewish garment with white strings hanging down, reminding practitioners to follow the Commandments and not their eyes or heart) being worn in the neighborhood.

After Gueros, take a self-guided architectural tour through South Crown Heights. You can see turn-of-the-century brownstones along tree-lined boulevards. Most of the real beauties are on President St between New York St and Kingston St.

After some cultural and historic intake, peruse the Anyone Comics store before trying a cocktail and a slice of pie from the female-owned bar, Butter and Scotch.

Crown Heights has much to offer on the food scene. Based on what you are craving I would recommend: Barboncino at 781 Franklin Avenue for pizza, Chavela’s at 736 Franklin Avenue for good Mexican food and ambiance with its Spanish-tiled bar and día de los muertos decor, or colorful Glady’s at 788 Franklin Avenue for some delicious Jerk Chicken (and a nod to the Caribbean community that unfortunately gentrification is slowly displacing). If you are with a big group and just want to hang out for a while, Berg’n Foodcourt at 899 Bergen Street is a fun place which provides a food court with many options.

There are many bars to enjoy either a laid-back beer or a well-crafted cocktail. Franklin Park, Mayfields, The Crown Inn, Covenhoven, and King Thai all offer libations. 

If you are into music, consider the Murmrr Theatre located on the third floor of a synagogue at 17 Eastern Parkway.  It is a great and interesting locale for a concert, although I’m not sure everything is up to Code. The Way Station (a Dr. Who-themed nerd bar at 683 Washington Street) and Friends and Lovers at 641 Classon Avenue regularly offer live music and may be worth checking out.

Thank you to my (current or former) Crown Heights locals for all their suggestions on how to enjoy their neighborhood! Andrew, Lauren, Laura, Adam, Tricia and Chris!

A Mystical Two Days in Meteora, Greece

The sandstone columns topped with ornate monasteries provide a breathtaking backdrop to the sleepy town of Kalambaka and the neighboring village of Kastraki. I am sure the mountainous northern region of mainland Greece is not what you expect when thinking of a Greek getaway.

The majestic cliff-top monasteries of Meteora will awe you into feeling like you are the star of a Lord of the Rings movie. Two days in this UNESCO World Heritage Site provide a unique refuge from the hustle and bustle of Athens or island-hopping festivities. Each monastery provides centuries’ worth of history and an instagram-worthy photo-shoot. Meteora allows any tourist to admire nature and ponder the lives of the early inhabitants of this distinctive, stunning  location.

The rickety wooden ladders and pulleys were used for access to these locations and were only replaced when they broke (hope no one was on it!) You could not pay me any amount of money to try the ladders.

Meteora’s religious community dates back to a few solo hermitages in the early 11th century. The dilapidated, wooden hermitages were used until the 19th century. Eventually (mostly during the 14th and 15th century) numerous monks moved here and created the beautiful monasteries and a larger skete community devoted to the austere way of life.

Getting there: Kalambaka is a 4 hour drive or a 5 hour train ride (~30 euros) from Athens. I took the train and was able to walk to my accommodation a few blocks away. Please see the website to book trains here. I chose to make sure I did not have to switch trains, since I do not know the language and my understanding of the Greek alphabet is solely based on my college sorority days. Typically, I take a screenshot of the directions from my hotel in Athens to the train station, and then from the train station in Meteora to my local hotel, so that I know the directions once I depart the train, even if my phone has no service.

While I chose to hike up and then walk between the monasteries, I would only recommend this to those who consider themselves fit. You will do a reasonable amount of unshaded walking between the monasteries.

Tips: For my entire time in Meteora I chose to hike. While this is the norm for a good portion of the people in Meteora there are other transportation options for every type of traveller, including taxis, public busses, or chartered bus tours. Choose whichever suits your fitness level and travel style. I recommend packing sunprotection and an additional layer, both for respite from the sun, and also for entrance into the monasteries as guests are expected to cover their shoulders and legs. Women are not allowed entrance into some monasteries without a skirt. All of the monasteries have a three euros, cash only, entrance fee.

Timing: If you want to see all of the monasteries, I would recommend 1.5 days and 2 nights in Meteora, as the six monasteries have different days and hours that they are open. Otherwise, you could see some of the monasteries in one full day and night. I went during the summer, so I had some down-time after seeing all the monasteries and before sunset. Meteora was great in summer and I have heard good things about the fall foliage. This can easily be added to the beginning or end of a ten day itinerary in Greece.

Day 1: Sunset

Sunset at “Psaropetra Lookout”

Arrive in Meteora in the late afternoon, check into your hotel. Make it to “Psaropetra Lookout” for breathtaking panoramic sunsets on the mountain top. The location is clearly marked on maps, and your hotel can arrange for a taxi. Get a late dinner in Kalambaka before getting to bed in time for an early morning. Meteora is known for its religious pilgrimages and trekking tourism, so don’t be surprised to find at least one orthodox priest at every restaurant you go to. That being said there is not much in the way of vibrant nightlife. I wanted to experience the full village life and only went to tavernas (small Greek restaurants), all of which were inexpensive. The three taverna restaurants I recommend are: Taverna Paramithi (has live music), Taverna Gardenia (in Kastraki), and Archontariki Taverna. Enjoy eating in both Kastraki and Kalambaka once, just to compare the two villages.

Day 2: Hiking and Monasteries

Check on opening and closing times to determine which monasteries you are going to see on which days. I decided to make a loop of the monasteries that were open, but save two for the following day. I woke up early so I could arrive at the first monastery at opening time. Travelling from Kalambaka it was roughly a  3.4 mile (~5500 meter) hike to Moni Agias Triados (Holy Trinity) (open from 9:00 AM-5:00 PM, but closed on Thursdays.) Be prepared to climb up stone mountain stairs in order to get to the entrance. For any 007 fans, this monastery was featured in the 1981 James Bond film For your Eyes Only.

Our second event involved a 15 minute walk east along the main road (okay, it took us longer because we  stopped for picture-taking) to Moni Agias Stefanou (open hours 9:00AM-1:30 PM & 3:30 PM-5:30 PM, but closed on Mondays.) Beware of the break in the middle of the day. The entrance is a small bridge with a terrifying drop!

Our next trek involved 4 km walk (which took about an hour) to Moni Varlaam (open hours: 9:00 AM-4:00 PM, but closed on Fridays.) A visit to Moni Varlaam should be combined with a visit to Moni Megalou, which is fifteen minutes away.

Moni Megalou Meteorou, or “Grand Meteoron” (open hours: 9:00 AM -5:00 PM, but closed on Tuesdays) is the most impressive of the monasteries.  Founded in the 14th century, it became the richest monastery when the Serbian Emperor Symeon Uros donated all of his money and became a monk. One can walk back to town from here or ask an attendant for directions to the bus stop.

Evening: see Day 1 Sunset itinerary, and repeat with a different dinner location.

Day 3: Half day of hiking and monasteries

For Day-3, we did a reverse loop, what I call the “Kastraki loop,” as that was our starting point. Give yourself some time to hike a few of the sights near Kastraki, such as St. George Mantilas, the ruins of old cave dwellings, and St. Nicholas Bantovas, a still-functioning monastery.

View from a monks dormatory in Moni Agiou Nikolaou

We stopped at Moni Agiou Nikolaou (English: St. Nicholas; open hours: 9:00 AM-3:30 PM, but closed on Fridays) which is about 0.2 km from Kastraki village square.

Our last visit was to Moni Agias Varvaras Rousanou (open hours: 9:00 AM-5:45 PM, but closed on Wednesdays.) Near closing time, be alert for the call to vespers (evening prayer) made by a wooden talando.

If you are going at a relaxed pace, you can stay another night in Kalambaka. For those with a tighter schedule, I would recommend leaving in the late afternoon to your next destination.

For an easier visual here are the two hiking routes I created in numeric form.

“Kalambaka loop”, starts in Kalambaka:

  1. Moni Agias Triados (Holy Trinity) (open from 9:00 AM-5:00 PM, but closed on Thursdays.) This is roughly a  3.4 mile (~5500 meter) hike from Kalambaka town.
  2. Moni Agias Stefanou (open hours 9:00AM-1:30 PM & 3:30 PM-5:30 PM, but closed on Mondays.) This is 15 minutes east from Moni Agias Triados.
  3. Moni Agias Varvaras Rousanou (open hours: 9:00 AM-5:45 PM, but closed on Wednesdays.)
  4. Moni Varlaam (open hours: 9:00 AM-4:00 PM, but closed on Fridays.) A visit to Moni Varlaam should be combined with a visit to Moni Megalou, which is fifteen minutes away.
  5. Moni Megalou Meteorou, or “Grand Meteoron” (open hours: 9:00 AM -5:00 PM, but closed on Tuesdays), there is a hiking path to get here which is shaded. At the T, so to the left which will lead to the entrance.
  6. Moni Agiou Nikolaou (English: St. Nicholas; open hours: 9:00 AM-3:30 PM, but closed on Fridays) which is about 0.2 km from Kastraki village square.

“Kastraki loop,” starts in Kastraki:

  1. Moni Agiou Nikolaou (English: St. Nicholas; open hours: 9:00 AM-3:30 PM, but closed on Fridays) which is about 0.2 km from Kastraki village square.
  2. Moni Megalou Meteorou, or “Grand Meteoron” (open hours: 9:00 AM -5:00 PM, but closed on Tuesdays), there is a hiking path to get here which is shaded. At the T, go to the left which will lead to the entrance. This is a less travelled hiking area but the path is clearly demarcated.
  3. Moni Varlaam (open hours: 9:00 AM-4:00 PM, but closed on Fridays.) A visit to Moni Varlaam should be combined with a visit to Moni Megalou, which is fifteen minutes away.
  4. Moni Agias Varvaras Rousanou (open hours: 9:00 AM-5:45 PM, but closed on Wednesdays.) Near closing time, be alert for the call to vespers (evening prayer) made by a wooden talando.
  5. Moni Agias Stefanou (open hours 9:00AM-1:30 PM & 3:30 PM-5:30 PM, but closed on Mondays.) This is 15 minutes east from Agias Triados, so you will pass Agias Triados Agias Stefanou then backtrack to Agias Triados.
  6. Moni Agias Triados (Holy Trinity) (open from 9:00 AM-5:00 PM, but closed on Thursdays.) This is then a downhill walk back to Kalambaka town center, which you can either walk back to Kastraki or stay here.


Ten Days in Italy: Rome, Florence and Venice

Imagine a burnt-orange sunset over the Tuscan capital of Florence, a romantic, moonlit glide in a gondola along the winding canals of Venice, or the buzzing Vespa traffic past three thousand years of urban development in Rome. Italy offers adventures for any type of traveller with any company: whether it be a honeymoon, a group tour, or a family vacation. With a  gelato shop at the corner of every fountain laden piazza, there is no wonder Italy was the setting for the movie “La Dolce Vita.” Do I even have to mention the birthplace of pizza? Italy is at the top of the “must-see” list for just about every traveler.

This is a simple ten day guide to Italy which should be especially helpful to first time visitors, starting with what I consider to be the big three: Rome, Florence, and Venice. Italy has an abundance of  cultural and historical sights to visit with gourmet food and fine wine to enjoy between tours. I enjoy travelling from big cities with a lot of cultural institutions to progressively smaller cities so that when fatigue sets in from sightseeing, the last few days are reserved for a more relaxed pace. For that reason this itinerary goes from Rome north to Florence and then ends in Venice with its international airport.

Gondoliers on a break in Venice, Italy.

Timing: The weather is most comfortable from April until October, and I personally prefer travelling on the “shoulder” seasons, meaning May/June or September/October, to alleviate  the long lines, congestion and heat. My two exceptions to this plan could include the Carnival in Venice, which is usually in February and during Holy Week (Italian: “settimana Santa,” the week leading up to easter).

You may also be interested in visiting the southern countryside. I wrote about the unique accommodations in the Puglia region.

Day 1 of 10: Rome

Fly into Rome.

Roma Caput Mundi is a Latin phrase meaning “Rome capital of the world” and it conjures up an image of the  historical significance of Rome.  The steeple loaded skyline reminds visitors that Rome is the capital of the Catholic Church and the seat of the Papacy. The layers of over 4 millenia worth of history interwoven into a modern city attest to the vitality and vibrancy of a city still buzzing with life (and Vespas). Simply walking the streets of Rome, sometimes referred to as “the open air museum,” opens up the famous sights including artistic masterpieces from every century of European history. While exploring without a plan will provide a treasure chest worth of sights, I would recommend sticking to a more concrete itinerary if this is your first time in Rome, or lest you miss the major sights. Rome wasn’t built in a day and it cannot be described in one paragraph nor seen in four days.

I would suggest reading Angels and Demons by Dan Brown, which is set in Rome. I would also recommend seeing some movies set in Rome, such as Eat, Pray, Love and the gore and glory of Gladiator to prepare you for the colosseum, or flash back to your tween years and watch the Olsen twins movie, When in Rome, for the sights of the city. Don’t forget Audrey Hepburn’s Roman Holiday.

Bruin on a Budget tip: I put out a travel alert on the Google search engine. This should enable you to receive email alerts regarding cheap flights from your home city to Rome. I work in education, so I have flexibility during the summer as to when I can book flights, and I have the patience to wait for a good deal. There are many different housing options, and one interesting and less expensive option is to stay at a converted convent. While it will not be luxurious, it will reduce costs, it may be memorable, and you may meet some interesting fellow travelers.

Get settled into your hotel and put your stuff away. Get a recommendation from the hotel as to where to dine.

Day 2 of 10: Catholic Rome

The interior of St. Peter’s Basilica

Prepare to spend the entire morning and afternoon at the awe-inspiring but crowded Vatican Museums, Sistine Chapel, and St Peter’s Basilica. Make sure to pre-book these tickets online to save time.  Some people have had the feeling of being herded through the exhibits, so you should plan for rest, food and water breaks. The sights are wonderful: The Sistine Chapel with Michelangelo’s masterful ceiling. The Matisse Chapel featuring 16 foot paper cutouts for a stained glass design of a French Chapel is featured within the Modern Religious Art at the Vatican Museums.  Raphael Rooms (Italian: Stanze di Raffaello) within the Vatican Palace, considered the eponym’s masterpiece. This over-500 year old palace is all encompassing in its number of European masterpieces.

Matisse’s colorful cassocks (robes worn by priests) within the Modern Religious Art at the Vatican Museums

Bruin on a Budget tip: Rick Steves has a free audio guide in which he offers a splendid narration of the highlights of the tour.

Have lunch near the Vatican, where there are many good places to re-fuel for the rest of the day, then take a walk by Cast D’Angelo at the Tiber River.  At some point in the afternoon, do yourself a favor and have a well-deserved nap.

There is a bustling Tiber riverside market (more info can be found here) which is open from 6 pm – midnight every night in the summer.

In the evening walk around the Tiber River at dusk.   This is a great location to enjoy a sunset cocktail. End your evening walking through Trastevere’s charming streets to a dinner destination. We had a delightful dinner at Grazia and Graziella in Trastevere. The Italians eat late, so prepare to begin dinner around 9:00 pm, unless you want to be the only diners. Back over the bridge in Campo de Fiore is buzzing with nightlife and is the perfect place for a nightcap or an evening stroll.

Before dinner, try to make it for the Call to Vespers at St Cecilia’s church in Trastevere.  

Day 3 of 10: Ancient Rome

The grandiose Colosseum is an icon of Imperial Rome with all of its ancient glory. This Flavian amphitheatre could seat 87,000 people in it’s day; just for reference the New England Patriot’s NFL stadium seats 66,829 and the Rose Bowl can seat 90,888.

Enjoy the morning filled with sights from the Roman Empire: the Colosseum, Palatine Hill to the Roman Forum.

View of Constantine’s Arch from the Colosseum.

Stroll through the Campo de’ Fiori to see the locals and the tourists shopping at the farmers’ markets, and find a place to eat a leisurely lunch.

The Parthenon.

After lunch take a walk through a much-filmed route from Piazza Navona, Parthenon, Galleria Alberto Sorti, Trevi Fountain, and end at the Spanish steps. Make sure to stop for gelato as needed!

Refresh yourself with an early afternoon riposo (siesta), and before sunset, make your way to Piazza Venezia and atop the Vittorio Emanuele II Monument (Italian: Monumento Nazionale a Vittorio Emanuele II) for a panoramic view of Rome. Saunter over to dinner at the popular Ai Tre Scalini in the Monti section of Rome, with its Bohemian style. If there is a line grab a beer at Barzilai across the street, as they have 6 beers on tap which is plentiful for Italy.

Day 4 of 10: Rome to Florence

If you are an architecture nerd like me, you will love spending the morning looking around the Art Nouveau neighborhood called “Quartiere Coppedè,” designed by early 20th century architect Gino Coppedè. Visit the nearby La Casina delle Civette, the fairy-tale like former home of the Torlonia family with its exquisite and creative details. Typically, it’s not crowded.  Grab a coffee and snack here before heading out on an early afternoon train to Florence (the high speed train takes about an hour and a half). Be mindful of which train station you are leaving from, as there are a few.

Florence:

Idyllically charming Florence (Italian: Firenze) may be my favorite place in Italy. Known as “the cradle of the Renaissance,” Florence came to prominence during the 14th century and hit its peak in the 16th century as an economic and artistic center of the Mediterranean. A turbulent political history provides many stories shrouded in secrecy and scandals mostly surrounding the powerful Medici family. The Medicis were patrons to much of the development of the City of Masterpieces, having provided  financial support for works by Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and Botticelli. This city is best explored on foot, walking down the cobblestoned streets while admiring the Renaissance art and architecture and the frescoe-filled churches. The capital of the Tuscany region of Italy, Florence also has much to be indulged in the food and wine scene.

Arrive from the train station and settle into your hotel. Enjoy a delicious dinner and good service at Il Vezzo.

5 of 10: Renaissance Florence

Start your day at the Accademia Gallery (Italian: Galleria dell’Accademia di Firenze), where you can see magnificent artwork including Michelangelo’s masterpiece of white marble, David among other sculptures.

Mercato Centrale Firenze

Enjoy breakfast or a  snack at the Mercato Centrale Firenze. The two story cast-iron and glass-vaulted building opened its doors in 1874, and it is still offering fresh produce today. Walk around the artisan San Lorenzo Market, which is outside the central market. Don’t hesitate to join in the fun of bartering before you buy.  

A clock with the Duomo in the background.

Weave your way through the pedestrian streets towards the Duomo (full name: Cathedral of Santa Maria de Fiore) with its garnd bell tower.  Check out the Duomo itself, the bell tower and the Duomo Museum.

Walk across the plaza to the octagonal Baptistery of St. John (Italian: Battistero di San Giovanni), which was built between 1059 and 1128, and don’t overlook its bronze doors with “The Gates of Paradise,” which took the artist 27 years to create.

While you’re in the area, you have to give I Fratellini a try. It’s a hole in the wall food shop where you can grab a quick and delicious panini and a glass of Italian wine and blend in with the locals who make the place popular.

Saunter down to the Piazza Della Repubblica to the 1551 “New” Market (Italian: Mercato Nuevo) and rub the nose of the wild boar at the Fontana del Porcellino, which, legend says, ensures a return to Florence. Stop in the Oranmichelle Church (former granary), and down Via Calzaiuoli (pedestrian road) to Piazza della Signoria. Take in the sights of Palazzo Vecchio (or City Hall). For those who are geographically inclined, venture into the Medici wall of maps. From the Piazza make your way to Basilica Santa Croce to see the tombs of Galileo and Michelangelo. Enjoy gelato as needed, a few favorites are grom and gelateria dei neri.

Enjoy a siesta before an Italian-style long meal at Aqua al II.  I would recommend getting the pasta and meat sampler which includes five different pastas and 3 different steaks.

6 of 10: Oltrarno

Start your morning off with a tour of the Uffizi Gallery, which consists of 45 rooms stocked with 1500 works of art including Renaissance masterpieces by Botticelli, Michelangelo, Raphael and Titian. This was once the workplace of the wealthy, powerful and controversial Medici family. The nouveau riche family were generous patrons of the arts, but they were often enmeshed in scandal, backstabbing, and ambitious social climbing to the fascination of the greater population.  Catherine Medici became the Queen of France and brought onion soup, the fork and gelato to the French, in addition to her rumored poisons. As one Medici became the pope, he created the title “Duke of Florence” and subsequently “Grand Duke of Tuscany” and crowned various family members, elevating the family legacy into royalty.

At the Arno River, the landmark Vasari Corridor,  an enclosed, elevated “secret” passageway built in 1564 is worth noting.  Unfortunately, it has been closed for construction since 2016, with a reopening planned for 2021. Georgio Vasari, an artist, architect and writer who is often called the first art historian for his writing of “Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptures, and Architects,” built the Vasari Corridor for Cosmos I de Medici so that he could travel safely from his residence to the government palace without interacting with any of the townspeople.

Grab some sandwiches-to-go from All’Antico Vinao (get anything with cream di pecorino, artichoke spread, or truffle spread on a large focaccia.) Save these for lunch at Boboli Gardens.  Along the way, take a brief passiegiata (or stroll) on Lungarno Generale Diaz, parallel to the leisurely flowing Arno River as it provides a beautiful vantage point of the Ponte Vecchio Bridge.

The Arno River reflects the blush, amber, and apricot hues of the much-photographed medieval bridge at sunset. Window shop through the kiosks along the bridge.

Now in Oltrarno, make your way north to the Boboli Gardens, a beautiful public park located behind the Pitti Palace.  Enjoy the fountain of Neptune, and various other sculptures dating between the 16th-18th century. Pick a spot to sit back and enjoy your sandwich while soaking in the beauty of the park, which closes at 6:30 pm.

Take a leisurely walk over to the Basilica San Miniato Del Monte. It’s about thirty minutes, or more if you factor in stopping for photos. You can walk along the medieval walls on Via di Belvedere, opening up to the Porta San Miniato.  Be prepared for an uphill walk with some stair-climbing as the church is located at one of the highest points in Florence. Monks perform a Gregorian Chant at the church daily at 5:30 PM. You can find more information here. The church itself closes at 7:00 PM.  

Sunset from Piazzale Michaelangelo.

Take the five minute walk down hill to Piazzale Michelangelo for a romantic sunset over the breathtaking city. From this viewpoint the varied colors of the sunset are illuminated by the Florentine skyline consisting of a palette of red tile roofs, yellow and salmon-colored buildings, and the commanding presence of Brunelleschi’s burnt orange dome.

To cap off your day in Oltrarno, take a taxi to Trattoria 4 Leoni for a snack; you can’t go wrong with the pumpkin ravioli.

7 of 10:

Morning Train to Venice

Gondola’s in the Venetian Lagoon. Venice consists of 118 small islands in the Venetian Lagoon.

The historic and still  vibrant city of Venice, famous for gondolas gently floating along winding canals, deserves a spot on your must-visit list. After the fall of the Roman Empire in the 5th century, Italian people fled the mainland in fear of Barbarian invasion. They found refuge in the marshy lagoons mostly occupied by fishermen. With more refugees finding safety in the islands, there was a need for more infrastructure. Therefore, the people created hundreds of canals and packed wooden stakes into the bottom of the lagoon.They  topped the wooden stakes with wooden platforms as the base on which to construct buildings and bridges. Most of the wood for this undertaking was imported by water from Slovenia, Croatia and Montenegro. Venice is an engineering marvel, as the sediment consisting of silt and soil was absorbed into the oak or larch wood pilings and the mixture petrified the wood into a stone-like substance.

Walking through the narrow streets, you will be impressed by the marble palazzi (palaces), fine restaurants and cultural sites located within the compact area around the square.   Depending on when you visit, you may be able to witness religious traditions such as the Carnival of Venice which is famous for its elaborate masks. Venice was home to Renaissance artist Titian, Baroque Musician Vivaldi, playwright Galdoni, and original philanderer Casanova. A sultry and sometimes scandalous history makes Venice or La Serenissima (“The Most Serene” Republic of Venice)  truly one of a kind.

From the train station take a vaporetto #1 to St. Mark’s Square and settle into your hotel. Meander through the streets before ending your night with a bellini from Cafe Florian (boasting the oldest cafe in Europe which was the first to allow women in, placing the cafe on the frequent-must-visit list for Casanova) and take in the grandiosity of St. Mark’s Square in the evening. Enjoy the music of the dueling orchestras from Caffè Florian and Ristorante Quadri.

8 of 10

Campanile and St. Mark’s Cathedral.

Start your morning on the top of the Campanile. Take in all the sights of St. Mark’s Square and meander your way to the Rialto Bridge, window shop the many jewelry stores and tourist shops. Over the bridge make your way to Mercato di Rialto selling artisan products and fresh food. Buy some fruit for the day.

Don’t miss a peak at Albert Sarria’s paper-mâché masks.  

Weave your way back over the Rialto Bridge to lunch at the no-frills Rosticceria Gislon (recommended SEPA – calle della bisse, Farini). You can order at the counter or go upstairs for the full-service restaurant. We opted for the counter service to save time.

After lunch, stop at the much-instagrammed Librería Alta Acqua, which was cute but overrun with tourists (myself included) when we visited.

We went to the Museo Correr, but if you have already seen the Vatican and Uffizi Gallery, this is far less exciting and can be skipped in deference to other sights and experiences, or for a more leisurely pace.

After lunch make your way over to St. Mark’s. Spend some time in the church. Do not miss the ornate Pala D’Oro (or golden enamel high altar). 1,300 pearls, 300 emeralds, 300 sapphires, 400 garnets, 100 amethysts.

Doge Palace: With day trippers gone and the locals enjoying the early evening, we enjoyed some respite from overdone tourism.

Top the day off with an evening at Doge Palace (Italian: Palazzo Ducale) its open until 7:00 PM. We had the place almost to ourselves.  

Don’t miss the Bridge of Sighs next door.

Meander through the narrow winding streets of Venice along canals, shops and houses for less than a mile to find a hidden gem of a restaurant: Al Timon.   Al Timon has the occasional tourist venture to this restaurant, and the engaging owner and the staff are very welcoming, but this I am happy to report that this place is quintessentially Venetian. Enjoy a glass of regional wine and/or Italian beer with a small cichetti while waiting for a table. We chose to eat at a table outside, along the canal, next to a small boat permanently docked at the edge of the water for additional seating.

We shared a large platter featuring the house specialty of Italian steak, potato wedges and an array of vegetables. Highly recommended restaurant for a memorable meal.

9of 10

Start your morning off at Museum Accademia.

Colorful streets in Burano

Take a Venetian Lagoon boat tour to the glassblowing island of Murano, stop for lunch at the colorful fisherman’s island of Burano, and step into the Basilica on the island of Torcello.

End your evening back in Venice with panoramic views from the rooftop of the upscale T Fondaco dei Tedeschi mall.

10 of 10 Fly home