October 28 – 30: Edinburgh (subtitled Rest, Relaxation, and Time with Friends.

October 28: On Saturday, we watched Outlander most of the day. We are both avid Outlander fans, but neither of us has Starz. So, we started with season two while we are here. (We saw season one a couple of years ago). In the late afternoon, we began to get ready for a party. A friend of a friend (who is now our friend, it works that way) turned 50 and rented a venue for her masquerade ball to celebrate.  A friend picked up masks for us, but luckily we had each brought a dress, so we had something dressy to wear.

We headed over, and had a great time at the party. It is always interesting to see the traditions that different places when there is a party, and live music. No Hokey Pokey, no Macarena, but in addition to a couple of new-to-us activities, there was the boat song. I don’t know if it has to be this particular song, but we divided into teams of men vs women, sitting on the floor in our “boats”, with our legs spread in a “V” with the person in front of us in our “boat” sitting inside the “V” of the legs of the person behind them. 
We had to do rhythmic movements together as a team that simulated the boat rowing left to right, and then forward and backward. I am proud to say that the girls got their rhythm in order sooner, and our “boat” won. Lots of fun!

On Sunday, we slept in, and then made beef stew in the crock pot and watched Outlander all day. We got all the way through season 3 episode 6, leaving one episode to watch for Monday.

October 30: We got up a bit earlier today, and headed to Blair Castle in Blair Atholl, near Pitlochery. Blair Castle is the ancestral home of the head of the Murray Clan. The oldest part of the home dates back to the 1200’s, while most of the house was built in the 1700’s on. The first Duke was named in 1703, and the current Duke is the 12th.

The family has a lot of history in Scotland, both in favor of the crown, as well as those odd family members who supported Bonnie Prince Charlie and the Jacobite cause. Many of the weapons housed in the armory that makes up the entryway of the home were used during the Battle of Culloden in 1746.

In the 1840’s, the family hosted Queen Victoria. They put together a private regiment for her protection. She was so impressed, she gave them a charter, and they still are in existence today. The Atholl Highlanders is the only private army in Europe today. They are about 100 strong, and admittance is by invitation only.

The family has done a great job preserving and displaying the history; it was a lesson in Scottish history as well. In World War I, the home served as a Red Cross hospital, and in World War II, it served as a school for children who had to be evacuated from Glasgow.

On the way home, we stopped in Falkland. This town was used as the setting for Inverness in the opening episode of Outlander. The fountain where Jamie’s ghost appears, as well as the boarding house where Clair and Frank stayed on their second honeymoon, are there.

We have one more day here, and while I am looking forward to the last leg of our trip Ireland, it is always bittersweet to leave old and new friends here. They take such good care of us whilst we are in their midst.

Scenes from a masquerade . . . 

The ball room, the armory, and the exterior of the house. There was limited photography allowed in the home (only the ballroom and the exterior). You will see the antlers on the wall. There are no natural predators left to cull the deer herd that roams the estate, so the hunting season is crucial to their survival and well being.

Here you see the fountain where Jamie’s ghost appears in the first episode of Outlander, as well as the place where Frank and Clair were staying (on the right). The lions on the fountain were stripped to their natural stone state during the filming, and then repainted.


October 17: Siena

After a WONDERFUL breakfast here, we caught the bus into Siena for the day. We knew we wanted to see the Duomo, and weren’t sure what else. Siena is built on a hill, and I just can’t do hills like I used to be able to. A combination of being out of shape and three and a half years straight of chemo, and stairs and climbing now take a lot out of me.

Once we arrived, we tried to get money out of an ATM. One of the cards that we have with us does not have a chip, and the money is in a savings account back home. Between those two complications, it has been hard to get money out. (I only mention this in case anyone is reading this blog in preparation for a trip here. You need to know this.)

On our walk to the Duomo, we came across the church San Domenico. Admission is free, so we went in to look around. The churce was built in 1226 in honor of Saint Catherine. It is not a particularly large church, and the exterior is very plain. However, inside is the morbidly fascinating preserved thumb and head of Catherine (authenticated, they say). I think it is pretty cool that someone who died over 800 years ago is giving a thumbs up for eternity.

We started to walk to the Duomo, but it is on the top of a high hill. We got information on which bus to take. When the bus stopped, he told us to take the “escalera electrica” (esclator). I got a bit frustrated, had a moment of feeling sorry for myself, and then found the escalator and we took it up. It was actually a series of escalators, and was a great way to get up. Frustration over. When we got to the Duomo, of course there is the moment of first sight that takes your breath away. We rested, took pics of the exterior, and had a snack, bought our tickets, and went in. The Duomo was built 1215 and 1263, and is Gothic in archtecture. Grand plans were made in the 1300’s to add on and make it the “largest cathedral in Christendom”. Sadly, the Black Death of 1348 killed 2 out of every 3 people in Siena. The town never recovered and became the city that planners had dreamed of.

The interior of the church is done in white and greenish-black marble, the official colors of Siena (long story, look it up). It is darker, not doing much with the use of natural light that was done so well at the Duomo in Como. However, the artwork is hard to beat. Works by Donatello, Bernini, and Michaelangelo are found alongside other well-known Italian artists. On the floor are 59 panels/works of art as well. In order to make the floor as visible as possible, most of the pews have been removed. Inside of the Doumo is a single room library, which houses manuscripts that were done by hand over 600 years ago. The walls and ceiling in that room are also spectacular!

After leaving the Duomo, we had a bite to eat at a bakery on the plaza, and headed back down to the Piazza (Plaza) del Campo. There is a lovely fountain there, and a four-columned square structure called the Capella della Piazza. It was built in thanks for the end of the Plague of 348, and also with the hopes that it might never return.

We sampled some amazing pestos and treats in a store, and finally arrived at our bus. No need for a bus or escalator after the Duomo; it was all (mostly) downhill.

We stopped by the supermarket and picked up a few items for dinner. We have begun planning the rest of our days here, with Florence next in our sights. We have been told and have found in our research that purchasing tickets ahead for the Ufizzi Gallery will save a lot of time, and there are no tickets left for tomorrow, so tomorrow will be a local day, with planning and ticket-buying to flesh out the rest of our time in Italy.

The Duomo’s front exterior:

October 23 – 27: Catching Up

23rd:  We had two whirlwind travel days, followed up with the beginning of our visit with friends in Scotland. Hence, catching up . . . 

On Monday, we headed to our day in Assisi. I am not a religious person. I am more spiritual, but find value in many teachings. One of the figures that I admire, based on what I know of his life, is Saint Francis of Assisi. His prayer, which begins “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace . . . “, is one of my all time favorites.

So, we caught the first bus at 6 AM, and ended up at the train station in order to take a bus from Siena to Assisi. We arrived in Assisi mid morning, and began the hike up to the hill to the basilica founded in St Frances’ name. It is a very large complex, with an active monastic order living and worshipping there.  The basilica is not as elaborate as many, but beautiful nonetheless. It is painted with many frescoes inside, but allows no photography.

We explored the upper and lower levels, and then went on to other areas that we wanted to check out. The church of Santa Chiara (St Clare, a contemporary and religious partner of St. Frances’), was closed when we arrived.  Many of the churches there closed at midday and reopened  around 2. We wanted to go down to the lower level of the town and see the Cathedral of St. Mary, so we took the bus. Assisi is a very very steep town and from top to bottom is quite a distance. We waited for the church to open, having lunch and the rare free WiFi connection.

We finished early in the afternoon, with three hours until our return bus, but really had nothing else that we wanted to see or do. We waited at the bus station, killing time by playing on our phones and people-watching.

Upon returning home, we reworked our suitcases to make sure that the weight was not over, as I have heard that Ryanair can be a real stickler, and we would be experiencing our first flight with them the next day.

24th: Another early day, with heavy heavy travel. It went like this . . . bus one from the B&B to Siena . . . bus two from Siena to the train station . . . train one from Siena to Firenze (Florence) . . . train two from Firenze to Milan . . . train three from Milan to Bergamo . . . bus three (by far the most crowded we have been on so far, had to push our way in) to the airport to check in for . . . 

RYANAIR: What can I say about this airline? Neither of us had ever flown with them before. At some point during the day, we realized that we had not checked in for the flight the night before.  It can be a pain to have to check in at the airport, but as we had to get in line to check our bag anyway, we figured we would just check in at that time.

The lines were not bad, and we got to the counter fairly quickly. We had arrived a few hours before our flight, but we wanted to get all of the details taken care of before doing anything else. That turned out to the a good decision. When we got to the counter, the lady informed us that we had to check in online and print our boarding passes, or pay a fee. If we checked in more than two hours ahead of our flight at the airport, it would cost us €10 each. If we waited until less than 2 hours before our flight, it would cost us a whopping €50 EACH! We let her know how unfair we felt that was, as many people who are traveling do not have access to printers. We told her that we were not upset with her, but that the company had a really crappy policy. She told us we should have read the fine print. 

We went to the area where we had to pay to check in, took care of it, and then had to go back to the baggage check in area. We got the same lady. She tried to tell us again how it was our fault, we told her to please just get it done. She checked the one bag that we wanted to check, stuck the baggage claim check to my boarding pass, and sent us on our way.

We next had to clear security; while we were in line, I was looking over the  boarding pass, which was in four parts. One part talked about making sure to have your visa stamp on the pass, which you got at the baggage counter. Neither of our papers was stamped. We figured it was because we did not need a visa. Fast forward to boarding: turns out we did need the stamp (which was not a visa). The lady at the baggage counter “forgot” to stamp our passes.  Luckily for us,  the lady at the gate was kind,  hurried,  and simply wrote “OK” on both our passes and sent us on to the plane.

The plane took a westerly tack over the Alps enroute to Edinburgh. I was able to watch the sunset for over an hour, it was absolutely breathtaking! The moon was coming up in the same place, and I was able to capture the sun setting above the clouds over the Alps, with the moon in the same photo. All of the tension and frustration of the day drained away, and I just sat there, soaking it in, being in the moment.

25th: The Scotland part of the trip is very relaxing. Some days we just hang out at the house. As I write this, we are binging on season two of Outlander. On the 25th, we hung out at the house. 

26th: Today, Kelly headed out to hike a very strenuous hike with a friend of our host. I am not in shape to take this hike, so rather than slow everyone down, Kamy (our friend and host) took me up to St. Andrew’s. We stopped in Dundee so that I could tour the Discovery. This is a ship that was built in 1903 specifically for an Arctic expedition. Steel hulled ships collapse when they come into contact with ice, so this ship was built out of wood to withstand the pressure. The expedition did not reach their final destination; they got iced in. While some of the men did not survive, the ship and the surviving crew were rescued. The museum and ship were very interesting to tour.

27th: Today we are chillaxing at the house, bingng on Outlander. Tonight we have dinner with several friends, tomorrow a masquerade party for the 50th birthday of another friend.

The basilica of St Frances from the entrance, and then from the side where you can see the area where the monks dwell . . . 

The Chapel of Minerva, inside and out.

One of Assisi’s furry residents.  He had a bowl of food and water just a few feet away, and was very friendly!

This is inside the church of Santa Maria de Novella. There was a small church here, and St. Frances died just outside of it. Instead of tearing down the small church, they built a new church on the site of the existing church, and there is a small chapel in the bigger church to mark the spot where he took his last breath.

In this image you can see the sun setting over the clouds, the Alps with a couple of lakes, and the moon in the upper left hand corner.

And here the sunset over the clouds.

Visiting the Discovery in Dundee . . . 

October 21: San Gimignano . . . Kind of

Today was, well, another learning curve. By our NEXT trip to Italy, we’ll have this down pat. We misread the bus schedule for today (it is different on Saturday and Sunday) and thought that the earliest we could take a bus into town was 11:30ish. We were on that bus. We headed to the train station, as we had prepaid our train travel for five days, and didn’t want to pay any more travel expenses than necessary, so we were bound and determined to travel by train today.

San Gimignano is a small hill town not too far from here. It’s full name translates to “San Gimignano of the Beautiful Towers”, as originally there were more than 70 defense towers in this Medieval town. 14 of those towers still survive today. The town was originally part of the Francigena Pilgrimage route, but the plague of 1348 affected them as well. They became a “backwater” town, and the architecture never changed or grew.

By the time we caught the bus to town, the next bus to the train station, the train to Poggibonsi, and then the bus to San Gimignano from there, we arrived at 2 PM. We checked the bus schedule, and realized that we had only 1 hour to be back at the bus stop to get home before the last bus to the B & B. OK. We booked up the hill to the Duomo to see the frescoes. We arrived about 2:15, only to find a sign on the church that today, for some reason, they were closing at 2:30, last admission at 2:00.  What can you do?

We poked our heads into the exit and managed to sneak a couple of pics before the lady nicely told us that we were not allowed, so we walked back down the hill. We window shopped, walked over to a couple of scenic overlooks to grab a couple of photos, and bought our bus tickets back to the train station.

After waiting almost an hour for the final bus of the day which would take us back to the B & B, we did a bit of grocery shopping (hopefully enough to last us until we leave for Edinburgh), and were home about 6:30. Seven hours of our day for 45 minutes of enjoyment and exploration. At least the views from the bus windows were great! 

Dinner was pasta and salad, and was delicious! We save a lot of money by not eating out all of the time, and the jar of peanut butter that we brought with us gets a workout every day that we have long travel. Tomorrow we plan to spend the day here, getting organized for our final two days. Those days will be heavy travel days, so a relaxing day in preparation for that will be welcome.

The exterior and interior of the church . . . 

One of the surviving towers.

Views from the town 

From the front seat of the bus

Dinner . . . 

October 20: Florence

Lessons learned yesterday made for a smooth day today. 

We love where we are staying, and the fact that for 8 days we will not need to haul our luggage (three carry-on sized bags between us, not a lot, but still a pain when you have to go up and down stairs, etc). The trade-off, however, is that when it takes every bit of three hours to get to Florence, and three hours to get back, you just don’t have as much time as you would like to see everything. So, we chose what we really wanted to do, and are already planning on a someday return trip to see more.

We prepurchased our tickets for the Ufizzi online, and were able to avoid the lines. Florence, Italy, is the home of the Renaissance, and no family played a greater role than the Medici.

The Ufizze Gallery is housed in what served as their business offices for several generations. It is located right on the Arno River, and much of the art was collected or commissioned by the family in their lifetime.

We got there a bit early, and enjoyed walking around outside and seeing and photographing the some of the exterior sculptures, including a replica of David by Michaelangelo. The original is in the Academia, and we did not have time to go there.

We toured the Ufizzi, enjoying art by so many of the masters of the Renaissance inside. After we finished, we crossed the Arno on the Ponte Vecchio (Old Bridge). This bridge is very old, beautiful, and historic. In fact, when the Nazis were retreating at the end of WWII, they found it to be such a beautiful bridge that they did not destroy it. It was the only bridge over the Arno in Florence to survive the war.

We walked along and went up to the Pitti Palace, where the Medici family actually lived. It is huge. I can’t imagine living in a house that big. We did not have time to go in and explore, that will be another trip.

We got in our 16,000 steps (and then some), so we stopped to get a gelatto on the way back. I got the smallest size that they had, and mixed caramel and hazelnut flavors. Between this gelato and that which I had in Como, I’d say it’s a tie.  I’ll probably say that for everywhere, lol. 

We stopped for a few groceries here in town, and come home and had a nice quiet dinner. We had wanted to go over to see the coast tomorrow, but we have our Eurail passes already paid, and want to use them instead of paying to take a bus somewhere. There is no direct route, the closest is 4 hours away, so rather than have 8 hours of travel for 2 hours of fun, we instead will be going to the Medievel City of San Gemignano tomorrow.

The replica of the David by Michaelangelo

Some of the many sculptures on the loggia outside of the museum

The clock tower on the Palazzio Vecchio (Old Palace). This was also part of the Medici complex. The fencing you see in the bottom left corner is there to provide cover as they restore a fountain on the Piazza.

Ceilings . . . always ceilings. This is one of the statuary halls. This museum is known as much for its sculpture collection as it is for its art. The sculpture halls have the rooms of art going off of each side all the way around the U-shaped building.

Botticelli’s “Birth of Venus”. I have always loved this painting.

This was one of the private rooms of Lorenzo Medici, and is being restored.  Imagine having this art surrounding you every day in your office.

I had never heard of Filippino Lippi before, but he is a new find that I will look for in museums in the future. I most likely have seen art by him before, but just didn’t remember the name. I loved this painting.

An ancient coffin. Imagine being buried in something like this!

A painting by Michaelangelo. This was a commission, and serves two purposes. It is liturgical (religious) art, but also a family portrait. The man who commissioned the painting is depicted here as Joseph, his wife and son as Mary and Jesus. This was very common back then.

A painting by Da Vinci.

The Ponte Vecchio on the right 

The Pitti Palace

Each window has a lion beneath it; each lion is unique.

When parking is an issue, you just stack the cars.

Mmmmmmmm . . .

October 19: Florence (subtitle: “A Good but trying and sobering day”)

Sometimes, when you travel, you have “learning days”, otherwise known as days when a lot goes sideways.  Today was one of those days.

Last night we checked the prices on bus tickets to Assisi; round trip for the two of us: €31. We have been unable to log on to free Wi-Fi when we are out and about, as it requires you to provide a local phone number and then put the code in that they text you. We would have had to access Wi-Fi to use the online tickets, so we figured we would buy them right at the bus station. We were up and out the door by a little before 6 AM.

We got to the bus station; the ticket office opened at 7:15, our bus (the ONLY bus to Assisi of the day from here) was to leave at 7:30. We went into a small convenience store in the station that also sold bus tickets. He told us it would be €33 to go there, and another amount to come home.  We also could not use our credit card. I figured he had to mark up the tickets to make a profit, so we waited for the official bus ticket office to open. When it did, we were the first in line.  We told them we wanted to go to Assisi today, and come back tonight.  Not possible, he said. Turns out they only sell overnight tickets on another bus line. So, back to the convenience store. By now, the tickets had gone up to €39 to get there, and another 40+ to get home. He explained that the closer to the departure it got, the more expensive they got. I know that MegaBus operates the same way in the US, so that made sense. We bought tickets for Monday (the next day we could get reasonably priced round trip tickets), and headed back to the B&B. 

Our alternate plan had to be to go to Florence, but since we had not planned on that, we did not have our Eurail passes or our passports with us. We got back at 8:30, had breakfast, and headed back to Siena AGAIN. (lots of wasted bus fare)

We caught the train to Florence, and arrived a little after noon. We went first to the Duomo. The entrance was free, which was surprising to us. The exterior is one of the most elaborate we have seen thus far. It was designed in 1296, and finally consecrated in 1436. It is described in one of the guidebooks as “the central achievement of Renaissance architecture”. It is a huge complex, with design and color everywhere you look.  We took some photos, had a bite to eat, and went in. We could immediately see why it was free. Although it was nice inside, it is sparse compared to so many others. There is very little that is on public display, very little stained glass, and you are in and out in about 10 minutes. The exterior is the draw, and you can’t charge people to look at the outside.

We next decided to go to San Croce, which is the place where many Renaissance well-knowns are buried: Galileo, Michaelangelo, Macchiavelli, and Rossini, just to name a few. On the way, we passed a monastery of the Monastic Order of Jerusalem, and went in for a peek.

We finally arrived at San Croce, and once inside, decided to look for the bathroom. It was out in the cloister area, so we headed there, and since we were alread out there, decided to see that part first and finish on the inside.

Sometimes when you travel, bad things happen, either to you or to others. I have debated all afternoon how to write this blog post, as there is a fine line sometimes between being informative, and being voyeuristic. This story is all over the European news tonight, so am going to cover it briefly here. As I was beginning to photograph and explore inside, Kelly came over and advised me not to go to a certain area, as they had paramedics working on someone to try to revive them. After a few minutes, they announced that the church was closed. They ushered us out, and we knew that he did not survive. On the way out, they handed everyone a free voucher to visit another day.

I had seen a place that I wanted to take photos of outside, and was working on that. Kelly finally came out; she had been listening to another American tourist describing what had happened.  It turns out a piece of plaster fell off of a support beam 66 feet up (a square about 6″ x 6″), and hit him in the head. He went down immediately.  He was a Spanish tourist, 52 years old, visiting with his wife. I saw the hearse come to remove him. 

If we hadn’t gone to the bathroom . . . if we had decided to go to Florence in the first place . . . if if if. It could easily have been either one of us who was there when the block fell. We are very sad, and very grateful that someone was watching over us. If you are praying people, please say a prayer for his wife and family.

We headed back to the train station, and caught our return train with five minutes to spare. Once back in Siena, we hopped on the first bus that would take us to the main square, where we catch another bus that takes us to the B&B. Only, it turns out that this particular bus winds aaaaalllllllllll around Siena before doing so. It was very crowded when we got on, and we could not validate our bus ticket. The ticket inspector happened to choose this bus to inspect all of the tickets (they do this randomly throughout the day; this was the first time we had been inspected). When we explained what had happened, he could not get to the ticket validator either, so he made a tear in each of the tickets. 40 minutes later, we were STILL on the bus, waiting for our stop. Another ticket inspector got on, and it took a lot of explaining and kindness on his part not to fine us the €42 fine EACHfor not validating our tickets. (Once validated, they are only good for one hour, then they are null and void).

We arrived home, tired, sad, and hungry. After a nice dinner at the house, we are wrapping up today, and preparing for tomorrow. We bought tickets online (they printed them out for us here at the B&B), and will be visiting the Ufizzi Gallery tomorrow, along with either the Palazzio Vecchio or the Pitti Palace, or both if time permits.

The exterior of the Duomo in Florence.

Photos of the interior . . . 

I love the aquamarine color in these stained glass windows!  So unique, I haven’t seen this color used in this way quite so much elsewhere.

This was the ceiling inside of the dome, all done in frescoes.

Photos of the Jerusalem Monastic Order house/church . . . 

This ceiling is all hand carved wood.

The exterior of San Croce . . . 

Photos from the Cloister and chapels outside . . . 

Out of respect, I will not be sharing any of the few photos that I had started taking inside. Tomorrow,  more Florence, more art!

October 18: San Rocco de Pilli

Today was a relax at “home” day. It was also Kelly’s birthday! So, rather than write a long post, I will just share a few narrated pics.

There is a local church, and we have wanted to check it out. It is still in use (a “working” church), and that is obvious when you walk in. This is a place where people gather and worship on Sundays. It is small, but enchanting. On the way in, we went through the olive orchard. The olives are still on the trees, and we wondered how they would taste. Based on the look on Kelly’s face, they are awful straight from the tree.

There is a lot of schiacciato painting in the church, a technique made famous by Donatello. It is a way of painting on a flat surface that makes it look like you have great depth. 

The olive trees

The interior . . . remember that all surfaces are flat.

We stopped by a little pasticeria (bakery) for an afternoon treat. I told myself that I would only have a treat when I walked at least 16,000 steps in a day. As today was a slow day, I owe myself about 15,000 steps. In my defense, I only had a few bites, but it was delicious!

Another Tuscan sunset. The trees that you see are called palm pines. They grow this way, with a long long trunk, and then branches and needles only at the top.

Tonight was dinner at home, and planning. Tomorrow will be a visit to Assissi. We will have to be up at 5:30 in the am to catch the ONLY bus that goes from here to there, but it will be worth it. Tomorrow night we will get back too late for the last bus home, so we will be coming by taxi. Expensive day, but very much looking forward to it! May or may not have time and energy to write a post tomorrow night after I get back. Friday will be Florence. Arrivaderci for now!