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 church 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), and refused to let us on the bus. 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, had a snack, bought our tickets, and went in. The Duomo was built between 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 never 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.

Saint Catherine’s head (full disclosure: these are not my photographs; they do not allow photography inside, so I bought postcards and took photos of the postcards). The top photo is of the altar. The bottom is a detail of the part of the altar that contains her mummified head.

The Duomo’s front exterior:

Scenes from inside:

This is a one of the ceilings inside. The middle is referred to as the “Occulus”, or eye.

One of the floor art panels.

One of many Popes interred here.  This was Alexander III.

The bottom four sculptures are by Michaelangelo

One of the manuscripts in the library. There are many pages, and each page is easily at least 12″ x 24″ large.

The ceiling in the library

A mosaic in the Chigi Chapel; this chapel was designed by Bernini.  Each piece of the mosaic (which is taller than I am) is about the size of a fingernail. 

Here you can see the black and white design on the inside

Motorcycles, motorcycles, motorcycles.  There is not much parking in the city, so many people drive in to work on a cycle, and this is one of the main parking areas.

A perfect ending to a great day!


 October 16: Milan to San Rocco a Pilli (just outside of Siena)

Today was a travel day, so this will be a fairly short post.

When planning the trip, we decided that the way to go would be to find a centrally located place, and venture out and back each day.  This way, we are not hauling suitcases, finding our way to lodgings, etc. So, I looked on Hostelworld, and found this B & B. It is just outside of Siena. 

This morning, we arranged for a taxi to take us to the bus station. It would have been €3 to take the subway, it was €7 to take a taxi.  We got there a lot sooner, and didn’t have to haul the luggage up and down the stairs in the metro. We caught our first train there. We had assigned seating, which was nice.  We didn’t have to worry about standing. The problem is that we assumed it was like airplane seating.  I looked at my seat, 11C, and assumed that Kelly and I would be next to each other. Turns out we should have been across from each other, which might explain why the two women across from us, friends from Switzerland, were a bit confused.  They had arranged tickets so they could each sit by a window, and were too polite to say anything.  When we realized our mistake towards the end of the ride, we apologized. They were very nice about it.

We had 11 minutes to change trains in Florence; we arrived a couple of minutes ahead of schedule, and were standing by the doors with our luggage when they opened. We made it with a few minutes to spare.

The second train did not have assigned seating, but there were plenty of seats available, so no standing.  We were fortunate to be seated across from an artist from Olympia Washington, and she knew a lot of history of the area. We talked most of the way there.  She said that there are so many farms and villas that now sit empty. The young people moved away and had no interest in running the farm, so the older generation bequeathed it to the Catholic church. The church has no interest in doing anything with them, so they sit empty. Very sad . . . 

We arrived in Siena, and set out to get to our B & B by bus(es). The first bus we had no issues buying the tickets, but had MANY issues finding where to catch the bus.  When we finally found it after looking for 20 minutes.  It was another 20 minute wait for the bus to come. We told the driver where we needed to go, he said he would let us know when we got there. He didn’t, but luckily we recognized when we got there and were able to get off.  We bought the tickets for the next bus, and had about a 40 minute wait for it. 

A side note here . . . you may wonder how we knew which buses etc. The B & B had clear directions on their website, we took a screen shot of them (as we don’t have  data on our phones here; we use wi fi when we find it). When we caught the second bus, we were able to follow their directions and arrived with no problems.  We paid a total of €5.60, but a taxi would have cost us €20, so we were happy to save the money.  We did decide, however, that we would invest in the taxi on our way out when we leave with our luggage to save the time and headaches.

Travel days are always a little frustrating for us, so we were very relieved to arrive.  The villa more than makes up for the hassle! It is exactly what I would have hoped for. This is a working farm that has 220 hectares, and has been in the same family for 9 generations. Our room is lovely, and this time we have an ensuite (bathroom within the room as opposed to a shared bathroom). 

We got situated, took a couple of photos, and by this time it was after 6 pm. Tired and hungry, we headed out in search of food. The town square is only a few blocks away. I was in no mood to do any extensive grocery shopping, and I did not want to have to come back here and prepare food, so we bought a few necessities and went to a restaurant.  We had bread with olive oil, salads, and I had parpadelle (flat pasta) with wild boar sauce. It was yummy! 

Now we are relaxing in the room, with window open and ceiling fan on, getting the room nice and cool for sleeping tonight. Tomorrow, we are headed back in to Sienna, as it is nearby and will only be a very short bus ride.

So, maybe the post was longer than I thought, lol, but keeping it real, folks.

Our room, and the view from our room . . . 

October 15th: Lake Como

One of the things that I miss most about living in Mexico are Sunday afternoons.  Families go out together, spend the day in parks, relaxing, and just being in public spaces. I saw more of that when I was in Spain on the Camino a few years back, and I got another great dose of it today.  I think that a Sunday afternoon at Lake Como might just be one of my new favorite things.

We headed to the train station a little later than we hoped; both of us have had issues sleeping because of not being able to get the room cool enough at night.  The room is warm, so we open the window to cool it down.  But, there are mosquitos, so we have to cover up to avoid being bitten.  I have only had about four hours of sleep each night for the last few nights, so Kelly woke me up a little later than we planned this morning to let me get a little more shut eye.

So, after a late breakfast, we headed to Milano Centrale. We wanted to do two things: get our tickets to take the train to Como today, and arrange tickets with our Eurail pass tomorrow to head to Siena. Once again, wait wait wait, lol.  We got in line to get a number to get in line.  After about 45 minutes, we got to the window.  The lady spoke a bit of English, so between my ruddy Italian and her adequate English, we got things done. We only had a few minutes to catch our train for Como, and as we approached the platform at a fast walk/slow run, the train pulled away.  

We went back into the station to have a bite. Our tickets were valid for four hours, so we took the next train, which left an hour after the one we missed.  There is a small machine on each platform where you have to validate your tickets, and we hadn’t done it for the train we missed, so maybe it is just as well.  We thought it would take 90 minutes to get to Como, but it was more like 30.

On arrival, we headed out on foot to explore.  We made our way down to the main square, and visited the Duomo there.  Oh. My. Goodness.  It is not as big as many of the churches that we have visited, but when I walked in, it was so awe inspiring that all I could do was turn in a circle, say wow wow wow, and try to decide what to look at/photograph first. 

The duomo was built over a period from 1396 to 1740. Unlike the duomo in Milan, it incorporates the different styles that came and went during this time frame.  Instead of being disjointed, however, as can sometimes be the case, the church’s informational folder says “the architecture of the Duomo is a masterpiece of harmonic mixture of all of the histrical periods in which it was built”.  Included are Gothic, Renaissance, and Baroque elements. It certainly looked seamless to me!

I have a new cell phone, and today I was able to give its camera a proper workout.  I have to say that I am really impressed!  All of the photos that I include here in the blog, in all posts from the trip thus far including today, were taken with my cell phone.

After the visit to the Duomo, we chose to walk. And walk, and walk some more.  I told myself before the trip that only on days that I walked at least 16,000 steps would I be able to give myself a treat. The other day I had more than that, but my stomach felt too wonky to enjoy anything.  Today, I had 15,000 and change, so I “borrowed” a few steps from the other day, and treated myself to a small gelato.  Chocolate hazelnut, and worth every penny!

We walked down along the lakeside, enjoying the many families, dogs, and entertainers who were out. There was an older man who was playing the accordian on a park bench.  I took his photo, and then threw a coin in his accordian case.  He stopped playing and wanted to see the photo, he was just so tickled that I had taken it.  On our way back through, I smiled and waved.  He stopped playing again and called me over, and told me to take his photo again, and had me show it to his friend.  I wish I spoke more Italian so that I could have visited with him for a few minutes.  I love meeting locals and talking; you never know what someone’s story is until you sit down with them and begin a conversation.

We got back to the train station, and caught our return train with no problems. We were beat. There were more people than seats on the return trip (as there were  on the trip there), but this time we were among the people standing.  By the time we got back to Milan, the calves and the feet were letting me know exactly what they thought of standing for 40 minutes on the trip home.

Tired and hungry, we ate our first meal out here in Milan; well, kind of.  We bought an authentic Milanese pizza and took it to our B&B to enjoy for dinner. The room is nice and cool, as we finally figured out the ceiling fan (hidden remote control) and left it running all day. We have packed as much as we can tonight in preparation for the train ride tomorrow. Hoping for a good night’s sleep, and an uneventful travel day ahead.

Photos from the train station: note the Rubik’s Cube type packaging in the Lindor Chocolate kiosk in the station, as well as the tile work on the wall.

Photos from the Duomo: there is a stained glass window at the front, and when the light begins to go down at the end of the afternoon, it bathes the interior in swaths of color that move from the back to the front of the church as the sun goes further down.

My accordian player

Other scenes from the day

And, finally . . . 

Milan, October 14th

Over the years, we have learned the art of travelling light(er).  This time around, we each have one small carry on, and one small carry on sized checked bag between the two of us. This trip was a bit more challenging. As we planned  for this trip, one of the things we did, as always, was look at average temps for the places we would be. Average temps for Milan for this time of year are in the low 60’s during the day, and high 40’s – low 50’s at night.  Two days before the trip, we pulled up a forecast.  The whole time we are in Italy, it is forecasted to be in the mid to high 70’s every single day.  So, instead of all of the long sleeve shirts and long pants, we had to add in some warmer weather clothes for the front half of the trip.

I am not complaining, the weather is beautiful, but the suitcases are a little fuller than we normally make them.

So, on to our day.  We had a wonderful breakfast at the B & B, and then headed out mid-morning to see the Duomo. In days gone by, we could be up at the butt crack of dawn and go for 12 hours straight.  Those days, at least for now, are behind me.  

Milan’s Duomo is the largest Gothic Cathedral, the second largest cathedral, and third largest church in the world.  It has seating for 40,000 people, and was built between 1386 and 1813.  Many cathedrals built during that time frame show different styles in the same construction, having Gothic, Romanesque, and other features as new styles came and went.  The architects and builders of the Duomo stuck with Gothic with a discipline rarely found in other constructions.

When we arrived, we explored the Piazza (Plaza, or town square) a bit.  There is a shopping area called the Galleria Vittorio Emmanuelle II, which was built in the 1800’s.  One of the features was built from new technology available back then: steel reinforced glass ceilings that came about as a a result of the industrial age. It was just beautiful! Every area, every detail, was taken into account in the planning and construction.  The floors, walls, ceilings, etc. One of my favorite things I have seen. Yesterday, I was not overly impressed with Milan. Today, I feel the opposite.

Once we were done checking out that area, we headed over to get tickets for our visit to the Duomo.  I chose the €16 option which included an elevator ride up to the roof; Kelly chose the €3 option which was basically just the cathedral.  Each ticket also included a visit to a second small church and an attached museum, we just got tired and decided to move on to the next item on our list after the Duomo.

A note about buying the tickets: we had to take a number to get in line to buy the tickets.  Our number was 619; when we checked the board, they were working on person number 538.  Almost a hundred people in front of us to wait on.  There was a self-serve machine which might have been a little quicker, but judging by the line there as well, not by much.  Turns out if we had done a little research ahead of time, we could have bought them online and saved ourselves almost an hour.

I went to get in line for the elevator up to the roof . . . another hour of waiting.  At least there were entertainers in the piazza to take our minds off the fact that we were waiting . . . waiting . . . waiting . . . There were Incas playing the pan flute, with their (fake) alpaca right next to them.  There were transformers, Native American performers, bubble artists, singers, etc.  Never a dull moment.  It was an amazing place for people watching!

After about an hour in line for the elevator, I got to go up. Even though I took the elevator, there were still a couple of landings of stairs to go up.  They were narrow and winding, and as we were going up, others were coming down.  Very very close quarters, lol!

I took the stairs down when I finished, as the line for the elevator to go down was almost as long as it was to take it up.  Kelly and I got in line to go into the cathedral.  Earlier the line had been at least an hour and a half long.  Luckily, it had thinned, and we were in line only for about 20 minutes.

We have been to many many cathedrals, but still managed to be VERY impressed by this one. Below you will see many photos taken on the inside. One of the most impactful areas is the statue of Saint Bartholomew.  At the end of his life, he was flayed alive.  The sculptor chose to represent him with his skin flayed, but slung over his shoulder like a cloak, or a bag of potatoes.  Gruesome, but fascinating at the same time.

We headed out in the late afternoon to our final destination of the day: Saint Ambrose church.  I know it seems that we visit a lot of churches, but neither of us is particularly religious. We both enjoy art, history, and architecture, and when you are in Europe, that means cathedrals. It is always interesting to me how an old church feels. Sometimes, it feels like a beautiful building but not much else.  Other places seem to have a more sacred feel to me. The more monetized a church is and the more tourism there is, the less it seems to feel like a sacred space.  However, almost every time, I find myself seeking out a spot that feels special to take a knee (or two) and say a prayer.  Today was no exception.

So, St. Ambrose. This church dates back to medieval times. There were only two stained glass windows, all the rest were clear.  It did not have the transept that many churches have, and has been restored over the years.  It was founded by St. Ambrose in 379 AD, and there are still parts of the original structure inside.  He is buried inside, along with two martyrs that he originally buried in his lifetime.  Now they rest together.

After a quick stop at the supermarket to get lettuce for our salad/chicken dinner tonight, we headed into the subway.  We finally figured out our exit, and got it right on the first try tonight.  Progress is good!

We had a nice dinner, and plan an early bedtime, as we want to be up and out of here fairly early tomorrow to explore the area north of Milan known as “The Lakes” region.  This area includes Lake Como, so we are hoping to see George Clooney out and about tomorrow. Just kidding . . . kind of.

Our breakfast set up this morning here at the B & B

Photos from the Galleria . . . 

Photos from the Duomo . . . 

Images from St. Ambrose . . . 

St Ambrose is in the white in the middle

Our epic 2017 fall trip . . . first post

So, after a couple of years of not being able to take a big trip, the epic fall trip is here.  Because of bargain shopping, even though we had no intention of going to England this time around, we flew into London.  

Airplane tickets bought: round trip Atlanta to London and Dublin back to Atlanta; one way London to Milan, Milan to Edinburgh, and Edinburgh to Dublin.  We also bought Eurail passes for Italy. Total spent so far on transportation?  Right at $1,000 each for all that.  I love cheap travel!  (I am not saying that $1000 is not a lot of money; what I am saying is that when a round trip ticket within the states from, for example, Knoxville to Atlanta (35 minutes of flight) costs over $500, you can see why I feel that we scored some bargains.  We even paid a fee to check one bag on each of the one way flights, and that price is INCLUDED in the amount.

So, overnight Wednesday from Atlanta to London, via Toronto.  We arrived at Heathrow around 11 am London time.  By the time that we got through customs, immigration, baggage claim, and took a short bus ride to our hotel, we were beat.  We usuallly don’t take naps, but we were both beat.  So, nap, dinner, relax, and then bed.  Never left the hotel.

We had to be up this morning at 4:30 to get to the airport on time.  After a 2 hour British Air flight, a long train ride, and a transfer to the subway to finish up, we finally arrived at our bed and breakfast.  It is an apartment that has been converted, and there are four bedrooms with two shared baths total.  There is an elevator, which is good, because we are on the 5th floor.  The elevator is quirky, and cozy.  Without luggage, you would be lucky to get three people in it, and you would be intimately acquainted when you were done.

We went grocery shopping (again, saving money and economizing to make sure that we are able to make these trips) and had a late lunch/early dinner, and headed to a museum we wanted to check out.  The Pinacoteca Brera was founded by Napoleon, who wanted to make it the Louvre of Italy, and has Renaissance works of the Italian masters.  It was a nice museum, though I missed my Impressionists, lol.

We headed home in the subway; we are still working on figuring out the station nearest our B&B.  There are 15 exits, and we still can’t figure out from inside the station which one to take to exit closest to our lodging.

We are aging.  We are beat, lol.  We have done trips where we go for 12 – 15 hours nonstop.  Today, after all of our traveling, we were done after only one event.  We joked that we will be 70 and taking a trip, and after one outing, will need three days to recover to be able to go out and do something else.

Observations . . . one of the things that we have gotten to like is that over here, it is not uncommon for hotels to have a double room that has two twin beds.  They are smaller, but we are only in the room (usually) to sleep.  In London we stayed at a Radisson Park Inn, and had an adorable room with twins.  The B & B has two twin beds and shared bathrooms, and of course, breakfast is included.  We are right near downtown Milan, and our cost per night is 65 Euros. The other three rooms are occupied by folks from Lithuania, Portugal, and Spain.  

Public transportation is so easy in the larger cities here.  (I am sure that in many larger cities in the US, the same is true).  We paid 8 Euros each for public transportation passes.  We can take any bus, city train, and subway as many times as we want for the next 48 hours.  We debated renting a car here in Italy, and heard too many horror stories, so we ended up with Eurail passes instead.  

We plan to get a good night’s sleep.  I have put my nighty on the nightstand (I usually sleep . . . . um . . . . natural) for those middle of the night trips to the loo.  Tomorrow, the Duomo, which is the 2nd largest cathedral in the world.  It seats 40,000 people, and is one of the best examples of Gothic architecture in the world.
The loo in Heathrow

The view from our balcony in Milan

The library and some of the paintings in the Pinacoteca . . . 

I liked this detail at the bottom of one of the paintings.


The inside of a perfume shop.  I just loved the colors!

When you have to take your to kiddos somewhere . . . bikes and mopeds are EVERYWHERE!!