Task #98 of 101.1001 is to visit one of the 101 wishlist travel places defined in task #27. I managed to check off two from that list: assisi and tuscany on our europe trip.
Not going to repeat the travel reports, linking:
florence: day 06 | day 07 | day 09 | day 10 | day 11
siena: day 08
assisi: day 12 | day 13 | day 14 | day 15
There’s a reason why these places are on so many bucket lists. We spent almost a week in florence and 4 days in assisi and barely scratched the surface of what there was to see and experience. We also were very blessed with the people we met, and got to take part in palm sunday in assisi. We agreed that we could have stayed much, much longer. Weeks, months. Tuscany has everything: beautiful scenery, culture, food, a magical vibe. Assisi has the spirituality, and beautiful scenery too.
Technically today is still a travelling day so I’m calling it europe day 33. Fight was about 20mins early but the gain was completely wiped out by the slow-moving taxi queue. I had a lot with me—big suitcase, check-in backpack, hand luggage backpack, small bag with chocolates, duty free purchases. My major purchases were chocolate & snacks mostly for mum, tons of fridge magnets and 5 bottles of whisky. The heaviest were the whiskies at 6kg, I think I’ve done well to keep the weight manageable. I’m glad of mm’s silver status that gave us an extra 10kg.
Unpacked very slowly, then showered and did laundry. Another reason for airbnb: we did most of our laundry in London so our suitcases were mostly filled with clean clothes and I really only had 3/4 of a full load when I got home.
I’ll be jetlagged for a week or two while I work on post-trip stuff. Immediate concerns are to pay utilities and credit card bills. Trip spreadsheet is a matter of data entry and checking FX charged by credit cards. There are 3,267 images to sort and upload so this will take a while. I’m estimating around 1,500 when I’m done. At least we’ve had wifi throughout the trip so I’ve been able to post reports daily.
The day before we set off, mm’s brother got us a simple fitness band and we have been tracking our steps and sleep all trip. We have to sync it to the mifit app, as there is no display on the tracker itself. According to mifit, I walked 285km at an average of 8.93km for 32 days; 456,276 steps average 14,259 per day. I read that the band may be 25% off, which may account for why mine would show 10,000+ steps while mm’s show 3,000. An average of 6.5km and 10,700 steps average per day seems more reasonable. There were days especially in Netherlands and Italy that we walked a lot; once we got to Ireland we had the car and in London we stayed in quite a lot.
I’m never this inefficient with packing or getting going. We spent the morning lounging around and lunch eating the last of our foods—lamb shoulder, fennel, bagel, rocket, pepper, yogurt. We simply didn’t want the trip to end, and were reluctant to get going, sigh.
But all good trips come to an end. Minicab and train to heathrow, speedy check-in and we had loads of time to browse around the duty-free. Bought a Talisker Dark Storm, which we had the opportunity to try. £42.99 for 1l is good value. I had in mind getting the Balvenie triple cask 16 at the airport, but was more drawn towards the Talisker. It’s also a lot cheaper.
The plane wasn’t full but there was someone sitting in our row which was a bummer. Dinner was chicken with rice (average) and breakfast sausage and eggs (fraction better than chicken). Watched Hobbit 5 armies and Hunger Games Mockingjay part 1. Slept for about 2-3hrs, a little uncomfortably.
Today is the last full day of our trip. Sad, sad, sad. In a way we are both happy to be going home; but we also don’t want the trip to end.
The plan today was to have not a lot of plan. For lunch I made the lamb shoulder we were going to cook yesterday but were too full. Plus roasted fennel and asparagus. There were salt, pepper and italian seasoning at the flat but the garlic on the shelf was too dry. I used bits of fennel and asparagus to add flavour to the lamb. It worked out very very good, may be needed 2 more minutes of cooking, but we like rare to medium rare. Served on this long wooden board, just like Jamie.
No plans, except to walk around. Walked down Kilburn High Road through Paddington Rec to Little Venice. My home grounds. I can’t help it, I gravitate towards Maida Vale whenever I can. It’s in my bones.
We skipped the cafés at Warwick Avenue and the canal boat waterside café. It started to drizzle and get cold so we stopped at an aussie café along the canal for tea and cake. Afterwards we headed towards m&s—ended up buying a whole lot of stuff. Bus back towards Kilburn, bought more stuff for dinner and to bring back. We don’t have a huge baggage allowance and we’d been careful about what we packed and bought. There’s still space for important stuff like whisky, cereal, tea bags and even a couple of bags of kale.
After dropping off the rental car we ended up sitting at a pub drinking tea and coffee for 2 hours. Mostly I listened while mm talked. We compared our favourite highlights of the trip—I gave short descriptions and she mostly stuck with long speeches.
Lunch was at comptoir libanais at St Christopher’s Place. A semi-chain (like Leon and Carlucci’s I suppose) of casual Lebanese food in a colourful and cheerful restaurant. We had grilled halloumi and hummous to start, followed by a lamb tagine and lamb fattet. Originally I wanted to go to (pun intended) Orignal Tagines behind Edgware Road but I found out that it’s closed. We liked this new discovery, yes the tagine wasn’t as original or flavoursome—the lamb was cooked separately then spooned onto couscous—the couscous was still good. It was the first time we tried fattet—a layered dish with minced lamb, pita bread, pomegranate seeds and tahini yogurt. Quite filling.
Walked around Oxford Street a little, main at John Lewis. Admired the new routemasters that had a door at the back. When there is a conductor they remained open like the old style, but with only the driver the doors closed like a regular bus.
Went to Borough Market for a stroll to discover the layout had changed. Seemed larger with more corridor and walking space. The real destination was whisky exchange to buy that bottle of Ardbeg Supernova I saw the other day. Apparently it’s a committee release which supposedly made it even more special. We also discovered that a bottle of Mortlach 16, which I bought for £45 in Edinburgh 3 years ago, is now retailing for £95. And I was thinking of opening my bottle. I’m now going to put in safely back on the shelves.
Destination today was Bibury in the Cotswolds. We drove out to Cheltenham and Gloucester occasionally when we were living in London, and mm saw some pictures on fb about a village near Cheltenham called Bibury. Looked very idyllic and beautiful. Rented a car today from a slow and inefficient Hertz office and drove out on the A40 and M40—home turf.
Bibury was further than I thought, and it’s 8 miles off the A40 when I thought from google maps that it’s right on top. We parked at a quiet street and walked around the church and green. Had a picnic lunch of drumsticks, hard-boiled eggs and red peppers. Walked further to the picturesque part of the village. No wonder the Cotswolds attracts so many visitors. Definitely befitting the area being designated an area of outstanding beauty.
There was a small river full of trout and ducks. A few bridges. And rows of houses made with Cotswold stone. We walked as far as the Swan Hotel, crossed the bridge and had a tea/coffee at the trout farm.
The other side of the village, where the church is, is quieter. The church was pretty, with old tombstones in its graveyard. The village was extremely beautiful, yet it felt cold and the locals weren’t very friendly. Even for a weekday, there were quite a few tourists, including a couple of coachloads. Can imagine how busy and crowded it can get during weekends. There were quite a few houses for sale, but we weren’t tempted. Location is a bit in the middle of nowhere, there are virtually no shops and the place is crawling with tourists. Imagine dozens of people taking selfies in front of your garden or even at your windows. Sigh.
From Bibury it was a quick drive to Bicester Village. My sole purpose there was as a sidekick who nodded and helped pick out colours as mm did shopping. She bought a bag, a pair of shoes and a whole bag full of L’Occitane stuff. After the outlet village naturally we went to the Tesco next door. Bought veg, soup, crisps and a half shoulder of lamb for tomorrow—the plan is to return the car, walk around leisurely then come back to make dinner.
A day of meeting friends in London. Lunch with our friend CC at dishoom behind King’s Cross. The area had definitely gone through a lot of changes, now full of trendy restaurants and shops. Dishoom is an Indian small street food place that is pretty authentic. A mix of modern and Indian railway/godown type decorations. We had a few shared small plates—lamb kebab, fried okra, calamari, daal, naan, roti and the like.
I left mm with our friend and went off to meet my own friends. Met my ex-intern SM at Waterloo and did a tour of the pubs around the Old Vic. He is still working at my ex-ex-ex company and also had some good news to share with me on the family and house front and we had a fantastic chat. It was as if time hadn’t passed.
Dinner was with my friends JE and TH, more great conversation. We shared a 1.1kg prime rib plus sides at Hawksmoor. It was absolutely lovely to see friends, share recent news, and talk about future plans. Hopefully I’ll get to see them in the near future.
Today is the second sunday of easter, or the sunday of divine mercy and mm wanted to go to this church in Camden town. It’s a nice small parish church where most of the attendees seemed to know each other. Good mass.
Lunch was my pick and I opted for…Nando’s. Hmmm. Remember when mum and I went to Vancouver and we had Nando’s, it’s the same situation. We had a sharing platter with 4 pieces of chicken and 4 sides. Unlimited soft drinks so I broke my coke zero semi-fast and had many, many glasses.
Camden on a Sunday was crowded. We walked through a part of the market then headed towards the tube station, our destination was London Bridge for The Whisky Exchange. We got there after 3pm so Borough Market itself was closed.
The nice people at TWE gave us samples from their bottle-your-own casks—craggenmore, ledaig, arras. Got talking to Duncan Ross, one of the assistant managers there and a fountain of knowledge. He gave us a small sampling of Karuizawa 30yr sherry cask. Wow, wow, wow!! I saw a bottle of Ardbeg Supernova on the shelf and was this close to snapping it up, without concern to how much my suitcase will weigh. Logic prevailed, we’ll see about our total weight first.
Dinner back at the flat: tomato basil soup with added kale, fresh toscana bread from whole foods, proscuitto from Rome. Laundry and relaxation.
A day of errands. The most important task today, and one of the most important of the entire trip, was to renew our passports. Annoyingly, the process of passport renewals got moved back to the UK, so those of us who live overseas have to send our old passports through the mail and wait 6 weeks—some people report the wait is more like 10-12 weeks. Personally I simply don’t have a 12 week window this year that I won’t need my passport, so we take the opportunity of us being in the UK to go for the one day service. I hate, hate, hate having to pay 75% extra over the already extortionate passport fee. Don’t have much of a choice really.
There was also a palava about the passport photo. Again another price gouging exercise. Anyway, we got our application in the morning and our passports were ready for collection in the afternoon. One thing off our minds.
By lunchtime we were hungry. Had rough plans to go to tkts at Leicester Square to check out musicals, so lunch in the West End made sense. We debated between pub food, roast duck noodles or dim sum. When we got off the bus, my feet automatically made their way to Air Street where a dark wooden door had a simple sign above: Hawksmoor. Hahaha, our excuse was we couldn’t figure out where to eat in Central London so we had to find somewhere, anywhere.
The Air Street branch opened after I left so this was my first time. Liking the first floor location, sunlight helps. The place is also bigger and the tables not so squeezed together. We both opted for the express menu. £24 for 2 courses. To start, potted beef with yorkshires and onion jam. Unusual combination, the potted beef was scrumptious and the yorkies puffed and huge. For mains we had rump steak with baked sweet potato and buttered greens. The steak was a little overcooked so wasn’t perfect. I looked at the wine list, cocktail list and decided on a Rittenhouse Rye. The first time I tried this was at Seven Dials and the bartender there recommended it to me.
Nothing interesting or discounted at tkts so we trekked back to Victoria to get our passports. Back to our airbnb home. It was like going home, in a way. I used to do a lot of grocery shopping at Kilburn High Road too. We hit the shops we needed to get everything we wanted: poundland, superdrug, sainsbury’s, m&s.
Bought biscuits, chocolate, crisps, popcorn, cereal, yogurt, fruit, juice, tea bags, veg, chicken drumsticks, mini scotch eggs, soup, eggs and a bottle of wine. We went a little crazy, we’re only in London a week, wonder if we can finish everything. Dinner was tomato and bean soup with added kale plus a bagel. Great to have a kitchen. We’ve been trying to keep to this one meal out and one meal at our retreat house / hotel / airbnb throughout the trip. It was also very important that the flat had a washing machine as we were both in dire need to do laundry. We did some handwashing in Assisi and Rome but anything larger than a t-shirt hadn’t been washed since Florence. Did one load, will probably need 2 more loads before we leave.
We had half a day in Dublin, so we took a stroll north of the Liffey, crossing the Ha’penny Bridge to the O’Connell and Henry Streets area. Another pedestrianised area with familiar shops. Bought a few more last minute souvenirs. Lunch at Brick Alley café at Temple Bar, back to the €8.95 special—shepherd’s pie, lentil soup and ice cream. Good value, homemade and tasty. This is the other good thing about Ireland—familiar shops, familiar foods, cheaper prices.
Returning the rental car was weird. The person took our keys, checked the car, mileage and fuel. Normally at this point, they’d use a handheld machine to print my receipt, but here at Dublin airport it involved going into the office. Long queue. I never had to queue to return a car. Not very efficient.
Queues at check-in and security too, but we allowed plenty of time. We definitely needed the cushion in order to browse the irish whiskey selection at the airport. Initially my plan was to get the Tullamore DEW 10 year that we tried yesterday. We ended up getting this one, and in talking to the informative guy there, also bought the Tullamore DEW Phoenix special release as well as a Bushmills 16. We have to figure out how to pack all these bottles on the way home.
Early dinner at the airport, shared a beef and guinness pie. I couldn’t resist, I had to get a pint of guinness. It simply won’t do, to spend 4 days in Ireland without tasting a drop of the good stuff. The pie was decent for airport food.
Our flight was about 30mins late coming into heathrow, quite a significant delay considering flight time was just over 1 hour. It was the third time this trip that we landed at heathrow and today we finally made it out of the terminals. From Paddington we took a taxi to the airbnb flat we rented in Kilburn. The host’s cleaning lady was still there, so we had to sit around while she finished.
The flat is a one-bedroom that looks like it’s someone’s home instead of those professional rentals that have infiltrated airbnb. Homely furniture and charmingly decorated. Funny thing is, many things don’t work properly, just like in someone’s home. One of the blinds in the living room fell down, the dishwasher is broken, some of the storage doors don’t close properly, the shower handle comes out when touched. We weren’t looking for anything slick, so this homely place works for us. During this trip we stayed at different types of accommodation, from retreat houses to hotels to airbnb to staying at friends’ home. I think at the end of this trip I can write articles on different types of travel accommodation and how to manage 1 month’s travel on 20kg luggage.
Checked out of hotel and were on our way at 10.30am. The destination was Tullamore D.E.W. distillery visitor centre. When we were at heathrow, we met a lady at the whisky tasting counter who had lots of whisky stories and suggested that we visited the visitor centre. She also gave us a note to give to their brand ambassador. Tullamore is 1hr west of Dublin and was a detour from our planned route, so we had high expectations.
We know better now to skip the tour, especially since it was an exhibition rather than actual working distillery. Enquired about the expressions that would be part of the tasting afterwards, and as usual were not impressed by the selection. The very nice lady at the cash desk gave us 3 even better expressions to sample, free of charge. Generous tasting portions too—12 yr sherry cask, 10 yr four casks, special reserve. First time we tried this whiskey. We were most taken with the 10 year single malt that had been matured in 4 different casks: bourbon, oloroso sherry, port and madeira.
Had lunch at the restaurant, just sandwiches and shared a rhubarb crumble. Sandwiches were good, the crumble was more like crumble pie. Finished with more whiskey tastings—bonded warehouse (available at the visitor centre only) and Phoenix (retail bottles sold out). Still liking the 10yr four casks.
Even though we didn’t take the tour, we enjoyed our visit to the visitor centre. The shop had cool stuff, the tasting samples were generous and the food was fine. Great location next to a canal, so peaceful on a sunny day. I’d recommend this to anyone visiting Dublin, it’s only about 1hr’s drive.
When we got back to Dublin we hit a bit of rush hour traffic. Luckily we were booked in the same hotel as before so we knew the way. Checked in and were back out quickly. Strolled to Trinity College for pictures, then made our way to an early dinner at Bear. I’d read that this restaurant offered less popular cuts of steak like onglet, bavette and flank so we were keen to try it out. We were not disappointed. A huge (900g-1kg) bavette, chargrilled rare, arrived at our table together with the 2 sides we ordered—crispy kale and cauliflower cheese. Delicious and definitely different from the usual sirloin and rib-eye. We would definitely come again.
Still enough time before sunset to walk to St Patrick’s and Christchurch cathedrals then to Tesco before returning to our room.
Breakfast at hotel—full irish breakfast (like full english with black & white puddings). Left later than expected at 10.20am. Delay on N22 with a 15-20min wait for convoy construction meant we reached Killarney after 12pm. Stopped at tourist information to get maps and wasted further time at the outlet shopping centre. Thankfully there were only a few shops there.
Set off on the Ring of Kerry route at 1pm. The scenic route is a 179km (111 miles) loop through the rugged coastline of the Iveragh peninsula. It’s one of Ireland’s most popular destination and can be done clockwise or anti-clockwise. Guidebooks say buses go anti-clockwise so drivers may want to go the other way but we ended up anti-clockwise anyway. Still early in the season and didn’t see many coaches. I drove quite aggressively through the initial parts of the ring to try to gain some time. First stop was at Caherciveen, a quaint little town which we thought was on the coast but was actually inland. Nixed the idea of lunching at a seafood restaurant; went to a local café instead and had homemade soup with brown bread and apple strudel.
The Ring of Kerry led to the Skellig Ring, another loop through the deep coastal part of the peninsula. The car ferry that led to Valentia island was closed so we drove on and crossed via a bridge. Climbed up a very steep gravel road to Shepherd’s View viewpoint on Geokaun Mountain which offered a 360º view of the island and the ocean. Very spectacular. Very windy.
The bridge crossed back to the mainland at Portmagee, another quaint little coastal village. Wished we had more time to explore, but it was past 4pm and time to push on to finish the Skellig Ring and rejoin the Ring of Kerry.
The route between Waterville and Catherdaniel was all rugged, dramatic coastline and secluded beaches. There were a few viewpoints and we stopped at a few. Again, feeling rushed so couldn’t stop for as often or as long as we liked. The sun was out, the sky and sea were blue and it was very windy. By then mm had taken over the driving and progress was slower. Headed back to Cork, reached hotel past 8pm, later than we wanted.
Not a lot of choices for dinner, so we opted for the hotel restaurant. The hotel was obviously recently renovated (some rooms on our corridor were still being stripped and we could see/hear contractors drilling and the like). The staff in the restaurant at both breakfast and dinner could do with more training—they were all very keen but service was not as efficient as an established restaurant crew. We had soup and mussels to start and lamb shank (mm) and pan-fried hake (me) as mains. Got a Bushmills 10 from the bar to take back to our room.
A full day at the Ring of Kerry. Felt rushed, even though what we saw was extremely beautiful. Definitely need a return trip.
Didn’t sleep well (too warm, curtains didn’t close properly and pigeons cooing outside), woke up to lots of happy birthday greetings from family and friends. Trying not to get too unhappy about getting older.
Checked out, got car, loaded our luggage and were on our way at 10am. A short detour took us off course but we found the motorway to Cork eventually. The signposts were informative, it was a glorious sunny day, perfect for driving. Part of the motorway had tolls, in general the quality of the road was excellent and not too many cars and lorries.
First stop for a loo break, then around 12.30pm we reached Cashel. Took pictures of the rock (a lot like rocca maggiore in Assisi), didn’t go inside the castle. Weren’t hungry so we pushed on. The destination was Midleton to the Jameson distillery experience.
We weren’t interested in the tour, just browsed around the shop. Had a great lunch at the restaurant—lamb shank for me, irish stew for mm. Tasted a dram of green spot irish whiskey at the bar.
Drove the short distance to Cork, found parking and headed towards the English Market to catch them before they close. It’s a small indoor market with stalls selling fruit & veg, meat, fish and dried goods. Some of the stalls were closed and others were closing, we bought oysters from a fish stall. One of the fishmongers came to take a picture with me.
Visited a souvenir shop, then to M&S for dinner. Yep, for my birthday dinner I opted to get M&S chicken drumstick, noodle salad and rocket to have at our hotel. It was a good choice, we had some troubles finding the hotel and needed the directions of a friendly Korean chef at a pizzeria. The hotel, when we reached it, was a sight for sore eyes. Free parking, huge luxurious room, walk-in shower, air-conditioning and curtains that close. Had a drink (redbreast 15) at the bar brought to our room to have with our dinner.
I’m quite proud that we booked the yotel at T4, because it was so convenient to take the free train to T2 to catch our flight to Dublin. Only 1hr and then we got the car rental shuttle. Quite a lengthy process to get our rental car, a toyota corolla. Somehow we got off the motorway and ended up in the north suburbs. I’ve only been to Dublin once, 3 years ago, and didn’t have a car then so it was a while before I got my bearings. Plus the combination of one-way systems and bank holiday traffic, it took us a while to find our hotel. Not helped by its obscure location at the top of Temple Bar.
Once we parked, unloaded and checked in, we went in search of food. Found a nice little casual café (the sort with shared wooden tables and artwork on exposed walls) that was still serving lunch. Had the special of shepherd’s pie, salad and ice cream. I had a local cide too.
Had some time for a little shopping. Traditional sweet shop (the sort that should be called a shoppe) and Tesco. Walked down Grafton Street, aiming at the Celtic Whiskey shop. Ahhhh. So many Irish whiskeys, so little time.
Dinner was a special date, to celebrate both our birthdays. I booked Butcher Grill at Ranelagh. Last time in Dublin with RM, we made the trip especially to Ranelagh for this, and it was no different this time. Easy enough to get the tram from St Stephen’s Green. We started with half a dozen sweet Irish rock oysters (the sort with only needed a few drops of lemon juice). Then for mains we had their côte de boeuf for two, on Mondays and Tuesdays this is reduced to €45. Came with beans and onion rings which we substituted for fries. A delicious cut of steak: tender and succulent on the bone. Different from Hawksmoor steak, less intense, sweeter.
Tram then walk back to our hotel. Final celebration was birthday cake in the form of one-bite miniature red velvet cupcakes. Perfect.
Early start, left retreat house at 8.30am. It’d been raining and thundery all night, and it was still raining quite heavily when we left. Nearer the Vatican, the crowds suddenly got very thick. There were plenty of bottlenecks and no one knew where to go. Whilst the other Italians were complaining at the volunteers, we struck up a short chat with a Canadian volunteer. He was there to open and close one gate. It was pandemonium, our new friend said that they were expecting 100,000 people in St Peter’s Square for Easter mass.
We had tickets but couldn’t find our way to the proper ticketed area. It was pouring, everyone was wet, anxious and cranky. We found a spot near the front of one of the non-ticketed sections and decided to stay put.
It was very cold and wet. We got to our spot at 9.30am, the mass started at 10.15am. The rain got heavier, we were trying to follow the readings and gospel and our mass booklet got so wet and ruined. Luckily around the Communion stage the skies cleared up enough for most umbrellas to be put away.
After mass ended, there was a sense of anticipation as everybody pushed forward towards the corridors. Pope Francis came by in his Popemobile, we saw him twice. Our spot was just behind a couple of shorter people so we had a great view of him coming by.
The Pope returned to his apartment and came out to the balcony to give us the urbi et orbi blessing. It was definitely a blessing to be there in person for the day.
It started to rain again, and at 12.30pm we’d been standing outside for 3 hours. We were SHIVERING. Our hands and feet were numb and even with an umbrella and waterproof coats we were completely soaked. We were grateful that our retreat house was so near, we still struggled to walk back to the café opposite. Tea, hot chocolate and a hot meal of pizza and gnocchi.
Back across the road to collect ouf luggage and say goodbye to the sisters. Sister Donatella gave us each a book about the convent, so touched. The taxi came at 2pm and took us to the airport direct—would have cost around the same to get a taxi to the train station and a train. Check in was straightforward, boarding was efficient and the flight to LHR was 2.5hrs. We got our bags and went to M&S to get juice. Free bus to T4 and we were in our cabin at the yotel and settled.
Our last full day in Italy, and the weather turned from blue skies to cloudy and rainy. Took the subway to the Coliseum and ran into a wall of people. Walked around the southern end and around Palatine Hill.
Happily came across a local market. Fruit & veg, cheese, meat, flowers, snacks. We bought breadsticks and biscuits from a very nice man. Had early lunch at the market too—sausages with greens and lasagna. Simple, homemade.
Walked through the city, heading towards Campo di Fiore market. Stopped for gelato and coffee. The market is supposed to be a big food market but we were disappointed. Yes it was big, with fruit & veg, pasta, cheese, sweets, oil, vinegar, clothing and bags. The disappointing part was that it was catered purely for tourists, unlike the other market that was almost all locals.
It had started to rain, we headed to Piazza Navona, Santa Maria Maddalena church and the Pantheon. Found a small trattoria in a side street and had early dinner of stuffed courgette flowers, spaghetti cacio e pepe and fettucine funghi porcini. We were so early that the kitchen had barely opened, the cooks and waiters were watching football on tv.
The route back to our retreat house took us across the river and a classic view of Ponte St Angelo with St Peter’s Basilica in the background in the evening sun. There was a commotion at St Peter’s, as the people who were attending tonight’s vigil mass almost stampeded inside the security area.
Shopping at the supermarket then back to our room to shower and re-pack. Here’s a random pic in Rome, of a line of smartcars parked at the side of the street.
Kept forgetting some of the days during travelling, somehow got it done.
- run/walk/bike 60mins // done
- run/walk/bike 90mins // done
- take the stairs // done
- weights/trx/resistance band // done
- do more than one type of exercise // done
- do something relaxing // done
- sleep early // done
- 3 different vegetables in a day // done
- 3 different fruits in a day // done
- no red meat day // done
- no alcohol day // done
- no snack day // done
- new food // done
- new drink // done
- new recipe // done
- gratitude for the day // done
- keep calm and… // done
- participate in prayer or service // done
- say a prayer for family // done
- silent retreat // done
- 10 photos: a colour // done
- 10 photos: a shape // done
- 10 photos: directions // done
- 10 photos: loud // done
- 10 photos: morning // done
- 10 photos: next to me // done
- 10 photos: numbers // done
- 10 photos: old // done
- 10 photos: people // done
- 10 photos: water // done
- rest day — no challenges today // rest day not needed
food & drink
Started the day feeling dizzy with a heavy-head headache. Managed to walk a couple of blocks to a nearby bar café for some vegetables before needing to head back to our room. [TMI]Promptly threw up the food.[/TMI]. Slept for a few hours until around 3pm. Did about 12mins of mindfulness meditation, ate some pasta, drank lots and lots and lots of water and juice. Feeling a more human but still slightly dizzy. No idea why I suddenly got sick, and we decided it wasn’t worth speculating. The important thing is to quickly get better. I feel bad about wasting a day but mm, bless her, doesn’t see it that way. I leaned on her all the way walking this morning, and she ran up and down to the vending machine and across the road to the supermarket to get stuff. In a way, today Good Friday was as good a day to get some rest. We’re at halfway through our trip and aside from 2 masses (the next one is Easter Sunday mass) and the Sistine Chapel (which we covered yesterday), we don’t have anywhere pressing to go. If I continue to feel under the weather, I’ll try to hold on until London so I can go see my GP.
I did manage to upload the photos that were tasks #21-30 of 30.30: take 10 photos over 10 days. I set these tasks deliberately knowing that I would be travelling the second half of march and figured it would be easier. One would have thought that there were plenty of opportunities in Amsterdam, Antwerp, Belgium, Florence, Siena and Assisi to take 10 simple photos. I don’t know if it’s the subjects I picked but it wasn’t as straightforward, may be it’s because I kept forgetting. Managed to get 10 photos in the end. Posting thumbnails, click for full size.
- a colour
- a shape
- next to me
Challenge is done. I’ll post the final update.
9.30am mass at the Vatican meant leaving our retreat house at 8.15am, even though we were only 10mins’ walk away. Had to find the right queue, go through security and find seats. We sat around the middle of the basilica, together with many many faithful with tickets. Note to self: next time, apply for more tickets than needed because there were many fathers and sisters from all over the world without tickets. Hopefully they were able to watch the mass from outside in St Peter’s Square.
The mass was in Latin, with some Italian. We could follow as the mass booklet had English translation. This was the Chrism mass, or blessings of the oils—the oils that would be used for baptism, the sick and others throughout the year. They were containers as large as whisky barrels—must use up a lot of oil at the Vatican a year. Pope Francis delivered the homily in Italian, and it was quite lengthy, we wished we could understand it. It was still a blessed experience. Communion was very efficient, with many many fathers stationed at strategic points that meant we only had a few steps to move from our seats. Lots of people taking pictures, and we were a bit too far to take clear ones of the Pope. The mass was very long, finishing around 12pm. We didn’t mind, mm was a lot happier than me about it, obviously.
Quick lunch at a shady spot at the square next to the Vatican. Shared the St Francis bread we bought at Assisi. We probably looked like poor students, sitting forlornly there sharing one piece of bread, one of the the street vendors that were selling souvenirs, selfie sticks or fake handbags approached us, took one look at us, and walked away. Hahaha!
We’d pre-booked tickets for the Vatican Museum and Sistine Chapel for an extra €4. Totally well worth the additional cost, the queue for tickets looked like it was an hour long. We breezed through, got our entrance tickets, audioguide and went the the bathroom. Then we joined the masses. Oh boy, it was crowded. Lots of slow moving tour groups as well as hundreds of thousands of visitors.
The whole place was a one-way system through the Vatican museum, full of ancient artefacts, sculptures as well as Renaissance paintings and frescos. The audioguide was helpful in explaining the history and story behind many of the exhibits. One of my favourite rooms was the Galleria delle Carte Geographie, with both sides filled with ancient and modern (for the period) maps of the world and Italy. The roof was more intricate frescos. I left the bottom of the pic intact, to show the sheer crush of the crowd. We were quite tired halfway through the museum, so we stopped for coffee, tea and a slice of cake at a strategically placed coffee shop.
The main attraction of the visit was the Sistine Chapel. For all the times I’d visited Rome and the Vatican, this was my first time there. There were signs before we reached the Sistine Chapel that it was a sacred place so everybody should be silent and no photography was allowed. The chapel was absolutely stunning. It was also as crowded as the Tube at 5.30pm. Difficult to find room even to stand. Every 5 minutes or so the staff had the announce to the crowds to observe the silence and no photography rules. The experience could have been ruined by the crowds, but it wasn’t, because of the unbelieveable brilliance of Michaelangelo’s work. The audioguide talked us through each aspect of the frescos, from the depiction of God’s creation of Man, Man’s temptation and the Original Sin on the ceiling; to the 12 frescos on the side telling various Biblical stories (Moses parting the Red Sea, Jesus handing the keys to St Peter); to the entire wall at the entrance dedicated to the Last Judgement. We learned a lot, and didn’t want to leave.
Strolled through the rest of the museum, mainly consisting of gift shops and more exhibits. Since we’d only eaten half a St Francis bread the whole day we were famished. Went to the supermarket and bought a feast: lamb cutlets, rocket (on sale at 99c, we bought 2 boxes), tomatoes, burrata. Enough time to do some handwashing too. So happy to be back in our room before 7pm.
Last morning in the retreat house in Assisi. Had breakfast, final packing then checked out. There was a 9am mass in the chapel, which mm attended while I used the internet in the sitting room. Our train was at 11.26am, so we left with plenty of time to catch the bus to the station. We’d scoped out the route to the bus stop yesterday—it was mostly pavement, about 12 steps up then 2 lifts through a car park so we figured we could manage.
The train was quite full, and the teenagers sitting next to us were quite noisy. The train stopped at one of the outer platforms at Rome Termini so it was quite a trek to the taxi stand. The taxi driver was helpful and friendly, we got to the retreat house without any drama. This retreat house is within walking distance to the Vatican, around the corner from the small market my parents and I visited twice during our two stops at Rome in the past 2 years. Yep, this is my third visit to Rome in as many years, and the area is becoming slightly familiar.
Anyway, the retreat house is at the corner of a busy side street, with 5 storeys. Luckily there is a lift. The Sisters were so warm and nice, there was even a helper lady who translated for us. Sister Donatella spoke a little English, and we communicated with the other Sisters with lots of grazie and si. Our room is a very large twin with lots of room to walk around and a private bathroom. A very old 14” tv which we unplugged because we needed the plug for our charging station (I set up an extension cord so we can charge 2 iphones, 1 ipad, 2 cameras, 2 fitness trackers and occasionally 1 external battery). No internet in the room, we knew that when we booked. We asked the Sisters and heard the good news that there is internet in the common room. We don’t mind coming down here to use wifi every night, that’s what we did at Assisi.
Had a late lunch at the café bar opposite. Spaghetti alle vongole and a side of grilled vegetables. Glass of house red for me. The spaghetti was nice but ultra salty. It was past 4pm so it was probably early dinner / high tea.
Next stop was the Vatican. We knew we had tickets for the mass on Easter Sunday in my name, but the confirmation letter for mm’s application never arrived, so we thought we’d check with the office to see if she got lucky with her application too. There was the perpetual long queue for security, and we figured it wasn’t the right place. Asked the Swiss Guards and were directed to the side entrance to pick up tickets. No problem for the ones in my name, I had the letter and reference number. When mm explained that she was travelling and missed the confirmation letter, the nice guy checked her name and yay! we have tickets for mass tomorrow with Papa Francesco.
Strolled around for a bit. Had a gelato, bought some magnets, headed to the bridges and the river. So different from Florence and Assisi. Florence, though touristy, is still a small town. Assisi, again touristy, is an even smaller town and felt more intimate and peaceful. Rome, well, it’s Rome. It’s noisy, busy, full of beggars and people selling selfie sticks. You fight with cars and buses and a million other tourists when you cross the road. There is a special smell and atmosphere. It’s Rome.
For a change we were out relatively early, caught the 10.10am bus to Santa Maria degli Angeli near the train station. This was the site of Porziuncola, a church that was already standing in St Francis’ and St Clare’s time. This was the second church rebuilt by St Francis. The original church was still standing, a tiny sacred stone building with a simple altar and single pews. Over the small church in the 1500s they built the basilica which had many small chapels and ornate decorations. We went into a chapel for prayer, and, as per our experience so far this trip, the chapel filled with people and all of a sudden organ music rang out and we found ourselves participating in a mass. It was quite nice, even though we couldn’t understand any of the Italian.
There was a lot to see at the rest of the cathedral. The various chapels, a rose garden, sculptures of St Francis and a statue of St Clare dedicated by mm’s mum’s school. It was quite moving to see the name of the school so prominently displayed amongst an exhibit showing St Clare’s life. There was also a small cinema and we caught a 10min film about the church and its significance in St Francis’ life. The Porziuncula attracts many pilgrims because St Francis obtained the Indulgence of Pardon, or total forgiveness for all temporal sins, from Jesus here.
Lunch at at nearby café of pizza, pasta and salad. Caught a bus back to near St Francis Basilica so we could visit the Bosco di San Francesco, or St Francis’ Woodlands. This was where he went to pray and experience nature. There was a 1.5km trail to a small church Santa Croce, then another 2.5km roundtrip to Terzo Paradiso (three paradise), an art installation of 3 circles made from an olive grove. The hike was pleasant if quite long. Since the path from the basilica entrance to Santa Croce closed at 4pm we had to return to town via a tarmac road. On the map it looked less than the 1.5km trail but the map didn’t show that it was all uphill. We got back into Assisi proper past 6pm.
Refuelled with water and gelato. Bought tomatoes and peppers from a small greengrocer’s and wandered into a gourmet shop wanting porchetta panini. We got our porchetta sandwiches, the friendly shopkeeper gave us parma ham to try and we ended up buying a few slices which she packed in vacuum. Perfect to bring back for the family. Dinner was late, almost 8pm, in our room. Laundry was dry, suitcases packed for the next leg of our trip. Rome and the Vatican over Easter. I’m excited for the occasion but very wary of the potential crowds. We met a young Father from Michigan here at the retreat house and he says he will be at Easter Sunday mass too and they anticipate 50,000 or more people. Yikes.
We finally found the wifi password at the retreat house and spent the morning catching up, uploading and posting. Also took time to do laundry so it wasn’t until around noon that we set off. The first destination today was Basilica di San Francesco, the largest basilica and the primary attraction of Assisi. The basilica consisted of the lower basilica built in 1230 and the upper basilica built in 1239, together with other buildings dedicated to St Francis, St Clare, St Anthony and many other saints. We waited till after the weekend, hoping for thinner crowds. There were plenty of visitors still, although the complex was big enough for there to be space between groups.
The iconic entrance to the lower basilica through a sloped pavement was like steps taken by pilgrims. The façade of the upper basilica overlooked a lawn with a statue of St Francis on horseback. Both basilicas were extensively painted with frescos and paintings depicting the life of St Francis. The lower basilica led to the tomb of St Francis, a sacred place. There was also an exhibition of Franciscian manuscripts.
While we were at the upper basilica, a group of teenagers and their teacher stood respectfully in front of the altar and broke out into song. Afterwards, we found out that they were a choir group from Minnesota on pilgrimage. The acoustics of the basilica was such that the song seemed to echo and reverberate around all of us who were there at the right place at the right time. Some of the kids were so overcome with emotions that they were in (happy) tears at the end of the spontaneous recital. As a bonus, photography wasn’t allowed inside the basilica, but with the choir singing, everybody took the opportunity to take pictures or videos without being scolded by the staff.
All in all, an interesting and meaningful visit. Almost all of Assisi was full of St Francis or St Clare, it was like we couldn’t turn around and there was another place where they were born / prayed / baptised / lived. Everywhere were stories. Every wall had a dedication. I could see why pilgrims flock here. Am I overwhelmed? Not necessarily by the spirituality, but by the sheer preponderance of everything associated with the saints. It’s like being immersed in saintliness.
Quick late lunch of average pizza at the most unfriendly place this trip—the silver lining was free loo and free wifi. Hiked uphill to rocca maggiore, the highest point of Assisi and a fort located on the remains of defensive walls. We debated whether to shell out the €5.50 entrance fee and since we made all the effort to trek there, seemed a waste just to turn back. What appeared to be old walls made up of piles of rocks turned out to be really interesting. A dark, hidden doorway led via a spiral staircase up one of the towers. The walls were too high for us to see much.
A secret passageway from the first tower ran underneath the walls and came out at to another tower, this one with breathtaking 360º views of Assisi, from the rocca minore furthest east, to San Ruffino Cathedral, Basilica Santa Chiara, almost the entire town and the Basilica San Francesco. It was quite scary as the fence was open, so eventually my fear of heights kicked in.
Like last night, we bought porchetta sandwiches to enjoy in our room while we relax in peace and quiet. Last day tomorrow, still have a lot planned.
The clocks changed overnight, and we thought we would pre-empt by manually setting our iphones but somehow they updated themselves so we woke up way too early at 6.30am. Sat in chapel for a bit then back to our room to wait for 7.30am breakfast. Similar continental food as Florence retreat house. We noticed all (seriously, 100%) of the other guests were American, and the sort who: a) talk loudly even at 7.30am; b) talk loudly about themselves, about their faith, about how even they were the only member of their family who was Catholic, about how coming to Assisi for pilgrimage utterly change their lives; c) were quite demanding to the sisters and staff. Some stereotypes are true.
One of the sisters told us about the events today, Palm Sunday. We headed to the main square at just before 9.30am where a crowd had gathered around baskets of olive branches. We picked out a nice bunch each and waited for the fathers to appear and bless the branches. Mostly olive branches although there were a few palm fronds. After the blessing, there was a procession towards the Cathedral San Ruffino. The choir leader sang us up the hill and into the cathedral. The mass was in Italian and I was able to follow at least the procedures, if not the words. We could follow the Gospel because mm had it on her iphone. Mostly the mass was similar in structure to what we were used to. Afterwards a few nice gentlemen in official looking grey overcoats took pictures with us. We stayed behind after the mass to take pictures of the cathedral.
Early lunch at a sandwich shop next to the cathedral of torta with rocket & ricotta and pancetta & mozzarella. Back to the retreat house to deposit our olive branches and take a rest. The next stop was the long walk (1.5km) to San Damiano, the sanctuary where St Francis heard the voice of Christ and where St Clare established a convent. A crisp cold morning had turned into a glorious blue sky day. The sanctuary was locked when we got there, and we were afraid it was closed. But people kept appearing and sitting patiently outside on benches. It was 1.55pm so we figured it might open at 2pm. Yay, we were right!
It was free to enter and we walked through the chapel, dormitory and cloisters. Supposed to be silence and no photography but people were taking pictures at will and this woman was talking on her phone (thought she got shushed).
A longer walk uphill back to town. Really tired so found a café and ordered a large bottle of water plus snacks of pizza and pasta. Further visits to S. Maria Maggiore and San Pietro churches. The churches were beginning to blend into each other. And it seemed everywhere we turned, it was someplace St Francis stayed at or did something. I guess it’s par for the course.
Souvenir shopping led us to St Francis Basilica. It was getting late and our plan was to visit it tomorrow. Not a huge amount of choices for dinner so we bought porchetta sandwiches and headed back to our room to relax and have an early night.
Checked out of our room after breakfast and left our luggage in their sitting room while we popped outside to the supermarket to get lunch. There was a little time to visit the chapel and lounge in the sitting room. Sister Lucia called a taxi for us, around 10mins to the station. Waited at the concourse for our train to come up on the board. Departure was at 12.09, and it was a semi-fast regional train with no reservation. We snagged a 4-seater and wedged our suitcases in between the seats. There was space near the door but nothing to secure the bags, and too exposed with so many stops. Lunch was mushroom and pepper foccacia from the supermarket, with smoked cheese and a black (squid ink?) foccaccia.
Arrived at Assisi around 2.45pm. The station is 4km from town so taxi seems to be the only option with 2 big suitcases. The retreat house is St Anthony’s run by the Franciscan Sisters of the Atonement and we were greeted by Sister Sue. I think she’s from the US. She showed us to our room and we got settled down then explored the retreat house. Our room is the one at the bottom right with the balcony. This retreat house is different from the one in Florence. Seemed to be slightly more business-like with housekeeping staff. There is a chapel, a multi-level garden and a few more house rules. There were specific rooms we could go, the dining room was locked, whereas in Florence we had the run of the place at all time.
We had a couple of hours of daylight left so we headed to Basilica Santa Chiara or St Clare’s Cathedral. St Clare has an equally important place in Assisi’s history as St Francis and the Basilica was very beautiful especially in the late afternoon sunlight. There was a service inside, we sat and listened for a while then visited the crucifix chapel and the crypt where St Clare was interred. Making our way to the central Piazza del Comune square we passed by Chiesa Nuova, site of St Francis’ paternal home and Santa Maria Dopra Minerva at the square. Assisi is a typical Mediterranean town, narrow hilly cobblestoned streets and stone houses. Very pretty in the evening light.
Dinner was at a touristy deli type place, the sort where the food is reheated and served on paper plates. Pizza margherita, penne arrabiata and grilled vegetables. The pizza was passable, the penne was from the packet and the grilled vegetables more like ratatouille. For a moment there we thought we were in south of France. A large house red was the best bargain. It was almost dark so we made our way back to the retreat house. There didn’t seem to be a supermarket in town, we stopped at a vegetable store and bought some tomatoes. They had wine on tap so I got a 1l plastic bottle of sangiovese for €2 (plus 0.90 for the bottle). Tasted fine.
Had to get used to a new room and new bathroom. This retreat house, aside from having no internet, also had no laundry facilities so we will be handwashing a few items a day. It was a completely clear sky tonight, chilly with lots of stars in the sky. Could see all of Orion.
Rainy day plus a late start due to laundry meant we spent the day in Florence instead of taking a day trip out to Tuscany. It means we only get to go to Siena this trip. I’m a little disappointed although mm preferred to stay in town.
Headed to south of the river to Piazzale Michaelangelo. A long trek up steps brought us to a wide open square with spectacular view of the city. The rain stopped long enough for the sun to peek out to give us even better views.
Quite a lot to see and do over there. There were 2 churches next to the square, a small church associated with a missionary and the basilica San Miniato al Monte which had a spectacular view to the city as well as an extensive cemetery behind the church. In front of the square is a small garden with roses and citrus trees, very pleasant to sit there once the weather cleared up.
Back to San Lorenzo market and Duomo area for last minute shopping. Dinner at our usual restaurant and florentine steak again. Back to the retreat house for our last night, packing and relaxing. We weren’t as agressive as before, taking our time everyday, so it meant we saw fewer sights than how we used to travel. Then again, we didn’t feel as rushed and it was sometimes nice just to sit at a café and watch the world go by.
The retreat house we stayed in Florence is the casa per ferie regina del santo rosario run by Sister Flora, Sister Lucia and others. I can’t recommend it high enough. Yes, it’s fairly basic. There is no TV in the room, no room service and other fancy stuff. I found it very peaceful and pleasant. We spent a little time this morning in the living room with the door to the garden open for fresh air and it was as good as life can get. They are actually on booking.com, the Sister was using the computer the other night.
Train to Assisi tomorrow. From the website, the retreat house at Assisi has no internet. Let’s see how we manage.
Leisurely breakfast. Laundry after breakfast too, the sisters charged us a nominal €1 to use their laundry facilities, there was plenty of room in the garden to hang our clothes to dry.
Walked to the Basilica di Santa Croce, the biggest franciscian church in Florence. The entrance fee was €6 and it was worth it, there was a lot to see. Aside from the main area, there were rooms and corridors full of art and artefacts, including many that were ruined by the 1966 flood and carefully restored. The church is also the final resting place for MIchaelangelo, Galileo, Machiavelli and other prominent people.
I enjoyed visiting the church, but got a bit impatient. We would go to a particular spot, an altar, a painting or something interesting. It’d take me a couple of minutes to look at the object and take a picture. Then I’d have to stand there for another 10mins waiting for mm, who seemed to read, look, appreciate and photograph every.single.thing with excruitiating slowness. We definitely have to compromise going forward. Sigh.
It was past 2pm by the time we came out of the basilica. I had plans to go to Piazza Michaelangelo across the river, but obviously the plan disappeared. We still had to find lunch. The first place, near palazzo vecchio, was way too touristy for our liking. We found a trattoria slightly off the main squares. It was still touristy, with some locals inside. Their lunch menu was until 3pm, so we took advantage of it. I had chicken liver crostini and mm had grilled vegetables. For mains we had veal scalloppine. Everything was good, the scalloppine was underseasoned, as if the chef forgot salt. Their bread was the best we’ve tasted in all of Italy. They made their own pizza and we noticed they made their own bread too. For dessert we shared a cheesecake with strawberries and cream.
More walking. Had a small gelato (mint and yogurt for me, mint and lemon for mm) and got a few things at the supermarket. Back at the retreat house at around 6pm. Still full from lunch, no need for dinner.
We woke up at 9am, too late for breakfast at the retreat house. Had our coffee and tea at a nearby coffee shop instead. Bought sandwiches from the street market—porchetta and lampredotto (cow stomach).
First stop was at the religious shop near the Duomo, to give the sisters there a cake we bought at Siena. They were so nice. Sister Stefanie invited us to visit their chapel above the shop. So peaceful and blessed.
The rest of the day was quite boring for me. Walked to the bus station to catch the bus for the outlet. The bus was full so we had to wait for the next one. Good timing to have lunch. The outlet had a number of brands—Prada, Ferragamo, Coach, BV, Burberry, Tods, Hogan, EA and the like. Honestly I have no interest in branded stuff, especially since most of the stuff for sale was handbags, shoes and accessories. There were a few wallets that looked alright, and mm as usual was tempted by handbags. I don’t get why anyone will buy wallets for €100-200 or handbags for almost €1000, nice thought they were. We didn’t buy anything at the end.
Walked through the market back at Florence and looked more carefully at things to buy. Came across a couple of stalls where the salesperson wasn’t obnoxious or pushy. Bought two handbags (mm) and two belts (me).
Bought chocolate at lindt then headed for dinner at the taverna near the retreat house. We shared a 1kg florentine shirloin steak on the bone, good taste and well cooked.
When I was doing research for the trip, the dilemma was how to cover Tuscany. My first reaction was to rent a car, then drive around just like what we did at Provence, but mm didn’t want to, so the task was to figure out public transportation. Most of the websites and guidebooks said that if we only had one day and one destination to visit, we should go to Siena because it’s pretty and it’s relatively reachable by bus and train.
We had a leisurely breakfast then walked to the central station. The bus station is next to the train station and we saw a Siena bus leaving at 10.40am. I glanced at the clock and it read 10.39am, eeek. Hurried to the ticket office and sent mm to hold the bus. Thanks to the kind bus driver who wanted for us. Turned out that it was a local bus that stopped at a couple of towns before Siena. We got there around 12.20pm.
Couldn’t see a tourist information office so followed our noses and the crowd. Very beautiful, rustic Tuscan town with narrow cobblestoned streets and typical houses with tiled roofs, shutters and balconies.
Wandered into a small gourmet supermarket and decided to have lunch there. Porchetta sandwich with a little pickled peppers and we shared a whole burrata. Perfect lunch. We followed the signs to San Francesco church and accidentally went inside the university next door. Felt a bit like mature students. Useful since we needed to find a bathroom. The actual San Francesco was large if really empty.
Followed the signs again to Piazza del Campo and the Duomo. The duomo had various combinations of entrance tickets including the main cathedral, the crypt, the tower, the museum next doors. We opted for just the cathedral entrance for €4.
The standout for me was the library, which had a display of illuminated choir books and frescos on the ceiling. There were also many other works of art in the cathedral as well as painted mosiacs on the floor.
On the way back to the bus station, we bought a couple of local cakes for the nuns at the retreat house and the shop. Took photos at the Basilica Cateriniana. We had 20mins to wait for the bus, and in trying to find bathrooms again accidentally came across the small pretty St Andrea chapel. We ended up going into a hotel for bathroom so all was well.
Dinner back at Florence as at the mercato again. Had the local speciality of trippa (tripe), arancini with spinach and spelt salad. Didn’t feel like anything too heavy so the combination was good. I had a chianti reserve with the meal.
Lots of walking again, probably 3-4 miles today. I’m missing running and training but hopefully the walking is keeping me from losing all my fitness. Quite pleased that we managed a whole day’s exploration without a map. Would have been nice to find a tourist information office but it’s okay.
I remember when we were planning our Provence trip in 2012 we debated between Provence and Tuscany. We only had one day in the Tuscan countryside so it’s difficult to compare. Both are beautiful and well worth repeat visits.
Woke up at 7am, mm wanted to go to early morning mass with the nuns. I didn’t go, but I got up anyway. We had breakfast at the dining room of the retreat house—bread roll, cereal, yogurt. We then explored around the house, gardens and chapel, everything was immaculate with a sense of peace. The furniture admittedly were older, made the place even more charming.
The distinctive Duomo was around 15mins away. There were queues for both the dome and the cathedral so we walked on towards San Lorenzo and the Mercato Centrale. Just the right time for an early lunch. The second floor of the market had about 10-12 artisan food stalls, we opted for a plate of mixed cold cuts & cheese from one and spaghetti pomodoro from another. I had a glass of rosé as it was the same price as coke.
From the market we walked past the train station, Santa Maria Novella church towards Piazza Republica. Checked out the hard rock café and the market nearby. Lots of leather goods and souvenirs, also quite sticky salespeople. Followed the crowd to reach Palazzo Vecchio and the copy of David at the entrance.
Where the crowd was thickest was at Ponte Vecchio. Around the bridge and on the bridge. Not inside the jewellry shops on the bridge though. Across the river we ambled towards Palazzo Pitti and Biboli gardens. Didn’t go inside, we weren’t that interested in the art in the palace and €10 for just the gardens didn’t seem value for money. We were pretty tired so had tea at a small coffee shop opposite the palace. One street over and we were at Santo Spirito church. Free entrance, so we went inside. It was quite nice, the main attraction was Michaelangelo’s wooden crucifix. We walked around the interior that had lots of art (didn’t know how to appreciate though) and sat for a little while.
From south of the river, we walked slowly back towards our retreat house. On the way we stopped at a religious store near Duomo. We were looking at the figures at the window when the sister inside waved us in. The store was run by nuns from a religious order. We were drawn to wood carvings of Mary and baby Jesus that was handmade by one of the sisters at their order. Quite expensive, but after some thought, we decided that they were worth it. Very beautiful pieces. The sisters at the shop were so friendly, we even took pictures together. We won’t forget Sr Stefanie, who spoke English and have travelled around the world, for a long time.
Dinner was at a taverna near the retreat house—caprese salad, grilled vegetables, pici cacio e pepe. It’s the first time we tried cacio e pepe pasta, and even though it’s a Roman speciality, the one here in Tuscany was very good. I had 250ml carafe red wine that was only €3, which was cheaper than coke. I think I’ll end up drinking a fair amount of house wine in Italy.
Walked a lot today, probably 3-4hrs. Helped burn off all the good food and wine.
Travelling day. Early start, 6.30am alarm and out of the house at 8am. Had to repack at bag drop as our luggage was just a little above the limit. First time we fly easyJet and we can see the nickel and diming at work. Flight was almost 100% full and almost on time arriving at Rome. Picked up our luggage and leisurely made our way to the train station. We had a couple hours to wait for the direct train to Florence. It was fine, we found seats and had sandwiches we made at our friend’s house for lunch.
The train was very nice. When I was booking online, the first class (non-refundable) was the same price as second class (flexible) so I sprang for the first class tickets. For that we got comfrotable seats, a free drink and a small snack.
Florence train station was a big heaving mess. We had the option of taking a taxi or bus, and ended up at the bus stop. The bus arrived a few minutes later and we squeezed in with what seems to be the entire population of florence. I had the fare in my pocket but wasn’t able to figure out how to pay when we were pushed further down the bus. We knew we had 4 stops to go, and were glad the directions were correct.
We found the retreat house with no issue, the only slight problem was pushing our suitcases along the narrow cobblestone streets. We were greeted by Sister Lucia and Sister Flora, both from India. Their warm and friendly welcome was a good sign already. Our room was a good size and basic, with our own bathroom. We took a peek at the breakfast room, sitting room, chapel and garden. More pics tomorrow.
After leaving our bags, we headed out to find dinner. Found the remains of a market at a nearby square selling baked goods, cheese, olive oil and balsamic. I bought some balsamic glaze for mum, as requested. We also found a small supermarket where we stocked up on water.
Dinner was a small café nearby. We both had spaghetti vongole and we shared a plate of grilled vegetables. The spaghetti was good if a little salty; the veg was very good. I also had a small carafe of house red, which was the same price as a large coke. Pretty good. The retreat house has a curfew of 10.30pm, we were back well in time.
Our 5-country trip will become 6-country. The great thing about living in Central Europe is proximity and ease of travel to other countries.
We started the day at a cash-and-carry supermarket, like costco. Had to be very restrained not to buy anything. We ended up getting ingredients for a picnic lunch of herring, smoked eel, smoked salmon and bread rolls. Herring was fatty and fresh, the eel was the star of the meal, could have just had it on its own.
Driving into Belgium was like driving into another state, there was a sign and here we are. We headed first to Antwerp, to Het Steen, a medieval castle where a tyrannical rich man ruled. He charged toll for people and boats passing by and if they didn’t pay, he’d cut their hands off. Such was the life then. Walked to the central square with the cathedral and cobblestoned streets. Stopped for coffee at a nearby coffee shop.
Next stop Brussels. Our friends go there very often and even know where to park without needing to pay. Yes, it’s a 15min walk, which actually was great after sitting in the car for a couple of hours. Brussels was busy, full of locals and tourists. We quickly took in the sights—main square, manneken pis and the all-important chocolate shops.
Dinner was at Mechelen, a town between Brussels and Antwerp. Hadn’t heard of it before and it was a revelation. So pretty! Again the central square with an imposing church and beautiful architecture. It’s off the tourist trail and looks like a place we will like to revisit.
We shared a white asparagus starter made apparaently in the flemish way—with what tasted like hot egg mayonnaise sauce. It’s similar to hollandaise with posched egg. For mains we both opted for the horse steak. Ordered rare, came medium rare. Very, very lean and tasty. There’s a stigma with meat other than beef, lamb, pork—our thinking is that if the locals eat it, it’s good enough for us.
Late start today, relaxed. Left the house at 11am, got the bus to the station to get a train to Amsterdam Centraal. Stopped by the free public piano at the station to watch people playing. Met our friend for lunch near Dam Square, nice café for sandwich and salad. Spent the afternoon walking around town, the first time we visited for almost 20 years. Lots of tourists and things have changed quite a bit.
Took a circular route from Dam Square to Westderkerk, around the canals to Rijksmuseum area—didn’t go in, took some pictures outside. Got some souvenir magnets after exploring the hard rock café shop. Stopped for just a minute at the bloemenmarkt before heading back to Dam Square area to meet our friend after work. Total time walked, around 3hrs.
She treated us to the most creamiest, richest ice cream at the tiny van der linde shop. Caught the train back to the house and I made dinner.
Originally we wanted to make steak or lamb, but we couldn’t decide on the protein. I ended up making chicken & fennel with grilled courgettes and red peppers. For dessert I made a quick apple crumble. I was so happy that we finished everything. Nothing was left. Yay.