Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Next stop... Italy!

No, I'm not going to Italy again, but I realized I hadn't finished sharing photos from our cruise in June. The first stop on our trip was Monaco and the second found us docking in Livorno, Italy. Look toward the top left side of the map, and right above where you see "ITALY" in red, you'll notice Florence and the Arno River. That's where we toured, with a brief stop in Pisa as well.

Never having been on a cruise before, we were more than a little clueless about how to do everything. We wanted to make the most of our port stops, particularly those in Italy, so we could see as many sights as possible in the short amount of time the ship would be docked in each location. We'd heard about a reputable private tour company and eventually booked tours with them.

The tours are quite expensive, and whether our van held just the 4 of us or was at full capacity (7 people plus a driver), the cost was going to be the same. We talked to friends who had sailed recently and they recommended checking out this cool website where we were able to correspond with other passengers in hopes of finding 2-3 people interested in joining us on these excursions, thus lowering the cost for each of us. That's exactly what we ended up doing and before we knew it, we had a full van for each tour.

Of course the idea of traveling with total strangers seemed a bit out of our comfort zone. I mean, seriously, we didn't know these people from Adam! What if they were weirdos and it was uncomfortable? It's a chance we decided to take, and we couldn't have been happier with our travel companions.

From the port in Livorno, we traveled to the city of Florence, capital of the Tuscany region, with our driver, Arten, who was seemingly very knowledgeable about the area.

This is a replica of Michelangelo's "David." We would see replicas of this statue many times during our tour in Italy. We saw the real deal at the Accademia Gallery, however, we weren't permitted to take photos, although I saw lots of cameras flashing anyway.

This was a big square located on the top of a hill overlooking the city of Florence. Vendors were there selling various items to tourists.

One of many gorgeous views of the area

The Arno River runs through the center of Florence.

There wasn't a view I didn't find beautiful.

Another beautiful view

It thrilled me for the boys to be seeing places like this at their ages. I'd never even been on an airplane, and had rarely been out of my home state of Kentucky when I was a teenager.

This is a closer view of one of the bridges over the Arno River. The Ponte Vecchio is a unique medieval bridge with shops built along the sides. We walked across, but only window shopped as it's a very expensive area. Arten even told us not to purchase anything there because it's so over-priced.

The cathedral, called the Santa Maria Del Fiore Church is pictured in the background, on the far left. We got a close-up view of this beautiful structure.

Zooming in on the cathedral

Could you get used to seeing sights like this every day? I believe I could.

This is our driver, Arten.

The boys check out the views below.

I've said it before, and I'll say it again... We are easily entertained! We even found the cigarette machines intriguing.

I'm sure people were thinking how we were just silly American tourists, taking photos of photos. I couldn't help it. I'd just ducked into this small restaurant to use the facilities when I saw Rhett and Scarlett. I do love "Gone with the Wind," don't you?

Got Nutella? Nutella is popular where we lived in Spain too, but I didn't know what it was for the longest time. It's a delicious chocolate-hazlenut spread and I understand it originated in Italy, which makes total sense that we should see this big display of it here. Here's a little Nutella trivia for you from Wikipedia (in case you're interested)... "Under Italian law, it cannot be labeled as a chocolate cream, as it does not meet minimum cocoa solids concentration criteria." Oh, and the 5th Annual World Nutella Day is scheduled for February 5, 2011... really! Don't forget to mark your calendars!

Moving on...

I'm such a people watcher. This lady was standing in her high heels, chatting on her cell phone, and I wanted to see if she was really going to get on this motorcycle and ride away. She did! How does one do that in a skirt like hers? You go, girl!

We visited San Miniato (St. Minias on the Mountain) Church, constructed during the 11th century.

A tour group was listening to the gentleman in the long robe speak. I liked his socks and sandals.

The view beyond the San Miniato Church

Inside San Miniato... It was very difficult to get good photos as the lighting is very dim, and I'm not the best photographer.

Very serene


Here we are with our excursion companions. We toured with the same three people for two days.

This is the crowd of people waiting to get inside the Accademia Gallery, where we would see Michelangelo's original statue of "David."

I didn't take this photo, but found it online to show you because it was of personal interest to me. These panels illustrate the biblical story of Esther, an Old Testament heroine. I had just finished a Bible study called "Esther: It's Tough Being a Woman" by Beth Moore. By the way, if you've never had the opportunity to participate in a Beth Moore study, I highly recommend you give one a go. She's awesome!

At some point during the day we stopped and had pizza (Hello! We're in Italy!) for lunch and it was magnifico!

The tall, slender structure is Giotto’s Campanile (Bell Tower), located in the heart of Florence. It's part of a complex of buildings that make up Florence Cathedral on the Piazza del Duomo, one of the most visited places in Europe.

This is the Battistero di San Giovanni (Baptistery of St. John), also located on the Piazza del Duomo. According to what we were told, many notable people were baptized here during the Renaissance period, and until the end of the 19th century, all Catholic Florentines were baptized here.

The Santa Maria Del Fiore Church (also known as the Duomo) was being cleaned and under maintenance during our visit.

The cathedral is quite impressive in size and beauty.

I love the aerial view of the Duomo! I didn't take this photo, but borrowed it from a website, giving credit to

Gorgeous architecture!

Artists set up camp near the cathedral, trying to sell their work to tourists.

"Pinocchio" is seen everywhere in the area, as the fictional story of the wooden puppet who longed to be a real boy originated in Italy.

Walking across the Ponte Vecchio (Remember the medieval bridge with the expensive shops I told you about?) and doing some heavy-duty window shopping. That's all we could afford to do.

The shops were gorgeous and simply oozed money.

A view of the Arno River taken from the Ponte Vecchio

Mmmm... gelato!

Naturally pizzerias were plentiful, and these two had great curb appeal.

The Palazzo Vecchio serves as the town hall. And guess what stands in front? A replica of the statue of "David," of course. ☺

This is a photo of a photo of Fattoria di San Michele a Torri, the winery we visited, which was unplanned, but we had the time, so we opted to stop. Wine? Oh, alright... twist my arm!

Touring the winery

After the tour we were given the opportunity to sample some of the wine. We weren't driving; Arten was driving. Wine? Don't mind if I do!

These guys aren't in to wine. Never fear! They have hand-held electronic games with which to entertain themselves.

We weren't sure if we'd have time for one more stop (an important one) before returning to the ship. We kept our fingers crossed, and as luck would have it, we had about 5 minutes to spare, so Arten pulled into in this parking lot to see what lies behind this wall.

We literally ran so we could get a view of this. Wondering what you're seeing? Look at the building on the very end.

We're getting closer...

It's the Leaning Tower of Pisa!

We hastily took the photo that everyone takes when in Pisa.

Sure wish we'd had more time for photos here, but when I said we had 5 minutes, I wasn't kidding. We did well to get these photos.

Now the boys will have the memory of being here, and photos to go along with it.

We had a jam-packed, fun-filled day with Arten and our new cruise friends. Our feet ached and we were hot and tired, but it was so worth the time and money invested, as we saw so many wonderful places. Thanks to Arten for his knowledge, safe driving skills and friendly disposition. It was time to rest up for the next day's adventure... Rome!