D’s 2016 Travel Shortlist

As the new year unfolds and I sock a little money away in my bank account, my mind swims with thoughts of travel.

I want to be a little more ambitious with this year’s destinations. But given the direction the Canadian dollar seems to be sliding, I’m not sure how successful I’ll be.

(Eh. I’ve always had lousy timing.)

Maybe a series of fortunate events will lead me to a one-time gift from one of those Powerball winners? Ehhhh?  **shrugs**

Anyway … here are some places I’ve thought about visiting this year:

Sri Lanka. Very high on my list. I’ve never been to Asia, but a conversation with a friend who went there 7 or 8 years ago left me interested in finding out more. And why not? It would be a good place to start. I’d be aiming to go in the fall.

Cuba. I was last there in 2005. A friend and I stayed at an all-inclusive resort in Veradero in mid-July. (Never do that. Unless you really don’t mind feeling like rotisserie chicken.) It was nice getting away for a week. But when we booked a day-trip to Havana through our resort, the results were, well … mediocre. I felt a bit short-changed. I like to move around a country if I’m going to visit. Winter’s finally arrived, but it’d be nice to take a break in, say, March — maybe book a tour and go for 8 or 9 days — and see the sites before big changes sweep the island.*

Colombia. There’s been an uptick in travel here in the past few years. And I have this secret attraction to Fernando Botero‘s artwork and sculptures. Plus, I have a friend who lived there for a good year and a half. I always told myself I wouldn’t go to South America without properly learning some Spanish beforehand. But I’m willing to make an exception.

Washington, D.C. It’s not that far. I’ve never seen the White House in person (but know where its limestone came from), and the number of museums in one place is a nerd’s dream come true.

New Orleans. Other than visiting family in Florida, I’ve never really been to the South. Of the people I know who’ve been to NOLA, I can’t recall anyone saying they left disappointed. And it just seems like a really interesting place to visit, historically and culturally.

Louisville, Kentucky. Okay, this one’s a bit random. I first read about it a few years ago on a list of “underrated places to visit”. A couple of my friends took a road trip down to Louisville and they had a good time. Also: bourbon.

New York. Like Cuba, I’ve been here before. I never seem to get enough of it. There’s no such thing as “not enough to do” here, so it always seems like there’s unfinished business. If I went this year, it would be for these reasons: Hamilton (c’mon, wealthy Powerball benefactor) or Eclipsed, and a meal at Red Rooster Harlem. I’M NOT PLAYING.

Montreal. The last time I set foot in this city, I was 26, my friend Dave lived and worked there, and the Jazz Festival was in full swing. Montreal in the summer is magic. But honestly, I don’t need it to be summer for me to visit, and see some of the sites I missed last time. Added incentive: If you recall my family research  (no? start here), my mysterious, elusive great-aunt lived and worked here. It’d be neat to physically see some of the streets (and maybe some of the houses), perhaps do a day or two of sleuthing, in the flesh.

Vancouver. Straight up, I’ve never been to the West Coast or seen the Rockies. This would tick off both boxes.

Manitoulin Island or Pelee Island. One requires you to take a ferry called the Chi-Cheemaun to get to it. The other boasts the southernmost point in Canada. Both are beautiful, and are right here in Ontario. Visiting either location would be lovely.

There’s NO WAY I intend to knock all of these off my list. But if I manage to do at least two, even with a low loonie, I’ll be pleased.

*A recent check of some tour companies tell me this is probably not possible.

**Reminder: I’m part of a one-month writing challenge, as are my friends Renée and Kath – just click on their names to check out their excellent work!**

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Let’s Go(al) #3: Get Outta Here.

If you know me personally – or have visited my blog – you’ll know that I enjoy travelling. Especially if it’s off the North American continent.

Last year, I did a couple of short trips state-side and to Jamaica (respectively) — primarily to visit members of my extended family that I hadn’t seen in months or years.

It was nice. It was great to take a week or two off, and just get away from things.

But as much as I liked and appreciated seeing my family, there was something missing …

The sense of discovery. The act of going by myself to a place where I don’t know a soul. The feeling of being a bit uncomfortable or unsure of what to expect. The exercise of figuring out where I am, and where I’m going, without getting lost. Or even the ability of letting myself get lost and finding my way out of it.

It’s been more than two years since I’ve flown more than a few hours to get somewhere … and the itch is intense.

Add to that the fact that I’m part of an online group of black travellers, whose jet-setting ways put me to utter shame and leave me speechless.

If I what I have is simply a travel bug, then they have a full-blown travel syndrome.

They’re expert packers! They jump on glitch fares like cats on mice!  I’m simultaneously envious and in awe when I read their anecdotes and look at photos of their travels.

So, it’s time.

My goal this year is to:

Go on one big trip. Right now, it’s a toss-up between Sri Lanka, Ethiopia or Colombia, later in the year.

Go on at least one short-hop trip. Maybe I’ll go back to New York. Or perhaps I’ll stop in Montreal or another Canadian city that I’ve never been to. Or maybe I’ll finally get down to Washington. Or New Orleans! The possibilities are endless. (What’s not endless, however, is my bank account.)

Leave room for a surprise trip. I’m mulling one over as I type this. It all depends on the timing and the bank balance in my savings account. And that’s all I’m saying for now.

Your turn.

Have any travel plans? Is there a destination you’re considering this year? Are you looking to knock a city or country off your bucket list? Or are you just going with the flow and playing it by ear? Maybe we can inspire each other. Leave me a comment below!

 

Pinched!

2013-10-02 03.41.07(Note: The following post describes details from a previous trip, NOT a current trip.)

Wednesday, October 2.

One last stop before we head for Rome is the Tuscan town of Siena.

Outside the town gates, we pile out, and Franco takes us on a “short” tour/orientation walk.

According to Franco, there’s this horse race – the Palio di Siena – which takes place twice a year, in July and August. (Rick Steves has written about it here.)

And from what he tells us, Siena’s streets are covered with sand (or dirt, if you believe Wikipedia), all for the purpose of a race that lasts roughly 90 seconds.

NINETY. SECONDS. Think about that.

And the jockeys ride bareback, which makes it that much more treacherous.

Here’s a visual of July’s race:

2013-10-02 03.51.35We pass by a building we all assume is a church. Because after all the churches we’ve seen, why wouldn’t it be?

Nope. It’s actually a very pretty … horse stable.

We stroll past various buildings in warm, muted shades of yellow, orange and terracotta red.

Some stores and other doorways have sculpted animals – like snails – hanging overhead.

Eventually, we arrive at the main square (the Piazza del Campo), home to the Palazzo Pubblico (town hall).

2013-10-02 04.17.13 The piazza slopes downwards, dipping in its  centre like a shallow basin.

There’s a huge tower – the Torre del Mangia – with a clock on the other side of the square from us.

The sun is slowly moving overhead, so at this point in the day, half of the square’s in the shade.

Franco herds us back up the stairs, away from the square, back onto one of the streets encircling the square … passing little shrines to the Virgin Mary, stores with pastries displayed or cured meats hanging in the windows, and doors with all shapes and sizes of knockers.

2013-10-02 04.26.16Franco returns us to the square and cuts us look for about 90 minutes.

Mom and I wander about, get something to eat, then browse. I return to one of the stores we passed earlier and pick up souvenirs for a couple of friends.

Time’s up. We’ve been told we have to be out of Siena by a specific time, because of a local law which reduces traffic for the streams of school kids leaving classes for the day.

So we’re rounded up and taken to a gate on the other side of the square, where we wait. And wait. The bus appears … eventually.

We arrive on the outskirts of Rome in the early evening, at our final hotel.

We get about an hour and a half to catch our collective breaths in our tiny, minimalist hotel rooms, then freshen up and change for our goodbye dinner at a downtown restaurant.

Before departing, we meet just outside the front entrance for a group picture, then climb onto the bus, and Pierluigi drives us downtown, dropping us off around the corner from our restaurant, called Mangrovia.

The room our group’s in, is a wee bit chilly – especially for my mom, still trying fight off an imminent cold. But it’s nice, considering.

We’re serenaded at intervals by two musicians while we dine. But the real entertainment comes in the form of our two waiters, who roll their r’s and pretend to flirt with some of the female tour members.

Then, they kick the comedy up a notch.

At first, the one waiter serving our group singles out some of the older women, like Else from Vancouver, and Vi from Halifax. He presents them each with roses, then plants (partially pantomimed) kisses up their arms, into the crooks of their necks and on their cheeks.

And – for good measure – the momentary embarrassment concludes when he pinches their rumps.

This happens early on in our meals (during the antipasto and salads), am I’m finding this all highly entertaining.

But things take a turn when the pasta course is served.

Everyone except for me and fellow tour-mate Tim (from Saint John, New Brunswick) get their pasta plates right away.

I brush it off; I figure perhaps the waiters’ hands are full and our plates are coming.

IMAG0505Well, they come, all right.

Our pasta arrives on gold-coloured octagonal plates.

Ruh-roh.

The waiter comes up behind me and lowers a rose into my sight line.

Aw, sheeeeit.

He starts planting kisses up my arm, warbling away in Italian, rolling his r’s in muffled tones, lands a kiss on my neck – making me squirm uncomfortably – and then *YIP!* gives me a good, hearty pinch on the meaty bit where my hip and backside meet.

My goal of visiting Italy without getting goosed … FOILED by the Kissing Waiter of Mangrovia Restaurant.

Sitting just behind me, my own mother and some of the Aussies are having a field day, and mercilessly rib me about it for the next five minutes. But I suppose it could be worse. The waiter makes Tim wear a blonde wig. (But there’s no bum-pinching [the Kissing Waiter has LIMITS] and he’s an extremely good sport about it.)

IMAG0508The meal’s very filling – and I keep getting roses from whats-his-face (I can’t tell if they’re still trying to get a rise out of me, genuinely having fun with me, or taking pity) – and ends with possibly the biggest gelato mountain I’ve ever seen, which I can’t even finish.

We eventually leave (but not without my mom and I getting overzealous pecks on cheeks from our restaurant Romeo), climbing onto the bus, which Franco pumps full of ’70s and ’80s tunes on the way back to the hotel.

The rest of the evening is honestly a blur. I remember most people retire to their rooms to pack (as a number of them have to leave extremely early the next morning).

I vaguely remember getting some of my things ready, but then returning to the hotel lobby to hang out one last time with Dallas, Randy (who’s losing his voice), Selene, Paul, Crystal and Louise.

After a handful of drinks – and once the bottle of blue wine Selene and Paul has brought has been drained – the group shrinks.

Eventually I wish the stragglers a safe trip and toddle off to bed.

***********************************************************

Travelling with my mom to Italy has been at times challenging, but fun. I’m glad I got a chance to share the experience with her.

Would I ever do it again? Perhaps. But it might depend on her.

Maybe the next trip together won’t be overseas. Maybe it’ll be for a shorter period of time, and at a slightly slower pace.

We’ll see what the future holds.

Leather, Pizza, and More Leather

2013-10-01 09.04.52(Note: The following post describes details from a previous trip, NOT a current trip.)

Our trip leader, Franco, starts this part of our day trip by first orienting us to shops and other amenities in the immediate area.

Then, some of the group takes off, while the rest of us are taken by Franco to a store called Peruzzi, which specializes in leather goods. He’s mentioned it’s the best place in Florence to find high-quality leather purses, jackets, and other accessories.

In an area near the store entrance, we’re introduced to a salesperson (I think named Roberto), who gives us a pitch about the quality of the goods, has an employee demonstrate how the company applies gold embossed patterns to some of the products, and even gets one of our American tour-mates to try on a leather jacket. It’s all a little bit dry.

We’re finally let loose to look around and see what we can find. Most of the tour group leaves shortly after.

But I’ve been waiting this moment for about four days, and I’m on a serious mission to leave Florence with something, anything, leather.

Mom and I head upstairs to the shoe section. Not much there. We move from room to room, floor to floor, not really finding anything truly affordable, never mind nice.

After going back and forth, I decide on a reasonably-sized (for me) black leather purse. It is, honestly, the most money I’ve ever dropped on a handbag of any kind. But considering all I’ve bought so far has been several pairs of earrings, I justify it as my prime splurge for this trip.

The salesperson we’ve been dealing with then tries to sell my mom on a leather jacket (including a really nice cream-coloured one), but she stands her ground and declines to buy it.

(Truth be told, the salesperson’s being kind of pushy, despite the store’s apparent “no obligation to buy” spiel from less than an hour ago.)

We wander back out into the square, running into yet another peddlar trying to sell us scarves for less than 5 Euros. We rebuff her offer … and I don’t remember what we say out loud, but it’s within earshot of a middle-aged man walking close by us.

I think he responds to our comment by first saying “Pardon?” to which I respond by voicing our annoyance at being harangued by street vendors. He says he hates them too, and asks where we’re from. When asked in return, he says he’s Italian, and a resident of Florence … and owner of a family-owned leather shop nearby.

Oh yes, of course. Trying to convince us to go into his shop. We try to worm our way out of it by saying maybe we’d drop by later, but right now, we’re going to eat lunch.

Of COURSE, we end up at the restaurant right next to his store. Which means he can check on the progress of our meal. Oh, well.  **sighs**

Mom’s not hungry, but I am practically ready to chew my own arm off, so I order a pizza with tuna, olives and onions. (Don’t judge me.)

While tucking into that potentially stank delight, a really attractive young man (accompanied by an older man) passes by, doubles back, then sits on the restaurant patio – our restaurant patio – right across from us.

(Stellar meal choice, D. Cue the “wah-waah-waaaaah” brass section.)

We get to chatting with them, and it turns out this guy – and his dad – are from the States; from what I understand, they both used to be in the army. Son is now working here in Italy (just outside Venice, to be a bit more precise – for the government in some capacity, from the sounds of it), and Dad is finally visiting for the first time. They’re spending the day in Florence, and will be visiting a couple of other places.

It’s nice being able to have a full conversation with fellow travellers from our part of the world, and fellow travellers of colour, at that. It certainly doesn’t happen to me a whole lot.

The two men leave before us. Shortly after, I excuse myself to use the ladies’ room before we continue on. When I emerge from the restaurant, guess who’s chatting up my mother?

We basically have now been cornered. So, into the store we go.

I look at an assortment of purses which, frankly, don’t really tickle my fancy. I get the sales pitch on a grey clutch, which apparently is the same brand used by Pope Francis. Given the unholy ugliness of the big, plastic, gold-coloured logo slapped on the front flap, I’m very doubtful, but keep this opinion to myself.

Then our “friend” suggests I try on a leather jacket. No obligation. And he has just the one.

He passes me this fitted, eggplant-coloured number with a decorative belt that he ties in the back.

Ohhh, shit.  It actually looks good. But I can’t. I JUST dropped some coin on a purse …

I want to protest, and I look over at my mom for an out. But she doesn’t help when she comments on how good this jacket looks on me.

It’s the death knell for my credit card. Some 300 Euros (or $430 CAD) later, I carry out that aubergine moto-styled jacket (I’m kidding myself) in a big, stapled paper bag. The total cost of my purchases today? $600 CAD. Damage: officially done.

2013-10-01 09.50.52Mom and I set off in search of shoe shops, passing sidewalk artists and various other kiosks along the way, in hopes she might land herself a good pair of leather shoes.

Of course, she wants said shoes at Canadian-sale-plus-senior’s-discount prices. Not much luck.

We stop while my mom gets a fruit gelato. Which normally isn’t a big deal. EXCEPT that when go into this one place to order and the woman behind the counter says, “Cone?” and my mom says yes … the gelato lady decides my mom needs the biggest waffle cone known to humankind. By the time I catch the miscommunication, she’s already plopped it into the cone and has charged 10 Euros. NOT. Impressed.

I simultaneously feel badly and queasy, watching my mother attempting to eat that gelato and NOT waste her 10 Euros. After getting about three-quarters of the way through, she quits and tosses it.

2013-10-01 09.55.21We continue looking around, Mom changing her shopping objective to finding a nice belt.

We pass by a small market full of purses dangling from hooks, various belts and scarves we’ve seen at other stands, as well as other touristy knick-knacks. Not much luck.

We then realize it’s getting close to meeting time. Were we supposed to meet at 5:15? Or 5:30? Or maybe it’s 5:45?

2013-10-01 09.48.22In any case, we set out to return to our meeting place – getting lost and ending up northwest of our intended destination.

And we’re both directionally-challenged. But it seems I’m marginally better at reading a map.

So it takes a few minutes more, but we find our way back to the church square.

The group eventually re-assembles and boards the bus down near the river. By the time we return to the hotel, a group of us decide to head out in search of dinner. I’m certainly game, but I’m not sure my mom is, since she’s still feeling a bit under the weather, and is also assuming we’d find something at the hotel (which I’m doubtful about).

In the end, Mom and I join Dallas and Randy from Winnipeg, Selene and Paul from Ireland, Jenna and her friend Andrea (from the U.S.) and another mother-daughter duo, Crystal and Louise, from Tasmania.

We have to navigate a couple of roadways (without getting run over) to get to the restaurant, which basically resembles like a box on sticks (for people in Toronto: it looks like OCAD’s Sharp Centre for Design, minus the fancy stippling). Thank goodness there were two elevators to the top!

We all have various dishes – a number of them pasta dishes – and leave very full.

One more day, one more hotel change. Final destination: Rome.

Sculptures Galore!

(Note: The following post describes details from a previous trip, NOT a current trip.)

Tuesday, October 1.

We’re on the bus by around 8 a.m. to get to Florence, and our first stop of our city tour for the day: the Galleria dell’Accademia, home to Michelangelo‘s David – perhaps the most recognizable sculpture in the world, if not one of them.

I distinctly remember first seeing David in a picture as a kid of seven or eight. Not in an art book. In a sexual education booklet.

(Now, while it’s absolutely not my intention to debase such a renowned work of art, let’s be real: once you’ve seen the most famous junk in the world, it’s almost impossible to unsee.)

Anyhow. I’m an adult now, and I will absolutely appreciate the experience in a completely different way.

We wait in line on the sidewalk beside the gallery – along with one complete stranger who somehow thinks he can sneak his way in with us. Too bad he doesn’t consider the fact we have reservations – and tickets, which Franco announces loud enough for him to get the hint. (Idiot.)

Today’s local guide, Giovanna, starts our tour in the first large room containing various gold-leaf medieval paintings, and the sculpture called The Rape of the Sabine Women (depicting abduction, not sexual violation) by Giambologna (not Michelangelo, as I would have automatically guessed).

We’re then taken into the next hall next door, which is lined on either side by a series of Michelangelo’s sculptures, called the “Unfinished Slaves“.

It’s fascinating seeing these works, and then hearing from our guide how Michelangelo was able to start chipping and carving from whole blocks of marble, working from NOTHING except an idea in his mind (no test runs in plaster, nothing), and even more baffling that – for whatever reason – he would just abandon them. Just … surreal.

The result makes each work appear as if they’re trapped – like ancient Han Solos lodged in marble, instead of carbonite.

Photo (not mine), from Wikimedia Commons.
Photo (not mine), from Wikimedia Commons.

This corridor leads Giovanna and our group towards the main event – David.

Full disclosure: long before setting foot in Italy, I had heard that it would almost impossible to get to see David without reservations way in advance (I took that to mean one would have to make reservations weeks ahead of time).

And, even if you made said reservations, you’d be lucky if you got to spend even five minutes getting a really good look at the sculpture.

So, two things I didn’t expect?

First: Perhaps due to both being part of Giovanna’s tour, and the other people crowded around, our group, all told, gets to spend 10 minutes gazing upwards and walking around the statue. There are even school kids seating on nearby benches, sketching with the utmost concentration.

Second: I’ve come to see something that is perhaps a little larger than life-sized (because the memory of the photo from the sex ed book has led me to assume that, well, why would it be any bigger?).

Holy CRAP. It is MASSIVE. Over FIVE. METRES. TALL. (Or 16 feet.) It’s ASTOUNDING.

It’s fantastic, seeing the sculpture – the proportions and sheer detail –  and hearing Giovanna tell us the stories behind David. The story of its creation, in secrecy under a scaffolding, while people questioned Michelangelo’s sanity. The reaction after its completion. The fact an entire wall of the Accademia had to be knocked out when they moved David indoors. The nutbar who – in 1991 – broke part of a toe on David’s left foot (and the efforts to restore it).

By the time we leave for another corridor in the building, I’m convinced that David has either set my personal standard, or utterly ruined me, for classic sculpture. But really, I’m done.

We’re led into a room where plaster busts and other sculptures by other artists are on display – to not only illustrate the sculpting process, but to show the craftsmanship and attention to detail.

2013-10-01 04.14.15Once we’re finished with the Accademia, Giovanna takes us on a little walk to Florence’s main church and baptistry.

The doors of the latter depicts some of the most well-known stories of the Old Testament, displayed in 10 bronze panels.

Past the church and down a handful of streets, we’re in Piazza della Signoria, the main square, situated in front of the Palazzo Vecchio (Florence’s town hall).

The area is well-populated with statues, including a replica of David (not as large, but – except for the pigeon sitting atop his head – just as good).

2013-10-01 04.33.29There’s another statue nearby, Perseus with the Head of Medusa.

It stands out from a lot of others –  not only because it’s cast in bronze (which I think helps it withstand the elements a bit better? Please set me straight, if I’m wrong), but because we’re told it’s been outfitted with an electric device meant to deter pigeons from perching – or pooping – on it … by shocking them.

Giovanna navigates us through crowds of tourists and school groups until we eventually reach the Piazza Santa Croce, where our tour ends, and we’re deposited back into Franco’s care.

So our cultural education has ended for the day. But our shopping adventures are just about to begin.

A “Pisa” Tuscan Hospitality

(Note: The following post describes details from a previous trip, NOT a current trip.)

Monday, September 30.

Our morning and part of the afternoon is spent on the bus, watching the landscape of fog and rice fields morph into green fields and houses of every shape and size, nestled among hills and trees.

Also, we pass through many, many tunnels – particularly as we’re driven through the city of Genoa.

2013-09-30 07.04.47The wheels finally stop spinning when we reach Pisa. We’re given free time almost as soon as we’re off the bus, so we can grab lunch and take our obligatory pictures of the tower.

We then meet our guide, Roberto, who’s a long-time friend of Franco’s. He’s tall, tanned, bald, and the campiest guide we’ve had so far, which he uses as his secret weapon to keep us both entertained and engaged while spouting off historical facts.

Apparently Franco and Roberto have this cheesy comedy act going when it comes to tour groups.  Before releasing us into Roberto’s care, Franco “informs” us that Pisans – and Roberto in particular – have a hate-on for Florence, and should Roberto ask where we’re headed after Pisa, to say “Rome”.

So, we play along and when we get the prompt and give our rehearsed answer, Roberto turns his head to one side and bellows, “FRANCO!”

Our walking tour begins with an overview of the Leaning Tower itself, whose restoration efforts to clean the tower’s marble and fix the interior staircase, were only completed a couple of summers ago.

(Click here to listen to a July 2011 PRI radio feature about the restoration – Roberto’s the tour guide interviewed, and there’s a slideshow.)

2013-09-30 08.14.35Then, it’s a quick stop in front of the nearby bapistry, which we’re told is still used today for full-immersion baptisms.

Finally, we head into the cathedral, where Roberto speaks of the architecture, and some of the features of the design, including the light fixtures near the front of the sanctuary (which, if I recall correctly, Roberto says is actually a tribute to Galileo).

The tour concludes, we leave Roberto and Pisa, and it’s back on the road for another couple of hours of scenery before reaching our hotel on Florence’s outskirts.

We’re dropped off, assigned our rooms and left to rest and freshen up for about 90 minutes before we leave for dinner. Mom and I are absolutely pooped. Compounding this exhaustion is the fact Mom’s now fighting a variation of the cold that’s been making the rounds on our tour bus. One of the younger travellers close my age – Jacomo, from Australia – has been knocked flat on his back with this thing for the past couple of days, and so his mum/travel companion, Theresa, has been looking after him.

In fact, we’re so lethargic that we end up being the last ones to board the bus for our dinner destination. (Oops.)

2013-09-30 12.23.49We head to a restaurant located in the Tuscan hillside, where we’ll be treated to a multi-course meal.

We lag behind the others, as Mom waits for me to snap a picture of the countryside, across the road from the restaurant.

So, when we do finally get inside the dining room and look for a place to sit, everyone’s taken their seats, except for one table.

Tonight, our dining companions are: Frances and Howard, a couple from Nova Scotia (I’m sure they’re in their late 70s or early 80s); Tim and Michelle, a really fun couple from Saint John; and an Indian couple, whom we later find out are from Windsor.

The last pair, we’ve been trying to avoid for the majority of the trip, because they come across as insufferable. He’s stone-faced about 90 per cent of the time, and she has this tendency to say things or give unsolicited advice that’s completely unwarranted and rude. And now, we are stuck with them at our table. Thank God for Tim and Michelle.

We (with the exception of Mom) start our evening with this blue-tinted wine (dubbed “smurf wine” by our group), then sample the other wines on our table – white, red, and a lovely strawberry-flavoured wine – which would eventually turn out to be a hit with the group. Even my mom (normally a teetotaler) has a few sips.

2013-09-30 13.17.39Our meal starts with a nice anti-pasto, followed by two types of pasta, and then the main course.

Mom and I have the filet mignon, and ask for it well-done (rather than the medium rare) – which renders it a tad chewy, but still okay.

Between these courses, I chat with Frances and Howard – who, as it turns out, are native Newfoundlanders, but currently live in Sackville, Nova Scotia, between their two kids and their families.

As the wine continues to flow, people loosen up and become livelier (or, in the case of our table-mates from Windsor, less miserable).

There’s also some entertainment, courtesy of a couple of instrumental musicians and a male singer – an older man with a balding head, but a voice that simply soars.

2013-09-30 13.10.42He moves from table to table, selecting random female tour mates to serenade and dance with (see left – except for our table, which, in this case, is completely fine by me).

At one point, he singles out fellow traveller Jenna – one of a pair of young Americans – to dance with.

It’s quite the sight. At six feet tall, she towers over our resident crooner. This doesn’t faze him in the least – he just nestles his bald little head in her bosom like he’s ready to take a nap. It’s hilarious. (Later, we hear him mention that he had a wife who was tall, so he’s used to it.)

2013-09-30 15.02.57The musicians eventually change gears and crank out a few tunes the crowd’s more familiar with. Well, doesn’t THIS just get some of the Aussies out of their seats. They’re dancing like no one else’s watching.* Finally – some folks on this tour are letting loose.

This is actually a fun night, and no one can dispute it if they tried.

On the ride back to the hotel, the bus full of tipsy revellers turns into the “party bus” when Franco cranks some disco and ’80s tunes, while Pierluigi flashes the interior bus lights on and off for effect.

HOLLA. Now THIS is what the trip is supposed to be about!

Too bad we have another painfully early ahead of us, for our trip to Florence.

*Apologies for the blurry picture above, but I felt it best described what was happening.

Big Lake, Big City

2013-09-29 03.43.56(Note: The following post describes details from a previous trip, NOT a current trip.)

Sunday, September 29.

We’ve woken up to intermittent rain – the most since our trip began. It’s also the coldest it’s been so far.

Some of the people on our tour decide to stay indoors today, while the rest of us soldier on as planned.

By the time we reach the town of Como – and our docked tour boat – the rain is steadily coming down. Luckily for us, the boat is covered. with a little overhang at the rear for us avid photographers.

Despite the inclement weather and low cloud cover, the views are still impressive. Our guide, Anna (a Brit who’s married an Italian), tries to point out some of the lakeside villas.

One villa, owned previously by a Russian aristocrat, is back in Russian hands after being purchased by a wannabe oligarch. Another hosted singer John Legend’s wedding to model Chrissy Teigen just a couple of weeks before. One lavender-coloured vacation home is occupied by an Italian singer who fancies herself to be a bit of a big deal.

2013-09-29 03.56.42The place of most interest to my newsie sensibility? The villa owned by Silvio Berlusconi – home of the infamous “bunga bunga” parties.

(It’s the white one in the upper left-hand side of the photo – nestled in the landscape, but not too out of sight to escape our cameras.)

Apparently, we’re told, it wasn’t all that easy for him to score a spot along the lake as one might think.

And waaaay off in the distance, past a tall red crane and nestled amongst the foliage, is George Clooney’s abode – or so says Anna. Too bad he isn’t home. I’m sure some of my tour-mates would be more than happy to drop by and say hi.

2013-09-29 04.34.50The rain finally lets up partway through our boat tour, and completely stops by the time we return to dry (or, more accurately, damp) land.

Anna then leads us around on a brief walking tour of “downtown” Como, highlighting the church, as well as a couple of main streets.

After being let loose, Mom and I walk around for a bit, then we head to the town square to rest our feet and eat our smuggled, handmade sandwiches from that morning’s breakfast buffet.

I decide a gelato would complete this meal nicely, so I tell my mom I’m going to get one from the shop just off the square. Mom warns me not to. Franco, just before we were let loose for free time, told us he’d have a treat for us when we re-assembled in a bit. She thinks it’s going to be gelato.

We’ve already had free gelato once this trip, so I brush off the suggestion and proceed undeterred.

I’m finishing my cone just as we’re walking back in the direction of the gelato shop to meet the others, and am caught red-handed by Franco, who asks me in a scolding tone why I’ve gone and bought gelato, since that is what the treat is.

**Sigh**

So, I wasn’t listening. I sheepishly return to the gelateria for my second cone in 30 minutes.

2013-09-29 08.58.42We briefly return to the hotel, then it’s on to the lovely city of Milan.

We unfortunately won’t see Milan in its glory as a fashion capital, as we’ve just missed Milan Fashion Week by mere days. We’ll just have to make do with the other sights the city has to offer.

We’re outside Sforza Castle waiting for our local guide to arrive, when a guy selling scarves approaches me. I tell him I have no Euros (which is absolutely true – I’ve left my wallet on the bus), so he asks if my mother will buy one for me.

She retorts, “Who said I was her mom?” (He responds that we look alike – a discussion/debate I’ll save for another time, for those who actually know me.)

But he doesn’t slink away.

He continues chatting us up, telling us he’s from Gambia, is attending school here in Italy and trying to earn money for tuition, rent, and so on, and not having much luck with going the usual route of applying for jobs, despite knowing four languages.

Do I believe him? I believe there’s truth in what he’s telling me. Which parts are false or embellished, I can’t say for sure.

He wishes us a good trip, and tries his luck with other members from our group.

2013-09-29 09.04.43Eventually our local guide, Marika, arrives and takes us through Sforza Castle (called Castello Sforzesco in Italian).

We start in the castle’s museum, which houses various relics, including pieces of mosaic tiling and old sculpted mouldings.

Using us as interactive “pieces”, she explains the story of the castle (later a citadel) under Italian and Spanish rule.

2013-09-29 10.20.47We move on, looking at huge tapestries, and craning our necks to gaze at old ceiling frescoes which (I believe) were once painted by Leonardo da Vinci.

We also get a close look at Michelangelo’s “unfinished Pieta”, standing alone in its own section for display.

Marika tells us this was Michelangelo’s last sculpture, which he stopped working on six days before his death.

The definition is interesting. It’s so very well-defined on the bottom half of the sculpture …

And so roughly carved on its upper half.

It’s almost as if it’s a representation of the artist’s genius literally fading away, as his life did.

Next, it’s off to visit the world-renowned La Scala opera house (actual name: Teatro alla Scala).

2013-09-29 10.44.45Sadly, we’re not allowed to take pictures of the actual concert hall. But please believe me when I say it’s absolutely something else.

Wouldn’t it be something to experience a concert there, in a box seat, just once?

Marika takes us through the theatre’s museum, giving us tidbits about La Scala’s most beloved resident musicians and singers – including Maria Callas, who died the year I was born. (Just imagine if she didn’t fall in love with Aristotle Onassis.)

Our guide walks us over to the city centre, through probably the fanciest (and probably most unaffordable) galleria mall I’ve ever seen, and into the square situated right next to the monstrously massive Duomo.

2013-09-29 11.20.04It’s the largest cathedral dedicated to the Virgin Mary in Italy (if I understand correctly), and only one of the biggest (and oldest) churches in Europe.

If the Duomo’s exterior wasn’t intimidating enough, the interior is downright overwhelming.

High vaulted ceilings that seem to go up forever, frescoes and sculpted mouldings too numerous to count … and all this while a mass is underway. (I could have taken pictures, but I didn’t want to spend 2 Euros. Sorry.)

After developing temporary cricks in our necks from looking upwards and gawking (okay, so maybe I’m the one gawking), Mom and I go outside for some (relatively) fresh air before joining our group for the return trip back to the hotel.

Next: the Tuscan region, and the one place I’ve been looking forward to most of all … Florence.