Sunday, August 22, 2010

Assisi and Cortona

This Saturday we went to Assisi. We had wanted to go for a while, so I am glad it worked out before our other trips take over. Our first stop was at the small town at the bottom of the hill (technically Assisi) and visited Basilica di Santa Maria degli Angeli. This large church was built around/on top of an older, much smaller church. The old church is still inside! Pretty cool, but alas, no pics allowed, so surf the web to see it. After visiting and letting Nolan check out the water fountains, we drove up the hill to Assisi.

Assisi is apparently a popular place for Italians to visit (due to the Catholic significance of this town), and it was August, the travel month, so finding parking was hard. All the lots were marked Completo but there was a short line to wait for one particular lot, so we just waited 10 minutes or so to get in, not too bad. We took the escalators up and were at one of the main gates to the city. We walked in to the city center and quickly arrived at Basilica di Santa Chiara. There was also a great lookout point on the courtyard but we decided to eat lunch before viewing the church. We found Trattoria degli Umbri near the fountain and it looked good with good prices. While Kacey was not crazy about her tartufo pasta, my local pasta with local sausage was good; cheap house wine was also good.

We walked back to the St. Clare church and went in. While the church was not ornate (as she would want it), it was beautiful in it's meaning. The crypt contained her body and many people visit to pray. From here we decided to visit the Cattedrale di San Rufino. This church is also very significant as both St. Francis and St. Clare were baptized here. Parts of the floor are glass to see the remains of what most believe was the Roman Forum.

From here we ventured to Basilica di San Francesco d'Assisi. This is the big draw of the town and while this is not the biggest church around, for this size town it is big. It also has three levels; the top level is the main nave, the middle level is another large basilica, and the lower level is the crypt with the remains of St. Francis. Many people were here praying, clinging to the iron gate that surrounds the wall of his crypt. After spending some time here we decided to walk back through town, go ahead and leave, and eat dinner in Cortona on the way home. On our way out of town we quickly stepped in the Convento Chiesa Nuova, a church built where St. Francis was believed to have been born and raised. When leaving we decided to see if we could drive up to the castle, Rocca Maggiore, on top of the hill, but we could not find an easy way up. Oh well, we headed toward Cortona.

Pictures from Assisi

When we reached Cortona, it was nearing 6:30 and we knew churches may be closing around 7. We found parking pretty quick but it is quite a hike up to the square of this town! Unfortunately we didn't get to see any churches but the town looked pretty cozy. There were a lot of people in the square sipping wine as tables from restaurants stretched out pretty far; I have not seen much of this anywhere except Il Campo in Siena. We walked around, Kacey did a little shopping, and we read many menus. We also found a pretty nice lookout of the valley. We decided to eat some pizza at Pizzeria Trattoria Croce Del Travaglio. The pizzas were cheap but ok. The crust was lite but almost too lite as it was flaking apart. The house wine here is the cheapest I have seen before. We also bought some little mini-lobster tail desserts next door (which should probably be eaten the same day) and found some mirtillo gelato on the way out of town. For those unfamiliar with mirtillo, it is blueberry and I consider it a delicacy in Italy. On a hot evening a little bowl of limone and mirtillo is about the most refreshing combination ever!

Pictures from Cortona

Monday, August 09, 2010

Vienna and Budapest

The weekend of August 7th we did a whirlwind tour of Vienna and Budapest. We crammed as many sites in as possible, and took over 800 pictures in 4 days. While we were planning traveling to Budapest the previous weekend, after the airline website didn't work and then realizing we were going to be very close the following weekend in Vienna, we decided to head to Vienna ahead of the other LGOs and train to Budapest.

We caught a flight on Austrian Air from Bologna to Vienna. Nice airline! I arranged a hotel near the train station as our train left at 6:50AM the next morning. We stayed at the Ibis Wien Mariahilf near Westbahnhof; for €59 and close to the station it was pretty nice.

We got up pretty early to make our train. Even though we thought we had plenty of time, we were still cutting it a little close. But we made it with about 5 minutes to spare. We took the 3 hour ÖBB Railjet; the train was pretty nice and empty. We had a set of four seats facing each other with a table in the middle. This gave Nolan some room to play.

When we arrived at Budapest Keleti pályaudvar train station at 10am, we were eager to start exploring. Unfortunately, it took us about 15 minutes to find the subway! Sounds crazy, but the subway entrances are just stairs going down; very seldom are there any signs above ground. Anyway, we picked up a family pass that was available, and what a deal! Any bus, subway, or trolley, two adults and 1-7 children for 48 hours costs 2200ft. (US$1 =~ 211ft. or HUF), so about US$10. So we took the subway to our hotel, the new Eurostars Budapest Center, to check-in early or leave our bags. Luckily we were able to check-in, so we could rest for a couple minutes and finalize our walking path. This is a pretty swank hotel, centrally located, and we stayed there for only €63! (breakfast included)

We headed towards the Danube to visit the Buda side first. We saw the river, the Liberty Statue (from street level), and head towards the Buda Castle. I had read that the funicular was a good way up, but there was a long line and our public transit pass didn't work for the very expensive ride up. We asked the woman selling tickets to the "Hop On Hop Off" tour bus if our bus tickets could help us out. She said that 20 feet away was the #16 bus stop that would take us to the top. Great! So we rode the bus up the hill and started walking the Buda side area around the castle. There are wonderful views of the Pest side and the Danube from up around the castle. We took quite a few pictures, as well as some panoramas, and walked around the castle some more. We also found a big water fountain for Nolan to enjoy. After walking around for a while we started looking for some food. We were still trying to learn the crazy exchange but found a place (I think called Korona Kávéház) that seemed reasonable with a decent selection and some good looking desserts too. FYI - most places here will take euros but give you a really bad exchange rate. It is worth finding an ATM and taking out like 20,000 ft., which it is really hard to type a number in that large to an ATM.

After some food we walked toward Matthias Church. While doing a little window shopping, Kacey found a grocery store along the way and bought some chocolate. We bought a ticket for the Fisherman's Bastion and the church. I wasn't exactly sure what the bastion was, but I had it marked as something close by to see. The bastion is simply a little castle-looking wall built next to the church overlooking the Danube. We went up on the wall and once again viewed the Danube and the Pest side of the city. From here, we went in the church. This was an interesting church and a unique roof. After viewing the church, we found the bus stop to take us back to the other side of the Danube via the Széchenyi Chain Bridge.

We walked north up the Danube to view the Hungarian Parliament Building. This building is huge and best viewed from the Buda side of the Danube. We walked around the back and found a memorial to those lost when fighting for their freedom against the Soviet Union. After sitting for a few minutes, we walked down to see the Shoes on the Danube Promenade. There is not much here and it is hard to cross the street, but it is a good place for reflection.

From here we headed toward St. Stephan's Basilica. An elevator serviced our trip to the top, so we took Nolan up for the view. The elevator ended in the middle part of the dome which made for an interesting view inside the dome. The views were pretty nice from the tower. Afterward we wandered the church for a few minutes before deciding to hit the Opera house before going to the Synagogue. On our way Kacey spotted a North Face store, so we went in looking for some deals. They were ok, but she only ended up with a sweater.

We arrived at the Opera and found out it is not open except for a few tours in the afternoon and we had missed them. Not a huge deal as the subway was right there and we rode over to the Synagogue area. But unfortunately we had just missed this as well and would have to return in the morning to view it. From here we decided it was time to find some food but not before a quick stopover at the hotel. We walked down the street toward the Ferenciek tere area and looked for food. We stopped at one of the first places we saw and liked the menu, so we ate at the Corso Étterem. The food was pretty good, wine cheap, but my dessert was not great. After a long day, we got back to the hotel for bed. While Kacey was putting Nolan to bed, I ran back down to the river to take some night pictures. This was a little hard from the bridge as traffic was causing the bridge to vibrate a lot, but I was able to get a few to turn out.

The next morning we slept in a little; partly because nothing opened super early and partly because it was pouring rain. We wandered downstairs for breakfast and by the time we packed up and got ready to go, the rain was done! We headed to the Dohány Street Synagogue for a walk-through of the world's second largest synagogue. After learning that our backpack was too large, we decided to just take turns and let Nolan play in the grassy area outside. After we each had our tour, we decided to hop on the subway to head towards Hősök tere, or the Heroes' Square. We were hoping to find some food out here, but no. Finally near the Castle of Vajdahunyad, we found a little restaurant. At this point we were getting pushed for time, so of course we had extremely slow service, even for Europe. This meant we didn't get to explore the castle (and the views were wrecked due to construction) and had to basically run to the subway and hope there was not a line at the train station. Oh yeah, by the way, due to our issues with finding transit upon arrival, we had forgotten to buy our return ticket and knew only that the train was supposed to leave around 3pm.

So, after rushing to the hotel, me running to the hotel to get our bags, rushing to the train station, trying to buy tickets at one counter, they said not here, then rushing to another counter with a huge line, then realizing that we could try the tourist office, me waiting in a shorter line there, expecting to have a huge mark-up, and finally getting tickets in hand around 2:48, we had 15 minutes to spare and our return trip only cost 14,000 ft. total (~$64)! So after finding about the last table seat left on the train, we settled in, let Nolan eat a little pizza, and enjoyed the train ride back to Vienna.

Pictures from Budapest
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Back in Vienna
We found our hotel, Hotel Papageno, pretty easily, settled in, and walked out for some dinner. We were recommended to try the Hofbauer. The menu was limited, but my goulash with spaetzle was pretty good!

We woke up at a decent time and headed down for breakfast. We were pretty sure we wouldn't see any other LGOs at breakfast because they don't have a traveling alarm clock. We really wanted to check out the Naschmarkt, only a few blocks from where we were staying. This was really neat! Tons of food, spices, desserts, swordfish, asian ingredients (which we purchased), people selling junk, and lots more food.

We walked back over to the hotel and people were up and getting ready for the day. Unfortunately it was trying to rain some, but we had packed two umbrellas so we ventured out and headed downtown via street car and started walking near the Opera. We started walking clockwise around the ring in the direction of Hofburg in hopes to take in it's vastness. We mostly just walked around and gazed, from there entering the Volksgarten for more views and water fountains. Next we crossed the street to check out the Rathaus, where there were many food vendors for the film festival. We ate some food and started walking toward the city center to see the two large churches there.

First we came to the Peterskirche. This is the smaller of the two but had some nice views inside. After our quick stop we walked toward Stephanplatz, the city center and home to Stephansdom. This is the big church with limited abilities to walk around inside unless you pay, but with my camera I was able to get shots of the alter area anyway. We really wanted to go up the north tower (taller than south, but no lift) so we left a sleeping Nolan with Donovan, Kevin, and Emily at a hotel nearby. The views of the city were pretty nice and the view of the brightly colored tile roof of the church was interesting as well.

Our last stop for the day was Karlskirche. Nolan found a playground next door so while Kacey played with him there I went in with the rest of the group to check out the church. I first I thought the entry fee seemed steep until I realized that the price included a ride up the lift inside the church where renovation was being completed on the dome. It was awesome! We went right up to the very tip top of the inside of the dome. The pictures I take don't quite do it justice, and although the views of the city were limited, the internal views were incredible. That night we walked around the Schwedenplatz area on the Danube canal and grabbed some food.

The next morning we knew we would be up early and we wanted to get out and see a few more sites. The weather was great and we headed up toward Hofburg to go inside something. Kacey did some reading and she picked the Imperial Treasury Schatzkammer. It was a little expensive, but it was pretty cool. We walked through in about 45 minutes and saw a lot of the Imperial Treasury. While dark, I was able to get some shots of the items there. We then wanted to check out the church at Hofburg. When we first arrived at Augustinerkirche mass was still in session so we grabbed some pizza for Nolan, fed him, and then entered the church. The church was still filled with the smoke from incense but it was still nice to see.

Next we walked toward Stephansplatz to look around, grab some food, get photos of sites in sunlight, and catch the subway out to Schloss Schönbrunn. This is where we met up with the other LGOs. They were just finishing up a tour when we arrived. I had already grabbed some Apfelstrudel and a coffee while Nolan ran around and threw rocks in to the fountain. We then all walked to the gardens behind the palace. Check out my photos, but this place is vast! I was able to put together some panoramic photos to show the size. We all slowly walked up the hill for some great views. After walking around for a while, the other LGOs wanted some food and since we had already ate, we headed for another site.

We took the subway back in to town and headed to the Belvedere Palace. While nowhere near the size of Schonbrunn, it was close to the city and also beautiful. We walked around for about 30-45 minutes then headed to our hotel to grab our bags and get to the airport.

Pictures from Vienna
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This was a fun weekend, stressful only a couple times due to trying to see many, many things, and we enjoyed many great sites while checking two top sites off of our "Must See Things While Living in Italy".

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

Nolan's New Ride

We have been on the lookout to get Nolan a new toy for his birthday. We didn't find one in time, but we kept looking. Finally on Friday night, we stopped at the Manganelli Baby Store and found what we had been looking for... a trike! He has been completely fascinated with motorcycles lately, so we figured he should have a tricycle of his own. We wanted one not too expensive (as we will probably abandon it) with a handle on the back for me to push for a while. We found both. And, if it lasts long enough (it is pretty cheap plastic), I may be able to break it down for travel home! We will see in December...

But for now, he loves having a motorcycle of his own!

Sunday, August 01, 2010

Pienza e Montalcino

This weekend was a little different than most. Todd and Dannielle took a trip to Budapest while we spent some time ,*gasp*, as a family! On Friday we went out and bought Nolan a new toy (that post is coming) and on Saturday we stayed in and went in to Siena for shopping and dinner. On Sunday we traveled to Pienza, the home of Tuscano Pecorino, and Montalcino, the home of Brunello. I am not a wine connoisseur, but I think Brunello is pretty well known here as well as the states.

We found some free street parking and walked in to the city. We first hit the tourist information booth to get a map as Ricardo Stepheno did not have one in his book. Once we saw the map, I knew why. This is a small town! Well, not as small as Monteriggioni, but too small to get a map in the guide book. We walked immediately to the Palazzo Piccolomini to get a tour of the museum, supposedly a highlight of Tuscano. A tour in english was starting in 20 minutes, so Kacey did some shopping before they closed for siesta. Let me say that the main street smells like pecorino and honey, it was quite a delight. Every little store has stacks of pecorino (check out my pics). We hustled back to the museum for our tour just in time. Luckily, it was only us! The now museum was pretty interesting (no foto). It was not that big, but had a lot of dated paintings, armor, and furniture relevant to their beloved pope.

After the tour, we walked through a few more shops, the church, and looked for some food. It was getting late and we didn't quite find anything we really liked, so we grabbed a few slices of pizza, bought a little cheese, and hit the road to Montalcino. We snapped this panoramic photo along the way.
Road from Pienza to Montalcino

Pictures from Pienza

Of course Nolan fell asleep right before we got to town, so we took our time getting out of the car and luckily a 10 minute nap did him just fine. We accidentally parked right in the middle of town without even knowing, so we were nice and close to everything. There was a little market going on there too so Kacey browsed for a bit. While she put an offer on something, the only thing we ended up purchasing was some Brunello (along with discounted docg Chianti). We actually spent *gasp* €20 on wine! We usually spend €1-3.

The church didn't appear to be open, which was a bummer, but I did venture up the fortress for several photos. Here is my favorite.
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I have one other panoramic photo I took up there I really liked as well, but I think this is my favorite. We looked inside a couple of other churches that were open and after our 2 hour visit, decided to get on the road.

Pictures from Montalcino