20 Years of Travel #10: Milan

The 20 Years of Travel series continues with a visit to Milan, Italy. Even though our trip to Milan in 2015 was brief, it was very memorable, including checking two things off my lifetime bucket list.

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Duomo di Milano

We did not waste any time going to see the Duomo in Milan. We got up early and had a coffee at a cafe off of the Piazza del Duomo, while waiting for the cathedral to open. We bought tickets to not just tour the inside but also to do the rooftop tour, which I highly recommend. I’m not going to lie, I am absolutely terrified of heights (major vertigo) and found the rooftop adventure a bit difficult, but it is still worth it. I’ve been to a lot of cathedrals and this is one of my favorites. Expect to spend many hours exploring the Duomo di Milano.

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Da Vinci’s The Last Supper

No trip to Milan is complete without a visit to Santa Maria delle Grazie to view one of Da Vinci’s most famous pieces of art – The Last SupperI would definitely plan on purchasing tickets to see The Last Supper well in advance. I don’t know if everyone has had this experience, but we were given a certain amount of viewing time, which I wish had been a bit longer. Other than that, I enjoyed every moment of learning about this piece of artwork and spending as much time as I could looking at every part of it.

The Last Supper - Da Vinci 1495-98

Teatro alla Scala

When I was in high school, I wrote a paper on the opera singer, Maria Callas. Through this report I learned a lot about the La Scala Opera House and have wanted to visit it ever since. Knowing this, my husband bought us tickets, as an early birthday surprise, to see one of the best Puccini operas – La Boheme – at La Scala. We had great seats; the onstage sets were really impressive; the acoustics were perfect; and for those who don’t appreciate operas because you don’t understand the language, every seat had individual TV screens that have subtitles translated into your language of choice.

World’s Fair Exposition – and my brush with death

The first movie I ever owned when I was young was Meet Me in St. Louis with Judy Garland. This movie is about a family living in St. Louis during the time when St. Louis is about to hold the World’s Fair (The Louisiana Purchase Exposition) in 1904. Naturally, attending a World’s Fair has been on my travel bucket list for a long long time. As if finally seeing an opera at La Scala was not enough, our trip coincided with the 2015 World’s Fair Expo in Milan, so we also spent a day at the World’s Fair. The theme of this fair was “Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life.” Attendees were provided with food from all over the world. As we were currently living in Tuscany, Italy at the time, we were unable to get many foods that were not strictly Tuscan, so we were super excited about trying food from all over the world.

However, I think I got too excited. I unfortunately had an allergic reaction to something I ate, which could have been at some point while I was indulging in Belgian fries, Dutch pancakes, Food truck BBQ, Mexican tacos and Chinese noodles. The attack was bad and luckily we found a health clinic on site that I could go to. I didn’t have to wait at all before they had me lying on a clinic bed, hooked up to a few machines, with an IV in my arm. I had at least three doctors looking at me.  At one point they asked me what I had had to eat, so I started giving them the list, and they just shook their heads at me. They gave me some medicine, which they thought would work, but the lady doctor noticed that I was still having trouble breathing and the rashes on my chest and legs were getting worse. They actually kicked my husband out of the room at this point, so he was actually a bit nervous about my condition. The doctors opted to give me a big booster shot of adrenaline, and in 10 minutes I was doing fantastic. I cannot remember ever feeling as great as I did at that time. The doctors released me with the advice that maybe I should just stick to eating chocolate gelato from now on. For those that have not experience health care outside of the United States, I did not have to fill out any paperwork before being treated or after I was treated. I just signed a document at the end, saying that I was treated, and that was all I had to do. A big thanks to those doctors who treated me. They were awesome.

Since I was feeling amazing, we did wander around the expo a little more. I did not eat any more food though and was a bit sad that I missed out on Ethiopian food and trying the crocodile at the Zimbabwe tent. However, I was not about to risk ending up in that clinic again. While that was a scary situation, I guess it made the day even more memorable, beyond seeing all the amazing exhibits and architecture.

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Milan was such a lovely weekend adventure and very memorable.

HAPPY TRAVELS!!!

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20 Years of Travel #6: Lucca, Italy

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The 20 Years of Travel series continues with an obvious location, as it was our home for 3 years: Lucca, Italy (in the Tuscany region). This is actually a difficult post to write, because how can I put down into words how much Lucca has meant to us.

I’m going to start with the obvious….
Food/Wine

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My husband and I loved starting every day by going to our local cafes for our cappuccini

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and pastries…normally a cornetto or sfloglia. We would frequent Piccola Soave during the week and Da Sara on the weekends. It is worth mentioning that food shopping can be a bit different there. If you want the best vegetables, you go to the vegetable stands; for the best meat, you go to your local butcher (pictured on the right – preparing our turkey for our Thanksgiving celebration); and for the best “unsalted” bread, you go to your local bakery. The food there is so flavorful and fresh.

You can’t visit or especially live in Tuscany without having some wine! It is really hard to

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find bad wine there. Plus, for €3 you can get a great local wine that would cost 5x that in the USA. The nearby hill-town of Montecarlo has its own wine festival and is home to the well-known Fattoria di Fubbiano winery. However, the hills around Lucca provide some of the best wineries. We enjoyed our trip to Fattoria Sardi, but our ultimate favorite place for wine is the Fabbrica di San Martino. We’ve been there many times and never leave without cases of wine. Even my friend, who is not a wine drinker, found a wine she loves there.13055839_10153604589492986_7423048710852422585_o (1)

Favorite eatery options:

  • Risto-Bar il Caffe on Corso Garibaldi – was a favorite spot for lunch. I BIG hello to the owners: Roberto and Sabrina. I miss your food and company so much!!!
  • Trattoria da Ubaldo – it is possible that you may find a local comic book series that features the owner of this restaurant. He is an interesting character and a favorite with the locals.
  • Ammodonostro – provides a great sharing meal that includes bistecca alla fiorentina.
  • Osteria Miranda – located in Piazza Santa Maria is one of the few restaurants around that serves our favorite San Martino wine.
  • Trattoria da Leo – a favorite restaurant of the locals. Make sure to have the table wine and the after dinner refreshment of limoncello and grappa that is offered to you before you leave.
  • L’isola Che Non C’era – a great place to take a lunch break while your shopping on Via Fillungo.
  • Le Bonta – everyone in Lucca has their favorite gelateria (gelato stand) and this is ours. It is located right outside the Lucchesi walls.

Our second favorite thing about Lucca are the festivals, holidays and celebrations…

Festivals

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During the summer and fall, it feels like Lucca has a festival or celebration almost every day. Drums and flag throwing are included in many holiday festivities. These are some of our favorite celebrations:

  • Luminaria di Santa Croce – a candlelit procession takes place from the Church San Frediano to the Cathedral of San Martino (Duomo – pictured above). This processional represents the miracle of the Volto Santo (holy face crucifix) relocating 17011_10153061958712986_8573529136269828547_nfrom San Frediano to the Duomo.
  • Lucca Summer Festival – a large summer music festival that has brought many bands and musicians. During my time in Lucca, I got to see Stevie Wonder, Elton John, the Eagles, Backstreet Boys, the Script, Gary Clark, John Legend and Lenny Kravitz (pictured on the right).
  • Effetto Cinema Notte – a celebration of cinema with musical performances all around the town from movies like Grease, Labyrinth, Chicago etc.
  • Verdemura Lucca – a portion of the Lucchesi wall is set up to sell plants and flowers and other organic products. It always made me wish I had more of a green thumb.
  • Lucca Film Festival – where directors are honored for their work and cinematic features. David Lynch and George Romero were previous honorees.
  • Il Desco – a market to sell local foods and wines.

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Favorite Highlights of Lucca

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So many wonderful things to see and do in Lucca. If you like churches, there are more than a hundred of those in this tiny walled-city. Here are some of our favorite things to see and do in Lucca:

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  • The Lucchesi Walls – Lucca is a walled-city. These walls are more than 500 years old.13407250_10153717328072986_8324403784892229909_n The top of the walls have been converted into a park for pedestrians, runners and bikers to wander around the city. My husband and I use to walk the walls almost every night. My friends and I would also take a walk around the wall after enjoying a hearty lunch.
  • Cattedrale di San Martino (Duomo) – the main catthedral of Lucca. This is also where you can view the Volto Santo (mentioned above).10516688_10152228726137986_4388737566867241416_n
  • Home of Giacomo Puccini – Lucca is the birthplace of the famous opera composer, Giacomo Puccini. Puccini created operas such as Madame Butterfly and La Boheme. I highly recommend seeing one of the daily Puccini performances. The singers are just amazing!
  • Museo di Arte Contemporanea Lu.C.C.A. – This is the Lucca Center of Contemporary Art. I got to see a display of Henri Cartier-Bresson’s work, who was a famous French photographer. The museum did a good job displaying such a large collection.
  • Villas & Palaces – Within the city center, you can visit Palazzo Pfanner and Palazzo13466250_10153717336682986_5258876858347279934_n Orsetti. Outside of the city center, you can visit popular villas, such as Villa Mansi and Villa Torrigiani.
  • Torre Guinigi (pictured on the right) – This is a tower in the center of Lucca that has a botanical garden on the top. It is a bit of a climb but worth it.
  • Lucca Italian School – When I first moved to Lucca, I decided to take a two-week Italian course at the Lucca Italian School. While I was nervous at how intense the classes were, because I didn’t know any Italian at all, I was blessed with a great class filled with wonderful people that I still communicate with on occasion. This course includes classroom work in the morning and then an afternoon excursion (field trip to nearby location) or event (cooking class, movies, etc.). It was a great experience, 1932335_10151990359127986_922716397_nand one I would recommend even if you are just coming to visit for a few weeks. This is the best way to immerse yourself in the town and Italian culture.
  • The Anfiteatro (pictured on the right)- a piazza completely surrounded by apartments and restaurants.
  • Shopping on Via Fillungo – there are many popular and also boutique shops on Fillungo. However, my favorite place to shop is a leather store called Officina della Pella, located right off of Piazzo San Francesco.
  • Chiesa San Michele (see picture below) – This ornate church is located on what used to be the town square. It is nice to just sit in one of the nearby cafes that overlook this church, but on a side note: you will pay for the view.

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If you are looking to explore Tuscany a bit, I highly recommend using Lucca as your main hub, as much of Tuscany is accessible via train from Lucca. It is hard to really describe how much our time in Lucca meant to us, and I hope this post does it justice.

For more information about things to do and places to see around Lucca (mostly day excursions we took), see the following posts:

20 Years of Travel #1: German Class Trip

Per my last post, I am celebrating 20 years of travel by writing about my top 20 travel destinations over the last 20 years. It seems fitting that I would start with my first oversees travel experience.

In July of 1998, I got to go on a trip to Germany, Switzerland, Austria and Italy with my high school German class. While that was 20 years ago, I’m going to list the places and events from this trip that I remember most. Enjoy a look at these places through the eyes of a sixteen year old (including pictures taken with disposable cameras):

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Cities visited in order of the Itinerary (see picture above):

  1. Frankfurt, Germany
    • To overcome jet lag, our teacher/tour leader signed us up for a Rhine River boat tour with a wine tasting. That may have been my first taste of wine. Lesson learned: drinking wine might not be the best way to overcome jet lag.
  2. Rothenberg, Germany
    • What I always pictured a European town to look like.
    • Largest Christmas store I’ve ever seen.
  3. Munich, Germany20180604_214421
    • Seeing a 1998 World Cup Soccer game on a big screen in the main square
    • We stumbled across a large crowd of people outside Planet Hollywood. I sat on my friend’s shoulders for 45 minutes. We had know idea what was going on. Eventually, we realized that this crowd was waiting for Arnold Schwarzenegger. He threw me a t-shirt that I actually still have.
    • My teacher bought us giant mugs of beer at the Hofbrauhaus.
    • The Glöckenspiel. – Munich was one of my favorite places, and I would finally revisit it 18 years later.
  4. Berchtesgaden, Germany
    • Saw my first mountains as we headed in to the Alps.
    • We all had a snowball fight in July.
  5. Salzburg, Austria
    • Obviously the birth place of Mozart, but I’ve always been a huge fan of the Sound of Music. We took a Sound of Music walking tour, which I thought was perfect as I was “Sixteen Going on Seventeen”.
  6. Lake Maggiore, Italy
    • The lake district of Northern Italy is just gorgeous. We stopped on Isola Bella and toured the stunning Palazzo Borromee.
  7. Innsbruck, Austria
    • I was unimpressed with Innsbruck. It was a brief stop anyway.
  8. St. Moritz, Switzerland
    • My first of many European train rides. The train from St. Moritz to Tirano, Italy has the best views (see picture above).
  9. Lugano, Switzerland20180604_212955
    • With some allotted free time, a few friends and I rented a speed boat on Lake Lugano. See pic on the right of me driving the boat. My friends and I also got into a lot of trouble for this, because we missed our curfew, and apparently everyone was looking everywhere for us. However, I have no regrets. It was amazing…just sitting in the boat with the wind blowing your hair and looking at the mountains coming out of lake. It was the most memorable moment of the trip for me.
    • While Lugano holds a special place in my heart for the enjoyable boating experience, I have not returned, which may have something to do with the cockroach infested accommodations we stayed at while we were there. Insects everywhere…in the shower, in the beds….
  10. Zermatt, Switzerland
    • It is pretty remarkable that my first experience with mountains also included viewing the Matterhorn (see picture at the top of the page). We took a train to a higher elevation to view it. Then some of us walked back down to the town of Zermatt, which was just a beautiful little Swiss town. I loved it there.
  11. Gruyere, Switzerland
    • CHEESE!!!!
  12. Lucerne, Switzerland
    • Kapellbrücke (Chapel Bridge) – I remembered seeing this bridge in picture albums my Grandmother had, and it was really amazing to be able to see it in person.
  13. Heidelberg, Germany
    • I vaguely remember a boat ride, but I think I was so exhausted by the end of this tour that I have little recollection of doing anything in Heidelberg.

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Since this trip almost 20 years ago, I’ve been back to Germany, Austria, and Switzerland many times and lived in Italy for a few years, so this area of the world has always meant so much to mean. While this trip was not the beginning of my love of world travel, it was the beginning of making world travel a reality and a way of life for me.

I hope you enjoyed this walk down memory lane with me. Next post on the 20 Years of Travel series will be a location a bit closer to home.

Reflecting on the “Final” Move

After living in Lucca, Italy for three years, my husband and I will be moving back to the United States. My husband was offered a job in Houston, Texas. We are both excited and nervous about this next stage in our lives.

For the first time in my life, this may not be a temporary settlement. This is a somewhat scary thought for me personally. Previously, I lived in multiple states (Iowa – when I was a baby but I still count it, Wisconsin, Washington DC – technically a district not a state, Missouri, Maryland & Massachusetts); attended academic courses in England, the Balkans – mainly Serbia, & Switzerland; and lived overseas in Italy.

Actually the address I had in Lucca for three years was the longest standing address I resided at since I was seventeen years old. I’ve gotten quite use to this mobile lifestyle. You learn quickly not to collect “things,” as you will have more to eventually pack if you do. I’ve also never had much chance to be bored with my surroundings either.

However, the idea of a long-term settlement means that my husband and I can purchase a house. I am about ten years behind all my friends from school who own homes or have been working toward that for years. Having a home to us isn’t just a next step though but an opportunity to finally have all our belongings in one place. I have boxes I haven’t looked inside of for at least ten years. It’ll be like Christmas morning when my husband and I actually open every box and piece of luggage. It will also be nice to travel some place (yes…traveling will most definitely continue) and have a home to come back to when the trip concludes.

Plus, living a nomadic life has at times been very lonely. I’ve met amazing people everywhere I’ve been, and when it comes time for me to move to my next destination, we always say that we will keep in touch (along with maybe a plan to visit), but most of the time that does not happen. With social media being what it is today, I always expect that it will be so easy to stay in touch and am disappointed when it still does not happen.

I am currently at that stage, right before the move, where I get a bit weepy, as I reminisce on all the memories and moments I’ve experienced in that particular location, but this time it is different. I find myself worried about how I will adjust to normal everyday living in the States. I’ve only been living outside of the USA for three years, but I feel as though I’ve missed so much. Things have changed. American politics has taken an interesting turn, Game of Thrones is the television show of choice for many, and everyone seems to be addicted to Pokemon GO – all this while I’ve been wandering ancient streets and sipping cappuccini. I have faith that I can catch up on all the things I’ve missed, but how do I handle the knowledge that most people will not care about what I have been doing and what they have missed.

I’ve enjoyed a certain motto over the last few years: “Not All Who Wander Are Lost.” Does that mean that when you stop wandering, that is when you are lost? That is how I am feeling.

I know how lucky I have been. I’ve lived an amazing, adventurous life, and I’m only in my thirties. I was recently in a small-ish town in the Ukraine, where I spoke with another American woman who has lived around the world. She told me, “like all places you move to, there is an adjustment period.” She went on to saying that it may take longer this time to adjust, but that I will do just fine. However, she warned me not to lose who I am, being a  “a citizen of the world” as we call it. She stressed to me that I must take what I have learned from my time abroad and use it to strengthen myself both emotionally and intellectually. I hope to do just that. There is no fear. Only hope…

Arrivederci Italia!

Lots of Love As We Head into 2016!

Lucca, Italy

Lucca, Italy

Merry Christmas & Happy New Year! Buon Natale e Felice Anno Nuovo!

We unfortunately did not get to spend the holidays with our family and friends in the United States this year. We knew it would be a little difficult to be away from everyone at such a special time of year, so we took a little holiday R&R break and escaped to Portugal, which was wonderful! We are definitely feeling refreshed and ready for the new year – whatever it might bring.

Porto, Portugal

Porto, Portugal

I can hardly believe that my husband and I have been living in Lucca, Italy for almost three years. Time really does fly by sometimes. One of the main reasons that we chose to make the big move to Italy was our love of travel. Living in Italy has given us such accessibility to other parts of the world. 2015 certainly provided us with many amazing adventures. We explored 12 different countries, which includes visiting Italian cities outside of Lucca as well. (Find more details on my Travel Page, which I am constantly updating.) Our three favorite travel adventures this year were taking our first big cruise (on the Mediterranean), participating in a photographic tour through Cuba (hooray! Americans can go to Cuba legally!) and experiencing our first World’s Fair Exposition in Milan, Italy. A personal favorite moment of 2015 for me was when my husband surprised me with tickets to see Puccini’s La Boheme at the La Scala Opera House in Milan. It was definitely a dream come true.

In the midst of all the travel, we welcomed my in-laws for a visit to Lucca. It is always nice to show family and friends our wonderful home and all the things that we love about Lucca and living in Italy. We were thrilled that they came. We also hosted Thanksgiving again for the third year and had a wonderful turnout of about 20 people. There were many new faces this year, and we enjoyed it very much.

While we saw every travel moment as an adventure, some of the trips were actually work-related. My husband participated in 5 conferences this year in Berlin (Germany), Arizona (USA), Zaragoza (Spain), Helsinki (Finland) and Budapest (Hungary). He has had a very busy year. All of the conferences he’s been to recently have been very productive, and he’s working on multiple different projects.  One really successful one has been patent inventor and assignee disambiguation (basically, knowing that “MIT” and “Mass. Inst. of Tech.” refer to the same thing), which is really important to do accurately if you want to understand how universities and companies combine different skills to create technology or how scientists move around the world.  He’s solved that problem for 4 million patents worldwide, and there’s a lot of interest in using his results!

I too have been working. I completed my work on the Introduction to Network Science book that I was helping to edit. Then I signed a contract to do some work for IMT – School for Advanced Studies Lucca, where I also edit publications. I am very fortunate to have these opportunities. I never for one second saw myself as an editor, but I rather enjoy it most of the time. I will say, however, that working from home has its difficulties. It is easy to lose one’s motivation and concentration at home. It can also be difficult to spend so much time within the house. I started consistently running miles outside every week just to get a bit of fresh air. It not only provided the break I needed, but it turns out that I actually started to enjoy running. Who knew that would happen?!

We have no idea what is in store for us in 2016. My husband’s contract at IMT-Lucca is ending at the end of May. He is currently applying for jobs in the United States, as well as other places in the world. However, he has also been offered an extension of his current position if we choose to remain in Italy. We are going to let the Lord and fate guide us these next months. Please keep us in your prayers as we may have some big decisions to make. Whatever happens, we know that we are blessed with wonderful friends and family who continue to support us. We love you all very much!

Florence, Italy

Florence, Italy

Florence at Christmas time – December 2015

Duomo at Night

TreeFlorence, Italy is just a short trip from Lucca, so some friends and I decided to spend a full day there, enjoying the holiday festivities. The Duomo or main Cathedral in Florence is spectacular on a normal day, but it sparkles at night now with the large Christmas tree in front of it. I don’t know if I have ever seen anything so beautiful. There is also a large nativity scene in front of the cathedral as well (pictured at the bottom of this post).

The streets were all decorated with lights, and we were pleased to discover a few light shows throughout town as well. The one pictured below we just stumbled upon, but the big one is displayed on Ponte Vecchio. Don’t be fooled though. Just because it is the holiday season doesn’t mean that the light show will have a holiday theme. However, it is remarkable nonetheless and shows a deep appreciation for art. Pictures or videos just don’t do it justice. You have to experience it.

Lights

We managed to catch one of the last nights of the Christmas market in Piazza Santa Croce. It was a great place to try different holiday foods like Hungarian Chimney Cake and German Apple Strudel. You can wash it down with some mulled wine. When you have eaten all you can, then it is time to shop. There were so many unique gifts to be found there.

There is nothing like Christmas trees, lights and markets to put one in the holiday spirit. Buon Natale!

nativity

ADVENTURES IN ITALY 2014 (July)

ASSISI, UMBRIA DSC_3145a Home of Saint Francis, Assisi is one of the most beautiful towns we have visited during our time in Italy. It is not a short trip from Lucca, Italy, but it is a scenic one by train. We only had the day, so we once again, as done on previous travels, relied on the free walking audio guide by Rick Steves to show us the highlights. To minimize travel time, we purchased bus tickets at the train station T stand in Assisi that took us directly into town. We started by walking around the old amphitheater and then went inside the Cathedral of Saint Rufino. From there we headed to the Basilica of Saint Clara. Unfortunately the Basilica of Saint Clara, which houses her and her sister Agnes’ remains, was closed at the moment of our visit but we took the time there to learn about the life of Saint Clara, who gave up wealth to become a follower of Saint Francis and devote her life to God. Then we continued on to the Piazza del Comune where we visited the Temple of Minerva. Following a brief lunch break, we finally came to the main highlight of the visit which was the Basilica of Saint Francis, which now holds his remains. Inside the Basilica are works of art relating the story of Saint Francis as well as many other Biblical scenes. Since the scenery surrounding Assisi boasts of stunning landscapes, we chose to take the approximately 30-minute walk, instead of the bus ride, to the train station to enjoy as much of the scenery as possible. I highly recommend the walk.

SIENA, TOSCANA

Il Duomo di SienaWhile Siena is accessible by train from Florence, my girlfriend and I decided that we would rather spend a little extra money and take a tour bus with a guided tour. We went with a company I had used before called Come and See Italy. This tour would take us from Lucca to Siena where we would have a guided walking tour and then some free time. The guided tour was decent as she talked a lot about the Siena neighborhoods that compete in the annual Il Palio di Siena. Il Palio is a horse race that occurs in Piazza del Campo every July 2 and August 16. The walking tour finished at the Duomo just as the magnificent church bells were starting. Since we had some free time, we decided to check out the inside of the Duomo. This is a must see as the inside of the Duomo boasts works of art by Michelangelo, Pisano, Donatello, and Bernini to name just a few. As we headed back to Piazza del Campo, we found a nice little spot for lunch called 4 Cantoni. Our Come and See Italy tour would conclude with a short stop in San Gimignano on the way back to Lucca.

SAN GIMIGNANO, TOSCANA

DSC_3386aThere are two things I love about San Gimignano: the views and the gelato. After spending the morning in Siena, we headed to San Gimignano, the final stop. Here there was no walking tour or guide. We were shown how to make our way into the town from the parking area and then left to our own devices. We wandered and found some amazing scenic overlooks, took lots of pictures, and then headed to our main San Gimignano target, which was the “World’s Best Gelato.” We knew that we had found the right spot, because there was a long line outside Gelateria Dondoli. This did not discourage us, and we were rewarded. The line moved fast. The clerks inside were almost too efficient. ThereDSC_3380a were dozens of flavors, and it was hard to pick what we wanted in a timely fashion, but I don’t think that either of us were disappointed by our choices. We sat in the shade with a beautiful view of the many towers that make up San Gimignano and savored every delicious moment. Afterwards we still had some time left before we had to head back down to our bus, so we wandered the streets some more and took in all the magnificent towers that have stood for hundreds of years. It is a stunning town.