In Brugge

The title is a half truth - we're covering my trip to Bruges in spring of 2016 and my trip to Brussels in the spring of 2015. Seeing as it's the end of the summer of 2017, we'll see how this goes.

First up, Brussels. Brussels was my third weekend in Europe (after Amsterdam and Versailles). I was saving a few places for long weekends and visitors but I still have no idea why Brussels was so high on my to-see list. The EU? I mention this because I was still mostly a travel novice when I went to Brussels. Basically, I didn't know what the hell I was doing or what I would really enjoy yet.

I think I might have stayed in the European-est of hotels, still too scared to try a hostel at this point in my expat life. I arrived on a Friday night, quickly giving up on finding the hotel on my own and taking a cab. And good thing because even the cab driver struggled to find the place. The hotel was a very narrow building, the front desk something jammed in the corner of a crowded entryway, every still surface covered in traveler's brochures. The hotel clerk gave me my key - an ancient brass contraption that was not allowed to leave the building - and pointed me towards my room. I then crawled up a very steep and very narrow twisting staircase. At one point I went through a door and I believe changed buildings. Everything was dark carpet and faded wallpaper. Finally I made my way to my room, a twin bed shoved against a radiator in the corner and a very confusing bathroom against the door. The thing was in the attic, so the ceiling sloped and I had to be careful not to bang my head. 

And this was my view! Taken Saturday morning, the angled window in the roof looked out over a square that had some type of flea market starting very early on Saturday.

And here is the Peter Pan statue in Egmont Park. I didn't realize this at the time but this is actually a replica of the original in Kensington Gardens in London. Unfortunately, I just discovered this while putting together this entry. I'll add it to my list of things to check out next time I'm in London. Until then!

This statue was donated in 1924 to recognize the two countries' friendship during WWI. It became a Belgian historical monument in 1975

Palais Royal. Today, it is the office of the king - the royals no longer live there. The palace is beautiful but I was more taken with the park across the street, Brussels Park, a lovely, green open space festooned with scultpures.

More pretty green spaces - Parc du Cinquantenaire. The place is expansive, overtaken by a massive U-shaped complex. It was built in 1880 by King Leopold II to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of Belgian Independence. Today, in addition to eye balling some interesting architecture and gardens, the complex also offers an art museum and a military museums. I didn't have time to check out either but I did enjoy walking through the park itself.

EU parliament building. The EU buildings were not physically far from the two parks listed above but I don't know that they could be any further apartment artistically. Brussels is the capital of the EU. Walking around the cold, glassy buildings, I was surprised to see lots of guys with big guns. After traveling around Europe, it's not so surprising any more. To be honest, guys with big guns were all over Europe. When I visited anything related to the EU or United Nations (Geneva, Strasbourg, Brussels), there were guns. When I visited anything remotely touristy after a terrorist attack, there were guns. Basically a Wal-Mart in Alabama.

And now maybe the prettiest view in the city - Jardin du moat des arts. After gutting the neighborhood, one of the Leopolds ordered the landscape architect Pierre Vacherot to design a garden to class up the place during the Universal Exposition in 1910. Intended to be temporary, the green area was popular and was recreated in its current form between 1956 and 1958 by Rene Pechere.

When visiting the area, I saw this place marked in my guidebooks but didn't think much of it. Coming from the concrete and sculpture square just behind the gardens to this view was dramatic. It's a lovely space and I took a stupid number of pictures from various angles.

And for some reason, Brussels most famous naked kid - Manneken Pis. The statue is in a corner of a crowded area, between restaurants and shops. I was worried I wasn't going to be able to find the thing. It turned out to be not a problem at all - just look for the crowd. My initial reaction - wow, that's a really tiny statue. And so many people!

Though officially naked, the little guy is usually clothed in some fun outfit to commemorate an event or occasion. There is a museum nearby to let you check out his extensive closet.

And now my favorite part of Brussels - the Grand Place. The city's central square is incomparable, with elaborate visages and beautiful guildhalls. I was there on a Saturday. In the pictured building, a bridge and groom came out onto a balcony and waved and everyone cheered. I thought it was a royal wedding or at least a celebrity. That is, until another couple came out twenty minutes later. Apparently this is a wedding option in Brussels - go wave on the balcony in Grand Place. All you need is a flexible time table and a lot of cash.

But really, the Grand Place is a great place for people watching and taking in some beautiful architecture.

In Brussels, I had my best fellow tourist story and my worst. First, my best. I sat and ordered Belgian Waffles for breakfast/lunch in the beautiful square. I sat there for a long time, looking at beautiful buildings and people watching. There were two women next to me, maybe ten years older than me, American. They were both living somewhere in Europe (I think the Amsterdam area) and chatting about work and shared colleagues. I wanted to be them. They helped me order a mimosa (some occasions just require a mimosa) and were everything I thought I wanted to be. Two single ladies, having a casual weekend in some European capital, like they do all the time.

Waffles! Okay, I had to. I was in Belgium! And they were delicious.

Galeries Saint Hubert. First mall and birthplace of consumerism. The place was built in 1847 and is still selling tourists cheaply made, over-priced goods. 

If there's not an elaborate cathedral, is it really a European city? I actually didn't get a chance to go into this one, just grabbed a pic on my way through with a tour.

And now for my worst tourist experience. I wasn't sure what to see in Brussels and was overwhelmed with chocolate options, so I booked my very first European viator tour.  On the tour were a group of American college students. There were maybe six of them. And find a foreigner and ask them their worst opinion of Americans and I'm pretty sure these kids are what they would describe. Loud, obnoxious, complaining about everything. They yelled at each other from one end of the bus to the other and bragged about how late they were out the night before and how drunk they got and all the other cool places in Europe they were going to go that summer. They bitched about everything. It was exhausting. I tried to hide from them and prevent them realizing I was also an American while making sure everyone else on the tour knew I wasn't with them.

But the tour, annoying Americans aside, was worth it for two reasons - chocolate and Atonium. Atonium is the most out of the way spot in Brussels and I wouldn't have been able to get there on my own, I just didn't have time. If you want to check out the site, plan ahead. The structure is a leftover from the 1958 World Fair. It represents an iron crystal lattice, enlarged 165 billion times. You can go into the structure and, according to my tour guide, it offers great views and excellent exhibits.

Chocolate Manneken Pis! As I said, I also did the tour for the chocolate. I had Belgian waffles, now Belgian chocolate. Our tour took us to Zaabar, where we watched them make a batch of chocolate and tasted as many flavors as we could manage. I spent an obscene amount of money on various flavors under the guise of 'souvenirs.'

After a long day around Brussels, I went back to my hotel, thinking I would just grab dinner somewhere near the hotel.

There were no restaurants. The two places recommended to me by the guy behind the crowded hotel desk were closed. After an increasingly-desperate search, I ended up at this bar a few blocks away. There was food advertised but they had stopped serving. So after a lovely brunch earlier in the day, I ended my trip with a beer and a bag of potato chips. But this guy was my dinner companion so it certainly wasn't the worst.

The Brussels train station. You'll know you're here when you see this piece of work just outside the station.

And now, Brugge! When I visited here in 2016, it was one of my first weekend-long trips after returning to Germany. It had been a city on my 'almost' list in 2015, a city everyone talked about as beautiful and picturesque, like you stepped into a different time period. So sure, let's check it out. I left early Saturday morning. In 2016, unlike 2015, I had a tablet. And guess what movie I had bought and downloaded via Amazon Prime? In Bruges! I'm nothing if not thematic.

And quick aside here - that was a lovely film. It reminded me of something like Pulp Fiction, but with more heart and Collin Farrell. Very violent and heartbreaking. I recommend the film in general but absolutely see it before you go to Bruges.

And my next aside. Bruges was honestly a really lovely town. It wasn't crowded when I went but I also went in February. I've heard from other people, and my own guide, that it can be quite touristy at times (blame the movie), so be prepared in case that happens.

Pictured above is the Markt, city center. I had lunch at the restaurant with the Italian flags! The food was just okay but the people watching was A+. The square was busy with people, street performers, and horse-drawn carriages. Near the square were several shops, selling whatever a good tourist might need.

I have no idea why people want to come here. Like Amsterdam, I have hundreds of these. Every turn, another beautiful canal with interesting buildings.

Ah! My eyes!

This canal and beautiful stone bridge could be anywhere in Amsterdam, Hamburg, or Bruges. Luckily, the architecture is unique in each city. This is definitely Bruges.

This building near my hostel was my favorite. The purple let me know I was almost to my home for the evening.

Hostel break! I stayed at a hostel somewhat removed from the touristy spots (but still walkable). It was a great hostel. Somewhat confusing, another building within a building type of a thing, but the vibe was homey and I skipped dinner in Bruges to go back to my hostel and hang out and eavesdrop on fellow travelers. Everyone was friendly and helpful.

Windmill near my hostel.

This hotel is close to the touristy center of the city. I took a boat tour and the tour guide happily pointed this place out as the location of Collin Farrell's big jump scene from In Bruges. I appreciate cities that have a sense of humor about their place in pop culture.

Swans. Here is where I note that swans were everywhere. No, really, they were everywhere. And they were assholes. Watch out for the swans.

I took a boat tour and I recommend giving it a try. It's a great way to see the city. Also, there were some canals that don't have any pedestrian vantage point and the only way to see them is from a boat. This horrible shot is the lowest bridge in the city. And it's no joke - everyone had to duck, including our driver/tour guide.

Beer and chocolate, because why not. This is near the Markt center, at a bar that had hundreds of beers available. A nice place to sit and enjoy the canal while doing the most touristy thing you can in the city.

A lace map of Bruges. A friend visited Bruges a few months after me. In preparation, she looked through my pictures with me. When we stumbled upon this map, she become obsessed. I showed here where it was on a map and she added it to her list of things to see. And then, after three days in Bruges, never found it.

Honestly, I have no idea how this is possible. The map is something I practically tripped over when walking from the train station to the main tourist square. And then I passed it at least three more times during my two days in Bruges. So, it's there. And should be easy to fine. It is exactly as described - a map of the city and it's major spots, made of lace. Go check it out, why not.

I went to two museums while I was in Bruges, an art museum and a chocolate museum. The art museum was interesting and had a special exhibit on witch art. This terrifying black and white piece was at the entrance to the exhibit. Not pictured is the chocolate museum. Because it was terrible. The place seemed hastily thrown together, an obvious cash grab to lure in tourists. But hey, it was cheap and gave me something to do while I waited for my boat tour.

Finally, more beer. One of the local breweries offers a tour. The tour itself was fun, getting a behind the scenes peak at the process. Even better was the view from the top of the brewery, an excellent vantage point for all of Bruges, and the free beer afterwards.

When in Nuremberg

For this week's Travel Tuesday, Nuremberg!

First, the elephant in the room. Today, the name 'Nuremberg' doesn't conjure up some idyllic old German town but Nazi propaganda rallies and the most famous trials of the twentieth century. Of all the places I visited in Germany, Nuremberg might be the one that bands together all the juxtapositions of the country the most, especially the last century. My recommendation is to let go of whatever idea you have of Nuremberg and embrace the experience.

Nuremberg has always been high on my 'need to write this' Travel Tuesday list because it was one of my favorite places in Germany that I visited. (My current ranking is Berlin Hamburg Munich Nuremberg). Coincidentally, it's also the time we have people marching with swastikas and quoting Hitler here in America. I'll get to it later when we get to the Party Grounds, but I think Germany has done a really incredible job of being respectful of its recent past, honoring those who died, and acknowledging the horror of it all and the idea that it can never happen again. WWII was much more recent than the Civil War. The division of East and West Germany even more recent. And yet, from the perspective of this American engineer who briefly lived there, the Germans seem to have a better grasp on how to handle their ugly history than we do. Somewhere between sweeping it under the rug and wrapping yourself in the Confederate flag. And Nuremberg is probably the city that exemplifies this the most. I'll try to minimize the political soap boxing but you can't talk about Nuremberg without it.

Some logistics - I was living just a couple of hours away from Nuremberg. Twice last year, I took a bus and did a day trip to Nuremberg, three hours each direction. For my first trip, I booked a tour guide. He was impressed I was traveling so far for a day trip. But then I reminded him I was from America. And not just America, but the big states in the middle - distances have a different definition over there. For my second trip, I hit the sites I didn't have time for with the tour and, most importantly, saw one of the most famous Christmas markets in Europe. This entry includes items from both visits. Nuremberg suggestions - if you want to see the modern history and the older, you need at least two days. If you're just interested in one, you can probably manage in a day. My other recommendation is to go through a tour. There's just so much history and you're going to miss something otherwise.

Like this building! Built in the 1300's as a hospital, today it serves as a home for the elderly. It's a beautiful building in a lovely spot on the river, just around the corner from the old town and the site of the Christmas market. But don't adjust your retirement plans just yet. Only citizens of Nuremberg are eligible for residency.

The Hauptmarkt. This picture was taken when I first visited in the summer. There was a farmer's market going on at the time. A small sample of the total bananas circus that would be here a few months later for the Christmas market... The focal point of the square is the Fraeunkirche. At noon, the clock puts on its own little show. Our guide was a pro, timing our visit so we hit the square just at noon.

Not pictured is the Schoner Brunnen, or Beautiful Fountain. The 19-meter tall spectacle was under construction when I first visited and surrounded by tourists the second. It's an ornate fountain in the middle of the square. Legend has it that you touch the gold ring in the fountain's iron gate for luck. Even during construction, with the fountain itself hidden from view, the ring was made available for grabbing. Gotta appease the tourists.

Now for a totally different church, St. Sebaldus (we still have one more we'll get to later). It is a medieval church, one of the oldest in the city. In the back of the church, one of the sculpted gargoyles is actually a Judensau, because antisemitism wasn't anything the Nazis invented. Thanks for pointing that out, tour guide.

Statue of Nuremberg's favorite son, Albrecht Durer. An artist, he worked in a variety of mediums, including painting, woodcutting, and printmaking. His most famous pieces include Young Hare and Praying Hands.

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Durer's house is a museum today, if you are interested or have time. I'm 0 for 2 on both accounts.

Statue for Durer's Young Hare.

The symbol of Nuremberg: the Nuremberg castle. It's on a bit of an incline, with cobble streets. Wear walking shoes.

The view of Alt Stadt from the castle.

More castle.

This tower of the castle made me really happy and, as this bit of info wasn't in my guide book, made the tour totally worth it. This tower is the tallest, shortest, thinnest, and thickest of the towers in Nuremberg Castle. How, you ask?

The tower itself is the shortest, but it is seated on a higher point, so in regards to overall height, it's the tallest. The circumference of the tower itself is the smallest, but it has the thickest walls. The more you know!

St. Lorenz church. Built in the 1400's, the church was badly damaged during the war, as was much of Nuremberg. It has since been restored.

The interior of the church.

Let me set the scene. The tower marks the beginning of the old town. When taking this picture, I'm standing in old town. On the other side of the tower is the train station. So, if you have an hour in Nuremberg or just want to see the old parts of the city, it's right there, literally across the street from the train station.

The Hauptmarkt of the old town also has a Galeria. I don't know if I've mentioned them before but they are awesome and, to be honest, I kind of miss them. The Galeria is basically a department store on steroids. Each store (and they're everywhere) has at least four floors, including a restaurant, a cafe, a grocery department, an extensive wine and bakery section, school and office supplies, of all things, and the usuals - clothing, household goods, accessories. Etc. And open on Sundays! Both times I was in Nuremberg, I actually nipped into the Galeria to pick up snacks for the ride home, easier than the train station. Thanks, Galeria!

Now we're at the Nazi rally grounds, officially Reichsparteitagsgelande. If you've ever seen a black and white photo of Hitler speaking in front of a bunch of marching soldiers, it was probably filmed here. In the 1930's, the big party meetings were held in these grounds in Nuremberg. The rallies were a big part of the Nazi propaganda and the location of the film Triumph of the Will. Zeppelin Field is a series of grand stands, the main one pictured here, and the location of several Nazi speeches. To get here, you have to take a tram from the train station. You're dropped off at the Doku-Zentrum. Right behind the museum is what would have been the Congress Hall, if WWII didn't halt building plans, and across the lake from that is the stadium.

Hitler told his architect he wanted something reminiscent of ancient Greek and Roman structures. There were lots of pillars and a huge swastika that was blown up by Allied forces upon taking Nuremberg. Having visiting Rome and Nuremberg, I will echo my German tour guide - Nazis were good at killing people but that's about it; they really sucked at governing and, as evidenced here, building things.

Seriously, the actual Colosseum is in better shape. There's an interesting debate in Bavaria right now, semi-relevant to our hand-wringing over Confederate statues. This structure and the Congresshall need fixing, in the millions of Euros area, or they will become unsafe. So what to do? Spend the money that could go elsewhere on fixing up Nazi buildings? Or let the history of WWII slowly disappear? I can see both sides but all the sites in Nuremberg did was reinforce that Hitler had a serious ego problem and, again, sucked at building things. But I'm sure there is a very different reaction to someone who lost family members in the Holocaust and has to see this stuff on his/her way to work every day. In the 1980's, a series of columns were removed from the grandstand because they had become a safety hazard.

But to be clear, these are buildings used by the Nazi's during the war. It's not some statue of Goebbels, built twenty years later to ramp up anti-Jewish sentiments.

I'm standing in the spot where Hitler gave all his speeches. In this field, proud Germans could come and demonstrate their skills and soldiers could march and patriots could give speeches. This was also apparently a disaster every year, as the locals were not at all equipped to housing so many people. Like, soldiers were sleeping on hay. 

Another fun fact. Some of the party speeches and spectacles were held at night. The Germans didn't have enough spotlights, so they had virtually every spotlight in their power taken to Nuremberg to light up the sky, impressing the German soldiers but also the Allied who were watching. The secret was they didn't have anything else and were putting it all into this.

The view of Congresshall across the lake. Congresshall was modeled after the Colosseum in Rome and never finished. Missing are another row of columns along the top that would have doubled the structure's height and a self-supporting roof. However, modern architects believe this structure was not possible given the technology of the 1940s.

View from the inside. The Congresshall is also in serious need of repair. Again, Nazis were really bad at building things. Today, in addition to a reminder of what can never happen again, the hall serves as a location to store the Christmas market stalls

And now the Doku-Zentrum. It is right next to the Congresshall and is a museum documenting much of modern Germany history, from the end of WWI to the Potsdam Conference and the Nuremberg trials. I can't recommend this museum enough. It did an excellent job describing how antisemitism escalated, what life was like in Germany during this time period, and how the war was reported. I went there as soon as it opened. I do recommend coming early or an off day, as there are some interactive exhibits. And leave at least a few hours to spend here. The exhibits are extensive and there are several somewhat lengthy videos worth checking out.

In the museum, there's a platform that allows you to walk out and look over the interior of the Congresshall. Near that is this art piece, commemorating the lives lost at the concentration camps.

My Nuremberg experience was divided into three parts - Alt Stadt, Doku-Zentrum and Party Rally grounds, and the courtroom. Each area is distinctively unique and requires a separate tram. The courtroom is in a much more modern area of the city. The courtroom is is pictured here, distinguishable from the other buildings thanks to those three colorful flags in front.

This is it, Courtroom 600, still in use today. The trial room where the world-famous Nuremberg trials were held. The white TV monitor thing was showing video footage of the trails. Sitting in the room, I was struck by how small and compact it was. And, per videos and film, the place was packed with reporters, translators, lawyers, etc. It was surreal to be in a room where so much history happened and to be in the same place as some truly terrible, vile people. Evil was defended and sentenced here.

The exterior again. Allied flags. In addition to the courtroom, there's also an exhibit detailing the logistics of the trial, including selection of courtroom, various foreign governments involved, managing reporters, finding translators. Really interesting stuff.

That's enough of that. We're in Christmas territory now! The main Christmas Market for Nuremberg is in the Hauptmarkt. But it was like a tree. Or cancer. There's this huge mass in the main square, but the market had trendrils all over the place. Just walking around, I stumbled upon a mini Christmas market in another tiny square. This one had camels! There were several various animals here and they were friendly. After along day of WWII history, sometimes you just need to pet something fuzzy.

If you don't have mulled wine, did you really go to a Christmas market? It took me two Christmas markets (I went to Munich's the week prior) to figure out that you bought the wine, then drank it as you walked around the markets. You got these nice porcelain mugs and were given a Euro back when you returned it to the stall. If you did. The mulled wine was everywhere.

The Fraeunkirche, all lit up for Christmas. In all, I went to five Christmas markets while I was in Europe - Paris, Nuremberg, Munich, Mannheim, and Heidelberg. While they were all busy and crowded, the ones in Paris and Nuremberg were shocking. Not for anyone with a a fear of crowds. So many people. I honestly don't know how shopping was accomplished. I just walked around and tried not to murder anyone.

Real talk, I thought the Christmas markets were just okay. The one near me, never very crowded, was fun to get some of that Glutwein and to pick up a couple of Christmas presents. But the larger ones were just so crowded. And each one seemed to have the same stuff - ornaments and wood working and candles, paper artwork. There seemed to be maybe a dozen types of stalls and there were just repeated about a hundred times. At least there was wine and sausages.

But they were festive. And who doesn't wan that in December.

And now back home. Even the train station is a little bit magical for Christmas. Nuremberg was the only place I took a bus to (that I can remember). And honestly, the bus ride wasn't bad! The bus was made by the same people who make the Deutsche Bahn trains and were very similar. Two stories, I sat on the upper deck both times. It was honestly comfortable and in some ways preferable to a train. I recently took a bus to NYC and was expecting the same thing. Ha! America has not at all gotten there yet!

Italy: Naples, Pompeii, and Amalfi Coast

It's our last Italy post! In the past few weeks, we've been to Milan, Verona, Tuscany, Venice, and Rome. Italy is a beautiful country, with each region and even each city having its own vibe, color palette, and attitude. I had a great time and can't wait to go back. But first, my last round of spots - Naples, Pompeii, and the Amalfi Coast!

After spending a week in Bologna to check out the northern cities, I traveled south to Naples. From Naples, I did a day tour of Pompeii and the Amalfi Coast. For my last day in Italy, I spent some time exploring Naples itself.

The view of the bay from my Naples' Airbnb. I had one of my best Airbnb experiences here. The apartment was amazing. Like, if I could transplant this exact apartment to Boston or NYC and live there, I would. Lots of natural light and balconies, incredible views, perfect floor plan. My host was really helpful also. It was a great experience. I also had a nice time in Bologna. I just really recommend Airbnb for longer stays. You need a fridge and a living room, sometimes.

The other side of my Airbnb view! Seriously, I just could have hung out in this apartment for a day or so. Naples tangent now. A very nice lady I met on my Pompeii/Amalfi tour (I met up with her in London a few weeks later, yay for single serving friends) said that she had heard that Naples was not a safe city and she told me to watch out.

I didn't hear this beforehand, but after visiting the city and hearing from the guides, I totally buy it. Naples is one of the dirtiest cities I've been to in Europe. There were a lot of people begging for money. Usually I see homeless people or people doing random things for money, like the live sculptures or painted pigeons. In Naples, just people flat out begging for money. I never felt unsafe, but I was also staying just a couple blocks off a very busy road. And I'm not complaining about Naples. There are things to see in Naples and places to eat and the city has its charm and beauty, but it's also a departure from the northern Italy cities that I had just visited. Adjust expectations, is what I'm saying.

One major tip: always stay somewhere somewhat busy. For any city. It doesn't matter what you're doing, you're probably going to go back to the hotel late at night at least once. So make sure you're walking home within a crowd. I've never really felt unsafe while traveling around Europe. I usually travel alone but am always careful to stick to the more crowded areas. And don't advertise you're traveling alone. My boss recommends having a fake engagement ring or reference a boyfriend who's on his way. The feminist in me rolls me eyes, the realist nods and says 'yeah, that's a good idea.' So be smart. Stay cognizant. And check in with your mom or someone else each night when you get in.

Final Naples tangent: this really wasn't my favorite place. European cities I visit fall into one of two categories: 'Can't Wait to Come Back!' and 'Well, Checked That One Off My List!' Naples is definitely the latter. Again, there are places to see and there is a charm to the city but there were just other cities I preferred more. Well, I might come back for the pizza.

My aforementioned London friend came to Naples before heading off to Amalfi for one reason and one reason only - this museum. She even selected a hotel nearby so she didn't have to venture far. The National Archaeological Museum is among the most important classical archaeological museums in the world.

My favorite parts of the museum were its extensive sculpture collection, including a few massive pieces, and the mosaic collection. The latter, one instance of which is pictured, primarily features pieces from the ruins at Pompeii and other similar cities. If you go to Pompeii, I do recommend stopping by this museum if you can as so many pieces from Pompeii have found a home here.

Naples Cathedral. Generally, I've gotten used to these major Duomos being in the center of some major open square. Not so in Naples. I was at a modern museum in a busy urban street and turn the corner and there's the church! And it felt very urban, with shops across the narrow street and crowds on the church's short steps. There was a protest of some kind going on in front of the church. Both the interior and exterior are lovely. You should check it out for that but also because it's near everything and easily accessible so no excuses.

One thing about Naples - it was very hard to navigate. Except for the subway, which was great. In fact, side note, the subway was very colorful and eclectic and artistic. Each stop had some elaborate artistic theme going on. But Naples itself was tough. I was staying in the older part of the city, and the most touristy. The buildings are tall, the streets narrow, with the buildings towering over them. Everything is winding. I took a cab at one point and it was slightly terrifying, with very tiny one way streets with cars going both directions and bikes and pedestrians everywhere. Even the airport was tough to get to and figure out. But walking the streets, I kept getting lost. This church, I really struggled to find. And it was mere blocks from my Airbnb! And then once I did find it, I kept walking by it because the exterior does no justice to the interior.

Before you jump to the next picture and are gobsmacked by the difference between the interior and exterior, some history. Gesu Nuovo was originally built as a palace in 1470 and turned into a church just a century later. The square the church sits is home to several other historical sites, including another church and the spite of the Immaculate Virgin. But to be honest, this was the nicer church and the other one didn't allow pictures.

And now here is the interior! Pictured is the main nave but either side is no slacker, featuring a total of six different resplendent chapels. Beyond what was in my guidebook, I had no idea what I was in for when visiting this church and it was a pleasant surprise. After looking for the place for the better part of an hour, it was well worth the walk. And was also a nice place to sit and rest a bit.

Unfortunately, no pictures allowed inside here. Capella San Severo is a small church near the historic center of the city. It was originally a private family chapel. In part because of its small size, there is always a line. Tickets to the church are bought at a shop nearby and then you join the queue to enter the place itself. This wasn't readily apparent to me. Luckily, some Naples dude looking for money directed me to the shop, saving me wasted time in line without a ticket. I paid him. Naples, in a nutshell. So there is a wait - they can only let so many people in at at once. But it's worth it! The small space is crowded with exquisite examples of Baroque art. There's literally a map you have to pick up for a very tiny room so you don't miss any of the pieces. But the main one, pictured here in a sign just outside the chapel, and a not insignificant reason for the line, is the Veiled Christ. The piece was completed in 1753 by Giuseppe Sanmartino and is the undeniable piece de resistance of the chapel. Everyone in the room gave polite attention to the other pieces in the room before quickly directing their gaze to the monster in the room. The veil is so thin and delicate I was tempted to pull the thing off. Just a lovely and detailed piece. Some serious craftsman ship on display here.

The nice British lady I did the tour with also recommended stopping by Sorbillo for pizza. Trip Advisor confirmed, recommending getting there early to avoid a queue. So I added it to my list, arriving just a few minutes after it opened. And this is what I found: a huge crowd already. I put my name on the list and waited. For about forty minutes. For one person. 

And here's the pizza.

First, the experience. Waiting sucked - the sound system they announced the names on was not the best, the crowd was terrible. But once you get inside? Better. There weren't menus in English so I used my best guess. The service was hit and miss but the lovely ladies next to me teamed up with me and we took turns flagging down the waiter, making sure he visited both of us when he came by. I was sitting at a bar, facing the window and hungry tourists waiting for their turn. Eh, it was kind of fun. Once I ordered the pizza, it came really fast and was much larger than expected (spoiler alert - I still ate the whole damn thing). Plus, the bathrooms were nice, the ambiance a contrast to the crowd outside, and the pizzas were huge and cheap.

Finally, the food. OMG. I'm salivating thinking about it. Definitely among the best pizza I've ever had. So fresh, so tasty. There was a unique quality about it. It didn't taste like typical pizza. I definitely recommend checking it out. Just be prepared for a bit of a wait.

Ovo Castle. Supposedly there is an egg in its foundations, hence the name. It was a bit of a walk to make it to the castle from the historic center. But the walk itself was lovely, going through various piazzas and along the water. The castle itself is a labyrinth inside, with lots of pockets and balconies and stairs. A fun place to explore and get great shots of Naples itself.

Naples, from Ovo Castle. It was a bit of a walk to get to Ovo and I had been dragging myself around Italy for a week, so I may have just hung out here for awhile, enjoying the view.

Mt. Vesuvius! Also, Naples, stop showing off.

My final meal in Naples before I flew back to Germany! Honestly, it was just okay. But I love food and bread and wine, so not too bad, food-wise, for me. One suggestion on restaurants in Italy (and also I noticed this in Spain) - check the times. Several were open for lunch and dinner separately, closed in between. And the Italians eat much later than this American. I actually skipped my first choice of restaurant because it opened an hour later than this one and I was too hungry and tired to wait. So just plan and be prepared. And finally, I had a few meals in Naples and have to say - aside from the pizza, get seafood wherever you can!

And now, Pompeii. I knew I wanted to see Pompeii, though it did not match my mental model at all. Just to get the most out of the site and to make it as easy as possible, I did a day-long tour from Naples. There were several tour options. I went with one that spent half the day in Pompeii, half the day in a van driving around the Amalfi coast. Overall, it was a great day but it was a weird combination. If you want to keep the mood going, there were other tours that explored the nearby Herculaneum ruins.

First up in Pompeii, the Afiteatro. For gladiator battles.

Pictured is my tour guide. She was excellent. Knowledgeable but also friendly. She could read the crowd well, embellishing where she detected interest and skimming when our eyes glazed over and really balancing the 'give them time to explore' and 'earn your fee.' She also kept calling us family and she was just enjoyable to spend the morning with. One of our first stops was the home of a wealthy family. We were able to see their bath area, a living quarter, and an open garden in the middle of all of it. And then in one corner room, the remnanants of slaves who were unable to escape the blast.  Welcome to Pompeii!

Visiting Pompeii was surreal. The history is right there. You can walk the streets, enter the buildings. Ancient history is no more accessible than it is in Pompeii. I did a very small part of the expansive grounds and was still there several hours. A few things I remember. The streets were carefully designed to will away the water. And whatever else was in the streets. Old school cross walks - at various spots along the street, two large stones would protrude from the ground. Carefully placed to allow carriage wheels to pass through unscathed, these served as stepping stones so crowds could avoid whatever filth was in the street.

Another big spot for us, not pictured, was a brothel. There were paintings on the wall depicting the various acts on the menu. Additionally, depictions of penises could be found on nearby streets, pointing the way to this brothel. Some things never change.

Basically Pompeii's version of Times Square, Foro is the forum in the middle of the town. The mini museum exhibit pictured below is found in the forum.

I feel like this image should be paired with a trigger warning. Vesuvius erupted, everything in Pompeii was blanketed with layers of volcanic ash. And there the city and its inhabitants lay until its discovery over 1500 years later. In the 1860's, centuries after the initial discovery of the city, some genius figured out that the occasional pockets they were discovering while excavating the city were spaces where human remains had decomposed, creating these pockets. To preserve the individuals as they were at the time of the eruption, these cavities, as discovered, were filled with plaster. The site has a half dozen or so of these replications, including a young boy at a spa. Generally, the figures are hunched over, protecting themselves from the blast. Like walking the streets, seeing a recreation of a real person at that time minimizes the distance of time between us and makes it all so real.

Pictured is a dog.

And now for a totally abrupt change of pace... After a lovely lunch nearby, a small chunk of us got in a bus and headed on our Amalfi coast tour. We had two tour guides who were fun, a Middle Eastern couple, a Dutch family (I didn't quite get the combination but there were four adults of various ages), and me. And be nice to your tour mates - I saw the Dutch family the next day at Ovo Castle and then they were on my flight from Naples to Rome. They were friendly and lively and entertained by the quiet American, traveling on her own and listening to podcasts.

Back to the pictures! I really, really think this is Sorrento. We stopped here not long after leaving Pompeii, at some type of liquor place. We got a shot of something lemony, then headed to their balcony for this incredible view. As we drove around Sorrento, we were also able to get a great view of Mt. Vesuvius. The city has everything!

The other side of Sorrento maybe? Pro tip: don't travel in November and finally get around to blogging about in August.

This is another random town on the drive. We stopped here to take pictures. The hill the town is seated on is incredibly steep. Stairs are required to get from one street to another. Such a beautiful place. And funny story - on the Amalfi part of the tour, I was the only American. At one point right before we arrived at this spot, the guides asked me if I recognized a rock in the distance. Within a second, oh yeah, that's Abraham Lincoln! There was a rock just off the shore shaped like the head of our most famous President, instantly recognizable. Apparently the Italians think so too and refer to it as Lincoln rock. The non-Americans on my tour didn't recognize but fortunately, I was reading Team of Rivals on my Kindle and was able to show them Daniel Day-Lewis in his likeness. They agreed!

The Lincoln rock is just on the other side of the bend, I think. It was hard to take a bad picture of this place. As you can see, given the composition of this picture, I tried my best.

Our last stop in Amalfi before heading back to Naples was Positano, a colorful town hugging the coastline.

The city square of Positano. Here, I had some gelato and picked up a lovely set of artistic post cards to send home. One of them is is on my cube wall, a lovely distraction for when I'm buried in data models and state diagrams.

I'm going to end on a beautiful note. The bus piece of my tour was probably five hours. And this was the view most of the time. Terrible! Tragic! I've talked to so many people who just go to some hillside city in Amalfi for vacations and I have to say, I get it. One day, when my student loans are gone and I have months of vacation accrued, I'm there.

And that's the end of my Italy series! A beautiful and diverse country, steeped in history and scenic views. Come for the ancient Rome ruins, stay for the impeccable wine and incredible food.

Italy: Rome

Italy, a detour.

Cheating here: I stopped by Rome in 2015, separately from my week around Italy, when I was living in Germany that other time. But I didn't have a blog, so let's revisit it along with those other Italian cities!

Important thing about this write-up: Rome has always been a Big Deal for me. In high school, I took four years of Latin, from one of the best teachers I've ever had. He was the closest I've ever gotten to Robin Williams in Dead Poet's Society (or his character in Good Will Hunting, for that matter). He shared slides from his own visit to Rome in the 70's, on his honeymoon, with his students; Rome itself, both in modern state and throughout history, was a big part of his class. So visiting Rome was something I've wanted to do since I was fourteen, when it became this mythical place, more so than Paris. Therefore, my expectations were huge, I was visiting through rose-colored glasses, and now I've also gotten two years of time to add some nostalgia to the trip.

The Vatican. I went to Rome to see the Colosseum and the ruins. I tacked on the Vatican as an after thought. Do not do that. The Vatican is awesome.

Some ground rules: for a lot of the churches in Italy, including this one, your knees and shoulders must be covered. Really, Italy and Spain were the only places in Europe I encountered this and even then, not all churches are created equal. Recommendation: bring a scarf. These places can get hot. Wear your shorts and tank tops and wrap a scarf around you to cover up while visiting the holy spaces.

Also, for the Vatican specifically, get here early. Expect a line. The place inside is massive so it might not feel crowded once you're inside, but security takes awhile to get through. Also, you will have to go through security. This was true of several big churches in Spain and Italy but to an extreme at the Vatican. Which makes sense. It's the Vatican!

One more note, my very Catholic friend visited with her daughter a few years ago and actually got to sit in on some prayer service with the Pope himself. I'm not Catholic and have no idea what she was talking about, but hey, it happens!

I got here right when the church opened and this was the line. Again, it's security, not the attraction itself, that causes the lines. Once you get inside, there's plenty of room to wander.

While we're waiting in line, some facts. The Vatican is technically its own country, and the smallest one in the world. This is also the reason Milan can say it has the largest chapel in Italy - technicalities. It's been its own country since 1929.

While you wait in line, you are in St. Peter's square, built around the 1650's. Overall, the architect intended an impression of being embraced in the arms of the church. Okay, sure. It also provided shade, which was nice. Several tourists also picked umbrellas up for this reason. Something you're probably going to hear again from me in the next couple of paragraphs - Rome was hot!

The big guy, St. Peter's Basilica. Not pictured is the dome, which is just out of the frame. Sorry, this was my view from the line. The exterior is fine but the interior...

Inside the church. I'm glad the Vatican was at the end of my three months in Germany, because it seriously altered my expectations for churches. Damn. The interior is breathtaking and impressive in its size and scope. I felt like I kept finding a new alter, a new corner, or a new piece of the place while I was walking around. According to Wikipedia, it was built the in the 1500's and 1600's and has a gross volume of around 5 million cubic meters. So there's a reason it feels cavernous and massive.

Just some ornate marble sculpture by some giant of Italian Rennasance hanging out. Everywhere you turn, there's an alcove with a spectacular piece of art. At times it felt neverending.

The baldachin, built over the altar in the 1630's. In addition to tourists, the Vatican itself was very much alive. In the various corners and nooks of the place I stumbled upon nuns praying, choir practice, and some sermoning. When visiting, be sure to be respectful and quiet. Don't embarrass us other sunburned tourists. Also, caveat, I'm not a religious person, but when I was traveling around Europe in 2016 and seeing so many churches, I got in the habit of paying a Euro here or there to light a candle and leave it at some candle stand. I would say whatever the agnostic's version of a prayer is while lighting, feeling like I left a piece of me behind. Towards the end of 2016, I started including two people in my pseudo prayers - my cat Raygen and my candidate for President, Hillary Clinton. Raygen died, Hillary lost, I feel partially to blame. Sorry, guys. But hey, the Vatican is really great! And when in Rome, light a candle at the church. It's nice!

The view from St. Peter's Dome. It doesn't suck. Admittance to the church itself is free but you can buy a ticket to walk up the dome. Do it! You're at the Vatican! That being said, while the hike isn't arduous itself, it's not for the faint of heart. You first go up to the interior balcony of the dome (this might not be the right word). You can walk around the upper interior of the dome, looking down into the basilica. Then there's another level to go to the top of the Dome on the outside, where this picture was taken. And it gets tricky. Again, it's not an extremely strenuous hike but the stairs are curved around the dome. It's not for people uncomfortable in small spaces, usually stuck with random strangers. The place is old and was not designed for tourists. It's one of the more bizarre hikes to the top of a church I experience in Europe. And I got to check out quite a few. The number one spot still goes to a church in Freiburg that involved a very questionable ladder, a very tiny balcony, and some angry Australians.

Next up, the Vatican museums. These were super crowded. I mean, really, really crowded. The main attraction here is the Sistine Chapel, which is difficult to get to. And once you're inside the Sistine, be prepared to be packed into the small space like sardines. And no pictures allowed, or the angry, red-faced woman next to you will you at you. To be honest, the Sistine Chapel was not my favorite. It was small and cramped and smelled (I'll blame the angry, red-faced woman). Maybe I was just tired? Other parts of the museum dazzled me more. But regardless of what you see and where you go, it's gonna be busy. Pictured is not the Sistine Chapel but, hey, still a pretty ceiling.

To be honest, I didn't remember this bridge aside from being a pretty thing I took a picture of after leaving the Vatican. Luckily, Googling 'bridge near the Vatican' is super useful! And now here we have it, Ponte Sant'Angelo. According to Wikipedia, the bridge has been around a long damn time. And isn't it pretty.

And near the bridge is Castel Stan'Angelo itself, built in 134. Today, it's a museum and impressive structure. I only had four days in Rome. Priorities. But hey, I got a picture while walking from the Vatican to the next stop on my list.

And now we transition to modern Rome. Via del Croso is one of the few straight roads in Rome. And for me, it was a highlight. You have a thoroughly modern road, with lots of trendy and recognizable shops and eye-catching restaurants. But just a block or so off this lovely and straight and modern road are these ancient Piazza's, with fountains or steps but definitely picture worthy. In general, it's a great place for shopping, taking pictures, and finding restaurants. To me, this is the beginning of the Croso, Piazza del Popolo.

Another view of the Piazza del Popolo, from the top of a hill. The Vatican is visible in the distance.

Piazza di Spagna. The stairs lead to Villa Borghese, a nice city park packed with art museums. The stairs were built with French money in the 1700's and lead to a French church, but we call them the Spanish steps. This was a happening spot. I went through this area twice, once at peak times (pictured), where the place was crowded with tourists and all types of poses, and again in the early morning, when it was just me and some random model, getting professional pictures taken for some type of fashion venue. Mostly I was just impressed - she was wearing lots of clothes and looked cool as a cucumber, no sweat to be seen. Did I mention Rome was hot? Fun fact - just behind me, from the picture's perspective, is a store for Dolce and Gabanna, some modern Italian art for your perusual. 

Walking around Rome, I came across this cute French cafe and had champagne and macaroons, as one does. I just really like macaroons. Look how colorful and fluffy! Also, Rome was hot. I needed some air conditioning.

The most disappointing part of my trip! The Trevi Fountain. This fountain has been around for literally centuries, enduring ages of tourists throwing coins in for good luck. Unfortunately, the guy was under construction when I visited, so I could only take partially-blocked photos and keep my coins to myself.

Next up, in Rome's Historic Centre, the Pantheon. A 2000-year-old temple and one of Rome's best preserved ancient monuments. The original was built in 27 BC and the current construction was built over the original in AD 120. The dome was the largest in the world until the 1400's and is still the largest un-reinforced concrete dome ever built. The 8.7 m opening in the dome acts as a compression, letting in light and rain while also redistributing the dome's vast structural forces.

Let there be light. The picture might suck, but you can also see a glimpse of the interior. Much more ornate than the exterior would suggest. And that famous hole, obviously.

Next up, Piazza Navona. This square has it all - awesome sculptures, more street artists than you can shake a stick at, and all kinds of restaurants. I came here on a Saturday afternoon and had a nice market-side lunch, watching people haggle over the price of tomatoes and enjoying the ambiance. This picture is post-market, but still a nice place for people watching.

Real talk: I don't know what this is. It's been two years and Rome is full of ruins! Even Google has failed me here. But I do want to point this out. I was walking from the Pantheon to my next spot and literally stumbled upon this site. Ruins, ruins, everywhere.

This imposing wedding cake has several names - Il Vittoriano, Altare della Patria, etc. It's near Palantino and doesn't quite fit in. Built in the 1880's, it houses the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and a museum to Italy's unification. More importantly, there's an elevator that takes you to the roof of the building for a breathtaking view of Rome (scroll down for that one). The view was thrilling but I was also really excited about the elevator.

Okay, now for the money, the Colosseum. I planned my visit around visiting the Colosseum, as one should if you're gonna go to Rome and really see the sights. First off, how pretty! But really, get a fucking tour guide. If you only get a tour guide for one spot in all of Europe for your big European tour, get it for the Colosseum and ancient ruins. Sure, there's Acropolis in Athens and the Tower in London. But this you need a tour for! I did a combo, three hours for the Colosseum and the Roman Forum. So worth it! Sure, there was skipping the lines but also just knowing what the hell I was looking at.

Inside. The partial floor to the left gives us a hint at what it looked like back in the day. The halls and rooms seen were covered by a floor and sand, to allow for animals and gladiators to move about. Inside the Colosseum, you get a hint as the to the massive size of the thing. It's colossal! You also have access to the interior of the walls. There are some museums.

Walking inside the Colosseum. It's been two years since I visited Rome and yet this has stuck with me, if nothing else - the original toilet system was designed here. Hey, where there's a crowd... We were able to see the remnants of ancient latrines. The more you know.

When used for gladiator sports, slaves fought to become celebrities and stars. But history is still history. In 1749, the Pope deemed the Colosseum a sacred site, as early Christians had been martyred there. This saved the Colosseum from ruin. At the same time, he installed this cross, though there is no historical record to support his claim. But hey, thanks for saving the Colosseum!

A cross section of the walls and facade. And some history. The structure was built in AD 72 and held around 50k people, organized by class. When in use, a giant canvas would cover the awning. In general, visiting the Colosseum was much more accessible than I imagined it would be. You really get close to some serious history. But seriously - get a guide. If not, do some internet research to avoid crazy queues.

And now the Roman Forum, once a marketplace, civic center, and religious complex. The space was first developed in 7th century BC; today it is a confusing pile of stuff. You really need a guide! Maybe he's just a good salesman, but our guide had a book he hawked. A quick Google search didn't find it but it's basically a small picture book of Rome. There are images of the various ruins today, with an artist's rendition of how it looked back in the day you can lay over today's image. It was interesting to see the comparison and also useful to orient yourself to where you were, physically. And a handy guide to remember the stuff I saw while in the city itself.

A green break, the Casa delle Vestali, the former home of the Vestal Virgins who kept the sacred flame alight. They couldn't have sex but at least they had a good spot in the Forum.

Another picture of ruins, to give you an impression how massive they were. After the tour, the guide left us here, with an hour left on our Forum tickets to wander around. And I did, for an hour. There were gardens (not pictured) and plenty of buildings, in various states of decay, to wonder at. The Colosseum and the Forum deserve at least a day. A startling piece of history, right here for you to walk all over.

Another perspective of the Forum. You can see Il Vittoriano in the background. There are modern apartment buildings to the left of this photo. Can you imagine this being the view from your living room? The rent alone... For the view! Truly one of a kind.

Just behind Il Vittoriano are more remnants, including foro di cesare. Walk ten feet in Rome, you'll fall over a ruin. The street between Il Vittoriano and the Colosseum/Roman Forum (behind me in this photo) must be observed at all times of the day. There's the lighting - gorgeous views of the ruins are offered throughout the day. Sunset at the Colosseum isn't the worst. But it's also quintessential Rome - modern cars and shops in this ancient place. And it's lively. People and street performers and artists everywhere. Don't miss it.

The Arch of Constantine, sitting between the Colosseum and Palatine Hill. It was built in 312, dedicated in 315, to commemorate Constantine's victory over Maxentius. It is walled off, so you can't get too close, but you can still see the detailing in the artistry and appreciate the age and size of the thing. For a closer look, go to Paris.

Circus Maximus, an ancient chariot racing stadium. Today it's a public park. And it felt more like a public park than some ancient ruins. There were kids everywhere, wreaking some form of havoc. Places for walking, places for construction. It was a nice walk but I was also peak tired here and maybe didn't appreciate it as much as I might have if I had visited it the first day of the trip instead of the last.

The metro in Rome is not great. And there's a reason - every time they start a new dig site for a piece of the upcoming line (that has been in development for years), they discover some ruin and anthropologists come in and it's another year or two delayed. Therefore, every night, on my way back to the hotel, I had to go by the Colosseum metro stop. Seriously, there's a stop right by the Colosseum. So I basically stopped and had a mimosa by the Colosseum each night. The friggin' Colosseum! Enjoy my drink and chipped nail polish. 

I'm grateful for my time living in Germany and have not exhausted this well of experience in blog posts yet. But visiting Rome is something this girl from a small town in rural Illinois didn't think she'd ever really get to do. So nightly mimosas at the Colosseum on a long weekend? Not the worst!

Here is where I also note that this is my only food-adjacent image. I ate my way through Rome, trust me. My first night there, I had this decadent pasta thing in a nice restaurant that was decorated to make me feel like a character in a Jane Austen novel on a trip. I discovered a fantastic pizza place near my hotel that I fell in love with. I had lunch near the Spanish steps and gorged myself. I had the best gelato of my life, that place in Paris and Tuscany aside. So don't take the lack of pictures as meaning. The food in Rome was awesome. Sure, occasionally over-priced. But you're eating pizza and ravioli in Rome!

I visited in June and, damn, was it hot. Have I mentioned that? My more recent visit to Italy was in November. Still really friggin' hot. Luckily, Rome had an extensive free water system. Here is an example of such. They were all over the city. I highly recommend getting a bottle of water and then refilling it while you're in town. It's necessary. A few other European cities do this, offering free water via fountains throughout the city. Thanks, guys! I was in NYC last weekend and they had free charging ports for your phone, so America is getting there.

The view from Villa Borghese. The park was created in the 1600's and provides a welcome, shaded break from that Roman sun. I walked to this magestic view via the Spanish steps. Yes, the park is that close to the stuff the tourists care about. But a bit of a warning - the Spanish steps are just the beginning. There is much more of a hike to the top after that. I was sweaty and halfway through my water bottle by the time I got to the top (luckily, there were water fountains along the way). Also, I got lost. A lot. Get a map of the park if you can or be prepared for patience.

The Museo e Galleria Borghese is home to 'the queen of all private art collections', according to people who know. It includes works by Caravaggio, Botticelli, and Raphael. FYI, you'll need to book a time ahead of your visit. I did not know this. Like a true naive Americano, I showed up and balked at my lack of foresight. Or, you know, basic Googling. It's literally in my years-old guide book - you'll need to book ahead of time! Oh well, Villa Borghese was lovely and its namesake wasn't the only game in town.

When your second choice is a home to giants of the modern age, like Cezanne, Kandinsky, Klimt, and Pollock and housed in a friggin' palace. Sad.

So maybe I didn't get to see the museum I originally intended but I ran into these ladies at the Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Moderna in Villa Borghese, that other art museum in the park. Here is where I note that, besides this museum and the museums at the Vatican, I didn't do a lot of museum-ing while I was in Rome. Mostly it was ruins. But they're out there and, according to my guide books, they're lovely, so pick your poison and allot time accordingly.

View of the Colosseum and Roman ruins from Il Vittoriano. The view from here can't be missed. And there's an elevator, so no excuses.

The Mouth of Truth, at the Piazza della Bocca della Verità. Historians aren't totally sure about the original purpose or effigy of the thing but hey, it's featured in a Hepburn movie and makes for a fun tourist spot. To be honest, I happened across this dude after a very long day. The line to actually put your hand in the mouth (for good luck!) was long and I was tired. Instead, I waited until it was between visitors and snapped a pic. Shortcuts are sometimes necessary.

And now, after all that traipsing around Rome, the spas. And you'll need a stop here because my long weekend can in part be summed up by: a hot, sweaty mess. The Terme di Caracalla are the ruins of a Roman spa/bath complex, built around AD 217. The place is massive and could hold up to 1600 people in its heyday, making it the second largest such structure in Rome. The complex was home to pools, gyms, shops, Today, in addition to a place to walk around, there is an area that hosts summer operas. It was nice to check out. You can walk around and get lost. I was impressed by how massive the place was.

And that's Rome.

Italy: Tuscany

Next up for our Italian tour: Tuscany! I spent two days in Tuscany - one on a tour around the region and one in Florence itself. For my day tour, I went to a few cities, saw a leaning tower, and visited a farm/winery. To sum up, Tuscany is stupid gorgeous and has to be seen. A love of wine is beneficial but not required. That being said, an appreciation for great Italian food is totally necessary.

Here I am at a winery/farm in Tuscany. More on that later. The region was picturesque and everything that one Diane Lane movie would lead you to believe. Cypress trees and vines and rolling hills, green and yellow and orange everywhere.

First up, Florence! I have to say, each Italian city I visited was completely unique. With just one picture, you can easily identify which city you're looking at. Florence is no exception. The colors and tone of the city was all its own. This picture was taken along the Arno river, the brick bridge and yellow and orange buildings a perfect introduction to the Tuscan city.

Ponte Vecchio, Florence's oldest bridge. There are records of the bridge going back to the 900's. The shops along the bridge used to belong to butchers; today, they primarily house tourist vendors - jewelry and Italian leather handbags and cheeses. I went on a Wednesday night and the place was still packed, so beware.

Welcome to the Gelleria degli Uffizi, which can't be missed. If you only go to one museum in Florence, go to Accademia. But if you go to two, the Uffizi is next on the list. The Medici family's art collection was bequeathed to the city in 1743, on the condition it never leave Florence. The building, like most major European art galleries, is beautiful and ancient in American standards, built in the late 1500's to house government offices, a piece of art itself. Today, it houses the largest collection of Italian Renaissance art in the world. Annunciations for everyone! Personally, Italian Renaissance isn't my forte but with the extent and artistry on display, even this Impressionist-fan was gobsmacked.

The gallery is extensive, so put aside a couple of hours for a quick walk through for the high-lights or consider coming back over multiple days. I can't speak to the timing. I went right when it opened and it didn't seem too crowded - the place is large. However, if you want to get up close to The Birth of Venice, maybe come early. Speaking of which...

Arguably the most famous piece at the Uffizi, though there are da Vinci's and Michelangelo's to check out elsewhere in the museum, is Botticelli's The Birth of Venice. Painted probably in the 1480's, the piece depicts Venus arriving to the shore after her birth. Like all major works of art, it's breathtaking in person and there's a crowd, so act accordingly.

Just behind the Uffizi is the Piazza della Signoria. Pictured is the Loggia dei Lanzi, an open air sculpture garden with pieces from the 14th and 16th centuries. The square itself is lively, with tourists and street artists and vendors. The Palazzo Vecchio makes up one side of the square, Florence's town hall. Due to timing constraints, I wasn't able to check out the interior of the town hall. That being said, if you have a bit more time in Florence, check it out. It's on my 'just missed list.' For me, it was art over beautiful architecture in Florence, but if you have the time, give it a go.

Damn. I waited in line for maybe half an hour to see this guy and it was absolutely worth it. Sculpture fascinates me and this is no exception. And it was from a cast-off block of marble! The detail is incredible (the hands!). I was in awe. Go see it. There's other art in the museum, including a behind-the-scenes look at recreating sculptures, but you're here to see this guy and there's no other reason to go. Give yourself some time to admire the world's most famous sculpture from every angle. He's worth it.

David is housed in the Galleria dell'Accademia. You'll be able to spot the museum by the queues. You cannot go to Florence and not see this guy. What's the point?

I learned a lot about Catholic art on this trip! Apparently, this thing is called The Annunciation. It's when the angel visited Mary and told her she was carrying Christ. My casual Baptist upbringing did not prepare me for traveling in Italy. Pictured is the Annunciation from the convent of San Marco. The friar cells are decorated with religious, and sometimes terrifying, paintings by Fra Angelico and are shockingly sparse. It's near the Accademia and a contrast to the opulent home of David.

And now for Florence's piece de resistance, the Gothic Duomo. Officially the Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore, the building's construction began in 1294 and was consecrated in 1436. The thing is lovely in person and can't be missed. I think I've said that about everything in Florence so far, right? But seriously, the green and white marble facade is unique and entrancing. You can climb up to the top of the Cupola. However, I recommend the walk to the top of the nearby bell tower, so you can see the famous red dome up close. Both are a bit of a hike, so unless you are really looking for a workout, I recommend picking one.

And now the bell tower, 82 meters tall and built in 1334 by Giotto. The climb to the top includes 414 steps. Real talk: it's not an easy walk. The stairs are extremely claustrophobic and sometimes crowded, though occasional bells offer a respite from the upward climb. And boy, the view is worth it. Just be prepared to be a sweaty and frustrated mess by the time you get to the top.

Google Image "Florence" and this picture will come up. This is the view of the Cupola from the bell tower. Seriously, you have to do this, unless you have mobility issues or a heart condition. And this is basically Tuscany - red tiles and rolling hills.

Here's the front of the Duomo. More green and white with pink accents and ornate sculptures. As for logistics, I didn't have a problem with queues or access to the church. The baptistery next door was a different story but the church was rather accessible.

This picture sucks and I apologize. The interior is lovely, with fancy stained glass ceilings and high ceilings. But you're really here for the exterior.


Okay, I have said this a lot, but you really have to see this! The Museo dell'Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore is near the Duomo and houses treasures formerly displayed at the Duomo. It's awesome and very extensive. Pictured is the entry-way, which lists the artists featured in the museum itself. The original golden Baptistery doors are here, along with a Pieta by Michelangelo.

You can get combo tickets for the Baptistery, the bell tower, and the museum. I purchased mine at a ticket booth in the palazzo but they are available at a variety of establishments. And it's worth it. They all warrant visit - the church, the Baptistery (no pictures, but it's lovely and covered in gold), the view. and the museum. I'm not a religious person but the artistry and history on display here are necessary to see on a trip to Florence.

One more note about the museum - it was both confusing and overwhelming, so get a map and maybe prioritize what to see.

The Piazza della Repubblica is worth a stop (though it's the level below 'must be seen'; I'm giving you a break). It's been a little bit of everything in its long history in Florence, but today is the most modern area I saw (though I mostly stuck to the touristy bits). Nearby are shops and restaurants. It was a nice place to relax and people watch after a long day of walking around the city.

My last tourist stop of the day: Santa Maria Novella, just around the corner from the train station. First, a quick rant on the train station. It isn't great. There are a few stores - essentials, a book store, some McDonalds/cafe comb. I went through the Florence train station twice, once for the Tuscany tour and once for my day in Florence. And each time, I found it lacking and disappointing. And that's the end of that rant. As for the church itself, church is a misnomer. It's more a of a complex, with a church, cloister, and chapter house, all included in the price of admission. And it's a great last stop - close to the train station and extensive but willing what you have time or attention for. It is what you make of it. Or, across the street is a decent Irish pub if you just want to have a pint and wait for your train while your legs rest.

After checking out my last tourist attraction, I wandered back into the city, picked up dinner in the old town, and walked towards the train station along the Arno River. It's a totally different view at night. But no less beautiful. I also stopped by the Piazza della Signoria one last time. I recommend seeing it at night as well. The place comes alive in a whole new way.

For the record, this painting is in the Netherlands. But some artist was creating lovely works near the train station. It was a great end to my day in Florence.

And now on to my day tour of Tuscany. First, up Siena! The tour took off from Florence and then took us to Siena. A medieval town, we abandoned our bus and walked through tight alleyways and looping streets to get to the Piazza del Campo, the center of Siena for over 600 years. On a hill itself and full of Siena Gothic architecture. Twice a year, there is a horse race here in the square, with the various neighborhoods of the city sponsoring a horse. It's, like, a really big deal. The square is packed and you can spend a lot of money to rent rooms with a view for the event. The winners get to gloat and are the toast of the town until the next race. Both the different neighborhoods (or contrade) and the horse race are everywhere - emblems on doors and everything you can imagine in the tourist shops. Outside of the race, the square is sunny and an easy place to relax and people watch.

Near the Piazza is the Dumo, built in the 1200's. The exterior is looming but what's missing is that almost directly behind me is the wall of a large, plain building. Siena is not for the claustrophobic. Or those who don't like walking.


The interior of the Duomo. Siena was lovely. We were here about an hour and a half and, to be honest, that was about as much as I needed. It was just enough time to walk around the square, eyeball the church, and grab a gelato.

And now for that winery/farm in the middle of Tuscany somewhere. I just went wherever the tour took me. Honestly, it was nice to have the decision made for me. Tuscany was overwhelming. So many little towns and wineries, I didn't know where to begin. The tour was a nice introduction to the region as a whole. Also, the bus ride around the Tuscan countryside was lovely and a highlight. In general, I really enjoyed the tour itself. We had a great guide (she was from South America and had come to Tuscany after visiting the place while working for a vineyard) and I met some fun lonely travelers to chat with. And hey, a winery! That I didn't have to pick out!

Ugh, what a totally garbage view. This was basically what I saw outside the bus window the whole day.

Italian cows! The farm we visited was charming, with pettable cows and goats. And vines for days.

After a quick tour of the farm, we had lunch. Each course came with a different glass of wine, both food and wine local. There were many courses and it was all delicious and I could have been there all day. The bread alone! And the view wasn't bad either.

Next up: The Medieval Manhattan. San Gimignano is a tiny town in Tuscan countryside. Its nickname comes from the 11th century versions of skyscrapers. We only spent a few hours here but were treated with ancient buildings, lovely views, and...

My tour guide ensures me this is the best gelato in the world. Honestly, I had better in Rome. Come at me. The main square of the town is tightly packed. You can pick out the gelato place by the long line and yelling tourists.

The tower, it leans. Honestly, this was a bit of a let down. I didn't really care to see it (it was just part of the tour and I was worried about Bucket Lists) and didn't have high expectations. But it's a leaning tower, kind of in the middle of nowhere. Some history: The tower was built in the 1100's. The tower wasn't completed, because of the leaning. By 1990, the lean had reached 5.5 degrees. In 1998, measures were taken to ensure stability and prevent further leanage.

The view from the tower. Again, it's a leaning tower in the middle of nowhere... The tower is actually the bell tower to the Duomo of Pisa. As for visiting the tower, it's not incredibly tall but there is still a bit of a hike to get to the top. It is definitely not for the claustrophobic. Only a few people are allowed up at a time. I booked my tickets through the tour but it's something to look into before your visit. I also visited during the night, so it may be a totally different perspective during day time. There were minimal numbers of tourists making asses of themselves when I went. But sure, go, see, check off your Bucket List.

And that was my brief foray into Tuscany. Go forth, wine lovers and Italian food connoisseurs.

Italy: Venice

Next up on our whirlwind week in Italy: Venice. And to be honest, this was one of the places I was most looking forward to among my European travels for 2016. In part because I was worried the place would be underwater the next time I made it to Europe. And to be even more honest, it didn't disappoint. The place was gorgeous and bright and colorful and yet somehow intimate. I could spend a full week here, exploring the waterways and having long, lazy lunches full of wine and people-watching and taking another six hundred pictures of pretty buildings up against the sparkling water.

Venice, a beautiful city, the beginning. It was just so pretty! I tried to limit the number of "beautiful buildings along the canal" pictures I added here. It was tough. Go see this place before it sinks!

A quick intro to Venice. I arrived at the train station, walked across a bridge, and walked into another world. Venice is the world's only pedestrian city. And I loved it. No cars or buses or trams. Just boats and pedestrians. Part of this is practical - outside of the canals, getting around is confusing. There are dead ends and tiny bridges and tinier walkaways. It's part scary and part romantic and beautiful. But the lack of automobiles also added to the ambiance, this idea of leaving behind the 21st century and it's conveniences for an older world.

Along the Grand Canal. Trying to limit pretty buildings along the water, really.

Our first stop - Ca Pesaro. Just across the Grand Canal from the train station is this beautiful Baroque marble palace, today housing a modern art museum. It's been an art museum for more than a century, focusing on 19th and 20th century works. Pictured is my personal fave, Klimt's Judith II. I stopped here first and it was a nice break after the train ride. Also, it's along the Canal and offers a picturesque view itself.

When I think about Venice, this might be my go-to image. Colorful buildings along a large canal, boats and vendors everywhere. I guess the only thing missing is a gondolier. This is actually the view from the Rialto Bridge, also the location of the selfie heading this section. 

And now the bridge itself. It's the oldest that crosses the Canal, built in the 1200s. There are several packed vendors in the interior of the bridge, hawking touristy stuff. The bridge in general is very crowded, lots of people trying to take pictures and take in the scene. Be prepared to elbow your way through if necessary. Also, several tours seemed to have meeting points in the area, so be sure to figure out where this is in orientation to where you're staying for your visit.

I'm going to be honest here - I didn't know the pictured church existed. I primarily went to Venice to see the canals and the architecture. I had know idea this breathtaking Basilica would be a stopping place until I entered the Piazza San Marco and it literally took my breath away (so that's where that phrase comes from!). The Basilica di San Marco was built in 932, rebuilt in 1094. Unfortunately, the interior was under construction and I didn't get to see much on the inside. After waiting in a very long line, I got to go to the second floor of the church, where there was a museum and a spectacular view of the Piazza. The building is beautiful and ornate and has to be seen. I don't have recommendations on timing for this one - I arrived in the middle of the day. The line was long but moved at a quick pace. But maybe check for a construction schedule ahead of time.

St. Mark's Clock Tower. I'll be honest - I was a dumb American tourist for a second. The clock tower was on my 'to-see' list and I could not find it for the longest time. Seriously. But once I found it, what a clock tower! This is the view from the Basilica balcony. The tower and clock were built in the 15th century, with the bell itself dating back to 1497. The two bronze guys on top ring the bell every hour. In addition to the basics (what time is it?) the clock also includes references to the zodiac signs, the relative position of the earth, and the phases of hte moon. Plus, it's so pretty!

The view of the Piazza San Marco from the Basilica (the clock tower is just to the right of the frame). It's been a hub of Venice for over a thousand years. Today, it's crowded with tourists and Venetians, restaurants and shops, people trying to sell you souvenirs and street performers trying to get a tip. The square also regularly floods. Like everything in Venice, see it before it's underwater. I did have a nice lunch at a nearby restaurant, sitting by the window for maximum people-watching. The food was just okay and probably over priced, but the service was excellent and, hey, it was lunch at Piazza San Marco in Venice.

Just to the south of the Piazza is the Piazzetta, an open space between the Piazza and the waterway. Making up one wall of the Piazzetta is Doge's Palace. Built in the 1300s, it's been a museum since 1923. I recommend a visit when you're in Venice. You get to see a little bit of everything - the extravagant private rooms of the Doge of Venice and his family, the stately grand rooms where the work of the government was carried out, and then the shock of the prisons where criminals and adversaries were kept. The place is large and at times felt never-ending.

Another bridge, another canal. This time the Giudecca Canal. In the upper corner of the picture is Santa Maria della Salute, which sits across from the Basilica di San Marco, which is just behind the buildings on the left side of the picture.

Just a pretty canal with pretty buildings I crossed when walking from Piazza San Marco to Santa Maria della Salute. I really did try to limit the number of these pictures I included but this does a good job of demonstrating the intimacy of the canals. Small walkways, small passages of water, blocking out the light and making pedestrians acknowledge each other. No room for cabs or Ubers, buildings of every color.

And here it is up close, Santa Maria della Salute. The church was built in the 1600s to offer thanks to God after the city survived a particularly devastating outbreak of the plague. I have to say, this might not be the most effective form of plague management - Il Redentore was built in Venice in the 1500s for the same purpose. The interior is octagonal and unlike anything else I saw while traipsing around Europe, with eight radiating altars and chockablock with pieces from the artist Titian.

Not far from Salute is the Peggy Guggenheim collection. An American heiress and art collector, Peggy lived in Venice for most of her life. Her mansion has been converted into a popular art gallery, featuring everyone from Picasso to Pollock and an extensive sculpture garden. I literally stumbled upon this museum when walking around the streets. The estate itself is lovely, with a large open garden and an up-close view of the canals. The art collection is eclectic with something for everyone and a few pieces I really loved. Warning - it was very crowded and hard to maneuver when I went, so if this is a must-see, it might be worth going right when it opens. But definitely check it out. It's a breath of fresh air after seeing the typical Italian Renaissance art museums.

And now, Venice at night. After wandering around the city all day, I had a nice dinner, something Italian and full of carbs and delicious not far from the train station. Afterwards I did shopping, browsing some nearby market and picking up an Italian leather bag for my sister (it still smells fantastic, I'm told, nine months later). I stopped in a bar to kill time before my train (and to use the bathroom) and ended up having a glass of wine with an American family. The mother was in her fifties and had never been to Europe before. Her son was moving to Venice. She assumed I was a student, I helped her order coffee (she kept naming Starbucks drinks and was getting nowhere) and gave them both suggestions for their tourist time in Venice. Ah, traveling abroad, I miss it.

Overall, I had a great day in Venice. I absolutely could have spent more than a day there, exploring canals and cafes and shops. There were several things on my list that I didn't get to because I ran out of time and, honestly, was tired of walking (it was my fourth day of sightseeing in Italy, don't judge). But everywhere I went, there was another beautiful corner of the city, worthy of a picture and an Instagram post, a moment to reflect, that I was finally in this city I had heard so much about and was so excited to see.

Finally, I need to say this. I don't think it smelled. A friend had went a few years ago and her feelings were summed up thus: it smelled really bad and you could probably see everything in an afternoon, but definitely see it because it's pretty. I can't imagine that but hey, to each his/her own. I truly never noticed a smell but it's also a city on the water, adjust your expectations accordingly. Personally, I fell in love with the city (I fall in love with cities easily, to be honest). As I left, I took one last look at the Grand Canal, said goodbye but with the promise to return. Unless global warming beats me to it.

Italy: Verona

Next up after our Italian adventure: Verona, the city of our favorite star-crossed lovers. Rewatching Baz Luhrmann's iconic recreation for inspiration as we speak.

In fair Verona, where we lay our scene. Get used to the Shakespeare love - references to the bard and his most famous play are littered throghout the literary city.

In Verona, the train station is separated from the main part of the city. You walk along an open park and some shops and then you'll see this gate. And that's your cue that you are about to transport back three or four centuries.

The Arena di Verona, a first century arena, one of the largest in Italy. Verona is called little Rome for many reasons, this among them. Today, it is still in use during summer months when it houses an opera. When I visited, somewhat early on a Sunday, the line was already quite long. I stood in line for maybe half an hour, waiting to pay and enter the arena itself. There are some combination passes you can get to skip the line. That being said, once inside, the place was large enough I felt almost isolated.

Inside the arena. Walking to the top of the seats is a bit of a walk, but the view is worth it. It's easy to walk along the upper rim of the arena, giving you a great view of all the different aspects and corners of the city. You can also explore the spaces underneath the seats, though, spoiler alert, it's not quite as interesting as Rome's Colloseeum. 

Next up: Shakespeare stuff. "Juliet's House" is off a side street. But don't worry, there will be a crowd to guide you. Be wary, those who are afraid of crowds or small spaces. To visit Juliet's balcony, you pass through a small arched gateway. It's littered with a variety of unique love notes. These were all dated within a few weeks of my visit, so they must not last long.

Once you push and shove your way through the gateway, here is Juliet's balcony! This fourteenth century home had nothing to do with Shakespeare or his fictional characters and is mostly a tourist notion, but still, have fun with it! You can pay to get in and walk through the house. More importantly, your ticket includes picture opportunities from the balcony itself. Personally, I skipped this endeavor. As always, I prefer Baz's balcony anyway. Just to the left of this photo is a very crowded gift shop where you can basically buy anything with Romeo and Juliet or a quote from the play on it. The steps served as a brief respite from the crowd. I didn't buy anything, having gotten my Shakespeare fix from the Globe Theater in London a few weeks prior, but it's there if you're interested!

Piazza delle Erbe, near Juliet's house. I stopped here for lunch. It's a nice place for food - there are plenty of options. More importantly, there are plenty of outdoor tables. Because you're gonna want to people watch here. I had a lovely pizza and some wine at one of the restaurants, the first of many, many pizzas of my Italy week.

For our first Verona church, we have San Pietro da Verona, a Gothic church completed in 1400.

And here is the interior, which doesn't quite match the simplicity of the exterior. 

I literally stumbled upon this guy while walking from one tourist destination to another. This is one of the five Scaliger Tombs. And it is picture-worthy. These tombs celebrate the Scaliger family, who ruled Verona in the 13th and 14th century. This particular tomb is in regards to Cansignorio della Scala. It's the fanciest of the bunch. Also helpful FYI - he orchestrated the assassination of both of his brothers to ensure his succession. Paging Shakespeare, anyone.

Across the river from the Shakespeare and churches and tombs is the Palazzo Giusti, featuring this lovely Italian Reniassance garden, built int 1580 and considered one of the best examples of an Italian garden. 

Another view of the gardens. There was also a bit of a hike on a large-ish hill that offered a view of Verona. I really recommend checking out the garden. The garden itself was lovely but it was a nice break from the crowds and the ornate architecture of the old city.

I had to cross the river again to get to Castel San Pietro, but luckily the slight detour offered me this lovely view of the complex. Located on a hill, the military complex provided defense in the Roman times and Middle Ages. Napoleone destroyed much of the structure in 1801.

View of the ampitheater within Castel San Pietro. I sat here and listened to a podcast for a bit because I was tired. The more you know! Travel insights!

Just a pretty view along the river.

The Ponte Pietra in Verona, straddling the Adige River since 100 BC. The bridge was largely destroyed in WWII but was later rebuilt with the original materials.

Back to where my day in Verona began! I had dinner at a nearby restaurant, watching the sunset on the Arena, watching the lights come on and the structure to take a very different look. When I first sat at the restaurant, of course sitting outside for people watching and arena observing, I realized I was sitting next to a table of Americans, who were discussing the election (this was the first week in November, mere days before Trump would become our next President and I would lose faith in, among other things, math). So I moved and nestled myself among people who didn't speak English and had no thoughts about Clinton's email security. It was a more peaceful dinner.

But it was a lovely day in Verona. When in Italy, I was trying a new thing - staying in one central place (for northern Italy, Bologna) and doing day trips to various cities. This allowed me to have to find/deal with only one Airbnb and keep my suitcase in one place, venturing across northern Italy with only an over-packed purse as opposed to my whole luggage. And honestly, for Verona it worked out great. I feel like I got a great overview of the city. That being said, there were definitely things that I missed and I could have spent more time in the garden and at the Castel and explored more churches. Overall, Verona was lovely but crowded and touristy.

Overall - I see Queen Mab hath been with you. Run free.

Italy: Milan

Last year, I spent a busy, sunny week in Italy and got to visit half a dozen incredible Italian cities. Let's be practical and go in chronological order. First up: Milan.

Going into this trip, my knowledge and interest in Milan was relegated to Fashion Week. Luckily, a work colleague visited and recommended it. Thanks, Deb! Also: I did a day tour. I highly recommend doing a tour, primarily for "The Last Supper" guidance and insider info on the Duomo di Milano, which is awesome. As always, info comes from me, my guide, Lonely Planet's book on Italy, or Wikipedia.

First up, the Cadorna railway station. This was the kick-off spot for my tour. Also: this statue, "Needle, Thread, and Knot", is by Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen, to celebrate the city's impact on the fashion industry. The three colors represents Milan's three metro lines. They'll need to add blue, as a new metro line opens soon. Also, side note: Milan wasn't the easiest city for me to navigate. I said 'eff it', and took a cab multiple times, something I really try to avoid.

Just around the corner from the train station, San Maurizio Maggiore. This was my first day in Italy and I thought it was a lovely church. By the end of my week in Italy, churches had seriously lost their intrigue. This church is on UNESCO's list and was formerly a monastery. It was interesting to see the extreme division between the former nuns and the congregation. Also interesting: a centuries-old Noah's ark painting by someone who had not seen the majority of animals he was painting. Something I had never thought of!

Plenty of ruins around Milan. These were some former palace of some former Roman ruler. Cats don't care. Milan had a serious market on the vacationing cat lady. Cats everywhere!

Next up: Milan's stock exchange. Notice the statue in front. The ribbon is in honor of breast cancer awareness and is temporary.

Next up: Milan's castle, Sforza. It was built in the 1300s and now houses several museums. Unfortunately, no time to visit said museums.

I told you Milan was cat-friendly! These guys were hanging out around the castle. They were brought in by the castle keepers to control the mouse population.

Parco Sempione is right behind the castle. I love city parks and am bummed I didn't have time to explore this one - it looked lovely! The arch in the middle of the picture is the Peace Arch. It was built under Napoleon in 1807. It is on Strada del Sempione, which connects Milan to Paris.

Basically the reason I went to Milan. I've seen "Mona Lisa" in Paris but "The Last Supper" is so iconic, so replicated, I almost didn't believe it was a real, live thing. Here it is! The painting is housed in the Santa Maria delle Grazie church and convent, still in use today.

The painting again, without my face. It's huge. Restored several times, the darker colors are the originals by Leo. The lighter comes from modern restorations. The difference is maintained so we can see the original versus the restorations. It was painted in the late 1400s. Due to the methods used and the wall it's on, plus bombing in WWII, the painting has gone through serious damage over the years. The painting on the other side of the room, also by Leo around the same time period, is a true fresco and has weathered time much better. Today, both paintings are under serious protection. Visitors are only allowed in fifteen minute intervals. There's an interesting photo exhibit on the history of the painting before entering to see the real thing (images following the bombing in WWII were shocking - the painting was basically protected with a sheet) and a replica of the painting afterwards, which our guide used to point out additional tidbits once our fifteen minutes were up.

This has to be seen. You can't go to Milan and miss this one. It might be a hassle to figure out when and how to go but it's worth it, promise.

And now for something totally different: a super-fancy mall! The Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II was built in the 1860s and 1870s, making it one of the oldest. The mall has serious guidelines - shops can only use gold and black colors. Most fancy designers are here (Prada, Louis Vuitton, etc.), along with a crazy-expensive hotel and some really nice restaurants. It's worth walking through as it's next to same really popular sights. There are some lovely mosaics in the floor and the building itself is an impressive black and gold piece of architecture.

Just outside the mall, the church. Shop, then go ask for forgiveness for how much you spent.

As I mentioned, Milan hadn't been on my to-see list. I was just going wherever the tour guide took me. But this structure took my breath away when I first saw it. The Duomo was started in 1386 and one of the largest cathedrals in the world. The famous madonna atop the church must be the highest point in the city. Modern skyscrapers found a work around - each one adds its own madonna.

The church's square is a major part of Milan - lots of crowds and activity, plenty of nearby shops and restaurants.

The interior isn't bad to look at either. I really recommend a guide for this one. Ours had invaluable info on the various sculptures and glass within the church. An ornate, complex structure, like the city and country itself.