Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Day 01 Strangers that became close friends in Tuscany

On Sept 21, 2011 ten people joined me on a trip to Tuscany, Italy. The theme of the trip was called, “Eat, Walk Meditate” (OK, I borrowed the concept... from a great book). Our group was composed primarily of nurses with a theme called “Care for the Caregiver,” a personal growth workshop with morning sessions in meditation, guided imagery, music therapy, restorative yoga and morning walks. The rest of the time was spent sight seeing, drinking in the culture and eating some incredible food. Over the course of 9 days we all became close friends. In fact, we all decided to bond our friendship with friendship bracelets, one of many wonderful memories from the trip.

Day 01 Welcome to Florence Italy, Capital of Tuscany

Florence is an incredible city. It is hard to put into words just how great this city really is, but everyone should visit Florence at least once in their lives to see for themselves. The culture, the art, the museums, the food and so much more... it's a very friendly pedestrian city with cobblestone streets, loads of shops and buskers playing all kinds of great music. Its kind of like Boulder on steroids. It was a great way to start our trip...and the weather in September was wonderful.

Day 01 The Renowned Duomo in Florence

This is the famous Duomo, also known as the Cathedral of Florence. The amount of artwork and detail on the exterior is simply amazing, and must been seen first hand to really appreciate its splendor. You can also walk up a series of narrow winding steps to the top to get a great view of the city. As it turns out, Siena and Florence are (and have been for centuries) rivals. The Duomo in Siena is even more spectacular.

Day 01 Our First Group Dinner Celebration

After exploring the city, we gathered together for the first of our many celebratory dinners. This one was at Giovanni's restaurant and the seven-course meal was indescribable, but let me try... UNREAL. Fantastic food, and the spinach flan was simply AMAZING. I cannot wait to go back next year. Thanks, Giovanni!

Day 02... Famous Ponte Vecchio Bridge

For some people, this bridge may need no introduction. It is the famous Ponte Vecchio bridge, centuries old and beholden to a great many stories. When first built, its stores housed butchers, who would throw the chopped up remains over into the water. Yuck! It wasn't long before this caused a huge pollution problem. Eventually, these merchants were removed and over time gold merchants took their places, as you will see today. We learned that this is one bridge Hitler's men didn't bomb as they made a hasty exit from Italy at the end of WWII.

Day 02.. Piazza in Florence with Statues

It is said that the Tuscany region contains about 60-70% of the world's art treasures, including this one, joined by several other marble statues housed under a loggia near the clock tower. Unbelievable craftsmanship in the making of these carved statues. Again... you have to see it for yourself to really appreciate the work of people like Michaelangelo and his contemporaries.

Day 02.. An Artist's Paradise in Florence

Walking the streets of Florence, you will come across several street artists, many of whom will simply amaze you. You may notice a dish or a hat to place a Euro in, and I think it is well worth it. This city is oozing with artistic talent, all outside your hotel door as you wander the cobblestone streets of Firenze. Don't forget your camera!

Day 02... Art Walk on the Streets of Florence

Artists flood the streets in Florence to show and sell their work. This, along with everything else to see, is almost sensory overload, but all pleasing to the eyes, particularly when there is some great live classical music playing in the background.

Day 02... A little street music with Graffiti

This gentleman was serenading passersby across the street from the “David” Museum. Note the abundant graffiti behind him. There is A LOT of graffiti in Italy. Even the word, graffiti is an Italian word (which we were told, means drawings on walls). Yup!

Day 02 A visit to the Academia Museum

No visit to Florence (Firenze) is complete without a visit to see THE David Statue which is housed in its own museum, the Academia Museum. Quite spectacular, so much so, you can see the veins in the hands carved in marble. If I remember correctly, Michaelangelo was about 24-26 at the time he did this, and even hand-selected the marble slab himself. There is a replica in the plaza, but that doesn't do justice to the real thing.

Day 02... An afternoon/evening tour in Florence

We had some of THE best tour guides on the entire trip, including Ann Reavis, a lawyer from the Bay area who is taking refuge in Florence as an ex-pat. We saw things and heard about historical aspects of Florence that even people who live there don't even know about. Thanks, Ann~!

Day 03... Classic Italian Restaurant.... Yum!

It's true! Everywhere you go in Florence seems like something you have seen in a movie, whether it was with Audrey Hepburn, Cary Grant or Diane Lane.... even the dogs in Lady and The Tramp... with the noodles and meatballs... Really! This is one of my favorite photos (all that is missing is a bike up against the wall). The food is great in Florence and although I have met some Americans who said they couldn't find a place to eat pasta (don't you believe it!), I could have eaten pasta there nearly every night. Just ask somebody.... they will surely direct you to the best dish in town.

Day 03 Time to sit and Chat

These guys had just come out of church one evening in Pienza. It was one of many great photo ops in Tuscany. In fact, everywhere you go, it seems that every street, every cafe, every person, everything is a scene from a movie that you have seen. Simply wonderful.

Day 04 Incredible food in Tuscany

One night we ate at the most amazing restaurant where we not only received an informal lecture on the “slow food movement,” but actually got a chance to participate in a slow food dinner celebration. Pictured here is the first of several courses served to us at Roberto's Taverna in Montisi. Thanks Roberto!

Day 04 A visit to Pinocchio's town

Frances Mayes may have put Tuscany on the map with her book, Under the Tuscan Sun, but she cannot hold a candle to the true hero of Tuscany, Pinocchio... Most every town we went to had a store dedicated to the famous marionette. I bought one puppet for my godson... and I even bought one for myself.

Day 04 .. Morning in Pienza

The tiny hamlet of Pienza is a cute, walled village with a beautiful clock tower. We stayed in a hotel that was once a convent, next to a church of course. There are LOTS of churches here in Italy (but you kinda knew that already, right?). This is one of the towns that Franco Zeffrelli filmed the 1968 classic, Romeo and Juliet (with Michael York and Olivia Hussey). It was such a delight to get up and walk down these streets (some 500-600 years old) and then look out over the walls of the city to see the countryside. Simply amazing.

Day 04 on the way to Siena from Pienza

Some photos of Tuscany can only be described as “ICONIC.” This is one of them. The cypress trees, the blue sky, the golden meadows and yellow colored stucco houses. ICONIC! When I walked down the street about 1 mile to capture this photo, about 10 cars drove by in the course of 15 minutes— each one stopped to photograph this scene. There are a million more like it, too. But photos can barely do justice to the scenery here.. you have to experience it first hand.

Day 04... Siena...Inside the Siena Cathedral

This photo was taken inside the Cathedral of Siena. I didn't even bother to take one from the Cathedral in Florence (though truth be told, I was too busy walking up the spiral staircase to see the view of the city). Siena is amazing, but this Cathedral defies description. It kinda reminds me of a zebra, but close up, all you can do is gasp at the structural beauty of the black and white marble. It truly takes your breath away. We were lucky to see it when the floor was uncovered to see the marble floor (which is typically covered in plywood to save it from wear and tear of tourist's feet.)

Day 04... Siena.. inside the Cathedral's wing

No matter what your religion is, it's hard, perhaps impossible, not to be impressed with the artwork in these churches and cathedrals. The amount of detail is amazing. It's like going into a museum. In fact, these churches really are museums. This photo was taken inside the Siena Cathedral and you could spend a whole day just in this little off-shoot studying the artwork. The cathedral had some Gregorian chant music playing which really added to the mood. Unreal!

Day 04... Siena

Siena is an amazing walled city, famous for its horse races around the interior of the downtown plaza. The tower punctuates the sky quite nicely; a view seen from the cathedral. It is often featured in movies, most recently, Letters to Juliet.

Day 05 A dinner celebration and a toast

At one of our group dinners, a toast was made to a most incredible trip with beautiful souls... and our tour leader, Gail Hecko. People often ask me what is it like taking a trip with a bunch of people like this.. Does everyone get a long? I have one rule with my tour groups: NO BITCHING! I won't stand for Ugly Americans on my tours. Everyone who comes agrees to this rule, and it makes for one incredible, dare I say fascinating, experience. Our tour leader said that our group was one of the best she's ever taken around Italy, and she's been doing this for 10 years (I think she says that to each of her tour groups, HA!). Thanks, Gail for a most AMAZING trip.. You are the best!

The Doors of Tuscany

I developed a fetish for photographing doors while on vacations (particularly after several trips to Ireland and making a poster called the Doors of Ireland,. Well, it was only a matter of time before the Doors of Tuscany poster was conceived.

So here is the prototype (I hope to have the poster for sale on my website shortly)... What makes the doors in Tuscany so unique (and quite different than the doors of Ireland), is not so much the doors themselves, but the door frames. Stunning!

Day 05 A beautiful Tuscany landscape

Another iconic photo. I took this image from my hotel berdoom window. I was told that this iconic scene has been used in many movies, including the one with Russell Crowe in the Gladiator. Simply ICONIC!

Day 05 A typical Sunset in Tuscany

The light is surely different in Tuscany, making the sunsets most magnificent. By the time the sun approaches the horizon, it becomes a huge (and I mean HUGE) red ball. it sure makes for some great photo ops, and of course, quite the romantic setting.

Day 05 A typical sight in Tuscany

Laundry time in Tuscany is an every day occurrence. Seeing fresh, cleaned sheets and clothes hanging on the line, over the balconies, brings to mind to a simpler time when things were less rushed and immediate gratification wasn't expected every moment of every day. On our trip we unplugged from the fast-paced lifestyle to recalibrate our body clocks for a healthier lifestyle...Laundry and all. Bellissimo!

Day 06 Fresh Fruit Stand in Tuscany

A mighty tempting display of tasty morsels... Hummm...This is a typical street scene in the Tuscany region. Buon appetito!

Day 06... A tour of an Olive Oil pressing plant

One afternoon we stopped into this olive oil processing plant and got a wonderful tour. Here are some things we learned: First, virgin olive oil is cold-pressed and now-a-days, pressed in the absence of sunlight, because (take note:) light and heat can make oil go rancid (not good). Olive oil should be kept in a cool, dark cupboard, but never in the fridge. Only buy olive oil in dark glass not clear glass, and if the olive oil in your kitchen is more than a year old, it's probably time to toss it. Nothing beats fresh virgin olive oil. NOTHING!

Day 06 Ice Cream (Gelato) Therapy in Montepulciano

After walking off thousands of calories, these gals in our group decided to splurge with a well-deserved gelato. Who can blame them, right?

Day 06.. Under A Tuscan Sunset

Every night we saw an amazing sunset. Under a Tuscan sunset for sure. Enjoy! (ps.. no PhotoShop was used in this image, really!)

Day 07 Another view of the Italian Riviera....

We left the Tuscany region for our last leg... to see the Italian Riviera, Santa Margherita; the gateway to Cinque Terre. I took a stroll early one morning and caught this scene... Simply stunning....

Day 08 More Fun in Santa Margherita/ Portofino

This is the beautiful seaside village of Portofino. A 15-minute ferry ride from Santa Margherita, and well worth the time to see another magical place in Italy. We took a short hike up to the top of a hill and got an impressive view of the entire area: A must see village when you come this way. Don't forget to reward yourself with some gelato when you get down to the port. I recommend the coffee gelato, myself.

Day 08 Making a wish to come back to Italy

This is a fountain to our friend, Christopher Columbus (they call him Christopher Columbo in Italy). We staged this photo, of throwing a Euro into the fountain, in the hopes that our wishes come true and we all return to this magnificent country.

Day 08... Roaming Around Santa Margherita

This is a view of the seaside town of Santa Margherita...The gateway to Cinque Terre. From here we took a ferry ride to the tiny port village of Portofino. Great weather too. And.. did I mention how great the food is here? You have to try the pesto pasta...Bellissimo!

Day 09 Cinque Terre... a World Heritage Site

This scene is one of five villages in the string of hamlets known as Cinque Terre. We took a train ride from Santa Margherita to the end and walked to the next two towns, followed by a boat ride to the next three towns and then a train ride back to Santa Margherita. It was WONDERFUL, and something I highly recommend to everyone (once the towns get rebuilt from the devastating flooding that occurred this fall).

Day 09 A Visit to Cinque Terre

This is one of five seaside villages that make up what is known as Cinque Terre, now a UNESCO World Heritage site. It was sad to learn that about a month after we left Italy, torrential rains swept through the area and devastated several towns in this chain. As a result, next year we will end our trip in Venice, at least that is what we have planned. Fingers crossed.

Day 10... On the flight home from Milan

Our last view of Italy was from the air.. these are the Italian Alps, and the view was magnificent. Enjoy!

Our 2012 tour to Tuscany is scheduled for Friday, Sept 21 through Sunday Sept 30. We have room for 14 people and we would LOVE to have you join us. We even have 10 professional contact hours (CE's) for nurses.

Next year's trip itinerary will have a few modifications, including a trip through Assisi and ending in Venice. For more information and details, please call Brian Luke Seaward at 303.678.9962 or email me at