Barcelona, the Heart of Catalonia

Plaça Reial

Based on recent events, we thought it might be a good time to promote one of our favorite cities. We have visited Barcelona several times as well as passing through on our way to join cruises along with day stops while cruising. This city has so much to offer it belongs on a short list of great cities of the West like Rome, Paris, New York and London.

First off, it is an ancient city founded by Phoenicians and Carthaginians. The original name of the city was Barcino, probably named after the Carthaginian ruler Hamilcar Barca. The Romans arrived in the 1st century B.C. choosing it as their capital of the region. Ruins of the Roman period can be found in the Plaza del Rei and in the old Gothic quarter.

After the Romans came the Visigoths and during the 8th century the city was occupied by the Moors and remained under their control for over 100 years. The Franks conquered the city and drove out the Moors and the Spanish Catalonians eventually replaced the Frank rulers and Barcelona became the cultural heart of Catalonia.

Plaça d’Espanya in 1929
Plaça d’Espanya

Barcelona has always been a prosperous city and has used its’ assets to provide an international character to its’ culture. It hosted a world fair known as the Exposición Universal de Barcelona in 1888, which added to the cities’ significant architecture. An even more impressive set of structures were built around the Plaça d’Espanya at the foot of Montjuïc for the 1929 Barcelona International Exposition. Adding onto this tradition in 1992, Barcelona played host to the Summer Olympic Games.

Gaudi’s Basilica of the Holy Family

In addition to Roman sites, the old medieval quarter, Gothic cathedrals, and the buildings of the international expositions and events, Barcelona is home to the creations of Catalan architect Gaudi. Antoni Gaudí was born in Reus in 1852 and received his Architectural degree in 1878. Gaudí is admired by architects around the World as the creator of unique and distinctive architectural styles. His work has greatly added to the architectural character of Barcelona and you will see incredible examples of his work all around the city centre.

Perhaps Gaudi’s most recognized work is the Basilica and Expiatory Church of the Holy Family. It is the large unfinished Roman Catholic Church in Barcelona and is part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site. In November 2010 Pope Benedict XVI consecrated and proclaimed it a minor basilica.

Other sites of special interest are:

La Rambla – A large street and pedestrian mall stretching thru central Barcelona. It is famous for its’ restaurants, bars, nightclubs and shopping. It is our favorite neighborhood and is home to a number of nice, reasonably priced local hotels. Two which should be considered are Hotel Curious and Hotel Arc De Ramblas. Both offer a great location and reasonably priced (but small) rooms.

Plaça Reial

Plaça Reial – A square with a large fountain and ringed by good restaurants, many with outdoor seating. It is located just off La Rambla.

Cathedral of Barcelona – the Gothic cathedral and seat of the Archbishop of Barcelona, Spain. The cathedral was constructed from the 13th to 15th centuries, with the principal work being done in the 14th century. From the end of November until just before Christmas it is home to Fira de Santa Llucia, the largest Christmas market in the city.

Fira de Santa Llucia

Basílica de Santa Maria – The church was built between 1319 and 1391. The style of the church was Catalan Gothic with a single nave. It has a light and spacious interior but is devoid of the imagery commonly found in Gothic cathedrals.

La Boquería

Mercat de Sant Josep de La Boqueria – often simply referred to as La Boquería, is a large public market in the Ciudad Vieja district. It is one of the city’s foremost tourist landmarks with an entrance from La Rambla. It is a favorite site of ours for strolling through the food booths and it is a good place to purchase Spanish smoked paprika to take home.

Palau Nacional

Palau Nacional – (Catalan for ‘National Palace’) was the main site of the 1929 International Exhibition on the hill of Montjuïc. Since 1934 it has been home to the National Art Museum of Catalonia.

Local Eats

No trip to Barcelona would be complete without paella! Maybe not invented here but surely perfected here.

Try “la bomba” (meaning the bomb). With its’ roots in violent resistance, it’s basically a tennis ball-sized potato croquette served with two different sauces and is a Barcelona original.

Pa amb Tomàquet which is literally “bread with tomato,” is a bread rubbed with garlic and the juice of a tomato and seasoned with olive oil, salt, and pepper. Locals will eat it with cheese and slices of meat any time of the day.

Crema Catalana! Made with a vanilla custard and fired to form a glassy crust, it’s the Barcelona version of “creme brûlée.”

In Barcelona, the one cheese you simply must have is mató, an unsalted goats cheese. Soft, sweet, and spreadable, the locals eat this with honey and walnuts – a perfect dessert!

Last but certainly not least is Tapas which is an institution in this city. Be sure and try a sampling along with some excellent Spanish ports, wines, sangrias and vermouths.

If you are in the La Rambla area and are looking for an inexpensive place to eat we would recommend Restaurant La Poma (Pizzeria Mediterránea La Poma). It is modern, reasonably priced with a good selection of pizza, pasta and wines.

We have also had tapas and drinks at Ocaña in the Plaça Reial. Good prices, attentive service and the perfect place to sit outdoors and people watch.

A Spanish chain that was trying to gain a foothold in America is 100 Montaditos (Cerveseria 100 montaditos). The Chain features many inexpensive Spanish mini-sandwiches plus beer & wine in a tavernlike setting. There are four or five locations around central Barcelona.

The best neighborhoods to shop

Barcelona has become one of Europe’s shopping capitals and, in contrast to London, Paris or Rome, it is not only noted for setting new fashion trends, but is also still relatively inexpensive.

La Rambla, as already mentioned, is a good location for shopping but trends toward discount stores and souvenir shops. Just up from La Rambla is Plaça Catalunya featuring shops with internationally recognized brands such as Chanel, Armani, Cartier, Miró, Mont Blanc and Zara. In the same area is the Hotel Actual which offers nice rooms at a reasonable price.

Alternatives to the big names and stores are found in the narrow streets and alleys of the Old Town. There are countless small shops featuring jewelry, beads, house wares and souvenirs.

In Barrí Gotic (the Gothic Quarter), you will find antique shops, small food markets and new fashion designers.

 

The El Raval area has an international population featuring a mix of foreign supermarkets and shops which gives the district a multicultural atmosphere. You’ll find discount stores, music shops and small boutiques featuring ethnic clothes.

 

Grand Cayman

Seven Mile Beach

If you’re cruising, you’ll find Grand Cayman is a popular stop on many Caribbean itineraries. It is a tender port which means small boats serve as ferries between the ship and the island. The tenders drop you off right in the center of George Town, the primary city on the island, where you can find many duty-free stores. Grand Cayman is dotted with great beaches (one called Seven Mile Beach), terrific snorkeling and diving and a multitude of American chain restaurants.

As a word of caution, the Cayman dollar is permanently fixed to the US dollar with the exchange rate being one Cayman dollar equals US$1.25. This makes everything 20% more expense than it first appears as prices are normally quoted or shown in Cayman dollars. Be sure you know exactly what something costs before you pay.

Sting Ray City

If you are on a cruise ship, our recommendation for a great day is a tour to “stingray city”. It is advisable to book through your ship as it is a long day and sometimes can get dangerously close to missing the ship’s departure. We suggest picking a tour that visits the stingrays and also a coral reef for snorkeling.

If you have decided to fly in for a holiday, finding accommodations will not be difficult. Cayman has more hotel rooms per square foot than almost anywhere else in the Caribbean and thousands of condos (many owned by Americans) available for weekly or monthly rental. If your plans include staying in the Seven Mile Beach area, you can probably get by comfortably without renting a car. A limited number of taxis are available and there is a local bus service, but a rental car may be a better choice if your hotel is not centrally located.

If beaching and shopping start to wear thin, there are a few diversions on the island. The biggest attraction is the Cayman Turtle Center (https://www.turtle.ky/) , located in West Bay. It was the first commercial venture to domesticate Green Sea Turtles and is now home to around 11,000 of them. Also in the neighborhood are the Dolphin Cove (http://www.dolphincove.ky/) where you can encounter dolphins and the Hell post office and gift shop where you can send post cards to your friends at home postmarked from “Hell”.

Most of the better beaches are found along the coast between George Town and West Bay, including Seven Mile Beach, which lives up to its name. If you are looking to get away from the crowds, we would recommend driving out toward Bodden Town and beyond where there are still some smaller pocket beaches and coral formations near the shore. Back in the day, Grand Cayman was dotted with hundreds of isolated small beaches. You could find them in the direction of West Bay along with dozens of rustic dive hotels. A look at Google Earth today, however, quickly shows that the shoreline is now dominated by resorts, mansions and condos.

Whether you are arriving by airplane or cruise ship, Grand Cayman is still a great tropical destination if you are looking for incredible beaches, clear turquoise water and all the comforts of home.

Cruise Line Loyalty Programs

Five cruise ships docked in Nassau

If your future plans include more then an occasional cruise, you might want to consider focusing your bookings on a particular cruise line because of the loyalty programs they offer. Benefits can include discounts on or even free internet, laundry, photos, cocktail parties and fancy coffees. Some lines also offer cabin upgrades and priority treatment with boarding and tender usage.

Picking Your Cruise Line – There are a lot of similarities between the major cruise lines but there are also differences that make some more suitable to your particular needs. They all feature good dining options from main dining room dinners to buffets to specialty restaurants and good entertainment and shows, but the things that set them apart is often related to the passengers they try and attract.

Most lines cater to families but a few are stand outs because of their children’s programs. Two of the best are Disney and Royal Caribbean. There is also the price range that varies from one cruise company to another. At the economy end of the price range are Carnival and Norwegian. Stepping up a bit in price are Royal Caribbean, MSC, and Princess followed by Holland America and Celebrity, which are a bit higher still. At the other end of pricing you will find Cunard, Disney and Oceania with Silver Seas and Seabourn being the ultra exclusive lines.

Besides simply price, there are a number of other things to consider when picking a line. Following are some observations we have made regarding a couple of cruise lines:

Carnival – Besides being the price leader, we have found Carnival to be a favorite with young adults. Especially in the Caribbean, these ships have a non-stop party atmosphere. We have not cruised with Carnival outside of the Caribbean so other itineraries may be less that way. The food and service have generally been good and the cabins a bit roomier then many.

Royal Caribbean – Good value in a cruise line and really focused on families. It has one of the best kids’ programs at sea with great entertainment options. Many of the ships have basketball courts and climbing walls and a couple have ice skating rinks and Flo-Rider surfing. Some of their newest ships have simulated sky diving and an amusement park style area.

Celebrity – Features a step up in service and appeals to a more mature cruiser. We like this line because of the enrichment programs, which include lectures and classes. Celebrity also offers a number of longer itineraries and more exotic destinations than some of the other lines.

MSC Cruises – Has been trying to “break into” the U.S. Caribbean market with true two-for-one pricing and has also offered to match your frequent cruising status from another cruise line. We have not, as yet, cruised with them.

Disney – The name alone says kids & family and you won’t be disappointed. From movie themed areas to Disney characters the whole ship is a Disney experience. One feature that really appeals is an evening dinner rotation that moves your group to a different style restaurant each night and your table staff goes with you. Oddly Disney is also really good at providing adult only areas that are more strictly enforced than other lines.

Plans and Perks – If you plan on cruising on a regular basis, even as infrequently as once every year or two, you should still join a cruise line loyalty program. Royal Caribbean’s is The Crown & Anchor Society and it’s free to join. If you don’t join you won’t earn the points. In their case, once you reach Diamond status you get a dedicated lounge on board with specialty coffee, some free internet, a free photograph, a special gift and a free cocktail party each evening. Priority boarding and other perks are also offered.

 

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Royal Caribbean Flo-Rider

Carnival Cruise Line has their VIFP Club with members-only promotions, invites to cocktail receptions while you sail, priority boarding & more. Like most programs, the more you cruise the more you get.

Celebrity has the Captain’s Club  and when you reach Elite status you get access to the Captain’s Club Lounge for daily coffee house style breakfast and evening Cocktail hour. Other features are complimentary 90-minute Internet package, some complimentary dry cleaning and laundry on every sailing, a private shipboard departure lounge serving continental breakfast, priority tender service in tender ports of call and more…

If you’re going to cruise anyway, you would be wise to commit your loyalty and begin accumulating some perks.

One additional note, Celebrity is part of the Royal Caribbean family along with Azamara and frequent cruise status can be extended in a one-time transfer between these cruise lines.

Two Restaurants in Bangkok

ESS – Eat Sight Story (Asian Fusion Restaurant in Bangkok) 

The central attraction in Bangkok is the Grand Palace and Grounds featuring many temples, palaces and a museum. To do it right, the area is worth most of a day and that means at least finding a place to sit down and have lunch. If you are in the area near Wat Pho (Giant Buddha) a good choice for lunch is Eat Sight Story. The restaurant is on the Chao Praya River across from Wat Arun (Temple of Dawn) with a deck featuring tables, umbrellas and great views. To find it, go down Tha Tian Alley towards the river from Maha Rat Road, south of the Naval Welfare Department.

In addition to the deck overlooking the river, ESS has tables inside along with a small air conditioned dining room. The staff is friendly and efficient and, while not inexpensive, the food is very good. The afternoon we visited, we had curried beef, Pad Thai, grilled chicken skewers with rice and cold Thai beer and were very pleased with our selections. Based on other meals we ate in Thailand we believe that their offerings are toned down some to appeal to western tastes.

The Beer Bridge (A Gastro Pub in Bangkok)

The Beer Bridge was located just down the street from our hotel in the The Portico Building, 31 Langsuan, Ploenchit Rd., Lumpini, Pathumwan, Bangkok. The Beer Bridge is a modern eatery in an upscale neighborhood just a block away from Central Chidlom, Bangkok’s largest department store and near a number of major hotels.

They offered a wide selection of beers (local and imported) along with a nice wine list, cocktails and typical pub food. We ordered an appetizer which turned out to be the tiniest Buffalo chicken wings we’ve every eaten. But, after a long and warm day walking around Bangkok, The Beer Bridge provided exactly what we needed – really cold beer and some western familiarity.

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Georgia Wine Drive

Late last summer we spent a couple of weeks driving around the north Georgia mountains, hiking and visiting wineries. Georgia wines were a pleasant surprise. In general, their quality was good and the wineries were fun to visit. We had planned this trip for the spring but than had to postpone and didn’t update our information before heading out. We discovered too late that many of the wineries had reduced their hours for summer or were closed when we tried to visit, so we had to modify much of our plan. Be sure and update days and hours before you head out and also pricing, as each winery has a different charge for sampling.

We started out driving north through Atlanta stopping for lunch at the famous

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Atlanta Botanical Garden in Gainesville

Varsity Hot Dogs next to the campus of Georgia Tech. We had heard a lot about this institution and it turned out to be much bigger than we expected and the food was remarkably good. After lunch we left Atlanta heading for the small town of Oakwood and our first night on the road.

Early the next morning we headed for the Atlanta Botanical Garden in Gainesville. The gardens are reasonably new and diverse featuring over 1,200 different plants including 80 varieties of magnolias, oaks and maples. There are some nice lily ponds and a mountain stream flowing through the plantings. The gardens are also home to an impressive concert series in the summer.

Sunset Amicalola Falls Lodge

From the gardens we drove to Amicalola Falls Lodge inside the state park. The lodge was great, with modern, well furnished rooms. It sits atop the tallest cascading waterfall in the Southeast (729 feet). The falls are paralleled by a staircase with 604 steps and the park is also crossed by The Appalachian Trail. That evening it was a treat sitting out on the deck of the lodge watching a mountain sunset. The Lodge also has a decent restaurant with reasonable prices.

Wolf Mountain Vineyards
Dahlonega, Georgia

While in the area we visited The Cottage Winery in Cleveland, and Cavendar Creek Vineyards, Montaluce Winery and Wolf Mountain Vineyards & Winery near Dahlonega, Georgia. Dahlonega is a quant mountain town that also offers tasting rooms for many of the region’s wineries – sort of one stop shopping and tasting.

Helen, Georgia

From Dahlonega we traveled over to the Alpine town of Helen. The town has been a tourist destination for a number of years. Our first stop in Helen was the Habersham Winery with a nice tasting presentation and gift shop. Years ago the town rebuilt itself as an Alpine village featuring Bavarian food and gifts and offers a number of interesting restaurants and accommodations. The town is also popular for the tubing stream that flows through it. We had lunch at The Old Bavaria Inn, an old-world tavern specializing in imported beers and classic German fare.

Helen, Georgia

After Helen we drove up Brasstown Bald, the highest peak in Georgia at 4,784 feet above sea level. While at the National Park Service facility at the top we got caught in a thunderstorm which brought a bit of excitement to the afternoon, with lightening, thunder and clouds rolling by. After the storm we drove to Hiawassee on Lake Chatuge , checked in to The Lake Chatuge Lodge and then visited the Crane Creek Vineyards in Young Harris for Friday happy hour. It appeared that we should have made reservations as it is a very popular evening event in the area. The staff, however, was very accommodating and we bought cheese, crackers and a bottle of their dry rosé making a great ending to the day.

The Chatuge Lodge is within walking distance of the Fred Hamilton Gardens and the Georgia Mountain Fairgrounds. The Fairgrounds opened in 1978, and are home

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Crane Creek Vineyards

to several popular events throughout the year including the Georgia Mountain Fair, Georgia Mountain Moonshine Cruizin, Georgia Mountain Fall Festival, Superstar concerts, and Georgia’s Official State Fiddlers’ Convention. Any of those events have impact on room availability and rates so, if you’re planning on going, check dates and make plans well in advance. In the same area we also visited Odom Springs and Paradise Hills Wineries.

Red Barn Café

We left the lake early Sunday morning and headed for brunch at Tiger Mountain Vineyards & Winery which turned out to be the high point of the trip. The wine and food were delicious. Their Red Barn Café was selected as a top-ten winery restaurant by USA Today and our wine choice, Petit Manseng won a gold medal at the San Francisco International Wine Competition. We would highly recommend this Sunday Brunch.

Tallulah Gorge

After leaving brunch we made a brief stop at “Goats on the Roof” in Tiger, a throwback tourist stop featuring gifts, food, ice cream and yes – goats on the roof. We then headed for Tallulah Gorge and another long hike. This is a beautiful and rugged area and was the setting of the Burt Reynolds movie Deliverance as well as Disney’s The Great Train Chase.

Tallulah has an interesting visitors’ center and a number of trails with steps that go to Tempeste and Hurricane Falls and then further down into the gorge. To go beyond the main trail into the creek to slide on the rocks, you need a permit. Only a small number are issued each morning so you need to be there when the park opens.

After a day in the gorge we headed for Mark of the Potter in Clarkesville, an interesting store featuring local pottery and crafts. Then it was on to Savannah and the next part of our adventure. More on Savannah, Georgia soon…

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CAVENDER CREEK VINEYARDS AND WINERY

3610 Cavender Creek Road, Dahlonega, GA 30533          Phone: 770-823-9255

Tallulah Gorge

 

 

CENITA VINEYARDS, WINERY AND TASTING ROOM

591 Dock Dorsey Road, Cleveland, GA 30528     Phone: 706-865-7478

CHATEAU MEICHTRY VINEYARDS

1862 Orchard Lane, Talking Rock, GA 30175                                     Phone: 706-502-1608

Lake Chatuge

CRANE CREEK VINEYARDS

916 Crane Creek Road, Young Harris, GA 30582

Phone:                706-379-1236

ENGELHEIM VINEYARDS

127 Lakeview Road, Ellijay, GA 30540                               Phone: 706-635-9463

FAINTING GOAT VINEYARDS

201 Vineyard Way, Jasper, GA 30143

HABERSHAM WINERY

7025 S. Main St., Helen, GA 30545                                Phone: 706-878-9463

HIGHTOWER CREEK VINEYARDS, LLC

7150 Canaan Drive, Hiawassee, GA 30546                         Phone: 706-896-8963

MONTALUCE WINERY & ESTATES

501 Hightower Church Road, Dahlonega, GA 30533          Phone: 706-867-4060

ODOM SPRINGS VINEYARD

637 Odom Rd, Blairsville, GA 30512                                   Phone: 706-745-3094

PARADISE HILLS WINERY RESORT AND SPA

366 Paradise Road, Blairsville, GA 30512                           Phone: 877-745-7483

SERENBERRY VINEYARDS

Morganton, GA 30560                                                         Phone: 706-623-8463

SERENITY CELLARS

265 Laurel Ridge Rd, Cleveland, GA 30528                           Phone: (706) 348-1277

SHARP MOUNTAIN VINEYARDS

110 Rathgeb Trail, Jasper, GA 30143                                   Phone: 770-735-1210

STONEWALL CREEK VINEYARDS

323 Standing Deer Lane, Tiger, GA 30576

TIGER MOUNTAIN VINEYARDS & WINERY

2592 Old Hwy 44, Dahlonega, FA 30533                             Phone: 706-782-4777

WOLF MOUNTAIN VINEYARDS

180 Wolf Mountain Trail, Dahlonega, GA 30533                Phone: 706-867-9862

Find More on Georgia Wineries Here

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Vietnam

 

Top Photograph:The Japan Bridge, Hoi An.
2nd Row: Street Scene Saigon  & Village near Nah Trang                                                  

3rd Row: Boats on the Mekong  &  Market in Hoi An


Impressions of Vietnam

Our recent South China Sea cruise made four stops in Vietnam. Because we were back-to-back cruising,  Phu My, the port for Ho Cho Min City was duplicated. We took advantage of two ship’s tours and an independent trip into Saigon with bus service provided by the ship (separate fee). We really enjoyed our time spent ashore and found it both interesting and worthwhile. Shopping was inexpensive and easy because the U.S. dollar is the preferred currency. Almost everywhere we went, prices were quoted in dollars (about 22,000 Vietnamese Dong to 1 U.S. Dollar).

The official position of the Vietnamese government is that they are friends with the United States and that the Vietnamese people should welcome Americans. We had extended contact with three different Vietnamese men during our time in Vietnam. The first expressed no political opinion and was friendly and seemed welcoming to us. The second taught history in secondary school, was a party member and seemed focused in his thinking on the war and all the problems America caused and is still causing. The third thought most of Vietnam’s post-war problems were caused by government corruption and the party and wished that American style capitalism was given more opportunity.

Ho Chi Min City

Our first stop was listed as Ho Chi Min City (Saigon) but the ship docked at Phu My, an industrial area without anything within walking distance. There are some residential areas and a business strip between 5 to 10 miles from the port but nothing of specific interest.

Ho Chi Min City is an hour and a half drive from the port. The cruise ship offered tours and also just a round trip bus service into the city which ran about $60 per person. A number of passengers took local taxis into the city. They claimed that with four people it was cheaper than the bus but you had to negotiate your fare upfront. We arranged a tour  to the Mekong River Delta and went into Saigon on the second cruise.

The journey to the Mekong took three hours each way. The long bus ride gave us an opportunity to see rice farming in the countryside, old and new buildings in Ho Chi Min City as we drove through, and thousands of motor scooters carrying local people everywhere. The motor boat ride on the river was interesting followed by a small boat ride down the canals and then lunch at the Mekong River Rest Stop. The highlight of lunch was the delicious local elephant ear fish. Our tour guide was friendly and spent much of the trip talking about the Vietnamese people, their lives and their hopes for the future.

Our recommendation, unless you have a specific reason to visit the Mekong like we did, would be to take a city tour of Saigon or just take advantage of transportation into the city and do your own walking tour. There are a lot of great shopping bargains in the city and many things to see.  Some of the highlights include the old Presidential Palace (now Reunification Palace), the Catholic Cathedral, and the old Post office. A short walk  from the city center are the Opera House, The Rex Hotel (the roof bar was a gathering place for journalists and military during the war) and Dong Khoi Street with many souvenir shops, good restaurants and fashion boutiques.

Da Nang

Da Nang is a major city with a lot to see and features the Dragon Bridge which is actually a recent addition. Near by is China Beach which is now a modern seaside resort but during the war it was a “rest and relaxation” area for the military. Just south of Da Nang is the city of Hoi An which is well worth a visit. Hoi An is also becoming a beach resort with lots of new properties being developed but it is the old town (Ancient Town) that should get attention because of the history, architecture, shops and restaurants. We stocked up there on tee shirts ($3 and $5) and had a great lunch at Brothers Cafe. If you are cruising you should be able to find a tour that covers all these highlights.

Nah Trang

This is also a developing area that is a seaside resort particularly popular with Russian tourists. There is a cable car that crosses the bay, an amusement park, a water park and some good beaches. On our stop we had to tender-in and merchants had set up tables full of souvenirs along the dock.  The town itself was small with with a few shops and cafes but you could get a taxi tour at a reasonable price or take one of the ship’s tours.

We recently discovered another retired couple that recently visited Vietnam with some good information posted in April 2017. Check out Adventurous Retirees web site.

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A Few Days in Florence

Above: Ponte Vecchio Bridge

If you are visiting Italy you should not pass up a visit to Florence, the capital of Italy’s Tuscany region. From many Italian cities, including Rome, it is easy to reach Florence by express train for an extra night or two stay.

Michelangelo’s David

The city is the birthplace of the Renaissance where Michelangelo carved many of his masterpieces and where Dante Alighieri lived and the Medici family ruled. Galileo lived in Florence most of his life while Donatello, Giovanni Boccaccio and Leonardo da Vinci are also on the list of notable residents. It is difficult to stroll the narrow streets and cross the many piazzas without feeling that you are walking through history. Add that to the museums, art galleries, shops, cafes and great restaurants and it is impossible not to fall in love with Florence.

Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Flore

Last year we caught a train up from Rome and walked the few blocks from the Santa Maria Novella train station to our hotel. We enjoyed our stay at the Hotel Mia Cara and it was right on the edge of the historic center of Florence making it convenient to walk to many points of interest. The famous Duomo (Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Flore), Ponte Vecchio bridge, Uffizzi Gallery, Pitti Palace and Boboli Gardens are only short strolls away. If you are an art lover and are interested in history, this is the perfect Italian destination because there is so much to see and it is mostly located in a concentrated area.

Piazza della Repubblica

Ten recommended destinations:

  1. Gates of Paradise, Lorenzo Ghiberti (1425 – 1452) at the Museo del Opera del Duomo (originally the doors of the baptistery)
  2. Madonna della Seggiola, Raphael (1513 – 1514) at the Pitti Palace, Palatine Gallery
  3. The Medici Palace, Michelozzo di Bartolomeo (1445 – 1460) near the Church of San Lorenzo
  4. The David, Michelangelo (1501 – 1504) at the Accademia (a copy is also in the Piazza Signoria)
  5. Primavera, Sandro Botticelli (1482) at the Uffizi Galleries
  6. The Perseus, Benvenuto Cellini (1545 – 1554) Piazza Signoria
  7. The Florentine Pieta, Michelangelo (1547 – 1553) at the Museo del Opera del Duomo
  8. The Slaves, Michelangelo (1525 – 1530) the Accademia

    Dante Alighieri
  9. The Mosaics in the Baptistery, (1240 – 1300) Baptistery in Piazza Duomo
  10. Madonna della Seggiola, Raphael (1513 – 1514) – in the Pitti Palace, Palatine Gallery

There are a series of three walking tours detailed at the web site visitflorence.com. Walking directions are provided along with background information on the art and sites along the way and even suggestions for good places to enjoy coffee and gelato as you stroll.

Mercato di San Lorenzo

Shopping opportunities are everywhere in Florence from street markets to exclusive shops. The city is famous for its’ leather as well as jewelry and embroidery. Check out bargains at the Mercato Nuovo, a leather and souvenir street market as well as Mercato di San Lorenzo for food specialties. Not to be missed is shopping on the Ponte Vecchio bridge and the small shops near the west side of the bridge.

Street vendors

Stretching between Piazza Duomo and Piazza Repubblica is Via Roma featuring Florence’s main department store, Rinascente along with Gucci, Cartier, Hugo Boss and many more premium shops. The home of Florence’s up scale designers is Via Tornabuoni. This street spotlights many of the famous fashion houses, as well as historic churches and plazas. Near Via Tornabouni, are Via Porta Rossa and Via della Vigna Nuova, offering more upscale fashion shopping.

While in Florence take time to sample la dolce vita (the good life) with frequent stops at sidewalk cafes for cappuccinos, gelato and wine. One of Italians favorite pastimes is sitting at cafes and watching the world go by.

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Perseus

From Florence you can take a quick side trip to Pisa. It is only a short train ride away with trains leaving about every half hour or so from Santa Maria Novella train station. The Regionale Veloce trains are the ones making this trip, which takes about an hour each way with ticket prices about $10. From the station in Pisa the cathedral and the leaning tower are only a moderate hike away. There are also numerous organized day tours outside the city at reasonable rates that include a day trip by train to Cinque Terre, a beautiful seaside town south of Genoa along with bus tours into the Tuscan countryside.

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