Continuing our journey towards the Black Forest for Christmas, we stopped in Strasbourg, in the Alsace region of France. We were met by our AirBnB host Christian at “Logement 2 pieces a Strasbourg Neudorf” that was located in a busy part of town that reminded us of Commonwealth Ave near Boston University.
On the road again - destination the Alsace-Lorraine region of France, first stop Nancy. Half-way there we stopped for a lunch of, what else? , Quiche Lorraine at a small bakery in Baccarat, home to the beautiful crystal. Once in Nancy we settled into our “Chambre pour 2 dans maison proche centre ville” before taking a walk into Old Town. At the recommendation of our AirBnB host Romain, we stopped into the Excelsior Brasserie - a registered Art Nouveau Historic Monument - for a Kir Royale.
Unless you are a skier, there's no better time to visit Switzerland than the few weeks before Christmas. We started in the capital city of Bern, ended in Basel, and sandwiched Zurich in between. All three cities were bright with sparkling lights, alive with Christmas Markets, and full of the all-around positive vibe that is Christmas in Europe. The train ride from to Bern took us right over - and sometimes through - the Alps. Our shots from the train window do no justice to the views. On the train we lunched on a 1/2 bottle of Barbera d'Alba and a couple of "Kebab Piadini" (gyro roll-ups) and passed the time chatting with three travelers from St. Louis who were gushing about sites they'd seen in Germany.
Ever since George Clooney bought Villa Oleandra, Americans have been flocking to Lake Como in the Italian Alps. But, for the moment, the Italians still have nearby Lake Maggiore to themselves. Thanks to LinkedIn, Richard was able to reconnect earlier in the year with Daniele, a former work colleague, who grew up and still lives on this picturesque lake. This renewed friendship led to a fabulous week in a place we'd not likely have ever visited and that we got to know through the eyes of a proud native.
Our two weeks with Patrick were truly wonderful, but we needed some time to breathe after the hard work of touring Tuscany with a veteran hiker. We dropped him off in Orvieto - he was headed to Rome for the last 3 days of his vacation - and we headed back north to the quiet of Castelfranco Emilia - a tiny town nestled between Modena and Bologna.
Nancy picked our AirBnB - Dimora d'artista, la creatività rende tutto unico ["Artist's residence, creativity makes everything unique"] - because there wouldn't be much we "had" to see, and it had a piano for Richard to play!
It was one of our harder travel days - drive from Pienza to Orvieto to drop off Patrick, then to Siena to return the car, train from Siena to Florence, then to Bologna where we caught a third train from Bologna to Castelfranco Emilia. When we got off the train it was clear we were in the middle of nowhere with still a bus ride to go.
For the first time since arriving in Europe we decided to rent a car to get the full taste of the Tuscan countryside. On November 27th we piled into our FIAT Tipo - love the standard transmission - and set out from Siena toward our next planned stop, Pienza in the Val d'Orcia. Along the way we had to pull over more than once to take in amazing landscapes. When lunchtime arrived we avoided the temptation to try out "McDrive" - Italy's name for the McDonalds Drive-thru window. Instead, we stopped at the medieval walled city of Buonconvento, where we had "pici" - the local pasta - and tagliatelle at Ristorante da Mario. We had a good laugh when we noticed photos of the owner with Ted Kennedy on the wall by our table.
No visit to Tuscany would be complete without a stop in Siena - described by UNESCO as "the embodiment of a medieval city". The historic 3-way rivalry between Pisa, Siena, and Florence is obvious when you see them back to back. Still recovering from our stomach issues, we were very grateful that our AirBnB host, Helga, pointed out 3 ways to get to the historic town center - one of which took advantage of a 5-flight set of escalators up to the walled city!
All artists' brushes point to Florence - and it never disappoints. The AirBnB apartment - "Bianca's Home" - that we chose is in the "Oltrarno" section of Florence - the "other side of the Arno" from the city center. It's a funky neighborhood with artisans at work restoring art, crafting leather, making jewelry, or sewing bespoke fashions. The apartment was really nice and our host, Valentina, was great, giving us lots of recommendations about the neighborhood. So much to see in Florence, so we scheduled 4 days to get it all in. We found it important to balance time inside museums and churches with time outside strolling the streets and parks. Our first stop was the Pitti Palace and the attached Boboli Gardens on our side of the city.
Take the energy of a university town, the passion for Tuscan traditions, and subtle Renaissance beauty and you find that Pisa is much more than the leaning tower. Yes - you need to visit the Piazza del Duomo and see the beautiful cathedral, the baptistery, and of course the "campanile" in all its leaning glory. (Yes - we successfully resisted the temptation to taking the silly tourist photo pretending to hold it up.)
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Nancy McCabe &