Basilica of Saint Paul Outside the Wall, Rome, Italy

Filled as it is with history both sacred and secular, Rome becomes at once an oxymoron.  No where else in the world can you encounter masterpieces of art reflecting against graffiti and vandalism.

One such place is the Basilica of Saint Paul Outside the Wall.  The wall? The old wall of Rome that protected the ancient city did not encompass this particular church.  Thus, the name.   In Italian, it’s called Abbazia di San Paolo Fuori Le Mura.  Just so you know, Joe.

The first time we went to Rome, we didn’t go and from the moment we planned to return, this was where we wanted to go. The fact that you are standing in front of the tomb of St. Paul is awe inspiring. I am Catholic, but for any Christian who has read and holds faith in the New Testament, this is a pilgrimage to see the tomb of the apostle to the Gentiles.

Here is what to do. We got on the Metro at the Piazza Republicca, there are ticket machines there. The Metro runs two lines, orange and blue. St. Paolo blue is the stop. You get your tickets, use a credit card it has all languages, then choose the all day pass, it was like 4 euros. At the Piazza Republicca Metro Station, you are at the orange line, don’t be scared, but you have to make a transfer.

Get on orange to Termini (Giovanni Paolo II as it’s also called)  and then you will have to switch to blue. Get on blue.  Laurentina is the final stop on the line. It is like four stops to St. Paul’s and you can’t miss it because that is the name of the station’s stop.  When you get off the train, head to the left and keep going, this station stinks to high heaven and it was gross, and there are real live gypsies hovering, but keep your eyes on the prize. They have signs in the station with arrows pointing toward the basilica. You come up out of the Metro, and then turn right. You can almost see it as you emerge.

 

Follow down about two blocks, and then you enter the church on the side door. Be sure you are dressed with covered shoulders, they will deny you access. St. Paul’s tomb is smack dab in the center. There is a map as you enter. Be sure to go out the big doors at the far end, that is where the courtyard is with the statue they show on the websites. The side entrance is kind of….scruffy, but the front is spectacular. They also have super clean restrooms on the opposite side of where you will come in. Just so you know. Really, don’t be scared of the metro. It is surreal and you will thank yourself for a lifetime for going. THEN, when you go home, read the book of Romans, it has a whole new perspective. God bless and safe journeys!

The Cross Body Bag for Travel: Yea or Nay?

 

IMG_2043It’s getting to be that time of year when we start poring over travel magazines and planning summer excursions.  By nature, I’m slightly neurotic and I like to research where I’ll be and what’s my best plan of attack…in fashion. Handbags are a huge concern.

It seems as if there are two definitive camps in the cross body debate.  Yes, your hands are free, but your boobs are segregated in that oh-so-unflattering-way.  On the one hand, you’re more protected from a pickpocket, but when you wear a cross body bag, in Europe especially, it screams, “Tourist with a passport!” You’d do well to just write that on your forehead.  It’s the same result.

The local women, especially in Paris and Rome, (where they frighten you with stories of gypsies and vagabond rouges,) leave their tote bags carelessly hanging open as they stand near the Metro.  I’ve seen it.  You know that pinched up face people get when they’re changing a poopy diaper?  That’s the look a lot of us Americans have when we’re forced into a closed quarters situation with “Them.”  We hang on tightly to our stuff and hope that we’re giving off a “va via” (go away) vibe.

While I’m all for safety and being responsible, I think that when we’re already out of our comfort zone, the worst thing to do is compound that by going out of our comfort zone with our belongings.  If you’re normally not a cross body kind of gal, you probably have a reason for it.  Personally, I find that they’re too small.  When I’m in the store stuffing the paper wrappings into other bags to see the inside, (yes, that’s me,) it always seems big enough. (I hate that look of a warped overstuffed purse banging against my hip.)    Yet, when I get home and add a wallet, sunglasses and a ridiculous stuffed dog I bring on vacation, it’s not as roomy.

I think the lure of the cross body is not in the bag, but in the strap…the strap that comes with most purses.  Huh.  While you should clean your bag out of extraneous items before you leave, you are probably better off using the one you carry every day.  I’m assuming to some degree that you’re not toting a giant bag with all the hardware; that can be heavy. You have to be reasonable in what you’re willing to carry through the course of a day. A bulky bag may be a deterrent in cafes if they have to perch on your lap.  Most of us girls manage with a medium-sized bag so it’s not a problem.

A thing you must consider, in some attractions like historical buildings and museums, if your bag is too large, you may have to check it.  Nothing renders me “deer in the headlights” like leaving my bag in a foreign closet check.  You don’t want to black out in the Sistine Chapel because you’re obsessing about your abandoned purse back in the lobby.  You never want to be separated from your gear.  You want your possessions easily accessible to you, but safe from everyone else.

What do you carry every day?  It’s funny how we think about travel bags as something we only use on a trip.  As a veteran purse carrier, you already know the drill; keep your bag zipped and your hand on the handles.  Enough said.

 

 

 

Paris vs. New York City

The Eiffel Tower

The Eiffel Tower

New York City

New York City

While Audrey Hepburn famously says in her title role of Sabrina, “Paris is always a good idea,” Robert DeNiro rebukes her and says, “I go to Paris, I go to London, I go to Rome, and I always say, “There’s no place like New York. It’s the most exciting city in the world now. That’s the way it is. That’s it.”

In fact, I was thinking of Robert DeNiro this weekend.  Up and down Mulberry Street, Little Italy was celebrating the Saint Gennaro festival.  You know the scene in The Godfather,  don’t you?  The young Vito Corleone kills Don Fanucci and returns to his family to celebrate the feast of Saint Gennaro with the tiny Michael in his lap…it’s an iconic moment in cinema history and it happened in NYC.

F. Scott Fitzgerald’s description of NYC is, “The city seen from the Queensboro Bridge is always the city seen for the first time, in its first wild promise of all the mystery and beauty in the world.”  Did he mean it?  After all, the essence of Gatsby is illusion and falsity.  Of Paris he wrote, “The best of America drifts to Paris. The American in Paris is the best American. It is more fun for an intelligent person to live in an intelligent country. France has the only two things toward which we drift as we grow older—intelligence and good manners.”  So which is it, Scott?  Can’t we have both?  After all,  Gertrude Stein said, “America is my country, but Paris is my hometown.”

Which do you prefer?



   Paris   vs.   New York City

The Tuileries Garden and Luxembourg Gardens or Central Park

The Eiffel Tower or The  Statue of Liberty

The River Seine or The Hudson River

The Opera House or Broadway

Rive Gauche or The East Village

Croissants or Bagels and Lox

Flan or Cheesecake

The Ritz  or The Plaza and The Waldorf Astoria

Boat rides on the Seine or  Carriage rides in Central Park

 Tour First with 52 Floors or  The Freedom Tower (1776 feet high)

The Louvre or The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Tour de France or NYC Marathon

Avenue des Champs Elysees or Fifth Avenue

New Year’s Eve at Champs des Mars or New Year’s Eve in Times Square

Boulevard Montparnasse or 42nd Street

Marais or The Lower East Side

Rue Mouffetard or South Street Seaport

Le Bon Marche and Galleries LaFayette or Macy’s and Saks

Notre Dame or St. Patrick’s Cathedral

Paris St. Germain F.C. or The Yankees

Pont Neuf or The Brooklyn Bridge

Charles de Gaulle Airport or JFK

Crepe Stands or Hot dogs and knishes

Outdoor cafes or rooftop pubs

Jardin des Plantes zoo or The Central Park Zoo

Tips for American Tourists

Planning a vacation can be part of the fun.  While there is a fine balance between having no plan at all and having every minute of the day assigned with an activity, it’s important to be informed before you leave on your trip.

Leaving the United States is a big deal.  Whether you know it or not, there certain unalienable rights that we as American citizens enjoy.  When you leave American soil, you’re at their house.  While it’s important to know their local customs, it’s also important to protect yourself.

Traveling with a passport means your activity can be logged.  When you register and check into a European hotel, they will ask for your passport.  Don’t panic, as this is customary.  They will make copies of it and keep it on file during your trip.  You are a foreigner.  It’s worth your while to find the American embassy in whatever city you are in and let them know you are there.

Follow the directions in your passport.  They put them there for a reason.  What are they, you ask?  Well, make two copies of your passport.  Leave one at home with somebody you trust.  Bring the second copy with you and DO NOT KEEP IT WITH THE ORIGINAL.  If, God forbid, your passport is stolen, you have some proof to bring with you to said embassy.  Also, if you are traveling with others, don’t keep all of the passports on one person.  Split them up.

I’ve said before, and it’s worth restating.  I love the United States.  I am so proud to be an American.  Yet, out there my little grasshoppers, are people that do not like us.  Unfair.  Illogical.  Whatevs.  They do.  These are some tips to keep you from sticking out and making yourself an easy target.

  • Do not fiddle with your map in the middle of the street.  Even in a town heavily visited by tourists, you don’t need to advertise that you’re entirely lost.  Take ten minutes and sit down somewhere, or better yet, map yourself out at the hotel.  If you look like a wounded antelope, well….
  • Respect the local dress code.  I know you like to wear what you like to wear.  Get over it.  Take the time to learn the customs.  Europeans do not take shoes off when they enter someone’s home.  They’ll think you’re rude for pulling those smelly shoes off your barking dogs.  I know we think we’re being polite by not tracking in dirt, but they perceive it as too familiar.  Did you know that pants were illegal in France for women until….like last Thursday?  I’m kidding.  No, I’m not.
  • Do not, under any circumstances wear a mesh fanny pack.  The circling thieves won’t be able to get near you because I’ll be in the way slapping you upside the head.  There are so many options that are classic and practical.  Do yourself a favor and find one.
  • Contact your credit card companies and let them know you’ll be traveling.  They will red flag your card if you suddenly start showing purchases on the other side of the globe.
  • Don’t go into a trance at the ATM machines.  Seriously.  People do this.  Be aware of your surroundings.

Continue reading

How to Plan a Trip to Italy: Part One

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Siena: Neighborhood flag guarding its territory

Siena: Neighborhood flag guarding its territory

Congratulations!  A trip to Italy is a wonderful and memorable time.  It’s something you’ll never forget and it will forever change you even after you return.  That sounds like a tall order, but it’s absolutely true.  You won’t know until you go.

Planning is an essential part of Your Tour of Italy.  While you can sign up with one of the many tours that are offered, the internet makes it so easy to design your own trip and go on your own.  You may find that there are places and things you would like to see that an organized tour just doesn’t offer.

There are lots of things to consider.

  • Are you traveling with children?
  • Are you going for a specific holiday?
  • What landmarks and cities do you most want to see?
  • How long do you plan to stay?
  • How much money do you have to spend?

When you think of Italy, what’s the first thing that pops into your head?  That’s what you should see.  For some people, it may be “The David” in Florence, or Lake Como at the base of the Alps.  Some people are going to find  their long lost relatives and retrace their own family history.  Some people want to eat and drink their way through the landscape.  Others plan to see museums.  Some people just want to travel to one city and “get the feel of it.”  All of these are honorable and excellent choices.

Be warned.  It can be  overwhelming and very confusing planning a trip to a place you’ve never been.  Once you tell people you’re going, they immediately offer their advice.  You’ll feel your brain spinning with so much unsolicited information. Stay focused!

Greve in Chianti

Greve in Chianti

There is a reason that Rome is called The Eternal City.  My dear cousin, Laura, spoke volumes about it when she stated that, “I have lived here all of my life, and still, there are things I have not seen.”

Keep that in mind when you begin to plan.  I’m sorry.  You can’t see everything.  However, you can prioritize and plan.  No matter what you do, from seeing famous works of art to standing in line for a gelato,  YOU ARE IN ITALY.

 

Here’s a very preliminary step by step to get you started.  Consider this the first of many ways to spend winter evenings as you conspire with your traveling companions.

  1. Put on some classic Italian music and open a bottle of wine.  (Why not start enjoying Italy now?)
  2. Make a list of all the things you want to see.  No cities, no itinerary, just name what’s important to you.
  3. Get out a map of Italy.  Use one that you can write on. (Barnes and Noble has them.)
  4. Mark off where those landmarks are located.
  5. Get a travel journal.  Begin to write down facts, times, and dates.
  6. Look at the map and decide which cities you want to see the most.  (I won’t even tell you what you SHOULD see, only you can answer that.)
  7. Draw lines from the cities that you’ve chosen to see if there are reasonable modes of transportation to get from one to the other.  The Italian train system is vast and efficient, so don’t be afraid.
  8. Use the internet.  Travel websites, blogs, on line magazines and newspapers offer a plethora of information.
  9. Use your basic skeletal map to flesh out where you will actually go.  For example, if you have decided you want to see the tomb of St. Francis in Assisi, begin to  research Assisi.  Trip Advisor offers a lot of honest and solid information.
  10. You may find that your trip will change.  Logistics, distance, time and money are all factors that can’t be ignored.  (Mi dispiace.)

    The Cat Sanctuary, Rome

    The Cat Sanctuary, Rome

If you’ve noticed, there IS a lot of planning and research.  This is really not a chore.  It’s exciting to sit and plan your trip.  The more information you have, the better decisions you can make.  Going to Italy the first time is not a trip that you just hop onto a flight and hope for the best.  You want to be informed and aware.  You’re entering another culture and you’re leaving American soil.  It pays to plan.

So now, go get that map and notebook and start thinking about What Italy Means to You.

Questions?

 

 

Oktoberfest, Munich, Germany

Houfbrau House Munich, Germany
Houfbrau House in Munich Photo by Cynthia Dite Sirni

Houfbrau House in Munich
Photo by Cynthia Dite Sirni

 

Inside the Biergarten by Cynthia Dite Sirni

Inside the Biergarten
by Cynthia Dite Sirni

 

The author...

The author… in the English Gardens of Munich

 

A True Bavarian Gentleman, Munich, Germany by Cynthia Dite Sirni

A True Bavarian Gentleman, Munich, Germany
by Cynthia Dite Sirni

 

The Band!

The Band!

Do you know when Oktoberfest begins?

Trick question.  It actually starts in mid- September and continues into the first weekend in October.  Depending on what day of the week October 1st or 2nd falls on, it runs for either 17 or 18 days.  October 3rd is German Unity Day, so they have it coincide with that.  In Munich, where the biergartens as well as the beer is plenty, Oktoberfest is a special time for the people of Munich.  Since its onset in 1810, the festival is a celebration of All Things German.  In fact, only certain beers can be served during Oktoberfest.  All of them must be made in Munich.  This is the short list.

  •  Augustiner-Brau
  • Hacker-Pschorr-Brau
  • Lowenbrau
  • Paulaner-Brau
  • Spatenbrau
  • Staatliches Hofbrau-Munich

All of the aforementioned beers are served in the quintessential stein.  (Yes, the waitresses REALLY do carry them by the dozen.)  Even though the beers are HUGE, they are not always strong.  During the year, some have a high alcohol content, but others are mixed with lemonade.  During Oktoberfest, the beer must meet the 6% alcohol content, (13% according to the Bavarian Purity Law or “Reinheitsgebot.”) Food is always part of the biergarten, especially pretzels.  It helps to offset the suds.

Do you know what they call Oktoberfest in Bavaria?

Another trick question….”die Wiesn.”  This is the shortened version of the word, Theresienwiese (The Meadow of Therese.)  This is one of the fields where the festival is actually held.  Munich is peppered with “biergartens” that are very much a place for all people.  Families with children, young couples, the elderly, they all go to the biergarten.  There are some rules that are good to know….

One of the first rules is that really aren’t any rules other than you can’t bring your own beer in.   The music, the food, the tables and the people are all in perfect harmony with one another.  One concession I do know of is that in Hofbrau House in Munich, there are color coded table cloths.  Tourists are allowed to sit anywhere they would like, unless it’s deemed a table for the locals.  (The blue tablecloth is for locals, and the ones without a cloth are for tourists.  No one tells you this…)  These tables are “reserved” for the local townies.  However, you may ask the locals at the table if you may join them.  They invariably say yes, but they  do like to be asked.  (Certain times of the day, the week, or during a festival, it is very difficult to find a seat.  People are seated family style, and you literally squish in where ever you can find a spot to sit.)

Menu from Houfbrau House in Munich, Germany

Menu from Houfbrau House in Munich, Germany

Whenever anyone at the table gets a fresh beer, EVERY SINGLE TIME , everyone clicks glasses.  Everyone. It creates a feeling of connection.  Strangers become friends.  It is a convivial time to share food and drink with people.  Even the language barrier does not interfere.  A smile is universal, to quote probably one of the world’s cheesiest cliches.

It’s amazing how welcoming and….homey it is.  People from literally all over the world are seated together to break bread, or bread dumplings, or pretzels….

So this September, as Oktoberfest begins, take some time and enjoy autumn, Bavarian style.

The author and her husband in The Biergarten

The author and her husband in The Biergarten 

Birthdays on Vacation

The View from Assisi

Image 2Today’s not  my birthday. Is it yours?  Someone you love?  Well, then, Happy Birthday!!  As Americans we have certain traditions we’ve come to expect on our birthdays. Cake. Check. Flowers. Check. Table decorated with goodies. Check.  Presents. Check.

Maybe you’ll have a party.

Maybe you’ll have a cocktail or two.

Maybe you’ll go out to dinner.

Traditions.

When we are away from home, some traditions just can’t be upheld.  For instance, every year on my birthday, for over thirty years, I play the Johnny Crawford song, “Cindy’s Birthday.”  Every.  Single.  Year.

I don’t always wear my tiara.  (Doesn’t everyone have a tiara?)

Birthdays on vacation are different.

One of my very favorite birthdays did not come with a cake. It had no ribbons or wrappings. No one other than my traveling companions said “Happy Birthday.” I did not blow out any candles at all.

Assisi, Italy: My Birthday

  • Arrived by train to see the Umbrian Hills overlooking the horizon.
  • Wandered the cobblestone streets.
  • Stood at the tomb of St. Francis of Assisi and said a special prayer for all my loved ones.
  • Had the rosary ring we bought at the Vatican blessed by a priest at The Basilica of St. Francis.
  • Ate dinner on a balcony overlooking the town square.
  • Watched the sunset from the walls of the basilica and ate pastries.

When you expect nothing is when your receive something so much more.  If you are away from home on your birthday, embrace this change of pace.  Remember, no expectations.

Happy Birthday!

Souvenir Ideas: Books

Book of Tuscan Proverbs

For me, shopping on vacation is part of the fun.  I love looking for little trinkets and mementoes to bring back and squirrel into my little nest.  I think there’s really a physiological benefit.  I can feel my heart soar and my respiration change….pretty shiny objects can do that.  🙂  I love bringing back little presents for those whom I left behind.  I can imagine their joy in receiving a special present from so far away.

A particularly good gift idea is a book.

Book of Tuscan Proverbs

Book of Tuscan Proverbs

The beauty of a book, for a traveler, is that it is easy to slip into a suitcase, it isn’t breakable, and it’s a unique treasure that you can’t just pick up in your own local bookstore.

In Florence, FirenziLibri is a wonderful place to find not only new books, but vintage and out of print volumes as well.  The store is located at Via dei Servi, 52.  It’s  a lovely little side street that has lots of other unique shops.  There is something so special about finding a beloved fairy tale from own childhood written in Italian.  This is where you will find locals and won’t be over run by tourists, such as yourselves.  🙂

In Milan, immediately to the right of the Duomo, there is a huge book store.  In Mondadori Bookstore is  filled with a plethora of books and other little book store trinkets.  This could be your perfect one stop shopping.  This store is akin to the giant bookstores we have here in the states.  In addition to books, there are maps and stuffed animals and mugs….just like home, but Italian.

There’s something magical about a bookstore.   Each volume holds possibility.  To find a lovely edition of a classic, written in Italian, or German or whatever the local language may be is something unique and special.

 

How To Get Tickets To See The Pope

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Pope Benedict

Pope Benedict

For the faithful, it is a special and significant event to be standing in St. Peter’s Basilica.   An especially special moment for pilgrims all over the world is to see the pope.  Each Wednesday, the Holy Father greets thousands of people in the heart of St. Peter’s Basilica.  Pope Francis, the current pope, loves to greet the people.  It is an electric and a holy experience.

The pope enters the throngs of people, usually on the Popemobile.  He reads some Scripture and gives a homily in a multitude of languages.  Lastly, he blesses all the people there, as well as their loved ones back home.  He blesses religious articles at this time as well, so bring your treasures.    It’s a once in a lifetime experience that can change you inside and out.  It’s entirely free, and it’s entirely possible to arrange such a visit.

While it seems like a dream, it is actually very easy to obtain these tickets for the general audience with the pope.  (These tickets are different than the Papal Blessing that occurs on Sundays.  The Holy Father greets the crowd on Sundays from his balcony window so there is no need to get a ticket.)

The Church of Santa Susanna is the American parish in Rome.  Here, American clergy work and live, and they are quite wonderful and helpful answering your questions.  You can order your tickets on line directly at their website.

You can also contact your  own home diocese and tell them when you will be going to the Vatican.  They will mail you a letter of introduction to bring with you to the Church of Santa Susanna and they will order the tickets for you.  When you arrive at the church, you present this letter to receive your tickets.

The website is extremely easy to use, but for those of you who are more comfortable speaking with a human and having an actual slip of paper to present, then call your diocesan office.

Either way, you will receive the tickets with information on what to wear and what time you need to arrive.  Usually, the general audience is on Wednesdays.  There are exceptions which is why the website is so helpful.  You will need to be at St. Peter’s Basilica at least three hours prior to the pope.

You will go through security.  Small bags will be inspected as well as your dress code will be checked.  No knapsacks or large bags are allowed.  Women are required to wear a skirt or dress that covered the knees.  No pants.  Arms must be covered as well.  Men must be in trousers and shirts with sleeves.  For women, a long sundress will work if you bring a pashmina to cover up with.  Depending on the time of year, it can be extremely hot.  You’ll want to wear sunscreen, bring water and wear a hat.

The entire service lasts about 1 1/2 hours.  It is not a mass, but rather, there are some prayers and songs.   It’s a time of fellowship and friendship.  Don’t miss it!!  You’ll be forever blessed.

Follow Up Review of The Downeaster Sport Small Canvas Bag at L.L. Bean Signature

So, I bought the  L.L. Bean Downeaster bag a week ago, and as promised, I am doing a review.  This bag has tons of pockets.  The front one is the perfect size for a cell phone or a passport.Image It is definitely designed for being out and about all day.  There are two side pockets on the exterior of either side.  They zip and keep keys, etc. easy to find as well as secure.  There is another pocket in the front behind the zippered one, this can hold a work I.D. or such.  Inside, I was able to keep a ton of stuff!  I switched out from my usual work bag and everything fit into this!  I didn’t think it could do it, but it did.

Inside, there’s only one pocket, which would be one of my draw backs.  It would be really easy for L.L. Bean to add a line of interior pockets in the front….just a suggestion.  My other issue is that the strap is about two inches too short to be a perfect cross body.  I can use it as such, but it really is designed as a shoulder strap.  For women taller than average height, it might be a bigger problem.

It wasn’t heavy and it looked much cuter than my old bag. I love the classic colors, sailcloth, blue and red.  Each season, they update color trends, so there’s something for every taste.   I absolutely love the shape of a Speedy satchel.  It looks and feels stylish.

This bag would be perfect for a trip.  It has enough of a street chic look to it that you don’t scream out “American Tourist” but also has enough zippers and gadgets to keep your belongings secure and easy to reach.  You could easily use this as a carry-on.  It could hold a pair of shoes and a change of clothes along with all the other paraphernalia we need.

Right now, it’s on sale for $44.99.  Regular price is $59.00.  I used L.L. Bean coupons, but I don’t think I would pay the full price.  (However, I don’t pay the full price for ANYTHING so I’m not a good judge for that.)

Overall, I’d give this bag a 4 1/2 out of 5 stars.  It really is beautiful.  I love the feel of the canvas, and it makes a pair of jeans and a simple shirt look Yacht Ready.

Travel Journals

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One of the nicest things about going on a trip is remembering it after you have returned home.  The sensuous aspects of travel, touch, smell, taste, and sound can evaporate from our memories.  Our photographs serve to help us remember what we have seen, but a travel journal is an excellent way to flesh out the rest of the memory.

I know you’re thinking that you’ll remember, but trust me, nothing will haunt you like not being able to remember the greatest restaurant you ate at, or the best bottle of wine you had.  Keeping a journal while you travel helps create a souvenir you’ll keep forever.

Children love this idea as well.  Even small children can be given post cards and crayons to fill in a journal.  Ticket stubs, train tickets, business cards, all of these things help to make up a memory.  It will become a family treasure as you laugh again over the anecdotes included inside.

Before you leave on your trip, choose a journal.  Get a pretty one that you’ll be proud to put on your bookshelf.  It’s an autobiography of sorts, so make it something special.  Make sure you can fit it into your day bag or pockets to keep with you as you journey along.  Be sure you have a pen.

Don’t create this into a monstrous “What I Did on My Summer Vacation” burden, but rather, think of it as an observer’s notes.  Simple things will strike you as you’re waiting for the train to arrive.  You’ll want to record some memories of your people-watching.  Write about the sounds.  Fountains gurgling and music playing don’t transfer into photographs.  Tell what you’re feeling.  Did you have a blister?  Was the heat unbearable?  How was the jet lag?  Include the different scents and the fragrances, both good and distasteful, to remember.  (Some of the most picturesque cities in the world smell of pollution.)  How did the food smell?  Your hotel soaps?   You get the idea.

Journal pages....

Journal pages…

While you are on the plane, the train, the boat or the car (provided you aren’t the driver) you can jot down memories.  It doesn’t have to be flowing and flowery.  Write down the name of the restaurant you’re eating at, tell what you ordered, something funny that happened during the meal. Most restaurants have menus and business cards at the exits.  Take a picture of the restaurant and add it to your book later.  Take the label off your wine.  Save the price tag off the souvenir you bought.

Tuck these mementoes inside the journal.   These little eclectic talismans become tangible memories when you return home.  You’ll be amazed how a $2.99 cloth journal can suddenly becomes one of your most treasured possessions.

 

Bouquet of Memories: Signature Accessories

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ImageSignature accessories are always a source of interest to me.  How about you?  I love the idea of having something that no one else has.  It doesn’t have to be expensive, just meaningful.   Here’s an interesting and unique way to Make A Memory.  Choose a beautiful, long 36-inch chain.  Get one that is sturdy and wear it without a pendant….until you get see one that speaks to you.  Birthstones of your children, your husband’s initials, a feather, a cross, a quote, these are just the beginning of ideas….there’s millions of options.

If you are taking a vacation, buy a charm in each city that you visit.  Visit the local artisan fairs that are literally EVERYWHERE now.   You’ll be amazed at the unique and beautiful pieces that are made by local artists.  You can feel the effort and the energy in each piece they make.

Another idea is to try collecting all the same type of charm.  Buy something you love, like ducks, your initial, angels or even shoes.  Imagine a chain of only four-leaf clovers or stars.  Whatever makes you smile is what you should choose. See how many different ones you can find.

It will be one of a kind.  It will become a signature accessory.  When you’re wearing it, you’ll Feel Dressed.  Polished.  Special.  It will make you smile to hear it jingle when you walk.  You’ll miss it when you aren’t wearing it.

It may take you years to finish this necklace.  You may never declare it to be done.  There may always be another piece to add.  The more you wear it, the more It Will Become You.  It is like your life on a string.  Literally.

 

Siena: A Shopping Secret

Siena: Neighborhood flag guarding its territory
Window sills overlooking Siena

Window sills overlooking Siena

Siena is The Quintessential Medieval City.  Shouldered between Florence and Rome, she is the quiet, elegant sister who needs no introduction.  Each year, thousands of people shimmy themselves into her walls to get a glimpse at the famous horse race, Il Palio.  Two days a year, July 2nd and August 16th, she is like a rock star, and then the rest of the year, she is a monarch, perched upon her hilly throne, regal and beautiful.  She beckons you to discover her secrets, because once you think you have discovered her, there is something else that you never knew.  Each alleyway brings you to an entirely new section of the town.  At once, it is crowded and deserted.  There are times when you literally will not see another soul.

Window display in Siena

Window display in Siena

This is when you are able to find the most unique Things To Buy.  On the Via Della Sapienza, there is a tiny little wine shop, La Cantina Del Brunello.  It sells the most amazing…

 

Cycling Jerseys.

It’s true.  You would never expect to see this, but there it is.  The jerseys have the Gallo Nero (Black Rooster) on them, indicating a true Chianti.

If you are a cycling fan, then Italy is your long lost home.  If you are a wine lover, well, Italy is your long lost home, too.  So there we were, a cyclist and a wine lover.  We had to go in.  The most adorable, quintessential little old Italian man was at the register.  We greeted him, (remember what I said about shopping in Italy.)  He was about 5 feet even.  My husband is 6’3″.  As this beautiful man flitted about him like a tiny bird trying to find the correct size jersey, my husband begged me not to take his picture.  I obliged him out of love, but can I tell you, it was a spectacular moment.  We had found The Most Beautiful Cycling Jersey….in a wine shop!

The man spoke very little English, but we knew from his mumbling that he could not find an XL.  His face lit up as he lifted his finger to us, and took the jersey right off the mannequin.  We purchased the jersey, of course, but honestly, I can’t remember if we even bought any wine.  He was so gracious and kind to this oversized giant American with a heart for cycling as big as his own.  He smiled and smiled  and took both of my hands.  Then he offered us some olive oil in tiny precious bottles.  “Un assaggio” he advised me.  (A taste.)  We took the tiny bottle with us and savored it with some bread after we had returned home to the States.  Long after the olive oil was gone, the memory is still so rich.

That’s the way it is window shopping in Siena.  You feel as if you are browsing for a new long lost friend.  They are so gracious, and they are thrilled when you try to speak a bit of Italian to them.  You feel comfortable trying because they are so encouraging and delighted.  It’s like taking your first steps or something the way they cheer you on with each phrase.  Of course, some things cross language barriers; handshakes and smiles, of course, but eye contact, and knowing that “Il Campionissimo”  was Fausto Coppi.  If you are a cycling lover, you know what I’m talking about.

Neighborhood flag guarding its territory

Neighborhood flag guarding its territory

 

The Basilica of San Domenico and Saint Catherine of Siena

Basilica of San Domenico with the head of Saint Catherine of Siena

Basilica of San Domenico with the head of Saint Catherine of Siena

One of the major draws of Siena is the church that houses the head of Saint Catherine of Siena.  She is a patron saint of Italy, a patroness of Europe, and she is one of a handful of women who were named Doctors of the Catholic Church. (Saint Therese of Lisieux and Saint Teresa of Avila are two others.)

It’s confusing when you are walking through the city because there is a magnificent basilica made in pink, blue and white marble.  It is spectacular and breath taking.  It’s the Duomo of Siena.

That’s not it.

If you ask someone where St. Catherine’s church is, you will become more confused.  They will answer, “Domenico” because they are being helpful.  However, my Italian is not fantastic, so when I was listening for  “Caterina” all I heard was “Domenica.”  This word means Sunday.  Wha???  Is it closed?  Do we wait until Sunday?

This is where it pays to do your homework, my babies.  The Church WITH Saint Catherine is The Basilica of San Domenico.  Oooohh.  That’s why I can’t find it. Via Campo Regio is the nearest street.  While it is sometimes called, “Cateriniana” this Gothic church was built starting sometime around 1226.  Saint Catherine did not die until April 29, 1380, and it was some time after that her head was returned to Siena.

So.  In order to view the head of this amazing woman, you need to say, “Dove’ Basilica di San Domenico.”  Like all of the roads in Italy, they tease you into insanity.  Via Campo Regio.  Say it with me, now!  It’s confusing and nothing seems to go straight left or right.  The roads kind of bump up against a building and then vanish into a piazza.  This road is the closest to the building, but if you try and put the church into a GPS it will tell you “Piazza San Domenico.”

Whew, you made it!!!  An aside.  Before you go in, there’s always a bunch of vendors nearby selling beautiful scarves.  You won’t know you need it until you see it.  The dress code here requires arms and legs covered so you can rationalize buying said scarf.

It is here that one can find the side altar, Cappelle della Volte, which is the melodious Italian name for The Chapel of the Head (Face.)  Ever the macabre ones, the Italians managed to smuggle her head out of Rome and return her to her home town.  They could only get the head….and a thumb.

The rest of her is buried in Santa Maria Sopra Minerva.  This is Italian for Saint Mary’s Over Minerva.  When the Roman Empire converted to Christianity under Constantine, the Roman gods, well, were ruined.  They put Saint Mary’s OVER Minerva.  That’s what “sopra” means, above, on top of,that sort of thing. (That’s another church for another day.)

In this beautiful church, you can feel a tangible connection to Catherine.  This woman overcame sickness and death, marriage and heartache to become one of the greatest vessels the world has known to carry The Gospel.

Florence and The Negroni

Ponte Vecchio Over The Arno River, Florence

Image 1Italians have mastered the delicate balance of Just Enough.  They are able to push right to the line that blurs gaudy and good taste.  (This is why they are among the most fashionable humans on the planet, yes?)  The Negroni is no different.  It is, as is much Italian fashion, bold, yet somehow simplistic, colorful yet classic,  clean and vibrant at once.

Yes.  The Negroni is an Italian original through and through.  One of the best parts about this drink it that is truly is a triumvirate of taste.  Each one of the three components is played off the others.  Made with equal parts of gin, Campari and sweet vermouth, the Negroni takes three liquors that can stand well enough on their own, and somehow make them…..better.  Elevated.

The legend of the Negroni originates in Florence.  She is one of the city’s greatest contributions to the world.  The story goes that Fosco Scarselli, the bartender at the Caffe’ Casoni, obliged the Count Camillo Negroni when he asked him to add more of a punch to his cocktail, the Americano.  (Don’t you think they should call it the Scarselli?  He was gipped!)  Scarselli changed out the soda water and instead, substituted it with gin, creating the first Negroni.  Garnished with a bit of orange it becomes a metaphor for the Arno River at sunset.  It is dark with color.  It has shimmers of light and it is rich and deep.   In fact, sunset is the best time to enjoy a Negroni.  It is a true Italian Aperitivo, designed to open the palate to prepare you for the dinner that will follow.  Don’t go to Florence, (or any part of Italy for that matter) without having a Negroni.  Once you’ve had one there, each time you enjoy that unique flavor anywhere else in the world, you will be in Italy again.

 

The author and a Florentine Negroni

The author and a Florentine Negroni

 Negroni Recipe

  • 2 ounces of Sweet Vermouth
  • 2 ounces of gin
  • 2 ounces of Campari, (or any type of bitters)
  • orange wedge

Combine the liquor into a shaker filled with ice.  Shake well.  Serve immediately over ice with the orange garnish.