Where my Christmas?

December was a busy month so I wanted to share an update about where I spent the holidays!

The last week of school before Christmas vacation was a pretty slow week. Attendance was low as many students (and teachers as well unfortunately) decided to begin their breaks early. But the students who were there kept asking me, “Miss S, where my Christmas?” Here in Liberia that’s a way of asking “where’s my Christmas present” or “what’d you get me for Christmas?” As the holidays got closer I heard more and more people around town jokingly asking each other that. So when my students asked me, I’d point to the blackboard and tell them I brought their Christmas notes!

School closed for the Christmas break the Friday before Christmas and I spent the weekend in my community. As I wouldn’t be there on Christmas day, my friend made me my Christmas meal a few days early: Liberian barbecue and a cabbage salad. The barbecue was delicious: chicken and cow meat in a sauce made of country peanut butter and, of course, Liberian peppeh (peppers). And the salad was a treat as finding any fresh vegetables (besides cucumbers when they’re in season) is not easy in my town!

Liberian barbecue and cabbage salad

On Christmas Eve, I headed into Monrovia to spend a few days with some fellow PC volunteers. I was bummed to miss Christmas at site, when all the children would be running around in their fine new Christmas clothes playing with balloons and noise makers–though I’d already heard plenty of noise makers in the weeks leading up to the holidays!

What’s usually a quick trip into the capital was a bit crazier than usual: from my community into town, I first take a car to an area called red light and get a different car from there into town. Red Light is a big parking hub where you can get taxis to many different parts of the country. It’s also a huge market and being the day before Christmas it was packed–like the equivalent of going to the mall on Christmas Eve! On top of that craziness, I was in a car with not only 7 human passengers, but 7 goats in the trunk along with my suitcase!

Goats in the trunk of the taxi!

After the trip into Monrovia, I was able to spend a couple relaxing days there with Peace Corps friends. We went out to dinner on Christmas Eve at one of the fancy hotels in town, where we took bluffing photos in front of the Christmas tree! And we spent Christmas day hanging out by the pool.

Then the day after Christmas, I headed to the airport to catch my flight… I met my mom in Rome for a week! It was a great trip: we visited the Colosseum and Roman Forum, took a tour of the Vatican and saw the Pantheon and Trevi Fountain.

We took a couple of day trips to see the ruins at Pompeii and Ostia Antica.

One of my favorite things we did was taking a cooking class where we learned to make homemade pasta–it was delicious! Plus, of course, we ate plenty of pizza and more pasta, drank some wine and got gelato even though it was wintertime!

After a great trip, I’m back in Liberia and have been getting back into the routine of things at school, as we’re getting close to the end of the first semester!

A Unique Spa Day at Terme Tettuccio in Montecatini, Italy

After a busy day in Pisa and Lucca, we rushed back to our home base in Montecatini to visit the local spa, Terme Tettuccio before it closed for the evening. Terme Tettuccio isn’t your typical spa, the main treatment is drinking (yes, drinking) thermal spring water. While they also offer the more typical spa enjoyments, their most popular treatment is the spring water from beneath Montecatini  which was known even in Roman times to have special therapeutic properties to treat many ails such as constipation, diabetes, high cholesterol, intestinal diseases and more!

We arrived at the massive romanesque building and couldn’t resist the opportunity to have a photo shoot out front! When we finally entered, we paid our 6 euro admission and received our drinking cups. We immediately found ourselves in a courtyard with small drinking fountains lining one side. There were faucets flowing to fill our cups and many people sitting around enjoying the day. We filled our cups and sat at a small round table to begin our tasting!

Together we cheers to our trip and our friendship then all took a big gulp! Big mistake, it tasted awful! Turns out the therapeutic properties come from the extra chloride, sulphate and sodium that naturally enriches the water. While it may be good for you physically, the taste definitely leaves something to be desired…

With some hesitation, we refilled our cups and set off to explore the grounds. The grounds were even bigger than we realized. We found an outdoor double staircase with a fountain underneath, statues, and more Roman style buildings. We ended our time near the entrance at a gorgeous fountain surrounded by pillars. Cups in hand we tried to get the perfect jumping photo, needless to say we succeeded.

While the water wasn’t delicious, this stop was still one of the highlights from the trip. The grounds were extensive and exquisite. The drinking experience was absolutely hilarious and became my favorite story from our week in Tuscany. If you find yourself near Montecatini its definitely worth the trip!

One week in Tuscany: Our 7 Day Italy Itinerary

This past summer we had the chance to spend a full week in Tuscany, Italy. With our home base in Montecatini we visited new cities each day. Below is a snapshot of each of our days, to read more about any of the places, click on their names in the headers!

Day 1: Milan

We spent our first day in Italy recovering from jetlag in Milan. After our flight landed that morning we took a train into the city to see Sforzesco Castle and Siemphonie Park behind it. After a quick stop for pasta and pizza we headed to the Piazza del Duomo (or Plaza of the Cathedral) for our first views of the Duomo di Milano. With the rest of our evening, we visited the Duomo Museum and climbed to the rooftop terraces of the Duomo di Milano, my favorite part of the day!

Day 2: Drive to Montecatini

Drive time Milan to Montecatini: 3.5 hours

We picked up our car from the airport, grabbing pastries on the way, and set off towards Montecatini Terme where we would spend our nights for the majority of the trip. Just slightly out of the way we made a pit stop just outside of Parma for lunch with some Parma Parmesan cheese before heading on to Montecatini! After a quick refresh at our hotel, we headed out to take the funicular to the hill top medieval city of Montecatini Alto. We spent a relaxing evening wandering the cobblestone streets, eating dinner and enjoying gelato with a view!

Day 3: Pisa, Lucca & Montecatini

Drive time Montecatini to Pisa: 45 minutes

Drive time Pisa to Lucca: 25 minutes

Drive time Lucca to Montecatini: 25 minutes

We headed out towards Pisa by car early in the morning, to climb to the top of the Leaning Tower of Pisa at our 8:45 time slot (make a reservation ahead of time here!). After climbing the Tower we spent the rest of our time in Pisa exploring the other attractions on the Square of Miracles such as the Pisa Cathedral, the Baptistery and the Camposanto! From Pisa we made our way to the walled city of Lucca for a leisurely lunch and rented bikes to ride around the city! Back in Montecatini we spent our evening at a spa called Terme Tettuccio. Unlike most spas, at Terme Tettuccio you don’t bathe in the thermal waters, you drink them! While the taste wasn’t the most pleasant, the minerals in it are said to be great for your health!

Day 4: Florence

Train travel time: 1 hour, 10 minutes

First let me say one day is not nearly enough time in Florence, but if you are crunched for time be sure to prioritize what you want to see! After taking the train into Florence we were able to see Michelangelo’s David in the Galleria dell’Academia, the powerful Medici family’s parish church the Basilica de San Lorenzo and the medieval seat of Tuscan legislature the Palazzo Vecchio all before lunch! Florence is full of history and we tried to soak up as much as possible in our little time there.

Day 5: Day tour around the Tuscan Countryside

To recuperate after a hectic day in Florence we decided to join a tour group to explore the scenic (and boozy) side of Tuscany. On our tour by Discover Tuscany we first visited the vineyard Abbadia Ardenga to learn the wine making process before delicious wine tastings! After the vineyard we explore three different Tuscan towns: Montalcino, Pienza and Montepulciano. In Montepulciano we got a second wine tasting at Citta Sotterranea, an “Underground City” where wine barrels are stored through fermentation.

Day 6: Siena & San Gimignano

Drive time Montecatini to Siena: 1 hour, 30 minutes

Drive time Siena to San Gimignano: 1 hour

Drive time San Gimignano to Montecatini: 1 hour, 30 minutes

After a leisurely morning, we drove south to the hilltop city of Siena. While there we saw the brilliant mosaic floors of the Duomo (Italian for Cathedral), the ornately decorated Baptistery and views of the city and countryside from above! After a quick lunch we made our way to the walled city of San Gimignano for the evening. We windowshopped, explored the old city, saw magnificent views of the Tuscan countryside and enjoyed some award winning gelato!

Day 7: Cinque Terre & Milan

Drive time Montecatini to Cinque Terre: 1 hour, 30 minutes

Drive time Cinque Terre to Milan: 3 hours, 10 minutes

For our last full day in Italy we needed to drive from Montecatini to Milan in order to fly out the next morning. Instead of going the direct route, we detoured through Cinque Terre! Of the five villages that make up Cinque Terre we had the time to visit 3: Manarola, Vernazza and Monterosso. Train hopping between villages, we hiked through vineyards in Manarola, had a scenic lunch in Vernazza and visited the beach in Monterosso. The whole time we enjoyed the sea views and the colorful cityscape Cinque Terre has to offer!

Throughout this trip we tried to make the most out of every moment we had in Italy. Every one of these places deserved more time, but if you are limited on time like we were, hopefully this will help you plan your Italy vacation!

An Evening in San Gimignano, Italy

After spending the afternoon in Siena, we made our way to San Gimignano for the evening. San Gimingnano was founded in ancient times, legend leads us to believe as early as 63 B.C.  Like Siena, San Gimignano is a walled city with paid parking lots just outside the city. There are signs for the four parking lots labeled P1 through P4, here is a guide to the prices and number of spaces in each lot. While the lots were fairly easy to find they were pretty full that evening so some searching was required to find a spot.

After parking we followed a path into the city until we came upon Chiesa Sant’Agostino, or the Church of Saint Augustine. This church houses the oldest fresco painting in San Gimignano. It was painted by the Italian painter Lippo Memmi before 1317 depicting the Virgin and the Child between archangel Michael and Kohn the Baptist.

From there we headed towards the Palazzo Communale, the mediecal municipal palace, right next to the Collegiate Church of San Gimingnano. If we had come earlier in the day we could have climbed the Belltower of San Gimingnano for views of the city but it was closing as we arrived. Our tired legs from climbing towers all over Italy, including two towers earlier that day in Siena were not extremely disappointed.  Instead we wandered into the courtyard of the Plazzo Communale, finding a picturesque well surrounded by paintings on the walls of the coats of arms of families who held public office.

From the courtyard we followed signs for a panoramic view leading us down some side streets and through a fairly creepy dark tunnel. At the end of the tunnel we came out onto a walkway with gorgeous views of the Tuscan countryside. We stayed a while snapping some photos and absorbing all we could of the views.

After enjoying the view we headed towards the Piazza della Cisterna, a plaza with a large wishing well in the center. That evening it was filled with people enjoying the beautiful weather. We stopped in the famous Gelateria Dondeli for our daily gelato fix. The creator, Sergio Dondeli, is a former gelato world champion (yes, apparently those competitions do exist), here they had a variety of more unusual flavors such as ricotta and blueberries, spicy cream and my new favorite blackberry-lavender. Although the flavors seemed strange, they were definitely delicious!

After our gelato we walked back to the car outside the city, taking in the sunset views as we went. We headed back for our last night in Montecatini and prepped for or trip to Cinque Terre!

A Day Trip to Cinque Terre, Italy by Car

For our last full day in Italy we needed to get from Montecatini to Milan to be ready to fly out the next morning. Adding a slight detour, we decided to stop in Cinque Terre along the way!

Cinque Terre in Italian translates to “Five Lands”, aptly named because it is comprised of five coastal villages. Driving ourselves posed a bit of a challenge since cars are not allowed in most areas of the villages but luckily we found free parking outside of Cinque Terre in the town of Groppo (white parking spaces are free, blue are paid and yellow are for residents only) a short hike from the village of Manarola. After a 20 minute hike we made it to Manarola, the second village from the south. Just inside the village, we stumbled upon San Lorenzo Church and a clock tower with views of the ocean.

After a little exploring we decided to take the trail towards Corniglia, the next village over, to get some views of Manarola from above. We didn’t have time to hike go all the way to Corniglia but we got some great views of the city and beautiful ocean views. We stopped next to a vineyard for a break and a snack.

After making our way back down the path, we window shopped in Manarola making our way to the waters edge. We had wanted to take the ferry between the villages but the waters were too rough that day so the boats were only running between the first and the last cities. Defeated we headed to the train station and ended up buying a Cinque Terre Card. This card allowed us to ride the train and the local buses all day. At 16 euros it would be paid for with how often we rode the train plus it gave us free access to the bathrooms and wifi at the train stations!

Cinque_terre_italy_manarola_trail_view

Boarding the train we headed two villages over to Vernazza. Walking down the street we saw a rocky tunnel off to the side (surrounded by safety warnings) with people on the other side. Naturally our curiosity got the better of us and we went through the rock tunnel to find a “secret beach” on the other side. There were many people swimming in the water and basking in the sun!

After some window shopping we headed further down the street to the waters edge. After a few photos and taking in the gorgeous scenery we decided to splurge and have a seafood lunch with a view!

Our next stop was one city over in Monterosso, the northern most village in Cinque Terre. Monterosso is most known for its beaches and the free beaches by the train station were flooded with people. We walked along the shore until we came across the statue of the Giant. The Giant was built in 1910 and now is missing both his arms and a leg as a result of artillery fire in World War II. Turning back the other direction we walked along the shore until we passed through a tunnel to find a gelateria (and other shops) waiting for us on the other side. We settled in with a view of the sea while we enjoyed our final gelato of the trip.

After gelato we hopped back on the train back to Vernazza. We wanted to hike the trail between Vernazza and Monterosso for a view of Vernazza from above but didn’t do it earlier in the day as the sun was high in the sky. After about 10 minutes of walking we reached the postcard view of the city!

After our hike we decided to head back to Manarola for a quick dinner before leaving for the long drive to Milan. Before dinner I took a quick trip to the waterfront to for some last minute pictures. I found a path up the hill and decided to follow it. It led me to my favorite view on Manarola.

Cinque_terre_italy_manarola_view_waterside

For our last meal in Italy knew we had to have pizza, we ordered a few different kinds and shared them family style! After dinner we found a bus to take us back to our car in Groppo (included in our day train pass!). That saved us from a 30 minute hike up hill to our car before the long drive back to Milan for the night. While we only had time to visit three of the five villages on our day trip to Cinque Terre, we are so glad we went out of our way to get a glimpse of these gorgeous villages!

An Afternoon in Siena, Italy

After our first leisurely morning of the trip in Montecatini, we only had half the day to spend visiting Siena. After an hour and a half drive we arrived in Siena and found a parking garage just out side the city. The entire city is on a hill with the main tourist attractions at the top. Luckily the city graciously installed a series of escalators to get weary travelers like ourselves to the top of the city!

There is one main ticket office just outside of the Duomo selling various options of ticket passes for the main attractions Siena has to offer. With our pass in hand we headed first to the Museum dell Opera. The first thing you will notice is the large stained glass window in the hall. It originally hung in the cathedral made between 1287 and 1290. On the first floor you’ll find the altarpiece known as Maestra of Duccilli di Buoninsegna, considered a masterpiece of early 14th century Italian art. Other parts of the museum include a Tresury with over two hundred sacred objects, statues of the apostles and blueprints of the patterns on the Cathedral’s pristine marble floors.

On one of the upper floors of the Museum there is a chance to go out onto the rooftop for a panoramic view of the city. After a short line we climbed up to a small space on the roof for breathtaking views of the city. You don’t have unlimited time to take it all in so be sure to get any pictures you want before being ushered back down to make room for the next group.

Our next stop was at the Baptistry of San Giovanni, an ornate building built in the 1310s with art all along the walls and bronze plaques all around the baptismal font. Just around the corner we visited the Crypt which lies underneath the Duomo. Although it is called a Crypt, it was never used for burials. It is known for its 13th century frescoes that line the walls showing the Passion of the Christ.

Our next stop was the Duomo, while the entirety of the Duomo is beautiful, what makes it unique from the others we’ve seen is its marble mosaic floor. It was crafted by about 40 artists and the project took six centuries to complete! The floors are only uncovered around 2 months a year from June 29 to July 31 and from August 18 to October 26 because although it is beautiful it is also fragile. To prevent wear and tear of tourists shoes, the rest of the year it is covered with sheets.

One add on with our ticket was the Porta de Cielo or the Gate of Heaven. On this tour we climbed into the rafters and were able to see the Cathedral floors from above through some open stained glass windows. We went outside around the dome at the top of the Duomo for views of the city before crossing a bridge over through the sanctuary. This tour gave us views of the church interior and the surrounding landscapes that made it well worth the extra cost!

To round out our time in Siena we stopped for a late lunch of pizza and calzones. With a view of the Baptistry, we ate outside on the plaza. After some last minute souvenir shopping, we headed back down the escalators towards our car to begin our journey to San Gimignano.

A Day Tour Around the Tuscan Countryside

Instead of trying to drive around the Tuscan countryside on our own, we opted to join an all day tour through Discover Tuscany. The tour picked us up in Montecatini, where we were staying, and we joined up with other picked up in Florence and Siena before making our way to our first stop the vineyard Abbadia Ardenga just outside Montalcino. While there we toured their storerooms and learned about the wine making process before having a tasting of four different categories of wine. We learned so much there that it deserved its own post!

Buzzed on wine, we made out way to the city of Montalcino. Montalcino is the highest city in Tuscany, with the Fortress of Montalcino being the highest point in the city. We walked through the cobblestone streets towards the fortress for a quick look around then spent the rest of our time enjoying the fantastic views!

Our next stop was the small town of Pienza. Known as the “ideal city of the Renaissance”, Pienza was the birthplace of Pope Prius II. The Pope had the money and influence to transform his hometown to exemplify the principles and philosophy of the Italian Renaissance. Today, Pienza is known for its production of pecorino, a tasty cheese made from sheep’s milk. We wandered through the shops trying cheeses and buying sandwiches, visiting the Cathedral and taking in more gorgeous views of Tuscany.

The last city we stopped in was Montepulciano to visit Citta Sotteranea or the Underground City. The Underground City is a series of underground cellars and storerooms dating back to the 14th and 15th century. Their temperature naturally ranges from 13-16 degrees Celsius, or 55-60 degrees Fahranheit, year round making it the perfect place to age wine. Currently the cellars are used to age Vino Nobile di Montelpulciano, a locally produced wine, and various cheese products. In the taller chambers they made taller oak barrels to age the wines in each able to hold 4,000 liters of wine! After the tour we had a free tasting of so many local wines and foods that I couldn’t keep them all straight!

After the tour of Citta Sotterranea, we didn’t have time to climb to the top of the city to see the Duomo and other historic sites. Instead we explored the shops nearby and got our daily gelato before getting back on the bus to head home to Montecatini.

Overall the tour was a great way to explore Tuscany so none of us had to drive. After a rough start in our ride being 30 minutes late to pick us up, everything else on the tour went smoothly and our tour guide, Liza, was wonderful. Doing this all day tour allowed us to see parts of Tuscany that we may not have gotten the chance to, plus drink some delicious wine along the way!