Our Trip To Italy – Days 6 – 10 (Florence)

Overlooking Florence from Piazzale Michelangelo

Our trip culminated with 5 days in Florence, which was actually the main reason we traveled to Italy. I presented a poster of my research at the International Brain Research Organization (IBRO) World Congress of Neuroscience held at the Fortezza di Basso, which gave us the opportunity to make this trip possible.

After taking the train from Vernazza to La Spezia to Pisa to Florence, we walked to our B&B, the Accademia House (we stayed in the Modern Room), where we met Jonathan Cayce (who works with me in my lab at Vanderbilt and was also presenting a poster at the conference) and his wife Elizabeth. After Jonathan and I checked into the conference, we all walked down to the heart of the historic center of Florence for dinner.

Our time in Florence was different than the first half of our trip due to the fact that I was at the conference on and off throughout the day and we had many more days to spread out our sightseeing over a city that is much smaller than Rome.

Rather than give a chronological account of what we did, I’ll just give a quick summary. We saw the Accademia Gallery (where Michelangelo’s David is the center piece), strolled through the numerous pedestrian plazas scattered throughout the city, ate several good meals and tons of gelato, walked through some of the high-end shops in the fashion district, strolled through the vendor-lined streets of the mercato centrale, and crossed the river to climb a hill with an amazing view overlooking the historic downtown and the rest of the Florence sprawl.

Florence and the Arno River (HDR)

A copy of Michelangeo's David

We watched this guy paint for a bit before buying one of his watercolor paintings. Amanda was dying for one of his oil on canvas paintings, but unfortunately we couldn't quite justify the 600 euro price tag.

We took many pictures and recorded some video, but it was really difficult to capture the essence of Florence on camera. In Rome, you kind of know what you are getting with all of the historical sites and the “old” feel of the many streets and alleys, but Florence seemed a bit different in a way that is hard to convey without being able to see it. The city itself is more “modern” than Rome. “Modern” meaning that the city really exploded with the Renaissance. While not the fashion capital of the world like Milan, Florence does have a very impressive fashion district. If you’re not standing outside of Dolce & Gabana, you’re at Chanel, Gucci, Armani or any number of other really expensive large and/or boutique stores. There was also quite a bit of expensive jewelry. There is actually a bridge over the Arno River called Ponte Vecchio which is a really neat bridge lined with expensive jewelry stores. Across the river from the main historic center is a cool neighborhood with lamp lit streets, great restaurants and more high-end stores.

Panoramic view of Florence from Piazzale Michelangelo. Unfortunately the sun made this a difficult picture to take.

Looking down a street in Florence

Restaurant menu in Florence

Ponte Vecchio (HDR)

Just as we did in Rome, we walked into some of the churches that we came across. While they were also spectacular, they were nowhere near as grandiose and over-the-top as the churches in Rome. They were still structurally impressive, but lacked the floor to ceiling gold coverings and vibrant colors. What was most interesting is it seemed that the outside of the churches in Florence were more awe-inspiring, while the inside of the churches in Rome were the most amazing.

The Duomo

Florence Cathedral

The place we stayed in Florence was also wonderful and deserving of the accolades we found on TripAdvisor. Marcos, the owner of the B&B, was young, super-friendly and spoke great English (he actually lived in Chicago for a while). Our room was incredibly large with modern furnishings and designs, great air-conditioning and was located a short walk from most anywhere we wanted to go. If you’re planning to visit Florence, I’d certainly recommend the Accademia House B&B as the place to stay.

All in all we really enjoyed Florence. All three places we visited felt unique and different, but we definitely enjoyed all three. It was nice to share this time with Jonathan and Elizabeth and have more time to relax, sit around and people watch and grow accustom to the day to day culture of the city. While we are both excited to go home (even if only for a few days before we head to Chicago), we’ve had a blast and look forward to the opportunity to take a trip like this again. Other than getting lost our first day in Rome, we had absolutely no hiccups in our trip. No flight delays, no missed trains, no real communication problems or anything. We feel really fortunate to have had this opportunity and are so glad we were able to make the most of it.

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Our Trip To Italy – Days 4 – 5 (Vernazza / Cinque Terre)

View of Vernazza from the trail through the vineyards above the town.

We started our 4th day with a much more successful walk to the train station than on day 1. We didn’t take any wrong turns and it only took us 30min instead of 90min. Although we left for the train station at about 8:30am, a much cooler time of day, we were both still dripping sweat by the time we got to Roma Termini. This was our first time traveling by train and it really went as smooth as could be. We had a ~4hr trip from Rome to La Spezia, and then changed trains to get on a small regional train that connected La Spezia with the 5 coastal villages comprising Cinque Terre. Our trip went by fast as we sat with another couple about our age that were visiting from Canada, so we were able to talk with them for most of the trip.

Train through the Cinque Terre. Most of the train tracks are located in tunnels between the villages.

Once we got off the train in Vernazza, we immediately realized we were in a much different place than Rome. The town is incredibly small – there are only 25 children in the one school (grades up to high school) – and there is really only one street (and that street doesn’t have cars). All the other “streets” are really just incredibly steep stairways zig-zagging their way between the buildings and up the side of the cliffs that the town is built on. All of the Cinque Terre is built on the coast of a very rugged coastline – similar to the Pacific Coast in California that we visited last summer. Each of the five villages is separated from the adjacent village by only a couple of minutes on the train.

I think this picture is from Manarola.

The other thing we noticed as soon as we got off the train was how many tourists (particularly American) were crowding the town. This really took us back as we were not expecting it, and was honestly somewhat of a turn-off at first; but as the day turned to night many of the tourist left and the town became much quieter and more of what we were expecting.

We stayed in a third-floor apartment right off the main street belonging to Rosa Vitali. The apartment was only 85€/night and was really a fantastic deal. It gave us a ton of space and we were able to do some laundry (in the sink) as all of the windows lining the street have clotheslines with clothes hanging from them.

Much of our time in the Cinque Terre was spent lazily wondering around Vernazza, looking in some of the shops, eating dinners overlooking the Ligurian Sea, and watching people jump off the rocks and swim along the shoreline of the town’s harbor. We actually got in the water briefly, which was a very comfortable temperature, but there were so many rocks and slippery/slimy things lurking beneath the surface that Amanda freaked out a little bit so we ended up just sitting/laying on a large rock out in the water.

Map of Cinque Terre

On our second day in the Cinque Terre we got up early and took the train to Monterosso al Mare, the fifth town in the Cinque Terre. The towns are laid out as follows: Riomaggiore is located closest to La Spezia, followed by Manarola, Corniglia, Vernazza and finally Monterosso. After we got off the train in Monterosso, we walked through the town before beginning our coastal hike connecting each town. There are wonderful trails all along the coast, some much more difficult than others; but the views were wonderful and it was really nice just to get out in the middle of the vineyards and see each of the towns on foot rather than by the train. If we were able to do the entire hike from Monterosso to Riomaggiore we would have covered 7 miles, but a small section of the trail between Corniglia and Manarola was closed so we took the train between those two towns. As you’ll see from our pictures, the view from the hike was beautiful. We were in eye and/or ear-shot of the coast the entire time and descending or ascending as we approached each town was really neat.

The beach of Monterosso al Mare. This is the most resort-like town of the Cinque Terre and the only one with a "real" beach.

View from between Monterosso and Vernazza looking towards the remaining villages of the Cinque Terre. This picture was taken very close to the beginning of our hike. Vernazza is the town that you see at the forefront of the picture.

Hiking through vineyards.

In the middle of our hike we stopped at Corniglia to eat lunch before catching the train to Manarola. This actually was probably our favorite town as it was the quietest and felt the most authentic (less overrun by tourist). It’s also the only town without a beach as it’s located at the top of a cliff. Our lunch consisted of build-your-own sandwiches from the incredibly fresh meat and vegetables from the local gardens.

Corniglia with Manarola in the background

The trail from Manarola to Riomaggiore was much different than the rest of the hike as it is more of a leisurely walk – one you could even push a stroller along. This walk is known as the Via dell’Amore and is significant in changing the culture of the Cinque Terre. Until the Via dell’Amore was built, each village was pretty much separated from the others and people only married within their own small village. With the construction of this connection between Manarola and Riomaggiore, young couples from each town could meet in the middle and, for the first time, marry outside of their hometown. All along this walk there is graffiti, locks and bows, some old and some new representing bonds between the couples that have met along or shared this walk together. Usually the closed locks are found at bridges along the walk and we actually saw locks like this in places outside of the Cinque Terre.

Locks along the Via dell'Amore

Amanda made sure to mark that we had walked the Via dell'Amore

We finished our hike in the early afternoon and took the train back from Riomaggiore to Vernazza. As I mentioned before, most of our time here was spent being lazy (which we really needed) and eating. The food here was amazing – I thought so especially. I was able to eat some fresh seafood and try pasta with the local pesto. This region is actually the home to pesto and the lasagna al pesto I had our first night in Vernazza was amazing.

View from the vineyards above Vernazza at night. Thanks to the tree for holding the camera still enough to take this picture.

All in all the Cinque Terre was really great. I think we both set our expectations a little too high from all we read and heard, but traveling to the Cinque Terre was still absolutely worth it. The hiking was spectacular and it was great to relax and eat delicious food. I think visiting a different time of year without all of the tourist would really be a fantastic time.

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Our Trip To Italy – Day 3 (Rome)

Standing in front of St. Peter's Basilica

On the schedule for day three was Vatican City. We got up and had breakfast then headed over the bridge toward the city. Before going into the museum we went in to St. Peter’s Basilica. As Rick Steves said in our book, “this it the richest and grandest church on earth”. The dome is taller than a football field is long and no other building in Rome is allowed to be built taller than it. We spent a good while walking around just taking it all in. One of our favorite things to see inside the church was Michelangelo’s Pieta. Here are a few of our favorite pictures from the Basilica:

St. Peter's Basilica

Inside St. Peter's Basilica - Taken just inside the front doors - You can see Bernini's seven-story bronze canopy which covers the main altar and St. Peter's tomb

Michelangelo's Pieta

After looking around the church we walked up the street to grab a bite to eat. When we were finished we entered the museum. I do not even know how to tell you how many sculptures, paintings, rooms, or other pieces of art work that we saw in there. Many parts of the museum were very crowded and it was a little tough to take time to look at everything, but there were some places that we were able to slow down and really appreciate the art. We really enjoyed the rooms that were designed by Raphael. All of the walls were covered in pictures. They looked like paintings, but they were not. They were actually Frescos which is colored plaster shaped on the walls. We walked through many different rooms that all led to the very impressive Sistine Chapel. We were not allowed to take any pictures, so we simply found a seat and looked around at all of the details for a good while.

One of the Raphael rooms

When we had seen all that we could at Vatican city we headed back across the river for dinner. We ate at a place near the Piazza Navona called Navona Notte. The waiters were friendly and the food was very good. We had a very nice dinner and talked about all that we had seen that day. After dinner we took advantage of our last night in Rome and walked all over taking night pictures of some of our favorite sites. Here are some of the pictures that we took.

Palatine Hill at night

St. Peter's Basilica at night

St. Peter's Basilica at night (HDR)

Arch of Septimius Severus (Roman Forum) at night

Roman Forum at night (HDR)

We walked upon this brass band performing in a plazza surounded by a crowd of people cheering and singing along.

What do you think of the pictures? We were pretty happy with the way many of them turned out.

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Our Trip to Italy – Day 2 (Rome)

On Palatine Hill overlooking the Colosseum

Our second day in Rome was both our busiest and probably our favorite day of the trip so far (we are currently ending our 7th day – our blog is lagging behind a bit). Even though we were exhausted from our long travel and first adventures in Rome from the previous day, we still managed to get up early to go tour Ancient Rome. Prior to leaving, Francesco brought us a traditional Italian breakfast (which doesn’t amount to much, but was still pretty good) that he served to us in our room.

After leaving our B&B, our intention was to head straight to Palatine Hill to purchase the Palatine Hill / Roman Forum / Colosseum combo ticket. We read that the line would be shortest if we bought the ticket there rather than at the Colosseum. Instead, we got sidetracked by the many sights, ginormous buildings and amazing views from Capitol Hill. One of our favorite things we did in Rome was to walk in the many churches throughout the city. There is no way to put into words how opulent and grandiose these churches are. Nothing in the USA remotely compares. When we were on Capitol Hill, we walked into one of these churches during a wedding, which was quite a thing to see.

Wedding at church on Capitol Hill

Adjacent to Capitol Hill there is also a much more recent building (by recent I mean the last 150 years or so) – the Vittorio Emanuele II monument. This building was built as a monument to the first King of Italy and is really impressive to see in person. Of all the buildings we saw this was Amanda’s favorite. It includes the largest equestrian statue in the world. A person can fit in the horses hoof, and the rider’s mustache is 5ft wide.

Vittorio Emanuele II Monument

Equestrian Statue on Vittorio Emanuele II Monument

By the time we left Capitol Hill and got to Palatine Hill (another of the seven hills of Rome), not only was the outside temperature eleventy-billion degrees and the humidity at 137%, but the line for the combo ticket was about 90min long and almost all of it was in the sun. You may notice in some of the later pictures the fun tan lines we picked up from this day.

Although it was super hot, Palatine Hill was a really neat place. In ancient Rome it was the location for the palaces of all of the emperors. Today, the foundations of many of these palaces still remain and there are many ruins that you can walk through and touch. We really couldn’t get over the amazing architecture and engineering of these buildings considering how long ago they were built.

Palace ruins on Palatine Hill

Palatine Hill overlooks the Roman Forum, which was the center of ancient Rome – where all of the government buildings, temples, markets and other places central to daily life were located. Because we were hungry, we ended up making a mistake by cutting through here to eat lunch, which ended up preventing us from re-entering. We were pretty disappointed, but later got some great pictures from outside of the Forum.

After eating lunch at a small restaurant across from the Vittorio Emanuele II monument, we headed away from Ancient Rome for a bit where we walked through an even more spectacular church and saw The Scala Santa, which we were told about from some friends who recently visited Rome. The Scala Santa are holy stairs that Jesus supposedly climbed to stand before Pontius Pilate. There is now a building built around these stairs and the original marble is covered with wooden planks. You can only climb these stairs on your knees, but there are gaps in the planks where you can feel the marble steps. This was certainly a neat experience.

The Scala Santa

After leaving The Scala Santa, we walked back to Ancient Rome to tour the Colosseum. The Colosseum was everything we expected and more. It’s so big and so amazing to consider the scope of the building given the time that it was built. It’s also mind blowing to think of how many people died in this building as entertainment and sport. Nevertheless, it’s an amazing place to see and we spent quite a bit of time just standing, looking around and taking it all in.

Although it may not sound like a terrible amount of walking, our legs and feet took a beating this day that we still haven’t completely gotten over. After leaving Ancient Rome we headed back to get cleaned up for supper (read “headed back to get cleaned up for supper, but fell asleep before we could finish getting ready), then headed back over near Piazza Navano to try and find a good place to eat among that many restaurants nearby. We ended up choosing a place that was not at all crowded, but fit our budget and it turned out to be a fantastic meal (I’ll update this post with the name of the restaurant if I can find it). I had Spaghetti with bacon and pecorino and Amanda had spaghetti with pomodoro (tomato) and basilica (basil) which may be her favorite meal she has had thus far. Our server was a younger girl that spoke pretty good English and it was just a really good and relaxing meal (and a chance to get off our feet). After supper we walked through Piazza Navano, looking at the art and watching the street performers before finally heading to bed for some much needed rest.

Oh…and let’s not forget that there was also gelato involved at some point during this day – I just don’t remember when.

As I said before, this was a fantastic day but was absolutely exhausting. We packed a ton into this day but I think we got out at least as much as we put in.

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Our Trip to Italy – Day 1 (Rome)

A few months ago Austin learned that he had been accepted to The International Brain Research Organization (IBRO) World Congress in Florence, Italy. We decided pretty quickly that we could not pass up the opportunity to turn this into a bigger trip for the two of us. Austin did some research on where and when we should go, then we chose to add five days to the beginning of of our trip and see Rome and The Cinque Terre before the five days that we would spend in Florence for the conference. We were (I was) a little nervous about our first big international trip, but we were even more excited. We had planned to fit in so much in the three days we had in Rome and that was exactly what we ended up doing.
We got to Rome at about 10:30 local time (3:00am Nashville time :(). We did not have much success sleeping on the plane and were very tired, but we knew we could not sleep and miss any of the time that we had. While Austin is known for being great with directions in the US, we found out quickly that Rome was a whole new ball park. We had decided to save money and walk to our Bed and Breakfast. After all, we are pretty active, our duffel bags had backpack straps and it was only about a 30 minute walk. Haha well that nice 30 minute walk turned into an hour and a half in the 90 something degree heat after we realized we did not know how to read or find all the street signs and our map did not have all of the street names on it. The handy bags we got worked great, but after an hour they were sooo heavy. I finally asked a very sweet man for help and we arrived at our temporary home shortly there after. Sweaty and exhausted we met Francesco, the guy who ran the Bed and Breakfast (Baldassini B&B), and gave us a tour of Rome on his maps and tons of great information. We checked into our room, changed our clothes and then we were off to see the amazing sights of Rome. Oh wait……. I forgot… after I bandaged up my feet we were off. The long walk to the room was too much for my feet in the new shoes I had bought to keep them comfortable on the trip lol. We had to go to a local Farmacia to buy medical tape because the band-aids alone could not withstand the the heat and sweat. Blisters on the first day of a trip where all we were going to do was walk everywhere was not what I hoped for, but after the Medical tape everything turned out fine :).

Amanda bandaging up her feet

We had decided to take the first day to explore some things close to our room and go on a night walk across Rome (recommended by Rick Steves Italy 2011, great book) . We were in a great location and many great sights were only a couple minutes away. The first thing we saw was the Pantheon. The Pantheon was built as temple to all the gods of ancient Rome (sometime around 30 BC), but now it is an incredible sight for tourists and is said to be a gathering spot for locals during the rain. The dome and walls inside are beautifully painted and decorated.

The Pantheon

Inside the Pantheon

Before we went any further on our walk we had our first Italian dinner at Piccolo Buco. It was a small place ran by a mother and son. It was the perfect first dinner. The food was fabulous and the atmosphere was great. The son spoke engish and sat us at our table. His mother did not speak much english and she was the waiter. This was actually the perfect combination because it gave us a chance to try the Italian dinner phrases we had been working on but we also had the comfort of the son’s help when we needed it. It was a great experience.

Then we continued our walk after dinner and came to the Piazza Navona. This is a large rectangular area outlined by restaurants and massive buildings. It was a fun place full of artists and music. The night life was awesome in this area; with people eating, dancing, buying art, singing, socializing and enjoying the street performers. There were also two massive and detailed fountains.

Piazza Navona

We left the piazza and went to The Spanish Steps. This was a very popular place to sit and socialize in the evening. The steps were full of all different kinds of people. We did not stay here too long, but we did climb to the top of the stairs to enjoy the wonderful view of the city.

The Spanish Steps

We continued our walk and headed for the Trevi Fountain. Even though it was very crowded, this was a spectacular sight at night. This fountain was completed in 1762 and has 24 different spouts. It is so detailed and absolutely beautiful when it is lit up at night. We saw many people throwing in coins for good luck.

Trevi Fountain

Then we ended our night enjoying gelato at Giolitti’s. This was a little crazy but worth it. Austin later compared the ordering experience to the New York Stock Exchange. We had to buy our ticket and then fight the crowd to hand our ticket to the men behind the counter. We could not even see the flavors. We simply looked up the flavors we wanted in the phrase book and hoped we got something good. It is safe to say we did! It was so delicious.

Austin enjoying gelato

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Favorite Christmas Pictures

Here are some of our favorite pictures from Christmas break. Some of these have a story, some are just pictures that we liked. Hope you enjoy.

Heavy Buckets
Even Amanda was surprised by her strength. A bucket of pecans is heavy!


Nothing runs like a Deer

Phyllis exploring her new Nook e-reader.


Catchphrase Battle
Catchphrase sometimes necessitates psychological intimidation.



Trying to figure out how to keep bowling scores manually.

M&M Jar

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Christmas Break

Christmas at Opryland Hotel

We both agree that, overall, this was one of the best Christmas breaks we’ve had in a while. Not that we hadn’t had a great time in past years; we just really seemed to appreciate this time a whole lot. We spent the days leading up to Christmas reading the story of Christ’s birth in the Bible, which helped us to celebrate the real reason for Christmas. Then we spent some great, quality time with both of our families. We had time to relax, but also had the opportunity to do some really cool things.

We spent the Saturday before Christmas to the morning after Christmas with Amanda’s family just north of Cincinnati in Maineville, Ohio. Not only were her mom and dad blessed with time off of work, but we were also able to see her extended family from Indiana on Christmas eve and Christmas day. We got to play lots of games, had lots of laughs, went back to Nashville for a night to see Garth Brooks in concert, went skiing, spent time with family, ate some tasty food, and just had an overall great time.

Painting from Amanda
Amanda gave her parents a painting she painted for Christmas

Proud of her onesie
Proud of her onesie

Fudge Fight Outcome
Amanda and Brittany had quite the fudge fight

We were supposed to drive from Cincinnati to Raleigh the day after Christmas to see Austin’s family, but due to the 7 inches of snow that fell in Raleigh that day, we decided to drive back to Nashville to catch a last minute flight. Amazingly, there were 7 inches of snow on the ground when we arrived and it was 67 degrees when we left to go back to Nashville on New Years day. We had just as good a time in Raleigh as in Cincinnati. We had the opportunity to see lots of family, hang out with friends, go to the Norman Rockwell exhibit at the art museum, went bowling, picked Pecans, ate more great food, and enjoyed the last few days before returning back to work.

Grandfather's Ring
Austin trying on the ring that belonged to his grandfather

Shaking the Pecan Tree
Shaking the pecan tree

On one hand two weeks of traveling, living out of a suitcase and being off of our routine is a bit strenuous; but on the other hand, we won’t have this opportunity forever and we wanted to take advantage of it while we could. As we expected it was well worth it.

Now it’s time to go back to work….

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