The Bucket List Trip: Ladycations Goes to Europe

Airport selfie

Sure, I already posted this. But that was two years ago, and I’m ready to relive the trip! So let’s go back to Europe as Olivia, Carey and I check multiple items off our Bucket Lists.

If you’ve been following Ladycations you know I love nature. I’m always down for camping and hiking, and generally escaping humanity for the serenity of the Great Outdoors. What you might not know is that I’m also a history nerd. I devour historical non-fiction, binge low-budget documentaries, and will randomly announce historical “fun facts” to people who then question whether I know what the word “fun” actually means. Going to Italy was my dream, like an historical pilgrimage for nerdy nerds. So, instead of getting my nature fix I decided to feed my history habit, and with at least six miles of walking a day, it was basically hiking with cuter shoes and better snacks (and considerably more people).

France was my daughter’s dream. She even minored in French in college. She worked her ass off throughout her entire education, has literally never gotten into trouble, and graduated summa cum laude from the Ohio State University in May. She’s smart, witty, kind, responsible, thoughtful, poised, driven. . . She’s amazing. So, being the proud, cool-ass mom that I am, I decided to make both our dreams come true and take Olivia and her best friend on a two week tour of Italy and France to celebrate their awesomeness.

Our adventure began in Cleveland with a flight to Rome, and we were prepared. We had our passports, my international drivers ID, we were vaccinated, Covid-tested, and equipped with KN-95 masks. But, because preparation can only do so much, an unwelcome surprise: our flight out of Cleveland was delayed by several hours, adding an additional layover in Frankfurt, Germany, and getting us into the city much later than we’d planned. Welcome to international air travel, folks! Between that and all the uncertainty associated with traveling during Covid, despite having all our documents in order, part of us wasn’t sure we were actually going to make it to Rome at all.

The Frankfurt airport is. . . off-putting. Very gray, very confusing and crowded, and not overly friendly, in our limited experience. We looked up reviews of the airport online to amuse ourselves. “Gray, gray, gray.” “Unsettling.” They’re not wrong. While I know logically that Germany would be a beautiful, super interesting place to visit, we won’t be doing that anytime soon. It’s like childbirth, we need time to forget the experience before trying again. On the bright side they did have smoking lounges, so I was able to smoke a couple cigarettes while we waited, which may have saved lives.

We arrived in Rome as the sun was starting to set, and I’m not sure I have the words to explain exactly how I was feeling. Years of dreaming and planning and reading and researching and pandemic-related apprehension, and here we were, in the back of a taxi, being driven maniacally through the ancient streets of Rome. We made it!

Our home for the first three nights of our trip was the FH55 Grand Hotel Palatino. I usually prefer to AirBnb or VRBO, but it was cheaper to book the hotel with the plane ticket, and I wanted to be within walking distance of all the major attractions. I also wanted rooms with balconies cause smokers gotta smoke, and a continental breakfast to simplify our mornings. The Grand Hotel Palatino checked every box, and we would definitely stay there again! Clean, perfectly situated near all the major attractions, with bright, spacious rooms and friendly, helpful staff. Two enthusiastic thumbs up!

We needed food. We were dying for our first taste of real Italian pasta, and after traveling for more than 24 hours, our nerves needed the sedating effect of wine. It took us all of 5 minutes to find an adorable trattoria in a little piazza with everything we craved and charm to boot. Within 10 minutes of sitting down at the tiny outdoor table we were sipping our wine and nibbling fresh-baked bread. It was so European that the reality of the distance from home really started to sink in.

Before this trip I’d been to Windsor, Canada for a couple nights, and had stopped in Mexico and Jamaica on my honeymoon cruise, but I was always surrounded by English-speakers. I’ve never been so far from home that everyone around me was speaking another language, and it was such a strange feeling. It gives a sense of vulnerability, and anonymity. You know you’re not going to run into that annoying coworker, or your ex. In fact, you’ll neither know nor see anyone you encounter ever again, and no one will even remember you once you’re gone. Just another American tourist. That’s incredibly liberating. But we also had a keen sense of being at the mercy of others, relying on them to know our language because we never bothered to learn theirs. That’s mercilessly humbling, especially with the added risk of traveling during a pandemic.

When we heard a police car nearby with its siren blaring I felt even more detached from life in the US. So many sirens, and not the sirens I’m used to hearing in the American Midwest, but the sirens I’d only heard in movies. Sitting there, as I alternated between white wine and Prosecco (because, why choose just one?), and savored my to-die-for lasagna, I half expected to see Tom Hanks come flying into the Piazza with the Swiss Guard hot on his heels, like a scene from The Da Vinci Code.

It was getting late when we finished our (delicious) meal, and we were exhausted, but we weren’t ready to turn in, so we headed deeper into the Eternal City in search of gelato and the 18th Century Baroque masterpiece: the Fontana di Trevi (Trevi Fountain). Talk about living up to the hype! The gelato was sublime, and the fountain was massive and stunningly beautiful. All lit up for the evening, the water was glowing blue, reflecting its light onto the faces of its many admirers. The intricate detail and enormous scale of the sculptures cannot be adequately captured on film, and we were in complete awe. So different from anything any of us had ever seen. I wasn’t sure if I was more amazed by the fountain or knowing it was only the first of fourteen days full of being amazed by Europe’s magnificent art and architecture.

After taking some pictures and making a wish as we tossed a coin into the fountain we slowly made our way back to the hotel. It had been a long day, with unforeseen delays and lots of frustration, but it ultimately ended exactly as I’d imagined it would: joyfully, my appetite satisfied with scrumptious pasta, my thirst satiated with crisp wine, and me blissfully smoking a cigarette on my private balcony. The travel stress had been entirely worth it.

Before Covid hit I’d been planning a solo trip to Italy for Spring of 2020. As disappointed as I’d been about having to cancel, as I sat on the balcony, listening to the sound of the revelry on the street below, I was immensely grateful to have my daughter and her friend sleeping in the room across the hall. It was my first time overseas, which was a little unnerving. I’d have been fine alone, but it certainly would’ve added an extra layer of anxiety. Mostly, though, it was just special to be able to experience it all with Olivia, seeing everything from my own perspective and through her eyes, as well.

I couldn’t wait for morning to explore more of Caesar’s ‘hood! But first, a shower and the soundest sleep I’d had in months. Next time my fellow Ladycationers and I set off for the main event in Rome: The Colosseum! Until then, stay chill and keep hiking, my friends.

7 Loire Valley Travel Tips for First Timers

The Loire Valley in France is Castle Paradise. No matter which one(s) you visit you’ll feel like you’ve walked into a fairytale. But the area isn’t just rich in castles, it’s rich in charming towns where time seems to stand still, and in wineries and vineyards serving some of the most refreshing vin that will ever touch your lips. Whatever your reasons for visiting France, a road trip through the Loire Valley should definitely be added to your itinerary! Here are my tips for exploring this enchanting region of France.

1 – Rent a car:

There is no better way to explore the Loire Valley and all of its amazing towns, castles and vineyards than renting a car. With everything being spread out over such a large area, you’ll want the freedom to choose where to go, and go at your own pace. I recommend at least two – three days in the Loire Valley to allow yourself enough time to get to know the area. You’ll never regret staying an extra day, but you’ll be very sad if you don’t feel you had enough time.

Be aware that renting a car with an automatic transmission in Europe is going to cost you a pretty penny. Unless you select that option and pay big bucks for it, you will be driving a stick shift. If it’s been a while and you want a refresher, ask your friends. Someone is likely to have a car with a manual transmission that you can practice on before hitting the French streets.

2 – Research Before You Go:

This is as important to the success of your road trip as renting a car. Research! As I’ve mentioned above, there is so much to see! Which castles do you want to visit? Which vineyards? Which towns? Where will you stay? How long is the driving distance between attractions? Where will you stop to eat during your adventure? All these questions can be answered before you even leave your American couch with a little research (if research isn’t your thing, consider hiring an expert to handle the logistics! Go to and request your free consultation today!).

You’re going to want to know which specific castles and vineyards you’ll be visiting in advance, and make reservations where applicable. You’ll also want to map out everyplace you’d like to visit and determine the best route to maximize your sightseeing time and minimize drive-times and backtracking. Don’t forget to make time for lunch!

Don’t decide where you’ll stay until you know where you’re going. You aren’t going to want to drive two hours to your lodging after a busy, long day of sightseeing.

3 – Don’t Over-Plan:

When you realize just how many incredible places there are to visit in and around the Loire Valley you may feel overwhelmed and try to cram as much as possible into each day. Don’t. You want to account for drive time, stops for meals or photo opportunities, and allow enough time at each place to be able to explore at a leisurely pace and not feel rushed. I suggest planning no more than 2 – 3 activities per day, and 3 may be pushing it depending on which ones you choose. Allow at least 2 hours at each castle, ideally longer, especially for the larger castles like the Chateau de Chambord. The castle itself is gargantuan, and the grounds are not to be missed.

One of the things I was most grateful for during our Loire Valley road trip was that we hadn’t over-planned. We had enough time to stop when we saw something we wanted to check out, explore the towns outside the castles, and even have an adventure in Tours when we ended up in the least touristy area of town trying to find snacks.

Pro Tip: Prepare for snack cravings! It’s more difficult to find snacks in the more rural areas of France, just like in the U.S. And remember that basically nothing in those small towns is open on Sunday. You’ll need to find a larger town like Tours or Le Mans.

4 – Find Unique Accommodations:

There are so many incredible places to stay in the Loire Valley to add some local flavor to your trip! The last thing you want to do in an area with so many historic buildings and castles is stay at something akin to a Holiday Inn. I recommend checking out three booking engines: AirBnb, VRBO, and Booking. Just a few of the unique opportunities you’ll find are castles, windmills, watermills, farm stays, private rooms in country estates, and countless small properties with more charm and beauty than you could even imagine. It’s such a gorgeous area, don’t do yourself the disservice of staying in some lame-ass hotel!

Pro Tip: If you want a truly authentic French experience find lodging that also offers a home-cooked dinner. There are lots of farm stays and other accommodations where the hosts will make you dinner, generally with local ingredients and a family recipe. Don’t pass up this opportunity! You’ll get a taste of real French cuisine, it’s usually less expensive than going to a restaurant, and what could be better after a day of sightseeing than having dinner waiting when you’re done?! Click here to view our AirBnb in the Loire Valley that includes breakfast and an optional (and exceptional) home-cooked meal by the host, who happens to be an award-winning chef!

5 – Go Wine Tasting:

There are so many vineyards in the Loire Valley, many of them occupying ancient estates with charming chateau. If you go to a country known for its exceptional wine and don’t go wine tasting, you’re Francing wrong. Whether you’re a wine connoisseur or a suburban wineo, a wine tasting is not to be missed. The region has varied climates and types of soil, creating a different wine in the differing regions within the valley.

I highly recommend the Chateau de Miniere for at least one of your tastings. Set in an old chateau where you can stay or even host a wedding, you can’t ask for more picturesque surroundings to sample their spectacular wines. Bring your credit card. You’re going to want to ship cases of the stuff back home. It’s that good.

6 – Explore Random Towns:

There are little towns dotting the landscape all over the Loire Valley and they absolutely drip charm and character. Make sure you leave enough time in your itinerary to allow for impromptu exploring each day. You’ll pass through and by so many picturesque little places, you’d be doing yourself a disservice to ignore them. Be advised, however, that English is not as prevalent in the smaller towns, so brush up on a few words in French, do the best you can, and enjoy the experience. Remember, being uncomfortable and vulnerable builds character and makes for some pretty great vacation stories to take home, which are more priceless than any souvenir (though maybe not more priceless than the 1996 vintage at Chateau de Miniere, cause OMG it is orgasmic).

7 – Be a Fancy Bitch:

There are times to get all dolled up and cute, and this is one of them. The photo opportunities in the Loire Valley have no end, and you will regret it if you look like a frumpy American on a road trip. You’ll be exploring places as refined and elegant as you could possibly imagine, and if you haven’t dressed the part of the refined, elegant, regal, boss-ass-bitch you are, you’re going to wish you had. Besides, when will you have another opportunity for a photoshoot in front of a fairytale castle?! Have fun with it!

9 Florence Travel Tips for First Timers

Picture in front of the Duomo of Florence

Florence, the Birthplace of the Renaissance. I was obsessed with The City of Lilies before I ever stepped foot on her cobblestone streets, and my obsession only deepened with each day I spent there. On one side of the Arno River lies the historic center of the city, filled with museums and basilicas, and completely saturated in culture and history. On the other side of the Arno you’ll find charming neighborhoods with flower shops, gardens, and even more history. Wherever you’re exploring, you’ll want to be prepared. Here are 9 Tips to make your first trip to Florence a success!

1 – Brush Up on Your Renaissance History:

Florence is the heart of the Italian Renaissance, and if you don’t have a rudimentary knowledge of that history you’ll miss out on a lot. Botticelli, Michelangelo, the Medici family, Dante Alighieri, Galileo Galilei, the Catholic Church, the Bonfire of the Vanities–Florence is so saturated in history you can almost taste it. Going to Florence without knowing her history is like going to a Michelin starred restaurant and asking if they have mozzarella sticks. There’s nothing wrong with mozzarella sticks, I could actually smash some right now, but that would be missing out on the opportunity to try some world-class cuisine, and that’s just criminal. If you’re going all that way, do it right!

The folks at The Culture Trip have compiled a list of 8 books to read before your trip to Florence. Even reading one or two of these books will enhance your experience exponentially!

2 – Screw Fashion, Wear Comfortable Shoes:

I truly cannot stress this enough. Save your sexy shoes for dinner time, and wear something comfortable during the day. Florence is one of the most walkable cities I’ve ever had the pleasure of exploring, but the keyword there is walking, and you’re going to be doing a lot of it (several miles per day). I can’t tell you how badly I wished I had a pair of tennis shoes in Florence. I know, I know, you want to be stylish in Europe. I get it. So buy some bangin’ tennis shoes and enjoy not having to spend your money on Band-aids to bandage up your blisters.

3 – Florence is Smaller Than You Might Think:

Florence is a relatively small city, and is centered around the Duomo. Just about everything is walkable, and certainly the main attractions are. I generally recommend staying in the historic center of the city, simply to be close to everything you plan to see and do. However, due to Florence’s smaller size, you may consider staying across the Arno in the Oltrarno neighborhood. It tends to be a bit quieter and the views of the Duomo across the river can’t be beat. You will have a longer walk or need transportation if you go this route, however.

If you want to see the streets of Florence without the crowds, channel your inner early bird! Head out around 7:00 in the morning and you’ll have most of the city to yourself.

4 – Cover Up, Sinners:

If you plan on visiting any of the magnificent churches in Florence, be prepared to cover your legs and shoulders. Dress codes are generally enforced, though some more strictly than others, and it’s best to be prepared. If you’re wearing a tank top be sure to have a wrap with you, and avoid shorts if possible. Jesus just can’t handle your sexiness.

5 – Get Out of the City and Explore Tuscany:

You’re in Tuscany, go explore it! The best way to do that is either by renting a car or by taking a tour (if you’re in excellent shape you could also explore the area surrounding Florence on a bicycle). Renting a car gives you more flexibility, but can be challenging or intimidating depending on your driving experience. Taking a tour eliminates the stress of driving on your own, but limits you to their itinerary and timeline. There’s no right answer here, it just depends on what’s right for you. There are wineries, medieval hilltop towns, natural hot springs, and so much more to explore outside Florence.

6 – Get the Firenze Card:

If you’ll be in the city at least three days and plan to visit several of the top sights, the Firenze Card is the way to go. The Firenze Card is good for 72 hours and costs €85 (you can also add extra days for a fee). It allows free, skip-the-line admission to most of Florence’s many museums and attractions. Keep in mind the Uffizi Gallery alone is €25, so it won’t take long for the Firenze Card to start saving you money. Be sure to check with each museum you plan to attend to see if a scheduled entry time is required.

If your time is short and you’ll only have time for a couple museums, you’ll want to make sure you book your tickets well in advance. Top attractions can sell out weeks ahead of time, and lines can take hours to get through. To book tickets to individual museums, click the links below:

  1. Basilica of Santa Maria del Fiore (the Duomo)
  2. Uffizi Gallery
  3. Galleria Dell’Accademia
  4. Bargello Museum
  5. Palazzo Vecchio
  6. Palazzo Pitti & Boboli Gardens

7 – Buy Yourself Some Leather:

Florentine leather is famous, and there are leather shops all over the city. Whether you’re just grabbing a wallet, or you want a new leather jacket, they’ve got it in Florence! In the smaller shops filled primarily with purses and wallets that are on seemingly every street, make sure you haggle on the price. I got a wallet for €20 that he initially wanted to charge me €50 for.

8 – Embrace the Italian Dinner Experience

  • Italians don’t rush through dinner, it’s sacred, an event, and is meant to be savored. Take your time, enjoy every course, reminisce about your day, just relax. The waiters will not be pestering you to leave.
  • Dinner begins no earlier than 8:00 – 8:30 in the evening, and they stop seating around 11:00 – 11:30.
  • You’ll never be interrupted by annoying waiters asking how your meal is or if you’d like another refill, it’s considered rude to interrupt someone’s meal. But don’t worry, whenever you need something, the waiters are always nearby, ready to help without being intrusive.
  • Tipping isn’t necessary, but small amounts are appreciated! Every time you sit at a table you’re charged, usually per person. It’s called a coperto, and it’s essentially a cover charge. Although tipping is not customary in Italy, rounding up or giving an extra 5-10% is appreciated for exceptional service.
  • Coffee is basically a shot. Italians don’t sit in coffee shops sipping giant mugs of coffee. They buy their coffee at the counter, chug it, and go. If you want to sit down with your brew you’ll have to pay a coperto. And don’t ask for milk with it in the afternoon, that’s just not how they roll.
  • Your pizza will not be cut when they give it to you. This is more of a side note than a tip, really, but it confused the hell out of me, so I’m sharing it with you. They do not slice pizza, they just give you the whole pie with regular silverware and then you’re on your own. Totally worth it, that pizza is amazing.
  • If you want the most authentic experience and best food, avoid eating in high-tourist areas. Generally, you’ll want to walk at least a few blocks away. The best places to eat will have a smaller menu with no food pictures, and prices will be listed. It never hurts to ask some of the locals where their favorite places to eat are! They know best!
Toast in Florence Italy

9 – Spend Wisely and Come Prepared:

You’ll want a variety of options when going to Florence. Make sure any credit cards you bring have a PIN, as those without may not be accepted at many locations. ATMs are everywhere, but you’ll want to get some euros from your bank before you go. Be sure to allow a few days for the bank to receive the funds. While you’re at the bank, ask which ATMs will incur the lowest fees, and notify them (and any other credit card companies) of your travel dates so they don’t think your card has been stolen when it starts making purchases in Italy.

While in Florence, always pay in local currency. Sometimes you’ll be offered the option to pay in U.S. currency, and it’s usually presented as a benefit for you. It’s not, it’s a scam. It allows the vendor to set the exchange rate and fees, and will always be higher than the rate your bank will charge.

9 Paris Travel Tips for First Timers

Paris is everything it’s cracked up to be. It’s beautiful, romantic, and filled with culture and history just begging to be explored. As with most big cities in Europe (and beyond, really) you’ll want to watch out for pickpockets in high tourist areas, and use the Metro to get around if possible. But if you’re heading to Paris for the first time, you want to make the most of your experience. No one wants to make rookie mistakes, so check out these 9 travel tips to help make your trip a success!

1 – Stay in the City Center:

If you’re a budget-conscious traveler you may be considering staying outside the main city center to save on lodging. I’m here to tell you that’s a terrible idea and you’ll regret it tremendously. I did the same thing. We stayed outside the city, and even had a view of the Eiffel Tower in the distance, but the time and money we spent just getting into the city was absolutely not worth it. In addition to the wasted time, figuring out the train ticketing is a lot more complicated when you have to switch lines outside the city center.

Paris is very spread out, and has many different neighborhoods, or arrondissements, so map out what you want to see in advance, and try to stay someplace near the middle. Plan what you want to see each day to minimize walking and backtracking. You’ll never run out of things to see and do, no matter where in Paris you explore!

2 – Visit the Eiffel Tower at Night:

Regardless of what time of day you decide to actually go into the Eiffel Tower, make sure you stop by at night to watch the Twinkle Show. Beginning at nightfall and continuing once per hour for five minutes until 1:00am tens of thousands of lights dance and make the whole tower twinkle. It’s magical. You can see it from many locations in the city, but it’s fun to take a bottle of wine and watch it up close and personal. Just beware the people obnoxiously selling overpriced beverages and souvenirs.

3 – Wear Comfortable Shoes:

Alright, I know this is on all the lists out there, but it bears repeating. It really is important to wear comfy shoes, even though you might be wanting to opt for fashion over function in one of the fashion capitals of the world. Save your sexy shoes for the evening, and wear something comfortable during the day. You’ll be doing a lot of walking (we averaged about 5-6 miles per day). Don’t ruin your experience with improper footwear. I can’t tell you how much I wished I’d brought a pair of tennis shoes with me.

4 – Spend Wisely and Come Prepared:

You’ll want a variety of options when going to Paris. Make sure any credit cards you bring have a PIN, as those without may not be accepted at many locations. ATMs are everywhere, but you’ll want to get some euros from your bank before you go. Be sure to allow a few days for the bank to receive the funds. While you’re at the bank, ask which ATMs will incur the lowest fees, and notify them (and any other credit card companies) of your travel dates so they don’t think your card has been stolen when it starts making purchases in France.

While in Paris, always pay in local currency. Sometimes you’ll be offered the option to pay in U.S. currency, and it’s usually presented as a benefit for you. It’s not, it’s a scam. It allows the vendor to set the exchange rate and fees, and will always be higher than the rate your bank will charge.

5 – Go Antiquing or Thrifting:

Thrifting and antiquing are extra fun in Paris. Each shop is filled with pieces of the city’s history, each object has a story, and you can get much cooler, more authentic souvenirs than any of the tourist shops! One of my biggest regrets is not buying one of the antique silver spoons I found in a little antique shop near Versailles. Plus, you’re supporting the locals, not giant corporations!

6 – Have a Splurge Day:

It’s Paris. I don’t care how budget-conscious you are, if you’re not budgeting for one day/evening to treat yourself, you’re not doing Paris right. Eat at a Michelin star restaurant, or take a dinner cruise. Take in an opera or ballet. Don’t go to Paris without being a fancy bitch at least once! We did two fancy nights in Paris and they were worth every penny. When we went to the Bar Hemingway at the Hotel Ritz we intended to have a single drink. We were having so much fun we each had a second drink, and we stayed for several hours. It was my favorite night in Paris. So treat yourself, woman! You deserve it!

7 – Buy the Paris Museum Pass:

If you’re there to see Paris’s many museums, get the Paris Museum Pass to save time and money. You can pick from a Pass that’s valid for 2, 4 or 6 days, which allow free entry to most of the top attractions in and around Paris (except the Eiffel Tower). For example, we saw the Musee d’Orsay, Musee de l’Orangerie, the Louvre, Versailles, and the Musee de l’Armee. Individually that would have cost each of us €81.50. Instead, we bought the Paris Pass for €70 a piece. Had we stayed in the city center and been able to see more places we’d have saved more. Definitely worth it. Most museums allow skip-the-line access to Paris Pass holders, but check with each one to see if you need to reserve a time to enter.

8 – Leave Time for Exploring:

A certain level of planning is necessary to make your trip to Paris a success, but don’t over-plan every day. Leave time in your day to just explore. Aimlessly wander the Montmatre neighborhood, walk into every random church you pass by, stop by that cute cafe you see, peruse a little boutique, rest in the Tuileries Gardens with a picnic. There’s so much to see and do in Paris, you’ll want to leave time to just explore it!

Want to explore without the massive crowds? The early bird gets the worm on that front. Wake up with the sun and go walking the streets before 7:00am and you’ll have them mostly to yourself. You can always take a rest or break at your hotel in the afternoon when the top attractions are busiest.

9 – Watch the Sunset From Sacre Coeur

Sacre Coeur is a church on top of a hill in Montmatre. It overlooks the whole city. Pack a picnic and a bottle of wine and watch the sunset over Paris. It’s a great place for people watching and the view can’t be beat (except maybe from the top of the Eiffel Tower)!

Wine, Cats, and Panic Attacks: Our Farewell to Europe

We awoke in Florence on our last day of vacation with mixed feelings. We were so sad to be leaving Florence, and even sadder to be leaving Europe in a day, but we were also excited for the final adventure of our trip. We were up early, packed and waiting for our taxi before most of the city was stirring. We’d spend our final day of the trip exploring the rest of Tuscany, so off we went to pick up our rental car and embark on the second road trip of our epic Ladycation, as we began to bid a sad farewell to Europe.

We arrived at Sicily By Car right on time, but ended up waiting over an hour for them to bring our car down. We had a reservation at a vineyard that afternoon, so the delay meant giving up one of the two towns we’d planned to explore in between. I was not pleased. The girls had been looking forward to seeing Volterra since I first told them we were going there, and I didn’t want to let them down, so I decided we would skip San Gimignano, which was on my bucket list, and was the primary reason I wanted to do a Tuscan road trip. Another reason I’ll just have to go back.

When we got to Volterra I received my first reality check about Tuscany’s “rolling hills.” They may look like gentle, mild slopes in pictures, but that is not the case when you’re trying to get up to a hilltop town. It was hot and humid and we were staring up at Volterra from the parking area halfway down the hill. By this time, my feet were so sore and swollen I was having a hard time walking and wearing shoes (this turned out to be due to a more serious medical problem than I knew at the time, but that’s another story, and it ends with, I’m fine now). The last thing on the planet that I wanted to do was to climb a goddamn hill, but fuck my feet, I went anyway, cause I’m a boss-ass bitch, not a whiny quitter.

Volterra was exactly as I’d imagined it would be. A medieval, walled town with a fortress, and every building dating back centuries. After the fall of the Republic of Florence in 1530 Volterra had come under Medici control. As we walked I realized I may have missed out on seeing San Gimignano, but I got one last taste of Medici history for the road. Grazie mille, Italia!

We needed lunch, so we found a place to grab a bite in the main piazza. The girls had been looking forward to Volterra not because of its Medici history or architecture, but because of its movie history. Volterra was basically vampire headquarters in the Twilight series, and both Liv and Carey grew up in the Team-Edward-or-Team-Jacob generation. As we waited for our food to arrive, the girls hilariously reenacted a scene from Twilight: New Moon, much to the confusion of everyone else in the piazza. Another bonus to picking Volterra as our one Tuscan town: watching my daughter gleefully nerd-out over sparkly vampire movies. Just as priceless as a check mark on my bucket list.

After we ate lunch, we bid Volterra farewell and hopped back in our rental car to continue on our Tuscan Road Trip. Tuscany, with the rolling hills dotted with cypress trees, olive groves, and row upon row of grapevine was even more stunning in person than the pictures would suggest. The hills and the atmosphere play with the light in such a way as to make the entire landscape almost look like it’s glowing.

We drove over, and around, up and down, to our next stop at the Montemercurio Winery just outside Montepulciano. Montemercurio is a family owned winery and vineyard with a very small, intimate staff, and exceptional wines, set on a hilltop overlooking the picturesque Tuscan countryside. Two cats formed the welcome committee when we arrived, and Olivia was instantly overjoyed. Across the hills I could see a rainstorm slowly making its way across the landscape, and as I stood there I just couldn’t fathom how we were supposed to walk away from someplace so spectacular in less than 24 hours.

We went inside and were greeted by the lovely Irene, who would guide us through our tasting. She was friendly, had a great sense of humor, and she knew her shit. We tried 7 varieties of wine, plus some Grapa, which is essentially Italian moonshine. Every single one was better than the last, and we were in absolute heaven.

Once we’d sampled each of their magnificent wines I stepped outside for a cigarette and to take a few more photos. Olivia and Carey stayed inside talking with Irene, and at one point I heard her say I didn’t look old enough to be Liv’s mom, which cemented her place in my heart as my very favorite Italian.

Everywhere I looked was postcard-perfect. The puffy clouds in the blue sky, the greens and tans of the rolling Tuscan hills, the table under the lights just begging a family to sit down for a meal, and the little old lady who appeared on a balcony as I was snapping pictures. I didn’t understand a word she said, but I felt certain it was along the lines of, “How can you leave this paradise, you stupid American?!” I don’t know, nonna. I don’t like it either.

I went back inside as the girls were finalizing their purchase, and purchased a couple bottles to take home, myself. Irene was even more horrified than we were to learn we only had one day in Tuscany. We talked a little bit about what it was like to work there, and she ended up offering me a job. I’m sure she jokingly offers jobs to all the tourists who gush over how badly they want to stay, but I’d be lying if I said it didn’t give me pause. Yes, yes I would like to move to Tuscany and handle the administrative work for this little hilltop vineyard with the friendly cats, charming employees, stunning views, and endless supply of bomb-ass wine, but I have to get back to my responsibilities in Merica. I wanted to cry… Again…

As if we didn’t love her enough already, Irene asked where we were staying and suggested a restaurant. She even called the restaurant and made us a reservation, so all we had to do was show up. Irene was the embodiment of the warmth and charm of Tuscany. She was fantastica. Grazie mille, Irene and Montemercurio!

We were settling into our AirBnb as the sun began to set. The actual apartment is something of a blur. We spent less than 12 hours physically inside it, most of which were spent sleeping. What I do remember is that it was a very old, charming building in a tiny town, it was decorated nicely, had a large patio, snacks, and lots of barking dogs in the neighboring yard. It wasn’t fancy, but it was clean and comfortable and so very Italian.

Driving in the dark on the twisting, turning roads of Tuscany is not exactly my favorite thing. The locals, who are used to those narrow, winding roads, fly around the corners like they’re playing Mario Kart, and I was still struggling to figure out which gear I needed to be in. By the time we hit the switchbacks leading up to Montepulciano where our restaurant awaited I was actively fighting off a full-blown panic attack. When we finally parked the car I was shaking so badly I could hardly open the car door, and I immediately burst into tears. “Mom, it’s okay, you did it! We made it! We’re alive!” Olivia reassured me as we started walking towards the restaurant.

Once again, everything was delicious. Since it was our last real meal in Europe, we did it right. Wine, dessert, the whole thing. Were it not so chilly outside we may have stayed longer, but ultimately we decided to head back to the AirBnb, as we had to get an early start in the morning.

When we woke up none of us had the spark of joy and energy we’d had each previous day. We showered and got dressed, did a final check to ensure we weren’t forgetting anything, loaded up the rental car, and started driving towards Rome. It was a couple hours until we reached Leonardo da Vinci Airport, and I’d smoked my last cigarette early that morning. By the time we got there I was already craving one, but still had about 12 hours of traveling to do before I’d be able to satisfy that urge (though I did save a couple butts that I smoked in the smoking lounge at the airport, cause desperate times and all that…).

We’d purchased the cheapest airfare available, and we paid for it on the way home when we were all separated, each of us in a different middle seat. I spent 8 hours sandwiched between two enormous men, both of whom hogged the armrests to the point they were elbowing me in the side, and I spent 7 of those hours trying to control my nicotine-withdrawal-fueled rage with my arms folded across my chest. The last hour I’d had it and I aggressively pushed their elbows off the armrests and claimed both for myself, cause fuck those guys. I was, by this point, ready to be home, though I still wished my home were in Italy.

We ultimately landed safely in Cleveland, and although I was strangely surprised the gas station attendant by my house spoke such excellent English, I got my cigarettes and was sufficiently nicotined and snuggling my lonely cats in no time. It felt weird to be home, familiarity itself felt unfamiliar. It would take a few days to get used to, but eventually we settled back into our American routines. A year and a half later, we’ve all even eaten at Olive Garden again, something we swore we’d never do again while actually in Italy. I’d be ashamed, but damn that Alfredo sauce and breadsticks are delicious. Not Italian, but fucking delicious.

Thank you for joining us on our first International Ladycation! I hope you enjoyed following along with our journey, and that you’ll come back to see where we go next! One thing’s for sure, this wasn’t our last overseas trip. Our epic European Ladycation might have created Euro-travel junkies out of all three of us.

Don’t forget to subscribe to stay up to date on the latest travel tips, trips and tales! Till next time, stay chill, and keep hiking, my friends! Ciao, bellas.

9 Rome Travel Tips for First Timers

I fell so hard for Rome! From my first glimpse of the Aurelian walls from the back of the taxi maniacally driving us towards the city center, I was hooked. The history, the architecture, the food–oh my god, the food–there’s something amazing seemingly around every corner! With so much to see and so much to do, the smoother your trip goes the better. With that in mind, here are my 9 Rome Travel Tips for First Timers to help make your first trip to Rome a success.

1 – Screw Fashion, Get Comfy Shoes!

You’ll be walking at least 5-6 miles a day, much of it on uneven cobblestones which, though charming, are killer on the feet. A bad pair of shoes can literally ruin your whole trip. Whatever you wear, they should be comfortable, provide support, and be broken in enough to not give you blisters. I did not break my shoes in enough and ended up getting blisters on Day One. I kept on trucking, but my feet were bloody messes by the time we left. I really wished I’d taken tennis shoes instead of zero-support sandals as a backup.

2 – Bring a Water Bottle, Don’t Buy Bottled Water

There are water fountains all over the city that provide free, fresh, cold drinking water, and you’d be crazy not to avail yourself of them. It’s perfectly safe, and because it’s Rome most of them are super old and cool, which makes using them extra fun. Save the planet and your budget, all while staying hydrated. Everybody wins!

3 – Buy Skip-the-Line Tickets In Advance!

Tickets to top attractions like the Colosseum and the Vatican Museums can sell out sometimes weeks in advance. Know what you really want to see and plan ahead. Purchase your Skip-The-Line tickets online as early as possible to ensure you don’t miss out on some of Rome’s most magical highlights! For sites like the Pantheon, which does not offer skip-the-line, your best bet is to arrive very early or right before they close. To buy your tickets to Rome’s top attractions, click the links below:

  1. Roma Pass
  2. Colosseum & Roman Forum
  3. Vatican Museums
  4. Borghese Gallery & Museum
  5. Capitoline Museums
  6. Baths of Caracalla
  7. Castel Sant’Angelo

4 – Spend Wisely and Come Prepared

You’ll want a variety of options when going to Rome. Make sure any credit cards you bring have a PIN, as those without may not be accepted at many locations. ATMs are everywhere, but you’ll want to get some euros from your bank before you go. Be sure to allow a few days for the bank to receive the funds. While you’re at the bank, ask which ATMs will incur the lowest fees, and notify them (and any other credit card companies) of your travel dates so they don’t think your card has been stolen when it starts making purchases in Italy.

While in Rome, always pay in local currency. Sometimes you’ll be offered the option to pay in U.S. currency, and it’s usually presented as a benefit for you. It’s not, it’s a scam. It allows the vendor to set the exchange rate and fees, which will always be higher than the rate your bank will charge.

5 – Stay in the Historical City Center

If you’re budget conscious you may be considering accommodations outside the city where the prices are lower. Don’t do it. The price you’ll pay to be transported to and from the city will eat up any money you saved on the initial lodging, and valuable time will be eaten up in transit. We were just a couple blocks from the Trevi Fountain and only used transportation once, to go to the Vatican. We still walked back, there’s just so much to see in such a small area! In Paris we stayed outside the city and spent hundreds of dollars on Ubers and wasted so much time going back and forth, it just wasn’t worth it.

6 – Enjoy an Aperitivo

Italian dinner starts much later than it does in the U.S. Use this extra time to enjoy this classically Italian activity: the Aperitivo. Grab a cocktail and some appetizers to tide you over till dinner time. People watch, relax, soak it all in! After all, when in Rome… While it’s good to escape the tourist areas for the best food, enjoying an Aperitivo in the Piazza Navona is a fun way to splurge. The atmosphere, scenery, and people watching are well worth the extra few euros you’ll pay.

7 – Embrace the Italian Dinner Experience

  • Italians don’t rush through dinner, it’s sacred, an event, and is meant to be savored. Take your time, enjoy every course, reminisce about your day, just relax. The waiters will not be pestering you to leave.
  • Dinner begins no earlier than 8:00 – 8:30 in the evening, and they stop seating around 11:00 – 11:30.
  • You’ll never be interrupted by annoying waiters asking how your meal is or if you’d like another refill, it’s considered rude to interrupt someone’s meal. But don’t worry, whenever you need something, the waiters are always nearby, ready to help without being intrusive.
  • Tipping isn’t necessary, but small amounts are appreciated! Every time you sit at a table you’re charged, usually per person. It’s called a coperto, and it’s essentially a cover charge. Though tipping is not customary in Italy, rounding up or giving an extra 5-10% is appreciated for exceptional service.
  • Coffee is basically a shot. Italians don’t sit in coffee shops sipping giant mugs of coffee. They buy their coffee at the counter, chug it, and go. If you want to sit down with your coffee you’ll have to pay a coperto. And don’t ask for milk with it in the afternoon, that’s just not how they roll.
  • Your pizza will not be cut when they give it to you. This is more of a side note than a tip, really, but it confused the hell out of me, so I’m sharing it with you. They do not slice pizza, they just give you the whole pie with regular silverware and then you’re on your own. It’s very awkward, but that pizza is heavenly.
  • If you want the most authentic experience and best food, avoid eating in high-tourist areas. Generally, you’ll want to walk at least a few blocks away. The best places to eat will have a smaller menu with no food pictures, and prices will be listed. It never hurts to ask some of the locals where their favorite places to eat are! They know best!

8 – Cover Up, Sinners:

If you plan on visiting any of the magnificent churches in Rome, be prepared to cover your legs and shoulders. If you’re wearing a tank top be sure to have a wrap with you. Jesus just can’t handle your sexiness.

9 – Leave Time to Explore

A certain level of planning is necessary to make your trip to Rome a success, but don’t over-plan every day. Leave time in your day to just explore. Wander the streets with no destination, walk into every random church you pass by, sit by a fountain and people watch, stop by that cute cafe you see, explore a smaller museum you didn’t know about. There’s so much to see and do in Rome, you’ll want to leave time to just explore it!

Want to explore without the massive crowds? The early bird gets the worm on that front. Wake up with the sun and go walking the streets before 7:00am and you’ll have them mostly to yourself. You can always take a rest or break at your hotel in the afternoon when the top attractions are busiest.

Ready to start planning your own trip to Rome? Click here to be redirected to Ladycations LLC, a full service travel planning agency! Member of CLIA and ASTA, Stephanie Stohre is a TAP certified Travel Advisor who’s ready to help make your travel dreams come true!

Masters and Masterpieces: Our Final Day in Florence

Becoming Art at Uffizi

Knowing it was our last day in Florence was not a pleasant thought to wake up to. Our first activity of the day wasn’t especially exciting either, but it was required, so off we went to the Red Cross COVID testing center. I’d be lying if I said there wasn’t a part of me hoping we’d all be positive and have to stay another 10 days. Alas, we were all COVID-free and reality was barreling towards us like a high speed European train.

After our tests, we were famished so we stopped for some pizza on our way to our next destination. There’s something I can’t believe no one talks about, so I’m going to talk about it. Italian restaurants do not, I repeat, do not cut their pizzas before they serve them to you. I can’t even tell you how confused we were the first time they put whole, uncut pizzas in front of us and walked away. We all just kind of sat there for a second, looking at our plates and waiting for the waiter to come back with a pizza cutter, until we realized we were on our own. Now at the end of our trip, however, we were seasoned and experienced Italian pizza-eaters, so we hacked away at our pies with a knife and fork, and hit the cobblestone streets for our last day of Florentine touristing.

The Basilica of Santa Croce is an ornate building similar to the Duomo in its use of pink and green marble, and is as filled with history as anyplace else in Florence. In fact, it’s what’s, or who’s, inside the basilica that sets it apart. Buried inside Santa Croce are celebrities so big they only need one name, like Madonna or Prince. But these celebrities are a bit more old school: Michelangelo, Galileo, and Machiavelli.

For some reason, this was the only place that we had difficulty getting into. There were two obstacles. First, Carey was told she had to cover her shoulders. Apparently the god that supposedly created us doesn’t like shoulders. Or legs. Or really any skin on a woman’s body. They were passing out mesh wraps to all women in shorts, as well, which I found bizarre considering the wraps were see-through. Maybe God likes a peepshow, who knows. The second obstacle was that Carey had received the Johnson & Johnson COVID vaccine, which only required one dose and wasn’t used in Europe, so the man checking cards was very confused. Language was a challenge in this particular instance, but we were eventually able to convey the information to someone who understood, wrap a shawl around Carey’s shoulders, and walk our heathen selves into the basilica.

We’d grown accustomed to the decadence and grandeur of the churches we’d seen, and the Basilica of Santa Croce is no exception. A cavernous building filled with intricate stone and woodwork, priceless statues and paintings, ornate stained glass windows, and ledger stones covering the floors to commemorate the deceased parishioners buried beneath. But it wasn’t the parishioners under our feet that got this history nerd crying for the billionth time in Europe, it was who was interred along the walls.

The first I came to was Machiavelli. Arguably something of a douche, and certainly not my favorite, so I continued on. No tears, I got this. Next up was Michelangelo. GOAT alert! There lied one of the most magnificent talents in human history. Masterpiece after masterpiece, he filled our world with beauty, and I felt privileged to pay my respects. Shit, I don’t got this. Finally I reached the burial place of Galileo Galilei, Father of Astronomy and nemesis of the Catholic Church. There was no more holding back the tears, so I settled for not ugly-crying. Galileo was brilliant, curious, and filled with a courage none of us can even comprehend. He stood on the shoulders of other brilliant minds of antiquity, and allowed future brilliance to stand on his. All I could do as I stood there was choke out a broken, “Thank you,” and try to pull my nerdy-ass self together.

We walked outside to the courtyard and heard some rather eerie music coming from inside another room within the Santa Croce complex. We parted thick curtains covering the doorway, and when we got inside I wondered why there hadn’t been a sign above the entry saying, “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here,” cause we had just walked into Dante’s Nine Circles of Hell (such a lost opportunity). The room was dark, and on every wall were moving pictures, all weird scenes of humans in anguish, as freaky-ass chanting played through hidden speakers. Were I obsessed with Dante the way I’m obsessed with the Medici, I may have enjoyed the experience. But it was hot and stuffy, and I quickly went back outside to the fresh air.

There was one more highlight hidden inside Santa Croce. In the Refectory, hanging on a mechanical pulley system so it can be lifted quickly in the event of a flood, is Vasari’s massive painting, The Last Supper. No, this is not Leonardo da Vinci’s famous painting by the same name which hangs in Milan, but a masterpiece none the less and, though I’m a big da Vinci fan, I may like Vasari’s version better.

Next, we headed to the Uffizi Gallery, our last museum of the trip. It was a somewhat cloudy day, and we arrived at the Uffizi with time to spare before our scheduled entry, so we sat on the steps in the courtyard, people watching and debating whether or not to purchase a painting from one of the sidewalk artists selling their work. After a few minutes, the clouds began to cry (for once, it wasn’t me) and we were in a downpour. It was the first rain of the entire trip, and given how hot it had been, it was quite welcome.

The Uffizi occupies a huge, gorgeous building right on the Arno River. There are statues, busts, paintings, tapestries; seemingly something amazing around every corner. We walked the hall lined with busts of Roman rulers, saw works by da Vinci, Vasari, Rembrandt, so many Botticellis, and countless others. I gushed over Medici portraits, Carey high-fived ancient statues, both girls posed as art in places that had none, and we even saw a window imprint in a stairwell, left there in the 90’s by the detonation of a mafia bomb, but there were two particular pieces in this gallery that I was on a mission to see.

When I walked into the rooms where they were displayed the usual teary-eyed Steph was back. There they were! The Birth of Venus and Primavera, Simonetta Vespucci looking radiant as a goddess, just as Botticelli intended. They were bigger than I’d imagined, and just so magnificent. I stared at them, studied them, wiped away the tears, snapped endless photos, and finally relented and moved on, but not before swinging by the gift shop to pick up some prints. Sure, you can get Botticelli prints anywhere, but where better than the museum the originals call home?

When we left the Uffizi we headed back to the flat to begin the ultra-depressing task of packing. We had one more day in Europe, but it was our last day in Florence. As we walked, I was trying to mentally soak it all in. The narrow, cobblestone streets, the centuries old buildings, the smell of the leather shops and trattorias as we passed by. I wanted to engrave every detail into my mind. The entire trip had been incredible, and despite my swollen ankles and sore feet, I didn’t want it to end.

We enjoyed a long, leisurely dinner that evening, free from coked-up, singing waiters. The night was beautiful and warm, and the waiter immediately fell in love with Liv and brought us a round of Prosecco on the house. Our meal was delicious, we ordered more wine, and were questioning whether we had room for our dessert when the waiter complimented Olivia’s perfume and promised a free surprise if she indeed finished her dessert. She was stuffed, but she’s no quitter, so she joined the Clean Plate Club, and the waiter brought us a round of limoncello, also on the house. The perfect end to a magical time in this Renaissance wonderland.

I stared at Brunelleschi’s Dome for hours that evening, as if I could somehow bring a piece of it with me if I stared long enough. Our time in Florence, and in Europe as a whole, had been absolutely incredible. In the morning we would pick up our rental car and hit the roads of the rolling Tuscan hills, but first one last sleep in the city I’d fallen head over heels for. Come back next week to read about the final day of our epic European Ladycation! Until then, stay chill and keep hiking, my friends!

Iconic Art and Clumsy Come-Ons: Our Second Day in Florence

Brunelleschi's Dome at the Basilica of Santa Maria del Fiore

Waking up in Florence, seeing the Duomo the moment I opened my eyes, could simply never get old. I could’ve lived happily in our little Florentine apartment forever. While the girls were getting prettied up for the day, I enjoyed a cigarette on the balcony and took a moment to just appreciate where I was. The moment, however, was brief, cause we had a centuries old murder scene, and a very tall, quiet, naked man to see!

My last post mentioned the Pazzi Conspiracy, which I said I’d explain, so let’s go back to April 26th, 1478 for this week’s edition of Steph’s History-Nerd Porn. The Medici were the most powerful banking family in Italy. Their primary rival, the Pazzi family, were sick of their second place status, and hatched a plot to essentially execute a hostile takeover through corporate assassination and a coup d’etat all mixed into one. Everything had to happen simultaneously and flawlessly, they had to kill both Medici brothers and seize control of the government all at once or they’d be totally screwed. So, with the blessing of the Pope, while some of them were readying an attack against the Florentine government, the rest were attending mass in the cathedral alongside the Medici. When the priest raised the host, the assassins pulled daggers, concealed in their tunics, and attacked. Lorenzo received a gash to his neck but was able to escape to the sacristy without mortal wounds. His brother, Giuliano, wasn’t so lucky. He was stabbed multiple times, including once in the head, and bled to death on the cathedral floor. They had only gotten half. The Pazzi takeover of the government hadn’t been successful, either. They were totally screwed. The entire city rose up against the conspirators. All said and done, more than 80 people were executed for some level of participation in the plot (but not the Pope, which is total bullshit).

One of the things I most wanted to do on this trip was to walk into the Duomo sanctuary and actually be standing in the place where it all went down. However, this was one of those times my frugality trumped my dream and led to nothing but regret. Entrance to the Duomo is free, but tickets are sold to climb the dome stairs, view the museum, etc. Since our time and funds were limited, I decided not to buy tickets and just explore the sanctuary/murder scene. Such a rookie move I’m embarrassed to even type it. We got there early, thinking we’d be at the front of the line when they opened. 45 minutes before they opened their doors the line was already wrapped halfway around the building. We didn’t have enough time to wait in the line and make our scheduled entry at the museum, so I never got to fulfill that particular fantasy, and that alone all but guarantees I will go back to Florence.

The Galleria dell’Accademia, our second stop of the day, is a hugely popular museum and it’s solely due to one particular piece housed within: Michelangelo’s Statue of David (you didn’t think we were going to see an actual naked man, did you? Dirty girl!). We slowly made our way inside, and as soon as we entered the marble hallway, there he was. Bigger than I’d imagined, casually gazing off into the distance, David was towering over everyone and damn, he was beautiful!

The closer we got the more detailed he became. Everyone talks about his hands, and as I stood there staring up at them I knew why. It was almost hard to believe they weren’t real. I half expected to see a finger twitch as I studied him. The talent it took to create something so realistic, so detailed and flawless, so massive, out of a single slab of rock, is almost unfathomable. David took my breath away. Of course, beyond the artistic appreciation, we also had a fantastic time giggling at his package like children.

It became clear as we explored the rest of the building that David was the singular draw to the Galleria dell’Accademia (as well as several lesser known Michelangelos). The rest was small, almost exclusively religious in nature, and not particularly to our taste. We thoroughly enjoyed ourselves anyway, the girls re-enacting some of the sculptures to hilarious effect, and me puzzling over a painting of a disturbingly aggressive baby Jesus.

When we left the museum it was already lunchtime and we were starving. We stopped at Pizza Napoli 1955, a charming and delicious little trattoria, and were escorted to a table by a very enthusiastic young waiter. He seemed really eager, and a little anxious, and it didn’t take long to figure out why. As he was giving us our place settings, he looked at Olivia and said he was very “excited” to serve her and told her, “You have beautiful eyes, beautiful eyes,” and then he dropped her silverware. Nervous and embarrassed, he quickly picked everything up, said something else about Liv’s beauty, and ran away. It was the clumsiest, most hilarious come-on I’ve ever seen. Liv was totally embarrassed, but also hella flattered, and when we left, the adorable little waiter gave her a, “Ciao, bella!” Between that and Carey getting hit on at the Eiffel Tower, the girls decided they were destined to score European husbands.

Our next stop was the Museo Galileo, an entire museum dedicated to the Father of Astronomy. While the museum has a great many things, the sole reason I wanted to go was rooted in my obsession with history and generally negative opinion of the Catholic Church.

In the early 17th Century, Europe was under the thumb of the Catholic Church which, at the time, was little more than a massive, well organized boys’ club teeming with greedy, corrupt, power-hungry men as eager to violate their vow of poverty as their vow of celibacy. So, when Galileo looked up at the sky through his new telescope (which he built by figuring out the principle behind telescopes from Holland, then building one 10 times more powerful) he discovered that Copernicus was right. The sun is stationary, with the planets in orbit around it, and the Bible was wrong! The Church completely lost its shit. It took another 20 years, but Galileo was ultimately tried and found guilty of heresy by the Inquisition and sentenced to house arrest in perpetuity. It wasn’t until an “investigation” in 1984 that the Catholic Church finally admitted Galileo was wrongfully convicted.

The Grand Duke of Tuscany, Ferdinando II de Medici took him in, where he lived under their protection until his death in 1642. While the Galilei family was interred in the Basilica of Santa Croce sanctuary, Galileo was initially buried in a smaller chapel attached to the Basilica, his family fearing retribution from the Church if they honored their supposedly dishonorable relative. But a century later, followers with enough clout and money were able to have his body moved into the Basilica sanctuary and commission a beautiful monument to mark his place of rest. In the process of moving him, however, things got a little weird. The movers decided to also remove three of his fingers, a tooth and a vertebrae before placing him in his new, fancy resting place.

One of those fingers, notably the middle finger, was said to be on display at the Museo Galileo in Florence, and I was not about to pass up the opportunity to see the Father of Modern Science and Astronomy flipping the bird at the Catholic Church for all eternity.

We paid the admission fee and began roaming the floors of the museum in search of Galileo’s severed fingers. One by one we descended from the top back to the bottom floor with no sign of them. That’s when we did another Google search and discovered that the fingers had been moved. Again. I never thought I would be so upset about not seeing severed finger bones.

Luckily, our next stop lifted my spirits: The Medici Chapels at the Basilica of San Lorenzo, tomb of the Medici! There are two main chambers where the Medici family are interred. One, a more lavishly adorned room with colored marble and intricate decorations where later Medici were laid to rest. The other a more simple, older room, containing the remains of earlier Medici, including my two favorites: Lorenzo Il Magnifico, and Giuliano Il Sexy, with monuments carved by Michelangelo. If you’ve been reading this European series, I bet you can guess what I did as I stood before the graves of Lorenzo and Giuliano (if you guessed cry like a little bitch baby, you are correct!).

After we’d paid our respects we walked back to our apartment, stopping to pick up some desserts on our way. We had an early dinner that evening and ended up perusing the UberEats McDonald’s menu for late night snacks, yet again. The “Smarties McFlurry,” “My Selection Chicken Pepper,” and ” Le Ricche Fries Cheddar,” sounded too alluring for the girls to pass up.

Ordering European McDonald’s can be quite entertaining. The “Smarties McFlurry” did not, in fact, contain Smarties and was actually an M&M McFlurry. The My Selection Chicken Pepper was nothing to write home about, and the Le Ricche Fries were just fries with a squirt of cheddar and, inexplicably, a little wooden spoon at the bottom. We laughed harder than I ever expected a McDonald’s order to warrant. It was so memorable, in fact, that Carey still has a screenshot of the digital receipt.

With bellies full of pasta, wine, and whatever the hell McDonald’s puts in their food we finally went to bed. In the morning we’d wake up early to head to the Red Cross COVID testing site in preparation for our flight back across the pond to America, which was approaching faster than we’d have liked. I hope you’ll come back to read about our last couple days in Europe as our epic Ladycation comes to an end. In the meantime, stay chill and keep hiking, my friends!

Practically A Pilgrimage: Our First Day in Florence

Florence was the main event for me on our European Ladycation. The birthplace of the Renaissance, Firenze was the city Leonardo da Vinci, Galileo, Michelangelo, Poliziano, and Botticelli all called home. Masters of art, science, and philosophy all tied together by one family: The Medici, and I am completely obsessed. Being in their city, walking those streets, and seeing the art they commissioned was more than just a dream come true for my history-nerd self. It was practically a pilgrimage.

So, about that history. . .

The Medici were the wealthiest, most powerful family in Florence in and around the 15th Century. They were cunning, ruthless, calculating, and ambitious. They were also some of the most influential lovers and patrons of the arts who ever lived. Artists depended on wealthy people like the Medici for their livelihood, while people like the Medici depended on the artists to curate favor and popularity among the people. The Medici reigned during a time when, instead of buying mega-yachts and private islands or dick-shaped rockets, the upper echelon of society spent their money commissioning artwork and building projects. While the Medici patronage certainly had an aspect of political manipulation, it also sprung from a genuine love of the arts and an innate ability to identify pure artistic talent. They were basically Renaissance talent scouts. Really good ones.

Cosimo de Medici (Father of the Fatherland) commissioned Donatello’s bronze sculpture of David, and chose Brunelleschi to construct the iconic dome atop the Duomo. Cosimo’s son Piero (The Gouty–15th Century shade) took Botticelli into his home and raised him alongside his own sons. Piero’s son Lorenzo (The Magnificent) gave Michelangelo a space to hone his skills, commissioned work by Leonardo da Vinci, and held gatherings at the Medici villas with philosophers like Poliziano to debate the wisdom of the ancients against the teachings of the Church, and the emerging field of science. It was Lorenzo’s nephew Guilio who became Pope Clement VII who commissioned Michelangelo to paint the Last Judgement in the Sistine Chapel. And it was a Medici who later took in Galileo after the Catholic Church condemned him as a heretic and sentenced him to house arrest in perpetuity. These are just a few examples of Medici contributions to the world of art, science and philosophy. Their legacy in its entirety is immeasurable.

We set out from our flat and headed towards the historical center of the city, just a few blocks away. We’d only been walking a couple minutes when I saw it. Austere, imposing, it was exactly like the pictures in my books: The Palazzo Medici!

We walked the halls and admired the rooms, and somehow I maintained my composure. While the exterior was severe and stark, the interior was lavish and lovely. Many of the rooms had been updated by the Riccardi family, who owned the palazzo after the Medici, including a mirrored ballroom that would have felt right at home in Versailles. But it was the chapel, with Gozzoli’s Procession of the Magi frescoes, that I was most enthusiastic to see. Of course, when I saw them, I lost my composure and the tears began to flow. It was stunning. I couldn’t believe I was actually there, seeing it with my own eyes. Cosimo, Piero, Lorenzo, Guiliano, Contesina, Lucrezia. . . all of them had been in that very room, staring at those same frescoes. I was basically fan-girling over a bunch of people who’ve been dead for centuries.

After I collected myself it was time to move on, and we headed towards the Piazza della Signoria. So much to see, so much history in one little space! We wandered around the piazza, taking it all in, as my head spun remembering all the trivia I’d learned throughout my years of obsessive reading. I stared at the windows in the Palazzo Vecchio where the Pazzi conspirators were hung after their failed coup attempt (more on that in a later post), and at the tower where Cosimo had briefly been held prisoner. I looked at the wall of the loggia that once showcased Botticelli’s death portraits of the executed conspirators. It was in this piazza where the fundamentalist friar, Giorlamo Savanarola had ignited the Bonfire of the Vanities, and later where he was burned to ash at the stake. I was hardcore fan-girling again. We admired the sculptures, the fountain, and the palazzo before heading towards our next Renaissance stop, Chiesa di San Salvatore in Ognissanti.

I love Botticelli. Sure, it’s partly because of the Medici connection, but I also love his work. You may recognize his paintings as some of the most famous on the planet, but you probably don’t know the story behind the beautiful blonde in his most famous pieces.

Simonetta Vespucci was considered the most beautiful woman in Florence, and Sandro Botticelli was enraptured by her. She was the model for Primavera, Venus and Mars, and Birth of Venus, and she was also rumored to be the mistress of Giuliano de Medici (Mars, in Botticelli’s Venus and Mars). At the tender age of 22 she succumbed to what was likely tuberculosis, devastating Botticelli. He requested to be interred next to her upon his death, desiring to spend eternity alongside his muse, and his wish was granted. Both are now laid to rest, side by side, in the little church.

Since it was closed for the afternoon riposo we decided to relax in the piazza for a while. I smoked a cigarette, and we admired the Arno River and the Ponte Vecchio. It was a perfectly lovely way to kill an hour, away from the crowds of the main tourist areas, with sunny skies and a light breeze. We were having the best effing day!

The church was small compared to the other monstrosities we’d visited, and was quite dark inside, but no less marvelous in its decoration. We wandered around the sanctuary, pausing at the pulpit for a picture to send to my retired-pastor father (his response, “Cool pulpit! Steal it for me!”), and finally found what we were looking for. Side by side, for all eternity, there were Simonetta and Sandro. Sadly, Botticelli’s tomb was under some kind of renovation, and was blocked from view, but we were able to pay our respects, and I, of course, cried again.

We headed back to our AirBnb afterwards to get cleaned up for dinner. Along the way a sign caught my eye. As I’ve previously discussed I’m very much a cannabis advocate, so when I saw a sign with a single cannabis leaf I went in for a closer look. Much to my amazement, not only was the sign for a little basement pot-shop, but that shop had a vending machine. Weed vending machines?! How is this a thing?! After two weeks of not smoking this was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up. I picked up a few grams and some rolling papers and we headed back to the flat. I won’t say it was good weed. It decidedly wasn’t. It was most likely not cannabis at all, but hemp, as the THC content was almost nil, and it smelled more cannabis-adjacent than dank skunk. But damn if smoking that joint on our Florentine balcony as I gazed at the dome of the Duomo didn’t make me feel like the most cultured, sophisticated stoner ever!

We did our laundry that afternoon, feeling like real Europeans as we hung our wet garments on the clothesline off the balcony. I’m not sure if it’s energy consumption or what, but Europeans seem to have an aversion to clothes dryers. No place we stayed had one. Be that as it may, we kind of enjoyed the line-drying. It was different, felt authentic, and even fun. It made doing laundry in Europe feel like an adventure!

Our meal that evening was. . . interesting. Ironically, what initially drew us to the restaurant we chose was what ultimately made us desperate to leave: a singing waiter. In theory it’s a delightfully Italian experience. In reality it’s cliché and obnoxious and likely caused by a bit too much nose candy. We spent the entire meal listening to him singing the same few bars of the same song, and hollering at passing tourists. The food was fantastic, but we didn’t linger and savor our meal as we’d done at each previous dinner. We scarfed down our meals and high tailed it out of there like the Americans we are.

We’d had another magical day, and despite our dinner time serenade, the girls remarked at how surprised they were to be falling in love with Florence. I wasn’t surprised, but I was most definitely smitten, and so happy that they were loving it as much as I was. We still had a few days of magic left, so it was time to close the curtains on our view of Brunelleschi’s Dome and get some sleep. I’d love you to come back for our next installment as we visit the most famous sculpture on the planet: Michelangelo’s David, and so much more! Till then stay chill and keep hiking, my friends!

One Day in Normandy: Omaha Beach and COVID Test Chaos

It was our last day in France, which was bittersweet. We’d all fallen in love with France, and could have explored it forever, but Florence awaited! Since our flight didn’t depart until close to 10pm we’d planned to spend the day paying our respects to the thousands of Allied soldiers who died storming the beaches of Normandy on D-Day by visiting several sites relating to the battle. It was a lot of driving, and time would be tight, but we were determined. However, we first needed to obtain COVID tests in order to fly back into Italy, so we bid Gilles a reluctant, fond farewell and set out on our three hour drive to Caen for testing.

Whether it was user error or our phones’ Americanized algorithms struggling to perform a Google search in France, the testing location we navigated to did not actually exist. Frustrated and confused, we began searching for another nearby location, each of us getting different search results, none of which proving fruitful. To make a long, and indescribably boring story a bit shorter, it took us almost three hours to find and obtain our COVID tests, which meant trimming our itinerary down dramatically, to a single stop.

We opted for Omaha Beach, set out in that direction, and arrived as we received email notifications that our results were available. However, the friendly nurse who had administered our tests had input my birthday incorrectly, making me unable to access my results. It took another half an hour and three phone calls before she finally entered it in correctly and I was able to access my results, and by that point Olivia, who spoke the most French of the three of us and had been the one making those three phone calls, was ready to explode.

Our tests were all negative, but our frustration level was still high, so we decided to get some lunch before heading to the beach. There was a restaurant across the street where we found an outdoor table to catch our breath and feed our bellies. It took many French fries, but by the time we got up we were in a much better head space.

On June 6, 1944 America, Great Britain and Canada launched the largest invasion fleet in history. More than 1200 warships, 4000 landing craft, 12,000 aircraft, and 160,000 troops set off for Normandy to finally gain a foothold in Nazi occupied France, and begin their push towards Berlin. The invasion itself was a surprisingly and hilariously successful deception by the Allies. Between radar trickery, dummy-paratrooper drops, espionage, and US General Patton’s phantom army full of inflatable tanks, trucks and planes, the Nazis were hoodwinked. They knew an Allied attack was imminent, but they thought it would happen at Calais, not in Normandy, and they focused their defensive resources according to that erroneous assumption. Hitler literally slept through it. Once he woke up around 9am, convinced the Normandy invasion was just a diversion from the non-existant attack on Calais, he started dispatching his infamous Panzer troops mostly in the wrong direction. Sucker.

While the Allies were successful on D-Day, we paid a heavy price. More than 3000 Americans died on Omaha Beach alone. Thousands more on Utah, behind enemy lines, and in the ensuing days in the push to seize Caen and secure a supply line. That’s to say nothing of the millions who died throughout the course of WWII, including the 6 million Jews who died at the hands of Hitler’s Nazis. I can’t even fathom how it must have felt to walk through these European cities 80 years ago, amidst unimaginable destruction and death, knowing it was all at the direction of a madman.

If you didn’t know of the bloodshed that occurred there more than three quarters of a century ago you’d think it was just another beach. Omaha Beach today is pretty, and fairly touristy. Families milled around, walking their dogs and playing in the surf, and with the sun shining it was hard to imagine it had once been the site of unfathomable carnage.

I don’t think any of us were prepared for how emotional we’d feel walking on that battlefield. In my head I kept seeing the beach-storming scene from Saving Private Ryan. The clear, sunny day transformed into a haze of smoke, with boats full of terrified men and boys filling the ocean along the shore. I could hear the gunfire and screams, see the mangled bodies littering the blood-soaked sand. It was overwhelming to imagine. It reminded me how fragile our own democracy is. We’ve all seen how susceptible people can be to propaganda and misinformation, and how that vulnerability can be exploited by madmen craving power.

We had a long drive to the airport so we hit the road once we’d paid our respects. It was a quiet, reflective 3 hour drive back to Paris. By the time we arrived we were all emotionally exhausted. Our flight was a quick one, but thankfully long enough for us to get in the right mindset for our Florentine adventure. The only complaint we had about the flight was that after all the confusion and frustration and wasted time to get our COVID tests, we were never asked for them. Not at the airport, and not on arrival to Florence. We found that irritating, but we got over it quickly.

It was nearly midnight when we arrived so we took a taxi straight to the AirBnb. Although the driver totally overcharged us and lied about it, we were just grateful for our day of travel to be over and to get settled into the city at the heart of the Renaissance. Our AirBnb host’s son, Niccolo, arrived to let us into the flat, and the girls were positively smitten. He was young, adorable, so polite, and his Italian accent was absolutely charming. The flat itself was equally as charming, and we couldn’t have been more pleased with our home for the next four nights. The apartment was small, but beautifully decorated and comfortable. The girls had their own room, with my room next door, both connected by a balcony overlooking Brunelleschi’s Dome, which was all lit up for the evening when we arrived. My dream was coming true. I was in Medici country!

We had a busy day of exploring planned so we needed to get some sleep, but first we needed some food. As had become customary during our trip, and since we’d arrived so late, we ordered McDonald’s. And, as always, it was the comfort food we needed after a crazy day traversing two foreign countries.

Come back next time to get a history lesson from your resident nerd-blogger as I acquaint you with the Medici family while we explore the birthplace of the Renaissance! Till then stay chill and keep hiking, my friends.