People are mad. Wahhhh. Boo hoo. “Why should Jay-Z and Beyonce get to go to Cuba when I can’t?” Well, the truth is, you might be able to. People just rush to conclusions because they heard someone say something about an embargo and travel restrictions and such. Honestly, until recently, I thought to get to Cuba, you would have to go through Mexico or some other country. Officially, the State Department says something like “If you do go and get in trouble, we can’t help you. But you can go if it’s sanctioned.” That last part is really important as, just before people started boo-hooing about these celebrities who get special treatment anyway, I received this email from my alma mater (in screenshot form and sorry it cuts off due to my blog theme – click to see the full image):

Image

So there you have it. Officially, the U.S. government only grants regular citizens access to Cuba if it’s “educational.” But IT DOES grant U.S. citizens access to Cuba. And if it must be educational and your only purpose to go there is to explore, is it not simple to make the argument that you’re learning about a different culture? Thus, it’s an educational experience.

The point here is that most people really have absolutely no idea what any of the Cuba-related travel restrictions are and aren’t. I’m not an expert on them, but I’m not going to go overboard, either, about some restrictions that shouldn’t even exist at all. I know a few folks originally from Cuba. They’re good people and have insight into the country that I otherwise never would have gotten. Like with North Korea, Cuba is largely known as being a poor nation, but it’s not the leadership that’s suffered from decades of trade embargoes – it’s the people.

If our country were so free, we shouldn’t have to justify trips to anywhere by saying it’s “educational.” More-so, we should be able to travel simply because we want to.

First and foremost, happy new year to you all. I hope it’s a good, blessed one for many of you. :p

So, kidding aside, hopefully you rang in the new year in whatever way you wanted to ring it in. As for me, I traveled….again. It’s somewhat of a common theme, in between those new years eve nights where I literally do nothing aside from having a beer and/or glass of champagne while watching TV. On the more exciting occasions, I’ve celebrated NYE in Times Square, Washington DC, Cincinnati, and now San Francisco. It was a blast (no pun intended, considering the fireworks!) Let me tell you alllll about it.

 

Rearview Mirror Reflection of Clouds

Reflections on the Past


 

So, the first stop on this roadtrip, six hours north of home, was Napa Valley. The last (and only) time I had been there, I was 17. When you’re that age, wineries aren’t very fun. Back then, I was offered a lovely tasting of water. It was a real bummer, as my father and brother lived the life of connoisseurs, analyzing the wine bouquet and notes of lovely-sounding things like chocolate and berries.

As for this recent visit, the quick stop in Napa was sort of a letdown. The area is always so hyped up, but I didn’t find it to be any more impressive than the central California/Santa Barbara-area wineries. Both areas are beautiful, and in both regions you’ll find a combo of hits and misses. Also, it’s worth noting that tastings in Napa are more expensive than the other wine regions I’ve visited. At some places, the pours are very conservative, and you might only get to taste three wines for $20. I’ve read that some Napa tastings even run about $40!

A coworker highly recommended Gott’s Roadside (formerly called Taylor’s Refresher), which is a small, three-store burger joint. On location is in Napa, another is in St. Helena (near Mondavi Winery), and the third is in San Francisco. We stopped at the St. Helena location and, despite the frigid temperature, there was a long line at the outdoor order window. It didn’t take too long to figure out why the place was so hoppin’… it was delicious! My Wisconsin Sourdough burger and onion rings seemed really fresh, and excess grease was minimal. That’s not to say I didn’t feel sick to my stomach a while later, after gorging myself… but that’s my bad.

 

From there, the next notable destination was the Winchester Mystery House in San Jose. My first impression was the location was really surprising. Photos seem to give the feeling that it’s fairly isolated or perhaps situated at the forefront of a suburban neighborhood. That’s not really the case at all. Rather, the home is effectively surrounded by a business/mall complex, movie theaters, and a freeway. Except for the heavy mall traffic on a Saturday night, that discovery wasn’t off-putting or anything… just very different from what was expected.

 
Rear View of Winchester Mystery House in San Jose
 

Taking the first Grand Tour of the morning was probably a wise move. The group seemed small – about 10 people – and, for the basement tour, there were four of us. The tour guide was expecting 12, so it was great to have that more-personal attention. The basement wasn’t too exciting, except for seeing how much the wood beams supporting the house wore down during the 1906 earthquake.

As for the main tour, I really enjoyed it. Imaging little ol’ Mrs. Winchester (it’s said she was 4′ 10″) wandering the corridors, forever trying to appease the spirits, was really something. The architecture is beautiful, and the monstrosity of the house is amazing, yet the mansion didn’t have that creepy factor like I always expected. It was a daytime tour, though, so maybe that had something to do with it. And maybe my previous work on Ghost Hunters has made me a little more skeptical of those types of situations. Weird, unexplainable occurrences have happened – I can attest to that – but they are so few and far between that you can’t anticipate much.

 

San Francisco was next on the agenda. I had been warned against driving in the city, due to parking being next to impossible. Maybe it was a fluke due to the holidays and such, but it worked out okay.

 
Golden Gate Bridge Wide
 

The first night, we parked a few blocks south of the marina. It was right at 7 PM, and as I was about to put coins in the meter, the light on it stopped flashing and it shut off. So did all the other meters up the street. Free parking and perfect timing! Cha-ching! So, metered parking isn’t 24/7, which can help save you some cash.

Ending up in the same neighborhood the following day, I discovered some free, 4 hour max. parking near Ghirardelli Square. We parked there, spent a couple hours biking to and across the Golden Gate Bridge, moved the car to a different parking spot, and spent a couple hours at dinner. It worked out great.

 
Night View of Golden Gate Bridge
 

As the day started to wind down and the New Years Eve festivities were starting to pick up, we headed east. We finally had to pay for garage parking, and walked to the Embarcadero. 200,000 revelers fill up that area every year for New Years Eve, so it was pretty wild. Plenty of people had apparently spent the hours leading up to midnight at the bar, so there was a lot of inebriated energy in the air.

 
San Francisco Ferry Building
 

With the giant crowd concentrated near the Ferry Building, we headed up the street and staked out a spot on Pier 3. It turned out to be perfect, as the firework display looked awesome with the Bay Bridge as the backdrop.

 
New Years Eve Fireworks over San Francisco Bay
 

Overall, it was a great, quick roadtrip but a great way to end one year and kick off a new one. Have a great year, everyone. Cheers!

 
Painted Ladies Row Houses in San Fran
 

Over the years, my line of work has kept me from enjoying many holidays in the same way so many others do. I’ve missed several New Years celebrations, 4th of July, part of a couple Thanksgivings, and a few Halloweens… and there’s also Labor Day and Memorial Day. Being pulled away for work is sometimes a real bummer, and other times it has been for really incredible opportunities. One of those that fall into the “worth it” category is the work I did on one of the more popular ghost hunting TV shows in 2009. I’ve talked about the ghost hunting experiences in other posts
(i.e. Haunted History, The Strangest Coincidence of My Life, and Reflections on Eastern State Penitentiary & Hauntings), and here is another story vital in getting me where I am today.

 

Ft. Delaware

 

It was the week of Halloween 2009, and we were shooting the ghost hunting live show in Delaware. It was frigid outside, and the weather hadn’t been cooperating, making load-in and setup on the island really difficult. Like many of my coworkers, I had really worked by tail off, so one random day during the week the bosses gave me a break and put me on call. So I did what any good employee would do: I made the 30 mile drive to Philadelphia to see the Liberty Bell and eat cheesesteak. “The City of Brotherly Love” is a place I had always wanted to visit, due to its incredibly rich history and also being a big Eagles football fan.

So there I was, gallivanting around town and enjoying the day when my phone rang. I had become so accustomed to seeing that 302 area code, so my heart started pounding… nearly out of my chest, it felt like. “We might need you to do a run…. but if we do, it won’t be for another hour or two.” “Great!” I exclaimed and carried on, relishing the experience.

Not knowing if I would ever make it back to Philly, I had a tough decision to make: Pat’s or Geno’s. Both are equally famous cheesesteak establishments, conveniently located across the street from one another. Leaving the decision to the flip of a coin, Pat’s was the winner. Geno’s eventually earned my money, too, but more on that later…

 

In the mobile office, "on call"

Enjoying a Pat’s cheesesteak in the mobile office, on call

 

The serenity and freedom to explore the city on my own was awesome. I walked through Independence Hall, saw the Liberty Bell, visited Ben Franklin’s grave, and had a beer in the rebuilt tavern where John Adams, George Washington, and other important dignitaries dined and drank over 200 years ago.

After my free time was bygone, I headed back to the “ranch” to do that work I was on call for. It was a lot of shuttling people between the airport, hotel, and shooting location on the remote island. To actually get to the island, we had to radio the boat captain to pick us up. Again, the weather had not been cooperating and, at one point, our itinerary got delayed because the violent waves made the trip too dangerous.

I won’t really get into the meat and bones about the production and what it was like sitting alone inside a fort for eight hours on a cold, cold night. But I will touch upon what most people ask me about my experiences: Hearing there was only one death at Ft. Delaware, the weird vibes were minimal but not totally absent. One odd thing was when I did some exploring during down time and found a winding, unlit hallway that terminated at a small, pitch black room (maybe 15’x15′) that was deep within the fort. I started snapping pictures in there, and one came out with a weird, white cloudy blur near the ceiling. Whatever that was, Ft. Delaware is fairly low on the “creepy” scale compared to other places I’ve been… places like Waverly Hills Sanatorium in Kentucky and the former Essex County Hospital (psychiatric facility) in New Jersey.

One other thing about that topic, though… My job during the live investigation was to control a video switcher going to the show’s Director, who was working probably 300 feet away from the fort in a video truck. In fact, all of our cables to the truck ran across three boats that were floating in the moat around the fort… it was really a huge undertaking and operation. The point I am getting at is that – I kid you not – while scanning the eight camera feeds on the screen in front of me, I saw the legs on a bar stool rotate back and forth for probably about 30 seconds. That’s one of just a very few times in my life that I’ve pinched myself to make sure I wasn’t dreaming. It was such a bizarre moment that my mind could barely comprehend.

After the investigation, load-out was a little more easygoing. We had more time to spare, and the bad weather had passed. In fact, the bosses let us Production Assistants off work early one day so we could go have fun in Philadelphia. Due to my prior trip to the city, I was recruited as the navigator on our way to get… you may have guessed it… cheesesteaks. So that was my opportunity to give Geno’s a try. Ultimately, I found both places to be too similar to pick a favorite, although both were delicious. And it caught me off guard that what makes a cheesesteak really unique in Philly is Cheez Whiz.

 

Geno's Steaks

 

Thanks for a great time, Philadelphia (and Delaware, I guess). Speaking of, remember the line from Wayne’s World, when Wayne and Garth are in front of a blue screen, acting like they are in different states?

Wayne: We’ve got a new feature on Wayne’s World. It allows us to travel through time and space… it’s called “chroma key.” ….

Garth: Say you wanna go to Texas. “Howwwwdy, partner. Let’s raise and rope broncos.”

Wayne: Or imagine being magically whisked away to… Delaware.
[pauses]
Wayne Campbell: Hi. I’m in… Delaware.

 

Yeah, it’s really about like that. Anyhow, Philadelphia, I look forward to visiting you again one day… and hopefully sooner rather than later.

There is something mystical about aviation. I love the window seat and find myself staring at the landscape miles below on every trip. There is so much beauty to take in, and sometimes it’s just as awe-inspiring as being grounded but randomly spotting an old World War II-era bomber slowly making its way across the sky.

The last big trip allowed me to experience the sight of so, so much – things like the Olympic stadium and Big Ben clock tower in London, colorful French farms, icebergs, Canadian glaciers, and a giant fault line in California.

 

Aerial View of London - Big Ben and The Eye Ferris Wheel

Aerial View of Big Ben and the London Eye

 

While crossing the Atlantic, I eventually napped when there was nothing to see but “the pond.” When I woke, peered out and saw an iceberg field, I started snapping pictures. The passengers behind me must’ve liked all my scenic discoveries because, whenever I pointed my camera out the window, I would hear their window shade open and start to hear whispers.

 

glacier confluence / flow - aerial view

Glacial Confluence – Canada

 

Just like with music, the love for aviation is also in my DNA. Dad took me to airshows for probably 15 years straight, and he still goes when it doesn’t conflict with work and it’s not too blazingly hot and humid. Also, my brother flies and my uncle previously owned a plane. The same goes for some of my in-laws. Also, I can’t ignore that the Wright Brothers lived about 25 miles from where I grew up in Ohio – “the birthplace of aviation,” as the license plates say.

Back in Middletown, Ohio, I used to spend my college summers at hangar parties. “Don’t mind the airplane in there… the fridge is back there behind it. Feel free to grab a beer!” Some late-night chats were interrupted by the sound of a taxiing jet. A lot of us would go out and watch those take off and fly away until the flashing navigation lights disappeared into the darkness.

I actually worked at the Middletown airport – then known as Hook Field – over spring break in high school. I mowed grass and ran the weed-eater around all the lights down the 6,100′ runway. Some nights I got to hand-wash a corporate jet. It was a serene, yet kind of spooky experience, being alone in a giant, creaky, empty hangar. At the same time, the job was a soothing, therapeutic one, buffing dried raindrops off the plane from nose to tail and cleaning hydraulic fluid and dust off the landing gear.

For all these fond and endearing memories, I have been kicking around the idea of making an aviation documentary. I won’t get into details right now because, well, you know, it’s a proprietary-type thing. But I can see a community-based project like that as being a great asset for the historical record. That sort of goes back to my Long-term Data Storage post, about how it’s best to keep multiple copies of your documents stashed in various places so the information doesn’t eventually disappear forever. There’s no telling how many old photos are out there, tucked away in someone’s attic, that might not mean anything to some descendant who one day discovers them.

In the meantime, I will continue to plug away and see if the project is something that might have some interest other than my own. Fingers crossed!

From my collection of work & travel journals, 2009:

Eastern State Penitentiary is a scary place. It truly is. Giant, inescapable walls surround the complex, making it feel like some sort of doom is impending. When you’re standing alone in the yard, in the middle of the night, you can’t help but dream up all sorts of emergency scenarios that would require you to be on the other side of those walls for survival. Tending to have a guilty conscience, I guess being a guest in a prison just seems to bring out the worst.

Originally built in 1829, the Eastern State complex is located in Philadelphia, about 1/4 mile from where Rocky Balboa ran up a flight of stairs and triumphantly threw his fists in the air (in the 70s film “Rocky,” of course). Being surrounded by housing and shops, Eastern State is a reminder of a far bygone era in Philadelphia’s history. The stark contrast is huge between the prison’s contemporary, clean, and bright administrative offices and the potentially dangerous, rubble-filled corridors in some parts of the building.

The RV we are working and traveling in barely fits through the front entrance. Unfortunately, someone drove the vehicle too fast through the opening and sheared off part of the roll-out awning. The dangling fabric certainly ain’t pretty, and we’re going to have to do a little brainstorming later to figure out our options.

The highlight of the “pen,” if there really is one, is the cell Al Capone spent eight months in. It’s located in a high-traffic area in the middle of the prison and is complete with real furniture, a painting on the wall, and a decorative plant in one corner. The scene makes me think of Peter Gibbons on Office Space:

“Samir, this is America! Come on, sit down! Come on! This isn’t Riyadh! They’re not gonna saw your hands off, all right? The worse they can do is put you for a couple of months into a while collar, minimum security resort! We should be so lucky! Did you know they have conjugal visits there?”

So maybe it wasn’t quite like that at Eastern State, but I’m sure the other prisoners weren’t able to live as comfortably as the notorious mobster did during his stay.

Al Capone’s former cell (1929-1930)

 

Today:
Eastern State has seemingly been popping up a lot lately on TV. Most recently, TBS has been frequently airing Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, so it was really cool to be watching it and instantly recognize the guard/clock tower in the scene with characters Mudflap and Skids.

 

Eastern State Penitentiary

 

Eastern State is a really cool place to check out, if you ever have the chance. And I hear they put on one heck of a Halloween haunted house. Speaking of which, some of these places have an ambiance you just can’t get from anywhere else. One location in Kentucky where I did some support work for a ghost hunting show also put on an annual haunted house….this was an old hospital where tens of thousands of people died in the early 1900s. There’s nothing quite like walking alone in a basement in the middle of the night, hearing footsteps behind you, and turning around to find nothing there. Not being a paranormal investigator, I have never gone into a place expecting to have some otherworldy experience. But I can tell you this: at some of the “haunted houses,” you really get what you pay for.

If you enjoyed this ghost hunting-related post, also check out Ghost Hunting in Delaware (Before the Memory Fades) and The Strangest Coincidence of My Life.

Also, feel free to leave a shout-out below!

Vasquez Rocks!

08/10/2012

I dipped out of work a little early yesterday, telling the bosses I had something to do. Considering it was a slow day, the fact that I get no official time off, and we all-too-often work the standard 12 hour day (standard in our line of work, that is), they understood and didn’t ask any questions. I packed up my bag and made the 15 mile drive to the Vasquez Rocks for a photo mission.

If you aren’t familiar with this particular geologic structure, it’s a collection of smallish, sandstone mountains that have shot diagonally out of the earth. The rocks have been used in numerous productions over the years like Star Trek, The Twilight Zone, NCIS, 24, Roswell, Blazing Saddles, The Big Bang Theory, Power Rangers, Michael Jackson’s “Black or White” video, etc.! etc.! etc.!

Sometimes I am a little long-winded, so I am going to post a few photos and let them do most of the talking.

 

 

 

 

The middle photo gives the best perspective for demonstrating how large these formations are. They are a pretty easy climb, and it’s so peaceful atop the peaks. They even have a haunting whistle when the wind is blowing, in a way similar to blowing on the top of a bottle. It’s worth a quick visit if you’ve never been and ever get the chance.

The Vasquez Rocks are located in northern Los Angeles County, about 40 miles north of Hollywood. If you go hiking in the area, bring plenty of water and watch out for rattlesnakes!

Working on Ghost Hunters has left a sort of lasting legacy on my life. I am far, far away from that work now, but there are frequent reminders of all that time spent on the road in those cold, dark places.

Now working on a scripted show, I watched an actor walk in for a script/table read last week… it was Steve Valentine, who just so happened to host the Ghost Hunters Halloween live show in Delaware in 2008. Imagine that! The last time I saw him was nearly 3,000 miles away, on the opposite coast. I found it bizarre, but that’s actually not the strangest coincidence brought about from my time spent on Ghost Hunters. The absolute weirdest, craziest thing that’s ever happened in my life was during the filming on Ghost Hunters Academy in 2009.

Filming in various towns up and down the east coast, we ended up in St. Augustine, Florida for a couple weeks, to investigate the old lighthouse there. When that wrapped up and we were heading out of town, one of our crew guys had to fly home to care of some personal business.

Our caravan lumbered up the highway to Jacksonville, and we set up camp at a gas station, while one of vehicles continued on up the road to take our crew guy to the airport. While waiting on the driver to return and relaxing in the driver’s seat of the RV (which had the GHA logo on the side), an incredibly fit-looking black man with dreads approached. “Hey, are Jason and Grant around?” he asked (Jason and Grant being the stars of the main Ghost Hunters series.) “Nahhh, they’re not on this show,” I said, “this is a spinoff……. You know, you actually look a lot like the guest investigator on Ghost Hunters Live in Kentucky.” He simply smiled, shrugged his shoulders a bit and said “yeah.” My mind was completely blown – was this the same guy??? While trying to figure it out, he said “Well, if you see them, tell ’em I said ‘hi,'” and he walked away. “Tell ’em I said ‘hi?'” DUDE! NO FREAKIN’ WAY!

My good buddy Ben (one of the Academy contestants) was sitting in the passenger seat, watching this whole thing go down, so I put him on the case. “Ben, look up wrestler Elijah Burke and see where he’s from!” He did, and discovered that our Ghost Hunters Live guest is/was from….. you may have guess it: Jacksonville, Florida!

No doubt about it, while working on Ghost Hunters Academy, I ran into the guest investigator of Ghost Hunters Live at a gas station 750 miles away from where the show took place. And that, my friends, is one of the two weirdest things that’s ever happened in my life.

Ghost Hunters Academy RV

The Ghost Hunters Academy RV and Chewie in New Jersey

 

What a great gift! For my birthday last year, my lady bought (us, technically) a voucher for a hot air balloon ride in Temecula, CA. It was going to expire at the end of this month, so we booked a ride about a month ago. That fell through, as the weather didn’t cooperate, so we ended up rebooking for yesterday.

I had imagined it as being just the two of us and the pilot. In fact, it was us, the pilot, a co-pilot, two other couples, a pair of brothers, and a pair of sisters…. quite different from what I expected!

We all met at a winery at 5:30 AM, and we were then driven to the launch site in an open field a few miles away. It took probably a half-hour to get the balloon set up and we were up, up, and away!

Temecula Hot Air Balloon

Inflating the Hot Air Balloon

There was a heavy marine layer at about 900 ft. so, while the balloon was up in the clouds, we were hanging just below it. The pilot occasionally took us completely up into the clouds so he could get a better feel for how the wind was blowing. I have driven through fog more times than I can count, but it’s a completely different feeling to be floating through through the clouds.

The scenery was gorgeous, with huge estates, vineyards, and grapefruit groves for as far as the eye could see (and the marine layer would allow). At one point, the pilot took us way down, and we gently glided over a vineyard. We were so close you could see grapes on the vines, and my photos look like they were taken from a ladder.

Temecula Vineyard

Flying Over a Vineyard

When the hour-long flight was coming to an end, the balloon was guided down to a field. From there, the ground crew grabbed a hold onto the basket and steered us right onto the trailer! It felt even more calculated than an aircraft carrier landing… pretty amazing.

Fruit Basket at a Temecula Winery

Celebratory champagne (mimosa) post-successful hot air balloon landing

I had never heard very much about the wine in Temecula. Most winos I know haven’t been there, whereas they have all been to Santa Barbara for tastings, and many of them have been even further north to Napa. It now seems like Temecula is a well-kept secret. My expectations were admittedly low, but much of the wine I tried was really, really good. We have never joined a wine club before but couldn’t resist on this trip. I’m looking forward to getting my first, two-bottle shipment in August!

The walls that enclose the rail line are covered with graffiti, and the train terminal feels grimy and is filled with a lot of shady-looking characters. Like Naples, we were also warned about this place, Florence – about the pickpockets lurking in the train station, dressed as tourists. And we were warned about the drug pushers that hang out in front of the Santa Maria Novella church, which is the main thoroughfare to walk into town from the train station. Thankfully, no one bothered us on our way to explore this new destination.

First observation: there seems to be a monopoly on kitschy (crappy) products sold on the street. It’s not just here – it was in Rome, too. The Africans hock handbags and watches on pedestrian bridges and the fringes of piazzas. The inner parts of the piazzas are overrun with Middle Eastern men selling prints of famous art and small helicopter-type toys. You shoot those things way up in the air with a rubberband and watch them slowly twirl back down to the earth. Since they are lit up with a little blue LED, they actually look really cool at night. But the street salesmen are a bit scary and enough of an annoyance that it seems best to not give them even half-a-second of your valuable vacation time.

The Duomo (a.k.a. Basilica of St. Mary of the Flower) is a magnificent structure that, fortunately, we had a beautiful view of from our hotel room. Although the church itself is a magnificently grand structure, the really eye-catching parts are the bell tower and dome. Tours of both are available and, to reach the top of the dome, you climb up 400-some steps and navigate through a number of corridors too tight for the people exiting and the people entering to pass through at once.

The view from the top is incredible, though some people were apparently pretty nervous being about 375 feet up on a structure that is approaching 600 years old. I found it worth the risk. It was awesome seeing the other beautiful cathedrals, the castles off in the distance, and the people on the bell tower across the way looking at you through binoculars and cameras.

 

The view from our hotel room of the Duomo


 

Our dinner choice came about from a recommendation by one of my coworkers. “When you’re in Florence,” he said, “you’ve gotta try the blueberry steak at a place called Acqua al Due. It’s incredible.” So we did, and it was. In fact, this was one of the best dining experiences I have had in Italy so far. The bottle of house Chianti was delicious and fairly priced, and the blueberry steak was something to behold. The steak was a rather nice cut and fantastic by itself, and the blueberry sauce was a great, unique extra touch. Alone, the sauce tasted a lot like barbecue, though the blueberry flavor really popped out on the steak. I’ve gotta figure out that recipe, or at least something close to it… Unfortunately, we were seated next to a group of about ten college kids and two of their professors. They were a little on the loud side, which took away from a more intimate, fine-dining experience, but they were okay.

Florence is the home of Michelangelo’s statue of David. The line to get into the Accademia Gallery that houses it and the sun beating down were both brutal. My lovely lady was getting a little frustrated, as was I to some degree. But when we finally made into the gallery and turned the corner to see the statue, all of that previous tension vanished.

In photos, the David statue looks like….just another statue. But in all actuality, it’s 17 feet tall and was immaculately sculpted: David’s muscles are engorged, as if he just finished the fight in which he slayed the giant. Veins in his arm are visible. The intense look on his face seemingly turns into a slight smirk, depending on your vantage point. I don’t understand the hype over some things, but this one I get. It was truly the work of a master artist, who was only 26 years old when he started sculpting this piece.

Back to that “hype” thing, the Uffizi art gallery is regarded as another one of Florence’s treasures. It’s an enormous museum, filled with paintings and sculptures that have been around for centuries. I wouldn’t exactly say “Once you’ve seen one piece, you’ve seen ’em all,” but the paintings in the Uffizi are almost exclusively of a religious nature, and the sculptures that line the hallways are mostly of people you and I don’t know a single thing about. You really have to like marble and depictions of the Madonna to make the most out of a visit. I will say that there were definitely some “wow!” moments in the gallery but, honestly, I missed the reason why demand is great enough that the travel books recommend buying tickets in advance. We didn’t and waited in line 45 minutes to get in.

Florence is a beautiful town, and I continue to feel blessed to have this opportunity to explore and gallivant around Italy… though it ain’t cheap! Until next time… ciao!

 
Sun Setting Over the Ponte Santa Trinita Bridge in Florence, Italy
 

Siena is such a confusing place, initially, when arriving by rail. You walk out the front door of the train station, and all you see in the vicinity is a mall, straight ahead. The mall, in this case, is key in getting you where you need to go, as it contains a system of ten – yes, ten – escalators that eventually hoist you to the top of a mountain. Had I done my homework beforehand, or happened to carry a topographical map, I would have known that Siena is one of those mountaintop type of towns I was curious about in the “Italy in Cursive” post.

At the top of the mountain, you make a left, go probably half a mile, and you’ll end up in the old part of Siena. Since it’s a walled town, all main roads basically lead to the Piazza del Campo. That’s a massive, open “square” (it’s more circular), where all kinds of people congregate to socialize, eat/drink, and take in the lovely architecture. Also, there is a bareback horse race that takes place in the piazza every year. Nearly all the Sienese neighborhoods are represented by a rider, and the only rule seems to be that the quickest horse must make three laps to win – with or without the jockey still on-board. The race has a rather bizarre history, with the lore including stories of jockeys being kidnapped, riders smacking each other with whips during the race, and horses being drugged before the big event.

Piazza Del Campo in Siena, Tuscany, Italy

This is part of the Piazza del Campo, as described above.

Trying to take in a little bit at a lot of different places, we decided to depart from Siena for a day and take a tour of the medieval town of San Gimignano. From a distance, the town is incredibly beautiful, with 15 of the original 72 towers remaining, dating as far back as the 11th century. The towers were apparently built by wealthy merchants as a sign of power. Aside from the incredible architecture, the tiny town is a huge tourist trap.

San Gimignano, Tuscany, Italy

The second half of our guided tour was spent at Tenuta Torciano winery. The visit was more of a class than just a simple tasting. The proprietor (well, one of them – it’s a family operation) showed our small tour group the proper way to hold the glass, swirl the wine, smell the bouquet and, finally, drink.

Pairing the wines with locally-grown and -made salad, salami, cheese, olive oil, balsamic vinegar, and truffle oil made the experience above and beyond the many U.S. tastings I have tried. Plus, it’s refreshing to have a vintner NOT try to steer your pairing preferences. You might be able to imagine him telling us in a thick Italian accent: “If you-a like the bold meat with a white wine, you like-a what you like.”

Back in Siena, it was a little bittersweet leaving the town because it’s rustic charm was a little addicting and made it hard to want to leave. On to Florence!

Duomo di Siena Cathedral, Tuscany, Italy

Another one of the beautiful Sienese churches


Siena, Italy