Monthly Archives: July 2014

Summer in Northern Italy and the Italian Riviera

When we last visited Italy in 2007, we visited central Italy but never made it up north. This time we spent time up north and in the Italian Riviera. We started this trip in Milan. For us, Milan was not as grandiose as Paris, but it is a city with plenty of museums, castles, churches and a world-renowned fashion district.

Milan

Duomo

One of the most famous landmarks is the Duomo (means Italian Cathedral Church). It is dedicated to Santa Maria Nascente and is the seat of the Archbishop of Milan. The Duomo took 6 centuries to complete and is currently the 5th largest in the world.

Duomo

Duomo

Fashion District

Like New York and Paris, Milan has an impressive fashion district. You will see stores for almost every well-known designer including Prada, Gucci, and Giorgio Armani.

Gate leading to the fashion district

Gate leading to the fashion district

Fashion District

Fashion District

Fashion District

Fashion District

Fashion District

Fashion District

Sforza Castle

Another famous Milan landmark is the Sforza Castle. It was built-in he 15th century by Francesco Sforza, Duke of Milan. After visiting many of the castles in France, it was not as impressive as those but it is certainly worth a visit.

Sforza Castle

Sforza Castle

Sforza Castle

Sforza Castle

Sforza Castle

Sforza Castle

Sforza Castle

Sforza Castle

La Scala Opera House

Inaugurated in 1778, the La Scala Opera House is home to Italy’s greatest operatic artists. The building exterior is understated but the interior is pretty impressive.

Milan Opera House

Milan Opera House

Milan Opera House

Milan Opera House

Lake Como

After a few days in Milan, we caught a train to Lake Como. I’ve read about Lake Como for many years and always wanted to visit. It did not disappoint. The lake is surrounded by gorgeous mountains populated with small villages. We spent our time in Bellagio — a 2 hour scenic ferry ride from Como.

Lake Como

Lake Como

Lake Como

Lake Como

Lake Como

Lake Como

Lake Como

Lake Como

Lake Como

Lake Como

Notice the Yellow Lab swimming in Lake Como

Notice the Yellow Lab swimming in Lake Como

Lake Como

Lake Como

Very close to Bellagio is Villa del Balbianello, a castle where a scene from Star Wars II and Casino Royale were shot.

Villa del Balbianello

Villa del Balbianello

Italian Riviera

I enjoyed the Italian Riviera more than any other place visited on our trip thus far. It is scenic, full of life, and has lots of water activities. All great ingredients for a fun vacation.

Monterosso

We stayed in Monterosso and visited the other villages via train during the day (just minutes away by train). Monterosso was our favorite, it was large enough to have great restaurants and shopping areas but small enough to feel intimate.

Italian Riviera - Monterosso

Italian Riviera – Monterosso

Italian Riviera - Monterosso

Italian Riviera – Monterosso

Italian Riviera - Monterosso

Italian Riviera – Monterosso

Italian Riviera - Monterosso

Italian Riviera – Monterosso

I woke up early one morning and hiked to the top of Monterosso for some incredible views.

Italian Riviera - Monterosso

Italian Riviera – Monterosso

Italian Riviera - Monterosso

Italian Riviera – Monterosso

Monterosso

Monterosso

A small chapel resides at the top that overlooks the city. It was small, only about 7 or so pews on each side of the church.

Italian Riviera - Monterosso

Italian Riviera – Monterosso

I stumbled on an Italian artist painting the landscape, very cool!

Italian Riviera - Monterosso

Italian Riviera – Monterosso

Vernazza

About 3 years ago, Lynn and I were in Breckenridge Colorado and purchased an enlarged photograph of a Greek Island from a travel photographer. He had traveled all over the world and had some incredible pictures of Italy. We struggled between purchasing the picture of Greece vs. a picture of Vernazza. Since then, I have wanted to capture that picture.

On this trip, I got the shot! I hiked for about an hour to get to the spot I needed to shoot this picture. In reality, I could have hiked about 15 minutes if I had known where to go, but I missed the turnoff and took the long way around.

I took the picture from a lot of different angles — which one do you like best?

Vernazza

Vernazza – Angle 1

Vernazza

Vernazza – Angle 2

Vernazza

Vernazza – Angle 3

Vernazza

Vernazza – Angle 4

Vernazza

Vernazza – Angle 5

On my way back down the mountain, I came across this cat sleeping in front of a residence. I awoke him from his slumber, he did not look happy.

Cat in Vernazza

Cat in Vernazza

Cat in Vernazza

Cat in Vernazza

Next we are heading to Florence, Tuscany (for a Chianti wine tour), Rome, Pompeii, and Capri Italy. We will end our trip in Lisbon Portugal.

 

Running of the Bulls in Pamplona Spain

The Running of the Bulls in Pamplona Spain was the first thing we put on the calendar when our vacation planning started. All other planning centered around that weekend. After visiting Paris, Barcelona, Valencia, Madrid, Logrono, and Bilbao, this weekend finally arrived for the Running of the Bulls.

This festival dates back to the 13th century and was made famous by Ernest Hemingway’s book “The Sun Also Rises“.  As Hemingway chronicled, the festival is awash in wine and sangria, and runners partake copiously during long nights of partying.

IMG_1657

When you arrive here, the first thing you notice is everyone is dressed in the traditional red and white attire, which can be purchased at almost every street corner.

Ryan all dressed up

Ryan all dressed up

Hey -- when in Rome...

Hey — when in Rome…

It is definitely a festive atmosphere, with people drinking and having fun, and street performers everywhere. Music blasts and people of all ages join in.

Spanish Michael Jackson!

Spanish Michael Jackson!

Street Performers

Street Performers

A festival for all ages

A festival for all ages

On our second day in Pamplona, we awoke at 5 a.m. to head down to the Running of the Bulls. As we made our way towards the apartment at around 6 a.m., there were lots of drunk people staggering around and were just about to call it a night. We rented an apartment balcony on the street where the running begins, along with about 12 other Americans. We had a great view of the action.

Our balcony

Our balcony

At 8 a.m. sharp, the cannons fired and the bulls came blazing around the corner. People spread like wildfire, some people ducking into side gates, others climbing up the first wall they could find. Some of the more brave ran in front or behind the bulls. From our vantage point, it was over in about 10 seconds but the entire run lasts about 3 minutes. There were medics and ambulances parked outside every turn and they carted 3 people off to the hospital today.

IMG_1693

Running of the Bulls

Running of the Bulls

Running of the Bulls

Running of the Bulls

Running of the Bulls

We capped off our day with a traditional bull fight. Bull fights are no longer legal in Barcelona, Valencia and a lot of other Spanish cities, but you can still see them in Madrid and Pamplona. I enjoyed the pageantry of the Matadors but I was not big fan of seeing the bull get killed at the end — I can understand why they outlawed it in many cities.

Sea of People at the Bull Fight

Sea of People at the Bull Fight

Traditional Bull Fight

Traditional Bull Fight

Valencia Spain

Prior to arriving in Pamplona, we made several stops along the way once we left Barcelona. Our first stop was Valencia. This is a beach town that is about a 2.5 hour train ride south from Barcelona. I really liked Valencia, it has a more hip feel and a cool beach vibe. We headed down to the beach, drank sangria and I took a swim in the Mediterranean. It was hot — about 88 degrees but the Mediterranean Sea was cool. I could have spent more time here, it was a great place to visit.

Valencia Beach

Valencia Beach

Tons of Beach Side Restaurants

Tons of Beach Side Restaurants

Valencia Beach

Valencia Beach

One of the fun excursions we took was a 3 hour bicycle tour through Valencia. It allowed us to get a little exercise while seeing the sights.

Bike tour in Valencia Spain

Bike tour in Valencia Spain

Valencia Spain

Valencia Spain

Valencia Spain

Valencia Spain

Valencia Spain

Valencia Spain

Valencia Spain

Valencia Spain

Valencia Spain

Valencia Spain

Valencia Spain

Valencia Spain

Valencia Spain

Valencia Spain

Valencia Spain

Valencia Spain

Madrid

We only had a couple of days in Madrid, but we took a tour to see the major sights like the Royal Palace. At this point, we did not want to see another Tapas Bar, so got our American food fix when we stumbled on a TGIF!

Royal Palace

Royal Palace

Madrid Spain

Madrid Spain

Madrid Spain

Madrid Spain

Madrid Spain

Madrid Spain

The highlight of Madrid for us was a Flamenco dancing show, we scheduled this for Ryan’s birthday and we all really enjoyed it. The dance is very passionate and awe inspiring. By the time we got back to the hotel, Ryan was performing Flamenco for us.

Flamenco Dancing

Flamenco Dancing

The guy in the picture above had a very distinct Spanish look, I could see most of the women swooning over him. His hair was really long and after a few minutes of dancing, it came out of the ponytail. Everytime he would spin, his sweat would spray the people in the front seats of the audience.

Flamenco Dancing

Flamenco Dancing

Flamenco Dancing

Flamenco Dancing

Flamenco Dancing

Flamenco Dancing

Logrono and the La Rioja Wine Area

As we slowly made our way towards Pamplona, we planned a stop in Logrono and the La Rioja wine area. Although Logrono was a nice stop along the way, there were not many sights to see.

IMG_1551

Logrono Spain

Logrono Spain - our apartment view

Logrono Spain – our apartment view

Laguardia is a medieval town just minutes from Logrono where several wineries now occupy rooms of an old castle built in the 10th  century. The castle is now occupied by about 1,500 residents, mostly merchants of the many food and wine stores located inside of the castle. The castle is surrounded by a beautifully landscaped walking path lined with trees and flowers.

Laguardia Spain

Laguardia Spain

Laguardia Spain

Laguardia Spain

Laguardia Spain

Laguardia Spain

Laguardia Spain

Laguardia Spain

Laguardia Spain

Laguardia Spain

Medieval Village

Medieval Village

Laguardia Spain

Laguardia Spain

The view from the castle is incredible — you can see all of the vineyards that are used to produce the incredible Spanish wine.

Incredible castle view

Incredible castle view

Incredible castle view

Incredible castle view

We scheduled 2 wine tours there and were not disappointed. When the castle was built in the 10th century, they built escape tunnels underneath to allow people to escape in the event of a siege. Later, these tunnels were turned into wineries because the caves offer the perfect condition for storing and aging wine (about 13 – 15 degrees celsius).  The first winery we visited was a small winery that produces only about 40,000 bottles a year. Our guide allowed us to the sample the wine directly from the cement tanks, not something you get to do every day.

Small winery

Small winery

Small winery

Small winery

The second winery was bigger (considered a mid-sized winery in Spain). It was in a section of the castle that housed some of the royal family members in the early days. They spent 4 years remodeling the winery after it had fell into disrepair. During this time, their excavation work uncovered huge cells that were used in the past for storing of wine.

Mid sized winery

Mid sized winery

Mid sized winery

Mid sized winery

Tasty Spanish wines

Tasty Spanish wines

Future Matadore

Future Matador

Bilbao

Our final stop before Pamplona was in Bilbao Spain.

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Bilbao Spain

Bilbao Spain

Bilbao Spain

Bilbao Spain

Bilbao Spain

We had heard a lot about the Guggenheim Museum located there and it was not disappointing. The first floor was the most impressive, it had a really large room with about 9 really large TV screens (floor to ceiling) and an incredible sound system. They had recorded a 60 minute song where each screen showed a different singer (singing and playing instruments) for the same melody — but each person was in a different room of the mansion. It was incredibly arranged and mesmerizing to watch and as you stood in front of a specific screen, you would hear more of the singing and instrumentation that was provided by the specific person in that room. It was a really cool thing to experience.

Guggenheim Museum

Guggenheim Museum

Guggenheim Museum

Guggenheim Museum

Other areas of  the first floor had other video inspired art as well as some large steel art that served as mazes. The look of that art was different from the ground floor than when looking down upon it from the 2nd floor. It was very nicely done.

Steel mazes

Steel mazes

The second floor showcased more traditional art (drawings and paintings). The third floor was totally devoted to Yoko Ono. It included video of her performances and lots of art inspired by her. The coolest thing on this floor was a transparent cube that you could walk through to the center of the cube. It was like being in a carnival attraction — kind of like a house of mirrors but it was all plexiglass. You walked through it like a maze and it was hard to distinguish an opening from a real wall so people would run into the wall thinking it was an opening (myself included).

Guggenheim Museum

Guggenheim Museum

Guggenheim Museum

Guggenheim Museum

This wrapped up our time in Spain. Next we are heading to Italy to experience Milan, Lake Como, Cinque Terre, Florence, Rome, Capri and Pompeii.

 

Summer in Barcelona Spain and 3 Surrounding Areas

This was our first trip to Spain and Barcelona was a great starting point. In our 1 week stay, we visited most of the sights and even took in a few surrounding areas. I was surprised to learn that many in Barcelona speak Catalan instead of Spanish, but most understand Spanish and some English as well. The northeast area of Spain (Barcelona and the Costa Brava area) has a rich Catalonian history and they have a referendum coming up to allow them to declare independence.

Catalonia

Around Barcelona

Barcelona is a really clean city (more so than Paris) with a good Catalonian culture, plenty of sights to visit, and a welcoming vibe. Admittedly, we liked the architecture of Paris better but the Barcelona architecture is whimsical and fun — inspired by Antoni Gaudi and the modernista era.

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Sagrada Familia – The most famous church in Spain

Park Guell

Park Guell

Park Guell

Park Guell – Notice the slanted beams

Park Guell

Park Guell – The columns are not square and plum

Park Guell

Park Guell

Park Guell

Park Guell

You can just imagine Hansel and Gretel living in this house:

Park Guell

Park Guell

Many wondered if Antoni Gaudi was a genius or a flake. It was not until we visited the inside of the Sagrada Familia until we really saw his brilliance — this was the most beautifully architected church interior I’ve ever seen. Living from 1852 to 1926, Gaudi grew up with a big appreciation of nature. You will see from the interior of the Sagrada Familia that the columns look like tree trunks and nature inspired art is everywhere. The pictures can’t come close to doing it justice — you have to see it in person!

Sagrada Familia

Sagrada Familia

Sagrada Familia

Sagrada Familia

Sagrada Familia

Sagrada Familia

Sagrada Familia

Sagrada Familia

They say that Gaudi was a really nice dresser as a young man but as he got older he became more frugal and rarely bought new suits. Many people that did not know him personally would have mistaken him for a beggar. When he was 73 years old, he was on his way to a church when he was hit by a tram. They took him to the hospital for treatment but because of how he was dressed, they assumed he was a beggar and did not give him very good care. Once they realized who he was, they tried to give him better care but it was too late. He died a day later.

Antoni Gaudi

Antoni Gaudi

Not all of the architecture is Modernista, there is a thriving financial district that looks more like Paris or other European cities. A cool thing about Barcelona is that it is a beach-front city with easy access to the Mediterranean Sea. You could see lots of young people riding the metro to the beach with their towels, sunglasses and beach bags in hand — you don’t see that in a big city every day!

Barcelona Beach

Barcelona Beach

Barcelona Beach

Barcelona Beach

Barcelona Beach

Barcelona Beach

Barcelona Beach

Barcelona Beach

Barcelona Beach

Barcelona Beach

We took a sunset sail around the outer banks of Barcelona, a very cool way to end the day.

Sailing Barcelona

Sailing Barcelona

Sailing Barcelona

Sailing Barcelona

Sailing Barcelona

Sailing Barcelona

Sailing Barcelona

Sailing Barcelona

Montserrat

Montserrat (which means “serrated mountain”) is an hour trip from Barcelona. It is perched upon an almost 4,000 foot mountain. It is the site of a Basilica and is home to about 40 to 50 young boys (aged 12-15) that study music. They become part of the boys choir, watched by many that visit. It has trains that take you to the top of the mountain, hiking trails, and restaurants. It also serves as the home of the “Black Mary (or Madonna)” where people wait in line for an hour or more just to touch the statue inside the Basilica.

Montserrat

Montserrat

Montserrat

Montserrat

Montserrat

Montserrat

Montserrat

Montserrat

Montserrat

Montserrat – The Black Madonna

Montserrat

Montserrat

Costa Brava

Costa Brava is a northeastern Catalonian town where Salvador Dali once lived. It sports some of the most beautiful Mediterranean beaches in Europe. We spent a few hours here in the town of Calella de Plafregell and ate the best Lobster paella I’ve ever had (OK it is the only one I’ve had but it was still great!). The pictures below don’t do this place justice, it is incredibly scenic:

Costa Brava

Costa Brava

Costa Brava

Costa Brava

Costa Brava

Costa Brava

Costa Brava

Costa Brava

Costa Brava

Costa Brava

Costa Brava

Costa Brava

Salvador Dali

At some point in our life, we’ve all read about Salvador Dali. He is the wacky Catalonian that has confused and inspired painters for the past century. Born in 1904, Dali died in 1989 with an incredible portfolio of paintings, sculptures, and drawings.

Salvador Dali

Salvador Dali

We first visited the castle he purchased for his wife, situated in a small village of about 300-400 people in Costa Brava.

Castle Village

Castle Village

From his Castle

From his Castle

Afterwards, we visited his museum about 40 minutes from here and he had some very awe inspiring technical paintings and other comical ones that just make you go “hmmmm”. His museum is a statement of his life — expansive, funny, and very well done. If you are in this area, it is a must see.

Dali Museum

Dali Museum

Dali Museum

Dali Museum

Dali Museum

Dali Museum

Dali Museum

Dali Museum

Dali Museum

Dali Museum

Dali Museum

Dali Museum

Dali Museum

Dali Museum