It would take months—maybe years— to really see Florence.  We only had a day.  Our walking tour began in the best possible place, though, because the view from Pizzale Michelangiolo was spectacular!  We were so fortunate to have a sunny day, because we put in a lot of walking miles and shot a lot of photos—neither of which would have been much fun in the rain!

Following the tour, we had a couple of hours to see more of this beautiful city on our own, so we wasted no time.  Rather than spend it dining in a restaurant, we passed on lunch and walked the streets of the city with our heads on a swivel, taking in all there was to see.

The streets were very crowded; that’s just how it is in big cities anywhere you go these days.  The crowds get to both of us, so there were times we just needed to seek out a quieter area for a respite.

Here, then, is our day in Florence:

(For all pictures, click on the image to see full screen view.)

The Ponte Vecchio (Old Bridge) was built in 1350 and is full of goldsmiths and jewelry shops that have been a feature of Ponte Vecchio since the beginning.
Florence Cathedral
Clement “Clet” Abraham is a wildly popular local artist who became famous by adding stickers to existing road signs and turning them into art. He has done this all around Florence.
Clet has become so popular, he opened up a shop at his gallery where you can purchase all sorts of collectibles and gifts that depict his creative road sign alterations.
Clet was chosen to create a sculpture for this bridge.
The line to get into the museum was horrendous!
“Gates of Paradise” date back to the 1400’s
A rowing competition in the river



Thanks to HGTV’s Property Brothers and other home shows, Carrara marble is in right now, showing up in kitchen and bathroom remodels everywhere.  Have you ever thought about where it comes from and how it is extracted?  I hadn’t until our group visited the Carrara marble quarries. 

Situated along the Carrione River, Carrara is a town that was originally built by the Romans to house workers in the nearby quarries.  The Apuan Alps, where the marble is extracted, is located just up the windy road from town.

(For all pictures, click on the image to see full screen view.)

We had a behind-the-scenes look at the extraction process, and it was explained by our guide, Marco, a former worker in the quarry until his family sold it eight years ago.  His father, Luigi, retired long ago; however, he still visits the quarry regularly, as it was his life before he sold the business.  It was all he knew for 48 years of his life.

Luigi and Marco Bernacca
Our tour group
Cutting the marble
The block of marble this bulldozer moved was estimated to weigh 50 tons.

Carrara marble may be a luxury material, but the process to produce those beautiful countertops is far from luxurious.  The work is hard, dangerous, dirty, and unhealthy.  The quarries are the area’s only source of employment, though, so the workers accept the risks, including the high rate of silicosis and cancer from breathing in the dust and chemicals of the mines.

Speaking of marble dust, did you know it is used in toothpaste, shiny paper, cleaning products and even the Tums you take for an upset stomach?  Check out the ingredients label on Tums; those tablets are made of calcium carbonate—marble dust!

Back to the business of mining marble, the quarries used to be owned by the locals; however, they are now owned by the Chinese and others from outside of Italy.  Globalization of the industry has made it impossible for family businesses to compete, especially since the quarries are taxed 10% of the average value of the extracted marble, which is of varying qualities.  The price per ton a quarry can sell their marble at ranges from $80 to $3,000 depending on the quality.  When you think about the 15,000 tons of marble extracted on a daily basis and being exported, that’s a lot of money leaving Carrara.

What baffles me is the 15th-century rule, still in effect today, that stipulates that whoever finds marble in the mountains is entitled to keep the marble and establish a quarry on the premises, without having to pay taxes to the town or municipality.  As a result, the quarry owners continue to get richer and richer, while none of the wealth generated by the quarries gets invested back into the town.  This explains why Carrara is the poorest town in Italy!

Currently, 70,000 people live in Carrara, and only 1,000 of them work in the quarry, which used to be the second most important industry.  In the past, the marble was worked from beginning to the finished product, but now, it is sold and exported after extraction.  This has caused the extinction of the remaining industry and a high rate of unemployment.  Verona, Italy is where the marble is worked now.

Following our tour of the marble quarry, our group of fifteen was divided up to visit three homes in Marina di Carrara for a home-hosted lunch.  Bruce and I were assigned to Nadia Pailla’s home, along with Martha and Craig.  Nadia didn’t speak English, so Annita served as our translator.

We were treated to a lovely home-cooked meal, as detailed in this menu:

Craig, Nadia, Martha, Annita, and Bruce
Ben took a photo of us before saying, “Ciao!”

It was a wonderful opportunity to get to know locals of Carrara, learn more about life in their town, and enjoy local cuisine.  Our hosts got to know us as well!  Nadia was curious about our families and how we liked Italy.  She especially enjoyed the gifts we gave her.  Martha and Craig had brought macadamia nuts from Hawaii where they live, and I gave Nadia some photo notecards I had made with photos I had taken in the U.S.A.  Bruce had brought some fused glass earrings he had made, but neither Nadia or Annita had pierced ears.  (We’ll bring necklace pendants next time we travel!)

Our time with them was so enjoyable, we didn’t want to leave.  Nadia didn’t want us to go either, because when Ben called her to say he was coming soon to pick us up, she was sad.  Hugs all around when we said, “Ciao!”

Upon our return to Lucca, Bruce and I set off to walk the perimeter walls—a 2.5-mile loop around the historic city center.  Here are some photos of the views from the walking path atop the wall.  More details to follow in my next post…

The walls surrounding the historic city center are lined with trees, a bike path, and a walking path– all added in modern times!

Next up:  Lovely Lucca (Continued)


For the six of us who traveled the past several days with Oscar as our Overseas Adventure Travel (OAT) tour leader, our arrival to Lucca marked the end of the pre-extension tour and the beginning of the base trip, Tuscany & Umbria: Rustic Beauty in the Italian Heartland.  Bruce and I had enjoyed our time with Oscar very much, so we didn’t want to say goodbye.  He assured us that our new tour leader, Ben, was the best, and we would like him.  After all, he had been trained by Ben, the senior tour leader for OAT in Italy.

Upon our arrival at San Luca Palace Hotel, we said our Ciao’s to Oscar and were introduced to Ben.  Yeah, Oscar was right; Ben seemed like a nice enough guy!

One step into our hotel room, and we both said, “Wow!”  The room was huge (and very Italian!) and the bathroom quite nice.  The location was perfect—situated within the walled historic city and close to everything.  Ben gave us a brief orientation tour, and then we explored on our own, taking advantage of the beautiful day and our free time, before meeting up with the other nine incoming travelers joining the tour.

(For all pictures, click on the image to see full screen view.)

The view from our room window

Although I had been to Lucca previously, it was sixteen years ago while on a cruise shore excursion, and the walking tour just wasn’t enough; I wanted to see more.  I had never forgotten Lucca, and it was one of the reasons I was drawn to this tour’s itinerary.

How wonderful to walk its streets again! 

San Michele in Foro
Giacomo Puccini, the great composer was born in Lucca

Lucca is known for several things: Its Renaissance-era city walls, well-preserved city center, the Piazza dell’ Anfiteatro (which dates back to the 1st century A.D.); and, the great composer, Giacomo Puccini, who was born in Lucca along with several other world-class composers.  Lucca is also known for making paper—everything from toilet paper to high-quality writing paper.  Additionally, the city of 89,000 hosts a fabulous summer music festival as well as a comics and games festival.

We were scheduled to take a walking tour the following day with a local guide; however, it would have to wait another day due to a schedule switch.  (We will return to Lucca in Italy #11.)



(For all pictures, click on the image to see full screen view.)

While traveling south through the Lunigiana valley and the Apennine Mountains on our way to Tuscany, it was beautiful to see the changing topography from what had been flat farmland.  Along the way, we stopped to visit the picturesque medieval town of Pontremoli.  A local guide led us on an interesting walking tour through the narrow cobblestone streets of this quaint town believed to have been first settled around 1000 BC.

Pontremoli hosts a book festival each year, and these book-styled benches honor regional authors.
I take notice of cute or unusual dogs when I travel, and this one was most definitely unusual! It’s a Spanish hunting dog, and a sweet one at that!

Following the tour, we had some free time to enjoy the local market in the town square.  One of the local specialties for sale was Testaroli, a regional pasta made from egg-free dough that looks more like a tortilla than pasta.

We loved the pecorino cheese, a hard cheese made from sheep’s milk.

At our next stop, Il Testarolo, we watched how testaroli was made.  Gratziatia has been in business for 38 years, rising at 4:30 am, seven days per week to make 3-400 testaroli each day.  She and her husband sell to local restaurants, and each one sells for about $1.90.

After the demonstration, Gratziatia closed up shop for the day to serve us lunch on the patio of their home/ business kitchen.  Everything was made from scratch, including the wine, olive oil made from homegrown olives, and delicious Italian dishes made from her testaroli.  Even the fresh strawberries were homegrown.  Pastries are something not high on my favorite foods list, but I thought I should at least be polite and try some of Gratziatia’s special dessert.  It was love at first bite!

We bid Gratziatia a heartfelt Grazie and Arrivederci, and then continued south to Lucca, where we would be spending the next three nights.  (On this tour, we were at each hotel for three nights, which was a perfect amount of time to settle in, do handwash, and enjoy each place before moving on.  Thankfully, Overseas Adventure Travel land tours are not in the style of the whirlwind tour in the 1969 comedy, “If It’s Tuesday, It Must Be Belgium.”

Next up:  Lovely Lucca


Food had been a recurring theme on this tour, and this day was no different.  We were off to Polesine Parmense to learn all about how culatello Parma ham is produced, take a cruise of the Po River, and enjoy a picnic lunch.

(For all pictures, click on the image to see full screen view.)

During our stroll to the castle, we passed by this boat that would normally be floating in water in its current location! The severe drought had left the water level nearly non-existent.

Our visit to Antica Corte Pallavicina was the highlight of the day and a memorable experience.  Originally built in 1320, the current owner bought and restored the previously abandoned castle in 1990.  It is now a Michelin 1 Star-rated restaurant headed up by Polesine Parmense native, Massimo Spigaroli.  A visitor to the castle can dine in their restaurant, book a stay in one of their rooms, take cooking classes, and tour their ham cellars and museum.

This photo I photographed shows Chef Massimo Spigaroli with his staff. They were awarded a Michelin Star for their cuisine.

The country setting was beautiful; cows relaxed on the adjacent field, flowers bloomed in the garden along with herbs and vegetables, and a peacock was roaming about.

Stepping down into the ancient cellar, taking in the aroma, and seeing strung hams hanging everywhere I turned was surreal!  These are not some ordinary hams; they are in demand by famous chefs and dignitaries all over the world.  Some of these hams were even reserved for King Charles III!

Hams reserved for King Charles III
Parmesan cheese and squash from their garden were also stored in the cellar for their restaurant.

Each of the 5,000 hams in this cellar weigh about 9 pounds and are worth $350-$450 wholesale, depending on the age—anywhere from 15 to 45 months.

Following our tour and a stroll around the property, we made our way to the Po River (such as it was) for our cruise.  As you can see by the photo below, the water level was extremely low.  We navigated an obstacle course to keep from running aground on our way to Giarola Island for our picnic.

This ceramic piece, found in the Po River, dates back to the 1400’s.

Although it had been a bright and sunny day, the wind was cold, and we all froze on our way to the island.  Jenny had the right idea when she opted to soak in the sun to warm up while we waited for our picnic lunch to arrive.  Oscar and I joined her, and then she started singing, “You Are My Sunshine.”  We joined in, but didn’t know all of the words, so Oscar started making them up.  I thought he was hilarious, and I couldn’t stop giggling.

That evening, we enjoyed dinner together, and I particularly enjoyed my vegetarian dishes:



To begin our first full day in Parma, the group took a guided walking tour through the historic city center, visiting a few of its most spectacular churches and cathedrals.  We couldn’t have asked for a prettier day; it was gorgeous!

This is the ceiling of the first church we stopped at:

(For all pictures, click on the image to see full screen view.)

Continuing on, we arrived at the Church of San Giovanni Evangelista, a Benedictine complex founded between 980 and 988.  This church was built between 1490 and 1519.  From top to bottom, this church was stunning!

Next, we toured the Parma Cathedral, Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta, which dates back to 1059.  Between the architecture and stone sculptures of Benedetto Atelami and the gorgeous frescoes, I was amazed at the meticulous artistic detail.

We concluded our tour of the Benedictine complex at the Baptistery, which was constructed between 1196 and 1302.

The following are scenes captured as we wrapped up our tour with the local guide, and then continued on with Oscar and two others from the group to see more of Parma:

Our group dinner that night was at Sorelle Pichi, a memorable restaurant with great atmosphere, delicious cuisine, and some tasty lambrusco and malvasia wine.  It is also where Oscar, Bruce, and I discovered the crazy coincidence of having met the same jazz guitarist, Richard Smith—the story I told in the “Italy #2” post.  We had a lot of laughs that night, so this is a place I will remember fondly.

Coming up next:  ITALY #6: PARMA HAM & THE PO RIVER


Parma, located in Northern Italy in the Emilia-Romagna region, is known for many things, including its architecture, music, cheese, fantastic cuisine—and, prosciutto, which was present at every included lunch or dinner throughout our travels.  Walk by any deli throughout the region, and you will see prosciutto hanging—and, a lot of it. 

(For all pictures, click on the image to see full screen view.)

Poking around delis (and taking deep breaths to savor the smells) is one of the things I enjoy doing when I travel, in addition to visiting markets, bakeries, and (of course!) chocolatiers.  I like to see what the locals are producing, take photos, and pick up a little something to try or bring back home.

A popular Easter treat in Italy!

Overseas Adventure Travel designs their tours with a lot of built-in free time during the afternoons and/or evenings.  Bruce and I take advantage of this time by exploring each place on foot, seeing as much as we can.  We did just that upon our arrival in Parma, walking throughout downtown following an orientation walk with the group.

Here are some scenes from around Parma:

Coming up next: PRETTY PARMA


A one-hour train ride from Bologna is Ravenna, recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its complex of early Christian mosaics and monuments.  Ravenna was the seat of the Western Roman Empire in the fifth century and later the westernmost outpost of the Byzantine Empire.  This town is full of history, but it was the gorgeous mosaics we found most intriguing. 

Our walking tour brought us first to Basilica of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo, which dates back to 505 AD.  The mosaics were stunning!

(For all pictures, click on the image to see full screen view.)

Our jaws dropped when we entered the 1,400-year-old octagonal shaped Basilica of San Vitale and saw the mosaics representing scenes from the Old Testament, as well as depictions of the Byzantine emperor Justinian.  We were mesmerized by the beautiful detail of the ceiling mosaics and even the floor.

Even the mosaic floor was beautiful!
Basilica San Francesco; the mosaics were underwater, and there were goldfish swimming around!
The mosaic ceiling in the Tomb of Dante
Our group: Oscar, Jenny, Mark, Deb, Nancy, Bruce, and me

In the afternoon, we visited the workshop of one of Ravenna’s most skilled restorers of mosaics.  Ivana demonstrated how mosaics are made and restored, which was fascinating.

These were mosaics Ivana made for sale in her workshop gallery.

An included lunch in between was at Pasatelli, a restaurant that had previously been a movie theater.  It is still used for movies and performances that can be enjoyed while dining on delicious Italian cuisine.  While most of the group dined on a sampling of locally made prosciutto, mortadella, and salami, I enjoyed the array of parmesan cheeses and a vegetarian salad.  It was a memorable 3-course (with wine) feast!

The following are a few photos shot while walking the streets of Ravenna:

This is not wide angle distortion, folks. This tower really was leaning! Supports have been added to the bottom section to prevent it from toppling over.
This massive mound of sundried tomatoes took up an entire five-foot table!

After our train ride back to Bologna, our driver took a detour so we could enjoy a panorama view of the city.  It had been a beautiful, sunny day, and the city below shined in warm shades of terra cotta.

This was a view up from the garden of our hotel.
The day concluded with another delicious dinner accompanied by an artfully-presented basket of bread.

The following morning, we would be off to learn all about…

The Making of Parmesan Cheese: A Stork Carries the Twins

Stay tuned!


Italy is divided up into twenty regions, and each region is further divided into provinces.  Bologna is located in the Emilia-Romagna region, in Northern Italy, and has a population of about 400,000.  Known as the Red City for its Spanish-styled red tile rooftops, it is also known as the Fat City for its rich cuisine.

We sampled some of Bologna’s rich cuisine during our first dinner together, a delicious meal that concluded with a classic Italian dessert, panna cotta, a delicious custard topped with chocolate sauce.  If this first meal was any indication of what was to follow over the next three weeks, we were in for many treats to come!

(For all pictures, click on the image to see full screen view.)

Our first morning in Bologna was spent learning how to make tortellini and other varieties of pasta.  Our tour leader, Oscar, jumped right in!

Oscar, 29, recently became a tour leader and was trained by Ben, the senior Italian tour leader who would be leading us throughout the base program in Tuscany and Umbria.  (I will have more to share about Ben in future posts.)

Hailing from Rome, Oscar is a professional musician.  When I asked him about his music in our pre-trip e-mails, he sent me a link to his music and website.  Take a listen to this .  That’s Oscar on bass, and he is a phenomenal talent!

It was Oscar’s music that inspired an instant connection both Bruce and I shared with him, because of our music backgrounds.  We had a lot of fun talking music with him.  Oscar has a great voice, too, and that night, when we returned to the same restaurant where we were taught how to make pasta, we got to hear it.  In a conversation about classic rock bands, I happened to mention that The Who’s, “Behind Blue Eyes” was the only song I knew the words to that was also in my vocal range.  He broke out in an impromptu rendition, encouraged me to join in, and then he harmonized with my melody line.  I wonder what the other diners in the restaurant thought of that

During another dinner, Oscar was telling us about an American jazz musician he met in Bologna at a music conference and mentioned this musician was a music professor at USC.  I asked (half-joking, because of the slim odds), “Oh, was it Richard Smith?” Bruce and I had heard Richard perform in San Diego and talked with him a bit afterwards when I purchased his CD.  Oscar, startled, took a business card out of his wallet and said, “Yes!” passing the card down for me to examine.  I thought he was kidding, and the card would have another name on it, but sure enough, it was Richard Smith’s business card!  Small world!!

What was it about Italy and small world stories?  The first time I was in Rome, I was with my mom, and we were weaving our way through a very busy plaza between the Trevi Fountain and Spanish Steps, when I spotted former San Diego Mayor, Roger Hedgecock.  He was a member of the University Club where I was a server, trainer; and, created and ran a jazz dinner concert series.  I had served him a few times, so we were familiar with each other.  In Rome, he was leading a tour group of listeners of his radio talk show program.

Shocked to see him (I mean what were the chances???), I went up to say hello, not noticing who else was in the group.  Then, I heard an excited voice from the group exclaim, “I know you!  You serve us at the University Club!”  It was Dr. Vance and his wife, two of my regulars at the club.  And, that, my friends, is the photo op. that got away.  Why didn’t I grab a picture of us???

Back to Oscar, we had a lot of laughs, a lot of fun, and a lot of gelato together during our six-day pre-extension.  During one day in Parma, Bruce and I had gelato with Oscar during our afternoon free time AND for dessert with the group that night.  He taught me how to order it in Italian, “Una coppetta di gelato al cioccolato, per favore?”  I repeated that request many times throughout our three weeks in Italy…

Now, then, are more of the sites we saw in Bologna during our walking tour, in between making pasta and savoring our gelatos:

Bologna is a UNESCO-protected medieval city. One of the sites we toured was the University of Bologna that dates back to 1088, and was the first higher learning institute in the Western world.
The ceilings were incredibly ornate!
This narrow pedestrian street was full of restaurants and specialty grocery stores.
The Emilia-Romagna region is known for producing many Italian delicacies. We learned a lot about all of them in the days ahead.
That’s a lot of parmesan cheese!
A dessert on display where we opted for gelato, although this looked enticing!
This is “chocolate salami,” a dessert I did enjoy. It’s called “salami,” because it’s made in a salami-shaped log. Delizioso!

Coming up next: Ravenna’s Magnificent Mosaics


We were scheduled to go to Costa Rica this past January; however, a dysautonomia diagnosis last year was the convincing wake-up call that my body’s aversion to heat was going to override my heart’s love for tropical environments.  Thirty years of trying to fit that square peg in a round hole was only getting worse.

Back to the drawing board with Overseas Adventure Travel (OAT), we decided to switch over to a cool-weather trip to Italy, during a not-too-hot-not-too-cold time period.  We had visited the Calabria region in 2019, and we wanted to see more of Italy.  Past cruise ship stops to the country while “working” as a guest lecturer aboard Princess Cruises with my mom had given me just enough of a taste of the Tuscany region that I knew I wanted to return.  Thankfully, Bruce wanted to see more of Italy, too.  While we were at it, we thought we would add on the pre-extension trip to Bologna and Parma.

Although we had done excellent small group tours with Vantage Travel and Odysseys Unlimited, this particular itinerary with Overseas Adventure Travel sounded great, and the company was highly recommended by several neighbors and friends.  Besides, of the three companies, OAT’s tours have the smallest group size at 16 maximum.

As it turned out, there were six of us on the pre-extension and fifteen on the base trip.  Fortunately, it was a fantastic group!  We all got along, and everybody was on time, all the time.  Our tour leaders even congratulated us on being such a great group to lead!

In the following days (more like weeks…), I will share our experiences and my photography of what turned out to be a perfect 21-day trip through the Emilia-Romagna, Toscana, and Umbria regions.  We saw and learned so much! In addition to the history, we learned how mosaics are made and restored; and, how Carrara marble is extracted and worked.  We also learned how pasta, parmesan cheese, balsamic vinegar, olive oil, wine, goat cheese, prosciutto, Parma ham, and chocolate are all made; and, we went on a truffle hunt in the mountains. We sampled it all—and, a lot of it!  The food was delizioso!

Please join me on our Italian adventure.  Add your e-mail to “Sign me up!” and you will be notified each time I post.  (You can always unsubscribe later.) Grazie!

(For all pictures, click on the image to see full screen view.)

On our way to Italy!

Meanwhile, I will leave you today with a few scenes around Piazza Santo Stefano, the main square in Bologna and Basilica Santo Stefano:

Basilica of Santo Stefano, a complex of religious edifices
The Church of Holy Sepulchre dates back to the 5th century and was rebuilt in the 11th century by Benedictine monks following a Hungarian invasion.

Finally, we couldn’t complete our first day in Italy without a gelato. Oscar, our tour leader, sent us to his favorite place in town, a popular place!

That’s Bruce!
And, this is Oscar giving us a briefing on tomorrow’s events. (More on Oscar to come!)