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A Visit to the Past in Pompeii

On this, our fourth trip to Italy, we started our planning with a mission: to finally make it to the city of Pompeii. The city was famously destroyed in the aftermath of an eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 AD. It was lost, buried under massive amounts of dust and debris, until explorers rediscovered the site in 1748.

So it was high time we paid it a visit.

As we started planning our trip, we found a tour with Walks of Italy (our favorite guides in Italy) that would take us from Rome to Pompeii and Positano and back — all in just one day. We knew it’d be a long day, but it would help us check two must-see areas off of our list (and get us to our favorite place — Florence — for the majority of the trip).

So that’s how we ended up flying into Rome, passing out for a long jet-lag-inspired nap that nearly ran right into the next morning, and then meeting our tour bus for the big trip south. It was a lengthy drive, complete with a visit to an Italian rest stop, but it delivered us as close to the entrance of Pompeii as you could get in a vehicle.

We walked right in and found the city’s famous death casts waiting for us on display. When explorers and archaeologists found empty pockets in the volcanic debris, they’d pour plaster of Paris into the openings to create casts of the organic matter that once filled the space. These famous casts show the final moments of many of the 2,000 people who remained in Pompeii at the time of the eruption. The detail is stunning; you can easily see the drape of clothing and straps of sandals.

Amphitheater in PompeiiNext our guide — who was once an archaeologist working on the site — took us into the ancient city. Our first stop was Pompeii’s amphitheater, basically a small version of Rome’s Colosseum. The seating was separated into tiers to keep the wealthy and less fortunate residents from mingling. The upper tier was accessed using a staircase on the outside of the structure.

We walked down the street, noting the ruts left by heavy cart traffic and stepping across stone crosswalks placed so pedestrians wouldn’t have to step down into the filth just off the curb. We saw homes laid out with shallow pools in their entryways and beautiful gardens painted on their back walls to create the illusion of more open space. We also saw Pompeii’s fast food restaurants, which served food out of large jars built right into their marble-tiled counters. And, yes, we saw one of its infamous brothels complete with paintings that apparently served as point-to-order menus.

The forum in Pompeii

The forum in Pompeii

After winding our way down the city’s main thoroughfare, we found ourselves in the city’s forum. The wide open space has a view all the way to the volcano that buried and preserved it. Temples and municipal buildings define its edges.

We could have spent at least a full day in Pompeii — probably several — and been left wanting more. Two hours was an introduction, and a good one, but there’s only so much you can do in the span of a couple of hours. Amanda had done her homework, reading Mary Beard’s “The Fires of Vesuvius” before the trip began. It helped fill in more detail and satisfy our curiosity about the city we had waited so long to see.

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The Bridge

We loved our time in Florence and our week living in an apartment in Oltrarno. The small, modern apartment was perfect for us and the view as we’ve mentioned was one of the best in all of Florence. We were able to sit each evening and watch the boats on the river and the pedestrians crossing the Ponte Vecchio. We understand the origin of the legend that the oldest bridge in the city was spared from being demolished by the retreating Nazis because of its beauty, because the bridge is truly beautiful.

Ponte Vecchio

Ponte Vecchio

The beauty does have a dark side, though it’s only seen by those who cross it a lot. A downside of being on the oltrarno side of Florence meant that if we wanted to travel to anywhere on the Duomo side of the river meant we had to cross the bridge.  You’d think we’d be saying “oh, beautiful! What a wonderful place to stroll across each day.” You’d be wrong.  The Ponte Vecchio is a narrow bridge, it is also lined with numerous jewelry shops, each two or three stories tall.  You find yourself walking through a gilded floating canyon with only one entrance and one exit — 276 feet away on the other side of the Arno.

You will never hear me complain about the beauty or deny the bridge its praise that makes it a symbol of renaissance Florence, yet, like a hot girl you’d like to meet but can’t get close to because of all the other guys around her, the Ponte Vecchio is crowded. If you need to cross the bridge during the day when the shops are open, brace yourself.  The pedestrian traffic, if measured in the same way as vehicle traffic, would probably be the equivalent of the Washington, DC beltway during rush hour.  We would have to cross the “Old Bridge” multiple times a day or walk 15 to 20 minutes out of our way to the Santa Trinita Bridge further downstream.

On several of our trips across the canyon of a bridge, I felt like Simba in The Lion King facing the wildebeest stampede. The wildebeest in this case were the throngs of tourists moving in massive herds across the bridge and the city like animals migrating across the savannah. Like the animals on the savannah it’s often better to watch them from a distance rather than walk in the herd.

The best hours for walking across the bridge is of course in the early morning before the shops open and the tourists begin to stir. You get the bridge to yourself and get to see the jewelry shops buttoned up like little jewelry boxes with their large wooden doors and iron hinges.

I guess the point of this post is the Ponte Vecchio is striking and an amazing piece of art. And like a lot of art it is best viewed by taking a step back in order to take it all in.

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Personaly Made Pasta

I would never describe my cooking skills as lacking. I spent a lot of my time as a childhood and adult life in my mother’s kitchen carefully watching her cook. I’ve spent a lot of the last few years cooking for Amanda each night as well. Still, an Italian cooking class was right up my alley and we found one with Florencetown on our recent trip to Italy.

The morning started with a tour of the food and produce market in Florence, a place Amanda and I had tried and failed to visit several times. Our tour guide walked us through the market, giving us a lesson on Florentine epicurean history and pointing out ingredients that we’d be using later in the morning.

The Central Market in Florence

The Central Market in Florence

The cooking class itself was held in a cooking studio of the Food and Wine Academy of Florence behind a rather nondescript door downtown.

The first dish prepared was the meat sauce.  We personally didn’t have much to do with the creation but simply watched as our boisterous instructor and one of the students from our class added ingredients to a large saute pan. The important part to keep in mind about his sauce is that it was a meat sauce, not a tomato sauce. Even though it was being made for a class of 16, it still only contained two heaping spoons of tomato paste.

Our hands-on adventure began when the meat sauce went into the back kitchen to simmer. We were each given a cup of flour and asked to dump it on the marble table counters in front of us and make a nice pile with a hole in the middle. We each cracked one egg and dropped into the flour. I was able to crack the egg like a pro. The one-hand cracking method is something I mastered long ago. We then mixed the eggs and flower with a fork. I did have a small problem there as some of my egg decided to break through the wall of flour and run off the table onto my pants. It wasn’t a big deal but is the reason I prefer to mix things in a bowl. Once the flour was mixed into dough we set aside the forks and began folding it back on itself first horizontally then vertically. The goal was to strengthen the bonds of the dough so it would have elasticity.

The dough balls were then wrapped in plastic wrap and set aside to rise while we prepared desert.

Amanda aproned up for our cooking class in Florence.

Amanda aproned up for our cooking class in Florence.

After the desert was prepared, tiramisu, we were each given a rolling pin to press the dough out until it was thin enough that we could see the table through it. Using a pizza cutter we cut square sections out of the center (and strongest) part of the dough. Then we put small dabs of of prepared mashed potato filling on them before we folded over the halves. Our instructor explained that using an amazing pasta making tool called a fork we could pinch the edges of the ravioli closed.

The dinner didn’t take long to cook as the pasta only took 3 minutes to cook in boiling water. I don’t know if it was because the pasta was fresh or because we made it ourselves, but it was some of the best pasta we’ve eaten. The class was informative, fun and we met some interesting people. We’ve done a lot of different tours during our time in Florence, but this is the first tour where we gained a skill we could use at home. The tour was 89€ per person and great way to spend a morning.

Zeke holding his course completion diploma for his Italian Cooking Class.

Zeke holding his course completion diploma for his Italian Cooking Class.


Our Apartment In Florence

Panoramic View From The Balcony of Our Apartment

Panoramic View From The Balcony of Our Apartment

We mentioned in a previous post that our romantic plans of checking into what we’ve called “our room” at the Pendini Hotel in Florence, where we’ve stayed each time we visited the city, were scuttled by lack of availability even four months out. The inability to spend the week in a room that had been very sentimental to us led us to try to something new. We decided to forego the hotel and rent an apartment, courtesy of Apartments Florence. The cost for a studio apartment seemed to run equal to a hotel stay in the historic city, so we decided to give it a go and we were blown away with the results.

The apartment we rented was on the second floor (the third floor to us in US because they count the ground floor as 0 not 1). We had a small balcony accessed through a floor-to-ceiling glass door that was perched over the Arno River and had a stunning view of the Ponte Vecchio and the skyline of the city.

The view from our balcony.

The view from our balcony.

The apartment itself was approximately 400-500 square feet studio with a kitchenette and bathroom, decorated in a sleek modern design with white cabinets and large white leather sofa and a small glass dining table. We didn’t have much in the way of privacy, but we’re not the kind of couple that needs privacy from each other. The wifi was pretty good and was even fast enough to stream video (from sites that were accessible from Europe). We spent a good bit of our time in the evening sitting on the balcony nibbling our way through a block of parmesan and drinking red wine as we watched the rowers paddling up and down the river and the pedestrians walking across the Ponte Vecchio. We were often serenaded by bands set up mid-span on the bridge playing a various pop hits (a lot of U2 covers) from dusk to early evening.


We were in the heart of Florence and loved it. If we needed something we could go across the street to the supermarket, or to the gelateria next door. We were above one café and down the street 100 yards from the café at the end of the Ponte Vecchio aptly named the Ponte Vecchio Café.  Amanda and I mused again and again on how we loved the neighborhood and could easily live in that little apartment for a year or more, if only we could import our cat Storm.

We had friends staying in the Pendini and that gave us an excuse to drop by our favorite hotel. I could see down the hall from the front desk the door to our old room was open and the housekeeping cart was outside. So I had to take a peek at our old room. But it wasn’t our room; it had been renovated completely.

The old brass bed was replaced by a modern one, the bathroom with the pink tile had been torn out and relocated to the opposite side of the room, the dimensions of the room were significantly smaller. The wooden French door to the room, that I had clanged Amanda’s head into on our honeymoon, was even replaced.  The radiator we clipped our engraved lock to on our 5-year anniversary trip was gone as well. The room that was ours was gone. I am left to think that we weren’t meant to go back to “our room.” We’re older now, and were meant to move forward and try something new. I am most definitely happy we did.



The apartment was perfect for us. We have no complaints and would rent again. But you have to be willing to put up with street noise. We could hear all sorts of traffic from across the Arno, especially the ambulances. We don’t mind that, we live between train tracks and a busy bridge at home. You will also have to cross the Ponte Vecchio and fight through its constant crowds frequently if you don’t want to walk all the way to the Santa Trinita Bridge several blocks away to get to the other side of the river. We were perfectly happy with all of this and happily recommend the apartment, but if those factors would drive you nuts you may want to look for another place. Fortunately, Apartments Florence has 300 apartments available throughout the city!

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We’re on Vacation!

We’ve been celebrating our 10-year wedding anniversary and visiting our favorite city to celebrate, Florence, Italy. So we don’t have a lot of time to write this week. We decided to give you a moment of zen, watching the crews working out on the Arno River with the Ponte Vecchio in the background. We’ll have more on our Italian escape next week.

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We’re Crazy for a Different Kind of Cake

The other day there was a festival in the Bloomfield neighborhood of Pittsburgh (a.k.a. Little Italy). I happen to work in Little Italy, so my walk to and from work was through the crowded festival-filled street. I walked past the various food venders offering all sorts of food: BBQ, Asian fusion, and of course Italian. I was even surprised to see a large RV parked on the side of the street just past the street closures emblazoned with the words “Maryland Crab Cakes.”

Being a Marylander, I of course took a closer look. If they were really Maryland crab cakes they’d have to made by my fellow Marylanders. The RV did indeed have Maryland plates and listed its home base as Havre de Grace, Maryland. I happened to mention that investigation to Amanda as I talked to her on the phone on my walk to my car. She immediately asked me to bring home a crab cake since they seemed to have credibility being from a town along the Chesapeake Bay.

I then realized that my job was to return to the fray of the festival and not go home until a crab cake was in hand. I passed stand after stand until I spotted the gold, black, red and white of the Maryland flag waving in the breeze. Of course there was a line, but it eventually led me to the counter. The cake in hand, wrapped in foil and nestled in a small paper basket I returned to my Jeep and seatbelted it in for the ride home. Precious cargo!

Marylanders take great pride in the state crustacean, particularly when it’s been doused in Old Bay and baked. Amanda enjoyed every bite that evening.

If you’d like to make your own cake here is my mother’s recipe:

Take 1 pound of lump crab meat.

Mix with some bread crumbs, mayo and a beaten egg and form into patties.

Fry in a pan until it is golden brown and serve on a plate or in a bun.

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JetBlue Cuts Through Red Tape

Many consider JetBlue to be a standard of modern air travel and the airline helped kick off a new era in travel between the United States and Cuba this past week. After months of negotiations between the two nations’ governments, the New York-based airline flew its first of many regularly scheduled flights between Fort Lauderdale, Florida and Abel Santamaria, Cuba (located three hours west of Havana).

“We are proud to be the first U.S. airline to serve Cuba, but our focus is on being the best airline serving Cuba,” said Robin Hayes, president and chief executive officer, JetBlue. “This historic flight symbolizes our long-term commitment to provide affordable, award-winning service between Cuba and the U.S. For the first time in decades, families separated by only a short stretch of water can easily and affordably visit a loved one, attend an important occasion or visit a special place – and the role we play speaks directly to our mission of inspiring humanity.”

The airline didn’t clear all of the diplomatic hurdles thrown up in travelers’ paths. The two nations, long hostile towards one another, are just beginning to get along after 60 years. A trip to Cuba is still a little complicated, and JetBlue has taken it upon itself to streamline the process as much as possible.

The first thing the airline is focusing on is what they do best: affordable fares. They want to make it as affordable as possible for families to travel to Cuba, especially considering the large Cuban population living in the United States that haven’t seen family living in Cuba in many years.

The second thing is health insurance.  Yes, health insurance.  The Cuban government requires health insurance for all travelers on all Cuban-bound flights. You also might not mind getting sick in Cuba, or go there for treatment, since the island boasts 1 doctor for every 155 people.

Third in their streamlining approach is rather unique to traveling to Cuba (not that health insurance isn’t) but this one is required by the U.S. government. A U.S. citizen traveling to Cuba must fill out an affidavit affirming the customer is going to Cuba for one of the 12 approved reasons by the U.S. Department of Treasury.

The fourth is getting your visa. Cuba requires all visitors to obtain an entrance visa when traveling to the country. JetBlue has really taken the work out of getting these tourist cards, by making them available for purchase when you check in at one of its gateway airports, such as Fort Lauderdale. The cost of the visa is $50.

Warning: You should still check with the recently opened Cuban Embassy in Washington, DC so you know which kind of visa you will need.

Finally we can get to Cuba from the U.S., but remember that the infrastructure for a true tourist industry is still being built. If you are a truly adventurous traveler and want to take a chance in a country we (the U.S.) had effectively walled off for 60 years, now is your chance and JetBlue is doing its best to cut through the red tape.