laws, trip planning

Firenze, Italy sends Bill New Year’s greetings…

Some of my regular travel blog readers might recall that Bill and I took a trip to Italy last spring. I blogged about the trip in sixteen parts, which also included stops in Switzerland and Liechtenstein. We visited Parma, Modena, Florence, Pisa, Viareggio, and several adorable towns in Tuscany, as we visited several Chianti Classico wineries. That was the most recent of our more epic European trips, and I’ve found myself looking back on it wistfully. I am REALLY in need of a trip somewhere. But other events are in the way, to include our dog Arran’s chemotherapy, which is still going surprisingly well.

I’ve even been giving some thought to visiting Italy again in 2023. I follow the Meet the Wengers YouTube channel, which is a family vlog run by an American woman named Katie, who married a German man. They have three adorable and apparently well-behaved children. Recently, she posted some videos about the family’s fall trip to Verona, a city I haven’t yet visited in Italy. Her videos make me want to go there and explore.

One of a few videos the Wengers have done about Verona… Now I want to go, too.

Well, yesterday, Bill got a reminder of our most recent trip to Italy. It came in the form of a traffic ticket. We drove to Florence, mainly because we wanted to bring some food and wines back to Germany, and because I didn’t want to deal with flying, due to the pandemic. Having a car makes travel in Europe a little bit more liberated, as it means not being dictated by timetables or established routes. However, car travel comes with its own hazards, which include traffic cameras that take photos of those who break the rules.

In our case, the infraction occurred on April 27, 2022, when Bill mistakenly drove our Volvo through a restricted area. It seems that many towns in certain Italian cities don’t allow non-residents to drive on certain streets. We had a bunch of bags, since we were on a long trip. The hotel we stayed in was on the third floor of a building and kind of hard to find. Bill was disoriented as to where we were supposed to go, although it turned out there was a very large parking garage near the hotel.

Long story short, the cameras caught Bill driving where he wasn’t supposed to go. Naturally, we were both completely oblivious to the infraction. Some Italian cities that have these rules against non-residents driving on restricted streets, will allow travelers to register their vehicles before their arrival. I think the city of Bologna is one of those places. Bologna is another city I haven’t yet seen. Maybe we’ll go there next time and avoid Florence! 😉

Yesterday, Bill had to sign for a letter at the post office on our local military installation. It was in a window envelope, and came from the city of Firenze. Inside the envelope was the notification of the driving infraction, written in both Italian and English, and a complete rundown of the law that was broken. There was also a schedule of the fines to be paid. It’s 68 euros if Bill pays within six days. If he delays payment between 6 and 60 days, it goes up to about 95 euros. If he doesn’t pay within 60 days, it goes up to 176 euros.

At first, Bill thought the ticket read that he would have had to have paid within six days of the infraction, but obviously he hadn’t been notified at that time. Upon closer examination, he read that he can still pay the reduced fine, since he just got notice. It’s done via bank transfer, as most things here are.

We’re just glad this didn’t happen in Switzerland, as the fines are probably a lot higher there… but they probably also come within a couple of weeks, rather than several months, routed through The Netherlands. I don’t know why the ticket went through The Netherlands. Maybe it’s because the ticketing agency is outsourced.

I just took down all the Christmas decorations. I’m glad to have that yearly chore done. It’s a lot easier to take the decorations down than put them up; and for that, I’m grateful. However, I always find it a little sad to see my living room in its normal state. I like the homey look created by the Christmas lights. On the other hand, it’s less to have to deal with, and I also look forward to more daylight and better weather. I’m definitely ready to have some fun! So now, on with making some travel plans for 2023! We’ll be more careful about where we drive and park, next time!

Edited to add: The day after I posted this, Bill got a second ticket from Firenze for the same offense. He drove through that historic area twice! I’m glad he moved to a different area after dropping me off. Both tickets, paid at the lowest rate, were about 60 euros each– so, 120 euros for driving in the wrong places in Italy. Expensive lesson learned.

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A Christmas treat at Villa Im Tal…

I know I have at least one reader out there in Internet Land who likes it when Bill and I go out to eat. There was a time not so long ago when that was a pretty regular occurrence for us. Unfortunately, COVID-19 and Arran’s sudden regression to puppy adolescent behavior have curtailed our fun in recent weeks. He’s been breaking into the basement, getting into anything remotely resembling food. It got so bad that I ordered a new baby gate last week and it arrived the other day. It’s about four feet tall, I think.

Bill installed the new gate and beagle proofed as much as he could today, as we had a 1:00 appointment to visit one of our favorite restaurants, Villa Im Tal, a beautiful restaurant in a wooded area on the outskirts of Wiesbaden. We’ve been there many times, but I think our most recent visit was last spring. When I saw that they had a special Christmas menu available, I decided to ask Bill if he was up for it. Naturally, he was.

The special menu was four courses. Everybody got the same thing, except for the main course. There was one vegetarian selection, or a choice of roast beef, sea bass, or roasted duck. The duck was the most interesting for me, while Bill went with the roast beef. We ordered and paid for the food a few days ahead of time, to help out the chefs in their planning. However, once we got to the restaurant, we still had to tell our waitress what we wanted.

The food and service were, as usual, superb. We started with two glasses of white champagne, fresh bread with Spundekäs (a local mild cheese spread), then a beautiful sashimi salmon salad, with watercress, pomegranate seeds, turnips, and a honey mustard vinaigrette. Next came my favorite course, a delightful langoustine soup, with chili peppers, ginger, tomatoes, and croutons. That soup was so delicious! I would have gone there just for that course! It was a very comforting bisque that practically burst with flavor.

Next came our main dishes– Bill’s roast beef came with mushrooms and a barley risotto, and my duck included a potato knodel and spiced cranberries and red cabbage. Bill said the roast beef was excellent. I didn’t try it, because of the mushrooms. I did really enjoy the duck, though, which came with a savory gravy. We paired the entrees with a lovely Spatburgunder from Rheinland-Pfalz. Finally, for dessert, we had a Blood Orange Papaya Salad with mandarin sorbet, and white chocolate.

There were a lot of people in the restaurant, as well as a well behaved poodle who charmed a toddler girl. She put on quite a show as she came over to pet the friendly black dog. While we were enjoying our meal, I started telling Bill about how, the first time I visited Florence in 1997, I was with friends and ordered a steak. The waiter neglected to charge me for it. I called it to his attention, and he seemed ready to defend the prices. He was definitely surprised and very relieved when I let him know that he forgot to charge me for my dinner.

The same thing happened to Bill and I one time when we were dining at The Occidental in Washington, DC, years ago. The waiter was very grateful that we pointed out the mistake, commenting that we saved him a lot of paperwork. Wouldn’t you know it, the same thing happened tonight! The waitress forgot to charge us for our bottle of red wine! She was pretty happy when Bill reminded her that we’d had it.

Villa Im Tal is a nice restaurant, but it’s also child friendly. This dinner offered a kids’ menu, and I’m pretty sure they have one on their regular menu, too. But although it’s family ready, it’s also a very nice place to eat. The food and service are always outstanding. I always appreciate the friendly and professional staff members, many of whom speak English, and the beautiful woodsy setting, near a large riding facility that makes me miss owning a horse.

We prepaid for the food, which was 88 euros per person. I think the bill for the wine and sparkling water was another 100 euros, plus Bill threw in some euro cash as a tip. It was worth every euro cent, as Villa Im Tal is always a pleasure. Below are some photos from our delightful date…

When we got home, at about 3:45pm, Arran and Noyzi were very excited. And we were excited to find that the only casualty from our absence was some newspaper that Arran shredded. I threw it in the fireplace, possibly for a fire tonight. I know we’ll be back to Villa Im Tal. It’s definitely a favorite.

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booze tourism, hotels, Italy, road trips, wine

Food and wine in Switzerland, Italy, and Liechtenstein… part fourteen

Back in Florence for one last night…

We arrived in Florence in the early evening. Tom pulled his van into the parking area where he had originally advised Bill to park. He wasn’t able to park there, though, because it was full when we arrived. Consequently, Bill had to go get the Volvo from the garage. While he was doing that, I said goodbye to the other group members, who all headed off in different directions. Tom, very kindly, stayed with me while I waited for Bill. He asked what I thought of the tour.

I’m afraid I might have been more blunt than necessary, but that was mainly because I really needed to pee, and we didn’t stop on the way back to Florence. I know I should have said something… I’m sure the others might have even been grateful. I know Bill would have. He always needs to go, because he takes blood pressure medicine that makes him have to urinate a lot. I told Tom that, if I was honest, I hadn’t really wanted to do a tour. That’s certainly not because of his services, though. It’s because, like I said, I’m just not very good at “the group thing”. I know some people find me annoying, and I don’t enjoy feeling like I’m annoying people, simply for being myself. I was also concerned about COVID-19 policies, but thankfully, that didn’t turn out to be a problem. My lifestyle probably makes me less appreciative of strict schedules, even though I know they’re necessary. But, that’s just me. Some people are great in a group situation. I fully own that I’m less so, especially since I’m out of practice since we’ve been dealing with COVID life since 2020. I don’t hang around people much, and it probably shows.

In spite of my comments in the previous paragraph, I genuinely enjoyed this wine tour. I’m really glad I did it. 😉 I would not hesitate to book another tour with Tom. I thought the price, especially for what we got, was very reasonable. It was 875 euros per person. We owed him more than the 1750 euros, since he booked two extra nights for us at the Hotel Firenze Capitale. But, for the base price, considering that it included two nights in hotels, four meals in restaurants, tours at four different wineries in several different towns, and Tom’s professional services, I think it was a pretty good deal. I really liked the places where he took us, and I was impressed by his language skills and business connections. He’s also very knowledgeable about the wines in Tuscany, and the region itself. The payment was easily handled by bank transfer after the tour.

Bill and I talked about it, and we were a little reminded of our very first cruise on a Royal Caribbean ship in 2009. It was a four night Baltics cruise that went from Oslo to Stockholm on a ship that carried 1500 passengers. We had a very good time, but by the end of the cruise, Bill said “I would happily take another cruise, but I think I’d rather do an all inclusive luxury cruise.” Those words were, of course, music to my ears. Since then, we’ve cruised three times on SeaDream I and five times on Hebridean Princess. Both ships are small, luxury vessels. I know… I know… high maintenance!

In spite of my years as a Peace Corps Volunteer, I am definitely not a “no frills” traveler. At least not anymore. Maybe roughing it for two years in a developing country does that to a person. 🙂 I’m also getting older, so I would probably prefer a tour that happens at a somewhat slower pace. Bill said he would really like to do a private tour with Tom, which I know can be arranged. We would consider doing another regular tour, too, although I think it might be better to do it with people we know. That way, people are forewarned about my unorthodox sense of humor and many personality quirks. Again, that’s easily arranged, since the tours are pretty small. I appreciated that Tom made the logistics relatively easy, which I know can be a real feat. He was very professional and, again, it was nice of him to wait with me. I didn’t expect him to do that.

It took Bill awhile to get back to the parking area, so we moved my bags to the other side of the road to make it easy to load the bags and get on our way. Bill picked me up, and we headed for Hotel David, which at this writing, is Florence’s #1 ranked hotel on Trip Advisor. After our one night there, I can see why it’s so popular. I booked Hotel David because I was looking for a hotel with parking. Hotel David’s rates include free parking. However, besides parking, the hotel offers a free social hour with wine, beer, and other beverages in the hotel’s yard. Breakfast is included in the rate, as is the minibar. And our room was beautiful and very comfortable, and beautifully appointed. I would say that now, after having stayed in four Florence hotels, Hotel David is easily my favorite, even though the somewhat stern message they sent ahead of our arrival put me off a little bit.

I’m glad I didn’t cancel. This warning message turned out to be a non-issue.

We arrived on May 1, though, and that was the happy day when the mask mandates in Italy were lessened somewhat. We only had to wear a mask when we were at the buffet at breakfast. I really enjoyed the aperitif hour in the garden. We met two other American couples who were very friendly and nice to talk to. It reminded me that people outside of the American military community can be very refreshing company. One lady we talked to was from Boston. I found her utterly charming. I could tell she was a good friend and loving family member. She was so excited to be in Italy, and it was really nice to talk to someone who was so happy to be in Europe and not jaded. Below are some photos from our stay at beautiful Hotel David. I would not hesitate to stay there again, although again, the elevator is TINY. I always cracked up when I saw signs advising only four people were allowed in the elevator at a time. I don’t know how four people could possibly fit!

Total cost for a night in the superior room we booked was about $270. Cheaper and different sized rooms are available, and if you book on their site, you get 15% off your rate. I booked on Expedia, so I didn’t get the discount. If we book there again, I’ll know better. They even have a quad room, and singles. We had a very restful night, and it was so easy to load up the next morning and get on our way to the next destination, Vaduz, Liechtenstein, where we would be relaxing and decompressing a bit before coming back to Germany. More on that in part fifteen.

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Italy, restaurant reviews, road trips, wine

Food and wine in Switzerland, Italy, and Liechtenstein… part ten

We want some wine!!!

Friday morning, after breakfast, we made our way back to the center of Florence with no specific plans for the day. We were scheduled to meet Tom, our guide, at 6:30pm at Santa Croce plaza. From there, we would go to a restaurant owned by friends of his and taste our first of many wines. Then, we’d have that Bistecca alla Fiorentina we’d been seeing for the past couple of days. But what to do for the rest of the day? Well, we did what we always seem to do when we travel, especially during a pandemic. We wandered around, people watched, and ate. Below are some more photos from Friday.

Near the Ponte Vecchio, we were in a narrow alleyway, where we were greeted by a “friendly” Italian man who saw us looking at menus and told us his place was opening in twenty minutes. I was more open to taking him up on his welcome than Bill was. Bill was put off by the guy for some reason. I guess he doesn’t like being approached. Neither do I, but I’m somewhat less reluctant than he is.

Unfortunately, after that encounter with the local, it took us awhile to settle on a lunch venue. We wandered around several places and considered dining at one place, only to change our minds when we saw a woman send back an obviously underdone pizza (horrors!). There was an Irish pub that looked inviting, with its many fried options… Sadly, I am a big fan of fried food.

We did eventually find a really great local restaurant for lunch, Osteria Cipolla Rossa (red onion). And we found it just as I was about to give in to the pull of the tourist traps! We got to Osteria Cipolla Rossa at just the right time. There weren’t many people in the place when we arrived. But, by the time we ordered our food, the restaurant filled up with many locals. Bill had a wonderful vegetarian dish of homemade fettuccine with crushed pistachio nuts, mint, and Mediterranean vegetables. It was unique and interesting. And I had chargrilled chicken breast with roasted potatoes. The chicken was tender, juicy, and very flavorful. When Bill tasted it, he had a look on his face that he usually only has when he’s mid orgasm. Sadly, I haven’t seen that face as often as I used to. I know… I know… TMI.

More buskers. Bill gave them some euros.

By the time evening rolled around, we had walked several miles. My feet were killing me. But we had to walk back to Santa Croce to meet up with our wine group. I was curious about who would be attending the tour with us and how large the group would be. We saw Tom De Vries of Sommeliers Choices waving at us from across the square, so we made our way over there to meet Shawna and John, a married couple, and Heather, a married mom of two who came by herself. All three were Americans who live and work in the Stuttgart military community, as Bill and I used to. I think Tom does more business with the Stuttgart community, though he’s also in my Facebook group, which started out being Stuttgart based, and is now more Wiesbaden centric because I live in Wiesbaden.

To be honest, I’ve often regretted starting that wine group. As I wrote at the beginning of this series, I was actually reluctant to do this tour, because I am not good at being in groups. I’m probably even worse at leading them! But… I can’t deny that it has led to some fun travel and food experiences, like this tour we did over the weekend. We did have some lovely experiences on the very brief, but intense, tour with Tom. I got lots of beautiful photos, drank some beautiful wines from small, family owned wineries, met new people and dogs, and found some places Bill and I might try to visit on our own at some point.

Below are some photos from Friday night’s dinner and tasting at Francesco Vini in Florence. The restaurant was really interesting, especially with the cool “bunker” basement, where we did our tasting. Tom says he does a lot of tastings in the cellar.

One of the group members needed gluten free food because of celiac disease. I’m happy to report that all of the places we visited were great about proving gluten free options for the group member who needed them. Tom was also great about indulging my aversion to mushrooms and truffles. Besides the truffled mashed potatoes with the above dish, there were also plain roasted potatoes offered. The gluten free group member said that Italy was surprisingly accommodating in proving gluten free options, even at pizzerias!

After dinner, Bill and I were too exhausted to walk back to the hotel, so we split a cab with the solo group member. It was about ten euros total, and worth every euro cent. My feet are only now starting to deflate from all the wine and walking we did!

Stay tuned for part eleven.

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beer, Italy, restaurant reviews

Food and wine in Switzerland, Italy, and Liechtenstein… part nine

Figuring out Florence…

After I bought my new scarf, which was carefully packaged for me by the stylish shopkeeper, Bill and I took a walk over the Ponte Vecchio and crossed the Arno. Whenever I look at the Arno River, I want to break into “O Mio Babbino Caro” by Giacomo Puccini. I learned that song when I studied voice years ago. I’m probably too old for it, now… my “beloved daddy” has been dead for several years now. But when I was in my 20s, it was a good song for me. I did even better, though, with Puccini’s “Musetta’s Waltz”. Being in Italy makes me want to break out in song!

The Ponte Vecchio is a medieval stone bridge. It’s got many shops along it. At this writing, most of the tenants on Ponte Vecchio are jewelers. It was very crowded when we walked across, and God knows I don’t need any more jewelry, so we just walked across and milled around for a little while on the southern side of the river. Last time we were in Florence, circa 2013, we explored more on this side of the Arno, even visiting a beautiful church there and sitting in a park, where I observed several local seniors gathering to chat. I’m nine years older now, and have fewer spoons for walking, so we walked a couple of blocks and came back across the bridge to look for lunch.

I took this in 2013.

I usually follow my nose when I go looking for food in different cities. My nose rarely lets me down. Such was the case when we found Ristorante Il Paiolo, not too far from the heart of Florence. An affable waiter who laughed at my jokes seated us at a table. I noticed there were models of the Bistecca alla Florentina in a case by the entrance. Several people ordered that during our visit, and I must admit, it smelled fantastic. But since we knew we were going to have that on Friday night, after meeting up with our wine tour, Bill and I deliberately made other choices for lunch. I went with chopped wild boar and polenta (Cinghiale alla maremmana e polenta). Bill ordered beef with cannellini beans. We paired our dishes with a lovely bottle of wine… one of many on our trip.

After lunch, we walked around more to burn off lunch. I took more photos and a video. Sadly, this time we didn’t run into Piotr Tomaszewski, a very talented busker we found during our last visit. He is easily found on YouTube. We bought his beautiful CDs in 2013, which I still love listening to now. Instead, we found this guy…

Not very exciting…
I didn’t make this video, but this is Piotr Tomaszewski, a talented busker we saw last time in Florence. I understand he was based there for several years. I don’t know if he still is. His music made me cry.

Later, we headed back to the hotel, because I needed to call my bank in the States and get them to fix my online access to my account. I’m still hunting for a less annoying bank. I’m getting discouraged. That was also a good time for a nap, so I took one before we went out for dinner at a brewpub. We figured we were going to drink a lot of wine over the weekend, so beer would be a good idea., although I have had better burgers than what they had at Hops Pub. At least it was relatively cheap! And one of the waitresses reminded me of a friend from my hometown. We walked over 6 miles on Thursday!

Stay tuned for part ten…

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art

Food and wine in Switzerland, Italy, and Liechtenstein… part eight

How great the art….

One of the reasons Bill really wanted to go on this trip to Italy, besides to indulge his love for fine wines and good food, was the chance to visit the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. When we visited Florence in 2013, we were only there for two nights. We stayed in a hotel outside of town. For some reason, we didn’t make time to go to the Uffizi Gallery during that trip. I think it was because he hadn’t booked ahead, and either couldn’t or didn’t want to stand in line at the ticket office. So, on this trip in 2022, we made a point of seeing the art gallery.

Bill loves to look at art. I am less interested in it, although I will admit that some of the paintings I’ve seen in art galleries amaze me. One would think I’d love to look at art, since it’s been such a big part of my life. I have a sister who is an artist, and after his career in the Air Force, my father made a living selling and framing art. But when it comes to museums, I tend to find interactive ones– science and natural history museums– more interesting. During the COVID era, I’ve not been that interested in going to many indoor activities at all. We did go to the Lindt Chocolate Museum in Zurich last year, and that was fun. Especially since tasting chocolate means taking off the damnable face masks. 😉 Below are some photos from breakfast and our walk to the museum.