And Then? France

I sort of, kind of, (totally), forgot that I never actually wrote about the second half of our amazing trip to Europe in September. We spent a week in Italy, enjoying a little of this, and of course a little of that. Italy, to put it simply, blew my mind. I had no idea it was so gorgeous. I had no idea the people were so nice, so beautiful, so interesting. I had no idea that I could fall in love with a location.

Cinque Terre

After spending one night in Florence, we woke up early to catch a train. From Florence, through Milan, we landed in Nice, France. Nice was, well, it was nice. Very, very, nice.

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Found a Nice beach. (Tee hee.) (Sep 20)

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Unfortunately one night in Nice is not nearly enough time to get to know the city, so obviously I will just have to return again some day. We wandered around a bit in the evening, and even less the next day, but what little I saw was beautiful. The ocean, of course, was exquisite.

From Nice, we took a train to Avignon, another super cool walled in city, built with winding streets that made it nearly impossible to ever be conquered. We spent three nights in Avignon, visiting the Pope’s Palace, wandering the narrow cobblestone streets, and, of course, eating lots of food and drinking lots of wine.

Avignon

Avignon

Avignon

The views at the top of the Pope’s Palace were spectacular. I could have stayed up there for hours, just staring off into the distance, figuring out what each little village was, what role it had in various historical times.

Avignon

Avignon

Avignon

Avignon

The Pope’s Palace was an amazing thing to see. These two buildings were exquisite: at once beautiful and horrifying because of the clear strength of the fortress, not to mention the religious imagery.

Avignon

Avignon

Avignon

Three nights in Avignon was plenty, and we were all ready for the final portion of our trip: Paris!

Avignon

Unlike Avignon, three nights in Paris is not enough. Not enough by far. In all honesty, we didn’t do very much in Paris besides walk around and eat, and I probably could have done exactly that for another week or two.

Paris

Our visit to the Musee Rodin was a highlight of the trip. It was a cool, cloudy, day, and we spent our time wandering the gardens. Sculpture is one of my favorite (maybe favorite?) forms of art, so this was a really enjoyable experience. We weren’t able to tour the inside of the museum due to renovations, but the gardens were plenty for a tired eight-year-old boy anyway.

Musée Rodin

Musée Rodin

I had so much fun taking pictures throughout Paris, and I hope I really do return some day. There is so much more to see, to do, to experience.

Musée Rodin

Paris

Paris

I will keep my fingers crossed that this wasn’t a once in a lifetime trip. That some day, some way, we will return to Italy and to Paris. I still think about our trip on a near daily basis. I remember the beautiful trees, the amazingly old buildings, the gorgeous mountains, and, of course, the best coffee, wine, bread, and food.

What a trip.

Paris

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Italy, Man, Part Two

After our amazing first couple of days in Italy, it seemed like nothing could top the experiences we’d already had. How could something beat the views? The awesome towns? The delicious food and wine?

We spent a day with a local tour guide walking around Cinque Terre, which is a small area consisting of five towns built into the coastline along the Italian Riviera. These little towns are picturesque, with the classic (at least to my mind) image of Mediterranean coastal towns: lots of multi colored buildings built into what appears to be the side of a mountain.

Cinque Terre

It is rumored (no idea of its accuracy) that the houses are all painted different colors so that when the men were off working in the sea, fishing, or perhaps on their way home, they could easily look back and know which house was theirs and thus which house had their wives and children inside them. It’s a nice thought, isn’t it?

Cinque Terre

We only ended up visiting three of the five towns, a fact that to me simply means I have to go back one day. Each of the little villages was similar, consisting of narrow winding roads, steep stairways, and laundry hanging from windows. Each village also had unique features, from the size, to the steepness, to the popularity, to the beach access, to the specific types of food. I really enjoyed walking down the tiny, narrow paths, up steps upon steps upon steps, and hearing the stories about the residents pouring boiling oil from the second or third floor of their homes onto the Pirates who routinely got lost among the narrow streets.

Cinque Terre

Cinque Terre

There is a trail you can take between each and every town, and otherwise the towns are only accessible by train or a very narrow, not recommended to traverse, road. When the towns were built, the only access was by foot or by sea.

Cinque Terre

Cinque Terre

When we reached the second town on our stop, we had to put our feet in the Mediterranean Sea. How could we not? The water was warm, and blue, and just…perfection. The pictures don’t do it justice because I’m a total amateur, and the haziness of the day really made it tough to capture some of the amazingness of it all. I swear to you, though, the water was a blue I’ve never seen before. It reminded me a bit of the Caribbean, but a deeper blue.

Cinque Terre

Alex started off just putting his feet in, but that quickly became a laughable endeavor of staying dry. His shorts got wet, his shirt got wet, and pretty soon we let him take his shirt of and he ended up totally submerging himself in the waves.

Cinque Terre

Cinque Terre

After so many busy days, we had a day of rest: a day of hanging out by the pool, a day to do laundry, snack, read, and recover. The pool was a bit chilly, but was so clean, salt water!, and so crazy beautiful as it overlooked the mountains and farm land and the small personal vineyard.

Pool Day

Pool Day

Alex, of course, loved this day. While he found some aspects enjoyable in our busy days of walking around and doing tourist-y things, he was so happy to have a day at “home” to relax.

Pizza Chef Workshop!

As if the day couldn’t have been perfect enough for Alex, we ended the evening with a five hour Pizza Making Workshop with a real chef!

Pizza Chef Workshop!

We made the dough from scratch, and got to enjoy cheese, wine, cecina, a chickpea flour flatbread that was so good I wished I could eat one whole pan of it, while we waited for the dough to rise.

Pizza Chef Workshop!

Each one of us got to make a pizza, picking as many toppings from the beautiful array of meats, cheeses, and vegetables, as we wanted.

Pizza Chef Workshop!

In the end, we were handed certificates, indicating that we “passed” the Pizza Chef Workshop.

Pizza Chef Workshop!

It was a great night, and we all went to bed stuffed. Between the appetizers, our home made pizza, and then the chefs making us a few different dessert pizzas to try (nutella, sugar, pear and cheese!), it was a great way to spend our last night in the Villa.

The next day, we packed up. We said goodbye to the amazing villa, drove about an hour away, and spent a few hours in Florence before taking a train to France the next morning. I could easily have spent another day or two wandering around the beautiful streets of Florence, but even the limited time we were there was lovely. The shopping alone could have been an all day activity!

Florence

Florence

Florence was cool. The artists, the craftsmen, the gorgeous buildings, the religious history, the bridges, and, of course, the street vendors.

Florence

Florence

We definitely got sucked in, as a group, to the street vendors selling all sorts of goods, and ended up buying a few things. Alex found a bag, eyed in on it right away, and wanted it so badly. “For my friend here? 100 dollars,” is how the conversation started with the salesman. Alex, of course, nodded and said, “YES!” instantly. Laughing, we got the vendor down quite a bit, and Alex ended up really, really, happy with his purchase. He also learned a bit about haggling, a very important lesson that school would not have taught him.

Florence

All in all, I couldn’t have been happier with our time in Italy. The only thing that would have made it better would have been more time, but for our one week stay? It was pretty much perfection. Delicious food, wine, a happy child, really beautiful sights, and an opportunity to experience just a touch of another culture.

Swell.

Florence

Italy, Man

The mountains surprised me.

I don’t know what I had expected when hearing “the hills of Tuscany” over and over again, but somehow I was still surprised by them. The landscape was, simply put, exquisite.

Wine Tours

Wine Tours

The villa we rented for our week in Italy was in the cutest little town, with a population of around 1,500. We joked at the car rental station outside of the airport that people must do weird things with their cars here because they were all so dirty, but the reality is that many of the roads are simply dirt roads. Our little villa was on one, the last house on a stretch of dirt road. It looked off into the (again, surprising!) mountains, over a small vineyard (used for the owner’s use only).

View from the rental!

Even on the cloudy days it was breathtaking.

We ventured out most days, visiting various villages/towns/cities and, of course, spending one full day enjoying three wine tours.

Pisa was as expected: touristy, some cool buildings, a good place to spend a few hours. Alex loved seeing The Leaning Tower of Pisa. “MOM! It actually leans!”

Pisa

Pisa

Pisa

Pisa

The same day we visited Pisa, we went on to Lucca, which was maybe (possibly? How to decide?!) my favorite place of the whole trip. A walled-in city, it has the quintessential narrow streets, dark alleys, tiny turn after tiny turn. More touristy than I was expecting, it somehow wasn’t an annoyance. We walked along the wall because that’s a thing that you can do (!), and generally enjoyed our short time there, including an unbelievably good dinner.

Lucca

Lucca

Lucca

The wine tours were my favorite day of the whole week in Italy, maybe of the whole trip. I only wished I could have spent it with Alex, but we were lucky enough to be able to leave him behind with an uncle who wasn’t interested in wine.

We went to three different vineyards, learning all about the process of making wine, organic production, fermentation, the awesome barrels and all that good stuff. It was really interesting, and each vineyard that we visited somehow was even better than the last (and it wasn’t just because we tasted wine at each place!). The first vineyard offered us our initial experience of learning all about wine making, and came with an adorably attractive Italian guide.

Wine Tours

Wine Tours

Wine Tours

The second vineyard had breathtaking views over the landscape of Tuscany, served us a delicious lunch, and is renowned for a sweet wine. The sweet wine that is so famous, winning many awards year after year, we were lucky enough to witness a rare part of: the air drying of the grapes.

Wine Tours

Wine Tours

Wine Tours

After two vineyards, we were all pretty tired. It was getting late, entering the early evening hours, and we had been out of the house since nine in the morning. We asked our wonderful tour guide to keep the last tour short, but once we got to the vineyard and were greeted by the owners we were too in love to leave quickly. This third vineyard could not have been a more perfect way to end the day.

Wine Tours

The property of this vineyard was beyond comprehension. It was too beautiful. The buildings, the land, the view.

Wine Tours

The owners were some of the most fun people I could have imagined enjoying some time with. An Italian man and his French wife have created some delicious wines, and were the most gracious hosts. This really was the icing on top of the cake for this day.

Wine Tours

Our last three days were also pretty great (Cinque Terre, Pool + Pizza Day, and Florence), but they’ll have to wait. Can’t overload the system with too much Cool Italy Stuff.

Lucca

I Think This Means I’m a Fat Kid (With a Lot of Vices)

The souvenirs one brings back from a trip not only tell a lot about what that person values, but can also tell a lot about the place those souvenirs are from. Obviously it’s possible to get a magnet and a shot glass anywhere, but I easily could have purchased one hundred shot glasses per magnet. And 99 of those would have had the fleur-de-lis on them.

Here is what I brought home with me:

Crawfish mardi gras beads

Naturally, I had to take home some Mardis Gras beads. Fortunately, all I had to do to get them was go to Mardis Gras World. No flashing required.

Shot Glass

Magnet

A shot glass and magnet were mandatory.

The most appallingly delicious pie ever

The most appallingly delicious pie I have ever had. I ate two while I was there and brought two home with me.

Praline

A praline. I’m not a fan, but Alex insisted that I bring him home a cookie from my trip. So, I obliged. And of course, before even giving me a hug or a kiss when I returned he shouted from his seat, “Mommy! You bwought me cookies fwom youw twip? May I have dem now, pwease?”

SLAP YA MAMA!

“Slap Ya Mama!” Um, enough said.

T-Shirt for Alex

The only reasonable t-shirt I could find for Alex. Most of them were neon or said inappropriate things (even for the tots) or had too many sequins or more glitter than is appropriate for anyone, boy or not.

Save Our Shore

Save Our Shore

This beer is an attempt to help out with the oil spill. Remember: everyone drinks down there, so why not make a commitment to donate 75 cents for every purchased bottle? We drank one and then I purchased one to bring home.

Haunted History Tour Fan

The Haunted History Tour paper fan. I didn’t use it on the tour, even though it was hot, because I was too busy enjoying the tour guide and the beer that we, as a group, stopped to get half way through the tour.

Knight and Horse

The gift that my best friend bought for Alex’s birthday. Of course the knight and his horse have the fleur-de-lis plastered all over them.

Hand Rolled in New Orleans, Cigars

Cigars. Hand-rolled cuban cigars.

Louisiana Fish Fry

Some Fish Fry. It was super cheap, and now I’ll be forced to make some fried fish. Plus: YUM.

Cafe Du Monde Beignet Mix

Some Cafe Du Monde Beignet mix. Again, I’ll now be forced to make them. Darn.

It’s Like a Rash

After I gave Alex a bath at 9:50pm tonight, thanks to a surprise vomiting episode in the car on the way home from the airport, I started looking through the few pictures I took in New Orleans. And by “few” I mean about 140, and let me tell you that is not anywhere near close enough to actually capture that place. Especially given that I only took pictures on two days. (I didn’t want to deal with having my Nice! New! camera while we were out drinking. Ahem.)

As our tour guide on the Haunted History Tour told the group:

New Orleans is like a rash. It gets under your skin. You leave; it’s gone. But it will always creep back into your skin. You can never forget, and you will always come back.

I can’t do the city justice, especially having only spent five days there.

I can tell you what I took away from it:

It’s beautiful. Absolutely, phenomenally, beautiful. The french quarter made my heart swoon. Looking up at the traditional spanish-style homes (not french style! The french homes all burned down not once, but twice, and the spanish said “you’re doing it wrong! Try our style!”) made me realize that I want one. Those balconies! Oh, those balconies!

Beautiful!

It’s hot. It’s humid. It’s a swamp. It doesn’t matter that you are a hot and sweaty mess, though, because so is everyone else.

Mardis Gras World

New Orleanians? Are wild. They are obsessed with sports, the fleur-de-lis, adding “-eaux” to words that shouldn’t have them (“Geaux Saints!”). They are proud of their city. And they are sick of people looking down on it or pitying it because of Katrina. (Seeing the closed down hospitals and drinking a beer in a bar that was 7 feet under water, though? Weird. And I couldn’t help but bring up Katrina.)

IMG_0475

There are no rules. Or at least, from an outsider’s perspective, there appear to be no rules. You can drink in the streets! You can flash a cop and instead of getting arrested the cop will shine his flashlight on you and proceed to flirt with you! Men go shirtless, women go shirtless. Everyone drinks, everywhere, all the time.

IMG_0436

There is music everywhere, all the time. People perform, dancing, singing, dressing as a Pirate and telling Pirate jokes, dressed as a Joker. On various corners people will gather with their instruments, often horns, and play amazing music. Many of the bars have live music, and if you don’t like what is happening in one place you can go next door for something else.

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The food is awesome. And Cafe Du Monde lives up to the hype.

Nom Nom Nom Cafe Du Monde

The Mississippi River? Is huge. I know, I know, what a silly thing to say. But it is! Coming from a city with three rivers I could not have imagined its vastness. Our little rivers here in Pittsburgh look puny in comparison.

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Girls will flash you, even on a random day in August, if you promise them Mardi Gras beads. I saw far more of that than I could have prepared to see. (Seriously, girls? It’s August. It’s not Mardis Gras. And if you really want some beads? Go buy some. They are in every.single.store in the city.)

Bourbon Street is immensely entertaining, but only for one night.

That's a LOT of alcohol

Being able to have someone who knows the city is extremely important. Otherwise, I probably wouldn’t have seen much. I would have missed out on the amazing local scene. Like this place, where I saw this guy, who was unbelievable. Potentially the best show I have ever seen. All in a little bar, with no more than 50 people. This video can’t do the show justice, but perhaps it can give you a small taste of the energy and talent that these people have, and the enthusiasm that the crowd had:

Basically, my trip was amazing.

New Orleans, you will be missed. And, like a rash, I am sure you will creep under my skin again some day. I look forward to that itchy day.

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Can I, Please, Have This Child Back?

Alex and I spent a week in Florida, visiting my wonderful grandparents (his great grandparents).

He was perfect.

Seriously.

I kept wondering if I had accidentally grabbed the wrong kid on my way down, because this child? Is far too well behaved to be my child.

He was immensely polite, saying “please” and “thank you” every time it was appropriate. He even looked at me after saying a very quiet thank you to “gramma” (what he calls his great grandmother) and said, “Gwamma didn’t say you welcome…” When he got her attention again, he quietly told her that she didn’t say it and when she apologized and said it, he responded with a smile and a “tankoo” (to which she immediately had to say “you’re welcome” again or risk the polite police coming down on her again).

More amazing than his courteousness was his independence. Alex played by himself for the majority of every day we were there. He ran around the pool (“I bein’ caweful!”), splashed his toys in the water (“Look, Mommy! Dey’we gettin’ wet! Dey swimming!”), piled rocks, and did a lot of pretend play with his toys (“He’s making you a sanwich. Hewe. You want a big sanwich?”).

When we were around other adults, he was interactive with them. He wanted to play with everyone, but when they weren’t interested in playing with him he said, “otay” and found something else to do.

He was a perfect child. He didn’t cry once, and only fussed a bit when it was time to sleep or he was ready to get out of his highchair, which, by the way, was a miracle in and of itself. Alex has not sat in a highchair at home for months without a giant fuss.

Seriously, whose child did I take? And how do I get him back? Because the minute we stepped back in our home he was a whining, fussing, bossy and rude little person. “No, not like dat! NO! I want fwuit snacks! NOOOO! Give dat to me! Dat’s mine! NO! Don’t touch me. Don’t talk to me! NO! I don’t want to build a castle…YOU build a castle. NO! Not like dat! NO! It needs a bottom! NO!”

It’s a darn good thing he’s cute even when he’s obnoxious.

Florida!

East Coast, Here We Come!

Alex has adjusted to West Coast time. Surprise? No. We are leaving tonight, so naturally he figures out the time change today.

We are taking another red eye with a flight change in Las Vegas. I’m not looking forward to having to wait around the Vegas airport again, but at least this time our layover is less than an hour. If all goes well, Alex will sleep the whole time in my arms. (Actually, if all goes really well there will be an extra seat and he can sleep in his car seat!)

While this trip has been anything but relaxing, it has certainly been wonderful. Spending time with my family was great and I am going to miss them dearly. Having a gourmet meal prepared for me every night was just one of the many perks of being here! It will be sad to leave, but I am looking forward to getting back home.

I have taken over 300 pictures since we arrived, so once I get back I will have many wonderful photos to share! Alex enjoyed playing outside with buckets of water, we went to the beach, we took a wonderful drive, played with four birds and two dogs, and I started cloth diapering. I’m sure you are really excited about seeing the cute cloth diapers.

East coast, here we come!