Italy, Chapter Three: Siena

This is part three of a four-part series chronicling our recent trip to Italy. Check out Italy, Chapter One: Venice and Italy, Chapter Two: Florence if you haven’t already!

While planning our trip, we knew we wanted to make a short excursion to a rustic Italian town. After some research we settled on Siena, just an hour bus ride outside of Florence in the picturesque hills of Tuscany. Here’s the bus terminal in Florence.

A quick Google image search reveals the beauty of Siena. Naturally, we were eager for our visit, but in my experience, no trip worth taking ever goes exactly according to plan. As it turned out we were plagued by pouring rain the entire 24 hours we stayed in Siena. We still managed to explore the city in wet clothes and take some photos from beneath our umbrellas.

Here’s Piazza del Campo, the center of the city. Twice a year this plaza hosts the Palio di Siena, a horse race that pits neighborhood against neighborhood as jockeys ride bareback around impossibly tight and uneven corners. The YouTube videos of the race demonstrate just how crazy and awesome it is. Things were much more mellow while we were there.

We wandered through Siena’s narrow streets and checked out the neighborhoods on a rainy Saturday afternoon in April.

Siena’s interesting architecture dates back to medieval times when it was a powerful city-state.

Hanging flags delineate the boundaries between different wards, or contrade in Siena. There are 17 contrade in all, each with its own flag design, and they compete against each other in the Palio referenced earlier in this post. In the photo below you can see the flags change at the cross street on the left.

We periodically took breaks to dry out while walking around in the rain. Re-hydrating with wine and beer was essential for survival on the mean streets of Siena.

Rings to tie up horses are still mounted on walls and have well-worn grooves after hundreds of years of use.

The Siena cathedral, constructed during the 12th-14th centuries.

We worked up quite an appetite after spending the day exploring, and found a great local restaurant for dinner thanks to our Stick Reeves (another Rick Steves pseudonym we made up) guidebook. The food at La Taverna di Cecco was fantastic; I had a truffle gnocchi that probably ruined all other gnocchi for me.

Although the weather in Siena was disappointing, it was still cool to spend a day checking out the city. The next morning we boarded a bus for Rome where we would spend our final three and a half days in Italy. We experienced much better weather there and had a great time visiting sights like the Roman Forum, the Colosseum, and the Vatican. Continue on to read about Rome, our favorite of the cities we visited in Italy!

Italy, Chapter Two: Florence

This is part two of a four-part series of posts chronicling our recent trip to Italy. Check out Italy, Chapter One: Venice if you haven’t already!

After about a day and a half in Venice, we were ready for the next destination on our trip: Florence, the birthplace of the Renaissance. Julia and I boarded a train on Wednesday morning for the journey south.

When we arrived in Florence it was mid-afternoon and raining hard. We were bummed about the weather but decided to make the most of our time by getting in line to see Michelangelo’s David. Our umbrellas served us well as waited more than an hour to enter the Accademia Gallery where it is housed. As it turned out, this was the longest we waited for anything during our vacation.

They don’t permit photography in the museum, so I don’t have any photos to share from this experience, but I can say that the statue is very impressive in person. It stands 17 feet tall in its own domed room with natural light illuminating it from above, emphasizing every carved muscle on the marble statue.

The weather cleared a bit, so we explored Florence some more and saw the Baptistery of St. John and the Florence Cathedral.

Umbrellas carried by other tourists provide a sense of scale demonstrating how massive the cathedral is. It was first built without its dome because the technology to build a dome that large didn’t exist in the 1300s. Some people consider it a sign of Renaissance optimism that construction continued with builders confident someone would one day invent a solution to their problem. The dome was completed in 1436, more than 100 years after construction began on the structure.

We moved south through the city, crossing over the Arno River to see the famous Ponte Vecchio, a bridge built in medieval times. We were fortunate to see a four man boat practicing on the river while we walked by.

We explored the neighborhoods linked by this bridge. The area to the south has a local flair.

Looking north from the Ponte Vecchio towards shops and hotels.

We finished our evening at Piazza della Signoria, the traditional hub of Florence and a square we returned to often over our few days in the city. Palazzo Vecchio is the town hall of the city.

We woke up early the next day ready to visit the famous Uffizi Gallery, one of the oldest and most famous art museums in the world. We read about lines lasting hours, and after waiting in the rain to see David the previous day we feared the worst. Fortunately, we arrived at about 8:45am and were able to reserve tickets for a 9:30am entry. We casually drank coffee in a cafe in for about half an hour to kill time and then strolled into the museum: Easy. Again, no photographs were allowed in the Uffizi Gallery. We saw famous works by Leonardo Da Vinci, Michelangelo, Raphael, Botticelli, Titian, Caravaggio, and countless others. The Birth of Venus was probably the highlight for me.

Although photography was banned, I managed to sneak a couple shots of this great view of the Ponte Vecchio from the Uffizi.

We spent the rest of the afternoon wandering Florence, returning to the cathedral and Piazza della Signoria.

Julia taking a photo of another sculptor’s interpretation of David, victoriously holding Goliath’s severed head. Nobody ever roots for Goliath. A replica of Michelangelo’s David can be seen to the far right of the frame. This is actually where the original stood for a few hundred years until a riot broke out in the square and someone threw a piece of furniture out the window of the Town Hall, damaging David below. At least, that’s what I read in the Stevie Ricks book (by this time we were giving Rick Steves various pseudonyms). They moved the original David to its current location for safekeeping in the late 1800s and placed a replica in the square instead.

This is a photo of the Uffizi, with two real statues and a street performer dressed up to pretend to be a statue but doing a crappy job at it because he’s talking on the phone instead of being in character.

That night we went out to an insane dinner at a restaurant called La Giostra – insane both because of how good the food was (and how much we ate!), but also because of how expensive it was. By this time I had convinced myself I was an Italian in spirit. I made Julia take photos of me on the hotel balcony wearing a scarf and a blazer and sunglasses, even though the glasses were impractical in the evening light. ciao.

With the major sights out of the way, we spent our last full day in Florence wandering around and enjoying the city. We explored a market where they sold masks!

I took photos of awesome old school bikes!

We ate gelato!

I posed next to comically small automobiles!

And we had beers with lunch. We joked that the guy featured in the logo for Moretti – with his eyes closed in anticipation and his jacket and hat still on – seems like he really earned that beer. Julia said that from his expression it looks like he has lady problems. I’m inclined to agree.

In the afternoon, we went up to a hill just to the south of the Arno river for a scenic view of Florence.

There’s a cemetery at the top of the hill where several generations of family members are buried in each plot.

We wrapped up our visit to Florence with another great dinner and a stroll along the Arno River. Here’s another shot of Ponte Vecchio. Interesting fact: All bridges in Florence were destroyed by the Nazis in WWII during their retreat from the city, except for this one. Rumor has it that Hitler himself gave the order to spare it, blocking access by destroying buildings on each side but allowing the centuries-old bridge to stand.

The Florence Cathedral, illuminated at night.

Although we experienced spotty weather during our visit, we enjoyed Florence for its cultural significance and great art. I got to see works from Leonardo, Donatello, Michelangelo and Raphael: All the Ninja Turtles. However, we also found it exceedingly touristy and crowded with American college students studying abroad at local universities. Everywhere we went we heard American English being loudly spoken and were regaled with tales of drunkenness from nights prior in a tone that only self-important 19 and 20 year-olds can manage. It must be karma coming back to bite me from when I spoke like that in London during my semester abroad. After two and a half days in Florence, we anticipated a more authentically Italian experience at our next destination: Siena!

Italy, Chapter One: Venice

We had a fantastic trip to Italy and took hundreds of photos! In an effort to keep these posts somewhat digestible, I’ll split them up into four separate chapters over the next week: One for each place we visited.

On Easter Sunday Julia and I flew to Italy, arriving in Venice on Monday afternoon by way of Frankfurt, Germany. Flying into Venice is surreal: When you look out the window of the plane you see tiny islands, ancient buildings, and canals rather than meadows, suburbs, or concrete freeways. With no cars permitted in Venice, the closest thing to freeways are designated lanes for boat traffic ferrying tourists and supplies to and from the mainland.

We took a city bus from the airport followed by a vaporetto – a water bus – to the closest stop to our hotel. Here’s the view of Venice’s crowded Grand Canal from the vaporetto driver’s perspective.

Gondoliers take tourists up and down the Grand Canal, the central transportation artery for Venice, and into smaller side canals which might be compared to city streets.

After showers and some coffee, we jumped right into some sightseeing. Even though we didn’t get much rest on our flights, we stayed up as late as we could to try and avoid jetlag. Here’s Julia in a centuries-old alleyway near our hotel.

They say the thing to do in Venice is to wander and get lost in its many alleys, and they’re absolutely right. The city is small and very walkable, with no cars or motorized traffic on land, so you’re never too far away from your hotel and everything feels calm and safe. We spent Monday afternoon exploring Venice. Here’s a view of the Grand Canal from one of the bridges that span it.

A gondolier takes tourists through a narrow canal near our hotel. These routes aren’t used only by gondolas; residents tie their boats up to their homes along the waterway.

Walking the narrow alleys in Venice is awesome. 60,000 Venetians live in the main area where tourists visit, and the principle of “elegant decay” is apparent everywhere you look.

Looking across the canal to Lido, another of Venice’s islands. The city of Venice is not a single landmass, but is actually a group of 118 small islands in the Venetian Lagoon that are separated by canals and linked together with bridges. Historians believe the city was created after the fall of the Roman empire, when fishermen and others living on the edges of the lagoon fled to its marshy islands to avoid barbarian attacks. Eventually they built permanent residences, supported by driving wooden pillars into the mud to create a solid foundation, and developed a city that dominated maritime trade and shipbuilding for centuries. Venice’s navy was unrivaled, but eventually the city began its slow decline in the 15th century. You can learn more about Venice at its Wikipedia page.

This is the “Bridge of Sighs,” which connected the Doge’s Palace with a prison. The Doge was the Duke of Venice, its elected leader, and the Doge’s Palace on the left in the photo below is where administrative duties like judicial proceedings took place. They say Casanova himself once crossed this bridge before his incarceration. It’s named the “Bridge of Sighs” because it afforded prisoners one final look at Venice before getting thrown in the slammer.

An image similar to the one below was on the cover of our guide book. I like mine better, though: I was there at sunset when a gondolier came by.

Venice at dusk.

Jetlagged Julia endured me repeatedly trying to capture canals at night by taking timed exposures from various bridges. She was a good sport about it. This one turned out particularly well, thanks to a person walking across (blurred, to the right of the photo) while I captured the image.

After a solid night of sleep, we woke up on Tuesday, our only full day in Venice, to good weather. We headed to St. Mark’s square, the historical center of the city. The aforementioned Doge’s Palace is the large white building in the foreground.

Consulting the guide book for what to do next. We checked out a series of Rick Steves books on Venice, Tuscany, and Rome from our local library. They were very helpful, though we sometimes got the sense that he writes for an audience of clueless midwesterners. However, despite the cheesy “Don’t give your wallet to strangers” advice he provided invaluable nuggets of information and great tips to avoid crowds and lines.

This photo of the St. Mark’s Clocktower – a 500 year old structure – illustrates some of the crowds we encountered in Venice. And just think, we were there in a relatively low traffic season! Fortunately, it was super easy to avoid the crowds by sticking to alleys rather than taking major passageways to get places.

There’s a popular fish and vegetable market near the Rialto bridge, where I snapped this photo of the day’s offerings.

People walking along the Grand Canal, with the Rialto bridge peeking out around the corner.

Julia the world traveler. It’s cool to reflect on how many photos I’ve taken of her in awesome settings, and how many more will I take over the coming years.

The Rialto Bridge, one of the most popular sights in Venice, demonstrated by the gondoliers and the waterfront restaurant seating. This is the oldest bridge to span the Grand Canal, with past bridges here dating back to the 1100s and the current structure standing since 1591.

This is where gondolas are serviced and repaired. The buildings here look out-of-place and are reminiscent of alpine structures. Rick Steves says this is because the original gondola repairmen were expert woodworkers from villages in the Italian alps.

A gondola ride? No, this is us crossing the Grand Canal on one of the many traghetti in the city that are used to transport small groups from one side of the canal to the other. The difference between a gondola ride and a traghetti ride is sharing the boat with strangers, a 2min ride instead of a 45min ride, and about 100 Euros.

Back at St. Mark’s Square, we took an elevator to the top of the campanile pictured here for incredible views of Venice.

It was from the opposite end of the square below that I took the first photo in this series.

There are two super touristy things everyone says you have to do in Venice. One is to have a Bellini (prosecco and peach juice cocktail) at Harry’s Bar, where the drink was invented. The other is taking a gondola ride. We did both knowing it’s pretty unlikely we’ll return to Venice. And even though they were both touristy and kind of cheesy and expensive, we agree they are both worth doing.

We saved our gondola ride for our last night in Venice. Our gondolier was friendly and told us a lot about the history of the canals we were passing through. He’s a 3rd-generation gondolier (both his father and his grandfather did the same job), and although his piercings and frequently buzzing cell phone weren’t what one might expect from a “traditional gondola ride in Venice,” I thought they conveyed a sense of authenticity in 21st century Italy where ancient history and modern times collide.

Gondola perspective of buildings sitting at water level.

We finished our ride near the Rialto bridge, where our gondolier took a couple really great photos of us with our camera.

“Ok, now you kiss her, ok? 1, 2, 3…”

In alignment with the romantic feel of the gondola ride, we brought a small bottle of wine on board. After the ride was over we sat at the end of a dock on the Grand Canal, watched boat traffic, polished off the wine, and talked about how awesome it was that we were in Venice.

Later that night we wandered into various cafes and bars eating different kinds of cicchetti (local word for appetizers) for dinner. At one point we walked into Osteria Alla Ciurma, selecting it not because we had heard of it but because only Italian was being spoken inside and it looked like a local spot. We had a glass of wine and ate delicious cicchetti while speaking with the owner, a native Venetian, who expressed his conflicted opinions on the importance of Venice maintaining authenticity and being a welcoming environment for locals as it continues to grow as a major tourist destination – “Veniceland”, like Disneyland. It was a great conversation and we were grateful to get his perspective on things.

At the end of the night we returned to St. Mark’s Square one last time, where we danced in the square to a small orchestra playing in front of one of the restaurants and where I took this final photo.

Julia and I both really liked Venice. We were expecting it to feel overrun and touristy, but we were able to avoid the worst of the crowds and had a wonderful time exploring the city. On Wednesday we boarded a train for Florence – read more at Italy, Chapter Two: Florence!

Future Student, Current Alumnus

The past 10 days or so have been pretty busy for us. Most important, of course, was our engagement on Monday! But the previous week also brought good things.

First, last Wednesday I learned of my acceptance to UC Berkeley’s Evening & Weekend MBA Program at the Haas School of Business! I’m absolutely thrilled to have been admitted to such a prestigious and competitive program, even though it means a lot of work over the next three years. Blog readers should anticipate fewer weekend warrior posts and more “what I’ve learned recently” content. I’ve already begun meeting classmates via Facebook, Google, and LinkedIn groups that have been set up, and they seem like an impressive and diverse bunch. I’m excited to start classes in August!

Second, last weekend I had the pleasure of racing at the San Diego Crew Classic in an alumni boat with former teammates from my SDSU Crew days. Julia and I flew to San Diego early on Saturday morning and spent the day with Bre and Daniel. We rented beach cruisers and spent the afternoon exploring my old neighborhood, Pacific Beach.

Sunday was race day. I hadn’t been in a boat in 10 years, since I raced in the Head of the Charles in Boston. Despite my concerns about catching a crab, passing out from exhaustion, or somehow injuring myself, I managed to project confidence before the race.

In addition to Julia, several friends and professional photographers documented the race with photos and video. What follows is a compilation of that media. First, me greeting Garrett before the race. For those unfamiliar with the sport, this image gives shows what the inside of a boat looks like: Shoes bolted into the frame and sliding seats on tracks.

Putting the boat in the water.

Still all smiles just after launching our eight-man boat. I was six seat.

We didn’t have the opportunity to practice before the race, so things were a bit rough. Fortunately, muscle memory kicked in and we had moments of everything feeling pretty good. Rowing is sort of like riding a bike, I guess. We made our way to the start line – we raced against other alumni boats from Brown, Notre Dame, Rollins, UCSB, and others – and began the race. Here’s a shot from a chase boat. From the bow, we had Steve, Hector, Jake, Jon, Garrett, me, Brent, Matt, and Gina as the coxswain.

The race was streamed live online (I didn’t know that beforehand, otherwise I would’ve told you all to tune in!) and on a jumbotron at the race course. Here’s Julia’s pic of people watching us row. You can make me out on the screen!

Approaching the finish line.

Gina wore Steve’s GoPro camera on her head during the race. Steve posted the video on YouTube, which I embedded below. You can’t see me, but you can see my oar (second one back on the left side) and you really get a feel for how exhausting crew is. I nearly caught a crab as we went into our sprint, 7:13 into the video, but I recovered before it became a complete disaster.

Post-race, taking the boat out. This photo really gives a sense of scale for how long eights are.

Group shot after the race. I trained for this with cardio, erging, and weights, and after 10 years of not rowing at all, I can say with confidence that a 2,000 meter race hurts just as much now as it did when I was 20. Still, that’s part of what makes the sport attractive, and I’m really glad I made the trek to San Diego to race with a great group of people and represent SDSU again.

We’re off to Italy on Sunday! No updates for almost two weeks, but get ready for lots and lots of photos!!!

WE’RE ENGAGED!!!

After nearly five years together, Julia and I became engaged yesterday – Monday, April 2!

Here’s the story:
We returned from a weekend trip to San Diego yesterday afternoon and decided to go on a hike in the Marin Headlands, an area that is very special to us. I had the ring in my possession for about a week at this point and knew I wanted to propose during a hike in the Headlands, so I brought it with me and hid it in my pocket with my small camera.

After hiking uphill quite a bit, I took a photo of the view. From here you can see the beach I surf most of the time here in Marin, the trail system we mountain bike together, various trails we’ve hiked, and in the distance, San Francisco, where we met.

We hiked a little further, and I set my camera on a rock as if I was going to take a self-timed shot of us, only I actually had the camera set to its video setting rather than a still image. I turned around, walked back to Julia, said words so magnificent yet masculine that it would take the finest poets of all time 10,000 years to duplicate my speech, got down on one knee, and asked Julia to marry me.

She said yes.

Then a hiker walked by. He quickly realized what was going on and scampered off.

The video is personal and I won’t post it here, but I’m glad I recorded the moment because just a few emotion-filled minutes later neither of us could remember what I said. Shortly thereafter another hiker came by and we asked her to take a photo for us.

Here’s a close-up of the ring on Julia’s finger!

While hiking back we marveled at how happy we are together, how right this feels, and also considered how much planning we have ahead of us over the coming months!

Here are a couple shots of the ring, taken when it was still in its box. We went with a really great jeweler in the city who custom-made the ring to Julia’s specifications: A yellow gold band with the diamonds supported by white gold.

So there you have it – the story of how we got engaged!

We have a lot going on: On Sunday we’re off on our vacation to Italy (!!!) and I have news about other events from the past week, including Racing Aztecs and Golden Bears, but I’ll wait until Friday or Saturday to post that!