Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Birthday Day

I started out my 21st birthday with a motorcycle ride into town from Pietro, which rocked! As my dad said, it's one of those really authentic Italian moments that you just can't buy! He dropped me off at the Porta Romana, so that I could walk into town to go to the Uffizi.

The Uffizi is a pretty cool museum/art gallery. I don't think any of their art is modern, most of it is at least 300 years old, and a lot of it is even older. Some came from the private collections of the Medici family, who ruled Florence until the 17th century. They were great patrons of art during the Renaissance, encouraging and paying for many famous works of art to be created. This includes Botticelli's Birth of Venus.

After the Uffizi I treated myself to a fancy lunch at a restaurant with this view. It was rather delicious(both the view and the lunch)!

My other birthday treat to myself was this, which is also the big surprise I mentioned in the last post. I got my hair cut short! I went to a place near Santa Maria Novella Church, which I had passed the day before. The guy who cut it was named Leroy, which is possibly the most un-Italian first name I have ever hear, however, he spoke no English at all. It took three tries and me pointing at a picture before he finally got just how short I wanted it. When he got there he exclaimed 'Basta!' which means 'Enough!'

When I got back to the house Oretta told me that they would take me out for pizza. We were going to go to a restaurant, but her brother had been to a festival in town that had some very good mushrooms. There has been so much rain that the mushrooms are particularly excellent right now. We decided that that would be even better than a restaurant. When we got there it turned out that the festival was a fundraiser for the local chapter of the Italian left-wing democratic party, which is really just a fancy way of saying communist. The whole thing was family run, with the parents doing all the cooking, and the kids serving. This of course led to some very confused (and tired) kids running around with dishes, trying to serve them to all the wrong people. I had the mushroom pizza, and it was very tasty.

When we got back to the house Oretta lit some candles stuck in the rind of a watermelon cut in half. It was the perfect addition to having already eaten so much food. All round an excellent day!

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

All Roads Lead to ...

I interrupt the scheduled programming to let you all know that I am currently (as in real time, instead of all this back posting business) in Florence! I was going to try and finish up all the back posts, but in the crazy that was finally moving out of residence for the last time, I didn't get to it. I have a few more posts that I can do with stuff I put on the internet, but I might wait and do it all when I get back.

I am staying with family friends, the Milazzo's. They live just outside Florence in an old farmhouse.

With a view like this.

And a Chertosa (Monastary) in the distance. I hear they are up to 12 monks now.

Yesterday I did nothing but sit around with their two boys, Pietro and Matteo, who are my age. It was lots and lots of fun to do nothing at all, and when I got bored of that, I could go look outside.

Today I took the bus into town. My first stop was the Santa Mario Novella church, since it was right beside the bus stop. Inside there are some beautifully restored frescos. Interesting choice for the story they tell, but amazing.

I had lunch on the steps of Piazza San Lorenzo, where there are loads of covered stalls selling all sorts of things. I bought some Murano glass earrings, and might go back for some gorgeous scarves.

I then walked all the way to the other side of the downtown to the Ponte Vecchio. Almost all the stores on the bridge are jewellers. Apparently, a long time ago, the Arno River flooded, and all the jewellery was washed into the river, giving it the name River of Gold.

I then walked to the Uffizi to book my ticket for tomorrow. I'm very glad I did, since the line up to get in was very very very long.

I walked a lot today, most of it just wandering about, seeing the city. I took a little break for a cafe latte at this restaurant. It was more expensive than I would have liked, but the view was very good. You also can't beat history, this place has existed as a cafe since 1847.

Not to mention of course, that this is what I had to look at while I was sipping my coffee!
There is a post office under the arches, where I found more of my favorite post boxes. The ones in Italy have separate slots for local and international mail.

The arches also hold more of the covered stalls that can be found everywhere in Florence.
While I was walking about I mostly had no idea where I was going, nor any real destination. I had a map, and a decent sense of direction, so no worries about getting lost. Every once in a while I would turn a corner and find that I knew where I was, remembering something from when I was here 7 years ago. This is the local courts, though the last time I was there there where armed guards hanging around outside. They might have been carrying machine guns, and were kind of scary! However, today there seemed to be nothing out of the ordinary about the building.
Tomorrow is my birthday, and I've been promissed an outing of pizza. Not to mention that I've got my own surprise up my sleeve!

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Edinburgh: The End

Monday morning I set off bright and early to go see the Castle. I was a little dissapointed. It is still used by the army as an administrative base, so there are a lot of buildings that you can't go in. It is a pretty cool building though, and would be great with little kids since there are some pretty cool cannons.

At the entrance to the castle is a woolen mill, which has it's own looms in the basement and weaves it's own tartans. I bought a hat with the Princess Diana Memorial Tartan. It is way prettier than all the other tartans!

I went down to the bottom of the Royal Mile, to see Holyrood Palace. Arthur's Seat is an amazing hill, overlooking the city. It looks like it would be a good hike as well, though I only took photo's of it.

Holyrood Palace claims to be the Edinburgh residence of the royal family, though everyone knows that if they go to Scotland, they would much rather stay at Balmoral.

The palace and it's grounds are beautiful, though they don't allow photographs inside, so I could only take pictures of the outside. Inside you can see the private rooms of Mary Queen of Scots. There is even a plaque on the wall marking the place where her private secretary, Rizzo, was murdered by her husband.

One of the things I liked best was the ruined Chapel. A few centuries ago the roof fell in, and for some reason or another, it was never fixed. The inside is more like a graveyard, with tombstones for the floor.

This is a far happier self portrait, taken in the reflection of a window on my way down to the train station. I bought the tam at the woolen mill.

Then I had to get on the train and go back to school, which made me really sad. I had a good adventure though!

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Edinburgh: The Middle

Sunday morning I woke up to find it snowing. It was the first real snow the UK had gotten that year, and it was April. The Australian girl in my room in the hostel was freaking out, she had never really seen snow. I just shook my head, and layered up with some legwarmers and an extra sweater. It wasn't really that cold.

I went to see the High Kirk of Edinburgh. It's kind of like the Scottish version of a cathedral, only cathedrals have bishops, and the Scottish are generally Protestant, so don't believe in bishops. Thus, a High Kirk.

This church was the one that John Knox preached out of, and managed to convert pretty much everyone to being Protestant instead of Catholic. Knox learned from the guy who gave the Selles' their family institution, Calvin. When he died, he stipulated that he must be burried within 23 metres of the church that had been his home.

This was all well and good until the city began to run out of space. The graveyard around the church was turned into a parking lot, and all the bodies moved to another graveyard. But what to do with John Knox? They couldn't just move him, it was his dying wish to remain there. Thus, John Knox, father of Scottish Protestantism, became parking space number 23. All that remains to commemorate him is a gold square to mark the spot.

In the afternoon I went off to the National Museum of Scotland, where I saw loads of Scottish paintings.

The gallery is quite good, with a nice cafe as well. The building is right in the middle of Old Town and New Town, and so perfect to just pop in for a few hours when you have the time.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Edinburgh: The Beginning

On the Saturday morning I took a free tour around the city. Well, it wasn't really free, but instead operates on a donation at the end. The company claims that this means their guides have to try harder, and therefore give better tours. Most of the guides seem to be people who visited the city and never left. Mine was from Oklahoma. There were about 75 people who showed up, so they split us up into smaller groups.

We saw the Walter Scott monument, which is huge!

It was built to celebrate the life of Walter Scott, the man who single handedly managed to revive Scottish nationalism, and saved them from becoming just like the rest of England. He is responsible for making the kilt fashionable, and for kind of inventing it. It's one of those things that's supposed to be all historical, but really hasn't been around for that long.

The little group of buildings in the top left of this picture is the old medieval castle. The whole countryside of Scotland is very hilly, especially Edinburgh. The landscape was carved by glaciers which created dramatic hills and valleys. The old medieval city is built on top of on of the hills, with the newer section on the adjacent hills. There are bridges that connect the tops of the hills, with the poorer sections of the city being in the valleys. These bridges were convenient for the more affluent since they could just walk right over all the muddy gross parts of town. The street that my hostel was on is called Cowgate because it was where the cows would be driven down on their way to slaughter. Needless to say, that got smelly. The area around the castle is a gorgeous park. Our guide explained that in medieval times the area was a firey poop lake. Because of all the human and animal waste being thrown into the area, methane gas would occasionally pop to the surface and catch on fire. Wonder why the grass is so green? Good fertilizer.

This is the door to the home of Robert Burns, Scotland's beloved poet, which is across from the Writer's Museum.

This is what the guide described as a medieval burglary alarm. It used to be a staircase, though through some sort of renovation, it is now part of the wall. The two middle steps are not uniform to the rest of the steps, which would cause any potential trespasser to fall, make a big noise and get caught. The family would know which step it was, and could tell friends that it was the 7th step up, etc.

This building is a very old, very prestigious (and still operational) boys school. Unfortunately I cannot for the life of me remember its name. What is cool about it is that it was apparently J.K. Rowling's inspiration for Hogwarts, in Harry Potter.

In more geekery, I squealed when I saw this. It's not quite the same, but it's pretty dang close. In the 40's these were all over England, and could be used in an emergency to ring the police. They are still all over Edinburgh, but none seem to be opperational. What really makes it exciting is that they were made famous by the cult British TV show Doctor Who. The Doctor travels around time and space in a ship (called a TARDIS) that has accidentally stuck its chameleon exterior to be the shape of a Police Box.

I saw loads of tourists running up to them and saying "Take a picture of me next to the TARDIS!" Which just made it even more amusing.

In the afternoon I met up with my mom's friends nephew, Jacob. He was doing his exchange in Edinburgh. We had never met before, but had a grand old time. We went for tea at the Elephant Cafe, then hung out at his residence building. His cousin was having a dinner party with some friends that night, and she generously let me tag along. She complained that the food wasn't very good, but Jacob and I were just happy to have a square meal in us! And it was delicious anyway.

Edinburgh: The Prelude

The train ride up to Edinburgh was really amazing. Sure it rained half the time, but you get to go right up the coast, through all sorts of little tiny towns.

The view is spectacular.

Funny thing is that it's even better on the way out. Going North, the train is on the inside track, so it's harder to see the ocean. Going South, you are right there, looking over the cliffs. Stunning I tell you.

I'm not going to lie, I didn't do much the first day. I arrived late in the afternoon, so I didn't have much time. I wandered about a bit, then went back to the hostel to make some dinner. The hostel was pretty good. They had a full kitchen for us to use, and every couple of rooms had their own kitchen, so it was only shared with about 20 people instead of 100. It was on Cowgate Rd, which is very central. However, it is a bit of a dodgy street at night, as there are a load of cheap clubs on the street. I wouldn't walk alone at night there. So I didn't! Easy solution. What this does mean though, is that it's loud. The bar across the street plays music into the wee hours of the night, so bring earplugs if you plan on staying there.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

York, Day the Second

The second day in York I went back to all the places I had been on the ghost tour to see them in the daylight. I saw Shambles Street, which was the film inspiration for Diagon Alley in Harry Potter. It's original purpose was the butchers street, which meant that it was generally full of rotting meat. Pleasant eh?

The joke is that you can shake hands across the upper windows of this building, though apparently that only works if there are extra people hanging on the ankles of the shakers. The distance is just a little too much.

The Golden Fleece is reputed to be the most haunted pub in York, though I can't remember any actual stories from it.

This column is a remnant from Roman days. York is the furthest north the Romans went in their quest to rule the world. The column was found and erected beside the minster. There is an administration building near by, and there is a legion of Roman ghosts in the basement. They trudge wearily, only half of their bodies visible, as they are walking on the origional road through the village, which is two feet bellow the floor. Creepy!

I saw this man playing the piano in a square. You can see the minster in the background. He had wheeled his piano out and taken off the top. He was playing jazz. It was so cool to be able to hear the live piano being played outside. You see violins and guitars all the time, but a piano is a lot harder to move.

I went to Duttons for Buttons, a lovely shop full of nothing but buttons! I bought ... a fair amount. I would show you them, but I left them in Toronto when I went home. They are all very lovely though, and the ladies at the shop were very nice.

This building is a shrine to a St. Margaret. She hid Catholic priests during the Reformation and was beheaded. This house, on Shambles St. was the one that she lived in and hid the priest in. It's a regular little house, completely unremarkable, until you look a little closer. Then you get an unexpected surprise.

Back in the day theses cat statues had been put up to ward off bad luck. This one, including the pigeon, are old. There is also a modern architect who likes to put them on his buildings, as a throw back to the old tradition.

In the afternoon I hoped on a train and went to Durham, where I met up with my friend Catherine. She generously let me sleep on her floor (twice) and showed me around the lovely city that is Durham. There is another impressive cathedral there, of which I took a few photos. Unfortunately we got there just too late to go up the tower, but it was a gorgeous and warm day, so it was nice to just be able to walk around outside.