Category Archives: Photography

My 2016 Year in Review – Topping My Charts

I have just returned from another fabulous Winter weekend in the Adirondacks to celebrate the New Year. While I was there I had gotten in some ample cross-training time skate-skiing, hiking and some photography. This outdoor time gave me a good amount of time to reflect upon the last year. I keep hearing others saying over-and-over how 2016 was such a horrible year, but for me, not so much.

Cascade Moutain – Lake Placid, Adirondacks, New York

You would think that as one gets closer to the big 5-0 that PR’s and things would become less frequent. But my 48th year was full of them. What is up with that? Perhaps the fact that I had well preserved myself well during my 20’s and 30’s may have something to do with that.

December(2015) was full of Winter cross-training in Banff National Park in Western Canada. They had gotten a good amount of early season snow there and Lake Placid had none. We hit the downhill slopes at Lake Louise and Sunshine Village, got some snowshoeing in on the Bow River and a ton of photographing the beautiful Winter scenery on the Icefields Parkway leading to Jasper.

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First Light on the Icefields Parkway

In January, we had plans to spend a week in the warmth of Sedona, AZ but that was cut short due to a blizzard that delayed flights for several days. We still ended up with an amazing, activity packed long weekend there. We got out for some amazing hikes and photography some beautiful scenery. I replenished my vitamin D store with the clear skies and bright sunshine. It was a great reset before turning my attention back to the long Ironman training season that lies ahead.

Chillin’ on the Bell Rock Vortex

In February I started up my official Ironman training season with Todd Wiley. I had gotten to know Todd over the last year or so through some of his workshops and Lake Placid training camp and really like his personality. He was a prior pro triathlete and has had a lot of success with some pretty high-level athletes over the years, so I thought I would see what he could do with this old, average dude. My goals for the season was to increase my IM run performance while maintaining my bike and swim and finalizing that with a sub-12 hour Ironman.

In March, I had my first official race of the season, The St. Pat’s Allentown 5k. While it is only a 5k, this would be the first test of my fitness to see what I had accomplished during the last two months. I would also use this as my Lactate Threshold(LT) test for my training. It did not disappoint. I finished with a 1 sec PR of 22:45(chip time) over my prior PR from 2013. 3 years older and getting faster.

St. Pat's West End 5k 2016

St. Pat’s West End 5k 2016

In April, I took things up a notch and competed in the local St. Luke’s Half Marathon which I hadn’t run in since 2013 when I ran with my wife. I was planning to run it in 2015, but got a stomach bug the morning of and had to bail. My current PR for this race, and half marathons in general, was from back in 2010 when I finished with a 1:46:41(chip time). I also had challenged my co-worker Steve, who is what I would consider more of a “runner”, to a duel for this race. It was a bit of a stretch, but I thought the extra competition would bring out a little extra in motivation for me. Although I didn’t come close to beating him, I did manage to eke out another PR for myself finishing in 1:45:10 after 6 years. 2 races and two PRs…not too shabby a start to 2016.

Next up was my first triathlon of the season, the French Creek Olympic Triathlon. I had never done this race before, so I didn’t have anything to compare it to. I knew it was a pretty brutal race with a very hilly bike and run, so you could not even compare it to any other Olympic Distance race. I obviously did not PR this race, but I did end up on the podium by taking 3rd in my age group. This was the first podium since my very first multisport race, the Belleplain Duathlon, back in 2008 where I finished 1st in my age group. So now 3 races and 3 top outcomes.

French Creek Tri Podium

French Creek Tri Podium

In June I traveled up to Syracuse, NY for the Ironman 70.3 Syracuse triathlon. Another race I had never done before, but was hoping for a good finish here given the prior results so far this season. The race started off well with one of my best half-iron swims and a decent bike leg where I felt I hadn’t “burned too many matches.” The run leg was a different story. The sun came out and the heat turned up towards the end of the bike and my body turned to mush. Reminiscent of the Ironman Couer d’Alene run I fell into a walk-run for the very hilly run course. Ok, you can’t have them all! So with no PR to be had this time, I took my setbacks here and turned it into motivation for the true goal “A” race of the season at Ironman Mont-Tremblant.

Finish Run Ironman 70.3 Syracuse 2016

Hurtin’ for Certain – Ironman 70.3 Syracuse 2016 – High Temps on the run left a little to be desired for this race.

July turned out to be a pretty hot month, so I gained some pretty good acclimatization to the heat while training. If Ironman Mont-Tremblant (IMMT) was going to cook me like Syracuse, I was now prepared. Well, as much as someone who does not like the heat can be.

August came around quickly and tapering was in full swing as we made our way up to Mont-Tremblant for the peak race of my year. When race day came I could not have asked for better weather conditions. It was very cloudy in the morning as I prepared to hit the water. A fighter jet buzzed us so close it brought tears to my eyes. Then the cannon blasted and we were off. The rain started during the swim and poured down all day! For me, that was perfect conditions. I was like a pig in the slop.

Ironman Mont-Tremblant 2016 Bike Rain

Terrential Downpours on the bike leg of Ironman Mont-Tremblant 2016

Due to some choppy lake conditions, my swim was not as fast as I thought it would be, but still one of my faster IM swims. My bike was one of my fastest so far but yet I still held back as I planned to save something for the run. The run was my best ever Ironman run. The rain came down and kept me cool while cranking out some 8:30-9:00 pace miles. I felt amazing the whole time. I blew away my sub-12 hour goal by about 14 minutes and coming away with an Ironman PR of around 50 minutes! I chopped off almost 30 minutes on my IM run time alone. Mission accomplished!

Ironman Mont-Tremblant 2016 – Finish

So now 5 races completed for this year and 3 of them were PR’s and 1 podium. What more could I ask for? A fabulous end to an epic season for sure. Proof that aging does not mean you get slower. At least not yet. Maybe by the time I am 50 I can qualify for Kona? 🙂

Usually with the last race of the season comes a little depression that it is all over for another year. I like to schedule something big for after my last race that keeps me on the up-and-up. Just when you think things can’t get any better we headed to Iceland for a two-week journey around the island in a camper.

Kirkjufellfoss – Iceland 2016

I let my body recuperate a bit and broke out my camera for an incredible trip. It was the perfect diversion for someone who has only thought about training for the last year. The scenery was out-of-this-world and it was a great end to all the hard work that was put in over the last 8 months. I have been working on a full report blog post on this trip which I hope to be published very soon. Stay tuned for that.

While you would think that was all for this year, I had to do one more race. I signed up for the local South Mountain 10-miler run which was kind of a birthday run for me. I had never done this race before, but it looked to be quite challenging. It starts not too far from the Lehigh Univesity’s Goodwin Campus fields and a makes it was up to the very top of South Mountain, turns around and heads back down again. It is very steep and a big slog. I ended up 40th overall and 6th in my age group. Not a great result really, but I maintained a 8:12 pace which is just a bit off my half marathon pace. It was more for fun so I am not too worried about that.

I concentrated on my photography a bit for the remainder of the year, which tends to play 2nd fiddle to my training. I made a couple trips to Lake Placid and a short trip to Salt Springs State Park(PA) for some photography sessions. I came away with some keepers and also started getting more active with my Instagram feed. I dug back into my photo archives and found some great pictures I had taken in the past that never made it off my laptop.

So now as we head off into 2017 and I set my sights on Ironman Boulder and the inaugural Ironman 70.3 Lake Placid this year, I have great memories looking back on the amazing year that was 2016. Despite what many others have felt. I have so much to be thankful for. I can only hope that 2017 is even half as good as last year.

I can only hope that 2017 is even half as good as last year. Although, it is already shaping up to be a pretty full one. I have several races on the docket and plans are already being hashed out for an amazing trip to Croatia and Slovenia during post-race season. As for goals, Ironman Boulder should be a challenge in itself given the altitude so I am not putting any time goals on myself for that. Perhaps working on pacing myself would be enough. I think Ironman 70.3 Lake Placid may be my A race for the year and I would like to shoot for a half-iron distance PR there.

My other goal for 2017 is to get back to regular blogging here. I have fell off the wagon a bit over the past year so I hope to pick that up again. I have just “cut the cord” and cancelled my cable TV subscription, so besides saving money I plan on spending a little less time in front of the tube.

If you are reading this, I hope you had a great 2016 and a even better 2017 as well. Thanks for reading!

Ironman Mont-Tremblant 2016 – Feeling pretty relaxed after finishing and just coming back from my post-race massage.

Winter Trip to the Canadian Rockies

We originally had made plans to go to Lake Placid in mid-December for a little Winter ski vacation. We had plans later in the Winter to head to Arizona for a week, so we needed to get a little Winter-fix before going to some warmer climate. Planning a ski vacation to the Adirondacks in December can be a little questionable as to whether they have snow or not. Last year they had a lot of snow then, this year practically none.

So, with only a few weeks to go, we decided to change things up. Denise checked around with her friends living out West and there was not much snow to be had there either. She then came across Banff & Lake Louise in Western Alberta, Canada. They had a good November snowfall and conditions were perfect for some early season skiing. We had always wanted to go there too, so no time like the present. We quickly changed our plans and locked in our flights to Calgary.

Our departure out of Newark was an early one. We were up at 3:30 AM and on our way to

Early Morning Wake-up at 3:34 AM

Early Morning Wake-up at 3:34 AM

the airport. We dropped the car off at the usual parking place, ABC Airport Parking, who quickly whisked us away to the terminal. The airport check-in and security checks went pretty smoothly and we were on our flight just in time to see the sunrise before take-off.

 

Sunrise Take-Off from EWR

Sunrise Take-Off from EWR

Houston…We Have A Problem…

Our flight to Calgary went fairly well until we tried to land in Calgary. There was a low-lying, dense fog that we had to go through to land. We could not see anything as we entered into it at the very last part of our landing. All of a sudden the runway appeared out of nowhere within feet of touching  down. Before the wheels were about to touch the pilot “hit the gas” and we were ascending at a steep and fast pace. Denise and I looked at each other saying WTH??!

Before long the pilot got on and said that the visibility was too low to land and they were going to give it another try. I believe we were possibly too far down the runway when we were about to touch-down. We then made a long sweeping turn and got back in line to land again. Fortunately, the 2nd time was much more successful. I usually don’t have an issue with flying, but I was a little uneasy after that episode.

We picked up our bags and rental car and made our way to West from Calgary to Banff. Calgary had a fresh inch or two of snow on the ground, which was a welcome sight after the warm start to Winter we had back home. The outskirts of Calgary are filled with these large walled communities of very tightly clustered housing. It seemed a bit strange to me. After flanking the city we started heading West over large open plains with the Candian Rocky Mountains looming in the distance.

Canadian Rockies in Sight

Canadian Rockies in Sight

We reached the town of Canmore after about an hour and turned in to get some lunch at CrazyWeed restaurant. Denise had found this place as being one of the best ones in Canmore. She did not let us down with her research either. We had a nice lunch there and then drive through the downtown area and up to the Nordic Center to check that out. It is a pretty lively little place with lots of shops and restaurants. I think it is a more reasonable option as compared to Banff which gets a little more upper-class folks and everything is a bit more pricey.

I pre-booked the first few nights of the trip at the Juniper Hotel in Banff, which is located across  Highway 1(Trans-Canada Highway) from Banff. It sits up and above the highway and overlooks the town with a beautiful view of the surrounding mountains. Our room had a big window that allowed you to take it all in from your bed. The rates here were quite reasonable too. They have a nice restaurant that serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner. We wish we would have dined there more cause food was really good! They also have a hot tub which was not far from our room.

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Juniper Inn Room-Banff, Alberta, CA
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We also dined at the Banff Brewpub(twice) and the Bison Restaurant. I really like the brewpub since they had a wide selection of food and the beers were really good. The Bison was a bit more upscale, but I didn’t find the food all that great relative to the price. There wasn’t much choice for vegan/vegetarian, so maybe carnivores would have a better luck here. Melissa’s was our go-to place for breakfast.

Skiing at Lake Louise

On Sunday, we headed about 40 minutes up Highway 1 to Lake Louise to ski. We didn’t have high expectations for the mountain, so we were pleasantly surprised by the terrain. The snow conditions were also very good for early in the season. We headed over to the Larch area in the morning which seemed to have the best conditions according to some people we talked to. There were some gnarly areas, but we found a few good runs there. After lunch, we made our way to the back bowls which contained a good amount of fluffy snow. Although with overcast sky it was impossible to see anything. It was like white-out conditions. At times I had no idea what the pitch was or if it was bumped up or not. I just pointed my skis down and hoped for the best.

All-in-all it was a good ski day. The temps were around 25F which was perfect. We had lunch at the sushi restaurant in the lodge which was quite good. We sat next to a couple of guys who pretty much ran the mountain so they gave us the scoop on the hill. We rented equipment at Wilson Sports just down the road in the Village of Lake Louise. Equipment was nice, but our skis were wider and more powder skis, so they weren’t the best match for conditions.

White Knuckles on the Icefields Parkway

On Monday, we decided to take a break from skiing and take a drive up the Icefields Parkway towards Jasper, Alberta. The parkway starts at Lake Louise and heads Northwest through the heart of the most beautiful sections of the Canadian Rockies. It is supposed to be one of the most scenic drives in the world and takes about 3 hours to get Jasper in good weather. The only problem is that it was now the middle of the Winter and they don’t maintain the road very well during that time. Another factor was that my wife decided she wanted to drive that day. Since I can be a little bit of a control freak where driving is concerned it left me a little grumpy for the start. When we hit the start of the Parkway there was a flashing sign indicating that the roads not in great shape and to proceed at your own risk. The start of the road was covered in very bumpy ice which appeared to be several inches thick. I was not having a warm-and-fuzzy feeling for this 3 hour+ drive. My grumpiness ended rather quickly though once we got into the mountains. It was amazing! The mountain scenery with all the snow was one of the most beautiful landscapes I have ever seen.

The road eventually mellowed out but was still covered with snow most of the way. Locals flew passed us in large 4-wheel drive trucks like we were standing still. We ended up stopping pretty often so I could take pictures, so the trip took even longer than expected. We knew we would not get to Jasper in time to come back again before night, so we ended up turning around just past halfway where Route 11 intersects. We stopped at Peyto Lake and did a little hike through woods to a lookout overlooking the lake.

When we reached Lake Louise we decided to continue our scenic journey and head down the Bow Valley Parkway instead of taking the highway back to Banff. We were rewarded with more magnificent views and even had an Elk sighting along the way.

Skiing at Sunshine Village

On Tuesday, we headed over to Sunshine Village  after a nice breakfast at the Juniper Hotels’ restaurant. Sunshine Village is only about 6 miles up Highway 1 from Banff. It is actually behind Banff, nestled in a narrow valley between the mountains that open up to a wide bowl at the top. A 20-minute gondola ride takes you from the parking area just to the base of the mountain. You can stop off part of the way up to hit the Goat’s Eye section.

When we arrived at the base we were greeted by a very friendly staff “greeter” that gave us the whole low-down on the mountain. It was a beautiful morning with the sun shining away before the snow clouds filled in later in the morning. We played around in the Wawa Bowl and Birdcage area for a bit in the morning and then eventually wound around to the Mount Standish area.

We had lunch at the Chimney Corner restaurant in the lodge, which ended up being a rather unpleasant experience. Our wait for our food took an exceptionally long time and when it finally did arrive the waitress indicated that my wife’s meal was accidentally served to another table. When my wife’s meal finally arrived, it was overdone and she asked to send it back. She also asked to get something else instead, like poutine, that would be quicker since she was hungry and we had wasted enough time in the place. When we got the bill, we noticed they had obviously comp’d us for my wife’s burger which she didn’t eat, but they still charged us for the Poutine. Given the poor experience, we were kind of surprised they didn’t just comp her meal all together as most places would typically do. We said something to our waitress who said she would talk to her manager.

Not soon after we were greeted by a slightly nervous looking younger guy who said he was the manager. We explained the situation to him and he then proceeded to tell us that we were basically wrong about our observation of how my wife’s burger was done. Really? Growing up in the restaurant business, I can tell that you that the customer is never wrong and that if they are not satisfied with their dining experience, you do whatever it takes to make it a good one. This kid was obviously a little puppet for someone else and was just following orders, but I was amazed at this. Especially in a country where everyone was so nice, this really stood out. And really, comp-ing a $10 entree to “make things right” would be no skin off their back. We are obviously not going there again, not that would have anyway. We were planning to hit one of the other bars there for Apres ski that day, but decided to bag it because I didn’t want to be paying them any more money.

Skiing at Sunshine Village pretty nice. We found a good bump run with a little tree section leading up to it.  We spent most of the afternoon on that before making our way down the Gondola back to the parking lot. We headed back into town to return our ski rentals and then grabbed another dinner at the Banff Brewpub before heading to our next destination.

Baker Creek Mountain Resort

We drove back up Highway 1 towards Lake Louise again and then about 10 minutes back down the Bow Valley Parkway to our accommodations for the next couple nights at Baker Creek Mountain Resort. Baker Creek is a somewhat remote little outpost consisting of really nice little log cabins and deluxe rooms. We got there late and they left a note on the office door indicating which room we were in. The room had a little kitchen, a gas fireplace, and big hot tub. The perfect little retreat for a couple days of rest and relaxation. The temperature was also dropping to below zero(C and F)  for the next couple days, so skiing was out of the question anyway.

We were a little disappointed to find out that the restaurant at Baker Creek was closed for everything but dinner, so we would have to drive up to Lake Louise Village next day for breakfast and get groceries for any meals we wanted to eat there. I was kind of looking forward to just hanging out there, but was not meant to be. They had also just sold the place to new owners, who had taken over only a few days before, so they were in a bit of a transition period. Despite that, the place was very nice and we had a very relaxing time there.

On our jaunt up to the Lake Louise Village, we enjoyed a great breakfast at The Post Hotel and then equally good lunch at the Fairmont Chateau at Lake Louise. I also got out on the lake for some photography, but it was so cold there I could not stay out there for very long.

We also managed to get out for a little snowshoeing around Baker Creek and I was able to get a few images along the river at sunset.

Last Stop…Canmore

For the last couple nights we headed back to Canmore, Alberta to stay at the Falcon Crest Lodge. The room at Falcon Crest was more like an apartment than a room. It was very spacious, clean and new. The only bad thing was we had no view of the mountains from our room. Instead, we looked out on a walking path and another building which looked similar to it. It did have an underground parking lot which was kind of nice.

On our fist full day in Canmore, I was able to get out to the Nordic Center for some skate-skiing. Their nordic center is pretty elaborate and I was looking forward to checking it out. The only bad thing was there was a bunch of signs warning of bears still on the prowl and mountain lions which are always around. I was a little uneasy at first, but there were enough other skiers out that it didn’t appear to be an issue. I ended up getting about 10 miles in which was sufficient.

Dining out in Canmore was not a problem. We headed back to Crazyweed again which was very good, but there wine prices were outrageous.  We also tried Rocky Mountain Flatbread Pizza Co. which was also very good. Our Favorite though was CommuniTea Cafe which we ended up eating at 3 times in 2 days! They had really healthy food and it was much needed at the end of a vacation where we were eating a lot of less healthy stuff.

After dinner at the Pizza place, we headed over to the Canmore Curling Club to check that out. The bartender there was really nice and sat down and explained it all to us. Super-nice guy! There was recreational leagues going on and it was pretty funny to watch them. Looks like a very fun social thing.

On our last, full day of the trip we did a little hike up to Grassi Lakes. It was a pretty well-established trail, but it was a constant ascent on a snow covered path which made it a little tricky. I only brought one pair of YakTrax, so we had to share them by each putting one on one foot. We were quickly rewarded at the top with some beautiful little crystal-clear lakes and cascading brooks linking them together. The walk back seemed to be a little more tricky with the traction since gravity was coming into play.

We then talk a more leisurely walk along the footpath that runs along both sides of the Bow River in Canmore. Still snow-covered, but a nice little path to view the river and surrounding mountains.

This trip ended up being one of my favorites. It is surprising such a last-minute decision. We didn’t have a bad meal the whole time other than the Chimney Corner at Sunshine Village. The exchange was also a nice surprise after getting my credit card bill when I got home. I would definitely like to head back here again in the warmer months. I know it will probably be much more crowded, but if we spend more time in the backcountry we may be able to escape some of that.

Thanks for reading!

 

Dry Bags are Not Always Dry, and iPhones are Not Waterproof

Last Friday I headed over to Dutch Springs Aqua Park quarry on Friday for some open water swimming. I contacted Dutch Springs earlier in the week and they said they were open and water temperature was around 50-55 degrees F. Perfect temperature for some Lake Coeur d’Alene training. The folks at Dutch Springs are also introducing some new reduced pricing this year for triathletes which I mentioned in my previous post.

Dutch Springs Aqua Park May 2015

Dutch Springs Aqua Park May 2015

Dutch Springs was pretty empty that afternoon. There were a handful of divers and myself in the whole place. I suited up and filled up my SaferSwimmer “Dry” bag up with a few items.

CleverTraining DC Rainmaker SaferSwimmer Float inflated

CleverTraining DC Rainmaker SaferSwimmer Float inflated

I put my GoPro camera in there in case I wanted to take some pictures along with my iPhone so I could try the Garmin LiveTracking with my 920xt and my old Garmin 910xt just to compare the tracking from above the water. I put my iPhone in a ziploc bad as some added protection just in case some water got in and that was the only thing that was not waterproof.  I also through in my car keys. I have used the SaferSwimmer bag a few times and have never had any water get inside the bag part, so I was pretty confident everything would be ok.

Bass under the Buoy Dutch Springs 2015

Bass under the Buoy Dutch Springs 2015

I had a really nice swim. The water was cool, but not bad at all. Especially with my full sleeve wetsuit and my neoprene swim cap on. I noticed a lot more fish during my first loop around, so I stopped at the dock where I got in and pulled out my camera so I could take some pictures during my swim. When I pulled the camera out, everything seemed to be nice and dry inside. I stuffed my camera in my wetsuit and headed back out again. I got some cool shots of the trout and bass that were swimming around that day. I also managed to get a couple miles swim in too.

I swam around underwater with my GoPro a bit getting some video and pictures of some of the trout that were near the “reef” where I start my swim. There were some nice size rainbows and palominos. I also managed to get a little underwater selfie action too.

Underwater Selfie - Dutch Springs 2015

Underwater Selfie – Dutch Springs 2015

When I finished my swim, I unclipped my dry bag from around my waist and threw it on the dock. When I opened up the bag, my stomach dropped a bit as I noticed a large amount of water inside. I remembered that I had my phone in ziploc, so I hoped that that had protected it. I reached for the phone immediately. I held up the ziploc bag and saw that it too was filled with water. Ughh!

 

Now what???!! I was LiveTracking on iPhone with my Garmin 920xt and had it send my wife a email telling her this. Now, if she looks at the tracking it would have probably stopped in the middle of this quarry. I had no way to text or call her to tell her this either.

I got changed and packed up my stuff and headed out. There was no one around or I would have asked to borrow someones’ phone so I could let my wife know I was ok. I was trying to think of where the nearest AT&T store was so I could upgrade my phone. I am almost paid off on my phone so it isn’t a big deal to upgrade. Thing is I really didn’t want to move to a bigger phone which is why I haven’t upgraded my iPhone 5s to begin with. I guess I have no choice now.

It is amazing to realize how much I use my phone when you don’t have one.  I would have searched Google Maps for the closest AT&T store, but could not do that. It was also Friday afternoon, so I would have checked traffic on the highways too. I decided to try going to the Apple Store and see if I could upgrade there. I thought I could use one of the devices in the store to let my wife know I was ok too.

I was not able to upgrade my phone at the Apple Store since I still owed a few dollars on my AT&T Next payments, so I had to go into the mall AT&T store and upgrade. I was finally online again with a new iPhone 6 after a couple hours. I immediately iMessaged my wife.

My wife called me after I sent her a message. She had gotten down work about a half hour before and texted me several times. There was no response. She then opened the Garmin LiveTrack email and viewed my GPS track which had stopped dead in the middle of Dutch Springs Quarry. She tried calling and it went right to voicemail. She had started to worry now. Fortunately it was for only 20 minutes before I finally talked to her.

Crazy day! Lesson Learned: Don’t put anything that cannot get wet into your SaferSwimmer DryBag!

Tuscany, Italy 2014

I have been slacking on blogging lately and this post is long overdue. If you read my previous post about the start of our Tuscan holiday you know it did not get off to a good start. While it was not one of my favorite trips, looking at the pictures now I can hardly complain. It just wasn’t quite the active trip that I enjoy.

Culture, Europe, Florence, Italy, Travel, Tuscany

Our flight arrival in Copenhagen, Denmark

We eventually made our way to Bologna, Italy after a couple short layovers in Oslo and Copenhagen, although it was a day later than planned. We were originally supposed to stay in Bologna the first night, so it wasn’t a huge loss skipping that one evening. Instead we just headed to the place we would have stayed the second night in Florence. It turned out that one day in Florence was enough anyway.

Florence

Culture, Europe, Florence, Italy, Travel, Tuscany

Our Italian Wheels-The Fiat 500

While planning this trip we had read horror stories about how crazy the drivers were on the highway was from Bologna to Florence. They apparently have never driven with my wife. Denise drove to Florence from the airport and she fit right in there. Actually, it was fine and we had no problems until we got to Florence that evening. Florence is pretty confusing to drive in with the crazy streets, circles and traffic. Fortunately Google Maps app on my iPhone was AWESOME! I don’t know what we would have done without it.
We arrived at the Il Palagetto Guest House a bit late the first evening, but they waited up for us and were very accommodating. They even made us reservations at one of their favorite restaurants, Trattoria da Sergio, while we unpacked. We then walked a few blocks through the large gates of the old city of Florence and enjoyed a fabulous dinner. Now we were feeling like we were on vacation!

Culture, Europe, Florence, Italy, Travel, Tuscany

Denise enjoying some wine at Trattoria da Sergio-Florence, Italy

After a good nights sleep and some breakfast, we headed into Florence for the day. As we got into the main part of the city it became very crowded! Loads of tour groups with their little flags and earbuds filled the streets. I was not diggin’ it. The area around the Ponte Vecchio and the Duomo were the worst. We had hoped to go in the Duomo, but the line was around the block. Instead we opted for our first(of many!) gelatto tasting. Yum!

We had 2pm reservations for the Accademia to see Michelangelo’s David statue, which everyone says you have to see. We headed over that way to find where it was and to pick up our tickets. People were lined up the street to get in there. Seemed kind of strange when all they had to to was purchase tickets on the other side of the street or online beforehand. Then they can walk right in the door at their reserved time. I don’t know why people would not do that? Whatever. We walked down the street and found Ristorante Accademia. We enjoyed a nice lunch while we waited for our entry time.  The food was delicious, our waiter was really nice and spoke good English too.

We headed back to the Accadmia with full bellies and entered pretty quickly. We started looking at some of the works around the entrance and then quickly skipped right to the main hall where the David statue was. We are not really “art” people so this was a stretch for us. I was not blown away by the David statue at first as some had said it would do. Perhaps the masses of tourists distracted me. It wasn’t until I got up close that I was really amazed. The size and articulate detail of this statue was amazing. Carving veins and bodily details out of solid marble like that just blew me away. Definitely worth seeing. We spent a bit of time looking at David and then sauntered through the other statues, but the other stuff was snoozeville compared to David.

Culture, Europe, Florence, Italy, Travel, Tuscany

David by Michelangelo-Accademia, Florence, Italy

The rest of the afternoon was spent “lolligagging” around the city. My wife enjoys this, but it just bores me to death. It is like mall-shopping for me. We got a good lay of the city and ended up at Piazzale Michelangelo where there was a gelatto-fest going on. The view of the city from there was amazing too. We decided after this we had enough and made our way back to the Il Palagetto House and started on our way down to Lucca. We would be staying at Il Gallo Guest House just outside of Lucca for the remainder of our trip.

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Il Gallo Bed & Breakfast

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Our place at Il Gallo B&B-Bozzano, Tuscany, Italy

The drive to Il Gallo went suprisingly fast. Google Maps directed us precisely up the winding little road up the mountain and into the driveway. We were immediately greeted by our friendly hosts, Robert & Katinka. They showed us lovely accomodations and invited us down for some local wine and snacks after we unpacked and settled in. We immediately felt at home with Robert & Katinka. It felt more like we were getting together with friends we had not seen for a while than hosts we had never met before. They are actually Dutch, but have lived in Italy for quite some years and new the lay of the land. We had told them of our dietary preferences, me being plant-based and Denise more a hybrid paleo, and they were very accommadating with our breakfasts. They even adjusted the breakfasts throughout the week based on what we did and didn’t eat. The first night Robert drove up the road with us to the little village above. He took us into the local restaurant and translated the menu and ordered for us in Italian before driving back home. The little restaurant in the town of Bozzano was pretty much only locals and was only open a few nights a week, but the food was amazing and so inexpensive. It is one of those places you just don’t find on your own.

Every morning, weather permitting, we make a short walk up into Roberts’ olive grove to our private terrace for breakfast. Robert had already delivered our wonderful breakfast which would be wating for us there. It was just an amazing scene looking out over the mountains that surrounded us. I didn’t want breakfast to end. On days when it was cooler or raining we would eat down by the main house which was very nice too and still provided the spectacular views. My only complaint about the week was that we didn’t spend more time there hanging out a bit, but we had all these cities to visit.

Denise enjoying breakfast on the terrace at Il Gallo, Lucca, Italy

Denise enjoying breakfast on the terrace at Il Gallo, Lucca, Italy

Isola Santa, Barga & Lucca

 

Culture, Europe, Florence, Italy, Travel, Tuscany

Denise walking through Isola Santa, Italy

On our first day we drove north towards Castelnuovo di Garfagnana then west to a little ghost village in the Alpuane Alps called Isola Santa. Isola Santa is tiny town nestled into valley surrounding a beautiful spring lake. The town is so small and hidden we almost past by it. The parking area is basically just a turnout on the road. We walked through the little town and explored some of the hiking trails around the lake. By the time we got back to the tiny village, it was almost lunch time. There was one place with some outdoor tables that looked like they would serve food. No one else was eating yet, but we sat down at a table and a girl came out with silverware and things. Immediately after that several groups of people came in and sat down too. It now looked like this would take much longer to eat than we planned since they were not heavily staffed. We decided to leave and get something at one of the towns down along the Garfagnano valley.

We ended up stopping in the city of Barga for lunch. Barga has a very large Scottish population, which is highlighted by there Sagra di Pesce e Patate(Fish & Chips) festival every year. So we figured it would be easier to order and eat there since they most-likely spoke more English. We ended up eating at L’Osteria located in a small courtyard in town. It was quite good and the waitresses spoke decent English with a slight Scottish accent. We followed up our late lunch with a little gelato at the shop around the corner too.

We walked around Barga a little more after luch and then made our way down to check out Lucca. I think Lucca is one of my favorite towns in Italy. It has all the characteristics of an old medieval city but a little smaller and less touristy than some of the others. It is surrounded on all sides by a wall which you can run and bike around. I did neither of those, but we did walk a little bit around it 🙁 . To get into the city you must go through very narrow tunnels through the wall entrance which has cars on the outside and people on the inside. This leads to a bit of confusion when you get to the inside and everyone collides in the street.

Culture, Europe, Italy, Lucca, Travel, Tuscany

Lucca town center panorama

The labrynth of streets in the city are lined with many shops. There is a central piazza called, Piazza Anfiteatro, which has many shops and restaurants. Our host Katinka works in one of the shops so we decided to stop in and say Hi. While there she gave us some things to see in the city such as the Guigli Tower and also an opera that was going on that night. The tower was pretty cool. It had trees growing on the top and provided a magnificent 360-degree view of the city. The opera, well, was not really our bag. I tried to keep an open mind but neither of us was into it and we left at intermission. 50 Euros down the tube.

Culture, Europe, Florence, Italy, Travel, Tuscany

View of Lucca from the Guinigi Tower

We then went in search of somewhere to eat dinner. We ended up walking back-and-forth across town because Denise could not make up her mind where she wanted to eat. We ended up eating at Gigi Trattoria, which Katinka and Robert had recommended. It was a good meal, but we were a bit grumpy for the undecisive walking about we had done. We naturally followed up dinner with some more gelato sampling in town.

Fuori dal Centro Gelateria, Lucca, Italy

Fuori dal Centro Gelateria, Lucca, Italy

One stop was at a place on the main piazza which was ok. The better one was a place on the street outside of the main city, named Fuori dal Centro, which was right where we had parked. Denise had spotted some locals in there, so we figured it must be good. And it was!

 

Monte Forato Hike

We enjoyed anothe great breakfast before heading north again to the town of Fornovolasco to do the Monte Forato Hike. The Fiat 500 was getting bit low on fuel so we needed to stop and refuel. There is a gas station down the bottom of the hill from Il Gallo, but Denise said she had seen numerous other stations along the road we had taken the day before. As we drove on we didn’t see any and we were quickly approaching our turn to head up into the Alps. I finally spotted one on the other side of the road and made a turn in. I filled up the tank with around 50 Euros of petrol and then gave the attendant my Mastercard. Rejected!! I then gave him my Debit card VISA…Rejected! WTF!! I asked him to try my credit card again…still nothing. I didn’t know how much cash I had and started digging into my pockets. I managed to piece together the 50 Euros using every little piece of coinage in my pocket. Whew! Apparently gas stations in Italy use some special card for their gas purchases that is different from a regular credit card. I would highly suggest looking into this beforehand or just carry cash.

We eventually drove through the small town of Gallicano which had a ATM and a grocery store. We were also out of water, so we needed to stock up. I ended up purchasing a 6-pack of large bottles, but I unfortunately didn’t notice the word “sparkling” on the side. We noticed this later after we getting ready to start our hike in Fornovolasco. Not a good start to the day.

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Fornovolasco, Tuscany, Italy

We headed across the little bridge and up through the town. I somehow lost track of Denise while I was taking pictures, but eventually found her down at the lower end of the street. She was all mad about it, which I didn’t get since I thought I had seen her go up the way I had gone. I like to take my time hiking and take pictures and she is all focused on hiking, so she just takes off without me. We followed the stream uphill and eventually got off onto some trail going past some small gardens. There were some nice waterfalls along the way, but heaven forbid I stop and take pictures, so I just kept hiking. We eventually straightened things out at the next trail junction.

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Rainbow on Monte Forat Hike-Apuane Alps, Italy

The trail is mostly uphill for the first half before topping out on some rocky peaks. There are some great views of the valley and the coast on the opposite side. The trail had also gotten a little tricky to follow at the top as well. We ran into another couple on the climb up, who we chatted with a bit on the top. They John & Sarah from Massachusetts. We told them we were from Allentown, PA and John said he had done a Tough Mudder at Bear Creek Ski Area which is just up the road from us. They were a really nice couple and we had much in common with them. We hiked together for a little bit and then went our separate ways but kep running into each other again. We ended up hanging out with them at the bar back at the trailhead afterwards. We never got their contact information though, which I have regret.

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The great stone arch of Monte Forato-Apuane Alps, Italy

The climax of the hike is the rock archway with a view of the valley in the middle. It was really clouded in when we first got there, but eventuallly cleared up to give us a view. We also got a nice little rainbow on the other side too. The hike down was not as much fun. It has briefly rained and made for an extremely slippery descent. Denise and I both fell several times. One of my falls was pretty intense too and my wrists were hurting. It was a pretty nice hike and we could have lengthened it a bit more if we had more time.

Culture, Europe, Florence, Italy, Travel, Tuscany

Fornovolasco, Tuscany, Italy

On our way up to Fornovolasco, we noticed a small church nestled in the cliff side of the windy road up the mountain. We decided to take a ride up the small driveway to check it out. The Santuario Mariano Eremo di Calomini was lit up really cool as it turned dark out. Unfortunately, they had it gated off so you could not get up close to it. We also noticed a very narrow driveway that skirted the cliffside and a sign indicating a agriturismo and restaurant. We decided to check it out. Threre was a sheer dropoff on the right side of narrow driveway. We eventually came upon the Agriturismo Antica Trattoria dell’Eremita. It appeared to be open so we went in and had some dinner. It was pretty basic, but good. The best part was that they had some local spelt beer which I had yet to try. Definitely a good add for my Untappd profile.

Montepulciano & Siena

Culture, Europe, Florence, Italy, Travel, Tuscany

Toscana View from Montepulciano, Italy

Wednesday morning we got up a little earlier, had breakfast and were on the Autostrada heading to Montepulciano. Montepulciano is one of our favorite types of wines, so we were looking forward that. It was about a 3 hour drive down there via east to Florence and then due south. The scenery was nice, for being on a highway, but the landscape was a bit browner than I would have expected. Perhaps it was that time of year. We got into Montepulciano around lunch time, found a parking spot in one of the parking garages on the Southeast side of town and headed into the city center to get some lunch. Denise had picked out La Pentolaccia as a good place to eat in the Rick Steves Italy book and it ended up being right in front of us when we walked into town. Perfect!

La Pentolaccia translates to “The Stinkpot” in English, but there was nothing stinky about it. We grabbed the last table outside which we shared with anothe couple from Arizona. They were really nice and we ended up chatting away with them. The lone waittress there was really sweet, but she was so busy you could tell she was really struggling to keep her composure. The food took a little long, but it was so worth it. I had some bean soup and gnocchi for my main course. We also had a small bottle of wine to wash it down with. Rick Steves did not steer us wrong there.

We spent the rest of the afternoon wandering around the town, which my wife likes to do. I tend to get a bit antsy when there is no particular destination in mind. We stopped at the de Ricci wine cellar which was really cool I got some pretty cool long exposure shots in there. The best part was at the end when you pass through the sliding glass doors into the tasting room. People in front of us were paying for wine tastings which were served at the counter. When we flashed our Rick Steves book at the wine stewards, we were immediately whisked over to a nice table and chairs complete with snacks and a full flight of tastings. Wow…Thanks Rick!

We then wandered around some more and then to the main Piazza Grande, which is the main square in town. I ventured into the Duomo and took some photos in there. It was fairly dark, so I had to do some longer exposures on the tripod. Next, was a short walk down the street to the left to Cantine Contucci to see the ever popular Adamo (Pallecchi) and taste some of the legendary Vin Noble. Adamo is known to be a bit of a character and he surely did not let us down. When Denise asked him if she could get her picture taken with him, he immediately starting fondling her and went in for the kiss. On the lips no less. Everyone was cracking up, including Denise and I. I didn’t manage to get the kiss shot because I was laughing so hard. It was so funny. Oh yeah the wine was pretty good too!

Europe, Italy, Travel, Tuscany

Adamo putting the moves on Denise

We left Montepulciano in the late afternoon and decided to drive the more “scenic route” back to Lucca. We wanted to see more of the countryside and also avoid rush hour traffic on the autostrada. The countryside was beautiful, but much more brown and dry than you typically see. Most of the fields were plowed and the soil has very ash gray color to it. Nonetheless, it was still beautiful country. We decided to stop in Siena for dinner and check out the town.

Culture, Europe, Florence, Italy, Travel, Tuscany

Montepulciano, Italy

Culture, Europe, Florence, Italy, Travel, Tuscany

Duomo of Siena, Italy

Siena was really cool. Very old and has many tiers to the streets. The most impressive part was walking out into the Piazza del Campo, which is a large, amphitheater-like courtyard which is surrounded by the large Tower of Mangia on the lower end and numerous restaurants on the upper side. We headed past the Tower to dine outdoors at Antica Trattoria Papei, another Rick Steves recommendation.  Rick did not let us down this time either. The food was really amazing and they allow you to order a bottle of wine and only charge you for the amount you drink which I had never seen before.

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Panorama of Il Campo-Siena, Italy

As if Piazza del Campo was not amazing before, it was even better after dark. The tower was all light up and there were tons of people just hanging out in the piazza. We got some gelato’s and sat down for a while and took in the view. There was something really cool about that place, but I just could not put my finger on it. We then made our way back to Lucca and Il Gallo. But the excitement didn’t quite end there. I noticed that the gas gauge was going down pretty quickly on the way home. It was around midnight at this point and there were no open gas stations. I was sweating it out towards the end. The warning light came on and we still had a 12 miles or so to go. As I was winding up the steep and narrow road to our place, the warning light began flashing and some italian words came up on the dash. I pulled into the driveway on fumes around 1am! Whew..made it!!

The Cinque Terre

The next morning I literally coasted down the little road to the gas station at the bottom of the hill to fill up. Now that we had relieved ourselves of that stress, we jumped back on the autostrada and headed west to the city of La Spezia. La Spezia is the main trainstation for getting up to the towns that comprise the Cinque Terre along the coast. You can drive up there but it is not recommended since there is not many places to park in the tiny cliffside coast towns. We parked in a underground parking garage below the train station. The was a big sign on the door saying to take your parking ticket with you, which I would not normally do. But I suppose there was a reason for this. After taking some time to figure out where to get our train tickets we eventually got on the train and headed up to the town of Monterrosa, which is the most northern of the popular towns. It is also the most touristy and less quaint, but we were just there to get some lunch and then hike the trail down the coast to Vernazza.

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We had lunch at Cantina di Miky, which was right on the beach. To my surprise they had a full menu of Italian microbrewed beers! My Untappd profile got a few nice additions of some international brews and badges. They food was also good. Denise had some anchovies that were nothing like the ones we typically see in the States. These actually looked like fish and they didn’t even taste fishy. There was a group of four next to us who just arrived from St. Louis who gave them a try too. After several IPA’s, one a double, I was ready for some hiking! But, we couldn’t do that until we had some gelato first.

We made our down the crowded promenade towards the end of the beach to pickup the trailhead. Throngs of tour groups crowded our the walkway making it difficult to move at times. We eventually reached the narrow trail and began our making our way up. Two German women in full packs and hiking gear played hopscotch with us until reached the ticket booth of the trail to pay our trail fee. The trail was pretty narrow and with amount of people on it it made it very annoying. You would get behind people in high heels or flip flops who should have stayed on the promenade and then you would need to wait for a time when someone was not coming the other way to pass them. I was getting irritated with it quickly. This is not my idea of hiking.

Culture, Europe, Florence, Italy, Travel, Tuscany

Monterrosa, Cinque Terre

Despite the traffic, the views along the coast were beautiful. This made all the more difficult since it was really hard to take it in. The highlight was when we rounded the final bend to get our first views of the town of Vernazza. It is so picturesque with the brightly colored buildings which bend out on a penisula into to the sea. The beauty becomes afterthought though when you enter the town into the masses of people bustling about. We wandered around the town a bit and stopped into the closes gelateria to refuel a bit. I don’t think we missed having a gelato in any town in Italy yet.

Culture, Europe, Florence, Italy, Travel, Tuscany

Locks on the Cinque Terre trail.

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Vernazza, Cinque Terre, Italy

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Vernazza, Cinque Terre, Italy

We decided to skip the hiking since it was not what we were hoping for there. So next we headed up to the train station after checking out the town a bit more. They never checked our train tickets on the ride in, so we decided to try and ride for free this time. We skipped the next town of Corniglia and headed to Manarola.  It was a pretty quick ride, but it seemed longer since I was stressing about not buying a ticket. I don’t think it was worth the stress to save a couple dollars. Karma will come to play later in the day for doing this.

Culture, Europe, Florence, Italy, Travel, Tuscany

Manarola, Cinque Terre, Italy

We spent some time walking around Manarola looking for prospective restaurants for dinner. We walked out the walkway to the North where the classic picture of the town is taken. It was early yet, so we walked to the little outdoor restaurant just above it to have a cocktail and take in the beauty of the town. By the time we were done, crowds of people had accumulated on the walkway to get their evening photos. Most were just smartphone or handheld shooters, but there was one or two other guys with tripods to get a real shot. The lighting was not spectactular, but it was still beautiful regardless. I took a bunch of shots including one of Denise and I in front of the town. Then we were off to find some dinner. We settled on Trattoria la Scogliera at the lower end of town. It was busy, but they had room for us. Food was very good too.

Culture, Europe, Florence, Italy, Travel, Tuscany

Happy Travelers at Manarola, Cinque Terre, Italy

 

After dinner we hopped on the train again, this time with tickets, and headed to the next town of Riomaggiore. After a long walk through a tunnel, we popped out right in the middle of town. Riomaggiore is a very narrow town that is nestled between the mountain that surround it. It is very difficult to get a good shot of the town without going out on a very craggy seawall. The waves were pretty large crashing into it so I decided against that. We walked up the street into the town and found what else but a gelateria. Why not have a gelato! After finishing up our gelatos we made our way back down towards the train station. It was around 9:30pm now and the last train was at 10 or so. As we walked I started digging around my pockets for our parking garage ticket. Hmmm…nothing? We stopped and I went through everything to no avail. Ugh…Karma had struck. To make matters worse, the train we were waiting for was delayed so we stood there just anticipated the adventure that awaited us. Would we be stuck in the garage all night? Could we even get in to our car? I could see Denise was stressing much more than I was. With the train being even later was making our exit of the parking garage even less likely.

The train eventually came about an hour later and we were on our way back to La Spezia. We departed the train and made our way down the steps into the parking garage. We walked over to the ticket machine and tried to figure out what to do. There was nothing on the machine to indicate some option for help. Meanwhile, Denise ran up to the upper level and was trying to talk to a taxi driver who didn’t speak English. He didn’t know what to do. I had pressed a button which had an icon that resembled an RSS feed icon on it and a voice spoke in Italian on the speaker. I said “I lost my biglietto!” which is ticket in Italian. He said something I didn’t understand and then “drive to the gate”. There is a metal curtain gate at the exit to the garage. Right after he said that, I saw “€25.00” pop up on the little screen. I slid in my credit card and out popped a ticket! My stomach immediately eased. I ran up the steps to the upper deck and Denise was actually walking past the top of the steps. I said “Come on, I got it!”. We fired up the Fiat and headed out the gate.

So, we would have had to pay €17.00 to park had we not lost our ticket. So it cost us €7 more because I lost the ticket. That is about the same amount it would have cost us for the train ticket from Vernazza to Manarola. Karma?

We made the hour or so drive back to Lucca without too much issue. It was so nice to crawl into that bed though, since I had started wonder if we were ever going to that night. Friday was going to be a chill day at Il Gallo since it was supposed to rain and we had no real plans. I was looking forward to it.

 Chill Day in Lucca

I slept in a bit on Friday morning. There was a light rain which made it easy to roll over for some more z’s. Not that I have a problem with that. We had breakfast down on the veranda at Katinka and Robert’s home which offered just as nice a view as our terrace, but shielded us from the rain. It eventually started thunder & lightning and Katinka invited us in her home to hang out for the morning reading or catching up downloading photos. I was able to help them with some computer problems as well, which was cool. We invited them out for lunch and they took us to one of their favorite places in Lucca, Locanda Buatino. It was a really good meal and very inexpensive. Katinka had an appointment in town that afternoon, so we said we could walk around town some more and then take her back home.

Europe, Italy, Travel, Tuscany

Our Favorite gelateria in Tuscany, Fuori Dal Centro, Lucca, Italy

We made a B-line for our favorite gelateria in Tuscany, Fuori dal Centro. It worked out great and we stopped at the grocery store and picked up some snacks too.

We lounged around during the afternoon and then had our last nights dinner at the little local restaurant up at the top of the hill. It was another fabulous meal and a great way to finish off the trip. We enjoyed a couple bottles of the local wine and some good dessert and cappucino before sauntered down the hill back to the house.

The next morning we packed up and said our goodbyes to Robert and Katinka. It was a wonderful place to stay and they are magnificent hosts. I would HIGHLY recommend staying here if in the area. We loaded up the Fiat and drove back to Bologna.

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Room at Radisson Blu Stockholm Arlandia Airport

 

The flights home went pretty smooth. We had a long layover in Stockholm, which we had picked because we love staying at the Radisson Blue by the airport. The rooms are awesome and the breakfast buffet is one of the best I have ever seen.

Europe, Italy, Travel, Tuscany

Part of the breakfast buffet at Radisson Blu Stockholm Arlandia Airport

While this was a very nice trip, it probably wouldn’t be one of my favorites. The main reason for that is that it was it was just too short. I felt like we were just rushing all over the place to see everything. I like to just settle in to an area and really focus on that and do more hiking. I also am not into aimlessly walking around cities, but my wife is so she really like that part. I get kind of bored with it and I don’t like dealing with crowds of people. I also wished I could have had more time to do some cycling. The area we stayed is a mecca for road cycling and their were cyclists everywhere as drove to the next city. But the place we stayed was excellent and the area is beautiful. I would go back in a heartbeat, but I would just do some things differently next time.  Thanks for reading!