Italy 2017: Florence sights and shopping

I have never met anyone who has been to Florence and didn’t like it. It’s probably a mix of the food, the gorgeous architecture and museums, and all the leather goods for sale. There is certainly a lot to explore in this old city…

Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore
Right in the heart of the city (and a five minutes walk from our hotel) is this massive cathedral with an insanely detailed exterior. This was a popular gathering place and we experienced crowds of people taking selfies and admiring the bapistry and cathedral at all times of day.

Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore

Ponte Vecchio
The famous bridge in Florence is now a series of tourist-driven jewelry shops but it still looks pretty great at sunset.

silly selfie with the famous bridge

Ponte Vecchio @ sunset

Porcellino
Legend has it that if you rub this warthog’s nose then you will ensure your return to Florence. Can’t hurt!

rubbing the nose of Porcellino  rubbing the nose of Porcellino
My FIL and I making extra sure we return to Florence.

Leather Goods
Florence is known for leather goods, so I was looking for a pair of leather gloves and a new leather wallet. I was spoiled for choice as any amount of wandering in the main tourist area took you past a million shops selling “Made in Italy” leather items. The quality varied but with patience I found a bright pink pair of cashmere-lined gloves for $38 and a black and pink wallet for $32.

Martelli - gorgeous leather gloves for $38! 

Street art
We were both pleasantly surprised by the amount of quality street art in Florence. We found quite a few paste-ups and the like but my favorites were the ‘Art Knows how to Swim’ series by Blub and the silly street sign modifications by Clet.

'Art Knows how to Swim' piece by Blub  ‘Art Knows how to Swim’ by Blub

florence-36  street art by Clet

amazing chalk art  street art

Winter Weekend in London: Sunday

For our last day in London we planned an itinerary that took us to four separate neighborhoods. First, we walked along Bayswater Road for the weekly Sunday Art Exhibition. Unfortunately, not many artists were displaying by 10am due to weather. We’ll need to re-try at a different time of year perhaps.

Bayswater Road Sunday Art Exhibition

Next up was Islington. Our original plan was to use the Lancaster Gate tube station, which we found closed. A quick check of Google maps suggested the 274 bus so we hopped on. The 30 minute ride gave us a new view of several neighborhoods that we normally miss on the underground and dropped us off within a block of our first street art stop.

We got off the bus in Barnsbury, then walked to Islington, looking for street art. We did find some murals, but it looked like many had been painted over. Overall, a bit disappointing compared to other neighborhoods in London.

london-extra-6

london-extra-7  hubba hubba!

I had picked out a French Bistro for lunch, Le Sacre Coeur, but it was mysteriously closed at noon despite the hours on their sign stating otherwise. Thankfully, there were several neighboring restaurants open, and we opted for the bustling Spanish place, La Farola, on the corner. Trendy (lots of customers with yoga pants and hipster haircuts), but friendly service and tasty food.

 

La Farola

From Islington we took another bus down to South Bank/Waterloo, first to see the Falling Shawls exhibit, then to procure a Cadbury Creme Egg s’more!

Falling Shawls exhibit @ Southbank Centre

Cadbury Creme Egg S'mores!  Beware of Poachers

On the way back to the room we had a quick stop at V&A Museum to check out a few exhibits we missed on the previous visit.

For the afternoon we knew we wanted to try Gordon’s Wine Bar and their famous basement cave. We got there around 4pm and managed to grab the last empty table! Leandra’s Aunt Kim met us for wine and a delicious cheese tray a short time later. All food and wine is ordered at the bar and then you bring it to your table. The cheese guy was chatty and helpful, offering Leandra generous samples so she could choose a cheese. For wines, there is a good selection by the glass, and a fairly extensive bottle selection that was reasonably priced. Additionally, they did have a good selection of sherries. Definitely recommended if you can get a table.

drinking wine in the cave @ Gordon's Wine Bar

  wine and cheese @ Gordon's Wine Bar

Around 6:30p we bid our goodbyes and walked up the street to Piccadilly Circus to see The Comedy About a Bank Robbery. Great word-play, sight gags, and overall silliness had us gasping for breath at parts and elicited several rounds of applause from the highly amused audience. We absolutely loved it, and a great way to end our weekend in London!

Winter Weekend in London: Overview and Thursday

In November we found an outstanding deal for the direct flight from RDU to London, so we booked a long weekend trip for February. London is a favorite city to visit (2016201520142013, 2012…) so we knew it wouldn’t be hard to fill our time! For this trip we based ourselves near the Earl’s Court tube stop and focused on culture (museums and theater) and exploring a few new-to-us neighborhoods (Little Venice and Angel/Islington).

Where We Stayed

This was our third stay at the Hotel Indigo and it was fraught with issues. Our room was ready at 8:30am which was a huge bonus. However, we were located in the basement through a series of fire doors and uneven steps; our location also meant that the window was below ground and next to the sidewalk, so we had the curtains drawn the whole time. The air vent in the room rattled on and off consistently for our entire four-night stay (even after complaining to the front deck twice), and the internet was spotty at best (with multiple trips to the front desk for fixes – they said they were getting a new provider soon).  On the upside, the bed was comfortable, and as usual, the location works well for us.

our bedroom @ Hotel Indigo London - Kensington  our personalized message
our room; even the TV’s personalized room message was broken

Thursday

Our flight across the pond was uneventful and after checking in we headed out into the brisk morning to Borough Market for cheese, bread and snacks. But first! The iconic views of London — Big Ben and the London Eye.

Big Ben and Westminsterthe Eye (sponsored by Coca Cola) 

We also wanted to check out the Leake Street graffiti tunnel. There were a few choice murals and paste-ups but mostly basic tagging.

gas mask  El Trumpo

make my day  he's mine at least 

A few stops later on the Jubilee line and we arrived at Borough Market just as things were opening to pick up a second breakfast. We found fresh raspberries, British cheese and a baguette, plus a Venison meat stick for Leandra, which she snacked on for the remainder of the trip.

tasty cheese @ Borough Market cheese @ Borough Market

We stopped in briefly to the Southwark Cathedral to see if we could eat our lunch in the courtyard but no food was allowed. Instead we admired the architecture and the sleepy resident cat curled up on a comfy chair near the altar.

Wooden Effigy of a Knight @ Southwark Cathedral

Another few stops on the Jubilee line took us to Canary Wharf and the Museum of London Docklands. Free, as most museums are in London, this museum explained the interesting history of London along the Thames – development, labor strikes, WWII, etc, with lots of displays and artifacts across the centuries. We enjoyed our visit to this quirky museum, and would definitely recommend it for history buffs.

It was terribly windy in London on Thursday but nowhere more so than the docklands around the museum. Crossing the North Dock footbridge to the museum and waiting for the West India Quay Overground train left us completely wind-blown.

Dragging after the long overnight flight, we headed back to the room for a quick nap, then beers at our old favorite, Cask Pub & Kitchen. We arrived just in time to grab a table and the place filled up quickly as people got off from work. Leandra choose small pours of the Atom Neutron Star, an imperial stout, and the Tiny Rebel Dirty Stop Out, a smoked oat stout. I was very happy that one of my favorite beers was on tap, Cantillon Rosé De Gambrinus, so that was a definite first for me. For my second, I tried the Wyper & True Mimosa, a Berliner Weisse that was a bit too light after my delicious lambic.

dressed up for beers @ Cask Pub & Kitchen  red, blonde and dark beers
Leandra in a dress (!) drinking beer; a red, a blonde and a brunette

Finally, we met Kim and Jules for late dinner at Boisdale of Belgravia, a boisterous restaurant with live jazz and a Scottish menu. Pricey but classy and tasty.

jazz @ Boisdale of Belgravia

After a long day we slept very well that evening!

Malaysia: Georgetown street art

Georgetown has a lot of well documented and popular street art, so we spent a solid hour or two per day (before the temperature became oppressive) exploring the streets and enjoying the sites.

All around town you see 2D iron art, part of a commissioned project completed by SCULPTUREATWORK displaying historical caricatures of life in Penang.

SCULPTUREATWORK street art

SCULPTUREATWORK street art

Another unique feature of the street art here are murals that use a real item (motobike, swing, chair, etc) as part of the art.

Boy on Streetbike

street art  Brother & Sister on a Swing

Reaching for Basket

The last car that parked here...  street art doorway

Boy with Pet Monster

Eric w/ graffiti  Less than five feet!

Of course there are also the standard murals, stickers and silly sayings. We love street art and found Georgetown to be a good destination for this (plus, the food is awesome). You can see all of our street art photos from around the world on Flickr.

Netherlands 2015: Amsterdam flowers and art

We spent most of Saturday with our friends, so our touring of Amsterdam was primarily on Sunday. In the morning we went to the Bloemenmarkt, something we had inexplicably missed on our first trip. While touristy, it was still quite beautiful, with lots of cool bulbs, resurrection plants, succulents, and other plant-related things. Some of the stalls felt like a living bulb catalog.

bulbs

Continuing with our botanical theme we took the tram a few stops to Hortus Botanicus, one of the oldest botanical gardens in the world. The nearly 400-year old garden is small and a bit pricey at 8 Euros, but features an extensive collection including a tropical house, cacti and pond plants, plus the weather was perfect for strolling.

botanical nijntje  Hortus Botanicus Amsterdam

Hortus Botanicus Amsterdam  Hortus Botanicus AmsterdamHortus Botanicus Amsterdam

As a bonus there was live jazz in the outdoor cafe that could be heard throughout most of the garden.

Following a beer break we next headed toward Spuistraat and Wijdesteeg, a street art section on the east side of the main canal ring.

einstein  street artkennedy & rabbit  street art

We managed to find a few things to photograph but it was generally underwhelming compared to so many other cities we’ve visited.

UK 2015: London – Day 2

Friday morning we awoke to a beautiful morning of blue skies, so we decided to explore Notting Hill. We started along the famous Portobello Road, and quickly found several interesting shops and road stalls, bringing home several origami butterflies from one store, and a sketch of St. Pauls Directly from an artist with a stall on the street. Part way up the road we took a detour to explore some of the beautiful homes nearby (!) then met up with our crew by the Tube station.

Notting Hill  Notting Hill

St John's Church  flowery stairs in Notting Hill

Everyone was hungry so we decided to go to First Floor Restaurant for lunch. I ordered the chicken caesar salad (Leandra had my anchovies – she said yum) and a half-pint of cider, while Leandra had the mussels (yet again) and a glass of rose. The food was tasty, but service was a little slow and we may have been better off with street food or one of the other cafes.

Down the street there were some great dessert stalls, so we got a florentine (almonds, cherries and chocolate cookie) and a chocolate pecan tart. Leandra searched for the blue door of the eponymous ‘Notting Hill’ movie and eventually found it.

Notting Hill Market  the blue door in Notting Hill
Notting Hill market on a Friday; the blue door from the movie ‘Notting Hill’

From here we decided to give our friends a taste of east London, so we took the tube to Shoreditch and walked over to the Old Spitalfields market. It was a little after 4p when we arrived, so parts of the market were packing up, but we managed to find some fun t-shirts and a good deal on four decorative dessert plates. As we learned on our last trip, this area has some great street art, so we spent about an hour exploring the side streets off Brick Lane; finding some old faves and quite a few new ones too.

Otto Schade  rude kids

street art  hug

birds

pumpkin face  secret society

After a quick change of clothes at the we headed back out for dinner. We were a little early for our reservation so we stopped off for a quick cider (me) and Cottage Brewing street porter (Leandra) at the Fitzrovia pub.

Dinner was at Da Paolo with our group and Leandra’s Aunt Kim and Jules, then drinks afterwards in the bustling and expensive Charlotte Street Hotel’s Oscar Bar. The big hit of the night was discovering a new (to us) drink called “Scottish Lover” that we need to recreate at home!

dinnerphoto
photo courtesy of our waiter via Jules’ phone

posing @ the Charlotte Hotel
We didn’t leave till they were shutting the bar down at 1am!

By the time we left the tube was closed, so we had ~1 mile walk back to hotel – as usual, we had a memorably fun evening in London!

One day in Sydney!

Since we had never visited Sydney on our previous Australia trip, we took this opportunity to see as much as we could in our two nights and one very full day.

We arrived late Sunday evening, taking a taxi from the airport to our apartment. This evening was the Cricket World Cup Final between Australia and New Zealand, and we had hoped to watch some of the game in a local pub… unfortunately (for us), Australia had already won the match just as we got into our room. Undeterred we went out for a beer at Royal Albert Hotel which did have a few people celebrating the win. They had an interesting range of beer, and Eric went for the Black Dog Brewery Farm Dog saison while Leandra choose the ‘The Dopey One’ from Modus Operandi Brewing.

coaster drawings @ Royal Albert Hotel  coaster drawings @ Royal Albert Hotel
fantastic illustrations on coasters covered one of the walls @ Royal Albert Hotel

The Monday forecast called for midday rain, so we were up early for breakfast pastries at De La France with a ham and cheese croissant for Eric, and a bacon and cheese for Leandra. Good way to start the day! From there we walked to Hyde Park, then on to views of St. Marys and St. James churches.

St. Marys Church
St. Mary’s Church

stained glass at St. Peters
stained glass room in St. Peter’s Church

Next we went down Macquarie St. past the library, then to the botanical garden, enjoying the various plantings. The ibis and cockatoos were also fun to watch, with a large gathering inexplicably under one tree.

cockatoos and ibis

From the northern tip of the botanical gardens we had our first view of the famous opera house.

Sydney Opera House

Note the looming clouds? Yeah, we did too. So under threatening skies we hustled around the quay for more views, took one last panorama, then ducked under an awning just as the rain came down. Looking at the radar we saw that it wasn’t going to stop quickly, so we changed our plans to head indoors. 

Sydney Harbour
just before the downpour!

The Museum of Contemporary Art was closest, so we went there first, ducking under as many awnings and bridges as possible. As a bonus, entry and wifi were both free! We especially enjoyed several of the light installations.

naa (to see or look ) by Jonathan Jones

Automated Color Field by Rebcca Baumann  colored room

Earlier we had noticed signs for an exhibition on Australian pulp fiction at the NSW Library so we headed there next. While interesting, even more entertaining was a set of portraits of shopkeepers in the Newtown suburb and the impressive reading room.

NSW Library
And now it’s sunny! Welcome to weather in Sydney.

The rain had tapered off a bit, but it was still drizzling, so we ducked into the Rabbit Hole for a quick snack of chips and a cider for Eric, with the house white rabbit ale for Leandra. Inspired by the photos in the library we took the opportunity to research Newtown as our next destination. By the time we left the sun was back out so we headed north through a different part of the botanical gardens, then to Cahill walk across bridge for more photos.

view of the CBD from the Royal Botanic Gardens

the famous opera house!

Sydney Opera House from the Harbor Bridge

At Circular Quay we purchased train tickets to Newtown, which was a bit confusing, including a transfer at Central station for $8 roundtrip. The video screen didn’t list the train we needed, so we had to deduce the track from the regular static listing next to the maps. The train in Sydney reminded us of Barcelona, where they seem to be more efficient for suburb connections then for getting around the CBD.

Once in Newtown it was a short walk to Young Henrys brewery, where Eric ordered the Newtowner (ale) which had a nice fruitiness to it, and is only distributed in the neighborhood area. Leandra got the darker specialty beer, a chocolate raspberry stout (Edna ale) – brewed by one of their female bartenders. The bartender was helpful with suggestions on what to try, and the overall space was fun with many interesting art pieces on the wall.

beers @ Young Henry's

Next up was exploring some of the local street art in the area around the brewery.

street art in Newtown

street art in Newtown

street art in Newtown (and Eric)

street art in Newtown

As you know we LOVE street art and this area did not disappoint. There was a good variety of styles, paste-ups and sculptures.

dessert-1Working up an appetite, we made it in the door just as Gigi’s Pizzeria opened for the evening. Drinks were served with a pile of roasted in-shell peanuts to munch on. We were surprised at how good our orders were – a really good thin crust pizza, along with a reasonably priced carafe of rose. Since we split the pizza we had room for dessert and went with the special, a mille feuille with figs. Everything was quite tasty.

Fairly tired we decided to head back our apartment to rest our feet and charge our phones. As one last hurrah, and since it was only two blocks away, we went out for pork dumplings from Din Tai Fung later that night. As usual, they were awesome!