Tuscany and Venice, July 18-23

We rented a car in Florence and spent four days in nearby Tuscany, staying at a large farmhouse nicely restored as a small hotel, in the Chianti region. The hotel had a killer view of rolling hills, vineyards, and castles. We didn't spend a whole lot of time hanging around the hotel's hilltop swimming pool, but we did slow the pace to some extent.

Needless to say, wine figures prominently in the Chianti region, and we enjoyed several Black Roosters. Alex, normally a beer-drinker, adjusted easily to red wine, even pouring himself a glass or two with our picnic lunches. The wine highlight was a high-tech tasting room -- hundreds of wine bottles dispensing tastings automatically by inserting a prepaid card. (Tastings were 50 cents and up, depending on the wine.)

Wine and relaxation aside, our time in Tuscany was about visiting medieval towns and castles, and taking evening hikes after it cooled down. All of the towns and castles were terrific and not too touristy -- we particularly enjoyed our private visit to Castello di Brolio (the guard generously let us in at the midday closing time), and meandering around Siena.

Siena is the largest town of the region so we timed our visit with the release of the Harry Potter book. The kids convinced us to buy two copies (photo 3), and we haven't heard much from them since.

After Tuscany, we took the train from Florence to Venice, encountering our first (and, we hope, last) Italian train strike. We'd bought tickets to Venice on the Eurostar, but due to the strike the train only took us as far as Bologna. We were fortunate to catch a regional line from Bologna to Venice.

Venice is one of a kind: full of tourists (20 million a year!), extremely expensive, annoyingly smelly, and absolutely captivating. In 48 hours we hit the major sights, squares, and museums; fed the pigeons in Piazza San Marco (photo 5); and walked walked walked among the maze of alleys and canals. (No, we didn't splurge for a 50-minute gondola ride to the tune of $125, but Emily and Jennifer enjoyed riding the $8 "boat bus" along the Grand Canal.) There's a lot to be said for a completely car-free city, and for a city whose plan has remained essentially unchanged for centuries.

On the travel-logistics front, our initial supply of toiletries and so on is finally running out. We didn't expect any resupply problems in Europe, and indeed most items are readily available. However, two staples were a bit harder to come by: dental floss (the kids immediately made a connection to the less-than-perfect teeth we've been seeing on a regular basis), and hand-sanitizer gel. The latter has become an indispensable travel item for us, and certainly a contributor to our good health in places like India and Peru. We were somewhat lax initially with its use on this trip, until mild stomach problems in Greece prompted more diligence. We certainly hope to load up one way or another (a second "care package" from Hector?) prior to hitting Morocco in September.

At long last we've assembled our photos from Greece into a coherent and reasonably compact collection (114 photos, including most of the ones in the travelogs). They can be viewed here.

Next: A week in the Italian Alps -- first a few days in the Dolomites, then west to stay with friends in Aprica.

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