Time Hop – Christmas Italian Road Trip

Long before I had a blog, portable wifi, or a decent digital camera, I navigated using paper maps, loaded film in my camera, crossed my fingers that some of my photos would turn out, and journaled about our trips along the way. Since December always makes me reminisce about Christmases past, I felt the desire to scan some of our old photos and this in turn prompted me to dig up the accompanying journal entries.

In the name of family posterity, I now present our Italian Christmas 2003.

Dec. 20th

We loaded our kids their snacks, books, crayons and paper, toys, tissues, wipes, hand sanitizer, and all suitcases into our car for a winter road trip extraordinaire. Our planned route would take us from our home in Prague to Venice, Florence, Pisa, Livorno and back. Not wanting to risk hitting bad weather at the onset, we chose to drive south towards Salzburg and on through the numerous and long Alpine tunnels. We made really good time, especially if you consider we were traveling with a 6 and almost 3 year old. From door to door, it took about nine hours to arrive in Venice (actually Vicenza – better room rates and only a 45 minute train ride to Venice)

December 21st

We woke to gray skies, and after a quick, simple breakfast, we hopped on a bus to the Vicenza train station and boarded a double-decker train car. We followed our kids as they rushed upstairs to sit (climb around) on the top level. We sipped our respective beverages while watching the wet countryside go by – our anticipation growing as we crossed the long bridge over the Laguna Veneta.

When we stepped out of Venice’s Santa Lucia station, TA DA! There we were, looking out over the Grande Canal at the green dome of San Simeone Piccolo. Just, WOW!

The rain was falling steadily but we were as prepared as we could be. S had his full rain suit on plus boots, M had her rain pants (which, as a fashion conscious 6 year-old, she hates), her Power Puff Girl umbrella, and her boots. Hubs and I had our weather resistant coats and umbrellas. After pausing briefly to consult our map, we set off to explore.

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The dampness definitely made the day seem colder than it actually was and I was happy when Hubs spotted a coffee shop to warm up in. He ordered a Machiatto and the rest of us tried the thickest, richest, most decadent hot chocolate we’d ever tasted. A little farther down the street I bought a bag of limoncini (yummy lemon flavored cookies) from a small grocery and we munched on these as we strolled in the rain.

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Venice is divided into 5 major sections. Our first wanderings took us to the Ghetto in Cannaregio. In the early 1500’s a decree forced all the Jews in Venice onto a small islet. They and their tiny bit of land were cut off from the rest of Venice by two waterways and two water gates that were manned by Christian guards. The area was named for a foundry that once operated here (“ghetto” means foundry). The name stuck and other segregated communities from then on were referred to as a ghetto.

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We crossed the wrought iron bridge that led into the Ghetto and found a square with a huge menorah decoration. Since it was Hanukkah, the museum at Campo del Ghetto Novo and all the neighborhood’s shops were closed.

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No cars, no traffic noise – the pace on this rainy day was languid like the flow of the canal waters. Every bridge we crossed afforded us picturesque views and a workout. We brought the stroller so that S could take some breaks from walking, but that meant Hubs and I did a lot of lifting up and down bridge stairs.

The buildings in Venice remind me of New Orleans, not the architecture but the state of elegant decay that beautiful structures have when they reside for years in dampness. As we continued crossing bridges and twisting through the maze of canals, an old man approached us and stopped to look at S in his stroller. The man smiled and said “Bella bambino”. We smiled back and said “Grazie!”. People in the Czech Republic are generally more reserved, so it’s been awhile since we’ve exchanged pleasantries with a smiling, talkative stranger.

As we walked from the Cannaregio area to San Marco, we noticed the empty waterways and gondolas moored and covered with tarps. We thought perhaps the rain was the cause for the inactivity but later, when we tried to catch a ride on a vaporetti (public waterbus), we learned that there was a boat strike in progress. That meant no gondolas, no water taxis and no vaporetti.

So we kept walking and did a little shopping. I wanted two authentic Venetian masks for the kids as keepsakes for when they are older. They found exactly what they wanted at Alberto Sarria Masks. M picked out a green and silver half mask with plumes of emerald feathers and S chose a red, white, and black harlequin design beak (plague doctor’s) mask.

A souvenir I wanted for myself was handmade Venetian lace. I had read that you had to be careful because a lot of the lace for sale here is actually machine made in China. Not too far from St. Mark’s we came upon a marvelous store, Succ. E. Kerer. The window displays were gorgeous and when we went up for a closer look we found that a few things were reasonably priced. Hubs gave me the go ahead so I grabbed M and we went inside to make inquiries while Hubs entertained S outside.

We met the owner’s son and he explained that the reasonably priced items I had noticed were in fact machine made in China. He pulled out other samples to show us the difference between machine and handmade. We saw works in progress and received a brief lesson on how bobbin lace was made; it is very labor intensive. Many of his father’s lace makers are senior citizens. Unfortunately, the younger generation isn’t as interested in learning the craft and in a few years it could be a lost art form. I never really appreciated the time and effort that goes into handmade lace until I saw the thousands of little knots through a magnifying glass. The lace from China was quite pretty, but when it lies next to the exquisite handmade Venetian and Burano lace the difference in quality is very evident. M had a great time chatting with the man and he showed her samples and answered her questions. For financial reasons I had given up my idea of buying a larger piece (say a table runner) and decided on a very delicate handmade snowflake lace (about 5 inches in diameter). The owner’s son showed me how these small laces could be mounted on velvet (he suggested red) and then framed. As he wrapped up my lace, he brought out a small Burano lace angel and presented it to M as a gift. She was very pleased and wants to frame hers too.

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In the Piazza San Marco (Saint Mark’s Square) we had an unusual adventure. Since chasing birds is a favorite pastime of our kids (S in particular), they were very happy to see hundreds of pigeons in the square. M begged Hubs to buy some food from the bird seed vendor and then, AHHHHHHHHH! No exaggeration, it was like a scene from Hitchcock’s movie “The Birds”. As soon as the birds saw our white food bag they fearlessly swarmed around us, landing on heads, backs, shoulders, and arms. I took a series of pictures as Hubs tried to shoo the birds away. M was a little freaked out but attempted to smile, S, however, didn’t hide his panic and yelled for me to do something about the bird sitting in the hood of his jacket. Whenever S held out his arms the birds thought he was offering food and landed on him. He became so fed up with it all, he just started crying.

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Desperate to get away from the birds, we easily coaxed the kids inside Saint Mark’s Basilica for a tour.

Before I describe the Basilica, I’ve got a good Christian tale for you. St. Mark died in Alexandria, Egypt and that is where his body peacefully rested until an Italian priest had a special dream. He said that an angel told him that the city of Venice could never rise to great renown unless the body of St. Mark was seized and brought to the city. Whereupon, a church would be built over the saint’s remains. In the dream, the angel also threatened that if the Venetians ever let the body of St. Mark be removed from its new home the city of Venice would immediately perish from the face of the earth.

So the priest told everyone about his dream and Venetians set about trying to obtain St Mark’s corpse. Thinking positive, the city, in the meantime, went ahead and constructed the basilica. For four hundred years the people of Venice tried and failed to obtain St Mark’s remains. Then one day, some merchants came up with an ingenious plan. They stole the bones, separated them, and packed them in containers filled with lard. They knew that Muslim customs checkers didn’t want to have anything to do with pork products. So, when the thieving merchants were stopped and searched, the guards took one look at the containers and were so grossed out by the pig fat that they let the merchants pass. The bones were brought to Venice and buried in the vault of Saint Mark’s Basilica and the safety of Venice was assured.

Mark Twain once reflected on St.Mark’s Basilica by saying, “There is a strong fascination about it– partly because it is so old, and partly because it is so ugly”. I definitely wouldn’t classify it as ugly, but it is kind of odd. The structure is squat and spread out. It has five large domes and is laid out on a Greek cross plan. It is an east meets west conglomeration of architecture and art with six centuries worth of embellishments – mosaics, mosaics, mosaics, marble carvings, and lots of gold reflecting in the dim lighting (sadly no photos allowed).

We went upstairs to see the view from the gallery and visit the church’s museum. M and S picked up information phones attached to the wall and we dropped in a couple of coins so that they could hear facts about the Basilica in several languages. S not understanding the concept of “recording” sweetly said “Bye” when he hung up.

Out on the loggia we had a marvelous view of St. Mark’s Square. M liked seeing the horses close up and S wanted to find out if his head would fit through the columned railing. These four bronze horses, known as the Triumphal Quadriga, are replicas. The originals, (now inside the basilica) were mounted on the facade of St. Mark’s after being stolen from the top of the Hippodrome in Constantinople in 1204.

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From the Basilica we walked to where the Grand Canal meets the lagoon, passing the columns of San Marco and San Teodoro (also taken from Constantinople). A statue of St Theodore, who used to be the patron saint of Venice until Mark usurped him, tops one column and a winged lion, the emblem of St Mark, crowns the second. Until the 18th century criminals were executed between the columns and to this day superstitious Venetians do not walk between.

In Rialto we found a canal side restaurant that had outdoor seating in a rain proof tent with space heaters (S slept through dinner in his stroller).

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As the city lights reflected off the water, we talked about our day and enjoyed delicious pizza and spaghetti.

The rain began to come down more heavily as we crossed the Rialto Bridge, thankfully the boat strike was over. We caught a water taxi, the kids sat inside the boat’s cabin (S, now awake, eating pizza we had saved for him).

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As we cruised down the now ink black water of the Grand Canal, Hubs and I sat outside in the rain seeing all the grand houses from their best side (the canal side is most ornate). Hubs smiled and said, “You know this is the most romantic moment so far”.


Before I begin day 2 (it’s sunny by the way, YAY!) I want to include a few things I find interesting about Venice.

Venice is in the Veneto region which takes its name from the Veneti, a people who lived in this area until they fell to the Romans in the 3rd century BC.   Fisherman and hunters were the only ones to use the lagoon and its islands until the Huns and Goths came causing the regions inhabitants to flea to the swampy islands – the birth of Venice.

Venice is built on over 100 islands in the swampy Veneta Lagoon. To keep their houses from sinking the Venetians came up with an ingenious idea of sinking pine pilings into the unstable soil to create a sturdy but flexible building foundation. The pilings were placed closely together and driven 25 feet into the ground. We saw pictures of the Campanile (tower) foundation in the Piazzo San Marco. The tower collapsed in 1902 and when they began rebuilding it they found that the pilings (which had been in the ground for 1,000 years) were in excellent condition. Even though the closely packed pilings are in soggy ground they don’t rot because there is not enough oxygen for decay to take place. Pretty cool!

Our first stop of the morning were two side by side markets along the Grand Canal, the Pescheria (fish market) and the Erberia (produce market). These markets have been in this spot near the Rialto Bridge for centuries. Under the covered fish market the kids (M plugging her nose) enjoyed seeing the variety of sea creatures. The produce market consisted of closely packed stalls piled high with gorgeous fruits and vegetables. M shopped with me for provisions – we bought bananas, clementines, kiwis, and pears.

After purchasing our fruit, we turned to find Hubs and S who we had left playing by the canal’s edge, but they were nowhere to be seen (on land that is). I heard Hubs yell my name. M and I turned to see our guys seated in one of the gondola ferries that shuttle people across the canal. All the other passengers were standing but Hubs sat holding onto S, for obvious reasons. The gondola reached the other side, passengers disembarked and new ones boarded while Hubs and S continued to sit. When they made it back to our side of the canal Hubs explained their impromptu boat ride. S had seen the boat and walked over (for a closer look Hubs thought). However, S didn’t stop, he continued down the steps and was climbing into the boat before Hubs could grab him. Since the ride across was only 40 cents, Hubs thought it safer to just hop on board instead of wrestling a determined toddler off a small boat.

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Reunited, we crossed the Rialto Bridge and meandered through the busy designer shopping streets of the San Marco quarter. The crazy bird experience of the day before was still fresh, but the kids wanted to see (not feed) the pigeons at St Mark’s Square again. I think they just wanted to laugh while others got swarmed.

We all took a gondola ferry across the Grand Canal from San Marco to the Dorsoduro area. An elderly Italian couple on the boat smiled and spoke to us about the kids (in Italian but with the accompanying hand motions, so even I understood most of it). They said that the kids were beautiful and that S favored me and that M favored Hubs. Italians are so friendly!

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The Dorsodura area is composed of peaceful neighborhoods and small squares. We made our way to the church of Santa Maria della Salute, an impressive Baroque structure that stands at the entrance of the Grand Canal. Salute means health and the church was built in thanks for deliverance from a plague in the 1600’s.

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Inside, the church is very solemn and the decoration sparse when compared to Saint Mark’s. The interior consists of a huge central octagon with little chapels branching out. S enjoyed running around on the multi-colored tiled floor while I followed close behind trying to slow him down.

Walking through the quaint and narrow passageways of Dorsodura, a marvelous aroma wafted enticingly down the street towards us. The source was the brick oven at a take-out pizza place crowded with locals (yes, pizza, again 🙂 ). S had fallen asleep so I found a shady place to sit with him while Hubs and M ordered and waited for our large Margarita. As we ate, a little dog scavenged for crumbs under our bench.

We crossed the high wooden Ponte dell’ Accademia linking to San Marco and again made our way past St. Mark’s Basilica and the attached Doge’s palace to the lagoon. Venice had Doges (dukes) instead of Kings and the Doge’s Palace is a beautiful pink marble and white limestone structure. While Hubs inquired about tours, the kids had their pictures taken with a couple in carnival dress. M was enthusiastic about standing and posing for pictures, but S eyed them suspiciously as they each grabbed one of his hands.

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Hubs purchased tickets for a boat tour of three of Venice’s most popular lagoon islands; Murano, Torcello, and Burano. We waited by the Rio Del Palazzo and watched boats pass under the Bridge of Sighs on their way into and out of the lagoon. The Bridge of Sighs is not an ordinary pedestrian bridge, it connects the Doge’s Palace to the old prison. The bridge’s name is derived from the sighs and cries of the prisoners as they made their way across to the Inquisitors (shudder).

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We climbed aboard a boat that could probably carry about 60 passengers but, on this rainy winter’s day, it carried maybe 15. Our first stop was the island of Murano, famous for its glassmaking. This has been the center of the Venetian glass industry since the furnaces were moved here from Venice in 1291. The reason for the move was the fire threat the furnaces posed to the city. Our tour stopped at Fornace Estevan Rossetto for a glass blowing demonstration. We saw a man blow a vase and then, to M’s delight, a small horse. He worked so quickly pulling here and there on the molten glass with his tongs and blowing the forms into shape.

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We perused the shop after the demonstration and M picked out a glass horse for her treasure collection (she picked a blue/green one since green is her new favorite color). S chose a glass Santa ornament, ho ho ho!

Our boat kept a tight schedule, but the kids had time to briefly search the rocky shore of the lagoon for discarded pieces of glass that the waves had tumbled smooth against the rocks. Then, M and S entertained themselves with their colorful treasures on the way to Torcello.

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As we approached Torcello the sun was setting and the sky was warm with pinks and yellows. This island seemed deserted but actually had a small population of 60 residents. The colony had its beginnings in the 5th century and legend says that Attila the Hun sat in the stone throne on display. The legend is false, but it was fun none the less for the kids to pretend to be royalty.

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In its heyday (the 11th and 12th centuries) Torcello was packed with 20,000 souls. But the rise of Venice in importance and the threat of malaria led the island’s decline.

Burano was the next stop on our tour. I had hoped to take some good photos of the island’s famous brightly painted houses, but the sun had already set by the time we arrived. Aside from rainbow homes, Burano’s claim to fame is its lace. Most of the island’s residents are either lace makers or fishermen. We strolled through the main square, twinkling with Christmas lights, window shopped at the lace stores, and purchased a few postcards.


We woke early and took the highway west towards Verona, then south to Modena. Our schedule did not allow much time for dawdling, but I really wanted to get off the main roads and see some of the countryside. Consulting the map, I suggested that we take SS12 a scenic road that wound through the Emilia region and Northern Tuscany to Pisa. At first the small country road was making Hubs impatient because there were too many slow cars to pass. However, as we drove farther away from Modena we had the road pretty much to ourselves and Hubs relaxed and conceded that this route was a good idea after all. Rolling hills, vineyards, olive trees, and sun-baked farmhouses and villas – the countryside was everything we imagined. Even in winter, the hues were warm and inviting.

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We passed crumbling houses constructed of wheat colored bricks, and saw villas perched in what looked like unreachable locations (what spectacular views they must have). The hilly terrain became more rugged as our Volvo climbed higher and higher into the pine draped Apennines Mountains. Snow covered the ground but the roads were clear. Near the summit of Monte Cimone, is the small ski town of Abetone (supposedly the best skiing in Central Italy). Here we found a pizzeria owned by an elderly couple perched on the edge of the mountain. We sat at a table next to the large picture window and gazed out at the fabulous view. The pizza was good and the spaghetti pomodoro amazing. The sauce had a slight citrus taste almost like a splash of orange juice had been added, we gobbled up every last bite. Abetone was the highest point of our day’s drive.

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In Pisa we saw the leaning tower in the dwindling light of day and ate the worst pizza ever. We paid our bill and hurried to the nearest gelato place to cleanse our palates. Back in the car on the way to our hotel,  M gave us only two seconds between saying, “I feel like I’m going to throw up” and puking up her gelato and pizza all over herself and the backseat. Hubs pulled over and we stripped off M’s coat, cleaning it as best we could. Kids can sure be disgusting! M felt so much better after her purge that she announced she was hungry again.

Once at our accommodations (Sea Pines Lodge at Camp Darby) the kids and I made a second dinner of sandwiches and watched “The Grinch”,  while Hubs, great father and husband that he is, went off into the night to find a laundry mat to wash and dry M’s messy coat and booster seat cover. To make our room festive (we would be staying here until Christmas Day) M crafted some paper decorations and we hung these as well as a strand of Christmas lights and our stockings that we had packed in our suitcases.


I have dreamed of going to Florence ever since my first college art history class, sitting in the dark viewing slides of Renaissance art and hearing “Uffizi” over and over again. Florence was the arena for one of the most significant revolutions ever. What must it have been like to witness this rebirth; to step out of the Dark Ages into the light of discovery, reason, and creativity? I have imagined Florence often, a Renaissance city transcending time, an unparalleled showplace of architecture and art. I was beyond excited to visit!

Most of Florence’s must-sees are in a centralized area. We found a parking lot fairly easily on the west side of the city center, although we had a decent walk to the sights. The bright sunshine did little to warm the wind that was our constant companion throughout the day.

We found our way to the lovely Gothic Church of Santa Maria Novella. The geometric designs on the façade are constructed using white and green (serpentine) marble.

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Although the church is said to be one of Florence’s most distinguished we did not visit the interior. With two little kids we had to be choosy and pace ourselves.

We passed San Lorenzo, the parish church for the illustrious Medici family.  Their dynasty held power almost continuously from 1434-1743 and they commissioned the best Renaissance artists to do some of their greatest works.

At a street market near San Lorenzo, M picked out an Italian doll as a souvenir and S got a small wooden Pinocchio. We had to keep a vigilant watch on the kids when crossing streets. Supposedly the city center is a limited traffic zone but there were lots of taxis and motor scooters.

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When we reached the Duomo (derived from Domus Dei- House of God) I was so impressed, it really is spectacular. The cathedral’s dome can be seen in most city postcards because to this day no building in Florence stands taller. The structure is like a “who’s who” of the Renaissance world; Brunelleschi’s dome, Giotto’s campanile (bell tower), and Baptistry doors by Ghiberti (north and east) and Pisano (south). I have always enjoyed the story behind Ghiberti’s east doors, hailed as the “Gates of Paradise” by Michelangelo. In 1401, to celebrate the end to yet another plague, there was a contest to pick an artist to create east doors for the Baptistry. Seven well-known artists competed by creating one panel to be judged. The theme of the panels had to be Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac. Two panels, Ghiberti’s and Brunelleschi’s were thought extraordinary. In the end, Ghiberti won because his panel was less violent and his Isaac was rendered so beautifully. It took Ghiberti 28 years to finish the east doors. The Baptistry doors now are copies (the real ones are in the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo).

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We didn’t tour the cathedral right away. S was nearing his naptime so we put him in the stroller and pushed on towards the Ponte Vecchio, the only bridge in Florence to be spared demolition by the Nazi’s – even Hitler realized its historical significance. Butchers, tanners, and blacksmiths once had workshops on the bridge. However, one of Florence’s Dukes hated the noise and the smells these shops generated so in 1593 he banned them from the bridge and moved in the goldsmiths. Even now the shops on the Ponte Vecchio sell new and antique jewelry.


Hubs had planned to watch the kids while I went into the museum, but since S was napping we all went in. M was very engaged she asked a lot of questions and commented on her favorites (she really liked Botticelli’s work). Knowing we had a short window of time with a sleeping child we did limit our visit to mainly Renaissance art. I was in awe.

Outside the museum, we went to see the replica of “David”. I explained the story of David and Goliath to the kids and M wanted to know why David fought the giant without wearing any clothes. Later, we found Perseus, another guy who didn’t wear clothes while fighting,

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Michelangelo’s original 17ft. statue of David is in the Galleria dell’ Accademia. We paid our admission and stood in the crowd surrounding the statue’s pedestal. On a nearby wall the kids took a turn on a computer screen that allowed them to zoom in and rotate the statue’s image. It was so cool to see the intricacy of the carving.

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Inside the Duomo Hubs helped M and S each light a candle. M calls it making a wish.

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The kids had reached sight seeing overload. On the corner across the street from the Duomo we relaxed in a coffee/gelato shop. While the kids tackled their huge scoops of vanilla, we watched a procession of children wearing Santa hats ride by on horses.

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Santa had visited during the night and filled our stockings with treats.He also left a note explaining that he knew we were on a road trip, therefore, he had left presents under our tree at home in Prague. We enjoyed donuts for breakfast and then took a lovely walk on the beach near Livorno.

Sunny with a chance of meatballs – the Mediterranean was calm, the waves lapping ever so gently on the shore. Funny little balls of rolled up grass (they looked like meatballs) had washed up on the sand.  A little farther up the coastal road we stopped at a gleaming white marble beach, some of the pieces had carving marks. It was as if the beach were a dumping place for sculpture castoffs.

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With our car loaded it was time to begin the long drive home.

We stopped in the quaint Tuscan town of Lucca for lunch. Not much was open on Christmas day but we did find a little café with good pasta and black and white photos of Israel and Palestine. Lucca is a lovely little town, it’s old city enclosed by an ancient wall. We found a playground and let the kids burn off some energy before getting back in the car. If we ever come back to Tuscany again, Lucca would be an excellent place to stay while exploring the region.

As we neared the Italy/Austria border we stopped for pasta and cheese to take home. Instead of backtracking through the tunnels, we had decided to try Brenner Pass over the Dolomites. Snow covered the mountains but the roads were clear; a beautiful drive and a fitting end to our Italian Holiday.

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3 thoughts

  1. I enjoyed this–it reminds me so much of a similar trip we took when the kids were I think 5 and 9. Venice was cold and rainy then, too–you all had better rain gear than we did!

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