kristen reNae

travel

Florence

When I began researching and asking around of things to do in Florence, it became very apparent that Florence CANNOT be done in one day. Well, at least not to get a genuine experience. We spent a full week there, and with jet lag and getting acquainted with the area, I couldn’t imagine doing it in less than three days.

Below I share my experience from our holiday there, and in a follow-up post I will provide my Top 10 Things that you must do in Firenze (with a ton more pictures)!

f l o r e n c e,  i t a l y

We began the first leg of our trip in Florence. We flew from LAX to London Heathrow to Rome. And from Rome we took a high-speed train to Florence. And the navigating began.

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We had decent directions from our Airbnb host, Samuel, on how to get from the train station to our apartment by foot. It was a bit of a hike, considering we were dragging our suitcases and carry-ons behind us. Once we finally made it, our host was waiting for us.

Walking down the cobble stone roads towards our Airbnb.

We got a few recommendations from our host, but considering we arrived late on a Sunday, we wanted to catch the last few hours of the Christmas Market, so the visit was a bit short. We dropped off our things and scurried over to the market.

The Christmas Market was in front of one of the many churches. It hosted everything from roasted pigs to miscellaneous clothing items, to some unnecessary trinkets. We walked around aimlessly trying to beat our jet lag. Nothing much seemed appealing enough to buy on our first day, so we took our time walking back to our place, trying to figure out the area. We ended up stopping for a bite to eat at Osteria del Proconsolo, which was just a few doors down from our Airbnb. The owner was very delightful and offered some other great recommendations.

 

 

The first few nights were a bit rough (my first time experiencing jet lag). But thankfully I had a few days off of work and I had a full itinerary planned ahead, to hopefully wear us out.

 

Monday was a day of walking around Firenze. We explored the Ponte Vecchio, Santo Spirito, the Duomo, and our biggest surprise was the hike to Piazzale Michelangelo. This had a gorgeous view of Florence!

One of the more hilarious/ridiculous moments was trying to find Gusta Pizza. The first day we were walking towards Santo Spirito, we saw this pizza parlor, but it wasn’t open for business. So we made a mental note to come back in an hour or so. The only problem was that we couldn’t find our way back to it. We ended up walking up and down every street in the neighborhood, but our mission fell short. However, the next day we stumbled upon it again, so you better believe we were first in line. And it was so worth it!

Onto the next day. Initially, we were planning on a few museum visits over the course of a week; however, once I read that the Firenze card would be useful, we decided to squeeze as much in as we could. The card is 72 museums, in 72 hours, for 72 dollars. And although we were visiting during off season and many (blogs) said we didn’t really need it, it is really dependent on the person. We absolutely loved it! (More on that in the next post)

We visited the Galleria degli Uffizi, Galleria del Academia, Il Duomo (and climbed to the top), Baptistery, Santo Spirito, Santa Maria church, Basilica di Santa Croce, Pitti Palace and Boboli Gardens. I’m usually not a big museum person – but I was in complete awe the entire time. Each piece was grandiose and a bit majestic.

We had several day trips planned for our stay. The first one up, San Gimignano. We took the train from Florence to Pogibonsi, and then a bus up the hill to San Gimignano. It is always an adventure trying to figure out public transportation and then not knowing your final destination. But each minute is just that, an adventure. Missing your bus and having to wait an hour until the next one… well, that was fun too.

San Gimignano absolutely took my breath away. This adorable hill town was so quaint. Obviously we were there in “off-season”, so I’m sure it was much more enjoyable as we weren’t bombarded with other tourists or people trying to sell us stuff.

We walked around the little village getting lost in between streets and taking way too many pictures. When lunch time came, we found one of the few places open that was serving wine and a panini. We met Maristella who was a native to the area and had a very popular shop. (ps she was actually very nice and happy, this was the best picture out of a few)

Afterwards, we grabbed some gelato from the only gelateria open and enjoyed it in the city square. We weaved in and out of picture points and leather stores. When it began getting dark, we headed back the same route we got into town.

Our days in Florence were beautiful. We walked in and out of as many streets that we came upon. Often visiting the same place several times. On recommendation, we tried this panini place called Il Due Fratellini – hands down, the best!

We drank plenty of wine, ate more than enough prosciutto, tried the pizza, gnocchi and as many pastas as we could, not too mention the tiramisu. We were there for Christmas, but we didn’t make any definite plans. So, we ended up finding a small place close to Piazza Santa Maria Novella – there we tried the bistecca for our Christmas Eve dinner. It’s recommended to share between at least two people – but based on experience, I would say at least four people. But it was absolutely delicious.

After dinner, we planned on attending Christmas Eve Mass inside the Duomo (Santa Maria del Fiore). However, we walked inside around 930 – and after realizing that we would have another 3+ hours to wait and then go through service, we opted to pass. People were already staking out their seats, and it was a bit of a long haul for us.

We came across this Christmas bar crawl group, singing down the cobble streets

Florence was magnificent in so many ways. I got to see in person so many things that I only got to read in history books. The culture was more than I expected. Attempting to grocery shop was an adventure. The food, of course, is better tasted. I consumed more than enough expressos, desserts (mainly tiramisu), and pastries to feed a small army.

I would say Florence took a piece of my heart.

 

Valle de Guadalupe Wine Tasting

A girlfriend invited me last minute to join her and a few friends on a wine tasting tour down in Mexico. We had talked about it a few times and I could not pass up this opportunity! Here is the breakdown:

  • We took an Uber down to the US/Mexico border. From there, we walked across into Tijuana after getting through the border checkpoint, which took a solid 30 minutes. After a small hike, our transportation (a small bus) for the day was waiting for us.
  • Our guide, Roberto, provided breakfast burritos, (which looked and tasted like taquitos) made by his sister and Bloody Maria’s (with the option of Vodka or Tequila).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The drive down to Valley of Guadalupe was about 2.5 hours. (It feels a lot longer on the way down there than on the way back!) The total cost of the trip was $150 dollars and it included:

  • The bus ride to and from, with morning food and drinks
  • Tastings at three wineries + one guided tour
  • Light lunch/snacks between vineyards
  • Dinner (without alcohol)
  • Water bottles throughout the day
  • Tour guide, Roberto (will link once he has a website)

Our first winery was Clos de Tres Cantos. Their location was located on a small hilltop surrounded by vineyards below. There were about six small hut like structures that are all made from reused materials from Mexico. Which is an amazing feature, besides the wine! We had our tasting outside, served with local cheese, bread, and olive oil. The wines were great, and the majority of us snagged a few bottles to take back home.

Our second winery was Decantos. Their building was more modern than the first winery, but their view is magnificent. Gorgeous landscape surrounding their winery! We had time for a few pictures before they sat us at a large picnic table. Once settled, we began our tasting and ordered a bunch of appetizers for a light lunch.

We were also provided a tour of their facility which goes underground! Our tour guide was very informative and kept it brief! It was a nice break from the outside heat!

Our last winery was Adobo Guadalupe. When we arrived they had a food truck out front and the place was pretty crowded. They had a small tasting room, but large enough to fit the majority of our group. It was a very cute place, however, we didn’t have much time before heading to our dinner reservations. Unfortunately I don’t have a lot of pictures, but definitely check out their website.

For our last stop of the day, we made it to La Esperanza Baja Med for dinner. We were served several beautiful courses and we ended up opening up a few of our bottles that we had purchased throughout the day. The restaurant was packed, so thankfully we had reservations. Their place was also surrounded by beautiful vineyards and had a modern touch to it. Would definitely recommend this place!

Did I mention the tequila? When in Mexico…

Cheers!

Weekend Getaway: Santa Barbara

With Santa Barbara less than four hours from San Diego, we do a weekend getaway here at least once a year. The last time we visited Santa Barbara was in October for our Pacific Coast Road Trip, which was amazing. This time, we went for a little R&R for Mike’s birthday!

We again stayed at the adorable Brisas Del Mar Inn. I cannot say enough about this place, and would highly recommend! The area is small, but the location is ideal.

As soon as we get in, we sign out two of their bike cruisers (they offer for free to their guests) for a ride around town. Our first stop is always Brophy Brothers. This place has a spectacular view over the boats and into the mountain side, it is definitely worth it. Depending on the weather, we usually sit outside, but opted for the bar this go around. After having a delicious lunch (including their clam chowder) and a couple glasses of wine, we returned back to the boardwalk!

After riding around for a while, we decided to head back to our Inn to relax. We laid around the pool, took a nap, and rested up before happy hour started. One of the best things about this Inn is that they offer a happy hour with wine, cheese, and other snacks. This is then followed by a cookie and milk reception.

The next day we planned as our winery day. And as you know, I love my itineraries, so our day trip looked like this:

We started with one of our favorites (we seriously never miss this place with every visit): Rancho Sisquoc. They are open from 10am to 5pm with a $10 tasting fee. I am not ashamed to say that we always leave with a few bottles (or a case) of wine after each visit! They have beautiful grounds and of course great wine!

Next, we stopped at Foxen Vineyards. It’s important to note that this winery has two locations. Their original location is known as “the shack”. This location is highly recommended if you have a smaller group. However, if you have a large group, the newer location offers much more space.

This winery was new to us, but loved their location and the open feel of “the shack”. They are open from 11am to 4pm with a $15 tasting fee. We were the only two visiting, so we got to learn a lot about the history and the wines. Our hostess then suggested we try Kenneth Volk winery.

We stopped in at Kenneth Volk, and again, it wasn’t super busy, however, there wasn’t much attention provided in explaining the wines. The ambiance was ok, your tasting was inside the barrel room. There was a dog with another couple visiting, so that definitely made it more enjoyable. They also have a nice outside area, which we could have gone out there for but opted to stay inside.

We had plans on stopping by either Fess Parker or Foley, however, we had a coupon for Zaca Mesa. So, we decided to stop in there. I had only been here once before, four years ago, so I thought it was time to try it again. Mike and I had an excellent time the first time, but this go around we didn’t enjoy the wines or experience as much. This estate was a lot busier than the other locations we visited, but their grounds are great for large parties.

We had one last place on our list, which was also recommended. Our last stop was Rusak Winery, open from 11am to 5pm and a $15 tasting. We squeezed in right before they closed for the day, and we are very pleased with this place, and will definitely make it back to this location. Their patio was pretty large, covered by big, beautiful trees, overlooking vineyards and rolling green hills in the background. It was very relaxing!

After our day trip, we made plans to eat at Benchmark Eatery for Mike’s birthday dinner. This is a sister restaurant to Brophy Brothers and was recommended the last time we visited. A great restaurant with a nice ambiance, however, it wasn’t as upscale as I had thought it was going to be. Nevertheless, I would still recommend for some good eats.