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Trip Report - Day 5 : Florence

San Gimignano, Chianti, Monteriggioni, Siena

18 °C
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We were interested in visiting the Tuscany region and on our hotels suggestion, had pre-booked 2 full day tours through them. The first day was a tour of San Gimignano, Chianti, Monteriggioni and Siena. The second day would cover Lucca and Pisa. However, on reaching Florence we realized that there are several such local tour companies which offer special packages if you book with them directly. For e.g. the tour company through which our hotel had done the booking had a free half day city tour of Florence if you book 2 other full day tours with them. So if we would have done the booking through them directly after reaching Florence, we would have got the free city tour as well. Anyways, we learnt from our mistake and hence noting this down so that it might help someone else.

We reached San Gimignano at around 9 AM. San Gimignano is a small walled town in Tuscany known for its medieval streetscapes and towers. It is known as the ‘Town of Fine Towers’ and is known for the preservation of a couple of its tower houses. We were left to explore San Gimignano on our own. It is a small town and we walked around for some time. I have never ever seen a town as fascinating as San Gimignano, it makes you feel that you are in a different world.

Wall around San Gimignano

Wall around San Gimignano


Tower Houses in San Gimignano

Tower Houses in San Gimignano

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The Collegiate Church of Santa Maria Assunta, San Gimignano is situated in the Piazza del Duomo at the town's heart. As cited on Wikipedia, the basilica is located within the UNESCO World Heritage Site of the "Historic Centre of San Gimignano", with its frescos being described by UNESCO as "works of outstanding beauty". Isha had a great time climbing up and down the staircase leading to the Duomo. We spent around an hour and half in San Gimignano including the time we spent in enjoying a gelato :)

Collegiate Church of Santa Maria Assunta at Piazza del Duomo

Collegiate Church of Santa Maria Assunta at Piazza del Duomo

After San Gimignano, we were driven to the Chianti region which is one of the most beautiful in all of Italy with its lush green hills, vineyards and olive groves. It is a pleasure to just drive by looking at the natural beauty all around.

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We went to one of the wine estates in the region where we were a part of a guided tour of the wine cellars. Our host for the afternoon was a charming gentleman who gave us an insight into the various stages of wine production, taught us the right way to hold the wine glass, the best way to sip the wine to get a taste of all the flavors, with numerous anecdotes all along. We tasted various wines and olive oils that the winery produced along with bruschetta, salads and pastas. My favorite was the Vin Santo which is the Italian dessert wine. It was an amazing experience.

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We moved on to Siena which is famous for its cuisine, art, museums, medieval cityscape and Palio, a horse race held twice a year. We were given a guided tour of the city which was a waste for us as Isha was running around and we could not hear half the things. The most important square in Siena is the Piazza del Campo which is famous worldwide for the Palio. The campo has the Palazzo Pubblico and its tower, Torre del Mangia. This sloping square was very different from the others which we had seen so far in Italy. Surrounded by Cafes and restaurants, it is a lovely place to sit doing nothing.

Palazzo Pubblico

Palazzo Pubblico

Piazza del campo

Piazza del campo

The town's emblem is a she-wolf suckling the infants Romulus and Remus and statues depicting the same can be seen all over the city.

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Siena Cathedral was another attraction on our list, and though we did not enter the church we were greatly fascinated by the exteriors.

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After leaving from Siena, our last stop for the day was Monteriggioni which is a medieval walled town, located on a natural hillock. You need to climb the hill and after the tiring long day, we did not really find anything great about this town.

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We were dropped back to the Florence train station by 8:00 PM from where we took a cab back to the hotel. We had dinner at La Capannina Bistrot near San Lorenzo market. We had seafood spaghetti and chicken primavera both of which was delicious. The best part about this little trattoria is that you can watch your food being cooked and Isha thoroughly enjoyed it.

Our day though tiring, was very good and we went to bed looking forward to our last day in Florence.

Posted by deepab 00:40 Archived in Italy Comments (0)

Trip Report - Day 4 : Florence

Florence City

17 °C
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We had an early morning train at 7:05 AM from Rome to Florence and had requested the B&B to book a cab to drop us to the train station. We had booked the tickets online in advance. For more information on the train bookings, please refer to my other post: Summer 2014 - Italy and Switzerland. It was supposed to be our first experience with the Italian rails and we were a little sceptical as to what to expect.
When we reached the train station, we went straight to the information counter to get more information on which platform our train would arrive.
However, it is pretty straightforward; there is a big screen which displays the train number and the platform on which every train arrives. The train journey was extremely comfortable and we reached Florence at 8:35 AM. After this first experience, all our other train journeys in Italy were a piece of cake.

The biggest disappointment on reaching Florence was that it was raining. We took a taxi to the hotel - Hotel Casci and were met with our second disappointment with the rooms not being ready. We left our luggage at the hotel and set out to explore the city. The location of our hotel was fantastic, just 300 mt from the Duomo and 800 mt from Piazza della Signoria. All the major attractions were within walking distance and gave a fantastic feel of the local way of life. Since the rain played spoilsport, we thought of whiling away some time in a cafe around the corner from the hotel. Having a hot cup of coffee while enjoying the rain is always an awesome feeling. Of course, we were wasting our precious time which could have been utilized for touring the city, but as it is said...sometimes it is important to slow down and enjoy the small pleasures of life :)

We headed to the Duomo protected by our umbrellas, but to be frank it was no fun especially with Isha. The queue for the Duomo was quite long despite the rain. We thought of coming back to it later and walked to the San Lorenzo market which is just a few meters away. It is one of the oldest and largest markets in Florence. It is famous for its leather market outdoors selling leather products like jackets, scarves, belts, gloves etc, some pretty decent stuff actually. The only problem is in distinguishing the real from the fake and that was the only reason I did not purchase a jacket which I had set my heart on.

Leather market at San Lorenzo

Leather market at San Lorenzo

Next, we moved on to the food market indoors. There is a variety of foods, meats, veggies, cheeses, oils, mushrooms, flowers etc here. Everything was so colourful and bright. For someone who loves to experience the local’s way of life and local products, this place is a paradise. Visiting this market made up for the disappointment of losing out on time because of the rain.

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By the time we were done with roaming around in here, the rain had stopped and the climate had become very pleasant. We had lunch at a trattoria close to the San Lorenzo market. Unfortunately I am unable to recall its name.

By now we were glad that it had rained in the morning, the weather was just perfect to explore the city. We started walking back to the hotel and crossed the San Lorenzo Church and Duomo on the way. The queue to enter the Duomo was almost non-existent by now which was as expected as most tour groups visit the Duomo in the morning. We thought of making the best of this opportunity and queued up for it.

San Lorenzo Church

San Lorenzo Church

Duomo

Duomo

Duomo, also called the Cathedral of Santa Maria dei Fiore is the biggest church in Florence and is famous for its cupola or dome by Brunelleschi. It has some very beautiful paintings and stained glass. But to me, the exterior of the Duomo was one of the most fascinating ones that I have ever seen.

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Just opposite the Duomo is the Baptistry known for its bronze gates of Paradise; unfortunately it was closed for restoration work. Next to the Duomo is the Campanile or Giotto's bell tower which is known to give incredible views of Florence. However, we could not make it to the top of the bell tower this time because of shortage of time.

Baptistry

Baptistry

Bronze doors of Baptistry

Bronze doors of Baptistry

Campanile

Campanile

We went back to the hotel where our rooms were ready for us. The rooms were clean and had all the basic necessities. However, of the two rooms that we had booked, one was extremely small.

After relaxing in the room for some time, we left the hotel for a walking tour of the city. Our first stop was the famous and beautiful Santa Croce church which houses the tombs of several famous Italians. The exterior of the church is covered with marble and is very impressive. We had not planned on entering the church this time, but it would surely be on our list if we happen to visit Florence again.

Santa Croce Church

Santa Croce Church

Fourth day in Italy and we had committed the grave sin of not tasting the famous Italian gelato. Finally, while going from Santa Croce church towards Piazzale Michelangelo, we had a taste of our first gelato...yummm....

We walked across the Ponte alla grazie across river Arno from where we got a great view of the Ponte Vecchio, the oldest bridge in Florence surviving from the medieval days.

Ponte Vecchio

Ponte Vecchio

After crossing the Ponte alla grazie, we climbed uphill to Piazzale Michelangelo. The walk, though a little tiring was rewarding considering the view from the Piazza. You can see the entire city from here. The piazza also has a replica of Michelangelo's David and since we were not planning to visit the Accademia Gallery which houses the original, we were happy that we had at least seen the replica.

Beautiful view of the city from Piazzale Michelangelo

Beautiful view of the city from Piazzale Michelangelo

Duomo as seen from Piazzale Michelangelo

Duomo as seen from Piazzale Michelangelo

Santa Croce church as seen from Piazzale Michelangelo

Santa Croce church as seen from Piazzale Michelangelo


Replica of Michelangelo's David

Replica of Michelangelo's David

I had read that Piazzale Michelangelo is a must visit place for sunset. However, since we still had to visit the rest of the city, we left this beautiful place with a promise to ourselves of visiting it on another day. We definitely could not leave Florence without watching the sunset from here.

We walked downhill and back to the hotel, this time crossing the river Arno over the Ponte Vecchio. Ponte Vecchio is Florence's most celebrated landmark and means the "old bridge". It was very crowded, for the obvious reason that any person who visits Florence would want to walk across this famous bridge.

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After reaching the hotel, we freshened up and left for Piazza della Signoria, the most famous square of Florence. I would like to mention here that the streets of Florence are very beautiful and the city is best seen by foot.

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We crossed the Piazza della Repubblica which is another important square in Florence. But to be frank, I did not notice anything else at the Piazza except the Merry-go-around, more so because it caught Isha's attention. When travelling with kids, you have to make several such unplanned stops so as to keep it interesting for them, and very soon we found ourselves watching Isha squeal with joy on the merry-go-around.

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Very close to Piazza della Repubblica is the Piazza della Signoria which is the political and historic centre of the city. At Piazza della signoria, is the grand Palazzo Vecchio, headquarters of the city government as well as museum. We did not have enough time to enter the palace this time. At the entrance of the palace is a replica of David.

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Also at the Piazza is the beautiful Loggia dei Lanzi with wonderful statues. There were some musicians playing here as well which added to the beautiful atmosphere and we spent some time soaking it all in.

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I had read about this amazing Panini place near Piazza della Signoria called All'Antico Vinaio. We picked up a take away from here and returned to our rooms. The Paninis were good, though there was not much choice in vegetarian.

We went to sleep early looking forward for our next full day tour of San Gimignano, Chianti, Monteriggioni and Siena which we had booked through the hotel.

Posted by deepab 00:24 Archived in Italy Comments (0)

Trip Report - Day 3 : Rome

Colosseum, Roman Forum, Villa Borghese

18 °C
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We had a quick breakfast at Vice Cafe and took the metro to the Colosseum. The metro stop is opposite the Colosseum and we got our first view of it as soon as we stepped out. Roma pass allowed us a free entry here. We explored the Colosseum while listening to Rick Steve's audio guide and got to know that the Colosseum was the largest amphitheatre of Roman Empire and was used for gladiatorial contests and public spectacles such as animal hunts ,executions and dramas based on classic mythology.

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Next to the Colosseum is the Arch of Constantine which was erected in honour of Constantine's defeat of the pagan Maxentius.

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Next, we walked to the Roman Forum which was the heart of ancient Rome, a center for trade, religion, and politics. The forum area is not stroller friendly, so Sumegh and I took turns visiting the Forum while the other stayed with Isha. This place is full of ruins which will not make any sense if you do not know what you are looking at. Again, the Rick Steve's audio guide was of great help.

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We had lunch at a local trattoria Vito E Dina which had great reviews on tripadvisor. We ordered the seafood gnocchi, seafood pasta, pizza and house wine. Everything was excellent. It is a family run place full of locals which shows its authenticity.

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Our B&B had booked the 4:30 PM slot for the Borghese Galleria. This was again free with the Roma pass. Only the reservation of the slot needs to be done well in advance (I think up to a month in advance) as this is a very famous gallery in Rome and slots get filled up quickly. There are lots and lots of sculptures and paintings here and for art lovers, it's a paradise. Since we are not much into art, we just walked around clicking pictures and admiring everything around us.

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After the galleria, we strolled through the Borghese gardens. There was a kid’s playground where Isha had a good time. The garden also has a zoo, amusement rides etc. You can see locals having picnics, children playing; it’s a wonderful place even to spend an entire day. However, we had only limited time and wanted to make the best of it. We took a tour of the garden in the mini train and got a good overall experience of the beautiful Borghese gardens.
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The min train dropped us off at the Pincian Hill which is a part of the Villa Borghese. It offers a breathtaking view of the Piazza del Popolo and the city. We were lucky to get a sunset view of Rome from here. The atmosphere was made even more romantic by the cool breeze and musicians playing in the background.
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We walked down the steps of the hill to the Piazza del Popolo and took the metro from here to go back to the B&B. For dinner, we decided to dine at an Indian restaurant 'Shanti' which was very close to the B&B. The food was okay, but the service was pathetic and waiter extremely rude.

Overall, our entire stay in Rome was amazing. We loved the city and would love to visit it again. We retired to our rooms and packed up for our next destination - Florence.

Posted by deepab 21:52 Archived in Italy Comments (0)

Trip Report - Day 2 : Rome

Vatican City, Spanish Steps, Trevi Fountain, Pantheon, Piazza Navona

18 °C
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We were advised that the best time to visit St. Peter's Basilica is between 7-7:30 AM or after 5 PM to avoid the crowds. Hence, we started the day early. We had breakfast at a lovely little cafe called as Vice Cafe near the B&B. We had cappuccino and a variety of croissants which forms the mainstay of Italian breakfast.

We walked to St. Peter's Basilica which was around 1 km from our B&B. Actually going out at this time gave us a different view of the neighbourhood with not many people on the street, people getting ready for the day and cafes setting up their tables.

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We had downloaded the Rick Steve's audio guides for Italy before our trip and they were very informative. When visiting any ancient monuments or archaeological sites, lot of things make more sense when there is some explanation associated with it, and the audio guides did just that.

We reached the St. Peter's Basilica at 7:45 AM and could go in easily without any crowds. St Peter's basilica is one of the largest churches in the world. The visit to St. Peter's was overwhelming.

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St. Peter's square is a spacious, oval shaped piazza in front of the church with a tall obelisk in the middle of the square. There is a large statue of Peter in front of the church holding keys. It is believed that Peter was Jesus’ right hand man and had come to Rome to spread Jesus’ message of love. Peter had been recognized as the first pope of Rome and the altar and the dome in the church mark the spot of Peter's grave.

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There are five famous bronze doors leading to the church. Once you enter the church, you will be mesmerized. It is a very huge and beautiful church with sculptures and paintings all around. There is a bronze statue of Peter in the church. In one hand he holds the keys and the other he blesses us. Michelangelo's Pieta is another world famous sculpture in the church that depicts the body of Jesus on the lap of his mother Mary after the Crucifixion.

Peter's statue

Peter's statue

DSC_0356.jpgMichelangelo's Pieta

Michelangelo's Pieta

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The main alter is directly beneath the dome, topped with bronze canopy.

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We had reserved the 9:30 AM slot to the Vatican museums to skip the crowds. The booking can be done at the following official website of Vatican museums. We walked to the Vatican museums and were glad we had advance bookings after looking at the queue. We were not particularly interested in the museums, however wanted to visit the Sistine Chapel. Hence, we just walked quickly through the museum.

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Sistine chapel is a very beautiful chapel famous for Michelangelo's painting depicting the entire Christian history from Creation to Last judgement. Unfortunately taking pictures inside the Sistine Chapel is not allowed.

After the Sistine Chapel, we walked back to our hotel. We had lunch at a local trattoria called as Ragno D'Ora which was recommended by our B&B. Had a first taste of local food with the house wine, Seafood Pasta, Gnocchi in tomato sauce and of course Tiramisu. Everything tasted so amazingly tasty, and very different compared to the Italian food served back home in India.

After resting in the rooms for some time we took the metro to the Spanish steps. Taking the metro was an amazing experience in itself and once we got a hang of it, we preferred that means of transport to any other. Spanish steps is a very famous attraction in Rome and is a monumental staircase of 135 steps climbing a steep slope between the Piazza di Spagna at the base and Trinità dei Monti church at the top. There were lots of people just sitting on the steps and watching the world go by. I could not really understand what was so spectacular about the steps but it served as a tick mark on my to-do list in Rome. Unfortunately the fountain at Piazza di Spagna was closed for restoration work.

After the Spanish steps, we walked to the Trevi fountain (800 mt from Spanish steps) , which was again half closed for restoration. This was a major disappointment as I was looking forward to it. It is believed that if you toss a coin into the fountain, you end up returning back to Rome someday.

Our next stop was the Pantheon (650 mt from Trevi fountain) which is a temple dedicated to all Roman Gods. It stands on Piazza della Rotonda, which is complete with obelisk and baroque fountain. We had a Rick Steve's audio guide for the Pantheon which was very useful for understanding the history of this ancient monument.

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I had read about an old cafe near the Pantheon called Sant'Eustachio which Romans claim serves the most superior coffee in Rome. We stopped here for a coffee break. It was nothing out of ordinary and we quickly moved to our next destination, Piazza Navona.

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Piazza Navona is the most beautiful square in Rome. In the evenings, the entire place comes alive with music, art shows and live performances. It is a wonderful place to just sit down for a while to soak up the atmosphere and people watch. Isha had a lovely time chasing the pigeons and playing in the water. The fountains are also beautiful specially the Bernini's Fountain of the Four Rivers which is floodlit at night.

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We took the bus back to hotel. We had dinner at a restaurant close to the B&B called Osteria Centouno. Food was okay, nothing great to talk about.

Posted by deepab 10:04 Archived in Italy Comments (0)

Trip Report - Day 1 : Rome

Trastavere

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We left from home at around 1:00 AM. Somehow our excitement had caught onto Isha too and she was cheerful and bubbly even at that time of the night. After arriving at the Bahrain International airport, we checked in and had a quick meal at Mc Donalds. Our flight from Bahrain left at 3:05 AM and arrived in Istanbul at 7:20 AM. We had a layover of 4 hours 45 minutes here which seemed quite a lot with a toddler. However, surprisingly Isha was a sport and had a great time running around the airport and entertaining fellow passengers. Our flight to Rome left at 12:05 PM from Istanbul and arrived at Fiumicino airport in Rome at 1:40 PM.
There was a lot of confusion with respect to the belt on which our luggage was to arrive and after a lot of running around, we finally collected all our bags and left the airport.

There is a tourist information office on the arrivals level of Terminal C. We bought our Roma passes here. Roma pass provides a free entry to any 2 public museums or archaeological sites you want to visit and discounted entries on all subsequent ones. Also it allows a free use of the city's public transport. This pass is valid for 3 days. For more information, visit http://www.romapass.it.

We had requested our B&B to arrange a pickup for us and as expected, the driver was waiting for us with a sign board at the exit. The minivan which was sent was very comfortable and the driver very good. After travelling for around half an hour we reached our B&B Peace of Rome. It is located on the first floor of a 19th century palace. Our host Simona was waiting outside to welcome us and showed us our rooms promptly. She was a pleasant lady always giving helpful advice on what to see, how to reach particular sites, giving excellent restaurant recommendations, providing us with maps...I cannot say enough good things about her. The neighborhood was excellent, located very close to a metro stop and the Vatican city yet very quiet and peaceful. Also, there were a lot of restaurants and cafes in the vicinity. As for the room, it was small but extremely clean, cozy and comfortable.

We freshened up at our rooms while Sumegh picked up some snacks for us from a bakery located very close by- La Compagnia del Pane. It is a bakery which serves sandwiches, cakes, pastries, croissants etc. Sumegh picked up a variety of different croissants, focaccia (A flat oven-baked Italian bread product similar in style and texture to pizza doughs topped with herbs or other ingredients). Everything was good.

We left the B&B at around 4:30 PM after receiving directions for Trastavere from Simona . While walking towards the bus stop, we took in all the surroundings and fell even more in love with the location of our B&B.
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We took the bus and I must admit our first experience scared us about whether we would be able to use public transport throughout the trip. There was a big language communication problem with the driver not understanding English and us not understanding Italian. We tried a lot to communicate with him asking about our stop and about how we should validate the Roma pass, however all our attempts were in vain. Finally, we found an English speaking lady on the first seat who helped us out with our doubts and despite all problems, we managed to reach Trastavere. However, after getting used to the public transport, we were comfortable and used buses frequently throughout the trip.

Trastavere is considered one of the city's most authentic neighbourhoods and has much of the look of medieval Rome. I had finalized a restaurant called as Dar Poeta for dinner after reading the amazing reviews on tripadvisor. We followed google maps and reached Dar Poeta. We reached at 8:30 PM and were very lucky to get a table as within minutes the entire place filled up. We shared two pizzas (superbufala and pizza with eggplants) both delicious. Our drinks consisted of the local beer e peroni and house wine. To end we ordered the nutella-ricotta calzone. The entire meal was amazing. The pizza was one the best I have ever tasted. And the calzone was yummy....
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After a lovely meal, we wandered around a little and were met by the wonderful site of numerous restaurants lined along river Tiber. After reading up, we understood that every year during summer, numerous restaurants, bars, art galleries are temporarily set up along river Tiber.
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We had plans to visit Piazza di Santa Maria after dinner. However, after the long day of travelling, we were exhausted and went back to our rooms very happy with our first day and looking forward to the rest of the trip.

Posted by deepab 21:04 Archived in Italy Comments (0)

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