September 2014 - Michele and I were invited to a wedding in the countryside near Perugia, Italy, so naturally we would go and wrap a two week vacation around it! We started in the village of Torgiano for the wedding and then headed north by car and train to Florence, Innsbruck, and finally Munich for the start of Oktoberfest. An awesome adventure!
Our journey began with the trip to Sara and Jeroen's wedding. Back in high school days, Sara was in a study-abroad program in the U.S. and Michele's family was her host family. They've been friends ever since.
The long road to Torgiano started with a 5 and 1/2 hour flight to Dublin, followed by a 3 hour flight to Rome, some Italian bureaucracy to get through customs, luggage, and the rental car line, and finally a 2 hour drive north. My first driving in Italy wasn't bad (except that I hadn't really slept all night). We stuck to major roads and learned that Boston driving prepares you pretty well for Italy.
Perugia is in central Italy in the region of Umbria. It sits within fortified walls up on the top of hill, which means spectacular views and horrific parking. We were staying about 20 minutes outside of town in a village called Torgiano. Our hotel, Al Grappolo d'Oro, was a gorgeous bed and breakfast in the quiet and charming village.
We spent our first two days occupied with various activities around Perugia with other wedding attendees. There were about 70 people from all over the world, and we greatly enjoyed meeting almost all of them before getting to the actual ceremony. Unfortunately it poured rain for most of the time before the wedding, so our touring of Perugia mostly consisted of alternating through eating, drinking coffee, and drinking beer/wine in various cafes around town.
The view from the wedding venue, a gorgeous hilltop castle over looking the vineyards and olive groves of Umbria. In what's apparently normal European style, we got to the venue at 2:30 in the afternoon for the ceremony and then didn't leave until after 3am. That meant tons of eating, drinking, socializing with our new Dutch, Italian, and 'other' friends, more eating, more drinking, all topped off with a healthy dose of dancing.
The ceremony was beautiful overlooking the valley with the village of Bettona in the background.
Our fashionable outfits, carefully chosen to fit within the wedding theme.
A young couple dances during the cocktail hour portion of the afternoon (which was followed by the full buffet antipasti, the flamenco dancing show, a four course meal complete with speeches translated into three languages, a cake cutting, a dessert buffet, the first dance, and finally dancing to finish the evening)
After our fun time in Umbria, we started our steady trek northward by way of Florence. A wonderfully preserved medieval city, Florence is an art and architecture dreamland. We took the rental car north through Umbria and Tuscany before hitting the ridiculous driving around Florence. But Google Maps steered us true, avoiding the restricted driving areas that come with a hefty fine, and finally making it to the Avis return center to rid ourselves of the rental car. Florence is definitely made for walking, so we were happy to hit the streets on foot. We headed to our hotel, the Hotel Unicorno, with a cheesy name but surprisingly nice (and quiet!) rooms, and then hit the city.
First thing's first: climb some stairs to the top of something. Here we're at the top of the Duomo, the main cathedral of Florence. The cathedral sits atop a primitive Christian church, which itself sat on some Roman ruins. Like a parfait of churches.
A view of the churches bell tower (Companile) from the Dome. When the cathedral was first built they left a big hole in the ceiling where the dome would go since the technology to build it didn't exist yet. Luckily for them, their bet on advancing architecture paid off since Brunelleschi came along and figure out how to build it. Michaelangelo was then able to take that knowledge to Rome to build St. Peter's Basilica.
The cathedral facade lit up in white. Florence was great for wandering around at night. But this particular night we had a serious destination in mind: burgers and good draft beer at the Florentine branch of BrewDog. A welcome break from purely Italian fare (although we had a number of amazing meals in Florence, notably one at Trattoria 4 Leoni)
To complete a collection of climbing things with lots of stairs, we went up the bell tower to get some nice views of the dome. We paid for a Florence Card, a city wide museum pass. It's expensive but we found it to be worth it mainly because it lets you skip the line at pretty much every attraction, and boy can those lines be long in Florence!
Climbing to the top of so many things, I got tired of taking the same landscape picture over and over again.
This guy is one of the top attractions in Florence, and we thought it lived up to all of the hype. Michaelangelo's David is housed in a museum called La Accademia, which was basically built to house it. It's a small museum with a big attraction, which means its hugely crowded, but we were able to skip most of the line with the Florence Card.
The details are incredible (especially for something 500 years old). You can walk all the way around and check out the details from every angle. (Just watch out for the crowd of women taking close ups of his butt.)
Pictures don't really do justice to the expressiveness of his face.
The other main museum in town is the Uffizi, housing treasures like Botticelli's Venus. Art from throughout the Italian Renaissance is represented there. Of course, they have a huge collection of non-Italian art, but most of it is in storage. On our way out, we noticed signs to a small gallery in the basement called the "Foreigners Gallery," where five Rembrandts seemed to be hung on the wall as an afterthought. Oh, Italy.
Clockwise from top left: a Donatello, a Michaelangelo, a Raphael, and Leonardo. Ninja Turtles all present and accounted for.
A view of all of Florence from the Piazza Michaelangelo. We had an awesome time sightseeing and touring. And an even better time eating and drinking with our new friends Steve and Sarah from the wedding who also decided to vacation a bit in Florence. After three nights of fun in Florence, it was time to keep moving north!
We hopped a train for the journey to Austria. The total ride was 6.5 hours, but it was beautiful outside. We followed a river valley up through Italian hill country and then the Italian and Austrian alps. It made for a nice trip. We chose Innsbruck for no particularly good reason; only that it's on the way from Florence to Munich. We arrived with little preparation but were pleasantly surprised with the beauty of the setting and the laid-back feel of the town.
The old city on the River Inn. 'Innsbruck' means 'bridge on the Inn,' named for being the one place it was easy to cross the deep and fast flowing river. The town is nestled in a gorgeous alpine valley surround by mountains. It's definitely a ski town in the winter and had a nice ski town vibe.
Built by Emperor Maximilian I, the Golden Roof is something of an icon in Innsbruck. Now it sits on a little square surrounded by a maze of pedestrian ways full of little restaurants. We definitely ate well on hearty Tyrolian fare.
We only spent two nights and one full day in town. Besides laundry, the one thing we wanted to do was go to the top of the Hafelekarspitze, the 2334m mountain overlooking the town. Being a ski town, everything is really accessible. We took a funicular rail straight from downtown up to the base of the first cable car which led right to the second cable car to the top of the mountain.
Looking back down into town from the top. We had awesome 360 views from the top.
Lots of gliders were flying around the top. Mix that with the hikers and bikers (going both up and down) and it was clear that Austrians love getting out in their mountains and having fun.
The view down the other side of the mountain. This valley is a nature preserve so it stands in remarkable contrast to the town on the other side. This view stuck with us as we ended our short stop in Innsbruck before heading to Munich.
Oktoberfest! A German word that rolls off the tongue of beer-lovers such as ourselves. We'd also never been to Germany before, so we were excited to have a new adventure. A quick hour and a half on the train from Innsbruck put us there.
After checking into our supremely-overpriced-because-of-Oktoberfest-opening-weekend hotel, we headed down to the fairground that holds the fest. The giant beer tents (the largest holds more than 7000 people) are on a fairground with all the attendant rides, fried food, and souvenirs. Unfortunately, it was late afternoon by the time we got there and the opening day crowds were pretty overwhelming. All the beer tents get full early in the morning, so we couldn't even get a beer. Since we'd built up a powerful thirst, we walked just off the fairground to a nearby restaurant with a nice roof deck, had some beers, and then headed downtown to check out some sites. This is the old town hall. Munich's center was mostly destroyed in WWII, so many of the 'old' buildings aren't actually old but made to preserve to old style.
Many Bavarian city centers have a maypole. Here, Munich extols the 7 breweries of Munich and the Reinheitsgebot, Germany's beer purity law that stipulates that the only ingredients in a brew are water, malted grain, hops, and yeast.
We had perhaps a bit too much on Saturday night, so instead of hitting the tents at the crack of dawn to get a seat, we went for a more low-key start by heading to the traditional Costume Parade. Lots of towns and groups around Munich dress up in their traditional garb and parade through town on Sunday morning.
Sticks and drums. Lots of marching bands and dancers and cannons. Next we went to the Deutschesmuseum, a science museum, and then returned to the fest and finally got a beer in a small tent. Yay!
Looking back to the old town from the English Garden, here is a huge park in Munich. Great for walking, which we did on Monday because the art museum we were going to was closed on Mondays.
Also seen in the English Garden is a random spot in the river that has a nice standing wave. Intrepid souls don wetsuits and spend all day surfing there, which was quite a surprise when we happened to walk by.
Monday at lunch time, we finally got the big tent experience we were hoping for. A weekday afternoon was the perfect time to visit. This is in the Paulaner tent where we had beers with the traditional half chicken and giant soft pretzel. Then we ate, drank, and sang along to incomprehensible German songs with a lot of fun drunk people.
On a nice weekday afternoon, you can just walk into all the tents so we went on a little tour to check out their atmospheres and decorations. This is Spaten.
The Pschorr tent
On our last day in Munich, we had had enough festing and decided to take a day trip our to Neuschwanstein castle, the well known fairy tale castle that inspired the quintessential Disney castle. Built by King Ludwig II, the castle is surprisingly young (started in 1869) and surprisingly quirky. Its interior is still unfinished, but the structure was built with 'modern' methods, brick on steel frame. The finished rooms are over the top rococo, but the setting is the real star. Set up against a kind of a front range of the Alps, the castle is backed by cliffs and waterfalls while looking out over a beautiful plain full of lakes and villages. Ludwig II ended up being pretty much batty and reclusive, so they kicked him off the throne. He then died under somewhat mysterious circumstances soon after, leaving the castle unfinished.
We headed back to Munich to have our last dinner at a great restaurant, fittingly called Ludwig's, with our friends Claas and Anne (who graciously put us up for a couple nights). Overall it was an awesome trip, but we were pretty worn out and happy to get home and relax a little!