Ghana Day: A day of culture sharing

Every year, our Grade 2 Team hosts an event called Ghana Day. Which is great for me, because even though it’s our third year living in Accra, there’s still more for me to learn about this country.

This year, we set up eight stations for the students to explore. For the second year in a row I got to run the best (and messiest) station – Adinkra Stamps. These symbols are used extensively in fabrics and pottery and were created by the Ashanti people. The symbol below stands for abundance.

Last year, Chandler and I went batiking in Accra and we got to decorate our own fabric using adinkra stamps.

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Another station was Outdoor Games and all the children were taught to play parachute. Basically, you tie two yards of fabric around your waste and hold the other two ends in your hands. Then, you run : )

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We had a Market station where students were shown the traditional food you can buy in a Ghanaian market – since most of their families probably shop at Maxmart or Shoprite. Students were also taught to say thank you in Twi: Medase Pa.

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A new station for us this year was Weaving. Students had already learned a brief history about Kente cloth and they got to “weave” their own patterns with paper.

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On Being Inside in Florence: The art!

When we couldn’t stand the heat anymore, we turned to Florence’s art scene and palaces. Lucky for me, I’m obsessed with statues. They’re not really Chandler’s thing, but even he couldn’t help but be impressed by some of the opulence we saw. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say he left Florence with a bit of an obsession with the Medici family.

A difficult aspect of Florence, however, is how pricey the sites are. There was a lot to see and do in San Marino, Bologna, and Cinque Terre that was free or relatively inexpensive – not so in Florence. Before we even arrived we started dropping some serious cash setting up all our reservations. We had booked our Airbnb months ago, but still needed to spend:

-18 euros/person for access to all the monuments of the Grande Museo del Duomo
-38 euros/person for joint access to the Uffizi Gallery, Palazzo Pitti, & the Boboli Gardens
-8 euros/person for access to the Galleria dell’Accademia

We opted out of the additional 8 euros/person to visit the inside of the Church of Santa Croce, as well as the 10 euros/person to view the Vasari Corridor above the Ponte Vecchio.

In addition, most online bookings charge an extra 4 euros, sometimes per person, sometimes per booking. Needless to say, we were surprised at how much money we were suddenly spending.

Which isn’t to say the sites aren’t amazing and totally worth it – they are. But it’s tougher to swallow the high entry prices when you’re on week 8 of your European summer tour.

My last blog already sang the praises (or lack thereof) of the various Duomo monuments. I still believe that the most impressive sights can be seen standing on the outside & looking up or taking a climb & looking down.

After an unsurprisingly long (this is Italy, after all) wait to get into the Uffizi Gallery – even with our 1:45 pm reservation, we ended up spending a longer than expected time inside.

The building’s interior is a work of art in and of itself. We constantly found ourselves looking up at the ceilings:

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Known for housing some impressive works by artists such as Correggio, Leonardo, Raffaello, Michelangelo and Caravaggio, I was really there to see Botticelli.

It’s impossible to spend time in Italy and not hear about the Birth of Venus. During my art history course in Rome in 2010, so many things were said to have been influenced by that single painting.

And not only that, but the Uffizi is also home to his painting The Spring, another favorite of mine. Look them up if you want to see them in their entirety, but I captured my favorite movements in the paintings:

This was one of those visits when Chandler had to drag me out of the room, I must have started at those paintings for a solid 15 minutes apiece.

As we were leaving, we passed through a rather marvellous exhibit featuring videos of people in the Botticelli hall and also outside of the Duomo. The number of people who rushed past the church and the great works of art, pausing only to take a quick Instagram snapshot was hilarious, yet heartbreaking. Never has this artwork been so easily seen and shared, and yet, perhaps, never has it been so under-appreciated. It was definitely a thought-provoking piece.

Unfortunately, we couldn’t spend forever looking at the works of Botticelli, because that same day we had a reservation for the Galleria dell’Accademia – home of Michelangelo’s David sculpture.

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On Being Outside in Florence: The heat!

Yes, it was August. And yes, I should have known better.

But when you’re a teacher, you get certain days off…including days in August. And if these last two summers prove anything, I like to spend the end of my summer vacations in Italy. Next summer we won’t and I’m already devastated.

But this year, the last stop on our summer vacation was Florence. And. It. Was. Hot. We’re talking high 90s and low 100s in a city made for wandering around by foot.

Despite several days of heat warnings, we still managed to spend a good portion of our time outside.

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The city isn’t covered with porticos, like Bologna, but the multi-story buildings and narrow streets did provide a decent amount of shade.

Other sites, like the Ponte Vecchio bridge, provide no shade and therefore no relief from the heat. Our Airbnb was on the south side of the Arno River and so we passed by the Ponte Vecchio every time we wandered north into the heart of the city.

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Our first night promised to be the coolest (temperature-wise), so we decided to risk the heat and walk up to Piazzale Michelangelo for sunset. We left a little early so that we could explore the Church of San Miniato further up the hill, but we didn’t actually make it before they closed the gates.

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I’d have to risk the late morning heat on another day to get a glimpse inside the church and to wander around their famous Holy Gates Cemetery.

We made our way back to the piazzale in time for a charming sunset, shared with a few thousand similarly-minded tourists.

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Sometimes the people-watching distracted us from the sunset itself, but that’s ok, because we spent plenty of time up there. Despite the crowds, it was still a pretty relaxed atmosphere.

Also soaking in the sunset with us was a bronze replica of Michelangelo’s David – hence the name of the piazzale.

Another must-see sight – one might say the must-see sight in Florence – is also the most difficult to avoid:

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We crossed paths with the Duomo di Firenze aka the Florence Cathedral dozens of times as we walked around the city.

An absolutely stunning structure, I can say that despite the heat, this cathedral is better seen from the outside than the inside.

On Mondays, many, if not most, attractions and sites in Florence close down. We’re used to museums taking the day off, but in Florence this “day of rest” also includes restaurants and parks.

Luckily, most of the churches remain open. We decided to make this our “Duomo” day. For 18 euros a person, you can get 72-hour access for single-entry visits into each monument.

We started with Giotto’s Bell Tower, because 414 stairs are easier to climb in 80-degree weather than 90+. The tower is divided in five stages, marking natural stopping points along the way. Chandler made it to the first stage before decided he didn’t need to climb two towers in one day – we’d already reserved our visit to Brunelleschi’s Dome for 6:30 pm that night.

I mistakenly thought there was only one more flight of stairs to go. I told Chandler I’d be right back…I wasn’t. This, however, is the view I got for my effort:

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There were also gorgeous views of the Dome, but the early morning light meant none of my shots turned out just right. Another minor disappointment was that the top level was completely covered by fencing. Which meant I could take great photos by sticking my camera lens through the wires, but I couldn’t take any photos of myself. Which was for the best, since my personal photographer had stayed four levels below me.

Our next stop was a cool respite inside the Baptistry of San Giovanni. We weren’t inside for very long before it was time to hop in line to visit the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore.

This may seem silly to you, since we’d be getting inside the church at 6:30 to climb up to the Dome. However, that time was after the church itself closed. Meaning we’d have to place to just our small group, but that the Crypt of Santa Reparata would also be closed. This was the only way we could see it.

It took an hour and a half of waiting (luckily in the shade) behind a group of Texans who were incorrectly defining the word synonym and then obnoxiously listing words like two & too, shoe & shoo, new & knew. I can’t tell you how much restrain I showed in not shouting the word HOMOPHONE at them. They were listing homophones. A synonym is just two words or phrases that mean the same thing aka shut & close. As in shut or close your damn mouth.

We finally made it inside and – despite the fact that it is the third largest church in the world – we were disappointingly underwhelmed.

The Dome is lovely, but not significantly different than the Dome inside the Baptistry. And a lot of the rest of the church is plain – no need to overwhelm the senses. The crypt was worse.

We did, however, enjoy our brief stop in the Opera Duomo Museum, our last monument before climbing the Dome later that night.

I will say, the one positive thing about being inside the cathedral earlier that day was that we were better able to appreciate the views inside as we started our ascent of the Dome. It had also been pretty noisy during the day, so the silence that evening gave it an almost magical quality.

This time, Chandler made it all the way to the top. And this was our reward:

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Perhaps not wildly different than my views from that morning, I enjoyed the fresh breeze, being up there with Chandler, and being able to spot the Church of San Miniato, which I still had plans to visit.

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A Day Trip to San Marino

During our time in Bologna we decided to make a day trip to San Marino.

The fifth smallest country in the world and third smallest in Europe, behind Vatican City and Monaco, San Marino’s history dates back to 301 AD when a stonemason named Marinus founded a monastic community on Monte Titano.

Its constitution, a series of six books written in Latin in the late 16th century, are considered to be the earliest written governing documents still in use today. Making San Marino the oldest surviving sovereign state, as well as the oldest constitutional republic.

Most amazing, how San Marino remained independent during Italy’s unification process: The country served as a refuge for those who were persecuted because of their support for unification and because of this, they were allowed to remain a separate nation!

Now, despite all this “separateness,” they use the euro as their currency – even though they’re not a part of the European Union. Which made it really convenient for us to pop on up (literally, Monte Titano is 2,457 feet above sea level) for the day.

Our first leg of the journey required hopping a train in Bologna to get us to the Italian city of Rimini. From there we had to take the one (you read that right, one) bus that travels from Rimini to San Marino twelve times each day.

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20 euros later (for two round-trip bus tickets) and we were on our way to San Marino City.

We arrived just after noon, which meant our first stop (because visa aren’t required and you don’t even need to bring your passport to get into the country) was lunch. We ate at La Terrazza. Not only was their fresh, locally-sourced bread incredible, but it also paired nicely with the local white San Marino wine we tried.

The best part, however, was a tie between the absolutely stunning views of the valley below and the homemade tagliatelle (of course!) with stridoli (wild herbs), fossa cheese (matured in underground caves), and seasonal black truffle. If it didn’t take hours to get to and from San Marino, I would have happily eaten there again!

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Another bonus of eating at La Terrazza was their gorgeous view of Liberty Square, home to their own Statue of Liberty. We went to the square afterward for a closer look, but honestly, it was nice sitting peacefully and eyeing it up over lunch.

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As we walked along, we discovered that the city was putting the finishing touches on their Medieval Days Festival that was literally beginning the next day. Having later looked up the festival online, I can now say that we went on the best possible day. The city was already set up, but we avoided the copious amounts of medieval dress, not to mention huge crowds, that would have begun the following day.

The falconry field was already functioning and the UNESCO-recognized historic center was decorated with old talismans from a bygone age. Everything from bicycles to airplanes to record players were on display.

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How To: Eat in Bologna

Our next stop was Bologna – the gastronomical capital of Italy. We had two activities planned: Eating and wandering around between eating.

Not ones to miss meals – especially in Italy – we had to come up with a lot of wandering ideas if we didn’t want to leave Bologna at least 10 pounds heavier than when we arrived.

Luckily, Bologna is an accommodating city.

For starters, the historical center is filled with porticos. In fact, no other city in the world has as many as Bologna. And not only are they incredibly helpful in protecting one from the sun and rain, many of them are quite beautiful as well.

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Another well-known site is Piazza Ravegnana, home to the Two Towers of Bologna. The Asinelli and Garisenda towers were built between 1109-1119 and while they are the most famous, at one point, Bologna had up to 180 towers within the city.

Eating as much as we were, we thought long and hard about climbing the higher tower – Asinelli. But we had heard the views were much more rewarding in Florence, where we’d be in a few days. And with the weather as hot as it was – in the 90s, we decided to sit the climb out and save ourselves 498 stairs (one way).

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A more leisurely activity that we decided to take part in was to visit the University Library of Bologna.

Harder to find than one might expect, we accidentally found the modern library first. Quickly pointed in the right direction, we found ourselves in the entryway, being told in Italian to wait 10 minutes for our guide. A little confused, we agreed.

It turns out that local high school students are given rotating jobs every summer and one of them is as a free guide to the library. All we really knew about the library in advance was that the University of Bologna claims to be the oldest university in the Western Hemisphere.

Our guide was much more knowledgeable: It was a private library created in 1712 to house the scientific collections, books, related manuscripts, and collected oriental manuscripts of Luigi Ferdinando Marsili. Forty-three years later, Pope Benedict XIV donated 25,000 printed volumes and then ordered the typographers of Bologna to provide the library with a copy of every work they printed. The following year, he ordered the library to open its doors to the public.

Now home to over 1,250,000 volumes it’s an impressive library indeed. And unlike the Old Library at Trinity College in Dublin, we only shared the space with our guide, a fellow reader, and a clerk.

Plus we got some great anecdotal stories from our guide. Including his unsureness about which job was better: His current one, in a beautiful, old library, where his only amusement was random tourists because his boss was a grouchy old woman…or last summer when he had to do manual labor in the sweltering heat – but at least he had his buddies around.

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The only other “site” we went to was the Basilica di Santo Stefano, also known as the Seven Churches. According to tradition, the earliest churches were built in the 4th and 5th centuries, with the latests being built in the 13th century and some reshaping in the 17th century.

The colors of the churches are a beautiful rose red and they have wonderful detailing. The courtyards were a beautiful and serene place to relax.

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Everything else we saw, we came across by wandering. Bologna has a wonderful amount of street art on the metal gates that are pulled down to protect closed shops. Vivid colors and varied designs, they are sure to catch your eye.

We also passed this beautiful staircase every time we went to and from the train station. There’s a lovely park that sits behind it.

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And I’m sure it’s impossible not to wander through Piazza Maggiore, whether you’re there to see Neptune, are in the nearby market for some shopping, or are attending an event at Il Cinema Ritrovato. Our last night in Bologna, they played Pan’s Labryinth and we had a great date night!

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But none of these were the main event. The main event was FOOD. Food was the reason we spent three days in Bologna. We needed enough time to eat a meal at each of the restaurants we researched and planned out.

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The Towns of Cinque Terre: Falling in love with Manarola

In my last post, I talked about how quickly Manarola became our favorite Cinque Terre town, but I didn’t really explain why. We arrived our first night and were instantly at ease.

Cinque Terre is obviously a huge tourist draw, but (I guess thanks to some train scheduling issues), Manarola was pretty calm. It helped that we were staying in an Airbnb a bit up in the city.

We had to drag our suitcases up quite a ways, but it was worth it for the peace and quiet. Plus, we had some pretty great views from the upper town square:

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We also had some of our favorite meals in Manarola. Trattoria dal Billy is known for their seafood, but they also make a pretty good trofie fresche al pesto. They fill up in advance, so head over for an early dinner or give them a call. It’s a nice spot if you want views but not crowds.

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If you don’t mind be surrounded by others, I highly recommend Nessun Dorma. You’ll have to wait in line for a table (literally), but the views help pass the time. The appetizers were great and they had a nice wine selection.

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Another great place for happy hour is Cantina Burasca. This place is owned by our Airbnb host’s father and they have a lot of tasty sides to go with their wines (which they make themselves, as well as their own lemoncino, pesto, and probably more).

But I don’t want to give the impression that Manarola is a tourist-free haven. There are plenty of people around (especially between 10 am and 6 pm aka the day trippers). You just have to know where to go – and whether you want some peace & quiet or some night life.

Plus, there’s a park and tons of benches up near Nessun Dorma that offer spectacular sunset views of both the city and the water. I think we loved Manarola so much simply because we felt so relaxed while we were there. Eating, drinking, taking in the scenery…we didn’t use Manarola as a base for hiking and we appreciated the vibe that created.

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That said, Cinque Terre has four other towns to visit and we had fun exploring those as well. Some we hiked through, others we simply ate at, but all were interesting pieces to what makes Cinque Terre so unique.

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Hiking in Cinque Terre

After a lot of questions, concerns, and research aka blood, sweat, and tears online, we decided to stay in Manarola during our Cinque Terre trip. Literally meaning “five lands,” Cinque Terre is comprised of five towns: Monterosso, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola, and Riomaggiore.

The town we stayed in is only important because of its hiking accessibility – or, inaccessibility. In 2011 Cinque Terre experienced a terrible flood and the area still hasn’t fully recovered. The towns have been rebuilt and many of the trails as well, but the two main trails leading out of Manarola – to Corniglia in the north and Riomaggiore in the south – have yet to be finished.

This was a concern of ours, but also a draw. We hoped it might mean that Manarola would be quieter, a little less touristed and we were right: It ended up being our favorite town.

And just because the main trails are closed, it doesn’t mean you can’t hike out of Manarola at all. There are still inland trails you can take up to Volastra and then to Corniglia. The key word in that sentence being “up.”

The two main trails leading out of Manarola used to be the easiest hikes in Cinque Terre, everything that’s left is a little more intense. I say that at the beginning of this post because I did a lot of hiking in Switzerland this summer – and most of it in my sandals – but these trails aren’t as well maintained. And while I successfully completed all our hikes in Cinque Terre, I definitely should have traded my sandals in for my converse.

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Our hike began with a train ride from Manarola to Corniglia. We wanted to do the two traditional trails that are currently open – the one between Corniglia and Vernazza, follwed by Vernazza to Monterosso.

Trains are easy in Cinque Terre in the sense that you can combine your National Park pass with a train pass. For 29 euros a person, we had access to all the paths, trains, buses, and bathrooms between Levanto and La Spezia – for two days.

The first thing you do upon arriving in Corniglia is make your way to the stairs that lead you up into the town. It wasn’t until our second day that we realized that just outside the train station is a bus that takes you to and from the town as well! But since this was the beginning of our hike, I’m glad I didn’t know about the bus.

The first thing we noticed on the staircase was how lovely everything looked below – plus we could see Manarola in the distance!

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We arrived at the top – already sweaty, thanks to the heat! And quickly found the markers that we would be following for the rest of the day:

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Instead of signs, the paths in Cinque Terre are marked with intermittent paint along the way. After a few false starts, we were out of Corniglia and on our way to Vernazza.

Parts of the trails reminded us of Switzerland. Especially walking through the terraced vineyards (Cinque Terre has their own DOC wine) and the provincial lifestyle we encountered.

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Obviously, Cinque Terre is famous for the towns’ colored façades. But we had no idea how luxuriously rich and varied the landscape would be. It felt like a verifiable jungle at times.

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